Saturday, October 19, 2013

Interlude: Fiction

For something different today, here is a short story for your enjoyment.

Small Stuff
By Lif Strand (c) 2013

It had been raining all afternoon and evening, raining for so long that I didn't notice when the hammering on my metal roof finally stopped. Now all I could hear were the drops plinking from the broken gutter into a bucket just outside, a bit of a breeze soughing through the crack where the door sat crooked in its frame, and the snores of my dogs and cats.

It wasn't long after midnight. I wanted to call it a day, but couldn't, not yet. There was a nervous energy keeping me awake. I was way too restless to sit still much longer, way too jumpy to sleep.

I stared at the words on the page of the book in my hands. They didn't make any more sense now than they had an hour ago. I set it carefully on top of the precariously balanced stack of reading material that had already been rejected tonight.

I was seated at what was supposed to be my dinner table, but there wasn't enough room on the painted black surface for a soup bowl, much less a dinner plate.  I often ate just standing up at the kitchen counter.  I’m unrepentantly uncivilized that way.

Before me, instead of china and crystal and linen, were the tools of my trade and the debris of my life - maybe one and the same. An empty juice glass, safer for me to use for wine than stemware was. A crumpled foil wrapper with one piece of luscious dark chocolate left. A brass pipe-to-hose connector that I needed for a project, but that I couldn't remove from the 2” length of pipe it was attached to no matter how much I wrestled with it. An eBook reader. Three – no, four – crooked stacks of library and second-hand store books with bookmarks and post-its bristling from their pages. And my spiral-bound notebooks. With the words. The fiction I was compelled to write that was actually thinly disguised… well, let’s face it. Spells.

The notebooks were grimoires, okay? My spell-books. But hidden, like I was, by being right in the open.

You know why – don’t deny it. This is not a world where true magic is welcome any more, if it ever really has been. Ironic though, isn't it, since pretend magic is everywhere. Robed masters wield powerful forces on movie screens. Fae and demons and elementals splash the covers of new releases on the bookshelves. Vampires and zombies and werewolves populate video games. Rock bands with their painted faces and light shows out-flash Las Vegas magicians. Websites channel the wisdom of angels and disembodied spirits. The world is full of all that. But no one really thinks any of it is really real, right?

I’m all too aware, though, that these days are no different from the days when they burned witches at the stake – just not so messy. Magic stuff is okay as long as it is fantasy. Really real magic is not something to fool around with – not in the open, not now, not ever.

Inconveniently for my peace of mind, I have magic in me. I’m too afraid to ever let even a hint of it seep out where anyone else could figure out what I am doing. Not even my family knows. Consequently I don’t know a thing about it - which makes me wonder if I’m not just insane and delusional instead. Though they say if you think you might be crazy you probably aren't.

Can I trust that?

Here’s the problem: One day I found out that I could do magic. It freaked me out then and I’m still freaked out for all kinds of reasons. It’s not so much that I’m afraid of being stoned or burned at the stake like in the olden days – that doesn't happen where I live, though it’s never a good idea to discount the possibility. It’s more likely, though, that I’d be locked away somewhere with the other whackos. Or worse. I didn't really know what worse was, but I feared it.

The lead-up to my discovery started out so innocently. I mean, come on – I was a good Catholic girl for years, and sure I fell off the wagon, but I’d passed through the drugs and sex and booze stages of rebellion and had settled down to more or less responsible adulthood. More or less because I was still not normal of course. Back then I still wanted to grow up to be a writer, and writers are never considered normal. But that’s another story.

Then after all I’d been through, when I finally thought I was settling down, there was this… thing, this albatross on my back. Demon? Nightmare horror? Devil?

Okay, she was my business partner. Pamela and I were – oh hell, I don’t even understand it. We were going to make lots of money through the junk business. That would be junk as in other people’s discarded treasures, not as in drugs.

I've been in business with partners before. Sometimes actually made money. Pamela wasn't even my first female partner. The last partnership hadn't gone well but I had higher expectations this time. I always did. The problem was that I hadn't learned from the last time. I was… oh… not the weak link, but the gullible one. The one who wanted to play it straight with a con-man (or woman) partner.

