Owen had spent the evening ringing in New Year at Roger's house in Mid-City. The party had moved to the not quite legal bonfire in the middle of Jeff Davis. The bonfire had been a smaller neighborhood gathering and tradition before Katrina but after Katrina it took on mythical and spiritual portions for the larger city. All things were now marked like BC & AD as PreKatrina and PostKatrina, a literal watershed moment. In December of 2005 the few people who had returned to the city were only beginning to link up via neighborhood organizations and surprisingly the blogosphere. These folks and a few valiant neighborhood folks were the primary 2005 participants. By December 2006 social networking had linked the bonfire to the larger recovering city yet most of the people joining in at the 2006 and 2007 gatherings had found out about it from neighborhood activists citywide. By 2008 it seemed like the entire city knew about the bonfire and the crowds got larger. It had become a way to burn off the old and the struggles of the last year and to burn in a passion and drive for the new. People brought their Christmas trees or debris from the repairs of their flooded homes. The pile this year was more than 10 feet tall and probably 20 or more feet in diameter. The flames reached into a sky lit up with fireworks. The whole thing had loads of raw pagan energy. But then so much of life in New Orleans had a natural pagan energy hard to find in other American cities.
Owen found himself wishing that Nola could be there with him to drink in the energy and experience. But she was with her family. She said that she had seen it in years past and had encouraged him to make time to go this year. It seems more raucous than she had described and he knew she would have loved it. It was way after midnight and the bonfire was burning down to embers and the fireworks tapering off so Owen told Roger he was headed home. Roger wanted him to come back to the house. What New Orleanian ever wanted a party to end? But Owen just smiled and insisted that he was ready to head home.
As he drove home he realized that he felt like the New Year had started in November. And smiled at how pagan that was. It started when he met Nola on the plane. It started when their lessons started. It was like Nola said, the seasons didn't have man made definitive markers. The seasons blended and flowed into each other. He had been ruminating so hard that he was surprised when he found himself in his driveway. As he got out of the car he thought to himself, 2 more days and Nola would be back in the driveway too.
As usual he met her in the driveway and escorted her back to the kitchen. He had Prosecco, essentially Italian “bulk champagne” chilling for them. Nola smiled at how he insisted on this accidental tradition and how often he wove Italian wines into the offering. Sitting on the bar stool, he opened the wine with a perfect light pop, poured them each a flute and with a wide grin handed the bottle to a standing Nola and waited.
She smiled back at the quintessential Taurus and said truthfully but also knowing it would make him happy, “I’ve never had Prosecco. You are definitely spoiling me. I really do love this tradition you’ve created.” He was watching her so she did her best to follow tradition and looked at the label: "Villa Santi. Venice. Well, Prosecco and from Italy." She put the bottle down, lifted her glass, looked at the tiny bubbles, smiled again and said “Shall we?”
They clinked glasses and said almost simultaneously, “Happy New Year”, then took their sips.
Owen watched as Nola closed her eyes for a second before she said, “Umm, yum, fruitier than Champagne, but not too sweet, the lovely tiny bubbles feel soft on the tongue.”
They were still close after the toast. Owen reached out and put his hand behind her and pulled her closer so that she was between his knees, swiveled the chair around so she was between him and the counter and said, “Agreed. Now I would really like a Happy New Year kiss. You sent me off to that amazing bonfire ripe with all that pagan energy and made me think pagan thoughts about you. We've finally toasted the New Year. I deserve a kiss.”
Nola continued to be surprised by this man. This was not the kind of feedback she expected from the bonfire experience. She felt a bit embarrassed and a little confused and caught herself starting to blush again. Owen turned on the charm and moved in and kissed her. Not knowing what else to do, but feeling strangely safe, she gave into it and found herself enjoying kissing him back.
Settrano was inordinately pleased with himself. Meana was pleased that it finally looked like Nola would have someone who would try to take care of her. Tago had a small grin as well but nodded to Meana as if to say: Well he can try. Bellaria nodded too, knowing that Nola would do her best to use her intellect to avoid it.
He when he decided to stop kissing her, he found that just like when she enjoyed the wine her eyes were closed and she looked like she was still enjoying the kiss. She let out small, happy sigh as she opened her eyes. She brushed her hand along his cheek, settled it on his chest and said. “Happy New Year, indeed.... How am I supposed to teach you anything after that?”
Owen grinned and said, “I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure that Aradia has some words that might be relevant. Let’s try it again.”
She smiled and with her hand still on his chest doing her best to hold him close to an arms length and failing said, “Yes, she does. But I’m not convinced that we’ve made it to that stage yet.” To keep something between them, she took a sip from her glass before she said, “You really need to get out more.”
