“What’s all this?” she called, pushing back her visor.
“Gates close at eighteen hundred.” Shaw replied through the iron. “Order of Mr Lamb senior.”
“No one gave me a key...”
He smiled, unlocking the chain.
“Guess this is your lucky day. Go see Mr Lamb about getting yourself one.” A look of profound reluctance swept her face as she walked her scooter past him, struggling with the front wheel as the weight of her grocery bags forced it sideways. His gaze followed her bandaged arm when she took hold of the throttle once more. “Not someone you want to run into every day?”
Susan assumed a faint, inquiring frown.
"How do you mean?"
"I gotta say... he's a little frosty to a brother." When she squinted at him, Shaw abandoned his conspiratorial chuckle, looking away toward the corner of the house. The fragrant smoke that blew toward them issued from the small party gathered beneath the elm. “Don’t sweat the key. I’ll get a copy made, drop it off to you say... around eight tomorrow morning? Coffee's on you.”
She shook her head.
"Don't bother... I'll get my own."
"Damn, now you're frosty." he declared. "I'm going downtown right after work... it's not a problem. So... eight's okay?" Rather than contest his insistence Susan pushed the bike forward and began trundling along the drive. “What happened?" he called, tapping his arm to indicate the bandage on her own.
"Yeah? You do that here?" He watched her coast along the slope, enlisting the enclosure of her helmet to disregard the query.
Shaw awaited her reaction to the sight of the distant trio. William leaned forward and kissed the cheeks of a handsome blonde woman in a long, yoked dress splashed with wave blue, green and mandarin, a younger, dark-clad companion receiving the same respectful greeting. To the guard’s surprise, Susan kept her visor down and coasted quickly toward the garage.
The smoke curling from the sage bough in the witch's hand perfumed William's clothes and hair, describing slow, violet circles in the air beneath the elm. Frederica closed her eyes and stifled a cough, bowing her head while the rite was concluded and the woman stepped back from the foot of the tall white wall, planting the smouldering branch in the ground beside them. A faded, woad-blue line, the ancient emblem of her sisterhood, descended her weathered forehead from her hairline to the beginning of her sun-browned nose. She wore it plainly, eschewing the cosmetic discretion favoured by many of her contemporaries; Frederica had not yet submitted to the sacrament that would entitle her to wear it. The senior witch patted her little cowrie-beaded bag and drew out a small Cohíba, accepting a light from William as she composed her impressions.
“I won’t lie to you, my dear... none of this is good.” she sighed, her wheat-coloured lashes fluttering in an unconscious expression of reluctance. “That is not to say I am not confused, because this is exactly, exactly what I am.” Her provincial Swedish accent formed a lively counterpoint to the gravity of her words. “I am seeing great confusion, and er... målmedvetenhet... a great purpose.” She looked toward Frederica, who brushed windfall smuts from the sleeve of her black dress. “Dotter, you thought this?”
“I’m no good with this stuff...” said the younger woman, reinstating her glasses. “I just don’t go there unless I know for sure. And I don't."
“You don’t go there?” the Swedish witch exclaimed reproachfully. “You’re a haxa, and that is what we do! There is where we go!”
Frederica shrugged under the elder’s gaze.
“It’s heavy... I don’t like heavy stuff.” The latter abandoned her reproof and urged another light from William, and the trio looked together at the security guard as he crossed the front garden toward them, hands in his pockets.
“As I say... I can not lie, Villiam, it is no good.” she advised. “So, come... what would you know?” The witch’s gold-streaked hair sat in two coils on her head, resembling horns or supernumerary auricles; she watched him with her lips slightly parted and her eyes half closed, extolling him to question her oracular facility in a manner that would satisfy them both.
“Female?” he asked.
“Happy? Nej. Oh no. No no.”
William looked from her again toward Shaw, who had passed through the shade behind them and stood frowning down at a silver camera, adjusting its settings. The witches exchanged dubious looks as he lifted the appliance to his face and began taking pictures of the side of the house, with its faint trail of gouges in the plaster and the little board of ply that had replaced the missing pane. The women blinked at the flash in unison; engrossed behind the camera, Shaw did not perceive William's approach until it was too late to prevent him snatching the offending object from his hands and extracting the memory card.
"Mr Lamb, it's my job to document this incident..." Shaw exclaimed, shaking his head while William pitched the camera into the shadowed orchard, muttering over his shoulder as he walked back to his companions.
"If you don't like him my dear, I think I could have use for him." chuckled the blonde witch upon his return.
"Tilde, I'd drop kick him your way in a second, but my brother's actually paying him to mouth-breathe the local air." He let his head fall and closed his eyes, shaking off the interruption, and the woman resumed her look of receptivity. “Alive?” he asked.
“Ah, hm, yes, now we come to something. What was here... has feet in this place and feet in that one.” Her freckled hands indicated the relative positions of the realms that she discussed. “A thing of both."
"Merde." he sighed.
"Does that help you, child?” She watched him nod reluctantly.
“What should I do?”
“Look at this! You have question, and this one must learn to answer.” the witch assured him, turning to Frederica to supply a solution; the girl stared up into the sky as the twilight deepened.
“You could try banishing, I guess.” she offered.
“Ja, and what will he need for this banish?”
“That's an old-school thing. Maybe I’m not who you should be talking to...”
“Fred, it’s fine... I know I’ll need a corpse.” William replied. She nodded as she took out her phone and scrolled down through the addresses.
“Lydia and Cybelle... they’re heavy dralna... banishment’s their big thing. They think I’m miss pissy sunshine so don’t drop my name, whatever you do.”
Her expediency made the Swedish witch throw up her hands and stoop to gather what remained of her sage boughs, clasping them to her breast and reaching out with a sympathetic smile to accept the gratuity William handed her.
“Thank you, Tilde.” he said quietly. She leant closer to him.
“This girl that you are thinking of... dark eyes... I like. Hot trouble for you, and bossy, but you need, so don't you fear. About this other thing, I am sorry I can say no more, but you are en underlig uppenbarelse, and I am only from Malmberget. Lycka till."
The silvered scent of smoke filled Susan's rooms and she blew it away from herself, hauling her grocery bags past the bed she had pushed against the wall furthest from the window. In the kitchenette she took her time over the placement of each grocery item in the small refrigerator, swearing softly to herself as she was forced to reorder once again her memories of the night before, its fragments both lucid and elusive, exchanging opacity and translucence as mutable emphasis alighted on each and altered its character. William's benign attendance blurred less accountable details, his company like drifts of windblown white over the facts of the assault which seemed only to recede in her estimation with the passage of the hours. She shoved aside a block of cheese and hoisted a plastic bottle of milk into the vacancy, muttering at the sight of the black smudge on her bandage from the workings of the scooter, noting with the same frown the weight her arm had borne without discomfort. Susan twisted her wrist, rolling it as far as she dared in search of pain or incapacity or any confirmation of the injuries it had sustained; when none would oblige her she stood up from the squat little fridge and fished a knife from the cutlery drawer, scowling tightly as she slid the blade beneath the crepe tied at the heel of her palm. Its dull edge would pare neither fabric nor its securing knot, and she dropped it into the sink on her way to the bathroom.
The ancient pair of nail scissors from the medicine cabinet proved no more efficacious, though she propped her arm on the basin and sawed at the impervious knot, munching the crepe that refused the pinching fingers of her left hand and drove her to shake the bound limb furiously. On looking up into the small, foxed mirror she saw not her own grimacing features but the photograph from William's room, tucked into the framing and standing with all the sequestered dignity of an icon, though its radiance worked only to dissolve her articles of faith, bleeding the uncertain colours from the previous evening, effacing precious subtleties before they could be assorted. While she struggled with them, the memory of the attack merged with William's ministrations and battered her with suggestions of grotesque sequelae; she struck her elbow on the door frame in her haste to flee the room and stumble down the stairs.
Sage smoke trailed throughout the ground floor. William sat in the drawing room before the malachite fireplace, a waxing blaze licking through tinder and lighting the imperious colours of the kilim beneath him. The great chamber seemed content in darkness, the window glass reflecting the flames that snapped around his silhouette. When he lifted the face that she had studied so long in stolen monochrome Susan grasped her bandaged arm as if the limb were visibly pathological, hotly-coloured and half-breathless.
“Something's wrong." she told him. "I can't get this thing off... you'll have to do it for me."
He looked up from the crepe to her expression almost reluctantly.
“It's too soon... you need to wait five days.”
"Who was that woman? The one outside my room, burning branches?"
"Who was she?"
Susan shook her head with her eyes closed.
"No, I mean... what was she doing?" She gave up the demand that drowned anyway amongst the hundred others scrabbling for precedence. "Everything keeps... I can't remember it, and everything I do remember runs away..." she murmured, running a hand over the dressing toward her wrist. "There's something under here... I can't feel anything. I have to see it."
"Christabel..." he sighed.
"Take it off now. I mean it."
"Nothing good will come of this. Five days is all I ask."
Despite the plea her anxiety moved him against his own advice and he lifted a hand toward her; she stepped back, then checked herself, offering her arm again with renewed conviction. He examined the dressing, then gazed at her intently, as if required to commit her image to memory; it almost prompted her to question him again, but she climbed down onto her knees, too quickly in her exigence, a short vertiginous spin prompting her to catch his sleeve and steady herself. William reached into the pocket of his jeans and withdrew a folding knife, the cold spine of the blade sliding over her hidden skin as he cut through the crepe and brushed it back in silence, gathering up the dressing and committing it to the fire in a strange gesture of finality.
Underneath the bandage the lacerations had knitted so completely that the black stitches had slackened and stood in loops over her skin. It had gained a nacreous texture where the wounds had closed, neither the ugly, naked compromise of fresh scarring nor the passive accord of older damage, the lines drawn in a soft, pearlescent white. The last traces of the dark salve dusted from her wrist, falling to the carpet. Uncomprehending, she crawled closer to the fire and ran a hand over the redundant stitches, bringing her arm to her face and gazing at it as though she were not certain it was still her own. William said nothing to her astonishment.
She stood and walked to the French doors, consulting the evening outside and wandering away from the dark panes to stand in the midst of the room, finally returning to the hearth to pass her arm over the fire in an unconscious test of its reality. The dry, velvety flames licked the black thread in her skin and ignited rows of tiny embers, sparking and dying in a fleeting sequence until the stitches burnt away. He took her wrist and brushed off the remaining thread, his dispassion accepting credit for the prodigy on his behalf, and Susan worked her fingers, watching the thews and muscle replying in the firelight as they had always done, the new scars throwing lines of shallow pink shadow. He could hear her heart labouring thickly in her chest as it had done the night before as she knelt beside him, uttering sounds that began the words that she abandoned. Her stare was difficult to endure, knowing the extent to which the nearby fire favoured his least accountable elements, but if she saw them, it was still desire that spoke on her behalf, the wonder he had effected muting all the dark suggestion that had survived it.
In reply he looked away and held up a hand, its strange biology a cypher that fell to her first glance. Susan opened her own and placed her insufficient compliment of fingers against the six scars on her arm, watching him accept her findings without attempting to confute them.
“You said to know is always better." William reminded her. "So ask me.”
She rose, cradling her arm, then walked to the door and ascended the stairs alone. In the hearth, a dead branch spat a brand at his bare feet.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce