It’s a surreal tale about considering greener pastures…
No one expected the government to allow it. To acknowledge it even, but Maira was looking at the advertisement above a webpage she was using to compare prices of agate and selenite healing crystals.
Enjoy! (Full story is printed below the player):
Drabblecast 404 – Witches for Mars
Witches for Mars
By Eden Royce
No one expected the government to allow it. To acknowledge it even, but Maira looked at the advertisement above a webpage she used to compare prices of agate and selenite healing crystals.
Witches for Mars. Must be practicing full, knowledge-grounded, not learning.
“Practicing full?” Maira scoffed into her cup of catnip tea laced with a few spoonfuls of blue aster honey, the only breakfast she allowed herself from her dwindling supply of food. If a witch was worth anything, learning never stopped. We were the wild ones – the ones who listened to the stories ancient trees whispered, who hummed the tunes Auntie Wind made when she whistled through the fields.
Another sip of tea. People feared what they didn’t understand. Many merchants refused to sell food to witches, claiming the magic-touched had poisoned the Earth in the first place, withering crops, sickening animals, tainting water reserves. Maira laughed without humor. The more things changed and all that. It was difficult to accept your participation in your own demise.
Maira had taken to growing her own benne crop, which was more resistant to drought, and the flat biscuits she made with the ground seeds and oil were her main source of protein and fat. But she missed the days of having slices of airy bread, toasted to a hot crunch, slathered with sweet-cream butter to accompany her tea.
For a moment, she was lost to this world as she stared out of her opened sheer-paneled curtains into the eye-watering brightness of midday. Poppet Street was empty, but why wouldn’t it be? There were no more witch covens in Charleston. No more neighborhoods where spells were bartered and borrowed, where children learned Earth and ancestor reverence along with maths and sciences. No more block parties under full moonlight, no more sweetcakes, no more front porch conventions, where elders in ankle-length capes strode across the broom-swept street, barefooted, to mediate disputes.
Plywood now covered the windows of most houses, their salt-blasted boards flaking paint onto broken steps and overgrown azalea bushes. The air was sweet with floral-laced decay. Only her small carriage house and Algin’s next door were still occupied.
It was a place she didn’t recognize and one she rarely ventured into anymore. While the world had never been truly accepting of witchkind, there used to be pockets of tolerance where it was possible to live, even thrive. Now assaults rose to fill the gap, and it turned Maira’s stomach.
When she’d been a witchling, no more than six or seven, the elders told stories of how those without magic had killed her ancestors – burnings, hangings, drownings, and so, so many other ways. Maira was glad she lived in different times, when people were more accepting, and on one occasion said as much.
Her great-grandpap’s summoned spirit had answered through her mother’s lips. “Don’ be sho, gal. Dey mines can change in a flick of a hosstail ’bout we. Den you ga see.”
She’d lowered her gaze from the whites of her mother’s eyes while she held Papa Daddy’s spirit and channeled his words. She couldn’t fight the battles her ancestors had. She wasn’t strong. She wasn’t able to face the scorn and hatred.
Wherever Papa Daddy was, he was probably looking at her saying, “Well, yuh facin’ it nah, ain’tcha?”
Certainly she wasn’t as bad off as some. The news showed witch-owned houses and shops vandalized, her people beaten and violated. What had started in small cells, patches in rural towns and villages, finally spread to major cities. Her belly churned and she sipped more tea to ease it.
Maira pulled a shawl around her shoulders. The more the flames of anger and hate spread, the colder she got. Why us? We were the ones who spoke of Earth’s end and bore the weight of the world’s jeering.
That scathing ridicule had turned to fear-soaked wails and frantic scrabbling for what used to be. Too late… too late, baby. Buh-bye.
Maira slammed the teacup back down into its saucer, then winced before she checked for damage. None. She turned her inspection back to the computer screen. This advertisement on a website that had few visitors – it sold specifically to licensed witcheren – was odd.
