Chapter 27 – When the Student is Ready…

After this veritable parade of unpleasant or overwrought people through my personal space, I will not delay the spiritual cleansing of the conservatory.  As a matter of fact, I fully intend to completely refresh the atmosphere in the entire shop.  I am so tired of the harmful energy that is being dragged in and thrown at me…and those I love, in the place we live.  It lingers most unpleasantly and apparently draws more to itself.  I am done with it.

Being Monday and with no customers to worry about, I can convince Zeke to help me do the cleansing.  We use up all of our sage bundles and sandalwood oil, smudging and anointing throughout the building.  Vader follows us around, watching intently as we murmur the Kwan Yin mantra over and over, pushing out the bad stuff.  I put various onyx bowls filled with lavender buds here and there, with the biggest one going on the table in the conservatory.  Onyx and lavender both absorb harmful energy and I intend to suck it all out of my atmosphere—and keep it out.

I take advantage of the spiritual cleaning to do some actual physical cleaning.  It’s amazing how dusty things get, even with regular attention to keeping it in order.  I also rearrange some stuff.  I can’t help it.  It’s what I do…and Zeke is actually willing to help instead of his usual trick of claiming computer chores.  Love that man!

Even with as much as we get accomplished, it doesn’t take as long as I was willing to spend on it.  By early afternoon we are able to do some relaxing.  I putter in the kitchen, making a shopping list and trying to decide what we could have for dinner that wouldn’t involve using that list first.  I soon realize that if I don’t go to the store, dinner will be an interesting mixture of water crackers, questionable sour cream, and canned cherries.  Even Zeke is not a good enough cook to make a meal out of that.  So I stick my head into the computer room where he is playing some sort of killing game.

“Hey, I need to go the grocery store.  You want to go?”

He nods and shuts down his game.  We head out, promising goodies to Vader who is as low on food as we are.

It seems like everyone and their brother is at the store.  We walk up and down the aisles as we fill our cart with life’s necessities and some luxuries.  We’re standing in the canned goods when Daniel and Gerald walk up to us.  Two more Pagans, another part of the accursed group that won’t leave us alone.  I can only imagine what kind of accusations they are going to make, considering what everyone else has been saying.

I’m busy enough pursuing this line of thought that it takes me a moment or two to understand what Daniel is talking about.

“Umm, Mattie.  Zeke.  We were talking to some friends of ours…you know them.  Rob and Joshua?” he pauses and waits for us to acknowledge.  We both nod slowly and I can tell that Zeke is as curious as I am to where this is going.  “Well, they were telling us about Mattie and how she healed Josh.  And with all that’s been going on with the coven…”

He stops speaking and glances over at Gerald who bobs his head up and down, indicating that he should continue.

“Well, we thought perhaps…that is, we’d like…if you would consider letting us, well, be apprentices.  Or novices, or whatever you call it.  Learn from you.”

Zeke and I are both amazed.  Daniel mistakes our silence for refusal and begins to speak his arguments for why we should teach them.

“We like the group well enough, but frankly, there’s a limit to any Pagan groups around here.  In fact, it was pretty much the only group we could find near our home.  So we went to ritual with them.  But with John Robert pretty much focusing on the Great Rite, and generally meaning the Great Rite only between a man and a woman we always felt, well, a little left out.”  He pauses.  “We had been talking about finding something else anyways, and then he died, and the group sort of fell apart.  So we were trying to decide what we could do when we got to talking to our friends and they told us about you.”

“Us?” I ask.

“No, YOU. “  He points at me.  “They said that you are a healer.   Rob just couldn’t stop talking about how you removed the cancer out of Josh.”

The light goes on.  Before I can say anything, Daniel rushes on.

“I mean, John Robert never did anything like Rob says you can do.  He led a great ritual, but I’m not sure he ever really DID anything.  Other than…well, practice the Great Rite.” He makes a grim smile.  “Obviously you must be a better teacher if you can actually do some of the stuff I’ve read about.  We can meet you anywhere, you can come to our house, or we can come to yours.  We just want to—“

Zeke cuts him off.  “Daniel, if you’re looking for easy answers and some mystical power, we’re not what you’re looking for.”

His answer shows great perception.  “I know that, that was John Robert’s shtick.  I guess what we’re looking for is what you two seem to have—an un-shakable sense of right, even a sacred rightness, a calm that surrounds you no matter what, the sense of knowing who you are and where you’re going.  And not needing anyone else to tell you what it is.  Even though it seems like I’m telling you to tell me.  I just want, we both just want to really live the things we’ve talked about in ritual.  Following the path…every day, in all that we do and not just on Sabbats.”

I look at Zeke.  We have never taken on students before.  Oh we’ve taught some herb classes and we’ve held workshops on altar tools, but we have never had an ongoing teaching gig.  I don’t consider myself teacher material and I have no desire to draw up lesson plans so I’m not sure this is a good idea.

Even before we were together, he and I both preferred the solitary path.  Speaking for myself, I don’t know that I have any particular qualifications to show anyone else how to live.  So I begin to open my mouth to say no when Zeke speaks first.

“Ok.”  I stare at him.  Daniel and Gerard are visibly relieved and are going to say more when he continues.

“You have to understand that all we can tell you, the only things we can show is what works for us.  It may not work for you.  It may not resonate for you at all.  I make no promises, offer no sure rewards—nothing.  We can only share what we do and you will have to decide if it is true for you as well.”

They nod in tandem, like a pair of bobble-heads.  I am still in shock but am willing to work this out on his terms.  It doesn’t sound like lesson plans will be necessary.

“Thank you, thank you both so much.”  Daniel ignores the fact that I haven’t agreed to anything.  “Can I stop by the store tomorrow and we can schedule a meeting time that will work for all of us?”

“Sure.  You know when we’re open?”  Zeke asks.

“Oh yes, we’ll be sure to come before you close!”  They both hug us quickly before heading off to finish their shopping.

I watch them walk off and then turn to Zeke.  “Since when do we teach?”

“Since they asked.  I meant it when I said all we could do is share what we live, the truths we have found.  Our truths may not be theirs, but if we don’t at least point them out, how can they test and decide for themselves what their truths are?  After seeing the local Pagans, I feel a responsibility to be more involved at a community level.”

“Community level?  What do you mean?”  This is the first I have heard of his feelings about this and I’m a little startled.

“Well, we may walk our paths alone—alone together, even—but we are still part of the greater community just by identifying as Pagans.  So if there is a problem or trouble in the community by extension these are our problems or troubles as well.”

“Seems to me we’ve had enough of their particular troubles lately.”

“Well, yes.  They are pretty spectacular by most anyone’s standard.  But perhaps if we had been more involved, things might not have gone quite this way.”

“Are you suggesting we could have prevented murder?”

“I don’t know.  I do know that there’s a group of people who are in pain, unsure and lost to the truth, even to their own truths and we are in a position to help.”

“We are not going to run that coven, are we?  That is not what you’re suggesting, is it?  Because if it is…”

“Gods, no!  I have absolutely no desire to be a High Priest and tell anyone else what to believe and how to express that belief.”  Zeke catches a hold on my shoulders and speaks with great intensity.  “What I told those two is completely the limit of what I’m willing to do.  I will talk about how I live, the things that work for me.  If they want to learn how to cast magic spells, they can refer to any number of books that will give them the nuts and bolts of that.  If they insist on following me like sheep, they will find out that I am a wolf—and they’d better run.

“To quote your good friend Morpheus from “The Matrix”, I can only show them the door.  They will have to open it for themselves.”

He breaks the mood with this joke and I relax.  I have absolutely no desire to lead and I’m glad that I won’t have to contend with him ending up as the High Priest, which would almost assuredly cast me as High Priestess.  It is one thing for me to believe that I am the Goddess Incarnate here on Earth and quite another to have a group of people worship me as such.

Pagans will tell you that when the student is ready, the teacher will come.  I wonder if that works in reverse, with the students showing up when the teacher is finally ready?  I guess we’re about to find out.

We finish our hunting and foraging in good time and head home.  Vader is pleased to see how very successful we are.  Me, I’m happy to let Zeke cook dinner.

Afterwards, per our chore division agreement, I do the dishes.  As I clean up the kitchen, I can hear the printer running and running.  He is printing out something pretty big and I can’t imagine what it is.  I’m nosy enough that I go into the computer room to find out.

“Hey there.  Where are your notes on herbs?”  He asks me as I come in.

“I’ll tell you that if you’ll tell me what you’ve just printed out, since it sounded like War and Peace was coming out of the machine.”  I grin.

“I am making hard copy of our Pagan stuff—our personal stuff, that isn’t in a book I can refer the guys to.  Would you mind letting me print out your Book of Shadows?  I’ve already pulled mine.”

“Ummm—“

“Not the personal part, the research/reference parts.  I didn’t mean we’d share all the naughty bits, silly girl!”  He reaches over and pulls me into his lap, kissing me.

When I can breathe again, I agree.  I also give him the flash drive with all of my herbal references.  We look around to find some binders to put all of the paper into.  We work companionably until he is pleased with the finished results, which he sets off on a shelf until we set up an actual meeting time with our new learners.

The rest of the evening is spent talking about how we will work with them, what we think is important to share and what can be left for them to discover on their own.  I can only hope that they won’t invite the rest of that misbegotten Pagan crowd until the police arrest John Robert’s murderer and things finally settle down.  I can’t afford to smudge the house every week.

Tuesday is relatively busy but Zeke and I get the chance to talk about just where we want to do this teaching-sharing thing.  We both feel it would be easier to have the men come to the store and use the conservatory or library since almost all of the reference materials are nearby.  What isn’t near will be in all that printing Zeke has done so we’re still covered.

True to his word, Daniel shows up in the late afternoon.

“Hi, Mattie, Zeke.  You haven’t changed your minds, have you?”  He smiles at us.  “Gerald was all in a dither last night because he is terrified that you will decide you don’t want to teach us.  We know it’s a lot to ask but frankly, I wouldn’t know who else could do it.”

Zeke answers him.  “No, of course we haven’t changed our minds.  I’m not convinced that we are the only choice around here, but we are willing to give it a try.  Mattie and I were talking about the details of where and when.  We would think that meeting right here is the best idea.  We have the space for just about anything we might end up doing in the course of our discussions as well as the things here in the store for audiovisual aids.”

“Oh yes!”  Daniel concurs enthusiastically.  “That would be completely acceptable to us.  So when can we meet?  I mean, you all work retail so I know you’re busy on the weekends but I don’t want you to give up your day off.”

“Oh we won’t.”  Zeke grins.  “What are your work schedules like?”

“Well, Gerry works from home so any time that works for the rest of us is good for him.  He’s already said that we just tell him when and he’ll be there.  I have a regular nine to five with weekends off but I can shift things around if I need to.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary.  We close relatively early on Sunday evenings so it occurred to me that perhaps if you guys came over about the time we lock the shop at 5, we’d have a couple of hours to work together.  That still gives all of us a chance to get some dinner afterwards and it shouldn’t interfere with work the next day.  How does that sound to you?”

“Sounds perfect.  Uh, can we do this every week?”  He looks at us with timid smile.  “I mean, if that’s too much, how often can we meet?  We are truly serious about this so I know we’re a bit umm enthusiastic.”

“I understand.  I think meeting weekly is not a bad starting point.  If we run out of things to talk about we can change that.  Same thing with the time.  If it starts to be a problem, we’ll figure something else out.”

“Good, good.  I know we are both looking forward to this.  And having pretty much cornered you into agreeing to it, I hesitate to ask this but…”  And he does indeed hesitate, looking from Zeke to me until we both indicate he should continue.  “Well, I think Rob and Josh would be interested in coming.  Maybe not every week because I think Rob has his own group, but sometimes?”

“Sure, I don’t see why not.  In the meantime, here’s what we’ve come up with as far as how things can run.  Mattie and I thought we’d have it pretty free-wheeling, no particularly planned curriculum.  I have some materials for you and I’d like to see what kind of books you two have.  I mean, at least a list, not necessarily troop a bunch of books over here.  We figure that we’ll just talk most of the time, referring to stuff as we need to clear up a point or demonstrate things that work for us.  Remember, this is not about you tagging along behind us but seeking out your spiritual path.  We plan on being basically a signpost, if that makes sense.”

