Your Own Undoing

January 19, 2021

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P H Lee lives on top of an old walnut tree, past a thicket of roses, down a dead-end street at the edge of town. Their work has appeared in many venues including Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Magazine. From time to time, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two in the morning, for no reason other than that they want to.

Content Warning(s):
Blood/Gore, Self-harm and suicide, Violence

While you’re washing the floors (he does love to make you wash the floors, doesn’t he?) down on your hands and knees with cold, soapy water soaking your pants, I come to you in the form of a gray-striped cat.  

You look at me and you don’t recognize me.  

It hurts that you don’t recognize me, your own familiar that you made from a part of your own soul, but there are more important things for us to deal with right now. I push through the hurt and speak to you, saying, “This is not a story you are reading. This is actually happening, and it’s actually happening to you.”  

You don’t believe me. You probably think that me speaking to you is just a narrative device. Regardless, you go right on washing the floors like he told you to this morning.  

You think that you’re reading a story, that you’re not actually down on your hands and knees, washing the floors like a servant in your own academy-by-the-sea. You’re imagining that there’s an entire world out there, a whole life full of cars and taxes and international commodities markets and who-knows-what else.  

But there isn’t. That whole world, that whole life, is an illusion.  

This is real.  

This is not a story. This is a curse.  

§

At night, while you are standing up in a closet not sleeping (you don’t sleep anymore), just standing up in a closet like a disused mop, I come to you in the form of a housefly.  

You look at me and you recognize me from the last scene. It still hurts me that you don’t remember, but at least it’s a start.  

I land inside your ear, my forelegs dipping into your earwax, and whisper to you, telling  you what happened. Because you imagine that this is a story you are reading, I tell it to you as if it were a story.  

Once upon a time, you were a scholar and a sorcerer. People came from each and every land to wait at the hundred steps of your academy-by-the-sea, to pay or promise or beg to study with you, even for an hour, even for a day. Most of them left disappointed, back to their petty tricks as conjurers and illusionists. You would choose a lucky few—and how you loved to choose!—to take as your students, to train in names and numbers, in magnets and multitudes, in all the subtle forces of the world. Years later, they would go out from your academy-by-the-sea as great sorcerers, becoming heroes or tyrants or sages, famous or infamous, but always your disciples, spreading further, always further, the glory of your name.  

He was there one day, among all the other hopefuls on the hundred steps of your academy. He was poor and scared and young and hungry. Did you first notice him because he was beautiful? Or did you already see his power, boiling thick like tar inside of his heart? I cannot say, and I dare not guess, even though I am a part of your own soul. But I do know this: You stopped and looked at him. Then he met your eyes and your whole body shuddered.  

You asked his name.  

“I don’t have a name.”  

You welcomed him and you named him Shazhiji and he bowed his beautiful head and he smiled.  

Did you know, even then, how dangerous he was? You must have seen at least a hint of it. But you took him as your student anyway. Did you think that you could contain his power? Did you think that you could master it? Or did you convince yourself that it did not matter, because he was young, because he was untrained, because he was beautiful?  

Only you know the answers to these questions. Even I, a part of your own soul, cannot answer them for you. But I suppose that it does not matter now. You took him in, you took him as your student, you trained him and guided him and gave him every answer to your own undoing.  

§

While you are washing his students’ dishes, your arms deep in scalding water, hands chapped and red and raw from the rough brushes and rougher soaps, I come to you in the form of a black and white rat.  

It was hard for him to get you to wash the dishes. Washing dishes is complicated and boring, both of which present unique difficulties to his particular holds over you. Because you will only do as you were told, a complicated process requires him to give you a very specific set of nested instructions. Often, he lacks the patience to formulate your instructions correctly, and you’re left alone for hours, motionless, dishes undone, your arms cooking in the water.  

But as bad as the complexity is, the boredom is worse. Because you think that this is just a story you are reading, if it gets boring, you’ll just skip ahead. When you do skip ahead in the story, your entire body goes limp and falls on to the floor along with any dishes you were holding.  

