A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies20 min read


Alix E. Harrow
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by Alix E. Harrow  | Narrated by Lori Henry


You’d think it would make us happy when a kid checks out the same book a zillion times in a row, but actually it just keeps us up at night.

The Runaway Prince is one of those low-budget young adult fantasies from the mid-nineties, before J.K. Rowling arrived to tell everyone that magic was cool, printed on brittle yellow paper. It’s about a lonely boy who runs away and discovers a Magical Portal into another world where he has Medieval Adventures, but honestly there are so many typos most people give up before he even finds the portal.

Not this kid, though. He pulled it off the shelf and sat cross-legged in the juvenile fiction section with his grimy red backpack clutched to his chest. He didn’t move for hours. Other patrons were forced to double-back in the aisle, shooting suspicious, you-don’t-belong-here looks behind them as if wondering what a skinny black teenager was really up to while pretending to read a fantasy book. He ignored them.

The books above him rustled and quivered; that kind of attention flatters them.

He took The Runaway Prince home and renewed it twice online, at which point a gray pop-up box that looks like an emissary from 1995 tells you, “the renewal limit for this item has been reached.” You can almost feel the disapproving eyes of a librarian glaring at you through the screen.

(There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches).

Our late fee is twenty-five cents per day or a can of non-perishable food during the summer food drive. By the time the boy finally slid The Runaway Prince into the return slot, he owed $4.75. I didn’t have to swipe his card to know; any good librarian (of the second kind) ought to be able to tell you the exact dollar amount of a patron’s bill just by the angle of their shoulders.

“What’d you think?” I used my this-is-a-secret-between-us-pals voice, which works on teenagers about sixteen percent of the time.

He shrugged. It has a lower success rate with black teenagers, because this is the rural South and they aren’t stupid enough to trust thirty-something white ladies no matter how many tattoos we have.

“Didn’t finish it, huh?” I knew he’d finished it at least four times by the warm, well-oiled feel of the pages.

“Yeah, I did.” His eyes flicked up. They were smoke-colored and long-lashed, with an achy, faraway expression, as if he knew there was something gleaming and forbidden just beneath the dull surfaces of things that he could never quite touch. They were the kinds of eyes that had belonged to sorcerers or soothsayers, in different times. “The ending sucked.”

In the end, the Runaway Prince leaves Medieval Adventureland and closes the portal behind him before returning home to his family. It was supposed to be a happy ending.

Which kind of tells you all you need to know about this kid’s life, doesn’t it?

He left without checking anything else out.




He returned four days later, sloping past a bright blue display titled THIS SUMMER, DIVE INTO READING! (who knows where they were supposed to swim; Ulysses County’s lone public pool had been filled with cement in the sixties rather than desegregate).

Because I am a librarian of the second sort, I almost always know what kind of book a person wants. It’s like a very particular smell rising off them which is instantly recognizable as Murder mystery or Political biography or Something kind of trashy but ultimately life-affirming, preferably with lesbians.

I do my best to give people the books they need most. In grad school, they called it “ensuring readers have access to texts/materials that are engaging and emotionally rewarding,” and in my other kind of schooling, they called it “divining the unfilled spaces in their souls and filling them with stories and starshine,” but it comes to the same thing.

I don’t bother with the people who have call numbers scribbled on their palms and titles rattling around in their skulls like bingo cards. They don’t need me. And you really can’t do anything for the people who only read Award-Winning Literature, who wear elbow patches and equate the popularity of Twilight with the death of the American intellect; their hearts are too closed-up for the new or secret or undiscovered.

So, it’s only a certain kind of patron I pay attention to. The kind that let their eyes feather across the titles like trailing fingertips, heads cocked, with book-hunger rising off them like heatwaves from July pavement. The books bask in it, of course, even the really hopeless cases that haven’t been checked out since 1958 (there aren’t many of these; me and Agnes take turns carting home outdated astronomy textbooks that still think Pluto is a planet and cookbooks that call for lard, just to keep their spirits up). I choose one or two books and let their spines gleam and glimmer in the twilit stacks. People reach towards them without quite knowing why.

