"In the oldest legends, there is a continent attached to the
. The continent is vast and varied, stretching from the Island of California Arctic to the Antarctic, with all the known languages and geographies and weathers of the world laid out upon it. Other stories say that this continent sank without a trace because of an incredibly powerful earthquake. "
The electricity failed first, though not all at once. At first it was just breakers snapping and fuses blowing. Then the television and radio reception became unreliable. Newspapers ran articles about the power dropping, as if it were leaking out of the wires instead of powering the broadcast towers.
Then the computers went and people began to drift and congregate and talk. It was as if they couldn't stand the quiet and the disconnection and so sought out other people to fill the sound and information void. People would gather in drifts on street corners or in shops or on the lawns in front of schools and libraries. Stories passed from lips to ears, some of them foolish and unreasonable; but all of them welcome. And how could there be an explanation for electricity just not working.
Steady talkers and gossips, the kind who could simply not stay quiet, were welcomed, now, rather than avoided. Some of them started walking regular rounds, accepting coffee and soda and sandwiches and soup, accepting sweaters and Tupperware and batteries. For batteries kept working for awhile, while large appliances began to slow.
People gathered and they were scared. How do you live a decent life with no refrigeration? A person can live without television, can live without a dishwasher. But how can we manage when even the stores can't keep meat fresh? Tragic things happened in areas where the stories that spread were about treason and attack.
Among the disconnected towns, a small town named
invited herds of sheep and their keepers into town, to graze in any front lawn or median or park or lot. People began keeping rabbits and chickens and planting beans for drying. With the sheep came several old women, who talked to the women as they traveled through the town. Davenport
Among the disconnected towns, a small town named
"What will happen when the drug factories have no electricity? Will birth control be a priority? Do you know what the world is like when womenandchildren is one word? Are you making plans?"
Then the batteries began to fail and the first oddities began to appear. One oddity was that cars and vans began to fail in their operation. Even when they were rolled to start, leaving the battery out of consideration, they still limped slower and slower until finally they would not work at all. Pickup trucks, however, worked even when the batteries were taken out of them.
It wasn't the birth control pills that were gone first, though. It was the pills for arthritis and the second kind of diabetes. Seemed like everyone was taking those and once they were labeled non-critical, they ran out fast. But that was all right. By then the prayers of certain folk had started to ease pains, sugar was becoming hard to come by, and flour was only cheap if you milled it yourself. Most folks had more greens than meat and more than enough exercise to keep their blood sugar low.
Government was limping along on borrowed typewriters and bicycle messengers and traveling coordinators. Mail had to be hand sorted. Property taxes were suspended for the duration of the emergency. Banking froze. Bartering swelled.
In the parks of
, women met and prayed, telling their families they were learning to spin. Enough spinning was done to keep it from being a lie. This seemed like a harmless, if possibly useless, endeavor until the spinning and the praying combined into prophecy and the prophecy frightened them all. When the words had died and the spindles dropped, the women looked at each other, looking to see if any of them would panic or crack. Davenport
But each woman met the eyes of women who had wrung the necks of live chickens to feed her family, met the eyes of women whose fingers bled from weeding and hoeing and grinding. Those eyes were steady.
So. The land was going to fail in two weeks. They were going to fail with it if it couldn't be stopped. The best remedy for that would be to find a way to stop it. The prophecy would have to be explored. The men couldn't help with that, though they could help with the children and the chores. The men couldn't help because the prophecy came with prayer and spinning and menstruation.
It would be best if the men didn't know. The men weren't dealing well with not being able to fix the problems of the land. Best to tell them that they had found a bit of magic that might keep meat, if they could just work on it for two weeks with no interruptions.
Daphne walked down the dirt shoulder of an old road. Once, she had heard, asphalt had been black and smooth. But every road she had ever seen had been like this one: grey and cracked. Alligatored, they called it. She didn't know why. If anything, it looked dappled to her. Perhaps that was because she had never seen an alligator, but had seen several dappled horses, both grey ones and buff ones.
She wasn't thinking about much except obeying her mother's order to walk and lead the curse away from her sister. It was something she was willing to do. Her mother couldn't understand that, though, and so she had cursed Daphne into the walking. Daphne didn't think of it as a curse. It felt more like a reminder. Daphne loved her sister, Chara, and her nephew, Rennar. Her mother hadn't been expecting that and therefore couldn’t see it.
So Daphne walked, and enemies followed her. That was one of the problems with being a lineage witch. Competition lead traditional witch families to feud with one another. Daphne's family had been cursed four generations back. Or was it five? Did you count the generation you were in, when you counted it out?
The family that had cursed hers had paid for it and found the payment hard. They had decided not to leave her kin to their curse, but to end them completely, forestalling any further retribution. So Daphne, twice cursed, now, led them away from
and her family. That was her mother's wish. Daphne had another wish, as well, one that was hers alone. Rennar was a sickly child. Daphne wanted to find something to heal him and make him whole. Ellay Town
She could never go home again, but she could send a cure, if she found one. Chara would help, for Chara knew that she and her son were loved. Chara also loved Daphne, and pitied her. There had been arguments before Daphne left.
Daphne had no idea what was wrong with her nephew. Come to that, she didn't know the people tracking her, either. She could feel them, though. She wasn't a witch, though they didn't know that. But she had magic of her own, magic that wasn't witch magic. She could fool them with it. She could lead them along.
She had walked through mountain vinyards. She had walked through orchards of avocadoes and oranges. She had walked through orchards of pears and almonds. Fields of cotton and alfalfa were behind her. She was walking along a road running through grain fields when she felt the barrier.
She probably shouldn't have taken the time to fiddle with it, but it was odd. Most barriers were continuous and of a definite size. This one was, well, no magic barrier could be called solid. Continuous was the word used. This one was not. It was wavery, being here and there and otherwhere. The size of the area inside it was large and small and non-existent.
Daphne had been unable not to stop and consider it. It was a bad idea to stop. The others were only a few days behind and they had been burning magic to catch up. But this was a puzzle, and the grain had ceased to be interesting, at least passing through it had lost her interest. So she stopped and thought. A few minutes thinking did no good at all, though. The mystery remained.
Daphne tried touching the water in the soil outside of the barrier. Odd. The size of the barrier couldn't be felt, but the size of the land just outside it was immediately clear. Perhaps. . .
Daphne considered any possible water within the barrier, and found herself suddenly inside. Her feet were still on the road shoulder, with the dust and the occasional lupine or golden poppy. But now she was definitely inside the barrier. She could feel it. From the inside, it had a definite shape and size. It felt like maybe ten square miles.
She could feel an increase in the energy of the spell used to track her. They were having trouble feeling her, while she was in here. Well, maybe if they couldn't get in, they'd overshoot her. Maybe she could rest for a bit. Get herself fattened back up.
Mother wouldn't mind annoying them. She could hold back her mother's curse for long enough for them to travel a week or so north. Then she could jog east to the mountains or west to the ocean. For now she would keep walking north and see what was in the center of this thing.
From out of nowhere a pickup truck passed her. Its wheels kicked up the dust in a choking cloud. Daphne just walked without breathing until it was convenient to do so again.__________________
Several miles up the road, a desert tortoise was contemplating crossing the road. At least it was at the side of the road, pointing toward it, and it was resting with the flat of it's belly against the flat of the shoulder. It's difficult to tell by looking if a tortoise is contemplating or just sitting there. The same can be said for some people.
The tortoise had a long, domed armored shell with a frill and no hinges. It’s stubby rear legs tucked up neatly into into the shell at the rear, and its longer front legs bent to the sides in front, almost like a sea turtle’s flippers, snuggling under the fringe. The pebbly hide on the outside of the front legs protected its head and neck as it huddled back under its fringe. Only the tip of its nose could be seen peeking out in the dark between the knees of its folded legs.
Slowly, the tortoise unclenched and rose, lifting it’s shell off of the ground. The longer front legs canted its front up higher than its rear, making it look eager to catch sight of the other side of the road. Its first steps were slow and cautious, but controlled and strong.
Perhaps its caution was due to vibrations in the road, for while it was still at the side a pickup truck sped by, kicking up dust. The tortoise ducked back into its shell. Also kicked up with the dust, a seed landed on the turtles neck, just near its shoulder. When it pulled into the shell, the seed was pulled into a fold of its skin and came along, to hide in the shell.
Some little time later, the tortoise again unfurled its leathery self, but more cautiously, crouching slightly lower. The seed stayed pressed against its shoulder, held by the unextended fold of skin. It began to cross the road with a will, legs moving, not one at a time, but in pairs, like a horse’s trot. It made pretty good time for a turtle.
