This Shattered Vessel, Which Holds Only Grief

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Izzy Wasserstein writes fiction and poetry, teaches writing and literature at a public university on the Great Plains, and shares a house with a variety of animal companions and the writer Nora E. Derrington. Her most recent poetry collection is When Creation Falls (Meadowlark Books, 2018), and her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming from Clarkesworld, PseudoPod, Fireside Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a member of the 2017 class of Clarion West, and likes to slowly run long distances. Her website is www.izzywasserstein.com.
Content Warning(s):
Death or dying, Transphobia and trans misogyny

Cassie pulls her hood low over her forehead, keeps her eyes on the ground ahead of her. She wears face paint meant to fool facial recognition algorithms, though the cops think she’s dead. Her friends are. She should be.

She circles the block twice, lingers at a corner, and when she’s as sure as she can be that she hasn’t been followed, she knocks on the unmarked door.

The clerk draws back multiple bolts, whispers an incantation, and calls the quarters, releasing the hexes long enough to allow Cassie inside.

The shop is tiny, overstuffed with zines, tarot decks, ritual salt, knitting needles, drums, artifacts from unplaces, crystals, and a great plant with vines spilling everywhere. It smells of old books and new growth.

“How’s the spell prep going?” the clerk asks once she’s finished sealing the door behind them.

“It’s going.” Cassie turns sideways, edges past the displayed statues, foci, and trinkets, afraid as always that she’ll knock them over. She always feels so broad-shouldered in these tight confines. Mannish, her brain nags at her, unbidden and hateful.

In the corner, she flips through the practical books on spellcasting. None have detailed instructions on the sigil or the modifications that will make it suit her needs.

She has no choice but to ask the clerk.

The young woman’s smile is warmer than her job requires. She sports a ragged sundress and an impressive collection of facial piercings. She displays a “she/her” pin on her chest despite the danger.

“I’m stuck,” Cassie says, though she hates to burden this woman. “In her book, Manglis says it’s possible to modify this sigil”—she reaches into her pocket, pulls out the tracing she made—“so that it’s not finding something but changing something.” For a moment she could swear she’s back in the KC Free Zone, her vision clouded by tear gas, feeling the loudspeaker’s roar in her chest. She forces herself to take deep breaths, to fight back against panic. “Changing something in the past, I mean.”

“Hm.” The clerk’s tongue pokes out of one corner of her mouth as she studies the rune. “I’ve never encountered that modification, but …” She turns to one of the many piles of books stacked near her and extracts a thick tome. She flips through it, sets it down in front of Cassie.

“Here,” she says. “‘Chapter 6: All Manner of Modifications for Time and Task.’ If this doesn’t have what you need, then nothing I’ve encountered will.”

Cassie flips pages eagerly. She’s never been talented at spellcasting, but she’s learned a lot in the weeks she’s spent in preparation for this spell.

Soon she’s sure the book has what she needs. “How much?” she asks, mentally calculating what she can afford and still make rent, if she skips some meals.

“It’s a shop copy,” the clerk says, “from a personal collection.” She sees Cassie’s expression and hastens to add: “But take your time with it.”

“Really?” Cassie asks, knowing herself to be unworthy of the kindness. “I’ll stay out of your way.”

“You’re not in my way.” The clerk grins. “I’m glad to help. Let me know if you need anything. My name’s Samantha.”

“Thanks,” Cassie says, not able to meet the other woman’s eyes. Samantha has given her name before; Cassie never offers her own.

§

Cassie’s roommates don’t care what she does as long as she doesn’t use the VR set. So, as soon as they leave for the day, she prepares her spell. She still reeks of oil and lab-grown meat, the stench of her job never really leaving her. Flipping burgers and pulling fries from grease pays the bills, and no one there cares who she is as long as she doesn’t skip shifts. Her coworkers come and go, and the few long-termers no longer bother to invite her to hang out after work. She has no friends.

Cassie possesses a rare gift: self-knowledge. Her worth was tested, and she was found wanting. She knows that she’s a coward and will not inflict herself on others.

The spell Cassie prepares is powerful and dangerous, and her practical casting experience amounts to little more than the wards she sketched in the Free Zone, wards that the cops shattered with ease. This is a spell of undoing. Its purpose is to change one choice in the past, to allow one to take another path. Its utility is narrow. Some choices are too entwined with others, cannot be pulled apart. She could never hope to convince the other uncitizens to abandon the Free Zone or not to have found it. She could not convince them to flee before the cops arrive. But she hopes she can undo her own choice. She can stay to die with Kam and Scar, with Mel and Tanguay, and even Ravenna. What a blessing that would be.

The spell requires salt, fresh bread, fresher blood. She speaks the incantation, her lips curling around each syllable like a priceless treasure. In the darkness of her room, her mirror glows, her haggard eyes stare back at her. Not yet twenty-five and already she’s so tired. Smoke curls around her: the Powers are listening. Her mind claws back to the precise second when she was poised at the top of the stairs, teargas and floodlights making ghosts of the family that had taken her in, the moment when she had a choice when she fled. She beseeches the Powers to adjust the course of one life, just the smallest of tweaks, a betrayal born of panic: stay, Cassie, stay and face it.

Her sigil flares with energy. She holds her breath.

The past casts her aside, as effortless and impersonal as a storm tearing away deadwood. Understand: her choice is a historical fact. It will not be changed.

§

She bargains with a Witch of Fate for a consultation. This is the fee: twenty-one hours of labor; an oath to speak only the truth for one month; the dress she’d hidden from her father, who insisted she was a boy, and which she’d kept when she fled home for Kansas City and a world that had seemed filled with promise; and six seconds of her life.

The witch’s home is a split-level with curling siding, a lawn overgrown with dandelions. Cassie triple-checks the address to be sure she’s in the right place. The front door opens as she reaches for the bell.

“Doorbell doesn’t work,” the witch says and steps aside. He’s shorter than Cassie, shirtless, and so thin that his clavicles rise knifelike from his chest. Cassie watches him warily, but she tells herself if a Fate Witch means her harm then she cannot escape it. She steps inside, and only much later does she consider that he could have been a liar, a killer, even bait meant to catch those desperate enough to change fate.

She perches on a couch whose faded print shows sunflowers, windmills, abandoned farmhouses. He sits opposite her on a ragged rug.

“The price has been paid,” he intones. “The gods of fate listen. Tell them what you wish to know.”

Fear arrives at last, gnaws at her gut as she tries to force out the words.

“Out with it,” he demands. “You’re going to tell me, so you may as well save us both some time.”

His demand is beyond dangerous. She’s a fugitive. He could report her to the cops, the militias, even to HomeSec, that last functioning arm of the government out east. He could judge her, attack her, blackmail her.

More than that, her past is a wound. To tell him is to tear off the scab. She needs to describe the key moment, when she hesitated at the top of the stairs, glanced back through the gas. Floodlights pierced the room through dozens of holes in boarded-up windows The cops’ loudspeakers drowned out all other sounds. Her fellow uncitizens, friends, rivals, ex-lovers, reduced to dark shapes in the chaos. For a moment, she could have turned back, could have stood beside them and shared their fate.

She realizes there’s so much more that she can’t hope to communicate: the smell of fresh-turned earth in the rooftop garden as Mel showed her how to transplant the peppers from their pots to flourish in the spring heat. The security committee meeting where Ravenna argued that they had rats reporting back to the cops, and Kam said, Yes, of course, we do. That’s to be expected, and so we keep sensitive information on a need-to-know basis. How she assembled sandwiches for a hundred hungry utopians, shoulder-to-shoulder with Scar, which somehow led to them exploring each other’s bodies in the basement, a thick blanket draped over the rubble of the bolt holes they’d carved.

The scab tears away. Cassie sobs. These moments flood her thoughts, even their joys turned to ash.

The witch watches her, his eyes sympathetic. He is unmoving, except for the rise and fall of his chest.

“I was part of the Free Zone downtown,” she tells him at last. “Kam swore we could hold the cops off if we stuck together, but they tore through our wards, bashed in the walls—and I fled. When my family needed me most, I ran.” She has never told anyone this. The words twist in her. Bile rises in her throat.

“I just want to have stayed,” she says. To have faced it with the others, the community who had been so certain that they would change the world.

The witch stares upwards, his hands like withered branches extending toward the spiderweb-dusted ceiling. His lips don’t move. The voice that speaks from his chest is not his own.

“The events you speak of cannot be changed. The police called in another Witch of Fate, and she wove that event into the fabric of history. This vessel cannot unmake it, nor can the gods themselves. It is done.”

He sags, a marionette whose strings have gone slack. Cassie can’t find the air to scream. She staggers to her feet, and as she pulls the door open, he calls after her. He does, not the thing speaking from his chest.

“Fate is often cruel,” he says, “but always honest. I will you well.”

He lies supine on his ancient rug, and something like a massive worm writhes beneath his skin.

§

Cassie reads the same passage three times, certain she must be missing something. She’s barely slept. Since her encounter with the Witch of Fate, the dead infest her dreams, putting up barricades, planting gardens, purifying water, smoking weed, gathering supplies, going about their business unable to see the flesh rotting from bodies, sloughing off bleached skulls. The dreams are obvious, which does nothing to lessen their horror.

“That can’t be right,” Cassie mutters and regrets it at once.

“What’s that?” Samantha appears at her shoulder, eager to help.

“I’m trying to make sense of this passage. ‘Fate being the ultimate manifestation of the laws of reality, which are fixed and absolute, even though we perceive them but dimly, it must therefore be understood as the fixed point around which all magic and science orbits, and so we conclude that Fate is irresistible, the bulwark against which all else must adapt or shatter.’

“So if something is fated, all other magic is …” Cassie can’t quite bring herself to finish the sentence.

Samantha’s eyes are the color of the sea, or so Cassie guesses, having never been farther from home than Wichita. Her gaze is so gentle that Cassie wants to hide from it.

“That’s the Tula metaphysics book, right?” Samantha asks. “That’s what he argues, anyway.”

“He’s cited everywhere,” Cassie says quietly. “Everyone seems to agree.”

“It pains me to admit it”—Samantha pulls her hair back into a ponytail—“but there’s a strong pro-fate bias in texts on magic. I suspect it has something to do with the need to feel in control.”

“Then fate isn’t absolute?” Cassie hardly dares hope.

“I don’t know. But Tula’s view isn’t the only one. If you’re looking for another, I doubt you’ll find it in these books.”

Cassie shakes her head. “Wait. Why?”

“Because Witches of Chance don’t write books. Or if they do, they don’t publish them. Not that I’ve ever seen.”

“How do I find a Witch of Chance?” Cassie asks, unable to restrain herself.

“I don’t know if you can. But …” Samantha rifles through a drawer behind the counter, hands a small rectangular card to Cassie. The front side features a pair of dice, their roll changing as Cassie tries to read it. She flips the card over, expecting a witch’s personal sigil, but finds a handwritten phone number.

“Someone left this,” Samantha explains. “They said to give it to the next person who ‘wanted to reject fate.’”

“Thank you.” Cassie shakes, caught between hope and fear.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Samantha cautions. “I can’t promise this will lead you anywhere.”

§

“Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,” the Witch of Chance tells Cassie, who has finally found eir after months of seeking. Except “found” isn’t right. Three weeks ago Cassie abandoned her search only to encounter the witch on the hill where the World War I Museum slowly rots away. Before them, KC is strangely beautiful in twilight, the filthy water of the flooded areas sun-struck into silver and rouge. The city’s crumbling core seems to whisper tales of what once was.

“Yeah,” Cassie says, for the decay before them is immune to rebuttal. “I’ve had my fill of trouble. I could use the chance.”

The witch turns to regard her. E wears ragged jeans, a once-expensive top with silver swirls now stained with juice or dried blood. Eir arms are thick with bangles, cuffs, incomprehensible notes written in marker.

“The forces I commune with are powerful,” e says, “but they make few promises. Have you accepted at last how empty are the promises of order?”

Cassie stares across the city. Cop-lights flash, a blue and red tangle down on Main. When she’d fled into Free Zone’s basement, she’d heard the crack-crack-crack of gunfire above. The cops wore body armor, carried assault weapons. Yet still, she’d waited at the other end of the bolthole, waited what seemed like hours, waited even though by then ash fell like snow and the former Free Zone became a false sunset to the north.

