Book: The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy

Previous: Dream a Little Dream for Me..., Peter Crowther
Next: I Am Bonaro, John Niendorff

In the Factory at Calendar Point, the carvers and the wizards and the casters make magic. Simon sweeps up.

The wax is carted in from beekeepers scattered across the country, each licensed and watched and reporting to the provost every season on the movement of their flocks. Simon washes the floors after the carters have come and gone. He helps carry the crates to the carvers, sometimes, and the book-dusty theoreticians, one sketching the sigils from diagrams on brittle parchment and the others taking knife to wax, molding them in three dimensions. He gathers the curls of spare wax from the floor and burns them in the fire that feeds the casting crucible.

In the afternoons, Simon brings water to the potters, who paint clay carefully on the carved wax molds; in the evenings he scrubs their wheels and tools, soaking them in water until his fingers wrinkle. He does not clean the casting crucible; that is Jan’s work, stoop-shouldered and sure-fingered, and old as his grandfather was on the day the farm passed to his father and his own indenture began in truth.

At the precise trembling moment between day and dusk, the sigils and guardians are cast. Wax puddles out of the molds, spreads across the catchbasin, and molten metal is poured in its place. Simon never sees the finished product. He empties the catchbasins, one by one, pouring thick and lazy drops of wax into the reservoir. The magic is in the wax, he’s heard them say. He is careful. He does not spill a drop.

Come morning, the orders are delivered to students, wizards, kings and rich men by couriers in dashing clothes of all colours, none ever the same: it would not do to identify a Factory courier to footpads and thieves. Some days Simon thinks he might become a courier in lord’s livery, and when he thinks this he sweeps harder and harder until the Factory shines like the moon. Jan watches him with even looks when this bright mood is upon him, and sends him away: check the carvers’ floor one more time, perhaps empty the chamberpots, dust the lintels so the specks do not get in the molds. Jan is old and his hands are covered in soot. Simon does not get angry when he invents these tasks.

It is a great honour to work at the Factory. It is a great honour to carry its broom in your hands, for even brooms can be full of magic.

Simon comes home at dusk, smelling of smoke and sweat and honest labour. He lets a room in a boardinghouse off Progress Square that was still Bear’s Heart Square when he arrived, but people call it Progress already and the old name is near-forgotten. He eats in the kitchen there, simple clean country food a day or two paler from the long trip to bring it to Calendar Point, or from a street vendor when it is middle-month or end-month and his pockets hold a neat packet of coins. There is smoke in the streets, and music. He practices his letters reading pamphlets pasted on walls or drifting through the streets, and dreams of attending lectures, of fairs bursting with wild animals and sleight-of-hand shows. He pays his rent, and sends money home to his family to pay for his labour lost, and hoards the rest in a box beneath his bed against a lack of imagination for luxury.

Every night Simon shuts his doors, pulls the curtain over his rounded quartered-compass window, and draws the curls of used wax from the stitching of his pocket.

He comes home with pockets heavy with wax: they are torn and mended and torn again once his clumsy stitching wears away or breaks – he is too timid to ask the house laundress to mend them true. The boardinghouse-mistress and the herb lady do not watch him as he slips into his penny-garret; they privately wonder over tea if he is smuggling opium or casting-metals, and just as quickly dismiss those thoughts: were Simon Lake a smuggler, he would not pay his rent in such small, well-fingered coins. The mistress’s daughter fancies that he carries books, that he is a man of words and deep river-thoughts, but she is of the right age to fill a silent young man’s figure with ideas that were never there.

Over gaslight he melts the fragments into his wooden wash-bowl until they are soft and ready, and molds them close into the cloudy block that started off a finger’s width, then a palm’s width, then an imperfect factory standard size. The mistress’s dishwasher does not report him: he knows all the ways to remove wax from wood, from stone, from cloth.

It has taken him time to learn to carve wax: it is softer than wood, and cannot be whittled. It is harder than dirt, and cannot be molded. His rejects he burns in the crucible fires, eased back into the Factory in bits and crumbled pieces. This time, he thinks, every time the block grows strong and whole. This time will be the one, and he wishes.

The knife flicks, and he whispers the words into the cracks made by his tiny fingernail blade: Give me a better life. Bring me a better life. Bring me something a sign, a hope.

The greyish wax breathes, and sighs, but there is no smell of magic, just a faint hint of rotten rosemary from the street where the herb lady has dumped her unsold and unsellable wares. Simon taps it with a finger, and it does not reach out, or speak, or scowl. Leftover magic, defective and drained. The wax used before casting is buttery and soft-golden and smells like the best breakfast you never had.

The bed creaks, and his hand trembles, and the house shifts on its foundations in its sleep. Simon puts his half-formed sigil in the drawer beneath his holiday clothes, and sleeps, and dreams of candlelight.

Simon sweeps the factory floor as the long afternoon moves on, shifting shadows so he is never sure which planks he has caressed with the straw broom and which left untouched. He stares at the curling shards longingly, treasure and firelight around his feet. The guards will collect his dustpan at the end of the morning; he has never dared palm even a sliver of virgin wax.

The penalty – in the bindings they would place on his hands and the shame he would place on himself for having to beg again for a position – is too great. But the wizards who watch the factory and grounds do not clap him in irons for seditious thought; his mind is filled with lake stillness.

Jan sees through it, sees past it, and takes the broom from him. He sends Simon to wash the potters tables again, six hours ahead of normal, and threatens the whip if there remains a speck of grey upon the polished, varnished, scarred wood tables. Simon inhales clay dust that coats his tongue and throat, smoke from the kilns, smoke from the crucibles in the sheltered room next door. The air in the Factory tastes like something tangible, not alive but perhaps conscious. The sound of the whistle that calls end to day’s work knows that it has a name.

Today, they call his name, only to his ears. Today, they murmur to him, and nobody else hears, but the wizards on duty frown and tap instruments, smell the air, consult their heavy necklaces and pocket-watch-chains of charms, their good clean bowler hats just slightly askew. Simon Lake, Simon Lake meanders through his consciousness. The shards in the dustpan spell it out. The dust on the tables vibrates with it, and when he pours the day’s wax from the catchbasin into the reservoir, it hits with a note that reminds him of his own voice raised in laughter, or anger, or debate.

Magic is everywhere you look for it in the Factory. It is the motion of the air. At shifts end, Simon follows the air and the whistle and the dust-kin out the door, and into the streets of the city.

Steam-trains run into the stockyards, and he smells the low moaning of cattle imported to the slaughterhouses for meat and leather. Farmers carts rattle along the roads, bringing in the produce to be sold at market the next morning; the sound stirs memory in him, and the urge to flee to ground. Sweaty and dirt-smeared men laugh and joke along the streets, leaving jobs at other factories, ones that make more mundane things. He sees them, and sees what he might be in ten years, or twenty, and shudders.

Why did you come to the city? a keening, whispering voice asks. Simon looks around, but there is nobody there to speak so clean and fairly: nothing but the wind. His heart quickens: perhaps it is a wizard-voice. Perhaps he has been chosen for a great task.

Perhaps it is his sign.

“I came, sir,” he tells it, clearing his throat as if addressing the foreman, “to gain a better life.”

And have you found it? ask the cobblestones, and the spaces between them, ground with manure and dust and grass-seeds.

He clutches his hands in front of his body, tight in one another. He has a room and hot potatoes with cheese on pay day. He is paying off his indenture to the soil. The house-mistress’s daughter seems to like him. His parents, if not proud, are not disappointed.

He shakes his head. “I’ve taken wax,” he confesses, not knowing to who, but knowing he should, he must be honest now. “If I had magic…”

There is magic in a bear’s heart, so the name has been erased. There is magic in a falcons claw, clutched at the moment of dying. There is magic in things and not just symbols, it whispers, and he listens. Factory magic is not your kind of magic.

