The witch lived in such a cute little cottage. Well, little by Greenwich standards, anyway. Four bedrooms felt quite extravagant when the witch first moved in after her divorce, but one was a library and one was a work room, and a woman of a certain age should absolutely have a well-appointed guestroom, and, well, it felt cozy now. Her cedar shingles were perfectly aged. Her landscaping threaded the very unlikely needle between flashy and prim. Great curb appeal. Nothing, from the outside, that screamed “master of dark arts” – regardless of whether you meant “witch” or “new money.”
This was the right address. The young woman standing on the front porch was both confused and impressed. She was knocking at the door of a kind of home that you see in magazines. What kind of a witch was she about to encounter? She began to have doubts.
Still, she had put a lot of effort into tracking down a genuine practitioner of elemental sorcery. She needed this to be real. She knocked again, too soon after the first raps to be polite.
Gabby yanked open the door before the girl on her doorstep could ring the doorbell. The poor thing froze, finger outstretched, millimeters before reaching the button on the jamb. She gaped. Gabby sighed.
“So, what do you want?”
The girl composed herself, re-centered her body over her tiny but firmly planted feet. Gabby didn’t need to check her aura to see the earnesty flowing through her veins. It flowed like a river. After a rainstorm. During the spring melt. Bubbling until it nearly boiled. Babbling just shy of a scream.
“Hello,” she said, softly. “I need a potion.”
“Ugh,” said Gabby. “Come on in.”
The witch, a little unbalanced herself at the unexpected intrusion, paused in the foyer before saying, “Well, let’s sit you here…in the sitting room.” She waved the young thing over to a sofa and told her to wait while she brought some refreshments. Gabby hightailed it to the kitchen.
Her laptop was open on the counter next to her mug. Natalie was still on the screen, curious about the interruption to their morning video schmooze. Best friends at the Academy, they liked to drink their coffee together, chattering on about anything and everything as they puttered around their respective kitchens to start the day.
“Client?” Natalie didn’t look up from the crossword she was now peering into, pencil tapping on her lips.
“Yes. No appointment, obviously. What am I going to offer her?” Gabby grabbed the leftover coffee and put it on a tray, then started opening cabinets.
“Three wishes? A glimpse of the sublime that underwrites our earthly reality?”
Some of their colleagues had noted out loud more than once that Natalie was an acquired taste, but Gabby melted for her. Their magics meshed well. Eyes still on her puzzle, Natalie smirked and continued, “Shortbread doggies. Second shelf, cabinet next to the fridge. And a small bowl of blueberries.”
With a nudge from her friend, Gabby felt her confidence pop its head confidently above the water. Most witches took over established practices. It was daunting but satisfying to be on her own. She was steadily building a book of business. She was good – maybe great – at the witching part. She just had to remember that. The rest would come. But she couldn’t afford to turn away walk-ins. Not yet.
The witch fetched the cookies, conjured the blueberries, took a deep breath. “Right, then,” she said, picking up the tray, “Thanks, love. Call you later?”
“I don’t have anywhere to be,” said Natalie. “Leave the thing running.”
Gabby wrapped herself in a quick glamour and strode into her sitting room. Nothing much – just a little something to give her brown eyes a pop of gold, tame the hair she couldn’t control by natural means. The girl was sitting like a greyhound on the edge of the sofa, trembling slightly, as if that were perhaps her resting state of existence, rather than traceable to a particular fear. Gabby wanted to just hug her, instantly, but knew better. Boundaries. Besides, it might settle the poor thing to have someone else in control of this conversation.
“So.” said Gabby, and waited for the girl to begin.
She didn’t. She twisted her fingers until the blood went out of them.
Gabby put down the tray and poured the poor kid a cup of coffee. She tried again. “So,” she said, holding out the mug.
The girl accepted, and looked into Gabby’s eyes, searching for something, but still said nothing.
“What are you doing in my house?” Gabby asked.
“I need a potion,” she said, voice taut as piano wire, without any of the quivering betrayal of her body.
“Ah,” said Gabby, and sat back to take a better look at the young woman.
She was tiny, but her limbs looked freshly stretched, like a teenager fresh off a growth spurt who hasn’t had time to fill in around the new length on her limbs. The combo gave the impression of a vulnerable child.
On second look, that wasn’t the case at all. She wasn’t nearly as young as she first seemed. Young, yes, but from the perspective of a crone in training, most young women seem like barely ripe fruit. When Gabby looked more carefully, this one seemed to have an iron core. A weighty center.
The young woman put her coffee onto the tray. “I’ve been searching for –“ She stopped herself. “Never mind. I have it on good authority that you can sell me a potion. Chiku. I want to Eat Bitter.”
Gabby maintained her composure, but quickly darkened the room a tick or two, wanting a little extra shadow to hide behind in case her face became too honest. “That’s a very informed request.”
“Can you do it, or not?”
“What do you require in return?”
