Friday, November 28, 2008
There were two carpetbags by the wall sitting in a morose sort of pile, and she was putting a few things from her desk into a small valise. It was the same desk at which she brushed her hair, and the memory returned to me with full force. She saw me behind her in the mirror and this time she smiled. I preferred that reaction.
“When will you go?” I asked, hoping for the best.
“After lunch.” That left only a few hours, and I began to feel a desperation I wasn’t familiar with. I voiced nothing, though, and instead just sighed. She stood and faced me.
“Do you think…” she ventured. “There is a way we could communicate after I leave?”
“You mean letters?”
“Or anything else,” she said. “Aren’t you privy to all sorts of magical things?”
“I am,” I said, thinking. “I could come see you, but…” I trailed off, not really wanting to say that even though I could pop into her life whenever I wanted with the magical handkerchief it would accomplish little except disrupt the life she should be getting on with.
“Please, will you?”
“I don’t know, Harriet.”
She began to look as if I was letting her down easy, and that’s the last thing I wanted.
“I wish I could,” I added for merit, meaning it to my bones. I decided to go for optimism and moved to her windowsill, tapping the window with a smile. “You’re going to be back out there, with the rest of the world, Harriet! So what will be the first thing you’ll do?”
She smiled back, and her cheeks went rosy. “Prepare for a ball.”
“No, really? I’ve always wanted to go to one of those!”
“I’m kind of scared.”
“What will I wear? Who will I talk to? Will I fall over when I try to dance?” She sighed, pacing to the center of the room and looking up. “It’s terrifying, Henry. I wish you could be there with me.”
I wished I could too, badly. Going to a ball sounded exciting, different, and extravagant. I’d never seen one but read about them a great deal in a few of Teitnl’s books. Most of all I wanted to dance with Harriet.
“Well, let’s start with the first,” I said, approaching Harriet, taking her shoulders, and turning her to face the mirror. She was pliable and willing in my grasp and it was pleasant just to touch her as we both looked at ourselves in the mirror on her desk. “Hmm. Your mirror is too small.”
“It is.” I lifted a hand and it expanded to the floor, and I even widened it a bit for good measure. Maybe I was showing off. Yes, I was probably showing off. At length it showed the whole of her, and me behind her.
“So… what color do you think you’d like to wear?” I asked her.
Her brow furrowed and she seemed embarrassed. “I don’t know. Perhaps pink?” I wrinkled my nose and she laughed. “Blue?” That didn’t seem right either.
“No,” I said. “Red.”
She blinked as if the idea of wearing red had never occurred to her in her life. “Red?”
In reply I lifted my hands above her shoulders with my fingers together, and then splayed them down, never touching her, like a drape over her form. It became a gown in brilliant deep red, which, though difficult to create, as it required intense concentration on the specifics of her body, I enjoyed it thoroughly, and probably more than I should have. I didn’t really care since it was the last time I’d see her, I imagined.
I made it rest on the edge of her shoulders, juxtaposed as if secure and on the verge of slipping at the same time, and the neckline made a wide “V” that brought even more attention to the delicate neck I loved. I cinched it at her waist, created whalebone from air in the bodice and then pulled it tight, then tighter, and her sharp inhale made me smile. The skirt was full, luxurious, and overlaid with golden gossamer. She gasped.
“It’s beautiful, Henry!”
But I wasn’t finished yet, because she would see how beautiful she was before she left and I would make her see it. I moved a hand in front of her, spread my fingers, and gestured across her from shoulder to shoulder, all the while looking in the mirror and watching a sparkling neckpiece wrought as finely as a spider’s web appear across her collarbone. It shifted with such subtlety over the rise and fall of her clavicle that I felt my blood warm. Then I moved both of my hands, and swirled her hair back and up, off of the nape of her neck (being the more beautiful than anything I had previously imagined) and secured it with a shimmering band that I made appear from nowhere.
She touched the necklace as if it might break, and gazed at herself in the mirror. I gazed with her.
“You’re beautiful, Harriet.”
She didn’t refuse my compliment this time, because she knew it and I had proven it to her, and instead she edged back until I could feel her close to me, and her eyes moved to look at me in the mirror. It was while locked in that gaze that I knew it was now or never with Harriet.
I lifted my hand; Harriet and I watched it in the mirror as it moved, and I felt slow anticipation prickle across me as my fingertips reached for her skin, for the delicate shape of her neck. I touched her and she sighed; her eyes closed and I felt my face burn as I let my fingers glide across a surface I’d memorized already without realizing it. It was softer than I’d known it could be. I ran my fingers over the line of her collarbone, curled them into the furrow at the center, and as I withdrew to the curve of her face she turned her head and her lips brushed my fingertips.
My eyes darted to the mirror, to the delightful sight of her lips, parted, soft, and willing, and it took only a small movement on my part to press my own lips against her hair. Her scent was delicate, feminine, and laced with lavender. She kissed my thumb and I thought I might lose my senses.
I did lose the illusion. All of my concentration broke, shattered like glass, and she was once again in her serviceable gray and white uniform in front of a much smaller mirror with her hair down, covering the nape of her neck I wanted to touch again and again and perhaps kiss.
She noticed the illusion was gone, and we both gazed into the mirror, wary, wondering together if it meant an ending. Her voice broke the silence.
“Yes, I think I’ll wear red.”
The intensity of the moment was broken in a sense, but not the anxiety over her departure and as I embraced her from behind she returned my embrace with ardor.
“Henry,” she murmured, her voice soft.
“Henry!” called Teitnl from downstairs, throwing his voice with illusion. I left her then to resume my studies, which never stopped, not even for this. I sometimes wonder if Teitnl continued them with me right then to make the next few hours bearable, or maybe he wanted to help me avoid falling even further for Harriet than I already had. Most likely he just wanted to apprentice me regardless of what else was occurring.
Lunch was a somber affair, as I took it with Olga, Junior, Harriet, and Ned. Olga and Ned dominated most of the conversation, advising Harriet on the things she should do in the next stage of her life with mind-numbing detail. We shared a number of looks during the elder lectures, and some of them even possessed a measure of heat. Junior, who said little and ate little, seemed to be mourning Harriet’s departure and it occurred to me that he might have been attached to her, too.
Following lunch we all convened in the great hall and, for being a going-away gathering, it was underwhelming. The five of us had never made for a thrilling party, and we mostly lumped together waiting for the illusionist to appear.
Teitnl strode in from his study wearing the same thick blue-lavender sash he’d been wearing the night before when we hunted the unicorn. He stopped in front of Harriet, who was standing in a plain skirt and blouse with her carpetbags and valise beside her. She curtsied to him.
“Master Teitnl, thank you.”
He looked her over and tilted his head in reply. “Well, I’ll take your things first.” He picked up her bags, pulled his sash and stepped, blurring out of sight. She turned to look at me, and I sort of tried to smile. Maybe.
“Good luck,” I told her. They were terrible last words, but I’d never been much accustomed to or very good at goodbyes. There was a thunderclap and a breeze and Teitnl was back, windblown but unruffled. Harriet looked at me, and there was a moment of panic on my part when her eyes began to fill with tears again, but instead of crying, she ran upon me, threw her arms around my neck, and kissed me.
I have no recollection of how anyone might have reacted, as my mind was absorbed by the kiss itself and my will was absorbed in enjoying it. Her lips were pliant against mine; she smelled of lavender and tasted something like berries. She was passionate in ways I would never get to explore. I experienced loss and gain all at once, and my mind raced to commit it to memory in as much detail as I could muster. As it ended, what I remember most is her mostly-blue-green-hazel eyes looking up into mine, uncertain and resigned.
It was strange how patient Teitnl was at the time. He didn’t chide me or show any measure of outrage that I had expected. He only took her by the arm and led her to him, and then wrapped his arm around her abdomen and secured her against his torso. She looked at me and smiled, and then they blurred away.
Monday, November 24, 2008
He was gone all day, and as the sun began to set I was reading something about rainbow trout when Harriet came in to sweep the study.
“I had begun to wonder if you’ve been avoiding me,” I said. I was sitting at Teitnl’s desk and this gave me a sense of empowerment, like a child pretending to be grown up, and I leaned my chin in my palm to watch her. She laughed at me and blushed.
“Of course not.” I sensed something in her voice, though, and wondered if she really had. Leaning back in my chair, I let a long moment of silence give her enough discomfiture to hand me some more clues. She glanced at me and fidgeted and I came to a realization.
“You really have been avoiding me!” This gave me a rush of all kinds of alarming emotions, and none of them were good. It helped that she smiled at me, yet it was further disarming, as if the idea of avoiding me was funny to her. I could feel my face flush, and as I did, I stood and took my books in my arms, fully intending to withdraw to my cottage to live forever in a hermitous, humiliated state. She wouldn’t let me leave, though, for that soft voice of hers stopped me in my tracks.
“Henry,” she said, looking down. “I’m leaving the estate.”
There was a prickling that rushed across my skin as I knew this was the best thing for her, but suddenly didn’t want her to leave, and in fact the very idea caused a sort of hollow pain in my gut. I didn’t know when all of this had occurred, since the last time her leaving had been brought up to me it hadn’t bothered me at all. However, here I was with Harriet telling me and I thought I would perhaps die from it.
