The principal leaned across his desk at Jennifer and cleared his throat. He was a small man with small hands, and these hands, she noticed now, were trembling. “It has come to my attention,” he said, “that there have been accusations.”
“Oh, no,” said Jennifer. Her head ached. She’d had too much cheap Australian chardonnay last night and called her third ex-husband in Newark, waking his wife. This was, she knew, shameful behavior for a woman of nearly sixty—or for any age at all, really. Maybe the students had noticed a lingering odor of wine and tears, or a general sense of malaise, or maybe someone had reported that she’d said “Damn” last week when she slammed her finger in her desk. And she’d called that Simpson girl a silly fool—but that was a joke. The girl had laughed. Hadn’t she?
“Of witchcraft, you see,” the principal said. He seemed a little apologetic. “The Darnell twins say they saw you flying through the forest above Wheel Road on their way home from ballet class last night.”
“But I was at home.” This could be confirmed. Her ex-husband’s current wife would remember the phone call, and there was evidence in the trashcan: that empty bottle of penguin wine. She felt herself begin to relax.
The principal, however, did not seem relaxed; he was clenching his teeth in what was probably supposed to be a smile. “Of course, their mother didn’t see a thing. But she was driving, you see. Eyes on the road.” His hands were clasped on his desk, like the children were instructed to do for school portraits.
Jennifer nodded. Her mouth felt dry.
“You will have a chance to defend yourself. But for now.” He unclasped his hands, shrugged. In the five years he’d been principal of the middle school, he had lost his wife to cancer and his parents in a drunk driving accident. He had given eulogies for two seventh graders who slit their wrists in a suicide pact. He was, like the principal before him, a transplant from a northern city, who came to Mississippi either out of optimism or desperation. There had been speculation that he was about to take early retirement and move back to the north. There were rumors of a daughter in jail. And now here was yet another burden thrust upon him. Jennifer felt a twinge of pity for the man. She said, “I’m sure we can sort this out easily enough. Sixth graders are pretty imaginative.”
The principal nodded. “I’m afraid we have to put you on leave, you see. For the rest of the day, and until we get this sorted out. We have a sub coming in after lunch. The hearing is set for tomorrow at two thirty in the conference room.” He cleared his throat, scooted back in his chair and waited for Jennifer to stand, then he thrust out a small, moist, trembling hand for her to shake.
“Please tell the sub that the lesson plan is in the blue binder,” she said. “We’re covering igneous and sedimentary this week.” She thought of the box of rock samples she’d set out last night, drunkenly, on her dining room table: their rough surfaces, their ancient mysteries. She was not going to hand those over to the sub.
“Will do,” said the principal. “Don’t you worry.”
Ex-husband number four, Richie, was in the back of his restaurant marrying ketchups when she came in through the side door. She had met him during her brief stint as a part time waitress at the Pig Palace, an upscale barbeque restaurant popular with the graduation and prom crowd. Then, he was a jokey manager; now, he was the owner, and pretty much always in a bad mood. His beard was turning into one of those mountain man-type things, and his belly hung low over his khaki pants, but there was still something appealing about him when he smiled. Their marriage had been marked by anger and betrayal on both sides, but that was almost a decade ago—which was long enough for bygones to be bygones. She hoped.
“You heard any rumors about me?” she asked, when he looked up from the ketchups.
“You mean did I spread any rumors about you,” he said. One of the things she had most loved and most hated about him was his ability to know exactly what she meant whether she said it or not. He looked up, wiped his hand across his nose. “I don’t care what you do, sweetheart, as long as you save some sugar for me.” This was a song he’d written for her when they’d first dated. “But my mother heard you were out at Chili’s until closing on Friday, with some motorcycle dude.”
“Oh,” she said, and blushed. Jake. He didn’t have a motorcycle, but he was bald and had tattoos and wore shiny black boots, so of course Richie’s mother—who had spies everywhere, apparently—would jump to this conclusion. “That was nobody,” she said.
Richie frowned as if he didn’t believe her, then shrugged. “Why ain’t you at school anyway?” She ignored him. He gave the last ketchup one joyous, farty squeeze, then sneezed into his arm crack.
“God bless you,” she said, more sincerely than usual.
