Authors: Charles de Lint
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction / Fantasy & Magic, #Juvenile Fiction / Fairy Tales & Folklore - General, #Juvenile Fiction / Animals - Cats
“Well, now,” she said after studying Lillian for a long moment, “you’re not as big as I expected.”
“Ex-expected?” Lillian repeated.
How could she have been expected? Lillian thought, but then she remembered that the strange little woman
“I mean I didn’t expect a muddy little kitten. The bottles told me someone was coming, but they seemed to think you were much bigger.”
“I’m not really a cat,” Lillian said. “I’m a girl.”
“Are you sure?”
“Look,” Lillian said.
She went over to a small pool of swamp water and lifted a paw to point out her reflection. In the water, a girl crouched, pointing with her hand. Old Mother Possum squinted, studying the reflection for a long moment.
“Now, isn’t that interesting,” she said.
“It’s not so interesting when it’s happening to you.”
Old Mother Possum shrugged. “Everything is a lesson if you’re willing to learn something from it.”
This was too much like what Annabelle had been saying, and not what Lillian wanted to hear. She knew all about lessons. Aunt schooled her in reading and writing and arithmetic four afternoons a
week, making her study until her head hurt. But she’d trade that in a moment for whatever this supposed lesson was.
“I just want to be a girl again,” Lillian said. “Can you help me?”
Old Mother Possum turned her dark gaze in Lillian’s direction.
“Please?” Lillian added.
“Why should I help you?”
Lillian knew she should have brought a present, but since she hadn’t, she fell back on the reason Aunt would give in a situation like this.
“Because it’s the neighborly thing to do?” she said.
“How are we neighbors?” Old Mother Possum asked. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“I live on the farm on the other side of the creek, then up the hill.”
“Oh. So you’re
Lillian squirmed, not knowing if the possum witch meant
as a good or a bad thing. The old woman stood there scratching her chin, looking from Lillian to the reflection and then back again.
“That’s a powerful spell you’ve got on you,” she finally said. “Who’s got that kind of mojo in these hills?”
Lillian let out a breath that she hadn’t been aware of holding.
“It was the cats,” she said, and she related how she’d been snakebit and then changed into a kitten.
Old Mother Possum gave a slow nod. “Oh, he’s not going to like that.”
Lillian didn’t have to ask who she meant—not anymore. She had to be talking about the Father of Cats.
“I was wondering why the woods were so quiet,” the possum witch went on. “I haven’t seen a cat all day. I thought L’il Pater might have been up to his tricks again.”
“They did it to save my life,” Lillian explained. “I was dying of a snakebite.”
“Doesn’t matter the reason. He’s still not going to like it, and I really should get back to what I was doing.”
“I can’t stay like this,” Lillian said, desperation flooding her voice.
“It’s not… natural. It’s not who I am.”
“You ought to have thought about that before you let them change you.”
“I didn’t know it was happening! I just woke up and I wasn’t a girl anymore.”
Old Mother Possum shook her head. “I can’t help you with something like this.”
“I don’t interfere with cat magic. That’s some powerful mojo they’ve put on you. No wonder they’re hiding. There’s bound to be trouble when you take one natural creature and turn it into another.”
“But can’t you even try? I never asked to be a cat.”
“First off,” the possum witch told her, “if someone says they can’t do something, it’s not polite to press them on the whys and wherefores. Secondly, even if I could help you, I wouldn’t. I value my own skin too much to get on the wrong side of that panther.”
“It would just be setting things right again.”
“Your mama let you backtalk her like that?”
Lillian couldn’t help herself. All her kitten fur bristled.
“My mama’s dead. The only kin I have is Aunt, and she’s walking the woods right now, worried sick and looking for me.”
“Then you’d better go to her,” Old Mother Possum said. “Let her stop her worrying.”
“I did. She doesn’t recognize me like this.”
Old Mother Possum sighed. “Well, I’m sorry you’re in this predicament, but there’s nothing I can do.” She studied Lillian for a moment, then added, “And you’d do well to mind your manners. Next time you get pushy with someone they might not be as generous as I’ve been. Might be you’ll find yourself in a situation you like even less than this one.”
“I’m sorry,” Lillian said, giving her paw a small lick.
Old Mother Possum nodded and turned away.
“I just wish none of this had ever happened,” Lillian said. She was talking to herself now, but Old Mother Possum turned back and gave her a sharp look.
“You mean that?” she asked.
“Of course I do.”
Old Mother Possum scratched at her chin again.
“Well, now,” she said. “Let me think for a spell. Maybe I can help you with that. But you’ve got to be sure. Thing like that, it never works out quite the way you think it will.”
