I would have never gone to the Glyphs of Onyx if I hadn’t fallen in love. I was in my final year at the University of Spell-Craft in Silver Forge. And as Silver Forge was the nearest port to the island of Onyx, and as the glyphs had been discovered only five years prior, students were always taking little holidays up there to see them. Most returned unimpressed. The Onyxian parliament itself had investigated the glyphs and not only had they concluded there was no magic to them, but also questioned whether they held any meaning whatsoever. Still, rumors persisted. And a few students, enough to be an annoyance, returned from Onyx as full converts. They would tell how the glyphs had imparted to them a special inspiration. And how they were certain, because of this special inspiration, that they were about to craft a monumental spell, one that could change the world.
As no such spell ever materialized, I was happy to focus on my studies and ignore all the hullaballoo. But then I met Celia.
In truth, I met her paintings first. I had gone down to the annual campus art show and found myself mesmerized by a set of mournful landscapes. Nothing about them suggested spell-craft. Nothing in them moved or twinkled or morphed into something new as you took them in. And yet, try as I might, I could not take my eyes off of the paintings until a deep sorrow rose within me and I wept. A woman approached and I hurried to wipe my eyes, embarrassed by my emotional outburst. When I turned to meet her eye, she gave a sympathetic smile.
“It’s the damnedest thing,” I said. “There’s no spell on these paintings. They seem to belong in a mundane gallery.”
“And yet?” she asked.
“And yet they’ve done something to me. As if something has been released that I didn’t know was bottled up.”
The woman nodded. “There’s no spell cast on the painting because the painting is the spell,” she said. “You spell-writers don’t cast spells on top of the incantations you write, do you?”
I had never considered such an idea. All the spell-paintings I had ever seen were painted with the idea that certain incantations, usually ones that would animate the painting, would be cast on top.
“And what is the spell painted here?” I asked, pointing to the landscapes.
“I call it, ‘Unearthing Sorrow’.”
“That’s genius,” I said.
She smiled her true smile then, the one that lit up her face, the room, and, I was certain, the whole world. By some miracle, she took a fancy to me as well, and we fell under that kind of love spell which remains a mystery to cast; the one from which there is no cure but for one or both hearts to be torn asunder.
Our studies kept us busy in the day, but every evening we’d meet up to take long walks around the campus. During one of those moonlit strolls, Celia confessed that she had visited the glyphs in Onyx and felt the presence of her mother in the caves. She told me how, when she was still in her adolescence, her widowed mother had turned down a marriage proposal from a wealthy textile merchant. For years Celia had resented her for not wedding the merchant, blaming all the family’s woes and poverty on her mother’s pride. Until, finally, after the death of her younger sister from the crimson cough, Celia released a fit of rage on her mother, who had passed out of the world that very night.
“I have told myself a thousand times that my words didn’t end her life,” Celia said. “The fever did that. But I am always replaying those horrible last words I spoke to her. Standing next to the glyphs, I felt her presence. It was as if she were standing just behind the cave wall. And it seemed I had a chance to take those words back. I did and I told her —”
Her words caught in her mouth and she cried. I realized why Celia’s paintings had worked so well on me. We shared a similar grief.
“And you saw an apparition in the caves? You saw your mother?” I asked.
“I felt her,” she said. “It was as if the caves were commiserating with my grief.”
“And did she hear you?” I asked, my heart in my throat.
“I don’t know. But it helped to say the words out loud. To … allow them. I can’t explain it. You have to go, Ben. You have to know them for yourself.”
So, late in the summer, I boarded a zeppelin and floated over the North Sea to a shore of stark white sand and craggy black rock. Beyond the shore, a city rose, culminating in the gleaming white dome of the Onyxian Parliament sitting high on a hill.
I dropped my bag off at a ramshackle inn next to the southern docks and set off for the glyphs. They were not hard to find, as there was a steady stream of tourists heading to and from them. I followed the crowd down a winding path that ran along the cliffs facing the shore. Eventually, the path veered left and sloped down into the wide entrance of a cave. I had to brace myself as a strong and constant ocean breeze rushed past me and down into the cool mouth of the cave.
