May 3 2013 3:30pm
Mortal Fire (Excerpt)
Check out Elizabeth Knox's Mortal Fire, out on June 11:
Sixteen-year-old Canny Mochrie's parents go away on a vacation, so they send her off on a trip of her own with her step-brother Sholto and his opinionated girlfriend Susan, who are interviewing the survivors of a strange coal mine disaster and researching local folklore in 1959 Southland, New Zealand. Canny is left to herself to wander in a mysterious and enchanting nearby valley, occupied almost entirely by children who all have the last name Zarene and can perform a special type of magic that tells things how to be stronger and better than they already are. With the help of a seventeen-year-old boy who is held hostage in a hidden away house by a spell that is now more powerful than the people who first placed it, Canny figures out why she, too, can use this special magic that only Zarenes should know, and where she really came from. Printz Honor author Elizabeth Knox has created another stunning world of intrigue in Mortal Fire.
Canny and her teammates stood on platform nine of Castlereagh Station and watched everything they’d seen the night before in Founderston play again in reverse. Passengers from the overnight express were met, kissed, and led away into the concourse—or set off by themselves heads down into the hot wind. Bundles of pillows, sheets, and blankets were removed from the sleeper car, piled into handcarts, and wheeled away by the porters. The only difference was that here, in their hometown, the team’s school uniforms were recognized, and several people stepped up to shake their hands. One man even opened his newspaper to their photo and had them sign it, first the three boys, then Canny. The man said that the Castlereagh Clarion had finally stopped calling their win an unlikely one.
It was the second year that Castlereagh Tech had carried off the supreme award at the National Mathematics Competition; a contest traditionally won by either Founderston Collegiate or St. Thomas’s—a decades-long rivalry in which the prize simply changed hands between the capital’s two best boys’ schools. Castlereagh Tech was a coeducational, state-run high school full of “kids of every stripe”—to quote its own principal—and famous for nothing much but disturbances on city buses and the occasional talented rugby player. When, two years before, Castlereagh Tech’s junior math team took the prize in their section of the competition, even the Clarion reported their win as a surprising result. Last year the same “whiz kids” made the front page in their hometown. This year the Clarion was taking their feats a little more for granted.
“Only page two,” said one of Canny’s teammates, disappointed.
Canny took off her blazer. Mr. Grove, the head of the mathematics department, said, “Agnes Mochrie, you can remove that blazer once you’re back in bounds. Until then you must remember you are representing your school.”
Canny put her blazer back on. She stared at Mr. Grove, whose favorite pupil she was, and wondered how she could get him to just let her go. Then, because she wanted what she wanted, and was already imagining herself setting off with her suitcase banging on the backs of her legs, Canny just said the first thing that came into her head, without articulating any of the steps that led up to it. “I don’t have to wait till visiting time,” she said. “I could go now and they’d let me in.”
“Please endeavor to make better sense when you speak, Agnes,” said Miss Venn—the history teacher who’d had to travel north with the team because Canny couldn’t be expected to go on a trip with just three male classmates and the male head of the math department. (This was what the newspapers, and everyone else, failed to remark upon—that the coeducational college that won the National Mathematics Competition was the only coeducational college with a girl on its team.)
Mr. Grove was pretty good at following Canny’s thinking, even when it wasn’t mathematical. He said to Miss Venn, “Agnes visits Marli Vaiu after school every day.”
There was a pause of a soft sort that Canny knew was sympathy.
“There’s a rehearsal for the end-of-year prize-giving this morning that you’re all required to attend,” said Miss Venn. “But I’m sure they’ll let you go after that.”
One of the boys said, “Have our reports gone out?”
“They were put into the mail on Monday.”
Canny had nothing to fear from the last report of her school career. She was a good student, and her teachers had always encouraged her. And since it was her last report, there’d be no little improvements she’d be expected to make.
