The Witching Hour

Image by Kevin Willinsky

All Them Witches:

The Tellus

Lancaster, PA

Saturday May 7, 2022

My chucks stick to the floor as I walk into the narrow venue, its walls a saturated black, a small stage to one end, the bar to the other. I make a crack that I feel like Atreyu trying to escape the swamp. Each step takes effort. With all of the drinks that slosh over the brim of their glasses through the course of the evening, it’s a theme that persists into the night. The crowd is thick, so we find a spot in a small nook in front of the sound booth.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, isn’t on the well-worn trail we tread for concerts: the path from Philly to D.C. where you can find any band at some point of their tour. It’s somewhat of a novelty to be in a venue with a 500 person occupancy, and I find myself anticipating the intimacy it affords a crowd to be so close to the performance. There’s a sort of electric current crackling through the people piled into the club. It’s the same anticipation I’m feeling. We’re all taking that last deep breath and waiting to exhale when the lights dim and a voice leaves the stage, jolting through us across that same electric network that’s binding us all together. We exhale.

The sound is crisp. the vocals clean, despite it being a small hall. The music bounces from wall to wall, absorbing into our skin. Every note is authentic and feels raw and real, something I haven’t felt in a show since emerging from my Covid cocoon. I’m home.

Staebler leans his weight into his drums with every beat, his performance almost tribal–an aboriginal dance. In each riff from McLeod, there are heavy undertones of The Allman Brothers meets bluegrass, meets folk rock. He’s precise–techinical–but it’s as natural as breathing, and you find yourself listening to his guitar as if it’s speaking to you. With Van Cleave back on the violin and keyboard, it brings a welcomed harmony–a balance. It’s that missing piece that locks their well-rounded sound into place. Each time he chimes in, it’s like someone is reminding you of a good part of a story that’s been left out. Things feel fuller. Topped off with Parks on vocals with his steady haunting hum–his voice akin to the pull of a bow across the strings of a cello–their sound combines into something almost otherworldly.

Image by Kevin Willinsky

They draw you in, the music pulling you closer to the stage like a siren song. There’s no better example of this than the hush that falls over the crowd as Parks takes up his acoustic guitar, and along with Van Cleave, tells the story of Romulus and Remus to a group of wide-eyed listeners. We’re entranced.

Each song has its own ebb and flow and builds like a summer storm forming over the ocean. They get into a groove, taking you along with them as they dig into their stoner rock roots with drawn out jam sessions that lead into the heavy crash of the hard-hitting lines that cling to your bones. “It’s something of charm to have nothing to say.” Then the bass takes over and pulls you under its unrelenting wave. You’re drowning in the music and you don’t want to resurface.

We reach the last song, and there’s a tangible loss that fills the room. No on is ready for this to end. Just ten more minutes, we all think, and the band placates us by reappearing once more. We’re all grateful for one last taste of the ambrosia of the gods. Every song has sliced through us, reminding us what live music is supposed to be; it’s left its mark.

I’ve seen a lot of bands from a lot of genres in small venues and large. Some sell the light show, some push controversy. Some just give themselves, pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into each note. You know when it’s real, when it’s right. All Them Witches is without a doubt the real McCoy, and part of me will be sad when the rest of the world catches on, because for one night, a small crowd in a cramped bar had them all to ourselves.

And everything was right.

We’re All Right

It’s discomforting to think we all fall asleep with this blanket of righteousness tucked tight beneath our chin. That the Pol Pots and Putins sleep soundly with dreams of conquering the world spinning round behind their eyelids like a dancing shadow lamp of their deepest desires.

In a time where no one admits fault, no one takes blame, no one accept responsibility for an outcome, it’s no wonder the world has become plagued by tyrants and pirates. We’ve created monsters through complacency and denial. Anyone who has ever watched a Good guy vs bad guy film knows that every villain has a backstory filled with neglect. So often, our disinterest creates the origin story for atrocities. We just can’t be bothered. It’s not our problem. Let someone else tend to it.

Maybe that makes us as much the villain as the perpetrators.

As I sit and watch the world in all its madness, I think, we can’t all be right. And it takes the majority coming together in that realization for change to occur—something I don’t hold my breath for.

I might be wrong. What beautiful words in the right moment. Imagine how different the world might be if more people had stopped to consider such a notion. Picture all the conflicts that might never have occurred, all the wars that might have been avoided if people had just had a conversation instead of an altercation.

