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Women paired off and gazed warmly into each other's eyes until they fell into melting embraces; then, regretfully, they separated, and each floated off down the beach to another woman, another gaze, another soulful embrace. Everyone was hugging everyone else, but no one was hugging Martha, who was sensibly determined not to take this personally as she moved through the crowd of women gathering by the edge of the sea. The women all seemed to know one another and to have come here for a purpose, unlike Martha, who had just wandered down from a short distance up the beach because she was bored and lonely and suddenly sick of pretending that she was enjoying this rare chance to do nothing and be alone. In fact, it wasn't a rare chance at all, and Martha had only herself to pretend to, though lately she'd had a persistent sense of being watched and judged and found wanting, even when no one was looking and she was the only one in the room.
Today, on the beach, this feeling had been cruelly intense. In the glaring sun, she'd shivered under the scrutiny of that unseen eye that missed nothing and despised everything (her pale, twiglike body sticking out of its skimpy swimsuit; her newly-hatched-duckling Mercurochrome-orange hair, a regrettable recent mistake; her huge black eyes, all pupil, like those of some sort of lemur or sloth), so that simply lying on her towel had paralyzed her with stage fright, despite her having managed to find a deserted stretch of sand away from the groups of suntanned gay men, and parents anxiously chasing their toddlers.
When she'd noticed the crowd of women assembling on the shore, she'd been wondering, as she often did, how a reasonably intelligent person could have made a series of choices that seemed less like clear decisions then like a series of stumbles down the path of least resistance, a path that had dead-ended in a cul-de-sac so grim, most people would need a lifetime to get as lost and stuck as this.
But why should Martha feel gloomy just because she was thirty years old and spending Labor Day weekend alone with her friend's elderly parents on Fire Island? Because everything had come to seem symbolic of everything else: her lack of invitations for the holiday weekend was only the tip of that iceberg she jokingly called her life. And thirty was a critical age: only this year had it struck her that things could go on this way forever, that this actually was her life and not some stage she would soon outgrow.
Six months ago, her heart had been broken by a man named Dennis after a romance that lasted a year and died a lingering death. Now she could still think about how badly Dennis had treated her and about the many faults in herself that had given him no choice, but the absence of the physical Dennis gave her more perspective, or at least more time in which to consider how much else had gone wrong: for example, her current job as a fact checker at a fashion magazine, a job not merely boring, underpaid, and demeaning but also pointedly symbolic of what she most despised in herself: her starchy literal-mindedness, her unintuitive narrowness.
These were but two of the numerous character flaws that had been helpfully pointed out by the men with whom she'd been involved in a string of romantic disasters culminating in Dennis. How magically her lovers had accomplished the barely perceptible transformation from impassioned suitors into kindly amateur psychiatrists coolly discussing her problems and suggesting quick ways to fix them.
In the weeks before Dennis left, he'd been generously forthcoming about her serious but remediable physical and spiritual defects. An actor with a day job as an appliance repairman, Dennis could quote from Othello while fixing small engines and motors, a range of expertise that qualified him, or so they both agreed, to offer Martha the loftiest and the most down-to-earth advice. All winter he'd suggested she spend more time this summer at the beach, acquiring some color and muscle tone and working on her body. He'd reminded her that she liked to swim, and she'd asked without irony, "Do I?" because for one vertiginous moment she honestly couldn't recall.
Now at last she was taking his advice, though too late for it to matter, spending Labor Day on Fire Island with her friend Gretta's parents. Gretta was a bouncy, pretty young woman, so solid and pleased with herself that beside her Martha felt wraithlike, transparent, and funereal. Currently, Gretta was madly in love with a Venezuelan named Xavier and, as she'd told Martha on several separate occasions, was spending the weekend in bed with him with the phone shut off.
In a burst of the reckless charity that new love so often inspires, Gretta had arranged Martha's weekend visit as an efficient combination favor for her parents and Martha. But from the minute the frail old couple met Martha at the ferry, it was clear that they would be disappointed in their fond impossible hope that a weekend with Gretta's friend might somehow approximate a weekend with Gretta herself. Each minute with Martha only doubled their longing for their daughter and reminded Martha of how the pain of recent lost love is never so sharp as when one goes out on a bad date with someone new. Just last week Gretta had fixed Martha up with a former insider-trader who over dinner told Martha that at nearly every social gathering he usually found himself to be the smartest person in the room.
