“Once a Magick visibly manifests its skills, said Magick must be immediately transported, as community property, to the nearest Hith Auction House in order to establish control over its nascent iniquity pre-sale.”
Hith Regulations and Procedures, Section IV, 68-5
The chasm swallowed baby Sillow. The hole too big, her limbs too small; laid gently, like a wounded bird into a bear’s cave. Her mother’s and father’s hands emerged in tremors from under her backside, having just lowered their youngest life into the ground. The great Hith sun beamed, hid, beamed, challenging the summer’s end. The family circled the deep fissure, the little body, feet and fingers pudgy brown, creased with mud, dead.
Paska, at nine the youngest sister, dropped flowers to Sillow’s chest. Anj, eleven, covered them with dirt. Janzel, thirteen, pale as white clover, said nothing through her rattled breath. Willa and Torlie, fifteen, hummed an old Hith lullaby their mother still sang at night.
Elna, seventeen, hung her head, viewing her sister inside the earth as a cosmos of sadness; as the sky and sea dissolving into a void beneath the long hard mouth of Hith. She imagined herself wrapped around the tiny pillow of Sillow’s body, Sillow who used to curl her little fingers so sweetly around Elna’s willing thumb.
Weeping followed, and in the midst of it, Elna refused to acknowledge the sudden tingling, that thin creek trickling down her legs, which provoked her feet beneath her long tented skirt to feel aglow.
Elna had been five years old when her father took her to the Hith Auction House in the town of Pond Mok, a three-mile walk from the countryside where they lived. They hid behind the trees, peering. Elna mostly focused on the people, swarming like mosquitoes over water, slinging numbers at the podium like stones. The Magick stood on stage crying quietly through it all, her eyes puffed red grapes, her body a glowing candle.
Elna pressed her face against her father’s shirt, wishing the sight away.
After the gavel sounded, her father crouched close, smell of earth in his hair: “We don’t need a Magick to survive, Elna. Not that way. Not us.”
But things changed twelve years later. Sillow died. Janzel neared the same fate. And Elna knew that the bony sag of her parents’ bearing meant needs would never be the same.
The day of the Magick’s arrival, the household stirred as usual at the split of dawn. Thick yellow strands of sun wound their way through shrunken decay, cracks, mouse holes, spilling to the kitchen floor in an exhausted knot of light and shadow.
After breakfast, Elna’s younger sisters took to tidying and sewing. Janzel, whose chest rasped with Sillow’s fatal wind, stayed huddled under covers, shivering. Elna, being the oldest, tackled the chore of cleaning out the shed, the place where the Magick would lay its head at night and dream. Rats had constructed nests in the cozy angles of gardening tools, and Elna found it difficult to shove them, and her anxiety, out with a broom.
Few had refused the services of a Magick, and as far as Elna knew, her family was the last of the outcasts. The Magick in Hith served solely as a tool for residents’ necessities: labor, productivity, construction, healing, and so on. Elna’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had all subscribed to the worth of working their own farms, a belief that cut them off from the bottomless supply of Pond Mok’s food and fabric.
Elna’s veins prickled down her forearms, tiny needles in her blood making her palms hot. Despite all, Elna had loved life in the secluded countryside. Tilling the fields at sunrise. Doting over the hens as if they were downy chicks. Singing out hearty to the wide blue sky.
Now, it was life with a Magick. Would that be no different? Would she still romp among the wheat stalks, still swoon over those last berries left inside fall’s plucky chill? Or would her family abandon the land to the Magick’s hands, so utterly that not even the hens would recognize them?
A warm burn filled Elna’s stomach at the uncertainty, leaping upward, trapping heat in her chest. Slowly, her skin went alight, and as it did the world seemed to dissipate, thoughts lifting from her like softly-blown cloth. She bent and swayed, feeling suddenly glorious, alive, like water churning, like clouds rushing in. Gentle heat poured forth through her arms, into her palms, as if all she’d ever felt had gathered there. Until there, they were there, she saw them in her mind.
Sillow’s bones an inchworm tunnel path. Her tiny curls the nutrients of deep earth.
Elna flushed. Drained. And then it was over. A half day’s work, finished in minutes. The shed gleamed, spotless. The last of the rats scurried like schoolchildren, single-file, into the sunlit weeds beyond.
Elna sank to her knees in the shed, prepared to wait several hours, pretending. It never happened. It didn’t.
