I'm grateful for the deft and perspicacious comments of beta incapricious.
Cara sat in Dmitri Papadakis' office, examining it. What did this room remind her of? The small size, dominated by a desk, fitted a doctor's office, maybe. The warm gold colour of the walls could have spilled over from a room where a family might gather (suburban, rich, anxious and caring) and where tiny toy trucks would lurk under settees. One large window filled the top right corner of the wall farthest from the door.
Now the huge painting, which she didn't recognise — should she? The subject was a city intersection. On the far side of the intersection, four modern buildings - solid, tall, uniform - stretched away up the street. It might have been a cold day: the people in the painting were wearing practical coats and hats, except for those among them who wore gauzy capes and jester caps, stilts and hoop skirts, and ribbons on their wrists.
The costumed ones were all in walking in the same direction, faces forward, intent on some destination. No one was looking at them. Cara wondered: was the viewer supposed to identify with the figures dressed in ordinary clothes, who were going about their business despite the carnival gaiety only steps away? Or was the sympathetic position with the troupe of performers, also too purposeful to look around, incognito despite their clothing?
Which of them might she be? Neither: her purpose was to make others look at her and listen to her. In the middle of the tidy, sunlit gold, her nails shone, her teeth shone, and tiny hoops in her ears shone.
Dmitri returned with coffee then. "Cara. Cappuccino, with cinnamon." He set hers down on the far side of his desk and gestured to her to move to the chair there. The smell of coffee filled the room, and Dmitri stirred his cup gently.
Cara liked this: neither of them rushing in to break the silence with professional talk for a single, agreed moment. She wanted to remember it, if she were ever a manager, a consultant, or hiring someone for a job. Everything about Dmitri was neat: his precisely delineated chinstrap beard, his spiky cufflinks, and his desk. But he was also relaxed, as though he achieved these things by calm and tensionless habit.
"I'll tell you how I usually do this, Cara," Dmitri said, after his first sip. "You talk about what you want and the goals you've set yourself. I ask you a few questions, then I tell you how I can help you."
It was good, too, that they were already on a first name basis, because she wanted to presume further.
"I want a change of pace. A change of life," she specified. "I don't want to be a singer any more."
Dmitri said, "And so you come to me... I'd like to think I'm best known as an agent who gains lucrative contracts. Help me out."
"I've heard you have the golden touch," said Cara, "because I've also heard you named Midas."
"Midas is a legend," said Dmitri.
"Yes," said Cara, "and Snow White is a folk tale, a Disney movie, and a commercial cleaner, and tomorrow it might be a new graft of Nashi pear."
Dmitri smiled down at his coffee, sipped it, and put it down on the desk again. "You want magic, Cara?"
"I do, Midas. Can we talk about that?" Cara caught herself grinning at her own boldness.
Cara had never been afraid of anything, even of looking like a fool. But where there was nothing to lose, sometimes there was also nothing to gain. Dmitri was matching her directness and meeting her eyes; this was not a dead end, this was wonderful.
"It's the same question again," said Dmitri. "What do you want?"
"I don't want fame any more," said Cara. "I've done some beautiful work... I have enjoyed this creative career. But I don't see myself in the mirror." There was no way to express this except in clichés.
"I feel like a gambler," she explained. "I've had a streak of crazy luck, and now I want to collect my winnings and walk away from the table. I have the thrill... Last year I did my world tour. A new release, two T.V. appearances, Twitter every day, merchandise."
"How did that make you feel?"
"Special," said Cara. "Tired. Like a balloon with a string that isn't tied to anything. I do not want this. Give me something else."
"When you say," Dmitri said, "that you want to walk away from the table with your winnings, you should know it doesn’t work like that. You cannot leave your life and take it with you." He was very matter-of-fact. She wondered if these were things he would tell her twice.
"I'll walk away," said Cara. "As long as there's somewhere to go."
Dmitri said he'd think about it. Dmitri said he would put another meeting into his schedule.
Now it was that meeting.
As they started, Dmitri had checked his watch, taken a pill out of a case in his pocket, and swallowed it down with his coffee.
