Even before I embraced paganism, I knew Beltane through my favorite painting, Henri Matisse’s ‘The Dance’. The painting and the sabbat it represents capture the truth of pure being and the sometimes frenetic and sometimes graceful and always somehow wild and playful energy of the day. The bisexuality or pansexuality of my primary characters, Danielle and Elare, reflects this energy as they find their way to each other.
Intellectually, I am fascinated by how much meaning May 1st holds: workers’ rights, fertility, protection of land and crops, and, yes, sex. May Day – said three times – is a call for help. In this story, I not only express each of those elements in its individuality, but I capture what those disparate elements have in common: a desire for peace, home, stability and the choices we make to realize that desire.
Stewards, Devas, Gods, and Queens
To her left, a muscular blond cried, “May Day! May Day!” and dived for the volleyball. He missed. His knuckles and forearms scraped against the black soil. The ball rolled outside of the makeshift court and onto the grassy field where laughing partners and spouses watched the play.
“I think you need one more,” laughed a lounging woman on the sidelines who held the man’s jacket across her legs.
To her right, Danielle noticed an old stone waterway winding its way into the woods. Behind her, a multi-racial coalition of teenaged artists prepared the next morning’s picket signs. Their skateboards and bikes littered the surrounding area. Old black and white Haymarket photos adorned some; catchy phrases about workers’ rights, others. She hoped the artists could spell.
Ahead, beyond the oak trees and elderberry brush blocking her view, Danielle heard the opening notes of the Wobble, an urban line dance. A bold orange sun, dusky blue skies and temperatures in the high 60s marked the last day of April and the day before the 5th annual South Side International Workers’ Day rally!
Danielle conducted these 360 observations whenever she went to a new event or place. She knew every square foot of the Dan Ryan woods, and, in fact, always visited her favorite place, the center of a triangular oak grove, when she arrived; however, attending the pre-rally warranted an observation. On quieter visits, she rested in the grove’s energy and watched the skies. This pre-rally celebration – noisy and festive – merited her observation since she would soon graduate with a J.D. and a specialty in labor law.
Her mentor and crush, Alice, a successful, black lawyer of five years, believed the 360 observation offered immediate insight into the culture of potential litigants. As a black woman and an aspiring lawyer, Danielle knew she couldn’t afford to miss a detail. To defend her clients, she needed to know what they thought, and more to the point, why they would take a job and then join a union to strike against their employers. After 2.75 years of analyzing legal cases and interviews, she still didn’t understand what Alice and her ex-boyfriend Don understood as fundamental to social justice and human rights.
Danielle had different antecedents. Raised by her older sister after her parents’ death, Danielle knew the paucity of her social education when compared to her natural one; she understood ecosystems better than human nature. A duneland child until she fell in love with these woods, Danielle had never known an altruistic sandpiper or a flattering pitcher plant. Her biological family’s biblical and conservative argument that those who didn’t work shouldn’t eat made a natural sense. Yet, seven years later, she still missed Don and his unnatural pursuit of social justice. The break up after high school led to her pursuit of sociology in undergraduate at UIC and then, law at the University of Chicago and to a friendship and a maybe-one-day romance with Alice.
One night, at an outdoor cafe downtown, drunk and swaying in their seats to live music, Alice had taken Danielle’s hand, and Danielle had leaned forward to – finally – kiss. Then, a homeless man interrupted and asked for $2.10 for bus fare to a shelter. Danielle remembered hesitating, trying to decide between letting go of Alice’s hand and . . . There really was no choice. The manager approached and shoved the man away. The man left, yelling out a slur made for over half the cafe’s customers. In the end, Alice only smiled from across a table grown too wide and long between them and ordered water to prepare for the journey home. That had been one year ago, and Danielle still hoped for more.
Leaving her grove determined to understand, Danielle found the agents of social justice before her contradictory and confusing. Should she watch the protestors who acted like frat boys and danced to club songs? What about the artists who created sophisticated picket themes based on events that happened long before their birth? The young skateboarders knew all about labor movement traditions and sixties protest culture, but they couldn’t tell the difference between an oak tree and a locust. Despite everything, the latter knowledge meant more to her. More disconcerting, however, was their reaction to the sunset. Nothing. As in so many of her prior visits, the woods impressed her as a this-world Summerland; dusky sunlight kissed the maple and oak leaves, her grove held the elder’s spot amidst youth; the abandoned limestone aqueducts – a 1930s WPA erosion control effort – with flagstone walkways on either side wound deeper and deeper into the woods. How could they see this and not, at least, pause or bow and worship?
