Samuel Crewe was the son of a witch. He was, in fact, the seventh son of a witch, who had herself been one of seven daughters. In fairy tales, this sort of lineage was meant to point to great strength, good fortune, and adventures. In fact, however, it was inconvenient being the smallest child in any large, unwealthy family. To be the son of a witch was worse, setting one up for a life of mistrust, and to be the son of such a witch as Samuel’s mother was a tragic start in life. She died before he turned six: burned in Madagascar Gardens, a municipal execution, for a bit of necromancy that had turned unpleasant. Samuel remembered the garden air’s taste and texture—eau de almond blossoms and slightly oily, with a heavy sun-gloss and a dark, crisp burnt-hair scent—and the scraped-up sound of his mother screaming. It was the clearest memory that he had of his mother. He didn’t even know if she’d been light-haired or dark; she had left him with no photographs.
His eldest brother, too, had been burned at the stake. Samuel was not present for that. Benjamin—his brother—had been fanciful, reckless. He had never limited himself to legal magic, but instead upstaged himself with each new show of senseless defiance: turning a double-decker bus into a vast birdcage, and its travellers into larks and kites. He had intended, so he said, to turn them back, but had later become disinterested in the matter. He used dark witchcraft to summon a demon that he called Salamanca, which, in the shape of a large housecat, haunted the wealthy neighbourhood of West South Persia for seven weeks. When it was caught at last and banished by municipal enchanters, Salamanca proved to have in its possession twenty-three marbles, each made of a very pure hard glass. These were the small happinesses it had stolen from their owners: the sharp white delight of snow’s harbinger scent, the ability to taste raspberry jam, a favourite word (“fanfare,” perhaps, or “phosphorescence”) now plucked out of the language, so that the person in question could not quite recall it. Though Salamanca was sent back to the hell-country whence it had come, the happinesses remained glass, and could not be wholly returned to their owners. More than any of his other crimes, Benjamin Crewe was burned for that.
Samuel could not argue with the sentence. Nor could he argue with that of his brother Jacoby, who was sent into exile. Jacoby was no demon-summoner. He hadn’t Benjamin’s taste for flamboyance. For years, the family had not thought he had more than a hint of witchcraft to him. This was not uncommon, even in families where witching ran strongly on one or both sides of the bloodline. Magic came to him at last when he was well out of adolescence, already a young man. He was at university, reading classics. He’d always been a bit of a bookish type; he planned to be a lecturer in Latin. Then: Samuel was unclear on the exact nature of what happened. He knew only that Jacoby in some fashion summoned up, by accident, a Greco-Roman god. A girl was killed—some argued that Jacoby’d killed her, though Samuel did not believe that—and there was other damage. Queasy rumours mounted of blood-soaked clothes, appalling photographs. The court ruled Jacoby incompetent for trial, and he was promptly exiled to France.
After the case, Tam—Samuel’s third-from-eldest brother—said, “Bloody incompetent, all right. Better off out of it. Not fit for witchcraft.” And that was that: not a postcard or a letter, no presents at Christmas. Samuel, twelve at the time, felt rather lonely. He had loved Jacoby. He kept a little statuette that Jacoby had left him: a Greco-Roman god of magic, a minor god with bird’s wings in place of hands. As a teenager, he slept with it on his nightstand, and sometimes, on sleepless nights, he planned to pack up his clothes, slip from the house, and flee the city. He would buy a ticket, he imagined, for a southbound train from Buried Saint Station, then at the coast he’d stow away aboard a ship for France. He liked to think of reaching Le Havre on some rainy morning—the new damp smell of France making him elated, his back turned forever on the white cliffs of England, the clump of earth that housed his family’s remnants. Then his brother Tam died, and the family sank once more into mourning. Samuel set aside his dreams of France.
Tam had broken every bone in his body in a long fall; it was a particularly gruesome death. He’d been travelling in the form of a bird over the moors of Yewshire at the time, a common kind of enchantment. No one knew why the magic had misfired and he’d fallen. Perhaps a hawk or falcon had savaged him, and in his panic he’d forgotten how to stay a bird. He hadn’t been a very careful witch. Perhaps, though, people outside the family said, the Crewes were simply cursed, and that was all there was to it. Just think: There was the mother, and now these brothers, one of them exiled, two of them dead.
