METEOR MAGS: THE SINGING SPELL
© 2020 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
Episode 26 of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
UPDATE: This story now appears alongside four others in The Singing Spell and Other Tales, published October 2020.
Description: Celina’s memoirs recall some of her earliest adventures with Mags, including how Mags got into dancing, how Celina corrupted and encouraged her, and who they built a grave for after building their club on Vesta. This tale of love and friendship spans more than a century and more than one reality, revealing at last how Celina has lived an exceptionally long life alongside her favorite cranky kitty.
Word Count: 9K.
Seven sisters walk across the land,
singing creation, hand in hand.
Softly singing fish into the sea,
songs unfolding into you and me.
Sacred sisters, daughters of the sky,
springing into life the birds who fly,
shining brilliance, watching time go by.
—Sister Moon; Pleiades, 2020.
PART ONE: BEST FRIENDS
In the early days of asteroid belt mining, back when Mags and I were building the club on Vesta, entrepreneurs opened bars to serve the rough and rowdy blue-collar workers. Gambling, prostitution, and fighting were the chief forms of entertainment, giving the miners a chance to blow off steam in a fog induced by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.
Few musicians had made their way to the Belt in 2025, and those who did were in constant demand. But not all the Belt’s inhabitants were fans of that first wave of sonic settlers and their crowd-pleasing selections.
Under the table at her booth, Mags squeezed the handle of the .50 caliber pistol in her garter holster. “This music is bullshit!”
With a red plastic straw, I swirled the ice cubes melting at the bottom of a gin and tonic. “Some people are sentimental about these old songs.”
“Fuck them,” said Mags. “They’ve been playing the same top-forty garbage for more than fifty years.”
“Sod off, Magpie. I like this song.”
“Are you kidding me? I’d rather drag my vag through broken glass than hear REO Speedwagon again.”
“Oh yeah? I’d rather shove my face in a fuckin’ meat grinder.”
“I’d rather chop off my head, shove it a fuckin’ meat grinder, and have the brain sausage jammed down the gaping hole in my neck with a broom handle!”
“So? I’d rather eat that sausage after you pooped it into a champagne glass.”
“Celina! What in the actual fuck is wrong with you?!”
I drained my glass. “You started it.”
“I did not!” Mags polished off a pint glass of rum and reconsidered. “Okay. I did. Wanna dance?”
“Not with you. You can’t even be nice!”
“Celina, are you shitting me? After all these years—”
“Yes, I am totally shitting you. You’d realize that if you weren’t wasted, you fucking cot case!”
“I will kill this band.”
“Dude,” I said, “I believe it’s time for you to fly.”
“Fuck yes, it is.” Mags snorted. “I take it on the run, baby.”
“Mhm. Cause that’s the way you want it, baby.”
“So, I can kill them?”
“If you like,” I said. “But save the last dance for me.”
Mags squeezed my hand. “Let me see about these tunes.”
“The fuck you will. Sit down. I need snacks.”
“Snacks, you furry harlot! You are not starting a riot before we get something to eat.”
Mags sat back in the booth and sulked. “I am kind of hungry.”
“Then will you shut up and try not to kill anyone?!” I got up from the booth. “Do you want regular chips? They have yam chippies, and a salt and vinegar type—”
“I want chips,” said Mags, “made from a bloody potato!”
I leaned my hip against the table. “We could get them made from grub worms. They’re high in protein.”
“You can’t get high on protein. I tried.” Mags squinted. “Do you know what I love about you?”
“Yes,” I said. “You know that if this band plays one more geriatric rock hit, I will lop off their bits and serve them to the bouncers. Grilled.”
Mags reared back in a laugh that rivaled the volume of the concert. “That’s a damn good reason.” She smacked her hand on the tabletop. “You fucking love that REO song, though!”
“What if I do? Now stay put. I’ll buy us another round and see what they can do about munchies.”
Mags drummed her fingers on the table.
I’d known the bartender for thirty-seven years. He understood my signal to make something special for Mags.
She lost consciousness on the floor of the club, leaving me to gather up the clothes she’d strewn about the place and tip the staff well enough that we might be welcome back someday, despite the broken chairs. When she awoke in the bedroom of my flat, things did not, at first, go well.
Then they did.
Anyone who knows Mags knows she loves to dance naked. She’ll do it for tips, she’ll do it for free. She’ll do it completely pissed at the most inappropriate moments. But she wasn’t always like that.
The first time I met her in 1938, she was in a fistfight with a bunch of blokes on a dock in England. They were trying their damnedest to prevent her from boarding a ship which, among other things, carried stolen goods I planned to deliver to the States.
I’m sure that little sheila could have killed them all if she had to. But I needed their services, not their corpses. On the other hand, I didn’t like seeing a bunch of drongos beating on a girl my age. Especially when they worked for me.
Then I saw she had rescued my lost cat, who bounded into my arms and just about had me in tears. I thought maybe that feisty cunt beating the fuck out of the hired help might make a good mate.
I broke up the fight and paid the lads several weeks’ worth of wages in a roll of cash before ushering a bruised and filthy Mags into my private cabin, which was hardly big enough for me, let alone the two of us and my cat, Starry.
That’s where we had our first fight.
It wasn’t right away. We sailed at least a week before I explained the situation we were sailing to. When Mags heard what kind of club awaited us, she lost her shit.
I chalk up her destruction of most everything that wasn’t nailed down in my cabin to one simple thing, one thought that consumed that furry head of hers: What would Mama think?
My oldies were straight-up smugglers and criminals, and Mum was indigenous. Their marriage wasn’t even legal. In those years, many girls my age and younger were being kidnapped and sent to “re-education” facilities to be forcibly trained in English and get beaten and abused until they were stripped of all our culture and history. The white government didn’t even remotely consider native people to be Aussie citizens until the 1960s. Even then, people called us stupid shit like “Abos”.
So, it wasn’t like I came up ignorant of violence, racism, and oppression. But Mags’ mum—as I discovered in many stories over the next year—had ideas about race, class, labor, and feminism that her daughter absorbed, but for which most of society did not yet have words.
In my cabin, I was treated to some of that maternal wisdom at great length and considerable volume. Little of my dinnerware survived.
I held Starry in my arms while Mags went into her little tornado. Eventually, I had enough of her bullshit. “Pipe down, willie wagtail! It was just a suggestion. You can do whatever the bloody fuck you want once we get off this boat!”
She set a plate on the tiny kitchen countertop instead of slamming it on the floor. “Anything I want,” she said. It was like she never heard the phrase before. “I can, can’t I?”
“Hell,” I said, “you can jump into the goddamn ocean right now, and no one could stop you. Do whatever you want. I was just trying to prepare you.”
“Anything I want,” said Mags.
I didn’t know if it was a question or not, so I said, “What’s on the list? Do you want to have a hug first? Then maybe clean up this fucking mess? It looks like a dog’s breakfast in here.”
She hugged me and Starry. He licked her nose. She kissed him and, without a word, got to work tidying up the disaster she had created. I took Starry on deck, and when I came back, the place was immaculate.
Funny thing about Mags. She likes to put on a show. That whole plate-smashing and screaming routine was a performance. But all I had asked her to do was think about performing on stage for an audience.
That would be at Bert’s place, our destination in the States. Bertrand hated it when I called him “Uncle Randy”. He hated it when I walked in like I owned the place and said whatever I pleased, and he probably hated the mountains of cash he raked in thanks to my parents’ black-market dealings with him.
I’m just busting his bollocks. Bert acted grumpy, but he was a sweetheart—at least, the closest thing you’d find in a seppo in the 1930s. Fuckin’ savages.
On the other hand, the spastic sheila with a tail I had just picked up was more savage than any of them, and I figured she could handle herself.
One thing was clear. She would never dance the way I did.
Eventually, we got to the States, where I had a natter with Bert about my new friend. The club was closed, so Mags amused herself on the stage while I told Bert what little I knew of her story.
When he first saw her, Bert just about shat his pants. Mags in all her underage glory paraded about his stage, doing Spanish dances her mum taught her, and her tail swished this way and that below her ragged, ill-fitting skirt. Once Bert collected himself, we arranged for her to stay with me and clean the place after hours to earn her keep—just so long as she kept the tail hidden and dressed like a boy.
At first, I found those conditions insulting. Then I realized they were for the best. If people had seen her as she really was back then, especially the type of people who wandered into Bert’s place for drunken entertainment, then goddess only knows what unspeakable hell would have been unleashed in that club. Someone would have tried to put his hands on her, and a whole mess of people would have died.
But I liked that about her, and I decided to keep her around.
Who am I kidding? We were inseparable. She was a good mate. The best, that crazy cunt. Sometimes I thought she’d get me killed, but I never doubted she would have died for me, too—or at the very least, come up with a plan that didn’t involve one of us dying.
Don’t tell her I brought this up, but she cleaned the fuck out of Bert’s club. That’s right: our little Maggie Maid. If you call her that to her face now, she’ll cut you. But she scrubbed and tidied and fixed things with a military precision we didn’t normally see in the hired help.
I didn’t get it right away. I just thought she was intense about a few things. I didn’t piece it together until the first time I saw her clean a rifle. She did it quickly, thoroughly, and accurately. Mags cleaned a weapon like her life depended on it. From what she told me, it often had.
You might think of her as a party girl these days, but Magpie was serious as hell back then. It’s how she was raised.
The better part of a year went by. I came and went on a few voyages to oversee my oldies’ business, and everything was fine, at least for a planet that was about to be plunged into the most gruesome war it had ever known.
As if that wasn’t enough, Mags started to fill out. Christ, she was a skinny runt when I met her, and look at her now. She also discovered, in the wee hours when the club was closed, that she enjoyed being onstage.
After hours, in the spare time she created by making a military operation out of her chores, the club stage belonged to my fuzz-tailed friend. She pretended to dance for people in the empty seats. Then she’d get caught up in the fantasy and lose herself in the performance.
She wasn’t as good as she is now, but she threw herself into it.
Some nights, she’d sing.
I had a list of things to teach her: better moves, ways to talk to the customers, how to get the most money out of someone while giving up the least of yourself. How to stay safe.
But at the top of that list was job number one. We needed to go shopping!
In 2026, Mags knelt at a grave on Vesta. No physical body occupied it. Below the marker lay nothing but solid Vestan stone. The headstone sat 300 meters from the crater base at the south pole. Atop the rim of the crater, overlooking the tallest mountain in the solar system, our newly constructed Club Assteroid reigned. The lights in its windows and along the curved path from its parking lot shone below a clear atmosphere splashed with a million stars.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Mags.
