Disclaimer: The story is mine. The characters are not. They came walking in one night some months ago and we had a little argument which ended up with me promising to write down this story. But I don’t earn any money by doing so ( just the ringing cheers of the crowd). I still haven’t got a fridge of my own. That proves it.
About this story: It’s about witches. It’s about cats. So you should love it (you better had...).
It even has got a moral: A cat may look at a queen...or at other terrifying people...and she may do it safely because cats have charming personalities...well, most of them, that is.
Assurance: Any resemblance to cats known to my readers are purely accidental - or so I think. But I’d like to thank Marbles anyway... she has been so inspiring...
Timidly, Mildred looked at her teacher. She did not dare to complain, but she felt a dreadful fear welling up inside of her at the thought of being left all alone in the woods. Surely they could not expect her to find her way home all by herself? Of course she had not made mental notes to memorize the route when they had been flying here - she just had tried not to lose sight of Miss Hardbroom leading the way - and not to crash into her while following her. Like all of her fellow pupils before her she had been completely left in the dark about the challenge that lay ahead of her.
“Don’t give me such a sheepish look, Mildred! This task has been part of our third year’s Intermediate Examination for about ten years and till now all pupils have completed it without failing,” Miss Hardbroom’s mouth twitched in a very impatient way, her eyes piercing into those of her most unsuccessful pupil, daring her to talk back.
Mildred thought it was all very well - ten complete classes of third years having performed this task without causing trouble - but had there been a Mildred Hubble among them?
As if teacher and pupil had locked thoughts for a minute, Miss Hardbroom slightly shook her head, stifling a sigh. “Well - I have to admit, there has never been a pupil like you attending our establishment...but - I think - even you will be able to complete your I.E. without creating major havoc. It’s really quite easy, you know...” The teacher carefully avoided her pupil’s incredulous eyes - “all you have to do is to sit by the fire - throw in the correct ingredients in due time, cast the right spell and be temporarily gifted with the sharper senses and the instinct of the animal you have chosen - an appropriate animal or so I hope...”
“Yes, Miss Hardbroom,” mumbled Mildred mechanically.
“....and by means of using these instincts finding your way home should certainly be no problem. So we shall meet at the academy for supper this evening at six o’clock precisely - if not, be sure we will send out a search party eventually.” Miss Hardbroom reached for her broomstick, ordering it to hover, and gracefully took her seat.
“Oh, please, Miss...” Mildred was terrified by the prospect of spending a night in the woods. They were miles and miles away from every human soul - it was all right if one could fly home on a broomstick - but suppose something should go wrong with her spell, suppose she lost her way, suppose she tumbled down from her broomstick, suppose it got dark really fast, - she could be lost in the woods forever! (or at least for the time it would take her to starve or to get hurt and bleed to death or to get eaten by some wild beasts...Were all the wolves really gone??)
Even Miss Hardbroom found it somehow difficult to resist her pupil’s tearful, pleading eyes...much to her irritation.
“Oh well,” - she dismounted from her broomstick again - “I’ll stay till I made sure that you are able to use you newly gained senses to find your way back home - but not for a moment longer, Mildred! You cannot expect us all to always make exceptions for you, just because you happen to be a very clumsy and unpromising student!”
“Yes, Miss,” said Mildred relieved, quickly kneeling down by the already smoldering fire, sorting through the ingredients HB had brought with her. She was sure the teacher had placed some more red herrings amongst them - a favourite trick of hers to lead her pupils astray.
Chives gathered at dawn - were there any chives in this charm? Mildred cast an inquisitive glance at her teacher, but Miss Hardbroom had magicked a little leatherbound volume from her pocket and sat a few yards away on a stump, her nose buried in the book.
No clues from there - so Mildred decided to give the chives a miss. They were already getting limp and certainly did not look very promising.
She was still marvelling as to whether to use the lesser celandine when HB looked up, impatiently tapping her fingers of the right hand on the wrist of the left where some non-existent watch might have been. “Let’s get this over with, Mildred - get a move on,will you? I mean to get some work done today...”
Mildred hastily chucked the lesser celandine aside, sending the fly agaric and after a second thought the dried lilac after it - there, she had got it now - or so she hoped...
Now - which animal should she choose? No bird as she was afraid of heights at the best of times. No little animal either, or it would take her ages to get home. Something that would not be completely at loss in the woods - something fast, something strong that could look after itself - that could not be eaten by others - but no predator either - she didn’t mean to kill other animals for a living - which spells did she remember anyway?
“Oh, will you HURRY up, girl?” Miss Hardbroom was tapping her feet impatiently against the tree stump.
Fox? - no. Snake? - no, brrr. Erm - what else? Weasel? - no. Rabbit? Too vulnerable. Toad? Useless in the woods. Waterrat?
Oh, well - now, that would be the right one! Quickly she muttered a spell, closing her eyes as she did so:
“Alverix orcus - transcattamorphus - whiskerus floppilus - oculus nocturnus - felium modo pellis felina - cattula nigra nunc enchanta puella!”
The effect was quite stunning and nothing like what Mildred had expected. A soft rustling noise was what she heard at first. It became louder rapidly, till a deep, rumbling roar filled the air, nearly deafening her. Wind howled in her ears and blew in her face. She seemed to be falling - sucked down into an endless abyss - round and round, deeper and deeper, lost forever... Her bones shook as everything came to an abrupt standstill.
The sudden silence didn’t last for long, however.
“Now look what you’ve done!”
The enraged voice of her teacher caused Mildred to open her eyes again - her view had indeed changed completely. Trees and stumps and even the grass and bushes loomed around her - the light seemed to be much brighter than before...and there were so many smells - and sounds - and smells ... Mildred’s new instincts kicked in as she tried to catch a beetle ...scuttling away so quickly that its bristly legs only left some bitter taste on her tongue. Mildred licked her shrunken lips... soft and furry...
“You’ve actually turned yourself into a cat!” Miss Hardbroom’s piercing voice sent Mildred jumping - quick as lightning she made her way up a nearby elm till she reached one of the top branches.
“Will you come down this second, girl?” shouted Miss Hardbroom up at her. From up here, she looked sort of harmless - black and tiny. Mildred scornfully wagged her tail at the sight of her teacher. She gave a mocking hiss and decided to let HB go on scolding and pleading for quite some time till she herself might consider getting down again. Maybe if she was offered some nice cat food...
Mildred settled down comfortably on the swaying branch, her tail curled up as a sort of cushion, protecting her against the rough bark. She found some more beetles scuttling to and fro, intent on minding their own beetle business. Mildred amused herself for some time by giving the beetles playful shoves with her paws, causing them to freeze up and pretend to be dead. She licked up several of them, but spat them out again as she did not find them to be of a tasty nature.
Birds rushed through the leaves, their wings flapping with precise rhythm. Little black eyes blinked, tender breasts visibly thumped with rapid heartbeats, filled with life, breath, blood... Mildred found herself staring after them intently, her body screwing up like one sleek spring, ready to fly through the air and pounce upon one of those teasing fluttering creatures...
“So here you are!”
Mildred spun round, hissing and raising her hackles. Directly behind her, Miss Hardbroom had appeared, her cloak flapping in the breeze, her shawl entwining itself round her broomstick.
“Now will you come down this instant, girl! It might take some time to get you back to your usual self - not that I prefer it to your present one, but you can hardly make your way back to the academy in this state, can you?”
Miss Hardbroom grabbed the cat, shouted “Down!” and the broomstick began a rapid descent. Mildred was terrified. She had never been fond of flying, not even if she was sitting upright, being in control of the broomstick. Even if she was aware that flying with Miss Hardbroom was no doubt much safer than flying alone - her instincts set her spitting and fighting her teacher’s grip, clawing at her - red gash against white skin - no, no, no - she wanted to be down on the ground or on some tree - let go of me...
Mildred cursed Miss Hardbroom in the cat-language and called her every name she could think of - fortunately the teacher was not able to understand her without having taken the right potion first. Apart from that she was much too busy to prevent Mildred from tumbling off - or upsetting the broomstick which was swaying about rather badly. Obviously Mildred the cat displayed no more talent for broomstick-flying than Mildred the witch had - though she certainly displayed a more ferocious temper.
“Steady!” yelled the teacher desperately, addressing the berserk cat and the off-course broomstick at once. “Now will you sit still, you abominable creature!” Finally she had to get the cat into some sort of headlock and thus they managed to get to the ground safely.
Immediately, Miss Hardbroom dropped the cringing animal which ran away to seek shelter at once. From the safe retreat amongst some prickly bushes, Mildred scowled and hissed at her teacher - how dared she to mistreat a poor, innocent cat like this?
Her form-mistress sucked her bleeding knuckles and scowled back at her most difficult pupil. She had no idea what sort of spell Mildred might have used - there were about two dozen spells in question - and Mildred might even have got it wrong. Surely she, Miss Hardbroom, had made it quite clear that the pupils were expected to gain an animal’s senses and instinct - not its body, for goodness’ sake. It might take ages to turn the girl back - a simple reversing spell certainly would fix most things, but not everything...Not a spell for instinct acquirement that had gone wrong. Just to be sure, Miss Hardbroom started to mutter any reversing spell she could think of - to no avail. Still Mildred’s enraged gaze sparkled from among the bushes, her voice remained an upset growl. This was hopeless!
The teacher knelt down by the fire, sorting through what was left of the ingredients. Now - where was the grated nutmeg? Surely the girl had not been that daft to use the nutmeg - after all she had been told in class? And obviously she had forgotten to use all the aconite - or hadn’t she used it all? And - Mercy! - the cowslip still was untouched - this was worse than Miss Hardbroom had expected. This way she would need hours, maybe days to turn Mildred back - and it would take all the possiblilites and ingredients the potion lab at Cackle’s could offer.
Constance Hardbroom looked positively shaken as she piled some more wood on the fire with a slightly trembling hand, for it was getting darker rapidly. Fancy what could have happened if she had not stayed on to witness Mildred’s mishap - the girl could have indeed wandered off into the woods - under the handicap of a cat’s instinct obviously far too strong for her to control. She could have been lost forever, even killed, shot by some farmer or eaten by some fox...
The teacher briefly closed her eyes, overcome with the dreadful prospect of spending her future life as the person actually responsible for Mildred Hubble’s premature death - she shivered suddenly despite the heat of the fire flaring up and pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. She couldn’t even blame the girl alone - she herself should have known better than to expect Mildred to complete a task withough something going amiss - why hadn’t she supervised the preparations of the charm herself?
If only she had payed proper attention to the spell Mildred had cast - she had been so sure that even Mildred was not able to mess things up like this - not after all the training she had been given. This girl certainly WAS a severe trial! Yet there was this feeling of guilt nagging away at the back of her mind...that she was responsible for this disaster, too... Hadn’t she even urged the girl to hurry up when she knew very well that Mildred’s ability to concentrate, feeble at its best times, always broke down under stress?
There was nothing to do but to get Mildred back to Cackle’s - Miss Hardbroom ground her teeth as she imagined pouring out this embarrassing story to her headmistress - Miss Cackle would give her this patient “Haven’t I told you so?” look Constance hated more than anything. This look would remind her how Miss Cackle had always softly protested against the Intermediate Exams - too difficult - too dangerous - and would Miss Hardbroom please at least leave a note referring to the actual place she and her respective pupil had set off to? Miss Hardbroom now indeed wished she had left a note this time...Ten or eleven years - fifteen or twenty girls every year - nothing had ever gone wrong...
Davina would smile one of her watery smiles.... “Highly commendable, Constance,” - and Miss Drill would snort that particular sort of snort she reserved specially for the rare occasions when Miss Hardbroom had been proved wrong...
The teacher grimly shoved another twig into the glowing embers...She would need all the light she could get for catching this darned cat to ship her back to the school.
“Here, Mildred - come on, Mildred - There’s a good girl - let’s take you back to Cackle’s and get you turned back...puss, puss!”
A small black shadow shot out from among the brambles, nimbly darting round Miss Hardbroom and diving into the undergrowth behind her.
A pair of eerily glowing eyes peered out from the dark, cautiously regarding the teacher. Miss Hardbroom had spent all of her life with cats and knew it would be absolutely useless to go chasing after a cat in the dark - so she sat down next to the fire, pretending to be comfortable and to ignore the furcovered pupil lurking among the bushes.
Minutes passed... then a discrete rustle told her she had been sucessful - ignore a cat and she will come running to find out what you’re up to and why you aren’t paying the proper attention to her!
Miss Hardbroom picked up Mildred’s banana broom that still was leaning against a tree. A short spell, a quick flash of light - the broomstick was turned into a densely woven cat basket. Miss Hardbroom surely was going to take no more risks of being attacked by a panicking cat!
Mildred cautiously sniffed the cat basket. Somehow it seemed to exhale a sense of danger...
Curious, though, she shoved her head through the door. “Oh, come on - hurry up!” muttered HB under her breath. She desperately wanted to get home and set things right soon before the whole academy found out about all this.
Mildred sniffed again and decided to leave this strange thing alone - it wasn’t amusing and she still wasn’t sure if it would not prove to be dangerous after all.
“Now - I’ve had enough of this!”
Miss Hardbroom muttered another spell and Mildred found herself trapped in the tiny basket - the door firmly shut. The teacher picked up her own broomstick, adjusted her cloak, resumed her broomstick-flying position, hung the catbasket over the broomstick handle and made ready for take-off.
Before she even could say “Up and away!” she was cut short by Mildred’s desperate yowling. The cat fought with all her might, trying to escape from the basket - sensing that she was going for another broomstick ride - she would not have it, she would not...
The teacher listened with growing concern to the panicky fit her pupil was throwing in the basket. When after fifteen minutes the dim had not subdued, she opened the cat basket, releasing Mildred - as she had really been worried her pupil might be having a heart attack... That would have been all she needed now!
Mildred crouched down amongst the green, her eyes - uncannily blue in her furry black cat face - alight with vigour.
“All right,” sighed Miss Hardbroom. “We’ll wait and see how you feel about a broomstick ride later on...”
She fanned the fire again, feeding it with dry twigs. This was obviously going to take some time...
During the next hours, the teacher tried several times to get her enchanted pupil accustomed to the cat basket - without success. The result was even more devastating than the first time - finally Mildred started to go into hysterics just at the sight of the cat basket.
Around midnight, Miss Hardbroom finally had to admit defeat. There was no way to get the cat into the basket - and flying with the terrified cat roaming about freely on the broomstick was quite out of the question.
Trying to turn the cat into something else - some creature or item one might safely carry about on a broomstick might mess up spells and thus complicate the process of turning the girl back even more.
So the teacher decided grudgingly on giving up any attempt of getting her pupil home by means of broomstick flying - they just would have to wait for the morning and try to get back to the academy on foot.
Gathering leaves and ferns, Miss Hardbroom formed a sort of makeshift bed on the ground next to the smoldering remains of the campfire, covering the heap of leaves with her shawl to prevent herself from getting pricked by twigs or thorns. Removing her boots and uncoiling her bun, she carefully wrapped the handful of hairpins into her handkerchief and stored them away in a pocket.
Wrapping herself into her cloak, the teacher settled down for a rather uncomfortable night. Soon a slight rustling noise and a demanding nudge against her shin made her start - Mildred had decided to spend the night in company. With the cat basket gone, her fear had subdued and she felt like getting a good cuddle by human hands - especially as she hadn’t been fed yet - who ever heard of anyone going to sleep without feeding the cat first? At least she deserved some patting on the head to make up for missing a meal.
Carefully she circled Miss Hardbroom, trying to find the most comfortable place for spending the night at. Inquisitively she sniffed her teacher’s hair which smelled of some sort of lemony herbs (a special balm potion HB brewed for washing her hair) and her dress the flowery smell of which (some violet and lavender potpourri for the cupboard to keep moths away) made Mildred sneeze so violently, that her teacher jumped.
“Now will you be quiet?!” growled Miss Hardbroom, trying to shove off the curious cat who made attempts of settling down on her teacher’s waist, wandering up and down and turning around and around in this process - a procedure Miss Hardbroom who had skipped breakfast and lunch and had missed supper as well, did not enjoy in the least.
“I can’t sleep if you insist on sitting down on me!”
A rough push set the cat tumbling off her resting-place - leaving her sitting bewildered on the ground. Surely Miss Hardbroom had not meant to do that? Who wouldn’t enjoy the honour of being sat upon by a nice warm cat?
Mildred resumed her circles again, finally settling down leaning against Miss Hardbroom’s shoulder - who tried in vain to fight off the cat’s attempts of nuzzling her ear and neck - the tickling whiskers always returned again. The teacher was not actually in a cheerful mood and felt not at all inclined to share her bed with the purring furry lump Mildred had turned into, but the cat was being persistent - so at last she left it where it was, hoping to finally get some sleep before she had to undertake this tiresome walk home next morning.
Mildred breathed steadily and with a slight purring noise that showed she felt quite at ease...she had found a nice comfortable place, a warm, if bony shoulder to lean on and the dreadful cat basket was gone - so finally her teacher had gotten the message: Mildred did not want to be shut up in a poky little basket that was to be tossed about and probably even to be lifted up high in the air on a broomstick - where one never knew whether one might fall down again. Nice, solid ground or a stable branch beneath her paws - that’s what a cat needed.
Mildred slept a cat’s sleep - deep and relaxed and yet at the same time alert to every sound and move that might occur. In the middle of the night she woke up again - feeling uncomfortable - she was not quite sure why. Something was moving - then it stopped - then it moved again, with a soft sliding noise. Mildred’s cat eyes were sharp and well used to the dark - she saw something long and thick - coiling on the ground - a snake! Mildred watched its movements in fascination, then suddenly she pounced and grabbed the intruder. She would teach it to sneak around at night!
