The Broken Path: Sample

 

endfish

Written and illustrated by Masha du Toit

Copyright 2013 Masha du Toit

A Stolen Story

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Pippa shivered in the wind that came whistling up Mountain Road. She looked unhappily at the lowering clouds, then turned back to the gate and pressed the bell again.

Why didn’t Rebecca answer?

A fog was rolling in from the sea. It muted the view of the harbour, the cheerful red-and-white-striped cranes only dimly visible. The long groan of a fog-horn drifted up the hill. Summer really was over now, and the cold made her damaged hand ache.

The day had begun sunny and warm, but now the wind bit at her and she could smell rain coming. Just as she was about to try the bell one last time, the lock rattled and the gate swung open. Pippa started to greet her sister, but bit the words back.

The girl at the gate was a stranger.

A young woman with a pale, pretty face and neat, shoulder-length blond hair. She stood confidently, one hand on the gate as though to block the way in. Under the girl’s cool gaze, Pippa became uncomfortably aware of how she must look. Her loosened school tie, the way her shirt was not tucked into her shorter-than-the-rules skirt, her laddered stockings and scuffed shoes. The girl’s gaze moved to her schoolbag, which was thoroughly decorated with Tipp-Ex and permanent marker, the words “Dinosaurs are HOT” curling across the top. Pippa adjusted her grip on the bag, and the girl’s eyes widened as she noticed her maimed right hand.

At last, she spoke.

“Can I help you?”

Her voice was as cold as her eyes.

“Hi —” started Pippa, but the girl interrupted.

“Oh, I know who you are. You’re Rebecca’s little sister. I’ve seen you come ‘round here before.”

She relaxed a little, though her eyes were no warmer.

“Is she expecting you?”

“Yes. I’m helping her set up her new laptop. Well, not new, really — ”

Pippa stopped, irritated. Why did she feel the need to explain?

“We were supposed to meet here,” she said, trying to see past the girl. “But I don't see her bike. Do you know if she’s home yet?”

The girl blinked, then came to a decision.

“I’m Clare,” she said. “I could let you into the flat. I’ve got a key.”

So this was Clare. Rebecca had mentioned her. She was the landlord’s daughter who had recently moved into the house Rebecca’s flat was attached to.

“That would be great, thanks!” said Pippa. Clare gave her a last measuring look before turning away, letting the gate swing wide behind her.

Not a very friendly neighbour, Pippa thought as she climbed the stairs to Rebecca’s flat. She wondered if Rebecca knew that Clare had a key. Or was she home, after all? She put her face up against the frosted glass of the front door, trying to see through. A door slammed from the direction of the house and Clare came up the stairs, counting through a large bunch of keys.

“I think it’s this one.” She opened the door, and Pippa edged past her into the flat.

“Well,” she said. “Thanks.”

Clare was still looking into the flat, craning her head to see what she could. Pippa had to suppress an urge to close the door in her face.

“Thanks,” she said again. “See you ‘round then.”

Clare caught her eye at last.

“Sure thing,” she said. “Got to go. Ciao now.”

She turned and ran lightly down the stairs.

-oOo-

The flat was cold. Winter sunlight filtered in through the drawn curtains. A bunch of lemon verbena stood in a jar on the kitchen counter, its scent filling the air. Pippa dumped her bag next to it and went over to the window. She drew open the curtains, hoping to see Rebecca coming up Mountain Road.

There was a collection of shells on the windowsill. A sand dollar, and a row of sea urchins arranged from large to small. Pippa considered them speculatively.

Could those be from Stefan? He was always going to the beach, and Pippa could imagine him collecting shells like these.

It must be nice to have a place of your own, she thought. You could have friends over, stay up all night if you wanted to. Cook your own food…

She opened the fridge, but there was nothing ready to eat. Vegetables, and some uncooked chicken. No bread in the bread bin, and the cupboards were decidedly empty of anything approaching snack food. Pippa sighed and hoped that Rebecca would come soon. She felt like an intruder. Like when she was a little girl, sneaking into the forbidden territory of her older sister’s room.

Would it be rude to look in the bedroom?

She had been in there before, of course, but only briefly. The same old green blanket on the bed, but the carpet was one she’d not seen before, made of plaited grass that crunched under her feet. It smelled sweet and summery. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she made out more details. The bedside table held a stack of books, a lamp, and an alarm clock. There were no pictures on the walls.

The cupboard door stood partly open.

Was that her mother’s scarf?

Pippa opened the cupboard all the way. It was her mother’s scarf, a pretty scrap of floral silk. She held it to her face, but it no longer had any scent.

It was so different from the rest of the clothes in the cupboard. A few plain shirts and skirts hung on the rail, and the shelves were filled with folded t-shirts, jeans and a jersey or two.

So neat.

Pippa thought of her own jumble of clothes, and of her other sister Anmarie’s splendid chaos of skirts, scarves, shoes and artfully displayed vintage dresses. Here, everything was folded neatly and everything had its place, even the small objects on the middle shelf.

A tiny perfume bottle. That was new. A china bowl with some jewellery: a silver ring shaped like a gecko, some hair pins, and a single earring from a set that Pippa remembered giving as a Christmas gift many years ago.

And the locket.

The locket that Esther, the witch, had used to cast a spell on Rebecca. First trapping her, then keeping her in a coma.

So Rebecca had kept it after all.

Pippa had often wondered where the locket was. Rebecca did not like to talk about the witch, or anything to do with the coma. No wonder, Pippa supposed, after what she’d been through.

She picked up the locket. The silver disk nestled in her palm and the chain trailed over the scarred stubs where her ring and little fingers used to be. She looked at it, then she sighed and put it back in the bowl. Just a trinket on a silver chain now. Nothing to be afraid of. A memento of their dead mother, which was probably why Rebecca still kept it.

I really shouldn’t be doing this.

She closed the cupboard. As she turned to leave the room, she noticed the books on the bedside table again. Textbooks, and a pile of smaller notebooks. Pippa picked one up. The cover was plain except for the hand-written title.

Hare and the Tar-Baby by Rebecca.

Intrigued, Pippa carried the little book into the light of the living area, paging through it as she went. It seemed to be a story, written in Rebecca’s small, neat handwriting. A story about somebody called Miss Mouse, and people with names like “Hare” and “Porcupine.”

Pippa felt a rush of excitement. These must be the same animal-people that Rebecca had met while she was in her coma, in the story-dreamworld where Esther had trapped her. Rebecca never wanted to talk about them and Pippa had stopped asking, seeing that the memories caused her sister pain.

But all this time, she’s been writing stories about them.

Everyone seemed to have secrets these days, she thought sadly. She had secrets of her own. She’d never told her sisters about the bargain she’d made with Esther, or about the weekly visits to Helen and Esther’s house.

Absorbed in the story, she startled with surprise at the squeak of the front door opening.

“Hi there! Sorry I’m late. How did you get in here? Pick the lock or something?”

Rebecca.

Pippa jammed the book into her jacket pocket before her sister could see it.

“Clare let me in. She’s got a key.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” Rebecca untangled her hands from the shopping bags she’d been carrying. Her cheeks were red from the cold and her dark hair stood out in wild curls.

“Oof, isn’t it cold! I’m going to have to get a heater soon. Gas, not electric. Too expensive. Here, I got you some fish and chips.”

Pippa breathed in the scent of vinegar and fried batter.

“Great, I’m starving.”

She put on the kettle and got teacups out while Rebecca unpacked the rest of her shopping.

No big deal, Pippa told herself. I’ll put the story back as soon as I get a chance.

urchins

Mouse Bones

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There. That should do it.

Esther tilted the tin and shook it a little. The loosely-coiled spring stayed in place, fixed there by pegs of bone and rosemary. She fastened the lid and put the tin on the workbench, careful not to jar it.

Would it work? Only one way to find out.

She pushed her glasses back up her nose, rolled her sleeves, and pulled a glass bowl closer. The water was uncomfortably cold on her hands and arms, but she savoured the feel of it, the grit of sand on the bottom of the bowl. With her eyes closed, she breathed the briny smell. She started constructing a spell. Nothing complicated— a simple warming spell such as she had conjured a hundred, a thousand times without thinking.

But that was before. It no longer came so easily now.

No use thinking about that.

She had been ‘round that track too many times in the last few months. Rage and despair burned down to dull bitterness, then bled into the grey depression that ate her days and left her unable to focus on anything but her own resentment. It was more than anger at Helen’s betrayal, or the fact that she was bereft of the power source she needed to complete her plans. The breaking of the link between her and the girl had hurt her more deeply than she had realised. She was worse off now than she had been before. A useless old woman eking out the last dribbles of her energy.

But she had to let it go, to focus on this moment: the cool water moving on her skin, the ghost of sea air rising from the bowl. Let the simple shapes of the spell drift freely, allow them to float into place and bump gently against one another until they nestled and locked into the shape she sought.

Careful not to lose the spell-shape in her mind, she withdrew her hands from the water and felt for the tin with wet fingers. The spell focused, and the tin vibrated as the spring tightened slowly. So very slowly. She drew another breath, and let it out.

Focus. Nearly done —

The tin jumped and the lid popped. The spring snapped and stung her hand. She bit back a curse and opened her eyes. The light in her workroom had changed. Helen stood in the open door.

“What on Earth are you up to, Essie?”

Esther pushed herself up from the workbench and walked stiffly over to the sink where she rinsed her hands and arms and dried them with a towel. When she turned, Helen was holding the lid of the tin.

“Best Fruit Pastilles? I seem to remember keeping beads in this tin. I suppose it’s no use asking what’s become of them.”

Helen lowered herself into a chair.

“And that looks like a branch torn from my rosemary bush. And —” she leaned forward and peered at the collection of bones on a sheet of blotting paper. “Mouse bones? If I did not know you better, I’d suspect you of messing about with some of that folksy crap.”

Despite herself, Esther felt the twitch of a smile. That old argument. But it had been years since they had seriously fought about their differing approaches to magic.

“This is still science, Helen. I’m just trying some alternative materials. The principles are still the same.”

Helen was still studying the objects on the workbench. She picked up one of the books.

Malleus Maleficarum? Really, Esther. This disgusting old thing?”

“There are some quite interesting ideas there.”

Helen snorted and put the book down.

“Looks to me like you are making some kind of talisman.”

Esther considered avoiding the question, but the urge to talk about her idea was too strong.

“It’s for the girl,” she said. “For Pippa. It’s a way to store her energy. A sort of battery. Or a capacitor, really. To store up a low level of magical energy over time and then release it in a single burst. She can load it and give it to me to use as needed.”

She tidied the workbench as she spoke.

“Also means,” said Helen, “that you can use her power when she’s not around. And when I’m not around.”

Esther looked up at her sister, keeping her face carefully neutral.

“That’s right,” she said.

How things have changed, she thought. We no longer trust each other, but we’re still playing the same old game. Except now that we’ve each seen the knife the other is holding, it’s no longer a game. But still this pretence of civility.

Helen looked down at the bench again.

“You know, I never thought it was a good idea. This thing with Pippa. And, to be honest, I don’t really understand what you’re getting out of it. I mean, even if she is willing to be drained of power, a conscious source is never going to be —”

Say it, thought Esther. A conscious source is never going to be as useful as a coma victim who can be drained to the dregs.

But Helen was still talking. “But I must admit that despite my doubts, it’s worked out well so far. For you, I mean. I’d say you’re enjoying yourself. Showing her the ropes.”

Esther thought about this as she wiped the bench with a damp cloth. It was true. When Pippa had offered herself as a power source in place of Rebecca, she had only gone along with it to pacify Helen, to create the impression that she had given up on her original plan. But, as it turned out, there were benefits she had never expected. To be of any use as a power source, Pippa had to be taught the basics of focus and control. And teaching had been unexpectedly interesting.

All these years, it had been Helen who had taken on the duties of the teacher, finding those with magical potential and coaxing them through the initial stages with endless patience. After all, Esther thought, those who can’t do, teach. Helen’s meagre talent was suited to the role of teaching and healing. Esther would do the real work, the important work suited to a powerful magic user.

And then the girl had showed up for the first session, frightened and distrustful and yet so desperately curious. An interesting challenge.

“She has been useful,” admitted Esther. “A definite talent for magic use, you’ve seen that yourself.”

Helen shrugged.

“She has ability, yes. As many people do. But so far I’ve not seen any sign of anything more than —”

Esther put down her cloth.

“She’s just started, Helen. You can’t expect her to shake off a lifetime of disbelief in a couple of lessons.”

Helen seemed about to say something more, then changed her mind.

“I’m sure you’re right.” She got up from her chair.

“Maybe she just needs a little more time. Well, I’ll leave you to your experiments. Supper will be ready in about an hour.”

She left, closing the door behind her.

-oOo-

Anmarie rubbed her eyes, then stretched, easing the strain in her back and neck. She’d been staring at the computer screen for hours and had not realised how dark the room was getting. Was it that late already? Another day gone. But, for the first time in weeks, she felt as though she had achieved something. Stefan had been right about the photographs. There was definitely enough material here for a show. Maybe more than one.

She sat forward and filled the screen with a grid of tiny images. It was good to see them laid out like this, sorted and ready for use. These were only some of her most recent photographs, but already, she had the beginning of a sequence that matched what she saw in her mind’s eye. Relationships of colour and texture, dramatic silhouettes that would show well when projected against the nightclub walls.

Something different.

Stefan would like these. Now, if she could only get the software working faster, she could start on the visual mix— transitions and effects that would bring the show to life.

She already knew what music would work with these images. If all went well, she might even be able to get her own solo gig. So far, the best she had been able to arrange was a guest slot with some of the more established video-jockeys. There weren't that many night clubs interested in her kind of show, and she was still a complete unknown on the scene.

If only Dad would get a new monitor. The old CRT screen really killed her eyes. Maybe he should get a new computer too, while he was at it. She sighed. No use dreaming of new equipment. Just as well she was using still images and not video footage. This old dinosaur of a computer could never handle the file sizes involved. And she could never ask her father to pay for what amounted to an expensive hobby.

But she was going to make it pay. That was the plan, anyway.

The biggest problem was not having a laptop. So far, she had managed by using the other performer’s machines, but that was not always going to be possible. She would just have to find a way.

At least she had something to do now, something she was actually good at that had the potential to make money.

Her father never said anything, but she could feel him wondering when she would “get a direction.” Rebecca was studying whatever it was she was studying — conservation? Or something like that. Pippa was still as school but even she was contributing more to the household by helping their father with his instrument building business.

Anmarie had always been mesmerised by the light and image shows in the night-clubs but, until now, had never considered trying it herself. That had been Stefan’s idea. To take her habit of taking photographs of everything that caught here eye, and turn it into a show. It also helped that he seemed to be friends with just about everyone in Cape Town, and got invited to all the most interesting events.

Her phone chirped. A text message.

Was it him?

Her heart sped a little in anticipation as she pulled out her phone. But it was only Pippa, asking for a lift home from Rebecca’s place.

Get a grip! she told herself. I’ve got to stop doing that. He’s just a friend.

She saved her work one last time and switched off the computer.

Just a friend, or was it more?

He’d been spending a lot of time with her lately. But you just could not tell with Stefan. He was equally friendly with everyone, from Dad to the homeless guy on the corner. And he was friends with Rebecca too, taking her to the beach in the mornings…

Anmarie shook herself. Not going there again.

She left the room, making her way down the passage to the hallway.

“Just going to get Pippa, Dad,” she called as she passed her father’s workroom. He would not hear her, lost in concentration over his latest banjo or guitar or whatever it was he was working on.

She took the car keys off the hook. Should she get some takeaway on the way back? It was unlikely her father had started supper, or even had any lunch, for that matter.

As she left the house, another thought occurred to her.

Rebecca had a laptop now, didn’t she? That’s what Pippa had been doing at Rebecca’s place all afternoon, setting up Rebecca’s laptop. She’d bought it second-hand on Gumtree, so it wasn’t a new machine. But it was probably more than powerful enough to run the image-mixing software Anmarie needed for her show.

Where there was a will, there was a way.

endcrabs

May Contain Nuts

chapterclaw

Rebecca pushed her way through the crowd at the door of the lecture theatre, apologising as she went. She half-ran down the stairs, then along the passage, trying to see out the windows.

Fantastic. It was raining.

That meant she did not have to go to the toilets, where there would be a queue. Just a little further to the exit. There were students there too, chatting and flirting and putting on their coats, the usual group of smokers just outside the door. She held her breath against the stink of their cigarettes. The people around her reeked of deodorant and toothpaste, the flat smell of new raincoats, and the human scents of wet hair and warm bodies.

She walked out into the rain, tipping her face up and loosening her scarf. The rain felt delicious on her skin, an instant relief. So much better than tap water. She let herself relax into it, luxuriating in the damp air. It stirred deep inside her, a gentle tendril, tightly furled, loosening and uncurling, reaching — and then, as always, she clamped down and wrenched herself back. Not now. If she gave in to that feeling, she might lose herself again, collapse right here on the wet tar of the parking lot. She took a deep breath, calming herself, becoming aware of her surroundings again. People must be staring. In fact, she could feel somebody standing quite close to her —

“Hey girl.”

Stefan.

Smiling down at her from under the hood of his bright orange raincoat. He wore shorts and a yellow t-shirt with the words May Contain Nuts in large, black letters.

“Enjoying the rain?”

She could not help smiling back, and wondered if he ever felt the cold.

“You having a good day so far?” he asked. “Should have come with me this morning to Dungeons. Should have seen those waves.”

“I had a lecture.” She pointed an admonishing finger at him. “And so, I think, did you, Mr Stefan. In fact, I do believe you are supposed to be in class right now.”

He ignored this and turned to walk with her.

“Want to get some lunch?”

She was tempted, but she pushed it down.

“I’m sorry. I’ve got an essay —”

“Finish it tonight. I’m going to the beach again tomorrow morning. Llandudno, probably. I’ll pick you up early and get you back here before your first class, promise.”

They came to a halt at her bicycle, and she turned to face him, hesitating.

“All right.”

“Cool.”

He grinned and started back toward the main entrance.

She bent to undo the bicycle lock, then straightened up and called after him.

“Hey, what time are you picking me up?”

But he was either too far away to hear, or he chose to ignore her question. She watched as he walked away, the thin raincoat flapping behind him.

-oOo-

“Ow!”

Pippa opened her eyes and tried to pull her hand free, but Helen held her firmly by the wrist. She glared at the old woman.

“That hurt!”

Helen smiled at her, unimpressed.

“You wanted to see ‘real magic’, didn't you?” she said. “Well, that there was real magic. Done by you, yourself, no less. See? Esther, show her.”

Esther moved the pin closer to the scarred nub of what used to be Pippa’s index finger. Pippa winced, but felt nothing.

“You only feel it when you reach with that finger,” said Esther. “Then you felt it with your fingertip, didn’t you. Now that you are looking at it, your mind tells you your fingertip isn't there, so you don’t feel it.”

Helen released her hold, and Pippa snatched back her hand. It was true. She’d felt the pin in her ghost-finger, the part of her finger that was missing but that still felt as though it was there.

They were sitting at a table in Helen’s studio. This was the only part of their house that Pippa had seen so far, apart from the kitchen and the passage outside. The walls were lined with an assortment of ill-matched bookshelves, cheap things that sagged under the weight of the books they bore. There were many objects crammed in among the books: carvings, shells, plastic dinosaurs, tins full of brushes and pens, the skulls of deer and birds. In the spaces between the bookshelves the walls held large pinboards covered in drawings, newspaper clippings, postcards, sweet wrappers, feathers and holographic pictures. At the far side of the room, in front of the large windows that overlooked the garden stood Helen’s loom, surrounded by milk-crates full of skeins and balls of multi-coloured wool.

The sessions always took place in this room. Pippa was not always sure who was in charge. Helen was clearly the more experienced teacher, but she always seemed to hold back, allowing Esther to do most of the talking. Whenever physical contact was necessary, Helen was the one who took Pippa’s hand, acting as a bridge between her and Esther.

But Esther was the more powerful witch, that was certain.

At first Pippa had doubted the wisdom of coming here. The bargain she had made with Esther seemed very naive, in retrospect. She had hoped to take Rebecca’s place and provide Esther with a source of the life-force she needed to work her ocean-cleaning magic. But this was the woman who had tried to kill Rebecca. What was she doing, meeting with her in secret? If it had not been for Helen, Pippa never would have dared.

Helen would keep her safe, she had told herself.

Helen would keep Esther from twisting out of her side of the bargain.

And then there was the undeniable excitement of learning about magic.

It had soon become apparent that Pippa would have to learn some of the rudiments of magic if she was to be of any use as a power-source for Esther. Where a passive source could be simply drained, a conscious volunteer had to actively participate .

You get in your own way,” Helen had said. “You’ve got to learn to access the power, to focus it.”

All her life, Pippa had longed to experience the magic she’d read about in books. Her wish had come true when she had met the witch-sisters. It was one of the reasons she had made the bargain in the first place. To have a chance to continue the story that Rebecca and Anmarie seemed to want to forget.

Most humans have magic,” Helen had said. “But we tend to be aware only of the more everyday manifestations, what people call talent. Music is a common one. Painting too. Actors often have a strong ability, but these days very few of them are aware of it. Writers are often potent. And mathematicians. So are gardeners. Cooks. Politicians too, people who have the gift of persuasion. In all of these talents, there is power. If you know the way of it, and if you have enough ability, you can focus that power, make things happen. Very few are strong enough to influence things in ways you would consider magical. And those of us who can, have long since learnt to keep those abilities hidden.”

