Cast of Wonders 443: The Witches of Athens (Staff Picks 2020)
The Witches of Athens
by Lara Elena Donnelly
There are two diners in Athens, Ohio.
The Court Street Diner serves tuna melts and satin malts in silver mixing cups. The Court Street Diner says it is stuck in the 1960s, but it is too hip to be a throwback. The waitstaff are young and enticing, dressed in gingham and high-waisted jeans.
The Union Street Diner is the older of the two establishments, open every hour of the day, serving breakfast twenty-four seven. Potatoes fried in sour grease arrive on thick ceramic plates, borne by pockmarked servers whose lives have passed like white bread through the conveyor belt of an industrial toaster, burnt and slow.
There are two witches in Athens, too, and each holds court in her respective diner.
The Court Street witch has full red lips and hooded eyes, long black hair like a curling river rapid. She reads palms and tarot cards. She dances naked under the full moon. She has, on occasion, turned fractious frat boys into toads. Her magic is stitched up fast like stage clothes, heavy with glitter. It may fray at the edges, but it has flash. It is pretty, fast, impressive, like gunpowder meeting a match.
The Union witch favors boot cut jeans and a Bobcat sweatshirt, a blunt end on her ponytail. Her magic lasts, like a well-dug posthole or a rough-cut rafter of hundred-year oak. Her spells are solid, unassuming, starting slow and slowly building, stone on stone, to form a sturdy wall.
There is no law that says a student who eats the Court Street’s gleaming eggs cannot turn and splurt ketchup on the fries at Union. Likewise, no geis prohibits Union-goers from the tiles and tables of the Court.
On date nights and parents’ weekends, during homecoming and the Halloween block party, Court Street’s cherry red seats are stuffed with students and the malt machine purrs nonstop. But post-party, in the pale light of morning, the future of America takes its hangover to Union Street. Sorority sisters slosh syrup on their pancakes, jumping up in between bites to make pilgrimages to the porcelain temple. Ultimate Frisbee players smash up hashbrowns and rehash their walks of shame.
The witches of Athens also maintain a mixing clientele. One would never try her hand at the other’s brand of magic; they know their niches and they fill them, crafting spells for students who seek their services, occasionally comparing notes.
In the coffee shop on West Washington, the witches meet like chary cats. They do so only rarely, being sisters of a prickly sort, nitpicking and professional. They are punctilious about who pays.
Today, it is a raspberry mocha and mint-green tea on the Union witch’s tab. The Court Street witch gives her sister a thank-you air kiss, all flipping hair and jewel-flash fingers, careful not to touch, and they sit at a seat in the window.
The barista is a slender sip of icy water with an insouciant slouch. He waves to the Court Street witch, feathered hair hanging in his fast-smiling eyes.
“He came to see me,” the Court Street witch tells her sister. Leaning across the table, she secrets her stage-whisper behind a languorous hand. “He’s in love.”
Holding her cup close to her face, the Union witch chews her chapped lower lip and tilts her head. “Who with?”
The bell above the door rings in answer. A student bent under a book bag slips through the door, out of the springtime rainstorm.
“How funny,” says the Union witch. “He’s one of mine.”
The barista’s name is Eli. His fingernails are furious red, finished with a fine coat of silver glitter. He talks fast and plays electric guitar. He came to the Court Street witch because they are kindred spirits: people who play well to crowds, who crave lights and loving attention. They had laughed loudly together in the corner booth, tossing tater tots into each others’ open mouths.
There is a subtler sort of connection between them, too: for all their flare, they are both terribly afraid. Eli’s voice shook when he admitted he was in love. “I try to talk to him, but he never seems to notice me. I try so hard.”
The Court Street witch knows the feeling. Her older sister’s spells are strong and sturdy, and she sometimes worries that the Union witch feels disdain for her sizzling, slapdash sorcery.
At Eli’s pleading, she put a coffee in his hands and urged him to drink it. “He cannot fail to notice you now,” she said. “This spell uses skills at which you already excel. You will dazzle him.”