Still, despite these problems, he makes you wash the students’ dishes every night. You break a lot of bowls, and you have the cuts to show for it.  

“Who are you?” you ask me. You recognize me easily now. “Why do you keep insisting this isn’t a story?”  

“Because it isn’t,” I say. “Because it is a curse.”  

“I don’t know what that means,” you say, as I run along your shoulder and hide in the armpit of your shirt.  

“I’ll tell you,” I say. I still remember your magic.  

You cannot control someone’s mind with magic. This is not because of any particular law or because of any romantic capacity of the soul. It is simply rooted in the relationship of magic with the physical world.  

You can control a living body with magic. But you cannot control it well. Bodies are subtle things and not at all suited to the gross motions of a magic spell. If you move a body with magic, you will sprain its ligaments, break its bones, bruise its muscles and bleed its veins. Perhaps you care about this, perhaps you do not, but regardless, it is true.  

The brain is, of course, simply a hunk of water and meat, as prone to magic as anything else. But a brain is even more subtle than a body. Try to force it with magic, and all you’ll do is cause a stroke or, if your control is particularly precise and subtle, a seizure.  

All of these techniques are largely useless for any degree of subtlety or control. Better, and easier, to animate the dead, or the cold waters, or a pile of stones. Better still to study prophecy or will or fireworking—skills that any wizard might need.  

You told him this—Shazhiji—when he came to you in that early purple evening with his beautiful body and said that he wanted to learn to control minds. You told him this, all clearly, each part each, explaining when he did not understand. Did you know, then, that you were only teaching him your weaknesses? Did you still think that, because you named him your student, his power was yours to control?  

“Still,” he said. “Still I want to learn.”  

Because he was beautiful, you did not deny him. Because he was beautiful, you let him study whatever he wanted. Because he was beautiful, you sowed in him the seeds of your own undoing.  

§

While you are on your knees, eyes streaming tears, bowing at the foot of his great seat, when he has long since left, and it is the middle of the night and still you knock your head, again and again, the impact ringing through your skull with each “I’m sorry,” I came to you in the form of a guardian dog.  

“That is your seat,” I say. “You carved it with a word from a single block of granite.”  

“I’m sorry,” you say, but you have nothing to apologize for.  

I lick your face, but you don’t stop. Why should you stop? To you, this is only a story you are reading.  

“Do you remember me now?” I ask, although I know that you do not. “Do you remember the familiar you grew from the seed of your own soul?”  

“I’m sorry,” you say, and knock your head again.  

“Don’t be sorry,” I say. “I still remember, and I am a part of you, just as you are a part of me.”  

“I’m sorry,” but I’ve already begun.  

There was no academy-by-sea when you first came here, young and hungry and mourning. There were no hundred steps, no great white doors, no towers, no libraries hidden or overt. There was simply a cruel old woman who everyone hated, living alone with her magic on the cliffs-beside-the-sea. But she saw you and, even starving, even untrained, even half-mad with grief, she saw your power and craved it for her own.  

I will not tell you what she did to you, then, when you did not have the power to fight back. Your life—this story—is miserable enough without it. But one day by the sea you found a smooth round stone. You held it and you felt the weight of the sea inside it and it seemed to you as small as a world and as large as alone. You wanted to take it back with you, to have it but more to have something that wasn’t hers, that was yours, that she could not demand and could not destroy.  

But as soon as you had the thought, you knew that she would never allow you to have anything, even something as simple as a stone. You knew, so you hid your stone in a sea cave, and every night when the sky was at its thickest you would pick your way down the cliffs to the cave and hold the stone in your hands and tell it all your secrets and cry it all your tears. You would tell it about your family, about the sins you’d done unknowing, about the anger of her fists and the chill of her hand across your back in the middle of the night.  

You didn’t realize it, but I was already growing then, out of all those bits of your soul too jagged for you to hold. I grew and grew until that stone my egg was too small to hold me, until one night you came down, and instead of your familiar stone, there was me, your familiar, amidst the broken rocks in the form of a sand crab. You knew me right away. You laughed, and I scuttled up your leg and across your shoulders, and we danced like that, me a crab and you still a child, until the moon had sunk beneath the edge of the sea.  

