By Shweta Narayan
24 August 2009
Old Mrs. Farley waves the Daily Mail in Edith's face and shouts, Did you see this, dear? She always shouts. She's half deaf, bless her.
That I did, Edith shouts back. She doesn't add, When I put them up this morning, stiff as I was from the cold, and again every time another customer asks. Wouldn't be Christian. Wouldn't be good business, either. But how the old biddy thinks the papers got on the rack without Edith putting them there, the Lord only knows.
Mrs. Farley slaps the paper onto the counter, rotogravure picture up, next to her packets of willow bark and powdered mummy. Edith tries not to look at it. Fails. That smirking girl staring back with her cigarette, that ugly short hair, the shapeless dress with its silly fringes and its shameless show of calf, frivolous before the great dark mass of Flamel Hall. Girls these days, says Edith. What they wear. Her voice stays steady, but her eyes go to the headline. SPELLCASTING SUFFRAGETTES! And below that some inane babble about the wizards lost in the war, the London College opening its doors, that child dancing right in as though she belongs. . . .
That's what we said when you girls started wearing those pneumonia blouses! Mrs. Farley laughs, a bubbling, wheezing noise that turns into a cough. Edith unlocks the drawer under the counter and picks through charms. Not heather, that's luck. Thorn's too powerful, too general a protection. And, lovely though it would be to hide Mrs. Farley and have done with her nattering, not the oak cage either. Elm knot, that's it, that's healing. She pulls out the charm and sets it next to Mrs. Farley's willow. The old woman says, Oh Miss Edie, I can't buy that.
I made an extra. (She didn't, but she can tonight.) Boil it in your tea, and mind you drink it all up. Edith looks back at the girl watching her brazenly from the paper and swallows. This—it's lovely for her, of course.
Mrs. Farley fumbles for her coin-purse. Not but what she's throwing her reputation away, my dear. Girls. First the vote, now the universities. They're trying to be men. It's not right.
Edith nods, but what it's not is fair. It's too easy, the tide of war washing these feckless, smiling girls up, drowning Edith in the bile and brine of the past. And she's hardly old, not yet. Not yet. She shakes her head tiredly. Women's magic, she says, is like everything else. Not good enough for girls these days.
And they should know better, Mrs. Farley shouts. Like you, dear. It was good enough for you. You were always such a good girl.
The wizard turns in a swirl of black robes and stares down at her. I'm terribly sorry . . . Miss . . . you are lost? His fingers curl around the book he was replacing; his face is long and cold.
Edie takes a step back into the library's shadowed doorway, feeling every bit of her journey's grime. Not that Flamel Hall makes claim to anything so mundane as cleanliness. It is gothick, rather—huge carven blocks of blackened granite set with tall thin windows like claws that shred the light into strips of golden dust; and everywhere the smell of cigars, of mildew and brimstone, lodging acrid in her throat, overwhelming even the old book smell. Displacing, at least, the taste of iron and smoke and machine grease.
She straightens her long tailored skirt. Can even tweed hide dirt from a wizard's eyes? This man's stare brings back the swaying train, the huge, chaotic rudeness of the city, the cabbie's snicker at her directions. . . . She thanks the veil that masks her blush and covers the wilted curls sticking itchy to her forehead.
A good girl would not be here. Would have turned back in shame—if not at the train or the cabbie, then surely when that student outside looked at her just so, cutting through the blurring charm to leave her all but naked. Or would never have left the house in the first place. Edie tells herself fiercely that she needs to be here, to make her own choices, even if the world says otherwise. She tilts her chin up behind the veil and says, Sir—Professor—I understand this to be the college of wizardry; and you are the Honourable Chair of Anomalous Mathematics? She knows he is.
The upper lip lengthens. A dull flush stains the sunken cheeks. He sets the book down, smack, on a table. Dust rises in a slow cloud, blotting out the gold letters on the red leather spine. Miss, I do not know who told you . . . what . . . but wizards do not consort with, ah, persons of the feminine persuasion.
Edie fumbles with her bag, fingers gone slow and clumsy. Holds the scroll up as a shield. You'd know me as E.V. Thompson, sir. I was offered the Woodman Scholarship. This letter, it's signed by you and by the Dean. Her voice is too breathy, too high. Too girlish. She clears her throat.
He is staring at her. You are— The silence stretches thin. She offers the letter to him. Then, almost gently: There must be a mistake, miss. It is known that women cannot understand the greater magics.
She says, It once was known, sir, that women could not read.
The eyes widen, the flush deepens. He snatches the letter from her fingers, steps into a pencil of light, and jerks it open. She holds her breath while he scans the page.
Ah, he says austerely. The minor alteration of that fire spell. Quite. A, uh, charming conceit—(a brief, sour smile for his own joke)—but on closer perusal the equations were found to be flawed.
Her stomach falls away. Wordless, bewildered, she gestures at the letter.
Ye—es, he agrees. I did say otherwise. But decisions are sometimes discovered to be too enthusiastic.
He gazes for a moment at the letter, then turns briskly back to Edith. It is most unfortunate that you did not receive our later letter, Miss Thompson, and indeed I am sorry you have wasted your time.
He rips the paper in two, through the seal, and hands the wounded pieces back with the same sour smile.
Colours inside the shop are washed to weepy grey by the time Edith closes up for the night. She mutters the spell—not flawed after all—to bathe the room with warm light and chase away the dark and drizzle. A fraction of a fireball, her spell, easing power in with a restraint that is, she likes to think, uniquely feminine.
She puts away papers, tobacco, umbrellas, incense. Bags the old scones. Taking home day-old scones. How her girlhood self would laugh. Still, the shop keeps body and soul together, has since before Father died. Shouldn't be giving charms away, of course, but charity is a virtue. And making them, well, it's something to do of an evening.
Edith hesitates. Takes a paper that's just going to waste anyway. Slowly, she gathers herbs for Mrs. Farley's healing charm: elm branches, willow leaves, St. John's wort.
She looks at the picture again. The rotogravure image is so clear, you can hear that girl's glee through it.
So clear, you could direct a finding charm through it.
And it wouldn't hurt anything to take a few more herbs. It's not as though she'd have to use them. A handful of rowan berries for finding. Birch bark for new things. And thorn branches for the weaving. That girl, she'll have a harder time than she thinks, what with the sneering and the stares and who knows what else around her. Her being too good for women's magic, she won't know to wear any charms.
Edith packs her herbs carefully in an oilcloth bag, shuts up the shop, picks a sprig from the hedge and a straw from the thatch to ground the charms, slings the bag over her shoulder, and starts home through gaslit rainfall, dodging black puddles. She refuses to limp, though the cold gets into her knee something awful. She's not old, not yet. That laughing girl, it could have been her. Should have been her.
She has time. She doesn't have to make her mind up just yet. Thorn, that's not only for protection. It's for curses too.