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Maybe We Are All Witches

I’m sitting on the bed in my small dome, sweating as if my brain is doing isometrics. I scold myself to get on with life, to be proud of my choice. Five minutes ago, my parents popped in and waved on their way to the Hive for dinner. Yet, I can’t bring myself to leave. I’ll be confronted with congratulations and comments. I don’t want attention. My mood hovers between anxiety and annoyance. I should be elated like other eighteen-year-olds beginning their primary path… even though I’m nineteen. I walk the six paces to the lavage nook and splash cold water on my face.

The thing about living among a web of interconnected communities is that everyone knows everyone, as spread out as we are on the jagged peninsulas of this northeast corner of the continent. By now, the three hundred kin across the five nodes of this Thread know I declared my path last night. Word probably has spread to the adjacent Thread as well.

I pull a light gray chemise over my mass of hair that I don’t feel like arranging, then add a dull gray wrap. I force myself outside and turn away from the Hive. I make my way around the residential domes that are like clusters of opaque bubbles nestled in the meadow. The myco-sol cladding on mine stands out in its shiny green-gold newness, heightened by the sun gleaming just above the trees to the West. Goats ignore me as they nibble lupine, mountain mint, grasses, and clover.

I’ve not yet shared my path choice with the Guardians. So I approach Beech at the forest edge. Arms-length to their smooth bark, I stomp my feet to relax my legs. With a few deep breaths, I relax my scalp, my eyeballs, my limbs. I breathe my energy open beyond my physical edges so my auric field is wide. Like a membrane giving way, I sync with the vast energy of the Guardians.

“Hello, kin.”

They pulse warmth through my torso. :: We sense wind-torn in you. ::

“But I’m settled. I will be a teacher, not a biologist.”

:: Unsettled. You wish to investigate, to know in fixed ways, the science of We. ::

“I admit, the question still burns: how we communicate. How we mind-speak or whatever this is.”

Ever since I was little, I’ve asked this question. My young mind hypothesized subatomic particles flowing between humans and trees, and a yet-undiscovered sensory organ in humans making sense of the communication. My parents have the pictures I drew, the stories I wrote about this.

:: We are science. There are many ways of knowing. You feel We. You experience We. ::

“Yes, yes, I know.”

:: Know with heart, not brain. No longer young sapling, grow a wide ring of understanding. ::

Is that a tree insult? “I’ll teach young kin about We and support them to connect with you.” Maybe one of them will figure out the science behind talking with trees.

:: Strong heartwood, kin. ::

“Thank you, Guardians.” I shake off this unsatisfying conversation and decide to forego dinner.

Avoiding kin who stroll outside, I jog home. I pace from bed to cabinet to shelves to sink to bed to shelves as if scribing a many-pointed star on the hemp-mat floor. Arrgh. I plop on the bed and toss back my head.

Without a specific plan, I don my bounce shoes. Outside, I bound like a deer into the forest, thinking only with my feet.

I pound my irritation into the ground, rising high with each leap, propelling myself along the well-trodden path, kicking up mineral-rich earth scents and the citrus notes of the thyme underfoot.

I find I’m heading to the adjacent node.

Dogwoods are in flower, white against deep green rhododendron leaves that share the understory. Trees show off the light greens and reds of new leaves, not yet unfurled.

I pass a farm tunnel that’s like a giant snake winding through the glade. The sun is too low to reach its solar lenses.

I pause at the wood edge. Black Birch Node kin must still be at dinner. Good. I dash to the nearby double-dome library. Once inside, I exhale. The space feels cavernous in the fading light. Next week it will be bright with young voices, an experienced teacher… and me. But tonight it’s my make-peace-with-my-path refuge.

Racks of digis line the walls along with science and tech stations: fungi incubator, microscope, holo grid, wave detector, materials printer, abundant art supplies. All have been refreshed since I was young. Myco-sol fibers grow through the wall at eye-level to power each area—a net of pink, yellow, and green that glows in the dim light. Tables and sling chairs are folded to the side, ready to create countless configurations. Here and there, piles of mats and pillows in varied hues invite settling in.

Mostly I read digis, but now I head to the far end where bamboo plank shelves are fitted with tiny air-blowing nozzles to protect paper books from mildew. Few wood pulp books survived through the generations, and this node holds the pre-Crumble collection for our whole Thread.

I run my fingers along cloth and paper spines as if the textures will yield the books’ contents. There are more shelves than in my school days. Salvage forays to abandoned towns still yield some of these treasures.

