The Witches / by Wesley Cohen

       The witches are all on different medications. Sing is on antipsychotics. Sam is on antidepressants, but they don’t work and she’s gained weight. Johanna is on antibiotics but usually she just drinks. She read somewhere that she can’t drink with the antibiotics but she’s starting to doubt it. She’s starting to shake, starting to wonder if it’s worth having a bladder infection if it means she can’t feel the other things.

       They’re very conscientious witches. Used to be, witches were always stealing bits and pieces of other folk. Sam took the finger of a Jewess once in the twelfth century and she feels just rotten about it. And don’t talk to Sing about the ditch-delivered babe of a drab she stole. She paid that drab’s medical bills and checked up on her for years but she still wakes up at night, stricken with guilt. Sometimes she does good weather spells for the drab’s descendants, not that it helps her any. She’s so hard on herself.

       Now they only do weak spells, ones that don’t need hurting anybody much. It’s tricky: their power comes from stealing, comes from cutting and bleeding and eating.

       They bargain. “Sing, you’re part Moorish—if I give you some moonbrew, could I cut off your ear?”

       “Johanna, I’ll give you my best cauldron if I can get a big toe. It’s really important.”

       Of course they could give up spells, but they’re witches. It’s what they do. So they keep growing their wolfsbane and moor’s moss and bitching to each other over the phone when they’re not dancing naked under the new moon.

       “Found this great recipe for deceiver’s draught.”

       “Oh, here’s a trick for summoning spells: you put a little yarrow in the kindling before you start the cauldron. Makes a world of difference.”

       “Johanna, what did you put in these muffins? They’re like Percocet.”

       Mostly, though, they take from themselves. Little spells take little pains: Sam trips and falls in front of a crowd to give her new glamour some oomph. Johanna stabs herself between the ribs with a paring knife, holds the blade high over her pot as the liquid turns a fiery red. Sing makes a pro and con list: a new poison for sawing off her favorite finger at the knuckle. They heal, but slowly, and it weighs a witch down. It whittles them down, the cutting, the starving they do to make themselves stronger.

       Johanna says it first. She is the oldest, if only by a hundred years, and the bravest. Without glamour, her nose is the longest and the crookedest, and her best wart sits right at the end of it and makes her eyes look wild and sure.

       “Sisters, we are suffering.”

       Sam puts down her slice of quiche. She bought a plastic walker after chopping three toes for a stealing spell—she wanted a new house, with a bigger garden, but the old owners were stubborn. Sing whistles past her missing front teeth: she ground them up for ointment that makes her skin and black hair shine.

       “We can’t go on like this,” Johanna starts again. “In the olden days we were strong. We were fearsome. We took what we needed and we did not apologize.”

       “Abhorrent,” Sing says.

       “Reprehensible,” Sam echoes.

       “Yes,” says Johanna. “And also?”

       “Glorious,” says Sam.

       “Ecstatic,” echoes Sing.

       “The problem,” says Johanna, “is pathos. We feel bad for the Jewesses and drabs and newts now.”

       “Poor little newts,” says Sing. “With their sweet little eyes.”

“And the tiny frogs’ toes,” says Sam, tearing up. “They never knew what was coming.”

       “This pain we feel for the creatures—it is honorable,” says Johanna. (Ethical, Sam murmurs.) “But it is a cancer. It makes us weak.”

       “Weakness is nothing to be ashamed of,” says Sing, invoking her therapist, Steven. “But what is your plan, sister?”

       “We cast a spell,” Johanna’s eyes spark, “to cut this cancer from our bodies.”

       Sam has her spellbook out already. “It’s impossible. Or—it’s unheard of.”

       Sing is spitballing on a legal pad. “We’d need a cleaving spell, to take it out. And a splicing spell, to put us back together. And a strength spell, so we survive the other spells. Maybe two strength spells.” She tallies up the parts they would need, then lets out a low whistle through her gap.

       “This one’s going to hurt, darlings.” They’ll need fourteen toes between them, nine fingers, maybe a pint of blood. Depending, it could take a tongue to seal the deal.

       “Give me that,” says Johanna. She throws the legal pad into the fire. (Hey! say Sam and Sing). “Here’s what we’ll do.”

       They will kill an innocent woman to cut the caring from their witchy selves. Sing and Sam hem and haw for a minute, staring into the face of the young college student Johanna caught off craigslist with the offer of a college-level chemistry internship. In the end, though, they decide it’s the only thing to do.

       Johanna sets up the sacrifice, then goes to her cave with the shakes. She needs to vomit, needs to take her last Zithromax and a cranberry pill. She asks her sisters to call her when the killing is done and she will finish the spell for them.

       Under a hiding spell, she creeps to the burlap sack behind the fire. She sets the virgin free, presses a bill into her hand for a taxi home. She climbs in, stills her breathing. Soon, this pain will end. She has learned to trust her instincts in the past thousand years. When Sam and Sing throw the sack on the fire, they expect a shrieking.

       “You really nailed that sleeping draught,” says Sing.

       Inside the sack, Johanna gets hot. Soon she will be free. She waits for her memories of hairy men seduced, children eaten, babies gutted, to turn to smoke.

       But only the edges of her are singed. The sack burns up around her, then her clothes, and the fire eats the hairs on her arms and between her legs and the bristles from her face. Johanna looks out through the fire to see her sisters weeping and laughing, already feeling so good. She wants to be glad for them but instead the dark hurt inside her hardens like glass. She feels the guilt melt like tar, seeping out through her skin. Black covers her body, calcified, and she sits up, stretching herself through the top of the fire, smoke-like, wind-high. She towers, twenty feet tall, over her sisters, and they look up from their casting into the mouth of a great black dragon. The last witchy bit of Johanna hears her sisters scream, but she is so hungry. She swallows them right up. The fire and blackness is inside her, and Sing and Sam join it. Together the witches are one belly, one mouth, and they lift off to hunt the world that hurt them.




Wesley O. Cohen is a San Francisco-based author who specializes in short stories. Her work appears in Matchbox Magazine and Star 82 Review, and is forthcoming in Prized Writing. You can follow her at