The Mistress and the Magicians

Mistress locked me in a room with a candle burning and a loaf of bread, whispering to me as she shut the door that she promised to return. I waited for her. I waited and waited, but she didn’t came. The candle flickered and burned out after a few hours, and still the dawn didn’t come. I opened the curtains, but I could see nothing outside. The storm was so bad that no light penetrated the dark clouds. I tore small pieces of bread off the loaf and chewed them slowly, hoping that they weren’t the last things I would eat.

She said that the Magicians were doing something dangerous and that she was trying to protect me. I believed her, because Mistress never lied to me. I’d been with her since I was a small child, and I remained at the castle after my mother, her previous maid, died of a wasting illness. Mistress was about my mother’s age, but infinitely more beautiful. She knew the secrets of the Magicians because she was married to one. I almost never saw her husband, though, even though I’d lived at the castle for most of my life. He was always shut up in the tower rooms with the other Magicians, or else away with them on one of their infinite tours with the militia.

The reason was, of course, that we lived on the Border, which is the only place Magicians were allowed to live. They weren’t illegal, because the Crown used their services, but they didn’t want them to be anywhere near the capital. Some people in the big cities, I’d heard, didn’t believe that the Border was real, and they thought the Magicians were mad, people who’d contracted some illness, and that the Crown was simply quarantining them far away so that they wouldn’t spread the disease. It was feasible, I suppose, but living on the Border as I’d done, I knew that they did a real service for us all. They kept us safe.

So I believed Mistress was trying to protect me. When the men came into my room, I thought that she’d sent them. I’ll never know now if she did or didn’t, because by the time they took me into one of the tower rooms that were Master’s workshops, Mistress was already dead, spread out on the floor with her face as white as can be. They didn’t let me run to her. They pulled me back, roughly, and I knew that it was my turn next.

Illusion

I always hated carnivals, ever since I was a little kid. My dad used to work at this one circus, this traveling company, I don’t remember the name, and he would be gone for months with them. Every time he came back, my mom would get all cheerful and she’d put on his old dress she had with stupid flowers all over it and a big ribbon tied around the back, and she’d take me to the circus where my dad worked and we’d watch the clowns and the elephants and the poor old tiger without any teeth. That tiger was the only thing I liked, but he died when I was about six so after that I had no fun at all.

See, other kids loved all that stuff. They ate it up like candy, like ice-cream, like I don’t know what. They thought that it was all hilarious. But the thing is, they didn’t see how all the clowns yelled at each other inside their RVs, and they didn’t see the weird bearded lady kissing one of the skinny acrobat guys, and they didn’t see the way the elephants were prodded with these big pointed sticks, like devil’s pitchforks. They didn’t smell all the booze and the smoke and that weird rubber smell that I finally figured out was condoms but only when I was way older.

But I never told the other kids about all that stuff. Why ruin the magic for them, you know? I mean, when I saw this magician perform these coin tricks on the street once, with his hat on the ground for money, there were all these people around him wanting him to show them how the trick was done and I wanted to scream at them not to ask for that because that would ruin the magic.

I guess that’s why I never really believed in magic, though, you know, the real kind with wands and spells and stuff. I knew that everything was an illusion – even parents were illusions, really, because they weren’t always there when you needed them and they would pretend to listen to you even when they were really thinking about something else. But then one summer my dad made me come with him on the circus’s tour even though I didn’t want to, and I found out that there was stuff in the world that hardly anyone knows about, stuff that I know no one will believe me if I tell it.

But hey, I’m in prison now, with thirty other guys in my cell-block, and maybe my story will at least give them something to talk about when they work at the wood shop or the kitchens. It’s worth them all thinking I’m crazy if it’ll give me a chance to get this all off my chest.

A Birthday Card and Love Letter

To the dear, amazing, wonderful and incredible author, world builder and inspiration, J. K. Rowling,

(And also, to the fictional character who we all wish was real, Harry James Potter,)

I want to you wish you an incredible birthday. Many months ago, in May of 2009, I wrote a short little piece about how the Harry Potter books were the first ones I read on my own. I’d like to go further now, and tell the story again, because I truly believe that without the Harry Potter books, I wouldn’t have become the reader I am today. If I wouldn’t have become the reader I am, I wouldn’t have begun to write. I wouldn’t have discovered the wonders of dozens of other authors, their worlds, their views and their legacies.

But it all started with the eleven-year old wizard, forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs, that was invented by you, Miss Rowling. And I’d like to share the story of how these books changed my life, and why I’m so grateful to you.

