The wind whispered through the tall white oaks. Marisa pulled her satin-lined cloak tight around her. It had rained during the day, and cold water dripped from the leaves. It was dark, the forest canopy largely blocking the moonlight, but she had traveled the winding path many times and no longer needed a flashlight to guide her way. Her bare feet squished the combination of grass, mud, and fallen leaves beneath them.
Technically the woods she traveled was part of a state forest, but no paths ran through this section of it except game trails and the one leading from her small brick house. She couldn’t help but think of the woods as her backyard. She kept the path clear of briars and poison ivy, and no one used it but her.
Nature had provided a broad clearing in the trees a thousand feet from her home, and Marisa tended it as minimally as possible, pulling only the wild raspberries— because of the thorns—and the occasional sapling. Here and there, dandelions and violets poked through the tall wild grass, visible in the light of the full moon. When she arrived at the clearing, she set the basket she carried against an ancient oak and breathed deep the scent of clean, heavily oxygenated air.
Near the middle of the clearing was an old stump, the most obvious sign of human interference in the clearing. It was sheared off too neatly to have simply fallen over, and the tree that went with it had long since either rotted or been carried away. What remained was remarkably convenient for Marisa’s purpose.
She took the white satin cloth that covered the basket and walked to the stump, laying the cloth carefully on top of it. It would have been far more convenient to carry the basket to the stump, rather than carrying each and every item separately, but Marisa felt that the trips back and forth helped her be mindful of the part each one played in the ritual. She wiggled her toes both to free them of some mud and to heighten her sense of Mother Earth beneath her.
Back at the basket, she filled a wineglass used by her great-grandmother with some Californian port wine. A devout Lutheran, her great-grandmother would probably be aghast at what Marisa intended to do with it. She couldn’t expect the approval or participation of her recent ancestors, but she wanted something of them there nonetheless. She set the cup reverentially on the right side of the makeshift altar.
Then she brought the black-handled knife, bought in a kitschy new age shop in her younger, more impressionable days, and placed it on the left side. A broad round red candle, homemade, went in the center. She put a hand-carved wooden goddess figure on the right to represent the Goddess. A waterproof silicone vibrator she stood up on the left to represent the God. She could have chosen something more reverent, of course, but she believed a sense of humor had a place even in sacred space. Like everything on the altar, the vibe was very personal, and not unlike some of the ways the Norse had represented Freyr, brother to Marisa’s patron goddess, Freyja. Last, she brought a loaf of bread and placed it in front of the candle.
She took four candles, each in candlesticks that were sharp on the bottom, and walked them around to the four cardinal points of the imaginary circle in her head near the edge of the clearing. The circle was about nine yards in diameter. There was little growing in the four places she chose, since each month she pulled up anything near them that might possibly catch fire. She returned to the basket.
She braced herself for the cool fall air and then untied the cloak, her only garment, and placed it in the basket. Soon enough it would be winter, and the air would be colder still. She wasn’t an idiot, and she wouldn’t go out naked if it was below freezing, but she tried when possible to let herself feel nature as fully as she could.
While she preferred to light a single candle with flint, on a damp evening that was far too much work. Her long-necked butane lighter was simple and worked consistently enough not to distract her from the ritual. She walked around clockwise, starting at the south, and lit the four candles to invoke the four elements they each represented in order: Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. She knelt before the altar to light the red candle in its center, then set the lighter down on the ground, where it wouldn’t distract her. She rearranged her feet to sit next to the altar cross-legged and worked on becoming fully present. The grass was cool beneath her, but in time, she acclimated, and it warmed. Meeting nature halfway—no, more than halfway—was her goal this evening. Meditating always made her sleepy, so she kept her eyes open. Once a deer had entered her circle and stared at her from a few feet away. She wanted to be alert for whatever nature blessed her with.
When she felt at peace, she spoke the Charge of the Goddess to herself, the familiar words making her spirit soar. She was no longer cold. Here, naked under the moonlight, she felt the power of being a woman and a witch. “For behold,” she said as she reached the end, “I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.” She smiled, the strength of the Goddess inside her. She unfolded her legs and stood, bending only to pick up the wine-filled cup and the black-handled knife from the altar.
The knife and the cup represented man and woman, god and goddess. Holding the cup aloft, seeing the moonlight filter through it, she dipped the knife in the cup. When she had been younger and had practiced her rituals with a group, she had giggled at what she saw then as the silly sexual imagery of it. Now, it never failed to make her pussy tingle. A few times, she had even pleasured herself with her vibe after the rite. She had to try hard not to feel guilty about that. “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals,” said the Charge of the Goddess. Feeling sexual was part of being a natural animal, naked in the wild.
She used to have all sorts of words she said as she dipped the cup and the dagger, but now those words washed over her unspoken. She knew what she was doing. She understood what it meant at a level deeper than words. She had felt the power of divine nature in her life. She set the cup and dagger down in their places and sat once more in meditation.
After a few minutes, Marisa saw something other than what was in front of her. It was not the first vision she’d had, but it had been a long time since the last one, and she had wondered if any would come again. She saw a fawn, a tiny thing. She was lost. Fear radiated off her. Something was on her trail, something heavier, not her mother. A coyote, maybe? Marisa tried to see but couldn’t. The fawn had a hurt leg; that didn’t stop her from moving, but it made walking painful. She was losing heart; the will to live was ebbing from the tiny animal.