Now, after asking her many, many questions about her family, career, and hobbies, and how she reacted in various situations, with a thoroughness that would have put any psychological testing for air traffic control to shame, he offered her one of the pills.
"I may have something that will suit you," Dmitri said, "and I want to show it to you. Take one of these."
"What is it?" Cara said.
"It's sugar," said Dmitri. "A placebo. I took one 30 minutes ago and you saw me swallow it. Even so… it does the trick."
"And the trick?"
He flipped the case between his fingers. "If you take a pill, you'll know."
"A sugar pill," said Cara. "How very simple."
"And a mirror," said Dmitri, "and running water. Cara, I will tell you this about magic: the hard parts are not the ones you expect."
He led her out of his office, into a vast open space: all of the offices on this level were small, and had windows on one side, and an unpartitioned space in the centre. The lifts were watched by a man at a desk, and behind him were three large office printers. In one corner of the level were the bathrooms, with a drinking fountain on the wall separating the men's and women's doors. There was a mirror on the wall above the drinking fountain.
At their first meeting, Dmitri had explained to her that all of the offices were hired by consultants or agents of some kind. His immediate neighbours were a graphic designer and a private eye, respectively. They all shared the cost of the rooms and the receptionist and the building-exclusive café five levels down.
"I know," he had said, after this explanation, "all of these details are not things you need to know. But I indulge curiosity."
Over by the drinking fountain, Dmitri gave her the packet of pills and a plastic cup. She took a pill out of its foil, tipped her head back, and swallowed both pill and water.
As her eyes met the mirror again, she saw.
Aurelie was running.
A rabbit by a road twenty miles away had startled; a bird close to it had taken off from a power line; the power line had sung. Near the post of a power line three hundred feet farther down the road, another rabbit had startled. From the rabbits, the birds, the words, the leaves, and everything that could speak to her, Aurelie had heard: there were two big cars on the road leading in to the village, driving together, probably tourists.
The birds said Go, the rabbits said run, and Aurelie, who could hear this twenty miles away through the network of startled things, ran.
So that her running would have some use, she ran to the village. She'd started out alongside Garnier's cow paddocks; she leapt a fence into the Depauls' land, and kept running. The farmers didn't mind her coming through their property: she never left a gate open, never coincided with a major operation to move their animals, and never left footprints.
Reaching the village, she called to Jeanne Landry, who ran the auberge. "There are tourists coming, Madame."
"They've booked," Mme Landry called back from her kitchen, "but I suppose they're early."
She kept running.
The road that led out of the village was bordered by tall grasses. The road was wide enough that two tractors could pass, and pot-holed. She glanced down sometimes as she ran, and a puddle glanced back at her. The birds flew up at her approach.
As she ran, the salt smell of the sea rose toward her in a great cool billow. She was past the farms: the ground here was only middling good for grazing, and not at all for growing. The road trailed off into dirt and grass like the unkempt end of a strand of hair. She ran off the end of the road and into the sharp, tough salt grass with the feeling of running through a door to the outside world.
There was nothing to run towards, not really, but that was how she ran: away. Everything talked to her, and what it said, mostly, was a warning - pain, fear. There were mating calls, too, from the birds, but those were not aimed at her. The messages she received were like those of nerve endings, and some could be ignored, or enjoyed, until they were screams of damage and alarm. She ran from fear: without and within.
But she must stop running soon, because there were cliffs between her and the sea. She thudded to a stop in the middle of grass and a few low, wind-twisted trees.
The time and distance were not wasted. There was plenty to gather here. She would pick things on the way back, listen to what the speakers told her, and return to the Alchemist's hut by noon.
Cara's senses moved her out of Aurelie's body, up and away from the marsh. The scene shrunk into darkness, until Aurelie was a pinprick in black. Is this a concussion? she wondered, and then the mirror and fountain and Dmitri returned to her, as if Dmitri had switched a light back on.
"I thought," she said inadequately, "it would be in the mirror."
"Sight deceives," said Dmitri. From her crouched position over the fountain's sink, he straightened her up, and led her back across the floor to his office with a firm but light touch on her sleeve. The receptionist ignored them.
