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The Never Never Wizard of Apalachicola
    by Jason Sanford

1st Place - Best Cover Art - 2010

The Never Never Wizard of Apalachicola
Artwork by Julie Dillon

Space slides dark and Earth churns blue. And me, two hundred miles up, rocking through water dreams of marsh and bay and gentle-downer waves. And me, Major Solomon Lawrence, sweat fogging my spacesuit visor. Eyes stinging. Tongue salting. The suit's bottle-crisp air blowing the sting and taste into memories of Apalachicola Bay as a child.

And a raven, a true damn-it-all raven perched before me on the station's new solar array, preening its purple-burn feathers in the vacuum of space.

I pull closer to the raven, my hands shaking at the nonsensical sight. We installed the array two days ago, but a glitch kept its solar panels from fully deploying. Now the raven's leather-cut talons grip the release bolt that I need to turn. I wave my quarter-million-dollar NASA wrench at the creature but it ignores the threat.

"You okay, Sol?" my partner, Aleena Samasut, asks. Her white-suited form floats a dozen feet away. Praying I haven't caused my colleagues or mission control to suspect the craziness I'm experiencing, I ask Aleena if she notices anything strange about the release bolt.

"Looks the same as in practice," Aleena says as the raven silently caws. "Turn it so we can go home."

Through Aleena's visor I see her lovely dark-brown face, which reminds me so of my sister. How could I have forgotten my sister? The raven knows, and shakes its head at my silly, silly amazement.

I float closer to the bolt and the raven. A few twists from my wrench and the array's accordion panels will shoot out like oversized insect wings. After all, there is a method to affairs like this. The array, the station, the shuttle, my space suit -- all are true and proper science. The result of real world engineering. The raven can't pretend to any of that.

Not that the damn bird cares.

And that's when I remember everything. Remember the raven sitting malevolently on Chapél's front porch in the swamps off Apalachicola Bay. Remember me wading there, pistol in hand, to kill that damn wizard for taking my sister. How Chapél laughed in his gravel-magicked voice. How the raven flew at me. How I woke floating in the bay, two husky fishermen pulling me onto their boat, asking if I was okay.

And me, not knowing the answer. Until now.

"You need help there, Sol?" Aleena's radio-static voice asks, concerned at my delay. I mutter "no" and raise the wrench to the bolt. The raven jumps aside and watches me twist the bolt one, two, three times. With a silent rush, the solar panels unfold and extend, instantly pushing their added power into the space station.

"Well done," Aleena says as the raven bows sarcastically. Sweat tickles my face, beading in the weightlessness. Through my visor I see the light blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the browns and greens of Florida. I search the panhandle for Apalachicola Bay, but there are too many clouds.

So this is the how he summons me, I think. Even up here I can't escape him.

The raven grins -- how do birds' grin? -- sunlight angling its razor beak. Random memories blot my mind. I hear an old professor describing the angle of descent needed for the space shuttle to avoid burning up in the earth's atmosphere. I see Mom tucking me into bed as forgotten jazz standards play over her transistor radio. I feel the tired twang of my body as I study in the library, my sister whispering how I can be anything I want.

Anything I set my mind to.

As if tasting my memories, the raven caws silent agreement before slamming its beak though my spacesuit and heart.

I no longer care who knows the craziness of my life, and broadcast a scream for all the world to hear . . .

The bay's sweet water-fish scent after passing storms. The waves rasping against pilings under our tiny house. The taste of our home's salt-run and sun-shrunk boards. The knowledge we were the only thing for miles except for swamps and bay, alligators and fish.

And Chapél. Never forget Chapél.

Our home was simple, built of hand-hewn planks nailed over cut tree-trunk pilings, with my mom's beloved transistor radio the only bit of modernity allowed inside. Every evening we'd sit on our front porch -- Mom and Dad, me and my sister Diane, who was seven years older than me -- and listen to that radio until the batteries ran low. I still remember Mom's rage one night when a newscaster interrupted our evening jazz with news of Dr. King's assassination. Mom began cursing the white bastard who'd killed him, but my father clamped his large hands over her mouth and held her tight. Whispered "It's not worth it, hon, not worth going back to Chapél," until Mom calmed down.

