Letters of Transit

A migrant navigates a twisted set of spells to cross a formidable border.

Letters of Transit
Image: Andrew Liptak

You can see the spells that permeate the air around you as the train speeds through the sprawl of neighborhoods. Private back yards and graffitied buildings flash past as you idly watch out the window, clutching the bag that’s half stuffed under your seat. Your legs are tired, first from waiting for the bus, unreliable as ever, then from standing for half an hour before a seat opened up at the last stop. You realize how tired you are as the landscape flashes by — you’ve been up for more than a day, and the cheap sodas enhanced with an alertness charm can only keep you upright for so long. You check your phone for the umpteenth time to make sure that you haven’t missed your stop — two more to go, if the tracker is still accurate. Sometimes the spell fritzs out. It isn’t the first time you’ve gotten lost when that’s happened. But the names of the metro stops lines up with what you’re seeing. You memorized the station order before you got on.

You can feel the lines of magic as you cross the city — they hover just outside of your vision, thin lines that separate neighborhoods. Cul-de-sacs define the boundaries of their watch programs, countless local ordinances stack up over townships, interacting in unexpected ways. Tall high-rises and cheap housing give way to tall trees and single-family dwellings as you cross yet another line. You feel an itch crawl over your skin as you cross — a byproduct left by the city spellcasters, whose unstated intention was to keep you and those who look like you far away. You feel eyes on you, but nobody in your car is looking at you — just their own phones, books, or out the window. A young man across from you is hunched over a book, whispering an incantation to himself over and over. Preparing for a job interview, judging from the muttered words you catch. You breath out a quick word fo support, hoping that it’ll be just enough to overcome the patchwork layer of spells that would push him out. You feel the weight of those strings of words in the back of your mind, whispering encouragements to stand and get off the train at the next stop, to forget this foolish folly and just return home, where you belong.

You shake your head and check your phone again. The incantation powering it hasn’t worn off yet. You take out your headphones and plug them in. Your playlist is full of songs that bolster your mood and resolve, and you push the whispers out of your head.

It’s midday by the time you get off the train and make it to the street. You breath in and feel the words that help keep the air clean, which muffle the sounds of the traffic on the street next to you. They glint in the air, and you marvel at their complexity — you’ve seen vids of the teams of spellcasters who assemble and deploy them, although they’ve never made it out to the outskirts where you and yours live. But despite the clean air, you’re tense and on edge. A cop car crawls past on the street, and you feel a buzz over your skin, like the air and buildings tell you you don’t belong. Deep-seated incantations and the years of casual, whispered words of the locals pull you out of the crowd, showing to everyone that you’re from somewhere else, somewhere undesirable. You keep walking, willing the feeling to go away, hoping that the crowd is large enough that you don’t stand out. The patrol car eventually vanishes around the corner. You let out a breath you didn’t know you were holding. The anxious tension lingers.

It isn’t easy to find your destination — you walk around the block once before you realize that you were looking at it wrong. At first glance, all there is to see is empty windows. You look again, and catch sight of the faded lettering over the door. You grin as you recognize the pun.


The illusion of the empty storefront falls away as you step through the door into a cluttered bookstore. Tall shelves stretch to the ceiling, and the volumes stacked on the shelves whisper softly to their neighbors. Faded maps line the walls, and you swear that the lines denoting the boundaries of the countries are shifting, ever so slightly. The old man behind the counter in back looks up as you approach. You feel power radiating from him as you approach. It basks you in a sense of warmth, and it pushes away the uneasy feeling that’s settled over you since you stepped off the train.

“I’m,” You pause, trying to form the words in the right order. “Are you Alejandro? My friend — I was told that you’re a spellbreaker.”

You wither under his presence, wondering if you made a horrible mistake, approaching this man, asking him for something. You can feel your intentions and mind laid bare, and you wonder just how much he can read form you as you stand there, shaking in exhaustion.

“I am,” he says simply. His voice is stronger than you would have expected, given his appearance. You wonder how old he really is.

“My friend Quinn told me that you helped him,” you say, “through the Northern perimeter.”