Though these books will have been captured to digi, displaying them makes for a good history lesson: tangible evidence of how people lived a hundred or more years ago, what they knew, what they imagined. I pull a volume and weigh it in my hands. Our Biosphere and the Greenhouse Effect. Replace that and pull another. Growth and Decline of Industry. When I pull a third book, something shifts behind it: a book that I free from the shelf.

Sitting on the nearest pillow, I unwrap its protective waxed cloth with care. No title. The inside cover reads 37: 2015 – 2016. I squint at the cramped handwriting on the first page.

Fitting that I’m starting a new journal on the new moon. One of these days I want to go back and read my old ones. But 36 of them? Huge undertaking. And my memory isn’t what it was. I’ll take notes and pull out all the goodies, the tidbits I want to remember. Maybe all the messages that have come through. In hindsight, should have numbered the pages of each volume, then I could make an index. If I decide to pass these on, perhaps a task for a descendant.

This is someone’s personal writing. How did it come to be here? The author implies they are an elder. The Crumble happened about twenty-five years after they wrote, so our first Thread Ancestor wasn’t even born yet.

What messages do they mean? Chills race up my neck.

There’s something delicious about this book. Feels like someone’s secret and they’re whispering to me over the years. I’ll hold them close, savor this book, explore its mysteries.

As hard as it is not to read more, I rewrap the book and carry it home. By sky and sea, let it distract me! It will give me something to focus on through the week.

I’m sitting against Towering Pine who holds the edge of forest at my favorite spot on the bluffs above the sea. An osprey’s shrill call pierces the shhh ahhh of the surf twenty meters below, and gulls laugh as they circle above. Granite boulders glisten like gems each time the surf pulls back, exposing wet rock to sun. Two tidepools among the rocks mirror the blue sky and white clouds. The thrill of this liminal space between forest and ocean lifts me as if I could fly to the distant horizon, to the future.

But now with equal thrill, I turn to the past.

I unwrap the old volume, its heft full of memories. “Tell me a story, fore-elder.” I open the book.

Beltane. The coven headed to our secret woods and made love with the forest. Some might see us as old women, but we Witches are never too old for pleasure and exchanging energy with lovers. Wouldn’t you know? After we’d exhausted ourselves raising energy, we spotted little penises poking from the ground. Morels. The forest has a sense of humor. Back at my place, we made a feast of those savory fungi. Lots of penis jokes, even from those of us who prefer vaginas. San is experimenting with different pronouns to express their nonbinaryness. <<<Not a word—maybe should be! Talia suggested ke and kin. We’ll all try that. Ke was thrilled!

So much to consider. I never thought about actual people being Witches. I hope this foremother writes about their ways. I pat the book.

They lived in a gender-tagged time, yet here was a turning point, just like now: we’re poised to adopt ze and zir instead of the global “they.”

The big question: what did they mean by making love with the forest?

I put the book aside, close my eyes, and take a few deep breaths, relaxing against Pine. I breathe open my energy field beyond my physical edges and pop into connection with the Guardians. I open my heart to them in greeting, and feel their reciprocal warmth radiating to my core. “What does this writer mean by making love with you? Is such a thing possible between human and tree?”

:: Energy exchange as we share now. Opening. Sensing. Heart-full. ::

“They felt tree auras?”

:: There are many ways to communicate. Then, with sensations and emotions. Now, you understand our language and we share words. ::

Ooof. Like an acorn hitting my head, a ding to my sensitive spot: my path not chosen. I send gratitude to the Guardians and pull back from connection.

The next entry:

So frustrating! Here it is 2015 and still people treat Witches as cartoon characters or evil or simplistic or all of the above. Despite there being so many more of us according to mainstream magazines. You’d think this would influence tropes. I seek interesting and realistic Witch books, yet find only ditsy teenagers casting love spells or evil old (ugly) crones living in the woods and killing people with curses. Sometimes a sexy young evil Witch. How will we break the stereotypes?

I’ve read a few such books as well, thought them silly. I want to know what real Witches do. While I’d like to lose myself in the journal, I also want to take my time and savor what it reveals. I allow myself one more passage.

I loved The Working, the book I just finished about a coven saving the world. It was labeled fantasy, yet I recognized in it the way we work with energy and the power of the magical workings. This book speaks truth. Even if intended as metaphor, surely these ways and this “fantasy” can foster a bright future. It was all about assuring a healthy web of life that humans are part of. I’m very taken with the story. It gives me hope, despite its chilling (spot on) depiction of the damage by humans to the web of life and the looming disasters that could be in my own future. I’m going to try the magic that the women in this book do.

