From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Wizard’s Calico Daughter

Her father was a wizard, but nobody knew about that, just like nobody knew about the calico girl herself, or the goings-on in the gray gabled house where they lived. In fact, if any of the neighbors mentioned the house at all, it was only to say things like, “Didn’t the Smiths move out a few weeks ago?” or “I think old Mr. Jones is still puttering around in there” or “It’s rented out, isn’t it? By that couple from out of state?” The neighborhood cats knew, of course, but they weren’t telling.

The wizard was quite old (though he didn’t look it), and he had spent a great many years mastering things like the names of all the stars, and where to find the soul inside a person’s chest, and how many decades one could travel back with a single spell. One day, he had decided he wanted a daughter, and gone about making one. (Whether it was in the usual way or not, she didn’t know.)

The girl’s name was Anya. Was it her mother’s name? she sometimes asked. The wizard, her father, would never say. In fact, he sometimes said that she wasn’t his at all, and that she had no mother, and he had just taken her in out of pity when the cat birthed her. Sometimes he laughed then, to show that he was joking, and sometimes he didn’t.

The wizard’s calico daughter, Anya, was not a wizard. Oh, she could do magic; in fact, she often helped her father with his work. But she didn’t want to be a wizard, and her father didn’t want her to be one either. He loved her, but wizards are vain, especially the best ones, and he worried, a little, that if she tried she might become a better wizard than he was. But mostly, he just couldn’t bear the thought of her becoming a wizard and leaving him. Which she would, if she had been a wizard. Wizards are good at leaving, much more than they are at staying.

There were rooms in the house, many more than you could see from the outside. There was a room of grass, where she could lie and feel the wind blow over her calico skin. There was a room where her words came out as music, and another where tiny green and purple lizards lived, each with its own tickling tongue of flame. There was a room where it was always the same day, though the hour changed. There was a room of books, all the books in the world, which was very large and also very small, because all of the books in the world are—in some ways—the same. There were other houses with rooms in the world (though none as fabulous as her father’s), she knew, but she had never seen any of them, because she had never left her house. She had lived in the gray gabled house all her life, and she only knew it was gray because her father told her so, and because she could see some of the paint if she craned her neck up and back while looking out of her window. For a long time, she didn’t mind. And then, when she turned sixteen, she did.

#

For her sixteenth birthday, Anya’s father gave her a room. She had a bedroom already, with her bed, two bookshelves of her own, a trunk of old toys she couldn’t bear to throw away, a little blue pillow for the cat, and four tall windows through which she could see out and no one could see in. The new room was blank, with nothing in it except the door, not even walls, so that she could do with it as she pleased.

“It’s great,” she said when he showed her that morning. “Really, Dad. Thanks a lot.” She hugged him, inhaling the acrid, smoky smell that meant he had been working on a difficult spell.

“Anything you want in it, just let me know,” he said. “A roomful of cats, or a beach, or the plains of Mars.”

“A garden of singing flowers,” she said with a laugh. “Or last Wednesday, or a ballroom of ghostly partners.”

“Anything,” he agreed.

“I’ll think about it,” she said, and they closed the door, and went to breakfast.

That night, her father went to bed early. He had spent most of the day locked in his workshop on the top floor of the house and had seemed distracted and tired during dinner, only perking up when presenting her with a chocolate cake large enough to feed them for several days, even if they had wanted to eat nothing else. Afterwards, she kissed him on the cheek and promised that tomorrow she would help monitor the parts of the spell that were finished, while he worked on the parts that still needed tinkering. Then he went off to bed, and Anya helped herself to another piece of cake.

Before going to bed, Anya stood outside the door to the new room, at the spot where the day before there had been only blank wall. She wondered if, for someone looking at the house from the street, it looked bigger, or had a strange new wing sticking out where the garden used to be. Probably not, she decided, because her father, though he was a wizard and wizards sometimes forget about such details when creating grand and wondrous spells, was careful. Especially, she thought with a little sigh, about things that might make people outside the house notice it.

Back in her bedroom, the cat lounged on her blue pillow. Anya reached down and stroked her head, so that her eyes narrowed and her whole calico body rumbled with purrs. Then, turning on a single lamp, Anya went over to the standing mirror in the corner and looked at herself.