When I was eight years old, my chief activities were playing with my friends and watching television. I was a TV kid. When I was even younger and my mother taught me how to read in English, I fought tooth and nail against it. Remember, I’d learned Hebrew at school with everyone else, but my mother wanted me to be as fluent in English as I was becoming in Hebrew. I was already bilingual, but she knew that if I didn’t learn to read and write in English as a child, I’d probably lose a lot of the benefits of being so.

By the time I was eight I knew how to read in both languages, but I didn’t like to. I liked being read to – I loved stories, it’s true. It was also the age where my friends and I spent our time inventing stories and plays and games. Stories were a big part of my life, but words on pages weren’t.

Shortly after my ninth birthday, my brother turned thirteen. For his Bar Mitzva, a great-aunt of ours gifted him with the first three Harry Potter books, the third of which had only just come out, all in hardcover. I remember I thought to myself that the books sounded dumb when someone explained to me what they were about. My nine year old mind wasn’t excited, for some reason, by the prospect of a wizard boy.

My brother read the books on his own, of course. I remember distinctly, however, the first evening my mother started reading the first book to me. I was in my bed, the same one I still sleep in now, and she read the first line, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” I remember cutting in then and saying something along the lines of “But the book’s called Harry Potter! Who are these people?” and my mother smiled and told me to wait patiently and we’d see together.

A couple weeks later, when we reached the chapter titled “Halloween,” while my parents were having their Friday afternoon nap, I read the whole chapter alone without telling anyone. When my mother started reading it to me that night I felt so guilty that I confessed that I’d read it alone. I thought it would hurt her feelings. She was, of course, ecstatic, and gave me her blessing to continue reading the book, and the next and the next, on my own.

So Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (I had the American version) was the first book in English that didn’t have pictures in it (except for those small ones above the chapter titles) that I read most of alone, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the first book of this sort that I read completely alone, from start to finish.

It changed my life. I just kept on reading. I discovered a love for fantasy, that led me to dozens of amazing books, and later branched out to every type of book imaginable. If I’d never reached that point where I wanted so badly to know what was about to happen that I picked up the book and read the next chapter alone, then I’d never have become such an avid reader. And being a reader… means the world to me.  I can’t imagine ever living without books. I can’t imagine never reading.

Harry Potter remained with me for years, and he’s still with me. I grew up with him. When he turned seventeen when the seventh and final book came out, I turned seventeen. The books saw me through the beginning, middle and end of puberty, they saw my first kisses and first periods, my first relationship and first breakup. They saw me through my father’s death. I can’t count the times I’ve read them. I know that they’re going to remain with me for my entire life.

Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for creating a world, characters and plot so amazing that you convinced a nine-year old who watched as many hours of TV a day as she could to find the wonder and beauty of words. Thank you, Harry Potter, fictional as you are, for being the star of this author’s books, for being courageous but normal, for being talented but average, for making me feel kinship with you. Thank you, Hermione Granger, the Weasleys, Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks, Serius Black, Fleur Delacour, Luna Lovegood, Dean Thomas,Seamus Finnegan, Neville Longbottom, Lee Jordan, Oliver Wood, Angelina Johnson, Alicia Spinnet, Katie Bell, Parvati Patil, Lavender Brown, Professors of Hogwarts, Rubeus Hagrid, the Malfoys, Dobby and Winky, Messrs. Crouch and Bagman, Tom Marvolo Riddle who grew into Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and, last but definitely not least (and I’m probably forgetting so many other good characters here), Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore- thank you for filling eleven (so far) years of my life with your magic.

Combination Lock

Three turns to the right. Stop at “Guilt.”

Two turns to the left. Stop at “Self-loathing.”

One turn to the right. Stop at “Guilt for the narcissism of self-loathing.”

Open the safe. Inside, you will find another, small safe.

Three turns to the right. Stop at “Anger.”

Two turns to the left. Stop at “Impatience.”

One turn to the right. Stop at “Self loathing for feeling angry and impatient.”

Open the safe. This time, you’ll find a drawstring bag inside. Open it, and out will flow dozens of small, egg-sized capsules. Each is clear, with a folded up piece of paper inside of it. You can open the capsules look at the writing on the papers if you like. One will say “Happiness.” Another will say “Misery.” Another will say “Oddball.” Another will say “Unique.”

