MOM CAVE

“Mom has been acting a little strange lately. We can all agree.”

Suzanne stood on the talking stool in the centre of the treehouse. The talking stool had three legs and wobbled dangerously if you didn’t spread your weight right, but when you stood on it, nobody dared to interrupt you. It was for serious business, and in a house with six kids, sometimes you needed to take a risk to be heard.

Suzanne was still wearing her school uniform, and one of her pigtails had come out, giving her a dangerous, unkempt air. She was standing under the flashlight we’d hung with a shoelace from the ceiling and it cast dramatic shadows across her face as it twirled. The second-youngest kid, Arthur, was a little afraid of her, so he was hiding behind the frayed curtain that covered a big crack in the wall. The baby burbled stupidly in the corner. The rest of us sat in a circle around her, on upended crates that had once been filled with apples. Suzanne was one of the middle children, but she had the respect of even the eldest, because she could talk like a grown up. Most of us murmured our agreement, there was something different about Mom.

“Hmm, I don’t know. Is she really acting that weird?”

That was David, another middle child. David had wispy hair and watery eyes, and he liked to say the unpopular opinion, but was always surprised when we beat him up for it, or locked him out of meetings. Suzanne gave him a withering look.

“You’re stupider than the baby if you haven’t noticed a change. Haven’t you seen her, walking out to the car at night and just sitting, locked in there for hours? Or that she comes home later and later each evening, smelling like beer?”

If any of us had failed to notice those things, we weren’t about to admit it. We nodded along. Suzanne seemed to grow taller.

“And haven’t you seen her going down to the basement with tape-measures and IKEA magazines? Do any of you realize what she’s up to?”

“Maybe she’s finally building us a play-room?”

“She’s putting the baby’s room down there?”

“She’s buying more bookshelves?”

Suzanne held up a hand, and we all stopped talking.

“I heard her talking on the phone to Marissa Claire.”

We groaned. Marissa Claire watched us all from under her pencil-thin pointy eyebrows whenever she came to visit. She was always making jokes about how nobody could’ve convinced her to have so many kids.

Suzanne continued, “Mom is creating a Mom-Cave downstairs. We won’t be allowed down there anymore. It’s going to be a space just for Moms or Marissa Claires.”

We all stared at her. This was news. Mom wanted a cave? Why?

“I have a theory,” she said, “I’ve been reading and I think Marissa Claire is a vampire.”

Under the dangling flashlight, with the sun already set and the wind gently tugging the October branches, Suzanne looked deadly serious. I felt myself shiver; someone coughed. Arthur sprang out from behind the curtain and leapt straight into the eldest’s lap, almost knocking him over.

“There’s no such thing as vampires, is there?” he asked in his warbling four-year-old voice.

But the eldest simply looked to Suzanne for the answer.

“I know you’re afraid of me, Arthur,” she said, “but you’re old enough to know now. I’m not what you should be afraid of.”

We all watched her with wide eyes.

“Marissa Claire isn’t our biggest problem either. The reason Mom is acting so strange, is because she’s slowly becoming a vampire too.”

Now that was harder to believe. Mom, our Mom? The same Mom who taught us to ride bikes and tie our shoes? Who went to our parent-teacher nights and coached our soccer games? 

Suzanne continued,“Think about it. What else needs a cave but a bat? What else goes out at night, and hangs out in dingy places looking for prey? Mom is under a curse, and once she builds the Mom-cave, the transformation will be complete.”

“What should we do?” I whispered.

“We have to reverse the curse. And banish Marissa Claire from the house forever. And most of all, we can’t let the Mom-Cave be built.”

The next day, Marissa Claire came over, and she and Mom sat in the living room with stacks of paint swatches and home decorating magazines. Us kids were supposed to be watching TV, but we took turns spying on them instead.

“It’s going to be so great to get away from the old nag once your basement is finished. You know I’m going to be hiding out here all the time,” Marissa Claire said.

“Yeah, I mean, I think I deserve a little recognition. It’ll be nice.”

“Women need to be able to be women, even in a family.”

Marissa Claire handed Mom a rolled-up poster. She unrolled it halfway, and I saw the naked torso of a very muscular man in a firefighter uniform over her shoulder. My mouth dropped open. 

Mom gasped, “Missy! You’re terrible. You know my husband would throw a fit.” 

Mom tried to push the poster back into the woman’s hands.

“Well, who says he’s allowed down there? It’s supposed to be your space.”

I raced upstairs to report back to my siblings.

“It’s time for phase one,” Suzanne said.

We asked Mom if we could go to the playground, and trooped out of the house soon after. Mom didn’t make sure we wore scarves, even though it was a chilly day, so the feeling in our little group was morose. The eldest zipped our jackets up to our chins, and insisted that David wore a hat, but it wasn’t the same. Luckily, Mom didn’t ask us to bring the baby.

We arrived at the church, and Suzanne passed us each a Tupperware before she walked up to the front and tugged on the door. It was locked. We split up, each looking for a door or window that would allow us inside. David found it and we all raced over to a stained-glass window that was slightly ajar. Suzanne pushed it all the way open, and we tumbled inside one-by-one. We hadn’t been to church since last Easter, and I was immediately hit by the familiar heavy-perfume-and-dust smell that seeped up from the carpets.

