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A MODERN WITCH’S PRIMER
Chapter 1Havens in Historical Context
Near the beginning of this century, with occultism on the rise around the world, a whistleblower from within the pagan community exposed a secret that had long been protected by witches everywhere. The secret was that in addition to Learned witches, ordinary individuals who studied pagan practices and who could, with practice, learn to channel a small amount of power for their rituals, there were also so-called Natural witches, people who possessed a tremendous amount of inborn power and who required little or no formal training to wield it. In response to the public outcry over this “unregulated threat to public safety,” the United States government instituted a National Witch Registry and required all Natural witches, under pain of imprisonment, to submit their name, city of residence, and place of employment to a publicly searchable database. There was a good faith movement within the Natural witch community to comply with this registry. Over the next few years, in what would eventually become known as the Second Inquisition, the witches who volunteered their identities were systemically ostracized from their social circles, became unable to retain jobs, and in some cases, were hunted down and abducted by private-citizen “safety brigades.” The runaway bestseller The Inquisitor’s Handbook provided these groups with instructions (mostly badly translated from a sixteenth-century copy of Malleus Maleficarum, a.k.a. The Witch’s Hammer) as to the proper method of torture and execution of witches. Law enforcement was slow to recognize these atrocities as hate crimes and generally lackadaisical in its prosecution of the perpetrators. The government’s solution was to seize small parcels of (mostly undesirable) land around the country in order to establish witch-only communities known as Havens. This, it was argued, would remove the threat to public safety and the temptation for hate crimes, while allowing both Learned and Natural witches to live among their own kind, keep their traditions alive, and practice magic in safety. The greatest of these Havens was a private township created by the late billionaire insurance magnate Reginald Harris, one of the richest and most influential men in the United States and, until his final years, an unregistered Natural witch. Unlike the small, poor, mostly rural communities that established themselves in most of the government-funded Havens, Harris’s town, deep in America’s heartland, was intended to be a pagan utopia: a model of green building, spiritual enlightenment, and, above all, magical living. It was called Witchtown.
Witchtown looked more like a prison than a town. For one thing, it was surrounded on all sides by a three-story wall. The massive structure was overgrown with ivy and moss, but when we got within a few hundred yards, I could see plenty of places where ugly, manmade concrete was peeking through the greenery. The walls were sloped at a steep angle, probably to prevent people from climbing them. That thought brought on unwelcome images of invaders scaling the slippery, mossy surface, armed and planning to inflict untold horror on the people—the witches—inside . . . I chased the thought away. Those times are over, I reminded myself. For the most part. She pulled over right beside the sign. BURN IN HELL was spray-painted diagonally right across its face, in red. Below that, the phrases SATAN’S SPAWN and EXODUS 22:18 were carved into its surface. The usual anti-witch slurs. Not particularly original. But once I managed to squint my way through all of that, the original lettering on the sign erased any remaining doubt I might have had about our destination:
WITCHTOWNPOPULATION 402BLESSED BE!
I straightened up a little and looked across the front seat at my mother. “You’re kidding, right?” I asked. My mother sipped her coffee and didn’t respond right away. After days of near-total silence in the car, my words felt uncomfortably loud, even to my own ears. I wasn’t sure how long our stalemate had lasted. It’s hard to define days based on rest-stop bathrooms and drive-through meals. She took several more leisurely swallows of coffee. Then she asked, “Why would you think I was kidding?” “You think now is a good time for this? Now? After everything . . .” I cringed. Even just that little bit of talking had distracted me. Caused me to let my guard down. And the sinkhole of pain I had been keeping at bay reopened itself inside my chest. It felt bigger. Like it had grown stronger. It grabbed me now with an intensity that made it difficult to breathe. “That’s all behind us now,” my mother said, but I barely heard her. Too soon. Too soon for reality. I had to shut it down. I abandoned the conversation, closed my eyes, and sank back down into the passenger seat. I felt for my weathered leather jacket, which I had been using as a blanket, and found it on the car floor. I picked it up and covered myself in it, trying to ignore everything but its familiar scents of sage and something else, something even earthier than sage, as