The Prodigal Daughter

Welcome me to a haven given
It's well received into my open arms
I ran in my sleep through shaking tremors
I felt the splitting earth echoing in my ears

And I feel that I, I'll be the first to praise the sun
The first to praise the moon,
The first to hold the lone coyote
The last to set it free

- Indigo Girls
"Welcome Me"

You saw her on the road last night.

A woman alone in a small car, with a deconstructed bike attached to the hatchback, like a spare tire for the soul. You noticed the out-of-state plates and wondered what she was doing so far from home. You saw straight brown hair tied back in a long ponytail; saw her lips moving to the song on the radio. Then her lenses shifted, and she saw you looking; she smiled at you. You smiled back. And in that were connected.

But then your car sped on, leaving her dwindling in the distance, soon lost in the endless asphalt miles. Those highways cross a continent, and your paths crossed only once. Now you'll never know who she really was.


Well, okay - I'll tell you.

Her name is Alison. Forty miles after meeting your glance she exits on Rural 57 West and follows that road a long way, out into the rolling unspoiled mileage crisscrossing the green. Lonely headlights glow across a twilight that slowly turns to night.

At the end of a winding dirt road, she finds a house unseen in far too many months. The porchlight is shining just for her, as promised. Waves of emotion wash over her, nostalgia and relief and exhaustion. She stops the car and kills the engine with a tired smile.

While she secures her backpack, the screen door squeaks open and someone shouts, "She's here!" Familiar voices call from the house. Still smiling, Alison shoulders the pack and heads into welcoming arms.


The women who welcome the prodigal daughter are Cheryl, Selma, Rhonda and June. Their mood is fond and festive, in anticipation of greater celebration. Overhead, even the moon herself swells, expectant.

Alison sets her pack in a corner of the living room. Cheryl passes out cold brown bottles of beer, and the women gather around the kitchen table to catch up.

She spends the first hour telling tales of her adventures on the road. A warm wind from the south spreads the curtains and disperses the cigarette smoke; condensation collects like beads of sweat on the bottles. As the first empties are set down, and fresh ones opened, the talk turns in different directions, one topic free-associating seamlessly into another: politics, sex, love, friendship, faith, eternity, blah blah blah.

Alison asks: "Is Lucinda still married to what's-his-name?"

"Roger. Yeah." Rhonda's tone says Roger is still the same, which is not good news.

"What about you, Alison?"

"What about me?"

"How long has it been since you broke up with Terry?"

"A year...?" There is a long, thoughtful pause; she speaks again before it can get too quiet. "I guess.... It's been a blur, you know?"

There are nods of assent. Cheryl probes further: "Anybody in your life now?"

It's the sort of question only a friend would ask; Cheryl and Alison go way back. It's also the sort of question only a mom would ask; Cheryl has two, both boys. Oy.

The others are watching with interest. Alison realizes her love life has been the subject of some discussion. But these are her friends: all they want to hear is that she's happy.

And maybe some dirt.

She swigs beer, draws breath and says, "No. There's just me. The other day I decided I was ready for some romance again...and then I thought about it and realized - ...I mean, I'm 25 years old and I've had four lovers, and the best one wasn't a picnic...more like a chore, trying to make sure we still liked the same things, that we were still happy together, all that relationship bullshit...and when we lived together, God, that was ten times worse...the effort of living together took away all the fun that had made it worthwhile to begin with...

"They were lovers, but it wasn't love...I don't know if I know what love is. I used to think I did. It seemed pretty simple, that slam-bang sweep-you-off-your-feet like-in-the-movies, that breathless kind of life-changing experience. But that was before I'd had any lovers. Now I know the reality is much more changing a tire."

Silence. Guess they weren't expecting that.

Cheryl says, "You are the oldest 25-year-old I have ever met."

Over laughter she continues: "You haven't experienced everything yet, Alison...."


The talk continues into the night and gradually the women fade, one by one, until only Cheryl and Alison are left. They pass the last beer back and forth, half-drunk in the brutal honesty of the early morning hours.

"I get lonely sometimes, on the road. It'd be nice to have someone to travel with...God, what am I saying? It'd be crazy traveling with someone else. I'd have to rearrange my whole life."

"But you're lonely."

"No. Yes. Sometimes. Until I imagine what it would really be like."

"Leave your imagination out of it. You've been on your own for a year. It's natural to be lonely sometimes. There'd be something wrong with you if you weren't."

"Yeah, but why? Why do we still want to be with somebody when it's so hard to make a relationship work?"