There was no need for a lantern, as there were so many lantern-wielding tourists already inside. In less than a half an hour I had made my way to the glyphs, which were in a small chamber off the main path. They seemed no more than geological anomalies, odd-looking white striations set in a black cave wall. I held the palm of my hand against them, as I saw some other tourists doing, and felt nothing. I returned to my inn dismayed that I had not felt even the slightest fraction of magic. But that night, I had a dream. The dream. The one that had plagued me since I was a child.
It was always the same: the dream began with a cruel reenactment of the worst day of my life – the day I decided to read “Colonel Bellington’s Compendium of Spell-forms” instead of watching over my younger brother, Arthur. I was twelve and he was a capable five years old, but my mother still insisted I go with him whenever he wanted to swim. I sat under an apple tree as he flew into the water, and lost myself in the compendium.
“Come play, Ben!” he yelled out, splashing in the water. “Novels are boring.”
“It’s not a novel,” I said. “It’s a compendium of spells.”
“Is there a spell to make me a shark?”
“These aren’t for casting. They’re just examples.”
“You should read how to do fun stuff! You should learn how to make mud puddles when there’s no rain. Or a spell that can turn me into a shark.”
I don’t know what he said after that because I began to ignore him. I became lost in the book and didn’t look up from the page until I heard my father’s cries. He had come in from the fields to wash in the pond and found Arthur in the lily-pads, floating blue.
From there, the dream departed from true events. I would descend into the pond, not to save Arthur, but to speak to him, to beg his forgiveness. My words would float away, a stream of shining bubbles racing to the surface, while Arthur looked on, his face blank, his eyes dead. And this scene would play out for an eternity until I awoke.
That night in Onyx, my dream was so vivid that I awoke choking, the taste of pond water still in my mouth. I was uncomfortably hot, sweating even after pulling off the sheets of my bed. I put on my boots and stepped outside, but the slight breeze coming off the shore gave no relief. I heard a chirp from above and looked to see a cloud of bats, their black wings barely visible against the midnight sky. They dove into the cliffs and I knew they must be following that chill current of wind that never stopped flowing into the caves. I had to join them, to find cool respite in the womb of the earth, and I hurried toward the caves, certain they were the only cure for my fever.
Still in my night clothes, with only the light of my single lantern, I descended into the caverns as the wind whipped around me. I felt a strange joy, as if being welcomed home after a long voyage, and could not keep myself from smiling. The caves should have been impossible to navigate in so little light, but I could not seem to take a wrong step. I somehow knew my way as if I were in my childhood home. When I came to the glyphs, my fever broke and a chill went through me. I had an odd sensation that Arthur was in the cave somewhere nearby. I spoke his name and waited for an answer.
A sudden gust of wind caught me off guard and I lost my balance. I dropped my lantern as I fell and, with a loud clang, all went black. At first, the darkness of the cave was nothing but a void, but as I scrambled to find my lantern, shapes began to fill in the void. There was an apple tree and below it a familiar book with a red cover. Beyond, I saw lush green grasses growing tall around a wide pond. Arthur came storming out of the water, his lanky limbs glittering in the afternoon sun. His mouth moved as if he were speaking but I couldn’t hear him.
“Arthur!” I yelled and scrambled to my feet.
Urgently, he pointed behind me. I turned to see the red book beneath the apple tree flying toward me. It hovered in the air before me and opened itself. Its pages were blank, but as I peered into the book, a spell began to write itself. My heart swelled as I felt this must be a spell made especially for me, a spell that would allow me to speak with my brother, to finally beg his forgiveness and bring peace to both our hearts. I tried to read what was written but it was all in gibberish. I turned back to Arthur and saw a vast canyon of darkness had fallen between us.
“I’m sorry!” I yelled out. “I’m sorry! Can you hear me?”
But as I spoke, he dissolved into the darkness. I ran forward to find him as if there were a great stretch of space ahead of me and not a wall of stone. My head slammed against the hard rock and it felt as if I’d been sucker-punched by a prizefighter. I dropped to the ground and held my throbbing head until the pain dulled. As I did, the cave winds started back up and I could not stop shivering.
