“The Magician Deletes Her Feed” by Kate Lechler
YouScroll makes me want to rip my eyeballs out, Ana thinks, watching the Feed as she avoids getting out of bed; it spools out of the top of her tablet and coils next to her, a paper nest covered in flickering text and images that bleed off the page before dissipating into the air.
I could perform at birthday parties, make them float around the room, bobbing like corks, and then put them back in, hey presto. It’d be a paycheck, at least.
Today is the day she starts her secret project; the date on the calendar is circled three times in red ink. But she can’t stop Feeding, thinking just ahead is something useful, fascinating, or hilarious. But instead it’s an endless buffet of quizzes, like “What kind of cauldron are you?” (She got “Battery-Powered.”)
Half an hour later, she realizes she’s spent the last thirteen minutes on the Feed trying to find one particular clip from Seven’s Just a Number—the one where Nico says the wrong word in a spell and ends up breaking all the zippers on his pants, resulting in hilarity later as he gets ready for a first date—after reading an article about the SJaN cast reunion that she saw while scanning through a listicle entitled “30 things you only remember if you’re in your 150’s.”
She gathers up the paper from the Feed, shakes it out—the words and images scatter across the page and then disappear, leaving it blank—and threads it back into the tablet. Time to quit, for now.
That date on the calendar is still circled.
Ana has determined that this is the year she’s going to accomplish a Wonder. Not a Sensation, or even a Marvel, but a verifiable capital-W Wonder. She’s given herself six months to do so before she capitulates, moves home, and takes the first job she can find.
The only problem is that she doesn’t know where to start. In between cross-referencing grimoires and practicing incantations, she traces the scars and scorch marks pitting the surface of the plastic kitchen table that is her workspace. When sitting, she constantly stretches her legs, flexes her feet, as if trying to push off of an imaginary pool deck. She examines her pores. She lists the reasons she’s doing this:
#1: To prove to everyone that she is not a burnout.
Compared to her friends, Ana’s done nothing since graduating from the fancy international magical university that she won the scholarship to. Nadimah, her old roommate, is the senior flight controller for the Magicstrate’s time-and-space program. Joao has stumbled upon Atlantis. (“Stumbled” being the operative term, Ana thinks, recalling his original project to map the Bermuda Triangle.) Ana is most jealous of Clémence, whose work is neither past nor future but solidly rooted in the present: working to solve world hunger by enchanting food storage units.
Each time she sees their updates on the Feed, she flames with envy that quickly cools to dread. She hasn’t done anything since her graduation four months ago—not even applied for the job ads her mother keeps sending her from the bank, telling her she’s a “shoo-in.” Instead, she’s retreated into a world of the Feed and junk food, trying to avoid the feel of failure like slime on her skin.
But it’s not just competition that motivates her.
#2 (related to #1): To leave a legacy.
The desire to matter swims inside her like a shark. She doesn’t need to be a whole chapter in a history book—just a footnote. At the end of her life, she wants to point to something she did and say with pride, “I created that; that was me.”
#3 (related to #2): To help people. To change the world.
The world being, for all intents and purposes, and despite magic and all its benefits, a pretty shitty place for most people who live on it. Although the worldwide unveiling of magic in the 21st century alleviated poverty and illness, magicians never promised to fix everything. Human prejudice and carelessness were impossible to root out. We still manage to fuck up the earth, and each other, Ana thinks, watching the news stories crop up on the Feed. she is alternately demoralized, terrified, and exhausted by what she reads. The cold war between the Scandinavian States and Franco-Belgium. The unexplained rice crop failures across Southern China. Violence against female magicians in Uttar Pradesh.
She can’t tackle it all. Most days, she feels like she can barely leave her small apartment to get to the market. How can a person like me even hope to make the world better? But the way forward lies in specificity, not generality. She will pick one issue to focus on, one skill to perfect. Then, using that, transform…well…something. Back to generalities, at least for now.
#4 (unrelated to reasons above): To pay her parents back for all the money they spent getting that Reverse-Body-Hair curse removed.
After a month of tracking clues through ancient manuscripts, Ana’s found it.
It’s an old spell, from centuries ago when magic was still a secret art. She found it hidden under layers of enchantments and distributed across several related codices. Shadows of it play like palimpsests behind Arabic poetry.
According to the current theoretical literature, it never worked in the first place. But she resolves to be the one to crack it. With it, she can break the First Law of Thaumodynamics: “Magic can transform given material, but not manifest new material.” She can challenge all the alchemists, those antique charlatans, with their pale hopes of turning lead into gold. As if anyone needs gold anymore.
