Mother Earth, Father Time
The hammer rode shotgun as we raced along the twisting paths of asphalt and gravel. Together we made sharp turns, watched the trickster road change its name three times between the highway exit and our destination—Fairmont, 175th, Dempsey, somehow all Leavenworth County Road 8. We evaded the sole cop in the speed-trap town of Jarbalo, where the only landmark is a Methodist church’s message board. WISE MEN STILL SEEK HIM, it said on the day we made our final visit.
We are not wise men, my hammer and I. But we are seekers, all the same.
The hammer—my own personal Mjolnir—came from a tiny hardware store in St. Louis, the only place you can find tools like that. The handle, made of polished wood, connects to a thick metal head, not like the one-piece plastic types at the Home Depot. I had painted a looping silver pattern on the front and a red rune on the hilt: Thurisaz, the rune of power, the rune of chaos and chaos’s foe, Thor the Thunderer. I used it in ritual, in meditation, in home repair. It was as dear to me as any human.
County Road 8—now past Jarbalo, still disguising itself as Dempsey, for the moment—intersected with a gravel road: 235th Street. A right, here, and then a trip down a hill, past fields of Black Angus cows staring at passing cars. At the bottom of the hill was a bridge, but just before that, the suggestion of a road leading off into the woods. There was no other sign, no other indication; you could drive past without ever knowing it was there. I have, many times.
There was a mailbox out front, marked with one word: GAEA.
This is not a place you find by accident.
* * *
Camp Gaea sits about an hour west of Kansas City, somewhere in the outskirts of Maclouth, Kansas. The former Bible campground is officially nondenominational, but it’s a Pagan institution: every year it hosts half a dozen festivals, like the Gaea Goddess Gathering, the Heathen-focused Lightning Across the Plains, and the Heartland Pagan Festival, Gaea’s biggest annual event. But those are occasions for the summer and early autumn; it was January, and the air bit at my bare skin. We had an unseasonably warm winter in Kansas City—the temperatures rarely dipped below 40. Except for the day of my visit, anyway—it was 17 degrees Fahrenheit, and I found myself glad for my ski mask.
Only two people seemed to be around—I could hear their chainsaws from the bottom of the hill, where I left my car. I recognized one as the caretaker, who lives in a tiny cabin near the mess hall with his wife. The other man I knew from Heartland, a tall, serious type who got stuck spending his weekend working on the festival’s computers. I could tell he would have rather been out in the air, smelling the fumes from a gasoline motor while he worked the land.
I watched them for a while. They didn’t seem to notice me. And then I took the long way around to avoid them.
I hadn’t been hiking in nearly a year. Halfway up the steep gravel road, I lost my breath and had to stop. I doubled over, set my hands on my knees, and tried to distract myself from the ice in my lungs. I looked around: the barren woods were gray, and so was the sky, the road, the cabins. January paints the whole world the same somber shade.
The whole world, except for one magenta sign.
OLDE WAY, it said. NO CAMPING ALLOWED PAST THIS POINT.
Beyond the sign, I saw a dirt path, laced with red cedar.
Just far enough along the path to be hidden from the main road, I discovered two huge lion statues. Both guardians roared in silence, but the one on the right had a silver bunny in its paws. A little ways further down was a four-foot tall statue of a Pharaoh, his skin black like obsidian, and beyond him, a ritual area dotted with trinkets: wind chimes strung between tree-branches—some whole, mostly broken. Glass cut into gems. A tea set, small enough for faeries. Standing watch was a gold-and-jet statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the dead.
I first visited Gaea when I was just a child: four, maybe five. I don’t remember anything from those days, except for a faint memory of pulling up outside of Phoenix Hall for Beltane. Even then, I only have the image of the Maypole, its ribbons dancing in anticipation, and the painting on the outside of the hall—the dazzling orange nimbus of a phoenix enveloping the green Earth. I was an interloper, then—my family lived in St. Louis. We only came here to visit friends. But I had moved to Kansas City three years before for graduate school, and I had become a regular at Gaea since then: walking the trails, clearing brush, building bridges over low and rocky creeks.
