BY LISA MARIE BASILE
There is a young girl named Jolene.
She’s got violent blonde hair and eyes too clear to be trusted. Pretty and vicious by 12, Jolene trained a whole pack of followers to move 10 paces behind her, their mouths open and drooling.
Jolene and her pets are sitting behind me in gym class kicking my lower back, which is covered in a soft spill of dark Mediterranean hair. [Lovers today call it beautiful.] I’m so quiet I barely exist. I’m wearing cheap sneakers my grandmother picked up at the church flea market she sells nail polish at on weekends.
My sneakers are white and goofy and too heavy; I look like a twig in them, the tongue heaving over my tiny ankles. I’m supposed to be wearing the Filas everyone else has. I’m supposed to be everyone else.
From where I sit or hide or cower, it seems like everyone else has dinner at home at 6. Has school photos. Has all of the other accouterments of a teenage palace of cruelty. Popularity is my Queen but I won't sit on my knees at her ugly throne. I am daggers. I am full of poverty and mouths sewn shut. I am instead the town seer. I see the mediocrity of youth that will bleed into adulthood. Sometimes I still want to be mediocre. I want to be loved.
By 6 I’m at home alone with my brother, half my age, wondering where my mother is. Sometimes we walk a mile to my grandmother’s senior citizen center where she says those girls are just jealous. I say, but grandma—they’re pretty. You’re pretty, she says. Pretty girls are jealous of pretty girls.
I am raised in a land where pretty is economy. Where being a young girl means fitting into easy sentences and rules. I put on the FM radio in the bathroom and Nair my lower back. Which only makes Jolene siphon more of me, more of my weakness. I remove my body, my hair; I remove myself.
I want to be like Jolene and her pack but I’m not like them. On my head, I have black hair that gives no fucks. When it rains my hair grows fangs. I’m poor and my clothes smell like the local laundromat. Gin and dust and metallic-something—something like something I’m not supposed to smell like.
Jolene says it’s old people I smell like. I laugh stupidly and awkwardly, boldly, in her face, but I know it. I sleep at my grandmother’s tiny apartment a lot. I cry often into her shoulder; between us, there is a silent question blooming; why is her daughter—my mother—not coming home? She braids my hair, paints my nails, goes to bed early.
I sit up alone for hours perched at the window waiting for my mother to come home. To bide the time, I pull out two books: a 1970s pictorial on covens and sex magic and a book of spells, it’s Wiccan, made for teens, I think—I’ve wrapped both in the dust cover of other books, although I know my mother wouldn’t care if she caught me, but I was raised Catholic and am embedded with a certain fear of the devil consuming my soul for all eternity—and I read them quietly to myself, believing in my whole wide heart that magic was swirling out there, ready to be captured, pocketed, possibly brought to middle school.
I want to wear the capes. I want to draw a Pentagram. I want to understand what I’m reading and become all-powerful. At first, sadness drives me toward ritual, but then I take flight on my own.
Behind my grandmother’s house, behind three huge dumpsters, there is a very, very green sort of open space. Fences surround it and separate it from neighboring backyards and they’re covered in ivy. This green leads down to the local river—Rahway River in New Jersey—which is filled with tiny, people-sized islands and moves through the town, circling through neighborhoods where people have given up on themselves. My whole town is broken. Everyone either dies or is dying or hooked on drugs, and all of us kids have either taken on one of two protective stances: be the bully or be bullied. It depends on your heart; sometimes I hate my heart.
Even if some of us come from decent homes, there is always something rotten in this town. Always a secret. A disguise. An animal searching through the wood. No one is untouched.
I tiptoe to the edge of the river and look down into the rocks. My feet get muddy, I smell the earth; copper, moss, summer water. Across from me—at this point the river is hallow, trickling, maybe 100 feet across, dotted by a shower of flat stones—is the back of three stores: a glass shop, a small pub, a dilapidated house. No one can see me, so I step further toward the water and sit at the edge. I wonder what they would think of they catch me.
My book says I need to look for the mushrooms—that’s where the faeries live. I could maybe befriend them but don’t expect them to be kind, exactly. I could maybe ask them to be my friends.
My book talks about drawing down the moon. I stand in the middle of the green, at times glimpsing behind me hoping my grandmother won’t come out and see me, and call on the sky. I open my palms and stand quietly, feeling the power of the earth rise up through and into me. I look into the shadows of my life and find peace knowing I always have myself, these green places, this water.
I have nothing to distract me. No phone, no real friends, no curfew, no Internet. I only have the earth and the sound of water pulsating. If I close my eyes I can hear my own heartbeat.
I whisper into the blue air, "Please protect my mother." The wind moves; she takes my request.
By twenty-five I struggle with my beliefs. It’s not that I don’t believe in anything, it’s that nothing makes sense. Something is out there, I think. I call myself a staunch atheist; I mostly am.
I won’t meet my lovers or my mother in the afterlife. I won’t be consumed by fire. I won’t reincarnate, I think. But I might just evaporate into the mist of the cosmos, become starlight or a patch of bugambilias. My dying body will be the universe exhaling; it’s exhaled a million times today. The world gets bigger, smaller, bigger, smaller. And it means everything and nothing at all.
I find the word "witch" again and again. She follows me in and out of my life. I find myself always standing at the riverbank or wading through the sea, piling aside my sorrow. I find myself washing my hands in blessed rose water. I find myself in dark rooms, in a circle, pulling something out from my chest and putting it into existence. I create rituals I don’t talk about, fearing I’ll be misunderstood.
If I am seen as a witch, I am seen as other. Rebel, dreamer, enchantress, want-er of things bigger. Want-er of more. Maker of light. Purveyor of shadow.
If I am seen as a witch, I’ll be classified, boxed-up, differentiated.
If I am seen as a witch, I won’t get a job or be taken seriously. I won’t be seen as rational. I won’t be seen as me.
And yet, if I am seen as a witch, I’ll be seen for what I am. I’ll be seen as someone who respects nature, respects myself, respects my body. I’ll be seen as someone who resists the complacency of the status quo. I’ll be seen as someone who resists acts of warfare against other humans. I’ll be seen as someone who questions simple answers and seeks something deeper. I’ll be seen as someone who wants to create a life of intention and autonomy. I’ll be seen as someone who, when the palace of night washes over my life, will be able to strike a match in the dark. I do dream. I do rebel. I do exist as a natural thing. I am not separate from the earth. I am not a cog. I am not a mime. I am tending to a careful garden where, throughout time, others have come and gone, tinkering in the magic of self.
A witch is born of trauma. A witch is born of solitude. A witch is born of watching. A witch is born of listening. A witch is born of light.
Lisa Marie Basile is a writer and founding creative director of Luna Luna Magazine—a diary of darkness and light, literature, identity, and magic. Her book of rituals and practices, LIGHT MAGIC FOR DARK TIMES, will be released in September 2018. She has written for The New York Times, Narratively, Grimoire Magazine, Venefica, The Establishment, Refinery 29, Bust, Hello Giggles, and more. She's also the author of a few poetry collections, including the forthcoming Nympholepsy.