My story “Coal Ash and Sparrows” was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in January 2004. It was an Honorable Mention story in both The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Dozois, and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Datlow, Link, and Grant.
It’s also the first time my name made the cover of Asimov’s, which is pretty sweet.
I wanted to share it with you, in its entirety, because it takes place in the same setting as the first novel in my Contagious Magic series of books, A Sudden Outbreak of Magic. The story gives you a nice taste of the history of magic in those books, along with some unforgettable, sometimes tragic characters.
I also have a related story about the secret history of magic, entitled “The Inverted Bearded Boy of Chicago.”
Coal Ash and Sparrows
Lina Seymour had been putting off going into the barn all day. Less than a week ago, the doctor had come to tell her, her mother, and her younger sister about her father’s fall from the church roof. Daddy had been working with a crew of three other men, trying to finish shingling the roof of the new Petersburg church before a storm blew up. The rickety old wooden ladder on which he’d been standing had given way when he reached for a fistful of shingles. He lingered for almost four days, his face and body swollen and unfamiliar in the back room of the doctor’s office. Then two days ago he simply let out a long sigh and never drew in another breath.
One of the few coherent sentences he’d mumbled to Lina during those awful hours had been something about a ship, a train, and three strange words.
Still wearing her black dress, Lina crept into the barn the day after her father was buried and found the book. It was barely bigger than her hand, with an unadorned white cover and only the number four printed on the spine. She would have missed the book completely if she hadn’t reached down to wipe her dusty hands on her late father’s old fleece-lined hunting jacket. When she let go of the jacket, the book slipped onto her bare foot. Young Lina let out a tiny meeping sound: the small white book was icy cold to the touch. In the years to come, she would never be sure if she actually found the book, or if the book found her.
Shivering in the drafty barn, she pulled her mother’s shawl closer around her thin shoulders and stared at the book that had presented itself to her like a gift. In her right hand she held the sheaf of documents her mother had sent her to the barn to find. She’d found all of them neatly stacked in the dusty steamer trunk her grandparents had given Daddy years ago. The hand-me-down trunk was a kind of good-natured joke with the family. As a farmer in northeastern Iowa, her father had rarely traveled; the cows and crops demanded all of his time, not to mention that of his wife and two daughters. For all Lina knew, Daddy had never left the state.
Lina had always wanted to fill that big steamer trunk with her own souvenirs from around the globe. Unlike her father, she wanted to see the world and travel more than an hour away from home. She had once ridden with her father to Dubuque, a painful ride on their wagon that seemed to last forever, but once they had arrived at the Mississippi River, all of Lina’s hurts disappeared when she saw the great paddlewheel boat pass by, heading south. Her dream of crisscrossing the world, however, ended the moment she touched the white book.
Lina gently set the papers on top of the steamer trunk and turned up the wick of her lantern. At some point night had fallen outside the barn window. Mother will be looking for me soon, she thought, though her mother hadn’t risen from bed all day. The house was too quiet and dark without Daddy’s voice filling and lighting it as he sang nonsense songs with Lina and her sister and laughed at their stories. Mother was too sad, and neither Lina nor Jenny felt like singing ever again. In the now-cool barn, Lina covered her legs in her father’s hunting coat and picked up the tiny white book.
Another shiver ran through her at the book’s touch, and a puff of her own breath clouded around her face as she exhaled. She opened the cover with a trembling hand, realizing in the back of her mind that the book was no longer icy cold, but almost warm, inviting her to lose herself in its thin pages.
She whispered the ornately-written word on the first page of the tiny book: “Magic?” Her thin voice echoing in her ears, Lina Seymour settled in and began to read.
Joseph McAndrew was the first boy from his orphanage to volunteer to ride the trains west. At ten years old, he was already bigger than most of the other children in the rambling white house south of the city. He knew that his chances of being brought home with any of the few prospective parents that came to visit the orphanage were slim, and probably none. With his unruly black hair and dark eyes, he also knew he was not adorable like the other Irish children with their milky skin and brilliant blue eyes. Joseph was a realistic ten-year-old. An orphan train was his only chance to escape.
