By Tessa Torgeson
I wore all black from the tip of my pointed witch’s hat, to my wig, to my boots. Meanwhile my younger sister Tara pranced around wearing her purple floral gown complete with a tiara, sparkly wings, and a light-up wand.
It was Halloween of 1991. The kitschy sounds of “Monster Mash” played as the banshee wind rattled the trees. The bite of a Midwest autumn day made our cheeks rosy and our fingertips white. We brewed apple cider, the warm tang of cinnamon sticks on our tongue.
Mom applied special rouge, pastel eyeshadow, and pink lipstick to Tara’s face. Now that Tara was it was my turn to feel like a movie star. Mom applied black lipstick, a hint of mascara, and white face powder to my face. It looked like a hideous mask that I wanted to peel off. I looked sickly; Tara looked ethereal.
The boiling point came when my mom drew a realistic wart on my nose with black eyeliner. With hot tears running down my face, I stormed down the hall of our split-level house to my bedroom. I slammed the door with all the fury a five-year-old girl could muster and kicked aside the mess of Barbie dolls strewn on the snot-green carpet on Tara’s side of the room. Grabbing an Arthur picture book off the shelf, I grabbed my tattered yellow blanket, and curled into bed. I felt like I had just swallowed a porcupine, spikes of anger and jealousy jabbed me.
My mom knocked on my door after my meltdown to reassure me that I was beautiful and being a witch was just a costume. I had been a princess the last Halloween. This was a special day to try on a new identity, to our usual prim-and-proper with bright blond hair, green-blue eyes, and matching dresses. Halloween was a day to be different.
To me, being a witch felt like a crystal ball, a prediction. I saw a grown-up version of me with a green face and pointed nose cackling, “I’ll get you my little pretties!” like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz.
Being a witch was equivalent to being an old maid, hag, spinster. Being a witch was to be the villain.
My girlhood was a tapestry of stories and myths, legends and lore. There were princesses, damsels-in-distress, burning girls, spellbound girls trapped in towers because of evil witches. The Prince saved sweet Snow White from the poison apple, The Prince awoke Princess Aurora, in Sleeping Beauty with his kiss, The Prince rescued Ariel from drowning by Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid.
Ursula the sea witch is punished and defeated for taking matters into her own tentacles and trying to shipwreck the status quo, Ariel rewarded for changing herself to be with her Prince.
Clad in a black-and-purple bat-like robes and a devil-horned headdress, Maleficent is the yellow-eyed sorceress, the Mistress of Evil. Maleficent threatens Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty..” Maleficent’s rebellion is ironically turning the domestic object of the spinning wheel into a literal weapon.
Happy, empowered female characters were scarce in my childhood- the only I can remember are Jo from Little Women who focused on her writing career and the famous detective Nancy Drew. Mythology reflecting reality. Women as the evil, the mad.
As a girl, I had frequent crying bouts and nightmares. My body often felt frozen in sleep. I tried to escape, but I couldn’t even wiggle my toes. When I tried to scream, no noise came out. We now call this frightening phenomenon sleep paralysis but it was once called “old hag” syndrome or “riding the witch,” because of superstitions that an evil woman sent people nightmares while sleeping on their chests. In fact, the etymology of the word nightmare can be traced to Scandinavian folklore, wherein the cursed woman who slept on people’s chests was called mare.
I was a burning girl, but nobody else could see the flames. I flailed my scarred limbs at the slate sky. When I was a teenager, I carved stories into my flesh in crimson, drank until I turned blue, and starved until I was gray. All bone, no flesh. Harsh edges searching for softness.
The cover story of Newsweek the year I was born (1986) opined, “Women who weren’t married by 40 have a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of finding a husband.”
Trying to embrace spinsterhood feels like a somewhat revolutionary act in my traditional family and living in the conservative Midwest where I recently saw a bumper sticker at a truck stop: “Spinster: a woman who has missed the opportunity to make some poor man miserable.”
We are still trapped dichotomizing women as either sexually liberated cosmopolitans or the traditional housewives. We allow little room for nuance or for the telling of other stories. We still have to sink our teeth into the flesh of what it means to be an older than average single woman.
In 2011, Writer Kate Bolick reclaimed of spinsterhood in her popular Atlantic essay, “All the Single Ladies,” and subsequent book, Spinster. While I appreciate Bolick’s celebration of liberated, self-sufficient women and she is a talented writer, the book left me hungry for more. I kept wondering, what about the rest of us? Women like me who are queer, who have mental illness, addictions, a history of abuse. I am wary of the NYC-centric narrative of the hip, well-connected woman like Bolick and women of Sex and the City.
But my biggest problem with Bolick’s book is that it continues centralizing women’s identities on marriage. Bolick writes, “Whom to marry and when it will happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence..”
What if we asked different questions: What passions will we pursue and how will we pursue them? How will we make this big ball of burning gas called Planet Earth a kinder, more compassionate place?
