Season of the Witchby Josepha Gutelius
There is a sudden terror when we realize we are all the same, all forty-five of us, all forty-five names of divinity. We see a crow flying over and see what the crow sees: a row of identical navy-blue coats walking counter-clockwise around the Circle. We're relishing our daily exercise after tea and the girl who stumbles out of line is screaming. Everyone knows why, suddenly everything connects, she is out of the Circle, we understand.
No one can say a word, we have taken a vow of silence, but some can't stop themselves, they join in, screaming. It's the only way to explain, to scream. The Minder standing at the edge of the Circle steps forward, her hand clenched in a fist, a squat, flat-chested figure with a hoarse voice she keeps to a whisper (a clever way of forcing us girls to quiet down to hear her).
These hysterics are only half the story. My Big Sister she's called, the daughter of a famous talk-show host, she's assigned to mentor me. From the same neighborhood in the city as me, we have only that in common. She says, Let's have a secret together. The gravel Circle where we do our obligatory rounds at three p.m., and the square lawn that borders us: the circle in the square, did I see, did I? It is obviously a code? Obviously Satanic, they're eating us alive. It's a trap, I suspect she's testing me, these questions of hers. Can you talk to ghosts? she asks. Your grandmother is a witch, false or true? Those rumors about me, she says, Can you turn me into a pig? On warm days we strip down to our white athletic uniforms and do calisthenics. She's so skeletal she reminds me of a ghost story about someone with missing limbs who creeps around at night stealing girls' legs. She's prancing around and showing off her new, starved body, she wants to look like an X-ray. I want to see everything. She compares the shapes of other girls to food, Dee-Dee has cottage-cheese thighs. Our speech teacher, a pear. Georgie's complexion, lemony. Only the Mademoiselle is perfect, a carrot stick. Just the idea of food makes my Big Sister puke. She sees how fat we're all getting on our regimen of cocoa and starch, it's especially noticeable in the older girls. The longer we are here, the fatter we get. Not that I notice, they're all beauties, all except me and the medieval trolls we call our Minders. All anyone can talk about is food, she says. The longer you're in here, the fatter you get, you live for the next meal.
Nobody speaks of it, but she's gone. That's something the headmistress never mentions to the parents when they bring their daughters here, the disgraceful way we ignore the disappearances. What happened, I imagine she collapsed, a slow fall, a flutter like a ribbon carried off by the devil she was sure lurked in the chapel tower. It's the simplest of family re-arrangements, you make the adjustments, she's lost for good. Although I am sad, or maybe not so sad, because she used to snitch on me to the Minders. I won't tell on you, not this time. But she would tell: My class tie was knotted an inch below my waistline instead of the required quarter-inch. I forgot the thirty-three Rules of Motives and Acts. I'm marched out of Morning Assembly and given a pink slip for an appointment with Ms. Glass, an alcoholic's nose like a tomato. I've got my eyes on you, young lady.
The days flow from one to the next, everyone's caught up in the illusion that nothing has changed since a hundred years. We're given vocabulary drills on the limestone terrace, posture class and elocution. The school is on a hill, the stone towers soar over the treetops, but we are not allowed to go to the river below, the train tracks, the town with its smelly Catholic churches. Only the senior girls are allowed to venture out there, so long as they obey the Rule of Three, sign in and sign out, with a detailed plan of action that has passed our housemother's inspection. But the seniors might as well not leave at all, they come back subdued and sorry they bothered to make the journey. There's no point in going over the details, it's scary somehow. Freedom: it's an empty privilege. When I imagine myself as a senior, all I can think is: I'll have to take a leap backward. I shouldn't envision anything. A wall divides our manicured acres from the shabby properties beyond, yonder, unseen. For the younger ones, for me that is, there's no sneaking over the wall without the risk of … My god, it's unbearable to think of it.
