by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Necromouser and Other Magical Cats, September 2015
Jenna was almost asleep when she felt the weight of a cat plop onto the end of her bed. She turned on the lamp on the bedside table and saw Katelynn, her aunt’s dirt-brown tabby, sitting on the bed’s patchwork comforter.
A tiny mouse hung by its tail from Katelynn’s mouth, twisting and squirming, desperate to get away.
“Oh! Katelynn, thank you!”
Jenna crawled out of bed and hurried to set up her candles on the dresser beside the terrarium. She sprinkled salt and crumbled dried lavender. Then, she opened her aunt’s spell book to a page with an ornate drawing of Pegasus and an illusion spell handwritten in cramped, cursive letters.
“Okay, Katelynn, I’m ready. Don’t let it get away.”
The brown tabby jumped off the bed, trotted across the room, and then leapt delicately onto the dresser. Jenna lifted the mesh lid of the terrarium, and Katelynn dropped the terrified mouse inside.
Jenna and Katelynn watched the mouse cower, too afraid to explore its new home. The other inhabitants of the terrarium, however, came out from their cardboard and colorful-plastic hiding places, drawn by curiosity — first, a perfect little unicorn as white as lily petals; then a serpentine, winged dragon as black as the night sky; and, finally, a golden-furred gryphon with a tufted tail and clacky beak. Each creature was exactly the size of a mouse.
Jenna chanted the words from the spell book, just as her aunt had taught her to. The light from the candles grew taller, stretching up from the wicks and curling through the air like glowing smoke. The threads of light tangled in the air, sewing themselves up into the glowing image of Pegasus. Jenna finished chanting and blew the candles out, severing the illusion from them.
For a moment, the illusory Pegasus hung in the air. Then it condensed into a point of light and danced like a will-o-the-wisp into the terrarium. Finally, it landed on the cowering mouse’s forehead, transforming the mouse into a downy, white pegasus, a perfect match for the unicorn.
Jenna grabbed Katelynn and hugged her around her furry middle. “I didn’t think you’d catch the last mouse in time!”
Purrs overflowed the brown tabby, as if Jenna had squeezed them out of her.
Jenna put Katelynn back on the dresser and then swept off the salt and lavender into a trash bin. She reached to close the spell book, but Katelynn batted at her hand playfully.
“I’ll play with you tomorrow, Katelynn, before my parents come to take me home.”
Jenna had spent the summer at her aunt’s house, learning magic. Her parents didn’t know about the magic. They just wanted her out of the way while they finished up their big, boring work project.
Jenna pulled her hand away from the book, and Katelynn pounced on the yellowed pages. She nosed and pawed, flipping through the pages, until the book lay open to the illusion for Hydra.
Katelynn sat proudly by the emerald green illustration of a serpent with many, many hissing heads. Aunt Molly said that Katelynn sometimes played with snakes in the yard. Unlike mice, she was never able to catch them. She’d opened the spell book to this page before.
“All right,” Jenna said. “If you catch me one more mouse, I’ll make a hydra. But, you’d better do it tonight. I’m leaving in the morning.”
* * *
Jenna woke up to Katelynn pawing her face. It was still dark, but, as her eyes adjusted, Jenna made out the shape of another squirming mouse hanging only inches from her face.
“Ugh! Katelynn! Get that away from me.”
Having been properly acknowledged, the brown tabby jumped off the bed, crossed the room, and leapt onto the dresser again. She pawed at the lid of the terrarium, catching the mesh in her claws.
Jenna laughed. “Silly cat.” But she got out of bed and did all the work of casting an illusion spell again.
* * *
In the morning, Jenna woke to find Katelynn still on the dresser, staring intently at the tiny, mythical creatures inside her terrarium. She’d never heard Katelynn purr so loudly.
The purring ended when Katelynn saw Jenna bring out her suitcase. As Jenna packed her clothes, Katelynn repeatedly hid in the suitcase and had to be dragged back out. When the suitcase was finally zipped shut, Katelynn yowled miserably.
“I told you that I have to go,” Jenna said.
Katelynn skulked away and hid behind the terrarium.
Aunt Molly came to the door. “Are you all packed?” she asked.
Jenna looked around. With all her things packed back in her suitcase, the room looked like an ordinary guest room again, except for the terrarium filled with tiny, mythical creatures. “I guess so,” she said. “I don’t think Katelynn wants me to leave.”
