Rags of Time
Author's Acknowledgment: Thank you, Diana Wynne Jones, for your wonderful novel, Howl's Moving Castle, with all its layers and subtleties. Thank you too for the use of a few of your beautifully-written snippets of dialogue, which are offered up here in tribute. May you Rest in Peace.
Which the hot water showering down on him did nothing to relieve. If Calcifer thought he'd been living on borrowed time before, well, ha!
Because—despite all Calcifer's protestations and disclaimers—Howell still didn't believe a single word. Not one. Belief, trust, friendship—all thrown out with the rubbish the instant Calcifer had just up and presumed to invite this woman in. How dare he? How dare he?
Oh, he'd give the old girl a chance to prove herself. She felt safe enough. But at the first suspicion, the tiniest glimmer of a hint that Calcifer might have let the Witch of the Waste walk right in the door of his fortress, castle, and home, Howell was by God going to report the old fraud to the celestial constabulary.
Assuming he could figure out who to call.
And now, what to think, what to do? Whoever she was, she'd already got Michael in thrall—"Oh, Howl's not wicked," the kid had chirped, completely forgetting the narrative they'd developed to keep people like this "Sophie" away from the castle.
Things were changing too quickly.
He still was aghast at what he had seen in the Witch's castle, that day in the Waste: a fire demon, her fire demon, unbound from its hearth, freely strutting about, defying and tormenting the human mistress to whom it owed its very existence. Meanwhile, an insane, inexplicable war was brewing, the King's two closest advisors had vanished, and his Majesty was in a royal twist. Arglwydd mawr! Could it possibly get any worse?
Maybe if he stayed long enough in the bathroom all these troubles would get tired of waiting and just go away.
He took extra time and care in getting everything just right—his suit sparkling, his smile gleaming white, his hair a golden cascade. After all, there was a lady in the house. A lady he hoped would be gone by the time he emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of steam.
He figured he'd been in there a good two hours. Surely she'd have given up by now!
He gave it another ten minutes, just for good measure.
There. She was gone. She had to be. It was perfectly safe to go out now, right?
He opened the door.
She was not gone. And the castle room was engulfed in a cyclone of soot, dirt, and spell-flecks, combined with the usual bits of organic debris. Cleaning lady! Damned if she hadn't gone and raised a dust cloud!
Reflexively he raised a hand to ward it off.
Through it, he could see her looking right at him. Only once before had he seen a woman look at him like that, but he could not, could not remember where. Certainly not the Witch of the Waste; though she had found Howell tolerable enough for her own uses, her eyes held nothing but deep windows onto the Abyss. No, this look was—
If he hadn't known better, he'd have called it gobsmacked adoration.
He waved away the vortex, only to see dust-laden cobwebs tumbling from the ceiling. On the stone floor spiders were scurrying all over the place, colliding with each other in panic and terror.
With savage joy, Sophie was tearing the place apart. "Stop it, woman!" he cried. "Leave those poor spiders alone!"
"These cobwebs are a disgrace!" she retorted.
He felt a momentary chill. A disgrace to what? To the gods of domesticity? Or to the powers of death? This was how serial murderers got started, taking it out on innocent creatures! Mam had never minded a few house spiders, and neither did he. Of course, he did have a few more of them about the place than Mam ever had. He'd even grant that the spiders themselves might prefer not to have great dust festoons clogging their webs...
"Then get them down and leave the spiders," he said, and that should have ended it.
It did not end it. "If the red blob leads to Kingsbury," Sophie pressed, "and the blue blob goes to Porthaven, where does the black blob take you?"
Arrgh! Let Michael, who looked increasingly frantic, deal with her nosing and prying. He'd let her in in the first place, hadn't he? As far as Howell was concerned, Michael thoroughly deserved everything he got.
He grabbed the guitar and made his exit through the green door, throwing a final warning over his shoulder at Sophie: "You're not to kill a single spider while I'm away." There. That would be the test of her capacity for dealing death.
An hour or so later, with a great sense of relief, he was departing from the Chipping Valley Banker To Merchants And Farmers, Limited, down in Market Square.
