Come to my lovely home in the Sierra foothills and be transformed in four days of pampering and meditation, Emelda whispered, weaving through the guests at a crowded art reception. She distributed homemade brochures and cookies laced with a delicious … herb. What a sweet person, I thought, as she moved among us in long flowing skirt with a contrasting silk blouse and large gold earrings. What deep dark magical eyes, and she had such a radiant smile. Her brightly colored brochure spoke of yoga stretches at sunrise, deep meditation at midday, delicious homecooked meals, stunning views of nature, and a gentle atmosphere of healing and laughter. Just what I needed after a hellish three months of working for a grubby nonprofit in the East Bay where political infighting had been taken to a whole new low. Beauty, inner joy, peace were promised by this brochure and her reassuring smile.
Of course, I couldn’t wait to find out more about Emelda’s wonderful retreat. The Sierra foothills were lower levels of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, she said, including towns on the border between California and Nevada. One could take the train or she could arrange a carpool. Payment was by check or credit card. About six like-minded men and women would attend. She had been doing retreats for years, she said, and was an experienced group leader, along with her husband. Bring hiking boots and warm sweaters since it will be January in the foothills.
As Emelda continued to circulate and charm during the art reception, I chatted with her husband. Lawrence said his wife was trained as what most people might call a witch, but she was more than that. She had been initiated as a shaman by some guy in Mexico, and she was a wonderful healer. Now we all know there are good witches and bad witches — we’ve seen the musical “Wicked” — but Lawrence’s reassuring smile told me there was nothing to fear. And in college I had read a Carlos Castenada book about shamans — healers trained in Latin American traditions — so the whole thing did not seem too scary.To raise money for this little vacation, I held a “garage sale” in the courtyard of my apartment building, divesting myself of paperback books, copper colanders, rhinestone bracelets, four-inch sandals — anything I hadn’t used or worn in six months. After emptying the flower pot of silver dollars in my kitchen — a gift from an admirer — I deposited everything in the credit union and wrote a check to Emelda and Lawrence.
How little I knew about what lurked in the picturesque foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Because the hostess of this retreat to hell was a bona fide witch, and may have put us under all sorts of spells, I cannot even now be certain where this all took place, not unless I go into deep trance to return to that state of mind, and I’m not willing to go there again, ever. The nearest town was miles away and downhill. Was it Auburn? Chinese Camp? Fiddletown? Placerville? Were we on the California side or the Nevada side? Will we ever know?
What I do remember is that I took the train along the California coast to my destination, and was met at the depot by others who had driven. Those of us without vehicles piled into two Land Rovers driven by Emelda and Lawrence. We drove uphill until the four-wheel drive failed. All vehicles then parked by the roadside and we trekked uphill for a mile, dragging our luggage in the warm mud. Their little abode was smaller than I anticipated, and it was clear there was no mail delivery or pizza delivery to this desolate place. Icy sleet was falling. An unsightly propane tank filled the small yard; apparently it provided heat for the wooden house. By this time everyone was hungry. Emelda said it was too late to cook, so we all ate cold porridge. I have hated porridge, hot or cold, since my childhood. However, one fierce look from her was all it took to silence me. A neighbor was waiting to surrender Emelda’s toddler son; no one had told us about the child. To spare the generator, we were shown to our sleeping area by candlelight. This was not starting out well — not at all.
Those who registered early and paid full price for the retreat received private rooms. Since I had paid sliding scale at the last minute, I slept on a floor mattress with quilts. The thermostat was turned down considerably at night so Lawrence and Emelda could save fuel. I shivered under the quilts, which smelled of dog. Turned out there was a large dog in the house, in addition to a small child. The dog barked, the child cried, and my neighbor on the other floor mattress snored. Well, so much for sleeping that first night! We did not get up at dawn for yoga stretches at sunrise as promised, because Emelda and Lawrence were having really noisy sex in the bedroom down the hall and they took a nap afterward. Slowly the rest of us found the two bathrooms and then walked into the kitchen to search out food. The cupboard was bare. We munched on stale peanuts and ripe bananas. The happy hosting couple, nicely satiated, tumbled into the kitchen after a while and announced that food was being delivered in a bit; they simply had not had time to shop before retrieving us the previous day. And Emelda had to take time to nurse Baby Jeremy before they met us at the train station. Nursing? The kid was three years old! Nonetheless, she nursed.