“Then what shall I do?” he whispers, his carving hand growing stiff from tension.

We have been looking some time, it says, pondering and sweet, for a vessel, a mold, a thing well-designed and willing. Are you willing? it asks, and he draws in a breath.

“Yes,” he says, elated and terrified and strung tight with delicious vindication – his sign is here at last. “Oh yes.”

Look to where things are still, the murmur says, tasting of sweet peas at first picking and old blood and sunshine. You will find your advancement there.

A pair of beat cops come around the corner, one twirling his baton idly, chattering away to the other. Simon closes his mouth, shoves his hands in his pockets, and makes his long way home to Progress Square, vowing in his head to call it Bear’s Heart Square forever more.

There are a lot of stillnesses in his head: it is why he is permitted to work in the Factory. He spreads out on his mattress that night and dives into them, dives deep.

There is no magic there. His dreams are of floorboards, and rafters, and shaped, squared things. He dreams in symbols and metal and wax, and when he wakes, he weeps.

He touches his knife to the wax that night, and whispers new words into the scores and cuts and careful curves. Give me magic. Let me touch magic.

That is not the way, the hissing voice of wild magic whispers, but it is the only way he knows. The knife slips, draws blood, and he bandages the finger and keeps going. The night falls silent. He carves until dawn.

Simon goes to the factory sleepy-eyed and haggard. There is wax beneath his fingernails, and he does not notice or care. Jan takes him aside immediately and sends him to scrub, and chastises him loudly for not doing so the night before. Simon knows he is trying to help. Simon knows he is trying to save his job and his prospects. He scrubs with a knot of resentment building in his belly, and comes out to report sullen and with his eyes downcast.

Jan takes him into the potters’ room, where the workers have not yet come in for the day. “What,” he asks, “has happened to make you so prickly and careless?”

“There is no magic in me,” Simon whispers, realizing that Jan has known all along about his small thefts of wax, about his yearning and sleepless evenings, and clenches his fists tighter.

“There is no magic in anyone,” Jan says, severe, drawn-faced. “They just borrow it for a while.”

Simon looks down at the older man’s hands, curled around the broom like a falcon’s claw at the moment of dying. “We could make it,” he says. “We could make our own and get out of here. It spoke tome…” he says, and Jan holds up a hand.

“Magic isn’t to be wanted. Magic is to be feared,” he says, soft, between the murmuring creaks of machinery and the shouts of vendors in the city outside the Factory gates. “Anything that must be chained to serve will destroy you, and anything worth chaining to serve can do the job right and full.”

Simon looks at his feet, at the unravelling leather shoes that they gave him on his first day at the Factory. He did not know Jan felt himself a philosopher. “Wizards,” he says, “wear fine suits, and cast spells to their own design. They pay in gold. I’ve seen their houses…” and he has, everyone who lives or dwells a while in Calendar Point has seen those graceful, towering spires “…and their children. They never frown, except when they’re thinking of something terrible and great.”

Jan is silent for a long time. “Sometimes I forget how young you are,” he says roughly, and puts his curled and ruined hand on Simons shoulder.

He pulls away. He leaves the Factory, his broom still in the cubby. He goes into the stockyards, into the sewers, into the streets, looking for somewhere that is truly still, and by nightfall he is truly lost. Darkened buildings rise above him like forest trees; there are no gaslights on these streets, and there are no signs, and no smells to light his way to somewhere cleaner and bigger and less secret.

“Magic?” he calls out, not knowing it by any older or other name.

Simon Lake, it murmurs, heady and hesitant. What is it you truly want?

“Magic,” he says again, closing his eyes. “I don’t want to be a farmhand anymore. I don’t want to be a cleaner. I want to be like them – the people who are always smiling.”

You want to be special. You want to inspire: fear, or hope, or doubt.