"Do you want that life?" he asked, sitting back down again.
Cara was still dizzy. She leaned back in the chair opposite his, looking up to the ceiling and closing her eyes. That did not help. After a sudden shock of noise or light — waking up to a loud bang, or once, when a small earthquake rolled away — she always closed her eyes and made herself aware of feet, legs, stomach, back — what they were all doing and feeling — to place herself. This was harder; it was her thoughts she must feel out.
After a moment, she heard Dmitri move and click his mouse a few times, type briefly, and repeat.
She opened her eyes and looked sideways at Dmitri's wall art. Today, instead of the city intersection she'd seen on the previous occasion, there was a black canvas with white chalk slashed across it in thick, blunt strokes, reminding her of a reverse of charcoal art. What does that look like? she asked herself.
"Like a falcon crouching over its prey," she said aloud.
Dmitri looked up. "Ah, my Du Vin piece?" he asked. "I see waves like a surfer's dream, but Du Vin calls it Satellite. I change the art on that wall every week at least. I fancy my art likes its time in the dark and its time in the light."
"Is art a thing you care about?" she asked him.
"Well. I have my own that I fiddle with. I'll show you."
He swung his laptop's screen towards her. PhotoShop was open on the head-shot of a very young boy with thick, curly hair and a full set of teeth revealed by an open grin. "I like to play with portraits," Dmitri said, clicking rapidly between layers so that the photo flickered between changes, but she couldn't see what he was doing. "I change a shade here, an edge here - only a little at a time, each process. But when it comes together… see." The young boy was now a young girl with a different complexion, and a different smile - warier, less innocent.
"I prefer working with sketches and paintings," Dmitri said. "Then the genre becomes a challenge."
"Do you exhibit them anywhere?" Cara asked, not sure whether this counted as an off-time hobby, or genuine innovation.
"Oh no," Dmitri said. "They're both real people, you know. They might recognise themselves."
"So you work towards another picture when you start?" asked Cara.
"No," said Dmitri. "No, I don't. I don't know who it is I work towards: but there's a real person in the picture at the end." He pulled it back towards himself, not as if he wanted to shield it from her, but as if there was some detail in the picture he wanted to see precisely.
She thought they'd taken the conversation away from magic, to buy her time, but here it was again.
"Well," she said. "Yes. I want the life you showed me."
"The fear, and the obscurity?"
"Empty sky, instead of empty nights in bars," said Cara. Again, there was only cliché to express this, but she remembered taking former band members out for drinks every time it was their last night in a city. She remembered laughing at jokes she didn't find funny. She remembered her photo being snapped as she and the drummer had walked into a tiny takeaway joint down some alley, and the taker of the photograph, too embarrassed even to say hello, smirking down on his camera.
"Here is what you must do now," said Dmitri. "I will find you gigs, and band members, and contracts, and you will perform. Give your music as much as you can, and take as much as you can from it. I won't give you a new life until spring, but until then, you must truly live in this one."
"I can do that, Dmitri," said Cara, but, here, already, was a thing he'd just warned her of: an unexpected difficulty. She wanted to put this life away, not embrace it.
"Cara," said Dmitri, "Have you thought what you will offer for the gift?"
"Yes," said Cara. "I have, just now."
She looked at the slash she had called a falcon, and said, "Where she is meek, I am bold. For her fear, I offer up my boldness. My guts. My temerity."
"Courage," said Dmitri.
"No, not courage," Cara said. "Courage requires fear. I forge ahead where I shouldn't. Sometimes I'm too stupid to be brave."
"A clear-sighted distinction," said Dmitri. "Interesting. I shall see if that is enough."
He glanced down at his desk again.
"In spring," he said, "I'll get you a part in a movie. I have one in mind. There will be some singing involved. Does that suit?"
"If that's my part to play," said Cara.
"I'm back," said Aurelie, at the Alchemist's open door.
"Good," said her teacher. "I wanted to make stock today."
So Aurelie chopped and watched and stirred, and breathed in the smells of the liquid over the small old stove — bay and pepper and celery.
