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Authors: Graham Joyce

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BOOK: Dark Sister
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SEVEN

Alex came back from
work to find
Maggie, Amy, and Sam playing
a game in the yard.
A large blue
candle was set in a brass holder in the middle of the flagstones, its flame
flickering in the light breeze. It was Amy's turn to jump.

Jack be nimble,

Jack be quick,

                                 
Jack jump over the Candlestick

And Amy jumped. She cleared the candle easily and
shouted, "Mummy's turn!" Maggie stepped a few paces backwards, repeated
the rhyme, and took a healthy run. She cleared the candle by several feet.
"Cheating!" shrieked Amy.
"Cheating!
You have to stand still and then jump."

"What's going on?" said Alex.

"Shut up!" Amy shouted.
"Sam's
turn!"

But Sam was afraid to try.
"
Scaredy
-pants!"
Amy
bawled. "It's easy."

"Don't
want to."

"Can I have a go?" said Alex.

Alex stood before the candle and cleared it easily from a standing
position. "No!" Amy bellowed. "You have to say Jack! You have to
say it."

"Okay." So Alex did it again, reciting the rhyme.

"Now Sam has to do it."

"Not if he doesn't want to."

"He's boring."

"No I'm not."

"I know," said Alex, lifting up
Sam. "I'll do it holding Sam,
then
we'll have
done it together. All right, Sam?"

Sam nodded. Amy complained that it
didn't count, but they did it anyway, reciting the rhyme together. Maggie
hadn't done it properly, so she was put to the task again. "Did you know
that Jack's another name for the Devil?" said Alex. "This game was
supposed to be an old pagan cure for something or other."

"Eczema," said Maggie. "And
Jack isn't the devil in this case; it's
a
herb."

"Really?
That's handy, because Amy's got a touch of. . ." He looked at his wife
strangely.

"What does pagan mean?" Amy wanted to know.

"Sort of... wild," said Alex.

"No it doesn't, Amy. It means
the people before Christianity. They had lots of different gods."

Alex considered for a moment.
Then, still holding Sam, he said, "Bet you can't do it backwards!"

"Backwards?" said Amy.

Alex stood with his back to the flaming candle and said:

Candlestick the over jump Jack

Quick be Jack nimble be Jack

He jumped backwards. He landed
awkwardly, his leg buckling under him. Sam landed on his chest.

"Careful!" Maggie shouted.

Sam thought it was a giggle, but
Alex had sprained his ankle. He picked himself up.

Amy noticed the candle had gone
out. "You said that's bad luck, Mummy. You said it's bad luck if the
candle goes out."

"It's always bad luck/' said Alex, hobbling
back up the path, "to twist your ankle."

"Bad luck stupid shit!" cackled Sam. He
picked up the candle and threw it at his father. "Stupid shit
backwards!"

Alex unfolded himself and looked at Maggie in astonishment.

"I don't know!" she protested.
"He must have picked it up from the kids at the childminder's."

That evening, with the children in bed, they sat by
the fire. Alex, his foot up on a stool and a bag of ice cubes draped over his
ankle, was watching a game show on the television. Maggie had her head in a
magazine.

"You know that journal we found?"

"
Ummm
?"
Maggie murmured. She didn't look up.

"I was looking for it earlier. I couldn't find it."

"It's around somewhere."

"I was telling a colleague at
work about it. He's interested. I said I'd let him have a look at it."

She turned a page.

"So where is it?"

"Where's what?"

"The journal.
The
diary."

She glanced up. "Where have you looked?"

"I've looked all over."

"Last time I saw it
it
was on the
mantelpiece."

"The mantelpiece?" said Alex.

"Yes.
The mantelpiece."

"Well it's not there now. So where is it?"

"I don't think it's a good idea to lend it out."

"Oh, you don't?" Alex was getting annoyed.
"Can I ask why not?"

"We won't get it back."

"Don't be ridiculous. It's only Geoff at the museum; he wants to
see it."

"It's fragile and it's
valuable," she flashed angrily, "and it belongs to this
family."

Alex was rather taken aback by this
show of defiance.
"All right.
All
right.
It's no big deal." He pretended to become re-engrossed in
the TV game show. After a while he snapped the television off and stood up.

"What are you up to?"

"What?"

"You're up to something, Maggie. What is it?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"All right.
Have it your own way. Meanwhile let me say this: something's got to be done
about Sam."

"Something?"

"He's out of control.
Completely out of
control."

Maggie took the remark as it was
intended: a criticism of her capacity as a mother. She pursed her mouth. Though
she was boiling, she said nothing.

Alex went to bed, hobbling up the
stairs with his twisted ankle. Maggie followed an hour later. It was a cold
bed. Two backs turned make a deep, dark valley of ill will, down the middle,
where sleep is hard to find.

 

 

 

 

 

 

EIGHT

Alex
had Sam booked in to see a child psychiatrist within the
week. He made private
arrangements, an expensive move calculated to infuriate Maggie. Mr. De Sang—he
didn't like to be called doctor, although he possessed all the
credentials—insisted on an initial meeting with the parents together, followed
by individual meetings, followed at last by meeting with Sam.

Maggie had put up massive
resistance, but Alex was determined. It had been their single biggest dispute
in seven years of marriage. Maggie said it would only happen over her dead
body, Alex declared that could be arranged. Alex said he'd drag her there
kicking and screaming if necessary and Maggie claimed that would be the only
way. Alex alluded to a history of mental illness in Maggie's family (a minor
nervous complaint), and Maggie reminded him of disorders in his own (a single
case of epilepsy).

"If you
really
want to
screw him up," bawled Maggie, "why not just throw him into a pit of
snakes?"

"Seems like you've already accomplished that
much."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Work it out for yourself."

The truth was Alex didn't know what
he meant. It was just something to be said in the momentum of fierce argument.
It was a wild shot, but it silenced Maggie for a minute.

She recovered to say, "So
Sam's got to be dragged off to a qualified child abuser just because you're for
some reason furious with me?"

To Alex's credit, he'd considered
that possibility. He'd analyzed his own motives for wanting Sam examined. He
was genuinely uneasy about Sam's relentlessly disruptive behaviour. Amy was
growing up as straight as a pine tree, while Sam, psychologically speaking,
was like something from a hall of mirrors. He'd enjoyed none of the closeness
with the boy he'd adored in bringing up his daughter. Maggie had found a way of
handling him, sure enough, but all he ever got from the child was a gaudy
procession of lies, tantrums, breakages, blue fits, and foul language. He loved
Sam, but found the boy a minute-by-minute horror show.

To Alex's debit, he failed to
understand his proposal for dealing with Sam masked a deeper unease. His
self-analysis wasn't thorough enough to make him realize he was trying to get a
grip on a family he sensed was nudging away from his sphere of protection. It
frightened him at too plunging a level to admit this might be happening. He
sensed malign things incubating in the umbrageous waters of the family
relationships, but the knowledge of it only ever spoke to him in his dreams. He
was a rational man. He grabbed at rational, surface solutions. He thought all
that was needed was a strong hand on the tiller.

 

De Sang wore suede boots, a feature
Maggie had always held to be a
floggable
offence. He
also wore a drab suit, his jacket supplementing a large cardigan buttoned
underneath. He was a tall, thin man with a fleecy white head of hair. Though he
had a chair behind his desk, he didn't seem to like to sit on it: throughout
his interviews with Maggie and Alex he sat variously on the arm of his chair, on
the edge of his desk, on his windowsill, and indeed anywhere but his chair. In
a day's work he covered miles of ground without leaving his office.

When agreeing to take on Sam he managed to convey the impression he was
doing all concerned a favour. "Meanwhile what Sam needs above all
else," he said, parking his butt on the warm radiator and folding his
arms, "is stability."

"He's got stability," said Maggie.

De Sang looked at her a long time
before answering. "Children Sam's age are moving through a precise stage
of development. They have a habit of responding acutely to the emotional
environment in which they're located. If Mother is pleased, they know it
without anything being said by Mother. If Father is angry, they know it even
before Father has outwardly shown his anger."

