inhabitants having had fair warning. For me, the name feels, as most things maybe are, premonitory. But who knows when we are fulfilling an ordained destiny or have prophesied a future one or which really comes first?
This valley echoes with the pounding surge of water: sounding off on stone, plundering to the river. Everything– from the soil to the lonely wisps of hair on balding heads– all of it, reverberating with fortitude. And the people wear it in their bodies as well. You can always tell the health of a culture by how steadfast the anchors at each end of the generational bridge (the youngest and the oldest). The kids here are strong and clear and their elders, sturdy. A woman in her eighties had been foraging chestnuts and wild mushrooms since dawn when we asked her where a specific trail would lead. She said to the falls if we weren’t wearing those ‘scarpette da tennis da sfigati’ (those ‘loser sneakers’). She limped through the forest in worn, boorish boots, and the toggling of her stride had nothing to do with age, rather, she'd been kicked in the hip by a donkey during an arnica forage earlier in the year. She declined offers from doctors as she declined our offer to carry her rake and her baskets. The blunt self-sufficiency doesn't seem a result of distrust, more likely troubled blood– tragic blood– that once ran through their ancestors and now sees to it that they know a feeling before they've had to feel it.
Her name is Lucia and her family has been here since the seventeenth century, all of them farmers. Well, at least the men, she punctuated. Her grandmothers, great
grandmothers and all of the greater ones of before– they were heretics, of course: the Devil's cohort. They were witches. She spoke as if having the last laugh with her ancestors over a bottle of grappa. She used the Italian word, 'strega' – surely just as loaded with stigma as its english translation. A lot of them were murdered, and the traditions alongside them. But the wisdom isn't so perishable, as is a human body or a recipe book, she was assured; the Wisdom is stored in here– she put her baskets down on a stone wall and I noticed one full of chestnuts and mushrooms, the other of green: lichens of sea foam and straggly vines and ghoulish roots and bulbs. She noticed my curiosity;
"La mia medicina," she said with a wise eye. And the church bells rang and she was reminded of her oxtail she'd been stewing from the harvest of one of her cows a couple of days ago.
Lucia gathered her forage and hobbled across the field to her house of stone, lonely, what for a single plume puffed out of the chimney as from the loosely-tamped bowl of a tobacco pipe. The slight hunch in her spine, the way she gripped the jointed, wooden staff of the rake with her stout, knotted hands and how alone her existence; she suddenly seemed storybook, as if I bore witness to the birth of this archetype– only, in reverse, centuries after her perjurious creation– already squeezed through the pipes of a distorted history, wrung out to dry off the press and bound into children's fairy tales. It could have been a broom in her clutch and one basket full of poison apples, the other of dried toads; her simmering broth, a steel cauldron of baby knuckles and pigeon hearts.
The eyes see what the mind perceives and the small mouths of fear gossip into the ears of our gullible imaginations where undeveloped ideas become invasive. As is historically confirmed, fear requires a sacrifice, a totem to project upon and then to burn. 'Heretical here say' became the castigation of the feminine, of the wise women, the healer's– SHE became the 'wicked' witch (the definition of 'witch' left mostly open to interpretation by the accuser and the entertainment of the court to apply a subjective spin on the fates of others). This span in history initiated an emancipation from the natural world, misogynistically assuming we could do so. But in this attempt, of course, we've proven also to disown ourselves into very lost, very destructive orphans; now, ever seeking, never finding– not even truly knowing how grave it is, that which we have lost.
Without sounding squirmishly pedagogical, I'm encouraging an awareness of this
history that resulted in the torture and persecution of too many innocents–
predominantly women. And mostly because (out of self-preservation) I'm not keen on writing historical briefs, particularly of this type. It’s exhausting: recounting these parts of our past, tallying the loss, scavenging for any morsel from all we’ve bartered only to find ourselves flailing in a void. Reconciling with the impossibility of such horror, of our potential to create nightmares in the dark labyrinthine of humanity's bowel, is not to judge the terror from a place of piety– as one would turn a blind eye to crime in the street for the inconvenience of bearing witness. A reclamation of responsibility to our spectrum of potential is imperative, as fear cannot fester in the light of gross self-acceptance. The recessed corridors of your conscience, the places you refuse to visit for what you might see– it’s here we need to look, to peel our hands away and kick off the covers. Once you stand in your own shadow, it no longer chases you; you can stop running and we can stop casting nets of shame out onto others and wrangling a false sense of dominion. If we can despise something in another, we feel a sense of disassociation from it, a controlled distancing that is the ultimate illusion. In her 1961 article, “On Self-Respect,” Joan Didion says, “However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un-comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.”
As individuals, I doubt it's our job to assign meaning for others, or attempt elucidating lessons for the general population, or if that would even be productive. This is where it gets personal– where our freedom exists; in doing your own chewing and your own swallowing of your experience. The way we show decency is through self-knowing: understand yourself enough to understand the other, see yourself so you can finally see the other. I’ve adopted a hypervigilance to the contextualization of self amongst the ‘other’ selves; that is studying the layers, or outfits, of ‘me’ that identity clings to. Merely taking a stance of observation toward our (well-versed) reactions to the world is a revelatory act; it begins the process of reclaiming oneself from historical binds and projections. This is honest liberation. We cannot undo the past, but we can unwind the rope that keeps us tangled in it, often even repeating it. In the case of Lucia and her female lineage and that of so many, we can relieve the stigma, move back through the loops to understand why we were there and how we got here– ultimately loosening ourselves from antiquated attitudes.
And in honor of Lucia’s family, let’s melt a word from the mortared rigidity of an
undeserved stigma. Its modern definition is so heavily saturated in the farsed archetype of more recent history, but the root of the word points you in the direction of an original truth, a predated, etymological wink at what’s more honest. Early versions of the word, WITCH, likely date back thousands of years when people widely worshiped Mother Earth and the feminine– goddesses– as the link between nature and humanity. There are several theories as to its original meaning, “one popular etymology .. [being its relation] to the English words wit, wise, wisdom.... Another claims that witch is derived from a root meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred.’” And yet another “proposed by noted Indo-Europeanist Calvert Watkins associates the *wik– in wicaa with the Germanic root *wek–, *wak–, Indo-European *weg–, *wog–, meaning ‘be strong, be lively.’” (1)
It is in digging to the root, literally of the word, but also figuratively in recovering an original pith from which things morph. If we are sieving this life for meaning, I’m
certain most of it will be found in a posture of quest, in accepting every invitation tomeet oneself anew.
1) Dilts, M. (2015). Power in the Name: The Origin and Meaning of the Word “Witch.”
(1) Power in the Name: The Origin and Meaning of the Word "Witch" | Michael
Dilts - Academia.edu