I was not a stranger to Gaea. And yet not only had I never set foot in the Olde Way before, I had never even heard of it. I’d never seen it on a map. It felt like some pocket dimension, a place that didn’t exist until my eyes chanced upon it. It left me full of questions: who brought Anubis and the Pharaoh? Who broke the wind chimes?
Who thought, “Why not have a tea set?”
Something flittered in the dead grass ahead of me as I left the Olde Way. The white tip of a deer’s tail flicked, and then the beast took off into the woods. I stood there for a moment, smiling. I was raised in the city; I didn’t get to see many deer.
The Olde Way had been a kind surprise. But it was not the place I sought.
* * *
I was looking for Herne’s Hollow.
I had first heard the name two years before, at Heartland. I met a girl at the bonfire and had fallen in deep, hopeless love, the kind that’s only possible with someone you barely know. We sat talking late into the night. I could barely see her in the darkness—just the glint of moonlight against her eyes and her copper hair. After hours sitting together on the wooden stairs between the drum circle and Phoenix Hall, she told me she needed to go. She had been on her way to pray at a place called Herne’s Hollow, and she needed to do it before the sun came up. I asked if I could come, but she said it was something she wanted to do herself.
I watched her go. I did not follow. My friends all said I should have, but I didn’t.
I never saw her again.
I’ve been searching for Herne’s Hollow since then, every time I come to Gaea. I have never found it.
It should not be hard to find. Most of Gaea is situated around a lake—the main buildings all rest near the edge of it, and trails run all the way around. Two shrines sit across from each other on opposite shores of the water: one for the Goddess, one for the God.
The Goddess’s Shrine, Venus Mound, is at the edge of a campground, right at the beginning of the Vision Quest Trail. Venus Mound is kept up, with an atmosphere more like a well-tended park than most parts of Gaea; the grass stays cut there. Someone even set up benches. The decorations mix ancient sculptures with flea market knickknacks and Mardi Gras beads. It’s a place I have come to many times, a place where I sit on a bench with the Goddess and watch the creek run by.
Across the water is Herne’s Hollow, the shrine to the gods. It sits on the edge of a cliff, fifteen or twenty feet above the lake. I see it whenever I visit Venus Mound. But every time I tried to find my way there, I got lost, and then stumbled out onto familiar territory with no idea where I had gone wrong.
I thought I found the Hollow during last Heartland, seven months ago: I was walking through the woods, almost naked. The night had grown old—I would guess it was after four in the morning. Probably closer to five. It was the final day of Heartland, and I had forgotten how the rest of the world measured time; I knew no clocks except for the cycles of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
I could hear the whoops of other Pagans enjoying their last night. I could hear pounding drums, chanting, loud and vigorous sex. But I was alone, hunting for Herne’s Hollow.
The little path I had been following opened up into a ritual area—plenty of big, open spaces, with concrete stepping stones embedded in the dirt. At first I thought I had found the Hollow, but then, it clearly wasn’t. There were no icons of the gods there, for one thing. For another, the tree line blocked any sight of Venus Mound.
But the path continued downward, so I followed. The stepping stones were the only things keeping me from tumbling down the steep incline. I could hear splashing somewhere ahead, so I thought I was getting close—
—and then I emerged from the trees onto a narrow outcropping, barely big enough for both of my feet. The lake was ten feet below, and the path did not continue to the right or the left. I had reached a dead end. Venus Mound was nowhere in sight.
I stood there for a moment, despairing. I asked myself a simple question. Why don’t you just have someone show you where it is?
In asking, I knew the answer.
I didn’t find Herne’s Hollow that night, either.
