Episode #47: "The Last Spell of the Raven" by Morris Tanafon
Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 47 for September 23, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Today we have a poem by Jes Rausch, "Defining the Shapes of our Selves," and a GlitterShip original, "The Last Spell of the Raven" by Morris Tanafon. This is the last original story from GlitterShip Summer 2017, which you can pick up at glittership.com/buy if you would like to have your own copy. More importantly, however, this means that the Autumn 2017 issue is coming out soon!
Jes Rausch lives and writes in Wisconsin, with too many pets and too much beer for company. Nir fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, and Lethe Press. Find nem not updating nir Twitter @jesrausch.
"Defining the Shapes of our Selves"
by Jes Rausch
when we reached Fire Nest on Summit, hot
sun hanging low in the sky like an egg, biding,
the dirt streets were dusty as smoke.
So this is what the capitol of the Dragon Lands is like,
i said, and, i never dreamt i’d be here, breathe in dust
that must once have been the scales of ancients.
There, you said, and pointed out a spire among spires, the
twisting of another sculpted tail
in a sea of swirling tails and horns and There, you said,
and interrupted my awe with one of your smiles, man to me.
When we reached Fire Nest on Summit, our
pouches full of rubies, the aura of crime
marinating them to a fine delicacy, we strode
down streets dusty with smoke, smoky with the scent
of food and sounds and flashes of golds and crimsons.
We were here for a reason, a purpose, a journey, and
here we were at the door carved of real dragon bone
before the set of scale-clad guards, to bargain and banter and
barter our way into the deal of a lifetime. Said the guard
who stepped forward, He requires men and women meet
specific challenges attuned to their natures to pass, and
Step this way, to you. When we reached Fire Nest on Summit,
you walked through your designated door, and i
left behind in your dust, was told to wait when
the guard could not determine which frame fit. Said
the guard, it is better this way, after all, you cannot meet
the challenges without a reason, a purpose, a journey.
When I stepped into the apartment I heard
the burble of the fish tank, that constant watery murmur
that gives me what little comfort it can. I turn on
all the lights today, and a little music too. The curtains
already drawn, this little home a sanctuary
where I can pee however I want to, and with the door open.
Out there in the world deemed real, I can try too hard
to talk with coworkers, meet company standards, go by
unseen. But here I can make chicken tikka. Chicken tikka
doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care
if you live or die either, so in a way, it is
the world deemed real, and here, in my home
I can devour it.
when we slid into Io Port 7 dock, powered down, cleared
the security scans, and disembarked after five long
hours of waiting around in the mess, prisoners
in our own ship, i was ready for a bit of fun. Ten months
out in a vacuum will do that to you. Chasing odd jobs
around stars, snagging a get-rich-quick scheme out of orbit
is a tiring way to live. Dull as an old hull, random
as a time of death. Our boots made the obligatory clank-
clank noise down the corridors, our voices blocked
them out. See, i was never free ‘til i reached for a star
and grabbed a bucket of rust, made the engines run on sweat
and blood and nightmares. See, you can smell the aching shell of it
from the inside, but then, you probably never will.
i take care choosing a crew who can withstand
the raw scent of a being rotting from the inside out, fighting
against the lack of friction for all days. When we
emerged from the decaying ship, pristine outer hull, and slid
ourselves into Io Port 7 dock and down and down the corridors
already the rest and relaxation curled its way up to us. Somewhere
in the center of port, a band was playing, Venus Colony 3-
inspired beats pulsing and ebbing through
the artificial grav. Some persistent restaurant owner
was preparing dishes from Old Earth, warm smells
competing for dominance with the aromas of Orion-inspired
cuisine. When we descended into Io Port 7 dock, followed
the sounds and smells down to get our access passes
from the automated entrance bot, i entered in my name,
retinal scan, handprint, voice sample. i completed
the three-part questionnaire: reason for visit, profession,
personal information. i turned to accept my pass scan, and the bot
flashed dismissal. I’m sorry, the cold voice said, but you
don’t have the appropriate body mods to legally be permitted
to select that gender. I count only two
of the required five.
