Cooking always got Millie into trouble. Once she’d been thinking about pumpkin tarts and turned her mother’s cauldron into a pumpkin. Which exploded. Another time she’d turned their entire supply of elephant eggs into quiche. But chocolate — chocolate was the worst.
“Ludmilla!” her mother snapped. “Are you paying attention?”
Millie blinked and looked up at her mother across the bubbling cauldron. Millie’s mother, Bogdana, had horrible, tangled black hair, warty greenish skin, and long, bony fingers. A tall, velvety black witch’s hat crowned her head. “Yes, M-mother,” Millie said.
“Very well,” Bogdana continued. “The eye of newt. Just a pinch, delicately, as I showed you.”
Maybe this time, Millie thought, trying not to get her hopes up. Maybe, maybe this time it will work. Carefully, she took some newts’ eyes from a bowl. They were dried and crunchy, crumbling under her fingertips.
Her mother spotted this. “No, no! Delicately! The eyes must be whole when you put them in the brew!” Bogdana frowned, glaring down her crooked nose at Millie. “Throw those away and try again.”
Millie tossed the eyes in the wastebasket. Like a pinch of salt to season chocolate sauce, she thought to herself. Millie tried again, and this time she managed to pick up the eyes without crushing them.
Bogdana nodded. “Good, good! Now, into the brew! Carefully! And remember the incantation!”
Millie concentrated, her stomach clenching. She couldn’t stutter, not now. “Muutu sammakoksi,” Millie chanted out the phrase of High Mystery. Please, she thought. Please let it work this time. Just this once. She took a deep breath and sprinkled the eyes gently into the bubbling pot. The potion hissed, steamed, and turned a thick, muddy brown. The scent of chocolate filled the room.
“Chocolate! Chocolate!” screeched Bogdana, her cheeks flushing a darker shade of green. “This is supposed to be a transformation potion! How can you expect to properly curse your enemies if you can’t turn them into frogs?”
Millie stared at her shoes. “I’m sorry, M-m-mother.” But she was thinking, If only I had some nice orange peel to go in that chocolate.
“I should think you’re sorry,” Bogdana said. “You are the most pathetic excuse for a witch I have ever known. You are eleven years old, and you cannot master even the most basic spells and potions.” Her mother began to pace the room. “Why, when I was your age, I could not only ride a broom but enchant one myself. I enchanted my hat at seven years old, and I’d started brewing my own potions at six…”
Here we go again, Millie thought, huddling into herself. She’d heard the When-I-Was-Your-Age speech so many times now, she had it memorized. In about five seconds, Bogdana would switch to the You’re-a-Disgrace-to-the-Coven speech.
“Look at your cousin Cretacia! She can induce warts on an unwary subject from fifty paces away! You’re a disgrace to the Coven.”
“Y-yes, M-mother,” Millie mumbled. “S-s-sorry, M-mother. I’ll t-try to do better.”
“Oh, get out of my sight,” Bogdana spat. “Go and make dinner, since that seems to be all you’re good at. And when the cauldron has cooled, you can scrub it out.”
Gratefully, Millie scurried out of her mother’s basement workshop and headed up the stairs. She’s right, Millie thought. Cooking is the one thing I’m good at. Why can’t I just do that?
The worn wooden stairs creaked under Millie’s feet. The entire staircase tilted slightly to the left, so Millie ran her fingers along the wall to help keep her balance, skipping over the curled edges of the dark gray wallpaper, avoiding the occasional mold stain.
Millie hopped over a broken step to the first floor landing and stepped into her warm, tidy kitchen with its enormous cast iron stove and bundled herbs hanging from the ceiling beams. Of all the rooms in the house, this one Millie kept neat and tidy. When she’d taken over all cooking duty at the age of eight, Millie had whitewashed the walls until they gleamed.
Sunlight streamed through the window over the sink. On one wall, a cupboard held jars and pots labeled “Ginger” and “Star Anise” and “Cardamom,” so different from her mother’s collection of eye of newt, dried salamander sweat, dragon’s toenails, and crushed wyvern bone. On the opposite wall, a rack held all of Millie’s pots and pans and mixing bowls.
A sudden chill made Millie shiver as Horace, their house ghost, glided into the kitchen through the pantry door. “I smell chocolate, Millie,” he said in his hollow voice. “Are you baking a cake? Can I have a slice?” His misty form passed easily through the kitchen table, ghostly chains clanking as he moved.
Millie sniffed. The scent of chocolate had wafted up from the basement. “No, that’s my f-frog potion.”
Horace rattled a chain mournfully. “Oh, dear. I’m sure your mother wasn’t happy with that.”
