“Catch for Me a Falling Star,” by Allison Ruvidich
Everyone in the village came to see Levram the Magnificent and his Stupendous Display of Awesome Power—for the Low Price of Two Pennies for Adults and One for Children under Waist Height. They sat on hay bales and leaned forward eagerly to watch the small man in garish clothes conjure balls, bells, and once, the word bellicose on a slip of paper in a locked box. No one knew what bellicose meant, but it was impressive.
“Behold!” Levram cried, pointing. “My next assistant! Your name, my dear boy?”
“And where are you from, Master Terrence?”
“Don’t know where you’re from, you’ll never get home!”
“Sandershire,” the boy said quickly.
“Lovely place! All right, Terrence, because you’re from Sandershire, I’ll explain slowly. Pass—ahem—PASS ME THE—“
He pulled streams of silk from the rags of beggars. A flock of doves fluttered from the rafters to alight on his outspread arms. He juggled blazing torches and apologized prettily when one missed and landed on Goodwife Lettie’s skirt.
As the shadows in the barn deepened and the torches throbbed with scarlet light, he readied his last trick: the Disappearance of Levram the Magnificent.
“I only do this for you, ladies and gentlemen!” he cried. “Only for the village of… of Lastershire!”
While the crowd leaned forward on their bales, he screwed up his face in concentration. A bang of smoke—he was gone. Then hearty laughter all around when the audience turned to see him leaning in the doorway, smiling innocently.
“And remember,” Levram cried, thrusting his hat out to accept pennies, “if anyone solves my tricks, they win all the pennies in the hat!”
They guessed, of course. But they knew the barn had no trapdoor, and it was unlikely he had an identical twin. The idea that they had all dozed off briefly was proposed and discarded. So they clapped one last time and shuffled off to their homes to sleep until dawn.
When the last farmer rustled out, the manic gaiety drained from Levram’s face until he was a scrawny, underfed man in a ragged cloak. Slowly, he stooped to gather up the balls and bells.
“I know how you did it.”
Levram glanced up, forcing the smile back to his face. It was the small, freckled lad with dirty hands and dirtier hair. He had bright, dark eyes that watched Levram carefully.
“Terrence from Sandershire!” Levram exclaimed grandly. “How are you, my dear boy? Staying up late?”
“I know how you did it,” Terrence said again.
Levram’s eyes flickered. “Did what—this?” He held up his hand, and a smooth, faded wooden ball filled it.
Terrence nodded. “That and others. The ball started in your left inside pocket. When I first said I knew how you did it, you transferred it to your left outside pocket, I suspect through a secret flap. Then, covering it with a cough, you moved it…”
“… and when I blinked, you dropped it into your hand,” Terrence finished.
“Goodness,” Levram said, impressed. “It might actually work. How do you explain my disappearance?”
Terrence barely hesitated. “I can’t explain that yet, but—“
Levram returned to packing his trunk, grunting as he went.
Terrence scrambled after him. “The ball was in your sleeve! You fed the doves earlier, and they’re actually pigeons! Bellicose means warlike, from the Roman goddess of war, Bellona, and it was written on the other side of the paper that you didn’t show us!”
Levram chuckled and ruffled Terrence’s hair. “Nice try, lad. From your mucky palm, I predict you’ll do great things. Just remember where you live next time.” He hefted the trunk and was almost gone when Terrence said, “I’m not from anywhere. And I can’t go home.”
Levram looked back. The boy’s face was so screwed up with misery that it turned to stone.
“Please tell me how you did it,” he whispered. “I have to know.”
“I can summon balls, flames, and words,” Levram said gently. “I can make people laugh, which is even greater than those. But no magic can make you happy, Terrence. You have to do that yourself.”
He turned to go but hesitated.
“I shouldn’t say this,” he said, embarrassed. “But those tricks … I can do them because I’m a wizard.”
“And now, my last trick!” Levram cried, flinging out his arms so his tawdry cloak glittered. “I shall make my apprentice, Terrence the Competent, disappear! I do not perform this often, ladies and gentlemen, only for the village of…”
“Anishire,” Terrence the Competent supplied.
“Anishire, exactly! First I shall cover him with a cloak—duck, boy—then I shall wave my hands—thrice—and he disappears!”
Beneath the cloak, Terrence closed his eyes. The wool scratched his face, but he ignored it.
“It might take a moment!”
Terrence reached out to grasp the possibilities, blindly searching through the darkness behind his eyes. Some didn’t budge beneath his hands, like the ones for births and deaths. He shoved aside the threads of fate like Levram had taught him, feeling about for one in which he’d stepped out for a breath of air and was only now coming back in—through the doorway.
“He’s taking his sweet time about it, but he’ll be gone soon, ladies and gentlemen!”
He couldn’t find the right thread—
He couldn’t find the right thread—
“Terrence.” Levram’s voice was soft. “Grasp the thread.”
Instinctively, his fingers curled around something invisible and caught it firmly. Levram smiled as the cloak wafted to the ground and Terrence stumbled into the doorway.
“Terrence the Competent!” he thundered. Then, softly: “Nice job, boy.”
Terrence packed up the balls and bells while the crowd shuffled out, as he always did. Levram rinsed the chalk from the floor, blotting out the precise, even beautiful patterns.
“Not bad,” he said, whisking the pennies into a purse he kept hidden in the southern jungles. “Not perfect, either. What could have gone better?”
“Juggling,” Terrence said ruefully. “We’re lucky Goodman Foster has sharp reflexes or I might’ve burned down the barn.”
“Yes, your juggling’s terrible,” Levram conceded. “Besides that.”
“I slipped in the Thousand Eels trick,” Terrence said, examining tiny teeth marks at the base of his thumb. “More like Thousand Earthworms, too.”
Terrence sighed. “I couldn’t grasp the thread.”
“You’ve had nearly six months of training now. You’re bright, you’re quick—so why are the threads giving you so much trouble?”
“I don’t know,” Terrence said mulishly. “I reach for them, and I think—this is silly, then they’re gone. When I take my time, they’re always there, but—I can’t believe in them when I can’t see them.”
“Terrence, my lad,” Levram said, not unkindly. “One of these days you’ll have to realize that things don’t always make sense. Sometimes the ball isn’t up the sleeve, but you have to trust that it’s there somewhere.”
Terrence nodded guardedly.
Dissatisfied, Levram said, “What we do is magic, Terrence. You can’t have magic without belief.” He smiled. “But I shouldn’t keep you when you have a full night ahead of you.”
Terrence almost groaned. He’d been Levram’s apprentice for months before Levram first mentioned a wizard school.
“Of course there’s a school for wizards!” he said. “And a union, and a board of, but they’re quite useless. I’m only training you so you’re good enough to go where they can teach you properly.”
“When can I go?” Terrence asked eagerly.
“Whenever you like, provided you write an essay on the wizard that most inspires your work—me, for example—and we have to scrape together fifty coppers for admission, then they have to accept you, which usually takes six to twelve business months. Also, you have to be fourteen.”
“But that’s ages away!” Terrence cried. “I’ll grow old and die before then!”
“No, but I might, if you keep harping on like this.” Levram hesitated. “There is one other way.”
Levram leaned forward. “You could catch a falling star.”
Terrence snorted. “Falling stars are only bits of space that catch fire flying through the atmosphere. They rarely land on earth, and they’d shear your hand off if you caught them.”
“Have a little faith!” Levram protested. “You can always wait until you’re fourteen. It’s supposed to be a divine symbol of favor from the heavens. Really it just means you want it badly enough to stand in fields for days, waiting. And it means you’re lucky, too. Luck is important for wizards.”
“It’s impossible,” Terrence said stubbornly.
“No, it’s not.” Levram drew a package from his inner mid-left pocket. Reverently, he unwrapped it to reveal a small, ugly rock. It was smooth but pocked with bubbles of the faintest, oiliest shade of silver-grey.
“This is the shooting star I caught that let me go to the academy when I was thirteen years old.”
“No way you caught that.”
“In your hand?”
“The very one you see before you. And if I could do it, then so can you.”
So Terrence set out to catch a falling star. Which was not, he reflected, nearly as interesting as he’d thought.
The night was bitterly cold and clear. The stars were so crisp and bright in their dark settings that Terrence almost fancied he could count them. He settled on the boundary between fields and waited for the astronomically small chance that a meteor might land in this cornfield and that he, Terrence the orphan, might somehow contrive to catch it.
“This last trick I only do for the village of Lessenshire because you have been such a wonderful audience,” Terrence said. “It is the Disappearance of Terrence the Profound!”
He waited, as he had all evening, for thunderous applause, but the audience only watched him restlessly. It set him on edge, but then, everything did when Levram was gone.
He’d announced his departure a week ago.
“I won’t be gone long,” he said, smothering a smile at Terrence’s dismay. “Just a few days to buy some supplies, check up on some friends, drop a few names in the right company. It’s only two years until you’re at the academy! It’s never too early to start smoothing your way!”
“Unless I catch a falling star,” Terrence reminded him. He spent hours each night alone in the fields, watching the frustratingly stable heavens.
“Unless you catch a falling star.” Levram smiled. “I’ll be back in a few days with money to get you out of the stocks if necessary.” He’d ruffled Terrence’s hair and left.
Now Terrence reached for the strands of fate just beyond his grasp and felt sweat break out on this brow. It shouldn’t be this hard! Levram could pluck them like harp strings, tweaking the world into a shape he desired through small changes, like cooking breakfast or waterproofing a tent. But Terrence couldn’t do something simple like vanishing and reappearing without major effort.
After painful moments, his fingers hooked around a strand, and he barely caught it. He gave it a firm tug and opened his eyes to see the empty stage and the backs of the villagers’ heads.
“Thank you very much,” he said grandly, but no one clapped. He dropped his hands to his sides. “This is usually where I stifle the overwhelming applause.”
At last that coaxed a reaction from them. But not the one he’d wanted or expected.
A pale, trembling woman with wild eyes pointed at him and said, “Witchcraft.”
Terrence lay very still in the darkness and breathed shallowly, because everything hurt. The jutting edge of a brick served him as a pillow, but it only agitated the rolling throb in the depths of his brain. He lay still and didn’t move or think, because thinking provided no more comfort than opening his eyes.
He should never have performed without Levram. And he should never have done another trick after his first received such a lukewarm reaction. What had Levram said about laughter being the hardest magic? But that counted as thinking, and he wasn’t ready for that yet.
The metal grate creaked open. A voice that sounded neither nice nor helpful said, “Get up, wizard.”
“I would,” Terrence said. “But I can’t stand because, to recap, you hit my legs after you hit my arms but before you hit my face.”
Hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him to his feet. He investigated the possibilities of collapsing, but they carried him away from the hard ground. When he managed to raise his head, he saw they’d come to a study that might have been warm and comfortable if the pale, wild-eyed woman hadn’t been crying so loudly over something he couldn’t see.
“Wizard,” said the well-dressed mayor behind the desk. He might’ve been nice-looking if fear and grief hadn’t stamped his face into a permanent scowl. “Come see what your mischief caused.”
The men holding Terrence pulled him forward until he could see what the woman was crying over.
It was, or had been quite recently, a little girl. She had the sweet, good-tempered face adults favored, but it was blank, and her fair hair was green and grimy with pondweed. Her lips were slightly parted like she breathed, except she didn’t.
“We found her after you came,” the mayor said. His voice shook, and Terrence wondered distantly if she was his daughter. “We’ll give you one chance to reverse your crime. Bring her back.”
Terrence didn’t reach for the threads.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice breaking. “But magic can’t stop people from dying. Otherwise everyone would be wizards.”
The pale woman wailed, “I told you! They’re evil! Drown him like he did h-h-her!”
Terrence started to gasp, but they were already binding his wrists and ankles. They pulled him from the study and out into air that threatened snow. The sky was fading to twilight, and he wildly thought that if this took much longer, they would prevent him from catching his star.
He saw a rush of green, and water closed over his head.
His clothes were winter-heavy, and they dragged him down to the soft silt. Great, Terrence thought. When they fish out my body, they’ll be able to tell I was innocent. He sealed his lips and closed his eyes, but water filled his nose and ears. His lungs creaked.
Dimly, he stretched out for the threads, but they eluded him as always. Not now! he thought desperately, and his mind cried out for Levram. I trust you, I promise, but please save me now. He struggled to move his limbs, but he was buried in the muck at the bottom of the millpond.
The threads… Distantly, he reached for them, and they trembled beneath his fingers. This one would sour the villagers’ milk, and that one would put out every candle within a mile. Neither could help him. He despaired, sinking deeper into the mud.
Then, clearly, he heard an amused voice say, “You can’t have magic without belief, Terrence.”
Levram! he screamed. I need you now!
Terrence let go. He let the threads spiral freely beneath his fingertips, and he swept his hand out in a glimmering arc that struck all of them at once in a jangling, melodious stream. And because Levram was only a moment away, he opened his mouth and took a deep breath.
“Hasty,” Levram said when he pulled him, choking, from the millpond. “We’re creating magic, Terrence. You can’t rush magic.”
Terrence sobbed. “Levram! You’re back!”
Levram smiled. “It’s the oddest thing. I was chatting with one of the professors when I remembered that the mule threw a shoe last week so I couldn’t have gone to the capital if I tried.”
Terrence threw his head back and laughed until he cried.
The sausages snapped and sizzled, flames licking the skillet. Terrence huddled beneath his blanket, as close to the fire as he dared.
“Sausages are ready,” he said, but Levram didn’t move. He sat hunched over, his face lined with thought. “Levram?”
“I’ll get them in a minute,” he said. “That’s the handy thing about magic. It’s hard to burn food.” He fumbled in his inner mid-left pocket.
“What is it?” Terrence asked. Levram didn’t answer. Instead, he tossed something shining and grey to Terrence, who barely caught it.
“It’s your fallen star,” he said, puzzled. “Why give it to me?”
“We’ll have to leave early tomorrow if we’re going to get to the capital in time for admissions,” Levram said, ignoring him. A strange smile bubbled to the surface despite his attempts to smother it.
“Admissions? But I’m not fourteen.”
“You’ve caught a falling star, haven’t you? Just now in your hand?”
“Yes, but—you’re joking,” Terrence said, looking hard at Levram.
“What did I tell you?” Levram laughed. “It’s to see if you’re stubborn enough to stand outside at night for hours at a time in the hope of something impossible. If you can do that, you can be a wizard. That’s what my mentor did to me, and that’s what they do to every student who earns his way to the academy before he’s fourteen by right of falling star.”
Terrence stared at the lump of rock in his hand and thought on his hopes and dreams. “So… you can’t catch a falling star?”
Levram’s smile faded. “Of course you can, Terrence. Maybe not today. Maybe not yesterday. But perhaps… perhaps tomorrow.”
“I’m going to be a wizard,” Terrence whispered. His hand closed around the lump of star-rock.
“Probably,” Levram agreed as the boy laughed. “We still need the fifty coppers. And if you’re going to write a paper about me, you’d best get to it…”
But Terrence was too glad to be teased now. He tossed the rock so it sparkled in the firelight before landing in his hand, and his laugh was so strong and trusting that it shook the stars.
(And at 2,987 words, I barely squeaked it in!)
(For those who are curious, the title is a non-deliberate misquotation of a poem by John Donne.)
(For those who are curious, the title is a non-deliberate misquotation of a poem by John Donne.)