“Mornings come and they come every day.
After a while, you might think them ordinary; but they are never that.
They are always new, each one, and each one is so beautiful, so glorious, and each one has a name.
Each one has a song, and each one has somewhere, a someone who would stand and look up into the sky, and forget the night that lay before, and realise they are alive.
This is always so; and it is always a blessing, if only we would know that.”
These were the first words he spoke to me, and I’m not sure if he spoke them to me or if he just spoke them, but I’ve always remembered, and since then, each dawn and morning have been a ceremony for me as well, whether I might be fast asleep and parts of me were dreaming, or whether I would sit and huddle in exhaustion after a night that was too long, too hard to bear, and there would come the time when the light had come again.
I was scared and lonely.
I was so unsure of myself, and full of pain.
I knew that I was so wrong, inside and out, but I didn’t know what I could do to make any of me better, make any of it better.
I thought that if I was to study magic, that would bring me sweet release; it would make me powerful and end my fears, and most of all, give me a clarity, a way to see and a way to be that would be different, and better, from all of what there was my daily hell.
It was a long time until I found the courage, or perhaps until I got so desperate that there seemed to be no other way to go; but finally, I somehow made my way to a place where there lived a magician, in the hope that he would take me in and teach me something.
By that time I was old. I was old and I wasn’t as strong as I used to be. Burdens that once I could carry with ease now ground me down and made me weep with exhaustion. And the fear that swirled about me day by day was now no longer kept at bay with rushing here and there for I grew tired far too soon, but my mind wasn’t tired, and it would race and run from one regret to another disappointment.
I was old. I didn’t think that the magician would even look at me twice. What good was I now? Perhaps if I’d had the courage to have gone before, when I was still of worth to carry loads and when undressed, could then provide with a variety of entertainments those who would desire this, perhaps then I would stand a chance.
What good was I?
But the magician looked at me and he did let me in.
He must have seen a something, or perhaps he was a great deal kinder than the people gave him credit for; but either way, he let me in.
He gave me soup that I found most confusing; I don’t quite know if I expected him to live on lights and little fancy fires or the like. He gave me soup in an earthenware bowl and it was good soup, I was hungry too and did appreciate the bread as well but I was also disappointed.
What had I thought then magic was to be?
If I think back into those dark days now, it is a difficult decision. I think that I confused the arts of magic with being dead.
Yes, that’s right, that’s exactly what I did.
When you are dead, and you don’t have a body any longer that will ache and complain and have all these needs and wants, all the time, incessant, worse than a babe in arms, and they are bad enough, oh my! Well, when you’re dead, you are free. You are light. You are safe and you are loved, and in the greater scheme of things, you have all those things that when you’re not dead, you desire.
Peace. Freedom from fear and pain. Knowing the past and the future. Certainty. Being healed of absolutely everything, and forever, at that. And the lights are beautiful and nourishing, colours dance and of course, stars sing so you are never bored.
But that is death, not magic.
Magic is something else altogether. Oh, don’t expect me now to tell you what it is, for I don’t know, I still don’t know and that’s a part of the excitement.
I really don’t think that any of us can ever know the true heart of magic whilst we’re still alive; it is the seeking that provides the nourishment and interest, and gives an old man’s back a strength and wings where knotted, ailing feet had been.
I sat in his kitchen and I ate his soup, and I was already learning.
I was already learning about my great mistake and at first, I was sad; it took a week or maybe two where I slept away the days and nights in a small room, halfway up the tower, which overlooked the lands and sweeping forests, distant hills through a small window, where he fed me, smiled at me and never asked me to do anything at all, before I began to realise that magic wasn’t death, but life instead, and some part of me began to finally wake up again to the fact that I was still alive.
One morning, I came down to the small kitchen with its open hearth, where the old wooden table stood and the three legged stools, and herbs were drying in bunches against the great stone walls.
I looked at the magician and I saw him afresh.
He was a man, and nothing more or so it seemed. This too had bothered me far more than at the time I could admit. He wasn’t beautiful, and he wasn’t particularly tall. He didn’t have a beard and he was old too, even older than me, and his hair was white and thinning. He walked with a limp but he smiled a lot, and talked very little.
Even his voice was very ordinary. He had a lowlands accent which had never gone away and which to me gave him roots in a family that farmed amidst the windswept dunes and cutting grasses there. When he spoke, it was soft and there always a smile attached to that; still, I had wanted him to be so very much an other altogether, an angel or a demon, just not yet another man.
This morning, I saw him differently.
As he moved about the kitchen, gathering bread and eggs for a sturdy morning meal, I thought I could see a shimmer he left in his trail; I squeezed my eyes shut a few times but the impression remained. I shook my head and sat down at the table as I had done before, my hands folded in my lap, on the old skirt I was wearing, wondering as always why he would feed me, why he would not demand anything from me, no help, no payment, and feeling afraid once more that when the bill was served, I would find that I did not have the means to settle it.
But this morning was different. It was a new beginning and even back then, I could already feel that, and on this morning I finally asked the question that had been churning in the back of my mind and in my stomach ever since I first knocked on his door.
“Why have you let me in?”
At the sound of my voice his shoulders went still and I could feel a smile from him, even though he didn’t move at all.
“You are feeling better then,” he asked very casually and returned to stirring the eggs in a pot, adding some milk from an earthenware jug and then placing a slice of bread into the mixture for the frying on the hearth.
I thought about it and yes, it was true. I was feeling better. There was little pain in my body on this day, and though I was still very tired, I was not quite so distraught any longer and my thinking was clearer, my vision seemed sharper, more defined.
Yet the question remained.
“Why am I here? Why are you feeding me? Why have you let me in?”
He put the soaked bread carefully onto a hot cast iron slab where it sizzled and hissed, gave it a final poke with his wooden spoon, before returning the spoon to the bowl and slowly turning around to face me.
The scent of the frying bread caught me strongly and I had to breathe in sharply through the nose. I was so very, very hungry.
The magician was a man of ordinary statue and he was clad in a simple robe of brown spun wool, with darker trousers and ordinary worker’s boots. His face was deeply lined and his thin white hair untidy, nearly reaching to his shoulders, catching the light of the fire and giving him a glow.
He had blue eyes which he now directed to look at me and he said, “I have known you were coming for a while. I’ve been awaiting you.”
I hadn’t expected such a reply and I was shocked, but also very suspicious. Anyone can say such a thing and it needn’t mean that it is true. I had not seen any evidence of magic here of any kind, or what I might recognised as magic in those days; and I had led a hard life, filled to the brim with promises broken, stories told and bargains never filled.
“Awaiting me?” I said and I was sorry that it sounded so rejecting, disbelieving. This man had been most kind to me, more kind than anyone I’d ever met before, and up to now had not asked a single thing for his kindness in return. I should be civil, should be grateful, for if he was to tell me I should go, where would I go?
I had nowhere to go.
My children were gone now, grown up, far away with families of their own and not a care of me remaining. My last husband upped and left a long time ago and I was well too grateful to not have to suffer under such a rule to have been seeking a replacement. I was too old to keep the small holding in good order and the time would have come soon enough when the owner of the land would have me thrown off anyway; when I had locked the door and left the key beneath the step stone for the last time on that cold and beautiful morning in midwinter, I knew that I could never go back there.
I had wrapped my scarf around me tightly, drew my small bundle to my chest and started walking through the snow that lay in beautiful waves beneath the tiny winter sun, bright white it was and gave no warmth that day, and yet it lit my way to here and now.
And here and now, the magician who had let me in and gave me shelter, warmth and food, he sat down at the table on the other side, put his hands into his lap as though he was mirroring my position and he said, “Yes, I have been waiting for you. I was told someone would come, a someone who would want to learn the arts of magic, and that I should teach them.”
The magician smiled and many wrinkles appeared around his eyes, around the corners of his mouth, the trademark of a one who smiles a lot and always did, for many, many years. I wondered many things but did not know quite what to say. In the end I said what was so uppermost within my mind.
“How do you know it is me, and not another? Can you have mistaken me for someone else?”
The magician was still smiling and had already started to shake his head halfway through my words.
“Oh no, there’s no mistake,” he said brightly and rubbed his hands together. “It’s you alright. I can see it in you.” And when he noticed that I was completely at a loss with that statement, he continued on, “The magic, I mean.
“I can see the magic in you.”
And there, time stood still.
The fire in the hearth stopped. The crackling of the bread stopped. The little sparks of embers carried aloft in the heart ceased and turned to bright lights in mid air.
And the sentence he said stood in the warm and friendly kitchen, simple though it was.
“I can see the magic in you.”
I could feel the tears coming, slowly and from deep within me, tears welling up that weren’t tears yet but would breach the threshold soon enough and become manifest, the waters of my soul, flowing into riverbeds that lay as dry as dust for all eternity or so it seemed, bringing life and hope of life renewed to me, and when the first tear was born and began its descent down my face, movement resumed and time continued on, very slowly at first, hesitant, as though it was trying to find its way back into the pulse of time as it should be, and then with gathering strength and certainty, until there was just here and now again, and I was sobbing with my hands held tightly before my face.
I may be woman, but I have never been a fool.
When I was younger, I heard a great many things be said, for a great many reasons, or just the one, to bend you to the will of another, to make you believe things that aren’t true.
I know full well that he spoke magic words that day, magic words that made me his.
His servant, his admirer, his follower, a believer, I don’t know.
How can you be starving for words?
How can it be that you can live so long and no-one ever speaks these magic words, and has them ring true?
How can it be that one single sentence can turn your heart, your mind, your life around, this way or that, such power, inordinate.
How can it be that the gift of these words, this message he sent to me, this bread for the starving, this water for the parching, this healing for the sick was so profound, and that changed everything?
This is magic, I remembered thinking. This is magic.
It isn’t the kind of magic I thought I would find here, but in a way, this is more.
He changed my life with a single sentence.
Never again would I question his power, or the power of words, of spells to create reality, of writing your own will into the tapestry of existence.
And never again would I question that I too was born with the power of words, with magic inside of me.
And that was the day when my apprenticeship began.
Outside the magician’s house, it was deepest winter. There was snow piled high everywhere, and from my window in the tower I could see the beautifully transformed landscape outside, and I loved it, loved it so absolutely whether it was grey and stormy, foreboding with drifts of sharp sleet battering the windows; whether it was golden blue and white, sparkling with radiance and promise of purity; or when the night fell and the deepest hues of purple, orange, blue would band the wide horizons.
I loved it and inside his house, it was warm and bright; soft yellow lights from many candles and from the living fires in the hearths. It was home manifest, a home such as I had never known, a place where you don’t have to earn your keep but it is just there to support you silently, and lovingly, so you may grow and learn and find out who you truly are.
One thing I discovered early on, and at first it perplexed me, but then I became used to it and soon enough began to enjoy the freedom that this gave me – nowhere in the house or in the tower were there any mirrors.
I got to forget what I thought I looked like. I remember being amazed how quickly that happened, if you think for how long it used to be the other way.
In the mornings, I sat on my bed in my little room and brushed my hair without a mirror. It was long enough so I could look at it, hold it in my hand as the brush stroked it lovingly and made it shine, especially the silver strands of which there were as many as there were of the others, golden brown those were, and even those I saw quite differently and appreciated them a great deal more than ever I had before.
I came to love my hair, the way it flowed so smoothly and how it felt under my touch. I think that this was one of the many gifts of there simply being no mirrors to make you feel bad about yourself at a glance, to give you ideas that you look like an old witch, or a pauper, or that there is this and that all wrong with you, and what you’re wearing.
I came to appreciate my clothes for keeping me warm and clean and eventually, I think I came to appreciate myself in a different way.
The magician would always make the meals, and he would wait until I came to the kitchen before he would serve them up. Now that was very difficult for me because I still did not understand at all why he would do that, and why he never really asked a thing of me and simply waited for me to show him what I needed.
As I did not know what I needed or wanted, or even who I was, nothing seemed to happen for a long time, but eventually I started to speak.
Quite early on I asked him, “What do I have to do to learn the magic?”
He smiled and said, “It will unfold for you when time is right. You see,” and here he sat down at his place at the old table, “You see, magic is very light. It is light and free and it won’t be confined into symbols, heavy with metal and age. True magic won’t be and if you try, it will grow sad and bad things happen all around.”
I didn’t understand a word he was saying or what that had to do with my question at all, which was the case quite often if not always in these conversations at the start. He always noticed this, and he always smiled, not in a hurtful way but in way that made me understand he knew I was all lost at sea but that all things were well, regardless.
Sometimes, he would go on and say some more; and other times, the smile was just enough for me to sigh and smile as well, and feel my shoulders drop, and feel my thoughts become a little wider ranging. And when that happened, I would see the winter outside the little windows of the kitchen, framed in four square panes and held by dark old wood, or I would smell the cooking, or become aware that I was comfortable, and warm.
If the weather was nice, I would put on my wrap and go for a walk after the morning meal.
The magician’s house and tower lay in a part of the valley I had never visited before, so I did not know what it might look like when the spring would come, or summer would be here; for now, all was majestic and white.
Behind the magician’s house, the land rose sharply into hills, which then themselves rose sharply once again into the mountains. I did not venture far for I did not have that much energy back then, and I mostly stayed in the meadow that lay before the house and was bordered by many old trees to the left and right, and ahead there was the roadway down towards the main road – but all was covered deep in snow, the little bushes and the trees and everything was soothing and very beautiful indeed.
I spent a long time looking at the trees and how the snow had settled, briefly melted in the day and frozen back into the most perfect little icicles, spheres, and crystals. I would look at their stout barks and thick trunks, and at the little sticks and twigs at their bases and I would forget time altogether and just be there, happy in a wonderland that was my own, until I got too cold, or I got hungry and then I’d simply go back into the kitchen, where the magician already knew that I was coming.
“What is your name?” I asked him at one time, when it occurred to me that I had been sleeping in this man’s house for more days than there are in a week, and he had never even asked me mine.
The magician said, “I have many different names. Which one would you like to know?”
Then, the very idea that a person could have more than one name was surprising to me. Now I can’t understand how this could have surprised me; for my name had been changed a number of times. Each time I changed hands from one man to another, so my name had changed – from my father’s name to my first husband’s, and so forth.
Even my first name had changed many times. When I was a child, they called me Annie; later, I was known as Annikins, my brothers called me this because they knew it annoyed me and it was one of the many little tortures they would submit me to as the day wore on.
My first husband called me woman, and my second husband always referred to me by his own name, with the Mrs attached at the front.
My third husband called me mother.
But when I thought of myself, I thought of myself as Anna.
So I said to the magician, “I would like to know the name you call yourself.”
He stopped in mid-movement, turned to look at me and his smile was different this time, appreciative, and he nodded.
“That is a good question you are asking of me. The name I call myself is James. What name do you call yourself?”
I smiled in return and answered, “Anna.”
He held out his hand to me and I took it and shook it firmly. “Welcome to my house, Anna,” he said, and I do believe that is the first time I was really addressed by the very name I called myself.
The magician’s house was not very large, but it was comfortable and it had always a sense of stout protection about it, a completeness in its purpose to shelter, to shield and to assist in any way a house can help a person.
The house did not seek to impress or frighten; it did not make shrill demands of its occupants to be polishing and scrubbing all the time, nor did it whine and moan for constant handiwork and upkeep.
It was made from old stone and old wood that got the harder with the passing of each year. It had windows which were made from ancient glass that wasn’t flat but bubbly and wavy, slightly tinged with the merest hint of green and there were tiny spheres trapped inside its structure. It was very thick and smooth to the touch.
There were shutters on the inside and on the outside, as much to protect the old glass as to help make a snug environment in even the wildest of storms, and each room was arranged so that there was a fire place.
There was a drawing room with a low old table and around it sat three chairs, well covered with old tapestry. In that room there were a number of waist high dressers with drawers and doors that at the time I did not know what they might contain; above them, shelves with remarkable objects.
The magician would dust and clean this room each week and I would come and stand and watch him do this, watch him lovingly pick up an object, a sculpture perhaps of an animal made from beautiful wood, flowing and graceful, and first he would wipe the sculpture gently and with absolute attention, as though there wasn’t anything but that in all the world, and it was that he loved the most.
Then he would use the cloth to sweep the place where it had sat, and the way he did it reminded me of a benediction, or a blessing far more meaningful than ever I had seen the village priest perform on the most holiest of days.
Then he would replace the object with loving care and spend a time arranging it so it would face exactly right, give it just one more loving touch and move on to the next thing, where the self same sequence would unfold again, and yet another object was imbued with his great care and loving touch.
As I watched this over time, I began to appreciate that I had not yet learned enough of magic or the art of cleaning to be allowed to perform this service on the house and all it held; and I was fascinated.
I had cooked and cleaned my whole life long, for as long as I can remember, and yet I knew nothing at all of how it’s done, or what it means, or what it could be, if you knew.
Just like the brushing of my hair each morning and each night, I was learning from the beginning, and I needed this time to forget what had gone before, to un-learn what had been my life.
The first time I watched him clean the drawing room he called me over, standing at the threshold as I was, observing and not quite a part of what was happening as yet.
I hesitantly entered the room, unsure if I was really welcome there, and he held out a small sphere that appeared to be made of clearest, finest ice to me.
I hesitated again because I didn’t know what he wanted me to do; if I was to observe the object, admire it, or if there was something I should know or see or say.
“Take it,” he said and brought it a little closer.
I looked at the sphere and was entranced by it, by the light inside of it that seemed to be star. It seemed so precious and so unobtainable in that instance that my hands could not move to receive it, even just to hold it for a moment.
I looked up from the sphere into the magician’s face and he looked sorrowful. Still, he found a smile and took my limp hand in his own, warm it was and very gentle, lifted it, turned it and then placed the crystal sphere into my palm.
It tingled in my palm and strange sensations went up my arm, into my neck, into my head.
“This is a very special crystal ball,” I heard the magician’s soft voice as though it was from far away. “It came to me in a way that you might call by magic. But I always knew it wasn’t mine, that I was holding it for someone. It is yours.”
I heard the words and even knew his meanings on a level, and a part of me wanted to look at him and say, “Are you sure?”
But I couldn’t take my eyes of the little sphere nestling in the palm of my hand, and I knew that he was right. It really was mine, although how this could be, I really couldn’t understand in any way.
Without me willing it, my hand closed around the sphere and as it did, the sensation of rushing intensified and jumped across through my head and down my other arm, into my other hand which also now needed to touch the little sphere.
So I enfolded it in my hands and they carried it to my heart and held it here.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Then I ran away.
I ran out of the room and into the kitchen, opened the door and out into the snow. The day was still bright and just a touch of rosy hue was in the air together with the tingling chill that tells you night is coming soon.
I kept running until I couldn’t run any longer and found myself right at the edge of the forest, and even then I kept going further until the trees with their festival snow decorations quite surrounded me and the little sticks and twigs snared my skirt.
Then I stopped and found an old log to sit on, my breath steaming white and fast, my heart beating high and my palm hurting from holding on to the little sphere so tightly.
I had to force my hand to open, so afraid I was that I might drop it, and it might get lost in the snow, become invisible and I would not find it again, but eventually I did.
The little sphere was beautiful and it caught the last light of the winter sun, and this was magic manifest to me and in that moment.
I sat on the log with my sphere until the rosy hues of dusk gave way to darkest purple, quite without my wrap but I wasn’t getting cold. It was as though the little sphere had woken up something inside of me that had been sleeping for a long long time, and that I had been dreaming of hardship and suffering, loss of hope and lack of love, but now, I was awakening.
Whatever I once thought I was, was all in pieces now; and something new would have to be now raised from the parts, from the shards and from all these other things I never felt before, I never thought before, I never knew before.
It was a magic time that evening, a time of transformation manifest for me, and I cannot tell you what I thought or felt, but eventually a great peace came to me, around the time the first bright star appeared in the banded sky, and I was ready to go back then.
I carefully held the little sphere in my hand and my hand held carefully inside the pocket of my skirt as I went back to the house which lay nestled amidst the darkness and the rising hills behind, and where the welcome light of fire shone and cast wide golden circles on the snow, to guide me home.
That night I knew an old spell had been broken somehow, for when I returned to the house and stepped into the kitchen, and the magician smiled at me and pointed to a bubbling pot of stew that had the most wondrous of aromas swirling all around the room, there was a smile inside me too and a knowing that I could talk to him, should talk to him for this was all exactly as it should be, and my place was here, and it was all exactly right.
One day I asked him, “When am I going to start learning about magic?”
I don’t know just how long I’d been living in this house that I have to think of as my own by now, but it must have been a while.
I slept beautifully and dreamed strangely. I hardly ever hurt at all and I could walk for distances now, and not just on the meadow, but also in the hills. I was very calm and could sit for hours in the kitchen or in the drawing room, or in my own room, doing nothing at all, looking out of a window or looking at nothing at all. I wasn’t bored and the days slipped by in a quiet tranquillity the likes of which I had never known.
“So you haven’t started learning yet?” the magician asked right back with a twinkle in his eye and deep down of course I knew that I was learning many things just by being here and being still and silent, not least of all how to come back into some sense of centre and belonging, and of being at home in my own body.
But all that wasn’t what I meant. I still didn’t know what magic was, but there surely must have been much study of old books, and hard work, and knitting the brows and burning the midnight oil, and doing things all clumsily again and yet again, until slowly some progress would emerge.
Even as I thought this, I had a sense that I was wrong about all that, and that it might be quite different from what was held to be the truth in tale and deed; still, I was beginning to worry about the real work beginning soon enough, and I wanted to know more.
I told the magician as much and so he nodded very gravely.
“Wait here,” he said, “I will fetch something so you can begin your real work to study magic.”
He left the kitchen and I could hear him open the door to the tower, ascend the stairs. The tower was quite high and there were many steps; it took a while for him to return and I was both excited as well as very scared, for the last time I had tried to study symbols in a book had been many years ago, when I was still a child; long ago as it may have been, I still remembered the pain from the teacher’s cane when my attention wandered, or I said something wrong.
When he finally came back, he was carrying something very big and heavy, square and wrapped in a big blanket.
Carefully he placed it on the table. He unfolded the blanket and so revealed a huge book, very thick, with metal bands around it, bound in leather and inlaid with every kind of decoration.
“This is your Book of Magic,” he said reverently and pushed the book across the table and towards me. “This is what you need to study, need to learn, and once you know everything in this book, you too will be a magician.”
Oh! But I was so scared, so excited and so very intimidated by the size of that book. Silently I prayed that the writing within would not be small, for I was quite old already and surely to study a book such as this would last an entire lifetime!
I held my breath as I opened the great book and then was stunned to find that all the pages were empty!
What was this?
Was there a secret, a magic on these pages that would only show the writing when a spell was spoken, or would they reveal themselves to certain people only?
I looked at the magician and said, “But how can I read it?”
He laughed out aloud and said, “What would you read, my dear? There is no writing in this book.”
Now I was even more confused. “No writing?” I repeated as I turned the pages, pale and smooth they were and not a sign or mark upon them.
“You haven’t written it yet,” the magician said gently and then I understood at last.
I was horrified – no, I was destroyed by that understanding.
I was to fill that book with my own investigation of magic – and that would take far longer even still than reading what another had once written. There would not be enough time left for me to fill even a few pages. This was a task I knew I could never complete.
I looked at the book and felt as though all my hopes had been destroyed and come to nothing. I felt like crying too, and then I felt ashamed to be behaving like this, and then angry at myself for ever having allowed myself to dream that I might learn of magic.
All the while this was happening inside of me, the magician watched me struggle but finally, he reached across and closed the treacherous book with a very definitive gesture.
“You fear all manner of things that you know nothing of,” he chided me gently. “Perhaps we’ll wait awhile before we start the book, perhaps the time has not yet come.”
“No!” I heard my own voice shout in fear and anger, it just came from my throat and rushed over my lips and I clapped my hands before my mouth and looked at the magician in fear and embarrassment. But as always, he was smiling again.
