Illustration: Genevieve Bormes

Some girl at school once had a mood ring. We were quiet about it the way we were quiet about the rolled waistbands of our uniform skirts, which we concealed with the loose overhangs of tucked-in polos. Both were kinds of witchcraft the nuns forbade: spells done with sacred tools, the conjuring power of our hips.

But I too bought a mood ring at the mall. On my finger, it turned from black to green and sometimes to orange when my hands filled with hot desire. A witch brings change to the seen world using unseen forces; a witch gestures through the veil between worlds. Wearing the ring, I saw my thoughts on my hand. This is how I learned I wanted witchcraft: by paying for something cheap.

Now thirty-three, I have crystals scavenged from places unknown and unimaginable after the rocks are tumbled, polished, and turned into tiny vessels to hold wishes and dread. The stones, I know, belonged to somebody’s homeland. I worried about my crystals long before I read Emily Atkins’s piece for The New Republic, which asks the reader, “Do You Know Where Your Healing Crystals Come From?” In the article, business owner Julie Abouzelof says that crystal sourcing is unclear in part because of “the deep, psychological construct of the mining industry, where everything is a little bit hidden.”

I know about hidden things: gathering locations, fishing spots. What happens in some ceremonies. Once, I went with my aunties to pick huckleberries on the mountain where aunties have picked since the beginning of time, but we got nearly nothing, because we were late in the season and the white people were early.

If you let whiteness in, it takes you for everything you’ve got. 

***

Not long ago, the witches got upset on the Internet. Sephora was going to sell a “starter witch kit”—tarot cards, sage, rose quartz, perfume—and the witches thought it was wrong for the makeup store to peddle spiritual tools alongside pore refiners. As a Native woman and an occult enthusiast, I had an opinion. I had an opinion about a Macklemore video interview in which a non-Native astrologer teaches him to burn white sage, a traditional medicine for California Native peoples; in the wild, it’s threatened by non-Native overharvesting. I had an opinion when I saw an Instagram promoted post featuring a pentagram dream catcher beside the text of a “Good Luck Spell” and tagged #witch, #wicca, and anything close.

I kept those opinions to myself. Better to leave the critiques to people who don’t buy candles from stores where non-Native people sell sage bundles, I thought. The first time I browsed a magic store, I saw shelves of sage and cedar shrink-wrapped against abalone shells, and even though I recoiled, I still exchanged my money for a divination deck. I’ve been looking the other way ever since.

As a child, I read picture books about girl witches. As a preteen, hoping to find a way to make magic in isolation, I took to the still-adolescent World Wide Web, where glimmering Angelfire websites warned me that I had better not try anything without a coven. In my heavily Catholic, forest-and-farmland slice of New Jersey, I never did find one. The authors of those prescriptions were Wiccans, and there was no way into their closed world, even through hyperlinks.

A few years ago, I decided the white Wiccans of the web were wrong: I could go it alone and access the power. I needed to believe that things happened for a reason. I had witch friends. Even my therapist seemed to be witch-adjacent. Now that witchcraft is sold as self-help and occultist aesthetics inspire Starbucks drinks, hardly anyone talks about covens or other “rules.” A witch only needs the right look, the right stuff, the right feelings. I look the part: like a Hollywood witch, dark-haired and pale-skinned (because of my European ancestry). And I’m into the Instagram witch lifestyle: black dresses, lavender baths, affirmations about being worthy of things. But I don’t like calling myself a witch. I don’t want to be seen as following a fad, and I don’t want the white witches I resemble to take my presence in their spaces as permission for theft. Really, I just want a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder, but I suspect that if we could excise the stolen pieces, there would be nothing left.

I’ve executed successful bindings against men I feared. I’ve cast spells I probably shouldn’t have with hair and spit. I play fast and loose, sifting through websites for formulas but rarely willing to follow the steps. Even when the spells work, I feel like an amateur and an interloper. But the white women who dominate the online esoteric marketplace cannot hoard this power. When I was thirteen and first desperate for magic, I hadn’t yet read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller: “The world was already complete / even without white people. / There was everything / including witchery.”

***

I am Cowlitz. My people are indigenous to what is currently southwestern Washington. I was born in New Jersey, lived in Washington (in Coast Salish territory, to the north of my ancestral homeland) from 2007 to 2017, and now live in Ohio. In Washington, I was introduced to Indigenous spiritual practices that I will not describe here. Know only that my physical husk was wilting around my incapacitated spirit. I had been reading tarot and trying out spells for a few months, but the occult was not enough. Native friends taught me to maintain relationships with ancestors and place spirits. I stopped drinking the alcohol that made my insides bleed. Something was lodged in there, clawing. Today, I feel it holding my lungs in its fists, and I can’t even sob hard enough to cry it out.

When I felt myself shredded, I used to wade into Lake Washington, stand on a ledge of land overlooking the bay, or walk through the strip of urban forest where cedars shaded salal. The land put me back together. In Ohio, the land and I talk like strangers. I’m running out of medicines, down to two dwindling bundles of sage, a couple of sweetgrass braids, and a charred bit of juniper that won’t light. I know who gathered these. Magic stores sell them, but I don’t know where they acquire them, so I won’t buy them.

