Concerning The Curious Burial Customs of the Witches of Megaira

Elizabeth R. McClellan

For A.F.S.B., friend of poets & fairy godparents, wise mother of witch-worlds.


On Megaira the witches gave up
solstices and equinoxes fifty years
after the Displacement.  The groves
(more shrubs than trees) flower
hydroponically, light-years from
the moon and seasons once
demanding such rites.

To be a witch,
wrote the elders of the time,
be practical.  Make old ways new.

They circle still, under
strange-named moons:
dust-devil, star-bright,
snow and wolf and harvest
left to history.

The satellite shines into the groves, live,
streaming from unblinking camera towers
high above the unforgiving surface,
brushed clean by tiny automated processes.

Air and water the witches know.  Fire
is an old recording that crackles,
surface of a distant blazing sun,
the blooms from the bottoms of ships
as they leave land, sky, atmosphere.

Earth?  They live in drydust, even if
the young ones call the element
after their own planet, clunky
in the litany of air water fire,

favor goddesses of justice, truth, flowers,
beauty, underworlds, crossroads,
talk less and less of those who bless
rivers, oceans, trees, heavens, fertile ground.

Make old ways new, they say
to elders who grumble
as elders always will.

Planetary anthropologists of Earth’s
diasporas delight in Megaira,
its strange traditions, emerging schisms
haunting phantoms of dollar signs, another
three-D witch-planet tell-all

(Tasteful. Educational, promoting
understanding, of course.  Ethical

We must always remember
what was done to these people.)

The death-customs alone, whisper
their greedy academic dreams.

Said the elder to the social scientist:

Our mothers knew we could not
be buried in the earth of Megaira
and return to the earth.  

Our sisters in Kemet
bless Megaira’s ground
as Nepthys’ body, for it mummifies
without natron.

The rest of us go to the earth
we have, fertilize
our tanks and farms,
feed our families to come.

It is grisly but it is our way.
This planet was a punishment
for sin we did not admit.
We made old ways new,
in peace, mostly.

Who is envious and angry now,
who torn apart for their crimes?

Such wisdom is not the stuff of bestsellers.
Greed wins out. Thus the grainy film
that tore through intergalactic academe
like wildfire, better in its unblinking way
than a thousand artfully edited shock pieces,

the icon that got
so many bright graduate
student bodies searched
for hidden recorders,
secret allegiances,

by peoples who had never quite trusted
the nice-enough offworlders to start with.


The witches gather around a rocket,
almost cartoonish, traditional old-Earth,
historical documentary-type.  It towers
above the articulated figures,

white shifts over their suits.

There is the body of the dead witch,
wrapped in her winding sheet, no inch
of skin exposed, the dust gathering already
in the folds of her white shroud.

There is air to carry sound,
but unbreathable for lungs
evolved for less grit.
The film’s focus is softened,
as if shot through a dirty cloud.

Helmet loudspeakers dulled with dust-patter
render the audio tinny, whispery,
properly arcane. It seems to be
the figure behind the corpse that speaks:

Why is this one
not returned to the earth?

One steps forward.

She must not be allowed the earth’s strength.

Why may this one not feed
those that come after?

Another.  There is poison in her bones
unfit for our children’s marrow.

Why must this one be weak?  
What is her poison?

A cacophony of voices.  She spoke lies,
sent death and poverty, attacked the weak,
would not accept correction,
dared name herself queen.

Megaira has no queen, they say,
in what seems like unison.

Noted a well-respected
doctor of philosophy
and accidental film critic,
after the Megaira Incident:

the dead woman
had been freeze-dried,
her corpse preserved
for an old-Earth year and a day—

the elders circled
every third night
in the groves,
one hundred twenty-two chances
for anyone to come, speak,
conference in, claim her body

for their grove or garden
before the end.  Some could have used
the nutrients.  But none came.

This was not a puppet trial
but sentencing for a verdict
pronounced some time before
by pure consensus of silence.

An expensive punishment, too—
time was they went hungry
to pay for the parts, make sure
the next rocket lay ready.

They might go a hundred years
between launches.

Such wisdom is also not the stuff of bestsellers,
but produced respectable revenue, considering.

On the screen, a grim gavotte,
suited bodies bearing
the body, stiff between them,
solemnly sliding their burden
into the ship that will bear it.

One seals it, tiny torch a blinding spot
of light in the film, the others circling,
arms raised.  The torch-bearer sears
indistinguishable sigils into the patch,
the door, continuing around the tube
as the circle hums protective harmonies.

It is not important,
said the good doctor,
if the door-seal survives
the path to the sun.

The real locking mechanism
would hold at seven gee,
though they have a lovely tale
of one whose bones fell
like a meteor shower, burning.

So cleansed by fire and air, they say,
Megaira forgave, blessed her bones.

They put meteors by the airlocks
in their homes, a new folk magic,
            long-ago apostate now
            fierce protector at the gate.

The dust whirls faster, erases the details.
Dim figures drop their arms, walk
counterclockwise three times, the welder
at the end of the line, filing

finally toward the hatch, the warrens,
leaving the towering ship
alone against the horizon line,
unmistakable, proud, silent.

A short delay,
then fire and noise , blossoming,
manifesting, pushing
rocket, body, sigils
skyward, sunward.

emclellanElizabeth R. McClellan is a poet, editor, lawyer and occasional loudmouth who lives in the geographic center of the State of Tennessee and considers the state her backyard.  She is a previous Rhysling Award nominee, winner of the 2011 Naked Girls Reading Literary Honors Award, and the 2014 Rhysling Chair. Her work has appeared in the Moment of Change and I Know What I Saw anthologies, along with Apex MagazineCalliope MagazineGoblin FruitThe, and Stone Telling. For more, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @popelizbet, check out her author page on Facebook at or visit