Owen smiled as he still held her close and said, “Oh I’m doing ok.”
To which she replied, “I’m quite sure you are.”
He relaxed the charm a little bit and took another sip and brushed his hand across her hair. Tago smiled this time, knowing this would change the tilt of the conversation. If Grigori pout, Settrano pouted.
As he brushed his hand across her hair he really looked at it. Then he lifted some strands. “What color is your hair?”
“Grey.” She teased.
He was looking more closely, “I see the grey, but there are various shades of brown and some that are almost but not quite red. The only colors I don’t see are black or blonde.”
“Even though my father’s hair was black, I’ve never had any black in my hair. I think the brown ones that leaned blonde were the first to go grey. Eventually they will all be grey. I’ve had lots of folks tell me I should cover the grey, but I could spend a fortune trying to get the highlights age has given me naturally.”
He was still fingering the fine multicolored strands when he said, “What is this? Pink paint? What are you painting pink?”
She put her hand where his was and began to work the paint out, “My daughter’s room. I’m painting over her textured wallpaper. She has asked me to paint it for years. I finally agreed on the condition that when we emptied the room so I could paint not everything would go back in. My daughter, who hates getting rid of stuff, diligently worked with me to sort through and donate a lot of the stuff she isn’t using any more, now that she is almost a teenager. The paint job is her payoff.”
“But in your hair?”
“Well I’m a thorough painter and I don’t trash the floors, but I do seem to manage to get it all over me. This room has been especially hard.”
“Hard? Painting is pretty simple.”
“Thanks.” she teased.
And she laughed, “I know. This room has been hard because of the texture of the wallpaper, which came with the house and was great when she was little because you could pin her art work or any decorations she wanted up anywhere and not have to worry about pin holes showing in the wall. But the ridges in the wallpaper are so deep that the only way to paint it is with a brush. No rolling. Do you remember the movie the ‘Karate Kid’?”
He smiled and nodded, still pleased that she hadn’t squirmed away from him.
“Well I call the pink she created Miyagi Pink, because the only way to get the paint on the wallpaper is to ‘paint the fence’." And she moved her hand up and down on his chest in a 'Karate Kid - paint the fence' motion. "I’ve been painting the fence for 5 days, specialty light base coat over the texture and 2 coats of Miyagi Pink. Paint the fence.”
And he chuckled at that.
“What’s worse is that because it's wallpaper I have to be careful not to get too much of the wall wet with paint at one time. So I’ve had to weave my way around room painting the bottom part of one wall and then moving to on to the ladder to get the top part of the next so that I don’t end up with the paint peeling the wallpaper off the walls. The fact that you only now found paint in my hair is miraculous considering what I’ve been through. I’ll be glad to go back to work next week to get some rest from my vacation.”
“Poor Nola, have some more Prosecco.”
She grinned as he released her a bit more so he could pour the wine and then he said, “You know I have people for that.”
“People for what?”
“Oh, I can’t afford them.”
“I’d give you a good deal.” And all the Grigori smiled as Owen tried to take care of Nola.
“I trust you would. But no one works for free and I can’t afford them.”
Owen was silent for a moment as he let that sink in. Nola watched him as it looked like he was going to worry and insist and so decided to provide a bit more information.
“I don’t have to tell you that Katrina changed everything. Oh we had both flood and homeowners. But the homeowner’s didn’t pay us anything because they said the damage was just short of meeting the $5000 hurricane deductable. So the flood insurance money covered the roof repairs and as well as the supplies we’ve need to take care of the basement repairs and replacing the little bit of furniture we lost downstairs. James isn’t working as much as he was before. His more lucrative job at a local timeshare hotel as a massage therapist disappeared with the flood waters. So James is doing the building work downstairs while I do the painting, which is much easier because after I block it in I can roll. One day he’ll finish…” She sighed a very small sigh, “We’ve managed to save the last insurance payment so we can have the exterior of the house painted. We’re doing ok because we’re done much of the work ourselves. But I promise you I can’t afford you. It is sweet of you to offer though.”
He let all that soak in, including the fact that Nola was working full time, painting the interior of her house on her off time, working as a neighborhood activist and teaching him…while James was barely working and not finished with the downstairs repairs, 3 years later. He poured more Prosecco in their glasses. Then as the business side of him kicked in, he said, “No SBA?”
“Well I did the paperwork and we qualified, but I didn’t like the thought of essentially signing my equity over the government and then having to figure out if we could actually follow the rules on how they let you spend the money. It’s pretty restrictive. So, no. No SBA. But again, we’re doing ok as long as we do the work ourselves. Besides part of me gets pleasure out of being able to stand back once the room is painted and say, ‘I did that’.”