There’s something else in the cloth bag. If you reach right to the bottom of it, you’ll find a needle. The moment you try to pull it out, you’ll find the cloth bag unraveling. But if you leave the needle in place, you’ll be able to put all the capsules back inside. Then you can draw the strings shut tight, and even tie them. You can put the bag inside the first safe, and put that back inside the second. You know the combination now, so it’s no trouble going in and retrieving the bag whenever you like.

But what if you lock both those safes and throw them into an ecologically correct trash heap? Melt them down, use the metal to make… not bullets or guns, no… not spearheads either… and not jail-bars… how about wrought iron railings, delicate and beautiful, the kind you can train vines and flowers to grow around? Then you can still feel safe, but you don’t have to look at a cage or a weapon. You can’t use the railings against yourself, because you can step over them and make them beautiful. Forget the flowers – even without them, they’re beautiful. Just wait, see if other people admire them. I’ll bet you they will.

What about the bag, you ask? Well, that’s still with you, isn’t it? Tie it to your belt. Let people look into it sometimes. Let the people you love go in deeper, and sometimes maybe take a risk with a stranger. Don’t worry, they can’t steal anything. Even if they take one of those capsules in there, a new one will pop back instead of it. But more importantly, spend some time with that bag yourself. Look into it. Sort it out. See what belongs and what doesn’t. See, this is the magic about it – if anyone else tries to take something away, it’ll pop right back. But if you give it to them willingly or get rid of it yourself, it’s gone for good.

Careful, though. Don’t throw away “Compassion,” or “Love,” or even “Fear.” Don’t let yourself throw all of it away, both good and bad. Keep most of it. Just sort out things like “Pointless Guilt” and “Worthlessness” and you’ll have a good start going.

But remember the combination. If you don’t know how to open that first safe, you’ll never get anywhere. What if the combination changes, you ask? Ah, well, if it does, I trust you’ll be able to listen to that little click-click when the wheel hits the right place, so you’ll crack it in no time. Just make sure to try.

Flash Fiction Thursday: Lyara

Disclaimer: I’m tired, I’m pressured, I did my best. Sometimes it feels as if whatever I write becomes trite, boring, repetitive and unoriginal, like this piece probably is. Which is why I’m disclaiming: Tired, Pressured, with capital T and P.

Lyara was in the rose garden when it finally hit her. I’m to be married tomorrow. It didn’t seem real. How could it? She sat down heavily, not caring, for once, about the state her dress would be in once she got up from the damp earth. She could always make the stains go away, if she worked hard enough. Trying to breath slowly, she managed to sit up straight and arrange herself so that any observer who happened to be looking through the The’elem Manor’s windows would see a beautiful woman, sitting in the rose garden and taking in the glorious sunshine. Appearances were important, Lyara knew. Especially for her.

A black rose was just beginning to open at eye-level. She stretched out a hand to touch a soft black petal, stroking it softly until it opened completely, and wondered whether marriage would hold any tenderness. It wasn’t obvious. Not everyone managed to marry good men. Why, just a year ago, Moralla married a Viscount, a notable man of wealth and learning. But in her letters home, Lyara knew, she’d confessed to her sisters that the man was cruel to her, beat her, even did unspeakable things to her that she hadn’t dared to write down. Lyara had joined her friends, Moralla’s twin sisters, in reading over the letters and acting suitably horrified. But it didn’t strike her until just now that Moralla was actually suffering, all alone, with her husband.

But that won’t happen to me. Mama and Papa promised. He’s good-looking, kind and intelligent. They told me so. Tears rolled down her face as she contemplated the future. She understood her parents. She knew that she needed to marry fast, marry the first man who offered, marry before he found out… Her parents were incredibly ashamed, and Lyara couldn’t help but feel that they were right. Nobody wanted a sorceress in their household. She knew her talents were a disgrace. But now, when she contemplated needing to hide all her little quirks from an entirely new household staff as well as her new husband – what was his name? She couldn’t remember – it seemed overwhelming. Her parents didn’t notice anymore if a candle flickered into a full blown flame when Lyara entered a room, or when the dinner plates that had arrived cold from the kitchen became suddenly warm again.

She wasn’t sure she could do it. She wished, for the first time in her pampered, idle life, that she was poor as muck and common as weeds, because then her talents would be sought after, wanted, needed. She’d be revered, loved, looked-up to. She wouldn’t ever starve, for a sorceress never did, nor would she lack for firewood.

An idea was forming in Lyara’s mind. She was frightened of pursuing it, but tucked it into the corner of her worries, just in case the marriage business went horribly wrong.

Silas (2)

Mr. Suit’s name turned out to be Thomas Smith. Silas assumed the name was fake, but didn’t mind much. In this business, he knew, privacy was essential. Part of the reason he was so successful at what he did was that he understood this simple fact and acted on it. It had been twenty years or more since anyone had seen Silas’s real face, and he intended on keeping it that way.
The face Thomas Smith saw that day was a pock-marked wreck; cheeks hollow, eyes a muddy brown, a crooked nose and a gash of a mouth, obviously scarred. Smith didn’t seem at all disturbed by this face, which annoyed Silas a little. He liked making people uncomfortable. It was another reason he was so successful – people didn’t want to spend more time with him than they absolutely needed to, so they wouldn’t try to socialize or bribe or judge him. Instead, they simply gave him the facts of the matter.
Smith looked at Silas, and then turned his head around, first to one side and then the other, taking in the empty tables and the dirty street. Then he did something that surprised Silas. He swiveled his body around and looked up at the dingy building above Mick’s Burgers & Beer, obviously checking to see if anyone was looking out of a window. Silas hid his surprise behind a stony face once more, and waited patiently.
“It’s like this, Magician,” Smith began. “I heard about you from a lady friend who used to be… well, shall we say, not in the best of situations. She says that you’re known among the South-dwellers.”
Silas nodded, and broke in rather wickedly “South-dwellers, eh? ‘Round here we call ourselves Southies. As you would know from your lady friend.”
“Yes, well,” Smith didn’t seem offended in the least. “The official term is still South-dwellers, Magician. Also, if my information is correct – which I am sure it is – you haven’t been a Southie, as you say, forever.”
Now Silas took notice. This man, this Mr. Smith, knew more than he was letting on. He knew more than any corporate stiff had a right to know. Mayhap he was simply rich enough to get tongues a-wagging, but then again maybe he he’d hired someone to find out about Silas, and the thought that he might have missed someone lurking around here made him very uncomfortable.
“I’m the Magician,” Silas said coolly, refusing to show he was unnerved. “I’ve been lots of places in my lifetime, Mr. Smith.”
“Indeed.”
“You gonna tell me what the job is or shall I leave you in peace to enjoy a burger and a pint, Mr. Smith?” Silas was desperate to get the job, sign the contract and get away from this suit.
“It’s very simple. The company I work for has placed a spy in a rival company. This spy is now an-” he hesitated, but then continued. “an inconvenience. We need him taken care of.”
“Right,” Silas smirked. “Taken care of. Understood, Mr. Smith. Tell me when and where I find him. And you’ll have to sign this.” He took a crumpled contract from his jeans pocket. “Fill it in, as much as you can, and sign right down there.”
Mr. Smith seemed, finally, slightly discomfited, but he did as he was told, filling in the short form while explaining to Silas where and when the spy could be found. He agreed to the fee Silas demanded without haggling. He returned the contract to Silas, who scanned it quickly as the man rose from the table.
“Just a minute, Mr. Smith,” he took hold of the suit’s arm, firmly grasping it so that he caught skin and sinew, not only the expensive shirt fabric. He tightened his grip as he continued. “You didn’t sign right at the end here, like I asked you to. I asked nicely, didn’t I, Mr. Smith? Can’t do a job without you signing the contract.”
Mr. Smith stared blankly at Silas, then back at the contract. Finally, he reached back to his pen, which he’d put in his shirt pocket. Slowly, ever so slowly, he signed the name “Thomas H. Smith” on the dotted line.
Silas looked at Mr. Smith’s face and saw the surprise and alarm in the suit’s eyes as he felt a jolt, like an electric surge, go up his arm. Silas smiled grimly, his jagged mouth tightening into a hard line.
“They call me Magician for lots of reasons, Thomas H. Smith. You remember that.”

Birthday

If you think about it, the concept of birthdays is a strange one. We commemorate the day we were born – a day which we can’t remember and which we didn’t have much physical participation in. Wouldn’t it make sense to remember the day we said our first words? Or the day we took our first steps? Maybe the date of our earliest memories? But no, we celebrate this day of all days in the year as something special.

When I was a kid, birthdays just didn’t feel like regular days. They felt magical, full of special occurrences, little traditions and big wrapped gifts. My mother would read me The Birthday Bird book by Dr. Seuss every birthday morning, and then the whole family would go out to a hidden picnic table in my favorite park to eat cupcakes, play Frisbee, talk and watch the sunset through the distant skyscrapers.