Morris Tanafon lives in Ohio but still feels like a New Englander. His work has appeared in Crossed Genres and Mythic Delirium and he blogs sporadically at https://gloriousmonsters.wordpress.com
The Last Spell of the Raven
by Morris Tanafon
When I was very young, I watched my mother win the Battle of Griefswald. Standing knee-deep in our ornamental pool, she transformed the surface into a picture of Germany, and dripped fire from her hands into the water. I stood with my tutor in the crowd that watched, and did not understand why she gripped my shoulders until they ached, or why the people watching cheered and gasped. I saw the fire snake around the houses, and tiny people running from it. But until I was older I did not understand that it had been real.
Nobody talked to me about magic. My father never spoke of it, and my mother believed that I took after my father and had no talent for it. Still, at the age of seven I used it for the first time—a desperate child will reach for any tool. I knew that magic existed, from my mother’s conversations with her friends, and that it could be used to do wonderful things. And I knew that my cat Morrow was dead. So when I was given the body to bury it, I took her out to the backyard instead, and performed my best guess at a spell. The form was foolish, but the intent genuine, and intent was all it needed.
Morrow stirred, and my cry of delight caught my mother's attention. She looked from me to the cat, heard five seconds of my babbled explanation, and began screaming.
"Galen, you idiot!" She slapped me. "Things that come back are barely alive, and now you've wasted a spell! If you use more than four spells you die, do you want to die?"
I began screaming, convinced I was going to drop dead on the spot, and the reborn Morrow added a thin, ugly caterwaul to the din.
It was my father who ended the stupid affair, in one of the rare moments he left his study. He scooped up Morrow, plucked me away from my mother, and took us both inside, ignoring my mother's spitting rage. I don't know what she did after that. It didn't matter to me at the time, because my father took me into his study. I had never seen the interior before, and when he put me down I froze in place, afraid I’d break something. He dropped Morrow in my arms; I could feel her tiny, tinny heartbeat against her ribs. She smelled like mothballs and felt like paper-mâché, as if I hugged too tightly I'd crush her.
"I have no say in the matter," my father said, "but I suggest you never use magic again."
I must have looked ready to start screaming again, because he began speaking quickly—something he never did.
"I would never have married Evelyn if I knew she was a magician. In the country I come from, it is despised, for good reason. Who would willingly rip their soul apart?" He sat down, drumming his fingers, and watched me for a minute. I stared back dumbly—I still didn't understand.
"There's a story we tell children," he said. "Once, a raven was swallowed by a whale, and inside it he found a little house. There was a beautiful girl there, with a lamp by her side."
Morrow scratched my shoulder. I put her down but she stayed by my legs, winding around them.
"She told the raven: The lamp is sacred, do not touch it. But every few moments she had to rise and go out the door, for she was the whale's breath." I wanted to ask why the whale's breath was a girl, but my father signaled me to be silent. "And the raven, being arrogant and curious, waited until she was gone and touched the lamp. In an instant it went out, the girl fell down dead, and the whale died too, for the lamp was the whale's soul."
I pressed my hands to my chest.
"You're not going to die," my father said. "Not if you stop now. But listen—the raven dug its way up through the whale's dead flesh, and found it beached. There were men gathered around. And instead of telling them, 'I meddled with something beautiful and destroyed it', the raven merely cried, 'I slew the whale! I slew the whale!' And he became great among men, but lived a cursed life thenceforward."
The meaning was not obvious to a seven-year-old. "Am I cursed?"
"All magicians are," my father said flatly, "for that raven, greedy for the power he tasted from the whale's soul, became the first magician. Now go, and think about what I told you."
I went, and I did. To this day, that's the longest conversation my father shared with me.
