From the author: I was sixteen years old, and what I thought I knew about magic could fill a book. Turns out, I didn't know a damn thing. But those boys? They knew less.
Crunch of a beer can on the gravel path and a crash of laughter from the boys; they were all stoned past the telling of it by then. Tommy's arm was too warm around my waist; it'd gone humid, and I had a belt of sweat under the heat of him. I shrugged him off with a conciliatory smile, bent down to scoop up the crushed beer can—giving him a good show of my ass in those cutoffs—and waggled it at him to say look, I'll get you another. He took it as his due, like I knew he would, because if there's one thing halfass swamprat mystics like better than a girl on their lap while they're holding forth regarding the tiny scraps of the numinous they’ve managed to catch sight of, it's a girl waiting on them.
I made sure to sway fetchingly as I headed toward the outbuilding they'd stashed the coolers around. Its concrete was supposed to help keep things cool, but I don't know that those boys knew much about thermodynamics. I scrubbed my sap-sticky hand on my cutoffs to no avail. Damn Everglades, everything leaking all over you if it doesn't bite you first. But the boys are running out of places to be wild. Not much more dangerous than a pack of half-grown men that are going nowhere and have just begun to realize it, and have no place to blow off that steam.
Which is why I was there in the first place.
I glanced down the way at the boys; Shelly was still on Keegan's lap, laughing, black eyeliner smudged, shirt cut farther than might've been decent for another occasion. We traded nods. She had this for now. I tossed the beer can, slinked past the building with its arc of rust-stain where the sprinklers hit it, slipped into the dark. Walked as far as I could, feeling my way with my feet.
There wasn't much real dark anymore. You had to come way out for it, west past oute 27. Keep driving til the road stops, then walk.
Only way to see fireflies.
Among other things.
Twin circle-flashes in the dark and I froze, stilled myself til I could almost slow my heartbeat. The boomboxes and the boys were far enough away that they were background noise, muffled. A slightly different world. I breathed the heat-muzzy air, heavy with estuary humidity; I adjusted to dim bluish light, let the manmade music fall away, felt the cricket song sharpen around me. I slowly crouched, resting my ass on my heels, and my new friend didn't move, just watched, holding her body tense in the stillness.
I slowly extended my hand and opened up just a little, just enough to let a wisp of the energy I'd been collecting all night unspool between us. Just enough to show her I wasn't like other humans. That we had a kinship. She crept closer, and I stayed still, tried to ignore the beads of sweat trailing down the back of my halter top, down along my spine. She crept closer and closer, and she was close enough that I could smell her fur, that I could almost touch—
And she spooked, darted off into the wild. I stood and cast a furious look over to my right, where there was all of a sudden smoke muddying the night air. I couldn't see a person, just the flaring cherry of the lit cigarette. "Well, come out, come out, whoever you are."
Low chuckle, and he emerged. Tall, gangly, wild curls pulled back, face a little vulpine itself. He ashed on the gravel. "Sorry 'bout that."
"I don't think you are."
"We've only just met, and already you're accusing me of bein' a liar?"
"We have not yet met. And if you could hide that well from us, you coulda kept on hiding.”
He cocked his head to the side, eyes upward like he was considering this deeply; he gave a sort of diagonal nod. "True enough." Took another drag on that cigarette; held the smoke, watching me; released it. "Ben," he said, voice honey over gravel.
"That's an awfully mundane name for a swamp witch."
"Ben's an awfully mundane name for whatever the hell you are." I didn't bother arguing about what I was; it was plainly obvious. We have a type to us, you see. I didn't know what the hell Ben was, though, and he was offering no explanations.
Not like he owed me any.
Not like I cared.
I heard Shelly's laugh, high and wicked, and I knew she was draining a lot off 'em tonight. I hadn't let too much go for the fox, though. I still felt round and full and bright.
It's funny how bullshit can feed a soul.
Ben smirked. "That's not your real name."
I suppressed a wave of irritation. "I do not have the time or inclination to play at Rumplestiltskin with you."
