The Witch and the Poet: Part 1


First Person

Toward the end of February, 1980, a witch told me I was a poet. This happened in the town of Galilee, in Rhode Island. Like the other Galilee, it was on the coast, and also like that Galilee, it was as good a place as any for a creation myth.

I had to interview the witch for a newspaper my friend Allen edited at Brown. I don’t know where he found the witch or why he lent me his car to go interview her. I was nineteen and hadn’t written anything, though I claimed to “write,” as if writing were more a state of being than a practice. I got the assignment, I think, because Allen wanted to date me, even though I had no intention, ever, of going out with him. (Okay, I went once: a very cold winter picnic in a park at midnight, with blankets and a blindfold, but that was it. I suspected then that I wasn’t just uninterested in Allen—I was uninterested in picnicking with men in general—but hadn’t yet learned the vocabulary to explain what that meant, even to myself). When I went to see the witch I made my roommate Wendy go with me. No way was I going to see a witch alone at night.

Galilee was almost entirely deserted. So was Jerusalem, across the harbor. Really. Those are the actual names. Cottages with no lights, no cars in the driveways, no miracles. Galilee had the evacuated look of a minor summer community drifting toward spring. The road brought us to land’s end. We had two options: we could turn left to the Block Island boat or right to the witch. Straight ahead was water. I hadn’t been to Block Island yet; I’d go two months later for the first time, and then go back two years later to stay and work as a chambermaid. I’d walk in the fog that summer, a big gray block of it that muscled in from the Atlantic one night, obscuring all traces of land and light so thoroughly I thought there’d been a power outage (a rumor that upset some tourists), and as I walked I’d feel like matter suspended in solution, neither liquid nor solid. I’d feel like the fog dissolved my skin and skeleton, and I’d feel like it held time suspended too: not future, not past, not temporal present, either. It was an intuition of the eternal, a moment free from the future’s neediness. And that would remind me of the witch, and I’d shiver in the fog, wondering if I were under her spell. But that hadn’t happened yet. We turned right.

The witch probably had a name but it didn’t matter then and I’ve forgotten it now. The important things to know are that she was middle aged, a bit heavy, fairer than darker—but maybe that was hair color—she wore glasses, and she was a witch.

She had a son of about nine, I think—not ten, and that’s important, too. He was just a kid, not a kid on the frontier of ironical, teenage worldliness, but not a little boy either. So nine makes sense. All the lights were bright and the TV was on. One of my few vivid memories of that night: standing in her living room and thinking of Joni Mitchell’s song “The Last Time I Saw Richard”—“And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on / And all the house lights left up bright.” It played in my head all evening. That was the soundtrack; beyond Joni, it was just the two of them, the two of us, electricity, and the sea, heaving in the dark two blocks away.

We were there to learn about the witch’s life, but thanks to my nineteen-year-old narcissism, I only remember what she said about mine and a little of what she said about Wendy’s. I think she served tea; I know she served port. After a bit of amiable chatting her son took Wendy to see his bedroom, where he told her that demons came out of the mirror and attacked him. To prove it, he showed her something that looked like welts on his forearms.

After the interview—how she became a witch, what witches do, why they’re misunderstood (she had a chip on her shoulder about that), all the stuff I forget—the witch asked if we’d like her to read our tarot cards. Of course we would. I’d been hoping she’d tell our fortunes one way or another. We quickly sat back down at her dining room table and watched closely as she shuffled the deck.

When I’ve played this moment back over the years—the moment the witch offered us our futures at her table, served with biscuit crumbs—it’s almost always been accompanied by a memory dissimilar but twinned to it, the way cities are sometimes inexplicably twinned. (Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and Seattle, Washington? Who’s idea was that?) In the other memory I’m the witch’s son’s age and I’m watching my uncle put a fist-sized rock into the V formed between two shafts of the tree trunk in his front maple. As the years pass one shaft claims the rock and first grows around and then over it while the other arches away. By the time I’m old enough to visit the witch the rock has almost disappeared. I can’t remember the bark-covered rock without a deep, involuntary shudder, as if my uncle had made me privy to a terrible secret, even though to the tree, the rock was no more than a suggestion.

The witch read Wendy’s cards first. Wendy’s life would go swimmingly; she’d marry happily, live comfortably, have two children, a boy and a girl, and depart this life at age eighty-four. Earthly bliss would be hers.

This has without exception turned out to be the case, though I can’t comment on her death, as she’s only fifty-two and in strapping health. I don’t know if bliss is exactly hers—anyone balancing two kids, a husband, and her own PR consulting firm doesn’t have time for bliss, which I associate with days spent peeling grapes, sipping champagne, and eating bonbons—but she’s been happy.

Had I received Wendy’s fortune I suspect the witch would have suggested bliss would be mine, too. It would not have been—most of that wasn’t a good fit for me. I didn’t want children or a husband. But who’s definition of bliss the witch had in mind, Wendy’s or her own (maybe they were similar?), I can’t say. I can offer the observation that in tarot reading, as in everything, interpretation is all.

Then my turn came. The witch asked me to cut the deck. Or maybe she asked me to cut it several times. I can’t remember. She thought—she must’ve thought, and if she didn’t, she was a fool—“Goddamn Brown kids, in their rag knit sweaters and chinos and Wallaby shoes. Don’t they even know those shoes are sin ugly? Do their parents know they’re in Galilee with a witch—their parents who can open their wallets and pay for a fucking Ivy League education? You want magic? That’s magic. You want the future? Heck, you’ve already got one, ladies. My son … he’ll probably be a fisherman. That’s what the men do here. Kind of like the men from the other Galilee. And you know what? They die young, too.”

Or maybe the witch was happy for the publicity. I don’t know. I might have been bitter.

I chose my cards, my head swimming a little from the port. The son, unembarrassed by hanging out with his mom and two young women, but bored by now, had left to watch TV. The witch’s interest flickered. She showed me the cards that sealed my fate.

“Hmmm. The cards say that you’re a poet. Interesting.”

The rest is indistinct now, but she went on to say I’d have ups and downs in life. Not too hard a slog—maybe she downplayed it—but difficulties loomed.

“But it’ll be okay in the end, right?” I was concerned. No mention had been made of mates or long life.

“Oh, sure,” she said, unpersuasively. “But you’re a poet. I’m seeing that your life won’t be easy.”

I went on the defensive. I didn’t want to be a poet. For God’s sake, I was an international relations major.

“I suppose I might like to be a journalist… ,” I mused, wishing to express indignation as politely as possible. After all, I was a guest and she was a witch. I knew what the former entailed, and had some concerns about the latter. The future flashed supportively on a screen in my brain, filing important stories to important newspapers from dangerous but important places like the Middle East.

The witch smiled and expertly stacked her cards, smacking them against her dining room tabletop with a clack, muffled by the vinyl cloth. After that Wendy and I said our thank yous and drove away, disillusioned. The witch was just a middle-aged lady; her lights were too bright and she left the TV on all the time. Something was either a little—or very—amiss in a house where demons didn’t stay in their mirrors. And she was just plain wrong. Well, I thought so. Wendy was happy with the way things went for her. But I was disgruntled about the poet thing. I disliked poetry. Never read it, never wrote it. Never wanted to. What a faker.

Pamela Petro’s latest book is The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story.