by Stephanie Johnson
The invitation sits in my lap on the short drive to the community centre, a bloody baby tooth between my hands. Mum and Anne are in the front seat, cheerfully chatting anchors in tense waters. The undertow of anxiety around my mother is nearly invisible, tugging at me in tiny ripples of concern. Are you comfortable are you empowered are you happy are you safe.
I trace the invitation with my fingers. I like it and I don’t; it’s an unfamiliar reflection. Thick cardstock, beeswax crayons, lovely, rounded cursive—good. This Waldorf-esque ceremony is my spelt bread and almond butter. It’s the colours that make me uncomfortable. It’s an aggressively patriotic flag of bleached white and crimson, or maybe that illustration at the beginning of our Snow White picture book. A pricked finger and blood on the snow.
I fidget with the bit of red ribbon I picked out, as per the invitation’s instructions. I have never liked red. For me, magic is still pink and blue, a crabapple tree against a spring sky. Dirty white birch and emerald moss. I’m a dryad, thanks, you can keep your blood and fire.
I liked choosing the ribbon, though. Mum helping me dig through sewing scraps, which do you like?, eagerly picking out options for me. Any ceremony that involves ribbon and lace must have some redeeming qualities.
I read the pretty cursive. First Blood. It sounds foreign and destructive. My mother has carefully cultivated my pacifism, and however much I like running about with a quiver of ineffective, homemade arrows, violence repulses me. You draw First Blood in a duel, or you have to bring down a stag in the woods or something.
I stopped eating even chicken and fish a couple of years ago.
My breath is blue-white on the car window. It’s dark outside but that’s because it’s almost winter, not because it’s late; at home, my sisters are still awake and being normal. Even if it’s our oddly pagan brand of normal. I wish I was with them, and am smug that they aren’t old enough to come. My days are spent around older unschooled kids, or worldly school-going kids. Being in-the-know is a precious commodity, and I’m greedily keeping my eyes peeled for any stray wisdom I can hold over someone’s head.
We dash from car to community centre, unprotected in our fragile dresses. The room is the same one where I take raucous theatre classes and my mother welcome-dances in the full moon with her friends, so this seems more normal to her. The women are all wearing textured, dreamy clothes in various shades of red, ready to pose for the fire element page of some occult calendar. There are few white dresses for preteens that don’t make you look like Anne Shirley at First Communion and we girls seem out of place. They don’t make witch clothes in white, so what am I, please?
Sara looks wildly uncomfortable, but I avoid her. Her own mother hovers, welcoming everyone with an optimism that is profoundly familiar.
“Thanks for coming!” Thank you for making Sara feel welcomed.
I’m pretty sure Sara wishes she was at home, alone. I feel that vague sort of pity that is mostly relief that it’s not me.
The non-Shirley Anne, the real one, starts talking, in her perfect yoga teacher voice that makes the most witchy things seem normal. The weirdness ebbs and it becomes just another solstice party. There are dozens of candles burning and the room smells like home. My mother relaxes like soft wax when I start smiling.
There is some fumbling with safety pins to get everyone’s ribbon and lace onto Sara’s extraordinarily white dress, but the end result pleases me. She’s a human Maypole, and May Day is the kind of ritual that appeals to my wood nymph heart. Sara opens some presents, all of which could be displayed in the occult calendar spread, and we have snacks, in which red fruit and white chocolate are heavily featured. It’s easy to forget that Sara is a woman now when our fingers are sticky with cupcakes.
We leave to go back to the car, and the beeswax aroma is washed out by the chlorine smell from the community centre pool. Another reason I prefer my magic in the woods; it always smells right. It’s hard enough to suspend my disbelief; I’m nearly twelve, after all.
My legs are cold by the time we make it across the parking lot and I curl up in the back seat, face pressed to the window since I can’t roll it down. My mother starts the car, glancing in the rearview mirror at me.
“Do you want to have a party like that, when it’s your turn?”
Come on, Mum. We all know that was a ritual, not a party.
I think about Sara, having to smile like this was totally her call. Great idea, this makes being a woman seem super awesome and normal. I imagine facing a room full of well-intentioned witch mothers, determined not to shame us for our bodies, the curse will never be mentioned here: we are drowning in acceptance.
I’d like the excuse to get presents. Then I think about how wanting the presents probably means I’m not ready.
I think about how it’s not about me.
I keep staring out the window.
“Can we have raspberry ripple ice cream?”
My mum nods like thank goddess, she’s going to be OK.