“I’m learning,” Cassie says eventually. “But I still dream of setting things right. No. Less wrong.”

The witch considers this. “Your plans will fail, as will all plans, given enough time. Now tell me what you seek.”

This time the story comes slightly easier. Cassie tells em of the tangle in time, the Fate Witches, the hope that a knot that cannot be untangled can nevertheless be cut. She can’t bring herself to speak of the way Kam had insisted they could meet the challenge of the cops, protect the community they’d carved out from a half-block of abandoned buildings. Can we stop the pigs, Kam? We can if we stick together, if we hold the line. She doesn’t tell em how Kam was her dearest friend, how they knew things about Cassie that she never even shared with her lovers. How she’d fled from Kam’s side when they needed her most.

“You seek to break free of the bonds of fate?” the witch asks.

“I seek to be free of that fate,” Cassie says, reflexively honest.

“Fate is not to be accepted or rejected piecemeal,” the witch gently admonishes her. “Chance works in the margins, through those things that can’t be accounted for.”

Cassie waits for more. It isn’t forthcoming. “I don’t understand. Can you help me, or not?”

“You may think that you want chance to intervene, but there is no guarantee that you’ll prefer it to fate.”

“I’ll take that risk,” Cassie says. “Please.”

The witch tilts eir head to one side, considers, nods. “It is done.”

Nothing has changed.

“What? I don’t—”

“Chance has now—long ago—intervened on your behalf. The escape route you picked happened to be the one they hadn’t discovered. You are free despite fate’s attempts to ensnare you. You sought chance’s intervention, and so you live.”

When Cassie was young, she’d nearly drowned in a pond behind her aunt’s house. The pressure on her lungs, the slow, inexorable slide toward the darkness: she feels it all again, collapses to her knees. Breath won’t come. Her hands dig into broken concrete. Screams die in her throat.

The witch is gone. The air smells of fire. She retches until nothing but bile remains.

§

“It’s incomprehensible,” Cassie says, burying her head in her hands. The books on temporal magic are nightmarishly dense, filled with discussions of causality, entropy, quantum mechanics, and paracausal effects. Fate magic seems simple by comparison.

Like all the kids whose parents could scrape together internet access fees, Cassie had attended ‘Zon Secondary School, where the algorithm labeled her “bright but lacking in motivation.” She’d done okay when she cared enough to focus, and rote memorization was enough to avoid failing most classes. None of that had remotely prepared her for Three Theories on the Nature of Time, With Practical Implications for Spellcrafting.

“I’m lost too,” Samantha says. “Lowe says that time travel is impossible, but Cadigan documents people traveling forward in time—”

“Not backward, though.”

“Not from what I’ve seen,” Samantha admits. “But I’m far outside my expertise. We could take the problem to my coven.”

“You meet with other spellcasters?” Cassie was shocked. “How is that remotely safe? The cops …”

“We take lots of safeguards and don’t meet in person,” Samantha says. “One of the members is a Witch of Place.”

The ever-present knot in Cassie’s gut constricts. A coven. More people, more connections, more help she doesn’t deserve, more chances for her to do harm, to lose everything. Again.

“I shouldn’t.” Cassie feels compelled to offer an explanation. “I can’t … with groups.” A truth that conceals a deeper one.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

How would she? Cassie isn’t the sharing type. Not anymore.

“No worries,” is all Cassie can manage. She stares at the book, afraid to meet the clerk’s eyes.

“I can ask them, if you want.” Samantha’s voice is barely a whisper. A long pause.

“That would be very helpful,” Cassie admits.

“I’ll check with them at our next meeting. How can I reach you?”

Cassie sketches her personal rune, slides it to Samantha.

“I’m Cassie,” she says, forgetting herself. “She/her.”

“I’m she/her, too.” Samantha’s smile dazzles.

“I know.” Cassie points at that daring, dangerous pin, and Samantha laughs.

“Oh, right.”

“Um, thanks again,” Cassie says. “Look, I … I need to go.”

