Thunder and Herbs
The written words of Jenny Hackett
Practical Witchcraft for Outcast Teens
Chapter 6: Weaving Truths and Lies
The remainder of Daniel’s evening goes far better than it started. The aftermath of confession is a hell of a high — showing vulnerability and living through it gives you a sense of invincibility — and they take full advantage of their emotional breakthrough by dancing the night away, breaking only for random moments of over-sharing with strangers.
It turns out that the person from the queue (the one who was a boy outside but a girl in the club) is in a similar situation to them. The introduction goes a little like this:
“Name’s Diana,” she says.
This strikes Daniel as an odd name for someone their age, so they flatly repeat: “Diana.” It’s probably insensitive of them to react like this, but she seems to take it in her stride.
“Like Wonder Woman,” she explains, adding: “You should see me with a lasso.” She punctuates this with the appropriate mime.
It turns out Diana’s choice of name is only one part of a broader interest in comics: she spends the better part of an hour talking Daniel’s ear off with her opinions on superheroes.
“I mean,” she says, pausing to drink a gulp of lemonade, “the whole secret identity thing’s a lot harder nowadays, what with everyone having cameras in their phones. Why d’you think so many superheroes work in the media?” She gestures for emphasis, taking care not to spill her drink. “Clark Kent can use his position at the Daily Planet to make sure nobody who’s connected him with Superman gets any airtime. It’s what I’d do, if I could.”
“You’ve thought about this a lot,” they reply, more as an observation than a judgement. It’s actually a pretty interesting idea.
“Well,” she says, “I’ve got a secret identity of my own, haven’t I?”
They make sure to exchange contact details before the night’s over; Michelle gets her number, too.
Daniel spends the better part of the following week in the same state of emotional invulnerability. They feel like they’ve faced Death and given him a wedgie. (Do people actually give wedgies? None of their tormentors seem to bother with that sort of thing.) Not even their mother’s what-time-d’you-call-this routine they receive when they return home manages to shift their good spirits: they just head upstairs to the sound of her apoplexy, and a few days later she’s forced to admit that they seem a lot happier.
“You look like you’re in love or something,” she says one morning over breakfast.
Daniel shrugs in response. They are in love — or at least, in deep infatuation — but that’s not the reason they’re so happy. The secret makes them feel powerful.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and Daniel’s mood starts to drop on Friday: the same day as their next session with Yarn. The session starts normally enough, with a review of what they’ve done since last time. Daniel lists the various exercises and observations they’ve done over the past week or so, and Yarn berates them mildly for not working hard enough. That’s fine, though: it’s standard operating procedure for most teachers as far as Daniel’s experience goes.
The problem starts when Yarn demonstrates disguise techniques, which he refers to as “glamours”. On the face of it, this should be right up Daniel’s street: after all, if you can’t be a girl, looking like one is a nice consolation prize. There’s something in Yarn’s manner that leaves them uneasy, though.
“The key to an effective glamour,” Yarn says with practised diction, “is simplicity.” He’s walking up and down along the mirror in the dance studio, fiddling with his red string as he says this. “It’s a lot like the key to a good lie: you need to leave room for the observer to add the details. It’s much easier to make people think you’re, say, a woman, than it is to make them think you’re Maggie Thatcher.”
Yarn chuckles to himself at the notion. It’s not clear whether it’s Thatcher in particular he finds amusing or just the idea of Daniel being taken for a woman in general, but something about it rubs them the wrong way, in any case. Yarn comes to a halt about a metre away from them, facing ever-so-slightly to their side.
“Now,” he says, “can you tell me what colour my eyes are?”
Set by any other teacher this would be a trivial task, but given the context Daniel suspects it’s going to be harder than it sounds. They peer at Yarn’s face, into his eyes. They’re an incredibly clear sapphire blue, the colour uncannily uniform across the whole of the iris.
But looking closer, Daniel sees something else. It looks like a loose end in the weave, a tiny flaw in the pattern of reality. They watch as the light comes in from the window and the overhead fluorescent tubes, bouncing off of Yarn’s eye and toward theirs. They can’t see the individual photons — there’s no way their eyes could resolve that and it wouldn’t even make sense if they could — but the reality-weave carries traces of the rays, traces they can isolate and examine.
Following the paths, Daniel can see where the light interacts with the pigment in Yarn’s irises. It seems to catch hold of a little tangle in the fibres, carrying it along on its journey to the retina where it hijacks and rewrites the signals to the brain. They slip a hand into their pocket and bring out their special penny. With a flourish, they toss it into the air, catching it between the third and fourth fingers of their right hand. As they pull their hand back, the coin tugs on one of the loops around Yarn’s eye, unravelling the structure to reveal:
“They’re green,” Daniel says. “Your eyes are green, with a little brown splodge in the corner of the right one.” They pause for a moment, before adding: “Er, my right. Your left.”
“Well done,” he says. “You saw how it’s done, then?”
Daniel nods. “The light carries the tangle to the target’s brain.” They’re not sure that’s a very good explanation, but it seems to please their tutor.
Yarn’s smile grows wider, the creepiness starting to set in. “Precisely. You’re not trying to change the photons, phonons or olfactons: they’re just convenient carriers.”
Daniel’s not sure if “phonon” or “olfacton” are real words, but they can vaguely guess at what he means.
Yarn continues: “Otherwise you’d have to worry about wavefunctions, Heisenberg uncertainty, all that stuff.” He coughs, perhaps clearing his throat. “The illusion’s in the mind of the beholder.”
Yarn moves to tug on his string but Daniel sees it coming; they preempt him, opting instead to turn to face the mirror-wall on their own power. He’s pulled that trick enough times for them to know it by rote.
“Now you try,” he says.
Daniel stands by the mirror-wall, wondering what to do, what to change. (Pretend to change, they correct themself.) The obvious option would be the whole girl thing, but they’re not sure Yarn would understand. Besides, it’s probably best not to run before you can crawl. They come to a decision, thoughtfully toying with the coin in their right hand and holding out the fingers of their left.
Daniel rolls the penny along their smallest finger, allowing it to come to rest at the very tip. Closely examining the pattern of threads around their left fingernails, they toss the coin in the air and catch it with the base of their palm, before rolling it side-over-side to their fingers. Finally, they spin the coin as hard as they can. It appears to hover in the air for a moment before landing edge-on on the back of their wrist.
The fingernails of their left hand, formerly a fleshy pink, are now a bone shade of white. They hold their hand up to their face, inspecting their work. Free nail polish; nice.
Yarn twirls his string around his ring finger, undoing Daniel’s work. They’re disheartened to see something that took such effort being undone in an instant. Especially something that’s girly.
“Well done,” says Yarn. He half-barks: “Again.”
Daniel gets drilled on glamours for the better part of two hours, during which they make pretty much every change to their appearance imaginable. By the end of the session they’ve been black, Asian, younger, older, taller, shorter… the list is practically endless. They even try a few girly illusions, but Yarn’s reaction leaves something to be desired. It’s not so much what he says — his praise is mild but consistent — it’s more that his demeanour becomes a little awkward around the girl-looking boy-under-protest girl-wannabe.
“Impressive,” he says at one point, a wry half-smile on his face. “Shakespeare would be proud.”
It’s little things like that, but little things take their toll over time. When Daniel eventually leaves, their boy clothes and boy body are more of an involuntary disguise than ever before, like a heavy mask weighing down on the corners of their face. Which, not to put too fine a point upon it, sucks.
On the way home, Daniel considers paying Garl a visit. It’s not that they’ve got some sudden craving for tea and cucumber sandwiches; Garl’s nice enough company but the whole experience last time was a little unsettling. It’s more that they’re wondering about something Garl said about changing forms. It said changing forms in other worlds is easier, right? And while that’s never going to be the same as being a girl here, it’s probably better than nothing, and glamours do little to alleviate the pervasive sense of wrongness Daniel gets about being a boy. In any case, it’d be nice to talk about magic with someone other than Yarn.
Daniel rounds the final corner of their journey, arriving on their home street. It’s still suburbia, but less affluent than the not-mansions of the roads where they first slipped into Garl’s reality. In other words, nobody here has a second car. They’re about to head down the road to their house (which is more-or-less in the middle, equally distant from each end) when they see something out of the corner of their eye.
They look closely at a fence, examining the local weave for signs of tampering. The fence ripples through the weave with near-total regularity, and when they find what they’re looking for it’s almost accidental. It’s certainly subtle, but there’s something there, something they’d have had no hope of spotting if it weren’t for today’s intense drilling on glamours. It’s a knot: a tiny kink in the fabric hanging from the top of one of the fence-posts. Daniel gets the coin from their pocket and carefully undoes the knot, pulling it to one side.
The boy by the fence smiles sheepishly as he stands out of his hiding spot.
He’s a strange sight. He looks about twelve, but the way he wears his navy blazer and trousers looks a lot more like a fashion statement than a uniform and his face has a hardness to it despite his youth. His hair is short and dark, almost black, and his skin tone’s the lighter side of what some might call “olive”. The middle finger on his left hand is adorned with a thin loop, which continues as a taut string to a neon-green yo-yo that’s in the process of clattering to a halt on the floor. He hurriedly picks it up and shoves it in his pocket.
“You caught me.” He says this with an awkward sort of smile; it suggests that he probably wasn’t expecting to be caught, but is trying to make the best of it. He extends his right hand, the one that’s not yo-yo-bound.
“Rakesh Davies-Pradhan,” he says. “Pleased to meet you.”
Daniel’s dumbfounded as they extend their own hand, which Rakesh grabs and shakes eagerly.
“Dan— er, Penny Reed,” they half-mumble.
Rakesh carries himself rakishly, which strikes Daniel as somewhat precocious for a boy of his apparent age.
“You must be new,” he says. His pronunciation’s so Received, there’s no way he’s from around here. “Well, ‘Danerpenny’” (Daniel winces) “are you with the forces of Light, or Darkness?”
“What?” they manage. Rakesh laughs; Daniel’s not sure what the joke is, though.
“You really are new,” he says. “Here.” Smirking somehow amiably, he hands Daniel some sort of thin booklet, sky-blue in colour. “Best to work out what side you’re on. Wouldn’t want to end up on the wrong one by accident, would we?” He turns away, starting to walk down the street and calling over his shoulder: “See you around, Danerpenny!”
Daniel watches with bewilderment as the strange boy walks into the distance.