Magic Carpets

By Leslie What

Reprinted by permission; originally published in Realms of Fantasy, September/October 1995

The Santa Ana winds arrived, whipped into frenzy by a spirit with the power to fold hot air inside wind. I lay beside my big sister Pammy in the backyard, feeling the dry breeze tickle the backs of my legs. My skin itched where the crop top had exposed a four-inch band of belly to dead grass. I sat up to scratch and Pammy sat up, too. She tugged her shirt down, as if to cover the welts Daddy had raised that morning, then reached to pull the sports page from beneath her transistor radio.

"What time is the game?" I asked. We hadn't had a radio or a team back home, but in Los Angeles we had both.

Pammy checked her watch. "Now," she said.

A wind blew, thick and breathy like a child learning to whistle. I watched a leaf fall from one of our two avocado trees and circle in the air, stirred by the wind's hand. Pammy let go of the paper and it skimmed twenty feet along the grass before landing on the chain-link cyclone fence that divided the back of our property from the neighbor's.

"I better get it," Pammy said, "before it flies into Mrs. Garcia's yard." Daddy had warned us just that morning to stay away from Mrs. Garcia, ". . .that witch next door. Stay away from her and her devil magic," he'd said, but if it hadn't been magic, he would have found another reason to keep us to our yard.

Pammy found his superstitions funny. I couldn't help looking past the fence to Mrs. Garcia's back door, wondering why she had been nice to us all summer, awfully nice for someone who wasn't even a blood relative. I didn't want to trust her. Maybe Daddy was right. Maybe Mrs. Garcia was a witch.

Pammy stood and slipped her tanned feet into her rubber thongs. She smoothed the wrinkles from her shorts and walked to the fence to ply away the newspaper. She crumpled the paper into a ball, which she threw at me. I straightened my arms to bat it away, but the wind changed, and the paper floated past me.

Pammy pointed to the leaves and paper scraps littering the lawn. "Daddy will be happy the wind is keeping us busy," she said. "Won't be able to do nothing today except clean up this mess."

I was twelve and didn't mind the yard. But Pammy was almost seventeen and for her, things were different. "If it wasn't for this radio," she said, "I'd go crazy."

"It wouldn't hurt to rake the yard while we listen to the game," I said, wanting to get it over with.

Pammy winced as she rubbed a yellowing bruise above her elbow. "We might as well wait till the winds stop," she said. She stuck out her tongue at our peeling stucco house. "Sometimes I wish Daddy was dead."

"You don't really mean that," I said. Daddy wouldn't be home for another hour, but I worried Pammy's wish might be carried on the wind to the slaughterhouse where he worked. Daddy had learned the butcher's trade during the Korean war, but now he hated his job, said the work was fit for idiots.

"Maybe I don't," Pammy said, "but I do wish things were different." She slumped to the ground and positioned her legs out in front to catch the sun. "Well, I'm turning on the radio before we miss any more."

We listened to the radio voice. "There's talk Maury Wills may break Ty Cobb's record of ninety-six stolen bases." Hearing Maury's name made me smile. Pammy noticed this and grinned, her lipstick forming pink lines along the creases of her lips.

I strained to hear above the static. "Turn it up," I said; she took her sweet time to do that. A boy had given the transistor radio to Pammy, but she'd told Daddy that she'd won it at school.

Mama called out from the house. "You girls in the yard?" She opened the screen door and stepped onto the patio. She sipped her whiskey from one of the two crystal wedding glasses that had survived our move to California. "I'm going to take my nap," Mama said, "unless you need something." Her matted hair was the color of unbaked red clay and her brown polka-dot dress was wrinkled, discolored under her arms.

"We're okay," Pammy said. "Go on to sleep."

Mama yawned. "Look at this yard," she said in a lazy drawl. "It's those avocado trees, stealing life itself right from the ground, bearing the devil's fruit. No wonder I can't start my garden."

"You won't need no garden when those avocados ripen," I said. "We'll be eating them for the rest of the year." I didn't tell Mama I'd already tried the green fruit, even though it was still sour and hard and had given me a bad stomachache.

"You girls clean up before your Daddy gets home," Mama said. "And stay in the yard."

"We always do," said Pammy, and Mama went inside.

"Koufax comes out of his windup . . . and the throw . . . is . . . strike three . . . and the Giants are down after scoring one run. We'll come back with the top of the order, starting with number thirty, Maury Wills, leading off for the Los Angeles Dodgers." The announcer made me listen by stringing out his words and letting his excitement show at the end of every sentence. He sounded thrilled even when I knew he was disappointed, even when the Dodgers were losing. "Vince Gully really loves baseball," I said.

"It's Vin," Pammy said, shaking her head. "Vin Scully."

"Vin?" I asked, feeling my jaw drop. "Vin?"

Pammy smirked. "You probably agree Wills is gonna break Ty Cobb's record," she said.

"You bet," I said. "Maury Wills is the fastest man in baseball."

"Mrs. Garcia says he's a Negro," Pammy said.

"I don't believe it," I said. I looked down, not wanting to meet her glance. "Not that it makes any difference."

"It'd make some difference if Daddy was to see your diary," Pammy said. She pulled up a handful of brown grass, held her palm upward and spread her fingers to let the grass fall through. "Maury Wills," she said in a false high voice that mimicked mine. "Running. Stretching out his hand to touch . . . the base beyond reach. What's that, a haiku?"

"Pammy! You said you'd stay out of my diary," I said. I plucked some grass to throw toward her, but the wind blew the grass back toward me. "Maury Wills is a great athlete," I said, knowing Daddy wouldn't care if he was the President. There were people we weren't supposed to talk to, weren't supposed to think about, people my parents seemed afraid of because they were different. "How would Mrs. Garcia know if he was a Negro, anyway?"

"Maybe she's got a television," Pammy said, and I felt stupid because I hadn't even thought about that.

In a little while Mrs. Garcia came into her yard—just as she did every afternoon—to water her rose garden. "Hello girls," she called.

Pammy waved. "Our fairy godmother, at last," she whispered.

I looked through the chain-link fence into her yard, alive with color. Mrs. Garcia wore an orange flowered sundress. Her black hair was swept into a knot sprayed stiff enough to keep it from coming undone in the wind. She always looked magazine-model perfect, like someone make-believe. "How's your mother feeling today?" she asked.

I wanted to say, "She's fine," but Pammy said, "She's gone back to sleep," before I could get my words out. Sometimes I wondered at Pammy, telling all our troubles to a stranger.

"It's not right," said Mrs. Garcia, fingering a crystal necklace that made the sunlight dance along her skin. "You girls need to get out of that yard." She bent to smell her roses. "How are my Beauties?" she said. "How's Mr. Lincoln? and Silver Jubilee? Irish Gold? First Prize? and Honor?"

"Ground ball through the hole and into center and Wills is on with a base hit," said the radio.

Mrs. Garcia started the faucet and held her thumb in front of her hose. A whisper of spray flew over the back fence and landed on my arms. I watched her fret over her flowers like they were something precious, not just backyard shrubs. "They get thirsty in this wind," she said. "So, who's winning?"

The winds shifted direction and suddenly, I caught the sweet scent of roses. The fragrance cut straight through the heat to make my nostrils tingle. It was early on in the game so I said, "The Dodgers are behind, but they'll make it up."

"I'm sure they will," said Mrs. Garcia. "Would you girls like a soda?"

I looked at Pammy, suddenly afraid. "Thank you very much," Pammy said. "We're very thirsty."

Mrs. Garcia smiled. She set the hose down on the grass and hurried into her house. She came out with two opened Coke bottles and made her way to the fence. She stood on her tiptoes and handed the sodas over to Pammy.

Pammy started sipping hers right away, but I held onto to mine, afraid to drink.

"There he goes . . . and the throw . . . is . . . in time . . . and Wills is caught at second."

I could not stop the sigh that made me sound so young.

"I'm sorry," said Mrs. Garcia.

"It's okay," I said. "They'll make it up." For the first time all day I felt as if I might break down, and I said without thinking, "Maybe you could stop by for iced tea, sometime." I was sorry the moment I had spoken.

"That would be nice," said Mrs. Garcia.

Pammy strained to hit me with her elbow and her crop top split along the side seam. She stuck two fingers in the hole and frowned. "Well, isn't this just great," she said.

". . . a high fly to center and Davis is going back. Back, back, back, to the wall . . . and it's gone. One run in and here comes Mays. And the Giants lead it three to one."

Mrs. Garcia stopped watering to listen. "Don't worry, girls. They'll make it up."

"Too bad Wills got caught at second," Pammy said.

I stared at my feet, tan except where the straps had carved out a pale upside-down V. "Too bad," I said, but something inside me felt wrong, worried that it was a terrible omen for the fastest man in baseball to be thrown out.

The winds blew hard that night. My bedroom faced the back yard and I was awakened by the noise of something walking on the roof. I crept from my room through the hallway to the door. I stepped out to the patio and into a warm breeze that pressed a dry kiss against my skin. The moon was low; streamers of light peeked through the tree branches. One avocado fell onto the roof, followed by another.

The wind blew around me, above me, over my ears, and down my neck, and in and out of the spaces between my toes. I felt warmth under my feet and knew it was truly the very breath of the devil. Leaves hovered in the sky like hummingbirds. I heard an echo in the canyon and imagined that the canyon was Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers' new stadium.

I leaned forward and felt the wind hold me in an unnatural tilt. I could fly, I thought, with the Santa Ana winds lifting me into the air. I ran to the chain-link fence and back to the patio, then tried running from one side of the yard to the other, but I couldn't gather enough speed to take off.

I knew now that I was in the presence of magic, and I did not want that magic to end. "Never," I said aloud, as I plucked an eyelash and let it fly away into the night because Mama used to say that wishing on eyelashes made things come true.

In a while I went back to my room. I pulled my diary from its new place under the mattress and started another in a series of imaginary correspondences. "Dear Maury," I wrote, and when that didn't sound right, I changed it to "Dear Maurice." I chewed the end of my pencil and thought. "I will show you how to fly," I wrote, "and maybe you could teach me how to run."

After breakfast, Pammy and I dressed and put on our thongs to go out into the yard. The air smelled of eucalyptus, a medicinal scent, only faintly distasteful. We saw hundreds, maybe even thousands of avocados on the ground, shiny skins, bumpy and green. Our yard had never looked so alive. I pretended money had fallen from heaven as I skipped through the yard, kicking avocados out of my way. "Fastball," I said, and threw one at Pammy, barely missing her. She grabbed an avocado and beaned me on my head.

That made me cry, which brought Daddy out. He hadn't finished eating and his yellow paper napkin was tucked inside his collar. He glared at Pammy with his concrete-gray eyes. A wad of toilet tissue covered a red spot on his chin.

"What do you think you're doing?" he said. "I've got to get to work. I can't be bothered with you." He looked at the yard. "What's happened here?" he said.

"It's the wind, Daddy," Pammy said, using the haughty tone she'd recently adopted.

"You making fun of me, girl?" he asked. "You think I don't know that?" He narrowed his eyes. "What's that on your face?" he said. Pammy reached up to wipe away her lipstick. "I know you been using my razor," he said. "Who you showing off for, Pammy? You think I don't know what goes on here when I'm gone to work?"

"All the girls my age shave," Pammy said. "Wear makeup, too."

"You hear that?" Daddy said to no one. "What a place Los Angeles turned out to be." He threw his napkin to the ground and stormed over close enough to grab Pammy's hair. He shook her head back and forth.

Daddy swatted her belly, then switched to the small of her back. Pammy cried out as he smacked her cheek. He raised his hand again. If Mama was there, she would have told him, "Not in the face." That was what Mama always said since reading about the child whose face was paralyzed by a slap to the head. But Mama wasn't there, she was inside, still asleep.

Pammy cried out, "I can't see. Stop it, Daddy!"

Daddy held her chin in one hand and lifted his other hand to hit her.

I yelled, "Not in the face! Not in the face!" He was breaking our family rule, one that even Mama believed.

"You shut up," he said. "This is none of your concern."

"I can't see, Daddy!" Pammy said. She was bawling.

