Mr. Wrage owned and operated Cantor, the only recognized name in the enchantment writing industry. There he maintained a stable of enchantment writers, all from recognized species—fairies, dryads, nymphs, the usual. Every year, to make a show of artistic integrity—because the show was the thing—Mr. Wrage hosted a poetry slam, ostensibly to open the field to all comers who wanted to try their hand at becoming enchantment writers. They were poets, just special ones. Mr. Wrage hosted the slam with an ulterior, and a primary, motivation: the slam showcased the new talent he had already selected. At the end, Mr. Wrage announced his new, young enchantment poets. They were always his secretly preselected poets, and they were always from the usual species.
Finger knew all that, and in spite of it he signed up for the next slam. It felt like a good idea—a radical act of defiance. Now that he stood in the incense-sweetened middle of it, his spider-long fingers shook around his cigarillo, and he cussed himself out about the decision. He watched the tall, elegant crowd wisp around in their gauzy going-out clothes. They cast pale glows with no source on the worn-smooth floor and aged mismatched chairs of the lounge. Finger felt small, dirty, and unrefined. Everyone else was something, and they were accepted as something. He saw elves, leprechauns, and many of the variations on “sprite” that inhabited the hazy background of the universe. Finger wasn’t anything that anyone recognized. He had big bat-like ears, big slanted eyes, tanned skin, cunning and long fingers that had a cleverness for locks and knots. He wore a hooded sweatshirt from an Beastie Boys concert, ripped up jeans, and a pair of combat boots he’d stolen from Baby Gap, because, in his words, he “needed shoes that small so shut up.” He stood just under three feet tall.
He took what he wanted to be a fortifying drag at his cigarillo. It didn’t comfort him much.
Spotlights brightened a slim, airy dryad standing on a stage and behind a microphone. With willowy gestures, the dryad delivered an original poem in a voice like a wind promising a springtime storm.
Wellspring Gamboling was her name. She was one of Mr. Wrage’s newest stars. She gave Finger goose bumps. Half, he begrudged her, because of the beauty of the poetry, but half of his goose bumps prickled on his skin because the warm response of the crowd set a high bar. Because of some history he had with the room, if he hoped for any success today he would need to measure against her.
“Pan’s itchy asshole, I’d love to win,” Finger said.
Someone snorted with laughter next to Finger. Finger looked way up at the person. Finger had to look up at everyone. By other standards, the snorting jack-off next to Finger would have been short, and also tubby. The person wore dark shades and a black suit and a red-faced expression of half-drunkenness.
“Some’ing funny, Wrage?” Finger snapped up at Mr. Wrage.
“What’s this, the third time, Finger?” Mr. Wrage said. When he got a little drunk, it made his voice loud and sharp. Mr. Wrage hiccupped and grinned. “What’d they think you were last time? The handyman?”
“Sound check guy,” Finger said through pressed lips and gritted teeth. He tried to control the rising heat in his neck.
Mr. Wrage spread his hands wide and laughed. “Some of us are made to rise to occasions of high pressure, Pinky,” he said in a derogatory tone. “But not all of us. Some of us are you, after all.”
Finger opened his mouth to retort something, but the applause from the room drowned him out. It was pretty good applause. Everyone clapped, a few hooted. Respectable. Wellspring, a glowing grin on her face, left the stage and went down into the audience.
“Best performance of the night,” Mr. Wrage said, his red face stretched with a grin too. “Which puts you up next, I think, Pinky.” Mr. Wrage’s grin went a little meaner, Finger thought. Finger—still trying and failing to suck steadiness from his cigarillo—shuffled off through the dew-smelling crowd toward the stage. His thighs felt like they’d been electrocuted. His toes felt numb. He felt keenly aware of the his earthy smell. Usually he didn’t think about himself this way. It sucked. “Don’t worry about the public humiliation. I’m sure you’ve improved since last time,” Mr. Wrage called after him. “And when I say that, I’m kidding.”
In the crowd, Finger listened to the snippets of poetry mumbled around himself. The easiest judgment to make of an enchanter’s poetry was how much it got quoted. All the poetry humming from mouth to ear over his head came from the poem just recited by Wellspring. Since this was the debut of that poem, no one had ever heard it before. The amount of the poem “glittering the air,” as they say in that scene, of the room was an impressive feat on the part of Wellspring.
Finger swallowed, trying to make his sand-dry throat feel like an organ he could use. Aside from himself, no one ever repeated anything he had written.
He thought he had found something to help himself—a “secret weapon,” inspired by some reading about Bob Dylan. His confidence in it wavered with every step.