Was it real? She hovered her cursor over the banner to see the URL it linked to. Gibberish. Probably a virus meant to destroy her computer. She wouldn’t put it past some of the people out there, so entrenched in their desire to eliminate the magical.
She went into the kitchen, the warmest place in her house. The kitchen had been Muffin’s favorite room, a snug place of treats and sun-filled windows. Once the witch persecutions began, so did the cat destructions. They hadn’t lasted long. One day, all the felines disappeared: from homes, from shelters, from zoos. They were the wild ones, too. And they had fled. She missed her Muffin, but she understood. Save yourself. It was all about that in the end.
Maira held her hands over the largest eye of the stove, rubbed her palms together. The heat cheered her a little, and the heavy fog inside her lifted. She didn’t have to decide anything in this moment or even at all today. Today, she would go out and take advantage of the clear sky and nature’s gifts before the pickings got slim. Her stomach rumbled, and that was decided. They were few, but they were not alone and those that waited to search the surrounding woods often did without.
She and Algin used to forage together, the sun beating down on their bare heads, warming their hair oils until the fragrance of roasting sesame surrounded them, but since that kid had thrown acid in her face, Algin hadn’t left Poppet. Maira went alone these days. She shoved her feet into shoes, grabbed her paw print messenger bag. She gulped the rest of her tea, then headed out.
Maira hitched the brown paper bag further up on her hip. It would break soon, but it would hold long enough for her to get home. Three streets up, one street over. Twenty minutes, tops.
Today had been a good day. Blackberries abounded, their skins taut and shiny. The wild strawbs she found were ripe, but didn’t smoosh in her fingers when she plucked them from their viney beds.
Honeysuckle blossoms, their teardrop of sweetness enough to forgo some of the precious sugar. Dandelion greens, plump figs, an assortment of papershell pecans, accompanied rosehips and saw palmetto leaves for tea.
Algin used to love this – the muggy breeze, the sun-hot fruit, the triumph of living off the land. Maira had asked for her company, hoping the peaceful woods would be a balm. She’d even promised to leave during the hottest part of the afternoon, when non-witches huddled inside to protect themselves from the harsh sun or skulked in thick cloaks and hoods when they dared venture out. No go. Since the attack, Algin wanted nothing to do with the wider world. So now sat alone on the carpet of grass, leaning her back against a tree trunk as it whispered questions to her.
Why are you here, child?
I was born here. Her thoughts sank into the bark. My history’s here.
History is not future.
Maira wasn’t sure how to respond, and the tree said no more. She sighed, shoved her fingers through her hair. Usually the trees were more willing to share their wisdom. Why would this one suddenly—
She caught a raw, rank scent on the breeze, a sharp stench that made her gorge rise – Auntie Wind telling her what the tree had not.
Trouble. Get home. She’d taken too long this time, but the pickings had been fuller than usual, the bloom of summer on the woods.
She stuffed one bulging brown paper bag into her messenger bag and carried the other. Rushing, not running, out of the safe seclusion of the woods, scurrying for the womb-like safety of the clutch. She’d meant to go to the market for milk, hoping for a sympathetic cashier, but a gang of tough-looking men hung around the door, so she skirted the area and chose a route that wound further into the woods before emerging onto pavement.
Maira looked left and right, then jogged across the street, breathing hard. Not from exertion, but from the foul scent the air still carried. She cursed under her breath. Stupid. She should have encouraged Algin more instead of going off alone. Wasn’t going it alone that had destroyed the witcheren in the first place?
A flash of color caught her attention and she stopped. On a telephone pole was another advertisement, this one bearing white lettering printed on red paper.
Witches for Mars!
Below the ornate script was a row of strips boasting a web address in bold type. No strips had been torn off. Her heart skipped a beat. Maira tore off a strip and stuffed it in her pocket.
She turned away and came face to face with a stranger, more like face to hood as she couldn’t see inside the darkened cavern over the person’s face. Head coverings weren’t unusual, but the inky void within this one felt wrong. The hood turned toward the flyer with its missing strip. The stench blossomed into hate.
It was over fast – the silvery glint of a knife, her yip of pain, her bag dropping to the ground, then footsteps running off into the setting sunlight. Maira grabbed her arm, blood welling between her fingers. She rolled up her sleeve in increments to her elbow, gulping down the spit forming in her mouth. The gash was angry, throbbing, deep. Her skin had separated cleanly – the knife must have been hellishly sharp.
She wiped her hand on her jeans. Used her teeth to wrap a handkerchief around the wound. The white cotton reddened instantly. She picked up her dropped bag, and headed for the hospital.
The gash on her arm pulsed as though alive, pulling healing blood from the rest of her body, aided by the agate stone in her front pocket.
A tight-mouthed doctor stitched her up. “How’d you get this?”
“I got attacked.” Maira’s voice was clipped. The deadness in Maira’s arm was unsettling. There was no pain, just the pressure of the needle as it pierced her skin and the tug tug of each completed stitch through her insensate arm. She felt disconnected from herself, dulled to all feeling; an observer watching a distant and alien procedure. It incensed her.
The doctor sucked her teeth and muttered something under her breath. The student doc with her gaped, and his weary-looking gaze flicked over to Maira.
“What was that?” she asked. “I didn’t hear you clearly.”
If Maira had believed the doctor would back off at her sharp words, she was mistaken. The doctor kept her eyes on her work as she spoke.
“I said you shouldn’t have been in that part of town anyway. Not like they sell roots or sticks there.”
Maira tried to pull her arm away, but the doctor held it fast. “Be still or you’ll end up worse off than when you came here.”
“Let me go.” Maira ground the words out from between clenched teeth. Her veneer of civility dropped to show the face she could only manage when there was nothing left to care about. She continued, her voice serpent smooth, “Or you’ll be the one worse off.”
The woman’s eyes went wide, and she lifted her hands into a hold up posture. She opened her mouth, but Maira snarled, and the doctor’s jaw slammed shut before she stood and walked away without looking back.
Maira watched her leave, then glanced down at the string and needle swinging from her half-sewn arm. She released her hand from the vial of potion in her pocket, rubbing the cork to make sure it was still secure. The formula was Head A Mess, to cause confusion. She was glad she hadn’t had to use it on the not-so-good doctor.
“Um, excuse me.”
The verbal nudge came from the student doc. “Yeah?” The feeling still hadn’t returned to her arm, and Maira poked at the half-sutured wound.
“I can finish that,” he said. His cheeks were flushed; a bead of sweat on his brow threatened to slide behind the frame of his glasses. “I’m qualified.”
She shrugged and replaced her arm on the table. He nodded, almost to himself, and sat across from her. Maira had words ready to tell him she wasn’t interested in conversation, but he didn’t initiate any, instead making even, neat stitches any tailor would be proud of. Gently, he held her skin together, piercing the flesh, pulling it until the severed edges kissed.
When finished, he covered the area with a bandage. “All done,” he said.
“Thanks.” Maira rolled down her ripped sleeve. Looked like she’d be doing her own sewing tonight. She headed for the door.
“Will you go to Mars?”
She froze, anchored to the floor. “What?”
“It’s just that… well, my mother is going and I’d worry less if you were there.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“I think I do.” He sat on the seat where he’d sewn her together, hands covered in blue nitrile gloves. “I’m not a witch, but sometimes… I see.”
Maira grunted, hoisting her bag onto her uninjured arm. “Then you’re a witch, Doc. Own it.”
Night had fallen. The city was different at full dark. She could hear the wind in the branches overhead, the rustle of leaves when cars zipped by. Her soft-soled shoes made no sound as she walked home, letting the moon ease away the tension of earlier. Not all of it – she had to remain alert in case anyone else lurked, waiting to strike out.
It was exhausting, living this way. She wanted to enjoy living.
She winced and switched the bag of food to her other hand. But that wasn’t reality, was it? Reality was: be prepared to explain yourself or defend yourself. Most of the time, both.
She made it to her street, and found Algin sitting on her porch steps. Wooly dagger moths darted in and around the watery yellow lightbulb above the front door, descending to circle around her head like a halo. Where the shadows fell on her face, the skin looked like a landscape, cavernous and pitted in areas, flowing and slick in others.
“Yuh had get los’?” Algin’s lulling mix of Gullah and English was a balm after the clipped disapproval in the doctor’s tone.
“No, I got stabbed.” She showed Algin her bandaged arm, basked in the look of horror that came over her friend’s face. A shower of curses followed before Maira could get her to calm down.
“I’m fine, okay?”
“Yuh get jick in da arm, and yuh okay.” Algin sucked her teeth, then stretched out a hand. Maira plopped her house key in it. The door tended to stick and she wouldn’t be able to open it without hurting herself.
“Drink?” Maira asked once inside, one of the things she could easily do one-handed.
“Please fuh one.”
She poured two measures of rectified spirit over ice cubes, and topped it with lemon simple syrup and a spring of thyme from her windowsill. She handed one glass to Algin and they made themselves comfortable on the covered back porch, sipping.
“I didn’t see who did it. They were wearing a hood, then ran off after they cut me.”
Algin nodded, pulling up her own hood. She hadn’t seen her attacker’s face either.
It took Maira almost a week to remember the web address. She’d been keeping loneliness at bay with busy hands and quick feet, bustling around creating, mixing, learning. But today, she was a wild woman alone, craving something. A connection, perhaps.
She dug around and found the clothes she’d been wearing when she took the slip of red paper, and settled herself in front of the computer. The laptop hummed a comforting sound, emitting a mild warmth that added to the coziness of the house. She entered the website and a night sky appeared.
Not on the laptop, that wouldn’t have been impressive. A shadow formed outside and overhead, and the bright noontime sky melted to an inky star-filled indigo.
A voice, tinny and sprightly as an infomercial voiceover, boomed outside: Witches for Mars! Witches for Mars!
Startled cries went up in the distance, but Maira didn’t listen. She closed her eyes, emptying herself fear, opening up to the newly formed night. It sparked and sparkled, dark and brilliant.
Then it was gone. She looked at the window, sunlight filling it once again. A skitter of awareness danced along the back of her neck. Someone was talking about her. Or maybe wanted to speak to her.
The doorbell shrieked and she ran downstairs to peer through the peephole.
Algin. She opened the door, ushered her friend inside. “You saw what happened?”
Algin chuckled, the sound warming Maira. It had been way too long since she heard that wind chime laughter. “I gwine.”
Maira gaped. “Really?”
“Why not? Least they wan’ we dey.”
Maira’s arm itched, the skin tight with healing. She rubbed a drop of resinous oil into developing scar. “We can’t live on Mars. We can’t create a civilization.”
Algin pursed her unpainted lips. “So? Looka what had happen wit’ Sanding.”
The Sanding had launched for Mars with a crew of twelve of the finest minds of a generation, their voyage and arrival trending worldwide. Shock when the mission lost contact with Earth. Tragedy months later when contact was restored to find only one survivor: a thin, copper-skinned man, Dr. Bennett Brockington. Maira couldn’t recall his line of study, only that he’d had so many letters after his name, the news decreased the font size to get his full credentials on the screen.
He only spoke five words: I am a witch. I am a witch. Travel. Travel. Travel. On the first anniversary of his return to Earth, he died. Later, it was found Dr. Brockington wasn’t a witch, but he’d studied several wondercraft rituals. He’d dabbled, he’d read, but he hadn’t learned. He wasn’t practicing full.
Travel. Traveler. Welcome.
Maira bit her lip. “You sure about this?”