But unlike my other partners, good or bad, Pamela scared me – I don’t know how else to put it. Although she was physically bigger than me that wasn't the scary thing. I’m tallish for a woman with average build, but I do have a few muscles. Pamela was only a few inches taller. Well, and she was broader, too. And rougher.  Not that any of that mattered, since quite honestly I’m just not into violence, physical or otherwise.

Okay, I just now lied - I can be plenty violent if pushed to it. The problem is that I can’t control it and then someone gets hurt. While it’s no biggie for me to be hurt, I feel bad when I calm down after I've done that to someone else. So my preference is to control myself – not the other person – in situations where I get pissed off. It’s just safer for everybody. Sometimes, though, I get pushed too far and then all I know how to do is strike out – and whatever I hit, I hurt bad. I don’t hit with my fists, you understand – I hit with my mind.

Not magic. I mean, I didn't think it was that then, or maybe I did but I didn't care because it worked. And that was dangerous – not because it bothered me so much to hurt others (come on, they deserved it) but because that let people see me. And that could bring a world of hurt on me, or so I’d believed ever since I could remember. I don’t really know why, I just have always known it was that way.

On the other hand, it was a fact that my business partner scared me, badly enough that I was getting even more scared of myself. And so I had to stop her.

I know - you want to know what she was doing. But I can’t really describe it. It wasn't the poor business practices (well, that was part of it but not an important or insurmountable obstacle). It wasn't that she didn't listen – unfortunately that seemed to be normal business practice for the partners I got involved with. It was something that she was doing to my head. It was a control thing. It was a weight on my soul, an unrelenting pressure that... heck I can only say it felt like I was constantly fighting being turned into not-me.

Talking it out was the mature thing to do, but it didn't achieve a thing. Pamela was offended and wounded, she said. I was mistaken, she said. I was a hurtful person, she said. Don't sweat the small stuff, she said.

Yelling at her didn't work either. The mature talking it out always devolved into horrible fights. Each time I’d win the arguments but somehow she won the battles. The atmosphere afterwards was oppressive – the miasma just got thicker and darker. She unrelentingly dragged at me when we fought, sucking my energy. I’d go home afterwards totally exhausted, feeling filthy and violated and confused - yet I was unable to stay away from her. She would call me up and demand I show up to work and even though I didn't want to go back there with all my heart, I did go.

I tried to avoid her each time, but that was hard – I mean, we were in the same small rooms, going through the same stuff, having to discuss what we’d do with each item. She kept a lot of it. I can’t explain how that worked – we were supposed to be selling it all, right? But somehow the good stuff wound up as her personal property. And me? I got to where I didn't want to touch any of it because it represented her and the foulness that was working into my flesh.

I got all defensive. I tried to block her out but I couldn't. And I was dreading what was coming – I could feel it, that being backed into a corner feeling, the one that I knew – I knew – would end up badly because this time there was the added element of her specifically, of Pamela and the thing she was doing to me – the thing she was. I didn't want to name it, but I knew. Deep inside something in me recognized it, all right. Laugh if you want, but she was dark and ugly, and whatever she was, she wanted something from me that I didn't want to give up.

I’m not calling what she was doing evil, because as scary as it was to experience, it still felt like the actions of any living thing that needs to eat. No one wants to be the thing being eaten, but that doesn't make the thing taking a bite out of you evil.

I didn't call what she wanted to take from me magic, either – I didn't admit to magic then. Heck, I can’t even call it magic now - I can barely talk about it at all. I mean, I am unable to tell you any more than what I have already of what Pamela was doing. I literally cannot describe to you what I did to stop her, either, and I did stop her. It’s really weird, but when I try to force it out – well, those words just will not come out of me. A bummer isn't it, given that I’m a writer these days.

Believe me, it isn't writer’s block.

I can talk around it, though. I can say what I came up with in a general way. I can say I just got pushed to the point of such desperation that I did a small magic.

It was like discovering fire, the wonder of it that the first humans must have felt. It was the first time I’d consciously done magic and the first magic I’d ever done that wasn't reflexive fear-biting. Imagine that. Just like those first people with fire, I found this thing all by myself and just like that, it changed my world.