Nor was that the end, for, two months later, Samuel’s fourth-eldest brother, Ned, killed himself with an heirloom duelling pistol. The pain in my heart has gone to my head, he wrote in the brief note they found pinned to his body. He had a twin brother, Seb, who packed up all of their shared possessions soon afterwards and emigrated. He wrote letters from America, where he eventually settled. In America, he wrote, they have no ghosts. In America, the dead stay dead. It was true that in England the dead sometimes came back. Samuel saw the ghost of Ned at the top of the staircase at least twice a week. Ned carried a black flower, but there was no blood on him. He did not speak, but sometimes he touched Samuel in passing: fondly, with affection. His touch was like a chip of ice lodged at the roof of your mouth. It made Samuel shudder. He found it unpleasant.
Patchett was the name of his last remaining brother, the last who lived in England. At twenty-one years old, Patchett was plump and nervous. He did not look much like Samuel, who was thin, and who had a concentrated, serious look that disquieted people around him. Patchett taught the history of magic at a local comprehensive. He was not a witch—or not a practising one; witchcraft, he said, was not something that he did. Samuel never asked if, in fact, he could do it. The topic made Patchett terribly skittish. Besides, Samuel—by now fifteen, and disdainful—found he was not particularly interested. He did not like Patchett, did not value his opinions. He thought of Tam saying, “Not fit.” It had not been true of Jacoby, who was gentle. It was true of Patchett.
The two of them lived still in the same large, empty house with their father, Owan—a small and crumpled, silent man: a recluse, not a witch. He had once been a bit of a firebrand, with his fox-coloured hair and his slim, handsome profile. A daring fellow, a journalist, a social crusader—that was what he had been. Now he rarely left the study, and Samuel trespassed upon his domain only to ask occasionally for money. He associated his father with doors shut fast, with grim pools of light on the floor of the study, dust on the shutters, someone sighing.
He was a lonely boy, Samuel. His schoolmates shunned him. They knew that he was the son of a witch, and that tragedy had somehow, indefinably, deformed him. This was like having a contagious illness. It left its mark as clearly as pocks or scars, so clearly that Samuel sometimes looked for it—scanning in the mirror for this visible sign, for where stitches stamped the torn-open part of him. He did not see it. Still he imagined the eyes of others picking it out on his skin. He took to wearing a baggy coat, one of Jacoby’s belongings. The sleeves of it sagged over his wrists. It smelt like Jacoby, austere and slightly Roman, dark and musty, an aroma of cedar and mint.
He practiced witchcraft in the evening hours, when school was done and the outside world ceased to exist. Alone in his bedroom, he paged through texts that had belonged to his mother. He’d learnt he was a witch at the age of fourteen, when birds began following him homewards and he found that he could speak to them—could speak to moths, as well, and mayflies, and wasps, to lantern beetles and to the spiders spinning cobwebs in the corners of his brothers’ rooms. He had not told his father. He had not known how to begin—nor how to start that conversation with pasty, irritable Patchett, who turned the wireless radio in the kitchen off whenever witches were mentioned.
But, he thought later, perhaps he should not have been so hard on Patchett.
Absorbed in his private magical studies, Samuel learned to turn birds into small clay men who walked about and talked for more than an hour till they began spitting feathers and turned to birds again. He learned to make a common household mirror show any reflection, even the shorelines of Oriental lakes or the glaciers of the Arctic Ocean. He learned how to breathe out ice and make fire spring from his fingers. But, preoccupied as he was with these matters, he could not see that Patchett was deeply unhappy: that a kind of melancholy, slow and seeping and listless, had taken hold of him. He knew that some nights there was nothing for dinner, nothing but half-rotted cheese and cans of lager in the fridge, and an uneasy feel to the house, as though the windows had all shattered and there was nothing to keep a storm from coming in. Some nights Samuel tiptoed round the house with a torch after his father had gone to bed, touching his hand against the panes of the windows, feeling for cracks, double-checking them. He did not realize the storm was in the house already.
So then, by the time Samuel turned seventeen years old, Patchett was dead: another suicide. Nothing so dramatic as a duelling pistol. A handful of pills, meticulously calibrated. He left no note, and did not return to haunt the house in which he had so miserably lived. Samuel made the funeral arrangements. He said to the undertaker, when asked his preference, “Just don’t burn him.” They did up the body in a wooden coffin, carted it to a peaceful churchyard, and buried it. The first Crewe to be buried in consecrated ground. He would have preferred it, Samuel thought: a church funeral presided over by a vicar, perfect evidence that no one could prove he’d been a witch.
Afterwards, the smell of death stayed in the house. Not a rotting smell, not the falling-apart scent of meat gone sour; this was an unearthly aroma. It reminded Samuel of old paint and leather, lemon furniture polish, rich and dense; attics left unopened and antiques in boxes. He took up the habit of chewing mints to shed the dark taste it left in his mouth. It was a witching thing, he thought; he had not smelt or tasted it before, when he had not yet learned magic. Now it was so strong that he could not go into Patchett’s bedroom, or bear to touch the books and ink pens Patchett had left unattended on the table in the kitchen.