The Children’s Aid Society and the Foundling Hospital, along with a few clergymen and dealmakers in New York City had dreamed up the so-called orphan trains. The facts were simple: Families in Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan needed extra hands with the harvest and the endless chores on their farms; orphanages were overflowing with immigrant children and waifs abandoned in the city. The first orphan trains began their westward journeys in late fall of 1854, and Joseph was determined to be on one of them. I could be like Father John Murphy at Boolavogue and Vinegar Hill, he thought, traveling into the great unknown to do battle. His mother would have sang a song about him, if she had survived the voyage from Ireland.
Behind the front desk of the orphanage, arranged like mailboxes or tiny safes for the rooms in a hotel, were stacked dozens of small, square boxes. Each cardboard box belonged to a different child in the orphanage, stuffed with the child’s belongings and papers. The orphanage provided them with donated clothing — rough woolen shirts and scratchy cotton pants, two pairs of socks and undergarments, all faded browns and grays — so their boxes held all that mattered in each child’s life. Once a week, the children were allowed to look inside their boxes.
Until the day he left on the train, Joseph skipped his time with his box. He had already memorized the three pieces of paper inside of it, though he never let on to the others that he could read. In the months before his mother and father took him to the shipyards of Dublin, his mother had taught him his letters and read with him every day. As a reward, his mother would sing about Ireland and the heroes of the land. Joseph had learned quickly.
Along with his birth certificate, his passport, and his ship’s receipt from the Odessa, the box also contained a small white book. The book was a gift from his eccentric great-uncle, a great black-haired bear of a man who was well known in their small Irish town as a world traveler. Joseph had only known the man as “Mo,” though he was sure — despite the fogginess that filled his brain any time he tried to remember specific details about the man — that “Mo” was not his great-uncle’s real name. Joseph doubted that Mo was even his great-uncle; the big man certainly didn’t look Irish with his dark skin and big brown eyes.
Great-Uncle Mo had given the book to Joseph three years ago back in Ireland, without his parents’ knowledge. Joseph had told nobody about the book, and he hadn’t ever seen Mo again. On the unending, seasick ship ride on the Odessa from Dublin to New York City that had taken the life of his mother by pneumonia and nearly killed his father from dysentery, Joseph had filled his days with the words of the white book he’d been given by his great-uncle Mo.
That changed upon his arrival in the orphanage five months later, after his father had forgotten about him and could only remember his last and next drink. He had tried to put the book and its contents out of his thoughts. In his cot next to the forty-two other boys in the sleeping room, the contents of the book had given him nightmares, blurry visions of white-blue lightning and arrows of unholy green fire. I am not the hero I thought I was, Joseph thought waking from his dreams with tears in his eyes. He left the book in its box, never revisiting it.
Of the strange words in the book — Words, Joseph always thought of them, like proper names — of the strange Words in the book, Joseph would remember only three, and they would come back to him only once, sixteen years later, his mouth dry and tasting of coal ash.
Nine-year-old Lina Seymour held the book in small hands that no longer shook. The lantern had burned low, almost out of fuel, and she could hear her mother calling her name, but she could not stop reading.
The book was proving to her something that she’d always thought, always wished, was true: that there was more to life than cooking for a hungry, weary husband, more than scrubbing floors, clothes, and dirty childrens’ faces. More than a hardscrabble life of working the land, following the lead of a man like her dead father as they scraped through another season. The book told her what she had always longed to know.
Lina forced her gaze away from the tiny print of the book and closed her eyes. She saw brilliant green and blue flashes under her eyelids as she thought about those words.
I must be dreaming, she thought, blinking her eyes in the gloomy darkness of the barn. There’s nothing extraordinary here on our farm, and especially not inside me.
“Lina?” her mother’s hoarse voice called once more, with finality. The screen door to the house slammed shut. Lina heard but did not register the sounds. She was reading again, her thin white lips moving with each sentence, all doubts erased by the small words in the book she held inches from her face. The author was right there, inside her mind, filling her with a steady diet of insight, potentiality, and desire. Words passed from her unblinking eyes directly into her imagination faster than the beat of her heat.
