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Ghost Town by Leah Piken Kolidas

© 2015 Leah Piken Kolidas, "Ghost Town"

While I was waiting to find out if I would be prosecuted, I went to see Cally by the sea. In those first few days you could only call people whose numbers you had by heart; she answered on the first ring, listened to me cry for a while and said, "I think you remember the way down"—which I did, of course, and then I thought that Commander Norwood would have said something very like that. He would have been just fine after the disaster: he spent his whole life using words as though each one were taxed. And then I was thinking of how they buried Commander Norwood on the hill, under a now-unmarked stone, and made an incoherent noise. Everyone was doing that a lot, back then: crying and laughing, shrieking and sighing, all sounds without words.

"About the disaster . . ."—Cally said that carefully; some people even then were already giving it the initial capital, the Disaster, but not her—"well." She was quiet for a while. "Here, things go on. Come home, Salt."

I went. There were no trains of course, and not many people on the roads, but I could drive—it was about the only thing I could do—so I got in the car and left London on one of those intense, luminous, bright blue days you only get in England at the turn of spring. At Weymouth I got the truth of what she'd been saying—although it wasn't any improvement in some ways, with road signs blank and shopfronts bare, everything was clear and dazzling so the puddles of seawater on the docks flashed sunlight, flashed sky. There were people hanging their nets, unloading their boats, with the fish sparkling in the water beneath them and the Salt flags flying above for luck. I'm of the people of the Salt. I took a deep, steadying breath when I saw the ensigns, and drove on up the hill to the lighthouse.

Cally came down to meet me, opened the car door and said, without preamble: "Where's your bar?"

I put a hand to my ear and mumbled something about it not feeling right, any more. Cally snarled—maybe literally, I don't know; I'd never seen her angry like she was in that single minute, ground down like a lens to a focus of fury—and said, "You have it with you, don't you?"

I had it with me, of course—it's never left my possession since I earned it, five years before that drive down to Weymouth in the sun—and Cally made me get down on my knees right there on the smooth cobblestones under the lighthouse, my hair still being whipped around my face by the wind, and pushed the bar through the tip of my ear without much concern for whether it hurt. It did hurt—my practitioner's bar is iron and rust, as befits a daughter of Salt—but once she was done I put my hand up and felt the flesh on both sides was warm, and healing around it. And that helped, too, like the bright light and the sea, which as my father and Commander Norwood both have said, at different times, need no words.

Cally made tea and put biscuits on a plate; I didn't do too much of anything. Without even looking at me she got her phone out of her pocket, dialled a number and said, "Yes, this is Calliope Norwood. At the light, yes. Can you send up—mmm, cheese and pepperoni. Thanks."

I thought about that for a minute, and then said, "You know the pizza delivery phone number by heart?"

She ignored that. "Drink your tea."

I drank the tea and ate a couple of biscuits, and slowly the world came into a little better focus. When I was a child the kitchen in that house, with its cast-iron range and big white-painted rafters, seemed enormous: as enormous as the possibility of one day being grown up, of my being a practitioner of the Salt and Cally's being the lighthouse keeper. We knew, I think, that that's what Cally would be, some far-off day—but then Commander Norwood died suddenly, of a heart attack in the middle of the night, and that was that. My father still lived in the cottage in Weymouth where I was born, but he understood, more than anyone, why home was the house under the light: it was my father's people who built the tower.

On the table, stark against the stripped oak, were a handful of bare sheets of paper and a pen. I motioned towards them a little ruefully, and asked, "What did they used to be?"

"Tide tables," Cally said. "It's all right for me, I can remember them, mostly. But I tried to write them down for the others, and . . ."

