The Witches of Ascalon by Sonia Sulaiman

I moved my hips in circles, small and large, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal. I held my arms out at my sides. I twisted my wrists. “Oh—“I sang. “Daughter of the vine…” The yellow earth shivered and opened as I twisted and swayed. My robe of silk and velvet, my short waist coat with the embroidery of the Foreign Eye and the Cow’s Eye and the Star of Bethlehem undulated with my body. A sprout broke through the surface of the earth. In a minute it was six inches long and soon it was a great twisting vine. Dark strands of bark peeled off the trunk in curls like a wild girl’s hair. And then I had enough grapes to fill my basket.

I am one of the witches of Ascalon. My community lived here in the shadow of almonds in bloom, olives and quinces that grew all along the hillsides. A secret road connected us to the city and the sea. Mostly, we were left alone but sometimes overly eager adventurous boys got it into their heads to play ‘hero’ and sought us out. This is the story of one of them.

He had been promised a reward: his ascent to manhood would be fast-tracked, he could marry before his due. I was one of the first to meet him. He must have thought he was being so cunning, making friends with the witches of Ascalon. Of course he didn’t understand that we welcome everyone to our homes. The secret road is there for all to see, but some just choose not to follow it. I was the one who taught him how to create life-giving food from stone, from hard-packed, baked earth where nothing else would grow. I did all of this freely, and knowing that he would betray me.

I was sixteen and beautiful with large dark eyes and long hair that fell in waves down my back and shoulders. I twisted and swayed to a song I sang to myself, my hips moving in intricate circles. My hands slowly unfolded as I tipped my wrists. Chimes jangled on my wrists. The movement and the wind stirred my hair.

“I can’t do that,” said Ibrahim as he said on a limestone boulder. He was tall for his age, reddish brown, with black curls that stood up on his head like a crown. “That’s a woman’s dance. People will laugh if they see me do it.”

I then dropped my hands and regarded him. “Do you think they will laugh when they see you coax a grape wine from barren ground, sit in its shade and feast on the fruits all within minutes?” I laughed at his serious expression. “Come, I will show you how it is done again. And then you will try.”

“No, I think I’d rather watch…”

I willed him to try. I had not yet realized that there was something fatal about the boys from that city which kept them from truly seeing us as human beings. He would watch and observe but not see and know. It made me harden in my soul sometimes when I came out smiling to him for another lesson I knew would not be used for bringing life into the world, the intoxicating vines with their virtue-ripened fruit.

Day after day I showed him the dance. It was always the same; I showed, he watched. Never so much as a grape did he eat. That was one of the tells that warned me that these pleasant days would soon come to an end. It would be just like every other time that boys would come down to our homes among the caves, and I hated the thought of it.

“Why do you have to be like the other boys,” I heard myself say. It slipped out, frustration getting the better of my common sense. He frowned. He looked to me like a frightened animal in that moment. I could almost see his pulse racing under his skin at his throat.

“I am just like other boys” he said after a hesitation. Another tell. My heart sank. For just a moment I let him see that I knew what he was about. I choose to show him. He was too scared to see what I meant, so he simply sat there playing with a piece of straw on his knees with feigned nonchalance. Why did we have to play this game? We could be friends; I could be friends with the people in Ascalon if they would follow the secret road to learn and enjoy the delicious shade and the grapes of my vines without hunger for my blood as well. How was he to know if I was witch or saint?

When the day came, he used a knife. It was curved and sharp. I remember his dark eyes growing wide when it passed between my ribs and came out clean. Like Lilith, I said the secret name of God and a mighty wind swept him out, far into the sea. I saw him return, but he was now one of the ones who could not follow the road. Another failed hero. I planted my vines…

My whole community was hidden from that boy from that day to this, but others would follow to try their little courage at clearing out the nest of witches that live in the shadow of the orchards of Ascalon. It was always the boys who would come to us. We tried to send them away with a word of wisdom or two but somehow it never stuck. It was never the girls who would come to us, only the very old women. Of them, we could be sure. The old are free from all restrictions. They would laugh in the teeth of their neighbours and say “the men don’t understand you, daughters of the moon.” And still I plant my vines, hear the old talk of the city life and share my grapes.

This story was originally published in Stone, Root, and Bone by Hagstone Press which is no longer in operation.

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