“Find the Holy Water and the free rosaries!” Suzanne ordered.

We knew that the church gave out white plastic rosaries sometimes, and assumed they would be up for grabs somewhere. The Holy Water was easy to find, it was in a big bowl at the front of the church, for dipping your hand into. We each filled our Tupperware until the bowl was empty. The rosaries were a challenge though.

“We need them, to tie Mom up and reverse the curse,” Suzanne insisted.

We split up and looked everywhere, on each pew, in the supply closets and under the kneelers. I decided to check the altar. I climbed the steps and checked beside the mic stand, and then under the white cloth. Then I saw the gold box where they kept the communion. There probably weren’t any rosaries in there, but I decided to open it, it couldn’t hurt to check.

“Stop! Thief!” a voice boomed through the church.

We all tried to scatter. David dove under a pew, Arthur shimmied behind the statue of Mother Mary, the eldest shut himself in a supply closet and I sprinted for the open window. Only Suzanne stayed calm.

“We’re not stealing. We’re looking for the free rosaries.”

So, the priest sat us down, and we told him all about the Mom Cave and our vampire theory.

“This sounds very serious. You kids were right to come to the church, you’re not safe.”

My heart sank. So, it was true.

“We’re planning on tying her up with rosaries and sprinkling her with Holy Water,” Suzanne said.

The priest nodded his approval, “I can see you’ve done your research.”

Suzanne was right. Mom was turning into a monster.

The priest gave each of us a rosary and sent us home with the reminder to pray more often.

A few nights later, Suzanne woke me up and we slipped away from the others to watch Mom through the front window. She had a suitcase with her, even though there was no trip planned that we knew about. We watched her load the suitcase into the back of the car, turn it on, and sit inside without driving.

For some reason, my eyes were filling up with tears, “Why doesn’t she just go?”

“That suitcase is full of Marissa Claire’s mind-controlling tokens. Mom is just trying to get rid of them,” Suzanne assured me in a whisper.

Another voice spoke before I could, “Or maybe it’s full of empty vials of blood, because she’s already a vampire.”

David was standing behind us in his rumpled pyjamas. Something about his pouty mouth and stupid slippers made me angry. I lunged for him, but Suzanne held me back.  

“We have to be strong,” she said.

“We should have done the ritual sooner. What are we waiting for?” I snapped.

“Tomorrow, it’s a harvest moon,” Suzanne said.  

Phase two of the plan was capturing and overpowering Mom, tying her down with rosaries and sprinkling her with Holy Water. But things did not go according to plan. That morning, Dad went off to work as usual while Mom made breakfast. We were all supposed to go to school, so we walked to the bus stop with our backpacks, but as soon as Mom drove off with the baby we snuck back inside the house. It was time to create the trap.

I can’t tell you exactly how the trap was supposed to work, it came right out of Suzanne’s imagination, but it involved laundry baskets, Christmas lights and white sheets. She ordered us around for an hour, assembling it, and then we heard footsteps approaching. Someone rang the doorbell. Did Mom forget her keys? Did she know we were at home? Arthur wandered over to the door, despite our collective “Noooo,” and opened it.

A man in a bright yellow polo shirt was standing at the door. He glanced into the chaos inside our house, and smiled brightly at Arthur.

“Is your Mommy or Daddy home?”

Arthur quaked with terror at his mistake. We could all hear Suzanne’s mind whirring with fury.

“I’m here to deliver some furniture. Hello? Is there an adult home?”

One wrong step from the IKEA man could spring the whole trap. Suzanne popped out from her hiding spot, causing the man to jump.

“She wants it all on the front lawn.”

“The front…?”

 “You heard me.”

The man must have recognized the same dangerous power in her that we had, because he unloaded everything onto the front lawn, and had her sign for it even though she barely reached his elbow in height.

“This stuff must all be for the Mom Cave,” the eldest said.  

“We’ve got to get rid of it!” Suzanne raced onto the lawn, beckoning to the rest of us “quickly, we have to take it to the pond and sink it.”

We dragged the red wagon out from the garage and got to work stacking the boxes on top. It was heavy work, but if Mom came home and IKEA was on the front lawn she would know something was wrong. Once we had stacked it all, we wheeled it carefully down the driveway.

Mom was standing on the sidewalk, holding the baby. Her car was parked a little bit away. For a moment, we stared at her, and she stared back at us.

“What are you all doing? Why aren’t you at school?”

 We were caught. It was over.

 “What is all of that stuff? Is that… is that my IKEA order? What on earth?”

David started to cry. The eldest picked up Arthur, who buried his face in his jacket sleeve. I could’ve sworn Mom’s teeth were so long that they were poking the top of her lip. Mom wiped her cheek with her sleeve. Had she been drinking blood, and she was trying to wipe it away? Only Suzanne remained calm.

“We thought they probably delivered to the wrong house, you know how sometimes the neighbour gets our mail,” she said.

Mom’s face became a mask of fury.

“That doesn’t explain why you aren’t in school.”

