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Let me tell you a story. Is it a true story, you ask? What a strange question. All stories are true. Not all of them at the same place and at the same time, of course, but nevertheless - all stories are true stories. If there is untruth - and there is untruth - then it’s in the people, not in their stories. And people are often untrue, even to their own stories.
Why? Well, that’s no story I know to tell. There’s no reason for it that I can see, other than people are just like that. Well - some people, some of the time. People are like stories that way: they’re not all true - or all false - all at the same time.
So there are no false stories but there are, sometimes, false people. Now; shall I tell you a story? Excellent; then let us begin.
In another time and at another place, there lived a woman, and her name was Aseel. Aseel lived in fear because in that time and at that place there was a war, and Aseel was magical. The war, you see, was bad enough that there was a draft, but not so bad the draft was universal. Non-magicals could choose whether or not they wanted to enlist, or to commission; but magicals were few and far between, and so for the magicals there was a draft, and once you were drafted there was no guarantee that it would ever end and your life would be yours again to live.
Aseel was magical and so, she lived in fear.
She also did not live alone. She lived with her lover, a woman called Reena, in a quiet little house on the edge of town. Both women were home when, one night, the phone rang. It was Reena who picked it up. She did not need to say a word for Aseel to know what the call was. She could tell it in Reena’s face that drained of blood, in her hands that balled into fists: Aseel’s name came up in the draft.
Both Reena and Aseel knew that before the phone rang in their home, it would have rung at the town’s recruitment center. They knew that there already was a car on its way to their home, to pick Aseel up. And once the car arrived, Aseel would be taken away.
It could arrive at any moment. There was no time to waste. Aseel grabbed her scarf, hugged Reena one last time, and left through the porch door.
Remember: Aseel was magical , and magic is in the body. Aseel was powerful enough that all she needed to do was walk. Just by walking, she could turn herself invisible if that was her intent - and it was her intent, as she walked out to the yard and on to the fields beyond. Had she taken the streets, the car sent to take her away would pass her right by. She would have to keep walking, would have to become a refugee, but to be a refugee was still that much better than to be a slave. And so Aseel walked out the door and disappeared into the night, right before her lover’s very eyes.
For three nights Aseel walked; for three long nights, and three long days. And as the third day gave way to the fourth night, Aseel arrived at the forest. It wasn’t just any forest but the forest, one where loggers and hunters dared not enter because every living thing was magical, down to the last blade of grass and last patch of moss. To that forest Aseel came, looking for shelter.
Aseel knew this forest, and it knew her; her parents had brought her there as a child, to play at its edges. They’d also taught her to walk barefoot, so that the ground and the moss could feel every twitch of muscle in her foot. That’s what Aseel did as she walked deeper and deeper into the woods, and the flower buds danced out their welcome. You know that dance, don’t you? There, just like that: it’s the same dance whether human or plant does it.
As she knelt by the dancing buds, a shadow passed by at the corner of her eye. Aseel tensed. There was the shadow again. She rose to her feet; she’d been visited by a spirit of the forest. You’ve never heard of spirits? Well, you’re just the right age to learn. Spirits may only be seen where magic lays heaviest; if one visits you, then the deepest of magic is at play. No, that’s not much, I agree, but it’s all Aseel knew, too, as she followed the ley lines of magic in the ground to a small clearing where she found the spirit, crouched right in the middle of it. Except for its glowing eyes, the spirit was a creature made entirely of shadow. It was no ordinary shadow that the spirit was made of; it was as if a person-shaped hole had been cut in the universe, showing the deep, deep darkness underneath.
Yes, that’s a frightful sight indeed. Aseel was frightened, too. And in her fright she stepped back right into a puddle. The splashing sound made the spirit bolt, and Aseel must’ve been very brave or very foolish, because she gave chase. She was so focused on her target that she didn’t notice the weeds that crept up from the moss to meet her - at least, not until they wrapped themselves around her feet and she fell flat forward on her face.