Morrow perished again seven years later, despite my best efforts. I fed her bugs and graveyard dirt and tiny pieces of liver and locked her in my room to prevent her from jumping off a too-high surface and crushing her fragile front legs. But I forgot to lock the door one day, and a maid wildly kicked at the grey shape that appeared in front of her, and that was the end of Morrow.
I was angry, but the maid cried and helped me gather up the pieces, and she was very pretty. That, at fourteen, had begun to matter, and I forgave her enough to give her part in the burial service.
My mother watched from the window until Morrow was well buried.
When I wove my second spell I knew what I was giving up, and I knew my mother would kill me if she discovered what I’d done. I was to go to university that autumn, and become certified as a magician in service to the Crown, as my mother was—I risked that as well. I thought the price cheap in exchange for a smile from Asuka.
Fujimoto Asuka, the ambassador's daughter. We attended the same parties, hated them with the same passion, and exchanged weary looks over the rims of our wineglasses until I finally got up the courage to speak to her. She had come with her father to England to find a magician to change her body's shape. She was born with one wrong for her. We were a good match for that summer—she appreciated my adoring glances and felt kindly toward magicians. I was glad of admiration from one as worldly as her.
On the last day of summer, I convinced Asuka to slip away during a party. She didn't take much convincing, and it's a miracle we weren't caught—giggling like schoolchildren and exchanging significant glances anyone could read. Perhaps the other guests were humoring us. We went to the nearby lake, so well-tended it was our ornamental pool writ large, and I took off my shoes.
"You asked me how magicians first came to be," I said. "Nobody knows the full history, but I can tell you one story."
The pictures I made in the water were not real, but they looked it. Even now, with my regrets, I feel a twinge of pride thinking of the spectacle. I'd studied ravens for months, memorizing how they moved, and drew inspiration for the woman from Asuka; and like any good storyteller, I lied, adding my own spin. I transformed the raven into a man in the last moments and sent him and the whale's breath, hand-in-hand, into the crowd of gaping humans. Their descendants were magicians, I told Asuka. The raven saved the breath-girl at the last moment by lighting the lantern with a piece of his own soul.
When I was done, Asuka's eyes glittered with tears.
She promised to write to me; but the autumn was cold and long and the mail services from Japan to England not too reliable, and after a few exchanges our talk petered out.
I expected my parents to find out about it, but they never did. Instead, I had to explain to the records officer at Iffley College. Anyone who wished to register as a magician had to give an account of all magic they had used. She made notes as I spoke, and squinted at me as if she could see magic filling me to a certain point like a cup.
“From the sound of it,” she said, “you have three spells left. That’s the minimum for a certified magician—you have to give two spells in service, and one left over to keep you alive. You’d have to get through university without using any magic.”
That should have been my cue to turn away from the path of a magician, but I was stubborn and scared. I was not particularly good with mathematics, writing, speaking, or any other useful trait, and I feared my father might not leave me much when he passed away. Magic, no matter how I'd misused it, was the one thing I was certain I could do. I resolved to hoard my last three spells until graduation.
Iffley should have been the site of my third spell.
It was reasonably progressive, so male students were allowed in female student's rooms if the door remained open—as if, Amel said, girls and girls and boys and boys got up to no trouble together.
Amel Duchamps was my best friend, and one of my only friends at Iffley. Most of the magicians there had more spells to their name than I, and loved to talk about what they planned to do with their two 'extras' after the service to the Crown was given; most of the non-magician boys thought me strange and shy. Girls suspected that I only wanted to speak to them for amorous reasons, which was far from the truth—after Asuka, my heart was too raw for romance. I wanted friendship.
Amel provided that and more. She was not a magician, but she did not fear them-—or anything. When she was ten, a horse had gone wild and crushed her legs. The doctor had asked her: would you rather leave them dangling, or cut them away? Amel chose to have them cut, and she told me that all her fear was cut away with them. She had gone about taking dares after that, everything from eating bees to sticking her hand into stinging nettles, and at fifteen she volunteered for experimental mechanical legs.
They were beautiful, wide white-and-bronze things with gears winking through the joints. The ones being produced now, mostly for military veterans, are more workmanlike; but the woman who designed Amel's wanted to make her fifteen-year-old test subject smile, so she had boots painted on the feet and winding vines on the calves.
"Imagine if magic took a piece of your body, instead of your soul," Amel said to me the day we met. "Then I'd be the one who'd spent two spells. I imagine the first would take your legs up to the knees, the next would go to the hips, then your torso... and finally you'd just be a head, rolling along. Fancy that!"
She was a year older than me, but never seemed to notice. We loved each other absolutely in the way of friends, with never a hint of lust; and we both loved the boy in the room across from me with every bit of romance and lust in us, although we never dared reveal that to him. His name was Isaac; he was blind and he had the most beautiful voice I had ever heard.
"How's himself?" Amel would always ask when I came to see her, and I'd tell her what Isaac had done lately. Then we'd move on to food, magic, sympathy over the cross of races we both were—English and Inuit for me, French and African for her. Iffley was a hard school, and the deeper into our education we got the more time we spent simply talking and the more our performance faltered. I might have failed altogether and been forced back home had—had the event not occurred.
I know very little about the attacker; only that he was a magician, and had decided how to spend each and every one of his spells. The newspapers, of course, spent weeks on the matter, on the carnage from beginning to end and the inspiration for it and the attacker's history and potential madness, but I don't want to know another thing about him. I know all I need to: the third dark, wet January I was at Iffley, I had gone out into the town for a much-needed drink and was returning in the afternoon when I heard the screams. I saw the blood, splattered in haphazard patterns over the wall, like wet lace slapped against the bricks. And for one minute I saw him, the killer, in the doorway across from me. He was bright-eyed with excitement, his hands curled up near his chest as if he had been physically tearing away pieces of his soul to do this with; and he looked at me. For a moment, I saw him consider.
But, as I was to learn later, he was on his last spell, and I was just one man. Why waste your power on one man when you can run to another room and kill a crowd? He turned away from me. And I, freezing as if I were seven years old again, let him.
Someone will stop him, any moment now, I thought. Some other magician, one of the ones with all five spells. They can spare it.
A minute later he cast his last spell and fell dead. A magician in the room even managed to deflect part of it. But that last spell still claimed lives—one teacher, one bystander who had been forced into the college, four students. Amel Duchamps.
I threw myself into my work in an attempt to forget, but it didn't help. Amel should have been the magician, I thought over and over. She had given up her legs in an instant. She would have given up a piece of her soul.
But what could I do now? I graduated Iffley College and the Crown claimed me. The last scraps of my soul no longer belonged to me.
My third spell is not worth remarking on. It was a military operation, one part of a massive whole. Performing it, I felt the pain of separating soul from soul for the first time, and I wondered if the pain came with age or only with reluctance.
At thirty I spent my fourth spell in a moment's decision. I had another purpose, another spell laid out for me, although I can no longer recall what it was. Suffice to say I was accompanying a group of soldiers, police and other magicians, retrieving hostages that had been taken from the Royal Opera to the house of an art-obsessed crime lord in Liverpool.
I found Isaac among those rescued. I got up the nerve to greet him, but he only tilted his head. Then he opened his mouth and showed me that the criminal devil had taken his tongue.
I did not think about it, or even tell him what I was going to do, which in hindsight I should have. I kissed him lightly, passing the last easily taken scrap of my soul mouth to mouth, and restored his tongue. "It's the least I can do,” I said.
My superiors raged. My mother heard of it and sent a letter to tell me how stupid I was. Isaac embraced me, which was the high point of the whole affair. But I realized that I could not hear his voice without remembering Amel, and how much she had loved him as well, and so I could not be with him long. When I received orders of discharge I bid him farewell and good luck, and set off wandering.
