From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Chemical Magic

1.

The magician pulled a rabbit, a sock monkey, a rainbow, and a flowering plum tree out of his hat. He reached in deeper, for everything that was missing. He searched for something, anything, that would make it right and bring her back from the far off lands seventeen subway stops away. His gap-toothed audience, smiling and applauding, yelled for him to do more while the birthday boy sucked on a large purple lollipop. The magician pulled kerchiefs from his sleeve, a huge pile of bright-colored silks, never-ending as they fell onto the floor around his shiny leather boots. He stared down at them and knew, no matter how long he kept pulling, that there could never be enough to cover his grief.

When he was done, the children clapped. The parents smiled. He bowed and scurried home to his lonely apartment, empty except for the rats and the box that was his best trick. If only a girl allowed him to do it.

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The alchemist scratched her nose with a gnawed fingernail and watched the flow of information that turned pithy phrases into charitable donations. She clicked over to the Alchemists for Peace project’s financial page and made a complicated exchange that turned Euros into silver sterling. She felt a small contentment and held onto that feeling until it faded away.

“Maybe I’ll go see a movie,” she said out loud, as though she had roommates. She scratched her belly, along the red-lined scar, and missed him for a moment: there were still memories that made her ache. She looked out the window and saw one of the magician’s sad doves pecking at his feet where a message had been tied to his leg.

The alchemist opened the window, took the trembling bird into her hands, and untied the message. She turned paper into fire and rage.

2.

Two months earlier the magician stood on the dance floor wondering how to magic his feet into graceful motion rather than the choppy glitched movement of a thirteen-year-old boy. He hated his dancing, but hated more those men who stood in the club’s shadows and watched without ever moving their bodies. So he bounced and swayed while his elbows jerked backwards in a hopeless gesture.

He hit something soft that squished and said “Ow.” He turned around to see a woman holding her breast and glaring at him. She had the kind of breasts he loved: round and droopy.

“Sorry,” he mouthed over the bass boom. She rolled her eyes.

He tried to elbow himself in the chest; it only seemed fair. But the laws of physics only allowed him a blow to the belly. At least it made her smile a little. It turned her hard-edged face lovely for a moment.

She flinched when he reached forward and pulled a lollipop from behind her ear. She shook her head and patted her lips with two fingers, so he reached behind her other ear and pulled out a long cigarette. He followed her outside, out past the butchy girls comparing pecs, to the alley full of rain and soggy cardboard.

“I’m the magician,” he said. The awning made unimpressed noises overhead.

“Alchemist,” she replied. She took a mote of dust from her pocket and placed it on the edge of her cigarette. She turned air into flame.

“Those things will kill you,” he said.

“Cancer turns cells into monsters,” she said with professional admiration.

The alchemist offered him a drag and he took it, shivering a little when he placed the wet tip into his mouth.

“So magician, what kind of magic are you into?”

He shrugged. “Anything, really. Magic is all one thing, underneath. I keep most of my tricks small, so I don’t scare people. So they don’t ask too many questions. You know?”

“I do.” She smiled. “At least people understand what a magician is. Everyone thinks an alchemist makes perfume. One time I turned perfume into urine, but that’s not really my thing.”

“Why’d you do it?”

“A lover cheated on me.”

The magician nodded. He thought about the women he’d been with, and how they’d all turned from something magical into something awful. Maybe an alchemist could keep that from happening. “I bet your current lover doesn’t cheat,” he said, trying not to sound too obvious.

She raised one eyebrow. “I hope he won’t.”

She held his gaze until the magician felt himself turning into something hot and bothered. She walked away, and he followed, listening as she turned words into a smoldering flirtation. He pulled flower after flower from his breast pocket until he found her favorite, a calla lily, and tucked it behind her ear. She turned his apartment key into an invitation. He led her through his doorway and into the world of his magical carpet, his magical bed, and his magical bathtub.

3.

On some days they made elaborate adventuresome plans and then never ended up leaving the bed. On others they would go to the movies and come out dazed, not having any idea what it was about.

“I want to know everything about you,” the magician said.

The alchemist felt his lovely desire and reminded herself that she had to keep separate, for both their sakes. She pulled herself out of his arms and sighed. “You know what happens when you know everything about an alchemist?”

The magician took a pair of lovebirds out of his vest pocket and let them fly into the air. They swooped and swirled around each other, feinting and surging in a secret bird dance before settling down on the magician’s headboard.

“One thing becomes another,” she said. “Objects lose integrity.”

She could tell he didn’t understand. Maybe he didn’t want to.

The alchemist took one of the birds into her hands and licked her fingers. When she stroked its green-feathered head, its feathers grew black and crow-like.

4.

“I want to see what you can really do,” he said to her one day at the park. All the squirrels watched her and all the boats in the sailboat pond blew towards her. He couldn’t help it; his magic leaked out when she came around. It filled him up and spilled all over.

She smiled at him, and he knew her well enough to see the equal parts of condescension and affection. She liked him, he knew that, but not as much as he liked her. She kept her distance.

“Most things can become most other things,” she said. “The key is to figuring out how it changes. Like water into wine, you want to know how Jesus did it?”

“Sure,” the magician said. He glanced around, hoping no one religious stood nearby. The only people were little kids valiantly trying to push their boats away from her and out into the middle of the pool.

“So, they are both liquids. That helps, but it doesn’t go very far. Water quenches one kind of thirst, and wine another –physiological and psychological. So that moves them closer together. Then consider how water, to the thirsty, is a relief, and how alcohol, to the wary, is a relief.” She gazed out across the oval pond. “When I hold all of that in my mind, then it is only a small step into knowing what chemical compounds are needed to bridge the step between them. She opened her clunky purse and took out what looked like a moldy breadcrumb. She flicked it into the water, and it sank down between the bobbing, miniature sailboats. The magician blinked, and in the time it took for his eyes to flutter shut then open, the water became a dark red stain stretching the length of the pool.

The alchemist cupped her hand and dipped it into the liquid. She sipped it delicately. “A fine Sangiovese.”

“You are amazing. I love you.” The words slipped out of him, and he wondered if she had given him something to turn his infatuation into something deeper. Her wary smile told him she had not.

The magician lowered his mouth to the red liquid of the pond and drank as much as he could without choking.

“Your face is a mess,” she said when he sat back up again. A cold breeze blew across the pond, capsizing some of the sailboats. They left as the kids started crying, and parents began swearing and making phone calls to the city water department.

5.

They spent Monday through Friday playing phone tag, always just missing each other. The alchemist went to her guild meetings and attended birthday parties for family members. She watched his reaction and felt worried at his brooding demeanor. She tried to tell him about balance, and the need for object integrity.

He didn’t believe her. He acted like she was lying, even though she was just trying to take care of both of them. He felt wounded and tried too hard. The magician sent flowers that bloomed into other flowers and a box of endless chocolates.

“The candies made me a little sick,” she admitted. “I turned them into toffees. Less intense, I guess.”

With little gestures and words she tried to keep both of them safe, even though he was such a pretty magician. Even so, she knew she was losing him.

6.

“I want to see more of your tricks,” the alchemist said to the magician. They sat at a booth in a restaurant where the food was much too greasy, but she’d sprinkled her own salt on top of the fried blintzes. They’d turned nourishing and healthy, without losing any taste. She’d turned their Sprites into gin and tonics, and both of them were a bit tipsy.

The magician put on a smile and held up his fork. It drooped in the middle. She laughed and brushed her fingers across his forearm. He felt a chasm between them, even though she sat two feet away.

“There’s more to it though, isn’t there?” She sucked on her straw. He liked the way alcohol softened her.

“Magic is fussy, it comes and goes,” he said. ”It’s an art, not a science.” He said the words that all magicians are taught to say, in order to hide their inadequacy.

She nodded her head and yawned into the palm of her hand.

He leaned forward and ran his hand through her hair, as much to remind himself that he could as for the feel of her tangled curls that came undone beneath his touch.

“Magic can be dangerous,” he said.

“Alchemy, too.”

He sipped at the perfectly balanced gin and tonic. “For small things it will act predictably, most of the time. But magic is like electricity, always taking the most direct path home. And the bigger the magic, the more it can spark and spike.” His hands shook and he looked away. Explaining any of it made him feel naked in a new way.

“But you’re a really good magician, right?” the alchemist asked.

He nodded. He wanted it to be true, and besides, she looked so impressed. “There is one trick…” he said. Maybe she would finally be the girl who liked it.

“Drink all of that,” he ordered her and took a big gulp of his own drink. “Let’s go to my place.” The magician pulled five-dollar bills out of his nose until he had enough to cover the bill.

He clutched her hand as they walked through the musky city streets and up the stairs to his apartment. A month ago she’d turned the dust mites into lavender seeds, and the whole place smelled hopeful. The magician took off his vest and hat, and gestured for the alchemist to sit at his kitchen table.

“For tonight, for one night only!” he began, “Come see the magician’s most daring and death defying trick!” He paused and studied the curl of her smile. His fingers twitched and a pack of cards appeared in one hand.

She raised an unimpressed eyebrow.

Good. Start slow, as though nothing that interesting would happen.

He threw the cards up into the air, and they burst into tiny fireworks before disappearing. He coughed, and pulled a three foot long rapier out of his mouth. The razor sharp edge cut the top of his palate, and his mouth filled with blood.

The alchemist applauded.

She was ready. We are ready for this trick, he decided. “For my next trick I will need an assistant. Is there anyone in the audience, any brave girl willing to help me?”

The alchemist raised her hand, and the magician spent a long moment scanning his Lay-z-Boy, his fish tank, and the stereo, before finally noticing her. “Ah yes, you, fine lady, and what is your name?”

“The alchemist,” she said primly.

“Ah, a perfumist in the house, how lovely.”

She stuck her tongue out and took his outstretched hand. “You sure about this?” he whispered. “You trust me?” He wanted that, more than anything.

She hesitated, and then nodded. He led her into the bedroom and over to the contraption that sat near his window. It stood on sixteen legs, and every inch of it was carved and painted with faded carnival reds and umbers. The magician opened the lid, and gestured for the alchemist to lay herself down within it. The length of her body went inside the box, while her head and feet stuck out at the ends.

“One thing,” she said. She looked a bit frozen. “If I say stop, you have to.”

The magician felt the barrier she erected between them. He smiled, shut the lid to the box, and slid four different bolts shut.

The magician opened a slim drawer on the side of the box and took out two panes of glass, knife-sharpened along one edge. His hands trembled, as he showed them to her, peering through them and smiling. The colors of her face bleached out to white.

Magic and need bubbled through him with an effervescent itch, seeking release. He took the sheets and held them above the perfectly fitted slots of the box.

She cleared her throat, about to say something, maybe about leaving him. We both need this, he thought, and plunged it into her. Through her. Magic flushed through him, hard and down. It caught on her spinal cord before slicing through.

She screamed.

The magician didn’t look at her face, but knelt down and rolled away the two separate pieces of the box. Through the glass he could see her internal landscape. She can’t hide from me now, he thought.

Her scream turned into a short, panting breath. “Look away,” she whispered. “Don’t look inside.”

He had already split her in two? How could he resist. He turned torso-side and watched a lovely red carp flit about, moving in and out of her undulating organs. Its mouth gaped open in an “O” shape. Around her stomach he saw an old man curled up and sleeping. A leather whip laced around her intestines, braided and shiny. The magician smiled and peered closer. Something tar-like oozed over her liver, taking on shadowy, menacing forms. Sweat dripped down his face, and he noticed his breath came like a dog’s on a hot day.

“Please stop. You don’t know. You can’t,” she said.

“It doesn’t hurt,” the magician said. “Everyone is sure it will hurt. That’s why you screamed, wasn’t it?”

She said nothing.

