“What a little witch.”
Esther overheard it, passed like a note from her third-grade teacher to the fourth-grade teacher, and she knew that they were talking about her. Both adults glanced at her, and let their guilty eyes slide sideways when they saw her watching them. Esther had those big, dark eyes and thick eyebrows that looked like they didn’t belong on a child. Nobody brushed or braided her hair, and she came to school without lunch at least twice a week, which would have made Teacher feel bad for the child, if she wasn’t such a little witch.
Esther passed the two grown-ups on her way out of the classroom, rolling the word witch around in her hand, like those stress balls Principal kept on his desk. Maybe she was a witch. Maybe that was why Teacher hated her.
“She doesn’t have any friends, she steals food, she’s incorrigible and unmanageable”.
Teacher said that to the Principal a few days ago, when Esther was eavesdropping from the bushes under his open window. If everyone had already decided she was a witch, Esther thought she should learn some spells. To stop bullies. To make her parents happy.
When she asked for spell books in the library, the librarian shook his head, “You’d better not ask about witches around here Esther, you go to a Catholic school. But I bet you could find something at the public library.”
So now she had a quest. The Public Library. Witch-section. She would go tomorrow.
Other kids had parents to drive them to the public library, but Esther didn’t. Esther lived in a ramshackle house with a Dad sewn into the couch and a Mom who was like a whirling hurricane. They used to have a dog, but even Buddy ran away, probably to live in a nicer part of the suburb.
Esther did have three pet toads that she kept in a fish tank she’d found in the nearby junkyard. That morning she fed them worms from the garden, which twisted and flipped between her index finger and her thumb, a little slimy and a little muscly. It wasn’t true, what Teacher had said about Esther having no friends. She had her toads, and she had Robert. He was the boy who lived in the house across from the junkyard. He didn’t go to her school, so Teacher didn’t know about him.
Esther thought that Robert might be a little witch too. He liked inventing things, and made lots of explosions with stuff he found for his experiments but she wasn’t supposed to play with him. It was because he was black. Esther’s Dad didn’t like “those people”. She never told Robert why they had to meet in the woods, but he didn’t ask, and sometimes Esther thought he might already know. She decided to invite him to the library.
Esther was always welcome at Robert’s house. She walked right in.
“How are you star-girl?” Robert’s Mom was the one who first told Esther what her name meant.
“I’m going to the library to look for spell books. Can Robert come?” Esther asked.
“A quest! That sounds fun. Make sure you’re home before it gets dark.”
Before they left, Robert’s Mom whispered something to Robert about being polite, especially to police. Esther wondered why police would even talk to two kids at the library.
“Do you see that toad?” Esther asked.
The two kids were taking a shortcut through the woods.
Robert nodded, “So, you think we’re both witches? Isn’t it only a girl who can be a witch?”
“No, you just have to be uncorrigable and unmanageable,” Esther said, pouncing on the toad.
She was glad when Robert didn’t ask what incorrigible meant. She loved to feel the toad’s heart beating and the soft leathery skin cupped in her hands. It was a handful of life. The toad’s feet swam against her palm and she murmured until it stopped struggling and instead vibrated contently. Robert led the way as Esther put the toad in the front pocket of her shirt. It didn’t try to hop out even once.
When she opened her eyes to it, Esther could see magic all around. The trees were creaking, whispering to her. A fairy with moth wings peeked out from behind a sapling. When they crossed the bridge above the river, Esther looked down and saw two small trolls hauling a fish toward the bank. Magic wasn’t just in creatures either, it was like seeing a brand new colour all of a sudden. It decorated the leaves, and snapped and sizzled when she turned rocks over with her sneakers.
Soon they saw another toad, and speaking softly, Esther coerced it to hop into the palm of her hand. When it did, she beamed up to Robert, “See! I’m definitely a witch.”
Robert wasn’t sure if he liked toads. He could hold one, and hated to see them killed or tortured by the other boys at school, but he didn’t love them like Esther did. Could he still be a witch?
The kids arrived at the edge of the woods, and were just stepping off the trail when Esther heard something. Footsteps. The two toads in her pockets hummed nervously.
Splat. Something hit her shoulder, it wasn’t too painful, only surprising and… wet. She heard a rancorous laugh titter through the trees. Her and Robert looked at each other before another egg whizzed through the air to smack the back of Robert’s head.
They had no ammo to participate in an egg war. And Esther’s Mom would slap her if she ruined any more clothes. The two took off running, with four other kids soon in hot pursuit.
