My Catholic picture books made me think heaven was a town built on a layer of stratocumulus clouds, which disappointed me, because I wanted a heaven like the garden on the other side of the door in Alice’s wonderland. I considered myself the true owner of the library’s copy of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, nesting in its puffy white VHS case until I could bring it home again. I studied Alice as she crept through the black woods and sat in disoriented defeat among the mome raths. I watched her shrink and grow. I was looking for the garden, too. Our lawn violets never spoke. There had to be a door somewhere, but I couldn’t even find a rabbit hole to fall down. In the woods, I turned over rocks, looking for the underworld, always fearing I’d find a nest of snakes instead.
Once I could read, I worked through the book enough times to memorize parts. Maybe my woods were already wonderland. Maybe my cat would dissolve into a hanging grin. At school, when boys played games that ended with the loser having to kiss me without my invitation, I understood I was stuck somewhere, like Alice: “There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.”
In the Disney adaptation, Alice faces only one door. It is locked, and has a talking face. “You did give me quite a turn!” the door puns, and makes sure we get the joke: “Rather good, what? Doorknob, turn?” Alice peers through the keyhole mouth at the garden. In my recollection of the movie, the viewer sees what she sees. I can picture it: fountains, hedges, rosebushes, topiaries.
But I imagined the image. Alice doesn’t look through a door-portal until the film is nearly over. She’s been crying in the woods, singing to the creatures gathered to gawk at her pain, saying to herself, “It would be so nice if something would make sense for a change!” when the Cheshire Cat, a puff of purple around a crescent moon of teeth, tells her there’s a way out. He makes a door appear in a tree trunk. Alice steps in to meet the tyrant queen in her garden. I should have seen this as a cautionary tale: the girl thinks she’s looking for something that makes sense, but the deeper she pushes, the closer she gets to the seat of senseless violence in the world.
Early colonizers of the Americas believed the devil lived here, having been banished from Europe through religious effort. Europeans believed Native peoples worshipped gods that served Satan. Sixteenth-century Spanish colonizers executed a Guachichil woman whose people resisted conquest. She lived in a place occupied by Tlaxcalan and Tarascan converts to Christianity, and she tried to persuade them to rebel against Spanish rule by threatening them with black magic. The Spanish, fearing a loss of control, charged her with witchcraft and killed her immediately. Alison Games recounts this in Witchcraft in Early North America, writing that “witches were not only rebels against godly order (as they were throughout Europe), but also armed rebels bent on overthrowing established governments.” Revolts were blamed on the devil. The settlers became obsessed with witches.
But I didn’t know about any of this when I was four, as my parents read to me from my favorite picture books, Patricia Coombs’s Dorrie the Little Witch series. Every book begins the same: “This is Dorrie. She is a witch. A little witch.” Some arrangement of introductory details follows: her room is messy, her socks mismatched. She has a cat named Gink and a mother known as the Big Witch. Dorrie strives and fails to be good; the Big Witch is important and busy. Left alone to figure out how to behave, Dorrie often ends up in the secret room where her mother makes magic. She fumbles with spells, coming up with her own elixirs after failing to find them in the Big Witch’s book of magic.
I don’t know whether I understood that world to be pretend. My mother was a big witch, too: important, a role model, and a healer, in a way, a nurse with national recognition and local renown. But I was left alone only when I wanted to be. It was my mother and father who read me the books.
I mixed every liquid hair product in my parents’ bathroom cabinet, hoping to come up with the spell Dorrie sought to ease the constriction of adult reality’s force upon the glittering cloud of childhood. I held out hope for finding a book of magic that might have what I needed.
My schoolbooks held only dead ends: a rule for every known thing, and every thing was a known thing, except for the things the church knew to be unknown, like the mechanism God uses to turn bread into his body or what that even means since the Communion host doesn’t seem like anything but an unusual cracker melting on the tongue.