My ex called me damaged goods. I had certifiable wounds that didn’t make for appealing bullet points for a dating profile: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depression, Chemical Dependency. While many women flirted with self-destruction, I wed it. I dangled my pain like Rapunzel dangled her hair. I played the damsel-in-distress and the manic-pixie dream girl Vulnerability was my siren song.
The French used to celebrate The Feast of Saint Catherine to pray for “a fast end to singlehood” for unmarried women over the age of 25-years-old. These women were colloquially referred to as Catherinettes after the feast’s patron saint, the young virgin Catherine of Alexandria.
Spinster was a term that originated from the tedious occupation of spinning and weaving wool and textiles. By 1719 spinster was being used as a generic pejorative for women who remained unmarried after the socially acceptable age. For hundreds of years, “Spinster” remained a label on marriage certificates in The United Kingdom for women, while the male equivalent was “bachelor.”
Ways to Earn Spinster Points:
- Cross-stitch a kitschy phrase to express your bitterness on a pillow
- Take in a stray animal
- Cover yourself in eau-de-moth ball
- Adopt another cat
- Start Growing out your facial hair, armpit hair, leg hair
- Keep kids off your lawn by telling them you are a witch (bonus points if you shake your broom at them)
- Wear long black gloves everywhere you go
- Ruby-red lipstick
My lack of teenage romance left me ravenous for love. I was a serial dater throughout my twenties, with several long-term relationships. I dated a welder, banker, lawyer, beekeeper, musicians, high-school dropouts, full-time drug addicts, social workers, men, and women. When I got bored, I traded security and comfort for dramatic, stormy slit-your-wrists-and-blame-me love. I was magnetized by dark and brooding, rock n’ roll passion a la Sid and Nancy or Kurt and Courtney.
Jon melded comfort and security with dark and brooding. He wore Slayer metal band t-shirts with berets. I was nervous for the first time that he came over to my apartment, which was like a bona-fide petting zoo with three cats and a ferret named Pants. As soon as Jon picked him up, Pants shot poop across the air like soft-serve chocolate ice cream onto the kitchen floor.
“I am so sorry, he’s never done that before, I swear.” I grabbed a paper towel and apologized, turning red.
“It’s all good. I like most animals more than people.” His raspy smoker’s voice softened. His hazel eyes with long eyelashes gleamed as my cat Toby brushed against his legs. He crouched to pet him and then helped me clean up the ferret poop. We had been friends for a few months, but that’s when I knew it was something more.
After that day, we spent hours chatting online on Messenger, the perfect veil for two introverts who wanted to hide behind the safety of a blue screen.
Jon 3:40 pm
I always wondered what it would be like to have an easier life where I made better choices or whatever. But I always end with the same answer that it sounds awful boring. I’d be completely different
Tessa 3:40 pm
Jon 3:41 pm
I’d probably be like book wormy math guy.
Tessa 3:41 pm
That’s exactly how I feel unless I’m being all like ‘boo hoo poor me.” Which isn’t as much anymore these days.
Jon 3:42 pm
Well you can’t do that anymore cuz’ I’ll just remind you that you’re freakin’ awesome.
So there! Deal with it
After six months of dating, we moved in together. When I went back to school for English, I wrote him stories. He wrote me songs that didn’t have words but he was such a brilliant guitar player the notes sounded like words, joyful singing or weeping.
He was tech school training to be a welder, a hands-on guy who busted open old TVs and radios to get rare diodes and capacitors for homemade sound effects pedals for guitar and bass. In other words, he polished things off and made them new. I watched as his calloused hands danced smoothly across the turtle green wires, ignited his soldering iron, and pressed its pointed tip against the wire. The solder melted under the heat and current of electricity. The warm bonfire smell of melting solder swirled in the air in our apartment. He connected things and made them whole, transforming a shoe box to an amplifier.
He made me feel like a planet. We were each other’s orbits, spinning and spinning.
After almost three years together, we moved to Portland. I started having nightmares again. A haunting. The Old Hag took residence on my chest while I slept, sending me hallucination and spiraling into darkness. After her visits, I had constant thoughts of death and a sense of impending doom. Hallucinations and reality bled together. My brain was cloaked in fog and mist, just like the forested winding mountain pass that I drove every day to work. I was not myself, I was now The Addict.
Queen of Winter, dark mother, bringer of storms “The Veiled One,” deriving from Old Irish Cailech, hag in Gaelic “Cailleach.” The Cailleach is the goddess of destruction and darkness who personifies the destructive forces of nature. The Cailleach arrives in late fall when the earth is dying. She even predicts the year’s weather. If it is a nice day, she will come out to the sun, bringing bad luck for the next year. In Scotland, The Cailleach is mythologized to imprison a young goddess in the mountains over the winter away from her lover.
The Cailleach suffocated The Addict with nightmares that left her frozen. The Addict became suicidal so her Significant Other convinced her to go to The ER for the weekend. The ER smelled like a swimming pool mingled with diner food. Curled in the fetal position on the hospital bed, her Significant Other offered to curl up next to her. Their least favorite show “Everybody Loves Raymond” played softly in the background. The Addict vomited into a garbage can.
