I cast my first and only spell inside Sarah’s garage one night just as summer was cresting into fall. Actually, it was her parent’s garage and we both were only in Grand Rapids, our hometown, for the weekend. I hadn’t seen her in years, we were close in high school, in fact, I had the biggest crush on her back then, the kind that you brood over for months, but never act on for fear of any possible outcome from the exchange. Our friendship waned after departing for colleges in separate states, as these things tend to do, but from time to time we gave each other life updates. We made plans to meet next time we were both in town and met up at an old haunt, The Pyramid Scheme, a bar downtown known for its retro concert venue and pinball machines. It was packed that night, shoulder-to-shoulder even in the taproom, but somehow we scored a booth. I sat next to Sarah, her pitch-black hair illuminated in a bright pink glow from a nearby sign. I told her about a road trip I was about to embark on with three friends, over the booming music I yelled, “it’s about death, belief, and the supernatural!” We went back and forth about what I was planning on seeing while traveling; halfway through her cocktail Sarah turned to me, her skin, pale as snow, radiant in the darkness of the bar. She told me, “I’m a witch.”
“A witch?” I said. “You mean, for Halloween?” We both laughed, but she was serious. As we downed our drinks, Sarah rattled off a brief history of how she got into witchcraft. “Well, after graduating college I linked up with a friend and we started going to this feminist group. You know, drink wine and bitch about your problems with other girls. It was like a big community. Anyway, a few of them were into witchcraft and showed me the ropes.” She said it so casually, as if everyone did it, like I was the one who was an outlier in this equation. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I never took Sarah as someone to fall into believing something like witchcraft. It felt odd, bad even, like something you shouldn’t be doing. I didn’t believe in Christianity, but in that moment, I immediately thought of something satanic. I wondered how she could think putting some milk in a dish, lighting a candle, and filing some dust from a gemstone into a bowl could grant her some wish.
“So…” I lingered for a moment, tried to take what she was saying seriously. “What kind of spells do you do?” She smiled and drew closer. The music seemed to grow louder with each passing second. In my ear, she whispered, “well, the last spell I did was a hex,” I could practically feel her smiling as her words knocked against my eardrum. “Like, you cursed someone?” She nodded, practically giggling. I think we both knew how crazy it sounded, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued. “Who?” I took a final glug of my beer, “why?” I asked.
“My ex-boyfriend,” she said, spinning the glistening ice cubes in her glass with the straw. “So, he’d finally leave me alone, get on with his life.” I asked her if it worked, if she’d heard from him since she cast the spell. I was playing with her, I didn’t believe in curses, or that saying a few magic words would rile a God into doing your bidding, but I wanted to see where this conversation ended. When I think about this night though, settle into our exchange for a moment, I know that part of me did believe her. A part of me wanted to have the curtain pulled back on the world, wanted to see how the universe ticked and how we could manipulate it.
When she pulled into my driveway to drop me off later that night, I sat in her car for a moment thinking about everything she’d told me. “You know, now you’ve got to show me a spell,” I said opening the car door. She smiled. I imagine that she was just waiting for me to ask. Why else would you tell someone you cast spells in your free time?
Switching into reverse she said, “how about tomorrow night?”
Whenever my family talks about belief, about things we can’t quite understand, my mother always brings up the same story from when she was a little girl. She claims that one night while she and her younger sister sat in their room—door closed, shades down—something unbelievable happened. As the two of them talked, all of a sudden, the room began shifting around as if a giant had picked up their house and teetered it up and down like an old carnival ride at a county fair. The lights flickered on and off; a trunk slid across the room; their beds wobbled as if a tremor had shot through the ground; they screamed until their throats burned, and then my grandmother walked in to find everything in perfect order, not even a hair out of place on their heads.
My mom swears that this happened to her despite my father, brother, sister, and I making fun of it for the campfire tale it sounds like. As unbelievable as it sounds, I often find myself asking her questions about the event when she brings it up instead of simply dismissing it. How long did it last? Do both of you remember the same thing? Was anything broken? I’m sure that part of this inclination comes from wanting to explain away her experience, find a crack in the narrative’s integrity, show her that what happened didn’t happen. Maybe this comes from me wanting to quell any anxiety I feel one would have about experiencing such an event, but my mother doesn’t seem scarred by it, if anything, it seems to make sense to her. I don’t mean to suggest that she believes houses are known to move like teetertotters, or that the occurrence was normal, but that it seems this event has allowed my mother to explain that the world is, in fact, disorderly, strange, and sometimes even supernatural.
