Coraline, p.6
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       Coraline, p.6

           Neil Gaiman
 
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  The other mother sat on the sofa. Her mouth was set in a line; her lips were pursed. She popped another blackbeetle into her mouth and then another, like someone with a bag of chocolate-covered raisins. Her big black button eyes stared into Coraline’s hazel eyes. Her shiny black hair twined and twisted about her neck and shoulders, as if it were blowing in some wind that Coraline could not touch or feel.

  They stared at each other for over a minute. Then the other mother said, “Manners!” She folded the white paper bag carefully so no blackbeetles could escape, and she placed it back in the shopping bag. Then she stood up, and up, and up: she seemed taller than Coraline remembered. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out, first the black door key, which she frowned at and tossed into her shopping bag, then a tiny silver-colored key. She held it up triumphantly. “There we are,” she said. “This is for you, Coraline. For your own good. Because I love you. To teach you manners. Manners makyth man, after all.”

  She pulled Coraline back into the hallway and advanced upon the mirror at the end of the hall. Then she pushed the tiny key into the fabric of the mirror, and she twisted it.

  It opened like a door, revealing a dark space behind it. “You may come out when you’ve learned some manners,” said the other mother. “And when you’re ready to be a loving daughter.”

  She picked Coraline up and pushed her into the dim space behind the mirror. A fragment of beetle was sticking to her lower lip, and there was no expression at all in her black button eyes.

  Then she swung the mirror door closed, and left Coraline in darkness.

  VII.

  SOMEWHERE INSIDE HER Coraline could feel a huge sob welling up. And then she stopped it, before it came out. She took a deep breath and let it go. She put out her hands to touch the space in which she was imprisoned. It was the size of a broom closet: tall enough to stand in or to sit in, not wide or deep enough to lie down in.

  One wall was glass, and it felt cold to the touch.

  She went around the tiny room a second time, running her hands over every surface that she could reach, feeling for doorknobs or switches or concealed catches—some kind of way out—and found nothing.

  A spider scuttled over the back of her hand and she choked back a shriek. But apart from the spider she was alone in the closet in the pitch dark.

  And then her hand touched something that felt for all the world like somebody’s cheek and lips, small and cold; and a voice whispered in her ear, “Hush! And shush! Say nothing, for the beldam might be listening!”

  Coraline said nothing.

  She felt a cold hand touch her face, fingers running over it like the gentle beat of a moth’s wings.

  Another voice, hesitant and so faint Coraline wondered if she were imagining it, said, “Art thou—art thou alive?”

  “Yes,” whispered Coraline.

  “Poor child,” said the first voice.

  “Who are you?” whispered Coraline.

  “Names, names, names,” said another voice, all faraway and lost. “The names are the first things to go, after the breath has gone, and the beating of the heart. We keep our memories longer than our names. I still keep pictures in my mind of my governess on some May morning, carrying my hoop and stick, and the morning sun behind her, and all the tulips bobbing in the breeze. But I have forgotten the name of my governess, and of the tulips too.”

  “I don’t think tulips have names,” said Coraline. “They’re just tulips.”

  “Perhaps,” said the voice, sadly. “But I have always thought that these tulips must have had names. They were red, and orange and red, and red and orange and yellow, like the embers in the nursery fire of a winter’s evening. I remember them.”

  The voice sounded so sad that Coraline put out a hand to the place where the voice was coming from, and she found a cold hand, and she squeezed it tightly.

  Her eyes were beginning to get used to the darkness. Now Coraline saw, or imagined she saw, three shapes, each as faint and pale as the moon in the daytime sky. They were the shapes of children about her own size. The cold hand squeezed her hand back. “Thank you,” said the voice.

  “Are you a girl?” asked Coraline. “Or a boy?”

  There was a pause. “When I was small I wore skirts and my hair was long and curled,” it said, doubtfully. “But now that you ask, it does seem to me that one day they took my skirts and gave me britches and cut my hair.”

  “’Tain’t something we give a mind to,” said the first of the voices.

  “A boy, perhaps, then,” continued the one whose hand she was holding. “I believe I was once a boy.” And it glowed a little more brightly in the darkness of the room behind the mirror.

  “What happened to you all?” asked Coraline. “How did you come here?”

  “She left us here,” said one of the voices. “She stole our hearts, and she stole our souls, and she took our lives away, and she left us here, and she forgot about us in the dark.”

  “You poor things,” said Coraline. “How long have you been here?”

  “So very long a time,” said a voice.

  “Aye. Time beyond reckoning,” said another voice.

  “I walked through the scullery door,” said the voice of the one that thought it might be a boy, “and I found myself back in the parlor. But she was waiting for me. She told me she was my other mamma, but I never saw my true mamma again.”

  “Flee!” said the very first of the voices—another girl, Coraline fancied. “Flee, while there’s still air in your lungs and blood in your veins and warmth in your heart. Flee while you still have your mind and your soul.”

  “I’m not running away,” said Coraline. “She has my parents. I came to get them back.”

  “Ah, but she’ll keep you here while the days turn to dust and the leaves fall and the years pass one after the next like the tick-tick-ticking of a clock.”

  “No,” said Coraline. “She won’t.”

  There was silence then in the room behind the mirror.

  “Peradventure,” said a voice in the darkness, “if you could win your mamma and your papa back from the beldam, you could also win free our souls.”

  “Has she taken them?” asked Coraline, shocked.

  “Aye. And hidden them.”

  “That is why we could not leave here, when we died. She kept us, and she fed on us, until now we’ve nothing left of ourselves, only snakeskins and spider husks. Find our secret hearts, young mistress.”

  “And what will happen to you if I do?” asked Coraline.

  The voices said nothing.

  “And what is she going to do to me?” she said.

  The pale figures pulsed faintly; she could imagine that they were nothing more than afterimages, like the glow left by a bright light in your eyes, after the lights go out.

  “It doth not hurt,” whispered one faint voice.

  “She will take your life and all you are and all you care’st for, and she will leave you with nothing but mist and fog. She’ll take your joy. And one day you’ll awake and your heart and your soul will have gone. A husk you’ll be, a wisp you’ll be, and a thing no more than a dream on waking, or a memory of something forgotten.”

  “Hollow,” whispered the third voice. “Hollow, hollow, hollow, hollow, hollow.”

  “You must flee,” sighed a voice faintly.

  “I don’t think so,” said Coraline. “I tried running away, and it didn’t work. She just took my parents. Can you tell me how to get out of this room?”

  “If we knew then we would tell you.”

  “Poor things,” said Coraline to herself.

  She sat down. She took off her sweater and rolled it up and put it behind her head as a pillow. “She won’t keep me in the dark forever,” said Coraline. “She brought me here to play games. Games and challenges, the cat said. I’m not much of a challenge here in the dark.” She tried to get comfortable, twisting and bending herself to fit the cramped space behind the mirror.

  Her stom
ach rumbled. She ate her last apple, taking the tiniest bites, making it last as long as she could. When she had finished she was still hungry.

  Then an idea struck her, and she whispered, “When she comes to let me out, why don’t you three come with me?”

  “We wish that we could,” they sighed to her, in their barely-there voices. “But she has our hearts in her keeping. Now we belong to the dark and to the empty places. The light would shrivel us, and burn.”

  “Oh,” said Coraline.

  She closed her eyes, which made the darkness darker, and she rested her head on the rolled-up sweater, and she went to sleep. And as she fell asleep she thought she felt a ghost kiss her cheek, tenderly, and a small voice whisper into her ear, a voice so faint it was barely there at all, a gentle wispy nothing of a voice so hushed that Coraline could almost believe she was imagining it. “Look through the stone,” it said to her.

  And then she slept.

  VIII.

  THE OTHER MOTHER LOOKED healthier than before: there was a little blush to her cheeks, and her hair was wriggling like lazy snakes on a warm day. Her black button eyes seemed as if they had been freshly polished.

  She had pushed through the mirror as if she were walking through nothing more solid than water and had stared down at Coraline. Then she had opened the door with the little silver key. She picked Coraline up, just as Coraline’s real mother had when Coraline was much younger, cradling the half-sleeping child as if she were a baby.

  The other mother carried Coraline into the kitchen and put her down very gently upon the countertop.

  Coraline struggled to wake herself up, conscious only for the moment of having been cuddled and loved, and wanting more of it, then realizing where she was and who she was with.

  “There, my sweet Coraline,” said her other mother. “I came and fetched you out of the cupboard. You needed to be taught a lesson, but we temper our justice with mercy here; we love the sinner and we hate the sin. Now, if you will be a good child who loves her mother, be compliant and fair-spoken, you and I shall understand each other perfectly and we shall love each other perfectly as well.”

  Coraline scratched the sleep grit from her eyes.

  “There were other children in there,” she said. “Old ones, from a long time ago.”

  “Were there?” said the other mother. She was bustling between the pans and the fridge, bringing out eggs and cheeses, butter and a slab of sliced pink bacon.

  “Yes,” said Coraline. “There were. I think you’re planning to turn me into one of them. A dead shell.”

  Her other mother smiled gently. With one hand she cracked the eggs into a bowl; with the other she whisked them and whirled them. Then she dropped a pat of butter into a frying pan, where it hissed and fizzled and spun as she sliced thin slices of cheese. She poured the melted butter and the cheese into the egg-mixture, and whisked it some more.

  “Now, I think you’re being silly, dear,” said the other mother. “I love you. I will always love you. Nobody sensible believes in ghosts anyway—that’s because they’re all such liars. Smell the lovely breakfast I’m making for you.” She poured the yellow mixture into the pan. “Cheese omelette. Your favorite.”

  Coraline’s mouth watered. “You like games,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been told.”

  The other mother’s black eyes flashed. “Everybody likes games,” was all she said.

  “Yes,” said Coraline. She climbed down from the counter and sat at the table.

  The bacon was sizzling and spitting under the grill. It smelled wonderful.

  “Wouldn’t you be happier if you won me, fair and square?” asked Coraline.

  “Possibly,” said the other mother. She had a show of unconcernedness, but her fingers twitched and drummed and she licked her lips with her scarlet tongue. “What exactly are you offering?”

  “Me,” said Coraline, and she gripped her knees under the table, to stop them from shaking. “If I lose I’ll stay here with you forever and I’ll let you love me. I’ll be a most dutiful daughter. I’ll eat your food and play Happy Families. And I’ll let you sew your buttons into my eyes.”

  Her other mother stared at her, black buttons unblinking. “That sounds very fine,” she said. “And if you do not lose?”

  “Then you let me go. You let everyone go—my real father and mother, the dead children, everyone you’ve trapped here.”

  The other mother took the bacon from under the grill and put it on a plate. Then she slipped the cheese omelette from the pan onto the plate, flipping it as she did so, letting it fold itself into a perfect omelette shape.

  She placed the breakfast plate in front of Coraline, along with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a mug of frothy hot chocolate.

  “Yes,” she said. “I think I like this game. But what kind of game shall it be? A riddle game? A test of knowledge or of skill?

  “An exploring game,” suggested Coraline. “A finding-things game.”

  “And what is it you think you should be finding in this hide-and-go-seek game, Coraline Jones?”

  Coraline hesitated. Then, “My parents,” said Coraline. “And the souls of the children behind the mirror.”

  The other mother smiled at this, triumphantly, and Coraline wondered if she had made the right choice. Still, it was too late to change her mind now.

  “A deal,” said the other mother. “Now eat up your breakfast, my sweet. Don’t worry—it won’t hurt you.”

  Coraline stared at the breakfast, hating herself for giving in so easily, but she was starving.

  “How do I know you’ll keep your word?” asked Coraline.