“There,” he said happily, came around the table, drew up a stool and sat down next to me, “There, that’s better. I know that you are full of fear and doubt, and I understand that, better than you might imagine or believe right now.
“But I also know that underneath all that, behind all that, there lies your heart, your wish and your desire to come forward and be free. To grow up at last and step into your new life, your true magic which awaits you, and you know it does.”
With an outstretched fingertip, he touched the closed book and continued, “This is your book. You can choose to open it at any page and begin, or you can leave it closed – that is your choice. But either way, it is your book.”
He sat back from the table and folded his hands in his lap, and I was there, with what he had called my book in front of me, a hugely challenging alien thing that was unlike anything I had ever known or owned.
I always thought that a book was something that you were given, that came from up high. That a book contained magic words of truth and wisdom that you probably weren’t smart enough to understand, but certainly they were there, and carved in stone rather than printed in ink on paper, and that you were to worship both the object itself, the binding and the pages, and then the content, the ideas or learnings, even more on top.
This thing the magician had placed in front of me was nothing like that.
It was much, much bigger than any book I’d ever seen, perhaps bar the book the priest had on his altar that no-one ever was allowed to get near but that was carried around in processions on the holy days.
I’m not sure that even that book was actually physically bigger than this here on the wooden kitchen table in front of me.
The priest’s book wasn’t as adorned as this one. This book was made of many kinds of leather, many kinds of metals, precious stones, it seemed and other types of thing I couldn’t name or recognise, all interwoven and inlaid, like a map of many subtle colours, subtle textures.
There was a geometry to the decorations; very complex but right there and you could see that not a thing had been arranged without some serious thought, some good reason for it being there, and being just the way it was.
I had to reach out and touch it.
There was no wording I could perceive or recognise and yet, I had the feeling that the many patterns there, the borders and the weaving spirals, interlacements did spell something – could it be my name?
The thought was preposterous as it was hot and delicious all at the same time.
My eyes were caught by the inlaid stones and crystals, flashing in the fire’s shine. What were these things? Were they precious? Even if there were but glass, they would be most expensive, large shapes and spheres, some cut and polished, small and big ones in many colours, seamlessly set in metal that itself sat seamlessly with the leather binding of the book – it was extraordinary thing, more like a jewel chest, a treasure chest than just a book.
This impression was strengthened even more by the two bands of shining metal which went all the way around the book; they had hinges at each fold and when you closed the book, you could make them both enter into a lock at the front, and the lock was set with a single shiny oval stone of pure red – glass or ruby?
It can’t be ruby, I thought, that would be ridiculous.
If that was a ruby, I could take this book, and sell it, and live for the rest of my life in a comfort I’ve never known, in a pleasant place, warm, by the shores of an ocean. I would never go hungry and I would be able to buy medicines when I got sick. My life would be saved.
But there and already, there was a still, quiet voice in my mind, or perhaps it was the voice of my heart, and it said, “All these things would be for nothing without the magic.”
I understood that there was choice to make.
If I wanted magic, I would have to want it truly, and sincerely.
It would have to be my first love and thoughts of rubies and comfortable fabrics and foods would have to be laid aside and count for nothing then, cease to be important.
I could sell this book and live out my earthly life in comfort.
Or I could keep it, claim it, and start out on a journey that I don’t know where it might lead, but that most likely would not be concerned with care and comfort, ease of living.
As I sat and thought these things, it was quite clear to me that if this choice had only been offered when I was much younger still, when my body was still light and flexible and I had the capacity and even the hunger for proving myself through work and endeavour, endurance and skill, I would have jumped at the chance.
Have I not suffered enough yet?
Isn’t it time I was given some time for rest and relaxation, to stop having to fight for every day and in every way anew and then again?
Haven’t I done my duty long and hard enough already, should I not be allowed some peace at last?
The magician sat next to me in the absolute silence that was only rippled now and then by a log crackling in the hearth, or a sound from the house itself.
I didn’t know if he could read my mind, if he knew what I was thinking, or why I was hesitating and not jumping for joy at this chance offered to enter into a whole new world and carve myself a kingdom there, such as I had never known or hoped I might possess one day.
I wondered if he would advise me to do one thing, or the other.
He had said, “I see the magic within you,” and those had been the most wonderful words I’d ever heard.
Perhaps there was time for rest when I was really dead.
Perhaps life is such that there is no rest from it; and that the very idea of such a thing is quite unnatural, unholy even.
Perhaps to struggle and to fight for every day is what makes for a good life, in the end.
I bowed my head in resolution.
As it should be then.
I would take the burden of these new endeavours, and I would pray to the Creative to give me strength to face these challenges, these battles now to come, and that I might do my best, whatever that may be.
I took a deep breath and reached out then, drew the great book towards myself and opened it so it showed the very first page.
Without looking at him, I asked of the magician, “So, what is the first thing that one would write?”
My little room was bathed in sunlight, and outside the sky was blue.
It was winter still but very beautiful today, a perfect winter’s day which found me sitting at a small wooden desk in front of the tall, slim window cut into the thick stone walls of the tower.
In front of me on the desk lay the enormous book, closed tightly, the metal bands sealed, and on top of it, nestling next to the red stone which I still thought was probably a ruby and not a piece of red glass, was my little crystal orb.
Behind the book, trapped against the wall, there was an inkwell and a nib in a brass holder attached to the little bottle of ink, which had a pretty cut glass stopper.
The magician had given me these things but he hadn’t given me any answers as to what I was supposed to write into the book, simply saying, “Oh it will come to you, it’s one of those things …”
My eyes went outside where I could see nothing of the ground below and there was only the beautiful blue sky with not a cloud inside, deep and radiant, with a paler light at the lower end and phasing imperceptibly into a richer, deeper blue above.
It was very tranquil, very pleasant and I just drifted there, letting go off all the worries about my situation and this contract I seemed to have entered into, and that I didn’t have a clue as what one might write into a book of magic.
As I sat and looked at the sky, I became unhappy with the small window and how it gave me not enough access to the beautiful blues outside, and as I thought this, it seemed as though I was moving forward and out, into the blue, and it was all there was, and no window or anything stood between me, and it.
It was as though I was flying in this blue space, as though I had flown out of the window with a thought. Carefully, I looked down, but there was no landscape below me, only more blue, getting lighter and lighter, until there was a bright whiteness that was entirely made of light and that was all.
I slowly turned away from that and looked above me, and here the blue did change into a deeper and deeper blue until it had become a radiant black right above.
For an instance, there was a recognition until I snapped my eyes open and found myself back at the desk in my room at the tower. My heart was beating fast – what had just happened there?
Where did I go?
Did I just fall asleep for a moment and dreamed that blue place with the white below and the black above?
Could I do it again?
I took a deep breath and looked out of the window once more, into the blue sky, and once more I wished there wasn’t the window framing, containing the blue, and once more I felt myself moving out of myself quite easily and entering into the blue outside.
“Back,” I thought, “Back up, back into the tower …” and with great speed and in instant response, I had a feeling of rushing backwards and there I was, back in my chair.
I was amazed by this but also elated.
There was something about this that made me think it was a piece of magic, this was something that real magicians would know about, and that they would somehow know to USE that blue, the white and black, for certain things – of this I had no doubt.
So for the whole afternoon, I sat in the chair by the window and practised going into that blue place, moving about in there, turning around and upside down, moving fast and coming back again, and it was absolutely delightful, exciting and it made me feel so good that I really did not want to stop.
The sky outside had long ceased to be blue altogether and I was still doing this, lowering myself into the white with great care that seemed to hum and sparkle, and then moving up and through the blue towards the black that was much cooler and quieter, but whispering and intriguing nonetheless, when there was a knock on my door which brought me right back.
The magician was outside and wondering if I was ready for the evening meal.
He had never done this before, had never knocked on my door or asked for my presence; so that was new and so was the blue.
I told him about it with great excitement as we went down the stairs together to the kitchen and he listened with intent.
He asked me questions about the realm, how I moved within it, and I was delighted to talk about this experience and have someone pay such attention. It made me feel – important I guess, and that wasn’t a feeling I was used to up until then.
“After dinner,” he said and rubbed his hands together in excitement, “I will show you something that will be of great use to you.”
I couldn’t wait, and on this evening I helped him prepare the meal. To be sure, I just cleaned and chopped some vegetables, laid the table and did a bit of sweeping whilst he cooked and we talked, but still, there was a togetherness now that had not existed before. My spontaneous visit to the blue light world had elevated me, not just metaphorically speaking, but in actual practicality.
Now, the magician thought I was finally ready to be taught something.
I swear that the magician spend more than was normal in clearing up after the evening meal and that he quite enjoyed seeing me hopping with excitement, and not a little fear, about what was to come.
When the dishes were nearly all scrubbed clean and just awaiting being dried now, he turned to me and said, “Fetch your crystal ball. We’ll need it for this.”
I skipped up the stairs as though I was a young girl, my feet flying and my dress swishing around my ankles, and that brought a smile to my face as well.
I collected my little sphere from the book where it had been waiting for me, wondered for a moment if I should bring the book and the ink as well, but that seemed too much bother, too much weight for right now, so I skipped back down the stairs with high excitement and barged into the kitchen, rather than entering it meekly and quietly, as had been the case until this night.
The magician was just putting the last of the pots away on their hangers on the wall above the fire and laughed at me as I stood nervous, excited, out of breath and blushing furiously in the middle of the kitchen.
“Now,” he said, “Now that feeling that you are having right now, take note of that. That is what magic should feel like, or at least, it’s that kind of feeling. Exciting. Making you tremble just as though you were about to meet your lover in the night. Breathless and with your lower lip caught between your teeth, and your eyes shining a smile.
“Remember this feeling. If you ever lose it, you lose the heart of magic.”
I looked into his eyes and knew he was completely serious about what he had said. A fast shiver streaked up my back, into my neck and made my head feel light and bright. I could feel something rushing from my shoulders down my arms, tingling in my fingertips.
“Ah yes,” he said and held out his hands, palms down and fingers stretched wide apart. “You can feel it – that’s the magic, that’s your power, that is a special kind of energy and in you, it has been waiting for a while for you to find your way to this, and it is ready, it is here. Isn’t it the most amazing feeling?”
The fast rushing, tingling sensations were spreading all around my body, running down my legs and into my toes, out and being replaced again and again with new shivers and shafts of what he called energy racing around my body.
I could hardly stand still. I needed to move. I wanted to move with this delightful energy, dance it somehow, spread it around the room in sparks and sparkles, fill the room with it, bless the room with it.
“Dance then,” the magician said and laughed out aloud, threw his own hands up in the air, and as though I wasn’t even there, started to move and stomp, weave this way and that, and he shouted too, made noises – I was shocked and for a moment, I lost that sensation I had before, but then and as he didn’t stop, didn’t even seem to notice me, I got caught up in his dance, without music, without there having been a place mapped out with boards or coloured ribbons where such a thing might be allowed, or a time allocated when it would be acceptable to dance – I just got caught up in his joy, in his movement, and so I too started to weave, a little bit at first, and then the sensations returned, of fast shivers and streaking lightning through my back, my fingers and my legs, and these demanded that I should dance, but this time, I closed my eyes and let the feelings be my guide, let them show me how to move, and that was wonderful, and freeing, and it made the rushing brighter, faster and so much more profound that in the end …
I opened my eyes slowly. I was on the floor by the side of the hearth, leaning against the wall, my legs stretched out before me. The magician was sitting at the kitchen table, with a mug of brew in front of him, looking into the fire but then I moved, which attracted his attention.
“How are you?” he asked.
I checked inside and I was – fine. More than fine. I felt so light and peaceful, too, very, very calm, and very happy.
What had happened?
I must have fainted, lost my senses, somewhere in the dance …
The dance …
“It’s perfectly alright,” the magician said to me as he got up to procure a mug of tea for me as well. “This sometimes happens when you first start. It takes a while to be able to stand that much pleasure.” He chuckled to himself and I had to shake my head and laugh a little too. I had fainted with the pleasure of it.
I got up and had to steady myself for a moment, draw orientation and solidity from the great stone walls of the house and when I walked across to the table to sit down there, I noticed that I was walking quite differently, more lightly, more easily than I had in years, or perhaps ever?
James placed the steaming mug in front of me and I breathed in the aroma of summer flowers and a touch of autumn herb as well, very beautiful, very soothing as the scent travelled not just into my nose, but easily slid beyond and into all of me, weaving into my stomach, into my hips and legs, and up into head, down into my arms. I looked at my fingers and I could feel a sense of summer there, and that whatever I might touch now would remember that, and retain that, as it could not help but do.
I looked up at him and for a moment, there was a movement inside of me, a raising up of something so profound that I thought that I might have to cry. What was this world, what was his world?
It was nothing like I had expected it to be, and at the same, it was more than I ever dreamed to ask for.
There were a thousand things I wanted to say to him, to ask of him, but as he looked at me so kindly with his blue eyes it was as though the deed was done, that I had said those things, and that what needed to be asked, was asked, and answered in perfection.
He sat down beside me and we both drank from our mugs then and looked into the fire and I thought about the dance, and the feelings.
I thought about how I had never seen anyone dance like that, not before I had seen the old magician dance. And how it might have been nice when I was a small child, to have seen that and to have gone away to a place where there were trees and not too many people and to try to dance like that, with bare feet and arms outstretched, and if my life might have been different if I had.
I could have danced for my own children. I could have been more than just the shrill, shrieking drudge that was forever complaining about her life, about them, about all the burdens, and making their lives a misery.
I started to cry then and I sought not to stop that, for it was true that this was sad, very sad indeed and that all that was done and could now never be undone again – the time had passed.
I cried for a long time, and the magician never said a word but let me be, and after I had cried out that guilt and shame for now, he said softly, “To look at those things is a brave thing to do. Most people never dare because they fear the sadness and the guilt that you have felt there, they fear it so much that they close their eyes and turn away and so it is that one year passes, then another, one generation upon the next, and nothing changes, nothing grows and nothing gets to be as once it was designed to be.”
I sighed deeply. “How is it that they don’t know the dance?”
The magician sighed too. “The brighter things are, the more wonderful, the greater is the pain, the fear of pain. And magic is so bright, it burns through their ideas and worlds and shatters them in an instance. So they fear it most of all.”
I thought of the people I had known all my life and it was true. And that was sad as well.
“Is there nothing we can do about that?” I wondered.
The magician picked up his mug and took a long drink before answering.
“We are doing something about it,” he finally responded, then turned towards me with a smile. “We are here, and we are learning about magic. You and I both. And that changes things.”
“It changes things – for us. But what of all the others?”
The magician shrugged his shoulders. “It seems to me,” he said slowly and reflectively, “It seems to me that you cannot bring magic to the people. The people – a person, rather, a person must go to magic. It can’t be the other way around. And everyone who returns changes the world a little or a lot – we are changing the balance of the world. What more could we possibly do?”
I didn’t know. In fact, the very idea that I might be changing the world, simply by learning to find my way to the blue, or to dance, was a shocking proposition.
The magician picked up my thought and he laughed. “It is really quite simple,” he said. “Think of it like this. There is a big town, and in that town there is a cathedral. The cathedral has a wall and thousands of people look at the paintings on that wall every single day.
“People come from all over the kingdoms and even beyond and they travel there, to look at the painting on the cathedral wall. Every single day, an army of people file by that wall. And none of them make any difference.
“But all it takes is a single one who would bring a paint brush – and everything would change, and as simply as that. Does that make sense to you?”
I had to laugh a little. “But surely, there would be guards who would try and stop just anyone from coming with a paintbrush and changing that painting? And if you were found to try, they would arrest you and hang you on the spot!”
The magician laughed too. “Well that’s the trouble with metaphors. The wall with the painting, that is the fabric of reality for the people out there. They just look but don’t even try to bring a paint brush. The fabric of reality, in truth, has no guards. It just sits there, waiting for those who would do rather than just look. That was the gist of the story, anyway!”
I smiled and thought and said, “So there are no guards to stop us? I mean, stop you, for you are a magician.”
He smiled and pointed an outstretched fingertip at me. “There are no guards to stop us, dear. You have already changed the fabric.”
That shocked me. “Me? How? I haven’t done a thing!”
“Oh yes, you have. You have blessed this kitchen and this house with your delight, and you have placed the scent of summer on this very table, right here. And that’s just two things you have done within the hour.”
As he spoke, he gestured, and as he gestured I could actually see the traces of the fairy dust that I had sent from my fingertips to bless the house when I had danced; and the summer scent on the table was a golden glow that stood strong, and resonant.
I was awestruck by this. It was there, and it was incontrovertible. I had indeed, changed the fabric of reality. To someone who would not know how to see these things, the house and table would be entirely unchanged and just the same, not a scratch or any sign that anything had been affected. And yet there was this other level and right there, I’d made a change.
I was perplexed. “How is it,” I asked him, “that the fabric of reality shows me one thing, but the objects there do not, or seem to show something else – unchangingness? Does it mean that the fabric isn’t real?”
The magician nodded at that. “Now what you just said there, that is what all those people who just look and don’t bring their paint brush do believe. They believe that unless a rock rolls from here to there, there is no change.
“But nothing could be further from the truth, for all change starts and ends with the fabric. The fabric prescribes the future, holds the future just the same as it holds the now and the past, all at the same time.
“The house is different for your blessing of it. It may take a moment, or it may take many years for that difference to become noticeable to someone who just looks, but it will become noticeable even to them. And then they wonder how that happened, and how it was achieved, but never do they think to look beyond and at the fabric, where the change was made in all reality.”
I nodded slowly because I felt that I did understand on some level what he was saying, although I wasn’t altogether sure just how I would understand something as complicated as that.
Perhaps it wasn’t complicated. Perhaps it was completely simple and straightforward if you looked at it just right.
The magician said, “Now, do you want to learn what I said might be useful earlier tonight?”
We were sitting at the table, opposite each other.
I had my elbows on the table and was leaning forward. In my hands, one cupped beneath the other, the crystal sphere was resting in the palm of my left hand, in line with my eyes.
I looked at it and blinked, because there were many ways to look at this sphere. One way showed you reflections of the room, even of myself. Blink again and there isn’t one sphere, but two instead and you can look straight between them if you don’t move your eyes and see the magician’s face on the other side of the table. You can look inside of it and there are colours and shapes shifting.
Many ways to look at this sphere, but I didn’t know which way I should look at it, which way was the right one.
“Breathe deeply,” said the magician in his quiet, soft voice and I responded immediately, automatically, and without thinking. This made me smile a little. He had never been anything but kind to me and still had managed to extract a level of obedience from this woman no man had ever attained before, for all their beatings and beratings. I would breathe if he told me to.
I breathed in and out deeply again and tried to focus on the little sphere.
“Remember the time I gave it to you,” the magician said softly. “Remember when you first saw it, when you took it, where you went and what you did back then …”
As he spoke, I felt a shifting and I was back there, in the drawing room, seeing him holding out the sphere to me and that’s the sphere I looked at, was drawn to look at, and it was the same as the one in my hand and yet it was not – it was glowing from within, white light, bright and I thought I could see movement inside the light, could see …
With an instant shock I snapped back to awareness, back to sitting at the table with the sphere, wide eyed.
“What was that?” I whispered, “What was that I saw?”
The magician raised his head slightly and asked carefully and evenly, “What did you see?”
“I saw it differently, at first it was a memory, the memory of you holding it in the drawing room, holding it out to me. But then it changed and I saw light, and something – I saw something like – a little creature inside the orb?”
The magician nodded rapidly and said, “Yes, yes, that’s right! Very good, Anna! You are beginning to see the spirit of the crystal!” and he sounded most pleased and excited, indeed.
I looked back at the innocent little clear sphere nestling in my palm which seemed so ordinary, as though it could be just made of glass. There was no creature.
“To see these things, you need to look not with your eyes but a different kind of eyes,” the magician said urgently. “You just did it, do the same again, and tell me what you see when you look at it that way.”
I took another deep breath, concentrated on the sphere and tried to retrace what had happened before. Remember when you saw him, in the drawing room, he held it out to me … There it was again, the memory. Just as before, I can see him standing there in his brown clothes, his hand outstretched and there is the orb. That’s the orb I need to look at, I think to myself, look at it more closely, and as I did, it was as though I was moving towards it until it filled my vision, and it began to become luminous again, swirling brightness, and I began to see the movement again.
This time, I remembered to breathe in and out and that made the vision steadier; the movement became more defined and I saw what seemed to be a little bird shape inside the orb, a small flowing elegant bird with wings, moving inside the sphere of light.
Without me doing it at all, my lips shaped themselves and a small whistling tune came to be, a few notes at first, then a recognisable, simple little melody – it travelled across to the orb and the little bird-creature stopped moving, appeared to be listening.
I kept softly whistling the little tune and I knew that I was calling the spirit of the crystal, calling it to me, and it came. At first, a little head appeared out from the orb, and I whistled a little more quickly, a little more happily, more welcome – I am calling you! I think this is your song, I think so – come to me, little one, I want to meet you, want to know you.
The neck followed the head, the shoulders and the wings as the little birdlike creature unfolded itself from the crystal orb; then its body and finally its long sweeping tail and then it was entirely free – a beautiful white creature of pure magic, and it flew across the space to me, carried across to me by the song, and it was there!
I held out my hand and it landed softly, sparkling sensation that travelled up my arm swiftly and dispersed throughout me, and I stopped whistling then and just looked in absolute awe, in amazement and in love at this magical creature that had come to know me, just as I had come to know it in this space, on this day.
It had wonderful eyes, opalescent, many colours shifting, beautiful against its white plumage and a small beak, which now it opened and it sang to me in turn – oh, but what a song that was!
I can’t describe it, can’t tell you how it travelled into me, how it touched me and told me so many things, so many beautiful things and I never wanted it to end, but after a time I realised that as beautiful as though the song may be, it was missing something still – a harmony, and that would be the song that I had whistled softly to awaken it from its long sleep. And so I cautiously at first added my own song, note by note, a careful hesitant addition but it was perfection, made our song into something extraordinary, something much more than the sum of its parts, and so we sang together and the bird rose from my hand and flew above me, soared above me, and I was it and it was me the same, and I could see myself through its eyes, could see myself, the room and the magician in a whole new way, a magical way, and it was enchanted, incredible, simply fantastic.
When I was filled to the brim with beauty and new understandings, I sighed deeply and stopped singing then. I sent the bird my love and gratitude, and it resonated it right back in light and in delight, and then it flew back to the orb, gracefully entered within it once more and I could feel it start to dream, to sleep, to wait until the next time it should be awakened.
The next day was stormy and grey, and then it started to snow furiously. Whatever ideas I might have entertained about taking my new found crystal birdling out into the winter wonderland and have it fly there under a blue sky and surrounded by sparkling snow and ice trees dissipated swiftly as I awoke and looked out the window.
I shivered even though my room was snug and warm; it seemed that fires burned here a whole lot longer than I was used to, or perhaps James had some special magic he added to his coal supply to make this happen, but the fire in my hearth was still burning, glowing embers that had lasted all through the night.
I got up and then my glance fell onto the book.
In this dim and murky light, it still managed to sparkle and it even may have had a glow around it, a radiance of some kind, but that might just have been my eyes, still full of sleep.
Perhaps today I would write something into my book.
I smiled to myself as I realised that I wasn’t afraid of it any longer. I think the meeting with the crystal bird had settled the question whether I would ever be able to do magic, be able to deserve the book, once and for all.
I was glad of that.
I made up my mind that I would return here after breakfast, with new coals and a big mug of brew, open the book and write the very first entry.
With that decision firmly in place, I got washed and dressed and went to find James in the kitchen.
The colder and more inhospitable it was outside, the more the wonderful warmth, welcome and homeliness of the kitchen became apparent. As always, he was up already, pottering around with the supplies.