She’s going to do them one better, something that magic has yet to figure out: learn how to create something out of nothing.
Each morning, she sits on her balcony and plays with her dog Goliath as the sun clears her head. One floor below, tiny blades of grass push themselves through the cracks in the concrete; a periwinkle peeps at her under heart-shaped leaves. She visualizes what she wants to create. Nothing complicated, like a hovercar—too hard—and nothing alive, like a unicorn—too dangerous. Something small, ubiquitous, atomically simple. A rock. Not just any rock: a quartz crystal.
When she’s done visualizing, she brews a cup of tea in her favorite blue mug—a gift from her parents when she left home for university—and gets to work.
The days wring Ana out. The effort of focusing on her translations for even one hour is as strenuous as sprinting flights of stairs. Her back aches. At night, she dreams in Middle Persian.
She takes frequent breaks to check YouScroll. There, she doesn’t have to make small-talk or explain herself or, in fact, do anything at all. She can sit back and laugh at Nadimah’s jokes about the nerds in the flight control room, or banter with Joao about the Atlantean artifacts he finds at the bottom of the ocean. Clémence sends her articles she’s written about the struggles with world hunger, how it’s not only food storage but also food production that needs to change. “Staple crops are failing in several places across the world: the rice blight creeping down into Indochina, maize beginning to falter in the Pampas Nations,” she says. “Figuring that out is our next task.”
In turn, Ana tells her friends about her idea. To their credit, they don’t tell her it’s impossible, although they all know that it probably is. Clémence listens encouragingly. Joao sends her every scrap of magical trivia he is learning from the Atlantis dig. “You never know, maybe one of them old geezers figured it out?”
“Yeah,” she responds, “and maybe the gods sunk their island in response.”
And Nadimah sends her this passage, written by Tallah Senzibar, one of the pre-eminent magical theorists:
“Magic is not like chemistry. It is not the mixing of measured amounts of esoteric ingredients. Nor is it like singing a song, practicing for hours to get the sound of a spell right. It is not digging up enough dirt on a spirit to blackmail them into doing your bidding. All of these things are helpful but ultimately, magic is the creation of ideal circumstances for an act of pure human will to become reality. ”
Ana nods. An act of pure human will—I like that. She cuts the passage right out of the Feed, leaving a hole in the paper scroll before threading it back into her tablet. The quote hangs, taped to the wall, above her table.
Two months have passed. In between copious amounts of time on the Feed, Ana has finished translating the bulk of the spell, although the words still feel strange in her mouth as if she’s taken too big a bite out of an apple. She begins improvising wand gestures to accompany it, moving her hands along with the chant like an interpretive dancer.
And something’s finally happening. Inside the glass bell on her table, a tiny constant breeze blows. Sometimes, out of the corner of her eye, she sees colors surrounding the bell, like an aurora borealis. She spends a day staring at it with her peripheral vision, trying to draw what she sees, before she realizes that it’s just the side-effect of a particular Lemnian inscription she’s been chanting.
But each time she performs the final step, nothing happens. The energy in the room flatlines.
It is vexing. What’s more, it doesn’t make sense. She mastered the five magical languages before anyone else in her class and was the best her professors had ever seen at the Asymptotic Swoop, the most difficult of the senior wand gestures.
You’d never know it, her lizard brain whispers, looking at where you are now and where they are.
She reasons with it: I can’t compare myself with others. I have talent; I am worthwhile. That has always seen me through.
Well, it says, that’s not exactly true, is it?
Shut up, she responds.
This has haunted her since graduation. This is why she didn’t apply for positions, do research, or even attempt anything stronger than the most mundane domestic spells. Despite it all, the memory returns.
Blood rushing to her head until her scalp prickled. Her throat closing up as she explained her thesis project: a practical application of a series of spells found in the margins of a Victorian housekeeping manual. She had been proud of herself for updating them for modern convenience. But part of demonstrating one’s mastery of a spell involved soul-casting—casting from a meditative state without using words or movements. And domestic spells, rooted in gesture, action, and practicality, weren’t well-suited to soul-casting.
Ana tried once and failed in the presentation, as she knew she would. She tried again, but the ticking of the clock in the corner made her heart race along with it, reminding her how little time she had left. And when she tried to explain, the committee hadn’t understood her. Public speaking had always threatened to crush the breath from her lungs, to haze and muddle the clarity of her thoughts. As she stammered to a halt, the looks on the faces of the committee members ran the gamut of confused, annoyed, and mocking…but uniformly disappointed.