Miss Hardbroom awoke with a start from her uneasy slumber stifling a scream - it took her some time to sort out that the sudden yank at her hair had been caused by an agitated cat that had dug her teeth into the tip of the plait and refused to let go - proudly purring while presenting the intruder she had caught.
“Silly cat!” Mildred flattened her ears against the scolding voice of HB - she didn’t get the meaning of all this uproar. Bravely she had thrown herself upon a hostile snake - which had vanished now (being tightly wrapped around the teacher’s neck who wanted to prevent any more accidents). So what was the point of shouting? The snake was gone now - thanks to an observant cat - so one could go back to sleep.
Paying no more attention to her teacher’s ill-tempered monologue, Mil settled back on the lumpy bed of leaves - right in the middle of it so that Miss Hardbroom, extremely annoyed by her pupil’s composed attitude, found it somewhat difficult to squeeze in next to her. The cat seemed to have become as limp as pudding as soon as she was asleep - which made it nearly impossible to move her aside - she just slumped back every time. So Miss Hardbroom finally gave up any attempts of moving the cat - she just tried to get some sleep - not quite successfully as Mildred had another tour later, circling and mounting her exhausted teacher - finally curling up on Miss Hardbroom’s feet in a little heap.
The morning was chilly. The fire had died and Miss Hardbroom’s cloak was covered with dew. Slowly she sat up, straightening her shoulders - she felt stiff all over from spending the night on the ground.
Mildred wobbled and rolled sideways, landing on her back as the teacher stood up - her nice bed was gone - she whined in protest.
“Time to get up, Mildred,” HB informed her curtly. “It’s quite a long way back to Cackle’s.”
Mildred didn’t like the sound of that at all. All she understood was something about “getting up” and a “long way” - why, if one could get another fourty winks and be quite happy and contented?
She yawned, exposing her rosy cat’s tongue and tiny pointed teeth - surely it was not time to get up yet?
A quick movement caught her attention. A little twitching nose - ears vibrating softly - way back among the grass...
Mildred jumped - a faint squeak - something wriggling beneath her paws - Mildred’s teeth sunk into warm, quivering flesh...
“Goodness gracious me! Stop that at once!”
The horrified teacher rushed over and dragged a half-dead mouse from Mildred’s grip - and promptly got bitten several times by her pupil.
But Mildred didn’t get her breakfast back - Miss Hardbroom put the little creature down by a hole in the ground into which it vanished immediately.
Mildred growled, ears flattened back against her head, her eyes blazing, her tail lashing.
Stupid mean teacher! How did she dare to take Mildred’s mouse away and even set it free! Mildred had caught the mouse all on her own - this wasn’t HB’s business at all!
“Believe me, Mildred Hubble - when you are turned back into a girl you will feel very grateful toward me for not giving you the permission to eat a living mouse!”
Mildred looked everything but grateful. Miss Hardbroom watched her with growing concern. She had read all about the dangers of shape-shifting - one had to practise to become a certain animal - or one might be overcome with its instincts and not be able to fight them. The animal’s mind could start to take over - and finally, the human mind would give way and the transformation would be complete and irreversible. It took great presence and strength of mind to prevent this catastrophe from happening if one was trapped in an animal’s body. Miss Hardbroom was positive that Mildred could not muster this strength for long. The sooner she got turned back, the better!
Miss Hardbroom thought she better had to keep Mildred from snatching some other prey...now she wished she had given in to Miss Cackle’s idea of providing every one of the girls with a lunch bag to satisfy her appetite during the exam...Constance had sneered in disgust at that suggestion - this was supposed to be an Intermediate Examination and not a Sunday school picnic!
The cat looked innocent enough at the moment - washing her face with her paws, giving them long, conscientious licks and obviously enjoying the process. But one never could know what she might come up with next, if she wasn’t fed soon.
Digging in her pockets, the teacher took out the little book - “An Almanach of forgotten spells” - her hairpins wrapped up in her handkerchief - and finally a little package of peppermint drops.
Thoughtfully she eyed them - then placed one on the ground - a spell muttered at the double - and the peppermint drop turned into a bowl of cat’s food - chicken by the look and smell of it. Cat’s food was something Miss Hardbroom generally thought of as being of a disgusting nature...and she thought even more so as she had to face it without having had breakfast first.
Mildred was not so reluctant - she nearly fell into the bowl as she started to feast on her chicken.
Meanwhile, Miss Hardbroom unbraided her hair, trying to comb it with her fingers, plaited it again and coiled it into her usual bun - the result being somewhat less smooth than her standards would allow. Somehow she wasn’t able to find all her hairpins - there had been a lot more yesterday, hadn’t there?.
There was no water near, so she even had to without a cat’s lick - which didn’t improve her mood. To offer herself some comfort, she decided to have a peppermint drop herself.
“Now, Mildred - have you done with your food? Let’s go then!”
Miss Hardbroom tied the two broomsticks together with her shawl - ordering them to hover and to fly along in her wake.
Mildred followed her teacher willingly - her tummy felt comfortably crammed, so she would forgive HB for taking the mouse away - and even if she could do with another nap after such a rich meal, exploring might prove to be fun.
It certainly was - for Mildred. Not so much for Miss Hardbroom who found it very difficult to keep an eye on her adventurous pupil diving down rabbit holes and hiding among prickly bushes and another one on the broomsticks which tended to get tangled in the undergrowth every few seconds - Mildred’s banana broom wandering off course because of being crooked - Miss Hardbroom’s own broomstick fighting bravely against the disobedient colleague and pulling in the opposite direction.
Finally the teacher decided to carry the cat - much to Mildred’s discomfort, for she longed to roam freely among the exciting surroundings. After some arguing she finally agreed upon riding Miss Hardbroom’s shoulder - from up here, the view was sort of amazing, too...
Mildred fidgeted, trying to look in every direction at once...Rabbit - there, that was a rabbit - wood pigeons cooed among the twigs, sunrays quivered on the ground - there was a butterfly - a butterfly! Miss Hardbroom gripped the cat firmly which was on the verge of jumping off - never in her life had she come across such a disobedient creature!
