June flew by and it wasn’t until Willow and her mom were at the Fourth of July fireworks and waiting for the show to start that her mom reminded her about the coming school visit.
“So,” she said. “Have you thought about what you’re going to ask at the open house tomorrow?”
Willow paused, trying to figure out what her mom was talking about when it came back to her. “Oh, right, that private school. No, I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“I figure we’ll just wing it,” her mom replied as the radio announced the beginning of the show.
As they drove out to the school the next day, Willow had no idea what to expect. She looked out of the window and actually hoped she would find a reason to hate it. She didn’t want to start at a new school even though she had grown distant from her friends toward the end of the year. It was a warm summer day, but not as humid as it had been a few days before. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and Willow watched the blur of green forest that lined both sides of the two-lane road they were taking.
“Do we make a left turn off of here or...” her mom was glancing at Willow who was holding the page with directions.
Willow looked down at the paper. “Yes, it says that we go about four miles up this road and then take a left.”
Willow looked in front of the car and saw a large sign saying ‘Gampton Hall Academy Portal - Next Left’. “It’s the next left, mom.”
“Okay, and how do you know that?” she responded as she slowed down to make the turn.
“The sign - didn’t you see it?”
“Nope, not unless the sign was made of leaves,” she joked, “and how far on this road?”
“This is it. We just follow this for about a mile and we should be there.”
“Whoa!” Willow’s mom pulled the steering wheel hard to the side and Willow bounced around in her seat.
“Mom! That squirrel came out of nowhere!”
“I know,” her mom said. “Now I feel queasy - a little flashback from a couple of weeks ago.”
Willow was feeling ill too. She felt like someone had pulled her stomach out through her eyeballs, but it seemed to be fading fast. After another minute, they saw the sign for Gampton Hall Academy and turned into the entrance driveway.
On the right side of the entrance road there were tall hedgerows and on the left the grass covered a gradual slope that led to the edge of the woods. Above the hedgerows, they could see the tops of greenhouses that stood just on the other side.
“Greenhouses?” her mother remarked in a surprised voice. “They must have a horticulture program here.”
The road branched just after the greenhouses, with a small service road turning off to the right toward a parking area marked ‘Employees Only’. Continuing straight, they passed through an open wrought-iron gate with ‘G H’ worked into the ornate ironwork on each side. The hedgerows stopped at the gates and were replaced on the right side by elegant formal gardens with a gigantic stone mansion in the background.
Willow’s mom slowed the car to a crawl and she leaned over the steering wheel to look at the place.
“Holy cow. This place is a palace!” she remarked, her eyes darting between the road and the building.
The road curved to the right and they came upon a large circular drop-off where they stopped the car and got out. Neither of them could take their eyes off the place. Willow thought this looked unlike anything she’d ever seen. There were three square stone towers along the front of the building, with the central one being five stories tall – except it appeared that each story was fifteen or twenty feet instead of the normal ten. There was a long four story building that connected the three towers set back from the main structure to create courtyards between the towers. The courtyard on the right looked to contain a circular greenhouse, the one on the left a patio. The roof was steeply pitched and there were two stories of dormer windows on the towers and on the setback building. It was the most incredible place Willow had ever seen in her life.
“This is the most incredible place I’ve ever seen in my life,” her mom said, echoing Willow’s thoughts. “It looks like a royal estate from somewhere in Europe.”
Willow tore her eyes away from the building to look around at the remainder of the grounds. To her right were the formal gardens and the entrance road where they had come in. To her left, there was a well-manicured lawn disappearing into trees. For the first time, she noticed the sound of rushing water in the background.
“Mom, do you hear the sound of water? Are we near a river?”
“I have no idea, Willow. Judging by the sound of it, it’s pretty big.”
Looking behind her, Willow could see acres of lawn sloping away from the school with a practice field and a stadium before more woods.
“I guess your school mascot is a magician.” said her mom, who was pointing to the statue in the center of the drop-off area. In it, Willow saw a marble statue of a wizard holding a wand. The water was pouring from the tip of the wand into a large pool - currently inhabited by two ducks.
