Grey Magic

By JT Lawrence

Magical realism

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679
39 mins

 

Spells are like knives, capable of good or evil.

1 / A GOOD TRICK

No one appreciates the irony of her situation more than Raven Kane.
She would have laughed, except that it doesn’t seem so funny at three in the morning when she is lying, skin-on-fire, in a strange hotel bathtub.
Raven Kane.
Burnt-out witch.
Hot skin, blue lips.
The burning always starts with a fever.
Not a regular high temperature caused by a velcro-legged virus, but a fever of the skin.
The first time it happened — 27 years ago — Raven had just lain there, in her nursery nightgown, while the fire spread from her feet upwards, as if she were burning at the stake in some parallel life — paralysed by the fear of her destiny.
Sometimes she had wished to burn up altogether, to blaze away the worried looks of her parents, to incinerate the innate knowledge that she was so very different to the other kids.
Sometimes, as a child, she wished to relinquish her strange power altogether; to be nothing more than a sad glint of ashes in the creeping morning light.
Now she lies in the cold water listening to her heart slow.
Watching, as the red burn leaks out of her skin.
The opposite of a sun lizard.
Raven likes to think of herself as a hip, multi-tasking, hexing-and-texting witch.
That has always been her highlights reel.
But the dark and sticky truth is — There’s a tentative knock on the hotel room door.
It’s the waiter from the downstairs bar.
“Hello?” he calls.
“Miss Kane?”
“Bring it in here,” Raven says.
“Quickly.”  She hears his footsteps stutter into the empty room, allows him to see a flash of flesh through the slightly ajar bathroom door: a long, blushing arm resting on the lip of the tub.
Raven senses his hesitation; hears him clear his throat. Imagines him adjusting his bowtie.
“I’ll just leave it here,” he says.
“Just call down if you need more.”
“I need it in here!” yells Raven.
Is the man deaf? How can you be a decent bartender if you’re hard of hearing? The barman teeters into the tiled room.
When he sees Raven he jumps and tries unsuccessfully to cover his eyes.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry.”
“You’re sorry?”
“You’re naked!” he says, as red wings bloom along his cheeks like Rorschach ink blots.
“Of course I’m naked,” Raven says, “I’m in the bath.”
The waiter quickly averts his gaze; searches for something else to focus on.
Raven sees him look at the spider-shaped pile of lingerie on the counter — black satin, charcoal lace — and sees his eyes skitter away from that, too.
Finally, with some relief, he finds a safe zone: her worn-out toothbrush, reposing happily in a scuffed glass mug.
Beyond the mug and its identical twin, Raven is still there, inside the mirror.
“The ice,” her reflection says.
Of course he has forgotten.
He lifts the metal buckets as if to prove he hasn’t. “Pour it into the bath,” she says.
He still seems uncertain but does as he’s told.
The ice crashes in.
Raven closes her eyes and sinks down into the arctic water with a sigh.
She feels his gaze sweep over her body as her heat melts the ice.
Despite so much of her skin being on show, she feels his eyes inspecting her face, looking at the silver amulet — a wolf’s head — on a chain around her neck.
Her Fenrir.
She knows that her dark make-up is smudged.
He will be wondering why she has been crying.
“Stop looking at me,” she says, startling him.
“More ice?” he asks.
“More ice,” she says.
You shouldn’t do that to them, you know, says a voice that sounds like a masculine version of her own.
Do what? asks Raven.
You know full well what, says the voice.
You’re no fun.
Fun is not my mandate.
I wasn’t doing anything.
I needed the ice.
Did you have to embarrass the boy? Are you kidding? This is probably the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to him.
You give yourself a lot of credit.
Yes, well… Someone has to.
She hears sounds deep in the walls.
Moaning.
Whispering.
Who else is awake at this hour? Certainly no one from the conference.
It must be the staff getting ready for the day.
Hotels never sleep.
Is it normal, do you think, says Raven, to have conversations with yourself? What do you mean ‘normal’? Well, do other people do it? Would that make it ‘normal’? Anyway, what does it matter? She sinks down, trying to immerse her whole body, but she’s too tall and her knees stick out of the water like hot, pink islands.
Joan of Arc heard a voice, says Raven.
So did Jesus.
That doesn’t bode well.
What do you mean? Well - look what happened to them.
She runs an ice cube over her thigh.
It glides over her flickering skin and vanishes.
It is its own magic trick.
It’s getting worse, says the voice.
You have to do something about it.
The waiter reappears.
Without hesitating, as if he had planned his actions while walking up the stairs, he marches in and dumps the contents of his pails at Raven’s feet.
“More?” he asks, his cheek-flush faded.
Raven opens her legs a fragment.
“Please,” she says.
The silver buckets clatter out of the room.
Sometimes the skin-fever brings with it auditory hallucinations: chanting, shouting, the sound of an angry mob.
The crackling of a spiteful fire.
Raven has always dreamt of pitchforks and pyres, but her current predicament is far less dramatic.
It’s a slow burn — a burning out — an unhurried ember losing its glow.
Descending, devolving, degenerating into those familiar grey cinders.
A well-known curse in Chinese witchcraft is: ‘May you get what you wish for’.
That and ‘May you live in interesting times’.
Raven has been hexed with both.
She often wonders if she experiences these episodes because her energy has an intense empathy for her foremothers in Essex or Salem; if the attacks are, in fact, echoes of her previous or future lives.
Whatever the reason, she thanks the Universe daily for the Age of Enlightenment.
She slips her body further down, puts her face under the water, holds her breath for as long as she can.
Her knuckles hum with the cold.
Of course, she uses the term ‘enlightenment’ loosely.
There are still plenty of Pitchforks around.