I couldn’t tell her not to go, because I knew she should. I couldn’t encourage her to go or even feign happiness on her behalf because it made me so miserable. I didn’t know what to do, so I stood, blinded by her news, and watched the smallest movements of her form, memorizing her like I would never see her again. What I remember most was the way she turned her head, and how the push and pull of natural forces impacted the shape of her feminine neck that I had never touched.
“When?” was my ragged reply.
“Tomorrow.” She looked at me and seemed about to say something, but didn’t. A moment later she spoke again. “Aunt Olga and Master Teitnl have decided I have quite a lot to do in the world, outside of the estate. I suppose they’re right. I guess since knowing you, Henry, I don’t feel quite so shy anymore, not like I used to. But I … I thought since I’d be leaving I’d make it easier on both of us and –“
“We lost an entire day!” I was beside myself with torment. “Tomorrow? Why didn’t you tell me sooner? We could have done something with your last day here!”
She looked abashed as I complained for a while about spending the whole day reading about fish.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and I suddenly felt terrible.
“Don’t be,” I insisted. “Please… Oh, Harriet, you are the best friend I have.”
She gazed at me and her eyes seemed to begin to well up with tears and I had a moment of panic where I wasn’t sure what I’d do with a crying girl. I was saved from that predicament by a loud noise outside. It was like a thunderclap, and a few seconds later the doors to the estate slammed open.
“Olga! Ned!” yelled Teitnl.
Harriet and I forgot our angst and ran to the doorway to eavesdrop. Teitnl was at the end of the hall, not exactly disheveled because he never was, nor did I think it was a possibility that he ever could be, but he was as disheveled as he gets.
“OLGA AND NED!” he yelled again and I heard Olga’s voice from far off and some scuffling from the other direction. The required parties appeared.
“Yes, Master Teitnl?” asked Ned, a sense of alertness in his voice I’d never heard before.
“The cannons!” ordered Teitnl, and then he spun on his heel and stalked back outside. Ned and Olga looked pale, and then scurried off to the door at the back of the hall. As he opened the door, Ned gave a loud call for Junior, the door slammed shut, and then they were all gone, leaving Harriet and I alone in the doorway to the study.
I’d never seen a cannon once in all of my months at the estate, and wondered where they were kept. Somewhere in the back was what I deduced. I felt Harriet shift beside me and looked at her to see the same curiosity in her face I felt in mine. I grabbed her hand and we ran out the front doors.
The sky was variegated; deepening blue on one side and rich umber in the west. Somewhere in the middle it compromised and a few of the more zealous stars twinkled in the mixture. Teitnl was staring off towards the south with something like anxiety on his face. He heard us, though, and turned.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“Go to the back and help with the cannons, Henry!”
I went right away, but as I was running to the back I heard Teitnl confront Harriet for her presence.
“And you, shouldn’t you be packing?”
“Yes Master Teitnl, but I would like to help if I can.”
“Fine, stay here.” Their voices faded to inaudibility as I passed around the estate, and for some seconds the only sound was a bird and my feet in the lawn, until the voices of Junior, Ned, and Olga began to drift towards me. I passed around to the back, where a small shed housed the most unusual cannons I’d ever seen.
They were like cannons in a figurative sense only. That is to say, they looked like abstract cannons painted on a canvas to only suggest the idea of cannons, not to represent one to any degree of life-like authenticity. There were two of them and they were midnight blue, like the color that Teitnl favored, and were wider and shorter than normal cannons and banded around the middle with gold. Ned and Olga were handling one of them, and I skittered to help Junior with the other one, which had gotten stuck on a stick in the way. They weren’t overly heavy, at least they weren’t as heavy as they looked, and I wondered what material they were made of to be, if not light, then more manageable than they should have been. They also did not require fuses, or powder, or cannonballs that I could see.
Everyone seemed in on something I was not aware of, and were moving the cannons with great anxiety.
“What’s going on?” I asked as we pushed over the lawn towards the front. Junior just glared at me, and I gave him the most innocent look I possessed.
“It must be a unicorn!” Olga’s voice came from behind the other cannon. I considered.
“He’s going to blow up the unicorn with cannons? Sounds like overkill.”
“No, ye ridiculous boy!” snapped Ned. “Didn’t the Master teach you anything about unicorns?”
Junior smirked and I wanted to grind my teeth over my ignorance, especially in front of Junior.
“Not enough!” yelled Olga. “Tonight’s yer education then!”
My brow furrowed, but then we arrived in the front and Teitnl and Harriet ran to help push the cannons towards the southwest corner of the front lawn. Harriet came to my side, which made Junior’s smirk turn into a glower, and petty satisfaction was mine. There was a clear shot to the south where the trees were less prominent, and the sky was gloaming less and less from the vanished sun.
Teitnl began fidgeting with one of the cannons, and I saw a small panel open on the side with a number of odd instruments that the illusionist proceeded to manipulate with his agile fingers. There were clicks and a whir, and then the whole thing began humming like the sound numerous beehives might make.
“Junior, get my crossbow,” he said while his eyes were locked on the interior of the next cannon. “Wait,” said Teitnl. “Get two.”
Junior hesitated at the mention of two crossbows, probably feeling the same sort of confusion I was over for whom the second one was intended, and then took off in the direction of the estate. The second cannon began to whir, joining the first and making the sound of even more beehives as Teitnl was a whir himself in adjusting the machines. Olga and Ned stood nearby, only fidgeting as much as necessary, but they did seem anxious, so I decided I’d fish for some answers.
“So…” I began. Teitnl seemed to ignore me completely. “What’s all this then?”
“What’s all what?” was Teitnl’s absent reply. His hand was on one of the cannons and he turned to stare at the southern horizon. I cleared my throat. He looked back to me with a droll look on his face, tightened the sash around his waist, and was suddenly gone.
Before I could blink and ask where he had gone, Teitnl was back with a thunderclap, the only thing betraying his sudden movement being a certain windblown quality about his clothes and a few stray strands of hair from his queue. He grabbed each cannon in turn to aim it with ferocity, then looked for Junior, who had returned and was standing behind Harriet holding two crossbows; ornate and plain. Junior gave over the weapons, and Teitnl strapped on the ornate one, and then handed the other to me. I took it with confusion.
“You’re coming with me,” he said.
He didn’t answer, though, and instead called to Olga and Ned, who promptly readied themselves behind each cannon. Olga’s ruddy round face seemed strange behind a cannon, and with such a focused expression I would have thought she was cutting potatoes instead. Ned shared the look, and I had yet to discover the direness of the situation, although everyone else seemed to understand it completely. It was as if I had woken up and found myself in a secret club. A club of unicorn haters with strange contraptions.
“Ready?” he called. “Fire!”
Ned and Olga both pushed levers on the back of the cannons and the beehive pitch rose higher until they both shifted in unison back, then forward and something bright shot out of them, large beside Teitnl and I, then smaller and smaller, shooting high into the midnight blue sky. I began to attempt to form an inquiry, but there wasn’t time because Teitnl took me beneath his arm and we moved.
To say we “moved” was something of an understatement, because although Teitnl seemed to only take a step, the world began blurring by us at breakneck speed. He held me firmly in his grip, which seemed fortunate, because I was certain I would die otherwise, impaled on tree branches or crushed on rocks. At the end of his step there was a loud noise and we were standing in a clearing with the bright cannon-lights coming towards us. He pulled my arm to follow and we bolted into some bushes at the side of the clearing. I sat on the ground within the bushes and stared at Teitnl, so frustrated with unanswered questions that I was beyond asking anymore. He was surveying the clearing, and I think when he looked at me he had pity.
“We’re hunting a unicorn.”
He looked me over in consideration, and then lifted a hand towards the clearing, filling it with beautiful illusory wildflowers.
The bright lights from the cannons then came to the clearing, and they didn’t land like I had expected them to; instead they burst once above the clearing, shattering into vibrating strings of light and drifting or even floating multicolored through the sky above us. It was mesmerizing and I watched the lights with wonder until Teitnl’s sharp elbow impaled my side. He pointed to a part of the clearing that was far from us.
It meandered into view through the underbrush, only a white leg and exquisite hoof at first and then a muzzle. It seemed to reveal itself in a teasing way that made me desire more and the slowness of it was agonizing. I wanted to run from the bushes and see it all, gorging my eyes on what must be, from the small parts I could see, the most beautiful creature in the world. Through the leaves I saw the hint of fine, whisper-thin, white hair that fell across itself like strands of silk, and as I ached to touch it I knew I had fallen in love… with a horse. Teitnl gripped my arm hard with his hand, pulling me to him as if his firm grasp would make me retain my senses.
“Watch the flowers,” he whispered almost without sound into my ear, and I obeyed, as I couldn’t have stopped myself from watching one of the delicate silver-gray hooves step into the edge of the illusion. The flowers vanished; they ceased to exist the instant the unicorn touched them. The flowers around those flowers went, too, and then like dominoes, they all went out in a wave. It was like a pebble dropped in a pond. The illusion was gone from just a touch from the unicorn.
