Magic

Starting Over

Mia Stendal/Shutterstock.com

“I can’t do it.”

The Sacred Library had been silent save for the quiet whisking of a thousand pens in a thousand notebooks, each lying open before an acolyte in training, and the words bounced around the cathedral-style building before fleeing down the halls and out of earshot.

Wendy had her own pen, but unlike the others, hers wasn’t moving. Instead, she was looking down, watching the world inside her notebook tear itself apart.

“I can’t do it,” she said again, quieter this time.

It was one thing to take a book off the shelf, gaze at the words on the pages, and read the world that was etched between the lines. It was another thing altogether to become its author. A successful reading required great skill, but even that level of talent was a drop in the ocean compared to the otherworldly challenge of Creation.

Wendy had survived three years of training, but now, after constructing her own world piece by piece, it was unraveling. She peered through the symbols written in her notebook. She watched the sea levels rise, the winds gain speed, the ground begin to shake, and all she could do was sit and allow the apocalypse to unfold.

“What’s this now?”

Wendy turned to find Randal, one of the Library’s oldest disciples, standing behind her.

“I can’t do it, sir.”

Randal took the notebook from her trembling hands and started from the beginning, flipping through each page and reading her world just as Wendy had learned to read a dozen others.

“Mmm,” said the old man with the utmost gravity. “I see the problem.”

“There are so many variables, so many loose ends. It got off to a decent start, but now as I approach the end, I’m afraid it’s a lost cause.”

The disciple’s robes swished as he took a seat beside her. He turned back to the last empty page, and after looking her in the eye, returned the notebook. He leaned in close, and in a conspiratorial whisper, said, “I’ll tell you a secret. No creation is ever a lost cause.”

“But I’ve already written so much, and every line at the end depends on another line from the beginning. How can I fix something that rests on such a faulty foundation?”

“By going back and rewriting the foundation.”

“But then the rest of the world will collapse.”

The disciple nodded.

“And in its place, you can build something better.”

That was a possibility Wendy hadn’t considered before. She bit her upper lip in thought.

“No acolyte,” the old man continued, “has ever gotten a new world right on the first try. Nor, for that matter, has any disciple. But if you love something, you don’t give up on it. You return to the forge and you try again, as many times as it takes. You examine your world through the critical eye of a surgeon. You determine what it was that lead to its demise, and then you pluck it out. You revise, then revise again, until someday, somehow, your world finds its soul and can live apart from you, as all great masterpieces do.”

Now, for the first time, Wendy turned the pages backward. She traced through her world’s evolution, from its birth at the core of a primordial star to its violent and premature end. There were, she realized, a great many things she would have done differently.

“It’s really okay to start over?” she asked.

The disciple flashed her an enigmatic smile.

“As many times as it takes.”

He left her to check on the other acolytes, but Wendy, knee-deep in the storms of Creation once more, hardly noticed.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Fire and Stone

lassedesignen/Shutterstock.com

Adam had been walking through the tunnel for some time. He could not remember entering, nor could he remember why. Nevertheless, lost in both space and time, he continued walking, searching for the answer to a question long forgotten.

The tunnel was hot, uncomfortably so, and the longer he went on, the hotter it got. Making matters worse, the walls were drawing closer. At first, he’d thought it was his imagination. Now, however, he had to squeeze through to move, and soon, he was certain, they would close around him completely, trapping him underground with nothing but the dark and the heat to hear his dying screams.

He’d already tried to turn around, so many times, in fact, that he could no longer remember which way was forward and which way was back. Not that it mattered. Either destination led to his destruction.

Embrace the heat and the stone.

A shard of memory, flaring in the dark like a spark. It was soon followed by another.

Become one with the underground, or else it will destroy you.

The words, spoken in a desiccated rasp, were accompanied by the image of a gnarled old woman, huddled close to a dwindling fire. Adam seized on what little he could remember, but there was nothing for his mind to grab onto, nothing but the heat and solid stone.