Though not traditionally religious, Danielle recalled her prayers and how she had worshipped the dunes and now worshipped a far more ancient land, Blue Island, since finding it five years ago. 15,000 years ago, that land, popularly called Blue Island, was truly an island in the midst of Lake Chicago. Over time, Lake Chicago evaporated, leaving behind the marshy wild onion-filled land that would be Chicago. But, Blue Island had always been dry land, kissing the sky. Danielle’s worship had thus turned from the ever fragile, infinitely rare and mysterious dunes of sand and sun to the stately elder oak woodlands of Blue Island, from Shango to Obatala, Osiris to Ra, Apollo to Zeus.
Every once in awhile, the woods acknowledged her worship: a spray of yellow and blue hepatica blossomed in her grove; Kerner blue butterflies led her hither and thither through the woods; she slept protected. One lazy day, she fell asleep in her grove at noon and awoke at midnight. None of her belongings had been touched, and she hadn’t been bothered. One single lupine lay near her body; she took the flower home to dry.
Recalling that night turned her focus again to the woods and away from her observations, even though she remembered her hope for Alice, her unspoken attempts to redeem herself with Don. She needed to understand her future clients. Unbidden, Danielle imagined herself thirty years later at fifty-three: a fat, haggard, solid African-American elder of the people with a reputation for standing up for justice, another Dragon Lady, perhaps finally Alice’s equal and lover. Would it be worth it?
I want to change the world and be Alice’s equal, but I also want to fall in love my way. I want to live my life, but I also believe in planting a seed for the next generation. Danielle sighed. Observing these millennial protesters – young, rash, loud, dreamy, short-sighted, passionate – and their older leaders who hadn’t forgotten the sixties, and their late twenty-something and thirty-something supporters who had always yearned for the sixties struck her as strange and alienating when her heart yearned for depth and intimacy. Still, maybe, instead of Alice, I could fall in love with one of them, she thought, staring at one of the artists’ leader – a must-be 27 or 28 year old mahogany-skinned wiry man standing near the completed signs and directing the production. She made a note to interview him.
Looking around for other prospective interviewees, Danielle glimpsed a blue and yellow haze out of the corner of her eye. The colors gave her pause; the smell of wildflowers and meadows overpowered her amidst spilt beer and pungent Mary Jane. What is that? Danielle thought, turning to pin the source and bumping into a tan woman with locs and green eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Danielle said, ever polite, but still looking for the source of that smell.
“I didn’t mind,” the woman smiled, trying to catch Danielle’s eye. “Are you looking for someone?”
“Yes. I mean, no. I just thought I saw,” Danielle drifted off, again glimpsing the source – a woman, the color of fertile earth, in a yellow dress, drifting along the stone waterway into the woods, who smiled in Danielle’s direction.
“Nothing, really. Excuse me.” Though she felt rude walking off, Danielle couldn’t resist. She jogged into the forest, meeting the sunset. Whoever that was had to be met, somehow.
As the tall, slender cocoa-skinned woman approached, Elare shimmered, knowing that a five-year hunt had reached its end. Elare had chased the woman, Danielle, almost from the first time Danielle entered Blue Island, Elare’s ancient home and jurisdiction. Elare needed a new steward.
The old stewards, David and Anna, had been moved ten years before to an assisted living community in Florida by their well-meaning children and had promptly died. Elare didn’t know if David remembered that part of his pledge: that the stewardship granted immortality so long as one remained a steward. If one sought it, one could even retain the blessing of a youthful appearance. David and Anna never sought that, so Elare supposed they knew that giving up the stewardship and leaving the land meant death. Perhaps they simply wanted to accept the cycle of life as they had long accepted and tended the cycle of seasons, the turning of the wheel.