I felt scared. I was the one who had wished for the winds to continue and now our yard was ankle-deep in debris and Pammy was getting a beating. I should have been more careful after Maury Wills was caught at second.

"Stop," I said. "Please, Daddy. Not in the face."

Daddy stopped and stared at me.

"You telling me what to do?" he asked.

"No, Daddy," I said. I hoped it wasn't too late to save Pammy. "Hit me instead," I said, thankful when he walked my way because I thought I could take anything.

At that moment I understood what it meant to see things crystal clear. The winds trickled to a breeze while the fury in Daddy grew. The air was clean and I saw the world as it was, with all the haze stripped away. Daddy raised his hand to strike my backside and I knew all at once that he wasn't even mad at me. Daddy didn't care who he was hitting. Just knowing that made me feel strong, because I loved him and I wanted him to love me. I let my body take the beating while my thoughts floated up with the leaves, tiny magic carpets on the wind.

After a while Daddy stopped and rubbed his hands together. He said, "You girls stay in the yard, now. I don't want any boys coming to the house."

"Yes, Daddy," I said in a whisper. I didn't know why Daddy was so afraid of boys. Pammy knew, but she wouldn't tell me.

"And clean up this mess," Daddy said. He left us to go to the job he hated.

Pammy held her hand against her face. She blinked hard. "I'm okay," she said. It was already hot outside, but she was shivering. "Why did you do that for me? Why'd you take my punishment?"

"I couldn't watch," I said. "Anyway, it really don't hurt that bad, so long as you don't keep your mind on it."

Then we heard Mrs. Garcia call, "Good morning," from her yard. There was an urgent questioning in her voice and I froze, not knowing how long she'd been there. Pammy bowed her head.

"Everything okay?" asked Mrs. Garcia. She fingered her crystal necklace.

"Just fine," Pammy answered, but there was a hard edge to her voice.

"You're sure?" Mrs. Garcia said. She stood just on the other side of the fence and slipped her fingers through the wire. "You'll tell me if there's anything I can do."

"We're fine," said Pammy, her voice breaking.

Mrs. Garcia narrowed her eyes and I knew she didn't believe that we were fine. After a while she said, "Look at all those avocados. What a waste." She shook her head. "What a waste," she said again, but she was looking at Pammy and not the avocados. "Must be fifty dollars worth, at least. Maybe it's time you girls got out of that yard. At the same time, you might as well try to make some money."

Pammy made her way toward the fence. "Will you help us?" she asked, and Mrs. Garcia agreed.

"Don't worry anymore," she said. "I'll do whatever you need. Let me bring some orange crates for the avocados."

"I don't think we should do this," I said. "We're not supposed to leave the back yard."

Pammy gave a sideways glance to me. She rubbed her cheek and I saw how the redness had given her a look of defiance. "Daddy will never know," Pammy said, "unless you tell him."

Mrs. Garcia set up a card table and two folding chairs on the sidewalk. Pammy and I each filled a crate full of avocados. We carried the crates to the table and sat facing the street. Mrs. Garcia left us, saying she'd tack up a sign announcing our sale on the street corner.

"We shouldn't be doing this," I said. I had to go to the bathroom, but didn't want to leave my sister alone.

"Go on and tell Mama, if you're so worried."

"I'm not worried," I said, looking back at the house.

After a few minutes a battered green station wagon pulled up and a young Mexican boy with smooth skin and shiny black hair stepped from the car. His car keys jingled from his pinkie. He walked close to Pammy's side of the table.

"Good morning, young ladies," he said. His shirt was open to the second button; a few curly hairs poked through. He tipped his blue baseball hat as he nodded his head.

Pammy smiled. "Good morning," she said. "Are you interested in any avocados?"

He kneeled beside the table and set his elbow down, near Pammy's tanned arm. "How much you want?" he asked.

"Twenty for one dollar," Pammy answered without lowering her gaze.

The boy pursed his brown lips and pushed out his breath. "You drive a hard bargain," he said, "but I'll pay you five dollars for the two boxes."

"What will you do with them all?" Pammy asked.