He shifts his gaze back to his work on the desktop, hands hidden by stacks of books and papers. “I can pay,” you stammer, reaching for your bag. “I have —”

“People trying to cross boundaries find that there’s a considerable cost,” he says. You stop talking. “Sometimes, they pay with their lives. Other times, they’re left with marks that follow them for life.” He looks up from the desk where he’s working. He smiles, faintly. “But while they’re not to be crossed lightly, the risk can pay off.”

He sighs, and you see a flicker over his face as he looks you over, and then the maps on the walls. All at once, he’s ancient, then as young as you are. “How easily those lines get laid down on paper. If only their authors knew how powerful they turn out to be.”

You stare at the maps and their shifting lines. Your mind flashes to your life in the outskirts — how you and your family couldn’t break through the lines, how they left you trapped in place. You think about those friends who left, who vanished over the borders to new lives.

“What do you hope to find?” He breaks your train of thought.

You open your mouth to restate the lines you practiced. A new home, away from the violence of the streets, away from the predators that pick away at your family and neighbors. Away from the layers of spells that suffocate you. Away…

“Hope?” You say tentatively. “A new start, at least somewhere that I have a chance to start over.”

The old man nods at that, a hint of a smile on his face. “That’s a good way to look at it.”

He picks up the bundle of papers that he was writing on — a small, scarlet booklet, bound in leather and gold lettering. Spellwork ripples over the cover of the hand-sized folio, words that radiate out, whispering your name. “My work’s good, but it won’t get you over on your own.” You take it in your hand, and flip through it.

“What do I need to do?”

“It’s different for everyone who crosses,” he tells you as he sits back, “I don’t know precisely what that last ingredient is, but I suspect as long as you know your intentions, it will see you through safely.” He looks you in the eyes. “But only once. Borders are powerful, and there’s only so much an imitation like mine can do before its exhausted.”

You nod and slip the booklet into your pocket. You can feel the incantations radiate from it against your thigh as you ride the metro. You’re headed north, this time. Out the window, incandescent patterns of spells blur past the window of the train. The sleek glass high rises give way to brick buildings, then countryside. Your eyes droop, and your head dips, and you fall into an uneasy sleep, lulled by the gentle rocking of the train.

You’re jolted awake when the train brakes and slow. You look out the window and see a growing line that stretches across the horizon. The train slows and stops. You can see the translucent wall of the perimeter stretch into the distance. Men in black uniforms with black guns slung over their shoulders walk alongside the rails, searching for stowaways. A dog barks angrily somewhere out of sight. You hear shouts.

The door to your car slides open, and you feel a gloom settle over you, the weight of the authority vested in the officers who stride in, clad in dark blue uniforms and armored with kevlar. They go from seat to seat, and you feel their presence as they come closer.

“Papers?” The agent looks down at you from where she’s standing in the aisle. You reach into your pocket and pull out the folio. The spellwork flows over you as you pull it out and hand it to her — pushing back against the gravity that emanates from their badges and uniforms.

She leafs through the pages, and you see the words flow over her hands and arms, pushing against the suspicion and doubt that weigh in her mind. Your heart freeze in your chest with each second that passes as your mind turns over the old man’s words in the shop and the innumerable possibilities that come with failure. She frowns.

The old wizard’s words spring to mind. You think about the suffocating spells and incantations that cloud your former home, that took everything from you, and demanded more. Out the window, you see a break in the clouds, and you think about what life might be like without that weight hanging over you. You know what you imagine is just an illusion — a story that’s been told over and over, but it’s more than you have here.

Then, the agent pulls out a pen and scribbles on a page, and hands the booklet back to you back to you. She wordlessly moves on to the passengers seated behind you. You open it up, to find an official sigil scrawled on the page. But the papers are cold now, the enchantments that got you this far fading quickly.

The train lurches, and pulls forward. Your chest thaws, and you feel the anxiety flood out of you as you cross the border. The weight in your mind lifts, but only slightly — replaced by new words, new spells. But it’s just enough for you to take the next step, and then the next.