Diane and I sat silently on the porch, shocked by Mom's curse and Dad's words. In a low voice, Diane asked what Dad meant by going back to Chapél. Dad sighed and pointed at the star-like lights of an oyster boat passing in the dark bay, and at the true stars above.

He then told us stories. How he'd grown up one of the Khoikhoi people, tending to his father's cattle herds until a siren's call pulled him to the Cape of Good Hope, where he fought a sea serpent with a magic sword and lived. How our mother, as a child of the Serengeti, hiked for weeks until she reached Mount Kilimanjaro, where she demanded the wizards there help her people survive a drought. How the two of them fell in love while in service for centuries to the world's most powerful -- and dangerous -- wizard.

The stories poured out of him for hours. Of a world Diane and I could barely comprehend. Of magic lapping like the waves in our bay. Of enchanted swords and demons. Of quests for honor and revenge. Diane and I lit up at his stories, and I wished I could be a wizard in this long-ago world.

But eventually Mom cut him off, and whispered of the horrible things they'd also experienced. Of magic slavery. Of unending, cancerous wars. Of children and people killed in a million ignoble ways. Of how powerless she and our father felt growing up in a world where only the magical succeeded. "Magic is rarely a good thing," she said. "There are worlds you don't want existing in your lives."

"So true," Dad said. "Magic lives off the loves and pains of others. It's never the wizards or witches who suffer for their spells."

Diane and I didn't know what to say. After sitting in silence for a while, Mom and Dad carried us to our beds, where Diane and I fell into an exhausted asleep as if attacked by one of those fanciful spells of old.

After that, they never again spoke of magic, despite Diane and I continually pestering them about it.

Our parents worked the oyster factories near town, riding a wooden boat with a rusty outboard to and from work. For most of the year, they dropped us off at school on the way to town, and picked us up after closing. When school was out, Diane watched me while our parents worked.

The summer I turned eight and Diane fifteen, a gale blew up as our parents were boating home. For three days we waited for their return. Finally, a sheriff's patrol craft towing our parents' swamped boat sputtered up to our rickety dock.

Two deputies stepped out, along with a white woman we recognized from school as the county social worker. The deputies -- one white, the other black -- stood back as the social worker kneeled before Diane.

"Honey," the woman drawled condescendingly. "There's been an accident."

Diane nodded, her skinny-muscle body tensing like fishing line hooked to a barracuda. The white woman hemmed and hawed before finally admitting our parents had drowned when their boat overturned in the storm. A tide of numbness flowed through me. I glanced through the planks of our dock at the low-tide revealing mud, and watched a crab scurry after its meal.

The social worker cocked an eye at our house, obviously not impressed. "Do you have any relatives we can take you to?" she asked.

"Our grandmother's inside," Diane said quickly. "We'll get her."

I started to say we didn't have a grandmother, or any other relatives for that matter, but I shut up at a glare from Diane. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to the house, the screen door slamming shut after us. Through the cracks in the wood-plank walls, she watched the social worker talk with the deputies.

"They'll take us away," she whispered.

"What do you mean?" I asked, still trying to imagine our parents as dead. I couldn't feel it. That must mean they were alive. Maybe they were floating in the bay, waiting for us to rescue them.

"They won't let us stay here. We won't be a family anymore."

Diane paced back and forth across our kitchen floor, the floorboards creaking under her weight. Through the cracks in the wall, I saw the social worker and deputies grow agitated. They knew we were stalling. Suddenly Diane hugged me tight and told me to keep up. Holding my hand, she grabbed our mom's favorite belonging -- her transistor radio -- and our dad's machete, and led me out the back door. We ran the long plank to the ground and raced toward the swamps.

