The Jewel SeedJoan Aiken
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The Jewel Seed
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
In memory of my father, the poet Conrad Aiken, who told a story, “The Jewel Seed”, when I was too young to remember.
A Biography of Joan Aiken
THE GRADUATION CEREMONY OF THE Grand and Ancient College of Siberian Witches is an impressive affair. It takes place far to the north, on the Taymir Peninsula, in winter darkness, and inside the drafty structure of what used to be a huge aircraft hangar. Long since abandoned by the military, it now easily accommodates the nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine delegates and candidates who make their way to the conference from all parts of the world.
The proceedings of the meeting are transacted in low whispers, which makes them all the more solemn and mysterious; the only loud sounds to be heard are the crackle of ice and the howling of the north wind overhead; the only light comes from the red-and-green streamers of the aurora borealis in the sky, observable now and then through gaps in the disintegrating roof.
At the finish of last year’s ceremony the chairperson of the conference suddenly departed from the normal procedure by tapping three times with an icicle on the speaker’s platform, and then surprised the delegates by ordering them to wait a moment before taking their leave.
“Sisters—brethren—one final word!”
The masked, mortarboarded, black-garbed assembly waited, standing in motionless suspense. The northerly gale shrieked overhead.
“A warning! An injunction! A message! Word has just come to us that the Wanderer is abroad. I will not mention any of his forty-nine names. You all know to whom I refer.”
An assenting shiver ran through the multitude.
“He is abroad in quest of the lost Jewel Seed.”
Another quiver among the black-robed listeners.
“The Jewel Seed, as you well know, is a compressed universe. It was lost, eons ago, in a handful of flax seed given to a shepherd by Holda, the goddess, one of our most powerful enemies. One that we would dearly like to see shackled in dark for evermore. The finder of that seed, by means of the necessary password, can unlock it and release from it all knowledge, all science, history, art, magic, craft—power. If we, the Winter People, can find this tiny treasure, total dominion over all space will be ours; another, and far more terrible Winter War can be set in motion. Chaos will come again.”
A ripple of high satisfaction at this prospect ran through the dark congregation.
“But,” whispered nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine voices, “where is it? Where is the Jewel Seed to be found? Where is it hidden?”
“That, we are not certain. Long ago, Holda, the goddess, gave a handful of flax seeds to a shepherd. The Jewel Seed had fallen from her necklace into the handful of tiny grains. Since then it has never been seen … It was thought to have lodged inside a Black Hole. But, if the Wanderer is abroad, this must mean that he has news of it. Be alert, sisters and brothers! At the first hint of its whereabouts, call me! Call me! And I shall come speeding …”
With that, the multitude dispersed, some of them embarking on their ships made from fingernails, others riding on broomsticks, others transforming themselves into reindeer, elk, or migratory birds.
And one, on a bicycle made of fingernails, took her way towards England, to the County of Hussex, to Sesame Green. She knew more about the Jewel Seed than the rest of her colleagues. But she intended to keep the knowledge to herself.
WHEN NONNIE SMITH LEFT HER granny’s house at Sesame Green and went to live with her London cousins, the Sculpins, wearing a stolen shirt, various unexpected things began to happen.
For a start, Nonnie didn’t know the shirt was stolen. (It had in fact been stolen not once, but twice.)
Nonnie’s school-leaving report said that she was a kind, friendly girl, not the world’s wonder at passing exams, but clever with her hands, and a fine flute-player.
She had recently had a letter from her elder sister, Una, promising to find her a job as a trainee-hairdresser at Kirlylox Ltd., Forge Hill, London, where Una had worked for the last five years.
“Yes, it’s certainly best you should go to London, dearie,” Granny Smith told Nonnie. “You can lodge with your Aunt Daisy at first, in Rumbury Town; and you’ll maybe get a chance to play with one of those music groups in your free time. For there beant no kind of living round Sesame Green from playing the flute—not for a gal your age. No, you’ll do better in the city. So you just pack up your things and catch the eight-thirty bus from Fourways Corner tomorrow morning.”
