Charm 19/22

(start here)

Love Letters

It turns out Zelda doesn’t quite know where Heinrich is.

“I thought you said you’d be able to pin-point him?” Caleb says.

The meal has been cleared away, and a large map of Johannesburg spread over the table. It’s not very detailed, and Zelda’s got a map-book next to her for more accurate work. Which, it appears, we won’t be needing. She’s got a pin on a thread of black cotton and she’s holding it over the outspread map.

“Stop talking,” she says. “You’re breaking my concentration.”

The pin dangles as she slowly moves her hand over the map. Basically, it behaves exactly like a pin on a thread. Nothing magical.

“Blast,” says Caleb. He leans back, tilting his body slightly so that he’s thigh to thigh against Rain.

Zelda drops the thread and the pin rolls on the map, then stills. She looks at him. “It might be that I’ve not even enough magic left to do a simple finding.” She prods the pin with one blunt-cut fingernail. “Perhaps you should try.”

He shakes his head. “It’s never been my art, findings.”

I suddenly realise that his hand is curled loosely over Rain’s fingers, and I turn my attention back to the stupid pin and map.

“Hmm. It rarely goes to men,” Zelda glances at me, “perhaps Hestia’s girl could try, although….”

“What?” I shift in my seat. They’re all looking at me now.

Zelda picks up the thread and hands it to me. “You can close you eyes, that sometimes helps.”

“What—I just have to hold it over the map, and then?”

“We see,” says Zelda.

I take the thread from her fingers and hold my hand, palm down, over the map. With my eyes closed, it’s like I can feel every nuance of the needle’s tiny weight as it twists on the end of the thread. I move my hand slowly over the map, waiting for some small change that will draw me to Heinrich.

And nothing, as it turns out.

“Shit,” says Caleb. “What good is this, this hedge witchery.”

I open my eyes and drop the pin.

Caleb’s leaning his elbows on the table, his head in his hands. Next to him, Rain looks like he’s praying. Their arms are still touching though.

Zelda shrugs. “It’s not a gift that goes to many.” She sits primly in her chair and eyes Caleb thoughtfully. “Give me tonight. There’s another way for me to find him for you.”

Caleb looks up. “Why didn’t you use it earlier?”

“Because as soon as I do it, he’ll know you’re coming for him. Your element of surprise is lost.”

I can see Caleb thinking about it. “Do it,” says, eventually. “He’s looking for the girl anyway, and he’ll find it easier now that she’s come into her power. And if he does have her brother, then it won’t be long before he draws her out on his own terms.”

God, I did not need reminding about this particular aspect. I grit my teeth.

Zelda folds her hands in front of her and stares at them. “Go shower, sleep. There’s a spare room you can use.” She looks up from her hands and stares straight at me. Her hard eyes are cold iron stones, no warmth or happiness left in them. “You, you’ll have to help me.” She glances at the grandfather clock ticking away to itself. “I’ll come wake you at three, you can sleep in my room.”

“Um, Thanks.” The thought of sleeping in her bed kinda weirds me out, but I am damn tired. “Don’t you need it?”

“I have to prepare.” Zelda stand and leans on the table for a moment.

“Thank you,” says Caleb. He sounds like he really means it.

I go shower first, letting the hot water sluice away all the tiredness, the fear. My skin is clearing. Just like that. All those years of suffering the pain and the humiliation, and it was because of a stupid charm I thought was keeping me safe, keeping me closer to my dead mother. I want to curl up there in the shower stall and cry, just sob until I’m completely empty of emotion. But I don’t. Crying is weakness, and I’ve done far too much of it as it is. When I come out, dressed in my rather filthy clothes, Zelda shows me through to her bedroom. It’s not exactly frilly, but it’s borderline. If I ever choose décor like this, I’ll know it’s time I was hauled out and shot and turned into glue. There are roses on everything.

Not that I really care what the place looks like; I’m pretty much wiped out. It’s been a long and craptastic day, and the last time I slept was in the old maid’s quarters at Lily’s house. Seems like half a lifetime ago, and it was just this morning. Exhaustion hits me like a lead pipe to the back of the head. Right now I can’t even be bothered to resent Caleb for sharing a bed with Rain while I sleep alone in some old lady’s sheets that smell like lavender and talc. I suppose I should be glad it’s not pee.

The eider down is thick, too hot and stuffy in the middle of this humid summer, so I lie on top of it and just use a thin crocheted blanket instead. I’ve stripped out of my clothes, hoping that I’ll feel a little cooler and cleaner, but the sweat is already gathering on my skin and making me feel dirty and uncomfortable despite my shower. And it feels weird to no longer be wearing my mother’s charm. I’ve put it in my jeans pocket, wrapped in clean hankie Zelda gave me (what is it with magicians and hankies? Is it a fetish?) Now that it’s gone, I do get a little of what Caleb was saying about how the golden art will feel different to everyone. It’s almost impossible to describe, and I still have no idea how to actually use it, but if I concentrate I can just feel it, faintly, like the trail of a new sable hair brush against my fingers, over my eyelids. It’s easy to ignore. Maybe I am weak, after all. I lie on my back, staring up at the ceiling. Alone, away from Caleb and Rain, with the door shut between us, I can finally let the mask drop. My stomach is twisted in knots and my eyes are burning, but I won’t let myself cry again. Instead, like a trial, I make myself go through every shitty thing—make myself face it all, all the hurt—and see how strong I can be. It’s a game I’ve played with myself since my mother died, and I’m good at it. Usually.

And I make it through all the images of Rain twisted up with Caleb. The way they kissed under the electric light and looked like two halves of a puzzle, black and white and white and black, fitting together. I make it through Rain’s casual touches, the way he always seems to have some body part touching Caleb.

When I get to what could have happened to my brother, I lose it. I turn my head and muffle my sobs in the pillow until my throat is burning, my eyes hot and puffy. I cry myself out, and then I make myself still and calm, and I fill myself up with hate. No-one fucks with the Kerry family. Well, except for the Kerry family.

I think of calling my dad just to check if Dale has somehow come home or something, but deep inside I know he hasn’t. Besides the fact that my dad would have at least called and told me, there’s an icy certainty in my core; call it the golden art, whatever. I know.

I fall asleep hoping that I’m wrong, trying to smother that cold feeling in my chest.

#

I’m woken by bright light; jerked out of whatever nightmare I was having to see Zelda standing at the switch, scowling at me.

“It’s three,” she says. “Are you ready?”

Jeez, I guess cranky must be a prerequisite for magicians or something. Crankiness and handkerchiefs. I should probably start stockpiling. I don’t remember my mother that way, but my dad did call her that little hell-cat often enough. I’m sure he meant it fondly.

A long-buried memory of my mother standing in the then tiny kitchen of the Norwood house years before it had been re-done and smashing plate after plate on the floor, makes me wince. It’s a wonder I’d forgotten that: I can’t remember what it is she’s saying, but I remember those plates so clearly. Brown glass; so ugly and yet appealing at the same time. Shards of glass like strange daggers scattered across the orange and cream linoleum. Damn, I loved those plates. Can’t remember any hankies, though. Maybe I’ll be spared that.

Zelda snaps her bony fingers under my nose. “Up,” she says. “Save your day-dreams for another time.”

I dress quickly in my grubby clothes while she waits, looking to the side and drumming her foot against the beige carpet.

The rest of the apartment is drenched in shadows. The door to the guest room is closed, and I pause outside. A sound, somewhere between a moan and a sob, comes from within. Just what I need to hear. So the two of them are shagging while I get to follow Zelda around doing whatever it is crazy old magicians do in the night. Great. Just peachy.

Before I have time to sink into a nice comfy bit of self-pity Zelda calls me in to the dining room. “Do you have to dawdle so?” she hisses through her teeth.

There’s an old shoebox on the table, with the packing tape sliced open and the contents in a jumble around it. Trinkets and letters and old birthday cards; the kind of sentimental crap you never really look at, but can’t bring yourself to throw out. Like my mother’s stuff. I pick up a small ceramic bunny with its ears flat against its head and turn it this way and that. “What’s all this then?”

“That,” says Zelda, “is a rabbit. Now put it down, it’s not important.”

I put the bunny back on the table and make my way to the other side of the table where she’s standing. Folded in a neat pile before her is a small stack of letters. The paper is old but cheap looking, onion-skin thin. The writing is in an elegant hand, the ink faded with the years.

“Love letters?” I say, joking.

“Naturally.”

Woops.

“Come.” She ignores my little faux pas and gathers the old letters and a moth-eaten fur coat.

We go out the apartment, down the empty lift and out into the orange nightmare of a lobby.

“What exactly do you need me for?” I eye the coat. Good old Zelda has obviously snapped, seeing as it’s still about thirty degrees outside.

She doesn’t tell me until we’ve walked some way from the huge building and out to a green swathe of weedy ground. Buffalo grass competes with blackjacks for space, and she leads me out into the middle of the field.

The storm has passed, and the ground is soggy, wet grass slapping at my ankles. The faint sound of a police or tracker chopper drifts through the night. Gunshots. Sirens like distant banshees.

“Here.” Zelda throws the papers to the ground and they flutter like autumn leaves. A few tumble over the tussocks and disappear into the darkness. “Raise your golden art and set them on fire.”

“Uh.” I stare at the scattered paper.

“Sometimes,” she says. “I find it hard to believe you’re from Hestia’s blood.” She steps closer to me. “Close your eyes, girl, and see, and believe what you see.”

“That simple, huh?” I snap my fingers. “Neat.” My voice is dripping sarcasm, but either Zelda is immune to my powers or she just doesn’t give a shit.

“You’re wasting time,” she says.

Fine. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I picture the papers I know are lying at my feet. They’re practically glowing, they are so white in the darkness. And I picture them smouldering, blackening, the edges curling in and crumbling. A line of fire appears, running over the words, tracing each curve of the cursive writing. The feeling of paint brushes runs over my skin, and strange wet symbols cool in their trail

There’s heat against my body—that blast that you get from standing next to a just-started braai. I open my eyes and step back. The pile of letters is a small bonfire. It’s too bright, sending smoke up into the clouded night. I look at my arms where the pale gold burn of magic is sliding from my pores, coating me in a faint glow. As I watch, it fades. My arms are inked with golden marks in a language I have never seen. Symbols from some other world, some older time. It makes my breath catch in my throat. The marks flare once, then sink away.

Zelda is standing opposite me with her eyes closed and her arms outstretched, wreathed in smoke. She seems to be pulling the smoke to her, wrapping it around her like a blanket. Only she’s not moving. Faint traces of grey, like fishing lines, snake up to the cloudy night sky. They twirl away into the distance, glinting as they go. A sudden boom and flash rocks the night, like a lightning strike. A faint rumble of thunder follows, a low growl. Zelda’s eyes flash open. “Done,” she says. “Done and done.”

“You know where he is?” I’m feeling trembly and drained. Despite the heat of the night my skin is goose-bumped. I wrap my arms around me, tucking my shaking fingers into my armpits, but it barely helps.

Zelda sniffs, and picks her way around the ashy remnants of her love letters, very carefully not looking at them. Her face is blanched, but maybe that’s just the bad light. She walks over to me and throws the coat over my shoulders. It smells of naphthalene and mould but it helps. My shivers die down a little, and I uncurl enough to push my arms into the sleeves.

“Unfortunate side effect,” she says. “The golden art, little beast that it is, has to use something for energy and generally it turns on its host. You’ll feel better when you’ve had a bite to eat.”

“Wait—this is going to happen every time I use magic?” Whoa there, Irene, no using magic, once we’ve helped Caleb it’s straight back to normality and real art, the type with real paints and brushes.

Only, it seems stupid to have this and not use it. I stop arguing with myself when Zelda grabs my upper arm and drags me along after her.

She nods. “You get used to it, learn to temper how you use it. It’s a limited resource, and you use too much in one go, not only do you waste magic, you can easily knock yourself out for a day or two while your body recovers.” A faint night breeze plays against my face, soothing me as she talks. “You have a more pressing problem at the moment. Heinrich knows where you are now. You three need to leave.”

“What about you?” My teeth barely chatter. We’re back inside the lobby, waiting for the elevator.

She tosses her head like a warrior queen, and I see the woman she was in her prime, like a tracing over a decayed painting. “Let him come. I’ve nothing he wants.”

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Till Wednesday!

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cat_hellisen

I write.