Issue 6 / Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Chip Livingston

Swimming to the Temple of Isis

 

You were always something of a private witch, this community magic not exactly your thing. The idea unsettled you, at first, but you reasoned it was a different miracle to witness. Your first group astral journey — and this one advertised “to the temple of Isis” — will be guided by psychic medium Providencia Star, who stands on a slightly raised platform in a shiny purple gown patterned like a dashiki. Her thick red hair curls long past her shoulders. She controls the keyboards, plays ethereal electronic melodies she accompanies with hums, whispers “aché, ajo, ” and words of welcome as you and the others enter the First United Community Methodist Church and get yourselves settled in the fellowship hall. “Come on in,” she sings. “Make yourselves comfortable. Be blessed. Aché.”

There is drumming, lightly palmed from a bongo player who sits cross-legged by Providencia’s platform. A larger set of Cuban tambores barrels beside the Moog keyboard. Various greetings among apparent friends meeting and arriving. A coven? You and your boyfriend don’t know them. You find a place not too far from Providencia’s central stage and unroll your yoga mats to sit on.

Some of these central Florida hippies make themselves quite at home. They could be tucking in for a slumber party or a night camping under stars. They lie down in sleeping bags, dirty blond and greying dreadlocks cushioned beside their heads on bed pillows some have carried in. They look like they’ve done this before. Meek bows and quiet namastes. Cheek kisses and tight embraces. There is a growing electricity, a hum from Providencia Star’s big speakers.

The fellowship hall has been cleared of folding chairs. They lean like dominoes near the back door, next to a corridor that shines pale with weak fluorescence. Here the overhead lights are dimmed. Providencia’s simple gelled stage lights illuminate her in green and red. Candlesticks and stands provide a scented glow. You smell wax, frankincense, nag champa, sage. Body odor and patchouli. Three or four couches are pushed to the edges of the room and some women wear muumuus and some men pajamas. College students and senior citizens, a young couple with children, your lesbian lit professor breastfeeding an infant. Most folks in sweat pants and comfy fleece hoodies, Birkenstocks or socked feet. You slip off your tennis shoes, stretch and spread your toes, feel the thin navy-blue carpet under your heels as you extend your legs in front of you. You dial your head from shoulder to shoulder and concentrate to slow your breathing.

You came in with some extra energy. It wasn’t fear exactly but a healthy dose of suspicion that you know you’ll have to shed to be a part of this temporary order. You don’t pick up any bad juju.

You watch your boyfriend walk to a table of crystals for sale in a corner. A green glass banker’s lamp casts unusual formations of light around him as he stands there.

Can Isis heal him?, you wonder. Can Isis convince him to heal himself?

You haven’t convinced him.

You bring your feet together and push yourself to standing on your mat. You join your boyfriend. Providencia leaves her dais and meets you at the table. She fingers the crystals. She reads you two with intense hazel eyes, the pupils flare in dilation, contract, and she extends a soft hand to introduce herself.

You ask permission to pick up the serpentine she has pointed out. You are attracted to green. Providencia nods and says, “And you may have it. It’s a pleasure to welcome you two with us. I know you’ll enjoy the journey.” She chooses a polished smooth rose quartz for your boyfriend, and the way she almost thrusts it at him with an opening fist, then closes her grasp to hold it in her hand against his chest, you wonder what she sees in him. You see the flash of static shock at their touch.

The psychic returns to her central platform. Yellow filtered spots light the small stage. You smell a wave of burning sage then witness a barefoot woman in white yoga pants, white halter top, a white turban covering her hair, waving a wide goose feather over an abalone shell. Providencia places her hands on the keys and dances in place as you walk back to your yoga mat. Your boyfriend moves his spot a few yards back to lean against the wall. The speakers crack as the synthesizer volume grows in a haunting scale and conversations in the room quiet, then the psychic removes her fingers from the keyboard. She moves to the barrel drums, strikes one lingering bass note with her bottom of her palm, and announces that her “sisters” will call the corners. One of her sisters is a young, blond, dreadlocked dude, lithe and feminine despite the shaggy growth of facial hair. He welcomes the spirits of the East.

