The Witch Who Was Afraid of Magic

     

No one ever visited the old crone who lived deep in the heart of the forest. The miller’s wife said she was a witch. The blacksmith’s wife told everyone she was mad. The local priest insisted that she was a wise woman with knowledge about herbal remedies, nothing magical.

The crone’s name was Circe, meaning “little bird,” which is how she lived, hidden under the trees. Upon her arrival she had claimed a tiny stone cottage, built and abandoned by unknown persons long ago. She made it hers as she swept the hearth, tucked straw into holes around the window, and planted wildflowers around it.

Circe wore her waist-length black hair twisted and braided around her head like a crown. Even though she could feel the wrinkles on her face, her hair’s glossy raven color never faded. It was an unconscious magic that she couldn’t control. If she had chosen to practice her magic, she would be able to hold on to more of her youth. But she hid away from magic as well as people.

They both brought pain.

The crone knew how to take care of herself. Her skill with bow and snare provided her meat, along with vegetables she grew in her garden. In exchange for herbs, the blacksmith’s daughter, Anna, brought Circe whatever else she lacked. Her innocent smile and sparkling eyes reminded the crone of herself when she was very young.

Every day the crone strolled through her forest home. The dark green canopy allowed only speckles of sunlight to dot the carpet of brown leaves. The trees were close together, so she had to wind her way around them. The branches whispered greetings to her as she passed. With a hand on the rough, gnarled bark, she whispered her thanks that the forest provided murderers with peaceful exile.

Many years ago, she had lived in the nearby village, before any of its current residents had drawn their first breath. In those days, she was recklessly beautiful and gave herself freely to any young man she pleased. This did not make her popular with the women in the village.

Thomas, one of the village elders, pleaded with her that she should settle down and marry. Circe smiled at his grave face and agreed. It was time to start a family of her own. Mother gave her books and seedlings to nurture her magic. Warned her to only use it for good.  

A raven’s cry brought Circe back to the present. That was good because she didn’t want to dwell on what happened next. The laughing young man she married became an angry jealous man who left marks on her. He told the men at the pub that he had married a witch, and the reason they had no babies was because his wife slept with demons. A ridiculous notion that may have been concocted to protect his tumorous pride.

One night her husband came home with murder in his eyes. As usual, she brought him his stew which he ate in front of the fire. He roared out insults and grabbed his walking stick. Before he could strike her, Circe quickly spoke words of power. Her husband cried out, fell to the ground, and turned into a rat. With a broom she swept him out of the cottage. Then she packed up a basket and left.

Circe wasn’t sure where to go. Her magic was tied to the land of her birth. She could not simply leave on a ship. If she traveled to the next village, someone would find her. She would be dragged back and hung on a tree. Although her husband had been an evil man, transforming him without his consent was against the covenant she and her mother signed. Why hadn’t she turned herself into a bird and flown away the first time he struck her? But what was done was done.

The forest called to her. She made it her home. For many long years, she lived as mundane, afraid to use her powers again.

When the crone arrived back at her cottage, Anna was waiting for her with red eyes. A wasting sickness had hit the village hard, and her older brother had been in bed for three weeks. Circe told her she could send some herbs, but she couldn’t go back to the village with her.

The disappointed young girl left with a full basket.  

That night, the crone woke to the sound of her name. When she sat up in bed, her mother’s shade stood at the end of the bed with her arms crossed. Mother had passed over when Circe had first married and had never appeared to her before. Although she could see the kitchen table faintly through Mother’s body, she didn’t want to underestimate her power. Even though the shade didn’t speak, the crone shivered as Mother’s words flashed with anger in her mind. Then the shade disappeared, and she knew what she must do.

Early the next morning, she tugged on her boots and fastened her cloak. She loaded up her basket and left the cottage before she could change her mind. Mother was always right, even when she was dead. Even though the crone was ancient in years, her steps were quick. She reached the middle of the village square by twilight.

 Anna was hauling water from the well, and almost dropped her bucket when she saw the crone. The girl led her to her family’s house behind the blacksmith shop. It was a fine house, two floors high and made of wood. She pushed open the heavy door and they walked in.

 Anna’s brother, Gregory, was upstairs in the first bedroom. His sweat-drenched face was covered in red dots, and his arms, once strong enough to pound iron, were only skin and bones. Circe asked the girl to bring her a pot of hot water and some clean cloths. What could she do for this young man? Her magic had lain dormant for over two hundred years. Would it listen to her now?