On my arrival, he wished me a bright, “Good morning to you!” and I stopped for a moment and considered what I might do with all the gratitude I held for him in my heart.
It was an overwhelming feeling that literally nailed me to the wooden floorboards. He must have felt it too because he turned around and leaned against the dresser upon which the ingredients for our breakfast were beginning to assemble.
He looked across the room to me, calmly, and I had to – my hands were doing it, I couldn’t stop them, they were making a gesture as though they were taking something from my heart and then holding it out to him – a gift, the gift of my gratitude. It was as though what I was holding was blue, or perhaps it was green, or perhaps simply opalescent, but it was real and it was there. James the magician held out his hands then too, in a gesture of welcome and receiving, and the field of gratitude I had made travelled across the distance between us. When it reached him, he embraced it, closed his eyes and drew it into himself. He took a sharp breath, put his head back and then he seemed to melt with pleasure, softening all over, and a small smile beginning to touch the corners of his mouth.
He opened his eyes, bowed his head to me and said, “Thank you, Anna.”
I bowed in return, once again without having thought about it, it just came naturally and seemed perfectly appropriate, so there we were, the magician and his apprentice, and things were right between us, exactly as they should have been.
I went over to him then, and side by side we prepared the breakfast. I told him, “I want to write something in my book today. I’ve decided I want to. It’s the perfect day for it.”
James looked at the window, where fast hard drifts of thin snow were rushing and swirling, and nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “It is the perfect day for being indoors and writing in a book. A perfect day.”
We looked at each other and smiled. I thought, magic is wonderful. Living like a magician is wonderful. We get to have perfect days where others would see nothing but terrible weather and wail and moan about it, rather than to find something that would match and have it be just what it might become.
“I’m still not sure what I should write,” I said and set to chopping a ground root very finely that would be baked into a delicious savoury cake in a moment. The idea made my mouth water. “I know you said I’ll know when it comes to it, but … well, it would help me a lot if you could give me a hint, or two.”
James held off from stoking the fire for a moment. “Well yes. I know, you know. There was a time when I had such a book given to me, and I was terrified.” He laughed out aloud at his own memories and shook his head before continuing. “I was a lad and I couldn’t write very well. My writing was terrible. I had hardly been to school and the teacher took my pen away, made me sit in the far corner and gave me an old pencil instead because I always made such a mess with the ink. You know,” he got up and lightly prodded me with his elbow and a twinkle in his eye, “The first time I wrote in my book, I made a great big blot on the very first page!”
“Really?” I was astonished, but also I could see how that would happen. When your hand shakes and you grip the pen like you would try and break it in two, that’s when it happens, most likely.
James said, “Really. Actually, I tell you what. After breakfast and before you go and start your book, I’ll get mine from the tower and show you the blot. Would that help?”
I nodded as I was wiping my hands on a rag. Yes, that would help me a lot. It was already helping to think of him in terms of a nervous youth, way back when it must have been, and he knew as little of magic as did I.
“I would love to hear more about you and what it was like for you when you got started – with the magic,” I said. “If you don’t mind telling, that is …”
James smiled and started to put the ground root mixture on the cast iron griddle. He said, “It’s a long time ago, but if you want to hear, I have some good tales to tell. Like this one time when I was supposed to call a small elemental, and I ended up with a great big chaos dragon instead. It nearly tore the fabric apart …” He chuckled to himself and set to carefully loosening the edges of the ground root cakes with the spatula. I was absolutely riveted, absolutely fascinated.
“A dragon?” I said, “A dragon? You called a dragon? There are such things as dragons?”
“Oh yes,” James replied merrily. “There are dragons. And angels, and elves, and fairies and a whole lot of other beings. They are everywhere. All over the place.” He gave me a sideways glance and must have noticed that I was shocked and perhaps even a little scared, for he continued gently, “You’ll be alright, Anna. You have a lot of common sense, much more than I ever had or possibly more than I have now – and you understand respect. And attention. That’s the most important thing.”
“Respect? Attention? What do you mean?” I was getting over the shock of talking about dragons being real, or there being beings all over the place that I couldn’t see or know anything about, and instead being really joyful that we were talking properly at last, really talking about magic.
“Well, it’s like this,” James said and flipped the cakes with practised ease, “All these creatures, beings and the other things, they have their worlds, they have their own thing that they do. It’s the same with everyone, I guess. As long as you pay attention to them and you don’t bother them or bug them, you’ll be pretty safe.”
I nodded for I understood that well. This is how you deal with wild things, too, and possibly men, just the same.
“Are there dangerous ones?” I asked, “Like wolves in the forest, who look to find you and eat you?”
James sighed deeply. “Look,” he said. “Let’s not talk about that at the moment. How many meadows and mountains and rivers and forests are there, and how many wolves? Yes, there are wolves. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend your life in fear, or looking over your shoulder. There aren’t any in this kitchen, for example, are there.”
I smiled and handed him the first plate. He picked a cake from the griddle, flipped it onto the plate and for a moment, I became completely immersed in the look of the delicious golden brown sizzling thing there, the wonderful scent of it, and the delight in knowing that in a moment, I would get to taste this, experience this, a wonderful enjoyment quite unlike any other.
It was not until we’d sat down with mugs of brew and I’d eaten the first two of my three ground root cakes that I returned to the subject of invisible wolves.
“I knew a man once,” I said, “He was a hunter from the far north. He lived with wolves for many seasons. He loved them.”
James looked up with some surprise, then he nodded. “Very good,” he said, “That’s exactly right. You are thinking about this in the right way. Wolves are what they are, and if you pay attention to them, learn to know their ways, and yes, love them, for that’s when you learn the most, you are not exactly safe from them, but far less likely to get eaten.”
I tackled my last ground root cake and said, “Well, you’re still here, you haven’t been eaten, so that’s a good sign!”
He laughed at that, picked up his mug and held it up to me.
“A toast,” he said merrily, and his blue eyes were sparkling. “To not being eaten by the wolves.”
I had to laugh too. “Definitely!” We clinked our mugs together, and I had the sense that I had just witnessed a spell of kinds, that some small magic, or perhaps not such small magic had been done right there, and I felt safe then, and I was no longer afraid of the invisible wolves.
James knocked on the door and when I opened it, there he was and he was holding a book as big as mine, only clearly older and at least three times as thick.
He came into my room and we both sat down, side by side, on my bed. He took the big book and shifted it from his lap across to mine.
“There,” he said, “You can look for yourself.”
James’ book was very heavy on my legs. The leather had weathered, but you could still see that it too had been made of many different pieces, carefully meshed together. It was very much like my own in every way apart from the passage of time.
I had the notion it was throbbing and pulsing into my legs and into my hands that were just hovering above it, not daring to touch the many different gemstones and inlays. On his book, the clasp was set with what appeared to be an emerald of great beauty.
“Is it really alright for me to open this?” I asked under my breath. I could feel James shifting on the bed in response as he leaned forward on his elbows.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “We have many mysteries, but certainly no secrets.”
I swiftly glanced at him but he was entirely serious about that. Mysteries but no secrets. What a wonderful sentence. That’s the kind of sentence that I would like to write into my own book.
I took a deep breath, steeled myself and very cautiously touched the emerald. The lock, old as it was, sprang open obediently and instantly.
Carefully, reverently I opened the cover to see the first page.
And there it was.
Scrawled in the most untidy big letters, and with a big, big blot right smack in the middle, it said, “This book belongs to James.”
And that was all.
The blot wasn’t just a blot, it was smeared, because obviously the writer had tried to make good, get rid of it, make it less noticeable, but had only succeeded in spreading the ink even further.
“If you turn the pages, you’ll see that the blot goes through at least the first five before it finally disappears,” James says softly.
I turn the page and that’s right, the blot is on the second page too, and the writer had written around it.
On the third page, the blot is smaller but still clearly visible. On this page, the writer had drawn a very crude picture of a man with a star on his head, and the blot forms the centre of that star.
On the fourth page, the blot has become a part of what looks like a small diagram, and on the fifth page I have to search for it – it has become a part of the writing, a part of a word.
The word is “tomorrow”.
I turn to James and don’t know what to say. I am so very grateful to him for showing me his book, showing me his blot, sharing his blot with me. For some reason, this what seems to be such an awful mistake and must have had him cursing and probably even crying back then is a healing for me on this day, a lesson like I’ve never had before.
“Thank you,” I say to him, but I sort of don’t mean to say it to the old man who is sitting here with me, but to the young boy who wrote those things, who faced this book and bravely clutched his pen and made his marks.
For a moment, a vision of that young boy overlays the old magician – he has the same sparkle in his eyes, and he winks at me before he disappears and I am back with James, and the books, and the sleet battering the window pane.
James nods and very carefully, reaches across to pat my hand which still lies on the word, “tomorrow”. Two small pressures travel in pulses up my arm and into my back, and there they strengthen me, give me permission all at the same time to be brave, and to be strong.
He gets up and gently closes the book, lifts it from my legs and holds it to his chest.
“Good luck,” he says and smiles a little wistfully, then he leaves.
My eyes are already on my own book.
I want to know what I would write if it was my hand which held the pen.
So here I am, and here is the book.
When you open it, it is lined with a thick parchment that is most beautifully marbled; this is the back of the heavy cover and the first page. That’s not where James the younger had started to write in his book; he had started on the first real page, the first page that was the same as all the others in the book.
But this was my book and I could choose to do differently; and as I was holding the heavy cover in my left hand and stroking the thick parchment inner page with my right, I thought that I would like to write the name I call myself there, before any of the content began.
I used my elbow to hold down the cover and reached across for the inkwell and the pen. The cut glass stopper came out easily and I laid it in the little tray designed for just this purpose, picked up the pen and gently dipped it into the thick black ink.
I tapped it to the side of the inkwell and raised it carefully. It didn’t matter if I was to blot this book. It was mine and any mark I would make would be mine also, and including any blot. Who knows? Perhaps one day I will show my book to a one who was frightened like I was yesterday and young James had been all these many years ago, and they too would take some comfort from my writing not being in absolute perfection.
I took a deep breath, held the pages down, new and stiff they were and smelled of wood, and leather, and right at the top I wrote down what I heard James say and I liked that so much, it seemed just right:
Only mysteries. No secrets.
The pen flowed smoothly across the parchment and my hand was steady. My writing was a little stiff, unpractised save for a shopping list, now and then but it was easy to read and stood out clearly.
I looked at the words and then I smiled and signed it beneath with:
It struck me then that I didn’t know what the date was. The dates had gone away when I entered this house and they seemed quite immaterial in all ways, so I added instead,
I placed the full stop with great care and there was no blotting whatsoever. I returned the pen to the holder and carefully blew on the shiny ink, watched it settle and change ever so slightly and I continued blowing onto it, my breath, my essence, my love in a way and my desire to have those words be true.
To have my heart be true to all of this, to have no doubt, just be wide eyed and amazed at these worlds I had always hoped might just be there. Even if I myself might not be able to reach them, it would have comforted me to know that someone else could and did; for then, not all was lost and there was hope, if not for me, then for that other.
And now, it had so come to pass that I was that other, was becoming the other, the blessed one who would see, and know, and live these worlds to be the truth of their existence.
For a moment, I was confused and my thoughts spun backwards – how did I ever deserve this? What had I ever done but moan and complain, what had I ever done thus far to make the world a better place for me or anyone at all?
I looked at the book where someone had written in black ink, indelible:
Only mysteries. No secrets.
It drew me in and made me very calm and I thought, it matters not if I don’t deserve this, for it is here, and it is real. I am becoming that other who gave me hope for all these years. It is under way and once such a thing has begun, there is no turning back.
You can’t undo a single moment of your time; and there is always only forward, that’s what life is all about.
So there’s no worry. What will be, will be; what is known, that has been done and every moment is new. That’s what the magician tried to teach me when he told me of the mornings and the ever bright new dawns, each one unique and with its own name, with its own song, and together they make up your life, and mine.
I touched the ink with an outstretched fingertip to ascertain if it was dry; and it was not and there before me lay a moment of decision.
I could lift my finger clear and the s at the end of the word “secrets” would remain essentially intact. But if I was to keep my finger tip on the paper and pulled it, I would make a streak, a smear.
I couldn’t help but smile as my finger increased the pressure and then made a fast downward movement – now the s had a tail, like an arrow pointing down towards the “Always.”
For some reason, it made the whole thing come to life and take on a different meaning, a different level of existence; and in a way you could say that with that streak I had admitted to the possibility of there being a future where I was an old magician and I had a student, just like me.
This might or might not come to pass but I did get the sense that it was another step for me, one that I needed to have taken to unlock the door, to lay aside my previous life with all its trials and its limitations, and that I was now willing to step into being that other who once gave me hope.
After I had written the first words into my book of magic, I must have gone to lie down for a while and fallen asleep for when I awoke, it was already dark outside and I was very hungry.
James was in the kitchen, sorting through some bunches of dried herbs and extracting a special leaf here and there, placing them carefully into a glass jar. He had lit the oil lamps and was whistling to himself when I arrived.
I told him that I must have fallen asleep, that I had made my first entry and apologised for having missed lunch.
“I don’t usually sleep in the day,” I said to him, “I don’t really know what happened.”
“Ah,” he said, “It’s the magic. It takes it out on you when you first start. Especially big stuff, like dedicating the book. I’m not at all surprised you had a rest after that. Always sleep when you are tired. That’s the best thing to do.”
It seemed a most obvious thing that you should sleep when you are tired, but it did make me think how such an obvious thing wasn’t at all being followed in the outside world. You had to stay up and keep on working and you weren’t allowed to go to bed until a set time, and never mind your state of health, or of exhaustion.
This made me think of something so I asked him, “James, where does the food come from we eat here? Who pays for it, who pays for the house, for the coals?” for I knew only too well that nothing, but absolutely nothing in this life is for free and someone must be labouring somewhere so that I would have the space to sleep the afternoon away.
James squinted at a small dried leaf in his hand and replied, “I do.”
I took this information in and went to put a fresh kettle to the boil. It made me slightly uncomfortable. I had wondered about this on and off ever since I first came here and I noticed that I did not like being a kept woman, and having this man pay for all and everything here, without contributing even with base labour, pay my dues.
I wasn’t sure if he would get annoyed with me but I needed to know more about the basic arrangements of our – my – survival here.
“Where do you get the money from?” I asked as easily as I could manage, whilst making a big fuss of positioning the kettle just right above the fire in the hearth.
James stopped sorting the leaves and turned right around to me. There was a mischievous smile on his face as he said, “How do you think I get my money?”
I shook my head but said anyway, “By magic?”
James started to chuckle, then laugh. “That’s right,” he said eventually, “I get my money by magic.”
I couldn’t help but feel annoyed with him. I had literally broken my back with labour and worry over how to get a few coins together so we would have at least a broth between everyone at my table more often than you can imagine. I had spent my entire life being terrified of not being able to scrape together enough so that the rent might be paid again, or the arrears at the supplies stores, terrified and sleepless at night how to make ends meet, again and yet again.
It was the greatest bane of my life to have been born poor and to have married poor, three times at that, and there was never enough, not even close to enough, and nothing left over for anything beyond the barest essentials.
And here he was, no wife or hungry children to take care of, no labour that I could observe, sitting in his big, warm cosy house with a fire in every room, all the food he can eat and so much to spare that he can even feed a total stranger at a whim, and he’s laughing and saying he gets his money by magic.
Yes, I was angry at him. For the first time, I was really angry. I wasn’t shouting angry, but I did have angry tears in my eyes and had to turn away so he wouldn’t see them, and so that the heat of the fire might dry them.
Behind me, James got up from the table and came over to me.
“What is it, Anna?” he asked, concerned, and put a hand on my shoulder. I reflexively shrugged it off and wished I hadn’t. He was kinder to me than my father and all my husbands put together had ever been and didn’t demand a thing. I was a very bad person to feel as I did and be so angry.
Still, I couldn’t stop it, it was just there, a big hot knot in my stomach, a choking in my throat and furious pressure in my face, driving tears from my eyes that I couldn’t stop.
I turned away, into the corner and buried my head in my hands.
For the first time since I’d known him, James the magician was at a loss as to what to do with me.
He stood for a while longer but didn’t say anything, then I heard him leave the room.
That’s when I really started to cry because I was being ridiculous, unfair and I hated myself for being like this, at the mercy of such feelings that had no root in reality and worst of all, would cause me trouble.
What if he decided I was too difficult, too high strung, too mad? What if he just got tired of me and threw me out? What was I to do then?
The thought terrified me and I did the best I could to stop the crying, switch myself off, wipe the tears off my face and pat my hair down, wipe my hands on my skirt and present a pleasant, pliant and obedient image when he would return. Perhaps he would forgive my outburst, forget about it and we could just go along as we had before.
He was gone for what seemed a long time and I didn’t know what I should do. I took the kettle off the fire, thought about doing some cleaning or something but there wasn’t anything to be done. I thought about going back to my room and waiting until he would call me, but I wasn’t sure he would take it the wrong way and be more angry still.
I stood in the kitchen and I was very, very scared.
Outside, it was deep winter.
It was a long way to go to anywhere at all, and where would I go?
I would have to go to one of my children, the nearest was my middle boy who lived in a town many miles away. How would I get there? Would I be able to walk there, find shelter on the way?
I noticed that my breathing was becoming very shallow and the room started to spin; it was too hot and I was sweating all of a sudden. I had to steady myself against the dresser and tried to breathe more evenly when the door opened and the magician returned.
He didn’t look at me but instead, took the dark wooden object he was carrying to the table, swept the leaves to one side to make room for it and put it down.
It was a box shaped objects with a hole on the top and steel strings strung across it – he had brought a musical instrument?
He sat down in front of it, shuffled on the stool and carefully put his hand on the strings, gave them a little stroke all across and a range of sweet, pure notes floated through the room in response.
They made me shiver and catch my breath in my throat again. Without looking at me or giving me any attention whatsoever, the magician put his other hand on the strings too and then he began to play.
I recognised the melody.
This was an old folk song about a young couple of lovers, and the boy was about to go to war. It was a lovely song but very sad and on that night, I really didn’t have anything to protect me from that, with the sweet notes so beautifully played, the scene of those two talking and clinging to each other, terrified of the dawn to come where they would be separated, probably forever, stood so clearly there in front of me, became a part of me and I cried and cried, for the girl and for the young soldier, and then for me, although I didn’t know why or what any longer.
I slid down the dresser, sat on the floor and just sobbed.
The song finished but it didn’t end; it went on into a variation, beyond the place where I knew the story of the song which ends when she waves him goodbye, the melody went on into something else, the dawn where he leaves her moving on into a noon perhaps, an afternoon, a silken sunset and then on into another night with sparkling lights and shooting stars …
James’ voice softly joined this new song.
“There are many things a magician can do,” he said and his words were perfectly aligned to the rhythm of the song, to the weaving melody that kept unfolding into unfamiliar, unexpected harmonies beneath his softly stroking hands. “And many things we do are held to be most precious, even wondrous, and they are well paid for by the ones who need these things but cannot reach them by themselves.”
The melody behind his words began to change quite subtly. It became a little faster, a little more assured and brighter, too.
“You can’t buy magic, but you can pay a magician to perform a task for you, or two, to pay them for their time, their expertise.”
Now, the song was getting very rhythmic, very bright, merry, even, and James started to sing along, “Money in my pocket, and money in my hand, money in my home and money in the bank, money flows towards me like the river to sea – its easy and its magical as counting one two three! And … There’s money in my pocket, there’s money in my hand …”
Against my own will or wishes, my foot started to tap in time with the ridiculous little song he was singing. But I was holding back. If only it was that easy! I knew differently though … or did I?
Round and round went the song. James was singing it at the top of his voice now, his feet on the floor and the heels of his hands on the instrument making a beat just as his fingertips were flying across the strings, a one man band, and he was clearly enjoying himself.
And as I sat and watched him, I had to sigh.
What did I know about – anything?
I had never even tried to make money with magic, not once, in all those bitter years. I had always only tried to make money the hard way. That was all I knew, that was all anyone I knew, knew.
He was right though about making money with magic. As poor as I was, there were times when I bought a spell, where I found the money to buy some magic. At one time it was a healing potion from a gypsy woman for my youngest child, and it worked like a charm, too. At another time, I paid a reader to tell me the future in my palm. I had been terrified my then husband would find out for he would have beaten me for sure, for wasting money on such nonsense that would have been much better spend on a jug of cheap wine.
And then I remembered something else. A long time ago, when I was pregnant with my second child and feeling very out of sorts, I bought a little picture from a market stall. I still had this, it was upstairs in my little bundle, one of the few things I called my own and were precious to me. It was painted by a one armed soldier who made his living that way, with cheap black tar paint on a slice of wood, the size of your palm, with a crude hole in the top so you could hang it on the wall. It showed a character from a fairy tale, a little boy who goes off to find his fortune, whistling happily with a stick over his shoulder and a bundle tied to it.
I don’t know why I bought that and not a bag of ground roots instead; but I remember thinking that if I didn’t buy it and take it with me, I would fade away and die. The little picture had given me strength, hope, and something to smile at a thousand times or more during all the years and as simple as it was, was one of the most marvellous things I’ve ever owned.
James was right. People will pay their hard earned money for magic because they need it, because it is precious, and because it saves your life in a very special way like nothing else ever could.
And in the strangest way, as I sat in the kitchen on the floor and listened to James perform this children’s song on magic money, I thought that I myself had paid for me being here. I hadn’t given the money to James directly, but to the gypsy woman, the palm reader, the one armed soldier, but that in some way, all money paid for magic is a deposit into an account on which you get to draw one day, if only you knew that.
When I thought that, be it right or wrong, what was left of the fiery knot of anger in my stomach melted away completely and I could breathe again properly.
I could see and feel and hear again properly, and the magician’s obvious and true enjoyment of the song came to me then. I smiled and breathed it in, let it come to me, let the song come to me, the magic come to me and it wasn’t long after that I first whispered, then sang the song right along with James; and not long after that, I got up and started dancing it, too, clapping my hands in time and feeling like a delighted child.
For a whole day and a night I tried to return to how it had been before, what I’d been doing before, but I found that I couldn’t.
I understood how magic and money had a relationship now and I was certainly no longer angry at James; but I felt that I had been very much in the wrong with my angry thoughts towards him.
He showed no sign that he gave the incident any thought and even offered to teach me to play the strange musical instrument which he called a wayfarer’s harp; he was smiling and friendly just as before. This didn’t make any difference to me though and I found that in the state I was in, I couldn’t do any magic.
I had tried to call forth the little angel bird from the crystal and failed. I had thought to draw a picture of it into the book but it just wasn’t happening. I had tried to just sit there and be still and look at the driving snow outside which still continued to fall as I had learned to do before, but I couldn’t shut off my mind.
I felt all wrong, displaced, as though I was a train that had left its tracks and was now stuck, wheels spinning and not gaining any forward momentum. Of course, I tried to talk myself out of it, take my mind off it, but it just wouldn’t go away; then I found that I couldn’t get to sleep either for thinking about all that.
About how envious I’d been. How bitter. How angry. How scared. How I resented the fact that it was James who owned the house and made money by magic to pay for the food. How I resented the fact that I was only a guest here, had no rights beyond what he might grant me in his kindness, and thus in my mind, no freedom.
Sometimes I would think that I was being mad again and nearly managed to convince myself that to take heed of my own thoughts was a waste of time; other times I veered into the opposite direction and started to make plans as to what to do if I was to leave his house and find myself on the open road, to prove to him and to myself that I didn’t need him to guarantee my survival.
But all of it, going round and round in my head to the point that it hurt and my eyes were dry as dust and grating, and the nervous tension it left me with that caused my hands to grow cold and stinging, all of it was taking me away from magic.
I felt that from the start but it took a day and a night for me to figure it out.
A sleepless night it took for me to come to my senses and to understand that I would have to talk to him about this or I would eat myself up from within.
The night was still as black as ever, though the storm had finally abated, when I went downstairs and made myself a mug of brew, summer herbs only, and sat down at the table to wait until he got up, and to try and figure out what I might say to him.
What could I say?
“I’m sorry James, I’m completely insane and you’ll hate me even more than you already do if I say it, or if you don’t hate me, surely you despise me, as well you should, but I …”
What is wrong with me?
I shook my head, wrapped my scarf more tightly around my shoulders, sipped the brew and tried not to worry any more. My head was weary and heavy, hot and hollow all the same and I was so very tired. I was also afraid and startled every time there was a sound, thinking that might be him and the time had come.
I was getting distraught by my own thoughts and knew that well enough, but I was entirely incapable of stopping myself or choosing a more sensible course of action.
And finally, there was the sound of his steps on the stairs. Each one vibrated through me as they grew louder and he opened the door and stepped inside.
“Good morning,” he said cheerfully upon seeing me sit at the table. He closed the door with care, turned around and then really noticed that I wasn’t in a happy way.
He put his head to one side and forward, looked at me searchingly. “What’s the matter, Anna? Are you feeling ill?”
I thought, you’re supposed to be a magician. Read my mind, why don’t you.
His eyes widened for a moment and he said, “You want me to read your mind?”
I should have been shocked or something, but I was too tired. Yes, I thought. Read my mind. Tell me what’s wrong with me.
The magician grew still and silent, different. He sighed deeply and then went around the table to sit down on the opposite side of me, with his back to the fire.
I had not lit any lamps in the kitchen, so his face was in shadow and I couldn’t really make him out, save for a glint where his eyes might have been.
He sighed again and put his hand on the table, palm up, in a gesture of invitation or an order to place my hand in his.
I was tired, I was sad and my hand went on its way and lay limply in his with little hesitation.
He closed his hand around mine. It was dry and warm and I got a sense of great strength from him, even though he didn’t grip me tightly at all.
I closed my eyes.
Take this madness from me, I thought. Take this madness and take this sadness. I don’t want to be like this. I want to work with you, I want to learn from you, I want to be able to receive what you have to give and learn to return whatever I may have, eventually, to even out the bargain. Help me.
As in direct response, his hand on mine tightened just fractionally. With my eyes closed and everything being so unreal and far away, that one sensation seemed the only thing that was holding me here, that kept me from falling somewhere or dissipating altogether. I returned the grip as though I was trying to hold on more securely.
I could feel his hand moving a little, then his thumb made a small stroking motion across my knuckles and down my fingers and I thought, oh. We are talking. We are talking with our hands …
Without will, my other hand came forward and laid itself on the table. Without it there to hold on, the scarf slipped from my shoulders. I sighed deeply as I felt it slither and fall away and then startled as he took my other hand as well.
Now we were sitting, holding hands across the table.
I could feel the warmth from his hands travelling into mine, being absorbed into me, and I got scared of the great intimacy of this, and a part of me wanted to pull her hands back because I didn’t give that much to any man, no matter what, but there was also a part of me that wanted to hold on tightly, have him hold me tightly and engage more deeply with him still.
He was very quiet and didn’t move at all now. His hands were vibrant but entirely steady, there was no movement. They felt soft now, enfolding, encompassing, gentle. I had the sense that my own hands may stretch into this embrace, relax in doing so, lengthening, like one might stretch beneath a feather quilt in safety, in comfort.
It was a pleasant thought, a pleasant sensation that then began to spread and inhabit me more strongly, finding a resonance in the warmth of the kitchen itself, in my tiredness and need to find relief and peace, to just be able to let go of all of that, of everything and give a blessing that there is no need for vigilance, just this once, just this time, a time of sanctuary and of deepest restoration.
I am not sure but it is possible that I fell asleep; of what I am sure however is that I dreamed, and in the dream we were both there, James and I, and he was very young and so was I, and we sat on an old drystone wall, swinging our feet and talking about becoming a magician one day.
I can’t remember what we said, but I remember there were bushes with little yellow flowers growing in the shade of the wall, and ahead, there was road way and a verge, a wooden fence, and behind this, pastures, meadows green with many swathes of blossom and beyond that further still, the forests, dark and green, and mountains far away.
The sky was blue and the sun was shining, and we talked of many things until all things were said and done, and we jumped off the wall together and made our way along the wall, to find a meal and a drink, for we were thirsty.
Slowly I opened my eyes.
James was sitting opposite me and he too, was opening his eyes in time with mine. This time I could see them, look into his eyes. I am very sorry, I thought and knew that he heard me loud and clear, that he felt that I meant it, and that he would know I needed to have told him this.
He bowed his head slightly and so did I, and so I saw that we were still holding hands across the kitchen table. Then he smiled, tightened the grip on me, raised my hands to his lips and kissed them gently.
I accepted this entirely and there was only a trace of wonderment that swiftly dissipated like a streak of mist in the valley, took a deep breath and then he let go of me.
Out aloud, I said, “Thank you, James.”
And though he said noting in return, just smiled a little, I thought I heard him think, I thank you more, but it will be a long time before you really understand.
I slept for most of that day and all through the following night. I remember drifting in and out of consciousness and there were a succession of dreams, like stories unfolding, each one different but they were all related somehow, although quite what all of this was about, I didn’t really know. When I awoke the following day, bright sunshine was streaming through the window and James was outside my door.
He knocked and called out, “Anna, get up, come for breakfast! I have a surprise waiting this morning!”
This got me moving faster, much faster than I normally move and it put a smile on my face the whole time. As I was hurrying down the stairs to the kitchen, I became aware of the fact that I was excited and happy to receive this surprise, and not at all suspicious, or afraid.
Whatever talking we had done with our hands that night, it really must have made a difference, I thought.
James was ready in the kitchen with the breakfast and looked bright and happy, and unusually was attired in green – green trousers, a green tunic of thicker material than he normally wore and different boots as well.
“Come,” he said, “Let us eat, and then we must be on our way!” He gestured at the window. I looked outside – and there was a sleigh outside the window, and a dark brown horse in the yard.
“Where are we going?” I asked in amazement, “And where did the horse and sleigh come from?”
James had sat down and started to pull pieces off a freshly baked loaf of bread and I joined him at the table.
“We are going to market today,” he said and said to buttering his bread with energetic strokes of the knife. “I thought it was time to buy some things that you might need.” He took a big bite of his bread, chewed for a while and then added, “Now that we know you are going to stay.”
I looked from the window to him, to the breakfast table full of bread, and butter, cold meat, freshly cooked eggs and jugs of brew and didn’t know what to say. But then my hunger made itself known strongly and so I just shrugged and set to eating as well.
We were going to market. We were going to buy some things that I would need now that we knew I was going to stay.
We knew that?
Yes, I guess we did. He knew and I knew. I was going to stay and I was not going to question the whys and wherefores of this situation any longer, but instead enjoy the many blessings that had so unaccountably befallen me – like this wonderful food, freshly prepared, healthy and delicious and ready for me to sit down and eat without having to do a single chore up front.
After a while of companionable eating, I asked him, “Are we going to Grinda market?” This was the market nearest the village from which I had come, a small country market in a small country town.
But James shook his head. “No, we can’t get what we are after there. We are going all the way to Lamora today.”
I was amazed. Lamora market was much bigger and it didn’t close in winter like many of the smaller markets did; Lamora sat in a very benevolent position in the bend of a river and remained accessible and ice free even in the depth of winter. It was, however, a fair distance away. I smiled as I took a drink from my mug. With that good looking horse out front and that elegant sleigh, that wouldn’t be a problem.
“Did you get the horse by magic?” I asked him in jest, but he smiled and said, “No, I went down the road to Farmer Kerred’s house yesterday. He keeps my horses for me, and my carriages. And this sleigh.”
“Is that where our food comes from then as well?” I wondered and James nodded. “I’m not one for farming,” he said, “Farmer Kerred runs a clean place and what he and his wife can’t provide for me, they buy it in and deliver it here. Usually early on, when you are still asleep,” he added as he saw my look of surprise.
I had not seen anyone here in all the time I had been staying. Just how long had that been? Two weeks, three? I sincerely lost track of all time. But it mattered not. It was a beautiful day, the breakfast was wonderful and in a moment, we would be flying through the magical white world outside, on our way to market, to buy things with money that had been earned by magic.
“You go get dressed warmly,” James said when we were done, “I’ll clear up here. It’s time to be going!”
Once again, I skipped rather than walked up the stairs to my room. I put on most everything I owned because it was a quite a drive to Lamora, and although it was nice and bright right now, the sheer distance dictated that we would be driving home long after the night had fallen and it would be very, very cold.
As I gathered both my scarves, my old woollen gloves and my hat I had a little twinge of regret because I didn’t have any money. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. I did have three silver coins, for the last, the ultimate emergency, sewn into my bodice. I had trained myself over the years to forget that I had these three coins and never thought of them or touched them, no matter how bad things got, because they were strictly for a life and death situation, when it should arise.
I hesitated. I stood still in the middle of the room and had a notion that if I was to divest myself entirely of this last safety anchor, it might be a gesture to the worlds of magic that I was placing my trust there, instead of with my three coins. Was that sensible? Was that right? I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t sure how to decide what was right and what was wrong.
However, I felt the overwhelming urge to get the coins out, to hold them in my hand and at least look at them before making a decision. James was waiting downstairs for me and there was no time to lose; so very quickly, I got my little knife, undid the bodice, and set to cutting through the stitching, making a hole big enough so I could extract the coins by squeezing them through.
They lay heavy and dull in my hand. I remember that they used to be shiny but I guess being washed with the bodice had made them that way. I shook my head, put the coins in my pocket, re-laced the bodice, picked up the scarves and gloves and went downstairs.
The kitchen door was open and brightest sunlight was streaming into the room, setting little dust motes to dance like many stars. I screwed up my eyes against the brightness and stepped out into the snowy yard. James was already climbing up into the sleigh, wearing a big brown leather coat with fur on the inside, a brown hat made from the same type of skin, and thick leather gloves.
The sleigh was made of golden wood and looked like a swan, with a low front and sweeping round and up to a high back, against which the driver and passenger would be leaning, with their legs stretched out long and braced against the low front part. At the back, there was a compartment for carrying goods, but it was quite small; this was not a working sleigh but clearly meant for the transportation of well-to-do people in good comfort. The horse stood pretty in its clean and simple harness, with the shafts being connected to an ornamental hoop across its shoulders that held a small bell.
James was arranging some large brown furs in the sleigh and gestured to me. “Close the door,” he called across, “And come on. Let’s get tucked in. And stuck in!”
I looked at the kitchen door. “Shouldn’t I lock it?” I called back, and even as I did, I knew that this door wouldn’t be locked, and still no-one would seek to enter or steal things whilst we were gone.
“Just pull it to, and make sure it is closed properly,” James replied, so that’s what I did and then made my way through the crunchy snow to the sleigh and climbed in as well.
James made a fuss of pulling the top half of the brown furs securely over me and he seemed to enjoy that; so I just sat back and let him do it with a smile. Finally, he was satisfied. He settled himself back into his own seat, picked up the reins, looked across to me and smiled brightly. “Ready?” he said and I smiled back and nodded.
He flicked the reins, gave a small shout and the horse set off immediately, as though it was glad as well to be moving, to be on our way.
So we travelled under the brilliant blue sky through the winter fields, and it was wonderful. I sat comfortably on and under the big furs which strangely, smelled of hay and grass. James was a very good driver and the horse obeyed him perfectly; it moved lightly and happily and there was a sense that there wasn’t a care in the world, that all was well, and all was bright and beautiful that day.
I looked at the wonderful landscape all around and tried to remember when I’d ever felt like that, so calm and happy, and excited too at the thought of going to market, with three whole silver coins in my pocket and a kindly man by my side.
We came down the hill at some speed and past the farmer’s residence, a big and well kept collection of houses and outbuildings, with quite a bit of activity in the yard. James waved to the people we passed, and they waved back with smiles on their faces but also with respect in their bearing and their stance.
Once we were on the main road, there was more to see still – other sledges and carriages, houses and trees, and all of it was so picture perfect this day, with the small but intense sun climbing higher and making it feel much warmer than it actually was.
I let myself lean back completely, folded my hands under the furs and just drifted then, no need to think, no need to talk or worry, just enjoy the sights and the colours, and I let all of this to come to me, to become a part of me, and possibly to brighten me in the process.
We had been travelling for quite a while when James said to me, “Shall we stop and get a drink and perhaps a cake, or two? There is an inn just up ahead and we’ve made good time, so there’s time if you want to take a break.”
This woke me up and I noticed that I’d become quite stiff; the thought of a drink was welcome and I would also appreciate the opportunity to visit an outhouse.
So we drew up by what looked not like an inn at all, but a fairy castle, covered in snow and with sparkling icicles decorating the roofs and the many turrets, little towers, standing by itself and embraced by old, old trees.
James drew into the yard which was quite churned and wet; a young boy came running. I heard James instructing him kindly on what to do with our horse whilst I climbed from the furs and the sleigh.
I felt like a queen that day. Difficult to say, difficult to describe, but I don’t remember a time now when I was out and about just by myself, without a horde the children clinging at my skirts, or in some capacity engaged on an urgent task of fetching and carrying.
We were here today, two older people, just because we wanted to; just because James had taken a fancy to go to Lamora market and made it so.
There was no time pressure, we were stopping for drinks and cakes, and the stable boy was being paid to take care of the horse.
I sighed with pleasure and also with gratitude that I was allowed to be here on this day, to experience a very different world to what I had taken for granted for so long. The world in which I had lived for all that time had not been the real world at all, I thought. It had been a world, and it had been terribly real for me, but it wasn’t all there was, and I don’t think I knew that.
I don’t think I ever really thought about it, how everything could be so different, how I could be so very different in another world. If I had known, would I have made more of an effort to seek these other worlds? I wonder …
We walked into the inn and it was very hot and stuffy in there after the brilliance and clarity of our drive; so we decided to sit outside in the garden instead. The inn keeper thought we were quite mad but didn’t argue; he led our way through the inn to the back door which opened onto a terrace surrounded by high trees, where many tough wooden benches and tables were covered in snow. The inn keeper cleared one table of as much snow as he could, took our order and walked away, shaking his head.
We sat down.
From the inn came noises and voices, but out here, the old trees, bare limbed oaks and elms and stately conifers were still and gracious under the winter sun that sparkled everywhere, reflected beautifully.
“This is so beautiful,” I said to James with a sigh, and he looked around and nodded. “There, look,” he said and pointed to one of the highest of the bare trees. I followed his finger and saw a whole group of small birds taking flight all at once; it looked as though the tree itself was coming apart and rising up in a cloud of fluttering into the sky.
The small birds formed a sphere, that in the blink of an eye had turned into a disk, then a streak and they were gone.
I said to James, “Is this a part of being a magician? To see things, and to be delighted by them?”
James was still looking into the sky, where the small birds had disappeared. Slowly, he said, “Yes, I think it is. I hadn’t really thought about it in that way, but you are right. To see things and to be delighted by them.”
He looked over to me and smiled. “You have a way with words, you know,” he said and I felt a small blush of pleasure in return. It is true that I like words. I can find that words can delight me. This gave me an idea and I said, “So perhaps it is more than that. Perhaps it is not just about seeing things, but also hearing things, and feeling things, and being delighted by that, as well.”
James chuckled. “Well then, perhaps being a magician is just about being delighted,” he suggested and that made me laugh as well. The more I thought about it, the more I had to laugh. Now if you had ever, ever asked me what I thought it would be like to be a magician, or what made a magician very different from other people, the idea that they could be more delighted, or delighted more often than everyone else would have never occurred to me. Yet it was absolutely true. I had experienced more delight in James’ house than I had ever known before. There were delightful things every single day – surprises, seeing things afresh, feeling things I’d never felt, and not to mention, doing things I’d never thought I could, such as charming a spirit from a crystal with a song I made up myself.
And it seemed to me that every one of these delights was like a magic potion, a healing potion that soothed some thing in me, took away an old pain, a memory of time of suffering, a worry or a fear that had plagued me like I was infested with fleas which made me scratch and itch and always unhappy – these things were going, banished, melting away and what was doing it were the delights.
How many delights can there be in a single day?
How many had there been already, just today, and the day had only just begun?
Here was the inn keeper, and he brought even more delight – he brought two great pewter mugs of mulled wine and a big plate piled high with an assortment of sweetmeats and cakes.
When I used to be a drudge, there had been times when I would also drink mulled wine and eat sweetmeats. I used to get pleasure from that, or so I thought; but now, as a queen and an apprentice magician, in this magical garden, with the snow all around us, these tastes and textures, flavours and sensations were heightened to the point that I thought I would once again simply faint with pleasure. The hot, sweet wine was slow and ruby on my tongue, sliding down my throat and I was absolutely aware of every moment of its passing into me, and how its essence and material caused an explosion of warmth and radiance in my stomach that shuddered me through and through.
“Oh my,” I heard myself say weakly, as I swayed on the seat with the pure experience of it.
James was watching me and clearly, he was getting an inordinate amount of pleasure from my reactions. It showed in his smile and in his bearing and I couldn’t help but wonder about that. I had to ask, “Do you feel this too? Do you feel like this all the time? What is it like after years of feeling like this?”
James laughed and said, “To be honest, the wonder of it never really goes away. It’s always with you – it is always with me. But people being what they are, we get used to the best things soon enough. And to watch you discover this, and to be here and be allowed to feel it fresh again through you, that is a blessing and reminder both to me.”
I nodded because that made perfect sense to me; in a small way, I had experienced this myself when raising my children. I remember a time when my daughter was very small, we were outside and it started to rain. It was the first time that she was old enough to take notice and she was so astonished by it, amazed, delighted – it was a wonderful moment and a very fond memory, indeed. Her joy had become mine. It was a gift, of this there could be no doubt; she had given me a gift of her delight that day and I had known it too, even way back then. I had been grateful to her for that moment.
I looked at James afresh then and thought, perhaps that’s what he meant when he indicated that I was giving him things of which I wasn’t aware as yet, and that these things were precious, precious enough to weigh up lots of money being spent on my care and keeping.
James picked up a small star shaped cake and said, “You are very precious to me.” He didn’t look at me as he said that and I wondered if he heard that word, precious, in my thoughts and was speaking it back so that it might be understood those things were real.
I also wondered why it was that I felt neither pleased nor threatened by this statement; that I did not feel the need to argue it, convince him or myself of my own lack of worth, or thank him for a compliment, for this was not a compliment. It was a statement of fact, an honest observation and one which I began to appreciate as being quite true, at that.
I found that I replied by saying, “You are so very honest. I’ve never met anyone who speaks as honestly as you do.”
He half smiled and replied, “I have nothing to be afraid of.”
Then he ate his cake.
We arrived in Lamora in the early afternoon and left the horse and sleigh to be well looked after at a livery stable on the outskirts, then walked the rest of the way to the market. James had offered me his arm and I was perfectly happy to accept it, the roadways here being churned and re-frozen mud and very slippery.
It had been some years since I had last visited this town; since then, it had grown quite a bit and looked more prosperous. Many of the houses near the centre of the town had been carefully re-painted and restored; some even had gold leaf in the eaves and in writing on the thick beams above the entrance doors. This beautiful day had called everyone in the world out of their abodes and send them this way, so it seemed; the streets were literally thronging with people and with carriages. Now normally I wasn’t at all fond of crowds and being shuffled and bustled here and there; but today, I felt quite safe amidst it all and I was wondering why that was until I noticed that there was a small zone around us both that other people wouldn’t enter.
Nobody was touching us, regardless of how dense the flow of people became, and regardless of how sometimes, people or wagons were forcing their way in the opposite direction, or trying to hurry through. I wasn’t once brushed by an arm, the hem of a skirt or even a parcel that was being carried, or a load; and I found that absolutely fascinating. James and I were still walking arm in arm and I now tried to direct him a little towards an accident, a brush up with a stranger but it was truly remarkable – somehow, and don’t ask me how, even a drunk old soldier managed to twist himself and his backpack around at the very last moment so even there, this sphere of safety in which we walked stayed absolutely intact.
“What is this,” I asked James as we had slowed down to a shuffle around the last corner before the road widened out into the main market plaza, “How is it that no-one is getting near us, no-one is touching us? Are you doing some sort of magic?”
James shook his head. “No, it’s some sort of – side effect, I think you might call it. It’s just something that happens. It is as though people notice you are different, well, they don’t notice, but they certainly know and they act on it.”
“Is this you or is it me?” I wondered, leaned a little bit to the right and thus caused a fat woman to hastily take a step away, step on someone else’s toes and an argument began to ensue. I giggled and then felt guilty about what I had done.
James smiled. “I think it’s particularly noticeable today because there is the two of us. You don’t often get that, and I think it more than doubles the effect.”
“You don’t often get what?” I asked, half distracted because the argument I had started was getting louder, shriller, and there was quite a bit of pushing and shoving involved, although none of it rippled through in my direction.
“You don’t often get two magicians in the same place at the same time,” James said.
To the right and behind of me, a fight seemed to in progress now that involved a whole lot more people already than the fat woman and the person whose toes she had trodden on when I forced her to move.
James glanced over my shoulder and started to walk us forward and away from this, and like magic, indeed, just like magic, spaces appeared before us through which we flowed, entirely unencumbered and as though they were rocks, and we were water.
At the entrance to the market stood a cordon of people who were trying to ensnare visitors this way, or that. They were loud and forceful, grabbing people by the arm, but they didn’t even seem to see us and so we were finally out of the worst of the people mill and the many rows of market stalls lay before us on this bright and sunny winter day.
Behind us, it seemed that a full scale riot was breaking out.
“My god,” I said to James and stopped him, “Have I done that? Is that my fault? I was only trying …”
James craned his neck and furrowed his brow. I think that’s the first time I’d ever seen him be even slightly concerned or worried about a situation. “Hmm,” he said and then pulled me aside swiftly, just in time to let a troupe of guards with shields and lances rush past us and towards the upheaval just beyond the market entrance, “I’d say no but it probably was. Another side effect …”
I was really worried now. More guards were running through, and more people were stopping now and looking to see what was happening. I made the fervent wish and hope that the guards would put an end to this quickly, and that it wouldn’t spread any further or into this colourful market, ruin this perfect day.
James let go off my arm and patted me on the back instead. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s not your fault. This sort of thing happens every once in a while. And as I said, the – side effects do get more than doubled when there’s more than one of us in the same place. Or close together. We couldn’t be in the same place, if we tried, of course.” He laughed at that and I had to laugh a little against my own will and wishes as well, trying to imagine the two of us trying to be in the same place, and that being really nothing but a highly unfortunate mess, whichever level you would look at.
“This side effect, it is a side effect of being a magician? Causing a riot?” I asked nervously once I’d stopped laughing because could see that a lot of the people who were fighting there were getting a serious beating from the guards. Many of them would be hurt, some might be hurt very badly. And that was all my fault? For the sake of a single step to the right, not even a step, I just leaned a little in one direction!
James was observing what I had seen just the same and sighed deeply. “We are catalysts for events,” he said. “It comes with the territory. When you affect the fabric, then the fabric ripples and change comes into being. You twitched a strand, and something happened. You couldn’t foresee what that might be, and you are absolutely not to blame for any of this.”
He saw that I was not responding to his words as I had just observed the guards beating down a man, three of them, just beating him blindly to the floor, even though he wasn’t fighting, wasn’t even trying to defend himself but held his arms over his head and obviously posed no danger whatsoever.
James took me by the shoulders and turned me forcefully away from that. He had a strong grip, was a strong man even though he wasn’t tall and he was old.
