Howl’s Moving Castle
Chapter Nine: In which Michael has trouble with a spell
by Diana Wynne Jones, Copyright © 1986
It was the sea captain at the door, come for his wind spell at last, and not at all pleased at having to wait. "If I miss my tide, boy," he said to Michael, "I shall have a word with the Sorcerer about you. I don't like lazy boys."
Michael, in Sophie's opinion, was far too polite to him, but she was feeling too dejected to interfere.
When the captain had gone, Michael went to the bench to frown over his spell again and Sophie sat silently mending her stockings. She had only the one pair and her knobby feet had worn huge holes in them. Her gray dress by this time was frayed and dirty. She wondered whether she dared cut the leaststained bits out of Howl's ruined blue-and-silver suit to make herself a new skirt with. But she did not quite dare.
"Sophie," Michael said, looking up from his eleventh page of notes, "how many nieces have you?"
Sophie had been afraid Michael would start asking questions. "When you get to my age, my lad," she said, "you lose count. They all look so alike. Those two Letties could be twins, to my mind."
"Oh, no, not really," Michael said, to her surprise. "The niece in Upper Folding isn't as pretty as my Lettie." He tore up the eleventh page and made a twelfth. "I'm glad Howl didn't meet my Lettie," he said. He began on his thirteenth page and tore that up too. "I wanted to laugh when that Mrs. Fairfax said she knew who Howl was, didn't you?"
"No," said Sophie. It had made no difference to Lettie's feelings. She thought of Lettie's bright, adoring face under the apple blossom. "I suppose there's no chance," she asked hopelessly, "that Howl could be properly in love this time?"
Calcifer snorted green sparks up the chimney.
"I was afraid you'd start thinking that," Michael said. "But you'd be deceiving yourself, just like Mrs. Fairfax."
"How do you know?" said Sophie.
Calcifer and Michael exchanged glances. "Did he forget to spend at least an hour in the bathroom this morning?" Michael asked.
"He was in there two hours," said Calcifer, "putting spells on his face. Vain fool!"
"There you are, then," said Michael. "The day Howl forgets to do that will be the day I believe he's really in love, and not before."
Sophie thought of Howl on one knee in the orchard, posing to look as handsome as possible, and she knew they were right. She thought of going to the bathroom and tipping all Howl's beauty spells down the toilet. But she did not quite dare. Instead, she hobbled up and fetched the blue-and-silver suit, which she spent the rest of the day cutting little blue triangles out of in order to make a patchwork sort of skirt.
Michael patted her shoulder kindly as he came to throw all seventeen pages of his notes onto Calcifer. "Everyone gets over things in the end, you know," he said.
By this time it was clear Michael was having trouble with his spell. He gave up the notes and scraped some soot off the chimney. Calcifer craned round to watch him in a mystified way. Michael took a withered root from one of the bags hanging on the beams and put it in the soot. Then, after much thought, he turned the doorknob blue-down and vanished for twenty minutes into Porthaven. He came back with a large, whorled seashell and put that with the root and the soot. After that he tore up pages and pages of paper and put those in too. He put the lot in front of the human skull and stood blowing on it, so that soot and bits of paper whirled all over the bench.
"What's he doing, do you think?" Calcifer asked Sophie.
Michael gave up blowing and started mashing everything, paper and all, with a pestle and mortar, looking at the skull expectantly from time to time. Nothing happened, so he tried different ingredients from bags and jars.
"I feel bad about spymg on Howl," he announced as he pounded a third set of ingredients to death in a bowl. "He may be fickle to females, but he's been awfully good to me. He took me in when I was just an unwanted orphan sitting on his doorstep in Porthaven."
"How did that come about?" asked Sophie as she snipped out another blue triangle.
"My mother died and my father got drowned in a storm," Michael said. "And nobody wants you when that happens. I had to leave our house because I couldn't pay rent, and I tried to live in the streets, but people kept turning me off doorsteps and out of boats until the only place I could think of to go was somewhere everyone was too scared of to interfere with. Howl had just started up in a small way as Sorcerer Jenkin then. But everyone said his house had devils in it, so I slept on his doorstep for a couple of nights until Howl opened the door one morning on his way to buy bread and I fell inside. So he said I could wait indoors while he got something to eat. I went in, and there was Calcifer, and I started talking to him because I'd never met a demon before."
"What did you talk about?" said Sophie, wondering if Calcifer had asked Michael to break his contract too.
"He told me his troubles and dripped on me. Didn't you?" said Calcifer. "It didn't seem to occur to him that I might have troubles as well."
"I don't think you have. You just grumble a lot," Michael said. "You were quite nice to me that morning, and I think Howl was impressed. But you know how he is. He didn't tell me I could stay. He just didn't tell me to go. So I started being useful wherever I could, like looking after money so that he didn't spend it all as soon as he'd got it, and so on." The spell gave a sort of whuff then and exploded mildly. Michael brushed soot off the skull, sighing, and tried new ingredients. Sophie began making a patchwork of blue triangles round her feet on the floor.
