Of Candles, Salt and Owls

by W.F. Lantry

 

Whirlwind 

You don’t believe in witches. Neither do I. It’s hard to blame you, really. All the old stories are silly: Hats and broomsticks and flying around, strange rituals in the forests at midnight. Orgies in a moonlit clearing. Let me tell you something: I’ve been in plenty of nighttime forests, and they aren’t mysterious or romantic or even scary. They’re kind of quiet, actually, tree trunks and a few wings overhead and the occasional bear, who doesn’t want any part of messing with you. If you hear one breathing nearby just hold still, and after a while he’ll lumber away, breaking sticks as he goes. Bears are really clumsy.

I only tell you this because someone may have sent you out into that forest, looking for witches. You won’t find any. It’s the wrong place to look. After all, if you could cast spells and whisper incantations, if you could bend the energy of the earth to your will, would you be spending your time tramping around in some damp cold forest full of bears? Of course not. You’d be home, safe in your warm bed, with your love in your arms.

That’s the problem with covens. People get dressed up as if they’re going to a Renaissance Fair, complete with swords and hats and pentangles, and pretend like they’re doing some ritual. Most of them couldn’t channel the lightest seabreeze, or even call up a small whirlwind. Have you noticed how often they dress in black?

The best one is when they’re out in the forest at midnight with torches, and the high priest is holding a knife, that he’s given some funny Latin-sounding name, as if he had any idea about the true names of things. And the priestess is holding a cup while she lowers her head, and he puts his knife in the cup. Then everyone’s supposed to take off their clothes and have wild moonglow sex. Seriously, it’d be less trouble just to rent a large room. Then no-one would get their hems muddy.

You’d be far better off just looking around you. Sweep all your preconceptions out of your head. That’s what the brooms are really for. Witches seldom wear black. It’s mostly jewel tones. Gold and amethyst and peacock blue. Watch for Hermès scarves. They named them that for a reason.

Of course, you need more clues than that. If you’re lucky enough to be invited into her house, look first for candles. On the dining room table, in the kitchen, anywhere. And while you’re in the kitchen, look for salt. Rough sea salt, the coarse kind. In a small bag or open dish. If there are candles nearby the salt, all the better. They make these little altars all around the house, without even realizing it, with candles and water and salt. Look in the kitchen, look near the bath, if you get the chance.

But the real clincher is little trinket boxes. They love those things. Limoges, Halcyon Days, Faberge: there are all sorts of different kinds. Delicate and fine and permanent. She might have a few out in the living room, or a collection in a backlit cabinet. Maybe some on her vanity, next to her jewelry case. Not that she always stores something inside. She just likes having them around.

But accoutrements don’t make the witch, and neither do possessions or affirmations. If she tells you she’s one, she isn’t. You have to ask her flat out. And here’s what she’ll say: “I’m just a normal girl.” “I’m simply a regular mortal.” And if you talk about anything out of the ordinary, she’ll warn you away from such things. “It’s best to not mess with things like that. It’s dangerous.” Seriously, would an ordinary person talk that way?

The only certain way to tell, though, has nothing to do with what she says, or what she has, or even what she does. What matters is the effect she has on you. How do you feel in her presence? We all know this, we have words for this kind of thing. Have you ever described a woman as “attractive?” What did you mean when you said it? That you felt yourself being pulled closer to her, almost against your intent or your will, as if you were some powerless scrap of iron, and she was magnetic?

Or say you’re at a formal party, and you’re introduced to a woman. And instead of simply nodding and saying hello, or shaking her hand and saying “It’s nice to meet you,” it occurs to you to draw yourself up to your full height, take her hand deftly in yours, and bend down to lightly kiss her hand — well, not her hand actually, the air a few centimeters above her hand — and then straighten back up, look into her eyes, and then say, in a soft but clear voice: “Enchanté.”

What in the world did you mean? That she had enchanted you, cast some sort of spell, to place you into her power? Do witches even chant? I know you think they do, but have you ever actually heard one do it? I haven’t. After all, a spell is just a wish, a desire, formed in the mind, it doesn’t need to be spoken. Just held in thought for a moment. It doesn’t even have to rhyme. A real witch can just look at a man, and think to the goddess “Thy will be done.” Asking for something specific always leads to trouble.

You’ll only realize a spell has been cast on you when she moves away. Attractive means just what it says: you want to be closer to her. You’ll forget what you were doing, or what you’d meant to do, and just wish to be near her. You’ll think about her, all the time, when she’s not there.

The way I think about Odile now. The way I’m drawn to her, almost against my will. Maybe I should light a few candles?

 

Cowrie Shells

Pomba Gira came walking through the village one day, wearing a long, flowing dress. The cloth on her left side was scarlet red, the cloth on her right was emerald green. Her hair was jet black that day, black as any night, so the cowrie shells woven into her braids looked like a sky full of stars.