None of us could explain that, and none of us could explain the mess we’d made inside. Mom identified Suzanne as our ringleader, probably because we kept glancing at her for instructions.

“Suzanne, I should’ve known. Go upstairs and wait for me on my bed. The rest of you had better help me clean all of this up.” Mom said.

Without Suzanne, we didn’t know how to use the trap. Mom made us bring the IKEA boxes downstairs, and put everything back where we’d found it. Worst of all, she found the Tupperware’s full of Holy Water under our beds, and rosaries stashed in the bathroom cabinet. When we didn’t answer what they were for, she dumped the water down the sink and tossed the rosaries into the trash, then locked us in our rooms. That evening, Mom didn’t make us dinner and we could hear her and Marissa Claire playing loud music in the basement while they assembled the Mom Cave. I looked out my window at the harvest moon, which glowed orange while my stomach growled. Someone unlocked my door. It was Suzanne. Everyone else was standing behind her, and she was even holding the baby.

“It’s time to go. We tried our best,” she said. 

We were about to reach the front door when we heard Dad’s heavy footsteps behind us.

“What are you kids up to?”

We looked at him over our shoulders and said, “Nothing!”        

He shrugged and wandered into the kitchen, probably looking for a snack, wondering when it was time for dinner.

Photograph by Edward Steichen

Maya and the Pride

Maya was just six years old when a woman with red fingernails pushed her into a lion enclosure. The woman’s name was Antonia Shepherd, she had shoes that clacked, and long fingernails that could, and often did, cause Maya to wince with pain. Maya’s father was in love with this woman: maybe because she smelled like a department store, or maybe because she had an adorable freckle on the end of her nose. Maya often longed to peel that freckle off, but she never got the chance, and she didn’t have any freckles of her own to practice with.

“Honey, Maya and I haven’t had nearly enough bonding time. What if I took her out somewhere, just the two of us?”

Maya listened from the living room, her heart beating loud against her t-shirt. She scooted closer to the door, further away from the TV that was always on, singing gibberish cartoons at her. Antonia said the TV kept her quiet, but the TV was so much louder than Maya could be. Sometimes she wrapped a blanket around her head and pretended she was being kidnapped to get away from the noise. Today, she eavesdropped instead.

“I know that little girl of yours is a handful, and most women wouldn’t want to take their boyfriend’s daughter out like I do, but well, you know I adore her. I just want her to know it.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Dad sounded much less concerned than he should have.
“Oh, I don’t know, ice-cream, the zoo, the hairdresser?”

Maya clutched her long braid with fear. No. She loved to swing her braid and feel it slap against her face, and she hated the sound of the hair-dryer, which Antonia used every morning. She especially hated the hairdressing cape. Wearing it felt like being in the belly of a big black fish with her head poking out of its lips. No! She would not go get a haircut, especially not with that woman.

Antonia walked in, scratched her long fingernails against Maya’s scalp, and invited her out, just the two of them. Her fingers stopped Maya from turning her head to look at Dad. She could sense him though, lingering in the doorway. Her only choice was to say yes.
“Only, I don’t want a haircut.”
Antonia’s nails tightened a fraction. “Someone’s been eavesdropping,” she giggled.
Maybe, if Antonia had taken Maya to the hairdresser, things would have been different, but she didn’t. She took her to the zoo instead.

Outside, the sun was pale yellow and sweat-inducing. Maya lived in a small city in the middle of the desert, and though it was winter, it was still hot. Maya and Dad used to live in another country, but she could barely remember it. When she and Antonia got into the car, the woman blasted the A.C. until Maya was blue-lipped and shivering. Antonia saw the goose-bumps, but she didn’t turn the A.C. down and Maya refused to ask for relief. Instead, she wrapped her hand around her braid like it was a snake she could throw into the driver’s seat. They arrived at the zoo.

“Where would you like to go?” Antonia asked without looking at her.
“The crocodiles!”

But the entire reptile house was closed. From the sounds of it, a small boy had climbed into the iguana enclosure and was refusing to come down from a very high box in the top corner. The iguanas were whipping their tails at any keeper who tried to come in and get him down. This zoo was not like most others.

Maya liked the big, ferocious animals. She had no interest in the timid gazelles or the tortoises chewing leaves of lettuce with their big grandpa lips. She liked animals with teeth much sharper than her own, and claws much sharper than Antonia’s. If she couldn’t see crocodiles, lions were the next best thing.

Maya and Antonia walked over to the enclosure, and Maya felt a shiver of joy when she looked down and saw their hulking shoulders and thick paws. She wished she was a lion. She roared quietly. They were separated from the lions by a glass barrier that reached Antonia’s chest, and a gorge that made it impossible for the lions to leap up to them.

“Why don’t we take a picture to send to your Daddy?”

Antonia took out her phone and began fixing her hair in the camera. Maya looked up at her, watching with amusement as one curl stuck down stubbornly, creating a swirl on the woman’s forehead. She started to giggle until Antonia’s murderous eyes flashed down at her and swept the smile off her face. When the curl was finally smoothed back, Antonia knelt down and pulled Maya towards her so they were cheek to cheek. Maya didn’t smile.

