Prose Header

If Wishes Were Horses

by Amber Ray

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

part 2

I closed up the shutters of the shanty and, since Da wasn’t going to be there, I shucked off my baggy overalls, one of Da’s old cut-down shirts and Union suit. I balled up my boy self and stuffed it in the woodbox where I didn’t have to see the false self Da made me wear.

From under my bed I dragged out the box with the dresses Ma made for me before she died. With Da not here, I could put my own self on and could be as God — and not Da — made me for a while. It felt damn fine to be Samantha instead of Sammy. I swooped the dress around the old cabin and wished I could yell with happiness.

I could hear Ma’s ghost rise up from the rustling of the fabric as the dress sighed over my head. “Samantha, my lamb, listen now. I have folk up North. Disobey your Da, take the money from the strong box, go find them and go find your magic.”

“He’ll find me, Ma—”

The dress sighed and the folds settled around me in the whisper of a hug. “Cross water before he knows you’re gone and take pain there’s no bridges with rails in your path. He won’t be strong enough to find your trail once you cross water. If you keep water between yourself and the railroad, the rails cannot sing to him and they’ll not tell him which way ye’ve gone.”

“I’m scared of him, Ma.” I began sweeping the floor as the dress swirled around me, still smelling sweet from Ma’s sachets.

“How can I go to people who’ve never seen me? They’ll not understand anything of me.” I leaned the broom against the wall and ran the sash of the dress between my hands, rumpling and rolling it.

“My magic came from the sea, the wind. Your father took it for the rails, for his luck spells. Took and took till I bled dry and couldn’t heal myself when sickness came to camp. I loved him too much to ever say no, and he loved the cards too much to make himself stop. Like as be, he’s taking yours, or soon he will realize he can. My folk will have magic like yours. Go to them.”

“I’m scared, Ma, the iron tells him everything.”

The fabric twined around my hands like the memory of hands clasping mine. “You have to go soon, my lamb. You’re near grown, and voices already whisper in camp you’re no boy, and your Da thinks only sons are credit to a man like him. Soon you won’t be able to pass. You’re big enough to run now, find your moment and leave him, as I should have done long ago for both our sakes.”

The wind rattled in the panes, and in a blink, Ma’s voice blew away in the biting winds.

I busied myself cleaning the shack, laid a supper in the oven, banked the fire to keep it warm, then laid Ma’s dress back in the chest. I settled into a chair with pillows and a blanket so I’d not sleep too deep. I knew if I lay down in the bed, I wouldn’t hear the creaking of the floorboards when Da came in, and he always got hitting mad if I didn’t leap to see to his demands quick and fast.

I drifted off to sleep, seeing ranks of turtles climbing the mountain, their sad heads dipped low, the very last one pausing to wave at me for a moment, then gesturing to point at something far over the mountains.

* * *

Me and that chair got to know each other real good the next few days as the rails climbed up the Canadian Rockies. Da’s plans and businesses had him out late every night, teaching men to run three-shell games and get-rich-quick schemes for him.

The Chinese were up at the break of dawn every day, their lift baskets at the ready. The Irish would stumble onto the rail lines sometime after. The lines of Gandy-Dancers would link arms, form up and begin the steps and chants to begin lifting the rails into place.

Around mid-day, the high and mighty Iron Mages would arrive on horseback or in buggies, and their apprentices would scurry out to start heating the bolts with spellfires before the Mages would begin tapping out magerythms with their hammerstaves.

The bolts rang, tapped, and settled into the mage tunes as the magic found its rhythm and made the rails lift and settle into place. The new day’s iron would turn molten, old iron braiding into new, burning off impurities and strengthening the metal as it fitted itself into place.

The Chinese chanted and beat drums but did not sing as they set the lines for the baskets that lowered the charge setters down the stony maw of Dead Horse Pass.

The granite here was troll-blessed and was too dangerous to tunnel through, so the rail line was having to loop and wend a long route through the mountains. This camp had been supposed to be moved through the mountains, following the rails, but it had been here so long it was setting roots down and fair heavy threatening to become a town.

The Chinese looped thick coils of heavy ropes around boulders, set massive counter beams into place, and rigged fast winches to drop the charge teams into their place for the day.

After the winches were readied and the two big, stinking, snarling hauling-trolls were bullied into the turning cages, nimble men in odd mixtures of rough mine camp gear and silk mage robes would leap nimbly into the ridiculously fragile baskets.

An old man in flowing robes and a tall hat strapped under his chin waved incense, chanted prayers and did protection spells. Only then would the drums begin to beat out the “Lower away” rhythm.

Two men always sat in the baskets. One to work the spells and one to grip him by the coat tails or the suspender straps to keep him from leaning too far and upsetting the basket.

The setter would clap his hands, waving them high as he chanted in piercing, wavering tones. Their hands glowed like coals in a forge, then their partner slammed a spike and an iron hammer-ball into their upheld hands. The mages struck their spikes against the stone walls, beating the hammer-balls into them. The glow of their hands sparked and ran down the spike like a red bolt of lightning.

I stared the first time I saw this, my belly draped over a boulder. The small, wiry men didn’t even seem to pay attention to the terrible force of the strikes, their chants falling into a high, calling tone that seemed to race from man to man as they struck in unison to amplify the force of the magics.

* * *

To be continued...

Copyright © 2019 by Amber Ray

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