Emma rang July’s doorbell, bouncing on her toes in excitement. Their lessons usually started with July asking her if there was a particular subject she wanted to address, and today there certainly was. A few days ago, she had watched The Wizard of Oz after her parents went to bed, and now she couldn’t stop thinking about witches. Why didn’t Glinda have a Familiar? Why was the Wicked Witch green? Did that happen to real-life Bad Witches too? She couldn’t wait to learn everything!
When July answered the door, she seemed even more serious than usual. “Hi, Emma. Come in.” As she knelt by the door to take off her shoes, her tutor went on, “I wanted to talk about—”
“Wait, I have one for today!” Emma said quickly. “Can we talk about witches? I have so many questions.”
“We can talk about that in a minute, but first I need to—”
“Have you watched The Wizard of Oz?” she persisted, getting to her feet. She didn’t mean to be rude by interrupting, but her mind had been buzzing with these thoughts all weekend. Really, it was almost like July was interrupting her. “Are those witches anything like real witches?”
July frowned hard and took a deep breath. “Emma, there’s something else we need to talk about first.”
“I can’t.” A whine snuck into her voice as she fidgeted with her sweater sleeves, stretching them out by twisting her hands together. She was trying not to be a brat about this—as her parents might say—but she really, really needed to address this subject before her brain could move on to a different one. “I’m not gonna be able to think about anything else right now. Can’t we talk about it later? Please?” The look July gave her was a difficult one to decipher, but at least she didn’t look angry.
“All right,” she conceded, taking her usual chair by the hall and gesturing for Emma to sit on the couch. “What is it you want to know?”
“Um. About witches.” Emma sat down, curling her legs up underneath her. “I want to know everything. Like, are there really Good Witches and Bad Witches?”
“Good and bad are subjective terms. Based on opinions, not facts,” July clarified. “There are witches who are more generous than others, and there are some who only care about themselves. Just like all people.”
“So…they don’t really turn green.”
A very slight smile curved July’s lips as she shook her head. “Not as far as I know. Some of them do have physical characteristics related to their magic specialties—like fire witches with scorched fingertips or space witches with dilated eyes. But nothing that extreme.”
“I didn’t even know different specialties were a thing! What’s a space witch?” Emma asked, leaning forward in her seat. “Is being a witch, like, a job? And that’s why there are different kinds? I don’t know what kind of job you’d do with space magic. Do they just have regular jobs like normal people? How—”
“Hang on, hang on.” July held up both hands to stem her constant flow of inquiry. “I can only answer one question at a time.”
“Sorry,” Emma mumbled, withdrawing bashfully. “There’s just so much I want to learn.”
“I know, and I like that about you,” her tutor said with a smile. “Of course, I want to help as much as possible, but I may not be the best teacher for this subject. Would you be interested in talking to a witch in person?”
Emma’s eyes grew wide with excitement. “Can we? That would be so cool!”
“Then I guess we’re going on a field trip,” July agreed.
She grinned and hopped up from the couch to put her shoes back on. “Where are we going? Are you friends with a witch or something?”
“Well, I know of somewhere we should at least be able to find one. Let’s hope she’s in the mood to talk.”
Because she and her parents hadn’t been downtown much, every place they passed was new to Emma. July made sure they stayed close together as she led the way down the sidewalk to what looked like a very small and very old shop, easy to miss among the taller buildings. There was a sign in the window that read: The CROSSROADS, Owned and Operated by Norah T. Colbert. The rest of the window was covered from the inside, making it impossible to see through.
“Is this it? Is it a store?” Emma asked, surveying the place intently. It didn’t look like much, from what she could tell. July simply nodded and opened up the door for her.
When they stepped inside, Emma first noticed that the opposite wall was lined with several other doors. In fact, the one they had used was only one of a long line, as well. Each one had the name of a city on a plaque above it: Fresno, Boston, Albany, Austin, and several others. But that was hardly the strangest thing in the room. The store was bigger than it had looked on the outside and filled with free-standing shelves, many of which were labeled with words Emma only partially recognized, words like Divination and Alchemy. The lighting was dim, casting the far corners of the room into shadow, and she was equal parts curious and unsettled when she considered what might be hidden there. Before she could ask, however, their arrival was noted by the store’s owner.
“July. What a surprise to see you here, and in daylight, no less.” The greeting came from a woman who stood inside a circular counter in the center of the room, tying up small bundles of dried herbs. Her voice sounded older than she looked, and she had a thick French accent. “Did your last stock of purifying salts run out so quickly?”
“Hello, Norah,” July answered, somewhat rigidly. “I’m actually not here to shop.”
“No? You’ve just come for a friendly chat, hm?”
“Not for myself. But I have a student, you might say, who’s been dying to meet a witch in person.”
There was a moment of silence as Norah’s pale blue eyes flicked down toward Emma, who was practically beside herself with poorly-contained excitement, then back up to July. “I see,” she said curtly, all traces of mirth gone from her voice. “Rather like a trip to a zoo, then.” Emma winced at the suggestion, and July easily countered it.
“Not like that. Like I said, I’m trying to teach her, but this isn’t a subject I’m widely versed in. You, on the other hand, know more than nearly anyone else we could ask. If you wouldn’t mind, we’d really appreciate you sharing your experience.”
Emma didn’t dare speak, admittedly a bit nervous behind her eagerness. After all, she had heard some pretty scary things about witches. This one certainly fit the typical image: a pale, dark-haired woman, pretty in a sort of scary way, dressed in a style Emma could only describe as Grown-up Goth. It wasn’t difficult to frame her as sinister.
After a moment of thought, the witch raised her head and whistled sharply, causing Emma to flinch. Seeing July remain confident, as usual, helped her to relax again. A few seconds later, there was a sound of wings over their heads, and a severe black crow with a calm, dark blue aura glided in to land on the counter in front of them. It turned an inquisitive look toward the witch, but her eyes were fixed on Emma.
“What is your name, young lady?”
“Um. Emma,” she answered quietly, trying and failing to mimic July’s self-assurance.
“Mine is Norah. This is my Familiar, Casimir. Have you heard anything about us?”
“Before today? No. Should I have?” she asked, looking up to her tutor.
“She’s been a bit sheltered,” July explained. To Emma, she went on, “As far as witches go, Norah is pretty well-known. She’s a representative for magic-users in America. Your parents might have seen her in the news.”
The witch now addressed the crow directly as she set aside the dried lavender and sage she’d been working with. “Emma is July’s ‘student.’ She’s interested in learning about witchcraft.” The crow let out a sound that could almost have been mistaken for laughter.
“And I would be pleased to teach you, chérie, were I not already committed.” It spoke, and Emma’s mouth fell open. She had heard that Familiars could talk, but seeing it in person was different. He had an accent like Norah’s but less pronounced.
“She doesn’t want to be a witch,” July clarified, unfazed. “She’s a Seer like me; she only needs to know how it works.”
“Evidently not like you,” Casimir answered coolly. “Otherwise, she would have no interest in learning from us and would rather ignore us unless she needs something.” Norah gave him a reproachful look, and July rolled her eyes. She had mentioned before that she wasn’t great at making friends. Feeling the need to stand up for her teacher and cut the tension, Emma took a small step forward.
“But she brought me here because you guys know better,” she pointed out. “I have questions that are hard to answer from the outside, and we want to make sure I don’t miss anything I might need. Um. Just if you don’t mind.”
“See how polite she is, ma moitié,” Norah said, satisfied, poking Casimir so he rustled his wings indignantly. “We can answer a few questions. What would you like to know?”
“Well, how did you two meet? How does this”—Emma gestured at them—“whole thing work?”
“It’s been quite some time,” Norah explained. “Longer than a lady cares to admit. Casimir and I met before witchcraft was ever considered to be officially ‘legalized’ anywhere. It was much more difficult to summon spirits at the time, due in large part to restrictions on knowledge and necessary resources.”
“Resources like what?” Emma asked, coming closer still to rest her elbows on the counter.
“Like the things we sell here.” She gestured with one ring-beaded hand to the baskets of dried herbs beside her, rune stones on the shelves nearby, and the rows and rows of books lining the back of the room. “Much of it isn’t commonly found from a reliable source, and for some time, it’s been dangerous to seek them out—which is the reason we’re here now.”
“Like a magic grocery store,” Emma said with a grin. “So how did you two find each other? I mean, if it was harder then.”
“My family has had its fair share of magic-users,” Norah said. “Two of my aunts, my maternal grandmother and both of her parents.”
