Witchy Weekends: The Frog Wish (part 1)

Welcome to October again! This year, I’m doing something a little different for my Witchy Weekends series. Instead of sharing movies or books or music with you, I’m sharing with you a story. A story I’m writing, a work-in-progress. (I’ve already written quite a bit of it, but not every last thing yet.) This is a bit of an experiment for me, but I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Here’s the plan: each weekend this month I’ll share a scene with you from this WIP (in which one of the characters is a witch), and you, dear reader, get to share with me your reaction to it. That’s right, I’m crowdsourcing a beta-read. I’ve never done this before, so I don’t really know what to expect — though you all are a very nice bunch, so I’m not expecting you to be rude.  🙂

Feel free to post in the comments what you think of the scene, any aspect of it, and what you think is going to happen next in the story. I’d love to know!

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“The Frog Wish” (part 1)

Eleanor couldn’t stop staring at the frog. A large creature, larger than the palm of her hand, it watched her as she circled the table, following her with its eyes and even turning a little to keep her in its line of sight. Maybe it was aware she was wondering about it? The thought made her a little uncomfortable. In her world, frogs were supposed to be garden animals. They did not possess the intelligence to be inquisitive about people. This one almost reminded her of Lucas, the way he had watched her sometimes from across the room, cocking his head slightly when she did something a little bit interesting. She circled around the table, and the frog’s eyes moved with her in an articulated curve, watching her until she stood behind him.

The frog lifted itself off its haunches and turned around, squatting once more, looking at Eleanor again. It made a little croak.

All the old stories of princes being turned into frogs by witches flooded her imagination. What would it feel like to kiss one? Slimy, no doubt… What would ever possess someone to try it? She looked over at Moira, measuring dried lavender buds carefully into a plastic bag for a customer.

“Now be sure to sprinkle those in the bath while the warm water is running,” she was saying. “And say the charm I gave you at the same time.”

The customer nodded her head. “Right. And I have to focus on myself only, not on anyone else.”

“You wouldn’t want to be unethical,” Moira smiled. She tossed a long braid over her shoulder. “Bad for your karma that way.”

“Got it. Thank you so much!” the customer called as she left the shop.

Moira looked back at Eleanor and grinned. “Some of them are so easy to please,” she said. “Just a few herbs and a decent meditation, and they think I’ve changed their lives.”

Eleanor looked at her friend more carefully, then glanced down at the frog, who’d just let loose a croak worthy of a blue ribbon. It blinked its moist eyes at her then looked away.

“This one of yours?” Eleanor asked, pointing to it.

“Who, Reginald?” Moira laughed. “He’s like a pet.”

Eleanor couldn’t believe she was about to ask it, but–– “Did you make him…?”

“Did I turn him into a frog, you mean?” The amused grin on her face tried hard not to look condescending.

Eleanor felt stupid now even for thinking something like that.

“No,” Moira laughed. “I found him that way. The Goddess has to take credit for that one.”

Eleanor sheepishly turned away from the frog, who croaked again, and followed Moira into the book room for tea and a cozy seat on the sofa.

The book room was Eleanor’s favorite spot in the entire shop. Oh, she liked the garden well enough, and the alcove filled with crystals and jewelry; the shelves lined with large glass jars full of powders and dried herbs fascinated her. But the book room, with its floor-to-ceiling rows of spellbooks, memoirs, meditation primers, and tarot decks, was absolutely the spot to be. Moira had set up a couple of Queen Anne wingback chairs (that might have been worth some real money if she’d reupholstered them) in the corners and a velvet divan under the window, and Eleanor often came in here to read or admire the art on the tarot cards. When things were slow, she and Moira would sit together for a cup of oolong or chai and pretend the world wasn’t a madly spinning maelstrom of nonsense.

Moira pointed to a small wooden box inlaid with mother-of-pearl on the coffee table. “A new deck arrived this week. I thought you might enjoy it.” She crossed the room to pour the tea.

Eleanor lifted the lid and drew back a dark blue silk cloth covering the cards. An intricate image stared up at her, a wildly overlapping pattern of jewel colors and shapes she couldn’t quite identify, and when she tried to impose some order onto it, the image seemed to shift back into chaos. An optical illusion, she thought. Clever. She flipped the first card over and saw The Fool, cheerfully traipsing down a haphazard path. Nothing she hadn’t seen before, even if the art was vibrant and appealing. She lifted the rest of the deck out of the box and sifted through it. The Major Arcana were gorgeous but easily recognizable, even without glancing at their titles or numbers.

