But I knew, even as I lay there in that tub … I knew it would have to be something different. It would not be enough to simply repeat The Ritual of 1976, as I had before. I was sure of that. I was sure the Horses would not accept that. I had realized early that this was … that there would have to be an escalation. It was something I felt, deeply. In the same place I feel you, now, inside of me, my beloved. There had been, of course, a year to plan The Ritual of 1977. And, you know, you might think that a year is a lot of time to come up with a ritual, especially when — in hindsight, I’ll admit it — the bar was set so low with what I had done the first time. And it wouldn’t be easy — because MOTHER and FATHER had seen what I’d done. They’d come back home, and they’d been enraged. Or — you know, not really enraged so much as … what’s the step past enraged? Like, where you go beyond it. Into that stillness. Pushed past action into inaction. What do you call it when you get to that point where you greet your own child with silence. Where they look at you like you’re not really there. Like you’re an imitation who’s replaced the person they once knew. That’s a good way to describe it, but it doesn’t really capture what they did, because I’m afraid not even I understand it. Things went on as before, but everything was also different. They were cold to me, even as they said and did all the same things they always had. It was like … in some effort on their part to act as if nothing had happened, they put so much pressure on things that there were … fissures. Gaps. Breaks. Nothing had the right beat or cadence to it. The heartbeat of our home life was made irregular. And the blood being pumped was cold. I think they might’ve been cold to each other, too. I never heard them argue about me, but I’m sure they did … because the dynamic of the entire house got cold, in that way, after they came back and saw what I’d done. And that lasted for about a year after The Ritual of 1976. Well, FATHER’s part lasted that long. You see, after The Ritual of 1976, FATHER did not speak to me for about a year. Except — no — that isn’t true. He spoke words while looking at me, but he never really addressed me. He became … perfunctory. He seemed calm, but I knew he wasn’t calm at all. MOTHER talked to me more directly, but the way she expressed that coldness was more like a teacher. Like she had to instruct me somehow, on the simplest matters. And, all that while, she had so often seemed like she was on the verge of crying whenever we spoke, even though she maintained that distance of coldness. I think she was trying to teach me something, yes, but I think she didn’t mean to let the crying part through. I think I saw through some kind of disguise or shield she had constructed to deal with me. I think maybe FATHER had been doing the same thing. It was just that MOTHER’s shield started to crack much sooner than FATHER’s. I remember that I was disciplined for destroying the films and making that mess in the basement. The punishment was so rudimentary that it was almost insulting: they grounded me. For performing a holy ritual to free myself, they grounded me. Like all I had done was break a vase or spill ink on an expensive dress. I had been reborn, and they couldn’t even see it. Now, that might seem like a contradiction, because of how they treated me so different. But I know they couldn’t tell I was reborn, or they would’ve been afraid instead of just cold. They would have feared for their lives, for their world. And, like all wrongbodies, they would’ve been right to be afraid. I was grounded for about two or three weeks. I can’t remember exactly. The plan had been for more, but it had broken down. I had to be temporarily ungrounded when Lily Platt went into labor. MOTHER was good friends with Lily Platt. MOTHER had played nursemaid when Lily was born. And Lily had asked MOTHER to do the same when she’d become pregnant. So I got drafted into being there when Lily gave birth to Baby Barry, helping MOTHER with the nursemaid duties. I think, upon reflection, that she believed that if I witnessed a birth, that it might somehow change my perspective. All it did was remind me that wrongbody births are disgusting. The True People are born from cosmic energies. We step into the world fully-made and fully-manifest and fully-perfect. It is only the corruption of others that forces imperfections upon a True Person. I remember her watching me, almost more than she was watching Baby Barry be born. It was like she wanted to see how I reacted to it. Like she was taking the opportunity to test me somehow. I don’t know if I passed or failed, but I’m assuming I passed — because the grounding came off after that. FATHER never really addressed it any more. So I’m assuming I passed, because MOTHER’s coldness dwindled — and those conversations I mentioned where MOTHER would get to just-before-tears with me … well, those became more and more frequent. Wrongbodies lack conviction. Because, for all FATHER and MOTHER were supposedly concerned, MOTHER had me giving her assistance again when we helped bring sweet little Martin Platt into the world. Such a beautiful, pivotal moment, that. But not because of the childbirth. That’s a function of wrongbodies. There’s no divinity to see in the act of a wrongbody giving birth. I mean, wrongbodies breed, right? Lily Platt certainly did. And Lily Platt didn’t believe in wasting time, apparently, between pregnancies — which was fitting given her highly-deserved reputation. Lily was so much younger than her husband. I wonder to this