To their tender care he'd given over all but a few crowns' worth of the gold that had been rattling in his pocket since that morning: his payment for the seven-league boot project. This was a new (and exhilarating, if the truth be told) experience for him: strolling with head held high into a grand whisper-filled palace of black marble columns and golden-doored vaults, being called "sir" and treated with hushed deference by men and women in sober black suits—the sort who wouldn't give anybody the time of day who couldn't show them the glint and the satisfying ka-ching! of immense sums of money.
Howell knew that Michael sweated every penny that came into their lives. He knew about the loose brick in the hearth where Michael squirrelled away odd bits and bobs for fear of one day going hungry again. Howell, on the other hand, had always been content with getting by from day to day. And up until now the three of them had managed well enough.
This morning's acquisition, however, had left him dizzy. He'd been paid a mint for fitting out the army, and a great deal more work of this sort was in the offing. A very worried King was throwing so much money his way that even Howell Jenkins, who'd always professed to care little for material wealth, knew it would be much better off in the care of professionals.
You'd think he'd be elated to be thus blazing in the luster of unaccustomed pocket-money, and of course he was. Yet it dismayed him, all the same. It was yet one more sign of the gathering troubles of the realm.
For the search had so far been fruitless. He had divided Market Square on a mental grid and thoroughly checked each three by three-foot section of it daily for any trace, whether physical, magical, or psychic, of Ben, of Justin, and—ever since May Day—of her.
He had managed to collect a few rumours of the Prince. Justin was known to have checked himself into an inn on the Square and stayed there a night or two—under which of his many disguises, Howell did not learn. He did learn that Ethelbert, the Count of Catterack, had followed the Prince's trail far as the city. Ethelbert had met a local girl and gone home with a bride—a remarkably plain young lady, it was said, with a bit of a reputation (although Howell had never met her)—but with no further news of Justin.
The entire thing was so baffling, so hopeless, that Howell longed for yet another identity. If only he knew how to play Ben's increasingly useless guitar! He'd conjure a cap and set himself up as a street musician. Under an assumed name, of course. Bob Dylan came to mind. And then, the next time something was needed for the war, all the King's horses and all the Kings' men would never find Howell Jenkins again.
But there was no magic in any world powerful enough to make a musician out of a lump of clay. For that there was nothing for it but to practice, practice, practice.
So what was it going to be then, eh? Another afternoon and evening in some dark tavern or other, drinking dark ale and thinking dark thoughts?
At least he'd try a tavern he hadn't tried before.
He got a table at the Red Dragon, a homely name for a Welshman in the throes of hiraeth and despair. It was still early, and there was hardly anyone in the place. Two off-duty waggoners sat on the tall stools at the counter, talking local trade. Lost in his own problems, Howell paid them little attention, until one said, "I heard that Hatter's shop over on Merchant Street never opened today."
"Guess they couldn't keep it going after the father died, back in March," said the other.
"Not so. Their hats were flying off the shelves, at least up until May Day. Never saw anything like it. After May Day, of course, everybody expects sales to get slow until the lead-up to Midsummer. But year in, year out, good times or bad, I never knew Hatter—nor his widow—to miss a single weekday or half-holiday."
That shook Howell from his torpor. The name "Hatter" had of course caught his ear, and the hint he'd detected of some mischance made him uneasy. He got up, quickly settled his bill, and set off up Merchant Street.
It ran north, narrow and winding, out of Market Square and through the oldest part of town. Pleasant, slightly run-down houses, with shops attached, lined it on both sides. Their upper storeys leaned in over the cobbled way, creating a narrow slot of sky above. With all the twists and turns it was hard to tell how far he had gone, but before long Howell found the shop, there on the left at a bend. A cheerful sign, freshly painted with a big feathery hat and the word HATTER'S, swung over the entrance. It certainly looked like a prosperous business.
But both shop and house were shuttered and dark. And there were odd spells everywhere, fuming and fizzing outward through the walls and around the door.
He stood there a long while, puzzling and growing increasingly alarmed. The signs were muddled, but he could sense that there had been a struggle here. Worse, he could feel the Witch of the Waste's special flavour of malign magic at the heart of it.
But there was more, much more, that he could not decipher.
One thing was clear, however. The Witch had been here, and recently. Within the past twenty-four hours, in fact.
The first thing was to make sure that Lettie was all right. He did a mad, messy transport right over the mountain to Upper Folding. Through sheer luck the guitar wasn't smashed to splinters in his magical haste.
Mrs. Fairfax's place was as bucolic, rose-covered, and peaceful as ever. He knocked at the cottage door, but no one answered. He ventured out back to the garden, and there, kneeling in the grass in a rose bed, he found Lettie. She held a snarling, yapping little dog forcibly against her lap, and she was trying to get it to submit to a brush.
"You'll feel better without those nasty filthy fleas, you know," she was saying. "Just let me— Oh. It's you."
Howell's arrival seemed to alert the dog to the presence of a common enemy. It leapt from Lettie's lap and flung itself at Howell, all snapping teeth and slavering jaws.
A palm out, a quiet word of power, and at once the dog was cringing at his feet and whimpering.
"What have you done to him?" Lettie demanded.
"Nothing, merely saved myself from torn trousers and a painful puncture wound to the calf." He bent and picked the creature up by the middle, then placed him in Lettie's arms.
"What do you want?" she said, unmollified.
"Only to make certain that you are safe and well. Where is Annabel Fairfax?"
"Down the valley," Lettie said uncertainly. It occurred to Howell that she was frightened of him, a little. Which pained and distressed him. But with all the horrible things that were going on these days, a young woman couldn't be too careful.
"We got word this morning that a lady at Middle Folding was in difficulties delivering her baby," Lettie said. "Annabel went to help. And if you try any—"
He put both palms out placatingly. "Miss Hatter, it's just as I said. I came here only to make sure that you are safe. And to ask you something."
"Oh, to ask me something. I might have known." With the struggling, squirming dog in her arms, Lettie got to her feet. The two of them bared their teeth at Howell in unison. Spiky, dangerous magic emanated from both.
"Oh, hanged if I do and hanged if I don't," he said. "Listen, Miss Hatter. There is a hat shop on Merchant Street in Market Chipping. Is it your family's?"
Lettie frowned. "What has that got to do with you, Mr. Oak?"
"Nothing. And I don't want to cause you any unnecessary worry. But I felt you should know, in case you have any connection to those Hatters, that I overheard that the shop didn't open today, which is not usual. That's all."
"I went by it to see. It was locked up and dark."
"No," Lettie said vaguely. "That is not usual." She put a hand to her mouth and turned away.
"If there is anything I can do—" he began.
"No. There isn't. Please go, Mr. Oak. I will send word to my family. Thank you for telling me this."
She was still holding the dog, still turned away, and he thought he saw her shoulders shaking with silent sobs. But there was nothing more to be done. He bowed and started off up toward the mountain path. Lettie did not say anything or call to him, and he did not look back.
One thing, and one thing only, salvaged that dreadful day. When Howell got back to the Castle, Sophie was sitting by the fire almost comatose with exhaustion, while Michael and Calcifer had hysterics about her cleaning frenzy. Howell couldn't muster much sympathy for either of them.
And best of all, a healthy population of spiders was back in the rafters, happily spinning away.
"What are they?" Sophie demanded. "All the girls whose hearts you ate?"
Oh, game on! he thought with delight. "No, just simple spiders," he replied. Whatever Sophie was, she wasn't aligned with the powers of Death. At least he didn't think she was. Time would tell.
All the same, with an easy heart and a light step he practically floated upstairs to bed.
There followed what was surely the most avoidant week in human history.
Market Square got a really thorough going-over, as Howell was doing everything he could think of to stay away from the Castle.
Whenever he had to be home, he tried to ignore Sophie and her radical innovations. For one thing, the constant rage and disgust she emanated in his direction were so endearing he feared he might slip and say something complimentary in return. And it was too early in the game to throw it.
For another, he wanted neither to encourage nor discourage her. It was a tough call. He'd have tormented himself with guilt over making the poor old thing work like a drudge, but he had never asked her to, he didn't expect her to, she had taken it upon herself, et cetera, et cetera. But the main reason he allowed her to keep doing what she was doing was that he sensed it was all down to displaced anger: perhaps at her family, perhaps at a friend or lover, but most likely at the horrible spells that had her in their smothering coils.