Moira brought two teacups over and sat down. The scent of cinnamon and vanilla permeated the room.

“I still haven’t figured out how you manage such perfect foam without a latte machine,” Eleanor said.

Moira wrinkled her nose in a cute smile and sipped, then said, “What do you think of the new cards?”

“They’re lovely. Have you used them yet?”

“Just some idle browsing.” Moira set down her tea. “Would you like a reading?”

Eleanor glanced at her watch. She still had half an hour before her appointment with the antiques dealer. “Maybe a quick one.”

“Go ahead and shuffle them then,” Moira said and spread the silk cloth across the table. After Eleanor handed the cards back, Moira laid out three in a row, face-down. She turned the middle one over. “The Empress.” She gave Eleanor a sly smile. “Where have we seen this before?”

Eleanor dismissed it. “Yes, yes, you’re very optimistic about my ability to effect control over my own life blah blah blah.” She drank more of her tea.

Moira shook her head. “Not with that attitude, I’m not.”

“Please continue.”

Moira sighed. “In your past…” She flipped over the left-most card. “You have the five of cups.”

Also no surprise. Neither of them said anything, because neither of them wanted to argue about Lucas. Not again. Eleanor looked at the figure on the card mourning the spilled wine and ignoring the full chalices just out of reach. Moira gazed at it, too, but rather than say anything, she buried her face in her teacup.

After a moment, Eleanor cleared her throat. “Go ahead,” she murmured. “Show me the future.” As if a deck of cards could do such a thing.

Moira flipped over the last card. Death. The card that meant not actual death, but change. Big change. The kind of change no one could help you with or see you through. The kind of change you had to deal with alone.

“Well.” Eleanor took another sip then placed her teacup down as quietly as she could. “I suppose that’s good news, then, isn’t it?”

Moira looked up at her and crooked an eyebrow.

“I mean, right now, almost any change has got to be good. Hasn’t it?”

Moira laughed then, and the tension in the room crackled into a broken web. “We can do a longer reading later, if you like.” She gathered the deck into her hands and began idly shuffling them.

Eleanor shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not sure I believe in all this stuff.”

Moira paused and gave her a skeptical look. “That would explain why I’ve done more readings for you than anyone else in the last fifteen years. Combined.”

Eleanor opened her mouth to speak but found she had no clever response, so she downed the last of her tea instead. “I need to go anyway. Work beckons.”

The wind chimes in the front room signaled a customer had come into the shop. “So it does,” Moira said and took both teacups back to the tiny closet she’d turned into a snack station.

Eleanor wrapped the cards carefully back in their cloth and returned them to the box, closed the lid. “I’ll call you later,” she said. Moira nodded and they both walked into the front room, where a skittery young man was looking through a small box of watercolor greeting cards.

“I’m looking for a gift,” he said before Moira could even ask.

She nodded. “I know just the thing.”

This caught him off-guard. “You do? But I haven’t told­­––”

Moira shook her head gently. “No need.” She smiled, and he suddenly stopped fidgeting.

“Oh,” he said, looking a little confused. “Oh.”

“I’ll show you.” Moira gestured to the garden just beyond the open back patio door. He nodded and stepped toward it.

Moira patted Eleanor on the shoulder and slipped something into her pocket. “Call me later,” she said and walked back toward her customer.

Eleanor felt a small hard something wrapped in ribbon next to her car key. “Will do,” she said and headed out the front door to a meeting that would be far more straightforward than this visit had been.

A single croak stopped her progress halfway over the threshold. She turned and saw the frog again, perched on the desk, watching her. She resisted the urge to tell it good-bye. It was a frog.

Croak.

Eleanor paused. Then she shook her head. “Nope.”

She walked out.

Continue reading the story! Click here for part 2.

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Thank you for reading! In the comments, I welcome your feedback:
*  What did you like?
*  What confused you, if anything?
*  What needs work?
*  What are you most interested about?
*  What do you think will happen next?

Check back next weekend for the next installment in the story!

*****

Want to read more of my writing that’s already finished and published? Click here for poetry, click here for urban fantasy, and click here for realistic flash fiction. You can also buy my books in Houston at Blue Willow Bookshop!

