Second to the Right

Selling words was an odd job – sometimes, Vanna would be completely lost on what charm to cast on them. At other times, words were needed for spells with the right ingredients acting on them. Words were bits which came and went, and Vanna’s job was to find their roots, their very essence, and help them make sense.

Vanna loved words – she loved the way they moved, the way they created thoughts, and how different words in different languages could give very distinct feelings. She loved helping people with their words – Jaya would snort at the idea that there was a sense of satisfaction in giving a boy the words to tell a girl he loved her, but there it was.

Vanna used words in very specific ways. They were sold in bits and pieces, were meant for spells and incantations occasionally, and for writing and expression elsewhere.

But primarily, Vanna sold words to create magic.

There was a magic behind what she did to them already, she knew. She could manipulate words the way some people would breathe – she could sift them from thin air and paste them all across the sky. But the real magic was not in the way atmospheric words with the right charm could actually change atmosphere (Double, double, toil and trouble hadn’t been a scene created out of thin air, after all. Though Shakespeare’s witches were culturally appropriated, they held a sliver of truth: messing with major power structures and very intense inner psychology required a very specific form of tempest) or in the way animalistic words could give you the feeling of being that very animal when used right. Magic was created in the words themselves.

Word magic was found in the roots of the words, roots were found in sounds, and if you went back far enough, everything was made up of the same energy that Vanna tapped into when she manipulated it.

That’s what Jaya also used when she manipulated colours.

You had to be careful with words because they didn’t belong with you for too long, not if you shared them all at once. You had to keep some to yourself, or your stocks all dried up – and that would be a bloody disaster.

*

Jaya operated on colours. She knew how to make reds and blues speak, to make things change appearances almost completely, and to fashion something new out of nothing. And there was Avantika, spouting the roots of words and sounds and whatever else she could think of. Apparently, Sanskrit was important for something, and there were plenty of people speaking French.

When Jaya first came to Delhi (she was actually a resident of Calcutta, and no, she was patently not Bengali) to see Vanna’s shop, all she could think of was “Oh, Avantika.” This didn’t help the state of affairs at all; but at least she was surrounded by good artwork that appealed to her high standard of art – and Jaya had a very high standard of art. She was a Colour Mage, after all.

And then Vanna had gone ahead and named her shop Word Smith of all things. Avantika liked naming her shops after poets and baloney like that, which is why it irked Jaya that she had named it after Wordsworth of all people. And she had done it knowing that Jaya was going to be working there for at least six months.

Jaya’s only reason to be working with Vanna was disgustingly sentimental- she wanted to be with her. After Witch Academy, their paths had only intersected when Jaya was in India. Vanna chose to stay there, while Jaya had taken up different jobs all around the world, manipulating colours and paints and people and monsters into giving way to her.

Art was so much more abstract. The specificity of words made Jaya’s head spin, and she didn’t know how Vanna managed to sell love in so many different shades: love, pyaar, mohabbat, ishq, prem, and god knows what else.

Whichever the case, Jaya didn’t want to have anything to do with it. It was dizzying – even before the kid walked into the store.

“How can I help you?’ Jaya asked without sparing the kid a glance. Kids came to Vanna’s store in hordes for it was rumored that Vanna charged very little to help you bring your girlfriends around.

This kid was disproportionately small, compared to the other kids that usually came.

He looked completely unsure – (‘distracted?’ thought Jaya) – of himself, so she took the liberty to shoot a red (the bright, scarlet variety) ribbon of light from her finger. He started, and glared at Jaya.

Boys are almost always nervous or headstrong. They either become nervous and unsure of themselves, or just infuse some bravado into their twelve-year-old selves and manage to get entire cohorts of dark wizards after them or some other Harry Pottery bullshit.

“I want yellows and greens, please.” He had a determined bent to his mouth, making Jaya wonder what girl would be convinced by sickly greens and yellows.

Jaya and Vanna shared a look. “What kind of yellows and greens?” Vanna delicately asked.

The boy thought about it. “Sunshine. And I’d like some Pixie Dust, with Radish Ash, preferably. Do you serve hell broths?”

Jaya set away her broom. “What do you take us for, three witches trying their best to create chaos in a Shakespearean play?”

“But – the recipe… says hell broths,” he said hesitantly.

Recipe? What was this kid in for? Jaya half-turned to Vanna to tell him to fuck off – they didn’t need the trouble of associating with whatever the hell he was trying to resurrect – until Vanna glared at her.

“Could we have a look at the recipe? We will stock you adequately,” she said politely.

The boy seemed to be shunning Jaya completely and focused on Vanna’s heart-shaped face. Jaya felt good – she still had it in her to scare boys.

He slipped a sheet to Vanna. Jaya dumped her broom and climbed behind the counter to have a look at it. It demanded the creation of a hell broth, which tipped Jaya off with its nonsensical effort to appeal to a certain audience.

It seemed a simple enough mix – the kind that you got from slightly shady sources. Vanna, however, was frowning. “You need Black Pixie Dust, Radish Ash, and a pinch of Merwater Salt?”

