No, she knows: the answer is no. Alison's road rules, chapter one, verse one: no hitchhikers, no hitchhiking. "No," she says, almost automatically, feeling a noticable but necessary pang of guilt. "I'm not headed that way...I'm going south...." Which is true. But still she wonders, maybe just this once....
"Oh...yeah...that's okay, that's cool," a little embarrassed, Alison too, rejection is never easy....
Alison inquisitive tries to save the moment: "Where are you trying to go?"
"Nevada. Not to worry, I'm sure I'll find a ride, I can always hitchhike," and this last is not said as a passive-aggressive pity plea, but rather as a genuine, gentle effort to put her mind at rest. Alison melts a little more.
"Is that where you live?"
"No, I don't really...- I mean, I'm just living on the road right now, you know?" The woman seems a little nervous. Maybe she just talks that way naturally.
"Yeah. I do know actually."
"Oh - oh really? Are you a nomad too?"
"I guess you could call me a nomad. The road is more my home than anyplace else...except here."
Silence. Firelight glints off the woman's glasses. She looks around and inhales deeply, maybe nervous, maybe not. "Yeah, isn't it beautiful? So peaceful and...I just feel like I belong here. Like we belong."
Alison can say nothing. She is thinking: This is not what Maria was talking about. This is not the woman I will fall in love with. This is not the woman who will change my whole life. Somewhere in the woods, a sister is singing softly; somewhere deeper, a drum sounds.Beatbeat.
"You've been to the festival before?" Someone had to break the silence.
The woman shakes her head. "No, I just mean the nature, you know?" (Alison nods: she knows.) "I was lucky to find this place at all, really, I guess Goddess was guiding me. I happened to be in this bookstore called the Circle Star -"
"The Circle Star? Really? I know the woman who runs it -"
"Lucinda? You know Lucinda too?"
And no sooner does she say the name than Lucinda herself approaches, stepping out of the shadows, saying, "Oh there you are Alison...I see you've met Mouse."
Cheryl and Rhonda are with her, and they bring their conversation with them. Talk and laughter quickly transform the quiet campsite, and Mouse grows strangely silent. Alison glances at her from time to time, but she is looking elsewhere....
High morning, three hours 'til dawn.
The moon has gone to sleep and so have most of the women, including Cheryl and Lucinda. Alison remains next to the fire, fed now to a low crackle under the watch of Mouse and Rhonda; she unrolls her sleeping bag and gets in. She has been waiting for another chance to speak to Mouse, but now it's too late: the time for conversation has passed, leaving the last word to insect silence of night. It would be almost sacrilegious to speak now.
Still, she casts last wistful glance at glint of buckle, wondering if it will still be there in the morning.
Alison awakens to birdsong and gray beauty. Low clouds caress the campsites; the mountainside vanishes in misty distance. Treetops smoulder with smoke from a mystical forest fire - one that does not burn. Alison can imagine the place a hundred years ago, with animals wild in the woods, a stand of tipis in the clearing, mist and trees still doing their ancient dance.
She scoots up out of the sleeping bag, pulling on her glasses. She sees Mouse huddled uncovered next to the fire, a polite distance away, using a rolled-up sweatshirt for a pillow. She realizes the girl brought nothing more than the one pack; she doesn't even have a sleeping bag. No wonder she stayed by the fire so long.
Impulsively she opens her own sleeping bag, draping the flap over the beautiful stranger. Mouse murmurs, smiles and settles gratefully under the cover, but does not awaken. Alison, watching, becomes transfixed on her sleeping face. Eventually she gets up, shaking her head, and goes to find breakfast.
Ambushed by kismet.
She cannot stop thinking about Maria. Could life really be that simple? That its twists and turns can be told by the turn of a card? Even someone as spiritually connected as Maria has to be wrong once in a while; she admitted as much. But she seemed so certain that something was happening right now.
Returning to the fire, she finds Mouse sitting up, wrapped in her sleeping bag, using a stick to prod life from the warm coals at the bottom of the firepit.
