The world was red, upon red, upon red.
Not the artificial red of dyes and cautioned danger, but the rich, primal red only found in nature. The type of red one feels rather than sees, shades a sensation on the senses that grounds you to the very base of what it means to be human.
The tiresome sun was bleeding from his place against the horizon, spreading red light across the already red desert. Antonia Cahoy cast her eyes from the shattered sky (ruby, scarlet, wine) to the path before her (vermillion, cardinal, carmine), though it was much less a path defined by markers than by her intuition. The desert was endless, boundless, infinite. The desert would eat you away if you let it, pulling you into its monotone world, ceasing your heart and never setting it free.
Red, upon red, upon red, upon red.
It was mesmerising, beautiful. It was almost like—
Antonia caught that word, held it in her hand, shoved it back down to the place she had stored it long ago, deeper than even the sand.
Her feet sunk into said sand, bare and buried ankle-deep. Walking was an act of practice and patience, where more and more these days she felt as if she had much of one, but very little of the other. Heat radiated from soul to knee only when she faulted long enough to acknowledge it, so she had not stopped, not for what felt like kilometres upon kilometres atop a timelessness, where one step was near indistinguishable from the next. At times it felt like mania, like the desert had taken her mind, fed it to the red where she would never see it again.
Possibly it was due to this mild sense of unreality that she did not notice it at first, her toe greeting it long before her eyes.
“Oh, that shouldn’t be there,” she mused aloud, though there was no living soul around to hear it. She looked down.
A lone teacup sitting untarnished and unwarranted amongst the red, red landscape. It was odd and somewhat disorienting. There had been nothing else but her and the sand, and yet now there was this. It almost felt like—
And there it was again, that forbidden word, rising from that secret, hidden place inside her: Magick.
An archaic thing from a world Antonia had long abandoned.
The teacup was magick. She knew that like she knew the sounds of her own voice, like she knew the desert was red, like knew the dread that itched at her toes and crawled its way up her shins. She knew what magick looked like, knew the taste of it on her tongue (like that of old television static, tingling and bright), she would know magick in a crowded room, blinded, just from the hum of it beneath her wrinkled skin.
She should walk away from it, leave it be. There was more desert than there was teacup and therefore it should be so easy to ignore, yet still she hesitated. Perhaps it was her current purpose that made her vulnerable to it, grief a guest welcomed, but still out of place. Perhaps it was her extreme age, psyche too timeworn and beaten down for battles she knows she cannot win. Most likely it was a mix of these two things, plus the magick. Always the magick.
This was what she had feared the word. Words have power, Antonia knows this better than most. Words have magick, and the thing about magick was that once you let it in, it was difficult to get back out again. Magick leaves a stain on the soul that will never wash clean, and like any stain, once it sets, all one can do is learn to turn a blind eye.
But like a curse it had come back to her at the end of it all, an old friend wishing to wave goodbye, or an enemy returning to twist the knife.
She wanted to be cross that it was here, that it had found her here of all places, where not even the flies had the gall to seek her out. She wanted to rage at the implausibility of its presence. But anger was a habit she had long cast aside, and she was far too old of a dog to relearn unhelpful tricks.
She stared at it instead, and stared, and stared. It was a wondrous thing. Ornate and delicate and so brilliantly blue. The kind of blue that made the desert look all the redder in contrast; born opposites.
She picked it up. It was fragile in her hands. It was also unbelievably, undeniably magick. It shared these things with her, the fragility and the magick, passing them by touch until Antonia’s hands were shaky with both.
It was empty, its smooth, cupped interior inlaid with gold. Its handle was thin and near impractical. Its sides were a mosaic of shape and colour, a diagram of blue anywhere from the richest of indigo to the powderiest of cornflower. She’d only ever known one thing more beautiful, and she was gone now.
Antonia upturned it, observational, and shockingly (though it should not have been) discovered that it was not as empty as it had initially seemed. Upside down the cup began to spill water, crystal clear, and upon further inspection, cool to the touch. With it came the memories, so many memories, more memories than even a magickal teacup should be capable of containing.
Memories, upon memories, upon memories.
These memories took a physical form, objects with mass and shape, items she could hold.
First came the tarot card—card, singular, meaning just the one. It was the Death card. Not ominous to most, as most know Death as not a literal card, but merely an interpretation of the end.
‘But isn’t that the whole point?’ Antonia thought, ‘That death is the end?’—at least to some, though Antonia’s ironically very Catholic mother would have chastised her for ever believing so.
It was her mother that had taught Antonia the meanings behind the cards in the first place, a form of magick so commonplace that it was hardly magick at all, so much so that she had even allowed herself to playfully utilize them on multiple occasions throughout her life after the magick, a party-trick that veered just far enough from the truth that it did not keep her up at night.
It was cards she had been reading when her life had changed forever, a fan of fractured promises across a table sticky with the remnants of condiments and coffee creamer.
She’d been twenty, attempting to arrange them in a spread her mother had described as Golden Dawn, but like always she had struggled to keep anything straight.
Her mother had been reproaching her in rapid, rounded Filipino. Antonia had been ignoring her; she’d never had the patience to be both bilingual and magick at the same time.
“Antonia, can you see it, girl?”
Eventually: “I can see it.”
She could see nothing, only meaningless pictograms upon a surface of coffee-stained veneer.
“Can you really?”
Antonia had felt her frustration building, as it so often did in cases related to both magick and her mother—the only two parents she had ever known, “I said I can see it, nanay.”
“What do you see?”
She’d looked away, an act of self-preservation practiced to prevent the very public berating that she knew would result from the outburst Antonia could feel building. That was when she saw her, a shock of dark-haired elegance entering amongst a group of peers and disappearing within the shelter of a nearby booth. There was something then, very similar to the feeling of magick or indigestion, a bubbling and fluttering from inside her gut.
Quietly she told her mother, “My future.”
Next, the cup deposited a carnation, off-white and otherwise ordinary, the petals wispy and insubstantial. Antonia scooped it up, handled it with a grace almost uncharacteristic. As she does, its magick begins to rear its head, the petals of it shifting in an undulating warp of colour; reds and pinks, before settling back to white.
“Flowers have many meanings.” A memory reminded.
Carnations were versatile and tragic, their colour altering the meaning to anything from love to disappointment, innocence to remembrance. Carnations were also her favourite.
Her name was Reina, and she was kind of like magick, but not the sort Antonia had been raised by, not the magick of tarot cards and pouched herbs and premonition, but rather the sort found in everyday life. The small wonders. The magick in mundanity.
Her father was a labourer and her mother a homemaker and the only preternatural language spoken between them was that of their ambiguous and mighty God.
Antonia had discovered all of this through the very un-magickal system of neighbourhood gossip. Reina and her family were new to a very small community, and therefore their presence was that of keen interest to those who had nothing better to focus on than the business of others. Antonia had never paid this much mind, until then when it began to serve her.
It was through this grapevine of shameless snoopery that Antonia had discovered that Reina frequented the very same diner almost every afternoon whether it be alone with a book, or surrounded by family, or her new-found group of friends, so, like the very normal young woman she was, Antonia began to do the same, without the tarot cards of course.
It was during one of these borderline stalkerish ventures that the carnations appeared, drifting almost miraculously from the air, landing sweetly upon the table where Antonia had been studying, or snacking, or scribbling pictures in a notebook, all whilst feigning ignorance of her true intention: the building of her courage to one day, one day, approach the girl with the dark hair that frequented her daydreams.
The first one came a month or so in, dancing down to crown the words of a library book, its severed stem bleeding green against its pages. When she looked up, its origin could not be found, a mystery that would continue for what felt like years, but could have only been weeks, for patience had never been a virtue available to her.
‘I’ve seen you watching,’ I voice came one day, floating from above in the carnation’s stead. When Antonia had looked up, it was Reina that looked down at her.
‘I like it.’ And she walked away.
Next it was a tube of lipstick, in a shade of deep red, in a brand that had long met its end. The tube was tarnished silver, black blemishes in the shape of fingerprints forgotten to time. Antonia matched her own fingers to each one, twisting to reveal the remnants of what little product remained. When she placed it to her lips, it felt like a kiss.
‘No one can know,’ Reina had confessed in a secret voice, one Antonia would come to know was reserved just for her. Their faces were close still, knees and hands and hearts an enmeshment all but them would find perverse. This was a secret Antonia had not expected to have ever needed to keep, though possibly it was one she had always known about herself. She’d liked to say it had happened gradually, a sweet, slow romance like in novels or those fancy films on televisions other families had been able to afford, but there was nothing slow about being in your twenties, though it had been sweet enough. It was a frantic, girlish sort of love, and Antonia had known immediately that she wanted nothing else.
