Work Header

The Clockwork People

Work Text:

“There are clockwork people in the cellar,” Claudia said to her father. She was standing in the doorway to the new house, watching him hack away at the enormously overgrown shrubbery that sprawled against the outside walls. It was an extremely bright September Saturday and Claudia wished she had her sunglasses on, the pink ones with Minnie Mouse bows on the corners.

“That’s nice, sweetie,” said her father, wrestling with a particularly rebellious branch. He was perspiring and there were leaves stuck in his hair. Claudia frowned. “There are,” she said. “Clockwork people. I saw them. They had gears under their skin.”

“Claudia,” said her father, pausing in his labor, “I’m busy right now. Why don’t you go see if Mom needs anything, or get a jump on your homework for Monday?” He had the look in his eye that said, I’m not out of patience yet but I will be. Claudia sighed theatrically and wandered off around the corner of the house. She had no intention of getting stuck with chores or homework, and it was unlikely that her mother would be especially interested in the clockwork people either, although she ought to be, thought Claudia, because it’s not right, clockwork people. Living in our cellar. Who knows what they might get up to.

She meandered around in the shade of the side yard for a few minutes. The trees were thick on this side of the house, though they didn’t stand too close to the walls. Moss grew on the stones of the foundation. Claudia poked at it with a twig. Moss belongs here, she thought. Moss is real. Not like them.

“Hello, Claudia,” said a sharp voice. Claudia looked around. It was old Miss Ryerson from next door, peering across the flat unpainted board fence at her. Claudia had decided early on in their acquaintance that Miss Ryerson was probably a witch, what with her long gray hair, black cats, quasi-Victorian fashion sense, and general witchly demeanor. She saw no reason why this should impede their friendliness, though, since Miss Ryerson, unusually for a grown-up, recognized children as quite ordinary human beings, rather than some sort of odd auxiliary species, and treated them accordingly.

“Hello, Miss Ryerson,” said Claudia. “There are clockwork people in our cellar.”

“Is that so?” said Miss Ryerson. “You stay right there. I’m coming over.” She went away for a moment, then appeared to rise in the air and stepped gracefully off of the top of the fence, landing on her feet with a thump. Her long red skirt fell in folds around her legs. Over one shoulder she was carrying a canvas tote bag with a large picture of a cat on it.

“Did you levitate to get over the fence?” asked Claudia.

“Certainly not,” said Miss Ryerson. “I used the stepladder.”

“How will you get back?”

“Walk around,” said Miss Ryerson. “I would ordinarily have done that to begin with, but I am assuming that your parents are not amenable to hearing about the clockwork people and therefore felt it best to keep out of their view for now.”

This seemed reasonable to Claudia. Obviously, if her parents were amenable to hearing about it, they would be taking care of the problem right now, rather than leaving her to wander around telling other people about it.

“Are you going to use your witch powers?” Claudia asked.

“Possibly,” said Miss Ryerson. Claudia felt pleased.

“Have you seen clockwork people before?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Miss Ryerson. “They’ve been dormant for a good long while. Something must have disturbed their sleep. We’d best get a handle on the situation quickly, as those that have wakened will be waking the others when they can. Better to deal with as few of them as possible at one time.” She extracted two flashlights from the cat tote, handing the larger one to Claudia, who was surprised. “Shouldn’t I have the little light?” she asked.

“No,” said Miss Ryerson. “I will need both my hands to deal with the clockwork people, so you will have to hold the big light when we get down there so I can see what I’m doing.”

“But can’t we just use the overhead light?”

“They will have changed things in the cellar by now,” said Miss Ryerson. “The cellar stairs inside the house will probably not be accessible, for one. We won’t be able to rely on the overhead light, if it still exists. The only things we can rely on down there are ourselves and the tools I have in my bag.”

“I don’t much like the sound of that,” said Claudia, who had once heard an actress say that on television and thought it sounded sophisticated. “How can they change things down there? How did they get into our cellar anyway?”