I was still in Teitnl’s grip; he was like a vice. Perhaps it was his hatred of the beast, or perhaps it was that he feared I would run to it. It could have been both, as both were true and hung heavy over us at that moment.
“Unicorns reveal truth,” he whispered to me quiet enough so he wouldn’t be overheard, but with urgency. “They render us completely powerless. There is no illusion great enough that a unicorn can’t dispel it with a touch.”
The unicorn came closer by a little, drawn by the lights that hung above the clearing, which darted to and fro with a multitude of colors. Its dark eyes cast up to the lights beneath long lashes and I knew if that unicorn were a woman I might have gone mad enough to kill Teitnl for it.
“Listen to me,” came Teitnl’s whisper. “If a unicorn sets foot in the valley it will dispel my illusion entirely, exposing the illusion for what it is. Hundreds of years of work will be lost. We have to stop it.”
“We have to kill it.”
I moaned at the idea. “No… we can’t.”
“We have to.”
“It’s so beautiful, how can it be wrong?”
“Unicorns are idiotic creatures.”
I gasped at him, furious over his insult of unicorns, which suddenly felt like they had been my best friends for ages. Teitnl slapped me.
“Snap out of it!” he hissed. “I thought you were smart enough not to be fooled by simple charm magic.”
Once the stars cleared from my eyes (Teitnl was always a talented slapper) I blinked and realized, to an extent, what had been happening to me. I still didn’t want to kill it, though.
“Isn’t there something else we could do?”
“It’s either the unicorn or our livelihood. Which will it be, Henry?”
“But it’s so pretty!”
“That’s the nature of the beast.”
“Can’t it be turned into a girl somehow?”
Teitnl slapped me again.
“Ready your crossbow.” He unstrapped his crossbow and began checking it, prepping his bolt and unlacing the harness. The unicorn was in the center of the clearing now, gazing up at the lights with mindless abandon, unaware that it was about to be crossbowed to death by a blue-haired elf with a vendetta against its kind. I had removed my crossbow, but, seeing Teitnl take careful aim, could bring myself to do nothing with it, and instead dropped it to the ground and buried my face against Teitnl’s coat and began to cry. I felt a rush as the crossbow in Teitnl’s arms fired, a small but deep click, a tiny movement that resonated through the both of us, and then the keening wail of the creature in the clearing. I fell back onto the ground and covered my face as Teitnl reloaded, fired, reloaded again. There was a third loud snap, the thud of a bolt hitting its target, and no more wailing.
I heard Teitnl moving, and then suddenly the agony I’d been experiencing lifted, gone in a flash. I sat up and blinked.
“Is it dead?”
I stood and looked over the bushes where Teitnl was standing over the remains of the unicorn. Its appearance was nothing like what I recalled. First off, it was gray, not the pure white I’d seen. It actually kind of looked like a goat. I didn’t mourn its death, either, which seemed strange since I could still remember how desperately I’d loved it five minutes before. I shivered.
“I don’t like charm magic,” I said, staring at the dead creature.
“I despise it,” said Teitnl. “Charm is magic for the weak, used to exploit and control.”
He added with low disgust: “There is no art in it.”
“I’m sorry I was taken by it,” I said, feeling ashamed of my frailty.
“It was your first time,” he replied, making an excuse for me.
“What should we do with it now?”
“Throw it in the bushes.”
Monday, November 17, 2008
After the day spent in the orchard my learning accelerated as a switch was turned inside of my mind I had never been aware of before. Teitnl was most certainly pleased with my progress, and was even, on rare occasion, less than cruel. In my lone hours, usually inside of my cottage, I practiced invisibility and for some reason I didn’t want Teitnl to know of my growing ability to disguise myself with the world around me. Perhaps it was because I planned to use it in a way that I was almost certain he would disapprove of, and most likely disallow. Thus I kept it to myself, because I was already planning when I would sneak away to see Cherry, whether Teitnl, the villagers who hated me, or even Cherry wanted me to do it or not. Olga seemed to have cursed me with her talk of closure.
The only person I told of my secret plans was Harriet, and she was, of course, fully supportive and even helped me to practice my invisibility. She would pick out my flaws, but as I got better and better each passing day, I became more difficult for her to discern.
One day after lunch, as Teitnl was absorbed in his work and Harriet was sweeping the upstairs hallway, I stole up to her, as invisible as I could manage and I watched her sweep. She was oblivious to me and so I paced around her, watching the rhythm with which she swept the polished wood of the floor. I found it fascinating to observe for the first time someone who believes they are unobserved and alone and I followed her into a side room as she moved, certain she would perceive me at any moment, but she never did.
She put the broom to the side and moved to the end of the room, where there was a stool, small desk, and mirror on the wall. I wondered what she was about as she gazed at herself for a long moment in the mirror. Her hair had fallen, only a few pieces, from its tie in the back and although I didn’t think it looked bad at all, she seemed frustrated with it. It was something I had never seen on her face before.
She pulled out the stool and sat upon it, and then freed her hair and it fell across her shoulders. Part of it fell forward and I was struck by its beauty as the lock slid over her shoulder with weightless abandon onto her breast. She pulled a brush through it, beginning with rigid practice, but then she slowed as she gazed at herself in the mirror and sighed, tilting her head and pulling her hair to the side with her brush, laying her neck exposed to my view.
It was a beautiful neck, and I wondered if I would have noticed it in such exquisite detail before my lessons with Teitnl, where I was trained to notice the form and shape of everything from blades of grass on the lawn to this… this remarkable something that had suddenly begun to turn me inside out in a way I’d never experienced before. It was the first woman’s neck I had ever noticed in detail, and I was taken by it, feeling a tinge of pain over the desire to touch its soft surface. My breath quickened, my face flushed.
Harriet straightened her head and blinked into the mirror at my form behind her. I blinked myself, realizing my reappearance after the fact. It seemed my concentration upon invisibility had flagged.
“Were you spying on me?” she asked with something akin to outrage. I sought for something to say that would redeem me for eavesdropping, but I was caught red-handed, although if I could have explained it to her clearly she probably would have understood how it had come to this. As it was, I had no explanation for myself that was fast enough, because she stood and started beating me with her brush.
“Get out, get out!” she yelled, her face red with fury. “Don’t ever do that again!”
She punctuated her exclamation by throwing her brush at me, which I dodged by ducking out the door. I heard it hit the doorframe and clank on the floor, but she did not pursue me, at least not fast enough to catch me. I ran to Teitnl’s study, where he was hard at work. I stood in the study, out of breath for a few long moments before Teitnl looked up.
“Sir,” I said. “I’ve learned how to use invisibility.”
One of his eyebrows lifted and we heard some sort of commotion in the kitchen across the hall as Olga and Harriet’s voices intermingled. I backed to the door and shut it behind me. A drop of sweat slid into my collar as felt the mantle of the foolish apprentice.
“Now I need to know how to use it wisely.”
Teitnl’s eyes widened as I believe he realized what I had gotten myself into. Someone knocked at the door, and then we both heard Olga’s harsh voice.
“Master Teitnl!” came her angry voice with more knocking. “Master Teitnl! Is that boy in there?”
I cast Teitnl a desperate glance.
He gazed upwards, then gave me a sharp look and hissed, “Hide, you fool!” I blinked, and then went invisible, concentrating as hard as I could on the task though Olga’s fury was distracting me from my invisibility. Teitnl seemed unfazed, and he strode to the door and swept it open as if oblivious to the growing upheaval that had permeated the study during the last minute and a half.
“Why, hello Olga, Harriet,” said Teitnl, his voice so pleasant I had to bite my lip to focus my concentration on staying hidden.
Olga (and Harriet behind her) stared at Teitnl open-mouthed for at least three full seconds. Then he smiled, and it was very wrong. I’m not sure if a gasp escaped me, but it certainly escaped the two women as we all experienced a moment of the surreal.
Olga looked away.
“Master Teitnl, it seems your boy has been spying on my neice, using his tricks,” she said, careful not to look at his terrifyingly blithe visage. “That sort of depraved behavior should not be allowed in this estate, and I …”
As Olga trailed off, Harriet merely watched Teitnl with horrified fascination.
“Are you well, Master Teitnl?” asked Olga.
“Oh, yes, quite well, thank you, Olga.”
She paled and backed away.
“Very well then, sir,” she said. “Just… I’ll write you a letter instead.”
“As you wish,” he replied, and closed the door. His countenance returned to normal the instant the door was shut and he shifted his eyes to me. Though invisible, I cowered anyway.
“It’s addictive,” he told me. I knew what he meant, but still asked the obvious question.
“What is, sir?”
I let out a slow breath, feeling caught and foolish, and said, “Oh…”
“You’ve learned invisibility quickly,” he said. “Too quickly. It is a tremendous power, and you’re hardly wise enough to know how to use it correctly.”
He looked over me under my disguise.
“Your technique is flawed,” he clipped. That wasn’t what I’d expected him to say, but then he began to teach me how to perfect it. It was true, my technique was flawed, but it only took instruction from the master to fine tune what I’d already taught myself through experience. I wasn’t as good as he was, not by a long shot, but I could fool most people, for I had learned that people tend to see what they expect to see. We spent a while in the study, and I wondered if Olga knew I was in there but was kept away by Teitnl’s freakishly friendly behavior. I feared her wrath with a constant dread for the whole afternoon.
Finally the moment came I had wished wouldn’t. Teitnl grew bored or tired of teaching me and dismissed me to go.
“Ah, sir,” I said. “Could I stay here and read?”
“No, you can’t stay here and read! Now go, and stop being afraid of Olga.”
“Yes, sir,” I sulked.
“Henry,” he said, stopping me. “You have to decide now what your standards are.”
I felt troubled by his words.
“You must decide what sort of illusionist…what sort of person… you are going to be. You now have great power. Too much power.” He looked troubled over me as well. “I can’t make you use it wisely. There are illusionists who don’t. I hope some part of you can trust me when I say the better road is the higher one.”
I shifted and gave him a glance, and he murmured, “It would take too long for me to explain, and I don’t feel like it right now.”
He waved a hand and I left, Olga and Harriet still on my mind. It didn’t take long for Olga to find me, and in fact, it was as if she was coiled like a snake within the threshold to the kitchen, for the moment I passed by, she sprung at me, catching me in her poisonous jaws. I flushed as she dragged me inside of her den of carrots and knives.
It was hard to meet her eyes, because even though I really hadn’t done anything horrible, it was the kind of thing that was easily blown out of proportion.
She looked hard at me, her scrubbed red face extra red this afternoon with long-suppressed fury. “If I ever hear of you doing that again, I will find you and throttle you, boy.”
“And when I say ‘throttle’, I mean ‘throttle’ in the truest sense of the word.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied again, wondering what a throttling actually was when taken literally.
She let me go then, not exactly satisfied, but abated for having her say. I left the house, feeling moody, and went to sulk at my cottage. There was something about my cottage that cheered me, regardless of circumstances. Perhaps it was the seclusion and the ability to retreat to my own personal space, but within its walls was my own world where I was allowed to meditate on whatever I wished for however long I wanted. I could read, and I did quite a lot, the books from Teitnl’s library, or I could practice magic without prying eyes. I could even stare at the wall if I wanted to, and I sometimes did. On this day I sat in a chair, folded my arms on a table and cradled my head in the pretzel they made.
There was a quiet knock that I nearly mistook for a squirrel. Opening the door, I found Harriet standing on my front step. I said the first thing that came to my mind.
“Does Olga know you’re here?”
“She’ll throttle me, Harriet!”
“Oh, shush, Henry,” she said. “Aunt Olga’s all talk.”
I didn’t believe her, but she shifted and then asked, “Can I come in?”
I moved back at once to invite her in, and as she sat I found myself noting that she chose the chair I had just been moping in. I had to admit I felt a certain level of anxiety over her being there, as if Olga and Teitnl and probably Junior too would come barging in all at once and accuse me of trying to seduce Harriet, simply because she was in my cottage and we were unchaperoned. The very idea was ludicrous, and with that thought I became obstinate and weary of being accused and even somewhat rebellious, determined to enjoy Harriet in my presence despite what anyone else might think of it.
Even though she sat, I continued to stand as she looked at the floor for a moment then began to speak.
“I’m sorry for what happened today,” she said with that quiet voice of hers. I felt the sudden desire to apologize to her.
“No, Harriet, I shouldn’t have…”
She blushed, and I remembered how she looked when she brushed her hair. It took me a moment to recover, but then I continued, “I came upstairs to see if you could see me invisible, and I didn’t expect that you wouldn’t notice me… but you didn’t, and then you started brushing your hair… and I … I just watched.” My explanation seemed especially lame during the long moment that followed. Something occurred to me and I rushed to say, “That’s the only time I’ve ever done it, I promise, and it was only on accident.”
“I shouldn’t have hit you with my brush, it’s just that you embarrassed me.”
“What was there to be embarrassed about?”
Her face colored further and I wondered about her, not knowing why she would be embarrassed for me to see her looking in the mirror. Over the months as we had been, in actuality, the best of friends, there had been far more embarrassing things we’d both been privy to with each other. It was true, though, that she had acted in the mirror for herself differently than she had ever acted around me. Perhaps it was because I saw who she really was, the person she lets no one else see, that she was ashamed.
“Don’t answer that,” I said at once, then opened the front door. “Come on.”
She looked at me funny and then stood, following my lead as I walked out the door and into the trees surrounding the cottage. The afternoon was waning, but the sun was still up and light filtered through the branches to play across our faces and the sparse undergrowth beneath. I could hear her quiet steps behind me and smiled, feeling very mischievous and studying the streams of light as they passed. I studied them and then I changed them, augmenting the dust motes that always floated through them to become reflective and star-like. Harriet gasped.
“Henry,” she said, and I was satisfied to hear a measure of wonder in her voice. “What did you do?”
I turned to face her and at the same time made the dust motes twinkle like fireflies in the deep green of the undertrees. She was caught between looking at me and at the magic around her and laughed. Her laugh was a sound I had grown to relish, and so I had to smile too and found myself wanting to do more, to create more, and in fact, to create beauty.
I found I had become an artist and a magician.
Pulling it was like the intake of air in my lungs, and as I drove the illusory dust fireflies to swirl around Harriet and I like a whirlwind I measured them and knew them, carefully distancing them for aesthetic but still feeling their placement with intuition. It was a combination of my conscious and unconscious mind working together to create what was beautiful, and I knew it to be exactly that. The sparkling golden motes against the deep black and green of the forest was striking and magical, and, most importantly, Harriet adored it.
I took her wrist and pulled her through the copse, behind the cottage and then past it, until it faded into the midst of the trees and we slipped into the forest proper, mote-stars swirling in our wake. It grew darker with the sun falling below the treeline, giving the tiny lights I created all the more contrast as I brought her to a stream with a small pool. There I played with the lights, letting them skim across the water’s surface and Harriet laughed and watched, sitting beside the pool and saying the occasional few words that meant little, but actually meant quite a lot.
“What do you think?” I asked her of my abilities, feeling proud of my skills, and perhaps even smug. I sat down beside her on the grass near the pool and brought three lights close to both of us, leaving the rest to twinkle like suggestions of fireflies in the forest around us.
“You know I love it, Henry,” she said to me, smiling as if I was being silly for asking.
I glanced at her, and then something occurred to me.
“I think you’re very pretty, Harriet.”
Her eyes opened wider as if she didn’t know how to manage that sort of statement directed at her. Her glance moved from the pool to me, and back, and then she laughed a quiet laugh that said I was nice but wrong. The rub, though, was that I was right. I knew I was right. I grew determined to prove it to her, but I didn’t know how.
“So…” she said, switching topics in a flash that was understated by her lazy fingertips brushing the surface of the pool. “When are you going to go see Cherry?”
“I don’t know,” was my honest answer. In fact, I could feel that I had been losing my desire to see her again, although I hadn’t perceived it until now. Right then I could have been told I would never see Cherry again and not have minded at all.
“Isn’t Master Teitnl going somewhere tomorrow?” asked Harriet.
“Oh…” I said. “I think so.”
“Then why don’t you go then, while he’s away?”
She looked to be pondering me.
“Don’t you want to, Henry?”
“Yes,” I said, although the answer felt more automatic than sincere.
Harriet peered at me, her head tilting a little, and I loved the way she did it, because it turned into a lopsided smile by the end.
“No,” I continued.
She laughed at me, and then splashed me from the pool, tiny droplets flung from her fingertips. I laughed and dodged poorly, but sent the magical fireflies to swoop upon her and surround her as she leaned back, not knowing what I would do with them. I didn’t know either, so they merely hovered around her, lighting her skin golden in the deepening forest shadow. I felt something twist in my stomach and I lifted a hand, directing one of the mote stars to glide across her cheek. It became a caress; she knew it and I knew it, and with that combined realization everything between us changed in an instant.
Her smile faded; not with displeasure, but because she was as overcome as I. Her breath came faster, and as if set off by the rise and fall of her chest, so did mine. My hand, which had been lifted to direct the fireflies, began to fall of its own accord and the sparkling lights faded, drifting away until they finally blew out like candles in the wind. We were alone in the twilight.
“Harriet!” called Olga’s voice from far away.
Harriet caught her breath and I felt a flush of irrational fear over the sound of the old woman’s voice, distant though it was. I broke the heavy silence.
“I’m sure she wonders where you are.”
There was a nervous laugh between us and we both stood, surveying our surroundings and considering the least volatile way to handle the situation. I voiced my plan.
“You’ll have to run. I’ll go the other way and …”
“And I’ll see you tomorrow, Henry.”
She gave me a radiant smile and ran off out of the woods into the lawn leading up to the estate. I watched her go, living a few moments as a silent pile, wishing perhaps to simply turn into a tree and stand there forever in the twilight by the stream.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Later that day I was called into Teitnl’s study. He was sitting at his desk when I came in, but he rose right away with something like lightning in his face.
“Henry, why is the estate agog about you fraternizing up in a tree with Olga’s niece?”
