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 seven-league 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 were 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.