They stood in a loose circle, seven people dressed in an assortment of clothing styles, passing around a horn filled with mead and toasting their gods. Maribelle stood with them and felt like an outsider, like an interloper, like an imposter. The only reason the rest of them had welcomed her was because Connor invited her along. His friends – his kindred, she reminded herself – were nice enough, some more welcoming than others. She wasn’t an utter newbie, more of a constant seeker, which was how she’d met Connor in the first place. She’d been to a variety of open circles of different kinds with different groups. She’d gone to meet-ups and discussion groups. She’d haunted different message boards and blogs online, always seeking, always searching, always wanting something that continued to elude her.
Connor was in her European Studies class. He sat behind her. He and the professor had had a lively discussion regarding the early Viking settlements on Vinland, debating between themselves the running theories on the most likely locations of said settlements before they where abandoned, forgetting the rest of the class in their enthusiasm. Maribelle listened and followed Connor, cornering him as they left to introduce herself and ask questions. She was a quiet woman, bookish, but unendingly curious and not at all shy about asking questions, even if they made her look stupid. The adage “there are no stupid questions,” was her most sacred creed.
It wasn’t hard to suss out Connor’s pagan leanings. They talked on and off again for a number of weeks, and then he invited her to meet his group. Kindred, she thought. They’d all gone out for coffee, a completely social meeting. Six adults ranging in age from college kids to their mid-forties, they weren’t at all what Maribelle was expecting. The Asatruar she’d come across online made her think of stereotypical bikers – heavy drinking, heavy cursing, heavily tattooed, jeans and leathers wearing types of folks. Connor’s group looked like all the other Wiccans and pagans she’d met already: like everyone else. They ran the gamut from conservative business attire to torn jeans and rumpled sweatshirts to period re-enactment garb. The only thing they all had in common was the Thor’s hammers around their necks, and even those varied from tiny and discrete to bold and obvious.
A few more weeks of increasingly frequent conversations and Connor invited her to their Winternights blot. He assured her it was a low-key event, the last of them before his kindred ceased having open-by-invite blots for the Yule season, and he’d gained their permission before inviting her.
Maribelle liked these heathens. She liked a lot of the various pagans she’d met over the years. It wasn’t a lack of warm, open, hospitable people that kept her searching. It was the yearning in her soul that drove her ever onward. It was the yearning that found her standing with these people, passing around alcohol most of the world had forgotten about, and praising gods who were little more than names to her.
She watched Connor accept the horn for the second time, watched him hold it aloft to hail Sif. Sif, she knew, held a special place in Connor’s heart. His people were farmers. He’d come directly from the farm to attend the local university. The love and gratitude he bore for her was plain on his face. Maribelle couldn’t help herself; a pang of envy stirred within her breast as she listened to his praise for the goddess. His relationship with his goddess was real, as real as his classes, as real as his history on the farm. It was as real as the horn in his hands, as the mead in his belly, as his kindred ringed around him. Maribelle searched. She studied. She asked questions. She wanted that certainty. She wanted that connection.
Before the horn came her way again, Maribelle backed out from the formation. They’d explained beforehand that the blot wasn’t the same as casting a circle, that one could come and go as one needed to. Still, it felt weird, like a breach of etiquette. She saw Conner’s concern as she ducked down the trail and she waved him away. She’d be fine, she just had to get away, had to breathe.
Vegetation was thick, and in just a few paces the river drowned out their voices. Maribelle sought a dry rock at the water’s edge and sat, her back to the trail. She closed her eyes, overcome with loneliness and longing, overburdened by a lifetime of wanting that she could never seem to articulate.
“Do you have a smoke?”
Maribelle peeked an eye open, surprised to find another woman already camped out by the river. She was tiny, sitting with her legs folded up against her chest to keep her feet out of the water, her arms holding them close to her. Maribelle noticed her braids tucked behind her ears and the leather bracelet on one wrist before she realized she was staring. Annoyance crept in and she tried to let it flow through her instead of hanging on to it. Anger came so quickly to her when she felt down. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head.
“Eh, no worries. I should get my own, right?”
Maribelle smiled, unsure of how to answer, worried that the girl would insist on pursuing a conversation. After a few minutes of sitting and listening to the water, to the wind in the trees she began to relax again. Breathing exercises helped. Grounding, centering. Exposure to the mystically inclined was at least good for something, even if she did always feel on the outside.
“I think your friends are looking for you.” The girl nodded toward the path. “They’ve finished up their ritual. You should let them know where you are.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Sorry if I intruded on you.” She should have gone right away. What had she been thinking?
“No at all. See you around.”
Connor found her as she ducked under the branch of hemlock. “Everything good?”
She nodded, unable to speak. The distance she’d placed between herself and her self-pity disappeared.
Connor touched her arm, making her stop so he could look at her. “No, seriously, Maribelle. Are you all right?”
How, in such short time, had he learned to read her cues? Maribelle took a breath and let it out. “It’s overwhelming sometimes. I’m sorry if that was rude. I just needed some space.”
“It wasn’t rude; I told you that. I don’t care that you left the blot. I care why you left the blot.”
He knew about her searching. They’d spent hours talking about that, her plying him with questions about how he’d found his gods. She confided in return, telling him about the nagging longing that she carried.
When she insisted she was fine, he didn’t press the issue. They joined up with the others and hiked out to their car, piling in for the drive home. On the way she let their conversation spill over her, their voices and comaraderie soothing her nerves. They left her at her apartment, Connor promising to e-mail later on in the week. Maribelle waved them off as they drove away and sank into the stillness of her apartment with gratitude.
It was almost cliché, Maribelle realized as she took her coffee cup from the barrista and wandered the shelves of the bookstore. Pagans and coffee and bookstores. Throw in a cat, and it would be perfect. At quarter of nine most of the patrons were ensconced in the comfy chairs with their lattes and bagels and teas, so she had the shelves to herself. She scanned the sections – astrology, Tarot, Wicca, New Age, Native American – her eyes glossing over the same old titles that she always saw. She knew she was wasting time. There was nothing here for her. Nothing in the religious studies section either. Nothing outside. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
Her finger touched upon Divine Horseman and she flipped it out, not for the first time, to read about folks dancing and feasting and honoring their lwa. Even in photographs decades out of date she could see the devotion, the conviction on their faces.
“There’s an interesting read.”
Maribelle nearly dropped the book. The girl from the river stood a few shelf-lengths away, her brown eyes sparkling with the laughter so clear in her voice. “You interested in the lwa?”
Before she could stop herself Maribelle ran a critical eye over the woman, over her braids, her not-quite-white skin, the leather at her wrist. In a second she caught herself, berating herself for what came second nature to her even after all this time in the city. If the woman noticed she gave no sign. The laughter in her eyes remained.
What a question. No wasn’t exactly right, but yes could hardly begin to address subject. “I’m just sort of browsy today,” she hedged. “It’s that sort of morning.”
“I stand by my first statement, then. The spirits are heavy stuff for a light sort of morning.”
Feeling chastised, and not liking it one bit, Maribelle swallowed a rude response with a mouth full of lukewarm coffee.
The girl sighed. “Rude. I’m impossible with the caffeine in the morning.” She headed for the café.
Maribelle wandered some more, picking up books randomly, setting them back without really reading them. As always, attending a religious ceremony made that longing worse afterward. It was an itch that never fully manifested, vague and incurable.
“This should help.” A ceramic mug floated before her eyes, the girl suddenly back, and with coffee. “Peace offerings are important. Really. I’m sorry. Browsy doesn’t mean light, it means restless. It’s just that they,” she nodded toward the bookshelf that held the voudou section, “are not for the light or the restless. Some are greedier than others. They’ll snatch you up just because you’re looking.”
Maribelle accepted the mug. “Thanks,” she said, hoping to hide the pang of longing. She spoke as if she knew them, as Connor spoke of his gods, and always, always, it wounded Maribelle. Why? What was she missing?
