Strong Houses

Dear Margaret Mahy
Dear dear Margaret, O Margaret
We never met, but we did
I mean I entered the intimacy, the close space of your books
You opened that – thank you – and I’m taking it that familiarity is OK
That way, authors become new mind family, ladders

My bookshelves are full and there is family there, and I talk to them
Collette, Lucia Berlin, Clarice Lispector, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Hardwicke
WITCHES, some single mothers, writers (insomniacs of the day, transformers)
And now I am talking to you, subversive author for ‘children’
Lowly as a flower painter, but I can’t talk long
I fold a letter into the front of a book and leave it

I’d have liked to scan your shelves
I know you had a lot of books from a photo I saw of your bare shelves
Rooms and rooms of them, on Trade Me
I thought to myself, These are not the shelves of a supplicant
I did not know they were your shelves in the property ad
It was later that I learned it was your house ‘on the market’

Ten years or so to us is how long to you now you have passed?
Your sacred thread detached and your cord attached to another power
Witches do not kneel when they pray
There is no grovelling
Adult women stand, arms raised, drawing energy from the earth to the heavens
And address powers, forces, directly for we are part of them

I did not go to any vulgar open days
I did not want to go inside
I visited after it was no longer for sale
The coast (the bottom of the harbour’s bag) was clear
My friend wore black too, unremarked on but complicit
I glanced at windows but did not stare

I came for the garden it seems
A kereru sat in the cherry tree by the path on the way in
Was that you? A guardian? Magic baker
Around the back looking out to sea, a garden
Ten years overgrown, an enormous bay reaches to the sun
Used to purify and protect, in divination, clairvoyance, for visions

The beds were rich and waiting
Fennel holding the fort in late winter
The cherry tree was there, not yet in flower, about my age
But from its thick barrel trunk it was one of the pink fluffy ones
I knew there’d be one, and that there’d be a witch in the cherry tree
And yes, like in the book, a flash of blackbird wing making the flap of a cape

It is in the domestic garden that we teach little children to trip
To cast spells, to make potions, to dispute straight reality, to fiction
To play, to feel the sacred thread that replaced their umbilical cords
That reading is a hallucination, a rich and viable idleness
They know the power of their new words to transmute:
The bird is the witch, burned cakes are witches’ food

There is a lion in the meadow
And dragons do come out of matchboxes
Whenever there is the smell of matches, now there is a dragon
Once we all knew that quantum powers can be mustered
Children have the facility to see sparks, cords, wakes of tīpuna
And writing makes new realities, much needed ones

Her hair was pale as thistledown
Her face was full of magic wild
Her tall hat had a pointed crown
A witch’s magic child
And softly as she went along
She sang a strange enchanted song 1 

When I was reading a book, Caliban and the Witch
About how self-loving women who did not simper their way
Into the new horror of patriarchal capitalism were made demons
A friend told me that as a kid, he saw you (night writer)
At an award ceremony for an author dressed all in black with an unusual hat
You sat in the front with two other fem-peers to fête her

He knew what your outfit signified, what you meant
There is no witch without initiates, no writing without readers
We strengthen our observer positions, tune in, then fly
Witches live on the edge of town, dissenting cat ladies
And every garden like this, inhabited, without shame
Is its own edge of town

So I cut four sprays of bay longer than an arm
Put them in the four corners of the house to protect the two of us
On the four large leaves that fell off I wrote four wishes
For rude health, hot love, vocational portals, and to recognise safety
And put them in the toaster, and when the oils started to pop, fished them out with a paintbrush (verdant green but crisped), and found the words had gone

  1. From ‘The Witch and the Scarecrow’ in Tessa Duder (ed.) The Word Witch / Margaret Mahy, Auckland, HarperCollins, 2009, p.148