Swedish Book Review is not responsible for the content of external websites.
   
   
   
 
from Shadows in the Mirror
Inger Edelfeldt

Translated and introduced by Sarah Death.

This article appeared in the 2004:2 issue.

As well as writing novels, short stories and comic strips for adult readers and picture books (illustrated by herself) for young children, Inger Edelfeldt has long been a producer of interesting work for the age group in between. She began at the age of sixteen with a fable of good and evil, later reworked and published as Missne och Robin (Missne and Robin, 1980). But her fiction for young adult readers can also be enjoyed by their parents, while teenagers can readily identify with the many of the relationships and feelings she tackles in her well-crafted short stories for adults, for example those in I fiskens mage (In the Belly of the Fish, 1984) and Rit (Rite, 1991). She is, in fact, a seasoned practitioner of the currently fashionable ‘crossover’ genre.

Inger Edelfeldt’s writing has always displayed a wicked sense of humour and proved itself enormously adaptable to a wide variety of styles. This is evident in the first-person narrative of teenage angst and escape into parallel worlds that is her latest book for young adults, Skuggorna i spegeln (The Shadows in the Mirror). It is an unsettling story juxtaposing teenage life today with seductive, romantic tales of a race of philanthropic vampires. The intriguing chapter headings range from the descriptive (The Messenger between the Dimensions) via the wacky (Anything at All or Ginger Snaps at the Sci-Fi Bookshop) to the downright whimsical (How I Become a Bear of Very Little Brain with Tinsel in my Hair, and it All Ends in Disaster).

The not-wholly-unautobiographical central character Arri is experiencing all the usual teenage problems: catty friends and sisters, raging hormones, unrequited love and resentment of one’s parents – hers are arty, literary types who named her after Arwen in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When strange things, real or imagined, start to happen in the mirror in her bedroom, she yields with a frisson of delight to the temptation to step out of her own depressing world. Will she choose to stay there or ultimately return home?

Inger Edelfeldt appeared at the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2003 in a joint event with English children’s writer Mary Hoffman, whose trilogy-in-progress Stravaganza is currently taking the bookshops by storm. It, too, features young people of today escaping from their own trials through strange chinks in time to a thrilling, older world with a different set of problems – in Hoffman’s case to an Italy-like place, centuries ago. There is currently a real vogue for stories in this mould; the prime example is Philip Pullman’s bestselling His Dark Materials but there are many others, including Susan Price’s rich and chilling The Sterkarm Handshake, with its time tunnel back to the Viking-legacy lawlessness of the Scottish borders. Edelfeldt takes a quieter, more psychologically aware approach and really gets under the skin of her teenage protagonist. The extracts below are chapters 1, 3 and 6 of the book.

CHAPTER 1

DIVERSE MEMORIES OF DOOMSDAY AND OTHER THINGS

What made me want to tell the story of all the very peculiar things that happened to me last autumn and winter was seeing you on the underground a few days ago.

First I just found myself studying you without really understanding why. Then suddenly I knew what made me want to stare at you. Something about you gave me a start of recognition, though I knew we’d never met before. I realized what it was: I felt that in you I was seeing – myself! It was a bit scary. And all the more so because you looked mega-depressed.

It would have been really embarrassing to do anything to make contact with you, of course. Instead, I tried not to stare. But once I’d got off the train, I wished I’d said something to you. Nothing cheery. Nothing conventional. No, I wished I’d told you all about what had been happening to me; about something so extraordinary that you probably wouldn’t have believed it was true. But things can be true in lots of different ways.

It all really is a mystery to me. Take the fact that I’m sitting here in my room, writing this. Didn’t what happened change me any more than that? I’m still human. And yet I know how I could become something else. But I’m still here. I’m sitting here in my so-called girlie bedroom (a label which doesn’t fit at all, so why am I using it?).

I’ve noticed a few little things about myself which are new, like how I need less sleep now. And that's a good thing, because it means I’ve got time to write this on top of all my annoying school work and the whole daily grind that seems to be the human lot.

So I’m not having any particular problems with daylight. The only difference between me now and the person I was six months ago is my experience (which nobody would believe!). But all the same, everything’s changed.

