We go to the woods at night piled two or three deep in Chris’ red Ford Taurus. Someone in the trunk at times. Asses always smushed into each other’s laps. The calm out past the edge of town unleashes the unruly childhood parts that haven’t quite grown out of us. We walk through the woods with only the glint of light from our flip phones to stop us tripping over the old stonewalls built by farmers centuries dead to divide the land. Through the tangles of spider webs and new-growth forest underbrush we end up in an abandoned suburban development site where we expand like ants to swarm the space. We play capture the flag or freeze and kiss tag in the dark under a sky smudged by the Milky Way. Climb unfinished staircases in skeleton houses. Build fires out of lumber and white girl hippie dance, or consume blackened s’mores, lick the chocolate off of each other’s mouths, and then fall laughing as the boys grin like it’s all for them.
We go to the woods during the day and climb down the side of a hill through a boulder field left behind when the glaciers retreated and find a charred cow skull in a fire pit in the center of a pentagram of stones. Beer cans twinkle up at us from the ground, the rest of the cow’s body nonexistent, but still we think, Satanists, for sure. Feel smug in our certainty that evil existed here. The woods chill us through despite the heat, so we walk back to Jess’ house for cookies and cream ice cream and Empire Records in her basement. Watch and wonder if we are Liv Tyler’s character: Making cupcakes and studying and quoting “There’s 24 usable hours in every day,” but still never quite good enough for Rex Manning to love us. Wonder if we’re Gina, and “just another groupie slut.” Wonder if it’s possible to be both.
Sometimes the boys drive us farther out of town to go to the old cemeteries scattered back too far for even the paved roads to penetrate. We put up with a burned CD of Legends of Zelda video game music, and try to ignore the pounding of 80s boyhood nostalgia because at 15 we are already good at swallowing our voices. But the ghosts are what we’re after, and we’re willing to put up with the boys to find them since none of us can drive yet. We tread lightly. Try not to trip over the coffin-sized mounds in front of the tombstones. We look it up later: the gases of decomposition burst through the lids and displace the soil above. The body tries to come back into the world, if not into life. We share this with our history teacher, and she scoffs at us in that tuberculosised way of hers that makes us wonder if she is actually quite ill. But this same woman promised us there was no connection between Hitler and the Occult either, so we’re putting our future AP World History exam scores at risk listening to her.
The boys try to scare us by creeping off one by one beyond the reach of moonlight only to come back yelling that they’ve seen a ghost. We let them think they have. We let them think we believe them. But we are here for Elisabeth Palmiter, and Elisabeth does not show herself to men. When she appears her misty presence hangs green above her grave, or so we’ve read on the World Wide Web. Elisabeth died trying to get a doctor for her children in the middle of a Nor’easter late one winter—or maybe trying to find her husband in a rainstorm so fierce it blew the April buds off the trees—or maybe she just wanted to escape her life and vanish forever into the mist that we always see rising out of the hills after a summer rainstorm. We’re a little obsessed with Elisabeth.
We never destroy the headstones, never have sex on the graves of the deceased as we hear about on the nightly news. Never see the latex remnants of others’ sweaty exertions of pleasure or pain in the graveyards we frequent. We are not those kind of teenagers, and feel skeptical that they even exist since most grown-ups would say they should be us. We the wearers of resin fangs that must be sealed on with PoliGrip, who once told our former best friend that we felt like our little life had been transported to Sunnydale. Any day now we’ll be able to light candles with our minds.
At school, the other kids find our group scary because we sit in the corner of the cafeteria next to a wall painted black. Because we hang out on the hill after school smoking. Because we lurk in the rune-covered secret room under the Little Theatre stage and read fantasy novels before YA is a thing that is cool. Because we live in the old factory-built two- and three-family houses in the valley near the river—not the single-family houses on the hill like them—and have to take the bus still in high school. So when one of the boys tapes a watch to a pineapple, calls it a bomb, and tells everyone he’s going to blow up the school—he’s believed, and almost suspended for fruit. We watch The Craft, tell everyone we’re witches before Columbine happens and a memo gets sent home about the dangers of trench coats and witchcraft and we all wear our long coats in defiance of adults trying to blame music for the psychological damage of long-term bullying. Know that those kids might not have been so different from some of our boys, and know we’re lucky to have each other so we can tell Blonde Becky we’ll cast a spell on her to turn her hair black with our fangs on full display.
We go to the woods because in this forbidden space we can try to touch the edges of existence. We can be scared and thrilled at the same time. Afraid of the dark’s stillness but ready to confront it without our nightlights to protect us. In the dark the poverty drips away. The smell of cheap apartments consumed by ferret piss or the shame of wearing Salvation Army clothes falls back, and we move more fully. We can touch each other in jest and in earnest affection and in ways we’ve been taught are too shameful to do under light. The fat of our bodies melts away. We are tall and strong and fight away high school with stakes and quarterstaffs and crossbows. The magic we cast makes us invincible, makes Buffys and Willows of us all.
Though we are the only people who think witchcraft rebellious. We’re too scared of real trouble with the vice-principal or the police, too tainted by D.A.R.E. (we did win the 5th grade essay contest, all of us), to ever do drugs. Too afraid of something being put on our permanent records and preventing us from going to college on the scholarships we’ll need, too worried we’ll end up like our mothers married to men we hate and never escaping from this dead factory town to fuck up for real. So instead of getting high or drinking, we cast spells in parks or in our bedrooms to implore Morgan or Athena to give us the strength to face the jeers and taunts of The Army of Blondes who used to sleep over at our houses before we became “scary.” Make our moms question what happened to the ancient jar of sage from the back of their spice cabinets when they try to roast a chicken. Set off our smoke alarms with incense, then flap the latest issue of Seventeen to shush the alarm before it wakes our brothers.
We go to the woods because at home there are fights—shouting so loud it breaks walls, or maybe the walls just get dented by the fists of our fathers sometimes. There are boyfriends who yell at us for wanting to go out for food at midnight because there is nothing in our fridge or cupboards except beer and cans of cat food. The words, It gets better, mean little in these moments. We only know the life we’re stuck in, and that magic and the forest makes us big—pulls us into a dark secret as old as the universe that adults just can’t see anymore, if they ever saw it in the first place.
At night alone in our beds, we wonder about Elisabeth Palmiter and if the legends of her death from caring for others more than herself are true. Or, if one night, when the moon was full, Elisabeth slipped out of her house, out of the bed she shared with her husband, and walked barefoot through the forest. If while others saw those woods as uncivilized and terrifying, she was never frightened but instead moved by their beauty. If in her wanderings, she let the woods swallow her whole.
Elizabeth Martin is an Instructor in the Writing Studies Department at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a staff writer for American Mircoreviews & Interviews. Her journalism has appeared in Parsippany Life, Neighbor News, and The Suburban Trends. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have been published by Hot Metal Bridge, Neworld Review, Arsenic Lobster, and Menacing Hedge, among others. She is the recipient of two New Jersey Press Association awards. Currently, she is at work on a collection of essays.