Today felt like a pretty normal day, despite being my nineteenth birthday. But then, that’s what happens as you get older. Birthdays stop being magical and become just… nothing much. There are still presents and there’s still some fuss made with friends and loved ones, but the magic is gone from the day. It’s bittersweet, really, because although I miss the special fuzzy feeling that I got on my birthdays, I also appreciate that I’m wiser now and more willing to find magic in my daily routines and simple pleasures instead of putting all my excitement about life into one day of the year.

A Passion For Fantasy

The first fantasy novel I read was the first of the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I was young enough then that my mother was reading it to me, at my request – the book seemed long and daunting to the nine year-old girl that I was. About twelve chapters in, though, I started cheating- I would keep reading after my mom would put the book down and say good night. A few chapters later, I felt guilty and confessed to my mother what I had been doing. She laughed and let me read it on my own from then on. That was the first average length book that I read on my own.
Today, it seems so funny to me, having read series upon series comprising eight-hundred page books. Fantasy novels tend to be long, full of twisting, complicated plots and myriad characters. One of my series even has a section listing the “Dramatis Personae” at the beginning of it, lest the readers should forget who’s who.
Too many people criticize fantasy novels for their themes: idealized past, patriarchal societies, a suspicious appreciation of monarchic or socialist systems of government. The ironic and critical presentation of such systems which is apparent in so many of the books is usually overlooked entirely.
Moreover, there is so little appreciation for the massive amounts of research and imagination that goes into the writers’ work. Fantasy writers create whole worlds from scratch, from political entanglements to the irrigation systems, from magic spells to religions, from the layout of the land to the very flora that grows in it. When they’re not building their worlds, they’re researching ancient warfare, the hundreds of different deities that exist in current and ancient religions, the way actual monarchies functioned once upon a time and much more. And this is just for writers of this type of fantasy – there are so many different types and sub-genres that they’re hard to keep straight, and critics often don’t bother to distinguish them whatsoever.
I’ve held these opinions close to my heart for as long as I’ve been reading fantasy, and I have never had the opportunity to research these phenomena. Why is fantasy so disdained? Why isn’t it appreciated, but rather looked upon as a genre only for children and teenagers and unsophisticated readers? Why are the writers of fantasy not praised for their incredible writing style at least? Why do fantasy novels reach the best-seller lists, but then get beaten down and criticized?

I wish it weren’t the case, that so much of the fantasy genre be treated as sub-par by so many – especially when books that are fun reads but by no means well-written become best-sellers overnight.

“Journal”

According to Google, a definition of the word journal is: diary: a daily written record of (usually personal) experiences and observations.

Such an inadequate definition. The word journal is magical. It conjures up the image of beautiful, classic script embossed in gold upon a leather bound ledger, filled with heavy pages. Another image that comes to mind is the word stamped simply, in bold typeface, on pastel colored notebooks of comfortable size, inviting casual penmanship between their covers. Journal can even raise the picture of a cartoon character brightly painted across the cover of a small notebook, just begging to be filled in with colorful crayons and bright stickers.

Journals are wonderful. They are pages for privacy, of gathering the thoughts that dash across our minds throughout the day. They are a haven, a safe harbor in which to pour out our frustrations, sadness and difficulties. They are a comfort, inviting us to share happiness and pride or rejoice in our blessings and accomplishments. Journals can be friends, sole confidants, secret lairs and hidden treasures.

Journal is a beautiful word.

The Woods

As darkness settles, the air grows cool and crisp, promising rain later to those who can feel it in their bones and guaranteeing a cold night for those who can’t. The smell of the air becomes almost a living thing, damp and thick; the smells are of the ponds, of the moist greenery, faint smoke coming from far off, and lastly, the smell of woods in the night. It all smells musty, in a cold sort of way, as if the whole outside world has become the den in an old house.

The woods in the night are magical. Bare though they are of leaves, they brim with a foreign power, a promise of mystery, adventure and danger that can be found in their depths. The branches of the trees seem to be like a hundred arms reaching out towards the sky, some leaning down and beckoning to the watcher to come in, to look closer.

The prospect of being lost in those woods is both frightening and enchanting. There is a feeling that anything could happen amongst the tree trunks, between the wild roots, inside knotholes. The onlooker can easily be hypnotized, drawn into the New England woodlands as if by invisible Fae. With the right sort of courage, perhaps those wild creatures could be discovered.