Memory of Magic
by Jacob A. Boyd
This is how I imagined it.
Coppers Rest would band together and dig Daddy free before the year's first
snowfall. Standing with one foot still in the mine, Daddy would squint at the sun
and smile. A breeze would ruffle the wispy, auburn beard which would've grown
down to his chest, while a broad-winged hawk kited overhead, its body a russet
blaze against the limitless blue. Sprays of violet asters would line the path down
to camp. The mine would reward Daddy for his suffering, his endurance, his
example. Wearing a formal top hat, the mayor would shake Daddy's hand.
They'd hold the pose and wait for the reporters' sulfur bulbs to flash. The story
would chitter out across the transcontinental wire.
But there was no use pretending.
As I lay in bed reading the last book Daddy had bought me, the world was the
wind howling down from the pass, colder each day. It was the walls of the shack
creaking. It was the squeal and crumble of mine carts unloading and making up
for lost time. A lantern flame and too little oil.
It was, and couldn't un-be.
Madame Blye agreed. While she rarely made house calls, she said she had made
an exception for me. She ran a house for working girls, but she hadn't come on
business, rather something more important. School teacher Strobel told her I
hadn't returned to class since the cave-in. His best girl, thirteen years old, I
should've been someone to look up to. Where was I instead, burying my head in a
book? Yes, I had a right to my sorrow, but it wasn't sustaining. I should've faced
facts sooner. The exploratory tunnel was closed. Daddy was gone.
She wasn't telling me because she was heartless. She wanted to take me in until I
left for my Aunt Claire's back East in the Spring. It would take at least a season to
It was, truly, a pity.
From the way she said it, I knew her compliments to Daddy about my grace, about
my tender eyes, about my silken black hair, so much like her own, had been
strokes of a blade on a whetstone.
I ran away at nightfall.
Crouching among the short pines below tree line, I peered back at the shacks and
buildings of camp, their outlines like so many boulders painted with cold
moonlight. I darted for the train snaking along the Banner River on the valley
Rounding a granite outcropping, I almost stepped on you. You made a breathy
little noise and startled me.
At first, I mistook you for an abandoned baby. But you were smaller, more like a
baby mouse, pink and hairless with dark, swollen eyes you couldn't open, tiny
limbs reaching out for a kind touch.
Daddy had said little wizards lived in the mountainside woods. He said that was
how he had ended up with me. He had found me, too. I had been a little wizard. I
just couldn't remember the magic I had in me -- I would one day, maybe. It was
the way he told it to make me feel better that Momma had died of a swift sickness
before I could remember her. School teacher Strobel had told me about it, told of
how strong Daddy was to stick it out with me. His word trumped Daddy's. But
seeing you, I felt I had betrayed Daddy by smiling at him like he was making fun.
When I picked you up it felt like God had crawled inside my skin and was trying it
on to see if I still fit.
I wrapped you in my blanket, hid you in a hollow behind spiny brush, then
returned to camp.
I was too old and too far gone; I had grown into the world. I couldn't remember
the wizard I had been.
I was going to make it different for you.
Four things I knew:
One: Anyone who saw you other than Madame Blye and Old Jain would take you
away and put you in a home for lost children. There, you'd forget the big wizard
you had been before too much magic had stripped your mind bare and shrunk your
Two: If Madame Blye saw you, she'd take you and rear you and put you to work
beside her man Big Roy.
Three: For the right price, Old Jain would keep anything secret.
Four: When reared back into the big wizards they had been, little wizards can
I went to Madame Blye's house for working girls. In those days, it was a multi-storied jumble of mismatched additions extending from a barracks-like dorm. I
told her I'd very much like to take her up on her offer. I couldn't stay in Daddy's
shack. She said she had visited the shack the night before. No one was there. She
had been afraid I had fled before proper respects were paid. She was glad I hadn't.
It would've been a shame. Daddy's eternal rest aside, I lived in the real world.
After being released at the end of the month, Daddy's final pay would've
languished on the mine's books until it was marked as abandoned. A girl alone
like me could use that pay. Daddy wouldn't have wanted his hard work to go to
waste. I was making the right choice to wait for it.
I told her she was generous and thoughtful.
She smiled and said I must be hungry and tired, then had Big Roy show me to my
room on the side of the house opposite where the girls worked, the newest
addition. The door struck the bed when opened. The room was windowless and
drafty, big enough for a sleigh frame bed with cushioned mattress, nightstand with
candle, and a standing oval mirror. No sooner had I looked at my growling
stomach in the mirror than Big Roy delivered a meal the likes of which I hadn't
seen except for when Daddy cleared new tunnels leading to rich veins of gold.