Magic existed, the book repeated over and over, and it was inside of her. She wanted to shout it to rafters of the barn. This knowledge was better than any trip to see the Mississippi, more wonderful than watching a paddlewheel float past. Magic!
Determined to learn more, Lina Seymour remained in the barn for the next one hundred and thirty-one years.
Joseph sat on the first passenger car behind the coal car, his lungs full of ash and his mouth painfully dry. He held his small valise on his lap the entire trip, afraid to let it out of his sight and risk losing his ticket and the paper containing the names of his new mother and father. Also inside his valise were a change of clothes and his three pieces of identification folded into his small white book. Right before leaving, Joseph had thrown the square cardboard box that once held his entire life so far into the orphanage fireplace. I’m ready for the Camolin Cavalry, he thought, walking out of the orphanage to meet his train.
He fought the temptation to slip the white book out of his bag and read to pass the long, swaying hours of his train ride west. But a deep, laughing voice filled his head every time he even thought about pulling out the book. “It is not yours to read any more,” the voice said. “You’ve already read it on one trip. The book must go to someone else now. One journey is all you get in this life, my boy.”
Joseph closed his eyes and let the rhythm of the metal wheels on the smooth iron rails below rock him to sleep. He dreamed he was back on the Ellis-Island-bound Odessa and his mother was still singing about Irish soldiers defending Erin’s lovely home and his father hadn’t started drinking and stopped caring. Their laughter brought tears to his sleeping eyes.
When he woke he was in Iowa, at a station in the river city of Dubuque. He pulled himself painfully from his seat, his legs asleep, and stumbled out of the ash-filled passenger car to meet his adoptive family. His first vision of his new life was the slow, muddy Mississippi framed by the brown banks of Illinois to the east and the skeletal railroad bridge to the north. Joseph caught himself wishing for the familiar desperation of the orphanage walls. Luckily, the sensation lasted only as long as it took him to walk onto the platform to meet the strangers who had paid for his trip west.
The Seymours, his new family, lived on a farm outside Petersburg, forty miles west of Dubuque, and all of them spoke German, and German only. The ride home in the horse-drawn wagon took close to four hours, and Joseph was close to crying from the violent jouncing of the wagon on the dirt roads. His ears were full of harsh-sounding, foreign words, though the words were spoken by gentle people who smiled at him often and gave him food to eat.
The sun was down by the time they arrived at the big white farmhouse, and for a bad moment Joseph thought he had returned to the orphanage, the two big buildings looked so much alike. Then his vision cleared, and he saw dark, flat fields on either side of him and blue sky stretched above him instead of rows of apartments and distant factory smoke clotting the gray air. He went inside to clean up, sleep, and begin his new life. He never thought about the orphanage again.
Five years passed in the blink of an eye.
Joseph left school at fifteen, married his neighbor Anne-Marie at sixteen, and was a father at seventeen. By the time he was twenty, when his first daughter Lina was three and his second daughter Jenny was walking and talking, he felt like he’d accomplished much in his life. He spoke both English and German fluently, and he lived with his wife in a house he and his father and three brothers had built fifty feet away from the big farmhouse. He attended church weekly, prayed daily, and though he was not like the heroes from his mother’s songs, Joseph felt that his was a life that had been blessed and was full of light.
Six years later he would be pounding nails into the roof of the new church, balancing shingles on a borrowed ladder as a storm approached.
Lina talked to her father while she slowly lost her mind during the rest of the nineteenth century and all of the twentieth century.
“I forgive you for wishing I was a boy,” she said, whispering words in the stuffy barn that she’d never been able to say to her father while he was alive. Tears filled her eyes as she twisted strands of hair around her fingers and pulled. “Someone to carry on the family name and a strong back to help with the work. I’ll make it up to you, Daddy. Just watch me.”
When she ran out of words, Lina was left with the world of the barn and the contents of the little white book.
