Magic & Memories
It was your Cheshire grin welcoming me to a place that felt like coming home.
Darkness glittering in a world of ash, you stood—all sharp lines and smooth words like black velvet. Light followed you in spectrums, soft focused and clinging to the crisp edges of a raven coat, dappled and dancing on hints of cherry reds and silver clasps. A beauty so divine and handsomely unreal, it was hard to believe my mind hadn’t been swept away in a dream. But you were very real. It was proven by the way the brightest things fluttered irresistibly to you, around you, drinking from the richness of your essence.
That soul of yours, familiarly steeped in nightfall and curiosities, has its way of beckoning even the most timid hearts to follow. They would be foolish not to. Wild, wolven eyes promise adventure, poised hands gloved in ink and deep crimson conceal magic beneath. Cool, confident speech resounds like rippling reflections of moonlight resting on a quiet river.
These are my memories of you, more grand than anything my imagination could conjure from a distance.
It was your ashen light guiding me in a world that felt like walking through the stars.
Your world, your home, a fantasy of waltzing flame and calliope spells. Rustic alleyways crawling with curled vines on fractured walls, humble shops emitting friendly warmth, twinkling in orange and yellow lights. The scent of hot pastries and sweet wine stalked our every step until we emerged from the fragrant haze and ginger glow into a labyrinth of patchwork tents, jovial laughter, and festival charm.
I was enchanted, but you were determined.
You were no stranger to this magic. You lived it every day. Still, you were patient, courteous, sharing in my excitement for the wonders whirling around us, a living painting dripping in odd captivation and lavish performance. I learned, in that moment, that happiness for you was the rapture of others. Despite the outward display, mismatched tears of ruby and black flawlessly melting down pale cheeks, daring to curl beneath each fetching curve and angle, I saw the flicker of fancy in your eyes and the clever delight in your smile.
Gracefully, and with a vibrant passion, you cut a path through the crowd with your presence alone. Everyone knew your face, your name, your repute in this realm of all things mysterious and strange. I was too engrossed in the celebration, too spellbound by golden dancers swathed in garlands of silks and coins, awed by the fire breathers engulfed in flame and glistening with sweat on tattooed skin, stunned and mystified by tumbling acts and contortionist’s rings. At first, I didn’t notice you’d stopped. You were also spellbound, but not by the same flamboyant spectacles igniting my amazement.
A sole juggler standing beneath a canopy of faerie lights tossed, caught, and melodically launched a series of peculiar glass spheres into the air. They appeared to be illuminated from the inside, speckled light peeking through mosaic exteriors of dark amethyst and navy blue. The juggler himself was a vision, contrasting his colorful act with a tailcoat of the deepest black lined in gold embroidery, disheveled rings of ivory lace spilling from gilded cuffs and barely brushing the base of his slender fingers. Storm grey pants pinstriped with charcoal were neatly tucked into a pair of black leather riding boots. A young, androgynous face painted porcelain white, cheeks blushed in the shape of hearts on a playing card, and eyes of shamrock green were half-veiled by a wild wave of burgundy hair topped in a crooked, black satin trilby.
You moved towards him in elegant strides, darkly aglow with confidence and twilight, a grim parade of devil’s tricks and the innocence of child’s laughter. Spring eyes met creeping hazel, and each sphere cascaded from the juggler’s hands, crashing at his feet in a brilliant nebula of broken glass and concentration. He bowed deep, both as a performer and a courtier greeting his king. I watched from the crowd, like a patron in the audience of a theater. The glass crunched beneath your boots, faces less than an inch apart. You, a King of Hearts, shuffling into the lights and claiming your dark prince with a kiss.
It was the kind of kiss you read about in fairy tales. A kiss of love and legend. A kiss to die for. When you broke away, you looked back at me and smiled.
It was your Cheshire grin welcoming me to a place that felt like coming home. It was your ashen light guiding me in a world that felt like walking through the stars. I was a bright thing fluttering irresistibly to you, drinking from the richness of your essence.
These are my memories of you—a night of magic, light, and coming home.
ghosts of the past
for your present
at the end
of the day,
you can't take
the dead to court.
yes, i am afraid
of letting in
every fracture i’ve
taped together and
no one can see
in the dark, but
in the light,
i am vulnerable
a permanent fix
for the cracks
that define me,
map my history
as a survivor, broken
but still standing
like ancient ruins
by the moon,
the shadows of me,
fades my scars
i am afraid,
how will i navigate
of a new mask?
No Ghosts In Tunbridge (Part I.)
It appeared again, my shadow in the fog.
This figure has been haunting me for months, trailing me through alleyways and clinging to the rear of my father’s carriage on our morning rides into the city. The heavier the rain, the more inclined it feels to join me in my errands. I can see it better in the rain—the glittering downpours of fitful drops fail to conceal it, carving rigid outlines of a mortal form midst a tempest’s rage. I’ve found that it can only reveal itself through silhouettes. On a bright summer day, it’s invisible but I can still feel its presence. A tug on my bustle, a cool tap on my cheek. Being imaginatively naive and accustomed to the presence of my disembodied admirer, I entertained a childish fancy that each frigid tap was an otherworldly kiss.
It started with the fog. A distant traveler pitch black, vague and shifting in the Tunbridge mist. Mistaken for a trespasser, my father fired his rifle four times simply to ease my fear and quell my sobbing. Each bullet was devoured in white like a flock of swallows soaring steadfast into the thick of a blizzard. Though the figure had fled, my crying didn’t cease. “It won’t work, father,” I sputtered, drying my eyes on the sleeve of my coat. “It’s a ghost!”
My father lowered his rifle, warm barrel piercing the damp, swollen earth. He smoothed a gloved hand over my sandy brown hair and smiled. “There are no ghosts in Tunbridge, Ella.”
Nobody else could see it. I’d come to realize this rather quickly.
My father thought I was just imagining things, nothing unusual for a child. My sister, Ana, was far less amused and accepting of my visions. Surpassing my age by a mere two years, she was shockingly cynical for a thirteen-year old girl. While I was content in the bliss of my buoyant fantasies, Ana resided outside this realm of impossible things and dreams. She always had a brilliant mind, conquering her peers in both academics and common sense. Father worried she was growing up too fast but it never stopped him from admiring her achievements. Ana made her first list of potential post-graduate academies before her second year of primary school. Her goal was to join the field of law and become a practiced investigator—a goal driven by the loss of our mother three years ago, after her peculiar and unsolved disappearance.
Despite the drive behind her aspirations, Ana hated talking about mother. The faintest reminder sent her mood plummeting in a toxic spiral of resentment and sorrow. She would always say that it never does well to dwell in the past, but I knew she lingered there more often than she cared to admit.
I tried to tell her about the shadow, how it followed me from place to place meddling with my everyday life, not inconveniently so, but enough to be noticeable. She rolled her eyes, scoffed.
“Bullocks, Ella. You spend far too much time with your nose buried in mum’s old storybooks. They’re filling your head with nonsense!”
I clutched the edges of the book I’d been reading: Star Sea, a story about an ocean prince who falls in love with the sky. Mother's favorite and a widely unpopular title, as were most of the tales in her collection. She enjoyed finding her favored storytellers in various unexplored corners of London, a sort of scavenger hunt for pages of magic unseen and overlooked. The best stories are the ones yet to be appreciated, she'd say.
“Because only a nonsensical mind can appreciate them,” I whispered, finishing her words.
“What are you on about?” Ana inquired, losing interest in any answer I could have given immediately after. She drew a long breath, deep enough that I feared she might exhale fire, but she only sighed. “Sometimes you drive me mad with your stories, Ella. Sometimes I wish you would just grow up.”
Her own book, a hefty novel of true crime written by an author I’d never heard of, was plucked from her writing desk in one swift and clearly irritated motion. Ana left me sitting in solitude, her words repeating in my mind. Sometimes, I wish you would just grow up.
I turned the page of our mother’s storybook and kept reading.
Wind churned the sea’s waves in a volatile harmony that no mortal instrument could dare to rival. Each gust caressing the surface, ocean lapping the breeze in salty sweet kisses. The stars wept in tears of silver, the full moon parted its curtain of clouds revealing the grand entirety of its opal brilliance. The prince broke through the rapture of his wild ocean, reaching a glistening hand to the sky and—
I lowered my book and stared up at Ana. She had placed a rather gaudy looking hat upon her head, a bright pink sun hat adorned with an enormous bouquet of peacock feathers neatly tucked beneath a thick yellow ribbon. Her face, a twisted expression of musing and uncertainty, was searching the stillness of my own for an opinion.
“What do you think?” Ana asked. “Honestly.”
I pretended to give the garish accessory a second glance over. “Honestly? You look like a tart.”
Ana took off the hat and nodded. “Fair enough. If only mother were here… she’d know what to do.”
While Ana tossed the horrid hat aside and began rummaging through various drawers, chests and racks, I closed my book and surveyed the room. Tilly’s Hattery had always been a quaint, stuffy little shop but it seemed far more disorganized than I remembered. Mother fancied this hattery above all others. She spent hours perusing its unique inventory of flowery brims, silk-swathed bonnets, swallow nested promenades and jeweled theater capotes. Unlike most men in Tunbridge, father encouraged her obsession. Each time she would come home with a new hat, he would fawn over her beauty and insist they go out to show it off. They would return from their nightly adventures, mother on father’s arm with a bouquet of roses and father tipsy, beaming with the memories of envious stares.
Mother truly was a vision. I saw a lot of her in Ana. They shared the same fiery mane of a red fox. Ana even had mother’s infamous streaks and patches of thick ivory waves crashing against freckled cheeks, falling like a snow and crimson curtain over a pair of large, doe-like eyes. It seemed the only trait Ana didn’t inherit from mother was a sense of fashion; particularly in the category of hats.
Ana ceased her rummaging and groaned. “What does a lady even wear to an academic soiree? Is a hat really necessary?”
“As long as it doesn’t make you look like a tart,” I teased.
“Half of these hats are the visual definition of a harlot, and the other half an old, withering French bird,” said Ana. “I want to look professional, not like a freak show.”
I looked around at the towering selection. Hats seemed to be growing from the walls like a fungus, leaning out of shadowed corners in colorful pillars. From what I could see, there were plenty of plain, normal hats sandwiched between their vibrant counterparts. Ana’s problem was that she was instinctively, and understandably, attracted to flamboyance. The more extravagant the hat, the better it seemed… until it was placed on one’s head.
A battered mirror hiding in the dusty nook of the disheveled hattery caught my eye with a curious glint. I found it odd that I had only noticed it now, its surface gleaming from the pastel light of a solitary window. A strange feeling washed over me, a mix of potent emotions. Thick with secrecy, heavily riddled in caution and wonder. The longer I stared, the more nauseated I felt. I tore my eyes away. They wandered to a carriage hat of navy blue hugging a corner of the mirror’s frame, free of any bits, bobbles, and feathery plumes. It had only a black ribbon tied around the base, its lace-trimmed ends like two ebony waterfalls cascading over the brim.
“What about that one?” I said, pointing at my refreshingly ordinary discovery.
Ana turned, followed the direction of my finger. She wasn’t impressed. “That? But it’s so… boring.”
“Just try it,” I insisted. “Boring is better than a harlot or a withering French bird.”
Ana had no argument prepared. She walked over to the hat, touched its brim and retreated her hand with a yelp.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, brows knit in confusion.
“It shocked me!”
“Maybe it’s magic”
Ana narrowed her eyes. “Or maybe it’s science, Ella.” She plucked the hat from the mirror and shoved it on her head. “Well?”
Finally, my sister had chosen something that wouldn’t blind an entire room of people, or at least give them frilly nightmares for a week. Ana grinned and spun around in the peculiar mirror.
I stared at her reflection. My heart skipped, the color drained from my face. My fingers felt like icicles. A reflection in the mirror—not mine, not Ana’s. It was the shadow. As usual, it was right next to me. I watched it sway and contort in the light, like little dark ripples in the dust filled air. It seemed to be focused on Ana, who saw only her own image posing, laughing, dancing around. I looked to my side and saw nothing. I looked back at the mirror… nothing. The shadow had ran away, as it always does. I remained entranced by the empty space it left beside me, staring ahead, unblinking. Ana stopped dancing, turned around.
After a short delay, I looked up. “Hm?”
“Let’s go find Tilly,” she said, her voice triumphant. “I want this hat.”
We headed to the shop front. I didn’t mention the shadow, saving myself a headache from one of Ana’s many lectures on reality. She paid for her hat with a sum of old birthday money from father and we went home, leaving behind the nauseating mirror and my one of many encounters with the shadow.
For the following days, I kept thinking about the hattery. Even Ana was raving about it. After her soiree, she’d received so many compliments and inquiries about her new hat that she proudly advertised Tilly’s Hattery—a gem in the rough of Tunbridge, as she described it. Tilly’s Hattery consumed my mind for very different reasons, however. I thought about the mirror, the horrible feeling it gave me. There was something awfully disturbing about it, despite its bright appearance. I thought about the shadow, how it ignored me for my sister as if it felt uneasy about her being so close to the mirror. Even curiouser, I wanted to go back.
The mirror had reminded me of mother and I wondered how many times she’d stood before it, admiring her reflection adorned in the endless crowns of her beloved hattery. I neglected to tell Ana about my plan to return. I wanted to go alone, to see if mother’s presence still lingered there. I would walk to town first thing in the morning.
If I could find even the smallest clue about mother’s disappearance, maybe we could find her.
Ana, father and I, together.
Cover Art: “The Hat Shop” by Henry Tonks
do not fear
their fragile claws
and witless tongues
fail to claim
alone is okay
in a fog dreaming
with fish in the clouds,
torn fins bleeding
red ink for the mist
pages of sin, and
alone is okay
stains me within
but a light in a fog
timid bones snap,
fright my fish from the
red ink draws a map, says
alone is despair
in a fog screaming
with hands in the clouds,
sharp claws scheming
no ink for the mist
pages of light when
alone is okay
soul without sight
but i’m lost in myself,
fog, mist, ink, clouds
with my fish floating dead,
fall on the crowd, say
alone is okay
in a fog dreaming
despair on your hands and
black ink for the mist
and betray, say
alone is okay,
alone is okay.
by the book
so many rules,
and we wonder
why our words
fail to conjure
in our hearts.
to fall in love
to light my heart
above shadows moving
in the shapes
to fall in love
to ink my soul
of distant skies
and open roads
i’ve only known
in my dreams
how do you stop
when it belongs
to a heart
no longer beating?
words that fall
on a hill
too slick, too easy
to reach my heart
not wild, not weird
to haunt my mind
worlds that clone
i already know
so give me clumsy,
give me hard
give me sharp, wild, weird
to reach a heart,
to haunt a mind