My name is Anamaria, and I have a curse.
It’s a curse I’ve carried with me from the cradle. Apparently, an old witch from my hometown once warned my mom not to feed me wild carrots, and she didn’t listen. Wild carrots are famous for their magical properties, mom really should have known better than to ignore the warning from the witch. Oh well. The deed was done, and now I’m cursed.
What does that curse do, exactly? Well, it’s a little hard to explain. Essentially, it brings me bad luck. Whenever I try to do something that’s really important to me, I’m doomed to fail. So, for instance, when I tried to compete in the school’s swimming contest, after months of training, I just had to get leg cramps as soon as I was in the water. And when I applied for a prestigious school in the capital, I blanked out and couldn’t answer any of the questions on the exam. No matter what I tried to do, if it was important, I failed, usually in the most spectacular way possible. Fun, isn’t it?
At fourteen I lost my beloved dog. He just disappeared one day, didn’t show up since. Two days later, my mother got a terrible toothache. Then, on the following week, my brother fell off the stairs and broke his ankle. It appeared that just by being around me other people also got affected by my curse. Of course, after that terrible period, my parents decided that it was enough bad luck and scheduled me appointments with all kinds of doctors and witchcraft specialists. They all saw me, measured me, poked me in several ways, asked me lots of questions, submitted me to exams (which ranged from an x-ray to tea-leaf divination under the moonlight), and eventually told me, and my family, that there was nothing they could do for me. I was, in their own words, a lost cause.
So, as soon as I turned sixteen, after much arguing inside my house, my parents decided on sending me to a private school far from our hometown. It was a tough decision, financially in particular, since I could never get myself a scholarship (the curse wouldn’t allow it). At last, once that was settled, they dropped me off at the train station with nothing but a bag full of clothes and a backpack with whatever belongings I wanted to keep. I had mixed feelings about it. On one hand, that was a rather famous school, and I was really eager to go out there and meet new people (seriously, small towns like mine are a bore). On the other, I was perfectly aware that my parents were sending me away just to get rid of me, to get my curse away from their house. I understood their reasoning, really. I mean, just a couple of weeks ago, a part of the chapel ceiling came down as soon as I walked into the place. But, honestly, I didn’t ask to be cursed. They could at least treat me with a little more consideration, instead of dismissing me as an unsolvable problem.
Whatever. They were still my parents, I was not going to let myself resent them for that. And they were giving me the opportunity to study at a really interesting place, so I guess that, for once, I got a bit of luck. I hope it’s luck. Oh lord.
I found myself a seat inside the train, and placed my luggage on the rack above my head. Please, curse, don’t go dropping my bags on my head.
Then I glanced around at the other passengers. I didn’t know any of them, so they must be coming from other cities along the rail line. The wagon was really empty, which is unusual, really, since that train usually fills up once it stops in our town. But then I looked outside the window, and saw lots of townsfolk I knew with their suitcases in hand, backing away from the station. Many were looking right at me. Figures. My bad luck was famous around the place. I’m guessing none of them wanted to be in the same train as me.
Well, all the better. At least the train was empty, and I wouldn’t have to deal with all of those people I knew looking at me sideways and expecting a disaster to happen anytime soon. The passengers which were inside that wagon with me didn’t know me, had never heard of me, and wouldn’t judge me for being there with them.
That was another thing I was worried about. At first, I was really excited about going to a boarding school. Nobody knew me there, which means nobody knew about my curse. But then, I started hearing about some sons and daughters of folks from my hometown which were also studying there, and if my predictions were right, within a week of me arriving there about every other student in the place would have already heard of the curse. Which meant I would end up with no friends at school. Again. I should have known the curse wouldn’t let me get away with that.
Bother. As the train took to the fields, and I stared outside the window into the large expanses of land, I began to wonder if there was anywhere around the world I could go that my curse wouldn’t reach me. It would really be good to make a fresh start somewhere else. But none of the doctors and wizards I’ve been to before had managed to diagnose my curse. If they had had all this trouble just finding out what my “disease” was, it was probably too much wishful thinking to try and escape it.
I felt butterflies dancing in my stomach. I didn’t like that feeling. Stupid wild carrots.
At some point, as I stared at the countless hills outside which were just a bit too similar to one another, I fell asleep.
I awoke with a bump and a loud noise. The train was slowing down.
The view outside had changed from plains and small hills to marshes and woods. It was raining, and the raindrops patted outside the window I had been resting my face on.
The other passengers in the wagon were looking left and right, confused by the sudden stop. None of them knew what had caused it. I did, or, at least, I had one very strong hypothesis. Namely, it was my presence inside the train. The curse was working its mischief again.
After a couple of minutes, a large man in a brown uniform walked into our wagon.
“Good evening,” he said. “I’m your conductor, Mr. Smith. On behalf of the Royal Academy of Science’s Railway Company, I’d like to apologize for this interruption to your journey. It appears the tracks ahead of us have been blocked by a landslide,” mostly everyone grimaced or protested in dismay. I kept my mouth absolutely shut. Yep, that’s my curse’s doing, all right. But I’d be kicked out of the train and onto the marshes if anyone found out about it. Not good. The conductor, Mr. Smith, awaited for the commotion to die, and continued to talk: “So, in face of the present events, I’d like to ask every man and woman who can work a spell or handle a shovel to join the company’s team in removing the blockage. The more people volunteer to help, the faster our trip will be resumed. This is all. If you excuse me, I have to go inform the people in the other wagons.”
Saying that, he walked to the other side of the wagon, and exited through the metal door. I saw a number of people getting up from their seats and walking the other way, toward the doors that led outside. I remained in my seat. I had never worked a successful spell in my life, let alone handling a shovel, and I was fairly sure that my presence out there would only cause more problems. Nope, it would be best if I just sat still and waited, hoping my curse would be satisfied with the amount of damage it had already caused.
They were out there for hours. The sun, which had been high up in the sky back when the train had stopped, was now well in its way toward the horizon beyond the marshes. I was hungry, and there was no food in my bag and no vending machine in the train. I went to the bathroom, then walked outside into the marshes again, not letting go of the metal bar next to the door. Knowing my luck (or my lack thereof), that the train could start running again while I was on the marshes and leave me behind wasn’t something entirely outside the realm of possibility. When you’ve lived your whole life with a bad-luck curse plaguing you, you learned that it was better not to take any chances.
The air outside was cold, significantly colder than the air from my hometown. The train was going South, so I should have already expected the climate to grow colder along the way. The rain didn’t help much, either, though it was just a light drizzle and nothing like the summer downpours from back home.
“Nasty weather, isn’t it?” a woman’s voice called from beside me. I turned to look. Standing next to me in the marshes was a rather tall girl with freckles and red hair. Her skin was much paler than mine, from what I assumed she was from the South. If so, she was probably traveling toward her hometown, rather than away from it, like myself. The other thing I noticed was that she was wearing a very cute baby-blue dress, one which was now completely covered with mud and dirt. Also, she was smiling.
“Were you out there helping?” I asked her, and instantly regretted it. What kind of dumb question is that? Of course she was helping. There wasn’t any other explanation to the amount of mud on her clothes and body.
“Yeah!” she said, enthusiastically. “Although, to be honest, I’m beat. I’m really not cut out for physical labor, y’know.”
“Wait, you were digging? With a shovel and all?”
She nodded. I raised my eyebrows in surprise. She might have been taller than me, but she didn’t look much stronger, if at all. Not to mention she couldn’t have been much older than myself, either. I kept staring, amused, and I guess that must have embarrassed her. She looked away at the marshes.
“I’m a terrible witch,” she said. “My spells are all over the place. I can’t focus them to do what I want them to, so they always go around doing random stuff, completely out of control. They’re more like curses, really.” She began to laugh at that. I tried to smile, but it faltered. She noticed it, and stopped laughing. “Sorry. Something in that story bothered you?”
I shook my head. “It’s nothing,” I reassured her. “I can’t work any spells. They simply don’t react to me.”
“Well, isn’t that okay, though?” she said, leaning against the train, and looking straight into my eyes. “Not everyone has to be a witch. Some people are more talented doing other stuff, like cooking or medicine. Or architecture. Anything really. Unless… I mean, I’m sorry in advance if I say something offensive, but is your family the kind which has their child’s future all planned out in advance? Did they want you to be a prodigious witch or an oracle?”
“No, nothing of the sort,” I told her. “I guess it was just my own expectations… I really wanted to be a witch and…” and figure out how to take that curse off my back, but I wasn’t going to tell her that bit. “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter now. I’m going to Willow, I’m sure I’ll find something else that I want to do, there.”
“Willow? You mean the school?”
I nodded. “You’ve heard of it?”
She laughed again. “I’m a student. Have been one for the past three years, now. I’ve never seen you around the school grounds.”
That was surprising. But then again, it wasn’t. That train rode the only railway that passed by that school, I should have figured I’d find a few fellow students aboard. “It’s my first day,” I explained. “Or, well, it will be, if we ever get there. How’s it going with the landslide?”
“Could have been worse,” she told me. “They have about two-thirds of the land off the tracks now, so… maybe another hour or two, and we’ll be back on our way. Which, honestly, is a relief, because after all this workout I really need a bath.”
I giggled. “You don’t smell,” I told her.
“Don’t I?” she smelled herself. “Well, at least that’s one spell I got right.”
Oh, yeah. She was a witch. Of course she’d try and solve things like that with magic. I looked at her dirty clothes.
“Can’t you… I don’t know, magic yourself clean?”
She pondered about that for a moment. “I could, maybe,” she said, “but my guess is that it would take about a week and a lot of ingredients which I don’t usually carry with me, like frog tongues and bat spit. It’s a lot easier to just take a bath.”
“Can’t argue with you there,” I said, smirking.
“Say,” she walked closer to me, and extended a hand to offer me a handshake. “My name is Claire. What’s yours?”
“Anamaria,” I told her. “But where I’m from, people don’t greet each other with a handshake.”
“They don’t?” she asked, surprised. I shook my head.
“Back in my hometown, people kiss each other on the cheeks. It’s our way of saying hello.”
I saw her face turn red. Light-skinned people blush so easily, it seems.
“Well,” she said, awkwardly. “I guess we don’t have to–”
I walked up to her, and gently kissed her left cheek. That surprised her. I smiled.
“Nice to meet you, Claire.”