“You can do that?” Lillian said. “You could make it like that snake never bit me?”
“Sure. That’s easy. Takes about as much mojo as lighting a lamp with a snap of your fingers.”
“Then could you do it for me?” Lillian asked, resisting an urge to weave back and forth against Mother Possum’s legs. “Please?”
Old Mother Possum nodded. “But did you heed my warning? Thing like this, there’s always some consequence or other tends to make a body less happy instead of more.”
“Not me,” Lillian said, shifting her weight from paw to paw. “I’d be very happy.”
“Mm-hmm. Now, the way this works is you’ll remember everything that happened, but nobody else will.”
“That’s fine. I need to remember so’s to not let some awful snake bite me again.”
“If you’re sure…”
“Oh, I am, I am,” Lillian said.
She wondered how it would work. She hoped she wouldn’t have to drink some horrible potion. But all the possum witch did was snap her fingers, and the world went spinning away—
nd suddenly she was a girl again. The night and the swamp and the possum witch were all gone. It was the middle of the afternoon and she was running through a part of the woods that had been familiar until she’d followed the deer farther into them. She stumbled, thrown off balance by the sudden switch from four legs to two, but caught herself before she could fall. Her momentum carried her out from under the trees into a meadow.
And not just any meadow, she realized. The buck was no longer in sight, but there in the middle of an
expanse of grass and wildflowers was the ancient beech tree where she’d fallen asleep and gotten snakebit.
This time she knew enough not to lie down. No more snakebites for her, thank you very much.
“Hello hello!” she shouted to no one in particular. “I’m my very own self!”
She pulled a few daisies from their stems and tossed them in the air. It was so good to have hands
again. She did cartwheels all around the beech tree for the sheer joy of it. When she finally stopped to catch her breath, she leaned against the fat trunk of the beech and looked gingerly around her feet.
That hadn’t been the smartest thing she’d ever done—turning cartwheels when she knew there was a nasty snake somewhere in the grass around the tree. But no matter how carefully she studied the grass and wildflowers, she couldn’t see any sign of the snake.
Didn’t mean it wasn’t there, she thought.
But she had to wonder. The bite. The talking animals. The possum witch.
Had any of that really happened? Or had she fallen into some sort of storybook dream? That made a lot more sense. But if it had been a dream, how had she woken up running? Did people run in their sleep?
She decided it didn’t matter. Not right now. Right now all she wanted to do was see Aunt and have Aunt recognize her.
With a lighthearted skip in her step, she set off for home.
Crossing the creek was easy now that she wasn’t a cat. She ran through the woods, into the meadow, and up the hill. Her heart gave a little happy jump when she saw the roof of the barn, then the springhouse with the corncrib and the smokehouse behind it, and finally the old farmhouse itself.
She wanted to be turning cartwheels again, but they were too hard to do uphill. So she sang instead, a trilling
. She could already imagine Aunt’s face with the look that so plainly said, What’s that silly girl up to now? But she didn’t care because she was almost home again and everything was the way it was supposed to be.
She saw Annabelle in the paddock and laughed, remembering how in her dream she’d imagined having a conversation with the cow. Cow and squirrel and crow and fox—it was all so silly. And the possum witch? Wherever had she come up with something like that?
“Hello hello, Annabelle!” she called as she skipped by the paddock. “Sorry—no time to talk!”
She laughed again as she made her way to the back of the farmhouse. As if a cow could talk. On the other
side of the smokehouse she could hear Henry the rooster ordering the chickens around. She went up the stairs and into the summer kitchen, feet slapping on the wooden floor.
“Aunt!” she called. “Hello hello! I’ve had the strangest dream. You won’t believe how harebrained it was….”
Her voice trailed off when she realized she was talking to herself. Aunt wasn’t in the kitchen. She wasn’t in the parlor, either. Nor was she upstairs.
Had she said she was going to town, or to the Welches’ farm? Lillian couldn’t remember.
She leaned on the windowsill of her bedroom and looked out across the apple orchard, but there was nothing to see. A crow winged from the forest, banking on a breeze before it went gliding down toward the creek. She found herself wondering if it was Jack Crow, then smiled. Jack Crow wasn’t real. He was just another part of her dream.
But the smile didn’t seem to want to stick. Aunt being gone like this was worrisome.
Lillian turned from the window and went back downstairs. She made another circuit of the house before going outside once more. She looked in the
corncrib and the smokehouse. She checked in the barn and the chicken coop. She walked past the beehives and up into the orchard, all the way to the family graveyard, then back down the hill again. Following the tree line, she stopped at the outhouse, calling for Aunt before she opened the door to peer in. The only thing inside was a spider, weaving its web in a corner.