Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Monkey Tribe, Chapter V: Beltaine

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Jack sits in a big leather armchair, reviewing his mineral squares like a king surveying his crown jewels. What makes him feel even more imperial is the occasional glimpse of Audrey, shuttling between bedroom and bathroom, trying on clothes. The day’s activities are both formal and casual, and Audrey is taking a bicameral approach: one distinct outfit for each. Every three minutes, Jack is treated to a new ensemble, like a pasha reviewing his harem. But Jack has a major disadvantage: he is so enchanted by the contents, he couldn’t care less about the packaging. This is not a problem for women. He has watched gal-pals critiquing each other’s dresses with a frankness that would send a Marine into tears.
Between outfits, he reads from a psychology textbook, Mind in Motion. He was able to get in just under the wire for an introductory course at Cabrillo College, and he can’t quite believe his luck. The instructor, Paul Giacometti, is also the author of the textbook – but no vanity project here, it’s used in colleges across the country. The man is brilliant, and brilliantly funny. For a three-hour evening class, this is crucial. Plagued by a down-cycle that hits every day at 7 p.m., Jack occasionally nods off, anyway, but retains every shred of the lecture, as if he’s just taking it in through the barometer.
The students are accustomed to excitable continuing-ed types – going back to school being much more stimulating than having been there all your life. Even so, he’s in danger of developing a reputation. He chats with “Dr. G” after class, totes around elective books from the library, and gives class-time answers so elegantly constructed they may as well be converted to sonnets. He almost feels like he should tone down his participation so as not to be labeled a showoff (or, God forbid, a “tool”).
“Jack,” said Dr. G. “Yours is an exceptional mind. God knows how you’ve come from the world of accounting with so many intuitive skills. But I have learned not to be surprised at anything accomplished by the human brain. I want you to do me a favor, however. I know it’s tempting to back off during classtime, so you won’t be seen as a teacher’s pet. Well, to put it in modern parlance, screw that. I want to challenge these kids. Anytime I can take these ideas into a dialogue with a talented student, it makes things that much more interesting. Who knows? Maybe we can fool them into thinking they’re watching something on YouTube.”
Jack is amazed at the feats performed by the human brain, and how quickly it has taken the place in his heart previously reserved for numbers. As he waits for Audrey, he re-reads the account of an author who suffered a stroke and lost all of his language skills. The man painstakingly reconstructed them, using a completely different section of the brain, and then went back to writing novels.
She stands at the end of the frosted glass table, wearing a black floor-length gown. The fabric gathers at the center, just beneath her décolletage, and falls in smooth folds to either side, a series of arched upside-down V’s, one within the next. Jack is having a hard time finding his breath.
“That’s it. That’s the one.”