“I’m not surprised. She doesn’t get much attention when you’re not here.”
Jenna couldn’t help thinking about how sad Katelynn would be when she realized that the terrarium was leaving too. Aunt Molly had asked, and her parents had said it was okay for her to bring a terrarium filled with mice home. They wouldn’t be able to see the illusion spells that turned them into a unicorn, dragon, gryphon, hydra, and pegasus.
“I wish I could bring Katelynn with me…” Jenna felt bad as soon as she said it. Katelynn was her aunt’s cat, not hers.
“Your mom said yes to mice — they stay in their terrarium. She wouldn’t be okay with a cat.”
The way Aunt Molly said it, she almost sounded like she would be okay with Jenna taking Katelynn. “Wouldn’t you miss her?”
Aunt Molly shrugged. “She doesn’t like me much. She sleeps all day on the back of the couch and growls if I disturb her.”
Katelynn was nothing like that for Jenna. She played with string, snuggled on the bed with her at night, and followed her all around the house. The idea of leaving Katelynn behind to be a grouchy, lonely cat was heartbreaking.
“What if…” Jenna thought about all the spells she’d learned that summer. They were mostly illusions, a few that could heat or cool water, and one that made her hair braid itself. But Aunt Molly knew many more. “Do you have a spell that could shrink Katelynn down to fit in my terrarium?”
Aunt Molly’s brow furrowed in thought. “Maybe. Let me check.”
Jenna followed Aunt Molly into her library room. All the walls were covered in book shelves, each shelf filled end to end with books. Even more books were stacked sideways on top of the others. There were two chairs, each with an end table beside it piled high in books, too. Jenna had spent a lot of time in the library room, but she hadn’t been able to figure out any organization scheme to the books. Romance novels stood next to calculus text books. This year’s bestsellers stood next to dusty old, handwritten spell books.
Aunt Molly walked around the room, putting her hand to a shelf occasionally, and finally pulled out one of the spell books. She flipped through the pages, settled on one, and said, “This would work. But I don’t have time before your parents get here.”
“Can I look?” Jenna nearly tripped over Katelynn who was weaving between her legs and purring. She picked the tabby up and crossed the room to look at Aunt Molly’s open spell book.
The list of ingredients wasn’t too hard — fresh mint, a vial of peridot gems, thorns from the stem of an unopened rose, cinnamon incense, and almond oil. The chant looked difficult, much more difficult than any of the chants Jenna had done so far.
“Why don’t you have time? We could do this right now,” Jenna said.
“I can’t just cast this on Katelynn. It doesn’t only make an animal smaller — there has to be balance, so it makes another animal bigger.”
“Maybe Katelynn could catch another mouse.” Jenna smiled down at the tabby purring in her arms; golden cat eyes smiled up at her. “She’s a terrific mouser.”
“I don’t want a giant mouse running around my house, thank you very much.”
“A cat-sized mouse?” Jenna asked.
“No, probably just a rat-sized mouse, but I still don’t want one.” Aunt Molly shut the spell book and put it on one of the piles of books. “Tell you what, I’ll figure something out, and I’ll bring Katelynn to you in a few weeks.”
Jenna didn’t want to wait a few weeks. Katelynn wouldn’t understand it was only a few weeks and would think Jenna had abandoned her. But Aunt Molly gave her the look that said, this conversation is over, and left the room.
Katelynn jumped out of Jenna’s arms and batted the spell book off of the pile. It fell open on the floor, and Katelynn nosed it back to the page with the shrinking spell.
“Okay,” Jenna said. “I won’t give up, but if Aunt Molly says ‘no mice,’ then no mice. You’ll have to catch something else.”
Jenna went to the kitchen and got a vial of peridot gems, a small bottle of almond oil, and cinnamon incense from one of the spell supply drawers. She slipped the glass vial, bottle, and incense sticks in her pocket. Then, she went outside to the garden, Katelynn following her.
When Jenna had first seen Aunt Molly’s garden, it looked like a wild mess of greenery, an untamed jungle. But, over the summer, she’d learned to see the hidden structure — every plant was useful, and every inch of space was filled with plants.
Jenna waded her way between the waist-high lavender and rosemary shrubs to the brilliant green mint plants. She ripped off several sprigs, and their bright smell sharpened the air, overpowering all the other scents mingling together. Aunt Molly’s garden always smelled amazing.