He spent a lot of time at the top of the staircase, talking to the ghost of Ned. Ned’s ghost came more frequently to the house now, or perhaps Samuel just saw more of him. Despite his silence, he was a comforting presence. (No one knew if ghosts could talk, but they never did.) Ned fingered often the black flower he wore in his buttonhole, and looked sad, and sighed: a sound like leaves in the wind. He made no more attempts to touch Samuel on the shoulder or ruffle his hair. They sat on their separate ends of the landing, Samuel hunched morosely in Jacoby’s coat, Ned dapper in the suit they’d buried him in.
Samuel said, “I didn’t even know Benjamin—not really. I was too young. I suppose he was very good at witchcraft. He would have to have been. He used to pinch me when I asked him for favours. But once he filled my closet up with fireflies, so no monsters could get in. I think maybe Mother influenced him a lot. Too much. I never missed her. But you—you did.”
He meant “you” generally—all of you, all of his brothers. Ned’s ghost nodded. He lifted his thin and half-transparent hand towards the sleeve of Samuel’s coat, then lowered it.
“Yes. It was Jacoby’s. He left it behind. I like it, but it’s too big. I thought I would grow into it, but I never have. I don’t mind.” The sleeves drooped over his hands. “I used to write letters to him. I would have liked to send them, but he didn’t leave an address. I wish I’d known witchcraft then.”
“I didn’t want to have to ask you. You always seemed so sad. Besides, I didn’t even know you were a witch till after you died. Seb had to tell me. We never really talked, you and me. I was just a kid.”
The ghost looked sadder. He flickered at the edges, going out of focus. Samuel had noticed that the ghost looked less like Ned as the years went on, as though time were copying him over and over again. Someday there might not be much of Ned left. Just an outline in the air where a figure had been.
“I know,” Samuel said. “You think I’m a kid still. But you weren’t much older when you did what you did. What did you think then—did you think your life was over?”
A black petal dripped from the flower in Ned’s jacket. Before it could touch the floor, it vanished. Ned, too, looked on the edge of disappearing. Sometimes he did this, and Samuel saw nothing of him for days on end.
“I always thought that Tam did it, too. He wasn’t that clumsy. He just looked down and couldn’t handle life back on land. I’ll never know, of course, but I can still hate him for it. He hadn’t even the guts to haunt the house he left. It was after he died that I first started thinking—what the best thing to do was; you know, how to protect myself from all of it.”
All of you, he almost said. Ned vanished. Samuel found himself sitting alone on the landing. He felt an incipient ache in his head. The smell of death rose from the dust on the stairs. He heard his father moving quietly in the kitchen, shuffling across the grey-green linoleum. It had been more than a week since they’d spoken. His father had come to the funeral, tossed earth on the coffin, yet now seemed not wholly aware that Patchett was dead.
Certainty struck Samuel in that moment, a force that pushed him towards what he’d do next. He felt it physically, flooding his body.
He remembered being twelve years old, and longing for France. This was the same, a similar feeling. Then, he had pasted above his bed a torn-out magazine picture of Provence, the sort of place where he imagined that Jacoby would live. Rosebushes brazened a wrought-iron railing. A stone Roman goddess benedicted plants. Samuel had begged Seb to show him, with witchcraft, more such pictures in their decrepit bathroom mirror, and Seb—lowering his eyelids with suppressed compassion—had: a scatter of crows over a golden wheat-field, the streaming sun in the distance, fat rivers flowing by the spine-shapes of cathedrals.
“I’m going to go there,” Samuel had confidently told him.
“When you’re older,” Seb had said with a laugh.
Then Seb himself had slipped on board a boat and not even looked backwards, Seb who got seasick even on short holidays out to the Isle of Man. Whatever he’d been hoping for, the short letters he sent suggested it had not happened in America. He’d sounded muted. Samuel had unfixed the photograph of France from over his bed. He had it still, in a box somewhere, neatly folded. But he did not think now that he would ever go to France. You could not simply go to another country. It was not enough. This had been demonstrated. Another, more drastic kind of action was called for.
