Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Strange Case

     Pirates cannot sail on clouds that rain.  William knew this.  It was obvious.  Their ships would fall into the sea.  And so he ignored his fears as he scratched a golden nib across a blank page, black ink on white paper.  To his right, hanging among an array of things, learned and curiosity, was a child’s toy, a yo-yo.  It was a relic now, a mere memory of youth; but in the casual happenings of a summer’s day, reflections of reflections, it caught glimpses of the sun.  These lit the dark study as Bill and Bob sped their Humber along the many narrow lanes.  They might have been lost, they had been travelling for hours; yet Bob did not concede.  He spoke with an easy, occasional banter, as though his mood was as positive as ever.

     “You ever had a yo-yo, Bill?”


     “A yo-yo.  It’s a child’s toy.  You get a length of string........”

     “I know what a yo-yo is, Bob.”

     “ ever had one then?

     Bill was studying the horizon, searching for some evidence of a house.  He was tired and hot, baking beneath a high sun, and his flesh sweltered in his dark suit, blisters of sweat leaking into the silk of his regulation shirt.  He said nothing more for now, he understood Bob’s game, and Bob continued without waiting for an answer.

     “They’re very old, you know.”

     “I didn’t.”

     “The ancients, so they say, used to sacrifice them to the gods.”

     Bob slowed the car, approaching an impossible bend as he shared this information.  Bill reflected on the words, trying to resist the interest he was expected to show.  He loosened his white tie as he did so, and undid the top button of his purple shirt.  Then he lowered the window, admitting a waft of heat.  Bob put the car into first, let out a slow clutch and felt the strain of rubber and metal struggling to claim a grip.

     “Sacrifice?” Bill said eventually.

     “In a manner of speaking, Bill;” the car skidded onto the severe gradient; “boys gave clay yo-yos to the gods as a rite of passage.”

     “And what happened then?”

     “They became men.  Cast off their childhood symbolically through the sacrifice of their toys.”

     “I didn’t know that.”

     “No.  Not many do, Bill....;” they slowed again, this time dipping over a hill.  Bill kept his eyes above the road; there was a sheer drop to his left, a cascade of rock and stone.  He saw the first sign of clouds.  He could not remember their name. “And here’s another thing, Bill.  The word yo-yo is Filipino.  It means come back.”

     “Like boomerang.”

     “No.  That’s Dharuk.............................I lost mine.”

     The name was cumulonimbus.  It returned to Bill in the silence that followed, dragged from a youth spent with a farming father.  They meant rain, and he watched the clouds rising to a point of brilliant white.  At their base were clusters of loose, grey feathers.  They seemed to soar, however slowly, moving into the blue like a bird; and their tip, a reflection of the afternoon sun, was a golden beak.  He thought of his own childhood game.

     “My father wouldn’t let me have a yo-yo,” he confessed; “he wanted me to play with clouds instead.”


     “Yes.  That one’s an albatross.  Cumulonimbus; it means rain.”

     It was Bob’s turn to delay, keeping his attention on the road as they reached a new junction, a cross of identical lanes.  There was nothing to choose between them, and he ignored Bill’s bird, looking left and right.  Eventually, what he hoped was roughly north, he drove forward, easing the gears of the Humber into first, second, third and fourth.  As they rose, gathering momentum and weaving with the bend of road, he looked up to the clouds and responded dismissively.

     “It’s going to rain alright, Bill.”

     “Of course it is, Bob; but can’t you see the bird?”

     “Not at the moment, Bill; I’m driving.”

     Beyond this talk, fighting the Dark Order and making clouds, William wrote on.  He worked with a pedantic care, detailing the approach of rain.  When the page was full, a minute script formed with a fine nib, he took a fresh sheet from his drawer.  This was an official document, a court summons; and he did not pause to re-read it before folding it in half and pressing the crease between thumb and forefinger.  Then, with an abstracted, casual contempt, he tore, folded and tore once more.