2 / OLD CLAW

The hotel porter swings open the main door and Raven thinks she has made a lucky escape.
The 6 a.m. air streaming into the stale lobby is cool and fresh.
She can smell toast and car exhaust fumes and jasmine blossoms.
In short: she can smell freedom.
She quickens her pace but, as she’s about to step over the threshold and into the sky-coloured world outside, there is an old claw on her shoulder.
Rum and maple cigarette smoke.
Damn it! thinks Raven.
Caught out! I knew it was too good to be true.
“Raven Kane,” says the crone, who seems to have appeared out of nowhere.
Raven recognises the scented voice.
Spins around.
Lavinia Barkridge, resplendent with her coiffed blue-grey hair, hipster pin-striped suit, roll-up glowing from in between her immaculately varnished fingernails.
Eighty years in the shade and more fashion-forward than Raven could ever hope to be.
“High Priestess,” Raven says, forcing a smile.
“You’re not staying for breakfast? I heard that their Eggs Benedict is outstanding.”
“I have to be somewhere.”
“You’re going to hospital,” says Lavinia.
She frowns.
There’s no use asking her how she knows.
Raven herself didn’t even know up until twenty minutes ago.
“You’re ill?”
“Oh, I’m not going for myself. I have a… client there.”
“I hope it wasn’t your doing.”
It was indeed Raven’s doing.
She opens her mouth to answer but the High Priestess squeezes her shoulder, then lets go.
Her eyes are twinkling.
“I’m only joking.”
Raven attempts to laugh.
It doesn’t work.
“Are you quite sure you’re not ill? I had a vision of you. Pale. In a hospital bed.”
The idea is inviting.
She wouldn’t mind a couple of days off, lying in a white room with no responsibilities, with people to bring her tea and badly-made cheese sandwiches.
“Will you come back here afterwards?” asks Lavinia.
“The Coven was hoping to have a proper catch-up with you.”
“Sorry Lavinia but I have to get back to the menagerie. Eternally hungry maws.
You know how it is.
The Grimm Brothers have probably eaten Lily Lightfoot on toast.
And I have so much work to catch up on…” Lavinia looks into her face.
Her eyes may as well be titanium-tipped electric drills.
“That’s a shame. We were worried about you last night when you left the forum discussion so abruptly.”
“Yes. Well, er… I had to —” There was no point in telling Lavinia about the attack.  Raven pulls her sleeves down to hide her mottled skin.
“To be honest, we were worried about you before your hasty exit. You haven’t quite… been yourself.”
What she actually means, says the voice, is that you HAVE been yourself.
They would rather you be more polite and pro-social.
Tactful.
In other words, NOT be yourself.
“You weren’t at the Gibbous ritual last month or the Michaelmas Feaste.”
“I’ve been extremely busy.”
Don’t lie to the High Priestess! cautions the voice.
She sees through anything.
I’m convinced that she can see through a bulletproof car.
I have been busy! Busy lying on the couch, says the voice.
Busy binge-watching television series.
Busy staring at your house crumble around you.
Busy procrastinating.
Busy Not Writing Your Book.
“I’ve been having… some problems,” says Raven, taking a sideways step in the direction of her emancipation.
“Problems? What problems?”
“I don’t want to bother you with them,” says Raven.
“You have enough to deal with.”
“I do,” says Lavinia.
“And I need you to do your job with regard to the Wicked Witches.”
“The Witchcore Wenches?”
“They’ve changed the name of their coven again.”
Raven had read a Tumblr post of a fan of theirs that said they were ‘too cutting-edge’ for a name to stick.
The press has settled on calling them 'The Wicked Witches' so that their audience will at least know who they are reporting on.
Lavinia shakes her head in disapproval.
Her hair stays perfectly in place.
“They are causing untold mischief.”
“They are, I know.”
Despite being especially good at ignoring her phone, Raven hasn’t missed the Google alerts or the mayhem on her Twitter newsfeed.
“But there is no malice in their magic.” They just like shaking up the status quo. Challenging the beliefs of the ‘brainwashed sheeple’.
They’re too young and too energetic for their own good.
“No malice, perhaps, but their reckless behaviour will have consequences.” Last week they hexed the stock exchange.
The week before that they’d released a colony of white rats into shopping centres to ‘mirror the culture of consumerism’.
They were always up to some kind of roguery.
Just thinking about their capers exhausts Raven.
“They give us a bad name, you know,” Lavinia says.
“I have not worked this hard for this long for some Dabblers to sully our good reputation.”
“Yes, High Priestess.”
Raven’s phone starts to ring.
She silences it and chucks it back into her bag.
“They are your responsibility, Raven.”
“Yes. I’ll sort them out.”
Raven crabs her way out.
The High Priestess narrows her eyes.
“Let’s do coffee,” she says.
“Soon. We need to catch up.”
“Great idea!” yells Raven from the parking-lot.
“Email me!” shouts Lavinia, but Raven pretends not to hear as she jumps into her faded Morris Minor.
The High Priestess is still watching her as she almost reverses into a jogger, stalls, then screeches off.
Why do you even attend these damn things? asks the voice.
You can make fun of it, but it IS important.
Witchcraft is all about community.
And being a practising witch in this city can be… solitary.
You LIKE solitary.
True.
But one has to make an effort to… To what? To… network.
My God, woman! Who are you and what have you done with Raven? I never thought I’d hear you say that word.
I should wash your mouth out with soap.
Ja well… Scoff all you like.
Times are tough.
You know, the economy.
What do you know about the economy? Raven’s phone, now on silent, buzzes impotently from inside her bag.
It might be important, says the voice.
Then they can leave a message.
What if someone wants to actually, you know, speak to you? Texting is far more efficient.
Raven decides to take the scenic route to help reduce the anxiety bubbling in her chest.
The trees are in full leaf and the air is clear. You should answer your phone, says the voice. I’m driving! says Raven.
I don’t mean that you should answer it this minute.
Just that you should answer it sometimes.
That you should not avoid it altogether.
I hate answering my phone.
What does it feel like? What? says Raven. To have so many issues. I mean who hates answering their phone? I do.
Yes, I think we’ve established that.
There, it’s stopped ringing.
Now we can stop talking about it.
Why didn’t you stay for Eggs Benedict? asks the voice.
I think I bonded more than enough.
And I had to escape the crowds.
You know me.
I do know you.
I don’t like crowds.
You’re agoraphobic.
No, I’m not.
Agoraphobic is a fear of open places.
I love open places.
I hate crowds.
They make me nervous.
Bad things can happen in crowds.
Raven brakes for a red light.
She looks around for hijackers.
A beggar is rooting through a pavement dustbin.
He spots her and starts making his way to her car.
He holds a sawn-off plastic coke bottle bottom which he shakes at her.
She tries to wind the window up but the mechanism jams and it sticks halfway.
She waits for green but it doesn’t come.
Raven checks for cars and then runs the light.
Demophobia, says the voice.
Hey? Fear of crowds.
Yes, that’s it.
Not to be confused with demonophobia.
There’s really a condition called demonophobia? I’m not sure.
I could have made it up.
But if there’s not, then there should be.
I haven’t had much sleep.
You haven’t had such a bad attack in ages.
Since you were a little girl.
How do you know? Because I was there.
My skin is still tingling, says Raven, looking down at her arms.
That’s what she said.
What? That’s what she said.
It’s a joke.
You’re telling jokes now? I wouldn’t go that far.
One joke does not a joker make.
That’s better.
Is it? More philosophising.
Less joking.
Okay.
You’re supposed to be my Voice of Reason, says Raven.
Am I? God knows I need one.
Besides, shouldn’t it be ‘That’s what HE said’? Wait… What? You didn’t? Oh yes I did! The bartender? That pupa of a human? How could you? Very easily, if you must know.
You’re terrible! What? You’re the one who said I should give him a tip.
He was an eager learner and very… grateful.
You’re terrible.
You’re a terrible human being.
That’s not what he said.