day if part of the reason MOTHER helped Lily, aside from the two of them being friends, was because nobody else would except Bradley Platt — a man who couldn’t keep a houseplant alive, much less manage a natural birth for his wife. No way to know for sure now, though. But while Lily was getting herself filled up with old wrongbody cock every other day, I was planning the next step in my ascension. Because, you see, I wasn’t wasting time, either. I was asking myself what I wanted most — what I needed to achieve from life, rather than how I could serve a man who was a decade older than me, like Lily and Bradley Platt. I wanted no part of the kind of life they were making, churning out babies and buying furniture to sit or lie on while they were rutting. I wanted no part of that. My path was clean, and glowed gold with blood. And, yes, blood was the price of that path, I understood. So I naturally asked myself, before anything else, what price might come. I thought hard about it when I was awake, and dreamed about it when I was asleep. And I dreamed of the Horses. It’s funny — you know that they say girls dream of horses all the time, right? I find in this moment that I’m amused by this, because it makes me normal — doesn’t it? Dreaming of manes and light and twisting animal muscle. Dreams of divinity. Not sweating men on top of you grunting out globs of seeds into your guts. No — I was dreaming of angels; of hooves, thundering in silence. I felt the dreams carry over into when I was awake, coloring the world. When I closed my eyes, I could see the dream, still moving in slow-motion, inside my head. I even saw it behind my eyes, sometimes, when i was awake. Like I was carrying the dream with me. One curiosity — I never heard the dream. They really were silent hoofbeats. But I could feel the sounds, even though I couldn’t hear them. And when I slept, I felt them more than anything else. So, I slept a lot. And those flour angelic Horses came to me at night; they caressed me wordlessly, with praise. They told me I had done right with The Ritual of 1976. They eased my concerns about MOTHER and FATHER. That MOTHER and FATHER were both wholly inconsequential. And I knew the Horses were right, in that wrongbodies always respond to the divine in ignorant fashion — with hostility. It is the only way wrongbodies know how to respond to things they don’t understand. The True People — we seek out the things in the universe that are different. That was why the True People had first built the Cosmic Circus — to travel through space an time and dimensions, to find things and people that were different and unique and to cherish them and ask to share in them. To find things that were genuinely interesting. That was why the Treasureseekers so coveted the knowledge of the Cosmic Circus. They did not want to share, though — they wanted to possess. That’s why they built the trap that made the Cosmic Circus crash. I can only imagine what it would have looked like to see the Cosmic Circus falling from the sky into the Magical Forest, all stars and explosions, all fireworks as it fell to fiery pieces on the Forest floor. I picture the events as they were told to me, but I hope my memory will return someday and I can know what happened from someone who lived it. How the True People escaped, fled as the Circus fell, escaping to other worlds and times and dimensions amidst the flames so that we could survive. And we did survive, hiding among the people of the Magical Forest and all the other worlds we fled to — wherever and whenever and whatever we ended up, as we escaped on the Star Threads into those other places. These were truths that were meant to be televised, to be manifestly revealed to the wrongbodies, to find the few True People who fell to Earth, to shock them into wakefulness. But TK Wanderlad had been purged by the Treasureseekers before that could ever happen, of course. Which we should’ve all expected. We should’ve known. We should’ve planned better. Which was why I needed to be so careful with my plans for these Rituals. I thought about how best to seek divinity. Now, you’ll remember that I had convinced Deacon and Reggie of the sincerity of the lies I told them. Neither of these two children were particularly sophisticated. They came from the rural edges of Drodden. If I recall correctly, the Ripps didn’t even own a TV; they were one of those families trying to ‘get away’ from technology while still using the local grocery store. They were both naive and simple, and I was certain I could exploit their energy without having to do too much work. And I couldn’t do what I wanted all by myself. My own blood wouldn’t be enough. I knew I needed more than my own blood. I needed theirs. So, I also knew I had to bridge their involvement into the new ritual, of course. Their blood needed to be added to the tapestry. My vision of the tapestry was still raw and fresh. I saw it everywhere. When Lily Platt gut-spit her wrongbody spawn into the world, I had watched the fresh flow of blood — but I had seen more. I had seen baby Barry come into the world and join the little threads of the tapestry almost instantly. I watched as the bloody golden cords seemed to dissolve into threads. I watched the threads join the tapestry. I saw childbirth as one of the True People, for I had understood that the Horses wanted me to see and accept my true potential. They had not so much granted me power as awakened what was within. In their silence, the Horses did not tell me the nature of what had happened in the woods that day; not in words, at least, as I’ve said. So, ever since that night, I’ve had to remain awake and aware and thinking. And I realize that they merely accelerated what was already to have happened to me. They sensed the urgency. I believe angels are simply True People who have transcended the bindings of physicality. The Horses travel on the Star Threads, the way the Circus once did. And, when a True Person evolves out of the needs of the material world, they ascend to become one with the Star Threads the way the Horses have. Maybe that will happen to Cameron and me, someday. But not until we complete the tasks set before us, and not until our unity and love grow so vast that we self-immolate from it. Maybe we’ll become new Horses, when the wrongworlds come apart and spill their blood for us, the way I so wanted to spill Reggie and Deacon’s blood. And … one other person. Because I realized that I had missed a crucial element, in my hasty plans. I had missed thinking about the significance of the fact that there were four Horses. Four, not three. So I decided that I needed one more wrongbody for The Ritual of 1977. But I wasn’t sure who that might be, or how to draw them in. It turned out, however, that I needn’t have worried. Things fell into place, as happens with the tapestry of blood. Because the right person always comes along, as they say. If you’re patient. If you wait. Good things come. Which is what happened to me along the way of planning out The Ritual of 1977. I’ll get to who that was, but — for now — what’s important for you to know is that my discovery of the third wrongbody for my ritual happened even as I was cultivating what I had built with Reggie and Deacon. I’d been attending to the two boys, in different ways — and in relative secret — over the months that followed the birth of Baby Barry, when I was finally allowed back outside again. It wasn’t often that I met with them — maybe once a month — but it was needed, to reinforce the bonds I was building with the two boys. I knew I had to give them what they wanted in order to keep that bond. Just like I did with my parents; I let FATHER have his coldness. I let MOTHER have her tears. With Reggie and Deacon … well, I’ll explain. You have to do things like this with wrongbodies; keep them occupied. Otherwise, they’ll get the better of you just by persistence. But they’re easily distracted by the least of, well, distractions. They’re easily put off whatever transitory little goal rushes through their brain between the times when they’re feeding or sleeping or participating in their banal little rituals of purposelessly treading water. But me — I would not waste time pursuing wrongbody rituals. I had no need to push out wrongbody babies. I had a purpose worthy of one of the True People. The kind of purpose only a True Person could possibly have. And, as I just said, it was key that the ritual be all in fours. To that end, I chose to divide the ritual into four parts. Three parts seemed to have been important for The Ritual of 1976, but I realized that four parts would be needed for The Ritual of 1977. I will explain them to the deserving who read this, also in four parts, so that you will know my works. I’ll get to the third wrongbody in this first part:
Part I. Preparation
This section of the ritual wasn’t probably what you might think, though. Here’s the thing: a reminder — I don’t really know witchcraft. I’m not a witch. I’m one of the True People, but I doubted Reggie or Deacon understood that. I didn’t want them associating me with TK Wanderlad just then. So ‘preparation’ for me wasn’t like making little cups of salt or whatever. Because The Ritual of 1977 wasn’t going to be about props or stuff. It was going to be raw, and real. So there wasn’t much, physically, to prepare. Here, ‘preparation’ meant readying my helpers and gathering what I would need from them. As I told you, I spent much of the time after The Ritual of 1976 but before The Ritual of 1977 working on readying Reggie Peak and Deacon Ripp for what was to come for them. Their involvement tie threads between the rituals, as would their blood. But, to get there … that would require some effort. For Deacon, the effort was easy — especially when I made sure to keep him separated from Reggie. Deacon gained strength from Reggie; I needed Deacon receptive, not strong. Everyone has a critical weakness for something. Something that can, for even a moment, triumph over their good sense. Something they hunger for. Deacon’s weakness was the pleasure of receiving gifts. He felt important when he received a gift. And he liked candy. So, for Deacon, it really was as simple as that. He’d throw away his principles for the transitory thrill of chocolate. And candy for trust was an exchange I could very easily afford. It was a gradual matter, and it took months. But it was achievable, and I achieved it. You have to understand that you can make anyone feel anything, if you know the right combination of words and actions. Consider what I did to Deacon as an example. During The Ritual of 1976, I had needed him to be afraid. After that, I needed him to trust me — to be compliant — to want to be near me. I got him good candy, too — not that cheap stuff in the glass bowls at the Old Yellow Store, or the Yellow House or whatever it was called back then. I forget the real name of the place. The Greenlees’ old house was still their house and a store back in 1977. And a restaurant, too, if I remember correctly. Not that I ever went out there much. I was usually more careful with my money than that. Not that I couldn’t afford it or anything — even with my so-called punishment for performing The Ritual of 1976. Except for those brief weeks of my grounding, my supply of petty cash from my parents had not abated. So, I could afford enough treats to keep Deacon in the sugar-addled state I liked to see him in. I found it funny, besides being useful. He got excited when he ate too much candy. His eyes got shiny. He had a crush on me, too, I was certain — which didn’t hurt my efforts. I could’ve probably just manipulated him off the crush, but, again, I liked watching him eat himself into a frenzy. And I didn’t mind spending the money my parents provided for me. It seemed fitting that it was MOTHER and FATHER’s money I was using now for my own purposes. It felt liberating. I would leave in the morning and stay out all day, and they said nothing about it as long as I “stayed out of trouble.” I would meet Deacon right after he got out of school on the days we’d meet up, and we’d walk around town and I’d give him treats from my purse. Nobody really paid attention to us, so it wasn’t any big deal. People expected to see me around with kids. I was known to be a babysitter, after all. By then, I don’t think people really connected me to having ‘played’ Friendlietta Flowergirl on TK Wanderlad. It probably didn’t hurt that I’d gone by the stage name Octavia Burrell. My parents had insisted I have a stage name. ‘In case you need to get away from fame,’ MOTHER had said. FATHER had declared it to be ‘just good business sense,’ whatever that meant. I was twenty, still ostensibly planning to go to college as far as my parents knew, unless I managed to land an acting job. Beyond a few local TV commercials, though, nothing had ever really materialized. I’d agreed, after TK Wanderlad ended, to keep trying for greater stardom. But, even if I hadn’t had a broader destiny in mind for myself … acting now disgusted me. Repulsed me. In a way, I guess that’s because I knew I had a greater destiny. I couldn’t conceive of the idea of pretending to be other people when being in-manifest who and what I am was the entire purpose of my existence. Tricking Deacon, though? That was, in its own way, acting. It was a performance, at the very least — but a necessary one. Its role in confirming my destiny made it a requirement. I sometimes thought about how it was too bad the casting agents couldn’t see a demonstration of the way I controlled Deacon’s reality and shaped it into my own. Over the weeks and months that followed July of 1976, Deacon became almost a toy to me. A wind-up child that I could make do things. I remember one particular day in early June, about a month before The Ritual of 1977, when I met with them both on the same day. Deacon, first, and then Reggie. Because it was summer, Deacon and I had arranged a revised meet-up spot for the first Saturday of each month after school ended, at ten o’clock in the morning, in the well-tended little alley between Liongold Movie House and Wolfram’s Toys. I’d gotten there early and had been leaning against the wall in the back alley when I saw his chubby silhouette-shape step into the alleyway in front of me. He was backlit so I couldn’t make out his face, but there was no mistaking him. I pushed up off the wall and walked toward him, making sure to sway my hips with every step of my approach. “Hey, Riptide.” I’d taken to calling him ‘Riptide’ as a nickname. He’d really seemed to like it, the first time I’d thrown it out. I’d come up with it by noticing that he’d taken to wearing one of those fake shark’s tooth pendants a lot of the boys in town had started wearing ever since that big shark movie had come out. Deacon’s face finally got close enough for me to see him clearly; he was all-smiles, just like almost every time we met. He was dressed like usual, too: boot-cut jeans and a ringer-necked t-shirt. But that day, there’d been something different that I couldn’t quite place at first. Then, I figured it out — Deacon had brought a backpack with him; he was clutching it to his chest. I remember thinking that this was strange, since he didn’t ever carry it in the summertime as far as I’d seen.
“Hey, Hilda,” he said. He held up his backpack, expectant, just waiting for me to inquire.
I smiled, with teeth. “What’s the buzz, little man?” I asked him. “What’cha got there?”
“I got something for you.” He patted the backpack, nodding for no discernible reason.
“Oh, yeah?” I said, trying to balance a teasing tone with genuine interest. “What’ve you got that I might need? Oh, but wait,” I told him. I held up a hand. “Hold onto that thought for a minute.”
Deacon’s grin stopped. “Huh?” He tilted his head.
“Hold your horses, Riptide,” I told him. I reached into my purse and withdrew a bag of chocolate candies. I’d left in the refrigerator overnight, like I always did, so it wouldn’t get melted while I waited for him. Just because Deacon was a wrongbody doesn’t mean I didn’t feel obliged not to commit sacrilege against chocolate candies.
His eyes flashed brightly when I revealed the bag of candies. It’s possible that he might’ve even gone so far as to have momentarily forgotten our arrangement in his zeal to show me the contents of his backpack.
That thought pleased me. You know that experiment with the dog that drooled when a bell rang? That’s what I needed from Deacon. And that’s what I was getting, to a degree. “Here you go,” I said.
Deacon snatched the bag from me and tucked it under his arm. “I have some things to show you now,” he said, unzipping his backpack, his hands moving awkwardly as he maintained the tuck holding the candy under his arm.
“Lay it on me, little man,” I said.
Deacon withdrew three old-looking books from his backpack, two in one hand and one in the other. He’d let go of the backpack as he withdrew the books; it had fallen to the ground all bottom-heavy with the open part facing up. He held out the books for me. “Check it out!” He sounded so eager-to-please, so hopeful that I’d like what he was offering me.
“Here — let me see,” I said. I made sure to show no enthusiasm. Part of the process of rewarding devotion is withholding approval. I took the books from him, making sure to look down the alley as I did. I wanted to detach the idea of him giving me these books from any automatic approval. What he gave me would decide that.
Deacon grabbed the bag of candies from under his arm and tore it open at the top. As he saw how full the bag was — up to the top — his eyes flashed in that way I enjoyed. “Wow — thanks!” he said, voice trembling with a suppressed giggle of pleasure. He took out two candies and shoved them into his mouth.
“Don’t bite down; they’re cold!” I warned him, in case his enthusiasm got the better of the sensation of cold on his fingertips. I looked at the books he’d gotten me. They had no dust jackets, or titles on the spines. But I noticed at the bottom of the spines, there were little stickers. They were library books. “You ‘got‘ me library books?” I asked, genuinely incredulous.
“No,” he said, slurring his words from a mouth full of chocolate. “Stole them.” The corners of his lips turned upward.
I felt a jab of pleasure in my gut that I worked hard to hide. “Wait — you stole these?” It meant he’d stolen them for me. Which meant he’d stolen for me. It had been more progress than I thought I’d had with Deacon, even after the months of candy.
Deacon swallowed down the chocolates. “Yeah,” he said, grinning more broadly now. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
I opened the first book to see the title page:
THE HEARTBEAT OF OUR WORLD:
ON PLANTS, ANIMALS AND NATURE
IN THE WORKINGS OF THE OCCULT
by Glenielle Forrest
“This was in the library?” I asked. “Our library?”
“Yeah — there’s an occult section.”
“Why did you steal these?” I asked him, making sure to keep my voice level; I didn’t want him to know how I felt about the stealing or the books themselves, just yet. I started looking over the book, flipping through the pages at random.
“So there’d be no name on the card,” Deacon said, as conspiratorially as he could sound with a mouthful of chocolate. “And you could keep them if they’re good.”
“Hmmm … ” I could tell almost immediately that it was trash. I didn’t really know too much about actual witchcraft, but I could tell that what I was holding in my hands wasn’t that. The book was, instead, pages-upon-pages of this self-indulgent writer going on and on about her personal philosophies under the guise of it all being Really Serious analysis. It was the kind of book that you can just tell that about it from even a cursory look at how it was written. I came across a random sentence where the writer talked about seeing angels in patterns when she dripped her menstrual blood onto paper. Another was about finding ‘spiritual animal soul guardians’ in flower-pressings. Chapters had names like ‘Fire as a Mother’s Blessing’ and ‘Eating Meat — When Never is Not Enough.’ The author’s name being supposedly Glenielle Forrest didn’t help.
“This is good stuff,” I told him. It was more important that he be praised for the theft than what he actually stole. Stole for me. I pretended to read further. “Huh.”
“Check out the other ones, Hilda,” Deacon said breathlessly. He grabbed two more candies from the bag and pushed each in turn past his pursed lips, with a sucking sound, like he was pretending to be an anteater sucking up ants or something. It was gross.
I opened the next book to its title page:
THE DARK WOODS OF THE LIGHT
by A. B. Hartlet
The text of the second book was dense. Small print, hard to read. But I noticed that there were also a ton of lists toward the back. Different kinds of trees and shrubs and stuff — listing what could be safely eaten, what was poisonous, and historical attributions of whether they were used for good or evil in witchcraft lore. Whole chapters on some plants; I remember one called ‘Llex Sanguinem’ and another called ‘Taxxon Immortus.’ But what really struck me were that there were charts illustrating which parts of plants could supposedly do whatever. And maps. Like, for New York, even — stuff about ivy and hogweed. Even though Earth-World was a wrongworld, I recall thinking that knowing those facts would be really helpful, assuming it wasn’t all total bullshit. It didn’t look like bullshit, though. It looked like someone was mixing science with mysticism, and I knew that I could use the science part.
“Great stuff, Riptide,” I said. That time, I’d meant it.
The third book’s title page had been torn out, and it looked really old. Like, old-old. A little red volume that seemed to be transcripts of people’s testimony at some of the Salem Witch Trials, or something. Lots of ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ and stuff. I couldn’t really figure out the author’s name because it wasn’t printed anywhere I could find. Not really anything I could do anything with.
I opened my purse and slipped the books inside. “Nice work, little man,” I said. Then, I walked over and bent my knees so I could wrap him up in a hug. “You did good.” I felt him inhale and hold the breath for several long seconds before letting it out. I held on until he exhaled. Then, I let go and put my hands on my hips. “There’s some stuff in there that looks like it’ll really help out. You’ve done your part. Now — you’re still on with me for the Fourth of July this year?”
“And you’re still not telling Reggie about us meeting like this.”
Deacon shook his head.
“Good.” I tried to affect a sympathetic look. “His aura isn’t the same as yours. When we do this, he can’t know he’s not as strong as you.”
Deacon nodded again, looking down. “He always feels like he has to be good at things.”
“His life-spirit is strong, Deacon — don’t make any mistake with that.” I sighed quietly, shifting my position a little as if I were uncomfortable about revealing what I was going to say next. “But his life-energy rises and falls with his confidence. And I need him confident. The whole dynamic will change if he realizes he isn’t as powerful in this way as you are. His strength is of the Earth. Yours is of the spirit. You understand that, right?”
Deacon’s cheeks went pink as he nodded and said “I want to protect him.”
“That’s good,” I said. “That’s what friends do. We have to try not to hurt his feelings. But, here’s the thing.” I gave myself a frown of regret. “I think it’s really important to check this stuff out that you got me, right away.”
“Aw, man!” Deacon protested. “I thought we were going to hang.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. But there’s so much good stuff in here.” I patted my purse. “I should check out these books.”
“Ha ha!” Deacon laughed forcedly. “You don’t have to check them out at all!”
I pantomimed shaking my fist at him, and then I reached into my purse again and pulled out my money clip.
Deacon got wide-eyed like always. Most of the bills were just one-dollar ones, but I always put the biggest bill on the outside, and that was a hundred.
“But, look … here’s the thing: you did good for me, right? I’ll do good for you.” I patted the wall of the movie theater with my free hand. “That movie about the chick switching bodies with her mom is really kinda good,” I said. “I saw it the other night. You could go hang out at Wolfram’s for a while, and go see the movie.” I handed him the cost of admission with enough left over for soda and popcorn.
“Cool!” Deacon exclaimed. “Sweet! Thanks!” Then he got a guilty look. “But if I see something good at Wolfram’s, I can get that, too, right?”
“Sure. And — since I had to cut it short this time … you want to meet up next weekend? Same flying-mouse time, same flying-mouse channel?”
Deacon laughed, for real this time. “Okay, okay. Cool.” He started to walk away, but then turned around. “I did good with the books, though, right?”
“You did real good, Riptide,” I said. “I promise — I just gotta read up if things are going to work for the Fourth of July. I promise, little man — it’ll be worth it.”
“Okay!” Deacon trudged off, walking around the corner at the end of the alley toward Wolfram’s Toys. Then, he stopped and turned again, and waved. “Bye, Hilda.”
“See you, Riptide,” I said. Then I turned, lest Deacon stop and engage me again, and started going the opposite way, out of the alley, into the open air. Behind Wolfram Toys and the Liongold was a long stretch of undeveloped blocks full of tall grass. The cicada were thick in there, buzzing in force. It always hurt my ears. But that was the quickest path to get to where I’d agreed to meet Reggie, in Garten Park at noon, by the waterfall. Garten Park wasn’t even as big, then, as it is now, or as developed. Back then, it was a lot of tended flower gardens and tall bushes kept by the members of the Rotary Club. The place had been planned to have a big playground for children, but only a few parts had actually been built, the man-made waterfall among them. Members of the Rotary Club took over the maintenance of the place after the town’s budget fell short and they stopped building the playground. The club members cleaned up trash around the grounds, too. They came by in a big van every Sunday to check on things and make sure nobody had vandalized the man-made structures too much. Which is why I made sure to meet Reggie there on Saturdays. Now, Saturday nights at Garten Park back then — I wouldn’t have had the privacy I wanted. Teenagers and collegiate types made it a popular make-out spot at night; there was a covered bridge near the waterfall, and some benches were surrounded by hedges and things like that. But Saturday afternoon? You might get the odd old person reading some cheap novel and having their lunch, but it was usually otherwise pretty deserted. Which was how I wanted it to be. Because I had cultivated something different with Reggie Peak. Something that required this kind of space, with the surrounding plants and trees and the rushing sound of the waterfall. Something that made me sure he’d be waiting for me just inside the covered bridge, like always. And, most importantly of all, something I had convinced him that he needed. Something that made him feel good. But Reggie had a more nuanced mind than Deacon. Despite the two of them being the same age, Reggie was the more mature of the two. So it wasn’t enough to give him candy. His needs were more substantial. His mind would have figured out the deception behind candy and toys. I needed something that would make him feel addicted. Which he was, of course. I had no doubt. Just as I was sure I’d find him waiting for me inside the covered bridge, which is exactly where he was when I found him. He was dressed in shorts and a red-and-white striped polo and sneakers. In remembering it now, I recall noticing that he’d washed his sneakers. I remember wondering if it was supposed to impress me.
He caught sight of me before I could say anything to him. “Hey,” he said, with an awkward half of a wave.
I said nothing. just then. I just nodded to him and gestured toward the other half of the covered bridge.
He came with me, without hesitation.
We crossed the bridge and got to the edge of the artificial waterfall. To the spot where the constructed ‘hill’ from which the water descended opened up into a ‘cavern’ path. It was only about ten steps past the cave entrance to where it turned a tight corner and you’d wind up behind the waterfall. You could see the back of the waterfall through a little opening in the wall about the size of a dinner plate, which also illuminated the little room. I assume it was meant to be some kind of ‘adventure cave’ for the never-finished playground. The floor inside sloped downward a little, and what occasional splashes of water came through the hole in the wall went down into a little circular grille-drain in the floor. The echo of the waterfall was loud, but you could hear other people inside the space. More importantly, you could mostly see past the waterfall from this side if anyone came through the covered bridge. You could also hear if anyone walked on the cavern path; the ground had a sparky and gritty concrete texture that made footsteps very noisy.
“Hey,” Reggie said again, quieter now.
Only now did I speak to him. “Kaveka ta matak,” I said to him. It was made-up nonsense words, of course. Over the months since I’d demanded his allegiance until that day, I’d convinced him that I spoke a different language. Witchspeak, I’d called it. An ancient tongue, I explained, taught to witches by the rocks and trees. An organic speech, I had told him, that sometimes changed based on the cycles of the moon or the change in seasons. That meant I could make it up any way I wanted, every time we met, and I wouldn’t have to be consistent or remember the words I’d used for different things.
“Uh, kaveka ta matak,” he said back to me. He looked scared.
“Don’t be frightened,” I soothed him. “Remember — this is our refuge. A safe place for people like us. Our tavek’ta’kiri.”
“Tavek’ta’kiri,” he repeated.
“Very good,” I said to him, exactly as I’d said to Deacon. “You didn’t tell Deacon where you’d be today, right?”
“Fuck no,” Reggie said, wrinkling his nose. “No way.”
“Good. Good. Because I can only really teach you. His aura is too needy, too hungry to absorb the energies of stronger auras like yours.”
Reggie nodded. “I know. I feel like I somehow know that.”
“It’s probably your own aura telling you that.”
“Yeah?” He looked down at the grille on the floor.
“Yes.” I lifted my arms and then put both my hands on top of his head. “I could see the strength of your aura, even before I saw you. We glow to each other now. I glow to you; you’ll see once your inner eye is fully-open. Close your eyes, Ka-Tara.”
He shut his eyes.
“Here, in darkness lit only by sunlight, surrounded by nature, your aura becomes clear to me. I have told you that your true name is Ka-Tara — the name that came to me when I first saw you.”
Reggie broke out into goosebumps on his arms and legs. He looked uncertain, and kind of queasy.
“You remember how I told you, Ka-Tara, that my own Witchspeak name is Tara-Ka. Of the name-bond between us.”
Reggie’s goosebumps got more pronounced. So did his uncertainty, and his apparent queasiness.
“Your inner-eye has closed again, Ka-Tara,” I said, sounding disappointed.
“What?” he said, blinking his eyes open.
“Eyes shut,” I commanded.
He closed his eyes again.
“While your inner-eye is open, I can feel you across time and space. I hope you can feel me, too, Ka-Tara. Can you feel me when your inner-eye is open?”
“I can,” he said, his voice shaking.
I bowed my head, maintaining my theatrics for the sake of the acoustics, speaking down toward the floor. “But your aura diminishes over time, as you are not yet tied fully to the cycles and the seasons. We must return you to a natural state, a state where your thoughts run as one with nature’s thoughts. Where you are of the Earth and the animal soul of your body and mind become one.”
“We need to re-align your aura. To drain out the stresses and frustrations that your human form poisons you with. Are you ready for me, again, Ka-Tara?”
“I’m ready,” he said, voice even shakier.
“Tell me,” I said.
“I’m ready for you, Tara-Ka!” he declared.
“First, I need to see all of you,” I told him, as I got on my knees in front of him and put my hands on his shoulders to shake him gently. “Your aura is muddied by these artificial things. It’s a shame that they are required by this society. In the future, no one will need to be so encumbered. Let me see the truth of you, without them. But keep your eyes closed.” I let go of his shoulders.