I felt a prick of annoyance at knowing I wasn’t allowed to climb a tree with a friend without it becoming a scandal.
“Don’t be smart with me! I can’t have you distracted from your studies by girls, now stop this nonsense forthwith or I’ll send her right back to where she came from!”
“Good! Send her back! She’s a lovely girl and should be somewhere else, making a real life of it, not here with me and you and cut off from the rest of the world!”
Teitnl blinked at me, for I am certain he didn’t expect my passionate agreement. It was true, though. Although I would miss Harriet if she left, she didn’t belong here, especially since she’d gained so much confidence in the past month. Perhaps I could convince Teitnl to send her back a changed girl, prepared to face life head on, instead of the shy wallflower she once was. Let him replace her with someone who truly did have nowhere else to be in the world. Someone like me.
“Yes… well…” began Teitnl, considering how to reply. “In time I will. Just… leave her alone.”
“Did you not hear what I said?”
“Sir, I have to object-“
“She is the only person I have to talk to!”
I was shaking, although I didn’t know why. Teitnl paused and looked at me for a long moment. Then he gestured for me to follow as he moved towards the door.
“Come with me, Henry.”
He led me outside. It was overcast, and everything smelled of thriving greenery. We walked along a narrow path that cut through the lawn towards the side of the estate. I could hear a stream nearby but couldn’t see it as we arrived at the small orchard.
Within the estate orchard, there were grasses of varying lengths, not cut like they were on the lawn proper, and a small number of fruit trees dispersed at intervals. They were pruned, but not neat, and their gray bark twisted with controlled growth. Something about the branches of orchard trees always reminded me of a piece of paper crumpled into a ball: affected by the random hand of man but not in perfect order.
We approached one of the trees. It wasn’t easily discernable from the rest as it was of average size and breadth, and on it numerous yellow-green apples were growing. Teitnl stood before it and studied it for a moment, then looked over his shoulder at me.
“Henry,” he began. “Illusion is like painting. You must create in your illusion the central vision of what it is your subject will most associate with that object. Come stand beside me. What do you see when you look at this tree?”
I stood there and looked at the tree. It was a tree.
“I see a tree, sir.”
“No, you don’t see a tree!”
I couldn’t begin to understand what he was getting at and he knew it, so he rolled his eyes and told me to close mine.
“Now,” his voice said from nearby. “I want you to create the illusion of a tree, just like that one. From memory.”
Hands took my shoulders and spun me around.
“Open your eyes.”
I was facing the other direction towards the lawn and estate so that I couldn’t see the tree I was to mimic. It seemed easy enough though, at first glance. At second glance, however, I realized it was more difficult than I had ever imagined it could be. I knew what a tree was, but what I knew was the symbol of a tree in my mind. The tree I tried to create didn’t look like a tree at all. It looked like a bunch of lines poking out of a thick stick with yellow balls on it. It was terrible. It looked like a monstrosity, or a keening mistake waiting to be put out of its misery. It looked like a tree drawing by a five-year-old brought to life, more accurately.
I struggled with it until Teitnl took my arm from behind and said into my ear, “Turn around again.”
I allowed my “tree” to die a merciful death, and then turned again to face reality.
“Look at it,” said Teitnl, and the hard edge was gone from his voice, and it was strange because he seemed to enjoy this part: he who enjoys nothing. “Really look this time. Look at the lines, not the tree.”
He lifted his hand and began recreating it, all the while narrating himself with a soft murmur that had wonder for the very act he was performing. He began with the outlines of the tree’s shape, which I saw wasn’t at all like what I had always thought a tree was shaped like, and it was as if my eyes had to form a sort of disconnect from the part of my mind that had always given trees their ideological shape. He then colored it in, as if painting, shading it, casting light on it, and then he made it move, as if affected by the breeze, the light, even a passing butterfly. He gave it sound, as the leaves within it rustled like trickling water in the wind, and then the scent of apples hinted across my senses. It was beautiful and glorious, possessing far more beauty than I had ever known, because I had never seen it even though it was always there.
“Sir…” I said. “You are an artist.”
“Illusion is art, Henry.”
He then did something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but suddenly it was more than a tree; more vivid, more fragrant, and the light played off of the trembling leaves like the silver wings of fairies. It made me catch my breath for its beauty, and then it was gone. He had taken it away in a blink.
“I want you to try it again, now,” he told me. “Begin as I did, with the outline.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the orchard, although I hardly noticed a moment passed. I made much progress, as he had taught me something from which I couldn’t revert. I would never see the world in the same way again.
I’m not sure if he was pleased with my progress or not, but he continued to teach me as much as I could absorb and we lingered until dusk arrived. I had been sitting in the grass working on trees, growing better with each try, and gaining a greater appreciation for the natural structures as a consequence. Teitnl had been working on his own small projects in the nearby tall grass of which I was hardly privy.
“Will you teach me how to make something invisible?”
“That’s a bit easier,” he said. “Think of it as filling in the blanks.”
“Think of a tree against a mountainous landscape. Then merely erase that tree, and connect the lines of the landscape so it doesn’t seem to exist. Simple.”
“What if you’re the one being invisible?”
“That’s harder, because you have to think about all sorts of perspective and be completely aware of your surroundings at all times.”
“Can you do it?”
“Of course,” he said, and he disappeared from where he had been sitting in the tall grasses.
I grinned, and then my grin faded as it occurred to me that was a very powerful and disconcerting ability.
“Hnnh…” I said.
He reappeared and said, “How do you think I knew so much about you when we met for the first time?”
He chortled at my obvious discomfort.
“Don’t worry, I have standards. Some illusionists don’t, though. You never know who might be watching.”
He glanced over at me with something like a grin (for I never saw him actually grin for real) and said, “I keep an eye on the village. They are somewhat like my charges, though they despise me. I prefer to be despised and mysterious because –“
“Because then you are left alone,” I said.
“But the lynch mobs?”
“Only an occasional annoyance. They tend to be stirred up by… ah… certain adversarial parties…”
“Lord Mortimer? Why would he want the village to lynch mob you?”
“Tch. Lord Mortimer doesn’t exist.”
I blinked at him and then realized, from my memories, that it was obvious. He had never seemed real to me and part of me knew it even then.
“Who sent him? Why would someone do that? It almost got me killed!”
“Calm down. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
He stood and brushed off his coat.
“It’s getting dark,” he said without frills. “I’m going inside.”
After he left I sat in the orchard for a long time, practicing and thinking. When the stars were in full bloom, I laid in the grass to watch them, rearranging them with my thoughts, until it occurred to me to raise my hand against the sky. I gazed at the back of my hand until it disappeared, a pattern of stars where my hand once was. I thought of Cherry and smiled.
Teitnl was absorbed in something, although I had no idea what it was. He had been in his study, sitting at his desk, staring into space. I wouldn’t have bothered him if he hadn’t been doing only that for the past three hours, but as it was, I needed to speak with him and couldn’t wait all day for his reverie to end. He fixed me with a sharp blue-eyed glance.
“Have you finished your books?”
“Yes, sir. That’s what I came to tell you.”
“I read quickly.”
“Fine. Write a summary of each one, five pages at least, and I prefer laborious detail.”
He sounded exasperated, but I asked anyway.
“I don’t see what any of these books have to do with illusion, sir.”
He stared at me.
“I mean… unicorn recognition? Crepes? Lirapipes?”
“They have everything to do with illusion, boy!” He slammed his open palm on the desk and spat with barely contained fury, “Especially the unicorns!”
His voice then fell back to a menacing whisper and he seethed: “Most especially the unicorns…”
Teitnl seemed to fall into some kind of angry, trembling memory and clenched his fists while his eyes shifted into a hundred-yard stare. I glanced around then tried again.
“Yes, sir, but unicorns… why exactly most especially the unicorns?”
He looked at me with pity, and then folded his hands with false serenity.
“Henry, you are aware of the nature of unicorns?”
“I know they have one horn, and I’ve never seen one, and most people have never seen one.”
“That’s because they’re almost extinct.”
“A shame, sir.”
“No, it’s not a shame! If you see one, Henry, kill it.”
“But I thought unicorns were-“
“Horrible, disgusting creatures?”
“Not exactly, sir…”
“Well, they are, and don’t allow them to fool you into thinking otherwise.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
He sighed, his shoulders slumping forward over his desk, his elbows propped upon its mahogany surface, and he took one lithe finger and brushed a stray lock of blue hair back into place. It was a graceful movement that somehow juxtaposed cathartically with his sharp demeanor.
“I suppose it is too much to hope for that you would obey my orders without question. However, since it is clear you plan on annoying me with your inquisitiveness until either you or I die, I will explain for both of our sakes.”
He stood in one swift, quiet movement and began to approach me.
“The art of illusion is one of observance. In order to wield it convincingly, you have to know everything about everything. You cannot create an illusion of a crepe to any degree of confidence if you don’t know what it looks like, tastes like, or smells like. Close your eyes.”
I obeyed him without question, hoping he noticed it this time. I heard him shift nearby, the sound of fabric moving.
“Now. Can you imagine this room we are standing in? Are you aware of the library? How many books line the shelves? How many pages are within each book, and how are they are bound? Think of the print within them, how the letters are formed, how the illustrations are styled. Imagine the hue of the ink or the color of the parchment it lies on. The weave of the covering, threads interwoven: how does it discolor at the edges from handling or wear? How do books smell? How does it feel to touch them? Open your eyes, Henry.”
I did, and looked up at him.
“You have to know all of that and more about every single thing you want to create as an illusion, and to be a good illusionist that means you have to know everything. You have to be aware of not only sight, but touch, smell, sound, and taste. You have to be a creature of experience. For most illusionists, who are elves, it is only a matter of time, but for you I can feel every second tick away not as grains of sand as it would for my past students, but like boulders, crashing upon the delicate structure of your human life.”
I tried to comprehend that particular metaphor, but failed. It didn’t matter, since there didn’t seem to be a test forthcoming on the subject. He went on.
“You have very little time, Henry, and I feel it more anxiously than you. You have to read everything in this library and more, once I can find it, as quickly as you can. Observe in laborious detail. Laborious detail, Henry.”
“I am too old for this, Henry.”
“I shouldn’t think you very old, sir.”
“How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Hazard a guess.”
“Um… I don’t know much about elves, but I would guess perhaps two hundred?”
Teitnl laughed, which was odd because he never laughed, although I supposed laughing at the expense of someone else’s ignorance fit nicely on his list of things in which to take pleasure. I felt a flush rise in my face. He sat back down at his desk as his mirth subsided.
“Oh, no, Henry. I am nearly a thousand years old.” He looked up at me with a glint in his eye, perhaps watching for my reaction, which was probably the reaction he expected. I couldn’t imagine living for a thousand years. I wondered why it had made him so crotchety. “It’s been at least two hundred years since I’ve taken an apprentice.”
“Why so long?”
“Because apprentices are nothing but a bother and cause inordinate amounts of trouble!” he snapped.
“Besides…” he said, casting his eyes on the papers on his desk. “They always disappoint me.”
I shifted my weight as I stood, feeling particularly useless, since I was not only ignorant, but also substandard due to being human. Once again I did not know why he would take me as an apprentice, but it made something in me spark and rise, as if I wanted badly to show him that someone could succeed, regardless of the illusionist’s pessimism, and since I only had power over myself, it would have to be me.
“Sir,” I said, and he glanced at me. “I’ll be writing those papers, now.”
“Fine,” he replied, and shooed me off with a hand.
Over the next months I read as quickly as I could, absorbing every detail about everything around me. Teitnl didn’t seem exactly pleased about my progress, because nothing ever pleases Teitnl. However, he didn’t complain, and that spoke volumes. He began to teach me basic illusion theory as a reward, and my few modest tricks gave me a tremendous amount of joy.
Meanwhile, I had become friends with Harriet, and not without much effort on my part. There were weeks before she would scarcely look at me when we spoke, but I overcame her by behaving as silly as possible. To make her laugh out loud became my goal, one that I worked towards tirelessly. The day I achieved it was more rewarding than I had ever imagined, and the ringing sound of her laughter was like a song that recorded itself into my mind. I would never forget it.
Once I had made her laugh, it was all downhill from there, for once you’ve laughed helplessly in front of someone, there isn’t much more to be shy about. We became good friends, and in our idle hours (there weren’t many), we often played and roamed around the estate, being halfway between children and adults, ourselves.
“How old were you when you came here?” I asked her one day, as we were sitting on the kitchen table. Olga was doing something food-related nearby, but all I could tell was it was causing copious amounts of flour to be scattered around the kitchen. Harriet was in her service uniform, as she always was, swinging her legs back and forth, and hunched a little as she sat on the hard wood. I was hunched beside her, eating a carrot, and wearing the silver-gray coat that was my favorite.
“Fourteen,” she said. “Old enough for my parents to know I was hopeless.”
“They didn’t think that!” yelled Olga from the other side of the kitchen, in the midst of a cloud of flour. Harriet tossed in my direction the smile she reserved for me, the one that said we were both of an age and no one could understand us like we could.
“What do you miss the most about your old life?” I asked.
“Hmn…” she thought. “I had more free time. And my cat.”
“You should have brought your cat.”
“Master Teitnl would never allow it.”
“But… your cat!” I protested. She laughed quietly at me. “Well, I just think he should allow you that.”
“What do you miss most, Henry?”
I thought about that.
“Very little. I was a serf, you know. Very dirty work.”
“I imagine so.”
“I miss Cherry a lot.”
“Who is that?”
“Oh…” I said. “I suppose she and I are engaged.”
“To be married?”
“You’re engaged to be married?” asked Olga from far away, reminding us it wasn’t merely our conversation.
“Yes, but, I don’t think we’ll ever be married, now.”
“Oh, that’s so tragic!” cried Harriet. “Why didn’t you ever tell me you have so much tragedy in your life?”
“Well, it’s not that tragic.”
“Of course it is. Teitnl won’t let you marry her?”
“It’s… complicated. Besides, I’m too young to be married yet, aren’t I?”
“When were you going to marry her?”
“Maybe next year,” I said, wondering if that was true, because it seemed so soon.
“How long have you been engaged?”
“Most of our lives, really.”
Harriet blinked at me. “An arranged marriage?”
“Not really. Well, maybe. Sort of.”
Harriet looked confused, and Olga had stopped her flurry of flour motion in order to better eavesdrop.
“We just always knew we would be married someday.”
I realized that was a terrible explanation of whatever it was that was between Cherry and I, or perhaps was once between us and no longer existed. It made me want to know, though, if it did still exist, not because I wanted to marry her, although perhaps I did, but because I wanted to know if she still cared for me at all, or if she thought I was demon-spawn. Part of me sunk with the idea that perhaps I would return to her to find she’d married Resh.
“You were happy with that?”
“Not deliriously so, but I wasn’t unhappy with it, either. She’s a cheerful girl.”
“Oh,” said Harriet, who withdrew, growing thoughtful in aspect.
“You need closure!” yelled Olga from the other side. She began beating bread dough in a rapid, violent pattern.
“Closure?” I asked.
“Yes, Henry,” said Harriet’s quiet voice. “That’s when you finish something that has been left open-ended.”
It sounded girly to me.
“I suppose,” I said, for lack of anything better to say.
“Maybe you should go talk to her,” said Harriet.
“Harriet! Don’t cause trouble!” came Olga’s voice from elsewhere.
I glanced over my shoulder towards Olga’s voice, then leaned close to Harriet and whispered, “How can she hear every word we say from all the way over there?”
Harriet glanced at me with a shy smile and whispered back, “Let’s go hide.”
We ran from the kitchen, ignoring the protests of Olga, and outside, past Ned and his trimming shears, down the lawn to the river. Beside the river was a great tree, and this we climbed, breathless, until we were as high as we dared to go in tandem. It was delightful for us just because it felt like we were doing something wrong and clandestine even though we weren’t, and as I perched on my branch, she arranged her skirts modestly around hers. It didn’t matter anyway, because from what I could tell, she wore so many articles of clothing beneath her skirts she could forgo the skirts altogether and still be modest as a nun. Women, though, were always mysterious.
“What if you went to see her?” asked Harriet, her breath short from our sprint to freedom.
“I would be killed,” I replied, knowing the villagers would kill me on sight, possibly not even waiting for the stake.
“They think I’m the illusionist.”
Harriet laughed. “You? But how could they think that?”
“Serfs are very superstitious.”
“Does Cherry think that too?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since the accusation.”
We fell into separate reveries.
“You know,” said Harriet at last. “You are learning illusion… maybe Teitnl could teach you to be invisible. Then you could see her.”
“Harriet, you’re crazy.”
She laughed at me and I saw that her smile was brilliant and she was not at all plain.
“Hey!” came a voice from down below. The tree began to tremor with the pressure of someone new climbing it, and then at last Junior’s flaxen head came into view. “What are you two doing up here?”
“Er…” said I.
“Talking,” said Harriet with dignity.
“Well, Gramp made me come all the way down here to find out,” Junior grumbled. “I don’t want to fish you two out of this tree, either, so just come down and let me get on with my work.”
“Fine, but you have to turn around while I descend,” said Harriet, like a lady.
At the base of the tree, after Harriet’s descent, I waved to Junior and left to return to my studies, but not before overhearing Junior fall in with Harriet and ask what she saw in me.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
The next morning when I awoke it was raining outside. The rain pattered on the wood shingles of the roof in a random, soothing pattern and I could not recall waking with more pleasure and comfort. Well, except for the time within the illusion, but this was real. Reality made it so much better. A bird slammed into the windowpane, and I jumped out of bed.
My cottage had three rooms, and this one was for sleeping. The bed was large for one person, full of down feathers and pleasant, being covered with a quilt. There was also a small table for a lamp and washbasin, a wardrobe, a small fireplace, a nook with a window, and a mirror. I strode out the door and into the second of the three rooms, which was a curious room of the like I’d never imagined before. Within it there was a very large basin, and a pump above it for filling it with water. From my illusions I gathered Teitnl was a man who valued bathing, and so that’s what I did, although it was cold.
