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Authors: Graham Joyce

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"That would be nice," Maggie
said. “I’ll ask Alex. Though I don't expect you'll have much in common."

"That doesn't matter. We can have a
picnic if it's not too cold."

Maggie was delighted at the thought
of new friends, what's more her
own
friends. Everyone she knew was
connected through Alex. Maybe she would lend Ash the diary for a night after
all.

There was a fluttering at the window that
made her look up. It was a bird, fanning its wings and swooping at the window, as
if it was trying to get inside. Its beak and claws tapped against the window as
it hovered against the glass.

"Christ!" Ash shouted. He
pointed at something outside and leapt to his feet. Maggie saw he wasn't
pointing at the bird, but at Sam, who had cocked a leg over the railings on the
catwalk, and was preparing to swing himself over the edge.

Ash vaulted the counter and rushed
out. He flung himself at the rails and collected Sam in his arms just as the
boy was about to let go. Maggie, coming up behind him, ran at the rails. She
could see shoppers huddled on the ground fifty feet below, pointing up at
them. The sight of the drop flashed like a blade, and she wanted to vomit. She
looked up and saw the bird, fluttering at the windows roofing the arcade.

It was a blackbird. It escaped through the open skylight.

 

 

 

ELEVEN

De
Sang was expecting her. His receptionist told Maggie to go
right in. She pushed
open the door to see the white haired psychologist lying facedown on the
carpet, blowing out his cheeks and making slow progress across the floor with a
breaststroke motion. Also blowing out his cheeks was Sam, happily swimming
beside him.

"Come and join us," said
De Sang. "We're having a race to see who can get to the other side the
slowest."

"To the island," shouted Sam between gulps of air.

"I mean to the island."

Sam was having a great time. Maggie
might even have joined them, but she'd put on a new skirt to come and collect
Sam. "I don't want to get wet," she said.

De Sang didn't get up, so Maggie
took a seat. She bit her nails. "Are you getting some clues to his
character?"

"No," gulped De Sang.
"We're
just playing."

Maggie crossed her legs and looked
around the room. On the walls hung a grey diploma, almost obscured by lots of
kids' paintings in bold, primary colours. "Is this how you win their
trust?" She was trying hard to sound friendly.

De Sang mouthed at her like
something inside a glass tank. "No.
Just playing."

"No talking!" Sam
shouted.

De Sang reached the wall and got to his
feet. "I win so I lose," he told Sam.
"Time to
go home."

"NO!" screamed Sam.

"Captain Hook," he said. Sam
looked thoughtful and stared at the carpeted floor. "Swim outside and get
your coat." Sam did as he was told, breast stroking toward the reception. De
Sang was red in the face from his exertions. He perched on the edge of his
desk, drying off. "Great exercise," he said.

Maggie watched Sam swimming out of
the room and, against her preference, laughed. Then she became serious again.
"So can you tell me why he tried to throw himself over the railings?"

"No idea. Can you?" He smiled.

"How much are we paying you?"

"Lots.
Hope I'm worth it. Who is Mr.
Ash?"

"The shop
owner.
The one who grabbed him in time.
Ash
saved his life." He looked at her. "No, I'm not having an affair with
Ash."

"Good Lord. Did I suggest you were?"

"No, but you gave me a look.
A
psychological
look."

"In that case I'll have to be more careful."

It was Maggie's turn to offer him a
searching look. His face was wreathed with lines. He managed to make a virtue
out of his scruffiness, and for this reason she thought she could like him
after all. "Somehow we got off on the wrong foot, didn't we, Mr. De Sang?
After all, we both want the same thing."

"We're making progress already." He smiled.

 

Alex declined to go walking with them on
Wigstone
Heath. It was a blustery day, and he preferred to curl up on the sofa in front
of the TV, sipping lager from the tin. Maggie festooned the kids with hats and
scarves and took Dot along with them to meet Ash at a prearranged spot. When
they got there, he was sitting in his car alone. His wife, he explained, hadn't
felt well enough to come. Maggie wished she'd left the children with Alex.

Wigstone
Heath was a wind-blasted stretch of
moorland
, dotted with stunted bushes and outcrops of rock
eroded into eerie shapes. A prehistoric stone circle called the Dancing Ladies
commanded the elevated middle of the heath; and at some distance, leaning
slightly into the wind, was a large single standing stone, the
Wigstone
from which the heath had taken its name. It was
like a solitary broken tooth. They headed for the stone circle.

The wind was as sharp as a scythe. It made Maggie's ears ache. Dot, at
least, seemed to enjoy
herself
, running ahead and
sniffing the path in front of them. Maggie told Ash about De Sang.

"All he seems to do with Sam is play with him."

"So?"

"Well, I could do that."

"Then why don't you?"

Maggie wondered why she didn't.

The children ran round the stone circle, attempting to leap from one
stone to another. Dot cocked her leg against one ancient megalith.

"What is it?" Amy wanted to know.

"It's a stone circle."

Amy sighed as if her mother was an idiot. "But what's it for?"

"It's a mystery," said Ash. "Sometimes it's more fun when
we don't know the answer. Then it can be anything we want it to be." Amy
looked less than impressed with this. "All right, I'll tell you the
legend. There were these nine ladies. They were dancing naked here one
midsummer night. And a wizard put a spell on them, so that if they were still
dancing when the sun came up they'd be turned to stone. Well, the night was so
short, it took them by surprise. But they were so beautiful the wizard couldn't
take his eyes off the dancing ladies, and he got turned into stone too."
Ash pointed over at the solitary standing stone across the heath. "There
he is."

Amy counted the stones in the
circle. They seemed to confirm Ash's story. She walked over to the single
stone. "She's happier with that explanation/' Maggie said.

"But it subtracts from the mystery, don't you think?"

"I'm sure there's some deep meaning to it."

"Yes," said Ash. "I'm sure there is."

They all sat in Ash's car and ate
sandwiches and had tea from a flask.

"You didn't forget to bring the
diary, did you?" Maggie asked him. It had been on her mind all day.

"No, I didn't forget." He
produced it from the dashboard. "And I've got something to show you."
He flicked open to a page which was blank but for a few herb names written on
the first two lines. "What do you see?"

Maggie took the diary and held it up to
the window. She could see nothing more than what was obvious. She shrugged.

"Watch."
He took the book from her and pressed his palm down on the page. After a minute
he took his hand away and half a page of faint pencil writing had appeared,
barely decipherable.

"How?"

"Some trick with the pencil graphite
and chemicals, I suppose.
More successful at hiding it on
some pages than on others."

"That explains why I kept finding
stuff on pages I'd already looked at."

"You probably surfaced some of it
just by keeping it in a warm, moist place, or by exposing the pages. You'll
find more in there than you thought."

"Have you read all of it?"

"I haven't had it long enough.
I was about to ask.
Though I suppose you'll want it back for
a while now I've showed you that little trick."

"I suppose I will," said
Maggie, already engrossed in the phantom writing.

"Be careful with it,"
said Ash.
"Strong stuff."

 "Yes."

Be careful.

So why am I afraid? When I take such care?

Is it A. whom I fear? Or is it this craft that seduces me? When it
steals my every thought? And though I have this and that to attend to, always I
think the craft, the craft, and return to it, and when so many wonderful things
are
shewn
to me that I cannot otherwise.
Wonderful things, falling one upon the other.

And may I do good with it, that's the best of all.

But A. torments me and says I play and am not true to the path. Why
do I let her abuse me? Why listen? But she says I have not yet come to my fork
in the path, as all will and must, says A. Then she flatters me and says I must
come to my fork in the path early because I am this and I am that. And it is at
the fork I must make the DECISION.

In her few quiet moments Maggie read and reread the new pages of the
diary as Ash had revealed them to her. Recipes for salves and ointments and
healing herbs were numerous; but more mysterious were the diarist's outpourings
over her misgivings, and the strange courtship with the unnamed A. Maggie did
not understand the meaning of these fretful passages but felt in some way they
were speaking to her. They were at times like an echo of
her
own
doubts, and yet like the diarist she felt the irresistible seduction
in the unfolding mysteries promised behind the words.

Certain passages made her blood quicken.

There is a fork in the path in the woods as I now see, and one is the
way out, and one is bathed all in the blue light. This is the path of DECISION
as I take it. But howsoever A. will have it, I say I am on the path of the blue
shining, and the DECISION is made. But A. says I will never do at that.

No, I would not go naked. There's an end. I am resolved not to be put
off, nor teased, nor threatened nor bullied no more by A. For now I see she
wants me for her own uses, to do this or that EXTREME thing.

Though she struggled to assemble a coherent picture from these entries,
Maggie had, at least, discovered some continuity.

In spite what I wrote a few days ago, today I went naked for the
LISTENING, and there is an end to all talk of play. It was the blue lighted
path, but not lighted in a common sense, and even A. says yes and how yes was
the DECISION. And it is made. And it shut her mouth for a while, and I'm glad
of a bit of peace so I am.

I'd just as
lief
not prove her right but it
brings me such reward my heart hammers to tell of it. And dangers, there are
dangers I never guessed, but such reward! My heart is like a scales, up, down,
I don't know.

I am still afraid and A. says that is proper.

What was it that had pitched the diarist
into such raptures? Maggie wanted to know what great step it was that appeared
to have been taken. There was the
listening
mentioned again, which
Maggie had already been seduced into sampling the afternoon she'd forgotten to
collect the children. Extraordinary things had happened, in their small way,
and certain emotions had been excited; but there were no blue lights or
shining paths or spectacular decisions to be made.

Meanwhile she found a preparation
for treating Amy's eczema; and an inhalant for treating her own sinus
complaint, which she used with some success. She had an itch for the creativity
of the thing, and she cast around for subjects. But it wasn't ointments and
herb baths she wanted, it was more. The diarist's excitement infected her.

Maggie had never had an affair
since marrying Alex, though she had once come close. But, in hiding her herb
collection from him, in poring over her diary in secret moments, and in
plotting snatched intervals away from her family, the entire enterprise felt a
little like that. She was cagey about what she'd been doing and careful not to
let anything slip. Meanwhile curiosity pulled like desire.

The diary was full of mysteries
waiting to be undressed. Her work with oils was deeply sensuous; streaming with
exciting, public perfumes and with private, arousing musky odours. Her secret
world flowed with refreshed moods and new histories, and was charged with
possibility. It was a potent, dangerous seduction; and Maggie was seducing
herself.

One morning, about half an hour
before dawn, Maggie woke up as indeed she'd asked herself to before falling
asleep. She slipped out of bed and dressed hurriedly. Alex snorted and turned
in his sleep but didn't waken.

In the kitchen she shredded and
boiled her concoction of bay laurel,
mugwort
, and
cinquefoil, inhaling the fumes before pouring the brew into her thermos flask
and carefully disposing of the dregs. She got in the car and drove through the
empty streets.

Grey light was peeling into dawn
when she arrived at Osier's Wood. She parked the car and took her flask and a
blanket. There was a heavy dew and mist, a will o' the wisp streaming from the
woodland and across the distant meadow. The woods were eerily silent. Trees
stood in dark ranks, prodding branches at her in strange, silent gestures. They
enfolded her, tree trunks closing behind her like gates.

She found her way to the middle of
the woods, dawn light creeping dimly through the fenestrations of the trees.
She listened. There was nothing but the occasional drip of dew from a branch.
Then the moistness of the trees and the leaves and the earth became a kind of
sound to her, a dull harmony. Black and grey and green branches twisted and
drew around her like an exotic alphabet she hadn't yet mastered, but which she
could learn. She put down her flask and her blanket and took off her coat. The
decision had been made. She glanced around her before starting to undress.

It was cold, October-dawn cold, but
she stripped and stood naked, looking up at the trees, as if waiting for
something. Leaf mould oozed between her toes, her nipples became erect. A shaft
of light lit up the dew on the bark of a tall silver birch. She moved to it,
collecting dew on her fingers and putting the droplets to her mouth as if they
were honey. They tasted strangely sweet. The glinting silver birch took on a
lavender hue. She put her tongue to the bark. She licked, inhaling the deep
smells of the bark, the smells of moist, old wood, and the fungal odours.

A breeze rippled through the woods and she
shivered. She threw the blanket round her shoulders and sat at the foot of an
oak. Opening her flask, she inhaled the steam, and it made her feel drowsy. She
ran a hand through her long hair, tossed back her head, and listened.

The wind in the tree told her many things.

It told her true things and false things.

It was a friend and a false friend. It told her secrets and lies.

It whispered what she must do to
love her husband, and what she must do to kill him.

BOOK: Dark Sister
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