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Igms issue 20, p.2

IGMS Issue 20, page 2


IGMS Issue 20

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  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.

  Sympathy of a Gun

  by Gary Kloster

  Artwork by Anna Repp

  * * *

  Twenty miles outside Sarasota, I stopped the motorcycle and puked my guts out on the highway. My stomach roiled at the smell, vomit cooking on hot asphalt, the bitter stench overlapping the sweet rot reek of the dead. I retched again, then I heard them coming. Fighting the nausea, I stood and waited to see if they would take me this time.

  Their buzzing was high and thin, like the whine of a distant power line, but when they surrounded me it was all I heard. Tiny wings stroked my skin, and their blue-black bodies, brimming with poison, bumped and blundered against me. They touched me, judged me, and again found me somehow unworthy. The swarm flew on, and left me shaking and alone to clench my teeth against a new wave of nausea that had nothing to do with morning sickness.

  "Damn you," I whispered when the feeling finally passed, and though I hadn't spoken in two days my voice was still raw from screaming. I opened my eyes and went to the motorcycle, reached out and flipped on the radio. "-- shelter and safety for you there. If you are a survivor in south Florida, please go to Miami. There is --" I snapped it off. "Damn you too." A flock of buzzards started up shrieking from the corpses in the westbound lanes as the cycle's motor thundered to life and I moved on, driving toward the rising sun.

  The air in the rest stop was trapped and stifling, but blessedly free from the taint of decay. There were bodies outside, ones the gators hadn't yet dragged away, but no one had died inside. With the rain beginning to hammer down I stepped in, cradling a crowbar as I headed toward the vending machines. I was almost to them when I saw the broken glass, the spilled snacks and soda, and stopped. I turned my head and saw her, huge and wrapped in pink, hunched on the bench across the room. Her eyes were bright with pain and loss. "Hey," she whispered, voice almost lost in the rain. "You want a coke?"

  Her name was Belle. Tanned and blond, nine months along in her third pregnancy. "My family's dead," she told me, wrapped in the calm of her shock. "We was out, and Johnny'd cracked the windows cause he was smoking. It got in, and I heard June, little June, say something about a wasp . . ." It took awhile for her to tell it. One blue-black wasp, death on small wings, it killed them all. Left her alone, surrounded by a family slumped still in their seats, left her to scream and run from the car out into the honking traffic, looking for help. That's when the sky fell, when a million-million shining wasps swept down the street and silenced them all, left her alone among the running engines and falling glass and quiet dead.

  "You going to Miami?" she asked me when she was done, when her tears had stopped. "You going cause of what they say on the radio?"


  "Oh." Belle shifted, looked me over. "How far along are you? You don't show."

  "Couple of months. How'd you know?"

  Belle shrugged. "That's all who's left, I think. Why we're not dead."

  "What?" I spread my fingers across the still flat sweep of my belly. Belle was the first living person I had seen after the first day of the wasps. I had wondered, was I the only one? And why. Why?

  "One of my neighbors, Sara, she was pregnant. Almost as far along as me. When I made it back to the apartment . . ." She shook her head, fighting memories. "Sara saw me come in, she talked to me. Came into my place, 'cause her boyfriend was dead on her couch."

  "What happened to Sara?"

  "Oh, she killed herself. Jumped off the balcony. I thought about that, but with the baby . . ." She rubbed her great belly, like I'd touched mine. "I went to a hospital, to the nursery, to see if there was anyone else."

  "And?" I didn't really want to know, but it seemed wrong not to hear it all.

  "They were dead too, the whole place, the mamas and babies and daddies and doctors. There was a woman. I think she came in during it all, when everyone was dying. Must have been in labor. She was in a room, all alone, her and her baby. The wasps killed them both, killed them after the girl was born. Dead in her mother's arms, cord still on. Why do you think they'd do that?" Her pupils were wide as wells, dark, lost as she traced the rain slipping down the windows.

  "I'll ask them when I get to Miami."

  "You think it's them, on the radio? The ones who brought the wasps?"

  "I think so." I stopped looking at her, my eyes blurring. I wanted to be done with tears. Tears and corpses, that's all there was anymore. And wasps, blue-black wasps that killed everyone but me, Belle, and a woman called Sara because in our bellies we carried another generation to be destroyed.

  "Me, too. That's why I'm not going. Why go to the devil? He can come to me."

  "I'm going." Lightning jagged its way across the sky, bright fire through the rain, and I remembered . . .

  The day after everyone died, I'd taken a motorcycle I barely knew how to ride and headed out to the suburbs, looking for a house. I'd been there once for a Halloween party, dressed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, a little sexy for him but safe enough for a party with partners, staff, his wife. I'd found the house on its empty street, the only sound the mournful howling of a dog in some distant yard.

  Going in, I hadn't been able to break the silence with his name. Up the stairs, past the photos of his family, I crept by the echoes of his life. Pretty wife, pretty kids, a pretty, happy life. What we'd done was just something on the side for us, never meant to be anything more than a secret, guilty pleasure. I'd never gotten the nerve to tell him I was pregnant. Who wanted to have that talk, about birth control and its failure rates? Who wanted to talk about what was to be done? I hadn't wanted to face it.

  Past the doors to
his kids' rooms, glad they were closed, and I had entered the master suite. Only a day gone, so you could almost pretend they were asleep, curled on the bed together. I looked for just a minute, and walked away. I wasn't even sure why I'd gone there. What else was there to do? I stopped just long enough to get a can of gasoline from their garage and splashed it across the wooden floor of their foyer. I didn't want to think of them rotting alone in the heat of that house, so I made a pyre of it and rode away, listening to the calm voice that had started to fill every radio band, hoping the bright fire would spread across all the houses of the dead and carry them up on a dark pillar into the sky, to fall again with the rain.

  At the rest stop, when the sky finally cleared, I left Belle and went on to Miami.

  Nearing Miami, where the interstate traded saw grass for strip mall, the road opened up. Long miles of death and wreckage gave over to clear pavement. I stopped at the edge of the emptiness and stared down the road at the white stiletto shaped thing that rested before the next interchange, blocking the lanes. It had only tiny, stubby wings, but it was something made to fly, curved and shaped to cut the air. I'd never seen anything like it. Before it, almost lost in the gleaming waves of heat that rose from the dark pavement, someone stood. Someone? Something? It was indistinct and unknowable in the glare, and my mouth went dry with fear as I watched it, knowing it watched me in return. Behind me, the dead waited in silence.

  "Enough," I groaned. I pushed off with my foot and let the bike rumble closer, until I could see.

  She was tall and perfect. Her skin was olive, her hair the dark gleam of a raven's wing spilling down over her shoulders and back, and her eyes . . . Golden eyes, like sun on water, like the eyes of the alligators that had watched me pass as they gorged on corpses. Her body was draped in a simple white dress, but I could see she was flawless, a goddess from out of men's dreams. Perfection proclaimed her heritage. She couldn't be human, and that sure knowledge made me tremble as I stopped the bike and stepped off it, facing her.

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