I ran home, and then past it, changing my mind at the last second. I did not want to sit inside by myself and wait until my mother came home to tell someone what had happened. I couldn’t. Instead, I ran around the hedge and over to Ms. Cleary’s house. I did not knock on the door, and it was not locked, so I just opened it, and went inside.
I closed the door behind me, and it made a resounding thud.
“Ms. Cleary?” I called out in a weak, quiet whimper. “Clara?”
There was no answer. I wondered if they were perhaps out for the day. But then why would they have left the door unlocked? I decided that they had just not heard me properly, and walked down the hall, searching for them.
The floor of the hall was hardwood, and covered by a red and gold ornamental rug that stretched down the middle. The rug itself was made of velvet, and it had woven into its design borders within borders of interlocking rose petals, the stems of which wove through and around each other. There was a pattern to it, that repeated, and divided up the rug into neat, twelve-foot sections, each with a small rosebud in the center. It was hard not to look at, once I noticed the intricacies of the craftsmanship. Staring at the each center was like looking down at a great Matryoshka doll from above, except if I looked too long, the borders in the peripheries of my vision seemed to rotate and slide, and it made me dizzy to look at, so I looked away and kept walking.
I took the first left, and stepped off of the rug and onto plain hardwood, tried the door to the right that I saw, a big oak one with a round bronze knob. but it was locked. I continued down the hall, noting that there were no pictures on the wall, only the aged blue wallpaper. I tried the next door, and it opened.
I was in a great library, and bookcases stretched up to the high arched ceiling, easily two stories tall, and I wondered again how Ms. Cleary managed to fit so much space into such a small house. I was sure that a room like this would never fit in my own house, which was roughly the same size and shape on the outside.
A voice behind me snapped, “What’re you doing, snooping around like a thief?”
Ms. Cleary was standing behind me when I turned around, as I knew she would be. I narrowed my eyes at her. “Are you a witch?” I asked.
She blinked, taken aback. “Bit of a rude thing to go about asking someone, don’t you think? Especially if it’s a someone who’s fed you sweets, and helped mend you when you were near broke and crying. Witch! Pah! I’d take a witch, sew’er mouth shut, and still be able to feed her her own bubbling stew. What makes you think I’d be one o’ them?” Her voice slipped into a bit of an accent, as she talked, one that I could not place.
I shrugged, and pointed into the room, and made a broad sweeping gesture with my other hand. “This. All of this. Only witches with spells can make things like this happen.”
Ms. Cleary ushered me out of the library then, and shut the door. She balled up her hands into fists, and stuck them on her hips. “I’ve told you before, I like my space. Besides, I have a lot of books, and I need the room.” She struck an imposing figure there, standing above me. “Just because you can’t explain something, don’t mean there’s any sort of witch nonsense going on. I know more about this world than you, or your mother, or anyone you’ve ever known or met. Trust me on that one, boy.”
At this point I was near tears again, and snot oozed down my nose. “My uncle is dead,” I blubbered. There were cracks in the dam.
A look of concern replaced the previous one of indignation, quick as a flash, and she was no longer the towering, frightful witch-like figure. Now she looked grandmotherly, and kind. “What now, boy? Speak up, go on. Your uncle’s what?”
“He’s dead,” I said again, and reached forward to hug her. She opened up her arms and enveloped me in the warmth of the knit sweater she was wearing. I stuck my head into it and closed my eyes, and wished that I could just disappear, so she couldn’t see me crying.
“Shh,” she said, softly, and rubbed the back of my head. “Shh. What happened.”
“We went back,” I said. “To the place with the stones. Me and him. The raven came back. It tried to get at me, but it couldn’t. Then it went for him and he fell on his head. And there was blood.”
Ms. Cleary grabbed ahold of both of my shoulders, and knelt down to look me in the eye. “Son,” she said. “I want you to tell me exactly what happened. Don’t leave a thing out.”
Her eyes were serious, and her grip on my shoulders was a bit too tight for comfort. I told her how we went to McDonald’s first, and about the treehouse and the drive to the graveyard. She didn’t stop me, or ask me to jump ahead, even though I knew what part she was specifically asking for. I told her how the raven had appeared and been unable to touch me, and how I felt the silver coin and that it was warm. She nodded at this, unperturbed, and then I described how the bird had flown into my uncle, and disappeared.
Ms. Cleary closed her eyes then, and opened them again soon after, in what looked to me like a long, slow blink. She stood up and hugged me. “Your uncle isn’t dead, boy. I’m afraid it may be a little worse than that.”
I didn’t know what she meant by that. In my mind, nothing could be worse than being dead, or having someone you know and care about die. Once someone was dead, they were gone forever, and you could no longer see them, or talk with them, or watch movies or eat cheeseburgers with them anymore. There just couldn’t be anything as bad as that.
“What do you mean?” I asked, although I was afraid of what the answer might be.
“That wasn’t just a raven. It was a boggart in disguise. Wretched little spirits are always trying to worm their way into people’s lives. I suspected something was amiss when you mentioned the fairy ring. Should’ve told you not to go back there, but I thought the charm’d be enough to keep you safe.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “What’s a boggart? What’s a fairy ring?”
A voice down the hall said, “The fairy ring was the circle of grass, with the stones.” It was Clara. “The veil between our worlds is thinner there, and it was the only place he could so much as touch you.” She walked towards us, eyes on her grandmother. “This is bad, isn’t it?”
“Yes dear, quite,” said Ms. Cleary. “Come on, let’s get out of the hall and into the kitchen, and we’ll go through all this over a cup of tea.” She took my hand, and led me back to the main hall with the red velvet rug, and down to the kitchen, where she put on a kettle of water to boil, and we all sat down at the round wooden table.
“But I don’t understand,” I said. “If he could only hurt me in the fairy ring, why did he fly at me and try to get me? I was standing on the outside of it.”
“Maybe he was just trying to scare you,” Clara offered.
“No, no,” said Ms. Cleary. “They’re all cowards and scavengers, they are. He wouldn’t attack without a good reason.” She was bustling about the counter, opening cupboards and grabbing mugs, and teabags, and honey. Once everything was all laid out she came to sit down at the table. “Hmm. Let me see your hand,” she said, “the one he bit.”
I unwrapped the gauze from around my hand, placed the bandage down on the table, and straightened my arm out to her, palm up. My hand was more swollen than it had been before. Ms. Cleary grabbed it, and stuck her face down as close to it as she could, her nose brushing my fingertips as she peered at the bitemark.
“Something still in there,” she muttered. “Cheeky, little, bugger.” She reached into her pocket and produced a small but sharp knife, with a thin, wicked curve to it. She looked at me and smiled warmly. “This won’t hurt a bit,” she said.
That was precisely what adults always said, before it hurt a great deal, and I did not believe her. I closed my eyes tight and waited for the pain to come. I felt an uncomfortable sensation, of something moving underneath my flesh, like a worm squiggling around just under the skin. Then it was gone.
“All done. you can open our eyes now.”
I did, and Ms. Cleary was holding what looked to be a small stone, or a marble between her fingers, which were covered in dark, and sticky blood. She was smiling.
“He thought he was clever,” she said. “He thought he could pull one over on us, well he was wrong.” She stood up with the tiny ball, that sparkled and gleamed, grabbed a glass jar from the countertop, and plopped it in with a tinkling sound, and fastened the lid.
“What is it?” I asked.
“That,” Ms. Cleary said. “Is the piece of himself the boggart left inside you, to come back for later.”