I walked up the front steps, reaching a hand out to my door. For a moment I glanced up, letting my gaze dart up the side of my house. It wasn't a mansion, even though it was indisputably huge. It had 10 rooms, three bathrooms, a vast kitchen, a massive dining room, and a complete warren of a basement, not to forget the particularly massive attic. It wasn't a mansion because it was entirely run down. And I do mean entirely. Roofing tiles fell off the roof every other day, hardly any of the windows closed properly, and there were some gaps so large in the floorboards that rats could fall through.
Still, it was my house, and I was acutely aware that it was perfectly appropriate for a witch. It had those old, castle-like turret-type things. It also had a bevy of old oaks growing by the outer walls, the gnarled branches ready to scratch the windows in every storm or slight breeze. Neither I nor my grandmother ever bothered to do anything in the yard, and it was a collection of junk, branches, and clogged weeds. Needless to say every single sane child on the block would run a mile before going anywhere near our gate.
“Aren't you going to welcome me home?” I asked lightly under my breath as I finally reached the door handle and tugged it open.
I didn't get a response, or at least not a verbal one, but that exact moment saw the house creak ominously and a roofing tile slide off and jettison itself into the yard. It wasn't close enough that I had to duck or anything, and it brought a slight smile to my lips.
Now that was a welcome. An entirely appropriate one considering the day I'd had.
Mumbling under my breath, I walked into my house. While the outside was entirely run down, at least my grandmother and I did spend a little bit of time on housework. No, that wasn't correct; I spent a lot of time on housework. My grandmother spent most of her days and nights tearing around the place making a fantastic mess.
Sighing as I flicked my gaze through the atrium, I saw a pot plant had been turned over, shards of pottery scattered over the floor and a poor fern lying in a sea of dirt. Tutting, I walked over to it and picked it up. “Mary? Mary?” I called out to my grandmother, expecting her to fly down the large spiral staircase in the center of the house, her wild, purple-rinsed grey locks flaring around her head as her blue eyes locked onto me.
It's how she always said hello. I would get back from work, she would appear from the belly of the basement and tell me whatever marvelously ridiculous things she’d got up to that day, then the both of us would sit down for a cup of tea and a chat about all things magical.
Today there was no response. Raising an eyebrow slightly, I patted down my black skirt and walked off into the kitchen. I instantly noticed the mess all over the table. I'd made a point of cleaning it last night, because the darned thing had been littered with dirty dishes for almost half a week now. Somehow the dirty dishes were back. The exact same dirty dishes I had popped into the dishwasher almost 18 hours ago.
I crinkled my brow. If I weren't a witch, I’d probably assume I was going mad.
“Mary? What are you getting up to? Mary?” Slamming my hands on my hips as I turned around in the kitchen, I searched out any sign of my dear old completely batty grandmother.
Then I saw her. Or rather I saw a shadow, outside in the yard.
Now I raised my other eyebrow, tutted very loudly, and quickly jogged to the large French doors that led out onto the patio.
I hadn’t always known that I was a witch, though even as a baby I imagine I would have realized something wasn't quite right with my family. It wasn't Addams Family-esque, but it was close. All of my aunts and uncles and grandparents weren't quite right. For birthdays and Christmas they wouldn't buy me socks and underpants; they would get me old, tattered books that looked like they were 300 years old and that were filled with ghastly, horrifying pictures a child should never look upon. And if it wasn't books, it would be peculiar potions. Jars that looked like nothing more than old jam pots filled with bizarre colored liquids with strange objects in the bottom. Lizards, butterflies, buttons, dirt, you name it, just a collection of strange junk. Yet whenever they would hand me such presents, they would do so with a degree of awe that would suggest they certainly weren’t joking. It were as if they were passing on a crown or a fortune instead of an old jam jar filled with rubbish.
Yes, my family had never been quite right, and soon enough my mother had sat me down and informed me of my lineage, witches and all.
Now it was simply a fact of life. But another fact I could appreciate was one my grandmother herself had been at pains to remind me of whenever she could. Witches must keep their magic secret. As must all other magical creatures. I lived in the real world, after all, the same one you live in. Do you see wizards zipping around with great long beards, chucking fireballs at each other as they drive down the highway? Do you see witches heading off to the shops on their brooms, talking cats keeping them company on the train? Of course you don't. We’re here, but we just don't let ourselves be known.
Like all of the most powerful forces in the universe, we keep ourselves secret. When humanity is ready, they will embrace magic, but for now they are quite content with football, cups of tea, and world wars.
Despite the importance of our secret, something was happening to my grandmother as she aged, and that was general dementia. Okay, not the general kind, the magical kind. It seemed I had to watch her every day to ensure she didn't do anything outrageous that would finally confirm to all of our already suspicious neighbors that we were witches.
Flinging open the French doors, I marched out into the backyard. Fortunately our overgrown garden was so immense that it blocked off the view over our back fence, still, I never liked the idea of Granny practicing magic out in the yard.
“What are you doing?” I marched over to her, crossing my arms as I did, making sure the move was obvious and would put across just how peeved I was.
She looked up from the mud pile she had created. There was a spade leaning next to an overturned table, the exact same patio table that I often liked to have my breakfast at, and it was clogged with dirt.
I made a point of raising an eyebrow and looking up and down my grandmother. She had dug a hole, a fairly hefty, deep one considering how old she was. She had filled it with water and mud, and she was now dancing around in it like a woman trying to crush grapes. Except there were no grapes, just dirt, and it had covered her pants and top completely. She even had it splashed across her face, and a couple of clumps dangling from her purple-rinse curls.
She grinned at me. A very cheeky, somewhat disassociated grin. “Good morning,” she chimed.
It was very much the afternoon. I ground my teeth. Sometimes I didn't know if she put it on. If she only said highly unsettling things and dug holes in the yard so she could irritate me.
“It's the afternoon,” I conceded as I cleared my throat, “a fact you are well aware of. And something else you are well aware of is that you can't bloody well do magic in the yard,” I dropped my voice low, very low at that point, and I had no doubt that Mary could still hear me; everything else might be going, but her hearing was fine. Exceptional even. If I ever tried to have a secret conversation with someone on the phone and she was at the other end of the house, I swear she could always pick up on what I had been saying.
“Magic?” My grandmother's lips wobbled open as if she were surprised at the mere mention of the word.
“I'm not a trainee witch any more, Grandma, I know a weather spell when I see one. Now do you want to cover it up, come inside, wash, and help me prepare some dinner?”
For a moment my grandmother narrowed her eyes, and it was a move that reminded me so much of how she had been when I was a child. Strong, impossibly powerful. My role model. A figure that had taken up so much authority in my life. She had been the one I would always turn to if I had a problem with magic, and she would be the one to track me down if I ever did something wrong. Well now our roles had changed. She was the kid outside playing in the mud, and I was the one trying to tell her it just wasn't done.
“A weather spell, ay? Are you sure?”
I was about to turn away, head back inside to grab a towel and mop in preparation for my muddy grandmother to track her way to the bathroom, but I paused. I glanced back carefully. “Yes, that's right, a weather spell.” Was she challenging me?
“Let me see.” She brought a hand up and started counting off on her fingers. “All you have seen is a spade, a hole, mud, and a miraculously well-preserved grandmother dancing around in it. And you have concluded from this scant evidence that I am engaged in a weather spell?”
She really was challenging me. Though it happened less and less these days, occasionally the old bat would grow lucid enough to remember her training. “Yes,” I kept my arms crossed. I knew what to do when I was questioned. Hold your ground, snarl if you had too, but look as deadly as you can. And my years of growing up with my grandmother had taught me just how one can narrow their eyes in the right way, stiffen their jaw, and pull their lips to the side to give off a definite feeling of concentrated rage and anger.
“Well you are wrong, young girl,” my grandmother finally pulled herself up and out of the hole, showing a grace that she simply should not have considering her age. Bringing up a completely mud-covered hand, she patted at her curls, raising an eyebrow at me as I still stood there with my arms crossed firmly in front of my chest. “This is a garden spell,” she trilled.
Even though I tried to control myself, I couldn't help but falter. My eyebrows descended in a twitch. “No it isn't,” I tried petulantly.
This only caused her to laugh, and it wasn't entirely pleasant; it reminded me acutely of just how much of an authority my grandmother had once been. “I beg to differ. And if you feel like challenging me, take that spade, go over to my lovely little mud pit, dig down, and see what I was dancing over.”
Damn. She had a point.
I wasn't about to go over, pluck up the spade, and actually bother to dig around in that ridiculous mud pit though. I would take my grandmother's word for it.
“There is still a lot you must learn about magic.” As my grandmother passed me, she flicked her curls again, and headed unashamedly to the patio, splashing mud everywhere as she did.
I narrowed my eyes at her, stopped short of shaking my fist, and headed over to the spade to at least cover up the hole. Even though I was damn sure that no one could see into the yard, I didn't like the idea of somebody accidentally catching a glimpse of a deep mud pit. Who knew what they would think.
After I had filled it in, and had grumbled at every splash I had gotten over my stockings and skirt, I finally went in to find my grandmother helping herself to a sandwich from the fridge. She was still covered in mud of course, as was the rest of the kitchen now.
“You have a lot to learn about the subtleties of spells and enchantments,” she shoved the massive sandwich in her mouth and took a hearty bite.
I crumpled up my nose as I watched her eat, noticing every single time her muddy fingers tracked across the bread, lettuce, and cheese.
“Influence magic is very, very context sensitive,” my grandmother brought up her hand and waggled a finger my way. “The difference of one single ingredient can change the nature of a spell.”
I knew all of this, I really did. But I was still kind of right here. Regardless of what kind of spell my grandmother had been casting, she shouldn’t have been doing it outside in the yard where everybody could see... Okay nobody could see, but it was still outside, and that was too visible for me.
“Couldn't you have done it in the bath?” I flopped a hand behind me, indicating one of our many bathrooms. “And when exactly are you going to clean yourself up?”
She shrugged her shoulders and took another enormous bite of her sandwich. For an old lady, she still had a ravenous appetite. She could, and previously had, eaten us completely out of house and home.
“A bath? How am I going to make anything grow if I'm standing on enamel and ceramic? You need to be connected to the ground.” Mary latched her hands onto her muddy pants, placing her sandwich down for a second, and pulled them up as she danced on the kitchen floor, splashing dirt everywhere. “You should know that. It's in the details,” she brought up a finger and pointed it at me again, “every single little detail. If you want to learn how to influence the world through magic, you must be ever sensitive to everything around you. Gather facts, my dear witch, and you will gather power.”
I nodded my head, even though what I really wanted to do was roll my eyes. I had to keep reminding myself that while my once powerful grandmother was now heading full force towards dementia, I still owed her respect. Because underneath she was still the same woman, just at a different stage of life.
“Anyhow, enough lessons, they do so tire me. How was your day at work, my dear?” She grabbed up her sandwich and went back to cramming it in her mouth.
I brought up a hand and tucked my hair behind my ears as I tried to do a quick mental calculation of how much time it would take me to clean the kitchen of all this blasted mud and dirt. “Fine, I guess,” I said distractedly.
“It can't be that fine; you sound as if you have been forced to endure the trials of Hercules himself. Has anyone been making you fight water monsters? Have you had to steal magical apples from the gods?”
I smiled pleasantly, if you call pleasant thin-lipped, stiff, and entirely unhappy. “Just the same old business.”
Though I was technically a witch, and I wasn't a particularly bad one, it didn't pay all the bills. Especially when you lived in an enormous house that was crying out for repairs and had to keep on buying hundreds of dollars of groceries a week to keep your grandmother fed.
One of these days, if it were ever possible, I would love to live off my magic alone, but I doubted it would ever arise. There wasn't that much call for witches these days, not because people didn't like magic, but because they didn't know about it. It was particularly hard to make a living off something that was entirely secret, that you couldn't advertise, and that you couldn't tell anyone about unless they already knew it existed.
It hadn’t been like this hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, or so I had been told. When magic had been more widely practiced, accepted, and known about, many witches had lived off their trade alone. Then the dark ages had come along, or something like that, witch hunts and whatnot, I wasn't really that up on the history, all I could tell you was that in the 21st century it was practically impossible to get along only being a witch.
“You should open your heart to the possibilities of magic. It can be practiced at every single moment in the day. A true witch understands the power of context and influence,” my grandmother reminded me for about the thousandth time.
I knew that lesson, but it wasn't one I required repeating today. What I really needed was for my grandmother to clean up this mess, have a bath, and maybe, just once, not trash the house while I was out at work.
“I don't suppose we had any requests today?” I asked as I walked over to the kitchen table, frowning at the dirty dishes.
How they had un-cleaned themselves, taken themselves out of the cupboard, and stacked themselves back on the table, I didn't know, and I didn't want to ask. Probably some ridiculous spell my grandmother had attempted.
“Unfortunately not, my dear, but my new herbs arrive tomorrow, and I'm very excited about it. I imagine the love potions I'll be able to make from these, and the special healing tonics, will be quite fantastic.”
I listened to my grandmother with half an ear as I stacked the dishes and took them over to the dishwasher, making sure to frown their way, as if that would help.
