From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Penguin and Wren

The Magician’s Oath:

The wooden box promises to make Dale the life of any party or social gathering, 1001 tricks, gags and illusions. The Queen of Hearts Deluxe, The Dancing Ball, The Invisible Empress, simple tricks with exotic names. He wears a velvet top hat and carries around a white-tipped wand, and people call him Magician.

When Dale vanishes a coin for his sister Sonia and materializes it from behind her ear, she grabs her ear frantically and knocks the quarter into a heating vent. She rocks her wheelchair back and forth and Dale has to clamp onto the handles to keep her from tipping over.

All afternoon he tries to soothe her back to normal. But Sonia doesn’t want to be soothed.

“It’s a trick,” he explains again at the dinner table that night. Just a stupid trick. Not real magic. Not yet.

Where did it go? How get in my ear? Sonia signs to him. When she’s agitated, she signs like lightning and only Dale can decipher her words.

He signs back. I can’t tell you. You’re not a magician.

Mother brings over the spaghetti just in time to catch his last words. “Just show her the damned trick, Dale.”

They don’t understand that magic is more than top hats and playing cards. In recent months Dale has discovered that magic means secrecy. A magician is not alone, but is part of a brotherhood, an old society determined to keep its secrets safe until it trusts you enough to usher you into the next level.

“I can’t.” He shakes his head stubbornly. “I can only show another magician.”

* * *

Ever since the coin trick, Sonia has been impossible to get rid of. When he thinks she’s finally given up, the click of the wheelchair’s control levers or the scraping of spokes against the wall gives her away.

So he waits until she is safely ensconced in front of the TV and hurries to his room where the box waits, under the bed where Sonia cannot reach. The tricks are becoming reflex actions; soon he’ll be able do them blindfolded. Dale practices and bows to at his mirrored reflection and wonders if he looks like a real magician. He hears a telltale clunk outside the door. The locked doorknob jiggles for a full minute before he marches over and throws it open. Sonia spills into the room, her face twisted with anxiety.

“You should be resting. Mom says.”

Show me, Dale. Show me magic.

* * *

I. “As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn.”

Dale rides his flame-painted bicycle. His proportions are all wrong for the bike now; his rump slips off the seat and his knees bump against his chest as he pedals. He stops to staple flyers to trees and utility poles, and tucks them inside mailboxes and behind windshield wipers. On his way back home, he passes one of his flyers flapping down the street and he finds himself hoping they will all blow away before anyone can see them. He’s way too old for this shit now. But he does it for her. He does this for Sonia.

You are cordially invited to Sonia and Dale’s 3rd Annual Magic Xtravaganza! Come see The Disappearing Wheelchair, Chicken or the Egg, and a spectacular new trick created by Sonia Larch herself. Free admission, one day only, Saturday the 22nd at 2:00 pm.

Sonia has transformed from a rounded, chubby kid to a young lady made up of sharp points and angles. She keeps her hair long because it masks the lazy half of her face. Mother often totes her off to the doctor’s office as if there is a vaccine for distant behavior and moodiness, but the doctor doesn’t help; he says Sonia’s hobby has much improved her coordination and dexterity.

“Of course she’s moody, she’s a teenager,” Father says, looking up from his sudoku puzzle. “At least she’s not mooning over these punk kids Dale brings around.”

“I wish she would moon,” Mother says. “That I could help her with.”

Dale overhears them as he passes through the living room, glad Margaret waits outside. Margaret thinks his family is perfect. He supposes he thought so too at one time, and wonders about illusion and delusion, about where one ends and the other begins. He passes through the hall and turns towards Sonia’s room and realizes he hasn’t seen her for more than a minute or two in weeks.

As he steps through Sonia’s doorway, it’s as if her room has been swallowed by magic. Everything is dark and mysterious. Shadows in the corners beckon and promise to reveal their secrets if you will just come a little closer.

Five years ago, Dale would have killed for this room. It looks twice as big as it used to, her wall of mirrors complete. Dale wonders who she conned to do it. A rope of silk scarves dangles off the bed and stacked, prop-filled plastic organizers line the walls.

Sonia scoots away from her computer. She’s got on a faded Blondie t-shirt and holey jeans and her face reflects the good old indoors: pale, strained. She’s tapping the bottom of a cardboard tube and Dale half expects a bouquet of flowers to spring out. Instead a rolled up poster drops into her lap.

Tack it up for me?