In the bedroom where Elna and her sisters watched from the window, a shallow pond of starlight rippled over the sheets, slipped across the curtains tied back, turned the stuffed dolls made from socks into sleepy cockeyed fish. The kitchen, small and usually unseemly, shone, wood glistening, all the nooks and crannies aglow.
Nobody spoke when they first entered. Their parents appeared unruffled from the auction, although a bit grim, perhaps, their mouths downturned.
The young Magick himself shifted on his weight as a spindly-legged bird might. His body glowed as Magicks do, a dim radiant flow of magic in his veins. His face was softer than Elna expected, calmer.
Suddenly, this bird spoke. “Might I sit down? My legs still hurt from the afternoon.” Elna had expected light to emit with his words. It didn’t.
Her mother nodded, swiftly procuring a chair. “Yes, yes, of course.”
They sat in the kitchen for some time. Elna learned his name was Parn, and that his family had detected he was a Magick on his nineteenth birthday, two weeks ago. Parn talked of his childhood, then, his siblings and parents, his life in town. Elna’s mother continued nodding through it all, nodding some more as she served links of sausage posing as dark bloody thumbs. Elna managed to eat one, maybe two, her appetite sunk. The Magick swallowed them down quickly, nodding back with his approval.
After dinner, Elna’s parents showed Parn outside to the shed as Elna and her sisters peered through the curtains. Even Janzel nestled in close, watching wide-eyed.
The shed had no windows, and their mother apologized, Elna could tell, the way she clasped her hands and hogged them close to her chest, so hard Elna thought the bones might snap.
Parn shook his head, placating. He stretched his arms forward, glow hugging his skin. Shades of yellow and orange flowed into his wrists, conjoining, pouring into his palms, burning, until bursts of sunrise streaked forth.
Inside the house, Elna felt the burn, as well. It was in her stomach rising with his, and suddenly she feared she too would illuminate. She clenched, willing it back down, worried. But her sisters took no notice; their eyes were on Parn, on their new Magick and his firelight skin.
Parn finished, lowering his now dimly lit arms. Two new shed windows reflected the moonkindled night. Her mother handed Parn a blanket and pillow, then crossed to the house, plump with tears.
Elna’s own internal burning simmered, extinguished, but not before Parn looked back in her direction, brows stiffening like broad strips of dark sky.
Winters in Hith were generally windy, the sky scooping itself up in a ball and rolling through the sunken valley, and this one was no exception. Wind unfurled from the northern countryside and pummeled into the southern, flinging through Pond Mok and up onto their farm, where it purred against the slats of their newly repaired house.
Elna sat next to Parn, reading about Pond Mok in The History of Hith, her gritty river of fleshy glow moving across the pages. She never knew that a pond called Mok really existed in Pond Mok, its little Mok fish lighting up the water’s surface during the first week of spring.
Parn had found her out, nearly a year previous. Elna had cried then, her secret no longer safely her own. But she could never forget how Parn soothed her with talk of the village larks that lit his boyhood summers, how their wings scattered sparks down dusk; how their beaks glowed crimson through twilight.
Parn rose. “Would you like tea? Old Barg’s Magick brought some over this morning. Traded for eggs. When your parents and sisters get back, we’ll have oranges to squeeze.”
Elna nodded. In the kitchen, eggs filled a basket to its brim. When Parn opened the cupboards, a loaf of bread tumbled forth, pushed out by excess.
It was strange to see excess everywhere. New blankets. Patterned clothes. Six new hens. A rooster. Eight sheep. Three goats. Countless books. Her parents and sisters out accumulating more excess in the shape of oranges, lemons, pitchers, and materials for a new barn. Elna had just learned about oranges, the way their pulpy interior burst in her mouth like cool sunshine.
Since Parn arrived, Elna had learned a lot of things. She had learned that Janzel’s wheezing could be cured by the snout of a weevil, ground calcite, and a touch of magic. She had learned that a cow’s rib was tenderer than its flank, and that both turned an empty belly into a hearty sigh. Cotton was better than wool in summer, wheat grew under Parn’s care swiftly as wildflowers, and goat’s milk was sweeter than any liquid she’d ever let slide down her throat.
She’d never known her parents to dance, and dance well, as they did now at Pond Mok gatherings in the center of town, their heads tilted to the dark blue flags flapping high in the square, their laughter carried by music.
