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Moon Rite

I entered into womanhood unexpectedly between lunch and study hall. I locked myself in a toilet stall, checked the door for new graffiti, pulled down my pants, and there it was. A spot of diluted rust, not dramatic ketchup. No cramps. No choir of angels.

I got a pad from the clinic and went to the library. Katie and Brittney sat at a computer, inspecting a NASA web page. We were starting a group project on the International Space Station.

"About time," Brittney said. "What'd you do, fall in?"

"I got my period," I said.

Katie patted my back. "Poor you. Now you're a member of the five-shitty-days-a-month club."

"Did you puke?" Brittney asked. "My sister pukes when she gets hers."

"The five-days-you-can't-go-swimming club. The five-days-you-have-to-wear-a-diaper-club," Katie went on. Katie has that tendency.

"I don't feel a thing. Maybe it was a false alarm," I said.

"Maybe," Katie said. "If you're lucky."

I returned to the clinic twice that afternoon for more diapers. "Ask the nurse for one with wings," Brittney advised. "That's what my sister uses."

The nurse was out of wings. Instead, I got a fat, white cotton slab. It felt like a roof shingle stuck between my legs. By the time my mother picked me up, the evidence had become a brilliant ruby hue. I suggested we swing by Walgreens and stock up on diapers, now that I was bona fide member of the club.

Tears ran down her cheeks. She hit the brakes and reached for my hand. "You're not just my daughter now. You're my sister in womanhood. It's an occasion for ceremony and celebration. We need to plan your moon ritual."

Horns blared. Cars were backed up the entire length of the carpool lane. In the silver SUV behind us were Ryan Monk and his mother. Ryan sat in front of me in homeroom, where I daily, diligently studied the back of his head, neck and shoulders. He was not only the most perfect male in the seventh grade, but, extrapolating from my fieldwork at area shopping malls, all of Houston, as well. A tennis visor shaded his mother's eyes. Ryan's were narrowed. He was reading our bumper stickers, the most innocuous of which declared, Honk if you honor The Goddess. I pulled my hand from my mother's. "Baskin-Robbins is next to Walgreens. We can celebrate there."

Mom wiped her eyes and stepped on the gas. "I'll call my circle leader about protocol. Auspicious date, ceremonial attire, printed or handwritten invitations, that sort of thing."

This was beginning to sound like a weird permutation of Katie's cousin's bat mitzvah. "Whoa," I said. "Thanks very much, but all I really want is a box of ultra-thin supers with wings and a hot fudge sundae."

"Goddess willing, I'm going to give you a ritual you'll never forget." She said this the way Scarlett O'Hara said, I'll never be hungry again.

That's when my cramps started.

***

I, Luna Persephone Morgan, was a change-of-life baby. My mother said that once when she thought I was too young to understand. I was, however, old enough to file it away for future reference. When she joined a local coven last summer to celebrate her cronehood, I opened that file and realized it was my birth that had started her crystal ball rolling. Before she became a full-time pagan, Mom was a nursery assistant. A shrub-and-mulch nursery, not one for babies. She watered flats of petunias, shelved snail bait and communed with the parts of nature that come in plastic pots. Her fingernails were never clean, and the faint tang of steer manure permeated her overalls. She and my father lived at the brambly edge of a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere, the only place you could rent a house on a premature pension and shrub-and-mulch salary, plus pay my brother Bob's tuition at Texas A&M. The threesome originally had lived in a tract home near Intercontinental Airport, where Dad was a flight controller. His nerves gave out about the time Bob graduated from high school. Bob went off to College Station, and my parents packed up for a quiet country sojourn to nurse my father back into the ranks of the emotionally functional.

Fate escorted my parents along Farmers Market roads deep into the heart of Texas, where the night sky showcased the lunar cycle with the in-your-face intensity of IMAX movies at the Museum of Natural Science. Dad took his meds and eased back into society via Internet chat rooms. Mom hired on at Earth Mother Garden Mart to allow Chandra, the owner, more time to oversee her herb beds and consult with private clients. Bob pledged a fraternity and stopped visiting on weekends. And, somewhere along the line, I was conceived.

According to family legend, my then forty-two-year-old mother suffered from heartburn, hemorrhoids and puffy ankles. Still in denial about her pregnancy, she had a meltdown of her own at work. Chandra gave her a paper sack filled with what looked like kitty litter: a secret mixture containing ground bluebonnet pods, rattlesnake scales, and a pinch of freeze-dried droppings from her pet armadillo Kore. Mom brewed tea from the stuff and drank five cups a day. By the fourth day, her symptoms had disappeared. By the seventh, she was stroking her belly and knitting booties. When I entered the world four months later, Chandra was the one who caught me and, pointing to the full moon framed by the bedroom window, named me.

And, I would argue, cursed me in the bargain. People named Luna sit in trees and listen to music played on bowls. They go on vision quests, not to middle school. In my seventh grade class, there are fourteen Katies, twelve Nicoles and Sarahs, respectively, and nine Ashleys. They have parents with names like Bob and Blair, Bob's wife. Those parents are management consultants, soccer coaches, and Episcopalians, like Bob, or doctors, like Blair. I love those words: consultant, doctor, Episcopalian. They melt on my tongue like chocolate kisses. As does the name of their six-year-old daughter: Jane Anne. No mythopoetic tongue-twister here, no ma'am. Just two mind-your-own-business syllables.

