Actions

Work Header

From the dark and dreaming heart

Work Text:

Above all remember this: that magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head and everything which is done, should be done from love or joy or righteous anger.

And if we honour this principle we shall discover that our magic is much greater than all the sum of all the spells that were ever taught. Then magic is to us as flight is to the birds, because then our magic comes from the dark and dreaming heart, just as the flight of a bird comes from the heart. And we will feel the same joy in performing that magic that the bird feels as it casts itself into the void and we will know that magic is part of what a man is, just as flight is part of what a bird is.

This understanding is a gift to us from the Raven King, the dear king of all magicians, who stands between England and the Other Lands, between all wild creatures and the world of men.

- From "The Book of the Lady Catherine of Winchester" (1209-67), translated from the Latin by Jane Tobias (1775-1819).

*

What this woman holds in her hands is the mysterious cup from which we have drunk without knowing, the thirst that we have quelled through other mouths, the red and milky wine from which come the stars...

- From "Instructions on how to understand three famous paintings", by Julio Cortázar.

*

Miss Tobias (as it has been said before) spent much time in the library at Winter's Realm, and what she did there no one knew. It would have been something perfectly respectable, of course, for ladies (as it has also been said before) do not study magic, or anything of the sort.

Today, Miss Tobias was simply sorting and tidying up the books. She had started with the ones in the bottom shelf on the left side. She did not, however, get very far along with her work. Something in the way the autumn wind blew against the window made her look up. It was a tapping noise that said come out, come outside, come here.

Miss Tobias slowly put down the book she had been holding, and walked out of the library. She went down the stairs, past the long, dark corridors and the vast and gloomy and odd-shaped rooms, past the hall and its shadows and silence, and out of the house and into the garden.

But she did not pause there.

The weather was fine and dry, and Miss Tobias went walking in the afternoon sun—past Winter's Realm, past Grace and Angels Lane and the church and the pear trees, past the village and the apple orchards and all the high hills of Gloucestershire. Past the world of men, perhaps—and far, far away.

She sat down in the shade of a tree. It was a perfectly respectable tree. And yes, there was something in the crisp air—a quiet sort of magic, a bright hum that made her want to close her eyes, and give herself over to it, and listen...

So she slept, and she dreamt that she met a young woman, and the young woman had an air of magic about her. (And, although ladies most certainly do not study magic, Miss Tobias somehow knew about that.)

The lady's eyes were slightly cold, slightly ancient. Her hands, unadorned. And she sat down next to Miss Tobias, and she looked at the trees swaying in the wind, at the handful of black birds held in the air, held against the sky. And she told Miss Tobias a story. She started it precisely in the middle, precisely in the way all good stories should be told.

*

He painted many things.

He painted the magic. He painted me.

And he lied, but I forgave him. Yes, I forgave him.

It could have been a dream, I suppose—but it does not matter.

I will tell you about it.

It was long ago. After Granada, I thought I would like to see Italy, and so I did. I might tell you about Granada later. But in Florence, I sat there, looking at him. And he looked back at me, and he saw me. And my name was not Elisabetta. My name was not Maddalena. My name was not Laura. No, my name was not Catherine. (1) Well, perhaps, it was. But that, too, was long ago...

His name was Raffaello Santi. He was born at three o'clock of the night, I believe. And his father was a poet. And he always remembered this, and he did his best. I did not have to send him away. He behaved himself. My hands remained free and unadorned, as you can see (I had other uses for them—better ones!), and so did his, no matter what they said.

And yours are the same, I see. Good.

He painted many things. Things in Heaven and Earth, his own face, and the face of the angels. The Holy Family, the big world out there, the small rooms inside, the dreams he had at night, and the strange, Other places inside his head. Saint John and Saint Sebastian, the Graces and the Angels and the Magi, the perfect Transfiguration, and the Madonnas in the dawning sky. Flowers, foliage, fruits, and most beautiful landscapes, the wind and the waves in the sea, and portraits of all the sages in the world. (2) The disciple whom he dearly loved, his tender hand on a friend's shoulder. (3) Yes, his hand... and that, too, was long, long ago.

Yes, he painted many things. He painted his dreams. And once, he painted the magic. He painted the magic of wild creatures and the magic of women.

He painted me.

He painted my eyes, looking, searching. He painted me, and I sat still, trying to make my eyes look like an ocean of unspoken secrets, to make my folded hands speak a silent language... or something quite like that. I sat there, my eyes sparkling with love, or joy, or perhaps a touch of righteous anger. I sat still, trying not to laugh. Instead, I smiled a little smile, a smile that could live inside a painting or a mystery or a dream, as he said. Just a little smile—slightly innocent, slightly defiant, perhaps.

I could not help myself.

At my back, he painted the wild nature that he dreamt of, tamed by blue and green and white, into a sort of understanding. And at my side, he painted the unicorn—covered, hid by the colours, hid by the years. But it did not want to stay hidden, it did not want to stay silent.

No, there was no doubt about it. The unicorn was laughing.

He paused. He closed his eyes, caught in a shimmer of ruby and pearl, and the world moved forward. The world became untamed again—still. He saw ghosts of red chalk and charcoal and ink. He saw black feathers. Yes, he saw ruby and pearl. He saw the world. He saw the magic.

He saw. But he had been dreaming. No. He thought he had been dreaming.

And he woke up.

And he lied. He lied, but I forgave him. What else could he do? Afterwards, he said it was a dog. Yes, truly, what else could he do? They laughed at him, and said that love had made him mad. But it was not love. It was magic. And he saw it in his head and in his heart, and he did not turn away. He was not mad. Or perhaps he was, but that was quite all right—you know what they say about madmen and magic. (4) He understood, and he kept the secret, the secret that a friend showed him, in an unseen mirror, perhaps.

He kept the secret.

They said that he never again touched a brush. But it was not quite so. He saw it, that perfect Transfiguration. And he painted it—he painted everything. He painted shadows and feathers and hands and silences, and something of the Divine, and a thousand, thousand things that he had never dreamt of, and some that he had—and that was quite like love, quite like magic. And he painted his Other places, rare and beautiful, and his dark and dreaming heart, and his strange, fevered dreams. Shapes and colours, and dreams within dreams, you see? He painted his own face, and his eyes were shining, and full of gentleness, and overflowing with loving-kindness. And he painted me, and he painted my dream, which was his own, and he painted the magic—softly, subtly, like a hand on a shoulder, free and unadorned, like gazes and gestures and mirrors unknown, like the mystery from which come the stars... (5)

He kept the secret—he painted it.

He was a good man. But unfortunately, he was not very good at Latin, you see. Well, I do not think so. Not like me. Not like you, surely...

*

The lady smiled, and held out her hand. "But I am not the only magician to sit for a portrait," she said. "Martin Pale did so as well, good student as he was. (6) At least, I think he did. I would not lie about it. You should also try it... one day."

And Jane Tobias, who was too tall, too fond of books, and too grave, clasped the lady's hand, and gave a little smile in return. For she (as it has also been said before) never smiled, unless there was something to smile at.

As she walked away, she saw it, from the corner of her eye. She saw the unicorn, safe in the lady's arms—and the unicorn was laughing. Or was it a dog, perhaps? In any case, it was not very respectable. But it was, she supposed, something to smile at.

The air was sharp, full of leaves, full of feathers. The lady spread out her arms, and they danced in the sunlight and flew around her shoulders like the wings of birds. They flew away, like words, like magic.

Miss Tobias opened her eyes, and shook her head. The autumn wind was blowing, and the sun fell over the hills. She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, and slowly walked back to the house.

She went straight upstairs, to the library.

An interesting man, this Raffaello Santi, she thought. He had seen the magic, and he had kept the secret, after all. Yes, a good man. There should be something about him here... or about her, perhaps.

Her head was still full of the dream, full of the words.

She looked around.

Yes, once more, Miss Tobias looked at the leather-bound books in the bottom shelf on her left side, precisely at one that had surely not been there before—or perhaps it had been, all along. She turned the pages slowly, and the words danced in front of her eyes, just so. Love or joy or righteous anger... yes, she was certainly good at Latin. Here was something else to smile at! (7)

For a long time, she stayed there, in the dark, thinking of the words. Outside, on the high, empty hill, the fine autumn wind was running free, still beating out its rhythm—and she felt it, in her head and in her heart, like magic, like the hand of a friend on her shoulder, unseen, but reaching, reaching out...