“They’ve been there since 1873,” said Miss Ryerson. “They weren’t always clockwork people. They were once regular people like you and me. They used sorcery to replace their inner workings with clockwork in order to gain immortality. Their original souls are still in the bodies, but the process by which they managed this ill-advised procedure also gives them the ability to warp reality in small ways. This is why the witches of their day created the spell that keeps them sleeping most of the time.”

“But what woke them up?”

“I don’t know,” said Miss Ryerson. “I have an idea, but I shan’t tell you until I’ve had a chance to observe a few things. At any rate, standing here chatting defeats no clockwork people.”

The two of them moved through the long grass that Claudia’s father was going to get around to cutting eventually, once he finished subduing the front shrubbery. Claudia was slightly surprised that Miss Ryerson knew exactly where the angled cellar doors were. The dark red paint that had once covered the now-rusty metal was mostly rubbed off, but you could still see patches of it here and there. There was a padlock on the latch. Miss Ryerson pulled a ring of keys out of the pocket of her skirt and selected one.

“Why do you have a key to our cellar?” Claudia asked as Miss Ryerson struggled to turn the key, muttering under her breath. “Also, are you saying a spell to unlock the lock?”

“I have a key because I have been the person in charge of keeping the clockwork people sleeping for several decades now,” said Miss Ryerson, finally succeeding in removing the padlock from the latch. “And I was not saying a spell. I was expressing my irritation at the recalcitrance of this lock, in words that I hope and assume, given your question, you were not listening to very closely.”

“I couldn’t hear what you said,” Claudia said thoughtfully, “but I’ve learned a lot of new good words from you so far.” Claudia was fond of big fancy words. She liked to store them away and bring them out when she wanted to impress older people.

“These were neither new nor good words,” Miss Ryerson replied. She opened the cellar doors and set a stone about the size of Claudia’s palm on each one. They were painted in bright colors and were extremely visible against the metal.

“Are those magic rocks to keep the doors open?” Claudia inquired.

“No,” said Miss Ryerson, “they’re non-magic rocks that will let your parents know, should they walk by, that the doors are open for a reason, and they should not close them. Witchcraft, Claudia, is as much simple practicality as it is spells and potions, and frankly simple practicality sometimes gets you a lot farther.” She dropped the lock into the cat tote.

The two of them set off down the stairs. They were now spiral stairs, rather than a simple straight staircase. There also seemed to be a great many more of them than there had been earlier that morning, when Claudia had gone down the inside stairs to have a look around the cellar in case there were any forgotten antique items she could clean up and play with. Some characters in a book she had read had found a whole room in their new old house’s cellar full of old magazines, sleds, and other fascinating-sounding objects, but Claudia had found nothing but some cobwebby canning jars. She had just been contemplating the meanness of people who moved out of houses and elected not to leave behind any interesting old junk for children to find when she had seen the clockwork people.

“We’re going deeper underground than the cellar is,” she observed. She waved her flashlight around a bit. “And the space around the stairs is small instead of being a whole big room. Is that because of the clockwork peoples’ magic?”

“Yes,” said Miss Ryerson. “They are trying to give themselves more security while they wake the rest up and get adjusted to being conscious again after all these years.”

“How come they didn’t block off the outside stairs and the cellar door?”

“They can’t block off the door,” said Miss Ryerson, “it’s a direct portal between inside and outside. They don’t have the capacity to affect that. The inside stairs are only a path between two levels of the same structure, which is why they were able to block those off. They won’t be able to affect anything they aren’t physically quite close to yet, either. They haven’t, by the way, made the cellar deeper, Claudia; they’ve made the stairs longer than they should be. The cellar is the same depth it’s always been.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Claudia with a frown.

“I told you they could warp reality,” said Miss Ryerson. “When we get to the bottom, the cellar is going to look quite different than you’ve seen it. They will probably try to work on your perceptions as well. Don’t let them.”

“How do I not let them?”