She didn’t look any different than she had yesterday, when she had glanced hurriedly in the mirror and yanked a comb through her hair, she thought as she studied herself. The corduroy pants and green shirt she had put on that morning. A thin, slight frame, with tiny hands and feet and small breasts. Short hair, mostly brown with glints of red and soft black, cut by herself into little spikes so that her ears showed. The tiny upturn at the end of her nose. Green eyes. The calico markings on her skin, fainter on her face. A splotch of cinnamon across one cheek, a chocolate smear across her forehead, a murky black area swirling from chin to ear, a lick of bronze near her nose. The skin was quite pale otherwise. If she had taken off her clothes, she would have seen the way the markings deepened and covered more area on her torso and back and limbs, growing lighter and sparser again as they neared her hands and feet.

“I’m sixteen,” she said out loud to the girl in the mirror, then felt faintly stupid.

The girl in the mirror’s mouth tightened, curling inward on one side, and then Anya threw herself down on her bed, huffing.

What’s wrong with me? she thought. It was her birthday. Her father had given her her own room; she had done nothing all day except what she wanted to do; she had eaten chocolate cake until she felt a little sick. She should be happy.

Rolling over, Anya stared out the window, which faced the front yard. As she watched, a boy came around the corner, heading past the house and down the street. Tall and lanky, he had red hair, hair like a wet fox, which she could make out because of the streetlight on the corner, and because darkness had never really made it difficult for her to see. He carried a backpack over his shoulder and a hard-sided case in his right hand. He shuffled a bit when he walked, and just as he stepped in front of her window, he stopped, and bent down to tie his shoe.

Anya had tried, once, to open the windows in her bedroom. She had been eight, and it had snowed, deeper than any snow she had ever seen, and she had wanted to go outside and run through it, to see if it felt as soft as it looked. So she had tried to open the window so that she could crawl out of it, but it hadn’t budged, no matter how she pulled and pushed. Her father had found her, several hours later, with tears wetting the calico places on her cheeks. The windows had a spell on them, he had explained, just like everything else in the house, and they couldn’t be opened. Then he had taken her hand and they had gone to the room with the grass and the open sky, where he had made it snow for days.

She knew the windows wouldn’t move. But it was her birthday, and she felt strange and out of sorts in her own skin, and her father had gone to bed early, exhausted from magic. Like a cat, like a suddenly desperate girl, she jumped off the bed in a flash, went over to window, and shoved upward with all her strength.

Warm, wet spring air seeped into the room as Anya pushed her head out of the window.

“Hello,” she called across the front lawn.

#

The boy’s name was Travis, and he was sixteen, too. He went to the high school five blocks away, the one Anya had never seen, and he played the trumpet in the school’s marching band. He also sat on the debate team and sometimes had bit parts in the school plays, which made him “a geek, really, but a proud one.” Anya smiled when he said that, because she had read about geeks in the room with all the books in the world, but she had never met one.

“So, are you home-schooled?” Travis asked. He was standing in front of her window, his trumpet case on the ground near his feet. “I mean, I haven’t seen you around or anything. Or do you go to St. Bernard’s?”

“I’m home-schooled,” Anya said. It wasn’t a lie, even if it wasn’t the truth. “I’ve never even been inside a real school.”

“Not even for the SATs or anything?” He shook his head. “Wow.”

“I know,” she said. “I didn’t used to mind. There’s so much to learn here, and my father’s a good teacher. But lately, I don’t know. . . I wish I could go to a real school, just for a while.”

Travis shrugged. “It’s not that great. And I like school, more than most people. But I used to beg my mom to home-school me back in sixth grade—not a good year for me. It was pretty dumb, though. She’s a lawyer, so how was she supposed to home-school me?” He rolled his eyes self-deprecatingly, then glanced up at Anya as if to make sure she didn’t really think he was stupid.

She didn’t. She could have watched him all night, just to see the way he blew out a breath when he got nervous or sometimes cracked a knuckle, like it hurt from so much trumpet playing. They weren’t beautiful movements, or magical, or even all that interesting. But she had never watched a person her own age make them, and they made her shiver. “Where do you live?” she asked.

He jerked his head eastward. “About two blocks down. You hang a left and it’s the first corner house. The one with the green roof.”

Anya nodded, though, of course, she hadn’t ever seen the green roof. “How long have you lived there?”

“Since I was five. That’s what makes it so weird, me never seeing you. Did you just move here?”

“I’ve always lived here,” Anya said.

“Weird,” he repeated, then blushed a little, so that his face seemed a paler version of his hair. “Why—why’d you call to me, then?”

Anya thought about several answers. Wizards didn’t lie, not with their words. She wasn’t a wizard, but she had magic, and lying tended to gum it up. But she wasn’t quite sure she knew the truth, not yet.

“I got the window open,” she said.