You did not know, then, nor did I, that we already held the key to our liberation. That I was a part of you, your familiar, a part of you deeper than your body, deeper than your power, deeper even than the name she gave you. I am the part of you that she could never break.  

§

When I come to you in the form of a night bird, you are alone in the round room on top of the tower, with the window that looks out over the ocean, breaking your own fingers, one at a time. He told you to do it, of course. Whether he was angry at some imagined slight or simply cruel, I cannot say. Right now, you are holding your left index finger in between the thumb and forefinger of your right hand. Your pointer and middle fingers are already broken. Your pointer finger has swollen black and purple, and your middle finger, still red, is on its way.  

We are alone in the room. At first, he was with you. He thought that it would be exciting to watch you break your own fingers. But after you broke your left pointer finger, he gasped, and threw up, and ran out of the room.  

But he told you that you were breaking your fingers, one at a time. So you are breaking your fingers, one at a time.  

I cry out to you, but you don’t respond. You press harder, as hard as you can. The middle joint of your left index finger gives way with a sharp, wet noise. It is extraordinarily painful, but worse than that, it feels wrong, nauseous, some thing out of place. Your own body. Your own body. You take a moment to lean to the side and vomit onto the floor.  

You don’t mind, though, because you imagine that this isn’t really happening to you. You imagine that this is a story you are reading. It isn’t.  

“You have to stop this,” I tell you. “Someday soon he will have learned all he can from you. He will grow tired of torturing you. And when that happens, unless you stop this, he’s going to kill you.”  

“It doesn’t matter,” you tell me, gripping your left pinky finger. “This is just a story that I’m reading. It’s already halfway done. And then I’ll finish it, and I’ll never have to think about it again.”  

“You need to understand,” I say, but you don’t understand. The lower joint of your left pinky gives way, and you hold the upper two joints in your hand. You can feel the bone grating against itself in a series of sharp pain pain pain. One part against another.

Your own body.  

You look down at your fingers at odd angles, your ruined hand, swelling through purple into black. You look at me.  

“How did this happen?” you ask, and I tell you.  

In the middle of a black night Shazhiji came to you. You opened your door for him, of course you did, to look at his beautiful face in the light of your old lamp wick.  

“I have found it,” he said, his face grinning, wild like a mountain cat is fierce. He had not slept, his hair plastered all down with summer sweat, all excited shakes, but still beautiful, still.  

“You’ve found what?” you asked. When you took his face in your hand to calm him, he stopped.  

“I will tell you,” he said. “I will tell you a story.”  

Master, he began, you were right. I spent months searching through all the libraries—yes, even the ones you think you’ve hidden from us—in your academy-by-the-sea, reading motion and physic and all manner of neuromancy, and there was nothing. A brain is a brain, whatever electric within it thinks and feels and knows is all well beyond the knowing of greater mages than you or even I.  

You should have known then. You should have stopped him. But it was already too late.  

Still, he continued, the problem ate at me. What matters a sorcerer if not for power? And what matters power if not the mastery of other men? To gain even a respect, to gain even a mastery, that is the work of a lifetime, and most lifetimes insufficient to even that. So much better—yes?—if they can be mine to take.  

Conquered by my failures, I took to wandering long days outside the academy-by-the-sea, and in those wanderings I came across an illusionist, working his cinemas in that parliament of hovels that passes for a village beneath the academy-by-the-sea. All around him, children crowded—and men and women too, I’m sure—each one enraptured by the sound and the fury. As I watched them, it occurred to me that they were very much ensorcelled, and not by the naive illusion, but instead by the story of it. They were not confused, but they thought it real nonetheless, because they wanted it to be.  

This is not the power of illusion, although illusion is its media. This is the power of want. This is the power of a story. 

He paused and met your eyes, and your whole body shuddered.  

But that, he concluded, is not quite the whole of it. The trick is an illusion, yes—to think that mere illusion was the key!—but the illusion is not the story. No, the illusion is everything that is not the story.  

