Mōillo

Mōillo is an illustrator in Aotearoa, New Zealand, bending reality within the lines of cardboard.

This illustration features two characters, their bodies contorted with movement, looking at each other while gripping each other's forearms. They are swirling away from each other. The background of the illustration is made up of two shades of dark and light brown. Swirls of red, white, dark blue and light blue paint, as well as dots of white paint, are layered on top of the brown background. The colours surround the characters. There is a streak of red going through the hair of the character on the left. The character on the right has white hair and dots of blue all over their body.
Illustration by Mōillo

Funerals aren’t tradition in the old country. Teleporters don’t ‘pass away’—they leave. Usually they have the courtesy to let their families know first, and everyone whips up a feast, at the end of which the guest of honour pulls a Bilbo Baggins and vanishes. To where, no kin has told me. Maybe you figure it out yourself when the time comes.

            In any case, we look everywhere for Gran after her party. When she doesn’t come back, we reluctantly hold a funeral. It is everybody’s first time. The elders shuffle about nervously. Uncle Dew performs melodrama for his captive audience. We look like primary schoolers putting on a show for the locals. And the neighbourhood park is too small; we overflow into the oval for lunch, our picnic blankets shrouding the beaten grass.

            I’m glad for the day off. I doze in a fig tree, its roots buckling the bitumen like Kraken tentacles. When I come to, everyone is gone. The casket lies empty, expectant.

            Next to it: the last person I expected to see, even including Gran.

            I slide down to the pavement and approach the spindly figure. It’s really Suli, shadow and all. Not the glimpses of her I thought I saw in other people’s reflections. At first, I think she wears a cape, like in the ancient triptychs. Then the sun comes out and glints off the buttons of her sleeveless coat.

            ‘Where have you been?’

            She flinches. She looks exactly the same: a mallee tree that started walking, spider-limbed and banded with muscle, which means she must still be dancing. No make-up, jewellery, or hair. ‘Blank,’ as she used to say, as though the word meant ‘forgettable’.

            ‘Vale,’ she breathes, like saying my name would make up for everything, which, to my indignation, it nearly does. ‘I missed you.’

            Her voice is crisp, buoyant. Like driftwood, with sunlight in it. I step back, refusing to bask. ‘Gran is gone,’ I say coldly.

            Suli glances at the casket. ‘Yep.’ A faded cloak and nightdress rest in neat folds, pressed 2D. The undertaker was out of his depth. Gran would have laughed to hear all the maudlin speeches directed at her pyjamas.

            ‘What are the elders going to do now?’ Suli says.

            I suppose talk reached even her ears. Some of the elders were so sure Gran would come back. She was everyone’s Gran, the oldest among us and our sole connection to the old country. No one imagined she meant it when she announced it was time to go.

            I run a hand over my stubbled head. ‘They’re going to bring us home.’ Back to the teleporter city of Hearth, which Gran had told so many stories about.

            ‘Who’s they?’

            ‘Elder Corin, Elder Thimble, Elder Grace, all of them. Coming here was a mistake.’ I cringe even as I say it. Both of us were born here. But there’s not a ripple of magic in this drought of a realm.

            Suli shrugs. ‘Good luck to them.’

            ‘Maybe that’s what Gran wants.’ I hesitate. ‘Come with us.’

            ‘You’ve never even been there.’

            She sounds so flippant that it stirs an old, sour jealousy in my chest. My magic hangs like a forgotten word on the tip of my tongue, a yearning with no destination. Even as a kid, I struggled to snap home from school. Some kin used me in their arguments, when they thought I was too young to understand. A child who could hardly teleport: it was because we were too far from Hearth. To which their opponents pointed out the window to Suli: a cartwheeling goblin of a girl who blinked from street to street, cackling as the adults struggled to catch her. Her hair was halfway gone at ten years old, and her parents showed it off proudly, styling the wispy remnants like clouds.

            ‘Exactly,’ I say, refusing to let her shut me down. ‘In Hearth I might have a shot at learning to teleport properly.’

            ‘It’s a tricky jump over.’

            ‘You think I won’t make it.’

            ‘With Elder Corin in charge? I don’t want you getting lost in transit.’

            It’s easy for her to say. Hearth wizards sensed her power all the way from this backwater and spirited her away for four relentless years. After that no one was sure where she went. Her parents had long given up on keeping her on a leash. She sent mail with illegible return addresses and appeared in town from time to time, though her mind always seemed elsewhere.

            Right on cue, a balding column of robes approaches. Elder Corin is returning with the undertaker. Suli lopes the opposite way, off the path.

            I hurry after her as she ducks under the fig tree and cuts through the grass. She’s like a rare bird; I don’t want to let her out of my sight. Her grey coat catches on twigs, flashes her bare shins, clashes with her oversized sandals. The unstylish thing looks just like what our parents’ generation used to wear. Maybe she is still sentimental about some things. We reach the low stone wall at the edge of the park and Suli helps me over with a calloused hand. Afterwards, I dig my fingers into my pocket, feeling scalded.