So long as she didn't kill herself with work, of course. Calcifer had told Howell that her age was real, and that he was keeping an eye on her. With many misgivings as to just how trustworthy Calcifer really was, Howell had no choice but to trust him to stop Sophie before she worked herself into cardiac arrest.
He looked in on Lettie as often as he could. He didn't call, merely checked from a discreet distance to be sure she was all right. All seemed normal, except that her dog kept changing colour, size, and breed. Howell found that quite suspicious, but Lettie and Annabel didn't seem to mind. They were out in the fields and orchards throwing sticks and playing with it whenever the weather was fine.
One day, toward the end of that week, he saw them huddled together out in the garden; the dog du jour was an obnoxious toy poodle that scampered, oblivious, about Lettie's skirts while she and Annabel talked to a third woman: handsome, statuesque, with a mountain of golden hair done up beneath a magnificent cream-coloured hat with pink satin roses beneath its wide brim. Apparently she had brought them bad news; Mrs. Fairfax looked grim and worried, and Lettie was crying uncontrollably.
Once again he could do nothing but hope and trust, this time that Annabel Fairfax's gentle good power would protect Lettie, and the lady (whoever she might be), and herself. And their strange little dog, too.
In the meantime, the castle got cleaner and cleaner, Sophie moved in to the cubby beneath the stairs and hung seashells and aprons, business boomed at both the Kingsbury and the Porthaven shops, and suddenly there was plenty to eat.
But he could not deny that something had been wrong ever since Sophie came, or even before that. And it seemed to tie up with the way he seemed so mysteriously unable to settle down to a quiet day at home, much less sit across the table from his cleaning lady and have a simple conversation.
… Until the day he received a nasty shock and a scare and decided he'd better lie low at the castle for a week or two.
It was a dull Sunday afternoon, just past the middle of May though you'd never know it by the chilly weather. He was off to Market Chipping to search for any sign of life at the hat shop and for any new clues about Justin, Ben, or the Lovely Grey Mouse.
The moment he got to Market Square he discovered the bills newly posted on every street-corner:
MISSING SINCE 8 OR 9 MAY,
PRESUMED TAKEN BY WIZARD HOWL:
SOPHIE HATTER, 18 YEARS OLD,
OF THIS CITY.
PLEASE CONTACT MRS. OR MR. SMITH
AT VALE'S END
WITH ANY INFORMATION.
Oh, God. "Presumed taken by Wizard Howl." It was like an arrow going thunk! right through his heart. It wasn't real, none of it; he was only playing Bluebeard to confuse the Witch of the Waste and to have a little privacy up there at his place in the hills. All in fun, really. Didn't the good burghers of Market Chipping know that? Couldn't they tell the difference between a bit of play-acting and a genuine menace?
And now, if he didn't watch it, he was going to be in trouble with the effing law.
He flew up the hill like a bat out of hell and slammed the door behind him, giving the knob several dozen frantic twirls just for good measure. It came to a stop red-down, which was where he left it.
Feeling safe for the moment, he went to the pantry to find something to eat. He made himself a delicious cold bacon sandwich—chalk one up for Sophie—whose last name, oh God, he hoped wasn't Hatter—and settled in for the evening. He could tell at once that Sophie had been at the bucket of whitewash he kept out in the yard; in spite of the spring storm in Porthaven that was blowing rain in at the window, the castle seemed brighter. But when he mentioned this to Michael and Calcifer they immediately got put-upon and morose.
"Sophie," they said in accents of doom.
Howell, meanwhile, discovered that the wireless in his head had begun playing one of those old Broadway show-tunes, with words he used to think were uproariously funny and that would never apply to him:
Let a woman in your life,
And your serenity is through.
She'll redecorate your home
From the cellar to the dome,
Then go on to the enthralling
Fun of overhauling
Well, funny or not, they were all doomed to spend the next few days together, here, in the crucible, while cold rain poured on Porthaven and hot thunder rumbled over Kingsbury. The weather in Wales appeared to be like Porthaven's, though not quite as raw and cold. Only on the heath above Market Chipping—the one place he thought he had best avoid until the missing girl was found and the entire thing had blown over—was it sunny and pleasant.
