One year ago today, just before the inaugural meeting of The NLB, I scribbled out a short story about a wicked young witch named Mab Ipswich. In 5 days, that story will be published in the November issue of children’s lit magazine Underneath the Juniper Tree. In honor of Mab’s first birthday and her impending publication, I present to you the following new Mab story:
Beatrice had never seen Mab so excited. The witch was hurriedly crafting some sort of spell. Mab flipped through thick, dusty books scattered across the floor of the little bedroom she shared with her two older sisters, and scribbled down notes so fast that sometimes the pen tip clawed through the paper. She grabbed handfuls of frog fingers and lizard lips from the glass jars lined up against the wall and tossed them into her little black cauldron in the middle of the floor. Outside, the sky grew dark. Rain tickled the window pane.
“Er, Mab. I thought you said we were going somewhere with free candy,” Beatrice said.
Mab wasn’t paying attention. She reached past Beatrice and took a handful of toad toes from a jar. She considered them for a moment, gave them a sniff, and then popped one in her mouth. She chewed for a moment, then made a face and spit it out. “Too ripe,” she mumbled to herself, then shrugged and threw the toes into the cauldron. Green smoke billowed from the brew. It smelled like rotted applesauce.
“Mab!” Beatrice said. “Where are we going and when are we leaving?”
“I told you, Bea. We’re going to the place with free candy. We’ll leave when I finish making the portal,” Mab said.
“A portal? We’re going to another dimension?” Beatrice asked. This was both exciting and terrifying news. Exciting because she had a chance to step out of her boring, routine life and into a place utterly alien and beyond anything she had ever known. A new, untouched world, full of free candy. Terrifying because last time she’d followed Mab through a portal, Beatrice had got stuck in heaven for hours. It was dreadfully boring. She didn’t want to end up back there, not until she was good and properly dead, at least.
“Of course,” Mab said and stirred the potion counter-clockwise. “If they gave out free candy in this dimension, we wouldn’t have to go to another dimension to get free candy. But I have to cook the potion right. Or else we might end up in limbo or hell, or even worse, Wisconsin.”
The room seemed to grow dark at the muttering of that evil-sounding word. “What’s Wisconsin?” Beatrice asked.
“My great-uncle ended up there once. He said it was a dark, cold place full of pale mutants who wear cheese on their heads.”
Beatrice shuddered. What an awful place. She’d rather end up back in heaven than there.
Mab grabbed a jar of basilisk-blood and poured the thick, red liquid in a circle around the cauldron. Then she spit into the potion.
“Your turn,” Mab said. Beatrice sidled up to the edge of the basilisk-blood circle and leaned over the cauldron. It felt strangely silly and rude to spit into a cauldron. Her mum would not approve. It was not ladylike. Beatrice held back her long, blonde hair and spit. The cauldron bubbled.
Mab stood up over the cauldron, closed her orange eyes, and began muttering a spell in the secret language of the witch-clans. Then she snapped her fingers. A shining black sphere rose from the cauldron.
The witch took two garbage bags out of the closet and handed one to Beatrice. Then she grabbed Beatrice’s free hand and touched the sphere. She whispered a word. The world went white. Beatrice heard a ding-dong. And then she found herself standing on a wide, green lawn under a twilit sky. It was chilly. Beatrice wished she’d brought a coat.
In front of them was a two-storey blue house. Behind them was a quiet street winding between similar-looking lawns and houses. Beatrice frowned. It looked much like Centrifuge Street where she lived, or the outer-shires of her hometown of Piccadilly. The lawns were much larger and the houses built in strange styles, but it seemed familiar. She’d hoped for something much more weird and alien out of a different dimension.
“Come on, Bea,” Mab said, and led her across the lawn to the front door of the house. Brown leaves crunched under their feet. As they approached, Beatrice noticed the house’s decorations. Plastic bats hung in the windows. A skeleton hung from the front door. Cotton cobwebs were strung across the porch railings and bushes. Huge, fuzzy spiders with googly eyes sat in the webs. And on the steps sat a fat pumpkin with a grim face carved in its skin and a candle burning in its hollow gut. This was more like it, Beatrice thought. It reminded her of Mab’s house, as Mab’s house was always pleasingly disturbing.
Mab rang the doorbell. Footsteps sounded inside. A smiling middle-aged couple wearing sweaters opened the door and smiled. “Happy Halloween!” they said.
“Oh, look at you! What a cute witch costume!” said the woman. She was holding a green bowl full of colorfully-wrapped candies.
“It’s not a costume,” Mab said. “I am a witch.”
“Oh, of course, of course,” said the woman. “We can all be whatever we want to be on Halloween.”
“And what are you supposed to be?” the man asked Beatrice.
“I’m Piccadillian,” Beatrice said. The man looked confused, until his wife assured him that it was a character from “that Japanese cartoon Madison watches. The one with the little monsters and everyone is yelling.”
Mab held out her garbage bag. “Candy,” she said.
“Now, now, what are the magic words?” said the man.
Beatrice and Mab looked at each other. “Please and thank you?” Beatrice guessed.
“Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul?” Mab guessed.
