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Many of the SF writers of the 1930s and '40s were fascinated by Charles Fort's collections of unexplained phenomena. My friend Manly Wade Wellman told me that F. Orlin Tremaine, the editor of Astounding from 1933 till John W. Campbell took over at the end of 1938, had bought the rights to Fort's collection Lo! to mine for story ideas. I'm not sure that's true, but Tremaine certainly did serialize the book. I didn't see a pulp magazine until one of my high school teachers loaned me a couple issues of Weird Tales, but as a teenager I read lots of SF from the period in anthologies.

Fort's technique was to go through scientific journals and note oddities which he then retailed in four volumes beginning with The Book of the Damned. He threw out a number of speculations on what caused the data he reported: "I think we're property,'' or "Perhaps somebody is collecting Ambroses,'' which are familiar even to people who don't have the faintest notion of where the phrases come from. Personally, I'm convinced that Fort was joking—that is, that he believed the items were as true as anything else you'd find reported in, say, Nature, but that he understood the causes of the phenomena he reported were unknowable on the available data.

Then again, maybe he was a humorless wacko who believed in wild conspiracies. Goodness knows, a lot of the people who've followed in his footsteps fit that category.

SF stories led me to Charles Fort, but then I read him for his own sake. As for what I myself believe: I believe that the world is a very strange place, certainly stranger than I can explain.

I haven't used much Fortean material in my fiction because I find attempting to explain the phenomena leads to very silly results. This is as true of fiction like Donald Wandrei's "Something from Above" as it is of Philip Klass' "scientific" explanations of all UFOs as plasma effects (a notion that plasma physicists find ludicrous). Once in a while I tried, though. "Awakening" is an example.

I'm not sure that I'd bother to include this little mood piece in Balefires were it not for one thing: this is the only story I sold while I was in Viet Nam. I wrote it in longhand and typed up a second draft on the orderly room typewriter one Sunday morning in Di An. While I sat typing the story, there was a bang behind me. I looked back over my shoulder and watched the ammo dump destroy itself in a series of increasingly loud explosions. Never a dull moment . . . .

I sent my typescript to my wife Jo, at home in Chapel Hill. She retyped it and mailed it to Mr. August Derleth, the proprietor of Arkham House, who'd bought two previous stories from me. He took "Awakening" for $25. That's one of the few good things that happened to me in Southeast Asia.

They remained some time in silence in the shadowed parlor, alternately sipping their tea and staring idly at the dim trees to be seen beyond the gauze curtains. At last Mab cleared her throat, a little coughing sound. The man looked up. "Mab?" "Frank, I think it's time we try. We'll never see Missy's equal, you know."

Frank set down his cup and saucer on the old walnut table. He ran his left hand through the mane of iron-gray hair he cultivated, almost all that was left of the splendid man he had looked in his youth. "I suppose you're right," he finally admitted."My . . . aspirations aren't what they were, I suppose. And Mab, I'm very much afraid the girl isn't ready yet. She still doesn't think of herself as one of us."

"Missy has had a year in this house, Frank."

"She had twelve in the alley and the orphanage, learning that witches are hags that live in dark corners, learning to laugh when one is pushed into the oven. Her first reaction . . . well, Missy isn't a subtle child."

Mab, matronly in a print of pastel roses, ducked disapproval. "Nor is she stupid. The time Missy spent here was more than enough for her to realize what she is, and what we are. It's our duty as her elders to keep her from wasting herself."

Frank bit absently on the setting of his ring."She can't be forced—no, I don't mean physical force, of course not. But we can't make her believe what she doesn't want to believe; what she's been conditioned not to believe. It won't help even to prove to her that she has the Power. That would only mean to her that she herself is evil, and she'd hate you for it. At best she'd not join us; at worst, with her Power . . . "

Mab smiled."Now Frank, it's the girl's strength that worries you. But it's time and past time that I stepped down. I was never a very good Maid—now I know what you want to say, I was very well trained. You taught me everything that could be taught; you were wonderfully patient. But I never had the Power; that can't be learned."

"Yet she can't even read Latin," said Frank, sadly shaking his head.

"No," agreed Mab in a firm tone, "and perhaps she never will. Our Missy isn't a scholar. But she has an understanding of things that you and I can hardly imagine."

She reached over to the table and rang a sharp ping from the bell.


The girl in the doorway wore a maid's uniform with a cap and apron. Dark hair and large eyes accented her triangular face.

"Madam?" she repeated.

"Missy, Mr. Birney and I—"

"Oh, Mab," cut in Frank, lifting his corpulence from the overstuffed chair, "perhaps I'll leave you and Missy to discuss matters by yourselves."

"Frank, you'll wait, won't you?"

"In the hallway." Frank nodded to the two women and closed the hall door behind him.

"Well, Missy," Mab continued, "I—but do sit down, Dearest; this isn't business."

She waved to the seat Frank had vacated, but the girl took a slat-back chair farther from her mistress.

"You've been with me some time now, and you have gotten to know myself and the group of friends that meet here. We'd like you to join us tonight."

The girl fluttered her hands."Ma'am, that wouldn't be right, not me. I'm not your sort."

"But you are our sort," Mab insisted calmly. "The mirror in your room, for instance—"

Panic flashed across Missy's face and Mab quickly added, "Oh, don't worry, Dearest, that's why we put it there. It was an old glass and rather difficult to find, but we knew it was meant for you."

"I'll not do wrong things," the girl insisted sullenly.

There was a light squalling outside the kitchen door, a scratch of claws and a dark-tipped Siamese cat slipped into the parlor. It curled silently under the girl's chair but kept its eyes on Mab.

"We wouldn't have you do wrong, "Mab continued with a toss of her gray hair, "but everything proves that it's right for you to join us. Even the way animals treat you—it isn't only Kaimah, is it, Dearest?"

The girl said nothing, only squirmed a little on her seat.

"They aren't like that with me," Mab said, "but I don't really have the Power. But you do, Missy. To an amazing degree."

"No, Ma'am," Missy whispered. "I haven't nothing. I shan't have it."

Mab appeared not to have heard."Frank was disappointed when you ignored the books we left about, but I understand. Perhaps you'll want them after you've been with us awhile."

"Ma'am, Ma'am," breathed the girl, twisting her apron between narrow hands, "I don't want to be with you, I want to go . . . "

"Because we're witches?" Mab questioned gently. "There's nothing wrong in being a witch, Darling."

"I don't want to be a witch," cried Missy, slipping from her chair and moving behind it as if the wooden back were a shield. The cat retreated between her legs, not hissing, but stiff-legged and its backbone edged with a high comb of fur.

"But Dearest," pressed Mab inexorably, "you're already a witch—"

"Oh, no!"

"—the most powerful witch I have ever met."

"NO!" the girl screamed, and a gabbling cry burst from the older woman as the first blast of searing heat struck her. Mab half rose from her chair, cocooned in white flame that melted flesh and shrank her very bones in its hissing roar.

"Mab! Mab!" Frank shouted, bursting into the room.

There was no answer. The room was empty save for a shrunken mummy fallen back on the scorched upholstery of the chair. That, and the thick layer of soot that covered everything.

The open door to the kitchen quivered in the draft.

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