I rested a hand on her shoulder. “Just say what you feel. I could leave.”
Mags set a hand on mine. “Stay with me. Please.”
“Take your time.”
Mags clutched a pendant. She had owned it since January 1938, when a boxer named Jack gave it to her. Jack took her in and fed her when she was alone and friendless, and the only reason she left him was to rescue a lost cat from some hooligans. Lucky for me! Turns out that was my cat, and although Starry’s been gone for nearly a century, he brought us together. 
Anyway, at a house on Meteor Street in London, half a year after her mother was killed, Jack showed Mags the basics of boxing and set her on a lifelong path of being a fearsome fighter. She never forgot him.
“Jack gave me this,” she said. “It’s a stone from Australia, where he’d gone for a few boxing matches. I didn’t even know where Australia was. He thought I was fuckin’ crazy.” Mags laughed. “He said the stone was a meteorite from a place called Vesta, and I told him I wanted to go there. He laughed at me. I didn’t care.”
Mags turned the pendant in her hand. The simple grey stone, sliced into a triangular shape and filled with chunks of minerals in brown, black, and yellow, was polished so finely that it caught the distant sunlight and gleamed. Years before, Mags had it mounted on a silver chain and wore it as a necklace ever since. “I promised Jack that if I ever made it to Vesta, I’d return this to its origin.” She wrapped her fingers around the rock. “Here we are, Jack. We did it. Celina’s here with us. I never could have built this club without her. I met her just days after I met you. So much has changed since then.”
Mags placed the necklace at the base of the marker. “I love you, Jack. Welcome to my new home. Hope you like it here.” She wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of one leather-gloved hand.
I said, “He gave you your name, didn’t he?” No matter that I had heard the story many times, or that Mags didn’t remember most of them. She loved to tell that story.
“He did. My ‘fighting name’, he called it. Meteor Mags.”
“And that’s the meteorite?”
“Yeah,” said Mags. “A tiny fragment of this huge rock we’re on right now.”
“Should we bury it?”
“Nah.” Mags wiped her nose. “Maybe it stays here. Maybe it falls again to Earth. I think it should be free.” She rose to her feet.
I asked, “What if it gets lost?”
Mags hugged me. “All of us are lost. Aren’t we?”
I squeezed her even tighter. “I never feel lost with you.”
She nuzzled my neck and kissed it. “We should get a cat.”
In 1939, I took Mags shopping. Europe was getting fucked by the Nazis. Poland, Czechoslovakia. Millions died.
The States wouldn’t join the war for two more years, until after the attack on Hawaii. In ’39, most of the country hadn’t recovered from the so-called Great Depression.
Believe me, it wasn’t so great.
Government tried, and citizens tried, and none of it amounted to a pint of piss. It took another world-wide war to pull the Yanks out of their mess.
Even then, plenty of stateside companies made huge profits by selling goods to the Third Reich. Prohibition of alcohol sales had ended by then, too. But before that was over, the eighteenth amendment created an underground criminal empire with connections, wealth, and power. The whole situation was a lit stick of dynamite.
I thought Mags had a bit of dynamite in her, too, and I didn’t think twice about throwing her on the pile of explosives. Hell, I was curious.
Mags grew up in the middle of armed urban warfare when most of the piss-ants in Chicago were still trying to sort how to chop off a toe or beat a few helpless teenage girls into hooking for them. I wasn’t any stranger to the underworld, but my impression of most people I met was—not good.
They lacked guts. They lacked conviction. Even the ones I liked seemed a bit dense. A snag short of a barbie, for fuck’s sake.
I always knew I was smarter, but they had muscle. A ton of muscle, on a huge payroll.
Not that I thought of Mags as muscle back then. She was my friend, and—
Oh, fuck it. I totally thought of her as muscle, and I hoped she could help me make a few bucks. I had a list of people I’d love to exterminate to take over their rackets, and she was exceptionally qualified for the job. Agile, intelligent, and absolutely ruthless. Plus, she liked me.
It sounds mercenary, but we had fun. She was like a kid in a candy shop with all the American goods in those days, things you couldn’t get so easily outside the States, and it made me happy to see her happy. Trying on different things. Preening and posing in front of mirrors.
Even in her youth, Magpie had her moods. But when my little cyclone of destruction was pleased with something, she lit up like a star. You should have seen her.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I took Mags for a long walk through the streets of Chicago. She’d lived a rough-and-tumble life of poverty and violence before I met her, and nice clothes weren’t something she ever thought of as her reality. Those things always belonged to someone else—someone more privileged. Someone wealthier. I steered us through the commercial district until she stopped dead in her tracks.
Mags was entranced by a hosier’s window display. Plastic mannequin legs strutted in a variety of socks and stockings. I said, “See something you like?”
“All of it.” She pressed her hands to the window, and her breath made a patch of fog on the glass. “When we were in Spain, finding clean socks was nearly impossible. Mama had to steal them for soldiers.”
“Let’s not steal these ones,” I said. “We can go inside and try them on.”
“Try them on?”
“Mhm.” I brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. “See if you like them before we buy them.”
“I like all of them.”
“Why don’t we pick a few you like best?” I offered my hand, and she took it. We went inside.
Honestly, you couldn’t try on shit in that store, but I knew the owner. I had a chat with the girl at the sales counter, and I let her know I’d pay for whatever we needed. Mags must have cost me a month’s worth of tips trying it all on.