She hurries from the shop, cursing herself for one more entanglement, one more betrayal of the promises she’d made to herself, for how she’d thrilled when she made Samantha smile.

§

The coven can’t make sense of temporal magic, but one of them knows someone who can.

The Witch of Time’s price is high. Cassie saves for months to meet it, picking up work on the side imbuing marbles with spells to find lost things. A simple trick, really—just a nudge to help someone recall where they last put the object they seek. It could draw the cops’ attention, but that’s a risk she must take. Lately, she can’t stop thinking about the Free Zone, and every memory is barbed, even the good ones. Especially the good ones. Nausea seizes her whenever she thinks of the community mural, forever unfinished, its tribute to the lost and utopian dreams melted away in the conflagration.

She’d imagined the witch as a crone, but when they meet, she’s in her thirties. Or so Cassie guesses; the witch’s skin is flawless, but there are laugh lines around her eyes and her hands tighten involuntarily, the way Cassie’s grandmother’s did, toward the end.

“You can’t change the past,” the witch says. She wears a bowler hat and an immaculate pinstripe suit, not a trace of chalk on it despite kneeling to inscribe elaborate equations on the abandoned warehouse’s stone floor. “What’s done is done.”

Cassie has heard this before, has come to this witch because she has heard other things as well. “You took my money—”

“The flow of history can’t be changed,” the witch interrupts. “It’s like a river, and like a river, it shifts over time, but trying to change its course through magic … well, you might as well stand midstream and command it to stop.”

She stands, tucks the chalk away, then deliberately wipes her hands clean.

“Then what can you do?” Cassie has waited so long. Her patience nears its end.

“It’s possible to pluck someone from the stream, like catching a fish, and bring them forward, bring them here.”

“You can bring them back to life?” Cassie has heard rumors but hadn’t dared believe.

“No,” the witch says. “Or, anyway, not precisely. I pluck them from a moment in their life, and then they continue on from there.”

“You can save them,” Cassie says, hardly daring to believe it.

“I can bring someone forward,” the witch corrects her. “One person. Anything more is too large a disruption.”

Cassie knows who she’ll choose, knows it even amidst the guilt of the others she’s condemning to die, or to stay dead. It has to be Kam. The uncitizens had no bosses, no rulers, but there were those whose vision and drive others respected. Everyone admired Kam, listened to them when they spoke. Cassie’s best friend, who’d sourced her estrogen, on whose shoulder she’d cried, who always insisted Cassie had saved their life when she’d chased off that creep with a knife and a hungry grin.

Kam, who Cassie had seen at the very end, astride the barricade, plastic-and-plywood shield in one hand, bat in the other, who she was sure kept shouting encouragement through their gas mask, even though the cops’ loudspeakers drowned out all words. That image of Kam is seared into Cassie’s mind. It had almost, almost, stopped her from fleeing.

Then the cops battered down the wall and stormed through the gap. There’d been so many of them, black-masked, armored and armed, magic surging around them, and Cassie ran. After that, there was nothing but regret.

Oh, to see Kam’s face again. To know they were alive, even though they’d never forgive her once they learned what she’d done, that she’d abandoned them, then magically rescued them from the doom of the Free Zone, kept them alive by forcing them to abandon their post. Cassie deserved nothing less, and Kam deserved so much more than they’d received.

Why, then, this dread that compelled her to ask more questions?

“If you can do this, if you can save lives this way”—Cassie ignored the witch’s shaking head—“why isn’t everyone coming to you for this?”

The witch smiles without warmth. “You’re wise to ask. Our bodies, our minds—they are situated in time. If you pull someone free, they become … detached. They lack some drive, some motive force.”

“You mean they’re lazy?” Cassie is incredulous.

“Not at all. They are … without. They drift. Pain and pleasure don’t move them. They want nothing. They’re only acted upon.”

Cassie shudders. The witch’s ageless eyes are fixed upon her.

“This … always happens?”

The faintest of motions in the witch’s shoulders, as similar to a shrug as a whisper is to a shout. “Some are able to … attach themselves again. Eventually. Most do not. In many cases, they will not even feed themselves.”

Cassie had braced herself against being told it was impossible, against Kam’s inevitable hatred of her, against even the violation of Kam’s freedom that such a spell would require. But she is not prepared for this.

“The other way, then,” she says at last. “Send me back into the stream—let me put things right.” Let me die with them.

“The stream flows only one way, even for a Witch of Time. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Cassie cannot save the others, nor can she return to join them in death. She cannot bring herself to see Kam reduced to someone adrift, without desire.

She will always and forever be the one who fled. That is her fate, she thinks bitterly, ever since she’d been forced to live as a boy, before she’d run away and joined with something bigger than herself, allowed herself to believe in the future her community was creating. She’d been forged strong but brittle, a blade that shatters when battle is joined.

Her father had often called her a coward, for her unwillingness to slaughter chickens, for refusing to stand up to bullies, for cringing from his raised voice. He’d been wrong about almost everything; he’d been right about that.

That thought breaks her again: she became—or always had been—exactly who he claimed she was.

§

There is no Witch of Memory in Kansas City, nor anywhere close. She hears rumors of one in St. Louis, which may as well be on the moon, for all the chance she has of getting there. Even if she could somehow barter for transport, or hitchhike, or try to hop one of the driverless big-rigs that rage across the highways like one hundred-ton bullets, for a trans woman to risk that crossing would be suicidal, and Cassie isn’t brave enough for that.

She has no choice but to return to her studies, learning the magic of memory, if only for long enough to make herself forget. More cowardice, but she cannot bring herself to die, cannot live with her guilt.

§

“Hey, Cassie. How was the Atlas?” Samantha’s wearing a cute A-line dress that features cats sitting atop open books.

“If I wanted to send something to Azeb, I could do it,” Cassie says. That land of lost things only takes and never gives. It cannot help her. “But it was useless for my needs.”

Samantha’s crestfallen. The book had been her recommendation, Cassie remembers. Too late.

“I’m sorry,” the clerk says. “It has so much about memories of lost places, I thought …” She turns away, tears in her eyes.

Cassie hates herself, hates that casual cruelty. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean— I know you were only doing your job.” Samantha loves her work, but Cassie knows she’s been doing far more than her job. “I shouldn’t have asked you for help.”

“But I want to help.” The clerk wipes her eyes. “It’s just … I’ve never met someone as driven as you. Then you stopped coming around, and I thought you’d been killed or, or … disappeared. Because I couldn’t imagine you’d given up. And then when you came back, I could see how badly you needed whatever you’re seeking, and I thought, I have to help her.”

“You’ve been a huge help,” Cassie says, because there is so much more she doesn’t know how to say.

“I’ll stay out of your way, unless you need me.” Samantha crimsons, steps behind the desk, busies herself with a pile of books.

“The thing with the Atlas was my fault,” Cassie admits. “I didn’t tell you what I really needed.” She can’t quite do so. If she says she wants to forget, that invites questions. “I’m searching for a way to gain control of one’s own memories.”

“Hmmm.” Samantha concentrates, her tongue peeking out of one corner of her lips. She darts to the practical spellcasting section, scans for something, returns. “You’re already past the materials we have here. But I think the coven might be able to source the books you need. I bet you could borrow them.”

“That would be wonderful,” Cassie admits.

“Great,” Samantha’s smile is heartbreaking. “I’ll be in touch.” For a moment, Cassie is sure she’s going to again ask if she wants to sit in with the coven, but she doesn’t.

Samantha has always respected Cassie’s boundaries, which means Cassie has no one but herself to blame for this tangle of feelings.

§

Memory is an ever-changing labyrinth. Cassie can’t forget how she made Janice Chu cry when they were eight and goofing around on the playground behind what used to be the Randolph School. She recalls every detail of that time she sat in the window well of her childhood room and heard a voice, crystalline and perfect, singing a tune in a language she didn’t recognize. Even now she wishes she’d run after the singer, if only to behold the face that made such beautiful music. She remembers the nights when the uncitizens gathered ‘round Tanguay’s electric keyboard, passing a joint and clumsily harmonizing.

But she can’t remember the name of her first crush, nor the promises she made to herself when she left home. Though she has spent hours thinking about the community mural, there are whole sections forever effaced. She has long since forgotten the color of her mother’s eyes, the sound of her laugh.