Gretta's parents spoke English but clung to their lilting Hungarian accents and to the modest Fire Island Pines condo where for years they'd summered among gay men, like vaguely addled colonials posted amid a tribe with endearing rituals like tea dances and Sunday brunch. They introduced Martha to several of their neighbors: friendly, likable fellows, some of whom had mastered the clever trick of chatting intimately even as they looked past you like restless party guests scanning the room for someone more attractive.
But the women gathering on the beach weren't like that at all! Intent on each other, they snapped together like pairs of Scottie-dog magnets. Martha saw more women coming over the top of the dunes, pausing to inhale the salty air and kick off their shoes and sandals; a few gave fierce little war whoops as they skated and slid down the sand. Some wore vests and jeans and rawhide bands tied over feathery haircuts; others had long flowing hair, robes, and paisley skirts. Jewelry jumped and clinked on their breasts-scarabs, tusks, and fangs. Scattered patches of glitter winked in the late afternoon sun. A number were in costume - Greek maidens, fairy princesses. Some had shepherd's crooks or magic wands and stick-on angel wings.
At first Martha thought the smiling and hugging was governed purely by proximity, that each woman was randomly greeting whomever she could grab first. But eventually she noticed some women getting more hugs than others, who shambled around, eyes averted, unseeing and unseen. The visible and the invisible - it felt like a junior high dance, and Martha couldn't help noticing that the same rules of selection applied. The graceful, the pretty, the confident danced; the others stood around watching. And Martha found herself doing just what she'd done in junior high: seeking out the lone wall-flower, writhing with discomfort, someone who would be grateful for any company, even hers.
Standing off to one side was a squarish young woman with glasses, and blond hair gathered in pigtails, severely curtaining her wide, furrowed forehead. She was hungrily smoking a cigarette, which she then stubbed out in the sand. As Martha approached she must have assumed that Martha wanted a smoke and held the pack in front of her like a cross to ward off a vampire.
For one mad second Martha almost flung her arms around her, though normally she was uneasy hugging and kissing hello. She much preferred shaking hands and only hoped her handshake seemed intriguingly formal and European, and not, as Dennis said, like a hostile kiss-off masquerading as a greeting. She was at once envious Of, and horrified by, the ease with which perfect strangers fell into each other's arms; that was why she was so impressed by these cuddling, nuzzling women. At the last minute, good sense or inhibition prevailed and Martha extended her hand, which she then withdrew from the cigarette pack the stocky blond woman was pressing into it
"They're American Spirit brand," the woman said. "Supposedly nontoxic. Made exclusively from organic Native American tobacco."
"No, thank you," said Martha and, when the woman's worried face crumpled, added quickly, "Hi, I'm Martha," so she wouldn't feel rejected but, on the contrary, would be pleased that Martha had come to say hello and not just bum a smoke. But why should Martha be overwhelmed by a sudden acute awareness of what - or what she imagined - this total stranger was feeling? How lucky men were, with their confidence that everyone felt just as they did. How blessed they were to be spared this raw, useless empathy, which Martha had come to identify as a pathological female complaint.
"I'm Randi," said the woman. "But my Goddess name is Hegwitha. That's what everyone calls me."
"Fabulous name," lied Martha, though Hegwitha did seem a more appropriate name for this person than Randi.
"Thank the Goddess," said Hegwitha and then waited, a little bullyingly, for some sign of complicity or even comprehension.
Martha forced a rigid grimace, and Hegwitha relaxed enough to notice: in her swimsuit and baggy white T-shirt, Martha was underdressed. Hegwitha's brusque, forthright scrutiny was quite different from the way men regarded you: with acquisitiveness or disdain, as if you were something costly or fragile they might pick up, decide to buy-or simply drop and let shatter. Hegwitha was all business; Martha felt she was being frisked. She wrapped her arms around herself. Hegwitha's lip curied slightly.
"I'm not. . ." Martha said. "I was down the beach and I saw ... I'm not sure exactly what this is . . ." This was risky, allowing Hegwitha to see Martha as a contaminating outsider who might nudge Hegwitha eve.n farther toward the edge of the group. But Hegwitha didn't seem bothered. In fact, she visibly brightened as she warmed to the role of Martha's instructor and guide.
"We're here to worship the Goddess," she said, and again waited for Martha to give some sign of comprehension.
