Fixation, Part Six

The project Arabella had mentioned seemed mainly to involve helping her rearrange her collection of esoteric books, and sorting them into categories: Alchemy, Astrology, Astronomy,…Necromancy, Neoplatonism,…Zoology. I hoped she hadn’t read some of them.

After that first day, I’d returned most weekends to help her out. While we worked, she’d tell me stories about the books, about where she’d bought them or the most interesting things they contained. Her interest in them seemed purely theoretical, and she admitted she’d never tried telling her fortune from tea leaves, casting a circle, or worshipping the moon.

‘Or raising the dead,’ she added, with a laugh, as she shooed Hatshepsut down from the sideboard for the fifth or sixth time that morning – clearly she wasn’t so smart, after all. ‘I told you, Hattie, sit in the corner and practise being a familiar.’ Quietly, the cat obeyed.

‘So what do you keep them all for?’ I asked. And why couldn’t she do her own filing? For all her protests, these enclosed afternoons felt like the process a novice magician might follow, familiarising themselves with the contents of their master’s library.

‘Pure interest,’ she said, shrugging, as though she couldn’t possibly understand how I could fail to share her fascination. ‘And you never know when they’ll come in handy.’ Her dark eyes held mine for a moment too long.

I wasn’t going to let it go. ‘What about this one, then?’ I said, weighing up the book in my left hand. An Inventory of Binding Hexes, it was called, and it sounded distinctly dodgy. ‘When has this ever come in handy, if you don’t believe in magic?’

The corner of Arabella’s mouth twitched in a way that said wouldn’t you like to know, and for a moment I regretted my choice, and wished I’d asked her about the previous book I’d filed, Herbalism for the Raising of Ancestors, instead.

‘Let’s have a look,’ she said, stepping closer and reaching for the book, brushing her fingers against mine as she took it and flipped open the leather binding to reveal the contents page.

I peered over the top of the book, trying to read it upside down. One of the chapters was definitely something about essential oils, candles and silks. Yes, I knew what this one came in useful for. A brief vision of myself playing the student to her teacher floated through my brain, but I batted it away. Cringeworthy.

‘Well,’ she said, and as she looked up, I backed away, as though I’d been caught where I shouldn’t be.

‘This one’s for keeping that one out of trouble.’ She turned and pointed at the cat, who hadn’t moved from her seat in the corner of the room. I wondered, not entirely seriously, if there was something in this binding hex nonsense after all.

‘Seems to be working,’ I muttered.

‘Of course. All my spells work.’ She leaned closer to me, handing back the book as though it were a secret parcel of love letters or top secret documents which mustn’t see the light of day.

‘All those spells you don’t do,’ I said softly, without moving. I could see each hair in her neatly plucked eyebrows, and smell lavender.

‘Yeah, those ones.’ Her voice was a whisper now, and something flickered in her eyes. At that moment, I could almost believe she really was a sorceress, nonsensical though it was.

Both of my hands were clutching the book, and I was fairly sure that dropping it would kill whatever this was, and possibly get me kicked out of the house to boot, so my options were limited.

Arabella put one arm around my waist and drew me closer to her, the book pressed between us. Her hand burned in the small of my back, and my lips pulled towards hers like opposing poles of a pair of magnets, her breath soft on my cheek.

‘File that one under Enchantment,’ she whispered.

By Kirsti