‘The Shack’ was a wholly inaccurate name for the witches’ place. It was a bungalow covered in vines because of course it was, and it didn’t appear as big on the outside, but it was huge on the inside. Labyrinthine, almost— maybe it was my dizziness from the broomstick ride but… oh god, the broomstick ride.
When I was all dressed up, had locked my apartment’s door and come outside, I’d seen the five women with three vehicles. Stella leaning with her shoes crossed against her light-devouring black, evil-looking motorbike, Isha killing time reading a book balanced on the steering wheel of a pretty car with a blue-and-green gradient finish, Camila riding shotgun with a cigarette between her long carmine nails, Jenny in the back with her elbow resting on the window, absorbed in the few flowers in my building’s small front garden and Magistera Seleni checking her pocket watch, her other hand holding a broomstick, and Catpurrnicus sitting solemnly near her feet.
Stella straight away refused to let me ride her bike. Jenny offered me to sit in the back of the car. Magistera didn’t say anything but her expression indicated the broomstick was open, but not the best choice.
Of course I picked the broomstick.
I was being abducted by a bunch of witches because of a cat! When else would I get the chance to ride an actual magical broom?
Two minutes into the ride I’d realised why Magistera had wordlessly warned me against it. Imagine being on the biggest, scariest roller-coaster of your life. Then multiply the scariness to the edge of your imagination. Forget gravity for a moment. Now take away the rails. Take away the car. Take away the seat and the seatbelt. You’re just clinging on to that metal rod thing they latch in the front for dear life. Now bring back gravity and imagine the metal rod having some sort of a motor that enables it to fly at the same speed and with the same ups and downs of the original roller-coaster. And you’re flying with it, your legs wrapped around that stick and your knuckles white from holding on so tight.
That’s close to what the broomstick ride was like. Although Magistera was a good flyer and avoided sudden jerks, although Catpurrnicus’s warm furry body was pressed close to my chest, I did vomit into the wind twice or thrice. Fortunately, it didn’t leave any splashes.
After arriving there, Stella and Camila took turns guessing the number of times I would’ve thrown up, with Jenny trying to defend me as a first-timer and prompting Isha to explain how vomiting would’ve been a reflex, which she did, and Magistera finally telling all of them off.
Now I was inside The Shack, with just Magistera and Isha to show me around and teach me the ropes. And of course, Catpurrnicus, the source of all trouble, was trotting along snobbishly between me and the older woman.
“Are there any people living here? Besides the five of you, I mean?”
“Of course, dear. And you’ll get a roommate too,” Magistera replied.
“A roommate? You- you mean to say I’ll be living here?”
“What else did you think?” Isha furrowed her brows in a way that clearly indicated ‘what else’ was an obviously dumb idea.
“Witches-in-training need the proper atmosphere, camaraderie and guidance,” Magistera said. “And it’s not like you can sit around doing magic at home, right?”
“Uh… well, yeah. But what about college, my family, my friends….” I trailed off.
“Seriously, Alex? You get to learn magic here and you’re thinking about going back to Philosophy?” said Isha.
“Philosophy and Physics,” I corrected. “How’d you get that anyway?”
“The books on your desk,” she shrugged. “Anyway, here’s my room-slash-workplace. I suggest you get a look at it first before we head on to Magistera’s… dungeons,” she cocked her eyebrow at the older woman, to which she gave a small smile. Probably an inside joke she was used to hearing.
Isha’s quarters were…. brown. Overwhelmingly so. Almost everything seemed to belong to different shades of it or some other neutral colour, like white or grey or peach. An unmade bed lay at the intersection of the left and back walls with a lamp atop a small bedside cabinet. The left wall had a huge window with the curtains open and little potted plants sitting on the windowsill, one of which was growing small purple flowers of some kind. A wardrobe and a bookshelf stood side-by-side pushed against the right-side wall. That seemed to be all that belonged to the ‘room’ part of it.