Elare remembered seducing David – a man that time – as he laid the flagstones with his WPA crewmates. David had not been a hard sell; almost immediately he accepted Elare’s call. He and Anna took care of the land with grace and love. David kept the Great Rites with Elare year after year. Anna sought and won legal preservation status for the woods. Their deaths created a need for a steward to replace David, and, Elare thought, for a lover to replace Anna; the years without her had been one long harsh winter. This time, as for many ages before David, the steward would also be her lover. And so Elare sought Danielle.
Compared to David, Danielle was oblivious. Time after time, Elare sought Danielle’s attention with flower bouquets and butterflies and all the old lures. But Danielle prioritized the modern: work, productivity, school, labor, and law. Venturing from the isle, Elare saw Danielle turn down dates and evenings out to perfect papers or prepare for briefs or study for exams or apply for internships. Then, Danielle worked out her frustrations on treadmills or with junk food in front of a TV in a studio with bare walls and worn linoleum floors.
And yet, the woods upon the elder isle had always calmed Danielle whenever she visited. Elare remembered the night when Danielle had fallen asleep in the grove. As deva of Blue Island, Elare had ordered the oak dryads to keep her asleep long past the time Danielle should have awakened And yet, Danielle had not heard the call in her dream that night or even remembered her dream. Failing to seduce Danielle that night, Elare feared the eventual fall of the woods to development, to the modern, to erosion. Yet, the dryads swore that Danielle would return of her own will when the time was right. And so it is, Elare thought, the May Queen has finally come.
Perched at the top of a tall oak further down the path, Elare threw a pebble, which banged against the flagstones. She knew Danielle would hear the sound, see her on the oak, and follow. And, so it was.
Further and further into the woods they went. Danielle noticed that she could no longer hear any music or laughing, and much darkness lay between her and the protestors’ bonfires, but the woman in the yellow dress clouded her mind with goldenrods and asters and lazy afternoons in wildflower meadows and sunlight and sunlight and sunlight.
Soon, Danielle stood at a meadow’s edge, one she thought she recognized from a dream. The woman – irresistible to Danielle now – stood tall as a maypole in the center and held out her hands to Danielle. Danielle forgot her crush on Alice, her pain at losing Don, any thought of law or future. And yet, Danielle hesitated, somehow knowing a step forward meant choosing whatever this woman held in store for her. Then, Danielle heard, “Come!”
Step by step, Danielle walked to the woman who stepped backward for each of Danielle’s steps forward. The walk stretched to an impossible number of hours until Danielle stood before a new threshold – a glaze of light behind which stood the woman. Having come so far, Danielle did not hesitate again. She crossed the threshold and fell into the woman’s arms.
Danielle heard the drums and the flutes first before the flames warmed her and her own limbs moved in unfamiliar patterns. Naked, Danielle danced with other women and girls before the bonfire. Around and around they danced. Sometimes holding hands and dragging each other along, the women had no breath to sing. They danced. The woman – she now knew to call Elare – stood not among the other women, but among the watchers. The watchers held the space, encircling the dancing women. Danielle met Elare’s eyes and knew that this dance would not end until some change had been accomplished. A death must happen. A life must be born. Something within her, within these women, would end. Perhaps, Danielle thought, I will die, and, if so, my death would serve the wheel. Mote it be so. Meanwhile, the watchers chanted of the blood and the dance and the fire and the blood and the dance and the fire and the blood and the dance and the fire that made the wheel turn and the earth grown and the life born that made the wheel turn and the earth grown and the life born that made the wheel turn and the earth grown and the life born.
At one point, Danielle left her body, and, above it all, saw her body being dragged along by the other women. She herself chased Elare through the drummers and under the arms of the dancers, around and around the fire. Elare teased her, let Danielle catch her and steal a kiss, escaped. The other watchers laughed. Somewhere along the way, they fitted Danielle with horns, but she did not notice until the music stopped, and Danielle – the Horned God – faced her queen, Elare, in the circle. Her queen said, “Take care of me!” and Danielle said “Yes!” Before the fire, they sealed the vow of stewardship with the Great Rite and then, rising, Elare held Danielle’s hand as they stepped together into the fire.
As the hunter becomes the hunted, so the seducer becomes the seduced, thought Elare. It was meet to reverse the chasing, for it is the God who tends the green and the goddess who feeds the soil. For five years, Elare had chased Danielle, knowing Danielle to be Blue Island’s new steward. Even when no immediate situations – developers or dumping – threaten, every foot of blessed earth requires a steward loyal to the land’s deva.
