The State Street Robot Factory
He’s been building up inventory for a while in preparation for the gift-giving season. Phalanxes of pocket robots stand on his bookshelves, his eating counter,
Black stone lying on a white stone.
I waste a hard-earned chit for public access to chase a clue that turns out to be poetry.
I will die in Paris, on a rainy day … perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.
César Vallejo, the author of the poem “Black stone lying on a white stone,” was a Peruvian writer living in Spain in the 1930s when he succumbed to an infection turned totalitarian. The little I am able to read about him, before the buzzer sounds and the next person in line nudges me out of the public access booth, indicates that the poet’s wife consulted with astrologers and wizards in an effort to cure the ailment that felled him.
She should have asked the brujas instead. You want to turn counsel to cunning, or wreck the world with a wyrd, ask the wizards. A massive mal puesto, on the other hand, calls for a witch.
Or, even better, more than one.
The man who takes my place in the booth carries one of the enormous smartphones that were popular right before access to electricity was privatized and clean-slate architecture rendered much of the web inaccessible to ordinary people like us. His still-gleaming and beautiful phone is almost as useless as my battered burner, these days, but we’re still addicted to looking into their screens during our ten-minute slots of nostalgia.
Haniyyah says I’m crazy irresponsible to plug in where go-trackers and neighborhood scoutware are deployed with juice and signal. Miss Connie and Mega are quieter in their disapproval, and Baby Girl just silently shakes her head.
Their powers are so strong, they cannot understand a witch who needs to chase down clues. I tell them it is all about the power of proximate brilliance—you never know what a line of found poetry will illuminate.
I, like Vallejo’s poetic narrator, already know when and where I will die.
It will be in this North American city, laid low by the Earth’s uncontrolled thermostat, spinning sear to frost to sere, in a newly harsh cycle not even the greatest wizards can make right again.
It will be on a Friday, in what used to be called summer. And since nature isn’t likely to offer rain on its own, one of the Mob’s weather-workers will make sure to spell a drizzle—as long as I remember to ask.
And I will remember to ask. Because poetry is always gnostic, and sometimes an instruction manual, and it doesn’t do to go disregarding its direction.
In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?
That’s a line I remember from a different poet, Pablo Neruda, from a different country than Vallejo’s or mine, but still from this beloved, and now benighted, supercontinent. The American one, where some 326 million—after having appropriated for ourselves, alone, the continental citizenship of the other five hundred or so million—declared our country first and only, and were willing to curse the rest.
Still, magic unleashed knows no borders, and on Day Zero, every one of us felt the backlash. Since then every spell cast—North and South—has been about survival.
The white Anglo witches and wizards in this city say “so mote it be” to seal their magical workings. The phrase originated in England, I’m told, and was brought over by a witch hidden in plain sight among the Puritans on the Mayflower.
I’m not Anglo, I’m not white, and I’m not over fond of any turn-of-phrase so clunky and old-fashioned it can’t be part of the people’s vernacular.
But spell craft does demand a seal. So here is mine: Palabra. Word.
Because it all starts with words, don’t you know? And ends that way, too.
In the early days, Mega saved my life. That is, she saved my daughter’s life, and therefore mine, too.
The air is bad here. Sometimes it is so thick, it becomes visible—a blanket of particulates as warm and thick as fleece. Baby Girl has asthma and went into a full-blown incident on a 110-degree morning when she was a year old. The nebulizer’s battery had no juice left and public access booths were too far from Mole Street, so I carried her limp little body and the nebulizer bag through the neighborhood, screaming for help I knew would—could —not come.
I had crossed some three or four blocks from the Latino section of the neighborhood, into the Indonesian one, before I stopped. In those early days after Day Zero, we kept to the city’s historically segregated neighborhoods and didn’t associate much with each other, so when I heard a loud chugging, grinding sound, I didn’t know what to expect.
Certainly not the contraption that turned the corner and headed to where I stood. It was a hybrid go-kart/ATV struggling to drag a heavy trailer behind it. I caught my breath when I noticed there was a portable generator wedged in among the barrels on the rig.