The magician turned to look into the tops of her thighs. At the center of it, a green python pulled back its head and struck at the glass. In her left leg sat a naked man, almost a boy. Hairless and shy, he peeked out from behind some tendons. The magician liked the boy, and felt like they could be friends. In the other leg, he saw two people, a woman and an androgyne. They sat perched on the pelvic bone, whispering to each other and laughing. He leaned close, but he couldn’t hear any of the words through the glass. Their tiny, delicate hands danced about. He had never seen anything quite so beautiful. “You’re more amazing than any other women I’ve looked into. Not that there’s been many,” he added hurriedly, lest she think this didn’t mean anything to him.

He stood up and looked at her face. Her eyes looked cartoonish and huge.

“It doesn’t hurt,” he whispered. “It may be shocking, but there’s no pain, right?”

He took out four more panes of glass, to separate her legs from each other, and to sever a section of her torso off. There was still so much to see.

She made sense to him now. He saw that she loved him in the curl of bright green leaves growing through her steadfast heart.

Feeling sated and a little faint, he pushed the box back together and pulled out the panes of glass streaked with red and a faint sheen of viscera. He held his hand over the box, and let magic flow out and through him, until he became empty. He unlocked the box, and pulled her limp form out, pulling her into his arms. She wouldn’t look at him, but kept her face turned away like a stubborn child.

He went to go get two glasses of water from the kitchen sink, one for each of them. He couldn’t wait to tell her what he’d seen. What he knew. When he came back, she was gone. She’d turned the front door into a massive wasp nest, and the insects swarmed toward him when he took a step near it. A note sat on the box. I warned you, it read.

He sighed, knowing that she wasn’t the one, and just like all the others, he would have to keep searching for a good box girl. He had hoped an alchemist might understand him. And she loved him, he knew that. Maybe she just needed a little time. He turned back to the box, the wondrous box that had showed him everything. He ran a finger along one of the glass panes, and touched his reddened finger to his tongue, tasting her. It held nuances of smoke, rain, and fresh bread. He took each of the glass panes and licked them clean.

The magician slept an uneasy sleep, and woke with the feeling that his half-remembered dreams had all been of war. He got up to make his coffee, and felt a weight and shift of gravity within his body. Beneath his sweatshirt were two rounded breasts, the kind he loved best of all: hers. He stripped and stood in front of his bathroom mirror. His hair had grown curly and thick, and his balls and penis had shrunk considerably.

He called the alchemist and left a long message on her phone, saying that he missed her and loved her, and that yesterday had been the best moment of his life. His voice squawked and brayed like a teenager’s.

Not knowing what to do, he made eggs and toast for breakfast, and wished for some of her salt to make it taste better. Wasps swarmed around the food, stealing tiny chunks with their front legs, and he had to carefully eat around them. He left her another message, asking why his body was changing, and if she could change it back. Then he left another, admitting that he had licked the panes clean. He told her how good it had tasted.

The transformation was imperfect and random. Some parts became hers, others stayed his own, while yet others took on a lumpish interim form. It took several days, and it was his mind, last of all, that changed. Parts of her came into him. Parts he could not know until he knew the truth, and then he could not unknow them. He cried and paced around his apartment. He went to his box and came close to dismantling it, but part of him was still himself, so he did not. It sat, like a judgment, like a warning, like shame.

The magician wished he could change one way or the other, and not have to hold both her and him inside of himself. He knew exactly the trespass of a magician cutting an alchemist in half and not stopping when she asked. He knew the heady rush of that trespass as well. He knew the deep joy, and the terror.

He wrote on a scratch of paper, I know what I did, and tied it to his pigeon’s foot, sending it out to find her. When the pigeon came back he wrote another note, and another. He called more magic into him than ever before, and tried to turn back time, to change fact into fiction, and to erase his own memory. But he had never been a very powerful magician.

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Katherine Sparrow lives in Santa Cruz where she spends her time writing, working with the mentally ill, and being part of the riffraff. She is working on a dystopic novel about teens, madness, and liberation. Come say hi at katherinesparrow.net.

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