The Witch Trials – a short story

 

I was bitterly jealous of a young fictional boy whose story is supposed to make people happy.

Watching Harry Potter for the umpteenth time, I was in awe of how 11 year old Harry was being thrown this lifeline: F inding out he was magical. And I was jealous. Now granted, I wasn’t forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs as a child. I didn’t have a price on my head from the world’s darkest wizard or noble parents who died resisting an evil dictator (in my scenario mine actually voted for him.) But at 11, Harry Potter has his whole life to turn it around. He doesn’t need magic at 11. He needs magic at 40, when he doesn’t have his whole life to turn it around because this is his life, the results of the choices he made that he can’t take back, and if he’s lucky he’s only halfway through it. Or maybe if he’s unlucky he’s only halfway through it. I really don’t know sometimes.

I poured myself some more wine.

I was, as they say, “between jobs.” Although I was calling it “freelance.”

I was also, as they never say, “between friends.” Although they didn’t know it yet.

Or maybe it was just that I needed a little excitement. I needed something to feel different. Something that felt different that wasn’t awful, that is. When did this start happening that every change that happened to you was a bad one? Pay cuts and layoffs, and businesses failing, relationships failing, friends growing apart, friends getting sick. People dying. Democracy dying. High heels making my knees hurt.

I may have been, as the doctors call it, clinically depressed. Or I just may have been, as I like to call it, aware of the absolute fucking futility of my life and everyone else’s and how it’s all just bullshit because the world is just an amalgamation of shootings and injustices and disease and corruption.

I mean the doctors should really be concerned with the people who aren’t depressed, don’t you think?

“Maybe you should try meditating?” my estranged husband said to me. That was Dan’s solution to everything: Meditation. Not that it ever worked for him. If it had, he wouldn’t be my “estranged husband” and we wouldn’t be sitting across from each other at our local wine bar trying to have a date night.  “I just saw a Groupon,” he added.

“You want to fix this with a Groupon?”

“No, I’d like to fix this with medication, if we’re voting.”

I shot him a look.

“Or with sex.”

I shrugged. It was the best offer I was going to get tonight, and one that I knew would work, unlike these exercises our therapist had us doing to try to “hear each other.”

“All right,” I downed the rest of my wine. “Just so long as you understand that’s only a temporary fix.  The world’s still a toilet, even if I have an orgasm.”

“Noted.”

We went back to the house we used to share together, where I now lived alone while he was staying in a friend’s guest house until we “figured things out.” It was only supposed to be a few months but we were already into the second month and no closer to figuring out anything. Pretty much all we knew for sure was that we still liked having sex together and while I recognize how rare that is, I’m not sure you should build a marriage on it. I’m also not sure you shouldn’tbuild a marriage on it. Some days I’m not even sure you should bother to build a marriage at all.

Like I said, possiblyclinically depressed.

There are a lot of reasons a marriage doesn’t work, but our many reasons can be distilled down to the whole issue of depression and medication. He wants me to take it because he doesn’t want me to be depressed. He just wants it to go away like magic. Whereas I want someone I can talk to about it. Someone to whom I can say, “Sometimes I fear the future is just a howling void sucking us all in to its gaping maw of nothingness and spitting us back out 30 years from now when it’s all too late,” and have them tell me they get it and that it’s all going to be OK. And thenwe have sex. Because really none of it –  the depression, the fear, the howling void, the gaping maw, the nothingness – none of it is as bad as feeling that you’re alone in all of it. That you have no one to share your fears with or that you do, but they don’t care to hear it.

Of course, I will forgive a lot if someone can get me off.

Afterwards, as I was walking my husband to his own door, I saw a postcard on the floor where one of the cats had just claimed it as theirs. “Did you bring that in with you?” I asked him.

“Nope. You must have brought it in with the mail.”

I knew I hadn’t. It wasn’t like me to just drop junk mail on the floor and then not pick it up. It was just like him, however. But one of the things we’d been learning for one hundred and fifty dollars an hour was to not say these things. So, I kissed Dan good bye before wrestling the cat for it.

