Beltane night under a star-filled desert sky is a time to celebrate!
The text from Custard Tart, Madam President of the International Tarts Society, was short and very much to the point:
“We’ll celebrate Beltane in a place with no rain. Dry Creek Ranch, Death Valley, April 30.”
Great was the excitement as Tarts from Europe, Africa, and India planned their long weekend in California.
“There will be a breakfast meeting on Saturday, so plan to arrive at the Ranch the night before,” Custard texted in a postscript.
On Saturday morning she briefed the Tarts as to what to expect that evening. “Look, I’ve arranged for a football team from the town of Pahump, California, two hours’ drive away, to join us for our Beltane celebration.”
“Join with us, you mean,” murmured Lingonberry Tart, spooning up papaya chunks.
“Of course, in America ‘football’ is called soccer,” Custard went on. “I’ll explain the purpose of a Beltane ritual to them right after dinner. Considering they’re footballers, I’m sure they’ll have enough energy to perform as required. We’ll put names into a hat so we can choose our partners for the evening.”
“Choose our Tartners? Fan-testicle,” Peach Tart said.
“What’s the name of the soccer team, Custard?”
Looking straight at Apple Tart, who’d asked the question, Custard said, “They’re called ‘the Pahump Humpsters.’”
Shrieks and giggles ensued for five minutes, at the end of which Payasam Tart said, “I wonder how many of us will wind up pregnant tomorrow morning?”
Custard swallowed a long draught of her fruit smoothie. “Don’t mind if I do. I’ll turn thirty in November, and you know what that means—mandatory retirement from the Tarts! It’s high time I started thinking of a new career.”
Apple looked round at the other Tarts and said, “We can demonstrate love techniques from every country in our ritual revels tonight!”
“But,” Valencia Tart objected, “we have many more countries represented here than there are ways to engage in—”
“Says who?” Payasam asked, dark eyes gleaming as she glanced at her sister Tarts. All eyes swiveled toward her in anticipation.
The Pahump Humpsters, tanned, smiling, glowing with good health, filed into the Dry Creek Ranch dining room at half-past five Saturday evening. Custard caught the eye of a tall young man who stepped forward and said, “Hello! I’m El Capitan.”
Custard held out her hand and smiled. “How do you do? I’m Custard Tart, President of the I.T.S.” He had exactly the sort of looks that appealed to her—black hair, brown eyes, dark skin. “El Capitan…are you Mexican, then?”
“Texican.” He smiled. “I’m only called ‘El Capitan’ because I’m captain of the team.”
“Look, if you agree, I’d rather not put our names in the drawing before dinner. I’d really like you to be my partner tonight.”
“Delighted!” El Capitan saluted smartly. “Men!” he said, turning to face the team. “Over at the side of the room, there are strips of paper on which you will kindly write your names. Fold the strips so your name can’t be seen and drop them into the hat for the drawing.”
One by one, the Tarts drew the paper strips out of the hat and called out the names of the Humpsters. By the time all the names had been drawn only one Tart, Almond, was left without a partner. Sadly, she took her seat at the long table. She was just about to ask Peach, sitting next to her, if she’d mind sharing, when the door opened and another man came in. He was tall, pale, and almost gaunt. In contrast to the other men, who wore shorts and tank tops, he wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. He looked around the room and caught Custard’s eye. She rose from her end of the table.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “The other dining rooms are absolutely packed but I see there’s one empty seat at your table. Would you mind if I sat here?”
“No, not at all! Welcome,” Custard said. “Almond, look after our guest, will you?”
Almond turned her black eyes on the new arrival and gave him her most flirtatious smile. He looked stunned. “I’m Almond,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Grant Milner. Happy to meet you, Almond. Uh—what’s the occasion tonight? Is this a wedding rehearsal dinner?”
“Not exactly, no,” Almond said. “Um—I’ll explain it to you after dinner, okay? In the meantime, would you like a glass of sangria?”
After dinner Custard rose to address the gathering. “Good evening, I’m Custard Tart, president of the I.T.S. I’m sure El Capitan has told you something of what to expect tonight, and that’s why you’ve all volunteered to be here. Basically, Beltane is a fire ritual, one of the eight sabbats of the Wheel of the Year. It also happens to be a fertility ritual. We will summon the goddesses of all growing things to bring abundance to the earth. We’ll include devotions to Yemaya, because poor old California is desperate for rain, as well as to Califa, the Goddess of California. We must do everything we can to ensure the fertility of the Earth, including bringing rain.
