(A short story based on a vivid dream. I've had many tornado dreams, but this was unlike any I've ever had.)
I don't know what my visit was meant to accomplish. Out of the blue, I had received an invitation to Alton State University to deliver a keynote lecture on occult influences on fin-de-siècle musicians. Granted, that was my specialist area of study and the subject of my two books, but neither had sold well, even in academic circles. I had never heard of Alton State, a tiny university in up-state New York. Neither had I heard of the NASAS, the North American Society of Alternative Spirituality who was putting on a conference on Post-Christian Spirituality in Art.
The topic made two false assumptions: 1) that we were in a phase that was inherently post-Christian, and 2) that the spirituality that artists had turned to were created after Christianity. Neither in my view were true. The premises of my books were that late in any century or spanning the turn of the centuries, artists and musicians turned towards alternative spirituality as inspiration for their art, for example, Mozart with Freemasonry or Zoroastrianism and Debussy with Rosicrucianism. Certainly, one finds Christianity at the heart of both Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, as well as the Templars and other secret Christian societies, but in addition to Zoroastrianism, there was also Theosophy and modern Wicca, only the former of which might be considered post-Christian.
My personal history with Wicca was checkered. A brief trawl of the Internet revealed the likely source of the invitation to speak: Paloma Laird. When I first knew her, of course, she was known as Mary Laird, daughter of a Methodist Minister. She was the love of my life, but our timing was all wrong. By the time I had broken up with Kendra O'Flanagan, Mary had started up with some football player. Sometimes I thought she spent more time with me than she did with him, although Mary waxed poetically on how much time she spent in his bed.
My interest at the time was already drifting towards the occult in art, and that drew me to a neophyte Wiccan priest – a friend of a friend, and co-resident in my dormitory. He invited me to view a full moon ritual, but in the end couldn't attend himself. Having confided my fear of attending alone, Mary offered to accompany me. When the priestess explained that she normally presided in her circles nude, Mary was the first to offer to remove her own cloths.
The ritual performed little magic, just healing spells and some basic divination. It was nothing to write home about, but Mary was hooked, and I was hooked on Mary's body – well, Mary in general. At the next full moon, we were invited back, but remained clothed, since there were other visitors present. Along with the disappointment in not seeing Mary's naked body again, the circle also failed to impress. The priestess, to me, seemed too wide-eyed and fanatic, worshiping with the same fake zeal that some of my Christian friends exhibited, the same ones who professed to be “Born Again” while at the same time taking drugs, drinking heavily, and sleeping around.
A month later, another circle (again clothed), and Mary told me she wished to be called Paloma from then on. At the time, she retained the name Mary in public, but she wanted me to call her Paloma. She thought that the name drew her closer to nature, and it proved a precursor to her Wiccan indoctrination. Perhaps too tied to my Catholic upbringing, I couldn't fall in line with her. Her boyfriend, for his part, knew nothing about it. In the next circle, Paloma made her intentions clear as well as her notion to take me with her on that journey, resulting in a candle spell cast for us.
As we burned the candle together the next night, we made love in my dorm room. I loved her with my whole heart, but her new-found sexual freedom, along with her reluctance to leave her boyfriend scared me. I lost my trust for her that night, and we soon parted ways.
That was the point where our lives short circuited. I went on to become a noted scholar in the occult, although still a practicing Catholic (some habits die hard), while she found a post teaching comparative religion at Alton State. I knew nothing about her personal life, except that she had married and soon divorced the football player without issue. She was also a member of NASAS, an acronym not to be confused with the space agency, although many of its members could easily be considered “out there,” judging by the other papers to be read at the conference.
Oddly, I was offered a room in the same dormitory that Paloma lived in with another female member of staff. I would have thought that a professor earned enough to live off-campus in a house or apartment as I did back in Illinois.
Soon, I learned the reason why, as she invited me over to dinner and spent over a half hour just slicing what was a perfect ball of bread. She had become remarkably thin, and if the dinner ritual was the same every meal, she couldn't have eaten much. Her suite was antiseptic, revealing no traces of her craft or spiritual bent. Our meal consisted only of the bread and a simple soup from a can. She had become seriously OCD, a man's disorder, and I found it sad, as she had been one of the brightest people I knew. Nevertheless, she had reawakened the yearning for her that I had spent years trying to forget, never entirely successfully. I had always been attracted to thin women, and her short-cropped hair remained remarkably devoid of gray. Her eyes, formerly wild and intense, had become an ordinary brown and languid, as if nothing penetrated them, the look of a psychotic in a medication thrall. I couldn't wait to return to the safety of my room, only to battle dreams of her all night.