Canny forgot about her report and stared off into space. She was wondering how many of her postcards she might find taped to the mirror above Marli’s face, a mirror in which Marli could see the window of the ward and the tops of the trees that the hospital board were planning to cut down to make room for another parking lot. Canny thought about the trees, and their fate, till her mind was full of a green haze as if she were a tree among trees and had just given them the bad news.
Canny was musing, but Mr. Grove thought she was studying the beams of the new roof over the platforms. He asked a question about the roof’s construction, one of the casual, fishing questions he liked to ask her. “What makes those beams so strong? Can you guess, Agnes?” he said, and Canny’s three teammates abruptly turned away, as if she and Mr. Grove had started taking off their clothes. Canny noticed this disapproval and immediately put it aside without thinking about it. She gave the beams a proper look and, after a moment, told Mr. Grove why exactly they were strong, once meeting his gaze to get him to give her the word she needed, a descriptive word she didn’t know but knew must exist.
Mr. Grove smiled. He was proud of her. Canny liked being his favorite, so she attempted a smile and said, “The new bridge in Founderston—”
In his enthusiasm Mr. Grove took off, talking over her. “Yes, the new bridge is built by the same principle. Well observed, Agnes.”
Mr. Grove had been an engineer in the army during the Second World War and was passionate about the practical applications of mathematics. He had once famously shouted at a year-nine class that mathematics could save their lives. (He had lost his leg to a badly placed round by a British artillery unit, and his opinions about mortality and mathematics had some weight.)
“But the bridge is stronger than the roof,” Canny said.
Founderston’s newest bridge had been the best thing about the tour they’d taken of the capital’s points of interest. It was a beautiful piece of engineering, and Mr. Grove had helped his pupils to see it with his own loving eyes. But to Canny, the bridge wasn’t just beautiful. It had something Extra. It was the first time she’d seen the thing she thought of as her “Extra” attached to an object. She had wondered whether the new bridge’s Extra was a property of the river—the mighty Sva—and had only fetched up against the structure in the same way that flotsam collects around the piles of bridges when a river runs high. She couldn’t imagine how it might actually be part of the bridge, but it had seemed to be there for something.
It was only recently Canny had realized that usually no one else could see this “Extra,” though it had at least once appeared in a form visible to others. That was three years before, on a family trip. Canny and her stepbrother, Sholto, had been trailing behind their parents in Founderston’s old town when she’d spotted a line scrawled on a smokestained brick wall. The chalked letters looked so ordinary that she’d asked Sholto if he could see them too, and whether he knew what they meant.
“I don’t know what it says. Perhaps it’s Greek. The people in the old town used to speak a kind of Greek. But what do you mean, can I see it too?”
Canny didn’t answer Sholto. But when they were home again she looked up the Greek alphabet in an encyclopedia. The Greeks’ alpha beta delta was nothing like the chalk writing. And, anyway, why would she see bits of Greek that were invisible to everyone else—letters salted like frost between a certain pair of gate posts, or floating like thistledown above the grandstand when she was at the racetrack with Marli’s family?
Canny was very persistent when puzzled and had taken the problem to Sholto again. She asked, “What would you feel if you could see things no one else could see?”
“I expect I’d feel very proud of my powers of perception,” Sholto replied. “Though I hope not too proud, because, as sure as eggs are eggs, what no one else sees, no one else cares about.”
Canny felt both reassured and put in her place. It was only later that it dawned on her that Sholto had thought she was talking about her flair for math.
Now Mr. Grove was saying, “Of course the worst the station roof has to deal with is a Southerly Buster, whereas a bridge on the Sva—” And he went on to talk about laminar and turbulent flow, and Canny listened because it was interesting, and because she didn’t know how to begin to explain that, when she saw the bridge, she thought that someone had told it to be strong in the same way that her mother would tell her to be brave. Brave about inoculations, or having her wound cleaned that time she and Marli crashed their homemade go-kart and Canny lost a toenail. Canny wouldn’t even be crying, and her mother would say, “Be brave.” And sometimes, because she was not just any old mother, but Sisema Mochrie: “Be braver than you are.” Canny had looked at the new bridge and thought that someone had told it to be stronger than it was, stronger than its materials and its make.
