The Magic of Childhood
The log exploded. Black vespers curled out, slinking and snaking towards Dad. He waved the splitting maul through the dark tendrils and they burst into fine particles. The glass orb at the butt of the maul flashed bright blue, like the after image of a lightning strike. Any time I witnessed this, I was never sure if I had actually seen it, or if I had blinked at the wrong time.
Dad pulled the maul from the stump and gave us a grin, then turned back to his work. We were supposed to be inside helping Mom get ready for supper. Dad knew this, but continued with his splitting. Another log burst apart. A flash of light. Another smile at Salmy and me.
Dad finished the last log from the sectioned tree, then moved to get the last tree from what head been a pile by the road at the start of the day. The neighbours Kleegan paid Dad to split their felled trees before the snows came. Talk around the village was that winter was moving in more swiftly this time than most years; or at least, that's what Dad said the talk was — we hardly ever got to go down to the village. I had only been twice that I could remember, but Mom said I used to go with her and Dad all the time when I was first born. Before Salmy came along.
Now we couldn't go because we only had the one horse — and neither Mom nor Dad seemed to think that Johy could take all four of us, but I know he could. Everyone who visits says that he would make quite the mount heading into battle, or else be quite the plow puller. Lucky for Johy all we've got is trees, and there ain't been a battle to fight in since the time of the inspectors.
Dad hitched Johy to pull the last tree into the clearing where he did the splitting. They made good burning if you didn't mind the darkness, but they were heavy. Dad and Johy had pulled all the trees over from the Kleegan's yesterday. Now Dad was down to the last one, and the Kleegans would come by tomorrow to pay for the black burners. It would be more than enough to keep them safe through the winter.
Dad had nearly made the clearing, when Johy pulled up. Dad tugged on the lead, but Johy wouldn't budge. Dad walked back and stroked Johy's neck just the way he liked, and Johy nicked a little, then blew out two great bursts of air. Dad pulled on the lead again, and Johy started forward. But only enough to slide the tree an inch or two.
“Do you think he's stuck?” asked Salmy. He couldn't believe Johy was tired out. I wasn't as naive as Salmy of course — anything can get tired — but Johy was so strong, even a whole pile of black-burners shouldn't be too much for him.
I could tell Dad was breathing slow and deep. He was angry. Like when Salmy and I forget to put our toys away before bed. Dad had already asked quite a lot from Johy. Most horses couldn't get through half the pile, and here Dad was nearly done. And it was all thanks to Johy.
Dad looked up to where we were watching. Then back at Johy. He said something, then took the harness off and rubbed the wet skin underneath. Dad gave him a good pat and Johy went trotting off to the feed bucket behind the house. Dad gave another look in our direction and then rolled up his sleeves.
“He's not 'sposed to do it!” Salmy was aghast. “He'll get in trouble if Mom sees!”
“Dad ain't little like us, so Mom can't scold him. Well, she does, but it ain't the same. She'll understand.” But truthfully, I was a little nervous too. Last time Dad did something like this, he and Mom were talking loud at each other after we went to bed.
It didn't matter what Salmy and I thought anyway — Dad was already standing next to the tree that Johy had abandoned. Then, though I didn't notice the change, his arms became the light blue they always went, like the full moon on a winter's night. Dad turned to look at us, but we knew enough to hide down low so as not to be openly staring. I know Dad probably saw Salmy ducking down, since he's not as fast as me, but at least we could pretend that we didn't know what was going on.
By the time I peeked up to look again, the tree was halfway across the clearing. The blue from Dad's arms was now flowing under the tree like a faint river, and he was guiding the huge black-burner like a captain and his ship. He set it down where Johy had dropped all the others, and the river underneath the tree dried up immediately. Salmy had been too scared to look again, so I joined him in hiding. Once we heard Dad swinging the splitting maul, I decided to show Salmy my secret.
“Watch this,” I said, then rolled up my sleeve like we had just watched Dad do. Salmy gave me a look half-terror, half-disbelief. My finger flickered blue, and Salmy settled on complete fear.
“You can't,” Salmy said. He was trying to whisper, but somehow became louder than if he had just been talking regularly. “Mom will kill you. She'll be mad at Dad, but she'll kill you.”
I just shrugged and let the blue wisps escape from my fingertip.
“How long have you been doin' that?” Salmy asked.
