When I was eleven years old, I became a witch.
“Wiccan” was the technical term, although “witch” was the word I’d had in my head since I was seven, when my friend Hannah and I had watched the movie “Escape From Witch Mountain.”
Seeing the two young girls in the movie press their hands together and produce a purple light that freed them from their kidnappers had a powerful effect on us, two second children who felt overlooked by our parents, dismissed by our older brothers, outshone by our more social first-grade classmates.
Gathering week after week in the upstairs linen closet at Hannah’s house where we discussed our most secret plans, we would press our own palms together under the sloping ceiling, willing it to happen, that flash of violet, that hot, brilliant spark of magic.
Of course none came. And as we grew older, as it became increasingly clear that there was no such thing as magic, that movies lied to you and made you want what was impossible, like all our other games, we gave it up.
But deep down, the very impossibility of it only made me want it more.
At eight and nine, living in the Philippines, I tricked my sister into believing I was telekinetic, telling her to stand at the bottom of the stairs to the roof deck, then throwing erasers and playing cards down at her, claiming I’d never touched them. I would sit in class and stare at the pencil in its little groove on the dark wood of the desktop in front of me, commanding it to move, to give even the slightest little twitch, the way the chalk had done for Matilda as she’d practiced with her teacher Miss Honey.
And as the years passed and nothing happened and the encroachment of reality grew ever stronger, so did my struggles, my clinging to the belief that these powers were possible, they had to be — because otherwise the world was simply the world, enormous and dull and cold and indifferent and bereft of possibility. Otherwise I was simply myself, a girl just like all the billions of other girls out there, hoping she was special but knowing deep down she was not.
Which was why, at age eleven, I became a witch.
It started with my sometime-friend Ris, who herself wasn’t well-liked due to her strong, almost masculine features and brusque demeanor, who would later come out as gay when she went to college (those two statements were not intended to be linked).
Ris, as you may recall, had snubbed me at snacktime when I’d first moved to town, inspiring fantasies of leaving her languishing in prison. She would later dance with Alex in seventh grade, breaking my heart.
But at the time we must have still been friends, because I remember her approaching me with the idea, like an embarrassing secret — not knowing that I would leap on it with even more ferocious a commitment than her own.
Every morning, the two of us huddled on the playground, having intense, hushed conferences about our initiation. Every afternoon, I’d go straight to the non-fiction section of the library, where I’d pore hungrily over books I’d never known existed — books with dry, matter-of-fact explanations of magic as a Real Thing that real people practiced.
One book began with a first-person account in which the author observed the color of a woman’s “aura” the same way she observed the color of someone’s hair or eyes. It was purple, she wrote, the same bright purple as her dress and her fingernails, tipping her off that the woman was not to be trusted.
I remember closing the book and turning it over and over in my hands for some clue that this was a joke, a trick, a lie, a work of fiction accidentally shelved in the wrong section. I remember flipping to the back of the book in trembling shock and joy to stare at the photo of the author, a real, live, ordinary, responsible grown-up who swore this was true.
In another book, a thick paperback manual with deep purple covers decorated with golden pentagrams and runes, I found calm, clear instructions resembling those that had struck me in the Young Wizard series, whose particular brand of magic was based on math and science — instructions about how to start your own Book of Shadows, how to begin to practice spells, how to make your first wand.
I followed these instructions to the letter. For my Book of Shadows, a journal in which you chronicled your development as a practitioner and your favorite spells and their results, I chose a dark blue spiral-bound notebook, delighting in its very ordinariness, which seemed to confer a legitimacy upon the endeavor that I’d never dreamed possible.
For my first spell, I chose a simple incantation to make my then-boyfriend, Paul, call me and invite me to hang out with him and his friend Sam. Start small, the purple manual had suggested, with something whose outcome is already likely.
Consulting one of the small, practical spells in the manual, I took a piece of blue-lined notebook paper and a colored pencil, and drew a rune of my own devising — a heart to represent affection, green in color because that was the color of the sour apple Tootsie pop Paul had given me when he asked me out, as well as the color of the sweatshirt he was wearing in the photo he had given me.
I folded up the paper. Heart beating fast, I clasped it to my heart and with all my might, imagined the phone ringing, my lifting the smooth, heavy, tan-colored receiver, Paul’s awkward, stuttering, adoring voice on the other end, my own uncontainable joy.
Then I went out to the kitchen, lifted the phone, and slid the folded piece of notebook paper underneath.
I was just walking away when the phone rang.
I remember this jolt of true shock. Despite my hope, despite all the work I had done, I think a part of me had held itself apart, not believing.
It felt like a dream, like a movie. Slowly I turned to face the phone, this object that until now had seemed the epitome of ordinary life, that was now responding as if I had spoken to it.
I picked it up.
I said, “Hello?”
It was Paul.
He invited me to come over and hang out with him and Sam.
At that moment, I knew it was real — everything I had dreamed of. I envisioned myself committing to my study of magic, filling up that dark blue notebook, moving objects with my mind, making my own wishes come true, levitating in the air. I imagined my powers slowly growing and growing, sitting in school, looking at my family across the dinner table, knowing I had this secret.
But as it turned out, Wicca wasn’t the only supernatural force in my life.
This whole time, as I’d been reading these books, a sense of unease had been quietly growing, every time I saw a mention of the Goddess that Wiccans worshipped. I had ignored it, dodged around it, convinced myself I could keep going with the other stuff and put off this question of whether to swear my immortal soul to this new endeavor.
But finally I came across a sentence where it stated in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to be a true Wiccan and to move forward in my practice, I had to worship the Goddess. Not acknowledge her, not pray to her — actually worship her.
The idea of doing this created a terrible knot in my stomach. Because worshipping another deity, as I knew from four years of Sunday school, was an unforgivable sin.
I searched for ways out, struggled and agonized. Was I was willing to give up my ticket to heaven, and incur the wrath of God — THE God, whose existence I took for granted, whose power to determine my fate I believed in utterly, to the point where I was afraid to tell lies, to use bad language, to say “God” or “Jesus” in vain, to disrespect my parents, and to skip church on Sunday?
I couldn’t come to answer. Reading my books, writing in my notebook, I felt less and less good, until one day it came to the point where I had to make my wand. The instructions called for hollowing out the pith of a branch, then inserting a cotton ball containing a drop of your own blood.
And this, ridiculously, was the line I could not cross. No matter how long I held the end of that safety pin, sterilized in the flame of a candle, to the pad of my index finger, I couldn’t bring myself to actually prick myself and draw blood. I felt like I would faint at the very thought.
And that was how it ended. I lost interest in the books, stopped renewing them; back they went, one by one, to the library. My Book of Shadows vanished under a pile of papers on my desk, slowly buried, and with it my belief in magic.
Until a day nine years later, when I stood in a blazing hot parking lot waiting for Ali to come out of the Price Chopper, looking at a guy and a girl who were looking at me.
The guy was wearing a backpack. I remember this because it was odd to see a guy that age wearing one, and because it wasn’t just a plain backpack — it had an eye-catching pattern, covered in big white Hawaiian flowers.
But the one detail I really remember is its color:
At that moment, as the girl hung back, the guy stepped forward and held out out his hand.
My mind on Ali, reluctant to engage with these strangers, still not grasping the enormity of this moment, I took it.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m M.”
“Nice to meet you, M,” said the boy.
And he clasped my hand in both of his.