The Beginning of the Story
Once, there was a little town sandwiched between a deep forest and gentle grassy hills. The town was built on an easy southward slope, its roofs the color of dark slices of toast all in a row. Clustered in the center of town, near the train station, were the town hall, the police station, the fire station, and the school. It was a normal town, one you could find anywhere.
But if you paid close attention, you’d find things you wouldn’t usually see.
For instance, silver bells hung from the tops of tall trees. Even when it wasn’t storming, these bells sometimes made a racket with their ringing. Then the townspeople would turn to each other and smile, saying, “Little Kiki must have gotten caught again.”
But how could someone so “little” ring the bells in the treetops? Well, if you looked to the east and peeked into Kiki’s home, you’d find the answer.
On a gate pillar facing the road hung a sign that read sneeze medicine, right next to a big green gate that sat wide open. Beyond the gate was a large garden, and a single-story house. The garden grew herbs in neat rows with broad leaves and pointy leaves--all different kinds--and a pungent scent filled the area. The smell continued into the house and was strongest around the copper pot in the kitchen. From there you’d have a perfect view of the front living room wall. Instead of paintings or family photographs as you’d expect, two brooms made of bundled branches hung there, a big one and a little one. And from the living room you could hear the family’s voices as they gathered for tea.
“Kiki, when are you planning to leave?” said a woman’s voice, full of disapproval. “I think it’s about time you let us know. You can’t keep putting it off like this.”
“That again?” A girl spoke now, somewhat annoyed. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m your daughter, after all. I am a witch. I’m thinking about it.”
“How about leaving it up to Kiki, dear,” a calm man interjected. “Until she decides for herself, you can prod all you want, but it won’t make a difference.”
“Yes, you might be right.” The woman’s voice rose slightly. “I’m just anxious. I feel responsible, you know?”
In this house lived a family of witches. Well, Kokiri, the mother, came from a long line of witches, and Okino, the father, was human. As a folklorist, he studied legends and tales about spirits and magic. Kiki was their only child, soon to turn thirteen.
The three were talking over tea about Kiki’s coming-of-age day. When daughters of witches and humans reached the age of ten, they decided whether to follow tradition and live as witches themselves. If a girl picked this path, she promptly learned her mother’s magic and chose a full moon night of her thirteenth year as her coming-of-age day. For a young witch, this meant leaving her parents’ house and moving to live on her own in a town or village in need of magic. Of course, finding a witchless town on her own is a difficult thing for a little girl to do. But over the years, witches’ powers had grown weaker and their numbers had dropped. Such important tradition helped them survive, as well as share the existence of witches with as many towns, villages, and people as possible.
At age ten, Kiki had decided to become a witch and learn Kokiri’s magic right away. Kokiri had two magic abilities. The first was growing herbs to make sneeze medicine, and the second was flying through the sky on a broom.
Kiki quickly got the hang of flying. But as she grew older, she often found herself distracted by all sorts of things--for example, the big pimples that started appearing on the side of her nose, or deciding which dress she should wear to her friend’s birthday party.
Whenever that happened, her broom would suddenly start to fall. One time she was so busy thinking about the itchy new underwear she was wearing that she ran into a power line! Her broom broke into pieces, and Kiki herself ended up with bumps on her nose and both kneecaps.
Soon after, Kokiri tied bells to the tall trees of the forest. If Kiki was lost in thought and flying too low, her feet would ring the bells and the sound would bring her back to reality. Fortunately, they were ringing much less than they used to.
Meanwhile there was the sneeze-medicine-making, but Kiki didn’t seem to be cut out for it. She was impatient and found it difficult to grow the herbs, finely chop the leaves and roots, and slowly simmer them.
“Will another type of magic disappear?” Kokiri lamented. In the olden days, witches could use all sorts of magic. But over the years, one type after another disappeared until even a genuine witch like Kokiri was left with only two abilities. Now her daughter hated one of them, so it was no wonder she was upset.
“But it feels so much better to fly through the sky than stir a pot.” Kiki didn’t see what the issue was.