The boy with the red backpack wasn’t an experienced aisle-wanderer. He prowled, moving too quickly to read the titles, hands hanging empty and uncertain at his sides. The sewing and pattern books (646.2) noted that his jeans were unlaundered and too small, and the neck of his t-shirt was stained grayish-yellow. The cookbooks (641.5) diagnosed a diet of frozen waffles and gas-station pizza. They tssked to themselves.

I sat at the circulation desk, running returns beneath the blinky red scanner light, and breathed him in. I was expecting something like generic Arthurian retelling or maybe teen romance with sword-fighting, but instead I found a howling, clamoring mess of need.

He smelled of a thousand secret worlds, of rabbit-holes and hidden doorways and platforms nine-and-three-quarters, of Wonderland and Oz and Narnia, of anyplace-but-here. He smelled of yearning.

God save me from the yearners. The insatiable, the inconsolable, the ones who chafe and claw against the edges of the world. No book can save them.

(That’s a lie. There are Books potent enough to save any mortal soul: books of witchery, augury, alchemy; books with wand-wood in their spines and moon-dust on their pages; books older than stones and wily as dragons. We give people the books they need most, except when we don’t.)

I sent him a ’70s sword-and-sorcery series because it was total junk food and he needed fattening up, and because I hoped sixteen volumes might act as a sort of ballast and keep his keening soul from rising away into the ether. I let Le Guin shimmer at him, too, because he reminded me a bit of Ged (feral; full of longing).

I ignored The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, jostling importantly on its shelf; this was a kid who wanted to go through the wardrobe and never, ever come back.



Once you make it past book four of the Tavalarrian Chronicles, you’re committed at least through book fourteen when the true Sword of Tavalar is revealed and the young farm-boy ascends to his rightful throne. The boy with the red backpack showed up every week or so all summer for the next installment.

I snuck in a few others (all pretty old, all pretty white; our branch director is one of those pinch-lipped Baptists who thinks fantasy books teach kids about Devil worship, so roughly 90% of my collection requests are mysteriously denied): A Wrinkle in Time came back with the furtive, jammed-in-a-backpack scent that meant he liked it but thought it was too young for him; Watership Down was offended because he never got past the first ten pages, but I guess footnotes about rabbit-math aren’t for everyone; and The Golden Compass had the flashlight-smell of 3:00 a.m. on its final chapter and was unbearably smug about it. I’d just gotten an inter-library-loaned copy of Akata Witch—when he stopped coming.

Our display (GET READ-Y FOR SCHOOL!) was filled with SAT prep kits and over-sized yellow For Dummies books. Agnes had cut out blobby construction-paper leaves and taped them to the front doors. Lots of kids stop hanging around the library when school starts up, with all its clubs and teams.

I worried anyway. I could feel the Book I hadn’t given him like a wrong note or a missing tooth, a magnetic absence. Just when I was seriously considering calling Ulysses County High School with a made-up story about an un-returned CD, he came back.

For the first time, there was someone else with him: A squat white woman with a plastic name-tag and the kind of squarish perm you can only get in Southern beauty salons with faded glamor-shots in the windows. The boy trailed behind her looking thin and pressed, like a flower crushed between dictionary pages. I wondered how badly you had to fuck up to get assigned a school counselor after hours, until I read her name-tag: Department of Community-Based Services, Division of Protection and Permanency, Child Caseworker (II).

Oh. A foster kid.

The woman marched him through the nonfiction stacks (the travel guides sighed as she passed, muttering about overwork and recommending vacations to sunny, faraway beaches) and stopped in the 616s. “Here, why don’t we have a look at these?”

Predictable, sullen silence from the boy.

