What’s a witch? Green skin, warts, and broomsticks? A hag bent over a foul, steaming cauldron? A cold-blooded queen in a wardrobe? One thing’s for certain: witches are feared and powerful. And they’re women. Maybe being a witch isn’t so bad after all. In a new story, “Nights in the Forest,” at the YA lit mag Cicada, Sarah McCarry takes the age-old figure of the witch and turns into something feminist and empowering. Don’t be fooled by the YA label; this story should be read by all women ages thirteen to ninety-nine.
“Nights in the Forest” is set up like a play, with a cast of characters at the top (“CLAIRE, a girl;” “THE WITCH, a witch”) and parenthetical stage directions throughout. But they’re not just any stage directions. McCarry sometimes uses them to provide characters’ inner thoughts (“her feet are cold but she doesn’t mind”) and sometimes to insert an omniscient narration that occasionally breaks the fourth wall (“you remember this story from when you were a kid, don’t you?”) in a move that feels seamless and lends an oral storytelling quality. These stage directions are where the meat of the story is, where the best parts come through, such as McCarry’s evocative description of what it feels like to have the body of a teenage girl:
Claire stands up. She is wearing a long white dress and her hair is unruly. She wraps herself in a fur coat. She’s barefoot. Maybe on her wrists we see scars. Probably she’s tired. She has on too much eyeliner. She has too much hair. She wears too much jewelry. She’s too much for her own body. She clanks and jangles. Her mouth is slick with gloss. She had a long day. She’s had a lot of long days in a row. Being a girl is more labor than Claire bargained for. Being a girl doesn’t pay well.
When the story opens, Claire is hiding in her closet, where she tells us there’s a door that leads to the witch. At first, this seems innocent enough, a girl sitting in her closet engaging in make-believe. But as the story progresses, the real reason she’s cloistered in her closet becomes clear: a boy named Neal whose “hair falls into his eyes like a boy on television but to an adult he smells mean,” and who has manipulated his way into Claire’s bedroom:
I let the wolf in, didn’t I. I opened the door and said yes. He followed me up the stairs. He told me what to do. I took off my shirt. This is an experiment, I said to myself. This is to see what happens next. I lay down and closed my eyes. He got on top of me and kind of moved around. I waited for something to change. Nothing did. When I opened my eyes the witch was standing over us. That was how I met her.
This is where McCarry’s magic really happens. Claire screams when she first sees The Witch, not trusting her at first, having the typical reaction to witches. Claire even describes her as green and warty, complete with pointed hat, though the stage directions tell us she actually looks nothing like that but “definitely looks like a witch.” The Witch tells Claire that she’s there to teach her some things, and Claire begrudgingly follows her into the forest, which in another story would set off alarm bells involving children in ovens. But in this story, this is where McCarry transforms the scary witch in the woods into The Witch, a figure of strength, smarts, and self-sufficiency:
Maybe the Witch floats a little. Maybe she has a broom or a staff or a crown made of antlers. Maybe she smells like sage and dirt and secrets. What we know about the Witch: she’s strong and old and wily. What we know about the Witch: she is impervious to the will of others. What we know about the Witch: she’s never lonely alone. What we know about the Witch: she’s a witch
There’s a layer of pain stretched taut under McCarry’s poetic language and clever writing. The pain of being a teenage girl, awkward and self-loathing. The pain of being the object of the expectations of men and boys. The pain of knowing it will never stop. But “Nights in the Forest” is ultimately empowering. The Witch is born out of Claire in a moment of fear and vulnerability, when she’s letting a boy touch her not because she wants him to, but because it’s what’s expected of her. McCarry taps into the roots of the witch figure—the wise woman, tied to the earth, who practices mysterious feminine magic—and modernizes her. The Witch is power and self-reliance. The Witch doesn’t smile when you tell her to. The Witch isn’t nice just because she’s supposed to be. The Witch doesn’t let others define her. The Witch has a magic all her own. It makes you wonder:
Are witches real or are they only girls?