Wednesday, December 24, 2008

105. What's the Rest of Me Doing There?

Contest winners: lupa and Celairiel

Miles O’Roughage scratched his head. He still could not help but wonder what Harvey’s mysterious experiment had been about. Whatever potion he had poured on the roots of that old alder tree dying in the back of his greenhouse, it had made a world of difference.

No longer was the tree dying. Still more perplexing, it was no longer an alder. Each day the tree had grown straighter, taller, thicker, stronger. Its bark now swathed it like folds of a soft, gray robe. Its foliage cast a deep shadow around the trunk and roots, a shadow that nevertheless glittered as if the leaves were covered with tiny, reflective crystals.

Moss had rapidly grown round the tree, until it draped from the limbs like long, gray beards. And when the wind blew through its branches, each day during the scheduled rainy spell – a very special spell O’Roughage had spent the best part of thirty years perfecting – the tree muttered to itself, like an old man muttering in his sleep.

Miles O’Roughage shook his head, wondering why the phrase “Merlin tree” kept crossing his mind...but his musings were interrupted by an unexplained rustle of leaves and a few furtive giggles, coming from the far corner of the greenhouse, near his office. O’Roughage stalked quietly, but quickly, through the paths of his indoor garden, scarcely pausing even to slap away a mischievous bogeyvillain vine that was trying to sneak down the back of his shirt.

It was all for nothing. By the time he reached his office, the last of the green fire was dying out on his hearth. Someone had gotten in and out again, using the Floo network. Alarmed, O’Roughage prowled through the nearby flowerbeds until he found signs that cuttings had been clumsily taken. He sighed and began to dress his wounded plant friends, shaking his head again at the folly of young wizards these days.

Meanwhile, a boy wizard, far too young to attend Hogwarts, sat pouting on a bench outside the head’s office at Dr. Wrigley’s Center for Pre-thaumatic Formation.

Wrigley’s, as you may know, is a cross between a primary school and a latchkey program for the children of witches and wizards whose careers make it impossible to homeschool their offspring. So while Mum and Dad work, their little ones get the discipline and basic education they need to prepare for Hogwarts – and to keep out of trouble. The tuition at Wrigley’s costs a fortune, so it is most used by the wealthy; but the RMB subsidizes the children of its agents, so that (for example) Marmaduke Spankison might find himself pouting on a bench outside Dr. Wrigley’s study.

His brow wrinkled even more, and his lip stuck out still further, as he relived his most recent disappointment. Stung by the memory, he glared balefully at his own right hand.

As he had often done in the past, Marmaduke had tried to play a small prank, relying on his lifelong ability to turn half of his body invisible. While hiding in a cubicle in the girl’s toilet, he had willed the upper half of his body to go invisible, and had started to crawl under the side of the cubicle, where Marjory Sudbom stood in front of one of the sinks, checking her hair in the mirror.

He had only meant to put a spider on her sock, and perhaps tie her shoes together, but Marjory had shrieked. “Aargh! Is that you, Marmaduke Ethelbaldricson? I knew it was you all those other times. For shame!” And then, standing on his inexplicably visible fingers, she had screamed for Matron. And so, give or take a bruised earlobe and a scolding that made him wince even in memory, Marmaduke sat and waited for his sentence.

But the worst memory of all was the moment when Marmaduke had recognized that he was no longer the only person who could see the body parts that he had willed invisible. His thought at the time, as he gazed reproachfully at the hand that had betrayed him, was: “What’s the rest of me doing there?”

Marmaduke’s father came out of the head’s office, wearing a sad but calm expression that made the boy tremble. He trembled because he believed, as boys of his character often believe of their soft-spoken-hero fathers, that under the sad, calm surface was a fury waiting to be unleashed. But all Spanky did was beckon to the boy with a tilt of his head. Marmaduke stood up and put his hand in his father’s firm grip. A pop – a moment of crushing darkness – and the pair of them squirted out into the parlor of their house.