The student’s name is Jeremiah. His curly black hair is cropped so close to his scalp the skin shows through. His large, dark eyes are tired, sunk beneath serious brows. Eli’s fast talk and flirting smiles fill him with fear and fantasy in equal measure.
He went to the Union witch because she seemed the type to sit and listen. And she was. They drank instant cocoa, gritty puffs of powder caught in the cups, as he pushed his story out.
“He always knows exactly what to say,” he told the Union witch, “and I never say anything. Because I never know what he wants to hear.”
The Union witch, in her secret heart, is so similar to Jeremiah it scares her. Her sister’s swinging moods and half-playful pouts have always given her pause. She feels, sometimes, as if her little sister would like some encouragement, some kind words, but she never knows what to say; if she spoke up, would the Court Street witch take her to heart, or tear her down?
But Jeremiah needed help, not her. So she gave him a plate of eggs, which would have been roosters, to teach him to crow. “As they might have grown inside the shell, so their voices will grow in you.”
The two witches scoot their chairs together, watching Eli and Jeremiah over cooling cups of coffee and tea. Eli smiles like a gap in the clouds, leaning across the counter to take Jeremiah’s order. Jeremiah ducks his head, his dusky skin darkening with a blush. He murmurs his order and tries to pay, but Eli puts him off. “It’s on the house.”
The Court Street witch whispers in her sister’s ear, “Here it comes.”
Eli pulls two perfect shots. He steams the milk to a warm one-sixty, stretching and rolling in equal measure. Drawing the cream through the crema with a fluid wrist, he writes a message for Jeremiah to find—but Jeremiah’s nose is pushed between the pages of a textbook, and he is not watching Eli work.
It takes Eli minutes; he makes the most elaborate rosetta of his career, curling quartos of poetry into the petals. He places the latte on the counter and even from across the coffee shop, the witches are blinded by the light on the feathery foam.
The Union witch slides a sideways glance at her sister. “A little heavy-handed.”
Jeremiah lifts the cup to his lips, but stops before he sips. He scans the surface of the latte, his dark brows drawing together like the wings of a settling sparrow. Then he sets the latte down and stares at Eli, his eyes wide with wonder. He opens his mouth and speaks, but so softly that the words don’t make their way to Eli’s ears.
“What?” Eli barrels over Jeremiah’s barely-audible overture. “What did you say?” He is leaning so far across the counter he is almost flat on top of it. But Jeremiah tucks his chin and shakes his head, retreating to his corner with the cup cradled under his chin.
Eli’s shoulders slump.
“Well, your magic almost worked,” says the Court Street witch. “He almost said something.”
“It will work,” protests her sister, pulling on a piece of hair that has fallen in her face. “And it will work well. It just needs time.”
From her purse, the Court Street witch produces a patent leather planner, flipping pages. Planting a hot pink nail on the present date, she pans down and purses her lips. “Graduation,” she says. “Good luck.”
“If only Eli would open up,” says the Union witch. “He’s as hard and shining as a lacquer box. There’s no knowing what he truly feels.”
The Court Street witch looks at her sister from behind a screen of heavy lashes. “If only Jeremiah would speak up. He’s so quiet it’s no wonder Eli thinks he’s never noticed him.”
Both witches ponder the problem, staring into the last dark dregs at the bottoms of their cups. Then, almost as if they have heard some secret cue, they look up into each other’s eyes, wide with the same idea.
“Do you think you can draw him out?” The Union Street witch inclines her head towards Jeremiah. She does not mean it as a challenge.
But her sister flicks one eyebrow up, suddenly fierce. She angles her jaw in Eli’s direction. “Do you think you can take him in hand?”
Rueful, the Union witch raises her cup. They clink their drinks together, and then stand and go their separate ways.
In the black middle of a rainy night, Eli sits across the table from the Union witch, separated by diet coke and raisin toast. His face is forlorn and pale under the pall of fluorescent lights. “I don’t know how to make him notice me.”
“It is not a problem of not noticing,” says the Union witch. “It is an issue of intimidation.”
“But I’m not scary!” Eli flings his hands wide, startling a flock of students at the next table.