"Hi. Want some breakfast?" Alison holds out a paper cup.
"Thanks...smells wonderful. What is it?"
Taking a drink, she closes her eyes. Far down in Alison's gut, something begins to stir and rise...an ecstatic ache she never wanted to feel again.
"'S terrific," Mouse says. "Did you, um, mean to hit me with your sleeping bag?"
"I didn't think you'd mind -"
"Oh no, I appreciate it -"
"You looked chilly -"
"I am, it got kind of cold during the night, didn't it?"
"Yeah - it usually does in the mountains."
"Yeah...well, thank you. I'll give it back as soon as I get the fire lit."
"No, no problem at all."
"Aren't you going to sit down?"
Around nine o'clock the sun finally makes it over the mountain; by then all the women are awake, and still others are just now arriving. The mist melts away. Soon the sun is high and hot, and many women walk naked. To some of them, nudity holds the sacredness of ritual, symbolizing sincerity and uninterrupted connection to nature. It reminds them the female body can be holy, not just a commodity to sell cars and cans of beer. It is not something to be taken lightly - but some men just can't help themselves.
That, however, isn't the most important reason men are not welcome here. For thousands of years, women seeking faith have turned to priests, ministers, popes and preachers - some good, some bad, all male. For the first time in generations, women can gather openly, more or less, to explore their faith without subscribing to a male interpretation.To many, it is reason enough to do it simply because it can be done.
Soon the site hums and thrums with chant and drum, transformed temporarily into a spot like none other on Earth: where women walk naked with impunity; where children are safe with a stranger; where God is a female word.
If the Earth is indeed a mother, she must be smiling now, with fond reminiscence of a time men no longer remember.
Midafternoon. Alison swings by Cheryl's fire every so often, hoping to see Mouse there, and eventually she does.
"Hi," she says, dropping to her knees on the blanket.
"Hi! Alison, right?" At least she remembered the name... She's wearing the same shirtless overalls, and sunlight glistens on her naked shoulders. She's been swimming in the creek: her hair is wet, and tiny droplets gather at the tips of blond bangs overhanging her eyes. When she moves or talks, they shake off and scatter like cool rain.
"That's right. Did you ever get a ride?"
"No, why, did you find somebody?"
"Uh. No." Alison feels like a dope. She just walked right back into the same stupid conversation.
"Oh...the way you said it, it just sounded...."
"Did you ask Lucinda?"
"Yeah. If I don't find something else by Sunday night, she can give me a ride back to the city. I can hitch north from there."
"What's in Nevada, if not home?"
"The Dead are playing a couple of shows at Vegas in June."
"That's two months away. Why are you going now?"
"The band's on break right now. And I've got a job with a friend of mine, making tie-dies and t-shirts. She's got a booth at the show."
"A booth? I thought it was like a concert."
"It is, but they have places set up for the fans to sell stuff. It's all bootleg, but the band doesn't mind if the cops don't catch you. Have you never been to a Dead show?"
Alison shakes her head. Mouse becomes more animated as she speaks. She didn't talk half this much to anyone else.
"Aw, man, you gotta go! Half the fun is just wandering around the parking lot, checking out what the 'heads are selling."
"I figured you for a Deadhead."
"Obvious, huh? I'm not even wearing my Jerry shirt. It's the coolest, it's got his face all across the front about 16 times the size of God, and a spiral tie-die radiating out from the center. That's the shirt we're selling."
"Do you sell a lot?"
"Maybe twenty, twenty-five a show. Still, at twenty bucks a pop, that's good money. That'll feed me for a couple of months."
"And you live off that?"
"That and other things. I do beadwork too, necklaces and bracelets and stuff. I brought some things along, but I don't really have enough to set out and sell here."
"I'd like to see your work."
"I have some in my bag. Hold on a second."
As she digs around Alison says, "So you just follow the Grateful Dead around the country?"
"When I can. It's hard since I don't have a car anymore. Right now I'm just going where the road takes me. I was in Georgia last week."