            The teleporter neighbourhood is an ugly place, nothing like the movies. A Frankenstein of low houses way out of date—some by decades, most by a hundred years or more (so the elders claimed)—nailed into place by obstinate old men and government money. We pass overgrown lawns, sun-blasted paint jobs, rust-speckled poles feathered with poster stubs. Suli casually brings up the academy in Hearth, the master weavers who worked there with spools of time and space. In spite of myself, I tell her how the families are going. About the abyss that is customer service and all the strange creatures you find swirling around in it. The clean slate of our years apart cracks open and all our yesteryears seep back in, our voices intermingling again. Hearth on the horizon, no matter how far away we are.

            ‘There are lineages that have known their lands for thousands of years,’ says Suli, when I ask her again what her magic feels like. ‘For them, it’s pretty normal to be able to jump all over the place. Our elders don’t realise there are other ways to tether.’ She’s forgotten who she is talking to. I run out of words and we reach the train station too soon. I don’t invite her over. The idea chills me. Let her in once and she would have a key forever.

            ‘You could take us,’ I say instead.

            ‘To Hearth?’ Suli rubs her hands. One of her knuckles is missing. ‘I’ve never teleported someone else across realms before. Reckless negligence is a thing in the old country too.’

            ‘There must be something you can do.’

            She shakes her head. ‘Our magic is fading. Did you see how many of us turned up today in cars? The elders only teleport once a year, for ritual. When was the last time anyone used the portroom?’

            ‘You tell me,’ I say, gritting my teeth.

            ‘I can’t feel Hearth anymore. Maybe Gran left while she could, I don’t know.’

            She says it so matter-of-factly that I don’t comprehend at first. Suli teleports like the rest of us walk. The universe is a map beneath her far-seeing eyes: blink and she can go anywhere she remembers. If even her magic is fading, we might really be stranded. Unmoored from home.

            ‘They need her more there,’ Mum said during those first long, lonely weeks, months, after Suli left me behind. Believing that would be how I moved on. How I broke my own fantasy that I could ever keep up with her palatial mind.

            ‘You should have stayed in Hearth,’ I say.

            At first I think she hasn’t heard me. Her brown eyes flick around like little wrens. I reach out into the dark between realms and, as usual, find myself scrambling at a void. Nowhere feels real enough to snap to. The city is too big and always changing. And as long as nobody takes me, Hearth will remain a place of my imagination.

            ‘You love teleporting, don’t you?’ I press. I wait for her to ask, finally ask, what it’s like to be on the other side. Stuck in one place, surrounded by kin who are so good at vanishing.

            But she just says, ‘Obviously.’

            ‘So why on earth did you return?’

            Alighted passengers scatter between us, around us. Suli looks into the train station. Or maybe at another realm. ‘Hearth wasn’t for me, in the end.’

            I can’t breathe. It’s like I’ve tripped over after running for years and years. The aunties never should have set me up on playdates with the local prodigy, as if her power would rub off on me like glitter. After she left, my ‘ancestral power’ shrivelled up altogether. Like it had been nothing more than a death rattle with no one left to hear it.

            ‘So after all that, you just gave up. What a waste.’

            Our eyes meet, properly, quietly, for the first time all day. The first time in years. And Suli is looking down at me like I’ve kicked her. Despite my own blistering hurt, and the words I had dammed up for this moment, I want to fold myself into a paper crane and fly away.

            As usual, Suli leaves first.

            Wordlessly she enters the station, her bare head sailing above the crowd.

            ‘Where are you going?’ She’s not getting away that easily. Not anymore. I didn’t notice before now, because it’s so normal for her: she carries no bag, the coat has no pockets. ‘How did you get here?’ I say, louder.

            She pushes into the unisex bathroom and stops suddenly. I draw up right before we crash. We’re standing so close I can smell mothballs on her coat.

            ‘Remember the dance studio?’ Suli’s voice is tight. ‘An hour’s drive each way, our parents used to joke about teleporting us there.’

            She turns around, but I never see the look on her face. Because mid-step, the coat drops to the floor over an empty pair of sandals. I pick it up. The collar is damp with sweat. The Kmart price tag is still attached. So much for losing her powers.

            ‘Liar,’ I hiss to the empty bathroom.


The public portrooms squat behind a disused bus stop, utility cables pulled like rubber bands overhead. The combination for the door hasn’t changed in a decade. Inside it’s pungent and breathy, like a gathering of garage sales.

            It takes a kind of callous discipline to keep a place at such a studied level of derelict. That is the requisite of teleportation: you need to know your destination. ‘Feel it in the beat of your heart,’ the aunties say, its seven-season texture, the mildew of memory caking the cracks. Once the connection is made, no one wants to alter their portroom—or themselves—too much. Or you could bust the tether like a tendon. So it goes: a room, a house, an eyesore of a neighbourhood, lurching through time with a zombie’s speed but none of its hunger.

            Along one narrow corridor are four rooms, each holding nothing but a white IKEA wardrobe. I pick one portroom and set my things down.

