Coraline, p.9
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       Coraline, p.9

           Neil Gaiman
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  The other mother looked daggers, but she smiled sweetly. “No,” she said. “I suppose not. After all, you still need to find your parents, don’t you?”

  “Yes,” said Coraline. I must not look at the mantelpiece, she thought. I must not even think about it.

  “Well?” said the other mother. “Produce them. Would you like to look in the cellar again? I have some other interesting things hidden down there, you know.”

  “No,” said Coraline. “I know where my parents are.” The cat was heavy in her arms. She moved it forward, unhooking its claws from her shoulder as she did so.


  “It stands to reason,” said Coraline. “I’ve looked everywhere you’d hide them. They aren’t in the house.”

  The other mother stood very still, giving nothing away, lips tightly closed. She might have been a wax statue. Even her hair had stopped moving.

  “So,” Coraline continued, both hands wrapped firmly around the black cat. “I know where they have to be. You’ve hidden them in the passageway between the houses, haven’t you? They are behind that door.” She nodded her head toward the door in the corner.

  The other mother remained statue still, but a hint of a smile crept back onto her face. “Oh, they are, are they?”

  “Why don’t you open it?” said Coraline. “They’ll be there, all right.”

  It was her only way home, she knew. But it all depended on the other mother’s needing to gloat, needing not only to win but to show that she had won.

  The other mother reached her hand slowly into her apron pocket and produced the black iron key. The cat stirred uncomfortably in Coraline’s arms, as if it wanted to get down. Just stay there for a few moments longer, she thought at it, wondering if it could hear her. I’ll get us both home. I said I would. I promise. She felt the cat relax ever so slightly in her arms.

  The other mother walked over to the door and pushed the key into the lock.

  She turned the key.

  Coraline heard the mechanism clunk heavily. She was already starting, as quietly as she could, step by step, to back away toward the mantelpiece.

  The other mother pushed down on the door handle and pulled open the door, revealing a corridor behind it, dark and empty. “There,” she said, waving her hands at the corridor. The expression of delight on her face was a very bad thing to see. “You’re wrong! You don’t know where your parents are, do you? They aren’t there.” She turned and looked at Coraline. “Now,” she said, “you’re going to stay here for ever and always.”

  “No,” said Coraline. “I’m not.” And, hard as she could, she threw the black cat toward the other mother. It yowled and landed on the other mother’s head, claws flailing, teeth bared, fierce and angry. Fur on end, it looked half again as big as it was in real life.

  Without waiting to see what would happen, Coraline reached up to the mantelpiece and closed her hand around the snow globe, pushing it deep into the pocket of her dressing gown.

  The cat made a deep, ululating yowl and sank its teeth into the other mother’s cheek. She was flailing at it. Blood ran from the cuts on her white face—not red blood but a deep, tarry black stuff. Coraline ran for the door.

  She pulled the key out of the lock.

  “Leave her! Come on!” she shouted to the cat. It hissed, and swiped its scalpel-sharp claws at the other mother’s face in one wild rake which left black ooze trickling from several gashes on the other mother’s nose. Then it sprang down toward Coraline. “Quickly!” she said. The cat ran toward her, and they both stepped into the dark corridor.

  It was colder in the corridor, like stepping down into a cellar on a warm day. The cat hesitated for a moment; then, seeing the other mother was coming toward them, it ran to Coraline and stopped by her legs.

  Coraline began to pull the door closed.

  It was heavier than she imagined a door could be, and pulling it closed was like trying to close a door against a high wind. And then she felt something from the other side starting to pull against her.

  Shut! she thought. Then she said, out loud, “Come on, please.” And she felt the door begin to move, to pull closed, to give against the phantom wind.

  Suddenly she was aware of other people in the corridor with her. She could not turn her head to look at them, but she knew them without having to look. “Help me, please,” she said. “All of you.”

  The other people in the corridor—three children, two adults—were somehow too insubstantial to touch the door. But their hands closed about hers, as she pulled on the big iron door handle, and suddenly she felt strong.

  “Never let up, Miss! Hold strong! Hold strong!” whispered a voice in her mind.

  “Pull, girl, pull!” whispered another.

  And then a voice that sounded like her mother’s—her own mother, her real, wonderful, maddening, infuriating, glorious mother—just said, “Well done, Coraline,” and that was enough.

  The door started to slip closed, easily as anything.

  “No!” screamed a voice from beyond the door, and it no longer sounded even faintly human.

  Something snatched at Coraline, reaching through the closing gap between the door and the doorpost. Coraline jerked her head out of the way, but the door began to open once more.

  “We’re going to go home,” said Coraline. “We are. Help me.” She ducked the snatching fingers.

  They moved through her, then: ghost hands lent her strength that she no longer possessed. There was a final moment of resistance, as if something were caught in the door, and then, with a crash, the wooden door banged closed.

  Something dropped from Coraline’s head height to the floor. It landed with a sort of a scuttling thump.

  “Come on!” said the cat. “This is not a good place to be in. Quickly.”

  Coraline turned her back on the door and began to run, as fast as was practical, through the dark corridor, running her hand along the wall to make sure she didn’t bump into anything or get turned around in the darkness.