Lost, alone, and far out of his depth, he sunk to the ground, sweat rolling down his face and neck. Was this how it would end, deep underground without even the comfort of knowing why he’d descended in the first place?

Embrace the heat and the stone.

The words had the air of a prophecy yet to be fulfilled, a conditional destiny that hinged on his willingness to do as the old woman said.

Adam picked himself up, almost out of breath and uncertain how to proceed. The heat was getting to his mind, making him lightheaded and sluggish. Even though he hadn’t moved, he could feel that the walls were closer, that they were almost on top of him, that in a moment he would only be able to walk sideways, and that in a few more moments he would not be able to walk at all.

Embrace the heat and the stone.

This time, the words seemed to come from outside his head. Not sound, not exactly, but a vibration, a low, resonant rumble that could be felt through the floor and the walls. The Earth was speaking to him. Or was he hallucinating? Adam was not sure which, not sure it even mattered.

The heat.

Like an oven, roasting him alive.

The stone.

Pressing down on him, pinning him to the ground.

Adam closed his eyes, the fire in his heart nearly extinguished.

The heat. The stone.

In his head, the two words merged into a back and forth rhythm, and like rubbing two sticks together in a forest, the resulting friction began to warm him from the inside.

Heat. Stone. Heat. Stone.

Faster and faster the rhythm went. The heat inside of him grew hotter, brighter. This interior heat was somehow different, not harmful in the least but rather a counterweight that helped him to keep his balance amidst the heat and pressure from the outside. Adam’s mind was coming back online, and through the rapidly growing fire in his head, he began to perceive in the underground an ancient forgotten purpose.

Become one with the underground.

Now, Adam had an idea of what that might mean. He was on the threshold of a grand and irreversible transformation, but first, he had a choice to make. Either he could give up his old life on the surface, embrace his new purpose, and live; or else hold onto who he’d once been, and deep within the heart of the Earth, lay down and die.

The heat.

The stone.

Adam did not wish to die, and it was clear to him that there was no way to go but forward. His choice was obvious, then, and in the searing darkness of the underground tunnel, he answered the Earth’s call.

Like an animal in a cage, he threw back his head and screamed. He hit the wall behind him, but the blow did not hurt. Instead, flesh and bone fused with stones and minerals. Caught now in the gravity a wild and ancient dance, the souls of Adam and the Earth twisted, pulled, merged, forming one inseparable whole that was neither Adam nor the Earth but something more.

This composite entity regarded its nascent existence with almost reverential wonder. It could now perceive in its entirety the ancient purpose that Adam had only glimpsed in the underground, a commandment older than the universe, and with its heart set, it began the work necessary to fulfill it.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.

Good Cat

Foxytail/Shutterstock.com

Chester is a good cat, or so his humans say whenever they scratch behind his ears or run their fingers through his soft ebony fur. Chester does not dispute the honorific. He keeps the basement free of rats. He suffers the destructive affections of their two young children. He keeps an ear out for when his humans are sad, and when comfort is required, he lies in their laps while they stroke his head and keeps them company until the shared warmth lulls one or both of them to sleep.

All these things are reason enough for Chester to qualify as a good cat. But there is also another, a secret known only to Chester and the rest of his kind. It is this last thing for which he claims with no hesitation whatsoever the high and lofty title of Good Cat. It is something he thinks about each night before he lies beside the fireplace and waits for his two adult humans to go to bed, for it is only in the stillness of a house asleep that Chester’s true work can begin.

Tonight is Christmas Eve, and tonight, more than any other night, he must be vigilant, for this is when the shadows come out—not the ordinary shadows that are just the absence of light, but the true shadows, incorporeal creatures who are incapable of love and who therefore seek to destroy the love they find in others.

