They were the real witches of Old Salem.
Thousands of innocent girls had been burned, drowned, or stoned in their place, accused of being possessed by the devil. All the while, the guilty hid in plain sight. As carefree children, giggling and skipping wherever they went. Only one night a year could they drop the facade and assume their cursed identity.
This afternoon, the shining smile on Iris’s face almost felt real. As she walked through town, cheerfully waving at neighbors, her thoughts drifted off. To tonight, when all young witches of Salem would gather in the middle of the forest for their annual assembly. Since the beginning of time, the forest had always sided with those capable of magic, shielding them from those who are afraid of their abilities.
When she met with the other witches like her Iris could finally be her real self. They could share their tragic stories with each other and bear their guilt together. The burden was never quite as heavy when they all shared it.
Iris arrived at the school a little earlier than usual today, the excitement tingling through her veins gave her a different kind of energy, not fueled by a wand or spell. Her younger sister, Selena, sat on a rickety bench under an elderly willow tree, beside a young girl with double braids. She laughed, a soft gentle sound, as the child ran her delicate fingers over the illustrations in awe.
Unlike Iris, Selena’s good-natured charm and warmth were genuine. If only she could tell her sister the truth, instead of hiding behind a curtain of deception. But what would such an innocent girl say when she learned her sister was a cowardly monster, the kind that brought suffering and death wherever she went. She couldn’t bear to think about the fear painted on her sister’s face if she told her, and the disgust. Not only was she doomed, but she had stood by silently watching as so many had been brutally murdered in her place.
When Selena caught sight of Iris across the lawn, she smiled brightly at the child one last time placing her hand gently on the girl’s shoulder. Then she crossed over to the fence where Iris had been watching. Even her movements were elegant, she walked with the grace of a gazelle. Everything from her shining waist-length blonde hair to her perfect manners made her fit in, something Iris desperately envied. But it wasn’t her sister’s fault that they would never be equals, that they would never truly know each other.
“How was your job today, apprenticing the chandler.” Selena asked with a bright smile. She was the kind of person that actually wanted to hear the answers to the questions she asked, that’s why Iris tried her best to answer honestly.
She held out her hands, palms facing up, revealing shiny red welts covering her fingers. Selena grimaced a little then reached out to wrap her sister in a hug.
“I guess candle making isn’t for me,” Iris replied, keeping her voice light to disguise the disappointment that she had failed to fit in once again, “I guess it makes sense, I never had the best hand-eye coordination or artistic skills. And I definitely don’t know much about wax properties.”
She laughed, short and nervous, then fixed her gaze on her feet, not wanting to see the pity in her sister’s eyes.
“Don’t worry, you’ll find something that you enjoy.” Selena said sympathetically, ever the optimist. Iris didn’t quite believe her, but she couldn’t deny that a little encouragement was comforting to hear.
The sisters joined hands and walked down the street, toward the setting sun and their plans for the night.
When the girls reached their house, and Iris said she wanted to tend to their small garden, Selena slipped inside with an unmemorable excuse. Once within the sheltered interior, she took a few deep breaths and leaned into the wall slowly sliding herself into a comfortable sitting position on the floor.
For Selena, keeping secrets took a great deal of effort. Every time she fabricated the truth, avoided a direct question, or changed the subject it was suffocating. Only once alone could she allow herself to relax without having to watch everything she said. She could take a moment to compose herself and remember why she had to lie.
She couldn’t ever let Iris find out what she was capable of. Her sister had always been so proud of her, of the way she so easily belonged. Of how well she entertained children and picked up small apprenticeships around town. Iris would be absolutely ashamed if Selena ever showed her the energy that pulsed from her head down to her feet, power she had no idea what t0 do with.
Selena wasn’t sure what she was. The obvious explanation for her powers would be that she is a witch, but how could that be true? The accused witches of Old Salem were girls who had uncontrollable outbursts of screaming, girls who were losing their grip on reality. Selena still felt quite in control of herself, and she was almost positive she wasn’t going mad.
The uncertainty nagged at her day and night, slowly wearing her down. Things she thought she could always count on felt uncertain. But more than anything, she wanted to understand.
What had she become?
That night Iris lay awake in her bed, waiting for all light in the town to be banished by the night. Only then, on midnight of the darkest night of the month, could she be sure it was safe to go out as her true self.
When the forest outside was black, Iris slipped out of bed and tiptoed across the house, careful not to step on the floorboards that would give her away. Sneaking around at night only made her feel like they were right, that she was dangerous, but she was too excited to dwell on that.
Once she reached the edge of the grass, she stopped in front of the tree line. Their house was conveniently located right near the forest, Iris’s favorite part of the town. The edge of the forest was so much more than where the trees met the town. It was where magic met mundane, where light met shadows.
She extended one pointed foot over the line and listened carefully as the leaves shattered beneath her feet. Another step, and she was finally in the forest. All her senses were sharpened; the breeze was so much crisper, the crickets sounded much more musical, and the trees felt taller.
Iris pulled the pins and ribbons from her hair, letting her wavy black locks cascade down her back. She looked wilder this way, more like who she truly was. The dark color of her hair meant power and danger, it warned people not to come to close.
The walk through the forest was tranquil. As she made her way through the brush, plants bowed before her and the squirrels scurried at her heels. For the first time this year, Iris finally felt at home. She belonged in the shadows, with the trees who accept her for who she is.
The violet fire in the distance alerted Iris that she was nearing the witch’s clearing. The flames and smoke twisted higher as midnight drew near, battling to attain the greatest height.
When Iris stepped into the clearing, she was greeted by half a dozen solemn but friendly faces. There was Molly who could speak to all the woodland creatures, and Allegra who could move boulders with a flick or her hand.
But there were no other witches like Iris, she was the only one that could control the shadows. Making her stand out even among her own kind.
She took her place around the fire, sitting on a log on the perimeter of the clearing, and the bond was almost complete.
When Selena first heard the soft sound of footsteps coming from her sister’s room, she thought nothing of it. Assuming Iris had been woken by the howling wind or a nightmare. Her sister always had been a light sleeper, alert even in her dreams.
Selena crept quietly out of her bed, not wanting to disrupt the eerie hush. Once her eyes adjusted to the light of the flickering fire, she caught sight of a shadow passing in front of the window. A silhouette that looked quite similar to a girl.
She made her way over to the window, and peered out. It was hard to make out anything in the dark, other than the treetops and the same figure as before making her way toward them. Judging by their determined gait, Selena was almost certain who it was.
She trailed behind Iris, observing her from a distance. She didn’t stop even when her sister entered the spine-chilling forest. She never had been fond of the inky black woods, but her curiosity was stronger than her fear. Selena concentrated on her happiest memories and conjured a hand-held light, to illuminate the path ahead.
“Wh-what are you doing here?” Iris’s face blanched with dread, turning the color of freshly fallen snow.
“I followed you, when you snuck out.” Selena replied, feeling that if anyone here deserved an explanation it was her. “What are you doing, Iris?”
Before Iris could answer, Molly cried out pointing to Selena’s hand. Or, more specifically, the glowing orb of light she held. “Look!”
“What is that?” Iris asked, suspicion tinting her sharp voice. In all the time she had been a witch, she had never seen someone hold something so pure. Girls had been able to perform spells to light their way, but never anything like this. Radiating off the sphere, there seemed to be the essence of joy. Filling their hearts with warmth.
“I used it to find my way through the forest. It’s so dark… and unsettling.” Selena said, as if the answer was obvious. Noticing the aghast expressions on the rest of the girl’s faces, she only became more confused. So she asked the question she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about ever since sparks first flew from her fingers, “What am I?”
Allegra and Molly exchanged an intrigued look, while another witch, Lucia, was completely frozen in place. It wasn’t often that they found another of their kind.
Iris, having composed herself during the brief interaction, crossed the clearing and took Selena’s hands in her own. Her serious expression, one that said she knew something Selena didn’t, was an answer enough.
Selena closed her eyes, wanting to escape this scene unfolding, even if it was only for a moment. When she opened them again, somehow everything looked different. Instead of seeing unassuming trees and silent animals, she saw rabbits, deer, and even the thicket watching her realization intently.
“I’m a witch,” Selena stated, no longer unsure. Iris nodded, but instead of looking at her sister like she no longer knew her, it felt as if they were closer.
“Don’t worry, I’ve almost got it all figured out.” Iris laughed, grinning as a huge burden was lifted off her shoulders. “Let me show you.”
She led Selena over to the empty log beside her own and they sat down, ready to face the future together.
Once all the children of magic joined hands, the forest awakened. Every soul within paused to witness the connection, a link between every young witch of Salem.
Together, the shadows and the light painted a beautiful picture.