Her bed has disappeared from the room, we're only five now. Four of them crowd on one bed, each girl stripped down to her Pucci underwear. They giggle and tease, read their mail and gossip, they can't wait to fall in love over and over again. A continent is parked between me and them, I'm trying to think of a way to look busy, those binocular eyes of theirs see everything, I'm writing a letter to my parents who are dead, loopy, like skywriting, quickly erased, momanddadmomanddad. Their beds are shiny brass with damask sheets, but mine has a plastic spread over the bottom sheet because I'm a bed-wetter. It's so disgusting, but the girls are stuck with me. Invisible helpers have spread out our crisp, bleached shirts, our spare pairs of polished loafers with the brown flaps, our dry-cleaned blazers. My bed is made, my nightgown is hanging in the closet. Somehow the school manages to shuttle the busy laborers in and out, without my ever seeing them.
A new girl filched a bracelet from my Big Sister's makeup bag, weird all the stuff she left behind, and wouldn't have if it had been her choice to disappear. New Girl -- poof, she's gone. Whatever happens outside is happening here. Money flows in, out, away. The solid old names that are due to be debutantes -- gone. Replaced by more complicated unknowns, arrivistes who ape the old mores and at the same time mock them. I am gone, too. I entered school as a blonde -- the blonde personality, do we agree on what that implies? -- a mix of fine gold and white strands. And by the end of the first year my hair has turned raven black.
Behind my back, Madeleine-style, they line up in rows in the hall by the bathroom while I brush my teeth, no one wants to be in there with me, they take turns poking their heads in, gawk and snicker and complain what a hog I am. I have a new obsession: brushing my teeth. Our housemother is getting suspicious of me, I talk less and less, I brush my teeth on and on. The headmistress says it's the quiet ones you have to keep an eye on. My mother was the same, an angel when she wanted something, but she could be sneaky, so I hear. My mother went to the school, too. And my bossy aunt, too, who sends me newsletters from the John Birch Society and hoards gold and guns because riots are coming and blood will flow on the streets, as she tells me in her letters. We are all known as quite the handful, mom, my aunt, me. Oh, your mother, she was quite the person. I perk up my ears when the headmistress drops a hint here and there about those sly Hopps girls. I'd like to ask her why my mother was so bad, I'd like to ask my grandmother. I have all these questions I never ask anyone.
I gather my toothbrush and toothpaste and prepare to spend a long time in the bathroom. I'm dressed for dinner wearing my purple knit dress that Nana sewed for me, but not high heels, just sensible flats for a quick escape. The housemother is in her suite, listening to an afternoon opera on the radio, she can't imagine one of us would think of going out there, yonder. No one can imagine this. Her suite is the old ballroom, a grand palace, it goes without saying, with high ceilings and a crystal chandelier that highlights the faint roses stenciled on the walls. Anyone seeing me will suppose I'm off to do my usual teeth-cleaning. I don't know what's wrong with me, I want, I want, I want. I drop my toothpaste and toothbrush into the bathroom sink and go straight down the stairs and out the door.
So, I have snuck over the wall.
Anyone who dares to go over the wall: alarms will go off, sirens directly connected to the police station in town, sniffing hounds will be set on my trail.
Ms. Glass will engage a private detective to track my every move: this is true, she will do that. Already she is on the phone with the detective. I head straight to the river, it is the trajectory that leads back to the city, where I come from.
Down by the river, a narrow strip of overgrown grass and large rocks that are splashed by the waves made by passing ships. The train tracks divide the town from the river, just like the steep hill divides us from the town. There's a breeze off the river, smelling exotic and rancid like the open-air stalls in Chinatown. As night falls, trains arrive and depart frequently, roar in and roar out, the wind picks up, I have one image, and it is chilling: my grandmother in black lace waving goodbye to me on the stairs of her brownstone.
She will be dead soon, if she isn't already. In last week's letter she predicted it, when Mars twines with Jupiter, she'll be gone. Don't be sad, you'll always have your friends in school, friends for a lifetime, I'm just moving on to a different floor of God's mansion, she writes. She could stop it, she could stop her death, she knows the spells, but she doesn't.
When I squat peeing behind one of the rocks shoring up the riverbank, I imagine going into another room of God's mansion. The gulls float down to rest on the rocks, their eyes blinking, heads bobbing, alert, watching someone. Done. A flash of light that lasts no more than a second and she has slid into place, there. There she is, my Big Sister, skywalking above me. I could try and hide from her, but what would be the point of that? She with her sneaky watchfulness, she misses nothing. Now I know it's true -- out here, beyond the wall, there is nothing.
Back at school, girls are rushing past me clattering down the stairs, all dolled up in their dresses and heels, Better hurry up, Witch, you're late for dinner. Everything seems right, everything is pitch perfect, the screams of the girls, the excitement because dinner is the time to peel away the uniforms and show off our latest pretty dresses. The bulimcs pile their plates high, the anorexics pick at a lettuce leaf, I devour the prunes hollowed out with cream cheese, the chandeliers in the dining room are blinding, my heart beats like mad, everything is astonishingly delicious. The president of the senior class stands up to sing a brief solo, I think she is amazing, I'm clapping louder and longer than anyone, I whistle through my two fingers, I'm just so amazed by the talent of this girl. The headmistress taps her glass with a fork to silence everyone, Girls, we have a dance this weekend. A hush in the dining hall as we listen to the name of the school we'll be traveling to and the names of the boys who will be our "dates," the suspense is awful, no one wants to be stuck with a turd. Everyone knows who the turds are. Every girl except me knows all the boys, they meet up in Palm Beach in the spring, they summer on the northern coast of Maine, they ski in Aspen together. Pure hysteria for hours during dinner and after dinner and even after Lights Out, the girls squealing over who got who. So, this Saturday we are going to be hauled to the boys' school, one van following the next, a wandering tribe of teenage virgins.
Each of us is assigned to a specific boy, we must spend the entire evening stuck with this boy, whether we like him or not. This is to teach us commitment and manners, so we don't become stupid flirty girls rushing from one boy to the next. This is to teach us staying power, to make the best of any circumstance, no matter if we're stuck with the smelliest turd, this teaches us something like the miraculous transformative power of sheer will. Okay, so I am assigned to the ugliest pimple-boy in all of northern Connecticut, god, the looks the girls give me when they hear the headmistress call out the name of the boy. I'm sure it's no accident, this is not just bad luck: the headmistress of our school and the headmaster of the boys' school, they match girl with boy in advance, so when we arrive at the boys' school, the pairing is final.
The label of witch has traveled ahead of me, giving me the special distinction of having forty-four male strangers dreading me as a "date," so say my roommates. We're grouped in front of the massive fireplace, the boys lined up on the opposite side of the room, a wood-paneled salon in the boys' school, the dark wood sets off the color of our dresses, all the requisite white, egg-white, off-white, pearly, we're allowed slight deviations, but it must fall under the category of white. The boys wear black suits, black ties, white shirts, no deviations for them. Our names are called out, one by one, and we step forward to meet our assigned partners, it is all very solemn, like at a wedding, my name is called, and I step forward, and he walks toward me across the room, I curtsy, he bows, we wait until all the partners have found each other in this so-called lottery, each sun-kissed goddess paired with a sun-kissed god, and I have to keep smiling, smiling, I'm learning what the school teaches, grace under pressure. I join my white-gloved hand to my turd's white-gloved hand and we begin our stiff waltz, counting in our heads, stumbling over each other's shoes. How are you a witch? he asks me. Why do you call yourself Rocket? I ask him. Can you turn me into a rock star? he asks me. His hand is so little, it feels like I'm holding a sparrow. I'll write a song about you, he says, if you can turn me into a rock star. Okay, I say, I'll do that. Decades later I'll find him on YouTube, sucking on a microphone, his hair lit up in red, singing "Season of the Witch."
Rocket: here's to you.