Part 1 - A girl, her bird, and a bit of magic.
Cordelia stood by her window and thought of clothes. The view outside her apartment was the perfect place to contemplate such things because the building next door stood a mere four feet across the alley, its bricks blocking out any signs of life. Such a splendid view, she thought. A delicious blank canvas to imagine heaps of outfits that she could never afford. It was raining, racing droplets on the glass casting striped shadows over the freckled, fawn skin of Cordelia’s face. Her brown hair was frumpish from a night of restless sleep. But she was up at dawn. Up and thinking of clothes.
A screech tore through the air. Cordelia almost flailed, torn from her daydream. She turned, tucking her hands into the pouch of her ragged hoodie and glaring from her bedroom area into the kitchen where Poe’s nighty-night cage rested in the dark. It was too dim to see the cockatoo’s round, soulless eyes inside his delicate gothic house, but he was glaring right back, for sure.
“I’m waiting,” came his light voice. It sounded like bells from hell.
She shuffled over to him in her worn pajama bottoms that used to be a nice lilac color. They were the only ones she owned for the colder months, so endless dates with the dryer had sucked the life from them. “Drama queen. Do you know how early it is?”
“Mhm,” he said as she opened his door and held out her hand for him to step up.
“Yeah. And I gotta mend my work shirt ‘cause of that idiot from the laundromat.” She thumbed over his talons where they gripped her then tossed him in the air. Where her apartment was cramped in width, it had too much height. She tried to think of it as lofty, but it was simply awful architecture. Poe flapped his wings, catching air and hovering over to one of his perches above her window. Beside him, hanging from the ceiling like a dozen mobiles over her bed, were contraptions of Cordelia’s making. Her trinkets. Anything she had leftover—strings, stones, papers—went into designing ornaments which were strewn over the walls and above where she slept in her own scattered way.
“Look at the state of this place,” Poe said. She ignored him, snatching her ruined uniform shirt from the sparse clothing rack at the foot of her twin bed and sitting close to her nightstand. Her lamp cast her room in a honeyed glow. Sure enough, the floors did need a sweeping, and last week’s laundry littered the ground. That cobweb in the corner above her bed was definitely growing bigger each night. “Pigsty,” Poe squawked above her.
Cordelia huffed, setting her shirt on the nightstand, and retrieving the sewing kit from its drawer. “Don’t even start,” she said.
After adopting Poe, she learned he was most likely the smarted bird in existence. He held conversations with her, responded to her ramblings, and always knew how to annoy her.
“We need a maid,” he said.
“How could we ever afford that?” She tucked her knotted hair behind her ear and began mending the rip above the shirt’s breast.
“I do get money,” she said, glancing up at the bird. “And if I ever had that much money, I wouldn’t get a maid—I’d get the heck outta this place.”
“Filthy,” he said. “Call pest control.”
“I’ll call pest control, alright. On you.”
“Disgusting pigsty,” said Poe. He made it sound like a mumble. She rolled her eyes.
The truth was Cordelia’s chest felt too small any time she thought of where she lived and the state of the place. That was the start of her obnoxious decorating—she’d rather have the studio space feel like a painting of her presence than an empty cell. But on her bad days, she thought the pieces of her only added on to its gloom, sinking into the walls like a bruise. She got by imagining escaping the walls of her apartment, going far off with Poe to a place that didn’t carry the bay town odor of sulfur and seafoam. Insidious fantasies.
Cordelia tied off her thread, holding the shirt closer to her light source to see her work.
“You, my dear shirt, are gorgeous and the most flattering you’ve ever been,” she said to the fabric. She readied herself for work, heading to the kitchen for the front door. It wasn’t far, seeing as the apartment was about the size of a prison’s solitary confinement room without any division between the kitchen and bedroom. At least the bathroom had a door. “Okay, Poe. What’re the rules?”
He flew over to the top of the sputtering fridge. “No screaming,” he said.
Cordelia raised an eyebrow. “Because?”
“Screaming bothers neighbors.”
