My instructions were to meet Willow at a store called Crystal's, on a street on the edge of downtown – a somewhat dubious area not far from the Salvation Army's men's shelter, the main prostitution stroll and the neighborhood where edgy young professionals were moving into old houses and factory lofts. Crystal's sold crystals, but the apostrophe was not an error - the owner's name was Crystal. I got to know her in the coming months, but never did find out whether that was her birth name or something she adopted.
I'd taken an unfamiliar bus to get there from Mila's, lugging my suitcase with me, and arrived early, so I went into the store to get out of the cold. The woman behind the counter, presumably Crystal, smiled brightly, the smile dimming a little when I said I was waiting for a ride and could I leave my suitcase at the counter while I just looked around.
Crystal was a middle-aged woman with grey curls held back by a purple headband that matched her flowing purple crinkle-cotton dress. She wore too much eye make-up (purple) and jewelry – earrings, necklaces, rings on every finger and even her thumbs – but that was probably her work outfit.
Nobody else was in the store. Early, I guessed, for customers, who would be more likely come at lunch time or in the afternoon as ladies of leisure out shopping. The place was festooned with fairy lights, some of them feathered, and tinkly music played in the background. The cloying smell of incense hung in the air. In front of Crystal on the counter were trays of semi-precious stones and lesser crystals. Big quartz pieces and those with attachments (leather, twine, other stones) were safely in the display case below, together with a lot of silver jewelry. Also on the counter were sage sticks, long braids of sweet-grass and weird little resinous twists of tobacco, along with an assortment of feathers and abalone shells. Behind her was a wall of herbs in plastic pouches, teeny bottles of oil and other mysterious substances.
I glanced briefly at the bulletin board by the entrance where notices of events were pinned up together with an array of business cards offering strange services – foot readings, soul massage, holistic dentistry. There was a rack for Focus, the local new age advertising magazine which I'd normally pick up for Mila, but the rack was empty. And I wasn't going back to Mila's.
I wandered off to other areas of the store. It was small and crammed with merchandise. There were books and CDs about UFOs, healing, self-improvement – the usual. Egyptian statues. Drums. Rattles. Masks. A large section of candles, some of them labeled as effective in attracting money or to bring back a straying lover. A table with a black velvet cover and a spotlight above set off a set of glowing crystal bowls in ascending sizes. In a far corner I noted a discreet display of bongs and rolling papers.
I'd seen stores like this on road trips with Mila, who sought them out, and they were all much alike. Yes, there at the back was a curtained-off area where people could get their not-so-private tarot readings. For a nano-second I was tempted to ask Crystal for one. What was I getting into, when could I get back to the city, where was the job that would restore my life? Absurd to contemplate a reading, even as a private joke, but no more so than what I was actually doing, and doing quite seriously.
My musings were interrupted by a car horn.
“Your ride's here.”
I glanced behind and saw through the window a pick-up truck double-parked and Willow's impatient face peering from behind the windshield at the sidewalk where I was supposed to be. “Thanks,” I said to Crystal, grabbed my suitcase and dashed out. I squeezed between the parked cars and wriggled into the truck, cradling my suitcase on my lap.
“Hi,” I said, with what I hoped was a smile. Willow just glanced at me and put the truck in gear.
As Willow maneuvered the truck through the morning traffic, I looked out the passenger window at the dirty slushy streets and grungy buildings, all under a grey sky. A few snowflakes floated down. Soon we were zooming up onto the throughway – grey pavement, gray walls, grey divider, and a horde of speeding slush-covered cars. After a while the throughway turned into highway that cut its way through snowy countryside. “It's prettier out here,” I said. “We don't talk unless it's necessary,” Willow reminded me. “Oh, yeah – sorry.” We drove in silence. I watched the bleak landscape go by and wondered what I was getting into. I glanced sideways at Willow, but her sharp profile revealed nothing. I looked down at my suitcase. I had packed only a little – underwear, pyjamas, toiletries – because at the Nemeton I would be wearing their hemp clothes. I'd also brought a tablet loaded with detective novels, hoping for a little escapism in the evenings.