Martha's throat constricted, a reflex conditioned by all the occasions on which a man had referred to some obscure fact he thought she should have known. At first men liked playing professor and student, and the truth was that Martha had learned more from men she'd wanted to please than from the years she'd spent in school, watching clocks on classroom walls. But the appeal of instruction wore off; men quickly grew impatient and attached no value at all to what you might know and they didn't. At the end Dennis took a sadistic pleasure in mentioning some unknown actor or brilliant unproduced play and waiting, drumminghis fingers, for Martha to say, "What?" Once, he'd asked why talking to her felt like translating into another language. How was she supposed to reply? "What other language?" she'd said.
Now Hegwitha gave a shrug of ironic resignation - not directed at Martha but at the whole unenlightened world. "Many women," she said, "are reclaiming their spirituality by honoring the Goddess, the original female deity whom the matriarchal cultures have reverenced since the Stone Age."
"Oh, wait a minute!" Martha said. "We did a piece on that!" In fact, the article got only as far as Martha's desk and stayed there long enough for her to contemplate the alarming prospect of phoning the women quoted in the story to check their statements about women's blood mysteries and about using black magic to hex batterers and rapists. At the last minute she'd been saved when the Mode editors killed the piece for being too weird and creepy.
"Who's we?" asked Hegwitha suspiciously.
"Mode," Martha said. "The fashion magazine."
"I wouldn't have seen an article there," Hegwitha said.
"I don't suppose you would have," agreed Martha.
"The Goddess was honored everywhere," Hegwitha lectured on, unperturbed. "The Middle East, Africa, Central America, Europe - archaeological evidence proves it. The Aztec pyramids were built by priestesses who worshipped the healing powers of the earth -"
"Wait!" said Martha. "Those were sacrificial pyramids! They ripped out their victims' hearts and pitched them over -"
Too late, Martha caught herself. That was the fact checker in her, chilly and superior, insisting the details be correct.
"Where did you get that information?" Hegwitha asked. "Your fashion magazine? Well, sure. The media would love to destroy us. The truth is, human sacrifice began only after the male sky-god religion stamped out Goddess worship and taught us to mutilate and rape the earth. For centuries male religion suppressed the Goddess tradition, burning our healers as witches. But now women are channeling their energy to get back past the church and city religion, back to earth religion and the reawakening Goddess."
"Oh," said Martha limply.
"What I wonder," mused Hegwitha, "is how far they'll let us take this before they start burning witches again. But I suppose it's important to let all that negativity go - and focus on the positive. Tonight is a Druid holy night, a late-summer revel and gathering-in of female force. All over the world women are honoring the harvest and Persephone's return from Hades to rejoin her mother. In Sicily there's a lake that was Persephone's passageway to the underworld. And guess what Italian men have done? Built an auto track around it!
"Look! The harvest witches!" Hegwitha pointed to four women in white; each carried a long wooden post. Tied to each post was a scarecrow, a human-sized corn-husk doll.
"Check out the dolls' dresses," Hegwitha advised. "They're really special, they come from us all. Each woman can contribute a scrap from her personal life-experience attic. I cut a piece of an old lab coat from the hospital where I work."
"You work in a lab?" said Martha, but Hegwitha was not to be distracted by the facile seductions of job talk.
"The crucifix and the maypole," Hegwitha said, "were sacred symbols of the Goddess until male religion made them instruments of torture and death -"
Suddenly, she grabbed Martha's arm. "Look! There's Isis Moonwagon!"
But Martha had already sensed some new current of alertness rippling along the beach, so that even the women who'd drifted away from the group and stood facing the sea now felt the crackle and abruptly ended their dialogues with the ocean. Hugs and conversations trailed off as everyone craned for a better look.
"The one in red," Hegwitha said.
Martha saw a tall angular woman with a halo of blond curls, her crisp, girlish prettiness blurred only slightly by fatigue and middle age. Her suntanned face had the crinkled buttery softness of an expensive doeskin glove and seemed to float above a spectacular robe made from patches of red Chinese silk, a costume not unlike the dresses on the corn-husk dolls, though the attic it suggested was that of some dowager empress. Tied behind her head in a bow with many loops and streamers, red ribbon banded her forehead as if her cranium were a gift. Smiling beatifically, she was speaking to a circle of women but had to pause every few seconds when someone came up for a hug. Though each hug lasted forever, the other women waited calmly, beaming.
Martha moved a few steps closer. This seemed to annoy Hegwitha, who lit another smoke. She thrust out her cigarette lighter so that Martha couldn't help but observe: on both sides were holograms of a Hindu deity.
