In Fes the people speak of a jinn who came from the East and laid waste a quarter of the city in a violent fire. They did not know what had brought him or how to placate him. They watched as their bravest men attacked the jinn who had assumed the shape of a man but could not hide his evil essence. He cut them down mercilessly and scattered their bodies and bones across the streets. He came to the house of a Berber elder the locals identify as Hajji Mousafa. The hajji approached the jinn with nothing but a wooden staff topped with an emerald charm. He chanted to the jinn in an unknown language. The jinn was entranced for a moment, but then shook his head and seized the hajji and tore him in half. He took the staff and crumbled it in his hands as though it were made of sand and not oak, and then tore his way through the house, knocking down walls and setting fire to all that could burn. The houses on either side caught fire as well but the jinn paid it no heed. He tore apart the walls, ripping one stone from the other and hurling them onto the ground to shatter. At last he found a hollow stone, and when it shattered he took from the rubble two blood red jewels that glowed with the intensity of small suns. The jinn roared in delight and pressed the jewels hard against his heart, and the flames around him rose up, surrounded him and consumed him, and the mighty jinn, his prize now claimed, turned before their very eyes into an enormous black bird and flew back to the East from whence he had come.
By breakfast Jane was already nearing exhaustion, but the work was worth it. The smell of bread filled the empty hall. She served two loaves alongside fresh butter and jam she’d found at the market. There were eggs as well, smoother and creamier than any I’d had before. “French style,” Mr. Percy said with some amazement, and Jane’s milk white face turned red as a rose. “You have been keeping secrets from us, Jane,” he teased. “These are excellent.”
That was all after Chauncey led his prayer, of course. Father would have pitched a fit if he knew I was being subjected to this.
“I must continue my studies today, children,” Lady Falmouth explained, “so I shall be in the library today and do not wish to be disturbed. Miss Annie and Jane have very many things to attend to as well.”
“Understood,” Julian said.
Mr. Percy spoke up. “Chauncey and I are making repairs to the house and shall be occupied as well, milady, though of course I am at your call if the need should arise.” Chauncey mumbled something and ate a final spoonful of eggs. He alone seemed to dislike them. Perhaps “French” wasn’t such a compliment in this part of the country.
Lady Falmouth continued her instructions. “I don’t want you in the town by yourselves, not yet anyway, and do stay away from the river. It can be more treacherous than it looks, and the land around it isn’t always steady.”
Julian and I changed into play clothes and headed in the orchard of dead trees. We brought our swords, of course, but our enthusiasm wasn’t especially strong. I wished I’d thought to bring my music, but we wouldn’t have all fit in the carriage with the instruments. Perhaps they could have left Miss Annie in London and used her spot in the carriage for my virginal. Or they could have left me. I could see little boats—wherries, they called them here—on the water and imagined I could hop on any one of them and sail to Holland and to my father.
I couldn’t even be certain he was there anymore.
Saturday morning I got a text message from my sister: “Call me when you get this.”
My first instinct is to worry. Messages like this can only signal a death in the family.
However, ever since my grandmother died, and my sister’s and parents’ dogs, there has been nobody in the family who is both a candidate for dying soon, and a close enough to me to justify me calling home ahead of schedule.
So I told myself that probably the message didn’t sound so ominous when she sent it. Probably she wanted to know how to fix her computer, or what we should get our parents for Christmas.
I poured myself a coffee and called her. We talked for about a half hour, and when we hung up I bought plane tickets to go home.
I dug through my photo collections yesterday trying to find a particular shot that I may or may have not taken on a trip to Uzbekistan last year. I was unsuccessful, either because I didn’t take the picture, or I did but it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.
It doesn’t matter. Once I was in my Photos app there was no reason not to keep looking. (On the contrary, there were lots of reasons to stop what I was doing and address my actual current life.)
I have a huge stack of old photo albums that I still carry with me and lug from house to house and country to country. I used to display them in a low bookshelf that has also been dragged all around the world since my parents gave it to me back in the early 1990s. For a while the pictures shared the shelf with knick-knacks and souvenirs. On the bottom shelf was a shoebox full of unsorted pictures that I promised I would someday put into proper albums. I still have that shoebox, and I still promise myself that I’ll do sort them someday.
Eventually the bookshelf overfilled, and first the knick knacks and then the box of pictures were removed to make room for more albums. (I also made it a point to start buying albums that were slim, because there just wasn’t much space on the shelves.)
I begged to use the carriage but my mother refused and so we walked into town. Jane carried a sack full of other empty sacks, and Isabelle and I trotted alongside. We had tried to bring our swords but my mother wouldn’t let us do that, either.
From the little road that connected the manor to the main road we could see the whole of Bungay, and a couple of other towns that appeared as brown smudges in the distance. At more-or-less random places in the grass sunlight glinted off the river, which must have been terribly curvy to appear in so many places at once. Small boats sailed up and down, and where the river was hidden by the meadows it appeared as if the boats were sailing across grass.
I had expected the market to be something small and shameful, but instead the heart of town was a riot of activity. On one end was a mass of people selling butter, and on the far end a similar mass selling flour, and in between was a jumble of voices and clanging and singing and shouting. The only difference between this market and the one I knew from home was the absence of street children; the few children I saw here were all busy.
Later they called it “the Incident” and focused on the most earthly details, like the broken items and the sense that the neighborhood was not as safe as it had been. They spoke of “intruders,” as if there had been more than one, and as if they had been drunks or burglars. The Three Tuns made a convenient scapegoat. They all agreed that it must be shuttered or the good families of the neighborhood would leave. Lord Falmouth noted that more and more fields to the north of Long Acre were being converted into new homes; perhaps Covent Garden had always been too close to the Strand and the docks. The Incident, then, was something that could be resolved with a simple real estate deal.
But that was later. The day that it happened, as everyone ran around collecting boxes and gathering carriages, there was no agreed-upon name. The Intruder. The Shively Girl. The Witch.
“Will you be safe here?” the Lady asked the Lord.
“I won’t be alone,” he answered.
“Will we be safe there?” she asked.
“Let us hope.”
I read somewhere recently that no matter where you are in the world, there is almost undoubtedly always a spider watching you.
I think the point of this tidbit was that there are a whole lot of spiders in this world, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them, because they are all around us all the time and aren’t bothering us.
One might even be crawling on you right now, maybe in your hair or on the back of your leg, and that’s fine, right?
(You should probably stop to check now. It’s okay, I won’t judge.)
But of course that’s not how I read it.
Don’t get me wrong. I like spiders. Most of them anyway. When I was a kid, my mother told me that spiders are good luck, and a classmate told me that they are the smartest bugs. In retrospect, those points probably had more to do with Charlotte’s Web than any actual science, but the impression was made and I thought of spiders were both cool and smart.
The only times I’ve ever had this belief challenged were those times when the spider was really big and I was trapped with it in the bathroom. It’s hard to think positively of anything that’s invading your private time.
Since reading that, though, I’ve become a lot more aware of spiders watching me. I think they know I’m onto them, too, and are just messing with me. There’s one crawling on the painting behind my TV right now. Today there was one crawling at my office, hanging out on the computer cables. For the past week there’s been a fingernail-sized pervert living in my shower, just behind the shampoo. And today, as I had dinner on the balcony, a little orange guy hopped on my bike and watched me eat, as if pepperoni pizza were a perfectly normal part of the arachnid diet.
Were they always there, these spiders, just watching me as I went on my way, wholly oblivious to them? Or is this all some weird spider conspiracy to drive me crazy?
Do I even want to know?