By Victor D. Infante
It’s not that witches don’t ever pass through town. They do. Mostly, they’re just passing through and don’t know I exist. Sometimes, I’ll be having dinner near the train station, and feel the Doppler pulse of one approaching, then fading into the distance. Once, I ran into one at the cosmetic counter at Macy’s. I smiled and complimented her lipstick choice, and she stammered thanks, unaware that she would find one of her own kind here.
One once presented herself formally to me, which struck me as a bit much at the time, but hey. What did I know? Her granddaughter was attending college nearby, and she was simply visiting. No harm, no foul.
She was a short, stout woman in a purple dress, with her hair pulled back tight into a bun. She was one of those people that was a little more real than the rest of the world. A little more solid.
I took her to lunch, and we exchanged pleasantries, and at first, we really didn’t have much in common, being separated by, like, 40 or 50 years. Witchcraft is less of a bonding experience than you might think.
But that one – Esme was her name, which is so old-school, I could die – was all right. She had known my grandmother, which surprised me, as I rarely met anyone who’d met my grandmother. She frowned when I told her that, because my grandmother, evidently, was kind of a deal.
Abigail Sparks – mother of Bernadette, grandmother of me – was the sort of witch who could walk between shadows and observe her enemies from the wrong side of mirrors, or so Esme said. I can’t do either, really, so I only have her word. She lived on the edge of town, and people would creep toward her house on tip-toes to seek her help. No one wanted to be seen “cavorting with witches,” although pretty much everybody was all up in the cavorting. Tending to the sick, protecting the wronged. Totally classic. Of course, she didn’t have a gingerbread house, either.
She and my grandfather had died when mom was still a baby. I didn’t know a whole lot about the circumstances, except that they died in a fire, after which mom was taken in by Abigail’s brother, a doctor and former army medic, who – I learned much later – didn’t really approve of his sister’s career.
Papa – that’s what I called him – was kind of judgmental. I’d been on the receiving end of that enough times to know. He didn’t care for my spending habits, my dropping out of college, my so-called “job.” And, OK, it’s barely a job. Like I said, it’s pretty much just for appearances, and really, I think it’s his fault I even have it at all. I mean, I had to tell him something.
But, yeah. He was big with the disapproval, and had all of her things boxed up and locked away in the attic. It’s actually kind of weird that he didn’t have it destroyed, now that I think of it, but he wasn’t dumb. He cottoned that bad things might happen if he tossed it all in a bonfire. So he protected it, and kept quiet about it his entire life.
But Esme … Esme had been fond of Abigail, and was more than happy to talk about her, about the time she stepped between seconds to battle invisible spirits that consumed stray minutes off the lives of neighborhood children, about a poltergeist she trapped in a beer bottle, which she then traded for a jeweled box that she never once opened (and which I still can’t open), about her war against another witch that coveted her territory, how it appeared they were playing chess in the park on a warm sunny day, while in reality they were at the nexus of a whirlwind, the sky strafed with lightning, earthquakes and fire rippling with each moved pawn. Esme said they sat in that park for just under four hours, but to them, the war took weeks, until finally, with the deft movement of a knight, the witch disappeared with a howl which – and this is actually true – park patrons can still hear at night.
Esme raised an eyebrow when she’d heard about my grandparents’ death. She disbelieved … that much was written on her face. But she said nothing, instead inquiring after my mother’s well-being, and how I came to inherit Abigail’s mantle.
I shrugged, and that got me a disapproving glare. Then I told her about the characters on TV talking to me as a kid, how Madonna stopped mid-music video to point out waves of sound and particles of light that I hadn’t noticed before, how Chrissy from “Three’s Company” talked to me about ghosts and blood, and how the two were inextricably linked. I hadn’t known what the word “inextricably” meant, and to tell the truth, I’m a little surprised even now that Chrissy did. Wonder Woman once stepped out of a comic book to show me how to create a lasso of my own, and use it to bind spirits to one place.
I was taught witchcraft by sit-com reruns and music videos, by popular culture that came inexplicably to life, that only I could see. That was the first time I had told anybody that. Even Steph, who has a clue about my comings and goings. Esme, bless her, didn’t disbelieve. She said the world speaks differently to everyone. This was, evidently, how it spoke to me.
I told her she had to try the crème brûlée. She tried to beg off, but I insisted.
She had the sort of smile that made your skin tingle. I think of her often, but I never saw her again after that day.
I ghost through the streets, smartphone in hand, glancing down at the walking map app on my screen. It’s a simple divination, finding someone with that much power. I just prefer making it work with modern tools, instead of chicken guts or tea leaves or whatever.
I can feel Philomena’s silent disapproval, but there’s nothing doing. I’m a 21st century digital witch.
The little red dot is staying still, and I know the neighborhood. There’s a diner nearby where I don’t pay for anything. Little matter of an exorcism and an exhumed corpse. Gross, but the lady who owns it makes a mean omelet, so … score. I guess.
It’s a residential area, near the college. I glide between oblivious kids in their bowling shirts and skinny jeans, all the while reflecting that I briefly went to school here. Didn’t stick. Everything’s haunted when you’re me, even academia. It all got too distracting.