"Because we're people. And people need people. Like it or not. To talk to...make love to...argue with. The hard part is finding someone who's worth all the work."

"But people still live alone. They do it all the time."

"Monks and hermits. Not exactly a majority."

"Not like that...not cut off from society. I live alone, but I have friends, like you, who love and support me. You're my family. There are people who go their whole lives with friends, and family, but without a partner."

"It's true. I'm sure some of them even do it on purpose."

There is a pause, and then Alison starts laughing, Cheryl too, the sudden sound shocking in the night silence of the old house. She doesn't know why that's funny, but it is.

"You'll fall in love again," Cheryl reassures her. After all, what are friends for? "It's just a matter of time. You'll find the right girl."

Silence. Alison sucks back the last swallow of warm beer and makes a face.

"The important question is...are you happy?"

She smiles, and answers without hesitation. "Yeah. I really am. I've never felt better, or freer, in my life. I have a job waiting for me back East, if I want to go back for it...but I don't think I will. I'm enjoying myself...I guess that's the point. I enjoy living on the road, and having somebody else would just tie me down."


Of course, the very next day she meets Mouse....


That day starts like spring, with birds and insects singing triumphant songs of return in the blue dawn. While the other women load their camping gear into Cheryl's car, Alison stays out of the way and passes the time playing mah-jongg on the computer.

During a lull, Cheryl pokes her head in. "If you want to play around on the Internet, Alison, I've got access...."

"What's 'the Internet'?" Alison asks, and so begins her innocent introduction to the Net, which will be only too familiar a few years down the line. It's one of those kind of days.


As she starts her car and follows Cheryl out of the driveway, Alison feels it again: the pulse of energy, the magic of the miles. Anticipation and exhilaration at another journey begun. This is what she couldn't explain last night: Alison has found her love, and it is the road.

The endless roll of line after white line is a silent beat only she can hear. She has followed its sound across a continent in the past year, and it has only grown stronger. Now she can feel it in her fingers where they touch the wheel: a gray pulse of rhythmic road.

They pass a few tiny towns in the foothills; soon mountains rise all around. Stands of trees that have never known an axe fill the eye with green vistas of blistering beauty. Cheryl and Alison follow a single strand of winding gray up into the clouds. They are going where women meet to celebrate the night and moon.

Soon they reach a forest road, all rocks and red dust; at the end, other cars wait, bearing familiar bumper stickers: My other car is a broom and In Goddess We Trust and Magic Happens. Alison parks and kills the engine, leaving only the sounds of birdsong and distant voices through the trees. She can already feel herself start to relax.

Tents are set up under the trees; blankets are spread in a central clearing, displaying handmade jewelry and crafts for sale or barter. Song and incense drift in the thin clean air. The Earth Herself is celebrating: Alison can feel it as she crosses the clearing. Spring is in full bloom, and the forest is pulsing with awakening life.

She smiles and greets each woman she passes. Some have shed their shirts in the warming sun, and more than a few are fully "skyclad." For once, the women feel safe; there will be no cutting comments about their bodies, their breasts, their hairy legs. For there are no men.

It is the Spring 1994 Women's Full Moon Festival.


She intends to set up her tent, but somehow never gets around to it; her pack waits at Cheryl's camp as she explores the trading blankets, buying a couple of paperbacks and a pair of earrings. Later she goes hiking in the high mountains with her friends; then she drives into the nearest town for more supplies.

Toward twilight she is back at Cheryl's camp, breaking firewood, when a flash-glance of spiky blond hair catches her eye. A woman is crossing the clearing, leaning under the weight of a beat-up bulky Eastpak. Her feet are bare and dusty; she wears beat blue overalls with no shirt underneath. Her breasts are small, not so much swells as peaks, the nipples pink and pointed in the chill shadowed air.

Alison wipes sweat from her brow with a sleeve, smearing her glasses. She grimaces and takes them off and wipes them on the tail of her shirt. The woman becomes a blond blur, regaining clarity as she approaches.

And she's beautiful...just beautiful. As she passes, their eyes meet, she smiles...and Alison knows, somehow, that she's a lesbian too. It's not just wishful thinking, either. Some people call it "gaydar." Body language doesn't explain it. Mode of dress doesn't explain it. Sometimes you just know.


At night the gathered women are joined by the guest of honor. The virgin mistress of Earth arrives full and orange over the mountains, glowing like a jack-o-lantern, fading to white as she rises. Her appearance is greeted with cheers, and applause, and prayers of thanksgiving. The cricket calls and katydids all seem to sing along.


A little later Alison sees a familiar silhouette approach. It's Lucinda, who introduced her to Cheryl and the others several years before; she has a flair for bringing people together. They embrace warmly.

"Where have you been, Alison? We've missed you."

"'I've strayed on the side of twelve misty mountains, and walked and crawled on six crooked highways.'"

Lucinda laughs. "Maria's here."

"Really! Where?"

She takes her by the hand and leads her to the main clearing. "She's never come to the festival before - I knew you'd want to see her...didn't you meet her once?"


Women are gathered around a central firepit, talking, some singing or chanting. A card table is set up in the dusty glow of the fire, and a single woman sits before it, laying out cards. The chair opposite is empty as they approach.

"Maria, this is Alison."

Maria glances up from her deck, all dark eyes and smile under a mane of witchlike black hair. Alison feels a curious thrill as the woman says, "I know you. Don't I know you?"

"I can't believe you remember. We met a couple of months ago at a party in New Orleans."

Maria nods slowly. "I remember you. ...I read your cards?"

" were going to, but, uh, I had to leave early."

"Well, sit down, then! We'll do it now. It just took me a little longer to get to you than most of the people I met that night. Did you know I was going to be here?"

"Not until five minutes ago."

"Meant to be, then. You believe in kismet?"

"Kismet happens."


Maria hands her the deck and tells her to shuffle. The cards are slightly larger and thicker than playing cards. As she fumbles with them, strange images flash through the deck; the back of each card holds a rainbow. As she shuffles the stiff cards Maria says: "Concentrate on the deck, try to invest some of your energy into it. What exactly do you want to know?"

Alison pauses. It's her first Tarot reading in ages. "I hadn't really thought about it...the future, I guess."

"Fair enough." Maria's Mexican ancestry is evident in her accent and the tint of her skin. Firelit shadows dance in the faint wrinkles of her face, deepening them, giving her the appearance of a tribal wise woman. "Take your time...are you finished? You're sure? All right." She takes the cards back. "I'm going to use a new throw I've been working with. I call it the 'Wheel of Life.'"

She draws seven cards from the deck, one at a time, and lays them face down on the table. The first two form a center cross, with five more arranged around it like points on a star.

"All right. This wheel is your life. The center cards represent your past and present. The outside cards are events of the future, unfolding in a clockwise direction. This first card, at twelve o'clock, could be a few days or even minutes from now. This one at nine-thirty is probably several years away. It could even be your ultimate destiny. Are you ready?"

Ultimate destiny. Alison nods.

Maria turns over the first card.

"Oh shit, it's the Pope!" Lucinda says.

"We call him the Hierophant," Maria says. "He represents your past. The hierophant is the status quo. Sometimes it means you're in the groove, other times it just means you're in a rut. You know the difference?"The Hierophant

Alison shakes her head.

"A groove is like a rut, only not as deep."

Alison laughs. Maria continues: "It can mean your life has been calm lately, without a lot of change. Since the hierophant is a priest, it can also show someone who's withdrawn from everyday life. A life of simplicity."

Or celibacy. For some reason Alison cannot forget her conversation with Cheryl.

"Anyway, that's all about to end."

"Oh really?"

"When a card is reversed like this, upside-down, it signals a change or reversal in the situation."

"But if this is the past, shouldn't that have already happened?"

"The card is your past, but the overall reading is about your future. This card may be the future of your past."

"Wouldn't that be the present?"

Maria touches the other, unturned center card. "Let's just see about your present."

The FoolLonesome traveler, pack on his shoulder, steps forward confidently. With a few alterations of clothing, he could be any rootless wanderer of the last American half-century, beat hipster hippie punk grungy Xer, flashing a na´ve but good-hearted grin and peace sign as he goes. Ignoring the dog at his heels, he never realizes he's walking off the edge of a cliff. The fool.

"Yep, see? The Fool confirms that. He's the start of a new cycle. There's something, some vast change coming to your life. In fact, since he's your present, it's already begun to happen. Does that seem accurate to you?"

"Ummm..." Actually, it seems like a lot of wild blueberry muffins. Far from being "status quo," Alison has seen nothing but new scenery every day for the past year; the only constant was the road. And she sees nothing ahead but more of that same road...line after white line.

But that seems impolite to say, especially to a woman as highly respected as Maria. So she hedges: "Maybe...I don't know...."

But the older woman catches her hesitation. She grimaces and says, "Well, let's see what the future holds." She flips the twelve o'clock card.

A naked embrace. Mating of male and female. Without shyness or reserve, they make love: touch, thrust, tickle, fondle. Hand caresses sloping breast. Penis dangles, a pendant of flesh.The Lovers

Alison can't help but laugh.