"Not on a school night," he said so quietly he almost couldn't be heard.
I did not dignify that with a response. I stalked back to the scratchy music, the hooting laughter; at the last second, I remembered to grab Tommy a beer. The boys were a circle of heat and light, ringed again by their battered pickup trucks, sprawled in camp chairs like they thought they were on thrones. Tommy lit up a little when he saw me; I sashayed up and straddled him, my strong thighs surrounding his, and I kissed him, feeling myself fill with the golden light of his half-assed epiphanies. The boys hollered appreciatively, sound rising around us, and I took that too, braided it all together, stowed it for later. I felt Ben's gaze on me from behind, stretching on my skin like the trails of half-dried sweat; my hair dragged on that dried sweat like Spanish moss as I chanced a glance behind me.
He saluted me with a sardonic smile, tipping a long-necked beer bottle in my direction. I imagined that's what respect looked like in his world.
But he was outside the circle. What was here was mine.
I was sixteen years old, and what I thought I knew about magic could fill a book. Turns out, I didn't know a damn thing.
But those boys? They knew less.
I have the gift and curse of hindsight now. I have years between me and that girl, me and those parties, the things I did and who I grew up to be, and I don’t look back at her much. I thought I had my reasons for that.
Ben picked me up after school the next day. I never did know how he tracked me down, or how he got my real name, seeing as none of last night's boys had had it. But there he was leaning against a '70s muscle car in various shades of primer, arms crossed, damn proud of himself, hair loose today around his shoulders. Had more crows-feet around his eyes than he should've as he grinned. "Jolene," he said, and opened the passenger-side door. "Your chariot."
I cast him the meanest of looks. "Why should I go anywhere with you?"
"Because," he said. "I am interesting."
Well. He did have me there. And it's not like I had anything better to do.
Later he trailed long fingers down the paths the sweat had taken on my body, light strokes. "Are you a falconer?" he asked.
I looked at him slant again, propping myself up on my elbows.
"Jess," he said. "It's—"
"I know what it is," I said, and, "Yes."
"It was hard to track you down," Ben's friend Carl says, sitting awkwardly across from me in a Starbucks, decades later and worlds apart. "He had a different name for you."
"I know it," I say, running a finger down my iced coffee, gathering condensation. The box sits between us like it's Pandora's. Like it's a bomb.
"His wife, she didn't want you or the other girls contacted—she had this thing about anyone who was in Ben's life before her. But he left you stuff. I just—I felt like it would've been wrong not to try."
"Well." I sip. "I thank you." Although I don't yet know if I'm truly thankful. Twenty years gone between us, I have no idea what Ben might've chosen to leave me. No idea what he was before he was a cooling corpse, cancer-ravaged. You can change a lot in twenty years.
Sometimes because you have to.
Sometimes because you choose to.
At sixteen I was hellfire in cutoffs, all recklessness and eyeliner. I drank hard, but never as hard as the boys. You know that much, growing up a girl, growing up in the ragged South. Never be the most fucked up person in the room, just like you should never be the fastest car on I-75. The latter flashes a neon sign to cops. The former, well.
We all know about that.
So drink enough for just a little haze, just enough to give everything a soft glow. The ugliest things can be made beautiful with that glow—the trailer park, the boy you're with, the vision of your future that your parents provide. Drink enough to soften everything, to round its edges. Little beer, little pot, maybe a few slugs of Mad Dog or Boone's Farm or whatever nasty-ass schnapps someone stole from their grandpa's liquor cabinet. Just a little.
And get them to drink just a little more.
"You sip from them like hummingbirds," Ben said in his usual out-of-the-blue observation mode. He takes his characteristic inhale/pause/exhale, eyes fixed on the middle distance. "The way you straddle them, drink up that energy. Drawing it right up out of their mouths."
"They're giving it away."
"They don't know what they're giving you. Is that a free choice they're making?"