“Absolutely.  And yes, that all sounds exactly right.  I’d rather have a signpost than a leash.”  He sighs.  “I hadn’t realized how very, ummm, limiting John Robert was in his teaching.  He told us how to do things, not why and it didn’t matter if it made sense to us or not.  I’d like to have my beliefs make sense, at least to me.  It would also help if I could explain them, since my family has a hard enough time accepting my being gay.  Being Pagan on top of that just makes them crazy.”

We nod our understanding.  Zeke was fortunate that his parents were actually Pagans themselves, even though they walked a slightly different path.  My family on the other hand knew that I was headed straight for eternal damnation, between being a Pagan and being divorced.  Oh well.  So I could sympathize with Daniel.

“So.  This Sunday, at 5 o’clock pm.  We’ll be here.  Is there anything you want us to bring?”  He tilts his head to one side, like a friendly dog, looking quizzically at us.

“Let’s start with that list of Pagan books you’ve read, and any book you’re actually reading now.”  Zeke tells him.

“Oh sure.  I actually meant, shall we bring some munchies, something to drink?  Wine, or if that’s not right, some tea?”

“We do wine.”  I answer for us.  “That would be nice, but it’s not necessary…”

“Oh I know, but I will.”  He comes up to each of us and hugs us before heading out of the store.  “See you all then!”

We watch him go and then turn back to the business at hand.

The remainder of the week goes by quietly and I decide that the cleansing is working.  At least for now.

We do find the time to let Paul know about our visit from Barry Tisdale, going down to the station one evening after closing the shop.  He writes it all down, the same as he’s done with everything else we’ve had to tell him.

Looking at his notes, he shakes his head and glances up at us.  “Well, when you put this way, he’s right.  It all does point back to you.”

I glare at him.

“Well, you have to admit that it does seem sequential.  If you just completely pass over the fact that you have only reacted to the situation and not instigated it.”  He grins at me.  “Oh please, if I thought you were truly involved in the crimes themselves, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in my office.”

“I suppose we’d be having it in some interrogation room?”

“Oh yeah.  And I’d be asking a whole lot more than what did this person or that say to you.”  He flips back a few pages.  “And I certainly wouldn’t tell you that we have processed the evidence from Mike’s body.  There was skin under his fingernails that wasn’t his and we’ve made a match.”

Zeke and I both indicate that he should go on, by all means.  I can hardly wait to hear whose skin it is.

“Well, we won’t need Zeke in court to present his psychic impressions of the altar to the judge.  When we confronted him with it, John Junior broke down and confessed to the fight.”  Paul grimaces.  “But he denied killing Mike and then clammed up until his attorney could be present.  Since he doesn’t really have one, we’re trying to reach his mother to see if she’ll pay for it or if the state will be responsible for providing someone.  In the meantime, he’s enjoying our luxury accommodations and is definitely not having any visitors, especially Laurie Bradford.”

“So will you be charging her as well?”  I ask him.

“Junior was very careful not to mention if she was there or not.  He didn’t even really answer why they were fighting, only that they had a ‘violent disagreement of a personal nature’.  He refused to elaborate.  I’m not sure why he’s protecting her since I get the impression he’s a particularly selfish, self-centered young man.”

I would have to agree with that assessment.  From the little I know about him, he has always found it easier to point the finger at someone else rather than accept the blame himself.  Now I have to wonder just why he wouldn’t do that this time.  Because of the baby?

Zeke says it out loud.  “Paul, you suppose he’s protecting her because she’s carrying his child?”

“Maybe.  I don’t know.  He just doesn’t strike me as the altruistic sort, not even in these circumstances.  Of course, maybe he did kill Mike and just isn’t going to confess it.  I finally got his juvenile records and there have been other incidences of extreme violence.  He hasn’t killed anyone before, but he’s come damned close.  If he went to trial for Mike’s murder, we would really try to introduce these records as prior evidence of his temper and the fact that he tends to handle things with his fists.”

He sighs and flips some more pages.  “Unfortunately, we can’t prove or disprove that the atropine we found in his room is the source for his father’s final dessert.  You wouldn’t happen to know who else has nightshade growing in their yard, would you?”

“’Fraid not.  We went to a couple of rituals with this group.  We didn’t socialize with them otherwise.  So no, we have no idea who had what in their garden.”  Zeke pauses and gets a very thoughtful look on his face.  “But wait a minute.”

Paul and I look at him expectantly.  After a moment or two of reflection, he nods his head and tells us.

