“If beggars were horses, wishes would ride.” Ma would always laugh when Da slurred that out, but I never saw reason to laugh when Pa was drunk. Da had a fine voice, a thousand songs, and knows every joke ever told west of the Meseppi River. Night after night, he’d set Ma to laughing and charm her into fetching him yet more whiskey or letting him take just a sip, then a sip more, then yet another sip of her magic.
Da literally had magic for creating fun times. He also had a heavy taste for the cards and no amount of magic ever filled his hunger for feeding his hungry luck spells. In the bad times when the cards and dice hated him, whiskey would fuel Da’s anger like kerosene filling a lantern.
Da’s charm would turn bitter and sharp. So many times I saw him smash one or another of the fragile sea shells that Ma loved more than anything else because they reminded her of the sea. She’d cry, he’d grovel for her forgiveness and surprise her with seashells from exotic kingdoms and sometimes Da even swore off gambling. They’d coo like doves and our house would fill back up with the little treasures that had wandered off to the pawnbroker’s.
Da would always go back to gambling though. Da would stay out late or sneak off to the gambling dens, once then again, then every night. Then the black moods took him and strange men wanting money tapped at our back door again.
Again and again Da smashed Ma’s things and she gave him whiskey and her magic till the day she got too sick to lift the bottle for him anymore.
I was born in Oregon in the wool town of Pennewick and never even met Da till I was almost three. Ma told me they were married a long time before I came along, and that he was a hedge Ironmage. He charmed and spelled the iron in a small forge he owned.
She did the forge-singing, controlling the burn and flow of the air of the flues. She told me stories of how she sometimes sang charms for the sailcraft that came down the Coldwater river and sometimes even traded charms with some of the Native folk that still chased whales and salmon along the coast.
Ma told me too how Da’d charmed her away from her folks. She’d laugh and tell me stories about their courtship–the magic-lantern shows he’d take her to, how he almost fell off a rocky outcrop along the seashore, and how he found her that first shell that began her collection.
She’d go silent when I asked about her folks though. She’d shake her head when I asked they’d lived. She let slip once her Ma had cast the bones about Da and forbidden her from ever seeing him again. She admitted her Ma never told her what she saw but that that forbidding her to see Da only made it more exciting to be with him, so eventually they ran away together. She spoke about them less and less as things went on.
Da’s spellcraft and forge work were good enough for a small town and a modest life, but Ma told me that as time went on, Da got bored and fell in love with Elsewhere and Elsewhen and Someday Soon.
It was then he gambling a bit, then a bit more and gambled their forge away just before they knew I would finally be born. That day, another woman moved into our house, the angry goddess of Fortune. She was Ma’s rival, Da’s companion and a constant shadowy presence in all the houses we lived in from then on.
Da has always told me he sold off the forge, that they both got tired of small town life. He’s always loved telling me about how he started up gambling and about the clever business schemes he came up with in those days and how his travels took him on grand adventures all the way from Sur America to New York.
Da told me he left only just after they knew I was on the way, that he’d left to pursue business, to earn a good living for me and Ma so we could live a fine life in the style befitting us.
The day I met him, I remember him coming up to our house on a dapple-gray horse, a tall dark man with a bushy black beard and a fine Eastern-style suit.
He walked up the path to the house, storm clouds following him as he approached. I ran in fear of this dark strange man, but Ma lit up with joy at the sight of him and welcomed him like a hero coming home from the wars.
Ma swooped me up and bounced me in her arms and ran to him. “Sammy! Come meet your Da!” I could see tears studding her cheeks like diamonds. “Dear lord Caleb, you’ve never even seen the baby!”
He stepped forward and eyed me hard. I threw my face into Ma’s neck. I could feel something wrong. The air felt bitter and hard. The man she called my Da stepped back from us.
“Woman, you didn’t tell me about this.” The storm clouds this man had brought with him up the walk were in the kitchen now, sneaking in and out of the corners, sifting down the chimney like smoke.
“Caleb, the baby’s fine and healthy. Strong children are a credit to their parents no matter…”
The big man cut her off. “I won’t have this. You know what people say about an Ironmage’s first born.” He shook a finger at me. “You fix this. I won’t have people talking about me because of…this kid.”
“Caleb, the baby can’t be changed! Neither you nor I have magic that strong!” Ma’s fingers bit into my side.
“The baby won’t know a thing. Kids accept what you tell them.” The air crackled and I clutched Ma harder. “You want me in this house, you fix things how I want them.”
Ma patted me, rubbed my back to silence my tears and whispered a tiny charm that swept away my cries. “Caleb, it can’t be forever.”
He kicked something, maybe the table or a chair. “It don’t have to be! It just has to be while I’m setting up my business! You can see how much it matters what people think of me, how it affects things!”
“But Caleb, why can what Sammy is matter?” Ma’s charm was making my head feel furry inside and the big man’s crackling anger seemed farther away.
“Every bit matters! Tim Evens was a good hedge mage and he had to move off to Idaho because every other mage in town was laughing at him behind his back!”
“Tim Evens couldn’t cast a spell straight to save his life.” Ma stroked my hair. She let out a sigh like the tide coming in. “Caleb, I’ll fix things for you for now, but it can’t be forever, it just can’t.”
“That be all an honest man can ask for!” The storm in the room died from one breath to the next. “You’ll see my love, six months or a year from now me name’ll be made and the baby’ll never remember a bit of anything! Why, the little nipper’s not even in breeches yet so who can tell the difference of anything we say eh?” One long finger reached around to chuck me under the chin and I looked up to meet his dark eyes and he laughed.
“Now then my love, my bags are full of presents for the both of you and I’m starving for some hugs and kisses from the both of you!” From his pocket, he brought out a huge bag of penny sweets and popped one in my mouth. The sweet taste of peppermint went bright on my tongue and I couldn’t help but laugh.