“You have the best toys money can buy,” I reasoned with her. Although I’m not sure what’s less reasonable, talking to a cat or expecting her to understand the value of a dollar. Maybe someday she’d talk back and have the answer for me.

I looked at the postcard.

 

FULL CIRCLE PILATES. THE WORLD IS A WRECK, BUT YOUR KNEES DON’T HAVE TO BE.

 

So now my junk mail was calling me old. Maybe that was the real reason I was jealous of Harry Potter: Not for his magic, but for his youth. And with that I threw the postcard away and went to bed.

 

***

I woke up the next morning at the crack of eight, determined to get started on my freelance life. In my previous one I had been a food consultant. You know the seven dollar package of fresh ravioli with the kale in it? That was me. I told my bosses, “Everyone in America is going nuts about kale. They have no idea it’s just a tougher spinach. If we put that in pasta they’ll totally forget about the gluten and carbs.” And I was right. I was so right, about kale and other things, that sales for the company took off and they were bought out by some food conglomerate that makes fish sticks and diabetes. I was laid off with a mediocre package that has almost run out and replaced with a twenty-eight year old guy with an MBA and a dislike for the smell of cooking food.

Now I was trying to parlay my experience into freelance food and restaurant writing. But while I was the big idea “let’s use kale” person, I wasn’t a write one hundred queries a day person, which is really what you need to be in order to make a living as a freelance food blogger. By 8:25 I had given up and left the house.

I opened the door only to find another postcard for the same pilates studio tucked inside the door jamb. These fitness people were persistent, which is why their abs probably looked better than mine. And also probably why they’d be a much more successful food blogger, too.

Justifying my lack of a work ethic by telling myself that a walk to the new coffee shop was both research and exercise, I headed off down the street with my ear buds and my French language podcast. Dan and I had been planning a food tour of France before I got laid off and wondered if I still wanted to be married. But continuing to learn the language kept me focused on a goal. I was going to still learn French because I was going to take that trip. If Dan and I didn’t go together, I would just go on my own. That is if I had any money left after losing my job and getting divorced and I wasn’t forced to move back home at 40. Continuing with the podcasts also helped thoughts like that from entering my head and ruining my day.

My other strategy was texting my friend with cancer.

Lori and I had worked together years ago at a PR company when I was her assistant and she was the person who made people willing to say “molecular gastronomy.” She brought me with her when she moved to in-house marketing for a high-end food import company and then helped me move over to development when I realized I had more passion for ingredients than algorithms. I owed her my career even if it was something of a shambles at the moment. That part wasn’t her fault.

We were down to two catch up dinners a year now and it was at the last one, as she moved her food around her plate and only ordered one glass of wine that she barely drank, that she confessed she had just started chemo. When I was feeling sorry for myself, I liked to remember that things could be much worse and that I wasn’t the only one who might feel alone right now.

JUST CHECKING IN. HOW ARE YOU FEELING? DO YOU NEED ANYTHING?

It could be a few days before I heard back, depending on where she was with her treatment. So I continued on my way, listening to the story of Jacques and his sœur, Celeste, and how they wanted un chien pour Nöel. It was strangely calming which was good because I was about to feel very un-calm.

“Hi, Jane!”

I had reached the new coffee shop, rather un-inspiredly named Le Chat Noir, when I heard the familiar voice call my name. Priscilla Emerson stood in front of me, holding her monogrammed Louis Vuitton handbag with the fake gross grain ribbon painted down the middle, the answer to the question “How do you make an already ugly purse even uglier?” Priscilla was one of the friends Dan got in the separation, although she didn’t know that yet.

“How are you?” she asked, stressing the “are” the way that therapists and people who pretend to be your friend do.

“Great! You?” I asked in the way that people who don’t want to be your friend do.

