Sylvia loved the quiet hours before dusk. Fresh from school, Zap spread his homework on the dining room table, and, after a fond gaze at her brother, so innocent, so earnest, Sylvia climbed the stairs to the garret studio.
She selected her favorite brush, an old camelhair with a thick, soft bristle that had belonged to her grandfather. When the canvas was dry, it made a sandpaper shoosh, like the sound of her father’s hand when he brushed snow off her wool coat. When the canvas was wet, it made not a sound, but instead spread a butter sensation through the handle and into the index finger and thumb of her left hand.
She’d always painted left-handed, though most practical things, like holding cups or books, she did with the right.
She knew what they said about hands and hemispheres, and she liked to think that her body and mind had naturally chosen the most effective cross for each task.
“Sylvia! Only half an hour until your lesson!” Her mother called up. “Have you done your homework? Stop what you’re doing and finish it before you go!”
These new lessons that she was forced to take interrupted the golden hour. Like her mother before her, Sylvia had acquired a mentor. Or rather, one had been foisted upon her. This was one of the reasons they’d moved back here, her mother confessed.
“You must have a mentor,” her mother had said. “You’re of the age. The powers, my dear! And Count Straud is simply the best. You’ll be like me, my love, learning from only the best.”
“You can teach me, Ma,” Sylvia protested.
Her mother blushed. “No, dear,” she said. “It wouldn’t be seemly.”
The first lesson was scheduled for that evening. Sylvia dreaded it.
Sylvia pulled out her calculus text and opened it to the chapter on the mathematics of love, written by Hannah Fry:
“Love, as with most of life, is full of patterns and mathematics is about studying patterns.”
Maybe that’s why she hated these new lessons, she thought. They interrupt the after-school pattern. She sped through the math homework. If that’s the case, she realized, it would be no matter: soon enough, new patterns will form, and maybe she’d come to love them as well.
Zap, finishing his own homework, had launched into a story when Sylvia walked through the kitchen on her way to her first lesson.
“So that’s why sunlight makes you burn up!” he was explaining.
Their mother smiled. “That’s an interesting theory, son,” she said. “But I think it has more to do with pigmentation than retribution.”
Sylvia raced up the hill to the Straud estate. She’d spent many nights in the oak forests on either side of the lane, following owls and looking for newts and salamanders.
But she’d never gone through the gargoyle statues or under the cast-iron archway. She’d never walked up the steps nor rattled the bronze door knocker.
She jumped, it sounded so loudly!
The door swung open of its own accord, and Sylvia followed the sound of an organ playing Bach.
The music stopped abruptly.
“You look nothing like her!” said a high-pitched nasal voice.
“Like who?” asked Sylvia.
“Miranda De Suena,” he replied. “You cannot be her daughter.”
“Oh, but I am!” Sylvia replied.
“No!” hissed the Count. “Her daughter would not be dressed in flannel! Like a hillbilly! Like a boy! Where is your silk? Where’s the lace? And why does your hair look like snakes?”
“I didn’t realize adherence to stereotypical fashion was a prerequisite,” Sylvia answered. “Maybe my wardrobe can get me out of these lessons, then!”
She turned and began to leave.
“Halt!” The Count shouted. “You have your mother’s walk! I am convinced. Come back. The study will begin.”
For hours, they practiced harnessing the upward currents of energy. They began with breath work.
“You must breathe in from the soles of the feet,” the Count demanded, “and exhale through the crown of your head.”
It came easily to Sylvia, thanks to her experience with meditation.
“Now open the crown,” the Count instructed, “to let the energy enter. It will circle through your body and flow up your spine.”
Sylvia, tracking the flow of breath in one direction, opened herself to the flow of energy in the other, and soon, she felt herself lift of the floor.
“Good, good!” said the Count. “How long can you stay there?”
He left her hanging.
She heard organ music rising up from the basement, and suspended in mid-air, she lost track of time. The music played, but it sounded without pattern–this was no Bach. Lost between discordant notes and wide spaces, Sylvia couldn’t tell how long the music played, how long she remained suspended.
She woke in a heap on the floor, with silence stretching around her.
Thirst had woken her. The Count was nowhere to be seen. His castle was empty. She looked through the icebox–not a single carton of plasma.
Through the window over the kitchen sink, a purple light caught her attention. The veins of a tree glowed.
Sylvia had never seen a tree like this.
She raced out to get a better look.
Was it the tree of life?
She caught a whiff of a blood-like scent, and her thirst raged.
At the end of a gnarled branch hung a glowing purple fruit. That’s where the scent came from. Sylvia picked it without thought, jammed a hollow twig into it, and drank.
Slowly, the veins of the tree pulsing, she sipped the glowing fruit. It didn’t satisfy. But it did erase.
The craving grew weaker. Her thirst died. If the fruit of this tree could kill her thirst, then it was the tree of life, she reasoned.
The moon still stood high in the sky.
The door to the castle was open. Sylvia returned. The Count was nowhere to be found.
Sylvia discovered the old organ in the basement. It had an even richer sound than the one upstairs that the Count had been playing when she arrived.
For the rest of the night, Sylvia explored the organ’s keyboard, testing the voices, letting her fingers become familiar with the touch of the keys, finding her way through a simple prelude in C major.
The music flowed like veins, branching, pulsing, extending from the organ through her.
She fell back into place.
A few hours before dawn, she headed home, running down the steps onto the cobblestones.
She’d survived her first lesson.
Her teacher didn’t like her. She knew that. But he’d taught her. She couldn’t put into words what she’d learned, the learning had happened on so many levels. But she could feel it. It felt like power.