When I was 16, my best friend reconnected with her dad. He lived out of state, in Texas, and had only loosely been in contact with her after a terrible falling out with her mother when she was only a baby.
She talked to him every other year or so. In the intervening years, he had become a pagan, and had hooked up with a wealthy divorcee in his small town outside of Dallas, Texas. If I think for a while, the name of the town will come to me.
He called Jessica one summer to tell her that he and his girlfriend were driving from Texas to Sedona, to take part in the vortexes and general holyishness of the native land. He was a total consumer, though, buying crystals doubtlessly mined by some poor slave on the other side of the world, the better to bless himself with as he asked the gods and goddesses of nature for presents.
She drove back to Texas with them for the summer, and it was arranged that I would fly there to visit for a week. I did, flying into DFW and remarked on the humid stench of the city in the summer night. Jessica's cousin picked me up and drove me an hour outside of the city to a tract home in a medium-sized town, the name of which will come to me if I think for a while.
We were at a full rush of passion and inquisitiveness at that age. We had just started hanging out on the edge of the goth scene, charmed and intrigued by the older people, who were so cool because they could stay out as late as they wanted, and had cars and apartments and adult problems. We were both still young adolescents, though, in our inexperience. The bedroom we stayed in had fabric gathered over the windows to gauze up the sunlight. It was sheer white with golden stars printed on it, and it all smelled clean and fresh, with geodes and large quartz crystals and big hanks of sage all over the house.
We wanted to do normal kid stuff, like check out their mall, and go to restaurants alone and listen to Depeche Mode, but one night, her dad called us into a great room, sparsely furnished, with metallic and stone carved spheres and velvety fabrics draped around. They really bought into the pagan imagery. He told us that he had a friend who had turned on him, who was bothering him, and he wanted to teach him a lesson with a little exercise. A spell. He said it would be a thousand times more potent if we, innocent virgins (he asked us to verify this, it was true) participated.
He taught us a chant. Part word, part hum, repetitive and melodic. He lit some candles and some dried bundle of herbs and told us to start chanting. We did. It didn't hold water in my mind, I knew he meant it to be a hex styled as a charm of protection, but I was having fun and we had nothing else to do at 10 pm in the middle of the north Texas country. And we wanted to please the adults, she more than ever with her estranged dad, who told her lies about her birth and her mother.
Dad: When you were born, there was a caul on your head and you laughed when they took you out.
Mom: He wasn't even in the same fucking state when you were born, honey.
I believe mom. He was always trying to do that - make up for his decades of absence by lying, making false claims, creating intimacy between them to bridge the space. Anyway, we hexed that dumb friend of his that night with our chanting and I'm sure not a goddamn thing happened, but I remember being somewhat incredulous that an adult man would refer to our sexuality, our virginity or otherwise, in such a matter of fact, knowing way. It felt gross, unseemly. Only now, decades later, do I see how safe and good that part of my childhood had been, that I would be shocked to be talked to that way by an adult at 16. Kids, maybe, but someone's dad?!
Still, there was something kind of mystical and imaginative about that period for me. I've never been a real believer in anything, but I've had my moments of suspended disbelief, and this grazed one. I thought about universal forces and planets and the way plants speak to each other in their own language. I thought about whether the smoke from a candle or stick of incense meant anything, if it ruffled its way up or went in a straight line. I thought about whether intentions could be made real, if it mattered when you did things, if people could feel your thoughts. It's a tempting subject, but nothing I can ever engage in again with my current mindset. I wanted to believe, then, and I was tender enough emotionally to pantomime it.
Jessica's dad later proved his distinctly unfatherly ways when he encouraged us to get in a hot tub that he had prepared. It was full of rose oils and flower petals, foaming at the sides in a glass-walled room that looked into the dark thickets of trees with the moon peeking over the tops. He played Enya or something, turned off the lights, stepped out of the room and shut the door. Dutifully, we got in, naked or mostly, flapping the water at each other with our hands and awkwardly engaging in our usual chatter. We knew something wasn't right but were unwilling to say so. Now I can only assume that he was watching or filming from somewhere, or at least, hoping that something would happen between us that he could somehow observe later.
Another night, Jessica and I lay on the floor at the foot of their bed, watching an early reality show, because it was the only tv in the house. He kept peeking over the edge of the bed to ask, "You girls ain't kissing, is you?" I looked at her with an incredulous snarl and she looked at me with a benign, pleading face that seemed to say, "I know this doesn't check out, but I want to like him..."
Thankfully, nothing else happened in that little Pan-inspired paradise. On that weekend, we visited some of their friends, also pagan, and I met the biggest black lab I've ever seen. I lay on him as he panted on the floor, with small children pulling his ears and pushing their fingers into his snout, and felt better than I had in a long time, happy for the presence of a pure and good personality - the dog. I wished he was my dog, and I remember him just as clearly if not more than the other events of that week. Then I flew home, safe and sound, in a shaky little Frontier plane, back to a civilized world where parents ignored a child's burgeoning maturity and no one dealt with babyshit unemployed nonsense like hexing their friends.
