To Bettina it was like some wonderful, terrible dream, and she could hardly believe it was happening. Ms. Clarke from the the Department of Secrecy and Obfuscation (Bettina like the word ‘obfuscation’ with all its round a flowing sounds - it looked like the way it was spelled and what it meant and she had used it whenever possible over the past few years) had been in her life for five years (ever since she had made the book start reading themselves to her because her mother was too busy) so she knew magic was real, but today was the day. Today she started at the Laveau Academy.
She reached one small hand underneath the dark purple folds of her robes and touched the letter that was carefully folded in the pocket of her slacks. It was the Letter. Her Letter. Written in an elegant emerald ink on real vellum and signed by the headmistress herself: Lady Dimon. She must have read it a hundred times, so technically she knew what she was supposed to do, even if she couldn’t quite believe it. The instructions were quite clear: wait at the gates of the Old Belle Cemetery until midnight and then find the oldest tomb in the westernmost corner and…
Bettina shook her head, trying to think about it as a creeping fog coiled up her ankles. She had assumed Ms. Clark would be coming within her, but the old witch had only levitated her trunk out of the car, given her a brief hug, and wished her luck before driving off. She couldn’t even call her parents, and the nearest gas station was several miles away. The Letter had assured her she would be perfectly safe, but peering through the wrought iron gates she could only remember the ghost stories surrounding the cemetery, and the shapes of the hunched tombstones and and weird shadows in the mist were making her nervous.
“Hello!” A bright voice said suddenly from behind her, making her jump and shriek in surprise.
Behind her was a boy, probably around her own age and looking at her quizzically. He had a round, dark face, with curly hair. Beneath his purple robes was a slightly stocky body, and a small chest wobbled behind him on four stout, strong legs, “Sorry!” he said, just as brightly, “I didn’t mean to scare you. Laveau Academy? I’m Bart. Bart Whittle.” He held out a pudgy hand.
“Uh…yes. Hello.” she said, taking it tentatively, “I’m Bettina. Bettina Wells. Sorry. I didn’t realize anyone else was coming.”
“Oh yes. But just us I think. My family lives in Adams county. You’re from around here?” she nodded and started to respond but Bart kept talking, “Cool! First year? I am too. My sister, Lucy, graduated last fall from Laveau, but its my first year too. My father is a Laveau alum. My mother went to Salem. Did you get your chalk?” He produced a length of white chalk from a pocket in his robe.
“Er…yes. I did.” she fished around and held it up, and his smile broadened.
“Great!” he turned to the gate, “I wonder if this is a test?” he asked absent-mindedly, reaching out to touch the metal, “It’s almost midnight you know.”
Bettina blinked, “A test? We’re being tested?” she asked, feeling slightly panicky.
“Oh yeah. Dad says everything at the academy is a test, all the time. I wonder if it starts now…” he drew a length of wood from inside a sleeve, “But I don’t think we can use magic until we get to campus…and I never learned an opening charm that would work on iron like this. Do you know one?”
“No.” Bettina said, but drew her own wand from her pocket. It was 11.5 inches long and made of cyprus wood with a sea-serpent spine at its core. She still remembered how it had produced bubbles when she’d picked it up the first time, “I…I don’t really know much magic yet.”
“Oh! Are you muggleborn?” he peered at her, “My mother was muggleborn. Grandmother was very upset. Calls me a blight on the family honor. She says my existence is an insult to all good and decent wizardkind.”
“That’s terrible!” Bettina said, appaled. Ms. Clarke had warned her about purism, but…
“Oh, its okay. She’s a terrible old bat, but she cares really. She turned my cousin Sterling into a goat when he tried to hex me last christmas. She says I may be filth but I’m still family and you take care of family. What was that?”
Bettina was so mesmerized by the boy’s story she hadn’t even noticed the faint, distant tolling of church bells, but now she heard it clearly and frowned. The nearest church was miles away, but this thought vanished as she watched the wrought iron shake a little and then swung quietly inward, the old chain uncoiling like a clanking snake. The pair looked through the gate.
“The oldest tomb, right?” asked Bart, “Northwest corner?”
“Yes.” the girl replied, looking cautiously around, “Do…do you think its safe?”
“Oh yes! My mother counseled the Weeping Widow that haunts this place last fall. She’s actually quite nice, she just died in mourning. You know how it is.” he held out his wand and stepped through the gate.
“Your…mother counseled a ghost?” Bettina asked, following him and holding out her own wand even though she couldn’t do much more than shoot sparks from the end.
“Oh yes. She works for the Spirit Division of the Board of Intranational Magical Peoples. The IMP Board. You know?” he waited for he nod and then kept walking, “She’s a ghost whisperer…” he continued in this vein for several minutes as they walked through the cemetery,and Bettina marveled at his apparent need to talk consistently without stopping to breathe. She wondered if it was a magic talent, like her ability to make books read themselves, but either way it was soothing and made her forget her fear for a little while, and eventually they found themselves at the crumbling tomb.
“Alright,” Bart said, making his wand vanish up his robe again and drawing the chalk, “Ready?”
Bettina nodded and drew her own, and together they dashed three harsh “X’s” onto the side of the tomb and signed their name before stepping back. They stepped back and Bart drew a single piece of paper from inside his robes, “Want to go first?”
“Uh…no. You go first.” She said nervously. This was the part she was dreading, and her hands trembled a little bit as she drew her own scrap of paper out.
Bart smiled, “Ok! See you on the other side!” He knelt and slid his paper beneath the door and stepped back again. A moment passed and suddenly the crypt doors swung open. To Bettina it looked like an empty mausoleum,but Bart’s smile vanished into an awestruck look and he stepped forward into the shadows, “Oh coo-” and he was gone and the doors closed.
Bettina swallowed nervously and looked down at her the blank paper in her hands.
“Once you’ve made your honors to our founder and told her your name, you must make an offering for the gate to open,” the letter had said, “Write what you want. Not whatever you want, not some passing whim, dear student: speak your heart’s desire. Tell our founder what you want truly desire…the thing you will pursue while you are in the halls of her school. Write it down and send it to her and come to find your destiny.”
Bettina thought about it, eyes wide in the moonlight. She thought about Ms. Clarke and the strange way her handbag seemed to hold whatever the needed. She thought about the real magic shops she been to in New Orleans, and the queer old men and women and their enchanted fetishes dancing on the end of silver chains. She thought about Bart’s chest and its little, wobbly legs and the way he’d vanished…and then she drew her pen from her pocked and smoothed the paper on the tomb’s cold face.
I want to understand, she wrote.
She folded the paper and slid it beneath the door, waiting in terror against the possibility of a wrong answer. Somewhere in the cemetery a woman sobbed quietly, and an owl hooted.
The door swung open. Inside was no empty shell of stone, but another graveyard. An old man smoked a strange, black cigarette just on the other side, leaning on a long wooden staff. In the distance she could see Bart walking towards the open gates and the manor house that seemed to hover over the dark waters beyond them. The man had golden eyes and a little smile and he waved her to come through, “Aye, Ms. Wells. We’re expecting you…come on! The feast starts soon.”
Bettina stepped through, and the door shut behind her.