The barn itself held untold mysteries. Two stories high, the interior felt as if it took up more space that it appeared to on the outside. Lina could walk for close to an hour and never retrace her steps or cross her path. She avoided the shadowy areas, especially the corner where the rusted tools sat like a death waiting to happen, and spent most of her time in the loft. Up a sturdy ladder, the hayloft ran the length of three-fourths of the barn, leaving only a rectangular gap in the middle where the ladder was positioned. If she climbed to the top of the stacked bales of hay, she could see outside through the hole that a woodpecker had knocked into the wall by the roof. Only half of the loft was filled with hay, and it was in this half that Lina spent most of her time, reading.
The first thing she learned from the book was how to make sparks fly out of her fingertips. Luckily she hadn’t burned down the barn with that trick, or its more advanced counterpart, lightning bolts. The hay had been damp from a recent rain in spring of 1873, though dates no longer mattered to Lina. For her, a year passed as quickly as sneezing or breaking wind.
Lina also learned how to levitate — chapter five — and how to catch small animals in a net of binding energy — chapter eight — for her meals. Spark-roasted rat and sparrow were her usual delicacies. The energy she expended catching and cooking her meals exhausted her, and she would sleep for at least half a week after eating. Life in the barn, Lina thought on the rare occasions she let herself be distracted from her book, was good.
Just before the turn of the century, another family bought the farm from Lina’s younger sister Jenny, who had never married and had become a sour old maid at the age of thirty-five. Neither Jenny nor the new tenants had ever paid a visit to the barn, which was barely visible to the outside world (unless it was foggy and the temperature was between fifty and fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and even then it was just a red blur next to the cow pasture).
In the last month of 1899, Lina had her first visitor.
She had been taking a break from the book for a few months. After searching its pages endlessly for a lesson on how to fly, she’d thrown the book at the wall in frustration. That four on the spine haunted her. Were there three other books? Or even more than that? Maybe book five talked about flight. It sure as blazes wasn’t in Book Four. Lina had glared at the book lying on a pile of rotting, half-burnt hay, and began chatting again with her dead father.
“On the day the doctor told us the news, Jenny and I had been skipping our chores, Daddy.” She wiped tears from her face with a hand that was thin and spidery, unfamiliar in her clearing eyes. Everything for the past decade had been a blur. She blamed it on too much book-reading. “Mama was so mad at us. She said we’d have to tell you about it when you got back from roofing the church. But we never got a chance to.”
Lina trailed off on the one hundred and eighty-ninth time she’d confessed this to her father’s memory. Against the far wall of the barn, above the pump where she drew water from a well that had yet to run dry, a sparrow perched on the steamer trunk and stared at her.
Lina tried to remember the Words of Binding from the book, but she couldn’t recall if it had been chapter five or eight. She hadn’t eaten in over a week. Then she realized the book was on the other side of the barn, sitting where she’d thrown it. Before she could stand up and get it, the sparrow began to talk.
“I heard you were here,” the sparrow said in a high-pitched, stuttering voice. Its last word was repeated five times — “here-here-here-here-here!” The sparrow stretched its short neck closer to Lina, as if inspecting her. “You’re not much to look at, are-are-are-are-are you?”
“Come closer,” Lina said, fighting the impulse to inch toward to the bird herself. She remained very still, holding her breath.
The sparrow cocked its head to the side as if smiling at her. “Your great-great unc-unc-unc-unc-uncle’s shade told me you’d be close to this barn. Didn’t tell me you’d be living here-here-here-here-here!”
“I like it here,” Lina said, inching closer. The Words of Binding had come back to her, even though it had been weeks since she’d last practiced them. Her blood began to swirl hot and cold through her veins as the power vested in the Words filled her. She was hungry. “It’s safe here. Even if I fall, like my Daddy, I’ll always land in hay. Come closer.”
“So you’ve been reading the book-book-book-book-book?”
Lina was ten feet from the sparrow. A bitter, ashy taste filled the back of her throat. “Who wants to know? Whose business is it but mine?”
The sparrow gave its cocked-head smile again and didn’t answer. It gave what to Lina’s eyes looked like a nod, and then gestured with its dirty beak at the book on the far side of the barn. “It’s ev-ev-ev-ev-everyone’s business, miss. You must keep that book safe until the right-right-right-right-right person comes looking for it.”