On the tail end of the road trip, we pulled into the driveway of a cookie-cutter home in Las Vegas, Nevada. Shira had told us about a friend of her mother’s who had a peculiar photograph that she constantly talked about. I had never been to Las Vegas and while we had stayed in the Stratosphere hotel, a giant of a building with an enormous tower erupting from the casino, it hadn’t crossed my mind that Vegas even had suburbs like this: the kind where each house is exactly the same except for what the residents put out on their lawns, or in this case, gravel.
Inside, we met Helen, a middle-aged mom with tan skin, golden and radiant, the kind you get from being outside as opposed to being under UV light. Her hair was dirty blonde, and curly as a corkscrew. Before sitting us down to talk about her photograph, she walked us through her house and introduced us to her four children, quadruplets, all in high school, who had an eerie quietness to them. In the living room, we sat on a long beige couch, and the kids huddled-up on the steps nearby, watching us, their hands holding their heads up in silent attention. “So, you all wanted me to tell you about the photograph of my mom, right?” Helen asked, her voice dry and scratchy, like someone who’d been smoking longer than I’d been alive. “Yeah, we heard that there was something special about it? About your mom?” I asked. She nodded and rummaged through a box filled with folders and a large white binder. “Oh, by the way, is it okay if we record?” It had become second-nature for us to ask this of everyone we interviewed. Helen agreed.
“Well, before I can show you the photograph, I’ve got to tell you a little about my mother,” she seemed excited about this. She loved her mom, they were best friends, practically attached at the hip, she told us. We’d opened a floodgate it seemed, Helen went on and on about her relationship with her mother: how they were business partners in Vegas and opened the first retail mall on Las Vegas boulevard; how her mother bought “go-steady earrings” for Helen as a teen because she didn’t have a boyfriend when all of her other friends did. “My mother died on a Tuesday. I remember because my kids had a big charity event with Garth Brooks happening later in the week and I really wished that she could have been there. I was so distraught that I didn’t go.” The kids went to the event with their father, Helen’s ex-husband, and that is where the photo in question was taken. “Are you all familiar with orbs?” Helen said, taking out one of the many copies of the photograph. “Orbs?” we asked.
The photograph is taken on an auditorium stage, it’s a mundane composition: a shot of everyone who participated in the charity event lined-up on bleachers, row after row. Helen’s children are in the front, beaming as they stand next to Garth Brooks who’s gripping his guitar and wearing one of his signature cowboy hats. In the upper-left quadrant of the photograph is a murky looking blob, no bigger than the circumference of a Bic pen. Helen points to the blob, “that is an orb. If you look real close, you can see my mother’s face in there. Do you see it?”
The garage was packed to the brim with motorcycle equipment. Sarah’s father was a complete gearhead, his glistening Harvey Davidson motorcycle parked strategically, it seemed, right under the ceiling light. I turned on my recorder and watched Sarah prepare the materials for her spell. She did not dawn a pointy black hat and flowing dress, instead, she wore everyday summer attire: jean shorts, a striped t-shirt, and some beat-up New Balance sneakers. No broomstick or cauldron was needed, and instead of a battered spell book, she used her iPhone to look up the spell’s instructions. Witchcraft, I’d later learn, had seen a resurgence in the last few decades, especially amongst groups of women. It is a belief system that, unlike religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, is largely focused around women. It empowers ideas of femininity and womanhood, and many of the deities are women, as well.
Taking out a plastic bag of white dust she poured it around us in a large circle, “first, we’ve got to make a protective circle with sea salt.” Next, Sarah took out four different colored gemstones to represent north (blue), east (white), south (red), and west (green), placing them in their respective positions surrounding a red candle.
Lighting the candle, she told me to think about what I wanted this spell to give me. Having just graduated from college, I thought about a job in radio, preferably in Minneapolis, if the gods were looking for something specific. “I call upon the creatures of the west, I call upon the creatures of the south…” she went down the list, calling upon the creatures of each direction for their powers. I’d learned from Sarah that there were all sorts of deities that practitioners of witchcraft believed in; how it all related back to your own personal beliefs. You’re into cooking? You can use kitchen utensils to cast your incantations; love hanging out in nature? You can forage all your materials from the wild. In a way, it seemed that witchcraft was the most chill belief system one could subscribe to, completely customizable to whatever your interests were.
After the spell was initiated, we had to sit in silence for thirty minutes contemplating our desire. As I sat in her humid garage thinking about the made-up job I wanted, I couldn’t help but smile, the whole thing felt a bit ridiculous, but at the same time, I could see why people got into it. I told myself it was a thought exercise like meditation. It was harder to do than I thought, for many people, myself included, doing nothing but thinking about something for thirty minutes has become a luxury. I could practically feel my phone’s gravity pulling my mind toward it. I wanted to believe that this whole thing would stirrup the universe, rally it to grant my wish.
