Wrote this story for a competition in response to an art work showing a be-suited man with rabbit’s head doing something magical with a woman’s head in a jar and surrounded by buzzing red sprites… Didn’t win but I liked it. So here it is, unleashed…
Darkness… coolness… walls… smells. Rubbish? Bins? Hands on head…ooh.
Feeling fuzzy, woozy. Is that, is it… my head?
He was, he decided, once he’d valiantly scrambled a full sentence together, not himself. In fact, to begin near the top, his head didn’t feel like his head at all. He felt very, very strange… fuzzy. For the life of him he couldn’t put the last twenty or so hours together. He remembered yesterday morning very well… ‘Twas a bright sunny day, birds were singing, the radio told him there’d been no traffic incidents on the roads. All the signs were good. He’d had breakfast, he’d made a final reading of the book, he knew that all that needed to be ready, was ready. He switched the radio off. He needed control and so he spun a dial and had a little music playing on his iPod…
Then he recited the invocation. The clock had struck noon, the Beatles were singing of walruses in the back ground, and …
He’d dabbled in the black arts and something had gone wrong. What, what had gone wrong? Images danced in his brain, red sprites, glass, stoppered jars, disembodied heads, old movies about gigantic rabbits, Lewis Carroll reading to three girls… But there was nothing cohesive to hang his magician’s hat on… His young magicians’ hat, he corrected himself; his novice magician’s hat, honesty demanded… His foolish magician’s hat, something else whispered in a back room.
Yesterday morning, start there.
Was it yesterday morning? It was, it must be, he was hungry but not ravenous, so it can’t have been longer. The book is on the table, propped open at that page, and her picture is beside it. A mortar, a pestle, a little scalpel laid out on a white starched linen cloth, a lock of her hair, a lighter… a white porcelain cup to catch the blood. Let me take you down, sings a minstrel…
He should not have the book. The book is Monsieur Pendlebury’s, his master’s. Harvey, for that, he reminds himself, is his name, has taken it without permission. It is a dangerous book, Monsieur Pendlebury has told them. He says no more but they know that magic has at least two sides; light and dark. This book – it goes without saying – must be of the dark. But Harvey, poor stuttering Harvey whom the girls all ignore, has taken the book. Why? Poor stuttering Harvey is full of desire for Gretel Steinmann; that is why. He knows it will tell him what to do.
And it does. The acquisition of love, unrestrained and eternal. And thus the lock of hair, the mortar, the pestle, the picture, music he loved, and, yes, the little nick in an artery that ran toward his heart and a puddle of blood in a white porcelain cup… He remembered it.
Your mother should know, another minstrel sang, and the clock reads a few minutes to noon.
The invocation is written in Druid but they’ve all learned this knotted tongue. He recites it in his head, he watches the clock… he sings to himself of cornflower eyes, and wheaten hair, a laugh he has heard of wondrous richness (but Gretel has never laughed that way for him and there are times when he almost hates her). He tells himself of the wonders of eternal love, of which he knows nothing… He wonders about marriage, about life as a family with Gretel by his side, he dreams of doing good in the world. White magic. How he wishes Gretel would not light up for others.
One minute to noon. He drinks from the cup and he begins:
Aach me nuhach forl
Nee arndry narahan drawel…
Now, in the dark cool alley where Harvey has found himself, he knows he could recite the invocation from memory… He could and knows it is his way out. For Harvey has walked the alley from end to end and can go nowhere; he is locked in a nightmare. So why not try that? The invocation got him here and perhaps it will lead him out and so he sings it now. And as he does so the images come once more, through a shimmering doorway that reveals the alley as illusory but real for him, real for Harvey, a place where dark magic has taken him. Was it those red sprites with their lovely women’s faces and their crooked, clawed hands. They were, Harvey tells himself, demons. Harvey remembers that poem by Blake; he’d always known, as an esoteric thought while calling out the invocation – was it only yesterday? – that love is both clod and pebble. Had he really wanted Gretel’s swooning head in a jar? Was that why he was trapped here? Had those sprites wanted to prove it real; you can’t ever have what does not also want you.
