The Limits of Magic
There is no magic that can soothe a crying baby.
There are salves for rashes, potions for fevers, incantations for sounder sleep. There are glamours to enhance their toys, spells to make their rattles spark and their dolls blink. Magic can protect and heal and entertain.
But your baby is still crying. This isn’t an illness. It isn’t erupting teeth. It isn’t achy bones or cat scratches or a wet bottom. She isn’t too cold, she isn’t too hot, she isn’t hungry, she isn’t tired. Sometimes babies just cry.
And sometimes she’s crying because you’re crying.
It doesn’t do any good to wipe your eyes, because she isn’t looking at your face. She’s responding to the tension in your arm and shoulder as you walk her back and forth. She’s responding to the timbre of your voice, increasingly desperate.
There is no magic that can soothe your grief, so there is no magic that can soothe your baby.
He shouldn’t have gone alone.
There is no magic that can bring him back.
Once he set his mind to the task, there wasn’t a spell in the world that could stop him. But you would have tried. There are talismans to reveal potential futures, and charms to make listeners more amenable, and, if all else fails, wards to block a door.
Instead you woke up to the baby’s pre-cry snuffling and you stagger-yawned over to her cradle. It wasn’t until you were in your chair, wincing at the first greedy tug on your nipple, that you realized your bed was empty.
The nights are always cold in the desert, but that one was positively freezing. A little voice of denial suggested that he might be outside, but it didn’t hold sway for long. You knew the truth: his side of the bed had been empty for hours, from the moment your head hit the pillow after her midnight meal. The slightest twitch from the baby roused you, but apparently your subconscious didn’t give a damn about your lover.
You already knew what you’d find: the horses gone and a messenger bird caged in their place. He wouldn’t leave you stranded, but he would slow you down. It was an argument he ended without even giving you a chance to shout.
He should have told you what he was planning to do, but as soon as the baby was born, he got this idea fixed in his head, as though you were suddenly incapable of defending yourself.
But you’d been capable of running away with him. You’d been capable of fighting off the Pyrandian guards, six young men you ate breakfast with every morning before you betrayed them. You had been perfectly capable of calling up the sands on Malkan Road, when the slitherbeasts would have consumed your entire party and ended the escape right there.
And now he’s left you behind.
By the time you receive help from the caravan, he has already reenlisted with the Sandurran high command. By the time you track him down on your borrowed horse, he’s already dead.
You had a chance to prevent all of this, but you chose to hide.
There is no magic that can stop a war. There are, of course, numerous ways that magic can start one.
The War of Red Sands began with an assassination via cursed diadem, a gift from the Czar of Sandurra to the High Regent of Polenka. The War of the Harvest Moon began with the theft of a sandblasted prism capable of revealing the truth in any written word. Forty people died before the Polenkian Guard returned the prism to Sandurra.
The particulars varied, but the conflict was the same: magic. Back and forth, back and forth, Sandurra and Polenka battled for magical artifacts, for secrets, for rare ingredients and ancient texts. But no resource was more valuable than blood, because not even the simplest charm could be activated unless the user was born with glow.
In Sandurra, they tested for it.
In Polenka, they bred for it.
This war, as yet unnamed in the history rolls, began with an illusion: a simple glamour cast by a young woman fleeing the capital of Polenka. She cloaked herself in the appearance of a Sandurran noblewoman and escaped her family estate with her three most loyal ladies-in-waiting. She met her paramour in the dead of night, at the juncture of Midnight Wells and Malkan Road.
She was immediately declared stolen, with her marriage rights revoked and a war party dispatched to bring her back. It was not the first time a gentlewoman had been carried off, but never one so highly ranked: the wife of the High Regent.
You knew the truth, oh loyalist of ladies-in-waiting. You could have gone home and faced the consequences of helping her escape. The shame upon your house would have been alleviated at least a little by the news you bore.
But by then you had fallen in love with a man in desert robes, and he told you all about a curious society living on the roads between Sandurra and Polenka. A society of wagons and horses and tents; of traders who spent their days transporting goods and their nights singing around a campfire; a place where your origin did not matter and perfect Polenkians did not exist.
You let your mistress run away, and you remained in the desert. It wasn’t your problem, after all. One woman couldn’t carry the weight of a war on her shoulders. If you felt a twinge of remorse for the women left behind, it was only regret that they could not save themselves.
You buried your head with the same futile determination as a bulbeye lizard: your belly exposed to the elements but your eyes firmly shut.
When the fighting began, you considered returning. Your lover was wracked with guilt (in retrospect you should have realized what he would do), but he wouldn’t make the decision on your behalf. You were pregnant by then and consumed with worry over the coming child.
You remembered what had happened to your mistress’s firstborn. If a highborn, purebred baby could be imperfect, there was no hope for yours, only half-Polenkian and conceived under such stress.
There is no magic that can eliminate the ordeal of childbirth, however much you wish that were true.
You were with your mistress that day. All of her ladies attended the birth, weaving pain relief into the charms around her belly and rubbing oils into the muscles of her back. When she was in front of the assemblymen—the speakers and magicians and warmongering politicians—she maintained perfect beauty and calm. Here, alone with her ladies, she was free to cry.
The baby came after a full day and night, terribly pale but squalling the life into his cheeks. Everyone in the room burst into tears, exhausted and triumphant and none more so than his mother. There was still work to be done to ensure her safe recovery, but she held that babe to her chest and ignored the efforts below her waist.
The inspector came shortly thereafter, forbidding in his red robes, and everyone’s elation gave way to despair. The child was weak, he said. Milky in the eyes, wobbly, disoriented. The child had no glow. Better that he find his right place now, rather than taste life among the aristocracy before his inevitable rejection.
The baby was sold. Your mistress returned to court two months later, and though she was as composed and calm and beautiful as before, her ladies knew the truth. There would be no second child for the High Regent.
You were never certain if she truly loved the Sandurran ambassador, but you faithfully carried their letters back and forth in the ribbing of your bodice, and you watched her resolve harden like fresh-cooled glass.
There was no question of whether her ladies could stay behind. You would all be imprisoned for your complicity if caught. By casting your lot in with your mistress, you were giving up your home, your family, your prospects. You did not yet know what you would find in the desert.
And all because you had conspired not to marry.
There is no magic that can turn a red-cheeked girl into a pale-faced noblewoman. That takes a long and tiresome education.
You excelled at your studies: dancing and fluting, mathematics and astronomy, spells and sand sculpting. The pursuits of a lady. Your father hinted at your coming betrothal, a match that would serve him well in the hall of representatives. You acquiesced, but as the day approached you found you could not go through with it, and you turned to magic for a solution.
You found something: a very old blood ritual to repress the woman’s natural cycle. It existed in no book, but was whispered about extensively in the bathhouse. When the time came for nuptial negotiations, you told the midwife you thought you might be deficient. You sounded very worried, which, of course, you were. At the end of the inspection, she stared at your face for so long you thought you’d faint from holding your breath.
It was her field. Of course she knew. She asked, very softly, if you understood what you were giving up. For the first time in your life, you wondered how someone became a midwife, outside the system and yet inextricably tangled up in it.
You hesitated, the specter of your father filled with furious disappointment in your thoughts. You shook him off and thought of your mother instead, fallen in her sixth attempt at that most noble pursuit: birthing a perfect son.
You said yes, very firmly, though your confidence was a lie.
The midwife told your father the bad news: you were not fit to bear children. He had no sons and no marriageable daughters. It was a blow, but only a temporary one. By the time you applied to be a lady-in-waiting, he was married again, to a girl scarcely older than yourself. She seemed eager to fill the nursery—but then, she was the youngest of her siblings and had not seen what it entailed.
Imagine how much different things would be, if you were a boy.
There is no magic that can change the circumstances of your birth.
Your mother told you about it often, when you were wrapped in her arms in the nursery. She knew you were going to be a girl by the midwife’s auguries, and secretly she was glad. Boys grow up and leave, she said. When your father is gone and your brothers are keeping wives of their own, who will be there for me?
You never had any brothers. You watched your mother grow and shrink, grow and shrink. Three times she carried a boy, and your father was more attentive than you’d ever seen him. Privately your mother confessed: it would be such a relief to be done.