Mr. Grove was still going on enthusiastically when one of the boys said, “Here’s our bus, sir.”
The school bus rocked across the potholed asphalt of the drop-off lane, its suspension squeaking. Behind the bus was a car. Canny recognized her stepfather’s bulbous beige Austin. Her stepbrother, Sholto, was behind the wheel, and her mother was in the backseat, as if Sholto was her chauffeur.
As soon as she spotted the car, Canny hurried toward it. Her only thought was to cast herself bodily into that suddenly sickeningly narrow gap between her home and school life. She did not want her mother to have any opportunity to emerge from the car and say something her teachers and teammates might overhear. Something typically odd and imperious.
Canny saw that her mother had leaned forward to issue orders—telling Sholto what he should say to her teachers. She jumped off the platform and ran to the Austin, her suitcase pummeling her calves. She heard Miss Venn call out, her voice sharp and angry.
Sholto opened his door and put out a hand to catch her. Her shoulder thudded into his palm, jarring them both. “Hang on a second, mate,” he said to her, friendly and casual. He was trying to calm her. “Let me put your bag in the trunk. Then I’ll have a quick word with Miss Venn.” Sholto removed the bag from Canny’s hand, unlocked the trunk, and put it in. He strode off. Miss Venn met him among the potholes—Mr. Grove had only limped to the edge of the platform.
Sholto said, “Hello, Miss Venn. It’s good to see you again. Look here—Akanesi’s mother has made an appointment with the principal and is anxious about the time. Since we’re in a rush, she had better come with me. I’ll be able to duck and weave between the trams and get there in good time.”
Miss Venn looked mollified. Sholto often had that effect on people, no matter what news he had to deliver. He was a nice-looking, well-spoken young man, and the only time Canny had ever seen him strongly opposed was on the cricket pitch by the other team’s bowler. Teachers had always loved Sholto—and he was a graduate of Castlereagh Tech, a former valedictorian, and the son of a university professor, a famously outspoken leftist who had sent both his son and stepdaughter to the Tech out of a conviction that the pursuit of snobbish advantages wasn’t really to anyone’s advantage.
Miss Venn said, “Certainly, Sholto, don’t let us hold you up.” She gave Canny a little wave. The only protest permitted Canny was to climb in beside Sholto, leaving her mother alone in the backseat.
Sholto pulled out into traffic and made a U-turn, bumping across the tram lines. Cars tooted. Sholto made apologetic faces and hand gestures. Then they were going with the traffic back along Commercial Street.
Canny glanced at her mother in the rearview mirror.
Sisema Mochrie sat—massive, impassive, and queenly—and watched the shop fronts go by.
“Ma, I’m graduating tomorrow,” Canny said. “What can you possibly want to say to the principal?”
“I might want to give her an envelope full of money,” said Sisema.
Canny met Sholto’s eyes. He pulled a face and then said, “Congratulations, kid. I’m really proud of you. And, honestly, it was seat-of-the-pants stuff, even if I couldn’t follow half of it.”
Canny remembered the radio microphones and the technician with his portable sound booth set up in the aisle of the magnificent hall at Founderston Girls Academy. She had been told that the competition’s final rounds were being broadcast, but had forgotten it completely once she was onstage. For a moment Canny ignored her mother—sitting in the back like an unexploded bomb—and asked Sholto what she’d sounded like on the radio.
“Not at all nervous or triumphant,” Sholto said approvingly.
“You’ve just told me what I didn’t sound like. But what did I sound like?”
“A sixteen-year-old girl from Castlereagh Tech,” Sholto said. Then he grinned. “And a Sybil—as if you might at any moment stray from formula into prophecy.”
Sisema snorted. “You’re just like your father,” she said.
Sholto fell silent. Canny waited. Her mother was going to say “Poetic,” or possibly “A flatterer.”
“Poetic,” said Sisema.
