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Shadow Though it Be: An Excursus

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Shadow Though it Be: An Excursus – Chapter 1

by L. Inman

The bus was late.

            Elisabeth drummed the toes of her shoes on the smooth concrete, arm draped protectively over her bulging backpack on the bench next to her, and stared idly at the clock overhead.  With one finger she pushed her small glasses up on the bridge of her nose, sighed, and cast a weary sweeping glance across the bus station.  The bus was late.  The bus was always late.  Though she always had time to burn and then some, it never failed to be slightly aggravating, to expect a bus and end up continuing to wait in the place one wanted to leave.  It was the moving one wanted; the eating up of miles under big wheels, the slight blur of the countryside out the window, the constant artist’s perspective of telephone poles coming to meet one and passing behind.  Instead of which, one was sitting, quite stationary, on a bench waiting for a bus which was late.

            And she was running out of money.  The next town would probably have restaurants to waitress in, or, if she were lucky, a bookstore in which to do inventory and endear herself to the proprietor before getting the bug and moving on.  A job like that would keep her in youth hostels and bus tickets for a while.  Fortunately she still looked young enough to play the lost college kid if necessary, though she disliked doing that; unlike money, her pride was in good supply.

            A rumble and shudder ran its way through the station, and Elisabeth wondered what big vehicle was on its way through the area; a semi, perhaps.  No one else looked up.  She sighed again and looked down judicially at her scuffed oxfords, making a mental note to get them detailed when she had a spare twenty or so.  The shoes were her all-purpose wear, fit for urban hiking, working white-collar or blue-collar jobs, and in a pinch, beating a swift retreat. 

            The rumble came again, stronger this time, and a few people blinked around warily before returning to their business.  An earthquake, perhaps.  Gotta love California, Elisabeth thought.  An earthquake here is like a tornado back home.

            No, not home.  Not anymore. 

            Just as she was about to sigh for the umpteenth time, Elisabeth caught sight of a familiar boxy shape heaving into the bus station:  the bus, at last.  She gathered her pack and jacket; and an even stronger rumble sat her back down before she could even properly stand up.  There were a few yelps from the other people in the station.  She looked up.  The overhang didn’t look like the safest place to be; she heaved her pack onto one shoulder, picked up her jacket, and dug out her ticket.

            To her surprise, the bus driver not only let her on, but also appeared not the least perturbed that the earth was rocking gently beneath them.  Elisabeth lurched her way up the steps and found a seat near the back of the bus.  Probably this move was stupidity at its finest, she thought, but at the moment she felt she had very little to lose.

            The rumbling and rocking stopped.

            Other people wandered their way onto the bus.  By the time the driver picked up his mike, the seats were perhaps a third occupied.  Elisabeth liked this proportion.  It gave her room to spread out.  She began to do so, just as the intercom droned, “This is Bus 17, stopping at….” and a list of destinations.  Preparatory to writing, Elisabeth pulled out her notebook and found the first empty page, not listening to the intercom.  She then dug around and drew out her CD player and headphones.  Notebook, half a bag of peanut M&M’s from her pocket, and tunes; and the bus was moving.

 

*

 

Miles later Elisabeth looked over from her notebook out the window.  There was nothing much to see, but some of the buildings sweeping by seemed to indicate that a town was coming up.  Western suburbia, here I come, she thought, and returned to her writing.  She was playing with notes for a sonnet, thinking wistfully of rain (it hadn’t rained in a long while), and doodling in the margins.  She was almost of a mind to give up on the sonnet for the time being and dig out old Lord Peter from her backpack.

            In the end, she did neither, but stared mindlessly at the page, clicking her pen with the rhythm of the bus and making the older man in the seat across from her narrow his eyes disapprovingly. 

She didn’t see the sign for the town flash by the window.

            In good time the bus trundled to a stop at an indolent station, and Elisabeth debated briefly whether to get off or stay on.  The older man was glaring now, she noticed, and a town or two later would probably speak rudely to her.  Life was too short for that.  Elisabeth packed up quickly and heaved her way off the bus.

            Once out on the street beyond the bus station, she skipped a little, hitching up her heavy pack on her shoulders, and moved into her usual deliberate stride, checking out the establishments as she passed them:  a few coffee bars, a drycleaners, some fashion shops…novelties, antiques…a row of restaurants.  It appeared to be a college town, judging from the persistent color scheme, the cuisines, and the novelty offerings; and probably the college was nearby.  Elisabeth felt lucky; where there was college there was temporary work, and where there was temporary work, there were opportunities to lay in a store of cash for a while.  Peering down a side street, she spied the stately buildings that surely marked the beginning of campus; she would venture that way when she had explored—well, food.  She was hungry.  A vending-machine cinnamon roll and half a pack of peanut M&M’s were not enough to hold her through an entire day. 

            A new intersection, a new load of possibilities.  Elisabeth thought; Chinese? or Mexican? or that hamburger place across the way?  And were the prices reasonable, or was she going to have to find a McDonald’s?