Gretel had not appeared yesterday. She had not swooned and sworn unremitting love for Harvey. And still she does not appear, which, perhaps, he’d secretly hoped.
She won’t, he realises. She will, probably, never appear, nor swoon, nor look at him in that way. But that’s better than this alley. Where the invocation, done now a second time, leaves him. The blood, the hair, the ashes of an image of desire, the music that swooned and throbbed in the background; these had taken him somewhere else altogether. He did not like it.
If only he could undo it. Send it reeling backwards.
And Harvey suddenly knew he needed to sing it backwards. He must sing it backwards if he was ever to leave this place and confront whatever it is those demons have made of him. No, he said, be honest, what I have made of myself. What had told him this? It was Pendlebury, kind good old Pendlebury, who had told him, had told them all, that there are no absolutes. Harvey knew he must believe this and so he began. He began undoing it.
Forl nuhach me aach
Drawel narahan arndry nee…
The alley slowly dissolved and Harvey found himself in early morning sun. Standing in an English garden, just like the song; roses bloomed nearby. He recognised a suburban street near where he lived. He knew what he must do.
Harvey began to walk towards the school of magic. No one was about, Harvey gratefully observed, for his head still felt very strange indeed. He would confess his crime to Monsieur Pendlebury, he would say he’d learned his lesson, he would think no more of Gretel Stein.
Eyes down, Harvey hurried towards the high street. He felt that his head carried more than it should do. The wind blew strange across his forehead but he did not dare discover what made him feel so metamorphosed. His hands, his lovely, manicured hands that his mother had always said were his best feature, remained firmly anchored at his sides.
Tromp, tromp went Harvey’s Florsheim shoes across the unpaved footpaths of suburban streets. Gretel, Harvey thought, would probably scream if she could see him now. Her eyes would close in a paroxysm of fear. At least it would be a reaction. He remembered that she never looked at him, not at all. For her he did not exist. Not like Oswald Manning; for him she lit up. He’d seen it; it had gnawed at him…
Stop it, Harvey told himself. Give it up. No more Gretel. Let her go.
Tromp, tromp went Harvey’s Florsheim shoes across pavements, heading towards town and Monsieur Pendlebury’s. There were shops ahead but the streets, thank goodness, were still deserted.
He wondered where the people were, He began to wonder. He wore no watch but surely it was time for people to be up and about. It’s Sunday morning, he told himself, but surely its time for people to be up and about. Where is everyone? And suddenly stopped. It was silent. No birds, no traffic sounds, no jets passing overhead. Thud, thud went Harvey’s heart. He wondered if this was just another alley way, a cruel illusion; was he locked in a reality that only Harvey could appreciate. Had those red, demonic, smiling female sprites maintained the black magic?
Then, somewhere far off, a dog barked. It barked and barked and then a man’s voice, hard and reassuringly real, could be heard calling out for it to stop. Harvey smiled and kept walking.
Madame Two Swords – Replica Weapons read the sign above the first shop. Harvey laughed; it’s all about illusion, he said and glanced in to see what Madame Two Swords carried in her den. Then he stopped, dead still.
A pulse, like electricity, no, like molten lava, ran through his whole body. He wanted to cry out and nothing came. The price he’d paid stared back at him, smiling a rictus smile. Don’t mess with black magic, it told him, in a cruel jest that spoke of one too many rabbits pulled from hats.
For there, standing in his fine grey suit and flourishing panicked, well-manicured hands that flailed now like wounded seagulls, was Harvey… Who was, is, a gigantic white rabbit.
And for a moment, that frozen moment, where once again red sprites trailing vapour and disembodied heads ruled, he believed there were absolutes. Darkness was eternal, and there was nothing that Monsieur Pendlebury’s magic could do for him.