A spider scuttled across the dusty window.
Carmelita watched it curiously. The webs that clung to the panes were brown with age. It must have crawled out the floorboards. She looked down at the floor and caught a swift movement in the corner.
Old houses held so much life, she thought.
Through the window she could just make out the overgrown bushes and trees shaking in the seasonal Cape winds.
She hated summer. She didn’t mind the wind too much. She loved the wildness of it. It was the unforgiving heat she hated, that made even sitting still uncomfortable. And there was always a burning in the air. Fires were an inevitability in Cape Town. It made her nervous, but that was a natural anxiety for a witch. There would always be someone wanting to see you burnt. Even for simply existing.
She looked up at the sound of laughter and caught an unfamiliar phrase in German. Marta was Skyping with one of her European friends again. The thought made Carmelita long for tall, cool forests and frozen oceans. Marta had visited almost every country in the world for her work and had friends in every one. Carmelita would never understand why her friend had abandoned the iced gingerbread houses of Vienna and settled in the sweltering, windy South African city instead. Carmelita was only ever happy when it rained, or when it was cold.
Marta’s laughter rang loud and clear from the other room. It was easy to be Marta’s friend. She was an old soul who had devoted her life to studying alchemical texts and world magic. An Academical. Carmelita was a Wildling. Their magical natures couldn’t be more different, but their friendship met somewhere in the middle.
Marta’s old Victorian home was an oasis from the heat. The wooden floorboards and high stone ceilings created a cool sanctuary. Carmelita loved it there. All old houses held on to their history like words stored in books. As a Wildling she felt it deeply. The house spoke to her through its creaks and cracks. It whispered to her in the way Marta’s books whispered to her. Raw magic was all around her.
She jumped as one of the resident cats sprang through a window. The heavy scarlet drapes were thick with fur.
“Tea or something stronger?” Marta asked as she swept into the room in her long cotton dress. She placed a scented candle down on the coffee table, which flickered in the dust and filled the air with the scent of jasmine.
“It’s too hot for tea,” complained Carmelita, her eyes fixed on the flames. “And honestly, do you really need to ask? How long have we been friends and when have I ever asked for tea?”
“Gin it is,” said Marta happily, moving to an Oak cabinet.
Marta collected glasses and the cabinet contained an assortment of sizes and coloured glass, as well as trinkets she had collected on her travels. She opened the glass doors and took down two crystal glasses with twisted stems, like vines.
Wild glass for a wild thing, thought Carmelita.
Marta placed a glass down next to the candle and settled on to a deep purple divan. No sooner had she lifted her feet than a small grey cat leaped up to bury itself in the folds of her skirt. She pulled her long brown plait over her shoulder and twisted it absently.
“Ingrid sends her love, as always,” she said.
Carmelita nodded. She had met the Norwegian witch twice before. Another mad European who loved the sun. The last time she had visited, her skin was splotchy and angry pink and her young daughter had run across the wooden floorboards stark naked.
“It must be wonderfully icy up there,” she said wistfully.
Marta smiled. “Oh yes.”
They drank in silence for a few moments.
“They’re all excited for the Raven’s Feast. The bonfires they make are a true wonder. I hope you get to see it one day.”
Carmelita sighed. “Well at least there’s the Sabbath to look forward to.”
The Witch’s Sabbath traditionally took place on Christmas Eve, or Mōdraniht, as the old Norwegians called it.
They both smiled. Feasts and holy festivals were one thing. Witch’s Sabbaths were quite another.
“Do we know what the moon is doing on that night?” Carmelita asked.
Marta shrugged a slender shoulder. “Does it matter? We’re going to celebrate regardless. And there’s the sacrifice. I’ve been looking forward to it all year.” Her eyes flashed deliciously.
Carmelita grinned. “Then it will be a Blood Moon, surely,” she said.
They roared with laughter, causing the cat to dart off in irritation.
On the day of the Sabbath, Carmelita spent the morning in her flat’s tiny kitchen preparing lunch for her parents. Roasted pork belly with caramel sauce, crispy roast potatoes, sweet carrots and creamed spinach. While the gravy finished boiling, she laid out chocolates and homemade mince pies. Her parents stayed an hour then left. They weren’t a close family and even after thirty years had no idea their daughter was a witch.