“Really? Like, your whole family is full of witches?”
“Hm! Certainly not. I’m the only one in my generation,” Norah said thoughtfully. “And that was only made possible by the others sharing what they’d learned. It was a privilege to know the ways of spirits at that time, and fewer were willing to be bound to mortals.”
July’s eyes swept the room every few minutes as if looking for threats. Their lessons had never taken them outside her house before, and it seemed like being in public made her more paranoid. “I guess more of them have realized the benefits of the arrangement since then.”
“Yes, and she asked about that, too,” Casimir agreed. Emma was still trying to figure out how, scientifically, he spoke English with a beak. “Each spirit is different in its priorities and demands, but I believe the standard agreement is for a spirit to lends a mortal its power for a hundred years.”
“And then?” July prompted.
“And then, the witch’s soul belongs to the spirit, to do with as it pleases.”
At the mention of trading souls, Emma visibly deflated. How did the conversation always come back to that? “But it doesn’t have to be that, right? I mean, couldn’t you trade something else?”
Norah exchanged a glance with Casimir and replied, “I’m afraid we rarely have anything else that they want.”
“But why do they want it? What do they—” She looked at Casimir directly and asked, “What do you do with it?” He shifted uncomfortably, talons clicking against the counter as he moved away from her.
“Again, each spirit is different. Some keep their witches as servants. Sometimes permanently. Others collect souls as one would a medal of honor. And some…consume them.” He and Norah both seemed uneasy about the subject. “Er, but there are plenty of partnerships that persist even once the agreed century is up. If a spirit decides he likes his witch well enough—”
His explanation was interrupted as another of the doors opened, the one labeled ‘Boston.’ As it closed, the young woman who had entered saw all four of them looking in her direction and withdrew nervously.
“Oh. Am I interrupting something?” she asked, already backing toward the door. “I can come back later if I need to.”
“Nonsense, ma choupinette,” Norah called, beckoning her closer. “You know you’re always welcome here.”
As much as Emma wanted to go back to their conversation, she had gotten distracted by the new arrival’s appearance. She must have been a witch; her left hand was covered with a leather glove, on which a barn owl stood, observing the room critically. But where was her dark, scary clothing? Where was her subtly disquieting presence? She was wearing pastels, for Heaven’s sake.
Suddenly, Emma realized: she must be a Good Witch like Glinda! But what did that mean for Norah?
“Her name is Marie,” July said, noticing Emma’s staring.
“You know her?”
“Yes. She’s a friend I met through my channel,” she explained. “We’ve made a few videos together in the past.”
Now that she said so, there was something similar in their clothing styles too—though Marie’s body type was much closer to Emma’s. July always looked so fancy in her sleek layers of silk and velvet, but Emma felt that stuff wouldn’t look as good on her. Yet there was this witch who definitely wasn’t tall or skinny like July but still looked cute in her frills and ruffles.
“Um. Can I—I mean, can we talk to her, too?” Emma asked. Norah had been what she’d expected, but this girl was something else entirely. July glanced at Norah, who gratefully dismissed them so she could go back to work. The two Seers crossed the room to where Marie was looking through a wide selection of feathers. Her Familiar saw them first and chirped to get her attention. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled.
“July! I was wondering why you were back so soon,” she said. Her eyes quickly fell on Emma, who was trying her best not to stare. Up close, she could see Marie had bright green eyes—no, they were actually doll-eye contacts—contrasting the bubblegum-pink of her curled pigtails. Between her puffy skirt and rosy cheeks, she really did look like a doll. “Who’s this?”
“This is Emma. She’s a Seer, and I’m teaching her what I know,” July explained.
“Hi, Emma. I’m Marie,” the witch said with a smile. The owl on her arm made a sound again, and she quickly added, “And this is my Familiar, Donatella. Did you guys come here for a lesson about witches?”
“Yeah. Are you—?” Emma caught herself, realizing it was probably impolite to ask if one was a Good Witch or a Bad Witch. “Have you been a witch for very long?”
“Oh, am I being interviewed?” Marie laughed. “It’s been about seven years now, I think.”
“But we knew each other for some time before that.” The owl finally spoke, hopping off Marie’s hand to stand on top of a shelf nearby. Her voice was softer and more even than Casimir’s. Emma wondered whether that had to do with the species difference. Her aura was difficult to discern, as it was a similar beige to her feathers. “For whatever good that knowledge does you. Hello, July.”
