Authors: Michelle Tea
Copyright Â© 2013 Michelle Tea
Cover and interior illustrations by Jason Polan.
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part, in any form.
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First printing 2013
helsea was a city where people landed. People from other countries, people running from wars and poverty, stealing away on boats that cut through the ocean into a whole new world, or on planes, relief shaking their bodies as they rattled into the sky. People had been coming to Chelsea since before Sophie Swankowski was born, since before her mother was born. Sophie's family came from a tiny village in Poland that nobody had ever heard of and that nobody knows of still. When they came to Chelsea, a city with trolley cars and brick houses and grand trees, they brought with them smoked sausages and doughy pierogi stuffed with soft cheese, flowered scarves for the women's heads and necklaces made from cloth and marbles. They brought with them strong magic, the magic special to their Polish village, just as all the other immigrants brought with them the magic of their abandoned landsâRussian magic and French magic, Irish magic and Puerto Rican magic, Dominican magic
and Cambodian magic, Vietnamese magic, Bosnian magic, Cuban magic, up and up through the years, always a new people spilling into the small city, always with a new magic. The fading magic was carried in the bones of the grandmothers and the great-great-aunts, the old, strange women with the funny smells that scared the children born new into Chelsea, women who ate foods that worried those children, unusual foods they didn't sell at the supermarket, where they sold
, all of it lined up in bright boxes. The old women ate food that made their breath smell like a long-ago time, and the children were afraid of what was back there, as they scuttled out from the
smothering hugs, out to the brick and cement, the telephone poles and electrical wires, the roaring buses and the graffitied everything, busted playgrounds, a city with so much wear and tear on it, so many people with so little money coming to it for so long, the threadbare buildings and dollar stores, the railroad tracks where men slept in the tall grass, the sub shops and pizza places and the corner stores selling scratchers and cigarettes, the corner bars with no windows and men inside heaped and immobile as the cracked stools they sat upon. The children ran out into the streets and the old women thought quietly about how a place could have no magic, how their grandchildren would grow up magicless and never even know it. And the old women would shed a tear and lament the old countries they'd abandoned, longing for a land where the magic came up into their bones just from standing on its earth.
* * *
ALL OF THE
magics were different, but then all of them were exactly the same. And the stories brought from the many places were all different, but then, they were all the same. And the oldest story, the silliest and most dangerous story, the saddest and most hopeful story, was the story of the girl who would bring the magic, the girl who would come to save them all.
“Save us from what?” snapped the adult children, impatient with these old women and the hocus-pocus they'd never been able to
shake, even with their electricity and televisions, their blenders and flushing toilets and the million plastic gadgets they could never have imagined in their village. And the old women told them about how a girl would come and she would be a magic girl, she would twist the world we think we know and knot it into a bow, she would stop time and peer into your heart, she would take on your troublesâand yours, and yoursâand they would pass through her and into the earth. The old women told them about how the girl would eat salt to stay pure and unharmed, to keep her magic sharp and crystal, and about how you would know the girl as a baby who craved salt, who ate it like sugar, enough to poison a normal child to death.
The magicless adults who had been born into this new land, into Chelsea, felt sad for the old women, who had sacrificed so much to come to this new land and seemed so disappointed in it that all they could do was make up fairy tales to comfort themselves. And the old women began to die away as old women do, their aged and magic bones buried in new earth, and no one remained to tell their stories but their stories somehow remained, a low whisper that blew off the dirty harbor, that echoed with your footsteps as you passed quickly beneath an overpass, that drifted like an aroma from a kitchen window, something familiar but strange, gone before you could grasp it. They were present at slumber parties, when girls gathered like witches at midnight, the room dark and vibrating with giddy excitement and mysterious thrill, when ghosts were talked of and pranks were played, the stories crackled in the air like static electricity, passing between
the girls like sparks from fingertips: a story of a girl who could let all the sadness of the world pass right through her, and everyone would be happier for it, depressions would lift and cruelties would fade and broken people would be healed by this girl who ate saltâjust stupid salt, the stuff on the kitchen table. But the old women had known that salt was a crystal, made by the earth itself, full of deep magic. Salt made everything pure, and the girl who would come and swallow the world's troubles, bringing back a golden time, would eat great piles of salt, common table salt and magical salt from the bottom of the ocean, salt pulled from the waters of the sea and salt dug out from mines and caves.