Her best friend Theresa, who taught history at the high school, said, “Oh, right, like in Norway.” Jennifer could hear her munching on something on the other end of the line. Or what was it called now? Not a line. There used to be a line, when she was a child—a black phone with a curly-tail cord and a line that traveled for thousands of miles under the earth and the sea.
Yes: Norway rang a distant bell. There was something going on in Norway with witches. Jennifer was bad at keeping up with international news, or any news. It probably wouldn’t help matters that she was Norwegian, distantly, that she’d gone back to her very-Norwegian-sounding maiden name.
“What are they doing in Norway?” she asked.
“Covens, devil proms, bewitched pets, that sort of thing. Husbands wander off in the night and come back covered in soot. Women flying on brooms. Just, you know, a lot of weird shit, and so they’ve started burning them. Hold on a sec, need a swig of water.”
Jennifer waited. There was nothing like silence in a lonely house to make you realize how lonely you were. She could hear the squirrels in the gutters begin their nightly scuffling. She could hear her stomach rumble: she was on her third diet of the year, this one based entirely on fruits and saltines. Wine, she figured, was allowed, because it was fruit. When Theresa came back, Jennifer ventured to ask, “They’ve started burning what, exactly?” and Theresa said, “Witches,” and Jennifer sighed and said, “I thought so.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” Theresa said. “They’ll do a background check and you’ll come out all right.”
“Oh, I know. I’m silly to worry. But it’s Box of Rocks week, and I was looking forward to it.” Technically, it was called the Earth Science Unit. After all that studying of atomic particles, she was always happy to teach something solid, something that felt real. After Earth Science they’d get to worm dissection, her least favorite of the units. “We still on for wine night tomorrow?” They met every Wednesday at a café on Main Street to drink wine and complain about their students.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Theresa. “I think I have papers to grade.”
October in Mississippi was humid, the leaves turning golden but clinging to the branches; the grass somehow both parched and moist. College students were still biking down Main Street in their shorts and T-shirts. Her bird feeder was full of fat cardinals and squabbling titmice. She had arrived in Mississippi over thirty years ago with ex-husband number one, who debarked for Minnesota after two years. It still felt like a strange, foreign place—or maybe she just felt like a strange foreigner in it. There were moments when she still couldn’t understand what people were saying, like when she got a flu shot and the nurse kept asking her if she had a favor and Jennifer said, “You want me to do you a favor? I have no idea what you’re talking about,” and the nurse said, in a sharp, nasty voice, “A fever.” Then plunged the needle into Jennifer’s arm with a little too much force.
She drove to the middle school with her windows open, the car full of hot, swampy air. Had they already done a background check on her? To make sure she wasn’t talking to anybody in Norway? But that might not be enough. Maybe they would—or had already—talk to her neighbors, who would no doubt call her aloof, rude. She never answered the door when she saw a kid standing on the porch with a box of candy to sell, or a woman with a clipboard. And had she posted anything stupid on her Twitter account? Had she liked anything on Facebook that she shouldn’t have liked, or not liked something she should have?
The principal was already in the conference room when she arrived at exactly two thirty, as were the Darnell twins, looking bored, and their wide-cheeked mother, and a woman in a blue pantsuit who introduced herself as the school district’s lawyer. The lawyer put her phone in the middle of the table and said, “I’m recording this, if you don’t mind.”
“And what if I do?” Jennifer said, trying for a joke, but it didn’t come out that way, and the proceedings deteriorated from there. The principal took notes in a black spiral notebook as the Darnell twins recounted seeing Jennifer on a broom above them at 8:45 on Monday night.
“Because ballet lets out at 8:30,” said Lorraine, the smallest and most talkative twin. “And then we change our shoes and go outside to wait for Mommy.” She had the long, narrow face of a child who’d been pried from the womb by forceps, her features too close together, her teeth too big for her mouth. Jennifer felt a sudden pang of sympathy for her, always in the shadow of her round-faced sister, Marie, who now smiled sweetly and announced, “I tried to film her but then whoosh, she disappeared.”
In Jennifer’s classroom, the twins sat next to each other in the front row and only rarely had to be separated for giggling. Last week, they had each made hundred percents on the parts of the Earth quiz. Marie had misspelled mantle but Jennifer gave her full credit anyway.