She'd had a question on her mind when she arrived. In fact, she had carried its weight for some time. It was a question that had come to her when she watched the fishers call to the men who met them on the shore; a question she thought about when she watched tourists watch T.V. in Madame Landry's breakfast room; a question she thought about when she sat in a tree and listened and knew, precisely, how far away she was from the nearest human being.
"Alchemist," she said. "Could I live differently?"
"How do you mean?" said the Alchemist, who was called, by others, Christabel.
"Without relying on fear," said Aurelie. "I wish I could bear it when people paid attention to me. I wish I weren't so aware of breath and birdcall. I wish I weren't the Rabbit Heart."
"There is always a Rabbit Heart, on this coastline," said Christabel. "They don't always call her that, or him. But never has there been one such as you.
"And you dance the crops," she continued. "And you learn what I teach you. And you will teach someone else when I'm gone."
"You could teach someone else," Aurelie said. "My gifts and training — they don't have to be thrown away."
"And you could go off to the city," said Christabel. "With your startlement and fear. No."
Aurelie waited, because the Alchemist's no was very literal. Sometimes it meant no, you cannot get what you want this way, but you can get it another way.
And so it was.
They set aside the stock to cool for later. The Alchemist went to the shed where she hung bunches of herbs to dry, and returned with lavender and fern. Shrugging, she threw them into a pan of water, and said, "Drink with your eyes open."
She was in a room — maybe the same size as the auberge's breakfast room, but she could not say for certain, because the walls were black - with cloth? and striped in neon paint that glowed under pale purplish ceiling lights - and there was a word for those, but Aurelie didn't have time to think of it, because she was jumping, bouncing, screaming out words, and this made the room hard to see. She was trying to find her place in it.
She-they-Cara landed from a jump, swept her hand - holding a microphone, Aurelie realised - down towards the ground and back up, and sang more moderately, crooning: "I praised you with a silver tongue/ and that was poison to you/ I told no one what you had done/ And let your guilt speak through you…" And surely Aurelie should know what the words meant, but it was hard to go deeper into strange mind when her surroundings were so intense, and the woman Aurelie was jumping with didn't care right then. Cara only cared, suddenly fierce and glad, that the verse was over, and the drums crashed down on Aurelie, and Cara's next lines were stronger and wilder and happy with it.
"Go now!" sang Cara, and Aurelie left her.
Aurelie was back in the Alchemist's kitchen coughing and spluttering, although Christabel held her away from the pan of water. Her eyes filled with tears, and she staggered away from the bench, shaking, and sat down on one of the chairs that were always available for such a collapse.
"I didn't," she gasped, "I didn't even see her face! I just… heard… uh." She gulped, took the tissues Christabel gave her, and tried to breathe more slowly, an awful anxiety pressing down on her. She should know what Cara thought and felt; she should have used her time in the vision to learn Cara, but the room's noise and light and passion had overwhelmed her. So she didn't know.
"Think about it," said Christabel, kind but firm, and gave Aurelie an entire teapot of chamomile to gulp at.
"I want that," said Aurelie, beginning to hyperventilate again at the shock of saying so, her chamomile un-sipped.
"Goodness, child, why?"
"I hated that place," said Aurelie. "But she didn't. She loved it. I want to be able to endure noises and brightness and crowds. But she makes that seem like such a poor thing to want. She's happy there."
There was a waterway, not quite a river, on the north side of the village. Aurelie rode it now. She sat in a rowboat big enough for two - the Alchemist used it to cross the water near her house, at times like the present, when the stream was in full flow. The Alchemist had flung a sheet over the boat for Aurelie to climb in, so that she sat now in a pool of white.
"Leap, into the river," the Alchemist had said, "when you are near the sea," and the fields had turned to salt scrub, and yet Aurelie could not leap.
The river would shoot over the bank soon, fall six feet onto the beach, and join the sea — barely cliffs at all, there, but Aurelie did not want to stay frozen in the boat and crash with it, either.