“Listen to me, Anna,” he said authoritatively and in a way I had not heard him speak to me before. I looked into his eyes and got held there. He held me in his gaze and said in that same authoritative voice, “Let it be. None of this is your concern, and this happened only because it was ready to happen, waiting to happen, like a powder keg awaits a single spark. Do not walk away from this thinking that you have such power as to make something like this happen, or that it was your power who created all this bloodshed and mayhem, for you don’t have such power yet, not even near. All you are is a spark. Do you understand that?”
I nodded automatically.
“Good,” he said in a slightly less stern voice but he still held me and my attention absolute.
“Now we are here, and what happened, did happen. We are not to question this, or to ask, why. We cannot ever know the answer to that. You can think that it means this or that, but in the end, only the Creative Order itself knows what happened here today. Do not presume to know better, or to question the ways of its workings. That is very important. Do you understand this also?”
I thought about this because it really was important, I could sense it inside me, I could hear it in the screams across the street, I could feel it in the crunching blows that were delivered by the guards. Only the Creative Order knows what happened here today, or why it happened. Ours is not to try and second guess it. I think I understand what he means by that. I think he is trying to say that we, that I can take any incident and make meanings from it, such that it really was all my fault and if I hadn’t been here today, none of this would have happened.
I think I understood what he meant by warning me that I didn’t have such power, and not to fall into the delusion that I did. The crowd was too densely packed and very restless before the fight started between the fat woman and that other man. Anyone or anything could have triggered this, even a stray dog. There was no fault here and it was important that I didn’t take a burden of guilt or responsibility which was altogether inappropriate to my actions, which had in truth been harmless and without any ill will of any kind.
There was more, but that felt enough so I could nod to him and say and think, “Yes, James, I think I understand at least enough to know it was not my fault.”
He sighed a deep breath, nodded and let me go from his hands and from his eyes. “Good,” he said but he was still concentrated and not at all the happy go lucky gentlemen he seemed to be under different circumstances.
“I suggest we go up to the balconies and take refuge for a moment, get a glass of wine each. A little time to let affairs settle down here, and to settle you down and answer any further questions you might have, that would be wise.”
I nodded to that, it seemed like a very good idea indeed and I could certainly do with a glass of wine right now. So we turned our backs on the riot in Lamora and headed for the balconies.
The market in Lamora had always been a central point of attraction and the main source of income for this town. It had been constructed around the market place and all the buildings, roads and everything else was there in a supporting role. Even the church and the government offices were subjugated to this; they were tucked away at the far end so that the market could spread out unhindered and wouldn’t be interrupted too much by state occasions or by holy days in equal measure.
In order to save space for trading, the bars and wine houses did not have outside seats at the street level, but instead there were the balconies that surrounded most of the market. You would go up some steps and there was like another street, where one might sit down in comfort, drink and eat and look down on the market below, without either being jostled all the time, in danger of having one’s food stolen by beggars and urchins, or taking up valuable trading space on the other hand.
James led the way and walked a while before settling on a place that had higher prices than most and was thus a great deal emptier; it also had comfortable looking chairs with tapestry wrapping when most of these outdoor establishments had simple wooden benches.
There was a stern looking big man guarding these premium seats who stepped aside for us and even gave a sweeping bow as we approached; neither James nor I had to break our stride and so we entered.
It was a strange thing, I thought as I settled myself down on the comfortable seat and loosened my scarf a little, how very different two inns in the same day can be. It is still winter, it is still a beautiful day, but here, no-one notices this. No-one looks at the sky or at the remnants of snow on the roofs of the houses. Everyone has their face pointed downward, looking at the filthy looking mud churned slush beneath their feet, or at wares on display, things they hold in their hands. Here, there are no magical trees, no birds, and very little beauty, just an ocean of little men shifting and moving, and of course, over there, fighting.
I sighed deeply. From what I could see from this vantage, it was well enough all over by now. There was a big empty space in the centre of the crowd where guards were dragging people here and there. Some people were filtering into the market now, others were moving back up the road in retreat. It wouldn’t be long and you wouldn’t be able to tell that anything had happened here at all.
James had taken a seat opposite me and was also observing the aftermath of the riot. He took his hat off, rubbed his hands through his hair making it stand up every which way in a very chaotic fashion. He sighed and I had to laugh because he was clearly entirely unaware of what he had done to his hair.
“I’m sorry, Anna,” he said unexpectedly. “I really didn’t think that was going to happen today.” He sighed again and shook his head.
I didn’t feel bad about it any longer. I had completely taken in what he said to me and it had made sense – I was at ease. But I was curious, too.
“Can’t you tell such things – in advance?” I asked him. “I thought magicians can see the future?”
He looked at me straight on and shrugged. “I’m sure some of us can,” he said quite dryly. “Personally, I have never been very good at that. I get knowings and ideas, but they could be anything and I’ve long ceased to worry about it.”
He reached across and his hand started to play with his hat on the table, absentmindedly. He said, “Well, I knew we should go today and not any other day. I – was told it was important that we should come today.” He noticed my look and immediately said, “But don’t go making meanings! Yes, it is absolutely possible that you were meant to start the riot. Perhaps the riot needed to be started; and destiny has a way to use as its conductor the most likely lightning rod. And perhaps there are dwarves that live beneath this city and mine for diamonds, only no-one has ever seen them. It’s all possible, that and a billion, billion other imaginations, and none of it might be true, or all of it, or some combination of all or any of it – really, it doesn’t serve to try and figure it out.”
I had to laugh. I completely understood what he was saying, and I couldn’t help but think of all the many times in the past when I had done exactly that – made meanings of events, one after the other, each one stranger and more scary than the first, and he was so very right – none of it meant anything, and it really didn’t get you anywhere, apart from getting a headache or possibly going insane.
At this point, a very pretty young waitress arrived with two large, beautiful glasses made from green glass and a very expensive looking bottle of wine.
She poured a little into a glass for James to taste, and it seemed to be to his liking for he smiled and nodded at the girl. She in turn blushed as though he was a knight in shining armour and not an old man with his hair askance; dropped her eyes and curtseyed repeatedly before pouring our wine, first mine, then his.
I wondered if she knew that he was a magician as she curtseyed yet again, flashed him another smile and skipped away with her now empty tray, her skirts swinging and a song in her step. James was looking at her receding shape as well and there was a definite little smile playing around his lips. He looked up and noticed my attention, smiled a little more and shook his head.
“Another side effect?” I asked curiously and he dropped his head and chuckled.
There was still a lot more to being a magician that I would have to learn, and a lot more to look forward to as well, it seemed.
James decided that we should stay in the inn on the balconies and have a late lunch. He said that the afternoon was wearing on and it was more fun to shop in the dark when the candles were lit than to eat outside after the night had fallen.
I sort of followed his line of reasoning.
The street approaching the market looked entirely normal again now, there was no sign of what had taken place here earlier and all had returned to business as usual. I was a little intrigued, if not a little worried, if I was really altogether over this whole thing and even though I tried, my mind did keep lingering over the events. I had never caused a riot before, had never played a part in anything of note, either good or bad, at least not as far as I would know or notice, and even though it certainly had not been a good thing, it had been a thing, of that there was no doubt.
But I wasn’t to think about the thing for James had said we can’t know what that was all about so I thought of something else instead.
I thought of the three silver coins in my pocket, and I thought of why James had wanted us to come here. I drank a little more of the excellent wine and asked him outright.
“So what are you going to buy here today? Why did we come?”
James rubbed his hair, which accidentally returned it to a slightly less dishevelled position and said, “I thought you might need some things. Some women’s things.”
I looked at him with a measure of astonishment. “Some women’s things?”
He shrugged and shifted in his chair. “Well, ointments and such. Whatever it is you require that can’t be found in my house.”
Ointments? What in the world? “I thought we were buying magic items?” I heard myself ask. There was a clear note of disappointment underlying the question for which I was sorry but it had just slipped out in that way.
James looked at me then and smiled a little nervously. “This is going to be easier than I thought it was going to be,” he confessed. “To be honest, I have never lived with a – lady – for any length of time before, and I really am not too familiar with, ahm, your ways.”
Now I was completely astonished. And felt like giggling. So James was a confirmed bachelor, even if he wasn’t living like a priest – the small exchange with the waitress had told me as much. And he didn’t have a clue about women, or living with one. This would explain in part why he took such pains to serve me and grew uncomfortable when I offered to share the chores. He had taken up the study to become a magician when he was still very young – so had been doing this all his life? Lived by himself in a tower?
I decided to be upfront and ask him. “Have you always lived by yourself then, as a magician?”
He nodded and poured himself some more wine from the bottle. He took a drink and said, “Yes, I have. Ever since I left my master’s house. And that was many, many years ago.”
“Is that how it’s supposed to be?” I wondered.
James shot me a swift glance and said, “It was supposed to be that way for me. Or perhaps it would be better to say, that it happened that way for me. Some magicians have a dozen wives, and all at the same time, at that.”
That made me laugh out aloud. At a table across from us, a very well dressed woman in a high fur collar and pointy tall hat gave me a bad look. I looked right back at her and in turn, she blushed deeply, drew into herself and looked down. Fascinating. This was a side effect that I could get used to, could really live with.
“Are there many magicians who are women?” I asked James.
He weaved his head in a strange motion that wasn’t really a nod or a negation and said, “There are quite a few. But it is hard to say just how many. The thing is,” he poured some more wine into my glass, “The thing is that it’s not as though there are a number of houses in the kingdom, and in each house sits a magician. There are many different kinds of magicians and most of them do their own thing and never meet up.”
“Do magicians ever get married – to other magicians?” I asked and then I blushed because I thought he might mean that I was propositioning him, when that hadn’t been the case at all. I was just wondering.
James didn’t seem to notice and replied, “Sometimes they do. It’s a tricky thing. If it works, it’s great but there are many problems with it.”
“Like the side effects becoming stronger?”
He looked at me directly and nodded seriously. “Yes. That’s one of the problems. The other is that if you have two magicians who look to each other rather than to the world outside, they create a world of their own between them, and if they’re not careful, both will get lost within.”
I halfway saw what he meant by that and nodded slowly. I could imagine that that might be very dangerous. To the magicians in question, and probably to the world, as well.
As though he’d heard my thought, James said, “Exactly. Because two magicians more than double up on their effects on the tapestry, if they are caught in a bubble of illusions, they can create absolute havoc. And they go insane. Or the people turn against them and lock them up, or kill them. Or all of it.”
That sounded very dire, indeed. “Could this happen to us?” I could not help but ask him.
He sighed and looked straight into my eyes. “Yes,” he said. “Yes it could. It can also happen between a magician and their apprentice. In fact,” he sighed deeply, “That’s where it happens most frequently. Magical relationships are very intense and it is easy to get lost.”
I sat looking into his eyes and had a strong sense of what he meant. I really don’t know what kind of relationship we were forming between us, but it was – yes, it was as he had called it, it was intense, like nothing I had ever known before. I was very aware of him, very fond of him, I felt connected to him and he was important to me, becoming more so with every day that passed and with every thing we did together. I wonder if the fact that we were not outside a marrying age range and the opposite in sex was causing more confusion still.
Once again, James picked up my thought precisely. “It happens frequently that magicians fall in love with their apprentices – and the other way around, of course. Or perhaps that’s the wrong word to use. Perhaps it isn’t the kind of love that one would normally think of in terms of romance or marriage. Perhaps it is more like a fascination, becoming enraptured.”
“Were you – enraptured with your master?” I asked without thought.
James went still and it was as though his eyes widened, became darker for a moment. I could sense a sadness about him, brushing across me like a cloud will touch a mountain top in passing, and then it was gone.
“Yes,” he said. “I was.” He smiled a little which brought the stillness back to movement and added, “I shall never forget her.”
It was my turn to go still. “Her?” I whispered.
James looked at me and the sadness was back, more profound this time, more resonant, a beautiful sadness that stood in the air like the perfect note played on an old instrument, rich with meaning, rich with life.
I took that note and let it in, breathed it in deeply and it was nourishing, strengthening. It made me feel pure, clear and – holy, somehow. I closed my eyes and felt a tear from each eye, just one, flow from my closed lids and settle on my cheekbones. I drew in the fresh winter air that carried the scents of the market through my nose and when I opened my eyes again, I saw differently – things were deeper, richer in texture and in colour, and James stood out strongly against all of it, looking more real than everything else.
I was immensely grateful for him to have shared this with me, all of that, in an instance – his admiration and his adoration for – her, the magician who took him on as an apprentice when he was still a young boy, his confusion, his love, and then the maturation of this into a different kind of relationship, that of equals; her death and also her presence through him, right here, right now.
It was alright for me to see him like this and to feel about his as I did.
There was not only no harm in it, it was exactly as it should be. We would be close, more close than it was ordinary, but then, this was beyond the ordinary and this was a different world, with different rules and regulations, and as long as we could be honest, and respectful of each other to the highest degree that was possible for a man and a woman to be, we would make it through and both of us would be enriched.
“No secrets, only mysteries,” I said to James and reached across to touch his cheek with the back of my hand. He caught my hand and placed a small kiss upon it. He looked up at me and smiled.
“We should drink to that,” he said.
After we had eaten, we began to walk along the balconies. I was feeling serene and otherworldly, far away from all the noise and activity, as though I wasn’t quite a part of this world any more.
Eventually, James led us down to the street level and everything was so direct then, so bright and present, it came to me like a wave of sounds and colours, a shock. The churned, muddy slush was slippery on the cobblestones and you could feel the cold coming in now, even though the sun was still in the sky, getting more golden, turning towards the orange hues and letting us know that night would be coming soon.
I took James’ arm and snuggled up to him, grateful for his presence and tranquillity, grateful to be a part of this island that was us and which gave me strength.
As we walked along the many stalls and stands and simple blankets on the floor where all manner of wares and goods were being displayed, I tried to get back a sense of what it was to go to market, how one looks around and tries to find something that would attract your attention, a flash of brightness, a colour, a scent, an unfamiliar texture or a shape, a recognition of something you might be searching for, but it was all too much, and at the same time, too far away, and immaterial, you might say.
I thought that the horse was waiting for us at the livery stable, that we would go back to James’ house at the foot of the mountains, where the snow was white and bright, where no hurrying feet had trampled it into a soggy mess and where there was space to be, to do and to think.
Where there was space for magic.
I could feel James taking a deep breath and slowing us down. “Well now,” he said, and his merry general bearing had returned. “Look at us! We are wandering about like a couple of lost souls. Now that we’re here, we should make an effort and take what’s good about it, and make the most of it.”
He made me smile and I gave his arm in mine a little squeeze of fondness. I was just glad to be here with him and to be absolutely honest, I couldn’t think of a single thing that I might have wanted to buy here that I could imagine would make me any happier than I already was.
That was such a strange state of affairs!
I had had such yearnings, in the times before, for all and everything you might be able to pay for with a coin – dresses and wraps, shoes and stockings, bags and jewellery and ribbons for my hair, food stuffs, ordinary and extraordinary both, vases, beautiful plates and cooking ware that was new and shiny – everything! I would have wanted everything. And I could afford nothing.
Now, I have the notion that all I had to do was to point at an object, and James would just buy it for me. Again, let me be honest. It wasn’t a notion – I knew it was the case. And this being so, there was no need, and with there being no need, what was left?
I wasn’t sure and I looked to James for some help on the topic. I was about to say something when he spoke. “Would you like me to show you how you can make money by magic?” he asked.
“Here? Now?” I was astonished. “Yes, yes of course! I would love to know how you can make money by magic.”
“Alright,” he said and smiled happily, rubbed his gloved hands together and started to look around with a new found air of excitement.
I had no idea what he was looking for and when he started to walk forward, still looking around as though he was searching for something very particular and I followed him, fascinated, through the market that wasn’t now as crowded as it had been when first we arrived.
“Aha!” James called out, and headed towards a very nicely made stand that was a white and gold painted hand cart with a canapé of white and grey stripes above. The stand had had no users at all, just a tired and grim looking older woman keeping guard over a selection of cheap jewellery.
There wasn’t any gold, just silver bracelets, broaches and bangles, some with mother of pearl and others set with semi-precious stones and simple beads. The jewellery was made nicely enough, I thought, but certainly nothing special.
James went up to the stall and smiled brightly at the woman, held out his hand to her. She looked at him suspiciously but then shook his hand nonetheless.
“Beautiful jewellery you have here,” he said to the woman, who was about my age, but a great deal more portly, with thick black hair, weathered brown skin deeply lined and a very foreboding expression indeed.
She stared at him for what seemed to be half an eternity whilst I held my breath, then her face cracked into a smile. She had let him in, I thought, and wondered what he was going to do – charm her to give him her money? I hadn’t a moment’s doubt that he could. I had a few tastes, first hand, of what he could do and how he could make me think and feel anything he chose to, and I knew he hadn’t even been trying particularly hard.
“It’s a shame there aren’t any more users,” James said lightly, and the woman sighed and nodded her assent as he added, “Especially as your jewellery is so well made, and lovingly crafted.”
The woman sighed again and said, “Thank you for your kind words, sir. My husband and my son make these, and they indeed put much care into the wares.”
James nodded and said, “It would be a real shame to go home with so many beautiful things left unsold.”
The woman nodded too and looked very sad. “Yes,” she said, “It has been very disappointing today. I blame the riot, myself.”
“Yes …” said James and gave me a little sideways look. “That was very unfortunate. But never mind,” he continued, much more brightly and the woman was clearly hanging on his next word, following where he might lead her. It was fascinating to observe. “Never mind,” said James, “It is still light and there’s still time left. Tell you what. Give me a third and I’ll get all your wares sold before the sun is down.”
The woman looked shocked. “A third? All my wares …?”
“Yes,” said James, now very quietly and sincerely. “Give me a third and I’ll sell everything on this stall before the sun has set. If I don’t, I will forfeit my third and buy what’s left on top. Is that a deal?”
The fat woman was visibly shaken and actually swaying. She was battling with herself and the ideas that he had proposed. Without her knowing it, her hands made some small movements in the air, just above the display behind which she was standing. I noticed that James’ gloved hands too, started to make very similar movements – tiny movements, entirely below the threshold of their awareness, but noticeable, and to me, there was the memory of when we had talked with our hands, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something similar going on here.
The woman was staring into James’ eyes, then she seemed to snap back into herself. She took a deep breath, wiped her hand across her face, gave a nervous little laugh and said, “Alright. Why not? I haven’t got anything to lose. Just to be sure – a third of everything sold, but if there’s anything left here on this cart when the sun goes down, you get nothing and you’ll buy what’s left yourself?” She laughed again, nervously and shook her head, for this proposition seemed entirely preposterous in all ways.
James took his gloves off, taking his time to do so. He put his hands in his pocket and extracted a pale brown leather bag. He carefully unknotted it and from it, poured a quantity of gold coins into his hand. They shimmered beautifully in the late afternoon sun and had both me and the woman entirely captivated as he moved his hand with the coins this way, then that.
“That’s exactly right, good woman,” he said, smiled and returned the golden coins to the bag, then the bag to his pocket.
“Is it a deal?” He held out his bare hand across the wares to the merchant woman. She hesitated for one more heartbeat, then she laughed out aloud and took his hand, shook it as though she was trying to pull it off altogether and cried out, “Yes! It’s a deal!”
“Alright!” said James and smiled brightly, then turned and winked at me. “Stand here,” he said and indicated a spot near the centre of the cart. “Look at the things and look at them closely. Pick something you really like, choose one thing. And pay attention to the rest.”
I smiled back at him although I really thought he was quite mad, and what would he do with all that unsold jewellery when the sun went down? Make the woman forget there’d ever been such a bargain?
Both the woman and I were riveted on him, just completely fascinated and waiting for whatever it was he might be doing next. He was just such a very fascinating person, so full of surprises. I hadn’t finished the thought completely when James took a deep, deep breath and then his voice rang out, it literally rang out with the force of church bells, rising high and powerfully above the general noise of the market, easily and without effort,
“From the deepest, most secret coves
of the oceans of Sandanea,
washed by the gentle waves
and taken from their home of hottest sands,
the most beautiful shells in the world,
and precious stones of many colours
that have for the ages been used
to celebrate the goddesses
of beauty and of love,
to win the hearts
of the fairest of maidens
and the greatest of ladies,
we have them here,
we have brought them here,
for you to take away today,
for you to take away today
and for a price so little
that it might as well
be nothing there at all,
you too can bring the magic
and reclaim your goddess,
make her smile
and make her shine for you –
yes you, dear sir, and you as well!
“Come over here
and with your own eyes
you can see
how beautiful these gifts here are,
and you know well enough
just what will happen
if you give a gift like this
to your dear lady!”
James had taken hold of one of a group of soldiers who had walked by and now, the whole group was there, laughing, a little the worse for wine, looking at the jewellery as James kept talking, of the mysteries and the beauty, of the rewards of gratitude to come and the prices that weren’t even there, and these rough men started to dig in their trouser pockets for their coins, and their girls and wives for once were in for a real and grand surprise that night.
The soldiers started to buy the jewellery, and that attracted others, including a whole bunch of giggling servant girls, and each one of those also went away feeling like a queen with a new crown, and all they had bought was a little bit of silver and a little bit of shell, of semi precious garnet, or of quartz.
James was totally unstoppable. There wasn’t a person who walked by who didn’t fall under his spell and bought a thing. When he sold a small heart shaped pendant to a priest to give to his housekeeper of many years as a gift of gratitude, I was really and truly ready to go down on my knees and worship him.
Oh my god!
He sold a pendant to a priest!
But more than that, the way he did it, these were not bad bargains, just the opposite. I just knew that each and everyone who bought and received, and those still to come for whom a gift would be given this day they never in their wildest dreams would have thought they would be given, something magical was taking place here, way beyond the simple selling and the trading.
Each person, old or young, rich or poor, man or woman, every single one left with a smile and clutching their new found treasure and a joy in their hearts, a lightness in their step.
I went and stood with the merchant woman who had long ago stopped counting the coins and these were just lying now on the top of the cart where once there had been unsold jewellery and both of us were just amazed, entranced, fascinated and in the end, we were close to tears.
The sun was still a bright red orb that sat above the smoking chimney tops of old Lamora when the very last piece was being fought over by an thin old dried up looking woman, and a buxom young girl.
James interceded. He took the piece, a small plain broach with a totally unimpressive brown little stone, and he gave it to the old lady.
“Here, my dear,” he said, laid it in her hand, closed her fingers over it, turned the hand and placed a kiss upon it, “This is a gift from me to you. May it bring you much happiness and joy in the days to come.” The sharp looking, angular old woman with the tight bun of white hair seemed to melt before my eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered, breathless and her eyes were open wide. James nodded and she ran away, clutching the little broach, and I saw myself in her, running away with my little crystal orb, and I had a notion how she must have felt. Perhaps I didn’t. Her life was not like mine, that showed in her face, in her body and in her bearing. Perhaps it meant more to her to have received this gift than even the crystal ball had meant to me. I watched her go in wonder.
“Why did you give it to her? You didn’t even charge her for it!” exclaimed the buxom young girl angrily and stomped her foot in the slush which sent it flying.
James turned to her and smiled most beautifully into her anger.
“My dear,” he said, and his voice was so gentle and so loving that I felt it vibrate through me as well, even though I was a good long way away and behind the cart and not standing right in front of him, nailed into place by his eyes and being as the girl was now, “My dear, you have your beauty and you have your youth. Be glad of it, be grateful and be kind to those who don’t. You have no need for further decoration.”
The girl looked shocked and then she looked ashamed and blushed, looked down.
James said, “I give you my blessing on this day. Is that enough?”
She looked up at him slowly, and she nodded very seriously. “Thank you,” she said, a little uncertain but clearly moved and deeply so, “Thank you sir, and I am sorry …”
“It’s alright,” said James, nodded to her and that was her dismissal. She walked away but kept on turning around, looking back, every other step until the crowd had swallowed her again.
There we were, the three of us, and there was the cart, and it was full of money where there had been jewellery.
“Now that’s what I call alchemy,” said James, then he started to chuckle, then laugh and the merchant woman and I looked at each other helplessly, shrugged our shoulders and then we started to laugh as well, until we were literally lying on the cart, the three of us, exhausted and in cramps for all the laughing.
“In all the kingdoms, all the hells, I swear I’ve never seen anything like it!” the merchant woman gasped eventually. “How am I going to tell my husband about this? He won’t believe me – I don’t even believe me that I’d seen this!”
“Until you put the coins in front of him,” said James and wiped laughter tears from his face and nose. “Then he’ll have to believe you. So, how about my third?”
“Absolutely,” said the merchant woman, “You have earned every penny, thrice over! I can’t keep you, can I? Take you home?”
James laughed heartily at that again and straightened from the cart upon which he had been leaning. “Ah, much as I’d love to, I’m afraid I’m already spoken for,” he said and winked at me.
And I winked back.
As the sun went down, it found me and James just outside a pawnbrokers, where he had exchanged the many small coins for six golden coins and one silver one.
Now, he held these out to me.
“Magic money,” he said. “I made it for you.”
Six golden coins, and one silver. How long had it taken for him to acquire this? An hour perhaps? From nothing at all, James had procured six golden coins, and one silver one. I stared at the money in his hand and didn’t know what to think, or what to feel. I had never in my life owned that much money, not even near to that much money. It was real but how was it magic? James had just sold things that didn’t belong to him and acquired a commission in the process. This isn’t magic, I thought. Anyone at all can do this.
Or can they?
I was very confused now and really didn’t know what to do so I just stood there and James eventually said, “Let’s buy a purse to put your magic money in. Come on.”
He took me by the arm and walked me through the market. The owners of the stands had lit now many torches, lamps and candles in coloured glasses and the place was transformed as all the little shabby details receded into darkness, and the coloured lights sparkled on the wares instead.
“This is the best time,” James said by my side and his words were carried in a long trail of white steam. I saw that and shivered a little, not because I was cold, but because it came to my attention that the temperature had dropped significantly.
We continued to walk through the market until he steered me towards a stall that sold leather wares. He glanced to me but I was still in this strange state of indecision and not really knowing what to think, so he bought a purse for me, then placed the coins he had called magic money into it, strung it up securely and held it out to me.
“Now take it and don’t make a fuss,” James said gently. “I haven’t done this for years, and I enjoyed myself immensely. Take it with my gratitude, please.”
It was much easier to take a little leather bundle than to take raw gleaming coins from his hand, so I finally did and now, I didn’t know how I should thank him, or what one would say in such a circumstance.
Six golden coins could buy you a house at the outskirts of this town. That was how much money this was. A labourer could work for ten years and not earn a quarter of this. I don’t know why I couldn’t get over this and just accept that it was magic money just as surely as if he’d drawn a bunch of symbols on the ground, sang and danced around them for half an hour or so and then – poof! – a pot of golden coins had simply materialised from nowhere.
There, somewhere in my mind, I finally made a connection. Time. It would have taken the same amount of time to do such a ritual than it took James to sell a cartload of cheap jewellery in Lamora market. Was time the real currency then, in magic just the same as it was in the usual world?
I could feel as though I was on the edge of something again, but just thinking that way made me feel slightly nauseous, as though the ground was shifting under my feet and I was losing my balance.
James came across and stood next to me, put his arm about my shoulders. I could feel his touch but this time, it didn’t steady me or make anything become more real; instead, the feeling of swaying and the nausea actually intensified.
I felt rather than heard him say, “Go with it, don’t fight it, you’re about to see something, just let it come, let it come …”
Before my eyes, the lights of the market started to shift and change, the coloured lights and the yellow lights casting enormous orbs around them and then merging, beginning to move … I drew in a sharp breath in fear but then I felt James tightening his arm around my shoulder and also taking my hand now, and he said again, “Don’t fight it, just let it happen, you are safe, I’ll make sure you are safe …”
I forced myself to breathe deeply although I was afraid as the world seemed to melt before my eyes, just melted, all the stands and the people and even their lights, and there was a wind, a strange rushing wind instead, and a wide open land, here, it was just after sunset just the same, but there was no town, nothing, grass, a few rocks and the rushing wind that took my breath away, or perhaps I wasn’t breathing right – where had all the people gone? Where was this? What was happening?
James was there, I could feel him and as I cautiously turned my head, I could see him too. But he looked different, like a ghost or something and I had trouble breathing again, looked down at myself and I was a ghost too, or something like that – I was shimmering, made of slow glass that rippled at the edges, caught in the strong wind, a ghost wind?
“Where is this place?” I asked but I had no voice, yet the meanings floated, got caught in the rushing, were carried away and I could even see them go, misty white, dissipating in the darkness and as I watched them go, I looked again and I knew where we were – this was Lamora market, we were still in Lamora market, but I was seeing another world, an older world, a world that was perhaps more real than all those wooden things and stone things that people had assembled over time and which would wash away in time just as the mountains turn to sand.
I looked around me then in this strange place but it wasn’t so frightening now, and James was there, and that was good, and then something caught my attention – across and forward, to the right of me there was someone else. I could see someone else. There was a person and as I tried to make out more detail against the rushing storm I thought I saw something else as well – objects of some kind, perhaps, I am not sure.
I heard that, knew that, but how?
Will it? Will it. I will see Lamora market. The stands, the lights. Make the rushing go away …
The feeling of nausea returned strongly, as did the swaying and then there were lights, many lights, dancing, and they slowed and slowed more and as they took on definition, I could feel my feet again, I could hear voices and I was back in Lamora market, which in truth I had never left, leaning heavily against James and holding on to his hand so tight that my arm was numb.
I was looking across the market and there was someone here, someone who, like ourselves, did not just exist in this market, but in another place as well.
The shock of it opened my eyes wide and turned to James. “There is another magician,” I whispered to him, “Another one like us, here in the market.”
James was looking very serious and concentrated, but upon me speaking this he sighed as in relief and rapidly shook his head. “You did it,” he said and I swear there was a tone of admiration in his voice, “You did it. You visited the elder plane. Just like that! Oh my but you do have the talent!”
I blew out a breath through pursed lips, let go off his hand and stepped out from under his embrace. I felt shaken but also, ultra real. And excited. And scared. Or perhaps they are difficult to tell apart on some level, but either way, I said, “I must see this other magician. Did they see us too? Do they know that we are here?”
James raised both eyebrows and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, “But seeing that you spotted them on the elder plane, I think we should go and make ourselves known.”
I had a thought.
“You said there were side effects when two magicians are together at the same time. What happens when there are three?”
James laughed a little strangely.
“Then, my dear,” he said, “The world really does change.”
Even though I was entirely back here in this world in every way, I had retained a complete sense of how the other world, the one that he had called the elder plane, related to this and I knew exactly where to find the other magician.
I also had a sense of urgency and that I wanted to meet them; I knew, I just knew that this meeting was all about me, and not about them or James to that degree.
I knew now why James had brought me here. It wasn’t to start a riot, and it wasn’t to buy women’s things.
This was the real reason and purpose of our visit here.
As I led our way across the rows of stalls as best as you can try to aim in a straight line but you are forced by endless obstacles to zig zag up and down without losing your direction, I was amazed how absolutely certain I was.
I was never certain! I was always plagued by doubt of one kind or the other, including the always present question as to whether I should exist at all. But on that night I was as certain as a person could be and I found myself nearly running before I noticed that James had some trouble keeping up, being a whole lot older than me and this day having been quite long already.
I slowed myself down and offered him my arm; he was quite breathless but didn’t complain in any way, yet I could tell that he was glad I slowed down and that we now walked in a far more measured way together.
Finally, we came up again after a long detour down and there was the third magician.
Now I am not sure what I had expected; perhaps an old gypsy woman, or a sooth sayer, but instead what I saw was a very young man with curly brown hair, no more than a boy perhaps, wrapped tightly in a coat, with his arms protectively around his shoulders, his face half buried in the collar, drawn into himself against the cold and stamping his feet from side to side.
Before him, on a simple blanket, lay some objects that I wasn’t identifying because my attention was taken up with him.
He must have felt us coming for he turned directly towards us, stopped stomping his feet and stood up straight and still. There was … something about him that didn’t feel quite right, and I had a fast shiver streak down my neck and into my back.
From all the way up the lane, I could feel his eyes, even before I could make them out clearly; when I did, it was the strangest sensation that made me hold on tighter to James, who said or thought nothing that I could perceive.
The young boy raised his arm in greeting and I automatically waved back, and then we were there and stood before him.
Close up, I wasn’t sure any more how old he really was, or what was wrong that made me feel uncomfortable, strange. I had no sense of evil doing from him, don’t get me wrong, just that there was something here that wasn’t quite as it would seem to be.
He spoke with a northern accent and a light voice as he said, “To all creation, just how long were you two going to have me be standing here freezing my balls off? You’ve been here for hours! What’s your game?”
James let go off me and took a step forward. “She is new,” he said, “Brand new. Less than a month.”
The very beautiful young boy who was tall and stately threw his head back in a theatrical gesture and placed the back of his hand to his forehead. “The forces of light may protect us from the young ones.” Then he looked at me directly, a total shock of presence, his eyes really and literally like daggers, crashing straight into me, into my head and down into my stomach.
“Nice riot,” he said dryly.
I had no idea as to what to say to him; I was struggling with the sensation of his glance in the pit of my stomach and once again, James interceded.
“I am sorry to have kept you waiting. I am Alarin,” he said.
The young man turned to James which was a merciful release and a huge relief. He bowed and said, “I have heard of you. It’s an honour. Satara, at your service.” There he laughed and added, “At your service, all this day, freezing to death out here, waiting for you to finally arrive.” There was no anger or no accusation there, and James in turn said, “I’m sorry for your discomfort, Satara. It is an honour, likewise. Not often that I meet a member of the Circle of Stars.”
“Ah,” said the young boy and there I caught a flash of something that made the whole thing begin to make some sense – I caught a flash of a different side to him, or an aspect, and it may well be that he wasn’t actually a young boy at all, but was hiding his true self behind some form of glamour. “Ah, extraordinary circumstances,” and here he turned briefly towards me and gave me another strafing glance from top to toe, “Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures.”
“Indeed,” said James whose name was also Alarin, “Indeed. I would ask that you be kind to my apprentice, for she is new, and the day is old already. She saw you on the elder plane, her first visit, just a few moments ago.”
I knew that James was speaking as much to me as he was to the other magician, Satara. Satara of the Circle of Stars. My god. What was I getting into here? What was this other world? And why had Satara come?
“There’s a good question,” the strange young boy replied, “And one that if we answer it most swiftly, will lead to everyone being able to get inside, and get some mulled wine, boiling hot, inside themselves as well. Now here …” he gestured at the objects that lay at his feet as if in shadow, “Make your choice, and let’s be gone! Much as I love you both and your most stimulating company.”
I looked at the objects he had indicated, but I couldn’t see them properly. All I could see were shapes, and I squinted into the darkness, but I still couldn’t make out what that was I was looking at, even though with all the lights around I should have been able to at least discern if I was looking at a block of wood, or a dead cat.
I could feel the attention of the two others as though it was raining on me, hard. I tried again but again, all I could see were sort of shapes in the gloom that could have been anything at all – and then a loud crash, followed by a bright explosion and many yells shocked me right out of it as well.
All three of us looked up and around. There was a trader’s stall on fire and something they were selling, lamp oil or such, was flaring up and exploding, showering the neighbouring stalls with sparks.
“Oh no,” I said out aloud, “Not another side effect?”
James and the strange boy man magician Satara exchanged a glance that may have been more than a glance; indeed, I had the sense they were having a conversation. Traders were running and frantically trying to help the one whose cart was on fire to put it out; not so much from neighbourliness but rather to stop their own stalls and wares being consumed by the flames as well.
James stepped a little closer to me and said, “You need to concentrate. Forget about all of that, tune it out. You must choose an object. Do it quickly, and we can disperse, before this whole market goes up in flames.”
I glanced at him and he was really serious; this was a serious situation. Three magicians change the world. Not for the better, it would seem.
So I took a deep breath, and looked back at the rug in front of Satara’s booted feet.
There were the shapes. Help me, I thought, help me see what I must see. And I remembered something. James had said to use the other eyes when I was trying to see into the crystal. Let me see, I thought again, strongly and in response, my eyes actually closed altogether – and there, I could see!
I could see the shapes with perfect clarity.
There were – count, five, six, seven objects and each one was magical, that was very certain. One looked like a wand, spiral twist wood set with stones and a handle made of metal formed around a crystal. One was – a musical instrument? A flute, it looked like. You might be able to charm the birds from the trees with that … I was intrigued but there was more to see. There was what looked like a jewellery box, but it was longer and oval at the ends. I hadn’t the first idea what it might contain but it certainly made me tingle. There was something that looked like feathers strung together – I didn’t like that even though the feathers sparkled and seemed to move all by themselves. There was square, big old box with iron wrappings and iron corners that looked heavy and dark with age and although I was nervous about it, I was also very much wondering what might be inside it. There was a package that seemed to glow from within, wax paper covered and secured by leather laces wrapped around and across and I was very drawn to that; but then, there was a simple round tube, made from metal, copper I think, with some fine filigree inlay and a stopper at the top that seemed to be made from glass, like a clear glass dome shape.
I saw it and there was that absolute certainty again – that was mine. It had come to meet me here just as surely as I had come to meet it.
I opened my eyes and now, I could see the objects just about, vaguely shimmering beneath the magical field Satara must have placed over them so that the passing crowd would never know what they were passing by.
Surely, James and Satara must have known what my choice was, but they were both looking at me expectantly.
“The tube,” I said, my voice hardly better than a croak. I cleared my throat and said again, “The copper tube. That’s mine.”
James and Satara exchanged a fast glance, nodded at the same time and both started to smile. “Excellent,” said James with clear pride, “Very well done!”
“Take it then,” said Satara in mock impatience, but with friendliness beneath his voice. I knew I had proven myself to him and that was a strange sensation.
I took a deep breath and reached down and into the swirling mist that protected the magical items. It stung my hand, stung quite hard like sand flying in a storm but I gave it no heed. I grasped the cold metal of the copper tube firmly and pulled it through and out.
“Yes!” exclaimed James as though I had just passed yet another important challenge with flying colours, and Satara nodded too.
“Well, there we have it,” the young magician said, “Well met, may the stars smile upon you and good night! I am out of here!”
He set to folding the edges of the coarse cloth that held the magical items inwards, then folded it some more and I thought, no way can he fold it that tightly, the old wooden box alone would be twice the size of that, but he kept going until the cloth was folded into a package no bigger than a small prayer book, worked it into the pocket of his coat and made to turn and walk away when I called to him.
He turned around with a look of astonishment, but he stopped and even came towards me a little.
I really don’t know how I managed to stand up to his being and his eyes, but for some reason I had to do this, and the cold copper of the tube in my hand gave me strength as well as a sense of power.
“Show yourself to me,” I said and it sounded like a command.
The young man with the curly brown hair stood very still. He was still looking straight at me and then around his eyes which stayed exactly the same and never moved, all the rest of him seemed to shift and shimmer – and then I was looking at another man altogether, still tall but much, much older, short cut iron grey hair, wearing not even a coat but just a long jacket made of a fine material that buttoned high on his throat, slim and entirely imposing.
I nodded without wanting to as the strange feeling I had had about his presence before melted away. This was him, this was Satara, even if I would never know the name he called himself before he became a magician.
The man before me looked at me what seemed a long time, then he very seriously bowed his head to me. He shifted and flowed for a moment, and the brown haired youth was back, who turned and walked way without another word.
Satara was gone, and if James had not come and put his arms about me, I might well have fainted to the pavement, where the night chill was turning the slush into ridges again that crunched and grated under your feet.
For a while, everything span around me, but between James’ strong hold and the cold copper tube still in my hands, I started to regain a measure of clarity.
There were so many question in my mind, and I wanted to ask James something, opened my mouth but instead of words, I just produced an enormous yawn, then another, and yet another. “Sorry,” I tried to say but then yawned again, and again.
James laughed and held me upright, held me tight.
“I think its best if we find an inn for the night,” he said to me. “I think you really need to rest now. I didn’t see this coming.” I wanted to nod but yawned again instead, gave up all attempts at saying something to him in return, so he continued, “I mean I knew that he was there, but I wasn’t sure it was for us – you. I am not very good with that kind of thing. Are you alright?”
I yawned in return and he laughed and shook his head. “Alright, come on. There’s an inn I always stay at when I’m here, they will have room for us tonight.”
He carefully put his arm around my waist, held my arm and half carried me across the market, past the burned out stall where some people sadly and angrily were trying to pick through what might be rescued after the disaster, and then I really didn’t see too well any longer because my eyes were tearing up as I continued to yawn and feel as though I was going to go to sleep on my feet.
Mercifully, the inn he was talking about wasn’t too far away and by the time we stepped into the warmth and blazing lights inside, the yawning had stopped and I was just light headed, displaced and pleasantly tired.
The inn didn’t have two rooms to spare, but they had a double room which James acquired without question. I had no question about that either on this night; no sense of lack of propriety or that it was unseemly for us to be sharing a single room. James helped me up the stairs, manoeuvred me through a doorway and there was a blessed bed with clean white linen sheets and four big posts with green velvet curtains.
I don’t remember a thing after seeing that bed, not a thing.
I didn’t dream at all, didn’t awaken with a need for a wash room and when I came to, it was as though no time had passed at all, but there I was in a comfortable bed, feeling calm and warm, and sunlight was streaming through the little window to my right.
I sat up a little and looked around.
I was alone in the room, but there was James’ coat on a chair across from me and beneath his coat was my own. I looked down at myself then and found that I was wearing my underthings, no shoes and stockings and I blushed a little because I knew I hadn’t undressed myself last night. I looked around for my skirt and bodice but couldn’t see them anywhere. There was a wardrobe on the wall, perhaps my things were there, inside. My boots stood by the side of my bed, and there was a little table upon which lay the mysterious copper tube.
I stared at it and the previous night came right back to me then and all the strangeness that had happened, and it was all real.
I glanced at the bed to my left to ascertain if anyone had slept there and indeed, although an attempt had been made to straighten the blankets and the pillow on that side, it had been used. James had slept there as well. I am not sure how I felt about that. One the one hand, I was glad that he wasn’t silly enough to spend the night sitting in a chair being cold and uncomfortable for some reasons of chivalry; on the other I hoped that I hadn’t been snoring too wildly, but I probably had.
Then I had to chuckle and shake my head at myself.
What did that matter? I was one of them now. I was new, at James had said, very new, less than a month, but I was one of them. There had been three magicians in this entire market, in this entire town in fact, and I was one of them!
It was extraordinary.
I glanced at the copper tube which sat shining softly in the light of day and thought about reaching over to it, bringing it here onto the bed and opening it. As when first I saw it, there was a familiarity about this object. It wasn’t as though it was new to me at all in the strangest way, it felt as though I had owned forever; it had been in storage and just now returned to me – again.
There was no need to open it right now.
I would do that in James’ house, on the kitchen table, with a mug of brew to one side. The thought made me smile and it also made me wonder where James might be. I snuggled into the comfortable bed and closed my eyes. If I was to go to that place – the elder plane, he had called it, there I would know and see him immediately, and then I would know where he was here in this world too.
I thought about that strange place of rushing ghost winds and as soon as I did, I experienced that sense of nausea again that I had first felt in the market. This time, I kept on breathing and in fact, I didn’t have to enter there altogether at all – even here, at the outskirts, part way to that other plane I already knew where James was. He wasn’t well defined and I couldn’t see him, but he was there – below me and to the left. He was somewhere in this inn, perhaps he was having breakfast.
I sighed happily then, feeling most comforted by his closeness and his presence, discovered and just drifted then for a while, stretching and being entirely at ease, happy and snug, with nothing to worry about for the moment and nothing that needed to be done with urgency.
It was very pleasant.
Not long after, I could feel James approaching. I thought that just the one visit to the elder plane, and my attempt this morning to locate him in that way, had sharpened a sense of him, an awareness of a different kind had awoken in me, and it certainly served to alert me to the presence of another magician.
There was a soft knock on the door and experimentally, I send a thought instead of calling out a welcome – Come in, James, I am awake.
Cautiously, the door was opened and James stuck his head around it. He saw me sitting up in bed and smiled.
“Good morning,” he said softly and stayed outside, just his head in the room. “Did you sleep well?”
“Like a baby,” I answered and then laughed, “No, not at all like a baby. I didn’t wake up screaming every two hours! I slept wonderfully, thank you, James. What time is it? Did you have breakfast?”
The head by the door shook a negation. “I was downstairs to settle the bill. I was waiting for you to wake up. Shall I go and order breakfast for say, half an hour?”
I smiled brightly. “That would be wonderful, thank you.”
“I’ll wait for you downstairs,” he said and withdrew, the door closed and I was by myself again.
It was a beautiful morning, late morning as I looked out of the window. It would be another beautiful sleigh ride back to the house and I was looking forward to that, the fine bracing air so fresh and bright, and the sense of rushing, moving forward in time and space.
I found my clothes in the wardrobe, folded all neatly and not twenty minutes later, freshly washed and combed and feeling sparklingly awake, the precious tube under my arm for I couldn’t leave it in the room and a soft leather purse with 6 golden coins and four silver ones tucked safely into the pocket of my skirt, I walked down the stairs and found James sitting by a window in the sunshine, awaiting me.
He saw me coming, stood up immediately and walked around the table, pulled out a chair for me so that I might be seated.
“You are looking very well this morning,” James said and I had to smile and drop my head. I felt very well this morning, as though I was a different person, as though I was brand new. I placed the tube carefully on the table and then a young man in shirtsleeves arrived with drinks and a basket of bread, followed not long after by an older woman who carried many platters piled high with rashers of cooked meat, fruit and even some smoked fish.
I was hungry, happy and just dug in so we didn’t really talk, but I could sense that James was watching me with interest. I had the notion that he was enjoying my enjoyment of the breakfast as much as he was enjoying food itself and that he was sincerely glad to see me happy.
On my part, I was intrigued that I wasn’t chatting, talking, asking a million questions about everything that had happened yesterday. I wondered why that might be, and the sense I got from myself was that there seemed to be a lot of time to be doing all of that, and there was no hurry, no rush. Things would unfold in their own rightful order and sequence, and there was nothing to worry about. In due course, I would find out more about the Circle of the Star, and about James’ magic name, Alarin.
I looked at him across the table. The magician Alarin. Yes, he was that. That, and also James the bachelor. And other things, other people who I was yet to meet. How very fascinating and exciting.
I said, “I am very grateful to you, James.”
He smiled a little at that and shook his head fractionally at the same time, then he looked at me directly and replied, “I know.”
It was a good response, an honest response. Yes, he did know. He had said as much about his own teacher, his own magician who had been a woman. For a moment, his sadness came back to me and I thought of a time and place where he might not be there any longer and just to touch that for an instance was – terrible, that’s the only word I have for that. I had to take hard control of myself and re-focus on the here and now, on the wooden table under my fingertips, the chair beneath my legs and pressing into my back, the sunshine through the window, the sounds of clattering from the kitchen.
This is here and now, I said to myself. We are here. We are together. In a moment, we will go to get the sleigh. All is perfect, please don’t cast a shadow on this time of events that have not yet arrived, might never come to pass.
Let me be here, and nowhere else.
James was watching me with concentration as I went through this sequence of thoughts and emotions but he said nothing, waited until I was done and had, to all intents and purposes, returned to the room.
I blew out a breath through pursed lips. This was a strange thing, indeed. I had travelled in mind in an instance into a frightful place, a world that wasn’t here or now, that might exist, might be somewhere, like that plane of the rushing ghostwinds and I had existed there for a moment, instead of here.
