I thought the classroom would be less . . . ordinary. After all, this wasn’t an average cooking class; it was Potions 101 at The Collective. But no one would ever know it from the room, which smelled like hospital antiseptic and looked more suitable for junior high home ec than witchcraft education.
I made my way to a workstation at the front table. Even with my glasses, I’d have to squint to read the board. I sent a wish to the Goddess for a potion that cures myopia, followed quickly by another: please let me pass this class. As a neophyte, I’d saved my weakest subject for last, like when I was little and ate around the green beans on my plate. And just like dessert depended on my eating those green beans, my initiation into the coven depended on my passing this class.
I took out my notebook and pen while my classmates shuffled in. Someone—a girl with straw-like hair who smelled like cigarette smoke—took the workstation to my right. We gave each other close-lipped smiles of acknowledgement. First day of class awkwardness is the same everywhere, I guess.
“The rules for building potions,” a voice declared from the back of the room, “are the same as the rules for baking.”
We watched our instructor stride toward the front of the room. She looked like an old schoolmarm: hair in a tight bun, long-sleeved blouse, ankle-length skirt, horn-rimmed glasses, lace-up boots. Didn’t she know old-fashioned was out of fashion?
“Now,” she continued, “who can tell me what those rules are?”
My classmates called out answer after answer. “Measure everything exactly!” “Use the right pans!” “Mix carefully!” “Use the best ingredients!” I flung open my notebook and began scribbling.
“You’re forgetting the most important rule,” Ms. Schoolmarm admonished. She stopped in front of me. “What is your name?”
She folded her arms. “Ms. Emerson, what is the most important rule in baking?”
I blinked. “I…I’ve only baked using a packaged mix.” And even that’s hit or miss, I didn’t add, thinking of last month’s muffin catastrophe.
“That won’t help you here. Betty Crocker doesn’t make potions.”
My classmates giggled. I cringed. The first day of class and my reputation was sealed: Belva Emerson, World’s Worst Witch.
Only our teacher’s voice silenced the laughter. “I am Sister Woodrow, and the most important rule to follow is this: Before you do anything, read the recipe in its entirety.”
I wrote her words in big capital letters. A few minutes later, she distributed our books and gave us our first assignment: read Chapter 1. That night, I read the whole book, cover-to-cover. Twice.
The next day, we found our workstations stocked with clay bowls, mortars, and pestles. I prayed that my potions would turn out better than my baked goods.
The straw-haired girl slid in next to me again.
“I’m Belva,” I said.
She slid a pack of cigarettes into her pocket. “Lila.”
Before we could say anything more, Sister Woodrow swooped in. “Open your books to page 7. Start reading.”
Page 7: The Foundation Potion, the potion used to build other potions, like a chef’s roux. This was supposedly the simplest of all potions—which did not bode well for me. I’d never made a roux in my life.
I’d read the recipe last night. I read it three more times before Sister Woodrow spoke again.
“Ingredients are stored in the cabinets on the west wall. You have five minutes to gather everything you need.”
Eighteen teenage girls stampeded to the cabinets. We reached over, around, and behind each other to get what we needed before rushing back to our seats.
I sorted my ingredients in a semi-circle around my bowl, with the plandai on the left around to the distilled water on the right. I visualized each step of the recipe. I refused to compound the previous day’s embarrassment.
Today was someone else’s turn.
Not long after Sister Woodrow gave us the go-ahead, I heard panicked breathing in the row behind me. At the same time, the smell of sweaty feet burned my nostrils. I turned around to find the contents of a clay bowl bubbling and foaming and a brown-haired young witch on the verge of hyperventilating. The Foundation Potion was a simple mixture. No bubbling. No foaming.
Someone hadn’t followed directions.
“Make it stop!” the offender cried. “Oh, my Goddess, stop!”
Sister Woodrow materialized at the cowering girl’s side. “Clearly you used the wrong ingredients.” She scanned the girl’s workspace and grabbed a pile of flat green leaves. “You used landare leaves. The recipe called for grated landare root.” She launched into a lecture on the importance of reading every recipe carefully. Meanwhile, the clay bowl continued to foam over and the smelly-foot odor intensified. My eyes watered. My throat tightened. I cast about for the nearest wastebasket.
My gaze stopped on a stack of textbooks. I’d read about this, I realized. Chapter 13: How to Neutralize a Potion. I darted to the supply cabinets and pawed through every shelf. How could Sister Woodrow not plan for a mistake like this? Surely other students had screwed up their potions before.
I spun around to Lila. “Can I have a cigarette?”
Lila pulled a blank face. “I don’t have any.”
I raised my eyebrows and looked pointedly at her pants pocket.
She smirked, pulled out her pack, and shook a smoke into my hand. I wiggled my fingers, and she passed over her lighter.
I lit the cigarette and let it burn for a few seconds, which didn’t do much.
“Here.” Lila grabbed the cigarette out of my hands and took a deep drag.
I grabbed it back and tapped the ash into the foaming potion.
I let Lila inhale again and then tapped more ash into the bowl.
“Hey, look at Betty Crocker!” I heard one of my classmates say.
Burn and tap, burn and tap, Lila and I continued until only a stub of the cigarette was left. Slowly the potion settled down. When it returned to a flat consistency, I put out the cigarette on the edge of the bowl.
The rest of the class stared.
I snuck a look at Sister Woodrow, who nodded and said, “Nicely done, ladies.” A blush burned my cheeks when she continued, “Perhaps there’s a witch in you, after all, Ms. Emerson.”
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