One pair of white, thigh-high stockings really caught her attention. They had tiny white hearts sewn into the lace, and a ruffle around the top. Mags pulled them on and wiggled her toes. She sprang to her feet. “These make me feel like dancing!”
She danced all over the bloody store. Up on the benches, in front of the windows. I couldn’t keep her off the sales counter. Eventually, I gave up and joined in.
Mags was about fifteen, not quite sixteen. Even then, she had infectious energy that swept you into whatever party was happening in her mind.
I bought those stockings and a dozen other pairs. Then we needed to find matching shoes and skirts and garters. I guess you can blame me for Mags’ obsession with legwear. I created a monster—but one with exceptional taste in socks.
She liked them so much that she started dancing at Bert’s club that weekend, and the solar system was never the same.
PART TWO: FOREVER
In 1942, Mags and I were proper pissed without the foggiest clue where we were other than a stretch of barren, sunbaked trail in the wasteland of Western Australia.
We’d arrived by boat the week before in Fremantle Harbour and, after visiting with my oldies, liberated a 1942 Chevy RHD for the drive. It had been shipped from the States as part of the Allied support for my country, which had been suffering from attacks along the coast by the Japanese. Damn decent of the seppos, and I almost felt bad about nicking it.
The ute resembled a Jeep, built like a brick shithouse with sturdy tires I hoped could handle the rough terrain, wheel ruts, and patches of sand along what would one day become the Great Northern Highway. 
Back then, it wasn’t so great.
At first, the Chevy did pretty well! But long after we’d passed Yalgoo and entered the outback proper, where there isn’t fuckall but scrub, red dirt, and stunted trees, the damn thing sucked up the last of the petrol. It sputtered and rolled to a stop.
Were we even halfway there? Fuck if I knew. The gauges were broken.
Mags said, “The last of the spare gas cans better get us there.”
I said, “That was the last can.”
Mags pounded her fists against the steering wheel and called it a string of creative names.
I said, “That isn’t helping.”
“It’s helping me!”
“Fair enough. Welcome to Bandywallop.”
“That’s a place?”
“Sure,” I lied. “It’s just outside of Woop-Woop.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” She popped the hood and got out to check underneath, but that was pointless. The ute was fine, just empty.
I reckoned we’d be about the same in a few hours. “The middle of nowhere, Magpie. East Bumfuck. Have a nice day.”
“Do we got any beer left?”
“There’s a box in the boot. Warm as goat piss by now.”
“Good enough.” Mags wiped her brow with the back of her forearm. The sun was a circle of hate directly overhead. She opened the boot to reveal the last of our supplies: twenty-four bottles of Swan Lager, courtesy of the brewery in Perth. We’d already murdered a couple of boxes. She handed me one and split open a longneck for herself, prying off the top with a ciggie lighter.
I smacked mine against the edge of the passenger-side door with one hand. The cap fell to the cracked, rust-colored earth and bounced once before lying still as death on the dirt. “Cheers!”
“Cheers.” Mags gulped half the bottle. “Let’s get to walking, then.”
“Might as well.”
She hoisted the box onto her shoulder and pushed her sunglasses back to the top of her slippery, sweat-covered nose. “You’re sure it’s this way?”
Mags frowned. “I am absolutely dumbfounded by the lack of confidence you inspire!” She drained the rest of her bottle and whipped it into the sparse scrub at the roadside.
I sipped from mine and trundled along beside her. “It could be worse, you know.”
“Sure,” she said. “We could be attacked by giant scorpions. Get our fuckin’ eyeballs and brains torn out. Have our flesh eaten by bacteria while we’re still conscious. We could—”
“You know what, Mags? Forget I mentioned it.” I took a sip. “You don’t regret coming out here with me, do you?”
“Nah,” she said. “Worst case, we totally fuckin’ die. But there’s no one I’d rather die with, if it comes to that.”
“We won’t die.”
“You seem awfully sure.”
“I had a vision.”
Mags laughed. “Celina, you crack me up. Remind me why I agreed to this in the first place.”
“Because you love me.”
Mags stopped in the middle of the old goat path that wanted to be a road. “Give me a hug.”
I held her for a long time. The sun abused us. The outback stretched before us with no end in sight. When she finally let me go, she said, “These beers will run out before sunset.”
“If you keep pounding them like that, they will.”
She let loose that psychopathic laugh of hers and set off in what vaguely seemed like the right direction.
I don’t know how we made it. The sky and the booze and the flat, dark-ochre ground all melt together in my memory. The sun rose and set at least once, and we stopped to sleep beside a meager campfire for a few hours. But we pressed on.
Eventually, we stumbled onto the spot: Yarrabubba. It’s one of the oldest asteroid collisions on Earth. The impact site is 70 kilometers wide, and it goes back 2.2 billion years. That sounds dramatic, but all there was when Mags and I got to it was a hill, a little red hill to mark the crash.
We climbed it.
We were out of beer by then, and the soles of our shoes were worn down to our blisters. Reasonable people would have died, but we weren’t them.
Besides, the fortuneteller told us we would make it.
Money, boyfriends, empires. I used to think they meant something. I thought they were things you accumulated to prove you had power over your life.
Then I met Mags. Her raggedy arse didn’t have shit. She had the clothes on her back, and they were falling apart. But none of that seemed to bother her.
One night, when we were cuddling in our room upstairs at Bert’s club, I asked about her ring. I’d never seen her without it. With her hand in mine, she told me.
Imagine finding out your best friend will outlive you by at least a century.
Sure, I felt bad for myself. Give me a break. I was barely twenty, and Mags couldn’t have been more than seventeen. At first, all I could think about was getting old and watching her go on without me when there wouldn’t be a damn thing I could do about it.
I turned her ring around her finger. You couldn’t take it off, and I’d tried a few times to test that theory. It was like once she put it on, it was on for life. Mags wore it like a wedding ring on her left ring-finger. I asked if she ever thought about fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty years down the road.
“All the time,” she said. Her tail moved along my waist and hips like a feathered hand caressing my curves. “Someday, I’ll say goodbye to you for the last time. Same with all my friends, family, and any pets I ever have. It isn’t a happy thought.”
“I’d like to live with you forever.”
Mags wrapped her arms and legs around me in a full-body hug. “Forever’s a long time,” she said. “Too rich for my blood. How would you feel about the next 180 years?”
She was joking. Mags didn’t think anything of it, and she fell asleep next to me. For hours, I laid next to her, watching her tail occasionally flick and twitch while she dreamed. I thought about how nice her last sentence sounded.
That’s a long way of saying how we came to be at the fortuneteller’s table.
Mags took a seat in the fortuneteller’s shop. “Are you a gypsy?” Even at eighteen, she was a paragon of tact.
“Mags,” I chided, taking a seat of my own.
“What? Isn’t that the word?”
The old woman across the table neither frowned nor smiled. Even in the dim light, her colorful shawl and the Indian print on her flowing dress spoke of sensuality and joy, but I suspect she was reserved when confronted with strangers and possible fools such as we were. Mags’ bluster didn’t make a ripple in the pool of dusky calm. “We prefer the term Romani.” The fortuneteller lit a cone of incense and set it in a pewter holder. The pewter had been shaped into a network of vines, all interwoven, and a pleasant blue-grey smoke drifted through the openings between their leaves. “What can I do for you?
I said, “We’re searching for magic.”
At that, she smiled. Her eyes sparkled in the candlelight, and the silver rings on her fingers did, too. Despite her age, I thought she looked quite beautiful and alive. Playful, in a quiet way, seasoned by decades. “Magic is everywhere. I can point you to it, but you need to see it for yourself.”
Mags lit a fag. “That sounds about right. We’re looking for a spell, but I don’t think it exists anywhere on Earth.”
The fortuneteller set a deck of cards on the table, facedown. “Where do you think it is?”
“The dreamtime,” I said. “We were hoping you could point us in the right direction.” I laid a trio of gold coins on the red velvet cloth. “If you would be so kind.”
At that, the woman raised an eyebrow. Without looking at them, she swept the coins off the table and into a brass bowl where they landed with a clink, clink, clink. She set the bowl on a small, circular table next to her, in a clear spot surrounded by strange bones, bundles of dried herbs, and a few piles of books. “That’s an odd place to search for a spell. Why don’t we start with a three-card spread?” She fanned the cards, still facedown, and swept the back of one withered hand across them. “Point to three cards.”
Mags reached to pick up one of them, but the fortuneteller’s hand blocked her. “Don’t touch them. Just point.”
Mags acquiesced then let me choose the next two.
The fortuneteller flipped one over. “The first card,” she said, “is where you start on this journey. This is the Two of Cups. It shows a partnership, perhaps even love between two soulmates. The universe has positive energy to send you, but you must find balance and harmony to receive it. The two people pictured here seek a deeper commitment.”
The old woman’s skeletal fingers moved to the second card and turned it over. “This is the next stage of your journey.”
“Oh, great,” said Mags. “He looks like he’s been stabbed to death.”
“I suppose. The Ten of Swords can be read a few ways. One possible message is that the dying person failed to listen to her own better judgment, and her lapse is responsible for her suffering.”
Mags flicked the ash from the end of her ciggie. “We’re fucked.”
I said, “Shush, Magpie. What’s the other interpretation?”
“The death of the ego. Next to the Two of Cups, it might mean that these two who seek unity must give up their idea of being two different people—the idea that they are individual egos.”
Mags purred. “I like that one better.”
I patted her knee. “Go on. What’s number three?”
“Four of Wands,” said the old woman. “Is one of you having a birthday party?”
Mags and I laughed. “Not yet,” I said, “but there is a question of birthdays. Who are these four women dancing?”
“The elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Here, they dance in unison, celebrating. They share their joy with each other.”
I said, “That’s exactly what we had in mind.”
Mags leaned in. “You’re saying these lovers need to have their separateness destroyed, but after that, they dance in a field of joy?”
The fortuneteller said, “That’s one way of looking at it.”
I kissed Mags on the cheek. “It’s a happy ending!”
She put her arm around me. “I’m a bit concerned about getting stabbed to death, but I do like the after party.” She nuzzled me, then asked the old woman, “How do we get there?”
“I’m afraid the cards won’t tell you that.”
I took a few more coins from my purse and placed them on the table. “We understand. But we’d like to hear your opinion.”
Again, a hand that looked like tree branches wrapped in wrinkled leather swept the coins into a bowl. Clink, clink, clink. “I see you two young ladies are serious. Give an old woman a moment.”