The Addict broke down sobbing as two security guards escorted her to the hospital vehicle; meanwhile The Significant Other slumped to his Buick Lasabre.
The Callieach haunted The Addict that night. The Addict woke up shaking with cold, storm in her heart. The Addict forgot the season and remembered it was almost her birthday and also her sister’s birthday. She hoped the unit would let her make long-distance call to wish her sister a happy birthday.
The next day he came for visiting Hours. He brought The Addict a duffle bag with her favorite fuzzy pajamas, tattered blanket, and Bluets by Maggie Nelson. He went to family therapy group.
The Significant Other always said, “It will be okay as long as we have each other.” When visiting hours were over, the couple hugged goodbye. The Significant Other walked outside with his slouched shoulders, watery eyes, a slow gait. The Addict put her hand on the window. Their hands touched through the glass. But it would never be the same again, the glass remained wedged between them.
The Addict followed staff back upstairs back to the unit, unlocking double doors that read in huge, black block letters: “CAUTION: ELOPMENT WARNING.” The Adddict had associated the term elopement with the swift, quiet escape of two lovers to marriage not psychiatric patients like her trying to escape. The addict didn’t elope but she left against medical advice as soon as soon as she was off the obligatory suicide hold because she wanted to keep her job and go to her writing class.
When The Addict left the psych ward, she never unpacked her duffle bag. Part of her stayed zipped up. There was a ghost between the couple now, a muscle memory of the yin yang they used to be, cradling each other gently to sleep. They were going to be a family.
But The Addict got worse, abusing prescription pills like opiates and benzodiazapines.
The pills were prescribed for panic attacks but The Addict used them for anesthetic, boredom, loneliness, breakfast, lunch, dinner. The Addict was also a thief, a cheat, a liar. Her relationship dissolved just like the blue pill under her tongue.
That time was a fuzzy chemical haze. He was the bandage, she was the wound. Call it an Unraveling.
Hags like The Cailleach live to be Crones, the ones who survive “Burning Times” like Witch Trials. Although the Cailleach is often depicted as a destroyer, she is also known to create new life and passes through many lifetimes herself, in a cyclical fashion. Some say she is a protector of animals and children, a creator of mountains
Sometimes I imagine the alternate lives that I could have chosen. What if I had married my young sweetheart? In this version of my life, my little blond daughter presses her ears against my basketball-sized belly, listening to the thrum of the baby’s heartbeat. She looks at me with saucer-sized hazel eyes, a droopy lip, and pulls on the fabric of my skirt as she begs me for ice cream. I am the kind of woman who can drink just one glass of wine with dinner, who counts calories, clips coupons, gets manicures, drives an SUV. In another version of my life I live out the hippie fantasy. I celebrate Winter Solstice instead of Christmas, take my kids to music festivals.
There’s a nightmare version, too. I am an addict plummeting to newer depths—looking for home in a bottle, a pill, a baggie. I have become what you think of when you think of a rock bottom bum who you feel sorry for. I am sitting on the curb flyin’ a sign with matted hair, missing teeth, dirty jeans dangling from my skeleton.
Nearing my 30th birthday, I felt directionless. I lamented to my friend Kate, who always has the perfect mix of frankness and validation. She was skeptical of my dating choices. “Well if he sets up bouncy castles for a living, maybe you want to step back and consider what it is that you really want in a relationship. Maybe some time being single would be good for you.”
Edgy. Six months into this uncharted territory of singledom, I got into a petty argument with my roommate, C. We yelled at each other through the thin shared wall of our bedrooms. Finally, we were like birds of prey, picking apart each other’s deepest insecurities. I mocked him for being a 22-year-old who seemingly didn’t get laid, he called me a hag.
Passive aggressive became our primary mode of communication. We spoke in slammed doors, angry texts, dirty dishes, loud music and soft music.
After the initial adrenaline of our ongoing drama wore off and my thrill at the fact I believed I won our epic argument, I began to brood over his “hag” insult. I self-consciously smothered a coat of ant-aging crème on my face, trying to smooth my complexion. When I noticed a few rogue black hairs growing out of my cheeks and stretch marks on my thighs, I thought: hag. When I went to bed at 10pm on a Friday night because my back ached as much as my heart, I thought: Hag. Hag, hag, hag.
Two years into singlehood I have written myself out of these old damsel, manic-pixie tropes, weaving tapestries of my own creation.
“All mother goddesses spin and weave … Everything that is comes out of them: They weave the world tapestry out of genesis and demise, threads appearing and disappearing rhythmically,” Helen Diner writes in Mothers and Amazons.
I baptize myself in solitude—it heals my wounds. I travel alone. I embrace the storm and its aftermath. I am weaver of my own world.
Tessa Torgeson’s writing aims to shine a light on darkness and reduce the stigma around mental health issues. Tessa has done a writer’s residency at the former Minnesota State Asylum. Currently she is an MFA candidate and graduate assistant at the LGBT Center at Minnesota State University. She has been published at bioStories, Oregon Humanities posts, Loss Lit UK, Doll Hospital Literary Journal, The Fix, and others. Tessa can be found online at www.off-her-rocker.com.