"I live in an Indian neighborhood!" Martha volunteered. "Lexington and Twenty-eighth." On holidays her landlord's children brought Martha trays of neon-colored sweets topped with shreds of silver foil, agony on her fillings.
"It's Kali, the destroyer Goddess, said Hegwitha. "Perfect for a lighter. I know the Goddess religion is supposed to be nonhierarchical. Power's not supposed to matter, we're all pnestesses together. But what do you do about someone like Isis who's so incredibly special? Not only is she a really centered priestess-shaman healer, she was a heavy-duty academic philosopher before there was Women's Studies and the only females on campus were secretaries and dieticians. She knows everybody. She knew Mother Teresa before she was even famous. Of course, when we meet in covens in someone's house we're all equal together, but I guess in a group this size that could get pretty out of control."
At that moment, Isis lifted one hand and tentatively wiggled her fingers, as if waving at someone who might not be the person she thought. Within seconds, the women had all joined hands and formed a circle.
Hegwitha's hand grasped Martha's, its hot, damp pressure firm enough to keep Martha from bolting. When escape no longer seemed possible, Martha felt a lurch of queasy terror that the group would do something embarrassing that she would be forced to do, too.
"It's all right," Hegwitha was saying. "This ceremony is really loose. It's just about feeling the spirit in every living thing. You don't even have to believe in the Goddess - or in anything, for that matter."
The women fell silent and shut their eyes. Martha kept hers open but found it too upsetting to witness the expressions of great strain or great peace. She closed her eyes and felt herself gradually unclenching. Then Hegwitha hissed, This is about getting centered," and every muscle tensed again.
After that, Martha waited fretfully until the women raised their joined hands and cried, "Yo!" and burst out laughing.
"Blessed be," Isis Moonwagon said.
"Blessed be," the women chorused.
Several women glided along the inside of the circle. In their outstretched arms they carried abalone shells from which smoldering incense sent up clouds of smoke. A deserty smell of burning sage drifted over the beach.
And now, it seemed, Martha had progressed from junior high dances to high school parties. She recalled marijuana smoke wafting up from finished basements and the chill of dread she felt going down those carpeted steps. She smoked dope from water pipes along with everyone else, but never got high enough to laugh at the puzzling jokes or to marvel at the farfetched connections everyone thought so amazing.
The sun was setting rapidly. Martha imagined Gretta's parents waiting for her for dinner, keeping warm a comforting pot of veal paprikas and dumplings.
Suddenly Martha shivered. Oh dear God, it was autumn. Why did autumn evenings always make her think that the rest of the world was cozy and happy at home or dressing to go to parties to which she wasn't invited?
Four robed women set a card table in front of Isis and, with the feline grace of stagehands, covered it with a red cloth and an array of objects: a shell, a branch, an animal skull, fruit, feathers, candles, statuettes, a blue glass vase stuffed with dried flowers. Bowing her head, Isis joined her hands so her fingertips pointed down. Then she stepped in front of the table, knelt, and scooped up some sand.
"I call upon the Goddess of the west, the Goddess of the earth," she chanted.
In unison the women repeated, "I can upon the Goddess of the west, the Goddess of the earth." Isis tossed the sand into the air, and the women said, "Blessed be."
Isis said, "I salute the Goddess of the east, the Goddess of the water," and waded into the frothy edge of the waves, knelt, and flung up some foam.
"The ocean's freezing," Martha whispered, proud to know one thing Hegwitha didn't. "Plus there's a killer undertow. I'm a pretty strong swimmer, and I lasted about five minutes."
But the cold and the undertow were only part of why Martha had got out of the water so quickly. She'd had a depressing fantasy about accidentally drowning and everyone, including Gretta, assuming she'd killed herself.
Martha said, "Naturally, I was an idiot for thinking I'd found my own private beach, for not knowing that everybody was swimming elsewhere for a reason -"
Hegwitha said, "I love this ceremony, don't you? If men had invented it, the ritual would probably involve dismembering tiny babies and tossing them into the ocean."
"Oh, I don't know . . ." said Martha. "I mean . . ." The awkwardness that made Hegwitha seem supercilious and censorious, together with her great eagerness to be informative and helpful, so intimidated Martha that she could hardly speak.
"Get real," said Hegwitha. "You know you wouldn't have just wandered into a group this size of men."
Isis was waving an eagle feather, saluting the Goddess of air. Finally she raised a fetish that looked like a bandaged drumstick and turned out to be a torch she ignited with a silver lighter. The torch flared up with a startling whoosh. Isis turned to face the north and invoke the Goddess of fire.