Skies, I would love to find that book. I doubt it’s among those stored on our digis. With no satellites, no worldwide or even continent-wide communication since the Crumble, the information on our digis is fixed in time, an incomplete record. Still, I trot to the Commons where we have a copy of the digi catalog.

I open the door to the massive triple dome, the gaping mouth of a fantastical mega-whale, now bare as a skeleton. My gut quivers. I’ve avoided this space since my final school year when my cohort gave talks at the thread-wide storytelling: what led us to the primary paths we were poised to declare. The others were met with foot stomps, waving hands, whistles. After I spoke of my science quest: silence. Then, tepid encouragement like “Science is wonderful. But study something useful like woodland parasites or more efficient battery tech to keep solar flyers aloft through the night.”

But I wanted to solve a particular mystery.

I shimmy my shoulders to shake off the memory and focus on the present.

My footsteps echo on the bamboo flooring as I cross to the far wall. The catalog interface is tethered to scores of tiny data boxes like a robotic octopus. It hums when I turn it on. I hold the input button. “Title: The Working.” I wave and point to scroll ten screens of titles containing the word “working.” None with this exact title.

Disappointed, but not surprised, I abandon that search and turn to something relevant for my path. I search Children’s Books and scroll through the pages of results. I smile as titles bring memories. The chicken who won’t eat insects. A hungry caterpillar. Siblings who dream of the moon. I know about a third of these books, and have only made it through “H.” I look forward to discovering new ones to bring to the classroom.

I allow myself two delicious reads from the journal each day. Fascinating insights, but no mention of the Witch book. The pre-Crumble writer feels like Thread kin, like a personal Ancestor. Maybe they are: I have no clue how the journal came to be here. For now, I like having the book as my comfort, my secret. At some point, I will investigate and ask kin.

I’m enjoying being with kin, even when they comment on my path. I attribute this to the journal, though I don’t know why. Perhaps because I feel on the verge of discovering answers in its pages that satisfy me.

Sitting in the Hive with two node kin my age, I pick at fried eggs and tuber mash, leaving most of it on my plate. Today’s my first day shadowing my mentor.

“Nerves?” one asks.

“And excitement,” I say with relief, realizing this is true.

“You’ll be a great teacher. They still use your Collab-map in school.”

Heat rises to my cheeks. Though it feels good to be acknowledged for the game I created when twelve.

After breakfast, I don my bounce shoes to head to the school. It’s lovely that children from all five nodes interact throughout their learning. Nodes have about sixty people, maybe five “seedling” age like those I’ll teach. Another five in each node are older “saplings” whose classroom spans the Thread.

I race alongside tall ferns that tickle my fingers. Flame rhododendrons stand out among white-blooming kin, and shades of green and brown. Viburnums spice the air. Most trees are leafed out.

I reach the library just as Nova arrives. They are about ten years my senior. We hug and their thick brown braids tickle my cheek. We laugh that we’re both wearing bright green tunics.

“I’m so glad you chose this path. I appreciate your passion,” they say.

“Thank you.”

“Have you heard the new terminology? We are learning facilitators rather than teachers. I suggested the change to the Council, and they reached consensus across the Threads last week.”

“Wonderful language. I look forward to learning from you.” The truth of this rings through my bones.

Seedlings saunter in. I receive a wealth of hugs and high-pitched welcomes, my grin widening with each one. They hug Nova and one another before plopping down in a circle of many-colored pillows. Nova offers me a green-patterned pillow and we settle in. The twenty children range in age from six to nine.

“A story to start?” Nova asks and the children whistle and wave their approval. My mentor scans the digis on a near rack and pulls one. They thumb the screen, perusing contents. “This sounds interesting.” They turn the digi to project words on the light blue wall beside the door, then nod to me.

Wide-eyed, I read aloud: “The Last Wild Witch by Starhawk.” Synchronicity with the journal! An illustration of a person with brown skin and swirling white hair appears. They stir a cauldron over a flame.

“They look like Grandelder Anwi,” our youngest exclaims.

I continue to read, exaggerating my expression and leaving room for the children’s giggles, gasps, and oohs.

After a few pages and illustrations, one of our older seedlings asks, “Why do the townspeople want the children to walk in straight lines? Meanders and curves fit with Nature.”

“Excellent observation. Maybe we’ll find out.” Nova signals me to continue.

I read: “Once in a great while, a few of the children would sneak out at night and run through the forest to visit the last wild Witch. She would wink at them and grin.”

 “I’m not allowed to be out all night,” a younger seedling says.

“I don’t think these children are, either,” I say. “Let’s see what happens.”

Big consequences after more of the town’s children sneak out. My stomach curls as I read that the adults plan to destroy the forest. They take an ax to a tree.