The vehicle stopped right in front of me, and its driver—goggles, full-length hooded vest, and thin leather chaps scarred from burns—hopped down. She didn’t bother to say anything, just pulled the generator’s recoil several times, and once it kicked on, plugged the nebulizer into the generator. I broke open an albuterol ampoule I had traded a month’s chits to get and strapped the nebulizer mask over my daughter’s nose and mouth. Baby Girl coughed a couple of times, then closed her eyes and breathed.
“It’ll need to run some twenty minutes or so,” I said to the woman. “I know that means we will use a lot of your gas, but she’s got to have the full dose. I don’t have many chits to give you now, but I swear I will repay you in full.”
“I’m not worried about it,” she said as she pulled off her goggles. “We make our own biodiesel.” She indicated the barrels, “I was out collecting cooking oil when I heard your cries.”
She stuck out her hand. “I’m Mega.”
As we shook, she studied me. “You have the mark of a natural-born witch.”
The big mole on the side of my neck itched, as if it understood her words. “My skill is of the lowest order,” I said. “An aptitude for augury, only. Nothing as useful as healing.”
She chewed her lip (at the edge of which was the mole that marked her) for a bit, then seemed to arrive at a decision. “When we’re done here, I’m going to introduce you to someone whose talent is all healing, all the time. Because you can’t count on me being around whenever your daughter needs help.”
But that’s exactly what I’ve grown to do. I count on her and she counts on me, and that’s the way it is with all of the tías and aunties and bibis who coalesced into the Mole Street Mob.
Witches extraordinaire, dark women running a dark market, crunchy agents of chaos, steampunk entrepreneurs and viejas necias—born with the mark, the will, and a target on our backs.
Haniyyah gives me her look as soon as I get back from charging my phone. It’s hard not to wither under it. Maybe it has to do with the fact she’s so much taller than me—nearly six-feet—or maybe it’s that, with the exception of the mole peeking out from under one arched eyebrow, she is flawless. Even her locs, dyed sage green with Miss Connie’s help, are perfectly uniform.
She is, among other things, a street reader. She can understand and interpret every sticker slapped on honor box, pole, and post; every image chalked on the sides of trash cans and dumpsters; all the sandblasted ghosts of messages that once sprawled colorfully across buildings; even the hidden image bombs nobody else sees. There has never been an iconomancer like her.
But that is not her only magic. Haniyyah can change the juju on the street just by tracing her sigil in the air, and she can get inside your head like you are no more complicated than a doll baby. It’s a rare skill, only one other of the Mob’s witches can do such, and not as easily as our leader does it. If it came to it, Haniyyah alone could perform half the workings that have earned the Mob our status.
She doesn’t keep me wriggling under her side-eye for long, thank heavens, and turns back to mashing whatever she’s got in the bowl under her pitted iron pestle.
“Where is everyone?” I ask as I drop into one of her rickety kitchen chairs.
“Mega’s at the workshop, supervising the titration process for the latest batch of biofuel,” she answers. “Miss Connie is harvesting at parcel five, and Baby Girl is hard at work on a task I gave her to learn.” She stops her rhythmic pounding and looks over at me. “Can you hear her?” When I nod, she goes on. “Are you ready for Friday?”
Black stone lying on a white stone.
I had noticed the volunteer prophesy while on my regular trash-picking route about two weeks ago. But I’m a procrastinator. My nearest and dearest know that about me.
“Mostly,” I say.
“So, what exactly is it we’re doing?” she asks. The enormous, plastic trash-to-treasure earrings Baby Girl creates for her auntie bob a little, betraying tension Haniyyah’s otherwise too cool to show.
“I’m still refining the plan, jefa,” I say.
I try not to hear her sucking her teeth after she hears my words. Planning is not our friend. Eight years of planning led our government to … Day Zero. And ten years after that, our local governance is rife with planning, none of it good for our Mole Street city-within-a-city.
The Municipal Protection and Development Project (MPDP) recently broke ground on a string of residence centers intended to supplant our squats and reclaimed spaces. They say there will be some free electricity on the regular there. They say there will be filtered water that runs through the pipes at least once a week. They say the dormitory halls will be fitted with multiple, built-in vents to accommodate our cookstoves because they know we take pride in our food.