“If you’re as clever as you should be,” said Spanky before letting go Maramaduke’s hand, “you’ll have worked out what your mistake was, and avoid repeating it in future.” That was all he said. Then, he simply went into his study and closed the door, leaving the boy to find out for himself what to do with the balance of the day.

Spanky tossed a handful of Floo powder into the small, woodburning stove in the corner of his study. Then, when the flames turned green, he poked his head into them and said, “Ilona’s office.” A dizzy moment later, he was looking up out of the grate in a stone chamber, part of an old castle that had been taken over by the RMB. Directly opposite the grate was a desk where Spanky’s wife, newly reinstated after years of being nonexistent to everyone except her husband, was debriefing a young female operative.

“Another time,” Ilona said, beginning to wrap up the conversation when she spotted Spanky’s head in the fire, “don’t be so quick to conclude that the stage magician is using real magic in front of Muggles, even if he is a wizard. There are proper tests for that, you know. What with all the Memory Charms that we needed to put on the audience, you would have had a solid week’s worth of paperwork even if you had been right. As it is – well, I trust that these forms will teach you to be more circumspect.”

The younger witch nodded, looking chastised, and accepted a roll of parchment the size of a side drum, tied up with several lengths of twine.

As soon as the younger witch had Disapparated, Ilona went over to the fire and knelt next to her husband’s waiting head. “Well?” she said.

“He’s suspended for the rest of the week,” Spanky sighed. “The children are still learning all the implications of your being freed from that djinn curse.”

“It’s for the best,” said Ilona decisively. “And I have an idea as to how to keep Marmy occupied and out of trouble. Why don’t you take...”

Her suggestion was interrupted by a burst of smoke, ash, and even brighter green flame.

“Uh-oh,” said Ilona. “I have another incoming call.”

That was all the warning Spanky had before someone stepped on his head, crushing his chin against the warm coals. A laughing couple stumbled out of the fireplace, trailing ash onto the hearthrug. Spanky did not recognize them at first, because he was busy spitting out ash and coughing. Then he saw that it was a veiled witch and a burly wizard with tattoos writhing over his bare arms.

“Beg pardon,” said Sadie in a, for her, uncharacteristically cheerful voice. “We don’t mean to intrude – well, yes we do. We’re having a double date with another couple, and we decided to try a scavenger hunt.”

“Isn’t it a bit early to be out on a date?” Ilona asked, glancing toward the mantle clock, whose hour-hand was still several inches removed from the inscription that said “Quitting Time!”

“We had to get an early start,” said Sadie, while her not-very-talkative partner nodded and grinned. “We have to meet up and compare our findings with the other couple, before going to a show together.” In spite of the veil, one could see how Sadie wrinkled her nose at the mention of “going to a show.”

“Then what do you need from me?” Ilona asked brusquely, while Spanky tried to blink soot out of his right eye.

“We didn’t know where else to go,” gushed Sadie. “One of the things on our list is ‘a weapon that was used to vanquish an undead creature.’”

“Then take this,” said Ilona, pulling out one of several items, like wooden chopsticks, that she had twisted into her hair.

“What is it?” the tattooed wizard asked, in halting English.

“Kougai,” said Ilona.

“Yes, isn’t he?” Sadie giggled. “But what do you call this thing?”

Ilona rolled her eyes. “Never mind. I once had no choice but to stake a vampire, and I happened to be wearing it when no other wooden stake was within reach. It saved my life.”

“How do you know it was this one and not one of those others?” Sadie asked, peering nervously at the array of kougai piercing the knot of hair atop Ilona’s head.

“Does it really matter?” said Ilona. “All I know is that I haven’t been without at least one or two of them since that incident. One never knows.”

“She was cleared in the investigation that followed,” Spanky mentioned. Sadie and her companion jumped, only now noticing his head in the fire for the first time. “The Bureau agreed that she was in imminent danger of being bitten, so they determined the staking to be an act of self-defense.”