When Algin nodded, Maira rocked back on her heels. What the hell was happening? Algin was usually the voice of reason, her graceful hand grasping Maira’s ankle to keep her grounded when she reached the end of her tether. What was she supposed to do when her rock defied gravity?
“T’ink on ’em,” When Maira agreed, Algin let herself out.
Alone once again, she filled a clear bowl with water and stared at it – through it, searching, scrying – for hours until her back ached and her eyes were dry and pulsing, but she got no answers. Finally, she gave up. Rubbed her skin with lavender and oatmeal milk and went to sleep.
The next day she woke to an email.
Will you come? Wwe wait for you. To come and bring others. Do not fear. No fear. Bring and come. Bring yourself wildone.
To our wilds space. Run. Here. B free.
The email wasn’t signed and the sender’s address didn’t make sense.
Maira rubbed her eyes. They were tired, gritty with use, as though she’d been looking for something all night while she slept. She usually didn’t watch TV in the mornings, preferring to get her news from trusted online sources. But today, she wanted to listen to what the world had to say.
All she heard was more babbling, confusion over the phenomena in the sky. It had been worldwide, reaching metropolis and village alike, but had only lasted a few seconds. No official government comment yet, but many were claiming it to be a hoax, an elaborate prank by some wacko sympathizer.
Maira wasn’t sure if they meant a witch sympathizer or a Martian one, but she was sure it wasn’t a prank. It hit too close to home, plucking a string in her heart. Her entire essence thrummed with power. Intent.
If it wasn’t a prank, what was it? The unknown was her biggest fear. A known quantity, she could face, but this – she hesitated to use the word “opportunity” but she couldn’t come up with a better one – was the ultimate unknown. And how was she going to get there? Show up at a space station and say she was signing up to the spellcaster program? Or maybe a ship would descend from nowhere to enclose all witcheren and speed them to the red planet.
Ridiculous. But the melting indigo sky and that email, full of strange yet needful words that resonated inside her like the vibrations of a gong.
Wild one Wild one.
Maybe it was time to go. To find new places where we all could be free.
Part of it was fear, and the rest of it was doubt, weighty and crippling. Questions swirled within her as well, breeding excuses for why she couldn’t leave. Still, fear of success was still fear. Suppose those empty colonies couldn’t hold them all? How could they get food? How could they live?
There were structures built. Seeds and silos of water. But that would be all. There was no way the Earth would supplement them once the witches left. We would be there all on our own.
“Are you ready?”
Maira noticed Algin had a duffle bag. She always traveled light, but realization dawned on her as though she were falling off a cliff – fast, breath-stealing.
“How we ’posed fuh do ’em?”
“I think…” she swallowed. “I think we got an invitation.”
At Algin’s raised eyebrow, Maira pulled up the email on her laptop, turned the screen. Algin mouthed the words, stoic face neutral. “You right, Tittuh.”
Tittuh. Whenever Algin called her sister, it jolted her to stop. Living close together, they’d had their share of arguments – some that ended because they’d agreed to disagree. Some because they promised to jump to the next topic, move away from damaging each other. Tittuh meant: I’m with you wholeheartedly on this. We are here. Together.
Maira nodded, hit reply. In the empty box, she typed:
“We are honored to accept your invitation. Please send instructions on how to reach you.”
Algin approved the message with a shrug and a nod.
“Last chance to change your mind.”
“Nuh uh.” Algin swirled the ice in her glass and downed the rest in one gulp. Winced. “I tyed a dis.”
Maira was tired of it too. She hit send.
Within moments, a response appeared:
You are come. Do this. Do and Bring yourselfs wild oneS.
>>Blood of frozen
>>> Some Time
Wwe wait for you.
Again, there was no signature.
“Is that a list of… ingredients?”
“A hex?” Algin was intrigued. Maira could see the flicker of interest in her countenance, a reminder of when times were better, when she smiled more, laughed even. That hadn’t been in a while.
“Looks like it. I think.” Maira bit her lip. “But what are these ingredients – blood of frozen? Some pain?”