David had been the first male steward of Blue Island, an experiment. Elare now knew a male steward could not establish a lineage of stewards; in this, David was impotent. It had to be a woman, who established a lineage of stewards from the first daughters. Though the stewardship was not driven by biology, biology would have its part. The steward’s love – sacred energy and life’s blood – had to be sown into the land through the Great Rite: Love for Love, Human for Earth, Life for Life, Light for Light. The Great Rite, repeated annually, kept Blue Island alive. Danielle’s first child – a girl – would establish the first in a new line of stewards. Blessed be the child, Lady Jane. Blessed be. What has been sown will be reaped.
At dawn, he found Danielle, asleep and wet from the grove’s dew. Todd had searched for her all night ever since he noticed Danielle entering the woods alone. At first sight, he loved her. Danielle was the queen he had been searching for all his life and not always in the right places. Seeing her jog away, Todd forgot his purpose. Rushing through last minute questions from the young artists, Todd finally excused himself to see what drove her. Of course, by then, she had long disappeared, and it was night. Entering the woods, he remembered what his father had trained him to be when he was young – a tracker.
Before his time as an organizer or an ex-convict or a high school troublemaker, Todd had been a child taught and loved in that order by a father more in love with nature and the soil and the old ways than his own family. From the time he could walk and talk and think, Todd learned the ways of a tracker: how to tell one tree from another by examining the leaves and the bark, how to note different animal tracks, how to trail another human’s movement through woodlands. He had spent a year and a day in the dunes as a final training shortly after completing a deserved prison sentence. His father had taught him well.
From that training, Todd learned to love the woods as he now loved Danielle: unconditionally, sometimes like an errant daughter, sometimes like his tired mother who raised him alone, sometimes like the grandmother he never knew. He loved her in abundance and in rest and in barrenness. Even at night, he noted the broken branches, the traces of his love’s steps and stumbles along the walkway and then her movement along a trail, much older than the aqueducts.
The trail he followed held new air and only native plants – quite unlike any modern wood. This, he thought, is holy, virginal ground. The woods had opened to him like the dunes. But why? The woodland’s sounds and whispers drew him further down the trail, intriguing and sometimes resisting him. Again he wondered, But why? Several times he retraced his steps because the sounds led him in a circle or to impenetrable brush or away to more modern parts, and he knew somehow that Danielle had left the modern entirely. At dawn, the trail opened and let him in. He found Danielle in a secret meadow amidst the wildflowers.
Walking toward Danielle, Todd died to the old labels: organizer, loser, convict. Something in the air rechristened him: Prince Charming, the Green Man, the Horned God. The old tales his father told him over campfires became as real as the sunlight that robed his queen in gold.
Kneeling, he kissed her.
Not Elare, thought Danielle upon awakening. Though the man’s finely chiseled cheekbones and penetrating, yet warm brown eyes blessed her vision, Danielle wept. The night of love and dance, promises and seduction and climax made her senses raw, her mind expansive, and all she longed to see was her queen Elare’s face. For a long time, she lay still and wept. The man held her and sometimes rocked her, but otherwise kept his silence. After awhile, she opened her eyes and noticed the meadow still there and the man still holding her. She remembered everything. This is my land; I serve and love Elare. But what next? Why is this man here?
Not once did the man ask questions. Not once did Danielle venture to explain. Together, they walked back to the protesters who were just waking up themselves, ready to march on May Day. The man led her through the trails with his hand at her elbow any time she seemed to stumble. With every step, Danielle hoped to glimpse a yellow dress or smell wildflowers or hear a call to return. But, everything led forward. The honey yellow of dawn’s sunshine coating all living beings yielded to the darker damp green of morning leaves and moist brown bark; her home smelled of black fertile soil.
On the edge of modernity, Danielle asked his name.
“Where you been, doc?” called one of the artists, noticing Todd and Danielle exiting the woods.
“Mind your business, Tony!” Todd called, “Where are those posters by the way? Did you keep them dry?”
“In the tent. We’re ready to go, just waiting for you, man! And your lady friend. . .”