She pulled, and she pulled, and she pulled even harder, but the weeds wouldn’t let go and wouldn’t tear. Aseel was trapped. The reality of her situation came crashing down on her: she was all alone, and no one was coming. If she couldn’t find a way to get herself free… She wasn’t even carrying water; she wouldn’t last long. She was all alone in the woods.
She was in the woods. Like her, the weeds had a purpose to their actions and, for whatever reason, the forest didn’t want her to chase the spirit. Very well; she wouldn’t chase it, then. She needed to communicate that to the forest. If only she could manage that… Aseel covered her face with her hands and breathed deeply, carefully, trying to calm her body as much as she could. The weeds let go of her feet, sunk into the earth and disappeared. She was free.
Gingerly, Aseel pushed herself up. Weariness came crashing down on her: she was all alone in the woods, and no one was coming. At a careful, measured pace, she walked over to one of the trees. There, she sat down between the roots of the tree and pulled her knees up. She couldn’t afford to tire already. She had to regain her strength, and with her back to a solid tree trunk was as good a place as she was going to find.
A drop of water fell on her cheek. That was all the warning Aseel had before the sky opened up and let loose a torrential downpour. The moss she was sitting on became soaked almost immediately, and Aseel hurried to her feet. Around her, the buds burst into bloom all at once; she was standing in a field of powder-blue starflowers. She only had a moment to marvel at the view; then a gust of wind nearly blew her off her feet and, after a brief struggle, stole her scarf. Aseel cried out, unable to hold it in: the scarf was the only thing she took with her of her home, of her life with Reena. Without it she felt stripped down, exposed to the bone.
The storm did not let her linger on that emotion either. Soon, frigid waters were rising above her ankles. Where did all those waters come from? It’s only been raining for a minute! And yet the waters rose, as if the forest was in a bowl held under an open tap. It made no sense; and yet, and yet. The waters rose and rose until they were up to first her waist, then her chest. The waters rose so high that trees began to become uprooted and collapse. Aseel kicked her legs and tried to keep her head abovewater, but to no avail.
The world turned black.
When next she opened her eyes, she was so fully underwater she may as well be in a lake. Aseel had no idea how she hadn’t drowned yet, if she’d lost consciousness underwater. Kicking and shoving water out from above her with her arms, she swam for the surface as quickly as she possibly could. Already her lungs were hurting from the pressure of holding her breath in.
For the first few seconds after she broke through the surface all Aseel felt was relief at the clean air. Then it registered that it was light. That couldn’t possibly be; there was still half the night to go when it had begun to rain. She couldn’t have lost time: she’d been underwater. Then she registered the mountains all around her. They were wholly alien. She was treading water in an alien mountainlake, when minutes before she’d been in a forest in the plains. This couldn’t be.
And yet, and yet.
Aseel forced herself to swim to shore. Once there, she collapsed on her back. She only opened her eyes when a shadow came between her and the rising sun. She opened her eyes - and nearly screamed: a figure was leaning above her who had the sun at their back and so appeared dark, so dark that for a moment Aseel thought it was the forest spirit. But no, there were no gleaming eyes. This was a person, albeit - she could tell once her eyes adjusted to the light - one dressed in outlandish clothes that were the wrong cut and wrong colours for… anywhere Aseel could think of, really.
Aseel pushed herself up on her elbows.
When the person spoke, the language was completely foreign as well. He - was this person a ‘he’? - paused and must have read the confusion on her face, because his next few words had the sound of an apology to them. Then a voice - this person’s voice - spoke as if in her mind, and his lips didn’t move: “Can you understand me?”
The voice was so hesitant; that was the only reason Aseel didn’t push herself away. That and - she had no idea where she was, or even when; she could starve on her own, or she could attempt to trust this person and see how that would go.
“Yes,” she said, forming the word in her mind and in her mouth both, then added with her mind alone: “I understand. Who are you? Where am I? How do you do this?”
“I’m Yissif,” he said. “We’re on the other side of the - it was a forest, wasn’t it?”
Aseel stared at him. “What do you mean , ‘on the other side’?”
