Snake Charm

image via MyStylistSaysI found an old hardcover in my grandparents’ collection of romances and westerns. My grandparents were Guyanese, religious and high-minded in odd sort of way, and had almost certainly never read these books. (I imagine my grandmother had gotten them all at an estate sale, mostly just to fill up a bookcase.) This one in particular, I’m sure, they had never so much as  considered the spine of. It was a called “Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.”

The first page read: “The Solitary Practitioner may seeke out suchlike environs as are suited to the working of the Craft—crossroads of thoroughfares, or lakesides and streamsides, those places that constitute the edges or boundaries of things. The cusp of the day’s turning are suitable hours, during the sun’s rising or setting, as is the stroke of midnite.” The book was old—the inside flap claimed 1901, London—but not old enough, it seemed, to be so strangely worded. It went on to note that the thresholds of one’s own home could be used at the witching hour for humbler charms, and that “the darke face of the moon aides the female practitioner during her monthly visitations…” It went on like that for quite a while, but I never did figure what sort of visitations were implied. (Did witches become possessed, perhaps, when they were on the rag?)

Nevertheless, I decided to try my hand at a spell one night, during the new moon, or as close as I could figure. This event took place in Fort Myers, Florida, in my grandparents’ backyard. I was twelve. (And just to be clear, I was not on the rag, though I was relieved to have started my period just a few months prior, as many other girls in my class already had.) All around me hung those random finds my grandfather had collected in the course of his rambles through the city—Tinkerbell dolls from long-forgotten Happy Meals, broken holiday ornaments, a keepsake coffee mug featuring the smiling face of Princess Diana. My grandparents had never learned to drive, and so they walked everywhere: to the doctor, to the pharmacy, and even to the grocery store, pushing their old-fashioned handcart. But my grandfather walked whether or not he had anywhere to go, picking up roadside detritus each day. He’d strung up whatever had caught his fancy over the years, and they hung from the mango trees in the backyard like charms. (My grandparents were both Christians, Catholic, though my grandfather more so. Who knows what he would have thought if he’d awoken that night to find me out there in under the mango tree in my night gown, casting pagan spells.)

It had required both determination and imagination to find the ingredients this particular spell required: shells, moss, and snakeskin—not to mention a chalice, a pentacle, and a blade. Shells were easy enough to come by in Fort Myers. But moss? Luckily, there was a live oak just down the street from my grandparents’ house. If the suspicious old Russian ladies to whom this tree belonged noticed me out there with the scissors that afternoon, snipping their Spanish moss, I never heard of it.

Snakeskin proved harder. As a child visiting from the Midwest, I figured there had to be snakes around. (In the map in my mind, the state of Florida was one big snake-infested swamp, minus Miami and my grandparents’ house.) But as far as I was able to scout on foot, my grandparents seemed to live in a snake-free residential zone, miles from anything resembling the Everglades. I had to settle for a rubber snake—again, one of my grandfather’s finds.

For the chalice, I used a coffee cup. It was a certain style of cheap, milk-white Pyrex with a geometric orange pattern, produced en masse in the seventies. (Which I’ve since found in nearly every store selling secondhand housewares in America, but which remains sentimental to me, because it reminds me of my grandparents.) The pentacle I drew in the brownish sand, which is what passes for dirt in Fort Myers, using a dented kitchen knife I figured no one would miss—my blade.

There was a crush upon a boy involved, and a vague longing for mystery. Which, at that point in my life, was nearly the same thing. I repeated the words I’d found in that little brown hardcover on my grandparents’ bookshelf, with its perfectly intact spine—I remember I had to lay rocks down on it as I crouched to keep it open to my page. The words had something to do with fireflies and songbirds and magnets. About things that attract others at a distance.

Then, as prescribed, I made my wish, typical for a girl my age: I wished for the boy I liked to like me. But then I stopped, and found myself reconsidering—what if the boy I liked was a jerk? I had only met him at the water park that one day, after all, back home in Michigan, before I’d left to visit my grandparents. As far as I knew, he went to school in the next town over from my town, but what did that mean? What did I really know about this boy?

What if having him like me was a mistake? What if, because of this highly questionable Floridian voodoo I was doing, he fell madly in love with me and wouldn’t leave me alone? What if he wound up following me around everywhere like some kind of psycho stalker puppy? What had seemed like a lark a moment before was all of a sudden deeply creepy, and possibly also portentous.

Be careful what you wish for, sang some alarming fairytale voice in my head.

What if ancient forces beyond my comprehension had been awoken by my inept witchery—or, like the genie in the lamp, were actually contained in that book? What if I quit before completing the spell, or botched it too badly? Would this pissed-off demon genie thing appear to me now and then thereafter, and maybe even make a point of telling me whenever anyone around me was going to die, or something like that, thereby making of me a freak forever?

My pulse was suddenly pounding the way it had when, on a dare, I had chanted Bloody Mary in the mirror at midnight that one time with some girls at a sleepover. In a shaky voice, I remember saying: But if anything bad would happen because of this boy liking me, cancel that wish.

In the silence then, it felt here as if some great, dark being had risen up out of the mango tree, the one hung with my grandfather’s charms. It felt as if I could hear its voice: Well, then. What do you wish?

I was twelve, remember—just a bit delighted to be frightened, because I had not yet fully realized that the world was real. I said, I wish for a different, better boy to like me, who will not do anything weird, and—wow. That’s where I realized I hadn’t really thought this through. Beyond liking me, what did I want this cute boy to do?

and send me roses, I concluded. It was honestly all I could think of.

The cute boy from back home never did like me—or maybe he did, but I never knew of it. Years later, though, in Miami, where I was visiting my dad for the summer, what I can only conclude was a better cute boy did. Like me, he liked the Grateful Dead; he had that iconic skull and roses tattooed on one brown Floridian bicep, and when I returned to Michigan at the end of the summer, he did indeed send me roses, though they were dry and wilted (I believed he’d culled them from a Dumpster somewhere), along with a cassette tape featuring ten different versions of my favorite song, “Must Have Been the Roses.”

All the same, I cannot say nothing bad happened because of him liking me. Because, as Bret Michaels so cheesily and so sincerely sang, every rose has its thorn: I gave my childhood to that boy in Miami, at the age of fifteen, and two years later, he met his end piloting a john boat, punch drunk, through the Everglades. I imagine there were plenty of snakes in the vicinity.

Which was maybe simply this young man’s fate in any case, regardless of any spell I’d cast at the cusp of adolescence. But I can’t help but think I’d jinxed him, or me, maybe, by wishing for something I wasn’t old enough to know did not exist: a love where nothing bad happened. A rose without thorns.

When my grandparents died last year, one after the other, the blow nearly felled me. These old people, who had been old forever. I can only imagine how that boy’s parents must have felt, when they lost their only son, nineteen years old, on the cusp of becoming a man. I tried to be an adult, helping my father pack up all the old people’s belongings, all their cups and saucers and knives—they were still there, those pyrex cups with the patterned print, and that old kitchen knife, dented and bent. But though I boxed up every book in the house, I never found one that claimed to be a guide, to witchcraft or anything else.

6 responses to “Snake Charm

  1. I loved many of the contrasting images in this piece, in particular, that you juxtaposed the lore of casting spells under the moonlight to using a coffee cup for a chalice.

  2. Thanks, Mary. In searching for a form of American magical realism that feels authentic for me, I’ve found that the state of Florida, as a setting, seems to give rise to many contrasts of this sort.

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