Top: The Cove at Avebury, the oldest feature of that stone circle, where they honored their dead
MY FIRST MEMORY OF THE WORD WITCH happened when I was young, maybe five or six, though I’m sure I’d heard of them in fairy tales before that.
I was riding through the country at night, southwest Indiana, a very German part of the country, going to a German festival in St. Wendel. My grandfather decided to take the windy, country route. At a crossroads he pointed up to the silhouette of tree. It was huge, gnarled and black against the nighttime sky. And from one of its branches hung a black cat.
“Witches”, he said. He rambled on for a while about them, came from Germany, the old country. That generation still firmly believed in witches, and I got an earful that night.
He wasn’t the grandpa that was a grave digger. He wasn’t technically my grandpa. He came to stay with my grandmother and her mother as a lodger, and stayed on fifty years or more. His family was from Missouri, said they were plantation owners back before the Civil War. But his mother and father were in hindsight, not that far off the boat. Welsh in all likelihood, and the Welsh know a thing or two about witches. Country people, barn dances, she always wore a dress, even to feed the chickens. You still crapped in the outhouse. She had a big dog named Dobber who barked incessantly at the chickens. She loved him to death but also beat him with her cane on occasion.
The real gothic curiosity cabinet was once a part of her bedroom set.
That was about fifty years ago. Since then I’ve learned a bit more about witches. And like that black cat that night in the tree, I still don’t know what I’ve seen. I find it hard to believe now that it was a cat. Likely a paper bag, or rag thrown over a branch by the worker that day in the hot August sun. But that night at least, it was a black cat, hung at the crossroads.
As a kid, witches were everywhere, and most particular, on TV. Bewitched … Samantha Stevens had a tremendous impact on this young boy. Darren Steven had a doting wife who met him at the door with a pitcher of martinis. Okay, I can drink martinis, but a pitcher before supper? And she had powers … that boggled a pubescent boy’s imagination, because at the time I barely knew what sex was, Special powers only made it all the more mysterious.
Darren drew pictures for a living, and thought up slogans. That part stuck with me and I went into advertising. It was a wise choice. I worked for strong women who helped counterbalance the beliefs instilled in young boy’s minds in the sixties. You learned women had power, and a deeper power than most of the men around you.
Any ancestral memories I might have felt wandering the streets of Salem, Massachusetts years later were corrupted by Bewitched’s visit to Salem, which I saw as a kid. But there’s something about first period New England architecture that touches that spot inside us, that kindles a belief in witchcraft. It’s the combination of the old world and new, along with the historical connotations that send a natural shiver up your spine.
That shiver feels a lot like love.
I started wandering the woods as a teenager, and that witch thought that had stayed dormant for so long began popping out. I’d find certain stands of trees in a forest and see the coven there, or rather feel them. I could even see where their feet had trampled the forest floor from their dancing if I focused my imagination on it. Okay, it was the seventies and I’d seen all the Hammer films, the trashy made for TV movies like Satan’s School For Girls, Dark Secret of Harvest Home and had just discovered marijuana. The Lord of the Rings was still just a series of books. We were used to using our imaginations back then.
I knew it was probably deer rather than the bare feet of witches and warlocks, but there was a definite tie in my imagination between the landscape and witchery. To the south of here, the hills are closer together, everything seem more compact, whereas in the other directions it’s the prairie. It’s only to the south, on those country roads that I get that same chill of the witch, it’s where our only known local folktale about witches is set.
When Jim Morrison came back from the dead about 1979 for a while, his biography grew to include the infamous marriage to a self professed witch, in a magical ceremony. That piqued my interest. Not because I believed you’d find some power that you didn’t have before, but it was the idea of that kind of intense experience. I never had that with someone, and in your early twenties intensity was a good thing.
A vast radiant beach in a cool jeweled moon
Couples naked race down by it’s quiet side
And we laugh like soft, mad children
Smug in the wooly cotton brains of infancy
The music and voices are all around us
Choose they croon the ancient ones
The time has come again
Choose now, they croon
Beneath the moon
Beside an ancient lake
Enter again the sweet forest
Enter the hot dream
Come with us
Everything is broken up and dances
We need great golden copulations
When the true kings murderers
Are allowed to roam free
A thousand magicians arise in the land
Where are the feast we are promised?
Jim Morrison, Awake
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Growing up in a small midwestern town, where sex was had in the country because your parents were always home, both places became our bedrooms. There’s a clear difference between rutting in the forest and in a graveyard, but in both there’s a striking similarity. You get the feeling you’re not alone, you’re being watched and not by anything human. So I think a lot of people of my generation probably idealize in our memories some of our earliest sexual explorations, because of that. And because we were still of a generation who could believe that there really was something amongst those tombstones in the dark.
Gradually my peculiar interests waned and I lived a more normal life. I had a brief flirtation with a lady who had vampire teeth implants, but that didn’t lead anywhere, and she was far from witchy. My interest in the supernatural disappeared entirely. At best it was the source of a few stories I might tell amongst friends.