“Please,” I said. “Please come back.”
“Gotta come in the spring,” a voice said. There was a flicker of yellow light and I made out a puffy-faced man sitting on the floor of the cave, his back against the glyph wall. He was holding a match and using it to light my lantern. He glared at me with hollow eyes, made a move to get up, decided he was too drunk for that and leaned once more against the wall.
“In the spring,” he spat out. “Hasn’t anybody told you! They ain’t at their full power until the spring, dammit.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“That’s not important. What the glyphs say, that’s what’s important. That’s all that matters, isn’t it?” he said “But you fools keep coming at the wrong time. Say it, then. You’ll come back in the spring.”
“I’ll come back in the spring,” I said.
“Good man. Now leave,” he said thrusting the lantern into my hand. When I hesitated he yelled out “Get the hell out of here!”
He grew angrier, shouting various profanities until I fled back up to the surface. I was sure he was mad, but at the moment, madness made a great deal of sense. I took his advice to heart and promised myself to return in the spring.
On the zeppelin flight home, as I floated further from the glyphs, I could only think of Arthur in the caves and how he had nearly spoken to me. I decided I would devote my life to deciphering the spell I had not been able to read in that floating red book, that no matter how impossible a task it seemed, I would devise a spell to speak with the dead.
I returned to Silver Forge brimming with faith and optimism, happy to join the ranks of the true-believers. I asked Celia if she would go to Onyx with me once we had our degrees.
“Is this a proposal?” she asked.
“Dammitall, I think it is,” I said.
I had no ring to present, but she didn’t mind. She painted thin black bands on each of our ring fingers, and, together, we cast a spell to make the ink permanent. We graduated in the fall, exchanged vows, slid silver rings over our painted ones, and promptly sailed to Onyx.
The strangest thing about the island was not the spell crafting or the seclusion or even the odd political corruption of a city whose main export was sorcery, but the fact that so many tolerated the torment of its winter. In the dead of an Onyx winter, you despised yourself for staying, but you couldn’t get out. By then, hardly any boat would chance the ice surrounding the island, nor any zeppelin take on the near-constant storms.
Each autumn, when the frigid winds began to blow, most of the island’s residents would take the last ferries of the season back to the mainland, and of course, the rich would book flights to the sunny beaches of Zephyr’s Banks. But Celia and I, along with all the other artists, would stay.
We stayed because only an Onyx winter could make you fully know its spring. Come visit with the tourists in the warm months and you would write home about how beautiful it was. “Oh, cousin Meredith, you must come to see the sparkling white beaches. And the old prince’s castle on the precipice by moonlight. And the tulips blooming in all the colors of the rainbow!”
All fine and well, but if you wanted to know why the artists were here, you had to survive the winter. Then, when spring finally emerged, you would know her properly as your savior. Born again, you would kiss her feet, joyous to be swallowed in her ever-blooming ecstasy. And in this state you would have your best chance with the glyphs.
In the midst of that first winter, with frost on our breath even as a fire roared in our hearth, Celia and I decided we’d leave Onyx before another one came to pass. But in the spring, we went down into the caves, set our hands on the glyphs, and returned to the surface with our minds abuzz with inspiration. We strolled through the hills of blooming wildflowers as sand swirled on the beaches and waves lazily collapsed on the shore and we agreed we’d live in Onyx all the days of our lives.
When I had laid my hands on the glyphs that first spring I did not see Arthur, but heard his voice in my head, faintly humming his favorite lullaby. All the lyrics came back to me and it occurred to me they could be turned into a stellar sleeping spell. I decided this must be the first step in devising a spell to speak with the dead. I would combine an intense sleeping spell with one that could summon the deceased. And in this way, I would bring the living closer to death while luring the deceased closer to life. And there in the space between worlds, the living and the dead could commune. Did it bother me that I had no idea how to cast a spell on the deceased? That there was no precedent for it whatsoever? Not in the least. Standing before the glyphs, I had faith the details would iron themselves out. But when I sat down at home to begin writing, all my ideas became confused and impossible. What seemed rational in the caves, was absurdity anywhere else.
