MAGIC

In the Pricipality of Rügen, in the area around Tribuzin, in the time of Swietobor II of the House of Griffins, there dwelt the daughters Gauchini.

Well, in the town where these two beautiful sisters lived there was a fascinator, name of Valiantine.  He was neither young or handsome, but he had no wife and he was as interested as any of the young men were in getting one of the Gauchini girls–if not the rich elder girl, the more beautiful younger one.  Whichever he won, he would be an object of other men’s envy–and even magic-men are not immune to wanting that.

Valiantine did all the things that those young men were trying.  First he put himself regularly in the young women’s way, happening by outside their house just as they crossed from door to carriage, or arriving at the edge of the path as they made their daily park promenade.  Tall and thin in his dark suit, he lifted his dark hat and lowered his gaze to their lovely feet as they passed.

On one of these occasions, seeing that their mother’s small dog was suffering some kind of skin affliction, he struck up a conversation with her, professing more interest than he truly felt in the care of such animals.  Afterwards he sent her a pot of a cream to apply to the dog’s skin.  He had magicked the cream both to cure the lesions and to engender tenderness towards himself in any person who touched it.  Which ended with my lady’s chambermaid developing quite a crush on him, while the lady herself, who almost always wore gloves when carrying the dog, came no closer than being able to abide having Valiantine near, where before she had felt a natural repugnance towards his self-conscious bearing, his funereal clothes and his conspicuous lack of associates or friends.  The two beautiful daughters, who thoroughly disliked the dog, no more noticed him than they noticed iron fenceposts or singular grass blades among the many.

Valiantine was thus driven to exert his powers more forcefully to impress himself upon the young ladies.  By various subtle hand-wavings he managed an invitation to one of the mother’s afternoons, and to hold the girls’ admirers at bay long enough to engage first the older then the younger in several minutes’ “conversation” during which each responded most politely to his observations on the weather, the present company, and the pleasantness of walking in parks.

He came away satisfied that he had fixed himself in their memories as an intriguing man of the world.  He read interest into the smiles he had collected, quickening of the heart into the girls’ casting their glances downward or away from him.  He was very hopeful of his chances with either of the lovelies.

He next engineered his attendance at a ball at which the daughters were to be present.  He went to great pains and some expense to prepare himself, traveling up to the port city to have himself outfitted by a good tailor.  Once he was dressed he put what he felt must be an irresistible glamour all around himself, and he was rewarded at the ball by many glances, dances and fan-flutterings from the older women, as well as a dance with each of the daughters.  He was light on his feet, you can imagine, which left the girls free to concentrate on words, and words they had in plenty, buoyed up by their excitement at being out in society and being by far the most marriageable persons in the room, indeed in the town.  Valiantine read their happy chatter entirely as regard for himself.  Watching them in exactly the same play with others on the dance floor, he thought the girls very kind for their patience with lesser men when their hearts were so clearly leaning and yearning towards his own.

When he felt that enough such meetings had taken place, Valiantine made his feelings known, first to the older daughter and then, on being rejected by her repeatedly, to the younger.  At first made gentle by her own surprise and by the strong glamours he had carried so far at this point in the story to the meeting, this lovely girl did not utterly reject him, but soon, with her sister’s and her mother’s horrified exclamations ringing in her ears, she found sufficient will, reinforced by true and natural feelings of revulsion, to be definite enough in her refusal of him that he could hold no further hopes of a match with her.

Well, it’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of a fascinator, is it?  For he’s unlikely to just retire and lick his wounds.  Valiantine went off to his house–which was not small and not large, and not in a good part of town nor yet in a bad, but which of course bore no womanly touches barring some lace at the windows put there by his late mother that, if touched (which it never was) would have crumbled from age and poor quality–and he brewed himself a fine magic.  It was so powerful that to all intents and purposes Valiantine did not exist for a while, except as an instrument or agent of his own urge to revenge.  And so at this point in the story it behooves us to leave Valiantine in his formless obsession and join the two daughters, through whose eyes the working out of that obsession is much clearer.

So here is the younger girl, alone in her room, sitting up in bed writing a breathless account of that evening’s events in her day-journal.

And here is the older, sitting more solemnly in front of her mirror, having just accepted (her father is to be consulted tomorrow) an offer of marriage to a most suitable gentlemen: young fine-looking, and possessed of a solid fortune, and of a character to which her heart can genuinely warm.

Under each girl’s door, with a small but significant sound, is slipped a white envelope.  Each starts up, and crosses her room; each takes the envelope up and listens for–but does not hear–receding footsteps outside.  The seal on the envelope is unfamiliar, marvelous; breaking it releases a clean  piney, adventurous scent onto the bedroom air, and each girl breathes this thing in.

Step through the door, says the card inside.  Each girl hesitates, then reaches to take the doorknob.  But the doorknob won’t be taken, will it?  The hands–the younger tentative, the older more resolute–close to fists on nothing.

Step through the door.  Two hands touch two doors, and find the timber to be, in fact, a stable brown smoke.  The hands sink into the surface, the smoke curls above the pale skin like stirred-up silt.  The moment passes when they might choose whether to stay or go, and they step through.

And they are in a wood, a dim, cold, motionless wood.  The trees are poles of indigo with maybe foliage, maybe cloud, on high;  the light is blue, the ground is covered with drifts of snow.

They see each other, the one in her white nightgown and wrap, the other in her dance-dress, the hothouse orchid still in her hair.  Each gives a cry of relief, and they run together.

“I’m so glad you’re here, sister!”

“Where are we?  In a dream?”

“I’ve never known a dream so cold!”

They clutch arms and look around.

“There, look!  Is that a fire?”  For warm yellow lights move, far off among the trees.

“It must be!  Let us go and warm ourselves!”

They set off.  Bare or in thin embroidered slippers, their feet are soon numb with cold.  But the ground under the snow is even, and the strange trees are smooth and sprout no projections to catch their clothing or otherwise hinder them.  Music floats to meet them, music such as they’ve never danced to, beguiling, rhythmical, minor-keyed.  Their minds don’t know what to make of it.  It seems ugly, yet it attracts them.  It is clumsily, grossly appropriate.  It is a puzzle, and to solve it they must move closer and hear it more clearly.

Apart from this music the wood is like a large and silent room.  No bird flies through it; no wind disturbs the air.  The chill rises like a blue flume from the snow; it showers with the gray light from above.

The music deepens and brightens as they stumble on: various humming as of rubbed wet crystal, and many different pitches of tinkling, or jingling, adorn its upper reaches.  It grows other sounds that are nearly voices, uttering nearly words, words the two daughters want to hear, are convinced they must hear, if they are to understand this adventure.  A deep, slow, sliding groan travels to them through the ground.

“It is!” says the older girl, peering around a tree.  “It’s a carousel!  An enormous one!  Beautiful!”

“Oh, I’m so cold!”

They hurry now, and soon are in the clearing where the magnificent creation revolves.  The music is rosy-fleshed arms gathering them up in a dance; the horses rise and fall with the rhythm, the foxes too, the carriages and sleighs, the swans and cats and elephants.  The light bulbs are golden; the mirrors shed sunlight, the carven faces laughter; the revolving makes a breeze that flows warmly spring-like out into the daughters’ faces, that lifts the manes and tails and furs and feathers of the carved animals, that brightens the horses’ flanks until the older girl is convinced she sees galloping muscles move, until the younger would vow on a bible that she saw a fly land on that Bay’s shoulder, and be shaken off by a flesh tremor.

And they would swear that, for a moment, each creature, each sleigh, carried a figure: pretty girls in their detailed fashions, fine-figured young men waving their hats, all with such joyful expressions, all with such eagerness in their bodies and gestures.  The daughters’ single impulse is to join them, to be in among the throng, so warm in color and mood, to be swept up and a part of that strange heavy-lively crystalline music–which winds, with a spirited suddenness, to a triumphant  flourish and stop.  There is no one on the carousel.  Only the creatures stand in the golden light, a hoof raised here, a head lowered there.  Then the hoof strikes the wooden floor, the head lifts and the lips whiffle; an ostrich turns and blinks at the daughters down its beak.  Life, minor life, entrances each girl’s eye.

“Look, the eagle!  His wings are like fire!”

“So beautiful!  So warm!  I wish that music would start again.”

They stand in the snow, clutching each other.

“Do you suppose we are meant to ride it?  In this dream?”

“Look, there are steps up to it–of course we are, sister!  Come!  Which mount will you choose?”

And there follows delight–the last delight of their lives.  They run about, in the warmth, with no mamas or chaperones to restrain them, choosing now the lion for his sumptuous mane and wise eyes; now the cat for its flexibility and fur and for the fish, flashing rainbows, it holds in its jaws; now the sleigh for its quilts and candles; now the eagle again for the grandeur of his red-gold wings.

Finally the older daughter chooses the black stallion with the bejeweled harness and the saddle of warm bronze leather.  The younger finds a strawberry roan nearby with an improbably frothing cream mane, all its harness a supple blood red.  She climbs astride and it tosses its head, showering her with tiny white blossoms, sweetly scented, that melt like snowflakes on her skin.  Delighted, she turns to her sister, in time to see her glitter with tiny melting gems, shaken from the coal-black’s mane.

“What bewitching animals!” she cries–then, “Oh!” as the beautiful machine creeps into motion around them.  The music bursts out from the central fantasia of mirrors and organ pipes and glossy colored figures and gold-painted arabesques.

All is striking and wonderful, warm and alive while the carousel gathers speed.  Everywhere they look the something catches the eye: the deft paintwork that makes that cherub look so cunning, the glitter of eagle feathers as the light passes over, the way the giraffe runs besides them, clumsy and elegant at the same time, the lozenges of trompe-l’oeil that offer whole worlds of, in a glance, brine-splashy seascapes, holly-bedecked parks, city squares thronged with characters and statuary, alpine vistas where one might as easily spring up into the sky as tumble to the crags below.

And their ears and their hearts are too full of the weighty rhythms of the music to allow proper thought.  And the beasts below them are just alive enough to intrigue them,  and to respond to the supple reins.  The carousel reaches its full speed, and they gallop there a while, calling to each other, perfectly happy.

And then it spins just a little faster.

The music accelerates, veers upward in pitch, sounds a little mad, a little wild.  There is a jerk as of slipping gear-wheels, and the roan plunges.

“Sister!”  The younger girl grasps the gold-and-white-striped pole to which the horse is fixed.

But her sister is wrestling with the reins of her own bounding stallion.  Now, half-tossed from the saddle, she clings to the horse’s pole, struggles to regain her seat.

So frightened are they, so dizzied by the machine’s whirling, so busy with their desperate cries for each other’s aid, that they do not see the shiny paintwork of the poles fade to a glassy blue in their grasp, the warmer colors drain down, drawn out of the poles entirely.  They do not discover until too late that–

“Sister, my hands!  They are frozen fast!”

The machine and the music spin on, but the horse’s movements slow and cease.  Their painted coats–glossy-black, pink-brown–fade to blue where the pole strikes through them, and the blueness speeds spreads across the saddles under the folds of nightgown and dance-dress.  The girls’ fine cotton drawers are no protection against the terrible coldness.  It locks their thighs to the saddles; it locks their seats; it strikes up into their women’s parts, fast as flame, clear as glass, cold as ice.

“Sister!”

“Sister, help me.”

They gaze aghast at each other.  The animals between and around them fade to blue, freeze to stillness, beaks agape, teeth points of icy light, manes and tails carven ice.  The music raves, high-pitched and hurrying.  The golden lights become ice-bulbs gathering only the blue snow-light below, the gray cloud-light above.  The forest spins around the carousel, a mad, icy blue, frozen forever in time.

 

 

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