This must all seem very vague. Maybe I should start with something extremely concrete instead. I’ll describe this room where I’m sitting. My “Stronghold”, as The Mummy (my esteemed mother, who has no idea what sort of creature she’s nourished at her bosom) likes to put it.

It’s not hard to work out that I’m sitting at the computer just now. In fact I could equally well be writing by hand, and so I do on special, very private occasions (when I write in various shades of coloured ink on coloured paper which I keep locked away in a special casket) or when I’m working on yet another of those blessed “projects” that are so central to the anthroposophical teaching methods used for the improvement of the pupils at the exclusive and soul-nurturing school I go to.

I actually think it’s more fun using the computer for other things. I get quite carried away with the illustration and graphics programmes, where I can indulge my fancies in great detail.

In the room there’s an Ikea bed, almost always unmade. Beside it a stunted and antique chest of drawers that serves as a bedside table. On the walls there are printouts of photos I took myself and enhanced on the computer. Some of them have a rather foreboding look; I like way-out colour schemes. For example there are a few landscapes with stormy skies and a self-portrait of me as an Egyptian Pharaoh. Next to my own photos I used to have pictures from old horror films, but I’ve taken those down because they’re childish and misleading.

There’s also a table with an arrangement I refer to as “The Scenery”. It’s been there since I was about twelve, though I’ve refined it a lot since then. “The Scenery” consists of an artificial nature scene – bushes, flowers, trees and rocky outcrops made of various materials – populated by strange little animals, plus elves, gnomes and other supernatural creatures which I modelled out of clay and made costumes for.

From this you might gather I’m the handywoman type, hardly the sort to dream of a motorbike. A proper little brownie. Made up like an Egyptian death mask. Well, perhaps I’m not that easy to describe. Or understand? For I am no oooordinary seventeen-year-old (or am I?).

What else is there in the room? A bookcase with all sorts of books, from Astrid Lindgren’s Mio My Mio to Ann Rice’s vampire books (shouldn’t I get rid of those?) and other fantasy literature I used to read when I was younger. Collected Works of Shakespeare. Parsifal, which we were forced to read at school. And a few ancient, mouldy books with equally mouldy content which I bought at a jumble sale for their ornately decorated covers. An inglorious mixture. Oh, and there are also quite a few withdrawn library books by more or less well known authors (Dad’s a Librarian, in the Grown-Ups’ section).

Rag rug, woven by the frenetic Mummy, on the floor. Lots of clothes everywhere (I love clothes, preferably black and especially velvet. Also unusual jewellery, scarves and other accessories. Sometimes I dress in fantasy or medieval costumes, though not so often these days).

Last but not least: on the wall hangs a Mirror. There’s nothing unusual about it, or rather, it doesn’t look as if there’s anything unusual about it. An ordinary Ikea mirror.

There were times over the winter when I took it down and turned it to the wall.

But before I get onto the subject of mirrors it might be an idea to tell you why I was feeling so very low at the start of the autumn.

Well, I’ve never exactly been a bundle of laughs. In actual fact I tend to think excessively happy people are a bit stupid, which may of course be a misconception.

Anyhow, I was lying there on the bed in my room, in my own bubble, with the headphones on (Lisa Gerrard, Lisa Gerrard!!!) and trying to ignore the fact that it was the first day of the autumn term, which was hard to forget because The Mummy was standing there hammering so loudly on the locked door that I could hear her through the music, not feeling remotely like any kind of übermensch.

“Arri, you can’t be late the first day!” sounded the trumpet of doom. In her defence I should say that she hadn’t the slightest idea why I would have preferred to suffer the most painful of martyrdoms rather than go to school. She didn’t know that I’d been excommunicated; that I risked being put in the stocks, made to wear a dunce’s cap and ride backwards on a donkey, or at least being exposed to such vile slander that any firm and tangible punishment of that kind would have been preferable.

Of course she’d noticed that my so-called friend Maira (yes, that’s how she spells it) and I hadn’t been in touch for a while, but she probably thought it wasn’t anything serious. A little girlie quarrel in the girlie room!

The last thing Maira had said to me was that she was going to do everything she possibly could to make other people realise I had some serious problem in the head. “I shall DEGRADE you,” was how she had put it.

How the degrading would be carried out I didn’t exactly know, but I could guess: 1. Give away all our embarrassing secrets. 2. Tell people what happened in Visby, but in a way that made yours truly seem the deserter. 3. Get friendly with all the people she knew already despised me. 4. Make me out to be a coward and sick and weird. Maybe even show people that really stupid photo I took of my own bust to prove that any breasts can look gigantic with the right lighting, without any tinkering on the computer ... or that picture of myself with a moustache that I did by digital enhancement, and definitely without any unhealthy intentions ... why did I give her those prints? Moral: never think that “your best friend” will stay “your best friend”.

Phalandra and Sinistra, that’s what we called ourselves when we were together. Our parents called us the Terrible Two when we were younger.

Arri and little Maira that was really spelt “Myra” (perhaps it was our strange names that brought us together?) Myra who was once the smallest in the class and was now apparently tying to be one of the coolest; so now she’d excommunicated me.

I tried hard not to think about it as I dragged myself to school. I told myself severely that it wasn’t really the least bit important; she’d only ever been a pale and embarrassing imitation of my own radiant, interesting self - in actual fact I needed no friends apart from my own highly developed talents and imagination, etc, etc.

Radiantly talented and imaginative, I shuffled on up the hill past the kindergarten and the after-school centre, with an urgent sense of needing to change school. But The Mummy always said it was out of the question, because in other schools the Ethos was far too hard.

So cheerily singing inside, hey ho, hey ho, I walked up towards the little pastel-coloured buildings and the greyish-white main block.

But as soon as I caught sight of Maira, who was standing with her back to me (had she already spotted me?) along with a few others in the playground, I immediately felt totally frozen, much like a little kid who's been dragged unwillingly along on a ski trip and got behind and started wondering whether anyone would notice if she stayed trapped in a snowdrift while the others shared out the sandwiches and hot chocolate.

I didn’t have any close contact with the others in my class, you see. The reason was that I’d increasingly slipped into the persistent and apparently regrettable feeling that they had nothing to offer me. Maira, on the other hand, had spent the whole of the previous term deliberately putting out tentacles in all directions, almost as if she’d already started planning to break off with me.

Before I tell you more about our interesting school and suchlike it might in fact be a good idea for me to give you an account of everything leading up to her threat to degrade me.

CHAPTER 3

THE AGE OF MIRACLES MAY NOT BE PAST

That feeling of being the snotty little kid forced to go on the ski trip wouldn’t go away. I sat there in the classroom on that first day back at school with the sensation of being in an awful, never-ending nightmare. I have this tendency to stop breathing whenever I really don’t want to be somewhere. I don’t realize I’m doing it until I almost pass out. That’s how bad it was: I had to force myself to breathe, so the classroom wouldn’t start spinning and I wouldn’t attract unnecessary attention to myself by falling off my chair.

We had a new form teacher. The old one, who I’d liked, had gone on maternity leave. The new one had a register and on it I was down as ARWEN Björklund. I don’t know what to do about that name of mine. Now at least everyone knows what it is. It was worse when they called me No-Win. Bargain, Marvin, you name it. No-Win Snootlund.

I managed, despite my miserable state, to point out that I was usually called Arri, but she just twittered on about how pretty it was and how much she liked the books my namesake features in (yes, and now I’m even available as a plastic model).

I caught Maira’s look of Undisguised Contempt and at break I couldn’t stop myself, in spite of all my resolutions, from texting: “Cn we tlk 2 each other n e way?”

She texted back: “Shivabi.”

I knew what that meant. Once she was going to text this boy she was really furious with and she wrote in what she thought of him, but the word didn’t exist in the mobile’s polite little pea-brained vocabulary so it came out as “Shivabi!” instead.

“Shitbag,” it meant. I never thought it would be used on me.

To make matters worse, everyone felt they had to come up and ask: “Have you and Maira fallen ou-ut?”

What was more, our first project that term was going to be on spheroid geometry, hardly a subject to make me jump for joy.

No-Win Shivabi did the only sensible thing: concentrated hard on getting a migraine and went home straight after lunch.

The snotty little kid went down the hill and happened to glance into the yard of our after-school centre. And that was When It Happened. I saw ... well, what should I call him? Words are so inadequate, there are some things you just can’t describe. Not that it’s impossible to describe what he looked like: a slim figure in black, a naturally pale skin. Dark eyes, thin black eyebrows (well, they weren’t natural, it’s true). I think he had a black velvet shirt. His hair was black too, long and straight. It was blowing in the wind. He had silver earrings and something silver round his neck too (I found out later what it was.) And I don't know why, but as I went by, presumably with “suicidal” written across my forehead, he smiled, and it was the most miraculous, personal smile I’d ever seen. As if he knew something about me, immediately. Saw something nobody else had discovered.

And then I was past the yard. He hadn’t said a thing.

I felt like turning round and going back, but of course I couldn’t. I didn’t even dare look over my shoulder. Don’t know what I was scared of – falling apart, maybe. But I still had his image in my mind’s eye. I laid it there as if in a treasure chest covered in precious stones, I framed it there as if with beautiful wood, I placed it there as if on an altar and burnt costly incense at its foot. And I wrote on red paper in gold pen:

HE WHO HAS BEEN SENT

How long did it last? The miracle: his smile at me. As if he really was seeing me, seeing right into the depths of my soul. Touching it. A magical contract that opened any lock.

Who is he? Was he sent to save me? Because some Power, somewhere, wanted me to know: life doesn’t need to be like an enforced skiing trip. There are other dimensions.

He truly stood there like someone out of one of my dreams.

So that first day at school I danced down the hill that I had dragged myself up. And danced all the way home to my worried mother who was sitting sighing over her work, translating a book about snakes.

And she said: “What’s the matter?”

And I said: “I’ve got a migraine,” and shut myself in my room with Lisa Gerrard and she hammered on the door and said: “You haven’t got a migraine at all, or you wouldn’t be listening to music!”

So I took a deep breath and let her in, against my better judgement.

“What’s the matter?” she said. And she studied me for a while and said: “This is very odd, but I think you actually look happy. Happier than for a long time.”

Well, that was perceptive. Some embarrassing wave of emotion nearly made me cry. But I really didn’t feel like letting her in on the secret; it was too enormous.

I did promise, though, without the slightest difficulty, to go to school the day after and all the other days.

It was just that he – alas! – didn’t look at me the day after. Didn’t smile at me. Stood talking, very intimate and engrossed, to a prim-looking girl called Amanda from the year above me. What’s more, I realized I’d seen him before; the way he looked had just changed over the summer. I found him in the previous year’s catalogue of school photos: cute, certainly, but not exotic in the least. He was a completely different person now. Only his name was the same: he was called Oscar Axelsson.

And though I knew I should probably try to forget him completely, I nevertheless added to the red sheet of paper:

Although I’ve never spoken to him, it’s as if we know each other. As if I could take his hand and go with him into the deepest depths.

As if I could initiate him into everything I think and feel. The bright, light side and the cruel side. All the different spaces and ages. The magic gardens, the underworld kingdoms. Everything that can find room in an ancient soul.

At the same time, it was extremely difficult to disregard that Amanda. The fact was, I saw him with her so often over the following days that I quickly plummeted into total, pitch-black depression.

And it must have been on just one of those first days and nights of hopelessness that I woke up in the middle of the night with a distinct feeling of being watched. The darkness seemed to me somehow charged, as if something was seeking me out. From my bed I looked out across the room and for some reason I felt afraid of the mirror, because it seemed to me to be shimmering in the dark in a peculiar new way, as if it was a sort of screen waiting for a programme to start. What kind of programme, I thought, and felt sudden terror run through me. Close to panic, I switched on the light, and when the alarm clock woke me up it was still on.

And I had thought I could never be scared of the dark again.