A person who works with foster kids sixty hours a week is unfazed by sullenness. She slid titles off the shelf and stacked them in the boy’s arms. “We talked about this, remember? We decided you might like to read something practical, something helpful?”

Dealing with Depression (616.81 WHI 1998). Beating the Blues: Five Steps to Feeling Normal Again! (616.822 TRE 2011). Chicken Soup for the Depressed Soul (616.9 CAN). The books greeted him in soothing, syrupy voices.

The boy stayed silent. “Look. I know you’d rather read about dragons and, uh, elves,” oh, Tolkien, you have so much to account for, “but sometimes we’ve got to face our problems head-on, rather than running away from them.”

What bullshit. I was in the back room running scratched DVDs through the disc repair machine, so the only person to hear me swear was Agnes. She gave me her patented over-the-glasses shame-on-you look which, when properly deployed, can reduce noisy patrons to piles of ash or pillars of salt (Agnes is a librarian of the second kind, too).

But seriously. Anyone could see that kid needed to run and keep running until he shed his own skin, until he clawed out of the choking darkness and unfurled his wings, precious and prisming in the light of some other world.

His caseworker was one of those people who say the word “escapism” as if it’s a moral failing, a regrettable hobby, a mental-health diagnosis. As if escape is not, in itself, one of the highest order of magics they’ll ever see in their miserable mortal lives, right up there with true love and prophetic dreams and fireflies blinking in synchrony on a June evening.

The boy and his keeper were winding back through the aisles toward the front desk. The boy’s shoulders were curled inward, as if he chafed against invisible walls on either side.

As he passed the juvenile fiction section, a cheap paperback flung itself off the return cart and thudded into his kneecap. He picked it up and rubbed his thumb softly over the title. The Runaway Prince purred at him.

He smiled. I thanked the library cart, silently.

There was a long, familiar sigh behind me. I turned to see Agnes watching me from the circulation desk, aquamarine nails tapping the cover of a Grisham novel, eyes crimped with pity. Oh honey, not another one, they said.

I turned back to my stack of DVDs, unsmiling, thinking things like what do you know about it and this one is different and oh shit.



The boy returned at ten-thirty on a Tuesday morning. It’s official library policy to report truants to the high school, because the school board felt we were becoming “a haven for unsupervised and illicit teenage activity.” I happen to think that’s exactly what libraries should aspire to be, and suggested we get it engraved on a plaque for the front door, but then I was asked to be serious or leave the proceedings, and anyway we’re supposed to report kids who skip school to play League of Legends on our computers or skulk in the graphic novel section.

I watched the boy prowling the shelves—muscles strung wire-tight over his bones, soul writhing and clawing like a caged creature—and did not reach for the phone. Agnes, still wearing her oh honey expression, declined to reprimand me.

I sent him home with The Count of Monte Cristo, partly because it requires your full attention and a flow chart to keep track of the plot and the kid needed distracting, but mostly because of what Edmund says on the second-to-last page: “… all human wisdom is summed up in these two words,—‘Wait and hope.’”

But people can’t keep waiting and hoping forever.

They fracture, they unravel, they crack open; they do something desperate and stupid and then you see their high school senior photo printed in the Ulysses Gazette, grainy and oversized, and you spend the next five years thinking: if only I’d given her the right book.





Every librarian has Books she never lends to anyone.

I’m not talking about first editions of Alice in Wonderland or Dutch translations of Winnie-the-Pooh; I’m talking about Books so powerful and potent, so full of susurrating seduction, that only librarians of the second sort even know they exist.

Each of us has her own system for keeping them hidden. The most venerable libraries (the ones with oak paneling and vaulted ceilings and Beauty and the Beast-style ladders) have secret rooms behind fireplaces or bookcases, which you can only enter by tugging on a certain title on the shelf. Sainte-Geneviève in Paris is supposed to have vast catacombs beneath it guarded by librarians so ancient and desiccated they’ve become human-shaped books, paper-skinned and ink-blooded. In Timbuktu, I heard they hired wizard-smiths to make great wrought-iron gates that only permit passage to the pure of heart.