“Here is a - a different world, I supposed, does that translate right?” He said, then continued: “Some places here correspond to places in the world you’re from. Like this lake and that forest. I assume it really is a forest - it’s difficult to tell when I’m only partially through, and we never managed to push someone all the way through before. I have no idea how you came through with me.”
Aseel stared, and stared, until Yissif’s words started making sense. “You were the spirit in the forest,” she said, then added: “I’m Aseel. How do you do this?” She repeated. “This… speaking without speaking, that lets us understand each other.”
It was his turn to stare at her. “It’s mimant,” he said, as if that was all the explanation that was necessary.
“That word didn’t translate,” she told him, then repeated the sound: “Mimant.”
“Mimant,” he said, “it’s skill, it’s… Best we could tell, your world is very poor in it. The natural system, too, and only about one in a thousand people has it.”
One in a thousand! Suddenly, Aseel realized what Yissif meant: “Magic. You’re talking about magic.”
“Is that what you call it?” He seemed startled. “Yes, I suppose it would seem like that if almost everyone is absym.”
In Aseel’s chest, something was burning. She thought that was hope. “You say it’s more common here? Magic, mimant?”
“Yes,” he said. “The ratio is inverted. Why are you crying? Are you all right?” Yissif sounded alarmed.
Aseel shook her head. A world where being magical was norm! A world where she wouldn’t be considered dangerous just for existing , where she wouldn’t be considered untrustworthy for not being bound in service in one of the recognized professions! Oh, it had been at least a century since that was mandatory, but prejudices took longer than that to change. Aseel couldn’t even begin to imagine what this new world could be like.
Eventually, she calmed her mind enough to say, forming the words slowly and carefully: “I was looking for shelter, in the forest. Could that have…” What did Yissif call it?”...pushed me through?”
“It could have helped,” he said, also forming the words slowly. “It could have, particularly if you’re strong enough.”
A burst of hysterical laughter tore itself from Aseel’s throat. “I am. At least for the world I’m from.”
“Well, we have tests for that. I mean…” Yissif hesitated. When he spoke again, he was picking his words very slowly. “I’m a scientist. My job is to explore the boundary, to try and understand how it works and what it even is. We only figured out how to partially push through - that’s why I appeared as a ‘spirit’ to you.”
Aseel’s heart sank as she processed his words. Bitterly, she said: “And now I am your lab rat.”
“Aseel.” Very softly, he pronounced her name with his mouth. Then he spoke through his mind: “You are a person first.”
Aseel couldn’t help it; she started to sob.
Did Yissif make good on his promise? Yes, yes he did. Not everyone he worked with agreed with that stance, but enough of them did, and they fought first for Aseel to be formally acknowledged as a refugee, then for her to receive citizenship. She did agree to participate in a number of experiments, and even came to design some herself, but these experiments did not reveal much. Best they could figure out, the great rain that fell that night in the forest had helped increase the resonance between the two corresponding locations, the forest and the lake, and that, together with Aseel’s sheer desperation and the disturbance caused by Yissif’s presence, did the trick; hardly circumstances that would be easy to replicate!
But Aseel was safe, in that sister world, and could have a a good life - even if it was a life that did not have Reena in it.
What ever happened to Reena? Oh, that is an excellent question.
Things were not easy for Reena. To start with, she was arrested by the recruiters when they arrived at the home she and Aseel had shared and found Aseel gone. They believed that Reena knew where Aseel was, you see - or else that Aseel would turn herself in in exchange for Reena’s release.
Neither of these things was going to happen, of course. Reena had no idea about Aseel’s whereabouts, and Aseel had gone much farther than the recruiters could possibly imagine. And so, eventually, Reena was let go. She returned to her home, her job, and her friends, who were glad to see her back and were also angered on her behalf. But for Reena, there was no joy left in any of these things: she missed Aseel far too much.
She went through her days as if trapped in a dream, a terrible dream that never ended and from which there was no waking: Aseel was gone. Reena would never hear from her again, would never see her again, would never again hold her in her arms. With every day that passed without word from Aseel, Reena tried to tell herself that it was because Aseel had made it, because Aseel had found somewhere safe enough and far enough away, a place where she could live out her life in peace. Reena tried hard to not think of the other possibility, that Aseel was well and truly gone , but in truth she had no way of knowing. Dead or alive, Aseel was gone.