CHAPTER 6

THE SHADOWS IN THE MIRROR

When I got home, the flat was empty. There was a note on the kitchen table: “Heat up stew from fridge!”

Bean stew? No, it turned my stomach. I helped myself to some fruit and yoghurt, then went into my room.

I haven’t mentioned that there was something I’d noticed, and been a bit scared by, when I was at home ill in bed. It was my mirror again. I’d had the impression of some kind of new optical phenomenon there. Shifting shades of light, a glimmer, exactly like that night when I woke up and felt afraid. But it had been so indistinct that I’d been able to dismiss it as imagination or paranoia. But now it was suddenly more obvious. It was as though strange little shadows were flickering forward and disappearing behind the glass. Rather as if there was something else behind the reflection, occasionally breaking through, shifting like the play of light and shade on a virtually calm stretch of water. It quickly disappeared, and it was only vague, like something you might see out of the corner of your eye. It frightened me, but in broad daylight we’re a lot more rational than when we wake up in the middle of the night. Maybe it frightened me so much that I had to be rational. It could be some symptom of the virus, I told myself. Once when I had flu, I felt for a long time afterwards as if I was looking at things cross-eyed and my sense of right and left had somehow got confused. It wore off. I just needed rest. I'm sure there was nothing wrong with my eyes, or my (highly developed and imaginative) brain for that matter. Or so I told myself.

I put on “The Mirror Pool” and lay down on the bed.

I really did feel strange. I wanted to be enveloped, cradled by the music. But I couldn’t relax. And I felt thirsty.

But to get out into the kitchen I would have to pass the mirror. I could look the other way, of course.

I lay there as if paralysed. The music had grown sultry and ominous.

So I thought: what if these aren’t symptoms of convalescence at all? What if there really is something... I mean Something Else? Which wants to make contact specifically with me ... which has been sending me signs for a while now ... that phrase “stepping through” and the feeling I had had of being watched.

“Why should I be scared of that?” I tried asking myself.

“Perhaps it wants me for something important?”

If Something came to me and offered me a different reality – wouldn’t that be an offer to welcome with open arms?

After all, isn’t fear just something human, something you can set aside, pass through? Step through ...

I felt shivers going through me; running all over my skin, as if every fine hair was prickling. I remembered what I’d read and heard about transformations, people leaving their bodies ...

And suddenly I was aware of a presence, something wanting me. The music urged me on, groping into the depths of my soul ...

To this day I’ve no idea how I dared, but I got up ... I walked towards the mirror, and with every step I took I felt that strange sensation on my skin, like a touch or the feel of a light breeze.

And then I was there in front of it. From its glass, the usual seventeen-year-old reflection looked back at me. In spite of the Egyptian-style eye make-up, the blackest of hair and the blood-red mouth, she looked childlike. It almost made you want to cry. Suddenly I had a vivid, unexpected recollection of something completely different: warm sand on the beach, Dad pouring warm sand over my little, little body. Warm sun, warm sea. It was a long, long time ago. Nowadays I was always frozen. You can never become a little child again. Pathetic. I saw the eyes in the mirror growing big and bright and imploring like in the famous Crying Child. I was filled with self-pity and the magical charge vanished.

It felt totally pointless standing there staring at the mirror.

“I’ll turn off the music and go for a walk,” I thought. But just as I was about to move away from the glass, I saw one of those little shadow fragments again. And that wasn’t all: I saw, shivering and astonished, a transformation of my mirror image. It wasn’t my imagination. Another figure kind of shone through my features, through my body, like a double exposure photograph. I could make out a pale face, lit from the side by a silvery gleam, with eyes as dark and gleaming as gemstones, a mocking smile, an old-fashioned black bodice, tight-laced to lift the breasts. Hair fixed up in an intricate pearl-studded arrangement with individual locks hanging down.

My first reaction was undeniably terror. But my gaze was riveted to the glass. She came and went like reflections on the surface of water.

“Touch the glass,” I heard all at once, like a whisper in the music; and I knew that those words weren't usually there.

I lifted my hand as if in a trance and touched the hand that was raised in the mirror. It was like touching something electric: my fingers were stuck to the glass and a surging sensation went through me, almost like fainting. For a moment I found myself in a horrific state I could hardly bear: a Nothingness, a blindness of all my senses, where it felt as if my soul had left all reality and was in complete exile – the material world refused to take it in, and there was no other refuge. It was like finding myself at the centre of a silent scream with no end. Then, with one convulsive spasm, I had a body again, consciousness, but no sight; I heard a rumble, a loud noise, a pounding, and I felt myself overcome by a kind of inertia. Then I realized the pounding was coming from my own heart. I had somehow managed to sit down on a chair, because I was aware of the seat under me.

Then my sight came back, but it wasn’t like before. I could see my room, and everything seemed to be shimmering in a light that made each detail stand out vividly, although the light wasn’t bright or dazzling. I realized it was my eyes that had changed. At that moment I looked down at my hands. White and shimmering, they rested on a skirt of black silk, and above them was the black bodice I had glimpsed before. It lifted the two perfect white fruits that my breasts had become.

I had to get up and go to the mirror!

But there was no longer a reflection in its glass, it was like a window pane, and – there was another figure standing there, watching me! It was a man, pale and with the same gemstone eyes without whites that I had already glimpsed in my own new mirror image.

His brown hair was long, thick and matte, almost like a lion’s mane with a suggestion of something a bit like dreadlocks, and his hairline came down to a point on his forehead.

He raised his hand and I thought at first it was to reassure me. But then I saw his hand come easily through the glass, as if it was the surface of some liquid turned on its side. He stepped out from the mirror as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and stood there in front of me.

“Don’t be frightened,” he said.

And I wasn’t; I was already too surprised and confused to react with any astonishment to the next stage of the strange dream. What was more, there was something essentially and instantly spellbinding about him.

“This doesn’t usually happen,” he went on, and added: “I am speaking the right tongue, I trust?”

“Exactly right,” I replied.

“Excellent.” He brushed down his black clothes: the frilled shirt, the silk waistcoat and the well-tailored breeches. In spite of its slightly animal features (the high cheekbones, the wide brow and something about the curve of the lips) his face had a polite, attentive expression with something rather old-fashioned about it.

“I am convinced there must be a reason for this,” he went on. “In Eidolon, things do not happen for no reason.”

“In Eidolon?”

“So the name is completely unfamiliar?” His eyes examined me.

“As far as I can recall,” I replied diplomatically.

“That certainly is remarkable,” he said with emphasis. “Or let us say, confusing. To enter the room of a human being who is fully awake and find her half transformed.” He studied me further.

“Have you a reflection?” he asked cautiously.

I looked towards the mirror he had just come through, but it was still as transparent as a window and looked out onto what seemed to be simply a stone wall. So I opened a drawer instead and got out a little hand mirror, nearly dropping it in my eagerness.

And yes, I had a reflection, though it was unsteady and rather translucent. But the image of the seventeen-year-old had gone completely and in her place I could dimly make out the pale, dark-eyed female figure I had first been aware of in the mirror. Straight through the reflection I could clearly see the table and the curtain behind my back, and once more the room started to spin.

“Calm yourself,” he said. “Sit down while I take a little time to reflect.”

A thought struck me and I surreptitiously ran my tongue along my teeth, but found nothing alarming.

As he walked around my room, presumably contemplating both the situation and the things I surrounded myself with, I had a chance to observe him. His way of moving was fascinating, supple and appropriate in every last little detail, like an animal in its natural environment. He had said he was confused, but his look as he studied my habitat was one of amusement, curiosity, almost happiness. He didn’t laugh, but often smiled in a restrained sort of way, for example at my pictures from horror films and my own computer-manipulated printouts of various scenes. He actually seemed to be enjoying himself.

I could see now that the costly black clothes were worn and threadbare with age.

But most of all I was surprised at my own composure and the fact that his presence gave me such pleasure. Shouldn’t I be afraid of him, on my guard? Was he not what I thought he was? Or was it my own transformation that made me so relaxed with him there – as if I was his sister, or at least half-sister.