            First, I kill the silence. Turn up So Fresh hits from 2003 on the portable CD player. I set the smell with a dusty can of Impulse body spray from the back of the corner store. The hardest part is fooling my body. I draw the curtains, remove my shoes and begin to stretch with what little I remember of Ms O’Connor’s warm-up drills. So what if this fails: nobody is watching. Nobody has to know.

            Gingerly, I open a box in my mind from when the world seemed larger. It rattles with chalk and driftwood. Snapshots of the drive to the warehouse district, the left turn. The studio rears its head among the tyre stores.

            There is no room for doubt. I comb over memory gaps like Mum would for missing hair—skip the half-remembered entrance, take myself straight to what we called the flying room, where suspended hoops and silks twirled placidly in the dark. We wanted to learn something magical. Aerial dance is what we found.

            The double doors are slightly ajar; the lights are on. My heart clenches at the familiar drape of blues and reds tumbling down from the rafters. There she is: up five or six metres, meditatively twisting herself into an S-wrap, her back arched over her head. The silks billow down, lovelier than any dress train in the world. As Beyonce ascends into a chorus, Suli throws her hands wide—and is gone.

            I stumble inside. The room sends me reeling. Sweat-smell and grip aid, cold metal, muscles hot and humming—it throbs with a thousand evenings from a hazy before. Before the Hearth wizards came, before my power abandoned me, when thunderstorms and touchscreens were enough for me to believe in magic. In each detail lurks a grain of memory. Massed together, a sediment, solid enough at last to tether to.

            Suli reappears at a hoop, tumbling into a split with her eyes closed. Her skin is red with friction burns, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Another eight counts, another jump, and again, again. She flashes like a firework, dropping, reappearing, freefalling, blinking safely to another pair of silks. In two minutes, she teleports more than I have in my entire life, unhesitating, like laughter.

            The song fades out. Suli blinks to the floor, doubled over.

            ‘Vale,’ she says breathlessly.

            Again with that voice that has snapped over oceans, swallowed sunlight. I step backwards through the doorway. I want her to run out and find herself alone, like I had. But I can’t do it. Not when it’s her reaching for me, open-mouthed and exposed.

            ‘How did you do that?’ Suli teleports by me, so close her heat dusts my cheek. ‘I thought you haven’t been here in years.’

            ‘I don’t think I tether to places.’ I hardly dare to blink. This feels like a reverie, final, fragile. ‘Every time I’ve ever teleported, someone was there waiting for me.’

            Suli’s face lifts with wonder. ‘You tether to people?’

            I look up at the silks, still whirling from a phantom dancer. ‘Not when they keep disappearing.’

            She hugs herself as she looks over me anew. The hair on her arms has prickled up. She was wrong, magic isn’t fading. It’s changing. The secret must be that we tether to what we love: that micro-universe where freedom and no choice overlap. For the elders, that place is, or was, Hearth. For my parents, it is the decaying neighbourhood they remember as new. For Suli—perhaps everywhere and nowhere is home to her, or she has made a place in her own body, in its range of motion.

            For me, that place might be Suli.

            ‘It’s too easy when no one can catch you,’ she says. ‘No one even seems to notice.’

            I clench my jaw. ‘You’re so stupid for a damn prodigy.’

            She falls silent, as though no one has called her stupid before. ‘I’ve gotten away with so much by disappearing. I’m sorry. It’s all I’m good at.’

            Suli might have been everywhere, but she is just as lost as the rest of us.

            ‘You dance, too,’ I say.

            She laughs self-consciously. ‘Maybe it’s a waste, but I’ve been thinking of joining the circus. I bet no one’s ever seen an act like this.’

            She teleports to a hoop above my head and spins with her legs, blurring. The most ephemeral thing in the room. To be able to blink into position, she must have practised each move, what, a hundred times? A thousand? More than any ritual teleport or pompous incantation. Cut an artery and Suli would bleed silk and steel.

            I can already hear Elder Corin’s complaints. ‘It would be more fun than a vanishing act.’

            ‘Dance with me,’ Suli says, extending a hand.

            I remember, now, a time when we trusted each other with the weight of our bodies. When we flew as one, mythic creature, and the studio around us inhaled like a lung and exhaled magic. Walls spinning, carabiners creaking.

            I blink, falling into that memory. All the names this world has called us (aliens, in the nineties; interdimensional arrivals, by Home Affairs; undeportables, according to Daily Mail), and I think we are really just sentimental, hopelessly sentimental, for places that feel like home.

            Air whooshes and two rock-solid hands catch mine. We unfold into an old shape that my muscles remember before my mind: Suli floating inside the hoop, holding onto me down below. A scale model of our childhood dancing. Or, perhaps, shadows of our older selves. Is Hearth closed to us forever? Is there such thing as an us? The future thrums in my throat as I grab tight onto this moment, even as it sifts away between my fingers.

            My teleportation sense sprawls. The entire studio feels like her, tingles in all the places she has been—in mid-air, up and down, over and over and over. I am no longer sure where I will be tomorrow. But, in this blink of time, the beating heart of the flying room is all that exists in the world.

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