Which was way neater than the ‘workplace’ part. The dark-academia vibe gave way to the chaotic here: desk strewn with notebooks under a mug and post-its caught in the solidified wax of a now burnt-out candle (was that a hint of lavender I was picking up?) , an in-wall table with a coffee pot under a messy shelf of vials and jars and boxes, the carpeted floor near the hearth rug littered with a large and heavily annotated book, a sweatshirt, a pen stuck between the pages of a notebook and a— was that a violin? I looked again to make sure. Yep, definitely a violin, half-covered by the sweatshirt.
Right on the side of the room’s door was a wooden box with a latch stuck to the wall. Huh. That was weird. I wondered what it was for.
I nodded and stepped further in with them, heading for the shelf above the coffee-pot table.
“These are the basic ingredients you need for potion-making,” Magistera informed me. “And that— ” she pointed to the box stuck to the wall “— is where you make them.”
She started towards it to explain, but Catpurrnicus was faster and had already leapt up and flicked the latch before she got there. “Showing off to our new recruit, eh?” she picked him up and scratched behind his ear affectionately.
Turned out, the box wasn’t a box at all. It was more of a door to a stone alcove with a cauldron resting inside. Ah.
“Isha, there’s a reason the door sticks out,” she shook her head and pulled out the cauldron on a tray.
The potion-station was basically an oven.
“Even when it’s not lit, you know it stays warm and can affect the—”
“I know, I know. Won’t happen again. Sorry.”
She closed the oven back up and clapped her hands together. “Right, I’ll just have to prep up my place a bit, Alex dear, so you’ll have to wait a bit. Isha can show you some more things, meanwhile. I hope you don’t mind?”
We sat on the carpet and I pulled out the violin from under the sweatshirt. “You play?”
“Can I see?”
She hesitated for a moment and then sighed. “Ah, well, it’s just one person.” She rested her chin on it and began playing out a melody I didn’t know, but it sounded good. Happy and bouncy at first, and then slowly transitioning to slow and melancholy.
I chuckled. “What’s so funny?” she stopped all of a sudden. “Am I that bad?”
“Oh, no, no, you were doing great. That’s not why I laughed.”
“I don’t know. Like, you’re a witch, right? So you can just, I dunno, enchant the instruments to play by themselves, and yet here you are, playing the violin like a normal person, without any magic.”
“Enchant the instruments?”
“Yeah, you know, like Merlin in The Sword and the Stone.”
At that she burst out laughing.
“What? You mean you can’t do that?”
“Of course not,” there was still a hint of the laugh remaining in her voice. “I know all of this is new for you, but did you see witches and seriously think ‘Disney’?”
“Ah… well, no, I thought ‘Harry Potter’…”
“Of course you did.”
“…but you playing the violin reminded me of that scene in Sword and the Stone in Merlin’s house where the tea’s pouring itself, the broom’s sweeping the floor, and so on.”
“I don’t remember there being an instrument in any of those.”
“I think there was a piano. I’m not sure.”
“Sword and the Stone.” She chuckled and shook her head. “That’s a first.”
“You mean you’ve been kidnapping before?”
“Hey now, it’s called recruitment.”
“Personally, I’ve brought in a couple more trainees before you, but I have met some of the others. Nick bringing in one, of course, is a first-time incident.”
“It’s what we call Catpurrnicus when he or Magistera aren’t around. Don’t tell him, he gets livid when anyone nicknames him.” She shuddered. “A week-old trainee referred to him as ‘Catty’ once to his face. Poor guy would’ve been mutilated if not for Magistera.”
“Huh. Seems strange. I called him ‘Kitty’ all the time while I was patching him up and he didn’t even scratch me.”
“That’s because he was injured. He knew he wasn’t getting anywhere if he wasn’t healed. He’s smart like that.”
“Yeah, but still. Like, I have a friend who owns a cat, right, and hers scratches her all the time with no reason at all. Even when she’s giving her food. She told me it’s normal cat behaviour.”
“Well, Nick isn’t a normal cat.”
“What do you mean?”
