by Xenophon Hendrix
I woke up, and I hurt all over. Some light was coming from around the blinds. When I tried to move, it hurt worse. I was thirsty and starving. At least my stomach thought so. I had to pee.
I'm dying, I thought.
So am I, thought Ursus.
This is as sore as I've been since I broke my toe, thought Arthur. And that was only in one place.
We need to get up, thought Ursus.
It feels like every muscle in our body is pulled.
We still need to get up. Try again.
I rolled out of bed and landed on the floor. I bit off a scream. I don't think this is an improvement.
No, no it's not.
You're supposed to be the wise one. Why did you let me do this to myself?
One, I could feel how badly you wanted the money. Two, it has been a long time since I've made a mistake of this kind. Three, my old body had enhancements that would have protected me from this.
I grabbed the bed frame and pulled myself into a sitting position, groaning as I did so. Ursus took control of our body and massaged our arms and legs for several minutes. He then used the bed to pull us to our feet. Slowly, I made my way into the hall and then the bathroom. I relieved myself, washed my hands, and took a drink from the bathroom faucet.
When I made it to the kitchen, Mom was at the table drinking coffee. "You overdid it yesterday, I see."
"I hurt really bad."
When she saw that I wasn't exaggerating, she said, "Go sit in the soft chair in the family room, and I'll bring you some aspirin."
I did as I was told with a whimper, and Mom brought me two aspirin and a tall glass of milk. I could see through the sliding glass door that a lot of snow had fallen after we called it quits the night before. None of the other kids in the family were up yet. "Did Dad make it to work?"
"Yes, he managed to get his car out, although he would have walked in if he had to. You know how seriously he takes his business."
"It's four miles."
"You and your sister walked considerably farther than that yesterday. Would you like some poached eggs on toast?"
"Yes, please." Mom brought me a tray. As I was eating, Mary came limping out. She looked like I felt.
"Mommy, everything hurts."
"Go sit in the family room with your brother." Mary soon was getting the same treatment I was.
"What possessed you kids to do this to yourselves?"
"We really wanted the money," Mary replied. "I guess."
"Do a few pounds mean that much to you?"
"I like having money of my own," Mary said. "I hate having to beg whenever I want something."
"Is that how asking your dad and me for something feels to you?"
Mary nodded her head.
I knew that there was still plenty of cleaning up to do outside and, therefore, lots of money to be made, but it wasn't going to be done and made by me. After I finished my eggs, I said, "Can I have some cereal, too, please?"
"You must have worked up quite an appetite."
"It sure feels that way." I munched down a big bowl of cornflakes and then slowly got up to take my dishes to the sink.
Mom took the tray when I was about half way there. "What are your plans for today?"
"I think the aspirins are kicking in, and I feel a little better. I think some non-strenuous movement might work out some of the pain."
"Probably, as long as you don't overdue it."
"I thought I'd do some light woodworking. I have an idea for a wooden medallion."
"'Wooden medallion,' that sounds like it's contradictory."
"What else would you call a wooden disk that's meant to be worn around your neck?"
I eased my way to my room to put on some old clothes and limped to the basement. Mom said, "Be careful," as I descended.
"I won't be doing anything that can cut off a hand. Maybe a finger."
I went into Dad's workroom. The scrap box should have what I needed. Slowly squatting down, I dug out a chunk of one-by-two lumber. I used a compass to layout a circle and a height gauge to scribe a line a half-inch high around the edge.
I wasn't allowed to use any of the power saws other than a little jigsaw, but it was good enough for what I was doing. I split the chunk of scrap in roughly half through its thickness so that my work piece was now somewhat less than a half-inch thick. I put it on the belt sander until the saw-cut side was again flat, being careful not to sand it wedge shaped.
I went back to the jigsaw and cut out the circle, leaving a little bit of stock all around the edge, then I clamped the disk in the wooden-jawed vise and used a rasp to work my way down to the line.
Take your time, thought Ursus.
I wasn't so patient when I was your age.
With you in my head, I'm pretty sure I'm not my age anymore.
True. It would have been better to make this out of wood we collected from nature ourselves. Preferably dead, dry wood still on the tree, so that it was neither green nor rotten.