He took me in his arms and tossed me high. “Love, if you’d get the shears, we’ll need to give this wooly lamb a haircut!” Ma’s mouth went narrow, but she fetched the scissors. I wanted to cry as my curls rained over the floor but I loved those peppermints so much more. Da laughed at my greed and Ma shook her head. “Not so many Caleb! You’ll make the baby sick!”
“Ta, woman. No one ever died from a sweetie or two.” Da popped one in her mouth too. “Now say you and me we talk—I’ve got some amazing opportunities that’ll make us rich as kings, but it means leaving Pennewick.”
“Caleb, I’ve my hex and charm shop! It’s doing well!”
He gave her a loud kiss and tickled her cheek. “I’ve the opportunity to work as a salesman for Montenwar!”
Ma squealed and crushed both him and me with a hug. “Caleb you terrible man! That’s the biggest patent-magic seller! You should have told me this the moment you stepped in the door! However’d you manage that? What a blessing that is!”
He scooped the both of us up and swung us round the room. We both shrieked as the kitchen swooped round us and the last of my curls fluttered away like little dying birds.
“No better opportunity for a mage in this world than working for the Montenwar!” He kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll be crafting spells by order and handling distribution for stores on the west coast! I’ll be riding the distribution circuit, checking supply and quality so that’ll mean following the work where it leads us Sinann.”
“You’ll be taking us away from the sea.” Ma’s voice sounded thin and sharp as a piece of broken china.
“Now my princess, I know there are a thousand rivers, lakes and streams out there.” He laughed again. “The gods of fortune have turned for me for sure Sinann! Before you know it, I’ll be high and mighty with the rails, Sammy here will be one of but a dozen babes, and I’ll be able to keep you in the style that befits a lady like you!” He touched her face tenderly.
“It’s all just for now. Things will only have to change for a bit and then…” He stroked my shorn hair. “When me name’s made, the tide can turn again.” He set us down and dashed to a sack he’d dropped on the table. From the bag he drew a huge spiraling pearly shell with sunrise-blushed edges. He pressed it into her hands and her cheeks blossomed with color that rivalled the shell’s glory.
“Follow me my merry maid, oh follow me from the sea!” He sang, his voice rich and sweet. “Your roving man, your soldier dear, your man of fortune I’ll be!”
Ma laughed and stepped into his arms. He swung her around the kitchen, me clapping my hands in time as they danced our time in Pennewick away. “Oh follow me, oh follow me from the sea to a castle in the air!”
We never quite had a castle in the clouds, but sometimes things were good or at least they were till Denver. Da bought into a saloon, left the company and built it quickly into a fashionable men’s club.
We moved into a fine house in a good part of town. Da put blue stained glass seascapes in the windows for Ma, hired fine tutors for me and got us a fine plush seat near the front of the pews in church where his fine tenor voice mixed and danced with the sunbeams that lit the faces of the saints every Sunday.
Ma joined the Women’s League, Da got into the best men’s civic clubs and every Sunday afternoon if the weather was good we either went on picnics in the town’s fine parks, took long rides in the custom blue buggy Da had made, or in the winter went sledding with families wrapped in velvet and furs with smiling servants who tended little portable stoves for hot cocoa and filled everyone’s hands with gingerbread on dainty perfect china plates.
The day everything changed, I remember playing on the platform at the bend of the staircase, peeping down at Ma from between the fancy turned spindles. Ma was kneading dough for sweet rolls even though Mrs Simms the housekeeper could have baked some up and even charmed up a perfect frostfairy icing for them.
From the back door there was a sharp rap on the glass. I could hear the sound of voices singing a hymn. “God’s breath, carolers in the fall?” Ma set aside the rolls and opened the door, wiping her hands on her apron.
Four ladies with big sashes across their bosoms that said “Ladies Temperance and Morals Committee” marched over the threshold, singing mightily. They arranged themselves into a line as they finished belting out their hymn with more enthusiasm than singing ability.
A stern-faced matron stepped forward. “Good evening Mrs. Sugarman.”
“Afternoon Mrs. Hawkins.” Ma nodded back to her and tried to smile at the others. “How nice to see you ladies here this afternoon. Is this a new committee?” She studied their sashes. “Are you here to invite me to join? I do admit I hadn’t heard anything of a Temperance committee and I’m most curious.”
Mrs Hawkins shook her head. “I’m most sorry Mrs. Sugarman. I’m afraid we’re not here to invite you to join as you will most certainly not be eligible to join.”
Ma looked worried. “Now why is that? Mrs Hawkins, you know what civic supporters myself and my husband are. Why, Caleb spends all the time he can spare from his businesses to support several civic clubs and even for doing any number of charity drives to benefit the needy!”
“Mrs Sugarman, you will not be able to join the Temperance and Morals committee as your husband is the worst sort of wretch who is responsible for corrupting the morals of our fair city!” Mrs. Hawkins finished her short speech with a snap of her head that set the plumes on her flowerpot bonnet waggling sharply.
“He’s told me all this time the place he owned was a nice gentleman’s club, just a little saloon for the nicer men in town!”
“God’s breath why?” The older woman’s eyes were as large as sugar cookies. “Your family’s there every Sunday, Caleb’s the captain of the Church’s charity drive and I’ve been hearing talk of him getting nominated for the Community civic council! What can the matter be?”
“It’s not a gentleman’s saloon at all!” Ma’s shoulders hunched and she pounded the dough hard. “Mrs. Hawkins told me today that the Meeting Parlor…that our saloon’s nothing but a clip joint and gambling house!”
I had no idea what was so wrong. Lots of men owned haircut shops didn’t they? What was so bad about a clip joint?