“That’s the life of an RMB agent,” Ilona agreed, beaming at Sadie. “You know, you might consider a career...”

“We shouldn’t keep you any longer,” Sadie blurted hastily. “Besides, we have to stay ahead of the other couple. Bye!” Then, tugging firmly on her friend’s bicep, which was currently flashing the name of a Polish scriptorium, she stepped carefully over Spanky’s head, shouted "St. Broccoli’s Cemetery Chapel," and disappeared with a loud pop.

“Now that we have a moment of privacy,” Spanky said, “you were saying...?”

“Ah! yes,” said Ilona. “You should take Marmaduke to...”

This time, when Spanky heard the popping noise, he ducked to the side and almost escaped injury as another couple staggered onto the hearthrug in a cloud of dust. Somebody’s boot clipped Spanky’s left ear, and he ended up having a sneezing fit, but other than that he fared better than the last time.

“Sorry,” said Endora and Merlin in unison. They were wearing matched pairs of fake eyeglasses, with attached fake noses, eyebrows, and moustaches. They were also holding hands and giggling like teenagers.

“Honey, it’s the other couple,” said Ilona.

“Oh, they beat us to it, did they?” said Merlin.

“Don’t worry, I have several others,” said Ilona, indicating the bristle of kougai in her hair.

Merlin and Endora gave her a blank look. They clearly did not know what Ilona was talking about.

“Aren’t you here to get...?”

“...your husband’s silver knife, yes,” said Endora. “The one that unzipped a werewolf all those years ago. Your son told us Spanky’s body was at home, but his head would be here, so we popped in to ask if we might borrow it.”

“The knife, that is,” Merlin explained to Spanky. “Borrow the knife, not your head.”

“Feel free to pick my pocket on your way back through my home,” said Spanky, torn between laughing and looking irritated and managing, by a heroic effort, to do neither. “You’ll find it in a sheath belted around my left thigh, just below my left wand holster.”

“The knife, not our home,” Ilona explained. “You’ll find his knife belted to his leg.”

“We understand,” Merlin assured her.

“And please,” Spanky added, “take care not to cut yourself with it.”

“It being the knife, not the leg,” Endora explained, in case anyone was still having trouble tracing pronouns to their antecedent.

“Cheers,” said Endora. “We’d best be going then. We’re to meet up with Sadie and her fellow, so we can all go to the formation flying show at McNutt’s Fairy Farm.” She rubbed her hands eagerly, looking very pleased about their plans for the evening. “We’ll bring it back tomorrow.”

“It being the knife, not the fairy farm, I take it,” said Spanky. “Yes, see that you do.”

“And have a good time!” Ilona shouted as the pair Disapparated.

Spanky looked up at his wife and let his eyes ask the question this time: “What were you saying?”

“I’ve changed my mind,” said Ilona, biting her lip thoughtfully. “Do you know, I think the best thing to keep Marmaduke busy would be a scavenger hunt....”


To send Robbie your personal feedback or original ideas, visit the Feedback Form [EDIT: Rather, leave a Comment]. To vote in the Survey and Contest to determine what happens in the Chapter-After-Next, visit the Discussion Forum [EDIT: This discussion is closed].

SURVEY: True or False: In today’s environment-friendly society, witches and wizards should pay a tax on the use of magical power.

CONTEST: Come up with an original name for a Gringotts goblin. (Examples to follow include: Griphook, Dewclaw, Nailspike, Chokechain, Undergrim, Bilejug, Sawtooth, Spleengraft, Jugshard, Bashmace, and Ripsnarl. Of course, you need not follow any examples at all!)

The Survey answer that gets the most votes, and the Contest entry that Robbie likes the most, will be featured in Magic Quill #107. So be sure to visit our Discussion Thread – and if you aren’t a member of COS Forums, join today!

[Originally posted 10/17/06]

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