Xim takes out the stack of puzzle pieces and lays them all out, side by side. There’s a mixture of rectangles and triangles in shades of red and green. Thirty pieces in total.
“There’s markings on the back,” Xim says.
She’s right, each piece has colour on one side and faded black lines on the back.
“How do you know which is the front and which is the back?” asks Bosco, his legs jiggling so hard even Goose has ditched his lap for a calmer spot on the floor.
“Let’s start with the coloured side first. Twelve red triangles, twelve green triangles and six green rectangles,” I say.
But not all the triangles are the same size, six of the green ones are much bigger and also a shade or two darker. I am left with two final cards that are nothing like the others. They are thin, almost transparent slivers of pale greenstone. I hold them up to the window and see words etched into the surface.
“Looks like QUI, is that key or kwee?” asks Bosco,
I start to read.
Beyond the veil
eye to eye and enter in
The place since locked
well guarded truth
The place beyond
claim each day
these two anew
“It’s not really a puzzle, is it?” Bosco reaches for Goose and drags her back to his lap.
“What does the other one say?” Xim asks.
Scales in hands between
Breath of all in otherness
Eyes that open
Fire that rings
Beware the one who stands alone
Beware the threat of ages
The power of symmetry is Qui
And birth the mark of four
“It’s not a game or a puzzle,” I say. “It’s more. Way more. Xim? What can you see?”
If she can’t solve it no one can, Xim is a brain box since forever.
“Eye to eye and enter in. Enter into what?” She doesn’t wait for us to answer and sits bolt upright. “The place since locked,” she repeats. “It’s a key. And keys open locks.” She takes a breath, her eyes flashing, “It’s like a tangram, only with more pieces.”
“Where do we start?” I say.
“Let’s try colours first,” Xim separates the green from the red, and tries to create shapes in one solid colour. Squares, stars, diamonds, even a pentagon. When that doesn’t work, she separates the triangles from the rectangles, keeping the size the same, regardless of the colour.
Bosco and I just watch. She manages to make plenty of shapes, but there are always cards left over. Then she turns the cards, coloured side face down. There are dots and dashes on this side. She tries every which way, but nothing makes sense.
After a few hours Bosco loses interest and drifts out of the room, Goose at his heels. I stay, offering support to Xim with my presence, not my actions. She doesn’t seem tired at all, even though frustration is beginning to seep from every part of me, a slow leak that threatens to become a flood.
When I look at my sister I see every thing that I am not. Confident. Calm. The kind of calm that runs right through her. The kind you can’t fake. She is that kind of calm, and I am the other. I have to work at mine. Every minute if I want to keep hold of it. Even when I look calm I’m not. On the inside I’m running sprints and walking high wires, hoping my panic doesn’t reach the surface and tip me over. She has always been the one to loan me her peace. Reminding me of all sorts of truths younger sisters shouldn’t really know. Right now she is thinking hard, I know it because her eyes are closed and her lips have gone soft. She needs to relax to think and has perfected the art. I don’t disturb her.
“There’s only 30 pieces, why is this so hard?” she says, throwing herself onto my bean bag. “I’m just having a rest,” she adds, as if I’m going to tell her off.
“You’ll figure it out.”
Xim hoists herself up and walks to the window, pressing her cheek against the glass. The sky is turning a soft pink as the sun dips. Soon it will be time for dinner, and I’ve done nothing.
I join her at the window and we both watch Bosco skateboarding below us, trying to master a new trick. He sees us and picks up speed. Mum’s parterre garden sits below my window, looking at it makes my eyes sting. Xim reaches out and holds my hand.
“She’ll be back soon,” she says, squeezing my hand even harder. “Look at that.”
“Ouch,” I say, but she only holds tighter.
“That’s it!” she says and wraps both arms around me. “That’s it!”
“Mum’s garden. See the border, the flowers? That’s a hexagon.”
“You already tried that.”
“I did, kind of. But now I’m going to make a frame. Just a frame, and then fill in the middle.”
Xim sits back down and starts to make a border. When it still doesn’t work she grabs some paper and starts to draw stars. Stars with six points, that she dissect into triangles and rectangles. Page after page, all with different dissections, but still nothing comes close to our thirty cards. Then she draws a star but extends every straight line all the way out to the edge of the page. This makes twelve sections surrounding the star. She grabs the twelve pale green cards. Six rectangles and six triangles. In moments she has created a perfect hexagonal frame. There are six green triangles left and they fit perfecting inside the frame, butted up against the green rectangles. The frame has now created the perfect space for a star in its middle.
“I’ve done it,” she says more to herself than to me.
I jump up and knock on the window, waving at Bosco to join us. Moments later he falls through the door. “Let me see,” he says.
Xim gestures to the green frame and smiles, “The pieces do work a little like a jigsaw. There are only red cards left. They go in the middle.”
She fits the dark red cards into each point of the star. A hexagonal void is left, which is perfectly filled by the pale red cards. Every single card has been used.
“That was too easy,” Xim says, “and something’s still wrong.”
“What do you mean? It’s perfect and you used all the cards,” I say.
“I don’t know, it’s just not right.” Xim begins to massage her temples.
“That’s cool though,” Bosco says, squinting down at the completed puzzle. He leans even closer and plucks one red card out and holds it to the light.
Xim leans closer and I hear her breath stop.
“Right there!” he says, pointing to the very tip of the triangle.
‘You’re a genius!’ shrieks Xim.
In the tip of the triangle are tiny pinholes. In fact, all the equilateral triangles have them. Tiny holes, ranging from one to six. The six pale green triangles have them, so do all the red ones.
“That’s the order then,’ Ximea says, her eyes growing wider. “The one dot should be at the top.” Xim begins to re set the cards in the outside border, clockwise, from one to six.
