How It All Starts
The wizard was minding his own business-well, mostly-when the witch either put a hex on him or didn't.
It happened like this: The wizard was a young man who often magically disguised himself to look like an old man because that was how people expected a wizard to look. Because he ran a school for young wizards, he spent the school year looking like an old man, for he figured he'd get little respect from his students if they guessed he was only a bit older than they. So once school was over for the year, it was a relief to take off his magical disguise and relax-sort of like taking off shoes that are too tight and fancy clothes that you've been worried about catching on something or spilling something on.
After what seemed an exceptionally harsh winter and a spring that surely had taken longer than usual to arrive, he had packed the last of his students off for home. On this, the first day of summer vacation, he magically transported himself to the village of Saint Wayne the Stutterer. Saint Wayne was not one of the major saints, and the village was a small one. The wizard knew most of the people there, and most of them knew him in his true form. He needed to buy supplies for his garden, including a new hoe, and he was waiting in line at the blacksmith's shop when the witch-whom he did not know-suddenly appeared with her three children.
As in: One moment, not there-the next, there.
Appeared directly in front of him about five seconds before the blacksmith finished with the previous customer, looked up, and asked, "Who's next?"
"That would be me," the witch said, stepping up to the counter.
The wizard was willing to give the woman the benefit of the doubt, to believe that she had magically transported herself to where she wanted to be, and that she hadn't intentionally cut in front of him. He was even willing to let her get waited on first, for he was in no rush. He was ready for warm, leisurely days of peace and quiet.
The witch's children, two boys and a girl, were poking, bumping, taunting, and teasing one another. The older boy was a bully, the younger boy was a sniveler, and the girl was a whiner. All three of the children called "Ma!" in shrill, annoying, insistent voices-as in, "Ma, he's doing it again!" and "Ma, she started it!" and "Ma, aren't you through here yet?"
The witch ignored them while she explained to the blacksmith about the gate latch she wanted repaired.
The wizard didn't have children of his own, but he thought that having students was almost like having children. He thought to himself, I would never let my children misbehave like this. Of course, the youngest of his students was twelve, and the oldest of these children was seven, but that was no excuse.
The older boy knocked the younger boy backward so that he stepped on the wizard's toes.
"Careful," the wizard said, putting his hand on the boy's shoulder, for the boy gave no sign of recognizing that he wasn't, in fact, standing on the simple ground anymore.
The boy glanced over his shoulder to give the wizard a well-what-are-your-feet-doing-under-my-feet? look, and his brother took the opportunity to smack him on the back of the head. "Ma!" the younger boy sniveled, elbowing his sister for good measure.
"Ma," the girl whined.
"Ma!" the older boy said as though he were the victim.
The blacksmith was working on the latch, and the witch turned and glared at the wizard. "What?" she asked, somewhere between a snarl and a snap.
The wizard wasn't willing to get into a fight, so he just shook his head to indicate he had nothing to say, and he inspected that part of the smithy where the ceiling met the back wall.
The witch glowered for a long moment before returning her attention to the blacksmith.
The children got louder and louder.
The witch didn't seem to hear them.
She did, however, hear the wizard sigh.
She turned around a second time and asked, "Do you have a problem with my children?"
"No," he assured her. He couldn't resist asking, "Do you?"
"How dare you?" she demanded. "How dare you criticize when you know nothing about us? Do you find my children annoying? Well, did you ever stop to consider whether there might be a reason for their misbehaving? Would you excuse them for being noisy and out of sorts if I told you they've been cooped up in the house for the past two weeks with illness? How about if I told you their father may not recover, and their little sister just died?"
"I'm so sorry," the wizard said, for though he had a tendency to get impatient quickly, he didn't wish ill on anyone. "I had no idea."
The witch snorted and turned back to the blacksmith, who had finished repairing the latch.
The wizard felt terrible for finding the family irksome when they'd been through so much hardship. Under the circumstances, he was willing to forgive them, even the little girl, who was sticking her tongue out at him.
The smaller boy was still sniveling, but now the wizard realized it was because he had a cold. He realized this when the boy, who had his finger stuck up his nose, withdrew that finger to wipe it on his brother's sleeve. The older boy didn't notice because he was surreptitiously tying his sister's braids together.
The witch paid the blacksmith, then said, "Come, children, now we're off to speak to the miller."
The wizard wanted her to know he regretted looking down on her and her children, so he stood where he was and repeated, "I am truly sorry."
The witch was cross for his being in the way. "Why? What have you done now?"
"Nothing," he stammered. "I meant I'm sorry for all that's happened to you."
The witch glanced around suspiciously. "What happened?" she demanded.
The wizard was becoming confused. "The children's father, who's sick. The little girl who died."
"I never said there was sickness and death," the witch snarled as though he'd intentionally misunderstood. "I said, 'What if...' Actually, my children are the way they are because they're spoiled brats." She shook her head and pushed past him, muttering, "Dumb twit of a wizard." She added, "You'll never find true happiness until you learn to be less judgmental and look beyond the surface of things."
If that was a simple statement, it didn't really follow what she'd just said. If it was a spell, normally the wizard would have felt the magic, especially if it was being directed at him. But the children were jostling him as they pushed by on their way out, and he might have missed it.
Still, if it was a hex, it wasn't a bad one. He wasn't unhappy with his life as it was. He had his garden in the summer-when it wasn't overrun by rabbits-and fishing, and puttering about. And if he sometimes did get lonely, that was usually just about the time his students got back in the fall. Then, about the time they started really getting on his nerves, it would be summer again.
Life was satisfying, the wizard thought as he stepped up to the counter to give the blacksmith his order, if maybe somewhat predictable.
True happiness, he decided, was overrated.
Copyright © 2003 by Vande Velde, Vivian
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work
should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.