A Matriline by Megan Ainslow

We're proud to be sharing our third place winner, Megan Ainslow's, story "A Matriline" here. This will be up on our site for six months so please read, enjoy and comment!


Angela teaches me magic at the park on Saturday afternoons. Half the time she’s stoned, but like, the magic’s real. She’s not all going on about crazy New Age bullshit, it’s definitely real. She says getting high gets her tuned into the spells better, but I think she just likes getting high. Angela’s got a lip ring and a tramp stamp that she says wards off creepers at bus stops and the seven eleven. I wouldn’t have believed that a month ago, but a month ago Angela wasn’t showing me how to make fireballs just by snapping.

What happened was, I was at a party with my sister Nina. Mom probably would’ve killed me if she knew I was there, but so far she hasn’t found out and I’m not gonna tell her. Angela’s kind of Nina’s friend from work (they both work at this organic fruit store, like all it sells is fruit and vegetables and crap, and piñatas in summer) and she was there. She was pretty drunk, and I was pretty drunk, and Nina was really drunk, but she was with her boyfriend, so it was kind of okay. Anyway, so this guy starts hitting on me, and like, he’s a college guy, maybe twenty-two or something, and either he was also pretty drunk or just a gross asshole, ‘cause I’m only sixteen. Well, not only. I’m sixteen. But so this guy grabs my boob and I’m kind of freaking out only it’s all on the inside, and it’s sort of disconnected? Probably because I was drunk. Angela came up to him and said, all serious hardcore no-nonsense, “Leave the girl alone, dickwad”. And he sort of laughed and said something probably pretty rude, that I didn’t hear, and ignored her, but then she grabbed his hand off me and said something and his whole hand caught fire and he screamed and someone threw beer on it to try and douse it and that made it worse, so he had to stick it in a toilet and basically it was hilarious.

And everyone was drunk so nobody believed this guy when he said Angela’d lit his hand on fire with magic. I asked her how she did it and she sort of squinted at me like she was sizing me up, but she was only a little bit from wasted, so it could’ve just been she was seeing three of me. And she said, “I can show you, but you have to keep it, like, totally a secret, right?”

So of course I nodded, and then she wrote her number on my hand in sharpie (I have no idea where she got the sharpie, she wasn’t holding it a second earlier. Angela’s weird like that) and then I didn’t see her the rest of the night.

I woke up with a nasty hangover and Nina got all mad that I went to the party and completely didn’t remember she invited me and she knew everybody would be drinking so it was her fault I got drunk. I wouldn’t have called her –Angela I mean — except I was pissed at Nina for being pissed at me and wanted to show her I was ignoring her. Angela sounded way worse hung over than me, and like she was still in bed, but she agreed to meet me at a Roosevelt Park and show me her trick.

So then I went to the park to meet some chick I barely knew because she told me she could teach me how to light a guy’s hand on fire. Pretty smart, I know. But even if she was a total fraud it’s not like she asked for money up front, right? And if she started talking crazy I had Mom’s car privileges that week, so I could just leave.

But it was real. She said a couple words under her breath and snapped her fingers (she said the snapping was just for show, because it looks impressive) and suddenly she was holding a little tiny fireball in her hand, like she didn’t even feel it. I remember everything about that moment. How the trees sounded with wind just barely ruffling the leaves. The sun, on my back. My headache. She looked like a witch, in her tube top and giant flannel shirt. Kind of a punkish, slutty witch, but a witch. It was three in the afternoon in May and it felt like October, like all the heat around got sucked into that little flame.

“Teach me how,” I said to her, and she grinned, and I remember that too.

This is our fifth lesson. The first was that day, and all that happened was Angela talked about how it was dangerous, and magic wasn’t a toy, all that stuff like they tell you during driving school. She told me how there was extra energy just sort of floating around (that’s how she said it; there’s probably some really smart, scientific explanation, but that’s what I know) and people could learn how to manipulate it. She said anyone could do it, with practice, though some people were better at it than others, like with all things.