But none of them glowed. The inspector took them away, and they became somebody else’s sons. Your mother’s sixth pregnancy—which she desperately hoped would yield her second legitimate child—was her undoing. A rupture, the midwife said, from previous scarring. There is no magic that can stop a hemorrhage on that scale.
You left the nursery shortly thereafter, and only then understood the degree to which your mother had sheltered you. In that realm of noblewomen and babies, the machinations of the assembly were watered down to etiquette lessons. Food and shelter were a given, and not dependent upon proving one’s worth to a male benefactor.
A lie, of course, because it was your mother paying for your safe upbringing. She hid the truth out of love for you. She meant to be there, to soften the blow when the time came, but you found out by yourself.
Sometimes you fantasize that you could have stayed in the nursery forever and never entered the world of men at all. But there is no magic that can keep you young. Eventually, if the gods see fit to let you live, you become an adult. And then, regardless of the world that raised you, you are responsible for shaping the world you find.
You only wish you had learned this lesson sooner.
There is no magic that can make you a good woman in Polenka. That is a lesson passed down from mother to daughter, and what your mother learned from her mother was this:
A quiet life is a happy life. Speak little, smile often.
There is grace in forgiveness. There is no grace in resentment.
The home is the expression of the soul, and the woman is its caretaker.
Bearing children is an act of worship and an act of patriotism. Women are the soil in which the seeds of the future are nurtured. It is a responsibility. It is an honor. If there is only one lesson you impart upon your own future daughter, it must be this: be grateful for the man who provides the home you get to keep.
Your mother lied.
It is the duality of the lie—the simultaneous burden of the home and honor of the home—that makes it so difficult to resist. If a Polenkian girl questions her fate, she often finds the quickest to rage is not her father, but her mother.
The women of Polenka spend their lives simmering in resentment and perfecting ways to hide it. The worse their burden, the more fiercely they embrace it, because if they pause for one moment, if they look back at the course of their lives and acknowledge what has been done to them, they will collapse with grief.
Instead, they insist that it is right. They insist their lives are precisely as they are meant to be, and they mold their daughters to the same path. They do unto others what was done unto them, and by assuming the mantle of authority that once hurt them, they justify their upbringing.
But a cycle can be broken. Painfully, yes, slowly, yes. It will take a generation of mothers to confront the truth of their lives, to acknowledge the years and opportunities robbed from them, to consciously decide not to ask the same from their daughters.
It will take a generation of mothers admitting that:
There is no magic that is worth the loss of your unglowing children. There is no magic that can make you want this life, this home, this silence, this submission. There is no magic that can bury your resentment, that can bring back your youth, that can unspeak those vows, that can unsmile those smiles, that can change all of those unhappy yeses to firm noes.
There is no magic that can eliminate your desire for more.
There is no magic that can fix any of those things, so you tuck your sleeping child into the arms of another woman and try not to imagine her distress upon waking up.
You ride home, and as you ride, you weave powerful wards around your body.
By the time you dismount in the central courtyard there is an amber light preceding you, and eddies of sand dance around your feet, attracted to the residual glow. When the guards approach, you warn them: you will break a week’s worth of bindings and bring the entire building down with you.
You enter the hall of representatives unmolested, word of your arrival sprinting ahead on bare, juvenile feet. You glance at the errand boy, as you always do, wondering if you’ll see a hint of your mother in his face.
There are three dozen men on the speaking floor, your father among them. At first you can scarcely glance in his direction, afraid his anger alone will cleave your defenses in half. You focus on the golden effigy hanging over the proceedings: Father Sun, always watching from his place of prominence behind the High Regent’s seat. You want to tear it down. You want to scream.
Instead you tell them a story, about a young woman who was desperate to leave the city. About another young woman who helped her escape and found a different way of living on the long road to a strange land.
They come up quickly from beneath the High Regent’s podium: six guards in red gauntlets, their forearms already glowing with repulsive spell-work.
You back away, letting your own work unspool around your feet like lava. You raise your voice and tell them about your baby. Your baby who was born with pale eyes like a Sandurran and no sign of magic. Your baby, who is more important than this cruel quest for purebred Polenkian magicians.
