Magic or Madness Excerpt

Chapter 1: Reason Cansino

It would be easiest to just walk out the front door. But I’d been on the run since before I was born—I knew a lot about running away. Sometimes the simplest plan is not the way to go. If you’re expected to run away, then wait awhile, go at night, go out a window or the back door, go over the roof. Leave the way people don’t look for you to be leaving. (People rarely look up.) Plan ahead. Accumulate supplies and know your escape route. Avoid breaking the law or annoying anyone. Best to keep the number of people chasing you to a minimum.


My name is Reason Cansino. I was named Reason because my mother, Sarafina, thought it was prettier than Logic or Rationality or Intellect and had better nicknames, too. Not that Sarafina has ever called me anything but Reason. My mother believes in all those things: logic, reason, and the rest, and in mathematics, which fortunately wasn’t on the list of possible names. I’m grateful to have a head full of numbers, but I wouldn’t want to answer to the name of Algebra, Trigonometry, or Calculus.

Not many people have ever known my real name: the doctors and nurses at the hospital where I was born, police, private detectives. And her, of course, the wicked witch, my grandmother, Esmeralda Cansino.

All my life we’ve been on the run from her, Sarafina and me. She caught us once when I was ten, but we got away. It was dumb, I guess, but I thought that was it: she found us, we escaped, end of story. She’ll never find us again.


Sarafina always said, “Expect the best, but prepare for the worst.”

I’m good at the first part, crap at the second. Despite having lived all my life being made ready in case the wicked witch should find us—Sarafina taught me what to say, what not to say, filled my head with detailed plans of Esmeralda’s house (“What if she moves somewhere else?” I asked. “She can’t,” said Sarafina), how to get in contact with each other if separated, all of that.

Even so, I never really believed it would happen. Not twice. It was a game we played, Sarafina and me, nothing more.

I loved our life together. I’d seen brolgas taking off at sunset, their white feathers stained pink, purple, and orange by the light, making vast ripples radiate through the wetlands, sending lily pads rocking, frogs leaping from pad to pad, and lazy crocs slipping flash quick into the water. I’d seen a platypus clear as the air after rains have finally wiped the dust and dirt of a drought away, swimming slow and easy at dawn in water so still, so glass-like, you can see reflected the fine hair on your face.

In that life, I’d never seen a movie, or been in a shopping centre, or held a remote control. I’d never lived anywhere for more than five months, or in a town of more than a thousand people, or had any friends. I’d never had to memorise a phone number because we never had one or knew anyone to call.

Sarafina turned our constant motion into a game, a lesson, a whole different world. I learned more in an hour spent with her than I’d learned in my two months at a proper school. Sarafina made anything fun and everything fascinating. When it was time to move on (if we weren’t in an abandon-everything- and-run hurry), we would toss a coin onto a map and go where it landed or find a name of a town that appealed to us (Wanneroo? Borroloola? Or how about Jilkminggan?). Would we go to a nine-letter town like Fassifern (I love nines) or a prime-number town like Warhope? Or a town at an angle of exactly 45 degrees (more nines) from where we were?

One time we just walked in a straight line—using a compass and the stars to verify the straightness—into the bush, even though it took us through dense scrub, flooded creeks, and over steep ravines, until, at last, we came to a settlement. We were so pleased to see people living there on our straight line (the settlement was so small it wasn’t on the map) that we stayed for almost four months. A lifetime!

Sarafina taught me how to read, how to run, how to hide, the music of numbers and of the stars above, and the patterns, the spirals in the flowers and termite mounds, the fruits and the scrub, the grasses and the trees.

Together we’d learn how to start a fire by banging rocks together or, better, with the sun and a magnifying glass; how much water was necessary for an all-day trek (as much as we both could carry and then some); when it was time for a car; how bad was bad enough to go see a doctor (broken bones, high fever, vomiting that wouldn’t stop); when to leave a pub before a stoush got out of hand; when to hitchhike and when to walk; how to gather water-lily roots, witchetty grubs, and wild honey.

That was our life together. As soon as I turned eighteen and was free from Esmeralda’s custody claim, we were going to travel even further—the whole world—start up north (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia) and just keep on going. We’d explore the world as thoroughly as we had Australia. For the rest of our lives.

How could I possibly have wound up in the witch’s house? In the city, separated from my mother?

But there I was, sitting in a plane for the very first time, headed towards her.

Chapter 2: With the Witch

She wore high-heeled shoes that were black, with sharp, pointy toes. If she kicked you, it would hurt. The shoes were so shiny I could see them clearly even though the floor of the cab was dark. It was as if they were made of glass.

“How was the flight?” Esmeralda asked again. “Did they treat you okay?”

I scrunched even closer to the door and turned my face to the bright glare of the window, determined not to look my grandmother in the eye.

“Are you hungry? I don’t suppose they gave you any food on such a short flight.”

I was starving, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell her that. I wasn’t going to say a single word to Esmeralda ever, even if she kicked me with those witchy shoes. I slipped my hand into my pocket to hold my lucky ammonite, tracing the coiled chambers with my thumb. Sarafina had given it to me. It always made me feel braver.

“Do you like cake? Ice cream? There’s plenty at home. We could have some afternoon tea. Thought you might enjoy that.”

I wasn’t going to eat any food she’d touched, not even if it was chocolate. I had my own stowed in my backpack, which rested on the floor between my feet. I’d eat it as soon as I could get away from her.

