Thursday, December 07, 2006

Witches Meet, Here

The Japan Club meeting had been a bust. Our advisor was mad that no one wanted to be president, the past president didn’t want to be present president--or future president, for that matter--I liked being secretary since that meant I didn’t have to be president, and the other five people there managed to keep their heads down and eyes diverted so as not to make some sign they would regret later. Once we had all had enough of this silliness, the others who had to get some homework done although I didn’t, right now, at least, I headed home. A shot of coffee might calm my nerves but I also thought maybe a little change of scenery might also wake me up. The walk to the coffee shop in the cool October air fixed the latter and the coffee wasn’t made yet so I helped myself to a table made for four and waited.

The campus coffee house was small, of course, and the rent was probably very high. Space was at a premium being stuck between a laundromat and a tattoo parlor. The owner had decorated it with coffee labels and African and South American road signs and city banners. The furniture was eclectic-used office furniture and mixed imported pieces with a dash of art deco. The floor was concrete, covered by burlap rugs. The walls were painted block speckled with color photographs of beaches and islands.
At the bar was an older fellow, jeans, baseball hat, dress shirt with the tail out, making a pass at the young girl taking orders. She had to do the coffee, fix the sandwiches, and take the pestering from his type. I hoped she liked her job.

Out by the window two guys were conspiring to blow up the world, I imagined. They talked without much emotion. Heads down and serious. You meet people like that in places like this. Bars are too noisy and smoky; too many drunk, obnoxious people. The non-drinking obnoxia came here.

Next to me was a table of six, and now I noticed a sign “Witches, Meet Here.” My composition instructor would have us take apart those three words by moving the comma. “Witches, Meet Here” was a command while “Witches Meet, Here” was more like a convention placard. But they looked the world to me like old hippies. Washed up communites. Homespun clothes. Tie-dye. Plain threaded. One had her small child in a carrier down on the floor. They all had coffees of some kind, a latte or two. No tea. The women wore their hair long, braided, but only two of the men had ponytails. They were all so deep in thought. And once in a while one would sit back in their chair as if what every they had just said carried weight of the future of the world.

I could catch snippets from--what would their group be called? If cattle herd and quail covey and vultures kettle then was this a convergence of witches? A dash of goblins? A stand of brooms?

“...their chickens aren’t approved....” drifted my way.

Now there was a thought. Did witches need, like, kosher chickens to make the sacrifice--what was the word I was looking for? Blessed? Sacred? Reverent? Was there some kind of sanctified chicken quartering ritual? Did they start with whole fryers or cut up? Did they use grape juice or wine?

“...we need a better place outdoors than Fred’s farm...,” said someone.

“Yup, it’s getting hard to have some privacy in this world,” replied somebody else.

I imagined the headline, “Urbanization Threatens City Witches.” Was the city’s expansion putting the squeeze on the small farm, or the park, or a corner of the forest, where they had met for 30 years to practice their craft. And now the farm was being forced to sell for taxes or the nearby woods had been cut exposing their meeting place hidden back off the road to the neighbor who want living in the country with all the city conveniences, who want to see cows but not smell them, to see a real farmer but not at midnight on a full moon, circling naked around a bond fire. How do they recruit new members? Or do they? How do you ask around for the local coven? Is it in the phone book? Do they have a chapter name and number like the local plumbers and steam fitters? An internet search?

“Besides, his barn is really cold!” someone added. I had not noticed whose barn they were talking about.

My coffee was getting stale and I went to the pump to refill. A red head was sitting at the bar trying to ward off a nosy guy who didn’t seem to understand (or at least ignored) the too-subtle brush off. When I got back to my table one of the women, a young one, the one with the baby in the carrier, was preparing to leave. They gave her a hearty enough farewell. No secret messages--that I could tell--or hand signals. No bowing like we do in Japan Club where Billy McAllister hasn’t yet learned to take off his ball cap when he bows and the thing ends up on the floor. He’s a good kid, kind of conservative, likes being in the club and likes especially Nioka Tooms who is only the most attractive girl on campus, in my humble opinion. Billy just also hasn’t figured out he not only won’t get to first base with Nioka Tooms he’ll never even get up to bat.

“...anybody?...” sneaked across the gap in the tables.

I wondered how one witch greets another? I could fake a bow. We encourage guests. Do they? Or did you have to wait invited to participate in a ritual at an outdoor meeting? What if they could only meet in a garage? Do their thing over a star of candles. Churches had been founded on less, I guess.
Between the guy at the microphone trying his best to read his poetry, that lacked emotion or sense, and the general noise level, I lost track of the conversation at their table. Occasionally I’d hear a chuckle or exclamation but nothing worthwhile.

The coffee was stale again and so was my brain. I headed home about 7:00 or so. The sun was just below the horizon and the clouds had a curious blue and pink striped look. Just coming up was an orange full moon. Would they meet if the full moon was clouded over? Or if it was raining? Who was in charge of the fire and collecting the wood? That’s no so easy anymore. Folks have their brush hauled away and you can’t just wander onto somebody’s property and help yourself to their wood. Did they use scrap lumber? Two-by-fours and plywood? Or ends? Was that kosher?

When we were kids we’d pretend witch by standing a couple of flashlights on end and sitting inside a tent made up of a sheet draped over the backs of chairs: until mom would chase us out of the kitchen.

Our club needed some help. Maybe we needed a monthly ritual meeting. Serve sake? We needed organization. We really could meet someplace other than the school, too. Not in a restaurant but maybe, when the weather was good, at a park. But mostly we needed officers and members or we’d fold from lack of interest.

Washer Bee

AND MY DAD SAID: “I was working in the garage, up on Maple Street,” we were living at the time on the farm, renting the place, far enough out in the country that it was enjoyable, quiet, fun. “And, as I turned around this wasp collided with me right in the fore head. Wham! Like gettin’ hit with a hammer. Knocked me flat on my back. My dad--your grandfather--picked me up off the floor and had to take me the emergency room to get me back on my feet.”

We all have heard that a bee sting really hurts. Some of us even know it. Even Poo-bear knows that. A couple of years ago I was mowing the yard and passed over a swarm of yellowjackets who had nested down in a cravasse in the ground where the slope was pulling away, and they charged me, from behind, and attacked my shins and calves. To say it hurt is beyond polite words to describe. So when I was doing the laundry the other day, in the basement of my house, I noticed something come loose from the clothes as I pulled them from the washer. Any other time it would be a button or dime. Or pen cap, meaning I had a mess in the laundry to clean up again. But I saw, noticed, suspected, something fling off, down to the floor, from a handful of clothes. So I looked to one side and tried to pile the clothes to the other side, making an aim towards the basket (I air dry everything.) The floor grey, the room dark, I only have one light bulb going and the door was open letting in a shaft of light across the floor and I didn’t see right off what I was looking for. On the other side of the light from the door, making the floor a bit brighter, was a yellow jacket. I stopped. Growled. I didn’t want to get stung but it wasn’t moving either. Was that what was in my clothes? Would that make it mad? At me? It wasn’t my fault!

Well, I could either step on it, be cautious about the moves it might make, or ignore it. The laundry waits for no one.

The bee--a yellow jacket--was confused--but not as we understand confusion. There was light, at the door although doors were not a concept it could understand. It did not lack land legs--so to speak-- thanks to the ride through the centrifuge giving it that tilted effect, like walking on two legs a different size than the two others, or three per side, in this case or, maybe it was from having spent some time trapped atop the agitator during the spin cycle. Too much water and it’s wings (there are four) stuck together. Too much soapy air would not be good for anything to breath. When you breath little tiny modules of air, each one must be reasonably clean. But it apparently had taken a ride down in the clothes, in the water, in the soap, and been squashed under (or maybe aside?) by soaked blue jeans in the spin cycle would at least suffocate any higher animal order. And shuttled back and forth during the wash cycle, buffeted between sox and sheets.

Then the blinding flash of the sun, through the open door, attractive but not warm. Actually the floor was a bit warmer than the air, and a lot warmer than the cold water. The shake out had provided a brief rush of chill as the moist air evaporated into the laundry room. It was immune to the aroma of the clothes--was the ride any better in the whites only?

So its only reflex was to do--nothing. For the moment. It didn’t register the human, or the washing machine or really, even, the light through the door. It’s movitivated by scent and warmth. Too much of either is not better than too little of either. The detergent must not have been perfumed. And the moist air of the basement laundryroom held no draw.

But, also lacking any reason to act otherwise, it was not agressive. Or mad. What was there to get mad at? The washing machine was there, but did not threaten or trigger fear. The machine--a concept way beyond anything the bee might conisder--was just, well, a lump of something not very interesting. No food. No pollen. No nothing.

Several moments passed as the temperature of the sunbeam heated a shaft of air, as the precise arrangement for life for the yellow jacket came into context, as the narrow band of ecology that the bee requires for life sank, almost literaly, to his level. As all these inplays began to unfold, the bee aroused.

And departed.

The common yellow jacket here in the east (vespula flavopilosa) is a hardy soul. They swarm just about any place and human property rights are not their concern. During pollination--which is effectively all summer--the yellow jacket is out on the search during the day and settled in for the night. That they get in your home or car or clothes is not uncommon. They follow the scent and haven’t quite understood about doors and windows getting closed behind them. And, actually, they are not very good flyers. All bees (and flies) tend towards an up-and-forward motion, down and back only from slowing their wing beat rather than changing the wing stoke or gliding. That puts a strain on their energy supply which makes refueling important. Being small they can turn corners and exit a blind spot fairly easily but once covered up, for example by clothes in a hamper, they sit resignedly either from an understanding of their predicament or from a lack of energy.

It is not unusual for them to fly into clothes, particularly on the clothesline. They sense their target beyond the sheets and do not recognize the sheet the way mammals or fishes or the birds see objects. Anything in their flight path is fair game if it’s warm-- our bodies or a bear’s or a dog’s or the kids’. For one to understand that a bee could get caught up in the laundry and dumped in the wash is not unlikely but probably not something the yellow jacket comprehends as a thrill ride. Williamson and Scott reported as far back as 1937 a yellow jacket that landed, for no known reason, on the blade of a yard-sized windmill and just hung on for dear life until the windmill stopped and then, the tale goes, it took several moments for the insect to right itself, probably from being dizzy even for a brain not much larger than a sunflower seed, and fly off.

There are also reports (Downy; Smithson; Carlsdan; others) of home owners who flood a ground nest with water only to flush a hive of very angry yellow jackets on a wave of the water. To the citizens’ chagrin, once dried out the yellow jackets just re-swarm as if nothing happened. Most homeowners don’t realize the yellow jackets float on the flood or when a heavy dew sets or on those rainy days all they do is surf until they can beach themselves and then, not using a thinking process as we understand it, they have not option but to wait and dry out. That’s if they leave the hive at all as has been my experience to see my back yard swarm arrive back home a half hour before a good hard rain. As if they feel the low pressure and the humidity.

Unless water is virtually injected into their lungs what happens is they go into a stupor, a very strong suspended state, involuntarily, and only when the “air” becomes dryer and warmer do they breath again. That’s one of the reasons yellow jackets are so hard to kill. That this yellow jacket survived is not surprising.

I’d like to know how if it enjoyed the ride!