Mary Catches Fire for Free

The Gath had nearly destroyed us. Then along came Mary.

Mary Catches Fire for Free
Original image copyright By Amanda Carden. Find more of her work here:

Chance is so old she wears her skin as if it could all peel off tonight in her sleep. But her stories make us happy enough we’d die to protect her. And her peeling skin.

“For centuries, our people were at the mercy of The Gath,” she is telling us tonight around a large fire. “But this is changing. The firecatchers have found a way forward. They have met an impossible challenge. It is as if they have reversed the horizon of the setting sun or added another moon to our skies. It is as if they have changed the nature of the atom itself.”

She’s talking, of course, about the nukes. The Gath built huge cities away from ours. What few we have. And then… Well, I’ll let Chance tell it.

“The story really begins with a young girl,” says Chance, chewing on a long reed coated in sugar. That’s her thing. Reeds of sugar.

“She didn’t know much, this girl, truth be told. Some thought she was as dumb as a mule’s tailbone. Not a whit of wit. Stone cold stares like she couldn’t think a word up for nothing. Just a young thing, too. Couldn’t a been more than ten, eleven.

“Well one day, she’s watching the other kids play. As usual, she wasn’t, how should I say, invited? You know how children can be. She wasn’t one of those children that other children invited to the party, so to speak. Well then. There she was just watching, when out of the sky comes a fireball the size of an apple tree.

“Just came out of nowhere, it did. No drones in the sky, nothing like that. It appeared out of nowhere. Like it was done by magic. But it wasn’t. Not magic. It was just another evolution in Gath weaponry. Each generation of weapons, you know, it just got worse and worse.

“But we didn’t know it at the time, no, we didn’t know what that thing was. Like I said, it came out of nowhere, starting out real small like, then grew and grew to the size of a tree as it came near, and then the strangest thing, the strangest thing in a long time happened next.

“This little girl Mary, she just raised her hands all up in the air like this,” and Chance stretches both palms up to the sky, “you know, maybe to protect herself even though of course there was no protection. But just instinct or something. It’s just sort of natural to want to do that I think. Put your hands up in front of you to stop that thing that is about to hurt you.

“And then, well, that fireball, it just stopped in midair, it did. I saw it, I did, just like I see you all sittin’ here. And Mary, she stood up and walked up to it. It was right about at her height, a little above her. And she walked up to it and stared at the thing like she was studying it.

“She circled around it, stared at it some more, circled around more, stared at it more. And then she takes her hands, and lifts them up from her waist side like so, and swoosh! Up go her hands, palms facing the sky, and that fireball shoots off so fast you couldn’t barely see it as it trailed off up into the sky in a long, curving arch that curled high up into the air and then into the horizon, leaving a beautiful contrail behind it.

“You can bet that got their attention. It did. Suddenly everyone wanted to be her friend. The quiet little thing seemed indifferent to all that, however. Didn’t seem to care about friend or foe. Didn’t seem to grasp the importance of what she had just done.

“Funny how such a thing changed our world. Changed everything. Gave us more than a chance at survival. Gave us our planet back, pretty close anyway.”

Chance looks up at the clear night sky. Soaks in the quiet night air that itself seems to be listening to the crackling embers of the bonfire.

“But at a terrible cost. Poor child. If she had known the cost…

“At first, you know, she hired out her services. This little eleven, then twelve, then thirteen-year-old girl became known everywhere for this unique talent, and she’d help out anyone, but she bargained and bartered and made her village a bit wealthy by most standards. If such a thing can be in this land.

“The fireballs seemed to get bigger and bigger, but she still was able to stop them. And a few others learned how, too.

“Then it so happened that a large city just north of her village was wiped out. People from the north — they said it was a big fireball that did it. Big enough you could see it from miles away.

“And when Mary heard that, well, she just had to see for herself, but they wouldn’t let her go, said the fire ash would kill her even if it wasn’t hot. She couldn’t understand how that could be and she resisted but the stories coming back from up north painted a good enough picture for her eventually.

“And she didn’t need to see it for herself. A whole city. Incinerated in a flash of light. And Mary, she couldn’t sleep after that and she tossed and turned and got herself skinnier than she already was because she couldn’t eat, neither, and I tell y’all she was already thinner than this here reed.”

Chance snaps a bit of the reed off with her teeth and chews.

“Some of us thought she was gonna just die in her bed, we did. She couldn’t get out of bed after hearing those stories from the north. Couldn’t a moved if you prodded her with a spear I don’t think.