You know what the neighbor kids call me? Loony. The ones who like to belabor the point call me Loony Pee. Granted, the name-callers are not in my Gifted And Talented classes, so our paths don't often cross. For someone who professes to be at one with the universe, my mother is surprisingly short on sympathy. "Sticks and stones will break my bones," she says. Just what I need—a cauldron chant.

***

My mother compromised and stopped at Walgreens. She bought me three types of pads, but no ice cream. When we got home, she phoned Chandra, who now runs a B&B offering tarot and scrying seminars. Mom's voice breached the wall of the powder room where I'd retired to re-diaper myself: "I need help writing invocations. Surely you can find someone to change sheets and cook breakfast for a week."

I locked the door. Littering the floor were small plastic cocoons in pastel shades indicating their contents' absorbency. They lolled on the rag rug, smug and expectant, my new, clandestine accessories. You're stuck, they told me, till you turn Crone.

I couldn't imagine myself with gray hair and a turkey-wattle neck. Neither could I imagine myself with a basketball-sized belly, knitting booties. What I could imagine was holding Ryan's hand and, if I really let myself go, kissing him and him kissing back. If a ritual would make my zits disappear and give me the gymnastic ability to make cheerleader and enter the A-crowd of the athletically empowered, I'd be first in line to sign up. Otherwise, what was the point?

A piece of loose-leaf paper slid under the door, and a pencil rolled after it. "Make a list of friends you want to invite," my mother instructed.

I sat with my back against the door and covered the page:

NO NO NO NO NO
NO NO NO NO NO
NO NO NO NO NO
NO NO NO NO NO
NO NO NO NO NO

Out went the paper. I aimed the pencil like a spear at the space beneath the door.

After a long stretch of silence, the door shifted behind my back, and a fresh sheet of paper appeared. "Work with me, Luna," my mother said. "I'm offering you a tremendous opportunity. Your friends will stay mired in society's rut of female degradation, but you'll be empowered. You'll be a strong voice crying out in the patriarchal wilderness."

The door creaked against my shoulder blades. Our backs sandwiched the wood. My mother could push all she wanted, but she wouldn't break through. "I like being mired with my friends," I said.

"Goddess knows, I don't want to pull rank, but it seems I have no choice," she said. "As Crone, I expect you, fresh out of maidenhood, to cooperate."

Hesitantly, I conceded, "Just you, me and Chandra then."

"Nonsense. With my circle, your friends and their mothers, we should have about forty."

The floor dipped beneath me. "No mothers. We're talking Catholics and Baptists here. They don't dance around naked, baying at the moon."

"My sister-circle does not bay at the moon," Mom said.

I closed my eyes and imagined myself in a space suit, strapped into a seat on the Shuttle. The rumble of rocket boosters rose through my body. The voice in my headset intoned, "T-minus one minute and counting." The commander gave me a thumbs-up. I was making history, the first GAT Student in Space, premier graduate of a rigorous training program affording no time off for moon rituals. Here was a true picture of empowerment.

Without warning, my mental screen changed to a black-and-white clip from The Wizard of Oz. I huddled on the bed with Toto as the house lifted off. After crash-landing, I went outside, where Glinda tapped me with her wand and asked, "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"

"I'm not a witch at all." I actually said this out loud.

Glinda laughed in that tinkly little voice of hers. "It is your destiny to dance naked and bay at the moon. Follow the Yellow Brick Road, and you will find empowerment. Behold, your sisters will accompany you." She waved her wand, and a horde of Munchkin women popped out of hiding and ran toward me. Every single one had the face of my mother.

***

In Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas, a group of women chanting around a campfire went largely unnoticed, provided they didn't obstruct farm equipment and properly doused the fire afterward. By the time I was three, my mother chanted in ever-changing venues reached by driving deeper into nowhere with women I saw only when a Suburban filled with them picked her up. How they found each other was a mystery. Did they post cryptically worded flyers in laundromats and mini-marts? Was there a secret network of contacts and couriers like the Underground Railroad? Had Chandra started a web site: hillcountrywitches.org?

A moot point, all of this, or so I thought when we returned to Houston—not to the airport tract, but a piney enclave embracing the Texas ethic of bigger-is-better when it comes to cars and custom homes. The Goddess had no hand in our country-mice migration to a big-cheese zip code. Rather, my recovering father was inspired by The Dot-com God and, with financial backing from flight controller buddies, started an on-line service for foreign students offering everything from plane reservations to group insurance. American Express bought them out and hired my father as a telecommuting project development specialist.

As if by magic, we had become rich.

Soon afterward, my father announced, "The quiet out here is driving me almost as crazy as those damn radar screens. I want to live where there's at least two decent eating establishments serving barbecue. And," he added, looking at me, "good schools."