They promise this the same way they’ve always promised us, with barbs hidden in plain sight.
We’ll be locked in (for safety and security) every night at curfew (TBD). Each residence block will be age-segregated for efficiency, so that transit time to school or worksite or geriatric care can be minimized.
Sandwiched between the residence blocks, they hope to lure a gigantic HVAC manufacturer to provide a good number of local jobs, and they’ll seed hand-picked retailers and grocers, lured by both our teeming sprawl and the proposed checkpoints, loiter-free design, and security detail.
No more open-air drug bazaars, they say, but we understand it’ll mean no more street pulgas and night markets that bring us together to exchange chit, conjure, and chisme for self-determined need.
No more nuisance properties, they say, but we know that means no more finquitas on reclaimed lots to grow our bitter melons, sumac, eggplant, and corn.
No more trash-filled pocket parks, they say, which means no more commons for the moko jumbies and vejigantes to practice in, no more barrel fires for our old folks to gather around.
No more tar, tin, and tape housing make-dos. No more blight, they say.
We hear: No more us.
By howling of dogs.
By spelling a name.
By the soles of feet.
By found poetry.
The litany of auguries is officially fifty-five stanzas long. Unofficially, those who have augury as an inborn magic will muck around with the final content to suit temperament and circumstance. I favor three official stanzas and one Mob-specific, but Friday’s plan will likely call for the full litany—intoned several times, with new material strategically incorporated into each repetition.
I take time from fussing with line- and syllable-count to lure Miss Connie from one of the finquitas to her kitchen. I’ve asked her to look through the shelves of tincture and decoction for her strongest medicine. She walks back and forth along the shelves that fill every wall of the dimly lit space, then stops, strokes her tightly curled beard for several minutes, and shoots a hand in between two large jars filled with desiccated plant matter. She retrieves a tiny baby-food jar. “Smell,” she instructs after opening it and shoving it under my nose.
The only odor I can identify is wax, and when I tell her so, she shakes her head. “You really have no affinity for this.”
“I’m not healing with it, hermana.”
She sighs, screws the top back on. “Blue root and sweet flag and clay from digging out the first finquita. Blood of my blood. Gullah and Seminole and Mole Street. Please don’t use too much of it.”
“I’m going to do this here and now,” I say, “so you can monitor how much I use. Also, because I need your help. Can you get me a clear glass and some good water?”
Her eyebrows shoot midway up her forehead to let me know I’m pushing the boundaries of my ask. The rain barrels scattered around Mole Street collect and store water that Miss Connie channels through a sand-gravel biofilter for soaking the plants at the finquitas. But the water we drink not only goes through that biofiltering, it is then solar-heated and condensed for purity in Mega’s Workshop of Utilities. There isn’t much of it during the dry season, and every liter is precious.
While Miss Connie gathers things, I rub the salve jar back and forth between warm palms to soften the contents. I remember my grandmother doing this with the blue jars of veevahpohroo when I was a child. Although carromancy is not my favorite technique of augury, it is part of my ancestory, which makes it a reliable and accurate form.
I drop a tiny dollop of liquified salve into the water, where it fans out and moves into a shape. “Quick,” I say to Miss Connie, “before it re-coagulates. Does that look like rosemary to you?”
She nods, then smiles. “Romero. Like your mother’s mother. You’ll be getting some spirit world help today.”
“Nana doesn’t want me to mess this one up,” I say, then I cast another drop. The words Carolina Reaper pop into my head, and Miss Connie confirms the blazing hot chile can be used both remedially and magically. The ones that follow each earn her confirmation as well: Trinidad Scorpion and Naga Viper (“What, are you thinking of making a turbo-charged Hot Foot?”)
Identification of tilo, jurema, maypop, and African rue follow, but when I drop the last dollop into the water, I draw a blank. Nothing. No spirit world prod, no name.
But Miss Connie’s eyes narrow. “Vandal root, if you are calling it for its magic; valerian, if you are calling it for remedy.” She moves surely midway down the shelves on the north side of her kitchen and pulls a jar filled with dark pieces of root. She opens it and gives it to me to take a whiff.
“Oh my God.” I hand it back to her and rub my nose several times. “It’s like something crawled up my nostrils and died. That is really foul.”
“So are some of the uses associated with it,” she says.
“Do any of these plants grow at the finquitas?”
“A few. But there is a night market tonight, and some might be found dried among the goods,” she says. “And others, maybe, could be secured from private sellers. Worth lots of chits, though.”
“They’ll tithe when they know it’s a Mob need,” I say. “What will mixing all this stuff together do?”
She thinks long before she answers. “Well, it depends on the ratios, and the way you intend them to be ingested or absorbed. Some are full-stop herbs that silo magical cell from mundane. Others are vermifuges that make you puke your very guts out. Valerian, remedially, will put you to sleep, but magically will raise spirits, seal the evilest of pacts, kill someone, even—if that’s what you want to use it for. The point being, it all depends.”
After a long and uncomfortable silence, she says, “I can’t really picture bringing all these together in one oil or powder for us to use.”
“Imagine it,” I say. “Mole Street depends on you. And, so do I. I’ll shape the rest of the working around what you give me.”
After a moment she nods. Then she holds out her hand and I deposit the warm little jar with what’s left of her precious salve in it. Better even than the veevahpohroo my Nana used back in the day.
I leave Miss Connie in her kitchen, pulling the ends of her beard and mumbling about time. As in, I haven’t left her enough of it.
Tuesday, after my pre-dawn trash-picking route is done, Haniyyah, Mega, Baby Girl, and I go on rounds.
After dousing herself with one of her washes, all the color is leached out of Haniyyah’s clothing and locs, and her skin goes sallow. Mega dons a wrap to hide her face, and la comadre even trades her beast-rider leathers for calico. They both look dowdy and forgettable, and for a second, I can’t recognize them. It prompts a frisson in me that passes quickly but leaves a residue of melancholy in its place.
I don’t waste any magic on altering my appearance—the truth is that if you are 4’9” and over fifty, most people won’t notice you anyway. And Baby Girl is too young at eleven to draw more than just a quick glance. We’re as good as invisible.
Haniyyah elbows me, points at a brightly tagged, old disposable lighter nailed at ankle height on a crumbling curb on our way. “The street fu is strong today.”
“What does it tell you?”
“Bank your fire, sis.”
The first MPDP construction site we visit is the most advanced, with the support columns high enough that the workers have started laying the lower floors. None of Mob Street’s men are among the laborers who track our approach. The unions have always been mostly Anglo and white, and since trying to cut in as a jobber or jornalero puts you on the fast track to either the emergency room or internment center, there are only a few black and brown faces visible.
One of the rare brown faces on a scaffolding about eight feet off the ground hurls a couple of predictably gendered obscenities at us as we pass, and then a stunningly unpredictable one, in Spanish, at Baby Girl.
“Skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” Haniyyah says, as she sees me gathering myself to strike him mute. It is one of the few skills augurers have that can be used offensively. We can swallow voices and send words into indefinite hiding in that same vast unknown from which we pluck them in prognostication.
Still, Haniyyah’s comment reminds me that I need to conserve every last reserve of magic for what is coming on Friday. Restraint is hard because it involves Baby Girl, and I would do anything for her to reach adulthood without the psychic scars her mother and aunties bear.
The good thing is that Baby Girl has more than just me looking out for her. Her godmother whistles a couple of notes and I hear a cry as the sinvergüenza tumbles from his scaffolding.
At the next construction site—just a huge pit in the ground—we run into Erwin and Sue, whose food cart was lost to the pit. They still have several goats tethered in an overgrown corner of one of the primary finquitas, and their scrawny chickens scratch around the paths between beds in the smaller ones, but for now the old couple is almost as demolished as their livelihood.
“Why doesn’t the Mob put a stop to this?” Sue asks when we come to stand by them for a moment. She’s sweating profusely, even as she’s standing still, and I find myself wishing Miss Connie were here to treat the old woman’s anxiety attack with something from her crossed bandoliers of remedies, powders, and oils.
