“One beautiful April day, when Sally was in sixth grade, all of the aunts’ cats followed her to school. After that, even the teachers would not pass her in an empty hallway and would find an excuse to head in the other direction. As they scurried away, the teachers smiled at her oddly, and perhaps they were afraid not to. Black cats can do that to some people; they make them go all shivery and scared and remind them of dark, wicked nights. The aunts cats, however, were not particularly frightening. They were spoiled and liked to sleep on the couch and they were all named for birds.” *
Sally Owens didn’t want the cats coming with her to school, but like most cats, they ignored what she wanted and did as they pleased. Sally wanted only to be invisible at school. “Jeez,” she thought. “The last thing I need is five stupid black cats tagging along!”
Sally knew the cats weren’t stupid and immediately felt guilty and ashamed. She loved the cats. But kids taunted her and her sister Gillian when they thought they could get away with it, she didn’t need something like this to give them more ammunition. “I wish Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet lived in the south of France,” she thought. “There at least, people would think I’m super lucky to have black cats following me around.”
But Sally didn’t live in southern France with her aunts, she lived in New England where most people thought black cats were evil because witches seemed to favor cats as companions and black cats the most. Of course, almost everyone in New England assumed that witches were evil, which Sally knew was not true at all. But what did it matter what Sally knew? Everyone else seemed to think witches were terrible, ugly things, not caring, lovely people like her aunts.
Sally stood in the hallway outside her classroom not knowing what to do. “If I go in with the cats” she thought, “the teacher will be mad and somebody will do something awful, I just know it. If I go home, I’ll get in so much trouble with the teacher she might flunk me!” Either choice was not good and Gillian was not at school today to ask for her help.
Too scared of her choices to do either, Sally sat down on the floor with her back against the lockers and put her head on her knees so no one could see the tears leaking out of her eyes. She couldn’t make them stop no matter how hard she tried. Four of the cats surrounded her, laid down facing out, their yellow eyes daring anyone to bother Sally. Magpie, the fifth cat and Sally’s favorite, crawled into her lap as if he knew just how hard it was to be a young witch in a place where 200 years ago witches were persecuted and tortured.
No one dared come near Sally. Not other kids, not teachers, not even the principal of the school. The kids whose lockers Sally sat near decided they didn’t need whatever was in their lockers that day. Sally sat and cried until the school was deserted and it was past time for her to be home. Patient, as cats can be when they want to be, none of the cats had moved. Cardinal, Crow, Raven and Goose still guarded Sally, while Magpie lay warmly in her lap.
“Everyone is gone now,” said a deep voice above Sally’s head. “You can go home. Tomorrow everyone will pretend nothing unusual happened today, I’m sure. And they’ll be too frightened to say anything to you about it.” Harold, the school janitor, held out his hand. Magpie walked off Sally’s lap while Harold helped Sally to her feet. He chuckled softly, almost to himself, “Your cats did a very good job of keeping kids away and looking threatening.”
Harold walked with Sally out to the door of the school, the cats trailing behind them both. At the door of the school, when Sally turned her face up to the tall man to say Thank You, Harold looked her in the eyes and said “It will get easier when you are older Sally. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but if you can hang in there and not lose yourself, you will be happy. I promise.”
Then Harold smiled and winked before closing the door behind her. She was sure he winked. Did he wink? Does he really know something about her future that she doesn’t know? Sally, with Magpie, Cardinal, Crow, Raven and Goose on either side of her, walked toward home for the evening, hoping Mr. Harold McElvie was right. She hoped that tomorrow everyone would pretend that today hadn’t happened at all.
Copyright 2011 Maren K. Jensen
* Quote from the book Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman