The road is a narrow gravel affair winding around trees at the edge of the town. There are roads that are burned through mountains, paths for human consumption that slice through the skin of the earth like brands of ownership. This is not one of those: the road is little more than an animal path decorated in dead shells, scatterings of stone and earth turned into something both hard and soft at once. It doesn’t involve uprooting trees, flows around large rocks as though the makers simply couldn’t be bothered to alter the world for it. The road is old and winding, darkened by trees and used mostly for racing with over five deaths to its name down the years. Not enough to close it, but enough to warn people away.
I learn all this just by walking down it, having gone off the main roads to wander where the magic takes me. It is raining, though the rain doesn’t touch me; I direct it to flowers and the earth about me. I should be doing other things, which is more than enough reason for this. I have been a magician for over ten years; time enough to trust the magic, to follow whispers of wind and the tugging of the earth even if I do not know where I am being led in this. Being a magician is what I am; other things are what I do and those things weigh on me, have become burdens I cannot put down.
To be a magician is to be a wall between the world and the places Outside the universe, and to protect the world from monsters within it – both human and otherwise – to be a healing and cleansing, to make the hard choices so that no one else has to make them. And when you are the wandering magician who goes to all the small towns and places of the world that magicians have not been claimed by, then you wander without stopping because there is too much to do, too many places that need help, too many people who have lost their way so far that only magic can bring them back.
There are magicians who cast aside their magic; my magic is terrified of such a thing. I do not desire such a thing. I say this, but I don’t know it is true anymore. I have done wonderful things, and I have done terrible things, and it takes so little evil to outweigh so much good. Knowing this does not stop it from being so, so I walk down a small gravel road, letting the world speak to me and finally come to a halt in the middle of the road, peeling off winter gloves as I crouch to press my fingers to gravel.
It takes time for the road to hear my voice, longer for it to find its own voice. The voice is a soft whisper kin to a misting of water on stones. “Who?”
“A magician. The wandering one.”
“Oh!” The road wakes at that, stones shifting into mandala patterns along it in nervousness. “I did not harm those who drove down me. I do not hold ghosts here.”
“I know.” I didn’t a moment ago, but now I do. “It is raining, and it is going to rain harder over the next couple of days.” And the road knows this on some level, and keeps silent on others. “The rain will wash you away, if you let it.”
“It will,” the road admits, because one of my talents is to draw truth out of others.
“You want this to happen,” I say, and gently make it a question.
“I am barely a road anymore. I am barely used, and then only by the too-young who risk dying or those whose Sat-Navs hate them.”
I laugh at that. “I imagine so. But there are worse things, little road.” And I let it feel the highway I walked down half an hour ago, cracked and wounded under the weight of thousands of vehicles, so damaged its voice was little more than whines of pain when it can speak at all. “To be used too much is also a wounding,” I say, and I am all but certain that this is what my magic wanted me to learn here.
“It might be nicer,” the gravel road whispers, “to die of use than of neglect.”
“You want to be the highway; the highway would desire nothing more than to be you.” I stand slowly, hearing my knees pop. It has been weeks since I worked out in a gym or spared time for proper exercise. “I wouldn’t mind being you at times,” I admit.
“But I am small. I am close to nothing,” the road protests.
“There is a pleasure, even a lure, to being small. To thinking you are not important. But to those who drive on you, you are a rite of passage. Something secret they are convinced no adult knows, as if their parents did not drive down you in their own time. You are a secret that makes the world a place of wonder, that lets them know there are still places maps don’t reach, and that is a most important thing for them to learn. You could speak the go the ghosts that remain on you, if you desire company.”
“I want,” the road begins, then: “I want them to not hate me. Those who died on me.”
“We only hate ourselves, if we are honest in our hates. And the dead are more honest than the living can dare to me.” I laugh softly. “Magician-speak comes easily to me, true or not. The truth is that even if you let the rain wash you away, humans will rebuild you. And it will not be the same. You will not be the same road in their heads: if more die, it will be because the old glutch road changed. If less die, it would be the same. The act of rebuilding will take away some of what you are to them.”
“But I want,” the road whispers.
“We all want what we can’t have,” I say as gently as I know how these days. “There is nothing else to want, not truly. It is why dreams that can come true were never dreams at all and why every hill yearns to be a mountain. The world would be a poorer place if everyone was content to be what they were. And sometimes, just sometimes, what magicians are for is to help make wantings come true.”
“I want that they are scared, but no one else dies on me. That is what I want, magician, if you can make that happen.”
I reach out with the magic, touching the world with need and desire. Mine, the roads, even a hint of the ghosts. None of them hate the road, but in time a ghost would be made that did, that could not blame itself for its own failings. I barely bring them into the magic because magicians do not deal with the dead: they are wholly needs and seldom safe for our kind. To bring them in at all is perhaps a danger, but like the road I find myself reaching to be something more, to not be trapped in being only what I am now.
“Thank you,” the road says after. “If you need anything?”
“I think – I think I am fine. I needed to do this magic, to be in this place. To tell myself things I already knew again, because we always forget them.” I smile, and walk the rest of the road, taking something of the roads yearnings and giving it to the highway. A lesson, a promise, a hope. Enough so that it hurts a little less than it did before.
These are important, all these small magics I sometimes do without even thinking about them any longer. In a normal day I would have touched the road and helped it as I drove past without stopping for a conversation. There is something to that, in doing good without making it part of the tally against yourself. I am neither highway nor gravel road, nothing so simple as those metaphors. But I can see more pauses between the pressures about me, the duties places upon me and others I have taken up. I can see moments to breathe, and even to relax.
I am still too worn out to even rest, but I can at least see glimpses of hope out of the corner of my eye. And I find myself wondering about the lack of wandering magicians, why there seems to be only one a generation, and how to make more. Not only to make it easier on myself, but also to make everything easier for the world. It is not an answer; I am not certain I even know the questions I need to ask, but it is something to move toward beyond fleeing my own failures.
I get out the cell phone Dana gave me, and consider calling Charlie and Jay to see what their new years plans are; and for the first time since I walked away from them, the idea of calling them doesn’t terrify me at all.