“Well then. One day, Mary, she was sitting in front of a fire, just like we all here, but by herself. Just on her lonesome, you know. And this bonfire she sat in front of was a big old thing, and she was looking into it like we are looking into this one here.

“Just then, the flame died in an instant, and Mary was sitting cross-legged with her arms out juggling all these small fireballs in her hands, but it was the craziest thing because there must a been twenty of them and she was juggling them all somehow and then, she threw them toward where that fire was, threw them all.

“Now, the fireballs, they got thrown, but they didn’t. That is a hard one to explain. They suspended themselves in the air, and when they did, a city appeared in the middle of the embers of her fire. It wasn’t a real city, mind you. It was more like, I don’t know how to say this. It was like a representation of a city, three-dimensional, but small, as if a child’s toy model of one, if there ever was such a thing.

“But it wavered as if it was made of light, and I could see through it just a bit, not transparent, mind you, but not opaque, either. One of the suspended fireballs hurled itself at the city and a huge cloud rose up from that city. That cloud? It looked like a toadstool, or a mushroom full of light and thunder.

“That cloud enveloped the little city completely. When the cloud dissipated, the city was a ruin. What buildings remained were skeletons. Such a sight. Such a sight.”

“That’s how it started?” I ask.

“Pretty much, that’s it,” says Chance. “How that child knew about those fireballs about to rain down on our cities is still beyond anybody’s imagination or understanding. How she knew to throw them back at the cities of the enemies is, too. Just a mystery. A wonderful, deep mystery.”

“It’s all about time,” says Mary.

She’s a grown woman now, and I’m a grown man, and we are sometimes lovers, and I’ve never questioned my luck at how I ricocheted through life into a relationship with a legend.

“What do you mean?” I ask. Sometimes I ask her how she did it. How she controlled the atom more thoroughly than the nuclear scientists from centuries ago who turned it into such a fierce weapon.

“When people ask me how I do it? I can’t really say. I don’t really know. But it’s about time somehow. Like a lot of magic these days, you know? We manipulate time like a baker kneads bread. We all do it. It’s what the firestarters do. Conjurers and acquirers. Everybody.”

I nod at this. When a Gath drone approaches me I can freeze it. Prevent it from moving. It’s time manipulation. I send it on an endless loop that takes it back in time for a millisecond, then forward, then back again. The drone moves a tiny amount, but then back, in a way unnoticed by the human eye.

“I don’t understand how you can do something you don’t understand how to do,” I say. I usually don’t do this with Mary, but I take her hand and kiss it. I look at her not knowing what possessed me to do it.

She smiles as she looks at her hand in mine, then withdraws it. She’s not big on intimacy. “I don’t, either,” she says. “It’s magic, I guess.”

“But all magic has an underlying science to it.”

“There’s much more to it than science,” she says as she looks up. I understand the symbolism of her looking up.

“Yeah, I guess. But I don’t believe in God. A God that has allowed all this to happen? To us? And now,” I added, not wanting to make her feel bad but unable to halt the conversation, “to them?”

“It was us or them, and now it’s them.”

Chance had been right all those years ago when she told the others and me about how the Gath had nearly destroyed us. They had stalked us for centuries, wiping out most of us through designer pathogens and then hunting down the rest of us with drones.

We persevered. Built cities. Found ways to defend them through magic. Then, a few of those cities burned. The Gath decided to unleash nuclear weapons on our cities to finish us off for good. They knew many of us preferred the forests and the hills and places where remnants lived something close to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but they didn’t mind that so much. They enjoyed hunting such stragglers for sport.

And then along came Mary.

The fireballs turned back onto the Gath’s own cities. They had no idea what was happening as they unleashed one after another, destroying dozens of their cities and laying waste to the earth’s landscape.

“I feel no guilt,” she says confidently but unconvincingly. I know if I took her hand right now to offer her comfort she’d pull it back as if I was a viper.

Of course, neither of us would be here in this moment if she hadn’t done what she had done. But how does one bear the burden of millions of deaths? Especially when you delivered that fate as a child?

That is why we are sometime lovers. She cannot give me more than that. When I gaze into her eyes she always looks away after a brief moment, unable to sustain the touch such a soulful tenderness expresses.

If I was a praying man, I would pray for her every night. As it is, I give thanks to her quietly in a whisper under my breath that only my soul can hear.

This flash fiction is a part of The MagicLand Chronicles. The MagicLand Chronicles are a series of short stories related to my debut novel, MagicLand, occurring in completely different eras within the same timeline, and with completely different characters.