Dale unrolls it. Harry Houdini glares out from the poster with his typical intensity, dressed in a skintight wrestling outfit. Heavy chains crisscross his chest; his hands are bound behind his back. Dale lets the poster roll back up on itself. You don’t like penguins anymore?

Her face sours. Saved some. She points at the low shelf by her bed.

Dale shakes his head. Throw us away too? You hide in your room, friends with colored balls, plastic flowers–

Don’t tease, she interrupts. Not much time left–two weeks until show. You have not practiced. Don’t know new tricks.

“There’s more to life than magic,” he says out loud. The volume is louder than he’d intended, not that she would know. He lowers his voice anyway. “Come outside for a while. My friend Margaret wants to meet you.”

Sonia avoids his gaze and rolls over to her bed as if missing his words, an old trick of hers. She takes a porcelain penguin in her hand, one of the last that remains-it wears ice skates and sunglasses and a bow tie. Dale gave it to her for her seventh birthday. She hurls it across the room and it shatters against the wall.

A wave of anger and irritation floods as he stalks over and picks up the pieces. “That was stupid.”

I hate them, hate them all. Stupid no-working wings. I am not penguin-girl. She grinds what’s left of a porcelain ice skate under her wheel and turns her face into her concaved shoulder, shuddering.

Dale rises to comfort her and she spins her chair around, wipes her eyes on her sleeve like a child.

You showed her. You betrayed the Oath, I know. Vowelish sounds grunt out as she signs. She finishes by flipping him the bird.

“Who cares if I did?” he argues. “Sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors, levers and pulleys. None of it real. It’s a game, just to fool people, make them think they’re witnessing magic. I don’t like fooling people. Margaret wanted to see, so I showed her.”

He shoves aside a stack of The Linking Ring journals and scoots onto the desk.

Never show you new magic again. Never.

He believes her. Something in her eyes reminds him of Houdini. Intense. Obsessed. He slides off the desk and knocks the stacked journals to the floor.

“Houdini died in his Chinese Water Tank. Died for a trick. You should remember that.” He bends to retrieve the journals. It helps not to look at her. “I’m tired of tricks, Sonia. I don’t want to do this anymore.” He can say whatever he wants as long as she can’t see his lips.

Houdini did not die in water tank, Sonia signs angrily when he turns. Houdini died after man punched his stomach many times. Burst appendix.

She rolls to the window and stares out. He knows nothing he says will make her speak to him again today. A chime of wrens flits past and alights on the towering oak, the birds mingling on branches that are far older than the house.

“Where did my sister go?” Dale asks the back of her head. These days he speaks more to her in this manner than he does to her face. “I miss her.”

He knows she’s crying, knows he can’t help her. Once he had hoped to fix her broken body. Once he had believed in magic. He moves in front of her, in her line of sight so she can’t avoid his words.

“I can’t be your assistant anymore. I’m sorry.”

He leaves her at the window, and goes to apologize for the umpteenth time to Margaret, who is starting to disbelieve that he even has a sister.

* * *

II. “I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magic.”

Sonia has been more or less her old self again. Mom and Dad don’t know about the talk he had with her. They only know the subject of magic has vanished, and they silently rejoice. Mom says Sonia is finally growing up.

On Saturday the 22nd, grey clouds roll in and hang low. By lunchtime it’s a full blown gullywasher, with sheets of rain waterfalling off the roofing shingles. Mom and Dad are at a neighbor’s house and Sonia has stayed in her room most of the morning. When the power goes out for the second time, Dale curses at the TV and tosses aside his game controller.

The silence in the house contrasts sharply with the chaos outside. He knocks at Sonia’s door and when she answers, catches his breath. A large wooden sign–Sonia and Dale’s Grand Revue!–seems to levitate from the ceiling, hung with fishing wire. Their old vanishing box sits in the north corner of her bedroom, and a table waits at the center of the room, topped with purple velvet.

Surprise, Big Brother. The right half of her lip creeps up, her Elvis grin, the biggest smile Sonia can manage. Her hair is spiraled into a messy bun on top of her head and she’s wearing tuxedo tails with her jeans. You’re early.

It’s like seeing the setup for the first time, the way she’s dressed, the stage set and ready to go. Our show was supposed to be today, I forgot! How did you string lights? How did you do this without me knowing?

Wasn’t secret. You too busy. Studying. Kissing Margaret.