So next time your blood boils and you’re sure the world is against you, that your neighbor slighted you, that your coworker’s words are the poisoned apple that taints the purity you envision, remind yourself that you might be wrong.

And maybe if more people said those words, we could be all right.

The Dilemma

There comes an hour in the grip of the moon’s clutches where words writhe like rising bile from the bottom of your soul. A moment where you speak or smother your voice with the soft downy feathers of your pillow.

There comes a time when thoughts beat against the bars of your teeth and beg to be freed from their prison. And in that moment, do you speak, or do you sleep?

Do your weary eyes inch toward the horizon, setting like the heavy sun, or do they rise to the occasion?

Only the morning will tell.

Shrines and Mantras

You stand at the edge of the porch, leaning over the rail as you exhale a cloud of smoke into the thick Louisiana air. It hangs in suspended animation, clouding your view of the boggy bayou. A warm tear slips from the corner of your eye and cools as it carves a shallow canyon through your makeup like an unyielding river through sandstone.

Most days your job doesn’t get to you. You shut off that part of yourself that cares about anything—your family, your life, your beliefs. Those things don’t exist here. You have learned to check your humanity at the door.

But some days you come unprepared.

With the back of your hand, you dry your cheek before snuffing out the cigarette against the weather-beaten rail. Your boss spits your name like a curse word, reminding you that you’re on the clock. He tells you to cry on your own time. You’ve imagined a thousand scenarios where you tell him off and quit, but you don’t live in a world where you can afford to put your money where your mouth is, so you swallow your words and keep your cash.

The screen door screams as you pull it open and snap on a pair of rubber gloves. “Where do you want to me to start?” You stand before him with your hands defiantly on your hips, silently daring him to give you flak, but when faced with your steely gaze, he wilts like a cut flower beneath a heating vent. Cowards often do.

He promptly averts his eyes and scurries past. “You take the bedroom. I’ll get the bathroom and kitchen.”

Of course. He leaves you to scrub blood and haul linens soaked in bodily fluids while he disposes of takeout boxes and mops boot tracks. But when payday comes, his check will dwarf yours. Life isn’t fair. For some less than others, you think with guilt as you stare at the handmade suncatcher that hangs from the kitchen window, its tinfoil caming and multi-hued saran wrap twisting light into vibrant patterns across the formica countertop like a stain glass window over a pulpit.

With a box of trash bags under one arm, you awkwardly tote a bucket of cleaning supplies down the hall, setting it at your feet as you inhale a deep breath and push your respiratory mask into place. Once upon a time, you didn’t know to cover your face right away, but now all you smell is rot and decay in everything. Even when you sleep, bleach and blood seep into your dreams. The mask helps to put layers between you and death.

Peeling unicorn stickers chase each other across the door around a little girl’s name drawn in purple crayon. But rusty red fingerprints have carelessly smeared through the letters, destroying any bit of magic that may have once existed. For the briefest of moments, your hand hesitates on the knob as you turn it. The click is deafening.

The door slowly swings open and you sink your teeth into your tongue until the taste of blood fills your mouth. You brace for impact, knowing that this image will violently slam into your chest leaving its permanent impression. You look any way.

In many ways, it’s ordinary. Pink walls, delicate lace curtains, a doll house with tiny furniture. But innocence flinches, cowering in the corner as it seeks safety from an evil that permeates from the heart of the room. It’s a darkness so black that it snuffs out the light in a single defined moment.

A ruined comforter dotted with shiny stars and crescent moons lies wadded in a ball on a bed where no child will ever sleep again. A deep furrow forms between your brow and you beat back your heartache as you absorb the nightmare. Against your will, it becomes a part of you.

Porcelain faces with perfect curls and hand-tailored gowns encircle the room on a shelf high above. They watch from their perches like angels in a cloudless sky, their glass eyes gleaming with the knowledge of what they have seen. You often think how fortunate it is that, while each object holds a story, it can’t be told without a mouthpiece. You’re thinking that now as you try to avoid their gazes.

Pulling an oversized trash bag from the box, you throw yourself into your work, hoisting the cumbersome blood-encrusted blanket into the bag. Constant motion keeps you from focusing too long on any one aspect, stops you from collecting the pieces and forming a narrative. You’ll do that later while you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep as you stare blankly at the ceiling.