“Hi, Ella. I wasn’t ignoring you. Are you two getting supplies for another video?”
“Yes!” Marie said, gladly taking off the thick leather glove and shaking out her well-manicured hand. “We’re doing charms this week. Small, inconspicuous ones with casual enchantments. Good luck, memory, that sort of thing. People have been asking for them a lot.”
“Wait, do you put magic stuff on YouTube?” Emma asked, eyes widening. “Do people do that?”
“Oh, sure! All different kinds of magic, and they’ve been doing it for years. It’s not all I do, but that’s definitely the main subject of my channel,” Marie said. “July and I do collabs sometimes, which is always fun. She’s the whole reason I started, after all.” July wore a hesitant and tight-lipped smile, which Emma had begun to recognize as the closest she came to blushing.
“And you just hit the eight million subscriber milestone,” she noted. “I think you’re doing much better than I ever will. You’re not giving yourself enough credit.”
“I agree,” Donatella chirped. “Everything you do is your own invention—you aren’t regurgitating hundred-year-old spells you learned from your grandmother like some people.” She raised her head and glanced toward the counter, where Norah and Casimir were having a spirited conversation in French.
“I guess so,” Marie said bashfully. “I couldn’t do it without you, though.”
“Do you guys have the same kind of deal as them?” Emma asked, nodding toward the room’s other occupants.
Donatella’s head turned sharply toward Emma, and she snapped, “What makes you think the details of our relationship are any of your business?”
“Wh—I-I’m sorry, I didn’t—” Emma stammered, realizing she must have gotten too comfortable asking these questions of perfect strangers. July spoke over her, placing her hands on her shoulders to pull her back a bit.
“She wasn’t trying to pry. I brought her here so that she could learn. It’s all right, Emma.”
“It is not ‘all right,’” the owl screeched, pacing on the shelf and puffing up in indignation. “Are you the one teaching her that we’re nothing but a lesson she’s entitled to learn? Rather than pushing her on us, you should teach her to stay on her own side so she doesn’t end up—”
“That’s enough.” This was the first time Emma had heard that particular tone in July’s voice. Mild irritation was one thing, but she sounded furious. Before Donatella could retort, Marie turned a surprisingly cool gaze up at her.
“Ella. Relax.” There was a moment of tension between the two, but the Familiar quickly backed down, flying off to sulk in another part of the store. When Marie looked back at Emma, her smile had returned, weak and apologetic. “I’m sorry. That was really uncalled-for. I hope she didn’t scare you or anything. That’s a personal subject for us, and she really doesn’t like talking about it. But she still shouldn’t have said…” Seeing July shake her head, she trailed off.
“It’s getting late,” July said gently to Emma. “We should be going.” Emma nodded silently. Already leading her toward the Albany door, July added to Marie, “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay. Um. Bye, then.”
Once they were outside, July released her but still stayed close. “I’m sorry. I should’ve warned you. That subject in particular is an issue for Donatella, and she’s the type of spirit who’s very touchy about respect.” When her student didn’t respond, she added, “Are you okay? She wouldn’t have hurt you.”
“It’s not that,” Emma sniffled, staring at her shoes as they walked. “I’m embarrassed. I feel bad for asking, like they were just there to teach me. I didn’t even think about them being…actual people.” Saying it aloud made it sound even worse, but she realized that was how she’d approached this, with the idea that witches and spirits were more creatures than people. That wasn’t fair.
“You’re young,” July pointed out. “And still learning. She shouldn’t have been so hard on you. But that’s one of the important things to know about spirits: they’re unpredictable. Perfectly fine one minute, then grossly offended the next. Just like any other immortal, we still have to be careful around them.”
“Yeah,” Emma muttered, nodding. “I understand. I’m glad you let me see it for myself, though. That helps, I think.”
July smiled. Glancing at her phone, she said, “It’s only 4:48. I think there’s still time for tea at my house, if you want.”
Emma looked up at her, blinking her red eyes clear and smiling sheepishly. “That sounds good. Does Marie have videos on her channel about witchy stuff? Maybe we could watch some of them and keep talking about it?” This lesson had been her favorite so far, but if July had hoped that seeing them in person would make Emma dislike or fear immortals more, the plan had sort of backfired.