Soul Retrieval – Buttercup
I went to the dining hall for supper. The construction crew had built walls during the late summer, but they had used just rough-cut boards, awaiting money for insulation and finishing. Since it was off-season and only the staff was eating there now, a tarp sectioned off an area at the front, inside of which a big space-heater blasted away. Still, it was zero Fahrenheit outside, with wind coming through the cracks, so I kept my boots and coat on, and was eating a rapidly-cooling bowl of black-bean soup.
Buttercup, Red Pine's mother, came out of the kitchen, her cheeks flushed from working at the stove, and sat down across from me. She was the Nemeton's baker, producing the heavy bread, slightly sweet oat cookies and the pies with chewy crusts and unsweetened apple filling. I was having a slice of the bread with my soup.
Buttercup said she was concerned about my getting her son involved in the magazine. “I tried to get him onto the construction crew or working with the wood-cutters, but he likes his computer.”
I said, “He did a good job with the web-site which gets you your paying visitors. And now the magazine should make some money for you-all too.”
“Still,” she said, “the computer and now the magazine are links to the outside world and its unhealthy vibrations. I wish he would work with his hands on the buildings and the grounds – it would be better for him spiritually.”
“He doesn't seem to be interested. Maybe he should leave here, go to college or something.”
“And who's going to pay for that? Anyway, this is our home now.”
“He's practically an adult. He should do what he wants to do – and maybe see something of the world. It would give him a chance to figure out how he wants to live his life.”
“Is that what you're telling him?”
“I'm just here for a little while, getting the office in shape, and now getting the magazine going.”
“Are you telling him he should leave?”
“I'm just trying to do a job and get out of here.”
Buttercup got up and wiped some stray flour from her apron. “The sooner the better,” she said.
So it was that much worse what happened the next morning. Red Pine and I were in the office. I'd got him to instal a new accounting program. Simple in-and-out accounting had been enough for the Nemeton, especially in winter when the “in” column was blank, but I expected the magazine finances to complicate things. Then we did the final touches on the magazine mock-up and, with a click of the mouse, sent it to the printers.
“Know what?” said Red Pine, “we should get out of here and take the magazine with us. It should be ours – we're doing everything.”
“Wouldn't work,” I said. “We'd need to buy a computer and a car and a place to work in, and we'd have to get enough money out of it to live on. The Nemeton already have the computer and car, and we work for nothing. They only have to pay the printer.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Even so it may not be a money-maker. Only a few advertisers paid up front. Most are being billed. Who knows if they'll all pay up or when. We've got a couple of fairly prosperous outfits, like Crystal's store and the spa, but most of our customers are hole-in-the-wall people trying to peddle deep-soul energetics and the like. As the old saying goes, from this you make a living?”
Red Pine laughed.
We worked in silence for a few minutes, Red Pine deftly moving the pieces of the pages of the next mock-up around on the computer screen, the blocs still empty. “I think all the time about just walking away. Going out on the road and hitchhiking into the city,” he said.
I reminded him of the reality, that there was nobody living beyond the Nemeton - beyond us was Crown land. Hardly anybody drove past, and it was 10 kilometers to the paved road...and that didn't get much traffic except gravel trucks. It was another 20 km to the actual highway. "And I wouldn't want to stand on the side of any of those roads, not in this weather.”
“Okay, I'm stuck. Come spring though, I'm out of here – if I have to walk.”
We got tired of playing with the new mock-up. I plugged in the kettle and Red Pine poked through the jar of tea bags. “Ginger? Lemon? Rooibos, what the hell that is?”
“I could do with a shot of rum,” I said.
“Me too,” Red Pine said. “This is really screwing up my life. There's nobody here my age. By the time I get away, I won't know how to talk to a girl or anything.”
I slapped him on the back. “You're young, you'll be fine.”
Red Pine said, “What about you? Haven't you found a job yet?”
“Nope. Damn.” I had spent a lot of time on the internet, looking for jobs, sending out resumes. I had a set of clothes suitable for interviews stashed at Mila's apartment, but I'd only gotten a couple of appointments. One I couldn't keep because Willow wouldn't take me into town that day. The other I did get to, but never heard back. “I'm getting discouraged,” I said.
