by Lara Boyle
At a Girls Leadership Camp in Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts, I met my first witch. One day we walked together along the sunlit forest path under the natural protection of the mystical Lowe Lake. She had curly blonde hair, freckles, and deep blue eyes I often stared at for too long. I didn’t know why.
Her name was Rowan.
“I’m a witch,” she declared, as if this explained my supernatural attraction. “Just so you know.”
I wanted to know more. What strange magic did she possess that boys lacked? Could it be real if I had never seen or felt something like this before? These new questions boiled and bubbled on my tongue, while a thing called desire sat like a spell waiting for someone else’s mouth to cast it, permission, proof.
“A witch?” I marveled. “You mean like in Harry Potter? Or Matilda?”
“No,” She scoffed. “I mean real witchcraft.”
“If magic is real,” I said, “and you're a witch, prove it.”
Show me you exist, I really meant to say, so I can exist, too.
She picked up a grey rock near the lake and threw it, then watched the little pebble skip over water. I waited for the rock to re-emerge from the depths of the water like Jesus coming back to life on the cross. I waited for it to turn into a raven and fly away. A few minutes passed.
“See that?” she asked. “That’s magic. It’s not about proof, it’s about setting the right intention. If you say words with enough strength, and send them out into the universe, they can cause an invisible ripple effect.”
“That’s a rock,” I said, even though I wanted to agree. “It doesn’t become something else just because we say it does.”
“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes fondly. “You’ll see. Come on, we should probably head back.”
If I close my eyes, I can still summon the quick, electric shock that passed between our fingers as they brushed against each other while she shuffled my tarot cards that evening. Shrouded by damp, dorm room darkness, she told my fortune pulp fiction style—with a flashlight tucked under the chin, words stumbling across the lips. For three weeks, we called the all-female campus our coven, where the horrors of the outside world failed to reach our Artemisian territory. There were no boys, no modern technology, no parents. Yet there were witches.
“Everyone is basically a lesbian here,” she joked once in private. “I told my friend and she felt bad for me because I wouldn’t get to have a summer romance. Who else would go to an all-girls camp?”
“I’m straight,” I said, but she saw through my illusion. “I’m here.”
“You read a lot of gay literature for a straight girl,” she observed. I thought she meant I should not have read gay books because I was a straight girl. I never considered that maybe I wasn’t one.
I had no defense prepared.
I borrowed her copy of Sappho’s Fragments, translated by Anne Carson, and cried in the middle of the night over two women the way I never had over literature’s most beloved heterosexual couples. Not Darcy and Elizabeth. Sappho, of Lesbos, and the quiet, yearning love historians always erased.
“Sweet mother,” the poet wrote. “I cannot weave, Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a girl.”
Perhaps I related to it because I broke myself into fragments, too. Each time Aphrodite overcame me with longing for a girl, another part of my heart, my consciousness, split apart. It was a necessary act to keep up the mirage. I still wonder why I did it. My parents always encouraged love in any form. If my mom talked about my brother and I’s future significant other in hypotheticals, she always used the term partner or said when you fall in love. Love remained open to infinite possibility. Yet I still clung to the possibility that I might retain my small sameness in some way.
“Well, you don’t look like a witch.”
“I don’t have to.”
“I can see ghosts,” the girl confessed. We sat together at the crooked wooden cafeteria tables. “Once I saw a man at synagogue take his seat, then disappear. He was so real, I could almost reach out and touch him.”
I considered this.
The women in my mother’s family resembled traditional fairytale witches more than she did, and each carried their own power, passed down through generations since Savta Tova left Egypt. My cousin delivers messages from the other side to people who need them most. My aunt has an unshakably accurate intuition, my mom interprets dreams. I sense things before they happen.
One time, my family went upstate New York for the holidays, and I said it would snow. “It’s not going to snow,” my mom said, as our car pulled up to the mountain house. “The forecast says it’s going to be too warm.”
Sure enough, the next morning, a white blanket covered the lawn. I was not surprised. “Told you,” I said.
“My daughter’s a witch,” my mom declared cheerfully. “That’s impossible.”
Every Friday night, we congregate around the Shabbat candles to bless the tender flames; however, our hands do the real work as they hover in circular motion above the golden candelabra. Two candles for every married woman, whose heads are veiled with white cloth, plus another for the children she has, along with those she may have lost. Next we say the familiar Hebrew incantation: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha'olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat. Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat candle[s].” We are supposed to practice the Havdalah ritual to close the magic, though only when three stars appear in formation on Saturday evening. The word Havdalah means “separation.” In a simple ceremony, with multiple blessings over lights, wine or grape juice, and spices—typically cloves, cinnamon or cardamom—kept safe in a specially decorated BeSamim box. We celebrate the end of one week, and the fresh start of another.
“I have powers,” Savta Tova would warn, each time she came to visit us in the states from the Middle East, shaking her finger at my brother and I until the gargantuan turquoise ring on it jangled. “Don’t test me.”
The only powers I could see were her disappointed “Uchhhhs,” her ability to switch from English to her mother tongue whenever she didn’t want us to hear her talk about us, and her cooking.
My brother believed her out of courtesy.
I remained a skeptic.
Still, I entertained Rowan’s fantasy. It made sense, more than anything, that her affinity for the occult world attracted me towards her. Everyone could be curious, I convinced myself, no matter their sexuality. The ability to experience the mysterious unknown felt like the closest thing to true sorcery.
She showed me her “Grimoire.” A black Moleskine notebook turned into a mythical book of spells. An ancient practice, grimoires were designed to hold the deepest secrets of every good witch. In these coffee-stained pages, she charted the sun, moon, and stars. We explored different crystals.
She listed the names of the old gods. I watched her flip through their mythos. She paused on Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic and spells. When Hades abducted Persephone to the underworld, Hecate went after her, torch in hand, to search for the return of spring. Pillars named “Hecate” were placed at crossroads and doorways to keep away evil spirits, Rowan explained,; it’s why we do the same with salt. She’d long since abandoned the popular Christian God because he abandoned her first.
There seemed to be a god for everything. I wondered how many gods remained undiscovered. I wished there was a God of Questions and Answers, some high power who could tell me what everything meant. I wanted to point at a crow on a high wire and find a sign in its black wings, how each individual black feather held special significance. One to say: you are seen, the other: you are heard. But deities didn’t seem skilled in that department.
Next, she’d written down instructions for a spell jar. They said things like:
Attract Love: Rose Quartz, Garnet, Beach Rose, Catnip, Licorice Root
Health: Clear Quartz, Apple Blossoms, Aventurine, Coltsfoot, Ginger
Protection: Black Obsidian, Amethyst Lavender, Rosemary, Frankincense, Hawaiian Black Salt.
Good Luck: Chamomile, Dandelion, Honeysuckle, Mistletoe, Rosemary, Thyme Bury the jar in the right corner of your bedroom. Replace every Beltane.
Smaller bottles can be carried in charms in times of need.
Towards the end of the camp, we explored a cavern to practice bravery. I had a panic attack once I imagined what strange creatures might be kept hidden under the same mountainous roof: bats, roaches, other unnamed monster. Rowan took my hand and led me with her deep, steady breaths through the darkness. I fumbled to find the next surface, afraid I’d fall, then slip into the shadowy depths below like Eurydice into the underworld. Things never went well for women in fables.
“One foot over the other,” she said. Her voice became a subtle enchantment despite my constant fear. “Look, see, we’re almost at the end.”
I looked. Past her fingers shone the literal light at the end of the tunnel.
But the only thing I could feel was the weight against my chest.
“I can’t do it,” I heaved. “It’s too far away. I’m not gonna make it.”
“Yes, you can,” she said, “We’re so close. You can’t give up now.”
One of the counselors played Beyonce’s Survivor on her phone speaker. The familiar feminist anthem reverberated and echoed off the black walls. The lyrics had their own ripple effect on us. A mantra we repeated until we believed it fully: “I'm a survivor. I'm not gon' give up. I'm not gon' stop, oh, I'm gon' work harder. I'm the survivor. I'm gonna make it. I will survive. Keep on survivin.'”
I believed in witchcraft a little more after that day. I left camp with a compendium of paranormal knowledge. I learned to say no like a spell, then cackle if men were disappointed. I learned the places ghosts were most likely to haunt, why witches write everything down, and to find meaning in ordinary things, because even a broomstick could have a history steeped in folklore, which is just another word for magic.
This October, I will buy my first deck of tarot cards, wear a pointy black hat, and shuffle them in the quiet of my room, with the door shut, after I have sprinkled salt around the corners to ensure that any unwanted guests do not enter. I will dye my buzzed haircut a bright, undeniable color, like pink, or blue, or orange, and walk with confidence down the pumpkin-decorated streets. I will dress up as the girl I wanted to be so many Halloweens ago. Flannel, cuffed jeans, Doc Martens, rainbow pins. There is no costume. When people ask who I am, I will tell them, simply: a witch. I’ll let my conjuring fizzle, sizzle, pop into existence.
I will explain nothing.
Lara Boyle (she/her) is a Jewish lesbian writer with Asperger’s Syndrome. She studies Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. When not writing, she can be found reading or playing with her big red dog, Boomer, who failed service dog training because he loves people too much. Her work has been published in The Farside Review, where she’s a staff writer, Moonchild Magazine, Herstry Blog, WomenAdvaNCe, and Signet Literary Magazine.