|The title "Riddle in Nine Syllables" comes from the first line of "Metaphors," a poem by Sylvia
Plath. "Metaphors" is indeed a riddle, written in nine lines of nine syllables each. The answer to the poem's riddle is also a clue to the first of several plot twists in the story, so those of you who stayed awake through Modern American Poetry class get a head start.
I frequently learn more by researching a single story than I did in any given semester of college courses. For "Riddle" I veritably breathed Chaucer for a solid month, painstakingly compiling my own glossary of Middle English words and developing a feel for how they fit together -- all for a few paragraphs of (hopefully) authentic-seeming spells.
h, come on, there must be someone you like," Lori insisted. The two girls were sitting in Beth's room on her bed, algebra textbooks and homework scattered between them. "How about Peter Campbell? Isn't he in your gym class?"
Beth shrugged. Lori enjoyed making a game of teasing her about guys at school and never seemed to notice how uncomfortable it made her. The truth was that the few guys Beth thought were cute were invariably also total jerks -- as if the two traits were genetically linked. She could never say that to Lori, though, since these were the same guys Lori went out with all the time.
Beth searched for something to deflect her friend's attention. Usually it was easy enough to turn the conversation to whomever Lori liked, or her current boyfriend if she had one, which she almost always did.
This time, though, Beth was startled to be drawing a blank. She hadn't seen Lori wearing anyone's letter jacket or class ring for ... something close to a month. That was probably a record for their entire two-and-a-half years of high school. In fact, Beth wasn't sure when she'd last heard Lori mention anyone she was even interested in.
"Hey, what about you?" she asked, poking her friend in the shoulder. "Who are you pining away after these days?"
She meant it as a joke, because she honestly couldn't imagine Lori having to pine away after anybody. She was gorgeous, one of the most popular girls in school; all she ever had to do was let it be known that she was interested in someone, and within a couple of days they'd be going steady. Maybe three or four if the guy had to break up with some other girl first.
But Lori looked up with big stricken eyes like Beth had just slapped her. "Why?"
Beth shrugged, surprised and uncomfortable. "I don't know. I was just curious." Suddenly it felt untactful to say, How come you don't have a boyfriend? as if it were a requirement or something. Especially when she herself had never had one.
"Well, I'm not 'pining away' after anyone," Lori said. She flipped pages in the algebra book and consulted her homework. "I couldn't get number thirty-eight, could you?"
Beth considered asking again, given this rare chance to turn Lori's own game back on her, but her friend's tone and posture suggested this was not a good time to tease. Something's really the matter with her, Beth thought.
Well, if Lori wanted to talk about it, she would. At least it got her away from bugging Beth. She tried to concentrate on the homework but just couldn't get the puzzle out of her head. Beth hadn't given it much thought when Lori suggested that they study for Monday's test together, but now it occurred to her that it was, after all, a Saturday night. And here Lori was doing algebra, instead of going out on a date or hanging out at the skating rink. Definitely unusual.
They finished the assignment without any further discussion of guys or dating, although Beth thought Lori still looked distracted and unhappy. On impulse, Beth asked her if she wanted to spend the night. They'd used to do that a lot when they were younger -- stay up until one or two, talking and giggling in the dark.
Lori looked at her quizzically. "No, I can't. I have to be up early for Sunday school tomorrow morning."
Beth felt stupid for not thinking of that. Lori tilted her head, considering. "But you could come spend the night at my house and go to church with us." She added quickly, "If you don't want to that's okay. I know your dad would rather you go with him to First Presbyterian."
Beth hesitated, unhappy to have this brought up again. She'd never told Lori that her dad wanted her to go to his church -- it would have been absurd, since the last time either of them had been inside a church was for Beth's mother's funeral, three years ago. She supposed Lori had latched onto the rationale as something that would placate her own mother, who must be constantly nagging her about bringing Beth to church with them. "Yeah, I think not this time," Beth said finally. "Maybe we can get together tomorrow afternoon."
Well, she hadn't said she was going to church, so it wasn't technically a lie. And she never went along with it to the extent of making up stuff that happened at church to talk about. Then again, Lori never pushed it by asking her, either, even though she chattered on about activities at her own church all the time. So Beth was pretty sure Lori knew, even if she wouldn't admit it.
"Okay," said Lori, gathering up her books and coat. For a moment she just stood there and gazed unhappily at Beth, like she might blurt out whatever was wrong. "Um. I'll talk to you later, then."
Will you? Beth wondered, but all she said was, "Yeah." She walked her friend to the front door and closed it behind her.
It was probably something with her parents, Beth thought, like they had decided that a good Christian girl shouldn't have anything to do with boys. Beth snorted. Lori's parents were pretty extreme. She just wished Lori would stand up to them a little more, sometimes.
Beth wandered into the living room where her dad was sitting, reading a computer magazine. She sat down on the sofa, and he glanced up at her and smiled. "Hey," he said. "Did Lori go home?"
"You know, you could invite her to stay over if you want. It's a Saturday night, after all."
Beth was used to her dad coming out with stuff she'd just been thinking about. "She couldn't. Church."
"She invited me over there, but then I'd have to go to church." Beth gave a mock shudder, and her dad chuckled.
The house was quiet except for the clock ticking on the mantel. "Thanks," she said.
"For not being like them." She tilted her head in the direction of Lori's house and rolled her eyes.
Her dad's expression got serious. "You really think I've done okay?" he asked quietly. Beth heard the other part of the sentence, that he didn't say: since your mother died.