Then she repositions the dark red triangles so that the point with the pinholes is directly underneath the card above it. She does the same thing with the pale red cards that form the central hexagon. Only this time the point with the holes faces in, all of the pinholes forming a perfect circle in the very centre of the puzzle.
‘We did it!’ she says when the last card is in place.
“What do we do now?” I ask.
“A spell? A magic word?” Bosco offers
Ximea begins taking long deep breaths, then looks at me, “You can’t be hungry again Frank we need to finish this first!” she says.
“What are you talking about?”
“You. You just said you wanted something more to eat.”
“I did not!”
“She didn’t,” adds Bosco.
“And as for you, Bos, you can stop fretting about Goose, she’s perfectly fine, it stopped raining ages ago.”
Bosco’s eyes turn into saucers, “Xim, I only thought that, I never said it out loud. You heard me, you heard me thinking.”
“Me too!’ I say, finally understanding. “I was thinking about food, frozen pizza actually, but I never said it, not out loud.”
Awed silence fills my bedroom. Only now I start to wonder if it’s only silent to me and Bosco. Maybe Xim can hear us. As unbelievable as it sounds, I am not surprised. Not as surprised as I should be. None of us are. We are all just sitting here, accepting the fact that Xim heard what we were thinking, and this puzzle has something to do with it.
“I heard you, clear as day,” she says, a cloud settling over her face.
Then something really weird happens. A thin line of gold appears out from under the cuff of Xim’s sweatshirt, right on her wrist pulse points. Xim holds her hand out in front of her and turns it over. The gold line starts to move like a tiny golden snake. It wraps itself around her wrist and then over to the top of her hand. It slides across her skin and weaves between her fingers. We watch in silence as it wraps itself around her index finger, a golden ring so fine it’s almost like a strand of hair. Then it stops moving. Xim’s eyes are huge. She reaches out and touches the ring, then she offers us her hand too. We can’t feel anything, even though its there clear as day, glowing against her skin.
“Does it hurt?” asks Bosco.
Xim shakes her head then drops it down so her shiny black hair forms a curtain around her face. “Those cards didn’t mention anything like this.” She says.
“You know what?” Bosco doesn’t wait for an answer, “We need to work out how it happened, so we can all have a go.”
Bosco is right, we do need to figure out how it works, but I’m not so sure I want a go. I’ve never been one for wanting to know what people are thinking. Dealing with my own thoughts is more than enough.
“We’re in this together,” Xim says from behind her hair curtain.
“Quite right,” I say, realising she’s reading my thoughts again, and how not normal that is. Maybe we’re getting in too deep, maybe this is better left for later, much later. Maybe when we’re all a lot older. Maybe we should just pack it up and forget any of this ever happened. It could all become one of those childhood memories that blur the line between reality and make believe.
“What about Mum?” She says.
“Okay, okay, so what did you do? It must have been the puzzle. What did you do?” I begin to get very shrill, but can’t seem to stop myself.
“I was just counting the cards, putting them in order in my mind. That’s when I heard you say you were hungry.”
“Think,” I correct.
“Yes, think; that’s when I heard you thinking.” Tears begin well in Xim’s eyes, “I don’t want to hear your thoughts. I want to turn it off.”
“That’s it,” says Bosco. “Turn it off. You turned it on didn’t you?” He reaches out to hold her hand. “Whatever you did before, just do it backwards.”
“Good idea. Don’t freak out, just do your counting thing backwards,” I say, trying not to think anything more to upset her and silently praying it will work.
She takes a deep breath, “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.”
We wait while she keeps breathing hard and looking down at the puzzle. After a short while she says, “I’ve got it” Xim looks at her finger, the ring is still there. “ I’m just going to test it. To make sure.”
She is sitting up straight again now, calm with no sign of panic.
“Test what?” I ask.
“Turning it off and on. It’s like a switch.” She is nodding as she speaks, “Yes, like flicking a switch in your mind. It’s off now and I need to see if I can turn it on again.”
After a moment she exhales and smiles at us, ” I can turn it off and on.”
“Turn on what exactly?” Bosco asks.
She begins to explain, slowly, as if she doesn’t quite understand it herself. “There’s a way of looking at it,” her hand flutters over the puzzle, “of tracing it with my eyes, and when it’s done right, something happens in my head. It opens something up, like a door, a door that’s never been opened before. I could feel it. I could almost see it. That’s when I heard your thoughts.”
She looks at us, waiting to see if we follow, when we both nod, she continues. “There’s a click, I don’t know whether I heard it or felt it or thought it, but there’s a moment, like a key turning in a lock, and then it starts. A crackle like electricity – only it’s not scary and it doesn’t hurt.”
“It’s a key,” Bosco says with a whispery smile. “A Qui,” he says again just as quietly.
“You could really hear us thinking? Tell us about that,” I ask, reaching out to hold both their hands.
“Just like you’re talking to me now, and then I managed to control it by turning down the volume.”
“What’s the ring all about?” I ask.
“I have no idea,” she says.
“Teach me,” says Bosco.
“There are three different levels. The outer level, from one to six. Let your eyes rest on each point as you count. Then move to the inner level and do the same thing. And lastly the inner circle. Those cards sit close together, so it’s harder. You have to be intentional, trace them one by one until you reach the very centre, counting as you go.”
“It sounds like a kind of hypnotism,” I say, feeling a tingle of fear zip up my back, “and turning it off?”
“Just the same, but in reverse.”
I don’t want to do it, but my eyes are drawn to the puzzle before me, I start doing exactly what Xim said, almost against my will. Each step, each time my eyes land on the next card, I feel a clunk, like the turning wheel of a safe, round and round, clunk clunk clunk.
And that’s the last thing I remember before I collapse.