Standing in the hallway, lit by flickering phosphorescence and reeking of industrial incense, Ana willed herself not to cry. Not yet. She could hear her professors down the hall arguing about whether her presentation was good enough to “give her a pass.” When she walked out of the review later, a full magician, the victory felt like defeat.
Each time her thesis comes up in her phone conversations with her parents, she tries to put on a brave face: “Nobody actually reads references these days!”
Her father responds with his usual banter, telling a bad joke. “What do you call the guy who graduates at the bottom of his class at magical school?”
It doesn’t help.
Each time this spell fails, she feels her throat closing, smells that incense again. Each time, she clenches her fists and gathers steely resolve for one more go.
She’s taking a break from casting to check YouScroll again. Joao has posted pictures of a new find in Atlantis, a statue of a hand carved out of an unidentifiable rock. He floats next to it, flashing an underwater thumbs-up, a self-renewing bubble of air stretching his smile like a fun-house mirror. He is only the height of one of the nails on the hand. That’s about the size I feel. She holds her thumb and forefinger up in front of her eye, mimics popping Joao’s air-bubble.
Clémence has posted another article about world hunger. Apparently, the rice crop failure has spread into Java and Sumatra, while the maize failure has moved into the North American corn belt.
Ana’s own reactions annoy her. But she can’t help it; the good news makes her jealous, and the bad news makes her feel helpless. The only thing that makes her smile is a YouScroll article about the hidden enchantments they keep finding on Genghis Khan’s bones. Apparently one of them caused the researchers to speak in Middle Mongolian for four days.
Ana looks closer at the date on her tablet. Shit. Her gradeschool friend, Victor, had a birthday last week. She summons his aura and on the fifth chime of the bell, he answers.
“It was epic! Like, a hundred people came. Rami and Sara and Meera—you remember her, right—she was there with her boyfriend, and …” While Victor tells her about the underwater fireworks, and how his parents are making him pay in installments for melting the pool lining, Ana silently blesses herself for missing the party. It sounds excruciating. Victor stops for a second, and then asks, “How come you didn’t show?”
“I’m sorry, Victor. I was working. Can I make it up to you?”
“I’m headed to a workshop later this week with Tallah Senzibar. Wanna come?”
Ana’s brain stutters with excitement. “Really? I didn’t even know she was in town.”
“We can sit together!”
She gets on the Feed and buys herself a ticket.
At the seminar, Ana and Victor roll their eyes at phrases like “Sow discipline; harvest deeds,” and “Imagine what you want until your imagination becomes reality.” Ana’s surprised that a serious scholar like Tallah Senzibar is packing out hotel conference centers with such fluffy advice. But Senzibar has a down-to-earth charm that beams out each time she smiles, her eyes crinkling at the corners. Sprinkled in between her airy platitudes are a few nuggets of practical wisdom: “Increase your self-control by exercising daily.” At the end, Senzibar takes the group on a guided visualization of a castle in Turkey.
Ana begins to smell success around the corner, like a lover waiting in the wings.
When she says goodbye to Victor in the hotel bar, she is surprised to see Senzibar slide into a booth and order a beer. Ana works up the nerve to go say hello and ends up even more surprised when Senzibar—who insists on being called Tallah—invites her to sit, telling her that her project sounds “kick-ass.”
“That is really creative. I’ve never heard of anyone trying to combine the Transduction of Reality with the Appropriation of Being. I mean, some wizards tried to hack the Ulterior Modalities in the ‘20s, but they didn’t get far.” Tallah takes a dripping bite of her sandwich, and speaks with her mouth full. “Or maybe they were working with atomic magic. It all runs together.” She waves her hand in the air as if demonstrating the flow of history.
Ana feels buoyant with hope at these comments. “Do you think it’ll work?”
“You still have to work out the Landau variables. But ultimately, there’s no telling what you can achieve until you give it all you got. That’s really what it’s all about—willpower.” Tallah wipes her fingers one at a time on a paper napkin, and then looks Ana up and down, assessing.
“So, where are you working on this? Are you with a university, or a non-profit?”
Ana’s small confidence recedes like a threatened turtle. “Um, no, I…I’m not…I work alone.”
“Ah, one of those!” Tallah smiles encouragingly. “Nothing wrong with that. Takes all kinds. Let me offer you some advice, though.” She points at her, a glossy red fingernail three inches from Ana’s nose. “I say this because I know what it’s like to work alone, from home. Distractions abound, so do yourself a favor: get rid of them. Genius is like a plant—it can grow in a team or isolation. But it can’t grow at all if you let poisonous weeds take root.”
What is this, How to Adult 101? Ana sits back against the seat, furrows her brow, wondering when they’re gonna get back to talking about magic already.