She swallowed, and gulped, and could not move her body, or release her grip from the white-swathed sides of the boat. It was like death; what the Alchemist had asked of her was just as frightening, but the Alchemist had looked hurt, and old, when telling Aurelie what she must do, and Aurelie thought guiltily that perhaps her life was not only her own to offer up; it was claimed by her friends too.
She could not stand up to jump. She could not raise herself one inch. She could not.
Her grip white on the white sheets, she began to rock, as hard as she could, swinging the sides of the boat up and down. A roar was approaching: the boat was nearing the sea. It would be even worse to slide over the drop on a strange angle than it would be to ride it straight, but she told herself she would tip herself out first. The boat lurched, and she snatched away the hand that held the top side of the boat, and wrapped in white, fell.
Through the water, she heard the boat crash on the beach.
Dmitri visited Cara before her first scene on the first day of filming. She was surprised but pleased to see him. He had sent contracts to her email, or arranged things by phone, creating a noticeable absence all winter. She missed the only person she could talk to without lying about her future.
She had done what he said. She had coaxed her brilliant, ambitious family to spend a day in the same place together on two separate occasions - a Christmas skiing trip, and her younger brother's Masters graduation. She had phoned up her keyboard player of two years ago and asked about his side projects and visited him for a week in Montreal, during whose late, cold, merry nights she had briefly wondered if she were falling in love. She had bought a harmonica. She had found out the names of every person in her apartment building, and the nature of those who were willing to open up about themselves.
"Do you still want all this?" Dmitri asked her, after small talk.
"No," Cara said, sad but certain. "I love it. But I don't want it."
She loved her family - she even loved her parents for asking, so often, if she didn't want to be the best she could be. She loved her grandmother and her old dog and the place near the recording studio where they sold falafel. There was a day Cara loved: she'd been fourteen and had baked a cake for a friend. She'd got on a bus to go to the friend's house, and found just that friend on the same bus. Cara had smiled, handed over the cake with a flourish, and departed the bus at the next stop. She had walked home, singing aloud, uplifted by the coincidence.
Would she be allowed to keep such days?
For the first time, her confidence deserted her.
"You have to know what you are giving up," Dmitri said, gently. "Come now."
They paced back to where the director was waiting. With a little smile, Dmitri gestured for her to precede him, and peeled off; by the time she took her place she could no longer see him. Shouldn't there be a way to say 'I call it off?' But whenever she had said yes to a question, he had not asked, Are you sure. He had only said, Then the next thing is….
She took her place. There were cold, numb minutes before her cue, and she knew what her task was during that time. She had to remember the cockiness with which she'd walked into Dmitri's office, to ask an ordinary stranger for magic. Cara was audacious, arrogant, so confident it took others' breaths away. Wasn't she? And if not, she must pretend for the last remaining moments of this life.
Cara took a deep breath, and the lights of the set flooded over her.
She fought her way free of a white sheet, instinctively striking away from the current as she got each limb free. She surfaced, gasping. She remembered the floodlight. She remembered rocking the boat.
Who was she? She was Cara, but her nails clinging to the bank were short and blunt, and her mouth tasted strange; even her breath sounded strange in her ears.
She remembered the Alchemist.
Two sets of memories. Would one fade, as if… as if a she were a grafted tree, and where the graft took, the end of each splice tapered off? Interesting; she was not used to thinking in tree similes.
She climbed up onto the bank, and walked to where the land hung over the sea. And where she would have climbed down to the sheet and the boat, she did not; she could not bring herself to risk the fall.
Magic was the last shortcut she would ever have: everything, from now, would be the long way around.
She was no longer certain. What of herself had she brought with her, and what remained? Was the little courage she'd had, in her New York life, enough for this; and if not now, in the shock of transition, could she bear it? Would what she had left — her memory of confidence — ever be enough?
Aurelie took a breath; it felt slow. She had fallen through the water... and then landed on the ground. Her heart was not racing; she looked up from the ground to see twenty people staring at her, and in the same slow, smooth motion, undeterred, she lifted her head a fraction farther and let that breath out.
Clothed in gold, in sequins, Aurelie sang.
"This is a gift…."