They ran blindly. Through streets, over hedges, with sweat pouring. The toads thudded along in Esther’s pocket, whispering encouragement. The other kids were faster. When Robert and Esther stopped to catch their breath, the bullies encircled them. They asked Esther what she was doing hanging out with someone like Robert. His eyes filled up with angry tears. One boy tried to lift Esther’s skirt. When she raised her hand to slap him, someone taller than her caught her wrist from behind and twisted her around to face him.
The bully’s laughter filled Esther’s ears like pounding blood and she screamed so loud that everyone had to cover their ears. She didn’t stop screaming, a dainty, high-pitched, little girl scream. The boy dropped her wrist. A gnome in a nearby yard exploded. Robert closed his eyes, concentrating, and the road bubbled up suddenly, the way a rug can. It lifted all the kids shudderingly above the neighborhood. Robert clenched his fists and sparks flew out with menace. He linked arms with Esther, who stopped screaming and opened her eyes to look with wonder at the tiny neighborhood below them.
“You will never touch her again,” Robert bellowed.
When the road smoothed itself out again, the bullies scattered and Esther and Robert walked away with power coursing through their veins. They got to the library and asked for books about witches. A student volunteer, noticing their eggy clothes and hair, helped with the books and carefully pointed the bathroom out to them as well.
They spent the day reading, and Esther finally understood why that character Matilda had liked the library so much. It was dusty and quiet except for fingers clattering over ancient computers. The magic in here was excited, whirring in and out of people’s ears, buzzing around in their brains before swirling into the air again. Some of it got squished into books or pinned under pens scribbling. People carried it unknowingly in their backpacks when they left the library. Esther pointed spells out to Robert, and he wrote them carefully in his notebook.
When the two kids got hungry they decided it was time to go home. On the way out of the library, Robert saw a police officer, and his back stiffened. The officer approached. As he got closer, Esther noticed how he grew and stretched, like a shadow. She noticed that Robert was afraid.
“What are you kids doing here?” the man asked.
“Reading, obviously,” Esther rolled her eyes.
The officer ignored her, “I asked you what you’re doing here,” he looked pointedly at Robert.
“We’re here reading books sir.”
“Can I see your library card?”
Esther started to explain that they weren’t old enough yet, but the officer cut her off, again, looking at Robert.
“I don’t have one sir.”
“Why would you come to the library, and disrupt all these nice people who do have library cards, if you don’t have one?”
“I just wanted to read sir.”
“I don’t think so. Why would a boy like you come here to read?”
“He didn’t do anything wrong!” Esther shouted.
“Then he won’t mind me having a look in his backpack, will he?” the officer snatched Robert’s backpack from his back without waiting for an answer, and rifled through the contents. He seemed annoyed to only find a notebook and pencils inside.
“Did you come here to deface the library books with these pencils?”
“Well, we got a call about a gnome that got smashed by some kids this morning, do you know anything about that?”
Esther felt a guilty swoop. Her scream had broken the gnome. Robert glanced at her.
“I knew it! I’m going to have to take you to the station to sort this out,” the officer said to Robert, “Or you can admit now that it was you,” he stepped closer to the boy.
“It wasn’t!” Robert tried to keep his cool.
“All you’ll have to do is apologize, and your parents can buy the nice lady a new gnome,” the officer said.
“I didn’t do it!”
“Alright then, into the squad car I guess,” the officer grabbed Robert’s wrist.
Esther took a toad out of her front pocket and whispered to it, “Help”.
The toad started to grow in her hand. It grew until it plopped on the floor. The officer stared at it. He hated toads. It grew to be the size of a cat, then a small dog, then a cow, then a car. Robert smiled, he could feel the man shaking, frozen. The toad licked its lips, then pushed its tongue out slowly, slowly. It extended like a slimy arm, reaching, then slithered its way up the officer’s leg, python style. When the tongue had wrapped around the officer’s torso twice, Robert peeled the man’s fingers from his wrist. The toad’s mouth creaked open, and the tongue snapped the police officer inside. Robert patted the toad’s nose as a thank you, and it leapt away, bouncing from rooftop to rooftop until it was no longer visible.
Esther asked the second toad to take them home, so it grew to the size of a horse and sprouted long pink feathery wings. The two children clambered on.
When Esther rode her new pet toad to school the next day, Teacher was so afraid that she quit. Esther’s new teacher thought she was gifted rather than incorrigible. Esther grew up to be a witch, and a principal. She started a school for little witches. And Robert grew up to be a scientist and potion-maker. Esther told her Dad about being friends with Robert, and when her Dad seemed likely to protest, the toad would lick its lips. Her Dad learned to keep his mouth shut.
Artwork by Eero Lampinen