BY C.A. SCHAEFER
When I am nineteen, my friends and I—four white girls in the center of Mormon country—decide to call ourselves witches. The Utah town we live in is pressed flat against the belly of the Wasatch front, where the mountains lift out of the valley like the ridge of a half-healed, stitched wound. There, regardless of whether or not we are Mormon, we live under the Word of Wisdom, and witching is our way to escape.
The Word of Wisdom is the rulebook for Mormon consumption. The town is shaped by it. Caffeine is against the Word of Wisdom, so coffee shops are verboten. My summer job is bagging and running groceries over the incessant red light, listening for the beep. When a tourist comes to ask me for the nearest Starbucks, I point him to the Barnes and Noble twenty minutes south. Are you sure? he asks, and even when he leaves I think he refuses to believe me.
In addition to caffeine, we are not permitted to drink alcohol (the one liquor store, tucked on State Street, has frosted and barred windows. There are no bars in this town). Even our clothes mark us as Mormon/not-Mormon—girls who wear shoulder-baring shirts, skirt a half-inch above the knee, and a second earring, are identified as sinners. Also prohibited: beards for men, tattoos, homosexuality. Sexuality. Sex.
We are nineteen and rules are irresistible, either to break or keep. We have no access to alcohol, no one who we would sleep with, no one who would sleep with us. All the boys our age are preparing to leave or have left on a two-year mission, delaying any consummation. At my friend’s dorm, a security guard walks steady rows up and down the parking lot, shining a flashlight onto the back seat, looking for any sign of flesh.
The closest we can come to rebellion is buying twelve-packs of Pepsi and drinking them all in one night. We press our lips to the rims of the cans and suck at the sweetness and fizz. After we finish, we are dizzy with the soda, nauseated and giggling, and we settle in the tiny New Age section of the bookstore to read Wicca for Beginners, Kitchen Witchery, and The Enchanted Tarot. We turn the pages in silence. These books, we hope, will teach us how to cast a circle, how to purify an altar, how to make a posset. We need to learn to leave our bodies. We need to learn how to not be ourselves. We need to learn how to fall in love, and safely out of it.
To cast a circle, draw a pentagram in the dirt with a single sharpened willow stick. Place a single black candle at each point. Using the pointed edge of quartz, inscribe a rune upon each candle.
The grocery store where I work sells orange, white, yellow, red, aquamarine candles, but nothing darker than purple. The only place we can find anything is a gag gift shop at the mall half an hour away. The candles are by penis-shaped straws, the crystals heaped by a miniature Kama Sutra. We avert our eyes. It’s not so much the sex as the aesthetic that offends us.
To ease your mind, bake crescent-shaped shortbread cookies, glazed with lemon syrup and topped with chamomile and calendula.
We’re too ignorant and arrogant to realize that these recipes and prayers do come from other places and people. None of us realize that the books that we follow are simply Western, witch-tinted renderings of beliefs. The cookies turn out to resemble overbaked pinky fingers, scattered on the cooling sheet.
To find your true love, tie three knots in a piece of red string, and hold them between your fingers. When a knot snaps, the one who comes to mind is the one for you.
What we are really refusing to admit that the bodies we desire are bodies like our own. Witching is a safe way for four girls to gather night after night.
We settle around a backyard fire pit, behind the lawn mower and the untrimmed roses ripe with rosehips. We can’t find a sage stick, so we open a dollar bottle of sage from Walmart and sprinkle it over the flames. My fingers feel soapy afterwards. We pass the citrine and tiger’s eye through the flame, our fingers bowing backwards so we can press our palms to the heat.
We set out small bowls of milk in offering; in the night, feral cats silently drink from them, or else the milk is flooded with rain, diluting our prayers to the goddesses. We sprinkle salt in circles around us, toss it over our shoulders, and mix it with water to keep us safe. I tie a green silk ribbon around a stick as long as my forearm and hang it in my room as an offering to Brigid.
What I really want is blood, or something real. A silver knife to hold in my hand. The ability to touch my own body, to feel the throb and pulse of skin against my teeth. The closest I find is in the Broom and the Bolline, the Chalice and the Lord of Strangers; all of these feel more real than the chaste walks I took with my ex-boyfriend. The closest we came to sex was one afternoon in his basement, and the feel of his hand grazing my abdomen. I couldn’t feel his skin, only the dull heat of body warmth and pressure. I waited to see if his hand would move, and when he pulled it away neither of us spoke.
My skin itches at the seams, as if I could peel a corner off and free myself from it. My body puzzles me. I cloak it as best I can, and pledge not to cut my hair for three years. It reaches my waist when I kiss a woman for the first time.
When we get too restless, or when the right clouds have gathered, we go out. We pitch the car down suicide hill and drive, our bodies hovering a few centimeters above the seat, and then we turn towards the canyon. As we climb up the canyon road, dark swallows us and our headlights burn the edge of picnic grounds. Sometimes we see the vague shapes of college kids, their bonfires barely visible beyond the trees.
When we reach the reservoir at the top, the water is flat and black, and all the campsites are taken. We loop back down around the aspen groves, the trees narrow and white and promising. If we were brave enough to stop the car, we could dance naked under the moon, or slice our hair with a ceremonial knife. Draw a fairy circle. But we don’t, and I press my forehead to the car window, leaving smudges of sweat and foundation on the glass. The aspens we pass are starting to die from bark beetles and larvae that leave bruises on the trees. Felling one weakens the rest of them, since they are all the same tree, genetically looped and rooted into each other. I think of my friends and I as us and we and I all at once. We are together and not. We are witches, curling hair and sharing lipstick and holding rituals, until something irritates us and we pull apart and return in the manner of female friendship.
Some nights, when we get home, we play Seven Doors. It’s a game of hypnosis where three of us kneel around the fourth, who pretends to sleep. The ones who are kneeling take turns describing each of the seven doors.
You are walking down a hallway. The first door you come to is wooden, narrow, with a crackled glass panel where you would meet your face. You lean in but see nothing except the light behind it, not even the shape of everyone waiting there.
The second door is red, and made of glass. Are you sure you want to go inside?
We rarely get to the last door. We either get bored, or someone has to pee, or else someone sits up, gasping and muttering something about dark spirits and power. But that last door, the seventh one, is a way to reach deeper inside my mind. I imagine myself walking down the stone paths of each neuron strung together, turning and turning until I finally reach some understanding of myself.
We use the Tarot, too. We treat it as a glorified personality test most days, deciding which of the four queens we are. I would like to be Swords, quick and mind-clear, or else Wands, which represents stubborn, relentless fire. I imagine myself as water, passing through someone’s fingers. But I am always Pentacles. I hate it: pentacles are sensible, earthy people, good at nurturing. I want to be wilder than I am.
We read cards until midnight. When a mother inevitably kicks us out, I scoop the cards into a pile beneath my notebook and we pretend that we’ve been talking about boys and pop music instead of rituals and smoke. We say we’re going to Walmart when we’re really going ghost hunting at the Alpine Cemetery. We tape the silence so we can play it when we get home, hoping to hear a voice that whispers in the crackling static.
This cemetery is full of Mormon pioneers, our ancestors with their six wives and endless dead children. My favorite cluster of graves is the Peterson family, whose twelve children died within a single year. I think I’ve stumbled onto a scandal, some perfect grisly murders that I can use to impress the others with. But when I look them up I find nothing but reports of diphtheria. What I don’t realize is how these children’s respiratory cells died, forming a thick grey wall at the back of their throats, their nostrils, suffocated with their own sickness. I don’t understand what that meant, twelve small bodies with swollen throats, coughing and drizzling blood from the corners of their lips. Their ghosts might not have voices at all.
But we don’t understand the magic of sickness yet, how CT scans will be the closest that we come to divination. Years later, half of us will be sickened by our own immune systems, ulcers seeping blood down to our stomachs, intestines scarred so thickly that they need to be excised, lungs scattered with swollen nodules. But right now we don’t believe our bodies will ever fail. In this moment, we’re still waiting for something to happen that will lift us out of ourselves. We believe that we will soon cease being our puzzling, soft, incomplete selves. Other people’s desires will save us from our own.
Those are the stories we swallow day after day: young woman, kidnapped; young woman arrives at a Gothic manor; young woman marries a man mad with jealousy and lust. Shirley Jackson, Emily Bronte, and Angela Carter are our high priestesses. We aren’t good readers yet, of course; we don’t see how the ghosts creep inside minds, how these men are crueler than they are attractive, how the safety is found in other women. I want to write stories like those, but the women in mine don’t understand themselves yet. They only react: they fall in love, or else they stand by the ocean, beautifully poised and unmoving. At this point, I believe writing is like ghost hunting, waiting for someone invisible to speak. The tape recorder clicks and whirs in the silence.
When we start trying to live out these stories by seeking them out, by falling in love with a married man who leaves money by the bedside, or kissing a girl in the dark silence of her apartment, by drinking thickly sweet butterscotch schnapps, by staying out all night until we taste cigarette smoke on our lips, we will forget where we got the ideas from. We will try to bury the girls we are now in this cemetery. We’ll leap on top of our memory-selves, hands fastened around our throats. Do you remember? We’ll ask each other incredulously, trying to disavow ourselves of the hours in the cemetery. I can’t believe we ever did that.
But now we sigh, get cold, and walk back to the car. We play the cassette on the way home and hear nothing but static and the soft ripples of are-you-cold-should-we-walk-hand-me-my-water-bottle. We wind down the hill towards the safer, newer graves, the ones with plastic daises and flags emerging from the ground. The dead there are encased in concrete and embalming fluid, and they can’t haunt us. We stop at the candy factory and buy an enormous bag of day-old salt-water taffy.
On witching nights we ask each other questions. They are the sorts of questions that we believe will draw a sharp, thick outline around our selves. Blue ink or black? Which Bronte sister are you? What is your favorite color? What sort of sushi will you try? What sort of alcohol do you think you’ll drink? Cashmere or silk? Pear soap or lily?
That night at the cemetery will be one of our last nights—not the last, but maybe the last one with a clear shape. Soon we will go back to school when the summer cools, or else we will move out of our parents’ houses, take jobs as servers and tutors. We’ll start dating. We’ll try to forget that we are witches.
But that night, we try a new game of questions. These ones are seemingly innocuous, but at the end of the series, our friend promises, they’ll reveal who we are in our entirety. Think of an open field. How big is it? Think of a ladder. Where is the ladder? What color is your horse? Where are the flowers, and what colors are they? Think of a storm. Is it just passing through?
We write down the answers faithfully in our notebooks, and then turn to the questioner. She clears her throat, anxious to tell us what our answers mean. They will explain who our loves are, how we think about disaster, if we are fated to live happily or lost in the storm. These questions will crack open the future long enough for us to imagine ourselves in there.
Have you pictured it yet? she asks. Do you know who you want to be?