By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Out here, it's darker than you can imagine.
There are tiki torches and Coleman lanterns in the camp, but outside of their range, you're blind. Standing at the camp entrance, a figure beckons newly arrived Celtic Rogues toward him. Off in the distance, drums.
The Rogues lug tents and coolers into the camp, delineated by low-slung yellow chains and medieval-style flags. Closer to the flames, objects slowly reveal themselves: a space alien mannequin in leather armor, propped against a tree; a grill; a man in a do-rag assembling demonic mechanical wings.
He is a Rennie -- one of hundreds of hard-core Texas Renaissance Festival enthusiasts who camp outside the festival grounds after the gates close and everyone else drives home. At night, the campground belongs to them, the separate clans with their own flags who light campfires and wander around meeting new people and old friends they haven't seen since the last festival. They dress up in period garb during the day, and drink and laugh and tell stories all night. They aren't paid to be part of the festival, but without them, it wouldn't be nearly as fun.
This Rennie is Lord Dragonhawke, revered leader of the Celtic Rogues, and he is wearing a yellow-and-orange tie-dyed shirt and khaki shorts with suspenders. A multicolored brimless cap rests atop long gray hair that flows into a beard. He's laughing, and his arms, as always, are open. He is here to hug, to share, to welcome friends and strangers to the Texas Renaissance Festival, near Plantersville, about 70 miles north of Houston. It's the biggest in the country. Huzzah.
And now he awaits two figures approaching the lantern's glow; one thin and impossibly tall, one of average size. The bongos in the distance are still pounding a hypnotic drone. Dum-dum-DUM-dum-dum-dum-dum-DUM. No one knows which clan is playing the drums. Could it be Chaos? Word for Mundanes at faire is stay away from Chaos. No one says why, and somehow that makes it even worse.
Now the figures step into a finger of light, and the impossibly tall one is revealed as a woman. Is it a trick of the dark? Must be. But no. Has to be six-four. Twirling a silver cup on a long, strong finger. In reality, it's probably a bucket; in her hands, it's a thimble. She is Kataztrophe the Amazon. She has a flask in her jacket pocket. She is loaded.
Her partner? That's another story. Sexy. Curvy. A two-piece belly-dancing dress prominently displaying a pair of breasts that could only have been dreamed up by the world's horniest high-schooler.
And it's between these Eighth and Ninth Wonders of the World that Lord Dragonhawke slips a cold bottle of Kahlúa White Russian.
She is Melissa, and, answering a question about her getup, she says, "What am I? A woman in search of her more tribal instinct feelings."
Dragonhawke doesn't miss a beat: "Get the drums, somebody!"
But Kataztrophe and Melissa bid the Celtic Rogues adieu and drift off toward the bongos. They walk past a phalanx of RVs, their feet crunching along the gravel road leading to the fairgrounds. Away from the Celtic Rogues, the only light is from the stars. There are about a billion more stars than you can see in Houston. But their light is only a reminder of how dark it truly is here.
Kataztrophe says she's a computer-graphics artist who also teaches graphic art at a Fort Worth university. She's attended the Texas Renaissance Festival for at least the last eight years. She's been into faire culture for the past 12. She says she gets a year's worth of hugs at faire.
"They'll open the door and treat you like kith and kin," she says, her words partly slurred.
Kataztrophe and Melissa veer away from the road, past a large empty fire pit, and the bongos grow louder. Then they're gone, swallowed by the darkness.
And then, they reappear, strobe-lit by a bonfire beneath a gigantic spider-shaped parachute spread among the trees, where a ring of drummers feed rhythm to belly-dancing sirens. Dozens crowd under the parachute, staring at the dancers. Pirate flags abound. In the firelight, there is a refugee from the Island of Dr. Moreau, pounding the bongo. A human being with a pig's snout.
A black-haired siren breaks from the dance circle and gyrates in front of a drum, beer in hand. The drummer pounds out the same mesmerizing pattern.
Who are these people? Is this Chaos? Will babies be eaten, virgins sacrificed?
The best thing to do at this point is find out who's in charge. Miriam, with cloak and staff, and Violet, with dagger, are two of the friendliest faces around. But they don't know the leader. It's like Apocalypse Now, when Willard asks the grunt on the bridge, "Who's in charge here, soldier?" All the soldier can say is "Ain't you?"
Where's Kataztrophe? Where's Melissa? Where's the path back to the Celtic Rogues?