Coraline, p.5
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       Coraline, p.5

           Neil Gaiman
 
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  She hoped that what she had just seen was not real, but she was not as certain as she sounded. There was a tiny doubt inside her, like a maggot in an apple core. Then she looked up and saw the expression on her other mother’s face: a flash of real anger, which crossed her face like summer lightning, and Coraline was sure in her heart that what she had seen in the mirror was no more than an illusion.

  Coraline sat down on the sofa and ate her apple.

  “Please,” said her other mother. “Don’t be difficult.” She walked into the drawing room and clapped her hands twice. There was a rustling noise and a black rat appeared. It stared up at her. “Bring me the key,” she said.

  The rat chittered, then it ran through the open door that led back to Coraline’s own flat.

  The rat returned, dragging the key behind it.

  “Why don’t you have your own key on this side?” asked Coraline.

  “There is only one key. Only one door,” said the other father.

  “Hush,” said the other mother. “You must not bother our darling Coraline’s head with such trivialities.” She put the key in the keyhole and twisted. The lock was stiff, but it clunked closed.

  She dropped the key into her apron pocket.

  Outside, the sky had begun to lighten to a luminous gray.

  “If we aren’t going to have a midnight snack,” said the other mother, “we still need our beauty sleep. I am going back to bed, Coraline. I would strongly suggest that you do the same.”

  She placed her long white fingers on the shoulders of the other father, and she walked him out of the room.

  Coraline walked over to the door at the far corner of the drawing room. She tugged on it, but it was tightly locked. The door of her other parents’ bedroom was now closed.

  She was indeed tired, but she did not want to sleep in the bedroom. She did not want to sleep under the same roof as her other mother.

  The front door was not locked. Coraline walked out into the dawn and down the stone stairs. She sat down on the bottom step. It was cold.

  Something furry pushed itself against her side in one smooth, insinuating motion. Coraline jumped, then breathed a sigh of relief when she saw what it was.

  “Oh. It’s you,” she said to the black cat.

  “See?” said the cat. “It wasn’t so hard recognizing me, was it? Even without names.”

  “Well, what if I wanted to call you?”

  The cat wrinkled its nose and managed to look unimpressed. “Calling cats,” it confided, “tends to be a rather overrated activity. Might as well call a whirlwind.”

  “What if it was dinnertime?” asked Coraline. “Wouldn’t you want to be called then?”

  “Of course,” said the cat. “But a simple cry of ‘dinner!’ would do nicely. See? No need for names.”

  “Why does she want me?” Coraline asked the cat. “Why does she want me to stay here with her?”

  “She wants something to love, I think,” said the cat. “Something that isn’t her. She might want something to eat as well. It’s hard to tell with creatures like that.”

  “Do you have any advice?” asked Coraline.

  The cat looked as if it were about to say something else sarcastic. Then it flicked its whiskers and said, “Challenge her. There’s no guarantee she’ll play fair, but her kind of thing loves games and challenges.”

  “What kind of thing is that?” asked Coraline.

  But the cat made no answer, simply stretched luxuriantly and walked away. Then it stopped, and turned, and said, “I’d go inside if I were you. Get some sleep. You have a long day ahead of you.”

  And then the cat was gone. Still, Coraline realized, it had a point. She crept back into the silent house, past the closed bedroom door inside which the other mother and the other father…what? she wondered. Slept? Waited? And then it came to her that, should she open the bedroom door she would find it empty, or more precisely, that it was an empty room and it would remain empty until the exact moment that she opened the door.

  Somehow, that made it easier. Coraline walked into the green-and-pink parody of her own bedroom. She closed the door and hauled the toy box in front of it—it would not keep anyone out, but the noise somebody would make trying to dislodge it would wake her, she hoped.

  The toys in the toy box were still mostly asleep, and they stirred and muttered as she moved their box, and then they went back to sleep. Coraline checked under her bed, looking for rats, but there was nothing there. She took off her dressing gown and slippers and climbed into bed and fell asleep with barely enough time to reflect, as she did so, on what the cat could have meant by a challenge.

  VI.

  CORALINE WAS WOKEN BY the midmorning sun, full on her face.

  For a moment she felt utterly dislocated. She did not know where she was; she was not entirely sure who she was. It is astonishing just how much of what we are can be tied to the beds we wake up in in the morning, and it is astonishing how fragile that can be.

  Sometimes Coraline would forget who she was while she was daydreaming that she was exploring the Arctic, or the Amazon rain forest, or Darkest Africa, and it was not until someone tapped her on the shoulder or said her name that Coraline would come back from a million miles away with a start, and all in a fraction of a second have to remember who she was, and what her name was, and that she was even there at all.

  Now there was sun on her face, and she was Coraline Jones. Yes. And then the green and pinkness of the room she was in, and the rustling of a large painted paper butterfly as it fluttered and beat its way about the ceiling, told her where she had woken up.