3 / RAVEN CHICKS

The grumpy nurse behind the reception counter at Saints hospital motions for Raven to take a seat.
“It’s full in there,” she says, frowning, as if it is Raven’s fault that Celeste has friends visiting her to meet her newborn baby.
As if Raven is the reason that gentle laughter and helium balloons are spilling out of the private ward where her client is recovering.
“I’ll only be two minutes,” says Raven, gesturing at the uninspired pharmacy-bought flowers in her hand.
“I just came to drop these off.”
The nurse purses her lips, crosses her meaty forearms.
She doesn’t believe a word.
She knows how these things work out.
“I’m in a hurry,” says Raven.
“Shall I come back another time?” She doesn’t like holding newborns anyway.
They are too fragile.
She imagines their skulls like bird eggs: ready to crack and spill open at the smallest trauma.
And their skin! That pink, fragrant, never-been-touched-before skin.
Their pink peril is almost too much for her to bear.
She had read before that, in the Middle Ages, Europeans wouldn’t name a baby in the first year because of the high rate of infant mortality.
It was a different world entirely, one in which naming a child was seen as brazen: a way of tempting fate.
“Sit,” says the nurse.
“I’ll chase the others out in five minutes.”
Raven sees then that this staunchly-built nurse is absolutely perfect for her job. This is the position of Gatekeeper, not friendly push-over. She’s here to protect the new mothers from the barrage that comes with bringing a new life into the world.
She will keep the well-meaning crowd from overwhelming the over-vulnerable.
Raven sits down.
She pulls out her phone, swears at the number of missed calls and notifications that her iCloud storage is full.
She ignores them and checks her Twitter account.
May as well do some work while she’s waiting.
Dear Raven @turningtricks, reads the first tweet.
I need a spell to help me lose weight.
Can you help? #havetriedeverything.
Dear @Jozifoodie, types Raven.
There’s nothing wrong with a little junk in your trunk.
What’s the real problem? @Turningtricks, reads the next one, I need a spell to keep my husband faithful.
A newborn starts wailing in the room next door.
It’s a brutal sound.
@frankieJ, if you need a spell to keep your husband faithful, you’re doing it wrong.
After clicking TWEET she wonders if that was a bit blunt.
Oh, well, she doesn’t have the energy to sugarcoat it.
What else could she say anyway? Maybe he’s just not built for monogamy? Not many animals are.
Maybe he’s just a lying bastard you shouldn’t be with? Or maybe he’s a wonderful man with a weakness.
We all have our flaws.
Maybe she should have told her that cheating is a symptom not a sickness and that she needs to find the root cause.
What her followers need most is not magic, but common sense.
Sometimes, they just need help to identify the problem correctly.
Sometimes, they just need a strategy.
A more business-savvy witch would just comply with the requests (at R500 a spell) instead of dispensing practical advice.
Today’s 58 tweets would certainly come in handy for her giant echoing cave of a bank account.
@Turningtricks I’ve lost my lucky socks and I have an important game coming up.
Can you find them for me? Dear Ms Kane @turningtricks, my #lavender plants are wilting — any advice?? #Organic #HerbHippie #Notsogreenfingers.
My toddler loves my husband more than me.
What can I do? @Turningtricks.
@Turningtricks Do you have a spell to make my mother-in-law vanish? LOL.
@Turningtricks I need your help.
It concerns a rash.
Picture in PM.
#askingforafriend.
Do you believe in a Higher Power? @TurningTricks.
Raven replies: @LightSeeker — I believe in a Deeper Power.
Dearest Raven @turningtricks, please help me.
I need some fertility magic.
#DesperatelyTTC.
Now fertility, she can help with.
The reason Raven is sitting here, in the maternity ward, with wilting flowers by her side, is because of a similar plea for help that she received ten months ago.
Raven knows she’ll never have children of her own, but she’s single-handedly responsible for a large number of conceptions.
Sometimes she pictures all the little grubs — they never grow up in her imagination — chubby-cheeked and gurgling.
Bonny.
Sturdy.
Her own little baby army.
Her raven chicks.
Celeste had been trying to conceive for six years.
Raven could sense, in the first consultation, that the woman was perfectly fertile (her energy was the colour of a ripe mandarin) but despite this, her womb remained stubbornly barren.
Celeste was Afrikaans and used some colourful phrases to describe her infertility, including calling her own uterus “an empty papsak” (which, in English, is the silver bladder that contains the wine in boxed wine).
She would make them both laugh, and then she cried.
The constant dashing of her hopes was exhausting her.
She was falling into depression.
Raven promised she’d have her pregnant within three new moons.
All it would take was some skilful spell-crafting, an eggshell sail and a little resourcefulness on her side.
In Medieval England witches were called ‘the cunning folk’ for good reason.
It was clear to Raven that the husband’s sperm was the problem, although Celeste wouldn’t entertain this idea, wouldn’t even ‘insult him’ by having him tested, as if he were some kind of paleo caveman with the emotional intelligence of a Sumatran Orangutan.
The matter of their infertility was not even discussed in their household, apart from their monthly ritual of him shooting reproachful looks at her tear-stained face, raw and bruised by her steady disappointment.
Raven asked her if they would consider fertility treatment but Celeste dismissed the idea as ‘unnatural’.
Raven had to check her impulse to argue that there was nothing unnatural about science — that in fact, science was the very study of nature — but it wasn’t her place to challenge Celeste’s beliefs.
Besides, she knew she could solve their problem ‘naturally’.
They had been trying for six years, which was good news for Raven.
Six is an incredibly fertile number as one can possibly guess from the shape.
It also told Raven that, if it hadn’t happened spontaneously by now, it probably wasn’t going to happen unless she took some drastic action.
When Celeste was mid-cycle and the moon was full, it was time to cast the spell.
Celeste had invited her sister, Danielle, for moral support, as she was keeping Raven’s services a secret from her Orangutan.
“I just want you to know that I don’t approve of what you do,” were the first words Danielle uttered.
Raven continued to unpack her things.
“I just don’t think it’s right,” she continued, insisting on a confrontation that Raven had no intention of participating in.
“Oh, Danielle,” sighed Celeste.
“In fact, I think…” Raven could tell that she was about to hit her stride.
“You are more than welcome,” Raven said, “to wait outside.”
“Out-Side?” As if it was the first time she’d ever heard the word.
Raven found herself wishing that she would close her gaping fish-mouth.
If they were characters in a comic book she could have waved her wand — abracadabra — and turned her into a puffer fish, bouncing and flapping on the kitchen floor! “There is no place for negative energy here tonight,” Raven said, slowly and clearly.
“If you have a problem it’s best to go and leave this sacred space.” Raven hammed it up a bit, for effect.
“Sacred?” Danielle gasped.
“Sacred?” One is bound, Raven knows from bitter experience, to bump up against some people in this business who believe that witchery is inherently wicked.
Little do they know that they cast spells themselves when they curse other drivers in traffic, touch wood, or make a wish when they blow out birthday candles.
“I need this to work,” Celeste said.
“Listen to me,” whispered her sister, frantic, bunching up her fists around the flea-market crucifix that dangled from her moist and unpleasantly chunky neck.
“You don’t need to do this.
Come to our church! Our cell group has been praying for you —” Raven had no choice now but to speak up.
“And she is yet to conceive. You say you don’t like spells but what do you think prayer is? You just haven’t been saying the right ones.”
Heathen! Danielle’s aura had shouted.
Evil woman! “And I suppose you know the right ones?” She eyed Raven: seeing a wolf in wolf’s clothing.
“Yes,” Raven said.
“It’s my job.”
With Danielle unhappily dispatched, Raven began the ceremony by smudging the room with the sweet smoke of lavender and white sage.
With a piece of chalkstone she cast a circle on the pine floorboards around Celeste, on which she placed six green candles.
She anointed the candles with vanilla oil, lit them, then began her fertility incantation.
Celeste was instructed to close her eyes and sit as still as possible, as if meditating, and just allow the spell to wash through her.
Her hands were placed over her abdomen, sending warmth and acceptance deep into her pelvic chakra.
Afterwards, they sailed the eggshell by moonlight while Celeste recited a poem she had written, inviting the soul of her baby into her body.
Raven found her openness touching, and couldn’t help thinking that she would make a tender mother.
She gave her a silver bracelet with a charm of a carnelian-eyed hare —which she had charged with pentacle-cast spells — as well as a gift of bespoke tea: stinging nettle, red clove and raspberry leaf, which Celeste was to drink every day.
On her way out Raven gave Celeste a syringe she had been keeping warm in her bra, snug between her breasts.
Raven told her it was a potion to open and soften her cervix and that she should keep it at blood temperature and use it as soon as possible before making love.
A fortuitous two weeks later Celeste was pregnant and the rest, as they say, is history.
Her Orangutan will never know that the child is not biologically his.
The timing of Celeste’s luna-cycle couldn’t have been more perfect.
Raven had been consulting that day with another client of hers who was having trouble sustaining his phallus.
Feri, or sexual mysticism is her speciality and she was training him in the art of Tantra.
This client wasn’t dissimilar looking to the man in the framed wedding photo that Celeste had given her and he had inadvertently given Raven the means to help Celeste.
The universe was particularly supportive that day, as it can be when you are following a beneficent course of action.
Neither client was aware of the transaction and they were both extremely pleased with the results.
The nurse, true to her word, marches to Celeste’s room and rounds up the visitors.
She deftly shepherds them out of the door and in the direction of the elevator that will transport them from the east wing.
On her way back to the reception counter she winks at Raven and Raven takes her cue and slips into the private ward.
“Raven,” says Celeste, smiling, a host of sterile white pillows behind her.
She is glowing like a Madonna on oxytocin.
“I’m so glad you could come.”
“I’ll only stay a minute,” says Raven.
“I’m sure you’d like some alone-time with —”
“Bobby,” she says, holding him out towards Raven. He is impossibly small and calm, with perfect blue eyes and a button nose.
“My little Robbins.”
“Bobby,” says Raven.
“What a beautiful boy! Congratulations.”
“Hold him,” she says.
“I don’t know,” says Raven, holding the drooping roses to her chest.
“I’m not very good with — ”
“Nonsense,” says Celeste.
“He wants you to hold him. You’re the reason he exists.”
The room is full of flowers and crunchy silver balloons and teddy bears.
There’s not an empty vase in sight.
She dumps the bouquet into the small porcelain basin and washes her hands over the shucked stems.
“Hello Robbins,” she says, as he is placed in her arms, as light as a raven feather.
“What is she doing here?” says an angry voice at the door.
Raven turns around to see a shocked Danielle holding two paper cups of coffee.
“You’re letting her HOLD your baby?”
“Of course!” says Celeste.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because she’s a —”
“Yes?”
“Because she’s a witch.”
“Oh, Dani, please. Don’t make a scene!” Danielle’s décolletage flushes with patches of ire.
She’s about to say something but then changes her mind and turns on her heel.
“Sorry about that. She’s always been —”
“Don’t worry. It’s not your fault,” says Raven, twinkling.
“Besides, I don’t take being called ‘a witch’ personally.”
Raven doesn’t tell Celeste that Dani has in fact been stalking her on social media ever since the conception spell worked.
She had used different names, fake profiles, anonymous comments on her blog, but the message was always the same: that Raven was an agent of evil and that the Almighty would soon put a stop to her devil-worshipping ways.
“I’m so glad you could come,” Celeste says, as Raven hands the baby back to her along with some myrrh incense.
“I feel like… like we’ve closed the circle.”
Raven glances at the skulking Danielle on the way out.
She has been talking to the Orangutan in the corridor and they both look up at her as she sees them.
Raven’s black-hilted athamé — her double-edged ritual knife — tingles against her thigh.
She has a feeling that this particular circle is not yet closed.
When Raven pulls into her driveway at Colborn Manor she quickly closes the gate behind her before the animals realise she’s home.
Max, the perennially bad-tempered ginger Maine Coon mudblood, jumps up onto Morris’s bonnet and stretches out on the engine-warmed metal.
Licks his paws in a bored kind of way, as if to say that he didn’t even know she had been away for the night.
She can hear Eli chatting inside.
“Raven,” he chirps, “Raven!” The Grimm Brothers, Jake and Bill, bound around the side of the house and Raven steadies herself to accept the battering of their excitement.
“Hello my devil hounds!” she says, ruffling the midnight fur on their Rottweiler heads.
“Miss me?” They bark as if to say ‘Yes, yes, we missed you.
Where were you? Where were you? We thought you were never coming back’.

4 / DEAD & BURIED

Benjamin is wearing his usual workman’s clothes: soft, faded checked shirt; dirty denims, stubby HB pencil that lives in the crook between his ear and his skull.
He has a lumberjack air about him, thinks Raven, as all good carpenters do, and a dark, steady beard.
They are standing on the porch of Colborn Manor and Benjamin is uneasy.
He strokes one of Raven’s cats, Cocoa, who is strutting on the table.
She hasn’t yet seen Lightfoot.
The Grimm Brothers are chasing pigeons in the garden.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Raven already knows the answer.
She is holding one of the new baby rabbits.
It’s mink-soft and the warmth is comforting.
“Yip,” says Benjamin.
“Bad.”
He’s never been one to mince the few words he deigns to mutter.
“How bad?”
“Hmm,” Ben scratches his beard.
“Hmm.”
It is like trying to coax a bear from a cave.
Even Cocoa eventually loses interest and jumps down.
Raven checks her phone: 28 missed calls.
“How much is it going to cost me?” The African Grey swoops down and perches on the back of one of the bentwood chairs.
He does a foot shuffle and then shows Benjamin his beak.
“Hello Eli,” says the carpenter.
“Hello Eli,” chirps the bird.
Ben sighs and leans his hip against the table.
“Look, it depends.”
Raven puts the rabbit down and denies the urge to cross her arms.
“It depends? What does that mean? Won’t it cost what it costs?”
“There are a few possible scenarios.”
“Okay.”
“First, we can just fix what you’ve asked me to fix: The loose planks on this porch.
The stair banister.
The floorboards throughout.”
“The bedroom ceiling. The office wall.”
“Right. So… that’s already a broad scope of work.”
“Right.”
“So we’ll be looking at around R60K for that.”
“Jesus Christ!” Eli shouts.
That’s his favourite phrase.
“Sixty THOUSAND rand?” says Raven.
“I would charge anyone else 100.”
She knows he’s not lying.
Ben doesn’t have a deceitful bone in his body, unlike her.
She has become used to embroidering the truth to suit her own or her clients’, needs.
“And the other scenarios?”
“Well,” says Benjamin, “the second option would be to do all that, plus… a lot more.”
She waits for him to continue, but he bites his lips and looks out at the oak tree.
Good Goddess, she wishes that he would speak faster.
Should she put a temporary spell on him to speed up his thought process? “I’m listening.”
How does his wife do it? Raven would’ve bludgeoned him to death with his own glow-in-the-dark hammer by now.
He sighs again, runs a calloused hand through his hair, causing his bicep to flex.
He has the body of a lumberjack, too.
Ah.
Maybe that’s why his wife hasn’t done away with him.
Eyes, says the voice.
What? Stop ogling him.
He is not a piece of flesh.
Look him in the eyes.
Oh.
Yes.
“Look, Miss Kane. I’m not going to beat around the bush.” Well that is hardly surprising, she thinks.
Also, you’d think that after working for her on and off for the last 12 years he would call her by her first name.
“This house…”
“My house.”
“Your house. Colborn Manor. It’s falling apart.”
“You always say that,” says Raven.
“And you always fix it.”
“This time I just feel that —”
“Yes?”
“That it’s too late. Too far gone.”
He knocks on the wooden panelling behind her.
It sounds worryingly hollow.
“The house is just too… old.
A timber house, in this climate — it’s just asking for trouble.”
Raven doesn’t know what to say.
Eli keeps quiet too.
“I would take it up with the architect but I’m sure he’s dead and buried by now.”
If he wasn’t before this conversation then he certainly is now.
She leans against the crumbling wall, feels the sap drain out of her.
“It’s not just a house,” she says.
“You know that.”
“I know that. I’m sorry.”
You should listen to him, says the voice.
He knows what he’s talking about.
“How much for the second option? You know, to fix everything?” “Broad strokes? 500. 550. Let’s say an extra 50 contingency. So you can budget on R600K.”
“Holy shit,” says Raven.
“I don’t have R600K.”
“Holy shit!” chirps Eli.
“I don’t have anything close to R600K.”
“Not many people do these days.”
“In fact,” she says, “I have the opposite of R600K. I have a bond to pay off. I have minus R600K.”
Ben shrugs. It’s not his business.
“So, it’ll be 60, or 600?”
“Or anywhere in between. Or less, or more. It’s difficult to know how much it will deteriorate. If you like, you can give me a budget and I can do as much as I can for that amount.”
“But you don’t recommend it?” says Raven, leaning harder against the wood, wishing it would swallow her and all her earthly problems.
He shakes his head.
“What would you do?”
“Honestly? I’d sell.
Get out while it’s still standing.
Buy myself a cheerful little lock-up-and-go in a secure complex in a safe neighbourhood.”
The cheek of him! Next he’d be telling her to sell her soul to the Death-eaters.
“You know I’d never do that. I inherited this property through blood. It’s sacred ground.”
“Sacred ground,” says Eli.
“Blood.”
“Well, in that case, I’d demolish.” It’s like a wooden arrow in her heart.
“Start again,” he says.
“Build with bricks and mortar.”
The Grimm Brothers start going mad.
They must have caught a pigeon.
Fred, the albino peacock, is screaming.
Eli launches himself into the air to investigate.
“But you’re a carpenter! You’re supposed to love timber architecture.”
“Bricks and mortar,” he says.
“Dry-walling. It’s the sensible thing to do.”
“Yes, well,” sighs Raven.
“I’ve never been very sensible.”
There is a crack from the brittle slat she is leaning on, and with a crash, she falls through the wall.