It’s the first of May, so naturally the weather is stunning.
“What is it with you and that song?”
The trigger between Kris Kristofferson and the Moss Landing straightaway has become so automatic that Jack doesn’t even know he’s singing. And there’s one other connection. This is the spot where the Imp of the Perverse made his first appearance, daring him to slam into the grill of that approaching truck. Do that now and the carnage includes Audrey. How horrible would that be? Throw in two beloved daughters. He still can’t imagine how Ben made it out alive.
Now he’s whistling.
“Wow. Sorry. I get so deep in my head these days I just end up being… rude.”
Audrey snakes a hand into Jack’s hair and gives him a scalp-scratch. “My absent-minded professor. Considering what day it is, I’ll let you pass.”
“It’s momentous. Monumental.” Jack slips into a weepy falsetto. “My little boy, getting married!”
Audrey gives his scalp a push. “Goofball. I love you.”
She does this all the time – inserts the three magic words where you least expect them. It never fails to send a buzz through his neurons.
“Why, if I wasn’t driving…”
“You’d what? What exactly would you do?”
“I… I…”
“Oh, yeah. Big talker. So easy to just begin your sentences and let the resident pervert fill in the blanks. Well I’m not driving, so I’m going to do this.”
She undoes his fly, pulls out his prick and gives it a few tugs.
“I might even do this.”
Audrey arranges herself so she won’t muss her dress, ducks her head under Jack’s arms and gives a few tentative licks before swallowing the head.
“Now I know who you are,” he says.
“The Imp of the Perverted.” He adjusts his left hand on the wheel, wraps his right around Audrey’s upraised ass, and tries his best to focus on the road. Meanwhile, he works up a story to tell the police, should that become a necessity.
“Audrey, have you ever thought of getting married again?”
Audrey turns her head to respond, looking very much like she’s talking into a microphone.
“Is this really the best time to discuss this?”
“You have a distinct rhetorical advantage.”
“Good point.” She gives him a squeeze, then continues her ministrations between phrases.
“I do not believe… that ‘the fourth time’s a charm’ is the generally accepted proverb… Besides, you and I… have such a deep gravitational pull… that I am not particularly concerned about making it official… Let’s give it… mmm… another year and talk about it then. By the way…” She pauses both activities in order to catch her breath. “I am not telling this story to our grandchildren.”
The combination of artful fellatio, thoughtful discourse, the open road and the buzz from Audrey’s vocal cords has Jack close to coming.
“Audrey… darling? We’ve got three lanes now. I think if you add some handiwork…”
Jack pulls to the center lane, just in case, and he explodes into Audrey’s mouth. She stays there a while, determined to keep him clean for the day’s activities. Finally satisfied that she has dispensed with every available sperm, she carefully tucks him back into place, just as a highway patrol car passes them on the left. The driver, a steel-jawed white guy with the requisite police mustache, gives a brief blast on the siren. The catch in Jack’s breath goes all the way back to that sex-talk from his sixth-grade Sunday School teacher, but when he looks over, the cop is giving him a shit-eating grin and a hearty thumb’s-up.
Now he’s got another challenge: keeping to the road as he and Audrey suffer one of those uncontrollable fits of laughter. Once he recovers, Jack finds sand dunes to his right and realizes they’re in Seaside, ten minutes past their turnoff.
“Looks like we’re taking the back way, honey.”
Audrey puts on a miffed expression. “I don’t know what it is lately with you and directions.”

The road from Monterey to Salinas has become one of Jack’s favorites, a series of long, serpentine curves whose roadsides remain green for most of the year, thanks to the invading fogs. They have taken it twice before from Audrey’s place to the Monkey Tribe. Their little escapade, however, has cost them the cushion that Jack so carefully built into their schedule, so they pull into the farm road at the exact time reported on the wedding invitation. Both sides are filled with parked cars all the way back to Gina’s house, so they have to park there and take a hurried pace toward Ivan and Terra’s.
As they near the hedges at the end of the drive, they hear live music. Jack spots Suzanne, seated behind her keyboard at the far left corner of the lawn, wearing yet another early-sixties dress, a black stripe working a spiral from shoulder to hem against a white background. The lawn is striped in white plastic folding chairs, twelve rows of ten each, with a wide center aisle. The left and right margins are ringed by White Horse’s rockstacks, a half dozen on either side, the size of humans. At the front, he has created a wide altar, ten stacks lined up together like the pipes of an organ, fronds of pampas stationed like flags at their bases. At the end of the aisle stand two figures, facing each other, the left fashioned from light-colored rocks, the right from darker specimens. Just to clarify the point, someone has affixed white and black ribbons to their respective “necks.”
The place is packed. Jack and Audrey slide into the back right-hand row. Jack notices that the rockstack to his right is festooned with wildflowers, their stems inserted into every available crevice, and takes a look around to see that all the other stacks are similarly outfitted.
“Beautiful flowers!” says Audrey.
This causes the woman in front of them to turn around. It’s Constance.
“Thank you.”
“Oh!” says Audrey. “It must have taken you forever. They’re wildflowers, right?”
“Yes! Only, wildflowers don’t keep like florist flowers, so I had to gather them all this morning. Fortunately, I’m kind of a buff, so I know all the local colonies. Let’s see…” She points to Jack’s rockstack as she names the varieties. “California poppy, buttercup, Indian paintbrush, iris, larkspur, the very specific Point Reyes meadowfoam, and, believe it or not – that plain little yellow one there – the common monkeyflower.”
“Genius!” says Jack.
“I thought it was a nice touch. We had to take an extra trip to Moss Landing to get it – it’s a marsh-dweller – but really, I had to have it. You might have guessed this, but the strewing of flowers is a pagan tradition for both weddings and May Day, and we wanted to keep it as local and native as possible. Except for the flower-girl petals – but even those are from Gina’s rose bushes.”
Willie ducks his head into the conference and offers a not-so-subtle stage aside. “I am so glad you two came along. She’s been dying to tell someone all this stuff.”
Constance slaps Willie on the head and then kisses the spot that she slapped. The music stops, and an extremely cute, befreckled redhead proceeds to the head of the aisle, carrying a large wicker basket.
“Oh!” says Constance. “That’s Terra’s granddaughter, Erin. Isn’t she a doll?”
Erin nods toward Suzanne like a pro, and Suzanne lights into an unexpectedly Mozartean divertimento, providing just the right playful air. Not happy to be a mere postal carrier of petals, Erin dances and spins down the aisle, tossing handfuls of red and white into the crowd, occasionally landing a few on the actual bridal path. As she reaches the end, she turns the basket upside-down, gives the bottom a thorough spanking to unloose all hangers-on, then accepts her hard-earned applause and sprints offstage to her waiting mother.
Suzanne waits a few seconds, nods toward someone in the farmhouse window, and launches into one of her originals, “David.” The intro is a slowly rocking boat, built on the particulars of Suzanne’s lush chords. She enters as if she’s halfway into a conversation, asking questions of a one-man audience.