Big Roy left, closing the door behind him.
A contented swoon overcame me once I finished eating, and I fell asleep.
Throughout the night, heavy boots dragged across floorboards in the hall. Strange
shifting lights from foul-smelling chemical lanterns reached through the gap under
the door and almost touched the bed.
In the morning, I asked Madame Blye about the noises, the lights. She said though
my room was far from where work was done, the men who frequented her services
roamed the halls. They didn't consider much off limits, but I shouldn't worry.
She had a special eye on me. And there was always Big Roy.
Stories told about Big Roy:
Big Roy has never spoken. When spoken to, he only understands Madame Blye.
They have a secret language, which so closely mimics common language it's
indistinguishable. It's tonal. Pitch has something to do with it. And body
language. Timing, too.
Big Roy does whatever Madame Blye tells him to do. When he has no
instructions, he sulks about the house looking for her. If he can't find her, he
works himself into a dither. It's like he's playing a game of hide and seek with
serious consequences. Once worked up, he can only be calmed with lullabies. His
favorite is Still, Still, Still.
During a fight in which Big Roy killed three men, he was stabbed a dozen times.
He was acquitted on grounds of self-defense; he was unarmed. At the men's
funeral, Madame Blye spoke for Big Roy and said he felt bad it had all happened
like it did. Before the judge, his face, like his body, was broad and strong and
challenging, as if his skin stretched over unchanging stone. Everyone who saw his
face during the fight was dead, so no one could say whether his expression had
remained unchanged then, too, like it was before the fight and at the funeral.
Big Roy never limps. Or coughs. Or sneezes. Some say he never blinks, but
that's an exaggeration. He blinks when you blink.
A working girl named Sally once tried to thank Big Roy for throwing out a drunk
who had flown off the handle due to an unfortunately timed giggle. She took
down Big Roy's overalls and was confused by what she saw. She quashed her
repulsion -- men are built in all manner of ways -- and did her best with her
hand, then her mouth until Big Roy left without becoming aroused. The next day,
Sally was gone. Madame Blye told the other girls Sally had been sent down the
valley to the salvation home for girls who had gotten themselves into a situation.
Sally never returned.
Big Roy eats rock candy all the time and his teeth never go bad. Madame Blye
buys it for him. He's not allowed to handle money. He's no good with it, doesn't
understand it. When he has it, he gives it away or loses it.
The pines around Old Jain's shack grew so thick that it couldn't be seen from
Madame Blye's house for working girls. Only when a plume of steam rose from
Old Jain's liquor still was it easy to pinpoint. Even then, the trees and berms and
boulders and streams had a way of leading one's eyes and one's mind in the wrong
direction. On the ground approaching it, the effect was claustrophobic, with the
only safe passage leading away from Old Jain's.
When I returned to the working house after searching for the right path, Madame
Blye eyed my wet boots, torn dress, and the muck caked under my fingernails. I
told her I had needed time alone and a long walk to think about things. Her nose
flared as though scenting my trail on me.
By the end of the week, her interest had grown so acute I resolved to take you with
me during my next foray. I couldn't wait until I found a safe route. There were
none. The routes I hadn't tried were so dangerous that if I were to have died, it
would've been a gentler mercy for you to die with me than for you to dehydrate
and starve to death while swaddled in a hollow.
It is enough to say that I was not much hurt, and you not at all, though I was
certain at times my footing would plunge us into dark recesses, only to find the
rocks and hummock as firm as my certainty that they'd provide my last steps on
Old Jain's shack looked like it had crashed down the mountainside in an
avalanche, then decided to stop and rest and crumble awhile before it continued
down to the valley floor. Old Jain opened its door as soon as I saw it. She looked
like she had made the same decision to wait and crumble awhile.
She said I should come in. She couldn't turn me away now that I had come so far.
Yes, she'd take my child, but there was a price, and if I didn't pay it, she'd eat the
child, bones and all. I didn't see any children running around her place, did I?
I showed you to her before introducing myself. Her voice sharpened with
excitement. She asked where I had found you and how long I had you and a
welter of other questions she garbled half in a language I didn't understand, then
apologized. She hadn't seen a real little wizard for a very long time, and had
forgotten herself, like it was old times.
I told her I had been hiding you and keeping you warm and dry. The hollow you
were in muffled your cries. I had been sneaking away and feeding you milk and
cream from the food Big Roy brought me.
Old Jain bolted into her shack and returned with a small bottle of dark green
liquid, which she poured into your mouth. It smelled like swampy frog legs. You
became violently ill and pale and spat up with horrible retching noises. I yelled at
Old Jain for poisoning you. She said it was for the best; the convulsions would
pass. Trembling, thinking I had protected you only to deliver you to a hateful old
harridan, thinking perhaps I should grab her bottle and drink the rest, I held you to
my chest, and your convulsions passed. Color returned to your cheeks.
I told her you were mine, I intended to keep you, and she shouldn't try that again.
Old Jain said it was unlikely she could hurt you without hurting herself. She
hadn't found you. I had, although it was probably more the other way around, a
joke in which I didn't find much humor. She was a queer sort of woman. She had
lived alone so long I had a sense that her protective shell of self-preserving
thoughts could be trusted, if not the words she used to express them.
I pleaded would she help me. I could no longer hide you in the woods. Madame
Blye had grown interested in my long walks, and might begin accompanying me to
talk things over before I did anything rash. If she did, she'd keep me away from
you, and you were so small.
Old Jain's face scrunched with a grave expression of thought. She said I was so
young, the girls didn't normally come so young, did I know what I was doing?
I told her about my hopes of teaching you the world again and rearing you back
into a big wizard so you could raise Daddy from the mountain. Together, we'd
leave Coppers Rest. Daddy never wanted this to be his final resting place.
She asked if I was prepared for such a thing.
I told her it didn't matter if I was prepared, I was going to do it with her or without
her, but with her, it'd be easier. And hadn't she said she'd take my child when she
opened the door?
She was silent for some time, and I felt I had made a mistake by trying to be rough
She said she was old and it had been a long time since she cared for a little wizard.
Last time, it hadn't gone so good. I said I'd pay her, and her expression became
calculating and sad. I told her I'd do anything, name her price.
We agreed, price to be named later. She wanted to think on it.
Stories told about Madame Blye:
As a child, Madame Blye flew until taught not to by her parents. She has since
forgotten how. Still, when walking on snow she leaves no footprints.
Madame Blye can't get pregnant. Some say it is because a snake slithered inside
her and bit her womb. Of those who say that, some say it's still in her. If she
didn't always wear her whalebone corset cinched so tight, she'd allow it room to
move and grow, perhaps to burst free. She is never seen wearing anything but
clothing that conceals all but her demure hands. Often she wears gloves, too, and
big, fancy hats with wide, curvy brims adorned with raven feathers. Others say
she was born infertile, yet grew so beautiful that men couldn't help themselves
from a very young age. They say it was their ardor which led her to her line of
work, since she couldn't stop their advances, only manage them.
Every year, Madame Blye selects one of her house's clients and personally attends
to him. She is a screamer. Though the miner she selects always looks pleasantly
dazed for weeks on end and babbles when asked what it was like, mentioning
maybe the scent of burning strawberries or a sound nobody else heard during the
act, like tolling bells, there is always concern when the act is in progress that
someone is getting murdered.
Madame Blye knows the first poetry ever written and sometimes recites it under
Big Roy was Madame Blye's first client. He stays with her as a form of apology.
She keeps him because it hasn't sufficed.
Madame Blye can give a man an orgasm just by looking at him. She taught some
of her girls the trick. It doesn't always work. When it does, the men are so
effusively shamed they return day after day to pay and prove their virility.
Madame Blye once said she thought about being a miner, but decided working on
her back was the easier way to get the gold out of the mountain. Besides, there are
deeper things than gold.
The price Old Jain and I agreed upon was no less than everything Madame Blye
would let me keep. If I didn't pay it, she'd know. How, she didn't say, but I felt it
prudent not to cross her even in thought that could lead to suspicion.
I told Madame Blye I'd need as much money as I could muster for my trip back
East. I wanted to work. She said working for her wouldn't be proper. Her house
had a reputation. I said I understood. She sat beside me on my bed and regarded
the mirror as if her reflection looked out at her, not the other way around. She
explained in great detail what men who spent twelve, sometimes twenty-four
hours underground hired her girls to do. The least of the things they performed
made me second guess raising you back into the world. The worst made me
lightheaded. Madame Blye called for Big Roy to bring a cold towel and hot cup of
licorice tea. She asked did she need to repeat any part of what she said? I said
thank you, but no. She looked glad for it, as though she disliked explaining it to
me, but I suspected it wasn't the descriptions she found distasteful, rather it was
the honesty. She said I should be aware of what others would think of me for
lending my labor to her establishment, for small things like beating the rugs or
opening the curtains to the morning light, what they might suspect of me even
I told her I'd need to take some long walks to decide. She asked if I'd like Big
Roy to accompany me, for protection. He wouldn't understand me if I talked to
myself. I told her no, thank you; I needed to be alone-alone.
Old Jain looked cross when I explained to her why I had nothing to give her those
first couple weeks. She said it had been a long time since she ate a little wizard.
They fought going down and tasted gamey. Also, the indigestion. But that
wouldn't stop her. I said it wasn't my fault. I explained to her about Daddy's
final pay, which was scheduled to be released at the end of the month. Madame
Blye would count it, and apologize that it fell short of the expenses incurred while
boarding me. Then she'd act like she saw something in me, like I had known and
taken advantage of her. It was all part of her plan. She intended to put me to work
in her lineup, like she had with the other girls whose Daddies died digging for
gold. Then, I'd be making money. But things had to take their course. Madame
Blye had to talk herself into it, had to think I deserved my lot.
Old Jain looked sad, and asked if I was sure I wanted to go through with it. She
didn't usually renegotiate, but if I wanted, I could back out of the deal before
things got out of hand. She said she'd dispose of you humanely, out of sight, and I
wouldn't be responsible. I told her I already was responsible, and if I was the kind
of person to constantly renegotiate my convictions, I'd end up at Madame Blye's
working house anyway, but not on my own terms. She said Daddy must've been
quite a man. I asked her please not to talk about him. She said she wouldn't, but
she needed something more than stories to show I was acting in good faith.
I told her I'd bring something.
Back in camp, the door to Daddy's shack hung open. The one room had been
rummaged through by looters, left bare to the walls. Wind whistled down the
stovepipe where it protruded down from the ceiling and opened to the sky. Only
the last book Daddy had bought me lay on the floor, half its pages missing. What
remained was the first half, which I had already read. I brought it to my room in
Madame Blye's. Big Roy greeted me as though he wanted to say something. His
quiet, embarrassed gaze lingered on the book like he recognized it and it worried
him. Madame Blye escorted Big Roy away, then returned and asked what I had. I
explained to her that it was all that was left from Daddy's shack, a silly story book
about things that weren't even real. She nodded and said it was unfortunate that
people could be so cruel, but I had to learn to live with it.
The route to Old Jain's hadn't grown easier with practice. When I eventually
reached her and presented the book, tears streamed down my face. I told Old Jain
the book still told a story, just not all of it, and I didn't mean to ruin it. It was all I
had. She accepted it with kind solemnity and said I shouldn't worry. All I had
was all she asked.
Stories told about Old Jain:
Old Jain lived in the mountainside woods long before the haul from Coppers Rest
grew so large it couldn't be ignored, back before it had been named to hide it from
would-be claim jumpers. She had a husband then. He had been the first man to
join the mine operation, and the first to die for it in a cave-in. On dusky nights,
she can be seen on the high snowfields basking in the moonlight directly above
where his body resides in the mountain. She leaves no footprints and can make
herself look like a boulder if you look too close.
For each glass of the liquor she distills, Old Jain controls how many fights it'll
contain. It's in her recipe. To minimize their occurrence, it's best to remain on
her good side and never say anything bad about her. Her hearing is excellent. She
can walk on tiptoes for miles. Still, there have been bloody, drunken rows for no
identifiable reasons -- no one admitted to bad-mouthing her. After them, people
loudly talk about their bruises and pains, so Old Jain can hear and add an equal
measure of songs and laughter and kisses to her next batch.
Old Jain eats children who stray too far out of sight. She eats everything, leaving
no trace whatsoever the child existed. It's bad luck to have one's child eaten by
Old Jain. Best practice is to forget the child altogether and never mention the
Old Jain never tells secrets.
Old Jain knows where all the gold in the mountain is, but it's a secret.
Old Jain can touch her elbows together behind her back, touch them to the tip of
her nose, and kiss them smack on their points. She can fold herself down to fit
inside a hatbox. She can whisper so low ghosts can hear her.
Madame Blye counted Daddy's final pay with severe disappointment. She asked
whether I thought I was smart. Did I think the food I had been eating was free?
She said she would've given me the normal fare, but I had acted confident that
what I was given was well within my means. Hers was a working house. Hadn't
she explained that? I had said I was listening. Yet there I was, going off on long
walks all day, avoiding class, working up an appetite. With room already tight,
did I plan to freeload? She could turn a profit in my room. It wasn't right.
She continued with such a purposeful account of the slight I had repaid her for her
generosity that near the end of it, I wondered if yes, it was true, what I had done
was wrong, and didn't I need to repay her in her fashion? It was only when she
left my room that I returned to my senses and trembled. At some point, I had
nodded when I shouldn't have, and it was all going to happen faster than I had
Big Roy returned with a rug and an elaborate wire rug-beater twisted to look like a
series of concentric hearts. I dragged the rug out front and draped it over the
hitching post. Each whoomping beat reverberated through my body and numbed
my hands. Sooty dust stung my nose, sending me into flights of sneezes. When I
finished, Big Roy unslung it and brought another. And another. And another. I
was determined to show Madame Blye she couldn't break me with something so
menial. I imagined myself sweaty and spent, all the rugs clean, me victorious. But
one never knows how strong something is until one cleans it. And to do the job
well and quickly would only have hastened what Madame Blye had for me next,
perhaps even worsened it, since it would've proven I was capable and stubborn. It
was a poisonous, regrettable thought, which prolonged the task so I didn't finish
until the miners who came off shift left the bathhouse and began entering Madame
Blye's past me. They smiled when I defiantly met their eyes, like my resolve was
a small, comely thing; they were men who worked in the dark with pickaxes and
granite. They worked around explosives.
Big Roy escorted me back to my room and brought a shallow tin dish of watery
corn meal, a boiled potato half-submerged in its center. He did not bring utensils.
The potato looked like an egg, but tasted old and earthy and over-boiled. It tasted
like something was missing.
I slept in fits with my back against the door, and woke intermittently to drafts that
reached under it and fondled me. My head hurt, my stomach churned, my skin
After the rugs, it was the curtains, then the floors, the woodwork, the walls, the
windows. Then, finally, the mattresses. Each day's meal made me feel more
normal, allowed me to sleep further through the night. When I woke I was hungry,
and the meals set me right.
The other girls remained out of sight until the mattresses, when I went into their
rooms. They were wan in their corsets, like their clothing constricted so tightly
their blood took its time passing through each exquisitely shaped limb. One after
another, they offered advice in spitefully courteous whispers. Don't wear yourself
out, you'll need your strength. Make this last as long as you can. You're Madame
Blye's favorite. She has it out for you. Don't think about tomorrow. Tomorrow is
the only thing that matters.
I was imposing on them. I was giving them a moment of relief. My presence told
them they were being replaced, their experience not worth a damn. I was the only
person they could tell the things they had learned and make their experiences
meaningful. I was someone they had to teach. I was someone they had to
discourage. If they couldn't, I was someone to break.
Madame Blye delivered a tray of food to my room when I finished with the
mattresses. As I ate, energy quickened through me, something fully returned to
the meal that had been missing since those first weeks. Madame Blye's gaze
approvingly slid over me, and she said I could take one of my long walks, if I
wanted -- alone-alone.
Old Jain said she had been expecting me. She showed me how you had grown and
were causing trouble. You had crawled into the stillworks and gotten stuck and
afraid. She had to disassemble it all to free you. A dark shock of hair curled on
your head like a wick. Your eyes were dark blue. They focused on me with
profound, wordless intent. I hefted you, and told her you were bigger, but that you
felt lighter than I remembered. She looked into my eyes and pinched my tongue
and poked at my gums. She looked sad and asked if I had forgotten about our
agreement, did I have anything for her yet? I said no, but soon. I began to nod
off. She said I couldn't sleep there. It wouldn't be good for me. I said I'd just
close my eyes. She said I didn't understand and took you and made me leave.
Back at Madame Blye's, I undressed before my room's standing oval mirror and
examined my body in the candlelight. My determination had been wrought in
strong lines upon my limbs. I was beautiful. I slumped onto the bed. Madame
Blye knew what she was doing. I felt her eyes on me, like my own eyes in the
mirror. She didn't just want a clean house. My beauty, my strength, my resolve,
they were traps, and they had captured me.
I cried, silently, so those who passed in the hall would suspect the room was
nothing more than a broom closet.
The next day, I took my first client.
Stories told about school teacher Strobel:
School teacher Strobel doesn't need his glasses. He can see with his eyes closed.
He can see behind him. He doesn't hold eye contact because he doesn't need to.
School teacher Strobel never sleeps. Instead, he paces.
In case his students would poison him, school teacher Strobel drinks a little poison
every day to build up a tolerance. It's why he's such a short, wiry sneeze of a
man, why his mustache never grows in right. He has many bottles of poison,
which he hides all over camp. He checks and rechecks that nobody has gotten into
them, and regularly moves them. He can be seen darting through camp late at
night like a shadow between the buildings.