According to Sisema, Sholto was often “just like his father.” Whatever Sisema said, it was never wholly insulting, only calculated to make Sholto self-conscious, to make him feel a little quaint and unworldly.
Sholto pushed the Austin past a tram as it jangled through the wide intersection by the steps of the public hospital. They zipped on by the entrance to the steep, oaklined drive that went up to the parking area behind the hospital. Halfway up the drive was a lane that led into the rear entrance of the ward where Marli was.
Marli Vaiu was Canny’s best friend and the only person to whom she ever tried to explain herself. Marli’s family came from the Shackle Islands, like Canny’s mother. But Sisema was the daughter of a chief, and Marli’s father had come to Southland after the War to work in the fish cannery on Sandfly Point. Sisema and Marli’s mother had only met once, at a parent-teacher meeting in the girls’ first year at Tech. Marli’s mother had instantly recognized Sisema as royalty and treated her with great respect—much to their daughters’ astonishment. Marli’s mother fawned, and Canny’s mother put on an air of polite patronage. It was clear to both girls that the women knew their respective places very well and had carried them intact from the Shackles to Castlereagh, and that they were making the best of a friendship that was to one unfortunate and to the other awkward. Canny and Marli were the only Ma’eu girls at Castlereagh Tech. All other Ma’eu girls were to be found at St. Anne’s, a small Catholic school. But Marli’s family were Quakers, because the Quakers had been kind to Marli’s father when he was a lonely early immigrant. And Sisema, having married a white Southlander, a socialist and atheist, had decided that it was most appropriate for her to accept the faith of her husband’s mother and join the Southern Orthodox Church. These choices of worship had thrown Canny and Marli together, two Ma’eu girls in a school that was largely white (though Tech also had a group of Faesu, whose families had begun to drift from their isolated villages on the southeastern archipelago after the War to settle in the southern cities of Canning and Castlereagh).
For the first years of Canny and Marli’s friendship, Sisema had made a point of reminding her daughter that there was no need for her to cling to Marli just because they looked and sounded alike. She said she fully expected her daughter to eventually discover that she had much more in common with that girl whose father was the editor of the Clarion, or the other, whose grandmother was a stroppy congresswoman. Those two were girls whom Canny could share intellectual interests with. Sisema prodded her daughter now and then about finding a more suitable friend, but when Marli contracted polio and for weeks lay near death in the isolation ward at Castlereagh Hospital, Sisema wordlessly retreated and never tried to part them again.
Canny had visited Marli every day for ten months—only skipping for the math competition, and once when she had a cold, because even mild colds were a threat to Marli’s weakened lungs. Canny said “No” to her parents’ plans for holidays. They went away, and Canny stayed with Grandma Mochrie and visited the hospital with Marli’s family, spreading a flax mat beside the iron lung and singing songs—either to Marli, or with her, at a tempo that suited the rigid regularity of her assisted breathing. Sisema not only stopped trying to separate Canny from her unsuitable friend, she might even have attempted to sympathize. She began once to say to Canny that she understood the attraction of visiting someone who was forced to stay still, sequestered from the world, and would always be there. But at “always be there” Canny’s head had reared back, her eyes had whitened, and she stalked off, fleeing what her mother was saying because it seemed that her mother was suggesting that her friend would never get better.
Sisema told Sholto to wait in the car and bore Canny away to the principal’s office.
The hallways of the administrative block were sour and musty. It was an early-summer, end-of-term, teenage boy smell made of sweat and hair oil and tired woolen socks. It was everyday to Canny, but Sisema pressed the back of one of her soft, scented hands against her nose.
When she saw them, the school secretary jumped up and knocked on the principal’s door. She opened it, murmured something, and stepped to one side to usher Canny and her mother into the office.
The principal came around her desk and pressed Canny’s hand. She congratulated her and made a little speech about how proud the school was of the team’s performance. Then she gave Sisema’s hand a brief shake and asked them to please take a seat.