At these times, Okino would try to cheer Kokiri up. “Well, we can’t force it. Maybe someday lost magic will be relearned. Plus, she has her black cat, doesn’t she?”
Witches have long been accompanied by black cats. One could say that’s another type of magic, too. When a witch has a baby girl, she searches for a black cat born around the same time and raises them together. As they grow, the cat and the girl learn to speak to each other in their own language. Kokiri used to have a cat named Mémé, and Kiki had one, too--a little black cat named Jiji. By the time the girl came of age, the cat would be a precious companion, and someone to turn to during good times and bad. Eventually the girl would grow up and find a new companion to take the place of her cat. The cat would find its own partner, too, and from then on, the pair would live separately.
Kiki Comes of Age
After tea, Kokiri and Okino went out to run errands while Kiki and Jiji sat dreamily at the garden’s edge.
“I guess I should leave soon,” Kiki said.
“You should. You’re not going to decide you don’t want to be a witch this late in the game, are you?” Jiji asked, looking up at her.
“Oh, of course not.” Then, the memory and thrill of her first time flying on a broom came rushing back.
For most of her life, Kiki was brought up more or less like any normal girl. She knew that her mother was a witch and that she would have to decide for herself one day whether she wanted to be one, too. Still, she never gave the decision serious thought. But a little while after she turned ten, she heard a friend of hers say, “I’m going to follow in my mom’s footsteps and become a hairdresser.” Kiki had a vague sense that Kokiri wanted her to follow in her footsteps, but she didn’t wish to become a witch simply because of her mother.
I’m going to be whatever I want, Kiki thought. I’m going to decide for myself.
One day, Kokiri fashioned her daughter a little broom and asked, “Want to try flying?”
“Me? I can fly?”
“You’re the daughter of a witch, so I should think so.”
She could tell her mother was trying to lure her into taking up the family tradition, but it was a rare chance, so she agreed to learn the basics. Following Kokiri, she shyly mounted her broom and kicked off the ground.
Instantly, her body grew light--she was floating!
“I’m flying!” she shouted in spite of herself.
She was only about ten feet above the rooftop, but it felt incredible. The sky even seemed a little bluer. And on top of that, a curiosity welled up inside her, lifting both her heart and body. I want to go higher--higher and higher. I wonder what I’ll be able to see. What’s it like up there? I need to know more.
It was love at first flight. So of course, she decided to become a witch.
“It’s in your blood,” Kokiri said with delight, but Kiki told herself, No, it’s not just that. I decided for myself.
Suddenly Kiki jumped up from the grass. “Hey, Jiji, let’s go check on my project. Just for a minute since Mom isn’t here.” She jerked her chin toward the shed in the corner of the garden.
“Why are you keeping it a secret from Kokiri, anyway?” Jiji moaned.
“’Cause she makes such a big deal out of anything to do with coming of age. And she always has to have her say, which makes everything more complicated than it needs to be.”
“Well, I understand that. Anyhow, you need to make sure it gets lots of sun so it can properly dry out.”
“Only a little.”
“Okay, but don’t bring it to bed again. If you sleep with it, it’ll get moldy like last time.”
“I know, I know. I need you to help me out, though. Pretty soon it’ll be just us two.”
As she spoke, she waded deftly through the waist-high herbs and angled her body into the space between the shed and the fence. Then, she let out a happy yelp. “Look!”
A long, thin broom hung from the eaves of the shed. It gleamed in the westering sun.
“If it’s this beautiful, I think it’ll be okay,” she squealed.
“Yeah, it seems like the drying process went well this time.” Jiji looked up at her, wide-eyed. “Hey, Kiki, why don’t you try flying? The weather’s nice.”
“I can’t do that.” Kiki shook her head. “I’m not using it until the day I leave. It’ll be here soon. I want everything to be brand-new--my clothes, my shoes, and my broom, too. I want to be reborn. I’m sure Mom’ll say, ‘You’re from a long line of witches, so you need to value the old.’ But I’m me. I’m a new witch.”
“So how am I supposed to make myself new?” Jiji pouted, his whiskers bristling.