Parn handed her the tea. It slid cool into her belly even though it was warm. The final chapter of The History of Hith detailed the position of the Magick, and its need for regimented discipline.
“Control is necessary,” it read, “in order to deter a misrelease of magic that might consequently result in Hith’s disaster. As noted in the previous chapter, we have ascertained that Magicks acquire their skills in reaction to past depravity, in this life or the last. Thus, these sinister forces should not be left unattended.
When in doubt of how to proceed, remember discipline begets loyalty, every time.”
Elna turned the book in her hands and sank into herself. Depraved. So that’s what they were. In Pond Mok, where it wasn’t unusual to see fists thrown over suspicious hellos, everyone agreed on this. Even her peers grounded their spit on their Magicks’ names as if that was how it should be done.
Elna’s arms prickled with that now familiar sensation of liquid invading her skin, and she gave in, urging the burn of the world through her hands. Sun grit. Fire ball palms. Release.
Out from her hands where the book once rested, a butterfly flapped clumsily toward the shutters. Parn moved to swing them open, only to lunge for the front door and slide the lock through its slat with a gavel-pounding smack.
“Elna, it’s them.”
The butterfly twitched in its thirst for nectar. Elna tightened her eyes, stuffed the thick stream of herself like a wad of cotton into her gut. The light of her skin paled, bulged, defended itself and reared again. Her mother pounded on the door. “Elna?”
Elna lifted herself to her feet. How heavy they felt, her legs, like maple trunks plunged in the earth. The tea she had previously drank nudged its way through her throat, searching for an exit. A day hadn’t passed in the last few months without nausea surfacing over smothered light.
She focused. Counted to ten in the quiet pouch of her mouth. Finally, the sign of the Magick vanished. Elna preferred the look of her skin vacant of glimmer, deserted. Her stomach contracted, agitated. Parn slid back the latch.
The butterfly flapped past her mother’s head, battling swoops and turns of wind. Her sisters and father carried loads of goods in their arms beneath chattering, cackling noise. They were people Elna knew but didn’t, their once chiseled cheekbones rolled into smooth dough.
Her father rubbed her head. “Feeling better, Elna?”
The touch of his hand loosened her stomach. Instead of words, tea erupted, pooling on the floor.
Her mother dumped oranges on the counter. “I thought you were a cure-all, Magick. Why is she still retching?”
Before Parn could answer, Old Barg rushed through their door, panting raspy. “Tilmia. My sister,” he said. “She came home to her oldest girl spraying light all over the place.” He shook his head; waited on his breath to compose. “None of us knew.”
Elna’s palms tingled. She clamped her strength against the sensation, sending it deep.
Old Barg’s jaw set stony then. “Now that little fiend has locked herself in the closet. We’ll need more hands to hold her once we get her out. At least until Auction Transfer arrives.”
Elna’s mother and father bent close in dense whispers. After some time, her father turned, his face taut with an expression Elna didn’t recognize.
His words filed out stiffly. “Paska, Anj, Willa, and Torlie, you go into town with your mother and get the rest of the supplies for the festivities next week. Janzel, you stay behind to milk the goats since the canisters are low.” He looked at Parn then, albeit askance as if deflecting. “Parn, go see Mildin about some more fabric for the curtains. We’ll be back in a few hours. As for you Elna,” he said, eyes settling below hers, “get some rest.”
Her family gone, her light stumbled woozy into her arms and legs until it spread, steadying. Parn’s mouth creased before opening. “When are you going to tell your parents?”
“Maybe after the party.”
“What if something happens?”
“Well, do as you please,” Parn said. “I’ll be back soon.”
Elna stared at the lambent current of her body. The ability to tuck herself away, Parn said, would not last forever. Eventually, the magic would prevail, an idea that squatted as an unwanted visitor in her head.
Was she, Elna, depraved, as the book said? Was Parn? Parn had never an angry word for Elna, not even a scowl, not for anyone; how was that depravity? And what did her parents believe? Parn thought her parents would conceal her, protect her, defend her, but Elna feared otherwise. Her father and Old Barg had just left for Tilmia’s, their heads stooped together in murmurs. And the week before, her mother had returned from a town meeting wedging a room’s distance between herself and Parn for the rest of the evening.
“He’s not like us, Elna,” she had said. “Look at his skin. There’s something of a demon in that skin.”
