The six women mill outside the magick shop on Main Street. They hold cups and pillow, as the invite requested. I sidle up and ask, "This isn't a women only affair, is it?"
"Oh no," the short, blonde proprietress says. "Men are welcome. They just aren't here. Why, are you female?"
"Not biologically," I say, and stand near one of the women until the shop opens for the new moon ritual. "I've been to a few rituals that made clear when I got there that I had the wrong equipment for witchcraft." But, for tonight, my glass water goblet and blue throw pillow seem to excuse the audacity of having a penis.
"Yeah, I knew a coven who wouldn't even allow a male infant within the circle. Because that's really going to mess up the energy," she says.
The women introduce themselves but, as three of them are named Annie, I dub them The Annie and refuse to hear initials. They will be Annie Who Leads, Annie Who Sits, Annie Who Smirks.
I enter the shop and study the masks and mirrors on the shop wall before the ritual commences. I don't know what to expect - witches tend to be fairly individualistic in their practice - but politely answer questions sufficient to prove that I am not new to Paganism (refusing to go so far as to name-drop who I have practiced with, but knowing I damn well could) and do not need the remedial lectures about elements and alignments. I look at the statues set upon a tapestry at the back of the shop where the ritual will be, trying to catch the precise flavor of the worship before diving in, whether the cayenne mint chip of Discordianism or well-aged (but not that well-aged) cheese of Gardnarianism.
"You can sit wherever you'd like. We are laid back. No set person does every ritual," Annie Who Leads says. "I tend to take the esbats, though."
I make my way to the east, to fire, and settle there. Tonight, I feel fiery, I feel like burning old attachments. One of the intentions I write on parchment paper with a gel pen reads, in part, "Let go of Melanie and my grudges against her."
We seven sit around and I listen to them chat as they wait for another member to join, a woman who never arrives. They begin talking of menstruation and then say, "Oh, you are never going to come back now."
"Nah, it makes me feel at home. I've been around women before."
Annie Who Leads passes around symbols for each element and I mimic the person before me (Annie Who Sits) in smudging myself with incense smoke or flicking water from a cowrie shell over my shoulder. The fire leaps out of the cauldron and a bit extinguishes in a chalice filled with wine. "Ah, Fortuna," says Annie Who Leads. I've missed this more than I realized this casual acknowledgment of the vagaries of the divine.
We call the quarters and light candles for each one. The fire candle is curiously reticent to burst into flame and I wonder at the meaning.
They ask if I know anyone who needs healing. I want to tell them of my breakup, but I just met them and cannot imagine stealing the light. I don't need as much healing as the dog who was just euthanized or woman moved away, as are mentioned in my stead, and I would rather care for strangers than persist in being cared for by them.
We join hands and meditate on healing light. As I am on the floor and Annie Who Sits is in a chair, my arm quickly grow fatigued, but I embrace the pain as a cleansing aspect of the ritual. I would rather have muscle fatigue than a still-broken heart.
After this meditation is over, Annie Who Leads removes an intention from the bowl. For a moment, I worry that she is going to read it aloud, but she touches it to the candle and throws it into the cauldron. One by once, we set them all aflame.
The fire turns green and Annie Who Leads says, "Did someone do an intention that involved money? Oh, I did! But not for me."
Soon after, the circle is opened and we pass around cakes (well, a Shoprite pound cake) and ale.
"Would you like regular or high octane?" Annie Who Smirks asks, holding pomegranate grape juice and mead.
"I'll stick to the regular, thanks." I don't want even slight inebriation to keep me from getting home when I need. (Though do feel a little like a kindergarten with my juice and cake, consecrated though they are.)
"Was this what you were expecting?" Annie Who Leads asks.
"I tried not to have expectations, but it was nice."
"What do you usually do?"
I shift my weight on my pillow. "Well, my ex was a fervent atheist who usually sneered at talk of witchcraft, so I tended to keep her away from it and practiced alone. The woman before her was in a Gardnarian coven and I attended several of their rituals."
"Wow, that's quite the range!"
"Surprisingly not," I say, taking another bite of cake so I don't have to clarify that statement.
I leave the store ten minutes later. Catching the scent of incense and fire, I smile. It's lovely to smell like witchcraft again.
Soon in Xenology: Coping.