  “I swear it,” said the other mother. “I swear it on my own mother’s grave.”

  “Does she have a grave?” asked Coraline.

  “Oh yes,” said the other mother. “I put her in there myself. And when I found her trying to crawl out, I put her back.”

  “Swear on something else. So I can trust you to keep your word.”

  “My right hand,” said the other mother, holding it up. She waggled the long fingers slowly, displaying the clawlike nails. “I swear on that.”

  Coraline shrugged. “Okay,” she said. “It’s a deal.” She ate the breakfast, trying not to wolf it down. She was hungrier than she had thought.

  As she ate, her other mother stared at her. It was hard to read expressions into those black button eyes, but Coraline thought that her other mother looked hungry, too.

  She drank the orange juice, but even though she knew she would like it she could not bring herself to taste the hot chocolate.

  “Where should I start looking?” asked Coraline.

  “Where you wish,” said her other mother, as if she did not care at all.

  Coraline looked at her, and Coraline thought hard. There was no point, she decided, in exploring the garden and the grounds: they didn’t exist; they weren’t real. There was no abandoned tennis court in the other mother’s world, no bottomless well. All that was real was the house itself.

  She looked around the kitchen. She opened the oven, peered into the freezer, poked into the salad compartment of the fridge. The other mother followed her about, looking at Coraline with a smirk always hovering at the edge of her lips.

  “How big are souls anyway?” asked Coraline.

  The other mother sat down at the kitchen table and leaned back against the wall, saying nothing. She picked at her teeth with a long crimson-varnished fingernail, then she tapped the finger, gently, tap-tap-tap against the polished black surface of her black button eyes.

  “Fine,” said Coraline. “Don’t tell me. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if you help me or not. Everyone knows that a soul is the same size as a beach ball.”

  She was hoping the other mother would say something like “Nonsense, they’re the size of ripe onions—or suitcases—or grandfather clocks,” but the other mother simply smiled, and the tap-tap-tapping of her fingernail against her eye was as steady and relentless as
the drip of water droplets from the faucet into the sink. And then, Coraline realized, it was simply the noise of the water, and she was alone in the room.

  Coraline shivered. She preferred the other mother to have a location: if she were nowhere, then she could be anywhere. And, after all, it is always easier to be afraid of something you cannot see. She put her hands into her pockets and her fingers closed around the reassuring shape of the stone with the hole in it. She pulled it out of her pocket, held it in front of her as if she were holding a gun, and walked out into the hall.

  There was no sound but the tap-tap of the water dripping into the metal sink.

  She glanced at the mirror at the end of the hall. For a moment it clouded over, and it seemed to her that faces swam in the glass, indistinct and shapeless, and then the faces were gone, and there was nothing in the mirror but a girl who was small for her age holding something that glowed gently, like a green coal.

  Coraline looked down at her hand, surprised: it was just a stone with a hole in it, a nondescript brown pebble. Then she looked back into the mirror where the stone glimmered like an emerald. A trail of green fire blew from the pebble in the mirror and drifted toward Coraline’s bedroom.

  “Hmm,” said Coraline.

  She walked into the bedroom. The toys fluttered excitedly as she walked in, as if they were pleased to see her, and a little tank rolled out of the toy box to greet her, its tread rolling over several other toys. It fell from the toy box onto the floor, tipping as it fell, and it lay on the carpet like a beetle on its back, grumbling and grinding its treads before Coraline picked it up and turned it over. The tank fled under the bed in embarrassment.

  Coraline looked around the room.

  She looked in the cupboards, and the drawers. Then she picked up one end of the toy box and tipped all the toys in it out onto the carpet, where they grumbled and stretched and wiggled awkwardly free of each other. A gray marble rolled across the floor and clicked against the wall. None of the toys looked particularly soul-like, she thought. She picked up and examined a silver charm bracelet from which hung tiny animal charms that chased each other around the perimeter of the bracelet, the fox never catching the rabbit, the bear never gaining on the fox.

 
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