  She climbed out of the bed. She could not wear her pajamas, dressing gown, and slippers during the day, she decided, even if it meant wearing the other Coraline’s clothes. (Was there an other Coraline? No, she realized, there wasn’t. There was just her.) There were no regular clothes in the cupboard, though. They were more like dressing-up clothes or (she thought) the kind of clothes she would love to have hanging in her own wardrobe at home: there was a raggedy witch costume; a patched scarecrow costume; a future-warrior costume with little digital lights in it that glittered and blinked; a slinky evening dress all covered in feathers and mirrors. Finally, in a drawer, she found a pair of black jeans that seemed to be made of velvet night, and a gray sweater the color of thick smoke with faint and tiny stars in the fabric which twinkled.

  She pulled on the jeans and the sweater. Then she put on a pair of bright orange boots she found at the bottom of the cupboard.

  She took her last apple out of the pocket of her dressing gown and then took, from the same pocket, the stone with the hole in it.

  She put the stone into the pocket of her jeans, and it was as if her head had cleared a little. As if she had come out of some sort of a fog.

  She went into the kitchen, but it was deserted.

  Still, she was sure that there was someone in the flat. She walked down the hall until she reached her father’s study, and discovered that it was occupied.

  “Where’s the other mother?” she asked the other father. He was sitting in the study, at a desk which looked just like her father’s, but he was not doing anything at all, not even reading gardening catalogs as her own father did when he was only pretending to be working.

  “Out,” he told her. “Fixing the doors. There are some vermin problems.” He seemed pleased to have somebody to talk to.

  “The rats, you mean?”

  “No, the rats are our friends. This is the other kind. Big black fellow, with his tail high.”

  “The cat, you mean?”

  “That’s the one,” said her other father.

  He looked less like her true father today. There was something slightly vague about his face—like bread dough that had begun to rise, smoothing out the bumps and cracks and depressions.

  “Really, I mustn’t talk to you when she’s not here,” he said. “But don’t you worry. She won’t be gone often. I shall demonstrate our tender hospitali
ty to you, such that you will not even think about ever going back.” He closed his mouth and folded his hands in his lap.

  “So what am I to do now?” asked Coraline.

  The other father pointed to his lips. Silence.

  “If you won’t even talk to me,” said Coraline, “I am going exploring.”

  “No point,” said the other father. “There isn’t anywhere but here. This is all she made: the house, the grounds, and the people in the house. She made it and she waited.” Then he looked embarrassed and he put one finger to his lips again, as if he had just said too much.

  Coraline walked out of his study. She went into the drawing room, over to the old door, and she pulled it, rattled and shook it. No, it was locked fast, and the other mother had the key.

  She looked around the room. It was so familiar—that was what made it feel so truly strange. Everything was exactly the same as she remembered: there was all her grandmother’s strange-smelling furniture, there was the painting of the bowl of fruit (a bunch of grapes, two plums, a peach and an apple) hanging on the wall, there was the low wooden table with the lion’s feet, and the empty fireplace which seemed to suck heat from the room.

  But there was something else, something she did not remember seeing before. A ball of glass, up on the mantelpiece.

  She went over to the fireplace, went up on tiptoes, and lifted it down. It was a snow globe, with two little people in it. Coraline shook it and set the snow flying, white snow that glittered as it tumbled through the water.

  Then she put the snow globe back on the mantelpiece, and carried on looking for her true parents and for a way out.

  She went out of the flat. Past the flashing-lights door, behind which the other Misses Spink and Forcible performed their show forever, and she set off into the woods.

  Where Coraline came from, once you were through the patch of trees, you saw nothing but the meadow and the old tennis court. In this place, the woods went on farther, the trees becoming cruder and less treelike the farther you went.

  Pretty soon they seemed very approximate, like the idea of trees: a grayish-brown trunk below, a greenish splodge of something that might have been leaves above.

  Coraline wondered if the other mother wasn’t interested in trees, or if she just hadn’t bothered with this bit properly because nobody was expected to come out this far.

  She kept walking.

  And then the mist began.

  It was not damp, like a normal fog or mist. It was not cold and it was not warm. It felt to Coraline like she was walking into nothing.

  I’m an explorer, thought Coraline to herself. And I need all the ways out of here that I can get. So I shall keep walking.

  The world she was walking through was a pale nothingness, like a blank sheet of paper or an enormous, empty white room. It had no temperature, no smell, no texture, and no taste.

  It certainly isn’t mist, thought Coraline, although she did not know what it was. For a moment she wondered if she might not have gone blind. But no, she could see herself, plain as day. But there was no ground beneath her feet, just a misty, milky whiteness.

  “And what do you think you’re doing?” said a shape to one side of her.

  It took a few moments for her eyes to focus on it properly: she thought it might be some kind of lion, at first, some distance away from her; and then she thought it might be a mouse, close beside her. And then she knew what it was.

  “I’m exploring,” Coraline told the cat.

  Its fur stood straight out from its body and its eyes were wide, while its tail was down and between its legs. It did not look a happy cat.

  “Bad place,” said the cat. “If you want to call it a place, which I don’t. What are you doing here?”

  “I’m exploring.”

  “Nothing to find here,” said the cat. “This is just the outside, the part of the place she hasn’t bothered to create.”

  “She?”

  “The one who says she’s your other mother,” said the cat.

  “What is she?” asked Coraline.