“It is quite right that you have nothing to fear from me,” he said suddenly. “Our task, as I say, will instead be to discover the reason for this meeting.” He held out his hand with a look that was almost mischievous. “But we have forgotten to introduce ourselves! You may call me Leonidas, it is one of my names.”

“Phalandra,” I heard my (hmm, my?) lips say, and noted that his hand was cool but not at all unpleasant to the touch, and that the physical contact sent a slight thrill of excitement though my skin.

“Pleased to meet you,” he replied. “I believe the best thing would be for you simply to come with me – to my side, so to speak.” He didn’t let go of my hand. “To Eidolon, I mean.” And he led me over to the mirror. “After you, my fair one.”

My passage through the glass was wholly undramatic, like stepping through a draught of wind. We came out in a chamber with stone walls, sparsely furnished. I turned straight round and just had time to catch a glimpse of my room on the other side of the glass before the surface of the mirror darkened. Leonidas drew a velvet drapery across the mirror in one natural and practised movement, as routine as the shutting of a door.

“I am fortunate enough to have a chamber for my sole use,” he explained, “a privilege granted to ... the most aged of us.”

It was on the tip of my tongue to say he looked young, but I realized how extremely naïve and human such a comment would seem.

“But it is true,” he replied. “I am well preserved. And yet we have no plastic surgery here.”

I was beginning to get used to the way he seemed to be able to read my thoughts.

“You’re very familiar with the world of human beings,” I said.

“We know everything about it,” he answered. “Naturally we do. But I would go so far as to say that when it comes to ours, your people are constantly guessing and imagining. You become aware of fragments and then you make up stories.” He went across to a beautifully carved little oak table, on which there were a carafe containing a red liquid and some exquisite crystal glasses. “Would you like something to drink?”

He noted my hesitation.

“It is wine,” he told me. “The spiced wine of Eidolon, the nectar of Eidolon. ‘We are civilized,’ as your people like to say.” He poured the dark red liquid into two glasses. “Use your nose if you doubt my words.”

I found the courage to go to him and carefully sniffed the liquid, which had a delicious, intensely spicy smell, like some sort of exotic mulled wine. He watched me. I couldn’t resist taking a sip. An indescribably wonderful taste and a tingling heat suffused me at once.

“The years,” said Leonidas, “have helped us to develop a knowledge of herbs and extracts which the dear old Egyptians, for all their expertise, could only dream of. How do you feel?”

Stimulated by the wine, I really felt like smiling and dancing. But once more I ran my tongue as discreetly as I could along my front teeth. “Fine,” I said.

“Do not worry,” he said. “You are not ... what I am. It has never been as simple as that.”

And just then I felt – maybe because of the wine? – a wave of longing for what he had, for what his existence meant: being able to cast off human life, which had always seemed to consist of so much pain and so many insurmountable obstacles, and enter an state of being with, how shall I put it, other opportunities.

“You do not know what you are wishing for!” he said, suddenly stern. “And how would you use it?”

I couldn’t stop an image of myself and my black-haired beloved, united for eternity, forming in my thoughts.

He read them at once. “So that is how you would act, without knowledge, without the slightest knowledge of my world? Without reflection?” he reached out a hand for my glass and took it from me. “You are a mere child! But let us waste no more time; as a member of the Council I can and must call the other Council Elders to a meeting about your purpose!”

That punctured my warm, pleasant feeling. I wished I could sink though the floor. A mere child! Your purpose! To hide my reaction, I took a few steps over towards the window and peered out through the slit between the shutters. We were clearly high up; outside I could see a terrace overlooking over a garden, silvery and still in the moonlight and, far beyond it, mountainsides dotted with trees, these too lit by the moon.

Leonidas touched my shoulder. “You can return at once to your old world, if you so wish.”

No, I didn’t want that. I plucked up my courage again and followed him through winding corridors that seemed unlit, yet still I could see everything in a bluish gleam with my new eyes. From time to time we passed other figures in old-fashioned clothes. They greeted us politely and their manner was not the least threatening, more one of surprise. I guessed that Leonidas’ authority was above question: if I, an outsider, was walking along beside him, then in their eyes there must be some valid reason for it.