"You do fine, Dad," Beth answered. She got up and gave him an awkward hug where he sat in the chair. With her arms around his neck and her chin on his shoulder, she whispered, "Mom couldn't have done any better," and felt his embrace tighten.
eth woke up at eight the next morning, and tiptoed around the kitchen making tea and toast. Phoebe came waddling in, tail high, and Beth stooped to pour kibble into her bowl. The black-and-white cat had been fat to begin with, and pregnancy was turning her into a furry little soccer ball.
If Lori guessed that Beth wasn't going to church, Beth was still pretty sure Lori had no idea what she did do most Sunday mornings -- which was walk over to the university library and spend several hours reading old books. Lori probably imagined Beth just wanted to sleep late on the weekends; she would sympathize with that, even though her mother would go into hysterics about Sloth and Indolence and what the Devil did with idle hands.
But sitting in an empty library reading old reference books was definitely beyond Lori's ken. Beth could almost hear Lori's incredulous tones in her head: "You mean they're not even fiction?" Lori liked historical romances when she read anything at all; she'd never understand why Beth wanted to hang out at a library when there was a perfectly good mall nearby.
Beth rinsed her dishes in the sink and wrote a quick note for her dad, then grabbed her jacket and stepped outside. It was a cold, gray day but at least it wasn't raining yet.
The university library was almost deserted this early in the morning, but the heat was turned up high. Beth shed her jacket and pulled out the list of call numbers she hadn't finished looking up last week. These were supposed to be books about magic, except that the ones she'd found so far had mostly either turned out to be stage magic and sleight-of-hand or New Age psychic phenomena.
Today she skipped the open stacks and went straight upstairs to the research room. Most of the really old and interesting books were up there, kept in rooms only the staff could enter. Beth requested two books from the librarian on duty and wandered around the room looking at paintings until they came.
The first book was about ceremonial magic, full of drawings of various arcane symbols going all the way back to Egypt. Beth thumbed through it briefly, then put it aside for later. The second book, Charmes and Helpyngs, was small and thick, and so old it was falling apart. Beth handled the stained and crumbling pages gingerly. According to the copyright, the book had been published in 1598 -- which made it almost four hundred years old! She glanced around the room, half-expecting a librarian to swoop down and take it away from her.
The book had an introduction explaining that the text was even older than that, having been reprinted from a pamphlet originally published in 1382. The typeface in the rest of the book was full of odd ornate curlicues that made it difficult to read, but with a little work Beth was able to decipher some of the subheadings that appeared every couple of pages. "To Asswage a Fevere," she read. "To Fleme Wertes." "To Wynne His Love." Beth turned pages in growing excitement. This was the sort of thing she'd been looking for -- not ESP mumbo-jumbo or how to make a handkerchief disappear, but real sorcery, something you could study and learn just like algebra.
Not only was the typeface difficult to make out, but the very language was so old it was sometimes unrecognizable. It reminded Beth of the excerpts of The Canterbury Tales her English class had studied earlier that year. Their teacher had made them take turns reading passages aloud, and Beth had noticed then how much easier it was to get past the strange spellings and figure out what was meant when you could hear the words spoken. She turned to an interesting page and began sounding them out to herself. Some of the words remained inscrutable -- what in the world was "warisshe," or a "dwale"? -- but most of them she was able to puzzle through.
Some time later Beth glanced up at the wall clock and grimaced. It was already ten past noon, and she'd meant to leave at eleven-thirty so she could fix lunch for her dad. She wouldn't have time to come back this afternoon, either; she had a paper on Sylvia Plath due in English tomorrow, and she hadn't even started writing it. Beth handed the books in to the librarian reluctantly, wishing she could take them home with her and actually try out a spell or two. Next Sunday she'd bring a notebook and copy some of them down, she decided.
After lunch she called over to Lori's house, but only got the machine. Probably her family was at some church function. Beth left a message but Lori didn't call back that night.
n Monday, the first class the girls had together was algebra, and so Beth didn't see Lori until after second period. She usually met Lori at her locker between second and third so they could walk to algebra together. "Hey," she said cheerfully as she came up behind her friend.
Lori jumped, dropping a piece of paper in her locker, and turned around. Beth was shocked to see that she had been crying. Her eyes were red and puffy and her mascara had smeared across one cheek.
"Hey, are you okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine, why?" Lori managed a bright smile, and Beth just shrugged. If she didn't want to talk about it, Beth didn't want to push.
"Are you ready for the test?" she asked instead.
"As ready as I'm gonna be," Lori answered. She picked up the piece of notebook paper from the bottom of her locker. Beth saw it was creased in little rectangles, like a note, and the handwriting was slanty where Lori's was round. Beth wondered if that was why Lori had been crying. Some guy had dumped her? But Lori hadn't been going with anyone.
Lori refolded the note without offering an explanation, set it on her top locker shelf, grabbed a pencil and slammed the door. "Okay, I'm ready. Let's go fail a test."
As they passed the girl's restroom, Beth touched Lori's arm. "Hey, I gotta go to the bathroom real quick. Come with me?" Lori nodded.
Beth went into one of the stalls and fussed around for a bit, then flushed the empty toilet. When she came out, the mascara was gone from Lori's face and she looked almost like her usual self. "We'd better hurry," Lori said, just as the warning bell rang, and the two girls jogged down the hallway together.
|The rest of the story can be found in The Shimmering Door, a trade paperback from HarperPrism. (Click the link above to purchase online at a 20% discount from Amazon Books.)
Excerpts from other stories in the book: