Monday, November 17, 2008
Chapter Nine: Invisibility
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.