Nonnie sighed. She hated to leave her grandmother, but she could see plainly that the old lady was tired and wanted some peace and privacy.
Granny Smith had brought up Nonnie, and her eight elder brothers and sisters, since the day that their parents, who were climbers, fell off the side of a mountain in Tibet. Una, the eldest, had become a hairdresser, Duessa, the next, went into dentistry, Teresa got a job in television, Quad, a tough boy, learned blacksmithing, Quintus, who never grew very tall and liked horses, became a jockey, Sextus turned to baking, Seppy took to carpentry, and Octavia worked in a newspaper office.
Nonnie was the last to leave and, though Granny Smith had been very fond of them all, anyone could see that she really looked forward to no more heaps of clothes all over the floor, no more midnight snacks, no more non-stop TV.
In fact, Granny Smith had her future firmly planned out.
“But first we must find you a white shirt,” she told Nonnie. “For a job interview you definitely need a white shirt and a black skirt.”
Nonnie didn’t really see the necessity for this. She suspected that hairdressers might have changed their ways since Granny Smith last went to London in Festival-of-Britain year. But she was busy clearing out the bedroom she had shared with Tess and Tavey, packing up her flute, her music, three pairs of jeans, six T-shirts, and her collection of five tiny enamel snuffboxes; she didn’t pay a lot of attention to what her grandmother was saying.
Meanwhile Granny Smith walked quietly into the terribly tangled and untidy garden of their neighbor, Mrs. Wednesday, and removed a white shirt which had been hanging on the clothesline there for the past five weeks.
“I reckon Mrs. Wednesday won’t ever be coming back from her trip. Something unexpected or nasty must have happened to her at that Siberian conference. Or—if she does come back—she can hardly expect to find the shirt still hanging on the line after all this time. A gale might have blown it away. There’s been lots of autumn gales lately.”
Thus reasoned Granny Smith to herself, and she took down the shirt, which was, indeed, bleached remarkably white by all the rain that had fallen in the last five weeks since Mrs. Wednesday had left to attend a conference in Siberia, on the Taymir Peninsula. “Which, from there,” she had told Granny Smith, “you can’t get much farther north without bumping into the North Pole. And it’s so quiet that people go there just to listen to the silence. If ever the wind stops blowing.”
“Maybe Mrs. W did bump into the North Pole,” thought Granny Smith, as she took down the snowy-white shirt. “In which case there�
��s no need for argufication. Anyhow, Nonnie can always buy her another shirt out of her first week’s pay packet. Least said, soonest mended, is what I always say.”
So all she said to Nonnie, handing her the shirt, was, “Just fancy! Well I never! This shirt’s got your sister Una’s initials embroidered; must be the one she made herself at school. I always did think that Mrs. Wednesday was a bit light-fingered, now I’m sure of it. If she doesn’t ever come back it’ll be no loss to the neighborhood. Now don’t you cry, Nonnie dear; just put on the shirt and off you go.”
“Yes, Grandma,” said Nonnie. She put on the shirt (it was rather too big and the sleeves were much too long) over a black skirt remaining from school uniform. Then, her eyes streaming with tears, she hugged her granny a great many times, shouldered her backpack, and climbed on board the eight-thirty bus from Fourways Corner to Euston Station, London.
“And that’s the last of them settled in life,” thought Granny Smith, heaving a huge breath of satisfaction. And she stopped at the public callbox by the pub to phone Mr. Tidy, the undertaker, and ask him to come and pick her up tomorrow. She walked home, ate a delicious bowl of soup, went to bed, and died peacefully in her sleep at the age of ninety-eight. “Who wants to live to a hundred?” was her last thought.
Meanwhile, unaware of this, Nonnie travelled up to London and made her way to the house of her aunt Daisy Sculpin at Number Five, Pond Walk, Rumbury Town.