By this time he and Sophie had arrived at a mutual détente: they disliked one another cordially, but intensely. He tried to be casual and offhand, pleasantly taking things in stride. Whereas she seemed perpetually enraged, at him and at everything, but, for some reason, especially at him. It was getting rather old. How much whitewashing did it take to work out your feelings about a curse? Of course she had every reason for her anger, yet why should he go on being the punching-bag? The curse was a horrible thing that could very well end up killing her, and it worried him a great deal. In fact, he had been trying, day in and day out, to lift it, or at least part of it, whenever she had her back turned or was too exhausted from redecorating his home from the cellar to the dome to argue with him.
But she had remained stubbornly, obstinately old, while he for his pains had got the exact result the Wicked Witch of the West got when she tried to magick the ruby slippers off Dorothy: fizzes, sparks, and pain. His fingers were burned and his hands ached from the magical backwash. Which did not fill him with fuzzy warm feelings toward the ungrateful old biddy.
"Are you quite sure she's not the Witch of the Waste?" he asked Calcifer the fiftieth time, while Sophie was busy off raising dust clouds.
"Quite," Calcifer replied. "And are you quite sure you're not Horrible Howl, devourer of the hearts and souls of vulnerable young women?"
"Well, what do you think?" Howell demanded. "You ought to know the answer to that. Stop playing mind-games with me."
"Oh, I know the answer. I've known it since before the beginning of space and time," Calcifer replied with enigmatic smugness. "But I don't matter. She does. Tell her."
"And so the coward dies another death. How many are we up to now? So far past a thousand I've completely lost count. Come on, work with me. Ten thousand? A hundred thousand?"
"Shut it," Howell snapped. "And anyway, it's none of her damned business."
The week that followed was exactly as he had expected it would be: a endless series of damp, heavy days spent cooped up with his motley flat-mates. They all got antsy and jittering. They all got on each other's nerves. And as he had known she would, Sophie at last cleaned her way right up to the door of Howell's bedroom.
This was something he could not let go ignored and unremarked. He had to take action. He didn't want to. He hated unpleasantness. Worse yet, it scared him. But he had no choice. The ticking clock was nearing High Noon, and the Gunfight at the OK Corral—or was it the Howell Corral?—was about to commence.
He had it all planned. He got spruced up as though for a day on the town, left by way of Kingsbury, and was right back standing guard on the landing when Sophie came tramping up the steps with her mop, rags, and bucket.
"No, you don't," he said. "I want it dirty, thank you."
"Where did you come from?" she demanded. "I saw you go out!"
"I meant you to," he said. He explained that once she could do no further damage to Calcifer and Michael, it was only logical that she advance to the enthralling fun of overhauling him. And there was one further bit of business that needed addressing: "Whatever Calcifer told you," he said, "I am a wizard, you know. Didn't you think I could do magic?"
The oddest thing happened then.
The aging spells on her started to waver, almost imperceptibly. She seemed a little less stooped, and her voice got almost girlish. Which made what she was saying all the more mind-boggling: "Everyone knows you're a wizard, young man! But that doesn't alter the fact that your castle is the dirtiest place I've ever been in!"
Oh, she was a mere kid, and a very sheltered one, too, if she'd never seen the kind of pigsty the average twenty-something guy inhabited...! Why, just his stack of once-upon-a-time well-thumbed Playboys was enough to give a nice girl apoplexy, regardless of her age!
But she wouldn't back off. It frightened him and angered him as well, because he had made his bedroom window part of the Wales portal so that he could look out on Megan's garden and keep a watchful eye on Neil and Mari—and he just did not want Sophie knowing about that. Not yet, anyway, when he still knew so little about her. Anyway, it wasn't good for her, nor for his family in Wales either, to discover, without any schooling or preparation, that other worlds existed side by side with theirs. The danger was too great. It was one of those magical truths that Mrs. Pentstemmon had instilled in him well.
