Strange Magic

Short Fiction

I tried to forget her after we separated—or rather, after she left me. It was an honest effort, filled with long and sleepless nights and longer days in which I could only think of sleeping. Once the initial sorrow passed, a heavy doubt remained. What could I have done different? Somehow this always seemed a profound question in the films. It really wasn’t. Regardless, for the lack of anyone to speak with, I asked my cat this many times. He just blinked and meowed for food.

One afternoon, in the shade of an oak beside the river, I stopped to catch a view—the river gurgled and foamed over the stones that obstructed it—and ran a hand through the mud. It was cool to the touch. I dug my hands in deep and—arms now covered in a dark film of soil and clay—molded it until it resembled her, as best the river mud could. The act of creating the sculpture was enjoyable, though once it was finished, I felt all the guilt and doubts flooding back into my consciousness. I had no defense but to walk back the way I’d come.

Later that week, she passed the little house on a bike, hair streaming like ribbons in the wind. I knew where she would go. To Fort Williams Park, not far from the lighthouse. We could see the red roofs of the visitor center and museum around it. I’d gone there a few times as a kid with my parents and sister, took old college friends there who were visiting from out of town. It was where she’d taken me on our first date. Her favorite place, and through her eyes I saw the park in a whole new way.

We leapt and dove into the sea. As we fell she cast a spell on me, pressing her thumb against my forehead so hard that it hurt, then did the same to herself just before we struck the salty water. As the Atlantic swallowed us she held me below the surface until I realized I could breathe underwater, for a time. I always wondered if the other spell she cast on me was intended. If she had ever truly wanted my love as wildly as I longed for hers.

I was both certain and uncertain that the world must exist around her. She was too incredible for that not to be the case—despite my understanding that such a thing would be completely insane. Perhaps it was time to check in to the asylum.

All I would have to do was tell them I fell in love with a girl who could breathe underwater.

Love is strange magic. The idea came to me often after I started seeing her, and after she stopped seeing me. Love was stranger than the myriad impossibilities she could perform. It made me do stupid things like jump off cliffs and create little people in the sand that she would give life. It filled me with the thought that nothing could have overcome us.

Still worse, love was something everyone else seemed to have.

I returned to the riverside some nights. Sometimes I was careful to avoid the site where I sculpted her in mud. Other times I would walk straight to it, fix the parts that sagged or broke, and head home. I did this for nearly a week, wondering toward the end of it what would happen when the forecasted rains came that weekend. The mud which dried on the shore of that river would sink in on itself and run back into the river. My mind had some difficulty wrapping around that concept. It was just mud, just a dumb figure, yet after fixing it up for a few days and the act of creating it, I felt some sadness seeing the projected rainclouds come is way on the television. The meteorologist said, “Best to save any trips with the family for next weekend,” with a smile.

I went back to the river for a second time that night, finding my way by the light of a dim dollar store flashlight. I could hear the river gurgling and the song of crickets among the fresh grasses. It was cold that night, and I’d dressed in a light coat which didn’t do enough against the wind and snow. Along the way I doubted my resolve. Surely there wouldn’t be rain in the coming days. Surely it was a dumb thing to wander the woods so late at night. There were plenty of local tales about bears and wolves in these woods. I’d seen none of them, but that didn’t mean the monsters didn’t exist out there, lurking in the dark.

I spun around, casting the light around myself, but even with the light I couldn’t see a thing off the path. Everything was darkness and quiet, save for the river and bugs.

I had to step off the path to go toward the river. To the part where I’d sculpted her in mud. I knew it was stupid to go, yet my feet pressed on as though they were possessed. When I arrived, the river was full and loud, a layer of snow over everything, and my sculpture was not in its place.

I stepped to the spot I’d left it, shining the light. Where it once lay was a patch of soil, lightly snowed upon and in the shape of a young woman, heavier snowfall all around it. A chill crept along my spine.

A sound, like the bending of a bough, came from my side.

I shone the light at it. In my haste I nearly dropped it. As I collected myself, I saw that in front of me there was a young woman, one who vaguely resembled the one whom I loved, made of dried mud with snow on her head and shoulders. On her forehead there was a mark—a fingerprint—pushed into it. It noticed the branch beneath its foot and stepped back, avoiding it like a child would something new.

So I ran.

I made an honest effort to convince myself none of that happened. The morning was typical enough: a quiet breakfast of oats and an orange with the cat, who meowed at precisely the same time he always did. The news was on, the meteorologist reported as usual—the rains were still coming—and a quick look through the news on my phone didn’t yield anything out of the ordinary.

As noon approached, there was a knocking. It did not come from the door, but rather a wall. Whoever knocked was moving along the side of the house, rapping at walls, windows, doors, whatever it was beside. I found my father’s shotgun in the cellar—it was an older model, but, if I spoke boldly enough, it might be enough to scare off the intruder without coming to blows. My hands shook as I loaded it, recalling the night before as the knocking continued. When it came time to face the man on my porch I took a deep breath and—when it wasn’t too close—swung open the door, taking aim and shouting, “What do you want?”

It couldn’t respond, for it had no voice. It had left a trail of soil in its wake, walking around the house, and where the snow had fallen on it, the golem’s shoulders were scarred.

“Shit,” I said, unable to ignore what so clearly stood in front of me.

It took a step closer. I yelled for it to stop and it did. A strange coincidence, surely. I set the shotgun on a nearby chair. The golem did not strike me as malicious. It was a being of soil and sand, clearly wounded from the snows, a marred shape of the woman who I modelled her after. I did not feel threatened, though my heart did skip a few beats as a thought occurred to me. A memory of how my love and I made sand castles on the beach and how she’d pushed her thumb into the sands and animated a battle between little sand men to see which castle was superior.

Hers won—something I always suspected was rigged.

I ran a finger along the thumbprint depression in the golem’s forehead and recalled the way which she’d cast those spells. Soil pulled away from the creature and it slumped for a moment.

“I’m sorry,” I said, making a note not to touch the spot again, recalling how the underwater breathing, and the sand people, and everything else she’d done was temporary. How cruel, I thought. How cruel for this golem, even for all the sand people who I hadn’t previously considered, to be given a life only to lose it in a few days. A few hours, maybe.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

When the rains came, it stayed on my porch, watching the storm, occasionally standing and cowering at the sight of lightning or when a squall brought rain onto the deck. I set up a curtain with a few towels, which I think helped. It stayed there all night.

I don’t think, in all the time I knew the golem, that I quite knew what to do with it. It wasn’t her, not by any means. Though it had something resembling her face and body, it could only make the most basic movements. It did not smile. It did not have a gleam in its eyes—for they, too, were made of soil—and it did not have that laugh I missed so much. The one which shook her whole body and made her fall to the ground. No, the golem was not her, but I liked it. I liked having it around, though, the cat did not. The poor thing would not go near that creature and hissed whenever it saw the beast of soil. I had to start feeding it in the cellar, away from the windows where it might see the golem.

The mailman was the first person to see it, besides the golem’s creator and myself. He saw it stand and sped off down the road as if demons chased him. The golem went after him, and, though it did not emote quite like a person, I could tell it did not intend to make peace with the man.

“Stop!” I shouted, and it obeyed. It returned to the porch, but it was then I knew the rains were the least of my worries.

The following day, I did not receive my mail. I thought it suspicious. Once the cat and his bowls were locked up in my bedroom, I lead the golem into my basement, where the rains and people would not find it. My paranoia was validated when the police came knocking, claiming there was a report of suspicious activity. Once they searched the place, I spoke to them about how I lived alone with my cat and yes I travelled quite a ways into the Portland for work, and no I haven’t eaten meat since the late nineties. We had a laugh about how vague “suspicious activity” was, and they admitted they didn’t know what they were looking for. The report claimed there was a monster here—which both officers found hilarious—but it was a small town, and they had a duty to check out each report.

“Sorry to waste your time, officers,” I said.

“We’re sorry to trouble you, sir,” one said.

“Mac,” the other nodded at the cellar door. “One more to check.”

I honestly considered striking them then. I had a good angle. There was an old college hockey trophy within reach. I could have taken one out with no trouble. The other would likely fall as well, taken by surprise. I could not kill them, though. It would wound my soul in a way that it could not repair. Even if I did, there would be blood and bodies to explain away should four officers arrive the following day. So I let them open the door, descend the steps, and prayed that my golem would be still.

“What’s that?” the officer named Mac said. He saw the golem right away. Of course he did. It was standing in the center of the cellar, after all. Not an inconspicuous place.

I was about to try and explain it—a sand sculpture preserved with some artist’s tool perhaps—but the golem moved toward the officers. One drew his pistol. Perhaps it recognized aggression or sensed my panic. Whatever the reason, it charged them, tackling one to the ground and frightening the second so much that he screamed.

I yelled at the officers, “Go!

The golem chased the officers out of the house, a silent rage about it as it passed me to pursue them as far as the car. It slammed its fists on the hood of the vehicle as the officers backed up, then gave chase down the road until I shouted for it to stop.

It walked to my side and stared at me. It was waiting for orders—I think—and I realized my mistake with the officers in the cellar. Was this what she’d created the golem for? To protect me? To prove some absurd point about how oppressive I’d been in our time together? I’d insisted we should live together, and be monogamous, and what our wedding might look like. All things that made complete sense to me, but then she was always different. That’s why I’d loved her. That’s why she left me, I think.

A drop of rain hit my cheek.

“Come,” I told it, a sinking feeling in my chest.

I walked into the woods, carrying the dollar store flashlight. When we were beside the river at the spot she’d created a golem of my sculpture, I walked to the edge. Rain was coming faster now, the storm about to break. I told the golem, “Step into the river.”

It did as I asked. It was truly loyal, or perhaps obedient was a better term. It pained me to see it walk toward the river, and twice I almost commanded it to stop. It was not her, it was not me. The golem was alive, I suspected. What right did I have to ask it to step into that river and lose itself? Would it ever be able to reform? Was her spell strong enough? How could I look at myself in the mirror each morning knowing that I so willingly gave this exotic creature to an early demise?

I hadn’t made up my mind when it took its first step into the water. It made no sound, which disconcerted me as much as I was relieved. Soil turned to mud and flowed downstream as it lumbered toward the center of the river. It deformed and withered with each step as I held back my tears, watching only to confirm what I knew would happen next. When the golem melted away, the rains came in full, soaking me to my core.

I turned on the flashlight and headed home to let the cat out of my bedroom.



Art by deificat.

Origionally published in Worldbuilding Magazine Volume 2, Issue 6.