“The Mob’s magic is a scalpel and a dressing, not a bomb,” Haniyyah says. “If it were big and singular and destructive, the powers-that-be would have long ago noticed how much of it we actually wield. They would have chosen to flatten and disappear all of us from the get-go.”
“They don’t need magic to flatten and disappear us anyway,” Erwin says.
“Erwin, aguanta, el pueblo se levanta,” Baby Girl singsongs one of the pre-Day Zero rallying chants she’s always coaxing from her elders’ memories.
Hold on, Erwin, the people are rising up.
He stares at my daughter and it’s hard to tell whether his eyes are wet with rheum or unshed tears. Then he shrugs and reaches for his wife’s hand. “You know the Mob can count on us.”
Mole Street regulars like Erwin and Sue don’t have magic (unless you count making hella good curried goat magic), so unconditional loyalty to the Mob is a form of self-preservation.
Mega takes Erwin’s and Sue’s free hands in hers and starts whistling one of the intricate beast rider songs she teaches those who help her on oil-collection rounds. With each note, more of the sweat dries on Sue’s face and Erwin’s shoulders relax until they unhunch. The whistling—infinitely varied in form and effect—is Mega’s powerful but unique magic. She’s higher in the Mob’s hierarchy than the rest of us singletons because of the other power she taps: science.
“Tonight and tomorrow,” Mega tells them. “Keep your phones on. We’re going to FireChat everyone when we know what we’ll need you to do.”
“I can’t remember the last time we used our phone,” Sue says. “It’s probably dead.”
“We’re running the generator today until midnight,” Mega says. “Come by the workshop to charge it; one of the riders will help you.”
When we walk away from them, Baby Girl’s amber eyes are downcast. My big-hearted little girl has no grandparents, but she loves Sue and Erwin as if they were. I can see their situation has got her on the verge of tears as we peel off from the rest to enter the Evangelical Mission House, where the charity food distribution is taking place this month.
Mega, Miss Connie, and Haniyyah refuse to demean themselves this way, but then, none of them have children. My daughter and I pee into cups and wait while they test the urine for drugs and magic enhancers, then take a number and go sit at tables crowded with Mole Street regulars. After an hour, when our number is called, Baby Girl and I follow a young woman in bright purple track shoes to the room where they have warehoused this month’s distribution.
“Your allotment is five items,” she says, consulting her clipboard. It’s down from six last month because Baby Girl had a birthday in the intervening days, and each of those brings us closer to the eventual zero. Our selection of foodstuffs takes almost no time because we always pick the same things: a big bottle of cooking oil, cornmeal, rice, a bag of dried black beans, and a box of Cheerios.
As we’re walking home, Baby Girl looks up at the sky. It is empty, no sign of the rainclouds that’ll need to roll in by Friday to fulfill poetic prophecy. When her eyes slide back down to meet mine, they’re troubled.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “I may only have one minor form of magic, but I’m good at it. Things will happen as I say they will.”
“That’s not why I’m worrying,” she says.
We both pretend not to notice the quaver in her voice.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the first year after Day Zero and as the inaugural working of the Mole Street Mob, we built a table.
It is enormous, and round, and made from an old oak tree that had stood in front of the school for one hundred years before wild lightning took it down.
The table was built by hands, scorched by nature, and smoothed by magic. It is beautifully dark, and its surface is without visible flaw. It takes up almost an entire room on the bottom floor of the building; city officials have been led to believe it is the seat of the Mole Street Mob’s power.
On Friday morning, I am seated at it, across its expanse from the municipality’s powerful, who have come to us in a show of magnanimity, after having directed law enforcement agents to raid our streets and homes yesterday. Half of Mole Street’s men and boys are gone today, as a result.
The dignitaries brought their toady witches with them this morning and won’t set foot inside our meeting room until the women sweep it for wands and athames; candles and salt and wine; baleful incense pouring out of censers or preemptive spells hanging in the air—any sign that the Mob might attempt to ceremonially ensorcel them during the meeting.
Their witches find and sense nothing, of course. Just me waiting—short, fat, and looking like their children’s nannies—easily read as a mere augurer, and no threat.