He loves the fact that my middle school has a three-to-one ratio of students to computers and, year after year, gets near-perfect scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills standardized tests. I, on the other hand, love the exotic scent of mingling deodorant perfumes in the girls' locker room and the cafeteria's pungent aromas of beef grease and melted process cheese. I love the obstacle-course thrill of changing classes. Most of all, I love Spirit Day, when I wear the same T shirt as six hundred and twenty-three other kids, when our voices become one enormous roar, when the rhythm of my clapping hands and stomping feet feeds the reverberations shaking every one of us packed, shoulder to shoulder, on the bleachers. If that isn't a religious experience, I don't know what is.

***

T-minus two days of womanhood and counting: Katie, Brittney and I regrouped in the library. Katie had taken it upon herself to organize the project. Brittney would research Space Program history. I would do astronaut training and daily life in space. Katie got technology and Space Station construction.

"I want to research construction," I said. I'm not usually confrontational, but I had a headache, and my diaper was soggy. Surely I deserved a little extra consideration.

"My aunt works at NASA. She'll get me pictures and diagrams," Katie said, as if that settled things.

"I can download pictures and diagrams," I said.

"You can download pictures of astronaut training," Brittney suggested.

"I'd rather do technology. If you had bothered to call me, I would've said so last night," I told Katie.

Brittney looked from me to Katie. "Maybe your aunt will let us borrow a space suit. Or some space food."

"You can buy food in the gift shop," Katie said. "I tried the freeze-dried pizza once. It's disgusting."

"You could serve the class a space meal, Lu," Brittney said soothingly. "Boys go for anything that involves food. Ryan will love it."

"I'm trying to expand my mind, but you're saying, forget it, just be a flight attendant serving pizza." To my horror, I burst into tears.

Katie rolled her eyes. "Talk about hormonal. I'm glad I'm not cursed yet."

I got to my feet. "You know what? You guys are mired, and you don't even know it. Totally mired." I grabbed my purse, packed with pink cocoons, and stalked out of the library.

The hall monitor, an eighth-grade teacher I didn't know, was filing her nails outside the girls' restroom. She held out her hand. "May I see your pass?"

***

I sat for two hours in the seventh-grade counselor's cubicle. She wouldn't even let me go to the restroom and change my diaper. My previously pristine permanent record card was blackened with offenses: failure to obtain a hall pass, use of offensive language, refusal to cooperate in disciplinary measures, improper occupation of school lavatory facilities.

"This isn't like you, Luna," said the counselor. "Is there anything you want to talk about?"

"The Goddess made me do it. I'm a new member of Her raging hormones club."

"I see." She wrote something on my card.

"Have you ever attended a moon ritual?" I asked, hoping I could wring some sympathy out of her.

She lifted her pen, then set it down. Her eyes flicked to the door, then back to me. "Are you involved in some sort of hazing?" Her eyes flicked again. "It's not a gang thing, is it?"

When I started laughing, she wrote something else on my card. I stopped laughing. She kept writing. For the second time that afternoon, I began to cry.

Eventually, my father showed up. I blew my nose as he listened to the official account of my temporary insanity and its consequences: one day's suspension.

When I got up, I noticed a small, rust-colored stain on the padded seat. My satisfaction died when I realized what I'd left behind on the chair was also evident on the seat of my jeans. I kept my back to the wall and sidestepped after my father. We were almost to the exit when the dismissal bell rang. Kids surged into the hall. I froze, my butt pressed against the janitor's closet door, but Dad kept going. "Hold your horses!" he called. "An old man's coming through here!"

A path cleared in front of him as if he was contagious. The other kids looked at me with pity and relief that I, not they, had screwed up and required a loudmouth parent as escort. Ryan and his football-team friends came out of the science lab. Right behind them was Katie.

My father, who, at most, nods at girls I bring home before disappearing like a gopher into the hole of his study, practically shouted, "Hello, Miss Katie! Whassup?"

Katie tucked her chin and darted in the opposite direction. Ryan approached with his friends. When he was right in front of me, I said, "Hey, Ryan, what'd I miss in lab?"

His glance told me I might as well have been the knob on the closet door. I watched the back of the head I knew like the back of my hand continue down the hall. When I looked the other way, Katie was gone, and my father was heading toward me.

He seemed confused. "Wasn't that Katie? Why'd she run away?"

This time, I felt it coming. I bit my tongue to hold back the tears. My father took my hand and tried to pull me forward, but I locked my knees and pulled back. We stayed that way for a long time.

***

After the dinner I couldn't eat, Katie called. "Is it true you joined a gang called the Moon Goddesses?"

My heart stuttered. "Where'd you hear that?"

"Around." She giggled. "Is it true or not?"

"Not." I could hardly get the word out. "Gotta go. I'm on phone restriction till I'm back in school."

My mother was standing in the doorway when I hung up. "I've been thinking about your ritual."

I pressed a pillow sham over my head. "I don't want to talk about that."

She sat on the edge of my bed and pried the pillow from my ear. "Come with me to circle this week. Y'all can get to know one another."

"Forget it."

Now she had the entire pillow. "Would it kill you to have an open mind? If you come and absolutely hate it, we can rethink the ritual."

"Cancel it, you mean."

She threw the pillow at me. "Friday night."

