A rite of passage

This is a little story about witchcraft that I wrote in response to a comment on Twitter. The story’s set on my native Isle of Man. Today is the island’s national day: Tynwald Day. The island’s government is the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world (possibly founded before 1000 AD) – just one more unique thing about the island where I was born!


The handle of the broomstick plunged half a metre into the sticky mixture of water, mud and reeds, nearly taking Kerry with it. Again.

Already covered in mud, and more than slightly redolent of semi-rotted vegetation, Kerry swore. That made almost half an hour in the labyrinthine wetlands of the Curraghs, and still no sign of the blasted water hemlock.

Maybe coming in from the east would have been easier? But no, there definitely been a good big patch of the stuff in this part of the Curraghs only two weeks earlier when they’d done the field trip out here. Or at least there’d been plenty somewhere here. One umbellifer growing in a soggy section of marshland looked much like another, in the dark – even if you were a witch.

Well, OK, apprentice witch. Five years of study successfully completed and very nearly graduated. Just the final wild magic practical to complete – the time-honoured ritual that, in its current form, involved the apprentices being dropped off by minibus at dusk, somewhere on the island. They then had until dawn to orient themselves and gather the objects required to make their own way back to the Academy by more traditional means.

Although justifiably proud of its ancient heritage, one of the stated aims of the Manx Academy of the Wiccan Arts was to produce versatile witches capable of dealing with the challenges they would face in the 21st century. Consequently, after studying ancient grimoires and learning spells by rote for the first four years of their time at the Academy, final year students were strongly encouraged to explore alternative ingredients and approaches. The practical test specified a broom and flying ointment combination that was traditional for the Isle of Man, but it was rumoured that the examiners awarded extra points for suitable alternatives. Kerry did another mental run through of the list.

“A besom or broom, with the shaft cut by the witch’s own hand from hawthorn, correctly trimmed of branches and with birch twig bristles, attached with a willow withy.” Check. Even starting at dusk that bit had been fiddly, but Kerry was pretty handy with a billhook. As for the ingredients for the flying ointment, they’d taken the rest of the night.

“The grease of a fatted pig.” Kerry was vegetarian, so that just wasn’t happening, but lanolin worked just fine. Of course, they’d been allowed to prepare the base in advance and bring it with them, which was just as well, because obtaining grease from either sheep’s wool or an unfortunate pig was a task that would take even an expert witch more than a few hours.

“Wraick from the seashore, gathered from below the tide line but at the height of the tide.” Check. The still damp denim flapping around Kerry’s legs was a testament to that. That updated drying spell using chili powder was pretty effective, though.

“Copper from the heart of the Earth to anchor the witch.” Check. Fortunately the Isle of Man had been a major mining centre in its day, and if you knew where to look you could find remnants of lots of different metal ores. The minibus had deposited Kerry on Laxey promenade, opposite the chip shop, and it had been a slog walking up from the seashore past the giant water wheel to the former mines and over the hills. Kerry was once again thankful that the island was relatively compact. It must be a sod having to do this practical somewhere bigger.

Although, again, you learned the magic that was fitting for your environment. In the fourth year, they’d done a study visit to London and seen some of the urban resources their peers were learning to use; pigeon shit rather than seagull or sheep, rose bay willow herb and other plants of waste ground, plenty of stuff about “foul steaming breath” – in other words, car exhaust… and Kerry had been fascinated to discover the power contained in the superimposed layers of fly posters, if selected from the right spot.

“Water hemlock to lift her from the soil.” Yeah, well that was the problem, wasn’t it?

An owl hooted close by, and Kerry jumped. ‘Lacks concentration’ had been a frequent criticism from the Academy’s tutors, and especially from Mistress Voirrey, one of the self-proclaimed “Modern Witches” amongst their number, yet who had nevertheless opposed Kerry’s presence, from admission onwards. But as the best Manx-born talent the Academy’s interviewers had seen for many years, Kerry couldn’t be denied a place.

Kerry sighed again and peered through the gloom. Now where had this blasted water hemlock got to?

OK, think clearly. We came in from the front of the Wildlife Park, and skirted around the enclosures, and it was somewhere near the back of the lake that I saw the hemlock. Today I’ve come in from the seaward side… Kerry squinted up at the line of the hills above, with the outline of Gob y Volley visible against the Milky Way.