Alex nodded sagely, interested. Maggie
looked away, guessing where all this was leading.

"This empathy of early
childhood begins to thin out as kids become more verbal—as they learn to speak
better. It's a survival faculty we mostly lose. But Sam here, he's still in
that empathy mode, reflecting some of the emotions generated around him."

Alex agreed.
"Makes sense.
I mean—"

"You can tell all that from one
meeting?" Maggie interrupted rudely.

"I can recognize a pattern
when I see one," said De Sang. "We all like to think of ourselves and
our relationships as unique—and in some ways they are. But underneath ... If
there is tension in the house, Sam will find a way to reflect it back. If there's
a mood of opposition, or contradiction—"

"But what's been said about
tension or opposition?" She looked at Alex.

"Mrs. Sanders. You're paying me to be blunt."

"It's all right," said
Alex, getting up to leave. "I appreciate the directness. It's already making
sense."

He shook De Sang by the hand.

Maggie was livid.

"What the
hell did you tell him about us?"

"I didn't
tell him anything."

"Bullshit.
You practically did his job for him. Now he doesn't even have to earn his fee.
Stability!
Stability?
Couldn't you even let him look
at Sam first, before blaming everything on our disagreements?"

"The idea is to help the man sort it out, not to mystify him!"

"Rubbish! You had your tongue
so far up his arse I couldn't even see your feet waggling."

Alex stared at her. She'd never
previously directed language like this at him.

"All I said was that there
are certain tensions in the household. That's all I said."

"Did he ask you if we're fucking?"

"Sam is listening to every sweet word you have to say."

"Did he ask you? Did he?"

"What's that got to do with it?"

"That means he did! Yes! I'm
right! And you told him. Jesus Christ!"

Sam looked up wide-eyed at his mother.
"Baby
Jesus."

"All right!
What do you suggest we do with the child? I'm sure you've got some terrific
ideas. What does your book say? Rub him down with mustard and garlic? Or thrash
it out of him with a hazel switch? When are you going to be a
proper mother
to our children?"

Now it was Maggie's turn to stare at him
for raising his voice. Alex stormed off to work, leaving her to take Sam home.

But before she did, she stopped by
the Gilded Arcade, to look in on the man she thought of as Mr. Omega. She
peered through the window and thought he must have finished reading his book;
at any rate he had his back turned and was weighing out measures of herbs in
small plastic bags. He didn't look up when the bell tinkled. Sam pointed up at
the tiny bell, waiting for it to ring again as the door closed.

"Rue,
vervain
,"
said Maggie, "St. John's
wort
, dill..."

"
Hindreth
witches of their will." He didn't look up from his task, but she could
tell he was smiling. "You've learned something."

"Only we say hinder. We don't
go in for '
Hindreth
'."

"Brought that book in for me
to see?"

"No."

"Right.
Sell her old stock, won't we, Sam?" He winked at the child. Sam buried
himself in Maggie's long skirt.

"How did you know his
name?"

"You let it slip. Last time
you were in." She suddenly remembered telling him, and she felt stupid.

"If you're going to ask me all these questions,"
he
said a few minutes later, "you'd better sit
down. I'll make you some coffee. Or herb tea if you prefer, but personally I
can't stand the stuff." He dragged a chair beside the counter and she sat.
He gave Sam a doll on strings to play with.

"Coffee will be fine. What
does it mean when certain herbs are referred to as 'hot' or 'cold'?"

"It refers to the energy of the
plant. If its effects are stimulating and aggressive, or electric, then
they're said to be hot.
If they're relaxing, passive, and magnetic,
then cold.
I prefer it as a gender classification, male and female, but
then I suppose I'm an old chauvinist." He sat down and swept a hand
through his thinning hair.

"I suppose you are." She
looked across her coffee cup at him and their eyes settled on each other a
moment too long. Maggie looked away. "What if a plant was said to be of
Diana?"

"Oh, you're getting a bit fey
there. All these herbs are supposed to have associated deities.
The old gods.
I can't be bothered with all that stuff."

"Does it matter when a plant is picked?"

"Does it matter how long you cook a lasagne?
Or a
panful
of carrots?
Of course
it matters!"

"I still don't see why."

"She doesn't see why, Sam. Look, if you want to
be scientific about it, did you know the weight of a plant increases during the
waxing of a moon?
Fact.
Photosynthesis.
So some new matter must be created. Then the weight returns to normal as the
moon wanes.
Fact."

There was something invitingly humorous and ironic
about the way he levitated his eyebrows each time on the
word fact.
As
though he was seducing her into a conspiracy to which he only jokingly
subscribed. Certainly he wasn't the most physically attractive man in the
world, but he exuded a deep sense of calm and self-possession; it tempted one to
want to stay and bathe in it for a while.

Maggie had a deeply intuitive nature and great powers
of empathy when they were allowed exercise. It depended on context or on
precise individuals, on the combination of active agents, like sugar and yeast.
Here was such an interaction. The bond was immediate. She saw through to him.
She saw a level of sadness beneath all of his ironies. It excited her
instincts. Questions fizzed.

"What's
manzanilla
?"

"Camomile."

"What's devil's milk?"

"Celandine."

"And old gal?"

"Old gal is elder."

"And old man's mustard?"

"Yarrow.
Where are you getting all these
names from?"

"You seem to know them all.
Can you sell me some laurel,
mugwort
, and
cinquefoil?"

"Going listening, are we? I really
wouldn't mind getting a look at that book of yours."

Maggie giggled. "Got any
suggestions for a love potion? Or at least I'll settle for a peace potion.
Something to restore a bit of harmony to a fractious
household."

"Not getting along with the old man, eh?" He jumped out of his
chair and started to reach down jars from the shelf behind him. "Let's see
what we can do."

Maggie too got to her feet, bombarding him
with questions as he shook herbs into the brass pan of his weighing scales. She
leaned comfortably against the counter. Both were too preoccupied to notice the
door open. Sam, playing with his doll on the shop floor, did notice. His eyes
shot up to the bell as he waited for it to tinkle; but this time it failed to
ring. An old woman stood in the open doorway.

Sam looked at his mother and the
shopkeeper, but they had their backs turned. He looked again at the silent
bell, and then at the woman standing over him. She wore a long grey coat, black
woollen stockings, and heavy black shoes. A dark hat was pulled over her head,
shadowing her face. Wisps of hair the colour of smoke poked out from under the
brim. She stared hard at the two people engrossed at the counter, her face set
in an expression of impatience. Then she noticed Sam.

The old woman bent down toward him.
Her movement was slow, snakelike. She put her face close enough to his that he
recoiled from her pungent breath. Sam looked over to his mother. He wanted to
call her, but the space across the floor of the shop seemed to expand outwards
until she was a great distance away, too far to hear him. The woman took the
doll from him and put it inside her coat. She straightened her back, turned and
walked out of the shop, closing the door behind her. Sam raised his eyes to the
bell again. It was silent.

Maggie suddenly looked up from the
counter, where they were still measuring out herbs.

"What is it?" the shopkeeper wanted to know.

"I don't know." She
looked at Sam and snatched him up from the floor.

"Something wrong?"

"Nothing.
Only ... just
a strange feeling.
Forget it."

He dispensed the herbs in little plastic sachets. "As for your old
man, blend the oil I told you about. Then rent a porn film from the video
shop."

"Should I drop the oil in his food?"

"Not unless you want to
poison him. You're meant to wear it. It smells good." Maggie paid for what
she'd bought. "Can I have my dolly back?" the shopkeeper asked Sam.

Sam buried his head in his
mother's clothes. "Come on, Sam. Where's the dolly? Give it back to Mr.
Omega."

"The lady took it."

Maggie apologized. "He makes up porky pies, I'm afraid."

"The lady took it!" Sam almost screamed.

"Don't worry about it. It
must be around here somewhere. My name's not Mr. Omega, by the way. It's Ash.
Let me know how you get on." He opened the door for her, and this time Sam
heard the bell tinkle over their heads, and then again as Ash closed it after
them.

 

 

 

 

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