Priscilla and her husband, Taber, (yes, that’s his first name) were one of our couple friends. Despite being somewhat superficial, they were also a lot of fun, although they got less so after having kids and insisting on telling you A. how you just didn’t understand how difficult it was to be a parent and B. that you really should do it! But being somewhat superficial, they enjoyed having a live-in nanny and therefore were always up for dinner out or the occasional weekend getaway, which made up for the being less fun. It was on one of these weekends away that I learned the hard way that while Priscilla was always up for enumerating the many faults of Taber (not one of which was ever that his name was Taber) the same courtesy didn’t extend to me after we had been drinking margaritas in the sun all day and I told her I was thinking about leaving Dan because I didn’t think he loved me and wondered if he ever did. It was bad enough that she dismissed it and told me I would be crazy to leave someone like Dan. But a week later when I was trying to find my phone by calling it from Dan’s, I happened to see a text she had sent him, asking him if I was OK because I had seemed “unhinged” the weekend before.

As I’ve stated, my mental state may be up for debate. But you don’t do that. I would never text Taber and call his wife names. Because Taber, despite the many faults his wife likes to list, is still her husband and would tell me to go fuck myself. But Dan just never responded. I suppose it was better than agreeing with her, but still every once in awhile it would be nice if one’s partner would tell one’s nemesis to go fuck themselves. Quite honestly, it’s better than jewelry.

I must have tuned out Priscilla, who missed the rhetorical cue that I was only interested in a one word answer to how she was doing, because the next thing I knew a skinny guy on a skateboard who looked too old for a skateboard stopped in front of us. He handed us each a postcard before skating off to who knows where; Hopefully to get a car because up close he looked about thirty and was too old to be riding a skateboard around town.

Priscilla carefully threw hers in the recycling side of the trashcan, incensed. “I wish they’d stop creating more trash like this. My children need to live on this planet!”

I rolled my eyes which was the perfect angle at which to read the postcard.

 

FULL CIRCLE PILATES. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? START TODAY! FREE CLASS!

 

I would have loved to start anything today that wasn’t more of Priscilla’s story, but she kept going anyway. “As I was saying, have you heard of Reggio Emilia?”

“The cheese region?”

“No, the educational style. Well, anyway, there’s a pre-school here but the waiting list is a thousand dollars just to get on it…”

Just then my phone rang. I would have answered it even if it was the IRS – the real one, not the fake one that calls you as part of a scam – but luckily it was Lori and I didn’t have to make such a sacrifice.

“I’m sorry, Priscilla, I have to take this. Take care,” were the ten most beautiful words I had ever spoken in the English language.

“Lori!” I answered, “Is everything OK?”

“I didn’t mean to alarm you, Kid! Everything is fine. Pretty good even. So good I feel like getting out, but with the painkillers I still can’t drive. Are you busy?”

 

***

 

“Are you kidding me?”

Lori and I were standing outside of the Full Circle Pilates studio.

“What? You think an old broad on chemo can’t exercise?” In her mid-fifties, Lori still had a full head of dark hair that, while thinning due to recent events, was still styled in a precision bob. Her now slightly sallow complexion was perked up by the latest shade of red lipstick from Chanel, which matched her recent manicure. She may talk like a 1950’s loan shark, but she looked like anything but an old broad.

“No. It’s just that they’ve been practically stalking me. I received three flyers from them in the last 12 hours.”

“Sounds like good PR,” she winked. “Come in! My treat!”

“Thank you, but no need.” I held up my most recent flyer for the free class.

As soon as we went through the door, a bell dinged and suddenly a half dozen eyes were on us, breaking into warm smiles. I started to smile back until I realized the warm welcome wasn’t for me.

“Lori!” the women chorused.

Three women got up to swarm Lori with hugs and greetings of, “How are you feeling?” I sat down on the bench, watching as Lori lit up at the reunion. A tall, late forties-ish, African American woman with a closely cropped head of bleached blonde hair cradled Lori’s face in her hands and I’d swear she got some of her color back. An energetic older woman – she looked over 70 – with the gravelly voice of a whiskey-fueled, sapphic poet came over with a basket.

“I made you a great anti-oxidant shake. It’s all organic, I grew it myself. That chemo is going to kill your immune system. Also, there’s some pot to help with the nausea. I also grew that myself.”

“She’s also sampling some now, judging by the smell of her,” said a third woman, in the aloof tone your friend’s mom who doesn’t like you uses. She looked to be in her early sixties, with a honey blond helmet of hair on loan from the Junior League.

The first woman laughed. “Vicki probably got high last week. She just hasn’t washed that shirt yet.”

