This is a story appropriate to Thanksgiving that I wrote for Feminism and Religion. If you didn’t read it there, I hope you’ll read it here.
Once upon a time there lived a youngish woman and her husband on a tiny farm outside the capital city. Their life was satisfactory. But when el presidente declared war on another country, the husband was press-ganged into the army, leaving his wife alone on the farm. Well, alone with a milk cow, a sow, a rooster, a dozen hens, and, on one side of the house, seven tiny graves holding stillborn babies. The woman was devastated. “What am I going to do?” she asked herself over and over again. “The land here is poor and infertile. I’m poor and infertile.” She was so unhappy, all she could do was mope around. The animals went untended and soon began foraging for food. The seven tiny graves went unweeded. Their one good field went unplowed. The woman stopped taking care of herself.
The war went on and on. She could still hear explosions in the capital city, and now there were people traveling along the road at the edge of her field. Telling herself the explosions and the refugees from the city were none of her business, she just sat inside, feeling sorry for herself.
Time went by, and one morning when the youngish woman happened to look in the mirror (which was cracked), she was both surprised and not surprised by what she saw. Her hair was gray and ragged and dirty. Her face was wrinkled and dirty. Her clothes were wrinkled and dirty.
“My goodness!” she said. “I look like an old wicked witch!” She gave this some thought. “Well,” she finally said, “why not? I’m alone and friendless. I have barely enough to eat. I remember hearing about other old women who lived alone. People thought they were wicked witches. Hunh! I guess that’s what I’ll do now. Go into the wicked witch business.” She thought some more. “Well, maybe semi-wicked. My grandmother taught me stuff her grandmother taught her—how to mix potions to heal or kill. How to read the cards. All I need to do is remember those lessons. Then I can go into the wicked witch business.”
So she went into her storeroom and searched through boxes and baskets until she found notes from her grandmother and the ancient books that her grandmother’s grandmother had kept. She found the cards and the charms and the recipes. She also noticed that one of the baskets seemed to have a little glow around it, but she was so busy focusing on learning the wicked witch business, she just set it aside. Still ignoring the explosions in the capital city and the streams of refugees passing her farm, she sat down to study. She set the glowing basket back in a corner and focused on potions and spells for today.
Eventually, she read in one of those ancient books that witches had an obligation to the land and all that lived upon it. “A new idea!” After some serious thinking, she went out to search for the cow and the sow and the rooster and hens. After she finally found them in the woods, she brought them home and began taking care of them. She had no idea who had been milking the cow, but now she began milking her and drinking the milk. Soon she was making butter and cheese. One day a boar showed up, and soon there were a dozen piglets. She began gathering the eggs the hens laid. And she kept studying all that old stuff and found more old things in the storeroom, she kept pushing aside that glowing basket. She hardly noticed that the glow was getting brighter. “I’m too busy to find out what that is,” she said. “Today I need to learn how to make oils.”
Then she learned something else: witches had an unspoken but real obligation to other people. She couldn’t explain it, but there was this feeling floating around her…. “It’s just part of the wicked witch business, that’s all it is.” But then, hardly aware of what she was doing, she hauled one of her tables out beside the road and set some of her cheeses on it. A little later, she added a basket of eggs. She found a bread recipe and some rather old flour and baked bread, lots more than she wanted. It tasted okay, so it went out on the table, too. Of course everything she set out on the table disappeared before the end of the day. This happened day after day, which kept the wicked witch pretty busy. Yes, she was gaining a reputation. But not as a wicked witch. “That’s all right,” she muttered. “They’ll find out soon enough how wicked I am!”
The war went on. The explosions went on. The refugees came on. The wicked witch found herself busier and busier. One day she discovered green stems and leaves in her unplowed field. Herbs! Soon there were vegetables, too. Where had they come from? She decided the seeds had just blown in, maybe from the woods, while she was busy with the things she called magic. Cheeses and milk and eggs and the occasional loaf of bread—and now herbal potions and bunches of leafy greens—are not magical, of course, but the woman was still determined to be a wicked witch. She had plans…. Maybe she’d start kidnapping—and eating?—some of those refugee children. She had vague thoughts of traveling into the capital city with poisons to kill el presidente and the generals. But that was for later. Right now, she was too busy to plan ahead.
She kept ignoring the glowing basket (which was glowing even more brightly) and doing the little things she could to help the refugees. Homey things, like cheese and eggs. She gave away the piglets. She helped the mothers mend their children’s clothes. But every time she went into the storeroom, the glowing around that basket was brighter. And it seemed to keep moving itself closer to the door.
“What’s going on here?” the wicked witch finally asked. She couldn’t avoid that basket any longer. So she opened it. “What is this?” She pulled out a little statue of a woman. It was carved out of wood, except the wood had turned into stone. “What is this?” As the wicked witch set the statue in the doorway, she heard a voice.
“Beloved Daughter,” said that Voice, “you have learned important lessons. You have risen out of self-pity and taken pity on others less fortunate than you. You have learned to attend to the land and the plants and animals in your care. You have learned to care for others.” The Voice paused. “Daughter, I thank you for what you are doing to help My children.”
For once, the wicked witch was speechless. Then she realized who was speaking to her. “Great Mother,” she whispered, “it is I who am grateful! I am filled with gratitude for the blessings I have received, for the learning and the true magic You’ve given me. Gee, I guess I’m not so wicked, after all.” The laughter she heard sounded like the tinkling of bells.
She carried the statue outside and set it on her porch. The next thing she did was invite today’s group of refugees to stay with her. “We can make the house bigger,” she said, “and we can do what we can to help the others who walk along this road.” And what did the refugees say? “THANK YOU. We are grateful to the wicked witch…who isn’t really wicked.”