... first appears at the Circle Star in early 1994. She doesn't buy much but stops in often, obviously interested - if not so much in the incense, astrology cards and Tell Your Tarot books, then in the lifestyle represented by the free flyers near the front door. Like most bookstores, the Circle Star is a hub for a certain sort of community.
In the Star's case, the nature of that community is fairly obvious. Nearly-new display stands offer crystals and sacred stones, icons and totems from a dozen different world religions - Buddhas, Ganeshas, Dianas. Cards and posters of wizards and women are displayed next to bumper stickers that say Born Again Pagan and Magic Happens and Eve Was Framed. Leaning against one wall are several old-fashioned straw brooms; a sign suggests THE ONLY WAY TO FLY.
Lucinda Williams, the Star's pagan proprietor and a natural people person, talks to Annie whenever she stops in. The woman doesn't know much about the shop's arcana, but seems genuinely curious. She's especially intrigued to hear Lucinda talk about paganism. This seems to confirm Lucinda's suspicions: after all, at the end of millennium, a lot of people are asking important questions about the faith of their fathers. Those questions can lead to new pathways and places - places like the Circle Star. Annie exhibits a real interest in the details of Lucinda's spiritual life, and she always asks the right questions.
So in early spring, with an approaching thunderstorm kicking up a merry wind outside, the women are talking over the counter of the quiet shop. Lucinda finally throws caution to the four winds. "Annie, there's going to be a gathering out in the mountains in a couple of weeks. A spiritual festival, for, uh, women only. Do you want to go?"
Annie - youngish and somewhat pudgy, with big brown curls and big round glasses - reacts with caution and guarded interest. It's something Lucinda is used to seeing; after all, in the age of the Religious Right, you can't be too careful. Her voice is a hushed whisper. "Is it a coven?"
"No, no, no...well, yeah. Sort of. I mean, some people will be there for that, but there'll be other stuff going on too, a trade circle and.... It might be a good chance for you to, you know, check things out."
"I - I'm not sure."
"Well, listen, I know you're trying to figure out if this is your scene, and this might help. I'm bringing my daughter Rose, there'll be lots of other families there, and food, and...it'll be safe, you know. It's going to be a very safe place."
"How many people will be there?"
"Um. Probably two or three hundred."
"Yeah, I know that seems like a lot...."
"So this is a major event." Annie is not reacting to the numbers like Lucinda thought she would; she actually seems more interested.
"On a local scale it is. This is our spring celebration, the Full Moon Festival."
"Well...okay. I'd like to go."
And Lucinda is so glad, she doesn't find anything unusual about Annie's reaction.... Some people are just more comfortable if they can blend into the crowd.
Flashforward two weeks' time. Annie arrives at the Star at the appointed hour, a knapsack on her back. Lucinda is surprised to see her in worn denim overalls over a tie-die t-shirt. She could be any one of the Circle Star's regulars (Lucinda herself dresses like the '60s not only never ended, but gained momentum as they kept going). The change in clothing style can only mean that Annie, like so many other women (and men) of the '90s, is Finally Figuring Out Where She Fits In.
During the long drive to the mountains, a tentative friendship forms, layer by layer, like a pearl over a grain of sand. In the back seat are Rose, every ounce a five-year-old, and a blond woman in overalls who doesn't say much at all. Rose mostly entertains herself, singing and talking to her seatmate, which allows Lucinda and Annie to swap stories. Annie writes for a fishing magazine, of all things; Lucinda used to cut hair and is studying to be a priestess. That sort of thing.
At the festival, Annie stays close to the group, watching everything with wide eyes. They are surrounded by women, some of whom take advantage of the isolation and same-sex situation by shedding their shirts and their inhibitions. They see a few unshaven armpits and legs, more than a few women sharing the same sleeping bags. Annie says little, but Lucinda doesn't push her. She just lets her take it all in.
They set up their campsites, well into the trees, before venturing back to the main circle. They hear some pretty radical stuff being discussed:
- that religion holds power, and thus is often abused;
- that religion, and power, have been in the hands of white men for the past 6000 years - but overall, for only a fraction of human history;
- that the image of God as a white man corresponds roughly to the same fraction of time;
- and that She used to look different.
The sun sinks, and with it, the temperature; sweaters and shawls are pulled on; fires spring up in the dusk; and Annie is learning more about the pagan faith than she ever imagined possible. She is learning about the Goddess who gave birth to the world.
At night, Lucinda wants to wander, to seek out old friends. But Annie elects to stay put. Wrapped in a blanket, she sits and listens quietly to the women around her as they talk about their lives and their faith. Lucinda smiles, and leaves her with them.
She returns a few hours later, mind reeling from the most unusual Tarot reading she's ever heard. Annie has already retired to her tent. She must have a lot on her mind, though, because the tent is lit like a Japanese lantern until two AM....
Less than 24 hours later, Annie is scrawling in a notebook when she hears footsteps through the undergrowth. She closes the book and caps her pen as Lucinda approaches.
"Hi! Some ceremony, huh?"
"It was something, all right."
"What are you writing?"
"Just making some notes."
"For an article.""About the ceremony?"
"For the fishing magazine."
"Oh. Um...a bunch of us are going to the other side of the park. You want to come with? I haven't seen much of you today."
"I've just been wandering around, checking things out."
"Yeah, I know. I think that's great. I want to hear what you think about everything. Do you want to come with us?"
"Sure." She carefully stows the notebook in her purse. "What's going on over there?"
"It's the weirdest coincidence, we ran into an old friend while we were in town. Turns out he's camped right over the ridge. He can't come here..."
"Because he's a man."
"Right, right, but he's totally cool. I think you'll like him...." Her voice rises on the last word, like a question.
"What's his name?"
They hear him drumming long before they reach the distant campsite. The light from tiki torches makes strange rhythmic shadows against the trees that seem to move to the beat. Coming through the concealing trees, Annie is the first to see him, perched on the open tailgate of a Gemtopped El Camino. He's a tall skinny mop of a man, long and lanky, with a bush of impossible hair on top. He's so intent on his drumming, he doesn't even notice the new arrivals.
A middle-aged couple in cowboy blues are dancing before the fire, weaving erratically, ecstatically, in time to the beat. Some of Lucinda's friends immediately join in, and now Ace notices them, looking up with a beatific smile. But his hands never stop moving: pound pause pound pause pound pause, becoming blurs in orange firelight. The beat is incredibly loud, like the heartbeat of the moon:
After a while, the young man stops drumming and stands, giving Lucinda a warm hug. "Great to see you again, girl. What are the odds, huh?"
"Oh, I know, it's really been a day for connecting. And speaking of connections, I'd like you to meet Annie."
He offers her a grubby hand. A scrawny beard hangs from his grin. His hair, if it is his hair, has gone so long unwashed it has thickened into ropes. The sight of it makes Annie a little queasy.
"Pleased to meet you." She shakes his hand, a pleasant smile on her face.
There is the now-familiar scent of burning sage in the air. Lucinda and Annie settle into unraveling lawn chairs; Ace perches on the tailgate and takes out a sky-blue package labeled DRUM. As Annie watches, he pours out something that looks suspiciously like dope, rolls it up into a paper, and smokes it.
"Okay Lucinda, since you mention connections, what's the link between cockroaches and saucer aliens?"
"I don't know. What?"
"It's not a riddle. I'm asking you."
"Cockroaches and saucer aliens? Is there a connection?"
"You tell me." And Ace relates the story of the cockroach that somehow stood upright on two legs. Lucinda listens in fascination; meanwhile, Annie is eying the table in front of her. Among the lanterns and camping supplies is a small plate of M&M's - the peanut kind. Annie hasn't been able to get enough to eat this weekend - the festival's vegetarian food just doesn't fill her up. But there's not much candy left, and she doesn't want to attract attention by looking greedy. So she waits until Ace and Lucinda are distracted, deep into the story, before grabbing several.
Ace exclaims "Goddog!" so suddenly that Annie flinches. A jingle in the darkness turns into an enormous black nose. Annie inhales a warm blast of Alpo breath, then gets a big slobbery dog kiss on the face, like a wet slap with a hot sponge.
"Goddog! C'mere!" The mutt ambles cheerfully over to Ace and buries its nose lovingly in his palm. Annie wipes off dogdrool with the back of her hand.
"Is she a chow?" Lucinda asks.
"He. It's been a long time since I've seen you, hasn't it, boy?" He brings his face down for a few loving laps. A boy and his dog. It's hard to tell which one is smiling more. "Well hasn't it? Well hasn't it?"
"Did you leave him at your folks' house?"
Ace shakes his head. "He's been on the road."
"Oh-kaaaaay...what, does he just take off by himself sometimes?"
"Basically." The dog bounds into Ace's lap for a belly rub. Ace obliges. "That's because you're a hippie dog, isn't it? Well isn't it?"
Annie looks uncomfortable. "You named your dog God?"
"Goddog!" Goddog woofs! "Gawddog!" Goddog woofs! Ace resumes the belly rub.
"Wait, I'm still lost on this hitchhiking dog thing," Lucinda says.
"He's a Dead dog," Ace explains. "I let him run free while I'm doin' my thing at the Dead shows. Sometimes I can't find him afterward, and if I'm hitching a ride, I don't always have time to go look.
"But that's okay, because there are always lost dogs after a Dead show. So one of the Deadies goes and rounds them all up, loads 'em into their bus and brings them all to the next show. He sets 'em loose and eventually they sniff out their owners. I found God at the Miami show last week."
Lucinda says, "Oh my God! That is so cool!"
Annie shifts in her seat; she cannot seem to get comfortable.
"I've been off tour for a couple of months, so it's been a while since I've seen my puppy. Hasn't it, boy? It's been a long while! Hey Lucinda, you know what the Zen Buddhist said to the hot dog vendor?"
"'Make me one with everything.'"
Lucinda laughs. "You sure are talking fast, Ace."
"Yeah, I had six M&M's."
"Well, they're pretty weak."
Eyes wide, Annie looks down at her hand. A smear of orange and green remains on her palm, the only evidence of her tiny crime. She says nothing. Ace has already changed the subject.
"Oh and I heard the first Rainbow rumor today too."
"Really? Where's the Gathering going to be this year?"
"Looks like Montana or Wyoming."
"Damn, that's a long way. I don't know if I'm gonna make it."
Lucinda grimaces at the mention of her husband's name, but she says nothing. Ace looks at Annie. "Have you ever been to a Rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow rainbow?"
She finds the odd question terrifying, but silently shakes her head no, and that seems to satisfy him. Good. She manages to keep her face calm, although her pulse is racing. They must not know what she has done. They must not know.
"So anyway LUCINDA, what do you think about the cockroach thing?"
" I don't know, ACE. You were TRIPPING, right?"
"Right, RIGHT. But I don't think that's WHAT this was. It didn't FEEL that way, you KNOW?"
"Yeah. Have you ever read any of Whitley Streiber's books?"
"No, who's he?"
A writer who was abducted by aliens, Lucinda says. He said the aliens planted fake memories in his mind during his abduction. When he tried to recall the experience, instead he'd see these other images that didn't make any sense. Sometimes they were, well... images of animals.
Oh shit, Lucinda, are you serious? Ace replies.
Annie can no longer follow the conversation; even the voices seem to be changing. Petrified, she still manages to keep her face calm. They must not know. Ace and Lucinda keep talking, and as far as they can tell, Annie is listening politely.
But the Dog knows.
The blasphemously named mutt has been curled up comfortably next to his master this whole time. But when Annie looks down at him, he raises his head and meets her eyes. As if he knows.
Blessed be the beasts and children. "Have you found any strange marks on your body?" - Lucinda's voice returns to normal - "People who've been abducted often find strange marks or scars they don't remember getting" - the Mark of the Beast. 666. Blessed be the Beast.... Is Ace the Antichrist? Would the Antichrist name his dog God? Dog spelled backwards is God. Does that mean anything? And why does the Dog keep staring at her? And is the table moving? It seems to be breathing...
The table is breathing. The heart of the moon is beating. As if in response, Ace picks up his drum.
Annie's Trip has begun.
Ace. One. The First One. Dog: the reverse of God. And Lucinda - she isn't sure, doesn't that mean light? Lucifer was the Light-Bringer, like Prometheus. Lucinda, Lucifer.
Suddenly Annie is surrounded by laughing demons. And she can say nothing. Because of her own lie.
The dog begins to growl.
The others don't hear it over the drum. She's not even sure she is hearing it. The sound is so low, it could be her imagination - but there's no mistaking the look in the animal's eyes. It looks right through her. It sees her for what she really is.
The world is beating. She looks down at the dog again, but it is asleep, head nestled comfortably against its master's leg. She can still hear the growling. It's coming from the kerosene lamp on the table; it's only the hiss of the gas. The dog never looked at her at all. She imagined the whole thing.
What else did she imagine? The vision of demons? The confusing conversation? Is she imagining it all? Or just losing her mind?
Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh God please make it stop, thinks Annie, and she is not blaspheming. She never blasphemes. God has said He will spit blasphemers out of his mouth. She is thinking this and realizing fully, for the first time, what it must be like to be spit out of God's mouth: to know that you will spend eternity an eternal distance from God's loving Eye.
It must feel something like this.
Annie is living a nightmare: eternal night with no hope of dawn. She hears strange sounds and feels invisible demons everywhere. Annie has willingly entered her own personal Hell, drumbeat damnation of cold campfires and Dead dogs crawling with cockroaches -
Something crawls across her hand.
She screams and flips it hard to the ground. The cockroach rights itself and rises up on its hind legs, contemplating her, antennae whirling slowly in each direction. Annie raises her foot to crush it into oblivion -
And suddenly she knows the answer to Ace's question.
She looks down at the cockroach again, but it is gone, if it was ever there at all. It no longer matters. She is hearing the voice of God, in the midst of epiphany, understanding the secrets of the universe at last. She knows the the connection between cockroaches and aliens; she knows the secrets of the stars; she knows the vengeance of hellfire; and she knows the majesty of the anger of God, who sees all with His sweeping gaze, who will cast all sinners into the pit of hellfire.
Annie rises, opening her arms wide to the sky packed full of stars. She is no longer aware of Ace, or Lucinda, or the dog, or anything else on Earth. She is seeing shapes in the stars. She is seeing squadrons of angels bearing Jacob's ladders, the gathered forces of Heaven waiting to sweep down and wipe the Earth clean. And then the vision changes, and she sees most terrible thing of all -
The Eye of God.
The swirl of starlight is a single angry brow, arching over an All-Seeing Eye. As she stands, arms raised, gulping in great gasps of air, she realizes the Eye is looking over all the Earth. She can feel Its awesome anger. Nothing can hide from Its terrible apprehension. It is observing the whole human race, looking down at Its blind idiot children in their foolish cities of Babel. It looks straight into their souls, into the saved and the damned alike -
It is looking into her.
And in one awful moment, she knows -
She's not good enough.
She will never be good enough. In her heart she has always known it: no matter how hard she tries, God will never be satisfied with her. She can never look Him in the Eye without fear. Because she is weak. Because she is a liar. Because she is a woman.
And Woman is the vessel of Sin.
This really is Hell. And she entered it willingly. The Eye of God looks at her, through her, condemning her to the same Hell as Ace and Lucinda, as all the women at the festival. Because of her lies. Because of her sin.
And Annie Lane, poor Annie Lane, feels as if God - a God whose infinite anger she truly understands at last - is crushing her underfoot like a cockroach, twisting and twisting His heel against the concrete.
Annie begins to scream.
"Oh God, oh Jesus, help me! Help me!"
This is what Annie hears herself screaming. She is suddenly aware of her surroundings. They are back at the festival. This is bad, because she doesn't remember leaving the other place. There are strange women holding her by the arms, speaking soothing words, trying to calm her down. Annie is back among the damned: surrounded by witches. A nation of Eve.
Imagine her surprise to learn she belongs there.
When she is next aware, Annie is lying on a pallet in a strange tent. Someone is sitting nearby, talking to her in a soothing voice. She recognizes the woman: one of Lucinda's friends.
"You told her to leave, honey. Don't you remember?"
"No." She lets her head fall onto the pillow. "I feel so awful."
"Do you want some water?"
"I want Lucinda."
So one of the other women goes and gets her. Lucinda greets Annie with real warmth and concern. "Hi, how are you feeling?"
Annie cannot meet her eyes. "Terrible."
"You must have been dosed. I'm so sorry Annie, I had no idea what was happening until you started screaming. Did you eat any of Ace's candy?"
Annie says nothing, silenced by humiliation and guilt.
Lucinda touches the other woman on the shoulder. She gets up, letting Lucinda take her place by the pallet. She sits and takes one of Annie's cold hands in both her own. "Listen, it's going to be okay. We've all had our bad trips. It was scary because you didn't know what was happening. But the worst is over. You need to wait a while before you get up, because you've still got some of the chemical in your system. But I'm here for you...." And she keeps talking, in a soothing and loving voice, for what seems like hours.
Annie thinks of damnation and begins to weep. When that is over, she realizes none of this needed to happen. If she had just asked about the candy first, the whole horror could have been avoided. She is consumed by guilt. She brought the madness on herself because she lied, and kept lying, to a woman who was only trying to be her friend.
And she understands finally that Lucinda is her friend, is genuinely trying to help her. That's all she wanted - not to steal her soul for Satan - but to help her.
It's an enlightening moment. She realizes it's evidence of love - real, true Christian love. She cannot believe she ever thought bad things about this woman. In a moment of ecstacy, she realizes this may be the first true friendship she has ever known - and she came to it under a shroud of lies.
So she does the worst thing she could possibly do.
She tells Lucinda the truth.
"I wasn't entirely honest with you before...."
Lucinda looks at her sharply. "What do you mean?"
"I said I worked for a fishing magazine, and that's true, in a sense...we are 'fishers of men."
Oh Goddess, Lucinda thinks, please no....
"I write for The New Christian Right."
In an acid-speed babble she confesses all of it.
Annie has been researching an article called "Inside the Coven: An Investigation of the Satanic Occult." Her mission is to infiltrate the pagan underground and report on their plans for America. Secretly, she's hoping to develop a whole book about the experience.
The Circle Star was the perfect place to start. She worked herself slowly into Lucinda's confidence, waiting for an opportunity to observe the rituals close at hand. Although Lucinda never talked about "Satan," she was not fooled; other figures like "the Horned God" obviously represented Lucifer. And the idea that God could be a woman - when it was woman who brought sin into the world - was obviously the work of diabolists.
But now Annie has had a change of heart. In the ecstacy of early morning, glowing like Galahad, she tells an astonished Lucinda that she has been misguided all along, using lies in the service of God. And now He has given her a sign, showing her the truth.
She believed that Jesus would like nothing better than to see every one of these women burn in Hell. But now she remembers that's not very loving. A loving God wouldn't rejoice in the damnation of His children.
She realizes she wanted these women in Hell. She has used God to express her own hatred. She put her own words into the mouth of God. There's a word for that:
At the heart of madness lies meaning. It is the order underlying chaos that is the voice of God. Now, at last, she recognizes that voice.
Annie has been born again.
She continues talking for a while, not noticing the increasingly dark look on Lucinda's face. It's only when the woman suddenly withdraws her hands that Annie says, "What's wrong?"
"God damn you! Who the hell do you think you are?"
"I offered you help, offered you friendship, and you had no...intention...of ever taking it!" Lucinda is so angry she is weeping. "You just wanted to make a mockery of my faith in your magazine!"
"I don't want to do that anymore, Lucinda. I'll tear up my notes. I promise."
"Listen to me Annie, you need help. You're a sick sick woman. And a hypocrite too. You made a mockery of your own faith. You call yourself a Christian, but you lied to me! How do you justify that? How do you justify that?"
Annie says nothing. She can feel the anger and pain welling up in her again, a black tide that threatens to drag her under.
"Listen to me Annie, these women here don't need to lie to each other. We came out here so we could be open in a country that punishes 'freedom of religion.' We don't lie about our faith, even when we get harassed for it. And we don't put our responsibilities at the feet of a man who lived 2000 years ago!"
"I don't -"
"Get out of my tent! You can find your own goddamn way back to the city! And I don't ever want to see you around the Circle Star again, do you hear me? I'm going to spread the word around, Annie. And you'd better, you'd better not try this stunt again. I know a lot of people. We'll be looking for you. Now get out of my tent! "
"Get out! Get out!"
And that's how Annie finds herself alone on the ridge in the cold blue light of approaching dawn. The sun is still hidden behind the mountain, and the overarching Eye of sky is gone - if it was ever there at all.
She still doesn't understand what happened, but one thing is obvious: this whole horrible experience has been a sign from God - a God who appears in a burning bush, in a flaming chariot, in a piece of candy.
She searches for meaning in the madness, a lesson to be learned, but can find only one possible answer:
God tested her faith...and she failed.
Meanwhile Ace, unintended author of her agony, beats on his drum, low and quiet so as not to awaken the others. In acid ecstacy he closes his eyes, inhales cold mountain air and thrums the sacred drum, pound pause pound pause like a pulse:
Standing there invisible next to him, listening to the beat, I send my ghostly vision out along the newly formed connections; I look across the continent. It's Saturday night. In a Texas hotel room, Tracy and Harlan are asleep in each other's arms for the first time. That's a good sign. A new beginning.
Closer by, Alison lies alone and awake in her sleeping bag, just over the ridge. She glances at Mouse, asleep just a few feet away. Her breast swells; she smiles. But it's only Saturday night. In less than six hours, Mouse will be gone. And Alison has no clue how far away she really is, any more than she knows how close she is to Ace.
It's Saturday night - really Sunday morning, now. Annie sits alone, only a few hundred yards up the hill. She has had an experience that will remain with her for the rest of her life. As the years pass, she will try in many ways to forget what the night has taught her - about God, about her faith, about herself. And she will fail. No matter what she makes herself believe, Annie will never be able to escape the knowledge that for one brief moment, she gazed into the Eye of God...
It's Saturday night. As the sun slowly rises, Ace thrums the drum, listening to the voice of God. It is a voice that speaks of peace and possibility. It is a voice that speaks from his drum.
Goddog is curled comfortably beside him, happy to be back with the master he loves most. His paws twitch as he is lulled into a doggie dream by the sound of the beat:beatbeat
|.angelheaded hipsters and visionary tics|