Two weeks slip stealthily away along with the last of the warm weather. The days grow increasingly short and I find myself spending more and more time inside. A nervous restlessness grows in me, born of dark days and watchful eyes outside my windows. Thankfully Brie stops by almost daily, helping to dispel my ever-present tension. She is kinder to Wynn now, and I stumble upon them talking to each other on multiple occasions. The years-old barrier is crumbling away as a new one erects itself between Brie and her old friends.
They don’t understand her decision to pass up her dream job so suddenly. They suspect something, but Brie rejects all of their prying. They cling to insubstantial theories – an unexpected pregnancy, abuse, illness – then resort to shrugging their shoulders and walking away. It’s not an entirely unfamiliar situation for me. When I left behind my scholarship position in the science faculty to pursue my singing career, most of my school friends had asked similar questions before disappearing. I wish I could do more for Brie, but for now all I can offer are my time and support.
When I’m not with Brie or Wynn, I spend most of my free time on the third floor. These days I’m no longer greeted with open skies and fields, but with the expansive and barren apartment. It is more comfortable now than that cold reflection from the elevator car; Mr. Harris and I have been busy cleaning, decorating and cooking. The massive concrete room is steeped with rich colours and scents.
When I ask about the whole “fall equinox” thing, Mr. Harris informs me that most mages cling to religious tradition. Many are drawn to the idea of deities and greater purpose, seeing as they can perform minor miracles.
“Nonsense,” he says of their devotion to gods new and old, “Magic is no more supernatural than science. Just because we don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s a bloody gift from the gods.”
“Err… then what exactly have we been up to here?” I ask as I peel a bright green apple from the crumpled paper bag beside me. The feast is still a week away, but Mr. Harris has been teaching me cooking and baking. I’ve always wanted to learn to cook, but a couple of mishandled knives and burned fingers scared me off at a young age.
“Just because I don’t believe that I borrow my ability to manipulate electrical energy from Zeus doesn’t mean that invoking his name isn’t helpful,” he explains, walking over from the table where he’s been preparing a roast ham to help me with the apples on the counter.
“You lost me there Mr. Philosopher.”
He rolls his eyes at me and starts digging in the drawer beside the sink for another knife. “One of the most important skills we learn as mages is how to focus our minds, drawing the appropriate amount of energy in the form we want. Some people do this with words; there are entire languages designed specifically to help mages master that ability.”
I remember Johannes shouting something at me the night he attacked Brie’s house. I recall his smug reassurance that it was going to have some effect. Then I start to remember the feeling of the bottle shattering in my hand and the sound of it colliding with the bones in his face. I shake my head, trying to dislodge the memory. “I understand. So some people use stuff like… devotion to the gods?”
“In a sense,” he answers, “Most deities can be seen as facets of the human consciousness… or even manifestations of the collective unconscious. The more mindful a mage is about their connection to the elements they wish to channel, the stronger they can become. Constant control and maintenance of our abilities is crucial, and spiritual practices are an effective means to this end. Of course, most wholeheartedly believe what they’re practicing, also using it as a means for moral guidance and judgement.”
I nod, wondering what religion Yagher follows and whether it has anything to do with the righteousness he often radiates. I wonder about Hunter too, remembering the miniature alter by his bed.
“So who have we been paying homage to lately?” I ask, tossing cinnamon onto the apples and shaking them around. I inhale deeply, revelling in the spicy scent.
“Mother Nature herself,” he says, spreading his arms as if we were surrounded by lush foliage and not iron and concrete, “I spent my youth working on a farm. Celebrating the harvest, being in tune with the change of the seasons, they make me feel whole. I think everyone would better off if they were more mindful of the world that houses them.”
“So I guess you do worship something after all,” I point out, staring slyly at him from the corner of my eye.
“No, not worship. We’re a part of nature too, you know. As much as most of us choose to forget it,” he pauses while pulling down a few bowls from one of the upper cupboards, “I respect our planet and my role on it. Nothing has ever helped me focus as much as being aware of my place in nature.”
While he begins mixing sugar and oatmeal with soft butter from a white dish on the counter, I stare down at my hands. They’re covered in apple juice and cinnamon. I realize I’ve paid no mind to where the apples were grown or who plucked them from their tree. That I don’t even have a clue where cinnamon comes from. I focus again on the smell of the apples mixed with the cinnamon, and I realize I can also smell the mustiness of the leaves and pinecones Mr. Harris has piled in a nearby corner for future use.
I look up and out of the window ahead of me. I can see the cemetery across the paved road. The vibrant colours of the trees – rusty browns, deep oranges and golds – stand stark against the slate sky. Leaves perform complicated waltzes across the paved pathways twining throughout the ornate headstones. I feel the warmth of the ovens beside me, protecting me from the harsh wind blowing outside and I understand the power he’s talking about. It’s so palpable I feel as though I, as powerless as I am, could reach out and touch this energy.
“You alright lass?” he asks gently.
I nod, and smile. Finding I have so much to learn about the world around me gives me a sense of purpose and meaning I didn’t realize I had been aching for all this time. “I think I can feel it,” is what I say to him, “Magic.”
A small smile twists at his lips. He mutters: “You remind me of Caelen.”
“Who?” Caelen? The Cat Sidhe?
“My cousin,” he says, smile fading, “He passed away around this time of year. Was about eleven…no… twelve years ago now. I had already left Scotland, but he was still there with his parents. They had him late in life, you know. Was a miracle. After everything my parents… anyway, he was supposed to be heir to Hecate. He was supposed to continue the line.”
“What happened to him?” It has to be coincidence, I tell myself, and I begin recalling past conversations with Caelen. Had there been a hint of an accent in his voice?
“He fell. Stupidest fucking thing. He was messing about with some lads he knew. They were hiding in these caves, telling stories and being kids. He slipped, that’s all,” his eyes are glassy and distant as he finishes, “I’m the one who showed them the bloody place.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say uselessly.
His eyes clear as he looks at me and shrugs. “He was a good kid. He made those last few years with my family bearable. Funny as hell, but then he’d get all serious and say the damnedest things. That book you had, those cats… made me think of him. He used to love fairy stories, thought maybe there was still some of the folk hiding somewhere. He’d feed those damned Kellas cats, trying to coax them into talking to him or something.”
He puts our assembled apple crisp in the oven next to me then pulls off his thick oven mitts, tossing them onto the counter. I wash my hands at the sink, unsure what connection can be made between the two Caelens, if any. It surprises me when Mr. Harris continues his story, “I went back there. It’s the only time I’ve been back home. Went to the caves. One of them was there.”
“One of what?” I ask, already anticipating his answer.
“The cats. Big and black as pitch but with the purest white patch I ever saw on its chest. Just sitting there, watching me while I paid my respects,” he turns away, walking to the far end of the kitchen to pet Mariposa’s near-lifeless body. He says with his back still turned, “They used to have traditions for the dead, to keep the cats away. Your book mentioned it too. Do you know why?”
“They steal souls,” my voice is barely a whisper.
Mr. Harris smiles grimly before waving the thought away and preparing the table for dinner.