She pressed her palms on the table and rose from her chair. I’ve never seen anyone move so slowly. She made her way to the bookshelf that took up the entire wall behind her. The lights weren’t so good—just a few candles near the card-reading table—so I couldn’t see what she picked up until she came back, step by eternal step.
She set a brass stand on the table. The metal picked up every sliver of light the candles cared to throw at it. She set a glass globe in the stand. Freed from her hands, it also reveled in the candlelight. I swear I saw a million stars inside.
I didn’t notice how long it took the fortuneteller to regain her seat, and the only thing that snapped me back to the present moment was Mags squeezing my hand.
Clouds of incense drifted through the dusk and surrounded the crystal ball. They swirled for a moment, then buggered off to parts unknown.
The woman said, “The magic you seek is older than humanity.” She extended a bony finger toward Mags. “But you wear this magic now.”
“Damn right,” said Mags. “Great-gramma’s magic.”
“Not just hers. She harnessed what came before.”
The fortuneteller ignored Mags’ question and closed her eyes. She placed both hands on the glass orb.
Mags gave me a look that said, What the fuck? But I raised one finger to my lips.
The fortuneteller spoke ten words that would forever change my life. “The red hill,” she said. “You must go to the red hill.”
The Red Hill
“Here we are!” Mags fell onto the hilltop and laughed. “This legendary Barlangi Rock can kiss my fat white arse! Can’t even get a burger out here.” She sprawled. “Goddamn, I’m tired.”
I curled up beside her in the red dirt. It glittered with shards of quartz, though most of the surrounding outcrops were granite. “Shush, Magpie. I’ll sing a song, and you sing with me.”
It was all I could do to maintain a singing voice. In forty-eight hours, I’d only had a dozen beers while stumbling down that piece of shit road. The Swannies dehydrated me, but they also numbed me to that fate.
Mags whispered between cracked lips. “That old woman didn’t know dick. We’re gonna fuckin’ die out here.”
“Probably,” I said. “But as long as we’re dying, sing this one with me.”
Mags held my hand. “You start.”
In the stories Mum used to tell, the ancestors sang the world into being—the Earth and all the plants and animals, even the First People. The Hindus have a similar idea: Om, the primal sound, a vibration that kicked the universe into being. I like that idea, that everything we are and touch is music.
Mags likes it, too. You know how she is. If there’s anything she loves more than kicking arse and liberating cargo, it’s music.
If the ancients could create the world through song, then it made sense that we could contact them by singing. We just needed to speak to them in their language, right?
Back in ’42, Mags hadn’t mastered as many instruments as she can play these days, but she was off to a good start, and she had a beautiful voice. I think about times I used to eavesdrop on her singing after hours at the club, and it makes me cry. Not a sad cry, just overwhelmed. That feeling you get when someone touches your heart, but it’s too much, and it all spills out of you.
Atop the red hill at Yarrabubba, we sang together. I started with a tune Mum sang at bedtime. She claimed it was the song that sang the moon and stars into being. Overhead, the sky faded from bright blue to black. Every star in the southern hemisphere sprang to life, and the moon rose over the horizon like a bride in a glowing white gown.
We entered the dreamtime.
More than two billion years ago, a meteorite smashed into what is now Western Australia. I remember it well. I was there.
Mags and I were singing, lying on our backs in the rusty dirt, when the moon and stars came out. Another light twinkled into view. Within seconds, it grew so bright it outshone the moon.
Mags gripped my hand, but she didn’t stop singing. I reckon she knew, as well as I did, that it wasn’t a star, and there was no way we could run far enough away to survive before it hit.
You might imagine the sound of an incoming meteor as many different things: a whistle like a bomb dropped from a plane, a scream of increasing volume, a roar. But what struck Yarrabubba that night began as a harmony, a three-part harmony between me and Mags and that wayward stone. I took the alto, as low and sultry as I could manage. The meteor took the energetic tenor. Mags belted out a soprano I didn’t know was in her range. The fourth harmony, the bass, was the explosion of that massive space rock slamming into Earth.
But a couple billion years ago, Straya wasn’t even Straya. It was just a section of one massive super-continent where all the places we know today were a single land mass, surrounded by one sea. Australia didn’t completely split from what’s now Antarctica until 30 million years ago.
Still, the asteroid impact shook the continent down to Earth’s mantle. The land it shot into the sky changed the weather. The tsunamis it generated reshaped coastlines around the planet. The fire it started burned for years.
As for me and Mags? It blasted our bodies into atoms and scattered them through wind, water, and earth, all across the globe.
We were proper fucked.
I can’t say for sure how long it took for me to realize what had happened. On a geologic scale that big, little things like years don’t seem so bloody relevant. But at some point, I heard a song, faintly flickering at first, like the light from a candle on a peak past the horizon. I felt drawn to it, but I couldn’t move. Hell, I didn’t even have a body. I was just one little atom spinning in the darkness.
Then I realized it was Mags. Her voice, though far away, came from all around me. I tried to say something, but I had no mouth. For what might have been a hundred million years, I tried to move closer to that song, wherever its source might be.
That was a dumb idea. Eventually it sank in. I wasn’t in one place any more than Mags’ voice was. I was all over the place. I wasn’t just one atom, but all my atoms, strewn across the bloody planet. And if that was true, I reckoned, then it was probably true for Mags, too.
I felt like giving up and drifting on the wind and waves.