There is almost certainly wood like that to be found in some of the vacant lots around here, I thought, but I'm in no condition to go tromping through deep snow today.
I agree. This will serve as proof of concept, anyway.
Once I had the disk filed circular, I gently rounded the corners and then sanded it all over with two grits of sandpaper. I searched until I found Dad's smallest gouge and took it and the disk over to the basement table. I had some old newspapers for my vocabulary word search, and I spread one of them out several pages thick for a working surface. I gratefully got off my aching legs.
Mary was practicing at the chord organ. "Am I going to bother you?"
"Not at all."
"Are you doing magic stuff?"
"Yes, this is going to be an amulet."
"Cool. What will it do?"
Ursus took over our tongue. "I'm not entirely sure. This is an experiment. Anyway, five- and six-pointed stars are common magical symbols," all over the multiverse, he added for my benefit and included a wash of memories. "They have scads of symbolic interpretations. I'm hoping that making them into an amulet will allow me to attract manna easier and maybe hold more of it. Maybe it will increase the efficiency of my spells. Heck, maybe it will bring good luck."
"Will you make me one?"
"When you learn how to hold manna, you should make your own. Magical tools are more efficient and powerful if you make them yourself."
"Oh, OK." Mary went back to the organ.
Working slowly and carefully, I laid out in pencil a pentagram within a circle on one side of the disk and a hexagram within a circle on the other side. Working even more slowly and carefully, using only hand pressure and taking shallow cuts, I dug out the lines with the tiny gouge. Finally, I bent little pieces of sandpaper in half and gave the lines a gentle sanding.
It was almost noon when I finished, and I had got in about ten minutes of guitar practice when Mom called Mary and me for lunch. The three youngest kids were already at the table eating macaroni and cheese with poppy-seed rolls. I brought the amulet with me because I was sure Mom would want to see what I had been working on all morning.
"It's kind of pretty. Is it a present for Kirsten?"
"No, it's for me." Of course, everyone wanted to see it, and it got passed around.
"Are you getting Kirsten a Christmas present? You tell me she still considers you her boyfriend. She'll have one for you."
"Yes, I've already figured that out." (Thanks, Ursus.) "Yesterday, I was planning on walking to the mall today, but human weakness got in the way."
"For such an important cause, your father or I will drive you over tomorrow after supper."
"Thanks. Tomorrow I might feel good enough to walk after school. If I don't, I'll take you up on your offer."
Shortly after lunch, Danny, Mike, Terry, and to my surprise, Colleen showed up. Mike and Terry were lugging their guitar and amp. They were all walking a little tentatively, too. Mom said, "Behold! The mighty snow shovelers are all laid low."
"I could barely get out of bed this morning," said Colleen. "The two monsters have been bragging about how good they are getting, so I decided to come over to hear for myself how they were doing."
I looked at Danny. "I take it you got out of Jenny-sitting duty today."
"Tommy said he'd watch her until 2:30."
So after shedding their winter gear, they followed Mary and me downstairs. Mike and Charlie also came along. Colleen was wearing a tight sweater that didn't quite reach the belt of her snug jeans. She had a nice figure, and by all indications liked showing it off. Ever since puberty, I had liked looking at it, and in my innocence, had never really tried too hard to hide the fact. She had never seemed to mind.
We set up over by the organ. I started on rhythm guitar so Mike could take lead. Terry played the drum. Mary doubled the harmony on the organ. Danny did whatever he felt like doing. We played through "The Shepherd's Lament," and I think we sounded good. I didn't hesitate at all when I switched chords.
It's finally happened, observed Ursus.
The knowledge in your head has made connection with your fingers.
"I'm impressed," said Colleen. "Do you guys know any more songs?"
"Not yet," said Mike, "but I think it's time we start practicing a new one."
We played it again with Mike and Terry switching jobs, then with me playing lead, and then Danny on his harmonica.
"Does the song have any words?" Colleen asked.
Everyone looked at me, because I was the one who had taught it to them. In fact, it did--but not in English nor any other language of this node, so far as Ursus knew. "Not that I know of," I said. Although it was not quite true, it was true enough, but I still felt guilty.
