“Yes, I made witchcraft. The devil came to me in a dream wearing antlers and a holly crown. I was not myself. I remember nothing.” - Confession of Sarah Blake, Edinburgh, 1639.
Dana Allen stood as if frozen in time on the dark doorstep of a Christchurch flat, sandwiched between two police officers. The rain poured down in buckets, making her ordinarily copper colored hair look like an oil slick in the dim glow of the streetlights. The woolen blazer of Dana’s uniform clung heavily to her torso as a sickening reminder that she had been at school mere hours ago, back when life was normal, a moment before she spotted the uniformed constable walking into her classroom.
He stood to her left now, switching on his torch to impatiently read the brass plaque on the door that read “Clutterbuck,” as if it were unusual for an elderly woman living alone to not materialize at the door instantly for unexpected evening callers. The scrape of the deadbolt heralded Old Dorothy’s appearance wrapped in a thick bathrobe with slipper shod feet. Despite her appearance, when she spied Dana’s tear-streaked face she pressed her lips together sympathetically with a tilted head and pulled her by her wrist into a fierce hug, as if she knew what had happened. Dana returned the embrace and breathed deeply of Old Dorothy’s familiar smell of hyssop blossoms and tea, longing to be comforted by warmth, but feeling cold and numb.
Old Dorothy hastily herded everyone inside and immediately fetched a towel and a crocheted blanket, hastily stripping off Dana’s wet outer garments as if she were a toddler. The constables, who had not yet been invited to take a seat, shifted uncomfortably in the entryway. “Dorothy Clutterbuck?” The senior officer was asking perfunctorily, modulating his Cockney accent to attempt to sound of higher class.
“Oh yes, do sit down” Old Dorothy said absently, rubbing a towel vigorously over Dana’s head. “Shall I put the kettle on?” She looked over tiredly at the cooling wood stove as the officers settled awkwardly together on the love seat in the sitting room.
“That won’t be necessary,” the senior officer assured quickly, “we regret to inform you that Iris and Llew Allen were killed today in an automobile accident.” He hurried along bluntly, obviously hating this unpleasant aspect of his job. “You were named in their documents as the next of kin to take care of Dana Allen for the remaining months of her schooling this year until she reaches the age of legal adulthood in December.”
“Well of course,” Old Dorothy almost snapped, “I’m her Godmother.” Her usual sense of propriety was wearing thin under the circumstances. The two officers looked at each other, seemingly with a sense of relief that the orphaned teenager had been placed so easily.
“It’s late,” he finished politely, “we’ll leave you to your rest and grieving, but do call down to the station and let us know if we can be of any further service to you.” They rose in unison and tipped their hats in lieu of shaking the hands of the ladies that were once again wrapped in an embrace. As soon as the officers had let themselves out the door, Old Dorothy held Dana at arm’s length with a thin smile.
“You stay as long as you like,” she whispered softly. “We of the Witch-Cult always take care of our own.” As Dana was led gently by her hand to Old Dorothy’s guest room, she felt briefly comforted to be a part of something that had always made her feel different and alienated before. Old Dorothy bid her a sleepy goodnight from the doorway and Dana flopped back on the bed, praying for a swift and dreamless sleep. Sleep was not forthcoming. The pain of her grief was like a very real sucking wound deep inside her chest making it difficult to breathe. She stole a few minutes of rest here and there in between waking with a moaning wail, clutching at something she felt missing and remembering with terror that she was all alone without her family.
Dana descended the stairs in the morning to be greeted with a fresh bowl of porridge, toast, a cup of tea and the Saturday edition of the newspaper. Old Dorothy smiled at her over reading glasses. “I blessed that food for you to give you peace and strength” she offered warmly. Dana nodded, sat and mechanically ate, glancing around Old Dorothy’s familiar abode. There were the comforting smells of drying bundles of herbs and old books in the kitchen. In the sitting room she spied the low coffee table with a pile of journals filled with handwritten poetry by Old Dorothy that she would pour over as a child. The poems were a mixture of Christian words inspired by her heavy involvement with the Anglican Church and more vague verbiage that hinted at her secret beliefs as a witch. Below a wooden cross on the wall there was an old roll-top desk on which Dana would always do her homework while her parents and Old Dorothy visited. She could imagine their voices raised in spirited discussion in the other room. Dana blinked through tears and set down her spoon. As much as she was accustomed to Old Dorothy’s flat, the thought that she might never see her own house again and that this was the closest she would ever have to a family home was too much to bear.
Old Dorothy left the kitchen and returned with an oversized dress. “I’m sorry dear; I haven’t been as small as you for quite some time. Dana realized that Old Dorothy hadn’t eaten yet and was waiting for some privacy to do her morning devotions before eating a meal. Dana quietly excused herself to change clothes while Old Dorothy drew the curtains shut on each window in order, moving counterclockwise through the ground floor. Even when supposedly using prayers from church, Old Dorothy preferred to do her devotionals whispered and behind closed doors alone or in the company of other witches. Dana figured it was either because she included the secret names of the witch Gods or because she wanted to enforce to her Christian friends and neighbors that she valued privacy in her spiritual life.