So it was about 20 years ago and I’m in a pub on the edge of Ireland. Nothing to the east of us but ocean, a small village – Teelin – not much but a post office, a few B&Bs and this pub. No food in the village, I’d subsisted for the entire day and much of the night on Guinness, Jameson and crisps. There was a lot of fiddle music, a lot of storytelling and as the night fell and the music kept going, the pub filled up.
I was married at the time, she was at the table and I got up for the loo. Blocking my way was a tiny blonde lady who just looked like trouble. I believe I said “pardon me” and she stepped out of the way, said something I didn’t quite catch and I smiled and went in to do my business.
When I came back out we smiled at each other and I went back to my wife. She followed and asked who this woman was. I said my wife, and this seemed to be the wrong answer.
She asked to borrow cigarette and I gave her one. She broke it and threw it on the floor. She did this three times. She started speaking of how I had led her on, how I was ignoring the fact that I really wanted her, we both knew it and stormed off. A fellow whispered in my ear that whatever I did sure pissed her off, and I might want be careful, because she was a witch who lived down by the water.
Before I had a chance to thank him she was back and the crowd cleared out of her way as she dramatically raised her arms up and her hands over head and brought the wrath of some unknown gods down on me. She was likely speaking Gaelic, I didn’t understand a word of it, but I knew something was about to happen, something life changing. All those memories came rushing back all at once and time stood still.
I half expected to turn into a frog to be honest. I have to say, the experience felt authentic. Especially her piercing screams and curses as she was drug out and the proprietor apologized and tried to make sure I was okay.
The funny thing is, she was right. I didn’t say anything, look at her any particular way, but in my thoughts yeah. If she had just grabbed my hand and drug me outside to the rocky beach I would have been lost. And within a couple years, that marriage was over.
That moment changed me more than I realized. I can’t say that her curse destroyed the marriage. But whatever she woke in me stuck, and from that point on I couldn’t be satisfied being a part of something grey and ashen. I knew I couldn’t be satisfied with a companion. I had to find someone who could touch my soul and whose soul I touched as well. Or I’d rather be alone.
Later I did date a lady who took me to my first pagan gathering. It didn’t feel right. There was no smell of peat burning in the stove, there was no darkness, just light. We stood in a circle and announced the name of our gods. All I could think to say was “Elvis.” Nobody batted an eye.
It was a decade later before I found someone who touched me in a way I had long since given up on ever experiencing. We were drawn together over a number of years, our paths crisscrossing, reflecting each other from across an ocean till we finally met. We first met in Avebury and married that first night in the circle. It was the Jim Morrison wedding experience, without the blood and absinthe instead of cocaine. It was cloaks and velvet and the wind whipping around us so fiercely I couldn’t hear myself speak. It was like pulling words out of the gale. Vows and rings were exchanged.
In that moment at least, we were witches. When you make a vow to a witch, you should know it sticks. Even when she’s gone. The vow you make in a ceremony like that, in a place like that doesn’t go unnoticed. You go somewhere like that to call up powerful forces. Doesn’t matter if that’s not your intention even. They’re there and listening. To break that vow you have to stop believing in magic. Once you’ve seen magic like that, it’s damned hard to forget.
You see, it’s not the tools that one uses for divination that makes one a witch, nor the herbs you gather, spells you concoct. Some people can be a witch and never know it. My witch didn’t need any of those things, it came natural, from intuition as much as anything else. When her intuition became cloudy, the magic went poof. At least for her.
The real magic comes when you connect with someone in a way that transcends all the normal protocols. A witch is a conduit to a force beyond both of you, that person allows you to find the magic in yourself. And together, you find the magic beyond yourselves. You don’t have to drape yourself in black, you don’t have to mumble spells or ride a broomstick. You have to love, accept the light and the dark, and when you do, you tap into something universal.
But then there’s the witch that haunts your dreams, your thoughts, your memories. Some of us were born with that instinct, that gnawing feeling that no matter how peaceful life with someone feels, there’s something missing. That connection with the unknown, with the ancient, the primeval. No matter where you go, your heart is by that blazing hearth, the firelight flickering in her eyes, bewitching. When you find it, how do you live without it? Because that feeling never really dies, even if you try. You still carry it, because it bruised a part of you too deeply inside to ever have anything else touch you there.
Or at least that’s where I was when I first wrote this. Reading it back now, I realize that living without that sense of mystery, danger and heart pounding excitement is to live a grey, ashen existence. The magic was buried beneath the pain of loss. Percy Shelley wrote to Mary Godwin, who later became his wife … “This separation is a calamity…[I feel] a desolation of heart where you have been accustomed to be.”
That’s how it felt at the time. I’m not saying it was bad, but on a night walk about that time, I met a black cat who danced to the side to avoid me crossing its path.
So perhaps it’s almost time to go looking that for that crossroads in the dark of night, maybe after all these years it’s finally rubbed off on me, and I’ve become the witch.
Jacques Brel wrote in the song My Death, “Angel or Devil, I don’t care. For in front of that door there is you.” Maybe we just wander through the darkest part of the forest, looking for the witch you feel in your bones is there, and know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that figure that waits on the path before you, standing in front the door is your destiny.
It takes faith, because you never get to see her face, until it’s too late to turn around.