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The Big Magicks

He came in on the spring wind, when the snow had melted and revealed again the pallid stone from which the skeleton spires of the Lost World reached skyward. It had been a harsh winter and a fair number of the Junkfolk had gotten their fires snuffed out by the cold, Fyn’s pa among them. It had soured the spring for many of the tribe. But when the man came jangling down the alleyway that morning, he seemed to carry a sweetness on the air with him.

They all heard him coming. The goods in his towering pack made a tinny ring as they clattered together, turning each of his steps into a song. When he was still a decent clip away, Tomas, who was the look-out for the day, loosed a shot from his bendi-stick and it clattered on the ground just in front of the man’s feet. “Stop right there jingleman,” he shouted down from his perch. “Next one goes through yer thinker!”

On the ground, Fyn and the others watched as old Chief Harloo separated himself from the crowd and approached the stranger. “This ground’s ours for foragin’,” he said. “If you come for a claim, ye best find another place to stick it.”

The man raised his hands in surrender. “Easy now, I come to strike no claims. I’m a trader, see? A ramblin’ man. And if you kind folk’d have me, I’d gladly barter some o’ what’s in me pack.”

There was a commotion among the tribe. They’d only ever known two traders, at least that’s how it was to Fyn’s memory. She and her pa had hitched up with the Junkfolk when she was still too young to caw, but that was ten winters ago now and she still hadn’t seen any bartermen besides Seamus or Nikk Nopenny. Perhaps it was because no traders cared to trade for the cans of soggy grub the Junkers fed on or maybe it was the harshness of the winters near the ruins, Fyn didn’t know. What she did know however, was that Harloo wasn’t going to turn away any fella who might have somethin’ they couldn’t dig up in the Lost World’s bones.

“Well, we’re short on cans coming off last winter,” said the chief, scowling. “But if that pays ye no bother, then I reckon there’s a few among us who’d still fancy a gander.”

The trader beamed brighter than the summer sun. “I’ll take any grub I can get,” he said, easing his pack down behind him and starting to unpack.

He had it all ready by the time that the tribe returned from snatching what they could bear to part with from their bedrolls. But when they sidled up to the large blankets on which his wares were sprawled, confused muttering and even titters of laughter spread through the throng. When Fyn squeezed forward to inspect the trader’s goods, she saw why.

Laid out among the man’s blankets weren’t treasures like the ones that Seamus or Nopenny dealt in. There were no shimmersteel knives, nor bullets for the few men who still had working bangers, he didn’t even have a single flask of firebrew. No, all the trader carried was an assortment of bizarre trinkets. Small black bricks with mirrored faces, short rods with strange, glass ends, a half-dozen metal squares that didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than shimmering in the few meager rays of sun that managed to break through the veil above them.

“Do you think us soft in the skull?” Harloo said when he finally saw the baubles. “This is the rubble we pass over while sifting through the scavenge.”

“No, no, no. This isn’t rubbish, the magicks hasn’t left them yet.”

“Magicks?” asked the chief, his hoary eyebrows raised.

“Yes,” said the man. “The magicks. From the Lost World.”

Harloo laughed along with the tribe this time. “Magicks, eh? Like the kind that’ll make the wind stop biting, or turn the season’s back ’til the world ain’t spoilt no more?”

“Nothin’ like that, I fear. But if ye’d allow it, I’ll show you the magicks I do have.” Though he’d asked permission, he didn’t wait for the chief to grant it to him before snatching up one of the black mirrors and pressing on it’s surface. It shimmered with a bright, colorful light and the tribe began to murmur with excitement. Moments later, when a strange and haunting sound began to fill the air, they all fell silent. It was making music. Music from nothing.

The magicks sold like blankets in a blizzard after that. The trader showed how light could leap from the glass end of the strange rods, how the small squares would open to make fire with little more than a flick of the thumb, and as more and more of the talismans disappeared from his blanket, cans of precious grub piled up beside the trader. But Fyn, who had nothing to barter, merely watched with a heavy heart as other Junkers stole away with their newly gotten treasures. And when the trader began to fold what was left back into his enormous pack, she was the only one still inspecting what remained.

“Got yer eyes on somethin’ miss?” asked the man, folding his arms across his broad stomach.