After the administrative coven leaves, the four people who face me are all men. The wizard in their company is gigantic, nearly seven feet tall, as big around as the oak we felled for the table, with a voice as extravagant as his corpus. His skin and hair are very pale and luminously perfect—the effect of a minor glamour—and that is more intimidating than anything else. You’ve got to have power to burn to waste it on vanity.
And he does. He’s not just any wizard, he’s also the city’s lexicographer of magic—reputed to have named, defined, categorized, and practiced every form of sorcery and spellcraft contained in Eastern North America’s repository of grimoires.
I’ve seated us as in a five-pointed star, with me the apex and the wizard at the symbolic weak left foot. The pentacle is not part of the Mob’s vernacular, but the wizard-lexicographer would have expected no less at a meeting like this.
“I don’t understand the resistance we’ve encountered in Mole Street,” complains the urban planning director (left arm of the star). “The housing we propose to create will offer significantly improved dwellings for the majority of you, and the inconveniences will be minor.”
“Nothing that breaks up our families is minor,” I say politely.
He expels a loud breath. “I really thought all of you would be lining up to thank us. Instead, we’ve had to deal with vandalism and incident after incident of petty magic.”
“Death by a thousand cuts,” the wizard says, then smiles at me. “The strategy of the cunning …”
“Or the weak,” the police commissioner cuts in. He is seated at the right arm of the star we’ve formed around the table, and his buzz cut, sober face, and dark outfit give him the aura of a cleric (except for the sharp, decidedly martial metal insignia on his chest). His skin is only a bit lighter than Haniyyah’s, but he’s chosen to wield their kind of power, not ours.
“Even petty actions merit response,” he adds after a moment. “We know there are those among you with the predisposition to engage in crime—magical and non-magical. We got some of them yesterday. But not all.”
He pushes eight separate documents across the table. Eight, the number of fate.
“We’d like your help, Alba,” he says. “We were unable to locate these people yesterday to bring them in for questioning. If you turn them over to us within the next few days, it will benefit you.” He pushes an additional paper my way, bringing the total to nine—the number of what is set to materialize—and I feel the hard push of his will slide across with it.
“As you can see from the last, if we are forced to follow this plan all the way through, this whole section of the city will be effectively neutralized.”
I edge the reports closer, glance at them long enough to see that the information must have come from a Mole Street resident … and that almost all of the inner circle of the Mob is the target.
The mayor (right leg of the star) looks at the wizard, then at me. “Don’t confuse anger for insurrection, Alba. There is no chance whatsoever that the Mob can pull all the varied interests in Mole Street together to prevent this. From what we understand, there is a substrata of rogue entrepreneurs here, who cut into the profits from the Mob’s dark market—just like your dark market cuts into the profits of our great city. Like calls to like, I guess.”
He sees me start, then sighs. His instinct in magic—like the police commissioner’s—is compulsion, only he swaddles his with concern and pity. “Look, we have no desire to deprive your people of the small workings you must perform to survive here. God knows, even we need magic to make life livable. So, please understand us, Alba. We don’t want to neutralize this sector. We wouldn’t be meeting with you now if that were the case. We don’t even want to divest Mole Street of all its leadership—you will notice your name is not among those called to report on Monday.”
He waits a moment for his words to sink in, then continues. “I am told that the Mob is a skills-based hierarchy, and your position will be much enhanced by the removals we have proposed. There will be no one left with more magic than you, am I right?”
No. But I don’t say it because the Mob has had the foresight to hide the knowledge of the powers of one of our strongest witches from all but the inner circle. There are no arrest papers for her on the table.
“We can look the other way while you do whatever you need to do to secure your spot at the top,” the police commissioner prompts.
The wizard leans forward. “Alba, your name means dawn, doesn’t it? And that’s what we’d like to see you help us usher in here—a new dawn, in which the administrative witches and wizards collaborate with the wild talents, to the benefit of all. I can help you. Truly.” He places a pen neatly in front of him, then splays and flexes his fingers as if he is sprinkling me with water. “Take it.”
“If your informant was worth their pay, you must already know I have none of the stronger inborn magicks,” I say. “And you can surely guess that I have neither the education, nor the chits to acquire telekinesis by other means.”