"Yeah." I'd tried to write down lists of magical logarithms, and phone numbers, and then just my name, over and over. We all had. I picked up a pen and attempted to write "Amal" and then "Salt" on the page. My pen formed the letters, but a millimetre above the surface; when Cally took it from me and tried, she couldn't force it into the sweep of the C without it leaping from her hand. Above us, I noticed for the first time the neatly arrayed spice jars, now with blank labels, and the cookbooks on the shelf by the door with bare spines. "I really am sorry, Cally. I'm so sorry."

Cally glanced at me. "I guess you're apologising to a lot of people, right now."

I nodded. Having been right in the focus of the blast, I had been stumbling aphasic for a while, dimly fumbling through the confusion; after that cleared, sorry was the first word.

"Okay." Cally seemed to consider. "It's time to check on the light. Do you want to come up with me?"

I nodded and followed her up the spiral steps. "I thought it was lucky," I said, as we went round and round, round and around, "that the light magic can still be done."

"Yes," Cally said, "but luck has nothing to do with it."

I wasn't sure what she meant by that until we emerged into the lamp-room, greenish with daylight. And it was strange that I'd never seen it before, but then, perhaps I'd never really looked.

"Two power sources," Cally said, tapping the glass. "Magic, for when the power goes out, and electricity, for—well, for things like this."

I bowed my head. "I can still do it," I said. Because my magic comes from seawater and salt, it tends to the deep, wordless workings—heat and cold and calm and light. Not all the people of the Salt want to take time for the learning, the way I did—Cally was taught all she needed in primary school and then by Commander Norwood, for the upkeep of the light—but the power is in all of us, brought with us when life crawled out of the sea, or so I'm told.

Cally nodded. "I'll get you to help, then, when the time comes"—and then there came the ring of the bell from downstairs, so we finished up and went back down. Cally fetched in the pizza and paid for it over my protests—it's a good thing that sterling banknotes are different colours, because there wasn't a word on any of them—and set it down in front of me and watched while I ate it, and then I did help her with the light at dusk, and after that, went to bed before nine o'clock.

You must understand: there wasn't anything to do, at that time. You couldn't go online, or read a book. You couldn't check your email or read the news. You could sing if you knew the words; you couldn't do it for the first time unless you were doing it by ear. Offices and schools and universities were closed, waiting. So many people took up running that there were two London Marathons that year. And magic had become a primal thing—you could do it if you knew the working so well it was part of your body; you couldn't look it up. And I remember people didn't even do that: they were frightened, because of me, because of what I had done.

Ghost Town by Leah Piken Kolidas

I woke up in the middle of the night and went down to see my father. Like me, he's an insomniac; there was a light burning in the kitchen window as I came up the garden path and let myself in with my old key. The hallway was shadowy and dim, comfortingly familiar; I threw off my boots and went inside in socks. "Amal, is that you?" my father called, and when I pushed open the door, added, lovingly, "Salt."

"I'm not sure I deserve that right now," I said, honestly, touching my practitioner's bar. "Hi, Dad."

He pushed a chair out for me obligingly and waved at the steaming teapot. I poured cups for myself and him—there was a warming magic on the pot, I realised; it could have been sitting out for hours—and peered across the table with interest. "What is that?"

"Your grandfather was a dab hand with an abacus," my father said, pushing across some beads on the tiny rails. "I thought, now I can't catch up on my reading"—he glanced at me without reproach—"I'd give it a go. Of course, not being able to write down the answers is a bit of a bummer. Is Cally looking after you?"

I laughed a little at that. "Yes, of course."

"Commander Norwood would be proud of that girl." He pushed across another tiny bead and stared at it intensely, as though expecting it to yield some great truth. I got up, suddenly feeling restless, and looked out the picture window, down at the sea. Every few seconds, the great sweeping beam of the lighthouse crossed my vision, steady as a heartbeat. There were boats out there, still.

"People are managing," my father said, as though reading my mind. "Have you left Crayfish for good?"