In the Maysville branch of the Ulysses County Library system, we have a locked roll-top desk in the Special Collections room with a sign on it that says, “This is an Antique! Please Ask for Assistance.”

We only have a dozen or so Books, anyhow, and god knows where they came from or how they ended up here. A Witch’s Guide to Seeking Righteous Vengeance, with its slender steel pages and arsenic ink. A Witch’s Guide to Falling in Love for the First Time, for Readers at Every Stage of Life!, which smells like starlight and the summer you were seventeen. A Witch’s Guide to Uncanny Baking contains over thirty full-color photographs to ensorcell your friends and afflict your adversaries. A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies has no words in it at all, but only pages and pages of maps: hand-drawn Middle Earth knock-offs with unpronounceable names; medieval tapestry-maps showing tiny ships sailing off the edge of the world; topographical maps of Machu Picchu; 1970s Rand McNally street maps of Istanbul.

It’s my job to keep Books like this out of the hands of desperate high-school kids with red backpacks. Our school-mistresses called it “preserving the hallowed and hidden arts of our foremothers from mundane eyes.” Our professors called it “conserving rare/historic texts.”

Both of them mean the same thing: We give people the books they need, except when we don’t. Except when they need them most.

He racked up $1.50 on The Count of Monte Cristo and returned it with saltwater splotches on the final pages. They weren’t my-favorite-character-died tears or the-book-is-over tears. They were bitter, acidic, anise-scented: tears of jealousy. He was jealous that the Count and Haydée sailed away from their world and out into the blue unknown. That they escaped.

I panicked and weighed him down with the first three Harry Potters, because they don’t really get good until Sirius and Lupin show up, and because they’re about a neglected, lonely kid who gets a letter from another world and disappears.



Agnes always does the “we will be closing in ten minutes” announcement because something in her voice implies that anybody still in the library in nine minutes and fifty seconds will be harvested for organ donations, and even the most stationary patrons amble towards the exit.

The kid with the red backpack was hovering in the oversize print section (gossipy, aging books, bored since the advent of e-readers with changeable font sizes) when Agnes’s voice came through the speakers. He went very still, teetering the way a person does when they’re about to do something really dumb, then dove beneath a reading desk and pulled his dark hoodie over his head. The oversize books gave scintillated squeals.

It was my turn to close, so Agnes left right at nine. By 9:15 I was standing at the door with my NPR tote on my shoulder and my keys in my hand. Hesitating.

It is very, extremely, absolutely against the rules to lock up for the night with a patron still inside, especially when that patron is a minor of questionable emotional health. It’s big trouble both in the conventional sense (phone calls from panicked guardians, police searches, charges of criminal neglect) and in the other sense (libraries at night are noisier places than they are during the daylight hours).

I’m not a natural rule-follower. I roll through stop signs, I swear in public, I lie on online personality tests so I get the answers I want (Hermione, Arya Stark, Jo March). But I’m a very good librarian of either kind, and good librarians follow the rules. Even when they don’t want to.

That’s what Agnes told me five years ago, when I first started at Maysville.

This girl had started showing up on Sunday afternoons: ponytailed, cute, but wearing one of those knee-length denim skirts that scream “mandatory virginity pledge.” I’d been feeding her a steady diet of subversion (Orwell, Bradbury, Butler), and was about to hit her with A Handmaid’s Tale when she suddenly lost interest in fiction. She drifted through the stacks, face gone white and empty as a blank page, navy skirt swishing against her knees.

It wasn’t until she reached the 618s that I understood. The maternity and childbirth section trilled saccharine congratulations. She touched one finger to the spine of What to Expect When You’re Expecting (618.2 EIS) with an expression of dawning, swallowing horror, and left without checking anything out.