“Try,” he encourages.
I get the pen to skitter across the surface of the table with the mere flicker of thought, but when I flex my will to try to pull the papers closer, they don’t budge.
“An unlimited version of that power—or others, more useful in wresting dominion if you encounter opposition—can be made available to you once you are formally sworn to our enterprise,” the wizard says.
“Think of your daughter,” the mayor adds.
And I do think of Baby Girl.
She mastered two of her five innate magicks before she was four. “Yo, good lady, look at what our girl here can do,” Haniyyah had called to me as Baby Girl—with nothing but instinct and inclination to prank—held an open bottle of our good water inches above her auntie’s head. The child hadn’t slipped once or spilled a drop.
There is a loud clap of thunder heard even in this inner room of the ruined building, then the quickly escalating patter of rain falling on the sad alleys and structures of Mole Street. Magically induced rain falls with beguiling randomness—blessing some, blighting others—like the Cheerios fall when Baby Girl casts them in the first (and still favorite) form of augury she invented.
“You are right,” I say. “What I reluctantly do, I do for my daughter.”
I rise unsteadily and make my way to the police commissioner. I rub my hand on my leggings to wipe off the sweat beading visibly on my palm, then extend it to him. He scrutinizes me for long moments. I think he would have trusted me more if I had whipped out a blade and tried to off him. But even he has had to choose expediency over community sometime—hasn’t he?
Finally he shakes my hand, and I move onto the next. Rub, shake, skeev-out. Step deosil. Repeat.
The mayor looks at me with genuine concern when we shake. “You are quite flushed and damp. Are you feeling unwell?”
“Menopause,” I say. “Hot flash. Even a wizard’s magic can’t control that sort of bodily portent can it?” I ask the lexicographer, who is next in my circumnavigation.
He looks a bit nauseated by the topic, and insists I rub the sweat off my hands an extra time before shaking. A double dose, then.
The planning director isn’t interested enough to meet my eyes when I go to shake with him, so his fingertips are the only part of his hand that meets mine. Half dose, but I recognize a fellow weakest link when I see one.
“By might and by magic. Here and in all worlds. By this working you bind yourself to us, Alba. Your well-being is tied to ours, your very future to our own,” the lexicographer intones as soon as every hand has been shaken.
“By this working I bind myself to you, my well-being to yours, my very future to your own,” I repeat.
I feel their spell bear down heavily, and with all the rubbing I’ve done, the ointment-impregnated leggings Miss Connie gave me to wear have become unbearably hot and prickly. Sweat pours off more than my hands as I stagger to take my seat again.
My blouse is practically soaked through. The wizard and planning director, heads ducked in urgent whispered conversation with the mayor, don’t notice, but the police commissioner does. He looks like he’s trying to figure out whether sweating is some sort of magic he and his know nothing about. Clearly, not enough women in their ranks …
The commissioner’s hand goes reflexively to the metal insignia on his chest when he notices me watching, and he makes a show of running his finger along the badge’s sharp edge. For a moment, I do nothing, then I wink at him.
Surprise turns his mouth into an O.
“Now, to seal the spell—” the wizard says, looking up.
At his words, every man at the table quickly plants both hands firmly on its surface, exactly five inches apart. Five. A sober number befitting business men and authorities investing in their future.
I slap my hands down on the table, too, leaving some two feet between them, and then drag them along the surface until they are the requisite number of inches apart.
The marks left by my damp palms and fingers are paths, chemtrails and wakes in the sea of circumstances that have brought me here, to this moment when I will lose myself and those I love.
“So mote it be,” the wizard’s voice fills the room.
“So mote it be,” the mayor and police commissioner echo, and a beat later, the planning director remembers to chime in, too.
“In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?” I say. Their puzzled, then suspicious, eyes meet mine.
By found poetry.
“So mote it be,” I say.
As soon as the magical contract is sealed, the tension drains out of the room and the weight of the spell eases into something I can live with.
Baby Girl’s voice in my head continues with the last of the litany of auguries:
By words left unsaid.
In this ruined room, and around this majestic table, there is an unbreakable silence.