But just like in the market, when I had called myself back to the here, I had returned and the other place, the one where James was dead and I was wailing, lost and lonely, had receded, still I retained a sense of it, a memory.
What other places might there be?
And how often had I done such a thing, quite unthinking and as a matter of fact before I learned of planes, and how to will yourself back or forward in and out of worlds of your choosing?
I shook my head to clear it and put a hand to my forehead. Magic was a very strange thing, that much was sure. It wasn’t at all what I had expected it to be; and in a way, this was much stranger by far, even as at the same time, it all felt so extraordinarily familiar.
“James,” I said to help me stop these musings and anchor myself better in the world we shared right here and now, “What’s in that tube?”
James was in the middle of taking a big bite of bread and meat so he really couldn’t answer right away although he tried, and set to coughing. My mind had taken another leap by the time he was done and even as he started a reply, I asked the next question, “And do you want me to call you Alarin, now?”
Reaching for his mug and taking a drink and his time this time before answering me, James said, “I was wondering when the questions would come, and what they might be. I have a number of ready made replies but,” here he stopped, put the mug down and looked at me in a way which I can only describe as fondly, “But this morning, here with you, none of those will suffice.”
I followed along with his words as though they were a lamp in a deep mist where you could only see a single step at a time and no further forward, or even back, for that matter, and when whatever he’d said was done, I had no idea of what he had said, or even what my question had been.
James continued gently, “Even though the market it over now for this week, there are still many shops and stores in the town centre. Is there anything you would like to buy while we are here?”
This gave my thoughts a different direction and this time, I gave the matter some serious consideration. I had money and it might be a while before we returned here. I thought it would be sensible to get some fabric and haberdashery; there was much time at James’ house and it might be soothing, as well as nice, to have some new clothes, for the spring to come. I noticed then that I was really doing this, visiting with a future self, seeing her sitting in her room by the window and sewing a garment, something white and flowing. She looked serene and placed the stitches with care, deeply lost in thought.
“Yes, “ I said to James. “There actually are some things I would like to buy, if you don’t mind.”
He nodded and seemed very pleased with my response. “No, no trouble at all, after all, that’s why we’re here. I might get some more paper myself while I am here.”
So that is what we did.
After breakfast was finished, we visited with a number of merchants and actually ended up with a surprising amount of parcels and rolls of one kind and the other; it must be said that I probably went a little over the top in the fabric shop. But that was easily done and I had to acknowledge that there was a part of me who was starving for those beautiful colours, expensive flowing materials and sumptuous embroideries which had always been out of reach for me.
I bought a great many things there and got very concerned when I saw how big and bulky the finished parcels were when they all lay together on the counter; the price however was actually shocking to me.
All of that together didn’t even make up a single one of the golden coins and the merchant bowed and scraped to me, then dispatched one of his workers with a handcart to the livery stable to deliver the goods so we wouldn’t have to be bothered with them ourselves.
I also acquired some fine soaps and other luxury items of that nature; James went to a purveyor of writing and painting materials, and here he bought me a gift – a palette, a special book of thick papers and a box of colours for painting. I was very surprised and tried to tell him that I had no talents for such things, but he smiled and insisted. When the shop owner, a very short bald man who wore bottle top glasses and still squinted at everything pressed right up against his nose, was busy rummaging around for some brushes James had specified, he whispered to me that colours and representations were very important in certain kinds of magic, and that each magician would learn about that in their own time.
This soothed me; if it was magic rather than art, then I would be able to learn at least some of what it meant to put a brush to a piece of paper, I thought.
After that, we visited an apothecary where James purchased things with strange sounding names, and then we were done.
It was early afternoon by the time we arrived at the livery stables. A light wind had set in, but the weather was still as beautiful as it had been all along, as though the sun was really smiling upon us for this endeavour. The parcels we had sent ahead had all arrived and now it was just a question of how to get them all into the sleigh. In the end, we used my many bulky fabrics to make more comfortable seats under the brown fur, and then there was enough room in the small rear compartment, plus what we could store under our feet. The horse seemed happy to see us, it had clearly been well taken care of and James rewarded the stable man with a little extra coin for his diligence and not long after that, snugly and happily tucked into the brown furs once more, we set off towards our home which awaited us, nestling at the foot of the white mountains.
When we had left Lamora behind and were on the long empty run from there to the next village, the horse making good speed and blowing great white plumes of steam which made it look like a dragon, a thought that quite delighted me indeed, I asked James to tell me about the Circle of the Star.
He kept his eyes on the road and on the horse which did require most of his concentration and told me that some magicians would seek to come together and work together, not in body, but in mind, creating meeting places on other planes where they would conference and compare their various explorations.
The Circle of the Star was one of the oldest of such groups, and only very special magicians were ever invited to join.
“Did you ever want to join them?” I asked curiously, for I was trying to work out in my mind just how this world of the magicians worked, where it was dangerous for more than two of them to be together in any one place at the same time.
James shook his head. “No, that’s not at all my path,” he said very positively. He gave me a quick glance and then continued, “There are all kinds of different types of magicians, you know. One of the first things one has to do is to work out what kind you are. When you know that, things become a whole lot easier.”
“What kind of magician are you?” I wondered.
James smiled gently to himself as he replied, “I am a watcher.”
The very word gave me a little shiver. Tell me more, I thought strongly. Tell me about this. You must know I need to know, want to know.
James took a moment to rein in the horse to help it negotiate a particularly deeply rutted part of the road, which lay in a dip between two hills and even under the snow and ice was still bumpy and could easily overturn a sleigh if you didn’t approach it right. When we had passed that obstacle, he said, “The term watcher denotes someone who is here primarily to observe, and sometimes guide, or watch over someone or something.”
I had the strangest sensation then flow across me and just spoke the words that came to me, “Like a guardian angel?”
James chuckled at that but didn’t look at me. “I am not an angel,” he said, and he was quite serious about that, but I wasn’t so sure. In the strictly literal sense of the word he probably wasn’t, for he didn’t have wings and wasn’t made of light but in another sense, and certainly to me, he was that absolutely. My guardian angel.
“Now, now,” he said gently but purposefully. “I understand, and I really do, that you might feel that way, especially right now, and in the beginning. I certainly felt that way when I was – new.”
He had avoided the word “young” on purpose, yet it stood quite clearly there between us and there was the time to ask another question, one that had often been in my mind since first I made the decision to seek out a magician and see if I might persuade them somehow to teach me something, all that way back when I was still living at the small holding, and counting out the ground roots so I wouldn’t run short before the week was out.
“James, why has this happened now? Why now when I am already so old? Am I not too old now to really learn of magic – as you have been doing all your life?”
Here, James gathered the reins and slowed the horse, actually bringing it to a full stop in the middle of the road. There was no-one about, no-one in front of us and when I turned around to look, there was no-one behind. To the right of us lay a field behind which there was a stand of snow covered trees, and to the left, winter fields stretching out to gentle hills at the far horizon, and in the distance, a little village with the tip of a church just visible from here.
The horse’s breathing was all there was to hear here and James turned towards me.
He said very seriously, “Anna, please know this. We can be as old as those very hills yonder, and we can never know the mind of the Creative Order. Ours truly isn’t to waste our time wondering this and that, and asking how and why. The very act of questioning and wondering takes us away from our path, and each one of us has a path, every single one of us, without a fail.
“Some amongst us receive the call to magic.
“Sometimes it comes early, and sometimes it comes late; for many, it never comes, at least not in this lifetime.
“For me, the call to magic has always been the greatest blessing of my life, something that I don’t know how I have deserved, or why it came. I just know that it came and when it came, I was blessed in all ways.
“As are you.”
When he spoke those words to me I felt a huge groundswell of emotion arising in the very centre of me, a flood rising up and this flood rose higher and it washed away the very last remaining doubts of the reality of my situation, and that it was all true.
Yes, I had received the call to magic.
Yes, I was one of the few, the very few for whom that moment had come and as he said, when I had come I was then blessed in all ways.
Just as he had said, it was unfathomable, inexplicable – and he was right in another way, in an unspoken way.
By questioning the way I had, I was denying in a way that it had happened, even rejecting the blessing in a sense that made me feel sad, and unworthy.
But again and even as I felt it I knew that this was near enough a sin of rejection yet again. It was my duty to accept the gift, accept it freely, joyously, and not to question it. That was the truth, and there simply was no other.
I understood then why James had said to me that he wasn’t afraid of anything. I understood where that came from, how that could be, and what he meant by it.
I bowed my head to him then, and through him, to the great Creative Order, who had seen fit to give me this gift of all gifts, and from that moment forth, I neither argued or questioned any longer.
On the way at Farmer Kerrad’s house, we picked up a young labourer who stood uncomfortably perched on the sleigh’s runners, holding on to the back of the sleigh for dear life as the horse made the last effort up the hill and home, at least for us.
He was a good looking young man of perhaps five and twenty, with thick wavy reddish brown hair and a pleasant disposition, and as I kept turning around to check that he hadn’t fallen off, I noticed that there was a definite twinkle in his eye and that he was smiling at me.
When we got to the house, he set to deftly unpacking everything and bringing it inside; then he took the sleigh, turned it around, bade us goodnight and drove off into the gathering dusk.
Oh, but I was glad to be home! It was a delight to get out of the thick boots and winter skirts and then, there were all my treasures in my room, the fabrics and the items we had bought, but most of all, the mysterious copper tube Satara had brought for me.
I nodded happily for I remembered the vision I’d had about opening it in this house, at the kitchen table, after the evening meal and it was interesting that there was no rush, no impatience at all – I just knew that would be the right time and the right place, and everything was perfect and exactly the way it should have been.
We hadn’t eaten since breakfast as we didn’t stop at the inn on the way back so we were both very hungry. I noticed that James’ hands were stiff and sore from handling the reins all that way, so I offered for the first time for him to sit down and for me to make our evening meal.
He accepted this without any opposition and went away whilst I decided to make a quick soup. We still had bread and butter and that would do very nicely. Shortly after I set the soup to boil, James came back and he had a jar of ointment for his hands. Without a word being spoken, I went over to him, sat by him, took his hands and gently massaged the ointment into his fingers, joints and wrist. He sat quietly and accepting, and as outside the last light faded, I gave a benediction of gratitude and all my best love to the task of bringing back ease and flexibility to his hands.
It was a simple thing, yet it was also an extraordinary thing; what was most extraordinary was how it made me feel to be able to do this for him, as though it was an honour above all else.
When I was done, he raised his hands and moved them, flexed them this way and that. He sighed and smiled at me. “Thank you,” he said simply. “That feels so much better.” We smiled at each other and he added, “I swear you’ve taken fifty years out of these here hands tonight.”
I was very pleased but not at all embarrassed, for I had felt myself doing that – I knew I had made an effect, made something happen, something of healing. It was a strange thought but before I could go any further, the thought of, “Ours is not to reason why,” intervened strongly and produced a sense of great relief, of peace immediately.
James remained seated at the table while I lit the lamps and brought the soup and bread. He was watching me go about the business of arranging our evening meal in a calm and steady way, quietly accepting while his hands relaxed and absorbed the last of the ointment.
When it was all ready and in place, I sat down too and looked across the table to James.
The fire flickered a little, and the oil lamps cast a golden glow on everything, a soft light that made the room and the magician appear like an old painting, from a time a long time ago, a moment captured, framed; a moment that encompassed many things, held many messages and perhaps might touch the heart of a one who would look at this at another time, in a very different place, and still they might know, and understand.
I thought, I would like to give a blessing for this meal, something that had been rotely done in my house all these years and no-one really gave it a second thought or any importance, it was just something you were trained to say from childhood but it didn’t mean anything.
When I had first come here, I had noticed that James would not give the standard words of gratitude for the meals, nor would he use any other form of ritual or wording that may be customary elsewhere. At first I had thought it strange and then I’d forgotten about it altogether. Tonight, I think I saw that the entire process of preparing food here and of eating it was one long ritual of gratitude and delight that never ended at all, that had no start and had no finish.
Tonight I saw that my blessing had already happened and there was no need now for any further word or action.
We began to eat.
The soup then took all my attention; it was good, regardless of the fact that I had spent next to no time preparing it. I was a good cook really, very experienced and practised in making the smallest thing work hard to become something, and James had a wonderful range of spices and basic materials here which made it easy.
I looked to James to find out if he likewise was pleased with my cooking, the first thing I had made in this his house, in our house as it was now, strange a thought though that may be. But he was eating hungrily and didn’t say anything; it made me smile nonetheless for I was also well used to not receiving any words in return for my efforts, but just to watch and see how it went down. My soup was going down a treat.
I fell to watching him eat his soup and I fell to musing about the magician Alarin, the watcher, and how little I knew of him, or about his business. The beautiful thing was though that it didn’t matter. I knew enough on some level. The rest was really not that important. And more would become revealed when time was right, and if it wasn’t, well, that was just as fine.
We finished our meal and again, I bade him remain seated whilst I cleared up, to rest his hands. Again, he didn’t argue but just watched me going about the cleaning tasks, in perfect silence we were both, apart from the noises I was making as I scrubbed the bowls and placed them on the old stone sink to dry.
I’d never been with anyone where there was so little talk. I myself was usually full of chatter, talking about my thoughts, my ideas, complaining usually a lot, tittle tattle, did you hear, what did you think, wasn’t that strange?
All of that was absent here and that was as soothing as listening to a symphony made of many instruments which all played together and achieved a gentle harmony, or sitting by the ocean and listening to the waves whisper against the shore.
I sighed with pleasure and felt myself dropping down into a different state of being still, a place where time was soothing and there was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to worry about, and indeed, nothing to think of but simply watch and listen as the events of everything unfolded slowly and deliberately, like one breath will follow another, and your lids would close every so often, bringing a moment of moisture and contemplation before the next swell would lift you again …
“Come and sit with me,” James said gently and gave me a direction to follow, which I did with a smile, feeling light and wide aware, yet also near enough as though I was now dreaming.
On the end of the table sat the copper tube from the market, just as it had all through the meal and I wondered if its time was here now, if I would get to open it and if there was much that needed to be done or thought about as a result.
James sat forward and placed this elbows on the table, folded his hands, then looked at them and made stroking movements, one over the other. “Very nice job,” he said more to himself than to me, “As good as new.” Then he looked at me and smiled. “Come on then,” he said, “Are you going to open this? I am surprised at you. I would have thought that you’d be all over it, asking a hundred questions all at once.”
I looked at the tube which was in easy reach of my right hand and put my head to one side. “Yes,” I said thoughtfully, “I would have thought that too. But instead I just feel … so peaceful.”
James watched me again carefully, as he’d been doing all evening now, and as though he was studying me, trying to learn something, perhaps. Perhaps he was watching.
“Go on,” he said, “Open it.”
I looked at the tube, sighed and then reached out and picked it up, placed it on the table between us.
“What’s inside?” I asked him.
James laughed and that woke me up a bit more from the strange state I had found myself in before. “Well, open it! You’re not afraid, are you?”
I considered his question and I wasn’t sure if I was afraid or why I had no desire to open this object which a very, very important magician had travelled quite a way and stood in the cold market for hours so that I would receive this.
I had to laugh a little as well then and I shook my head.
“No,” I said, “I’m not afraid. I’m not anything at the moment. Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps I think I should be all excited or amazed or something, but I’m not.”
“Well,” said James slowly, “I would have thought that you probably know on a level what that is, and why you have it. You wouldn’t have it if this wasn’t the case, if you know what I mean.”
I had lost my way in that sentence a long time before it was even halfway finished. There didn’t seem any point in trying to track back to any of that so instead, I picked up the tube resolutely and for the first time, tried to figure out how you would open it.
The tube was about as long as my lower arm and outstretched hand together; it was as thick as an altar candle and both ends had a kind of lid that wrapped tightly a way over the tube itself. One end was plain and made from the same copper metal; the other end held a domed solid clear glass piece about the size of half a chicken egg.
I carefully pulled on the end with the glass dome but there was no give; then I tried to unscrew it, first this way, then that, and there I could feel it give a little.
Carefully, I unscrewed the lid which took a remarkably long time and a great many rotations, eventually revealing a very fine thread of many, many strands but finally, the lid came off.
There was a flash when it did and I looked at the lid more carefully to find that the glass dome was a kind of lens; there was no backing and I could look through it and see the fire on the other side.
“Hm,” I said, “Look, it’s a lens,” and passed it over to James, who took it carefully, held it up to look through it. For a moment, that gave him one enormous eye and that made me laugh and at the same time, gave me the impetus to look at what was inside the tube.
I carefully put my finger in it but it seemed entirely empty. I shook it, but it didn’t make a sound. So I turned it upside down and shook it some more, and then something protruded beyond the rim – there was something rolled up tightly inside. It was dark and felt slippery, not like parchment at all, and as I prised and wriggled it from the tube, it was some kind of sheet of something dark, blue perhaps or it might have been black.
I pulled it from the tube and as soon as it was free, it literally sprang apart in my hand and unfolded itself onto the table.
It was a map.
But it wasn’t a map of the land.
It was a map of the stars.
There it lay on the table between us, a dark space and upon it there shimmered stars, at first I thought there were but a few large ones in definite constellations, but as my eyes adjusted I could see there were many more smaller ones, and then more still – it was like lying in the grass and looking up at the summer night sky.
I could feel myself being drawn into the map, into the infinity it represented, the endless mystery and miracle of all those things that in truth, make up our world, and I felt myself begin to cry with sheer helplessness before the sense of the Creative Order, its pure truth and its beauty, like you would cry when you are so happy and amazed, you simply have nowhere else left to go.
I looked up from the map at James and found that he too was speechless, and his eyes were moist just the same. Then I knew that he had never seen this map before, and he really had not known what was inside the copper tube either, and this gave me a sense of relief for it is true that at the very back of my mind I had been wondering ever since we met the magician Satara whether there was some kind of conspiracy going on around me here.
I looked back at the map and wondered how I could even think like this, how I could ever manage to be full of suspicion and resentment and reservation, when there were such things as this map of the stars in my life now. Just to have seen this once, or heard of someone who had seen it and who would talk of it would have been a blessing beyond blessings.
I reached out a careful fingertip and touched the map, actively trying to avoid touching a star but that was difficult for I knew that even if I couldn’t see that there were some in the area I was touching, they would be there, just further away; I also had the sense that if I was to touch this map, something would happen as a result of this – a change in the fabric.
When my cautious fingertip made contact with the map, it seemed to ripple like water and at the same time, a strange sensation shot as fast as lightning through my body. I pulled my hand back as if it had been burned and scared, I looked up at James, wide eyed like a child – “Did I do something wrong?”
James looked at me, then at the map, bending closer to observe if any other changes were taking place and he said, “I have no idea. I have never seen anything quite like this. It’s extraordinary,” he added, and that spiralled me right back into the market place and that strange boy magician who had said, “Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures.”
What did he mean by that?
“James,” I said slowly, “James, if you are a watcher, what am I?”
“I think,” James responded slowly, “I think you might be a walker.”
A walker? What was that? It sounded tiring and I was a little bit disappointed. I didn’t really like walking and I wasn’t much good at it.
“A walker amongst the planes,” James said still very slowly, as though the words were not necessarily being formed by him, but coming to him like slow drifting clouds, or mist. “There aren’t many of them in the universe. And the ones there are, they are held to be very old. Little is known about them.”
I tried to take that in but it didn’t make much sense to me. I was old, but not very old. Certainly not in relationship to the universe itself. And I was very clearly here and not anywhere else, nor had I ever been. Yet there was this map, as though we were viewing the stars straight through the kitchen table.
“Why did Satara come to the market, and why did he give me this map?” I asked.
James shook his head. “I wish I could tell you,” he said, then sighed deeply as well before continuing. “He didn’t say but I got the impression that it was one of those things you just know you have to do. Like I knew we had to go to the market, or that day when I got the crystal orb for you, that must have been fifty years ago or even more. Satara and his kind are probably a bit more aware of the ins and outs and the connections, because they spend all their time mapping these things, but me personally, I just do my bit when it comes to it and other than that, don’t worry much about it.”
As he was speaking, I was thinking a great many things all at the same time, on different levels and different strata but the one that caught my attention was my clear recognition of what James had called one of those things you just have to do.
I knew that, knew it exactly and knew it well. Buying the picture from the one armed soldier that day had been one of those, even though I had no idea why that needed to have happened. Even though the little object had given me so much pleasure over the years, I still didn’t have a single clue as to why I had that, or what I was to do with it – perhaps I was holding it, like James had held the crystal orb for me, for decades, for another?
But there was also the decision to seek out the magician who was said to reside near the mountains and to ask him to take me in and teach me of magic. It was the strangest moment of my life, up until then. I just woke up one morning and nothing was different in any way, I just knew that I was going to do that, and no amount of sense or sensibility could talk me out of it. I remember struggling with myself all at the same time as I was packing without hesitation. In my head, I had yelled at me and tried to stop myself from taking all the steps that would lead me here for it made no sense at all, it was a stupid, pointless thing to do and even dangerous, for all I knew. I was burning my bridges on a whim, or so I’d thought.
Yet I had done it all and that was that.
Had Satara woken up that day and known he had to be in the market with a selection of objects he’d been holding for decades? Had he obeyed and done it, most likely because he couldn’t do anything else, even if he tried, and even though it caused him to stand in the freezing market place for hours, waiting for the moment to arrive?
How in the world did that work?
Who was sending out these instructions, who was using us all for messengers and to pass on this, or that?
The thought send a shiver through me but then I looked at the map on the table and whatever fears I might have had got simply drawn into the beauty and infinity that lay before me once more, and the fears were replaced with a strength, and a knowing, and a trust that was beyond everything, beyond anything I had ever known.
What did James say? Ours is not to reason why. To reason, to think. Yes, I thought, that’s right. Don’t think about it for thinking can’t tell you the answer. But there’s another part of you that knows. Something inside you that knows, and understands and if you could reach it somehow, it would be able to tell you what was happening, and probably even why.
So, I am a walker. One of the oldest beings around. Well, I certainly sometimes felt that way, had always felt that way. Perhaps it was that part of me, inside of me, the one that knew about these things that was old.
Perhaps that part was my soul.
When that idea came to me, I sat up stock straight in shock and found myself staring at James without being able to talk at all for this thought was just outrageous.
Could it be?
Could it really be true?
Could I really have – a soul?
James reached out and took my hand in his. “Steady now,” he advised me gently. “Breathe deeply and be steady. That’s good, be calm. Try to not think about these things too much. It’s a lot to take in, to be sure, and so soon as well.”
I was really grateful for his presence and his calm words. Talk more, I thought fervently, keep talking, please. It gives me something to centre on beyond your warm hand and friendly being.
Obediently, James continued. “You are very strong, perhaps that’s an advantage, a big advantage of your age and experience. You are very sensible, and smart, as well. And you’ve been through a lot. I think all this will help you now, if you just remember. Trust yourself, Anna.”
I nodded as he said those words. It was true. I had been through a lot. And deep down, I knew that I was strong, I just forgot sometimes, that was all.
I smiled at him then and relaxed.
“Alright,” I said. “So I am a walker, and I’ve been given a map of the stars. Fair enough. And what do we do now?”
If you don’t know what else to do, you either call a priest or you make a mug of brew. That’s what my mother used to say, and good advice that was, too. She never called a priest either and as I got up from the table where the incredible star map was still shimmering softly and talking of eternity to put the kettle to the boil, the idea of bringing in the village priest and asking, “Well, what do you make of this, father?” made me giggle.
James looked up from the map he had been studying with fascination when the sound of my laughter skipped through the kitchen and he smiled at me.
“There is an aspect to you which is eminently practical,” he said. “I like that about you.”
I shrugged my shoulders. Mysterious star map or no, raise three children and bury two and you can’t avoid being practical under most circumstances.