Right now, the children are asleep, along with their parents, who earlier placed wrapped gifts beneath a decorated tree. The house is dark and quiet, and Chester, its only conscious inhabitant, marches from one room to the next on soft and silent paws, keeping his lambent green eyes fixed on the darkness ahead. He tours the living room, the kitchen, the hallway, the bedrooms, and when his tour is complete he doubles back and starts again.

Tonight, Chester’s true master will take to the skies to deliver his ultimate gift to the world, and Chester, along with his feline brothers and sisters, will watch over the humans’ houses, alleys, and streets in order to keep him safe. It is an ancient mandate, one that’s been passed down for generations. Tonight, Chester will do his duty, and in so doing, secure for himself a place of honor in the life to come.

Now, for the third time, Chester’s eyes sweep across the living room walls. He sees the two filled stockings hung above a dwindling fire, and he imagines the holiday rush that will follow the rising of the sun. The children, doped up on candy and Christmas spirit, will no doubt pester him for hours. Nevertheless, he looks forward to the lull that will come later in the day, a time when he can finally nap beside the humans that, in spite of everything, he’s grown to love.

Chester is knee-deep in this happy vision of the future when he spots the creeping shadow by the front door. It is not like the other shadows in the room. It is somehow darker and thicker and pulses like a diseased artery. Chester slips behind the couch, and, tail swishing, watches as it extends along the length of the wall.

Keen and intelligent, it avoids the light where it’s more likely to be spotted, instead favoring the ordinary shadows that give it cover. A human would never spot it, but Chester’s vision extends beyond the visible spectrum of light. To his otherworldly eyes, the malignant entity blazes like a torch. Chester watches it settle by the fireplace, where it will await the arrival of his master, and only after it’s nestled into a corner does Chester advance.

Like his ancestors who stalked the primordial forests of old, he closes in for the kill. He creeps closer, closer. The shadow doesn’t see him coming—they never do—and by the time it realizes it should be afraid, it’s too late.

Chester sinks his fangs into the shadow’s heart and is nearly thrown across the room. Biting into it is like biting into a live wire. Every muscle in his body contracts at once as the shadow in his mouth emits a piercing silent scream. It struggles to break free, but Chester’s grip is solid. His teeth puncture its massless exterior, piercing a soul that pulses and throbs like a mortally wounded heart.

Let me go, the shadow pleads. The force of its soundless voice is like a shock wave, distorting the space and time surrounding them. But Chester doesn’t let go, will never let go, and at last, after what might have been minutes or hours, he feels the shadow weaken. Its voice drops almost to a whisper, and the current of dark energy that almost threw Chester across the room slows to a mere trickle.

Like a twig, Chester closes his mouth around it, snapping the shadow in two. Exhausted, he drags his prey toward the fireplace, where he drops to his paws and dozes. For tonight, at least, his work is done, and now the only thing left to do is wait for his master to arrive.

* * *

When St. Nicholas—his current name, though before the Christians proclaimed him a saint he was known by many others—slides down the chimney donning ancient robes and carrying a sack not filled with presents but with a single gift that he will share with the entire world, Chester is ready.

St. Nick spots him lying beside the fireplace, and when he glances at the far wall, he sees that the shadow projected by the cat’s mouth contains another shadow, limp and lifeless.

St. Nick kneels before him like a supplicant before a king and scratches behind Chester’s ears.

“Good cat.”

Chester purrs, smashing his head into St. Nick’s face, and in response, the ageless man buries his hand deeper into the cat’s ebony fur.

“Good cat,” he says again, and after opening his sack, after reaching inside and sowing the seeds of a celestial love that will abide and grow in Chester’s human family until the following Christmas, he climbs the chimney once more, disappearing into the dark and dangerous night outside.

Chester curls into a ball beside the glowing embers of last night’s fire, and with his lambent green eyes beholds St. Nicholas’s gift, suspended in the air like motes of shining stardust. He lets the love it carries permeate his feline body, and once content, he closes his eyes and falls asleep, dreaming of endless ear scratches and naps beside the human family he protects.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive The Sign.