“Even if I could fly through the forest,” Jennifer said, trying unsuccessfully to make eye contact with the twins, “why would that make me automatically a bad person?”
The twins’ mother perked up. “Why not use your car? If you have nothing to hide?”
“But where would I be going?” Jennifer asked, and she realized she actually wanted to know. It had occurred to her that on Monday evening she’d passed out on the sofa, and so maybe—not that she could recall—maybe she had flown on a broom through the forest. Wouldn’t that be more interesting than passing out on the couch?
“Devil’s mass,” said the principal. “Blood sacrifices. Of animals and infants, you see.”
“Everyone knows witches eat children,” said Marie, a little haughtily.
“That’s not something I would do, Marie,” Jennifer said. “Plus, I’m on a diet!” Nobody laughed. Her stomach rumbled, as if testifying on her behalf. “Anyway,” she continued, trying to sound more teacher-like, “the idea of me flying through the air is nonsense. The nature of matter refutes this possibility, and what about the wind resistance required just to keep the broom aloft?”
“And yet we are all made of atoms, are we not?” the principal said, with a tight smile. His brow was sweating. “Energy travels in waves, does it not?”
“The children recorded their observations,” the twins’ mother said, prompting her daughters to pull out their backpacks and rummage through the contents to extract their field notebooks, the ones Jennifer had distributed to the students last week. They had drawn graphs with each inch equaling four feet. “They estimate your flying height at forty-five feet, and your speed at fifty miles per hour, based on the fact that I was driving thirty-five.”
Jennifer frowned. It was somewhat impressive. She pointed to a black line in the center of Marie’s page. “That’s supposed to be me?”
“That’s you,” piped up Lorraine. Her graph was sloppier than her sister’s; she seemed a little ashamed.
“Do you have pets?” the lawyer demanded, pointing at Jennifer with her pen. “Do you have children?”
“I had a cat once,” Jennifer said. She’d had an abortion, between husbands number one and two, but she didn’t mention this. “It lived to be twenty-four. It was practically a world record.”
The lawyer seemed dismayed by this. “Please enter!” she shouted, and a sheepish, stocky bald man pushed open the conference room door and stood there staring. “Hey,” he said to Jennifer. Jake: they’d met when he repaired her brake pads. She’d called him Jake Brake. They’d been on two dates, two! He was fifty-five, with an ex-wife in Wisconsin and two grown sons. They hadn’t even slept together. And so why was he now standing at the head of the table and telling everyone that she had seemed a little pushy, a little desperate, that she had eaten half of the nachos he’d ordered, that she’d had two glasses of wine to his one beer? That she’d told him some of her students were idiots? “I never did,” she lied, but then Richie was suddenly ushered into the room as well, and stood next to Jake. They didn’t look at each other. They didn’t look at her. Richie’s face was red and his nose was chapped. He turned to the lawyer. “She gave me a cold,” he said, and sneezed. “With her witchcraft.”
The lawyer dismissed them. The conference room door wheezed shut. The twins appeared to be texting under the table. “We have other witnesses,” the lawyer said, and Jennifer said, “I imagine you do.”
Ex-husband number one: what would he say about her? That she’d had a temper, smoked some weed. Ex-husband number two had died of cancer in his mid-forties, three years after they’d divorced because of his temper. Then there was ex-husband number three, who’d moved to Newark and sent her a Christmas card every year but never seemed to want to talk on the phone. Maybe she had become increasingly difficult as she got older. Maybe she wasn’t fun-loving Jenny anymore. More and more, everything ached—her knees, her neck—and she tended to cuss loudly when she drove. She had not visited her parents’ graves in years. She was not a terrible person, but she was not a good person, either. This had not particularly bothered her until now.
“We would hate to bring in the police,” the principal was saying, “but it may be necessary. There are tests, you see, that involve ice water and needles and things like that. You should understand how that goes—testing hypotheses and such.” He smiled, then sighed. “It’s going to be a lot of work for everybody.”
Jennifer felt weak with hunger and fury. She had been in this room for over three hours. Her stomach seemed to be eating itself. “If I confess, will that make it easier? Fine, I’m a witch. You’re going to fire me anyway. Don’t dunk me in ice water to see if I float or not. I’ve had swimming lessons since I was five.”
The lawyer made a quick note.
“Can we go?” said Marie Darnell. “We have flute.”
The lawyer clicked off her recording. She nodded at Jennifer. “We’ll be in touch if we need anything else.”
When she was a child in Maryland, Jennifer had irritated her father with her back yard excavations: a bone! An arrowhead! A fossil! A shard of pottery from an ancient civilization! She would burst panting and filthy into the living room, where her father was watching Lawrence Welk. No, Jenny, put that back; stop it, Jenny, that’s where we buried Flowers, remember? That’s just a rock. That’s just a piece of plastic.
But she knew what she knew. The earth was full of secrets. The rock was not just a rock. Her mother was a fossil preserved in amber, a memory of green polyester, pink toe nails, paperclip necklaces made by her students. A snowy car crash just yards from the house. Her father’s choking sobs. The day after her mother’s death, the world was a sheet of ice, and now some of that ice had turned into stones and twinkled in the yard and the driveway.
Well, why not? she thought later, turning over a piece of quartzite in high school geology. The truth was just as unfathomable as anything else. Later, in college, she endured student teaching, she wore her mother’s paper clip necklaces. She didn’t like children, but she didn’t hate them, and sometimes their eyes would actually light up like they were supposed to. Mostly, their eyes stayed dim—in Maryland, in Mississippi, everyone had their own problems, and parents always had something to complain about: Billy didn’t have time to study for his test, Mary’s lab partner scared her, Betsy had a moral objection to dissecting frogs.
But everybody loved Box of Rocks week. Actually, it was two boxes—one containing rocks, one minerals—both made of sturdy oak; their lids locked with tiny gold latches. There were twelve specimens in each box, nestled in their own felt-lined compartments. Sometimes she told the students that she had collected them all herself, rock hunting with her father when she was a child, but this was a lie. Her father didn’t take her rock hunting. She’d found a slick piece of fool’s gold once, hiking in Pennsylvania with husband number one, but she’d tossed it skittering into the trees.
This year, she had decided, she would take the children to the Petrified Forest in Flora to hunt for fossils. The principal had given his blessing; the parental consent forms were stacked on her desk, ready to distribute. But now the town was full of witches, and no one cared about fossils.
She followed the news on her iPad with a mixture of relief and concern. The week after she confessed, four women were accused: the friendly black woman who worked the night shift at the B-Quick, a Mennonite woman who sold banana bread at the farmer’s market, a high school English teacher, a Walmart employee. All denied the accusations, some more loudly than others.
At the police station, a make-shift ice pond was constructed. The Walmart employee drowned and was exonerated, but the others were thrown into jail. Their accusers—middle school and high school girls—gave giddy interviews to the local media, lifting up their tops to reveal bruises where the witches had pinched them in the middle of the night. One girl fell to the ground in convulsions when the female news reporter asked her if she was aware of the seriousness of the charges. The news reporter was jailed the next day.
Jennifer ventured rarely from the house. Sometimes she went to Kroger at three in the morning, when the only customers were other wide-eyed, nervous women, filling their carts with beer and vegetables and microwavable dinners. She spent her days watching television and reading mystery novels and, at night, digging through her yard for more rock samples: granite, shale, a sliver of petrified wood. A gray rabbit slipped into her tomato garden and she trapped it with an Amazon box and then, to her own surprise, skinned it and roasted it over her fire pit. So much for her fruit and cracker diet. She felt her muscles growing strong and taut; under a waxing moon, she leapt up to a magnolia branch and managed two pullups before collapsing to the ground.
And the girls began to roam the streets in small groups, singing pop songs, stealing clothes from local shops and falling into occasional convulsions. They accused the mothers of the boys they liked; when the boys agreed to go out with them, the convulsions stopped. When the boys broke up with them, the girls twisted and shrieked and said they could see the boys’ mothers flying through the air all around them, pinching and biting. They accused their own mothers, who kicked and cursed as they were tossed into the back of police cars. Jennifer watched the YouTube videos the girls posted, their eyes rolled back to the whites as they danced and flailed outside the houses of their teachers and former babysitters.
But no one came to Jennifer’s house. Even on Halloween, as the girls roamed the streets, breaking windows and stealing cash and electronics from abandoned homes, they left her alone. The town had emptied of men and boys, who escaped with their wives and mothers to the north, or to Alabama or Louisiana. Jennifer stayed in her house, watched from the curtains. A tiny girl stood in the moonlight, crying for her mother, and an older girl grabbed her hand and pulled her roughly down the pavement.
At night, in dreams, Jennifer soared over houses and fields, the cotton fat and white against the thick gray sky. There was no broom, just her body flat against the wind, the air blowing through her teeth.
The B-Quick cashier was the first to burn. Her granddaughters said she’d escaped her cell and flown around their bedrooms, spitting and biting. They said she tried to make them do their homework on a Saturday and chewed all their pencils to nubs.
Then Jennifer’s friend Theresa burned, shaking her fists at the sky and vowing to return as a haunting spirit. Jennifer watched this all on her iPad, videos filmed and uploaded by the accusing girls, who had started their own YouTube channel. She laughed out loud when she saw the footage of Richie’s ninety-year-old mother being hauled down the pavement toward the courthouse. The police and the lawyers had left town, so the older girls served as cop, judge, jury, jailer; they drew straws to see who would get to light the match and toss it onto the pyre.
On Thanksgiving morning, as Jennifer chewed on the leftovers of a rabbit carcass at her dining room table, the doorbell rang. Outside, a shivering woman she almost recognized: oh, yes, the twins’ mother. She was gaunt, her eyes opals. “I’m a witch, too,” she said, when Jennifer opened the door. “Nobody believes me. My children think I’m faking. My husband left town with the school librarian.” She gazed hopefully into Jennifer’s house, hugging herself for warmth. “I was just hoping you would accuse me publicly, since no one else will.”
“No,” said Jennifer, and closed the door. The twins’ mother stayed on the porch for another couple of hours, then disappeared down the street.
November slipped into watery-skied December. The town was nearly deserted; no one remained but girls with their loud laughter and their dancing. The grocery shelves were empty of food, the library and all the books had burned. Jennifer read and re-read her field guides, did her students’ quizzes and worksheets, ate weeds and squirrels and rabbits and roots.
Her ex-husband’s current wife called to say she was worried. Shouldn’t Jennifer get out of that crazy town? Come to Newark, she said. They had witches, too, but the cops just gave them fines—twenty bucks, maybe forty. At the most, it was a misdemeanor. “You can’t teach school here, of course,” she said, “but I can help you find a job as a cleaning woman or maybe a gardener or a night shift convenience clerk.”
Then her ex-husband got on the phone and said they were serious, come stay with them. Jennifer tried not to laugh. The yard was full of animal bones. Move to New Jersey and get a job as a night shift convenience clerk? She said, “I’ll figure something out.”
Amazing, wasn’t it, how desire—for talk, for nourishment—could become a solid artifact? She dreamt not just of flying now, but of her own sixth grade self, alone in the yard, the driveway, hunting for something to make her father look up from his television program and love her again. But she was also herself, and all her other selves, the self with husband numbers one through four, and this new self, strong and hardened, all of her layers cemented together. At some point, she realized, her sixtieth birthday had come and gone. In the mirror, her face was all angles and a shock of white eyes and hair and teeth.
She devoured the wilted dandelion weeds. Winter wheat. Sometimes she heard children’s laughter or sobs in the distance and thought of all the things she hadn’t had a chance to teach this year—not just rocks, but the parts of a worm, the frog. We are animals, we are atoms. Hunger and loneliness: who could tell the difference? On a crisp, moon-filled December evening, she went out the front door for the first time in weeks, ventured all the way to the street carrying her box of minerals: quartz, mica, talc, barite, fluorite, calcite, pyrite, gypsum, feldspar, olivine, hematite, apatite. She laid out a trail right to her door. There were so many motherless children crying out for knowledge. All they had to do was look down, follow the glinting path, and she would bring them inside and let them see the Box of Rocks; she would lead them out the back door to the fire pit, offer them food and warmth.
Of course you can hold them, she would say, clicking open the gold latch of the wooden box. This is sandstone, granite, basalt. She thought of the black lump of iron heavy in their palms. Then she would urge them close to the fire, and closer still, until they could feel what it was like to be right inside the Earth’s molten heart.