Having decided not to challenge the premise of the conference, my keynote was well received and followed by several statements touting the questioners' own research rather than challenging or questioning mine. Most of the papers the rest of the day were just plain nuts. The conference attracted all sorts of delegates, Agnostics, New Theosophists, Wiccans – the latter had become a fad, people looking for something to worship that was different, to cast spells and battle imaginary demons. I had time for the true followers, but some put on airs, to go with their crystals, beads and sagging breasts. Consequently, there were also a fair number of Christian protesters and hecklers.
After dinner my host, Prof. Asaard Hawkwing, walked with me back towards my room. The sky grew green and angry, hiding the full moon that the conference had been timed with. I had decided to pass on the mass ritual in a nearby park. Hawkwing was an expert on Sioux mythology, and wouldn't attend either. I suspected from his fair skin and blond hair that he didn't have a single Sioux ancestor.
“Do you get tornadoes around here?” I asked, having grown up in “Tornado Alley.” A green sky was bad news.
“At least a couple every day,” he replied. “They are usually quite small, however.”
A small tornado? I had never heard of small tornadoes. Before I could answer, I noticed two perfectly shaped funnels not more than a half mile away, just on the other side of campus. Nobody seemed concerned. “Shouldn't we take cover?” I asked, nervously.
“No. They won't come near if you don't listen to them.”
“Listen to them?”
“If you do, you are doomed,” he explained.
I was going to press him on the matter, but two tiny funnels passed silently between the two buildings ahead of us. These odd phenomena traveled along the ground but didn't reach to the sky. Ignoring them, we walked right past into the building. Having anthropomorphized into vaguely human form, they followed us through its reinforced glass doors down to the hallway towards my room.
A blond woman emerged from a door as we passed by and walked right up to one, which bent and seemed to whisper something into her ear. She smiled, listening intently as she followed it out into the foyer. From Paloma's room, I heard an argument. Her roommate had returned and had left the door open. Hoping to diffuse the situation, I looked in. The roommate was complaining bitterly about their rent bill, which was huge and hadn't been paid. Paloma sat calmly chopping her bread, which seemed much more important to her. Frustrated, the roommate stomped out.
I urged Paloma to stop chopping and do something about it. I thought she was taking my advice, as she set her knife down, but instead walked out to the hallway and accosted the other tornado. She, too, smiled and accompanied it into the foyer. At first, I attempted to follow but decided that it was too dangerous, heeding Hawkwing's warning.
Soon, both women returned without their companion tornadoes. I thought they were safe, but I noticed that each wore some kind of gold-threaded garment over their clothes. The blonde stopped by a public telephone, leaning in a corner with a sickly sweet smile on her face. Paloma walked only a few feet further before stopping with her back to the wall, as if awaiting a call.
“They're naked!” a bystander gasped.
In a blink, their clothing had disappeared under the golden raiment, which had grown more like a lace dress. Paloma's former beauty had returned, and I felt compelled to try to snap her out of her spell. Neither woman answered to any entreaties from a rapidly growing crowd. Afraid to touch Paloma, I shouted for her attention, but another gasp distracted me. The golden thread had wrapped itself around the blonde's mouth and eyes. It was only then that either woman betrayed any fear, and the same thing had happened to Paloma when I looked away. The threads grew rapidly to stifle any of her volition, so I reached out to help her.
“They prey on fear and despair!” someone whispered, “Stay away!”
Both women began to fade as the thread spun around them, and soon they, too, had become mini-tornadoes, following the other two outside and away into the night.
“They are empty,” one bystander observed. “Only the despair is left.”
The next morning Hawkwing asked me to deliver Paloma's paper in her absence: Immolation and Spontaneous Combustion in Elemental Magic. That seemed more in tune with the Paloma – no, the Mary Laird that I knew.
While reviewing her paper just before her session was to begin, I read her dedication: To my love. I rebuked him, and he stole the fire from me, leaving only the chilled gale of emptiness.
Hawkwing's introduction included a passage from Mary's diary, which he had found stuffed in his mailbox:
I have nothing left. In all my devotion to the Goddess, I realized I was powerless. I am a child of fire, but it was all blown away on that faithful night. My subsequent study of elemental magic came at a cost, and now it is time for the reckoning. In striving to recover what I was, I lost what I am.
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