“Why aren’t you smiling?” Antonia said, straining to keep her voice light.
Maya shrugged.
“Well, I took you here to be nice to you. The least you can do is smile.”

Maya smiled. Until Antonia pressed the button, then she quickly frowned. Antonia huffed.

“Look. Look how nice I look there, smiling. Why can’t you be a good girl and smile?”

Maya puffed her cheeks out like a blowfish in the next picture. Then crossed her eyes. Right before Antonia pressed the button, so that she wouldn’t see what she was about to do. Maya was very quick. The curl returned to Antonia’s forehead and stuck there. She dug her nails into Maya’s arm, clutching her ever closer.

“You—will—take—this—picture—nicely!” she shook the girl with every word.
“Sorry, I just don’t want to look like you,” Maya giggled.
“What?” Antonia snapped, dropping her arm, “What did you say?”
Maya wanted to take it back, Antonia’s eyes were bulging slightly.
“I just… I don’t want to look like you.”
“Why?” Antonia burst, “What’s wrong with how I look?”

A woman wearing a tennis visor and yoga pants pulled a wagon full of kids past them, and paused to give Antonia a raised eyebrow. Antonia tried to smile at her; her cheek twitched. When the woman was gone, Maya built up the courage to ask something she’d always wanted to. For once, she was having fun with Antonia.

“Can I peel your freckle off?”

Maya had been staring at it, and the urge was burning in her finger. She couldn’t hold it in any longer, her finger inched towards the woman’s face. Antonia swiped it away with a furious hiss. A stream of words came out. Maya didn’t understand much except for the end.

“—and everyone. I mean everyone. Tells me how ADORABLE. My freckle is. So, so.”
Antonia took a deep breath. She smiled like a crocodile.
“Let’s take the picture, Maya.”

Antonia lifted Maya so that she was standing on the barrier in front of the enclosure. It was sloped, not a good place to stand, not enough room for her feet. Maya tried to say so, but Antonia was lifting the phone to get both of them in the picture.

I’m not sure if Antonia intended to feed Maya to the lions from the beginning, or if it was an idea that dawned on her when she saw their yellow teeth. She loved her boyfriend, but something about his child unsettled her. Maya was always alone in her room, and Antonia could hear her, talking with different voices, thudding, shouting war-cries. Plus, who doesn’t like TV?

Maybe she didn’t mean to push her into the enclosure, or maybe she did. Either way, Maya felt a sharp elbow smack her knee, and then the ground was out from under her. She saw the sky, the glass barrier trembling, her own arms reaching out for something to grab onto. Her scream rang through the big cat section of the zoo. When she landed, the wind was knocked right out of her. Her head smacked the grass painfully, and for a moment, everything went black. She opened her eyes and squinted up at Antonia, who was peering down at her, safely behind the glass. Maya couldn’t get up, everything hurt. Then she felt the hot huff of lion breath.

When Antonia saw Maya stirring, she glanced around to see if anyone had seen the girl fall. The zoo was not busy, since it was a weekday afternoon. Nobody was around. Antonia clacked over to the pizza stand, ordered a slice, and chewed while she contemplated her next move. She rubbed her lower belly and tried to glow, the way women in her condition were supposed to. The pizza server asked if everything was okay, watching her demented smile with trepidation.
“Is the pizza not agreeing with you?”
Antonia started to retort, then simpered, “Maybe the little one doesn’t like beef-pepperoni.”
She rubbed her belly more conspicuously. The server backed away.
Antonia nodded to herself, this was as good a time as any to tell him. She clacked over to the zoo entrance, smiled at the attendant, got in her car and drove home.

Meanwhile Maya had started to regain feeling in her arms and legs. She could sense the lion nearby, but didn’t dare to look at it. Should she move? Play dead? Try to run? Before she could do anything, she felt jaws closing around her ankle. She froze. She was certain that if she screamed the lion would start to eat her right then. Her braid dragged behind her as the lion pulled her into the fake den, and down into the concrete pit underneath the enclosure.

“Hello sweetheart, I’m back!” Antonia sang at her boyfriend.
“Hey, you’re back soon, how was it?”
How that man loved that woman we’ll never know, but he did, truly.
Antonia smiled sweetly, “I have something to tell you!”
“Where’s Maya?”
“Well, she didn’t want to leave the zoo, see. But I had to tell you something and it couldn’t wait,” Antonia rubbed her belly in anticipation.
“You left my six year old daughter at the zoo, alone?”
He was getting hung up on the wrong detail. He wasn’t noticing her glow.
“Well yes, but–”
“I cannot believe this,” his face looked like thunder, “my daughter. My only daughter, who do you think you ARE?”
“I’m pregnant!”

Maya was scratched all over from where she’d been dragged against the concrete. The light was dim and her heart was pounding. If they were going to eat her, she hoped it would be quick. The lioness had dropped her like a rag-doll and was greeting an old lion that was lazing in the corner. The lion stood up, and both of them loomed over her with drooling jaws.