She smiled. “You’re a genius, Poe. I’ll be back soon.”
“I’ll be here, where I might suffocate from the accumulating dirt.”
“You clean then,” she said after a scoff, shutting and locking the door behind her.
Cordelia rummaged through the storage box she kept beneath her bed.
“Tell me I’m not crazy, Poe.”
“I don’t like to lie.”
She threw her arms wide. “Someone misplaced the only fancy outfit I have, which I need for my fancy interview tomorrow. And I’m not naming names, but his name might start with a P and he may have feathers. Who does that sound like?”
After a moment, Poe crept toward her and dipped his head. “Check the cupboard by the bathroom.”
“Thank you,” she said, and she spun to go investigate the unused linen closet right outside the bathroom door. Since the closet carried a harrowing musty smell, she kept her bath towel hanging by the window and never used the space. But, of course, the door creaked open and at the bottom was a small pile of clothes. She bent to pick them up. “Poe. Oh, my God. Why? And where did you even learn the word ‘cupboard’?”
“You told me to clean,” he said. “And I just know lots of things.” Cordelia shook out her periwinkle blouse and black pencil skirt, coughing at the motes of dust coming off them like spores. When the air cleared, she shrieked.
Some bugs decided to imbed themselves into the fabric and die, leaving behind carcasses and limp twig legs to fall and scatter along the floor at Cordelia’s feet. Some of the cloth was chewed through as well.
“How the hell do these things happen?” She rushed over to her bed, tossing the clothes there and getting out the sewing kit.
“Pigsty,” offered Poe.
“Flap off, runt.” Cordelia swatted at his feet and he flew over to his favorite perch—a branch she attached hanging origami cranes to, all made from gum-wrappers. “Those bugs were here when we moved in, and nothing would have happened if you didn’t meddle with things.” She flicked on her lamp and inspected the clothes further. She had to stop herself from wailing. “They’re ruined,” she said.
“Fix them up,” Poe said as if it wasn’t all his fault.
Cordelia pointed a finger at him. She vowed never to let him eat dandelion weeds ever again. Then she set to work.
It was methodical. Each time she had to do this, it calmed her down deep beneath the surface of her bones. Her mind shut off and her hands ran her body for her. She scrubbed away the dirt on the clothes and mumbled while doing so. Poe wiggled like a bobblehead toy in the corner, trapezing on his perch while she picked out different threads and fabric scraps, even a couple of buttons. Soon the flaws melted away under her deft fingers.
“You’ll be better than new when I’m done. The smartest outfit to wear to this interview.” She embroidered diamonds of silver thread over a few small stains. “Tiny stars to make me shine,” she said. A new row of buttons lined a rip on the skirt, clinking together like alabaster teeth as she folded the fabric around for a better reach. “Quirky pieces to emphasize nuance.” To cover a hole in the shirt’s sleeve, she added a brand-new pocket like a badge. “And this brings mystery. A bit of sophistication as well.”
Cordelia sat back and surveyed the work. Perhaps the ways she fixed it may have been abnormal, but the right attitude about a thing can transform it from a defect into something special. Poe flew over to her shoulder.
“Nice, right?” Cordelia asked, unable to help the lilt of pride in her tone.
Poe pressed his beak right to her ear and screamed, “Woo!”
The interviewers seemed in awe of her and offered her the job on the spot. She and Poe celebrated the circumstances with gelato from a local Italian ice shop. And, finally, she cleaned.
Poe took to somersaulting on the empty floor.
But her habits clung through the changes. Cordelia wondered about what might be out there in the world waiting for her. She told herself she should be focusing on the good things, yet she’d wake up well before her morning alarms with the urge to stand by her window.
“I guess I imagined it’d be different,” she told Poe one day. The rain outside was louder than her breathing. “That I’d be different. Good, or something. Moving forward.”
Poe looked sleepy, standing on one foot with his feathers puffed.
“Just one step,” he said to her, tilting his head.
