Written by 6:59 pm Editor's Picks, Fiction

A Girl’s Guide to the Dark Arts

Is it not written on the sandals of the prostitute—follow me?
—Austin Osman Spare

Any moment now, Kacie will cross the faculty lot but instead of going down the weedy sidewalk to the bus stop, she will sneak into the woods where a trail leads to Hillcrest Cemetery.  G.G. watches through the library window, the math homework before her on the table a mere subterfuge.  She occasionally works a few lines of an equation to make it look good then returns her gaze outside.  Sunny skies are darkening, but she isn’t deterred by approaching storms.  If something is hidden in the graveyard, this afternoon it will become a secret shared.

With the sliding of loafers across the tile floor, Mr. Gardner approaches, and G.G. looks quickly away from the window and to her math just as he passes in a rustle of polyester between her table and the window.  She glances up, and he library-whispers, “How are you, Grace?”

For an instant, her eyes are downcast in the formulation of a mumbled reply, but she catches herself and instead looks him in the eye, a smile warming her face.  She whispers, not a library-whisper but a stage-whisper: “Hi, Mr. Gardner!”

He appears half-pleased, half taken aback.  At least he doesn’t quiet her, just stares, eyes blinking rapidly behind his square-rimmed glasses.  She has yet to procure a wardrobe that could qualify as “sexy,” but she is wearing a flower-print blouse with the top two buttons undone.  It is not that her flat chest would turn anyone on—it’s that she feels the exposure, and that should help her act accordingly.  She leans forward.

He says, “How are you?” again but forgets to whisper.

She sits up straight, shrugs, feels a wave of inspiration, and blurts, “Getting better every day.”

“That’s good,” he says and then walks away, disappearing down the world history aisle from where a few moments later a heavy book can be heard hitting the floor.

She thinks: holy shit, it worked.  The jubilation almost feels indecorous, but she can’t help it and even has to suppress the desire to dig in her denim backpack behind the folders and textbooks for the little red paperback.  She shouldn’t get it out here, and besides, as she hears voices on the walk outside, she knows she has to keep an eye out for Kacie, though the vigil is also the product of her study of the book.

G.G. had immediately identified Kacie as a potential role model, one of the powerful women it was recommended she emulate, even though she had previously professed to loathe her.  All the other girls do because Kacie is the “school slut.”  Everyone knew Kacie was not a virgin, and, though she was never the best at keeping track of gossip, G.G. also knew that Kacie had given oral sex to Phil Morrison in the back of Peter Ray’s van.  G.G. overheard Pete joking about it just one lunch table over.  That was awhile back, but she never forgot it, perhaps subconsciously appreciating that Kacie made her own rules, which was the point, and the more G.G. thought about her, the more admiration bloomed.

Her knowledge of Kacie’s clandestine forays to the cemetery predated everything.  Three weeks ago, G.G. had been sitting in the same seat actually doing math homework when she saw Kacie steal away into the pines.  Had she suppressed a mysterious urge to follow her then?  Probably not.  But that Saturday, G.G.’s mother took her garage-saling, usually a mildly amusing morning of rifling through the detritus left in the wake of a declining middle class, but at an old house on Levi Ridge, there were books.

At the foot of the sloping drive, the sign read “Estate Sale.”  A tall hedge enclosed the front yard, and she sought to peer through it and then over it as they walked up, and she wondered, maybe aloud, whose house it was, though her mother, having already spied some ornamental fire place poker or was it a gold-plated hat rack, either way, hurried off, leaving her to pause as the old house finally came into view, twin gables gazing beyond her, windows dusty, two nearsighted eyes that once could see all the way to the bay.

Still gazing at the house, she walked past tables, ignoring the items for sale, though she did count seven lamps of assorted sizes, before she looked left and saw rows of books.  They were lined with their spines up on a card table.  She liked books, though she wasn’t always the most avid reader.  She had checked out each of the twenty-one volumes of The Enchanted World from the public library, though often found herself just looking at the pictures.  She had read cover to cover every one of Stephen King’s novels, even the Bachman ones, but so had just about everyone at school.