Finally, after turning onto a county road and then an unplowed side road, following the ruts in the snow, we arrived at the Nemeton. Willow drove the truck up the lane, past the deserted visitors' parking lot, through the front gate, and further up the lane to the log cabin. There she steered around to the back and stopped at the annex. I struggled out with my suitcase and stood in the snow. In winter the Nemeton looked very different, with the near-black of cedar trees towering above and dull white snow on the ground. No real color anywhere. Even the raw wood of the annex was weathering to grey.
“This way,” Willow said sharply. I'd been standing, looking around, instead of tending to what was expected of me. I followed her into the annex. She took off her boots and hung her coat on a hook and I did the same. She put on some waiting slippers and then led the way, not ahead into the big hall, but up the stairs just past the vestibule, and I padded along after in my stocking feet. At the top of the stairs she went down the corridor and stopped at an open door, waiting for me to enter and came in behind me.
It was a small bedroom, with a set of bunk-beds against the inside wall and a single bed beside the bare window. “That's yours,” she said, nodding at the single bed. It was built-in, with drawers underneath, and a piece of foam for a mattress resting on the plywood top. She opened one of the drawers to show me the bedding stored there. She told me to make up the bed and store my things and then go down to the office.
“Um, bathroom?” I said.
She led the way back out to the corridor and pointed to a door at the end. I peeked in – standard fixtures. At least the staff had indoor plumbing.
When I got back to the room, Willow had left my uniform on the bed and had gone. I took off my street clothes and put on the green hemp pants and tunic. I fixed my bed, fished out slippers from my suitcase and put the rest of my belongings in one of the bed drawers. Through the window I had a view directly into the cedar branches.
I noted that my bed and the bunk-beds were properly aligned north-south.
Of the bunk beds, only the bottom one had bedding; the top one just had naked foam. So I had one room-mate. I wondered who it might be, and hoped for a non-snorer.
I sat on the edge of my bed for a few minutes, feeling sorry for myself. It was dead silent. The light fixture in the ceiling was dim...the daylight outside was dim. The walls were unpainted drywall, the trim unpainted wood. I thought about my previous life of only a few weeks ago, when at this time of day I'd be bustling about in the insurance office, getting a coffee, counting the hours until quitting time and the days before the weekend, brooding about my boss and avoiding the chatty woman from H.R., dashing out for lunch with Mila or one of the other girls – a quick greasy lunch at the food court. Noise. People. Bright lights. And I'd thought of that life as a dead end that I'd escape if only I knew how. I shook my head. If only I could get back to that, I'd never complain again.
Well, there was nothing for it but to get myself down to the Nemeton office.
I went down the stairs, across the big hall, and into the open door of the office. Red Pine looked up from the computer and narrowed his eyes when he saw me. “Hi,” I said cheerily, or as close an imitation as I could manage. He grunted and got up from the computer chair and retired to the back of the room and into his tablet and ear-phones.
I looked around. The basket was full of papers, just as when I'd first seen it. I wondered if the file cabinet had filled up again with old flyers. I took a quick peek, but at least that hadn't happened. With a sigh I pulled the chair up to the table and started sorting through the papers. Mostly receipts, more or less in descending date order from their deposit in the basket, so that was a mercy. Lots of bumpf, some legitimate filing. I could probably get this all cleared up in a couple of days – and then what?
“The Elder wants to see you.” Willow had appeared in the doorway and straightaway vanished. I got up and went out into the big hall. She was waiting for me at the door that connected the annex to the log cabin: The portal to the inner sanctum. She knocked on the door, opened it and waved me in.
I wondered if perhaps the Elder lived in luxury in the midst of his followers' spartan existence, though what I'd seen of the Nemeton accounts made that unlikely. Indeed, when I stepped from the new annex into the old log cabin, I found the surroundings modest. To my left, worn stairs led up to what would be a sleeping loft with the slant of the roof forming the upper part of the walls. My grandparents had lived in such a house. To my right was a kitchen area, updated a few decades ago, with no-longer-modern sink and stove and fridge. The dividing wall between the kitchen and the living-room had been removed and replaced by a ceiling beam held up at each end by cedar pillars. In the living area, it looked like the original lumpy plaster on the walls, held in place by faded wallpaper of little yellow flowers and pink ribbons. A wood stove in the corner radiated heat – too much so – and gave out a faint smell of burning wood. The floor was old wide planks with tattered scatter rugs. There were several battered upholstered chairs and the Elder sat in once, sipping tea and watching us approach. He smiled at me and told me to sit. To Willow he said, “You can go.” She hesitated, gave me a hard look, and turned away. She closed the door behind her firmly.