Meanwhile, Celia had felt moved to honor her mother and began a painting of her childhood home. She played with light in a new way and the painting was like a breath of fresh air for the soul. For a time, it was a joy to have that painting in our home, but Celia was never satisfied with it. She could not leave it alone. She painted over her work many times as spring became summer until the composition became disjointed and the only feeling it conjured was confusion.
We spent five years that way, cursing the winters, exalting the springs, and spending the months in between telling ourselves our big break-through was just around the corner.
I found work as a typesetter and Celia waited tables and we tried our best to make a name for ourselves as spell-crafters on an island teeming with people attempting to do exactly the same.
We had some mild successes. I had a knack for writing tawdry love spells which I published under a pen name. Most of them were dirt cheap, wore off too quickly, and had dubious effects, but love spells were in such demand, they could always sell. Celia would go down to the boardwalk and sell paintings to tourists of stars that would actually twinkle in night skies and suns that set before your very eyes. It was enough to keep us at our craft, but not enough to pay the bills.
By the fifth year, up to our necks in debt and without a break in sight, Celia made her case that we ought to leave.
“I’m stuck, Ben,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I paint a carnival or a funeral. All my paintings are about my mother. I thought moving here, feeling my mother in the caves, would help me heal, but it’s only made me fixated on her deathbed. I can’t stand it anymore.”
I had to admit that we were spinning our wheels, and wondered if the glyphs had ever been on our side. I began to think perhaps it was all some kind of cosmic joke and the caves were feeding off our frustrations. I could still sense Arthur when I stood before the glyphs, but I never had a vision as intense as my first trip. And despite a great deal of study, I had come no closer to writing a spell to speak with the dead. I asked Celia for a few weeks to mull over the idea of leaving the island for good. And while I did, winter came early. It came hard, choking the streets in snow and ice. The whole city shut down for months. Celia and I spent a great deal of time huddled by our fire, talking over the future. How we would move back to Silver Forge where the weather was mild, where rent was cheap and where spell-crafters like us could easily find work tutoring students. And then one morning I woke with a fever, retching from the taste of pond water in my mouth.
“Ben, don’t be a moron,” Celia said when she saw me putting on my boots. “There’s still snow on the ground.” Her auburn hair was pulled back and her smock was splattered in violet specks of paint. She had woken early and had begun painting before we’d even made coffee.
I put two layers of sweaters on and said, “There’s been a shift. Spring is here. I’ve never felt it so strong. You feel it too, don’t you?”
“I did feel it,” she said. “I woke inspired.” She sighed and wiped her forehead, smearing purple paint across it. “I had a vision of hope.”
I examined her painting. It was the landscape just outside our window. There were the city rooftops, all in shadow, and beyond, the low rolling hills covered in snow. Above the hills, Celia had painted a lone seagull. I thought he might drop out of the pale blue sky at any moment out of sheer despair.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Heavy,” I said.
She slammed her paintbrush down on the easel. “I give up,” she said. “I can’t escape my mother, or rather, my insufferable self-pity. I’m a one-trick pony. It’s all despair and grief and sorrow and blah, blah, blah.”
She turned to me, hands on her hips. “I think we ought to make a child.”
“You’d have a child as if you were casting a spell. As if there’s some magic in it that will make you stop painting your mother.”
She shrugged. “Why wouldn’t it?”
I laughed. “Be serious. We can barely feed ourselves, Cee-Cee!”
“We’re moving, remember? To a place where people like us are sought after. Where we aren’t just another set of dreamers.”
“Let’s not put the cart before the horse. We’ll move and then make a family.”
I put on my cloak and poured what was left of the previous night’s broth into a canteen.
“Where are you going?” she asked. “There’s no way the shops are opening this early. I don’t care how much we feel it’s spring.”
“I’m going to the glyphs.”
“Moron! You’ll slip on some black ice in those caves and that’ll be the end of you.”
“I have to go.”
“Arthur told me.”
Just before I awoke that morning Arthur had finally done something besides stare at me with his wretched dead eyes. When I had descended into the pond, he had turned to look behind him. There, instead of the usual sun-streaked murk of the pond, I had seen the glyphs, shining bright in the darkness.
Having heard this explanation, Celia turned to her painting and sighed. She addressed the canvas as if it were an old friend familiar with my nonsense.
“I can’t argue with Arthur, can I?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Go then, moron. I very much hope you don’t die.”
I trudged through the snow toward what I thought should be the entrance of the caves, but the cliffs were still blanketed in snow. I sipped my broth and waited for the sun to rise. As it did, the snows shrank and little streams of icy water began to race toward the shores. Finally, a mass of snow toppled from the cliffs and, beyond it, I made out the dark maw of the cave entrance.
I lit my lantern and descended into the cave, but when I reached the entrance to the glyph chamber, I paused. Something was off. I stood a long while contemplating what it was until I realized there was no wind in the cave. And in the place of the rushing wind I could hear a low hum, a vibration I could feel in my bones. I had the distinct feeling there was someone waiting for me. I thought for sure I’d find that old drunk man sitting against the glyph wall, but when I stepped forward, I was alone.
As soon as I saw the glyphs, they began to move. They shifted, blurred, and melted into the cave wall. I was horrified that they might vanish for good. I tried to run to them, but darkness enveloped me. I flailed my arms and realized I was under water, floating in the pond behind my childhood home. I turned my head and there was Arthur, floating before me, only he was alive. I knew he was alive. And I knew I could reach out and bring him back. I knew we’d climb a tree and race for the highest branch. We’d catch frogs and drop them at the top of the hill so we could chase them back down into the pond. And we’d laugh at how he’d almost drowned.
I reached and pulled him to me, and as I did, I was pulled once more into myself. Alone, I stood in the cave, submerged not in water, but in a torrent of thought.
I had a clarity of mind like I’d never experienced before, or since. Parts of spells I had been mulling over for months began sliding into one another and making themselves whole. I sprinted out of the cave in a ruckus and burst forth into the sunlight surrounded by a cloud of black wings that screeched and fluttered into the pink evening sky.
“I have it!” I yelled. “I have it all!”
When I stormed through the door of our flat, I saw that Celia had destroyed the painting she’d been working on. It had been doused in scarab ether, a highly effective paint thinner. All the colors had melded together into a sick dripping brown. Celia was passed out in bed, her smock still on, our last bottle of wine lying empty in her arms. The myriad of burning thoughts shooting through my mind all fell away. The sight of Celia in such disarray stripped me of any other idea than to relieve her of her grief. Celia was the kindest, warmest person I knew, and it seemed a great injustice that she ought to carry the guilt of her mother’s deathbed with her always.
Barely thinking, I sat down and wrote “Regret’s Relief” for her. The spell allowed a person to forgive themselves, irrevocably, for what they most regretted. I had such a clarity of thought it was not hard to make scarab ether the only casting cost, and as soon as it was written, I cast “Regret” on my still sleeping Celia. I then turned back to my desk and began to write the spell that I felt was my destiny. A spell to speak with the dead.
I started off well enough, but halfway through, my writing became confused. I read over my work several times, trying to regain my train of thought until my eyelids grew heavy. Exhaustion overwhelmed me and I passed out on my writing table. I awoke shivering, the fire in our flat having gone out. I read the partially finished spell and it seemed as foreign as if another hand had written it. The clarity of the glyphs had fogged over.
The inspiration did not return, even when I went back down into the caves. It was as if the glyphs had given me the totality of their gift and the tap was now shut off. Still, every morning I would wake and force myself to attempt finishing the spell. Each morning would end with me pounding my fist on the writing table and burning all my failed work in the fire.
While my frustrations grew, Celia’s abated. It took some time to see a change, and it was hard to say when exactly it took hold, but one day I knew it like I knew winter from spring. Her step was ever so faintly lighter, her sleep just a smidge deeper, and her smile, though I previously thought it impossible, became even brighter. Still, I watched her work closely. I had worried “Regret” would make her art suffer, that if she did not carry that certain pain, she couldn’t infuse it into her art. And yet, the opposite was true. She now painted with more confidence and with a greater sense of purpose. Her grief was still there, but instead of wrestling with it, she embraced it and held it firm in her grasp.
People began swearing up and down that they felt an improvement in their health after visiting her exhibition. She leaned into this idea and found herself painting a sunrise that could ease a headache. All of Onyx came to see it. High Society took notice and began an onslaught of commissions she couldn’t hope to keep up with.
By late spring, when parliament opened its door to the public, I was certain “Regret” had worked just as I had written it. I applied for patent approval and was immediately asked to present myself for questioning. Most of the patent committee agreed there had to be some sort of catch. That no spell, especially one that dealt with matters of the heart and mind, no matter how inspired, could be written that clean. I pointed out the spell could only be used once on each person, and they began to warm to its poetry. To test it, the head magistrate used the spell on herself. She wept, stamped my patent, left Onyx that very day, and never returned.
“Regret’s Relief” was, however, deemed a protected spell that could not be sold to the public. Parliament feared the spell would be ill-used by the morally bankrupt, allowing degenerates to alleviate the weight of their conscience. Parliament would administer the spell only to those who seemed fit after thorough interviews. I agreed to their terms and received a lump sum of 500 dollars.
I paid off our outstanding debts and bought the finest pen and paper money could buy. I told myself I could finish “Commune with the Dead” if only my hand could glide more smoothly across the page. I never wrote so much trash in all my life as with that damned pen. Occasionally I’d stumble upon a functional spell, but nothing close to finishing “Commune.” The best I crafted was an incantation to make mourners more talkative at their loved one’s wake.
I also had to deny my constant urge to seek out the glyphs, allowing myself to descend only once per week. And though they never gave me a single clue on how to finish “Commune”, I kept going until, at the peak of summer, the caves were shut down. When I arrived that afternoon, police guarded the entrance. I joined the other agitated glyph devotees as tempers flared until the coroner arrived and announced there had been a death in the caves. I stayed to watch the government spelunkers haul a body out and saw that it was the old drunk man from my first visit to the caves. Someone in the crowd wondered if he’d drunk himself to death.
“Glyph-sickness!” a woman yelled out. “They won’t write that in the obituary, but it’s the truth. Seen it too many times! Sonovabitch had a family and everything.”
On my walk home I had to stop as my stomach clenched. I doubled over and vomited my lunch onto the grass. As I convulsed, I realized I resented the old drunk, then I despised him, and then I hated him with all my being. The bastard was more than half the reason I’d come to Onyx in the first place and now he was keeping me from my glyphs, keeping me from “Commune with the Dead”, keeping me from Arthur. I thought I might have strangled the son of a bitch if he weren’t already dead.
I returned home sweating and belligerent, to find Celia painting furiously. Our flat was covered with her finished work, every painting a sunrise, every one heartbreakingly beautiful. My temper cooled as I took in the landscapes and I wondered at how I could have been so angry about the death of a stranger.
Celia rushed to me, slapping zeppelin tickets in one hand and a glass of bubbly in the other. The tickets were for Zephyr’s Bank.
“How much did this cost?” I asked.
“The Dome, Ben! I’m in the Dome!”
She had won a showing at the Obsidian Dome, at the time the most prestigious gallery in the hemisphere. To celebrate, she demanded we go on vacation. As it turned out, she’d been stowing cash in secret to surprise me. She insisted we go all out and rent a cottage on Zephyr’s Bank. As there seemed no option to disagree, I told myself it was providence. I could take a break from the glyphs, and perhaps gain a new perspective on “Commune with the Dead.”
It was while we were in Zephyr’s Bank that the Patent Committee of the Onyxian Parliament let “Regret’s Relief” be known to the public, writing at length about its potentials in The Northwestern Journal of Incantation. Word spread through Zephyr quickly until Celia came to dinner with her eyes brimming over with tears.
“Ben,” she said, “did you cast it on me?” The truth of it was so plain, I couldn’t hope to lie. I confessed. She held me and cried and thanked me. I apologized for casting the spell on her without her consent. She said she didn’t care. And then she pled for me to cast it on myself.
“It wouldn’t work the same,” I said. “I have too many regrets.”
“Look at you. Every night I hear you gasping and groaning. You haven’t had an honest night’s sleep in months. And your days are spent working on this cursed spell that clearly doesn’t want to be written. This has to stop, Ben.”
Leaving Onyx had not, as I’d hoped, alleviated my desire for the glyphs. I woke several times each night, always in a sweat and gasping for air. I would spend most of my days sitting on the beach with my journal and pen, facing the direction of Onyx, sometimes writing, but mostly staring out at the sea. In the face of insurmountable evidence against my mental well-being, I had no choice but to lie.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Creating a spell so immense has put me in a state of unrest, but there will be an end.”
The lie sounded good and I decided to believe it myself. “Every day,” I said, “I come closer to finishing my work.”
“Then let’s make a child,” Celia said. “What are we waiting for? Poverty is no longer an excuse. People will throw money at you and me alike, just to hear us pontificate on the arts.”
“We’re on our way up, Celia. Children would only slow us down.”
“I want a child, Ben.”
“Why not now?”
“Let art be your child!”
She struck me then. Celia, who barely had the nerve to smack a gnat, made the full brunt of her painter’s hand known to me.
“Don’t make this about me,” she said. “It’s about you. It’s about Arthur.”
We did not speak the rest of that day, nor the next, which was our final day of the vacation. We did, however, follow through on our plan to picnic for dinner. We had yet to observe the evening ritual of the crabs coming into the bay, and neither of us wanted to miss it. We sat on the beach in silence as the crab’s mating ritual set the night shore aglow in a humming violet bioluminescence. The full moon hung low, shining bright. It pulled at the womb of the earth and I felt that gravity shoot through my soul. For a fleeting moment, I saw myself making a family with Celia. She must have seen it in my eye because she said, “I deserve it, Ben. We deserve it.”
She was lying on the bed of bluegrass, just off the sand, in an ivory gown bathed in starlight. The King of Fairies might have mistaken her for his queen. I played the part of an ass and did nothing about it. Instead, I looked out over the bay, and even though I knew it was impossible, I decided I could see the shores of Onyx on the horizon.
In the morning, as I was packing my things for the return, Celia laid her hand on mine.
“Let’s stay,” she said.
I froze and waited for her to go on, but she only stared at me steadfast and pitying.
“I have to return,” I said.
“That island is making you sick, Ben. We should be the happiest we’ve ever been, but you’re a mess. My sister is a day’s train ride away in Silver Forge. Let’s go for a visit.”
I allowed myself to consider not returning to Onyx and my stomach turned itself over. Bile rose in my throat.
“This is how you repay me?” I asked. “I release you from the torment of your mother and now you’d stop me from writing my masterpiece?”
“I’m going to Silver Forge,” she said. “And I want you to come with me. What I’m not going to do is watch you torture yourself when you could simply cast ‘Regret’ on yourself and be free from Arthur.”
“You mean I should leave him behind. Abandon him.”
“He’s gone, Ben.”
“Go, then. Go to Silver Forge and find some poor schmuck and make all the babies you want.”
She didn’t dignify my attack with a response. She only packed her things, told me to come to Silver Forge when I was ready, and left on the next train. I told myself it was all for the best. That our paths had diverged. We were getting in the way of each other’s happiness.
When I returned to Onyx I marched straight for the caves, only to find the entrance still boarded over. Only now there was a notice glued to the boards announcing that another poor soul had died in the caves and, until thorough investigations could be completed, the caves were closed indefinitely.
Celia wrote asking me to send her painting supplies, and a few weeks later, she wrote again asking for her wardrobe. Several months after that, she asked for the rest of her things. In each letter she would describe the many well-paying jobs I could take on in Silver Forge and how she thought she could set up her own school for spell-painting. I shipped her things off and responded to her letters by repeating the lie I now held most dear: that I was oh so very close to finishing my work and that I would be along soon.
Eventually, the flat was void of most all her things and I realized how little I had. There was my writing table, the bed, the dresser of clothes. They all stared at me like idiot friends.
“All for the best,” they said. “Now you’re free to get some real work done.”