“No.” Millie shoved her hands deep into her apron pockets. “What’s wr-r-rong with me, Horace? Why can’t I use magic?”
The ghost’s cloudy face turned dark with sadness. “I wish I knew, Millie. I’d teach you if I could, but I was never a magician, even when I was alive,” Horace told her. “Now, hadn’t you better get dinner started before your mother comes up from the workroom?”
“Oh, darkness!” Millie exclaimed. “I’ll roast some t-toads. They always put M-mother in a better mood.”
Horace sidled up to her, giving her goosebumps. “And could you make something chocolate? Cookies, perhaps? Please?”
“I think I’ve had about enough of chocolate today,” Millie replied.
Horace moaned, rattling her pans. “Come on, Millie. Please?”
“Chocolate always gets me in t-t-trouble,” Millie told him. “How about oatmeal raisin?” Those were her half-brother Max’s favorites. Or at least they used to be. Millie hadn’t seen him in about five years, ever since Bogdana had a big fight with Max’s father. She wondered whether she could send him a batch somehow.
Horace rolled himself into a seething ball of grey mist. “I want chocolate.” He pinged around the room, banging into pots and jars, raining dried herbs on Millie’s head.
“Oatmeal raisin or nothing at all,” Millie said firmly.
Horace came over and hovered just inches from Millie’s nose. “Fine, whatever,” he said, then soared off and, with an extra loud rattling of chains, swooped back through the pantry door.
Millie sighed and opened the firebox on the stove. She stirred the embers left from lunchtime and tossed in two more split logs, then pulled down a shiny copper pan and two mixing bowls from her rack. She rummaged through the root bin and selected some nice plump rutabagas, carrots, onions, beets, potatoes, and parsnips. She washed the vegetables in the sink, peeled them, and chopped them up, her knife beating a steady rhythm on the cutting board. Then she tossed them clattering into a bowl with some sunflower oil, salt, a touch of honey, and some chopped sage and thyme.
Millie relaxed. She loved blending the ingredients just so, finding the right balance between savory and sweet. Each vegetable had its own unique flavor — the hearty starch of the potato, the sharp bite of the rutabaga, the hidden sweetness of the beet. Together, they made something more, something better. Something delicious.
Millie turned to the pan and made the mistake of looking at her reflection. Suddenly, all her delight in cooking vanished.
I look nothing like Mother, Millie thought. She had long, straight yellow hair, unappealing as straw and almost impossible to tangle. Her eyes were the same shade of brown as the chocolate potion she’d just ruined. Her skin was pinkish, not even slightly olive, and depressingly free of blemishes. Despite her best efforts, she had yet to grow a single wart anywhere. Worst of all, she had dimples when she smiled, so Millie tried her best not to smile, ever. She sighed. I look terrible. I should go put mud in my hair again to please Mother.
Instead, Millie spread her vegetables evenly in the pan and added two fat toads basted with melted butter and rosemary. She put the pan on a high rack in the oven to roast. Then she pulled out one of her favorite cookbooks. Simple Pleasures had been a birthday gift from her mother last year. It was a neatly bound yellow volume, its title in large red letters rimmed with gold. It was written in English, rather than Canto, the most common language used in the Enchanted Forest, but Millie understood it pretty well, though she still wasn’t sure what a microwave was.
The publishers had thoughtfully attached two red ribbons to the binding as bookmarks, to which Millie had tied half-a-dozen additional ribbons of different colors. She opened the book at the light blue ribbon, which marked the cookie recipes, and quickly found the oatmeal cookies. She took down the jars of raisins and oatmeal from their shelves. She measured and sifted and poured and stirred up the cookies, spooned them onto their pan, and set it in the oven on the lowest rack, below the sizzling vegetables.
Delicious smells wafted through the house. After a few minutes, Millie heard footsteps on the staircase. Bogdana came in, setting the cooled cauldron and its too-sweet contents beside the sink. “You can scrub this out after dinner.” Bogdana sniffed the air. “Well,” she said slowly, “that does smell good. Fresh toads?”
“Yes, M-mother,” Millie said.
“Did you rub them on your hands first?”
“And cookies?” her mother asked.
“O-o-oatmeal raisin. For H-horace.”
“That ghost likes his sweets too much. He’s getting fat,” Bogdana snorted. “Well, I’ll be in the dining room. Make sure the dishes are dirty.”
“Yes, M-mother,” Millie said.
As Millie smudged the dishes with a prune paste she’d made for this purpose, a knock sounded at the front door. Millie rushed over to open it. A young pixie girl stood at the door, no more than six inches tall, with blue skin and green hair, dressed in day lily petals. Powerful wards, shields of magic that surrounded Millie’s house, kept the pixie from entering, and they also kept Millie from leaving. Millie could feel the faint tingle of them in the doorway as she smiled down at the pixie.