At the stage, he had to clamber to get up on top of the two-foot-tall platform. At the back of the stage a huge, black man sat behind a set of bongos, ready to drum along with the poetry whenever it seemed necessary. Finger had talked to him before the show to express how very bloody necessary it’d be for him. Fortunately, the bongo player had liked the idea, and Finger.
“Hey, Fuzz,” Finger said. The big black man smiled from behind his black sunglasses. Finger pulled the two items of his “secret weapon” from a spot he’d stashed them behind the stage. From a case he took a slightly-small guitar—still too big for him, but not by too much. The other thing was an amp. He hurried around on the stage to plug the amp into an outlet and his guitar into the amp.
Then he adjusted the microphone down to a place he could use it. While he did that he looked out at the assembled, mumbling crowd. They were already pointing at him and chuckling. No doubt they talked about his attempt last year, how he had run off the stage after his garbled attempt at a poem.
Finger’s sweaty hand slipped on the neck of his guitar. He frowned, stretching his fingers and wiped his hand on his jeans. “Why do I do this, Fuzz?” Finger muttered at Fuzz.
“Don’t know, small fry,” Fuzz said. “Why do you do it?”
“Love of it,” Finger said. His lips tripped over the words and slurred them together. Finger cleared his throat and swallowed again.
Fuzz chuckled. It was a kind chuckle—companionable. “As the betting man I am, I would not put money on the truth of those words, Finger.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please,” came the voice of Mr. Wrage over the room’s speaker system. At the back of the room he held a microphone in front of his smiling, red face. “As an added point of fun in tonight’s little soirée, I will be enacting a piece of audience involvement. We all like a little audience involvement, right?” The audience applauded. “Tonight, you choose my newest enchantment writer. I will hire the poet with the best audience response of the night—anyone who isn’t already an employee of mine.” Mild laughter greeted that. Polite laughter, Finger thought, since the “joke” was dumb. Then, as if from an afterthought, Mr. Wrage caught Finger’s eye and, looking right at him, and finished his announcement. “And the poet who gets the worst response from all of you will be extricated from this community forever.”
The audience response to that was mixed. Some laughed. Some looked confused. Mr. Wrage, with a satisfied smirk, saluted Finger.
“Well,” Fuzz said from the back of the stage. “That was real personal, wasn’t it?”
“Fuzz,” Finger said. His grip tightened around his guitar neck.
“’Sup, small fry?”
“I don’t know why I do this, not in general,” Finger said.
“Good. Can’t start from any other place,” Fuzz said. “Where’s the ‘but’ in that?”
“I know why I’m doing it tonight,” Finger said.
Fuzz smiled. “Smooth—smooth,” he said.
“Let’s crank this puppy up to eleven,” Finger said.
Fuzz chuckled at that. “Think you earned that reference?” Fuzz asked.
“Not really,” Finger said, giving Fuzz a sheepish smile.
“Born to die, dude,” Finger said. His frown creased deeper than ever. The dread-weight in his chest went nowhere. “Born to die.”
Finger used his toe to turn the dial of his amp as high as it would go. Then he turned back to the audience.
“For you, Rage,” Finger said, pointing at Mr. Wrage, and dedicating it in his mind to that other spelling.
The next image of him made it into the local paper next day: he leapt, his pick-hand raised to strike down on the steel strings, his heels kicked up, and his eyes and mouth pulled open with the rage he was about to put into the chords of his song. He embodied that rage, and over the next three minutes it roared out of him and whooshed across the audience in a torrent. The lyrics came in a chattering rush. The guitar ground out chords and trilling notes reminiscent of the industrial-inflicted metal scene: harsh, in a minor key, but still melodic.
It finished. And, for a moment, no one knew what to do with it. For a moment, Finger stood on a quiet stage, panting behind the microphone, uninterrupted. The silence still seemed to vibrate from his noise—his chest certainly did. He felt steady. A smile twitched at the edges of his wide mouth.
At the back of the room, Mr. Wrage began to grin too, but because of the silence. He turned to order a drink from the bartender behind him. The bartender hooted, though; he hooted in an appreciative tone.
That seemed to loose the dreadnaught. First a handful at one end of the room, then a group over there, started clapping. Most of the room joined in.
It wasn’t a standing ovation. It wasn’t a world-overturning roar. It was certainly a fine amount of applause—certainly not the worst response of the evening.
Mr. Wrage was about to protest about it to Wellspring at his elbow, but then he heard something even more disturbing: several hummed notes from Wellspring. No words, but the notes were from Finger’s song. Before Mr. Wrage could even say anything about that, Wellspring walked away from him, starting through the crowd toward the stage.
“Where are you going?” Mr. Wrage demanded of her.
“To welcome one of us home,” Wellspring said. “To say hello to a newborn poet.”