Pagan Passions

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Chapter 7

The morning of the Autumn Bacchanal dawned bright and clear—thanks to the intervention of the Pantheon. In New York, the leaves were only just beginning to turn, and the sun was still high enough in the sky to make the afternoons warm and pleasant. Zeus All-Father had promised good weather for the festival, and a strong, warm wind from the Gulf of Mexico was moving out the crisp autumn air before the sun had risen an hour above the horizon.

The practicing that had gone on in thousands of homes throughout the city was at an end. The Autumn Bacchanal was here at last, and the Beginning Service, which had started in the little Temple-on-the-Green right at dawn, when the sun's rays had first touched the tops of New York's towers, was approaching its end. The people clustered in the building, and the incomparably greater number scattered outside it, were feeling the first itch of restlessness.

Soon the Grand Procession would begin, starting as always from the Temple-on-the-Green and wending its slow way northward to the upper end of Central Park at 110th Street. Then the string of worshippers would turn and head back for the Temple at the lower end of the Park, with fanfare and pageantry on a scale calculated to do honor to the God of the festival, to outshine not only every other festival, but every past year of the Autumn Bacchanal itself.

The Autumn Bacchanal was devoted to the celebration of the harvest, and more specifically the harvest and processing of the grape. All the wineries for hundreds of miles around had shipped hogshead after hogshead and barrel after barrel of fine wine—red, white, rose, still, or sparkling—as joyous sacrifice to Dionysus/Bacchus, and in thanks that the fertility rites of the Vernal Bacchanal had brought them good crops. Wine flowed from everywhere into the city, and now the immense reserves were stacked away, awaiting the revels. Even the brewers and distillers had sent along their wares, from the mildest beer to vodka of 120 proof, joining unselfishly in the celebration even though, technically, they were not under Dionysian protection at all, but were the wards of Ceres, the Goddess of grain.

Celebrants, liquors, chants, preparations, balloons, confetti, edibles and all the other appurtenances of the festival spiraled dizzyingly upward, reaching proportions unheard of throughout history. And, in a back room at the Temple-on-the-Green, the late William Forrester sat, trying to forget all about them, and suffering from a continuous case of nerves.

Diana marched up and down in front of him, smacking her left fist into her calloused little right palm. "Now listen," she said crisply. "I know you're all hot and bothered, kid, but there's no reason to be. You're doing fine. They love you out there."

"Sure I am," Forrester said, unconvinced.

"Well, you are," Diana said. "You just got to have confidence, that's all. Keep your spirits up. Tried singing?"

"Singing?"

"Singing, kid. Raises the spirits."

Forrester blinked. "Really?"

"Take it from me," Diana said. "How about Tenting Tonight?"

"How about what?"

"Tenting Tonight," Diana said. "You know."

"I—guess I do." Forrester wished that Diana would do more than treat him like a pal. She was a remarkably beautiful woman, if you liked the type, and Forrester liked virtually any type.

Now, success appeared to be within his grasp. But it did seem an odd time to bring the subject up. Oh, well, he thought, maybe she was just trying to cheer him up and had picked this way of doing it.

It worked, too, he told himself happily.

He cleared his throat. "Where?"

Diana stared. "Where?"

"That's right," Forrester said. Something was going wrong but he couldn't discover what it was. "The tenting."

"Oh," Diana said. "Right here. Now. Raises the spirits."

"I should say it does!" Forrester agreed enthusiastically. "But after all—right here—"

"Don't worry about it, kid. Nobody will hear you."

"Hear me?"

"Anyway, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Lots of people do it when they feel low."

"I'll bet they do," Forrester said. "But it's different with you and me."

"Me?" Diana said. "What do I have to do with it? I just told you—"

"Well, sure. And here and now is as good a time and place as any."

Diana stepped back a pace. "Okay, let's hear it. Sing!"

"Sing? You mean I have to sing for my—"

"I'll join you," Diana said.

Forrester nodded. He was beginning to get confused. "You'd better," he said.

"Tenting tonight on the old camp grounds," she sang. "Now come on."

Forrester coughed. "Oh," he said. "Sing."

"Sure," Diana said, and they went through the song together. "How about another chorus?" she asked.

"It's all right, Diana," Forrester said, knowing she preferred the name to her Greek one of Artemis. "I feel fine now."

"Well," Diana said in a disappointed voice, "all right."

What surprised Forrester most was that he did feel fine. All the Gods had helped him in the past several months, but Diana had been especially helpful. As a forest Goddess, and as Protectress of the Night, she'd been able to tell him a lot about how an orgy was arranged. He had often wished that she would teach by example, but now, he discovered, it was too late for wishing.

She was, he told himself with only faint regret, just like a sister to him. Or even a brother.

"I guess everything will be okay," he said. "Won't it?"

Diana clapped him on the back. "You're going to be great. Just go out there and show 'em what kind of a God you are."

"But what kind of a God am I?"

"Just keep cool, kid. You won't fail me—I know it."

"I'll try," Forrester said. "Only I'm getting nervous just sitting around here. I wish we could go out and stroll around; we've got plenty of time, anyhow."

Diana nodded. "It's ten minutes yet before the Procession starts. I suppose we might as well take a look around, kid, if it makes you feel better."

"It might."

"Fine, then. But how do you want to go?"

Forrester blinked. "How?"

"Invisibility," Diana said, "or incognito?"

"Oh," Forrester said. Then he added: "You're asking me?"

"Of course I am, kid. Now, look: this is your celebration, remember? You're Dionysus. Got it? Even in my presence, you act the part now. You ought to know that."