"Really? That's where I'm from."
"No shit! The Indigo Girls are from Decatur!"
"Yeah, R.E.M. too. My sister went to school with Michael Stipe."
"That is so cool!"
Mouse holds out a band of tiny blue beads. As she takes it, Alison says, "I've never seen the Dead play, but I've come close a few times... Are there a lot of fans who do what you do?"
She grimaces. "Yeah, sometimes I think too many. There's a lot of poseurs, people who don't really care about the band, just there to make a buck. Some of 'em don't even go into the show, just stay out in the parking lot to sell their stuff. I mean, what's the point, if you're not even there to listen to the music?"
"Do a lot of people do that?"
"Enough. But don't get the wrong idea. Most Deadheads are all about the music, man. And everybody's got their own idea of what being a Deadhead means. I guess this must seem kinda weird to you, huh?"
"Yeah, it's hard to explain my life to my mom. Like, 'I'm just gonna follow Jerry Garcia around the country for a while,' you know? She doesn't get it. It's all about the music, anyway, and since she doesn't listen to the music she really can't get it."
"Why their music? I mean, why not someone else?"
"I can't say...I guess it's just this atmosphere, this way of looking at things, that a lot of people can really relate to...so the fans, the people who appreciate this feeling, have formed this close-knit sort of support group, like a giant family or something. I know I sound like Squeaky Fromme. Feel free to start backing away slowly at any time."
"Oh, no - "
"Sorry. I don't mean to get all defensive. It's hard to really explain if you haven't experienced it. You just hafta come to a show sometime."
Alison notices she uses the word come instead of go...as in come with. Wondering if that means anything, she offers the bracelet back, but Mouse says, "You can keep it."
"Really?...are you sure?"
Mouse's smile is mischievous and bashful all at the same time. "It matches your earrings."
"Thank you." Alison had forgotten all about her new earrings. Her fingers fumble with the bracelet.
"Here, lemme help you." Alison holds out her hand, and Mouse assumes a professional air, tying the bracelet onto her wrist with a delicate knot. Finishing, she glances up at Alison with a shy smile, just for a moment, before looking away, embarrassed...but in that moment...
Alison is lost.
Twilight, second night.
A vast circle of ceremony in the clearing: chant and song, smell of burning sage. Maiden, mother and crone dance in scarlet light of setting sun. The wares are put away, the fires left to dwindle. The women gather all.
This is what they have come for.
A night of celebration without fear of censure. A time to speak their hearts' belief, away from the eyes and minds of those who mock and condemn. A place where their holiness is not another's blasphemy.
A curious confirmation of the Constitution, this: at the end of the American road, they finally find a place to freely express their faith.
Soon the shadowed clearing is alive with candles' light. The darkening dome of sky is slowly lit by stars, until whole constellations are swimming overhead. The slow sidereal whirl of sky mirrors the tiny gathering of lights below. It's as if the Mothers of Night had gathered to smile down into the clearing, each bearing a stellar cluster like a lantern of fireflies.
A woman is speaking.
"Children of nature, we gather to celebrate our Mother's birthday. Earthbirth occurs every spring, signaling the start of the endless cycle; and it is now, when the Earth is most like a mother, that we feel our strongest bond to her. As only the Earth can bear plant and animal life, only woman can give birth to human life.
"Whether you have children or not, you have the power of life within you. The power to give life. And that makes you holy."
There are murmurs of assent from the gathered women.
"Every woman here is a priestess, if not by training, then by birthright!"
The murmur grows louder. Alison and Mouse add their voices to it.
"And for the next three days, this park, this part of our Mother, is holy land!"
This time, the shout rises above the trees....
After the ceremony, the crowd disperses. Some women stay in the circle, chanting and praying, lifting their voices to the moon. They will be there until dawn. Lucinda and a few others go off to visit an old friend.
Mouse and Alison have hardly stopped talking. Mouse is only 23, a fact that puts Alison at ease. She confesses, "I watched you dancing last night. It was beautiful."