“Focus hard on not believing what they want you to believe,” said Miss Ryerson. They had arrived at the base of the stairs. The cellar walls seemed to have grown much taller, from what Claudia could tell; it was quite dark, but their flashlight beams showed them a clockwork person standing not too far from them, gazing at them with interest, head tilted to one side like a bird. She was dressed in what looked like layers and layers of frilly skirts, like the women in the illustrations of old books Claudia had seen, and her hair was elaborately twisted and pinned. The sleeves of her gown extended only to her elbows. Claudia could see the gears in her wrists and knuckles and the sharp jut of the hinge of her jaw. She frowned fiercely in disapproval. “People shouldn’t have gears,” she said aloud. The clockwork person grinned. Claudia wondered if those were her real teeth or if they had been replaced like her bones.

“Hold the light, Claudia,” Miss Ryerson commanded. She put her own light into the cat tote and took out what appeared to be a pop bottle with the label torn off, full of pale yellowish-green liquid. “I take it,” she said to the clockwork person, “that you are the foreguard responsible for delaying us.”

The clockwork person grinned again and spread her hands as if to say who, me? Miss Ryerson stepped forward into the beam of light, unscrewing the top of the bottle. The clockwork person jumped back a step, waving her left hand in a complicated motion. A wide, deep pit appeared in the floor between her and Miss Ryerson, blocking the witch’s approach.

Miss Ryerson sighed. “Really now,” she said, tucking the bottle under her arm and rummaging around in her bag. She pulled out a lime green watergun and a small funnel, and carefully transferred the contents of the bottle into the watergun. Then she replaced the funnel and the bottle in the tote, took careful aim at the clockwork person, who seemed confused by all this, and sprayed her first directly in the face and then in a zigzag from her head to her feet. The clockwork person gasped and sputtered, then stood as if rooted to the spot, swaying slightly, head down. The pit vanished, and to Claudia’s astonishment daylight began to pour into the cellar from the windows above and behind them.

“Don’t turn off the flashlight just yet, Claudia,” Miss Ryerson said. “One of them may get behind us and darken the window again if we aren’t careful. The batteries are new, so they shouldn’t run out for a while.”

Claudia gazed around in awe. The cellar walls seemed to stretch up very tall and very long, away from them, and the ceiling was no longer flat but vaulted like a cathedral. There seemed to be no outlets except for a blue-painted door on the far side of the room, which had not been there before. She looked briefly back behind them; the stairs were there, spiraling up, and the window seemed very high in the wall and quite small, but it was illuminating the entire space very well.

“Keep your wits sharp,” Miss Ryerson said. “Do you see them?”

Claudia looked up and around, and then she saw two more clockwork people, one clinging to the corner of the ceiling on the far side of the room, the other crouching in the middle of the built-in shelves on which Claudia had found the canning jars that morning. The shelves had not looked as though they would bear a clockwork person’s weight, but Claudia supposed that the reality-warping powers of a clockwork person or two might extend to making them do so. She described their respective locations to Miss Ryerson.

“Good,” said Miss Ryerson. “Now think. When you were down here this morning, how far away were those shelves from the steps?”

“What if the lady wakes up again?” said Claudia.

“She will be held in a trance for a good while yet,” said Miss Ryerson. “How far away were the shelves?”

Claudia thought for a moment. “Maybe fifteen or twenty feet?” she said.

“Yes,” said Miss Ryerson. “They still are. They look farther away because the clockwork people are affecting your perceptions. The sneaky thing about their perception-affecting is that if your mind accepts what you see as reality, it will seem to you as if it were really the case. Now, the stairs still look long and spiraling because this one is only entranced, not asleep, but the trance is preventing her from darkening the window anymore. If all of them are entranced, they can be made to go back to sleep, in the room behind the blue door. You won’t have seen the door before, because it’s not ordinarily there, except when I need to renew the spell network which usually keeps them asleep. Now, since you know that the shelves are really quite close to us, and only a false perception is making them seem far away, what do you think we should do?”

“Shut our eyes and walk forward?”

“No,” said Miss Ryerson. “That would work, but it would also allow them an opportunity to get behind us. Try again.”

“Tell ourselves really hard that them looking far away is a lie? Until we believe it?”