When it reached the other side, it relaxed, stretching out its legs and neck further. The seed, released from the pressure of the now extended fold, should have fallen. Would have fallen, if the land had held less magic. Unfortunately for the tortoise, it did not. By the time the tortoise had reached the other side, the seed had sent roots down into its neck. By the time it had reached the high grass beyond the shoulder, a tendril was snaking up out of its shell and unfolding two long, slim, and bright pink leaves.
By the time Daphne passed the tortoise bush, it had grown pendulous, round white fruit. As she passed it, the words ‘ping pong ball’ popped into her head. She paused. She remembered this happening before and remembered hating it. It was Great Grandma Daphne’s memories seeping in, sorting their way into her own memory. Mother had thought the information would help her on the road and had included it into the curse.
It didn’t seem so bad this time, possibly because it wasn’t interfering with anything interesting. She considered the bush, walking slightly off of the shoulder to get a good look. Mother had hoped that the memories would provide guidance, but they never did. All that came through were random facts. No value judgments or personal preferences were ever attached. Daphne’s head was filled with the swish and the tock of paddles hitting paper-weight balls. She reached out her hand to touch the fruit, to compare its feel with the memory-feel of a ping pong ball in her hand.
“Wouldn’t touch that if I were you.”
The man was leaning against a nearby Valley Oak, his well-worn brown jeans and khaki shirt blending him into the shadows around the trunk. Like Daphne, he had a pack, although his was an old green army pack on the ground, at his feet, while hers was a cloak wrapped in a bundle and tied with rope, hanging from her shoulders.
“It grew up all in a few minutes, so it’s likely magic. I’ve never seen that kind of bush afore, so I’d be wary of it.”
Daphne squinted at it. “Yes,” she said. “Transforming magic. Riding magic. Would that be bad?”
“Depends on how likely it is to ride and transform a hand that touched it. And on how well you like your hand as it is, a’ course.” He picked up his pack, slung it over one shoulder and ambled over. There was no other way to describe it. It was an unhurried, friendly sort of amble. He looked like J. Random Laborer walking up, or would have looked that way if Daphne had been older and more experienced.
“I suppose it might be a bother.”
“Might be a bother? That would be one way of putting it. May I ask an impertinent question?”
Daphne just cocked her head and looked up at him as he finished up next to her.
“Want a smoke,” he asked, offering a battered pack. She shook her head. He took a little time about taking one, himself, going slowly through the business of settling it in his lips, striking a match, introducing the flame to the tip, then moving through the choreography of the first, unhurried inhale and satisfied exhale.
“Would you happen to be a witch?”
Daphne’s head remained cocked, like a child avoiding talking to strangers.
“I only ask because in the town up ahead, they don’t like witches too awful much. It might be best if you didn’t mention that you could see magic, or that you could deal with magic going off in your hands. Folks around here are a mite afraid of one-person magic, and all folks prefer folks who are afraid of the same things they’re afraid of. “
Daphne tried to listen, to see if there was a memory that would support the man’s statements. Maybe it wasn’t a concrete enough fact to have carried over. Actions and behaviors only came in attached to the memories of solid objects. Pity. It would be a good thing to know for sure.
“I’ll be careful. Is there a place to sleep there?”
“Not really. Not unless you know someone. They’re kinda clannish. Keep to their own. Some of the outer farms, outside of the town, might could use a hand. You’d need to say you’re lost, though. That you were home and got turned around and now you’re lost and need to earn some grub to get you back on your way back to your own people.”
Daphne’s head shifted to cock the other direction. She twisted a toe in the dirt.
“How about. . . . how about just sleeping in a field?”
“Field would be a bad idea. They could feel you there and it would seem like you was avoidin’ folks. Stick with being home then somehow lost. It happens to folks from time to time.”
“I suppose its mostly true.”
“Close enough to keep you safe. Tell them that you just walked through that barrier of theirs and you’d get a really hot reception.”
“Hot would be bad?”
“Very bad. Other than not liking any magic that they don’t control and being touchy about their barrier, they’re nice enough folks, I guess. It’s a closed shop, but they treat the workers they have well enough, or at least as well as they can.”
“All right,” she said, and “Thank you.” Then she shifted her pack and walked on. The man stood and watched her go. From the back, the blue cotton gingham dress she wore showed a passable woman’s figure. It’s sleeves and collar were navy blue and positioned to cover the maximum amount of neck and wrist. It’s hem came down almost to the high tops of the work boots she wore.
The man was an expert at judging work boots. The ones she wore were dirty and scuffed from the trail, but he knew that they had never been worked in, only walked in. And they were fairly new, their soles and leather laces still showing plenty of wear left.