"No," I said, a little surprised. Crayfish—which is a communications company, despite the name—at that time was based in south London, near where the river turns tidal (for the Salt practitioners, like me) with easy access to the estuary (for the Birds) and with a basement (for the Stone, not that London, built on its layer upon layer of clay soils, suits them particularly well anywhere in the boroughs). "I mean—we've done . . . whatever we've done. We're going to have to—well, you know. Fix it. If we can."

"Precisely." His gaze sharpened for a moment. "You know, the council sent people door to door to tell us that things would be better soon. I considered doing a working on the chap they sent to see if he were lying, but I thought it wouldn't solve anything if I knew."

I couldn't respond to that. "We are trying," I said. "The Salt faction within the government is coordinating the effort." And financing it, I added, silently; we protect our own, but that assistance in the event of disaster was a condition of my public liability insurance, I'm sure.

"Then I'll help, too." My father had a determined set to his jaw that I found, again, comfortingly familiar. "Shall I clear the junk out of your room, then? Or will you live at the light?"

"Neither," I said, a little surprised. "I'm not—ah, I'm not staying. Cally suggested I come and visit for a while."

"Ah," he said, after a moment. "I see."

"It's not like it was in the old days," I said, a little at a loss. "You don't have to be at the water's edge—I mean, I can do my work anywhere."

"I see," he said, again. Now, of course, I know why he said that, and why he called me Salt: not as endearment, or honorific, as at other times, but as a reminder.

"I'll stay a while," I said. "While we wait for . . . you know."

My father nodded; he knew. It might be the Court of the Tithebarn or it might be the Old Bailey, but I would be summonsed soon, and my father, born of Salt, would not try to save me from that. "Well, then, Amal," he said. "You should go to bed, you've plenty of work to do."

I hugged him, and promised I'd be back in daylight, and walked swiftly back up to the light.

In the morning, I was putting the dishes in the sink after breakfast—fried eggs and kippers: always Cally's favourite, even when we were children—when I said, over my shoulder, "I should go back to London tonight."

"London?" Cally repeated, and then there was a particularly fierce gust of wind across the harbour and a thud against the window. Cally opened it calmly and let in a stunned, but not dead, dove, who took a second to get its bearings before settling on my outstretched fingers. It hovered there for a long moment, and then I heard the soft, warm male voice at the edge of perception: if you learn anything, send me back.

"From Bird, one of my colleagues," I said. "Wants to know if I've made any progress, fixing this."

Cally got out a piece of bread for the dove, and pushed the window open a little further so the fresh air fluttered the curtains. "Well," she said, "have you?"

"I haven't . . ." I waved my hands. "I mean. I haven't started. I need to go back and start."

Ghost Town by Leah Piken Kolidas

Cally sat at the kitchen table with her hands clasped in front of her and said, very calmly, "What were you trying to do?"

"It's difficult to explain," I said, but Cally merely looked at me.

(How to explain it? Those of you who are magic-users will be familiar with the Stone spells that allow near-instantaneous communication over distance, and those of you who use mobile telephones will be familiar with text messaging services. We were going to combine those two, so a practitioner's message would arrive as a text and a text message could be read on a palm. We were close, that morning at Crayfish; we were so close that I was going to light the metaphorical touchpaper, down under the building near the Thames estuary where the brackish water crept close. Only, when I shut my eyes and made the sign with my hands—the same geometric figure that rides out to sea on the Salt ensigns—there was a bright flash of light, bright like a nuclear explosion or the wrath of God, and a great internal cracking, like the marrow turning itself inside out in my bones. And then nothing but the burn of salt, and drowning. That's not how I explained it, over and over in those in-between days, but that's how it was.)

There was silence for a moment in the room. Then Cally asked, "Did you know about the risk?"

"Yes," I said. "We thought I had eliminated it, when planning the working."

"A risk like—like this," Cally said, waving at the rows of blank books. "Like this, and you assumed you could work it out."

"Yes," I said. I couldn't deny that. I hadn't denied any of it, at any point. "I did a risk assessment. I concluded that the chance was so slim, that the possible benefit so large, that it was worth it."

