by Rachel Calnek-Sugin
Once upon a time I had an aunt who was a witch. She lived in a white wooden house with a rickety wicker porch surrounded by fields of poppies. There wasn’t a square foot of her three or four acres in rural Northern Louisiana that wasn’t bursting with them. From late March until early May, there must have been thousands of flowers that dotted the landscape like flecks of paint or dribbles of blood with petals that all seemed to unfurl on the same day in an astonishing explosion of red.
The red was brilliant enough from afar, but when I got close, it made me a little woozy. It was the kind of color it was impossible to imagine when I wasn’t looking right at it. I say the kind of color instead of the color itself because it was more a feeling than any specific hue. It seemed to me there was a range of shades that belonged only to the insides of things: the core of the earth, the guts of our bodies. Color that peeled my eyes right open. Like when my pupils dilate and I’m suddenly able to see the world in exquisite detail: the patterns the trees make in the water, the beads of dew on the grasses, each individual dot of rust, like burnt orange Braille, on the old bridge across the riverbed in the woods behind our house.
The inside of each poppy could have been its own tiny flower: the deep purple petals of the pistil impossibly feathery and complex, the rings of dark and light, the way the whites bled into oranges before the oranges bled into that mind-boggling, heart-wrenching red. It was like cutting into a bell pepper and finding another miniature pepper—a bright, bulbous growth—attached to the inner skin. I always feel shy when I look into flowers, like I’m peering at something extremely private. I feel like I’m being watched, too; like maybe the stamen recognizes me as some foreign presence, and I tend to shrink, chastened, back into myself.
I asked Dad why Aunt Evelyn lived in such a strange, rickety house in the middle of nowhere and why she never left.
Because she’s a witch, he answered.
And why is the house surrounded by flowers—what kind of flowers are they?
Poppies, Dad said,
Yes, why is the house surrounded by poppies, so many that there isn’t even a path cut through to walk?
Because she’s a witch, he said again.
I think the poppies are beautiful, I said.
Maybe you’re a witch too, he suggested.
I considered this possibility with the utmost seriousness. I was a precocious child who took myself so seriously that adults found it amusing. By the time I was eight, I had a pronounced, worried furrow between my eyebrows that I shared with my mother, with whom I shared almost everything. Inheritor of her stubbornness and ferocity, I was smart enough to know that it was as likely magic existed as that it didn’t.
I thought maybe Aunt Evelyn could read minds, because the only time she’d ever come to visit us, when I was nine or ten—which Dad said was the one time she’d left her own house all year, though he was prone to exaggeration—she sat me down and tried to send me words. I looked so intently at her face that my eyes started to water, and after we’d been sitting in silence for an excruciatingly long time, she would urge me to try, just try. My mind was always a complete and total blank. Once, I said hummingbird, which was flat-out a guess, but it was apparently the word in Aunt Evelyn’s head. She clapped her hands together and actually started to cry.
It would have been impossible to prove that magic didn’t exist, and lack of evidence to the contrary seemed a good enough reason to believe in most things. We were a God-fearing family, after all, which meant we had to be okay getting some things by suggestion.
No, my mother would disagree, gesturing around her at whatever expanse of world happened to be there. If this isn’t evidence that God made this earth for us, she would say, I don’t know what is.
My mother is infuriating to argue with, since she always stays calm and insists she respects your opinion, but I don’t think she’s ever once changed her mind about anything. She used to sneak her mom cigarettes in the hospital even though the woman was intubated and on oxygen; that’s what her sense of loyalty is like. Dad and I are pretty sure that she’s never apologized in her whole life.
Like she might say, I saw the mother of those ISIS kids you’re friends with at the grocery store and she was actually very sweet.
Mom, I’d say, Those kids aren’t ISIS, they’re Muslim.
She would nod thoughtfully and smile. She’s more comfortable sitting with silence than anybody I’ve ever met, and she has this way of looking at me quietly, intently, after I’ve finished talking, which means that I’ll almost always add something else, even if I’ve already said my piece.
Muslim is a religion and ISIS is a terrorist organization, I’d say. Well, Islam is the religion, but people who practice Islam are Muslims—and most of them are normal people like you and me and Dad. Not that there was so much that was particularly normal about our family but that was besides the point.
I respect your opinion, she’d say.
Mom, I’d say, That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact.
I think Aunt Evelyn was kind. When I broke my leg by falling out of a tree as a seven year old, she sent a paper-wrapped package with homemade ointments in green glass jars that would soothe the joints, calm the bloodflow, knit the bones back together. I applied them meticulously, since I wasn’t able to get out of bed for six weeks, and had nothing to do but lounge around and rub on salves and make up stories. The stories were lengthy, rambling things, rich with description and heavy with internal monologue, where nothing much happened until something terrible at the end. When my parents came home from work, they took turns sitting at the foot of my bed, recording everything I came up with. They thought I was a genius and I believed them.
Breaking my leg was probably the worst thing that had happened to me so far, which meant I was both devastated and invigorated by it. It was a dramatic injury—the femur is the biggest bone in the whole body—and when Dad ran after the source of my screaming, he said he could see the bone protruding right out into the air. In reality, lying in the rented hospital bed and being in pain all the time was just about the dullest thing I could imagine. But there was a certain relief in having an anchor for all the ways I felt like shit. I was so exhilarated by the idea that maybe something truly bad had happened to me that I sometimes wondered whether I hadn’t fallen out of that tree on purpose.
I can only remember going to Aunt Evelyn’s house three or four times. The visits were never long and I could tell that sitting on her porch made Dad uncomfortable. I thought maybe she had betrayed him in some terrible way when they were children and that he had never forgiven her. Dad says I was old even when I was young because I thought these things even then.
