2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
We Were Witches Once
We were witches once. That night in Prospect Park, we stayed after the lake drowned the sun. Draped in our capes—Mercury in her black velvet fringed wrap, Scarlett with a faded rainbow scarf wrapped around her head and shoulders so that her full lips and blonde hair were shadowed by moonlight, and me, Onyx, lifting my arms to let the early October air run through my red poncho which waved against my knees.
Those weren’t our given names, of course, but birthright held no significance that night. We were different women— triplets, fallen queens, a coven, claiming the land, the entire park, as ours. We hailed from Indiana, but this was our new realm. Mercury knelt to the ground, ripped grass at the root, inhaled, and kept the bit of earth in her pocket.
Now, the lake rippled before us, reflecting the lights of Brooklyn, and I knew that a lady with long, green dreaded hair lived at the bottom-- she was the one who had swallowed the sun and named me after the color of her realm at night. Our favorite time. The three of us walked the footpath around the ring of water, lost in the woods, yet unconcerned. Heavy clouds hid most of the moon but the lady would keep us safe as long as we stayed close, for she knew we were of her kind. I wanted to graze her hand, slippery and treacherous as an eel, but my sisters warned me I would be too tempted to let her grab my wrist and tug, so I resisted.
“I feel like… no one could possibly hurt, or threaten, or even scare us right now,” Scarlett proclaimed, lifting her scarf in the air so that it blew like my poncho.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Mercury said, her high-pitched voice sounding more melodic than usual. “I feel peaceful.”
In our small town, there would have been no reason to fear the local park after sunset, with its sturdy, symmetrically paved sidewalks, trimmed hedges, and one swing that was blown by the wind as if a cautious suburban mother were pushing a toddler. Greenwood Park neighbored Greenwood Cemetery, so late at night the three of us would creep over the fence that separated them and make the graves our playground. But here, in Brooklyn, walking at night in Flatbush was not an option. As seen from afar, we were three white, vulnerable, and arguably attractive, young women, so being in Prospect Park after dark should have made us wary. Was it race or womanhood that rendered us victims? Police strolled up and down those streets all night, but they didn’t seem to touch the park, and I walked through arrests, fights, and cat-calls regularly-- especially by Ocean Avenue, on the way to the B or Q line, though always Q on the weekends-- at the Church Avenue Station. Those cherished 3 am night walks in Indiana were no more.
So this act, simply drifting through the park like lights on the lake, the clouds across the moon, the night air through my poncho, felt like breaking all the rules that we’d made for ourselves; it felt like breaking curfew. Still, it was necessary. Why should we be trapped, locked indoors, barred from moonlit ramblings, by fear? Witches knew no fear.
“I feel powerful,” I added. “I feel weird.” I’d put a name to the exact emotion, and we all began to giggle, quietly at first, but then louder, and louder, until our cries made the wind and the lady laugh with us. The waves in the lake flowed to our laughter.
Then, drums. Without rhythm, hardly heard, echoing across the lake. They seemed to have begun with our joy. We all stopped and looked into the blackness across the lake where the sound originated and simultaneously decided to find Drummer’s Grove. A small sign in the ground revealed the formal title of the place where people brought and shared drums and dance on Sundays. We had walked by many times during the day, always staying for a few moments and then wandering away; we felt like outsiders amidst the sense of community. Spectators, not participants. While we watched, though, I had felt that there was something under the surface of the drums. The beats. The dances. The chants.
Later, I would learn that Haitian voodoo was a secretive practice in Flatbush, after finding newspaper articles about a ritual-induced apartment fire. I knew nothing more. Scarlett, Mercury and I moved from Indiana to live on the fourth floor of a pre-war apartment building on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Albemarle Road, and the only other people we knew in Brooklyn were our superintendent and his wife. Eventually I made a friend, an older black man who sat outside all day smoking cigarettes, and we always chatted when I came outside to walk my dog (“Ay boy, come here, boy,” knowing her name was Lucy), but I dared not ask him about voodoo.
Voodoo. A word I thought I understood as a child: a sinister doll strategically stuck with pins, intending torture. My cousin and I had tried it once with a Barbie, but our babysitter did not feel a thing. Other than that, the only witchcraft I knew was Wicca. During those gothic teenage years that all three of us underwent, I learned of alters, serpents, five-pointed stars, and my mother had reacted with a fierce distaste—“You are not a Wiccan,” she spat, right after telling me that smoldering my eyes with so much eyeliner made me look hard. But I wanted to be hard, tough; I wanted to wear black eyeliner that made my gray eyes like stones instead of murky bathwater; I craved otherworldly powers that would make me impenetrable to pain or fear, powers that instead could make me the source of pain and fear, if I so desired. I wanted to believe that I could conjure such strength. At that point, believing that this power wasn’t real was weaker than believing in a seemingly false religion.
Time passed. I stopped believing in anything outside of myself.
As we made our way, I had a feeling that we were walking towards something much more complex than my childish longings, and more powerful than the magic the three of us could channel. The music pulled us through the darkness and, trance-like, we followed the increasing volume, the rapidity of the pounding. The drums knew. Ah, yes, three weak witches are arriving. The lady must have mentioned us.
Our path became simple and straight, as if the land had morphed, leading us directly to our fated destination, and the wind pushed us forward with her gentle, cold hands. We ceased our speech and laughter, meditating. No one mentioned fear, no one asked, “Should we?” There was no choice. I walked in the center, Mercury and Scarlett slightly behind me, creating the tip of the star. The unspoken leader, I questioned my coronation. Would I be the one to introduce us to the drummers? Would I be the one to negotiate a peace treaty?
To the left, a rustic hand-made structure, almost like a gazebo, hovered on the edge of the lake (I wondered, briefly, if we could sleep there), and to our right, the Parkside Avenue exit loomed, revealing the city that we’d escaped only momentarily. Through the clearing in the trees we saw the semi-circle, formed by so many bodies. Most were drumming or dancing around the small candle in the center, but some were sitting on benches and basking. My sisters and I slowed. Scarlett asked, “What now?” The hidden message: could we come and see without conquering? What kind of witches were we?
Unabashed, incautious Mercury responded by dropping her bag and spinning, throwing her arms up in the air, the fringe flying through air like spiders clinging to her skin. The group started to turn towards us. We were just on the edge, not yet completing their circle. Were they wondering what three white girls could want? I had the urge to grab Mercury, pull her back, remind her to know her place, now was the time to observe, but then Scarlett joined and I was alone. Never before had I held myself back or been left behind. Two girls our age started to laugh from the benches and I knew we were fools. I was embarrassed for my sisters, embarrassed for myself, until—well, until the singing. Ayyyyy-yiii-yii-yii, the woman standing next to the girls sang. Ayyyy-yiii-yii-yii, she sang with the drums. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her hair was twisted in an elaborate silk scarf, she had high, glowing cheekbones and lips so red. I wondered if this could be the lady of the lake, risen and taken human shape. By her smile I knew that she was singing for us.
With the lady’s insistence, I slithered into the circle with my sisters and began to sway to the beats. Mm, the music, that was the real magic. I wondered if we were intruding on a religious ritual, but I stopped caring as I started dancing.
Ayyyy-yiii-yii-yii, the lady sang, and a man from within the greater circle began to wave us over. He greeted us with a slight bow, and then signaled for us to all join hands. I took his hesitantly (it was rough and thick, he didn’t grasp mine tightly), but then I realized that this was the peace offering. The man’s eyes were pure and his smile genuine. Could he really want to share with us, knowing what we were? Mercury, always the freest of us three, grabbed his hand and lifted their arms in the air, and even Scarlett looked comfortable to be included. While we had excluded ourselves previously, now we had the chance to join, partake, connect. I breathed, I let go of the false fear that I had instilled upon myself, I squeezed his hand, I saw the men and women around us smiling and smoking and drumming and laughing and kissing. I wanted to kiss someone. Our circle spun around the candle, arms sweeping up and swooping down. All the while, the lady sang Ayyy-yiii-yii-yii with her smile in her voice; she sang it like she knew me.
“Wait, wait, wait,” the man said, releasing his hold. “Watch.”
He crossed his wrists so that the back of his hands were touching and then uncrossed them, closing his palms in prayer pose. Rolling his shoulders and chest down (so tall, so thin, I remember thinking), he twirled his hands, in no specific pattern, at his ankles. Slowly he rose, lifting his arms over his head, and repeated the same motion, saying, “Now, you try.” We clumsily followed his lead. I felt like a child again; we were all laughing at ourselves. He was with us. No, we couldn’t quite pull off his move, but I know now that his wanting to teach us meant something. The drums seemed to crescendo again; they had a way of finding a mutual seat of beats, bringing the song to its climax, and then starting anew. The rebirth was always uncertain as they searched for the inevitable rhythm.
We stayed in the circle for what felt like an hour but may have only been a few minutes. Dancers and drummers began to disburse. Adults carried their children home, smiling in passing and the young girls and their laughter had left without my noticing. The lady kept singing as she sauntered away, her voice becoming muffled like a song sung under water. Our friend took our hands again and lifted them towards the center of the circle, over the candle.
Now that the drums had stopped, what was there to say? He let us go.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I ventured awkwardly.
“It’s very nice,” he laughed, not at all awkward. “My name is Abdul. I will walk you out. Just to there,” he pointed towards the Parkside Avenue exit. “Just to there.” He repeated this, I think, for our reassurance. It made me cringe. “Hold your sisters’ hands.” He reached out again. We formed a diamond as we walked. He led us. Mercury and I, still connected to him, were slightly behind, and Scarlett, connected to us, made the bottom point. On our way, everyone lingering in the park (mostly the young black men, one who yelled, “All three for you?”), looked at us like they knew. The witches were protected.
We said goodbye to Abdul, he kissed our hands, he asked us to return, he told us to be safe. I felt my magic diminish as we walked into the streets and away from the park, but I did not wish to voice this. I wanted to pretend. We would never know if the dancing and the drums were truly witchcraft. We would not return to the grove, though we always smiled to ourselves whenever we would pass. We had already received such a gift. As we walked into the night undisturbed, as the moon still struggled to escape the clouds, as the lady sank back into the lake, as Abdul watched us go away, I wondered, would we ever be like this again?