"My father's restaurant," he said. "They'll ripen and we'll freeze what we don't use right away." He handed the five-dollar bill to Pammy. I saw her red cheeks blush even darker as he folded his hand over hers.

He walked over to open the back of his station wagon. "Help me empty them into my car," he said to Pammy.

A hot wind blew against my chest. I tried to say, "No," but the wind had sucked away my breath.

Pammy put her arms around one crate to pick it up. The boy walked close and pressed his hip against hers. They carried one crate to the station wagon, balanced it on the edge of the car door until the boy tipped the crate on its end and let the fruit roll out. They did the same with the other crate.

"May I have a glass of water?" he asked, tipping his head toward me.

Pammy ordered, "Go on. Get him something."

"No," I said. "I won't do it."

"You'd better," she said, "or I'll tell Daddy about your diary."

"Go ahead," I said, but she gave me such a look that I said, "Okay. I'll get it." I ran through the front yard to the house, flung the door open, and ran to the kitchen. I picked up Mama's dirty glass from next to the sink. I didn't worry that it was too nice a glass for a Mexican to use and that I'd get in trouble, should my parents find out what I had done. I filled the glass with water, and ran back outside.

The boy was sitting in my chair beside Pammy, his arm over her shoulder, his head bent close to hers. I hurried to him. "Here's your drink," I said, thrusting the glass forward. The water splashed on the table. The boy licked his lips and said, "Thanks."

Pammy was hiding something from me, something big. I looked down the street toward the intersection Daddy would turn from when he came home from work.

After a while, the boy said, "I should get going." He set the glass on the edge of the folding table, stood up and pushed me out of his way to walk to his car. He pulled away from the curb.

I punched Pammy's arm, and the motion set the table rocking. The water glass tipped and rolled to the edge of the table. I reached out, but I couldn't grab it in time, and the glass fell to the ground—Mama's crystal—shattering into rainbows.

I collected the shards and stacked them in a pile on Mrs. Garcia's table. I couldn't speak for a long time, but finally I said, "Didn't you notice that boy was Mexican?"

"I noticed," Pammy said, and she was smiling. "I think he likes me."

"No, he doesn't," I said. It was clear that Pammy already knew this boy and I sensed that what Daddy was afraid of happening was going to happen to Pammy, soon. "We're going to be in really big trouble," I said.

"Not me," said Pammy. She picked up an empty crate and headed for the back yard to pack more avocados. I hurried after her. "You promised you'd take my punishments from now on," Pammy said. "I'm not ever gonna get in any trouble again."

In a while, Mrs. Garcia came out to check on us. She saw the broken crystal, now a pile of rainbows, on her table and put her hand on my shoulder. She leaned close enough to whisper and before I knew it, she had her arms around me and was hugging me tight. I didn't mean to do it, but in a few seconds I was also hugging her. "Don't worry. Things will turn out okay," she said. "You must believe that."

Mrs. Garcia gathered up the broken crystal and dropped the shards into her purse. She handed me one nearly round piece. "Keep this," she whispered, "and don't ever lose it. When you look through crystal, you can see the different facets of the world. Whenever you can't bear to live in one of those facets, I want you to look through your crystal and find another. And then I want you to take a step and go into that world."

She left, but came back in an hour with an unbroken crystal glass in her purse. "Here," she said, "good as new. Go on. Put this in the kitchen where it belongs."

When I looked through the crystal glass I saw one place where the glass was dull, a circle where no rainbows formed. I hid my tiny piece of crystal in my shorts pocket, but still felt its warmth through the fabric. When I pulled out the crystal I saw the sun's reflection, red like the edge of fire.

The last of the windfall fruit began to ripen by the end of the week. Pammy warmed a can of cream of mushroom soup for lunch, but I was hungry again by late afternoon. I picked up an avocado and felt its bumpy skin, then pushed in with my thumbs to check the softness. I found one I wanted and dug my nail into the skin. I peeled back a raspy slice that tickled me like a cat's tongue. The avocado was wet, lush and smooth, the devil's fruit. I put my lips to the hole I had made and stuck my tongue inside to lap up the fruit.

"Is there a game today?" Mrs. Garcia said when she came into her yard.

