Chapter 11 – Urban Witches

When I looked in the diary I’d found for entries about witches, one in particular caught my attention. When we think of witches, at least in Portugal, what comes to mind are images of women around bonfires in abandoned fields or in the woods, or folk healers and diviners who attend to their customers in basements or small barns. This entry, however, told of a group of witches from Porto who gathered in a tea room in the heart of this city, which is the second largest in Portugal.

Small wonder, then, that after the most obvious entry, about the witches of Montalegre, I decided to investigate this one.

One day I was alone in Porto on business, I took advantage of a big gap between my meetings in the morning and those in the afternoon to visit the tea room.

With the help of my phone’s GPS, I found the place. I then found a problem. The diary entry was several years old, and the tea room no longer existed. In its place now stood a small shopping center.

I parked in a nearby carpark and went in. Maybe I could find some clue that could tell me where the witches’ new meeting place was.

As soon as I entered, I realized that that wasn’t an ordinary shopping center. Instead of stores selling clothing, jewelry, sporting goods, and technology, as in most malls, this one had esotericism, natural makeup, organic food and cultural items shops.

I walked through the corridors and up the stairs to the second floor. It was then that I came across what I what was looking for: a tea lounge with the same name as that where the witches met. They must have reopened in the mall after it replaced the original lounge.

I went in and sat at a table. The decor was quite modern: white oval chairs, leather sofas, single stem tables. Even the orders were made through tablet PCs embedded in columns or through any smartphone using the QR codes printed on the wooden napkin boxes.

I ordered a tea and grilled cheese, which I consumed slowly as I watched the customers coming and going. Their age seemed to vary between twenty and fifty years old, and judging by their clothes, they were all from the middle/upper class and above. The majority were women, though not by much.

During the half an hour that I sat there, I noticed something that, if I didn’t know what I was looking for, I wouldn’t have. Alone or in pairs, seven women in their thirties wearing high heels, expensive looking dresses, fine makeup and meticulously maintained hair, entered and, without hesitation, went to the top floor.

Fortunately, the sign indicating the bathroom pointed there, so I had the perfect excuse to go up and confirm my suspicions.

I climbed the wood and iron stairs. At the top, I came upon a room at all similar to the downstairs one. Of the seven women, however, there was no sign of them.

Carefully, trying not to draw too much attention, not knowing if I was being filmed, I tried to figure out where they could have gone. In the corridor leading to the bathroom, I found a third door with the usual sign saying “Restricted Access.” It was the only apparent place where the witches could have hidden.

Silently, I put my ear to the door but heard nothing. Slowly, I opened a small crack and peeked inside. Once the light dispelled the darkness on the other side, I saw a staircase leading to another door, above. I closed the first behind me and turned on my flashlight. Being careful not to make any noise, I started to climb.

Just a few steps later, I heard a chant. The more I climbed, the further it intensified. When I put my ear to the second door, I realized it was coming from behind it. There was no doubt that the witches had gathered there.

After about fifteen minutes, the chant came to an end. A few moments of silence went by, and then a distant, high-pitched voice asked:

“What do you want from me?”

It certainly belonged to a spirit or creature that the ritual invoked.

“You see more than any of us. We called you here to answer our questions,” said a female voice, surely belonging to one of the witches.

One by one, the women put their questions. I admit I was disappointed. With all the mysteries of history and the universe that they could try to unravel, their questions were of the most basic of natures. Who was Joana betraying her husband with? Where did Paulo get the money to buy a new Mercedes? How did Miguel manage to win over his wife when he was so ugly?

Gossip! People like that couldn’t possibly be the Witches of the Night. I was about to leave when I heard the high-pitched, distant voice say:

“Would you like to know who is behind the door?”

I turned to run, but I had only descended three steps when the door opened behind me, and someone pushed me. I fell down the stairs, crashing against the lower door.

Dazed and sore, I felt several hands grab me and drag me up the stairs.

After recovering for a few minutes, the dizziness and the mist before my eyes dissipated. I was now in a small windowless room, lit by more than a dozen candles. There was a strange mixture of the modern and the old. Tablets computers, in the screens of which could be seen pages with texts written in strange characters, rested on a worn carpet full of burn marks. At its center burned a small brazier, whose flames were stirred by the air conditioning. Modern chairs, similar to the ones used in the tea room, rested among cabinets that looked like something out of an antique store and contained a multitude of ancient paraphernalia.

Sitting on the carpet, the seven women surrounded me. All of them now had, around their necks, huge amulets with an old and worn look, contrasting markedly with their modern dresses and high heels.

“Who are you?” one of the witches asked me. “And why were you eavesdropping?”

“I’m looking for the Witches of the Night. Do you know them?”

“Who are they?” asked another witch. “Some hillbillies who fly around on brooms?”

Her companions laughed.

“We don’t get along with riffraffs like that,” added a third witch. “Only if it’s really necessary.”

“Now we have to decide what to do with you.”

“Let him go,” said the witch that spoke first.

“And what if he tells someone?” asked the woman who had raised the issue.

“Look at his clothes,” said her companion. “Do you think anyone will put the word of a nobody like him above ours? Getting rid of him would give us more trouble.”

“You’re right,” said another witch. “Get out of here. But don’t come back!”

I did so without delay. Those were clearly not the Witches of Night, so they had no interest to me.

I went to the bathroom of a cafe near the shopping center to wash my suit and my wounds from the fall, and I made my way to my afternoon meeting. Contrary to what had occurred after my previous explorations, this one raised no thought or question. Those witches were useless in the unraveling of the mystery that haunted me.