Arguing with Tony, Todd swore that he had glanced for just a moment into the tent. But when he returned, Danielle was gone.
He saw her enter the first bus that would transport the protestors to downtown Chicago.
He would not lose her. He gave chase.
In a trance, Danielle stumbled along and entered the bus. What exactly was she here to do? Where was Elare? On the bus, she smelled her own filth and saw dirt on her arms and her nails. She knew why she looked that way, but everyone else had dirt on their bodies and musky smells too. She saw no need for embarrassment or shame. The bus filled with international students from a U.K. socialist organization and pulled away. They chanted “Flags, Flax, Fodder, Frigg” over and over with occasional overlapping breaks into labor songs. One gallant protester – dark haired and dark eyed – sat with her, put his arm around her, and laid her head on his shoulder. Drifting off to sleep, she saw the man, Todd, he had told her, striding toward the bus, but the bus moved away.
For a second, Todd’s mind clouded red when he saw Danielle’s head resting on another man’s shoulder. But the bus carrying her pulled away just as he came within 100 ft. Enraged, he charged onto the bus right behind Danielle’s and took over the chanting. On this bus, the younger college kids wanted to “fight the powers that be”. All they had was rage, incoherent, but lyrical and moving. That their rage moved toward death and destruction, baseball bats to heads, slashed tires, and broken windows was of no account to Todd. He channeled his rage – as he always did these days – into directing theirs, making it not only powerful, but beautiful: houses built for the poor, farms enough to feed the hungry, fresh water, birch trees. May this work of transformation, thought Todd, make a world where every lover finds his mate, and my love returns to me.
She napped on the 45 minute ride to downtown. Danielle dreamed of her own good home and of good clothes, good food, and good sex. She saw herself nursing her child and singing a lullaby, and a man’s hand – not Elare’s – on her shoulder. Though she knew the baby belonged to the Great Rite and to Elare somehow, she also knew this man would be the baby’s father and her mate. Natural curiosity led her to turn and try to see her husband’s face, but then she saw yellow and smelled wildflowers, and her desire led her to seek Elare’s face once again.
Again, this time in the dream, Danielle stood at the meadow’s edge, and Elare stood once again in the center, holding a man’s hand and beckoning her. Danielle went to Elare. This would not be a repeat of last night, but a new turn to the dance. At the center, the man – Todd, he had told her – held out his hand for her, and Danielle took it as Elare bade her do.
Then, Elare presided, with sunlight bursting from and through her yellow dress, over the handfasting and blessed them. Elare kissed them both and spoke though Danielle couldn’t quite make out the words. The bus had stopped, and her gallant seatmate was gently shaking her awake.
“We’re here, ma’am! It’s time.”
Among the tall skyscrapers, built by workers’ hands, the protestors marched and chanted. Danielle marched and chanted with them, still half remembering the night before and the morning’s dream. She talked with students and bankers and secretaries and construction workers and the unemployed throughout the day. “Why are you here?” she asked, and the more she asked, the more she understood. The immigrants wanted to stay and be citizens. The blue-collar workers wanted fair wages and safer working conditions. The students wanted to know that the world would be safe for them to build a house and raise a family when they graduated no matter the amount of their loans. Others wanted to raise minimum wage to a living wage. Still others just wanted to be part of something important, something world-changing, and hoped this day would be the surprise Woodstock that every revolutionary desires.
In her mind, Danielle saw the night before and the morning’s dream blending into a collective dream of freedom and free love and good sex and peace on earth and music and babies and equality and, yes, a living wage, and food and flax and worker’s rights … and … Elare always …
And then, Danielle found the artists who had designed all the picket signs. They told her of how they had worked through the previous night’s celebrations to make them. They told her of the man who had pulled them from the streets to channel their rage into something constructive and powerful like the WPA workers or the agitprop actors or … the taggers, someone shouted, and some snickered at that, and others insisted on the new age. They pointed her toward a tall man with hair, the texture of wool, and hands, the color of mahogany, and Danielle remembered those hands on her shoulder in the dream and around her at dawn, and she walked toward the man called Todd to see His face.
works in her niche, writing and teaching writing, when she isn’t traveling with friends and family, playing cards, wandering the trails of the Indiana Dunes, planting tomatoes in Chicago, or laughing.