Aunt Molly had a rose bush of every color, each of them lost in a tangle of shrubs and herbs. They weren’t for being beautiful; their blooms and thorns were for working spells.
Jenna made her way to the orange roses first, but all of the flowers were in wide bloom. She heard a rustling in the shrubs and looked down to see Katelynn with a mouse wriggling in her mouth.
“No mice,” Jenna said.
Katelynn flattened her ears, dropped the mouse, and disappeared back into the greenery with her tail swishing angrily.
Jenna heard a car driving up the gravel road out front. That would be her parents. She needed to hurry.
The yellow and red roses were in full bloom too, but, on the white rose bush, she found a perfect, sweet little bud. Pressing her thumb against each thorn on its stem, she snapped them all off. She cradled the needle-sharp thorns carefully in the palm of her hand.
“Meow!” Katelynn snagged her claws in the fabric of Jenna’s pants. Then, she stared intently with her golden eyes at the rose bush.
Jenna followed her gaze: a tiny flutter of red-and-black wings landed on the edge of a rose leaf. A lady bug was small enough that Aunt Molly couldn’t object to making it larger. Jenna gently picked up the ladybug and placed it in her thorn filled palm. She closed her hand loosely around the precious collection.
Back inside, Jenna fended off hugs from her parents and hurried into the guest room. Katelynn followed her like a shadow.
She locked the door, propped Aunt Molly’s spell book against the terrarium, and began following its directions very precisely. She poured the green peridot gems out in a circle. She put the cinnamon incense in a censer and lit it. She arranged the rose thorns at the corners and intersections of an imaginary star inside the circle of peridot. She crushed the mint leaves, wadding it into a ball, and placed it at the center of the imaginary star.
Then she put a single drop of almond oil on the ladybug in her palm. Katelynn’s nose wrinkled, but she let Jenna put a drop of almond oil in the fur between her ears.
Then Jenna took a deep breath and began chanting.
Nothing happened. Jenna worried that she’d got the pronunciation wrong, but she kept going, saying the words as clearly as she could.
Finally, she realized that the smell of mint and cinnamon was growing stronger, much stronger than anything she’d smelled before. The scent was so strong, it was as if she could see the green and red-brown color of the smells in the air.
The smell was sharp like peppermint. Then, suddenly, it was cool like spearmint.
Katelynn meowed. Her voice was much higher. Jenna felt giddy looking at the tiny mouse-sized cat on her dresser. The lady-bug in her hand was the size of a quarter. She couldn’t believe she’d pulled off such a difficult spell.
Katelynn jumped from the dresser onto Jenna’s shoulder, purred, and bumped her head against Jenna’s.
Knocking on the door. “Hey, Jenna, it’s time to go,” her mother said.
“Just a minute!” Jenna called. “I have to do one last thing.”
Jenna cleaned up the supplies from the shrinking spell and set up the supplies for one last illusion spell. She ignored her parents knocking and complaints while she cast a reverse illusion on Katelynn — it didn’t change how Jenna saw her, but her parents would see only another mouse.
Jenna let her impatient parents into the room. She held the ladybug out to Aunt Molly. “See this beetle I found?”
“That looks a lot like a ladybug,” Aunt Molly said.
Jenna beamed with pride, and Aunt Molly shook her head knowingly.
“Couldn’t wait two weeks, huh? Mind if I keep the ladybug? I mean, beetle. That might actually be my kind of pet.”
“What are you talking about?” Jenna’s father asked.
“Nothing,” Jenna said, placing the giant ladybug in her aunt’s palm. Then, turning to her mother, she said, “Look at my mice!”
Jenna showed her parents the terrarium. The pegasus and unicorn were racing each other around the edges. The gryffin was preening her golden feathers. And the dragon flared her ebony wings, mock-fighting with the hissing emerald heads of the hydra.
Jenna’s parents oohed appreciatively, almost as if they could really see.
“Okay, kiddo, let’s get this circus out to the car,” her mother said.
Her father said, “I’ll carry your suitcase.”
Before picking up the terrarium to take it to the car, Jenna placed her final mythical creature inside. She thought that Katelynn, a simple brown tabby cat, looked perfectly at home with the others. The smile in Katelynn’s golden eyes agreed.
Read more stories from The Necromouser and Other Magical Cats!