Saturday, July 30, 2011

Unseen (part 17)


On Tuesday, three days after I discovered the nature of Mrs. Townley's service to Corey, I broke my hand mirror. It had been Mum's, and before that her mum's, and so on back at least five generations; the handle and back were made of carved Macassar ebony, and the mirror was set into a heart-shaped frame. It was particularly handy for me, since I was usually an indifferent dresser and it would whisper fashion hints to me -- "The red blouse looks better on you," or "Try a necklace with that outfit," or "Your socks don't match," and so forth. I'd missed the Daydawn, sleeping in late, but I was still shaky and drowsy as I dressed, and I accidentally bumped the handle and sent it flying. The mirror fell, crying out, and broke into shards on the floor.

I stared, shocked alert by the noise. This wasn't good at all. Mirrors didn't take kindly to being broken. I had a heap of bad luck coming my way if I didn't get it fixed, and I wasn't even sure if it could be fixed since no one in this particular generation had a knack for fixing mirrors -- glass, yes; mirrors, no. (When I was little, I asked Mrs. Ingersoll why she didn't make any mirrors, and she told me stories about how mirrors required the mastery of special magic to create, else they might run away with your face at night and give you another one in the morning. After that I was so afraid of losing my face that I would cover my eyes while brushing my teeth, just in case our bathroom mirror hadn't been properly made. When Dad found out why, he laughed and explained that although mirror-making did require special magic, no mirror could change your face; only Time could do that.) I carefully swept up the shards, doing my best to find every last piece, then wrapped the bits of broken mirror in white linen and put them into my top drawer for safekeeping. I'd have to ask Mrs. Townley about getting it properly mended later.

I propped myself up on one elbow and tucked into my oatmeal, trying to convince myself I could get through the day on three hours of sleep. Mum, who had already had her breakfast, was sipping tea and quietly reading; often in the mornings she'd pick interesting bits of thought out of my head and talk to me about them, but not now. What a strange sensation it was, not having my mind be an open book to my mother. She didn't even seem to notice that I was shading. I tried a few naughty thoughts to test the spell's limits: Hey, Mum, I broke your hand mirror this morning. Next I'm going to dance naked in the town square.

Mum didn't even blink. "Sleep all right, honey?" she asked, taking another sip.

"Fine." Actually, I was up most of the night putting things into people's heads with Mrs. Townley. Nothing. Not even a glance. I couldn't help but think I was taking advantage, though -- both of the spell's power and of Mum.

"You look worn out," Mum added. "You can't stay up all night and expect to bounce back in the morning." Then again, maybe she didn't actually need to read my mind.

"Yeah, I know. Where's Dad?"

"He had his breakfast an hour ago. Went down to the workshop."

Good morning, child. The voice came into my head with perfect clarity, and I recognized it immediately as Mrs. Townley's. Finish your breakfast and come over. There's much to learn today.

I hadn't learned how to send messages, so I couldn't respond, but I knew I'd better hustle it over there. Over the last few days I'd discovered that Mrs. Townley was a lot stricter than my mother, and she didn't like to be kept waiting. I kissed Mum, sent my bowl to the sink, drew my commonplace-book to me from upstairs and made a beeline for the Townley house.

Mrs. Townley was up and dressed, sitting with perfect posture at the dining room table as though she hadn't spent nearly all the previous night awake and teaching. I wondered where she found the stamina. Peck was, for the moment, nowhere to be seen, though I could hear him scrabbling around in one of the other rooms.

Please be seated, Mrs. Townley's voice enunciated in my head.

"Mrs. Townley, I was wondering if--"

No vocal conversation today, child. Any outsider can speak. I got a faint sense of her disapproval. Use your knack. And sit down.

I sat.

Thank you. Now then, what was your question?

I didn't yet understand how it worked, but figured I might as well take a whack at it, so I looked directly at Mrs. Townley and thought, as clearly as possible, How do I get a broken mirror fixed?

You're not coming through properly, Mrs. Townley observed. Remove your shade spell for a moment, please.

"Oops." I'd forgotten about having shaded earlier, and dispelled it quickly.

