“This Is Not a Metaphor” by Christie Yant

“This Is Not a Metaphor” by Christie Yant

I am cursed.

This is not a metaphor.

It will sound like one, because you think that there is no magic. When I say to you, I am cursed, you think I mean that I am sad, that I have had a run of bad luck and am short of hope. When I say, I am in darkness, you think I mean I see no way out of this morass of grief and self-pity. What I mean is what I say: I am cursed, cursed to isolation from every living soul, to clogged drains and high gas prices; cursed to see only the ugly and cruel in the world. What I mean is that due to powerful sorcery, I am able to see and feel only the anguish of endless night.

I smell the smoke of your candle, but I do not see its light. It smells like danger.

* * *

Stop light: red. Concrete: cracked and spotted. The sodium orange of the street lights casts long, weird shadows. The wind came at me in gusts, blowing dust into my eyes and chilling me through my field coat.

Perhaps it was the fault of my stinging eyes that I did not notice the troll across the intersection. With warty hides of gray and brown, tattered clothing like wind-blown newspaper and so many discarded paper cups, it is easy to pass one by on the street and not give it a second look. I did not hear it snorting behind me over the noise of the commuter traffic. I did not smell it, downwind as it was.

I did not mean to lead it home.

The troll was waiting on my porch when I set a saucer of milk out for the pixies. The milk turned sour and an owl fell from the night sky right onto my driveway, dead.

The troll threatened to cook me in my own pot if I did not invite it in. It demanded food, and insulted the food that I gave it. It demanded comfort, so I stood by while it rearranged my furniture and claimed my room as its own. It demanded entertainment, so I told it stories of what I’d found at the grocery store that day, and what I’d heard of the neighbors’ fight the night before. It made me tell it the story of my last oil change twice, challenging every detail. (Trolls are dishonest, so they trust no one themselves.)

I waited for it to tire of me and leave, but instead, it settled in.

* * *

I should warn you: we do not kiss frogs in this world. Or if we do, we end with warts. The rules are different here.

And trolls — never kiss a troll, under any circumstances.

I do not know the rule for kissing magicians.

* * *

Here are the symptoms of a curse:

Headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, melancholy, self-loathing, enlargement of the misanthropic gland, burnt casseroles, aphoria, and despair. Other indications include the presence of, or recent exposure to, a troll.

I carried my luckiest charm and wondered why it did not protect me. Or, I thought, perhaps it was protecting me, from something even worse.

The troll slept late in the day and paced moodily until dusk. It stooped. The corners of my home filled with rubbish, the floors became sticky, the walls smeared, the dishes broken.

“You are a liar,” it said, as it always said. I’m telling the truth, I thought. But such is the nature of a troll.

“How ugly you are,” it said to me. “Look at the wart on your nose, how hideous.” I reached for my face with frightened fingers, and found no wart, but surely if it saw one, one was there.

“What a hovel,” it said of my once lovely home. “How cramped and filthy.” Buried deep inside me, a memory like a weak, pale moth: It was not always so.

“Such a shrew,” it called me, “a nag and a witch! So hateful,” it said, and the moth’s wings fluttered: I did not used to be.

But the curse was too strong, the darkness too deep, and the moth could not take flight.

* * *

It might be a metaphor. After all, there are no trolls, really. Are there?

* * *

How I escaped is not important. The troll was turned to stone through its own carelessness, and there its story ends — but it doesn’t, really. The greasy stains on my walls remain, the smell of offal lingers in the musty air. My cat startles at everything, and will not let me touch him. The troll is gone, but the curse remains.

How does one go about breaking a curse?

An internet search for “how to break a curse” produces 10,200,000 results. So I am not alone. Most of the information is useless.

I have met magicians before — lofty creatures with shaven heads, tattoos, and small beards, faces sunken from the exertion of taking themselves so seriously. Pentacles and athames at the ready, dressed all in high-collared black like the priest of an unknown god (though just ask, and they’ll name their god, and smirk if you do not know it), they’re not likely to break a curse. Theirs is the magic of self-importance.

That’s why I didn’t recognize you. How could I? You weren’t in uniform. You don’t wear the narcissism needed for true power. And yet, you have it. You wear it like one of your T-shirts, a little too big and just a little untidy — sized, perhaps, for the person you used to be — but so comfortable you don’t even know it’s there.

You tell me, quietly, of the dragons you’ve slain, and the evil that you fight day in and day out, all without a hint of ego.

It might be that those other magicians are blind to trolls and curses due to the fire of their own arrogance. You carry only a candle, and yet the monsters fall. Just a tiny flame, and by your light I can see again.

Or it may be that they are not magicians.

Or perhaps I am not cursed, merely heartbroken and soul-sick.

And it may be that you are no sorcerer, but only a good man with a pure heart.

* * *

Life, it turns out, is not a fairy tale.

Take the dragon, for instance. Upon examination, the dragon is only the sum of our fears. Fears do not breathe fire, and yet we burn. They do not hoard gold, but what is precious to us is taken. They do not each possess one soft, vulnerable space between diamond-hard scales, and still — with effort — they can be beaten.

Curses and enchantments, dragons and trolls — they are sometimes the truest stories of all.

These are not burns on my hands. That is not blood on your cloak (or is it a sweatshirt, faded and worn?). The ring you offer is not stolen from an enchanted treasure amassed over centuries.

We are in the world, then — there is no magic, and this is a metaphor after all.

And yet — I bear scars. You do too. And the ring is definitely treasure.

Christie Yant is a science fiction and fantasy writer, and Assistant Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in magazines such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, and Daily Science Fiction, and in the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011, and Armored. She lives on the central coast of California with her two amazing daughters, her husband, and assorted four-legged nuisances. Follow her on Twitter @christieyant.