  It was an uphill run, and it seemed to her that it went on for a longer distance than anything could possibly go. The wall she was touching felt warm and yielding now, and, she realized, it felt as if it were covered in a fine downy fur. It moved, as if it were taking a breath. She snatched her hand away from it.

  Winds howled in the dark.

  She was scared she would bump into something, and she put out her hand for the wall once more. This time what she touched felt hot and wet, as if she had put her hand in somebody’s mouth, and she pulled it back with a small wail.

  Her eyes had adjusted to the dark. She could half see, as faintly glowing patches ahead of her, two adults, three children. She could hear the cat, too, padding in the dark in front of her.

  And there was something else, which suddenly scuttled between her feet, nearly sending Coraline flying. She caught herself before she went down, using her own momentum to keep moving. She knew that if she fell in that corridor she might never get up again. Whatever that corridor was was older by far than the other mother. It was deep, and slow, and it knew that she was there….

  Then daylight appeared, and she ran toward it, puffing and wheezing. “Almost there,” she called encouragingly, but in the light she discovered that the wraiths had gone, and she was alone. She did not have time to wonder what had happened to them. Panting for breath, she staggered through the door, and slammed it behind her with the loudest, most satisfying bang you can imagine.

  Coraline locked the door with the key, and put the key back into her pocket.

  The black cat was huddled in the farthest corner of the room, the pink tip of its tongue showing, its eyes wide. Coraline went over to it and crouched down beside it.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I threw you at her. But it was the only way to distract her enough to get us all out. She would never have kept her word, would she?”

  The cat looked up at her, then rested its head on her hand, licking her fingers with it
s sandpapery tongue. It began to purr.

  “Then we’re friends?” said Coraline.

  She sat down on one of her grandmother’s uncomfortable armchairs, and the cat sprang up into her lap and made itself comfortable. The light that came through the picture window was daylight, real golden late-afternoon daylight, not a white mist light. The sky was a robin’s-egg blue, and Coraline could see trees and, beyond the trees, green hills, which faded on the horizon into purples and grays. The sky had never seemed so sky, the world had never seemed so world.

  Coraline stared at the leaves on the trees and at the patterns of light and shadow on the cracked bark of the trunk of the beech tree outside the window. Then she looked down at her lap, at the way that the rich sunlight brushed every hair on the cat’s head, turning each white whisker to gold.

  Nothing, she thought, had ever been so interesting.

  And, caught up in the interestingness of the world, Coraline barely noticed that she had wriggled down and curled catlike on her grandmother’s uncomfortable armchair, nor did she notice when she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.


  HER MOTHER SHOOK HER gently awake.

  “Coraline?” she said. “Darling, what a funny place to fall asleep. And really, this room is only for best. We looked all over the house for you.”

  Coraline stretched and blinked. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I fell asleep.”

  “I can see that,” said her mother. “And wherever did the cat come from? He was waiting by the front door when I came in. Shot out like a bullet as I opened it.”

  “Probably had things to do,” said Coraline. Then she hugged her mother so tightly that her arms began to ache. Her mother hugged Coraline back.

  “Dinner in fifteen minutes,” said her mother. “Don’t forget to wash your hands. And just look at those pajama bottoms. What did you do to your poor knee?”

  “I tripped,” said Coraline. She went into the bathroom, and she washed her hands and cleaned her bloody knee. She put ointment on her cuts and scrapes.

  She went into her bedroom—her real bedroom, her true bedroom. She pushed her hands into the pockets of her dressing gown, and she pulled out three marbles, a stone with a hole in it, the black key, and an empty snow globe.

  She shook the snow globe and watched the glittery snow swirl through the water to fill the empty world. She put it down and watched the snow fall, covering the place where the little couple had once stood.

  Coraline took a piece of string from her toy box, and she strung the black key on the string. Then she knotted the string and hung it around her neck.

  “There,” she said. She put on some clothes and hid the key under her T-shirt. It was cold against her skin. The stone went into her pocket.

  Coraline walked down the hallway to her father’s study. He had his back to her, but she knew, just on seeing him, that his eyes, when he turned around, would be her father’s kind gray eyes, and she crept over and kissed him on the back of his balding head.

  “Hullo, Coraline,” he said. Then he looked around and smiled at her. “What was that for?”

  “Nothing,” said Coraline. “I just miss you sometimes. That’s all.”

  “Oh good,” he said. He put the computer to sleep, stood up, and then, for no reason at all, he picked Coraline up, which he had not done for such a long time, not since he had started pointing out to her she was much too old to be carried, and he carried her into the kitchen.

  Dinner that night was pizza, and even though it was homemade by her father (so the crust was alternately thick and doughy and raw, or too thin and burnt), and even though he had put slices of green pepper on it, along with little meatballs and, of all things, pineapple chunks, Coraline ate the entire slice she had been given.

  Well, she ate everything except for the pineapple chunks.

  And soon enough it was bedtime.

  Coraline kept the key around her neck, but she put the gray marbles beneath her pillow; and in bed that night, Coraline dreamed a dream.