The second time she brought a thick spiral notebook. It didn’t look old necessarily, just really, really used. It had drawings and stickers and phone numbers all over the cover, and it was ratty the way paper that’s been written all over in pencil gets, you know? It was crammed full of internet print-outs, and pages torn out of sketch books with drawings of weird leaves and supposedly magical phenomena that just looked like normal random people, and I’m pretty sure I saw a Sailor Moon doodle or three. But mostly it was filled with magic research. Page after page of Angela’s surprisingly neat handwriting talking about her experiments. She’s mostly self-taught, which is mind-bowing when you think of how hard it is to do a single spell, but she managed it all herself, no problem.

So she opens up her notebook, carefully the way you have to when it’s that full, pressing all the loose pages back into the book, and flips through for fire spells. They’re hard. Like, unreasonably hard. I guess it’s my fault because that’s where I wanted to start even though it’s much easier to do just about any other kind of basic magic as a beginner. But fire was what she did and she made it look amazing, and I wasn’t going to let that slip by.

You don’t have to learn Latin or anything like that. It works better when you have something to say, and Angela chose Latin ‘cause it’s what you’d expect, but I don’t know Latin and it’s kind of pointless to learn when you don’t really need it, I think. it’s kind of embarrassing, but the chant I attached to my fire spell is actually the theme to the original Scooby Doo. I didn’t realize it would be permanent, and would’ve chosen something cooler or made something up, but Angela just said you need a focus that you can remember easily, and that I definitely could. So now every time I conjure fire I have to say the first few lines of the Scooby Doo theme song. When I get more practice I can do it in my head, which’ll be a relief, but for now I get to practice saying Scooby Dooby Doo, where are you, over and over again.

The first time I tried it nothing happened at all. Same with the second, third and fourth times. The fifth time I got a spark that lasted about a second and a half. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever felt, just this tiny pinprick of warmth, and a pressure that built until my ears were rushing. I saw it, flashing in my palm, but I blinked at the wrong moment and then it was gone. It might’ve been the blink that did it, breaking my concentration. I looked up to Angela and my head rushed, and I guess I must’ve looked about to faint, because she caught me and handed me a water bottle.

“Hey, don’t pass out on me, ‘kay? That would royally suck for you, and would be pretty awkward for me too, kid.” I rolled my eyes and nodded at her and went to get up and passed out, but hopefully in a cool way.

Angela sent me home after that, and every lesson since she’s made fun of me about it, but not, like, meanly. She makes me drink water before we start, and stay hydrated while we practice, because channeling the energy through you strains the body or something. I think she worries too much. I’m not a kid.

So it’s our fifth lessen, and by now I can make a decent, if pretty small, fireball and keep hold of it for up to almost a minute. Angela says I’m coming along great, and she told me last week that I could start experimenting with how I make fire, and what I can do with it. I don’t have the car this week, Nina does because we traded so I could have it on my birthday week, so I biked all the way over here with my heart thudding the whole time, and not just from how fast I was going.

I’ve been wondering about Angela and everything to do with her knowing magic since the first time, and I want to ask her more about where she first got the idea, and how. Even if she mostly taught herself, there’s a bit that she had to get from somewhere else, right? I chain up my bike and go to sit with her under the cottonwood tree I sort of think of as ours now. She’s waiting for me, as usual.

“We’re going to try and keep it in the air longer,” she says without preamble. “If you can control how long you’ve got it, and how big or small, you can manipulate the plasma to your own specifications and shit.” Angela talks really smart sometimes, and I remember what I want to ask.

“Hey,” I say as I plant myself next to her under our tree. “I was wondering…you know. How do you know all of this?”

“I told you, I’m basically self-taught — ” she begins, but I cut her off.

“You had to start somewhere. Like, who just gets the idea to learn magic? How would you even know it was possible?” She looks kind of annoyed now, and I think if I were less excited I maybe wouldn’t push it, but I’m sort of caught up in the moment, and I guess I miss the signals.

“Leave it, alright? It’s not important,” she mutters.

“What? No, it totally is! I’m really curious! Did you find some spellbook in a bookstore or something? Or did someone actually go and tell you, or what — ”

“Do I go shoving my head your life?” she snaps at me, and I’m totally not expecting it.

“Gods, kid just butt out, okay?” I can feel my cheeks get all hot and I shove my head down and without really feeling it, hunch my shoulders. I didn’t think she’d be mad.