Samuel had known the right spell the instant he saw it. He’d found it in one of the first magic books he’d read. The flyleaf of the book—Magellan’s Difficulties of Magic—was labelled in a loose, unfurling scribble that let him know it had been Benjamin’s. Later, when he’d dug his mother’s old books out of the attic, he found other variants in them, all centred around a similar, antiquated concept: Spell to Absolve a Magician of his Heart pains, Spell to place the Witch’s Heart into her Hand; The Putting of the Heart into the Little Finger, Seven Spells to Sever the Heart. The best of the seven spells of this last title was annotated in Benjamin’s cryptic, scrawling script; presumably he’d been the first to inherit the book from their mother. It made Samuel feel close to him. He slept for a time with the book under his pillow, but found that when he did, he dreamt that smoke crept up through the floorboards of his room. The smoke was thin, sulphurous, acrid. Samuel often woke to find the ghost of Ned sitting in his desk chair, sad-eyed and watching him.
Though he’d settled on the spell so long before, he had hesitated when it came to actually executing the magic. He had little faith in his witching skills. He was self-taught, and did nothing more difficult on a daily basis than transfigure the glass of the windows to let more sun in. True, from time to time he took on harder projects—he had once bewitched a very small star, speeding towards Earth, so that it would spin northwards of its normal destination. Its new impact was in the front garden of the Crewes’ house. It left a hole no larger than Samuel’s fist, with a lump of black rock—smooth and heart-shaped—inside it. No one had known it had been Samuel who’d done the magic. No one had said for certain it was magic. Stars fell out of the sky in phenomenal numbers, so often that, seeing one, you tagged it with a wish and then let it slip to the corner of your mind. “A coincidence,” Samuel told the neighbours. They nodded warily, not entirely convinced. He levelled dirt over the ruptured garden. He kept the star’s hard rock in his pocket. He could not remember quite why he’d wanted to have it. Its warmth took weeks to diminish.
So he was not unused to serious magic. But this was still more serious than anything he had attempted before. If he did it badly, he might well die. With this in mind, for years he had postponed it. He had thought he would wait until he turned eighteen, came of age. Then the death of Patchett had altered his feelings on the matter. The spell could not wait. He imagined another year—six months even—without it; it would not do. He should have done it long before Patchett died, in the lull between sorrows. Cowardice had stopped him. He’d not make that mistake again.
Six weeks after the funeral, he gathered the ingredients for the spell. After school, he went to the Witches’ Market: a matter-of-fact set of stalls with silver-and-black awnings that sold herbs, and roots, and rare birds’ eggs. He was aware of himself as an odd, thin figure, in his oversized coat. He wondered sometimes how others regarded him. He had the fine, dark, delicate features that all the Crewes shared, and from time to time he would be stopped by witches who’d say, “Excuse me, are you—sorry, you looked so familiar. For a moment I thought perhaps we had met.” He kept his head down and moved very quickly, trying to avoid this.
The preliminary arrangements for the spell took him some time. It was necessary to get a small steel knife from the kitchen and let it sit for seven days, crooked, on top of a mirror. Samuel kept returning from school in the afternoons to find the ghost of Ned attempting to straighten the blade of the knife. Ned’s fingers, insubstantial, passed straight through it.
On the seventh day, Samuel was awakened by a chill in the house, a cold dark ambience of November. Every room was filled with the smell of death. He walked from doorway to doorway, down every hall, disturbed by the wet, black ubiquity of the scent. The spellbook had not said that this would happen. Samuel’s suspicions dwelt with the ghost of Ned, but he was not certain whether ghosts could work witchcraft. Nor did he see Ned anywhere in the house.
Resolutely, once he had clearly established that no windows were open and—a moment of bleak and fearful conviction—that his father was not dead, Samuel ignored it. He went on preparing himself for the magic. It was a process that required a kind of limbering-up of the focus, a limiting of the attention.
He had set aside, the night before, some rue and the sleek red peel of an apple, the former so brittle it broke at a touch, the latter waxy and slightly damp. Now he placed them in a silver bowl with the stub end of a candle and a Roman coin. The coin was irregular, tiny and rubbed. Hardship, over centuries, had left it black and mostly flattened. He struck a match and watched its flame flare up. The air filled with the sour white scent of sulphur—then, as he tossed the match into the bowl, the warm smell of wax and herbs burning.
There were words to be said over the bowl. He consulted the book. Benjamin’s handwriting had attained a smeared graphite look over the years. It was slowly vanishing. Samuel tried to bring an image of Benjamin himself into his mind, and could not. He looked down at the steady flame. It yellowed and widened hungrily. It husked the apple peel bit by bit. Splinters of rue bent, curving as though in agony. Everything looks skeletal when burning, he thought. He found the idea troubling.
