Illustration by Niki Waters @kneesandkeysart
The telephone’s ringing was an event I found both disconcerting and incredible—an old rotary style phone suddenly springing to life after years of silence—I let the bright, strange jingle fill my tiny, usually quiet, office. I didn’t know that decoration even worked, slumbering there on the corner of my desk like a stray black cat ever since I took over this space. My business is strictly internet-based, with communication methods for the most part unencumbered by overhead wires. When my curiosity finally overpowered the phone’s entertainment value I reached across my desk and picked up what I believe, back in the day, was called a receiver. This one was the size of a mallet.
“Hello?” I asked, anticipating a response by dead air.
“Is this the warlock? Are you Mr. Warlock?”
The voice on the line was six feet deep of fresh, loose gravel, and so obviously trying to not sound female that I had to bite my lip in case I burst out laughing. People who hire me usually have a secret somewhere they want excised from the world, and would prefer our personal contact be done through as many layers of secrecy as possible. I figured a fake voice might be the only layer available to this old device.
“I guess that’s what people call me, sometimes,” I said. “How can I help you… sir?”
“I think I’m under attack, Mr. Warlock.”
Point of fact, I am more universally referred to as Adolphus Preen, but I am president and sole employee of Tech Warlock Limited, a social media remediation company, so her confusion was understandable. I hunt, by hire, offensive interactions on the World Wide Web and eliminate the other side. As for conventional warlock abilities I have few, but even if, like the phone, the title is largely decorative I can divine what some of you are thinking: this must be a prank call—the fake voice, the use of a landline in this day and age—so why not hang up and get back to you usual brand of search and destroy. Answer is, in my line of work first contact often begins shrouded in nervousness and with some variations on the theme of ‘I’m being harassed,’ or ‘I’m being misrepresented,’ or ‘I’m being slandered.’ If someone has gone to the additional trouble of making up a fake voice and choosing a landline for communication, the least I can do is hear them out.
“Attacked. Is that a fact?” I reached for my keyboard.
“Yes. I was wondering if you could look into it. Maybe do something about it? That’s what you do, right?”
A simple number search gave me a location for the call, some restaurant across town. I’d put money on her being a waitress, using her ten minute break to call me.
“Can you describe the nature of the attacks?”
“Yes, are they political or sexual… in nature?” I’d present the specific subgroups after she filled in the first blank.
“Well, they are perverse.”
“Ah, I understand,” I said, lowering my voice to indicate both my sympathy and my ability to be discrete. “Sexual then.”
“No, not at all.”
“And you find that perverse?” I chuckled softly at my little icebreaker of a joke. I liked to break the ice with a joke, whenever the opportunity presented itself.
The point I tried to humorously make was, there are lots of lonely people on the internet, living in fantasy worlds of their own creation and operating within the guidelines of a somewhat fluid atmosphere known as freedom of expression, which as you know is the air everybody breathes in cyberspace. If, for example, some childless old fucker wants to offer fatherly advice on public forums to daughters he doesn’t have, the person getting the free advice might hear the message as the darknet’s acme of perversion, and turn to my services to have the offender eliminated from internet existence. I don’t have to be personally offended by the perceived affront to consider the assignment either. Reasonable people may disagree with each other and reasonable people contact me all the time, usually with broad-based concerns stemming from personal sensibilities, after having sensed a larger impact than just what they feel personally. For example, this quote here, plucked from a thread: “I just feel so bad for all the young, impressionable girls who are going to be preached at so loudly over drugs/alcohol, whatever, but not the systemic oppression they’ll face as females.” This is an example of a sensibility that didn’t begin and end with ‘woe is me’, but took a personal assault and generalized it, gave it scope and heft, and then asked me to step in and kill the sender and all traces of him.
In fact, my clientele is disproportionately represented by the abuser end of things. I do keep the gatekeeper/guardian types in a file though, even if I’m not taking up their cause, as they tend to have sharp eyes for future fads, portending trends ahead of the trends’ arrival. They are like weather buoys for social mores before shit hits the mainland. Because she didn’t laugh at my joke I suspected the girl on the phone was a guardian/gatekeeper type. They are a humourless lot. I retreated into my regular, business-like patter, asking her, “Where did you come across this so-called perversion? Was it on Twitter, Facebook, or personal email?”
“By any chance did the offending phrases at any time begin with the words ‘No offense, but’?”
“Sorry, no. Nothing like that.”