 When the water arrived, Circe mixed in some herbs, chanting under her breath. Anna watched her with great interest, for there were no longer any magic users left in their land. With the arrival of the priests, witches and wizards were driven away, to be replaced with prayer and medicine. But the village priest and the doctor from the neighboring village could do nothing to stop the terrible sickness.

Remembering what Mother had taught her, Circe used the cloth to cleanse Gregory’s face. As she wiped over the weeping sores, she spoke powerful words of healing and life. The sores disappeared, replaced by healthy skin. Anna ran out to find her mother in the market.

Gregory opened his eyes and frowned to see a strange old woman bathing him. Circe told him she was a witch and to lay still while she finished healing him. And yes, she’d seen a man’s nakedness before. She needed to cover all the sores with the healing water no matter where they were on his body.

 When the blacksmith’s wife, who asked her quickly to call her Kathy, saw her oldest son sitting up in bed and taking some soup, she almost crushed Circe with a hug. The blacksmith had died some years ago, and Gregory had taken well to smithing. His work supported their whole family. And of course, he was a good lad, with his good years ahead of him.

 The crone ended up staying for the night. The next day, word spread through the village, and she was busy going house to house healing those she could. Anna stayed at her side, her eager assistant. Circe ended up staying for two weeks until there was no more sickness in the village. Even the priest came by to thank her for her service.

Finally, it was time to go home. Anna had proved to be a diligent student and made Circe promise to make her an apprentice in the magical arts when she was old enough. The crone’s magical knowledge would not be lost at the end of her time.

 The sunset glowed behind the forest as Anna approached. Her arms and legs ached from doing more magic in recent weeks than she’d done her whole life. The branches rustled with approval and rabbits stood peering with curiosity to see a powerful witch. Her stone cottage with bright red and yellow flowers looked finer than any palace to her. She started a fire, put on a kettle, and shook some of her herbs into her mug. When the water boiled, she reached out to take it from its hook above the fire.

Suddenly, she felt eyes watching her. She almost dropped the kettle when she turned around to find Mother’s shade standing there, glowing in the firelight. This time Mother’s face was smiling and covered with tears. She gave her daughter a curtsey worthy of a queen. Then she pulled something out of a small pouch at her waist. Mother placed it in Circe’s hand. A real, solid object. Her breath caught as she realized what it was.  

A large black pearl broach. Mother’s favorite. It had been buried with her. With trembling fingers, she fastened it to the neckline of her dress.  

The wind kicked up outside and blew her door open. Without trumpet or tambourine, the forest celebrated her victory over fear. Then she poured the steaming water into her mug. She sat down in front of the fire, the mug warming her hands.

And she smiled.

Losing Control: A witch’s dilemma

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ZAP!!! Boom! Tinkle! My grandmother’s favorite teapot hit the floor and broke into a million pieces.

Staring at my hands in horror, I realized the cause. It was happening more and more. My hands trembled as I swept up fine porcelain scraps and dumped them into the trash can. Last week, I set my sister’s cat’s tail on fire. The week before that, I was pretty sure I caused my other sister’s rash.

Practicing magic is a responsibility. That’s what our mother used to say when we were young witches. I can still see her furrowed brow, her thin lips set in a straight line. Strict but caring. I still miss her, gone all these years.

After she passed, I became the most responsible witch in our family. I washed our clothes, swept our cottage, and cooked stew over the fire. That’s more than my lazy sisters, Rose and Camellia, ever did. They were only interested in coming up with new spells.

For the first twenty years of my life, my spells were obedient to my commands. Then suddenly, after last Midsummer’s festival, magic started leaking out at inopportune moments.

Practicing magic requires control. Successful spells and potions were the result of focused intent and attention to detail. A pinch more lavender than required, and the entire village could fall sleep instead of easing one anxious mother into slumber. The village elders only accepted our family as witches because we pledged to do no harm.

If I couldn’t get my magic under control, I would lose it. Literally. The regional coven would show up and drain me of my magic. Without a trial. On the spot. And I would spend the rest of my life mundane.

Think. Think. How could I tame my magic? Maybe I was working too hard. Meditation. That would help.

Rose, my older sister, helped me set up candles and pillows outside under the willow tree. Away from anything breakable. Her eyes told me she knew what was at stake. We didn’t discuss it. Any talk about misused magic could draw the attention of the coven elders. They seemed to be everywhere.

I closed my eyes, settled into the goose down pillows, and listened to the birds warbling high above me. The breeze sighed through the willow’s drooping branches, tickling my face with the scent of wildflowers. The birds called out to one another, the same melody repeated over and over again, like an inappropriate tavern song stuck in your head.