“Now, as to the ritual itself: we have paid for the use of a private campground until midnight. We will be allowed to have a small fire, but it must be completely extinguished when it’s time to leave. Two tents have been erected so that we can change for the ritual. All I.T.S. members have brought their own ritual clothes, of course, and for our guests tonight, I have brought kilts from the United Kingdom. We strongly urge you to ‘go commando’ under the kilts—it saves so much time in the end.”
Chocolate Tart, who hailed from West Africa, was perplexed. “What does this mean, ‘go commando’?” she whispered to Lemon. “I have never heard of it.”
“No underwear,” Lemon Tart said, sotto voce.
The eyes of the Humpsters glistened as Custard concluded her remarks. “We do hope you gentlemen will find the evening…uplifting. Thank you all for your participation. And now—let’s be off to our Beltane revels!”
As everyone began leaving the dining room, Grant turned to Almond. “Tell me, what on earth is the International Tarts Society?”
Almond smiled. “You’ve heard the adage, ‘Make love, not war’? Well, that’s what our society is about. Each of us has chosen to work for an influential statesman in our respective countries. During the day we do administrative work in our statesmen’s offices, but after work we tempt them with the promise of sweet, juicy Tarts. If our statesmen were to declare war on another country or even sign such a declaration, we would leave instantly. That keeps them in line, believe me. We Tarts are the most sexually experienced women they’ve ever met.”
Grant’s jaw dropped. “My God! I was in the wrong business.”
“What business was that?” Almond asked.
“I was a soldier in the second Iraq war. Believe me, it wasn’t my idea to go to war, but as an active duty officer I had to serve. Got invalided out.”
“Oh, dear. Well, at least you’re here and not there. Would you like to be my partner for the evening?”
“I’d love to, thank you. But Almond, I—” Grant looked away. “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to participate in the ritual in the way you want and deserve.”
Almond looked at him. His gray eyes were troubled, his skin pale. He didn’t look like a well man at all. She took his hand. “‘Hear the words of the Star Goddess,’” she said, and went on to recite the entire Charge of the Goddess, ending with, ‘Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.’ You know, Grant, there’s more than one way to show love and give pleasure. Just wait and see.”
Night had descended completely by the time the fire crackled to life in the campground. The men emerged from their tent, kilted, each carrying a blanket. The Tarts emerged from their tent in ritual garb, ready to begin the evening’s activities.
Custard, whose flowing blonde tresses and bountiful bosom haunted the dreams of more than one statesman of her acquaintance, chose to wear nothing but a pale green silk scarf tied at one side of her waist. It covered her like an apron but left one leg exposed.
“Amazing,” murmured one of the Humpsters as he gazed at her mammary glands. “What do you call them—Big Bertha and Full Eartha?”
“No,” Custard replied tartly. “This one’s ‘Tit’ and that one’s ‘Tat.’ Would you like to know what I call my—”
“No thanks, I think I can guess,” the Humpster said hurriedly and bolted off in search of Apple, his partner for the evening.
Lemon Tart wriggled irritably in her sarong. “This thing is too tight under the arms.” She whipped off the sarong, revealing a full frontal view so delicious that her partner for the evening almost passed out and the nearest Tarts once more began to ponder the interesting question of Bare versus Hair.
The ritual began with casting the circle, grounding and centering, calling the Quarters, and the invocations. To the beat of drums, the Tarts led their partners in chanting, dancing, and pleading with the Goddess to send rain. Custard and El Capitan performed the Great Rite with chalice and athame before everyone sat down to partake of Cakes and Ale—in this case, sangria and tortillas.
“Let the revels begin,” Custard called out. She and El Capitan linked arms and withdrew into the shadows. Gradually, the others followed suit.
Payasam, always one to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing, was wearing seven chiffon scarves of various colors. Standing beside the fire, she drew the blue scarf from her face, then the green scarf that covered her hair. Next she unknotted the indigo scarf from her shoulders and let it fall to the ground. The violet scarf that served as a sarong was the next to go. She untied the orange scarf from her breasts, the red scarf from her pelvis, and finally, the yellow scarf from one of her legs. She shook it out, rolled it into a rope, and hooked it around the neck of her partner, drawing him into the shadows.