Carmelita’s childhood had been a wild, imaginative time spent in her own head. She preferred the fairies and spirits she believed lived in the overgrown garden and spent long days outside making up stories and climbing trees. The outside was alive. A friend. When she was sad, dry leaves would swirl in the wind around her feet to make her laugh and bright orange Black-Eyed-Susan’s would make a comforting bed to lie in while she watched the sky.
She suspected her imaginings were true when the house began to send her secret messages. Her doll would suddenly move for no reason, and mould would appear in her room alone – in large clumps that mushroomed from the carpet.
Wildlings were creatures of nature. If one lived in a place for too long, the garden would begin reclaiming the house. Birds would move into the roof and weeds would claim the rest.
Carmelita could predict the future in a puddle of rain, and read the past in a moss-covered tree trunk.
After her parents left, she texted her boyfriend to see how his own family lunch was going. They had recently started dating, and while he found her moods challenging, he loved her weird nature. Most people thought of her as a non-conformist, but in reality she preferred the invisible world to the real one.
She lifted her feet up onto the couch, already starting to sprout mould at the edges and noticed the row of Starlings on her washing line. She wouldn’t mind them so much if only they left her herb garden alone.
Benjamin was looking forward to seeing her. It was going to be their first Christmas together and they were planning on spending the day picnicking at Kirstenbosch Gardens. She had an extra batch of mince pies ready, and the leftover pork was going to make delicious sandwiches.
She sealed off with a kiss and a promise to say goodnight before she went to bed. She had a big night ahead of her and didn’t want to be distracted by her phone. Long strips of cloud were extending across the afternoon sky. It meant the cold was coming back. A good omen, she thought.
The first thing Carmelita noticed when Marta opened the door was her wide-brimmed black hat. The next was her smile.
“Welcome”, she said happily.
The interior was lit by hundreds of flickering candles that cast long shadows. Laughter could he heard from the dining room where a small group of women chatted animatedly over wine. The long oak table was covered in an assortment of cheese, fruit and cakes. Carmelita added her tupperware container of mince pies to the spread and popped an olive into her mouth.
“How are you, darling?” asked a familiar singsong voice.
She turned and was immediately enveloped into Edythe’s warm, motherly embrace. Edythe was also an Academical. They had met many years ago at a Coven meeting, and had clicked almost at once. Edythe was well-loved in the community and renowned for taking young witches under her wing.
“I’m great. Super excited for tonight. It’s so good to see you. It’s been ages.”
Edythe nodded and plucked a cherry from the table. She closed her eyes in delight. “Oh I do love a good Sabbath,” she said.
Carmelita spotted her friend Charlotte on a divan, clutching a glass of red wine. Charlotte’s lustrous jet-black mane and ruby-red lips made her instantly noticeable in a crowd. The young witch was an Academical in training and had only been part of the Coven for a few months. Carmelita liked her very much. They waved at each other excitedly.
The only other Wildling was Linda, an old soul like Marta. She could disappear for days on her canoe to be one with nature. She smiled faintly and drifted towards the window.
The witches stopped talking as Marta appeared in the doorway with a large basket of twigs. “Are we ready?” she asked. “I can’t wait a moment longer.”
The Coven assembled on divans and leather armchairs, each taking a handful of twigs which they would tie together with lengths of twine.
Carmelita swallowed a mouthful of wine. No one could truly appreciate wine as much as a Wildling. They could taste the earth and vines in every drop, the dew on the grapeskin, the wood of the barrel.
She shook off the pull of the grapes and concentrated on the task at hand. Every ring of twine bound the spell to the twigs. Her fingers worked the string, and she felt the flicker of life through her fingertips. The magic they were casting needed both the skill of the Academical and the raw power of the Wildlings. The Academicals understood the spell, the cause and effect. They created the words that held the magic together and knew the ancient incantations that would hold them fast. Wildlings drew power from the world around them and added the spark of life needed to quicken the spells.
It would take all their combined power to cast the spell.
