FICTION | Hexenbrenner
I became a fake witch for survival reasons. I had watched my older sister, Rachel, begin dating, and I wasn’t about to put myself through that same hell. The parentals had restricted her to dating boys from church families with a consistent record of attendance and 10%+ tithing. Then the pre-selected boy had to go through an hour-long “interview process” with Dad, whilst he cleaned his guns. “Yeah, Dad,” I wanted to say. “No one has ever pulled that intimidation method before. Super original!”
For my sister, this policy resulted in zero cool dates. Isaiah was a semi-cute, but very timid, boy Dad had approved of, but he only dated my sister for temporary self-preservation so that his own family wouldn’t find out he was gay. I didn’t tell Rach that I knew he was gay. Hopefully Isaiah apostated the shit out of himself when he turned eighteen. Regardless, Rach said he didn’t want to make out and was too afraid of his parents to even drink a single beer. Pretty boring. Another boy Rach tried to date was too friendly with Dad. When Dad brought his guns out, he started asking all these questions about which types Dad had and where he went to practice shooting them. One psycho in our life was enough, thank you. Besides, his name was Job. Like, who names their son after someone who had their whole family murdered by the devil? WTF?
Now Rach was off at some private Christian college on a scholarship. She probably spent her time drinking booze with preppy, republican-senators-in-the-making. Well, good for her. I was happy for her, but now, unfortunately, it was my turn to take up the holy war of being the teenager in house Schrock.
Being the younger daughter, one might’ve thought that I’d have looser rules (or so science suggested). But Rach was more or less OK with the married-plus-2.5-kids status quo (not Dad’s 4-homeschooled-kids status quo, but halfway there), so I figured my personality canceled out any younger child advantage I might’ve had. I didn’t even want kids. And I sure as hell didn’t want to date any of the boys from church. Freshman year, my first year in public school, opened my eyeballs to the wider possibilities of my love life. There was this hot, punk-esque boy in AP Bio who I was 102% sure wouldn’t even make it past the threshold of our property without Dad sniping him.
I tried to ease the parentals into the new, non-homeschooled me. First came the converse, then a smidgen of mascara, and then some brown eyeliner. Shorter hair (I cut my hair drying time from 6 hours to 2 hours! What’d I been waiting for all my life?). Darker pants. Tighter pants.
It wasn’t all as subtly absorbed as I’d hoped. I had to have a “sit-down” with Mom and Dad where they threatened to pull me out of school if I got mixed up with the “wrong crowd.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that, seeing as all my friends were wannabe-Julliard-bounds with 3.6 to 4.0 GPAs. Dad didn’t like it when I laughed during a “sit-down,” so he called me a little witch and said he was on to me. “Seriously?” I asked. He glared at me while Mom put her head into her hands and said she was going to start dinner. It’d be nice if she’d stand up for me once in a while. Or, if she’d stand up for herself, at least. Cooking pasta and washing plates was all she seemed to do. I promised myself that I would not end up like her.
The morning after the “sit-down,” I noticed a slimy streak on my bedroom door, as if a slug had crawled across it in the night. Upon further inspection, I could make out the shape of a cross. The bastard had holy-oiled me. I smeared it into a dick-shape, but then decided that might’ve been pushing it. I wiped it all off with my sleeve.
Rach always told me to let things go, but I couldn’t get over how angry that cross made me. Did Dad actually think I was evil? Like, it’s not that I didn’t believe in God anymore, I just didn’t believe in Him/It in the way I used to when I was a naïve child and had never even heard of evolution (aka “sacrilegious lies”).
When I told my friend Gem about the whole ordeal, she said, “Dude, your family is très weird.” But the way she said it didn’t really have any judgement in it—it was more of an observation—and that’s why she was one of the few people that I told things about my family. Gem wanted to be an Anthropologist. I was pretty sure that she could walk into any place in the world and make people feel OK in their skin.
To everybody else at school, I just said stuff like, “I can’t go because my parents are super strict.” Or, “oh, you know… my parents are mega religious!” And people responded, “I get it. My mom’s Catholic.” And I thought, “no, you don’t get it. I’m not allowed to watch Aladdin because it’s got magic in it.”
Gem wasn’t an after-school-approved friend, so I had to come up with excuses to be around her. I’d convinced her to join the school play as assistant stage manager so that we could hang out more.
Gem took another bite of her apple and licked up the juices that dribbled from the gash. “Also, screw your dad, because witches are actually pretty dope,” she said. “My aunt is a Wiccan and they have some awesome holidays and shit.”
“Yeah? Maybe I should be a witch, then,” I said.