“What are you doing in our enclosure, human?”
The lion. It was speaking.
“Y-you can talk!”
The lion huffed, “Yes, and they never drop live meat into our enclosure, so I have to be sure. Have you been laced with poison? Is this how they finally get rid of me?”
“I hope I haven’t been poisoned. I fell in accidentally. Or, I guess, I was pushed.”
Maya told the old lion about Antonia, her clacking heels and her department store smell.
“I hate when humans wear perfume,” the lion growled.
Maya nodded, “Me too.”
There was a long, almost awkward pause. Maya felt the need to break it, the lions still looked angry.
“Wow, it’s pretty dark down here.”
“Dark, really? Do you see that light in the corner? It’s always on, always flickering and irritating my eyes. We’re mostly nocturnal you know,” the old lion said.
“Can’t you tell the zookeepers that it bothers you?”
The old lion snorted, “All they hear when I talk is growling. I learned to talk from my first owner. A girl who was a little older than you.”
“What happened to her?”

So the old lion told Maya the story of how he ended up in a zoo in the desert. Poachers came for his pride, in a place far away, with long grasses and wide open space. He heard gunshots and he tried to run. He got left behind. The poachers put him in a cage, and the cage went on a plane, and the plane landed here, where a man kept him in an apartment and fed him cat food, which made him feel very sick. Finally, the man put the lion in a cardboard box with holes, and when it was opened, the lion saw the smiling face of a girl in a party hat.

“You got me a lion cub?” she squealed.

The girl had never been so happy, and neither had the lion, except for during his days in the wild. But he was growing too fast, and one day the girl’s Dad put him in the back of their car, and walked him on a leash into the zoo.

“I’m not the only one. All the lions here have a story like me. And the cheetahs too.”
Maya felt anger bubbling in her stomach. She was so angry that she forgot the scrapes on her skin and the aches from where she’d fallen. She sat up and felt her head spin.
“This isn’t fair! We’ve got to do something.”
The lion roared his agreement, and Maya heard the echoes of other lions roaring back. There were at least thirty lions down there in cages, hidden from the public.

Maya’s father sprinted through the zoo, calling her name. The girl was nowhere to be found. Antonia trotted reluctantly behind him. She didn’t see why he would miss Maya when she was providing a brand new kid for him.
“Where did you leave her?” he growled.
“By the lions,” Antonia said.
They arrived in the big cats section, and Maya’s father skidded to a stop, unsure of where to look. Then, both of them heard a squealing child who was standing in front of the lion enclosure, looking in.
“Look Mummy! Look!”
“Yes, lions,”
“Look, look, there’s a girl!”

The child’s mother let out a soul-tearing scream when she saw Maya cartwheeling for the lions. The scream was so loud that Antonia was sure Maya was done for, and hurried over, doing her best to look concerned.

When she saw Maya riding on the back of a lion, she knew she was toast. She let out a shrill little scream of her own. Maya’s father was pale, and swayed like he might fall over. Maya looked up at them, smiled and waved.
“Don’t worry Daddy, I’m okay!”
Maya returned to the lions as she grew older, and told the zookeepers their grievances with the food and the lack of space. In exchange, the keepers let her play in the enclosure after visiting hours. They called her Maya The Lion Tamer, and though she hated Antonia, Maya loved her new baby brother when he arrived.

Maya also befriended the boy who lived in the iguana enclosure… but that’s another story for another time.

Artwork by Icinori

The Witching Hour: Watching “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”

In a dark, shadowy forest barely lit by an eclipsing blood moon, a young girl walks through the trees towards distant candlelight and voices. As she approaches, her wedding dress turns black. The clearing is filled with relatives and family acquaintances, eagerly waiting. In the middle there lies a large leather-bound book: The Book of the Beast, in which she needs to sign her name away to the devil. This is the night of Sabrina Spellman’s dark baptism.

When I was little, I wanted to be a witch. I ran around the woods next to my house with my best friend and pretended I was flying on a broom, fighting magical enemies. I fell asleep chanting spells. Any animal I came across was a potential familiar to bring me to the magical world.

A witch is not simply the female equivalent of wizard. There are witches who do not carry wands and who conjure up very different kinds of spells. Witches who were burnt at the stake and caused mischief around them. I wanted to be that kind of witch too. I wanted to be like Sabrina Spellman, both from the original sitcom and the animated spinoff “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”

Sabrina went to a regular high school and dealt with normal, human problems. Except her powers granted her options that normal humans didn’t have. She tackled her bullies with spells and had a talking cat who gave her advice. The magic world offered her an escape from school drama. Who wouldn’t love the liberty of ditching their homework to deal with an evil clone? I wished my name was as cool as Sabrina’s or my hair as pretty. Except, my cat wasn’t even black, let alone talking.

Sabrina remained in the hazy realm of childhood along with my bubbly fantasies of magic. I knew that watching the show again would bore me. Her problems were too trivial now; she wouldn’t have fulfilled my teenage cravings for moral ambiguity.

In October of 2018 Netflix treated me to a welcome surprise, announcing an original show based on a much darker iteration of the goofy witch story, called “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (CAOS). Sabrina had grown up. After all, the devil himself was listed as a character. I decided it was time for Sabrina to catch up with me.

Once the show released, I couldn’t tear myself away from the screen. Once again, Sabrina had managed to bewitch me.