Not long after, Granny Smith’s neighbor, Mrs. Wednesday, (who, traveling back from the Taymir Peninsula to Sesame Green on her bike made of fingernails, had been delayed on the last stage of her journey by several punctures) finally arrived at her cottage and was greatly startled and annoyed to find that, during her absence from home, her long-time neighbor Mrs. Smith had died, the last grandchild, Nonnie, had left home, and the next-door house was now occupied by a young couple, the Griddles, with their baby and eleven poodles. The atmosphere was not restful. And: “Where is my white shirt that I left hanging on the line?” demanded Mrs. Wednesday of her new neighbors. “That shirt was supposed to hang on that line for forty-nine days.”
But the Griddles knew nothing of any shirt. Nor could they tell Mrs. Wednesday where Nonnie had gone.
“Maybe to one of her brothers or sisters … somewhere in London, I expect …” Mrs. Griddle said vaguely.
However at the village Post Office they were able to inform Mrs. Wednesday that the eldest grandchild, Una Smith, had a job at Kirlylox hairdressers in Forge Hill. “We saw her two weeks ago in the street at Forge Hill being interviewed by that television fellow, Lucky Lukie. She was outside the shop.”
“Oh, pounce and powderation,” said Mrs. Wednesday to herself very sourly. “This calls for retroactive sorcery, which is always plaguey hard work.”
And she began collecting fingernails and snippets of human hair in order to build a needfire, and so work her way backwards in time.
MRS. DAISY SCULPIN LIVED WITH her son John in Rumbury Town, which is an ancient, dusty, twisty, cobbly, narrow-laned quarter of north London. It has a canal, a hill, several venerable rail stations, an overgrown cemetery, a stretch of marshland known as Rumbury Waste, rows of little shops selling very odd goods, and some extremely ancient houses. That of John and his mother carried a round blue sign like a plate over the front door which said: Marcus Magus, Alchymyste, dwelte in Ysse Howse inne Fyfteene Syxtye.
The house was very cornery and cupboardy. It had a strong, agreeable smell of tar and spices. “That’s because it was built from ships’ timbers,” John Sculpin told his cousin, taking her up to a tiny room on the top floor. She had been to the house before, but not since she was much smaller, and never upstairs.
“Is the house haunted?” asked Nonnie hopefully, admiring her attic, which had a ceiling that sloped right down to the floor, and two dormer windows.
“Only sometimes,” said John. “Ma said she was sorry to put you in the attic—”
“I love it,” said Nonnie, looking out over the rainy roofs of Rumbury Town, and the green expanse of Rumbury Waste, to the Post Office Tower, which rose like a spider’s leg in the distance.
“—But she has just let the best guest room to a lodger for a month. He’s doing research at the Unwelcome Institute, and he pays rent, and has his cat along with him, and pays rent for the cat as well, so he needs a big room.”
“What’s his name?”
“Colonel Njm. He comes from Ljpljnd. And his cat’s called Hrjgff. It stays shut up in his room, which is just as well, for Euston can’t stand it.”
“Our cat,” said John, leading the way downstairs again. “That’s him now, telling Hrjgff where he gets off.”
Euston was outside the closed guest room door. He was a large, muscular cat, pale putty-color with a touch of powdered ginger, white whiskers, and gold eyes. He was in a bristling rage, growling under his breath in one long, continuous diatribe of bad language. A ferocious hissing responded from inside the visitor’s door.
“Come on downstairs, Euston, that’s not polite to lodgers.” John picked up the cat and carried him, sulking, down to the kitchen, where Mrs. Sculpin, Aunt Daisy, was preparing an early festive tea of hot buttered cinnamon toast, pancakes, and sardine sandwiches. Some of the sardine sandwiches placated Euston—a little.
Mrs. Sculpin, Aunt Daisy, was a thin, refined-looking lady. Her expression was wistful, as if she had resigned herself to not getting much fun out of life. Actually she got a good deal of fun, for she enjoyed going to auction sales, where she bought all kinds of interesting articles, very cheap. Today she had bought a cuckoo clock which would also make toast, a set of sensor lights, a microwave oven, and a spinning wheel. Most of these articles needed repair, but John was quite handy at that.