Carmelita watched as Marta wound heavy twine around her hands methodically. Round and round and round. She was creating the head – the most important part of the sacrifice.
“We missed you at the last Sabbath.”
Carmelita looked up absently. Charlotte was smiling at her cheerfully.
Guilt pricked at her. She had always been secretly jealous of her Academical friends. They were cool and composed, kilometres above everyone else. Carmelita went mad more than she could sometimes stand. It was easier to lock herself away, like a werewolf at full moon. Quiet absence was better than wild-eyed raving.
She smiled and made up some excuse, feeling even guiltier for it. She hated lying. But she hated being seeing as unstable more. She had missed the last Sabbath and felt terrible about it. She concentrated on her bindings, and hoped Charlotte wouldn’t pursue the conversation. She didn’t.
The afternoon lifted and opened into quiet night.
The witches listened as Edythe told them about a Winter Solstice ceremony she had participated in during her Oxford days. Her student Coven drank plum wine till midnight, when they finally stole into the night to make their sacrifice. It was an anxious, exciting time when being a woman was just as bad as being a witch. Being both was practically scandalous. It took a long time for Edythe to realise she wasn’t wicked.
More wine was poured and the snack table was quickly swept away to make room for their bundles.
“Where shall we do it?” asked Charlotte. “I can’t drive like this. I think I’ve drunk and entire bottle of Pinotage on my own already.”
They exchanged nervous glances. No one was in any condition to drive.
Marta smiled and picked up an armful of bundles. “There’s no need. There’s a reason I’ve let the garden go to seed. The trees are so wild it’s become a leafy fortress. No one will be able to see what we’re up to.”
They left the house in single file. The stoep creaked as they walked, and long branches scratched and pulled at their skirts. Carmelita could see the swell of stars above them. A frog chirruped from somewhere in the garden and she immediately relaxed. She wasn’t afraid of the dark shadows and rustling. She felt most at home with what scared others.
They built a fire. While the others watched the flames build, Marta and Edythe constructed the sacrifice. They were the most senior Academicals and had performed this ritual many times before. Charlotte watched their movements with bright-eyed concentration, memorizing every step.
Carmelita slipped into the shadows and hung a smaller twig effigy from a tree branch. It was three twigs bound together to create Algiz, the rune of protection -her own private gift to Marta. Her friend would discover it in her own time, when it would hopefully bring a smile to her face.
She returned to the fire to discover the likeness of man tied to a spike in the ground. Flames licked the bottommost twigs, singing the mossy ends. It would catch soon.
Edythe stepped forward and sprinkled a handful of earth into the flames.
“Tonight we celebrate the end of another year and with it the end of a terrible reign over our souls. With these words I banish the influence of a most odious spirit. May his evil never touch us. And may the new year be free of his malevolence.”
Marta stood in front of the burning figure solemnly.
Carmelita knew the intention of this ritual was mostly for her friend’s benefit. As much as the witches tried to live above the world and its mundane cruelty, there were some people whose cunning was beyond logic and reason. Sometimes being brilliant and beautiful attracted the jealousy of bad people who wished those gifts for themselves.
Marta was the most brilliant woman she knew, and preternaturally beautiful. It was an unearthly beauty like the ancient elves and fairies who had learned long ago to hide themselves from the world.
Linda stepped forward and flicked a glistening branch towards the flames. Drops of blood clung to the bound twigs. “With this blood I consecrate this site in the name of Jörð, goddess of the earth.”
Charlotte tossed a handful of basil into the fire, her pretty young face illuminated by the flames. “I protect this site in the name of Frigg, who we honour this Mōdraniht.”
“Protect us from treachery,” intoned Carmelita, invoking the sign of Eihwaz with her fingers.
“And may the new year bring with it mercy,” said Marta, cupping her hands.
They watched the effigy burn and concentrated on their own wishes. Carmelita knew that Marta was secretly wishing for justice and Edythe strength. What Charlotte and Linda wanted she did not know. She herself wished for peace.
Inside they could hear Marta’s old grandfather clock strike twelve times for midnight.
When the sacrifice had burned down to ashes they returned to the house to consume the Mother’s Feast, knowing the new year would bring all that they had wished for.