The two of them squabbled with abandon about the day’s schedule. Lawrence stamped out to walk the dog and Emelda nursed Baby Jeremy. The rest of us scratched our heads and looked at each other. At least the view from picture windows in two walls of the the living room was breathtaking and snow was falling everywhere. I had not seen such snow since I left the Great Lakes area. This moment proved to be a fitting metaphor for the entire four days — guests left to their own devices while the happy couple played house, contrasted with the beauty of snow falling all day long on towering evergreens, three days out of four.
Later Emelda fussed with her two ancestor altars in the family room while Lawrence brought in wood and started a fire in the fireplace. Turned out we paying guests were supposed to cook for ourselves and then wash dishes afterward. Emelda directed us in a harsh smoky voice, not at all like the dulcet tones she used at the art reception. Her hair was flying everywhere and she padded about barefoot in a midnight-blue granny gown with unleashed breasts swinging from side to side, Baby Jeremy resting on one hip. The huge Doberman jumped up and licked each of us now and then, without warning. Oh, it was grand!
Yoga stretches? Well, not exactly. Emelda read them from a book, barely giving us time to get into position, let alone stretch. And there was almost room to stretch, once we pushed eight pair of muddy hiking boots out of the way. Meditation each day was interrupted by the need to change Baby Jeremy’s diapers and nurse him, and by Emelda’s persistent cough. Would you believe she smoked cigarillos? Like a chimney! While the hosts were busy with domestic chores, we poor dupes were supposed to write affirmations. “What’s an affirmation?” one guest inquired. Emelda ignored him.
Food did reach us in this desolate place, finally: Raw potatoes, onions, cabbage, rutabagas, rice, pasta, salami, beer, Rocky Road ice cream. Lots of seasonings in the kitchen along with a large can of Crisco for cooking. Crisco — as in solid at room temperature?! OK, then. We guests made the best of it. What else could we do?
Everyone stayed inside because our hostess had a tropical personality and was not inclined toward the outdoors. In contrast, her husband was dressed in the latest Land’s End outdoor gear and seemed to enjoy the weather. After three days of claustrophobia, I broke out and ran into the snow. Three feet of good packing snow, reminiscent of a Canadian winter without the freezing temperatures. I laughed hysterically and threw myself on my back, moving my arms up and down to make snow angels. Lawrence came outside and joined me, while everyone else peered through the windows, looking puzzled by our antics. We threw snowballs at each other. When I started to build a snowman, Emelda’s outdoorsy husband went back inside to get a hat and scarf for my wintry creation. I knelt in the snow, looking for small rocks to complete the snowman’s face.
Lawrence returned from the house with hat and scarf for my snowman. He took me on a tour of evergreen trees nearby, pausing on the far side of a particularly lush tree looming overhead. “I like your energy,” he said with an inviting smile. “You looked 16 while you were lying in the snow, like you really were enjoying yourself. You know, I grew up in snow country, chopping wood, handling horses. And I love it up here. We could make love right under this tree — no problem — and no one could even see us, just a hawk overhead or a fox running across the snow. My wife and I have an open relationship. Nothing is off limits…” He was standing so close I could smell the spearmint on his breath.
Open marriage? Virility in the snow? Foxes running under my feet? Burned cabbage percolating in my intestine? Good grief! I marveled at his carefree approach to life, and his blithe disregard for his wife’s temper and shamanic powers. She might not turn him into a toad, because she wanted him, but she might not hesitate to reduce her guests to mushrooms in the snow. And what about my karma?
“So sorry, but I have to go to the bathroom now, all that cabbage for lunch!” and I rushed back to the house. I really did have to go. The turmoil he had just generated really agitated my intestines.
The other five guests, whose personalities had pretty much melted into car upholstery from the beginning, and I suffered through the last evening together. Mostly we munched popcorn in silence in front of the crackling fireplace. The next morning we donned hiking boots and trudged downhill in the snowy mud to the vehicles we had parked. Thankful to be dropped at the train depot at last, I expressed my gratitude to Emelda, whose eyes had turned dark gray with black currents running through them.
Very thankful that my train reached its destination with me alive and intact, I took a streetcar to my home. Then I examined myself for thorns in the arteries or ravens flying overhead. These days I limit my consumption of Portuguese wine at art receptions. And I really do check references on people offering workshops and retreats. One really can’t be too careful.
Jeanne Powell is the author of several books of poetry, including Word Dancing and My Own Silence, as well as works of fiction and nonfiction. Her worst vacation mishap has led her to be more cautious of following muses at art receptions. For more stories like these, visit Jeanne’s blog on Red Room.
[Photos: Flickr | Alan Vernon; Jurvetson; infowidget]