She found herself even secretly wishing for Miss Drill to be present - surely this woman so deep in love with any outdoor activity carried a compass with her wherever she went. It was somewhat difficult to keep track of the direction - though she tried to follow the rising sun, as the academy was to be found somewhere southeast of them. Magicking up a compass would be no good - they usually got mixed up with magic and tended to point in the wrong direction...
A fox...Mildred caught the scent of a fox, having passed their track short time ago - she crouched against her teacher’s shoulder - foxes meant danger!
HB pulled off the cat’s tail entwining itself tightly around her neck - this nuisance of a cat - girl - whatever! Now the tail was wagging in her face, blinding her for several seconds...
Mildred rocked to and fro - another butterfly...some meaty stench emerging from a nearby shrub - probably a dead hedgehog...There was a twig, springing back as Miss Hardbroom pushed it aside - it shook and rustled...
There now - the broomsticks got stuck among some bushes for the umpteenth time - Miss Hardbroom returned to disentangle them again.
A fly! A big, glinting fly - blueish-green, glistening in the air! It buzzed annoyingly - darting here and there...Mildred decided to jump at it - her claws getting hooked up in her teacher’s dress - pulling the seams apart - a ripping noise and then Mil was suddenly down on the ground, galloping after the fly...
“MILDRED!” Miss Hardbroom gripped her shoulder, where Mildred’s claws had dug in. “I won’t have any more of this reckless behaviour , do you understand? When we will return to the academy, I’m going to have a severe word with Miss Cackle about your atrocious conduct - You will be very sorry for this!”
Sadly, Mildred gazed after the fly zooming up into the blinding light. She sniffled unhappily and returned to her teacher to seek comfort. It wasn’t fair - a little cat never got what she wanted... She rubbed her head against Miss Hardbroom’s ankles, who would be nice and sympathizing for sure.
The teacher was somewhat put off by that tender approach - something in the trusting cat’s eyes made her swallow the rest of what she was going to say...
Those cats and their mood swings! Just when you were really mad at them, they’d make a cute face at you and thus interrupt your thread of thought...
That was the reason why young witches’ cats had to receive a painstaking training...When they were used to being disobedient and getting away with it scot-free just for gazing at one in this sad, pleading cat-like way - there was no way whatever how to deal with them.
Miss Hardbroom secretly wished she had had Mildred in training when she was a baby cat - or witch - to give her some thorough education...
Sunset still found the two witches and their brooms in the middle of the woods. Miss Hardbroom hadn’t expected the walk back to the academy to take them so long. There was nothing but to spend another night outdoors - they would probably walk in the wrong direction if they kept on traveling by night.
Another peppermint turned into a bowl of cat food was offered to Mildred for supper - while a peppermint being nothing but a plain peppermint supplied Miss Hardbroom with a rather poor supper-substitute.
The teacher had made up her mind about sharing her bed with the lively cat again - she’d rather volunteer to discuss the academy’s library budget with Mr Hallow for a second time than spending another night serving as a cat-pillow.
She piled up a second heap of leaves next to her make-shift leaves-and-shawl bed and patted it softly.
“Look, Mildred - that will be your place for tonight - all right?”
Mildred, well filled with rabbit, eagerly wagged her tail - not having the least notion of what her teacher was talking about. She primly set her front paws close to each other and curled the tail around them - candid eyes, pinkish nose and inviting purring suggesting that another helping of food for this well-behaved cat would be just the thing now.
Nevertheless, Miss Hardbroom shot a warning glance at her pupil while settling down for the night. “You go and sleep now - and don’t you dare wandering about in the woods or molesting me in any way by sitting down on me or pulling my plait - do I make myself clear?”
The answer was a swift jump that landed Mildred on her teacher’s shoulder. If there was no more food to be had, another Pat-the-cat procedure was due now.
Mildred bounced up and down several times... with some difficulty as HB proved to be of a more firm than bouncy nature... but that wasn’t the poor teacher’s fault, was it?
A cat would not scorn a person by not sitting down on him or her - even if he or she did not prove to be comfortably plump and soft to sit on. Cats were very just creatures and believed in being fair.
Mildred rubbed her head against Miss Hardbroom’s nose, trying not to topple of her bony shoulder.
The teacher flinched as Mildred dug her claws in to stable her position. She picked up the cat and shook her, setting her down on the ground.
“Now will you stop wandering around on top of me? I’m not a cat’s amusement park, you know.”
Mildred blinked at her teacher - the voice was surely even more shrilly than usual - but somehow Mildred did not quite seem to catch what HB was talking about - though she had the vague idea that her teacher felt cold and lonely and would like a little comfortable cat she could cuddle...Now she had accidentally misplaced the cat and was longing for her to come back. Mildred daintily set one foot on her teacher’s knees - than another one - thoughtfully she stood for a while, musing about whether to settle on Miss Hardbroom’s feet or on her waist - all the time balancing her full weight on two paws and skillfully dodging HB’s hands. The teacher seemed to be in a playful mood and attempted to push the cat off her legs - obviously to give her the pleasure of climbing on again. Mildred shoved her nose gratefully against her teacher’s hands - she thought it very nice of HB to try to amuse her.
“Oh you stupid cat! Now will you get off? I’m trying to get some sleep here!!”
Mildred finally decided it would be best to settle on her teacher’s chest tonight. There was a long row of cunning little buttons that went right from the neck of her dress down to her waist - they looked like little black pebbles - or glinting berries.
Mildred wondered whether they would actually taste like little black pebbles - so she started licking the nearest button first, her rough cat’s tounge audibly scratching against her teacher’s dress - then she tried to chew the button - then...
“Right, I won’t have any more of this nonsense! Stop it this minute, Mildred Hubble! I certainly don’t want to have cat’s saliva dribbling all over my dress!”
Mildred felt her ears being tugged and lashed out just in case, a sharp gasp telling her she had hit home. Little black pebbles all right - that’s what she had expected the buttons to taste like. Mildred carefully put a paw over the button she had been sampling - she’d have another go at it later, she decided. Pebbles were alright, if one was hungry. She had had a good supper but she could certainly do with some more...