But the older woman, Vicki, just cackled, “You’re both right!”

Lori laughed with them and even the Junior League woman cracked a smile before adding, “Seriously, though. I asked my son about some new treatments and he sent me some information that I printed out.”

It made me happy to see Lori had such a support system here. It also made me realize how she kept wearing those mini-skirts into her fifties.

As everyone continued to circle around Lori, I was left to myself. I didn’t know anybody so participation was awkward. Plus, it felt like it would have taken something away from the attention she was getting to have to introduce me at that moment. So I sat on a bench in the back of the studio, checking emails, which took all of five seconds because there were no new emails. Or texts. Or even instagram likes. It occurred to me that our phones are the 21stcentury version of a message in a bottle. We’re all adrift on our own islands, sending out missives to see if anyone else exists and hears us.

“You must be Jane!”

A fourth woman had come from an office in the back. She appeared to be in her fifties, with a head of frizzy brown hair, and a smile that seemed genuine, probably because it reached her dark eyes. She put a hand on my shoulder, and this is going to sound ridiculous, but I never wanted it to leave. It was like everything I was missing was in that connection. “I’m Carla. I’ve heard SO much about you!  I couldn’t wait to meet you!” she beamed.

“How are you?” she said in a way that people say when they’re not trying to make a big deal about it, they just actually want to know.

And so, I burst into tears.

 

***

 

I’m happy to say the rest of the class wasn’t like that.

I apologized profusely, feeling like an idiot, especially in a room with a person with cancer who had every reason to burst into tears but wasn’t. But everyone assured me, “That’s just Carla. She has that effect on people.”

Melinda, who I learned was the African American woman, pointed to the blonde and added, “She even got Samantha to tear up once. It almost rusted her.”

“I told you, that was seasonal allergies,” Samantha responded dryly. Which, apparently, was how she did everything.

After that, class started and I was so glad for the distraction, I would have run a marathon to take everyone’s minds off my breakdown. But I was more surprised to find that it took mymind off of my breakdown –  and everything else –  too. As Carla moved us through the exercises I needed a lot of focus to do them correctly, and I found I couldn’t think about anything else if I wanted to do them right. I also found that when I did it right, I felt a connection to my body that prevented me from spending too much time in my head.

I told Carla all of this when class ended and she asked me how I liked it.

“That’s why getting laid is so great,” Melinda said matter-of-factly. And I realized she was right. It was exactly what I was doing with Dan to take my mind off of things.

“Not just getting laid, but masturbation, too,” Carla pointed out.

Lori laughed and looked at me, “You’re about to get Carla’s lecture on self-love.”

“I love my self plenty,” Melinda stated. “And I love being with women sometimes, too. But sometimes you just need a penis. Preferably a big one.”

“Not since I was in my twenties,” Vicki shot back.

“You never use a dildo?” Melinda wanted to know.

But before Vicki could answer, Samantha shook her Talbot’s catalogue head and in her composed voice asked, “Honestly, Melinda, what is it with you and big dicks?”

Melinda shot back, “If you have to ask…”

As everyone laughed, Carla turned towards me, “So, Jane, are you joining us tomorrow?”

 

***

 

I went every day for the rest of the week. Lori couldn’t make it, I think that first class had taken more out of her than she had let on, but the other women were always there, along with a few others who came in and out. It was nice having somewhere to be every day and people who were happy to see me when I got there. Plus, it took my mind off things for an hour and when I left, I felt like I had accomplished something. It had been a long time since I had felt that.

I was thinking about all of this when I was once again sitting across from Dan for our twice-weekly pre-cursor to sex date. He had asked what was new and I had thought to tell him, but was worried if I tried he wouldn’t understand and I didn’t feel like the rejection.

After a week of toning, however, I was starting to like how I looked in lingerie better, and I found I had more of a strut in my step when we got back to my/our place.

“You seem different tonight,” he remarked as we lay in bed later.

“How so?”

“I don’t know. Just different.”

My husband is a journalist. He uses words for a living. And yet when it comes to me, he comes up short. I wanted him to use them for me. Tell me what you see. Am I happier, more confident, less preoccupied? Do you find me interesting, well-read, loyal? Just something so that I could feel like he understands me as well as he understands the affect deregulation has on the stock market. But when I press him, he just shuts down. He doesn’t even try and I want him to try. For me.