For the next nine weeks, I sent her stories of bravery and boldness, defying-your-parents stories and empowered-women-resisting-authority stories. I abandoned subtlety entirely and slid Planned Parenthood pamphlets into her book bag, even though the nearest clinic is six hours away and only open twice a week, but found them jammed frantically in the bathroom trash.

But I never gave her what she really needed: A Witch’s Guide to Undoing What Has Been Done: A Guilt-Free Approach to Life’s Inevitable Accidents. A leather-bound tome filled with delicate mechanical drawings of clocks, which smelled of regret and yesterday mornings. I’d left it locked in the roll-top desk, whispering and tick-tocking to itself.

Look, there are good reasons we don’t lend out Books like that. Our mistresses used to scare us with stories of mortals run amok: people who used Books to steal or kill or break hearts; who performed miracles and founded religions; who hated us, afterward, and spent a tiresome few centuries burning us at stakes.

If I were caught handing out Books, I’d be renounced, reviled, stripped of my title. They’d burn my library card in the eternal mauve flames of our sisterhood and write my crimes in ash and blood in The Book of Perfidy. They’d ban me from every library for eternity, and what’s a librarian without her books? What would I be, cut off from the orderly world of words and their readers, from the peaceful Ouroboran cycle of story-telling and story-eating? There were rumors of rogue librarians—madwomen who chose to live outside the library system in the howling chaos of unwritten words and untold stories—but none of us envied them.

The last time I’d seen the ponytailed girl her denim skirt was fastened with a rubber band looped through the buttonhole. She’d smelled of desperation, like someone whose wait-and-hoping had run dry.

Four days later, her picture was in the paper and the article was blurring and un-blurring in my vision (accidental poisoning, viewing from 2:00-3:30 at Zimmerman & Holmes, direct your donations to Maysville Baptist Ministries). Agnes had patted my hand and said, “I know, honey, I know. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do.” It was a kind lie.

I still have the newspaper clipping in my desk drawer, as a memorial or reminder or warning.

The boy with the red backpack was sweating beneath the reading desk. He smelled of desperation, just like she had.

Should I call the Child Protective Services hotline? Make awkward small-talk until his crummy caseworker collected him? Hey, kid, I was once a lonely teenager in a backwater shithole, too! Or should I let him run away, even if running away was only hiding in the library overnight?

I teetered, the way you do when you’re about to do something really dumb.

The locked thunked into place. I walked across the parking lot breathing the caramel-and-frost smell of October, hoping—almost praying, if witches were into that—that it would be enough.


I opened half an hour early, angling to beat Agnes to the phone and delete the “Have you seen this unaccompanied minor?” voicemails before she could hear them. There was an automated message from somebody trying to sell us a security system, three calls from community members asking when we open because apparently it’s physically impossible to Google it, and a volunteer calling in sick.

There were no messages about the boy. Fucking Ulysses County foster system.

He emerged at 9:45, when he could blend in with the growing numbers of other patrons. He looked rumpled and ill-fitting, like a visitor from another planet who hadn’t quite figured out human body language. Or like a kid who’s spent a night in the stacks, listening to furtive missives from a thousand different worlds and wishing he could disappear into any one of them.

I was so busy trying not to cry and ignoring the Book now calling to the boy from the roll-top desk that I scanned his card and handed him back his book without realizing what it was: The Runaway Prince.




The overdue notices go out on the fifteenth day an item has been checked out. On the sixteenth day, I pulled up the boy’s account and glared at the terse red font (OVERDUE ITEM: J FIC GEO 1994) until the screen began to crackle and smoke faintly and Agnes gave me a hold-it-together-woman look.

He hadn’t even bothered to renew it.

My sense of The Runaway Prince had grown faint and blurred with distance, as if I were looking at it through an unfocused telescope, but it was still a book from my library and thus still in my domain. (All you people who never returned books to their high school libraries, or who bought stolen books off Amazon with call numbers taped to their spines? We see you). It reported only the faintest second-hand scent of the boy: futility, resignation, and a tarry, oozing smell like yearning that had died and begun to fossilize.

