Being a witch wasn’t something we talked about with customers. It’s been over four hundred years since my ancestor Elizabeth Proctor was convicted of witchcraft, and the fear of being found out still ran deep. That was why, on the surface, the witches in Portsmouth seemed like normal people. Okay, maybe not normal. Maybe harmlessly eccentric.
Take me, for example: I looked like any other twenty-one-year-old shopgirl with two jobs trying to make it on her own. I was five foot seven, and had black hair, dark blue eyes, and features that, to me, seemed too large for my face. My best friend, Abby, said I was glamorous, but I thought I was more of an ugly duckling. Abby has always been the beautiful one, with delicate features, gleaming golden hair, and the kind of grace and physical presence that resulted from over a decade of dance classes.
Maybe I wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd, but I was one of the few potion witches in New Hampshire.
I grasped the ornate brass doorknob and pushed open the door to the Portsmouth Apothecary. The shop always smelled like the tea of the day, and today’s was rose hip and hibiscus. I closed the door behind me and took a moment to survey the sales floor. The jars of herbs that lined the right-hand side of the shop were running low despite the stock we kept in the prep room, the candle display in the center of the room needed to be refilled, and several of the touristy knickknacks in front of the large picture window had been knocked off the table.
I quickly made my way to the office in the back where I hung up my coat and pulled my hair back into a bun. I loved this store and using my talents as a potion witch to help people—human and witch—even if the humans didn’t realize magic was involved.
Once I returned to the main room, I looked to Trina Bassett, my boss. Her lips were pinched in frustration and her left eye twitched. She was busy helping Mrs. Williams with an order. Mrs. Williams was in her seventies, but dressed and acted at least two decades younger. She was extremely particular and would choose each bud of lavender and chamomile for her tea blend. It took ages to complete her order every week. I could tell by the way Trina was holding her short, round body rigid that she was almost at the end of her patience.
“Good morning, Isabella,” Trina called to me as she pulled a jar of lavender from its spot on the shelf and showed it to Mrs. Williams.
I smiled at her, hoping she’d read my encouragement. “Morning, Trina. Morning, Mrs. Williams.”
Mrs. Williams pointed a bony finger to several lavender buds and Trina delicately pulled them out with a pair of tongs. Ordinarily, we use a scoop to remove the herbs from their jars, but not for Mrs. Williams. A half pound of tea might take an hour to assemble for her.
The clouds broke and sun flooded through the front window. The light reflected off the pale yellow walls, bathing the shop in a warm glow. March in New Hampshire was almost always gray, but these moments of sunshine reminded us better weather was coming. A glint of sunlight bouncing off a shard of broken glass near the herb jars caught my eye. I wanted to ask Trina what happened today that the shop was in such disarray, but that would have to wait until Mrs. Williams left. I grabbed the broom and dustpan from the closet by the back door. As I closed the closet door, Mrs. Williams raised her voice.
“I don’t care what you think, Trina, you know the right thing to do, and I expect you to take care of it by tonight. I won’t be held responsible if you don’t.”
Not wanting to intrude, I stood at the checkout counter in the back of the room. Once Mrs. Williams left, I swept the glass up while Trina replaced the flower jars she had been using. “What was that all about?” I asked.
“It’s nothing to worry about, my dear,” she said. Her grimace told me otherwise. I’d been Trina’s apprentice for about a year, and she didn’t hide her worry nearly as well as she thought she did.
I continued sweeping and found more shards of glass and sliced dong quai root. I picked the dong quai container off the counter to inspect it. It had been replaced by one of the new, wider jars Trina had been slowly changing to. Why had the old jar broken, and more importantly, why hadn’t Trina cleaned it up completely?
Before I could ask, Trina handed me a glass vial. “Your investiture ceremony is coming up soon, right?”
“It’s next week. Are you coming?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Trina said.
Investiture was the time once every seven years that a witch chose what she would focus her work and study on. My cousins Thea and Delia and I would choose our first non-beginner focus. I planned to choose potions, and I didn’t know what Thea or Delia would choose.
“In that case, it’s time for a test. I’ll finish tidying up. You have half an hour to tell me the eight components of this potion.”
I blew hair out of my face and took the vial with me to my small counter in the prep room, across from the office. The small room had two counters, two chairs, and all our extra stock on shelves that lined three sides of the room. We kept the lights dim, because we stored photosensitive ingredients there.
Unlike the sales floor, the prep room smelled green and earthy. I sat in my chair, closed my eyes, and focused my mind. There was a standard method to determine potion ingredients, and as long as I worked through all the steps in the allotted time, I should be able to pass the test. I could cast a spell to determine the ingredients, but Trina was old-fashioned and wanted me to learn the non-magical methods I could use in front of customers. The first two tests were simple: smell and sight. I unstoppered the cork and immediately smelled pungent ginger oil. I poured the potion into a bowl and recognized the glimmer of pearl powder. Was this a longevity potion?
Before I moved to the next step, Trina opened the door. “Your mother called and said she needs you to call her right away.”
I was concentrating on my test and hadn’t heard the phone ring. I rubbed my forehead. Anytime my mother had something she wanted to tell me, it was urgent—at least to her. I didn’t want to interrupt my test for something that could wait for another twenty-five minutes.
“Did you tell her I was busy?”
“No, I didn’t. Call her, and if you need a few more minutes to finish, you can have them. I’ll be in the office if you need me.”
I pulled my phone from my pocket and dialed. “Hi, Mom. I’m in the middle of a test. What’s up?”
“Hi, sweetie, I know I said I wouldn’t bother you when you moved out. It’s been weeks since we’ve seen you, and we miss you,” she said with a shaky voice.
I thought over the six months since I’d moved out and realized she was right. I’d planned on a slow withdrawal from daily family life when I moved out of the house to make the separation easier on everyone. I was the first person in two generations to move to an apartment, and my grandmother, mother, and aunts were all sad about my choice.
“Sorry about that. It’s been incredibly busy and by the time I remember to call, it’s too late at night.”
“I need you to come to dinner tonight. I’m worried about your grandmother. Her health has taken a turn, and we can’t figure out what is wrong,” she said with more distress in her voice than I’d heard in a long time.
My heart sank. Grandma was seventy-seven, and although witches can live to twice that age, it wasn’t guaranteed. “Sure, I can come for dinner, but how can I help?”
“Your grandmother listens to you, and I want you to convince her to see a doctor. Can you ask Trina to come by and have a look at her too?”
Grandma was stubbornly independent, thinking she knew enough herbal magic to keep herself alive almost forever. She started listening to my advice only once I’d become Trina’s apprentice.
“I’m not sure she’ll listen to me, but I’ll give it a try.”
“Good. Dinner is at six. Don’t be late.”
I hung up and turned to my potion, trying to put my worry about Grandma out of my mind.
“Is everything okay?” Trina asked from the doorway.
I looked up at her, willing myself to not cry. “Grandma’s not well, and my mother and aunts can’t figure out what’s wrong. They want me to convince her to go see a doctor.”
Trina shook her head. “Your grandmother’s never seen a doctor in her life, I doubt she’ll start going to one now.”
“Can you come talk to her tonight?”
“I can’t. I’ve got someone coming to the shop after hours. I have another idea. Leave the test vial here, and let’s head out to the greenhouse.”
I followed Trina out the back door and pulled my black cardigan tight against the cold March air. The rose and juniper bushes planted next to the greenhouse rustled in the wind. Our feet crunched on the gravel path that was finally devoid of snow.
The greenhouse was a small glassed-in building she had built in the shared courtyard behind the apothecary that provided most of the herbs and flowers we needed. The floor-to-ceiling shelves were full of rare and common plants we used in our tinctures, sold as dried goods, or ground into powder. I stepped in and took a deep breath. The oxygen-rich air, heady with the scent of early blooming roses and echinacea, cheered me. The bright flowers were a stark contrast to the dirty gray snow piled up along the edges of the courtyard and hinted at the change of season everyone longed for by the end of winter.
I’d learned a lot of gardening from my grandfather when I was younger, and I used his lessons to keep the greenhouse plants thriving. Grandpa and I spent our weekends year-round working on the family gardens: food, flower, memorial, and medicinal. If we weren’t outside working in them during the warm months, we were by the fireplace in winter, planning changes and additions, or starting seeds in early spring.
Trina closed the door. “It’s time for you to start using your powers to assemble potions. You’ve learned what each of these plants will do. Now you need to put that information together with what you know about other people to form an effective cure. You’ve been honing your intuition over the past year, and it’s time to use it.”
I stared at her, mouth open. “You want me to guess?”
She put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “No, I want you to think about someone you’re close to, someone you care about, and then let your instinct guide you.”
We stood silently for a moment while I thought.
“Who have you chosen?”
“Grandma,” I said.
Trina smiled. “I thought you’d pick her. Use your intuition and choose tincture, tea, or balm.”
“Tincture, because it will be easier to add to her food,” I said.
“Be wary, giving any medical assistance to someone without their permission is the first step in harming them and yourself.”
“I know.” It went deeper than that. Using magic on non-magical people was almost unilaterally frowned on. Healing potions were one of the very few exceptions, but even then, the person had to know the ingredients they were buying. There was no exception when the person being treated was a witch.
“Close your eyes and focus on your grandmother. Once you have her in mind, allow your intuition to guide you to the plants she needs. Once you have identified each one, we’ll go inside and you will make the tincture.”
I bit my lip and closed my eyes. Once I had Grandma firmly in mind, the lemon tree, the rosemary bush, and the small juniper bush outside the greenhouse took her place in my vision. I opened my eyes. “Lemon, juniper and rosemary.”
Trina nodded. “Okay then, pick a little of each and meet me inside.”
When I returned to the prep room, I put the tincture ingredients on my table and looked into the office, where Trina was on her cell phone with her back to me.
Her shoulders stiffened. “Where do you think I’m going to get that kind of money?”
A man was yelling on the other end of the line, but I didn’t recognize his voice. It could have been anyone, because the phone made his voice sound tinny.
“I don’t care where you get it, or what you need to do to get it. I’m coming today and you don’t want to disappoint me.”
Trina slammed the phone on her desk without saying another word.
I knocked on the office doorframe. “You okay?”
Trina turned to me, blinking back tears. “I’m fine. Or at least I will be, once I get him sorted out.”
I smiled and said okay, but I didn’t believe her. Her lower lip quivered, and she forced herself to smile at me.
“Let’s talk about something important. Explain why your grandmother needs these,” Trina said.
“Lemon will strengthen her blood, juniper will increase her appetite, and rosemary will help clear mental fog.”
“These are good for any woman her age, and if they clear up the problem, then there’s nothing seriously wrong with her.” She sat on the edge of her desk and sighed. “The problem is getting her to take it. Do you think she’ll take it because you asked her to? Or will you have to convince her?”
“I thought I would tell her it was part of my homework, and that you approved it. She might have more faith in it then.”
“Consider the best way to approach her while you prepare your ingredients. Don’t worry about the test. You can finish it tomorrow.”
After a half hour of potion making, I passed my hand over the filled vial and whispered my intention: “Restore Grandma’s health.”
Anyone could make a potion from a book, but it was the magical intention a witch added at the end of the process that gave it real potency.
I brought the potion to Trina to check. She cast a subtle spell with the flick of her finger to check my potion.
“Juniper, lemon, rosemary. Good work. Your intention is strong, too. Tell your grandmother I said she’d be foolish not to take it. She may need more than one dose, spread out over a few days, before she is well again. If she gets worse, though, stop giving it to her immediately.” She handed me the vial and picked up an envelope off her desk. “Watch the shop for me while I run this to the mailbox.”
I slipped the vial into my pocket. We had no customers, so I took the lavender and chamomile jars to the prep room to fill. I was halfway finished when the alarm on my phone went off. Time to leave for my second job—the one that paid my bills.
While I learned a lot from Trina, being her apprentice didn’t pay. I had to work thirty hours a week at my second job, counter staff at The Fancy Tart Café. It wasn’t the worst job ever, and Bethany Swift, the owner, was reasonable as far as bosses go. Someday, though, I wanted to run my own potions shop.
You might think I’d have no worries being a witch, because I could make my own luck, conjure up all the money I needed, and create love potions to attract anyone I wanted. The witchcraft my family practiced was not like that.
We followed some strict rules, because there were big consequences if you broke them. From the horror stories I heard as a kid, I knew I would never, ever use magic for personal gain, because the price was too high. You’ve heard the stereotype of ugly crones? Those were witches who used their power for selfish reasons.
I grabbed my coat and peered out the window. I didn’t want to leave the shop until she got back, but I didn’t want to be late for work either. I closed my eyes and relaxed the tension in my jaw. Trina would return any second and the café was only a couple blocks away.
The door chimes rang and I opened my eyes.
“I’m sorry, I got stuck talking to Caroline and couldn’t break away. I’ll see you tomorrow?” Trina said.
I smiled. Caroline Arneson would ruin anyone’s day. She wanted the apothecary space to expand her own tourist shop, but Trina steadfastly refused to move.
“Yes. I’ll be here before ten. Do you want me to bring coffee?”
Trina said no to coffee and reminded me once again that we never cast spells on or treat another person without permission. I agreed, but thought she sounded more like I was about to go full Darth Vader when all I wanted was to get a bit more spring in Grandma’s step.
I walked the two blocks to The Fancy Tart, trying not to look in each shop window full of new spring merchandise. I loved the quaint all-brick feel of Market Street and its tourist vibe, but I didn’t have time for window-shopping today. When I wasn’t running late, I loved looking up at the five-story buildings that surrounded Market Square and dreaming of owning one of the condos that the upper floors housed. The variety of shops in the square practically guaranteed I’d never have to leave the area for anything I might want. I didn’t have a car and wouldn’t ever need one here in Portsmouth. I opened the kitchen door of the bakery and clocked in two minutes late.
I put my things in my locker and stood in front of the six-foot-tall oven that was baking rye and pumpernickel loaves. I stretched my hands out, warming them after the cold walk from the apothecary.
Bethany, my boss, turned from the papers on her desk in the corner of the kitchen and brushed a lock of curly gray hair out of her face. She had flour on her pointed nose and a grin on her wide lips. “Isabella, hi. Is it two already?”
“Yup. What do you want me to focus on today?” Some days there were special projects she wanted done, and on others I waited on customers, so I always checked first.
“We’ve been busy today. Start by waiting on customers.”
“You got it.”
I walked through the kitchen, weaving my way between the metal tables the bakers used to knead dough. It was quiet, because the three large floor mixers situated against the back wall were all off. I said hi to the afternoon baker, Andrew. Andrew was Bethany’s younger brother, and at sixty-eight, he still had enough energy to put me to shame. “Hey, Isabella. How’s it going?”
“Not too bad. What’s good today?”
He grinned. “It’s all good. The last batch of croissants are exceptionally flaky, so I suggest those.”
My mouth watered in anticipation. If there were any left by the time I took a break, I’d share one with Abby.
Pushing through the saloon doors that separated the front of the store from the kitchen, I was surprised to see a line of customers snaking through the store and ending at the door. The glass-fronted bakery cases were running low on product, but what was there was arranged neatly. Students who needed their early-afternoon caffeine fix occupied all the oak tables.
I looked up at the chalkboard hanging behind the point-of-sale system to see the specials. We were out of honey lavender tea, but the cardamom rose coffee was still available.
The next person in line caught my attention. It was Chuck Mitchell, our downstairs neighbor. He usually tried to jockey position so that Abby Allen, my best friend since kindergarten, would wait on him.
“I can help you here, Chuck,” I said with my brightest grin. Chuck was sort of handsome, if you liked neck beards and hair that perpetually needed to be combed. Unfortunately for Chuck, Abby preferred the athletic, clean-cut type. Her preference didn’t keep Chuck from asking her out at least once a week, though.
“Hi, Belle,” he said with a smirk.
Being called Belle, Bella, or anything other than my actual name bugged me to no end. He knew it, and he liked to see me cringe every time he pulled this stunt. Surprisingly, he hadn’t realized that antagonizing your crush’s best friend wasn’t the way to win her heart.
“Not a Disney princess,” I muttered, before more loudly saying, “What’ll it be?”
“I’ll have the usual, princess.”
His “usual” was a tall hot mocha with eight creams and four sugars. Yes, that was four sugars after the sweetened chocolate syrup. I swore someday I was going to go into sugar overload just making this coffee. I made his drink, grabbed the worst looking chocolate chip muffin in the case, and handed him his order.
Now, when I said the worst looking muffin, I didn’t mean it was bad; Bethany would have none of that. It was a bit smaller and had fewer chips than the others. Was it petty to do this? I contend it was much less petty than his continuing to call me Belle—he earned it.
I rang him up and scowled at his retreating back, because he always left a five-dollar bill in Abby’s tip jar, no matter who waited on him. As soon as he left, she plucked the bill out of her jar and put it into mine.
My next customer was another regular, although I knew hardly anything about her but her first name. Today, Agatha was dressed in a suit as though she was on a break from work, even though she had a hard time keeping a job. Her brown hair was held in a bun by two pencils, and I was pleased to see that she was wearing matching shoes. Sadly, that didn’t always happen. She was arguing with Alice, the voice in her head, and as she stepped up to the counter, it seemed like she was losing the argument.
“Hi, Agatha, can I help you?”
“Two buttermilk scones and two chamomile teas. We can’t afford the caffeine this late in the day.”
“Right away.” I pulled the scones out of the pastry case. “How are you and Alice today?”
“She wants cardamom rose coffee, but that will keep her up all night. She’s arguing that I never let her have any fun.”
I turned to make the two cups of tea. Agatha had been a customer at the apothecary for at least a year, and I wasn’t sure anything Trina and I could come up with would help her. She most likely needed psychiatric help, but never followed up on our suggestion to call a doctor. I handed her the tea and scones. “Stop by the apothecary and talk to Trina. Maybe she’ll have something new for you to try.”
Before I knew it, my shift was over, and it was time for me to head to my family’s house. I had been too busy serving customers to worry about Grandma, but as I walked down Market Street, I felt a sense of wrongness that I’d only ever sensed once before: the day my Great Aunt Jem was murdered.