“Good,” said Miss Ryerson. “It’s a bit difficult to pull off at first, and it takes some concentration. You’ll only be able to do it a little right now. You may, however, find that you can make the distance to the shelves shorten as it should be.” She put her left hand on Claudia’s shoulder. “If you find you can’t, you will at least see me doing things that I could only do if I were close by the shelves, and my hand on your shoulder may help you to correct your visual perceptions. Walk along with me and concentrate.”

Claudia frowned fiercely at the clockwork person on the shelves as they paced slowly towards him. You are not that far away, you liar, she thought. Get over here. I know this is fake. She concentrated on that thought so hard that the flashlight shook in her hands and her neck muscles felt tight. The shelves still seemed far away, though the clockwork person on them clutched the edges of his shelf and his eyes bulged slightly. Then quite abruptly the distance shrank, with a feeling almost like snapping, and they were standing nearly within arm’s length of the shelves. The clockwork person scrambled about a little, in the tight confines of the shelf, but just as he was bringing his hands up to attempt, Claudia was sure, some kind of spell like the other one had used to create the pit, Miss Ryerson hit him square in the face with the spray from her watergun, then sprayed the rest of him in a zigzag motion as she had the first time. It was just as effective this time; the clockwork person’s eyes half-shut and his head sagged as he slumped a little on the shelf.

“Don’t look behind us,” Miss Ryerson advised. “One can only focus on so much at a time, and you may need your concentration to protect yourself, rather than using it to see the true depth of the room. You can turn the flashlight off now, though.” Claudia clicked the switch on the flashlight and handed it back to Miss Ryerson, then followed her gaze up to the clockwork person who still clung to the corner of the ceiling, seemingly some ways away and high above in the vaults. The clockwork person gazed back at them, holding onto the wall with one arm and leaning out slightly, tilting his head to get a better view. He was wearing a small bowler hat. Claudia wondered if it was attached to his head or if he could telescope his arm to catch it if it fell off.

“That, Claudia,” said Miss Ryerson, stowing the flashlight in the cat tote, “is the original clockwork person, who first discovered the secret of making himself into what he is now, and he’s the strongest of them all. He will have been the one who woke the other two. Here—” she moved Claudia over to the edge of the shelves. “Stand there and you should be safe. He can’t get to you without getting past me, and without getting quite close to you he can’t affect anything that might cause you real harm.” She walked a few steps towards the clockwork person, looking up, and put her free hand on her hip. “Hello,” she said. “And what have you been up to?”

The clockwork person clacked his teeth together a few times and grinned. Claudia glared at him, though he didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything but Miss Ryerson.

“Are you going to come down from there, like a good boy?” asked the witch. “Or am I going to have to make you come down?”

Claudia hadn’t known before that it was possible to skitter slowly, but the clockwork person did so, turning himself about with many small, jerky motions, so that he was no longer legs-down but sideways like a spider. He was still grinning, but his eyes held no smile. Claudia found the overall effect of him rather unsettling. It occurred to her that he was holding the change of the cellar’s walls and ceiling in place all by himself, which meant that he was probably much stronger than the other two clockwork people had been. For the first time she began to feel slightly uneasy.

Miss Ryerson calmly checked her watergun and tsked. “Running low,” she said, then pointed it at the clockwork person with one hand while she rummaged in the cat tote with the other. The clockwork person regarded her with bright focused eyes. Claudia stood still and hoped he wouldn’t become interested in her.

Miss Ryerson pulled a small jar out of the tote and held it out behind her back. “Claudia,” she said. Claudia hesitated for a moment, then trotted forward and snatched the jar before hastily retreating towards the shelves. She darted a wary glance at the entranced clockwork person lying on them, but he seemed thoroughly out of it.

“Claudia,” Miss Ryerson continued quietly, “loosen the top of the jar but don’t remove it yet. When I give the signal, take off the lid, run forward, and throw the powder at him as quickly as you can. In his face would be most effective, but as long as the majority of it gets onto him it should be all right. Be very careful not to spill any of it on yourself.”