Jaya had no idea what this mix was supposed to produce, but she had a feeling that it wasn’t good from the way Vanna was looking at the recipe.

“Jaya, could you bring the Dust and the Ash? I’m sure I know where the yellows and greens are,” Avantika said, still eyeing the kid suspiciously.

Jaya shrugged. It was the kid’s problem, whatever the hell he was doing. When she came out, Vanna had taken out some specific yellows and greens- a bottle that held a piece of sunlight and sap coloured greens – so there was a bright green, and a dull one.

“Please try to use only one pinch of the Pixie Dust. It can be harmful in large quantities,” Vanna cautioned. Jaya knew this too well, Pixie Dust was a little bitch when you were trying to make memory potions for recollection. You had to tame it just right – especially the black one. Vanna was the best Pixie Dust supplier in the country; she sold it pre-conditioned so that you needed as little effort in making it listen to you as possible.

“While using the Pixie Dust, I would also advise you to use it with gloves on. Store it in your refrigerator, preferably. If you don’t have one, try to maintain a two-degree temperature for it,” Vanna went on. “I would also like to tell you that amateur Synonacromancy can be dangerous, and it is advisable to hire a professional. It would cost less in the long run.”

Woah. The kid was trying to bring words to life.

Jaya was itching to tell Vanna not to do it, but Vanna’s heart melted very fast. She liked helping people, and the kid was pulling his best forlorn act behind all the ridiculous bravado he had conjured up from nowhere.

“I’ll be fine,” he told Vanna.

“As for payment: everything except the Pixie Dust can be paid for in money,” said Vanna.

Now he looked nervous again. “What do you want?” he asked.

“What are you offering?” asked Jaya almost threateningly.

The boy glared at Jaya. Jaya stared back with complete apathy.

“It’s a full moon,” said Vanna kindly. “Child Blood is generally a very powerful ingredient in hell broths.”

The boy thought about it. “Alright,” he said. He looked faintly green at the thought of it, but Jaya, distinctly done-with-this, pulled out a card and swiped it in the blood machine, putting in some numbers.

“You could take it on my card,” said Vanna with an indulgent smile.

“You’re overdue,” said Jaya darkly.

“She keeps my blood accounts better than I do,” said Vanna with her nicest, most ‘I’m-a-lovely-sunshine-and-hipster-witch’ laugh.

“Right,” said the boy. “Where do I sign?”

Jaya snorted again. “Honestly, what do people take witches for? Some alternative weirdos, who make hell broths in icy weather? That is just so old.”

As soon as the receipt for the blood deal came out, a small vial of blood appeared out of nowhere.

“Ouch!”  the boy yelped.

“There you go,” said Jaya. “If the spell fuc –”

“JayaHe’sTen!” said Vanna very sharply under her breath.

Jaya glared. “ – Messes up, do not come back.”

“Don’t worry,” glared the boy right back. “I won’t need to.”

Jaya mentally rolled her eyes. No way in hell was this kid not coming back to appeal to Vanna’s wonderful sense of helpfulness.

*

The boy obviously came back, and Jaya itched to unleash all her powers in light and colour manipulation and blast him outside with a glamour charm, making his head look like a beaver’s. Since her daydreams were impossible due to Vanna, she bit her tongue and looked at the boy as if he had trespassed on all Ten Commandments and more in one go.

“What do you want?” she asked him. His scruffy face had lost whatever bravado he had most definitely conjured up, and he looked at her pleadingly.

Thankfully, Vanna was not here yet, so Jaya was at full liberty to kick him out.

“’Please – you have to help me –” he said frantically. His bag rattled.

“Get out of the shop,” Jaya ordered. She did not want to deal with this again. When Vanna had been working in Calcutta, and had sold someone some Phoenix Tears, Jaya had come down to find the shop in complete tatters, with several colours escaping out of jars. It had taken Jaya, Isabella, Morwenna, Chris, and Rob’s combined effort to find some of the creatures and words that had escaped in that fiasco.

“But you have to!” he practically sobbed.

“Vanna gave you safety tips, and she told you to hire someone. We don’t owe you anything,” Jaya condescended.

Vanna chose this moment to come in, and smiled at the boy. “Hello, Veer,” she said pleasantly.

Jaya shot daggers at Vanna. “His name is boy or you, interchangeably!”

“This isn’t Harry Potter,” said Vanna, her eyes still smiling. “What’s the problem?”

Even as the boy looked like he would burst, his bag actually did.

It broke into pieces, with birds and colours leaking out. Bright yellow dripped from a book, while green glittered everywhere.

Vanna’s face went blank.

“What,” she asked, her voice venomous, “were you trying to do?”

Jaya had only seen Vanna angry twice – once, when Chris had decided that he would give up going to University classes in favour of joining a very niche society of people using magical enchancers. Vanna had become cold in her anger, and when Vanna became cold, she was ice.

 

*

The kid had fucked up.

Vanna didn’t hold back. Words were to be treated with care; they were not abstract like colours. They had minds of their own, and the ones that were tampered with, were to be used carefully.

She could see that the sunshine yellow she had given him had melded into something else entirely- beeswax. (Wonderful word, that, her brain went idly). She noticed so many other words that were dripping out of the book that she wondered whether the kid had been trying to give the book a coronary.

Flibbertigibbet floated through the shop, with its feathers and everything. Jaya looked at the bird-thing interpretation of flibbertigibbet with mild incredulity.

“I just wanted to talk to Luna Lovegood!” said the boy.

“So you try to bring her to life?” asked Vanna dropping her tones so low that even Snape would have been impressed.

“It was supposed to last only an hour!” said the boy desperately, “I was just –”

“First of all,” said Vanna, her cold voice making the kid tremble. “Black Pixie Dust cannot be used to bring people to life. It’s used to bring animals to life. This would have worked for an ordinary fictional animal and even then you do not use words so frivolously! Do you know what happens when they decide to do things their way? All the ‘razzmatazz’es in the word start up a goddamn cacophony of saxophones. ‘Whoosh’ goes into the trees and makes them all explode – if you use a ‘whoosh’ powerful enough, it may even cause major weather changes, locally and otherwise.”

Jaya put her hand on Vanna’s shoulder, which Vanna promptly shrugged off.

The book let out a high pitched scream.

“What’s happening?” asked the boy, in tears.

“Your Luna Lovegood is stuck somewhere between the words and corporeality,” said Vanna scathingly. “Or rather, whatever the hell you brought to life. Jaya, bottle some of the colours.”

Jaya worked quickly and carefully.  The yellows began to come in control, as Vanna ran around looking for the right words and spells.

You needed something with more of a kick for bringing something back to life and –

The book snapped at her, creating teeth from nowhere.

Vanna swore, and Jaya smiled imperceptibly. She tied the book down with one of her moon-chains. She hated using moon-chains; they began to dissolve from the very first use.

But there was the book, trying to eat her arm off. It snarled, and snapped at her again. The white chain gripped tight against the binding of Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix and a few pages went astray.

Jaya swore so loudly that the ten year old would most definitely have picked something up – but Vanna didn’t stop her. Jaya was being attacked by paper cuts.

Vanna rushed to her aid, but Jaya shooed her away. “Pass me the magnifying glass and fetch a subduing potion. While you’re at it, I think you also ought to try and get this fucking book to stop.”

Vanna tossed the magnifying glass to Jaya, and she rushed to the back. She picked some Phoenix feathers, moon dust, and sea salt. She also chose a little bit of Ice-Blood.

They used the subduing potion quickly and effectively against the pages, and Vanna began to mix everything up extremely, extremely fast.

“What’s happening?” asked the boy.

“Shut up, kid,” said Jaya, echoing Vanna’s emotions. Jaya had found an ingenious way to burn the papers,  (which had caused the child to burst into proper tears, but Vanna didn’t have the time or inclination to feel bad for him) – she was using a magnifying glass to focus all the sunshine-y yellow, converting it to actual sun. The paper burnt vigorously.

“Right. I have to undo the chain, Jaya,” said Vanna quickly.

Jaya nodded, grimly shoving all the sunlight into one of her Unicorn Glass jars.

Vanna opened the book, and almost immediately a shapeless, horrifying, monster of a thing emerged from the pages. It screeched at them, deathlike – and sharp, black, faceless teeth snapped at both of them.

Vanna shut her eyes, focusing on all the important words: mimble-wimble, went her mind numbly, as she began to piece out the figure one at a time.

Here was the good thing about good words and good Word Witches – they knew how to tame their favourite words. And this thing was essentially made from some of Vanna’s favourite words – she separated all the ‘whoosh’es and shoved them all back into the page, dropping a bead of acid into the book to stop the wind from going nuts.

Then, she moved her fingers, adding a little moon dust as she did so – to sooth the ‘Bamboozle’ into being quiet. It erupted into ribbons and party hats, which was – well, bamboozling. That might have been caused because Vanna was thinking about eating cake after this.

The words finally settled down a little, and Vanna used her wildly put together mixture to silence the book. She forced the poor word creature which was stuck between worlds and words to recede into the book.

Vanna and Jaya took deep breaths, wondering, in all honesty, what they had just been through.

The boy looked at the pile that was his book. Jaya swept it into a dustpan, wriggled her fingers over it, and ordered the paints and colours and pages to heal. Vanna could never understand how Jaya could do that without conscious thought.

“Here,” said Jaya, shoving the book back to the boy. “Do not come back.”

The boy nodded gratefully.

Jaya and Vanna had a mental conversation, simultaneously deciding to have a cup of tea.

The ‘closed’ sign hung on the shop’s door. As for where the shop was? Second to the right, obviously. And straight on until you found it.

Written by Tanvi Chowdhury

Featured image by Sanna Jain

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