#

The window stayed open. That night, after Travis left, Anya went to the hall cabinet and found a ruler, a normal wooden one, and wedged it on the sill so that the window couldn’t quite shut. She worried, the next day, that her father would notice that the magic on the window was compromised. But he was still working on his spell, which she helped him with, and so he was distracted, and he didn’t. Besides, the window wouldn’t open all the way, just enough for her to look out of it, so perhaps the spell on it didn’t feel any different to him.

Travis didn’t visit every night, but he did visit a lot. He told her about school, and his friends, and going to Colorado every Thanksgiving to visit his grandparents. He practiced his speeches for debate, something Anya could help with, because she had read all the writings of orators like Caesar, and Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, and even some men and women who hadn’t been born yet. They talked about books, and time periods they wished they could have lived in (Travis picked the ’20s for the big bands and Anya picked Regency England for the clothes), and their pets. Travis had a large brown mutt with droopy hound dog eyes named Cervantes, whom he brought once and who seemed not to notice the spells around the yard, something the neighborhood cats always noticed. Anya tried to get the cat to come to window so that Travis could see her, but she only watched from her pillow, her eyes like marbles of fire, and curled her tongue in a yawn.

Once, Travis asked, “So, what happened? With your face, I mean.” Then he blushed, eyes going wide, and blurted, “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. You don’t have to tell me.”

Anya only shrugged. “No, it’s okay. I was born like this. My dad calls me his ‘calico daughter.’”

Travis smiled, a little weakly, as if still embarrassed by himself, but then he stepped closer. “I like that. Like you’re part cat. Do you ever get an irresistible urge to chase birds?”

And once, on another visit: “So, I was wondering if you’d want to go to a movie with me. There are some good ones coming out this weekend. . .”

He had just come from band practice, a late one, and his trumpet case lay in the grass by his feet, just like it had on the night they had met.

Anya stared at the windowsill. “I can’t.”

“You can’t, or you don’t want to?”

“I can’t.”

Forehead wrinkled, he shook his head. “You know, I’ve kind of liked this whole weird way of meeting. It suits you, makes you more mysterious. But I really don’t get why you can’t ever come out.”

She wanted to say, “Because my father is a wizard. Because the cat might have birthed me, and because of how people will look at me. Because there aren’t any doors out of my house.”

But she didn’t say any of those things, and, after a while, Travis said goodbye, and she shut the window down to the ruler and went to bed.

#

Anya walked around the entire house, looking for doors. The cat followed her, though she tried not to let Anya see that she was following, and instead pretended a sudden need to chase invisible mice and to make sure that she had rubbed her scent on each and every piece of furniture.

There were many doors, and she went through all of them, even the ones that she knew led to boring places like the first-floor bathroom. She walked for miles in the room of grass and wind, but she never found anything but more grass and a few flowers, so she turned back. She watched the lizards for an hour to see if they ever left their room, but they only gazed at her and flicked their flamey tongues. She ran her hands along the house’s walls in places where there were no doors, to see if any the walls were really doors and were just pretending to be walls. But they weren’t. She stood in her room and glared at the windows. Out, she thought fiercely. I want to go out. But the house wasn’t listening.

“When was the last time you were outside?” she asked that night at dinner.

Her father, looking up from the book in front of him, the edges of which glowed softly, paused with the fork before his mouth. “I can’t recall right now,” he said.

It wasn’t a lie, because of the “right now,” but it was close. Anya waited a moment, then said, a little testily, “Can you recall now?”

Her father set the fork down. “I haven’t been outside this house in several years, and the last time I went out made me not want to repeat the process for twenty more.”

“Why not?”

“Because the world was just the same as it always is.”

Anya licked her lips, fingers twisted together in her lap. “How is that?”

“Unvarying.” Her father shook his head, gazing away from her, as if he could see through the walls of the house. “Almost all the people out there—they’re the same. The same joys, the same troubles. And they have been for as long as I can recall, which is a long time. Not even a wizard can change that, or them. It makes the world very tiresome.”

“Surely not everyone is like that,” Anya said softly.

His eyes shifted to her face. “No,” he said finally. “Very occasionally, you find someone who isn’t. But they don’t stay.”

He looked sad, and he had never looked sad before, not for more than a moment. It made Anya want to stop, to talk about something else, but she couldn’t quite seem to. “But you do go outside, sometimes?”

A long pause, a wizard’s pause, that made Anya’s skin itch. “Yes, I do.”

“How? There aren’t any doors that lead outside.”

“I don’t need a door,” he said before spearing a piece of chicken and placing it in his mouth.

It was an end to the conversation, but Anya swallowed and said, “Can I go outside?”

Her father didn’t stop chewing, but he went very still.

“I understand about when I was little,” Anya said in a rush, “but I’m sixteen now. I just. . . I want to see what it’s like. Out there.”

He did not ask, “Aren’t you happy here?” He did not say, “I’m protecting you, my daughter with your calico face.” But she saw it in his black eyes, the only part of his face that ever looked as old as he really was.

She hunched her shoulders a little. “I’m just curious. There’s more to the world than just this house—”

Those eyes hardened. “You’re right. There is. And I’ve seen it, for more years than you know. You want me to let you out into that world?” His eyelids lowered. “I want to keep you safe. You aren’t the same as they are, because you’re my daughter, and I want to keep you safe.”

“You just want to keep me here,” Anya said, more loudly than she had intended, pushing her chair back so that it screeched across the wooden floor. “You’re just scared that if I step outside this house, I won’t ever come back. But I would. I just want to see things, experience them instead of reading about them. . .” She drew a breath, short and choppy. “This isn’t about the world, Dad, or about me. It’s about you. Why won’t you just let me go?”

“No,” her father said, and he said it in his wizard’s voice. It rocked Anya back, like a gust of wind or door shut in her face. Then she turned and ran out of the room. The cat leaped from the far end of the table and raced to follow her, not caring if Anya noticed this time, leaving the wizard alone.

#

“ . . . so I rode off on a hippo, into the sunset.”

Anya blinked. “What?”

On the darkened lawn in front of her, Travis shook his head. “I knew you weren’t listening.”

Sighing, she said, “I’m sorry. Tell it again.”

“No, it wasn’t that great a story, anyway. What’s going on, Anya?”
She bit her lip, then mumbled, “I had a fight with my dad.”

“What about?”

“The world. Me.” Behind her, the cat made a worried prr-up sound, but when Anya looked over her shoulder, she was just sitting with her legs tucked up under her on the pillow, her head cocked toward the ceiling. “We don’t usually fight.”

Travis raised his eyebrows inquisitively. “Do you think he’ll give?”

“I don’t think so. Things usually happen the way he wants.” The cat prr-uped again, a nervous, high-pitched trill at the end. “What?” Anya asked, turning around.

The cat was staring towards the door, still and stiff, not even the whiskers on her face moving. Then she scrambled, fast as a furry waterfall, off the edge of her pillow and underneath the bed.

Two things happened: The entire house rumbled, like a cat taken by the scruff of its neck and shaken, and the window slammed shut. And Anya felt the locking spell, the one that, in her preoccupied moroseness, she hadn’t noticed building, close around it.

“Wait!” Anya cried as she whipped around. But the window had shut, the ruler snapped, half of it lying on the floor. Outside, she could see Travis. His mouth opened, spoke two syllables, but she couldn’t hear them. He stepped toward the window, hands cupped around his face, unable to see inside. His lips moved again, and he even lifted a hand and knocked softly on the glass.

She didn’t try to push it open, or even knock back. Instead, she stood up from the chair she had been sitting in, jerked her door open, and hurried out of the room.

The house was dark, and all the doors were shut. Anya darted through it, her chest tight with anger and desperation, up the stairs and down the halls, until she came to the one door in the house that stood open.

Her father sat inside his workshop. A mirror on a far table shone with dim, reflected moonlight. In it, a red-haired boy stood on a lawn, his hands in his pockets. He shuffled around the side of a house, as if looking for a way in, finally stopping in front of one window. He peered at it, as if trying to see inside, and then, after one last attempt to look through the glass, left the yard.

“Please,” Anya said quietly.

Her father closed his eyes and, for a moment, he looked not quite like a wizard, but more like a very tired man. “No.”

“Fine,” his daughter said, and turned away.

#

In the gray, gabled house, there were now two cats. One was older than the other, and the younger one was smaller than the first. Both had calico markings on their soft fur. One slept on a pillow in an empty room, and the other slept on the bed.

It’s easy, mostly, to be a cat, except for the times when it isn’t. No one can tell a cat what to do or, at least, expect it to be done. Cats, after all, belong to no one, even when they live in houses. And time—time moves differently. More quickly, when a mouse is sighted or a dust mote commands attention; slower, when there’s nothing to do but find a high spot, or a shaft of sunlight, and tuck legs up underneath the body and sleep.

The two cats did cat things together. Mostly, they were left alone in the gray house, though food could always be found in the older cat’s bowl. Soon a new bowl, also regularly filled, appeared beside it.

Sometimes, a man came down from the highest floor of the house, from the room the cats never went into. At first, only the old cat would allow herself to be petted and stroked, while the young cat watched from under furniture. After a time, though, the younger cat would sometimes come out and, if the man sat at the table or in a chair, she would sit beside him. Sometimes she let him scratch behind her ears, in the place she couldn’t reach, and sometimes she didn’t.

Time passed, though the cats didn’t know how much, and didn’t wish to know. One day, after what might have been a long time, the man came down and found the young cat curled up on the comfortable maroon chair in the living room.

“All right. You win,” he said, before turning and going back upstairs.

#

“I know what I want,” Anya told her father the next day while they worked on the last details of his spell. “In my room.”

Her father said a word, a sharp one, full of thorns. The spell quivered for a moment, then held. He smiled, a relieved smile, but it faded a little when he turned to her.

“Do you love him, then?” her father asked. “That boy?”
It took her by surprise, and Anya laughed. “Travis? I’ve only known him a month or so—I’ve never even touched him. And he’s the first boy I’ve ever met.” She shook her head. “I like him, but no, I don’t love him.”

Her father sighed. “I just don’t understand, then. What else would make you want to go out there? There’s so much to learn here. I built this house exactly as it should be, to be the perfect place for a wizard.”

Anya shrugged. “But I’m not a wizard. I want to go to school, Dad. I want Travis to take me to the movies. I want to see all the things I’ve read about, see how things work when they aren’t fueled by spells.”

“It’s not as wonderful as you think it will be,” he huffed. “I know—I lived in the world for centuries.”

“But I haven’t. Maybe I’ll go out and everyone will laugh at my face and I’ll come back and become an old wizard-woman and never leave the house again. Or maybe I’ll marry Travis and we’ll have a lot of trumpet-playing children. Or maybe something else entirely. Maybe I’ll go to college. I just want to be able to choose for myself.”

Her father looked at her for a long time without saying anything before he turned away to tend the spell. It wasn’t a blessing, but it wasn’t a no, either.

#

The next morning, Anya waited in front of the room her father had given her for her birthday. She shifted from foot to foot, squatted down to pet the cat (who had at first pretended to have business in the hall but now simply sat near Anya’s feet), then stood back up and cracked her knuckles for practice. She felt like a metal tuning fork, as if her whole body vibrated with high pitched energy and nerves. She looked at her watch, checked the contents of the backpack on the floor, and had nearly decided to go in search of her father when he appeared at her side.

“I don’t know what information they want at schools these days,” he said, a little grumpily.

“It’s okay,” Anya answered. “I put a spell on a letter. When the secretary reads it, she’ll think I’ve given her everything she needs. By the end of the day, all of my ‘records’ will have appeared in the office.” Her father raised an eyebrow and she blushed. “Well, I don’t have a birth certificate, not that I’ve ever seen, or anything else they’ll probably want. But after this, I’ll do it properly—at school, at least.” After all, she was a wizard’s daughter, she figured, and it would be silly to go through all of life without magic, if you had it.

“All right then,” her father said. He raised his hands, murmured a few words, and the door to the room glowed in answer. Then he set his hand on the knob and opened it.

Inside lay a normal room. A sitting room, with three comfortable chairs, a small table with coasters on it, a few bookshelves (because there were always bookshelves, in the gray house), and a red and blue rug on the floor. But unlike any other room in the house, you could see in the windows as well as out of them, and there was a door set on the far wall.

“Thanks, Dad,” Anya said. She stood up on her toes and hugged him, and the wizard hugged his daughter back. The cat took a tentative step into the room, then twitched her tail and leapt lightly onto the chair placed nearest the window, the one that gave the best view of the street.

“See you after school,” Anya said. Then she reached out, opened the door and went through it.

The first thing she noticed was that the dew on the lawn was heavier than the dew had ever been in the grass room. It made her sneakers wet, so she skipped across the yard to the sidewalk in six steps. Then she looked back at the gray gabled house that she had never seen from the outside. It did not, she thought, look like it held a room full of green and purple lizards, or fields and fields of grass, or all the books in the world. But it did look like someplace where you could go in and out, that you could leave and come back to.

Anya grinned and did a little jig-step for the benefit of the cat, who still sat watching in the window. Then she waved and headed off to school.

Eilis O’Neal’s YA fantasy novel, The False Princess, is forthcoming from Egmont USA in January 2011. Her short fantasy has appeared or is forthcoming in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and others. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is Managing Editor of Nimrod International Journal. She can be found online at www.eilisoneal.com.