i am afraid
i have nothing of worth to bring you
they all say
i couldn’t be the one
i am alone
with no one to come beside me
all have forsaken
and left me with my thoughts

The chords are thickening and building like stormclouds and now they burst into chorus, Suzanne releasing long, angelic notes.

but you see beyond my broken reflection
you see behind my lies
you see beyond our limitations
you see my heart

The words are too direct for poetry, but set upon the fingerbeds of the keyboard they become poetry. Jack has never quite understood this process, and resolves to do some reading on it. Suzanne settles to an instrumental, working the chorus in broad, spaced-out strokes, and Terra appears at the front porch in a dress of kelly green, white and green ribbons woven into her blonde ringlets. As she descends and crosses to the altar, Jack realizes it’s the dress of the white queen from the New Year’s party, dyed green. She comes to a stop between the matrimonial rockstacks and raises her arms, evergreen ribbons trailing from her sleeves. The music stops.
“May the place of this rite be consecrated for the forces of nature. We gather here in a ritual of love, with two who would be wedded. Ben and Gina, please come forward and stand before us.”
She reaches into a velvet sack at her waist and extracts two brass discs connected by a leather strap. She dangles them from the strap, lines up their edges and strikes them together, sending a high, sweet tone over the lawn.
“Would you please stand?”
As he rises, Jack is surprised to hear neighing, and the stamping of hooves. He turns to find two tall horses at the end of the driveway, their manes braided with ribbons of red and green. The far horse bears the auburn coat that must belong to Fajamur’s Rose. Its companion is a chestnut with a white diamond at the center of his forehead.
Suzanne launches a repeat of her chorus as the horses advance to the aisle, revealing their riders. Atop the chestnut is Ben, wearing a black western suit with a felt hat, a vest with embroidered patterns in gray, a long silver watch-fob, and a bolo tie looped through a rhombus of turquoise edged in silver. He looks remarkably calm in the saddle, thanks to much personal tutelage from the bride.
Atop Fajamur’s Rose, naturally, is Gina Scarletti, wearing a cream-colored pantsuit with ivory cowboy boots, a gold necklace with a jade pendant, and a white duster with Celtic curlicues in moss green. Her hair is tied back with a scarlet scarf that trails behind her in the wind.
“The scarf is a Celtic thing,” whispers Audrey. “The bride always wears one article of scarlet.”
“Blood,” says Jack. “The maidenhead.”
“No maidenhead today. Although her name is Scarletti.”
The horses arrive at aisle’s end and settle in as Suzanne returns to the conversational tone of her verse.

i am aware
of your creative hand
but I don’t understand
why you’d form me to your plan
i am amazed
as you draw me closer to you
and my performance yields
to your consuming love

She returns to the chorus, then weaves it all into a grand, peaceful fade of sound as Ben and Gina smile at her from their mounts. Terra begins the applause – mostly to let everybody know it’s okay to clap – and the congregation follows.
Ben dismounts. He hands the reins to a teenage blonde in British riding gear, who leads the chestnut to a spot at the far right. The groom offers Gina a hand down (though she hardly requires one), and she hands the reins to a brunette, similarly attired, who leads Fajamur’s Rose to the left. Terra unties a stick from her waist and extends it toward Ben, who digs into his vest pocket, extracts two gold rings and slips them over the tip.
“A willow wand,” whispers Audrey.
Ben and Gina stand before their effigy rockstacks and face each other. Ivan, clothed in a dark green robe, comes to take the willow wand and hand Terra her bodhran. She lifts the two-headed tippler and brings it down over the drumface, unloosing a brief roll of thunder before each of her declarations.
“Be with us here, O beings of the air. With your clever fingers, tie closely the bonds between these two.”
“Be with us here, O beings of fire. Give their love and passion your own all-consuming ardor.”
“Be with us here, O beings of Earth. Let your strength and constancy be theirs for as long as they desire to stay together.”
Now she strikes the bodhran with three resounding thumps.
“Blessed Goddess and Laughing God, give to these before you, your love and protection. And all those gathered shall say, ‘Blessed be.’”
The response is a dud – only a dozen in the crowd realize they’re supposed to repeat the phrase. So Terra restates it.
“And all those gathered shall say, ‘Blessed be!’”
The congregation shouts back like they’re at a pep rally: “Blessed be!”
“That’s better,” says Terra. She hands the bodhran to Ivan, takes back the willow wand and returns to Ben and Gina, who are trying very hard to look at each other without laughing or crying.
“Place your right hands over this wand and your rings, his hand over hers.”
They do. Ben takes the opportunity to sneak a kiss.
“Now, now,” says Terra. She sets herself and speaks to the couple.
“Above you are the stars. Below you are the stones. As time passes, remember: Like a star, your love should be constant. Like a stone, your love should be firm. Be close, but not too close. Possess one another, but be understanding. Have patience with each other – for storms will come, but they will go quickly. Be free in the giving of affection and warmth. Make love often, and be sensuous with each other. Have no fear, and do not allow the ways or words of others to give you unease, for the Goddess and the God are with you, now and always."
Terra raises her eyes toward the audience and says, “The handfasting ritual now calls for a pause of five heartbeats.”
She places a hand on her chest and waits, then takes a ring from the wand and hands it to Gina.
“Is it your wish, Gina, to become one with this man?”
Gina smiles and answers, “Yes.”
“Then place the ring upon his finger.”
She does so. Terra hands the second ring to Ben. The ring holds a green gemstone.
“Is it your wish, Ben, to become one with this woman?”
The enthusiasm of his “Yes!” brings titters from the audience.
“Then by all means,” says Terra, “place the ring upon her finger.”
He does so. Terra holds their hands together and addresses the congregation.
“Do any say nay?”
She waits two heartbeats, then raises her arms to the sky. “Then, as the Goddess and the God and the Old Ones are witness to this rite, I now proclaim you husband and wife.”
Ben doesn’t wait for an invitation. He jumps to Gina’s side, drops her into a dip and gives her a good working-over, to a burst of applause and hoots. Ivan dashes behind the altar, jimmies with something, and two dozen burly pigeons take to the air, circling the farm three times before departing for Monterey.
“Well!” says Jack.
“The whole damn coop,” says Audrey, and smiles.
Suzanne starts into a stride piece that turns out to be “Makin’ Whoopee.” Ben and Gina separate and race to their respective mounts. They saddle up and trot away down either side of the lawn, then meet up at the head of the driveway and gallop away toward Gina’s house.
“Fan-tas-stic!” says Jack. “What a show.”
As the dustclouds settle, Terra gives the bodhran another roll, and Suzanne stops playing.
“Friends! We are not finished. Our resident artist, White Horse, constructed this ring of rockstacks as a one-time installation. He now asks that we destroy them. But please do not bury any small children!”
Terra sets down the bodhran and stands behind the bridal stack as Ivan stands behind the groom. They count three and send them crashing together in a merry clatter. Troll and White Horse see to the altar, toppling the dozen component stacks toward the matrimonial pile. All around the lawn, the guests shout with glee as they knock their stacks to the ground. Jack turns to get in on the fun, but finds his stack has been neatly dismembered by Constance and Willie, who are now hopping around it in a victory dance.
“Goddamn Monkeys,” he mutters.
The crowd is near-riotous with destructive energy, but fortunately other activities have been prepared. Next to the gate of the spirit garden, the Monkeys have erected a Maypole. The pole itself turns out to be a ten-foot bay branch that Ivan discovered, freshly fallen, while hiking in the woods. They have posted the base deep into the ground and affixed two dozen multicolored ribbons to the tip. After much coaching from Terra, they manage to get one person assigned to each ribbon, twelve of them parading in a clockwise circle, the other twelve walking counter as they weave in and out of the opposing traffic. A few pileups ensue, and much giggling, but soon they strike a good rhythm, and as Suzanne kicks in with a mazurka the rainbow weave works its way quickly down the pole. Jack spends five minutes navigating a ribbon of lollipop red, then waves Audrey over for relief. Audrey hands it over to Constance, and returns to find Jack giving Suzanne a secret salute.
“All right, pal. What’s this thing between you and Suzanne? You seem awfully chummy lately.”
“We’re planning a bank robbery. Gonna take the money and hide out in Cancun.”
Audrey slaps him on the rump, which really is no punishment at all. A welcome distraction arrives in the person of Gina Scarletti. Audrey goes for the ring finger.
“It is an emerald. Stunning!”
Gina, who’s been smiling for hours now, manages to smile even wider. “When you marry a rockhound, a boring old diamond just ain’t gonna cut it. Fits the May Day thing, too. Nice work with the pole!”
Jack kisses her on the cheek. “You’ll be happy to know, there were no fatalities.”
“Thank goodness.”
“Hey Gina?” says Audrey. “I was curious… You’re pretty new to all this hippie-dippie Monkey stuff. How did you settle on a pagan wedding?”
Gina laughs. “First, may I say how happy I am that none of my devoutly Catholic relatives are alive. But you know? I’m kind of secular to begin with, and then I had a long talk with Terra, and when she showed me those vows… they’re gorgeous. I did make a couple of changes. Some of the language was a little too Dungeons and Dragons. And there was this reference to ‘non-believers.’ I get enough of that crap from the Catholics. The other thing was, so much of our wedding traditions are pagan to begin with. Like the cake ceremony – the knife represents the man entering the woman…”
“Yowza!” says Audrey.
“I know. And the tossing of the garter was the way that an outgoing priestess would pick her successor. Oh look! Here comes the cake now.”
“Have you and Ben made any agreements?” asks Jack.
“One smudge apiece.” She trots to the table, where Ivan is preparing an enormous burnt almond cake for penetration.
After the Maypole ribbons have reached their end – a squad of four guests gathered around the pole lacing the last few feet by hand – Willie and Troll dig the pole out of the ground and hoist it onto a pair of brackets on the garden fence. It looks like a prize fish. Then they rake the dirt while others bring rocks from the ruined stacks and build a ring ten feet in diameter. The rest of the Monkeys attack a woodpile under the carport and eventually assemble a huge stack of timber at the center of the ring.
When everything’s set – Willie and Ivan lurking with cans of lighter fluid – Terra stands before the ring, plays a roll on the bodhran and throws in one of her keening soprano yelps. The party guests -–many of their formal outfits gone completely to pot – gather before their priestess like a football squad awaiting a pep talk.
“The Beltaine – bel for ‘lucky,’ taine for ‘fire’ – was lit on May Day in Ireland and Scotland to celebrate the conquering of the dark by the light, as the months of sunshine finally arrived to warm the fields. The Druids believed the Beltaine to be a magical act, an attempt to bring the sun’s light down to earth. The May Day celebration signalled a time of fertility and unbridled merrymaking. Monkeys?”
The Tribe unlooses its usual squealing chatter.
“Thank you. And later, young and old would spend the night making love in the Greenwood. Or perhaps, the Scarletti Ranch.”
She stops for the expected hoots and hollers.
