Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth
In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.
Drums at Bare-Ass
Down by the Mississippi, there's a circle under the cottonwoods where the witches used to dance.
Technically, the riverflats belonged to the Army Corps of Engineers, but by night those woods belonged to the gayboys. And the witches.
It was the old cruising beach. In Minneapolis the Mississippi Valley is a green vein of wildness pulsing through the heart of the city. You had to negotiate a steep path down the side of the bluff to get to the flats. The police left it alone. By day you could swim there naked, with the glass towers of downtown hovering above the treeline. By night you'd hear the quiet encounters, the moans of ecstasy, and every now and then, the sound of drums and chanting.
Of the many rituals there over the years, I remember one in particular. Actually, it was the after-ritual that I remember: bonfire burning, drums throbbing, people drinking and dancing, kids running around, dogs barking; just like the old days, really. There were maybe 60 of us, but I strongly had that sense you get that there were actually more of us there than were there, if you know what I mean. Hundreds, if not thousands.
“This is what we do,” I thought, “This is what we've always done. Before us, there have been others to do it, and after us, there will be still more doing just the same. But for now, we're the lucky ones that get to do it.”
The witches and the gayboys left one another alone quite respectfully. Of course, there was some cross-over now and then. A friend of mine was talking one night with a guy he'd just met at one of the bars downtown.
“So what did you do this afternoon?” the guy asked, making conversation.
“Oh, I was down at Bare-Ass,” said my friend.
“Have you ever seen the witches dance down there?” asked the guy.
After a moment, my friend—who just happened to be one of those witches—said, somewhat taken aback, “Yes I have.”
A thoughtful pause. “It's really kind of beautiful, isn't it?” said the guy.
One morning after a do down at the River I woke up as my (non-pagan) boyfriend of the time was getting out of bed.
“Hey, is today some sort of pagan holiday?” he asked, pulling on his pants.
“Yeah, it's Midsummer's Day,” I said. “How did you know?”
“Oh,” he said, “Your hair always smells like smoke.”
Ten or so years ago, the city turned the Riverflats into a nice, tidy park. There's a driveway down the face of the bluff and paved paths. The underbrush where men used to couple is all cleared out. Now the park is populated by joggers and families with dogs.
The bluff walls no longer ring with the sound of drums. After dark there is still, I gather, some furtive closet-case traffic in between police patrols, but the witches no longer go there to dance.
It's sad, somehow. No more room for outlaws.
And the world just that much the paler for it.
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