Lina was having trouble following the sparrow’s words. She was so very hungry. “I’m going to have to ask you,” Lina said, her muscles shaking as she prepared herself to leap, “to leave now, Mr. Sparrow.”
The sparrow remained sitting on the trunk, watching her. It lifted one leg and set it back down, then did the same with the other, never taking its black eyes off the tensed woman on the other side of the barn.
Lina couldn’t wait any longer. She dove at the bird, shouting Words of Binding. But already the bird was gone, twittering loudly as it flashed past Lina’s bird’s-nest hair. The sparrow gave her a good peck on the back of her head before arcing toward the hole in the ceiling. Thunder rumbled across the sky, and rain began to fall against the dirty barn windows.
Lina put her right hand on her wounded head and screamed. Sparks flew from her left hand, catching the sparrow just before the bird made it out through the hole to safety. Cackling, Lina caught the bird before it hit the hay-covered floor and shoved it into her mouth. Two feathers puffed out of her mouth and into the air, but Lina caught them and swallowed them as well. She chewed, a thoughtful expression on her dirty, lined face.
“Nobody’s business but my own,” she said, swallowing. “Not ev-ev-ev-ev-everyone’s business.”
The bird had tasted like mud, accompanying the bitter, ashy taste the Words had left in her mouth. There were coarse hairs on her tongue when she burped. She spit out as many hairs as she could and dropped to the floor for a nap as her lunch digested. Rain spattered on the roof and dripped through the hole in the ceiling. The rain fell on the book and bounced off harmlessly. The book was safe.
Lina wouldn’t have another visitor for over a hundred years.
Joseph had always believed in hard work and giving of his time and his strong back, so on that windy day in October, 1870, he found himself balancing a hammer, a bag of nails, and a sheath of shingles on a forty-foot ladder on the church roof of Petersburg.
He’d never been afraid of heights, but, being a man of the land and crops and dirt, he’d never been higher than the second story of his barn. Eyes focused on the section of roof directly in front of him, Joseph calmed himself by thinking of his girls. Jenny’s giggle and Lina’s high-pitched, bird-like voice filled his head, and he smiled. She’d sang him “Ring Around the Rosie” that morning after he came in from the milking, before he left for church. The girls had danced around him while he ate his breakfast, falling giggling to the floor at the end of the song.
The morning passed and the rows of shingles slowly crept up the side of the church roof like a growing shadow, one shingle at a time. Keeping his weight forward on the ladder, fighting the harsh pitch of the roof, Joseph wielded his hammer with five times the care than he’d use if his legs were planted firmly on the ground.
When he ladder started to tremble under him, he felt as if the moment he’d been waiting for all morning had finally become reality, just by his trying so hard to avoid it. As the wooden rung under his feet cracked, Joseph saw three small words — Words, his panicked mind had corrected him — in front of his eyes. He shouted the Words with all his energy, scrabbling for the roof with his hands. He began to fall, and his hammer, the nails, and the shingles he’d been holding all fell to the hard dirt below.
“Ring around the rosie,” Lina and Jenny’s voices sang in his head.
Joseph remained hanging in midair over a ladder that was now lying on the ground in two pieces. His mouth went dry, and he tasted something harsh and bitter, like coal ash, on his tongue.
“Pocket full of posies…”
Joseph was levitating. Just as the book said he would, if he said the Words properly. His heart hammered in his chest, the throbbing like the engine of the ship he’d felt on his cot in the Odessa, lying on his stomach as he read the tiny white book from his great uncle, over and over. Joseph was levitating. Just as he had once levitated in the ship, a full two feet above his cot. Until his father walked in the door and whipped him, all the while cursing Mo’s name.
I don’t believe this, he thought, his legs dangling under him like useless pieces of scrap wood. With a childish laugh, he kicked out as if he were swimming in mid-air. His worn-out left boot slipped off his foot and fell to the ground below, hitting with a dull thud. He looked at the church roof, five feet away from him, and the broken ladder on the ground under him.