“Welcome home, Bittersweet,” he said. He wasn't wearing his bright blue contacts and his gaze was watery and grey. The creases in his face were dark and his hair was dusty white on top and rusty at the end of his braid.
“I'm only here for a short while,” I reminded him.
“Well, that's up to Spirit now, isn't it?”
I didn't reply.
“Spirit told me you were what we needed here and that you'd be back. And here you are. You're home.”
“Look, I'm grateful for a place to stay for a while and I'll gladly do your office work in return, but this is not long-term for me.”
“That's how you feel right now, but you'll see. You'll come to realize that you're meant to be here.”
“No, I don't think so. All this eating beans and not talking and being stuck in the back of nowhere, where you can't run out to get a pizza...or anything.”
“That's all distraction, those things in the city. The Nemeton gives us an opportunity to work on our spirituality.”
“I don't even know what that means.”
“Well then, let's just consider the material plane – that you understand, right? First of all, we offer the security of community. You don't have to take care of everything. You do your speciality – office work in your case – and the community supplies the rest of your needs.”
“It works like that in the outside world, only we do it with money.”
“And when you're out of money, then what? Isn't that what happened to you?”
I didn't have anything to say to that.
“We look after each other. I'd say it was like a family, except that sounds like the mafia or something. Community. And that's how Spirit grows. Communally.”
I sat quietly and waited for the lecture to be over.
“Modern life is so atomized,” the Elder went on. “Everyone's on their own. Gotta earn that money and take care of all your needs with it. And spirituality is individualized too. You're on your own. Find salvation or be damned. But here we have communal spirit – we're never alone, never have to take care of everything ourselves, either on the material plane or the spiritual. Here we're building common soul.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You're skeptical. But you'll see.”
“I don't see how wearing uniforms and not talking builds soul.”
“It's discipline. You built discipline in your life, but to make money, to keep life going...and going according to the cultural standards – lots of clothes, big TV, eating out.”
“I enjoyed those things.”
“They keep you tied to the economic machine. Here you're free of that.”
“Free of a lot of things,” I said ironically.
“Yes,” said the Elder. Not ironically.
We sat in silence for a few minutes. The Elder sipped on his tea. He didn't offer me any.
He spoke again. “You'll come to appreciate the peace.”
I shrugged. “Does peace and spirituality have to come in surroundings that are sort of like a prison or...” and I kept talking despite thinking better of it, “...a mental institution?”
The Elder laughed. “We prefer to think of it more in terms of a monastery.”
“I've never had the calling,” I said.
“You'll change your mind. Spirit brought you here and has wrapped its wings around you.”
I got up. “I'd better start earning my, uh, wings.”
The Elder chuckled. “I named you well, Bittersweet. Now remember, you're here not just to get our office up to date, but other aspects of a solid material plane too – inventory, anticipated purchasing, streamlined schedules, and so on. But especially new sources of income.”
“The organizational stuff I can do. Not so much the sources of income. Isn't that why I'm here, after all, as you reminded me? I have no ideas along those lines. I'm drawing a blank.”
“It's okay. It'll come to you. Spirit assures me of that. You're to be our salvation – if you'll excuse the term. Okay, go now, run along back to the office.”
When I left, I found Willow lurking in the big hall. She shot me a look and went into the entrance to the Elder's quarters, again closing the door firmly behind her. I returned to the office. Red Pine looked up from his tablet. “Had your audience with the head honcho, eh?”
“You don't seem to like it here. Why do you stay?”
“I'm not 18 yet and my mom's here.”
“It must be kind of lonely. When I was here in the summer I didn't see anyone else your age.”
“That's cuz there ain't any.” He turned his chair around so his back was to me.
“That's too bad. No girls...”
I couldn't see his face, but his ears turned pink. “No girls, no nothing,” he said.
“I sympathize,” I said.
“Fuck off,” he said.
Willow appeared in the door again. “No talking!” she said.