My descent feels like falling down the rabbit hole. Out of the icy city night I tumble, awkward and uninitiated, into a low-ceilinged room carpeted in pale green and decked everywhere with bright cloth flowers. Even the richest colors in the room seem to have acquired the sea-glass tint of the floor, the delicate traces of pink and purple in the fluorescent lights. A semicircle of couches and white plastic lawn chairs completes the effect of a secret garden; it feels like a place removed from time. Soft music plays from somewhere upstairs, and the table in the corner is heaped with cookies and cakes. Two coffee pots bubble in the corner. “Come and sit” reads the sign over one — “for a spell,” quips the other.
I’ve followed the promise of a flyer advertising a workshop that will teach me to “Harness the Power of the Night.” It’s one of a series of classes offered on Magic Monday nights at Curious Goods witchcraft shop in West Haven, less than 10 minutes from where I live.
I am not a witch. I do not practice Wicca, worship the Goddess or even consider myself religious. But in New Haven, where I have lived for four years, I often feel that something important is eluding me, although I can never pinpoint what. I wander the sidewalks at night, searching for stars behind the looming shadows of castles that guard three centuries of secrets. They preside over artificially bright sidewalks as though biding their time, waiting, watching.
“Are you a night person?” asks the woman in black around whom the circle of students has formed. “Are you drawn to the night? Does your energy go up when the sun goes down?”
Her eyes meet mine. I realize under her stare that nearly every emotionally significant event in my life has transpired under cover of night; that the day fills the spaces of emotion with busy people and dull feelings of pain, of urgency, of love.
She continues to stare, and I know that I am right. Apprehension strikes me as I wonder for the first time about my own latent power. I hear my heart beat a little more loudly. I have to pay attention.
Other people in the room start to murmur and to share stories. They seem less concerned than I am with the power they might be obliviously exerting over their surroundings. A buxom woman in a bright purple sweater flips aside her curtain of black hair, joking, “I like the night … I just can’t stay up!” She laughs loudly, and others, myself included, join her. Lady Hawke — the woman in black and guide of the workshop — lets the conversation take its own course, and it ranges easily from the efficacy of voodoo dolls (“I put one in my truck to keep my boyfriend out — wow was he freaked!”) to the “evil couch” that seems to be spurring spontaneous outbursts from the woman in purple (“Everything was calm before you sat down there — what are you, possessed or something?”). The laughter is contagious, and before long I’ve forgotten my apprehension.
The bubbling energy has only just begun to settle down when a woman enveloped in an enormous hot-pink sweater interrupts. This is the first time she’s been here, she explains. “I’m not a witch. I want to learn some spells for when I go to the casino.” The group laughs, but the woman is deadly serious. “I’m sick of losing all the time.”
“Well, maybe you’re not meant to win,” offers Lady Hawke.
The woman persists. “By me coming here, will you show me how to do these spells?”
“No, not now.”
Everyone offers the woman advice, but the room is filled now with tension rather than ease. I make eye contact with the woman on the couch and roll my eyes sympathetically. Even I can tell that she’s missing the point.
I’m cheating, of course — shrugging off my status as the other outsider without having any idea what an insider really is.
Lady Hawke takes measurements for a living. Her more conventional coworkers know her as Joyce Kent, financial database analyst at a health insurance company. The mother of two grown children, she is an ardent reader and a rabid football fan. In her spare time she tries to teach herself about everything from roof thatching (“I could really do this!”) to quantum physics (“I want to get myself a particle accelerator!”).
“That’s the most fun, learning things,” she declares with a child’s rapture. “I’ll be a student forever.”
As an ordained priestess, she is also well-versed in Wicca and helps others to learn the craft, teaching regularly at Curious Goods and conducting ceremonial rituals. She sees no tensions between her day job and her night job, because she makes no distinction between the two. Her desk at work is adorned with crystals; she dresses all in black because it’s how she feels the most comfortable, and she makes no more attempt to hide her beliefs than any run-of-the-mill Protestant.
“They figured out that I’m a real person,” Lady Hawke says of her co-workers, whom she credits with being only a “little” leery of her. “I’m not going to impose my freaky whatever. I’m not like ‘oooh, numbers, come out right!'” She waves her fingers around to demonstrate the magical manipulation of numerical data.
Lady Hawke is one of a rapidly-growing number of Wiccans in America — a community numbering over 130,00 by some estimates. Although Wicca is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, most Wiccans — including Lady Hawke — choose not to affiliate with national Wiccan organizations, although a few such groups do exist. Their quests are intensely personal, and, according to Lady Hawke, that’s exactly as it should be.
“It wasn’t drastic,” she says, reflecting on her discovery of Wicca. “I was just looking for something, and I didn’t know what I was looking for.”
Although Wicca takes many forms, at its heart it values connecting with the universe and understanding one’s place in the natural order of things. “Magic” should not alter reality, but rather broaden it to include forms of energy that most people ignore.
“By the time I was in my mid-40s, things started falling into place,” she continues, and smiles. “They always say, ‘When you’re ready, the teacher will come.'”
I may not be ready, and I’m not sure what for, but I decide to seek the answer out for myself. The next day I return to Curious Goods to meet Lady Hawke’s teacher.
“My parents named me after Samantha, you know, in Bewitched,” says Sambina. Dressed in a light blue shirt and short denim skirt, her eyes twinkling merrily, she looks every bit the part of her namesake. She uses Sambina, a childhood nickname, in all of her professional work. She began exploring Wicca in high school and quickly grew frustrated with the lack of local resources for Wiccans. At age 19, she decided to try to fill the void herself.
When Sambina met Lady Hawke in 1991, Sambina was barely 21 years old and three years into the entrepreneurial experiment her friends had estimated would last three months. Thirteen years later, Curious Goods is a booming business, and both Sambina and Lady Hawke are integral to the fabric of Connecticut’s Wiccan community.
“I have some family members that are like ‘Oh, you just own that shop, right? You don’t really do that stuff,'” she mimics in a wide-eyed falsetto, emphasizing the word “own” and filling “that stuff” with disdain.
“I could be a manager at McDonalds, and I’d have health benefits and I’d probably be making a lot more money,” she shrugs. “This is a labor of love.”
I look around the shop. Packed tightly with incense, candles, robes and books of all kinds, it also offers a healthy selection of $3 spell kits, teen witch calendars and ’90s rock CDs. (There’s no record store in the area, says Sambina, so she does what she can to help.) Curious Goods is bright, modern and friendly, and I can’t help but be a little disappointed: with all the creepy places in all of New England, the magic store has to be a hole in the wall across the street from Walgreens? But appearances can be deceiving, warns Sambina, and witchcraft isn’t about the glitz. “People come in here, and they either think you’ve got green skin and a wart on your nose, or you’re Alyssa Milano.” She shrugs. And by the way, if I’m wondering how a $2.95 Love Spell can possibly accomplish anything, just look how happy Chris is.
Chris, a Curious Goods regular, is ambling happily around the store. He’s a hip, if slightly rumpled-looking, boy of about my age.
“Chris just got a kitten, and he’s, like, in LOVE with this little black kitten,” confides Sambina. “He needed love in his life and that’s what came about rather than, you know, the perfect person.”
Chris works part-time as a psychic, performing readings at parties and by appointment at Curious Goods. I find Chris’ faded jeans and Abercrombie sweatshirt something of a letdown, having always envisioned psychics as secluded, half-crazy wisps of old women. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to describe to him my own forays into the metaphysical realm. As a child, I used Halloween as an opportunity to dive into my dress-up trunk and emerge as a witch or a gypsy, these two guises seeming the most logical choices to embody the mystical, psychic self that lurked behind my long bangs and saucer spectacles. I draped myself in silky fabric and fringed shawls, walked quietly and deliberately told my friends that I could see spectres in the snow globe that, once a year, came out as a crystal ball.
Unfortunately for my inner seer, Chris informs me that psychic ability doesn’t mean a foolproof vision of the future, and any psychic who claims to know exactly what will happen isn’t for real. He knew love would come to him, but he couldn’t predict in what way. “I’ll tell you where your life is now and how things are going with the decisions you’re making, but I’m not going to try to guess what choices you’re going to make 10, 15 years down the road.”
Later, hunched over coffee at a West Haven diner, Lady Hawke offers some advice. Spells, she says, can only assist a person; they can’t pull wealth or beauty from thin air. “If it’s not meant to be, it’s not going to help no matter what you do,” she says of the casino woman’s request for luck. “But if you believe in what you’re doing, it’s going to work to the degree that it should.”
As she speaks, I remember the seminal event of my nine-year-old life, when my best friend Morgan and I discovered that we were telepathic. Morgan was more gifted than I, for it was she who first envisioned our spirit contact as a young girl dressed in red and gray who wanted to tell us something very important. It was I, however, who one day in December looked at my Christmas tree and realized with a start that the girl was hanging right in front of me, a plush ornament that had been boxed away for the past 11 months. My awe for what we had stumbled upon was immeasurable.
I remember this, and I want to tell Lady Hawke that I have always believed. That I have always wondered why separating the real world from the mystical one is considered the best way to reconcile the two. But as I look out from the corner of the violently pastel diner and lock eyes with a woman whose bleached-white hair sinks her wild eyes into cloudy sockets, I hesitate and feel myself flinch. I smile, I shake my head, I return to my coffee, thinking, this is silly, right? I’m not at a spooky diner just because I’m with a witch. But I do not reveal my belief.
Sambina acknowledges that while West Haven doesn’t particularly stand out as a hotbed of religious persecution, negative feelings occasionally surface, symptoms of a shallow but widespread suspicion of the weird. She relates a story of how she arrived at work one day to discover the police rooting through her garbage. Someone had called in an anonymous tip that she was ritually killing cats. While nothing that drastic has happened lately, she still receives mail informing her either that she will burn in Hell or that “we can save your soul!” She shrugs. “I don’t go into a church and ask the priest, ‘So are you really Catholic?’ But some people, no matter what my religion is, it isn’t theirs so they’re against me.”
I remember vividly the day that Morgan stopped discussing telepathy and stopped being my friend. People “like me,” she informed me, would never have any friends. But Curious Goods is filled with people “like me.” People who, like me, never realized that mystery was something they were expected to give up. People who, unlike me, didn’t care about what society expected.
Such people are rare, and Sambina makes sure that her shop encloses a safe space for them to share their experiences and practices. A firm believer in belief itself, Sambina started the Magic Monday Club, a weekly workshop where people in the community can come to teach and learn more about Wicca.
“A lot of people would gather in the store, and they wanted to talk about the weird things that happened to them. And you really had no place to talk about it. And in here, it’s such a mainstream thing, and people still come in and they’re like,” she leans in conspiratorially, “‘You’re going to think I’m crazy but — I think I saw a ghost.'” Her eyes grow wide and she laughs loudly. “They go, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy,’ and it’s usually the most mundane thing that I’ve heard a million times.”
Her enthusiasm for ghost stories encourages my own, and as the week rolls on I find myself growing increasingly impatient for Monday night’s workshop, “Connecticut Hauntings.” When it finally arrives I drive eagerly to West Haven, arriving just early enough to grab coffee and cookies before the workshop begins. Sambina holds in her lap a stack of photographs, all of which she claims depict ghosts. She passes the pictures around, and I study them closely. According to the pasted captions, the red and white spots that sometimes appear in pharmacy-processed photos aren’t accidents, but rather manifestations of supernatural energy. Several people express doubts about some of the more speculative shots, but everyone seems equally impressed by the more arresting images. We’re in the middle of debating one in which a child’s legs and torso appear, blurry, in the air just beyond the camera lens, when a rumbling fills the basement. The sound grows louder and louder, creaking and cracking like an earthquake, and culminates in a deafening crash as several boxes stacked in the corner fall to the ground. The room is silent as everyone’s hearts skip a collective beat. A few of us laugh nervously and glance around at each other, wide-eyed, before dropping our eyes to take a closer look at the pictures.