* * *
Tom’s sign had already started to show the wear of age. We only drove it into the dirt of Gaea’s Memorial Grove the past June, six months before. Sarah, my coven-sister and best friend, made it with a few nails and a wood-burning kit. She had engraved his name and two of the musical instruments he had loved, the penny-whistle and the accordion, onto it. At the bottom, she burned an epigraph: “Play on, brother.”
He had been one of the old men of our circle—a kind man, a generous man. A man I had been prone to ignore. It had fallen to me, by chance and by fate, to perform his funeral ritual. We planted him an apple tree, here at Gaea’s Memorial Grove. It wasn’t perfect—nothing about that Midsummer was—but we did it with good intentions, through tears.
I couldn’t bear to stay too long at the Memorial Grove, which sits atop the hill at Gaea. The wind was too chilly, the pain too fresh. But I had to say goodbye to the trees: the one we planted for Tom, and the one we planted for the founders of our coven, Deryk and Carrie. Tom’s tree had grown a little since we planted it, sprouted spindly little branches that twisted away from the trunk.
Someone had wound ribbons through his tree: some the red of a human heart, others pink, with tiny white roses printed on them. I ran the ribbons through my fingers, idly wondering if they could constrict the baby tree’s growth. But I let them stay. Nothing exposed to the wind and the rain will last forever.
I took the hammer from my backpack and knelt before the trees, whispering a prayer to the Goddess. I charged the soil with my love and my regret. I prayed for the trees to make it to the spring.
It was too cold to linger after that.
* * *
I have walked the Vision Quest trail in many guises. Once as a giant panda; another as a frost giant; one as Homer’s blind seer, Tiresias. Sarah runs the Vision Quest every Heartland, a ritual where the participants walk down a rough trail of dirt and rock, speaking to people in costume. The first year, she had to bully me into being one of the speakers, tempting me with cheap admission to the festival. After that, I volunteered without question.
People make amazing transformations in the darkness of the woods. Not me, so much; I never feel like I have fully given myself over to my role. I am always too much myself. But people are willing to be taken in. The flickering light of torches lets them believe in things they would never accept by day.
At the bottom of the trail, the creek abutted against the muddy shore only about a foot from the path. January had iced over the water, a shiny gray coat on the brown water beneath. Yellow shoots of dead river plants jutted up through the ice. I heard nothing; beneath the ice was one timeless, frozen moment.
I prodded the ice with a stick. It broke under the pressure: solid. I took a step onto the water, and then another. It held all 300 pounds of me without a sound. With a satisfied grin, I began trekking out onto the creek, wondering whether I could reach Venus Mound before the ice got thin.
Within five steps I heard a sharp and awful crack, and I made the longest jump I’ve ever made back to shore.
* * *
The sun hung low. As much as I loved exploring Gaea in the dark, I wanted to be gone by then. I had a farewell dinner awaiting me at a pizza joint in the Plaza District, more than an hour away.
The last trail I walked was a leg of the Vision Quest, sometimes; it changes from year to year. It starts behind the cabins and hugs the lake on the northern edge. It begins broad and inviting, big enough to drive an SUV through, but a tiny bridge crosses a tinier creek about an eighth of a mile in. After that, the trail makes me feel claustrophobic. The trees get densely packed, and I could only see a little of the gray sky and dimming sun peeking through the leaves.
After the bridge, I spied a tiny trail, marked by two rocks. It was the trail I had combed through in the night at Heartland last year, searching for the path to Herne’s Hollow. I considered exploring it again; perhaps things would look different in the barren daylight. Perhaps I’d find something I missed.
I decided against it, and continued down the little path in the woods.
I saw myself approaching in the form of a hundred broken mirrors, and realized the trail had led me to the Faerie Gate.
Dead branches twisted together over the trail, forming an arch covered in beads and mirrors. Three men participating in the Vision Quest built it. They were portraying faeries, so they built it like faeries would, subject to whim and caprice.
Like so much else at Gaea, the mix of the sincere and the camp was disorienting. A collection of stuffed animals, decaying into string and fluff under the weight of the elements; a Super Soaker, undoubtedly used against unsuspecting visitors during the Vision Quest; a skull or an egg—too broken to tell, and too fragile to handle—that held an inscription: “Buddy, our beloved Pekingese. 9/8/99 – 8/19/11, Ottumwa, IA, beloved of Mother Goose and HBM.”
And the mirrors, everywhere the mirrors, like a spider’s gaze. A dozen reflections following every move I made, myself staring into myself, over and over and over.
There are doors at Gaea, of course—doors into cabins and shacks and outhouses. But there are few gates. Even the front gate is only closed at night. The divisions between places are simply known from experience; most don’t even have signs. The Faerie Gate is the only one of its kind on the land. It didn’t mark the beginning or end of anything; it simply divided a much bigger trail.
In steps copied by twenty fractured selves, I stepped through the Faerie Gate, and found the trail split on the other side.
* * *
The altar’s curiosities had not been curated as much as others; the objects that lay upon a flat stone at the base of a tree had little to do with each other. A die, several candles, a belt buckle, three plastic Homey figures. For the most part, this place was made of rocks and trees, and what had been left on the altar was a very small part of it. The Olde Way had been sculpted by human hands; this place felt like it had always been this way, and the stones stacked to form an altar and a circle were only been an acknowledgement of what was already there. Beyond the circle, the trees parted to reveal a cliff overlooking the lake. On the other side sat the Goddess of Venus Mound, separated from her lover by a layer of ice.
Herne’s Hollow. I had found it, at last.
I still can’t imagine how I had missed it for so many years. It was just off the Vision Quest trail, the trail I knew more intimately than anywhere else. I had walked through the Faerie Gate half a dozen times since it was built, and never noticed the path that led to the Hollow. It was not a hidden trail: the way was broad and well-walked. But I had never seen it. Even as I walked in, I wondered I had fallen for another trick of the faeries, misleading me away from my desire.
I sat down inside the stone circle, resting against one of the gray slabs marking the circumference. I retrieved my hammer from my pack, ran a finger down the waxed wood of the handle and the cold lacquer of the head. I read the small inscription I had painted on the side in runes: “A RUNA RITA.” “A wrote the runes.” The A stands for Ansuz, “mouth,” the rune of breath, speech, poetry, ecstasy. Odin’s rune, and mine.
I stood up, stretched, and walked to the cliff overlooking the lake. The view, even in winter, was marvelous: the brown ice below, the Goddess’s grove across the stream. Gaea unfolding all around me.
We make our own sacred places. A church is just a building until we believe in its holiness, until we invest ourselves in its walls. Gaea was no different; when I was born, this had been a run-down church campground. No Pagan had put a mark on it. We had no Olde Way, no Venus Mound, no Herne’s Hollow—all that was built by us, consecrated, infused with love and pain and faith. This was a sacred place because we had made it a sacred place—because I had made it so.
I watched my breath fade into the failing light. I stood there as long as I could bear it, my eyes tracing across the landscape, searching for every rustle of a tree, every ripple of the ice’s watery sheen.
I had taken a job in another city. I started work in less than a week. This was my last day in Kansas City, in Gaea. Our time had come to an end. I was sure I would see her again, like an old lover, her face familiar, but changed by time. I would see her again, but never the way I saw her then.
I looked down at the icy water—still, eternal. I imagined jumping from the cliff, becoming one with the ice, frozen in that one timeless moment. A second of pure time that would never have to end—
And I turned away.
I left my hammer on the altar. A companion, perhaps, for some other seeker. I had held it long enough.
Eric Scott was raised by the Saint Louis coven Pleiades, a Wiccan family based in the Alexandrian tradition. His fiction and memoir explore the joys and doubts of being a second-generation pagan in the modern world. He recently completed his MFA at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ashé! Journal, Killing the Buddha, Kerouac's Dog, and Witches & Pagans. In his spare time, he draws elaborate metaphysical diagrams on his bedroom wall and sings for a Taoist glam rock band.