The dark street paralleled the muddy river. Fissures and dips destroyed the pavement, but Mary had memorized when to pop her skateboard over weedy cracks or swerve from tar patches. The wheels’ chantlike clack joined with the rushing current. Three days of steady rain had swelled the Missouri River and chilled the night to the low forties, silencing the few locusts and cicadas that survived the mild winter. The quiet created a sensation of the year dying, and the last full moon silvered the choppy water. Mary hoped she might discover something magical along the border of a great river at the edge of a new year beneath a full moon—an atmosphere for magic, according to ancient magicians like Albertus Magnus and Johann Weyer.
Three weeks ago, Mary had discovered her first rune in a raven’s half-decayed remains. As if somebody had sifted the bone shards and feathers, they shaped a rune against a bloody backdrop. The rune set inside the broken chest cavity, the pried-open ribs spreading along the spine like leaflets or broken branches. A predator had dismembered the wings, but long flight feathers stuck in dried blood and expanded the rune so it appeared winged. Mary scribbled the design on a receipt and stuffed it in her hip pocket. The next day, she’d taken a spill off her skateboard and would’ve broken her jaw except, before she hit the asphalt, an air draft swooped her upward, so she landed on her feet like a bird pulling out of a dive. Heat had flared against her hip, and the air had smelled of firecrackers. She’d jerked out the paper. The receipt’s edges had browned, but the rune remained unharmed—a single line with broken ribs simplified to arrows, pointing upward to the final sweeping expansion, the motion of a bird spreading its wings.
She sat on her skateboard at the road’s crest before it sloped to a rickety dock and crumbling launch where rusted chains locked canoes to pine trees. She smoked her older brother’s cigarettes while examining her notepad, the smudged pages filled with runes, in neat stanzas or twisting strands, copied from behind-glass library books or photocopies of medieval manuscripts. The runes remained dead on the page no matter the conditions—the runes’ order, the moon’s cycle, the planets’ alignment, the paper’s color. She’d attempted simple runes to heal a scab or call a rabbit from its warren and tried the greatest spells designed to rain fire or freeze an ocean. Not even her paper shriveled.
The current slogged and slapped the bank. Sweat cooled her skin, and she zipped her jacket against the river’s breeze. Wet air dampened her clothes until she smelled like the underside of a rock. She tried practicing a kick-flip, but the wheels’ crack as they rejoined the pavement echoed down the river and the road. She guessed the time by the moon’s height before checking her cell phone, the screen’s blue glowing making her eyes ache. Moonbeams glanced off the rough river, but no prehistoric muzzle split the surface, no fairy flames hovered along the shore, no strangely shaped shadows tapered from the pine copses. Twice, Mary nosed her skateboard toward town, but her limbs grew heavy while a tug in her gut said stay. She settled like a nesting sparrow, hunkered on her board with her knees drawn close and her arms crossed over top, pillowing her head. Stillness seeped into her, broken only by the water’s slurring.
Around midnight, a bluesy note spread like heat lightning. Mary raised her head and blinked. The moonlight frosted the water and launch except for a golden glitter at a dock’s edge. Another note spurted up like a jumping bass then lengthened into widening ripples.
Mary’s skateboard thrummed, and copper scented the night. She cruised down the cresting road to the boat launch. A man swayed on the stubby dockside. The moon’s reflection created a path before him, silhouetting his lean figure. He cradled a saxophone that shone like an apple, and a length of braided hemp dangled from the bell, interwoven rock bits reflecting the instrument’s gleam.
A moaning note stretched across the water as if to nip the moon, and the man glanced over his shoulder, his face a shadow. He motioned to a graffiti-scarred bench where set an open case, the velvet lining worn thin. “Take a seat. Plenty of room in the front row.” Whiffs of alcohol and dumpster rot drifted from his long trench coat, the pockets bulging and giving him a packrat appearance. A scruffy beard hid his neck and dreadlocks draped his shoulders.
Mary kicked up her board, catching the nose. “The folks down the road are going to hear if you keep playing. Probably call the cops.”
“Nah, that’s why I got this.” He swung the hemp braid. “Aunt Nancy charmed it. Lets only lonely folks hear the music.”
“I’m not lonely.”
He let out a long breath and wet his lips. “Never seen one of Aunt Nancy’s charms go bad. This one’s been working good since the old days when nobody wanted to hear me sing. Had to draw my listeners out of the woodwork, understand? So come on out of the shadows, and I’ll play for you.”