Of course now, looking back, I know that I never believed it could happen. Never believed anything I touched wouldn't turn to gold.

"I won't say anything about your arrogance," Cally said, suddenly. "Nor your"—she waved a hand again—"hubris. Nor anything about how you took all of our lives into your hands when you chose to do this."

Cally moved to stand by the window, looking out over the harbour. I waited.

"Four years ago," she said, after a little while. "After my father died. I thought—I wanted to do something for the light. Make it mine, if you like; take it into my own hands. I had the electrical supply put in, and I didn't write and tell you, because I thought you'd see it. When you came home. You didn't come."

"I've been busy," I said, a little confused, "I'm always busy, Cally! My work is"—my whole life; it was then, and it is now—"all I have."

"No," Cally said, clipped, moving to the sink and filling the kettle with water, setting it down and hitting the switch. "You have me, and you have your father, and you have this house and you have the light, and you have the people of the Salt, and you went to London and you never came back."

"I had to," I said, helplessly. Commander Norwood had taught me magic, when I was young, more than my own father had been able to, and more than Cally had wanted to learn—but in the end, it wasn't enough. "I had to go."

Cally just shook her head. When we were younger she used to do this, and I loved her for it—she used to put the kettle on before the end of the fight, because she believes in tea and reconciliation—and the steam was rising behind her, but this time she walked out on me. I stood in the kitchen for a minute, quite still, looking around at the space, closely aware of all the changes wrought in it since I'd been a little girl, listening to the sound of her footsteps disappearing up the spiral staircase. It was difficult to work without benefit of notepad and pen, but I sat down and began.

I tried so many things, in those days, and I won't bore you with all of them. There were spells for healing, as though what we had done had created a wound in the world. When it didn't work, Bird wasn't surprised: in his message, he said that the world had existed, all the rocks and soil and rivers of it—and the flocks of birds, and the saltwater—long before any sign scratched into clay stood for anything other than itself. We tried spells of transformation, as though we could lift the world bodily back into what it had been, but my father was able to explain why that wouldn't work. None of us had changed, nor forgotten what we were; we were waiting, pens at the ready, to go on exactly where we left off. I walked down the coastal path in the mornings, tried to find some kind of understanding in the break of the waves against the rocks below, and then did Cally's grocery shopping in town, turned around and began again. And then one night on which it seemed quite hopeless, I was sitting at the kitchen table facing the windows when all the lights went out. Beyond the glass, the wave of darkness was spreading across the town below; from somewhere above, I heard a thump, and then a crash.

"Cally?" I said, but there was no answer. I got up without pausing to think about it, grabbed the torch Cally habitually left in a kitchen drawer, and started to make my slow torturous way up the stairs. "Cally," I was saying, over and over again, on each turn of the stair, and then in the pitch black lamp room: "Cally, are you—what . . ."

"Amal?" she said from somewhere near my feet, and I just about avoided walking straight into her on the lamp room floor. "Make yourself useful, will you?"

I overturned my palms, still unthinking, and then my vision whited out.

"Shit!" Cally said, still from somewhere below me. "Down, Amal!"

"Sorry," I said, "sorry, sorry"—and after a minute I pulled the light levels down to something usable rather than blinding. I had thrown power at it indiscriminately, in line with how things worked in London. I'd forgotten the salt in the air, here. "Sorry."

Through the blur of afterimages, I could make out Cally peering up at the roof; inside the narrow turret of the tower, the magical light had taken a globular form, hanging from the apex. "Can you hold that? For"—she motioned at the storm panes, at the sea beyond—"as long as we have to?"

"Yes." I sat down beside her on the floor, and concentrated on keeping the light steady. "I guess it's a power cut?"

"There's been a few," Cally said, thoughtfully, and I understood why: there was no real reason why we shouldn't have electricity, but if a thing went wrong at a generator, or a substation, or any such thing, they would have to send for the engineer who knew how to fix it from memory. Cally had pulled one of her boots off and was flexing her toes, experimentally; she grimaced when I raised an eyebrow. "I just walked straight into the mounting when the lights went out."

"I heard the crash."

She grimaced again, but said nothing. I checked the light again, and then said: "Is this why you didn't want me to go back to London? In case this happened?"

Cally sighed. "I couldn't have done that"—she motioned above her head to the luminous globe, now flickering at the edges as though it were made of luminiferous ether—"but I would have managed. No, Amal, that wasn't it. You overshot it first time, didn't you?"

I took a moment to understand, then nodded. "Less salt in London." I waved a hand and made the globe revolve slowly, largely to amuse her. But her eyes on me were serious.

"It's not just parlour tricks," she said, after a moment. "It's not just something to make our lives more convenient, or to make it easier to send text messages. It's not a game."

"I never said it was, or could be!" I snapped back, and I couldn't remember being so angry with her before: not since, at least, she was pulling my pigtails and taking too long of a turn on the rocking horse. "Are you saying this wouldn't have happened if I'd been here all along?"

Cally looked at me for a long minute. "What is it for, Salt magic?" she asked, at last. "Why do we have it?"

That brought me up short for a moment. "What do you mean?"

"Why are we the people of the Salt?" Cally asked, now sounding patient. "Lots of people can paint good pictures, lots of people can play the tuba. They don't organise themselves into tribal structures and then fly tuba flags over their boats."

When I didn't answer, she stood up and walked around the lamp room, picking up a cloth from the floor and absently polishing the storm panes.

"Your father's father built the tower," she said, "and my father and I have watched over the light. We do magic, or not. We use the technology available, or not. We keep it burning. That's what we're for."

"Sometimes," I argued, "you have to leave home, Cally. I know you never wanted to, and I—I understand that. But who's the light for, if no one leaves?"

"You could have carried it with you." Cally shrugged. "My father wouldn't have asked me to stay at the light, if I hadn't wanted to. Only to come back, sometimes, and only to remember. He taught you magic, and that's all he asked of you. Carry this place wherever you go."

"How do you know I didn't?" I asked, but then remembered the empty books in the kitchen, and leaned tiredly against the glass. "I'm sorry."

"I know." Cally was gentle, as kind as she'd always been. "I know you are."

I kept the light in the lamp room until well into dawn, burning and burning, burning and burning; when at last the power returned, the electric lights strange against the sunrise, Cally brought me breakfast. I was very tired, and everything tasted of salt.

I can't remember how many nights later it was that I came awake slowly with my face stuck to the kitchen table, Cally's hand on my shoulder. From the halfway-there look of the room, the blur of grey light filtering down the curved walls, it was a clouded early morning, and Cally's face was ghostlike in that dimness. "Amal, wake up. Amal!"

"What is it?" I said, at last, fighting a last shadow of aphasia into wakefulness.

"Look." She put a piece of paper in my hands, and I looked down and blinked and blinked again and realised I was not looking, but reading. My brain took a second to slot into that groove. On the sheet, Cally had written: it is five o'clock in the morning on May 2nd. This is the Portland Light.

Below, her signature, neat and perfect.

I want to say, at this remove of time, that I cried: but of course I didn't. Crying and tears, those were for before, when emotion with no content was all we had. Instead, I said, calmly, "Can I try?

She gave me the pen, and I wrote, Amal, daughter of Salt, and watched the ink dry on the page, still with Cally's hand on my shoulder, watching the sea beyond the glass.

My father came up to the light before the sun had quite crept out from the horizon, holding another sheet of paper with words written at random. Down on the docks, I could see little movement, as though people had been distracted from putting out to sea with the dawn.

Cally was the one to figure it out. "Straight after the accident," she said, "you couldn't talk."

"You need words to think with, I think," I said, while my father inspected his own handwriting, and Cally sat on the edge of the table with her legs swinging. "It's funny, I never really realised that before, but without words you're just—pre-lingual, like a baby. All impulse and impression and feeling."

My father nodded. "Aphasia, you said. How long?"

I shook my head. "I don't know. You can't measure time when you're in that state. We all—all of us who were in that room—came around after a day or two, I think. People upstairs came out of it in a few hours."

"But you're okay now," Cally said, suddenly swinging to her feet. "Right?"

"Well, sure, it wore off," I said, and Cally glanced at my father, and he glanced back at her, and I'm an idiot and a fool: it took me a moment to get it. "It wore off," I said again, looking up at the books, and at Cally's blank tide tables. "Oh."

"I'll have to write them out again," she said, following my gaze, and it was strange, but until then I hadn't thought of it. I pulled down all the empty cookbooks and blank-labelled spice jars and laid them on the table; I booted up Cally's laptop for the first time in a month and watched the cursor flash and flash, waiting for input.

"So much to do," Cally said, watching me—and in the full light of day, I received a letter carried by a dove, bearing both the crest of the Crown Prosecution Service and the clerks of the Tithebarn. I was to return to London on the next train.

What happened after that is a matter of—I say this advisedly, with gratitude—public record. First, there came the indictment, with all of us standing there in a row; there had been talk of raising corporate manslaughter charges against Crayfish and leaving us out of it, but in the end we all chose to stand for ourselves, alone. Then the coming of the Crown prosecutors, who had deliberated with care, and with no little kindness, over whether prosecution was appropriate in the first instance. The decision was made to try us in London in the ordinary criminal courts. (The Court of the Tithebarn sits in Liverpool with pomp and circumstance, its judges all with their practitioners' bars, but in the end it's only a thing of convenience, my old teachers used to say, like the Chancery or the Admiralty. In the end they brought us to the Old Bailey, where no magic has ever nor may ever be done, and left us there.)

Of the long, cold trial, I remember very little—only Cally and my father, in the front row of the public gallery (with a substitute keeper at the lighthouse as long as was needed; I was told later that the institutional compassion had spread even as far as Trinity House), and sometimes, on the edge of dreams, I remember the echoes in that ancient space, voices dissipating into susurrus—but I recall with saltwater precision the rising of the jury, the reading of the verdict, and the wordless silence that followed it.

I did not appeal. None of us did.

Here in Weymouth, the world goes on. Cally watches over the light; my father works on old magics and the abacus, and perhaps, finds better ways of doing things; the pizza delivery boy comes twice a week.

And I have been working out my time. Our counsel knew their business, and also something of how magic works, and what it is for. At least, I presume it was they who suggested my particular sentence while entering a plea in mitigation on my behalf: it may be that it was Cally, writing a letter to The Times.

Nine thousand hours is long enough to memorise the dictionary, or learn a musical instrument from scratch, or become proficient in a new language. It's enough to find yourself again. It's enough to fall in love. And it's enough time for a place to become your home, and not like it was before, either, but a new home, for the new person that you've become. It is not long enough to write down everything that has ever been written—there were eleven of us in that room beneath the earth and even eleven times over, it is not enough—but I have the magic I've always had, carried from the sea, and the willingness to try and reverse what I did. Word by word, step by step, we coax it back.

Nine thousand hours of community service has not yet brought all that was lost back into the world. But nowadays I see scribbled text on the Salt ensigns on the fishing boats putting out to sea, as if the act of writing is itself good luck; and on the other side of the hill, in the mornings as the light goes out over the water, you can read Commander Norwood's name in the stone.

Ghost Town by Leah Piken Kolidas

Iona Sharma

Iona Datt Sharma is a writer, lawyer and the product of more than one country. Their first short story collection, Not For Use in Navigation, was published in 2019. Their other work can be found at and they tweet as @singlecrow.
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