The lessons had helped Pippa to understand the events surrounding Rebecca’s coma and rescue.

“If the talent is strong enough,” Esther had told her in her first lesson, “it can be used to channel power. And in most cases, there is an additional affinity to some aspect of the natural world. I have a particular connection with the sea, as you know, and water creatures. Helen is drawn to growing things, to flowering plants, and so she also has some influence over bees. There will be something that calls out to you too, if you have any ability above the normal.”

And that was the question. Did she? Have ability?

Talent she had, that she knew. Music was her passion, and she’d played a guitar from when she was old enough to hold one. Her injured hand would not stop her. She was finding new ways to strum and pick with first finger and thumb and the nub of her index finger. It was puzzling, because she often felt as though she still had all five her fingers. That feeling, those ghostly fingers, had lead to the experiment with the pin.

Now, Pippa sat back and looked at her scarred hand. It was the first time she had experienced something tangible. Up to now it had been meditation, riddles and word games.

She had made something happen. Or had she?

She looked doubtfully from Helen to Esther. It could just have been her imagination.

Esther put the pin back in its box and stood up. “I think we can try something else now. Wait here.”

Pippa watched as Esther left the room. It was hard to maintain her distrust of the old woman. She seemed to be in pain, and her movements were slow and deliberate, as though she had to concentrate to hold herself together. Very different from the imposing woman she had been at their first meeting. And Helen was quieter too, almost withdrawn. In fact, Pippa got a strong impression that Helen disapproved of these sessions.

So why was she going along with it? For that matter, why was Esther? It was not as though she’d been able to draw much power from Pippa, and the process seemed to tire her rather than provide her with the energy she needed for her magic.

Helen had picked up the embroidery she was working on. She seemed about to say something, but then glanced at the door. Esther was back. She took her place at the table and put down a small cloth bag.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “Our problem is twofold. Access, and contact. Power has to flow from the source — you — but it also has to flow to me, to be of any use. We’ve been working on one aspect, helping you unblock and focus your latent abilities. And I’ve got some new ideas about that too. But first, this is my new plan to deal with the second problem: delivering the power to me as I need it, and not just when you are present.”

Pippa opened her mouth to ask a question, but Esther held up a hand.

“This,” she indicated the bag, “is what Helen would call a talisman. An object of power. I think of it more as a capacitor. Do you know what that is?”

Pippa met the challenging stare.

“Um. An electrical thing? Like a resistor or something?”

“An electrical thing as you call it, yes.”

Esther loosened the ties on the bag and tipped its contents onto the table. A silver disk threaded on a length of wire. Pippa picked it up after glancing at Esther for permission. On closer inspection, she saw that the silver disk was a small tin. If it ever had a label, that had been sanded off. It was quite heavy for its size and smelled faintly of rosemary.

“A capacitor,” said Esther in what Pippa thought of as her lecturing voice, “is an electrical component that helps to regulate the flow of electricity. It stores power, and releases it in a controlled burst. This object will act in the way a capacitor does, storing up a magical charge over time and releasing it when needed.”

Pippa frowned. “So, instead of channelling to you directly, I’m supposed to load this thing?”

She put it back on the table and wiped her hand on her jeans.

Like the locket?

Helen stirred and spoke.

“This does not contain any part of you, so it cannot act as a connection to drain you directly, as was the case with your sister.”

She spoke dryly and without any marked emotion, but Pippa could almost see the spark of tension that jumped between the old women at the mention of Rebecca.

Helen continued, unperturbed. “This is still a voluntary transfer of power. You’ll be loading power into it over time. When it is loaded, you can give it to Esther to use.”

Pippa considered the object, her curiosity returning.

“And it’s sort of amplifier too, isn’t it? Instead of having to put up with my dribbles, you can suck it all out at once. So it’s more potent.”

Esther gave one of her rare smiles.

“That’s the idea,” she said. “You’ve got it. Now. You must wrap the wire around your wrist and forearm, and pass a length of it between your fingers so that the disk lies on your palm, like this.”

She demonstrated on her own hand.

“Spin the disk with your fingers. Or in your case, with the fingers you don't have. At first, you will only be able to touch it, to make it move a little. As your strength grows, you will increase that movement. The more you move it, the more power is stored. But you must only use your ghost-fingers, of course.”

“Okay,” said Pippa. “Sounds like a plan.”

She stood and took off her school jacket. Then she pushed up the sleeve of her shirt. It took her several tries to wrap the wire as Esther had shown her.

“Right,” she said. “Here goes.”

She closed her eyes, and reached.

-oOo-

That evening, Rebecca took a break from essay writing to cook supper. Living alone, it was far too easy to fall into the habit of sandwiches and junk food, and she had resolved to cook more often.

She moved her laptop onto the kitchen counter and opened a playlist of some of the music Pippa had loaded for her. The speakers were small, but a lot better than nothing. The music helped her relax, and so did the familiar routine of preparing a meal.

She measured rice and lentils into a pot of boiling water, closed it, and turned the heat down to a simmer. Then she got a tomato and some green peppers from the fridge and started slicing.

As she worked, her thoughts drifted.

It had been a good day, mostly. So far, her classes were interesting and challenging, although she hoped there would be more practical application soon. In one class discussion, someone had suggested they go out to help save the pod of killer whales that had beached themselves near Kommetjie.

Now that would be worth doing, she’d thought at the time. But their lecturer told them there was not much hope for those whales, and that it was best to leave their care to experts.

Maybe he was right. It was hard to think about them though, those great creatures slowly dying on the beach. These days, there were so many things that hurt to think about. Every day there was another story about an endangered species dying out, or the hole in the ozone layer, or polar bears starving.

Or this thing she’d read about only yesterday, a container ship piled with waste material, trying to get into the harbour. The newspapers were calling it The Garbage Queen. Filled with waste from first world countries that no longer wanted their mess on their own doorsteps.

She was brought out of her thoughts by a knock on the front door.

Clare.

Only one person knocked like that— a sharp sound of metal on glass, as though she tapped with a coin.

Rebecca put down the knife and wiped her hands on a dishcloth. Then she walked over and opened the door.

“Hi Clare.”

Clare smiled at her, a pretty lipstick smile that did not reach her eyes.

“Hi Rebecca,” she said. Her glance fell on the cloth in Rebecca’s hands.

“You’re busy. No, I don’t need to come in. I wanted to talk to you about the other day? You were giving stuff to a beggar. At the gate.”

Her gaze moved over Rebecca, a leisurely study of her hair and clothes.

“You know,” she continued, “if they don’t want to get jobs? They can go to the shelter. You keep giving them things, they start thinking they can come here knocking for handouts. Next thing they’ll be in here with a knife.”

Rebecca opened her mouth to answer, but Clare forestalled her, holding up a hand.

“Ryan says there was another break-in up the street. They got in a skylight and cleaned the place out. And that woman got hijacked in Roodebloem last week? Ryan says, she’s lucky she’s alive. So maybe stop with the handouts, right? Anyway, I just thought I’d say.”

Another empty smile, and she turned and went down the stairs.

Rebecca watched her go. She thought about Rosie, the homeless woman she’d given a bag of old clothes last week. A proper old dronkie, was Rosie, and if you let her, she would talk your ear off, telling you one hard-luck story after another. But there was no harm in her. Was Clare going to make an issue of it every time she gave somebody a sandwich?

She shut the door and stood leaning her forehead against the cool glass. The hiss of the rice boiling over brought her back, and she moved quickly to turn down the flame.

Clare was a pain, that was all. Better to think about things she could do something about. Like whether or not she should have agreed to lend Anmarie her laptop. Or the way she had rushed out into the rain that morning. That really had confirmed her status as the class weirdo. But it was early days yet. She still had plenty of time to find some friends.

She lit the other gas burner and poured some olive oil into the pan, enjoying the warm scent of it. She was getting better at knowing when she was about to experience one of her episodes. It always started with a heightened awareness of the scents around her. Most of the time, that was all there was to it. Sometimes it felt like the onset of her period, a tension in the belly on the edge of pain, and the worst fits had ended with nosebleeds, something she’d not experienced since she was a child. Usually she could calm herself down before things got out of control. Water was best. Pouring water over her hands and splashing her face. But if she waited too long, as she had today, the water seemed to make it worse.