“You know you’s always cold.”
Algin’s soft words rocked Maira back in her chair. She was frozen in more ways than one. Her life, iced into this routine of gathering food while being hunted. Her inability to connect to this world the way she wanted to – needed to – in order to be whole. Maira took the bloodied handkerchief out of her bag. It was crumpled, stiff, but that didn’t matter. It was her blood, gone cold.
She didn’t hear Algin get up, but her friend now stood at her shoulder, handing her a fist-sized cobalt blue bottle. When Maira looked up in askance, Algin spoke quietly, her body turned toward the moonlight-filled window.
“I cry sometime, missin’ what we been, but I ’pose… I mos’ skeert of what we gon’ be. Martyrs? Ghosts? Myths?” She shrugged her narrow shoulders, draped as they always were in a flowing hooded cape.
“So… you got my pain. Summa it.”
Algin’s stare nudged her as effectively as an elbow, and Maira nodded at her tittuh. “Okay, let’s cook.”
In Maira’s snug kitchen, they pored over the recipe Algin had jotted down on the back of a torn open envelope. Maira reached for her shawl. Before she could drape it over her shoulders, Algin reached out and plucked the handkerchief from her fingers and dropped it into a glass jar.
Together, they completed the spell with the dream stones from under their pillows, a handful of the foraged berries they both loved, along with a sprinkling of the precious sugar. Maira gently placed the collar her Muffin used to wear on top. She’d found it the day the felines left, and she’d kept it in her cedar chest ever since. Before screwing on the lid, Algin poured in the contents of the bottle of pain.
“Now what do we do?”
Again Algin’s elegant shrug.
“Let’s go sit.” Maira pushed the jar into a patch of moonlight and headed for the living room sofa. For what seemed like hours they talked, strong liquor coursing through them.
Maira woke, head fuzzy and eyes tacky. She groaned. Still in the house. Nothing had changed. When she looked at the clock above the mantelpiece, it showed the time as being near midnight.
“We’re still here,” she whispered to herself, in order to not wake Algin.
Algin was already awake and straightening her cape. Somehow, her long, dark hair was still in place. “We muss up?”
“I don’t know. The spell was confusing, so maybe. How do you feel?”
“My head ackin’ up. Yours?”
Maira touched her temples with firm pressure. “A little lightheaded, yeah. But that’s not anything. Could be the alcohol.”
“Maybe issa joke.” Algin touched her cheek with thoughtful fingers.
“And we fools for believing it.”
“Wanting better is never foolish.” She held her arms out, but remembered Algin didn’t care for hugs. “Sorry, forgot.”
“Yeah, come on.” Maira led the way back to the kitchen to make another round of drinks. Then they could turn in for the night. She hurried to mix and measure, keeping busy so the pain of her failure wouldn’t show. But it rose in her, the sour taste of defeat. Hopefully, the drink would mask the flavor. A hand met her shoulder and she jumped.
“What— oh sweet Florida water.”
Outside the kitchen window stretched a cloudless butterscotch sky. Mountains in the distance, but mostly an expanse of land as far as her eyes could see. They walked to the door. Maira put her hand out when Algin went to open it.
“No, we can’t. Breathe. This is… impossible.”
To her surprise, Algin placed a hand on Maira’s shoulder. “We welcome, ’member?”
“How can you tell? I mean, we don’t know if—” Her words stopped as Maira watched a fan of saw palmetto grow from the previously empty ground. It was a curious dusky pink instead of green, but there was no mistaking its shape. Another joined it, followed by a blue-fruited lemon tree and tightly-coiled patches of wild thyme.
“Oh,” she said.
Algin opened the door so it didn’t make a sound. While they looked on, another building appeared in the distance, and soon after a gnarled live oak tree reached its arms wide as if seeking an embrace.
“How… how can this be happening?”
“Mars is fuh witches,” Algin said, grinning. She slipped a hand into Maira’s and they set off across the expanse to greet their neighbors.