Bound By Apathy
by Jill Corddry
My parents started to look at me askance on my fifth birthday. Most of us have found our affinity by then: the element or creature or life focus that will define who we are our place in society. It was always obvious. Always. No one, not since The Witch’s Curse, accidentally unleashed one hundred and sixty-three years ago, had gone past their sixth birthday without latching onto something.
My sixth birthday came and went, as did seven, eight, and so on. Perhaps it could have been shrugged off and ignored for most anyone else. But not for the child of the town’s Dear Leader and Head Witch. My parents’ pedigree had promised their subjects a child that would guide our community into the future; had all but guaranteed that one of the most powerful witches or wizards ever seen would happen in their lifetimes.
No one could have predicted the genetic dud they produced instead. Not even those gifted with foresight.
Surely we’ll find something for you, darling Strophella, everyone reassured me. Just give it time.
Entire parades, festival, and fairs were conducted, all to entice me. Huge rewards were offered to the person who could find that on special thing. By the time I was thirteen, they just wanted me to give a crap about something. Anything. Paperclips. Weeds. Dust. The funds wasted were astounding.
Flowers? I was allergic to all of them.
Stones? Gems? Precious metals? Rocked me to sleep.
Animals? Reptiles? Bird? Couldn’t. Care. Less. Not about fur, feathers, or scales. In spite of this, one of the local street cats decided it belonged to me, and so I had a companion with me at every step. It curled in my lap every time I sat; it purred loud as the flour mill when I ran fingers over its black fur, oddly speckled with white, like it had gotten too close to Chef when she was baking her pies.
Still, I had no special affinity toward the creature. Its warmth was welcome on winter nights, though.
Doctors were called in. Specialists. Anyone who thought they could “cure” me was allowed an audience, my parents hovering in the doorway. Clearly I just needed a new diet. Or more exercise. Or less. Everyone had an opinion but no one had answers.
Not only did I not have an affinity, I didn’t care about anything or, really, anyone. I was apathetic to an unforeseen degree.
Don’t get the wrong idea. It wasn’t like I lounged around day after day doing nothing; I could have, I suppose, and no one would have blamed me. But see, I liked things just fine. I read, lots. My sketches weren’t half bad. I could cook a little. I took care of Cat.
Mostly, I wandered the woods surrounding the town. Being alone, away from the stares and whispers, was my favorite. But it’s not like solitude was a recognized affinity.
Over time, the festivals and endless parades ended. Doctors and specialists didn’t come by. My parents gave up on my thirteenth birthday. They held out longer than I had. Life quieted to the mundane. Every day was almost identical. Not that I minded. My parents gifted me a wing of their manse and other than dinner a few nights a week, left me mostly alone to live my life.
My brothers and sisters––all much younger than I; my parents had been cautious about producing further children, until multiple tests showed I was an aberration––had settled into their affinities earlier than any to date. They developed affinities that were strong and sure, putting all worry to rest.
As my youngest sister, just turned three, claimed her affinity in front of the entire town, murmurs and gasps spread throughout the crowd. The elements were all represented: Yalena was water; Jortan was earth, Hoarath was fire, and now Zeldora was air.
I was a leaf, floating on river currents directed by my younger sister.
I was hard dirt, walked on, unthought of as my younger brother made other land thrive.
I was ash, withered from my youngest brother’s fire.
I drifted, seed puffs on winds my youngest sister now commanded.
I didn’t matter. Not in the grand scheme of anything.
I stopped joining the family for meals, instead taking them in my rooms. I continued with my walks, exploring the woods until no one knew the twists and turns, the trees and animals, better than I. Yet I existed without attachment to anything.
My life wasn’t lonely. It wasn’t anything.
On my twenty-eighth birthday, I woke early enough that stars still speckled the sky, glittering good morning as I walked along familiar paths, not needing anything brighter than starlight to navigate. The trees were only just beginning to wear their leafy frills and the fresh tang of early spring met each of my steps. I stopped in my favorite clearing, leaning against a solid trunk, my breath capturing the morning’s chill in pale puffs.
I sat and watched until the sun peered gold over the tops of the hills, dripping early sunlight like syrup along the fields. Birds sang as they hunted for worms; the slow drone of the season’s first bees filled the warming air.
My gaze turned upward, pulled by unseen string, admiring the last of the stars as they disappeared in the brightening sky. One point of light flashed more radiantly than any others around it, a headstrong teenager defying the parental sun.
As if we were locked together, I stared, able to see the dazzling point even with the sun fully risen above the hills. My heart raced. My breath rattled and caught. My hands trembled.
And I knew.
Just like everyone always said when trying to explain.
I’d found my affinity.
It had simply been out of my reach until now.
I tried to hide it, but that was like concealing a baby goat in a library. Especially given how powerful my parents were. Their delight didn’t even matter––and they were beyond ecstatic, even if they didn’t understand exactly what I’d latched onto. Nor could I find the words to explain how one developed an affinity to a star, billions of light years away.
My brothers and sisters graced me with small, tight-lipped smiles, but their doubt was beyond obvious, even though they knew damn well an affinity couldn’t be faked.
Over the following weeks I returned to my clearing, sometimes early in the morning; sometimes late at night. Instead of wheeling across the heavens with the other stars, it was stationary.
But it was moving.
It wasn’t obvious at first, but after two months, even the youngest in the town realized a new star was growing in our skies.
The tug to my very being grew stronger each night. I couldn’t take my eyes off the glowing orb, often forgetting to eat, so enthralled was I.
Mother and Father met with many elders and respected leaders of townships and communities near and far. The approaching star was nearly as large as luna.
