The Book of All Things
Lily is not the only one who looks different. Outside in the sunshine, I squint at Caleb, and see the same blackness around him. It’s very faint, but it pulls at me like a vacuum. I drag my gaze off him and look around. The ointment hasn’t just opened my eyes to the magic in people, but to the power flowing through the world. Everything seems so much more real and there—the colours brighter, deeper, the life moving through the plants, the grey-black tar sluggish as a river. It reminds me of being high, but also not. There’s no way for me to clearly articulate, but there’s none of the slow-headed confusion that comes with tripping. Things are different. I see their real reality, but I’m still in control. A feral pigeon wing-claps across the sky and the iron plumage shimmers with plum and emerald highlights, iridescent auras. Even the sound of its wings is different and new, and I can see the air eddy around each stroke, as though the whole universe has slowed down just for me.
I stumble, caught out in a world that is mine and not-mine. A beautiful glorious universe that is flowing with magic. It’s like stepping into a Monet, and I hold up my hands, watching colours blur gently around them as I move my fingers through the air. “What the hell?”
“Wild magic,” says Caleb. “Different to ours. Limitless.”
“Trippy,” says Rain, wide-eyed.
“You can see it too?” I glance across at Rain, then back at Caleb, who is frowning. “Is he supposed to be able to see this?” I ask, soft enough that Rain can’t hear me. His bitch of a mother seemed to think it would be a waste, that Rain had no ability in him.
Caleb shakes his head slowly. “Not really,” he says as the lines on his brow deepen. “Only those with the golden art should be able to see what your mother hid, but I took the chance that he had some small trace of his mother’s gift.”
“So he has the—the golden art?” I stumble over the name, like saying it out loud confirms that yes, Irene, there is a Father Christmas.
Rain looks like he’s on ‘shrooms, waving his fingers in slow dancing twirls.
Caleb shakes his head. “No. But he has something.” The frown doesn’t fall away. “He probably wouldn’t have been able to see this without your mother’s power.”
I have a sudden startling memory of Mom on her knees, her skirt pulled tight around her legs as she knelt next to me and held my hand as we drew letters with a fat purple crayon. She sang songs to me, I know. Made-up songs, and she read to me from her book when I grew tired and bored. I thought it was just stories, but now I know that all those things she said, all those strange tales, were her truth. I shiver, even though it has to be thirty-eight degrees out and the tar is practically melting. I can’t run from any of it any more. The thought deflates me. I had all these ideas of pretending to help Caleb and then getting revenge on him for—for what? Taking Rain from me? I laugh. He was never mine. But here’s the truth of what even the stupid Watchers and Hunters couldn’t drum into me. My mother was magic. Lily is. And so am I. Somewhere. Somehow. I press my hand to the little charm under my top and try breathe slower. I have never felt so terrified. Even before, it was anger that drove me. The whole world has just been rolled out for me like a Persian carpet and what I’m seeing is beyond scary. I hear my breath coming in panicked gasps.
“Irene?” Rain puts his hand on my arm, the fingers just brushing my skin. “It’s amazing.” There’s wonder in his voice. “All my life I’ve wanted things to be different, to be interesting, and now they are. I don’t understand why you’re frightened.”
“Don’t you?” I shake his hand off me. “My mother died because of this.” I jab a finger toward the trees, the houses—all of it new and strange. “Your own mother went completely up the freaking wall and put you in hospital, mine died, and you think it’s amazing?”
Rain pales. And it hits me that alone out of all of us, Rain’s the one with nothing. I can see the want in his eyes.
It should have been Rain that was born with magic, not me. He would have loved it, and Lily might even have loved him. “Sorry,” I mumble. “I’m having a kak day.” Understatement of the century.
“If you’re finished?” Caleb drawls. “Perhaps you’d be so kind as to open the book.”
The Book. Everyone’s so obsessed with it and I can’t even bring myself to do more than peek at the front page for one measly second. What am I scared of finding there? The truth? “What do you need it for anyway?” I ask as I unbuckle the straps on my bag and pull out the small book, its pages tissue-fine with gilt edges. The leather feels warmly intimate under my palm, and I imagine I can feel a pulse, small and slow. I move my hand, and the feeling fades.
“I’m hoping that it will lead us to whatever bolt-hole Heinrich’s using here in your city. There are others in this city who are of the art, and the book should be able to find them.”
There’s a clasp on the cover, long since broken, and a small spur of metal catches at my finger, pricks it deep.
“Ow. Fuck.” I suck the blood drop away and peel back the cover, the leather soft under my fingers. A caress. The first page is blank except for a title. A Tale of Tails, and Other Stories. No author name is listed and I turn the page as carefully as I can so as not tear the thin paper. I’ve only opened it once since I got it back—to a picture of a man in red and yellow rags, dancing ahead of a plague of rats.
There’s a single line of writing on the next page: For the children who will follow, it says. A prickling sense of unease spider-walks up my spine, spreads into my skin.
The first story is one I know, sort of. I remember a version of it from my childhood. My mother’s voice with its faint accent reading aloud to me.
Once upon a time the world was ruled by rats.
The words rewrite themselves as I watch.
Many years ago, in a little town called Hemel.
The words flicker, the blocky calligraphy dancing into new shapes. Finally they still.
Where do the children go when the rats are gone?
There are illustrations picked out along the margins. I flick through the book; more illustrations than writing, anyway. And just one story, told again and again, in every variation you can imagine. And always the same images. The rat-catcher in his gaudy robes, red and bronze and glittering, his horn to his mouth, while behind him stream the rats, then the children, then nothing. How the hell is this supposed to help us with Heinrich?
“What do you know about the Pied Piper of Hamelin?” I ask, shutting the book.
Caleb shrugs one shoulder. “Next to nothing,” he admits. “I was never one for stories. I remember being frightened by it, as a child.”
“Frightened?” The thought almost amuses me. So there’s something that the ancient one is scared of. Fairy tales, go figure.
He flushes, and I can’t tell if it’s anger or embarrassment. “I used to have nightmares,” Caleb says, “that I was that crippled child, the one he left behind. I wanted to be with the others, it felt safer.”
“Safer to go into the unknown with a madman who can control rats, than stay at home?”
“Sometimes.” His face is shuttered. “I grew out of it.”
It’s hard for me to picture Caleb as a child. He must have been an odd-looking kid, what with that nose. “Did you know you were magical when you were younger?”
“Read the damn book,” he says. “And tell me what it says.”
I flick it open again. The words are different. I recognise my mother’s looping handwriting, the way her F is a jagged mark that looks more like a T. The writing is bold, a little jumpy, like an old projection. “Follow the rats,” I read out loud. Over my shoulder, Rain is peering at the book, I can feel his breath tickling my neck.
“But it’s blank.” Rain says.
“Blast those damn magicians,” Caleb says. “They can never give you a straight and simple answer.”
“Dunno, looks simple enough to me,” I say. I close the book and shove it into my bag.
“What rats, I’d like to know.” Caleb stamps about, cutting Rain off. The dead grass rasps against his leather boots.
“There’s plenty about,” I say. “I guess you magic-types don’t read the paper or ever bother to look around you. Maybe your crystal ball is on the fritz.” I point. A black shape—hunch-backed, as big as a tom-cat—bounds through the scraggly undergrowth at the bottom of Lily’s garden. It’s darting between the bushes out onto the tarred road, towards the black rubbish bags that are waiting for collection. The bags are torn and the rubbish is strewn about the pavement and in the gutter. The strike is still on.
The rat, made bold by the low wall between us, scrambles up onto the top bag and sits with its nose twitching. After a moment, it leaps down again and scuttles down along the gutter into a storm drain. Another rat scuffles behind the bag, rustling the plastic.
Caleb turns and grimaces.
“Car or walk?” I ask.
Caleb takes another look at the rats by the garbage. “Car,” he says. The rats skitter away as we walk to the yellow Beetle. They’re running uphill, in the direction of the ridge.
We take our places in the car; me up front and alone, while Caleb and Rain sit together in the back. Yay, I’m a taxi driver!
So I do exactly what my mother’s book tells me. I follow the rats until we’re back on Louis Botha, stuck in the most god-awful traffic. There are more rats on the pavements, and now that I’m paying attention, I see they’re all headed in one direction. Straight toward the CBD. They run through the flicker of the world, like black holes burned into a painting. They are so real that they hurt to look at.
Around us the traffic seethes; everyone hooting and shouting. We keep driving, past Houghton, past Bellevue, although we don’t quite make it all the way to Hillbrow before Rain spots a pack of brown rats loping in the gutters down toward Yeoville.
I think he’s relieved actually. I’ve been watching Rain’s face in the rear-view mirror, getting whiter and whiter as we wove our way through the mess of traffic towards town. I know bad shit happened to him there. Stuff he’s never even told me. And I know whatever happened was enough to have him put away for two long and horrible years. Under the long sleeves of his jersey is a line on his left arm from elbow to wrist, still that raw pink that scars stay in the first few years.
He sighs as we turn down Bedford Road, and lets go of Caleb’s hand. A taxi screams past me, blaring, and I realise I’ve drifted over the line. Shit, Irene. Watch the road, don’t watch them. It’s safer for everybody.
“Are you trying to kill us all?” Caleb grumbles
I pull the car into a driveway. My hands are shaking on the steering wheel. “Fuck,” I say. That taxi just about took off my mirror.
“I’ll drive,” says Caleb. “Get out.”
“And do you have any idea where you’re going?”
“No. Do you?”
Point. All we’re doing is driving aimlessly around and slowing down every time we see a movement in the uncut grass on the pavements, or by the uncollected rubbish. The hawkers are trying to keep their ramshackle stalls rodent-free, and every now and again, we get a glimpse of where a rat might be when a hawker starts screaming and whacking at the junk around them. The weird real-realness is wearing off, or I’m starting to get used to it, because here, everything just looks dead-normal.
“Fine.” I unbuckle and step out the car to take Caleb’s place in the back seat. Rain shifts so that he’s sitting behind Caleb, one hand curled forward around the headrest. Caleb’s taken off his stupid hat and his thick black hair is curling over the top of the seat. Rain twists his fingers so the hair falls over them.
He’s leaned his body close to the back of Caleb’s seat, as if somehow, if he just kept pressing, he’d push through the seat and meld himself to Caleb. Rain’s never stayed with anyone for long—a night here, a night there, and then he’s off again, running as far from a committed relationship as he possibly can. I can’t figure any reason for Rain to be this deep, except for Caleb’s stupid spell. Those gold threads he wove around Rain back in the Red Room. I saw then, I know now. They were real as shit. And they must still be there, wrapping him close to Caleb. He’s a spider’s feast, trapped in the web.
I stare at Rain’s face, trying to pick up the threads of magic, see if I can break them, but I don’t know what I’m looking for. Caleb promised he’d end the binding, swore on my mother’s book, on magic.
But can I trust him? I doubt it.
“Are there others?” I ask abruptly.
Caleb twists in his seat to glare at me, before scowling and looking back to the road. “What others?” he snaps.
“Magicians, like Lily?” Like my mother. Like me. The question has been bugging me since I found out.
Caleb snorts. “Some. You could barely call them that. They’re weak and stupid, and it’s only cowardice that’s kept them alive.”
Unlike my mother. “Do you know where they are, and could they help us?”
“Shut up and look for rats,” says Caleb.
I shake my head. This is ridiculous, we’re running around on our own when we should be finding everyone who could be on our side. Then I wonder if maybe they’re all like Lily, mad and twisted and powerless. Maybe it’s better not to find out. Is that what’s going to happen to me too? Heinrich’s going to come take whatever small magic I might have and leave me all empty and bitter like her? “Give me some names?” I say, surprising myself. Maybe if I can get away from Caleb I can go to these mysterious others for help. I could find out from them how to break the charm binding Rain to Caleb. Determination hardens in my chest, weighing me down. All around me, the wild magic of the world stirs, like circles in a pond after a stone is thrown. I wonder f I could reach out and manipulate it. Drag it to me. “Caleb—do these other magicians have names?” I repeat.
He doesn’t answer me. For a moment, I wish I could wipe the last few weeks away, just backtrack to the beginning, stay in Rain’s room getting drunk on sherry, listening to Joy Division. Or better, stay home and paint. That’s what my future is supposed to be about—art. Not golden art, but a real one that smells of linseed and purity. But the world around me has shifted, turned into a kind of painting itself, the colours fluid and malleable. The whole world is art now, I guess, and I can never go back. There is no past to cling to. I frown. Maybe this is what growing up feels like. When you just accept the world is shit and try and make the best of it instead of wishing for a new world. I press back against the seat, trying to ground myself. I want to reach out and touch Rain, almost as though I can convince myself that I haven’t lost everything, that some things are still there for me like a raft on an ocean. I shift, turn to him, and pause. I might as well not eve be here.
Rain says something softly for only Caleb to hear, and Caleb replies. I might not be able to hear the words, but the tone is enough—all lovey-dovey sickening crap. Rain’s fingers are still twined in Caleb’s hair.
Dammit. I’m not watching this. Rain can play look-out for the rats. Instead I swing my bag onto my lap and I dig for my pack of cigs. My hand brushes against soft leather instead and I pull out the book. Well that’s something. I suppose I could read it. Anything to keep me from watching those two. Perhaps this time it will tell me something more useful than instructions to follow rodents all around Joburg. I flick past the dedication, to the first story.
There’s an illustration on the facing page. It’s the piper again, dancing, one foot held high in a graceful point while all around him the rats seethe. He’s playing on something that looks rather like a recorder, a bit longer and thinner though.
On the opposite page is the title of the story, done in a curly script completely different from the dense blackletter of the rest of the writing. I recognise my mother’s writing and my heart lurches. She wrote in this, and while I know it’s not a message just for me, I want so badly for there to be some sign that she meant me to know the truth. That she was killed before she got the chance.
There. Not suicide. Lily said she set a trap. My eyes start to burn and I blink rapidly. Enough of this crap. Read, Irene. Read.
The Ratcatcher. And underneath that: Being a tale of magic and music.
I put my finger to the first line.
Once upon a time there lived a boy. Now, he was no ordinary boy, having been born on an Atlantic crossing while all around him the world was falling to bombs and madmen. It was a special enough time to be born, and children of war will always have a stronger grasp on the lines that bind us between life and death, but being born on water, now that was really something special.
This little boy, lets call him Caleb Dunning—
No. I close the book and take a deep breath.
“There,” says Rain, and points. Caleb swings the car down a side street. I have no idea where we are exactly. Caleb and Rain are paying me no attention, just talking to each other in low soft voices. After a few minutes, I flip the pages back to where my finger has held the place. As I read, my mother’s voice fills my head, thick and warm as cat’s fur, the faint burr of her accent the only roughness.