Months passed. Then, a year. And as Reena slowly and painfully came to terms with the new reality of her life, an idea came to her: she had to leave her country. The exiles and the refugees had ways of connecting with one another, but those were inaccessible to Reena while she stayed put: no one would dare be in contact with her. If Aseel was somewhere out there, the only way she could contact Reena was if Reena herself was someplace safer. Therefore, she had to leave.
Of course, doing that was not as simple as boarding a plane. Getting to a different country is easy enough, but staying there - that was much more complicated. To achieve that, Reena had to do something quite dangerous - and she had no guarantee that it would work. It was a risk that she and Aseel had discussed, and had decided not to take. But with Aseel gone, Reena was desperate.
To give some other country a reason to let her stay, Reena had to make them believe she was persecuted in her home country. And to achieve that , she had to reveal a secret she’d kept her entire life: that she, too, was magical.
Yes, that’s an incredibly difficult secret to keep, I agree. Reena had to let no one see her do magic, ever, which means she had to want to not do magic at all times. As young as Reena was when she’d realized she’s magical, she knew that undisciplined magicals are not tolerated, and she refused to have her life be defined by that one aspect of her. Instead, she trained herself mercilessly to never express magic by accident.
Merely being the wife of a draft evader would not grant her asylum. But being herself potentially subject to the draft, that just might. Asylum requests were not always granted; that was why revealing herself was a risk. But she would have at least the while of her request being investigated, and that alone could be years.
And it was, indeed, years. It had been three years since Reena acted on her decision, and though she integrated herself into every exile-network she so much as heard whispers of, she hadn’t managed to find so much as the shadow of a trace leading back to Aseel.
No, she didn’t wonder if Aseel was dead: she knew that Aseel was alive. And I do mean, knew. How? Well, let me tell you.
You see, because Reena’s magic was pent up most of the time, it behaved in unusual ways when Reena did let it out. That was how Reena could do something extraordinary: she could sing magic. Certainly, the vocal cords are just a pair of muscles, but you know how difficult it is, to project magic away from one’s body. Indeed, most people where Reena was from would have considered singing magic to be impossible.
It used to be that Reena would only sing in the privacy of her home, where only Aseel could hear her. But these years later and in another land, there was a club where Reena would sometimes sing. It was a small club, just for magicals to be ourselves without prying non-magical eyes - and non-magical ears. There, it was safe for Reena to sing like she knew how. And sometimes, when she’d sing - not every time, but some times - she’d see Aseel. How that magic worked Reena didn’t know, but she felt it, and she knew it to be true: that somewhere out there, Aseel lived.
So it’s been for three long years. And then, one night, everything changed.
It started like an ordinary night. The only thing other than ordinary was the new person. Reena tried to pay them as little attention as possible. For one thing, they were clearly nervous, and giving them space was polite. For another, the way they moved reminded Reena of people she used to know, who chose the military for a career, and those were not memories she cared to revisit. And so Reena tried to ignore them, until the bartender caught her eye from across the room and tilted her head to point at the new person with her chin. The gesture was a clear request: Sing , the bartender requested of Reena, help them feel welcome.
That was Reena’s unofficial function at the club: to welcome newcomers. She wasn’t sure what it was about singing magic, but it never failed to help newcomers relax and recognize that they have arrived at a safe haven. That that worked at all was a mystery to Reena, given she most often sang of loss and longing; and yet it had. It was gratifying, in a way, that even if she herself felt lost and alone she could help others lay down their burdens and feel at home.
And so, Reena sang. She closed her eyes at first; it was easier to focus on her body and the magic that it produced that way. She didn’t need to focus on any one person in order to draw them in; it was more important to focus on her performance. It wasn’t just singing: she used her arms and her upper body as well, dancing out her welcome to the club’s other patrons. And at the same time, part of her was reaching out, feeling, searching out for visions of Aseel.