The girl flashed a smile while Maribelle took a tentative sip of the hot beverage. “If you’re really restless, you wanna go somewhere?”
Something in that smile … Maribelle felt an impulse to tell the girl that she wasn’t looking for that, but she held her tongue. She felt a stronger, deeper impulse to throw caution to the wind. There was nothing wrong with making new friends. “I’m free today,” she said. “Why not?”
“Great! Come on, down that and we’ll go.”
They finished their coffees, made a quick pit stop, and left the bookstore. The girl had a car in the lot, old and used and well cared for. She held the door open for Maribelle, and Maribelle wondered again if she was sending mixed signals. “Where are we going?”
“Not too far. There’s a spot I know, in the city. It’s … well, you’ll see. I’m Lark, by the way.”
“Maribelle,” Maribelle said. “You spoke like you knew the lwa yourself. Are you a practitioner?”
Lark snorted and then shook her head, her eyes not leaving the road. “There’s the rude again. I’m not good with social niceties all the time, sorry about that. I know of the lwa, and I’ve known some practitioners in my time, but they’re not my tribe. They’re not interested in the likes of me. Ah, here!”
‘Here’ was a parking space between a cluster of houses renovated into apartments. Lark turned the car off and ushered Maribelle between the yards, following a path of trampled grass into a green space that rose up away from the road. Lawn and garden gave way to wild prairie grasses turned brown in the dry summer. Native plants still blossomed, and within a few feet the sound of traffic was replaced by the droning of cicadas in the trees. Willow trees and oak and birch rose up, small groves of each reaching their branches high to create a shady oasis from the world. Maribelle couldn’t help it – she laughed aloud as she stepped under the trees, delight crowding out the despair that didn’t want to let her go.
It was like ice water washing over a burn. It was like the first rainfall of the season rushing into the parched ground. It was like sudden silence after too-loud music. It was beautiful and sacred and magical, just for existing how and where it did, but it went beyond that. She’d seen beautiful places before. She’d been magical places, in places others deemed sacred. This, though, could only be described as sacred to her.
Lark stood facing her, a few feet away, her head tilted up toward the tallest oak. Shadows cast from leaves created dappled shapes on her face. “I thought maybe you’d feel that, too,” she said without turning from the tree. “You’ve been looking in the wrong places.”
Tears welled up, unbidden. Maribelle swallowed reflexively. “I don’t understand,” only she did. She suspected. She guessed. She half-feared. How long had she looked toward traditions of other people, of other places? When had she looked closer to home?
She looked at Lark, her skin dark and light with shadows, her braids, her brown eyes framed by that ever-so-slight almond shape. Lark caught her looking this time, and she let Maribelle know it.
“I’ve never seen such a fascination with skin color as what people have these days. No, no I get it, I do. History and all that. But there’s a time when history needs to be left at the door, don’t you think? The spirits exist outside of time, in a different time. Human baggage is sometimes just that. It’s why you’ve never dared look too closely at the spirits of this land, admit it.”
“We came to a land that wasn’t ours and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, and now we’re going to steal their gods?” Maribelle couldn’t help the bitterness that crept into her voice. As she stood talking, her sense of belonging threatened to get yanked away. It wasn’t hers, and she had no right to feel it, and she knew it.
For the first time since their meeting, Lark’s eyes lost their friendly sparkle. Anger flashed, once, before a more mild annoyed expression took over. “You came and you slaughtered and hundreds of thousands of people died. What’s important now is how you treat one another now. There are injustices now that matter more. History is important in understanding where one another comes from, but the present matters just as much. All that aside, you,” Lark took Maribelle’s hand and led her further into the grove, up to the sentinel oak, its branches sprawling as no oak Maribelle had ever seen outside of pictures of England, “are not looking for people, for history, for cultures. You are looking for the spirits that sing to your soul, that are calling you home. You are longing for this.”
She pressed Maribelle’s hand against the oak. Bark parted, allowing Maribelle’s skin to merge with its woody flesh. Maribelle collapsed to the ground. Lost to thought, lost to the world around her, she was caught up and thrown through a dizzying array of sensations and sounds, her whole soul flung open and wide, wide across the city. Almost immediately – after an eternity – she was caught and gathered close, strong arms holding her, a feel of feathers on her skin. She was drawn down from the sky, down down down through the sap, through the trails of a million insects, into her own skin, to the ground on which she knelt.
They weren’t alone. The arms that had gathered her close still held her, and feathers really did tickle her face. Lark knelt beside her, her eyes on the person holding Maribelle. As Maribelle came to her senses she started to pull away. Lark pressed her back, keeping her still. “Go slow. It’s a wild ride and it takes the body a minute to come back to itself. Just breathe a minute.”
Held fast, Maribelle had little choice. She tried to speak and found she couldn’t found her throat sore. Panic would have seized hold of her, but the tranquility of the space kept the fear at bay.
Tranquility of a space that should not be singing to her.
The arms that held her tightened. “Will you deny the harmony in your spirit?” a voice asked.
She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She should be terrified, but she was more calm than she’d ever felt, more alive. Wrapped in arms that shouldn’t be, in a space she’d’ve never found if not for a stranger, Maribelle belonged. She was tired of searching. She would not turn her back on what she’d found after searching for so very long.
“Good,” the voice said. “Let’s sit you up. Easy does it.”
He – she? Maribelle couldn’t be sure, and felt foolish for having been pressed against her – him? – as she’d been – eased her into a sitting position and stepped aside to let Lark closer. “You flew high, little cousin, which is impressive for one so young. I look forward to getting to know you better. She’ll keep you well.”
The shadows of the grove seemed to swallow the figure up. Maribelle giggled, sounded hysterical, and choked back the rest of her laughter.
“The feeling will pass,” Lark advised. “We should get you back to civilization. You’ll need some time to process this.”
“Who was that?” Maribelle didn’t want to leave. She stood up slowly, working kinks out of her limbs but otherwise made no move to leave. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask the same of Lark – who was she, really? – but she didn’t have the nerve to press that far. She was human, surely. The spirits did not walk and talk and breathe like mortals, surely. Did they? Did they?
“Family,” Lark said. “Kindred spirits. That what we’re all looking for, isn’t it? Once upon a time, when everyone lived in small, tight communities, things were different, but now? The spirits call whom they will, and it’s disrespectful to ignore that call. Decline it, sure, but to outright ignore it? Takes a braver fool than me.”
“I don’t know the first thing about the natives that lived here before. Hardly anything survives; how could I even begin to approach any of these spirits?”
“With respect. With humility. With caution. Not everything out there is friendly. But, one doesn’t have the longing you’ve had without someone somewhere calling to you, so you’ve already got someone watching out for you.” She looked toward the deeper shadows. “He likes tobacco, by the way. Not the commercial stuff. Home grown and dried is best. I can show you how.”
The sensation of feathers on her face lingered. Maribelle closed her eyes and inhaled, taking the sense of belonging deeper into her heart. “This is so confusing.”
Lark laughed. “I’d like to say that’ll get better, but it won’t. Come on, it’s getting late. I’ll take you home.”
It was fast getting across the city in a car. Maribelle fell back against the seat and let Lark drive. She didn’t think about how Lark never once asked for directions to her place. She didn’t wonder too hard over the hours that had passed like seconds. She simply sat and enjoyed sitting. Later she could worry about cultural misappropriation, about how it would look, a white girl of European descent pursuing the spirits of the land in which she lived. Later she could worry about whether to listen to people or the spirits. Later she could strive to find that sensitive balance. For now she simply wanted to experience belonging.
[Jolene Dawe is a polytheist devoted primarily to Poseidon and Odin. She is the author of Treasures from The Deep, a collection of Poseidon’s myths retold, and maintains a blog about Poseidon (Strip Me Back To The Bone ) on WordPress. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, a horde of cats, and one lonely dog. She can be reached via email.]