As Providencia returns to the keyboard and begins to softly sing and chant into the microphone, you think of your Oneida Indian friend who wouldn’t stomp dance at your Creek village. Taught that dancing counterclockwise was witchery, she wouldn’t risk coming undone. You understand her hesitation. You wore your own protection to this guided journey, medicine paint dabbed into the creases of your eyes.

 

The psychic lifts a Moses staff, a beaded wand. Again you smell the waxy burn of frankincense. She is pulling ritual from multiple traditions, you think, but you try to quiet your thoughts and focus on what Providencia is saying. She is giving an introduction to the goddess Isis, the legends and attributes of the mother of magic. Providencia says Isis was later transmorphed into the Virgin Mary. She says Isis is the original creator, the progenitor of us all. The bright light in the far hallway is extinguished. The gelled spotlights on stage turn rose and gold.

Providencia is telling you all that, once inside Isis’s temple, you will have the opportunity to ask the deity for blessings, for her gifts. She laughs. “You can ask her for your money back if you don’t get your fifteen dollars worth.”

 

“Lady of ten thousand names!” Providencia raises her voice. “We invoke thee. We praise thee. We adorn you with our jewels and song.”

The bongo drummer stands to play the big tambores. The psychic jams her fingers to the keyboard. She closes her eyes and sings in a language you don’t recognize. You close your eyes as the music slows and the leader’s voice asks the congregants to center your focus at your cores and to anchor yourselves into safety of the earth. She says to visualize that energy in your spines flooding through your feet and rooting to the warm, red, molten clay inside your home planet.

Once anchored she coaches you to let that growing white light rush from your crown chakras and connect with the abundant energy of All That Is. Universal Life Force Energy. You try not to judge the oohs and ahs of enlightenment that others utter when they think they feel their connections.

 

But besides your boyfriend, and now the psychic, you’ve never met these other people. Your therapist had given you the flier for the guided journey. She hadn’t recommended the meeting; you had simply seen the fliers among the candles and crystals on an office side table, and you asked her, “What is the Temple of Isis?” Leslie told you another one of her clients had dropped off the fliers. It was a guided meditation for group astral travel. She’d given you one to take home and consider. Your boyfriend thought it sounded at least as entertaining as a movie, and not much more expensive, so you decided to go together. He is now leaning against the back wall with his head bowed.

 

Providencia asks everyone to imagine themselves standing at the top of a stairway. You correct your loose concentration, locate your own stairwell, a ladder really, and as the tour guide counts slowly back from ten to one, you descend into an echo of the earth. Until your feet touch sand. And then you see a massive beach extending under moon and starlight. Down the shore a large wooden vessel waits.

The psychic allows all you tourists to explore the beach a little, but then she asks you to find your ways to the water and to look in its reflection. At first it surprises you to see the other journeyers arriving, that they’ve made the same relocation. Providencia says to see yourself in the water, to be honest with yourself about the desires you seek from the goddess. She says Isis’s temple is an island in this ocean. Providencia suggests you place something in the water as a kind of offering, and you remember the serpentine stone she gave you moments earlier. You imagine dropping it into the water you are visualizing, imagining, whatever it is. Your reflection ripples with the little rock’s wake.

Can Isis heal the sick?, you wonder. Can she stop war? You don’t want to owe her anything, but you’re curious about the goddess, and, if she can heal your boyfriend, you are willing to negotiate. You don’t know this goddess or her diaspora. But in the mirror of the water you see beside you three helpers. Your grandfather points into the short distance and the two dogs with him, a white one and a black one, splash into the bay. You follow their wake with your eyes, their underwater dives, their resurfacing as dolphins. Their open mouths seem to laugh. Shapeshifters. These two also familiar to you, they throw back their heads to motion, “Come in. This way.” Your old grandfather looks almost young beside you and says, “Swim.”

