This is a new episode of a continuing piece of fiction. You are welcome to start reading here, or if you would prefer you can find the previous episodes on my home page under the heading Creative, ‘The Old Woman, The Stag, and Me’.
To my delight, I got a job in the central library where everything was curved and ergonomic and fresh. Employment had seemed to be such a dull prospect that I hadn’t imagined there’d be a place like that for me. Being allowed to spend my days swimming in books was ideal; all that was missing was a nice big bathtub and I would’ve been completely at home.
What I found difficult was working with so many people. When I lived in dreamscapes the people could be peculiar for sure, but they were nearly always open to the craft of psychic travelling. They didn’t mind the occasional shapeshifting, and understood that time and space were not linear. The people in reality seemed quite grey in comparison, and I kept forgetting to censor myself to appear normal.
On my first day one of my colleagues asked me how old I was.
“It’s difficult to say,” I had replied. “I’ve been to many places, and this is the first where such a thing is important. Mostly you’re just ‘young’ or ‘old’ and there’s no word for what comes in between. I would guess I must be somewhere between 20 and 40 years old.” My answer, although an honest one, was received with raised eyebrows and a mocking smile.
On another day, a student visiting the library asked if I would like to go on a date with him. He knew a great new sushi restaurant, he said, and we could go for cocktails after. Now that was a tempting offer, in terms of the fish at least. But finding a mate had never been part of my purpose as an oracle, and I was still finding my feet among the complexities of reality. I told him so much, and received a cold, wide-eyed response. I was going to have to try harder to play this particular game.
I perused the books for clues whenever I could. They were filled with rationality and seriousness, even in their explanations of mythology and creative pursuits. I was aghast to discover that magic wasn’t even believed in by most, except in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. I wondered what they would do if they witnessed an act of magic outright. Probably the same as they did on the odd occasions they saw Hertz with his uncovered antler stumps and hooves: black it out, bury it in the unconscious, pretend they didn’t see. What a strange way to live! It seemed to me like the mental equivalent of putting oneself in a straitjacket.
Hertz had been put to work as a hospital porter, which he claimed to enjoy very much. He had always loved to help the sick in whatever way he could, though it was driving him to distraction that there were people suffering from ailments he could’ve cured quite simply using his potions. His job shifts were different to mine, and he would come to meet me for lunch when he had finished for the day, usually having worked through part of the night. Ida, having been told she was too old for employment, carried on the way she always had. She read tarot cards in the street, and sold pouches of healing herbs. I was a little jealous of her being able to use her magic so blatantly, but she assured me it wasn’t so easy as it seemed: the trick to not being discovered as an outsider was not to get the fortunes right every time.
On the particular day of the bright purple scream, both of my friends had come to share my lunch break, and we settled ourselves outside a coffee shop within the library square. I loved the rich smell of coffee, but always took a camomile tea as my drink so as not to cause an imbalance in public. I had reason to suspect that strong caffeine would leave me agitated and scampering around the city aimlessly.
No sooner had I taken my first sip than I heard it. My skin prickled. Had I been manifesting as a cat in that moment, all of my hair would’ve stood on end. For a moment I thought maybe I had transformed inadvertently, and was the cause of the terror in this poor woman. As it turned out, I was, but not because I was in a non-human form.
Standing at the entrance to the square was a group of perhaps eight people, most of whom looked as though they were shrinking back into themselves, wide-eyed and afraid. They were all looking at us. The owner of the terrifying scream was still letting it loose, and surrounding her was a magnificent bright purple aura. No one else seemed to care about that, so I imagine it was only us magic folk who could see it. “Look at me” it was telling us, “look at me now!”
Look we did. And what we saw was the most puzzling thing that had happened in reality so far. The woman the scream was emanating from was none other than the dowager from our previous abode in the dreamscape. She howled there and she screamed here.
“It’s them! The stag, the owl, the cat! The ones who gave me my wings! Can you see them?” She cried when the screaming had petered out.
A man from the group took her arm gently. “Now Jean, there’s nothing threatening going on here, everything is ok.” He took her shaking body into a caring embrace and asked “would you like me to take you back?” The dowager nodded, and allowed herself to be guided back out of the square. Another five of the group trudged after. One man stayed to stare at us for a few moments, before he too was ushered along.
Hertz dispersed the attention that had been drawn to us by shrugging his shoulders and putting on an expression of bewilderment; which was admittedly only partially an act. As far as we had been aware, we were the only travellers in the dreamscape village to which the dowager had belonged. So how could she be here?