“Eli,” she says, “we are all afraid of the unknown, and to Jeremiah, you are deeper than the darkest abyss.” The witch rips her raisin toast in half and reads the augury in its cinnamon swirls. “I can help you, but you must be brave. Not like a knight in shining armor, but like a boy in love.” The witch tears her toast into smaller bites, rearranging it in runes across her plate. “This spell will not sparkle like my sister’s, or strike with such speed. It will be simple, but it will take strength.”
Eli looks upset. “Will he be impressed?”
She sighs. “Think of it this way: Would you be swayed by a white chocolate mocha with whipped cream and sprinkles, if you did not know the origin of the espresso? Beneath the swirls of sugar and fluff, the milk might be bubbled, the coffee bitter.”
Eli nods, catching his lower lip between his teeth.
“Or would you would prefer a perfect latte, a single-origin shot pulled at twenty-four seconds, milk steamed velvet smooth? Something simple and transparent, created with patience and care.”
He concedes, and she passes him her plate. He finds a whole slice of toast where before there were only tidbits. And weaving between the wheat, a ribbon of cinnamon in the shape of a heart.
“Be brave, Eli,” she says. “There is truth in you that others want to hear.”
Jeremiah comes into the Court Street Diner with his head hung between hunched shoulders. The witch waves him into a squeaky vinyl seat.
“So,” she says. “Spill it.”
He falters, fidgets with his silverware, until with a flick of her hand the impatient witch flings the wrapped up fork and knife to the floor, where they dissolve into a shower of fairy dust and flowers. A busboy, unperturbed, picks up the posies and deposits them in the tip jar.
While Jeremiah is still staring at the sparkles on the floor, the Court Street witch takes up the conversation. “My sister says you’re in love with Eli.”
“Oh.” His high cheeks color.
“So why don’t you tell him? Don’t you realize he’s in love with you?”
Jeremiah, looking miserable, nods his head.
“You can’t just sit around and wait for him to realize,” she says. “It doesn’t work that way. Reach out and ask for what you want.”
She flags down a waitress in checkered cotton and chinos. Though the waitress has not taken the witch’s order, she arrives with a tray teetering on one arm. She puts a plate on Jeremiah’s paper placemat. He balks at the sight of the burger, stacked high, heavy with jalapeños and pepper jack cheese. “I don’t like spicy food.”
“Or public speaking, it appears.” The witch scoots his plate a skosh closer to him. “Eat up!”
The peppers will not peel the skin from his mouth. Their fire is meant first for his tongue and second for his soul, to fill his words with passion and his spirit with warmth. This is no slow burn, but a sudden, searing charge.
He looks surprised, on his first bite, but is soon stuffing his face. A single jalapeño pepper slips from beneath the bun and lands on the table. Jeremiah is distracted by his burger. The Court Street witch palms the pepper and puts it to her lips. The capsaicin cuts through her lipstick, a prickling promise.
She pops it into her mouth, because if it is good enough for Jeremiah, it will work for her as well.
The witches take up residence at their window table. Behind the espresso machine, Eli clacks cups together, his hair hanging in his eyes. He is quiet with his customers, filling their orders efficiently without his usual flair. It is obvious he has something on his mind. The Union witch watches with satisfaction.
Her sister brings tea and coffee to the table and reports, “Eli seems subdued.”
The Union witch shakes her head. “He’s concentrating.” The spell she gave him takes a great deal of determination and not a little blood. She checks her watch. “When will Jeremiah be here?”
“Any minute now. In fact—”
The bell above the door rings at the end of its rope and Jeremiah swings through the door, smiling wide and sweet. His book bag bounces on one hip. He strides across the coffee shop as if he has taken to the stage, but stops abruptly at the counter, brought up short in front of the cash register.
The Court Street witch curses, leaning forward like a bettor urging on her favorite horse. “Come on, damn it.”
Jeremiah’s bravado has broken. He stands in front of Eli, stammering. Eli turns away, and the Court Street witch spasms with frustration, grabbing a fistful of her hair. Her sister lays a hand on her wrist.
“Wait a minute.”