Claudia held the jar up a little and examined it. It had a wide mouth and screw-top lid, and appeared to be about half full of fine, iridescent peach-colored glitter. She loosened the top as requested, fixed her eyes on the clockwork person above them, and stood waiting, nerves tingling. Having an assigned task to think about was lessening her fear, though she felt jumpy, waiting.

“Come down,” Miss Ryerson said to the clockwork person. The clockwork person shook his head with a short, rapid movement, almost more like vibration than a headshake. Aside from that, he made no movement at all.

“Very well, then,” Miss Ryerson said. “I suppose we will have to do this the hard way.” She raised her left hand and began passing it through the air in a similar way to what the first clockwork person had done, only more deliberate. Claudia’s eyes widened as the ceiling gradually began to lower and flatten itself and the walls began to move slightly inwards.

The clockwork person abruptly lost his grin. His eyes narrowed, and he adjusted his position again to free one of his hands, moving the free hand in a pattern that looked similar to Miss Ryerson’s. The ceiling slowed in its descent, then stopped, but the clockwork person did not smile again; his face was locked in a frown of fierce concentration. Miss Ryerson shifted a little, planting her feet more sturdily, then suddenly picked up the pace of her handwaving pattern, much faster than the clockwork person was going. The clockwork person repeated his own handwaving pattern over and over, increasing in speed almost frantically, but despite his best efforts the ceiling began flattening and lowering again, until it had reached its usual height above the floor and looked quite ordinary again.

The clockwork person lost his hand- and footholds; he fell to the floor, landing on all fours like a cat, rather closer than Claudia found entirely comfortable. He popped back up onto his feet and lifted his hands as though he were about to begin a fresh handwaving spell, but Miss Ryerson brought up her right hand with the water gun and sprayed him exactly as she had the others. Claudia expected him to freeze as they had, and received a very unpleasant shock when he began to move again after a moment, slowly and uncertainly, seeming a bit confused, but definitely not entranced. She had had just enough time to begin to be afraid when Miss Ryerson called out, “Now, Claudia! The jar!”

The reminder of her task jolted Claudia out of her fear. She tossed the lid on the floor and raced forward, hurling the jar of glitter at the clockwork person. It hit him on the upper chest, splashing across his face and shoulders. He blinked and looked at Claudia in evident perplexity; then his eyes rolled up and he collapsed in a heap on the floor, where he lay unmoving. The bowler hat fell off his head as he went down, landing upside down and spinning a little.

Claudia gazed down at the clockwork person in some concern. “Is he dead?” she asked. She didn’t like to think that she might have killed him.

“No,” said Miss Ryerson. “He’s sleeping. That powder carries a powerful spell of enchanted sleep; it’s what I use when I renew the spells that usually keep them asleep.” She patted Claudia’s shoulder. “I wasn’t intending you to throw the jar itself at him, but no harm done. You put him thoroughly to sleep—good job!—and you didn’t accidentally enchant yourself to sleep, which is also good, though I had the antidote in my bag just in case. And speaking of things in my bag—” she reached into the cat tote and drew out another jar of peach-colored glitter—“let’s go and put the others to sleep for real before we tuck them back into their beds.”

“How did you pack all that stuff up so fast when we were talking, anyway?” asked Claudia.

“This is my special bag of clockwork-people-related tools,” said Miss Ryerson. “I keep it in my shed, which is my workroom. It’s always packed and ready to go. Preparedness is an important quality for witches.” She picked up the empty jar off the floor and examined it. “Not even chipped,” she said, opening the full jar and carefully pouring half its contents into the empty one, which she handed to Claudia. “Here,” she said, “go put Miss Window-darkener to sleep while I deal with Mr. Shelf-sitter.”

Claudia, cackling quietly to herself over “Miss Window-darkener and Mr. Shelf-sitter,” trotted towards the stairs to the outside, now back to quite their customary length and shape. Sunlight was streaming in from the open cellar doors. It shone on the gray floor and on the clockwork person standing silently near the base of the stairs. I’m going to get a tote bag, Claudia thought, standing on her toes to dust the clockwork person thoroughly with glitter. Mommy has a ton of them, I’m sure she’d give me one. I’ll always keep it full of important things, so I can be ready for…whatever. For anything.

When the clockwork people were all three sleeping soundly, Miss Ryerson and Claudia carefully hauled them over to the blue door, or rather, Miss Ryerson hauled them, while Claudia kept their feet from dragging on the ground. (“What if the sleeping powder gets on us?” said Claudia. “It’s all right,” said Miss Ryerson, “it rapidly loses its potency once it’s been used and the sleepiness transferred to whoever it’s been used on.”) Once the clockwork people were all lying by the door, Miss Ryerson pulled out her keyring and unlocked it, then turned the round brass knob and pushed the door open. Claudia was surprised that it didn’t squeak, and said so.

“Of course I keep the hinges well-oiled,” said Miss Ryerson. She reached into the cat tote and pulled out the flashlight, then went into the darkness of the secret room. Claudia hesitated for a moment, then followed her. She looked around eagerly as she entered, but there wasn’t much visible; Miss Ryerson had the flashlight tucked under her arm and was doing something near the door. A bright light suddenly flared into life, and Claudia saw that the witch had lit an old-fashioned oil lamp with a shiny metal reflector plate behind the glass chimney.

In the lamplight, Claudia looked around again. The room was rather plain, just a square room with white walls and a painted border of ivy around the tops, like the dining room upstairs. There were no windows, and there was no overhead light, but there was a dresser with no drawers in it by the door, on which Miss Ryerson was settling the oil lamp, and—Claudia drew in a deep breath—there were seven identical brass-pole beds with a variety of patchwork quilts on them. Three of the beds were rumpled and empty, but in four of them, clockwork people she had not seen before lay sleeping.

Miss Ryerson tucked the flashlight into the cat tote once more, then walked around the occupied beds, hovering her hand a few inches above the heads of the sleeping clockwork people and muttering to herself. “All good, all still solidly asleep,” she said. “Let’s get your friends back to bed, too.”

Once the three defeated clockwork people had been put back into their beds, Miss Ryerson snuffed the lamp, and she and Claudia went back out into the main cellar area. Miss Ryerson locked the door, then took a real, dried sea sponge and another label-less pop bottle (this one full of a pale pink liquid) out of her bag. She poured the liquid onto the sponge and began wiping it across the door. As she did so, to Claudia’s amazement, the door began to disappear. When the witch was finished, there was no blue-painted door to be seen anymore, only an unbroken expanse of plastered wall.

“Wow!” said Claudia. “Can you make it appear back again like that, too?”

“Yes,” said Miss Ryerson, putting the tools of her trade away. “I have another potion which fulfills the reverse function of this one. I use that when I need to go in and renew the sleep spell. Come, Claudia, let’s go back outside again. We’ve been down here away from the fresh air long enough.”

The two of them climbed the stairs to the outside. Claudia stood by while Miss Ryerson collected her painted rocks and locked the doors again. The air seemed quite hot and humid after the cool dryness of the cellar.

“Is it going to affect anything, the clockwork people being down there?” asked Claudia. “It’s kind of weird to think of them being there all the time, when we’re sleeping and stuff.”

“As long as they’re sleeping, you won’t even notice that they’re there,” said Miss Ryerson.

“I wonder what did wake them up?”

“Did you go into the cellar alone?”

“I was exploring,” said Claudia, who suspected that she was about to be blamed. She began preparing to be indignant about it.

“That would do it,” said Miss Ryerson. “As I said before, I had a hunch about the cause. The aura of a person who is going to be a witch has a stimulating effect on beings which lie under a magical sleep. All you had to do was exist in close enough proximity to them, without any other people near you to muddy the waters, so to speak.”

“Am I going to be a witch?” asked Claudia, excited. Like many little girls, she had harbored hopes, but she had not expected any adults to confirm them.

“You are,” said Miss Ryerson. “And furthermore, it is my duty, having discovered you, to train you up in the way that you should go and see to it that you depart not from it.” She pulled a pack of strawberry-flavored gum out of the cat tote and offered a piece to Claudia before taking one herself.