School teacher Strobel was the mine's first gang boss. He was a ferocious
bellower. His voice caused so many cave-ins, he lost the job. Since, he has not
raised his voice above a breathy falsetto. He promised the lost miners he'd do
better by their children.
School teacher Strobel can read the handwriting of the dead. It's written
everywhere, invisible vandalism to most -- dirty limericks making fun of the
living. He scrubs it from the walls and desks and floor of his classroom. The ink
the dead use gets on his hands and seeps into his mind. At times, he can be heard
reciting the limericks to himself. He will not repeat them if asked. He doesn't
know he's doing it. They aren't his words, and while he recites them, his body
isn't his body.
School teacher Strobel knows how many children each of his students will have
and what their names will be.
School teacher Strobel has never married; he prefers men. Or children, or animals,
or the company of the dead, depending on who tells it.
Big Roy opened the door to my room for school teacher Strobel. School teacher
Strobel entered and sat beside me on my bed without making eye contact. Once
Big Roy closed the door and his footsteps retreated down the hall, school teacher
Strobel asked why wasn't I dressed like the other girls?
I told him Madame Blye had yet to finish making me in her image. He said he
hadn't known me to be blasphemous, but I hadn't been to class since . . . I told
him please not to talk about Daddy. He told me I should come back. I told him if
he had come to talk, there wasn't much to say. I was where I was. He said it
didn't have to be that way. I was smart. I could stay with him. He'd pay my way
back East. Daddy was a good man. He never made fun.
I looked at my reflection in the mirror. We were two people, we were one. Daddy
was? Daddy is?
I wanted to tell him the plan wasn't to go back East. I wanted to ask him could he
overlook that I was keeping a little wizard? Would he please not send you away?
Please not punish me? Please not punish Old Jain? I wanted to tell him Old Jain
was feeding off of me like Madame Blye was feeding off me, just from a different
end. If I went with him, everything he had would become what I had, and he'd
Instead, I told him what he'd listen to.
I placed a hand on his leg. He jumped like it was ice on his bare skin. He told me
stop. I told him Madame Blye would know if we didn't. He said he didn't care. I
said there was Big Roy, too. He said he didn't want anyone to get hurt. I said it
was too late for that. There was wanting and there was what was. He said they
were one and the same. I told him no, he had to choose. He said he could hide
me, if I was afraid. I told him hiding wasn't enough. He said Daddy was gone. I
wasn't. I had to face facts.
I slapped him hard across the face, and asked how much money he had paid for
me. He said it was just to meet me, to talk. I set my arms akimbo and thinned the
color from my lips. I said I was tired of people trying to make of my life what
they'd have of it. He may not approve, but I made my own choices. I opened the
door and called for Big Roy.
When they were gone, Madame Blye handed me the money school teacher Strobel
had paid. She said she never kept the first turn. It was mine. I could do with it
what I would, go with it where I wanted, if anyone would take me, take it.
I told her I'd be back.
Old Jain took the money, and said it looked like I had made my decision. She
showed me how you had grown. I said there must've been a mistake. It hadn't
been that long. You were too big. Your dark eye evaluated me, searched the line
of my body for meaning of who I was. She said that was how it happened with
little wizards. They grew up fast. Sometimes so fast they forgot they had ever
been wizards at all. That was what had happened with Madame Blye, not that she
could've kept the magic in Madame Blye forever; the world worked on Madame
Blye, men worked on her. Old Jain regretted it. I asked her what she could
possibly regret. She had a home, a baby, a working still for money, and no one
bothered her if she didn't want them. She was perfectly shut up from the world. I
was in it. I was out there. She wasn't.
Old Jain's eyes grew cold. She said she wished she could just make the mountain
disappear sometimes. She raised a fist before her eyes, blew across her knuckles,
and flattened her palm so she glared at me across it. Like that, she said. The way
she looked, I felt frost crawling up my spine.
She said that during long nights, it had occurred to her Madame Blye might be
responsible for the cave-ins that followed the one that claimed her father. But she
couldn't believe Madame Blye would go that far. What she could believe: after
the cave-ins, Madame Blye always got the girls who reminded her of herself when
she was little. She never let them get away. When she had them, she made them
just like herself. Old Jain said she could've done better by Madame Blye. She
would do better with you. The trick, she said, was not letting little wizards forget
magic, not letting the world work on them and make their memory of it seem
impossible. She said one had to frequently remind them. Even if they didn't
understand. More often, if they didn't understand. What's more, one had to keep
little wizards from overusing their magic when it came back to them, or it'd strip
their minds bare again and shrink their bodies, making them unsuited for the
world. It was a delicate balance.
I asked how much she'd need to do that. She looked at me like she didn't want to
answer. I told her she didn't need to say it. I already knew. The deal hadn't
changed. She needed all of it. But not from me. I couldn't make any more. I
wouldn't make anymore. It had to be the other me who paid Old Jain, the me from
the mirror. She'd have what it'd take to keep you safe so you could grow into the
wizard you were, not me.
Stories told about Daddy:
Daddy slept on a bed of snow the first winter he was at Copper's Rest. He never
complained. People suspected it was good for his back and tried it for themselves,
but they couldn't take it. They said it gave him character for when he'd need it.
Daddy fell asleep right when he closed his eyes. When the seasons changed and
the snow melted at camp he slept on a rock. He only bought a bed when he met
Momma. She wanted a mattress and blankets and a fire in the stove. He provided
them, and she warmed him. After she died, snow wouldn't melt in Daddy's hands.
Daddy had a way of listening that told him if someone was lying. It was
something about the words that gave them away. And the silences. And the
spaces between. He wouldn't teach people how to listen like he did, because then
they'd know how to lie and keep people from knowing it. He never played poker,
Daddy could dance all the dances people had forgotten, but he couldn't perform
them on command. They occupied his limbs for their duration whenever they
liked, and once satisfied, they left. Sometimes the dances lasted for minutes,
though often they lasted for only a few steps. A leap. A tilt of his head. A spin.
Sometimes they came upon him so he danced inside tight tunnels where others
struggled and pulled themselves along with their elbows. The bigger the room, the
more the dances got lost and couldn't find him.
Daddy couldn't lie.
Daddy could take a punch. One was never good enough for him. He always asked
Daddy was never young. He was always as old as he was when the exploratory
tunnel caved in.
Daddy could hold his breath for a day and go a week without eating. He stared
into the sun so that he could see in the dark. He knew all the colors of the sky.
One day every year, Daddy drank a bottle of whiskey, climbed to the top of the
mountain, and hammered a spike into the summit to keep it in place. The mine
made him do it. Someone had to. It wouldn't let anyone else.
As long as Daddy is alive, the mountain won't go anywhere.
It's a strange thing when you do something and it changes you forever, or let it be
done to you.
Madame Blye said it wouldn't always be like that. It'd get easier. Or if not easier,
more familiar. I asked her if she remembered her first time? She looked into the
mirror at the foot of my bed for so long I thought the question had gotten lost in
her mind. Then she said no. She wouldn't look at me. She spoke to my reflection
like I wasn't there anymore, only my reflection. She said I shouldn't lie to her
anymore. She knew about school teacher Strobel. I asked her please not to hurt
him. She placed the money on the bed, and said she shouldn't do this twice, but
since the first time wasn't real, I could go on one of my walks if I liked. Take it,
she said. Men always paid more for the first time. It wouldn't always be so much.
If I wanted the same, I'd have to work for it. It was, she added, probably enough
for a train ticket.
The trees and boulders and streams and berms that led to Old Jain's weren't in the
right order. I had to backtrack and restart from Madame Blye's. Cold billowy fog
spattered me with drizzle. Once I got there, you opened the door and stared at me
and called inside for Old Jain. Your dark eyes were prepossessed with suspicion
and fierce guarded challenge. Old Jain appeared and shooed you inside.
I told her you were so big, and the way you looked at me, had she told you about
me? She looked sad and said no, she hadn't. She couldn't if you were to grow
back into the wizard you were. I asked her if she could please tell you just a little
about me, the right things, nothing that would keep you from becoming the wizard
you were. She asked what could she tell you? Lies would be bad enough, but the
truth would only make you suspicious, make you seek more truth. I asked how
she'd explain my appearance in the rain, why she didn't ask me in to at least warm
up and dry off. I was lost, she said. That's what she'd say. I needed directions. It
was best I got to where I was going instead of linger. Someone was waiting for
I handed her the money. She counted it and asked if I was sure? I said yes. She
said you didn't have a name yet, and she couldn't keep you forever without one.
Would I like to name you? I said no. If you had found me, then you'd find
yourself. She said that was an old way of doing things, and there was no telling
how long she'd be able to keep you safe once you chose a name. I asked her if
that was a bad thing. She shrugged. It was an old way, she said. Things change.
Things change back.
I told her I'd continue to pay her. She looked sad and understanding. I described
the hollow where I had hid you when I first found you, and told her I'd put the
money there. She nodded. All of it, I said. I know, she said.