The deputies yelled to stop, but they only followed us a little ways before giving up. We hid in the swamps as they stalked back to their boat.

"They're leaving," I said, proud of our little victory.

"They'll bring hounds," Diane said, caressing the radio in her hands. "And more people."

I sat among the knees of a swamp cypress, remembering how I always sat between Momma's knees when she cut my hair. I cried. I wanted to go with the social worker and the deputies. I wanted to find my parents and not spend the rest of my life hiding in a swamp.

Diane saw the look on my face and kissed me on the cheek. "Don't worry," she said. "We'll hide out tonight. Soon as it's morning, we'll go see Chapél. He'll make everything right."

I am famous. I am history. The first astronaut to suffer a heart attack in space and survive.

I don't remember much of the hours and days after Aleena saved me by pulling me to the airlock. Instead, I see as if by magic. I see the raven floating outside the space station while the crew gives what medical attention they can, which mostly involves keeping me sedated. I see the tear in my suit from the raven's beak, even as my colleagues swear over and over that there's nothing to see. Only me, suffering a heart attack.

My dead Mom and Dad also whisper to me, saying how proud they are. How proud that I've used this math and science and engineering to turn my world into something real. I don't understand what they mean, but I still blush in happiness like a little child.

When I ask about my sister, they stop whispering.

During the shuttle's reentry, orange fire-glow licks the windows and the raven swoops and dives on the burning thermals. Once we land, the raven caws a single time before soaring into the blue, as if to say its work is done.

Which is also what the doctors say months later, when I finally leave the hospital. My fellow astronauts, along with a room stuffed with NASA brass, shepherd me through a press conference as news cameras and reporters pretend they matter.

But I'm already gone. In my mind, that is. Already in Apalachicola.

One of the reporters asks about my plans.

"A wizard. I plan to kill a wizard."

The doctors and astronauts and bigwigs and reporters giggle nervously, mistaking this for a joke they can't comprehend.

Which it is.

Unlike most of Florida, Apalachicola hasn't changed much since I was a child, aside from the fact that I can now order a soda from the pharmacy like any white person. In fact, I'm the biggest person to come out of the town since Dr. John Gorrie invented his ice-freezing machine here before the Civil War.

I untie my rented boat -- a fifteen foot Boston Whaler -- from the dock. I'm hit by the taste of salt and sting, the smell of water and decay. The oyster boats around me creak and groan as wood and rope stretch. The wind is climbing and a light rain splatters, soaking the oystermen who are busy tying down their boats. The skies blow as if a gale is nearing, even though there's nothing in the forecast but clear skies and sun.

As I pull my boat out, several oystermen yell to me that I should ride the gale out on shore. I wave back without answering, imagining my parents working these docks as they hauled oysters back to the warehouses to shuck. I wonder if they saw the same gale-whipped skies when they left this dock that final time.

Far above, a black bird soars lazy circles in the storm's updrafts. I don't bother asking if it's my raven.

The storm quickly builds and the fifteen-footer's too small for waves swelling five, six feet high. I merely pull my raincoat tighter and ride across the bay, daring the wizard to do his worst.

I'm halfway home when the sea serpent strikes.

The raven wasn't at Chapél's shack when Diane and I arrived after hiding all night in the swamps. Instead, Chapél himself sat in a split-wood and leather rocking chair on the shack's porch. His skin -- stretched thin across bones as if by unseen hands -- rippled like an muddy river at flood time. He sweated in the morning's heat and humidity, and held a walking stick, which looked to have been carved from a single fanged tooth longer than his legs. A raven's head bobbled on the stick's grip as if broken or loosed by time itself.

My angry teenage sister demanded the return of our parents. In her hands she held Mom's radio and Dad's machete.

"They wouldn't want to return," Chapél stated.

"You're lying!" Diane screamed, pointing the machete at him. "Fix it or I'll kill you."