Once the time was up, Sarah extinguished the candle and swept up the sea salt. She handed me the red candle, a bit smaller now than before, and told me very specific directions about what to do next. “Now, every Thursday you have to set out the candles, burn them for fifteen minutes, and think on that job until your wish comes true.” The cynic in me couldn’t help but think it convenient that one must return to the wish until it came true, it’s certainly one way to keep people believing. “And another thing, don’t forget to leave a bowl of milk outside tonight as an offering,” she said.
On the car ride back to my place we took the long way. Barreling down one-lane rural roads, farmland and McMansions blurring around us, we talked about what just happened. “I didn’t expect casting spells to be so much work,” I said. If anything became apparent to me during the whole process it was that casting spells was deliberate. One can’t simply go to a church service for an hour and close the books until next week. “Yeah, for me, it’s all about the ritualistic aspect of it, you know? The process,” Sarah said and took a sharp turn up a winding hill. Witchcraft seemed less about the mystical, and more about being mindful. Instead of foregoing the outcomes of your life and choices to forces out of your control, you use those forces to center your actions. “To me,” Sarah continued, “it seems foolish that people can go about their lives not believing in anything. I think humans need it in some way to make sense of their lives. Maybe that’s just me.” Inside my house, I set up the candles in my room, thought about the job a little longer, and went to bed.
I grew up in the Episcopalian church. My parents—especially my father—are God-fearing folks. I dressed in suit and tie every Sunday for mass as a kid; I sang in the choir for years, and even was an acolyte, carrying a heavy alter candle around the cathedral as my father carried the cross. But when I think of these years of my life—elementary school to middle—I don’t recall ever truly believing in what I’d learned in church. I prayed, sang hymns, went on retreats, said grace before eating, but I was just going through the motions. I was a reluctant participator.
At some point in middle school, I told my parents I didn’t want to go to church anymore, and they stopped forcing me to go, but I still can recall distinct memories of praying to God after that. Sometimes these prayers would be incredibly shallow like asking God for a PlayStation 2, a bicycle with five gears, to be transported to whatever fantasy world I’d been reading about. Other times, however, were more serious: in the darkness of my room I’d lay in bed, my face digging into a pillow, eyes closed, hands clasped together, and plead with God to fix things, “Oh Lord God, please grant me this one wish…” These wishes ranged from stopping my mother, who during my high school years struggled with drinking; protecting my older sister who’d been deployed to fight in Iraq; saving my family from financial collapse after the foreclosure of my childhood home. All of these wishes came true, in one way or another, but when all is said and done, I don’t attribute these outcomes to a higher power, although my parents often do.
In fact, it irks me when accomplishments are attributed to forces out of our control. My parents are the type to tell me, “we’ve lit a candle for you,” or “we’ve sent out a bunch of prayers,” whenever I’m applying to a new job, school, or contest. When I receive a positive outcome in any of these endeavors, a number of platitudes come at me through the phone receiver when I call them up and tell them the news. For me, these proclamations take away agency, take away my own hard work and place it onto something outside of me. But for them, God was part of the process, his presence in my life (whether I believe it or not) is part of the reason for my success. This is their truth, and truth isn’t always as cut and dry as I’d like it to be.
In photography, an “orb” appears in a photograph when the camera’s flash illuminates dust or other particles in the air. It happens a lot when capturing moments in the rain or poorly lit rooms, like an auditorium. But there is a large community of people who believe these imperfections are evidence of the paranormal that exist all around us. Ghosts, rips in the fabric of our reality that reveal the otherworld existing right under our feet.
“Do you see it?” Helen asked again and again as we stared at the photograph on the table. The grey orb had some discoloration in it that, if I allowed my imagination to wander even a little bit, I could make out facial features. An arching black line looking like a nose, a darker grey dot suggesting an eye, its overall misshapen form like a head in three-quarters view. It was like seeing a face in the clouds, if you look long enough your brain starts connecting the dots. “Yeah…” I said formulating my explanation. “Right here is the nose and…right there is an eye…and is this the chin?” By now the kids had shifted from the stairs to standing around us joining in on our observation. “Exactly,” Helen exclaimed. I felt as if we’d opened Pandora’s Box; there was no turning back. She turned to her kids, “they see it guys, they see it!” The kids’ faces lit up, and they drew closer taking another look at the photograph that I imagined they’d scoured over hundreds of times before.