I put the kettle on the fire and asked, “So do you know what I am supposed to do with that?”
James shook his head. “Not a clue,” he admitted. “I don’t even know what this is, exactly. It certainly isn’t made of any kind of – hm, material, I’ve ever seen before. What is that?” He squinted down at the corner of the map which was closest to him and I could tell he wanted to touch it but was most reluctant to do so.
I said, “It felt very slippery, very smooth. But not cold. Where did it come from? Is there any way we can ask Satara where he got it, if there any instructions to go with it?”
James grimaced before he could check himself. I didn’t think he was too fond of Satara and his kind, and then it struck me quite forcefully that he didn’t like the idea of me seeking advice from another magician. I felt shocked, sorry and guilty all at the same time which produced a mixed up mess of emotions for which I couldn’t find words in a hurry.
He didn’t say anything so I hastily said once I had myself under some measure of control again, “Well I guess if there had been any instructions, he would have told us, there and then. I guess these sort of things just don’t come with instructions,” laying firmly aside any idea of contacting Satara, by magical means or in any other way, at least for now.
James sighed deeply and pushed himself away from the table, turned around sideways on the chair and looked into the fire instead of at me or at the map. “I have to trust,” he said to the fire and his voice was slow and darker than I was used to, “I have to trust that I am the right man for this job. Even though it seems that I am not.” Then he sighed again and I felt really bad now, right down into the pit of my stomach. Of all things in all the worlds, the stars and the planes, I really did not want James to be hurt or upset by me, through me or of account of me.
I would put the darned map away for now, I thought, and we can talk about other things. I am sure that I’ll find out eventually what I am supposed to do with it, and then of course there’s also the added possibility that it wasn’t even for me, but that I was just the next holding station in the map’s path until it would eventually find its rightful owner.
That thought saddened me a little but also served to make me less overly respectful of the thing, magical though it was, through and through.
Purposefully, I walked up to the table to roll up the map and to return it to the copper tube where it would be kept safe and undisturbed, and where it would be out of sight, and hopefully, out of mind for now.
But as soon as I stepped up to the table and looked down, it caught me again – it was just so very beautiful, sparkling softly, each one of the stars just like a light and yet somehow, each one was different and altogether, they seemed to form an existence, an impossible being, so unbearably old and yet at the same time, so young it may have only just been born …
I tried to will myself to look away and reached for the domed lens top which still lay on the left side, where James had been sitting, but I didn’t grasp it properly because as I lifted it, it slipped from my hand and fell onto the map, bounced and came to rest flat side down over one of the bigger stars.
I reached to pick it up when I saw …
“James!” I cried out, “James, come look at this!”
I could feel him hurry around the table to stand behind me and I pointed at the lens and said, “Do you see that? Do you see?” breathlessly and in entire astonishment.
He looked over my shoulder and I could hear his sharp intake of breath as he too, saw it.
The lens was showing a city, a white city on a cliff by a big blue ocean, as clear as day, as clear as anything. I bend down to look closer, and as I moved my head, the image moved – no, I was changing my vantage point on that city. It wasn’t a drawing or a still image either, it was, absolutely was a city. I could see the waves crashing against the base of the cliff upon which it was built; I could see birds flying above it, and I could movement, flags, people – and I knew that city was to be found on that very star.
There are cities in the stars.
“James, my god,” I whispered, “Tell me we are seeing what’s in the stars!”
He was standing close to me and I could feel him trembling slightly. “I am seeing a city,” he said under his breath, “I am seeing a white city by the sea.”
“That’s what I am seeing too,” I replied and then we looked at each other for confirmation and when it was given, I took a deep breath and this time, deliberately, I moved the glass dome away from the star upon which it was resting and with my fingertip, nudged it across the map towards an area where there seemed to be no stars at all.
The glass dome swirled red and green and came to rest on the strangest landscape you have ever seen, with odd shaped hills which seemed to have holes in them, and mists seeping out of those, and banded clouds unfolding in the most peculiar colours and patterns.
I stepped back from the table and fought for breath. And then I ran to the kitchen door, opened it and ran outside into the snow, into the yard and threw my head back to look at the real stars outside in the sky, and they were there, the night was crisp and cold and very, very clear, and I saw the stars above and I knew, I absolutely knew that these worlds were there, the map was right, and there were cities in the sky, and places where the wind blew gold, and purple.
I shivered from head to foot and that was not from cold; I stared up into the sky and I knew that I had come from there, that at some time, I had known all these things, and was learning them again, and that it was right – I was a walker, and even though I was right here, I was a long, long way from home.
Not long ago, I had been no-one at all.
I think upon that time, those times, and they seem strangely far away.
The memories are misty, although the colours are bright and clear and I remember those things well.
I felt as though I had died, and had been reborn, strangely carrying the knowing of that other life across the boundaries. Even though this other life had been my life, it was of the past and I was someone else.
Or was I?
If this place had any mirrors, I might have stepped in front of one and would have looked for changes, something that might confirm the way I felt inside. I thought of this and in a way, when I thought it there was I and there was a big mirror, floor to ceiling, and it would show me just a woman, well on her way to be an old woman, with wrinkles and grey hair and lips that were no longer as bright red as once they had been.
I would look at this and ask myself whether any of it could be real, whether I was imagining these things like cities in the stars, and ghost wind planes where you could see a magician, a magical object, and there was nothing there that didn’t reach into those other dimensions.
But as it was, there were no mirrors here and that was a good thing, indeed.
James had said that I was sensible and he was right. I was sensible. I was able to look back at my own thoughts and accept that they often did not reflect either a truth or any truth about a given situation, and this did not frighten me; it was something I always accepted as being a part of being here, of being human, even.
My thoughts I would doubt; but rarely if ever, my feelings.
That was a different thing, and it was my feelings that guided me between illusion and reality. It didn’t matter what I thought. What I felt was what counted in the end, and I had felt the stars, felt that recognition, and those feelings have the power to overwhelm thoughts entirely, to silence them absolutely, and to demand that one should listen, instead.
And then there was another feeling, and this feeling held that I didn’t need to be afraid, for I was no longer capable of making any mistakes. Perhaps I had never been able to make mistakes, and the whole idea that one might make a wrong decision, live the wrong kind of life was simply nothing more than a total delusion of a freedom we actually don’t really have at all.
We. I use that term, but I am no longer sure how these things work.
There are magicians, and then there are those who are not and who will never be.
The fascinating thing is that you can’t decide who will never be, because as my case well shows, and as James had said, the calling can come at any time, anywhere, and to absolutely anyone at all.
So all those people in Lamora market that day who didn’t show up on the elder plane could all be magicians in potential, and there was no way of telling who might become one, who might awaken to this totally different world, this totally alien world in which I had found myself, but which, at the same time, was so very and deeply familiar of old.
I stood in the snow and looked up at the stars and my feet got to be cold, and my neck started to hurt, and that made me smile because although this world was so very different in so many ways, in others, it was quite the same as it had ever been.
As I finally let my eyes leave the winter sky above, I heard the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow, and it was James. He came up to me and laid my scarf around my shoulders, carefully, conscientiously.
I turned my head to look at him. He was serious, a little sad and a little lost, and I thought it was most intriguing that he should still harbour such doubts, given all the realities of his life.
But then, what did I know of his thoughts, and of his challenges?
We may be magicians, I thought, but we are also people. It is as well not to forget that, to retain a sense of that at all times, because that gives you a perspective.
I looked at James and wondered for the first time who was here to be the guardian angel to whom, or if that was one of those strictly human ideas that didn’t work and made no sense in the greater scheme of things.
I smiled at him.
It took a moment, but I held my smile just as I had learned from him when he had done the same to the merchant woman in the market, and eventually he submitted, dropped his head and smiled back at me.
“Don’t get too cold,” he said gently.
I felt such love and such a sense of caretaking at that moment that it rendered me speechless, and that was good thing for in that moment it began to snow.
At first I thought it was my eyes but then I saw that snow flakes were falling upon us, big, slow fluttering snowflakes, and they fell on his hair, on his shoulders and one landed on his nose and slid right down.
James touched his nose in surprise and looked up into the sky, then to me.
“Magic,” he said and smiled. I shook my head in absolute capitulation and said, “Yes, magic.”
So we stood in the falling snow for a while until it got to be too cold to be romantic any longer, then we went inside.
In the kitchen, I rolled up the map and put it back into the copper tube, then very carefully picked up the domed lens top and screwed that into position, tightly.
I would go with my feelings.
And my feelings were telling me that the time would come when I would need or want to use this map, or not. They would tell me when that would be, and I could rely on that, and there was no need whatsoever to worry in the interim.
James seemed relieved that the map was no longer on the table. I really did not want to go to bed with this strangeness between us and even though James looked tired, I sat down at the kitchen table again and gave the indication I would like him to join me there. He did after the slightest of hesitations.
“Tell me about your magical name,” I said for this, in truth, was something that had intrigued me since first I heard it. To be honest, I wished he had told me himself at some time, I would have liked to have heard it from him rather than having to overhear it in a conversation with a stranger.
James nodded and said, “I think it’s time you should choose your first name.” When I didn’t quite understand what he meant, he added, “What you call my magical name. It’s known as the first name. There are others.”
That made more sense and I asked, “So how do you get your first name? What do you have to do?”
He brightened visibly at this and said, “There is a specific ceremony. A ritual. We can do it together. You go and find your guardian spirit, and they tell you your first name.”
It struck me strangely how James clearly felt differently about me and our relationship now since he had seen the map. It seemed to me that he felt out of his depth with having a walker for an apprentice, that he felt inadequate to guide me correctly. I wish that this wouldn’t be so, for surely, he must have been the best choice there could have possibly been, or I would not even be here.
I was wondering how I could make him see that, understand that, but perhaps doing the ceremony to discover my first name would take care of that.
“What does Alarin mean?” I wondered out aloud, and James smiled a little wistfully and said, “It means steadfast heart.”
Oh how perfect, I thought, and felt once again a great rising of feeling for him but this time, I knew what to do with it. I let the rising come, through my centre, up and out and let it shower back upon him, my gratitude and my love for him, and for his steadfast heart.
He bowed his head and accepted it, and it was then that I caught a glimpse of an aspect of James or Alarin or whatever his name, an aspect of this being which had hoped for something else, something more, something more adventurous, something more like – then I got it in a flash of insight – something more like travelling and exploring the stars!
I saw it, and as I saw it James knew that I had, and there was a moment where he tried to deny it, tried to turn that aspect away and hide it, return it to a place where you just don’t touch it, not ever, for you know you cannot have that and there is no hope.
I felt an energy gathering all through me then, a powerful charge that seemed to come from the ground itself, filling me, sparkling in my fingertips, in my lips, making my hair electric and I saw and understood and spoke and thought, evoked:
“I have come to bring you that exactly, in me, through me – I am here!”
As the realisation exploded and ignited the understanding in him, he physically rocked as though having been struck by lightning.
“Of course!” he cried, “Of course you are! Oh how perfect!”
And once again, we were both left entirely speechless and astonished at the ways of magic.
So who is the watcher, and who is the walker?
I laugh at that, because it is of course, a total nonsense.
Once again, we have fallen into the very human mistake of trying to name the unnameable, and in doing so, we have made a great and enormous something into a mere shadow of itself.
And often in the times that were to come I thought that I had come here, not to James’ house but to this world, so that my very presence would become a catalyst to all the other magicians here that they would understand that they could not continue labelling themselves, or sorting themselves in this way – the Order of the Star here, a watcher there, a healer here and a sooth sayer there.
All that was wrong, and understandable, of course, for we had come from being human born and bred, and there, we had learned the wrongful ways of splitting up a thing into its parts to the degree that none was now still a totality.
Soldier, artist, teacher, wife.
We should be all of those, and all of those should be together within a single person, or we should stop perhaps to make all these distinctions and just go with what there needed to be done, guided not by thought, but purely by our feelings and those parts of us that knew exactly what was what, and how to be, and do as well.
The next day it was snowing still, a slow quiet fall of snow, perhaps the last one of this glorious winter of transformation, and I brought out the paints that James had bought for me and asked him if he could show me how to use them.
He laughed at me and said that it was possible that no-one would know that, although certainly many thought they did, and so we spend the morning at the kitchen table, making colour blobs and streaks and marks on paper, laughing like children would, talking, enjoying each other and ourselves in a whole new way.
I tried to paint an image of the city by the sea and so did James; we did this hidden behind our arms so that the other could not see until it was finished. Although our paintings were very different, it was remarkable for you could tell that here were two who had seen the same thing.
We put the paintings up on the ledge above the fire place to dry, side by side, and they remained there for as long as I lived in this house, and they never ceased to be a wonder to me, a lesson on so many levels, it would take more than a lifetime to really understand it all.
That evening, after the evening meal, we sat in the drawing room for the first time. I started sewing a new nightdress and James played the wayfarer's harp, and told me stories about when he was young and walking around the kingdoms as a story teller, a part of his education and a long held desire from days past.
I was absolutely fascinated by these tales of peril and amusement, adventure and magic and at one time, I became aware that there was a part of me that had always wanted to live a life such as this, just as James had wanted to travel to the stars; and just as I would share the latter, he was now giving me all that and it did not just suffice to satisfy the me who loved the thought of travelling with a wayfarer's harp under my arm, free as the wind and entirely in charge of my own destiny, it went beyond that as I fell into his stories and lived them, just the same.
I loved the story telling and the very next night, James gave me the harp to try; he spoke gentle words of encouragement and not much later, I managed to give a simple rendition of an old children’s tale with a basic accompaniment of a few notes and a couple of simple chords. I was truly delighted with that for there had been moments when I forgot all about my fingers and my words and there had been flashes of just performing, sending out a magical web of story and of information that would become so real in the listener’s mind, and I could see it there, just the same.
“You would make a fine spell singer,” James said, and even though I hadn’t even ever heard the word, I knew immediately what he meant by that.
The next night I asked him to help me do just that, for I had the idea to make a song from the simple notes that brought the spirit birdling forth from the crystal orb. James was very excited by this idea and I sang, he played and the spirit bird joined us in the room – difficult to describe, but what an experience that was!
When we were done, I set to wondering what kind of spell that might have been, still being used to think of spells in terms of something one would do much like one would dig a trench in the garden, only the tools might be candles and herbs instead of a shovel and a pick.
James suggested that it might well have been a spell for brightening the spirit, and that seemed as good a description as you could put on it. We both agreed that such a spell was a very good thing to have performed, not just for ourselves, but also for the fabric, who would have listened, and become involved.
So we played, and we learned, but in essence, all we did was to please ourselves and enjoy ourselves, each other and the incredible array of ways to be delighted that just seemed to grow with every day, in every way.
And it was true that we were doing something that was held to be quite dangerous – we were losing the world as such, and became involved in a world that was between us, and strictly of our own making.
But it was a visitor from the outside who brought this very fact to our attention.
On this day, I awoke earlier than usual. It was still absolutely dark but I was very awake, wide awake in an instance. I listened to the house but it was as usual, creaking a little, here and there. I made that shift and extended my awareness to find James who was up above me and to the right, and then with a start I noticed the presence of another, below, out and to the left.
I sat in the dark with my eyes wide open and tracked the magician outside who was making their way up the hill and towards the house. At this hour? Who was that? And what did they want?
I tried to nudge James but he was far too deeply asleep to hear me, so I hastily got up, threw a daydress straight over my night dress, struggled into my shoes and ran up the stairs to James’ room.
I knocked on the door, softly first and then really loudly, and he finally woke up.
“James,” I said and I noted that there was a strand of fear in my voice, “There is a magician outside. They are coming here and they will be at the door within moments.”
I heard James mumbling something to himself, then he said, “I’ll be down presently. Can you let them in?”
“Yes,” I said, then I placed my flat hand on the door and added, “Do hurry, please.”
I ran down the stairs, stoked the fire, lit a couple of lamps and combed my hair back with my fingers, best I could whilst at the same time I could feel that magician approaching. They were on foot and making good progress against the freezing dark morning outside, or was it the end of the night?
It was a really strange and actually frightening sensation to be standing there and to be waiting on one level for the knocking on the door, and on the other level to be totally aware of the shortening of the distances and knowing exactly when it would come.
And then it came. Someone was not just knocking on the door, but pounding on it, hard and repeatedly.
I took a deep breath, wished once more that James would hurry, then I went to open the door.
A gust of freezing wind that seemed to carry ice instead of snow rushed at me and into the kitchen, hissed through my hair and made my eyes water, so I couldn’t see properly who that was, but it was the shape of a man, wearing a hooded cloak, a little taller than me but not very wide and he said through many layers of wrappings around his mouth, his words being carried away by the storm, “Good sister, let me in! I seek shelter.”
I stood aside and he barged into the room, bringing more freezing cold with him; I closed the door, pushing hard against the wind and finally locking it shut.
Now all was quiet again and I turned around to face the stranger.
He had made straight for the fire, pulling off his gloves as the first thing and holding his hands out to warm them up. As the heat of of the fire began to touch him, he brushed his hood back and I could finally see that this magician was a young man, a fine cut face with serious features, short copper red hair and dark eyes. I squinted a little to make sure he really was that, and not a Satara like illusion, but there was no foul play at work; he was what he presented, at least in physicality.
He glanced around to me and smiled. Apologetically, he bowed his head whilst keeping all the rest of him turned to the fire and said, “Please forgive my manners, good sister. I am Cedric, and my, is it cold in this part of the country!”
I nodded and responded carefully, “I am Anna. Be welcome in this house.”
As he was standing right in front of the fire, I couldn’t really get to either the kettle or the dresser to start making some brew; this left me little option but to remain hovering near the door through which hopefully, James would make his entrance sooner rather than later.
The magician Cedric had turned back to the fire and now set to loosening some of the scarves he had wrapped around his neck inside the cloak. His clothes were of very good quality, thick and new even though soaked to black all around the front and the hem; he wore very good boots and then I noticed a leather pouch slung across his shoulders which drew my attention.
Before it could get any more uncomfortable still, I heard James on the stairs and was extremely relieved to see him step through the door.
He looked to me first, then at our early morning visitor.
“Cedric!” he cried out at once, “How good it is to see you!” The young magician’s serious face broke into a wide smile which transformed his features as he, in turn cried, “Alarin! Sleeping at this hour still? You must be getting old!” and then both men headed for each other and embraced each other strongly, slapping each other on the back, laughing, and clearly delighted to see each other again.
I stood by the door, uncomfortable and quite forgotten, as both men went into a rapid exchange about things I didn’t know anything about, places I’d never visited and people I’d never heard of.
Cedric took off his cloak and the remaining layers of scarves and vests and it was James who found the kettle had boiled and who set to, making brew. For a moment I wondered whether he was going to make just two mugs worth, but then he called me over.
“Cedric,” he said, “This is Anna. She is new, and she is a walker!”
Thus introduced, I came forward a little awkwardly, then James went on to say, “Anna, meet Cedric. I’ve known him since he wasn’t any higher than that there stool there …” At this, Cedric laughed out aloud, punched James fondly on the upper arm and headed over to me, holding out his hand. “It’s an honour to meet you, Anna,” he said and his smile was sincere, although his dark eyes seemed intent on drinking me, draining me, of information and of purpose.
I shook his hand and at the same time, sighed and allowed him to know me, to take what he needed to be assured that I was loyal to James, and that I loved him well.
Cedric responded to this with a minute raising of his head; he closed his eyes slowly and when he came back, he was different.
He seemed much older all of a sudden, much more serious again but also, there was a kindness about him now that had been absent before. Whatever he had searched me for, he must have found it and I must have passed his test, for now, it ceased to be just the two of them, and instead, it became the three of us.
Three of us.
Three magicians in the same place?
Wasn’t that dangerous?
I glanced up and around at the ceiling and wondered if there would be any fires starting upstairs any time now, or if the tower might fall.
James – or perhaps I should start thinking of him as Alarin, and get used to addressing him thus? – was filling three mugs and we all sat down at the table.
“Now what in the world brings you here in the middle of the night?” James asked the question that I would have liked to have answered most, and here, Cedric became serious again.
“I was sent,” he said carefully whilst his long, slender fingers played with the handle of the mug which was too hot to be handled just yet, “I was sent to investigate your disappearance, Alarin.”
James laughed out aloud, then stopped laughing as though a door had been shut as the meaning of this statement hit home.
“My,” he said then, “Oh,” dropped his head and ran his hand repeatedly through his white hair, tousling it mightily in the process.
I just sat and looked from one to the other, trying to understand what was happening, and how you investigate the disappearance of a person who clearly had not disappeared at all.
Or had he?
What had James said about a marriage between magicians?
“They create their own world between them and lose themselves within it.”
Had this happened here?
Cedric turned to me and replied as if I had spoken all of that out aloud and straight into the silent room, “We lost contact with Alarin about a week ago. He disappeared from the grid. We didn’t know what had happened, and there was … concern.”
“Who is we?” I asked.
Cedric raised both his nicely shaped eyebrows at my question.
“Rosea,” he answered but the inflection was of a question back, surely, you must know about Rosea?
I shook my head. “Never heard of that,” I said and we both looked to James for an explanation.
James didn’t look at either of us but instead, kept his eyes on the softly steaming mug before him. He sighed and it seemed as though he was going to say something, but then he didn’t, and we all sat there in a silence that became denser and stranger with every breath I took.
With every breath I took, my field of vision seemed to widen and the kitchen seemed to become larger, less clearly defined, and at one point, it started to shift, slightly at first, then rapidly and spun away, down and to the left, and I could see all three of us from high above, sitting at the table, forming a triangle of magicians, and then that turned and rushed and fell away until I couldn’t see it any longer.
For a moment, I was entirely lost and disorientated, but then another turn occurred and I found myself standing on a white sandy plane and the sky above was pure black, filled with many stars.
As I finished the turn and tried to keep my balance so I wouldn’t fall, I saw Cedric and Alarin too, and we were there, all three of us on this strange plane, standing in a triangle and facing each other.
A light wind was rippling Alarin’s white hair and my skirts and it was very clear, very present and very, very silent.
Alarin made a gesture that seemed a little tired, and between us there arose a small star of light which expanded and began to form a globe of soft white light, like a soap bubble, and this grew some more until it was nearly filling the space between us, nearly touched my face and I could reach it easily with my hands.
Inside this globe, shifting lights began to appear, streaks of colour which organised themselves, and you could see there, and there was Alarin in his kitchen, and I could smell the soup and hear a knock on the door, see there was a dishevelled older woman in quite some distress on the threshold, and it was me, the me I used to be, and I started to cry softly as I watched Alarin take her in, and all the things we had done were shown in this orb, a record of our relationship and of my transformation.
I saw me running in the snow with the crystal orb, and I saw us dance; I saw me crying and Alarin playing his music for me, I saw it all as it unfolded and I couldn’t help it, I kept on crying for the wonder of it all, the impossibility of it, and the reality of these last days of my old life, which at the same time had been the first days of my new existence.
All things played through time, honestly and with not a thing missing, all things we said and did and somehow, what we thought as well, and this was our time and journey, shared with the third magician but I felt neither embarrassed or ashamed, or even private about these things.
It was just the truth, that was all.
When the events in the globe had caught up with time itself and now showed the three of us, standing in this strange land of magic, far away and perhaps still here and now the same, the globe became clear once more, and folded back upon itself, became a small star once more and then it was gone.
Cedric looked from one to the other and I could see that he, too, had tears in his eyes. He bowed to us both and then he said, “How very, very wonderful Thank you so much for sharing this with me.”
James – Alarin stood very upright and for the first time I became aware of his great age and his wisdom, a powerful strength, the strength of a king or an emperor who holds stewardship for all his fertile lands.
But then both the others looked to me, and reflected in their gaze I saw myself in a very different way.
I too stood upright.
I too was the emperor, the queen and my lands were fertile just the same.
I was the magician.
--- The End ---