Next you remove the stained sheets, the pillow where she dreamt of her future, the tiny articles of clothing scattered across the shag rug. One by one, you collect items and place them into bags, hauling them to plastic barrels which act as a sarcophagus for traumatic memories. Tears gloss over your vision as you scrub the walls where small nails have gouged ravines through soft pink paint. It’s as if your fingers are touching hers. You stifle a sob and scrub harder.

After hours of effort, you lay the past to rest as the room leaves behind the little girl who once sat at the tiny table with her dolls, feeding them from plastic spoons while singing about her wonder of the stars.

But no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to leave her behind.

When you’re sure your boss isn’t looking, you pocket a small, porcelain unicorn, careful not to crush it as you carry your supplies back to the van and call it a day. The ride home is quiet. You don’t turn on the radio, preferring the chirp of cicadas as you drive down the long, dirt road toward your trailer. Years ago, you made a rule not to listen to music on days like these. Some of your favorite songs had been ruined because they danced too close to death.

You open your screen door, which squeals just like hers, and flick on the lamp. Kicking off your shoes, you head toward the bathroom and start the shower. Your clothing peels down your skin, and its as if your soul is being flayed—every day another layer. You can still feel her blood on your fingers, even though you wore gloves. Of course it’s all in your head, but as the scalding water pours over your body, you still scrub your skin raw.

In the dim light of your room, you stand motionless before your cluttered dresser, staring at the clusters of tiny knickknacks and baubles belonging to people you’ve never met—an homage to the lost. You reverently place the delicate unicorn next to the others and light a candle.

Your eyes meet your vulnerable and broken reflection above the flickering flame—a remnant of the person you used to be—and you promise yourself for the hundredth time that there is still good in the world.

You blow out the candle.

The Paper Crane Terrarium

I’ve forged myself a cage

Gilded gold, ornate design

It hangs beneath the emerald fronds

And sways in the night breeze

That forms over ebbing tides and lulling seas

I’ve fashioned a world for one

A life of paper,

folded, twisted into perfect cranes

They fly under the swollen moon as it sings its silver song

That falls over my sleeping form

From pale dusk to vibrant dawn

I soar when skies are calm

over turquoise dreams I have dreamt

with unclipped wings and a voice that sings

A song that I am free

The People Who Make Us

Two crows silhouette against a morning sky.

I once had a friend

Who was no friend at all

She came and she went as she pleased

 

Some days she was strength

Some days she was solace

Some days she was nothing to me

 

I once knew a girl

Who would burn down the world

Just to keep from feeling its pain

 

One minute she was smiling

The next she was crying

Like sunshine showing through rain

 

I once had a love

Who pretended to live

She said she and I were the same

 

Her words were all empty

Her heart was a hole

And she said that I was to blame

 

I once was someone

A mind with a voice

Words that flowed wild and free

 

I weathered and shattered

And none of it mattered

Because all of these people were me

Interim

I’m not here

And I’ll remind you that you’re not here, either.

We’re barely existing on our separate planes

 

I reiterate that you must keep your eyes on your own paper

That this test is a solitary effort.

I don’t think I can help you any more,

not that studying together ever seemed to make a difference.

You still fail each time

 

I start to wonder if I’m a bad teacher,

Or if you’re a bad student.

Then I tell myself a secret:

It doesn’t matter

because you aren’t real

And I’m not either.

 

I give myself an A+

And I let you continue to fail.

 

And it still doesn’t matter.

The Things That I Could Do

I could quarantine my heart

Close it up and seal the air

Keep your breath, your words, your life

From infiltrating my existence

 

And maybe it would shelter me

From pain and grief that alway comes

Like gusts of wind from the West

That batter me from inside out

 

Or maybe it would make life stagnant

stale and musty—hard to breathe

Like humid days beneath the sun

Impossible to carry on

 

I could choose to tune you out

Replace your voice with any sound

Replace your eyes with any eyes

Or so I try to tell myself

 

But in seclusion, would I find

A better way to live my life?

Would the days seem twice as bright?

I imagine only darker

 

I’d miss the words that fill the space

Between the breaths that fill my lungs

That burrow deep within my chest

Beneath the ache of loneliness

 

Lamenting loss of smiling lips

That rise for you like waxing moons

That light the darkness with their glow

I cannot let the phases go

 

And so I leave my heart adrift

Let the cards fall where they may

Accept that I have no control

Of feelings carved from memories

 

Perhaps I’ll splinter—fall apart

Or even burn beneath your gaze

But I would bear the sear of pain

Just to hear you say my name

I Dance and Clap for Everything

I live most of my life in a very animated way. When I talk, my whole face moves; my eyebrows dive up and down, my lips pull into an array of smirks, my hands fly wildly through the air. I’m nearly a cartoon character. To say I am passionate would be an understatement.

Some people have a few things that bring out that level of enthusiasm—a sports team, a band, a television show. But I’m that way about everything I love, from the fresh carved loaf of pumpernickel the waitress sets on the table to the bright red octopus clinging to the side of the tank at the aquarium. I never learned to rein in my excitement for anything in which I’ve ever been invested—be it music, food, or people. That’s part of the reason my mother loves picking out Christmas gifts for me each year; she says I love everything…and I do, from notebooks to patterned pajama pants.

Words are no exception. I am as passionate about them as I am about love (which is really saying something, because I am an utterly hopeless romantic). I take it seriously when I put them on a page, because they are me and I am them. The same applies to our conversations—those words mean just as much.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we convey thoughts and communicate with each other. We don’t talk face to face as often. Most of our interactions are short—clipped; they fit in to small boxes on small screens.

I don’t speak on the phone frequently, but there’s something in those conversations that doesn’t easily translate into a text or email—passion. When I am excited about a topic, the person on the other end of the line can hear it. They notice that my volume rises toward the end of the sentence, that I ramble, causing shortness of breath because I’ve forgotten to pause and expand my lungs. In person, they would see my eyes grow wide, lighting up like sparklers, observe that I’ve moved to the edge of my seat and can no longer sit still.

When we talk in text, I don’t know that all the blood rushes to your face while you speak of injustice. You don’t know that I do happy dances and beam from ear to ear when you tell me good news. I can’t hear your exclamations and you can’t see my reactions. Something about this makes me sad. So much is lost in our exchanges.

In a piece of literature, we can sell our passion. We have hundreds to thousands of words to say, this is important; this is everything. But in a text or DM, or even an email, passion is often lost to efficiency. Say it, and say it quickly. That doesn’t leave much room for embellishment, which goes hand in hand with enthusiasm.

When I write anything, I never want to lose that excitement that possesses me, that takes over everything that I am and says, These are the things that inspire me, move me, wake me up, keep me going. And I absolutely live to read the passion of others—true passion, not that sad excuse of a replica that people push, where the words say one thing, but the emotion is dull and lifeless like the glass eyes of a stuffed animal that hangs on the wall in a den.

So I guess what I’m saying is that—despite the limitations of our chosen methods of communication—be ecstatic about all of the things that breathe life into your lungs, and shove it into your words until each sentence is overflowing with your energy. Feed the world your passion, and we will devour it…because nothing is as intoxicating as spirit.

The Afterimage of Words

wallofwords

There are times when I see a scene on a screen or read a remarkable line from a chapter, and it’s as if I understand something greater than myself, greater than the world in which I live. Each instance gives me a unique perspective into a different time or place and allows me to be part of an experience that doesn’t exist within these four walls. 

They are moments where my heart swells & flutters, & my breath hitches excitedly in my chest. They are minutes, seconds, milliseconds of perfection where I comprehend that some things are too beautiful to be experienced any other way. Anything less would be a loss.

I repeat the captivating words to myself for hours on end—days, weeks, years—to keep the feeling in motion, circulating through my veins. I never want it to end, only to remain cyclical, cycling indefinitely through my thoughts like a remembered birthday or memorized face that haunts my dreams. For surely, words follow us like ghosts, shadowing our lives with the weight of their meaning, clinging to a significant person or place as they play on loop.

Each preserved passage is cataloged, becoming a pinpoint on my timeline, a detailed description of the moment I fell in love with an idea & kept it for my own. On command, I collect each one from my vault of memories, reliving how bitterly sad, how inspiring, how intriguing they were as they danced across my retinas and settled into my gaze, becoming the apple of my eye. 

And so, over time, and without my realization, I became a historian of beautiful thoughts, gathering words and images into a hope chest that would provide me with the tools I needed to navigate my life. These would be the images and ideas that reminded me of how small I am and how big I could be. 

We’re all collectors, retaining bits and pieces of an alluring existence, absorbing the world around us as we observe life through a limited lens. And someday, if we’re lucky, our words will be reverently tucked away in the hope chests of others.