At first, no-one noticed the color of her dress, because the hem was slit nearly up to her thighs, and the neckline plunged almost to her waist. It was only after she’d passed that people started arguing. One faction held her dress was all red, red as the orchids blooming just then in the forest, red as the wings of birds, red as blood just beginning to flow. The other side argued strongly for green, the color of crops and of leaves, the tail feathers of parrots, fresh harvested coffee beans. Both sides were so sure of themselves they nearly came to blows. “We know what we saw,” they all said.

That’s when Pomba Gira came walking back the other way, softly singing to herself, her bare steps light on the earth. The crowd was arguing in the middle of the road, and now they blocked her way. She told them how foolish they’d been, being so certain they knew what they saw. “You were all so busy arguing, you barely noticed the cowrie shells in my hair!”

And it’s true those shells were brilliant in the sun, translucent as porcelain, they looked like an object of love in themselves. Every man thought of love as he gazed at her, and even some of the women. And why not? Shells come from water, they are born of the ocean. They remind us of the moon, drawing the tides. So women wear shells when they want to draw something towards them. They’re woven into skirts and blouses, worn in necklaces against the skin. Mothers present them to their daughters, without saying a word of their meaning.

They’ve been used as money for four thousand years: it’s hard to counterfeit a shell. Most of them came from the Maldives. The locals would tie palm fronds into pairs, and anchor them in the sea. After a few weeks, they’d brave the sharks to retrieve them, shake all the shells into sand pits, and bury them for a month. When they opened the pits, the shells were perfectly clean and still polished, ready to be strung together. The further they got from the Maldives, the more those shell strings were worth.

In Yoruba, twelve strings were almost worth a brideprice. Every man owed the king one string in taxes each year. They were used in palace ceremonies, for conjuring and divination. They could reveal the truth and predict the future. But mostly now they’re used as a charm, and men have no idea of their worth. They can help draw whatever a woman desires.

Miranda and I were strolling through town. The evening’s performance had left her energized and thirsty, she was looking for a place to wind down. We were walking along 18th Street in Northwest, DC, where the cars park diagonally. We noticed a four story mural, a topless woman with red hair. There was writing all over her ten foot breasts. “Madam’s Organ restaurant and bar,” the right one read. “The Heart of Adams Morgan,” the other one said.

There were wagon wheels on the balcony beneath her. We went inside for a drink. I always get a Rusty Nail, she likes a Sex on the Beach, but can never bring herself to say its name. I had to tell the waitress what she desired. The music was almost too loud to speak over, so we drank them almost in silence. It was awkward to move from Fauré into bluegrass. We decided to move down the block.

There are people from every nationality on those streets, the less-wealthy embassies aren’t far away. And for every inclination there’s a store: a Burmese food market, Peruvian clothes. Rugs from the Uzbek, Brazilian spices. Sex shops and strip bars, used bookstores and basement fortunetellers. One of these last caught Miranda’s eye.

“Why would you want to go in there?”

“I’m just curious,” she said. “Why, are you worried she’ll tell me all of your secrets?”

“I already told you all my secrets? Besides, it says on the window half an hour would cost twenty bucks.”

“I’m worth it!” Miranda said, and down the stairs we went. It wasn’t at all what you would imagine. A bell rang us in to a small quiet room. Yes, there was incense, but no skulls or crystals. Hand-patterned Batik was draped on the walls. We sat down at a small table and waited in silence.

When the woman came in, I was even more surprised. She was cedar slender and looked Balinese. Her English was perfect: a Somerset accent. She asked for something small from each of us. I thought she meant money, and placed a twenty on the table beside her. She just smiled gracefully. Miranda knew better: she looked through her purse. In the bottom, she found a small loose shell. Maybe it had been a button that had come unthreaded, or maybe part of a sweater pin. She held it in her hand until it was warm, then placed it on the table in front of her. The Balinese woman touched it and looked up.

“Someone suspects you of something,” she said to Miranda. “Something you didn’t do. The unforeseen end of all this will astound you. There is a man who doesn’t wish you well. But another man, this man sitting right here, the uncivilized one: he loves you. You can always trust a man who loves a troublesome dog.”

I was too embarrassed to speak. I wondered how she knew about Brisi? I bet right at that moment, Brisi was chewing on something she shouldn’t. I picked up the white cowrie shell.

 

Athena

In Persia, owls were not like ours. There was no Athena, no concept of wisdom. They had other birds for that. It was bad luck if an owl perched on the roof of your home, and even worse if it were near the threshold. They were visitors from the underworld, the afterlife, and since they flew when no other birds were in the air, they knew only the darkest secrets. They knew where the rings were hidden, the rings the lost soldiers wore into battle, where the coins of the fallen lay, only revealed in moonlight. They knew where the lover fell, when her beloved failed to meet her in the forest. They knew where her jewels had lodged between tree roots.