     The four rectangles became a fresh canvas for his magic, battling the drought that had besieged their home.  He could not see the clouds, he was facing south to the right of a deep, stone window; but they were there alright, banks of condensed air rising into a brilliant blue.
Sophie saw them from upstairs, leaning out of the bedroom window and scenting the moisture in the arid heat.  She had changed to go out, a cotton dress, light blue and a pastel of flowers.  It hung loose upon her brown skin, summer cool; and she watched the reflection in the glass, yellow petals setting off the dark of her hair.  She added an oilskin next, yellow too, like the sun; it was as William had said, and she paused to admire the advancing storm.  

“You’ve won,” she said, when she entered William’s study.

“Not yet.”

“But you will.”

     Sophie kissed him then, sweet lips and a warm pink tongue.  The flavour of her desire lingered on his taste, and as she left William broadened his script, penning new hills, a green and rolling land stretching its fertile soil all about.  He could see Sophie smiling as she stepped into this landscape, absorbing the view as though she had never seen such beauty before.  Then he heard her walk, dry gravel crunching beneath her feet, light abrasions of stone on stone.

     At the end of the drive, her coat open and the sweat forming in the small of her back, she paused where a gate might have been.  Instead there was a break in the bank, mounds of rock and soil bending with the lanes and extending east and west.  She turned left, unhurried, enjoying her afternoon, and William worded flowers.  They brought a shock of colour to the stone, standing vibrant against the granite grey; and he gave her a light breeze to cool her face, a rustle of fragrant air upon her skin.

     Next he wrote the sound, birds hiding in the shade of low hedges.  Their songs were soft, shrilling, and they sung of nests, calling for lovers to arrive.  Below them a tease of buzzing, tickling the senses, came the rattle of crickets.  Sophie turned to find the source, but it was gone, however echoing still; and in its place came a rush of whispered, petalled wings, colours taking a silent flight.

     Sophie watched their rise and fall, scampers of shifting purpose as the butterflies hurried out and back, directionless across a meadow of softly curling grass.  Her eyes were shining now, a moist gold to the brown surround; and with a scratch of pen she saw rabbits, a family feasting at the edges of her sight.  With the greatest care, tuning her ear to this detail, Sophie could hear the crunch of sharp teeth on grass, mouths mulching their food.  Then there was silence, ears alert, as though they too were waiting.

     The rain did not come yet and Bill’s birds continued their rise, golden beaks escaping beyond the advance of an angry, billowing dark.  The clouds seemed to shrink the sky, pressing the horizons all about; but there was no cool as yet.  If anything the heat of the day increased.  Bill wished, like Bob, that he had chosen to remove his jacket.

     Bob, by contrast, was the epitome of professional focus.  He negotiated the lanes with expert ease, and his successes showed in the confidence of his voice.  He was explaining the arrest once more.

“Let me put it this way, Bill.”

“Yes, Bob?”

“If magic did exist..........”

“It don’t, Bob.”

“Of course it don’t, Bill; but if it did exist.........”

     This time even Bob showed concern.  The road had narrowed to a single track, and on his right the hill fell to an invisible bottom.  They drove slowly, Bill gripping the handle of his case as though it might try to escape, and neither of them saying a word.  It seemed an age before they turned once more, land reappearing as if by magic.  Bob increased his speed, taking up his argument where he had left off.

“..........magicians would need a licence,” he said; “it’s obvious.”

     Obvious too was the arrival of an unexpected sound; it sent the rabbits dashing for their burrows, and in the woods there was a canter of hooves.  William did not stop, he was in full flow; as the rabbits hid, noses scenting some change, he wrote a village.  It nestled in the hollow of a valley, a broad river rushing along its edge.  There was a cluster of tall, woven houses standing out before a backdrop of serried trees; and when Sophie came closer she saw windows thrown open, a lazy ease, and heard voices, a drift of laughter all about.

     The pleasure followed her down the street, as though she belonged in its sounds.  The buildings were close now, detailed, rising on her left in a maze of foot-lanes.  Her sandals walked on stone, cobbles shaped and pressed into the earth.  She felt their age reassure her as she admired the houses; they were tall, smooth plastered walls with colours of autumn, russet, yellow, gold.  Among the plaster, pressing into the air or criss-crossing their support, were oak beams; above the walls, high pitched roofs and rusted tiles of clay.

     William peopled next, working slowly and giving the village a routine of afternoon movements.  He began with feet, footsteps sounding here and there; and they slowed as Sophie advanced, gatherings of gossip and chat.  She paused to talk, comments on the heat and the approaching rain.  There was no rush, and Sophie showed none, entering the butchers when she had done, beef for tea.  Then, she chose the grocer, a short, thin man, dirt beneath his nails.  She left with paper-wrappings clustering her bag, and paused at the door, breathing in the tease of freshly-baked bread.

     The tease was new gold, crusts bursting, inviting hunger; Sophie gave in at once, stepping through a rustle of coloured streamers and eyeing the many treats on show.  Mr Brown, a round, smiling man, white apron and plain, white shirt was used to such attention.  He let it linger, drifting outside the glass of the cool-counter.  He spoke up when Sophie stopped; he had a merry voice.

“And how can we please you today, Mrs Earl?”

     Sophie smiled too, a delightful indulgence parting her lips, her tongue already tasting the sweet foods.  Before her were meringues, green, blue and pink, sponge thick with cream.  The short-bread was crisp, the nectar of a buttered-sweet, and she savoured its melt as she moved longingly on, finally settling upon the marbled simplicity of cup-cakes.  She chose three.

“Excellent choice, Mrs Earl; my favourite.  And will there be anything else?”

“Not today, Mr Brown.”

“Very good then.”

     Without another word the baker lifted the cakes into a cubed, cardboard box.  He handled them as some treasure, a precious gift sealed beneath a shimmering ribbon.  Sophie watched as he worked, counting out her coins and noticing beads of sweat forming at the edges of receding hair.  He too was feeling the heat, and he smiled as he looked up, studying her yellow oilskin and marvelling at the excess.  Sophie accepted the smile with grace, waiting for the question.

“And will it rain, Mrs Earl?”

"Of course,” she answered; “Mr Earl is working on it now.”

“Well, tell him it can’t come too soon.”

     She passed on, leaving the rustle of colour.  There was no hurry still; and when she joined the bustle of mothers outside Billy’s school, she had a practiced, not an anxious face.  Billy confirmed this was needed as he rushed out, a clatter of school-voices soon forgotten; and then his mother, an embrace, the tension of a public showing and he was off, his satchel bouncing against his back.

     “It’s magic today,” he called.

     “Yes, Billy; tell your father I’ll be up soon.”

     Billy did not respond.  He was at full flight, a race of heroes pressing his speed to where William waited.  Above him clouds gathered, dark and light; and there was gold too, treasures magicked in the air and glancing off reflections from the sun.  He did not stop to admire the birds, they were racing beyond his reach; he hurried on until he made the drive, gaining new strength and scampering noisily across the stones.

     That was the signal for William to stop.  He closed the golden nib into its lid, tidied the loose sheets of paper onto the top left of his desk and took a journal from the drawer.  It was the first of two objects, one Billy would enjoy.  He weighed its magic in his outstretched palm.  When he was satisfied he stood up, moving among the cluster of his study.  

     His pale face brushed among the things that hung there and he paused for thought; it was obvious once more, and he chose the yo-yo as the house came into view.  It was a stone cottage, green hills surrounding and a maze of lanes.  Bob did not mention it just yet; he had settled the argument in his head and wanted to keep it clear.

     “It’s like driving,” he began, cranking the hand-brake into place and leaving the engine to idle on.

     “What, Bob?” 

     “You don’t drive, do you, Bill?”

     "No, I don’t, Bob.  I’ve not got the temperament for it.”

    “Of course not, Bill; there’s not many that have.  But if you did drive; then you’d need a licence.  Wouldn’t you?  That’s the law.”

     “I know that, Bob.”

     “And..........this is the important part, Bill; if you wanted to drive, then you might drive.  So even if you don’t drive, because you don’t have the temperament, or you don’t have a car, you would still need a licence.  Wouldn’t you?  Just to cover you for what you might do some day.”

     Bill gave this some serious consideration.  He did not want to drive, preferred to trust to his feet.  The argument blurred then, merging with the heat, his surroundings and the bass of the idling engine.  They seemed to have been driving forever, and his discomfort had increased.  He felt worn with travel, and he spoke to get them moving again.  There was irritation in his voice.