Winter came and I spent it alone in a flat that was too empty and in dreams that were too real. There were a few dark days in the dead of winter where I convinced myself the flat was the afterlife, a purgatory made up special for me.
When spring returned and I was able to go out and meet with people again, I gained back some sanity. I wrote a letter to Celia telling her I was ready to have children. That I was going to write a book of love spells. That I was done with the glyphs and “Commune with the Dead” for good. I took it to the post office and was about to drop it into the mail bin when a vision came to me. I saw a host of my own children perishing as they fell off of roofs, tripped down stairs, got run over by trains, and drowned in ponds while I sat hunched over my writing desk. I took the letter home and fed it to the fire.
I began taking sleeping draughts to keep my dreams at bay and quickly became addicted to them. When those became too expensive, I turned to hard liquor. I lost my typesetting job and was booted from the flat after missing half a year’s rent. I washed dishes for The Mermaid’s Tale and the owner let me stay in his attic. I told myself I was waiting for a sign from the glyphs, or Arthur, or something I could not name.
When the ferries once more declared they had two weeks left before they closed for the winter, I wept. I was a failure, and a drunk to boot. I felt myself a coward as well, terrified of another winter in Onyx, of what it might do to my mind. I bought a ferry ticket for Silver Forge. I had an idea I would search out Celia and beg her forgiveness, but as the ship left the dock, I rushed off, leaping back to the shore.
“Now,” I told myself. “Now that you’ve given up all you have. Now that you’ve shown the glyphs how serious you are, they will deliver you!”
I stumbled through the first snow flurries of the year, my veins coursing with more booze than blood. I brought a hammer with me and the last I remember was many failed attempts to pry the boards off the cave entrance.
When I came to, I was lying on a hospital bed. Celia stood over me. Her belly was round with child and her hair was shorter but shone brighter. She had dark circles under her eyes and I could tell that she had been crying.
“Dammitall,” I said. “You’ve got to leave. I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“Too late,” she said, and she laid her hand on mine. I saw her silver wedding band was gone, but the one of black ink remained.
“You shouldn’t be here,” I said. “Winter will come. You’ll be stranded.”
“You’re right,” she said. “I have tickets to return to Silver Forge tomorrow morning. So buck up and show these nurses you can walk out of here.”
I found I could stand on my own, and I put on my best show for the nurses. Celia signed me out of the hospital and escorted me down to Angler’s Brewery by the piers. She had sold a painting to the owner recently and wanted me to see it. So we sat by the Angler’s hearth and took in her work, hung over the mantel.
The painting was of our flat, back when we’d both inhabited it. I waited until the cordial I’d ordered was finished before I took my eyes off the painting and steadied them on Celia.
“I feel no change,” I said. “I fear your painting’s a dud.”
“I think you should write some spells for Arthur.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
“No. You’ve been trying to write something for yourself. Write something for Arthur.”
I could see she was watching me, the way I had once watched her. I looked at the painting again and a weight lifted. A key turned. A frost on my heart shook free.
She laughed and wept at the same time. “I’m sorry it took so long to paint. You’re a stubborn little moron, so it had to be just so.”
“What is it? Did you somehow paint ‘Regret’s Relief?’”
“No. I went with a different approach.”
She smiled. “A love spell.”
“And whom will I fall in love with?”
“Yourself. You’ll love yourself as much as I did. As much as I do. And there’s nothing you can do about it, moron.”
She sat back in her chair, arms crossed, beaming.
I thought of saying “Damn you to hell,” but all that came out was, “Thank you, Celia.”
She wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and stared at the ring of ink on her left hand.
“Help me cast this off?” she asked.
“Maybe I won’t.”
“Because you love me.”
We spoke the spell together and I watched as the ink slowly faded away from both our hands.
We shared one glass of wine and I let her go home. I sat in Angler’s, ordered a coffee, paper, and an ink-pot. I scribbled out a spell I called “Puddle Prisms” that made mud puddles that shone with all the colors of the rainbow. I used all my knowledge of shadows and light to make an illusion wherein ordinary fish would momentarily look like great big sharks. And then I wrote another spell for Arthur, and another, and as I wrote I felt Arthur’s spirit rise within me and go swimming across the page.