Her hand seemed to be pushing into an aura of mustiness as she reached for the nearest hardback.  Her eyes widened as she took in the cover image of a nude woman on her knees, blond hair hanging straight down her back, the globes of her buttocks resting upon her bare heels.  The title added to G.G.’s sense of amazement: Naked Came the Stranger.  The author photo of Penelope Ashe wasn’t half so interesting, so G.G. studied the front a while before reluctantly putting the book down.

She grabbed another hardback which turned out to be Gigi by Colette.  That sounded familiar, so she thumbed through it for a minute before putting it back, too.

The majority of the books on the table were paperbacks which on that count alone interested her less.  Many were about strange phenomena like the Bermuda Triangle which interested her enough to study their covers and the pictures inside if they had any.

Finally, she picked up a slim volume with a red cover adorned by a simple drawing of a young woman, just her head and neck done in black, the far side of her face in shadow, boy-cut bangs hanging almost to her eyes with longer hair on the sides covering her ears.  In the coming days, G.G. would come to think of her as “the lady from another time,” rather than as indicated by the title, The Compleat Witch.

She opened the book.  The table of contents referenced such topics as sex, drugs, automobiles, marriage, prostitutes, and pentagrams.  Such lore did not belong in The Enchanted World, at least not the one she was familiar with.  She put Gigi on the bottom and quickly grabbed another paperback, one called The Ghost of Flight 401, which she put on top.  Her mother would not care if she read The Compleat Witch, but G.G. felt herself embarking down a path that ought to be secret.

Girls’ laughter, startling, drifts up from the sidewalk outside, and G.G. goes to the window.  Two senior cheerleaders, with names she can’t remember, have come out of the gym.  She grabs her backpack, gets ready to go, and a few minutes later, Kacie appears on the opposite sidewalk.  For just a moment, G.G. admires her, walking alone with her head up, such a contrast to the gaggle of giggles across the lot.  Then G.G. races out of the library, Mr. Gardner nowhere in sight.  She makes it down the steps and to the south doors just as Kacie disappears into the woods.  Kids leaving the gym pay no attention as G.G. passes them.  Had the cheerleaders been laughing at Kacie, or had she slipped unnoticed on to the path like G.G. does now?  Her backpack snags the overgrowth, and she cinches it tighter.

Stoners snuck off to the cemetery all the time, but more often than not, they used a gravel road next to the practice field, so the trail here amounts to little more than a narrow swath of brown grass, and G.G. suspects Kacie is up to something more interesting than drugs.  At least, that’s her intuition, and witches have that in spades.

A mulberry branch overhanging the trail is swaying slightly, and G.G. slows down.  She has to hang back as Kacie has her own instincts and probably would not appreciate being followed.  G.G. hates the thought of being Kacie’s enemy.  There’s a chapter in the book on defending oneself from the curses of another witch, but G.G. hasn’t read it yet.

Her study of the book has been nonlinear.  She spent that first Saturday night mostly gazing at “the lady from another time” and musing about the mysterious author, Anton Szandor LaVey.  With a swirl of a black cape trimmed in red, he beckoned her descend with him a circular staircase with 39 steps, leading to his posh lair, where they drank absinthe, and he recited Edgar Allen Poe from memory.  Just above the author’s photo inside the back cover, she found an address scribbled in red ink:

624 Montecito

G.G. daydreamed that the woman who owned The Compleat Witch had belonged to a coven that met at that address.  Thirteen women clad in black moving in a circle and what they did, well, she had to actually read the book to find out.

The first thing that had caught her attention upon doing so was a checklist via which you could determine if you had what it took to be a witch.  The first requirement was being female.  Check.  The second was being either ugly or sexy.  She would have been inclined to label herself, if she had to pick one, the former, but Anton Szandor LaVey quickly clarified that “ugly” meant “ugly enough to make people stare at you.”  She had no figure, her long hair was out of style, and her skin was perpetually pale, but that made her fade into the woodwork, not attract attention.  She must, therefore, be in the second category.  Indeed, she read that if she were not ugly, she could transform herself into “a very sexy girl.”  Top two buttons undone, she revels in that notion.  Check!