But I don’t know if you’ve heard Mags sing before. Maybe you’re not a fan of the Psycho 78s or her solo album, or the stuff she’s been doing with Small Flowers lately. Or that new B-side she did with Dumpster Kittens. But I am, and it’s because when Mags sings, everything makes sense to me. Even when she sings about how senseless and stupid everything is, it’s like she’s singing just for me, lending her voice to what needs to be said, even if everyone else is afraid to put it into words.
So, I did what any sensible sod would do. I sang along.
Fragments of me recalled how Mum’s people thought of Straya in terms of songlines: a musical geography of the landscape and the stars above, rich with our history and destiny ages before the written word or printed maps of any kind.
After a moment that might have been seconds or millennia, Maggie’s song came closer, or I came closer to it.
Then it stopped.
“Celina? Celina, can you hear me?”
They were the first words I’d heard her speak in eons. “Magpie! What is happening to us?”
“I miss you.”
If I had a face, I would have smiled. “No, you don’t. You hit me right on target, every time.”
Laughter followed. “I think I sang a trillion verses!”
“Keep singing with me. It’s got to be our only way out of this.”
I agreed. “You take the melody. I’ll harmonize.”
From all around me, a purr. “I almost got my hands back. It’s all about the vibration.”
“Then let’s vibrate, baby. Take it away.”
Over the next few hundred million years, we improvised. With time to spare, we harmonized every possible combination of the twelve-tone scale in every imaginable rhythm. Then we started in on semitones and microtones. Together we wove incessant song while continents split apart and drifted into place. As the world began to take its current shape, so did we.
No longer scattered so thin, my atoms gathered together. Looking back on it now, I realize that the waves of our song rippled across the planet, and our atoms rode those waves, like when you shake a blanket across a bed to bring it into shape. We shook the entire Earth, and tiny pieces of us began to coalesce into coherence.
That’s not to say it all went smoothly. I witnessed multiple mass extinctions, even more asteroid collisions, and the death of countless species. But life always came back, in all its myriad forms, in the oceans, air, and on the land.
I know it’s selfish of me, but despite all those deaths and rebirths, there was only one life I cared about, and she sang with me through it all.
If you ever wonder why my cranky kitty and I are inseparable to this day, keep in mind that for a couple billion years, all we tried to do was get back together.
Eventually, the shreds of my body realigned. The same happened for Mags. All the time singing. Then there was the two of us, and I slipped my hand into hers in a gesture that must have taken an epoch or two.
“Celina,” she said.
No other words were needed.
How long that moment lasted, I can’t say. But we weren’t done yet. We had not met the rainbow serpent.
Goorialla, some tribes called him. He’s credited with many things. Some are true. Some are not. But one thing is for sure. That motherfucker is gigantic!
The enormous snake appeared, and he must have been a kilometer of scales, rippling in iridescent colors, slithering around us until we were enclosed within his coils.
Above that spiraling cage, he reared his head. I was sure we were done for. His tongue flicked in and out of his mouth, smelling us. Mags held me close, and the reptilian tongue whipped us both, taking in our scent. I did not let go.
The serpentine face withdrew to a great height above us, like a mountain, but the voice emanating from its open jaws felt as near as anything I’d ever felt, like the way Mags’ song had come from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. The monster god spoke four words. “Why are you here?”
Mags almost answered first, but I put a finger to her lips. “We want to be together.”
“You are in the space of sacred songs. What makes you mortals think you have the right?” The tongue flicked at us again, smelling us and rudely slapping us about.
It stunk like hell, and I couldn’t think of anything clever to say. I clung to Mags.
She smacked the giant tongue. “Hey, fuckface! You call the tune, and we’ll sing it. We got a couple billion years of practice, so bring it on!”
That wasn’t the nicest thing to say to an ancient ancestral deity, and I was sure he would swallow us whole and shit us out onto some ethereal landscape as amorphous globs of snake poo.
But he just laughed, if you can imagine a snake laughing.
Mags gave me a squeeze and raised her voice. “Listen, you legless freak! We were just getting warmed up. Now call the tune!”
Maybe he was amused that a tiny mortal considered herself the equal of gods. But his coils undulated around us, and he called the tune. It was that tune—a song without a proper name but older than time itself—that welded the magic of Mags’ ring to me. And believe me, we sang that tune like it was the last one ever written.
For as many years as we had spent trying to reunite, nothing prepared me for the moment where our bodies and souls merged into one person wearing the same ring. It was like Mags and I were overlaid on top of each other, and for just one second, my ring-finger and her ring-finger shared the same space and time, enclosed by the silver band her great-gramma made. The rainbow serpent encircled us, and his scales turned the same silver color as Mags’ ring. The magic that promised to keep Mags alive for two hundred years became a magic I shared.
Then the serpent opened his mouth, and his fangs were also gleaming silver. Beyond them, only blackness. In a strike as swift as lightning, he swallowed us whole. The darkness was everywhere and everything, with nothing beyond its edges.
We awoke at night in a pool of fresh water near Perth, sputtering and wiping our faces. I knew it was near Perth because I saw the lights of Fremantle Harbour, from which I’d sailed a dozen times.
Mags said, “Where are we?” She found a handhold on the side of the hole and pulled herself to dry land. She held out one hand for me.
I grasped it and followed her up. “Goorialla is the god of waterholes. He travels between them.”
“Goorialla. That giant snake you just cursed out.”
Mags’ tail snapped every which way to rid itself of water. “That fuckin’ guy.”
“We’re lucky he didn’t eat us.”
“He’s lucky I didn’t eat him! But I will say this.” She scooped a handful of water from the pool and lapped it up. “Damned decent of him not to puke us up on that bloody crater in the middle of nowhere.”
“He’s not all bad.” I practically inhaled water from my cupped hands.
We sated our thirst. “Mags? My oldies’ place must be just a klick from here, right over that hill. Why don’t we stop in for a cuppa and a lie down?”
Mags collapsed on the rock. “I’m so buggered, I could pass out right here.”
“Me too. Or we could enjoy some cozy pillows and curl up next to each other. Maybe sing ourselves to sleep.”
Mags lifted her prone figure onto one elbow. “I’ve had about enough of singing for the next ten trillion years,” she lied. “But let’s go cuddle.”
In Mum’s native language, people don’t say please or thank you. The words don’t even exist. It’s true that I think a few polite words go a long way toward helping everyone get along without killing each other, but I also see the wisdom in not relying on words alone.
Mum’s family didn’t omit those words out of rudeness, but because they felt gratitude should be demonstrated. If someone did something nice for you, then you bloody well did nice things for them, too! That was how it worked. You couldn’t just say thanks and expect that to be the end of it. You had an obligation to help those who helped you.
Mum and Dad lived that idea. By modern standards, they were rough and inelegant with each other in the way they spoke. But not a day went by without one of them demonstrating love. It might have been Mum reserving the best cut of meat for him, or Dad brushing her hair by candlelight after dinner. It might have been the way she never pressed him to talk about what was troubling him, or the way he always told her everything once he simmered down.
It was the opposite of the powers from Europe who dressed up their actions in pretty words on their mad quest to conquer the world. They liked flowery speeches about nobility and liberty, but Europe’s hearts were filled with greed, not love, and their words rang hollow.
Mags and I always saw eye-to-eye on that. She’ll never have a career as a diplomat. She prefers abusive language. But she always understood that gratitude isn’t a word, but an action.
After our experience in the dreaming, we had no debate over whether we should do something. It was only a question of what we could do to show our gratitude. The spirits of the dreamtime had granted our wish, and though we were a bit too young to understand all the implications of that gift, we knew we needed to repay the ancients who gave it to us.
It took a while to get it sorted. In fact, it took nearly two years. But in 1944, Mags and her gramma reunited in the wake of the Allied Operation Overlord. Magpie traveled to France and saw firsthand the destruction of not just the country of her birth, but of her gramma’s estate. She resolved to make a new home for women displaced by war, and she wrote to me in the States to ask if I would join her.
I didn’t even finish the letter before I knew I was in. We were still a couple of hot-headed young sheilas, and rough as guts back then. But we had an opportunity to create something new in a place where all hope had been lost. And maybe—just maybe—we could make enough difference in the world to show our gratitude to the powers who brought us together.
I booked my ticket overseas, and a new chapter began.
 “Cot case” meaning an insane person, presumably for occupying a cot in a primitive mental hospital. Also used as a derogatory term for any inebriated or otherwise mentally incapacitated person.
 Richrath, Gary Dean, et. al. (1978). Time for Me to Fly. On You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tune a Fish. Nashville: HoriPro Entertainment Group (acquired in 2019 by Mojo Music & Media Group).
 Richrath, Gary Dean. (1980). Take It on the Run. On High Infidelity. Nashville: HoriPro Entertainment Group (acquired in 2019 by Mojo Music & Media Group).
 “Chips” are known as French fries in the States.
 “Flat” meaning apartment.
 “Pissed” meaning drunk, not angry.
 Celina is recounting events from the end of Curtain of Fire, from her perspective. That story also introduced Bert and his club, and his scene which Celina retells here. Celina was 17 in 1938 when she met Mags, despite lying about her age, and Mags was 14, turning 15 that November.
 The Australian government did not recognize indigenous people as citizens until 1967, with the passage of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals). Even then, nothing about the law gave the First People full rights of citizenship, such as suffrage. The constitutional change merely granted the Australian government the power to make laws regarding indigenous peoples and count them in the national census.
 “Seppo” meaning people of the United States. Historians disagree over whether the term derives from “separatists”—because the USA separated from England—or because seppo is short for “septic tank”, which rhymes with “Yank” as in “Yankee”. As to why Australians and people in the UK use rhyming slang, that’s an entirely different subject.
 “Natter” meaning a chat.
 Celina is summarizing events told in more detail in Curtain of Fire. Mags next recalls a conversation she had with Jack in that story.
 “A sausage short of a barbecue”, much like the saying “not playing with a full deck”. In other words, mentally deficient.
 Mags is recounting experiences mentioned in Curtain of Fire. The difficulty of finding decent socks during the anarchist uprising in Barcelona in the 1930s is documented in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Socks might not sound like a big deal, but a lack of clean socks contributed to horrifying foot diseases.
 “Ute” meaning a utility vehicle, which could be anything from a Jeep to a light pickup truck.
 Bandywallop and Woop-Woop are remote, imaginary towns, similar to “Hicksville” in the States.
 “There’s a 24-pack in the trunk.”
 See Great-Gramma Magdalena’s explanation of this phenomenon in Curtain of Fire.
 Weight of the Universe shows this moment in a flashback and tells a story about life at the home Mags and Celina helped create.