Today’s supernatural stories are almost synonymous with escapism. Fantasy either seduces us into an idyllic image of an alternative past or introduces a different universe hiding in the midst of our realities. Either way, its landscape is far removed from our own. Even if its issues echo those we face, the means to resolve them are unrealistic, bordering on wish fulfilment. Fantasy veils the magnitude of the real world problems with magical solutions that we can never physically access.

Except Sabrina of CAOS is, as pointed out by the actress playing her, “a woke witch.” This show about witchcraft has an overt political agenda in line with modern feminist messages. The first episode has Sabrina instating a female empowerment club at her high school, which she says is based on a witches coven.That storyline continues throughout the show, but becomes overshadowed by the development of the main plot: Sabrina’s upcoming “dark baptism” and her following indoctrination into the witch realm.

It quickly becomes apparent that the witch world is a stringent patriarchy. Absolute devotion to Lucifer is required in exchange for supernatural powers, with a scene of a witch kissing his hooves. Sabrina hesitates to sign her name and soul away, saying “Why does the Dark Lord get to decide what I do with my body?” Her dark baptism uses the language of marriage, stating that she needs to save herself, physically and mentally, for servitude to a powerful male figure. She struggles with the system she is placed in because she wants to have both freedom and power but her society makes the two mutually exclusive. “The thought of any of us having both terrifies him”, another witch explains to Sabrina. “He’s a man, isn’t he?” The same words could ring just as true for women in many offices and government cabinets, far removed from the fantastical world of the show.

The enduring myth of witchcraft has long been one of female power. By becoming a servant of the devil rather than one of god, a woman could hope to take control and agency, even if that freedom came at the price of giving up traditional religious promises of a peaceful afterlife and instead surrendering one’s soul to the devil. According to “The Witch in History” by Diane Purkiss, such a myth was perpetuated more by women. It helped them to express the unspeakable, which was their desire to overcome social constraint. Witches transcend limitations. They are scary precisely because they do not obey traditional conceptions of morality.

In late October I was on a train to a small town in the Czech Republic. My boyfriend and I rushed into the car minutes before departure and struggled to look for free seats. Eventually, we came across three vacant spots, two of them next to each other. As we settled in and took out our travel snacks, the door opened. A man walked in and stood in front of me. He pointed at the vacant seat across, signaling for me to move. As I looked at him, I saw anger in his half-closed drooping eyes. The more I lingered, the more I worried he would hit me. He was bigger than me. He looked at me as if I were a dog who had taken a shit on his carpet. I silently switched seats. The rest of the train ride was spent in silence as I hid the tears streaming down my face with a book. I wished I could have said something. I wished I could have harmed him.

At our destination, Kutna Hora, we visited a church famous for being decorated entirely with human bones. As we stood among crucifixes and chandeliers assembled from the remains of over 60,000 people, I found myself thinking of the man on the train. He would too, one day, become no more than bones. The entirety of his being, including the reasons for his seeming entitlement, will boil down to a set of gray objects that could be rearranged as the base of a lantern.

Witches also embody a fascination with death. A contract with the devil allows them to learn otherwise inaccessible control over the afterlife. While traditional religion promises heaven or peace on the condition of following a certain moral standard in life, witchcraft allows for a certainty about a postmortal destiny without further restriction after the initial deal has been made. Witches don’t have to fear death, and because of that, they don’t fear killing. In mainstream Western culture, traditionally the deceased is dressed in his or her best clothes and treated with a notion of respect as the corpse is put into a coffin and lowered into the ground. Witches, much like the (surprisingly, Catholic) person who arranged the bones in Kutna Hora church, feel no need to treat the dead with reverence. Life can be taken away at whim and the body is an object of ritual. Even postmortem, the dead are sacrificed for the comfort of the living.

When dissatisfied with her principal, Sabrina sends an army of spiders into his house at night,
knowing that arachnids are his greatest fear. In her world, enemies are obstacles to be eliminated. The powers of a witch come with the liberty to control the fate of others. I couldn’t help wishing, in the moment, that I could destroy that man on the train and watch him join the pile of skulls at the church. If I were a witch, I might not have hesitated to take revenge when disrespected. But I couldn’t. And I am glad.

Power does indeed come with responsibility. CAOS is conscious that power can be abused. Sabrina’s heroism is dangerous and often at odds with the show’s reality, harming those around her. Her pretty rhetoric claiming that rules can be circumvented for the sake of her wishes has to give in to the weight of consequence. Sabrina constantly acts in the name of rebellion and yet fails to notice how often her actions serve the system rather than oppose it.

The fantastical doesn’t have to be synonymous with escapism, and CAOS demonstrates that pop culture is catching up with a better use for these narrative tools. Witchcraft has been entangled in battle with mainstream social norms through a lot of Western history and this show pays tribute to that legacy. However, simply because something is counter-culture does not mean that it is devoid of problems that it attempts to criticize. Mindless opposition may be just as dangerous as blind acceptance, and while Sabrina may believe in herself as an agent for radical change, even her power comes at the expense of something else, be it freedom or humanity.