“Woah, girl. Better have 911 on speed dial then, cause yo’ daddy is coming for you.” She slam-dunked the apple core into one of those giant, depressive-gray trashcans that were in every corner of the cafeteria. Apparently, we couldn’t be trusted to walk more than 3 feet to throw away our garbage.
When I got home that evening after theater rehearsal, there was a fresh cross on my bedroom door. I chucked my backpack onto my bed and stormed upstairs.
“Mom. What the hell is that oil-crucifix doing on my door?”
“Sorry to offend. What the holy-heckazoid?”
“What’s wrong with it? Your dad’s blessing your bedroom—one you should remember that he provides for you.”
“You’re defending his craziness. You’re always defending his craziness.”
“Honey, don’t talk about your father that way.”
I wanted to scream at her, but I tried really hard not to. I crossed my arms and pinched my biceps.
“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee,” my little brother, Jeremiah, quoted from the dining table. His AWANA book sat open in front of him.
“He who shuteth his pie hole is wise,” I spat back at him.
He sat up straighter and carefully put his pencil down. “I sense a threat in that...” He glanced at Mom.
“Shut up and read your Bible, you condescending dweeb.”
“Hey! Bethany! Take your anger down a notch,” Mom yelled. Sure, like shouting would help me calm down.
“What’s going on in there, Grace?” Dad called out.
“Just talking!” Mom tried to make her voice sound smiley, but it was too late. I heard the squeak of Dad’s office chair as he got up. “Now you’ve done it,” Mom whispered to me. I scooted back so that I was semi-hidden behind the fridge.
“Hi, Bethany,” Dad said as he filled a mug with water. He was standing closer to me than he needed to be. I looked down at my socks. “How was your day?” he asked.
“What?” he asked. He stepped closer to me, trapping me against the fridge. I snapped one of the magnets on and off. It said, “Jesus Saves.” I wished he’d save me at that moment.
“I can’t hear you. Speak up when I ask you something,” Dad said.
I could hear the air going in and out through his hairy nostrils. “Fine,” I said louder. I chomped down on my cheek so hard I tasted blood. “Great,” I thought. “I’ll be tonguing that for eternity.”
“Fine? Fine what?” He loomed over me.
“Dear?” Mom said. “We got Bethy’s mid-term grades in the mail today. All A’s, right, honey?” She wrestled the grades out of the envelope and handed them to Dad.
He took them and began reading but didn’t step back. The top of the paper was so close that I had to resist reaching out and swatting it away from my nose. He glanced down at me and folded the letter back into its pre-creased rectangle.
“Good. That’s the way it should be,” he said. Finally, he backed up, slurped the rest of his water, and walked back to the den. Mom heaved a sigh and raised her eyebrows accusingly at me.
I grabbed a blueberry bagel from the pantry and booked it downstairs. I thumbed a circle around la nouvelle croix. I didn’t know if that was a sorcery symbol, but it definitely didn’t look Christian.
“Fuck them both,” I thought. If a witch was the opposite of what they were, then that’s what I’d be. Plus, if being a witch was the worst thing I possibly could be, then anything in-between would seem like saintliness in the aftermath, right?
And that’s how the idea started to form.
The next day in first period French, I told Gem my plan. She leaned toward me and whispered, “OK. So, in the end, you’ll tell them that you’ve converted back to Christianity, re-found Jesus, blah blah, and then they’ll pretty much get off your back for everything else until you can GTFO of there?”
“Yeah. Well, I won’t tell them outright that I’m a witch now. I don’t even know what they’d do… I’ll do it gradually until I get the desired effect and then I’ll ease off.”
“You sure this is a good idea? Your dad seems pretty intense.”
“What’s the alternative? Spend the next three years home by 8:00pm on Friday? They’re not going to let me go to any homecomings or proms. I have to show them my f-ing ticket stub when I go to the movies and then they quiz me about the plot afterwards to make sure I actually saw it. Fuck, Gem. I can’t do this for three more years. I need to breathe!”
“Beth?” Our French teacher, Monsieur Sanderlin, was standing behind us. We turned and smiled at him. He was so freaking hot (in a 30-year-old sort of way). You couldn’t help but smile at him.
“Ouais?” Gem and I both said in unison.
He laughed. “You’re distracting others. Get back to your homework, s’il vout plaît, or I’ll have to separate you.” He tapped a dry erase marker on my desk and left.
At lunch we reconvened. Gem stuck a straw into her box of soymilk. “So, step 1: we get you some magicy fantasy book to leave around and then you can say it’s assigned reading for English.”
“Uh no. They’ll call my teacher.”
“Yeah, they will. Besides, the point isn’t to have them pull me out of school.”
