When Kate was twelve years old, she started to shrink.
Her parents didn’t notice for several months, until she stood against the kitchen doorpost and the crayon balanced on top of her head created a line that was an inch below the one from six months earlier. “Maybe we marked it wrong last time,” her mother said. “Maybe you were wearing shoes last time,” her father said, looking down at her sternly. “I think my feet are getting smaller,” Kate said.
A look was exchanged, and Kate was told to go put her shoes on, her mother specifying the pair they bought her when school started, that had fit perfectly. She put the scuffed white sneakers on and sure enough, when her mother bent over and pinched the toes of the shoes, there was room to spare.
They took her to the doctor the next day, who was not nearly as alarmed as they were. “It’s not unusual for girls her age to lose a few inches,” he told her parents as Kate sat on the examining table and tried not to move because every time she shifted the paper covering it crinkled and made a sound she didn’t like. “She might shrink a bit more, then start growing again in a year or so. Just keep track of her height, and bring her in for regular checkups. But this is hardly a cause for concern.” Kate had to tilt her head back to see the doctor’s wide mouth direct his next words at her. “After all, you wouldn’t want to be taller than the boys your age, would you?”
She wouldn’t, she thought, because last week she had read in one of her mother’s magazines an article called “Tips for Taller Girls” that was all about how to wear flats on dates and hunch just so, and that seemed like a lot of work just to get a boyfriend. So she nodded and her parents nodded and the doctor nodded. After they left the doctor’s office, her mother took her shoe shopping and the sales clerk cradled her foot in her hand and said “Oh, what cute little feet!” and Kate smiled.
At school the next day they went on a field trip to the zoo. Her teacher had requested three buses but only two arrived so she told everyone to “scooch together” and Kate found herself hovering in the aisle next to the seat where two of her classmates sat, two boys widely acknowledged as the cutest in the grade. “It’s okay, you can sit with us,” the one closer to her said with a smile, patting the cracked plastic next to him. “You’re small so you’ll fit perfectly.” She smiled back at him and sat down, relishing his boy smell, bar soap and grass, and the way her denim-clad knee occasionally brushed against his. And if she had to kind of balance on the edge with part of her thigh poking off the side, and if maybe she almost fell off the seat and onto the damp floor when the bus took a sharp turn, she didn’t mind because she was sitting next to a cute boy and he said she’d fit perfectly.
And if, once they got to the zoo, she stood in front of the giraffe enclosure and watched a giraffe strain its long neck to reach the greenest leaves of the tree outside the fence, and if she snatched one of the leaves from the air as it fluttered down, broken loose by the animal’s flat teeth, and then held it carefully against the chain link fence, reaching as high as she could so the giraffe didn’t have to bend too far, and if she smiled when she felt its velvet lips against her hand take the leaf from her and for a moment was filled with a strange sense of longing, well, it didn’t matter. Longing was also not unusual for girls her age.
Two years later, the shrinking had not stopped, and now Kate was the shortest girl in her grade. Sometimes a month would go by and she would stay nearly the same height, but then she would wake up the next morning and trip over the hem of her pajama pants hanging past her toes. Her parents were getting tired of buying her new shoes so she had taken to wearing three pairs of socks to keep her sneakers on.
She had been back to the doctor, several times, but he had just told her she needed to eat better and start exercising. Her parents had argued, her mother wanting to take her to other doctors and her father saying their insurance wouldn’t cover it. They compromised and took her to a second doctor, a family friend. After she was weighed, Kate sat in a room that smelled like rubbing alcohol, not moving so as to not crinkle the paper underneath her, and read a poster about checking your skin for moles while a nurse took her temperature and blood pressure. She bit her lip while the nurse stuck a needle in her arm and took her blood. The doctor came in and wrapped a measuring tape around each of her limbs and eventually said “Diet and exercise.” So she joined the girls at lunch who patted their pizza with napkins to get the grease off before eating it, and joined the field hockey team. She was slower than the other girls, with her shorter legs, but she liked the feel of the stick in her hands, liked putting all of her strength behind a swing, liked sitting in class and poking at the bruises that formed on her shins. But it didn’t make her grow.
A few months after she joined the team, Kate went shopping with some of her teammates for a dress for the homecoming dance. She wandered through the “petite” section, trailed her fingers through silky dresses and hoped that the one she picked out would still fit her in a few months. In the fitting room she tried on a pink dress with a high waist that was supposed to make her legs look longer. Her friend zipped her up, smiling at her. “You look so cute,” she said, and Kate automatically smiled back. The tallest girl among them, Lizzy, struggled with her zipper for a moment before another girl reached up and closed it. She sighed at her reflection. “Ugh, Kate, you look so much better than me. You look like a delicate fairy in that, and I’m the giant who accidentally crushes you with my giant man-feet.” They all rushed to reassure Lizzy that her feet weren’t really that big and that her dress looked great. Kate said, “You look like a fairy too” and Lizzy smiled and decided to get the dress.
In the shoe department, Kate tried to balance in four-inch heels while the other girls discussed who they wanted to dance with and how high of heels they could buy while staying shorter than their crushes. They carefully cat-walked around crumpled tissue paper to test out each pair of candy-colored shoes. “You’re so lucky, Kate, you can wear great heels and still dance with any boy,” Lizzy said, looking down wistfully at her pair of flats. Kate gave a twirl in her heels so that they all laughed, and told Lizzy the flats looked super chic.
And if, at the dance, Kate’s heels started to pinch, it was okay because they looked so stylish that the discomfort was worth it. And if maybe after dancing with three different boys of various heights, she looked at Lizzy and thought the tall girl didn’t look at all crowded despite the way the gym was packed with teenagers, and felt jealous that she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone tripping over her, and that how when a slow song came on and she just grabbed one of her friends to dance with it looked more fun than trying to reach the sweaty shoulders of a boy, if maybe Lizzy didn’t look at all delicate but in the dim light of the gym her long limbs looked graceful and beautiful, well, it didn’t matter. She was probably wrong anyway; it was not unusual for girls her age.
Kate turned sixteen, and the shrinking had not stopped. She took vitamins and ate vegetables and never had pizza, and got onto the varsity field hockey team but still she shrank. Her mother, who had long since given up on doctors, knocked on her bedroom door a few days after her birthday and said, “We’re going to see the town witch.” Kate put on month-old shoes with an extra pair of socks to keep them from slipping, and followed her mother to the car. She was too short to safely sit in the front seat, she had discovered a few months ago, not without an embarrassing booster-seat, so she sat in the back and watched her mother’s curls bounce as she spoke. “I read an article about how witches are coming back in style, so I did some research online, and read all these great testimonies, and I thought, well we have a town witch, so I called her yesterday and she said to come on in!” At a stoplight her mother turned around and smiled at her. “I know you don’t really mind being small, but I’m just concerned that you’re still shrinking. I don’t want you to shrink away to nothing.” Kate nodded, swinging her legs. “I know, Mom.”
Kate expected the witch to live in an old Victorian building with peeling paint and vines growing up the walls. Or in a cottage outside of town, in the middle of a forest. But her mother pulled into the driveway of a ranch-style house with beige siding, pink shutters, and a chain-link fence surrounding a tidy garden in the back. A tall middle-aged woman, her black hair streaked with ash gray, greeted them at the door with a wide smile and ushered them into a living room that heavily featured flowered upholstery. She told Kate’s mother to sit and shoved a brochure into her hands that read “Raising a Teenage Girl” in curling script, and brought Kate into the kitchen with her to help make tea.
“What kind of tea do you like?” she asked, and she didn’t have to get a stool to reach the top shelf where the teacups balanced. Kate shrugged, having only tried a few sips of her mother’s sweet iced tea. She stood in the corner of the cluttered kitchen, unsure of what to do with her hands. “Hmm. Well I just bought a new black tea we can try together,” the witch said, and handed her a blue tea kettle. “Fill this up, would you? What’s your favorite subject in school?” Kate stood on tiptoes to carefully move a leafy purple-ish plant that was sitting in a pot in the sink and started to fill the kettle. “Math,” she said, an answer that usually got a small smile and nod from adults. “Why’s that?” the witch asked, and Kate paused. She started to shrug, but was stopped by a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“No,” the witch said, “Think about it, because there’s no lying in my kitchen. Why do you like math?”
Kate thought about it. Thought about the satisfied feeling she got when she scratched lead against paper and everything added up perfectly, and everything just made sense. “I like solving puzzles,” she told the witch. The older woman smiled as she took the kettle from her. “Me too.” She placed it on the stove and turned to look at Kate. “So. Why do you want to stop shrinking?” This time Kate didn’t shrug. She thought for a moment before saying, “It’s really annoying that my clothes keep getting too big.” The witch laughed but then her eyes turned serious. “Would you like to grow?” Kate nodded quickly and the witch asked, “How tall?”
She wanted to say, “Tall enough to sit in the front seat” but she didn’t think the witch would be happy with that answer. She wanted to say, “Tall as a giraffe in the zoo” but that seemed silly. She wanted to say, “Just tall enough to be average” but standing in the witch’s kitchen, listening to the water begin to sizzle and inhaling the smell of jasmine that filled the room, she suddenly didn’t want to be average anything. She looked up at the witch and said, “I don’t know. But I want to take up space.” The kettle began to whistle just as the witch replied, “Well then, you’re going to have to start acting like it.”
Back in the living room with her mother and a cup of tea in hand, Kate listened as the witch said that dieting was nonsense and that Kate was a perfectly healthy girl, and if she liked chasing around a ball that was fine, but if she didn’t, she should quit immediately and take up knitting. “Sadly, the things doctors know about teenage girls could barely fill this teacup,” she said, lifting the cup towards the ceiling before taking a long sip. She told Kate’s mother that Kate was a bit like a flower, and all the best gardener’s knew you didn’t just water a flower and make sure it had sunlight, you also had to give a flower plenty of love and encouragement to grow. Her mother looked confused until the witch said, “And of course a good gardener like me has some magic fertilizer that will help out” and began to rummage through a cupboard until she found small green glass bottle. “A drop of this on your tongue before bed, and you should start growing in no time.” She handed the bottle to Kate’s mother and asked Kate to help her bring the dishes into the kitchen before they left.
After the door swung shut behind them, the witch turned to Kate and said, “That potion won’t do anything by itself. If you really want to stop shrinking, you’re going to have stop acting like you just want to disappear.” Kate started to reply but the witch’s eyes flashed and she shut her mouth. “You carry yourself as if you’d like nothing better than to melt into the floor. You’re shrinking because you want to. You have to stop wanting to be smaller.” Kate set her teacup down in the sink and sighed. “But how do I do that?” It was the witch’s turn to shrug. “It’s different for everyone. But here’s an exercise to start you off. When you walk through the mall, or to school, or through the halls, stop dodging out of people’s way. Just walk straight, and expect the other person to move. Once you can do that, give me a call and we’ll see how things are going. Okay?”
Kate’s mother talked all the way home about how strange but nice the witch was, how her house had a weird smell, and how much she hoped Kate would grow to a nice average height. And if Kate leaned forward and pressed her heels on the car floor and said, “I thought her house smelled really good”, and if her mother thought it was a little out of character for her to say “And I want to be tall, not just average”, and if she was surprised when they got home and Kate immediately left to go for a walk around the neighborhood, well, it didn’t matter. It was not unusual for girls Kate’s age to start behaving strangely.
Kate walked down the hall at school, the bodies around her making a seemingly-impenetrable wall. She tried to remember the witch’s words as she clutched her books to her chest and put one foot directly in front of the other. She kept her chin tilted up and tried her best to walk in a straight line. Students formed two lanes of walking traffic so she thought it would be easy enough just walk on her side without bumping into anyone. She was wrong. First she bumped into a boy who tried to pass the person in front of him by walking through her. He looked down at her, and for a moment she felt bad, maybe he hadn’t seen her, until he gave her a dirty look and rushed off. On the way to chemistry she bumped into a senior boy who walked right down the middle of the hallway and seemed to expect the underclassmen to part like the Red Sea. This time she hit the floor but the boy kept moving. Kate scowled but simply gathered her things, stood up, and continued on her straight path. By the third day of walking to class like this, she was actually getting to her classes faster, and less people were bumping into her. Her tailbone was bruised, as were her shoulders where elbows had dug in, but she liked these bruises in the same way she liked her field hockey bruises.
After a month of taking the potion and making people walk around her, Kate checked her height. It was the same as it had been a month ago. She yelled down the hall to tell her parents and her mother came to her room to give her a hug. “I’m going to give the witch a great review online,” she said, patting Kate’s head. “Make sure you keep taking that potion every night.” Kate said she would, and after her mother left she dialed the number on the business card the witch had slipped her. She could hear the witch’s smile after she told her the news. “Good job. Now, I want you to start telling people when they do something that upsets you.” Kate was confused, so she continued, “You don’t have to be rude about it. But if someone interrupts you, say ‘excuse me’ and finish your thought. If someone uses you as an armrest, tell them to stop. Stand up for yourself.”
Kate hung up the phone thinking of all the times she had bit her tongue and already felt tired. But the next morning at breakfast when her father started to talk over her, she said “Excuse me, I was talking” and finished her sentence. And when her friends started to nudge her towards the middle of the backseat, as was usual when they crowded into one car, she said, “I know my legs are the shortest, but could we switch it up this time?” and they did. And when a boy at a party told a joke that made her uncomfortable, she told him so. He looked a bit confused, but when she looked him in the eye and didn’t back down, he apologized. And soon two months had passed and she had gained an inch and two pounds.
She called the witch before she told her parents. “You’re doing very well,” the witch said after Kate had finished excitedly listing some of the things she had said in the past couple months. “Now I want you to do things you like. Things that make you feel strong, or smart, or powerful.” Kate considered this. “Like field hockey?” she asked. “Sure, like field hockey. Or math. The specifics aren’t important, just the feelings.”
So Kate hung up the phone and went into her backyard and whacked balls into the net her father had set up for her until her arms were sore. She came back inside and finished her math homework, and then for her English homework she wrote an essay about how she thought Lady Macbeth was the most interesting character in the whole play. The next day after school when her friends invited her out shopping, she almost said yes, but then remembered how trying on clothes tended to just make her feel like she was the wrong size, and not actually good at all, so she declined and went by herself to the park instead. She lay down on the grass and spread her limbs, imagining she was sinking into the soil. On the way home she remembered she had agreed to bake cookies for the team fundraiser, so after calling her mom to find out what she needed, she went to the grocery store by herself and picked up some more flour and eggs. After one batch of cookies, with batter on her nose and vanilla streaked across her arm, she discovered she liked baking. It was like math, in a way, and so she made three more batches of cookies just because it made her feel smart and useful and they tasted great. Besides, she was no longer dieting.
That weekend she invited her friends to go to the zoo with her, and when they all leaned together to take a picture in front of the giraffes, one friend said, “Hey, Kate, I think you’re getting taller.” Kate laughed and replied, “Yeah, I am, finally.” When her mother drove them home Kate sat in the front passenger seat and turned up the radio to sing along. She knew she didn’t have a great voice, but singing with her friends as loudly as she could made her feel strong. Or maybe not strong, exactly, but loud. Hard to ignore.
After she grew another inch, Kate stopped shrugging when people asked her for her opinion. She knew what she liked and she knew why she liked it. She stopped apologizing, for some things, for things she wasn’t really sorry about, like after she stated an opinion. She would call the witch every month or so with updates, but really it was just to chat, not for the witch to tell her what to do. She had figured out how to keep growing on her own. It was hard, but then, so was baking and math and gardening and field hockey and computer coding, but she had realized she was good at all of those things.
When Kate was sixteen, she started growing. She went backwards through her old clothes, wearing pants first from when she was fifteen, then fourteen, then she had to buy new pants because her waist was widening. Her mother had pursed her lips and suggested maybe Kate start dieting again, but Kate looked her in the eye and said, “That’s a rude thing to say.” She eventually outgrew the shoes that fit her before she started shrinking, and so she went to the store to buy two pairs of shoes, flats and heels. The saleswoman didn’t compliment her on how small and cute her feet were, but she didn’t mind. She liked her calloused, slightly larger than average feet.
And if her height made her stand out in a crowd, she didn’t mind because she liked standing out now, liked that her friends could easily find her. And if some boys didn’t want to go out with her just because she was taller than them, and if some girls said she could only wear flats and should make herself look smaller so she wasn’t so intimidating, they didn’t matter. And if maybe she wasn’t dainty or delicate or feminine in the way that every magazine and doctor suggested she should be, well, it didn’t matter. She deserved all of the space she took up.
“I like giants -- especially girl giants
‘cause all girls feel too big sometimes, regardless of their size"
-Kimya Dawson, “I Like Giants”
Genevieve Mills is a fiction writer who graduated from the University of Louisville with bachelor’s degrees in French and in English. Her work has appeared in Crab Fat Magazine, Unbroken Journal, Severine, Cat on a Leash Review, and Flyleaf Journal.