And to his mental list of things she was doing Owen added, managing the family finances. And Tago nodded in appreciation.
“So you’re ok with painting, just don’t expect you to cook, unless it’s apple pie.”
She lifted her glass to him and said, “Exactly.”
“That apple pie was delicious. Were those currants?”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes.”
“I like the spicy sweetness. What else was in there?”
“I use Granny Smith Apples. I like their tartness. I use lemon to cook them down a bit with the currants and golden raisins. It’s ginger that gives it that spicy kick, and the typical allspice and cinnamon and of course sugar but not as much as is typical in apple pies.”
“Well anyone who can do pie like that can cook.”
She just smiled at him then said, “Thanks, but being good at making one or 2 things doesn’t make me a cook. This is New Orleans. I’m realistic about my cooking skills.”
And just as Tago knew it would, the practical talk had shifted the mood. Owen said, “Let’s move in the living room.” Then stood up, kissed the top of her head, grabbed the bottle and escorted her to the living room.
As Nola passed by the mantle she stopped in front of Papa Eric's photo. She looked at the empty shot glass on the mantle and asked Owen, “May I?” as she lifted her full glass toward the shot glass.
Owen smiled and nodded. So she poured a little Prosecco into the glass and said, “Happy New Year, Papa Eric.”
Owen settled into the loveseat, thinking that his Papa Eric would have appreciated both their conversations in the kitchen: the passionate kiss and the practical talk of painting, cooking and finances. He patted the plush leather of the love seat to indicate that he wanted Nola to sit next to him. She settled into a corner after pulling up the ottoman as a place for them to rest their feet.
“So how are you doing with your Shrine? Do you think that Papa Eric is settling in?”
Owen thought about that a minute.
“Well I did the activation ritual in the manual, using some of the incense you left me. I usually burn a votive when I sit down to review the manuals and I do like the way the candle holder makes the flame look blue. But Papa Eric seems to enjoy offerings of JD more than incense.”
Nola smiled at that.
Owen said, “I was always close to my grandfather. I do think that he would approve of the training you’re giving me. He was a deep thinker and liked others who were thoughtful. He passed away in June 2005. He was the one who told me that I needed to come back to New Orleans, that here was where I needed to be to be happy.”
She sipped her wine and let him continue.
“The week you first talked about the Lare Shrine I was thinking about him and even thinking about going back to Pennsylvania for the holidays to spend time at the cabin he built and where we spent a lot of time together.”
He paused slipping deeper into his own thoughts, then said, “I haven’t felt the need to go back to Pennsylvania. So yes, I think that it’s safe to say that he’s settling in quite nicely. I think he likes the fireplace mantle. It’s a link to the cabin. I also think his likes being close to where the action is … the comings and goings through the living room, without having to be in the kitchen."
She smiled at him and said, “I’m glad that it seems to be working out ok. Just keep refreshing the offerings or lighting candle every few days and before you know it you’ll be able to call on him when you need him. I find that a connection via the Lare Shrine can make the rituals more powerful. I usually light a candle at my shrine before I do any ritual or meditation or spell. I think it helps thin the veil and open the portal.”
And Owen wondered out loud "Open the portal..... Like the Grigori do in ritual when we say 'Assist us to open the way'.
Nola nodded, pleased that he could quote the ritual and said, "Yes, exactly like that."
And she thought that this could be a good time to review the Words of Aradia on the Grigori. "Owen where is the manual?"
It was on the table beside him so he reached around and handed to her. She opened it and then handed it back to him saying, "Why don't you read the Words of Aradia on the Grigori?"
He took the book from her, set his glass down and read out loud:
Before the people walked upon the world, there dwelt those beings which we call the Grigori. Some have called them spirits or gods. Some have spoken of them as powers and forces.
The old legends tell us that the Grigori were once physical beings, but that they are no longer. It is said that they dwell among the stars.
They are the Watchers of the Worlds, and the entrance and exits to the Worlds. Once it was said that the stars were the campfires of their armies, ever watching over us.
The Grigori have set their towers at the four quarters of the world and stand vigil over the portals which lay between the worlds.
Once they were called the powers of the air, and so did they come to be linked to the winds. Then were they known by the Latin names of Boreas, Eurus, Notus and Zephyrus. Yet these are but their titles. Know now their ancient names of Tago, Bellaria, Settrano, Meana.
The Old Ones come to our rituals to witness our rites, for we have a covenant with them. So do they watch over our works and help us. Our covenant with them was established at the end of the Second Age, and from this time do we mark the years of our ways.
