“Protest Magic” – Fiction by Justine Talbot

Nude witch with red hair riding a broom surrounded by bats in a moonlit sky
The witch – Luis Ricardo Faléro, 1882

“Protest Magic” is Justine Talbot‘s surreal & spellbinding flash fiction from our Winter 2019 issue.

{ X }

THE SPELL WON’T WORK. Hardly any protesters showed up to the combination sit-in/die-in/group hexing session, and those who did left immediately after their deaths. Lucille knows one witch’s rage isn’t enough to save the lake. Still, when the air around her pops and fizzles like dying sparklers, she can’t help but blame herself.

She conducts her spellwork in front of a large brown cube with gray glass windows. All of her magical implements have been respectfully borrowed from the lake. The elements are represented by a ramekin full of lake water, a pile of ashy weeds, a goose feather, a fishbone. Her wand is a moldy stick.

Inside the cube, twelve men and one woman sit at a long table and pretend not to agree. Lucille can hear them when she puts her ear to the glass. “If we drain the lake, what will the tourists do in the summer?” asks the woman.

“There won’t be any tourists next summer,” says one of the men.

“Oh, thank God,” the woman says quickly. “I just meant, if there were still tourists … well, they’d need somewhere to go, wouldn’t they?”

“Without the lake, there won’t be any tourists,” says a different man. “You can be sure of that.”

“Thank God,” the woman says again.

Lucille paces around the cube a few times, murmuring to herself. Then she crouches down out front and peers through the glass, squinting at each board member in turn.

“I bind you,” she whispers, concentrating on a very fat man with mean eyes. The fat man sneezes.

“I bind you.” A pugnosed young man starts scratching at his collar like a stray dog.

“I bind you.” A skinny old man starts coughing and doesn’t stop.

“You okay, Mickey?” asks one of several balding men with his back facing the window. “You need some water or something?”

“I need something,” the old man says hoarsely. But no one gets him water.

Lucille turns her attention to the woman, who sits at the head of the table—or maybe it’s the foot. “I bind you,” she whispers.

But the woman doesn’t act bound. Her slender hands twitch against the table. “I think I’ll go out for a smoke,” she says.

The fat man sneers. “We’ll sure miss you, H—ah—oh shit.” He pauses, swallows hard, and erupts in a sneezing fit before he can say the woman’s name. She leaves the room without even glancing at him.

Lucille turns to watch the front door, holding her breath. But the woman comes out the side door instead, gliding like a suburban shadow: an early morning runner. “Aren’t you hot in all that black?”

Lucille jumps. “Not really,” she says through clenched teeth. She wonders if the woman can smell her sweat.

“You can take off the pointy hat, at least. It’s over.”

Lucille clutches the brim of her witch’s hat defensively. She bought it at Party City for the occasion, but she understands how it could be a uniform for some witches. “No thanks.”

“Why are you wearing it, anyway?”

“It’s a sign of protest.”

The woman’s own uniform consists of a light gray pantsuit, a medium gray blouse, and dark gray heels. With her muddy brown hair, she matches the color scheme of the cube exactly. “Well, the protest is over,” she says. “The governor is coming out in favor of our plan on Friday.”

“He won’t go through with it,” Lucille says. She pictures a flaming cauldron to stoke her confidence. “Have you seen our petition? We’re up to two thousand signatures.”

“Yeah, and how many people backed that up in person? Ten?” The woman slips a cigarette out of her suit jacket and lights it. Smoke dribbles out like light rain. “How many people are here now? Just one.”

Lucille looks at the ground. If she were stronger, she could do it alone. If she had trained harder, the flame in her mind could engulf the whole cube and all the people in it.

“Why are you still here, anyway?” the woman asks. “What does the lake mean to you?”

Lucille peers into the bubbling cauldron behind her eyes. In the murky liquid she can just make out a tire swing, a fishing pole, a father and a mother. “It’s just life,” she says. “All life should be respected.”

“Oh,” the woman says. “Are you a vegan? No animal products?”

“No.”

“Then you’re a hypocrite.”

“I don’t see how that’s—”

“It’s always nice to see a young girl getting involved in politics,” the woman interrupts, cigarette steaming. “I hope, for your sake, that you figure out what’s important.”

“And what’s important?”

“What’s important is, grow or die.” The woman smiles. “Adapt, or die.”

She tosses her cigarette on the ground, not even bothering to grind it in with her heel. Then she clacks back to her cube.

Back to her roomful of scratching, sneezing men.

Lucille picks up the ashy cigarette and places it in the center of her magic circle. She closes her eyes, feeling the heat of the sun and her inner cauldron flame. “Please light please light,” she chants. “Light!” The cigarette regenerates, ash assembling itself into a neat cylinder, but only a thin spray of smoke comes out.

Lucille is contemplating just forgetting her sacred magic and tossing a match at the brown cube when a purple van pulls up a few feet away. She runs straight through her magic circle to meet it, open-mouthed. Three black-clad witches get out: a girl of about twenty and two identical, emaciated teenage boys.

“We’re not twins,” says the boy on the left, reading her mind.

The driver gets out last. She’s dressed all in white and her silver hair waves down to her waist. “Are we late for the group hex?” asks the witch queen.

Behind Lucille, the lake water begins bubbling up in a hot geyser, a mini-cauldron: alive. She smiles when the politician’s cigarette bursts into flames.

{ X }

JUSTINE TALBOT is from Long Island, New York. Her fiction appears in or is forthcoming from Switchback, Constellations, Foliate Oak, Riggwelter, and The Bookends Review.

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