Mouse responds with a surprising lack of self-consciousness. "I just started doing that a year ago...it seems like a way I can express myself without holding back. I let the music flow through me, I don't even really pay attention to what my body's doing, you know?"
Alison knows. She was in dance therapy herself for a while. "You dance by yourself?"
"Yeah, I don't have a girlfriend or anything right now."
Alison's face doesn't change, but a fresh surge of adrenalin makes her heart hammer. Kissed by kismet.
Mouse slaps at a mosquito on her shoulder. "It's about time for a second layer." She turns to dig in her bag.
"Yeah, I've already collected a few trophies myself."
"They're not as bad as up north...at least they go away when it gets cold at night...." Even as she is speaking, one of the little suckers lights on her back. Alison instinctively slaps at it, but the bug darts away with easy insect arrogance.
"Did you get it?"
"You can't just swat at 'em, you know. They can feel you coming. You gotta wait a second...for it to...uh...suck."
Mouse doesn't move. Alison waits with one arm poised as the insect aims its needle-like mouth at the girl's smooth skin. For a silent moment the women make connection with their eyes, then, embarrassed, glance away....
Mouse waits, her back half-turned to Alison, not seeing the mosquito but watching Alison watch it and try not to watch her. Alison stares as the proboscis penetrates flesh and muscle. Her hand swings down, crushing the insect gently beneath her palm. She leaves her hand there, fingertips touching the taut skin of Mouse's back.
"Did you get it?"
"I got it."
Mouse rises, but Alison doesn't move, or remove her hand; the two women stand, bodies almost touching, fingertips resting against smooth skin. Alison can feel Mouse's breath warm across one cheek: that's how close they are. Trying not to think, or meet the other woman's eyes, she looks along the line of shoulder, the hollow of throat, the slope of naked breast. Their mouths are so close: drawn by irresistable gravity.
Alison knows what is going to happen. They both know. But they wait, another moment in shyness savor.
And in that moment, someone shouts, screams, "Oh God, oh Jesus, help me! Help me!"
There is such terror in the voice that Alison whirls without thinking, seeking its source. In that instant, she hears again the voices: voices of angry women, frightened women, weeping women. The voices of too many women. Alison once, not so long ago, volunteered at a rape crisis center. The experience has stayed with her.
She finds herself at campsite's edge, scanning the darkness with something clenched in one fist. She looks down: it's the leather-jacketed Mace container from her keychain.
But a cluster of women has already assembled, cooing soothing words, and the shouting calms to quiet sobbing. Whatever happened is already over - not a rape, there are no men here, it's just another of life's unexpected crises, this time happening to someone else.
And only then does she realize, in horror, she pushed Mouse away with the hand laid against her smooth back. Not hard, but hard enough....
"Mouse, I -"
"Geez! What a nightmare." They hear Lucinda just before she stalks out of the shadows to plop down in a folding chair.
"Hey, are you okay?" Mouse asks. "What was all that shouting?"
Lucinda gives a look that says don't ask. "Somebody has more problems than I thought."
Alison looks at a lighted tent in the distance, where she can still hear the woman's anguished voice. Then she looks back at Mouse, trying to meet her eyes.
But the moment has passed, leaving only a tiny red smear on her back....
High pine needles gleam in warm moonlight; another full moon night. Mouse is silent when others are around, but tends the fire with mild obsession. Alison absorbs its warmth gladly.
As the talk quiets down, she wonders if she should offer half a flap of sleeping bag. It might not be too forward, since she hasn't exactly come out to Mouse yet...but still. The flap is pretty wide, so there would be plenty of space between them. But still.
Cheryl ends the debate. "Mouse, don't you have a sleeping bag?"
She shakes blond locks. "My old bag got stolen. I haven't had the money for a new one yet."
"Why didn't you tell me? I've got a spare in the station wagon."
"I was fine last night," she says, with a glance at Alison. "But thank you."
"I'll get it for you. Alison, you wanna come with? Where's your tent?"
"I decided to sleep by the fire instead."
"The mosquitos needed feeding."
Alison awakens early again the next morning. Mouse is still asleep, curled in Cheryl's sleeping bag with her sweatshirt pillow. As she gets dressed, Alison notices the bracelet still tied to her wrist. She holds it up, admiring the beadwork, thinking again of Mouse's shy smile, big blue eyes glimpsed through gleaming lenses.
She sets off to find more rice, but Rhonda meets her along the way.
"Alison, can you give me a ride into town? I need tampons."
"300 women here and you can't find a tampon?"
"I need eggs and other stuff for breakfast too. Do you mind?"
Alison is mentally calculating the time back into town. "I guess not. Are you ready now?"
"Town" is really too strong a word for the tiny strip of houses and stores lining the last two-lane highway. It's only a dozen miles away, but Alison forgot the first three miles were slow stony forest road. With smooth pavement under her tires again, she starts thinking a little more clearly.
She is now certain this meeting is what Maria was talking about. The near-kiss last night seems to prove it: she has never been drawn so instantly, irresistably to a stranger. Kismet happens. She cannot escape the idea that this is important; why else would Maria be here, now, for the first time anyone can remember?
Suddenly she remembers the last thing Maria said before they left her: "You have a tendency to resist your fate, and that causes stress. You have to learn when to let go. Let the world do the driving sometimes."
Alison looks at the wheel under her hands. Always in control, always in the driver's seat. Maybe it's time to let something else steer for a while.
She could go north.
Give Mouse a ride to...wherever.
The mountains will still be there when she gets back.
It's not so far off course, anyway.
It's not like she has any appointments to keep.
And she might not mind a traveling companion.
For a change.
"Oh no," Rhonda moans.
The cheery red sign inside the store's glass doors: Sorry, we're CLOSED
"Sunday morning in a small town, oh shit," Rhonda says. "Everybody's at church."
Alison shifts into reverse. "There's a gas station at the interchange."
"Do you mind?"
"It's on the main highway, it's gotta be open. Their only god is Exxon."
Nice try. The women return to the woods empty-handed, without even a tampon between them. When they get back to camp Alison asks, "Where's Mouse?"
"She got a ride," Lucinda says. "I think she left."
Alison takes the news in stride. No cars passed hers on the way in. They may not have left the parking lot yet. She sets out in that direction, thinking she may still be able to catch them.
Before long, she has started to run....
Alison took track in college. Her breaths are measured, even, her strides long as her legs piston against the dusty trail. Women turn to watch as she runs, faces flashing by with concern and curiosity. She crosses the main clearing in seconds and follows the trail down.
The forest beauty becomes a green blur obscuring the way ahead. She cuts through trees, clears a fallen log and rejoins the trail where it winds down into the parking lot. Around a bend she sees rows of cars, and something else, something that stops her heart cold. A red car is pulling away down the road; in the back window she can see spiky blond hair.
She skids to a stop, and keeps skidding. Tiny stones spin out from under her soles and she falls flat on her ass in the dirt. Ignoring the pain in her hands and backside, she flails to her feet, in time to see the car vanish between the trees. With a last wink of red among the green...it's gone. Her eyes burn with tears of frustration as she stares into the empty distance.
She realizes she doesn't even know Mouse's real name.
Lucinda can tell her little more. "She just showed up at the shop on Friday. When I told her about the festival she got really excited, so I offered her a ride. She said she'd hitchhiked in, but I never really knew that much about her. It seemed like you were the only one she talked to. Oh Alison, I'm so sorry."
Alison looks down at the bead bracelet on her wrist. Over three million miles of American road, and her only clue is a Dead show two months away; it might as well be two years, or twenty, or never. Even if they meet again, even if Mouse remembers her, the mosquito moment is gone forever.
Alison has lost at love enough to know: there are times when one chance is all you get...and times when even that is not enough, when you only recognize the chance long after it has blown away down the road and gone.
|.angelheaded hipsters and visionary tics|