The Grigori observe our rites, protect us, and escort us to the Moon Worlds when we pass from the Physical World.
When he finished reading Owen said, "After you left that night you first introduced me to the Grigori, I remember looking up into the sky and thinking they were a bit like some special Star Trek scanning device for Streghe."
Nola grinned and said, "Raven would like that. He's a big Star Trek fan."
"Raven Grimassi is a Star Trek fan? Were you a Star Trek fan before you became a Strega?"
"Oh, absolutely. As a child, my father and I watched The Original Series when it was in syndication. Come to think of it I always preferred watching Star Trek reruns with my Dad to going to church with my mom."
Then she added "The Words do sound a bit like science fiction. Don't they? Corporeal beings who are no longer corporeal. Who now live among the stars and watch the entrance and exits to the Worlds." And grinning she added, "Hint of wormhole there maybe?" Then more seriously "I wish I could tell you what this non-specific covenant or agreement is between us and them. But I don't know anything other than what the Words say. They 'witness our rites, watch over our works and help us'."
She paused then added, "How to you feel about the Grigori, other than as scanning devices for streghe?"
She watched as Owen worked out his answer.
"Most religions have some concept of deity 'up there". So in some ways this is not that different. Pagan religions have the concept of deity as immanent as opposed to non-pagan transcendent."
And Nola smiled Owen used words not everyone would so easily.
"Part of what always drew me to the pagan approach was the concept of the divine in this world. Yet I admit that for me it is not possible to completely eliminate the sense that there is something unseeable and unknowable in the mix. The Grigori are those unseeable parts in Streghe belief system, like the concept of God and Goddess and the all. The Wiccans refer to elementals and watchtowers. But the elementals can be generalized into almost scientific concepts and no one has ever explained what a Wiccan watchtower really is. The Grigori as Watchers are much better defined. Christianity has its guardian angels but somehow the Grigori seem more serious, no, that's not really the right word, maybe intense, yes intense than any Christian guardian angel."
"You have been reading and thinking, haven't you?"
He grinned pleased with pleasing her, "Well it seems only fair considering you are spending about 5 hours a week teaching me."
"In many ways Owen I'm more a guide than a teacher. I expose you to the concepts, adjust your thinking if it is out of alignment with what and how I have been taught and you do the rest. That's why we often refer to what we do as a path or the ways. We're just walking together right now."
Owen said, "The Grigori may be unseeable but I think they are knowable. Sometimes I think I can almost feel them watching. It's as if with that first introduction you somehow placed a tracking device on me."
And the Grigori looked at each other as if to say: As long as we're watching Nola, we're also watching you.
And she laughed lightly at that then said more seriously, "You know I once had a student who loved 'The Ways', until we got to talking about the Grigori. He said the thought of them 'creeped him out' and he stopped studying with me because of it."
"Oh I'm not creeped out. The Grigori are intense and powerful but I see, I guess feel is a better word, huh? I feel as if they are more like crack generals in an army. They are disciplined and professional, serious more than dangerous."
"Raven has often indicated they have military characteristics. So I'd say your feelings are aligned with the views I've been taught. I've always felt protected by the Grigori. One of the things that I was told was that we should work to create alignment with them. Doing the bells and smells work in the ritual helps create alignment, but I've also found I can align myself with them by asking myself, what would Tago do or Bellaria or Settrano or Meana and then realizing that each would probably take a different approach. So I can try out different potential solutions and choose the best one for me in that particular circumstance."
"What would Tago do? I'm seeing that on a bumper sticker."
And they both laughed.
They spent the rest of the evening talking about the various aspects and personalities traits of the Grigori. Nola said she appreciated Tago's quiet strength that often it felt as if he was the one providing protection both physical protection from harm and an almost fatherly protection. She felt that her alignment with Bellaria was easier almost like the older sister she never had. For Nola Settrano was the Grigori who's energy and influence she had to be careful with because when she was younger she had a tendency to be more impulsive, more spontaneous and that this hadn't always been good. She said she felt Meana was the Grigori who had helped her grow the most and that because of this she felt a special connection. Owen commented that if he had to pick a Grigori who was working with him he'd pick Settrano. All his life, he'd been doing his best to do the right thing, what people expected of him. It finally felt like he was being freed to do what he wanted, what pleased him and that sometimes when he did this it felt a bit brash, but it was a lot of fun and he wasn't planning on stopping. Well he said, except when he felt Tago's restraining influence, commenting that when Nola cast the circle Tago seemed to arrive with an impressive thud. Bellaria seemed like an influence that could keep you sharp minded. And Meana felt comfortable and warm, flowing.
And the Grigori looked at each other as if to say: By George I think they've got it.