And all across the city, that city and so many cities just like it, all around the earth, there was a sense of waiting, of biding timeâthough if you asked them, anyone, what they thought they were waiting for, nobody would know what you were talking about.
mermaid in the creek. Through the haze of grease that formed a scum on the water, iridescent where the sun skimmed the surface, Sophie saw its bodyâunreal, but unmistakable. Breasts naked under the muck, hair swirling wet and weighty around herâand, yes, a tail, scaled like a fish. The mermaid had pale, stringy bits dangling from that great, muscular tail, and as she kicked beneath the waters Sophie could see the scales shift and the scabby tendrils drifting like the fringe of a jellyfish. The mermaid was graceful in her design but ragged in her condition, and as she tumbled below the waters, arcing above a shopping cart that had been left for decades to rust, her eyes searched the land above and her gaze met Sophie's with a force that filled the girl with powerful anger and sadness. The shock woke her from her vision with a terrible jolt. All in all, Sophie had been passed out for forty-five seconds, but the dream state had the illusion of lasting much longer.
Coming to on the stiff, dirty weeds that lined the bank of the
creek, Sophie could feel her body humming. It buzzed with the gentle buzz that accompanied the pass-out game, but the pleasantness of it was sickened a bit by the bolt of dark feelings that had cut her phantasm off so abruptly. She felt it roiling in her guts like that time she'd eaten a bad slice of pizza downtown, how it had made her sweat and retch as if the pizza had become a wild beast, fighting its way back out of her. Suddenly, Sophie craved salt. In the dry cave of her mouth, down her throat, which felt strange and thick, into her tumbling tummy, she craved a bag of pretzels, the rocky salt collected at the bottom, tipped straight back into her mouthâ the reward, she thought, for polishing off the snack. She longed for the greasy Tupperware salt shaker in its place on the stove, dumped onto her tongue, a wet pile she could suck on like a candy, slowly dissolving. Without thought, just animal instinct, Sophie rolled onto her side, her nose angling toward a dense tang in the air, the oceany salt of the dirty creek. Faster than her best friend could cry out in disgust, Sophie tugged her still-shimmering body to the edge of the water and plunged her face into it, mouth open, inhaling the dirty creek into her, the perfect, necessary salt of it obliterating the darker flavors of things she'd rather not think about. The sharpest taste, salt; she felt it travel through her like a delicious knife, the shock of it cutting through her, making her want
more more more
. She sucked at the creek hungrily, like a wild animal digging into its kill; beneath her, along the sandy, littered floor, something tumbled forward, dark and fluid.
Behind her, Ella screamed, startling a flock of pigeons into the sky.
Sophie felt a hand grip her long and tangled hair, jerking her out from the muck. Something hot grazed her cheek, singeing it: Ella's cigarette. Sophie swatted at the burn with her creek-wet hands, unconsciously slurping at the water that sluiced from her soaked bangs into her salt-thirsty mouth.
“Ow!” she snapped, her face a chaos of wet, slurping and swatting and swearing. “You burned me with your cigarette!”
Ella looked briefly at the smoldering butt between her fingers, and threw it into the creek with a hot fizz. “That,” she said, “is probably the
gross thing that has ever been thrown in that creek. Do you know what's in there? Piss! Puke! Like, rusting, germy bacteriaâthere are probably whole new
in there that you just drank. There are
in there. People drown
in there. Dogs come here to
. My uncle gets paid to dump shit in here your grandmother won't allow at the dump. That's
. Are you trying to
?” Unable to adequately express her rage, Ella kicked her sneaker into the earth, sending an empty soda can pinging off Sophie's knee. Sophie stared at her friend.