“When we went over to the Johnson’s and I was sketching the altar, before the dog….found Mike….”  He exhales noisily, more a gust of wind than a sigh but still a sound of unhappiness.  “I had to brush some branches out of the way to get to the upper right corner and if I’m remembering it right, I think that may be nightshade.”

Paul snaps his notebook shut and stands up.  “Come on, let’s go look now.”  He starts pulling on his coat and opens a drawer to pullout a flashlight.  “You all can come out now, right?”

We indicate that we can and put our coats back on.

“Shall I drive?” asks Zeke.

“Yes, but I’ll take a squad car up there, too.  I’m going to snag a forensics guy so that they can get some of the plant if it is nightshade.  I don’t know if they can match that up with John Robert’s blood analysis, but better to do it all scientific than my going out there and bringing back a branch or two.  You all can probably head home from there since John Junior’s confession, such as it was, was about the extent of my news.”

We get into our car and pull out behind the police cruiser.  It’s a fairly quiet drive Zeke and I are each deep in our own thoughts about the things we’ve discussed and how it all fits together.  Or doesn’t.

When we pull up to the house, it’s dark and there are no cars in the driveway.  We get out of the car and wait for Paul to get out of his.  He has brought Rob with him to do the forensics and we cluster around the front of the cruiser.

“Can we go look without someone here to give permission?”  I am not sure of the legalities of this.

“Actually, we can because it’s a crime scene and we’ve already established authority over it.  I wonder where everyone has gone, though.”  Paul replies as he leads our little band to the backyard.

We step carefully through the grass, with flashlights making circles of brightness that show the stones Mike had laid out in a path up to the altar.  I can just make out the official police tape marking off the area behind the altar, where a gaping hole in the dirt reminds me that the gardener is no longer among the living.

I am glad that I am not sensitive to ghosts and spirits.  Being a medium is not one of my talents and I am ever so thankful for that at this point.

Paul sweeps the light side to side, using it to point at the bushes that are on either side of the altar supports—since the flat top piece is still in the police lab.  “Which side did you say?”

Zeke walks up to him and gestures to the right.  The flashlight swings over to a bush, lovingly pruned and cared for.  He takes the light from Paul and gets up close and personal with the greenery.

“Yep.  It’s deadly nightshade, all right.  Atropa belladonna, grown as an ornamental…and at least 3 years old, since it’s about 4 feet tall.  It won’t get much bigger than this.”

Paul motions to Rob, who takes pictures as we focus the flashlights on the bush and then clips off some leaves, sealing them in an evidence bag.

We stand together and watch him.

“So everyone knows that there is nightshade and it’s easily accessible and in a place that the entire coven has been.  When are there berries on this?”  He asks Zeke.

“They ripen in September, but could possibly be on the bush until almost October, depending on how much the local wildlife eats them, since there’s things that can eat them and not die.  Cows, for instance, and rabbits.  Just not humans.”

Paul stares at him.

“What?” Zeke prompts him.

“We’re talking premeditation if the trifle was made with berries and not eye drop solution.”

We stare back at him.  Now that he has made that connection, it’s obvious to all of us that someone would have had to plan ahead to have still had belladonna berries at Yule.

No one has much to add after this and the police have what they need, so Zeke and I head for home.

As we get ready for bed, I ask him, “So if berries were used, were they frozen or canned?”

He gives a bitter laugh.  “I don’t think it really matters, does it?”

“Maybe.  Freezing is easier, but canning might make it easier to put them away somewhere that no one else would find them—or use them too ahem early.”

He looks thoughtful.

I continue.  “Anyone could freeze them but there’s not a lot of people who actually can fruit these days.  It requires more time than most are willing to put into it.  And if you don’t live alone, how do you keep your housemates, or your family, from using these berries over ice cream or something?”

“True.  And while canning provides the best way to keep them until you’re ready to use them but lets you hide them from others…it does require more equipment than just throwing them into a freezer bag or plastic box and tossing them into the freezer.”

“So which coven member follows the Pagan ideal of living closer to Nature…and preserves the harvest abundance?”

“Wonder how we can find out…” and with that final thought, Zeke climbs into bed.

I decide that bed with him is much more fun than thinking about killer canning.

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