Isha took in a huge breath and adjusted her glasses. I got the impression she was going to give me some kind of ‘talk’. “Do you know what a familiar is?”
“Yeah, it’s like a witch’s pet, right? That fetches her ingredients and turns the pages of a book and stuff like that.”
“Your media consumption is… ” she smacked her forehead. “A familiar’s not a pet or a servant, Alex. It has a connection to the witch, in that it has a part of their magic in it. Any spell or potion or other magic the witch does will literally be incomplete without their familiar. And it can communicate with the witch in a way no one else can. So, for example, Catpurrnicus is Magistera Seleni’s familiar, right? To us all his meows and growls and hisses are just that: cat sounds. Of course we understand the fundamentals of what he’s trying to communicate, but it’s very crude, like that between your friend and her cat. We can see when he wants something, or when he’s angry, or hungry, or injured, pet-and-human stuff like that.
“But Magistera, she can understand exactly what he’s saying. I’ve seen them sometimes, when she’s working on a complex spell, in between she’ll pause and just look at Catpurrnicus, and he’ll look at her, and both of them, their eyes will take on a kind of deep, staring look like they’re communicating telepathically. And then suddenly she’ll take out the exact ingredient or book needed for the next step. Once, I kid you not, I saw her holding him above her huge cauldron and his paw glowing like a lava lamp while Magistera’s eyes turned exceptionally bright.”
I took a moment to process all of this. So magic wasn’t all learning and practice, you had to have some kind of ‘internal magic’ as well. Just like in Harry Potter. Huh. That meant I had it and had never noticed.
“Why don’t you have a familiar? Or any of the other three?”
“Not everyone has to. For a lot of witches, all of their magic is stored inside them.”
“But how do you find that out? If all of your magic is inside you or if you are to have a familiar?”
“Trial and error.” She shrugged. “Magistera can tell you more about this, honestly.”
“I see. Thanks for the infodump.”
“You asked, I answered.”
“But tell me something,” I leaned closer and whispered, “Why are you spying on your teacher?”
My conspiratorial tone made Isha snort. “There’s no Magistera-is-secretly-evil going on here, you doofus. I’m not even spying. She actually invites the older witches to witness these things so we can first-hand see the process of a complicated spell and the connection between a witch and her familiar.”
Before I could reply, Catpurrnicus came bounding into the room and tackled me so hard I almost fell. “Woah, calm down, buddy.”
Magistera wasn’t far behind, and she came running into the room, a huge grin on her face. She looked a lot less like a head witch and more like a child who’s just opened their Christmas presents.
“Isha, remember that spell I told all of you to work on? The one we’ve had in a rut for the past five months?”
“The one the council specially assigned to you? The one the—” her voice was getting higher and louder.
“Yes, yes, exactly, all of that. Thee Spell. We’ve finally found a solution for the next step. Oh, Catpurrnicus, you furry little genius.”
“What is it?”
Magistera kneeled down on the carpet and placed one hand on my shoulder and the other on the cat’s back.
“It’s Alex. Without him, our magic is incomplete. It’s- it’s never been seen before. Unprecedented in the entire history of magic. Two levels. Human too.” She shook her head, amazed. “Alex is Catpurrnicus’s familiar.”
Yes, yes, despite how it seemed, I had not forgotten that there was to be a second part to this story. I hope you enjoyed this little piece.
And also, I have an announcement to make, which is why the author’s note is here. *drumroll* Please welcome, my new art and photography blog! Applause, applause.
It’s called Sighlenses and Sketchbooks (I’m good at wordplay aren’t I), I started it nearly two weeks ago, and I’ll post all my drawings and photographs over there. Yep, I left Instagram. As much as I hate admitting it, Wrinkles was right. I didn’t like that app after all; it felt too… performative. Inauthentic. All the things I used to think about it. So yeah. You can check it out. I’ve left a link to it in the Factory’s About page as well, for later use. I have a huge backlog of photos in my gallery, and two portraits I’m planning on drawing very soon, so it’ll be fairly regular posting
until the high of the new blog runs out.