I stood in the stubbly grass in front of Chapél's shack. I'd only come here a few times with Mom, always when she was delivering some jar of preserves or a bolt of cheap fabric. "Show respect," she always told me before each visit. "Never give him anything else, but he's entitled to your respect."

As if to prove the right in Mom's words, Chapél's eyes narrowed at my sister's insolence. He gripped his walking stick and tapped it on the porch's grooved planks. "Why did you come here?" he asked.

"Mom said you could do anything. Said if we were in trouble, to come to you."

Chapél groaned as if terribly put upon, but he winked at me, and I knew he was playing, like my parents played at anger when I tracked sand and mud into our house. Chapél glanced us up and down and announced he was a wizard.

"Are there really such things?" Diane asked. "Are those stories Mom and Dad told us really true?"

"If you don't believe, why are you here?" he asked. At that, Diane said nothing.

"You parents served me wonderfully for many centuries. But they wanted to live their own lives, so I released them. I'm sorry they died, but to intervene would have meant giving up what they worked so hard for."

I didn't understand -- only knew my parents weren't coming back. I sat in the stub grass and cried. Diane walked over and picked me up, even though I was too big for her to hold for long.

"They'll send us away," she said. "Please. We're all the family we've got."

Chapél stood slowly, supporting himself with that carved tooth walking stick which shook and bent as much as his skinny body. "I'm not a bad man," he said, stepping toward the dark of his shack's open door. "But I make deals. It's what keeps me going. What can you offer for my help?"

Diane sat me back on the ground and stepped onto the porch. Chapél nodded and walked through his shack's doorway, which swallowed him to the murmur of far distant voices. Voices angry at what the world had become. Voices angry at Chapél.

Diane paused for a moment before following him inside.

The sea serpent is smaller than I'd imagined from my father's stories -- only three times as long as my boat, and slender as a telephone pole. Maybe this is all a wizard can pull together these days.

I don't have a magic sword like my father fought his serpent with, but I do have a pistol. I do have a shotgun. My weapons. My weapons of science.

But I reach for neither. Instead, I'm curious about this storm, which could have been bad enough to sink me. I'm curious about this tiny sea serpent. So I kill the dual outboards, causing the boat to slip broadside to the storm's waves. The boat tips, about to capsize, as the serpent shoots out, wrapping its body around the hull and holding it steady.

"That's what we call an experiment," I yell over the wind. "A way to test a hypothesis. Now we both know you aren't here to kill me."

The serpent's body twines around the boat like its kin must have done to sailing ships hundreds of years ago. It shrieks its fanged maw at me from a yard away, rage and anger and poison splattering my face. But it doesn't strike.

Accepting my hypothesis as correct, the serpent sets my boat once again heading into the waves, and releases me. I gun the engines and ride on.

My family house is gone. Decades of waves and hurricanes have rearranged the shoreline so the mud flats where my parents grew our home are only empty shallows.

The gale has already sucked back into the blue sky from which it was created, so I easily pilot my boat to where our house would have stood. A single rotten piling rises from the tiny waves. The single seagull sitting on top of it eyes me with irritation.

I tie off the boat and wade to shore, the shotgun on my back, the pistol holstered on my hip. Mud sucks my boots six inches down and the waist-high sea grass cuts my hands and arms. Still, nothing to be done.

Soon I reach the swamps leading to Chapél's shack. Ghosts of wizards and witches fly through cypress trees, caressing the trees' upjutting knees and skimming the brackish waters. They cast rainbow spells and magic at each other in hazy displays which pass through the trees and water and me like never-never words. Some of them turn toward me, promising riches and enchanted swords and even my family if only I'll return magic to this world. Others threaten, saying I'll suffer unless I return their world to them.

Most importantly, the ghosts whisper that no matter how strong the spell, it only lasts so long. That even the most powerful wizard's magic must be renewed again and again by the lives of those who've felt the spell's pain and power.

I remember my father's words -- how magic lives off the loves and pains of others. My parents whisper not to trust these ghosts, but to instead do what I know to be right.

Holding my shotgun before me, I walk the path to Chapél.

I never knew the deal my sister and Chapél struck, but when we returned to our house, life was as it had been, except for our parents being gone. Our family boat was repaired and floating. The deputies and social worker never returned to hunt us down. And when we needed food, money appeared in the same cubbyhole where Mom and Dad always hid their meager savings.

Diane now piloted our boat across the bay each school day. But where before my sister had been laid back, daydreaming of boys or the new radio she wanted to buy our mother, now she was driven. She pushed me to study science and math, and history and religion and English, too. Each day after school, sitting in Apalachicola's tiny library, she would grill me on my studies, and throw new learning at me which my teachers hadn't even taught. We'd stay in that library until the setting sun hurried us to our boat ride home.

Occasionally a teacher or police officer would ask what two kids were doing by themselves, but even as the words left their mouths a sudden electricity would light their eyes and they'd turn and wander off, convinced by whatever truth they'd heard.

After the first year of living alone, Chapél visited us. I'd never heard of him leaving his shack, but there he was, sitting on our front porch. He asked me questions about my education. On science and math. On biology and physics. He seemed fascinated by the science I was learning and urged me to study even harder. "Such amazing things," he said, "these explanations of your world."

Happy at the praise, I pointed to the stars above us. "Maybe I'll be an astronaut," I said. "Go to the moon. See what's up there."

"And that's how marvelous ideas are always born," Chapél said.

Before he left, he nodded at Diane, who shook with relief at his approval.

And so life went, with me studying as hard as I could, taught even more by Diane. At some point she stopped going to her own classes, instead spending hours in the library putting together lessons and tests so I could learn all there was to know. At twelve I aced calculus. At fifteen, physics and biology.

And every summer Chapél would walk to our house and quiz me, and pronounce me good for another year.

While I was proud of my learning, I never forgot how much my sister sacrificed for me. Late at night, when I was supposed to be asleep, I'd often see her on our porch listening to Mom's little transistor radio and staring sadly at the sky.

I graduated from high school at the top of my class. Diane was so proud. We discovered extra money in our cubbyhole, so Diane announced we'd rent a cap and gown for my graduation.

But I couldn't have something for myself and forget my strong, strong sister. So when I went to town, I convinced the store owner to rent me a slightly frayed cap and gown at half price. With the savings I bought my sister a new radio. I'd never seen her so happy as when I handed her that gift, and we sat on our porch all night listening to blues and jazz and so many other musics playing around our little world.

To our surprise, Chapél announced he'd attend my graduation. Diane and I drove him in our boat across the bay, where he walked through town as if here to destroy the entire place. Men and women and children -- both black and white -- avoided his eyes and turned away, afraid of something they couldn't describe. When we reached the high school gymnasium, he marched to the front row and said in his gravel voice for the mayor and his wife to vacate their seats.

That pompous white man looked startled -- I doubt a black man had ever ordered him around -- but when the mayor tried to say something, his tongue tied and his face paled. He grabbed his wife's hand and led her away, apologizing to Chapél as he went.

I was impressed. Diane, though, didn't seem to care. She held the new radio I'd given her and smiled a weak smile.

Chapél listened carefully to my valedictorian speech, watched me receive my diploma, and nodded silently to himself. I laughed, excited at the future. Diane cried.

"Be good to yourself," she said later, wiping her eyes. "Go where you want."

I told her I would. I turned to hug one of my friends. When I turned back, my sister and Chapél were gone.

At first I thought they'd merely stepped away for a moment, but as the minutes and hours ticked off, I knew they were gone. Truly gone. Suddenly understanding more than I should, I ran to a friend's pickup truck and stole his pistol. I then piloted my boat across the bay and ran through the swamps to Chapél's shack.

I found him in that damn leather and wood rocking chair. I aimed the pistol as he laughed, but before I could pull the trigger a massive raven flew for my eyes.

