What does it mean to be a witch, or a warlock? A witch is a firestarter – an old term that means the people who play with fire. The witch is dangerous, the witch is clever. The witch takes the thing that nobody else dared to use, and wields it. The witch, in all of histories retellings, is villified as terrible, as ugly, as something that should not be countenanced. And those witches, in history, generation after generation, are all women.
What does it mean, to be a witch?
It means to be unafraid of the unknown. It means to stare at the magic that wends its way through life and the living, and to not quail at what it means to know it. It means that there are going to be times when you hold lightning in your hand, and then, the witch, in tradition and in wisdom, lets go.
There are many things involved in this most ancient and secret of arts, scooping up the tiny droplets of magic that lie in our world, smeared across the horizon like a single teaspoon of water in which to stir a league of desert.
None of this is of the slightest bit of comfort, however, to young Hank Lovely, glaring at the sigil underneath his hands, tasting once more the bitter words of his mother’s lesson.
“There there, Enk.” The tone was gentle, for once, lacking her normally imperious, towering manner. “Think about what you’re doing very carefully. It’s been mastered by generation after generation before you.”
Sighing quietly, Hank looked up at his mother, trying to keep the trialled tone out of his voice. “Mom,” he said, shifting in his seat before the ritual circle, “Mom, you know…” And then he bit his tongue.
Everyone’s parents had odd beliefs. Jacky Sandlon’s mother was an evangelical, and on halloween, gave out crazy little folded comic books that espoused salvation for the non-jews. Madison Andrum’s dad was convinced in the thaumic energy of crystals, and Hank’s mother – his single mother – was a witch. She said she was a witch, she called herself a witch, she told him she was a witch and she filled in her census forms as a witch. She had a pointy hat, for her own halloween costumes, and she did wear black as a matter of course, though often spiced up her look with dashes of grey, to complement the silvering of her hair around the temples.
Thing is, Madison and Jacky didn’t have to come home after school and spend at least an hour before they did their homework trying to match up with their parents’ odd beliefs.
In his life, Hank could remember maybe three times he’d opened his mouth to say what was on his mind and actually said it, and not once had that been with his mother even in the room. Bullies wanted any excuse back when he was younger, and finding his schoolbooks and his nametags on his clothes reading the bizarre name Enk was a fantastic excuse. Correcting them hadn’t helped at all.
Swallowing, Hank tamped down the dissent, looking up at his mother’s sincere, rounded face. A big smile sat on her lips with no hint of waivering. Witches in his memory of the stories were thin and cronelike, but his mother always had the composition that more powerfully evoked a ship under full sail, billowing outwards and eternally unbothered by whatever challenges sought to tug at her trim.
“Yes…?” She asked, tilting her head the other way, her arms folding across her voluminous chest, redoubling the aura of unflappability. “What is it, Enk?”
Compare and contrast the national attitudes towards domestic leaders Oliver Cromwell and Abraham Lincoln.
Hank went through these motions now, ever since he was ten. Six years of going to school, waiting to hear the bell ten times, coming home, sitting down with his eternally patient witch mother, failing to make her ritual circles do whatever it was she’d wanted him to do, and then, downstairs to his room to try and make the homework he’d brought home into something in his head beyond white noise.
Twenty minutes of muddling words onto paper later, up to the hallway outside his room, to grab the phone – with its long, dangling cable and its normal, beige case – pick it up, thumb the same number he’d put in so many times the numbers were worn down, and call up Innogen.
Ring four times, then the pickup from his uncle, Hello-Hank, Is-Innogen-Home, Of-course-she-is-hah, let-me-get-her-for-you. Flopping back on his bed, Hank rested his heels on the end of his bed and drew in a long breath. This was not the first time he’d done this, and indeed, thinking about it, it might have been the thousandth. The voice of violence punctured the predictable, though, as across town, Innogen picked up the phone.
“Every time, you know. Eeeerrrrytime, you’re always with the exact same greeting. Ever thought about mixing it up a little, Enk?”
“You correct me on that, too, errytime.”
Sigh, stretch, laugh. This was the way Hank spent his evenings. This was what was familiar. He’d been in the cycle for so long, done it so consistently, that it had lost all of its feeling to him; it was a worn place in his mind, a smooth track he walked and had walked, without deviation or strangeness, for six years. You moved forwards by one step because it was the only place to go, the only place to be.
The conversation unwound. Innogen spoke to Enkudu about her magical studies and her schoolwork. Hank spoke to Jen about his schoolwork and his mother’s crazy ideas. Laughter was shared, connection was felt. Warm. Good.
And then Jen had to go and wreck it, with the trailing sound of “… again.”
“What? Wait, what?” Hank blurted, realising that he had gotten so thoroughly used to this phone call that he literally not noticed anything said. “I mean, uh…?”