He read the words of the spell aloud. He tried to filter his thoughts. Smoke covered up the smell of death. It was a simple spell, really; a classic, from the days of fairy tales and fables. It had used to be standard for a witch to put his heart into a tree, or a rock, or a locket, or some kind of running water. Any place that you could put a heart separately, so that it would not shudder and ache and cause you to suffer—so that it could not be suddenly pierced, so that it would not, one day, break. The habit had fallen somewhat out of fashion in the early part of this century, experiencing, at the time of the First World War, a momentary resurgence. (Samuel had learnt all this from Patchett, who, after all, had taught magical history.) Witches during the war did not put their hearts into objects. These might be lost, or even stolen: your heart in the hands of your worst enemy. Instead, a witch would put his heart into his little finger and cut it off. Thus it could be stored, remote and safe, and returned to your body after the armistice or at some other, later date. It was the best and most complete way to sever a heart, if you were willing to suffer the pain.
“So why does no one do it anymore?” Samuel had asked Patchett, when the topic arose.
Patchett had shrugged; as ever, he was tetchy. “Why don’t we wear top hats and frock coats? Ask me a real question, Sam.” But at last he had relented and given a real answer: “Life was harder then. You’re not talking about something little, a small spellcasting. Can you live without a heart? Of course, yes. But why would you want to, if you don’t have to? It’s not the same sort of life. It’s different.”
“Like ghosts,” Samuel had said.
“Like ghosts, I suppose.” Patchett had picked up his book again, readjusted his glasses, a sign that Samuel should leave him alone. Then paused. As an afterthought: “Not like ghosts,” he’d said.
But life was not harder then, Samuel thought. Life was life, from that age to this. If you were lucky, you scarcely noticed your heart; unlucky, and you were crippled by it.
He set the fallen star on top of his desk, and then placed next to it the Greco-Roman statuette that Jacoby had left him. The statuette had eyes like clean white sheets, empty and unclouded. “Watch this,” Samuel said aloud, almost defiant. He did not know why he said it.
The smoke from the silver bowl had settled all throughout the room. Samuel put his hand flat on the desk. He picked up the knife and touched its tip to his forehead. It burned. He felt hot. A kind of fever gripped him. Only a current of cool, sad air, strange and foreign against his skin, made him turn to see that Ned was sitting cross-legged on the floorboards: not interfering, just watching him.
Samuel crossed his heart with the blade of the knife. He felt it move inside his chest—an insubstantial, spiritual motion. It nauseated him. Something in the smoke caused his head to spin. He closed his eyes. For an instant he was flying over the grass-green mountains, bird-boned, a grey wisp of dust on the wind, and the wild sense of nothingness overwhelmed him. The raw air burned against his face. Oh, Tam, he thought. He let the feeling go. He released it. His heart carved a path down under his skin.
He felt it settle at the tip of his finger, just under the nail, in the joint and in the flesh. It pulsed and hurt. It felt overlarge and ungainly, too heavy for the place that it was in. Samuel set the thin edge of the knife between his little finger and his palm. He drew a deep breath. He pushed the knife in.
It bled a lot, which for some reason surprised him. The bone broke into splinters, like bits of ice: ugly, jagged, and uneven. The pain swept through him in a huge and desultory wave. His body revolted, and he was sick. He found it hard to breathe through the nausea. Terror gripped him: a terror rooted in the raw animal form of the body, unphilosophical, unhuman. He grabbed the end of the desk and panted. The blood kept spilling out of him. Then at last the feeling abated in sharp bursts, the wound sealing as the witchcraft kicked in. His hand ceased to bleed. The finger was severed. His fever subsided. He felt the first curious sense of heartlessness.
It was cool, and dark, and restful: a cloud passing over a summer garden. It unsharpened the glare from the sun and the lamps. It dulled the sour, fruitful, burning scent of the smoke that rose from the silver bowl. Samuel looked at the items he’d set on the desk. The stone of the star was just a stone. It seemed lifeless to him now. He touched the face of the Greco-Roman god. The little statuette reminded him of something he had loved once, in childhood, something he would never see or sense again, but he could not remember quite what it was, or why it had instilled such longing in him.
He heard a dry, rasping cough in the corner of the room. He turned and saw Ned—the ghost of Ned, standing and grasping his throat. He seemed as though he were trying to force something out of his chest, a sound, maybe, a word, although ghosts did not speak. No one knows if they can, Samuel thought. But they never did.
Samuel picked up the small, wan severed finger. He did not feel his heart in it. It was a strange, cold, curious object. He felt no attachment to it. The fire in the silver bowl was smouldering still. Tongues of flame licked upwards at the air. Samuel saw, as though in a dream, the natural sequence of events. He held the finger in his hand a moment longer, then set it down into the crater of the fire. He watched the flesh char and turn to ashes. The bone cracked and seemed to bend in the flame, arching forwards and backwards.
The thought came: This is what it’s like to burn. But as he stared into the heart of that blue incandescence, he could not feel it.