Still, they hadn’t taken a rod to Parn’s back, and for that Elna was thankful.
The wind scrabbled around the torso of the house, soared high, pummeled the roof. A goat bleated, suddenly, and something followed, a sound of pain that rode a gust long and hard until it collided against the window. Elna opened the back door, driving her light down as she crossed the open prairie to the pen.
Elna saw the blood first. Hands clutching at a bloody stomach, blood pooling around the fingers. Nausea rose strong; her magic screamed in her gut, anxious.
Janzel hissed breath. “The wind. I fell hard. The gate.”
On the gate, blood covered the three rogue prongs where Janzel’s stomach had plunged. Elna felt her own stomach drop and fall sour.
“Elna,” Janzel said, coughing. “Parn. Where’s Parn?”
Elna froze. Tears grew heavy on her lashes, blurring. Her heart fixed tight, wishing to lock itself inside the bleary pause and keep safe. Her voice, forced, came coarse, thick with dread: “Parn’s gone. To Mildin’s.”
Janzel moaned, rolling on her side. Blood leaked from her mouth. Her eyes fluttered.
Elna bent close, breathed deep. Would Janzel think her depraved, too? No matter, there was nothing else to do but let the quelled magic go. Her light surged slow and gentle at first, collecting in her arms, expanding through her wrists. She didn’t think, only felt, felt fear morph into love, love into pain, pain into purpose. The gleam of her swelled, and she shone brighter than ever, her body a sweltering golden flame. Inside the heat, she gave in, sent forth, quaked as the world quaked through; in a moment, she was here, now, a Magick.
Janzel shook, convulsed, regained calm in frozen stillness. She locked eyes with Elna, stayed her gaze until exhaustion broke it, then shut her view to the world, her breath gliding shallow.
Elna carried Janzel into the house, tucked her under covers and counted breaths, waiting. She cried, too, cried until she was hollow, cried until she was filled again, and whether they were tears of joy or sadness, she didn’t know.
When their parents returned, Janzel sat up and swung her legs off the bed with only a half-glance at Elna, joining their mother in the kitchen, where she chopped away for the evening’s remainder.
The rest of the week brought more of the same normalcy, and Elna held her tongue, even to Parn, feeling the event better left unquestioned.
On the day of the party, the northern gusts continued to hunt them down, rattling the floorboards. Elna’s mother kneaded dough in the kitchen. Her sisters mended curtains and laced garland for the newly built porch eaves.
The party would begin after sunset, and then they would arrive, all of Pond Mok, in their best wear. The men would saunter in their fine wool jackets, heavy gold rings banding their fingers; the women would preen in fur-lined cloaks, hair twisted into high knots.
The barn was all but finished, only the wide double doors remaining, which her father installed now, his hair swirling in a wind that occasionally yanked a strand and sent it flapping. After dinner, Elna and her family and the guests would gather in the barn, where Parn would display his talents, concoctions such as eye-widening fireworks exploding like fruit, rind and flesh and pips and juice spattering the air.
Elna shadowed her mother, kneading dough, kneading herself, the very words that she wanted to say pressed and rolled beneath her fingers, not yet able to take shape. Should she confess boldly, I’m a Magick, Mother, or instead, lead her to a hushed corner and lace their hands together, then whisper it in her ear?
She had to do it soon. The need for confession pinched with urgency in her bones; her glow, stuffed in her chest at this moment, strained its lid ready to blow.
Elna covered her mouth and the sudden rise of her bitter stomach. Her mother shooed her outside, saying “Fresh air will do you good,” and Elna lost a moment. The day ambled on, the dough mounted into loaves, the smell of meat saturated the air. Elna tried a time at sewing, but the flow of stitch cracked her focus, threatened to let her light creep through, so she put the threads away.
In the bedroom, Elna made a second attempt with a solemn “Mother, may we speak,” was all she could push out.
Her mother, hemming, buried her eyes further in her task and muttered, “Tomorrow, Elna. Off to the pastries please, if your stomach can handle it.”
Her father gave her less, a surly grunt as he heaved the door into the barn’s wide mouth with Parn and Old Barg sweating on either side. Her father and Old Barg stood far back then, fidgeting against fits of gale as Parn discharged his luminosity into the wood, sealing the door to its frame.
Above them, the clear sky held rigid against the wind. Elna held the words in her throat (Father, I am a Magick), feeling the memory of that day at the auction, her head pressed in his shirt. Old Barg intruded in his gruff voice, and the memory swelled tenfold before collapsing.