***

Long after my parents went to bed, I sat in the chilly blue glow of the computer monitor as the printer spit pages onto the floor. I downloaded a science magazine article in which Shannon Lucid chronicled her training at cosmonaut camp prior to a half-year mission aboard Space Station Mir. The article described her experiments with quail embryos and dwarf wheat, neither of which is in the GAT curriculum. What interested me more were nonscientific tidbits: the station operated on Moscow time; the cosmonauts—each named Yuri—loved American mayonnaise; the author wished she'd packed more peppy cassettes to get her through the daily treadmill workout.

Each night, she and the Yuris floated around the module, nibbling cookies and chatting about the Cold War. And what else? Had the conversations ever turned politically incorrect? Had they infiltrated each other's dreams? I'd watched enough episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation to know how eyes could meet over rows of quail eggs, how hands might brush while measuring tiny stalks of wheat. Someday I could find myself in close quarters with a cosmonaut resembling Ryan. Were certain forms of cultural exchange—kissing, for instance—taboo?

Then again, I could find myself locked in a module with a couple of science-geeks who looked like Pugs and spent their free time floating chess pieces back and forth. Who would I vent to when I felt hormonal? Who'd count my quail eggs if I had cramps? How would I make it through five-shitty-days-a-month times six with module-mates who could only relate to jock itch?

When I reread the article, none of this information revealed itself between the lines. I set it aside and downloaded fact sheets, one of which addressed the challenges of sanitation. A favorite question of people interested in space is how the astronauts took care of digestive elimination. That cracked me up. Digestive elimination. Give me a break. Space shit, that's what seventh-graders want to know about.

The page described an air-flow toilet that pushes waste into a sealed container, some of which is used for post-flight analyses. I held a pen in front of my mouth like a microphone: "And what do you do for NASA, Dr. Jones?" I tipped the marker toward the monitor, then tipped it back. "Excuse me, Dr. Jones, did you say you're a space shit analyzer?" I cracked up again.

My father turned on the hall light. "It's two in the morning, Lu."

"Not in Moscow." I scrolled down. "Listen to this: Whiskers cut off in shaving and floating about weightlessly in a cabin could be a nuisance and foul up equipment. They've got an electric razor that sucks up hair like a vacuum cleaner."

"Very interesting. Now, go to bed."

I scrolled some more. "It doesn't say anything about shaving your legs."

"Men don't shave their legs, Lu."

"Hold on." I flipped through pages I'd retrieved from the floor until I found one headed So You Want To Be An Astronaut. "As of May 2, 1993, twenty-three women have been picked for astronaut training. How are they supposed to shave their legs in microgravity without fouling up the equipment?"

My father yawned. "Is this part of your assignment?"

"I'm researching daily life in space. Shaving is part of life, Dad."

"Maybe lady astronauts tolerate hairy legs better than you do." He scratched his head. "Come to think of it, your mother doesn't shave her legs."

"I'm talking about women who fly to the moon, not name their kids after it."

He turned off the light. "Good night, Lu. Or, rather, good morning."

I clicked on links until I found a Q&A that addressed my concern: Does a woman's menstrual cycle change with space flight? The answer: over the course of seven years and 23 women astronauts, nobody had studied that.

***

T-minus three days of womanhood and counting: I awoke with my head on the computer desk. Someone had draped a blanket over my shoulders. My mother stood at a kitchen counter, sorting freshly cut herbs. She beckoned. "Let me rub some arnica into your neck. It's got to be full of kinks, sleeping in such an unnatural position."

My neck felt fine, but I wasn't about to turn down a massage. "Guess what," I said as she oiled her hands. "Scientists have studied the effects of microgravity on pregnant rats. Some of them actually delivered in space."

Her palms swept up my neck. "You don't say."

"If you'd had the chance to give birth in space, would you have done it?"

The sweeping stopped. "Why on earth would I want to give birth in outer space?"

"You'd be closer to the moon, for one thing. Earth-to-birth Shuttle tours. Talk about a moneymaker for NASA. They could add a labor-and-delivery module to the Space Station." When she didn't resume the massage, I turned around. "Wouldn't Goddess-girls go for that?"

She looked skeptical. "Would there be a resident midwife?"

"I've been reading astronaut biographies. Some are doctors. They could handle it."

Her fingers traced tiny circles behind my ears. "Sisters prefer midwives, unless the pregnancy is high-risk. I doubt NASA would allow those anyway."

"So you're saying you'd do it if Chandra came along?"

"Too much technology. Science and sister-circles don't mix well." She wiped her hands and dug into my shoulders.

"Suppose there are sisters living in other parts of the universe. Without technology, how will you connect with them?"

"That sounds like something your father would say." She went back to bunching herbs.

I wrapped the blanket around me and headed for the powder room. "No offense, but I'd rather be an astronaut than a Goddess-girl."

She smiled. "You don't become a Goddess-anything, Luna. You are The Goddess."

I didn't buy it. The Goddess wouldn't get suspended for being hormonal.

***

T-minus four days of womanhood and counting: Brittney was waiting at my locker. "Ryan's having a pool party tomorrow night. Everyone's invited."