He was alive, but probably not for much longer. I don’t just mean physical suicide; those of us who can see soulstuff know there are lots of ways to die without anybody noticing. Have you ever seen those stupid TV specials where they rescue animals from some third-rate horror show of a circus in Las Vegas, and when they finally open the cages the lions just sit there, dead-eyed, because they’ve forgotten what it is to want anything? To desire, to yearn, to be filled with the terrible, golden hunger of being alive?

But there was nothing I could do. Except wait and hope.

Our volunteers were doing the weekly movie showing in Media Room #2, so I was stuck re-shelving. It wasn’t until I was actually in the F DAC-FEN aisle, holding our dog-eared copy of The Count of Monte Cristo in my hand, that I realized Edmund Dantès was absolutely, one-hundred-percent full of shit.

If Edmund had taken his own advice, he would’ve sat in his jail cell waiting and hoping for forty years while the Count de Morcerf and Villefort and the rest of them stayed rich and happy. The real moral of The Count of Monte Cristo was surely something more like: If you screw someone over, be prepared for a vengeful mastermind to fuck up your life twenty years later. Or maybe it was: If you want justice and goodness to prevail in this world, you have to fight for it tooth and nail. And it will be hard, and costly, and probably illegal. You will have to break the rules.

I pressed my head to the cold metal of the shelf and closed my eyes. If that boy ever comes back into my library, I swear to Clio and Calliope I will do my most holy duty.

I will give him the book he needs most.



He came back to say goodbye, I think. He slid The Runaway Prince into the return slot then drifted through the aisles with his red backpack hanging off one shoulder, fingertips not-quite brushing the shelves, eyes on the floor. They hardly seemed sorcerous at all, now; merely sad and old and smoke-colored.

He was passing through the travel and tourism section when he saw it: A heavy, clothbound book jammed right between The Practical Nomad (910.4 HAS) and By Plane, Train, or Foot: A Guide for the Aspiring Globe-Trotter (910.51). It had no call number, but the title was stamped in swirly gold lettering on the spine: A Witch’s Guide to Escape.

I felt the hollow thud-thudding of his heart, the pain of resurrected hope. He reached towards the book and the book reached back towards him, because books need to be read quite as much as we need to read them, and it had been a very long time since this particular book had been out of the roll-top desk in the Special Collections room.

Dark fingers touched green-dyed cloth, and it was like two sundered halves of some broken thing finally reuniting, like a lost key finally turning in its lock. Every book in the library rustled in unison, sighing at the sacred wholeness of reader and book.

Agnes was in the rows of computers, explaining our thirty-minute policy to a new patron. She broke off mid-sentence and looked up towards the 900s, nostrils flared. Then, with an expression halfway between accusation and disbelief, she turned to look at me.

I met her eyes—and it isn’t easy to meet Agnes’s eyes when she’s angry, believe me—and smiled.

When they drag me before the mistresses and burn my card and demand to know, in tones of mournful recrimination, how I could have abandoned the vows of our order, I’ll say: Hey, you abandoned them first, ladies. Somewhere along the line, you forgot our first and purest purpose: to give patrons the books they need most. And oh, how they need. How they will always need.

I wondered, with a kind of detached trepidation, how rogue librarians spent their time, and whether they had clubs or societies, and what it was like to encounter feral stories untamed by narrative and unbound by books. And then I wondered where our Books came from in the first place, and who wrote them.


There was a sudden, imperceptible rushing, as if a wild wind had whipped through the stacks without disturbing a single page. Several people looked up uneasily from their screens.

A Witch’s Guide to Escape lay abandoned on the carpet, open to a map of some foreign fey country drawn in sepia ink. A red backpack sat beside it.

  • Alix E. Harrow

    A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is now a full-time writer living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral kids. She is the author of Hugo Award-winning short fiction, and her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.

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