“Fine Magick you got there,” he said, nodding to her father. “It’s all about the rod for those Magicks. Sticks, belts, whatever’s handy, right? Remind them of their function. Can’t ever discipline them enough, don’t you think?”
Elna stifled a sharp gag and the thought of Old Barg’s niece; where she might be now. Old Barg flashed a glance at her, then pocketed his hands and spit hard.
Her father cleared his throat. “Discipline begets loyalty, right?”
At dinner, nobody sat. They milled like bees, touching wings, sending shivers of conversation through the crowd. The moon dressed in the sky, silver robes curling dim into the kitchen. Everything got eaten, the bread, the sausages, the legs and wings of moistened chicken, the mashed buttery squash, the crisp berry-filled pastries. Young children half Elna’s size scampered across her feet to the outdoors, squealing as they met the wind.
Soon, when the wine filled more than several cheeks with a cherry blush, her parents obliged. The crowd gathered inside the mouth of the barn, double doors slid back. Inside, Parn seemed happy to be putting on a show, and Elna comforted herself in this, in Parn’s delight in magic.
He began with a few crystalline sparks sprayed to the ceiling that sprinkled down as snow. The people of Pond Mok gave minimal appreciation, bobbing nods here and there. His tricks improved, illusions of waterfalls inside a sunrise and fireworks blazing across miniature constellations.
For the finale, Parn grew a jewel-studded oak from a pot, tiny birds swooping from nests within its arms and lighting the wrists and shoulders of the audience before vanishing. Elna watched in amazement, the joy of Parn’s work settling in her skin, making itself at home.
Applause ensued, whoops and hollers of “Bravo, Magick! Bravo!” shimmying across the oak leaves. Energized by the roar, Parn delivered a stream of multicolored light to the ceiling as an encore, not expecting its force, not expecting its substance. None of them expected it, the light show, the heat, the way it seared into the roof’s center beam and erupted in a bulging sac of pulpy flame.
All of Pond Mok screamed. They clamored out the barn door, elbows lodging in backs and sending bodies to the dirt. Elna’s father looped his arm through hers, knotted Janzel through his other, and dragged them forth. Wind whipped the fire into frenzy, and behind them a crack as the beam split, crashed, drew more screams.
Outside the conflagration, her mother stood, hands on her chest, bottom lip sunk to her chin, a dark wordless cavern. The hungry fire tore through the belly of the structure until it belched into the crowd. Stragglers leaped over fiery chunks, limping, scorched.
Inside the barn, a figure wrestled beneath a long, large body of wood, its legs in muddled incandescence flinching at the hard flicks of red and orange.
Elna started forward. “Parn!”
Behind her Janzel yelled, “Elna, no!”
Her father grabbed her, wrapped her in his arms.
Elna wrestled against him. “Father, that’s Parn. We need tohelp him.”
“Please, Elna,” he said low, “let the Magick be.”
Elna pressed. “But it’s Parn. He savedJanzel. He saved us all.”
Janzel moved close, placed her head in the crook of Elna’s neck, her tears moistening Elna’s cheek. Elna kissed her brow. Their father eased his grip, softening.
“We’ll get another Magick, Elna.”
Elna untangled. “No, Father,” she said, “we won’t.”
The path to the barn held solid beneath her feet, and as she ran, her shine burst forth in a golden splendor, in a stream of earth and sky and sea through her limbs.
She didn’t dare turn, hark back, not when the wind or worse followed, hot fog riding hard.
Parn shook loose from the wreckage like a limp rag. His glow, confused, waffled feeble. His body lifted easy, less than Elna expected, and the connection of his light with hers surged his strength. Elna gasped rough from it, not knowing the magic could rush with such force.
They emerged side-by-side. The townspeople were waiting, far from the barn’s remains, revulsion hardening their jaws. Her family huddled off to the side, eyes cast down, except for Janzel, who wept on her knees as if Sillow had died again and there was no remedy for grief. Her parents neither suppressed nor unleashed any sobs, nor risked any glimpses. Elna knew then they wouldn’t alter their needs this time, not for her worth.
Above, storm clouds moved in with a whisper, releasing soft drops. Elna grabbed Parn’s hand, squeezing it gently. Her light roamed wildly about her body, biding freedom in the darkening cold front.