Monday Earworm: Gerry Rafferty

Monday Earworm has returned! I don’t know about you, but I had a kinda tough September. Between work and school stress and a hip flexor injury, I’ve had a somewhat hectic time of things. But that’s okay! Because things are finally starting to feel a little less bonkers. So here! Have an earworm!

So today is my mom’s birthday. One song I always associate with my childhood is “Right Down the Line” by Gerry Raffery because I knew from a young age it was a song that was really special to my parents. They’re still going strong at 46 years of marriage (well, 46 years as of October 6th), and since I know my mom loves this song because it reminds her of my dad, and I’ve always loved this song because it reminds me of my parents’ happy marriage, well. If I were musically coordinated enough to play the piano and sing at the same time, this song would be high up on the list along with almost everything from Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes and Fiona Apple’s Tidal.

Here you go.

 

Monday Earworm: No Doubt

So last week at a faculty meeting, we all had a conversation about dominant versus subordinate social groups: to put it in extremely simple terms, we self-identified into a number of groups based on our identities that marked us as part of the dominant culture or targeted. For example, a person could identify as male (dominant) or female (targeted), as hetero (dominant) or LGBT (targeted), as middle- to upper-class or poor, as White or POC, Christian or Jewish/Muslim/Hindu, etc. You get the idea. And then we paired with one colleague and talked specifically about our own experiences, whatever we were comfortable with sharing. We were asked to discuss when we realized we were part of a particular group (dominant or subordinate) and then also when we realized how being part of that group would affect the way we were perceived or treated in society.

My conversation was with a male colleague from my department. He talked about being male, and I talked about being female. I realized that the moment I learned that I was female (and that this was different from being male) was when I was about six years old and my youngest sibling was born. My father and I were up at the hospital walking around the maternity ward, looking at the babies in the nursery. A nurse held one baby up in front of a large window, a boy who was naked. Dad pointed out the baby’s genitalia and explained that it marked that child as a boy, and that this was different from a girl’s body. I knew I was a girl, and now I knew on an intellectual level what the biological difference between the binary bodies was. I didn’t really think much else about it.

Then my colleague told me the moment he realized that being male meant he would be treated differently came along in his teaching career (at a different school from ours), when he heard a female colleague lament that her students weren’t showing her much respect, and he realized that if he’d made the same remarks to his students, their reaction would have been completely compliant. He recognized his male privilege in that moment.

The moment I realized I would be treated differently by society for being female had come when I was in second grade. We had to line up in our classrooms every day according to height, and dear reader, I am and have always been short. (Think Queen Victoria short. Literally.) And this was a sore point; I was teased about it for some inane reason on a regular basis. Anyway, we were lining up to go across campus to have our class picture taken, and for once I was not the shortest person in my class! There was one other person shorter than I, by almost an inch: my friend and neighbor and carpool buddy, P.J. Eubanks. And I proudly stood in front of him and smiled, giddy not to be the last person in line for the first time.

And our teacher, a generally kind older woman with short graying hair and a wardrobe full of floral print knee-length dresses, sauntered right over to us, frowned slightly, and moved P.J. to stand in front of me. When I began to ask why she’d done this, she explained that he was a boy and that it might make him feel bad to be the shortest person in the class. So she needed me to stand at the end of the line, as usual, so he wouldn’t get his feelings hurt. She straightened my position at the end of the line, smiled, and walked back to the front of the room to lead the class out the door. P.J. turned and grinned and shrugged, and I walked sullenly behind him all the way to the gym, my feathers crumpled in the knowledge that this was how it was going to be.

At least for a while.

When I told my colleague this story, he was appropriately bemused. He didn’t seem to find it any more important than P.J. had.

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me…

At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.

Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.

And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.

***

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.

When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.

And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.

And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.

One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:

“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”

“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

Things like that.

Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”

There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.

Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.

Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.

I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.

I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.

Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.

Monday Earworm: Lil Nas X (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus)

All right, look. Last week school started, and Friday through Sunday I was camping with the 9th grade class on their retreat. Today I am a zombie and was so during the whole school day. And this song really will not get out of my head, because high school.

But honestly? I sort of love this song. Also note you’re not likely to see Billy Ray Cyrus on this blog again. So please enjoy.