But tonight I didn’t want to think about that. I rolled over, straddling him. “Well, if you can’t tell me, you’re just going to have to show me.”

 

***

 

The next morning, Lori called. She was feeling better and wanted to know if I’d give her a ride to class. But despite her assurances that she was up for it, I grew concerned when I picked her up and she seemed to be missing a lot more hair than last time.

She sensed my worry. “I know. And I’m losing my fucking eyelashes, too, and you know they were always one of my top five things to be vain about. On the bright side, I can probably stop shaving my legs.” When all I could manage was a weak laugh she added, “I promise you, it looks worse than it is.”

But I didn’t believe her and I was glad when we got to the studio and it was just the same group of us who had been there the first time. And they knew something was different, too. Vicki had brought a hat for Lori. “I knitted it with really soft cashmere so it won’t scratch your head. It’s going to start getting colder, and that’s going to happen quicker for you.”

Melinda touched her own nearly-bald head. “I have my clippers in the car if you just want to be done. Trust me, you will never go back once you do. It’s so no fuss.”

Samantha didn’t even look up from her magazine as she handed Lori a card. “They do Lady Gaga’s wigs. I already called and they said they’d give you a thirty percent discount.”

Carla just hugged her. “I’ve been wanting to do this all week!”  Lori rested her head on Carla’s shoulder as she allowed herself to be folded into her arms. She smiled at first, but the longer Carla held on the more Lori’s expression changed. At first she just looked tired, but then a look of fear passed over her face. It was so real, I turned to look behind me, thinking something must be happening there but nothing was. And when I turned back her face slowly contorted to one of rage. She was angry. Finally, she smiled, but it was a weary one.

Lori broke the embrace. “Thanks. That was a lot.”

Carla stroked what was left of Lori’s hair. “I know you hate to do it, but you have to flush it out. It’s no good for your healing and no good for what we’re doing here.” Carla herself seemed wilted by the experience and Vicki handed her a bottle of water and she drank like she was trying to avoid a hangover in the morning.

“Are you sure you’re up to class, Lori?” I had to ask.

“You know what, Doll, I’m not. So, we’re going to skip class today.” She looked at the other four women and they all nodded in agreement. “And instead get down to business. Kid, you’re a witch.”

I waited for the punch line. I was a witch because…I made a bitchy comment about our old boss on the way here…? When she didn’t elaborate I finally asked, “Is this because I wouldn’t let you get McDonald’s on the way over?”

But before she could answer, Vicki turned her grizzled voice on her, “You tried to eat McDonald’s!? Do you know how that fucks with your immune system?I”

“It’s the only thing I can keep down,” Lori protested.

But Vicki wouldn’t hear it. “Are you even trying the pot?”

It was Samantha who cut to the chase. “Jane, she means you’re a witch in the paranormal sense of the word.”

I still didn’t get the joke. To be fair, they were all older than me. Maybe this was funny to them. I laughed to be polite and then turned to Lori.

“Do you want me to run you home if you’re not feeling well?”

But Lori didn’t respond to me. “Samantha? A little help? I don’t have it in me for the back and forth.”

And just then Samantha sat very still and got very quiet. She took a few deep breaths and I felt a breeze tickle my neck as it rushed past my ear and tousled my hair. She spoke quietly to herself, mumbling a lot of “Mm-hm’s” and “Okays,” before saying, “Jesus, you have an answer for everything. No wonder you and your husband are separated.” I was taken aback by the comment. Not only did I find the criticism unfair, but I didn’t remember telling them I was separated. But before I could say anything her eyes snapped open and she looked directly at me. And in her detached WASP voice she said, “Honestly, Jane. All you do is complain how lucky Harry Potter is and then when someone tells you you’re a witch, you fight them on it.”

I had never admitted that to anyone. Now they had my attention.

Melinda walked over to Samantha and put her hands around her forehead. Samantha smiled in gratitude. “Thank you, Dear. Just a little top off would be great. I had a bagel for breakfast so it didn’t take too much out of me.”

Lori explained, “Welcome to the Full Circle coven. Each one of us here draws on an element for our powers. As you just saw, Samantha specializes in air and powers of the mind. She just read your future to figure out the fastest way to convince you we weren’t fucking around. Melinda uses fire energy. She’s a source of power.”

“And sexual energy,” Melinda added proudly. “Vicki works with Earth energy in the physical world. Manifesting things from the ground with her hands.”

“You mean she grows pot,” I said.

“I sculpt, too,” Vicki grinned. “Knit. Do woodworking. Make teas. Your basic lesbian arts.”

“And Carla is our water energy. She’s a conduit for emotions, dreams, visions.”

“That would explain why she made me cry the first time I met her.” Everyone smiled at the memory. I sighed. “And also why she uses all the emojis in her texts.”

Carla grinned. “I do!”

Samantha just shook her head. “I keep telling her we are losing the written language with that shit.”

I turned around looking at all the women. “So that’s four elements. What do you do?” I asked Lori. “What’s the Fifth Element? Besides a Sci Fi movie I’ve never seen.”

“Ether. Spirit. I’m the binding element that connects us all to each other and the other worlds. I’m like the internet.” She paused for a moment and I wasn’t sure if she was tired or if what she was trying to say was just difficult. Finally, she spoke. “We’re all not going to be around forever.”

At that, the other women all looked down sadly, no doubt thinking the same thing I was: Loriwasn’t going to be around forever. But Lori kept going. “When we find a suitable candidate we like to take on an intern, so we have someone to replace us when necessary. And you, Kid, are a witch.”

I still didn’t believe what any of them were saying. This had to be a joke; a way for them to cheer Lori up. Sure, Samantha had just read my mind, but there was an explanation for that. I was having a psychotic break. Priscilla was right: I was unhinged! It was a lot more likely that I was hallucinating all of this, than witches actually existed.  And what I believed even less than witches existing was that I could be one. “But it’s not like I ever make anything happen with my mind,” I protested.

“It would be weird if you did,” Vicki muttered.

“Shouldn’t I be like 11 when you tell me this?”

“Oh, who wants to train an 11 year old?” Samantha dismissed me. “My son has two and they’re annoying as fuck.”

“Besides,” Melinda said, “Witches don’t fully come into their power until their late 30’s or early 40’s.”

“What power is that?” I joked, “The power to be invisible to men?”

“Don’t dismiss that as a useful tool,” Lori smiled.

I realized if this was a psychotic break it was a lot better than my non-psychotic break reality so I decided to just play along. “So, what happens now?”

Carla was the first to answer. “You’ll continue your training here with us. But you’ll also intern with a different one of us each week. You’ll shadow us, learn what we do and how our powers fit into our lives. That way we can get an idea for what your strengths are and you can see what you gravitate towards.” When I nodded, Carla asked, “Any questions?”

“Are we still going to do pilates? Because I’m starting to see my abs again.”

 

***

 

A forty-year old intern. Suddenly I was in a bad Anne Hathaway movie.

I drove Lori home shortly thereafter and it was a pretty silent drive. Finally, she asked, “How are you doing with…everything?”

I didn’t know what to think. I mean, I had decided to just go with it, but surely that meant I actually was crazy, right? One thing was certain: my husband was going to insist on medication now. Which is why I couldn’t tell him.

“Well,” I finally answered, “Whatever ‘spirit’ or ‘ether’ are they clearly don’t give you psychic capabilities or you wouldn’t have needed to ask that.”

She laughed hard and loud and then so did I and soon we were at her house. As our laughter finally petered out a bigger thought occurred to me.

“Wait, so the cancer…then you’re going to be OK. Right? You guys can fix this!” It was the most positive I had felt about anything in the last several months. It reminded me of what it was to have hope.

But Lori just smiled and shook her head. “Oh, Kiddo, no. It doesn’t work like that.”

And suddenly I was no longer jealous of Harry Potter, but of myself a few minutes ago. I was jealous of the woman who believed in magic and thought it could solve everything. Instead I was the woman who now had the power of magic, but still couldn’t fix anything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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