"I guess you know what this is."

"A lover?"

"You guessed it. Is there a new man in your life, maybe?"

Now Lucinda and Alison both laugh uproariously. Alison says, "Not hardly...."

"A new woman, then. Her?" Maria points at Lucinda, provoking more laughter. Before she can stop herself, Alison thinks, She'd probably be happier with me than Roger....

"No, we're just friends."

"But you are gay."

Alison nods, watching as she does; everyone reacts differently to the news. Maria seems nothing so much as relieved.

"Well, at least I haven't completely lost my touch.... If you haven't met anybody already, I think you will soon."

"Here we go again. I had a conversation like this last night. What if I don't want to meet anyone right now?"

Maria shrugs. "This is just what I'm seeing. Usually these cards are the most accurate, since they're closest to the present moment. But of course, the real choices are always up to you." She reaches for the three o'clock card.

Five of CupsA figure cloaked in black, in mourning, in mystery. Featureless, ominous, and inscrutable; but somehow an upraised hand suggests sorrow. On the ground, three chalices are overturned, and a fine red wine spills into the earth. Two more chalices remain upright.

"Hm." Maria frowns.

"What is it?"

"Five of Cups. It's a mourning card."

"A morning card?"

"Yes. A great loss. I hate to say it."

"What, like somebody dying?"

Maria meets her eyes. "Could be. Not a family member, though. Coming so close after the other card...." She pauses, fingering the cards with the air of a doctor considering a prognosis. Finally she looks up. "It's hard to say. You've got this massive upheaval coming in your life, that much is sure. As much as I can be sure about anything. But it's rare to see so much change in such a short time."

"Not the way my life has been lately...."

"Keep in mind," Maria says quickly, "I could always be wrong."

She turns over the next card.

A dark knight. He stands with sword drawn, blocking the path. His beard, tunic, eyes are all black; the look in his eyes is hard, unyielding. He does not believe in compromise. His armor, his sword, is all the law he needs.King of Swords

Maria has this way of looking up at Alison suddenly, moving nothing but her eyes. It's really starting to creep her out.

But at least she's still smiling....

"Would you believe me if I told you to watch out for a dark stranger?"

"Oh, come on, you've got to be kidding!" Lucinda cries.

"I know, I know, I sound like the old gypsy woman in The Wolf Man. 'Beware the moors at midnight....' But that's what this card seems to say. The King of Swords. Someone blocking your path, someone I connect with the colors of night. To me, that suggests a threat. Now, aren't you glad you sat down for this reading?"

"I must recommend you to my ex-girlfriend," Alison says. "Um, since it's upside-down, wouldn't that mean the opposite?"

"No, in this case it shows that the figure, whoever it represents, has sinister intentions, as opposed to noble ones."

"Better and better all the time."

Ace of PentaclesThe sixth card: Circle. Star. Vines intertwine the arms of the star, green leafy branches coiling up from a garden, growing up from the earth. Lines of life reaching out, in invitation, or supplication...

Maria mutters, "What the hell...?"

Alison is perplexed. For the better part of two years, friends have been telling her about Maria: describing her variously as activist, feminist, teacher or mystic, but always as one with a strong spiritual connection to the Goddess. Now, tonight, she finally meets her, and even gets a free reading from the woman whose cards are famous. Honor upon honor.

But she's not sure what to make of the reading, and Maria doesn't seem to know either. A thought occurs: maybe the reading itself is part of the very change it is predicting?

Maria asks, "Does your home have a garden?"

Alison doesn't know what to say. The closest thing she has to a home, aside from her sister's apartment in Seattle, is the storage shed in Georgia where she keeps her stuff.

Lucinda puts it delicately: "Maria, Alison's kind of living on the road right now."

The news eases creases in Maria's brow. "Oh! Well, that explains it. Part of it, anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"You're a nomad. That explains why I haven't been able to string together anything like a coherent pattern from these cards. Constant change of scenery." Distractedly, to herself, she mutters, "Still, that doesn't explain the Hierophant...."

"You said something about a garden?"

Maria motions at the sixth card. (Beside it, the seventh waits, still hidden....) "That's how I'm reading it. 'The garden in danger.' A card like this can be interpreted as a direct warning - you are supposed to protect a garden from a threat. Interesting...not a symbolic garden, either, a real one. This card is linked to the physical realm."

Lucinda says, "Are all your readings this uplifting?"

"Never. I've never seen a reading like this before."