She looked both ways along the empty road, white as ice in the moonlight, before easing her board onto the wooden dock. The wheels bumped staccato against the slats, which the man copied, thumping his shoe. He leaned into the music as if bracing against the current.
Quick notes matched her board’s rhythm then lengthened into a moan that silenced the river and made Mary grip the bench’s backrest. He dipped toward the water, and the notes deepened to a resonant hum, aching like a bruise until she strained with him against the darkness, but when he bent back to salute the moon, the quickening tempo and rising pitch cycloned away the winter’s bleakness, leaving her light as river foam, her toe tapping. The beat breathed summer sweat and damp alleyways, the scents overpowering the loamy air, and she tasted oranges. His riffs slowed, the notes softening to velvet, brushing Mary’s skin. His saxophone conjured heartbreak, but nothing she’d experienced. This hurt burned hot as a forge, but the music faded until the tune was lost in swishing eddies.
She closed her eyes and tried to hold onto the song like a sweet taste. “Who was she, the woman you just played about?”
“Old Mother Earth herself. I was there when all was green and dew-fresh, but now she’s harder and harder to find, even out here, and she’s so restless, spooked by anything at all.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t bother with surprise, sister. You’ve got magiclight in your eyes, just a spark.”
“Weren’t you listening? It’s the threshold of a new year on the land’s edge—you expected to find something tonight, and my instrument called you.” He stroked the bell. “Be grateful, plenty of darker things roam the edges on the year’s last full moon.” He sat on a bench and rested the saxophone in the scuffed case. “So, what’d you bring me?”
Mary perched near him, her skateboard balanced on her knees. “Bring you?”
“If you want something from me, you got to give in return.”
She removed her cigarette pack from her shirt pocket and offered him the box. He tapped out two and handed her one. They shared a matchbook.
“I’m Mary, by the way.”
“Just Mary? You can do better than that. I’ve been named more times than I remember: Jackrabbit, Hare, Brother Rabbit, Trickster, even Whiskey Jack. Just yesterday, got mistaken for Slim Greer. Take your pick or come up with something new.” He took a drag and exhaled, the smoke hanging like river mist. “Go ahead and ask for whatever you’re aiming to get.”
Mary pulled a notepad from her back pocket and showed it to him. “I write them again and again, but nothing works—well, except one, kinda.”
He scanned the pages and wet his lips. “You got some real runes of power, here. Old magic, almost as old as me.” He tore out several pages and lit them with his cigarette.
Mary cried and lunged, but he pushed her back.
He crumpled the flaming ball in his hand then scattered the ashes. “Some old magic should be forgotten. You’re not into that kind of darkness, I don’t believe.”
She snatched the notebook. “If I’m going to study a subject, I need to understand all of it, not just the rosy bits.”
“Fair enough, but if you don’t make camp on some side of the river, you’ll be sleeping beneath bridges with folks like me. And some of us bite.”
“If I were afraid, I wouldn’t be hanging out late at night smoking a cigarette with you.”
“There’s folks out here who make the darkest runes sing for them, and they’ll kill you with a few pencil strokes. This isn’t a world of love potions and good luck charms. You’re not scared because you don’t know what to be afraid of.”
Mary flicked her stub toward an overflowing trashcan. “Somebody who plays music like you, who can make the river listen, you can’t be such a bad…spirit.”
“I’m a god—get it right. Even if folks’ prayers take the form of stories rather than pleadings. You said you got one rune working, so show me.”
Mary walked to the boat launch’s far side and stepped onto her board. The overflowing trashcan set across from her, and with the domed lid, it reached four feet tall. She surged toward it, gaining speed with every push. She smashed her heel against the tail, popping the board and jumping the trashcan with a foot to spare. She dropped into her landing and swiveled the board toward the bench, the final momentum carrying her. She stepped off and showed him the deck’s underside.
He whistled and rubbed his thumb over the etching. “That’s a Flight rune for sure. Belongs to old Brother Raven’s children. In the right hands, that board could fly like a falcon.”
“I jumped off a house the other day, but I wouldn’t call it flying—just not falling very hard.”
“That’s because you’re still stretching your wings, building your magical muscles. Other than shaming the boys, why’re you looking for this magic? I can’t give up the trade secrets to every girl drunk on her first sweet-tasting spell.”
“We all need some sort of power in life, whether it’s money or fear or career. I want magic.”
Jack hefted the board and balanced it on his palm. The skateboard levitated a few inches. “So you are afraid; you do want to feel safe. Then you’re looking for the wrong runes. At your age, that’s what parents are for. Aren’t yours looking for you at such an hour?”
She took back her board and dropped it, the wheels smacking the asphalt. She balanced on the tail so the front wheels hovered. “My dad works for the gas company, so he’s gone for three weeks right now. Mom manages a movie theater, so she’s gone most evenings. She’s one of those people who always look sad—do you know what I’m talking about?”
The wheels slipped, and she lost her balance as the board skidded. She staggered a few steps then nudged her sneaker beneath the board and flipped it into her hands. “When I think of magic, it’s the power to do what you want. I don’t want to work behind a desk and only feel good when I have a beer in my hand on Friday night. There’s more to life—there’s magic somewhere.”
He drew himself up, now taller than her, and clasped his hands behind his back. “If you want to feel free, stick with skateboarding. Magic will drown you soon as save you—it’s not a security blanket, and neither am I. Nothing so ancient is safe.”
“Skateboarding down a hill makes me feel alive, but this”—she held up her notepad of runes—“makes me feel awake.”
“Well, if you got reason enough to want it so bad then I can get you started. Come with me.”
Still carrying his saxophone, he led her to the longest dock, a spindly contraption, the narrow posts and knothole-ridden planks spotted with bird droppings. A dead-fish smell rose between the slats, and the murky water frothed around the posts. Wood groaned as the rain-glutted river pulled at the dock.
Jack flicked his cigarette butt into the water and lit a second by snapping his fingers, the filter flashing red. “If you want to wake up whatever power you have, all you gotta do is jump—off a cliff, into the river. Seen it work every time. Survival kicks in, and if you got a drop of magic in your gut, it’ll save you. Those that don’t, they never take the leap.”
She braced her skateboard against her lower back, gripping the ends like a railing. “The current could drag me right out.”
Jack leaned against a post and blew a perfect smoke ring. “That’s the point. Give yourself up to magic and see what happens. Listen, I’ve got a story for you. Most folks think a trickster is a clever fellow, but let me tell you how I got the name.”
As he talked, his back straightened, and he raised his head, regarding the water. His voice deepened an octave, and his reverberating words quieted the river. “I was always singing a tune and thumping a beat, but I didn’t pick up that saxophone until not very long ago. I was knocking around town when I heard the saddest cry ever given by man—could make anybody start bawling.” His fingers glided over the saxophone keys as if remembering a tune. He patted the bell. “I followed it all across town straight into an old bar, and just when I thought the ache of sadness would split me in two, that golden instrument let out the happiest howl you’ve heard and got everybody dancing. I asked the fellow next to me what such a thing was called and went looking for a sax of my own.” He adjusted the instrument so moonlight glinted off the worn keys and arched neck while the charm’s crystals winked.
“Everyone knows old Raven collects shiny things, and I just bet he had one. Sure enough, he did, and I pleaded with him to trade me for it. He agreed, but he only wanted one thing.” He swiped his tongue over his bright teeth. “My tongue. Strange, I know, but a few years back, I’d taught myself human speech by way of a few spells, and he was so jealous that I’d learn to talk with the townsfolk, and he wanted to talk with them, too.”
His cigarette burned close to his fingers, and the filter’s glow illuminated a faded tattoo with a spider web of green filaments. He flicked the stub into the water. “Now, I made my livelihood telling stories and sweet-talking people, but I finally gave in, and we traded.” He used his hands to mimic flapping wings. “As Raven flew off, he called in his new manly voice, ‘Trickster, Trickster, will you always fall for my tricks?’ That’s how old Raven learned to speak.
“You might guess what happened when I put my lips to that saxophone—only a dying wheeze came out. I still couldn’t make music. Now, I only had half of what I wanted, and it was burning me up, holding my sax and not being able to make a sound. But this wasn’t the first time I’d gotten myself in such a fix.
“Raven, he loved to preen his feathers until they were shiny as fresh tar and strut his stuff down Main Street, but whenever a pretty woman caught his eye, he’d start stuttering and couldn’t think of anything to say.” He straightened his collar and winked at Mary. “I’ve always been popular with the ladies, so he came flapping back, asking advice. There wasn’t much I could mime to him, and he got ruffled, dipping and cawing, which sounded just silly coming from a human tongue.” His gestures mirrored the bobbing, and Raven became a puppet, Jack’s hands extending the story.
“‘Caw, all right, ca-caw! I’ll give you back your tongue only so you can tell me about those fancy words. If you try to escape, I’ll peck out your eyes!’
“I considered legging it, but Raven could fly fast as I could run, so I came up with another plan. Raven gave me back my tongue, and I explained the girls loved a hard-talking man and taught him some harsh words—hell and goddamn and the like. He flew straight to town and tried them, but now, the woman hurried away with a swish of their skirts, and their men said he should be ashamed to talk like that in public. Raven thought he must be saying the words wrong since he was still getting used to a human tongue. He came flapping on back. This time, I gave him some childish jokes and said the ladies loved when a man could make them laugh. Of course, those girls just harrumphed at old Raven.”
He patted the bulging trench coat pockets then fished inside one that had a bit of string hanging over the edge, or so Mary believed until it twitched and slipped into the recesses. He eased out a silver circlet and swept back his rootlike hair, threading the dreadlocks through the circlet and setting it high on his brow.
“Now, his coming and going went on for a week or so—Raven loaning me my tongue so I could teach him all manner of sayings, some of which were respectable and pleasant, just to keep him hooked. Finally, after a long session, I asked him a favor.” He slumped his shoulders, wringing his hands and shuffling. “With hat in hand, I asked if I could keep the tongue until morning so I could tell my town girl why I couldn’t see her any longer due to a piece of my own foolishness. I said it’d make a nice, noble story he could tell all the men in town, about how he helped young, naïve Brother Rabbit. He puffed out his feathers and cawed his consent.”
Jack straightened, rolling his shoulders and neck. The silver circlet caught the starlight, glinting from the hollows of his dreadlocks, and the saxophone settled at his side like a sword. “You can probably guess I hopped the first train, my sax case strapped to my back. I gave it all up—my comfy pine bed, my home in the briar patch, my friends and neighbors, even my name. If I got caught, I paid my train fares in blues and earned my dinner playing ragtime with the barroom pianist. Sure, I was sorry to leave it all, but the only way I could win my music was to run hard, which I am all too good at when the moon is high and full.”
He stilled, his presence a growing fog that cooled Mary’s skin.
She crouched at the dock’s edge, the water lapping a few inches below the boards. “That doesn’t give me any reason to drown in the river. You ended up worse than when you started—in hiding and even though you had your tongue, it’s not like you knew how to play.”
“But I had an instrument,” he said. “I had a place to start, and like you, I’m a fast learner.” He polished the saxophone with his cuff. “The rest I could make up as I went along instead of sitting at home, blowing down a mouthpiece and maybe by luck, coaxing out a note. Right now, you got a scarred skateboard. You need to leave that behind and shoot for something grander. There’s magic in the stars, in the tangled branches, in the spider’s web, in the river. You place yourself in the power of that old magic then those book runes will start dancing.”
Mary balanced her board across her knees and scrubbed dirt off the deck’s glossy underside. “You don’t think I’ve been looking for more runes in every piece of roadkill? It’s not like the first time.”
“Never is. You have plenty of theory written on that pad, so now, play it on the river—always a good proving ground. You got to improvise, make your own combinations and not just copy the originals.”
“What do you want me to do, turn myself into a fish?”
“I’m just an old soul with a saxophone—I don’t want anything. You’re the one asking for something. If you want to make your runes work, I’m telling you to test them. You’re scared. Scared the runes won’t work, that your skateboard is an accident, and you’re scared the runes will work because how can you go home once magic has caught you up in its current? Just to ease your mind, I’m going to give you something.” He stomped a tempo and raised his saxophone.
A bluesy moan caught her breath until the tune broke into rolling, rapid notes, the rhythm harsh but glittering like a rough cut ruby, playing with her heartbeat. Riffs lengthened and softened to a sonorous hum before swooping into a hip-swaying groove then the pitch rose to a sharp call that drove a splinter into the base of her throat. She shivered as the echo faded, the river resuming control of the night.
“There, now you have my blessing. Whether you chose to try yourself against the river magic or to return home, you will find success in all its forms, whether the praise of others or the courage to face failure.”
He returned to his bench, the saxophone gleaming like thin ice.
Mary dipped her hand in the murky water, the cold sending an ache up her arm. The low moon shone along the river so the surface appeared frozen. Mary slipped off her sneakers and took out her pocket knife. She flipped through her notepad and chose two runes, carving them into the sneakers’ soles—a jagged, oval rune meant to freeze whatever it touched layered with a wavelike buoyancy rune. Just in case, she piled her sweatshirt, wallet, cellphone, and pocketknife onto her skateboard. She double-knotted her laces and balanced on the dock’s edge.
“Hey, Jazzman, you watching?”
With her gaze fixed on the far bank, she stepped onto the river. The air grew cold, burning her nose and lungs. The water crackled as if she’d stepped on shattered glass. She kept her feet aligned and knees slightly bent, a skateboarding stance. The river froze beneath her soles, and mist shrouded her sneakers. She glided toward the center, each step crunching and dusting frost, while her footprints floated downstream. The current sucked at her feet, but as long as she kept walking, her path stayed even. Ice encased her shoes and numbed her.
Midstream, she shuffled her sneakers, freezing a patch wide enough to stand on, and she bobbed with the current. She waved at Jack, who’d returned to the dock’s edge, standing over her piled possessions.
“There you go, sister, but watch your step!”
She shifted her weight and let her right foot drag, a snaking line of ice forming beneath her toe. She scuffed the water, and the splash froze mid-arc. “Better than my skateboard trick?”
Numbness stiffened her ankles, and a cramp clenched her leg. She crouched, massaging her muscles, but her float hit curling rapids, pitching her forward. The freezing river shocked the air from her, and she convulsed, gulping gritty water. She twisted toward the surface, but ice clamped around her sneakers and pinned her. The float grew larger, more iceberglike as the river washed over her upturned soles, layering the ice.
Mary tried to slip off her shoes, but the laces were too tight and frozen. She jerked at the knots with her deadened fingers then tried to wrench free each foot, pain jolting through her ankles. Her chest hitched, lungs clenching, as she placed her hand against the smooth float and closed her eyes. She envisioned her notepad and chose a rune meant to untie knots, entangled threads that lengthened into a long tail, and a simple Escape rune shaped like an open door. She carved them into the ice between her sneakers, her numbed fingers bleeding as her nails splintered.
The laces writhed, their ends dipping and pulling free of the knots and first few eyelets. Mary kicked away from the float. The moon pierced the water as if it were a frosted pane, and she followed the light, breaching the surface and sucking in the cool air that burned her lungs. The current dragged her down river while the float bobbed behind her. She hooked an arm over the ice, her fingernails bloodying the frost. She dragged herself half onto the float and steered it toward the opposite bank, kicking through rapids. Grit crunched between her teeth, and muddy water flooded her nose and mouth. As her arms cramped, her fingers slipping, the float whirled into a cove formed by an uprooted pine.
Mary stumbled onto the pebbly bank, fell to her knees, and retched. River water stung her scraped arms and sliced feet. She shivered and rolled upright, pulling in her knees, trembling as she rubbed the warmth into her chest and arms.
Her ice float had grown into a small surfboard, five feet long and two feet wide. It rasped against the pebbly bank, and Mary flipped it over, her sneakers still intact and ice-coated. She shattered the float with a large rock then retied the laces, slinging the shoes over her shoulder, the soles heavy with ice. From her long night rides, she knew a bridge crossed the river a quarter mile down the bank, and she jogged to warm herself.
The setting moon faded, sunrise illuminating the empty launch. Her hoodie, cell phone, wallet, skateboard, and notepad were missing—all her studies, her runes, her anchor in the world of magic, stolen. Only a rock pinning Jack’s hemp charm suggested the god’s presence.
She moaned and knelt beside the rock. Words were gouged in the surface as if Jack had taken his finger to clay.
I name you Jacklight.
She held the charm to the pale sunrise. “What kind of a name is Jacklight?” The loop of hemp rope ended in a braided tassel with crystal bits tied among the strands, winking in the dawn. A running hare, carved in ebony, dangled from the final knot. She hung the charm around her neck and tucked it beneath her T-shirt. It settled against her collarbone, growing warm, and heat prickled her skin, following her bones like a fuse.
Phoebe Wagner is a new college graduate who studied fiction and poetry. She is currently working on a short story collection and full-length poetry book, but her first love is novels. When not hunched over her keyboard in Dunkin Donuts, Phoebe can be found kayaking at the closest lake.