In the meantime she fondly sniffed her teacher’s neck and hair again - the flowery smell was still there, but it was mingled with the exciting odour of dead leaves and moss and dust - Mildred purred out her approvement. “Oh shut up,” moaned her teacher. “Let me get some rest, will you?”
That was boring, Mildred decided - but on the other hand, she could have some fun on her own. Patiently she waited for Miss Hardbroom to go to sleep - which obviously took a long time, the way her teacher fidgeted and nearly pushed off Mildred the cat several times....
The next morning was damp and foggy. Sunrays shivered through the leaves, birds twittered tauntingly in the twigs, much too nimble for Mildred to reach - and Miss Hardbroom discovered that three of her buttons were gone.
“Stupid cat!” Her enraged yelling woke Mildred from a peaceful slumber. Hastily she jumped for cover behind a nearby stump, trying to work out what was the matter.
“Now, you imbecile feline - did you swallow my buttons or not? You might have suffocated or something, you silly creature!”
Mildred blinked at the dewy leaves and absentmindedly sniffed at some mushroom that seemed to have sprung up the previous night. Cautiously she gave it a lick, quickly deciding that it was not for the eating.
“Now are you listening to me AT ALL?” shouted Miss Hardbroom.
Mildred looked up at the looming black form of her teacher in complete bewilderment - way, way up she could see fierce eyes, focusing her. She had not the least idea what was going on - though she was somehow under the impression that HB was telling her it was time to have some nice juicy cat food just now. Her hopeful glance and twitching nose and whiskers actually made Miss Hardbroom laugh.
“You are the limit, Mildred - absolutely impossible.”
Mildred sniffed Miss Hardbroom’s boots, nudging her head against the shoe buttons that closed them. She mewed pleadingly - certainly it was time to feed the cat now?
“Oh, no, you won’t, ” said Miss Hardbroom, scooping Mildred up and holding her at eye level to give her a stern look. “You won’t ride on a broomstick - so I have to walk - so I need those boots and their buttons. Do you understand?”
Mildred gave a friendly little purr. It was nice to be lifted up for a change, gazing in her teacher’s big dark eyes. And she was quite sure HB felt like fondling her behind the ears or under her chin. Mildred loved getting patted. She tried to lick her teacher’s nose to tell her she was in an extremely amiable mood and would appreciate a good pat.
“Oh, you nuisance - you don’t even listen, do you?” Mildred was put down again, mewing in disappointment.
“All right, all right - there, you can have another one.” Miss Hardbroom brought out her peppermints again, placing one on the soft, springy, mosscovered ground and digging her fingers into Mildred’s neck to keep her from swallowing it immediately. She quickly muttered a spell that turned the peppermint into a big bowl of cat’s food - turkey, it seemed to be with a bit of rabbit perhaps and something Mildred couldn’t put her paw on exactly. She began wolfing down the food ecstatically.
“Steady, now”, scolded Miss Hardbroom. “I surely can do without a cat suffering from indigestion, I assure you - I’ve got enough problems on my hands already.”
She grabbed the broomsticks, untying them, and quickly took off on her own broom, carefully avoiding collision with trees or twigs. Mildred hardly noticed that her teacher was gone for the moment - she was busy eating. When Miss Hardbroom returned, Mildred already had licked the bowl spotlessly clean.
“Well, well - are we being greedy today?” said the form-mistress, absentmindedly patting Mildred’s head. “I’m afraid I have to tell you that we’ve sort of lost our course - we should be heading a little bit more for the east.” She scanned some mossy trees and the sun while tying the broomsticks together again. “There - I think we should be heading downhill for a while - or so I hope.” The teacher took out another peppermint, sucking it thoughtfully. Mildred nudged her boots in a demanding way - she felt like having a little nap again - so would Miss Hardbroom please sit down and cradle her in her lap?
“Off we go, then,” said HB with a sigh. “Come on, Mildred.” Gathering her cloak and the broomsticks, she set off through the undergrowth without much further ado. Mildred waited for some moments to see if she would really go without her - then she hastily scrambled after her teacher, running to and fro and jumping at everything within earshot that rustled - such lovely leaves to play with...Mildred was surely having the time of her life.
“Oh, come on, Mildred,” Miss Hardbroom shouted wearily. “We won’t be getting home in a week at the rate you are going!”
By midday the sun had risen and the air was beginning to get stifling under the dense leaves. Insects swirled around them, taking quite an amount of Mil’s attention - though she never could catch any, no matter how hard she tried. Miss Hardbroom gasped for breath - it seemed to get hotter any minute. “A thunderstorm is all we’ve needed now,” she thought, blinking at the tree-framed sky while fanning her face with a bunch of ferns and trying to keep sight of her enchanted pupil at the same time. “Mildred - would you mind to stay close to me? I’m really not in the mood to comb the forest for you just now.”
The sound of her voice brought Millie mewing to her teacher’s feet - maybe she felt inclined to play a little game of tag-the-dress-hem or something?
Miss Hardbroom listened intently, trying to shut out the cat’s voice and also preventing her dress hem from getting ripped - there seemed to be water bubbling somewhere nearby. She could surely do with a cool, refreshing drink.
Following the sound, she finally reached a little pond complete with a busy brook. Before the teacher had even quenched her thirst, a splash told her that her feline companion had tumbled into the brook and was fighting to climb out again. She picked Mildred out of the water, trying to dry her off with her skirt. Mildred hissed angrily - surely it was clumsy old HB’s fault, her falling into this nasty wet stuff - she fought with all her claws, just to tell her that she would certainly not allow something like that to happen again...
“Come on - calm down!” yelled Miss Hardbroom who really felt sure she had received enough scratches by now to last her a lifetime. “I’m just trying to help!”
If only she could put this misbehaving cat into detention or fix her some thousand lines to write...
Mildred hissed some more - just in case - and looked suspiciously at the puddle of water HB was offering the offended cat in her cupped hands - to make sure that she did not tumble into the brook again, trying to have some drink. Finally she disdainfully licked up some water - to show that she had no hard feelings - but one had better not try and play any more tricks on her...