One draw left: one more glimpse into a suddenly dark future. Maria reaches for the unknown card. Alison holds her breath. Suddenly a cockroach darts across the table. It pauses atop the seventh card. Maria swats it into the shadows with a motion of unexpected violence.

"Bug wants to know the future too," she jokes. "Bet he didn't see that one coming."

She flips the final card.

Thunder, stone, and shuddering explosion. Lightning streaks across the sky, fire of the infinite. It strikes a vast tower of black stone, shaking it to its foundation, shattering the parapets. Bright fingers of lightning spear out from the windows, arcing and sparking through cracks crisscrossing the stone.
The Tower.
The Tower

Maria says, "At this point, ordinarily I would give you your money back."


"I don't know how to interpret this. Maybe it's the long drive, and I'm tired. Maybe if I knew more about you. But it's usually easier with a stranger."

"That's true," Lucinda says.

"It's easier? Why?"

"If you don't know the person, you don't try to connect the reading with what you already know about them. Sometimes it's easier to grasp the big picture that way."

"Not this time," Maria says. "I don't know what to tell you. I can say 'things will change,' but the weatherman could tell you that. The Tower usually represents complete, catastrophic change. But in your case, I just don't know. Your future is an unwritten book to me. I think I actually know less about you than when we started. Alison, I'm glad I met you." She offers her hand.

Alison takes it, shakes it. "Why?"

"A little humility is a good thing. I haven't been stumped like this in a long time."


They stay and talk with Maria a while longer, and eventually leave the glow of the central campfire. Lucinda goes her own way, and Alison returns alone to Cheryl's camp.

She rebuilds the fire, then unfolds her blanket by the firepit and settles onto it, meditatively watching the flames. The bustle of camp has calmed with darkness, replaced with quiet talk and laughter, and somewhere someone plays a pennywhistle, peaceful. Alison closes her eyes....

The girl is dancing in the firelight.

Eyes flicker open. Alison reclines, feeling the long day catch up with her at last. Her pack is behind her, and she lays her head on the sleeping bag tethered at bottom, listening to the pennywhistle play. Some Scottish frolic song.

She is dancing....

The girl is dancing...moving, slow, sensuous...lost to the music. Bare feet dark with dust pound the dirt. Overalls two sizes too big are rolled up to the knees; one strap flaps as she dances, the buckle dashing and flashing in the firelight. Song slows, the player stumbles; dancer dances on, naked breast against the light, making love to the night.

She is dancing....

Alison in a dream watches the woman dance in the distance: a sensual shadow against rising sparks, suddenly swallowed by darkness as someone lowers a cookpot into the coals. Alison stirs, squints into the shadows, but the dancer is gone, as a dream fades on awakening.

Smoke drifts across the wooded clearing, dissipating, slowly fading. After the music, quiet conversation and the crackle of firewood seem suddenly loud. Alison realizes she is weary and near sleep. There is no light to put up the tent, and no need to; in the cool night she can just curl up by the fire in her sleeping bag.

As she pulls her pack around and prepares to unstrap the bag, someone approaches out of the darkness. Alison glimpses glint of metal buckle flashing in the firelight. She looks up.

It's her.

The dancer.

The woman in the spiky blond 'do; the one who made a blip on her "gaydar."

She smiles and says, "Can I sit here for a minute?"

"Sure...." Alison shifts so she can take the blanket next to her, which she does, setting down the flap-tattered backpack with a 20-pound thud. She sinks awkwardly into a cross-legged position and starts digging in the bag.

She's even prettier up close. The campfire captures her face in profile, becoming a corona that outlines the smooth lines of her nose, her cheek, her chin. She has that hippie-chick look Alison finds so fascinating; she could have stepped out of a poster for Woodstock. The bottoms of her bare feet are black with dirt, the tops tan and dusty. Alison tries to remember what somebody once said about dusty feet.

The woman pulls a wadded-up thermal undershirt out of her pack. With a complete lack of self-consciousness, she unfastens the remaining buckle, letting the overall top fall into her lap. Naked from the waist up, she lifts her arms, breasts rising as she pulls the shirt on. She pokes her head through the collar, then refastens the clasp, letting the other hang. Alison tries not to watch.

She feels a familiar beat in her throat and breast...and it's not the beat of the road. It's a lot faster...and hotter. When she recognizes it, panic takes hold. Briefly, she tries to regain her reason: This is not what Maria was talking about. Can't be.

Then this lovely lithe dancer, so heartbreakingly beautiful, looks right at Alison and says, "Hey, are you, uh, going north by chance after the festival? I'm looking for a ride...."

angelheaded hipsters and visionary tics

(c) 1997 Alan Rankin