When Jessim’s grandmother worked, she chose corners on the widest streets of the city. The greater the crowd, the more coins would be dropped into her donation basket, and she needed the space.
She walled herself behind a half ring of wooden buckets with wide mouths she could plant two open hands inside. They sat, filled at varying levels with chalk all tinged blue and green and red and yellow under their own whiteness, and never quite managed to look clean. Like painters buckets, they earned their stains and their scuffs and their wrong colors leftover from their last filling. They were never supposed to be pretty, because no one was supposed to examine them any longer than the quick glance to make sure they didn’t trip.
Behind her, or sometimes to one side of her if the breeze was in a different mood that morning, she kept a large tub of water and filled it to the brim.
Then she stretched, and she grinned, and she held her hands open in front of her, palm up.
Ice-white, liquid glow spilled from her palms, bright as flame, and bubbling like smoke. It was warm, and Grandmother would blink a few times to adjust to the heat. It puffed into the air, and then fell in waterfalls around her hands, fast at first, then slow, as if the smoke was slowly turning to cloud, and from cloud to fog, and from fog to haze.
When the first ghost uncurled from the smoke and took a walk across the flat plane of her hands, the crowd would start to slow around her. The ghost was indistinct: just a head and torso, and a swinging movement as it walked that suggested legs. And it was a clever little ghost, because it had no features, but no one doubted what it was.
She made it walk, from one of her thumbs to the other and back, and that was enough for most people to smile appreciatively at the feat of keimon control. Then, on the last step, it hopped, and grew, busting apart into arms and legs and it suddenly stopped it look at itself. The crowd laughed on a moment and clapped. People turned to their neighbors to make sure they’d seen. When a second ghost arrived, trotting up from the fog, the air peeling the outsides away way until a sleek horse wheeled back on two legs, they applauded and pressed closer.
The ghosts were beautiful, and Jessim always tucked his elbows to his sides and shoved his way forward too.
Ghost after ghost walked around Grandmother. They formed out of nothing, then faded into nothing, bright and happy as stars. Two ghosts waltzed. Three more played leap frog over each other. Another jumped onto the horse’s back and climbed to a ghostly moon and they crashed into each other.
After a few minutes, the crowd loosened. Jessim could feel it, like pressure peeling away from his shoulders. One moment, strange gravity leaned them forward, and the next, it suddenly righted itself and landed them all on their feet again.
Grandmother watched for the movement, and then she spun toward her line of buckets. She bent, dug her hands into the chalk. Raising her hands, she sent another horse, so large as to be real, with a magnificent burning blue head and shoulders and slowly faded to white along its sides. It galloped along the ring of buckets.
At the next bucket, she slammed her hands in. The chalk puffed over the edge and the glow around her flared red. She set another horse beside its sister, burning mottled purple, streaked with both red and blue.
Then, dancing between her horses, she set her hands into the tub of water. Her hands hissed, and steam rose in two thin columns.
Then back to the buckets and a red horse trotted out tossing its head.
Grandmother didn’t even see the crowd anymore, but she was grinning madder than before.
The next bucket, and a rich brown horse ran circles around the next, red sliding down its shoulders, green tinging the line of its mane.
Another twisting column of steam at the water bucket, twisted and beautiful as the fire, but standing still while the horses wheeled around its straight post.
Back to the bucket and an emerald green horse flashed between the others. It was a little smaller, the legs made made of finer bone and the shoulders thinner in its youth.
The five of them shook their heads, waved their manes, picked up their hooves, flicked their tails as they ran. They ran together, and they split and spun apart, rose on back legs and kicked at the air. They jumped over each other, and over Grandmother, and over the buckets. Then they ran in the buckets, each of their hooves catching in the colors and flashing instantly in brilliant flushes of fire.
The crowd applauded, yelled, and laughed. Grandmother heard none of it, her eyes darting between the horses, holding the lines of them intact. If Jessim watched closely, he could find the waver in them, the places where the fire frayed and blurred and burned on its own whims. But she saw it faster than he did, and was already smoothing it back down into the sweeping line of a flank, or the sharp point of an ear.
And when she couldn’t hold them together any more, she let go, and they burned into bright nothing, in one last breath-stealing step.
The crowd applauded like they would beat their hands apart.
Grandmother was sweating, was breathing hard, was shaking just a little. And smiling.
She took a bow, came up trying to press her lips flat, and failing. She always found Jessim in the crowd, and nodded to him. It would be his turn soon enough.