When the waitress slides the check onto the table, Tallah picks it up seamlessly, then winks at Ana. “I’ll let you in on an industry secret. Next time you get to that last step, instead of casting verbally, try soul-casting.”
She smiles tightly as Tallah gathers her coat, but as soon as she has gone, Ana sinks down into her seat, letting her forehead rest on the tabletop. Soul-casting. The last thing she wants to do.
“You okay, honey?” the waitress asks. “Need me to call someone?”
“Just my fairy godmother,” Ana croaks.
The waitress laughs and walks away.
The next morning, Ana doesn’t want to get out of bed, so she spends an hour on the Feed just looking at pictures of people’s familiars. “Mr. Bonehead just loves empty crisp bags!” says a caption below an image of a fluffy Persian with its head inside a bag of Doritos. Who would name their familiar that? But then, next to the picture, she sees the icon. It’s a British girl who was one class ahead of her in university—Kristin was her name then, but now she goes by Arachne—and who looks like she stepped out of an Edward Gorey illustration.
Ana taps on the icon, and the Feed scrolls out Arachne’s profile. The dumbest person in my class, and she’s the senior undersecretary to the Governor of Russia. Ana reads the last three months of Arachne’s posts. Tea with such-and-such Minister. Dog-sledding trips to diplomatic meetings with the Siberian giants. Witnessing the first ballet by the newly resurrected Tchaikovsky. And pictures—so many pictures—of Mr. Bonehead.
“Okay, Mr. Bonehead…time to get some work done,” Ana says, but she isn’t looking forward to it. Her stomach seethes.
She clicks the tablet off—the Feed stops abruptly—and gets out of bed, headed to the closet to pick what color shirt she wants to wear today. Black, like my heart. She feels heavy. Used-up. Useless. How is this my life? I wanted be the one taking meetings with giants and reanimated composers.
Suddenly she realizes: this—this line of thought, the bitterness and jealousy, the constant comparisons—is what Tallah was talking about. Poisonous weeds.
Ana picks the tablet up again and goes straight to YouScroll. Fending off the sucking attraction of a Jasper Glintwhistle meme, she deactivates her account.
And then she gets to work.
Over the next few weeks, Ana gets calls from her friends.
“What’s up? Did you unfriend me?” Nadimah asks.
Clémence is concerned. “Haven’t heard from you lately—are you okay?”
“Too good to fraternize with the plebes, huh?” Joao jokes.
Even her mother calls, asking if her tablet is broken.
“Mom, it’s fine. I just need to focus.”
“So, will you still play UnicornCity with me?”
She says, “I love you,” and ends the call.
Work isn’t easier, but she is less plagued by anxiety. She heads to her worktable as soon as she makes her first cup of tea and works steadily through the day, only stopping to toss the ball for Goliath and make an occasional bowl of instant noodles.
Her commentary on the spell, consulting scholarly works and compiling her own theory of the magical generation of matter, is almost complete. She’s even come up with a name for it, the Forge of Being, although she’s worried it sounds a bit like a cheesy 20th century fantasy novel. And she has fine-tuned her wand gestures until her bones vibrate with magic as she works through the choreography. The colors that floated around her experiment, at first barely visible, now coat the glass bell like a sheen of gasoline. She sometimes has to blink several times after finishing the spell, making sure that she doesn’t see the quartz she’s spent months imagining.
And the itch to check the Feed, almost constant at first, has receded. She barely thinks about it until she slips into bed at night and wonders if Joao has found out why Atlantis sank yet, or how many centuries Nadimah has visited. She misses her friends, but at the same time, she’s never felt so focused, so stripped of any other desires or influences. It feels…pure.
After five months of work—and 64 days off of the Feed, not that she’s counting—Ana has finished all the translations, notes, and commentary on the entire spell. She’s experimented with every permutation of accent and wand gesture. She’s even tried casting the spell while high. It still hasn’t yielded what she hoped; although she practically has the quartz crystal tattooed on the back of her eyelids by now, the actual quartz has yet to appear. So she’s going to try the method she’s been avoiding all along. Tallah Senzibar’s last piece of advice. Soul-casting.
Her hands are shaking—throat closing, smell of incense—but she begins the spell anyways. This can’t be that hard, she reminds herself, gritting her teeth. Plus, when you figure it out, you can charm a book off a high shelf at the library without making a sound. She laughs at herself. Because, y’know, being too loud in the library has been a constant thorn in your side.
When the final step approaches, instead of beginning the precisely timed series of gestures and invocations, she sinks back into her mind. She envisions herself performing the movements, feels her tongue twitch in her mouth as if she was actually chanting the sing-song words she has cobbled together. Pointing her focus at the inside of the bell like a dog catching a scent, she wills the quartz crystal to appear.
