Days like these were the best flying days -- right after finishing a heavy delivery, her broom seemed lighter. Jumpy, with its own energy that she couldn't quite clamp down on, but she didn't even want to clamp down on it. She let it spring and bob up and down along the seaside, with the sunlight sparkling on the small crests of the waves, and then dart back into town. Kiki looped once around the clock tower and then sailed above the streets. From up high, they were a sea of hats and hair and fashionable head scarves, and now and then a face that turned up to the sky and waved or smiled.
And then she spotted the shaggy red-brown ponytail that she thought she recognized, but if that was Ursula she would have looked up, at least, wouldn't she? Already Kiki was starting to spin out worries in her head, but Jiji made a quiet mrow sound and she looked again -- and this time she noticed the things she hadn't noticed before, the droop in Ursula's shoulders and the load that she was carrying. As she dropped lower she saw two big painted canvases that Ursula was carrying awkwardly under her arm, and a few little ones she had strapped to her back.
This didn't look like the Ursula who was happiest tramping through tall grass in her bare legs with a backpack weighing her down, or sitting in a patch of sunlight in the forest sketching the outlines of a deer in the moment before it noticed her and spooked. For one thing, she was wearing a dress. And patent leather shoes with heels, not high ones, but high enough to make her long, loping strides into heavy and awkward steps.
Ursula didn't look up until Kiki's shoes tapped down onto the cobblestones of the street.
"Kiki!" she said, and right away she started to put a smile on her face, but Kiki knew a real smile from a trying-too-hard one.
And Kiki thought of when she'd lost her flying, and Ursula hadn't pressed her or needled her. She'd just asked her to come and stay.
"Can I help you with those?"
Ursula was quiet for a moment, and her face tensed up, and then she nodded, not trying to smile this time. "Yeah. You can help me with those."
Kiki took the two big canvases and hung them up on her broom by the wires. They were heavy, and awkward, but she'd had a lot of practice in these last few months, and she'd made a new broom with good strong wood and everything her mother had taught her. She understood how it would hold the weight.
"I don't mind taking the little ones myself," Ursula said. She was still a little bent over, under the weight of them, but Kiki knew how close her broom was already to dodging and squirming all over.
"One more." Kiki took one little painting from the carrying contraption on Ursula's back and stuck it into the basket at the front of her broom. She jumped up with the broom, testing the weight and the handling -- it protested and sagged a little, but it was nothing she couldn't manage.
"Are you all right like that all the way back home?"
"Oh," Ursula said. And then, "I guess I didn't really want to go home just yet." A small pause, and then she added, "I guess I was hoping not to be taking quite so many paintings back home."
"Come on." Kiki coaxed her broom up into the air, just high enough that her feet were in no danger of whacking against the heads of the people on the sidewalk, and floated off slowly in the direction of the bakery. Ursula took a few halting steps after her, then scooped the shoes off her feet and started running, barefoot, with her shoes in one hand and the paintings on her back clattering together.
Ursula ran up just a moment after Kiki landed outside the bakery. They stood there at the little wall looking out over the city, the white walls and rust-colored roofs, and the trees turning to yellows and oranges. "Let's just sit here a bit," Ursula said, leaning against the wall. "There isn't any point in hauling these paintings up to your room and hauling them down again."
She said it as a practical suggestion, but it came out as something more than that -- "There isn't any point," underlined with a bit of bitterness, and regret.
"It's fine," Kiki said, trying to smooth it over. "I'll go and bring us out some coffee."
"I guess there wasn't any point in me coming here," she said. And she set her face hard, because she had absolutely no intention of crying, she was not going to have any tears yanked out of her, but -- you could read the sheer amount of trying on her face.
Ursula turned away from her, to the wall, to the city. "I started art school," she said. "It was a few years ago. I lived art, I breathed art, and -- well, I wasn't much good at anything else, so it was a bit of a relief that I could forget about math and spelling and just do art. And I never expected how much of it wasn't just doing art. It was talking about your art the right way. It was knowing what was acceptable to draw and what wasn't. It was having the right clothes and the right friends. And -- I don't mean I was better than that, because I wasn't. I tried really hard and I was good enough at it, for a while. But without even realizing it, I wandered far, far away from the thing that the compass in my heart was pointing towards."
