“Road of No Return” by Jean Banas.
Dear Baby Witch,
We, the women in our family, have a problem with love, little girl. Love inside of us is a hard black hole, baseless, bottomless, always threatening to suck the rest of our bodies through its borders and to consume us until we no longer exist. Love is something too heavy to hold. Love isn’t something we think we deserve. We have been taught love means to clutch, to drag down into the dirt. Love is something to bear. But that is not what love is.
You will be born into a long line of witches, of complicated women capable of great anger and great joy. There are demons and curses in your story, little girl, but our family’s story, like all immigrant stories, is a fairy tale wrapped in war.
My grandmother says when she was a child, “Someone put a curse on us, a witch, or they paid a witch, or it was a demon.” Why, I ask, would anyone want to do that do your family? “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe they were jealous of us. Curses bring trouble to a family. Curses will make people drink, beat, steal, cheat, lie, rape, get pregnant, die. This was a big curse, a bad curse, what they call an Original Curse. The worst kind. Hard, very hard, almost impossible to lift.”
I always loved listening to my grandmother’s stories of Italy and the war. Others groaned at the beginning of a war story, but I leaned in. Stories of the past are in our blood, little girl, in our genes. Even if we never hear the words, they are unspoken in our bodies and they are our framework, our blueprint, whether we know it or not. I want to tell you, always listen to your family stories. They are the story of who you are.
Our people are from a farming village on the Adriatic Coast. My mother was born there and her mother, in a tiny concrete hut, and these two women raised me far away from the farm, as far away as they could get, across an ocean and in what they imagined to be the most magical city in the world, New York, where people come from all over the world to live, where the languages and smells of every country are in every particle of the air, a city of islands on the sea, a city without bombs, a city where the unimaginable was possible.
My grandmother Elena, your great-grandma, will sometimes tell a story of her childhood on an idyllic farm. She will smile and her eyes will go soft. They were five sisters, little girl, and they were bound tight, tight against the outside, tight against their brothers. They gathered eggs from the chickens, they buried meat in the ground, and they washed each other’s hair with vinegar. She will tell us of her sweet father, Rocco, and how he loved her so. When he died, the ghost of her father searched the earth for her and found his daughter in a Queens apartment. He sat on her bed across the sea and placed his hand on her chest. “He was a saint,” she will tell me, but I will not yet know that this is only true because once a person dies, all their sins are forgiven.
The men drank, little girl. They drank and fought and waged little wars. In America today, there would be labels like addiction or abuse, but in Italy then, they were only men. My grandmother will laugh and say, my father liked to drink. He rode Nina, the horse, into town and got so drunk that the men in the tavern had to carry him out and drape him over Nina, and Nina was such a good horse, she knew the way home. When we heard Nina coming, we got out of bed, carried our father inside, we took off his shoes, we washed his feet, we did this with love.
Years later, when I am a grown woman in my thirties, my grandmother’s younger sister will tell me another truth. That Rocco came home drunk and beat their mother. That the brothers didn’t want to see. The sisters were too small or too scared to intervene, but my grandmother was the only one who wasn’t afraid of him. She would stand between her mother and father, fists clenched, body strong and scream for him to stop. This is not your right, she screamed, leave mother alone. Sometimes he shoved her aside and continued to beat her mother, but sometimes Elena got him stop. Sometimes it worked.
In our family, before your father, the men were loose cannons and helpless babies and the women had to learn to be witches. Women learn to orchestrate the family and the town and the universe with their wands. A woman must learn to freeze time, must learn to hold one million things together, hovered in the air, with only her will. Her ability to keep a family and a farm together, in sync with the weather and seasons, in sync with the neighbors, her ability to bend and morph herself in order to keep a marriage together is her magic, and her magic is her love.
I want you to know, little girl, that love was different then, all kinds—romantic and familial. The definition of love is not something constant or permanent. My grandparents’ marriage was arranged. Love changes with the air. Love changes based on space, on time, on geography, on what you think you can handle, or more exactly, on what is put in front of you.
My grandmother grew up on the front line of a world war, little girl. Italy was divided into a north and south, two sides of the same country fighting each other. The farm was on that line, the line that divided the country, that divided loyalties, the line on which every soldier was the enemy, my grandmother said, as nearly every soldier was a bad man.
Germans, Americans, Brits, and Canadians raped farm girls and made their fathers watch then drank all the wine. My grandmother and her sisters learned to scatter into the fields and hide when soldiers came so their father could say, “There are no girls here.” Sometimes this line worked and sometimes it didn’t.
I ask her, how could you move to a country that has men like that?
She shrugs, our men were no better. Men are the same everywhere.
It is important you know this, little girl. In our history, women were for raping, for shaming, for childbearing, for cooking, for beating, and keeping a house together. Often women turned on each other to save themselves.