“So - now what I need to feel better is having a good wash - I’m all dusty” Miss Hardbroom pulled a face. “Just in case - I don’t want you to get lost - so will you mind, if I make sure you are safe?” She wrapped Mildred tightly in her shawl, tying her to a nearby tree.
Mildred had been caught off her guard - she thought that this was absolutely no way to treat a cat. “Shush down, will you? I’ll be back in a moment.” Miss Hardbroom disappeared in direction of the brook, Mildred craning her neck to find out where she was going. The teacher stopped next to the pond, bashfully unbuttoning her dress, revealing a modest, embroidered vest with a little violet ribbon at the neckline and a starched petticoat with frills round the hem. Mildred longingly stared at the ribbon - just the right thing for a cat to play with and to chew on ... And this pond - maybe there were some fish for her to catch in there... No doubt, mean Miss Hardbroom wanted to get them all for herself.
The cat’s intensive mews caused her teacher to look around and blush deeply. “Now really - will you just stop staring at me? I call that very rude manners!” Miss Hardbroom flung a handful of water at Mildred, which caused her to hiss and sputter like an upset tea kettle - hiding and sulking behind her tree...Nasty mean HB...She’d teach her...
When Miss Hardbroom finally returned, her feet still bare, her hair streaming loosely down her back and not all of her buttons redone yet, Mildred had dozed off - but still she sulkily eyed her teacher through one half-closed lid.
“Oh come on, silly cat,” coaxed Miss Hardbroom, untying the shawl and unwrapping Mildred...”There’s no need to scowl at me like that...I certainly don’t take kindly to pupils witnessing me having a bath - or something like it...” Mildred decided to start a somewhat reserved purring...so HB would still feel sorry. It seemed to her Miss Hardbroom did not pay proper attention to the hurt feelings of a cat - she was busy scooping up some dry leaves and spreading her shawl over them to create another temporary bed.
“Now you stay here for good for a change - I do certainly need some rest.” The teacher sat down on her bed of leaves next to Mildred, leaning her head against the huge trunk of a chestnut tree. She still looked very tired - Mildred magnanimously decided to forgive her and hopped on her lap to cheer her up. “Why can’t you just leave me alone?” HB complained. “Do you absolutely have to dig your claws into me as soon as I stop moving?” Mildred purred and secretly had a lick at another button. She rubbed her head against her teacher’s chin, trying to convince her that a good fondling of the ears was just what she needed.
“All right, here we go,” Miss Hardbroom heaved a deep sigh and stroked the cat’s fur which earned her a lawmower-like purring that made her feel very sleepy - sleepy - very sleepy indeed...
A rumble of thunder quickly brought them both to their feet. The stifling heat had still increased - the wood was rustling and swaying in every which way as if trying to decide in which direction it should rush to escape the brewing storm - the sky peeping in through the leaves was of a sick, yellowish grey colour.
“Oh - no!” Miss Hardbroom scowled at the inky clouds, billowing above their heads. “That’s just what I hoped wouldn’t ...” Her voice was drowned by another thunder clap, followed by an instant heavy gush of rain.
Mildred clung to her teacher’s skirt - the rolling thunder set her teeth on edge. It was growing darker by the minute, flashes of lightning hurtling their cruel white light among the trees for a moment - only to leave behind an even more brooding darkness...
Twigs and leaves were dancing about, flinging themselves into the air and tumbling down again.
“Well, right - we’ve got to go - to find some safe place...” grabbing the broomsticks and bundling cat, cloak and shawl, Miss Hardbroom hastily retreated from the huge chestnut tree that had provided them with a resting-place during the afternoon - not quite sure where to retreat to, as they were lost among trees that invited lightning to strike...
Finally, after another tiring footwalk, the two witches settled down in a dense thicket of bushes that covered a tiny clearing amongst the woods. It offered some shelter against the wind, but none against the pelting rain.
Huddled under Miss Hardbroom’s cloak and nestling in her arms Mildred secretly swore to herself she would never again enter a wood in her life - provided she would get out of this inferno unharmed and reach some safe place - like a hearthrug - where there might be a saucer of milk and some kippers around - she would certainly never move an inch away from it.
“Now, stop fidgeting, for goodness’ sake,” Miss Hardbroom had to shout into Mildred’s ear to make herself heard above the raging storm. “You think I find this comfortable - do you? I could magic this thunderstorm away in no time - only a witch must never meddle with the weather if she can help it - it might make things even worse, you know - the Dr. Foster effect...” (Now, don’t I sound just like the typical teacher - she thought in secret - holding lessons amidst some sort of torrential rainstorm? Well - the leopards and their spots. It’s even true in my case.) “Now keep your cold wet nose to yourself, will you?”
Mildred whined, the sodden cloak dripping water on her touchy nose. Was this thunderstorm never going to end?
At last she managed to doze off, though she was often startled by her teacher’s shivering and occasional sneezing. Miss Hardbroom, meanwhile drenched from head to foot, Mildred’s whiskers tickling her neck most uncomfortably, was extremely annoyed to hear her pupil’s gentle snoring. For her, sleep was out of the question. She felt sorely tempted to shake the cat in order to wake her up, but she decided against it. She had enough on her conscience as it was - and she felt very worried indeed about her pupil... hopefully the girl had not already suffered some damage to her personality. Better let her get all the rest she could... sleep was said to ward off some of the ill effects of elongated shape-shifting...
Thus, Miss Hardbroom found herself cradling her most difficult pupil carefully in her arms - much against her will - while she was waiting for the daylight to come (and hopefully the storm to end). The night dragged on...
Getting up in the morning was even more unpleasant. The air had cooled down rapidly after the storm and soaked clothes and fur are not extremely pleasant things clinging to a person or cat when one has to brace a chilly morning breeze.
Miss Hardbroom tried in vain to squeeze the water from her dripping dress and cloak and to coil her rainsodden hair into a bun that would not come undone again at once.