Witches of the Internet photograph sage bundles against bright white backgrounds and market them as space-clearing incense. To me, the medicines have nothing to do with witchcraft, except that I use both to speak to spirits. I am not a medicine woman or a healer. I am a person with an Internet connection and a credit card I can use to buy candles and charmed oils to cast the kind of spell that might rip a little hole in the world, the kind I might wish I could take back once it’s done, the only kind I believe in. If I don’t follow the spells as written, am I really a witch? The truth is I’m not a witch, exactly: I’m a person with prayers, a person who believes in spirits and plays with fire.

I am still alive and ambulatory after having been raped more times than I can recall, threatened with a knife and a gun, smothered, choked, held down, and stalked, over the course of several years and at the hands of more than several men. I’ve wrapped my arms around men who told me I should fear them or told me I had nothing to fear. I’ve been alone, certain that no good man would waste his life with the rotting apple core of me.

When I got sober, my intuition sharpened, and my judgment is good enough that I haven’t been in a relationship with a dangerous man in years. But I’m not safe from strangers: the man who grabbed my thigh on the sidewalk, the guys who followed me in and out of every restaurant I speed-walked into to try to lose them, the man working on my house who pointed to my drill and growled, “I love a woman with her own tools.”

Witches say, Trust the universe, trust the divine. But that’s hard when I’m at the gym, lifting weights under a television that can’t be turned off or muted, forced to either listen to today’s American rape takes or leave and quit making myself strong. I am subject to the wants of a country conjured up by invaders who raped, maimed, and killed until they could settle their dream like a film over the land that held the treasure they wanted. Every day, the universe reminds me that, yes, I am safe now, but I am in America. I could be gouged out again.

I live under the tyrannical rule of my PTSD triggers. My worst panic comes by way of quiet and calm, because it’s always quiet before the palm covers my mouth or the hand grabs my thigh or the footsteps begin to trail me. The state of nothing really going on is a cavity that wants to be filled.

I cannot control this world. I shut my eyes, try to cry or not cry, and ask benevolent spirits for intercession. I try to make my body solid so the spirits will know that I believe it’s worth protecting, even if I’m not sure that’s true.

In As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes that when the colonizers—white men without available white women—first encroached upon so-called North America, they saw Indigenous women as sexual outlets. Indigenous women’s sexual autonomy was thus considered threatening. This isn’t over yet: “Colonizers want land, but Indigenous bodies forming nations are in the way because they have a strong attachment to land and because they replicate Indigeneity,” and the colonizers “see Indigenous women’s and girls’ bodies as the bodies that reproduce nations.” The results are embedded in so many of us: “The attack on our bodies, minds, and spirits, and the intimate trauma this encodes is how dispossession is maintained.”

***

After moving to Ohio, I tried to find a therapist right away but gave up after a half-dozen responded that they weren’t accepting new patients. Years of weekly therapy had made me feel solid enough that I decided to wait. Ten months later, when my PTSD episodes returned, I made more inquiries; I got on a wait-list for a therapist, and two months after that, on another wait-list. In early September, I finally had an appointment, and was asked to complete a Behavioral Health Questionnaire. Have you ever believed that someone was reading your mind or could hear your thoughts, or that you could actually read someone’s mind or hear what another person was thinking? Yes. In the office, I spent an hour trying to rush through the recounting of every bad thing.

“Do you ever hear or see or feel things that aren’t real?” the therapist asked. I hedged—what is real, anyway?—but she pushed. I told her that sometimes when I’m trying to fall asleep I feel fingers in my hair. I didn’t tell her I’ve assumed this is either a ghost or an astral projection. In her pause, I recalled that just a few moments before I’d revealed that I was first raped after being roused from sleep; years later, I woke up in the middle of the night to find my then-boyfriend’s hands pressing my nose and mouth shut.

“You’ve experienced an incredible amount of trauma,” my therapist said. Too much for her. She found me someone else, whose first available appointment was a month out. I’m still waiting. Today I cried so hard I thought the capillaries around my eyes might burst again, like a baby’s, like they have before. In the mirror, only my dead old face.

***

For my moods, I have tried Lexapro, Seroquel, Lithium, Lamictal, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Celexa, Ativan, Klonopin, and Abilify. For my night fear, I’ve tried L-theanine, melatonin, tryptophan, magnesium, Benadryl, and dropperfuls of herbal tinctures. Ten years of antipsychotics, prescribed by a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, didn’t work. Even whiskey didn’t always work, unless I drank so much of it that the physical terrors grabbed up all my attention and I ended up with chin hooked onto the inner rim of the toilet bowl.

In 2015, after a few months of sobriety, an addiction-focused psychiatrist changed my diagnosis to alcohol-use disorder in full sustained remission and post-traumatic stress disorder. He told me it was unlikely that I had ever been bipolar. My medications didn’t fit my new diagnosis, so he helped me taper off them.