Gabby held her breath. They were both intoning their words, as if performing a ritual for an unseen audience, and the deep ringing language in their heavy velvet voices, low and low and somber…it send a shiver up her back, and when she felt the tickling in her neck, she shook her head and yelped.
“AH! Enough!” She popped the room back into its natural light, and slapped a hand to her forehead. “Look, it’s not what you want. Who sent you here, anyway? Have you not read enough fairy tales?”
Gabby gave up the measured gravitas and grace she tried to hide behind every time a client came looking for a powerful witch. She justified it to Natalie on occasions when Natalie teased her about her “witch voice.” Fake it till you make it. Natalie shrugged it off and just said it seemed like a lot of work. Well, it took a focus she couldn’t keep up right now.
Why did it have to be that potion?
Chiku, mainstay of many a local witch, the all purpose potion, they were taught. A blameless draught.
Gabby couldn’t stand it. Almost all of her clients, at first, came seeking it. It was a mainstay, after all. The kind of magic women whisper about to each other, the kind people want enough to come looking for.
Most witches loved it because it was such a straightforward potion – you drank it, it gave you what you wanted most. And so everyone got what they deserved.
“I know what I want,” said the girl.
“Do you?” Gabby’s eyes shot into hers. “DO you?”
“I know what I want,” she repeated, but her eyes fell to the floor.
Gabby threw her head and shoulders back in a full body pout, the kind one associates with moody teenagers and Paul Rudd. Rudd-ing. She was Rudding, and couldn’t help it, refused to stop herself. Maybe it would cause the client to think less of her, to doubt her skills and rethink this insane potion idea. She tumbled herself into a slump, halfway off the couch. She peeked to see if her performance had any effect on the girl, but she couldn’t see from where she’d landed her body. She picked herself up and rearranged herself properly back on the furniture, which would have been a very long and awkward scene if the girl had been watching instead of lost in her own head, a single tear welling then spilling over, leaving a wet trail down, down, down her cheek and off the cliff of her jaw.
“It doesn’t give you what you ask for,” Gabby said, leaning in and putting a hand on the girl’s knee. “It gives you what you want most. Even if you do know what that is, most of us are better off without our raw desires.”
They sat in silence.
The girl finally wiped her face, and met Gabby’s eyes again. “I want the Chiku.”
“It means hardship, you know that? It’s a potion named after suffering! What’s wrong with you? It’s in the name! It’s a warning!”
“It can’t be undone, this potion. There’s no antidote, no saving you when things go all wrong.” Gabby stood up and began to pace in her own small room, the walls closing in on her.
“I think your cause and effect is backwards,” said the girl, softly, like a blade so sharp you don’t feel a thing until you look at where it’s been and see the blood it’s drawn. “It’s not something that causes suffering, it’s something you take when the suffering has already found you.”
Gabby felt her heart snag on a sentiment she didn’t actually understand. She wanted to keep arguing until the girl folded. Instead, she relented, albeit ungracefully.
“You can only take the draught once. The second time Chiku touches your lips, you die.”
“It’s a one-way ticket, no backsies. Got it.” The girl smiled. Triumph agreed with her. She opened the purse she was clutching on her lap. “How much?”
Gabby was filled with hope. She named a price that she hoped would be a deterrent.
Alas, the girl wrote a check, smiling.
“Fine.” Gabby took it from her, held it to the light on principle, pretending to look for watermarks or something. She didn’t really care if it cashed. “Fine. But I warned you.”
She left the girl and went to her workroom to decant a bit of potion into one of the cute apothecary bottles she’d just gotten at the white elephant sale, raising money for the local animal shelter. They were quite charming, and the aesthetics almost improved her mood. The last time she did this, she’d had to use a leftover takeout Tupperware.
“Don’t. I’m begging you,” she said, holding the bottle out to the girl. “You’ll regret this.”
The girl reached out. She took the bottle and cradled it.
“Well, house rules, I’m not going to watch you do this. Get out. Take it anywhere else, just not here.”
The girl smiled, more beautiful than when she’d walked in, now that she was free of the tension that had bound her so tightly. Her weight was lifted. “I won’t blame you, no matter what happens,” she said. “I’m very grateful.”
Gabby sighed and showed her the door.
“Chiku, eh?” Natalie was still fussing with her crossword when Gabby brought the tray of coffee and nibbles back into the kitchen.
“It’s depressing. Like Women’s Studies Sociology PhD Thesis depressing,” Gabby muttered as she plopped herself onto the counter stool in front of the laptop. Her hands etched a figure in the air and her mug, freshly filled with hot coffee was suddenly in them.
Natalie shrugged. “You think she’s a vanisher? My last Chiku client was kind of sweet. Wanted her cat to live forever. I mean, that’s going to get ugly, but…”
Gabby’s eyes flashed. “She’s a vanisher. I’m sure of it. I’ve had six since March. The first one said she wanted to be free from other peoples’ expectations. She went through a full box of tissues while we were talking. She didn’t want to let down her kids, or her husband, or her sick mom, or not be there for book club, or forget to send her friends real cards and not just some online note on their birthday, or buy snacks instead of making them when it’s her week to be class mom, or skip her spin class to read a book. I get it. I get it. But what did she want in her heart of hearts? To simply not have to deal with any of it. She took two swigs, sighed, and vanished.”
