Once upon a time (which is to say — although the storytellers have always left this part out, at first because it was too obvious to need saying and, then, as the years passed, because everyone, even the storytellers, forgot that it was true — once upon a place), there was a place that did not have a Witch.
And so there’s the beginning (a very delicate time, as Princess Irulian (who knew a bit about the relationship between time and place and their importance for story) warned us): one sentence, commencing, as stories do, with the ritual words, “Once upon a time.” And, yet, from that one sentence, an attentive reader already understands: “Ah, so, this is an ‘A Stranger Comes to Town’ story.” Settle in; indeed, that is exactly what kind of story this is, and in, as I hope to show, more ways than one.
Now, it’s true, of course, my love, my darling love, my sweet one, of course it’s true that there are always places on this pulsing, blue planet that do not have Witches. It’s, after all, a big planet and there are, as it turns out, few true Witches. And many of those places have no especial need of a Witch. Until the people come to a place, there’s generally no real need for Witches. No, no, don’t look so surprised my sweet, my own heart. I’ll tell you.
There are craggy, windswept mountaintops — sharp, obsidian peaks, thrust into the upper bounds of the icy atmosphere from the deepest depths of the molten core of Mamma Gaia — that have never, not from the beginning of time until this very moment, known human occupation. And they, it’s true, my warm pudding, my sweet honeycomb, my dear one, they have no need of a Witch.
There are blazing acres of desert — miles and miles of soft, un-walkable, sand, sand so hot that only scorpions, and winding snakes, and essentially alien djinn can live there — that have never, not from the beginning of time until this very moment, known what it is like to live with humans. And they, it’s true, my heart’s own work, my scented flower, my teenager seeking for a path, they have no need of a Witch.
There are continents beneath the seas — mountains and valleys and prairies of sand, populated by nudibranches more lovely than the lovleliest woman who ever lived — that have never even seen a human, nor has a human ever seen them. And they, it’s true, my own sweet coffee-biscuit, they have no need of a Witch.
And there are places in the heart of Antarctica — places so painfully, bleakly cold, and so inhospitable to life, that one could begin to believe in the silly notion of Gaia the Introvert, Gaia who Hates All Life — that have never been home to even penguins or humans. But those icy places are, perhaps, bad examplars for this particular story because, although those places have no need of a Witch, still, I must tell you, my scented cups of tea, that those places do have Witches. Indeed, there is a secret society of Witches, each one of whom has devoted hir interior life to becoming the Witch of a particular piece of icy Antartica — one Bit of Earth there almost indistinguishable from any other Bit of Antartican Earth, well, at least to everyone except to the Witches of those places — in order to do advance work to preserve those places from the encroaching oil fumes, plastic webs that hold together six aluminum cans of Diet Coke, genetically-modified corn, and Fukushima. Few are called to this work, and, done as it must be, remotely, it is only for the hardy, intense Witches who need little reinforcement or reward. But, there it is. That place does not long for a Witch, and yet, it has Witches.
But our story isn’t, my dumpling, about those places.
No, our story, my soft winter blanket, is about how, once upon a time and once upon a place, there was a Bit of Earth that did not have a Witch, even though it needed one.
Because, of course, once the people come to a place, then that place needs a Witch. Once the people come to a place, that place needs a Witch to mediate the needs of the people and the needs of the place. The place needs a Witch who will talk to the place and, perhaps, my sweetheart (are you warm enough? do you need hot tea? let me chafe your feet!), even more important, listen to the place. The place needs a Witch who will give offerings to the place and pay attention to it. The place needs a Witch who will learn what kind of dirt the place has, what kind of trees grow there, and what kind of birds are willing to sing upon the trees that grow there. The place needs a Witch who can tap into the energy deep beneath the soil, pull that energy up, and use it to protect both people and place. And, of course, my own soul, the place needs a human Witch who can be in communion with and work with the plant Witch, the rock Witch, the Air Witch, the fox Witch, the nemotode Witch, the river Witch. The place, in short, needs a Witch who can make it ok for the people to live in that place and for the place to live with those people. And when there is no Witch to do those jobs, then there is no peace between the people and the place and the place Is Not Happy.
And, so, my bumblbee, our story — yes, yes, we’re getting there, but there’s no hurry, as tomorrow will be here soon enough and we may as well tell this story all the way if we’re going to tell it at all; you young ones are in such a hurry — and, so, my buzzing beloved, our story is about a place where there were people, where there had been people for thousands of years, and, thus, a place that needed, but still did not have, a Witch.
At first, the people had been a mere shifting shadow on the afternoon moss. They came. They lived nearby, at least as this place measured “nearby.” Once in a very rare while, every ten solar revolutions or so, a few of them camped underneath the forest canopy that “was” the place. They lit fires, slept and dreamed human dreams, left their shit to decompose into the forest, and talked in that odd, almost musical, very airy, way that humans and mosquitoes talk. This went on for a thousand years or so, and, still, the place felt no need for a Witch.
And, then, about 400 years or so ago, more and more people came.
They cut down all the trees, made permanent homes, did not make offerings to the land, had too many children, and they paved roads. They burned wood, and then coal, and then oil, and then gas, and then the very bonds of matter Hirself. In the end, a human developer acquired “rights” to the land, bulldozed everything, and built townhouses.
In front of the townhouses, there were a few feet of grass known as “the front yard,” and then there were paved sidewalks made of white concrete, and then there was another scant foot of grass, and then there were a few inches of curb that gave onto the paved streets.
In the winter, the grass turned brown; it was not made to stay green in this place. Over time, humans with more money moved into the townhouses a few blocks to the East. The place of our story, yes, my sweet woodling, our story, the one we’re telling over honey, and tea, and biscuits — our story, our place — the place of our story was inhabited by humans who were still trying to “make it,” many of them young and still hopeful, but some of them middle-aged and starting over or middle-aged and just hanging on. Indeed, there was even one wrinkled woman, squat in the middle of the block, who was genuinely old. In the winter, every discarded cigarette butt, every thrown-away 7-11 Mocha Latte Supreme Cup, and every thrown-from-a-car-window styrofoam clamshell from the local WaWa was visible by the side of the road. Old Mrs. Bottswell, from the middle of the street, walked her dog here every morning. When her dog pooped on the slim strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb, Mrs. Bottswell did not pick it up; no one had lived here for over a year. Mrs. Bottswell did not waste either matter or effort.
On January 21st, the 32-year-old woman from Pennsylvania had moved into the third of seven townhouses, the one with the pretend gable just over what should have been the third bedroom but was really a cable box between the two second-floor bedrooms. It was grey and spitting, just 34 degrees, the waning Moon in Cancer, an inauspicious time for what Princess Irulian would hardly have known to call a beginning. Gemmy (“Hi, I’m Gemmy — short for Germaine — and you are?” was her trademark greeting, designed to make it easier to meet new people) pulled the rented-until-Monday U-Haul up along the curb and killed the engine. She reached down into the U-Haul’s cup holder and grasped the keys to the front door.
Holding tight to what she hoped were not just the keys to her new home, but also to her new life, Gemmy sat a few moments before doing anything else. She needed to open up this home, walk through it, call the agent if she spotted any problems. Ground. Sage the space. Get to know it. She needed to begin unloading her U-Haul, hopefully enough bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen stuff to get her through tomorrow, when she would need to finish emptying her truck and return it to the local U-Haul place in time to reclaim her deposit and buy a day or two’s worth or groceries. She had tea, oatmeal, rice, and canned beans in the box marked “Kitchen.”
As soon as she stepped onto the brown grass between the sidewalk and the townhouse, Gemmy groaned.
The place groaned, too.
/To be continued.
Picture found here.