            She struck off down the new street, eyeing the stores.  She was contemplating hamburgers when she noticed the quaint sign across the street and stopped, shifting unconsciously aside to allow others to pass her.  A magic shop.  A magic shop, with a shadowy promise of old books.

            Elisabeth was an age-old follower of Erasmus’s dictum: buy books first, buy food and clothing second.  She crossed the street, jaywalking confidently, and peered in the shop window, which seemed to be obscured not by dirt but by some sort of aged tarnish.  What she saw was inviting enough that she opened the door and stepped inside, under the slight jangle of a bell. 

            Elisabeth looked around her, her sight adjusting from the sunny brilliance outside to the relative dimness in the shop.  There was no one in sight, except a shadowy figure lurking about the herb canisters.  She ignored him (or her) and examined the shelf nearest her:  a collection of talismans, globes, and other gizmos, marked with strange symbols and carrying a scent—of what, she could not put her finger on. 

            It was the books she’d come to see, but she allowed the store to draw her slowly about, uncovering its wares to her, though she hardly understood them.  The shadowy figure (a woman, she realized) moved aside politely so that she could also examine the contents of the herb canisters, all of which were neatly labeled in a block, slightly stylized hand.  Elisabeth was not a New Ager herself, but she could tell that this merchandise was being seriously marketed—but for what, she could not imagine.  Witchcraft was a dream of the past; surely these people knew that.  Surely the proprietors of this store were not knowingly bilking these people of their money, selling them herbs and orbs that would do nobody any real good.  She sighed.  It was time to find the books.

            A man—the clerk, Elisabeth guessed—shifted a box beyond a half-open curtain at the back as she passed it heading for the book section.  And here she struck gold.  An octavo herbarium, Renaissance-vintage, found itself in her hands almost before she could think—so casually, as if these things were sold every day in a corner shop.  The binding was poor, but original…Elisabeth shelved it reverently after leafing through it, and picked up a 1910’s reprint of a book of—what looked like poems, but could have been spells.  Shabby paperback journals of forgotten scholarship on the supernatural; a badly-mauled Trianon Press William Blake without the slipcase (what a shame, she thought), cheek-by-jowl with what looked like an old library copy of Ellis and Yeats’ 3-volume treatment of the mad engraver; three oversize histories of magic with crumbling leather bindings of uncertain colors; and—she gasped—sandwiched in between two faded paperbacks of children’s tales, a cloth-bound, gold-leaf Victorian collection of fairy tales.  In marvellous condition.  With color plates, all intact, including the tissue guardpapers. 

            Hands trembling, Elisabeth checked the price: and drew in an ecstatic breath.  A man moved into her peripheral vision, but she gave him only a glance, long enough to identify him as the clerk she’d seen earlier.  He sniffed, pushed his glasses up on his nose, and straightened some books between a pair of bookends at the other end of the row.  Then disappeared she knew not where; she had eyes again only for her book. 

            Because it was already hers: a painless link to the past, a delicious entrance to another world, a secret entrance she had found long ago.  Before she could even think, she found herself at the counter, laying the book reverently atop the glass and already digging in her pockets for her wallet.  She had forgotten all about the ethics of buying from crooked purveyors of useless “magic” goods.

            “Will this be all?”  The clerk had—well, magically—appeared behind the counter and taken up her purchase to examine it.  “Very good choice.”

            His accent, she noted absently as she dug deeper in her jacket pocket, was Oxbridge, slightly rough around the edges.  Of course it was.  What else would you find in strange magic shops with battered Blakes but a washed-up don, or a librarian-antiquarian from the upper reaches of British academe?

            “This is embarrassing,” she muttered to him.  “I’m trying to find my wallet.”

            She didn’t look up at him exactly, but she could sense the movement when he cocked his head patiently.  Probably she wasn’t the weirdest customer he got in here. 

            But other problems were claiming her attention.  Her wallet was nowhere to be found.  It wasn’t in any of her pockets, or her jacket pockets, or the umpteen places you could tuck things into her pack.  Exasperated, she let the backpack fall to the floor with a dusty thump and looked up, opening her mouth to begin negotiations for putting the damned book on layaway—of all the times for her wallet to disappear—but then she caught sight of the man’s face for the first time, and her mouth froze open in silence.

            Oh my God.  She didn’t speak it, but the words sprang from every pore in a sudden cold sweat.  Trembling, she tore her eyes from the ex-librarian’s face to snatch at a Wicca leaflet sliding off a pile of its sisters on the glass counter.  Turned it over, looking for the address.  A phone number, an unfamiliar street name, and in small sober letters:  Sunnydale, CA.

            Her throat was dry.  “Oh my God,” she uttered.  “I’m in—Sunnydale—”

            “Yes….” the man said, patiently.  Her eyes flew back to him.

            “And you’re…” —she grimaced fearfully up at him, hoping he’d deny it— “Mr. Giles?”

            He frowned, adjusted his glasses to peer at her; and her hope was lost.  “Do I know you?”

            “Of course not,” she said.  And tumbled heavily, awkwardly, into a heap on the floor, her chin narrowly missing the edge of the glass counter as she went down.