I found work as a teacher, here and there, although what people most wanted me to do was give lectures on how greatly I had wasted my magic—provide an example to the younger generation of magicians by accepting responsibility for my foolishness. That I could not do, and sooner or later I had to move on from a place when the attention grew to be too much.
My life was lonely. But it warmed me a little to think of a piece of my soul clinging to Isaac, like a flower-petal on the back of his tongue, reverberating with the sound every time he sang.
In the summer of my thirty-sixth year, my mother died and the aggression between England and Germany flared into war once again. Newspapers made poetry of it, suggesting that Germany was given courage to attack by my mother's death. They ran photographs of the Battle of Griefswald, the side that had taken place in my old home's ornamental pool, and some reporters tried to interview me on the matter. With mourning as my excuse, I returned to my old home and locked myself in. My father had gone back to his land of birth, and wanted nothing to do with the house or me.
In time, interest died out. The war occupied everyone's attention. Sides were taken, attacks were made, and after a while I stopped bothering to read the newspapers. With a place to live and the money my mother left behind, I no longer had to go anywhere, and as the days passed I wanted to less and less. People only spoke of magic when they spoke of how it might be used in the war. I was despised, quietly, for my lack of contribution. I came to see the few kindnesses I was still shown as undeserved, and I retreated into my home completely, stocking up on food so I wouldn't need to leave for a long time.
A few people still found me. Young men and women going off to war passed through my part of the country, and some of them stopped at my door. I didn't understand why; finally, I allowed a girl named Katherine inside just to see what she wanted, and over a cup of weak coffee she blurted out that she only had three spells left.
I realized that she wanted to tell me about the first two.
That was what they all wanted, really, the people who knocked at my door. Some had three spells left, some two, but all of them had spent the first on impulse. Katherine had cursed her stepfather's vineyards. A boy called Natanael had resurrected his favorite apple tree after it had been struck by lightning. Gita had brought a patch of earth to life, and it followed her around. "It used to be bigger," she said, looking down at the muddy little golem. "I think someday it will wash away completely."
All I could do was listen, but I realized that was all they wanted.
Eventually they stopped coming. Germany was inching across England's shore near my home, and people fled the area. I stayed deep within my house, and it might have been mistaken for empty; certainly, nobody came to evacuate me. I lived in a looming house over a ghost town, with the sounds of warfare drawing nearer every day, and I could not bring myself to care. I began working my way through the wine cellar.
It was when I was down there, one day, that the bombs came down. I felt the earth shake over my head, and when I mounted the stairs an hour later my house had collapsed around me. Cavernous walls bowed in, shattered windows were obscured with earth, the wooden beams of the house creaked and groaned under the weight of rubble. It was dark and stifling and still large, like the belly of a whale, and in the center of the floor lay a bomb.
It didn't seem about to go off, so I circled it at a distance and tried to remember what I'd read about German bombs. There had been an article in the last newspaper I'd bothered to look at. They were iron shells full of destructive magic, released when their metal shell was cracked or some requirements for the seething spell within were met. Every one one-fifth of a magician's life, and the Germans were beginning to drop dozens of them. I remembered Iffley, the blood on the walls and the cracked windows, and bile rose in my throat. That man had chosen to use his magic in that way, but I could not imagine that a rational magician would agree to it willingly. I felt a strange sympathy for the magician who had spent part of their soul in such a manner.
But what were the requirements for this spell? It had been dropped rather precisely here. Perhaps, ascribing more credit to me than I deserved, they thought I might follow in my mother's footsteps and kill a great deal of their people. Still, why would it be meant for me and not awaken when I stood within twenty feet of it?
A thought struck me, and I almost laughed aloud; then I remembered that nobody was here to think me mad, and I did laugh. They had meant the bomb for a magician, of course. But while my spell for Isaac had been publicized, my earlier expenditures were shrouded in mystery. They had expected a magician with at least two spells left. My one remaining scrap was not enough to trigger the bomb unless I stood next to it.
I left it where it lay and went to investigate the doors.