She opens her eyes. Nothing. The road is closed. The door is barred. She is out of ideas and has scoured every available resource and this is what it’s brought her—an empty glass bell and months of wasted time. She stares at it numbly, eyes burning, and then gets up to clean the apartment, snagging a bottle of saffron absinthe on her way to get the broom.
Forty minutes later Ana is drunk and elbow-deep in dishwater, watching the Feed scroll out in front of her as she scrubs her blue coffee mug. In a fit of self-loathing as sharp and compulsory as the first shot of absinthe, she’s back on YouScroll, catching up on two months of her friends’ accomplishments. Nadimah’s visits to the 34th century that she is forbidden to talk about. Joao’s exploration of the lost Temple of Atlantis. And the hateful Arachne posts about coffee dates with the chair of the High Magicstrate herself, complete with selfies.
Clémence is the only one actually on the Feed live, though. They chat, briefly, about what her work in the Lower Thai provinces. “It is so crazy, Ana. The rice crop failure is spreading throughout the entire Asian continent,” she says. “All rice here, even the seed stock, is contaminated.”
Ana’s lack of appropriately horrified response prompts Clémence to ask what’s wrong. Ana doesn’t even know how to answer the question.
“It’s just not working, Clém. My spell. I think …” Her fingers hover over the keys. “I think I’m going to have to quit.”
“Just like the rest of life, magic is a conversation,” Clémence responds. “But I’m really sorry you’re hearing a ‘No’ right now.”
As Ana moves to place the mug in the drying rack, Goliath darts between her legs. Her fingers slip in the soap, and before she realizes what’s happening—she’s caught up reading about the thousands of people dying of hunger world-wide—the mug is on the floor in eight pieces. She crouches down, cupping her hands around the shards as if holding it will put the pieces back together. She tries to remember the spell for minor mendings, but her lips are numb and she muffs the pronunciation twice. Then she sits on the floor with a thump, lets her head fall back, and howls at the ceiling, tears spilling hot into her ears.
All she wanted to do was change the world. Now she can’t even mend a mug.
When she’s wrung out from crying, she heads to the bathroom, vomits, and goes to bed. She sleeps like she’s been turned to stone and wakes the next morning in an instant, clear-headed and gasping. When she looks at herself in the mirror, a bedraggled stranger looks back through eyes as big as shadows. She wants to hug herself, to wrap that darling mess up in a blanket, to feed her soup and stroke her hair and sing her to sleep. It’s okay, little bird. It will all be okay.
She wants to start life over, but there’s no spell for that. Maybe one of her classmates will invent one.
The broken mug clatters into the can as she throws it away. The Feed has been on all night, and the mound of paper is up to her knees. Instead of threading it back into the tablet, she rips it off at the source and balls it up. She has almost thrown it away when she notices Clémence’s words: “Magic is a conversation.”
A conversation, huh? Well, then, I guess it’s time to say goodbye.
Ana decides, after brewing tea in her second-favorite mug, to try one last time with the Forge of Being. She’s tired, and she knows it won’t work. After a night like last night, her work is bound to be a little fuzzy. But she has to go through it, at least once more, before scrapping it forever. Ana rolls her wand between her fingers, and then begins. She wields it like a paintbrush, a conductor’s wand, a child twirling a ribbon. The words flow over her tongue, a loving farewell to the spell she found, the spell she spent almost half a year working on. Working with, her brain pipes up.
And suddenly it’s not about cracking the spell any longer but listening to it, its secrets and whispers and moods. It was always bigger and older and more experienced than she is. It will be what it wants to be.
A mantle of calm falls upon her. Instead of an attitude of steely determination, Miss Minchin schooling an unruly spell, Ana adopts a posture of humility, of happiness. No matter what happens, her time with this project is over, which means she can move on. I can start again, she thinks. I can find another way to help the world. When she reaches the end of the spell, she announces the last line joyfully, like a game-show host, and waits for the world to respond.
She looks at the tiny speck under the glass bell. It is not a quartz crystal. Oblong, pale brown, with two pointed ends, she almost doesn’t recognize it, until she does. It looks exactly like—it is—a grain of rice. It is a wonder.
|Kate Lechler is a writer and editor; her work has appeared in PodCastle, Fireside Fiction, and Liminality, and is forthcoming from Shimmer. She teaches British literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS, where she lives with her husband, a cat, a ghost dog, and seven fish. When she’s not at school, you can find her sitting on a lawn chair in her carport, writing about genetically-engineered unicorns and dragons.|