(CW: Substance abuse, physical violence)
Eliza sat on the outcropping and gazed at the flames leaping and dancing among the windswept wooded landscape. She made it this far, and she was not turning back. What brings destruction also brings new life and hope. The dry bones in the valley before her were resurrecting, reforming, dancing, and yearning for life. She would join the dance, but she had to be patient—no second-guessing herself. Just keep looking forward.
Her eyes moved up in tandem with the rising smoke. She caught a glimpse of the short, prickly pine needles protruding out of scraggly little limbs which reached out of an atrociously crooked trunk. It was clinging onto the edge of the outcropping like a lonesome old man who, having been told to leave, insisted on staying anyway just to spite better judgment. Eliza remembered as a kid a kind park ranger explaining the Table Mountain Pine to her. She said that even though it can survive unforgiving conditions, the only way to thrive is if fire enables the cones to expand, allowing the seeds to fall out and spread. The ranger handed her the green, sharp cone to pass around to her classmates. Eliza, for a moment, dreamed of fire so intense that it would allow the seeds within to blow far away and start anew.
She remembered how the classmate she passed the cone to then leaned over and told her that the only way she could thrive was if a fire came along and burned off those god-awful hand-me-down clothes of hers. God, she hated her. As the field trip wrapped up and they boarded the bus, she thought about how It wasn’t easy living on the fringes of a resort-town elementary school district. Not everyone who went to school there came from money, especially not Eliza’s folks. She thought about how her classmate arrived at school every morning with her mom in a shiny white Escalade. Once, Eliza arrived at school two hours late on foot. By the time she reached her bus stop at 5:45 AM, the bus had already left her. She did not realize a substitute driver was unfamiliar with the route that day. She walked the rest of the way along the long steep gravel road as the sun slowly rose above the Blue Ridge Mountains. She barely made it to school by lunchtime, which was the real motive behind showing up to school at all. Nobody questioned a girl like her walking to school alone. It was as though she and her people were invisible, living in deep wooded abandonment miles from town.
Eliza would no longer live this way. If she were going to thrive, she would have to let the fiery destruction of her home life crack her open. She knew that she could survive on next to nothing and be steadfast and resilient against all odds, but now was the time to let the heat of the flames do the rest. When her dad came back from his stint in prison, he managed to arrive home by hitching a ride with campers on the Blue Ridge Parkway. They dropped him off at the stop sign, and he made the long descent miles down the windy gravel back to their home. Eliza figured that if this no-good deadbeat could manage to hitchhike, so could she. Eliza could make it south to the women’s commune in Asheville by morning if someone took pity on her.
Eliza found out about the commune the day her dad stood trial there in federal court. She knew what the outcome would be, and she did not care to say goodbye to him before he was locked up. Hence, she wandered out of the courthouse mid-trial and headed down Patton Avenue. Nobody, not even her family, seemed to notice. She happened upon a gaggle of people banging on drums in a park with people dancing around them. She joined them in the dancing. She danced tirelessly and ferociously to the cosmic rhythm of percussion. She only left her fiery trance when her mom snatched her back into the car and scolded her for wandering off mid-trial. Her mom slapped her jaw hard when Eliza replied that none of them would have cared if she had stayed gone forever. Before being abducted back to her home, Eliza picked up a flier at the drum circle for a women’s commune. It mentioned how it was a place of love, acceptance, and zero judgment. Eliza dreamed of one day living there.
When Eliza’s dad made it back home from prison, it was only a couple of days before he rustled up the ingredients to cook meth again. He was determined to go back to work. The trailer reeked of chemicals and fumes. Eliza’s mom was sprawled on the couch, passed out after a four-day high. Eliza gathered up a small number of belongings. Toothbrush, toothpaste, jacket, Tylenol, water bottle, extra underwear, tampons. Eliza left her home of seventeen years. Moments later, she heard the blast.
Still perched on the outcropping, she knew how the fire started. She knew that the chemical fire spread to the dry underbrush and simply kept spreading. She knew that it would take a while for the volunteer fire department to respond because it’s not easy driving fire trucks down a twisty gravel road. She knew that she had no home to which to return. Eliza heard the clapper of helicopter blades as the wildland fire response crew made their way to the blaze.
Eliza reached in her pocket and took out the flier. She unfolded the haphazard wad and read the words once more. L o ve L i g h t C o m m u n e F o r B e a u t i f u l W O M E N L i k e
Y o u. L e a v e Y o u r T r a u m a B e h i n d A n d B e H e a l e d. After noting the phone number at the bottom, she carefully folded the flier and stuffed it back into her pocket. She gathered herself and walked back to the Parkway. She stood on the side of the road and held her arm out, thumb up. A Mercedez Benz and an Audi whizzed by her. She dreaded still being invisible after all these years. No one cared about those who lived on the fringes. A Forest Service fire truck whizzed by, sirens blaring.
Eliza began to second-guess herself. Maybe she should head back to see if mom and dad are still alive. If they aren’t, she can help the sheriff identify them amidst the remains of the single-wide trailer. No, she can’t do that. The Table Mountain Pine only thrives when it is ready to let go. It only thrives after destruction.