As they turned back to the school building, a man in a polo shirt and khakis was walking down the path toward the three of them.
“Hello,” he said as he approached. “You must be the Carters. I’m James Abrams.” He extended a hand and Willow’s mom shook it, introducing herself and Willow.
“I’m a fellow parent of a student here and I’ve been assigned to be your liaison for your visit today,” Mr. Abrams said. “I want you to know that I was in your exact same place three years ago. I have an ninth grader here and I can tell you that when I took this visit that you’re taking now... well, it really opened my eyes to a whole new world.”
“We’ll meet with Mr. Puterschmidt first,” Mr. Abrams continued, as they walked up the path towards the front entrance. “He’s one of our professors and will go over what the school is all about and then we’ll do a tour. I’m sure you’ll have lots of questions, so I want you to know that you can ask me anything.”
They followed Mr. Abrams up the stairs to the arched entryway. Willow looked at the language over the doorway, where a Latin motto was etched into the stone:
Novum limes, novum spes, novum magus.
“Mom,” said Willow, pointing to the engraved motto. “Didn’t you take Latin?”
“Sure…a thousand years ago,” she replied. “Let’s see…new path, new something, new…magician?”
“Not bad...it's 'new path, new frontier, new wizardry',” explained Mr. Abrams.
“Kinda weird,” whispered her mom into Willow’s ear. Willow nodded, smiling and they followed Mr. Abrams into the school.
After going through the arched opening and entering the large wooden double doors, they came into a grand entrance hall. Willow immediately had the odd feeling that she had walked into a room that had been filled with conversation a moment before, but was now silent. Only their footfalls echoed through the vast hall.
She looked around from the ornate entryway. The ceiling towered twenty feet overhead and columns lined the entire entrance hall. Willow thought that her whole house would have easily fit in this hall with room to spare. Off to her right was the entrance to the circular greenhouse which formed a sort of conservatory and to her left was a giant spiral staircase which wound its way up the entire height of the school. Further in the entrance hall to the left was a grand gallery lined with portraits and fireplaces.
“Wow. This place is incredible.” Willow’s mom said to Mr. Abrams. “When was it built?”
“The school was founded in 1720 and the oldest parts of this building date from that time,” he replied, “but it’s been added to significantly since then.”
“I had no idea this area was even settled in 1720,” said her mom. Mr. Abrams smiled, but didn't respond.
As they moved into the school, Willow looked at the pictures on the wall and stopped dead when a painting of a red-haired woman in a long green robe winked at her. She stared back at the picture, but it didn’t move.
Her mom touched her arm. “Are you okay, honey?”
“Yeah, I...I think I’m just a bit nervous,” she replied. She looked away and followed her mother and Mr. Abrams as they led the way through the entrance hall to a door marked ‘Chancellor’.
Mr. Abrams opened the door to the Chancellor’s reception area which was currently empty. “The Chancellor typically isn’t here during the summer,” he said to them, “but we’ll be using his office to meet with Mr. Puterschmidt.” He walked through the reception area to the Chancellor’s office and held the second door open as Willow and her mom entered the room. The office itself was octagon-shaped with incredible views to the rear of the school from the windows along the back of the room. A very large ornate desk stood near the center with two leather wingback chairs facing the windows. Sitting on the edge of the desk was a middle-aged man with a bald crown and hair all around the sides of his head. He was wearing a brown robe and Willow had an instant image of him as a medieval monk.
“Hello!" he said as they entered, and he held out a hand to shake with Willow and her mom. "My name is John Puterschmidt and I’m one of the teachers here at Gampton Hall. I’m very excited that you’ve decided to join us. Please, come and make yourselves comfortable.” He gestured to the leather chairs and Willow and her mom walked to them and sat down. As Willow watched him, she noticed that he had a facial tic where every third blink of his eyes, he would squinch his eyebrows and cheeks in a hard blink. She found it slightly distracting.
“I think you did the right thing in coming here to see us today,” he said, smiling at them. (Blink) “But I believe that you may have a difficult time accepting what this school is all about. You see, this is a school for magic.”