5 / ADDER STONES

“What happened to you?” Jessica is, of course, as perfectly made up as ever, despite the baby clinging to her jacket like the little chimpanzee that he is.
“What do you mean?” says Raven, dusting the wood-chips from her hair.
She tries to hide her irritation at her sister’s unexpected visit.
“Ah, never mind. Here, take the baby, will you?”
“Er, okay.”
Jess unclamps Matthew’s chubby fingers and hands him over.
The baby starts to wail.
He wants his mother.
Raven holds him stiffly as if he’s a strange new animal which may or may not bite.
Two babies in her arms in one day: it’s a record she is quite sure will never be broken.
Heartsore, he continues to cry directly into Raven’s ear canal.
Jess pays him no mind and just speaks louder to be heard over the sobbing.
“His bottle is in the bag. Hot water to warm it up. Don’t put it in the microwave.”
“I don’t own a microwave.”
“Really? What? Oh my God. Let me guess — now you don’t believe in microwaves?”
“Nope, it’s not that.”
There was no way she was going to tell Jess that she couldn’t afford to replace the original nuker that now sat, sulking, in her storeroom, with its broken carbon-coloured innards.
“What then? You can’t run a microwave on your kooky solar system?”
“It’s not ‘kooky’ to live off the grid, Jess. It’s clever. It’s progressive.”
“It’s a bit kooky.”
“Well, I’ll keep that in mind. You know, the next time you come over to charge your phone during load-shedding.”
“Whatever.” Jess smoothes her hair.
“I don’t have time.”
“Time for what?”
“To stand here and debate your… your eccentricity.” What’s to debate? asks the voice.
“What’s to debate?” asks Raven, jiggling the baby on her hip.
Jessica blows her hair out of her face.
A strand stays glued to her lipgloss, irritating her.
Raven doesn’t understand women who wear a) lipgloss or b) high heels.
It’s like purposefully handicapping yourself.
As if women don’t have enough handicaps.
Handicaps? says the voice.
What rubbish! Easy for you to say, says Raven.
Give me an example of a woman’s ‘handicap’.
A uterus, for one.
Jessica teeters over the stones to fetch an unwilling Rebecca from the car.
I hate it when people pop in unannounced, says the voice.
Chuck some tea down her throat and boot her out.
We have work to do.
Raven stands in the doorway holding Matthew, who is now whimpering into her shirt, glazing it with snail-trails of snot.
She hears Jessica having a shouting match with her daughter who clearly wants to stay in the air-conditioned Land Cruiser.
Eventually Rebecca is hauled out of the 4x4 and pushed up Raven’s footpath.
“Here,” says an out-of-breath Jessica.
“Say hello to your aunt.” Rebecca glares at Raven from under a perfectly blunt-cut fringe; her outfit just as immaculate as her mother’s.
“Hi Becks!” says Raven, feigning enthusiasm.
Rebecca narrows her eyes.
She has never been a good actress.
“Come for a visit, have you?” The girl pouts.
Is she wearing lipgloss, too? “How about some yummy juice?” says Raven.
Rebecca crosses her arms.
“I’m not a CHILD.”
Jess barks her fake laugh.
“She’s going through a phase.”
Rebecca has been ‘going through a phase’ for the full six years she has been alive.
“I’m not going inside,” says Rebecca.
“Suit yourself.” Raven turns and walks towards the kitchen.
“Tea, Jess? Coffee? I’ve just made a jug of —”
“I’m not staying,” says Jessica.
Raven whirls around.
“What do you mean you’re not staying?”
“I have an important appointment. I can’t cancel. I’m late! That’s why I asked you to baby-sit.”
Shit, thinks Raven.
Had she forgotten? Was her memory fading now, too, as well as her magic? “When did you ask me to baby-sit?”
“Half an hour ago!”
“What?”
“Jesus, Raven. I tweeted you!”
“You do realise that Twitter is not a personal messenger service?”
“If you ever answered your phone, you know, like a normal person, then I wouldn’t have to resort to tweeting you!” They stand facing each other with twin frowns.
Matthew breaks the spell by farting into Raven’s hand.
She laughs and the baby joins in.
“Whatever,” says Jessica.
“I’m late.
I need to go.”
“Where’s Thabisa?”
“Busy. You know what nannies are like. Totally unreliable! When did the help become so damn entitled? Really, the sooner I get rid of her, the better.”
She wouldn’t last a day without a nanny, says the voice.
“Well,” says Raven, as she tries to hand Matthew back.
“You can’t leave them here.” Jess takes a step back.
“What? Why?”
“You can’t just leave your kids here, Jessica. I’m being serious. I don’t have time to look after them today. My work — I was at the PaganCon the whole day yesterday —”
“Do you know how hard it is to have two children?” says Jess, tears in her eyes.
“Tim is always working. He’s never around on weekends. I’m practically a widow. I’m a corporate widow! And on weekends, I’m a golf widow. Do you know how hard that is?” Oh, boo hoo, says the voice.
Poor Jessica.
Everything’s always a fucking national disaster.
“Jess.”
Don’t fall for her crocodile tears, says the voice.
Don’t let her take advantage of you.
I’m her sister, thinks Raven.
That doesn’t mean you have to be her doormat, says the voice.
“I never have time to myself.”
She’s the one who decided to HAVE children, says the voice.
“You’re the one who… oh, never mind,” says Raven, taking the nappy-bag from her sister and slinging it over her shoulder.
“Go.”
Doormat, says the voice.
I am not.
Why is it that you can say no to absolutely anyone in the universe apart from the person who treats you the worst? She’s my sister.
She needs help.
That’s an understatement.
“You’re the best!” says Jess, tears instantly evaporating.
She air-kisses Raven’s cheek and pats Matthew’s moon-bald head.
“Just the best.”
Typical.
Where’s she off to, anyway? Movies? Lunch? Cocktails with her band of bored housewives? No, she said it was an appointment.
An important appointment.
“You’d better be back in an hour,” says Raven.
“I need three hours!”
“No,” says Raven, firmly.
“One. Two at the most. I need to work.”
“Thanks again!” shouts Jess as she runs down to her monster of a car. The engine is still running.
Raven yells after her, “If you take one minute more than two hours I will dump these kids at social services!” Jessica barks her fake laugh again, checks her reflection in the rearview mirror, and sprays gravel at them as she accelerates up the drive.
Matthew has gone from Wailing Chimp to Nestled Monkey; his breathing even, his warm ear pressed against her chest.
Raven relaxes a little; strokes his back.
Poor sausage.
She warms the milk for him and pours out two glasses of cold lavender lemonade.
Decorates the glasses with a sprig of blossoming lavender from her potion garden.
Takes the drinks back to the angry niece in the doorway.
Rebecca stands her ground, her arms in the shape of a cross, like a wrong answer.
Raven’s arm feels like it is about to drop off, but she doesn’t want to put the baby down.
Instead she sighs and sits outside, on the ground, her back resting cautiously against the disloyal timber slats, the baby snug in the make-shift cradle of her vaulted legs.
The girl glares at her: she has storm-clouds for eyes.
“I’m not going to drink that witch’s potion!” Rebecca says.
“Good,” says Raven, taking a long sip.
It’s aromatic.
Crisp and delicious.
“Good?”
“More for me!” Rebecca rolls her eyes.
“Besides. I put a spell on it.”
“What do you mean?” she says, paying attention.
“I hexed it. If you were to drink it, it would make you turn into a frog!”
“No it wouldn’t!”
“Yes it would.”
“No it wouldn’t.”
“You’re right. It wouldn’t.”
“I was right. You were lying.”
“No. I was playing. Remember that? Playing? What you used to do before iPads and smart TV?”
“Playing is for children,” Rebecca smoothes her hair in exactly the same way her mother does.
Her nails are painted pink.
Raven sighs, gives baby Matthew his bottle which he sucks at with furrowed brows.
“What happened, Becks? How did you grow up so quickly?” What she really meant was: how can such a small soul like you be filled with so much venom? Where does it come from? What are you going to do with it? Matthew chugs.
“It can’t be easy with your dad working all the time. And your mom, well —” “And Mom always trying to get rid of us!”
“She’s not trying to get rid of you. She just needs some time to herself. It’s difficult.”
“So she keeps saying.” Matthew finishes his bottle and shows Raven his big shark-like grin.
“Your mom loves you, Becks. She does. Even if it doesn’t always feel like it.”
“Whatever.”
The baby pulls a face; he squirms.
“He needs to burp,” Rebecca says.
She uncrosses her arms and moves to lever Matthew upright, who promptly belches obediently.
He relaxes again into his leggy cradle.
He smiles at his sister.
She doesn’t smile back.
Raven picks up an Adder stone, polishes it with her thumb.
“What are these?” asks Rebecca.
“These strange stones?”
“They’re Adder stones.”
“Adder?”
“Adder, as in snake.”
“Snake stones?”
“Also known as Hag stones. Witch stones. Serpent’s eggs.”
“Gross.”
“They’re rare. And very valuable. I collect them. I used to keep them in a bowl inside, but they grew out of it. So now I have them in the garden. They are all around the house, in a circle. Not many people notice them. Or, if they do, they think they are ordinary garden pebbles.”
Rebecca holds it up to her face to examine it. Looks through the hole.
“You know,’ says Raven, “I’m not surprised you noticed them.”
“What do you mean?” “From the day you were born I had a feeling about you, that you were special. I’ve never told you this before but I think you’re old enough now. I think you’re like me. I think you have a gift.”
Rebecca looks at her.
“I don’t want to be like you,” she says.
“I don’t want to be a witch.”
“I’m not talking about becoming a witch.
I’m talking about magic, Becks.
I think you have some.”
“Can I keep it?” Rebecca asks.
“The Adder stone? Of course.” The girl puts it into her pocket.
“The reason they are sought after is because they have power,” says Raven.
“Adder stones offer protection and they draw out poison. Take care of it and it will take care of you.” Matthew is getting restless. He wants to explore.
“Shall we go through to the back garden? Let Matthew crawl around? See the animals? I’m sure that Applejack will be very happy to see you.”
“Okay.” Rebecca’s energy is lighter now.
The pale cool-blue of a shallow ocean.
They stand up and dust themselves off.
Raven heads in first and Rebecca follows.
Out of the corner of her eye she sees the girl take a tentative sip of her lemonade.
Raven has long since forgotten about her mounting work schedule and is throwing a naked Matthew into the air.
He gurgles in delight.
Much to the Grimm Brothers’ delight, Rebecca is riding the pony around the giant oak tree.
They lope alongside her, barking and nudging Applejack with their warm snouts.
Toby, the ancient tortoise, has been decorated with a garland of wild flowers and the snowy peacock is watching the humans with a look of resigned disdain.
With the exception of the peacock, they are all spattered with mud.
“Rebecca!” shouts Jessica.
“Your dress!” They stop playing and look up at her standing stiffly on the stilted verandah.
Raven hadn’t heard the doorbell.
Jessica must have let herself in.
“Hi Mom!” shouts Rebecca.
“Look at me! I’m riding Applejack!” Hearing his name, the pony speeds up a little, to show off.
“Mama!” says Matthew.
“Mama!”
“Hi Jess. Nice of you to join us.” She has been away for over four hours.
“My appointment ran over,” sniffs Jess.
“How did you all get so grubby?”
“We made a mud castle!” says the girl.
“Look!” There is a mud castle: a clay version of Raven’s house, dirty, and just as dilapidated.
“Matthew was King Kong!” shouts Rebecca.
“He King-Konged it!”
“Do you know how much that dress cost?” Rebecca blinks at her mother.
“Does it matter?” asks Raven.
“Of course it bloody well matters!”
“Ag, leave her. She’s having fun. It’s just a dress.”
“Just a dress? It’s BratCouture! It cost over seven hundred rand!”
“Oh well. Soap?”
“SOAP? You think soap will get that mess out? It’s ruined! Rebecca, get off that smelly animal immediately!”
“But, Mom, I wanted to show you how I —”
“OFF, Rebecca! OFF!” Applejack, confused by the shouting, stops in his tracks.
“Why are you so upset?” asks Raven.
Rebecca climbs off the pony, puts her arm around his neck.
“Why am I so upset? Because you have no respect, Raven, you never have had.”
Raven’s mouth hangs open.
“Respect? For a designer dress for a six-year-old?”
“Don’t be facetious! I mean respect for things. Respect for hard-earned money.” Raven doesn’t call her out on her blatant hypocrisy.
Doesn’t remind her that she has dropped out of every study course and job she has ever had; that she hasn’t been in the workplace since she fell pregnant with Rebecca; that she has a housekeeper, a full-time nanny and a night nurse and she still complains about how hard it is to be ‘a full-time mother’.
Raven stares up at her sister.
It has always been a complicated relationship.
Jess likes to say it was because, as a child, Raven fed her pet hamster to a toad, but the truth is more complicated than that.
For one, Jessica is an A-type personality who likes things a certain way, and it drove her crazy when her younger sister came along and coloured outside the lines.
It still makes her furious that Raven is immune to her bossiness.
“Mama!” says Matthew, reaching out for her.
Jessica remains on the porch.
“Have you at least fed them?” she asks.
“Yes.”
Rebecca twirls, stroking her thyme-blossom tiara.
“We picked grapes and kumquats and gooseberries.”
“And figs,” says Raven.
“And mint from the potion garden.” The mention of the potion garden makes Jess blanch.
“And granadillas!” says Rebecca.
“Your kids are very good at foraging,” says Raven.
“They’re right on trend. I think their chances of survival on a desert island would be average to good.”
“Rebecca, Matthew, come. We’re going.” Rebecca gives Applejack an affectionate pat.
He snorts in reply, lifts a foreleg.
She hugs his neck and makes her way up the grassy slope, dusting sand off her dress as she climbs the wooden steps.
Raven follows, holding Matthew close.
Jessica’s face has that post-facial just-scrubbed look and her anger glows in a halo around her.
Raven notices that she’s had her hair done.
Can smell sweet aromatherapy massage oil.
Bergamot.
Matthew starts to whimper.
“Why is he naked? Where are his clothes? His nappy?”
“They’re inside.” Jessica stomps into the house.
“Listen,” says Raven, trying to make peace for the sake of the kids, “why don’t you pour yourself a glass of wine, put your feet up. I’ll chuck the kids in the bath and they’ll be as good as new.” Matthew roars in his new King Kong voice.
“Well, almost as good as new.”
Doormat, says the voice.
“No.”
Jessica turns and takes Matthew, who leans into her, happy and exhausted.
“Their nanny is back. She’ll sort them out.”
“I don’t want Thabisa, I want you,” says Rebecca.
“I want you to get us ready for bed.” Raven throws things haphazardly into the nappy-bag and hands it to her sister.
Gives the baby a cheek-squish and a kiss, tries to high-five her niece but is left hanging.
“Get in the car.” Jessica unlocks the doors with her remote.
“There’s a present in there for you.”
The girl trudges down the footpath.
The storm-clouds are back.

6 / FISH-GUT WHISKERS

Raven checks her email.
The machine pings with 256 unread emails.
Scanning the titles she sees there are more than 50 work leads that she must urgently follow up on and a message from the High Priestess.
She knows she and her empty pockets should feel grateful for the potential work, but sometimes being so needed feels like she is being attacked.
It’s as if too many people want a piece of her and soon she’ll be taken apart, broken into pieces and carried away like a peeled carcass in a desert, until there is nothing left of her but powder-dry bones the colour of clouds.
Hello Raven Dear We must meet for coffee.
The Wicked Witches are out of control.
We don’t want them igniting the ignorami.
We need a plan.
Also: I’m worried about you.
You haven’t been to any of the coven gatherings.
The Moon Chapel ceremony last night was particularly dull without you.
I know something is wrong.
I can help.
Let’s get together and sort this out.
Blessed Be Lavinia Ping, ping, ping, goes her laptop.
So many people looking for magic.
What they don’t know about earth magic is that it can go either way.
We are all under the influence of so many factors at any one time that it’s not an exaggeration to say that anything can happen.
Without even knowing it, our destinies are pushed and pulled by the sparkling cosmos, kneaded and knocked back like baker’s dough.
You can try your best to stake out your life’s path — or others’ lives, as Raven does — but our human influence is limited.
There are people — women and men — who become taken with a neo-pagan lifestyle, study Wicca, indulgently call themselves White Witches, but if they truly knew the Craft they would know that there is no such thing.
These Dabblers are the moths of the sorcery world, not unpleasant to have around unless they become confused and start battering themselves against a light-source that is not the moon.
Some are elegant and pretty to look at, others leave moth-dust and holes in your winter underwear.
Raven knows there is no such thing as white magic.
Real magic covers a wide spectrum encompassing good and evil and there are very many shades of grey in-between.
The reason a spell can never be pure white is because of the cosmic baker’s influence.
A sorceress may start out with a clear, benevolent purpose, unalloyed ingredients and a pure heart and may perform the incantation as close to perfectly as she can manage, but after that she has little influence.
Once it is out of her mouth the spell is out of her hands and cannot be kept un-grubby.
Just as a person cannot be 100 per cent good, a witch, as pure-thinking as she may be, cannot achieve Perfect Snow.
She may be milk, ivory or limestone, or one of the hundreds of shades between them, but never fresh snow.
You have this trembling human spectrum overlapping and interweaving the sure orbit of magic and it becomes evident — despite the illusions of the giggling wiccans — that a white witch is nothing but a fairytale.
Raven doesn’t buy into any of these pagan pretences.
She practises Grey Magic; more dove-grey than charcoal.
Or, more accurately: the colour of a raincloud, as it swells and shrinks and flickers between shades of pearl and slate.
She has to be careful of slipping towards the sooty part of the spectrum.
The darker the magic, the quicker the flame takes, the more powerful you feel.
You have to be on your guard and think things through: sometimes you set out to do good and the result is murky, or worse.
Raven once killed someone with a simple love spell.
The spell had been one of her best: refined over and over again to be as straightforward and striking as possible.
But setting out she hadn’t been told the whole story and had thus made the mistake of not binding the spell.
A woman had left a man and the spell had been intended to reunite them.
What she hadn’t been told was that the woman had left the man for ‘someone else’; that someone else happened to meet with a freak accident the day Raven triple-cast the reunion conjuration: he was an innocent bystander, shot in a cash-in-transit heist.
Raven’s client, his grief-stricken lover returned, was delighted and paid her double.
Of course the fatal shooting had not been Raven’s intention.
Apparently the reunited couple are happily married now.
He still sends Raven fruit baskets.
Raven types ‘WICKED WITCHES’ into the search bar of Vimeo and watches through her fingers as she sees them protesting outside the Xosmetix building in the CBD, demanding that they stop testing on animals.
There is a flash of a T-shirt with ‘Twisted Sisters’ on it.
They have red-spattered placards with slogans and toy animals in cages: rabbits, monkeys, rats.
It’s like a plush parade of the Chinese zodiac.
Hope; intelligence; vitality.
Plastic pastel colours and fish-gut whiskers.
That’s not too bad, she thinks.
She spots a pentagram on a poster.
But this is not good.
The pentagram is a sacred symbol which is most maligned, and for PR reasons it is a mark best employed in relative privacy.
The Wicked Witches don’t seem to agree.
She understands their fire, their rebellion.
She admires their revolutionary thinking, but young spirits don’t always know what’s good for them.
What they don’t understand is the danger of mob mentality.
Getting people with closed minds riled up is never a good idea.
The next clip is of the coven breaking into the building.
It’s shot at night with a shaking hand and some kind of night-vision lens.
Her root chakra twinges.
It feels like a horror film.
It’s scary until she realises what they are doing: you see the green eyes of the animals twitch with nerves.
The witches open the cages and let the test animals free.
Well, thinks Raven, you can hardly blame them for that.
Another video, from a few days ago, shows the Wicked Witches mid-ritual.
Uh-oh.
Thirteen sky-clad women stand in a circle, faces shining in the dusk light.
They are chanting.
The flames of a hundred candles illuminate the space and flicker on their naked bodies.
Where are they? A forest? The trees are black in the background.
The chanting gets louder and deeper as they move into their collective trance.
Some of them tremble, some of their heads are flung so far back that they look decapitated.
Others start gibbering as if there are speaking in tongues.
“Holy Shit,” says Raven.
What the fuck are they doing? She’s about to close the browser when the video jump-cuts to a blank screen.
Then a close-up of Luella flickers on and off.
Her signature candy-cane hair flashes red and white, and she’s wearing more dark eye make-up than a model sporting heroine-chic.
Her skin is luminous.
Slowly and deliberately, she says: “You want to know who we are?” The question echoes in the black box.
Are they finally going to settle on a name? “We are the daughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.”
The video flickers again to a blank screen and the clip ends.
“Holy Hecate,” says Raven.
Lavinia is right.
They have to do something.

7 / TURNING TRICKS

Raven takes a wineglass out of the kitchen cupboard and puts it on the counter.
It’s her favourite glass, so thin that it is almost invisible.
A ghost glass.
She’s about to pour a generous and well-deserved drink when she recalls how much of her work remains undone.
She’d love to just sit out on the porch with her bare feet up, watching the sun set in silence.
Or climb up into her oak tree.
Polish an acorn.
Rest her scratchy eyes.
But she has a long night ahead of her, so she re-corks the Pinotage and boils the kettle instead.
Makes herself a double-strength french press with cream and hunts for a rusk.
Coffee is one of her daily reminders that magic does exist.
Holding her MacBook aloft, she tries to find space on her chaotic writing-desk to put it down.
It’s crowded with toppling towers of reference books and sheafs of papers.
A mosaic of rippling Post-It notes.
You really need to sort this lot out, says the voice.
It’s organised chaos, says Raven.
I know where everything is.
No you don’t.
Okay, you’re right.
I don’t.
But I don’t have time to tidy it now, I need to work.
The machine pings.
More emails.
You see? A cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, says the voice.
Rubbish.
Have you seen pictures of Einstein’s desk? No.
Well, then, I think you should keep your opinions on housekeeping to yourself.
I just — Yes? I just worry that you’re turning into one of THOSE witches, says the voice.
Which? You know what I’m talking about.
I don’t.
You know the type.
The ones that give the Craft a bad name.
They let everything… slip.
Slip? You think I’m slipping? They’re like those caricatures of witches you see in fairy tales with the grey hair and the warts on their noses.
It was one grey hair! One! And I pulled it out! But you haven’t had your hair done in months.
That’s because I have better things to do! More constructive things.
Trying to finish this book, for one! Raven smacks the pile of notes in front of her.
It’s not going to write itself, you know.
I know.
But — But, what? What are you wearing? These? These are my schlumperdincker pants.
They’re the most comfortable pants ever.
They are ideal for schlumperdincking in.
It’s not like I go out in public in a dressing gown and dirty slippers.
Except for that one time.
That was an emergency.
Raven.
Double-chocolate ice-cream swirl at 11 p.m. is not an emergency…You think I’m slipping? It’s not about the hair.
Let’s be honest, you’d look good with a crew-cut.
I don’t know about that.
You would.
Ah well! I can’t take any credit for that.
Good genes are hardly an accomplishment.
It’s not about the hair.
It’s about the out-of-control desk, the bursting inbox, the unfinished manuscript, the unwashed dogs, the crumbling house.
The pigeon infestation.
What pigeon infestation? The insomnia.
Most worrying of all, your attack last night, at the conference.
I don’t want to use the phrase ‘downward spiral’ but — But? Well it seems to me that you’re in a downward spiral.
You can be such an asshole, says Raven.
You do realise that you’ve just called YOURSELF an asshole? Will you please leave me alone for a few hours? I need an empty head to deal with this.
Raven gestures at the mess.
This downward spiral on my desk.
I think you need an intervention.
Like those hoarders on ReelTV.
I do not! Just because you don’t keep old newspapers and dirty take-away polystyrene clamshells from 1984 doesn’t mean you don’t need help.
Will you please be quiet? What would it be called? A witcher-vention, says the voice.
Quiet.
A wicca-vention? Go away.
This conversation is not over.
“God Almighty!” chirps the African Grey, making Raven jump.
“Thank you, Eli,” says Raven.
“My thoughts exactly.” She blinks, takes a sip of coffee, prepares to concentrate, looks at the piles of pages demanding her attention and feels like giving up before she starts.
Maybe she’ll just go onto Facebook first, just to ease herself into it.
She scrolls through pictures of her acquaintances’ children, political rants and some vaguely funny memes.
She knows that she should update her status but can’t think of anything interesting enough to say.
She just types “Carry two seeds for luck” and clicks ‘post’.
She knows she should check Twitter, with her 108 notifications of tweets addressed to her @turningtricks handle, but she’s not in the mood for giving advice.
Twitter is part of her witch’s social media platform — to ‘get her name out there’ as her business coach had said.
To remain up-to-date, clued-in, relevant.
Engaged and engaging.
Okay, she doesn’t have a business coach — perhaps she should — but she’s sure it’s what she would have said.
@turningtricks is her contemporary equivalent of an 80s YOU magazine agony aunt column, except the aunt in this case isn’t a moustached middle-aged lady with false nails and a rotary telephone on her desk, but a smart, savvy sorceress.
That’s what she’s supposed to be, anyway.
That’s the idea you’d get if you looked at her website, her Instagram account.
But at the moment she feels more hip-replacement than hip, and the only multi-tasking she’s done lately is feeding the animals while she’s scrolling Tumblr.
As if reading her thoughts the Grimms saunter in.
“Is it dinner-time already?” says Raven.
The Rottweilers look up at her with their dog-smiles.
“Okay, then,” she says, and stands up, leaving her Pilates ball to roll into the corner.
In an ordinary household it would take, perhaps, two minutes in total to feed the pets.
At Colborn Manor it could take anything from twenty minutes to an hour, depending on how amusing the animals were being.
The Grimm Brothers, Jake and Bill, are the easiest to satisfy, with just a firm jiggling of their pelts and a scoopful of kibble each.
If she has time she throws in a few sentences in a really deep voice, which they love.
She does it now.
“You are a bit smelly,” she says, channelling Ramtha, “but still very handsome”, and they show her their happy teeth and scalloped gums.
So predictable.
That’s one of the reasons she loves dogs.
Next up are the cats, who require filtered water after tasting it a few years ago and refusing to drink regular tap water ever since, and a scoopful of their own special kibble mix: Gourmiaow High KittyJoule for Cocoa, who, despite being three years old, still looks like a kitten and has to be coaxed to eat, like a fussy child; High Protein Anabolic mixed with Kat deLight for snowy Lily Lightfoot, who is rudely accused of being fat at every vet check-up, and boring old Feline Senior+ for Max, the cantankerous ginger who Raven found in a storm-drain fifteen years ago.
Sometimes she tops the bowls up with tuna as a treat, garnishing it with fresh catnip, but when she checks the larder cupboard she sees that she’s out of tuna.
Goddess, how she hates shopping.
Next on the list is Eli, the African Grey, who eats parrot pellets.
When he feels like a fresh, non-pelleted snack, he helps himself from the garden.
He loves grapes and strawberries, in particular.
The chickens get chicken feed mixed with some crushed seashells for calcium to harden their eggs.
Raven doesn’t name the chickens, for obvious reasons.
Fred, the albino peacock, gets the same, although he never seems very impressed with it.
Toby, the 200-year-old tortoise, gets cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks and red lettuce — homegrown, organic — and the food has to be placed a metre or so in front of him, to encourage him to exercise, otherwise he just stays put for days and Raven has to knock on his shell and wake him up to see if he’s still alive.
Then, of course, there is Applejack, the dearest grey pony, whose name says it all.
He also loves lavender lemonade and walking in circles around the massive oak tree as if he is hypnotised by it, or wants to hypnotise it.
In return, Raven gets three eggs from the chickens, which she thanks them for.
Thinking of having an omelette for dinner, she makes her way around the house to the potion garden outside her kitchen door to pick some thyme and oregano.
Maybe she’ll Instagram a shot of what’s blooming in the Smudge section.
An unpleasant surprise awaits her in the form of bird waste splattered all over her herbaceous border.
For a moment, she’s confused.
How did this get here? Was it Fred, throwing one of his tantrums? Was it — “Mother of God!” shouts Eli.
“Eli! Was this you?” Raven says, but she knows it wasn’t.
Eli has impeccable manners, apart from his habit of blaspheming.
Then she hears the cooing of the feral pigeons, who have clearly built a nest in the eves above.
“Damn it,” she says.
“Look at this mess.” Looking up, she counts 13 birds.
“Damn it!” says Eli.
“Mother of God.” Raven picks up her straw broom and chases the birds away. They flap and flutter in dumb indignation and perch on the boundary wall, waiting for Raven to go inside so that they can swoop back to their new home.
“Shoo! Shoo!” she shouts, waving the broom at them like a mad woman.
They wobble their heads at her.
Her crop of Italian herbs is ruined, as well as her camomile and St John’s Wort.
There is acidic guano all over her Devil’s Shoestring, her Kava Kava, her Mugwort.
She knows that she should love all the universe’s animals equally, but she has to draw a line somewhere.
Orwell certainly had a point with his tongue-in-cheek observation in Animal Farm.
She blinks into the setting sun, then gives them a good glare.
Be gone! she thinks.
She scatters some Graveyard Dust around.
Away, away.
You’re not welcome.
Do not stay.
They coo at her.
Eli coos back.
“Don’t make friends with those pigeons, Eli,” warns Raven.
“They’re a bad crowd. They carry diseases, you know. Lice. They’re vermin. That’s what they are.” Eli nods, then bows in for a stroke of the head.
Raven complies.
“Rats with wings,” she says, and shudders.
“Rats with wings,” Eli agrees.



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