The way back to Madame Blye's wasn't as I had remembered it. It was longer,
steeper. The streams were louder and faster running. The trees taller and more
shadowing. The moon less bright. The boulders loose. They slipped free under
foot and tumbled away. I sped on to escape the instability before seeing its effect
on the trail behind me. It is enough to say that I was not much hurt.
Madame Blye was waiting for me under a lantern outside her house, where I
collapsed against the hitching post. She called for Big Roy to carry me to my
room and bring me a blanket and a proper change of clothes.
Big Roy was gentle. He looked down at me in his arms like he was sorry. He
brought me a blanket and a corset and petticoats and undergarments. Madame
Blye asked if I knew how to button myself into all of it. I said I didn't. She asked
Big Roy to leave, then undressed to show me. When she removed her corset, her
body expanded. Stretch marks stitched her slim stomach and stippled over her
hips in little wavy lines. Her belly button was an outie. She told me not to stare.
Her girls didn't stare. Besides, it could happen to anyone, despite how careful
they were. The trick was never to let on that it had happened. Men would grow
possessive and jealous if they knew. She dressed piece by piece as instruction,
then called for Big Roy. When he arrived she told him to cinch her in. With deft
hard tugs, he tied her corset. She said he'd do the same for me. Don't worry, she
said. Not now. He'd be back in the morning.
I woke to the sounds of hammers and saws and heavy twanging lumber falling in
stacks. They were building a new addition to Madame Blye's, and they were in a
rush to get it completed before the first snowfall. It was long overdue.
Big Roy wouldn't let me eat before cinching me into my corset. Only after, when
I was breathless and dizzy, my fingers and toes tingling, did he bring a meal. He
lingered at my door while I ate. I stopped eating and watched him. He pulled
something from his overalls pocket, tossed it onto the bed beside me, and fled
before I could say anything. It was the second half of the book Daddy had bought
It seemed so long ago that I had read it, I couldn't remember what had happened in
the first half. While reading what was left I lost myself in making up what had led
to it. I hid it in my petticoats.
By the time I received my first month's wage, snow blanketed the valley and was
as deep as the hitching post. The money wasn't much. There were deductions, my
clothing for one. Heating, too. Food. Clean linens. Hot bath water, unless I'd
like it cold.
I couldn't make it down to the hollow. I would've left a trail in the snow. People
from camp would've followed it and emptied the cache. If they emptied the cache,
nothing would've stopped them from continuing on in search of more that had
been covered by snow. They could've found you. Worse, you may have seen
their tracks and followed them to me.
Madame Blye paid me once a month. Her interest in me slackened, and she took
notice only when I exchanged glances with Big Roy, when I touched his hand in
passing, when I hugged him for no reason. It was harmless, and she had found
another young girl, besides. They say the new girl was eleven years old.
When the seasons changed and the snow melted from camp, the hollow wasn't
where I remembered it.
Stories told about me:
My name is Bonnie. My name is Winifred. My name is Delia. I am never the
same person twice. That way, ghosts can't find me. They're confused by change.
I write prayers to the mountain and hide them up and down the slopes. They can
be found mouldering under rocks, blowing along the mountainside, and stuffed
down inside pockety hollows. They are rarely found intact. Those that are, are
covered with cairns designed to warn miners away from them. To take my prayers
is to court disaster. The mountain doesn't always receive my prayers, but it
receives enough of them to know if something was missing.
I can make a man have an orgasm just by looking at him.
School teacher Strobel was my first client. I search for the bottles of poison he
hides around camp. If I find them, I won't move them. I'll increase their potency.
On moonless nights, I can be seen darting between the buildings of camp like a
shadow, always a step behind school teacher Strobel.
My fingers can grip so tight Big Roy is afraid of me.
I am attuned with the growth of the mountain. When men are with me, they feel it.
It is slow and sure and steady. It is tectonic.
I do not drink. I only eat snow. When it is summer, I climb to the summit
snowfields which never fully melt. Every day, I sit in boiling hot bathwater until
my body freezes it into a solid block around me and I must be chipped free. The
movement of the mountain inside me is the only thing that keeps me from freezing
solid -- something ungiving pressing against something else ungiving to create
Whatever you hear, believe this:
I am your mother.
I am waiting.
Daddy is waiting.
The mountain is going nowhere.
I will look like all the other girls at the selection rail. I will look like Madame
Blye. But you will be able to tell it is me by the tears I haven't cried which will
shine in my eyes. No one else can see them. You can see things others can't.
You can do anything.
You are a wizard.