The first one to understand is the wizard-lexicographer. All of our words have been secreted away from us, not to be recovered until some witch recites the litany of auguries in exactly the way Baby Girl has done, from remote and telepathically, today.
The men try to move their hands off the table to claw at their mouths, but their fingers and palms will not budge. I have been careful, at every rising and seating, not to disturb any of the cereal ohs gummed under the edge of the table—a circle to bind and contain— and I am as immobilized as my guests.
I have no doubt at all that I will succumb first to the power of the ointment Miss Connie created and I transferred from leggings to palms to outstretched hands … But sooner or later, all of us at the table will burn from the inside out until we disgorge all the inborn and acquired magicks nested in our hearts and hooked onto our livers and spleens.
Assuming any of us survive, when our spirits finally settle back into our skins, we will not be the same. We will be regulars.
The wizard, I can tell, is still struggling to understand why neither he nor the administrative witches recognized the telltales of magic before our trap was sprung on him. If I could, I would tell him that their lexicon has never included the likes of us, or our humbly quotidian methods of conjure.
I hear the chugging and clanking of the Beast approaching and hear the whistling of its riders.
I smell the aroma of Erwin’s freshly curried goat and jerk chicken and Sue’s brown sugar glazed yams.
All of Mole Street will be pouring out in the streets, in FireChat-incited festival mode: dancing between the raindrops to the 11/4 time our live mixers favor in music; blessing their bowls of free food and the Mob who prompted it.
Their energy amplifies, and signal boosts the Mob’s magic—as it always has, from our very first act of collective resistance—but more importantly, it serves as cover. The Police Commissioner’s men are out there over-policing the Mob’s mob and too busy to notice their boss has been in here longer than expected.
The strange pharmacopeia racing through my bloodstream makes my heart skip a beat, and on its way to mess with my brain, it causes my eyes to burn and tear so profusely I’m functionally blind.
I hear Mega enter the room first, whistling, of course. Miss Connie follows, the little glass bottles on her bandoliers clinking with each step. Shortly after that, I recognize Haniyyah’s tread, and then, more footfalls as the remaining members of the Mob crowd into the room.
I vomit something thin and acidic onto the back of my hands, and through my fingers, onto the table. All of my magic is in that spill of bile.
I hear the men around me retching and gagging, too.
After this, there is still more that Miss Connie’s herbs, Mega’s whistling, and Haniyyah’s sigils will force us to disgorge: Memories, one by one, until we are left like newborns, without marker of identity or experience. At that vulnerable moment, the Mob will shape us to their powerful wills and restore what is needed to allow us to take our places in the world again—only this time without magic, and with the survival and well-being of Mole Street as our immutable priority.
Mamá, aguanta … Baby Girl sends the rallying cry with her telepathy, but also roots around in my head for an answer to the question that has plagued her since I first outlined my plan. When the change is completed, will love survive?
I am holding onto you with nail, tooth, and claw, Baby Girl.
I want to say it to her—but even at the peak of my powers, I couldn’t send messages, only receive them. And soon enough, I can’t remember why I want to say the words. Or to whom. Or why the intrusive voice in my head won’t shut up.
My eyes begin to clear, and I can see slicked hands planted before me on the table. Are they mine? I can’t tell, but maybe not because they don’t respond to my attempts to move them.
The voice inside my head has started chanting, which is irritating because the rhythm of the words is off—as if a regular syllable count is beyond the voice’s ken. Whatever is prompting the words remains a mystery to me, but some things come clear: I am alive because the words and the voice are willing it.
Because the words and the voice love me. And maybe that’s all that matters right now.
The voice in my head is joined by another, and as they repeat, it becomes an infinite canon:
By women and children.
By what we bring to the table.
He’s been building up inventory for a while in preparation for the gift-giving season. Phalanxes of pocket robots stand on his bookshelves, his eating counter,
I feel the tack prick harder than it did this morning, because with T there was something abyss-like that might have swallowed me, had he
“I’m Fiona,” I say, holding out a hand. When she shrinks away, I back off. Some people who come to me don’t want to be
Interactive Fiction — We know you have heard there is a fringeness to the food scene in Philadelphia. That you’ve come looking for the gut-kick