Modern Witches

Arietta sat with folded legs on the living room floor, her face matching the discarded balls of wrapping paper beside her scrunch for scrunch.  The young goat being cradled in her lap looked up and started to nibble at the untidy ends of Areitta’s flaxen hair.  She shoved its head away and went back to sulking.

It wasn’t fair.

“Ah, love, your face will stick like that you know.”

Arietta forced her face to fold even further.  She knew that was a load of rubbish for a start, just like everything else she had read and thought was true.

Her mother sat down beside her, and Arietta steeled herself against the comforting aroma of incense and lavender clinging to her clothes and hair.

“Maybe we could bottle you up and start selling you in the village? I’m sure you could curdle milk better than any curse.”  She brushed a hand against Arietta’s cheek.  “Try a smile, love.  Witches only have one coming-of-age celebration after all.”

“I know that!”  Arietta glared at her mother from beneath her fringe, and then at the other grown-ups in the room.  Then she glared at the goat, just so it knew that she was holding it just as responsible as the rest of them.  “That’s why a wanted a broom!”

Her mother sighed.  “Not this again.  Come now, love, you’ve had lots of other wonderful gifts—and you can probably fly on most of them.”

“Fly on a goat?” Arietta glared at the animal as though it was its own fault it had been gift-wrapped in a shape that looked vaguely broom-like if you tilted your head and squinted.  And ignored the bleating.  “How am I supposed to fly on a goat?”

“Well…” Her mother grinned at her.  “You start by avoiding the horns.”

Sitting in the corner, Old Nanny Wedlock began to snigger into her cake.  “Oh I could tell you a story about the time I sat on—”

Thank you, Mother, but we’ve all heard that story enough times already.”

Arietta studied her mother’s tight-lipped expression for a moment before copying it.  “I’m going to get laughed at flying on a stupid goat.”

The goat somehow managed to look both hurt and offended at her words.  Arietta bit her lip as she met its gaze, and then pulled the animal into a tight hug.  “I’m sorry you’re not a broom,” she whispered into its ear.

“There’s always that nice stool I got you,” one of her aunts offered, “or—”

“But I wanted a broomstick!  All the other kids my age have one.”  Arietta stuck out her lip.  Some coming-of-age party this was turning out to be—how was she supposed to grow up if nobody was giving her the means to?

“Don’t remind me.”  One of her other aunts pulled a face.  “Young Clover crashed into my chimney the other day.  Going a right old speed she was.”

“That’s the shape of it for you,” added a third aunt with a shake of the head.  “Modern witches are just so obsessed with being trendy.”

“I blame this Harry Potter fellow.  Kids have terrible role models these days.”

As they spoke Arietta tugged her hair out of the goat’s mouth once again.  None of that was true either!  She still had her copy of Le Champion des Dames.  She couldn’t read French at all, but she knew the book was much much older than Harry Potter, and it had pictures of witches riding brooms inside of it.  That surely had to count for something.

“Brooms are used for purifying, the first aunt continued.  “Every witch should know that.  You have to sweep impurities away before casting spells.”

“Or keep them across the front door to protect your home,” added a fifth.  Or was she the sixth?  Arietta frowned, just how many aunts did she have anyway?

“Or to fly?” she added hopefully.  Her shoulders began to sag as a collective sigh filled the room.

In the silence that followed, her mother wrapped an arm around her and pulled her into an embrace.  “Here, love,” she said softly, pressing a small bundle into her hands.  “One more.”

Arietta looked down at the cloth package and quickly unwrapped it.  She blinked, confused.

“Herbs?”

“Nightshade,” her mother corrected, “and black henbane, Devil’s snare and some mandrake too.  Maybe this evening I’ll show you how you can turn all of this into a special ointment that you can rub on something to make it fly.”

“I know where else you can rub it—”

“Yes, thank you, Mother.  We’ve all heard those stories too.”

Arietta stared at the herbs for a moment, thinking.  Flying ointment was all well and good, but it still didn’t change the fact that she had no broomstick to use it on.  Then she leapt up with a grin and, pausing to press a quick kiss against her mother’s cheek, scampered out of the cottage with the goat hard on her heels.

She didn’t have a broomstick yet.

It took her just minutes to find the right sized ash branch and a pile of straw, but turning them into a broomstick was much more difficult, not least because the goat kept trying to eat her efforts.

But she eventually succeeded.  Sitting on the muddy ground with strands of straw poking through her hair and clothes, Arietta gazed at the broomstick in her hands.

She had never made anything on her own before.  Her vision blurred for just a moment, and then she was running back towards the cottage, holding the broomstick aloft as she burst through the front door.

“I’ve got a broomstick for when we’ve made the ointment!”  She beamed at each of the grown-ups in turn as she mentally checked off what else she would need for her very first twilight flight.

A frown darkened her face.  “Hey, I never got a pointed hat either!”

Her mother’s gaze drifted around the room before settling back on Arietta.  “Well, love, the thing about witches and pointed hats is…”

 

Arietta stormed back out of the cottage, clutching some fabric and her sewing box, and with the hopeful-looking goat still hard on her heels.

Seriously, was anything she had read about witches actually true?

 


 

I’ve always been a firm believer that you should learn at least one new thing when writing a story.  If nothing else it helps to add new concepts and ideas to your repertoire for future projects (particularly if, like me, you can sometimes find your repertoire to be a little lacking), but learning a little about new subjects can also help you write about them with a bit more authority, which is obviously of benefit to both writer and reader.

But you’re probably well aware of that already, so let’s talk instead about the things I wasn’t aware of when I went into planning this story.

The association between witches and flying things stretches back at least as far as the 14th century, with the concept of a magical or spiritual twilight flight going even further than that.  The broomstick was first depicted in Martin le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames, but it wasn’t the only household item to be considered a suitable method of transportation for respectable witches about town.  Chairs, stools and even stoves (presumably unlit) have all been referenced in imagery and written accounts over the centuries.  And for witches who found the idea of taking symbols of their domestic requirements out for a spin distasteful, animals such as goats and cats were believed to have provided a more acceptable ride.

There are a number of theories that explore the association between witches and broomsticks.  A common contemporary one concerns how home-grown hallucinogenics might have been applied to avoid some of the more unpleasant side effects experienced when taken orally.  By applying it to an object, one could hold that object against parts of the body capable of effective chemical absorption, such as the armpits and genitals, and thus escape the severe and crippling nausea and vomiting that would otherwise be counterproductive to the intended experience.  The effect of absorbing this concoction (made from a combination of a number of different plants such as ergot fungus and those already mentioned in the story above) through the genitals also resulted in the user experiencing a flying sensation, which goes some way to explain why it was commonly known as ‘flying ointment’.

It doesn’t take great leaps of the imagination to see how the humble broomstick might have been useful in aiding the absorption process, nor how the imagery of witches riding broomsticks may have come into existence as a result.

Of course, other theories suggest that the ointment itself had magical properties, and could thus be rubbed on an item to enchant it to fly.  For obvious reasons, these were the theories I went with for my story.

Outside of their usefulness as a congestion-free mode of transportation, broomsticks were often associated with magic and spiritual energies in other ways, particularly around the home.  They were often used to cleanse ritual spaces and could be placed to afford the home protection against negative elements.

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