Coraline, p.3
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       Coraline, p.3

           Neil Gaiman
 
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  “Of course you do. Everyone does,” said the other mother, her black button eyes gleaming. “After lunch I thought you might like to play in your room with the rats.”

  “The rats?”

  “From upstairs.”

  Coraline had never seen a rat, except on television. She was quite looking forward to it. This was turning out to be a very interesting day after all.

  After lunch her other parents did the washing up, and Coraline went down the hall to her other bedroom.

  It was different from her bedroom at home. For a start it was painted in an off-putting shade of green and a peculiar shade of pink.

  Coraline decided that she wouldn’t want to have to sleep in there, but that the color scheme was an awful lot more interesting than her own bedroom.

  There were all sorts of remarkable things in there she’d never seen before: windup angels that fluttered around the bedroom like startled sparrows; books with pictures that writhed and crawled and shimmered; little dinosaur skulls that chattered their teeth as she passed. A whole toy box filled with wonderful toys.

  This is more like it, thought Coraline. She looked out of the window. Outside, the view was the same one she saw from her own bedroom: trees, fields, and beyond them, on the horizon, distant purple hills.

  Something black scurried across the floor and vanished under the bed. Coraline got down on her knees and looked under the bed. Fifty little red eyes stared back at her.

  “Hello,” said Coraline. “Are you the rats?”

  They came out from under the bed, blinking their eyes in the light. They had short, soot-black fur, little red eyes, pink paws like tiny hands, and pink, hairless tails like long, smooth worms.

  “Can you talk?” she asked.

  The largest, blackest of the rats shook its head. It had an unpleasant sort of smile, Coraline thought.

  “Well,” asked Coraline, “what do you do?”

  The rats formed a circle.

  Then they began to climb on top of each other, carefully but swiftly, until they had formed a pyramid with the largest rat at the top.

  The rats began to sing, in high, whispery voices,

  We have teeth and we have tails

  We have tails we have eyes

  We were here before you fell

  You will be here when we rise.

  It wasn’t a pretty song. Coraline was sure she’d heard it before, or something like it, although she was unable to remember exactly where.

  Then the pyramid fell apart, and the rats scampered, fast and black, toward the door.

  The other crazy old man upstairs was standing in the doorway, holding a tall black hat in his hands. The rats scampered up him, burrowing into his pockets, into his shirt, up his trouser legs, down his neck.

  The largest rat climbed onto the old man’s shoulders, swung up on the long gray mustache, past the big black button eyes, and onto the top of the man’s head.

  In seconds the only evidence that the rats were there at all were the restless lumps under the man’s clothes, forever sliding from place to place across him; and there was still the largest rat, who stared down, with glittering red eyes, at Coraline from the man’s head.

  The old man put his hat on, and the last rat was gone.

  “Hello Coraline,” said the other old man upstairs. “I heard you were here. It is time for the rats to have their dinner. But you can come up with me, if you like, and watch them feed.”

  There was something hungry in the old man’s button eyes that made Coraline feel uncomfortable. “No, thank you,” she said. “I’m going outside to explore.”

  The old man nodded, very slowly. Coraline could hear the rats whispering to each other, although she could not tell what they were saying.

  She was not certain that she wanted to know what they were saying.

  Her other parents stood in the kitchen doorway as she walked down the corridor, smiling identical smiles, and waving slowly. “Have a nice time outside,” said her other mother.

  “We’ll just wait here for you to come back,” said her other father.

  When Coraline got to the front door, she turned back and looked at them. They were still watching her, and waving, and smiling.

  Coraline walked outside, and down the steps.

  IV.

  THE HOUSE LOOKED EXACTLY the same from the outside. Or almost exactly the same: around Miss Spink and Miss Forcible’s door were blue and red lightbulbs that flashed on and off spelling out words, the lights chasing each other around the door. On and off, around and around. ASTOUNDING! was followed by A THEATRICAL and then TRIUMPH!!!

  It was a sunny, cold day, exactly like the one she’d left.

  There was a polite noise from behind her.

  She turned around. Standing on the wall next to her was a large black cat, identical to the large black cat she’d seen in the grounds at home.

  “Good afternoon,” said the cat.

  Its voice sounded like the voice at the back of Coraline’s head, the voice she thought words in, but a man’s voice, not a girl’s.

  “Hello,” said Coraline. “I saw a cat like you in the garden at home. You must be the other cat.”

  The cat shook its head. “No,” it said. “I’m not the other anything. I’m me.” It tipped its head to one side; green eyes glinted. “You people are spread all over the place. Cats, on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”

  “I suppose. But if you’re the same cat I saw at home, how can you talk?”

  Cats don’t have shoulders, not like people do. But the cat shrugged, in one smooth movement that started at the tip of its tail and ended in a raised movement of its whiskers. “I can talk.”

  “Cats don’t talk at home.”

  “No?” said the cat.

  “No,” said Coraline.

  The cat leaped smoothly from the wall to the grass near Coraline’s feet. It stared up at her.

  “Well, you’re the expert on these things,” said the cat dryly. “After all, what would I know? I’m only a cat.”

  It began to walk away, head and tail held high and proud.

  “Come back,” said Coraline. “Please. I’m sorry. I really am.”

  The cat stopped walking, sat down, and began to wash itself thoughtfully, apparently unaware of Coraline’s existence.

  “We…we could be friends, you know,” said Coraline.

  “We could be rare specimens of an exotic breed of African dancing elephants,” said the cat. “But we’re not. At least,” it added cattily, after darting a brief look at Coraline, “I’m not.”

  Coraline sighed.

  “Please. What’s your name?” Coraline asked the cat. “Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”

  The cat yawned slowly, carefully, revealing a mouth and tongue of astounding pinkness. “Cats don’t have names,” it said.

  “No?” said Coraline.

  “No,” said the cat. “Now, you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

  There was something irritatingly self-centered about the cat, Coraline decided. As if it were, in its opinion, the only thing in any world or place that could possibly be of any importance.

  Half of her wanted to be very rude to it; the other half of her wanted to be polite and deferential. The polite half won.

  “Please, what is this place?”

  The cat glanced around briefly. “It’s here,” said the cat.

  “I can see that. Well, how did you get here?”

  “Like you did. I walked,” said the cat. “Like this.”

  Coraline watched as the cat walked slowly across the lawn. It walked behind a tree, but didn’t come out the other side. Coraline went over to the tree and looked behind it. The cat was gone.

  She walked back toward the house. There was another polite noise from behind her. It was the cat.

  “By the by,” it said. “It was sensible of you to bring protection. I’d hang o
n to it, if I were you.”

  “Protection?”

  “That’s what I said,” said the cat. “And anyway—”

  It paused, and stared intently at something that wasn’t there.

  Then it went down into a low crouch and moved slowly forward, two or three steps. It seemed to be stalking an invisible mouse. Abruptly, it turned tail and dashed for the woods.

  It vanished among the trees.

  Coraline wondered what the cat had meant.

  She also wondered whether cats could all talk where she came from and just chose not to, or whether they could only talk when they were here—wherever here was.

  She walked down the brick steps to the Misses Spink and Forcible’s front door. The blue and red lights flashed on and off.

  The door was open, just slightly. She knocked on it, but her first knock made the door swing open, and Coraline went in.

  She was in a dark room that smelled of dust and velvet. The door swung shut behind her, and the room was black. Coraline edged forward into a small anteroom. Her face brushed against something soft. It was cloth. She reached up her hand and pushed at the cloth. It parted.

  She stood blinking on the other side of the velvet curtains, in a poorly lit theater. Far away, at the edge of the room, was a high wooden stage, empty and bare, a dim spotlight shining onto it from high above.

  There were seats between Coraline and the stage. Rows and rows of seats. She heard a shuffling noise, and a light came toward her, swinging from side to side. When it was closer she saw the light was coming from a flashlight being carried in the mouth of a large black Scottie dog, its muzzle gray with age.

  “Hello,” said Coraline.

  The dog put the flashlight down on the floor, and looked up at her. “Right. Let’s see your ticket,” he said gruffly.

  “Ticket?”

  “That’s what I said. Ticket. I haven’t got all day, you know. You can’t watch the show without a ticket.”

  Coraline sighed. “I don’t have a ticket,” she admitted.

  “Another one,” said the dog gloomily. “Come in here, bold as anything. ‘Where’s your ticket?’ ‘Haven’t got one,’ I don’t know…” It shook its head, then shrugged. “Come on, then.”

  He picked up the flashlight in his mouth and trotted off into the dark. Coraline followed him. When he got near the front of the stage he stopped and shone the flashlight onto an empty seat. Coraline sat down, and the dog wandered off.

  As her eyes got used to the darkness she realized that the other inhabitants of the seats were also dogs.

  There was a sudden hissing noise from behind the stage. Coraline decided it was the sound of a scratchy old record being put onto a record player. The hissing became the noise of trumpets, and Miss Spink and Miss Forcible came onto the stage.

  Miss Spink was riding a one-wheeled bicycle and juggling balls. Miss Forcible skipped behind her, holding a basket of flowers. She scattered the flower petals across the stage as she went. They reached the front of the stage, and Miss Spink leaped nimbly off the unicycle, and the two old women bowed low.

  All the dogs thumped their tails and barked enthusiastically. Coraline clapped politely.

  Then they unbuttoned their fluffy round coats and opened them. But their coats weren’t all that opened: their faces opened, too, like empty shells, and out of the old empty fluffy round bodies stepped two young women. They were thin, and pale, and quite pretty, and had black button eyes.

  The new Miss Spink was wearing green tights, and high brown boots that went most of the way up her legs. The new Miss Forcible wore a white dress and had flowers in her long yellow hair.

  Coraline pressed back against her seat.

  Miss Spink went off the stage, and the noise of trumpets squealed as the gramophone needle dug its way across the record, and was pulled off.

  “This is my favorite bit,” whispered the little dog in the seat next to her.

  The other Miss Forcible picked a knife out of a box on the corner of the stage. “Is this a dagger that I see before me?” she asked.

  “Yes!” shouted all the little dogs. “It is!”

  Miss Forcible curtsied, and all the dogs applauded again. Coraline didn’t bother clapping this time.

  Miss Spink came back on. She slapped her thigh, and all the little dogs woofed.

  “And now,” Miss Spink said, “Miriam and I proudly present a new and exciting addendum to our theatrical exposition. Do I see a volunteer?”

  The little dog next to Coraline nudged her with its front paw. “That’s you,” it hissed.

  Coraline stood up, and walked up the wooden steps to the stage.

  “Can I have big round of applause for the young volunteer?” asked Miss Spink. The dogs woofed and squealed and thumped their tails on the velvet seats.

  “Now Coraline,” said Miss Spink, “what’s your name?”

  “Coraline,” said Coraline.

  “And we don’t know each other, do we?”

  Coraline looked at the thin young woman with black button eyes and shook her head slowly.

  “Now,” said the other Miss Spink, “stand over here.” She led Coraline over to a board by the side of the stage, and put a balloon on top of Coraline’s head.

  Miss Spink walked over to Miss Forcible. She blindfolded Miss Forcible’s button eyes with a black scarf, and put the knife into her hands. Then she turned her round three or four times and pointed her at Coraline. Coraline held her breath and squeezed her fingers into two tight fists.

  Miss Forcible threw the knife at the balloon. It popped loudly, and the knife stuck into the board just above Coraline’s head and twanged there. Coraline breathed out.

  The dogs went wild.

  Miss Spink gave Coraline a very small box of chocolates and thanked her for being such a good sport. Coraline went back to her seat.

  “You were very good,” said the little dog.

  “Thank you,” said Coraline.

  Miss Forcible and Miss Spink began juggling with huge wooden clubs. Coraline opened the box of chocolates. The dog looked at them longingly.

  “Would you like one?” she asked the little dog.

  “Yes, please,” whispered the dog. “Only not toffee ones. They make me drool.”

  “I thought chocolates weren’t very good for dogs,” she said, remembering something Miss Forcible had once told her.

  “Maybe where you come from,” whispered the little dog. “Here, it’s all we eat.”

  Coraline couldn’t see what the chocolates were, in the dark. She took an experimental bite of one which turned out to be coconut. Coraline didn’t like coconut. She gave it to the dog.

  “Thank you,” said the dog.

  “You’re welcome,” said Coraline.

  Miss Forcible and Miss Spink were doing some acting. Miss Forcible was sitting on a stepladder, and Miss Spink was standing at the bottom.

  “What’s in a name?” asked Miss Forcible. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

  “Have you got any more chocolates?” said the dog.

  Coraline gave the dog another chocolate.

  “I know not how to tell thee who I am,” said Miss Spink to Miss Forcible.

  “This bit finishes soon,” whispered the dog. “Then they start folk dancing.”

  “How long does this go on for?” asked Coraline. “The theater?”

  “All the time,” said the dog. “For ever and always.”

  “Here,” said Coraline. “Keep the chocolates.”

  “Thank you,” said the dog. Coraline stood up.

  “See you soon,” said the dog.

  “Bye,” said Coraline. She walked out of the theater and back into the garden. She had to blink her eyes at the daylight.

  Her other parents were waiting for her in the garden, standing side by side. They were smiling.

  “Did you have a nice time?” asked her other mother.

  “It was interesting,” said Coraline.
<
br />   The three of them walked back up to Coraline’s other house together. Coraline’s other mother stroked Coraline’s hair with her long white fingers. Coraline shook her head. “Don’t do that,” said Coraline.

  Her other mother took her hand away.

  “So,” said her other father. “Do you like it here?”

  “I suppose,” said Coraline. “It’s much more interesting than at home.”

  They went inside.

  “I’m glad you like it,” said Coraline’s mother. “Because we’d like to think that this is your home. You can stay here for ever and always. If you want to.”

  “Hmm,” said Coraline. She put her hand in her pockets, and thought about it. Her hand touched the stone that the real Misses Spink and Forcible had given her the day before, the stone with the hole in it.

  “If you want to stay,” said her other father, “there’s only one little thing we’ll have to do, so you can stay here for ever and always.”

  They went into the kitchen. On a china plate on the kitchen table was a spool of black cotton, and a long silver needle, and, beside them, two large black buttons.

  “I don’t think so,” said Coraline.

  “Oh, but we want you to,” said her other mother. “We want you to stay. And it’s just a little thing.”

  “It won’t hurt,” said her other father.

  Coraline knew that when grown-ups told you something wouldn’t hurt it almost always did. She shook her head.

  Her other mother smiled brightly and the hair on her head drifted like plants under the sea. “We only want what’s best for you,” she said.

  She put her hand on Coraline’s shoulder. Coraline backed away.

  “I’m going now,” said Coraline. She put her hands in her pockets. Her fingers closed around the stone with the hole in it.

  Her other mother’s hand scuttled off Coraline’s shoulder like a frightened spider.

  “If that’s what you want,” she said.

  “Yes,” said Coraline.

  “We’ll see you soon, though,” said her other father. “When you come back.”

  “Um,” said Coraline.

  “And then we’ll all be together as one big happy family,” said her other mother. “For ever and always.”

 
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