In her purple robe on the beach, Providencia Star looks like a choir director. She is directing you all to board the large boat that will sail you to the temple of Isis — you see it as an ark.

You stay crouched at the shore. The other tourists form a line to board the wooden ship. It is beautiful, the three-sailed schooner. Providencia moves to the captain’s wheel. She looks your way and you wave to her. You point to the water with your chin and she realizes you have decided to swim.

“Swim fast,” she says from the distant schooner but you have no trouble hearing her.

You leave your shirt, socks, and sweatpants on the sand.

The water is warm and phosphorescent, sparking as you challenge the low waves. You dive shallow, have perfect vision underwater, surface, and follow the dolphins toward the boat. You wonder how far it is. Your energy feels endless.

The boat gains speed. There are sails but also teams of rowers, their oars synchronized and practiced, propelling it ahead until the sails catch wind, and then it is swept up and rushes toward the horizon.

On the front of the deck, Providencia in the moonlight shines like polished quartz. The boat rushes across the water, and the sea reflects its own galaxy. Silver flying fish leap from the ship’s wake and you are keeping up, amazed at yourself, diving and rising like the dolphins.

An aqua kind of light beacons and brightens ahead of you as you approach the temple. It looks like ice, a white-blue glow like a familiar vodka advertisement. The water around it, whether from the temple’s shine or the natural phosphorescence, is crystal teal, and the hands you hold out before you, the toes you extend as you naturally float in the buoyant salinity, are lit as if by swimming pool lights, and you wonder if the temple is lit from underneath where it seems to float upon the surface of the water.

The schooner glides into a slip and the oarsmen jump out and secure it. They stretch a wide plank platform from the front deck and the visitors you started the journey with begin to deboard onto the island. The temple, you correct yourself. You don’t think it is an island. The psychic looks at you before she steps onto the temple pier. You shake your head and she understands you are not going to join them any closer. You don’t see your boyfriend in the crowd.

Aside from his absence, you are perfectly content to watch from where you tread water. The dolphins swim around the perimeter of the temple. It looks deserted and is silent save a pleasant buzz, the light lap of water against the boat and the pier. You could be on another planet, but far below you a stingray wings by.

There is no one to greet the journeyers, but they venture forward and explore the pillared temple. You wonder what it’s made of. Is it salt? Through its white walls and pylons, the travelers push into the courtyard and stare up at the columns. They act as if they stand in a museum. Is it a church? Some begin to skip and run with a youthfulness they hadn’t carried into the fellowship hall. Their laughter rises and the courtyard rings like the heralding of an angel.

It is kind of hard for you to believe that you can see all this. You haven’t left the water. In actuality, your body hasn’t left the yoga mat it sits upon. You haven’t seen your boyfriend since arriving on the beach. He didn’t swim with you. He is not in the courtyard of the temple.

   “He rests.”

You hear a low voice behind you, and you turn, splash, and Isis — black as a volcano and eyes yellow as Spanish rice — smiles at you. Her lips are majestically lavender. The All of Her shines like the night sea, like a sea creature from mythology, and you open your eyes, wake to the dimly lit room of breath and snore, Providencia on her platform, fingers moving blindly over the keyboard.

You turn and see your boyfriend’s chest rising and falling. You laugh at the familiar respiration, his fifteen-dollar nap. You remember the community yoga classes; those he called his six-dollar naps.

You turn back and straighten your spine. You align your center of gravity, loosen your shoulders, imagine your chakras stacked right above each other, base to crown, and close your eyes again.

You kick your feet below you and rise in the crystal water. You feel the damp curl of your wet hair on your neck, fan your arms and follow the sounds of the journeyers inside the temple. Isis stands before them now, raised on a pillar beside a white stone sculpture, crude in its likeness of her. She is blessing them. They bow, nod, stretch out their hands in quiet exaltation. You tilt your head back, let the water reach your forehead, let it fill your ears. You float in imagined baptism. Stars above. You don’t want to ask for anything.

Eventually Isis walks the congregants to the pier. Providencia stands with the goddess, bows her mass of red curls toward the divinity, marking such a contrast, the African idol with skin like iron oxide, her elegant gown of diamond shine, and the purple muumuu of the pale Celtic pagan. The boat’s crew leads the journeyers, exhausted in their bliss, back up the plank to the wooden deck. Isis touches the top of Providencia’s head, raises the other hand to bade the passengers farewell.

You make eye contact with the goddess. Her expression seems to ask if you have gotten what you came for. You trust your smile conveys that to her, and with the slightest perception of sound, no movement in her lips, she tells you, “This is just our first introduction.”

 

One of the dolphins nudges your thigh and takes off into the dark where you’ve come from. The swim back is even faster than the trip to the temple, distances surmounted in instants. Whips of waves. The sails fill with the wind and lift the ship, and you are carried on the surf’s strong current. The schooner beaches, and the gangplank extends to the sand again. And Providencia counts off as the others on the journey disembark.

Again you leave the water separately from the others. Your grandfather stands on the beach with his two wet dogs. You follow them into the sand dunes.

 

The volume and tempo pick up on the keyboard, and Providencia counts from one to ten to wake the dreamheaded from their meditations. You hear the sounds of sigh and stretch as spirits find their bodies. Your back pops as you twist to check on your boyfriend. He is putting on his tennis shoes and raises one eyebrow at you. You roll up your yoga mat, giving him the look you hope says ‘it was worth it,’ that ‘you will talk about it in the car,’ that ‘you know he fell asleep.’

The quiet oohs and ahs around you whisper of recounted journeys. Awe. The shame of disappointment from someone next to you that complains she didn’t “go anywhere.” She says she felt left behind in a room lousy with corpse poses. You nudge your boyfriend.

The First United Community Methodist Church sign on the front lawn advertises a Cub Scout meeting Wednesday, a spaghetti dinner Friday, and three services on Sunday. You look back through the open doors where Providencia, the drummer, and several helpers are breaking down the stage and speakers. You feel in your pocket for the green stone she gave you. It’s gone. You remember leaving it in the water for Isis.

You stick your hand into your boyfriend’s jacket pocket. He still has the rose quartz.

“You slept.”

He jingles the car keys. “You’re still dreaming,” he says.

“I saw you asleep,” you tell him. “I know your snore.”

He opens the passenger door for you. “Why didn’t you get in the boat?” he asks.

You sink into the bucket seat. “I knew that if I went in the boat, that I’d have to rely on the boat to get me home,” you say to him. “I didn’t want to depend on someone else. How did you know?”

He closes your door and walks around to his side of the car, opens his door. “I didn’t go because you didn’t get on the boat,” he says, climbing in beside you. “I wasn’t going by myself with that crowd of strangers. But I did see the angel.”

“You saw Isis?” I ask him.

“I saw your old man on the beach,” he says and starts the engine. “After you went in the water, I walked over and spoke to him.”

Your boyfriend puts his hand on your left leg, squeezes your thigh. Your muscles are tight as if you have been swimming.

“I kind of prayed to him,” your boyfriend says as he pulls out of the parking lot. “I said I wished I had your kind of faith. I said I know you get it from him.”

“You do know that?” you ask.

“I’ve seen you talk to him before.”

You ask if your grandfather said anything specific to him and your boyfriend nods.

“He said he would teach me to swim.”

dingbatsmaller

Chip Livingston is the author of the short story and essay collection Naming Ceremony (Lethe Press, 2014) and two poetry collections, Crow-Blue, Crow-Black (NYQ Books, 2012) and Museum of False Starts (Gival Press, 2010). His writing has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, New American Writing, Indian Country Today, Cincinnati Review, and on the Poetry Foundation’s and Academy of American Poets’ websites. Chip is on the creative nonfiction faculty at the Low Rez MFA program at Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe; he is on the poetry faculty at the low-res Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver. Visit http://www.chiplivingston.com. Selected by Elissa Washuta.

Image via teralaser via Flickr Creative Commons.

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