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Authors: Graham Joyce

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TWELVE

Alex,
Amy, and Sam were sitting quietly round the table having
breakfast when Maggie got
back to the house. Dot slunk away as she entered the kitchen. She was greeted
by silence.

"I've been for a lovely walk,"
she announced, a trifle too enthusiastically. "You should all do the same
if you know what's good for you."

"Early start?" said Alex, buttering his toast.

"I figured it's the only time I can
have to myself if I don't want to be accused of neglecting anyone."

"Shall we see," said Alex,
"if we can get through an entire Sunday without having a bust-up?"

Amy looked at Maggie as if the
decision was entirely up to her.

Alex went along to the Merry Fiddler for a
lunchtime drink with his cronies. He always made a point of inviting Maggie,
and she always made a point of declining to join him. Didn't she have the
Sunday roast to think about?

The children vanished with Dot down
into their converted cellar playroom while Maggie got busy. Not until pans were
bubbling and steaming on the stove did she go down to check on the children.

They were playing quietly on the
rug. Dot was scratching herself in the corner. Alex had made a decent job of
converting the cellar. He'd papered the walls and laid a floor of wooden tiles
only six months earlier. Maggie noticed a rust-coloured stain spreading from
beneath the rug.

"Who spilled something?" she
asked crossly. The children looked up with wide eyes.
"Off
the rug.
Come on! Up!
Up!"

Maggie pulled the rug aside to
reveal a large, reddish-brown stain, four or five feet in diameter. It was dry.
Someone had spilled paint, she guessed, and had tried to hide it with the rug.
Only Dot looked vaguely guilty. Maggie fetched a bucket and a scrubbing brush.
She scoured at the wood tiles, but the stain showed no sign of lifting. She
scratched at it; it wasn't paint and she couldn't work out what it might be. So
she tried a solvent, but that didn't lift it.

Amy, standing on the other side of the stain, said,
"It's a face."

Maggie stood beside her and saw
that she was right. The stain formed an inexact visage; features only
half-formed in places, ugly, contorted, but nonetheless a face. Maggie covered
it up again with the rug. She returned to the kitchen to attend to the roast.

"It's the lady," Sam told
Amy after Maggie had gone.

"What lady?"

"The lady at
the shop.
And she's been in the garden. She has."

Amy tried to sound like her father.
"Are you telling lies?"

"She has! She rides a rat!
She's been in the garden!"

"All right.
I'll lift up the rug and you spit on her face. Go on. You spit on her
face."

"No, I’l1
lift up the rug, and you spit."

"You're scared."

"You spit, Amy. Go on."

So Sam lifted up the rug and Amy
spat on the face. Then they put the rug back.

"Don't say anything,"
said Amy.

"Great dinner!" said
Alex, wiping gravy from his moustache. "Tell Mum thank you for a great
dinner, kids."

"Thank you for a great
dinner," said Amy.

"Thank you for a great
dinner," said Sam.

This was Alex's way of trying to
make peace. The lunchtime beer had made him frothy and exuberant. He got down
from the table and put a match to the fire he'd prepared earlier, picking up
the Sunday newspaper before flinging himself on the sofa.

"Before you get too
comfortable," said Maggie, "would you have a look at the playroom
floor? I think there's damp coming up from underneath."

Alex looked at the fire, then at
his newspaper. He let the paper slide to the floor. "Sure."

He went down into the playroom and checked out the
tiles. That was his Sunday afternoon gone. He had just enough tiles in reserve
to replace those ruined by the staining. Lifting out the old ones, he found no
sign of damp. It was puzzling, but he simply re-laid the new tiles. It took him
the best part of two hours.

"Job done," he told
Maggie, returning to his sofa minus the lunchtime cheer.
"Probably
something in the wood stain."

Ten minutes later the fire was roaring and Alex was snoring.

 

Maggie decided to make an effort herself. She was not so self-absorbed
as to suppose her relationship with her husband would mend on its own. She knew
that marriage was sometimes a job of work. It needed routine maintenance with
full commitment and sleeves rolled up. If only she could find a way of blending
that with her newfound interests.

Gardenia for harmony.
Musk for passion.
Jasmine for love.
Rose geranium for protection.
Yarrow
for seven years' love and to stop all fear.

Harmony! Passion! Love!

She would be prepared to settle for the
first and least of these, if only it were that simple. Yes, it was easy enough
to make
a pretence
at harmony. Be sweet, Maggie! Be
pliant! Save your spices for the family casserole and don't ask for more,
Maggie!

But that wasn't harmony. That was the
paralysis of a weak heart—when inside she was scalding.

Passion, once there had been plenty of
that. There had been a time in the beginning when they'd been afraid to get out
of bed for fear the other might not be there when they returned. Now there were
times when, making up her face before a mirror, she might pause to remember
some of that passion, and to stretch briefly like a cat, letting go a deep,
sensual sigh.
Love.
Protection.
Protection from what?
From these
adulterous fevers?
Or from the fear that—even at that moment—invisible
hairline cracks were appearing in the myth of cosy domesticity, a myth she'd
never previously had time to challenge.

Maggie didn't want to lose any of it—Alex,
the children, the family hearth. But she'd become terrified by a sense of how
fragile the thing was, how a moment's inattention might break it. Seven years'
love and to stop all fear. Well, they'd had seven years' love, and maybe they'd
worn it out. That was her biggest fear of all, that something irreplaceable was
already spent.

Earlier that day, before coming home, while still
In
the woods, she'd been gifted an inspirational message.
Maggie, sitting under her tree, had been brought out of her reverie by the tiny
quivering of some live thing. Its striped markings blended in so well with the
leaf mould and the autumnal ferns that she hadn't noticed. A faint movement
betrayed its presence, and she came to her senses, instantly recognizing the
black and grey-brown chevrons delineating its length: adder.

No more than a yard from her bare foot, it had been
sizing up a small bird alighted on a moss-rich, rotting log. Maggie couldn't
understand why the bird didn't take flight. It was a tiny jenny-wren, close
enough for her to see that it was looking at the adder. Then she realized it
was hypnotized. It was paralyzed by the gaze of the snake.

The adder was a late hibernator. Most of its cousins
would be settled in for their winter sleep, and for that reason Maggie felt
that here was a significant moment. It was a gift for her; a message from
Nature. Maggie had narrowed her eyes and stretched her neck. She made a low
hissing noise. It seemed madness, but she'd thought she could project her will
into the snake. "Leave it." She wasn't sure if she'd spoken these
words or only thought them, but they emerged like a rattling breath caught in
the back of her throat. The adder's eyes flickered from the bird to her. Maggie
clapped her hands and the wren flew off. The adder slipped away into the ferns.

She'd gazed for a while at the spot where the adder
had been, before suddenly feeling bitterly cold. She had no idea how long she'd
been there. It was then that she'd dressed and made her way back to the car.

The hedgerows were ablaze with berries and wild fruit.
Maggie felt as if her eyes had been stripped of scale. Black-red elderberries
jostled for her attention with poisonous ruby berries of black bryony,
healthful hips, brilliant white-beam, blue juniper, wild crab apple, and the
shining black pods of deadly nightshade. The season had delivered, and the
bushes were an open treasure chest. She determined to come back later, to
collect. But meanwhile in the image of the snake and the wren she'd been given
an epiphany. Here was a cameo, an emblem, a compact of her marriage. It was a
message in a language she was uncertain how to interpret.

She'd prepared her oils by the method of
enfleurage
,
filling small jars with leaves or
petals, immersing them in olive oil and leaving them for a day or two; then
repeating the process several times, throwing away the old leaves and
introducing fresh leaves into the same oil, until it became saturated with the
fragrance.

Finally the oil was strained
through filter paper into a bottle. A few drops of
benzoin
tincture were added as a preservative before the bottle was tightly
stoppered
.

She was becoming an adept
enthusiast of the art, using both instinct and olfactory good sense to decide
when
an oil
was ready. She blended her oils with the
eyedropper and added a pinch of yarrow herb.

She sniffed the result. It made her smile.
It wasn't exactly what she expected, but an irrational belief sat inside her
like a guiding spirit. Any residual scepticism was no more than a skin
stretched over the void. Old doubts were drying, cracking, sloughing off,
freeing the bright, moist creature underneath.

Then pour off into two jars, and then each anoint the other from
their own jar, by the moon, asking.

She poured the blended oil into two
small, opaque bottles; one for him and one for her.

That night, she waited until they were
undressing by the soft light of the bedside lamp. Alex sat on the bed
unbuttoning his shirt. She knelt behind him and began to massage his neck. He
was tense, his muscles stiff as hawsers.

"That's nice."

She dipped her fingers. He tried to look
across his shoulders. "Keep still," she said softly. She ran a hand
through his hair.

"Would you rub my neck, Alex?
Just for a moment?"
She slipped off her blouse, handing
him a small jar. "Use this."

"Strong
stuff."
He kneaded it into her shoulders and into her back. The oil
glistened along her spine and on her smooth, pale skin.

"That's enough. Come
here." She took the bottle from him, held his hand, kissed it and wiped it
across her own brow. Then she got up, set the two bottles on the windowsill to
receive the moonlight, and switched off the lamp. She parted the curtains a
little, to let in the soft rays of the waxing moon, and climbed into bed beside
him.

"Do you love me?" she asked.

"You know I do."

"Swear by the moon."

"What?"

"Swear by the moon that you love me."

Alex snorted.

"I mean it," said Maggie. "I want you to."

"It's not Sam who needs a psychiatrist."

"Just do it. Say it."

"All right!
I swear by the moon I love you. Can I go to sleep now?"

"Yes. You can go to sleep now."

 

 

 

THIRTEEN

Maggie
decided that the children's playroom needed cheering
up. She tossed out a
couple of old, broken, hard-backed chairs and introduced two brightly coloured bean
bags. She also placed a few potted plants around the place: a parlour palm and
a geranium brought indoors after a successful summer. She was placing the
geranium on a low table when she was gripped by a strange notion.

A momentary giddiness swept over her, and
as if caught in a flash photograph she saw Alex working at the castle dig.

"How could that be?" she said
aloud. Sam looked up from his toys and smiled at her.

"He won't like that, will he, Sam?"

"Yes."

"Go and fetch your coat. We're going out."

 

The dig in the hollow outside the castle was underway as usual. For
work, Alex wore Wellingtons, overalls, and a permanently knitted brow. He was
directing a couple of students to set a series of level indicators. Round the
perimeter of the dig area a wooden boardwalk had been constructed, to allow
visitors an uninterrupted view of live archaeology. The public, however, had
not been persuaded to desert the cinemas or the shopping malls or even their
armchairs in favour of live archaeology. The idea had not been a vast
commercial success, and it irked Alex to be on display to school kids and the
odd courting couple. But on this day he looked up and saw Maggie marching Sam
along the wooden planks toward him.

"Hullo. What's up?"

"Found anything?" asked Maggie.

"Not really."

"You haven't dug up anything interesting today?"

"Not even a button. Why?"

"Not even a button," Sam repeated.

Maggie stepped off the walkway and
paced across the sward to the far rim of the hollow. "Dig here."

"What?" Alex laughed.

"Just dig here."

"Why?"

"Because you'll find something."

"You can't just dig anywhere
you like, can you, Sam? The place would look like a rabbit warren, wouldn't it,
Sam?"

"No," said Sam.

"Please
yourself
,"
said Maggie. "Come on. Sam." She swept Sam up in her arms and walked
back the way she'd come. "Say bye-bye."

"Bye-bye," said Sam.

And they were gone. Alex looked at the spot Maggie had indicated he
should start burrowing. He shook his head and turned back to the job of supervising
the dig.

Back at the house, Maggie began to make a more systematic study of the
diary. She had begun to reread the entries day by day, hoping to glean more
information about its author, Bella. But it was problematic. She wasn't
convinced that the entries had been made chronologically at all, and still some
of the pages contained nothing more than lists. Other pages needed
raising
, which she did either by pressing them with the palm
of her hand or, more effectively, by applying a warm iron to them. Occasionally
the heat failed to bring up an entry in full, but Maggie was learning more all
the time.

Stinging nettles burn the finger to touch it. But to boil takes out
the sting. Then it will do as a remedy against the poison of hemlock,
mushrooms, quicksilver and henbane, and the oil of it takes away the sting that
itself makes. Gather in July and August, and will also give you good
protection.

Other entries
were eccentric and inconsistent.

A. says white moths are the souls of the dead. But I say this is
twaddle, and that we should separate these
superstitiousnesses
from the true knowledge.

On the following page was an entry which
Maggie was unable to read in its entirety.

Now I take back what I said about the white moth for [miss-
ing
] and was angry with me and showed me and told me that I
should not gainsay my dark sister. My fear did [missing] I thought I should
die. Why do I let my dark sister lead me? For we put the [missing] which use of
the flying ointment I now abjure. Shred and powder the
dwale
and hemlock and [mixing] and hellebore and steep in
hogsfat
.
But that you should [missing] and go courting death, for
Hecate
,
and I have seen her [missing] that you should fly and I am afraid to look upon
her face [missing] and a warning for all who take that path. Why do I let my
DARK SISTER lead me so?

 

Maggie did her best to recover the
missing words, but she was unable to raise them on the page. Some oily
substance had stained the paper there, and the full prescription was lost.
Flying ointment she'd heard of before; but who was the dark sister, if not the
mysterious A.?

Sam was enjoying himself in the
cellar playroom, swimming like a slow fish. It was a good game, but better when
there was someone else to play it with. When his friend the doctor was
swimming, it was easier to hear the sound of the waves and the splash of the
water. He liked the doctor.

Sam got up from the floor and
looked around for something else to do. He had a crate of bright-coloured
plastic bricks in the corner, next to the potted geranium. He padded over to
the crate and tugged it away from the wall. Then he felt something wet splatter
across his face.

It hit him sharply across the
cheek. Someone had spat at him. He lifted his hand to his face and wiped at the
spittle. It was slimy and cold. He looked around him, but there was no one else
in the room.

He was still looking to see where
the spit had come from when a second gob slapped him hard in the face. This
time he knew where it was coming from. Sam wiped his face, backing slowly
across the floor away from the low table bearing the potted geranium.

Maggie came down the steps to the cellar to check on Sam and
found him crouched against the wall.

"Sam? What are you doing?"

"Nothing."

"Are you all right?" She picked him up.

"Yes."

But Maggie's nerve ends were prickling. She looked round the playroom.
There was a disturbing smell in the air, a bitter tang, not strong, but pervasive.
She looked at the pile of toys. She gazed hard at the potted geranium. She
looked at the new bean bags. Then she noticed the stain seeping from under the
rug.

She had a bad feeling. Sam was strangely subdued.

Still cradling Sam, she swept the rug aside with her
foot. The peculiar discoloration of the wood tiles had returned. It had come
back exactly as it had before. Maggie stooped to wipe a finger across the
surface, but it was dry. The marks she'd previously identified as a face had
reappeared. She kicked the rug back into position, recovering the offending
stain.

"Tell me, Sam."

Sam didn't want to speak. His fear
of earning disapproval for telling lies, Maggie knew, was bringing on an
unhelpful reticence. He muttered something inaudible.

"What was that? Tell me, Sam. You can tell me anything."

"It was the lady."

Maggie shivered. "Come on, let's go upstairs and light a
fire."

 

 

 

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