Asklepios was a fast learner. Fascinated by the shower and the toilet, even the glass in the windows, he clapped his hands with delight as Tim demonstrated the light switch, the kettle and the toaster. Then he begged to be allowed to make himself some more toast and marmalade.
It wasn’t long before he started to become a pest.
Asklepios leaned on the wall flicking the light switch on and off and on again.
‘Please stop doing that.’ Tim was trying to concentrate, trying to order his thoughts, prioritise tasks in what increasingly felt like a life that, while filled with wonders, was rapidly slipping out of control.
Asklepios bashfully strolled into the office, his hands clasped behind him. He wore a pair of Tim’s jeans and trainers, an old sweatshirt hung loose on his thin frame.
He walked behind the desk where Tim sat and peered through the window, cooing like a dove at every car and bus that drove past. Then he gave a choking cry, grabbed Tim and pulled him round. ‘How does he do that? Why does he not fall off?’
Tim watched the cyclist pedal down the street. ‘It just takes practice. Look, if you want to help, why don’t you feed my chickens?’
‘Of course, my pleasure. Where is your farm?’
‘On the roof.’
Tim showed the way and returned to his office.
Asklepios looked out over the roofscape and breathed the unfamiliar air filled with exotic fumes and strange sounds. The city was truly enormous. Despite his elevation he could see no end to it in any direction. To the south (he had always been good with directions, it felt like the south) the buildings rose in great, blocky towers of ten or even an astonishing fifteen stories.
Despite its size the city was remarkably free of the stenches and reeks of his homeland. Under the human aromas of food, garbage, smoke, and the acrid reek of their marvellous machines was a sharper, more natural tang. Overhead birds cried. Asklepios looked up at the circling white gulls and knew he must be near to the sea.
With a sudden, intense pang he ached for his simple, mud brick home, his dark eyed mischievous grandchildren, the comfortable complexity of family life. The sun held little warmth here, the air was cool and damp, very different from the dry, fresh heat he was used to. Yet despite these differences in the world and the marvels he had seen both inside and outside Tim’s home it was the cleanliness, the lack of familiar odours, that made him feel furthest from home.
Where am I, and when? Asklepios wondered with some anxiety. Will I ever see my family again?
The chickens were kept in a large cage of metal wire woven with marvellous regularity. They had plenty of grain and Asklepios realised this was simply make-work, Tim had wanted him out of the way. Very well, he accepted he was an unwanted nuisance causing his host considerable difficulty. Nevertheless, there were rules of hospitality and as a guest he would obey them.
He opened the cage, refreshed the water from a covered bucket and searched for eggs, finding only one. That wasn’t surprising, he thought, with only three hens and no cock. Tim might be keeping them for food but mostly likely they were for divination. It was a reassuring thought, his host was not so different after all and neither, perhaps, were the powers he controlled.
Tim had had explained how the lights, the jug that heated water, and the slotted box that toasted the bread worked. When Asklepios saw the plugs and sockets formed three connections he became excited. Tim opened up one of the plugs and showed him the three coloured wires.
Although there was much Asklepios had failed to grasp, it was clear the power was some form of life-energy. Red symbolising blood was balanced between the brown earth and the blue sky. Here once again was the indivisible three – simple yet powerful. Though why they considered the blue of the sky to be the neutral or passive phase was beyond him. Unlike the earth, where the dead were laid to rest, the sky was never still.
With the simple task he had been sent to do complete, Asklepios decided to stay on the roof a while longer. A good guest should always do more than he had been asked. This was an opportunity to contemplate the problem of the cats.
Animal banishments were simple things, used to protect the granaries from rats and mice and keep birds from new-sown fields. Asklepios had performed them many times. In the main cats were summoned rather than banished. For example the farmer’s protection against birds invoked Bez, the feline spirit, to drive off avian Masgatha.
A simple reversal of the ritual should be effective. Asklepios looked at the chickens and a smile broke out on his face. Everything he needed was here, he could perform the ritual right now.
Wind-blown dirt had collected in the lee of the low parapet. Asklepios scrapped up a handful, dampened it with water from the bucket and fashioned a pellet with a crude muzzle and ears at one end. He placed it to one side and went back into the chicken run.
Two of the birds backed away into the corner but the third, intent on its dust bath, had not noticed him. ‘Bird, lend me your spirit,’ Asklepios said and snatched the chicken up by the neck.
The startled bird frantically beat its wings. Asklepios pulled a handful of speckled feathers from its breast. ‘Bird, I hold your spirit.’
He released the chicken and it dropped to the ground and lay there with its wings spread.
Carefully keeping his fist bunched, Asklepios worked five feathers free of his grasp and pushed them into the mud pellet, four for legs and one for a tail.
‘You are Bez,’ he told the feather-legged effigy. ‘I made you and hold you here.’
The wind gusted. One of the unused feathers danced and waved half-free of his grip. Asklepios dexterously pushed it back into his fist with his thumb. The wind-flurries proved he had powerful Masgatha’s attention but she tested him. Letting her take a feather now would ruin the spell.
Asklepios cracked open his fist and worked the effigy of Bez down onto the feathers in his hand. All was prepared. He thrust his arm into the air.
‘Masgatha of the upper sky. Hear me and listen, I am speaking to you. Look down, see me in this high place of sacrifice. See what I have for you. See, it is your enemy, Bez, trapped here in my hand. Take him, I give him to you. If this pleases you grant be this boon: where his kind gather, throw them down in confusion.’
Asklepios drew back his arm and flung the cat effigy as hard as he could. With great satisfaction he saw it arc high through the air and impact on a chimney pot three houses down the street. Loose feathers swirled up and away. Higher and higher.
This was all excellent. The effigy of Bez was marooned high off the ground, carried by the bird’s spirit. Wherever the plague of cats was it would be defeated by something from the air. It would not be permanent for nothing ever was allowed to be. A few days, perhaps as much as a week, thus Masgatha would reward him for this small victory in her eternal war with Bez.
Almost as a reflex Asklepios analysed his actions, an act of self-criticism he had long ago learned was an essential part of his magic. That he now stood on the roof of a house in an unknown city told him he still had much to learn.
The simple ritual had worked well, his casting had clarity and purpose, a desire for something outside of himself. This was all good but it was also a mirror on his own past ambitions. He saw now how his earlier summonings had been selfish things to increase his prestige, a short-cut to knowledge he lacked the patience or resources to study for. The indivisible three he understood, and the five. Far more powerful and varied, seven was still not fully in his grasp. He had been a fool to attempt the eleventh way.
Yet the disaster of his attempt to bind ‘Eritstim’ was both blessing and curse. He laughed with embarrassment at his own ignorance and folly, thank the powers he had never succeeded in summoning a real djinn. He should be grateful to be alive, let alone find himself in a place where the opportunity to learn seemed boundless.
For despite all his mistakes, and although those summonings had not worked as he intended, they had still worked. In the last case it had worked magnificently and triumphantly for he had in effect summoned himself to another era of time. The thought made him weak at the knees. A small ember of pride flickered – he had created a new spell.
Or was he simply the latest foolish over-ambitious sorcerer to hurl himself across creation and vanish forever?
His old summoning ritual had worked each time, it was now just a question of refinement, of accuracy and focus. He could eliminate several factors: herb lore was common knowledge, the spoken words were from a universal compendium, goat’s blood was goat’s blood. What remained was the structure, the binding circle itself, the placement of the various items more than the items themselves. In many respects they were simply place-holders. His circles had not been perfect, the angles not aligned with precision. He felt it in his gut with absolute certainty – this was where he needed to improve. He had no idea how.
Down in the office Tim tried to prioritise. Life, the missing car, Foxy – it was impossible, Asklepios occupied his thoughts completely. Until Asklepios’ situation was resolved he wouldn’t be able to deal with anything else. They had to talk, they needed to plan. Tim headed to the roof. When he opened the door to the stairs Asklepios was right there. He held out and egg. ‘I found this.’
Tim took the egg. It was warm. ‘Where?’
Asklepios hesitated. Was this another test? His new friend was such a curious mixture of knowledge and innocence it was hard to tell. ‘Under a chicken.’
Tim left the egg in the kitchen and they returned to the office. ‘Asklepios, I have to get on with my life and so do you. What are we going to do?’
Asklepios’ face fell. ‘You want to send me away.’
‘Yes.’ Tim paced left and right. ‘No. Look, you’re a real person and so am I, but I belong here and you don’t. You summoned me while I slept and because you got my name wrong the circle was broken and you came back with me when I woke up.’
‘That is also how I see it.’
‘So, can’t you just do it again?’
Asklepios hung his head. ‘My friend, I cannot summon you because you are already here. I would summon someone else, and–’
‘That would just make things worse.’ Tim imagined the arrival of a second surprise guest. Keep that up and Brighton would be filled with an eclectic mix of time travellers. They’d fit right in.
‘I don’t know how to get you home, Asklepios.’
‘I know. And neither do I.’
Nothing had changed but things felt better for having admitted it. Dressed in modern clothes, Asklepios seemed no more unusual than any other visitor.
Asklepios smiled hopefully. ‘May I make some more toast?’
‘Go for it.’ Tim waved him away, anxious to get on with the things that needing doing. The problem of Asklepios’ future would have to wait. First thing, the broken door. Tim recalled an advert for a local handyman on the free street maps that came through his letterbox.
The smell of toast drifted in from the kitchen. Just as he found the map he remembered Mrs Woosencraft. Tim sat stunned. Guilt consumed him. How could he have been so thoughtless? Yesterday she had been in terrible pain with angina, today he hadn’t given her a thought. All the cakes she’d made him, the marmalade in which Asklepios took such delight, all her visits and small kindnesses over the past months. She had given him his first case and paid for it out of her pension. He had to visit her straight away.
Asklepios was in the kitchen with a half-eaten piece of toast in one hand. Two slices of bread sat ready in the toaster.
‘I’m going out,’ Tim told him. ‘Stay here. Don’t touch anything.’
Asklepios gave the toaster a disconsolate look.
‘All right, you can touch that.’
Tim was already halfway towards the office door. ‘I won’t be long.’
He clattered down the stairs. The bottom door slammed. Asklepios stood alone in the silence. Whatever the matter was, Tim would no doubt explain on his return. Meanwhile he had little to do but wait.
Munching toast he wandered into the office. His eyes roved over the books on Tim’s desk. The diagrams and pictures were fascinating, clearly these were esoteric volumes but the words were incomprehensible. He touched his pendant half-decided to use the final charge to gain understanding of the written words. He would be patient and ask Tim to explain the books when he returned.
The smell of burning toast came from the kitchen. Asklepios dashed down the hallway and flipped up the lever. Two blackened slices emerged, smoking gently. Asklepios scrapped the charred surface and spread the toast thickly with marmalade. The jar was half empty, but there two more pots on the shelf. Unfortunately the bread was almost all gone.
Toast was nice enough, but as far as Asklepios was concerned it was simply an edible surface upon which to put marmalade. He reached a decision: as a guest it would be rude to consume all his host’s bread. Therefore he must sacrifice enjoyment of toast and restrict himself to marmalade. Impressed with the power of his own logic, Asklepios scooped a large spoonful of marmalade from the pot and lifted it to his mouth.
To be continued…