Mildred spent ages in an attempt to lick herself dry, sort of enviously watched by her teacher who could surely not accomplish a task like this and urged her on, desperately longing to reach the academy before they had to spend a fourth night in the woods. Still more time had to be wasted to prepare Mildred’s breakfast by turning the last peppermint into a bowl of minced pork. Mildred wolfed it down greedily - she didn’t even pay any attention to her teacher’s admonitions about table manners.
Miss Hardbroom’s temper decidedly frayed during this long day when she had to drag a reluctant cat through the wilderness - an enchanted witch whose cat’s mind seemed to take over more and more by the minute.
Trying to avoid getting drenched by dripping twigs, ferns, bushes and such, Mildred galloped nimbly through the undergrowth, stopping every other second to shake her paws - skipping through wet grass wasn’t such a gorgeous experience a cat would like to have after all...
“MILDRED! Where are you now? Come here this instant, girl - cat...!”
Miss Hardbroom, while pulling the broomsticks out of some rather prickly brambles, had lost sight of her pupil for a moment. Now she turned round and round, anxiously regarding every movement of the green.
Finally she caught sight of Mildred’s tail, stretched in the air and gliding through the undergrowth like a periscope. “Mildred!” One surely would need eyes in the back of one’s head when trying to supervise this girl!
The teacher forced her way through the tangled bushes till she reached the place where the periscope had suddenly submerged. When she finally found the cat, she couldn’t even scold her - so pityful was the sight of the damp animal which was standing on three legs, holding up one paw and mewing on top of her lungs. Miss Hardbroom heaved another deep sigh (who would have believed that the number of sighs uttered in the daily struggle with year three could have even been outnumbered by those she had to utter in spending some time with just one member of this infamous class?).
She sat down beside the cat, paying no heed to the damp ground - there was no way she could get more drenched than she already was. Soon she discovered the thorn that stuck in the animal’s paw and extracted it carefully.
Mildred winced, licking her injured foot.
“Poor Mil - I think I had better carry you from now on. There, there...”
Miss Hardbroom bandaged the hurt paw with her spare handkerchief - every selfrespecting witch should always have a spare one, her Greataunt had taught her - though little she would have expected that this item would ever have to be used in such a calamitous situation. The teacher’s attempts of giving first-aid were somewhat hindered by the cat tilting her head back in order to get scratched behind the ears to make up for her foot being hurt. “There, there...” Miss Hardbroom patted Mildred till she felt thoroughly exhausted.
Finally she managed to tie the bandage’s ends and picked the cat up - luckily Mildred was to concerned about nursing her wound to try to fight or jump off. But it seemed as if her limp body grew more and more heavy by the minute...
Never in all her life had Miss Hardbroom felt a stronger longing for the decadent pleasures of a hot bath - right away - and once she would dive down into this blissful heat she probably would never leave the bathtub again!
Rain drizzling down from a tree right into the neck of her dress tore the reluctant teacher away from her daydream. She shook herself and went on, her usually energetic step somewhat slowed down by the dense thicket.
Soon her thoughts trailed off again... She could simply kill somebody in order to get a steaming cup of hot ginger tea... Her fingers curled up round an imaginary mug that would warm up her frozen hands... “Now SIT STILL, Mildred - you good-for-nothing cat!”
Miss Hardbroom sneezed again. Her non-spare handkerchief was as rainsoaked as everything else and the Academy was still quite some miles off...
At dusk they finally arrived at Cackle’s. Miss Hardbroom put the cat down and cautiously opened the door to the entrance hall and peered through the gap before she flung the door wide open and went in, Mildred limping close at her heels.
“Good - they all seem to be still at supper - I most certainly do not wish for anyone to run into us in this state - come on, Mildred!”
The teacher propped the broomstick bundle against the wall, picked the cat up again and made for the stairs. Unfortunately she had only reached the first step, when the door of Miss Cackle’s office opened suddenly. Glasses pushed up on her forehead, her feet tucked away into soft slippers, empty teacup in her hands, the headmistress stepped into the hall.
“Darn it,” muttered Miss Hardbroom, hastily trying to smooth back her hair and to put on her idea of a polite smile. “Good evening, headmistress!”
“Constance - thank Goodness - now where have you been for the past days? I’ve been out of my mind with worry...” Miss Cackle, rushing forward, stopped in her tracks at the sight of her usually extremely neat deputy head, her now dishevelled hair adorned with stray dead leaves, cobwebs and such, dulled by any amount of dust, her crumpled and stained dress ripped at the left shoulder and frayed at the hem, about every second button missing, her dirt-covered shoes...Miss Hardbroom looked thoroughly exhausted, dark shadows encircling her eyes, her features appearing even more sharp and bony than ever. Leaning against the banister, the teacher fondled a scruffy-looking black cat with a bandaged paw in her arms, absentmindedly stroking its head with a hand that was notably scratched, as Miss Cackle noticed. The form-mistress’ usually piercing look was dimmed to mere tiredness and there was a muddy stain on her cheek.
“For heaven’s sake - Constance, what’s happened to you?” Miss Cackle came running to her colleague’s side as Miss Hardbroom looked fit to faint. “ We’ve been looking for you everywhere...I was at my wits’ end - tonight I definitely would have informed the police to form a search party...Thought you might have had an accident - what with your ambitious style of flying and such... And all the time I had to worry about Mildred Hubble, too - her parents phoned the police every few minutes after we had to report them that she was missing...” Miss Cackle fluttered around like an owl suddenly exposed to daylight - agitated and not able to decide what she should do first...fetch an ambulance or send her deputy head straight off to bed - get some hot water bottles - or enquire about Mildred first... “Well, Mildred - but you had better come in first - sit down - have a cookie - about the Hubbles - now tell me, where HAVE you been?”
Miss Hardbroom’s smile was even more weary and lopsided than usual.
“That is quite a long story, headmistress...Would you mind providing us with some tunafish and some tea first? I’ve got some serious disenchanting business to do later on.”
Mildred, blissfully snoring away in time to her teacher’s heartbeat, pricked her ears at the sound of the word “Tunafish”...Gratefully she nudged her nose against Miss Hardbroom’s ribs and started to purr even louder...Life as a cat now surely was a heavenly thing ...
© Catherine, October 2000