“Sorry,” I whisper. I’m suddenly so ashamed I can feel my heart thudding too fast and beating in my fingers and face and feet, so embarrassed I feel like I’m not in my body anymore, but stuck and unable to get up or say anything else.

“Whatever. Just get over it, okay? I’m fine, stop looking like I kicked you.” That only makes it worse, but I try and look back at her.

“Angela, I’m really sorry, I shouldn’t’ve said anything,”

“My mom.”

It’s so quiet at first I think I heard wrong. The Angela presses her lips together, like she’s smiling, only no one would mistake it for a smile. “My mom taught me.”

She rubs her hand over her forehead, pushing at the middle with her knuckles. “I’m sorry. Was being an ass. My mom taught me.”

I wonder if it’s okay to say anything else. She looks less mad, anyway.

“What happened?” I ask, and hope.

She shrugs, and looks bitter. “Drunk driver. When I was fourteen. Bastard didn’t stop. She was teaching me all kinds of things, had been since I was old enough to talk, but I was still mostly a beginner.” She laughs, looking up and then back down and everywhere except at me, and I feel guilty for asking at all.

“She was teaching me healing spells. I was that kid thought she was hot shit, everything came naturally. I was fourteen and I never got sick, never got cuts or bruises, didn’t even have to worry about period cramps. Thought I could fix anything.” She slumps back against the tree.

“Turns out, I couldn’t fix a collapsed lung, or windshield glass stuck six inches in somebody’s stomach. I tried though. I stopped the bleeding for a few minutes, but I got so tired trying to keep her awake I passed out myself. When I came to she already…” she gulps in a huge breath, shakes her head. “Took hours for the paramedics to get to us, out in a ditch in the desert. Mom was a total hippie, didn’t like phone companies finding shit out about us, so she didn’t have one, and it took ages for anyone to figure out we were gone.” She sits up really quickly, and turns to me with a super fake smile.

“Tragic, idnit?” I don’t know what to say. I guess I shouldn’t have asked the question, but where do you go from here? I can’t imagine what it could be like, watching Mom or Nina die and not being powerful enough to stop it. I can’t say anything that doesn’t sound wrong or fake.

Angela laughs. “Gods’ sake, you look freaked out. I mean, it was ages ago. I’m sorry I upset you, man.” She runs her hand through her hair. “Look, you asked me about something I didn’t want to talk about and then I got revenge by actually telling you the truth. Happens. It was petty of me. You didn’t know. We get caught out, say something stupid, someone gets one over on us, we move on.”

I nod, still feeling like the worst oblivious idiot ever. She punches me in the shoulder, but not hard.

“My mom always told me we were a matriline of witches. I loved the sound of the word. It means a line, like an ancestry traced back through women. My Gramma taught my mom, and her aunt taught her, and her big sister taught her. And you know, after she died, I just stopped practicing. For six years. I didn’t want anything to do with magic, ‘cause it failed me, right? But I was at that party, and I’d been hurt and hating myself for years, and I guess I was way more wasted than I thought, ‘cause right at that moment, protecting a kid I barely knew from a distance was enough to make me pull fire out of the air again, like I never stopped.”

We sit here, and it might be awkward, but it isn’t really bad. After a couple of minutes of just sitting, quiet, Angela huffs out a breath and she looks over and smiles at me for real. “And the matriline has to continue. If I stopped I’d be the last one.

“Besides, you looked hilarious when you passed out.”

After that, the moment’s over, and I groan and put my face in my hands and laugh so she can’t see, and she lights up a blunt and we start again, holding fire in our hands and shaping it, like everything else in the world is a lie meant to protect people, and this is the only thing that’s real.

We stop an hour later when she’s too giggly to stop from singeing her own hair, and she’s laughing at how when I caught my shirt on fire I shrieked and flipped out until she dumped her water bottle on me. We’re packing up to go and I hesitate.

“Angela,” I say, kind of hoping she doesn’t hear, but she does, and snorts as she looks up at me.

“Hmm, Smokey Bear?”

“Thanks,” I mumble and look down. “F-for picking me. To teach, I mean.”

She looks at me, and it’s like when I first asked how she lit that guy’s hand on fire. “Thank you,” she says. “For wanting to learn.”

We leave the park. There’s nothing else to say.