Sophie, meanwhile, was craning past him for a better look. This was getting tiresome. He waved a sleeve in front of her face, blocking her view of his bedroom floor (a mess, admittedly) and the window onto Wales. "Uh-uh," he said. "Don't be nosy!"
"I'm not being nosy!" she wailed. "That room—"
Egad! Teenaged girls! Oh, how well he remembered all the tears and the hormones and the effing drama!
"Yes, you are nosy," he said. "You're a dreadfully nosy, horribly bossy, appallingly clean, um, old woman. Control yourself. You're victimising us all."
"But it's a pigsty," Sophie protested, and in her girlish whimper she added, "I can't help what I am!"
"Yes, you can," Howell said firmly. It was high time somebody played the grown-up. "I like my room the way it is." He realised he sounded rather teenaged and adenoidal himself. "You must admit I have a right to live in a pigsty if I want," he said. So there!
She looked so sad, so crestfallen as she went hobbling off down the steps, that he immediately felt like a heel. Damn it all! "Go downstairs and think of something else to do," he pleaded. "Please? I hate quarreling with people."
But it wasn't over yet. Round Two followed immediately, down in the yard.
Why, all of a sudden, was he such a klutz?
What the hell was wrong with him?
She'd got him so upset his timing was off. He almost missed an otherwise brilliantly calibrated landing on the greasy wet fender of Tad's old Mini, which nearly sent him sliding into a nasty coil of concertina wire. It was pouring rain. Undaunted, Sophie was attempting to drag a rusted Vauxhall bumper out from under a set of wheel covers off a Volkswagen, on top of which he had placed, carefully balanced, a half-rotted binnacle from the Porthaven shipyards, a loosely-bound bundle of belaying-pins which were about to go tumbling off in all directions, and a bucket of pitch.
"Not here either!" He cried. "You are a terror, aren't you? Leave this yard alone. I know just where everything is in it, and I won't be able to find the things I need for my transport spells if you—" He started to say, bollocks them up, thought better of it in the presence of a young lady, and ended with a lame "—tidy them up."
Transport spells were tricky things. In his quest to perfect his own craft he had discovered that although you could never actually operate an internal combustion engine in Ingary (magic and technology, even Nineteenth Century technology, being too divergent), there was nevertheless a sort of magical mojo clinging to car parts from his home world. He suspected that before long the King was going to order him to concoct a means of transporting a lot of people over a long distance in a short time. If his theory held true, then the efficacy of such a large-scale transport spell could only be enhanced by his collection of old carburetors, windscreens, and oil pans.
But Sophie, who knew none of this, was really getting her teenager on now: "Tidying up is what I'm here for!" she wailed.
"Then you need to think of a new meaning for your life," he said.
In reply Sophie gave the bumper a last petulant tug, and belaying-pins went flying all over the place.
"Now trot along indoors, you overactive old thing," he said, "and find something else to play with before I get angry. I hate getting angry."
He didn't just hate getting angry; it scared the hell out of him. Mrs. Pentstemmon had urged him never, NEVER to let his temper get the best of him, all the while muttering things like scorched earth and deforestation and nuclear wasteland. He got the idea.
But again, Sophie knew nothing about that. And oh, what a spitfire she was! She got right up in his face with her arms folded, like a schoolmarm from hell. "Of course you hate getting angry!" she spat. "You don't like anything unpleasant, do you? You're a slitherer-outer, that's what you are! You slither away from anything you don't like!"
Nuclear wasteland, he thought. Deforestation. Scorched earth. Don't go there...
"Well," he said. "Now we both know each other's faults."
NOTES on Part Seven:
Arglwydd mawr! — Thanks to Caudex for finding this toe-curling Welsh Oath, which she uses in her wonderful story "Embarazada." It's on this site; go forth and read it.
Hiraeth — Welsh for homesickness, longing, loneliness.
But he could not deny that something had been wrong ever since Sophie came — See HMC, Chapter 19, p. 280 of U.S. paperback edition, p. 180 of U.S. hardcover edition. Sorry, I don't have a U.K. edition for page number comparison.
"Let a woman in your life" — From Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956).
"And so the coward dies another death" — From Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene ii: "Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once." I've also heard it as "A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man only one."