Willow looked at her mom who had a puzzled expression on her face. Her mom thought for a second and then said, “You mean it’s a school to teach magic tricks?”
“Not tricks, Ms. Carter. Real magic." (Blink) "It’s been our experience that seeing is believing and in this case, I think a demonstration or two is in order.” Mr. Puterschmidt turned to Mr. Abrams. “Mr. Abrams, they are free to pick me up and explore the room if it helps convince them.” He then turned back to Willow and her mom.
“Now don’t be alarmed," (Blink) "but I am going to turn myself into a rabbit.”
Willow remembered the moment vividly afterwards. Mr. Puterschmidt didn’t disappear in a puff of smoke and a rabbit remained. He didn’t wave a cape and have a rabbit appear behind it. Willow watched as Mr. Puterschmidt’s whole body shrunk down - hair, robe, and all - while ears sprouted from his head and fur and a cotton ball tail appeared. Mr. Puterschmidt had become a small brown rabbit.
Willow’s mom had stood up so suddenly in alarm that her chair was knocked aside. “What the...” she managed before Mr. Abrams spoke up.
“What Mr. Puterschmidt just did is a kind of alteration magic. He didn’t really become a rabbit, he merely took its shape. Here, I’ll show you.” Mr. Abrams turned to the rabbit.
“Mr. Puterschmidt, would you please hop around the desk and then stand on one leg?”
Hearing this request, the rabbit proceeded to hop around the desk. As it was doing so, Mr. Abrams continued.
“I had exactly the same reaction when I saw it the first time.”
Willow’s mom looked at him. “So you’re not...”
“A mage? No. I’m a nomaj like yourself. Completely non-magical.”
Willow was busy watching the rabbit, which having circled the desk was standing on one leg. As it - he, Willow reminded herself - was perched on one of his back feet, he changed back and Mr. Puterschmidt was standing once more in front of them, balanced on one foot.
As he set his foot down, Mr. Puterschmidt looked apologetic. “Please don’t be upset. It’s just that if I told you this was a school for magic without anything to back it up, you’d think I was mad.”
“I…I think I’m mad,” Willow’s mom stammered, “or that was the most amazing magic trick I’ve ever seen. How exactly….”
“Here, please sit down,” said Mr. Puterschmidt, and he pulled out a wand of wood and waved it at the chair which had been knocked down. The chair immediately sprung back up into place. (Blink) He pointed it again at a side table and muttered “accio glasses” at which two drinking glasses leaped into the air and floated directly toward him. The glasses hovered in front of him for a moment and he took each in turn, pointing his wand inside and saying “aguamenti” to fill them each with water.
“Please do sit down,” he said to Willow’s mom who apparently hadn’t heard his first request. “The next thing I’m about to say might also be shocking.”
“I think I’m all shocked out, thank you,” Willow’s mom said as she sat down again. She very nervously grasped the glass of water floating in front of her, but didn’t take a sip.
“Your daughter has the ability to do all that I have just done and more.” Mr. Puterschmidt explained. “In short, she is magical." (Blink) "Historically, we would have referred to her as a ‘witch’, but this has certain negative connotations in the nomaj world, you see.”
“I can’t say I’m following you,” said Willow’s mom. “You’re going to tell me that you can train my daughter to turn into a rabbit?”
Mr. Puterschmidt chuckled a little. “Not exactly. That particular bit of magic takes many, many years of careful study and Willow here would likely take her own individual form rather than a rabbit." (Blink) "But my point is that Willow can do magic, and with proper training here at Gampton Hall, she can learn to use and craft magic to do any number of things. It is, I realize, quite unbelievable from your point of view, which is why we choose the whole transfiguration demonstration to make a point.”
Mr. Abrams chimed in. “You are not the first non-magical parent to find out that their child had this talent. Nor was I, nor were the parents who discovered it two hundred years ago. The plain fact is that there is an entire magical world out there that has existed in complete secrecy for hundreds of years, and this is your daughter’s first step into that world.” He gestured toward Willow.