“I forbid you to ever read this book again,” his father had shouted that day in their tiny room on the Odessa, ripping it from Joseph’s hands. He took it to the deck and threw it overboard, but the next morning the book had reappeared in Joseph’s valise.
As if the memory of his father’s anger made him realize that what he had been doing for the past five seconds was impossible, Joseph Seymour felt the magic drain from his body. No longer levitating, he dropped to the unforgiving ground forty feet below.
When Lina turned sixty-five, unbeknownst to anyone else around her — her family having forgotten her after her disappearance, as if she’d never really existed in their world at all — she made her first attempt to leave the barn. She’d been thinking about Jenny, singing songs with her, and she wanted to give her mother the documents she’d been sent to retrieve decades ago.
The sheaf of yellowed, brittle documents in her hand, Lina opened the door and was greeted by a dozen sparrows. All of them stared at her in the same curious way as the first sparrow had all those years ago, moments before she ate it. Two of the sparrows had darker feathers than the others, brownish-black in color.
“You are the guar-guar-guar-guar-guardian,” the first black sparrow said.
“You can’t leave-leave-leave-leave-leave,” the second black sparrow said.
“Oh yes,” Lina said, her breath coming to her in short bursts as the bright sun hit her skin and blinded her for a heartbeat. I am no simple guardian, she thought. I’ve read the book and learned the Words. I am a sorceress. “Oh yes… I can…”
“Your journey is not com-com-com-com-complete!”
Lina paused and looked up at the sparrow talking to her, a twin of the brown bird she had eaten years ago. “What journey? I’ve been nowhere, nowhere but this barn!”
“One journey is all you get-get-get-get-get.”
More sparrows joined the first row of mud-colored birds as she struggled to lift her now-heavy legs. She had yet to cross over the threshold of the barn and enter the yard. She lifted her leg to step closer to the outside world. Nowhere but here, she thought to herself.
The birds took to the air, blocking the bright rays of the sun, turning day into night. They flew up as if of one mind and body and turned on Lina, who stood with her foot still suspended in the air. They flew closer, and she screamed. She scrambled in her mind to find the Words that would dispel the sparrows, but nothing came. Finally able to move, she slammed the door shut before tiny beaks embedded themselves in her skin, instead thudding harmlessly off the wooden barn door. In the barn, she was safe.
Never again will I try to leave, Lina thought, shaking hands searching for the comfort of her plain white book. The yellow documents from her father fluttered to the floor, forgotten. Never again.
Moammar had always had a special place in his heart for his great-nephew Joseph. Though he knew the boy would never truly understand him or the way he could never stay in one place for longer than a few weeks, but Mo had taken a shining to the boy. With the thought always in the back of his mind that Joseph could be the next One, he did his best to make the boy’s life special.
Like the time Mo had taken Joseph and his mother to the ocean to watch the dolphins race, and Mo had let a piece of Joseph go out toward the salt water and enter one of the dolphins for a few wondrous seconds. Moammar went out with him into another dolphin, and the waves touched his and Joseph’s new bodies like caresses. They kicked their tails and dove out of the water as if they were both filled with lightning. When Mo brought Joseph back to himself, he watched the boy with an intense smile, one not unlike the smile made by a curious sparrow years later.
This could be all yours, my boy, Moammar had thought — but not said — at the time. Joys like this, and so much more.
On another visit months later, a much less relaxed Mo pulled his chair close to Joseph the instant Joseph’s parents left the room. Joseph had been seven years old at the time. Moammar was rushed for time, and he hoped his voice would not betray him.
“Joseph,” Mo said. “I have something for you.”
“What?” Joseph said, unable to contain himself. “What did you get me, Mo?”
Mo answered by passing him a book. The older man stifled a grin as Joseph tried to hide his disappointment from his great-uncle.
“Not just any book,” Mo said, tapping the small book’s plain cover. He forced himself to speak slowly and not rush. “A book of power. More power than you could imagine. Think of swimming with the dolphins last month. This book holds secrets like that, and more. And I want you to have it, my boy.”
Joseph’s small hand shook as he reached for the book. “Why me?” he squeaked. “I’m just a boy.”
“Time is short, Joseph. Just read the book, let the Words enter your mind, and remember them.”
Running his big hands through his beard, Mo gazed out the window at something in the distance. A puff of dust had been raised on the dirt road coming from Dublin. Mo felt his face tighten, and his words came faster. The sorcerers of the Fist may be sending someone to get me, he thought with a shudder. It had been a long time since he’d had to do battle, and he knew he’d have to fight his former colleagues who would be using their new magic. He cleared his throat and looked down at the waiting boy next to him.
“Just remember that the power of the book can be fickle. It may fail you when you need it most, or if you show the slightest doubt. And it will always look to find the most powerful person around, abandoning you if you appear to be weak. So be confident and strong, and you will be our next hero.”
Mo shook his head. “No more questions. Just be confident and strong, Joseph, and remember what you read in here.”
Joseph looked at the small book in his hands. He slid his dirty hand down the front of the book, but his finger left no track on the white cover. In a few seconds, Joseph was engrossed in reading, his mouth slightly open and his eyes wide.
Moammar slipped out of the house without a look back at the boy and his book.
Short minutes later, the tall man with the black-and-gray beard and dark complexion let out a long breath and set his knapsack onto a park bench four miles away. An instant later he collapsed onto the bench himself. Someone had been calling to him for the past month, a familiar voice from his past, an old acquaintance from the long-ago times. Before Moammar Grayson Avitular had given up on that life, as part of the Sorcerers of the Hand. And now that old friend was calling him back. Back to Stonehenge, where the Druids had began their teachings about magic, before magic split into two competing factions.
Moammar didn’t want to go, but he had no choice if he wanted to help close this rift.
He had made his last stop before his ship left Dublin for England. He hoped he’d done the right thing. If the magic of research and knowledge that he had always believed in was to continue, the Sorcerers of the new, more aggressive magic could not be allowed find the book or its counterparts. The five books had been spread to the corners of the world, their final destinations hidden to all other Sorcerors. Moammar’s old friend Ishi had confided in him that the users of the new magic were calling it the Fist. The name was an insult to the teachings of the Hand, and a good portion of the hopes of the older magic rested with the young boy Moammar that had just entrusted with one of the books of magic. It was a massive responsibility for a boy so young as Joseph, but again, Mo had no choice in the matter.
Digging a box of mud and a square tin of horsehair from his bag, Moammar clucked and shook his head. Joseph would never have been his first choice, but there was something in the boy, even if he was only seven, that gave him hope. And in times like these, beggars couldn’t afford to be choosers. If only he knew for sure that Joseph, or even Joseph’s descendants, could handle this task and not let the book fall into the wrong hands. And there were the other four books to consider as well.
Moammar rolled a handful of mud in horsehair, and began shaping the mud into a tiny, bird-like figure. He’d check back on Joseph when he could, after he returned from Stonehenge. Setting the tiny sparrow made of mud and horsehair on the bench next to him, Moammar stood. Until then, just like the sparrow he left behind, Joseph’s future was out of his hands.
The mud sparrow shook itself once, then took off toward the west, in the direction of the McAndrew house. Moammar would never again see Ireland or his great-nephew again while he was alive.
In May of 2009, at the age of one hundred and forty-eight, Lina Seymour sat hunched over the pristine pages of the white book of magic that she had been reading for most of her life.
Her black dress had been worn away to next to nothing, and her father’s hunting jacket was wrapped around her waist, now part of her dress. Half of her white hair lay scattered around her on the floor, and what remained on her head stuck up at wild angles that formed identifiable shapes. She weighed less than eighty pounds, and her mind was quite gone.
She lifted her head and squinted out the upper window. Someone was approaching the barn. A young, dark-skinned girl with a determined crease in her forehead carrying three small white objects clutched to her chest. As Lina watched, the girl slipped the square objects with great care into the backpack she was wearing. They were books, Lina realized.
Lina lifted herself from the wood floor and caught herself crying. She didn’t know if it was with relief or fear. And were those books, she thought, for me?