And on the most difficult nights, filled with open eyed languishing and lament, when the half moonlight danced through your window and onto the wall of your chamber, you may have seen the shadow of the owl perched outside. You had to confess everything to the form, your worst secrets: how you wandered through the silent alleys of the town in the heat of the day, and every thing you learned there, how you looked across the river and saw a woman washing clothes on the bank, how you longed for her, desired her, and how you dared not swim across the stream, fearing nothing worse than drowning, fearing the owl would come for you in the daylight, to escort you back to his home of shadows, where he kept all the gold he’d gathered from the fields of ancient battles.

I never made those confessions. Owls are different to me. When I looked out my window on those nights, I could sometimes catch their silent wings descending between the dark trees of my garden, falling on mice and small rabbits, carrying off snakes in their talons. They are able to do all the things I cannot, they see what I miss, and sometimes they perch on the various limbs, calling out, reminding me.

Somehow I make it to the dawn, and the garden has been emptied of snakes. No rabbits have broken delphinium stems, and mice have not carried away the seeds. Small records of struggles can only be seen by the most careful eyes: a tuft of fur on a rose thorn, a whiptailed stalk. Gardens are more savage than we know.

I was sitting on my back porch with my coffee, overlooking the night’s events, when I heard the front door open at her hand. Celeste swept through the rooms and to me. “And whither,” I said, “are you rolling, little apple?” “To the countryside,” she said. “Wear sturdy shoes!”

We went outside the Beltway, and started rolling through Maryland, heading North. “I was up all night,” she said, “just thinking. I need to clear my mind. Things have gotten so complicated, and I’m used to clarity. I feel uncentered.” I didn’t ask why she thought the countryside would make her feel more centered. The hills were just a jumbled course of rocks and stones and trees.

“I know just the place,” I said, “Lily Pons.” “That’s not a place, that’s a Soprano!” she said. “It’s named after her,” I said. “It’s best at midsummer, there are more flowers, but it’ll be quiet, and we can wander around for a while.”

I’d only been in July, when the lotus held their tremendous pink blossoms well above the leaves, and the water snowflakes crawled out along the banks, escaping the riot of tropical blooms. We got out of the car, and it looked like a different place. The valley was covered with ponds and small lakes. Here and there a bridge guided us across a marsh. Where the paths disappeared, the earth nearly swallowed my steps. The flat soles of her boots were her only concession to nature, and being lighter, she didn’t sink as far into the mud. We saw the last migrating herons stopping for a quick meal. The Canada geese were arrows above our heads, and redwings turned above the trees. Nothing else was moving. It was exactly the quiet she desired.

When something turns, there’s always a point in the middle like this one. A still place, unmoving, as everything else spins. Her clothes were the only colors around, jewel tones of green and gold. I watched her watching the surfaces, waiting for a moment I’d pictured for weeks.

But not there, on that curved bridge in November, with the world gray around her and the geese moving off. She was moving with them, and I followed her back to the car. “There’s a mountain I’ve heard of,” she said.

There are no mountains in Maryland. I’m used to the Sierras, granite knives far above timberline, alpine meadows and snow. You don’t climb there without thinking, you don’t climb in a jewel tone dress. I knew she just meant a hill. The locals call it Sugarloaf.

There’s a parking lot halfway up. We reached it at mid-afternoon. It’s only a few hundred feet to the summit. Trees blocked the view to the east, but we could see the river far in the west. This seemed a much better place.

In 1862, a few Union soldiers saw the Confederates coming, exactly from this spot. They tried to run, but they were caught in the forest. Only the owls know exactly where. I thought it best not to mention the incident. There we were, a small wind blowing her hair, the late sun brightening jewel tones, a few tardy hawks riding the mountain’s lift south. “Now,” I thought to myself. “Certainly now.”

But not then. The earth, the wilderness, had turned her around. She was persuaded the way back was south. I knew the car was northeast. Once, my life had depended on knowing topography, but I let her lead and wander. It was turning to evening when we found the car. I could hear the owls, calling already through the dark.

# # #

 

 

 

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4 Responses to “Of Candles, Salt and Owls”

  1. Defenestrationism.net » Blog Archive » Of Candles, Salt and Owls: Cowrie Shells Says:

    […] « Of Candles, Salt and Owls […]

  2. Susan Tepper Says:

    Both stories are beautiful and powerful in their own way.

  3. Defenestrationism.net » Blog Archive » Of Candles, Salt and Owls: Athena Says:

    […] read it in the correct order […]

  4. Shelly Blankman Says:

    I love both of these stories. Beautifully spun tales of mysticism, powerful imagery, and strong sense of character. Have almost gothic sense. And what I love the most about both is the sense of travel. Very different travels, but the destinations are oddly similar … mysterious, yet satisfying. I love stories that stir the imagination, and Lantry’s tales do that with great Gothic flair, comparable (to me) to Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley.

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