Sometimes, in autumn, you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. On one hand, the leaves have started to fall, orange and yellow and red. You saw the first one flutter to the ground just yesterday, and you know that soon, there will be leaves all over the sidewalk—the linden leaves shaped like hearts, the maples like fallen stars. Eventually, the branches of your favorite trees will stretch bare and brown against the November sky. In autumn, you always feel a sense of loss.
On the other hand, the apples have ripened and hang like crimson globes in the orchard. You’ve already started gathering them to make pie and compote, and for a particular spell involving a mirror—the one mentioned in “Snow White,” although of course the Brothers Grimm got some details wrong. They didn’t understand that mirror spells are always about self-realization. The antique roses that bloomed in summer have left their orange hips. You’ll pick them for rose-hip jelly to soothe an aching throat—the perfect medicine for winter.
Right now, the garden is a cornucopia: cabbages and carrots and cauliflower are ready to harvest, and a great orange pumpkin is growing on the vine. You will carve it for your favorite holiday, when children come to your house for old-fashioned toffee and marshmallows. You will teach the jack-o’-lantern to talk, and on Halloween night it will greet your visitors, politely saying “Welcome” or, alternatively, shouting “Boo!”
Your familiar, Cordelia the tortoiseshell cat, disapproves. “Why waste magic on such parlor tricks?” she asks. But no magic is wasted if it makes someone smile, you always think. And children do smile when they come to your house—it’s so perfectly witchy, with its peaked gables, the lace curtains at its windows, the Victorian gingerbread trim that makes it resemble an iced cake. Of course you intend to dress up again this year. You’re a witch, with or without a black hat, but once a year it’s fun to play the part.
Autumn is the time to put up things for winter, so you’ve been bottling summer sunlight. You’ll put the stoppered bottles in the cellar, where the flavor inside will mellow and deepen, until eventually, when you pour yourself a glass at Yuletide, it will taste of elderberries and honey. You’ve been gathering the last blue skies of August and winding them into a ball. You plan to knit them into a shawl for your elementary school teacher, Miss Merriweather, who is getting old now. She was the one who taught you, when you were just a young witch with a ponytail and skinned knees, how to turn an ordinary broomstick purchased from the hardware store into a witch’s broom for riding high above the sleeping town on moonlit nights. She taught you to read the future in tea leaves and tarot cards, to speak the language of all the creatures that roam the earth or flap about the sky, so you are never alone. As you walk to the grocery store, you converse with snails crawling on garden walls, or the spider who weaves her web near your front gate. (Spiders are particularly philosophical. This one quotes Socrates.) A blue shawl made of August skies, with a trimming of white clouds—that’s exactly what she needs, you think.
And now you’re following in Miss Merriweather’s footsteps—you’re about to start teaching! The local community college, which has just started offering an associate’s degree in witchcraft, has asked to you to teach a class called “The History of Magic: From Circe to Social Media.” You’ve already chosen the readings, and of course the class will have a practical component—it wouldn’t be a proper class on witchcraft if you didn’t teach the students a few spells. Some simple transformations, perhaps? Tennis balls to toads and vice versa? Your budget doesn’t stretch to golden balls, so tennis balls will have to do.
Which is harder, teaching or making magic? Well, you will soon find out. You suspect they’re more similar than they might initially seem—both involve changing the universe by casting a spell. You just hope your students pay attention! If not, you can give them snakes for hair, or maybe feathers.
Back in July, you dried some lazy afternoons and packed them away in sachets with lavender and sage, so you could put them in the linen closet to keep away moths. But you can’t feel too nostalgic for summer when September is so glorious. It also has long, sunlit days, although there is a sharp tang in the air, like the sourness of a cooking apple.
Listen: You’ve spent the summer doing and doing, and you’ve accomplished a great deal. The garden is bountiful, your business is flourishing. But this is the time to harvest and gather in, the time to put away supplies for the cold months. That includes your dreams. During the summer, they scattered in so many directions. Now you need to call them back, to say, “Come in, children. It’s time to stop roaming the world for a while. Let’s get cozy under the blankets. Let’s be grateful that we’re together and at home.”
You’ve created so many spells for other people. Now cast one for yourself—a spell for looking inward. Sit in front of the mirror and say hello to yourself. Ask yourself how you’re doing. When your mirror self responds, listen. Offer it a slice of apple. As she sits chewing your offering, ask, “What can I do for you? What do you need or desire?” Her name is the same as yours, only backward.
Hopefully, she will answer. Your mirror self knows you better than you know yourself. You are like two sisters, although she sees the world a little differently, as though she can see the back of the tapestry of fate, where all the threads cross and hang. She knows things you don’t, like who made the stars and where music comes from. Perhaps, if she’s in a good mood, she’ll tell you some of the secrets of the universe.
“She’s much nicer than you,” Cordelia will say, but you know how cats are. No matter how that annoying furball criticizes you, each night she falls asleep curled between your ankles.
Autumn is the time for putting things to bed. When the oak leaves fall, you will cover the roots of the rosebushes with that rich mulch. You will make a nest of old clothes in the attic for the house ghosts—you don’t want them catching colds. You will get the extra bedroom ready for guests who will visit during the holiday season: friends from the Society of North American Witches, who will gather to workshop spells; your niece who is studying to be an accountant as well as a witch—she assures you that math is simply another form of magic. You will build boxes for the bats, another for the bees. You will put the house itself to bed, and it will close its eyes. It too will hibernate over winter.
Pick out the books you want to read: Christina Rossetti’s poetry, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, anything by Susanna Clarke. Put them by your bedside table. You need to rest too, my dear. Look, there’s your mirror self telling you the same thing, and Cordelia is weaving around your ankles. The linen sheets are cool and smell of lavender. Here are your dreams—wrap yourself in them. Rest for a while.