Swallows (or How the Men Lost Their Magic)

I never should have taught the girl to read. It was nothing more than hubris, a desire to mold someone in my own image after the disappointment of my sons. I loved her too much, and when she reached her seventeenth birthday without a single proposal, my friends knew where to lay the blame. All that learning, they said, had frightened the eligible bachelors away. Her mother sulked, her brothers railed, and even I began to despair of ever finding her a husband. Until the day that boy knocked at my door.

You know the type of boy he was: a gangling, acne-spattered pup with so much fresh air between his ears, and yet I was grateful to sequester my daughter within the white stucco walls of his house. My gratitude was to prove short-lived. Barely a month passed before my son-in-law came back with a list of complaints. The girl, he claimed, was defective. Several times, he had awoken at night to find her pressed against the casement window, gazing out at the stars and muttering to herself in some obscure language. He believed his wife was conspiring to steal his magic.

So I told him, there is no mischief in a woman talking to herself, even in foreign languages, as long as she remains mantled and within the four walls of her husband’s house. What kind of life would she have, otherwise, condemned to speak only of domestic matters with the servants? As for stealing his magic, that was patent nonsense. It is an established fact that a woman cannot steal the magic from her own husband.

A month or so later he was back. His wife, he said, had been gallivanting about in the gardens. He had seen her that very morning, wandering by the rose trellis, a luminous ghost in the fading light of the moon. And it wasn’t the first time. Her soles were as cold and mud-grained as black-veined marble. She left wet footprints all over the house.

Then invest in a mop, I told him, or else buy your wife some shoes. Everybody knows a husband’s home may encompasses his estate, should he be lucky enough to own one. Are we the kind of monsters that would deny our wives the joy of a sunrise or the scent of roses at dawn?

I did not see him for the rest of the summer. I began to hope these petty grievances were a thing of the past; God knows, every marriage has its teething troubles. But as the shadows lengthened and the frosts began to bite, he returned once again to my door. His complaint, this time, was the mantle.

Every woman must wear one when her husband has visitors, I told him, lest the sight of her face should inadvertently steal the magic from his friends or colleagues.

But no, her wearing of the mantle was not at issue. It was her refusal to remove it that displeased him. Even when they were alone together in his bedchamber. Even in his bed. Beneath it, her body had become as pale and thin as a leaf of paper, as arid as the desert in winter, and what on earth should he do?

Son, I told him, this I don’t want to know.

I should have realized no good would come of sending him away unsatisfied. The next morning I received a summons from my colleagues on the area council. My son-in-law had demanded a marital reckoning. He intended to nullify the marriage.

The last time I ever saw my daughter, I was one of the twelve councilmen gathered in her husband’s salon. She was displayed on his couch—an upright, white-shrouded corpse. He was barely coherent, shrieking that his wife was a witch. She had denied him his conjugal rights, communed with spirits in demonic tongues, taken books from his study and possibly even read them. She had stolen away his magic.

Now, my fellow councilmen knew this man was an ass. This babbling dunderhead had no more magic in him than a coffee table, but I had seen enough of these reckonings to know how little that mattered. When the council leader stood to pronounce upon her, I knew my girl was as good as dead.

You’ve heard what happened next, I’m sure, though be chary of how much you believe. No thunder shook the heavens. No darkness swept across the land. None of us had any idea something was wrong until my daughter rose up from the couch.

There is no magic, she said, unless it belongs to everyone. When you are willing to share it, your magic will return.

The mantle slid back from her face. It gathered her up at the neck and folded her over, wrapping her up inside itself until the mantle became the girl, and the girl became the book she had always carried within her.

The words flew like swallows from her pages. They batted round the four walls of her husband’s house, clawing the magic out of the assembled men. They scrabbled through the cracks, out into the city streets to steal the magic from the businessmen, salesmen and tradesmen. Out across nations—to the kings, princes and politicians, the warmongers, despots and dictators—those birds ripped the magic from every last man alive. This much is true.

Then they returned. A seething, chittering swarm, they flocked from the four corners of the Earth, spiriting our magic back to the book that had been my daughter. And when she had sequestered it all within her pages, she folded herself shut.

We have tried and tried, but not one of us can open her.