Once again this year, Chow Bella writers are gnawing on the holidays -- in the form of stories of Christmas and food. Hope you have some Alka-Seltzer handy. Enjoy.
My friend Shawn struggles to make sense of the ham that sits in a tin-foil tray on the buffet table. "Would ya look at that? Ham!" He says, sounding exactly like the recently deceased Ruth Gordon, whom he's been imitating since he got off the plane from Texas a week ago. "I thought California witches would be vegetarians."
I know how he feels. This looks like any old potluck; chips, potato salad, store-bought cake. Where's the stewed pine cones? Where's the roasted goat?
A woman wearing a green, velour gown with a lace-up bodice -- from which her misshapen bosom threatens to spill -- sidles up to the buffet and leans protectively over the cake.
"Nobody touch this. I get the first slice!" Then, as if she heard how petty she sounds, she cackles, and tries to sound like she's joking, "Nobody messes with the High Priestess!"
"That must be some cake," Shawn says in his Ruth Gordon voice.
Our friend David stands across the room amidst party-goers, who look-- in their makeshift corsets and shoddy tunics-- like day-players from the Renaissance Fair. I can tell by the flare of his nostrils, that this isn't what he pictured when he RSVP'd to this Winter Solstice gathering hosted by a Wicca coven. David is serious minded about mysticism.
One time, David and I went for a walk at night in the city, after all the shops were closed. Without warning, David veered away, with his hand held out as if reaching for something.
He stopped in front of a closed salon, turned the knob and opened the door. The burglar alarm blared. "That's weird," he said, "I had a feeling this door was unlocked."
Psychic things always happen to David, and I'm jealous; I want to be psychic too.
So does Shawn. In college, Shawn and I spent many nights in graveyards attempting to talk to the dead. We tried to master telekinesis, read each other's minds, and astral project while listening to Stevie Nicks. We drove out to Witches Gate, but never managed to encounter the paranormal. The closest we ever got was that time we had an astonishing game of twenty questions, during which we guessed each other's objects on the first try.
I was excited when David invited us to come to this party (even though I was scared of the word "coven") because I hoped that our magical powers might finally be unleashed.
At the party a woman approaches me, "You work at the Mystic Moon," she says.
"Yes, you do. The Mystic Moon bookstore."
"I swear you do. I'm the official psychic for the Horton Grand Hotel," she says, as if that explains her authority to insist I work somewhere I don't.
This perks up Shawn, "Official psychic?"
"Yes, the Horton Grand is haunted," she says.
"That's interesting," he says, "I'm a trance-channeler myself."
"Who do you channel?" she asks, in earnest.
We go outside for the ceremony, where we gather around a campfire and sing about strong winds and feeling stuff in our bones. But, all I can feel in my bones is cold. I didn't bring a coat and it's cold enough to see my breath. The Cake Lady (who, turns out, really is the "High Priestess") tells an epic story about a battle between the North and South Winds or was it the Moon and the Forest. I can't remember because I am distracted by someone saying, "You look cold," and throwing, over my shoulders, the pelt of a mountain-lion. A mountain-lion, with feet and tail and head intact. It's huge and heavy and 100% authentic.
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Shawn leans forward and whispers, "Lucky."
Wearing the skin of a wild animal suddenly legitimizes this whole rigmarole. We shuffle around in a circle past the High Priestess who hands us stuff; salt to taste, candles for the yule log, sprigs of evergreen, and on the last go-round, a slice of apple so we can taste sweetness. As I look at the apple in my hand, my heart opens. I feel genuinely connected to the ancestors who must have held an apple in their hands on their winter solstice, thousands of years ago. My lion skin slips and as I heave it up, my apple tips over revealing a PLU sticker clinging to the skin, and I am mortified. For myself. And for this yard full of imposters. I peel off the sticker, but it leaves a permanent gummy spot.
On our way home David tries to cheer us, "Those weren't very good witches." But for now, the magic is lost.