She lowered her thumb. She decided that she would walk. Head south. She meandered down the two-lane thoroughfare until she reached an overlook. Three cars were perched facing the mountain vista below. One had an Appalachian State decal whose occupants laughed and jammed to the radio. The other had a New Jersey license plate, driven by an older couple, probably retired. The third was a minivan with dirty windows with the words “LOVE HEALS” scrawled in the dirt. Eliza gravitated toward the minivan.
The only visible occupant was lounged back in the front passenger seat with her bare feet propped up on the dashboard, hand hanging out the open window. She wore many rings.
“You poor baby,” the lady in the passenger said in a low, raspy voice.
“Hey, not to bother you all but is it okay if I use your phone? My battery died,” Eliza said, drawing nearer, knowing that she did not bring a phone.
“Who are we calling?” The lady replied, not missing a beat.
Eliza pulled out the flier and unfolded it. The lady in the minivan took a nonchalant glance at it, not moving from her lethargic posture.
“You don’t need a phone. You’re already home,” the lady told Eliza.
“I don’t have a home. Okay, I mean, look at that smoke coming from that ridge down there; that’s supposed to be my home,” Eliza pointed towards the hazy vista.
“You poor darling,” the lady reiterated, still not missing a beat. “Come on in. I’d like to introduce you to your sisters. Welcome home.” The rear door slid open. Inside sat four additional women. Eliza could see no other choice. She climbed in.
“We were all like you, sister, all lost in this cruel, emotionless world. We want you to be one of us. We want to take you home,” the lady stated, the other women nodding in agreement.
The inside of the minivan reeked of incense. A floral tapestry lined the ceiling. The women sat, sprawled out, wearing long skirts and tank tops. Some wore a bandana head-covering. None wore shoes.
In her cut-off jeans and worn-out flip-flops, Eliza immediately felt at home. She kicked off her flip-flops and joined the women, lounging amidst the view on the Parkway.
“What’s your name, sister?” The woman in the passenger seat asked.
“Hey, there’s an old-school name. Awesome. Call me mama Sheila. You’ll have your family name soon enough.”
The other women introduced themselves to Eliza. They did so in a gentle way. Sheila was correct as far as Eliza could tell. She was home now.
Sheila reached in a paper bag and handed Eliza a sandwich.
“You must be hungry, baby.”
Eliza happily took the sandwich and obligingly ate it like a pet longing at the dinner table.
“Baby, let’s take you home.”
Eliza leaned back against the frame of the minivan with her new sisters as Sheila crawled into the driver’s seat and cranked up the engine. They drove off down the Parkway into the stillness of the night.
By the time they arrived at the commune, Eliza was fast asleep. The other women in the van wearily stretched out their arms and legs. Sheila gestured for them to allow Eliza to continue to sleep.
When Eliza woke up, she caught the first glimpse of her new home. Ramshackle yurts lined a dirt path up to a large pavilion.
“Welcome home,” Eliza heard more than once as, one by one, women stepped out to greet her, some of whom she recognized from the van. However, they were wearing clean white robes, feet still bare.
“Good morning, baby,” Sheila greeted Eliza, handing her a cup of tea.
Eliza felt a bit out of place in her cut-offs amidst their white robes. Eliza took the cup from Sheila and took a sip. Her cone was cracked, and her inner seed needed to spread. It had to lay wherever the wind took her.
“Come, Eliza, sister, baby. We’re gathering for our morning healing.” Shiela took Eliza by the hand. Wherever the wind took her, Eliza thought to herself.
As they reached the end of the row of canvas yurts, they came to a permanent structure made out of cob. Eliza could hear drumming. They entered the cob building.
Inside, two dozen women were in a circle wearing white robes, all banging on drums. Sitting cross-legged in front of the circle of women was a man with a long grey beard. He smiled at Eliza, eyes half-open. He made a subtle hand gesture at the circle of women. They synchronously stopped their drumming.
“Ah yes, Sheila. You brought her to me, yes? Very good. Very good,” the man with the beard said, still smiling.
“Eliza, baby, I would like you to meet your future husband. When you become married, you will be one with the Great One. One with him and one with us,” Sheila stared point-blank at Eliza.
Eliza did not know how to reply. After all, she was home. There was no other home.
“Everyone, let us celebrate the newlywed by taking a cup of wine and drinking to new beginnings.”
Sheila gestured for one of the women to pass around small cups of wine to all in attendance.
“To new beginnings,” all the women said in unison, raising their cups.
Eliza glanced down at the wine in her cup. She saw her old self, reflecting in the burgundy ripples for a moment. She saw her innocent self, lonely in a maddeningly chaotic world that did not allow her to exist. She glanced up and looked at her future husband. He gleefully nodded at her with his stringy grey beard bobbing up and down. All the women sipped their wine in unison.
“Baby, the fragile little girl known as Eliza is soon to be gone,” Sheila whispered to Eliza as she placed a flowery wreath upon her head. “This is a place of love, acceptance, and zero judgment. Leave your trauma behind and be healed, baby. The Great One knows the path forward to enlightenment, and only through he can we be cleansed of our past. Once you are married to the Great One, you will become one of us. You will be one with nature and the universe.”
Eliza stood in the middle of the circle with all of the women staring intently at her and smiling. She glanced down at her half-empty cup of wine and saw her new self. She glanced back up at The Great One, her future husband, smiling down at her. She glanced at Sheila, who was also smiling.
“One of us,” they all said in unison.
The woman formerly known as Eliza stepped forward to greet her new husband, her seed having separated from the cone. The fire had done its work.