After the Magic

By on Sep 12, 2011 in Fiction

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After the Magic graphic

People told stories about Ludeana Quinn, late at night.  Back in the frontier days, when she was little, the Shawnee had captured and adopted her.  Eventually, people said, a shaman took her as an apprentice.  When the Shawnee lost their land, she’d run away to the deep woods, and to this day there she remained.

People claimed she could make herself invisible; had supernatural strength; saw the future and the past; read minds, brought rain, healed the sick, mended hearts.  You could wander the woods for days, though, and never find her.  Your chances were best under a full moon, but if you didn’t find her then, you’d be smart to stop looking, lest you disappear.  And if you ever did reach her, whether she’d help or make you sorry was harder to predict than the rain or the winds.  She’d seen her parents killed, and grew up a savage.  War dance, torture, and starvation, she’d watched them all.  A trance came naturally to her, and she traveled in it.  Her ideas might be way different from yours.

People told stories: lovers joined, calamities avoided, miracles.  Darker ones, too: people regretting their wish, chained to attic walls.  They said a man named Joel Avery kept after her, until she gave him a skunk’s body.  The rest of his days, he snuck around the woods, head on the body of a polecat.  But who could believe all the stories?  Back in high school, boys and girls used to go looking for Ludeana Quinn in the moonlit woods.  As far as Cyrus knew, nobody ever found her.  When he said “a case for Ludeana Quinn,” he meant a lost cause.     

Still, Tom’s eyes lit up.  “Ludeana Quinn,” he whispered.  

“Aw, heck, Tom.”  Cyrus slapped the counter.  “Are you nuts?”

Tom smiled.  “Most likely.”  

A week later under a big orange moon, Tom pulled his Studebaker into Cyrus’s driveway.   He beeped his horn, and Cyrus stomped out.  He jerked the passenger door open and dropped onto the seat without closing the door.  “You don’t plan to go through with this, do you?”  

Tom smiled.  “You coming?”

They drove southeast.  Tom left the highway at a blacktop road, and they rolled past soybeans and corn, past cottonwoods, meadows, and ponds.  On the highway, they’d passed cars, but the blacktop was deserted.  After several miles, they turned down a gravel road.  Cows grazed in moonlit meadows, and here and there a maple or oak overhung the road.  Then Tom left the gravel for a rutted dirt lane through tall slender trees — hickories and elms and sycamores — and a half-mile down, the lane ended.  In the moonlight an abandoned house stood, paint worn away, windows broken; he parked in front.  Woods were all around, bugs hummed, and the moon was halfway up the sky.  Something told Tom that from here, he needed to go alone, so he left Cyrus in the car and marched off.  

Tom was thinking:  The woods weren’t that big, 2,500 acres, maybe a little more.  So where did Ludeana Quinn hide?   But people said that under a full moon, you could wander into clearings, climb mounds, and rest by ponds you might never find again.  As the trees closed around him, Tom caught himself walking on tiptoes.  He stopped and looked up.  Pieces of moon peeked through the leaves, and somewhere a night bird screamed.  Standing on a leaf-covered trail, he squared his shoulders and started walking.  Again, the night bird’s wail echoed, and the hair on Tom’s neck stood on end.

The trail wound into deeper woods. Among the other trees stood smaller, twisted ones he’d never seen.  The trail narrowed, and the leaves overhead got thicker.  The twisted little trees, with black leaves and bark like thorns, lined the path.  Here and there boulders blocked the path.  Some, he could go around; some, he climbed over.   

Finally, leaves blocked the moon completely.   His throat tight, he stopped in the pitch black.   From his pocket he pulled a plastic flashlight the size of a harmonica, holding it like some good-luck charm.   Again, the night bird screamed, bleak, mournful.  Tom switched on his flashlight.  Twenty feet down the trail a stone blocked it, ten feet high, trees right up to its edge.   Several limbs stuck over the rock, inches above it.   

Swinging his beam side to side, he stepped toward the stone.  As he shone the beam across it, its surface moved.  He stopped three feet away.  All over the stone, blind, pasty maggots squirmed. He looked to the rock’s left and right.  The trees were so thick on both sides you couldn’t get through.  No way.  Trees that tight seemed impossible.  He swallowed and glanced down.  Stuffing the flashlight into his pocket, he stepped up to the stone.    

There was no reason to climb over.   Even if he found Ludeana Quinn, who knew if she’d help?  Who knew if she was even real?  He lowered his head.  Gritting his teeth, he pressed his hands and knees into the thick, squirming mass.  Growling like a dog, he began to crawl up, grabbing at slimy handholds.  Halfway up he slipped and slid back to the bottom.  He jumped back onto the rock and scrambled up again.  Maggots were under his t-shirt and squirming up his pants legs.  He wanted to scream, but his face almost touched the maggots.  He gritted his teeth and climbed.  With sticky fingers he grabbed a knobby branch, pressed his knees harder against the rock, and scrambled up to the top.  He lay on his back panting.  Somewhere inside the branches, the night bird screamed.    Like arms, the branches whipped down and wrapped around him, pinning his arms, choking him.    

The night bird sang out, hoarse and triumphant.  The limbs tightened, ripping Tom’s skin.   Desperate, he got his hand into his pants pocket and found his Barlow knife.  He jerked it out, pried the blade open, and shoved its edge against a limb gripping his thigh.  He dug the blade into the bark, then pulled it along the limb.  A tremor ran through every branch, and their grip let up.  He whipped the knife loose,and sank it into the limb on his neck.  He shoved the knife ahead.  Again a tremor shook the limbs, and they fell from him.  He rolled across the rock and down the other side.  He landed in a heap and got up bloody and trembling.

From the treetops two yellow eyes floated down, and six feet ahead, stopped level with Tom’s waist. In the pale light of Tom’s flashlight, the night bird stood like some huge crow.  For maybe a minute, they stared into each other’s eyes.  Then, graceful as could be, the bird spread its wings and rose.  So slow and smooth it seemed to float, it flew off down the trail.

Tom hurried after it, shifting the flashlight between the trail and up above.  After a quarter hour he turned off the flashlight.  The moon shone down, the twisted little trees were gone, and the hickories, elms and sycamores stood reasonable distances apart.  He came to a stream, and on the other side sat a clearing, a wigwam at its back, a bonfire in the middle.  Between the flames and the wigwam, a figure sat.  Silent as a ghost, the night bird flew over to it.

Tom stepped onto a fallen elm that crossed the creek.  Halfway across, he stopped and sat down.  He eased into the chest-high water, and the stream washed over him.  He splashed water over his face, then climbed back on the elm. Shoes squishing, he crossed the creek and walked to the fire. The night bird had vanished, but by the fire a woman sat cross-legged, her back straight.  She was slender, and reddish brown hair fell past her shoulders, her long face beautiful, stern.  Even though it was unlined, something about it suggested age: maybe her eyes, or the set of her features; maybe the air of power she had.   

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Kent McDaniel is a Chicago-based musician who also writes fiction. His stories have appeared most recently in Downstate Story, Chaffin Journal, Palo Alto Review, Iconoclast, Allegory, Rambunctious Review, and Timber Creek Review. Videos of his live musical performances are up at