Sisema said she’d rather stand. She opened the large bag she was carrying and took out a fan. It was of bleached flax and intricately woven. She used it to fan herself at first—and the principal opened a window. Later Sisema used the fan to gesture, with grace and force and exotic lordliness.
“I have come about my daughter’s school report,” Sisema began, solemn.
Canny realized that her mother was going to begin by speaking as if English was a hard task she’d mastered only for these occasions. Her whole bearing declared that she was making a great effort and was to be treated accordingly.
The principal said, “It is a very good report. Agnes is one of our top pupils. Not an all-rounder, but I hardly think that today of all days you will find anyone inclined to complain about that.”
Sisema didn’t say anything. The fan stilled. Canny watched her mother’s nostrils flare.
“It is only that—” the principal began, and then swallowed. She asked again whether Mrs. Mochrie wouldn’t really rather have a seat.
“It is only that . . . ?” prompted Sisema.
“The school will be required to write Agnes a letter of reference, and it is only fair that Agnes knows what kind of things she might expect that letter to contain.”
“Why would you be writing someone a letter about my daughter?”
“Why, for University entrance, of course.”
The fan stirred again. The air was allowed to move.
Canny took a breath and said, “Why do you have to talk about me?”
“Akanesi. It is what this appointment is for,” Sisema said, “to talk about you.”
“But I haven’t even had a chance to read my school report.”
“I presume your mother has it here with her.”
Sisema shook her head.
“Oh dear,” said the principal. “I really think you should look at it, Agnes, before we proceed.”
“I don’t want my daughter to read your report. My daughter does not need to hear those things. Those things that you think,” Sisema said, her tone ponderous.
“If the report says something I don’t agree with I can defend myself, if I care to,” Canny said.
Sisema turned to her. “But you won’t care to. You don’t care.”
“Which is part of my point,” the principal said. “You must see, Mrs. Mochrie, the qualities in your daughter’s makeup that cause her teachers to feel it necessary to raise our concerns with her family.”
“What have I done?” said Canny.
The room was silent apart from the twang of a soccer ball on the concrete outside and urgent sporty shouting, all of it ordinary.
“When I came to this country from the islands”—Sisema began—“the government put money in my pocket and gave me a nice government job. I would go out on the town with my paycheck like all the other little government and armed services girls, and I’d try to buy clothes. I’d try to buy shoes. But my feet were too wide for all the pretty shoes in the shops. And the shopgirls would snigger at me as if my big feet meant I was a lewd person.”
The principal had gone white. “Mrs. Mochrie—” she pleaded. “It is only that we feel Agnes must do more, for her own sake, to fit in with other young people. That is all we are saying. We’re worried about her.”
Sisema inhaled, a long slow breath, and at some point in the middle of it, the principal seemed to run out of breath herself as though Sisema had drawn into her lungs all the air in the room. Once the principal was silenced, Sisema said, “My point is that you shouldn’t make nasty assumptions, like those shopgirls. I would have thought that the differences in Akanesi’s background were taken into account.” She had stopped pretending that her English was poor.
The principal flushed, and snapped, “We have children from all sorts of backgrounds at this school! Our assessment of Agnes’s difficulties has nothing whatsoever to do with her background. Wherever she finds herself there will be requirements.”
“I would have thought,” Sisema went on, “that the school would shape itself around the needs of its pupils, as my dress shapes itself to my body, not my body to my dress.”
Canny watched the principal’s gaze flicker, startled, from her mother’s swelling bosom to her round hips and disproportionately tiny belted waist. Sisema smirked and shifted her weight and her silk stockings rubbed against each other with a soft hissing noise.
The principal was now quite pink. “We’re not saying we expect Agnes to try to win popularity contests. But she doesn’t care to try to please anyone.”
“Oh. You are making a mistake,” Sisema said, her tone flat, as though she were about to tell a lie and the necessity to do so filled her with such scorn that she had to show it. “It is only that Akanesi’s face doesn’t move. Her muscles are damaged. That’s why she doesn’t smile like a normal girl. A doctor at her birth had an accident with his forceps when he was trying to deliver her.”