Hard to meditate with that cursed chirping. Suddenly silence fell over me like a blanket. Small objects pelted me and hit the ground, some tipping over the candles. With horror, I realized they were dead birds. My stomach churned with urgency. I leaned over past the pillows to vomit on the grass.

If I didn’t want to kill my sisters and burn down the village, I would have to either move into the woods or have the coven drain my magic. I started to pack my bag when my younger sister, Camellia, came in from the garden.

“Where are you going, Violet?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Have you been called away on a quest for the queen?”

I didn’t want to lie to my sister, but I did anyway. “Of course, that’s where I’m going. I will miss you and Rose, of course, but if the queen summons me, I must obey.”

As I stood at the door with my bag over my shoulder, Camellia hugged me farewell. As she released me, there was a POP and a cloud of silver smoke. As the smoke cleared, a small black rabbit sat on the floor. Poor sister!

I ran as fast as I could down to the main road. I guess I could have stayed and tried to turn her back, but I didn’t trust my magic. What if I turned her into a fly and Rose swatted her with the broom? Rose would figure it out when she returned.

Where could I run to escape myself? I followed the road as day turned to night. Pulling my wool shawl closer, I worried it wouldn’t be enough. I mumbled a warming spell and felt its instant effect. At least that magic still worked.

A full moon guided my steps as I reached the northern woods. I ducked under its covering, following animal trails. A childhood memory tickled in my head. There had been an abandoned hut out here where a woodcutter used to live.

The humming of insects and scurrying of unseen creatures kept me company as I threaded through the trees. I did not worry about becoming prey as my protection spell would cloak me from sight and spell.

Then I saw it. Nestled near a rushing stream, a crumbling wooden shack. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and drew a picture in my mind. When I opened them, I saw a small, thatched roof cottage with a sturdy wooden door, one window on each side trimmed with boxes of bright colored flowers.

When I stepped inside, a roaring fire in the hearth welcomed me. With a sigh, I unwound my shawl and hung it on a hook by the door. I unwrapped the bread I had brought and set it on the table. I put the kettle on for tea and then sat down in a rocker by the fire.

What would I do now? Forage for food in the woods and stay away from people? I was no hermit. Then I saw a letter on the mantle. I got up and opened the seal, a butterfly symbol that looked like the one Mother used to close her letters.

Tears leaked down my face as I read:

“Dearest daughter,

By now, you have learned that trying to control your magic in

your own strength is futile. This is your first step toward

mastery. Your magic is strong, but you must remember

it is not your work but a gift from the Creator.

It was not given for your benefit, but for the benefit of all.

Now that you are here, away from your many tasks,

take the time to understand your purpose.

Then your magic will be under control.

With love and hope,

Mother”

Carefully I refolded the letter, tucked it into its envelope and set the letter back on the mantle.

Mother knew I would reach this point. There still was hope for my future.

I would discover my purpose and learn more about the one who was really in control.

A witch’s loss

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Her magic was failing, and there was nothing she could do about it. It was her fate. When you were over three hundred years old, something was bound to wear out.

The witch knew this with her brain, but her heart still grieved. Magic had been her companion through broken hearts, wars, and witch hunts. Over many long years, she had loved and lost friends and familiars, but magic had remained a constant hum underneath her skin. Now it was a faint whisper.

The witch steam mopped her kitchen floor, her long tangled white hair hanging in her face. She took her time, making sure to get all the blood in the grout. Living in these times was a lot easier than when she first crossed the ocean. Back then, she lived in a dirt floor hut outside the village. It was convenient to have her own animals for spells, but her city condo these days smelled a lot better. And she could order the animals she needed from Amazon.

After she tucked her steam mop away in the closet, she turned her cleaning energy to her bathrooms. Her three-bedroom condo had two of them, a luxury unheard of when she first came to this country. She sprayed her natural cleaner on the toilet and sink and scrubbed with what strength she still possessed. As she wiped down the mirror, she avoided looking at her reflection. That shriveled up crone was a stranger to her. If her magic was strong, she would be able to smooth those wrinkles with a potion.

If her magic was strong, she wouldn’t have to work like a cleaning lady. She used to be able to mumble a few words and her home would be sparkling clean. These were humbling days when she needed to save her magic for the big things.

Spells that used to spill off her tongue now sputtered and failed. Last week, she used her scry bowl to see what her sister witch, Agnes, was doing. The water refused to show her anything. In her anger, she tossed the ancient ceramic bowl across the room. It shattered on the tile floor. She had to FaceTime with her instead.