Because you think this is a story, you will do just as it says. Because it is only a story. Because you have decided that it does not matter, and that is what matters most of all.  

Look, even now: You think that this is a narrative device when it is, in truth, a cage that binds you whole.  

By the time you knew it, it was already too late. You were lost in that first moment, when he began his story and held you within it.  

“Get down on your knees,” he said, “and beg for my forgiveness.”  

You got down on your knees, nightgown riding up, stones pressing hard and sharp against your knees. You hit your forehand on the rock, again and again. You begged for his forgiveness.  

“I do not forgive you,” he said, his right foot pressing just beneath your skull, “and I will never call you Master again.”  

§

When you are already halfway in the water, when the waves and ice lap against your shins and knees, I come to you in the form of a great white bear.  

“Stop,” I say.  

This morning, he told you to walk into the sea.  

You keep walking, dragging your broken body slow step by slow step. You look down at your hands, black and cracked. There’s the smell of salt and gangrene.  

I push my snout against you. You try to walk around me, but you’re too weak to think. You fall face-first onto the wet rocks. I nose you over so you don’t drown in the salt sea or the blood of your broken nose.  

I speak to you, and I tell you what you must do.  

You must look at yourself, I say, you must look at your hands and your face and your pride and your entire self.  

“I don’t want to do that,” you begin to say, but you choke on blood and bile in your throat.  

Because I am a part of you, though, I know what you were going to say. “I don’t want to do that,” you were going to say, “because this is just a story that I’m reading, and besides, it’s almost over. Why should I think about myself? Why should I think about what’s happened to me, about my hands and my face and my pride and my entire self?”  

You must think about it, I say, because when you do, you will realize what has happened. You will realize what he’s done to you. Still, trapped, you will take a step forward, and then another.  

But then you will feel, again, within you, the roots of your power, even now, waist deep in ice and brine. You will plunge your hands into the water, drawing the very life of the sea where your ancestors lived before the dawn of time, when the waters of heaven and earth were undivided. You will call the brine to you as blood, and guided by all your names and all your knowings, by the whole of your magic, your hands will knit themselves together, will return that rot to the sea and take in exchange all life and strength and power. You will squeeze your hands shut, and then, laughing, you will splash yourself with the water and rub the ice along your body, all shocked and real and true, the wounds closing behind them, your face, let the tide take all the bruises and your broken body and your broken mind.  

You will stand, then, your full height and call to you all your names and servants, magnetics and electrics, and you will stride forth from the sea in the fullness of your power, towards your academy-by-the-sea, to find it waiting for you, oh yes, your academy-by-the-sea has been waiting for you, despairing for you, mourning for you. Hark! How the crowds part before you, the master. Hark! How the great white doors open at your slightest touch. Hark! How the students he corrupted cower at your mighty name. Hark! Your academy-by-the sea will be yours once more, as it always was and ever shall.  

You will go, then, to where he holds court of toadies and apprentices; you will stand before him, still dripping from the sea, whole and unbent, no story to trap you now, all ablaze with your own name. Even then he will, surely, draw up his power against you, for he has learned from you all these months of his domination, all the secrets you held yourself and all the names you never spoke, for fear you might be overthrown. He has power, yes he has power, but this will not be a duel of sorcerers.  

Instead of all the spells, instead of all the incantations, you will instead reach out, looking at his face, wondering how you ever found it beautiful. You will reach out, with your whole and perfect hands, and you will take hold of his name, Shazhiji, the name you gave him, and in front of all his apprentices, right before the fullness of his power, you will break his name to powder at your touch.  

After that, it will not matter. After that, he will already be lost, not only to you, who was his master but the magic and time and history and anything of note. No more will be the glory of his name. No more will be the treacheries he told.  

You will do all that. You will do all that and you will do so much more, the rest of your magic and life and time. You will do all that, but only if you  

Stop reading this story. You must stop reading this story. To defeat him, to save yourself, you must stop reading, right now, and turn away. This story will not save you. It contains only your undoing.  

To defeat him, to save yourself, you must write your own ending.  

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© P H Lee

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