You make it through the door, and you shout to the crowd gathering there. You implore them to send an envoy to the Sandurran court. To ask the High Regent’s wife why she left. To truly listen to the answer. Not one of them moves.
The guards are on your heels. You reach deep, unhook the last bit of mental thread holding a week’s worth of stored energy at bay. You shut your eyes, and take a breath, and picture your daughter’s round little face, one last time.
But you are too late for martyrdom.
The guards are quick, and they catch the flaming whips of your magic before they combust. You are not immolated.
You are arrested.
Your father is humiliated. He wants your baby sold, your parentage revoked, your friends investigated for conspiracy. He demands you lead them back to the caravan, so they can retrieve the other women seeking refuge in the desert.
He is voicing your worst fears, the very consequences that kept you compliant for so long. But you had to speak. For yourself and for those who can’t.
Your father continues to threaten and shout, but you’ve had a lifetime of lessons in remaining silent. It isn’t very difficult to retreat back into your shell. At last, he leaves.
Your breasts ache. Somewhere in the desert, your baby is being fed by another woman. The anger ebbs away, and you are left alone with your doubts. They multiply like sandflies, ruthless and biting: you spoke too long, you didn’t speak enough, you should have destroyed the hall when you had the chance, you should have stayed outdoors, not one of them look surprised, not one of them raised a hand in your defense, not one—
When your tears are done, you settle in, as best as you can, and you prepare for what comes next. There will be pain. There will be fear, and lies, and hunger. The shackles on your wrists prevent all but the most rudimentary spell-work.
You’re not alone.
Because that night a face appears in the narrow window, young and girlish, and she asks in a high, curious whisper how a woman like yourself got put behind locks.
You tell her a story, about a young woman desperate to leave the city, and she is rapt. Her eyes are dark pools, scanning your face like a book.
The next night she brings a friend. The night after that, a different friend. Mostly they are girls, but some are boys, and that lodges a different sort of stone in your chest. The girls must want change, but the boys must embrace it.
They’re cautious but curious. They’re hungry.
Your days are filled with interrogation and humiliation, but something else happens after dark. You have become underground governess to a generation of discontent. They pepper you with questions, about history and geography and government and everything you saw in the desert, and you speak, and speak, and speak.
And you listen.
They whisper their grievances, nothing they’d ever dared voice in public. Many have stories of their own, but they also have friends, acquaintances, rumors shared behind closed doors. They weep for their mothers, aunts, sisters. They weep in a different way for their fathers, uncles, brothers, caught just as surely under the weight of expectation. And some of them crouch even closer and tell you that they don’t think they are boys or girls at all, and they describe lives ironed out into unbearable flatness, when the truth was so much more beautifully complex.
You gather up these unhappy children, these brave and shining youth aching with discontent, and you give them the lesson you wish your mother had imparted to you, when you sat on her knee in the nursery and drank her words like milk:
There is no magic that can change the past. It is up to you to shape the future.
One night, months later, you are awakened by a glimmer of light. You crawl, disoriented, malnourished, confused, to the window, and what you see there lifts you to your feet.
The hall of representatives is on fire.
There are women in the street.
Samantha Mills lives in Southern California, in a house on a hill that is hopefully not a haunted hill house. Her short fiction has also appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Escape Pod, among others. She wants you to know: all of us are safe, or none of us are.
Author of “The Limits of Magic”
What inspired you to write this story/poem?
2016 happened, and the thought of running away sounded nice, even though that fantasy broke down immediately in-text as soon as I started writing it. (Also I had a newborn baby in 2017, and phew, 3am is rough, there is no magic that will make a newborn sleep through the night!!)
What do you hope readers take from this story/poem?
That realizing you have been complicit in an oppressive system isn’t enough. You have to actually do something about it.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?
Five major rounds of revision and sixteen submissions! I wrote a rough draft in 2017, but it ended too quickly and neatly. I kept returning to it over the next couple of years. I would send it out on submission a few times, get encouraging rejections, realize it wasn’t working how I wanted, and then revise some more. Every time I revised, the story followed its protagonist a little further along her journey. I think I’ve got it now!
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
I just read The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith and loved it (it’s a library! in Hell!). I also highly recommend In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, because it inspired and devastated me in equal measures and that’s impressive.