Mom never made it all the way to the porch. She would get distracted by the flowers. She was a woman who took forever to walk anywhere because she had to stop so many times along the way to look at the bugs and the birds. She was constantly pointing to them when I walked with her—Look at that tree, she would say, or, Do you see that woodpecker?—without ever adding any analysis of her own. As if what was noteworthy was plainly discernible—which it tended be, once I paid a little attention. She was always coming home and emptying her pockets of rather average looking rocks and leaves. She was disappointed by the piles when she made them. It was always that way, she said. Everything looked so beautiful where it belonged but when you took it home it was just another cheap souvenir. She would say things like that and Dad and I would meet each other’s eyes and giggle.
Dad and Aunt Evelyn’s brother, Eddie, lived on the West Coast. For some reason I never called him Uncle Eddie, just Eddie. He had moved to San Fransisco, he told me (after I went to college and became a leftist and a lesbian and he started sitting next to me, with an exaggerated huff of relief, at every family gathering) because it was the gayest city in the world. He said he and Dad and Aunt Evelyn had grown up in the most stifling conservative small-town place and as an adult he was determined to be the opposite of everything his childhood had demanded. He’d set out to become flamboyantly gay and disgustingly rich and had succeeded on both counts. Mom said he was a man with a terrible idea of what would make him happy.
She was often openly rude to him, but I respected how open she was about her rudeness, and about her disdain for all forms of wealth. Mom and I agreed that beheading the bourgeoise would be a practical solution to a good deal of our social ills; after that, our politics diverged. It was maddening, really, that we could believe in such different things with such similar seriousness.
I’d go with Dad to pick Eddie up at the airport whenever he came to visit. We always stopped at Waffle House on the way home, where Eddie would order three separate meals— two of them savory and one of them sweet—which he would polish off methodically, one after the other. He said Grace before each one. In my house we always said something we were personally grateful for right after we said Grace, which was never something I never felt cynical about; I just thought it was nice. I think gratitude is probably the best emotion in the world because it can transform you completely. Dad and I drank coffee and hot chocolate, respectively, and the waitress filled our cups with a thermos from the warming tray whenever they were half-drunk. At some point Dad would suggest that Eddie return to the South—You can come back, you know—and Eddie would give him a look that would make us retreat to our hot beverages for a long while. Then one of them would bring up Aunt Evelyn, which was a great source of camaraderie for them since they both pitied her more than they pitied each other. Eddie’s pity was a sugary, sympathetic thing; Dad’s was sharper, more sarcastic. As soon as we got to the house, Eddie excused himself to the bathroom to throw up before we sat down to the food my mother had prepared.
It isn’t until I move up North for school and start getting medicated for my own depression that I think to doubt my parents’ asserted satisfaction with their lives. In general I take people at their word and that’s something I like about myself. I ask Mom, on the phone, if she’s happy, and she says: I have the makings of a good life. What the fuck does that mean? At home over spring break, she accuses me of being addicted to my medication. I admit that readily. Of course I’m addicted to drugs, I say. Who wouldn’t be?
I’ve started thinking a lot about Aunt Evelyn. As a child, I had had a lot of questions about her since I was pretty sure she was the only witch I had ever met in the flesh before. Also because I was diligently attempting to get to the bottom of whether or not I was a witch, too. I didn’t particularly want or not want to be one, but I thought it would be a useful thing to know. Dad and Eddie answered my questions patiently during those drives back and forth from the airport, like a game of twenty questions.
Can she levitate? I asked.
They didn’t think so. Maybe when she gets angry, Eddie said.
She does have a powerful rage.
Can she survive without food?
Longer than most people can.
Can she make potions?
She sent you those ointments when you broke your leg.
Can she die?
They thought so, but it was hard to be absolutely sure of that about anyone.
Can she curse people?
They agreed right away that she could, there wasn’t any doubt about that.
I wanted to know if she could leave her body, or travel through time, or feel pleasure as powerfully as pain. If I had had the words for it, I would have asked if she could meld her soul with another soul so that there really was no distance between them. Or if she could transform herself into some other kind of creature. If she could become invisible or see the future. I tried to think about powers I would have liked to have myself, though I was also practical, and asked about powers I was almost positive I did not possess, for the sake of the scientific method. I think I was trying to imagine what powers a person could have that would make life more bearable. But it was hard to envision what could be different about oneself that would really transform anything fundamentally.
Aunt Evelyn died of an overdose when I was eleven. The fields of flowers are lush around the ruins of her white wooden house. It’s as if the sun and the rain have been tending to them in her memory. At the height of the summer, when the days are longest and hottest, the blossoms die back and the pods form, pale green at first, then a slow, crackling brown. They shed their seeds in little spurts, and the wind carries them wherever it wants, and they take root in the soil, whether the neighbors like it or not.
The house is at that point where the relationship between the planks and the trees has become obvious again. The underbrush is wildly lush. Each poppy is radiant in being alive. It’s a relief to glimpse all this: what the world will look like when there aren’t people, to see that it’ll be so beautiful.
I get out of there as fast as I can. I stop at a gas station and pick up a sandwich—roast beef with tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss—and eat it from my lap while I drive. It’s dark by the time I arrive at the house. Mom has already gone to bed upstairs, and Dad has fallen asleep on the couch—waiting up for me, I guess—in the strange blue light of the television.
Rachel Calnek-Sugin is a writer, educator, and almost-social worker committed to the openness of the soul in all its forms! She writes stories, creative nonfiction, and plays about the weird, vast lives of women and girls, the aliveness of natural things, and people trying to make life bearable on this violent and beautiful earth. You can find their work in Joyland, The Nashville Review, SNARL, and elsewhere. Rachel currently lives in Brooklyn, teaches creative writing, and does therapy with youth impacted by mass incarceration.
Photo source: Adam Jones/Unsplash