“You’re laughing at me.”
“Yes, I am.”
I crouched in the corner, two inches of my hair singed away on one side, the rest dripping on my hands and my skirt and the floor, dripping everywhere, as though there were so many things to cry about that it couldn’t decide where to start or finish doing what my eyes would not.
“I wish you wouldn’t laugh. It makes it harder”
“And I wish you weren’t so laughable. That, too, makes it harder. Perhaps with time, Miss Merricat, we will each get our wish.”
Sometimes I thought about another name. Something like Anna but not Anna. I could hear a voice that wasn’t hers calling that something like Anna name, and I knew whoever it was, was calling to me. It was smoke, that thought, I could feel it in the back of my throat even when I didn’t know where it came from, holding its shape just long enough to sting my eyes before it was gone.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“You wish, you wish, you wish! Do you know what a wish is, Merricat? Do you know what you say when you say ‘I wish’? You say ‘give me what I want even when I don’t deserve it, give it to me though I’ve done nothing to earn it, give it to me simply because I ask.’”
“What’s wrong with that? With asking?”
“Only that it isn’t how the world works. And that is what you are here to learn.”
“But you said it too.” I thought that might make her angry. But she didn’t laugh when she was angry, not always.
She looked at me oddly, as though by trying to point out that she was wrong I had somehow proven her right, and as though that pleased her. “I did. And the same applies. I wish you weren’t so laughable when it is I who has yet to succeed in making you otherwise. I see my place. You wish I wouldn’t laugh. Do you see yours?”
“I’m trying. It’s hard to try when you laugh, it’s harder.”
“It shouldn’t matter whether I laugh or not.”
“But it does.”
She stood perfectly still, radiating stillness, gathering it in from wherever stillness is born and throwing it out until the room was full of it, until the fabric of her sleeves and skirt ceased to move in the slight breeze that had been coming through the window before the stillness had barred its way, until not so much as a single strand of hair on her head or mine dared to stir. Only her eyes moved, and only as far as was necessary for them to meet mine, our gazes locked, another piece of stillness that only she could break.
She spoke without speaking, and I heard her with the part of me that sometimes heard the something like Anna name.
You let the laughter dim the power that is the only thing that can stop the laughter. You are the circle and what breaks it. The laughter will cease when the power leaves no cause for laughter. You are the circle, you are what breaks it.
I felt her words, felt them move without moving, swirling in a thing that I both was and was inside, surrounding me as I encompassed it. I thought I understood.
I nodded without nodding, waiting for her to release me from the stillness, let me back to the table that held the fire and the water and the bowl, the table that held the remains and reminder of my last failure. I waited.
She held my gaze and did nothing, and I crouched for a few moments longer before I realized that I hadn’t understood at all. I wasn’t waiting for her. She was waiting for me, to break the stillness, waiting for me to break her spell.
I had seen the stillness before, she used it often, when a tree she wanted to paint was swaying in the wind or the cat needed brushing or I needed to pay attention. I had never questioned it, and she didn’t want me to question it now. It wasn’t one of her stronger spells, I knew, but it was still hers. The idea of breaking something that was hers, when she was all I had to teach me of things that could not be broken, could not be taken away, the thought of overcoming her strength when it was her strength I had been brought here to learn, all of this swirled around me and joined the circle that I was and was inside, a thing too large to grasp even as I knew contained it.
With the bits of my vision that she had not captured I saw shadows begin to creep along the walls as the sun fell lower in the sky. Before me, her hair began to whiten, one strand at a time, her way of showing me that far too much time was passing as I did nothing, her way of laughing without laughing. She was trying to make me angry, and for the first time I wondered what would happen if I let her succeed.
She stood calm, looking at me, mocking me, waiting and wanting for me to challenge her. My eyes burned and legs began to cramp, and my thoughts drifted to the rabbit that we had caught earlier that day, the rabbit for supper. She was keeping me from my supper. Somehow in my mind that was worse than all her laughter, all her mocking, all her stillness. Something stirred in me at the thought of being kept from my supper, something small and hot and familiar that carried with it traces of yet another voice calling the something like Anna name. I blinked.
Her eyes widened the slightest bit, and for an instant I was terrified of what I had done, even though it was she who had asked that I do it. She did nothing, and I drew again on the stirring thing, the familiar thing, the small hot angry thing that would not be kept from its supper again. Somehow my hand found its way to my still dripping hair and brushed it back from my face. The breeze came through the window, the shadows crept further along the walls, her hair grew dark again as she smiled.