“Only since last week,” I said. The truth was, I could conjure the blue with ease in the middle finger of my right hand. But that was it. Every time, I was flooded with a compulsion to let it flood my body, and I was sure I could do it if I gave in. But something always held me back, and it was more than fear of Mom finding out.
“C',mon, let's go help mom,” I said. Salmy followed me back inside, and I gave him my fiercest look of warning just as Mom greeted us. It might have been the embrace of the warm house, thick with the smells of supper, but any resolve Salmy had to tattle had melted with the cold of the evening. He nodded his understanding as we entered the brightly lit kitchen and prepared the table for eating.
It was unusually quiet at the table. Salmy and I didn't say nothing, but we kept staring at each other, to make sure the other didn't spill the beans about Dad, and to keep Salmy from tattling on me. A full stomach could make him feel safe enough to tell. But it didn't matter. Mom knew something was up as soon as we came in.
“What were you two up to out there?” Mom asked. She gave Dad a look that she expected him to fill in, but he just stared at his potatoes. Even I knew how to be a better liar. You have to at least pretend things are the way they are supposed to be. But Dad never bothered. He at least kept his sleeves pulled down tight, and there wasn't any sign left on his fingers. That was partly why I had never given in to the urge — the fear of stained skin was too great.
Salmy started to talk but I gave him a kick under the table.
“We weren't up to nothing. Just watching Dad split wood.” Dad stopped staring at his food long enough to stare at me.
“Is that so?” Mom asked. “Kharly, what do you think? Were they just watching you split wood?” Mom gave us her inspector stare. She would have been a great inspector if women were allowed to be, but I didn't know anyone crazy enough to want that. Salmy and I took Dad's lead and watched our plates.
“They weren't by any chance out back by the well again, trying to stir up maanders before the ground freezes?” Mom was usually really good. But this time she was way off. We hadn't done that since yesterday. Salmy even laughed — it seemed impossible for Mom to be so wrong. But she was also quick. Quicker than Dad, and far too quick for Salmy.
“Really Salmy? Because the only thing that would keep you out in the cold so long without complaining would be ... .” She trailed off, as the weight of the implication settled into her. Settled in so deep that her back straightened right up and pulled the corners of her mouth down. It changed her voice too, made it deep. But Salmy and I didn't need to worry, because it was directed right at Dad. Mom only uttered one word, “Kharly,” but it was the first whip of wind that you knew would be followed by thunder at any minute.
Dad sensed it too. He sat up for the first time during the meal. Looked Mom head on. It seemed they would stare at each other all not, not saying anything.
“You promised,” Mom said. It was all she needed to. The disappointment and anger, so expertly mixed, pierced me like no torrent of words could have. A single lightning strike from a cloud that shed no tears.
Dad held up his hands in protest, but it was the exact wrong thing to do. His sleeves slipped, and with it the last of all pretense. His skin was still blue, having faded to a light stain, yet unmistakable.
“You promised,” Mom said again. But this time barely a whisper. She stood up to free herself from the table, but had to press behind Dad to do so. I could tell she was trying her best not to touch him, but when she realized what an impossible task that was, her touch turned into fists. She pounded on Dad. Without uttering a sound. The dampened thumps seemed to go on for minutes, but I got to thinking after Mom had stormed out of the house, that it didn't take that long to wail on a person a few times.
Dad didn't say anything. He and Mom were a lot the same really, but I'd never seen him hit her like that. I'd never seen Mom do it before either. Then Salmy started crying. I reached out my arm and he collapsed into my lap like it was night and he had climbed into my bed because of a bad dream. I tried to think of something calming to say. I normally can destroy any monsters Salmy dreams up. But I really just wanted it to be a bad dream too. I looked across the table to see if maybe Dad could set things right. But he was looking out the door that was letting in the cold, with a face that said things would never be right again.
It was still dark when I woke to Johy coming up to the house. Mom had ridden out on him in a fit of anger, but now she was likely cold and Johy a steaming froth. I had seen Johy like that a few times after Dad came back from the village. The ride only took a few hours, but Dad liked to cut that down as much as possible. I also think he liked to do it because Johy could, and most other horses couldn't.
I heard a snort, but it wasn't Johy. Then hoof-steps that weren't his either. I jumped carefully down from the bunk so I wouldn't wake Salmy. I didn't have to worry about Dad, as he was already outside meeting the two horses next to the house by the time I got to the window.