Gaining supernatural abilities does not excuse one from moral responsibility, even if it can cloud perception of it. A cat talks only if he is a cursed warlock or a recruited demon, and a witch who kills is still a murderer. Even a magical world has consequences, and I don’t think I want to be a witch anymore.

References
Diane Purkiss. The Witch in History: Early modern and twentieth-century representations.

Image from Wired

A School for Little Witches

“What a little witch.”

Esther overheard it, passed like a note from her third-grade teacher to the fourth-grade teacher, and she knew that they were talking about her. Both adults glanced at her, and let their guilty eyes slide sideways when they saw her watching them. Esther had those big, dark eyes and thick eyebrows that looked like they didn’t belong on a child. Nobody brushed or braided her hair, and she came to school without lunch at least twice a week, which would have made Teacher feel bad for the child, if she wasn’t such a little witch.

Esther passed the two grown-ups on her way out of the classroom, rolling the word witch around in her hand, like those stress balls Principal kept on his desk. Maybe she was a witch. Maybe that was why Teacher hated her.

“She doesn’t have any friends, she steals food, she’s incorrigible and unmanageable”.

Teacher said that to the Principal a few days ago, when Esther was eavesdropping from the bushes under his open window. If everyone had already decided she was a witch, Esther thought she should learn some spells. To stop bullies. To make her parents happy.

When she asked for spell books in the library, the librarian shook his head, “You’d better not ask about witches around here Esther, you go to a Catholic school. But I bet you could find something at the public library.”

So now she had a quest. The Public Library. Witch-section. She would go tomorrow.

Other kids had parents to drive them to the public library, but Esther didn’t. Esther lived in a ramshackle house with a Dad sewn into the couch and a Mom who was like a whirling hurricane. They used to have a dog, but even Buddy ran away, probably to live in a nicer part of the suburb.

Esther did have three pet toads that she kept in a fish tank she’d found in the nearby junkyard. That morning she fed them worms from the garden, which twisted and flipped between her index finger and her thumb, a little slimy and a little muscly. It wasn’t true, what Teacher had said about Esther having no friends. She had her toads, and she had Robert. He was the boy who lived in the house across from the junkyard. He didn’t go to her school, so Teacher didn’t know about him.

Esther thought that Robert might be a little witch too. He liked inventing things, and made lots of explosions with stuff he found for his experiments but she wasn’t supposed to play with him. It was because he was black. Esther’s Dad didn’t like “those people”. She never told Robert why they had to meet in the woods, but he didn’t ask, and sometimes Esther thought he might already know. She decided to invite him to the library.

Esther was always welcome at Robert’s house. She walked right in.

“How are you star-girl?” Robert’s Mom was the one who first told Esther what her name meant.

“I’m going to the library to look for spell books. Can Robert come?” Esther asked.

“A quest! That sounds fun. Make sure you’re home before it gets dark.”

Before they left, Robert’s Mom whispered something to Robert about being polite, especially to police. Esther wondered why police would even talk to two kids at the library.

“Do you see that toad?” Esther asked.

The two kids were taking a shortcut through the woods.

Robert nodded, “So, you think we’re both witches? Isn’t it only a girl who can be a witch?”

“No, you just have to be uncorrigable and unmanageable,” Esther said, pouncing on the toad.

She was glad when Robert didn’t ask what incorrigible meant. She loved to feel the toad’s heart beating and the soft leathery skin cupped in her hands. It was a handful of life. The toad’s feet swam against her palm and she murmured until it stopped struggling and instead vibrated contently. Robert led the way as Esther put the toad in the front pocket of her shirt. It didn’t try to hop out even once.

When she opened her eyes to it, Esther could see magic all around. The trees were creaking, whispering to her. A fairy with moth wings peeked out from behind a sapling. When they crossed the bridge above the river, Esther looked down and saw two small trolls hauling a fish toward the bank. Magic wasn’t just in creatures either, it was like seeing a brand new colour all of a sudden. It decorated the leaves, and snapped and sizzled when she turned rocks over with her sneakers.

Soon they saw another toad, and speaking softly, Esther coerced it to hop into the palm of her hand. When it did, she beamed up to Robert, “See! I’m definitely a witch.”

Robert wasn’t sure if he liked toads. He could hold one, and hated to see them killed or tortured by the other boys at school, but he didn’t love them like Esther did. Could he still be a witch?

The kids arrived at the edge of the woods, and were just stepping off the trail when Esther heard something. Footsteps. The two toads in her pockets hummed nervously.

Splat. Something hit her shoulder, it wasn’t too painful, only surprising and… wet. She heard a rancorous laugh titter through the trees. Her and Robert looked at each other before another egg whizzed through the air to smack the back of Robert’s head.

They had no ammo to participate in an egg war. And Esther’s Mom would slap her if she ruined any more clothes. The two took off running, with four other kids soon in hot pursuit.

They ran blindly. Through streets, over hedges, with sweat pouring. The toads thudded along in Esther’s pocket, whispering encouragement. The other kids were faster. When Robert and Esther stopped to catch their breath, the bullies encircled them. They asked Esther what she was doing hanging out with someone like Robert. His eyes filled up with angry tears. One boy tried to lift Esther’s skirt. When she raised her hand to slap him, someone taller than her caught her wrist from behind and twisted her around to face him.