Just one step. He was right, she supposed. Things didn’t need to happen at once. If she thought about it, her new job did make things better, but not in the way she dreamed. In her disappointment, she haunted her apartment like a wraith. Doom seemed to like partying in the depths of her mind, and it was a hard thing to evict. Maybe it didn’t need to be gone immediately, though. Get it to gradually walk out instead of pushing it out a window.
A step, and things could be better.
She reminded herself of this when work left her exhausted. Every time a bad thought floated to the surface of her mind, she started a project. She came home, slipped on her pajamas, and threaded new trinkets to hang up. Buttons of every color, decorative stones she snatched from the clear vases at work, shards of beer bottles like burnt caramel candies. Her ceiling became the world’s largest wind chime with rods that never knocked together. Stagnant, yet holding the life of intent. Step by step, her dreary apartment became her little Versailles. With that, other steps soon followed.
She once spent an entire weekend experimenting with an outfit—tearing up thrifted sweaters and pants and putting them back together in a new order. The resulting short, checkered cardigan with puffed sleeves was a statement. The black knit allowed the red checkers to tempt the eye like piles of rubies. It worked well with white slacks and black boots.
“You’re an eye-catcher,” she whispered to the sweater in the afterglow of finishing that last stitch. She ran her fingers over the obsidian lacquered buttons. “Right off the cover of Vogue. Any man who looks at you will trip over themselves. You’ll make me irresistible.”
She let her hair fall over her shoulders, twisting in front of her mirror. The cardigan satisfied a craving; it was entirely hers, the only one in existence, and she brought it to life.
“Stop ogling yourself, you’re going to the grocery store,” Poe said, stepping onto her boot.
Cordelia frowned down at him. “Menace,” she said under her breath. She shook her foot, and he hopped off and away. “Be back soon.”
Her trip to the store started out fine. Really. And she meant to return home with the groceries, but instead came back with nothing but beads of sweat on her neck and guilt seeping into her features. It was too quiet in the apartment, filling Cordelia with apprehension to the tips of her fingers. Poe always knew everything. He sniffed it out her secrets with his little beak.
Flapping sounded in the air, and Poe appeared on her shoulder. “Where’s the stuff?”
Cordelia swallowed, pulling the sleeves of her cardigan down over her hands. “Poe, you won’t believe this, but something happened.”
“Uhm. Not today.”
Seconds flew past in silence. Poe tugged a strand of her ponytail with his beak. “What’s in your pocket?”
God, he was like a miniature detective with wings. Her back pocket burned from his creepy bird stare. “That’s what I’m saying. See, weird stuff started going on in the store, right? Some guy bought me flowers, which was nice, but then a whole bunch of dudes bombarded me one after another—”
“What’s in your pocket?” Poe chomped on another piece of hair.
“A gift,” she said, straightening her spine. “From some guys I met.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a thick wad of cash. It smelled like pennies and chances.
Poe beat his wings against her head. “Bad,” he screeched. Cordelia flinched from the assault, whacking at him with the cash. He flew away to the top of his cage.
“I can explain,” she said, out of breath. He blinked at her with inky pebble eyes.
“No, no. I promise. It was a gift.” She held up the bills, but Poe leaned back like it was an offense, flaring his wings.
“A criminal act. Dreadful for our reputation. Scandalous…” On and on he went, never running out of words. Cordelia swallowed a lump in her throat, staring at the money in her hand. It could do so much for them. Get Poe a new perch. Fix the air conditioning. Buy some supplies for her creations so she could maybe, finally, sell them. She set the cash down on the counter.
“We could use the money,” she interrupted his rambling. “And I swear, it was a gift. I don’t know how or why it happened, everyone at the store just—” She gestured in a vague manner. “It was weird. I thought the world was ending or that it was a prank. But then a few got together and offered me the money—and I know how crazy it sounds—I didn’t get any bad vibes.” She sighed.
“Absolutely dubious,” Poe said. Cordelia put her head in her hands.
