Marla Sullivan was not a witch. But, if anyone in her village was likely to be one, she was the most likely culprit. She hadn’t come to that realization until she was eleven years old and brought a friend from school back to her home on the outskirts of town. Upon entering her bedroom, she eagerly showed him her collection- it cluttered the room in boxes and jars on shelves lining the walls, notebooks filled to the brim stacked high, sketches on parchment hung on the walls, and crowding her small table. His jaw dropped as he stood in the doorway, and her excitement turned into a knot in her stomach.
“What do you think?” Eleven-year-old Marla asked her new friend.
He peered into an open wooden box that was on her desk, then looked at her with a novel expression on his face— disgust. “What are you— some kind of witch?” The slightest tremble in his voice upon saying ‘witch’ betrayed his fear of the concept.
Marla was at a loss for words. “I don’t—“ she started. Her friend- who was now not so much of a friend— backed out the door.
“You are a witch! I’m telling my parents!” He turned to scamper towards the exit. Marla’s heart dropped in shock as she heard real fear in his voice. “I’m telling everyone!”
His voice echoed as the door slammed shut behind him. Left alone in her room, surrounded by her passion, her pride and joy, Marla felt a sense of utter loss. Her eyes brimming with tears, she snatched up the box that had given him such a shock. This box was filled with spiders- carefully placed and pinned spiders, no less. Each one was arranged with care, their legs just so, labeled meticulously by their type and where she had collected it. She stared at them for a moment, vision blurred by tears, then ran to the window, ready to hurl the box out. She set it down to fling open the window, then stopped.
She had dedicated the better part of her childhood to lovingly crafting the collection that crammed her room, filling shelves, jars, boxes, and more. She couldn’t get rid of that all just because one boy didn’t like it.
It’s worse, a voice inside her said. He didn’t just dislike it, he was disgusted. He was afraid.
“But what is there to be afraid of?” Marla whispered out loud. Slowly, she sat down on her bed, trying to understand, leaving the box of spiders on the window sill.
The next day, everything changed at school. She was met with stares and an eruption of whispers when she entered the schoolhouse. She overheard some— murmurs of “witch”, “spider-whisperer”, and worse ran around the room like a stream rushing around a bend. Marla’s lower lip trembled as she entered. She saw Devin, the boy she had trusted with showing her collection, through a gaggle of girls making a thinly veiled effort to conceal their whispers of “hag” and “black magic”. Devin’s eyes widened when he saw her and he ducked into a classroom.
It wasn’t the whispered accusations and jeers as she stepped into the schoolhouse or the crowd of students quickly dispersing to stay away from her that made her turn on her heel and run as fast as she could away from the schoolhouse. It was the way that Devin’s eyes, meeting hers through the cluster of girls, didn’t just seem avoidant, or even distasteful upon the sight of her. His brow was sweaty, his face pale. He looked afraid. Deathly so. Not just afraid of the spiders, then.
Afraid of Marla.
And so, as she ran from the building, tears streaming down her face, she could only think one thing. I’m a monster, a monster for what I do. It’s not normal, it’s witchcraft, he’s afraid of me, I’m a monster.
She ran back home, then past home, past adults sweeping their porches or working outside, shaking their fists at her and yelling at her to go back to school. She ran to the woods, down a path only she knew. She ran all the way to the only place she considered to be a safe place, tossed herself to the ground, pulled her knees into her chest, and buried her head in her arms. She cried for a while, the same thoughts repeating in her mind.
Eventually, the tears subsided and she peeked out from her arms, sniffing. Wiping away her tears, she took in the familiar surroundings.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the morning sunlight. She focused first on the sounds; a gentle percussion of nature gently sang a familiar chorus. Bumble bees hummed as they flew through sighing grasses that rustled in the pleasant breeze. Birds called in the distance— she recognized the quick whit-whit of a kingbird, the long, flute-like ee-oh-lay of a thrush, and the tik-tik of a woodpecker tapping out her nest. She ran her fingers through the grass as she raised her head and sat up. The soil was moist but not swamplike; the grass was soft and long and supple. Ants skittered to and fro at Marla’s hands and feet. She took a deep, trembling breath, inhaling the crisp spring air. She blinked away the remaining tears, tasting the salt on her lips. The small meadow surrounded by lofty trees, newly garbed in sprouting leaves, was vibrant and filled with greens and yellows and dotted with wildflowers. Marla sat up against the only tree in the clearing; not as tall as the ones surrounding, yet supple enough to support the life surrounding it. It was flowering, bearing black thorns and delicate white blossoms. Yellow daisies dotted the landscape, reaching for the sunlight alongside fragile primroses, bearded irises, and leafy plants yet to bear flowers. Bees and flies hovered and darted from flower to flower. Pale white butterflies fluttered above the grass, visiting a choice blossom or two; a pair of orange butterflies chased each other right in front of Marla’s face. She smiled suddenly, a calmness washing over her.
“See, Devin?” she muttered, leaning back against the tree and wiping her nose with her sleeve. “There’s nothing to be scared of here.”
It was this same place Marla sat in, six years later, significantly less teary-eyed. She frowned, remembering that moment. Most of her time spent there was relatively happy, peaceful, and undisturbed. That day had been different. It had changed her life.
Using her butterfly net to prop herself up, Marla heaved a heavy sigh as she got to her feet. “I’m not ten years old,” she reminded herself out loud. She often used the quiet grove as a place to vent, speaking to the trees or the brambles. Sometimes this made her realize how few friends she had; she was talking to these inanimate objects instead of to a person, after all. She left the grove feeling unsettled, nostalgic, feeling as if soon, everything in her life would change all over again.