Mothers and daughters warred while the men stayed out of it, quiet, off to the side, with a drink. The sons were coddled and the daughters were made to be strong, taught to cook and clean and care for the men, there was a different love for sons than for daughters. The magic of mothers clashes with those of her daughters. I will not do this to you, little girl. Nothing will ever be as important to me as valuing you for who you are, loving you in a way that is new to our family.
Love was standing by your husband’s side no matter what he did. There was no limit to what he could do, little girl. He could do anything. The worst things you could imagine. He could rape your daughter. He could rape your best friend. He could beat you almost to death. But you must stand by him and I can’t pretend to know why, little girl. I can only guess.
Because there was no other way to survive? Because there was a war? Because there was God? Because there were neighbors watching? Because if you didn’t have a husband, you had nothing? No rights to your land or your children? Because there was nothing else? Nowhere else to go? No one else to be?
Women used their magic to weave invisible veils, cloaks over their eyes that stuck to their skin and perhaps they were so good at their magic that they forgot the veils were ever there to begin with.
When my grandmother was young she often slept in Nina-the-horse’s stall. In the morning, Nina’s hair was braided into thousands of tiny braids. The next morning, the braids undone.
It was the fairies, my grandmother will explain eighty years later to her adult granddaughter and she will still believe in the fairies, and you will believe in them too.
She kicked me, my grandmother said, when I was young. I almost died. She was sorry. For years. Really, for the rest of her life she was sorry. She loved me, and I loved her.
When the bombs came, my grandmother couldn’t leave Nina behind. She took Nina across the fields, to each point of escape, across hills and valleys, to the homes of family and friends, she took her horse with her as they ran from the bombs that ripped the land apart, shredded houses, destroyed the vineyards and olive groves, killed the animals, scattered the people.
Many ran to the mountains, to La Maiella, where there were caves. People lived for years in the caves, they made chimneys and stoves and rugs and beds. The mountains were safe and strong. We could go to La Maiella, my grandmother pleaded with her mother. We could bring Nina. We could be safe inside the mountain.
My grandmother will stop her story here. She will make me think that it worked, that they lived in the mountains.
“What happened?” I ask. “What happened to Nina?”
“We could not bring her to where we were going,” my grandmother will say. She will not answer my question. Her face, which had been enchanted, animated, returns to its regular state, the resigned face I am used to, ready for whatever is next.
In Italy, and in America, we are taught if a woman has sex and is not married, she is a whore, she is a demon, she is a witch. We can say it is no longer this way but it is. Women are witches and demons and are only allowed sex from husbands to have babies but men can do what they want. A woman’s job is to stay. A whore casts a spell on a man to make him wander.
I will do all I can to make sure these lessons don’t sink into your core, little girl. But sometimes the air around us is so thick with these curses that we can’t help but breathe them in.
When explaining the Original Curse on our family, Grandma Elena says that everyone knows an original curse lasts for three generations: my grandmother’s, my mother’s and mine. You will not have the original curse in you, little girl. But there have been other curses, curses that have landed on me. I haven’t outrun my demons and curses, and I am afraid you will get some of them too. But they are diluted. I diluted them. I tried to get rid of the demons and curses before you came to be but I couldn’t. I can only let time pass and not let the curses take hold of me. I can fight them. I can teach you to fight them.
There’s a new branch of science these days called epigenetics. It is basically the law of the Original Curse. If your grandparents were cursed, it will get passed down to you. The Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, Genocide, Rape, War, Drug abuse, these things are manifested as methyl tags on our DNA and we pass the trauma to our children and our grandchildren, so you will get my traumas and my mother’s but you will also inherit all of my fight, all of my searching for a peaceful love.
When my grandmother left for America with her children, her father got on his hands and knees and beat the ground with his fists and cursed America for taking his daughter and grandchildren. He wailed and beat the ground bloody. For my grandmother, there is no greater love than this.
I was born into my grandmother’s house, among labyrinths of gardens, vegetables vining up the fences and fruit trees blooming through concrete. In late summer we made and jarred tomato sauce for the year, in fall, salad dressing and wine. On Sunday mornings we pressed fresh pasta in the basement. I pushed my finger into tiny balls of dough to make gnocchi. We made each piece of pasta, one by one.
My grandmother says there was no greater love in her life than her love for her children and grandchildren. All her demons and the curse upon her family followed her across the ocean. There was no love between her and my grandfather, or between my mother and father. Our house erupted in violence nearly every day, the roar of their screaming and the neglect of our parents brought police and child services to our house.
Magical Realism represents a leap over a chasm, a reality impossible to bear. This leap coveys more truth than reality ever could.
When I was young, I thought I could overthrow my past, I could leave, I could move, I could change, I could be my greatest self. But now that you are deep within me, and now that you have slowed every part of me down, I can see that all I can hope for myself and for you are subtle shifts, glacial growth, and bursts of energy and light in unexpected places because we cannot escape our past; there is no way to cleave us of our ancestors, and anyway, even if we could, I wouldn’t want to. I’d want all of it, all the curses, all the demons, all the love, however fraught, however damaged.