“Am I going to live in a little cottage with a cat?” said Claudia around her gum. “Witches do, in stories. I think I might want a rabbit instead, though. Or a parakeet. Or maybe I could live in a tower instead of a cottage. Can I do that?”

“You may and should live your life to your best judgment, once you are old enough to choose your own path,” said Miss Ryerson. “There’s no wrong way to be a witch. Unless you’re hurting someone. Any unwarranted harm you inflict will rebound upon you, Claudia. Remember that.”

“Okay,” said Claudia. “When can we start witch lessons?”

“Your magical training will not begin until you start to properly come into your powers,” said Miss Ryerson. “That will likely not happen for several years yet, but if anything peculiar appears to be happening you should let me know as soon as possible. However, you can begin learning to use common sense and make wise choices now. There’s no point in crafting fancy spells or potions if you don’t know how to use and direct them practically and for the good of yourself and those around you.”

“Okay,” said Claudia again.

 “I will make you a charm to pull your aura in more tightly to your body, so that you won’t accidentally wake the clockwork people again,” said Miss Ryerson. “When you come into your powers, you’ll learn to contain it—or expand it—for yourself. But the aura of an actual witch, or even an apprentice witch, is different from that of a person who hasn’t actually become one yet. It doesn’t have that particular effect, though you’ll have to manage the various ones it does. But you should do well enough. You acted bravely and capably today. Keep it up and you’ll go far.”

“Thanks,” said Claudia. “What kind of peculiar things might happen?”

“It varies,” said Miss Ryerson. “Objects might change position when you’ve been near them but didn’t touch them, for example. Or dairy products that ought to still be fresh might go bad very quickly. If an animal takes a sudden interest in you and starts following you around or repeatedly trying to approach you, let me know at once. That rarely happens with anyone who hasn’t already spent some years training after coming into their full powers, but it’s very significant: it would mean that that animal has decided that it wants to be your familiar. Many witches never have familiars—the animal chooses the witch, not the other way around—but if you are chosen, then you need to be very careful that the relationship between you and your familiar is set up properly so that neither of you will suffer for it later on. I can help you with that, should it happen. Let me emphasize that it’s quite unlikely to; I just don’t want you to be caught by surprise, on the off chance.”

Claudia nodded gravely, trying to look brave and capable and like a sensible person who didn’t expect a familiar to come along, though she secretly hoped it would happen. She was gleeful inside at the thought of eventually learning magic, even if an animal familiar didn’t ever show up. Maybe I can watch her making potions and stuff even before I get to learn how myself, she thought. That would be so cool.

Miss Ryerson reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out a cell phone with a turquoise case. “Three-seventeen,” she said, looking at the screen. “I have to go, Claudia, I’m meeting my sister for tea at four-thirty and I need to change and freshen up before I go. I’ll make your aura-control charm tonight and put it in your mailbox tomorrow morning; it’s Sunday tomorrow, so there won’t be any mail and you should be able to retrieve it easily without interference.”

“Thank you!” said Claudia. “Have fun at your tea.”

“I shall,” said Miss Ryerson. “Goodbye for now, Claudia.”

“Bye,” said Claudia. She watched the witch move through the long grass and round the fence before heading around behind the house herself. She got onto the board swing attached to the limb of the spreading oak in the middle of the backyard, and as she swung she imagined the future, full of witchery and excitement. A world of new possibilities seemed to be opening before her.

“Hi, baby,” said her mother, stepping out onto the back stoop. “What’s all this Daddy’s telling me about clockwork people?”

“Oh,” said Claudia, “there were clockwork people in the cellar, but it’s okay, they’re sleeping again. They won’t bother anyone now.”

“All right,” said her mother, smiling. “There are cookies fresh out of the oven, if you’re hungry from playing clockwork people.”

“Oh,” Claudia said, getting down off the swing, “it was real magic, not playing. But yeah, cookies!”

The two of them went into the house together.

Anyone standing near the oak tree after they had gone in would have seen a little peach-colored glitter sparkling on the swing where Claudia had been sitting. But there was no one there to see; and after a while, a little breeze came up and blew it all away.