“Um…” said the woman. Voices and crunching leaves sounded behind them, and Beatrice turned to see a group of short people coming across the wide, green lawn. One was dressed as a demon, one was a witch, and one was wearing a white sheet with eye-holes cut out of the front. Beatrice guessed he was pretending to be a pillow case. As they got closer, Beatrice realized they were children, around their own age. Each of them held a plastic pumpkin in their hands. What a strange dimension, Beatrice thought.
“Trick-or-treat!” the three children said. The middle-aged couple smiled, and dropped a handful of candy in each plastic pumpkin. The candy landed with a satisfying thunk at the bottom.
“Thank you,” said the demon, the witch, and the pillow case. As they turned to go, Mab rounded on the witch.
“You have brown eyes,” Mab said.
“So?” the girl said.
“Witches have orange eyes. You’re not a witch.”
“Duh. It’s a Halloween costume, dummy,” the brown-eyed witch who was not a witch said. Mab’s orange eyes blazed.
“Only witches are allowed to wear witch hats,” Mab said and tried to snatch the tall, pointy black hat off the girl’s head. The girl jumped back, behind the pillow case.
“Don’t touch me, you weirdo!” the girl said. Beatrice pulled Mab back before the actual witch could cast a hex.
“Now, children…” she heard the smiling, sweatered couple say.
“They’re ‘guising, Mab,” Beatrice whispered in her friend’s ear. “I figured it out. It’s like in Piccadilly. On the Autumn Equinox, all us kids in Piccadilly go ‘guising. We wear white masks and go to every door in our shire of the city and sing songs. Then the people inside give us money to shut up and go away. The louder and more terribly you sing, the more money you make. My dad said he once got 30 scones for singing The Red Roofs Over Ricotta four octaves above his range for two hours straight.”
“She still shouldn’t be wearing a witch hat,” Mab grumbled. The demon, pillow case, and fake witch walked off the porch and back across the wide, green lawn. The fake witch sneered at Mab. Mab stuck out her tongue. Beatrice turned to the couple and held out her garbage bag.
“Trick-or-treat!” she said.
“That’s more like it,” the woman said and dropped a handful of candy into the bag. It made a satisfying shiff sound when it hit the bottom of the bag. Beatrice smiled, thanked the woman, and then looked at Mab. The witch stepped forward and said, “Trick.”
“It’s trick-or-treat, dear,” the man said and chuckled.
“I know. But I don’t want a treat. I want to play a trick.”
The woman laughed nervously. “Oh, but dear, it’s just a saying. You don’t actually–”
“Trick,” Mab said again.
The man chuckled again and held out a handful of colorfully-wrapped candies. “Now, here you go,” he said, but Mab kept her garbage bag closed and shook her head.
“Trick,” she said once again, and then began whispering something in the witch-language. The smiling, sweatered couple stared at her, then looked at each other, then looked at Beatrice. Beatrice backed off the porch. She heard Mab cackle and snap her fingers. At first nothing happened. Then the big, fuzzy spiders jerked to life. They scurried over the porch and over the walls of the house, spewing cotton webbing from their felt spinnerets.
“What’s going on… how did you… what are they…” the couple began shouting, but then one of the fuzzy spiders spun a thick web across the door and their voices became a muffled, “wawawawawa.” Within a minute, the entire house was covered in webbing. The spiders retreated to a dark corner beneath the roof and then devoured a sparrow that flew into the cotton web.
“Will they be all right?” Beatrice asked. The smiling, sweatered couple had been nice enough.
“As long as the spiders don’t get inside the house,” Mab said and then made her way across the wide, green lawn. “Come on, let’s go to the next house.”
As they walked down the quiet street, Beatrice glanced at a car parked in front of one of the houses. On the bumper was a white metal tag. There was a jumble of numbers and letters and above that the word… Beatrice gasped. “Mab! Look!”
Mab’s orange eyes widened as she read the dark word on the white tag. “Wisconsin.”
Beatrice looked down at the garbage bag in her hands, then threw it on the ground. “I bet the candy’s cursed. I bet if you eat it, you have to stay here forever. That’s why they give it away for free.”
“Sorry, Bea. I bet it’s because the toad toes were too ripe,” Mab said and frowned.
“It’s all right, Mab. But let’s go, before the pale mutants get us,” Beatrice said. Mab nodded and reached into her pocket. She pulled out the shining black orb. Beatrice took Mab’s hand. The witch said a word. The world went white. And then they were standing back inside Mab’s bedroom. The sky outside was dark. Rain tickled the window pane. Inside its circle of basilisk blood, the cauldron had gone cold. Beatrice sighed twice. First, out of relief, and then out of disapointment.
“Too bad we couldn’t bring back any candy,” she said.
“Yeah. I know where we can get free cake,” Mab said.
“Oh, but Mab, I don’t feel like going to another dimension tonight.”
Mab smiled a wide, wicked grin. “We don’t have to go to another dimension. It’s my sister Tamora’s birthday tomorrow. Her birthday cake’s in the fridge…”
In the years to come, Beatrice Bardy would have many dangerous adventures with Mab Ipswich. She would sneak into a dragon’s cave, delve into the haunted dungeons beneath Wyrm Castle, and even wander in the cursed, werewolf-stalked forest of Cobwood. But she often said that no escape was closer, no doom more narrowly averted, than that terrible Halloween night in the horrific dimension known as Wisconsin.