"Where did you learn it?"
"Would you believe a voice in my head?"
"Are you saying you made it up?"
"He sometimes talks about having a voice in his head," Terry said.
"You are one weird kid."
"So I've been told."
Colleen left soon afterwards. The rest of us began working on a new song. This time I made sure I took it from the book I had checked out. It was the old folk tune called, "Up in the Air," and it had a three-four beat rather than the four-four beat of "The Shepherd's Lament." The version I had used chords A, D, and E7, so we would use three more of the ones we had been practicing in actual songs.
"When are we going to play some rock?" asked Mike.
"When we're all lots faster." I was familiar with "Up in the Air" from hearing is several times in Arthur's life. Ursus thought nothing at all of strumming the needed chords for accompaniment while singing along with the lyrics in the book:
Up in the air, dear,
I fly like a bird
When your sweet love words
I lately have heard.
And so on. When I was finished, six people were staring at me. "Shit," said Mike. "You sing pretty good when you want to."
"Hell, yes," agreed Terry.
Mary looked astonished. "Why have you been hiding this from us?"
"Yeah, why?" Charlie asked.
Mom called down the stairs. "Was that Arthur singing?"
"C'mon, guys, it's nothing special," I said. What have you got me into now?
Sorry. I didn't know they'd never heard you sing.
They've heard me sing, but not well.
"It's not opera quality or anything," said Mary, "but it was good." I heard Mom coming down the stairs, and it sounded like she was bringing Susan.
"Opera sucks," said Mike.
"Do it again," Mom ordered.
So I did it again. The young part of my brain was by then feeling horribly self-conscious, but Ursus took primary control and kept us from fleeing with stage fright. Everyone applauded when I was finished. I felt my face heat.
"Can we all get back to learning the song?" I asked.
"You've got really fast at making chord changes," said Terry.
"It's become easier for me lately. Now, let's figure out how we can play the melody on guitar."
Danny left at 2:30. The rest of us practiced until just before supper. When Dad came home, Mom made me play and sing for him, too.
After my friends had gone and we sat down to eat, Dad said, "The snow is piled everywhere out there. Some of the parking lots have eight-foot mounds beside them. If it snows again, there won't be anywhere to put it."
"Cool," said Rich.
"Literally," said Mary.
"Do you have any idea how much it costs the province when it snows like this?" Dad asked.
"You can't change the weather," said Mom, "so we might as well take what pleasure in it we can. I swear, Warren, sometimes I think you never were a child."
I decided to finish the amulet after supper. I did my fifteen minutes on the guitar, and then I set up the table and chairs, the bell, the dish of salt, the candle, and the cup of water. I went into trance, and cast and purified the circle.
I cut myself with my athame just enough for blood to start oozing and then used a toothpick to brush it along the lines of the pentagram. Ursus made sure to brush the blood in such a way that we didn't accidentally make one of the elemental pentagrams.
That done, I deepened my trance again while staring at the pentagram. I visualized all the things I hoped it would do. I imagined what it would feel like if manna came to me easier and how it would feel to hold more of it. I thought about having to use less manna to achieve the same result in a spell.
The pentagram could also be a good luck charm, so I pictured it deflecting bad things away from me: germs, fists, rocks, evil spirits, and so on. I visualized ways that it could bring me good fortune: finding money, catching myself before I fell, picking up a royal flush in poker, etc. How would I feel when good things happened? How would I feel when I avoided bad things?
I went back to concentrating on magic. After what felt like a long time, I had the it's-finished feeling. I then flipped the disk over and repeated the process with the hexagram.
When I finally, broke the circle, my watch said it was 9:31. I thought to Ursus, is magic always this exhausting?
No, but this body is just developing its capacity, so we push it to its limits a lot, which is good for us in the long run.
I blew out the candle and shoved the table back against the wall, but I didn't have the energy to do a good clean up. I just hoped that neither of my parents would go downstairs before I got up in the morning. I felt like I was climbing a mountain as I went up the stairs, but at least I was still feeling the pleasant aftereffects of the manna. I took my new amulet with me. I didn't want to let it go.