“I said I’m not going to do anything like that again.” Well, he was in it now, and the tone of Jen’s voice suggested that this wasn’t something that she spoke about often. Owlish blinking, surprise, and an odd cold feeling on the back of his neck, a tingle and a prickle that ran down his back and into the base of his spine. “I mean, can you imagine if I did something like that at school?”
Hank sat forwards on his bed, swallowing quietly. “Innogen,” he murmured, licking his now-dry lips, “What?”
“I said, can you im-”
“I get that, yeah, yeah – I mean, what… what are you talking about?”
“It worked, Enk. Last night. The rituals dad does. It worked. I took fire into my hand and wasn’t burned. You know? The chant?”
Hank mouthed to himself, silently, as she spoke. And we shall take the fire into our hands, and be not burned; we shall hold serpents and be not bit; we shall drink poison and not die. “You’re serious? I mean, y-you’re…”
Hank had a very solid view of himself. A very solid view of the world. He was sure, sure that the world worked in a particular way and that his mother was a normal crazy lady who thought she was a witch. Maybe her brother agreed with her and maybe his cousin also had to do the same rituals, but by and large it was just a goofy family tradition. They couldn’t really be witches, because witch was just a word for the old lady in the village who knew penicillin was useful, not for some supernatural wielder of power.
“… Hank, have you ever believed in any of this?” Innogen’s voice carried with it the faintest sting of disapproval. “I mean, have you ever… even once?”
Hank sat up straight, looking at his hand, confronting it within himself. “… No. I… I’ve never… I mean, Jen, if… if this is true, why isn’t everyone doing it? If magic works, why aren’t there books, how-to guides? Why wasn’t, uh, Lincoln assassinated with a heart attack or a thrown imp or something? W-why do we have… guns and presses and internets when we could be doing it all with magic?”
Innogen’s quiet tasted of ash in his mouth. When she finally spoke, there was a bitterness to it. “I don’t know, Enk. I don’t. I know what I did last night. I know what I can do again. And now? Now I know I’m going to do it again.” Those last words came out like a sting, and the phone clicked accusingly.
After that, they’d politely suspended Innogen and she’d had to dedicate her athleticism to other pursuits.
Innogen was someone the rest of the school always seemed to regard as a bit of a shame. She’d be so great if. She’d be so beautiful if. She’d make a great athlete if. It was strange to Hank – he never felt remarkable, but there was his cousin. Like someone who got more points on character creation, she was fit, gorgeous, and really, the kind of badass that in his most private of dreams, Hank Lovely wished to be. Just there, standing around the schoolyard in her shorts and sneakers, laughing along with a handful of friends, bag slung over her shoulder. Long jacket in the school’s gold and silver trim colours, a collared shirt, and the poise that came from being one of the modern gods of the schoolyard. It was like someone had photoshopped her into life.
It contrasted unpleasantly with Hank himself. Just enough shorter than the other boys to notice it, skinny all over and just that irritating little bit of feyness about him. Spectacles – not ‘glasses’ – and soft black hair, which kept getting cut every time it got close to the length he liked.
Innogen was probably not lying, which meant she was probably just wrong. Right? Something had duped her into believing she’d handled a raw flame. This was not a world where secrets like that could be held.
The crystal was of a strange, luminous colour; green and orange, bright and yet broodingly dull. Obvious up close, and impossible to see from a distance, it rested at the cleft of a mountain untouched. Animals skirted about it, while plants grew as close as they could – African vegetation not known for its prudence and care. Not known for much of anything, really, beyond toxicity rivalled only by Australia.
A little shaved off, here and there, year after year, called from the crystal by patterns. It had been thousands of years since the crystals had been made – made in hubris, made in folly. They had destroyed everything that they’d been worked to create, with the passive ambivalence of energy. And now, in an era of books and thinking sad, enough had worn away. A sliver of crystal wore away under the thumb of time; a sliver that took with it a shard of another crystalline structure, which took another, and another-
A crack formed. Pressure released.
The crystal, one of many created in the ending of the Second Age, had been twenty meters across, easily, and almost a cube. Twenty-four hours ago, a fissure had formed, releasing energy from one form into another. Things that had taken years to achieve suddenly took days. And that taste of power, with its shifting rents in the sky, was but a hint.
It was not twenty meters across any more.
It was not a crystal, any more.
It was free.
Ambivalent as ever, the magic rolled forth, billowing in green clouds into the sky. The world was due to change.
“I’m sorry, I… I mean, last night, when you said…” He looked up at her with a nervous smile. “I’m sorry I was a dickhead.”
A gale of laughter, and a pat on his shoulder. Jen leant over and bumped her shoulder into his. “Don’t worry about it, man. It’s okay. And… trust me. It’s weird for me, too. I mean…” She raised her hand, snapping her fingers, a gust of blue lightning crackling between her fingertips, arcing into the air in the shape of a flame, then fading.
The only comfort Hank had, staring at his cousin’s hand, was that she was staring, too.
“Hank? I think… I’d like to talk to your mom.” Jen said, swallowing and staring.
Far above, green clouds rolled.