Nora was making a potion in her favorite potion jar. She had combined two cups of mud, four mashed crab apples, a Twizzler, the shredded petals of three marigolds, several fistfuls of grass, a big ball of dead leaves, and five round rocks–one for every year she’d been alive. Soon, Nora reflected happily, she could add six! Then her potions would be better than ever.
For the final ingredient, she was grinding a nubbin of pink chalk down into dust. Nora’s potions always worked, always. In the same way she knew to sleep when she was tired and drink water when she was thirsty, she knew exactly what to add to make the perfect potion. Something in her heart told her what to do.
Today, she was making a potion for the sad cat who had been living in the hedge for the past few days. Her dads had tried feeding it, but it ran away whenever they came outside. Nora had watered the sunflowers outside with a special chocolate-syrup-based truth-telling potion, and they told her that the cat was scared because someone mean had kicked him. He needed a boost of strength and bravery, and Nora would make it for him.
Nora scooped up her pile of pink chalk dust and sprinkled it carefully into her potion, then put on the lid and shook it as hard as she could. When her heart told her to stop, she did, lifting the lid off and peering carefully inside. The potion was a thick greeny-brown; a bubble popped on the surface. Perfect.
“Here, kitty kitty,” she called towards the hedge. “Tasty potion!”
The cat poked his head out of the bushes and eyed her warily. He was a pitiful sight, mangy and flea-bitten with scabs all over his ears. Nora shook the jar at him.
“Tasty potion! Make you feel better!”
The cat’s nose quivered as he sniffed the air. Animals could detect the special qualities of a potion; Nora hoped he liked what he smelled. She poured some potion out on the sidewalk and retreated back a few yards. “Come and get it!”
The cat slunk out of the bushes, glancing around fearfully, and crouched by the potion. Nora watched, beaming, as he lapped up a few mouthfuls.
Then he changed. His dull ochre fur turned rich and lustrous. Black stripes raced across his coat and popped in rings up his tail. Shaggy white sideburns burst from his cheekbones. He grew and grew until he stood taller than Nora, and when he looked down at her, his eyes glowed like amber fire.
Nora grinned up at the tiger and patted him on his broad orange nose.
“There,” she said proudly. “No one’s gonna kick you now!”
The tiger rumbled his agreement deep in his chest and licked her hand. Then he turned, gave her a last grateful, blazing glance, and leapt over the hedge with one effortless bound. Nora saluted him as he loped away into the cornfields.
“Nora?” her work-from-home dad, Graham, called from inside the house. “Did I just hear thunder? Does it look like rain?”
“No, Dad,” Nora yelled back. “It was just a tiger purring!”
“Oh, of course.” Both Graham and her work-in-town dad, Drew, took her potion accomplishments in stride. Nora wasn’t sure they really understood how her talent worked. “It’s supposed to storm later though, so keep an eye out!”
Nora went to the hose to wash out her potion jar. As she stood musing about what to make next–she was torn between a pine needle brew to give squirrels wings or a dandelion milk smoothie that would bring her little horses to life–a familiar sparrow flitted over the lawn and landed in the lilac bush next to her.
“Nora!” the sparrow chirped. “Drew’s gonna get home from work early. Graham is making zucchini noodles for dinner. If you take a nap you’ll dream about a blue horse.”
When she had been much littler–only five and a quarter, not almost six–Nora had made some of the same revitalizing potion she’d used on the cat for a sick sparrow she’d found on the lawn. But she wasn’t as talented a potion-maker back then, and she’d used green chalk instead of pink, and instead of turning the sparrow into an eagle like she’d meant to, the potion had given the bird the ability to see the future. It was a little weird, to be honest, but she didn’t want to hurt the sparrow’s feelings.
“Thanks,” she told the bird. “That sounds like it would be a cool dream.”
“Also, Nora!” the sparrow trilled. “Lightning will strike your house tonight and burn it down.”