“What a thing to punish you with. How dare a girl want to go to school?” Gem rolled her eyes.
“First, I’ll get a whole bunch of red candles and a geode. That could debatably just be scientific or aesthetic, right?”
“Plausible deniability. Smart.”
Mom and Dad didn’t seem to notice the new subtly-witchy additions to my room (including a chat noir poster Gem found for me). Or at least they didn’t say anything. I knew someone had been going through my stuff, though. I’d left a couple of things in a very particular way so that I could tell if they’d been moved. They had been.
Noted changes in the parentals:
1) Dad seemed more spacey in a bitter sort of way. I’d catch him glaring at me for whole minutes every day. But he did seem to be getting on my case less.
2) Mom was forcing me to eat dinner with them less often.
3) Neither of them threw a hissy when I claimed I had too much homework to make time for Wednesday night youth group. All Dad had said was, “it’s important to make time for the Lord.” But Mom had put a hand on his wrist and said, “as long as you keep attending on Sunday, OK?”
I did keep going on Sunday, but I experimented with sitting down during worship. I mean, it’s not like they would lose their cool in front of everyone. I wondered why I hadn’t tried it earlier. “Chickenshit,” I said to myself.
But maybe I underestimated the effect I was having. Maybe I got a bit too cocky. I painted my fingernails black. I burned incense that you could smell throughout the whole house. I even bought a book on witchcraft from B&N. I leafed through it to make the pages seem all used and crinkly. I was surprised that I actually liked a lot of what I read. There were female deities. Lots of magically drawn trees and moon cycles. It didn’t even mention demons or anything like that. Plus, reincarnation made more sense than eternal doom and gloom because you hadn’t accepted some god’s offspring into your heart.
Before school, I left the book underneath my pillow, poking out a few inches. When I came home it was gone. I was sort of mad, but also excited at the same time. I trudged upstairs. Mom sat at the dining table with Jeremiah, helping him with his pre-algebra.
“Mom, what did you do with my book?”
“We disposed of it properly.” She shook her head in a way that was supposed to make her disappointment obvious. “We need to have a sit-down with you, now, Bethany.” She got up and walked down the hall towards the den.
My heart began to pound. I felt like I was five again and going in for a spanking.
“Somebody’s in trouble,” Jeremiah sang. He didn’t look up as he erased an equation. I snatched the eraser from his hand and chucked it across the room. His eyes gaped at me behind his yellowy glasses. “If you use your magic against me, I’ll tell.”
“Oh my God. Seriously.”
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
“You know what? Fuck you Jeremiah. You don’t think I hear you rustling the pages of that Sports Illustrated you keep hidden in the bathroom? Psht. What would Jesus think?”
His face turned so red that I felt kind of bad. There weren’t even any naked pictures in that magazine. “Jer…”
“You’re a liar and a witch!” He yelled as he ran off to his bedroom.
“Bethany!” Mom called out from the den. I gulped down a lungfull of air and tried not to seem as batshit scared as I felt.
“Here we go,” I whispered to myself and crept down the hall. I heard Jeremiah crying in his bedroom as I passed his shut door. “Nice one, Beth,” I thought. “Sister-of-the-year award.”
Gem seemed worried the moment she saw me drag my feet into French class the next morning. I must’ve look as apocalyptic as I felt.
“I’ve been grounded. Indefinitely.” I sank into the bowl of the plastic desk seat.
“OK, well, we knew something like this would happen. We expected this, right?”
I dropped my neck back and stuck my tongue out at the ceiling. I was so happy to be at school and not at home. The weekends were going to suck.
“That bad, huh?” Gem asked.
“Shit, girl. Sorry. They won’t pull you out of school, will they?”
I shook my head.
“Good. And the play?”
“They’ll let me finish it. They don’t want to make a big scene, I guess.”
“Ha. No pun intended.” Gem slapped her knee.
I lifted a pissy eyebrow at her, but then stared back up at the ceiling and tried to breathe slowly. I didn’t want to cry in front of Monsieur Sanderlin.
“Hey, hey…” Gem put her arm around me.
“It’s not working. It’s backfiring and now I’m screwed.”
Gem kneaded my shoulder. “Nah, we’ll figure it out. Worst case scenario, how many more days you got?”
“Hey, less than 1,000.”
“908 days of literal hell on earth.”
Gem tried to help me get through the parentally-sanctioned purgatory. Friday night, Mom called me upstairs and handed me the wireless home phone. “It’s about your school project?”
“Uh, yeah. Thanks.” I reached for the phone, but she pressed the microphone into her stomach. “Your father will be back in a half hour.” She gave me her stern-eyes.