Natalie clucked in sympathy, but shrugged.
Gabby started to flush, her voice escalating towards a rather un-witchy yell. “The next one was in distress at the state of the universe. She said she wanted to make a difference. But…poof. Then came the woman with a lover and a husband who said she wanted to stop feeling torn apart in her soul. So overdramatic. And so gone. The one after that said she wanted strength to deal with her grief, and the one after that, I swear she told me she wanted to fit into her skinny jeans for the rest of eternity. That seemed shallow enough to be true.”
Her voice returned to a frizzled whisper. “The last one said she wanted to be seen, really seen, have everyone else know her true worth. Which, apparently, she priced at zero.”
“Six in a row, Nat,” said Gabby. “What is it with women these days, convinced to their core that what they want is to be invisible. To not be. I can’t watch another woman fade from existence.”
“I had two last month,” said Natalie, putting her paper down, and for once, meeting Gabby’s eyes through the screen. Gabby could feel an astral hug coming through the ether, squeezing her shoulders. It wasn’t the fierce enveloping she wanted from Nat in person, but it was better than nothing.
“It just sucks,” grumped Gabby.
“It’s sobering,” agreed Natalie.
“As a feminist, it’s bullshit. It’s – “
Gabby’s thought evaporated. She goggled, agape, at something through the window.
She found her voice. “Nat, I need you. Here. Now.”
Natalie sighed and winked out of existence on the screen, materializing on the other side of the counter. She rubbed her jaw. “Ugh. Makes my fillings hurt. Every time.”
Gabby said nothing, just pointed.
“Oh,” said Natalie. “Oh my. Well, that’s not what you were expecting.”
Parked on the street in front of Gabby’s house was a little silver Jetta, and in that Jetta was a full-sized – meaning gigantic – bear.
Gabby grabbed onto Natalie’s arm. “What do we do with that???”
Neither one of them had any good ideas. They argued halfheartedly for a bit, laughing before long, decided they were a bit peckish and shouldn’t be dealing with bears on empty stomachs. They walked down the street to a cute little French place for pastries. When they got back, the bear was still in the car, the upholstery more than a little worse for the wear. The two witches stood in the yard, staring.
“What. On. Earth?” Natalie wondered aloud, with more tenderness than Gabby expected from her unflappable friend.
“I have to let her out,” said Gabby. “It’s time.”
Natalie wanted to use a spell from a safe distance, but Gabby was determined to do this up close and personal. It felt respectful. It felt visceral. It would help her sleep better at night, she was sure.
Gabby walked up to the little car, Natalie at the ready with a charm that would stop even a barreling bear in its tracks, something that was usually a figure of speech and not quite so literal a concern. Nat raised her paper mug of coffee in a salute to let Gabby know she was ready, offering her own unspoken blessings to the thing in the car. She raised an eyebrow at Gabby, who crinkled her nose back.
Gabby stood for a moment, looking through the window. The bear turned, slowly maneuvering its body so that it could stare back at the witch through the driver’s window, a small crumb of seat foam still on its snout, a thread of drool tracking back to its shoulder. Gabby put out her hand to touch the glass, and shivered when the bear put her huge paw of dinner plate and knives up to the other side.
She felt like this was about to be a cinematic moment of life, the kind where the string orchestra swells as two beings share a connection with the deepest gravitas before going their separate ways…but instead, as she reached to open the car door, she was hit with the full realization that she was releasing a giant damned bear from a tin can and had no idea what it wanted to do next. She yanked open the door with a squeal and ran, flapping, into her yard, little yelps falling out of her with each step.
According to Natalie, the bear seemed to think that was amusing, lumbering its body out of the small car and then pausing to watch the retreating witch. Nat certainly thought it was hysterical, and had the video from her phone to prove it.
But the two witches put their arms around each other for comfort and solidarity, even as they each tied themselves up in their own messy feelings about this crazy damn world with such people in it.
“Why a bear, do you think?” whispered Natalie.
“Dunno,” said Gabby. “What do you think comes next?”
“Rampage,” said Natalie. “Definitely rampage.”
The bear huffed a little. She began to amble, then run, down the street until the road took a turn, and in a moment she was out of sight.
“I hope bear means freedom,” said Gabby, “Whatever that means. To her.”
“But, I mean, it’s going to be a rampage,” said Natalie, with a grin. “Come on, I’ll help you brew more Bitter. There’ll be more clients, come looking.”
Gabby sighed, and made a mental note to set up a google alert for bear stories in the local news. Natalie was right; she would need extra inventory soon. Besides, it was nice to have the company, and the potion did make the whole house smell like peonies for days. The two witches went inside, linked at their elbows, to spend the rest of the morning bubbling and toiling, together.