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When I leave home at seventeen, my mother tells me three things. Not to care too much. To keep my gift a secret. And to get used to being alone.

“You’ll see what it’s like,” she says. “Out there in the real world.”

None of this is good advice.

 


 

A river drowns the golf course that had forced its rerouting. It scribbles itself back over the greens; a poem on a blank page, a home for beavers. In the town beside the golf course, the yearly flooding eases when the river frees itself.

Out here in the real world, I’m not the only one who cares too much. Volunteers escort turtle hatchlings to the seafoam. Activists chain themselves to trees. At Kelp Bay, an entire community helps keep stranded whales alive until the tide turns. I join their bucket chains, haul seawater alongside them until my muscles scream.

I go to the community meeting feeling nervous, hopeful, and a little bit like a fraud. People chat in small groups. I lean against the wall and watch the seats fill up. When the speakers make their cases, I nod from the back, where nobody can see me.

After the meeting, I sign the petition and examine the fundraising T-shirts that I can’t afford. I fix a smile to my face and hover by the coffee table. Sometimes people smile back, but nobody strikes up a conversation. I pretend to examine the posters on the wall.

The room empties. I put my coat on.

As I walk to the exit, out of nowhere, I’m doused in water as cold as the Atlantic Ocean. Someone’s sloshed a bucket of seawater over my head. Salt burns my nose. I gasp and stumble sideways. I knock into the woman beside me and spill my coffee on her shoe.

“Sorry!”

I pat myself down. Apart from the coffee, I’m completely dry. I imagined it, or maybe there’s a draught. Or something else.

That’s when I see Molly. “It’s called a signature,” Molly says. She introduces me to her friend Quinn, and insists I join them at a nearby coffee shop. Quinn frowns, but Molly whispers something to them that makes their shoulders relax. The coffee shop is loud and crowded, which I later learn is deliberate. “We all have one.”

“A signature?”

“Maybe you call it something else. But you’ll know it. It’s the imprint your magic makes. You felt mine, and you weren’t even trying. Here, your coffee. Since I made you spill yours.”

I concentrate. It’s obvious what she means. Harder to ignore it than to spot it. I’ve felt it once or twice before, although nothing like Molly’s. I never knew there was a word for it. It’s in her tannin eyes, her peat-smoked voice. She’s the lurch of the swell; both kinds of moonshine; a magpie’s cackle; acorns rolling underfoot. Grey-black whales rising in a blue-black sea.

And Quinn. Edelweiss and gentian flowers; the scrape of scoria and the rumble of avalanches. Glaciers calving in a milky bay. Tarns like mirrors.

Molly sees my face and grins. “You see? All of us have one.”

“Even me?”

She rolls her eyes. “You’re serious? How else do you think I recognised you?”

“I’ve never noticed. I’ve never met people like you before.” Only my parents, who couldn’t or wouldn’t answer my questions. Who used their gifts solely for profit. Who told me never to admit the truth about myself. I take a deep breath, and ignore my mother’s voice in my head. “People like me.”

Even Quinn smiles then. Molly rushes to describe myself to me, and Quinn joins in, quiet but assured. My magic sidesteps like a crab, they say. It smells of silt and juniper. Thrashes like an alligator. Tastes of brine and eel-skin. It’s coiled as a mangrove seed. Rises like herons in flight.

I’ve always loved the wetlands. The in-between places; weeds and wild shorelines.

Places my mother calls ugly.

“Yes,” I repeat, even though an hour ago I would have had no idea what they were talking about. “Yes. That’s me.”

“You don’t always know, at first,” Quinn says, kindly. “Not your own signature. You don’t notice how your magic feels to others, what shape it takes, because it’s you. You’re inside it.” They snort. “No-one sends you a magic letter to explain it.”

I wonder then, did my mother know what shape my magic took? How could she not?

Ugly, says her voice in my head, and I smile.

 


 

Saplings crack the carpark that skirts the megamall. The tarmac shatters like a mosaic. Roots wrap around chunks of concrete and pull them apart. The light is green and flickers with birds.

Men shape the water, or so my mother told me. Women weave land. Men, like oceans, dominate the planet. Women nurture, like good soil.

I don’t know why it took me so long to reject this along with the rest of my mother’s gendered bullshit. She must have repeated it until it stuck, back when I was hungry for anything she could tell me about what she called my gifts. Back when there was no one else to ask.

My mother was doing her best to help, but she didn’t really know, either. It took me a while to realise that. And then I started to wonder what else was out there. What else was possible.

 


 

My parents use their gifts to run a landscaping business. Her manicured gardens, his water features. Together their magics gild beach resorts and mansions.

My gift disappoints my mother. “But it doesn’t create anything, though, does it, dear?” She sniffs her roses pointedly. “Just turns back the clock.”

Magic is all we have in common now.

She calls it a gift, or it. Not magic, because that’s childish.

(I call it magic, because it is.)

 


 

Quinn’s gift is growing things, raising them out of the earth. Trees and mountains. Or tearing them down. As required.

Molly brings life. Its echoes and sounds. But she also hears the voices of the dead. Her world is a soundscape of loss. “Not really a gift at all,” she grumbles.

I ask her what it’s like. She turns away. One day she says, unprompted: “It’s the birds that get to me the most.”

 


 

The hotel is the size of a city block. It perches among bulldozed dunes, on broken birds’ nests and dying spinifex. Its glass atrium unfolds like a flower. It’s won architectural awards. The sea-view is unparalleled.

The developers are furious but baffled. They have no idea what the hell happened. Luxury hotels don’t just disappear.

 


 

“Don’t you ever think about doing something?” I ask Quinn and Molly. I know what they’re capable of. How they feel.

They meet each other’s eyes. Molly laughs; Quinn tries not to.

“Oh, yeah?” Molly says. “Like what?”

I blush. It sounds stupid when I put it into words. Childish. “You know. Like using your … abilities.” Magic. Say it. “Do you ever think of, you know, doing something with them?”

Molly turns to Quinn. “Want to explain, or shall I?”

 


 

The politician dreams of owlets poised to fledge. Fish owls, she somehow knows, though she can barely tell a pigeon from a sparrow. No matter how much frangipani air freshener she sprays, her room still smells of pine resin and ice. The north of her constituency smells like that; forests and wild seas. Perhaps she’ll visit for the mine’s opening, once the permit is approved. She’s voting yes, for progress.

But owl-calls haunt her. She hungers for ice-choked harbours. Wakes homesick for places she’s never seen. After three near-sleepless weeks, she makes a phone call. She changes her deciding vote.

 


 

My gift works by hand; palms flat, fingertips digging in.

A landfill site blossoms; an oil spill retracts; maimed hills regain their contours. Concrete disintegrates. Toxins and microplastics surge out of the land and into my blood. I reel and vomit into the bucket I brought with me.

It’s worth it.

Wildness rises to meet my fingertips. Freshwater and soil resurface inch by inch. Small creatures click and chirp, and moths whirl around me. A bat careens overhead. Weeds creep back over sprayed land.

Turning back the clock, my mother said.

She never called it what it is.

Magic. Restoration.

 


 

My mother calls me, breathless, about the latest acts of vandalism. There’s a pattern emerging, and the media is connecting the dots.

“Strange things,” she says. “You know, like … like what we can do.”

Like magic. Go on, say it. “Hmm,” I say. “That is strange.”

It’s her favourite topic of gossip. Then it starts to hit too close to home. A golf course. A megamall. A hotel she’d planned to visit for a spa day.

She doesn’t say anything outright, but she doesn’t have to. She’s good at expressing disapproval without saying anything.

“I hope I haven’t given you ideas.” An artificial laugh.

That’s the closest she gets to accusation.

 


 

Quinn, Molly, and I make a good team, but there are things we don’t talk about. Like the fact that it doesn’t always work.

We don’t talk about the stretches of the coast that stay dead. The forests that won’t grow again, however deep Quinn digs. Bleached reefs. Crushing tonnes of plastic. The invisible beads, the promise of cancer and poison, that work their way into bloodstreams and waterways and ecosystems. The places tipped so far off balance that they can’t support the life that’s meant to be there. Where even if we bring the creatures and plants back, they’re doomed.

 


 

My magic has strengthened since I left home. It no longer respects boundaries. Now I speak to the sea and mountains both, know there are no lines between land and water. Only connections. Waves hissing over sand. Migrating birds. Estuaries and salt-flowers.

Water also nurtures. The earth is strong.

I can and do work everywhere. But it’s best, easiest, when I know and love the land.

It’s also hardest.

 


 

Quinn frowns at me over their mug of herbal tea. “You’re avoiding it.”

“There’s no rush. That’s all.” I swish my own tea in its cup. Pick up my teaspoon, put it down again. “There are so many other priorities.”

“Unfortunately,” Molly chips in. But Quinn won’t be distracted.

“Why not go?”

“I’m not scared, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“No. I know. That’s not what’s keeping you away.” Quinn puts their mug down and holds my gaze. I’ve been back only once. Not to visit my parents, but to protest against the resort, Paradise, then still a gleam in a billionaire’s eye. It swallowed the wetlands near my childhood home, where land and sea once mingled. It replaced life with sun-loungers and minigolf.

I didn’t do enough.

Other young people had love affairs or hostile families to teach them heartbreak. I had Paradise.

“Grief,” Quinn says. “That’s what’s stopping you. Grief for your place.”

“There’s a word for that,” Molly says. “Solastalgia.

I know.

I don’t want to find out what’s there now. Everything will be wrong. The silences, and the noises that replaced them.

“What’s wrong with mud, and weeds, and insects?” Out of nowhere I’m on the verge of crying. “Why can’t we just let good things be?”

Molly makes sympathetic faces. Quinn puts the kettle on again.

I can’t bear to tell even Quinn and Molly about the lucrative contract my parents scored to bring Paradise to lifeless life.

 


 

Between one phase of the moon and the next a meadow spreads. It covers the artificial lawns and erases driveways. Now for a whole stretch of suburbia there are dandelions in back gardens. Now there are wildflowers: saxifrage, buttercup, meadow vetch, thistle. Now there are bees.

 


 

“You have to go home,” Quinn says. “Believe me.”

I stare out the window to avoid Quinn’s eyes. “I don’t think it will help me, to see it.”

“It’s your place. Not a way to make yourself feel better. Not a cure for—you know, that fancy word of Molly’s.”

“Solastalgia.”

“Not a cure for solastalgia. A responsibility.”

“But what if it doesn’t work?” It comes out as a wail.

Quinn takes a sip of tea. “Who else will try?” they say, and I can’t answer.

I sulk and mull and cry a little. And then I go home, to Paradise.

 


 

My parents have been busy. Their signatures shout from miles away. My father’s is pool chlorine. Lawnmowers thrumming. Squeaking Styrofoam. My mother’s has a pesticidal sting. The smell of nail polish. Watery tomatoes in winter. Car exhaust.

 


 

The resort is never truly dark. A lurid Welcome to Paradise! illuminates the grounds. Floodlights pollute the darkness and drown the stars.

Acres of perfect green lawns engulf me. Golf courses. Topiary hedges in the shape of celebrities. Sterile flowerbeds, and an unseasonal floral clock. My mother’s work.

And my father’s. A ghost creek, tiled blue and forced straight. Swim-up bars and Jacuzzis. A concrete-choked shoreline. Fountains, kept clean with drams of bleach. I concentrate.

The floodlights blink out one by one.

In the semi-dark, I flex my hands and dig my fingers deep into the perfect lawn. Roots tangle over my knuckles. My skin hums with intention and the good, buried earth.

I don’t let go until the night around me is hot and damp and dark, rich with the tang of salt and the beat of insects and the shadows of mangrove trees. Mist, not light pollution, blurs the stars. Eels seethe around me and a crab scuttles over my foot.

Herons rise. The wetlands undrain. Something large and toothed slides into the Lazarus water, and when dawn breaks it smells of the living swamp.


Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson

First Reader: Aigner Loren Wilson

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



E.M. Linden (she/her) is a speculative fiction writer from Aotearoa New Zealand who likes coffee, books, and owls. Her work has previously appeared in The Deadlands, Flash Fiction Online, Weird Horror, and elsewhere. She is online at emlinden.blog or @emlinden.bsky.social.
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