She tipped the chopped vegetables into the pan. Might as well face it, she thought. She’d been avoiding thinking about it, actively suppressing the obvious. These episodes. They had to have something to do with the coma. The doctors had said that there was no brain damage. But those doctors had never known about the true cause of the coma, about the witch —

Rebecca banged the lid onto the pan louder than she meant to, and rubbed her hands over her face. Maybe she did not need to solve it all tonight. Right now, she had an essay to finish. She would deal with the rest of it if things got worse.

pond

The fish slid in and out of view between the lily pads that floated on Helen’s pond.

Helen’s pond, thought Esther.

In Helen’s garden, behind Helen’s house.

It was years since she’d had the yearning for her own place, but these days she felt the itch again. Not much she could do about it now. It was too late. She was too old.

The fish rose, and it seemed as if it might swim right through the surface and up into the chill evening air. But it paused, mouthing a fragment of leaf, startled at a movement, and with a twitch of its tail, swam down into the depths again.

The sight of the fish brought back a long-forgotten sense memory. Of dipping her hand into a fish pond as a child, and holding a squirming goldfish in her palm. She remembered the feel of it, the slippery, muscular body that had slid out of her fingers and disappeared into the water with a plop. She must have been very young— too young to realise the harm she did. Too young for empathy.

It was cold now that the sun had gone down, although there was still enough light in the sky to see by. The grass was damp, and Esther shifted her position, wincing as her knees complained.

How long had she been sitting here? She’d been lost in the dance of the fish, the tiny insects that skittered about on the water, the rippling play of reflections. But even here, in Helen’s poison-free garden, she could taste the taint of human contamination. The air bore a tinge of exhaust smoke. Air freshener and furniture polish wafted from some neighbour’s window.

She sighed. Her thoughts had been in her work. Every time she told herself that she’d given up, and every time she went back to the same old problems. The force of a lifetime’s worth of habit.

She’d come so far. Had developed plastic- and oil-consuming bacteria, and other varieties that could deal with the myriad of toxins that humans were spilling into the sea. She’d found spell mechanisms to release them where they were needed, and they worked too, uncoupling molecules of polluting substances, changing them into harmless gasses and water. But there the reaction ended. Ironically, without enough fuel, the reaction died out and the magically tuned bacteria lost potency.

If she could get right out into one of the great gyres, the places where the ocean currents came together, she might succeed. The greater concentration of pollutants there would allow the reaction to gain an unstoppable momentum.

No use denying it any longer. She’d been hamstrung by her own weakness. She’d been trying to please Helen. To live up to, or rather to live inside the confines of what Helen thought was acceptable.

Consider the consequences.

Simply releasing bacteria in the wild would be an act of insanity. If she could get it past the initial hump, to increase to the point where its spread was self-sustaining, it would not consume pollutants only. All oil based plastics would be dissolved. Oil wells would be infiltrated and eaten out from the core. And then there was the possibility— no, the certainty of mutation.

No responsible scientist would even contemplate such an act.

So all these years her plans had been hobbled as she tried to find ways to contain her spells. Embedding it in the creatures that already filtered the ocean: mussels and barnacles, sea-worms and corals. She’d planned to use larger creatures. Manta rays and whales could be turned into massive sea cleaners, combing poison out of the ocean wherever they wandered. But to do that, she needed power.

And the power was gone.

She sighed and shivered, pulled out of her thoughts by the first touch of rain. Better get inside.

The house was dark. She walked down the passage with one hand on the wall, heading for the gleam of light that came from under Helen’s door.

Esther knocked, and hearing no answer, pushed it open.

The light was still on, but Helen was no longer working. She was in a chair by the window, her head to one side, fast asleep, a book on her lap. Esther crossed over and stood looking down at her. She bent to retrieve the cup that was slipping out of her sister’s fingers and put it softly on the table. She caught the book just as it was about to slide off onto the floor.

A book of fairy tales. Childish nonsense.

She closed the book and put it next to the cup, then reached and switched off the standing lamp. Walking slowly in the dark room, she made her way back to the door.

Then she stopped.

The light from the window fell on the chair where Pippa had sat earlier, glinting on the buttons of her school jacket still hanging forgotten on the back of the chair.

Silly girl.

She lifted the jacket from the chair and it swung from her hand, a slight but noticeable weight in one of the pockets. Esther glanced at her sister, still fast asleep in her chair. Then she slipped a hand into the pocket.

It felt like a small book of some kind.

She brought it out. Tilting it toward the light, she read the title.

Hare and the Tar-Baby by Rebecca.

endfish

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