“’Fraid not,” she said, speaking quietly. “Nothin’ to trade but the rags on me back.” She stole a final, desperate glance at the few trinkets the man had yet to put away, drinking as much of them in as she could before they disappeared forever.

But instead of packing the rest of them up, the trader bent down and put a hand on her shoulder. Fyn noticed then, how kind his face was. “Tell me,” he whispered, from behind his curled-up mustache, “Are you the sort that’s known for keepin’ promises?”

Fyn nodded. Timid at first, but with warming enthusiasm.

The man grinned and his fist dove into one of the dozen pockets on his jacket. “Close yer eyes and gimme yer hand,” he said. Fyn did and a moment later something small and hard dropped into her open palm. Excitement welled inside, but when the man told Fyn to open her eyes, it went up like paper in a flame.

“What are they?” she asked, staring down at the three, odd shapes that lay in her hand. They looked a bit like the beans that filled most of the cans she and the rest of the Junkfolk fed themselves with, but they were much harder and not the right color.

“What are they?!” the trader repeated, catching a short fit of laughter. “Why these are the big magicks, my dear.”

Fyn studied the three odd shapes in her hand again. They were barely the size of her thumbnail. “They don’t look very big.”

“Ahh,” said the man, “But that’s the trick to them. The big magicks, the real big magicks, they’re the ones that hide in the tiniest of places.” He closed her fingers around the beans, but Fyn didn’t let them stay closed.

“I have nothing to trade,” she said, shaking the beans back at him. It hurt, the prospect of turning away a gift, even one that seemed so small as this. But Chief Harloo always made it clear, no Junkfolk were to take from outsiders unless they paid for what they took. It had been that way since the poisoned cans that had made her pa and so many others sick many winters back.

“Then you ain’t trading,” said the man. “Yer borrowing. Take each bean and bury it in a can o’ dirt. Give each can a drink of water every mornin’. Do it until the winter wind comes howling again. Then next spring, when I come roamin’ through these parts again, you can give those three beans back to me. Deal?”

Fyn eyed him warily, then gave her hard, discolored beans the same cautious look. “What’s going to happen?”

“Magicks,” he said, packing up the rest of his things. “Big magicks.”

She was mocked at first, nursing her cans and setting them to sun while they scavenged. But half a moon later, when the others’ mirrors had dimmed and their fancy metals could no longer flick fire, a small green growth appeared at the top of each mound of dirt. The ridicule stopped then and the whole tribe watched in awe, transfixed as the green tumbled down the sides of the kinds like a fount of unkempt hair.

They grew small bulbs in middle-summer and by it’s end they hung like bats from the original growths. When autumn came and the bat-like pods dried while the rest of the thing withered, Fyn grew brave and plucked one of them free. When she opened it the whole tribe let out an excited whoop all at once. It was as they had hoped, the beans had made more beans. Dozens more.

They ate only a small amount, only to see if they could. The rest they kept and planted the next spring in more cans than Fyn could count. She kept three for the trader though, remembering her promise, but he never showed.

In the springs that followed the number of plants grew and soon the Junkers found a patch of dirt to plant in, ditching the cans and scavenging altogether. There were still bad years, still hunger and winter winds that snuffed out plenty of fires, but it was never as bad as it had been. And every spring until she was as withered as a vine at harvest, Chief Fyn kept three of the finest beans for herself and one eye on the horizon.


Trompe L'oeil
Changing of the Guard


  1. andrubious andrubious

    This is my favorite short story yet, Hal. I applaud how the world is presented in a way that doesn’t hold my hand and is inventive and exciting enough that the exploration through it is rewarding.

    More importantly though, sometimes when I’m reading your stories I hear your “voice” in the narration and I don’t think it matches the characters dialogue/actions (Trompe L’oeil recently, and The Laughing Ones [though that was first person and also published so what do I know]). This story, however, I felt your narrator (“voice”) was SPOT ON with both the theme and character action. Whether you tried to piece it as you did, or it just happened organically, your word choice was well crafted and “fit” so well with the world presented that I had to point it out.

    Like I said, so far my favorite and I hope I get to hear more from Fyn’s world!

  2. I really like this. So often, post-apocalyptic worlds are stagnant, with no attempt to rebuild, and that always rings hollow to me.

    It’s good to read a story in which people actually try to improve things, rather than build corrugated huts and call it a day.

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