There were two of them: Johy and a white gelding that was gleaming like an ornament in the sweaty moonlight. I had never seen the man who rode the white mount before, but I knew right away that it was an inspector.
Dad stopped when he realized Mom hadn't come back under her own volition. This wasn't a neighbour making the night journey home more tolerable. This was the terror of the night showing up to enforce its terrible laws. I didn't know all the possible laws that my parents had broken, but they each had one they couldn't hide. Mom had been out riding alone, and Dad's arms were still blue from the splitting. If the stories of the inspectors were true, the number of infractions he would find would be double or triple what I knew of the law.
The inspector had ridden behind Mom, but now pulled his horse out front, to address Dad. As he did, I saw the glow from inside the hood of his cloak. Like a fire left smoldering after everyone goes to bed.
I had never seen Dad scared before. I didn't even think it was possible. But he shoved his hands into his pockets, which I knew was to hide his arms from the inspector. It wasn't like when he hid things from Mom and was trying not to get caught. It was different enough that it was like I was watching his emotions. He was afraid. And it sank my stomach like nothing before had. My fears had always been quelled by him. There was nothing that Dad couldn't make better, because no fear could get to him. He was the wall behind which all comfort lay. But I had just witnessed its first crumblings.
“Watcha looking at?” asked Salmy. He was still lying down.
“Nothing,” I said. I swallowed. I knew even Salmy wouldn't buy that act.
“Lemme see.” He ran over. “Lift me up.”
I couldn't take my eyes off the scene outside.
“That's not fair. You're taller than me. It's not fair!” He was almost yelling.
They must have heard outside, because the inspector turned and I swear I felt the heat from his hood when it erupted into a bright glow. I ducked under the window and realized Salmy had run out of the room. I heard Dad call for him to go back inside, mingled with the same plea from Mom. They were back on the same team. I didn't want to risk the window again so I ran through the kitchen and peaked out the door. Salmy was standing right next to Dad. He reached up to grab Dad's hand from his pocket. Dad let him, realizing no amount of sternness would send Salmy back inside. They stood, fingers interlocked, the blue glow peaking out under the cuff of Dad's sleeve.
I didn't know what to do. It didn't feel safe to go out. It didn't feel right not to do anything.
“You're coming with us,” the inspector said to Dad. The voice was heavy, and deep — I could tell it was produced by a human body, though I knew the presence within the inspector was anything but human.
He gestured to my mother, his steel arms visible for the first time, shimmering with shadows. Or it might have been moonlight. “She had an interesting tale to tell.” The last part fell off into a rasp that could have been a laugh.
“I'm sorry Kharly,” Mom said. She really meant it. She was slumped over awkwardly from her bound hands. Crying. I wished she had felt that remorse before she went storming off, so none of this would have happened. Why was that always the way? My parents only ever apologized when it was too late to fix whatever they had wrecked.
“I'm sorry,” Mom said again. “It was my only choice. He would have ...” she never finished her sentence. Would have what? I must have missed some of the conversation chasing after Salmy. Now he was holding Dad's hand and all my trying to help had left me with was confusion.
But Dad didn't move.
“Now,” the inspector commanded.
Mom was pleading. Nodding her head.
Dad smiled, like he did when Salmy I and were spying on him and he pretended not to notice. Like he did before he lifted the tree yesterday. Or was it still today? I never knew what to call the day when it was the middle of the night.
“No,” said Dad. It was the tone that meant asking again was asking for trouble. I felt a little bad for the inspector, because I knew Dad was going to be really mad at him. But I was also glad. Whatever he did to Mom to make her cry deserved whatever Dad was about to do.
“Salmy, step away a little,” Dad said, gesturing towards the house. I don't know if he meant to, but the sleeve of Dad's shirt rode up to his elbow, and the blue was clearly visible. Salmy knew Dad's tone too and moved away a few steps. Then Dad's arm lit up. Far more blue than we had seen earlier. It was so bright I had to look away.
I couldn't see anything but rapidly shifting shadows at my feet. The terrible glow from Dad's arms seemed to suck away all the heat in the air. Or maybe it had always been that cold. I started to shiver. My teeth chattered.
The shadows stopped moving. Or rather they disappeared in a flash that whitewashed everything. Then drowned everything in a deep blanket of blackness. I looked up, but the world was devoid of all sense of space. I hadn't realized it until a ringing started in my ears, but it had been wiped clean of all sound too. The ringing got wider, then opened up like a deep wound that doesn't bleed at all until the blood comes gushing back all at once.