Also, Mrs. Sculpin enjoyed letting her guest room to lodgers, who came and went so often that there was no time for them to become boring or disagreeable.
“My sister Una used to spin,” said Nonnie, looking at the broken spinning wheel with interest. “I’d like to have a try at that.”
“One of these Sundays,” said John, “when I’ve mended it, we’ll go down to the llama house at the zoo and pick some wool off the railings.”
While they were still eating tea they heard the front door bang.
“That’ll be the Colonel,” said Mrs. Sculpin, and she called, “Oh, Colonel, would you like a nice cup of tea?”
Colonel Njm put his head round the kitchen door, bringing an icy draft with him. He was a tall, massive man, with a white beard. He wore a dark gray suit, a long dark duffel coat, and a hat with a very broad brim, pulled right down over one side of his face.
“I thank you, Mrs. Sculpin, no; I partook of refreshment at the Institute.”
“Here’s my niece Nonnie, who’s just come to stop with us,” said Mrs. Sculpin.
Nonnie, who had just taken a large mouthful of cinnamon toast, swallowed it down and nodded politely. Colonel Njm fixed her with such a severe and glittering eye that she felt as if she had been obliged to fill in some huge form about herself, and had made a shocking mess of it. But the Colonel said nothing, only inclined his head courteously and turned to go upstairs.
“I’ll bring you up a bit of dinner presently, Colonel, if you aren’t going out,” Mrs. Sculpin called after him.
“Very kind …” his deep voice floated back.
“He works away at his computer up there,” Mrs. Sculpin told Nonnie. “Don’t ever let his cat out, no matter how much it hisses, Nonnie, for I hate to think what it and Euston might do to each other. Mincemeat! John, if you’ve finished your tea, do you want to fix up those sensor lights in the back yard? There’s been ever such a lot of burglaries lately in Rumbury Town, let alone houses being set fire to, and the police can’t seem to lay hands on the malefactors; I can’t think what gets into people. Now, after
tea, Nonnie, I expect you’ll want to go and see your sister Una. Do you remember the way? You went to see her the last time you came and stayed with us, didn’t you? She said she’d be expecting you. It’s a nuisance us having no phone in the house, we’ve tried various times, but all we get is the voice of the ghost, so we’ve given up.”
“What does he say?” asked Nonnie.
“Sometimes he says ‘Beware’ (but we don’t know what of, he doesn’t tell us, so that’s not much help). Sometimes he says ‘Time is elastic,’ or ‘Wisdom is its own reward.’ We don’t take much notice. But anyway your sis is expecting you. I went up to Kirlylox last week and had a nice perm.”
Aunt Daisy’s hair was set in rather spidery grey curls all over her head.
“I asked Una if she’d like to come and live here when Colonel Njm goes, but she said ‘no, thank you,’ she’s sharing a flat with two girls. But she sent her best love and says she’s longing to see you, ducks.”
“And I’m longing to see her,” said Nonnie.
Though the eldest, separated from her by nine years, Una had always been Nonnie’s special sister, never too busy to listen, or too bossy to help, always ready with advice over homework or a wonderful story to tell. There was something about Una’s stories, Nonnie thought, that was almost magic; they were quite unlike any other stories; they took you away to a wonderful land, full of glittering immortal beings and mysteries. And she was beautiful, with long shining hair the color of raw silk.
So, after tea, John showed his cousin the way to Rumbury Tube Station, and told her which train to take for Forge Hill.
“It’s the Mewing Line. I’d come too, but I’ve a job to do right here, in the station.”
John’s job was erasing Objectionable Inscriptions chalked or painted on walls in London tube stations. He worked long hours at this, and traveled all over London on his bike, carrying a bucket and mop and flask of eraser fluid.