    “You’re tellin’ me, Bob,” he said; “that magicians need a licence because they want to do magic that they might do.”


     “Even though it don’t exist.”

     “You’ve got it in one.”

     “And we are arresting this William Earl because ........”

     “.....he didn’t turn up in court........”

     “ explain why he don’t have a licence for magic he might want to do.”

     “You’re right, Bill........”

     “......even though magic don’t exist?”

     “Exactly once more.”

     “Well, it sounds a strange case to me.”

     They tipped over the distant hill and along the lanes as William’s spell changed.  The change came as a premonition, a shudder of nerves, something unwelcome happening.  He had expected some response when he began, the Order used dark magic; but this was different, no drama, just a slow and insistent approach.  He leaned into the window, bending low and pressing his forehead against the glass.  Above the hills were a bank of clouds, heavy grey and black.  It was as he had written them, his world, and might have continued so but for the black speck winding back and forth among the narrow lanes.  William watched it, telling it to disappear and it vanished over a hill.  Then he changed his position, angling his head and it returned, rising to the bend of road.  It continued now without his effort, something alien, moving relentlessly, slowing and turning, rising and falling.

     He could almost hear the car as the sound of the front door startled him from his watch.  Billy was removing his coat to the changing of gears, the throaty bass of an engine.  William could not banish the noise, it would not go; and even as Billy was hanging his satchel from the stand in the hall, stretching to the hook where it belonged, William was waking to the certainty that this car was for him.  He could only guess now, his magic had failed to remove the Humber; yet he peopled it with an impossible number of men, suited wizards, oiled hair and pencil-ginger beards.  Black briefcases were erected on their knees.

     He saw long fingers tapping as he stepped away, counting out the minutes till they arrived.  He had fifteen remaining as the study door opened; and his calm returned to the sound of Billy’s feet, his world.  He was ready then as he saw the eager face of his son.  He let the yo-yo drop, a rush of gold hurrying to the boards, and with a flick the top returned to his hand.  Billy watched the trick and applauded.

     “Ready, Billy?”

     “Yes, Father.”

     “Today’s lesson is magic.”

     “I know that, Father; that’s why I ran.”

    William smiled now too, the car a distant, useless thing.  He was the wizard before the earnest apprentice, and in the flush of exercise on the young face, the undisputed winner of a sprint, there was magic that the Order could never diminish.

     “Then we must begin.”

     He stepped out of the shadow, the clutter beyond his desk; he brought this clutter with him in his thoughts, a wilderness of imagination.  The wild followed him to his seat, and he gestured for Billy to sit also.  Billy needed the gesture; he might otherwise have stood, simply staring at the objects from which he was to choose.  William noticed this, and he held them strikingly visible, yo-yo and journal in his outstretched hands, as Billy finally sat down.
     “This is true magic, Billy,” he reminded; “choosing.”

     “Yes, Father.”

     “And now the choice is yours.”

    There was no further hint once this instruction was given.  Billy looked out from the low-bucket of his chair, taking his time within the comfort of its leather support.  He had no need for clues either, just picking correctly was enough, and the smile of smokey-blue eyes said that the answer would come.  He studied closely then, passing from one to the other, waiting and weighing the options on his own.

     The answer emerged as the minutes blurred.  He loved the magic of the yo-yo; it had a predictable return, a throw, a distraction of movements and then a catch; but even as he pictured this he knew that it was not enough.  The magic he desired that day was unending, traversing the possible, turning and turning with a weave of words.  He chose the journal then, pointing with a look, and felt the stories begin immediately.

     William helped now, the yo-yo briefly forgotten as he rested it out of sight.  The journal opened with a familiar flick, and he let the pages fan until they settled with a give of the spine.  When this was done he gave a further prompt.

     “And what will it be today, Billy?”

     “Pirates,” Billy said at once.


     “Yes, Father; and a black ship floating in the sky.”

     The black car came closer, continuing at the same pace as Billy spoke a pirate ship into flight.  Ahead of it, with a flourish of child magic, there was an albatross, white wings outstretched, its face pointed by a golden beak.  The gold glittered beneath an occasional sun, and William saw it as Billy spoke on.  The feathers of the wings extended long on either side, and they followed the bird, motionless observers as it cut a graceful path through the sky.