“No, no. You’re going to laugh.”
“Unlikely.” I’d spent a fine joke on her and received nothing, so she’d put me in a mood.
“I think somebody is trying to put a spell on me.”
(Fortunately my gender confusion slipped past her without causing a change in her tone.)
“A spell. I think somebody is using witchcraft on me.”
I put the receiver to my other ear. “Now, when you say spell do you mean like a charm tweeted? Or do you mean it more like somebody is sticking pins in a 3D voodoo doll on 4chan?”
“I don’t know what that means. What I’m saying is, somebody has been attacking me in their, um, writing.”
“Well, of course. Everything’s writing. It’s still the method of choice for expressing opinions online.”
“I don’t mean online—I mean in… poems. Poetry. I think they’re hiding spells in poems and harassing me with them.”
The hairs of recognition on the back of my neck snapped to attention. I was familiar with witch-related poetry platforms, but thought I was the sole beneficiary and declarer of its brand of victimhood. My witch is named Judy. Years ago she refused my advances and my open mic offerings and finally had me arrested for heckling, although at the time they called it harassment. I hold no ill-will, and truthfully, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today without that experience and the quiet moments of reflection that came with jail time. ‘Warlock’ is my homage to her, which she says she appreciates.
“Sounds pretty far fetched,” I said a little defensively, on Judy’s behalf. “I mean, witches? Poetry?”
“I know. I know. But you have to take my word for it. Or read their words for it… I don’t know anymore. But there are changes in me that I can’t explain other than through some kind of black magic.”
Except for the witch business, the caller’s was another common theme, how an seemingly innocent interaction had suddenly circled back, gathered steam, creating a following that perpetuated a loop of ire from which there was no escape, without some form of reparation. Most of my clients won’t do reparation, protesting that their words are being used against them. That goes without saying, I tell them. I thought of Judy and me, and how she had turned me into my own allegory. Wading into this one’s story was going to be problematic, partly for my lack of objectivity but also because I still don’t care for poetry all that much, despite Judy adding me to her chapbook subscriber’s list.
“So why do you believe this is an attack on you personally, rather than, say, a case of mistaken interpretation?”
“Because ever since that witch read her thing—poem, spell, whatever—I haven’t been the same. I feel sapped. I don’t want to work. I can’t focus.”
“What do you do for a living miss… t… errr?”
“I guess you could call me a wildlife photographer.”
“Well, you need focus for that I guess.”
A strained laugh for another fine joke, it only added to my suspicions about the caller’s total innocence in the matter. “Did you shout something during a reading, possibly?”
“Impossible. I never went to a reading of that kind. I went to her for a tarot reading. I had no idea about the poems. Next thing I know I’m told I have to buy these two books. Which I did because she was giving me the stink-eye and I wanted an honest reading. Now I own fifty. Somebody did something.”
“Fifty? Jesus, how’d you get to fifty?”
“Yeah exactly. Well, I made the mistake of reading them, and the next thing I know I’m going to a reading, séance, whatever the hell they call it. Now I’m buying that shit all the time. I can’t walk past a bookstore any more. That’s got to be part of a spell, right?”
“Absolutely. Who’d buy them otherwise? So, how did you come to connect your new book-buying compulsion to what I do, if you don’t mind me asking? Also, how did you get this number?” I asked because the landline was not my business line.
She sat in the well of a fair pause before she answered. “I dunno. I found it scratched into the wall beside this phone. With your name. And a brief description of what you do. I assume that was you? (It wasn’t.) I just figured texting and spells—they’re all words in different wireless mediums. And that’s kind of what you deal with, right? Make the evil ones disappear, so I can get back to a normal life? Not be afraid to walk past a store or look at a nice pair of shoes?”
Except for that bit about the shoes she did demonstrate a certain loose grip on the main purpose of my profession, although technically I didn’t make people disappear. It only appeared that way because so many ‘people’ I hunted weren’t real to begin with. They were characters created for a specific, usually nefarious, purpose. Much of my business lately involves weeding troll farms and their many strains of STFU. But if you know where to look you can see their ripples, analogously like the trail of indents and swirls from a stone skipped across the surface of a swamp. I follow the trail back to the leading human hand.
“You understand that I can’t make you any promises, because I’m not sure if your witch-poet’s attacks falls within my bailiwick, if you catch my drift.”
“I don’t know what a bailiwick is, but I sort of get your point I guess. But if anybody can help me it’s got to be a warlock, am I right?”