I did what needed to be done to him — keeping an eye out for anyone coming through the covered bridge and an ear out for any footsteps on the path. The work took only a few seconds, as always; that time, though, he cried out very loudly at the end — a high-pitched, keening wrongbody squeal that made my stomach churn with disgust. It always disgusted me seeing a wrongbody doing that, but especially with all the noise. I moved one hand up up to cover his mouth forcefully, squeezing his jaw between my fingers., “Shhh!” I hissed at him.
His eyes opened, going wide even as he kept squealing behind my hand.
I amended: “Hold in your breath, Ka-Tara. What you breathe during your Realignment is sacred! Hold in your breath.” I began to speak as if I were saying a prayer, that quiet reservation you hear from priests when they’re in a hurry to be done with someone: “Ka ley do la hee, do es torna day mala du kara ta ma la da,” I said, making up sounds that seemed to fit the model of Witchspeak I had conceived. “Let his inner-eye be open. Let his mind be free. Let his body be awake. Let his spirit soar.”
I felt his mouth close behind my hand as I recited the ‘prayer,’ and his squealing ceased.
I let go of his face, standing up and stepping away from him to the opposite wall of the cavern.
For too long time, he just stood there, shaking and sweating, nostrils flaring as he tried to hold in his breath and breathe only through his nose. Then, he silently started getting dressed again.
“You will hear the birds sing,” I told him. “Your inner-eye has been re-opened. Your thoughts will be pure again. You will see the world clearly. You will know the truth of the universe.”
“I think I can,” he said weakly. “I think I do.”
“Good.” I stood up. “Your aura is just glowing, Ka-Tara.”
“It is?” Reggie asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s glowing so bright. You’ll be more than ready for the ritual on the Fourth of July. You’re going to be there, right?”
“I … uh … ” Where, before, he’d been thrilled by that, he now seemed frightened. “And you’re sure nobody but you can see it?”
“Well, other witches can. And spirits,” I told him.
His shoulders jerked up, and his eyes went wide with panic.
“To know to stay away from you, I mean,” I said, trying to soothe him. “Your aura’s green, I told you, remember? The aura of a healer — a power spirits can’t fight. Life-energy. Life-truth, Ka-Tara.” I realized he hadn’t said he’d be there on the Fourth of July. He needed to be. “You’re going to be there for me on the Fourth, right, Ka-Tara? I need you there.”
“I’ll be there. It’s just — ”
“What? Tell me, Ka-Tara.”
“I’m just nervous about other people seeing my aura,” he said, now fully-dressed again. “I’m worried they’ll see, and find out about you. And you told me what’d happen. I don’t want them to burn you or dissect you or all that.” His pubescent voice squeaked with anxiety.
“Don’t be worried,” I assured him. “Only Sensitives like you and me can see it. Deacon can’t even see it. Though, I might be able to teach Deacon to, if I can get his energies directed enough. Doubtful, though. He’s just nowhere near as powerful as you.” Still, his line of thought had me a little worried. “What’s got you so worried about that?” I asked him, as I urged him out of the cave.
“Mom and dad got me a fucking babysitter, tonight,” he said. He sounded repulsed by the idea, and I couldn’t blame him. “And fuck — he’s only a couple years older than me! It’s humiliating!”
“Ooh, man — that’s bad news.” I tried to sound sympathetic to his embarrassment. But the truth was, I really did think it was bad news. As soon as he said he was going to have a babysitter, I felt a clutch of tension in my gut. With new people coming into contact with Reggie so soon after an ‘aura realignment,’ I was worried about what Reggie might say or do that might give things away. I had cultivated him well against his telling his parents, but I didn’t know how to handle someone whose connection to him I knew nothing about. “Oh, yeah?” I asked, doing my best to display only the most minor and conversational sort of curiosity. “Well, unless your babysitter’s a witch, you shouldn’t worry.”
“What’s a guy witch called again?” Reggie asked as we reached the covered bridge.
“A warlock,” I told him.
“What if he’s a warlock?”
“It’s possible,” I said. An idea struck me: “I could tell if I met him,” I said. Inspiration hit me. I grabbed a hold of the top of Reggie’s head and lifted my fingers up and down. “I’m putting a protective ward on your soul. Now, no one can hurt you — and only the most highly-skilled warlock could see past it.”
Reggie seemed to relax. Then he asked “Could you meet him, to make sure, I mean? You said not all witches are good like you.”
“Do I know your babysitter?”
“Do you know my next-door-neighbors?” Reggie asked. “The Marshes? It’s their son, Victor.”
I told you I’d get to the third wrongbody for the ritual.