I tried to lull myself back into my silent, senseless cocoon. Oblivion. Oblivion. Take me away . . . But a hard tug on the jacket brought me back to the here and now. To my mother, glaring down at me with disapproval. “It’s in the past,” she insisted. I jerked the coat out of her hand and turned my face toward the window. “Not for me.” A harder yank pulled the leather from my grip entirely. I sat up in protest. My mother gave the garment a disgusted look and tossed it down at my feet. “Let it go,” she commanded. Then she added pointedly, “You know you’re the only one dwelling on it, don’t you?” I bit my lip. That was true enough. But it didn’t make the hurt any less. The thought brought on a new squeeze of pain, a new struggle to breathe. I retrieved the jacket from the floor again, settled my head against the back of the seat, and closed my eyes. My mother sighed. “Fine. Have it your way,” she huffed, and I heard her door open. A gust of cinnamon-scented air flew up my nostrils as she exited the car. After a moment, I opened my eyes. The annoying thing was I knew, I knew, I was going to follow her out of the car. I could feel it now: the quiet, persistent, unshakable pull she had on me. Calling me after her. Forcing me to see things her way. I burrowed my nose into the soft lining of the coat, making one last attempt to hold on to my anger. Part of me wanted to believe that every second I stayed mad at her would give me a tiny bit more power. Which was nonsense. I had never had any kind of power over my mother. Nobody had. I left the jacket on the seat when I went after her. She had popped open the trunk and unzipped the top suitcase. I leaned against the bumper and watched as she rooted through a messy pile of clothes. “Here, hold this.” She tossed something black and strappy at me. I caught it, instantly wishing I had just let it fall into the dirt instead. With only a quick glance at the empty road beside us, she stripped off her T-shirt and jeans. She exchanged her flip-flops for the heels, one foot at a time, gripping one of my shoulders for balance. The blue-gray moonstone she wore on a chain around her neck caught the light of the setting sun as she fumbled with the delicate straps on the shoes. She caught me looking at her necklace, and gestured pointedly at the matching one around my neck. “Haven’t I always protected you?” she asked. “Hasn’t it always been you and me?” I took a breath instead of answering. Separately, those two statements were accurate. But together, they seemed to mean something more. Something that wasn’t quite true. She slipped the dress over her tall, slim body, pulled the clip out of her hair, and shook out the ashy blond strands until they bounced, wavy and alive, against her shoulders. You wouldn’t have known she’d been in a car for days. I was wearing severely rumpled jeans and a tank top. Neither of us suggested that I change. Or do anything with my own long, dirty blond hair, which was piled in a greasy knot on the top of my head. I could only imagine how I looked, next to her. “We’re not ready for this,” I said. She put one hand on each of my shoulders. We were the same height, but now that she was in heels, I had to crane my neck up slightly to make eye contact. “I shouldn’t have to tell you what this place means to us,” my mother said quietly. “Look at it.” I looked. And when I did, I saw a cluster of buildings, so carefully tucked into the shadow of the Witchtown wall that I hadn’t noticed them before. The structures looked temporary—tents, shacks, and old RVs. They gave me the creeps. Even more than the wall did. “This is it,” my mother continued. “Everything we’ve ever wanted, ever dreamed of, is inside those walls. We are this close.” She let go of one shoulder and grabbed my chin. “But you have to pull yourself together. Right now. Or we haven’t got a prayer. Understand?” I nodded, more to show her I was listening than anything else. If she chose to take that as a sign that I agreed with her, that was her problem. She tightened her hand, squeezing my jaw to the point of pain. “I did it for you,” she said evenly, moving her hands so they were on either side of my face. “You know that, right?” I flinched. I was still one big, open wound. Hearing her talk like that, in that casual way of hers, was too much to bear. I glared at her. I had seen my mother’s glare many times before. It was beautiful. And terrible. It could make things, and people (myself included), wilt under its power. My glare was nothing like that. But I was surprised to discover it had a small effect on her; she dropped her hands from my face and took a step back. “Too soon,” she muttered to herself, and went back to the driver’s-side door. I walked back to the passenger door, feeling like I had won a tiny victory. I had made it clear that this time, this pain, was not something she could just breeze past, the way she did with most things. And yet, even with my small triumph, she had still managed to get the better of me. Here I was, getting back in the car. Without an argument. Just like she wanted. I twirled my moonstone around my finger. Witchtown. Really?