Friday, June 17, 2016
While walking around in my new hood of Zilker, I came across a stark block building in the middle of a huge lot. It's an odd sight in a part of town where every square inch of land is at a premium and new mcmansions occupy entire footprints of land, interspersed among the modest 1940s bungalows that came first.
This desirable and expensive zipcode was once "nothing," according to a middle aged native Austinite I flew home from Phoenix next to recently. "We liked it, but it was a poor area."
It's beautiful, though. The neighborhood abuts Zilker Park, and is filled with old, old oak trees and big shading magnolias. Vines and weeds and flowering plants tangle all over each other here, in the Austinian style. All of the old, gracious parts of the city are full of overgrowth - plants spill onto the sidewalks and streets and grow big and wild. Pastel paint peels from old houses and fences lean on properties that, as values have skyrocketed, you'd never imagine are worth seven figures. You cannot tell a home value by its appearance around here. This is nothing like Phoenix, where properties are pathologically groomed and clipped and repainted and edged, and leafblowers rage at all hours of the day.
But the black church. This is what the sign said:
Sealed tightly forever. Why? Why not a museum to black culture and churches of this era? Why not a space to share this completely ignored aspect of early Austin? This city's interpretation of its own history is so whitewashed. This building is not only significant because it's still here and the land is still safe, but it's a touchstone for a huge group of people who don't get their story told in these parts very often.
Big, beautiful treeish lot.
But as the sign says, it's a church and cemetery. Underneath the weeds in the green lot are headstones. Incomplete headstones. Stumps and chunks, leaning shards, mounds of local lime melding, very slowly, into the native grass and networks of vines.
Someone mows it sometimes. It's rained so much lately that it's impossible to keep the greenery down, and it shoots up in uneven patches. I stepped gingerly in the grass, deep into the shady back area to look at the stones, praying against snakes and cursing that the foliage was so dense and moist that even the big black Texas mosquitos, who normally pass on me, lighted on my bare skin with glee. I don't know how to hike or walk in backcountry, and although this is in the middle of a dense city, it feels distinctly lonely and untrodden. I watched the ground for those snakes.
I searched for clues about the church and cemetery and came up with little more than what's contained on that historical marker sign. There's an inventory of the remaining stones, or what remained of them ten years ago. I couldn't find as many as the website had. It takes a jaded, weird fucking person, weird beyond any measure I can imagine, to steal a fucking headstone. When I was a little girl, I thought to linger too long by any old grave would tempt the spirit belonging to it to follow me home, and I worried in the car that an illicit tour of the Pioneer's Cemetery in Prescott, Arizona (it was pre-renovation and closed to the public in the 90s) might have caused some old ghost to follow us home and scare me in my bed at night. Needless to say, even this morbid ass would not remove a memento like that from a cemetery, not to mention the fact that it's vandalism and ruins historic spaces for the rest of us. I did take ball moss home from the Texas National Cemetery once (yep, that's a thing, Texas thinks it's a country), but it died.
I mean, seriously. Where the fuck do headstone thieves put their prizes? In their herb gardens? WTAF
Lots to learn about old Texas presidents here in Austin, but there's a distinctive crickety sound when one researches historic people of color around here. Not to sound too like a social justice warrior (I am; suck it) but it's true.
I'll continue my researches, but this might require IRL reading in an archive. I must say it was easier to find the dirt I wanted in Phoenix, even about the most obscure of historic properties.
Next on my list of Austin history rambles is the cabin I see on Robert E. Lee Rd (yuuuuuuuup) as it winds beside Zilker. I have read about very early cabins from city pioneers being relocated to parks and I think that is one. Looks to be half the size of my kitchen from the road, of wood and pebbley mortar construct. The banal occupations of just staying alive have kept me from my history stalker status for too long. Glad to be back at it, unexpectedly reinvigorated by this modest and lonely old church, standing quietly in its field.
I will say that Austin in this early steamy summer is pretty and charming south of the river. The big tangle of green paired with two years of inordinate rainfall has the lightning bugs out in force, and they're at their densest in unmanaged green spaces. Apparently the eggs lay in the earth for about a year before hatching upon us, and in heavy rainfall, they germinate like whoa. They float and twinkle in the dusk all over this area, they flow into my house when I open the door sometimes, they're so thick. Ugly bugs in the light, but neverendingly charming outside.
The lush greenness, with the magnolias and the occasional willow and the crawling crawling vines does suit the mental image I had of Louisiana as a kid, which was where I thought I'd end up! Funny to think of it now with New Orleans in such a terrible state and my new awareness of humidity and my desire to personally strangle most religious conservatives with my own ungloved hands, but you never know.
Two more years in Austin, I think. Barton Springs Baptist Church updates forthcoming.