Before long the desert night resounded with joyful shrieks of “Yemaya!” from the Tarts and happy shouts of “Califa!” from the Humpsters.
Custard stretched luxuriously and looked up at El Capitan, propped on one elbow, watching her in the firelight. “I do love an April wetting!”
“You can have another one if you like,” he said, by now thoroughly smitten. “Full of shower power, that’s me.”
“Why not? We have ‘world enough, and time.’” She hooked an arm around his neck and drew him back down.
In the ranch dining room Grant and Almond lingered. “I came here to Dry Creek Ranch to do some star-gazing.” Grant said. “Would you like to go with me? You’ll need to put on jeans and bring a jacket. The desert gets cold at night.”
“Absolutely,” Almond said.
Ten minutes later she watched with concern as they walked to a different part of the Ranch grounds, well away from the light and noise of the campground. At one point he asked her to stop while he availed himself of an inhaler. Almond carried a blanket to sit on.
“This is a good place,” Grant said, stopping by a group of boulders. He spread out the blanket and they sat down.
“Almond, did you know Death Valley is a certified Dark Sky Park? Look, there’s the Milky Way.”
Almond was awestruck. “I’ve never seen such a magnificent sky or so many stars!”
Grant gazed in silence for a few minutes, then said. “That’s my next home. I’m going there soon.”
Almond turned to him, distressed. “Don’t say that! You’ll be staying right here!”
“Almond.” Grant took her hand in his and although she couldn’t see his face, his voice was tender. “I’m dying. In Iraq I was part of a detail to clear routes for American convoys. The enemy planted chemical bombs along the roadside, so I was exposed, along with the other troops. My lungs are shot.”
“Oh, Grant, I’m so sorry.” Almond could hardly restrain a sob.
“Don’t cry, dear heart. Be glad for me—I’ll be going up there to be part of the starry night sky forever.”
They huddled together on the blanket, watching the sky for an hour, not even speaking, until Grant, coughing, got to his feet. Almond picked up the blanket and they walked back to the ranch.
“Almond,” Grant said, “I know it’s a lot to ask, but would you stay with me tonight?”
She put her hand on his cheek and said, “Of course. Let me just get a couple of things from my room and I’ll be right back. What’s your room number?”
A short time later they were in bed. Almond rubbed Grant all over with the sweet almond oil she’d fetched from her room, then snuggled against him as they fell asleep.
The next morning, Humpsters and Tarts, showered and conventionally attired once more, met in the Ranch dining room for breakfast.
“Look!” Peach exclaimed. “The Goddess evidently was pleased by our fertility rituals last night!”
Everyone rushed to the wide bank of windows at one end of the room to gaze at the desert floor, now carpeted with colorful wildflowers. During the early morning hours a rare April rain had fallen, so with the rising of the sun the desert had burst into bloom.
In Grant’s room Almond woke suddenly to find it was daylight and she was alone. A quick search showed no sign of him in the adjoining bathroom or sitting room. Hastily she washed, dressed, tied back her hair, and ran along the hall to the dining room. “Have you seen Grant, my partner, this morning?”
The others shook their heads.
Almond was frightened. What if he had wandered out into the desert again and collapsed?
“I’m going to look for him at the star-gazing place. That’s where we were last night.”
“I’ll come with you,” El Capitan said.
“And I,” Custard said.
The three of them jogged to the place Almond described and began searching. Suddenly, Almond pointed to the boulders in the distance. “There he is!”
She ran toward him. Grant was sitting against a boulder, looking at the carpet of flowers and the stark mountains behind them. She knelt beside him.
“Grant, are you all right?”
“Almond…it’s been wonderful knowing you. Thank you for the love you showed me and the pleasure you gave me with your company last night.”
Almond sensed that Grant was slipping away. “Grant, please stay!”
She took his hand in hers.
“Beautiful Almond, thanks for everything. Goodbye.”
As Almond watched, stricken, the light left his eyes and the hand holding hers fell. Custard came up with El Capitan. Almond stood up.
“He’s gone home,” she said. “Home to the Star Goddess.”