The demons and the fairies and the witches and the dead followed my mother across an ocean and fifty years later they followed me across a country, from New York to California. You can live on a different planet, little girl but you will still be cursed. Sometimes we are under water. Sometimes we breathe the water in and we drown. We carry the geography of where we are from inside our bodies.
Immigration stories are about land, little girl, about geography. Not just time. A person is the land on which they were born and raised. My grandmother is long lines of perfectly parallel vineyards that stretch to infinity. She is gnarled olive groves, bombed farmhouses, chickens and dirt; she is a valley, a mountain, the Adriatic Sea. My mother is these things too but she is also concrete sidewalks, she is the bridges and skyscrapers her father helped to build. She is a cacophony of cars, languages and smells. She is the East River. She is a city of islands. And so am I.
You will be these things too, little girl, you will be Italy and New York City but you will be born in Los Angeles, another city on the sea, and like Italy, another city of horses, cypress trees, oleander, long warm days and long cool nights. You will be windstorms and palm fronds scattered in the streets. You will be a glittering and infinite city encased in mountains, you will be the dark silhouettes of owls in the wilderness above the city, you will be wild fires, ashes falling thick and flames curling into the sky. You will be hot pink bougainvillea vines and raining purple jacarandas. You will be packs of coyotes low to the ground, quiet and running in the night.
These places are in your blood. Someday, you might find yourself standing at a counter in Italy, drinking an espresso in the brisk morning air, biting into a sweet cream-filled pastry. A motorino will pass and its exhaust will curl through the cool air, through the dusty and ancient orange trees that line the street, and you will smell the bitter coffee, the pastry, the exhaust, the oranges, and you will feel like you are home again.
I crossed this country for myself, to save myself, and I stayed for you, and for other generations. I wanted to change our fate. I wanted us to breathe easier, have more access to peace.
My grandfather used to dance with me when I was a little girl; he used to twirl me around the dance floor at the Italian social club until I was exhausted. He died just a few months ago. He knew you existed but he didn’t know you were a girl. He didn’t know your name. He will never see your face. It seems impossible that you weren’t with me my whole life, right next to me, knowing everything I’ve known. I don’t know how to let time come and go like that. Let realities exist in different space times concurrently. Except I don’t have a choice. They must. My grandparents are still in Italy. They are in New York. They are being captured and held as prisoners of war. They are being hunted by soldiers through the fields that are, that are supposed to be, their homes. They are working all day and all night inside the factories of New York City or outside making the buildings, highways and bridges that will become a city. They are fighting to break free, to change, and they are failing.
Maybe when we move from one place to another, we become whatever wide-open space we crossed to get here: we are the oceans we have sailed across, the highways that traverse a country, the desert between cities. If we go back, we will not be the same. We will be half-here and half-there, half-nowhere and half empty air, bigger than we were before, so big we may float away.
When I was a little girl, I stood between my grandparents the way my grandmother stood between her parents, so they wouldn’t kill each other. You will never have to do this little girl. I have something no other woman in my family has ever had. I fell in love. I am, so far, the luckiest woman in this long line of women.
I have chosen a father for you that isn’t like the men I’ve known. Your father is gentle and kind. He believes in fairies and guardian angels and your father would do anything for me, anything for you. Your father went hunting with men, little girl, and he couldn’t shoot the birds.
The hardest thing I have ever done, so far, is learn to love him, your father, and to learn to accept his love for me. But I did it, and now I am ready for what I am told will be harder than anything yet: raising you, loving you, and letting you go.
I dreamed your father a few days before I met him on a warm summer night at the beer garden in Queens. It was after two in the morning, our feet were dusted in dirt. He had braces and a baseball cap and a face from my dreams. I’d had plenty of dreams that had come true, but magic had been a letdown, a disappointment. Dreams came true but amounted to nothing. There were many times I thought we couldn’t last. But we fought for each other, we fought for our marriage, and for a long time now, it has been easy. I battled to discard the memories of what men will do, how they will ruin your body and spirit. My war was learning to trust. My dropped bombs were ones of betrayal. I didn’t think I could love, or trust, but I do. There is magic. It exists.
We were all pregnant, little girl, my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother, and on and on. We all felt our daughters move inside us. We felt her heels move across our stomachs and we felt her hiccups and we felt infinity inside us. The sense of possibility that maybe this time, things can be different.
We can choose the way we look at our lives, at our pasts, we can look both ways. We can say—fairies braided the horses’ hair while bombs dropped from the sky.
Sara Finnerty has essays and stories in Lithub, Black Warrior Review, Brevity, Longreads, Joyland, The Nervous Breakdown, Fanzine, The Weeklings, Dame, and others. She is the Nonfiction Editor at Entropy magazine, co-curator of The Griffith Park Storytelling Series and The Women’s Center for Creative Work Reading Series. Sara is originally from Queens, NY and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Find her at www.sarafinnerty.com.
Very powerful story. Very blessed your in our family Sara finnerty.