  She was at a picnic, under an old oak tree, in a green meadow. The sun was high in the sky and while there were distant, fluffy white clouds on the horizon, the sky above her head was a deep, untroubled blue.

  There was a white linen cloth laid on the grass, with bowls piled high with food—she could see salads and sandwiches, nuts and fruit, jugs of lemonade and water and thick chocolate milk. Coraline sat on one side of the tablecloth while three other children took a side each. They were dressed in the oddest clothes.

  The smallest of them, sitting on Coraline’s left, was a boy with red velvet knee britches and a frilly white shirt. His face was dirty, and he was piling his plate high with boiled new potatoes and with what looked like cold, whole, cooked, trout. “This is the finest of pic-nics, lady,” he said to her.

  “Yes,” said Coraline. “I think it is. I wonder who organized it.”

  “Why, I rather think you did, Miss,” said a tall girl, sitting opposite Coraline. She wore a brown, rather shapeless dress, and had a brown bonnet on her head which tied beneath her chin. “And we are more grateful for it and for all than ever words can say.” She was eating slices of bread and jam, deftly cutting the bread from a large golden-brown loaf with a huge knife, then spooning on the purple jam with a wooden spoon. She had jam all around her mouth.

  “Aye. This is the finest food I have eaten in centuries,” said the girl on Coraline’s right. She was a very pale child, dressed in what seemed to be spider’s webs, with a circle of glittering silver set in her blonde hair. Coraline could have sworn that the girl had two wings—like dusty silver butterfly wings, not bird wings—coming out of her back. The girl’s plate was piled high with pretty flowers. She smiled at Coraline, as if it had been a very long time since she had smiled and she had almost, but not quite, forgotten how. Coraline found herself liking this girl immensely.

  And then, in the way of dreams, the picnic was done and they were playing in the meadow, running and shouting and tossing a glittering ball from one to another. Coraline knew it was a dream then, because none of them ever got tired or winded or out of breath. She wasn’t even sweating. They just laughed and ran in a game that was partly tag, partly piggy-in-the-middle, and partly just a magnificent romp.

  Three of them ran along the ground, while the pale girl fluttered a little over their heads, swooping down on butterfly wings to grab the ball and swing up again into the sky before she tossed the ball to one of the other children.

  And then, without a word about it being spoken, the game was done, and the four of them went back to the picnic cloth, where the lunch dishes had been cleared away, and there were four bowls waiting for them, three of ice cream, one of honeysuckle flowers piled high.

  They ate with relish.

  “Thank you for coming to my party,” said Coraline. “If it is mine.”

  “The pleasure is ours, Coraline Jones,” said the winged girl, nibbling another honeysuckle blossom. “If there were but something we could do for you, to thank you and to reward you.”

  “Aye,” said the boy with the red velvet britches and the dirty face. He put out his hand and held Coraline’s hand with his own. It was warm now.

  “It’s a very fine thing you did for us, Miss,” said the tall girl. She now had a smear of chocolate ice cream all around her lips.

  “I’m just pleased it’s all over,” said Coraline.

  Was it her imagination, or did a shadow cross the faces of the other children at the picnic?

  The winged girl, the circlet in her hair glittering like a star, rested her fingers for a moment on the back of Coraline’s hand. “It is over and done with for us,” she said. “This is our staging post. From here, we three will set out for uncharted lands, and what comes after no one alive can say….” She stopped talking.

  “There’s a but, isn’t there?” said Coraline. “I can feel it. Like a rain cloud.”

  The boy on her left tried to smile bravely, but his lower lip began to
tremble and he bit it with his upper teeth and said nothing. The girl in the brown bonnet shifted uncomfortably and said, “Yes, Miss.”

  “But I got you three back,” said Coraline. “I got Mum and Dad back. I shut the door. I locked it. What more was I meant to do?”

  The boy squeezed Coraline’s hand with his. She found herself remembering when it had been she, trying to reassure him, when he was little more than a cold memory in the darkness.

  “Well, can’t you give me a clue?” asked Coraline. “Isn’t there something you can tell me?”

  “The beldam swore by her good right hand,” said the tall girl, “but she lied.”

  “M-my governess,” said the boy, “used to say that nobody is ever given more to shoulder than he or she can bear.” He shrugged as he said this, as if he had not yet made his own mind up whether or not it was true.

  “We wish you luck,” said the winged girl. “Good fortune and wisdom and courage—although you have already shown that you have all three of these blessings, and in abundance.”

  “She hates you,” blurted out the boy. “She hasn’t lost anything for so long. Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.”

  “But it’s not fair,” said Coraline, in her dream, angrily. “It’s just not fair. It should be over.”

  The boy with the dirty face stood up and hugged Coraline tightly. “Take comfort in this,” he whispered. “Th’art alive. Thou livest.”

  And in her dream Coraline saw that the sun had set and the stars were twinkling in the darkening sky.

  Coraline stood in the meadow, and she watched as the three children (two of them walking, one flying) went away from her across the grass, silver in the light of the huge moon.

  The three of them came to a small wooden bridge over a stream. They stopped there and turned and waved, and Coraline waved back.

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