“Most would say that our bride and groom are in the September of their lives. But tonight, at least for one night, we invite them to revisit the green landscapes of spring, a time of new and invigorated love. Huzzah!”
The crowd echoes “Huzzah!” Ivan and Willie pour their lighter fluid along the base of the pile, and Terra uses a long barbecue lighter to begin the blaze. Amid the shouts, Jack hears Terra say, “And let’s hope to God the fire department got my message.”
Beer and wine and herb circulate through the gathering as they stand around the Beltaine, talking, laughing, yelling, dancing. At sunset, most of them have disappeared inside, to a very promising pot-luck buffet. Jack finds Ben standing near the garden gate, watching two stripes of tangerine, the sun sinking below the horizon, the fire sinking into coals.
“Oh Captain my Captain!”
“Young man knows his Whitman,” says Ben.
“I shorely do.” He gives his mentor a hug and holds it for a while. “I can’t tell you how happy I am for you.”
Ben smiles. “Multiply that by ten, and you have the groom’s happiness. That creature in white atop that monumental piece of horseflesh. That’s my wife, for Christ’s sake.”
“You are one lucky bastard.” He claps Ben on the shoulder and turns to study the coals, a broad ring of pulsing orange hearts.
“Ben, I don’t know if I ever told you the story…”
“How you were going to kill yourself?”
Jack laughs. “You’re a goddamned Jedi, old man. Yes. I was going to hurl myself over the Multnomah Falls.”
“Wow! Pretty dramatic for an accountant. Why didn’t you do it?”
“I had one leg up on the wall when a beam of sunlight landed on a rock mid-falls. It looked like a burning house. I think what saved me was curiosity. I had to figure out if that meant something.”
Ben looks at him with something like wonder, the fireglow murmuring in his eyes. “That’s it, then. You are a shaman.”
“But…” Jack pauses to assemble what he wants to say. “I guess I wanted to thank you for saving my life. When I saw your grief at the beach that day, when you told me ‘Don’t you dare,’ I knew that I would never respond to that impulse again.”
Ben throws a pebble into the coals just to kick up a spark. “That’s funny. Here I thought it was you who saved my life.”
“Really. I knew you were a special one the moment I saw you on the beach, watching that wounded bird. I’ll bet you didn’t think I remembered that.”
“No. I didn’t.”
“I thought, that man is both troubled and magical. And as I worked with you, and brought you to all these strange new worlds, I took the fascination in your eyes and used it to rekindle my own spark. Even the insightful and enlightened among us can forget to look at things with fresh eyes. It was soon after your entrance into my life that tremendous things began to happen to me, concluding with the vision of Gina Scarletti dressed as Cleopatra. Perhaps without my new eyes, I would not have seen her.”
“No,” says Jack. “You would have seen her if she were dressed as Ichabod Crane.”
Ben lets out the old husky laugh. “The prophet speaks. But the thing is… I was ready for her. I was prepared to consider the previously unthinkable idea of being utterly happy.”
Ben puts his left hand on Jack’s elbow, and with his right gives him an old-fashioned handshake, the gesture of his generation.
“One more thing, young Jack. I know that this career-switch will cause you some consternation. It’s a little scary, re-making yourself. And you probably think that making love to Audrey LaBrea is not enough to justify your existence. But let me tell you this: making love to Gina Scarletti is more than enough to justify my existence. So I think you’re wrong.”
He stops and cocks an ear toward the house.
“What?” says Jack.
Ben takes on the look of a starving man who smells barbecued ribs. “Drums!”
“Well let’s get to it!” says Jack. He turns toward the porch.
“Wait!” says Ben. “They say that a man going on a long journey, or a dangerous undertaking, can better his chances by jumping three times, backwards and forwards, over the Beltaine.”
Jack puts his hands on his hips and studies the field of coals. “I’d say that, in this case, that would be a long journey. And a dangerous undertaking.”
“Not if you’re clever. Follow me.”
He takes Jack behind the stable, where lies an old wooden plank, two feet across and twelve feet long.
“I don’t imagine they’ll miss this one,” says Ben. “And if they do – tough! I’m the groom.”
The two of them dig out two opposing gaps in the rock-ring, center the plank carefully over the coals, and drop it into place. Then they take turns running over the top of it, howling like monkeys as the edges begin to sprout flames.

Photo by MJV

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