Talk of the Kalunga Line had fallen out of fashion in Orikimeri since in that land of magic, crossing the Line was a fact of life. You went from the land of the living to that of the dead, bisimbi accompanying your soul the entire way. Those were some of the only things Dwayne Smith remembered from when he was half dozing back in school. It was only when he was lying in the dirt and covered in his own blood, his trip home interrupted, that a few more tidbits came back to him.
Bisimbi were temperamental, never approach them alone, and—
You cannot be sure what they look like, so be careful near the water, especially at night.
Dwayne had left home before dawn that morning, trying to avoid the tourist crowds the Conception Festival was already drawing. Chrysallis, his hometown, was the largest town in the northern flats, and the only one with enough children to warrant making a big deal out of the day. For Dwayne, that meant spending the day in his family’s forge making meaningless trinkets.
They had an established production line. His father blew glass, his mother took a day off from making useful things like glade traps and protection talismans to making metal display stands and earring hooks and necklace clasps. Dwayne put the finishing touch on their wares: a fire spell that kept a flame going in a tiny glass enclosure for upwards of a year. They did not make the earrings and pendants and desk adornments beforehand; stockpiling was inappropriate for a festival meant to celebrate the first sparks of life having been able to grow into a flame. What good were they to anyone if they’d been sitting on a shelf for a year?
Dwayne didn’t believe that, however. There was no reason he had to do the fire spell on the spot, not when so many people came to the forge just to buy gifts no one would ever wear. The fire spells he’d been playing with since he was a child were just that—something to play with. And he’d grown sick of just playing.
And then he came to in the Chrysallis hospital, never having found the spellbook archives he left town to find. He’d run across mentions of the archive in rarely used on making enchanted weapons. Few came to the forge looking for those, and his mother was picky about who she made them for. Dwayne was far less discretionary and if the archive had been real, he would have even known how to make something as intriguing as a scythe. Maybe he wouldn’t sell anything quite that drastic, but it was better than lame things like an axe that always came back after you threw it.
Hours he’d spent wandering in the forest, finding the landmarks on his map—the signpost with the unidentifiable skulls hanging from it, the dried up well that was boarded up after a witch disappeared in it, the blood colored rocks strewn along the main trail. All of those things he found with ease but he ran across nothing that might be hiding spellbooks. No wooden doors hidden on the forest floor, no hidden switches to open the trunk of a tree—by sunset, he would have even settled for finding a single carving.
But there was nothing. And with that nothing, the inevitability of being stuck working in his family’s forge began to fully sink in. Was it not for his father that might not have been such a bad fate.
“You ain’t so slick you can’t stand another greasin’,” was quite possibly Dwayne’s least favorite phrase. He loathed the condescension in the words, loathed the idea that he was perpetually one misstep away from landing into the sort of mess only a more experienced witch could help him out of. Had he ever heard it from his mother, he could admit that maybe he did need to slow down. Perhaps hurling around magic with the bare minimum of finesse required to practice magic in the town confines wasn’t the best way to go about witchcraft. But coming from his father, a man who wasn’t half the witch Dwayne was?
Sure, his father could start a fire, conjure a few drops of rain, whisk air around, crack a rock in a pinch. But he was so slow at casting spells, even slower than Dwayne had been as a child and it was embarrassing. Dwayne had never said as much but the older he got, the less his father did magic in public. Or perhaps it was just Dwayne he didn’t do magic in front of. But despite all that, Dwayne knew the man would have never found himself attacked by a simbi.
Out of habit, Dwayne gave the Kala Creek a wide berth on his way to the forest, only going close to cross the bridge. He hated traveling on foot, but it couldn’t be helped when he wasn’t sure where exactly to set the portal coordinates. A few degrees off, and he would be falling through a void for hours with no telling where he might land. And as he made the trek home, he found the simbi perched on the Kala Bridge, unassuming.
“Are you waiting for someone?”—Dwayne knew he’d asked that. It seemed only polite to ask; with any luck, the walk back home wouldn’t be so lonely. But he got no answer, not even a glance in his direction.
At the time, he hadn’t questioned it since even in the fading afternoon light, he knew he looked awful. He gave up plucking the leaves out of his hair, opting to let the reds and oranges clash with the silver of his braids until he made it home. Everything else was covered in dust, twigs sticking to the rips in his worn pants and new holes had sprung up in the flannel shirt, brown skin peeking through them. At least the clothes were from his father’s yet-to-be rags pile that he could just toss later. A sorry sight he was, even to a weary traveler like the one the simbi had appeared to be.
“You should head into town soon; they say the simbi will get you,” he’d said, not serious in the slightest.
The features of what he mistook for a person were obscured when it turned towards him. In fact, he could not say its limbs were in fact limbs; its feet could have been a fish tail, and maybe those were gills along its neck. By the time he realized his mistake, his back had hit the side of the bridge, the wood creaking from the force. He registered the gash on side his before the fact that he was somehow face down on the dirt path on the other side of the bridge, the side going away from Chrysallis. He remembered nothing after that, only the glow emanating from the creature.
Dwayne lay still in his hospital bed, focusing on each breath he took. He couldn’t inhale properly yet. Perhaps by morning, the doctor had said.
He’d only been half-lucid when the explanations came. They’d had to find a specialist to get him through a portal unscathed; stasis spells weren’t something he needed at the forge. Burns and cuts were easy enough to treat without needing to slow down time. That was overkill for anyone aside from a surgeon. But the gash that ran the length of his side was deep enough that there was no telling how much he’d have bled otherwise.
None of that answered how he got to the hospital, however. The only question he’d been able to get out was, “Who?”
It wasn’t either of his parents; they’d have been there when he woke. And the path he’d taken to the forest was sparsely traveled even during peak tourist seasons. There was a good chance he’d have died if no one was nearby.
“Someone in town for the festival; didn’t leave a name,” was all the doctor had to say on the matter. “Who can come for you?”
Dwayne was only just able to think through the pain, but he knew he was not welcome.
“Someone’s already coming.” The words did not come easily to him. “I’ll be gone by morning.”
A curt nod later and Dwayne was alone, waiting for his father to arrive.
Both his parents knew of his predicament by now if the cracked beacon pendant on his bedside table was anything to go by. It took them months to forge mostly on account of his father’s lack of talent, but he acquiesced and kept it on his person whenever he left the town. He supposed they were right to ask, given his current state. Hopefully the replacement wouldn’t take so long to make.
But he’s going to come. It’s always him who comes.
The sleep Dwayne fell into while he waited was not dreamless, but he could not see. He felt only rocking, smelled and tasted only death. For a moment, he thought the simbi had followed him even here, back into the safety of Chrysallis, determined to finish him off while he slept. Maybe he was not one they would be a benevolent force to; maybe he would be one who they felt needed to die. Dwayne could not fight back in this state, where he couldn’t move for his wrists and ankles were bound, and spells felt so foreign on his lips.
Ice ran up his right arm where the simbi must have been touching him. It had no luster in this dream, no aura it gave off. He tried to pull away, blinking rapidly until on one blink, he could see again and the murky grey ceiling of the hospital greeted him, and his right arm was warm.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen to you. Not here.”
Ah. So that wasn’t the simbi. The dream was over and for a moment, he thought he might have preferred it.
Dwayne was no stranger to fists or blood but today his mother wasn’t around to give one of those monotonous lectures about not picking pointless fights while his father dressed his wounds in silence, not so much as passing judgment on his son. He missed the silence more than the monotony.
“Dad, I’m not dead.” The reassurance came out far more gently than he meant it to.
He tried to act the part and sat up on his own. The doctors work was solid, a cracked rib completely healed already but the bruising would take a few days, even with magic. Skin or bones, the doctors always said, never both at once. Breathing was still something of a chore, but Dwayne needed to quell his father’s tears sooner rather than later. He couldn’t do that lying down.
But he also had no idea where to begin, not when that face that looked so much like his own was contorted with inexplicable pain. The grey in his father’s beard seemed more pronounced as of late, his cheeks more hollow than usual. Not too long ago he could have counted the silver strands that had made their way into the old man’s locs; now, there was practically no black left at the roots.
“Enough, dad,” he sighed. “You not some frail old man. I’m fine.”
“Fine?” his father whispered. “You call being pulled out the river half-dead fine?”
“I’m alive. Mom would have found me before I died. Where is she?” he tried to change the subject. He did not want to be in a place like this with his father, where there was nowhere to go and nothing to talk about. The room was bland, not even a copy of the pamphlet Chrysallis passed off as a newspaper lying around. Just a side table and a couple of chairs, one of which held his laundered but tattered clothes.
“What did the simbi show you?” his father pressed, completely ignoring Dwayne’s question. At least he’d stopped the sniveling.
“Nothing,” Dwayne frowned. “It just attacked me.”
“You’re sure it showed you nothing?”
“They just attack you if you get too close, which is what I did. That’s all it was.”
His father sat back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling, the silence all encompassing. Always cryptic, never giving a straight answer besides when he taught Dwayne how to count—who could deal with a parent like that?
Nattie Smith’s arrival to the Chrysallis hospital was a welcome one for Dwayne. His mother’s presence ate away his father’s silence, made the air in the room light enough to take in. She worked with her hands, something not many witches chose to do, and her hands were smoothed and calloused when she took a hold of Dwayne’s. She had less grey than his father, but more wrinkles. “Ain’t nothin’ funny about smithing. You’ll break a finger if you don’t focus,” she always said of the frown she often sported while working.
Dwayne knew she was often asked to justify both her husband and son. Why would the best blacksmith in the northern flats bother getting involved with a witch with so little skill he had next to no use for her wares? And then to raise a talented witch that turned out like Dwayne? It was baffling at worst and simply ludicrous at best. Dwayne had heard talk on either end of that spectrum when no one thought he was listening.
She held herself together under the questioning stares as she supported Dwayne on the walk to the hospital lobby, the one area that was cleared for portal use. The staff averted their gazes as the Smith family walked by, and Dwayne recognized them from the last few Conception Festivals. One nurse had come to the forge a few times to get the fire spell on a desk ornament refreshed, each time thanking Dwayne personally. Now, the nurse wouldn’t look at him.
On his own, Dwayne would have faltered long before they reached the exit. He didn’t know why the hospitals insisted on looking so lifeless and uninviting and grey. Unlike the rounded wicker furniture that was so commonplace in most of Chrysallis, everything was angular and uncomfortable. Even though most hospital stays were only a day or two, it didn’t have to be so…soulless.
They were so close to the exit, only needed to make it past the pharmacy.
“What’s this?” Dwayne had been looking down, watching every step he took. His equilibrium had been thrown off, another of those things a quick spell couldn’t sort out.
Dwayne forced himself to stand on his own, ignoring how every breath still stung. He’d acted far too foolish in school to let Mr. Chase see him in this state, much less know what he’d done; it was in Mr. Chase’s class that he was taught about bisimbi. Dwayne was nineteen, but he fell back, letting his parents handle the empty pleasantries. They politely smiled and nodded when the teacher ran down a long list of medicines and spells he needed to take care of his kidney stones. He only hoped Mr. Chase hadn’t overheard any of the hospital gossip, of which Dwayne knew he was the topic of the evening.
“And how are you, Dwayne?”
Mr. Chase always peered at Dwayne over the top of his glasses, always having had some idea of his antics around the school grounds. He figured out before anyone else that Dwayne and his friends were responsible for the weather spell that had hovered over the school for weeks, even offered extra credit if they could undo it. None could, but only Dwayne pretended it was out of pure petulance. His mother made the trip to the school that time, one of the few times she was ever truly angry with him.
And now here he was, hiding behind his parents after all those years of swearing he could own up to his own mistakes. And given Mr. Chase’s expression? The same smirk he’d given when he posited that perhaps Dwayne just didn’t know how to undo the weather spell? He knew about the encounter with the simbi.
“It was nice to see you both again, though I do trust it’ll be under better circumstances next time. Mr. Smith. Mrs. Smith. Dwayne.” He didn’t need to say what he knew. But within the week, word would be across Chrysallis.
Dwayne had no choice but to rely on his father when they went through the portal home since his mother had to work the spell. It only took his mother a few minutes to plot the coordinates to the forge behind their house, and another to open the portal. He hated the weightlessness when they went through, the pitch black nothingness that surrounded them, the sinking feeling when they were nearly to the destination, and the sudden increase in gravity the moment their feet hit the ground.
Dwayne joined his father at the garbage bins near the forge’s entrance. He hadn’t eaten since the morning, and had relieved himself in the forest before his ill-fated trek home, so nothing but bile came up to sting his throat. He finished at the bins before his father, and made his way around to the spigot near the back door to the house to rinse his mouth. His mother sat on the back steps, waiting for them before she went inside. Dwayne sat next to her, already knowing what he would say when his father joined them.
“I should leave.”
“The simbi isn’t bothering the city,” his mother said. “I would have heard by now; the Kala hasn’t even raised any.”
“It’s not just that. When you came to the hospital,” he directed the question towards his father, “what were you so afraid of?”
“It’s not the sort of call any parent wants to be on the receiving end of, where I’m from.”
Always that, the vague “where I’m from”. Where was he from, besides some village in the boonies where nothing ever happened and they were afraid of strangers? That was why he never visited his father’s family, why he did not know his grandparents or either of the siblings his father mentioned on occasion.
“Dad, we don’t live in the middle of nowhere like you did,” Dwayne said, not hiding his exasperation. “Getting hurt is not the end of the world. Why were you really upset?”
“That’s all it was.”
They were lying to him. Both of them. And, as usual, his father kissed his forehead and then his mother’s lips before going in the house. The door stood open, looking even more uninviting than ever.
“Ma, you know I love you. I even love dad. But if he not gon’ talk, I can’t keep living here.”
“Look, I’m not taking his side—”
“You keep asking me to meet him halfway—when do he meet me halfway? I’m already nineteen. When’s it gon’ be? When I’m twenty? Thirty?”
“It’s in the air in the house, ma, whatever it is he’s not telling me. I won’t keep living with it.”
“That’s not what he’s asking you to do, honey.”
“Then he can tell me what he’s asking himself.”
His mother held his arm, and he let her, not knowing when they would next sit under the stars, watching the smoke rise from the forge.