I nodded. “I’ll be off by then.” She handed me the phone and I carried it downstairs.
“Huzzah! It worked,” Gem said.
“I’m surprised she let me talk to you. Doesn’t it show your Mom’s name when you call?”
“Dude, I *67’d it. I’m not an idiot.” She switched to a higher-pitched voice. “Becca from English at your service.” She shifted back to her normal voice. “Becca, like Rebecca. Isn’t that a Bible name? But also subtle, too, you know?”
“Cheer up, woman.”
I heard Queen playing in the background. I wasn’t allowed to listed to 'secular' music.
“So, I was reading about witch-hunting in Europe,” Gem said.
“There was this guy named von Dornheim who killed hundreds of supposed witches in Germany in the 1700's. They called him the Hexenbrenner—the witch burner. Creepy, huh? He even had a witch-house built to torture people into giving confessions. False confessions, obviously.”
“I didn’t know there were witch hunts in Europe.”
“I know, right? I thought Europeans were très sophisticated than Americans. But it was actually a Catholicism versus Protestantism thing.”
“Huh. What’s your point, Gem?” All this witch stuff was giving me a headache.
“I don’t know. All this religious control shit is wrong. I mean, at that time, it was literally OK to torture and kill people they thought were witches.”
“My dad would probably put me in a witch house if he could.”
“Exactly. They’re not going to burn you – hopefully – but you should be able to be a witch if you wanted to be, let alone pretend to be one. Like, you don’t have the freedom to choose just because you’re not eighteen? That’s fucked up.”
“Anyways. Keep up the good fight, Babe.”
“Thanks.” I was about to hang up, but I heard her start talking again.
“But he fled,” she said.
“The Hexenbrenner. The Swedish came in and chased him out.”
“Cool. Go Swedish people.”
“And they released everyone in the witch house. But then they told them never to talk about how they were tortured…”
“Oh. That’s messed up.”
“Uh huh. But the point is, you won’t have to live in that witch house of yours forever. Thank the Lord Almighty!”
I heard Dad’s car pull down the driveway. “I gotta go, Gem. But thanks for the encouragement.”
“Sure. Auf wiedersehen, ma chérie. See you at rehearsal tomorrow.”
Dad drove me to play practice the next day, even though Mom had said that she would. There was no way to get out of it. I leaned as far away from him as I possibly could and rubbed my stained fingernails. They’d forced me take off the black polish, but it had seeped deep into my nails. They’d be milky gray for eternity.
We drove in silence. I smashed my forehead against the cold window and rubbed my face grease all over the glass – my own smeary cross to paint. I felt Dad gearing up to something. I counted each turn we made. There were only a few more blocks. I wiggled my foot nervously.
He took a left on Chestnut Street. “Shitshitshit,” I thought. He was taking the long way. I pulled my sleeves down over my fists and tugged at the loose threads. I was going to go berserk if I had to be in that car with him for more than two minutes.
“Bethany,” he said, not looking at me. It had begun. Adrenaline pumped through my blood like I’d downed a quad-shot of espresso. “You need to come back to God.”
“Just don’t, Dad.”
“You are living a life of sin and that is why you are filled with such misery and disobedience.”
“You want to know what my problem is?” I heard my voice getting all high-pitched and freaky, but I couldn’t control it. “You’re my problem. I wish you’d just leave me alone.”
His voice got all weird, too, like extra deep and monotone. “May you be released from your sin and washed with the Blood of The Lamb,” he chanted.
“Are you serious?”
He took one hand off the steering wheel and faced his palm towards me. He raised his voice higher. “Satan release her from your grip! In the name of Jesus!”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I’d never sworn at him before. I was shaking everywhere. My hands were vibrating as if they had hypothermic rage. “Stop the goddamn car! I’m getting out.”
When he slowed down for a stop sign, I jumped out. I sprinted towards a patch of green—maybe a park or something—I didn’t care. The whole world was swimming underwater. There wasn’t enough air.
I finally reached the grassy mound in the center of the park and collapsed. The wet grass soaked into my jeans. I was crying and snotting everywhere now, too, I realized. I wiped my nose on my sleeve.
As I laid there, the sobs mutated into chunky hiccups and then into laughter. I couldn’t stop laughing. It felt a little like that time I smoked weed with Gem in the prop room. In my head, I saw Dad chasing after me with a pitchfork and I knew it wasn’t funny, but I just kept laughing and laughing. It felt so freaking good. I felt better than I had in a really long time.
Alisha Vayette is a Canadian-American writer and currently lives in Seattle, Washington. Her work is forthcoming in Beloit Fiction Journal.