The principal looked down at her own fingers, which were tapping on her blotter. She seemed acutely embarrassed. “Whatever the case, surely at least you should discuss this matter with Professor Mochrie.”
Sisema flourished the fan. Its sleek white fiber flashed in the light. “My husband, Professor Mochrie, is not Akanesi’s father.”
Canny was so stunned that her ears were ringing. This dismissal of her stepfather was just about the nearest her mother had come to talking about her real father. She barely had time to catch her breath before the principal said, “Then perhaps Akanesi’s father might like to join the discussion?” She had a savage glint in her eye. She’d had enough of being cowed and was fighting back.
Canny’s mother was motionless. She seemed not to be breathing at all. Then she said, “Perhaps one day he will.” A pause. “But you wouldn’t like it.”
And then the two women just stared at each other. Finally the principal said, “You should let Akanesi read her report. And then you could actually discuss it with her instead of simply questioning it.”
“You write a kind of curse and then tell me to show it to my daughter,” Sisema said.
“I’m very sorry you see it that way, Mrs. Mochrie.” The principal stood up to signal that the interview was at an end. She looked at Canny, blushed again, and said, “We are terrifically proud of your achievements at the competition, Agnes. And we all believe that you will do something astonishing one day.” She offered Canny her cold hand. Canny took it and shook, and then followed her mother out of the office.
Between the quad and the parking area, where there was less chance of being overheard by either schoolmates or Sholto, Canny took her mother’s arm and said, “I hate the way you talk about me.”
“But I was there to do that.”
“I hate it when you try to explain. What you said about the forceps delivery was a lie.”
“I blow smoke in their eyes. They don’t deserve explanations. You’re a good girl with good marks, and one day you won’t have to put up with this testing and examination.”
“Mother!” Canny dug in her feet, but Sisema wouldn’t stop. She pulled away from her daughter and strolled on, her fan working, and her other hand pressed to her cleavage as though she had heartburn.
Canny ran to catch up with her. “Is my father still alive?”
They had reached the car, and Sholto, whose eyes flew open when he heard Canny’s question.
“I only mentioned your father to discomfort that silly woman.”
“Really?” Canny was suspicious.
Sholto edged out of Sisema’s way and, at the same time, deftly opened the car door for her.
“Yes, of course. Your father is dead. His arms came off. No one could survive their arms coming off.”
Sisema glanced at her stepson. “I’ll walk into town, Sholto,” she said—and then let her suffering show. “Before all my other appointments I think I need to go to church. You can drive your sister to the hospital to visit her friend.”
Canny opened her mouth to mention the prize-giving rehearsal, then closed it again. Sisema kissed her on both cheeks, a demonstration of fealty and ownership rather than affection. She ambled off down the hill, her rolling walk turning the heads of a number of senior boys she passed.
Canny got into the car beside Sholto and they sat in silence for a time, collecting themselves. Finally, “Hell’s bells,” said Sholto.
“I couldn’t get her to say anything more,” Canny told him. “She talked about my father as if he was alive.”
“Your mother is the slipperiest person there is,” Sholto said, meaning that it wasn’t Canny’s fault that she didn’t get any information out of Sisema. “What was her fight with the principal about, anyway?”
“Apparently there’s something wrong with me,” Canny said.
Sholto started the car and they drove out of the school grounds, and it wasn’t until they were nearly at the hospital that Canny realized he hadn’t responded to what she’d said. They parked under the oaks, just above the lane at the back of Marli’s ward. Sholto said he’d have a little nap. “The day holds more ordeals, I’m afraid, but I won’t tell you about them before you’ve seen Marli.” He slid down the seat and jammed one of his big square knees up under the steering wheel.
“Sholto,” Canny said. “Did you just forget to be kind?”
“When I said that there was something wrong with me, you should have said something nice, like that it takes all sorts.”
“It takes all sorts,” Sholto said, and closed his eyes.
Mortal Fire © Elizabeth Knox 2013