Nora frowned. That didn’t sound good.
“What do you mean, burn it down? Like, the whole thing? With us in it?”
“Lightning will strike your house tonight and burn it down!”
The sparrow was not super articulate. It also had a short attention span, and darted away again before Nora could ask it more. She stood with the hose still running, lost in thought. She didn’t want her house to burn down, but would her parents believe her if she told them what the sparrow had said? And could Drew and Graham stop a lightning storm? Her dads were almost invincible, Nora knew, but a storm seemed like it might be too big even for them.
Her heart nudged her. Potion.
Nora beamed. Of course! All her worries fell away. She’d make a potion to protect the house, and everything would be just fine.
She skipped her nap, with some regrets over missing the blue-horse dream, and spent the afternoon racing back and forth across the yard. This was the most complicated potion she had ever made. Sand from an anthill, petals from a coneflower, bark from a grape vine, spit from Graham–that one took some cajoling–and a dozen other ingredients, all stirred together with a maple twig and an oak twig and a braided stalk of grass, in that order, clockwise and counter-clockwise and finally flipped upside down and shaken until Nora’s arms turned noodly.
Then, following her heart’s instructions, she dabbed globs of her potion all around the base of the house, scraping out the very last bits to draw a smiley face on the front door. Then Nora leaned back, exhausted. It was almost time for dinner. She was looking forward to zucchini noodles.
But then she realized that there was still a nudging in her chest. She wasn’t done yet.
The last ingredient, her heart told her, was the glass shards of her potion jar.
Nora’s lip trembled. She didn’t want to smash her potion jar. She didn’t know if she could make potions without it, and she loved making potions, more than anything.
Well, almost more than anything. She loved her dads and her house the most.
“Is the bird right?” she asked the truth-telling sunflowers. “Will my house burn down without this?”
They nodded their broad yellow heads. “Yes, yes.”
Nora heaved a great sigh. Being a potion-maker, she reflected, was a hard business. “Okay.”
She held the jar high above her head, then dropped it on the sidewalk. It shattered with a crack like the world splitting in two.
“Nora!” Graham was outside in a flash. “What happened? Are you all right?”
“I dropped my jar,” Nora mumbled, and she couldn’t stop two fat tears from dripping down her cheeks.
“Oh, my darling.” Graham scooped her up. “We’ll get you another one, don’t worry!”
“But what if it doesn’t work the same?” Nora wailed.
“It isn’t the jar that makes your potions special, silly!” Her dad smiled. “It’s you!”
Nora sniffled. “Really?”
Graham carried her inside. “Promise.”
Drew came home and said the same thing when Nora told him what had happened to her jar. Mostly reassured, Nora ate her dinner–the noodles were very good–and then went to bed, very tired and still a little sad. She tumbled into exhausted sleep just as raindrops started pounding on the roof.
A few hours later, Nora woke to a flash of pure white light in her window and a crack like the world splitting in two. The house shook like a giant had slammed his fist down on it. Downstairs, her dads shouted.
“I think it hit the house!” she heard Drew yell. “I’ll go check–”
The front door opened and slammed. Rain slashed across Nora’s window.
Graham’s footsteps came thumping up the stairs. “Nora–”
“I’m fine!” Nora called. “The house is fine too.”
Graham burst into her room. “Nora! You must be so scared–it’s going to be okay–”
Nora yawned. “Actually, I’m just pretty tired.”
Graham didn’t look like he believed her. His face was as frightened as the cat’s had been before it was a tiger. I should make him some potion tomorrow, Nora reflected sleepily, to help him be braver, like me.
Use sugar instead of chalk, her heart whispered, unless you want him turning into a tiger.
What about the jar?
Who needs a jar?
The front door opened again. “Never mind, it must have missed us,” Drew called. “Not a scratch on the house. Everything’s okay!”
Nora settled back into bed and smiled. Her potions always worked. Always.