‘They don’t need to know.’ Antonia was used to keeping secrets. Magick was a secret, and she had kept that her whole life. What was one more when it was something so worth keeping? ‘Only we need to know.’
But Antonia would come to know that secrets are weighty things and that a life of magick and little anaerobic exercise had left her ill-equipped to bear the load of so many, so she had given one up.
‘One does not simply leave magick, child.’ Her mother was frantic, tsinela in hand, her superior magick a wild, unruly swirl about her. Antonia had been packing when she’d been caught, suitcase chock full and chest much the same. If she had to give up a secret she had decided, best it be the one she had not much cared for in the first place.
‘I do not want it, Mama.’ They had stared each other down then, her otherwise tiny mother a suddenly imposing and unshifting door guardian, ‘I have never wanted it.’
‘Magick is not something you want! It is something you are!’
‘I know what I am,’ Antonia forced her way through the door, ‘And it is not this.’
And she had never looked back.
Out came the postcards, piles upon piles, until the sand was no more, consumed by their thick, papery presence, their pictures depicting a world of wonder, of adventure. Continents and countries, and a very human, magick-less life. A life that never stopped, because they had not been born into a world that could not allow it, but they had never let that hurt them. If Antonia’s family could be magick and suffer not from the heft of their secrecy, then they could be this.
‘I want to go to the desert,’ Reina said often, ‘Where the sand is as red as only sand can be.’
‘You would hate it,’ Antonia would remind her, ‘You hate sand, and you hate heat, and you hate walking more than a kilometre at a time.’
‘You would carry me wouldn’t you, Toni? If I wanted to see the desert.’
She had said no, but she knew even then, that she would have carried Reina through anything.
Next came a promise, though it was shaped as a ring, a simple band of plated gold, no more expensive than a capsule toy in currency, but near invaluable in almost every other regard.
‘It won’t mean anything.’ Antonia had said, voice shapeless with terror and delight.
‘Not legally,’ Reina replied, slipping it in place. They had been living together for some time, seen by most as two spinsters detached from all family, from all their lives had been before, ‘It does not need to mean anything to anyone but us, anyway.’
Antonia had mapped the shape of it with a finger, committing each ridge and round to memory.
‘Love is a little like magick,’ she’d thought to herself.
And that terrified her beyond belief.
Finally came the knitting needle, the last piece in a puzzle that Antonia had not known needed to be solved. It stabbed itself upright into the sand, Arthur’s Excalibur, piercing directly through Antonia’s heart. She’d left it where it sat, placing the teacup upright at its side, instead reaching a hand to caressing the fraying edges of her woollen shawl, hand woven, the work of many years of hatching and dismantling, some portions created weeks and months and years before others. No part of it was the same, the wool not of the same gauge or fibre, colour or stitch. It was a passion project created of mishaps and mistakes, an undeliberate, but accurate reflection of all that they were.
‘You’re not very good at that,’ she recalled saying more than once, ‘I’m never going to wear it.’
And Reina would look up, eyes twinkling of life and vitality, no matter the age, ‘And you are not very good at that.’
Reina was gone now, time having caught them when no one else could, years of motion and madness that never allowed them to settle in a world that did not wish them peace, yet still they had found it, hadn’t they?
They may have been secret, but they had also been loved.
The rest of her had returned to Reina’s home country upon request, but a small portion, one that Antonia liked to believe to be the heart once given and never taken back, existed within the breast pocket of her woollen shawl, heart-to-heart, as they had been for a lifetime.
She took this small part, an inconspicuous pouch of plain fabric, pressed her lips to her love just one last time, whispering words not even the desert in all its hush could hear.
Then, like it had been her intention all along, she dispensed the ashes within the teacup, watching them disperse amongst the liquid, an intermingling of the two worlds she had spent a lifetime separating, only for it to all come back together in the end.
From somewhere within her, where the magick had been kept, she heard the voice of her mother, “What do you see?”
Antonia watched the liquid marriage of magick and mundanity, of a life lived and a life lost, past and potential.
“My life, nanay.”
And it had been magick.