“Just so you understand I’m not a thug or a mercenary.”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t think so.”
“Exactly. And payment is up front.”
“Good. So why don’t you begin by telling me your name?
The caller cleared her throat to haul her name out of the gravel. “Postus. Roland Postus.”
I needed a second to readjust the picture I had in my head of the caller. First thing to come off was the waitress uniform.
“You’re a dude?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Maybe he was right to be offended, but his real voice lived in the upper range of what I’d consider manly or even man-ish so some sort of surprise was to be expected. I apologised immediately, explaining that my assumption was a preconception based on timbre and shouldn’t have let it taint my opinion of his masculinity.
“Yeah, well, that’s another thing. Nobody ever made fun of my voice before. I’ve been forcing it deep but the strain is tough on me. I think she’s screwing with my voice.”
“In her spells more than her poems I take it.”
“Yes. No. Either one. I mean, does it matter how?”
“No, I guess not. You can catch a cold with a handshake as much as with a full-blown sneeze in the face. Any other manifestations, physical changes and such, since we’re on the subject?”
“I cry more.”
“Well, that’s not so bad.”
I knew the opposite to be true but I had to say something comforting after I’d muddied the her/him waters. I do feel compassion for those who have had the evolved sensibilities of a sensitive man like myself thrust upon them unwillingly. (See my warnings re guardian/gatekeepers earlier.) I forget myself too occasionally, lapsing into specialty manners like mansplaining, door holding, etc. rather than let those old doors slam shut without a single glance over my shoulder. Suffice to say, without sexism at either end of the spectrum the warlock might not exist. She, I mean he, continued:
“You try sitting on a bus and all of a sudden you’re blubbering over some dumb ad on the back of the seat in front of you. What kind of man does that? Now, bammo! Tears galore. People are gonna stare, let me tell you.”
“Yeah, that’s witch-poets for you. They like to screw with the natural laws. So, that was the tipping point then—you weren’t too weepy before the attacks and now you fall to pieces over any dead squirrel on the side of the road?”
“Yeah, in so many words—that was the tipping point. If I stopped to wail every time I saw something upsetting my business would go tits up.”
Well said, because after a few clicks I have discovered that Roland Postus is not so much a wildlife photographer as he is a videographer who owns a popular website in the branch of the porn industry known as gore. A lot of his videos appear to be accidents that could have been prevented had someone put their camera down. I didn’t look too long however; I was compiling a list of those who might have gouged my number into a restaurant wall. It was a short list.
“Okay, Mr. Postus. You’ve probably given me enough to start with. Let me poke my head inside the ether for a bit and I’ll get back.”
Though I didn’t mention this to my caller, and frankly I’m a little embarrassed mentioning it to you, but after I hung up I found myself thinking of William Butler Yeats, author of ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’—a poet I’d barely heard of and a poem I knew nothing about—and how he would argue if he were here, that a similar duality existed in his poem, two spirits living simultaneously, fact and fantasy, a man who feels he needs to pursue someone he never knew, except she called his name so must be real. Was I was thinking about Judy in this context? Did she cause this memory or this caller? Maybe a little of both. Maybe I was thinking about the value people placed on their own presence over another’s, believing themselves to be unassailable by virtue of a pseudonym, then stunned when they are misconstrued. Poets don’t mean half the shit they get blamed for either, but once it’s out there good luck getting the nuance back.
I’m the guy who chases after the words on behalf of people who say they were misinterpreted. I like to imagine myself a private eye in that context, formulating possible conclusions by recalling triggers learned from past mistakes, using them to spark the leaps of logic I’ll need over the multiple improbabilities of good intentions and evil intent, what the clues and the clients don’t suggest, and hopefully come to the source of the abuse. As far as witches, poetry and Postus go, I might have already been assigned the role of sidekick in some unreal genre. One where a witch-poet, with her demonstrable lack of concern for acceptable use policies (see Judy’s treatment of me back when), plus excellence in all areas of rhythm—speech, song, poem, incantation, breath—and familiarity with intersectional deviations that I and my normative binary yes and nos can barely see, can cast spells in the realm of her choosing—Magical, Literary, or Portable Device. My first act as a trusty warlock sidekick is to reach for my rolodex and flip it to Judy’s number. I have a sense she’s expecting my call.
Author Paddy Scott says: This entry is an excerpt from a novel in progress. Otherwise, I have no quarrel with witches or poets or witch-poets.