The Shitlist was a collaborative project by Australian publishers Pure Slush, with a number of different writers contributing short stories about Euphoria Rivers, librarian in the imaginary Vermont town of Quonsettville.
My contribution follows a young girl with a fondness for witches who, like many of Quonsettville’s residents, gets on the wrong side of Euphoria. Read the story below, or buy The Shitlist as a paperback or e-book.
A Flick of the Wand
While other girls my age fixated on Justin Bieber, I dreamed of broomsticks streaking across the night sky. After I showed up at three fancy-dress parties dressed as a witch, someone asked if our family was too poor to buy proper costumes. I won a school art contest; my black paper figure flying in front of a tinfoil moon was called creepy by the kid in second place, which pleased me.
My witch-phase started right after Nana died. Nana was round and little and not a bit witchy to look at, but she did make potions in her pressure-cooker, cough-syrups and indigestion remedies that she sold in local markets. I helped her. She told me once that if she’d lived a few centuries ago, she’d have been in big trouble because back then, witches were burned at the stake. I imagined a row of steaks and witches, barbecuing side-by-side over charcoal.
The smell of Nana’s potions was still in the kitchen when we cleared out her house; like lavender, with something magically tart underneath. It felt like she was around somewhere, maybe out in the garden snipping herbs. I wondered if there was a spell that would bring her back, and whether I could find it by looking through her books, the ones with leather covers that smelt like old bookstores; but Dad said they all had to be sold like the house, because we needed every cent. He and Mom were fighting a lot just then, mostly about money. I wished Nana was there to tell them to grow up and think of the child.
I’d seen Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz, so I knew there were good witches as well as bad ones, but I had no time for simpering Glinda and her sparkly wand. Miss Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks was something else. I loved the apprentice witch in tweeds, who starts out prim and crabby but has a heart of gold for the kids staying in her home. I watched the DVD over and over. It was Mom who said, if I loved that story so much, why not read the book? That’s how I came to be in Quonsettville library, one Friday after school.
Most people preferred to ask Florry Fayette if they needed help, but I walked right up to Mrs Rivers where she sat behind her desk, looking beaky and fierce. I said loudly, “I want Bedknobs and Broomsticks, please.”
Mrs Rivers looked at me over the top of her glasses, gold-rimmed and hung on a fine gold chain. Her cardigan was mauve lambswool, but her skirt could have been tweed.
I added, so there could be no doubt, “There’s a witch in it.”
Mrs Rivers said in her sharp, precise voice, “There is indeed, Eve. And for your information, there are two books. One is called The Magic Bedknob, the other is called Bonfires and Broomsticks.”
Pure Miss Price. Wonderful.
Back home, I found surprises in the books, like Emilius being a necromancer from the seventeenth century, nothing like the shabby conman in the movie. The part where he was nearly burned as a witch gave me the chills, but when Miss Price saved his life, I loved her more than ever. And I liked that she made mistakes, forgetting spells and falling off her broomstick. Like Nana, when she forgot someone’s name and said Oh, silly me! and smacked her own bottom with the newspaper.
I started visiting the library most Fridays, and asking Mrs Rivers to recommend books. I think it pleased her to do it. The books she suggested were old-fashioned, maybe ones she’d read when she was young herself. They were mostly about rebellious girls who calmed down after they married strong men, or did something heroic and were made Head Girl at school. Mrs Rivers used to talk to me about the books when I brought them back, and at first it felt like she was testing me, but sometimes her face would change as if she was remembering things that made her happy. She didn’t talk about spells or magic, but then, neither did Miss Price; the children had to work out her secret for themselves. One day, when the library was about to close, Mrs Rivers said suddenly, “Never let anyone tell you the kind of person you should be, Eve. Be sure to follow your own star.” As she spoke, the lights flashed off and on six times. Mrs Rivers humphed and said the fusebox was playing up again. But I knew.
The next Friday, a boy my age came into the children’s section while his parents were filling up at the gas station. He took down a book and started scribbling in it. Mrs Rivers told him to stop, but he stuck out his tongue at her. She said slowly and softly, so only the boy and I could hear, “People who deface books in libraries will come to a sticky end, young man”. He looked scared for a moment; then he deliberately drew a heavy black line across the title page of Tom’s Midnight Garden. He got up with a loud scrape of chair-legs on the polished floor, and walked out. A few minutes later, we all heard screaming brakes from across the road, followed by a crunch, and breaking glass, and a horn that blared on and on. Mrs Rivers strolled over to the window with the rest of us, wearing a little smile.
It was a few weeks later that Delmar Dickerson walked into the pharmacy with a red angry face, and said, “I swear, that Euphoria Rivers is a witch!” And I said right away, proud of my knowledge,“She certainly is!”
I was waiting in line with Mom, and the pharmacy was full. A couple of people laughed. Mom look shocked, and jabbed me with her elbow. And someone must have told Mrs Rivers, because she called Mom that same evening to complain, and Mom made me go to the library and apologize.
It was horrible. Mrs Rivers didn’t look at me when I walked up to her desk. I started stumbling over my words, saying things like I didn’t mean it like that, Mrs Rivers, honestly I never would, and maybe I’d have gone on to explain about Miss Price and Nana, even though I knew it would make me sound stupid. But Mrs Rivers said to Florry, who looked like she wished she was somewhere else, “Floretta, please tell Eve Durrant that henceforth, she is not welcome in this library.”
The weird thing was that afterwards, the whole town decided I was some kind of bad-girl celebrity. All the kids thought it was cool to be banned from the library. Nobody had ever thought I was cool before. Now if anyone asked, I laughed and said Mrs Rivers had made me read lame books about goody-goody girls who got married and lived happily ever after. And I told them the creepy way she’d smiled, when the boy had his accident.
Other things were changing too. Dad finally left, which meant no more fights between him and Mom, but plenty between Mom and me. I started hanging around with kids who smoked and played hooky. I grew boobs, and swore a lot. I experimented with boys, and with magic mushrooms we picked in the woods. I went to a party as a punk rocker, in a tight black leather skirt with a bike chain for a belt, and a string of safety-pins in my earlobe. When Mom said she didn’t like the person I was turning into, I snapped back You’re just jealous because I have a life!
I kept reading, though. I went to the library in Burlington, which was bigger than the one in Quonsettville. At first I chose books I’d heard were dirty or shocking, like Tropic of Cancer and A Clockwork Orange. Later I decided it was OK to read things because I liked them, and wanted to know about the stuff that was in them. I found that worked with people too.
This fall, I’m going away to college. I’m excited and a little bit scared. Mom and I think it will do us good to be apart for a while. She and Dad both say they’re proud of me.
I haven’t seen Mrs Rivers since she left town, but one night I dreamed about her. She was being cooked on a barbecue, and I was the chef, and a long line of people were waiting for their share. But she didn’t seem to mind being barbecued, and when I prodded her with a fork, she wriggled and squealed with laughter.