"I wish I may. I wish I might. Find a man who'll love me right." I clutched my pentacle pendant and watched a shooting star disappear into the brilliant purple and orange hues of dawn ascending over the Atlantic Ocean.
All witches know it's not the words; it's the intentions that make a spell successful. A shooting star on the morn of Samhain had to be a sure sign my sweet sixteen would be a birthday I'd never forget.
I dug my toes into the sand, feeling something cool slither across my foot and wrap around my ankle. Marilyn, my favorite pygmy rattler, her normally small stomach engorged with babies. Yes, rattlers are one of the few snakes that have live births instead of laying eggs.
"Hello, Miss Monroe," I said, taking a seat beside her on the beach. "Thanks for being the very first guest to arrive at my birthday party."
Marilyn crawled into my lap and I stoked her back the way most people would snuggle with a kitten or puppy. Marilyn and I, we got each other. I understood it wasn't her lethal venom, but her diminutive size and coloring that made camouflage her preferred form of self-preservation. At a gawky five foot ten with flaming red hair, hiding had never been much of an option for me.
"Odessa, come here," Tante Effie called from the porch.
I carried Marilyn up the the porch, silently thanking our blessed Goddess for my Tante's kindness in taking me in after I'd been disowned by my own blood kin.
"Leave that snake outside," Tante Effie said, somehow sensing Marilyn's presence despite her blindness. "She's going to have her babies tonight."
"What a great gift it will be to share my birthday with baby rattlers." I kissed Marilyn's scaly flesh and gently placed her by her nest under the porch. Instead of slithering away, she stretched out on the terra cotta steps, soaking up every drop of early morning sunshine. I sat beside her, both of us basking in the safe haven of a warded home.
Tanta shook her head and a wry smile played across her face. "And here I was afraid you'd think your birthday would get forgotten in the midst of our Samhain festivities."
"I think it's kinda cool to have been born on the most sacred day of the year."
"Indeed, it is." Tante joined us, squatting down with the agility of a woman half her age. "Ne'er you forget the true significance of this day."
"It sure beats sharing a birthday with the baby Jesus," I said, remembering how my big sister’s birthday celebration always got overshadowed the day after Christmas.
"We mustn't mock the faith of others." Easy for her to say when she hadn't lived with those horrible Pentecostal snake abusers.
I shivered despite the unseasonably warm Carolina morning. Marilyn slithered across my foot, reminding me I no longer had any need to dwell on the past. Not as long as I had my snakes and a place in the Merci coven.
"What's that?" I asked, noticing the silk wrapped package Tanta pulled from beneath her apron. "Is it the potions book I've been wanting? I want to brew up some attraction oil to draw in my dream guy."
"You don't need to be casting love spells. Not with that hair and those long legs." She ran a calloused hand through my unruly curls, embracing the very thing that caused my father to hack me bald in one of his many failed attempts to cast away my demons. "There's none so powerful as a red haired witch."
"I think you're a right powerful witch." I looked at her scarred face and tried to imagine her as the pretty young pale blond in the arms of the tall dark and handsome man from the portrait that hung in a gilded frame over the fireplace mantle. "It's all so romantic the way you just said to hell with convention and followed your heart."
"Don't you go getting any silly ideas on account of me. I don't regret one minute I got to spend with Jerome, but we were asking for trouble with me running away with him at only fifteen. If we'd have waited and done things proper, maybe…" She paused for a moment, shaking her head. "Well, there’s no need to cry over spilt milk."
To me, having her house burned down in a fire that killed her husband and left her blind, that was a whole lot of horrible. "I don't see how you keep from lighting black candles on those mean people. If it was me, I'd be cursing them with my very last breath."
"There’s no fixing stupid, child, and you've got to remember that everything you put into your magick comes back to you times three."
"I suppose I don't have much to worry about since there aren't any boys beating down our door to see me and I can only do the very basics of candle magick."
"Your powers will emerge as the Goddess sees fit," she said, still stroking my hair. "Now stop it with the boy talk and go on and open your gift."
I untied a white lace bow and pulled away the silk wrapping to reveal a journal. Tante Effie had embroidered Odessa in intricate script across the lush purple velvet cover. "Thank you. It's beautiful."
"This book is to be used to purge all the darkness that still haunts your soul." She pulled me into a comforting embrace. "The past can't hurt you no more. Not after the words are spilled out and bled onto the page."
I hoped she was right, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I had my doubts.
"By the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, my woman has been healed of her sins," Pastor Scott bellowed from the pulpit. "Octavia is back in the pew where she belongs. She’s renounced those loose Baptist views of her kinfolk and returned home to raise our children as any God abiding woman is put here on this earth to do."
Even at six years old, Odessa knew it was wrong for a man to think of a woman as his property. Unfortunately, that's exactly what her mother was. If she’d ever had a thought of her own, she’d never shared it with Odessa or Olivia.
"Seeing as how she gave birth to the Demon Child I beg you all to lift us up in prayer," he continued. "It ain't no easy task raising a child sprung from the Devil's very loins."
If Odessa had known then what she knew now, her bony butt would have probably bounced right off that hard wooden bench with a fit of laughter. The man speaking those words was the devil all right.
When her mother had gone off to her sister’s house, no one other than Olivia paid any attention to the little red haired baby. By the time Odessa turned four she was pretty much on her own when Olivia went off to school. While her father was doing what he called conversing with God, Odessa wound pull every one of the rattlesnakes out of their box at the side of her father’s pulpit and carry the serpents out to play in the sunshine.
Oh, how Odessa loved their pretty colors, their beady little eyes, those flickering tongues and especially how their tails would start to rattling when those crazy church people ticked them off. None of those sweet snakes ever rattled their tales at Odessa. They would crawl onto her lap and she could in the grass and pet them for hours.
During the week she never got in trouble as long as she put them back in the box by the time Olivia got home from school. After Olivia got home from school Odessa would sit in the kitchen and watch her fix supper. Olivia was really smart and knew how to pour a can of beans into a pot and fry up some burgers or scramble the eggs that the church ladies left for them.
Sunday's were a whole other deal. Other than going to see her snakes, Odessa hated setting foot in that church. All that screaming and carrying on scared her into tears. When Odessa cried her father would drag her to the front of the church, pull down her panties, and swat her bottom.
"Spare the rod, and spoil the child," he'd holler as he paced across the front of the church screaming out his sermons.
None of those people saw anything wrong with him spanking Odessa like that. In fact, some of the other parents would drag their kids kicking and screaming to the altar for Pastor Scott to blister their bare bottoms in the name of God.
Father ordered all of them to brow their heads to pray for Odessa’s and her mother’s souls. "Every eye shut, every heart open to receive the word of God."
Odessa peeked over at her mother's pallid face. Her lips were moving, but nothing she said made any sense. Later she learned that while her mother might have come back to them in body, her mind was off on another planet, and her soul... Odessa didn't think she ever had one, at least not one that wasn't manipulated by father.
"In the sweet name of our Lord Christ and Savior. Amen. Amen. Amen." Father used his handkerchief to wipe the sweat pouring down his face. During the summer months it got hot as an oven in that church, but he still wouldn't allow one window to be opened.
The church crowd came back to life with a series of boisterous, "amen, hallelujah and glory to God."
"Hallelujah, praise Jesus!" A crazy old woman spun around in circles waving her arms in the air, shrieking in some kind of gibberish.
"Amen, sister," one of the elders joined her in dancing some type of crazy jig. "God is good."
The next thing Odessa knew just about everyone in that church was on their feet screaming and hollering and speaking in tongues, flailing around in some kind of wild Jesus dance of love. It scared her silly when they started passing her rattlers around to show their faith. She wasn't afraid of the snakes. Odessa was scared that one of those crazy people was going to hurt one of her beautiful sweet rattlers. That crazy lady in the orange polyester dress was waving one of the most fragile of the female snakes around to where she just couldn't watch.
Olivia pulled her little sister into her arms as soon as she saw the tears sliding down her cheek. If father saw her crying he was liable to whip her. Their mother never once reached for her hand or offered a word of comfort. It was Olivia that Odessa always turned to as she squeezed her eyes closed and prayed for the safety of her snakes.
"That woman's gonna go into orbit," Odessa said, sneaking another worried glance at a snakey coiled on the floor ready to strike at Polyester Lady's pudgy ankle. That snake obviously didn't appreciate the way that stupid woman was mistreating his mate.
"What did you say?" Her father grabbed her arm, pulling Odessa off the bench. "I dare you to mock my congregation's love of God."
"I... I..." There wasn't anything Odessa could say to keep him from ripping her panties down around her ankles and lashing her bottom with the palm of his hand.
He kept pounding her butt until Leroy, Odessa’s very favorite of all the rattlers, shook his tail in her defense. Father dropped Odessa to the ground and Leroy protectively crawled into her lap. She sat bare bottomed hugging on that snake. Olivia didn’t dare to grab her up to get her panties back in place and smooth down the back of her dress.
After all the crazy people left Olivia stood on a pew while Odessa gathered up all the snakes. Odessa knew her big sister cringed as she gently patted their backs and dealt out soothing kisses while returning all the snakeys back to their crate, ending just another Sunday in their father's lair of so-called Godly love.
Tears of joy welled in my eyes as I blinked away the horrible memories and looked around my favorite room at my makeshift family serenading me with birthday wishes. The only person missing was my big sister Olivia. I couldn't help but think how she'd love this sunroom so close to the beach that you could almost hear the waves crashing. She always mentioned how much she missed the ocean in just about every letter she wrote me from Raleigh. The one hundred and seventy-seven miles between Sunset Beach and Raleigh seemed a lifetime away when Olivia didn't have a car and I didn't even know how to drive.
"Happy Birthday to you!" Carmella closed out the last stanza, and I clapped in appreciation, aware that I needed to be grateful for all I did have.
My best friend beamed, her teeth so very white in contrast to the elaborate swirl of cornrows that framed her face. I'd be lying if I didn't admit how much I envied her dark flawless complexion. Carmella never had to worry about turning the blistering shade of my hair when we lost track of time, as we often, did romping around on the beach.
"Blow out the candles and make your wish," Carmella said as she cut into a pan of her scrumptious brownies made from scratch with her extra special secret recipe.
"Candle magick in its purest form," Mama Jubilee said, already loading our bowls with heaping scoops of homemade strawberry ice cream.
Mama had only given birth to Carmella, but that had never stopped her from treating me like a daughter. I'd been the one to claim her gift of working magick with a needle and thread when Carmella had gotten frustrated with learning all those neat little stitches. Mama had probably learned to sew out of necessity since she was about as round as she was tall. A problem I feared in reverse. With every inch I grew, the harder it got to find store bought clothes to fit my tall slender frame.
"Now you remember," Tante Effie warned. "Don't go wishing for a boyfriend. You've got all the time in the world to fall in love."
"Tante," Carmella gasped, before exchanging a knowing look with me, her eyes darting to her beau, Jamal, and ever so handsome cousin, Derek. "Not in front of the boys."
Carmella knew better than anyone how crazy I'd been about Derek ever since he found me on the beach some three years ago. Such a shame I'd been unconscious when he'd carried me here in his big strong arms. Being Tante's grandson, he bore a strong resemblance to her deceased husband; only he had skin the color of coffee doused with a generous splash of milk. So incredibly handsome with his big brown eyes; closely cropped dark hair, and strong features. I couldn't take my eyes off him until he gave me a sly smile that sent butterflies scurrying through my belly.
"You'd better blow those candles before your brownie melts," Tante said.
How obvious I must have been in mooning over Derek if a blind woman could pick up on the probably not so secretive attraction. I felt my face flush with embarrassment as I closed my eyes, concentrating on the magick words to cast my wish. What did I wish? That, I cannot say, seeing as if I shared my wish it won't come true. Birthday wishes are funny like that.
Tante, of course, had read my mind. I opened my eyes to see her shaking her head. Try as we might, not a one of us has ever been able to slip anything past her.
"Go on and eat," she said. "I reckon you're just going to have to learn your lessons the hard way.”
Carmella's brownies were as delectable as always. Sometimes it bothered me that she only made them for special occasions. At least until it was one of those special days, and then, wow, they always tasted better than I ever could remember.
"Have another scoop. It's good to see you putting some food in your skinny little belly." Mama Jubilee said, grinning with approval.
"I think I could eat a bowl of your ice cream every day if you'd just let me," I said, carefully spooning out a bite with a big chunk of iced strawberry.
It all just seemed so grand. Eating delicious ice cream out of a pretty pink china dish. Sitting at a wicker table covered with a fancy lace, perched on a plumped up satin pillow in a room surrounded by sunbursts reflected from wall to ceiling windows. Ice cream and rich gooey brownies sure beat a breakfast of runny oatmeal.
I'd never tasted ice cream until I'd arrived here, my face swollen and my lip busted wide open. Three years later and I could still remember that first bite of orange sherbet. I'd let it dissolve in my mouth, not wanting to swallow down such deliciousness.
Carmella waited until I'd scraped my bowl clean before handing me my first present. I tore open the silver paper to find a 45 rpm of Dean Martin's Ain't That a Kick in the Head and an IOU for lunch and a movie ticket.
"Oceans 11 is playing in Wilmington," she said, her smile beaming. "I've finally talked Mama into letting me take the Cutlass so we can go next weekend."
"Providing you girls agree to be home before dark," Mama said. "You can leave after breakfast and get there in plenty of time to do a little shopping and have lunch before catching the two p.m. matinee."
"Oh, I'm so excited," I said, hugging Carmella. "Our first grown up adventure."
"There's going to be a rally for John Kennedy next Sunday at the UNC-Wilmington campus," Jamal said. "That would be a good history lesson for them, especially if he wins the election next week."
"We'll follow it on the TV," Mama said, not about to consider letting us stay over.
"Y'all are so lucky being old enough to go vote for Mr. Kennedy," Carmella said. "I wish I'd turned eighteen this year instead of having to wait until next June."
"Jacqueline Kennedy is so fashionable," I said. "She'll bring such style to the White House."
"Maybe while you're in town you can pick out some material to make one of those nice dress suits she's been wearing," Mama said. "I think Odessa would look right smart in a blue suit and," she handed me a small package, "this is from me and Effie."
"Pearls," I squealed, excitedly trying on my new genuine pearl necklace. "Thank you."
"Dess is going to have to beat the boys away with a stick when she's all dressed up like our soon to be new first lady," Carmella said.
"Pretty is as pretty does," Mama reminded us.
"Then she'd better stop being such a brat." Carmella playfully swatted my arm.
"I believe I have more gifts to open," I said, eyeing the last two presents at the end of the table.
"Brat," Carmella said, handing me the biggest box wrapped in blue paper.
"After her frivolous wish making, we might need to put that one on hold until Yule," Tante said, and she didn't sound like she was kidding.
"I'll be good. I promise." I tore into the package without waiting for a response. "Oh, wow! It's beautiful."
I held up the wooden box with a pentacle carved on the lid.
"I did the carving," Jamal said.
"He did a find job, didn't he?" Mama nodded with approval. "Since you don't have any ancestors in the craft we ordered the contents of your first altar kit from Mamman Merci in New Orleans."
Carmella's eyes widened. "Mamman is the most powerful witch of our bloodline."
"Indeed she is," Tante said. "She's used each of those items herself to infuse them with her open special blend of powerful magick."
"I thought she did HooDoo," I said, my brow furrowing in confusion.
"She does," Tante explained, "but, Mamman has never been one to limit herself to any particular spiritual path. We'd all be wise to learn from her open-mindedness."
I opened to box to find sterling silver candleholders, a chalice, bell, and pentacle wrapped in a soft moss green altar cloth. Enough tools to be able to finally lay my own altars. All very useful and elegant and absolutely reeking of power, yet I still couldn't wait to get hold of the final gift, a long thin box that had to be a necklace from Derek.
"And last but not least," he said, presenting me with a package.
The box was too heavy to be jewelry and my spirits dropped when I saw it was Mama’s name on the gift tag, and not Derek’s. I tried not to let my disappointment show as I peeled back the paper to reveal an athame wrapped in a black sheath. The double- sided knife was so pretty it made me forget all about Derek's supposed snub.
"I love, love, love it," I said, caressing the smooth black garnet handle and finding myself already entranced by the knife's sleek beauty. It fit so perfectly in my hand that I just knew my magickal powers were bound to intensify from using such an exquisite athame to draw in my strength.
"Your athame was blessed by Mamman two full moons ago and then by myself, Effie and Carmella on the September full moon Esbat," Mama said.
"So, that's where you snuck off to."
I gave Carmella a knowing look and she nodded. "I had to put an extra dose of chamomile in your tea to finally get you to sleep."
I'd never been one to get much sleep on a full moon. It had probably been three a.m. before Carmella had been able to crawl out of the big brass bed we shared to go join them.
"Here's one more surprise," Mama said, handing me an envelope. "You got a card in the mail yesterday from your sister in Raleigh."
I opened a pretty purple card that read Happy Birthday Baby Sister! To find two new crisp dollar bills. "Wow."
It might not have seemed like much, but I knew that was probably a whole busy day of tips from my sister's waitress job. I tucked the three-page letter back in the envelope, wanting to wait and read it until I was alone in my room. It would give me something to look forward to after not getting anything at all from Derek.
"I guess we'd better get going," Jamal said. "We really ought to try to make our evening classes."
They did have a good two hour drive back to Fayetteville State and I had a new spell kit to play with, so I gave Derek a chilly, yet polite, "Good bye."
I started for the kitchen when Derek reached out and took my arm, saying, "Want to go for a quick walk on the beach?"
There went those butterflies again. "Yes, I believe I do."
"You're growing into a beautiful young lady," Derek said, taking my hand as we strolled down the beach.
"Let's change that to grown," I said, glad to have to look up to see the specks of sunshine in his brown eyes. "I don't want to get any taller."
A smile lit up Derek's face. "Someday you're going to see yourself as others do and in the meantime you're going to break some hearts along the way."
"They don't call me the demon child for nothing."
I laughed and swung his arm in mine. It took everything I had not to drop my new adultness and just kick back my heels and run barefoot down the beach. Nothing compared to cool sand squishing between my toes and waves whipping my hair in the autumn wind. On morning like this, so connected with nature, I truly felt myself to be a witch.
"You really ought to take your shoes off and get one last feel of the beach before you leave," I said. "I don't know how you ever stand living in Fayetteville so far away from the ocean."
"It's only a few hours away," he said, squeezing my hand and leading me out to the new dock he and Jamal had built over the summer.
We sat down on the very edge of the dock. Me dangling my feet and him carefully tucking his legs to keep his pants from getting splashed by the tossing waves.
"I got you a little something," he said, reaching into his jacket pocket. "Grandmére said I shouldn't buy you anything because she doesn't think I should lead you on, but a girl only turns sixteen once."
He handed me a wad of tissue paper and I unwrapped a tiny, coiled snake charm.
"It's beautiful," I said already unhooking my bracelet and adding it to the dangling collection of charms.
"I guess you can tell Carmella where you got it, but it would probably be a good idea not to mention it to anyone else."
I held up my wrist, admiring my little snake. "That's so romantic, us having our own little secret."
A gust of wind whipped across the dock, giving me a mouthful of red curls. Derek brushed the hair from my face. I looked into his eyes and wanted to drown in their chocolaty depths. He leaned in and kissed me, our lips meeting with a satisfied smack. My tongue swirled like one of my snakes, seeking the sweet heat of his mouth.
My birthday wish just came true.
Derek pulled away from me. "I shouldn't have done that."
"Why not?" I asked. "I think that was a very nice first kiss."
"You mean you've never even... oh Dess, that was so wrong."
"No, it wasn't," I insisted, my lips still tingling from his touch.
It wasn't like I'd especially been saving the moment for him. Being home schooled, just Carmella and I, it wasn't like I'd had much of a chance to be kissing on anyone other than my snakes.
"As much as I like you, we can't let this go any further." Derek stood and started for the beach, not even bothering to wait for me.
"Wait," I called, running to catch up with him. "What's wrong?"
"Us, this, you and me," he said as I trailed behind him. "There can't be an us. I should never have kissed you."
"But, I liked it."
Derek turned around to face me. "I liked it, too, and that is our problem."
"Why don't you want me to be your girlfriend?" I asked.
"For starts, you're sixteen and I'm twenty."
"You really don't get it, do you?" he said, pulling up his sleeve and then yanking my arm up next to his. "Notice anything different?"
My arm looked ghostly white beside his deep beige skin.
"I need to spend more time sunbathing?" I asked, trying to make light of his sudden anger.
"Dess… Odessa, I won't have what happened to Grandmére happen to you."
I yanked my arm away from him. "You mean to tell me that you don't want to be with me because of the color of my skin?"
"It's not that I don't want to be with you, but–"
"I never imaged you to be a racist." Now it was my turn to run away from him.
Derek raced to catch up with me, but I didn't stop. The one thing my long legs were good for was running. I ran until my side stitched and tears stung my eyes. I collapsed onto the sand, loathing my pasty white skin and loud garish red hair. In that moment I would have given anything to have Carmella's beautiful dark complexion and a headful of braids.
Derek sat down beside me and I buried my head in my pale white knees. When I refused to look at him, I felt his hand heavy on my back.
"I know it's hard for you to understand as sheltered as you are here," he said. "Things are different out there in the real world. There are a lot of folks that don't take too kindly to a black man being with a pretty white girl."
"Who cares what other people think?" I said. "I judge people by how they treat me, not the color of their skin."
"I wish everyone was like that, I really do, but you have no idea how hard it would be for you to be in a relationship with a black man."
"Tante Effie is as white as me and she's your grandmother."
"Yes, and that made things hard for my mother. She's never felt like she fit in. The white girls didn't want to be friends with her and my daddy's family never thought she was black enough."
"Won't things be different after Kennedy is elected president?" I asked.
"It will probably get better eventually, but change doesn't happen overnight." Derek shook his head. "They keep you and Carmella so sheltered here. Watch how people act when they see you two together in Wilmington next weekend. It would be much worse for you to be seen out with me."
"Like I care? People have been staring at me all my life. I'm used to it."
"They're not staring at you because they hate you," he said. "They're looking because you're so damn pretty."
"Obviously not pretty enough for you to want to date me." I got up and started walking toward the house.
Derek followed me, taking hold of my arm again. "I'll tell you what, Jamal was planning on going to that rally at UNC-Wilmington, so maybe we should come down Saturday and meet you and Carmella. That way you can experience what I'm talking about first hand."
I smiled up at Derek. "Are you asking me on a date?"
"Yeah, I guess I am." His lips curled in a half smile. "Just don't tell Grandmére and Jubilee."
"My lips are sealed," I said, thinking how much I wanted them pressed back against Derek's in another kiss.