The bully’s laughter filled Esther’s ears like pounding blood and she screamed so loud that everyone had to cover their ears. She didn’t stop screaming, a dainty, high-pitched, little girl scream. The boy dropped her wrist. A gnome in a nearby yard exploded. Robert closed his eyes, concentrating, and the road bubbled up suddenly, the way a rug can. It lifted all the kids shudderingly above the neighborhood. Robert clenched his fists and sparks flew out with menace. He linked arms with Esther, who stopped screaming and opened her eyes to look with wonder at the tiny neighborhood below them.

“You will never touch her again,” Robert bellowed.

When the road smoothed itself out again, the bullies scattered and Esther and Robert walked away with power coursing through their veins. They got to the library and asked for books about witches. A student volunteer, noticing their eggy clothes and hair, helped with the books and carefully pointed the bathroom out to them as well.

They spent the day reading, and Esther finally understood why that character Matilda had liked the library so much. It was dusty and quiet except for fingers clattering over ancient computers. The magic in here was excited, whirring in and out of people’s ears, buzzing around in their brains before swirling into the air again. Some of it got squished into books or pinned under pens scribbling. People carried it unknowingly in their backpacks when they left the library. Esther pointed spells out to Robert, and he wrote them carefully in his notebook.

When the two kids got hungry they decided it was time to go home. On the way out of the library, Robert saw a police officer, and his back stiffened. The officer approached. As he got closer, Esther noticed how he grew and stretched, like a shadow. She noticed that Robert was afraid.

“What are you kids doing here?” the man asked.

“Reading, obviously,” Esther rolled her eyes.

The officer ignored her, “I asked you what you’re doing here,” he looked pointedly at Robert.

“We’re here reading books sir.”

“Can I see your library card?”

Esther started to explain that they weren’t old enough yet, but the officer cut her off, again, looking at Robert.

“I don’t have one sir.”

“Why would you come to the library, and disrupt all these nice people who do have library cards, if you don’t have one?”

“I just wanted to read sir.”

“I don’t think so. Why would a boy like you come here to read?”

“He didn’t do anything wrong!” Esther shouted.

“Then he won’t mind me having a look in his backpack, will he?” the officer snatched Robert’s backpack from his back without waiting for an answer, and rifled through the contents. He seemed annoyed to only find a notebook and pencils inside.

“Did you come here to deface the library books with these pencils?”

“No sir.”

“Well, we got a call about a gnome that got smashed by some kids this morning, do you know anything about that?”

Esther felt a guilty swoop. Her scream had broken the gnome. Robert glanced at her.

“I knew it! I’m going to have to take you to the station to sort this out,” the officer said to Robert, “Or you can admit now that it was you,” he stepped closer to the boy.

“It wasn’t!” Robert tried to keep his cool.

“All you’ll have to do is apologize, and your parents can buy the nice lady a new gnome,” the officer said.

“I didn’t do it!”

“Alright then, into the squad car I guess,” the officer grabbed Robert’s wrist.

Esther took a toad out of her front pocket and whispered to it, “Help”.

The toad started to grow in her hand. It grew until it plopped on the floor. The officer stared at it. He hated toads. It grew to be the size of a cat, then a small dog, then a cow, then a car. Robert smiled, he could feel the man shaking, frozen. The toad licked its lips, then pushed its tongue out slowly, slowly. It extended like a slimy arm, reaching, then slithered its way up the officer’s leg, python style. When the tongue had wrapped around the officer’s torso twice, Robert peeled the man’s fingers from his wrist. The toad’s mouth creaked open, and the tongue snapped the police officer inside. Robert patted the toad’s nose as a thank you, and it leapt away, bouncing from rooftop to rooftop until it was no longer visible.

Esther asked the second toad to take them home, so it grew to the size of a horse and sprouted long pink feathery wings. The two children clambered on.

When Esther rode her new pet toad to school the next day, Teacher was so afraid that she quit. Esther’s new teacher thought she was gifted rather than incorrigible. Esther grew up to be a witch, and a principal. She started a school for little witches. And Robert grew up to be a scientist and potion-maker. Esther told her Dad about being friends with Robert, and when her Dad seemed likely to protest, the toad would lick its lips. Her Dad learned to keep his mouth shut.

 

 

Artwork by Eero Lampinen

Metro People II

A man
Eyes electric
His feet clip-clop
Down the dirty stairs
Shoes shined like those
Spotlights in his eyes

He carries his unicycle so that
The shower of sparks on the rail become
A magic show, screeching.

A rat that you know
Is there but can’t see
Is a rabbit crouching
Inside the magician’s hat.

That woman in her glitzy dress
Backstage before
Getting chopped in half.

That man muttering
Those drunk students
That staring stranger
A starry eyed and adoring crowd.

I tightrope walk. Trapeze, tiptoe
On music notes
Brushing past
I leap from point to point
A wordless flirtation
A homeless smell
A balance beam across the back
and shoulders.

A jerk, a rumble
A rattle
I explode into a thousand little mice
Little mouse-hearts beating in unison
With the clatter of the tracks.

 

Artwork by Lily Furedi “The Subway”