The PTSD determination frightened me. My triggers and traumas had been allowed to multiply unchecked, making for a hefty pile of kindling that would catch fire from the smallest sparks: a boyfriend’s irritated silence, a stranger’s shouting from down the street. My challenge would be to learn through therapy to function in a world full of reminders that I would probably be harmed again.

Simpson writes, “I don’t necessarily want to ‘heal,’ because I am not damaged, or diseased, or unhealthy. My response to the intergenerational trauma of settler colonial violence is correct and strong and vital…. I want to have processed hurt and pain to the point where I can speak back to those words and harness the power of fear, hatred, and love into sustained mobilization—to the point where they don’t control me, but they are experiences I can draw on when it is useful to do so.”

When I choose, anoint, and burn a candle with my prayers scratched into the wax, when I make my prayers material, I convince myself that I can grab onto a power that will carry me through this life. I know how to show the spirits that I am here through the light of my fire, because we have always used fire to smoke fish, conduct ceremony, burn cedar boughs, turn prairie brush to ash so the camas or huckleberries can grow stronger.

I choose witchcraft; I choose to cast spells.

Because I have given up my ability to touch a Western red cedar on a daily basis. Because I have seen my binding work on a dangerous man. Because I am alone and low on hope sometimes.

***

Today, sludgy with dread, I am preparing to get my weekly allergy shot. I realize I’ve forgotten to take the pill meant to lessen my chances of going into anaphylaxis. This happened to me two months ago: after the allergen injection, my face got hot, and the oxygen supply to my brain decreased, which made me feel faint. That’s when I ate a fruit leather, in case I was hungry; it didn’t help, so I looked up anaphylaxis on WebMD. Then my arms felt nearly too weighted-down to use the phone, so I stood and told the receptionist, “Nurse.” Then I was in a reclining chair, nurses and doctors all around me, blood pressure cuff on one arm, pulse-taker on a finger, EpiPen in my thigh. They say you’re supposed to sense doom when anaphylaxis hits, but I always sense doom; when my body reacted, I only felt wonder that it could reroute its energy and keep me alive. My body pulled blood from the limbs and head, quaked with uterine cramps as though I was menstruating, and sent little bolts of lightning to the soles of my feet. I felt so hot and alive in the inches of space from death.

Today, I find myself thinking that I wouldn’t mind it happening again.

This is a bad thought. I call the therapist’s office to ask for an earlier appointment. No luck. I ask the scheduler, “I guess there’s no, like, urgent care for mental health, right?”

“The emergency room,” she says.

I go up to my magic place in the attic and wipe down my altar—maybe it’s an altar, maybe it’s just the surface where I lay my candles and my shells full of smoldering sage, maybe it’s a wooden toy oven I found in the garage of my last Seattle apartment building, abandoned by some child who outgrew it. I want to outgrow something. I want to ungrow back into the child who truly believed in magic. I Google spells to take the PTSD out of me. But is that what I want? To stop my brain from thrashing against the wickedness America stuffed inside?

I need to get better and I’m out of ideas. I arrange the candles, and I pray.

***

Tonight, I’m at a magic store I visited for the first time yesterday, when I needed a small stone to hold in my shaking hand. The woman who helped me said to come back the next day for a women’s spiritual circle. Suggested donation: three dollars. I found exactly three dollars in my wallet today. This store, a tight space with a busy back room, feels so far from the glitter of the crystals in my Instagram feed. These women, not all of whom are white, don’t call themselves witches.

In the circle, we speak into a bucket and cough out our fears, and then a bundle of burning plants—nothing I recognize—is lit. I’ve been told that smudging is more than just the touching of flame to dried plants and getting close to the smoke; it’s a piece of a cosmology, not teachable through a YouTube video. I don’t know where these plants lived. I don’t know who harvested them or whether those people gave anything to the land in return. I don’t know what I can do to reciprocate the healing the plants are offering tonight. All I can do is promise these plants that if I get well, I will try to figure it out.

I speak every fear into the bucket: That I am not safe. That I am too wounded to be anything but a burden. That the best of me has been taken, the rest of me left to grope for a calm that might never be anything but potential space for danger. That the spirits are indifferent to me or don’t exist at all. I speak until I feel that I’m through, and then I cough from the base of my body. I’m not healed, but I feel better.

It’s dark when I walk to my car. A white man approaches me, silent and high. When I pass him, he turns and follows. My ninth-grade writing teacher taught me that when I was afraid, I could make my aura grow, so that everyone would stay away. A psychic once told me my aura was dark. Like a mood ring on a corpse. I have nothing now but my big aura, my fistful of keys, and my throat that still knows how to scream because no man has succeeded in closing it. If I am going to die, I want to fight. I’ve been fighting the colonizer’s whispers that I’m not wanted here, not worthy of protection, nothing but a body to be pummeled and played with and threatened into submission. I have not died yet. My whole body is a fire, lit back when the world was complete, never extinguished by anybody.

Elissa Washuta

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, Artist Trust, 4Culture, and Potlatch Fund. Elissa is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.

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