“When I’d gotten the photos developed, the guy who did them for me was the one who clued me in about the orbs. He told me I should send them in to a paranormal investigator, that I might have something.” We listened to her go on with her story, how she showed it to her sister and the rest of the family and how they all thought she was crazy. How their relationship is strained now, and how even her ex-husband doesn’t see it. I asked her if she ever sent it to a paranormal investigator to see what they thought. She hadn’t and didn’t plan to either. While orbs are a popular topic of conversation among paranormal investigative circles, many spend most of their time disproving claims of the supernatural. I couldn’t help but think that that is why Helen never sent the photo in to be looked at. While she seems okay with disputing claims with her family, having an expert’s judgment might be harder to swallow.
Helen pulled out her laptop, powered it on, and opened a digital version of the photograph. On the computer, she blew up the section of the picture containing the orb until it was a gradient of pixelated grey squares. She hovered her mouse over different portions of the image giving us more and more “evidence” as to the orb being her mother’s face. I felt bad that we fibbed about seeing Helen’s mother in the photograph. Not only did it seem important to her, but the kids also gave off a sense of relief that there were others who could see what they saw, give some assurance that they weren’t crazy. While some may argue that Helen might need some help, I’m not so sure. It’s so easy to get caught up in the truth of things, but what would denying her truth do for me? Seeing her mother in the orb seemed to allow her to navigate this world a bit easier, and I don’t think there is any harm in that.
We stood patiently, letting her walk us through the photograph, but then she threw us a curveball, “for me, it’s not really about it being real or not,” she closed the laptop and we moved back to the couch. “That’s not what’s important,” she said. “There’s so much going on in this world…There must be a reason I can see it and so many people can’t. It helps me remember her, tells me she’s still here.”
I have always admired people that can so resolutely believe in something beyond themselves. Especially in today’s world where each day many of us walk around with a slender pane of glass containing circuits, wires, and other doodads capable of answering any question that comes to our mind. Well, besides the biggest one: why are we here? What’s the point? It’s easy to not believe in anything, to live within a realm where nothing and everything is possible all at once. Faith requires work, and to a nonbeliever like me, it seems to be equal parts freeing and paralyzing to wander through the world with the mindset that some sort of spectral puppeteer is working behind the scenes in constant judgment of your actions. I know, however, that it is a flawed belief to think that how I navigate my life is not majorly affected by the ideas I was brought up to believe, despite looking at them differently today.
From time to time, I’ll attend church with my father just to humor him, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy anything about going. The parishioners are incredibly warm, the organ music is beautiful, and it does feel empowering to be in a room with others who all are working toward a similar thing, yearning for a world that reflects their own values. Community seems to be a big part of having faith in something, it can morph an outlandish idea in one’s head into something grounded, give them reassurance that they aren’t the only ones thinking what they do. It’s so easy to end up feeling alone in this world, it makes sense to subscribe to things that bring you toward others instead of away from them.
The week after Sarah and I cast the spell, I followed her instructions as closely as I remembered. I sat out on the porch, the sky darkening as if someone slowly slid the light switch off. I set up the candles we’d used in her garage and lit a match. It made a sharp snap as it ignited. While the candle burned for fifteen minutes, I thought about that job in Minneapolis, what my life might be like, what I’d need to do in order to achieve my goal. At one point, my roommate’s steps sounded against the wood porch as he crept in from a late shift at work. I felt silly sitting outside looking at a candle the size of an unused cigarette, especially when there was a firepit right behind me, but I stuck with it. The process of grounding myself in my desire, working through why and how I was going to accomplish it was refreshing.
It is hard for me to believe that Sarah thinks these spells actually are doing anything concrete in our world. But I do believe that they can open a door to power that many feel they’ve lost in our contemporary moment. Much like following a recipe, performing these spells seems to be more about self-discovery, evaluating one’s own life, realizing that you do have the skills to accomplish your goals, but also, like many belief systems, it’s a way to connect with others, make sense of the world that we walk through each day.
In the weeks that follow, I will burn the candle until it is a bubbling stump, thinking about the job. I will go on the road trip with my friends meeting all sorts of people along the way: two women who have tried to reconnect with their dead dog through the skills of a psychic; a nurse who has communicated with the dead since she was a child; Helen and the photograph she believes holds the face of her mother, and so many more. I will learn that truth isn’t always quantifiable, that sometimes it is not what we touch, see, or hear, but instead what we feel inside of ourselves, even if we are the only one who does. I will come home from the trip and think about that job in Minneapolis some more after visiting the city during the adventure, but I will never get that job. I will curse the Gods to whom I’d burned that candle for and had wasted so much time projecting my thoughts on to, but then I will come to terms with it all. I will realize that, all along, I’d forgotten to leave out the milk.
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