The signal stops at a battered-old triple-decker. Off-campus student housing, by the look of the beer bottles stacked in the ground-floor window. I walk around to the side stairs and walk up. Queen’s blaring full-volume out of the second-floor apartment, nearly drowning out the sounds of people shuffling inside. I see a little silhouetto of a man,/Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango/Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very fright’ning …
Me? I’m not scared at all. I take Freddy Mercury speaking to me from beyond the grave as an omen. But then, I take everything as an omen. I pack the gadget back safely into my purse, and check to make sure that the only real old-school piece of equipment I use is still there. My fingers caress the knife’s blade, and I get a mild electric shock just from touching it. It’s an old thing, was probably an old thing when my grandmother got ahold of it. But it’s mine now, and I’ve never found anything newer that works better.
I weave a small ward in case of trouble as I set foot on the third-floor porch. There’s music coming inside there, too. More modern. Something unrepentantly shoegazer.
Oh, no. I come looking for trouble, and instead find emo. I roll my eyes like Steph at my high school new-age psychobabble. Still, the whole thing feels wrong. I mean, I totally dig the living in plain site thing, but it’s not most witches’ thing. And this would be disreputable, even for me. Witch needs her space.
There are a few chairs on the porch, an ashtray that’s not been used recently – it’s clean but dusty. Which means it’s for guests.
The door clicks open, unlocked, and a girl on the couch a few years younger than me startles at my entrance, her hand grasping for some sort of velvet pouch on the coffee table. With a little too much force, the table buckles and flies across the room, slamming into the apartment wall. The girl screams, throwing her hands over her head in terror.
The shoegazer mope cuts out as pieces of the table slam against the stereo, and Freddie Mercury’s voice bellows through the floorboards.
Suddenly, I’m thinking I overreacted here. The girl’s face is gaunt, and pale. She’s been crying, even before I got here. And frankly, she’s no threat to me whatsoever.
But there’s no mistaking it. She’s my witch.
Philomena’s whispering frantically to me, but I’m way ahead of her on this one.
“You’re Esme Kelley’s granddaughter,” I say, as flatly and calmly as I can.
The girl is shivering now, horribly frightened, and frankly, I feel like a total ass. Not that I let that show at all. I’m already way committed to this wicked witch bit.
“That means Esme’s dead,” I say, frowning.
And the girl just loses it, exploding in big-old heaving, Amy-Adams-in-a-Nora-Ephron-chick-flick tears, and my throat is suddenly dry. My voice cracks when I speak, and that annoys me.
I’m not really all that big with public displays of emotion. Never knew a witch who was, really. Of course, I don’t know that many witches. Bonus, though: my face keeps with the taciturn as I do my best to keep this icy.
I look down at the quivering mess with the mousy brown hair and the Laura-Prepon-in-“Orange-is-the-New-Black” glasses and try to soften my voice: no sudden movements, no threatening gestures. I try to think of it like feeding a deer from your palm in the woods. Yes, I have actually done that.
“What’s your name,” I say, as calmly as I can. The girl doesn’t even look up at me when she answers.
“Raven Moonshasdow,” she says, without the slightest hint of irony.
“What’s the name you give to people you don’t want to think you’re an idiot?” I say, deciding this whole kindness idea is probably overrated anyway.
“Grandma told me to never give up my real name,” she says, and that guilt is back and playing marimba on my ribcage. I sigh, and fold my arms, stepping backward to lean against the wall.
“The name on your birth certificate’s not your real name,” I say as evenly as possible. “It’s just a name. Your real name is something you need to work to know. If you’re lucky, it’ll never be an issue.”
The girl considers this, and although she’s kind-of pathetic, I have to admit I’m digging that she’s screwing up enough moxie to throw it back at me, even a little.
“Sara,” she relents. “ Sara Johanson.”
“OK,” I say, exhaling a little. “Sara. I’m Whitney. I knew your grandmother. Well, met her, anyway. We had lunch. I liked her a lot.”
Sara starts with recognition, wiping the tears from her face, then stands and steps forward to look me in the eyes, except that I’m, like, five inches taller than her, so it’s still kind of adorably awkward.
“Whitney Bierce?” she asks, and I nod, but I guess my eyes betray my surprise. It’s not like I have a publicist.
“Grandma told me that,” she starts, and then her voice catches. “She told me that, if anything bad happened, that I was supposed to find you. That you’d know what to do.”
Philomena is laughing hysterically, and right this second I’m hoping that little miss Raven Moonshadow can’t hear it. I don’t think she can. Which is a blessing, because if she did, I might have to kill her, and then I’d be stuck with two annoying ghosts.
“When did Esme die?” I ask. “How?”
“It was a few weeks ago,” says Sara. “Mom said it was a heart attack.”
A heart attack killed Esme Kelley? Yeah, right.
But even as the flip retort cocks itself on my tongue to fire, I stop, and regard the young woman seriously.
“A few weeks?” I say. “I’ve only been aware of your presence for a few days.”
Philomena’s silence is a banshee’s wail. Some things even she doesn’t have words for.
“What happened to your mother?”
Sara looks up at me with her tragic, brave, hurt puppy dog look, and for the first time in a long while, I just want to cry.