Willow had been silent up to this point. She was speechless and not a little scared. Her mind was racing. I knew I was different, she thought, but I didn’t really think there was anything to it.
“How do you know that my daughter has magic?” Willow’s mom asked. “She’s never done any magic at home.”
“Oh, but she has,” Mr. Puterschmidt responded. “For example,” and at this he looked down at a piece of parchment on the desk. “Willow, what were you doing at 8:46 this morning?” (Blink)
Willow jumped at being called out, but it was her mom that spoke up first.
“What do you mean?” she said. “Is someone spying on us?”
Mr. Abrams chimed in to the conversation. “No, Ms. Carter. Macoosa...er, sorry, the Magical Congress of the United States of America - which is shortened to an acronym and pronounced 'Macoosa'... well, that organization can merely tell that magic happened at your particular residence at a particular time. They cannot tell who did it, or what the charm was specifically. They merely detect that magic has happened in a certain location. I assure you that nobody is spying on you. But as you can imagine, the magical community goes to great lengths to ensure that this all stays secret.”
Mr. Puterschmidt turned to Willow. “So what were you doing this morning at 8:46?”
It took her a moment to puzzle out the question and then remember back to what she was doing at a quarter to nine that morning. “Uh, brushing my teeth?” she responded, hoping that the ‘right’ answer wasn’t what she thought it was. Her fingers had been nervously twirling the ends of her hair and she dropped them to her side.
“Hmmm, probably not,” mused Mr. Puterschmidt. “And after that?”
Willow stopped for a moment and her cheeks grew red. “My hair,” she responded in a low voice.
“Ah, yes, I see you can tell what I’m getting at. And could you show your mother how you do that?”
Not seeing any way around the request, Willow stood up and pulled the elastic from her ponytail, letting her hair hang down her back. She closed her eyes and concentrated - like she had been doing every day since she was eight and her hair twisted itself into an elaborate french braid without being touched. She heard her mother gasp behind her and feared what her mother might call her or say to her that would make her feel even worse than she already did about hiding this.
Willow sat back down and turned to her mom, whose mouth was hanging open in wonder. “How long have you...” her mom began, pointing at her own hair and twirling her finger.
“For about three years now.” Willow responded.
“And can you do the thing...with the rabbit?” her mom asked.
“No. The only thing I can do is my hair. I don’t know how to do anything else. I didn’t even know there was anything else until now.”
Mr. Puterschmidt interrupted at this point. “Ms. Carter, what you’re dealing with is incredible, we know. Most of our students come from magical families and are familiar with all of this, but nomaj-born students are not that rare. We have fifteen students here at Gampton Hall who come from non-magical families, however Willow would be the only one in her incoming class.”
“That’s where I come in,” Mr. Abrams interjected. “My son is one of those fifteen students and I understand the shock you are in right now. I was in that very seat three years ago and my wife and I went through the same demonstration with the same reaction. I want you to know that I’m here to help guide this transition, if you choose to take it.”
“We’d like to show you around the school now,” Mr. Puterschmidt said. “Mr. Abrams and I will escort you around and we’ll answer any questions you have along the way.” Mr. Puterschmidt walked past Willow’s mom and opened the office door. “Mr. Abrams and I will wait in the outer office. Please take as much time as you need.” He held the office door open as he and Mr. Abrams walked out and closed it after them.
Willow’s mom turned back and was looking at her again. “Willow, I...had no idea. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Willow couldn’t meet her mom’s gaze and was instead looking at the floor. “Because it’s not normal, mom. I knew that, so I just hid it from everyone. I’m...I’m sorry.”
The next thing she knew, her mother had crossed to her and wrapped her in an embrace. “Willow, I love you. I’ll always love you no matter what. I need you to know that you can tell me anything. It breaks my heart to think that you’ve been hiding this from everyone for three years.”
Willow hugged her back and they both broke out in tears. After a few moments, Willow’s mom pulled herself away and looked at her. “I think we both need a tissue before we go on this tour,” she said to Willow. “Mr. Puterschmidt will think you used ‘aqua-whatsit’ on me.” Smiling, Willow felt better than she had in a long time now that her secret was out.
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