It wasn’t Aseel that she found: it was a stranger. At first Reena didn’t know what it was she was feeling. It was strange, unlike anything she’d felt before. It was as if someone had placed a hand on her shoulder, except not; as if another voice had joined hers - except not; as if… As if, she eventually realized, someone was supporting her magic with theirs.
Who was it? Who could it be? Reena opened her eyes. They were good with their magic, whoever they were: she couldn’t identify anyone in the club doing the usual motions of magic. This person was using something idiosyncratic, something unusual - they had to, because Reena had never heard of anything like this, had no idea that it was even possible. There were not that many people present that night, but none of them was anyone that Reena knew particularly well; some of them she knew by their faces alone, not even their name.
Who could it be?
Then the vision of Aseel came. The white room opened up before Reena, superimposed over the dark club; and there was Aseel, in her strange clothes. How many times Reena searched for clothes like Aseel’s! If she could find where they came from, she might find Aseel - but she never had such luck.
Like always, Reena tipped her head back, closed her eyes, used her whole posture to reach out - and this time, this time, something happened that never had before: Aseel looked her in the eye, Aseel opened her arms to her, and her lips formed Reena’s name. Come to me , Aseel’s lips spelled, and then, and then -
And then, the last lines left Reena’s lips, and she was out of song.
Scattered clapping and a few whistles wafted in the now-silent club. Reena stood in place and let those wash over her; she realized that she was shaking. It was a few moments before she felt stable enough to step down from the stage.
Still in a daze, she walked over to the bar and pulled herself a stool. The bartender pushed a shot glass towards her, and Reena downed it without even tasting it; her entire body was still buzzing. She closed her eyes to take a deep, steadying breath. Only when she opened them she realized where she’d sat down: only one stool away from the newcomer.
Up close, her earlier impression of military still held up. It also seemed to her that the difficulty determining this person’s gender from their appearance was not by accident, but rather by intent. Their hair was a fading brown, and their eyes - when they met hers - were cool, but not cold. They reached up to rub their neck, and Reena’s breath caught: this was the person whose magic had just supported hers.
“You,” she blurted.
The stranger nodded. “I’m Aya,” they said.
“I’m Reena,” she replied automatically. “Why did you…?” she began to ask, then asked instead: “How?”
Aya smiled thinly. “I’m from far away,” they said, as if that was an explanation. Then they added: “I have a letter for you.”
“A letter?” Reena asked, confused, as Aya reached into their purse. Then Aya produced the letter, and Reena’s breath caught. She recognized the hand that wrote her name on the envelope: this hand was Aseel’s.
How…? Reena wondered, but did not ask out loud. She received the envelope and opened it with trembling hands.
A letter from Aseel, after this many years.
Know that I have been missing you as fiercely all this time. I have been seeing you when you saw me - or at least, I think (I hope!) that this is what has been happening. I didn’t know how to reach back to you; Aya should be able to help with that.
I am… far, far away from home. I stumbled into another world, Reena. There is no other way to describe it. I am not being metaphorical: a literal other world, where - oh, Reena! Here, magicals are as common as non-magicals are in the world you and I are from. This is why it took me so long to contact you: I stumbled through by accident, and it took us so, so long to figure out how to send someone through by design.
I hope Aya will find you quickly. Please come to me.
Reena read the letter many times before she finally lifted her eyes to stare at Aya, who was looking at her intently.
There was only one thing that Reena could say. She licked her lips, then asked: “How do we do this? When can we…?”
“We need privacy. And we’ll both need our strength, to punch through,” said Aya. They eyed Reena critically, then asked: “Do you think you will be able to rest tonight?”
“No,” Reena replied honestly.
Aya nodded, as if Reena confirmed what they already thought. “Then we might as well go now.”
It was Reena’s turn to nod. “My place.”
They took the bus. There were many questions Reena wanted to ask Aya, but she didn’t. First because the bus allowed no privacy, and then because she realized that if she waited just a little bit longer, she could get her answers from Aseel.