A wisp of incense rose up to the guest room as Dana buttoned the dress at the nape of her neck. The scent was both comforting and unidentifiable, a secret family recipe, causing her shoulder muscles to relax and her breathing to slow. As a child, Dana would deliberately stir the drapes or fan the pages of Old Dorothy’s books to draw out the wonderful smell where the incense had permeated and lingered from years of use within the same four walls. She politely waited at the top of the stairs until she heard Old Dorothy rustling around opening curtains and preparing breakfast, signifying that she was done. Dana returned to the kitchen and thanked Old Dorothy for the lovely dress, even though it obviously wasn’t her style, before taking a seat to keep her company while she ate.
The front door closed with a clunk and Edith barreled into the kitchen tossing her handbag on the table and grabbing Dana’s head in a brief hug. Edith was an old family friend and a member of the coven that Old Dorothy had shared with Dana’s parents. “I’m so sorry about what happened sweetie,” Edith cooed, “I had a dream about it and I came as fast as I could.” Edith was out of breath from what must have been a brisk walk from her own flat, but her hair had been neatly styled that morning under a fashionable hat and her makeup was carefully applied. Although Edith was as elderly as Old Dorothy, she was always clad in scandalously youthful outfits and had a very active and open love life despite still being technically married to some poor old man whom it was rumored lived with his own new girlfriend in Southampton.
“It’s such a shame,” Edith clucked as she poured herself a cup of tea, “the Allens were the oldest and largest Witch family around aside from the Mason family of course, and they’ve been getting old and dropping like flies as quickly as the Masons. And you, poor dear,” she placed a hand on Old Dorothy’s shoulder. “You have to take care of Dana now! I told them that they should have chosen boarding school when I had that premonition.” Dana felt a flash of anger at Edith for being insensitive, but it faded quickly. Edith had no verbal filter and was likely to say nearly any opinion that tip-toed across her mind.
“Oh nonsense,” Old Dorothy dismissed with a wave, “I’m happy to have the company as long as Dana wants to live here with me. I’ve been so lonely ever since my Rue passed on into Summerland.” Dana felt a fresh pang of grief. Papa Rue had died last May and, since it had been the first loss of a loved one Dana had ever experienced, she thought it was the saddest moment of her life. If only she had known or had experienced her own premonition that her own parents would be gone in the fall. She glanced up at an urn full of Papa Rue’s ashes on the mantle through the door to the sitting room and resentfully wondered how long Edith had known her parents were next. She remembered her mother’s voice at a childhood fortune telling party. “It is not our place to tell the future for those who don’t want to know.”
“The good news,” Edith continued, “is that we can finally initiate this new young blood into the coven.” She slapped Dana enthusiastically on the shoulder and smiled triumphantly at Old Dorothy. Dana couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement. She had asked for initiation so many times since she could remember. Her own parents had been initiated into the Wicca when they were young children, as had been the custom of the time, but they cited their own tumultuous experiences as evidence that they were not ready as kids and had insisted that Dana wait until adulthood and beyond to decide whether she wanted to practice witchcraft as a faith.
“We’ll see,” Old Dorothy nodded slowly. “By the time the light half of the year best for initiations rolls around again, she’ll be an adult anyway, so we can respect her parents’ wishes for now.” Edith looked disappointed as if she were an alcoholic denied her fix. She shook her head as if to change the subject.
“Speaking of potential initates,” she said, “I met a new man.” She waggled her eyebrows as Dana and Old Dorothy exchanged glances. “I would love to train him as a working partner.” Since witchcraft was traditionally practiced by families which included hand-fasted couples, it seemed like every one of the divorced and otherwise single old members of the coven was constantly scouting for the perfect mate and spiritual peer. But, since initiation and training were such intense and challenging personal experiences, a couple rarely completed it together intact. Therefore, the wise always recommended that someone other than the spouse or relationship partner take on the burden of training. Knowing this, Old Dorothy gave Edith a disapproving glare. Edith rolled her eyes. “Well you train him then, but I want to initiate him.” She said the word “initiate” slowly and lustily as if it had a sexual connotation.
Old Dorothy chuckled. “Come on,” Edith begged, “you two simply must meet him at the Rosicrucian Theatre tonight. They’re playing Pythagoras. Dana stifled a groan. Witches, you see, must have their finger in every pie in town to be on the lookout for proper people who may be searching for witchcraft training. Anything even slightly related to the occult in Christchurch, no matter how asinine, was bound to be patronized by several witches. The Rosicrucian Theatre was a terrible local dramatic society known for overpriced and overacted performances. Most of its members, and those of the greater Rosicrucian Order associated with it, were pompous old fools with crazy beliefs.
Old Dorothy looked at Dana with sympathy. “Perhaps we should have a quiet evening at home tonight” she said, social butterfly that she was. Edith saw her opportunity flying out the window, so she pulled the one card that she knew would get Old Dorothy on her side.
“You don’t want witchcraft to die out, do you?” Edith’s eyes were locked on Old Dorothy’s pleadingly. “We’re all so old in our shrinking coven. With no new initiates in over a year and all of us over fifty, goodness Thomas is over eighty, the lore and history of the Wicca will disappear with our generation if we don’t initiate as many proper seekers as possible.” Old Dorothy’s face filled with new resolve and Dana knew that there was no getting out of tonight’s plans.
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