But there was something existing in my house—not a being like God or Satan, but something potent and present as a gas. In the hallway, surrounded by the bedroom and bathroom doors, I felt I wasn’t alone. Belief in ghosts seemed to fall under superstition, which was sinful as a subcategory of idolatry, so I didn’t let myself think of the women in the large old photo hanging in our house’s hallway as anything but ink on framed paper. The standing woman smiled and the sitting woman did not. Their hair was gathered tight behind their heads and their skin was cloaked in black cloth. My mom said they were my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother, granddaughter and daughter of Tumulth, but this was impossible. I had never smiled at anyone as if my eyes were jaws and I had never sat with my sadness as if it were a second nervous system. They wore black, like witches, but they couldn’t be, because all witches were white.
They knew something, though.
I decided to read every book in the library, looking for instructions I could use. The books I found weren’t about witches—they were about otherworld travelers. In The Castle in the Attic, by Elizabeth Winthrop, a boy uses a magic token to turn people into miniatures who can pass through a toy castle into another world. Lynne Reid Banks wrote about similar magic five years earlier in The Indian in the Cupboard, but I didn’t take to that book, probably not because it features a white boy who plays God with a tiny Iroquois man—I was used to that—but because I wanted to travel to the otherworlds, not have their residents come to me.
In Anne Lindbergh’s Travel Far, Pay No Fare, two children use a magic bookmark to go into the worlds of books. Inside one, a woman says, “Houses aren’t the only things with windows. Time and space may well have them too.” I collected library bookmarks and tried every one, hoping to travel across the threshold of the page. I even made my own, carefully lettered with the words from the book: Travel far, / Pay no fare, / Let a story / Take you there!
I couldn’t get it to work, so I reread the book periodically, looking for a missed step in the instructions. I found my answer in A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. The journey between worlds was a tesseract, travel in the fifth dimension, possible only by the thoroughly initiated, which I was not. “Playing with time and space is a dangerous game,” says the protagonist’s father. “It’s a frightening as well as an exciting thing to discover that matter and energy are the same thing, that size is an illusion, and that time is a material substance. We can know this, but it’s far more than we can understand with our puny little brains.”
All these books illuminated small pieces of the same set of principles. There were too many connections for the magic not to be real. The books never taught me to travel to other worlds, so I began to wonder whether I could manipulate this one.
I think dreams are riddles because they need to be solved. I am sure dreams are enigmas because they really can’t be. After I read The Battle for the Castle, Winthrop’s sequel to The Castle in the Attic, in which the hero and his friend defend their castle from attack by large rats, I began dreaming I was in a besieged castle. I never dream I’m naked, flying, or falling. In my nightmares, I don’t have long before the people outside the walls come to kill me.
I was prepared to see books as riddles long before high school teachers taught me the mode of literary study I’d have to unlearn, searching texts for the single correct interpretation coded in symbols and subtext. In one of my favorite childhood books, there really was a solution. The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery is a picture book by Graeme Base in which an elephant named Horace throws a party for his eleventh birthday. He invites ten animal friends to his house, plans eleven games, and prepares a feast to be served at eleven o’clock. But the guests arrive to the banquet hall to find the food already eaten. Readers are tasked with identifying the thief using “a little close observation and some simple deduction.” The solution is in a sealed section at the book’s end, following a warning: “Do not turn this page until you have tried your hardest to unravel the Mystery—for the getting of wisdom is no match for the thrill of the chase, and those who choose the longer road shall reap their reward!”
Clues are encoded in basic cryptography in every illustration: WATCH THE CLOCKS lettered into the wrought iron of the property’s entry gate, RED HERRING spelled out on fallen tennis balls, PUT NO TRUST IN HIDDEN CODES AND MESSAGES decoded from symbols substituted for letters, a verse visible when the book is held up to a mirror: “Yea, all who seek take heed forsooth—For everyone has told the truth!” Technically, that is factual. But someone is lying, of course, by omission.
The Eleventh Hour, I Spy, Where’s Waldo?, Magic Eye: I wanted all books to make me feel the way these did when my whole body and brain lurched with the click of visual recognition. I still do. I want the whole world to make me feel it.
Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of White Magic, My Body Is a Book of Rules, and Starvation Mode. With Theresa Warburton, she is the coeditor of the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She’s a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship recipient, a Creative Capital awardee, and an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.
Copyright © 2021 by Elissa Washuta. From White Magic, published by Tin House.