It wasn't hard but it was the most frightening thing I've ever done – because irrefutably, absolutely, incontrovertibly I had used magic on purpose. And that’s the most I can tell you. All those grimoires I've written since? They don’t really tell how to do magic – they are words that dance all around the subject, just like I’m doing now. They’re like recipes from famous chefs that only contain the main ingredients and no real instructions, so that the dishes are still theirs alone.

But back then, when I did magic for the first time I couldn't have told you about it anyway. That’s because I didn't really know what the heck I was doing.

And then I did. And that freaked the hell out of me.

The on-purpose magic thing I did was not meant to hurt Pamela, amazingly enough. I wore out a lot of brain cells trying to figure out my situation while I was stupidly still involving myself in the ugliness every day. The drive to and from work took me an hour and a half each way, plenty of time for thinking – on the way there building myself up and quelling the sick feeling in my stomach, on the way home recovering and quelling the sick feeling in my stomach. But I did finally realize that I had to know what I wanted, as opposed to what I didn't want. That’s a lot harder than you’d imagine, especially when there are bad things happening that you want to stop right away.

You see, magic works on what you want - not what you don’t want. It’s obvious, really – but most people just don’t get it. Suppose someone asks me what I want for dessert, and I say, oh anything but fruitcake. Well, I’m a chocolate lover. I almost always want something chocolate for dessert, unless it’s a cinnamon roll. So if I say anything but fruitcake I might be spared from that nastiness but it doesn’t mean I’ll get chocolate. I mean, I might get mincemeat pie (oh yuck) or lime Jell-O with fruit cocktail mixed in. When it comes to magic, what you have to do is be specific about what you want. I say I want German chocolate cake, I get German chocolate cake. See how that works?

So I wanted Pamela to do… what? Go away? How would I go about making that happen even if I could do it? And besides, what about my investment in the business? How would that get dealt with? And did I really want to hurt her? Yes. No. Not at the expense of my own soul. Fear-biting was one thing, but on-purpose, premeditated harm was a bit much.

Too many questions, no resolutions. I kept coming back to a niggling idea that it wasn't about her, it was about me. It took days of driving back and forth before I had my duh moment.

Oh man, this is hard to write – you have no idea. It’s so… slippery. But here it is: I didn't really give a shit about Pamela. I didn't care what happened to her.  I didn't want to change the world, I didn't even want to change her.  All I wanted was personal peace of mind. What I wanted was mental silence and still waters where there had been roiling lava mud pits of icky emotion. Such a small thing, really, but wow.

I got it finally.  I had to do magic on myself, not on Pamela. And why not? It’s my own life I wanted to change – I didn't give two hoots about hers. I didn't need for her to just go away because that might not get me what I wanted. I needed me to be happy again, or as close as I could get to that elusive state.

So I found myself suddenly clear that doing an act of magic would fix things. Me, the one who had never dared think that way before. And then I did it.

And how did I do it? Good try – but I can’t tell you. It involved ordinary things found in any kitchen, just a few little things for a short and sweet ritual, and the clear intent and… hell. I just used magic to shut myself of her. I slammed a door, not on myself, but between us – a door she didn't even have to know about. And then I put the key – the thing I made from the kitchen stuff – away somewhere safe, a place I could forget about it even as I knew it was secure. And there was the magic, right there. The putting it away from me with a knowing: What I had done would do exactly what I wanted. It was extraordinary, it was real and powerful. It was mine, a thing that I had done. And I knew it was done.

From that day on Pamela was gone from my life. Oh, she lived in town still, but she and I didn't say a word to each other for several years after that moment of magic in my kitchen. I didn't avoid her, she just wasn't there. Where did she go, what did she think? I have no clue and I don’t care. What happened to the business? I don’t know. Maybe she’s still doing it. No one talks about her to me, and I don’t ask. Every so often we see each other at community functions and she nods her head pleasantly and her eyes slide right off of me.

That was ten years ago. Since then, I've become a writer, though what I write about for money is a lot more boring than magic. Since then I've thought a lot about magic.  I write about magic a lot – notebook after notebook of what I have figured out, and not a bit of it useful to anyone else because none of it will ever see the light of day.

Since then, I've done it again. It's such a small thing, that magic.  A small thing - like an atom that you split apart and the world changes.   


  1. Double Wow...

    I really liked:

    "No one wants to be the thing being eaten, but that doesn't make the thing taking a bite out of you evil."