Eli tamps a few tablespoons of grounds and twists the portafilter into place. The coffee comes out in delicate arcs, coloring the porcelain cup caramel. The hiss of the steam wand makes Jeremiah jump.
“Watch carefully,” says the Union witch.
Her sister looks up from her despondent slouch.
Somewhere in between settling the milk and pouring, Eli slips something into his lover’s latte. It colors the crema red. Eli slides the saucer across the counter, careful not to slosh. From their vantage point, the witches glimpse the gleaming breast of the beverage, white and rusty red. No rosettas or twisting tulips this time: only a top heavy, twin-lobed heart.
“Clever,” says the Court Street witch, her praise just shy of genuine.
Her sister tries for casual, comes off concerned. “It will not work if Jeremiah doesn’t want it. Eli can give as much as he likes, but if Jeremiah is afraid to take it…”
“Shh!” The Court Street witch clutches her hand. “He’s tasting it!”
Jeremiah’s lips leave a divot in the latte’s top, breaking the barista’s carefully crafted heart with the touch of his tongue. And then, as if the hot drink reminds him of his witch’s spell, he straightens, takes a breath, and talks.
Eli’s shift ends and he asks Jeremiah out to lunch, his eyes shy behind his skunk-striped hair. When the boys are gone, the witches face each other over their table.
“Good work,” says the Court Street witch, picking at her nail polish.
The Union witch nods, watching chips of pink and purple scatter on the table. Her own fingers itch with the memory of torn-up toast, and her cinnamon-swirl heart suddenly aches for the Court Street witch, barricaded behind her lipsticked bravado.
“You too,” she says. “Your spell worked beautifully.” She reaches out and takes her sister’s hand. “Your spells always do.”
The Court Street witch pulls back, but her skin sticks to her sister’s sweating palm. She purses her plum-painted sneer, ready to retort, but the small burn of a single jalapeño pepper ignites in her belly. She stops and stares into her sister’s face.
“Thank you,” she says.
Summer comes and the witches slip into a slower routine. The Court Street witch hosts fewer students in her jukebox castle, so she has free time on her hands. The Union witch does better business in the summer, treating with long-time townies: professors, business people, the general populace of Athens. Her summer clientele are already well-rooted in the town. They have time to tend her magic as it grows.
Still, one sweltering afternoon in June she takes a moment to meet her sister at their window table. They are greeted at the counter by a new barista, a girl named Becca in blue high-tops.
“Hi there.” She is cheerful, but not as effusive as Eli. “Can I help you?”
“One raspberry mocha and one mint tea. Iced this time, I think.” The Union witch counts crisp money onto the countertop. It is her turn to treat.
But her sister stops her. “Let’s split it.”
The Union witch smiles and takes back half her bills.
“Where’s Eli?” asks the Court Street witch. “When did he leave?”
“Sorry?” Becca looks up from scooping cubes out of the ice cooler. “Oh, Eli.” She sets the half-made mocha down and unpins a postcard from the corkboard behind the counter. “Pouring shots in Palo Alto.”
“California?” The Court Street witch whistles low.
Her sister takes the postcard and peruses the note. “Jeremiah is going to study medicine at Stanford.”
“Yeah,” says Becca, putting down their drinks. “I never met them–they made their exit in May, just after graduation. Everybody says they’re a super cute couple.”
The witches clink their cups.
“I’m sure they were,” says one witch.
Her sister smiles. “Yes. I’m sure.”
About the Author
Lara Elena Donnelly
Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of the Nebula, Lambda, and Locus-nominated trilogy The Amberlough Dossier, as well as short fiction and poetry appearing in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Uncanny. A graduate of the Clarion and Alpha writers’ workshops, Lara has served as on-site staff at the latter, mentoring amazing teens who will someday take over the world of SFF.
About the Narrator
Nika Harper is a writer, performer, and geeky personality who spends long, solitary nights on the internet because her brain won’t shut up. She lives in Los Angeles, CA, where she houses her collection of magic wands and an overwhelming stockpile of empty journals. Her work is at ThisisNika.com but the good stuff (pictures of her cat) is on her Twitter, @NikaHarper.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.