Within my wardrobe were several sets of clothing, and I chose one like the first in my illusions, with a light gray coat that fastened at the side of my neck. I made sure to take less time being enamored with myself in the mirror, and besides, the effect was starting to wear off anyway. It didn’t take long before I began to notice flaws.
Outside in the third, larger room, there was a small living area consisting of two comfortable chairs and a small table, a table with a few wooden stools for eating, and a small stove and larder with another pump for water into a basin. I took a heel of bread from the larder, stuffed the end of it in my mouth, and opened the door to the rain.
Above me the rain splattered against leaves, gathered across branches, dripped, combined, and fell in large drops within the copse. I closed the door and stepped into it, feeling the occasional large drip strike my scalp, wet and strange, until I emerged into the rain proper where it soaked me in a normal way. I ran to the estate and beat the door with a rapid knock. I was just finishing the heel of bread when Teitnl opened the door.
“Good morning, sir,” I chirped with a smile.
Teitnl rolled his eyes and bid me come inside.
It was warm and how I remembered it from my previous illusion. The main entryway was accessed by the front door, a large, winding staircase with a mahogany banister, or a wide arch into the hallway. There was a carpet on the floor, patterned blue and gold, and a plethora of mirrors on the walls. It smelled like bread and I wondered if Teitnl had been baking.
“I suppose I should introduce you to the rest of the staff.”
“There’s a staff?”
“Of course there is!” he snapped, as if that was the stupidest thing in the world to ask. He began walking through the archway and I followed until we came to an open door leading into the kitchen. Inside there was a broad older woman with her hair pulled severely back chopping carrots with gusto.
“This is Olga,” he said, his hand indicating the old woman. She looked up briefly, but continued to chop, only regarding me in passing.
“Oh, ye got a boy fer somethin’, Master Teitnl?”
He ignored her question.
“Gather the rest of the staff and come to the study.”
He turned on his heel and I saw Olga roll her eyes behind his back. I followed him into the hallway, until we reached the study. It was a room full of books, like a library, as well as stacks of parchments, a large desk, quills, a blackboard with chalk, and numerous strange instruments fashioned for unknown purposes.
“This is where I do my research,” he said. “And write. I write a lot. I require that I am not disturbed while writing. Don’t touch anything. Especially not that. You can read some of the books, but not until I tell you which ones are appropriate for you. Stop looking at that.”
“Here they are.”
The staff filed in, although there were only four of them. There was Olga, a plain girl about my age with a service uniform and a feather duster, a young man a few years my senior wearing a dull look, and a withered old man sharing the same dull look as the young man beside him. Teitnl gestured to each in turn and gave a brief introduction.
“Henry, Olga does the cooking and oversees the household, including yours. You are welcome to take your meals here, or make them yourself in your cottage.”
Olga glanced at me and shrugged.
“Harriet is Olga’s niece and does whatever she tells her to do. Mostly cleaning.”
She was a shy girl with dark hair pulled back not quite as severely as her aunt, or as I suspected, great aunt. Her skin had a tinge of olive to it, and I barely caught that her eyes were hazel as she would only bring her eyes up to glance at me once.
She nodded, eyes on the floor and a blush in her cheeks.
“Enough flirting!” snapped Teitnl, although I hadn’t been aware there was anything remotely resembling flirting going on between this plain girl and I. He moved on to the next person in line, the young man, whose sandy hair was straight and somewhat messy. He was taller than I, with a thin frame and an angle to his shoulders that gave the appearance of never standing straight. “This is Junior. Odd jobs and gardening.”
“Junior,” I greeted, with a nod. Junior stared at me.
“And Ned, Junior’s grandfather. Maintenance and overseer of the gardens.”
Teitnl gestured to the old man who looked to be a tired, cranky fellow. His skin looked like tree bark, and his nearly white beard reached the center of his chest. He and Junior both wore serviceable clothes for gardening, and had mud on their boots. I wondered if Harriet would have to spend the morning cleaning up after them coming into the house.
“Hello, Ned,” I said.
Ned grunted. They were all casting furtive and suspicious looks in my direction, as if I were an impostor present with no explanation.
“Henry is to be my apprentice,” announced Teitnl.
Everyone stared at him, including myself. I didn’t recall being asked if I wanted to be his apprentice, although of course I did, but it still would have been nice to be asked beforehand.
“Master Teitnl! You’ve never taken an apprentice,” said Olga, her eyes wide, mirroring the eyes of her niece beside her.
“Yes, I have,” he replied, not without defense. “It’s just been a long time. Long before you were born.”
“But sir,” continued Olga. “Pardon my saying so, but is that wise, considering your … ah…”
“Considering my what!” he demanded of Olga.
“Temperament,” said Ned, staring at nothing.
“Do I pay you to question me?” asked Teitnl, irritability making the furrow in his brow become a crevasse. “Go, back to work all of you! Stop drooling, Junior. Harriet, clean up this mud.”
“Yes, m’lord,” said Harriet’s soft voice, almost inaudible.
They all shuffled out, leaving Teitnl and I alone. I was almost afraid to ask, but I asked anyway.
“Since when did I become your apprentice?”
“Since just now.”
I looked around.
“What do I do?”
He glanced over me as if he wasn’t quite sure himself, and then turned and strode to several of shelves packed with books. His voice was clear as he searched through the contents of the shelves.
“You are my apprentice on a trial basis,” he began. “As it is, I only suspect you are gifted. Once I know for sure, that will dictate whether or not your apprenticeship becomes a reality.”
“As your apprentice…” I ventured. “Does that mean I would become as powerful as you someday?”
He had several books in his arms as he glanced over at me, and then crossed the room until he was standing near me.
“I don’t know…” he said, and he got a troubled look on his face as he said: “You’re human.”
“Illusion is a realm of magic in which humans have never possessed talent.”
“Does that mean we can’t?”
“No,” he replied. “But your short life span is a severe hindrance on how long you can build your knowledge and mastery.”
“Then why bother teaching me at all?” I asked, then added not without sarcasm: “Since I’m only going to croak in a few years anyway.”
“Because the possibility that you are a rare talent in the rough is too tempting to pass up.”
“Perhaps you can illusion up a way for me to live longer.”
“’Illusion up’?” His expression was dry, but then the pinch at his brow released for a moment and he looked away, his mind captured by something. “I have been doing research on that very subject, Henry.”
“Making me live longer?”
He rolled his eyes. “No, Henry! Life and death, and the illusion between. That’s for another day, now take these books and don’t talk to me again until you’ve read them.”
He handed me the books, grabbed a sheaf of papers and left, creating a lemon-scented breeze. I was considering sitting in a chair nearby when Harriet entered with a bucket of water. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me, mumbled some sort of apology, and began to leave.
“Wait, you don’t have to leave,” I called out, and she stopped.
“Are you sure, sir?”
“Why are you calling me ‘sir’?” I asked her, and I couldn’t help but laugh a little at the idea.
“Because you are Master Teitnl’s apprentice.”
“Well, then, since I have so much power, I demand you call me ‘Henry’.”
She hazarded a small smile, but hardly looked at me.
“Very well, Henry.”
She moved to where the muddy footprints of Junior and Ned were on the rug and knelt beside it, and while seeming very aware of my attention on her, began to scrub it clean. Instead of assailing her with further discomfort, I sat down in the nearby chair and looked through the pile of books the illusionist had given me. Crepe Cooking For Knaves. How To Spot a Unicorn. The Frozen North: Why It’s Impassable. I stared at the books in disbelief.
“’Lirapipes: Avant-Garde or Old Hat’? What is this?” I asked out loud. “None of this has anything to do with illusion!”
“The master will have things his way, Henry,” was Harriet’s listless, scrubbing reply.
“But why would he give me these books?”
“Why does Master Teitnl do anything?”
I regarded Harriet. She was plain but not unattractive, and would soon be of marrying age, and so I wondered why she would be here with her great aunt, cleaning up after Teitnl when she could be somewhere else making a proper life of it. She certainly didn’t look pleased to be where she was, doing what she was doing.
“How did you come into the service of Teitnl?”
“Members of my family have been in the service of Master Teitnl for generations.”
I considered that, knowing all of her family wasn’t in the service of Teitnl, only a few. Well, two, presently: her great aunt, who was old and up for this sort of seclusion, and Harriet, who I was beginning to think shouldn’t be here at all.
“Yes, but why you?”
She had meanwhile finished cleaning the floor and rose with the bucket, taking her time in replying to my question, as if she didn’t know how she wished to answer. I leaned back in my chair as if that would make me less imposing and pulled the books to my chest, but it didn’t help; she was still shy.
“Henry,” she said at last, her voice so vulnerable I wanted at once to cradle it in my cupped hands. “I am plain and shy. My parents knew of all of their daughters, I was the least likely to marry, and so they offered it to me. Here I am. I don’t mind it. I like being with Aunt Olga, and there are interesting things to see. The grounds are beautiful, too. The work isn’t hard. At least I have something to do. I’m going in the other room. Goodbye, Henry.”