…so if I go over this way, then I should find the fence pretty quickly and then from there it’ll be easy as… well, easy as smashing all the ingredients up on a stone with my pestle, mixing them with the pot of lanolin, and rubbing it on to the broomstick. A quick flight back to Slieu Whallian – ideally resisting the urge to do a victory roll over the Principal’s garden this time, given the trouble it got me in last year – and even a tolerably tidy landing will have me in the history books…

But once again, Kerry hadn’t been paying attention. In the dark, the tall wire fence around the Wildlife Park was almost totally invisible. The outermost, electrified fence was completely so. The current running through it was low – just a deterrent to keep animals, both native and exotic, on their respective sides of the boundary – but it still gave off a nasty shock. Kerry leapt backwards onto the soft ground, twisting frantically to avoid falling onto the pot of lanolin… and heard a resonant “Crack” as the shaft of the broomstick snapped.

‘Dammit.’ Kerry examined the damage. It was a clean break, right through, and the bristles weren’t looking too clever either. Finding another straight trunk of hawthorn down here in the Curraghs was going to take hours. And there wasn’t much time left. The sky in the east was definitely beginning to get lighter.

Although at least the water hemlock problem was finally solved, because Kerry was surrounded by the stuff. It was growing in thick clumps along the ditch at the base of the fence. Bearing in mind Mistress Mona’s cheerful words of warning – “Never mind a black cat! A nice pair of Marigolds are a witch’s best friend!”, Kerry bent carefully beneath the electrified wire and collected a good handful of the toxic plant, frantically wondering all the while what to do next. The broomstick was a no go, that much was clear. What else, what else? Think, brain!

Coming to stillness and breathing deeply, as Mistress Aalish had advised in Basic Meditation for Spellcasters, Kerry strove for a calm mind and an open spirit. What had they been taught on the London trip about suitable objects for flight? There had been something, something…

But an insistent noise kept impinging – a kind of scritching noise, like nails on the blackboard. It was familiar yet alien at the same time. It reminded Kerry of hot sunshine and the taste of melted ice cream in a soggy cornet. It was the sound of a summer holiday coach trip. It was the smell of the reptile house and the okapi enclosure. It was the sound… of a group of large sleepy birds expressing their discontent with the early morning chill.

Kerry suddenly grinned broadly. That elusive phrase spoken by the London instructor suddenly resurfaced. ‘Don’t forget. In a pinch you can use pretty much anything as a broomstick, providing it’s roughly the right shape. Something that has the life force in it is best, but failing that a lamppost or traffic sign, a patio heater…’

‘A garden parasol’, Mistress Voirrey had interrupted. ‘Never forget, ladies…’ She’d scowled at Kerry before continuing, ‘…never forget that as modern witches, we aren’t limited by traditional beliefs or components. You will always be taught the traditional methods first, but you may elaborate upon these with new materials, if they can be made to work according to the Rules of Witchcraft.’

So… an alternative broomstick-shaped object, ideally with the life force in it? Yes. And there’d be no need for the water hemlock, after all. The object Kerry had in mind didn’t merely have the life force in – it could fly too. So a simple element to cancel her own weight, such as dandelion or thistledown, would do the trick.

The whole thing was definitely doable, providing she could scale the fence. Fortunately, she’d been a terrible tearaway when she was a little boy, and it wouldn’t be the first time she’d broken into somewhere. The only problem with the entire plan was that Mistress Voirrey was probably going to have kittens at the sight of the Academy’s first transgender student landing on the West Lawn on a bright pink flamingo…

No Man’s Sky – mindfulness in an extreme world

For two years now, on and off, I’ve been playing a game called No Man’s Sky. If you’ve heard of it, you’ve probably heard about the negative reaction it got when it came out and apparently didn’t live up to some people’s expectations. Personally, it was exactly what I expected when it first arrived, and two years later I’m still blown away by it.

The simplest description of the game is that it’s about exploring the universe. In fact, it’s about exploring an infinite, procedurally generated universe, which means that pretty much anywhere you go you’re alone. I think it was this last aspect of the game that led to most of the negative reactions. Personally, I like bumbling about exploring planets without any particular aim in mind. Apart from anything else, the game landscapes are quite often stunningly beautiful.