Many homes near the seas had been threatened or destroyed by the increasingly high tides.
Farmlands dried and late summer crops withered under the extra heat.
Already dry grasslands caught fire, adding to the stifling heat.
Air currents were heavy with smoke and ash.
As the star drew closer still, conditions worsened. Those towns not struck by too much hardship accepted as many fleeing refugees as they could, sharing meager food stores until even those ran out.
Yet I was enthralled, called to it. I stayed outside as long as I could stand the heat. My skin went from healthy to sunburned to deeply browned.
The scientists, alchemists, mathematicians, and witches were all in agreement. The glowing orb was going to intersect with our planet, our home, within the next two weeks if it continued on its current path, and they had no reason to assume it would waver. No one had a cheery prognosis.
Magicians and witches had attempted…everything. Every spell. Every potion. Every prayer.
I overheard hushed conversations and heard the rustle of pages turned in haste. The murmur of prophecies and promised salvation, of power not seen since The Witch’s Curse released the world’s magic to everyone.
Many had taken potions to end their lives, to end the suffering of hungry bellies and parched tongues. Even Mother and Father had a store of drams to pass along to any of the staff or refugees who wished to take that path, though they encouraged everyone to wait. To give it one more day. And then one more.
Yet the star still continued forward. Toward us. Until it consumed the entire sky. Night had long ago ceased to exist.
I crept about the manse, Cat at my heels.
I heard the tears of my parents as they said their last goodbyes and drank the potions that ended their lives. Together.
The deaths didn’t touch me. They wanted to destroy the one thing in this universe that was mine.
With perhaps hours remaining I went for one last walk, stopping only when the heat overtook me, finally huddling under the thin veil of shade from a bare, dry tree. The same tree that, in the same clearing. It had been five months to the day since I’d first seen the star in the early morning sky. This seemed an appropriate place for the end.
Cat huddle next to my thigh, desperate for the shade I offered.
One by one, my brothers and sisters joined me as well, the looks in their eyes ranging from fright to defeated resignation.
Not a one of them had fight left.
Together we formed a circle, sweating as the sun and its interloping cousin roasted the last of the water and life from the planet. After some time, Yalena reached thin fingers toward Jortan and gripped his hand, and then she glanced to Hoarath on her other side and held his hand. Following her sister’s lead, Zeldora grabbed for Hoarath as well.
Then they all turned matching dark eyes on me. The lone holdout.
Before I could decide, both Jortan and Zeldora were touching me. Possibly for the first time in their lives.
Together we sat.
My hands, clasped tightly by my siblings, grew sweaty. I wanted to be alone as the world ended. For it would end. And it would end before the star even arrived to crash our home to oblivion.
And I wanted my end to some the same way my life had been lived: mostly alone; just me and Cat.
A patch of grass ignited inside our circle, smoldering more than burning. Hoarath sighed when we all grew agitated. “I won’t let it hurt you,” he promised, reaching a worn boot toward the barely glowing flame. It transferred easily to his shoe, and Zeldora giggled as it danced and curled to his will.
A jolt struck my core, the place of my magic. The place of the star.
My brothers and sisters froze, the hands holding mine tensed. Without words, we acknowledged we’d all felt it.
A surge rippled through us, from hand to connected hand. Four sets of wide, frightened brown eyes turned toward me. The eldest. Though they’d had little need of me during their lives, they needed me now.
It was a strange feeling, being needed.
I studied each of us for a moment, a realization clicking. “Affinities,” I whispered. “It’s our affinities.”
Their faces scrunched in four identical masks of confusion.
“They’re all here. Yalena is damp with sweat. Jortan is touching the earth. Zeldora always has the air. Hoarath has his fire.” I glanced upward at our doom. “And my star is growing closer by the second, kissing me with its heat.”
“Try it again,” Yalena said, her words crackling like dry desert sand. “Think on your affinities.”
I closed my eyes, picturing my beautiful, deadly orb. I felt my siblings’ magic join mine, clumsily at first, then with more confidence, more power. Our magics combined––water, earth, fire, air, and space––and burst forth with a power I’d never felt. The power of family, of place, of belonging. I’d finally found my place, not just in the town or the world, but in the universe.
Together we stood, hands still clasped tight, guiding our magic. What we created, we didn’t know. It was magic none of us had even heard of let alone used. Rather, it used us. It was fueled with hope.
A hope to destroy that which would first destroy us.
A part of me, small and tucked away, wished against that destruction. Why take away the one thing that was mine? Why did I always have to lose? Why me?
Cat rubbed against my legs, then, inch by clawed inch, climbed until it was curled around my shoulders.
My cheeks were hot, sweat stung my eyes. Dust collected, gritty and itchy, against my damp skin. Warm air swirled about me, offering little relief.
I realized I was no longer holding hands with my brothers and sisters. Yet their magic swam within me.
Not their magic. MY MAGIC!
I wasn’t apathetic. I had an affinity to everything. And space wanted me, too.
With Cat still wound around my neck, I floated, away from those who’d turned from me when I wasn’t like them.
Air allowed us to breath.
Fire kept us warm.
Water stabilized our pressure.
Earth centered us.
The elements combined to protect us, me and Cat, on the journey to the stars.
Still we rose.
I wasn’t afraid. My star awaited me, patiently. But it called. And I answered. We answered. Cat nuzzled its soft head against my chin, spurring me, us, upward.
It had always been us.
I reached out, allowing the star’s flaming tongues to kiss us with welcome. And we three lonely wanders became one.
Amazing art by Elora Cook
Find Jill in all these places!