Losing her magic made her so angry she wanted to transform into a bird and fly away. Usually, anger amplified her power. Now when she spoke the spell, all she got were a few feathers and a sudden urge to eat granola.

When the bathroom was clean, the witch turned her attention to the shelves in her work room. The small room, formerly one of the bedrooms, had one whole wall covered in wooden bookshelves, mismatched and of different finishes. Jars lined the shelves, some filled with liquids while others held dried plants. Using a microfiber cloth, she lifted each one and wiped it before returning it to its place. This took a long time. She needed to be careful as some of her ingredients were volatile in combination with others.

A tear rolled down her gnarled cheek. Most of these jars would never be used again. Maybe she could sell them to a younger witch.

Weakness overcame her, and she had to sit down at her desk. What would be left without her magic? An ancient crone, powerless and friendless. How could she live without her craft?

She glanced down at her phone on the desk. Maybe she was allowing her circumstances to overwhelm her. She still had sister witches who cared about her. Maybe her magic just needed to be recharged like her phone.

There was power in mingling magics. How could she have forgotten? She reached her trembling hand to grasp her phone. She scrolled through her contacts and clicked the phone symbol.

There was more than one kind of magic.

Skulls on a shelf

The witch dried off her newest skull and set it next to the others. She dumped out her cauldron on the roses in her front yard. Then she scrubbed out the pot and set it on a hook in the kitchen.

A huge sigh escaped her lips. She hated it when she lost another friendship. Friendships took many years of thought and nurturing. She poked at the fire and then sat down in her rocker, wrapping herself in blankets. Charcoal, her familiar, jumped in her lap and started purring.

In some ways, she was like her cat. Independent, resourceful, content in her solitude. Yet endless days of tending her herb garden, bottling potions, and sweeping her small cottage left her with simmering discontent.

This discord, a rumbling like a hungry stomach, would drive her to the village. There was a tea shop where women who came to the market would gather. Curious women would invite her to sit at their table. It filled her heart to hear the local gossip and trade recipes for apple pie.

Sometimes there would be one woman to wanted to know more about herblore. The witch would sit with her new friend at another table and talk about various plants and how they were useful for cooking and medicine.

The witch only developed one of these special friends at a time, hoping she would find a kindred spirit with whom she could eventually share her craft. How wonderful it was to unburden herself from her secrets. This was her favorite stage of friendship when everything was shiny like a gold coin.

After the friendship had been forged for several years, the witch would invite her special friend to her cottage. During the summer, they would gather herbs and the witch would teach her friend about their qualities. When the cold winds blew, the women would make bread and tea and sit by the fire. Charcoal would hide under the bookshelf, her yellow eyes glowing with disapproval.

Eventually all friendships ended the same way. When the witch finally revealed that she was looking for an apprentice, her friend would gasp in horror and run home.

Then the village gossip would turn evil. Her friend would tell everyone that the witch was dabbling in dark arts. The witch couldn’t set foot in the tea shop without feeling stares and hearing whispers about her. The witch would plead with her friend not to talk about her. That she had misunderstood what the witch had said about her craft.

Because she had built the friendship slowly, her friend would relent from her mudslinging. However, the damage was done. The friend would not drink tea with the witch anymore. The other women would still look sideways at the witch when she wasn’t looking.

The witch hated what came next, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her secrets needed to be protected. She brought her special tea to the tea shop and convinced the owner to serve it. It was an ancient potion designed to make everyone forget the witch and everything anyone said about her.

For her friend, the witch had another special tea. This tea temporarily made her friend compliant to the witch’s commands. Once her friend drank it, the witch lured her back to the cottage where she did what she had to do.

Now nestled under her blanket, thoughtfully crocheted by one of her former friends, the witch gazed up at the row of white human skulls lined up on the mantle. Usually, she kept them locked away in a chest, too macabre for visitors. Today she had decided they needed to be on display. These skulls were her failures at friendship.

Perhaps this time she would learn her lesson.

A witch’s retirement

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“We’ll throw you a big party with cake and everything,” my boss said, her fake smile lost in the maze of her wrinkles.

“But I’m not ready to retire,” I said. I pointed at my overflowing inbox. “I have all these orders to fill.”

Headwitch Hazel frowned. “Another reason for you to step down. Your productivity is atrocious!” She towered over me with her arms folded, not difficult to do since I was still sitting at my desk.

I sighed. “I’ll do my best to finish my outstanding requests by Friday then.”

“You do that,” she said, and stomped back to her office.

“Hey, Puddle, wanna go to lunch with us? We’re going to Chilis,” Thistle said, coming back from the front office with a fresh batch of orders in her hand. She sat across from me, our desks touching each other. If I left the company, I would miss her management jokes.

Still feeling the Headwitch’s glare, I answered, “Not today. I’ve got to get caught up.” She grabbed her broom and rushed out the door to catch up with the others.

A giant boulder of anxiety pinned me to my desk. What was I going to do with myself without this job? When I was here, I didn’t have to think. I just filled orders, took my breaks, and clocked out at the end of the day. No risks. No magical disasters.

Now I would be on my own.

Trying to shake myself out of it, I dumped out my inbox and sorted the orders into categories. Love potions, wrinkle reducers (surprised the Headwitch didn’t cast that spell for herself), protection charms, wisdom hats, and garden pest removals. Not exactly the magic I thought I’d be casting when I finished magic school.

How did I end up in this dreary magic office, when I could have been in the queen’s army, on the front lines, casting huge wind or storm spells that changed the course of battles? Or assigned to a noble family, protecting their castle from intruders.

If I admitted it to myself, I knew how I ended up here. Every time I had big magic to cast, I choked. During finals week, several of my test spells failed. At my potions final, my brew turned into iced coffee instead of a sleeping draught. My face turned beet red in front of my teacher, who knew I had made it successfully during our practice sessions. Then came my weather control final where I ended up flooding the testing room. I don’t even want to remember my broom driving test, but I still have the scars.

With my abysmal magic school scores, I was lucky to gain a position with A Magical Solution, a magical company that specialized in small magics that most witches didn’t want to waste their power on. I made charms and potions in a small lab I shared with other unremarkable witches. Our meager efforts were then sent off to the shipping department where they wrapped and packed them carefully and sent them out to customers.

Now after thirty years of small magic, it was time for me to move on.

After I’d taken care of huge stack of beauty treatments, Thistle poured in with the other witches and laid her broom on the rack against the wall. She plopped down at her desk and stared me down with her piercing green eyes. “You’re really retiring? It was all the girls talked about at lunch.”

“Headwitch said the company changed their retirement age. I’m only 80.  Normally I’d have until I was 85, but apparently, they want to get new blood in here. Immediately. Friday’s my last day.”

Thistle jumped up and gave me a bone-crunching hug. “Oh, Puddle! I’m going to miss you so much. Whenever I got stuck on a spell, you always had the answer. And you laugh at my jokes.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” I said, putting on a brave face while my stomach was flipping.

There had to be something I could do with my life. I looked at the towering piles of papers on my desk and sighed. If only I could come up with a way to be useful.

Finally Friday came, and it was time for me to say good bye to my desk and my co-workers. Headwitch Hazel had sprung for a delicious strawberries and cream cake and pink punch. At 4:45 pm, she allowed us time on the clock to celebrate my eminent departure.

“Speech! Speech!” the witches cried, guzzling down the punch which may have had an intoxication spell added.

I cleared my throat and thrust my shaking hands in my pockets. I hated speaking in front of a crowd, but these were witches I’d seen every day for most of my life. “Thanks, everyone, for your kind words,” I said. “I’ve been with the company for a long time. If I never see another desperation love spell, I would be happy.”

A chuckle echoed across the office. No one liked to cast that spell, especially since it included dog feces and stinging nettles.

“It’s hard for me to say goodbye to all you wonderful witches,” I continued. “When I heard I was retiring, I was upset. I hate change. That’s probably why I stayed here all these years. But Headwitch Hazel has given me a new opportunity. An open door to the new stage of my life. When I was young, I was too afraid to make mistakes. Now I’m ready to use my experience to cast new magic. I may still make mistakes, but I will learn from them. It’s time for me to step out on my own.”

“What are your plans?” Poppy from Accounting asked.

I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about it all week. I could start a bed and breakfast at the beach. Or I could become a wise woman in the forest. But I know what I really want to do.” I paused. Headwitch would not like this. “I’m going to write a book.”

“A grimoire?” Thistle asked.

“Not exactly,” I said. “A grimoire is for my own personal use, to be handed down to my children, of which I have none. I’m going to write a magic book that every witch can use. A book of everyday, small magics that can make their lives easier.”

Headwitch frowned. “You mean like the spells we do here at the company.”

I nodded, swallowing my fear. “Too long have young witches ordered out spells and potions that their mothers and grandmothers always made themselves. They shouldn’t have to pay for milk preservation spells or anti-wrinkle treatments for their clothes. Witches have become lazy in their magic. It’s time for them to take back their heritage.”

Although it would affect their jobs, the witches in the room cheered. My hopes soared as I realized I was finally ready to cast big magic of my own.