We went back over some old ground. “I think you should try to get hold of your father,” I said.
“Told you I don't know how,” Red Pine said. “He's working the old fields in Venezuela or Nigeria or somewhere. Can't your ex-husband help you?”
“Can't and wouldn't.” My kids, I added, were a long way off, one in the States, the other on the west coast, and both tied up with their own young families.
Red Pine said, “I've been here forever, or it seems like. I don't know anyone on the outside. But you must know lots of people.”
“Yup. But nobody who'll put themselves out for me...”
“You've been saving up your unemployment insurance – can't you rent a place, get the hell out, find a job even if you have to do McDonalds?”
“It's hard to rent a place if you can't tell them where you're working, and hard to get a job when you don't have a home address.”
“What the hell do we do!” said Red Pine, and his voice broke. I reached over and gave him a hug to comfort him.
Just at that moment Buttercup appeared at the door, saw us and ran across the room shrieking. She grabbed me and pulled me away. “What are you doing!” she demanded.
“Oh mom, chill,” said Red Pine.
She turned her back on him and screamed at me. “I told you to leave him alone.”
Attracted by the noise, Willow came in. “Stop it, everyone,” she said and ordered us all to the Elder's quarters. Reluctantly we filed out of the office and through the big meeting room to the door between the annex and the old house. Willow opened the door and motioned us to go through. The Elder was in his living room sipping his chai and reading. He looked up as Willow herded us in.
“Well?” he asked.
“There's been a dispute,” Willow said. “A loud dispute. Discord, very disturbed vibrations.”
“Sit,” said the Elder to Buttercup, Red Pine and me. He told Willow to dim the lights and burn some incense. He opened the polished wooden trunk that served as a coffee table and took out the velvet bag.
“Close your eyes,” the Elder told us. “Go through your chakras. Special attention to the heart and throat chakras.”
I began coughing from the incense – Willow had lit not just a stick, but a brazier with charcoal and a lump of something that produced a lot of sweet smoke. I peeked through my eyelashes and saw the Elder reach into the velvet bag and pull out the big crystal. He waved it through the smoke. He nodded at Willow, who brought him a cup of water; he dipped his fingers in and flicked a few droplets onto the crystal. Then he held it to his heart.
“Okay,” he said, and we opened our eyes. “You first, Buttercup. Your chakras are spinning every which way. Concentrate and tell me what happened.”
He handed her the crystal. She pressed it between her ample breasts in the vicinity of her heart, then pressed it to her throat, and said, “She...” pointing at me, “is talking my boy into leaving. He hasn't even had a chance to settle in, to synchronize with the vibrations of the place. This non initiate...” pointing at me again, “is disturbing the atmosphere.”
“This is such bullshit,” said Red Pine.
“Hush,” said the Elder, and then to Buttercup: “Give Bittersweet the crystal.”
I took it, just held onto it, didn't press it to my heart or neck. I looked at Buttercup and said, “I'm just here for a little while, helping with some office stuff and now the magazine. Trying not to get in anyone's way.”
The Elder told me to pass the crystal to Red Pine. The boy took it and, like me, didn't press it to his heart. “This is such bullshit,” he said again.
“Tell us your view of what went down,” the Elder said.
“We talked about getting out of here, so what. I don't need anyone to make me think about it – I think about it all the time. You can't keep me here.”
The Elder said, “Everyone needs some time out.” He took back the crystal and set it on the bag. “You three sit here and meditate. Get your chakras back in line.” He gave me a hard look. “This is a place of peace. You need to synchronize with everyone else.”
He got up and he and Willow left. Buttercup, Red Pine and I sat silently for a few minutes in the dimness, breathing incense fumes, all of us coughing a little. Then Red Pine got up and stomped out. “THIS IS SUCH BULLSHIT!” he yelled as he disappeared through the door. I got up and started to leave, but then I heard Buttercup sob. I hesitated. I was going to go and put my arm around her, but I remembered that first day when I was visiting the Nemeton with Mila...and wasn't I here, in the principal's office once more, because I'd just done something like that again.
But I didn't agree with the Nemton's “ways” then, and I still didn't, so I went over and sat beside Buttercup and put my hand on her shoulder. She jerked away from me, got up and paced around the room, not looking at me.
I shrugged, got up and left. I went to my room and stared out the window. White, white, white, with black tree skeletons. Fresh snow was falling.
The next day Willow and I went into town to collect copies of the magazine from the printers and distribute them. Nobody had said a word to me at breakfast – though that wasn't anything new. And Willow said not a word all the way into town.
We collected the magazines from the printer. I looked through a copy and it seemed okay. We went to our list of places and distributed them. At the crystal store, Crystal flipped through. “Looking good,” she said. We left a couple of dozen copies with her.
Our last stop was Mila's apartment, timed for when she'd be back from work. She was going to give copies to people she knew, even perhaps some co-workers, and she was supposed to be thinking of other places, like her favorite coffee shop. When Willow pulled up in front of the apartment building, I said, “I have incorporation papers for her to sign and I have to go over some other things, so don't wait for me – I'm going to stay a few days.” Willow looked at me through narrowed eyes, but maintained her silence. As I got out and crossed the sidewalk, she pulled away with a tiny bit of wheel-spin on the ice.
Mila was happy to see the incorporation papers and to sign them as founding president. “When do we get our charter? When do we have our first meeting?” But she was none too pleased when I said I wanted to crash for a couple of nights.
“I have a boyfriend,” she said.
“Your latest 'Fish' – or are you the fish?”
“Just because you don't have anyone.”
“Please. Doesn't this boyfriend have a place of his own?”
“He's got kids.”
“And a wife? Okay, I'm sorry. I really, really need to stay tonight, maybe tomorrow.”
“Okay, but you have to be gone by the weekend.”
We ordered in a pizza, which I paid for with my debit card, digging ino my Unemployment Insurance cache. After my Nemeton diet, the pizza tasted wonderful. Mila cheered up, watching my pleasure. “Not a single bean anywhere,” I said through a mouthful of salty pepperoni and stringy fake cheese.
I spent the night on Mila's sofa under a spare blanket. The sofa was saggy and the room was over-heated, but I was content.
The next day, while Mila was at work, I had a long hot shower and put on my interview clothes and went out on cold calls, trying to find a job. I got turned down for waitress jobs because I had no experience, unlike plenty of other people looking for work. I called on acquaintances and places where I used to work. I checked the boards at the unemployment office. All to no avail.
In late afternoon I picked up another pizza to take back to Mila's. Neither of us enjoyed it as much the second night.
The next morning Mila was getting anxious for me to leave. “Tomorrow's Saturday,” she said. And then the phone rang. “It's for you,” Mila said.
“An interview?” I said, scarcely breathing.
“I don't think so.”
I took the receiver and heard a familiar voice. “Somebody here wants to talk to you,” the Elder said. And then Red Pine's voice was in my ear. I almost didn't realize that it was him. His voice was barely audible and sounded childlike. “Bittersweet, please come back.”
“I'm coming, I'm coming. I just had to do some incorporation business with Mila here. Are you alright?”
The Elder was back on the phone then. “Willow will pick you up at noon,” he said.
And so she did. We rode in silence back to the Nemeton, away from the city, down the highway, turning off onto the windswept secondary road, and then down the snowy ruts to the compound gates. Willow got out and unlocked them with her key, and then drove through, got out again and locked them behind us. And I was back.
I went to the office and put the incorporation papers in their file. There was no sign of Red Pine. Nor at supper. No one spoke to me. I went to bed early, still in my clothes because of the drafts through the leaky window. Next day when I went to the office, Red Pine was there. He avoided my eyes.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I'm fine.” And then: “I was being bratty. Very immature. Sorry.”
He got out the big pad on which we did our first rough lay-out. “I have an idea of how to re-arrange the front cover for the next issue,” he said. I came over. In light pencil he'd written, “the Hole,” and then quickly erased it, and wrote, “Spycam”, and rubbed that out and wrote “Vol. 1, Issue 2” in the upper right-hand-corner and sketched the magazine name in the centre.
“Interesting,” I said. “I need to think about it.”
I shivered a little, not just from the temperature.