I took another pull off my bottle of beer. Ben had better stuff than the other boys, the normal boys, the oblivious boys. We were sitting on his front porch; Ben had his own house, a squat little poured-concrete thing that was more like a bunker than like any house I'd known. Way out in Belle Glade, in the middle of the state. He said that one of the big hurricanes of the 30s picked up the entirety of Lake Okeechobee, carried it a few miles sideways, and dumped it all out, just obliterating every structure in Belle Glade and several surrounding towns. From that point on, their houses were concrete. No damn storm was taking their houses away again. They are proof against the forces of nature and the hand of God, Ben said.
Ben said a lot of things.
"We're just skimming a little off the top." I flicked a mosquito off my leg. "Nothing they'd miss, and anyway, it's all extra energy we help generate. We're not stealing." And what would it matter if we were?
He inhaled, held the smoke. Exhaled. The smoke plumed out around him, and I watched it swirl and dissipate. "Some moths drink human tears."
"So we're like moths."
Sideways smirk out of him. "You wanted to be a butterfly?"
I huffed a little laugh. "I wish." I knew what I was. I was cute, not beautiful. I was sexy, not pretty. I knew what these boys wanted, and I knew what I was, and I knew the chasm between.
Ben was studying me. His deep brown eyes were disconcerting in their intensity. I wasn't used to anybody looking at me that hard, not until him. I was used to people seeing what I wanted them to see and not bothering to look any farther.
It concerned me, the idea that I'd have to work to keep him from figuring me out. That I couldn't be lazy with him.
The box has been sitting on my kitchen table for three days.
It's a shoebox. Big—he had big feet. The kind of box that flips open, rather than the kind with a completely removable lid. A brand I don't know. Every morning I walk past it to get my coffee, see it sitting all incongruously on the battered yellow formica.
Every night I rest my hand on it for just a second or two. As if there was some residual Ben-ness in it that would radiate through the cardboard.
I don't feel anything.
Anything except loss, that is, which is ridiculous, because all told I knew that man for just a few months, a lot of years ago. He wasn't part of my life anymore; hadn’t been for decades. We weren't in love. He wasn't my first or last. There is no reason for me to be carrying on like this, and yet.
He'd scrawled "Jolene" on the lid in blue ballpoint pen, the J jagged and indented into the surface of the cardboard, like the pen hadn’t worked without a good dig or two, bottom of it swooping off into somewhere. Angular, until the last letters. It seems strange that the first time I saw my name in his hand was the last. It seems strange that, after his death, there was still something left of him that I had to, in some way, contend with.
The only way to find out what he wanted was to open the damn box.
Desire is an engine.
Or magic is an engine, and desire is its fuel. Or just desire was the only fuel I had at hand.
So this is how I became a witch: I wanted something. I wanted that glow I saw around men at parties who had some trip going on about the numinous, the men in their twenties, maybe even early thirties, who hung around high school parties. They would sit there with a can of beer and a cigarette and talk about the essential order of the cosmos, and I knew they were talking bullshit—but the thing is, they were on the right track. They were on the road to somewhere. They had glimpsed something somehow, something too big to be held in their whisky-sodden brains. Something that had left splinters.
Or a trail of breadcrumbs.
They had experienced something, is what I was getting at. And they lived in that something's shadow.
And somehow I knew, even as a cocky teenager, that I couldn't get a grasp on it myself either. That no one really could. This was never some trip about following the trail, piecing all of those fragments together, piercing the veil. I knew who I was and who I wasn't. I knew that wasn't gonna be me.
But the embers left behind were something to warm myself by. Little glowing fragments of energy, of power. Sometimes a little trickle like the dying end of a stream.
And you could fan those flames. I used to watch, when I was younger, before I got the trick of it; I watched those men hold forth and I watched them squeeze the ass of the girl on their lap, and I watched those embers brighten.
And that was something I could do. I could be those girls.
They caught me watching, and they taught me some things.
"You and your colleagues," Ben singsonged, stretched naked along his bed. “Sirens of the swamp.”
"Any body of water counts," I noted. “Doesn’t have to be a swamp.” Back pressed to the cool concrete wall, one knee pulled up to my chest, just watching him sprawl bonelessly, sweat-sheened. Sex made him languid, after. It filled me with energy. I always felt like I was gonna vibrate right out of my skin. Especially after sex with Ben.
"Mmm. You're different."
I shot him a look. "I already fucked you. You don't have to waste your energy feeding me lines 'bout how I'm special."
"It's not a line, Miss Jolene. . . ."
Sardonic eyebrow lift. "Miz Jess. Pardon. I just mean that you think about it a little more. You're less reactive." He lights a cigarette, closes his eyes. "Why do all y'all dress the same?"
"Ha! Something the Great and Powerful Ben doesn't know?"
He cracked narrow eyes at me. "Y'all keep to yourselves. In that way."
"If in no other?"
"If in no other, yes. So? Want to teach the Great and Powerful Ben a thing or two?"
I shrugged. "It's part of the ritual. To crack them open, to get at the marrow of them, you have to appeal. So what appeals to them? Teenage girls in cutoffs and halter tops, bras showing, eyeliner a little fucked up. That's the image they've been fed their whole lives, that that's the girl they want in their lap, that that's the sign to themselves and the rest of the world that they're The Man." I took a drink—water this time. "We're masquerading as their trophies."
"Moths do that, too."
"Wear too much eyeliner?"
"Masquerade as other things. Usually to avoid getting eaten."
I laughed. "Nothing's eating me."
I swatted him and he laughed, rolled over, draped an arm across my lap. His curls spilled over my thighs, and I stroked them. His hair was too tightly curled to really be soft, and it frizzed in the humidity, went zigging out in other directions. A halo of sorts, but Ben was no angel. "Not getting eaten. Eating, I guess."
"And does it nourish you?"
I shrugged and cupped my hands, stilled myself. Focused. Pulled the brightness from the ambient air, from our sex, a little from Ben, a little from me, til I had a little glowing ball of energy between my hands. "It keeps me warm," I said quietly, watching the butter-yellow shine of it throw shadows across the room.
Really, aren't all teenage girls witches, with our lipstick incantations?
The ritual is cutoffs or a short skirt, a low-cut top, too much eye makeup. In the 80s, too much hairspray. Little boots with heels—heels send the message that you're performing for them.
Also that you're not going to run away.
I would hum to myself as I stroked liquid liner on my eyelids, applied mascara, painted myself til all they'd see was a pretty mask, the thing they expected, the thing they saw on every TV show, the thing that pouted at them from every billboard. The object of their desire, mass-produced and shining, blazing out of the dark only for them; their prey, their prize.
I collected them like charms on a bracelet, all of those genially lustful half-drunk wannabe mages.
I was there the night Derek shot the fox.
I didn't know they'd brought guns. I knew all their trucks had gun racks, but I didn't know they'd brought guns. Wouldn't've come out with them if I had. Men and booze were as much as I could handle as it was, and even so, the situation slipped just barely out of my grasp sometimes. Not far, not too far, but there were nights the looks in their eyes turned mean and I held my breath. There were nights I asked myself if the payoff was worth the risk.
But that's the thing about witches. Witches like me, at least. The risk is more the point of the whole exercise than the payoff is. Few scraps of stolen light, sure, but the dance you did along the edge of the cliff to steal that fire—now, that was a prize in itself.
The real prize was coming back unharmed.
Loud night out at the Everglades again, the boomboxes and the laughter and the shouting, and I was just about to go for a walk when the fox darted across my path—I laughed to myself, hoping it was the same one I'd met when I'd met Ben, thinking I'd go after her and see if I could get any closer—
—and the fox fell over, sprawled in the pool of light cast by Jon's headlights, and it seemed like it was only after it fell that I heard the bang.
I didn't look behind me, just ran. Hole in the fox's side bubbling blood, light all weird from the park's halogen and Jon's headlights, blood looking too dark. Her fur was sticky, eyes rolling, tongue lolling, and I heard snippets of yelling from behind me—several boys, two girls—no gunfire. I realized I was on my knees, had scraped them up—would have to pour disinfectant over them later, and I winced in anticipation of that and of picking gravel out with tweezers. My hand was shaking as I reached out to her, to this fox-sister with her ragged choppy breath. Please, I thought. Please.
My hand shook in the light, and I dared to put it on her, on that rough tufty fur. She whined horribly—went to snap, but didn't have it in her.
I closed my eyes.
I closed my eyes and hummed to myself again, feeling her thick sticky fur, wanting her to be okay. I reached out, out to the stupid fucking boys with their stupid fucking guns. Reached farther, into the swamp. Deeper. The fox belonged here. She belonged here alive.
Ben stroked my sweaty flank, asked, "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?"
I'd snorted and taken a swig of beer. "You auditioning me for a beauty pageant?"
"No, but really."
I'd sat. Considered. "Mangrove," I said.
"Because they're not just one thing. Their roots are partly in land, partly in the brackish water. They need that to survive. They need two worlds." I drank again. "And they express the salt from their water in their leaves. The leaves are crusty with salt. I like to lick them."
"So you're saying you like to be licked." Devilish grin from him, like always.
I stuck my tongue out. "Among other things."
"You like being between worlds. Not just one thing."
I slid between, felt the Everglades breathing around me like it was all one thing. Maybe it was. Maybe it always was. I brought my stolen shards of light into that space, all the broken-off bits of hope and lust and dreams of gods and monsters, all the crack-brained grasping at the stars, and I pulled it all around us, me and the fox.
The thing about jesses is that they aren't just a thing that ties a hawk down. The word used to mean to release.
And I didn't know what was right. I didn't know if I should let that fox go or if I should grab its slippery life back and shove it in its body, heal all wounds. I think I could have done anything in that moment, in that darkness, that soundless timeless space.
In the end I spread my hands.
In the end I said you choose.
I fetched up on Ben's doorstep near dawn, dropped off by Dawn and Jerry, tire squeal announcing their departure even before Ben opened his door, still mussed from sleep. "What?"
"I didn't know what was right." My voice broke, half-sob, and I tumbled into his little concrete box of a house, into his thin ropy arms. I fell to my knees, remembered I'd scraped them in a flash of pain and a "goddammit," and he held me. He swabbed my knees with mercurochrome and carefully applied bandaids. He didn't ask.
That was the moment I loved him, the moment that shone. He didn't ask.
I slept alone in his bed for half the day, waking up all twisted in his sheets, sweat plastering them to my belly and back, sweat making my hair stringy. I drank water. He drove me home, singing along to the radio the whole time.
He cupped my chin in his hand when we arrived at my place, studied me for a minute. Tipped his head forward to rest his forehead against mine, and I could feel him smiling.
And he released me.
That was the last time I saw Ben.
I think someone's place in your life isn't defined by how long you've spent with them, or by how much you loved them. I think that sometimes a moment is enough. I think moments can become universes in themselves.
I have made choices, since. About where to bring my light.
I hadn't thought about my swamp witch days in quite some time. Years, maybe. And when I did, I thought of my younger self with distaste. Disdain. Trailer trash partying with boys.
But I think I can see her differently, now. A lost girl with no map, just trying to get to the light any way she could. Just using all the tools at hand to try to find some way to grace, to make sense of things too big to make any damn sense of.
A girl who didn't really do anything too bad after all. Who just tried really hard to figure everything out.
Over the years I've hated and hidden her.
But I think if a gunshot fox and a bunch of backwoods mystics and whatever the hell Ben was, if they deserve some grace, I think she maybe did too.
I look back at her, and I think maybe the everything that surrounded her. . . maybe there was a little of me there, too. The me I am now.
I drive out past Route 27 just after sunset, windows down, wind tangling my hair into something wild. No radio, just road sounds, and when I pull off the road, just the sounds of the swamp around me and the engine ticking as it cools. I sit on the hood til I feel ready, box in my lap; when everything goes quiet, when the fireflies come back out, I get to walking into the wild.
This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons.