[Link to the previous chapter]
Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 3: Well-matched partners
When the child Rebecca Farnsworth found out she would have to stay with her cousin Israel Farnsworth in Boston for several months while she recovered from her fall, she did as she always had done. She complained. She howled. She calculated on how she could take advantage of her stay in Boston to see the city’s attractions once she recovered. That would put her far above the other children back home.
Israel was uninterested in Rebecca’s dreams, and unwilling to tolerate her behavior. After an adventurous life, he had become a kind man. That did not mean that he was willing to tolerate Rebecca’s self-centered antics. As he explained to his cousin Nathaniel, he intended to reform Rebecca’s character.
He hired Bridget Leigh to be Rebecca’s nurse and companion, although she spoke only a little English. Rebecca tried to treat Bridget as a slave. This did not work. Bridget did not know enough English to comply with Rebecca’s demands, even if she had been so inclined. Moreover, Israel had given Bridget permission to punish Rebecca if she misbehaved. Bridget’s own upbringing had been rough; she was used to being struck. She had no difficulty in applying the same methods to Rebecca. In fact, Israel was appalled at how readily Bridget struck Rebecca, and had to instruct her to be less severe.
Once they had settled in, Israel came in every evening after dinner to give the girls lessons in reading and writing English. Rebecca mulishly refused to participate. At first, she made fun of Bridget’s mistakes, and prided herself on thinking she could do better. Soon, Bridget was actually reading and writing a little, which was more than Rebecca could do. Bridget’s progress began to eat into Rebecca’s soul. She could do better than Bridget, she was sure of it, if she only tried. But she could not bear to ask for help.
After the lesson for the evening was over, Israel would tell a story. Israel was a good storyteller. He would tell a story in such a way as to stretch Bridget’s comprehension of English, while at the same time keeping the story exciting. Rebecca, unhappy with everything else, could not bear to see “that backwards Irish servant” enjoy “Uncle” Israel’s stories, and tried to disrupt the story telling. Whereupon Israel would get up and go into the parlor, taking Bridget with him and closing the door behind them. Rebecca was left alone, without a light, without company, and with only part of the evening’s story. Bridget was under strict orders never to tell Rebecca the rest of the story.
Confined to a bed, at the mercy of people who would treat her well if she behaved, but who would not put up with her bad behavior, Rebecca finally succumbed. She let Israel finish a story one night. And then again on another night. After a week of such nights, Israel brought a book in with him, and shared reading a story with Bridget. He let Rebecca look on, but told her that since she couldn’t read there was no point in her bothering to do so. Rebecca took the hint. The next day she asked Israel if she could join in the reading lessons, to which he readily agreed.
Within a month, she had caught up to Bridget. A month later, she was so far advanced that Israel made her responsible for Bridget’s lessons. As he put it to Rebecca, Bridget was helping Rebecca, so it was only fair that Rebecca help Bridget. Rebecca at first put on airs when teaching Bridget, but soon found she honestly enjoyed teaching her nurse. For the first time in her life, Rebecca learned the pleasure of helping someone else.
Rebecca was so stunned by seeing that Samuel had no soul that she came to an abrupt halt, barely three paces into the bedroom. Charity, coming into the room behind her, collided with her, knocking Rebecca off-balance so that she fell to the floor. Rebecca’s hat and walking stick went flying. The usual apologies and confusion ensued before Rebecca stood up again. Rebecca hated being helped, while Charity, having seen the walking stick, was determined to help. Charity, poor woman, ended up in tears, as much from the strain of thinking of her newly-made husband dying as from her awkwardness in trying to help Rebecca. Rebecca didn’t even notice Charity’s tears at first, so transfixed was she by the sight of a living man without a soul lying before her.
Finally, one of Charity’s sobs brought Rebecca to the problem at hand. Samuel Taylor needed help if he was to live much longer. Rebecca wanted to help him, even though he was a stranger, for her servant Ellen’s sake as much as Samuel’s. She turned to Charity. In a stern voice, she said, “You are recently married, Charity Taylor. Are you and Samuel well-matched for each other?”
Charity looked up, confused. “Well-matched?” Samuel was her husband. She loved him. What else could she say? She did not know how to answer Rebecca’s question.
Rebecca could see that Charity was baffled, and decided on a different tack. In a kinder voice, she asked, “Do you want him back?”
Charity did not need to think about that. She nodded vigorously.
Rebecca commanded her, “Go out tell the others not to disturb us until we call for them. And bring back some food and drink for your husband, preferably something with a strong odor. Go, quickly!”
Charity needed no more encouragement. She turned and left the room as quickly as she could.
Rebecca grimaced and shut the door behind her. Retrieving Samuel’s soul was going to require magic, and not simple magic but an operation. Rebecca had packed a bit of chalk on the off chance she might need it, but had brought no other tools besides the walking stick. She pulled out the chalk and began drawing a circle on the floor. She was going to have to do this free-hand, without the time and instruments to make it a perfect design. Rebecca just hoped it would be good enough.
She had got through drawing a tolerable circle and had marked the apex of four of the star points when Charity returned. Rebecca instructed her to close the door behind her, to avoid walking into the circle, to set the viands on the floor near Samuel, and to climb into bed and hold her husband. Charity willingly complied, to the point of stripping off all of her clothing before climbing into bed. Rebecca smiled to herself. “Newly wedded still, I see,” she thought.
To Charity, Rebecca explained, “Your husband’s soul is lost some place, and I am going to try to draw it back. If he can sense that there are good things here, it will be easier to draw him back. The smell of the soup, your presence in bed with him, these things should remind him of the good things in his life and help draw him back. While you are with him, I will engage in a magical operation. Do not interrupt me whatever happens.”
Turning back to her diagram on the floor, Rebecca finished marking the seven points in what looked like reasonably equal arcs along the edge of the circle. Then she drew the star and the symbols within the circle. She stepped back and looked at the results. The figure was far from perfect, but it would have to do.
Making sure she did not erase a line, she stepped into the center of the star and began the operation. She tapped her walking stick in the first star point, the one marked with the Hebrew character aleph. “That is for the base humanity, mine as operator, Samuel Taylor as the subject of the operation,” she said out loud.
She turned and tapped the end of her stick into the second point. “That is for the wants and needs of the human body, to live, to thrive, to reproduce.”
At that point, Rebecca almost lost control of the operation. Her reference to the wants and needs of the human body had made her aware that Charity was passionately trying to make her husband recall at least one of the good things in his married life. And that effort of Charity’s was becoming part of the ceremony Rebecca was performing, strengthening it and being intensified in turn. Rebecca was human enough, and it had been so long since she had enjoyed the company of a man in her bed, that she could not remain completely unaffected. It required all of her concentration and discipline to move on to the third point.
“This is for the role of men and women in the world, the farmer and husband Samuel Taylor, and the conjuror Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell.” Rebecca’s magical picture of Samuel was now more complex, and while Charity’s activities were still an important part of it, she was now part of a more encompassing picture, and her efforts less distracting to Rebecca.
Rebecca turned to the fourth point, saying, “This is for the hopes and dreams and aspirations of Samuel, who would keep a wife and family as his own, and of Rebecca, who . . . .” Rebecca had not had time to think this ceremony through beforehand, and she realized the peril she was in if she faltered, so she reached for an old aspiration, continuing, “ . . . who would honor her teacher, Israel Farnsworth, by practicing magic according to his same high values.”
To the fifth point, she said, “This is for the goal of this operation, the restoration of the soul of Samuel Taylor to his body, that he may live on.” Mental confusion assailed her, as she felt how the body of Samuel Taylor wanted his soul back and yet was dying from the lack of it.
Rebecca had anticipated the confusion, and being in her own body and soul easily kept her concentration on the ceremony. To the sixth point, she said, “This is for the magic to accomplish this operation, for it can be done in no other way, magic having been used to separate the body and soul of Samuel Taylor.”
Finally, she turned to the seventh point, which was marked with her own personal magical symbol. Bringing the tip of the walking stick down onto the point, she cried out, “And this is for the will to accomplish all that has been described.”
At the moment she finished the conjuration, Rebecca was translated into a world of magic, a plane of reality in which magic was clear as day, while material reality was but the shadow. On this plane, most people appeared as human souls. So had Rebecca when she had first practiced magic. The walking stick had changed that. Ever since they had been bound together, Rebecca manifested on this plane in the shape of a dragon. She was herself, but she was also the dragon, with a dragon’s abilities and a dragon’s wants. This gave her great power, but also made that power very hard to control. Humans go onto the plane of magic with missions. Dragons hunt.
Rebecca had a mission, to find Samuel Taylor’s soul. Samuel Taylor’s body was near at hand. She could see his wife Charity, body and soul, beside and around him, but it was Samuel that was important to this mission. His soul was not in his body, but so long as the body had life, the two were always magically connected. She could see the connection, dim and threadbare, soon to part if matters continued as they had. Space and time on this plane were not about the mundane reality, but the magical reality. Samuel had been separated from his soul for days, so his soul would be far away. Rebecca intended to find Samuel’s soul and return it to his body.
Dragons hunt. Something had captured Samuel’s soul, something evil. The dragon would follow the trail, hunting for the enemy. It would destroy the enemy, and anything else that interfered with its search.
The dragon hunted. It sniffed at the trail, picking up the scent of Samuel’s soul and the magic that had taken it. It crawled along the trail, careful not to lose it, while ignoring the distractions surrounding it. The dragon had a long hunt, but it did not tire. It never tired. Finally, the trail came to an end. The dragon had found what it had been hunting.
Rebecca saw that Samuel’s soul was held captive by a demon. The demon was strong enough to steal a man’s soul, but against a dragon it was almost nothing. Rebecca used her dragon claws to pry open the demon’s grasp, to let Samuel’s soul go. She knelt down and whispered a few words to Samuel, reminding him of what his life in the body was like and pointing out the path home. Then she let him go. His soul shot off down the link back to his body.
Rebecca had accomplished the main part of her mission, but the dragon had not finished its hunt. The dragon turned on its enemy. It had no mercy. It grasped the demon in its claws, and began to tighten them, piercing the demon’s magical hide. The demon howled in pain and fear, to no avail. Finally, the dragon turned its flaming breath on the demon, burning it to death, destroying it utterly.
Rebecca awoke to find herself lying on the floor, her feet still resting in the circle she had constructed. She was very confused at first. She still thought of herself as a dragon. And she did not initially recognize the two naked figures standing over her, for she had seen Charity only briefly, and only a glimpse of Samuel’s face protruding above the bed covers. For once, she offered no resistance while the two of them helped her up.
Once she was standing and had grounded her walking stick on the floor, Rebecca fully came back to herself. Her first thought was for Samuel, and she was pleased to see that he had his soul.
It was only then that she became aware there was a truly horrible stench in the room. It smelled as if something foul had been burning. Rebecca did not recognize the smell as a result of the operation she had conducted, or anything she might have inadvertently invoked. She looked over the naked bodies of Samuel and Charity for any sign of harm. With a sigh of relief, she saw that they were unhurt.
Under the unusual circumstances, none of the three of them had given much thought to the normal social proprieties. It was with a start that Rebecca realized she was staring at the naked body of another woman’s husband. Abashed, she turned away from Samuel to look only at Charity and asked, “What is that smell?”
Charity had been worried about Rebecca’s condition, for she had seemed dazed and hadn’t spoken up to that point. The question took her by surprise. Before she could collect herself, Samuel spoke. “It’s back there beyond the bed, but you don’t want to look at it.”
However, Rebecca did very much want to look at it, as she was wondering how her magical operation could have produced such a result. So she quickly stepped around Charity and passed by the end of the bed. One glance at the space between the bed and window was all she needed. There was a dog there, a black dog, a dead dog. Its head was missing, and its neck was a charred stump.
End of chapter three
This is an important chapter — we get to see Rebecca back in her element (or magical plane), and the Dragon Lady is unleashed. I didn’t feel I was along for the ride as much as usual, however. Most of this chapter is like the previous two, with an admirable balance of detail that draws us in, but doesn’t burden us with unnecessary details. The description of the ceremony itself is just such an example, but once we enter the magical plane, I feel a bit disconnected. I want to know more about her dragon-form, what other creatures inhabit the plane, and the “distractions” the dragon encounters. I’m mostly told the dragon hunts, but not much else. Realizing the magical plane is not like the material world, I still want to feel like it’s as real a place as Stockbridge. This is the trouble with setting such a high bar!