“Maybe it was a bad move. I’m sorry.” She looked back to him, thinning her lips. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Nothing like this has ever happened before.” They stared at each other for a long moment. “But imagine how much gelato we can get now.”
Poe’s yellow crest perked up. “Gelato?”
“Yeah. To make up for me being an idiot.”
“And a walk outside,” he said, climbing down the black bars of the cage and dropping onto the kitchen counter.
“Outside. Okay, we can go outside tomorrow, does that sound good?” Poe took slow steps toward her, cheek feathers fluffed. He might still attack her again; she could never tell with him. “Will you forgive me?” He dipped his head toward her hand for scratches.
She took that as a yes.
“No more money from strangers,” he said. She agreed.
For dinner she fed him his favorite flower buds because he deserved it for looking after her. Over by her bed, where the sludge-covered bricks sat outside her window, the dying light of the day tried its best to bend into the room. She didn’t notice.
“I’d let you free-fly if you were trustworthy at all.”
“The hawks would get me,” Poe said, clinging to Cordelia’s arm. His harness was strapped tight to his belly.
“Coward,” she said without any heart behind it.
Poe bit down on her arm and climbed to her shoulder. “Ow,” she said just to appease him. He was still agitated from the money incident.
It was a cool day in the park, warmth creeping up from the roots beneath the ground after its long slumber. The grass was greener than it had been for months, and the air carried with it a scent of petrichor. Dogs came up to sniff at Poe until he deigned to scratch his way onto Cordelia’s head.
“Onward,” he ordered.
“I will put you on the ground and let the dogs have at you.”
Poe made a sound that mimicked a gasp. “This woman is threatening my life,” he shouted. People turned to send questioning looks their way.
Cordelia wrangled him off her hand and back onto her arm. “Okay, okay, be quiet.”
“She’s awfully bossy and forces me to live in filth!”
“Control yourself,” she snarled. “You’re being pathetic. And I clean on a regular basis now.”
Poe opened his beak and made a hissing sound. It was interrupted by a melodic voice from out of sight saying, “Excuse me.”
Cordelia whirled around. A woman stood before her, raven hair cropped to her chin, lips colored a deep berry. She was maybe in her fifties, skin wrinkled but taken care of. Aside from the rouge on her cheeks, her skin was pale enough to almost appear pasty if not for the way her maroon shawl softened it in the afternoon sunlight. She wore a black linen dress embroidered with golden butterflies.
Cordelia shifted under the weight of her gaze. “Hello?”
The woman stared at her, scrutinizing. “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”
Cordelia’s eyes darted around. “I’m walking with my bird.”
“No, girl. What are you doing out and about like this? You’re giving off a damn haze.” The woman stepped closer, bringing the scent of fresh plums into Cordelia’s space, a puckered sweetness. Poe scrambled back to her shoulder, hiding in her hair.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Cordelia said to the woman, furrowing her brows.
The woman hummed. “The council sent me to greet you, possibly to take you in. I thought to myself, ‘A girl who charmed a grocery store full of men for all to see? She’s as stupid as she is shameless.’ But I show up here and it’s even worse. You’re oozing magic all over. It’s obfuscating reality for the civilians.”
Cordelia wasn’t sure she heard any of what she said. “I’m sorry?”
“Creepy lady” Poe said.
“Even your familiar,” said the woman. “What is wrong with you?”
“My familiar?” Cordelia frowned. “You mean my bird—what about him?”
The woman huffed. “He’s ghastly!”
Poe flinched. Anger curdled in Cordelia’s chest. “Hey, he’s sensitive. You’re hurting his feelings.”
“I’ll remember this insult the rest of my days,” said Poe.
The woman gaped. “That. That is what I’m talking about. You’ve charmed your familiar more than any witch I’ve met in my life. It’s unbecoming.”
“Listen here, you’ve got no right to walk into someone’s space and insult their bird,” Cordelia said. “Wait. Who are you calling a witch?”
“Witch!” barked Poe. Cordelia was glad for the defense.
“Stars above, keep your voices down,” the woman said, tucking her shawl closer to her. “You, girl. You are a witch. Your magic is all over you, even on those bills in your wallet. Your bird is drenched in it and that sweater, goodness me, is absolutely rancid with it—is that what you wore to the grocery store? It’s a miracle those men didn’t start undressing publicly.”
Cordelia stared at her, then down at her own outfit. The same sweater she’d created was tied around her waist, none of its cute bits on display. Said bills in her wallet came from the men at the store. She saw a flash of white feathers in her peripheral, felt toes through the fabric on her shoulder; Poe was the same as always. What was she talking about?
Cordelia fought the urge to laugh. “You’re insane, lady.”
The woman raised one sculpted brow. “Since you seem unaware: the use of magic publicly is strongly frowned upon, and we Magicals never use it for personal gain the way you have. The council wants you punished for your crimes.”
There was no way she was serious. “Yeah? Tell them to take me on a date, first. Save the kinky stuff for afterward.” As soon as she said it, Cordelia cringed. The woman gave her a stare so blank she could have been frozen in time. Then she guffawed loud enough to make Poe jump.
“I like you, girl.” She pressed a manicured nail to her chin and tapped. “You go. Scamper away, and I’ll tell the council you’re taken care of as long as you keep this terrible habit of yours in check.” She lowered her voice. “Reel in the spells a tad.”
Cordelia didn’t know what to say. Her thoughts wouldn’t come together. The woman smirked, raspberry lips revealing a perfect row of teeth. “I’ll be in touch,” she said. Within a blink, she was gone from Cordelia’s sight.
Everything came back at once, as if she woke from a dream. Dogs woofed around them, slobbering over toys. A man in the distance complained about a bird stealing his sandwich. The wind thrummed.
“What the heck,” Poe said.
“Agreed,” said Cordelia.
That night, Cordelia let Poe snack on leftover uncooked spaghetti from a box while she ate a bowl of buttered noodles. Earlier events prodded at her.
Magic. That woman claimed she had magic. She probably thought magic was a genuine thing. But it wasn’t. At least as far as Cordelia knew. What was real was her grim yet sparkling apartment and Poe acting like a grump and her dream of selling her artwork. So what if Poe was the world’s smartest bird and strange things have been happening lately. Now that she thought about it, she was always heavily complimented when wearing any of the clothes she mended. But it was all coincidence, nothing more.
A knock sounded at her door.
She set down her fork, careful not to make a sound. Even Poe stopped munching pieces of noodle. The knock sounded again, and when she didn’t answer, stomping footsteps receded down the hallway. Cordelia tip-toed to the peephole, but as she reached the door, she stepped on something soft. On the ground was a small, fluffy thing, like the world’s tiniest fur rug, near the gap under her door. She bent to grab it, but it sparked. Like a match striking its box, the thing burst into flame, and she stumbled back. Poe made siren noises and flapped around above her. As quick as the fire started, it melted away, leaving a glistening black card in its place.
The card floated in the air, moving toward Cordelia.
Hands shaking, she reached to pinch it between her fingers. It was blank and smelled like a whole package of ripe plums. On the back of it were words:
Charm Specialist, Founder of Circe’s Emporium
Located on the Corner of Deer Ln. & Gerald St.
Cordelia’s heart slammed hard enough she felt it in her throat. Poe appeared on the floor beside her, leaning up for a better look. “Did you see that?” she whispered to him, putting the card at his eye level. He inspected it, head cocking every which way.
He looked up at her and said, “Witches.”
“Mhm.” Cordelia’s voice cracked. “Witches indeed.”
So, perhaps she was wrong. Maybe the lady was telling the truth. Cordelia was beginning to think having interesting things happen wasn’t as grand as it seemed. Or maybe it was even better.
“What do you think we should do?” she asked. Poe was quiet for a moment. Contemplative. Then he sprang up, flying over to the clothing rack by her bed.
“Get dressed,” he said in his peculiar sing-song voice. “Let’s get gelato on the way.”