Our children are wide-eyed with horror, and the younger ones snuffle, about to cry.

I continue the story, trusting it will yield a happy ending. Soon, the children act to save the forest. When all the townspeople make friends with the Witch and the wild, I cry, “Yes!” along with Nova and the young ones.

“What is the story’s message?” Nova asks.

“Witches are good,” our youngest says.

“Forests are friends,” another says. “But the people didn’t talk with the Guardians.”

“Why were the humans afraid of the wild? That means forest kin, right?” asks another.

Nova explains in simplified fashion the disconnection and isolation of pre-Crumble times when most humans didn’t even consider one another kin, let alone nonhumans.

Soon, we end this segment and lead the children outside to observe moss. The next two hours pass quickly as the young ones’ excitement over micro-landscapes is contagious.

Once the children leave, I ask Nova why they picked that digi and that story.

“Random. I like to surprise myself as well as the children. That rack holds stories suitable for seedlings.”

After hugging them, I race home.

In my small dome, I pull out the antique book and twirl up a nest of bedding to sit comfortably. What will I find in the journal today? The book falls open on my lap.

Today we nine met in the woods behind the strip mall. Few go there, had it to ourselves in the late afternoon. We arrayed ourselves in a circle near the largest oak we’ve found. And we did it! The magic. Like the book described, we grounded and let Earth energy rise through us to the Stars. And Star energy flow down to Earth. When we widened our energy fields and sent tendrils out on each axis to connect with All, it was like plugging into the web of life. Not that we aren’t always part of the web. But this was the experience of sensing all the others in the web, humans and non. I felt like a twenty-year-old, buzzing, full of vitality. Imagine if all humans opened to the web of life this way. How could they continue to harm the Earth? How much more vital life force we would all run! A restoration of the web, indeed!

I hug the book to my heart. That’s how we connect with the Guardians! The writer calls this magic. Maybe science is magic. Or magic is science. I send this unnamed Ancestor a kiss through time.

I laugh as I recall the Guardians’ words: there are many ways of knowing.

I wonder what a strip mall is, though. Sounds violent.

Nova and I shepherd our young charges into the Commons that thrums with the chatter of hundreds. The space is transformed for the festival, ablaze in reds, golds, greens, blues, purples in a myriad of patterns. Five giant felted bees hang among garlands of dyed hemp crocheted like apple blossoms. The web of myco-sol fibers silhouetted through the translucent dome serves as a backdrop, hinting of foliage and vines.

The seedlings titter like wrens, excited to act out their collective story. Kin sit on sling chairs, benches, or pillows. Like me, most wear colorful wraps. Our group clusters on two benches under a felt bee, to the children’s delight.

Someone dims perimeter solar globes. Bioluminescent patterns on the dome evoke wings and flight. Three lanterns focus light to the center, our stage.

The festival begins with a story of how myco-sol came to be. We take for granted the living fibers that power our lives. The fungi grew a new form for us, combining with photosynthesizing algae to bloom as myco-sol. The storyteller ends, “Hail the fungi!”

I join the chorus. “Hail the fungi!”

After two more stories, the children scamper to the middle and tell of a society of worms living in a compost bin, how delighted they are when we add food scraps. After the last line, the young ones quiet their wiggling. The youngest steps forward and says, “The end.”

Kin snap fingers and stomp feet, and the children glow with pride.

Once Nova calls the seedlings back to their seats, I pull my scarlet and silver wrap around me and step forward. I look at the expectant faces of kin and hope it’s not a mistake to attempt a spontaneous telling, a story from my heart.

Deep breath. Another. I preface: “I’ve been thinking about mystery and magic. Not the unreal kind. The kind that’s all around us. We can’t see the web of life, but we know it’s real. We feel the energy of our connection with all living beings.”

Smiling eyes are glued to me and some kin nod.

My shoulders relax, and I begin weaving my story.

“Maybe we are all Witches.”

BrightFlame (she/they) writes, teaches, and makes magic in service to a just, regenerating world. Her short- and long-form speculative fiction include stories in the lunarpunk anthology Bioluminescent (Android Press; January 2023) and a forthcoming solarpunk anthology. She’s known for her teaching in the worldwide pagan community and is affiliated with a sustainability education center at Columbia University that features her workshops and nonfiction. She lives on Lenape territory (Turtle Island/US) with a human, a forest, a labyrinth, hawks, bees, ponds, turtles, monarda, fox, fungi, rocks, and many other nonhumans. Find her doodles and musings at http://brightflame.com and @BrtFlame on Twitter.

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