     They moved next, rising and falling to the rush of wing, surging forward with the story and dipping below the clouds, the press of cool air against their face.  William could almost touch the blue as he listened; and he could feel the moisture of the billowing grey upon his skin.  He lost himself in such sensations until he heard the change in Billy’s tone.  His son spoke of fear, and the bird became a frightened, fleeing thing, its escape uncertain.  William watched, and Billy shifted from albatross to ship.  Suddenly there was danger, the pirates spotting a special thing, a beak of enormous value; and Billy told their unsatisfied desire, lingering on the Captain as he dressed the man.

     The Captain was tall, thin, a distinguished, beggared expression wrapped in the ragged ginger of a beard.  He wore a pointed cap, three-cornered.  It was faded with dirt and smell.  His mouth was likewise scarred, razor-black teeth darkened with rum.  He spoke with a gravelled bellow, his voice announcing its purpose with the urgency of a wind.  This wind served to billow the worn sails into a swollen mass, pressing its strength and speeding the ship along.

     “This is the fastest ship in the sky,” Billy explained excitedly; “it can outpace the albatross with ease.”

     “And so its capture is certain?”

     “Worse, Father; the ship is armed with canon.”

     “I see.”

     “It will blow the bird to smithereens.”

     “And the beak......”

     “... is no use to a dead thing, Father.”

     The Captain raised a copper spyglass to his eye, his treasure nearing.  The ship was gaining fast, and there was no escape.  The grace became a hurried sweep of sinew and feather, rising and falling and pressing on.  Billy told the fear of the bird once more now, panic in the dark eyes.  He lingered on the details of the sounds, masts creaking, pirates shouting their commands.  And then the ship turned, its victim within range, and all hope failed.  The albatross was doomed.

     “That’s how it ends,” William enquired; the silence of his son was almost real; “the pirates triumph and claim their plunder?”

     Billy’s head dropped, a bird plummeting to its death.  The pirates followed still, they had not fired their canon, and they were immersed in the fog of clouds.  Billy let the drop continue until it was almost done; then he smiled.

“That’s when it rained, Father.”


“No ship can sail upon clouds that rain.”

“Of course they can’t, Billy; the clouds are too slippery.  So they fell?”

“Yes, deep into the ocean, passed the largest and strangest of fish, and down to places so dark that the captain could not see the redness of his beard.”

“And there they rested, Billy?”

“Yes, Father; until the next time.”

     The book closed and Billy stood up, another impossible escape.  He let the albatross soar, the threat of canon gone; and the pirates wallowed in their depths, planning new terror.  Outside, slowing almost to a halt, Bob gestured to the drive.

     “That’s the one,” he said.  Bill looked uncertain.

“How would you know that, Bob?”

“Well, it’s obvious, Bill.  Just look at the address: Pretty Stone Cottage; Green Hills; Lots of Lanes; Roughly North.”

“That might be anywhere,” Bill challenged.

“No, Bill; it’s the one alright.  I checked the address with the postman.”

Sophie felt the rain as she reached the top of the hill.  The drops were individual at first, heavy and spare, sounding on the dried earth and lending a tease of musk to the late storm-heat.  She saw the car then, pausing, studying her house, before it passed into the drive.  The driver gave her a brief study, guessing at her purpose.  Then he passed on, the rain pounding now.  Sophie raised her hood, hearing William’s words and feeling their magic.

      “It’s like a yo-yo,” he said, bringing the lesson to a close as he heard the car, rubber on wet gravel.


“The yo-yo falls, an impossible escape.  And it comes back.  Always comes back.”


“Just like the rain, Billy.”

     William offered the yo-yo now, it was time; and Billy took it as the pirate ship emerged, its canon loaded with lead.  He dropped the golden top as they sighted the bird, a precious, fragile thing; and when the yo-yo returned to his hand Sophie smiled.

     “You must have tea,” she insisted.  She had reached the point where the men stood.  William had told her of wizards; the members of the Dark Order were uniform in appearance, oiled hair and pencil ginger beards.  These men, though uniformed, did not match the image; and beneath the drench of rain they were ordinary, just officials dripping onto her drive.  Sophie smiled at the escape, and thought of cupcakes, three divided into five; she could already taste the light, sweet sponge.