  The cat did not answer, just padded through the pale mist beside Coraline.

  A shape began to appear in front of them, something high and towering and dark.

  “You were wrong!” she told the cat. “There is something there!”

  And then it took shape in the mist: a dark house, which loomed at them out of the formless whiteness.

  “But that’s—” said Coraline.

  “The house you just left,” agreed the cat. “Precisely.”

  “Maybe I just got turned around in the mist,” said Coraline.

  The cat curled the high tip of its tail into a question mark, and tipped its head to one side. “You might have done,” it said. “I certainly would not. Wrong, indeed.”

  “But how can you walk away from something and still come back to it?”

  “Easy,” said the cat. “Think of somebody walking around the world. You start out walking away from something and end up coming back to it.”

  “Small world,” said Coraline.

  “It’s big enough for her,” said the cat. “Spiders’ webs only have to be large enough to catch flies.”

  Coraline shivered.

  “He said that she’s fixing all the gates and the doors,” she told the cat, “to keep you out.”

  “She may try,” said the cat, unimpressed. “Oh yes. She may try.” They were standing under a clump of trees now, beside the house. These trees looked much more likely. “There’s ways in and ways out of places like this that even she doesn’t know about.”

  “Did she make this place, then?” asked Coraline.

  “Made it, found it—what’s the difference?” asked the cat. “Either way, she’s had it a very long time. Hang on—” And it gave a shiver and a leap and before Coraline could blink the cat was sitting with its paw holding down a big black rat. “It’s not that I like rats at the best of times,” said the cat, conversationally, as if nothing had happened, “but the rats in this place are all spies for her. She uses them as her eyes and hands…” And with that the cat let the rat go.

  It ran several feet and then the cat, with one bound, was upon it, batting it hard with one sharp-clawed paw, while with the other paw it held the rat down. “I love this bit,” said the cat, happily. “Want to see me do that again?”

  “No,” said Coraline. “Why do you do it? You’re torturing it.”

  “Mm,” said the cat. It let the rat go.

  The rat stumbled, dazed, for a few steps, then it began to run. With a blow of its paw, the cat knocked the rat into the air, and caught it in its mouth.

  “Stop it!” said Coraline.

  The cat dropped the rat between its two front paws. “There are those,” it said with a sigh, in tones as smooth as oiled silk, “who have suggested that the tendency of a cat to play with its prey is a merciful one—after all, it permits the occasional funny little running snack to escape, from time to time. How often does your dinner get to escape?”

  And then it picked the rat up in its mouth and carried it off into the woods, behind a tree.

  Coraline walked back into the house.

  All was quiet and empty and deserted. Even her footsteps on the carpeted floor seemed loud. Dust motes hung in a beam of sunlight.

  At the far end of the hall was the mirror. She could see herself walking toward the mirror, looking, reflected, a little braver than she actually felt. There was nothing else there in the mirror. Just her, in the corridor.

  A hand touched her shoulder, and she looked up. The other mother stared down at Coraline with big black button eyes.

  “Coraline, my darling,” she said. “I thought we could play some games together this morning, now you’re back from your walk. Hopscotch? Happy Families? Monopoly?”

  “You weren’t in the mirror,” said Coraline.

  The other mother smiled. “Mirrors,” she said, “are never to be trusted. Now, what game shall we play?”

 
Coraline shook her head. “I don’t want to play with you,” she said. “I want to go home and be with my real parents. I want you to let them go. To let us all go.”

  The other mother shook her head, very slowly. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” she said, “is a daughter’s ingratitude. Still, the proudest spirit can be broken, with love.” And her long white fingers waggled and caressed the air.

  “I have no plans to love you,” said Coraline. “No matter what. You can’t make me love you.”

  “Let’s talk about it,” said the other mother, and she turned and walked into the lounge. Coraline followed her.

  The other mother sat down on the big sofa. She picked up a shopping bag from beside the sofa and took out a white, rustling, paper bag from inside it.

  She extended the hand with it to Coraline. “Would you like one?” she asked politely.

  Expecting it to be a toffee or a butterscotch ball, Coraline looked down. The bag was half filled with large shiny blackbeetles, crawling over each other in their efforts to get out of the bag.

  “No,” said Coraline. “I don’t want one.”

  “Suit yourself,” said her other mother. She carefully picked out a particularly large and black beetle, pulled off its legs (which she dropped, neatly, into a big glass ashtray on the small table beside the sofa), and popped the beetle into her mouth. She crunched it happily.

  “Yum,” she said, and took another.

  “You’re sick,” said Coraline. “Sick and evil and weird.”

  “Is that any way to talk to your mother?” her other mother asked, with her mouth full of blackbeetles.

  “You aren’t my mother,” said Coraline.

  Her other mother ignored this. “Now, I think you are a little overexcited, Coraline. Perhaps this afternoon we could do a little embroidery together, or some watercolor painting. Then dinner, and then, if you have been good, you may play with the rats a little before bed. And I shall read you a story and tuck you in, and kiss you good night.” Her long white fingers fluttered gently, like a tired butterfly, and Coraline shivered.

  “No,” said Coraline.

 
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