The fawn sat down. That wasn’t good, surely. It would take the fawn time to stand and run from that position. Marisa tried to project her will to the fawn, to give her strength. She felt it working, but still the fawn did not move. Marisa turned her body, feeling for the direction where the fawn sat. It was a long way, a mile or so. There was no way Marisa could go that far through the thick brush naked or even wearing her cloak. She would have to go back to the house, get her clothes, and search. Of course, the vision didn’t necessarily mean that a fawn was literally there at all. But it meant something. Her visions always meant something.
Marisa stood, willing the fawn to stand as well, and she thought she saw it do so, but the vision was fading. Sometimes Marisa found that if she looked at the moon, she would see more clearly, so she looked up. There was nothing.
Then she heard a noise. The vision faded completely. She turned.
A man was leaning against a tree and watching her. He had very dark blue pants and black shoes and a pale blue shirt, with a badge on the shirt. A policeman. He was darkly handsome, a muscular man who’d seen a lot of the sun, with blond hair to contrast with his bronze skin.
“How long have you been there?” Marisa demanded while she tried to figure out if she had done anything illegal. Her cloak was outside the circle and several steps away. She wanted it, but she didn’t want to step outside the circle without “opening a door”—a passage between sacred space and the real world. And if she did what she usually did and picked up the knife from the altar to trace the outlines of a door in order to get to the basket, Freyja only knew what the cop would think. She tried to look casual as she held one arm in front of her breasts and covered her crotch with the other.
“Awhile.” The cop grinned. “Nice view. I’ve been walking for miles, so it was about time for a rest. I didn’t want to disturb you, so I stayed outside your circle.”
Four candles were all that marked it. He’d need knowledge or vision to see that she had a circle. This policeman was more than he seemed, which intrigued her. And he apparently wasn’t going to arrest her. “You can see the circle.”
He chuckled. “Not at all. But I can see your landmarks or whatever you call them, and I took a comparative religion class in college. You’re Marisa Clarke, I presume.”
“Yes. And who are you?” She still wanted to know why he was here. He certainly wasn’t averting his eyes from her naked body, so he was no gentleman. But he was handsome and built. The sexual sensations that had passed through her after the cup and knife were still there, and they came to life as she felt his gaze on her skin. Now that the fear of arrest was gone, she could appreciate the presence of a good-looking man in uniform. She’d always had a thing for authority figures, anyway. Usually that thing had been expressed as rebellion, but there was sometimes an undercurrent of desire.
“Sergeant Nolan Coralone. I don’t suppose you’ve seen a lost girl, ma’am.”
“A lost girl?” Her heart sped up. Her vision. Not a fawn, then, but a human girl.
“Yes. A lost girl. We’ve got search parties looking all through the park for her. We think she must have wandered down a game path and gotten separated from her parents.”
Marisa swallowed. Yes, she could go back and get her clothes, but it would take a while. He was dressed for a search.
“Go that way.” She had to turn and uncover her breasts to point. Hopefully he didn’t have too good a view. “About a mile. You’ll find her there. Hurry.”
Nolan’s eyes narrowed. “And how do you know this?”
She folded her arm over her chest again. “I saw it. In a vision. Go! I’ll stay here and try to see her again if I can and guide you. Please.”
“Why didn’t you go yourself?”
“I’m not dressed for it. And I didn’t know she was a girl, until now. Why the hell are you hanging around?”
“Because I don’t believe a word you’re saying. No, don’t start. It’s not that I don’t believe you’re sincere, but I don’t believe in magic. Religion. Whatever it is you’re doing.”
“Why not both? She’s there, though. I know she is. Have you looked that way thoroughly yet?”
He shook his head. “I guess it’s as good as any.” He lifted his walkie-talkie and spoke into it. “This is Coralone, heading due east from where I am. Call it a hunch. Yeah. All right, roger that.”
“I hope you find her. Soon. She’s losing hope.” Marisa tried to keep her brain away from sex, because the girl was more important, but she was naked in front of a drop-dead gorgeous man who obviously enjoyed looking at her. It’s natural to feel attracted. Maybe he’ll come back later.
“If I were you, I’d hope we find her somewhere else than where you’ve said.” Nolan looked suddenly grim. “Because if we do, you’ll have some questions to answer, and they won’t be about your so-called visions.” He took a step forward, toward the circle, and then rolled his eyes and walked around the edge of the clearing heading east. Marisa stared after him.
Nice butt. But obviously not for me. So-called visions, indeed. Even when he sees, he won’t believe.
She shook her head and sat down. Her monthly ritual was over. Not as orderly as she’d planned, but she couldn’t ask for more than she’d received: a vision and a man to follow through on what she’d learned. Nature rarely lined up so well. Drawing down the moon seemed superfluous at this point, and her headspace was all wrong anyway. She took the bread from the altar, thanked Freyja and Freyr for the bounty of the earth, and chewed it thoughtfully.
Find her quick, skeptic. She needs you.
She closed her eyes, reaching her mind out for the girl. She hoped to find where she was, but she saw nothing and heard nothing.
Sindra van Yssel