“You have signed your custom papers this time, right?” I turned over my shoulder to face her.
“Of course I have.”
I nodded my head. At least one thing was going right. Because I really didn't need a knock on the door from the police ready to drag my grandmother away for importing God knows what into the country. She did so love her herbs, and I understood how important they were to magic, but in modern times a lot of the substances she wanted for her spells were... to put it mildly... absolutely freaking illegal. We’re not just talking dried lizards that could bring in various bacteria and viruses, we’re talking freaking narcotics. The kind of thing that would get you in a great deal of trouble, and the kind of thing I really didn't need to deal with on top of all of the other hassles that were already assailing my life.
Last time my grandmother had tried to import her latest bunch of new herbs, I'd spent almost two hours down at the customs office, trying to get them to understand that she was old, and she didn't really understand it was illegal to import sleeping pills en masse from South America.
To my grandmother, they contained a substance that was absolutely necessary for various nocturnal enchantments; to the police it looked like she was trying to set up her own illegal pharmacy.
Pressing my fingers into my brow, I soon finished stacking the dishwasher. Loading in the soap and turning it on, I patted it several times as if in warning. I really didn't need the dishes to unstack themselves and wind up on the table again.
“Patting it won't do any good, but a chain would,” my grandmother commented. “I think there's a lock somewhere out in the shed, and you remember that old ship’s anchor we dredged up one day from the bay? You could put it on top, I'm sure it would get the impression then,” Mary pointed through the window towards the shed.
Chaining up a dishwasher, locking it up, and popping a ship’s anchor on top to weigh it down so it didn't unstack itself was not something that ordinary people had to deal with.
Well welcome to the extraordinary. Yes, it's full of magic, but I can't exactly claim it's full of fun.
“I'm going upstairs to have a shower. Please do me a favor and hop in the downstairs bath?”
Granny appeared to consider my words for a moment, then she clearly got distracted as she watched a flock of birds fly past the window above the kitchen sink. “My oh my, they're practicing weather magic. Rain is on the way,” she brought up a hand and waved at them.
Birds practicing weather magic. If we weren’t both witches, such a statement would lead me to conclude that my grandmother's slip into dementia had turned into a landslide. But I understood, I understood perfectly.
We looked at the world in a different way. Magic made you do that. If you practiced it, it completely changed your perspective. It wasn't just witches and wizards that could do potions, spells, and enchantments; anybody and anything that followed the correct steps practiced magic as well.
The squirrel that hoarded nuts, dug them into the ground, and left them there for the winter, practiced a type of growth magic. The butterfly that flapped its wings over the Amazon, was practicing a kind of chaos magic. The giant blue whale that swum through the ocean, breaching to the surface only to swim back down again was practicing a type of wave magic.
Everywhere, everything was engaged in some kind of spell. You just had to know what to look for.
Flicking my eyes up at the flock of birds as they flew out of view, I scratched my neck. I wasn't so angry at my grandmother and the mess that she had created to forget that I was a witch. And I could clearly see the exact path the birds flew through the sky, the speed, the angle, everything, and I understood what it meant.
Rain. I didn't have to look up the weather report to confirm that fact. I just understood it.
It was instinctive.
It also made me rub my brow even harder. Rain meant more mud. Because no doubt the moment I left for work tomorrow morning, my grandmother would trot out to the shed, pluck up the spade, dig holes in the garden, and get up to more mischief. And even though I didn't particularly care about the state of the yard, I didn't want mud everywhere.
Deciding it was thoroughly time to give up, I waved a hand at my grandmother, walked out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and to the shower.
I was lucky enough that our house was so large that I practically had an entire level to myself. A level where my grandmother hardly ever went, and one I could keep just as clean as I liked it. It was beautifully decorated too, a testament to all of the lovely objects that I had collected over my life; silk cushions from India, paintings and prints from Paris, carved statues from Thailand, and mahogany furniture from Britain.
It was my oasis away from the crazy, the mud, and the purple-rinse curls.
By the time I made it into the shower, I was finally calming down. I was sure to let the water practice its magic. It had a unique way of washing over you, collecting not just the mud and grime, but the sorrows and sadness and troubles, and flushing them down the drain.
It wouldn't last forever; I lived in a rundown mansion with a perpetually crazy grandmother, and we were both witches. Trouble had a way of stalking me.
But for those few minutes I was happy.
The rest of Magical Influence Book One is available from most ebook retailers.