"Well, sure, but—"

"Keep this in mind. These people haven't had a Sabbatical Bacchanal in seven years. Every seven years they get to see their God—and this year you're it. Right?"

"I guess so. But—"

"No buts," Diana said. "You're the boss and they're your worshippers. That's all there is to it. Now, you've got to make up your mind. What'll it be?"

Forrester thought. "Well," he said at last, "I guess it had better be incognito. With this crowd, there's too much likelihood of getting bumped into if we're invisible. Right?"

Diana grinned. "That's the boy! You're thinking straight now!"

Forrester had the sudden feeling that he had just passed another test. But he didn't quite dare ask about it "All right," he said instead. "Let's go."

He put his mind to work concentrating on the special faculties that his demi-God power gave him. His face began to change. He looked less and less like Dionysus as the seconds went by, and more and more like William Forrester. At the same time, the golden aura around his body began to fade. After a few minutes he looked like William Forrester completely, a nice enough guy but pretty much of a nonentity.

Diana, with the greater power of a true Goddess, achieved the same sort of result almost instantly. Her aura was gone and the sparkle had left her eyes. Her brown hair looked a little mousy now, and her face was merely pretty instead of being gloriously beautiful.

"Just one thing," Forrester said. "We'd better make ourselves invisible just to leave the Temple. Somebody might suspect we weren't ordinary people at all."

"Right again," Diana smiled. She nodded her head and blinked out.

Forrester could still see a cloudy outline of her in the room, but he knew that was because he was a demi-God, with special powers. An ordinary mortal, he knew, would see nothing at all.

He followed her into invisibility and walked out the back door of the Temple-on-the-Green. The door was open and two Temple Myrmidons, wearing the golden grape-clusters of Dionysus on their shoulder patches, stood outside the door. Neither of them saw Forrester and Diana leave.

 

Three minutes later, they were standing near the doorway of the Temple, watching the preparations for the Grand Procession. The fifty priests of Dionysus gathered there while the enormous crowd pushed and shoved to get a better view of the ritual. The sacrifice of the first fruits had been completed, and now, at the door of the Temple, each of the fifty priests filled a chalice from a huge hogshead of purple wine.

They chanted a prayer in unison and spilled half the wine on the ground as a libation. Then they lifted the chalices to their lips and drank, finishing the other half in one long motion.

The chalices were set down, and a cheer rose from the crowd.

The Bacchanal had begun!

The priests separated into two equal groups. Twenty-five of them started northward, marching to their positions at regularly spaced intervals in the procession. The remaining twenty-five stayed behind, ready to accompany Dionysus himself at the tail of the parade.

Each of the other Gods was represented by a special detachment of ten Myrmidons, each contingent wearing the distinctive shoulder patch of the God it served: the thunderbolt of Zeus, the blazing sun of Apollo, the pipes of Pan, the sword of Mars, the hammer of Vulcan, the poppy of Morpheus, the winged foot of Mercury, the trident of Neptune, the cerberus of Pluto, the peacock of Hera, the owl of Athena, the dove of Venus, the crescent of Diana, and the sprig of wheat that represented Mother Ceres. The Myrmidons grinned in expectation of the good times coming; a Dionysian festival was always something special, and competition for the contingents was always tough.

There were balloons everywhere, as the crowd shoved and pushed into the line of march. Someone was bawling an old song about the lack of liquor, and the strident voice carried over the shouts and halloos of the mob:

"How dry I am—"

Forrester and Diana, now visible, pushed their way through the crowds. A man flung his arm around the Goddess with abandon, shouting something indistinguishable; Diana shook him off gently and went on. Forrester almost tripped over a small boy sitting on the grass and crying. A Myrmidon was standing over him, and the child's mother was trying to lift the boy.

"I wanna go to the orgy," the boy kept saying. "I wanna go to the orgy."

"Next year," the mother told him. "Next year, child, when you're six."

The Myrmidon lifted the child and carried him away. The mother shouted an address after him, and the Myrmidon nodded, pushed his way through a gesticulating group of celebrants and disappeared in the direction of Central Park West. There, other Dionysian Myrmidons were patrolling, making sure that no non-Dionysian got in except by special invitation. Any non-Dionysian who wanted to celebrate was supposed to do it on the streets of the city, and not in Central Park, which was going to be crowded enough with legitimate revelers.

The shouting and screaming went on, people pushing and shoving, confetti beginning to drift like a light snow over the worshippers. One man held five balloons and a cigarette, and he was popping the balloons with the cigarette tip, one by one. Every time one of the balloons exploded, a group of women and girls around him shrieked and laughed.

Forrester turned back. Behind a convenient bush, he and Diana made themselves invisible again, and re-entered the Temple-on-the-Green.

The silence inside the Temple was deafening.

"The noise out there could break eardrums," Forrester complained. "I've never heard anything like it."

"Just wait," Diana told him. "The music will start any time now—and then you'll really hear something." She paused. "Ready?"

Forrester glanced down at himself. "I guess so. How do I look?" He had constructed a golden chiton and mentally clothed himself in it. It was covered by a grape-purple cloak embroidered with golden grapevines. And around his head a circlet of woven grapevines had appeared, made of solid gold. It was a little heavier than Forrester had expected it would be, but it lent him, he thought, rather a dashing air.

"Great," Diana said. "Just great."

"Think so?" Forrester said, feeling rather pleased.

"Sure you do. Now go out there and give 'em the old college try."

Forrester gulped. "How about you?"

"Me? I'm on my way out of here. This is your show, kid. Make the most of it."

Forrester watched her go out the rear door. He was alone. And the Autumn Bacchanal Processional was about to begin.

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