So much lost, and yet she cannot forget her cowardice, her betrayal. She prepares her spell, hoping it will be the last one she ever casts. She’s covered the stone walls of the shop’s backroom with writing. Her chalk-dusted hand cramps, and behind her eyes a headache taps an angry drumbeat on her skull. Some of the writing consists of spell components, guideposts to tell the magic what to take and what to leave behind, but the rest is her retelling of her flight from the Free Zone. Extracting details from the mind’s tangled passageways is delicate work, and more so for a memory as knotted and worried-at as her flight. If she isn’t careful, she may tear her memories all the way back to the root, leaving herself tabula rasa, a husk.

Even that would be an improvement.

She has just finished double-checking her work when there is a knock at the storeroom door. Samantha, holding a glass of water.

“My mother always said proper hydration is essential to magic.” She smiles, presents the glass like an offering.

“Thank you.” The script on the walls is small enough that Cassie doesn’t think anyone could read it from the doorway, but she positions herself in Samantha’s sightline to be sure. She takes a sip to reassure Samantha. The water is cool and welcome, and she quickly drains the glass. The pounding behind her eyes eases a little.

“I’m not going to spy on you.” Samantha can’t quite hide the hurt in her voice.

“I didn’t think—”

“You did, and that’s okay,” Samantha says. “I get it. You never asked for me to be involved in your life.” She is far too kind to point out that Cassie could never have performed this spell on her own, without the help of Samantha’s coven, without the networked expertise of witches, without her research and gentle, patient support. So many kindnesses Cassie doesn’t deserve.

“Thank you for the water,” Cassie hesitates, then adds, “and for all your help. I could—I could never have done it without a Witch of Research like you.”

To her surprise, Samantha grins. “They used to call us librarians,” she says. “Back when there were libraries.”

Cassie staggers like a fighter blindsided by a punch, feels herself swaying, falling …

Samantha lunges, tries to catch her. The glass drops to the floor, shatters. The two women collapse.

“Cassie, are you okay?”

Only then does Cassie realize she is sobbing. She’d forgotten about the Free Zone’s library, the wealth of books and zines that must have burned in the fire, many of them perhaps the only copies that had ever existed. Her mind has been gnawing on memories of the Free Zone like a dog claiming every scrap of marrow from a bone, and yet somehow, she’d forgotten that.

Samantha’s arms enfold her, and Cassie sobs against her shoulder, surrounded by the scope of her loss. When she finally breathes again, the whole story spills out unbidden. It will not be kept in one moment longer, not just the escape but the way a community had saved her when she was living on the street, stealing razors and debating whether to shave or turn them on her wrists; the work of building the Free Zone, with all its triumphs and disasters, devoted community members and predators seeking to exploit them; the growing police pressure culminating in the worst moments of her life; and her flight.

“Gods, Cassie, that’s horrible. I’m so sorry.”

Cassie stares at her hands. “I didn’t want you to know—to know I’m a coward.”

“What? I don’t think—oh. You wish you’d died there.” It isn’t a question.

“I should have. I abandoned them at the moment they needed me most.”

A long silence.

“I thought everyone in the Free Zone died,” Samantha says at last. “The cops said an anarchist firebomb detonated early, killed everyone inside.”

“Cops lie.”

“I know that.” Samantha’s tone is all restraint and patience. “But you’re the only witness left.”

Cassie recoils. “And you think, what? That I should tell my story and then everyone will wise up to what the cops have done and turn on them and we all sing protest songs around the campfire?”

“Please please please don’t treat me like a fool.” Samantha pinches the bridge of her nose. “I’m not as naive as you think. I know you’re trying to forget.”

“I’m sorry, Samantha. I don’t think you’re a fool,” Cassie knows she owes an explanation. “Fuck. I tried so hard to fix it, and I can’t. It can’t be fixed, not ever, and I just need to forget.” She slams her hand to the ground, cries out in pain. When she lifts it away, she leaves a streak of blood behind. A sliver of glass digs into her palm.

Samantha cradles her hand. “We can’t have uncontrolled blood during spell prep,” she says and helps Cassie up.

In the shop’s tiny restroom, she cleans and bandages the wound, insists Cassie stay put while she cleans up the spill. She’s finishing up as Cassie emerges.

“You must hate me,” Cassie says, hands stuffed in her back pockets.

“Why would I hate you?” Samantha dumps the shards of glass into the trash.

“Because I’m a coward.”

“I don’t think you’re a coward, Cassie. I don’t think it was wrong to run, and I don’t think it was wrong to stay.” She pulls her hands through her hair. “You made a choice under enormous pressure. I wish you could forgive yourself.”

“Best I can hope for is to forget.” Cassie glimpses rage cross Samantha’s features. It’s there only for a moment, the contortion, the overwhelming pressure of it, but Cassie knows what she saw. “Why … Oh.” Of course, a librarian would hate her plan. “If you knew what I was doing, why did you help me? I know it goes against your … your values.”

Samantha sags and sits on the floor between overflowing bookshelves. “Because you needed help, and that’s what I do. Because …” She shakes her head and doesn’t continue the thought. 

“I’m not worth caring about,” Cassie sags to the ground opposite Samantha. “It just ends badly for everyone.”

“For gods’ sakes. You are.” She talks over Cassie’s objection. “And so is the Free Zone. So are the people who died.” She leans forward, puts her hand atop Cassie’s.

Cassie yanks her hand away like it’s been burned. “No no no no no! You can’t ask me to carry all that. I’m the worst person to do it. And don’t you dare say that I’m the only one who can—”

“Never! No one should have to carry that alone, Cassie. Not even a Witch of Memory like you.”

§

The pain does not depart. Cassie’s trauma is part of her. She is broken, now and forever.

But broken is not useless.

“They have a copy of The Anarchists’ Annotated Histories in Minneapolis,” Samantha announces, her smile almost as welcome as her news.

“That’s amazing!” Cassie grins back, sets aside the marble she’s been working with. “How is that possible?”

“Are you ready for this? They’ve got explorers there, search parties that go to Azeb, Tlön, Cimmeria. They’re gathering lost things, Cassie.”

She hurries to the wall of their little apartment, to the list of titles from the KC Free Zone Library, and places a checkmark next to Histories. She’s found almost a third of them now.

“How’s your project going?” Samantha asks, and Cassie hands her a marble. An unremarkable sphere of swirling blues and silvers, Samantha’s own variation on one of the first spells she learned. It’s nothing special until activated.

Samantha is suitably impressed.

They take a break from work, share a meal, and then Cassie reads to Samantha until the librarian falls asleep. She’s a better roommate than Cassie could have hoped for, not least because, while she wants to be more than roommates, she’s content to wait until Cassie trusts herself.

Cassie palms a marble, remembers standing at the top of the stairs, the tear gas and the hum of gathering magic. It will always be with her, the terror as the wall caved in, the panic of her escape, the mantle of loss draped over her shoulders. A Witch of Memory can no more forget these things than she can forget to breathe.

She returns to her work. She can’t forget and no longer wishes to. Because the uncitizens dreamed of a better world, and for a short, precious while, it was real, as flawed and small and divided as it was. Real. And the only way it might be real again is if people remember, if they learn from it, if they keep that hope alive, along with the hope of so many other dreams.

Cassie can’t be the Keeper of the Past. No one can be. Barricades can be torn down, strongholds defeated, security compromised, cells rooted out, dreamers and radicals locked away, leaders assassinated. Cops will spy, captives will turn on their friends. Utopia means no place.

The revolution can’t be anywhere; therefore, it must be everywhere.

Thus, she’s enchanted the marbles to hold only true memories so that Witches of Place can distribute them to anyone ready to hear and to share, to thousands or tens of thousands of people across the globe, the ones who still believe in something better, who are never as alone as they fear. A community without bosses, without hierarchies, without commands, with only a shared purpose: to bear the past, and thus create the future. Cassie lifts a marble to the light, feels the memory it holds: Kam, shield raised high, urging them all on. An unchangeable fact, a fixed history. But its meaning? That’s a story Cassie is still writing. So are Samantha, the witches, and the utopians. So are you and I.

© Izzy Wasserstein

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