“Oh, hi, Petunia,” Millie said. “Is your father’s gout acting up again?”
“Yup, his foot’s swollen up near as big as me,” Petunia reported.
“Darkness, that sounds bad,” Millie told her. “I’ll go get M-mother.”
But Bogdana had come into the parlor behind Millie. “Gout again?” she said. “Your father needs to lay off the bacon and the tipple.” Bogdana rummaged in the potions cabinet and brought out a large bottle and a tiny vial. Cautiously, she poured a tiny amount of the potion into the vial, then put stoppers in both.
“This will do the trick,” Bogdana told the pixie girl. “It may cause a little stomach upset, so have your father take it with food, just a drop, twice per day. He should also drink lots of water and eat plenty of fruit, especially cherries. If his gout hasn’t cleared up by Foursday, come back here for another dose.” She handed the vial to the pixie girl, who took it awkwardly, since it was half her height. Petunia nearly dropped the vial as she made a curtsy. “Thank you!” she said. “See you later, Millie.” Petunia dashed away.
Bogdana swept into the dining room. “Irritating pixies. As if I don’t have better things to do than cure every little ache and pain of theirs. Really.” Hastily, Millie served dinner.
They ate in silence, except for an occasional contented Mmmmm… from Bogdana as she munched on her roasted toad and vegetables. Millie pretended not to notice. Finally, her mother sat back, wiped her hands carefully on her dress, and said, “Well, are you ready for the Coven meeting this evening?”
Millie’s stomach flipped. “I… I forgot. Is it r-r-really C-coven tonight?”
Bogdana rolled her eyes. “Full moon, you useless child. Of course it’s Coven night.”
“D-d-do I have enough time to make another batch of cookies?”
“Oh, must you?” Bogdana said. “It’s bad enough that you’re so far behind on spellcraft. Do you have to flaunt your obsession with food, too?”
“Everyone w-will expect them,” Millie pointed out. “I’ll put pecans in them for Baba Luci. You know how she loves pecans.”
Bogdana sighed. “Oh, very well. You have half an hour.”
Millie started toward the kitchen, then stopped short when a loud croak erupted from the kitchen floor. “Breckkk! Millie! What have you done to me?” said the apparition.
“D-d-darkness!” she cried. “It’s the g-g-ghost of those t-toads we just ate!”
Bogdana hurried into the kitchen after her. “That’s a frog, not a toad,” she said.
“It’s me, Horace,” said the ghost miserably. “Breeek! The chocolate sauce in the cauldron smelled so good, I couldn’t resist just a taste. And then… then I turned into this! Breeek! Breckkk!”
Bogdana threw her hands into the air. “Ludmilla Octavia Noctmartis! See what you’ve done now.”
“I’m s-sorry,” Millie said, cringing. “I should have filled the c-c-cauldron with water to soak. I d-didn’t think he’d eat any.”
Bogdana turned to the ghost. “Horace, you idiot,” she yelled. “You should know better than to go tasting Ludmilla’s potions.”
“Potions aren’t supposed to work on ghosts,” Horace croaked. “How was I to know?”
Bogdana turned to Millie. “All right, this is your disaster. You fix him.”
“H-how?” Millie stammered. “We d-didn’t even finish the p-p-potion.”
“Well, you can try the traditional method. Give him a kiss.”
“What?” cried Millie and Horace together.
Bogdana folded her arms. “True, you’re no princess. But as you said, the potion was unfinished, so it may not matter. Go on then, kiss him.”
Millie knelt on the floor. She leaned forward, lips puckered, and tried to kiss Horace. Her lips went right through him and bumped gently on the floor. Nothing happened. “I’m s-s-sorry, Horace,” she said, feeling humiliated.
“Oh, what will I do?” Horace wailed. “How can I rattle my chains or scare off intruders like this? You’ve got to change me back!”
“Darkness, what a mess,” Bogdana swore. “Horace, you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow. I have to prepare for the Coven meeting, and Millie has baking to do.”
Horace glared at Millie. “This is all your fault.” And he sank through the floor to sulk in the basement.
September 25, 2016 release date. Available for pre-order in April. Contact us for review copies. Want updates on A Witch’s Kitchen? Sign up on the form below!
She wanted adventure. She got a demon and a dying world…
Millie’s a witch. So why can’t she do magic?
When you can’t remember most of your life, you’d better be prepared for anything. A middle grade fantasy adventure!
Our first collection of science fiction stories for middle grade readers. Come check it out!
Readers asked for the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide to be a series. We’re happy to oblige!