     “.....and cupcakes, Gentlemen.  Marble.”

     “That’d be great..........,” Bill answered, pausing, uncertain of her name.

     “Mrs Earl,” Sophie answered.

     “.............ah, Mrs Earl,” Bob corrected; “we’ve come for your husband.”

     Bob took the briefcase from Bill’s hand.  It opened with a pronounced click, and he reached familiarly into its depth, extracting an official document.  Sophie could see the crest in the header.

“It’s magic,” Bill explained, still thinking of tea and cake; Sophie looked a challenge; “.....or the licence for magic that might be done if......”

“We have a warrant,” Bob interrupted.

“Then you must knock.”

The knock made Billy start.  It echoed in the hollow of the hall, and Billy’s hand missed its trick, sending the golden top crashing to the boards.  William leaned forward at once to rescue the toy; but he too could sense the danger, flashes of powder, and iron ripping through the sky.  There was a cry of pain, crimson leaking onto white, and the albatross fell.

“It’s them, Billy.”


“The Dark Order.  They have seen the magic, and now they have come.”

“Then you must run.”

“No, Billy; it is too late.”

William stood up, winding the length of string into the valley of the yo-yo.  He could feel the weight of wood, the chips and grazes of his many years of play, and he loosed it once more as he stepped from the room, hearing the insistence of a second knock.  He heard the rain also, beating off the gravel, and there was a press of figures in the porch.  It took a rush of courage to open the door, and he did so as the golden top came back.  He saw Bill, Bob and the yellow coat of a smiling Sophie.

“Mr Earl?  Inspector Bob and Inspector Bill.”

Bob entered first, followed by Bill carrying a black briefcase.  William did not say anything at first; he was studying the men, adjusting his fear to the sight of two inspectors leaking his rain onto his stone floor.  The leader looked composed, nonetheless, purposeful, as though he always dressed that way, and William accepted the sodden paper that was offered with a drenched hand.

“We have a warrant for your arrest.  You will come with us.”

“After tea,” Sophie suggested; she had removed her coat and was smiling still; “the gentleman.....”

“ on duty,” Bob interrupted; “and we cannot wait.”

“But the rain will pass,” Sophie responded; “William wrote it.”

Bill turned at this.  Magic did not exist, and he had seen too many storms to believe such explanations.  He saw the yo-yo drop once more, spinning to the stone and returning with a flick of William’s hand.  Bob had warned him to expect as much.

“Is that really your magic,” he challenged; “playing with a child’s toy?”

“Yes,” William answered defiantly; “and I have more.”

At this he held the two objects, yo-yo and warrant in his outstretched hands.  He could see the men were waiting, perhaps expecting some sleight of hand; and when they did not speak he offered further guidance.

“Choice,” he said; “is the greatest magic.”

“Choice, Mr Earl?”

“Yes; I chose rain; you chose to turn left and right.”

“Roughly north,” Bob defended.

“You might have ended anywhere.”

"But we are here, Mr Earl; and now you will come with us.”

Bob chose the warrant now, folding it with care and dropping it once more into Bill’s briefcase.  The scene was ending, however mundane, and William felt a little of the irony as he accepted defeat.  He passed the yo-yo to Billy, tasted Sophie’s belief in her kiss and stepped out of the house.  He was drenched before he reached the car.

“Do you really believe, Gentlemen,” he questioned as he climbed onto the back seat; he almost expected to see a line of wizards; “that a judge can make a ruling on the Dark Order; or on the magic that I practise?”

“Magic don’t exist,” Bill responded; “and you don’t have a licence.”

“And so?”

“You’ll go to jail, Mr Earl.  Contempt of Court.”

The Humber started at once, and William looked to the porch as the car turned.  Sophie was waving, William’s magic was the greatest of all, and Billy was playing with the child’s toy.  As he caught the yo-yo an albatross took flight, and pirates were washed into the sea.  William saw a glimpse of gold through a break in the clouds; and then, with a sweep of wings, the bird escaped from view.


©2011 Padraig De Brún

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