Slowly the scene came back into focus. Dad was standing, his arm a duller, but pulsing, blue. Mom was still on the horse, but she wasn't crying. She knew that Dad had saved her. I bet she wouldn't be so mad about him using his power now. The inspector was bent over in a funny way on the ground, back from where he had been standing. The red glow from the inspector's hood was gone, which now swirled with blue mists that eddied and flowed like an unseen river passing through the opening.
“Ehly,” Dad said. He ran towards her and Mom started to cry again, but I knew this time they were happy tears.
“I'm sorry,” she said as Dad helped her down from Johy and freed her hands.
Dad embraced her, and they stayed locked together until Salmy wrapped his arms around both their waists. His presence seemed to shove my absence into my parents' consciousness, and they called out for me in unison.
I stepped into the night, free of the house, and was about to run out and join them. But I stopped. The inspector had changed. He hadn't moved, but his hood was dark again. A cool breeze fell out of the woods, and two faint embers, like the bottom of a fire, blew into existence. They caught and roared into the radiant glow I had witnessed before.
I tried to warn my family. I did. I just wasn't fast enough. I swear I tried, I would have never let it happen. I didn't even know that it could. But the truth is I never got any of the words out. I thought of a million ways to tell my family to watch out, I just didn't release the words fast enough. At least not as fast as the inspector fired out the blasts from his hands.
I don't know much about inspectors, but something was definitely broken. My Dad had done something irreparable, even if it hadn't been lethal. The steel coating the inspector's arms melted when he fired, and sizzling drops of metal started small fires where they fell.
My parents fell too. A blast each had hit them. Dad was a whole head taller than Mom, so the hit he took was right to his chest. The one that got Mom made Dad a whole 'nother head taller. I know I shouldn't have thought that, but I did. Because of course it wasn't real. It couldn't be. Dad would laugh with me later about it, and Mom would shake her head disapprovingly.
I can't describe what happened to them really. It melted the inspector's arms, and just kind of — my parents were and then they weren't. I'm sure I saw what happened, I was just more focused on Salmy. Because he was still standing. All alone among the remnants of mom and dad. Johy and the white gelding had fled, and I like to think they made it. Johy at least — he deserved to.
I ran then. Screaming out Salmy's name. He looked like I was another thing that couldn't be happening. I was running to save him. But not toward him. I saw what Dad had done, and the damage he had caused. The inspector had hurt himself using his power afterwards. I could save Salmy. I had never shown Dad that I was like him, but I think he knew. He must have. And I would not let him down. The gift he had given me would save us. Salmy and me would be alright in the end. I wasn't old enough to provide for us, but I could find another family to take us in. And I would.
I flared my power. Encouraged it. Pushed it from my single finger into my hands. It was easy. After breaking the initial barrier, the power pushed on its own accord, into my arms and chest. It forced itself into my legs, and as it did I felt my speed increase. The inspector would not expect what was coming for him.
He laughed. The dark deepness of death. “A girl?”. I let the words break on me, shattering into stinging remnants the thousands of times I had been sliced by the same phrase and said nothing. I was saving Salmy for us, but now I was killing the inspector for me.
I had never been this engorged, so in tune with my self, my body. Everything was so clear. Why was this illegal? It didn't make any sense. I could be a hundred times the person I was without it. A thousand. The power pulsed within me, with every heartbeat, looking for an escape. I tried to keep it contained, to save it for the killing strike, but I could sense some leaking — around my eyes, flowing out my nostrils, with every breath I exhaled in my charge.
I bet I could have breathed under water, or flown if I had chosen to. But I did not. I gathered every shaking strand of power as it shuttled through my body looking for an escape. And gave it one.
The same blinding flash that had exploded from my father exploded from my right hand. The same darkness descended. The same silence followed.
For a moment at least.
When it lifted, I was gasping, supporting my own weight against my legs. I was close to collapse. I wanted the power back. Needed it. But knew I would never have it again.
I don't know what Salmy saw, but I like to think he got away to tell someone about it. How brave his sister was. But I doubt that he did. I hope he felt proud of me at least, for that moment when I saved his life. That moment where I saved our family. That moment before the inspector blazed from his hood what I had managed to push back only slightly — the dregs of a coffee tin tossed into a roaring fire.
That last moment where the magic of childhood completely enveloped us both.