“I have a guest, Daddy,” she whispered. “I hope you don’t mind if I go out to greet her.”
Scurrying down the ladder from her second-floor roost, she let go of her own white book, which had turned cold in her gnarled hand, and covered it with hay. Gasping for breath, she pulled the steamer trunk in front of the pile of hay.
“Now stay there,” she said to the book, even as her small hands ached for the comforting weight of it again.
With a shaky breath and a quivering stried, Lina Seymour opened the barn door and, having skipped all of the twentieth century, stepped into the twenty-first. She pulled the door closed behind her. No sparrows were in sight, and her mouth was filled with the taste of coal ashes. She made it half a dozen steps before facing the young girl only five feet away.
“Why are you here?” Lina said, raising her voice but still sounding like a bird’s cheeping. The girl stopped, looking past Lina through the open door of the barn.
“I think you know what I came for, ma’am,” the girl said.
Lina squinted at her. The girl couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old. Her skin was dark, like Daddy’s coffee blended with a touch of cream, and her long black hair was thick and curly. In all of her life Lina hadn’t seen anyone who looked like this, and she stared, mouth open. Then she remembered the book, hidden behind the trunk.
As if reading her thoughts, the girl nodded. “There’s something out there that’s bigger than both of us. It’s called the Fist, and I need that book of yours to fight them. They’ve been gathering forces for longer than either of us has been alive. I’d rather fight them than fight you.” The girl gently set her backpack onto the long grass in front of the barn and stepped closer. “I hope you understand, ma’am. I can’t leave here without that book.”
Tears slipped from Lina’s eyes even as she began running the Words through her mind. The calm voice of the girl in front of her threatened to unnerve her. She caught herself in the act of turning back to the barn to retrieve the book for the girl. A sparrow fluttered to the ground from her right and sat on a tree stump a few feet away, as if watching and waiting.
I can’t let you take the book, Lina thought, the wild rush of magic flowing through her ancient body. She answered the girl at last with the most powerful spell she knew: lightning bolts.
The battle waged that day lasted less than three hundred seconds. Witnessed only by a growing crowd of brown sparrows, the two women threw bursts of blue lightning and white energy back and forth across the Iowa countryside at each other, scorching the sides of the old red barn and digging deep divots into the black earth. Lina Seymour fought with all she had, but her strength and her ability were not enough.
By the time Lina realized the painful truth, that her destiny had never been sorcerery, it was already too late. Her incomplete knowledge of magic and her untrained skill could only carry her so far. She thought of the three Words her father had whispered to her on his deathbed. He body racked with pain from the magical attacks of the young girl combined with her new knowledge of her misspent life, she spoke her final Words on this Earth.
As Lina began to lift gently from the ground, the girl tried to stop her final, fiery attack, a blue globe of flame intended to subdue the older woman. The ball of magical fire slammed into Lina, who was laughing and crying as she levitated two feet above the ground.
Her final thought had been that she was finally –- after so much time spent reading her book — flying.
Through his sparrows, the shade of Moammar had witnessed the battle that had been over a century in the making, and he was inordinately proud of both of his descendants. The young girl, the great-granddaughter of the illegitimate son of Jennifer Seymour, Lina’s sister, not only walked away with the fourth book, but she also knew where to find the fifth and final book of magic (which, among many other procedures, detailed how to fly). Before he could rest in his stony grave just outside Stonehenge, his final act as a benevolent spirit was to enfold the brittle soul of the book’s guardian, Lina Seymour, close to him.
“Lina,” Moammar said to the thin woman levitating between death and life. “Your life was neither wasted nor misspent.” He held out a hand to her. “Come travel with me, at last.”
Lina looked at him with surprise and a hint of recognition. He was dressed in white robes containing bits of mud and clumps of horsehair. She gave a tiny nod as her ears filled with the soft voice of a woman, singing about Ireland.
Yes, she thought, tasting coal ash on her tongue. I deserve this.
After nearly a century and a half of life, Lina Seymour’s great-great-uncle Moammar guided her into the afterworld, and they were accompanied by a flock of chittering, mud-colored sparrows.
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