Very good. Now then, sending messages involves more than just thinking them. You have to connect mind to mind -- like this. And suddenly the basic knowledge about how to send was there in my head, whole and complete, as though I'd known it forever.

Thank you! I beamed at her.

Don't thank me just yet; it'll take a great deal of practice before you become really proficient. But she was pleased. Now, your question?

We silently discussed my broken mirror and the best way to get it fixed. As the conversation went on, I noticed that Mrs. Townley was gradually speeding things up, encouraging me to keep up the pace; there was no reason, other than slowness of mind, for a thought-based conversation to take as long as a speech-based one. As she did, she added more knowledge to the conversation -- how to send visual images, scents, colors, memories -- and I followed along as best as I could, knowing my expression was still awkward and ungainly compared to the flawless elegance of her thoughts. I began to tire; my head throbbed, unaccustomed to the unfamiliar use of my mind.

I could use a break, I thought. Could we stop for a little while?

In good time, Mrs. Townley replied. First I want you to do something for me. Call to Peck, and ask him to bring us a pen.

I faltered. But... he's a crow... and besides, I don't even know where he is.

A slight inward sigh. Corvids are highly intelligent birds, and Peck is around humans all day long. He can understand you well enough, even if you have trouble understanding him. As far as where he is, do you know what Peck looks like?


Then you're already halfway there. You don't have to be able to see someone, human or animal, to be able to send and receive. Otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation, she thought drolly. Go on, call Peck.

I closed my eyes and thought of Peck... and somewhat to my surprise, there he was. It had been simpler than I'd thought to locate his mind. I still couldn't tell exactly where he was, but I could feel his thoughts -- oddly shaped, not composed as human thoughts were, but still roughly understandable. He was strutting and preening at his own reflection, pleased with his own glossy black magnificence.

Peck? I tried. Could you bring me a pen, please?

In response I got a very rude and shockingly specific visual suggestion of where I could put the pen, and Peck continued to preen carelessly.

PECK IN THE CROWN. Mrs. Townley cut through the conversation with thoughts like thunder, and I heard a caw of alarm from the other room. You are being excessively rude to a guest in our home. Bring us a pen, now.

In moments Peck was winging his way into the dining room, a pen in his beak. He dropped it on the table and alighted on Mrs. Townley's shoulder, fluffing out his feathers and shaking them back into place as though nothing strange had happened, but I could tell he was annoyed.

My apologies, Mrs. Townley smiled. Peck is a vain thing, and unused to human notions of courtesy. But his eyes are keen, and he doesn't mind lending out the use of them. She scratched his head affectionately, and Peck cocked his head and pulled at her silver earring.

"Now then," she added, and I was a little shocked to hear her voice again in the quiet room. "We'll cover the next information vocally, to give you a bit of a breather." She handed me the pen. "Most of this knowledge has to be learned the old-fashioned way, I'm afraid. I can't just put it into your head. There's a great deal to remember, and you'll learn it more thoroughly if you can review the information, so take notes."

For the next four hours straight we worked on concept introduction theory. When Mrs. Townley first told me about her service I imagined her dropping the equivalent of whole books into people's heads as they slept, but it turned out to be far more subtle and intricate a discipline than I'd thought. Human minds are highly distinctive; every mind grows and develops in a different way, with its own specific internal structure, and as people mature their minds become complex and filled with information. If you're going to add some new idea to a mind, you can't just shove it in sidewise like a two-by-four. It has to be added carefully, slid into the open spaces between existing thoughts and beliefs, disturbing the pre-existing structure as little as possible. Too much disturbance, and a mind can reject the new thought -- or worse yet, fracture, rendering the person mentally fragile or insane. Then, too, some people are naturally mentally fragile; any concept introduced to a fragile mind has to be handled with exceptional finesse, if it is to be attempted at all. You have to be very familiar with an individual mind before you try introducing the simplest idea, let alone more complex theories and concepts. The more I learned about it, the more I began to appreciate the nature of Mrs. Townley's service. And she was right -- there was a lot to remember. Even with occasional direct mind-to-mind instruction for clarification's sake, I'd put five pages of notes in my commonplace-book and my fingers were starting to cramp up when we finally broke for lunch.

Most food in Corey was homemade -- not because we were particularly concerned with eating healthy or local, but because we were as self-sufficient as possible from the town's founding, for obvious reasons. Mrs. Townley had made her own bread, sliced a triangle of goat cheese from the Phillips farm, and picked young nettles for a spring tonic soup. It was all delicious -- although, I thought loyally, not as good as my mother's cooking. Peck hopped about the table, gobbling up crumbs, until Mrs. Townley shooed him away.

"How do you remember all this stuff?" I asked between bites.

"Well, it's like any other discipline, I suppose; it takes time and practice," Mrs. Townley replied, dipping into her soup. "But you're coming along well, child. I know it's frustrating at first." Then she chuckled. "Imagine growing up in an outsider school, where you'd have to learn everything this way."

Poor Keefe, I thought, imagining what it must be like for him going through the drudgery of an outsider education. Mrs. Townley raised an eyebrow, and only then did I remember I wasn't shaded. Too late I snapped the spell back into place, like pulling down a window blind in my head.

"Keefe?" she asked.

"Just a local boy," I muttered into my soup.

"I see."

I wondered just how much she had seen, but I wasn't about to ask.

"You need to keep better control of your thoughts, child. This service requires a great deal of mental concentration and discretion. It won't do to let your thoughts go flying off in all directions."

"Yes, ma'am."

Mrs. Townley seemed to soften a bit. "Between all the theory work today and the observation you've been doing at night, I'm sure you're close to exhausted. Why don't you go home and take an afternoon nap? It should make you much more alert and observant this evening."

I wanted to protest that I could make it through the day just fine, but I was too busy yawning. So I gathered up my commonplace-book, thanked Mrs. Townley for her service, and headed blearily toward home.

Drifting along, I wondered whether I'd ever really be able to teach like Mrs. Townley. She made it look effortless, but now that I knew what was involved... How many years had it taken her to master it all -- learning what needed to be taught, then introducing it to each individual mind? It seemed impossible that I'd ever be able to --


The warning came too late. I collided with someone and we both fell several feet. Whoever it was had the presence of mind to catch himself in the air, but I hit the ground hard and had the wind knocked out of me. When I could breathe again, I noticed John Woodbury hovering above me, looking horrified.

"Are you all right?" he asked. "Should I go fetch a healer?"

"I'm -- I'm fine," I said, waving him off. "Just couldn't breathe. Give me a minute." I took a couple of experimental deeper breaths, then added, "I'm sorry I ran into you. I wasn't paying attention."

"It doesn't matter," John said, pushing white-blond hair out of his eyes. "Are you sure you're OK? Uh, could I take you home?"

I brushed myself off. "It's really not necessary," I said. "Truly, I'm all right. How about you?"

John had gone red in the face and seemed oddly incapable of speech. I wondered for a minute if I'd clocked him in the head. Then he suddenly let fly with a torrent of strung-together syllables that sounded something like "Iwaswundrinifyougotodanswimefriday?"

"I'm sorry, what?"

His face went even redder and he stammered, "I -- I -- this wasn't how I meant to -- I mean, I was just -- there's a dance on Friday -- and I was going to ask --"

It finally occurred to me what John was trying to do, and I wasn't sure what to say. Part of me wanted to go. But most of me wanted an excuse to go with Keefe instead.

"Oh, John, I'd like to go," I said gently, "but I have other plans for Friday. I -- I've been -- doing service for Mrs. Townley." It was close to the truth, anyway. "I'm sorry."

John's expression clouded over. "It's all right," he murmured. "Maybe some other time." And he was off, swiftly enough that I worried he might run into someone else.

I continued on my way, more cautiously this time, thinking about Fate and her strange machinations. John was pleasant enough, even if Dad thought he wouldn't make a good carpenter. Ordinarily I would have said yes. But Keefe complicated things. I really wanted to be able to keep that tentative date with him.

Then I hit on an idea.


1 comment:

BumbleVee said...

hahahha ..... Peck is hilarious! What fun I'm having reading this..... still waiting to find out what candlepin bowling is ....