"I did make lots of stupid mistakes when I first started," Michael went on. "Howl was awfully nice about it. I thought I'd got over that now. And I think I do help with money. Howl buys such expensive clothes. He says no one's going to employ a wizard who looks as if he can't make money at the trade."
"That's just because he likes clothes," said Calcifer. His orange eyes watched Sophie at work rather meaningly.
"This suit was spoiled," Sophie said.
"It isn't just clothes," Michael said. "Remember last winter when we were down to your last log and Howl went off and bought the skull and that stupid guitar? I was really annoyed with him. He said they looked good."
"What did you do about logs?" Sophie asked.
"Howl conjured some from someone who owed him money," Michael said. "At least, he said they did, and I just hoped he was telling the truth. And we ate seaweed. Howl says it's good for you."
"Nice stuff," murmured Calcifer. "Dry and crackly."
"I hate it," said Michael, staring abstractedly at his bowl of pounded stuff. "I don't know—there should be seven ingredients, unless it's seven processes, but let's try it in a pentacle anyway." He put the bowl on the floor and chalked a sort of fivepointed star round it.
The powder exploded with a force that blew Sophie's triangles into the hearth. Michael swore and hurriedly rubbed out the chalk marks.
"Sophie," he said, "I'm stuck in this spell. You don't think you could possibly help me, do you?"
Just like someone bringing their homework to their granny, Sophie thought, collecting triangles and patiently laying them out again. "Let's have a look," she said cautiously. "I don't know anything about magic, you know."
Michael eagerly thrust a strange, slightly shiny paper into her hand. It looked unusual, even for a spell. It was printed in bold letters, but they were slightly gray and blurred, and there were gray blurs, like retreating stormclouds, round all the edges. "See what you think," said Michael.
"Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the Devil's foot.
Teach me to hear the mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
Decide what this is about
Write a second verse yourself"
It puzzled Sophie exceedingly. It was not quite like any of the spells she had snooped at before. She plowed through it twice, not really helped by Michael eagerly explaining as she tried to read. "You know Howl told me that advanced spells have a puzzle in them? Well, I decided at first that every line was meant to be a puzzle. I used soot with sparks in it for the falling star, and a seashell for the mermaids singing. And I thought I might count as a child, so I got a mandrake root down, and I wrote out lists of past years from the almanacs, but I wasn't sure about that-maybe that's where I went wrong-and could the thing that stops stinging be dock leaf? I hadn't thought of that before—anyway, none of it works!"
"I'm not surprised," said Sophie. "It looks to me like a set of impossible things to do."
But Michael was not having that. If the things were impossible, he pointed out reasonably, no one would ever be able to do the spell. "And," he added, "I'm so ashamed of spying on Howl that I want to make up for it by getting this spell right."
"Very well," said Sophie. "Let's start with 'Decide what this is about.' That ought to start things moving, if deciding is part of the spell anyway."
But Michael was not having that either. "No," he said. "It's the sort of spell that reveals itself as you do it. That's what the last line means. When you write the second half, saying what the spell means, that makes it work. Those kind are very advanced. We have to crack the first bit first."
Sophie collected her blue triangles into a pile again. "Let's ask 'Calcifer," she suggested. "Calcifer, who—?"
But this was yet another thing Michael did not let her do. "No, be quiet. I think Calcifer's part of the spell. Look at the way it says 'Tell me' and 'Teach me.' I thought at first it meant teach the skull, but that didn't work, so it must be Calcifer."
"You can do it by yourself, if you sit on everything I have to say!" Sophie said. "Anyway, surely Calcifer must know who cleft his own foot!"
Calcifer flared up a little at this. "I haven't got any feet. I'm a demon, not a devil." Saying which, he retreated right under his logs, where he could be heard chinking about, muttering, "Lot of nonsense!" all the rest of the time Sophie and Michael were discussing the spell. By this time the puzzle had got a grip on Sophie. She packed away her blue triangles, fetched pen and paper, and started making notes in the same sort of quantities that Michael had. For the rest of the day she and Michael sat staring into the distance, nibbling quills and throwing out suggestions at one another.
An average page of Sophie's notes read:
Does garlic keep off envy? I could cut a star out of paper and drop it. Could we tell it to Howl? Howl would like mermaids better than Calcifer. Do not think Howl's mind honest. Is Calcifer's? Where are past years anyway? Does it mean one of those dry roots must bear fruit? Plant it? Next to dock leaf? In seashell? Cloven hoof, most things but horses. Shoe a horse with a clove of garlic? Wind? Smell? Wind of sevenleague boots? Is Howl devil? Cloven toes in seven-league boots? Mermaids in boots?