"Starts in five minutes," said Pammy.

"I'm going out," Mrs. Garcia said, looking at Pammy. She cleared her throat. "Is there anything else you need?"

I started to say, "No, thank you," but Pammy answered, "Yes. There is something," before I could speak.

Mrs. Garcia nodded and stared at us both for a minute before leaving.

I gripped my hands into fists. "What are you up to?" I asked.

Pammy ignored me and painted on a fresh coat of lipstick. She turned away, and looked back toward the house.

Something bad was going to happen, but I didn't know if it would happen to Pammy—or to Maury—or to me.

The game started. We listened to the top half of an inning that was over one, two, three. Then commercials, then the bottom half of the inning.

"Maury Wills steps out onto the plate. And the first pitch is high and inside. Ball one."

I heard Pammy say, "Hello."

I turned and saw the Mexican boy in the side yard.

Pammy stood and took a step toward him. "We have to hurry," she said. "I have money."

"The throw is low and Wills checks his swing. Marichal doesn't believe it and asks for a ruling. Did Wills hold up in time? . . . Ball two!"

"Get away," I said. "Our mother is home, inside!"

Pammy took another step toward the boy.

"I won't take your punishment," I said to her. "You're on your own for this."

"Next pitch is in the dirt! Unbelievable. Marichal is wild. Baily goes over to calm him down. Two pitches into the inning and he's already out of control. The next pitch . . . and it's high. Wills is on with a walk!"

"Don't go," I said, but Pammy shrugged me off.

"Keep the radio," she said. "I'll come back for you soon as I can." The boy held her hand and together, they walked through the side yard, then disappeared from view.

My throat began to close and I sat stunned, afraid to stay, afraid to move. With no one out, Wills was certain to steal second. I broke into a cold sweat and tasted something sour twisting in my stomach. I stopped myself from breathing, because I was afraid my breath would blow a bad omen from my yard to Chavez Ravine, and Wills would be thrown out. The devil only knew what would happen then.

"Marichal comes out of his stretch and throws and Wills is off and running. . . ."

Breezes gathered from all directions. Then from nowhere a gust blew strong enough to knock the radio over on its side. I moved to right the radio. "Please don't get caught," I prayed, but I didn't know who I was praying for—Pammy or Maury Wills. The winds pressed against my back and forced me upright, pushed me toward the side yard, then into the front. My neighborhood was a ghost town, with papers and loose garbage rolling along the empty street. There wasn't a soul anywhere, no birds, no barking, the only noise I heard was of freeway traffic in the distance. I found myself running along the sidewalk away from our house toward the intersection. I pulled the crystal from my pocket and held it up. As I stared through the glass, my world became many.

Winds gusted and hot breath rushed under my heels, lifting me out of my thongs and into the air. I raised my arms and looked upward, praying I'd see heaven and not the devil. The sky was so bright it stung my eyes. When I looked down, I saw my neighborhood had become a quilt of color, alive except for one small patch of brown.

I gripped the crystal tight and tried to imagine what Maury Wills was really like, but the man I pictured was all a blur, as if he were running past me.

Mrs. Garcia had told me not to worry and for the first time, I started to believe her. The most important thing was that Pammy had gotten free and Mrs. Garcia had given me the magic to get away when I needed to. I felt strong enough to face whatever was about to happen.

The Santa Anas carried me on a carpet of air that raced above the city to Chavez Ravine and the fastest man in baseball. Below, the road meandered up the dry hill, asphalt shiny as glass. I floated over the ridge of a stadium shaped like a broken bowl, where inside, a thousand fans stood screaming. Something streaked across the brilliant green of the diamond and I looked down—just in time—to see number thirty, Maury Wills, slide free into second.

Reprinted by permission; originally published in Realms of Fantasy, September/October 1995

Nebula Award-winning author Leslie What is a radio commentator, former nurse and low-income lunch program manager. She belonged to the Maskmaker's Guild of New Orleans and is a Jell-O artist. Her comic novel Olympic Games was recently published. New work is forthcoming in Amazing Stories, Asimov's, The Writer, and elsewhere. For more about her work, see her website.