“You’re fine. I’ll brush your fur till it shines. You’ll be all fresh.”
“Hmph.” Jiji sniffed. “Fresh cat? Don’t talk about it like you’re going to cook me. You’re not the only one coming of age, you know.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Kiki held back a laugh and looked into Jiji’s eyes. “I wonder how it will feel to leave.”
“I bet you’ll cry.”
“Ugh, no I won’t.”
“By the way, when are you finally planning to do it?” Jiji looked up at her again.
“Seems like we’re ready, so we can leave pretty much any time. Want to make it the next night with a full moon?”
“What? The next one?”
“Yeah, in five more days. Doesn’t it feel good to do something right when you decide?”
“This is going to be so much drama, as usual.”
“I’ll tell Mom and Dad tonight. I wonder what kind of town we’ll end up in, Jiji.” Kiki looked into the distance with a new, grown-up gleam in her eye.
“I don’t know. I’m a bit worried, to be honest--since you’re so quick with your decisions.”
“Oh, I’m not worried at all. We can worry about things once they happen. Right now, I’m excited. It’s like opening a present,” she said breathlessly, and poked the broom. It swung back and forth as if it were nodding to her.
After dinner that evening, Kiki stood with Jiji before Kokiri and Okino. “You don’t need to worry. I’ve decided when I’m going.”
Kokiri leaped out of her chair. “Well! Really? When will it be?”
“The next night with a full moon.”
Kokiri ran her eyes over the calendar on the wall, bewildered. “What? But that’s only five days away. You should wait until the next one.”
Kiki frowned and scrunched her shoulders. “See, there you go again! You get mad if I dillydally, but then you complain when I actually decide.”
“She’s right, dear. It’s not quite fair,” said Okino.
“Sure, but there’s so much to get ready. It’s a lot of work for a mother, too!” Flustered, Kokiri turned red.
Kiki leaned in to her face, shook her hips, and sang, “Believe in your daughter! Believe! I’m already ready. Right, Jiji?”
He twitched his tail in reply.
“What?” Kokiri’s jaw dropped, and she lowered her eyes. “What do you mean, you’re ready? What did you do?”
“I made a new broom. Jiji helped. Hold on, I’ll go get it.” Kiki opened the door and raced outside.
“Here it is!” She was back in no time, showing Kokiri and Okino the broom she’d hidden by the shed.
“Oh, nicely done.” Okino smiled.
“I soaked willow branches in the river and then left them in the sun. I did a good job, right, Mom?” Kiki swung the broom to show it off.
Kokiri slowly shook her head. “It’s a beautiful broom, but you can’t use it.”
“Why not? I don’t want to use that little broom I’ve had until now. Flying is the only thing I can do, so I at least want to fly on a nice new broom.”
“If flying is the only thing you can do, doesn’t that make your broom that much more important? What will you do if you have trouble flying on something you’ve never ridden before? Your start is critical. Coming of age isn’t so easy.” Kokiri shook her head again and continued. “We can only give you a little money, enough to eat for a year if you really keep your expenses down. After that, a witch has to survive on her magic. During this year, you need to figure out how to make a living--like how I make myself useful to the townspeople by making medicine. Go with my broom. It’s broken in, and you already know how to fly with it.”
“Aw, I don’t want to. It’s all dirty and black, like it’s been used to clean a chimney! And the handle is so thick and heavy. It’s clunky. Don’t you think, Jiji?”
Jiji watched from near her feet and let out an exaggerated purr.
“See, Jiji agrees with me. He says a black cat riding that broom will get mistaken for a rain cloud, but on a willow broom, he’ll look like a prince in a glass carriage.”
“I don’t know what to do with the two of you!” Kokiri exclaimed. “You’re still a child, aren’t you? Brooms aren’t toys, you know. At some point my broom will get too old, and then you can use whatever you like. By then I’m sure you’ll be a full-fledged witch.” Kokiri suddenly closed her eyes, as if she was trying to think of something.
Copyright © 2020 by Eiko Kadono. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.