Authors: Diane Duane
Aunt Annie looked at Nita again as she came over and put her teacup down. Her expression was rather different this time. “Oh,” she said. “You mean the ghosts.”
“Welcome to Ireland,” said her aunt.
Nita sat back and blinked.
Her aunt stirred her tea and said, “Do ghosts bother you?”
“Not particularly,” Nita said, wondering just how to deal with this line of inquiry. Wizards knew that very few ghosts had anything to do with people’s souls hanging around somewhere. Most apparitions, especially ones that repeated, tended to be caused by a kind of recording that violent emotion could leave on matter in certain circumstances, impressing its energy directly into the molecular structure of physical things. Over long periods of time the recording would fade, but in the meantime it would replay every now and then, for good reasons or no reason, and upset the people who happened to see it. And if they happened to believe that such a thing was caused by human souls, the effects would get steadily worse, fed by the emotions of the living.
Nita knew all this, certainly. But how much of it could she safely tell her aunt? And how to get it across without sounding like she knew more than a fourteen-year-old should?
“Good,” her aunt was saying. She drank her tea and looked at Nita across the table with those cool blue-grey eyes. “Did you hear the church bells, earlier?”
“Uh, no. I must have been asleep.”
“We have a little church down the road,” Aunt Annie said. “About three hundred years ago, after the English killed their King—Charles the First, it was—his ‘replacement,’ a man named Oliver Cromwell, came through here.” Her aunt took another long drink of tea. “He and his army went up and down this country throwing out the Irish landowners and installing English ones in their places. He sacked cities and burned houses, and got himself quite a name for unnecessary cruelty.” Aunt Annie looked out the kitchen window, into the near-dark, watching the apple trees in the back yard move slightly in the wind. “I think what you heard was, well, a reminder of some of his people, who were camped here on guard late at night. You can hear the horses, and you can hear the soldiers talking, though you usually can’t make out what they’re saying.”
“Like they were in the next room,” Nita said.
“That’s right. The memory just reasserts itself every now and then; other people have heard it happening. It’s usually pretty low-key.” She looked at Nita keenly.
Nita shrugged in agreement. “They didn’t bother me. They didn’t seem particularly, well, ‘ghostly.’ No going ‘ooooooo’ or trying to scare anyone.”
“That’s right,” her aunt said, sounding relieved. “Are you hungry?”
“I could eat a cow,” Nita said, suspecting that in this household it would be wiser not to offer to eat horses, not that she was big on the concept anyway.
“I’ve got some hamburger,” her aunt said, getting up, “and some chicken...”
Nita got up to help, and poked around the kitchen a bit. All the appliances were about half the size she was used to. She wondered whether this was her aunt’s preference, or whether most of the stoves and refrigerators sold here were like that, for on the drive in she had kept getting a feeling that everything was smaller than usual, had been scaled down somewhat. The rooms in her aunt’s house were smaller than she was used to, as well, reinforcing the impression. “So have you got other ghosts,” Nita said, “or are those all?”
“Nope, that’s it.” Her aunt chuckled and pulled out a frying pan. “You want more, though, you won’t have far to go. This country is thick with them. Old memories. Everything here has a long memory... longer than it should have, maybe.” She sighed and went rooting in a drawer for a few moments. “A lot of history in Ireland,” Aunt Annie said, “a lot of bad experiences and bad feelings. It’s a pain in the butt sometimes.” She came up with a spatula. “Do you want onions?”
“Sure,” Nita said. Her aunt came up with a knife and handed it to Nita, then found an onion in a bin by the door and put it on the counter. “Hope you don’t mind crying a little,” she said.
They puttered about the kitchen together, talking about this and that: family gossip, mostly. Aunt Annie was Nita’s father’s eldest sister, married once about twenty-five years ago, and divorced about five years later. Her ex-husband was typically referred to in Nita’s family as “that waste of time,” but no one at home had ever been too forthcoming about just why he was a waste, and Nita had decided it was none of her business. Aunt Annie had three kids, two sons and a daughter, all grown up now and moved out: two of them now lived in Ireland, one in the States. Nita had met her two male cousins some years back, when she was very young, and only dimly remembered Todd and Alec as big, dark-haired, booming shapes that gave her endless piggyback rides.
At any rate, her aunt had moved with her kids to Ireland after the divorce, and had busied herself with becoming a successful farmer and stable-manager. Now she had other people to manage her stables for her. She saw to the finances of the farm, kept an eye on the function of the riding school that also was based on her land, and otherwise lived the life of a moderately well-to-do countrywoman.
The two of them fried up some onions and then grilled hamburgers in the pan. There were no buns: Nita’s aunt took down a loaf of bread and cut thickish slices from it for both of them. “Didn’t you have supper?” Nita said. “It’s way past time.”
“We don’t really have set mealtimes,” Aunt Annie said. “My staff come in and get a snack when they can, and I tend to eat when I’m hungry. I was busy with the accounts for most of this evening—didn’t notice I was hungry until just now. Unlike some,” she said, looking ruefully down at the floor around the stove, which was suddenly littered with cats of various colors, “who are hungry whether they’ve just eaten or not.”
Nita laughed and bent down to scratch the cats: the black and white one, again—”Bronski”—as well as a marmalade-colored cat with golden eyes, and a tiny delicate white-bibbed tabby, and another black-and-white cat of great dignity, who sat watching the others, and Nita and her aunt, unblinking. “Bear,” Aunt Annie said, “and Chessie, and Big Paws. All of you, out of here: you had your dinners! Now where’s the mustard got to?”
She turned away to find it. Under her breath, Nita said hurriedly in the wizards’ Speech,
“You all get out of here and I’ll see if I can liberate something for you later...”
They sat looking thoughtful—since almost everything that thinks can recognize and understand the Speech—then one by one got up and strolled off. Her aunt found the mustard, and noticed the exodus. “Huh,” she said. “Guess they don’t like the smell of the onions.”
“It’s pretty strong,” Nita said, smiled slightly, and started spreading mustard on bread.
When everything was ready, they sat down and ate. “I hope you don’t mind being mostly on your own tomorrow,” Aunt Annie said. “You hit us at kind of a busy time. There’s going to be a hunt here in a few days, and we have to start getting ready for it.”
“You mean like a fox hunt?” Nita said, her eyebrows going up. “Is that legal here?”
“Yes it is, as long as the pack’s registered.” Her aunt sighed. “All it takes to get one organized is for some of the local farmers to complain about their chicken flocks being raided, and bang, the nearest hunt has an excuse. Anyway, some of our horses are involved, so we have to have the vet in to certify them fit, and then the farrier comes tomorrow afternoon to do some re-shoeing. It’s going to be pretty hectic around here. If you want to stick around, that’s fine. But if you think you’ll be bored, you might want to go down to Greystones—it’s a pretty easy bike ride from here. Or take the bus over to Bray and look around.”
“Okay,” Nita said. “I’ll see how I feel... I’m still pretty tired.”
“Traveling eastbound really takes it out of you,” Aunt Annie said. “It won’t be so bad going back.”
You said it,
And the sooner the better.
But she smiled anyway, and said, “I hope not.”
They finished up, and cleared the table. “If you want to watch much TV late, you’ll probably want to do it in the house,” her aunt said. “We’ve got satellite in here, and there are hundreds of channels. But the little TV in the caravan only gets the local ground channels. Or most of them, anyway: the Irish-language one’s weak here, but the other three or four are okay.”
“Uh, thanks. I thought I might read for a while. After that I may just go to sleep again... I’m still kind of tired.”
“That’s fine. You make yourself completely at home.” Her aunt looked at Nita with an expression as thoughtful, in its way, as the cats’. “It must have been a bit of a wrench, just being shipped off like that.”
What did they tell you, I wonder?
Nita thought. “It was,” she said after a moment. “But I’ll cope.”
Her aunt smiled. “We’re Callahans,” she said. “It’s what we’ve always done, for a long time now.” She smiled. “Anyway, if you get hungry or something later, just come in and take what you need. Use the back door, though: I’m going to lock the front now and turn in. I’ll leave a light on for you in here. You know where everything is, the bathroom and so forth?”
“Yeah, Aunt Annie. Thanks.”
Her aunt headed off. Nita looked around the kitchen to see if there was anything else that needed cleaning up—her mother had drummed into her that she should make sure she returned hospitality by helping out in the kitchen: her aunt hated doing dishes above almost anything else, her mother had said. But there was nothing left to do. Except something that needed a wizard to do it, and Nita set about that straight away.
She headed out the back door, out through a little archway into the concrete yard again. The only light was the one she had left on in the trailer, and it was dim. She paused outside the door and looked up. Even now, past midnight, the sky wasn’t completely black. Nevertheless, it was blanketed with stars, much brighter than she was used to seeing them through the light pollution of the New York suburbs. And there was no sound here but the faintest breath of wind. Even the main road a mile away made no noise at all. It was as if everyone in this part of the country had gone to bed and turned out the lights all at once. There was only one light visible, about a mile away across the fields: someone’s house light. For someone who’d always lived in places where the street had streetlights on all night, this utter darkness was a shock.
But the stars…!
Nita thought. The Milky Way was clearly visible, even bright. At home it was almost impossible to see it at all.
At least there’s been one thing worth seeing here.
She shivered hard then, and ducked back into the trailer to get her jacket and her manual.
Once she had them Nita headed out across the concrete yard again, making for the log fence that separated the land immediately around Aunt Annie’s house from the fields beyond it. The closest field was planted with the bright yellow oilseed rape they’d seen on the way in—tall green plants with flowers at the top so extremely yellow that they’d made Nita’s eyes hurt to look at them in the sunshine. The field beyond that was clean pasture, grassland being left fallow for this year. That was what Nita wanted, for there was a thick strip of woodland at the far side of it.
She made her way through the oilseed rape, enjoying the fragrance of it, and on to the next fence. This was barbed wire: she climbed one of the fenceposts carefully, so as not to tear anything. Cautiously, for the ground over here wasn’t as even as it had been in the rape field, Nita made her way into the center of the field, and opened her manual.
She said the two words in the Speech that would make the pages generate enough light to read by, though not enough to mess up her night vision. Normally she wouldn’t have needed the manual for this spell, which was more a matter of simple conversation than anything else; but she didn’t know the name she needed to call, and had to look it up. The manual’s index was straightforward as usual. “Canidae…” she said under her breath. “Here we go.”
The spell was a calling, but the kind that was a request, not a demand. She hoped there would be someone to respond. She recited the standard setup, the request for the Universe to hear. Then,
she said in the Speech,
“if any hear, let them speak to me,for there’s need.”
And then she put the book down and sat there in the quiet, and waited.
It seemed to take a long time before she heard the soft sound of something rustling in the grass, about a hundred yards away. Normally she’d never have heard it, except that her ears were sharpened by sitting in this total silence. The noise stopped.
she said then, very quietly, “if that’s you, then I’m here.”
Another rustling, another silence.
“You speak it with an accent,” said a voice in a series of short, soft barks, “but well enough. Let me see you.”
Nita saw the long, low, sharp-nosed shape come toward her. The dog-fox had a tail bigger and bushier and longer than she would have thought possible. Only the faintest firefly gleam from the manual’s pages silvered his fur, giving him enough of an outline to see, and glinted in his eyes.
“So,” the fox said.
“What accent?” Nita said, curious. As far as she knew, her accent in the Speech was quite good.