She left with scant pomp and I pondered my books, wondering which I should read first and also wondering how to pull Harriet from her shell.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
For how long I yelled, I don’t know, but I was furious beyond my ability to articulate. Eventually, being as thirsty as I was, yelling more painful than it was cathartic and I stopped, reduced to only lying on my side and waiting for this misery to end. I didn’t want to sleep, not anymore, because if I slept it seemed more likely I would awake with the illusionist, which only meant more false hope followed by more misery. I would rather die awake, if one can do such a thing. I was determined to make a good try at it.
I was watching ants cross the dirt in front of me. A few of them carried crumbs, but most had nothing, and I wondered what they thought they were doing, not contributing like they were when I heard the soft crunch of footsteps on the ground behind me. Hands touched, and then manipulated the rope that bound my wrists, and it hurt while being a relief to have my prison removed. As the ropes were pulled away from my wrists, they ached, being rubbed raw and, as I would soon see as I pulled my hands into view of my eyes, smeared with my blood. My arms groaned and seared against being moved forward after being forced back for so long, and as I bent my arm to grasp the ground in front of me, I closed my eyes and, to my detriment, whimpered for the pain.
The hands were on my ankles, now, one resting lightly on my calf and the other working at the knot just below it. I balled my fists, then released them, testing for strength, for pain, and waiting for the immense cramp to leave that was currently in my shoulder. Only after the sharp pain had begun to subside did I think to look at who was releasing me.
It was the illusionist. At that moment I honestly wished it were anyone but him. I groaned and hid my face between my aching arm and the ground, hoping I would somehow die within the next minute or so.
“What,” I mumbled from under my arm.
“This is real,” he said, continuing to work on the rope, which had an especially stubborn knot as I knew, having become extremely familiar with it over the past night and day and night. I turned, allowing my shoulder blades to roll, one after another, onto the ground, and looked up at him, seeing him for the first time that night. It was true that something was different about him. He was essentially the same, except something about him was more real. His hair, still deep blue, was pulled back, but not with absolute perfection as it would have been before. A strand fell forward, brushing the lapel of his coat and I saw it fringe at the end of the lock into individual strands. His face was still beauty and sinew, but the pinch in his expression caused a furrow between his brows, his concentration on the rope twisted his thin mouth with a touch of the asymmetrical, and a light sheen of sweat showed on his temple. All of this made him less perfect, yet humanized him somehow, as if through imperfection he gained something else, something intangible, but more real. It was like looking at a very good painting of a frog, and then looking at a real one close, seeing every varied color upon its skin and every concave and convex of its form in high detail. The two just can’t compare, and I knew for a surety that this was indeed real. So, as he finally undid the rope around my ankles, I began to wonder why he had come out for me.
I merely laid there as he looked over the whole of me and I’m not sure what crossed over his face, but it seemed to involve disgust, pity, guilt, and calculation. He sat back on his heels at last and regarded me.
“Can you stand?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can try.”
He stood and held out a hand, which I took and used to hoist myself to my feet. My legs resisted after having been forced together and rendered mostly unusable for so long, but by and by, with the help of Teitnl, I was able to walk, and after a time, unassisted.
“You need water,” he said.
“Quite,” I replied.
He peered at me then, measuring something in his mind, then exhaled.
“But I was just-“
I sat down with a thump. He sat down before me, crossing his legs beneath him, as he was quite agile. For a long moment his eyes were cast down and his brow pinched, but then he looked up at me, resolved to continue with whatever he was considering.
“There is something I want to tell you, but if I tell you, you will have to stay.”
I thought about that.
“Stay here,” he clarified. “And serve me.”
“As a courier?”
“What else? And for how long?”
“I’m not certain, but I think you might be gifted.”
I blinked at him.
“And regarding how long, I’m not certain about that, either.”
He leaned forward.
“You’ve never felt as if you belonged with the peasants,” he told me.
I stared at him, both excited for being understood and violated for being known. There was even some guilt for betraying my old chums. Who tried to burn me at the stake. I had to make sure not to forget that part.
“No… I haven’t.”
He straightened, no longer leaning towards me, and tilted his head to a small degree.
“So, serve me.”
“But I don’t really like you.”
“No one does,” he replied, and didn’t seem to care. “That’s not an intelligent thing to tell your future master, however.”
“Is it decided then?”
“If you’ll promise to stay until I say you can leave.”
“Do you have a library?”
“Do any of the books explode?”
“Can I read them?”
“Some of them.”
“Will you make me deliver to Lord Orthridge?”
“Why would you even correspond with such a horrible person? He tried to kill you!”
“You hardly know me, do you?”
“No, I don’t,” I admitted, knowing full well I hardly knew anything about this illusionist that I was going to come into the service of within moments, as the world seemed to have conspired together to make this my only course.
“Don’t ask questions about things you hardly understand.”
“How will I ever learn if I don’t ask questions?” I demanded, outraged, really, at the idea of never asking questions. What did he want me to ask questions about, things I did understand? His demands, as I would soon learn, were sometimes senseless and changed with his whims. He shifted as he sat.
“Fine, ask questions, but don’t be annoying about it.”
“I’ll… try,” I replied, feeling confused.
“And regarding Lord Orthridge,” he said. “He has a very unusual sense of humor.”
“Who is he?”
“In time I’ll tell you. For now, we have more pressing matters.” He fixed me with his eyes and asked me again: “Will you serve me?”
“And will you stay until I tell you to leave?”
“I’ve no where else to go, so yes.”
“I need loyalty. Can you be a loyal fellow?”
“That isn’t very convincing!”
“You left me to die in the marsh!”
“You’re not dead, are you?”
“Almost, then! Almost!”
“Fine! Moving on!” he huffed, and then glanced around him. “What I’m about to show you can never be revealed.”
He looked at me for confirmation that I knew the gravity of whatever subject he was about to pursue with me. I tried to look grave. He lifted his chin, leaned back, and then raised his left hand. His hand was beautiful, and I was distracted by it, unable to look anywhere else. His fingers were long and lithe, and though I knew he was looking at me, I couldn’t pull my eyes from his hand. His hand drifted to my face, and his fingertips brushed once across my forehead and temples until they met each other at the center of my brow. He pulled his hand back, fingertips and thumb touching as if pulling a fine net from my face, and as he pulled, everything around us began to change. It was night, but even in the night I could see it was green, covered in trees, and there was the sound of water and nightingales echoing around. The sky was clear and full of starlight, and the moon shone silvery upon us. The tower was gone, and in its place was the estate I saw near the river, and I knew that’s where we were, but I didn’t know how it could be.
I opened my mouth to speak, but he held up a hand.
“Go drink, there’s a stream over there.”
He pointed to where the horrible toad was once croaking, but now the most wonderful sound of a babbling brook had replaced it. I fled to the stream and doused myself in it, taking great gulps of marvelously sweet water and rinsing the dust from my face, hands, and anywhere else I could. With work the caked blood came off of my hands and wrists, and even though my wrists were raw and sore, the cool water of the stream lessened any pain I might have felt.
In time I went back to Teitnl, who was still sitting in the same place, but it had become a small meadow of green grass next to a few blooming rosebushes. I was shivering, as I was mostly wet, but felt wonderful. I sat beside him, and he leaned back.
“Please don’t drip on me,” he sneered.
I moved back a bit, but it hardly dimmed my enthusiasm.
“How is this possible? Where are we?”
“We are where we were,” he said. “This is the same place.”
“And over there,” he said, pointing to a group of rolling green hills to the west. “Is where you grew up.”
“I don’t understand.”
“In a nutshell,” he said. “If a person finds an especially pleasant spot of land, he doesn’t want everyone moving in and crowding it up, does he?”
“No… I guess not…”
“And so if he can make it seem undesirable to everyone else, he won’t have that problem, right?”
“Oh,” I said, logic dawning on me. “Oh!”
I pointed at him. “You did this! You made it look horrible!”
“It’s kind of humorous how your village doesn’t realize yams would never grow so well in that sort of landscape.”
“Never crossed my mind.”
“And if it never crossed your mind, I can be sure it will never cross anyone else’s,” he said.
I was riveted and thinking about the tremendous potential of my master.
“You’re probably hungry,” he said, rising, and suddenly appearing bored. I stood, too. “Follow me.”
He turned and began walking around the edge of the estate, past more fragrant rose bushes. I followed him, feeling clumsy, as I was still out of sorts from my bondage and meanwhile trying to take in every leaf and blade of grass around me. We passed the edge of the estate and came to a copse of full, mature trees in which there was a small cottage made of stone and wood. He took a lantern off a hook on the outside, lit it, and then opened the creaking door of the cottage. He stood to the side, handing me the lantern.
“Here is where you will reside.”
“Oh,” I said. “This is for me?”
“Well, no, it’s not yours,” he replied, his voice irritable. “This is where you will reside.”
He rolled his eyes and left me there, muttering about having to repeat himself. It was dark, and due to the lantern I could only see that which was in a small circle around me. With the illusionist gone, I found my hunger and exhaustion return with fervor, demanding satiation of one and then the other, and so I did what any sixteen year old boy would do in this situation: I went inside and raided the larder.