In about a month, the game will be undergoing another major update, and I’m playing as often as I can to achieve a few of my own personal goals before that happens. The last major update led to enormous upheavals, including planetary climates changing completely, and in some cases land levels altering substantially too. And it’s rumoured that this update may lead to all players losing all their current save games and having to start all over again.

If that happens, that’s OK with me – but as I say, I do want to achieve a few things before then. One of those is to achieve a particular game milestone, which involves spending 32 in-game days on a planet classified as “extreme”. This means either an extreme climate or very tetchy drone sentinels. Or possibly both. Every time you leave your chosen planet to go somewhere more hospitable, your counter resets, so if you want to hit the milestone you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time planetside dodging sentinels or hiding in a cave. You can also stand your player character in a building, where they won’t be using up life support resources or being attacked, then go to bed in real life and come back eight hours later having achieved the goal without any effort. But that seems rather dull to me.

So I’ve spent a lot of time in recent days standing about on a particular planet (actually a moon). It’s called Takahokunea, and I like to think that maybe in the far past it was surveyed by a crew with at least some Maori blood. (New Zealanders seem to get everywhere, so this seems highly probable.) Planets and moons in No Man’s Sky vary widely, as you’d expect, and some of them have quite a lot of buildings of various sorts where you can shelter. This one isn’t like that, so I’ve set up my HQ by parking my spaceship on a small plateau where there’s a galactic trade terminal (to sell any tradeable commodities I happen to come across) and a nearby cave.


There’s nothing much else within any kind of reasonable walking distance, and time spent in your spaceship doesn’t count towards the total for the milestone, so I spend my game time ambling aimlessly around the countryside, trying not to get trampled on by the fortunately friendly – if clumsy – local fauna, and shooting down vast numbers of drone sentinels, which, because this is an extreme planet, attack me on sight. I’ve also learned some stuff about the mechanics of the game that I hadn’t previously appreciated when I simply landed on a planet, did a particular task then left again. And other than the odd burst of adrenalin when I’m under attack, I’m finding the whole experience to be extremely meditative. Earlier today I stood for a while on a large rock, on a flat area of blueish grass atop a tall pink cliff and watched the sunrise sweeping across the neighbouring planet.



Later, while I was talking to my mother on the phone, I directed my character into the cave and stayed there for a bit, surrounded by the drifting mysterious motes of light that you find in caves (I’ve never worked out what they are).


In this game, once you’ve got past the initial scramble to repair your spaceship and equip yourself with basic kit, it can all be very restful, if that’s how you choose to play. And god knows with the hideous things going on in the news in the real world at the moment, we all need a bit of mental peace sometimes. I’d highly recommend standing on a planet, just waiting for time to pass, as a form of mindfulness meditation.


Of course, I’m not the only person playing the game. And some of them are doing even weirder or more meaningful things than standing about on a pink and blue planet watching the sun rise.

For example, someone recently built a giant pachinko machine. Given that my own base looks like half a dozen garden sheds shoved together, I find this kind of thing enormously impressive, although even more lavish constructions have been made by other players (more on this below).

The Pilgrim’s Path describes one player’s walk around an entire planet, taking about 45 hours of game playing time. Reading between the lines, he had the kind of experience you’d expect if you walked around a planet – doubt, exhilaration, wonder, fear – ultimately coming away with something much more profound than you’d get from 45 hours of playing something like Grand Theft Auto. He also learned just how supportive the NMS community can be, with people giving him advice and encouragement, and ultimately cheering him on via a live stream of the final hour of his epic journey.

And Andrew Reinhard, the guy who led the excavation of the Atari burial ground, is doing archaeology in No Man’s Sky, specifically surveying the remains of the human habitations and material culture of the original Galactic Hub, which underwent sometimes catastrophic changes during the Atlas Rises update. These sites include Glenn William’s Memorial, a planet with a model of Deep Thought, another with a ziggurat tomb and of course Dudenbeaumodeme, the site of the Pilgrim’s Path circumnavigation – not strictly part of the Galactic Hub, but interesting because many other players had been there since the original visitor. [Note: While aimlessly exploring this particular moon, I found what look like steps, cut in the rock. I’m pretty sure they’re just an accident of the topography, but it made me look even more carefully at the landscape.]


And while researching this article, I came across this story, which I hadn’t previously encountered, but in many ways doesn’t surprise me. If ever a game could change – or save – lives it’d be No Man’s Sky.