Just how does one describe a supernatural world? It’s worth some thought, maybe even a post sometime during the next month. There’s a tendency for such descriptions to become dated (“The Ghost of Guir House” by Charles Willing Beale comes to mind) or, to our movie-going eyes, look absurd. I must think about this, and would be happy to hear more of your thoughts on the subject.
There was a thought in the back of my head that Rebecca’s first trip onto the plane of magic would NOT be very clear, as Rebecca has grown unused to being there, and has only partial control of herself-as-dragon, as her confusion upon return to the material plane demonstrates. That sounds as if I know what I’m doing, but if I’m losing readers, maybe not. As I say, I must think on this.
Rebecca will return to the magical plane in a later chapter, so your observations are timely and helpful. Thank you.
(And I’ll get back to reading your story this weekend; I’ve been mostly away and fallen dreadfully far behind.)
Re: “…how does one describe a supernatural world?” Yes, not an easy task. However, I’m comfortable with the idea of the magical plane as a shadowy reflection of the material one, in most respects. I don’t think you need to describe this plane in great detail, just a few examples of how “…magic was clear as day, while material reality was but the shadow.”
Re: Rebecca’s first trip onto the plane of magic would NOT be very clear.” Now that you’ve told me, I understand what you’re getting at. The descriptions you provide do reinforce this point, but I think I needed a little more help to glean the source of her confusion from the narrative. Maybe a few more hints like “the dragon’s goal became her only thought…Rebecca was borne headlong into the hunt, powerless to assert her own will in the dragon’s single-minded pursuit…”
Finally, just a few details about the physical appearance of the dragon (I assume it is Oriental in style, like the head of the walking stick) and the demon. Sorry to be such a lazy reader.
I see from your other posts that you have been very busy with hardware and hobnobbing. I look forward to any feedback you have on my latest chapters, and I’ll try to close the gap on yours!
Thanks. I’ve had no spare time for two weeks, so I’m behind on reading anyone else’s blog. Sigh. I should catch up next week.
Your point of offering more clues to Rebecca’s state of mind is well taken. I’ve been writing fiction in the first person for the most part, so sometimes forget I have greater editorial latitude in this story. Constructive advice such as this hardly constitutes being a “lazy reader!”
Rebecca has never seen herself on the magical plane, so apart from being a dragon, she doesn’t know what she looks like. I’m saving that description for an unusual circumstance when she does see what the dragon looks like. I’ve also put it off because I came across the online copy of the major English language work on Japanese dragons, and want to expand my knowledge of them before offering a description . . . or having E.J. Barnes, whose comments you may also have seen here, draw me a picture of the walking stick’s head. That will probably replace the current header picture.
Oh, and on top of this, one of the speakers at the conference was Prof. Jocelyn Godwin, who writes on various esoteric subjects usually involving music or New York State. Had a nice chat with him. I’ll have to post something about his work some time soon.
Glad to be of some help. Look forward to the results of your dragon studies, the drawing, and hearing more about Prof. Godwin
Mansion House looks like a wonderful place for a conference. And how was the Wi-Fi?
They did have WiFi in the Mansion House, but it didn’t seem to be public. Maybe if I’d asked. They had WiFi at both the casino-hotel which was the official “conference hotel,” and the cheaper Super 8 motel where I stayed, which was adequate for my purposes . . . which on Friday morning meant posting Chapter 6!
Did they use Hebrew letters doing magic? (or is it magick?) Sounds somewhat Cabbalistic to me, but then if I’m not wrong, Hebrew letters were used by Rebecca’s English contemporary, Crowley. I’m intrigued…
A fair amount of ceremonial magic assumed that the Hebrew language and its characters were particularly appropriate for magic. In some traditions, it is God’s language. A great many supernatural entities have Hebrew or pseudo-Hebrew names. However, many magicians, and their copyists, were not very knowledgeable about Hebrew, so they would make mistakes in developing or transcribing Hebrew elements. Words would be corrupted, characters changed so much that it’s sometimes hard to figure out what the original letters were, and sometimes terms would be completely misunderstood. The “Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses” contains a lot of gibberish that’s supposed to be Hebrew.
Crowley, who’s not quite 11 years old when this story takes places, would indeed have at least seen Hebrew-like material in magical texts.