His stunned expression throws her into a spasm of silent laughter.

Dad helped. Too bad power out. Looks great with lights.

Amazing, he signs. The Amazing Sonia.

Her milky blue eyes water. She dabs at her numb chin self-consciously with a cloth from her tux pocket, catching the welled-up saliva inside her lip before it dribbles out. Dale finds a chair meant for him behind a folding table that has a bud vase with a silk daisy and a platter of Ritz crackers on it.

He’s barely taken a seat when Sonia launches into her act and blows him away with a trick he’s never seen before. How does she make the silver rings divide into the air and then clink onto her arm like that? The act goes faster than he is used to. She’s rushing through, like she’s racing, or trying to get it over with.

The old favorites are all here: The Sympathetic Silks, The Miser’s Dream. Handkerchiefs whoosh through her hands, change from purple to red; a seemingly endless supply of coins seem to appear from nowhere and jangle into the top hat like a slot machine paying off.

Her card tricks are flawless: shuffle, cut, fan out, nail it. Dale has clapped so hard and for so long his hands ache. At last Sonia rolls to the card table and chugs from her water bottle, rolls her neck from side to side and shrugs her shoulders.

When he hoots and calls out for more she fakes modest surprise.

Who, me?

He hollers louder. This is his part now: the audience.

Okay. Just for you, one last trick.

Sonia retrieves a box, puts it on her lap and rolls over to Dale.

“This is it?” He fakes disappointment. “Your grand finale fits inside a shoe box?”

Big finish. Trick of tricks.

The drumming of the rain has slowed. The room smells of damp and cinnamon; a stick of incense smokes, and a breeze from the open window buffets the curtains.

Last time you came here I watched the birds. Watched the sunset. Watch you take Margaret home, drive away. You quit me.

He can’t deny it. He wanted to separate from her, needed to. I’m sorry.

She waves him off with a grin that is wide and victorious. The best trick I learned that day. Learned to talk to matter. Learned what is illusion, what is real.

Dale notices small holes punched into the shoe box resting on his sister’s lap. It is painted purple and sparkles with glitter and glued-on plastic gems. She lifts the lid and sets it aside.

Matter does not change. But. Can borrow. Can trade. Can’t tell it what to do, but can ask. Offer it something. Let it decide.

A dusty brown wren blinks its bright eyes at him from within the confines of the box. It stays perfectly, unnaturally still. If not for the blinking and the aura of aliveness, Dale might have thought it a fake.

“I don’t understand what you mean …”

Magic not hard, not flashy. Real magic easy. Can’t make something from nothing, but can work with what is there.

Sonia sets her forefinger next to the wren and lets it hop on and curl its feet around her finger. She brings the bird up to her nose, nudges its beak–she’s always loved birds–and lowers it back into the box.

I said I would not show you more tricks. But this one I will. Wren and I have made agreement.

Her knuckles go yellowish-white as she grips the arms of the wheelchair. Her head dips back. Her body is so still and stiff, like the dead collie he had found in the woods once. This feels exactly that unpleasant, even though he knows it’s just part of the trick.

“That’s enough, Sonia.” His heart hammers as he grabs onto her hand. “Stop it.”

Their eyes close simultaneously, Sonia’s and the wee bird’s. When she reopens them, her eyes flicker oddly and stare back at him, bright and black. Dale drops her hand and takes a step backwards.

The wren thrashes its wings in the shoebox until the box thuds onto the floor. Dale hurries over to catch the bird. He has to find out if its eyes really are a milky blue or if he’s going crazy. But the wren takes flight. It darts away, twinning in the wall of mirrors just before it bursts out the window.

The power switches back on as if it’s in on the act.

Sonia?

She follows his hand movements with quick, questioning jerks of her head.

Dale looks out the window and sees wrens twittering through wet oak branches and splashing in grass-bottomed puddles left behind from the storm.

The chair is between him and the door—she’s there. He takes a tentative step. The girl in the chair tilts her head, mouth slack. Saliva dribbles down her chin and she doesn’t wipe it away. She just watches, every step, with her curious, black eyes.

Christie Skipper Ritchotte is the eldest daughter of two Mormon hippies, which should explain a lot. She lives in the Salt Lake Valley with her husband and son, and reads slush for Shimmer Magazine. Her fiction is scheduled to appear in Strange Horizons sometime soon. Feel free to email her at galacticfuzzball@gmail.com; she digs email

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