Was she crazy, for believing that Aseel found her way to a whole other world? It was the sort of a thing she should think was crazy, and yet Reena couldn’t help but think that it made sense, that it explained things she had no other explanation for - how Aseel could disappear so thoroughly, her clothes that came from nowhere on earth; or rather, nowhere on this earth.
“What do I do?” she asked soon as her apartment’s door closed behind Aya and her.
“Sing, with all the intent you have,” Aya said promptly. “There are locations in each world that correspond to locations in the other. When both locations are powerfully magical, they facilitate travel between them. That’s how Aseel punched through. We don’t need a location like that because we have you and Aseel, one in each world. That’s how your visions of her work: the two of you are like these paired locations.”
“So I sing, and you back me up,” Reena said, “and a doorway should open.”
Aya shook their head. “It doesn’t look like a doorway - it looks like one place turning into another.” For a moment they were silent; then, they continued. “You have to understand: to date, Aseel and I are the only people to have successfully traveled this way. Aseel succeeded because she’s very powerful, and she was desperate. I had others working with me, to send me here.”
“Which is why we need to work together,” Reena said impatiently.
Calmly, Aya replied: “And accept we might not succeed on the first try.”
It was Reena’s turn to shake her head. “You said Aseel succeeded because she was desperate. I need to put everything I have into this.”
Aya considered her for a moment, then nodded and said: “Then sing.”
It was strange, to sing like that. Strange, and difficult: Reena’s mouth dried up at the thought of what she was to do. Twice she had to pause for a sip of water. Even when she managed to get through the first line of one of her favorite songs, she felt too awkward to properly work her magic. Still, she kept going; she knew herself, and she knew her better odds lay at pushing and pulling through than at stopping and trying again from the beginning.
It took all of the first verse and part of the second before she felt her magic begin to respond. Then, though, her mouth dried up again when no vision of Aseel appeared. That wasn’t unexpected: the visions only came to her some times. But knowing that the vision could become reality, knowing what depended on her ability to connect with Aseel in that other world -
It might help if she could dance, but Reena found that she was too tense to. Instead she balled her hands into fists and closed her eyes. It didn’t matter how magic usually work - or how she was taught that it worked: she could sing her magic, she knew that, and if she could do that then she could damn well find Aseel.
Aya’s magic rose to back hers up. They were strong; what Reena had felt earlier at the club was just a whisper of power relative to what she could feel now. It bolstered Reena’s newfound confidence: she could sing her magic and Aya was nearly as powerful as Aseel and together, together they could do this.
There. With her eyes closed Reena couldn’t see Aseel but she could feel her magic connecting, could feel something rising up to meet Aya’s and her magic. Reena kept her eyes closed and reached out with her mind and her hands instead. How did the air taste, wherever Aseel was? What temperature was it? What sounds were in the room - and Reena’s voice had to be wherever Aseel was, had to be, had to be? Reena focused on all those details, poured her heart, mind and soul out through her voice and reached out, reached out, reached out -
Until Aseel’s scent was as solid as the hands that closed over mine, and I opened my eyes to see tears streaming down the face of the love of my life, who was right there in front of me, finally, after all these years.
Really, dearheart, did you not realize that was me? Here I am talking to you; did you not realize what it is that you are hearing? Even here, in this world where mimant is taught from the cradle as if it’s no different than walking or talking - even here, those of us who can use our voice are few and far between.
Yes, of course we went back for others. Aseel never did, but I lived for years among the other refugees. Here too we are refugees, but here no one distrusts us or tries to use us for our magic. We can’t rescue everyone, of course, but my parents’ people have a saying: that to save even one life is to save a world. Not everyone wants to cross over, either; some would rather fight for their place in the world we’re from. I have no more strength for that particular war, but I’ll tell you the truth: I’ll weep with joy if it is won. I would love to see my parents again, if they’re still alive, and my siblings. But I had to make a choice, and my choice lies with Aseel.
Would you like to see that other world? Why would you? You might not remember, but didn’t you figure it out? You were born in my old world; you were very young when your mother crossed over with you, so it makes sense you wouldn’t remember. That’s why I wanted to tell you this story, dearheart: it’s your history, too.
Do you promise me that you’ll remember it?