“I want to be an honour,” he says, and the words come formal to his lips, and for the first time, he is very afraid indeed. But the wanting is stronger, the wanting was always stronger: to be more than one is, to be great, to be the cause of something. The wild magic smells that, and despairs, and rejoices.

Very well, the magic says, grim and sad and ready. Very well.

Simon lifts his head up to the sky, opens his mouth and his arms, closes his eyes. Come in, he cries out to it, voiceless, all the lake stillness gone forever from his mind. Come into me.

The world rushes into flame and light.

The mages find him at sunrise, legs deer-quick, ears wolf-sharp, only his eyes still his own. They bring him before the wizard-magistrate, who looks upon him and calls him Simon Lake, who works in the Factory (an honour, that), who rents off Progress Square. They find his hoard of pennies, and they find his hoard of wax, half-carved into trees, into civic fountains, into the houses of the great and the small animals that haunt the lake country, stealing corn and nuts and fruit. The boardinghouse-mistress watches the wizards with eyes round as a rabbits, and her daughter cries. The herb lady nods as if some great mystery is resolved, and flirts with the inspector, and is turned away back to her tea and wares.

There is no trial. There never is, with magic involved.

They hang him at high noon, and the wild magic whispers in his ear, hush hush, as the trap opens and the knot tightens and his legs kick in the air. The papers say hangings are a quick death, the knot striking one just so and the suffering brief. Simon strangles slowly as the goodwives and children watch. His hands clench like those of a dying falcon, and his bear’s heart bursts, and the blood bubbles at his mouth before they cut him down and pronounce him.

“This,” call out the street preachers, the dervishes, the mad, “is why it is foolish to toy with stolen magic. This is how you lose your soul!”

The crowd wails and shudders in terrified glee. A few young ones turn away, lips twisted. A few more of them follow the wind than might have otherwise: cobblers boys, and shop clerks, and a heavy young woman who bastes fine gowns together for the third best seamstress in the city. They dream of bees that night, and wake up hungry, and do not go to hangings anymore. They meet, and marry, and open up public houses and greenhouses and places where things are still, and they allow no man-made magic in their homes, and they never speak of this day.

They mark their doors with a sprig of rosemary, for remembrance, until they forget what it means or who hung their cutting first. Nobody who writes in decades to come about the Rosemary Revolution speaks of this day, or this hanging; it is forgotten by its own historians. It sleeps in peace, and it is still.

His parents come for his body, his mother weeping, his fathers face hard as cobblestone streets. They bury him on the farm, and plant an apple tree atop the grave. The roots twist down and empty his coffin of those things that fall away in earth, leaving good hard applewood and bone in the shape of a man, a young man, one barely past his fifteenth birthday. The substance drains out of him, dirtied and spent into the catchbasin of the soil, and something else fills the gap that is left behind.

The apple tree bears bewitching fruit. Those who bite into it go a little mad, for a while: they smell things that are not there; they see things that have never graced the lake country, machines and dirty streets and the way a night sky looks through haze and smoke. They mostly go to the city: they stay in certain public houses, they eat fruit from certain greenhouses. They make friends, and they do not visit home. They never quite fit into the lake country again, after that taste.

There is a storm on the night ten years after Simons death. The apple tree cracks and falls, splitting into two at the touch of lightning. The children from the farms and the village crowd around it, all afraid to touch: the children are afraid of that spot. Already they do not remember why.

The stump is uprooted and they find the roots broken, the space between them cradling the shape of a man, the bones of a man poured out on the ground between them like lost wax after the casting.

They split the mold, but there is nothing inside at all.

It remembers brooms. It remembers that things should always be clean and clear and true. Falcon’s-Claw-Bear’s-Heart, smelling of apples and rain and moving like wind and purpose, takes its first steps towards the taste of the city.

Previous: Dream a Little Dream for Me..., Peter Crowther
Next: I Am Bonaro, John Niendorff