"I remember you told me, once. About when you were blocked, and couldn't paint."
"That's it, exactly. Every time I tried putting my brush down, I kept thinking, this isn't the real me. This is all just fake. I tried as hard as I could to find the real me again, but -- she'd gone into hiding. After a while I couldn't face my teachers, or my friends, or even my parents. So I ran away to the little cabin in the woods that my dad used to visit when he wanted to hunt with his friends." Ursula laughed, almost to herself. "I didn't have any plan for after that. I barely knew how to chop firewood or what to do about food. But after a while, I started noticing the way the birds moved, or the way the trees grew, and getting curious. And I started figuring out how to make art, just for myself, not for all of the voices swirling around in my head telling me how to be good or how to be popular."
"You really thought about that kind of stuff, Ursula?"
"It's just -- when I first met you, it seemed like you were so confident. It seemed like you'd never care what anybody else thought of you. I was so scared of people making fun of me, and being snobby, and I wished I could be like you."
"Well," Ursula said softly, "I'll admit I've had some practice. But practice doesn't always count for as much as you hope. You can believe in making art for yourself, and still think, things would be a lot easier for me this month if I could sell a couple of paintings." She didn't quite manage to laugh at herself this time, but she lifted the corners of her mouth, and shrugged her shoulders dramatically. "So I had an appointment at the big gallery in town and they didn't want any of my paintings. It's not a big deal. But I was hoping, that's all."
"They're wrong!" Kiki said with conviction, not knowing what else to say. "Maybe I don't know anything about art, but if they can't see the spirit that's in your paintings, then they don't know anything about art either."
"Who knows anything about art?" Ursula smiled faintly. "You follow the compass in your heart and you jump. That's all."
Just then, the bell on the bakery door rang and Osono came out, carrying a tray laden with two mugs and some croissants. "I hope I'm not interrupting, but you girls look like you could use some coffee."
"Thank you!" Kiki said, carefully taking the tray.
Osono paused, then crouched down to look at the canvases piled against the wall. "In town to sell some paintings, were you?"
"I hoped so," Ursula said. "Today wasn't the day for it, though."
"Well, not like that," she said. She took the largest paintings first and propped them up against the base of the wall, and then arranged the smaller paintings on either side. Kiki drew in a breath -- surprised, more than she'd expected, by how striking they looked, with their rich colors and the beauty of the pattern of brush strokes. "Now all you need is a sign -- Art Fair, One Day Only, something like that."
Kiki felt suddenly troubled. "Osono," she said in a small voice, "Won't it just make it worse, if she doesn't sell anything?"
"Don't worry about it, Kiki," Ursula said. "I won't even think of it as trying to sell my paintings. I'll just think of it as drinking coffee with you."
Osono gave her a wink. "We entrepreneurs can't be shy about making ourselves heard, you know."
Kiki couldn't help but think of her first weeks in business, when she was so unsure of herself that she would be astonished and grateful at every paying customer. It was hard, learning to value your own work. Learning to ask for what you were worth.
They drank their coffee and talked about everything -- Ursula's adventures with a moose skeleton, the party Kiki had been to with Tombo -- but every time someone came up the hill, or out of the bakery, Ursula stood a little straighter and smiled a little brighter, and edged out of the way so that people could read the hand-lettered sign: Art Fair, One Day Only.
And then, there was Madame, walking with her cane -- and that snobby granddaughter of hers!
"An art fair?" she said, leaning closer. "Oh, my goodness."
"Grandma, you aren't going to buy a painting from some person off the street, are you? It's embarrassing!"
Madame answered without losing any of the calm and sweetness from her voice. "You might not be going to that fancy private school of yours, if I hadn't long ago made a habit of buying paintings from -- as you say -- some person off the street."
The girl's eyes opened wide and the corners of her mouth tightened, but she said nothing. And as Madame examined the large lovely painting that seemed to vibrate with the deep colors of the forest, Kiki caught the girl looking, too, and the look on her face softened.
"This would be perfect in the guest room," Madame said. "Unless --"
The girl looked glumly at the cobblestones.
"You're getting old enough that you should have some real art in your room, not just those posters of that musician."
"I love him, and I am going to marry him, and I am keeping those posters! Forever!" And then she looked away and said, "I guess there's enough room for a painting there too."
A moment later they had settled on a price, and Madame was trying to get the large painting settled among the other things she was bringing home that day.
"Don't worry about it, ma'am! I'll take care of the delivery!" Kiki said, smiling.
After that, Tombo swung by on his bicycle, and returned with half the aviation club, pooling together their club dues for the little painting of the geese flying in formation, for their club-house; and Ursula sold another painting to a couple of newly-weds who started teasing each other about how bare the walls were in their new little apartment. But the sun started to go down, and the bakery grew busy with people rushing home loaves of bread to their family dinners, burdened with unhappy toddlers or crying babies, and no one had a glance to spare to the two girls standing outside in the dying light.
"I'm really happy about today," Ursula said, taking another sip of lukewarm coffee. "It isn't just that I sold a couple of paintings. Though I'm happy about that, of course. It's knowing that art is bigger than --" She waved her hand vaguely. "It's bigger than all the people up there making decisions on if you're good or bad, if you're in or out. And it's bigger than something just for yourself."
Kiki nodded. "It's this small thing that winds its way through the whole town. It's a bright line of string that connects you to all these other people, leaving a little trace even after they've forgotten about you. At least, that's the way I feel about flying."
And they grinned at each other, being purely happy for a while about the smell of the cinnamon bread from the bakery, and the crisp sharp smell of autumn air, and the way the autumn leaves looked in the last of the daylight.
That's when Urula turned her head to the sound of shoes thumping fast on cobblestones, and her body tightened up. A young man was running toward them. Tall, with olive skin, and dark hair that stuck out like dandelion fluff. "I'm not too late, am I?"
"I -- guess not?" Ursula looked at him sideways. "I saw you at the art gallery, right?"
He nodded, catching his breath. "Yeah. I mean, I'm just a receptionist. If it were up to me, they would've picked your paintings. But art world politics --"
Ursula laughed. "I know more than I need to about art world politics!"
"I don't even have the kind of money to buy one of your paintings. I just thought I wanted to get another look at them before you took them back to wherever you came from."
"It's just the forest out past the town. It's not that far. And hey, who knows? You can get an end-of-the-day discount, and --"
The young man dug his pockets. He looked full of despair.
"And I'll take barter. I've got a few two-person jobs up at the cabin that I really should take care of before winter sets in."
"I'll throw in dinner!" He smiled broadly as he held out the meager bundle of bills and coins and pocket lint.
After he had strolled off bearing a painting and a jaunty swing in his step, Kiki turned back to Ursula. "You shouldn't undersell yourself, you know. You're a really good artist."
She shook her head. "That wasn't me underselling myself. That was the cute-guy-volunteering-to-make-me-dinner discount."
Bashful, Kiki covered her mouth with her hand as they both laughed.
"I'd best get going, if I want to be back home before it gets too late."
"And you've just got one painting left," Kiki said. "Can you manage that all right? I could fly it over to your house, if you want."
She shook her head. "There's one discount better than the cute-guy-volunteering-to-make-me-dinner discount," she said. "And that's the good-friend-pulling-me-out-of-self-pity discount."
One moment, while Kiki tried to digest this, and then Ursula rushed in to add, "I mean, if you want it. No sense in having something on your walls that you don't like, just to be friendly."
"No," Kiki said. "I mean, yes. I mean --"
The one painting that remained was the one she'd been so sure would get snatched up right away. It was more abstract than her others, and she couldn't quite be sure whether the figure in the painting was a person or an animal or something else entirely, but when she looked at it she felt sure that it contained some kind of special, secret knowledge.
"I mean, thank you!" she said at last.
It was a painting that spent half a dozen years in a drafty little room over a bakery, and half a dozen more in the first apartment Kiki signed a proper contract with a proper landlord for. Twice it traveled across the ocean; once it had to be reframed after a house fire that didn't touch the painting, thanks to last-minute witch magic, but singed the frame.
Many years later, one of Kiki's granddaughters came by with a boy she was dating, an art student from the university. He dashed over to the painting after barely saying hello to Kiki. "This looks like a -- oh, gosh, that's her signature! This is authentic, isn't it? You realize how much this is worth?"
Kiki, solemnly making coffee while a black cat twisted its way around her legs, replied, "And I wouldn't sell it for the world."