The trail ends on that same gravel road that around the bend runs by the practice field.  No sneaking possible here, G.G. simply walks out of the woods, albeit stepping lightly and glancing around.  Over a waist-high stone wall and through the forest of headstones, she catches a glimpse of Kacie, walking purposefully as she heads deeper into the graveyard beneath an increasingly overcast sky.  G.G. kneels by the wall and waits for Kacie to reach a safe distance before climbing over and flitting onward like a wraith among the monuments.

Hillcrest dates back to the Gold Rush and has its share of lichen-encrusted, epitaph-less, slanting stones, but that is mostly at the other end.  Many of the markers here are large enough to hide behind.  G.G. notes that as she follows Kacie down the paved central road, readying herself to dive upon a grave if Kacie should look back.

G.G. has never been in a cemetery alone.  This proposition does not initially occur to her because she is focused on maintaining an adequate distance behind Kacie.  Eventually, though, as they walk farther into the darkling midst of Hillcrest and Kacie shows no signs of being wary of a tail, G.G. begins to thrill to a blend of fear and enchantment as she sojourns in the land of the dead.

And just like that, Kacie is gone.

G.G. freezes, standing staring at the hazy emptiness in the distance where Kacie had been.  Suppressing an urge to look behind her, G.G. scans the graves that flank the road to her right then to her left until finally, Kacie reappears.  She had turned on one of the gravel paths that spider toward the perimeter and was now less than 100 feet away, though apparently as oblivious as ever to G.G.’s presence.

Resisting an urge to turn and walk back the way she had come, she notices a hulking headstone facing the road, only a quick dash away.  An angel stands, her arm resting on an ellipse of red granite bearing the name SANDERS.  G.G. is standing beside it when Kacie stops at the foot of a recent grave.

Both girls kneel.  G.G. peers over the curved edge of the monument.  Kacie’s head moves, and G.G. is about to duck before realizing that she is only gazing skyward where dark clouds have continued to gather.  Both girls are motionless.

Kacie stands and walks onward down the gravel path which merges with the road that runs along the far wall.  G.G. watches her until she gradually fades in the distance, evidently heading toward the cemetery’s main gate.  G.G. stands, abandons her backpack, and approaches the grave.

There is no headstone which reinforces her impression that the grave is new, and it takes a while for her to realize it is not.  At least, not that new.  Little shoots of grass poke through a mound that is more a dusty color than the darkness of freshly turned earth.  The tiny plastic marker punched into the ground bears a funeral home’s logo and shows the death date as last year.  The woman buried here was 49 years old.  Her name was PANDORA PARSONS.

G.G., looking up as Kacie had done at the dark clouds, feels a rush of power which comes to her in the form of memories of the ritual she performed Saturday night, renaming herself.  Anton Szandor LaVey had included an entire chapter on names and their power.  We are assigned one at birth, and it defines us.  By choosing a new name, we define ourselves, but Grace Marie Hoffman was not an identity she wanted to abandon entirely.  That was when she looked at the Colette novel.  She studied the first letter G and the second letter G.  She cracked herself up thinking about how so far her life had been rated G.  Perfect.  The ritual was in the appendix.  

Her parents came in late and a little drunk from a party.  They were down for the count.  She got out of bed.  She lit a candle and took off her pajamas.  She stood with her arms outstretched and chanted to Hecate:

“Come forth and answer to your name by manifesting my will!”

She blew out the candle.  New name.  Check!

Again now she stands with arms outstretched, beckoning the witch within.  The wind picks up, tree limbs dance, and leaves cascade.  Somewhere a bell is ringing.  Somewhere Anton Szandor LaVey is smiling: he told her only the first part, but she has figured out the rest.

Grabbing her backpack, she returns through the cemetery, amid gusts of wind and the first drops of rain.  Though the mysterious distant bell has grown still, it continues to reverberate in her mind.  Once you have defined yourself, what do you do with yourself?  Easy.  Chase the mystery.  Chase it through old burial grounds and second-hand book sales and midnight visits to secret places.  The lost.  The hidden.  The forbidden.  Go get it. 

The steady rain doesn’t bother her as she walks into the woods and goes down the trail, but by the time she makes it back to school, she is soaked.  This morning, to accommodate her plan to follow Kacie, she had told her dad she would walk home, but in the faculty lot, Mr. Gardner is unlocking his Oldsmobile.  She calls out to him.

He turns as though under her command.


Photo by Reid Linot

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