It was horrible her being so close. At the airport, she’d hugged me before I could stop her. Esmeralda smelled like make-up and a sharp perfume that made my noise wrinkle. She smelled wrong. Fortunately, in the taxi all I could smell was sweat and petrol and most of all stale cigarette smoke. (The driver had asked if he could smoke and Esmeralda had said no.)

I could feel her looking at me, as if she was trying to will me to look at her. It wouldn’t work. I knew too much about my grandmother. Asking me lots of questions in what she hoped was a concerned-sounding voice wasn’t going to trick me.

“If you want something else, we can stop off on the way. You can have whatever you want, Reason.”

I want my mother to be how she was before, I thought. I want to not be in this taxi with you. I want you to shut up! I felt the anger rising in me, but I knew better than to ever lose my temper.

The sun was shining and the sky (the slice that wasn’t hidden by buildings) a brilliant blue, but even so, the view out the window was grim. I hadn’t seen a single tree since we’d left the airport. Instead of vegetation there were grassless footpaths, giant signs with advertisements on them for hundreds of things I’d never seen before, ugly grey or dirty brown buildings without verandahs or any signs that people lived in them. I’d forgotten how ugly Sydney was.

There were so many cars and trucks that the traffic kept having to stop. A cyclist in bright green-and-yellow shorts so tight they looked sprayed on zoomed past us. We’d left the airport ten minutes ago, but we didn’t seem to have gotten very far. So many cars! I’d been here once before when I was ten (the last time she’d caught us) but didn’t remember there being this much traffic. And it was Sunday. What would it be like on a weekday when everyone was rushing to get to work?

“If there’s anything you need,” Esmeralda began again, “we can go shopping. Much better shops here than in Dubbo. I can take you . . . ”

I didn’t listen to the rest. I was sick of hearing her voice thick with pretend concern, asking the same questions over and over again. Even if she did sound like my mother, hearing Esmeralda talk just made me want to scream.

I closed my eyes and ran through the Fibonacci series silently, noting primes and factors along the way. In my hand I could feel my ammonite, my fossilised millions-of-years-old shell.

Fibonaccis are my favourites. They can take you a long way. Forever, in fact. Fibonaccis are numbers, special numbers that keep getting bigger and bigger as you go. The Fibs are kind of like lies—they keep creating more Fibs endlessly or until you get tired of the whole thing.

When you run out of Fibs you already know, you can always make another by adding the last two together. It all starts with 0 and 1, which you add together to get . . . 1 again. Then add the last two (both 1s) to make 2. It keeps going on like that—every number equals the two before it added together:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 . . .

I wondered how far away Sarafina was. Last night, she’d been transferred to a “special” hospital in Sydney. Nuthouse, more like. Kalder Park was its name. The doctor said they could look after her much better there. What did that mean? That they were going to leave off drugging her and tying her down? Or that they were going to do it even more?

The traffic started moving faster. I saw some green at last: a park with more grass than trees and great big brick chimneys covered in pigeons. Flying rats, Sarafina called them. According to her, the more pigeons in a town, the less healthy it was. So far they were the only birds I’d seen here. It figured.

“We’re not far from home now,” Esmeralda said. She shifted, crossing her legs the other way. “This is Newtown.”

I shuddered. My mother had told me so much about Esmeralda’s house. About the things that happened there. In the weeks before Sarafina’d hurt herself, she’d been even more insistent about my knowing its layout, about reminding me of what my grandmother had been—I looked across, keeping my eyes at the level of her feet—what she still was.

I should have seen that Sarafina was losing it. I should have gotten her help before she hurt herself. But I was afraid Esmeralda would find us. I glanced at her pointy-toed shoes. Too late.

I hoped the hospital where Sarafina was now, Kalder Park, lived up to its name. She would hate being stuck in some concrete place with no trees, no bush, no sky anywhere in sight. She hated hospitals. And this was even worse: a loony bin.

They hadn’t let me see her last night in Dubbo and this morning they were moving her here to Sydney. I just wanted to say goodbye, tell her the plane trip wouldn’t be too bad. Neither of us had ever been in a plane before. I was worried Sarafina wouldn’t like it. One of the nurses told me that statistically you’re much more likely to be killed in a car than a plane. I told her I reckoned that was because people ride in cars far more than in planes, and she said, “Even so, planes are safer. They get serviced after every single trip. Heaps more than any car.”

I wanted to tell Sarafina.

“The hospital where your mother is,” Esmeralda began. She was still looking at me. I could feel it. “It’s fairly close to the house. You’ll be able to visit her as often as you want.”

Rubbish. Unless they let me live in the hospital, I wouldn’t be seeing Sarafina as much as I wanted.

We were in a narrow but very busy street, the dirty grey footpath as full of people as the road was of cars. There were no houses, only shops crammed all in a row with no spaces between them, selling T-shirts, antiques, books, buttons, tiles, clothes, computers, hats, and bags.

There were lots of traffic lights and we caught every red one. There hadn’t been nearly so many in Dubbo when we’d driven in from Nevertire in the ambulance with Sarafina unconscious in the back. I wanted to ride with her, but they wouldn’t let me. The ambos had driven through every light whether it was green or not.

That had been Friday, two days ago. I hadn’t given anyone our real names, but Esmeralda still found us, still had me sent to her.

I blinked, not wanting to cry. I started the Fibs again, not letting them slip away so easily this time.

(If any of the words above are unfamiliar you can look ’em up in the glossary.)