As Sophie wrote this, Michael asked equally desperately, "Could the 'wind' be some sort of pulley? An honest man being hanged? That's black magic, though."
"Let's have supper," said Sophie.
They ate bread and cheese, still staring into distance. At last Sophie said, "Michael, for goodness' sake, let's give up guessing and try doing just what it says. Where's the best place to catch a shooting star? Out on the hills?"
"Porthaven Marshes are flatter," Michael said.
"Can we? Shooting stars go awfully fast."
"So can we, in seven-league boots," Sophie pointed out.
Michael sprang up, full of relief and delight. "I think you've got it!" he said, scrambling for the boots. "Let's go and try."
This time Sophie prudently took her stick and her shawl, since it was now quite dark. Michael was turning the doorknob blue-down when two strange things happened. On the bench the teeth of the skull started clattering. And Calcifer blazed right up the chimney. "I don't want you to go!" he said.
"We'll be back soon," Michael said soothingly.
They went out into the street in Porthaven. It was a bright, balmy night. As soon as they had reached the end of the street, however, Michael remembered that Sophie had been ill that morning and began worrying about the effect of the night air on her health. Sophie told him not to be silly. She stumped gamely along with her stick until they left the lighted windows behind and the night became wide and damp and chilly. The marshes smelled of salt and earth. The sea glittered and softly swished to the rear. Sophie could feel, more than see, the miles and miles of flatness stretching away in front of them. What she could see were bands of low bluish mist and pale glimmers of marshy pools, over and over again, until they built into a pale line where the sky started. The sky was everywhere else, huger still.
The Milky Way looked like a band of mist risen from the marshes, and the keen stars twinkled through it.
Michael and Sophie stood, each with a boot ready on the ground in front of them, waiting for one of the stars to move.
After about an hour Sophie had to pretend she was not shivering, for fear of worrying Michael.
Half an hour later Michael said, "May is not the right time of year. August or November is best."
Half an hour after that, he said in a worried way, "What do we do about the mandrake root?"
"Let's see to this part before we worry about that," Sophie said, biting her teeth together while she spoke, for fear they would chatter.
Some time later Michael said, "You go home, Sophie. It's my spell, after all."
Sophie had her mouth open to say that this was a very good idea, when one of the stars came unstuck from the firmament and darted in a white streak down the sky. "There's one!" Sophie shrieked instead.
Michael thumped his foot into his boot and was off. Sophie braced herself with her stick and was off a second later. Zip! Squash. Down far out in the marshes with mist and emptiness and dull-glimmering pools in all directions. Sophie stabbed her stick into the ground and managed to stand still. Michael's boot was a dark blot standing just beside her. Michael himself was a sploshy sound of madly running feet somewhere ahead.
And there was the falling star. Sophie could see it, a little white descending flame shape a few yards beyond the dark movements that ere Michael. The bright shape was coming down slowly now, and it looked as if Michael might catch it.
Sophie dragged her shoe out of the boot. "Come on, stick!" she crowed. "Get me there!" And she set off at top hobble, leaping across tussocks and staggering through pools, with her eyes on that little white light.
By the time she caught up, Michael was stalking the star with soft steps, both arms out to catch it. Sophie could see him outlined against the star's light. The star was drifting level with Michael' s hands and only a step or so beyond. It was looking back at him nervously. How odd! Sophie thought. It was made of light, it lit up a white ring of grass and reeds and black pools round Michael, and yet it had big, anxious eyes peering backward at Michael, and a small, pointed face.
Sophie's arrival frightened it. It gave an erratic swoop and cried out in a shrill, crackling voice, "What is it? What do you want?"
Sophie tried to say to Michael, Do stop—it's terrified! But she had no breath left to speak with.
"I only want to catch you," Michael explained. "I won't hurt you."
"No! No!" the star crackled desperately. "That's wrong! I'm supposed to die!"
"But I could save you if you'd let me catch you," Michael told it gently.
"No!" cried the star. "I'd rather die!" It dived away from Michael's fingers. Michael plunged for it, but it was too quick for him. It swooped for the nearest marsh pool, and the black water leaped into a blaze of whiteness for just an instant. Then there was a small, dying sizzle. When Sophie hobbled over, Michael was standing watching the last light fade out of a little round lump under the dark water.
"That was sad," Sophie said.
Michael sighed. "Yes. My heart sort of went out to it. Let's go home. I'm sick of this spell."
It took them twenty minutes to find the boots. Sophie thought it was a miracle they found them at all.
"You know," Michael said, as they trudged dejectedly through the dark streets of Porthaven, "I can tell I'll never be able to do this spell. It's too advanced for me. I shall have to ask Howl. I hate giving in, but at least I'll get some sense out of Howl now this Lettie Hatter's given in to him."
This did not cheer Sophie up at all.