Now Isis motioned to the white-robed women, who again picked up the scarecrow dolls and waded into the ocean, along with four more women, each of whom carried in her arms a light balsa-wood canoe. They set down the boats at the edge of the sea and laid the scarecrows in their hulls. The women knelt in unison and gave the boats a push. Isis, still bearing aloft her torch, followed the boats into the ocean.
Soon the soaking hem of her robe dragged against her legs, which, along with the undertow and the resistance of the water, made Isis falter. The crowd barely breathed as she paused, rocking gently with the waves, then regained her balance and trudged farther out.
The balsa boats and their searecrow passengers had floated beyond her, but Isis pursued them doggedly, plowing through the water, while the breeze played mischievous games with the torch and her hair. There was a flurry among the boat-and-scarecrow bearers, clearly asking themselves and each other if they should go help Isis. But, as if she'd sensed this, Isis turned toward shore, her face a stony gargoyle of rage and concentration. She grasped the torch in both hands. No one took a step.
Her hesitation had given the boats even more of a lead, and once more Isis charged after them into the mounting waves, which by now were waist-high and strong enough to knock her backward. Martha was struck by the zeal with which Isis pursued the boats: courageously, unflinchingly, unworried by how she must look.
Then one of the women cried, "Blessed be," and a murmur went up, "Blessed be," because the waves had died down, and the boats bobbed in place, as if waiting for Isis. With all eerie gull-like shriek, Isis cut through the water, reached out and grabbed the boats, and set the scarecrows aflame with her torch.
As the effigies and then the boats caught fire, a cry went up from the onlookers, the shrill warbling with which Arab women send their men into battle. Perhaps the difficulty of making this noise was what distracted the women and made them slow to realize that the waves had started up again and were tossing the boats in toward Isis, who was dodging and leaping backward to stay clear of the fiery ships.
Once more Isis shrieked, more genuinely than ceremonially. The women gasped as they watched her sink beneath the water. An instant later she resurfaced, a billowing red flower, then vanished and reappeared again, farther out to sea.
Before anyone else seemed to understand that Isis was in real danger, Martha braced herself against the cold and dived into the water. Chilly, unafraid, she swam toward the burning boats. The ocean felt like panels of silk, slipping along her body, and the sal&, in her mouth and on her skin was stinging and delicious. Only now did she recall how much she loved to swim' the freedom from thought and self-consciousness that was always denied her on land, the sense of having found at last an element where she belonged, and where all that mattered was buoyancy, breath, and forward motion.
Martha swallowed water a few times until she got beyond the waves, which were neither so high nor so strong as they had appeared from shore, nor was Isis so far out to sea as Martha had imagined. Martha found her easily, though she'd floated away from the burning boats. What drew Martha was the red of her robe and the frantic, windmilling splashing, the helicoptering spray and foam of a huge water bird taking off. Then Martha was inside the waterspout, deflecting Isis's punches.
Senior Lifesaving came back to her, and she remembered how in extremis you were permitted to haul off and slug the struggling victim. Each time Isis hit her, Martha wanted to hit her back. Instead she hooked her arm around Isis's neck and towed her in toward shore.
The girls she'd saved in lifesaving class had been compliant and weightless, but Isis was like an elephant that had made up its mind to drown. Soon, though, Isis understood that she was being helped, stopped resisting, and, when Martha looked at her, managed a watery, terrified smile. Isis's teeth were chattering, her hair was plastered to her skull. The red ribbon had slipped off her forehead and dangled around her neck.
By now they were in water so shallow that they had to stand. Martha put a steadying arm around Isis as they waited for a wave to wash over them. All at once the shoals were crowded with running, splashing women, jumping in the water with ecstatic abandon; their joy came from Isis being safe and from the thrill of flinging themselves into the icy sea. Laughing, sputtering, embracing, they surrounded Isis, gently guiding her in toward the beach, gently elbowing Martha away.
Slumped across their shoulders, Isis staggered forward. Gracing them with wan, luminous smiles, she thanked them and told them she loved them. Then all at once she stopped so short that there was an awkward pileup, and she looked around her, theatrically searching the crowd.
Finally, she found Martha and beckoned and stretched out her hand. She made everyone wait until Martha came forward and took her place in line and joined the long column of women marching arm-in-arm out of the sea.
Posted October 25, 2008
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