I banged my head against the metal door. "I'm cursed, all right. I won't be able to swim tomorrow. I won't even be able to wear a bathing suit."

"Aren't you done yet?"

"I wish. If I was an oil well, I'd be worth millions."

Brittney leaned closer and whispered, "Have you tried—"

"No way. Some loser who couldn't get a date invented the tampon to torture women." I banged my head again. "I wish, I wish—" I straightened up. Damned if I hadn't banged my way into a brilliant idea.

"What are you going to do?" Brittney asked.

"I'm going to take my mother's advice and be open-minded," I replied.

***

It's hard to believe a garden as meticulously groomed as a River Oaks debutante belonged to a witch. To my mind, a garden given over to the pursuit of magic should be a dark tangle deep in a forest. My mother's garden, however, was smack-dab in the sunny center of our backyard.

Some of what she grew ended up in scalloped potatoes and tossed salads. She brewed teas that soothed stomach upset, cured insomnia, and transformed plain castile shampoo into aromatic potion. However, much of her harvest never seasoned my food or perfumed my hair, and these were the plants that drew me to her garden that afternoon when, thank Goddess, she went on to the supermarket after driving me home from school.

I figured I had an hour to collect what I'd need to magically stop my period in time to wear a bikini to Ryan's party. I found the necessary book on a kitchen shelf, flanked by Fanny Farmer and Martha Stewart. I took the battered paperback, a bowl and the kitchen shears outside, assuming my task would be as easy as reading a recipe. As I turned pages, my hope dwindled. I had no need to deflect negative energy, attract money, or get a job. I was about to give up when I spotted Spell To Befriend Your Womb.

I would've preferred a spell to remind my womb who was in charge here, but this would have to do. No herbs required, just a red candle anointed with several drops of my menstrual blood. If this was the sort of thing my mother wanted me to do in front of strangers, sisters or not, she'd have to make other plans.

My father came outside and peeled the vinyl cover off the grill. As I approached the patio, he said, "Time to start the brisket. Your brother's coming for dinner."

I stopped walking. "Why?"

"Why not?" he said. "A guy's gotta eat somewhere."

"Are Blair and Jane coming, too?"

He nodded. I ran inside. In the pantry, I found a box full of half-burned candles, none of which were red. I had to settle for an ugly burnt-orange stump. Into the bowl it went, followed by a tarnished brass candlestick.

Locked in my room, I began my research. My mother called me to set the table, but I kept studying. In fifteen minutes, I had it covered: circle-casting, power-raising, spell-binding. I closed the book. If witchcraft was as effective as it was easy, I wouldn't need a moon ritual. I'd fix it so I'd never need one. Uncursed ad infinitum. If word got out about this useful skill, my popularity could surpass that of Mandy Wyatt, head cheerleader. Talk about empowerment.

"Loooooonaaaa!"

I hid everything under my bed and went downstairs. My mother was going through the kitchen drawers. "Have you seen my shears?" she asked.

I tried to look clueless. "Shears? You mean, like, scissors?"

She shut the drawer. "Never mind. I'll just use a knife." Halfway to the door, she stopped abruptly. Her eyes locked on mine. "Why were you using my shears?"

The book hadn't said anything about reading minds, but, of course, she had other sources of information. "Did you just work a spell for finding lost objects?"

She slipped the paring knife back into the wooden block. "I don't need a spell. I'm a mother twice over. Now, go get those shears."

I waited, expecting her to add, and my book, too.

She opened the fridge. "While you're at it, cut some spearmint and rosemary. And flowers for the table."

"How much of each?"

She set two cantaloupes on the counter. "Just fill up the bowl."

I didn't bother to ask which one.

***

I felt Mom's eyes on me each time I passed a platter or answered Bob's lame questions about school, but whenever I checked, her attention was focused elsewhere, usually on Jane. My niece looked especially cute in a yellow sundress, with tiny butterfly clips in her wispy blond curls. It took three phone books to boost her high enough to reach the table.

"Jane got a part in the school play," Blair announced. Blair looks like Jane, only taller, wider and requiring chemical assistance to keep her wispy hair curled and blond. "They're doing Peter Pan, and she's Tinkerbell. Say your big line for Nana and Papa, sweetie."

Jane's small face turned anxious. She took a deep breath and coughed twice. "If y'all believe in fairies"—another cough—"clap your hands."

We clapped like mad. Jane looked relieved. "If nobody claps, that means I'm dead."

"Sounds grim for a kid's play," my father said.

"Captain Hook poisons me," Jane explained. "I have to cough so I sound sick."

"You won't die," I assured her. "Everyone will clap."

"I wanted to be the crocodile," Jane said, "but a fifth-grader got that part."

"She's the youngest one in the cast," said Bob.

Blair prompted, and Jane recited her other lines. When the applause ended, I asked to be excused on the grounds of excessive homework. I was almost out the door when Mom asked Jane, "Would you like to keep Luna company?"

"She needs to study, Mother," said Blair. "Jane can watch TV. We brought the Peter Pan video."

"I want to go with Luna," Jane said.

"Of course you do," said my mother.

"Get the crayons out of your backpack, Janey," Blair said. She looked apologetically at me. "If she bothers you, just send her downstairs."

"She'll be fine." Mom smiled. "It's important to nurture these early feminine bonds."

***

Facing south, I sat in the center of the round braided rug in front of the burning candle. The manual was open in my lap.

Jane sat at my desk, ignoring her crayons. "Is that your homework?"

I marked the spell-binding page with my finger. "It's ma—" I caught myself. "It's like practicing a play."

Jane pointed to the Goddess-guide. "Is that your script?"

I nodded. "You need to be quiet so I don't goof and say the wrong line."

Jane's finger slid across her mouth. "Zip the lip. That's what we do backstage."

I realized I'd overlooked a key ingredient. "I'll be right back."

When I returned to the rug, I kept my left hand close to my leg until I reached for the candle. Jane wrinkled her nose.

"What's on your finger? It looks like blood."

"It's just—make-up. Zip the lip, remember?"

Jane put her hand over her mouth. Her blue eyes reflected twin candle flames. They widened as I chanted, "Dry, dry, dry as bones, sticks and stones, dried up, dried out."

I expected to feel an inner tremor, some unmistakable indication of raised power. I stared into the flame, waiting for the light to enter my womb. The candle burned placidly. My tailbone began to ache. Doubt set in. If I proceeded with insufficient power, would the spell backfire? Just to be safe, I repeated the chant.

Jane squirmed. The chair squeaked. "You said that line already."

I closed my eyes and imagined my womb as a smooth, pink hot water bottle. Red drops leaked from the opening at the bottom. I imagined a white plug floating in a bubble of light that surrounded the bottle. The plug screwed itself into the opening. The leaking stopped. My hands made their entrance, one from each wing. The right held a roll of duct tape. Round and round went the silver strip, crisscrossing the bottle, binding the plug forever in place.

***

T-minus five days of womanhood and counting: I was still wearing a diaper.

In the afternoon carpool line, Katie told us there'd be a DJ at Ryan's party.

"Where'd you hear that?" Brittney asked.

"My mom plays tennis with Ryan's mom," Katie said. She kept checking her watch and rising onto her toes to scan the approaching cars.

When I commented on this, she said she had an appointment, but I didn't believe her. She'd been standoffish since I'd challenged her about the Space Station project. If she didn't lighten up soon, I'd need to work the spell deflecting negative energy.

She took off the moment her mother's minivan entered the drive. Brittney slipped a tampon into my purse. "Just in case."

***

"We discussed this already. The circle is expecting you," my mother said.

I was sweeping up pieces of the plate I'd dropped when I realized I needed to be in two different places at the same time. The tears I blinked back came from rage, not hormones. "Y'all meet twice a month. The party is a one-time thing."

My father went into his study and shut the door.

The phone rang. It was Katie. "I really need to talk to you," she said.

"We're having an important discussion. Tell her you'll call her back," Mom said.

I told her. "If you see Ryan, let him know I'll be a little late."

"Who's Ryan?" Mom asked when I hung up.

I returned the broom and dustpan to the pantry. "In the middle school pantheon, he's the top football god. I'm his priestess, worshipping from afar."

Her expression changed from pissed to pained. "Oh, honey. Not football. It's so male."

"Would you rather I fall in love with Mandy, the cheerleader?"

She put her arm around my shoulders. "I'd rather you fall in love with yourself."

"That sounds perverted."

She looked at me the way the counselor had: sorrow spiked with exasperation. "Come to circle, just for an hour. Dad can pick you up and get you to your party."

Something occurred to me. "Do you play tennis?"

She seemed surprised. "I haven't played since I was your age."

"You could take lessons at the racquet club. Think of the friends you'd make."

She crossed her arms. "This isn't about tennis, is it?"

"Why am I the only one in this family who has to be open-minded?"

"Fine." Her expression said the opposite. "I'll go to circle by myself."

It appeared I had gained some leverage. "If I come with you, can we join the racquet club? Can we at least discuss it?"

"Maybe later. Right now, I need to get in the shower and purify myself," she said.

***

As she drove, she talked about the fall equinox, not tennis. "Days and nights are in complete balance. It's an auspicious time to come into the fullness of womanhood."

"I'd rather not go into that, if you don't mind." If I sounded a tad peevish, it was for good reason. When I'd tried Brittney's tampon, it had gotten stuck halfway in. I'd worked a half-assed spell: closing my womb just enough to keep a tampon out. Somewhere in the cosmos, The Goddess was rolling on the floor.

We arrived at the circle leader's house, a pea-green Victorian with a wraparound front porch and a bronze plaque from the Register of Historic Places. "The great state of Texas allows a witch to own one of its architectural treasures? How open-minded," I said.

"We don't use the W-word. Society has corrupted it," my mother said tartly.

Cars pulled up. Her sisters converged on us. Their attire ranged from Asian peasant-wear to silk business suits. One peasant wore a single feather earring so long it brushed her collarbone. The silk-suiters were young, as in younger than my mother. The rest were in various stages of wrinkled cronehood. What got my attention was how purposefully each woman walked toward the house and held herself once she got there, as if her bones and skin and gut were sturdier than most, and she knew it. Feather-Woman looked at me in the wide-open way she looked at the others, as if she expected to like me. She laughed suddenly, and my heart stuttered. Was she, like my mother, able to read minds?

A tiny woman with dandelion-fluff hair opened the door. "Sorry. I was on the toilet. At my age, it takes awhile."

A silk-suiter pointed to the house with a comment about vintage plumbing, and everyone cracked up. They certainly weren't grim, Macbeth-type witches. If you closed your eyes and listened to them giggle, you'd swear you were on the playground during kindergarten recess.

My mother introduced me to the hostess, Darla or Danielle, something close enough to Dandelion that I forgot it as soon as I heard it. Likewise, I heard and forgot the names of the others, who hugged me and said, "Blessed be." The only name I remembered was Feather's—Pat—which sounds more like a room mother than a covener.

We filed through the kitchen, past a table covered with plastic-domed deli platters, outside onto the patio. In the center was a round table, quilt-draped and crowded with candles and baskets. It had gotten dark enough that the candles cast a cozy glow, but not too dark to see the baskets' contents: apples, unshelled pecans, bunches of hay tied with orange ribbon, potted mums the same rusty color as what still stained my diaper. I squelched this thought before the collective witch-radar picked up the signal of a rookie woman at odds with her womb.

In twos and threes, they circled the table, depositing pinecones, scraps of cloth, handfuls of unpopped corn. My mother placed an herb bouquet; Feather, a small pumpkin. Each took a pillow from a storage tub and seated herself around what was, apparently, the altar. I was about to help myself to a pillow, but my mother led me to a deck chair at the edge of the patio. They were about to start, she whispered. When my father came at eight-thirty, I was to leave as quietly as possible.

"Why can't I sit with y'all? I can't see very well way over here," I complained.

"If we cast the circle with you in it, you can't leave till it's formally opened. Of course," she added, "you're welcome to stay if you've changed your mind about the party."

I plopped into my assigned seat. "The party is non-negotiable."

"So mote it be," she said and returned to her pillow.

Dandelion said something about breathing, and nothing happened for awhile. Then she lifted her arms like a fired-up televangelist and started talking in a deep voice about harvesting and thanksgiving, a theme that seemed premature since it was over a month till Halloween. I watched candlelight flicker across the women's faces and zoned out until she shouted something about the Sun King. A male royal had infiltrated The Goddess' court?

Dandelion went on and on about someone fierce and gentle, son and father, hunter and lover. Her face tipped toward the moon, glowing like the great eye of The Goddess to the left of the TV antenna. "O Horned God who lives, dies and lives again, O great consort, be with us!"

It took a moment to exhume the word from my mind's mass grave of past vocabulary tests. "Consort!" I echoed, forgetting to keep my voice down. What a revelation: The Goddess had a steady boyfriend.

My mother turned and put her finger to her lips. Dandelion picked up a bowl and walked around the circle, dipping her hand and flicking liquid onto each woman. "Water and salt, inside and out, cast forth the harmful and be cleansed," she intoned. When she finished, the chanting started, something about power and the mother, a combination I was familiar with. What I wanted was more information about this horned god of love, such as whether he had any advice for a young woman trying to get a certain young man's attention. I was dying to raise my hand and ask politely, but I refrained. There was no telling what manner of tribulation The Goddess might smite me with—cursed ad infinitum?—if I interrupted Her devotees.

The women's flickering faces no longer seemed playful, but taut and intense. As if cued, they stood, turned and started walking counterclockwise. Someone shouted, "The good ol' boys in my office!"

Everyone repeated this, then shouted, "We banish you!"

"Patriarchal women!" shouted another. The circle kept moving, working its way through anorexic supermodels and the religious right to an abusive ex-husband and parents who'd rejected their lesbian daughter. The tone of the chant had gone from mildly pissed to downright furious. I was glad I hadn't butted in to ask if the love god could help me out with Ryan.

A cowbell clanged. A drum thumped. When they started clapping, I thought of Jane Anne. If you believe in fairies… Nobody noticed when I went inside. I had fifteen minutes to kill before Dad showed up. A swing hung from the ceiling of the front porch. Its chains squeaked when I sat and pushed off.

The moon was suspended above the house across the street, halved by a gray belt of clouds. It looked like a broken eggshell, the brittle womb that had carried a half-baked quail into space. Slowly, the clouds drifted on, leaving behind a big, bright rock. No magical eye, just a destination. A jet glided earthward, red lights pulsing on its wings. Framed by the porch posts, roof and railing, the scene was a postcard addressed to the Space Station: Here's the view from down here. How do things look from up there?

With each creaky swing, my questions multiplied, enough for a whole letter to Shannon Lucid or whatever promising mission specialist was destined to be the next Top Woman in Space. Up there, surrounded by dwarf wheat and beeping computers, was it just science, what launched you and kept you in orbit, that you believed in? Looking down from the moon's backyard, was it any easier to go with a Goddess thing, or a God thing, or whatever thing your science couldn't explain, the thing that powered people before they invented science? Was it the chance to get a different angle on what your deity-of-choice had created that lured you into the sky, or was it the rush of briefly being a sky-god yourself?

I didn't realize my father had arrived until he honked the horn. "Were the rites so sacred they wouldn't let you watch?" he asked when I got in the car.

"I left early. I didn't really get it."

He patted my leg. "At least you gave it a try. Your mother appreciates that."

"Maybe." What she'd really appreciate was my conversion, and not just to womanhood. How I envied Jane Anne, young enough to believe in both astronauts and fairies, years away from having to take sides.

***

Flailing bodies jammed the dance floor. An inflatable dolphin floated back and forth across the illuminated pool. Bamboo torches flared beside the DJ's speakers. Remnants of a brisket lay on a platter in the center of the buffet table, surrounded by paper plates dotted with feasting flies. I took a can of soda from the ice chest so I'd have something to do with my hands when I encountered Ryan.

Sipping root beer, I circled the dance floor. Everyone was wearing a swimsuit. Brittney was dancing with a boy I didn't know. A look of impending doom crossed her face when she spotted me.

I asked if she'd seen Ryan, and the doomed look intensified. She pulled me toward the dancers. "C'mon. The music's too good to just stand around."

I hung back. "Maybe later."

"You didn't bring your bikini, did you?" I was still shaking my head when she said, "They have a ping-pong table in the game room. Maybe Ryan's in there." She pushed me gently toward the house. "Actually, I'm almost positive I saw him go inside."

"Okay, already," I said. "I'll check it out."

She hesitated, then wormed her way back through the dancers. The DJ changed to a slow song, and everyone paired off. Flailing turned to swaying, shuffling and examples of what our principal disparagingly calls PDAs—Public Displays of Affection. I checked the couples carefully, but Ryan was not among them.

On the patio, two women in caterer's aprons were setting up a make-your-own sundae bar. Some A-crowd girls in bikinis—mostly Sarahs and Melissas, with some Kristins and Chelseas mixed in—were hanging around the ice chest. I found a scoop and dug into the tub of chocolate ice cream. "Hurry up, you guys," I urged, moving on to vanilla. "When the song ends, everyone will be over here."

One of the Melissas said, "Ice cream is so fattening. It makes me break out."

I stopped, mid-scoop. My bowl contained three brown mounds topped with a lobe of white. "I break out no matter what I eat. Hormones, I guess."

"Fat goes straight to my thighs," said another Melissa. "It's, like, a family curse. My mother jogs every single day, and her thighs are still huge."

I abandoned the scoop and ladled a trickle of caramel sauce into my bowl, then a drip of hot fudge. The A-girls changed the subject to homework as they surreptitiously checked out each other's thighs. The slow song gave way to another. I passed on the whipped cream and carried my bowl to a chair by the pool.

The dolphin drifted toward the spiral slide at the deep end. Behind the slide was a cottage I assumed was a changing room or storage shed. I licked my spoon and considered my thighs. When I looked up, the dolphin was gliding toward me, and Ryan and Katie were coming out of the cottage, holding hands.

This did not make sense.

Katie wasn't a cheerleader or even a B-squad volleyballer. Her forehead had, at most, four fewer zits than mine. We got the same grades. We even wore the same size jeans, so our thighs had to be comparable.

As they walked toward the dance floor, it became obvious that this was my mother's fault. My moon-gazing, tennis-dismissing mother who hadn't had the sense to have me when she was inclined to be mother of a Jane or Melissa, not sister to the universe. Safe in a sorority whose ethic was we're The Goddess, you're The Goddess, I'm The Goddess, too, she knew nothing about the girl-eat-girl world I lived in. She'd gotten it all wrong, putting Ryan down on the basis of football machismo. Males were not the problem. The problem was ourselves.

I set my bowl on the ground. Somewhere above me, the Space Station was casting invisible circles around the planet. "Katie!" I shouted, clapping till I got her attention. She looked at me, and I looked back, and for the one exquisite moment of her surprise, the power was mine.

Her chin dipped as she said something to Ryan. The insides of my thighs scraped against my diaper as I lurched toward the pool. I'd gotten it wrong, too, I realized. I'd expected too much from my mother's magic.

My insides seethed with revenge. I'd cover Katie's locker with ultra-thin-supers. Treat her to brownies laced with Ex-Lax. Start a rumor. That slut locked herself in the bathroom with Ryan's best friend.

By the time I reached the slide, I felt like a walking container of digestive elimination. Behind me, one song ran into the next, and they all sounded the same. The breeze breathed against my cheek, carrying the echo of Dandelion's chant. Water and salt, inside and out…

Rung by rung, I climbed the ladder. Drums swelled beneath me. The water pulsed with turquoise light, as pure as chemistry could make it. I sat at the top, my legs tilted into the first curve, counting silently. T-minus ten, nine, eight… When I ran out of numbers, I looked the moon square in the eye and pushed off.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of CLR

Marian Szczepanski

Marian Szczepanski is a fiction writer, poet, journalist and graduate of Warren Wilson College's MFA Program for Writers. The recent recipient of a Houston Press Club award for feature writing and the 2001 Notorious Fellowship in Literary Fiction from The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow, she is currently writing a novel about the Divine Feminine.


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