I woke in Apalachicola Bay, floating under a deep star night. I now believed my sister had been dead for years, and that it was up to me alone to make something of myself in this damn world.

Looking at the stars as I treaded water, I swore I would.

As I tread the path to Chapél, the ghost wizards and witches abandon their phantom displays, having failed to impress me with either deed or word. I reach Chapél's shack to find him sitting in that same leather and wood rocker, and holding the same carved tooth of a walking stick. His raven sits on the rocker's arm, eyeing me.

The summer sun heats the shotgun in my hands so I can barely hold it.

"Welcome home, Sol," Chapél says.

Before he says more, I shoot him, but even as I do the raven flies between him and me, absorbing most of the blast. The raven screams and flops onto the porch, while Chapél falls back in his rocking chair. I rack another round into the chamber and slowly approach him.

"It's your choice," Chapél gasps, his skinny body shaking. Only a few of the pellets hit his right arm and leg, but he's so old and weak that's enough to keep him from standing.

The raven flops blood and feathers across the porch, but I ignore it. "I'd forgotten about her," I say. "My sister. You made me forget her."

Chapél nods. "That was her choice. She knew what she needed, and that's all I ask of anyone. Simply know what you need to do."

I pause. "And what do I need to do?"

Chapél pulls the wounded raven to him, the bird's high-pitched cries easing as he holds it to his rib-gasping chest. "You need to kill me. But before you do, know what I am. I'm science and math and reason."

That catches my interest. "Seems more likely you're the exact opposite of all that."

"Indeed. I'm the most powerful wizard of the last thousand years. I destroyed every other wizard and witch on this planet."

"Not much of a wizard these days, I guess. That storm in the bay, and the sea serpent and ghosts, they were laughably weak."

Anger flashes Chapél's eyes and I know the old man still pulses to the pride and arrogance I remember from my childhood. "That wasn't to stop you. That was so you'd taste what will happen if you kill me."

And there it is. I ease the shotgun barrel from his body and sit beside him. The raven caws softly from the cradle of his hands and chest.

"Surely your parents told you what the world used to be like," he says. "Of bowing and scraping to any two-bit sorcerer and magic shaker. You think there's bad in the world now? Imagine a world where your enemy could wish you dead, and your lover bind you for all eternity. Imagine a world where kings knew who'd one day kill them -- if they let them live. Imagine a world where the powerful truly are all-powerful."

I remember my parents describing such a world. "So you . . ."

"I hold all that back. Within me is all the magic and wonder of a dead age. Because of me, science and math and laws of what you call physics rule this world. While there are still powerful men and women, they now answer to natural forces even they can't control."

I remembered Diane and me sitting on our front porch, staring at the bright-shine Milky Way while listening to her radio. Of her telling me that in this world, I could reach the stars.

"Why do you do this?" I ask.

"Maybe I tired of a world where anything was possible with so little effort. Maybe I want to be the only wizard around. All you need know is that if you kill me, all the magic inside me goes back into the world."

I remember my dad saying magic lives off the loves and pains of others. I remember the ghost wizards and witches saying spells must occasionally be renewed.

I throw the shotgun off the porch. Throw the pistol after it. Objects of science. Of engineering and physics. Of me.

"You did this on purpose," I say. "You wanted to know if all this is worth it."

"Is it?" he asks, his eyes dancing across the pain and love I feel. I stare at the clouds above us and remember the joy of living a life which dared reach so high.

How can I deny others that same life? How can I trap people in a world where magic alone makes you king?

"It's worth it," I say, and Chapél smiles the first true smile I've ever seen on his old face. He hugs the raven tight, even as a small sun surrounds the bird. The raven's body heals and its feathers once again shine to the purple-burn I first saw in space. The raven grins -- and I still don't know how birds grin -- as it speaks my name, in my sister's lovely voice.

From inside the shack, a tinny radio clicks through static and far off music.

I laugh as I take the raven in my hands, and whisper to my sister the many many ways a man of science can rationalize serving a wizard for a few hundred years.

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