My bad luck held, and they were all blocked by wreckage. I was trapped and help was not likely to come. And for all that I'd willingly shut myself off from life, I felt a pang of huge and echoing terror at the thought. I wanted, for a fiery moment, to survive; or at least to know that my death would be noticed, that I would be mourned. If I had still possessed two spells, I would have used one then.
But I only had one, and the moment passed.
In two weeks' time I had run through most of my food, and had nigh-unconsciously begun spending time nearer to the bomb. It was a contest of wills, fueled by my ragged mind; it seemed to me that my own weakening instinct to live fought against the soul-fragment of the magician who wished me to die. I spoke to it, sometimes. Would have named it, if I were a little more mad. Told it the story of my life, as far as I knew it. "We haven't gotten to the ending yet," I informed it, in a conspiratorial tone, "but I know I shall die. It only remains to see how."
In my defense, I was rather drunk during those weeks, and in my further defense, my father kept a far more extensive wine-cellar than I did a pantry. Recalling my mother, I can hardly blame him.
Regardless: after two weeks, as I sat and studied the bomb and wondered how swift a death it might be to trigger it, I heard noises faint and far above me. I thought at first they were delusions—I had imagined, many nights, the sound of a cat padding through the hallways, or the creak of mechanical legs—but I kept listening, and realized they were the sounds of digging.
Someone had come.
I leapt to my feet, head spinning, and looked upwards. I could hear a voice now, shouting, but it was too far away to recognize. But as I stood there, shaking, so overwhelmed I did not know whether I felt joy or terror, I heard another noise: a slow and measured cracking.
There must be magicians in the group above. The bomb began to tremble, like a hatching egg, and in a moment it would split open.
I wished that I did not have time to think. Magic, excusing the spell I performed unwillingly, always came in a moment of impulse. But the metal egg cracked slowly, and my hands trembled, and my traitor mind said Wait a moment longer. It has not gone off yet; they might be near enough to call to, soon, and someone else—
Someone else, I knew with utter certainty, would come too late. That did not make the magic come easily, it did not spur me on without thought, but it gave me the strength to raise my hand toward the shivering spell on the floor.
"You were meant for me," I reminded it, and as the shell finally opened I enclosed it. The force was strong, almost stronger than I, and had to go somewhere, so I directed it toward the part of the ceiling which I had heard nothing from. I had to hope that was enough.
The spell was silent, save for the roar of the roof parting before it, and nothing more than a glimmer of light to my eyes. I sank to my knees, watching the ceiling split open, and saw the cloudy sky for the first time in weeks.
"I slew the whale," I said. My tongue felt thick and heavy in my mouth. "I slew the whale."
Far away, I heard a shout. I still could not recognize the voice, but it seemed familiar. Perhaps it was one of the young magicians who had stopped at my door. Perhaps it was Isaac. Anything seemed likely, in that moment. The cloudy sky dimmed before my eyes as my vision failed, but my mind's eye seemed to sharpen. I thought I saw the house from the outside, clear as day, and felt a cat winding around my legs, her purring weight incredibly familiar. The weight transformed into water and I stood, for a moment, in the lake where I wove Asuka’s spell.
Some say a magician splits into five pieces at their death, but it felt more like becoming whole.
And here—no, this cannot be death, for I find myself back in Amel's room in Iffley, where I never worked a spell, and she smiles at me so hard her eyes crease up to almost nothing. "How's himself?" she asks, and I answer, and while I do she gets up—her legs no longer creaking as badly as they did—and paces to the door to open it. Morrow slips half of her long grey body inside, but in the way of cats she can't make up her mind; as Amel and I sink deeper into conversation she comes in and goes out, in and out, in and out and in and out.
"Defining the Shapes of our Selves" is copyright Jes Rausch 2017.
"The Last Spell of the Raven" is copyright Morris Tanafon 2017.
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Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “Circus Boy Without A Safety Net" by Craig Laurance Gidney.
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