Findros had just begun to sniffle, and Mourra was still impatiently denying her own rising fear, when the tall man with the ragged cloak and the funny, pointy hat fell out of a tree in front of them. The children both yelped and recoiled, but only for a moment: there is simply nothing alarming or impressive about a man, whatever his size, wearing a hat that looks like a cross between a dunce cap and a crown. Raised not to stare rudely at strangers, Findros and Mourra nonetheless gaped shamelessly as the man stumbled to his knees, then quickly found his feet. He was certainly the tallest person either of them had ever seen, yet not big, not in a menacing way, like a giant or an ogre. Politely, he was slender, lean; less politely, gangleshanked; rudely, skinny, meager, gaunted-down. His thinness made his hands and feet look bigger than they really were, like those of a puppy yet expected to grow into his floppy paws, while his generous, flaring nose definitely belonged on an older, fiercer face. And if the green eyes were at once deep and distant, his voice was light and warm, a voice that tried not to call attention to itself. The man asked, “Children, are you in trouble? Are you lost?”
It was the word lost that did it — that, and the genuine concern in the tall man’s tone. Findros promptly burst into tears, and Mourra swung a hard little fist at him, hissing, “Stop it, you baby! Don’t you cry!” She herself would have died a silent martyr before ever admitting to any sort of fear or pain; though where that streak in her came from neither her mother Sairey, nor anyone else in the family, could ever have said. Mourra herself had long ago decided that it was a special gift from the father she could barely recall — he had died when she was not quite four — and treasured it accordingly. Findros had no such tradition to keep up.
“No,” she said loudly to the stranger. “We’re not lost, we’re just going home a different way. I keep telling him.”
The tall man rubbed the back of his neck, shaking his head. He said, “Boy, I’ve mislaid the road myself, all my life. Believe me, it’s not the end of the world.” But Findros howled as loud as ever, pointing a dirty forefinger at his sister. The man raised heavy eyebrows without speaking.
“He keeps saying I got us lost,” Mourra told him wearily. “But I didn’t, I never did. We went to the picnic, and then on the way home he was the one who just had to pick blackberries, and then we got turned around a little bit, but I still knew right where we were, and then —” her voice faltered for the first time — “then we had to go round through Craighley Wood, because old Mr. Willaby’s turned his bull into the north field, and so then we…”
“Then you losted us!” Findros seized on her hesitancy, triumphant in terror. “You losted us, and you don’t know the way home, and it’s getting dark —”
“I do so know how to get home, you liar!” The presence of the strange tall man made Mourra feel much younger than her eleven years, which in turn made her angry. “But I’m not going to move an inch until you stop your baby bawling! Look, I’m sitting down right now, you little baby!” She promptly plopped herself down by the roadside, in a patch of dry grass, folding her arms and grinning mockingly at Findros. “And if you don’t stop that crying, I’ll just sit here until it’s really dark, and the nightfliers will come and eat you, and they won’t leave a thing except your anklebones and your nasty dirty toes —”
“Enough.” The tall man raised his hands, gesturing them both to silence. He sighed in the unmistakable way of a tired, exasperated grownup. He said, “Well, I had other plans, but never mind. I will see you home.”
Findros stared, and went back to just sniffling. He eyed the tall man suspiciously. “You don’t live here. You don’t know where we live. You don’t know anything.”
From another adult, stranger or no, Mourra would have expected anger at such insolence, even braced herself to defend Findros from swift and merited chastisement. But the stranger only smiled. He said, “That is perfectly true. I come from very far away, and I have never been in this country before in my life. But I will still take you home, because I am a magician, and magicians can do things like that. Come.”
Without another word, he turned and began walking away from them down the narrow little road, still muddy from the rain of two days before. To Mourra’s amazement, Findros — from birth as wary as any wild animal of anyone he didn’t know — ran after him, taking hold of his left hand, exactly as he did with their mother when the three of them went out walking together. Mourra wavered briefly between fascination and distinct annoyance that her brother should have admitted an outsider to the kind of confidence he almost never granted her; then got to her feet and hurried after them, placing herself firmly on the stranger’s right, though without so much as looking at the inviting free hand, easily available. She decided on the spot that she was far too old to need such childish reassurances of protection, and she made the vow stick all the rest of that day.
“Why were you up in the tree?” she heard Findros questioning the stranger. “Were you doing a trick? Gicians do tricks.”
“Do they so?” The tall man looked mildly surprised, as though he had never heard of such a thing. “Well, would this count, do you suppose?” In rapid succession, lightly ruffling Findros’ hair, he produced a handful of cowrie shells, along with a turtle egg, a few old coins and a tiny bell, all of which he handed to the boy.
Findros closed his hand over his new treasures, but his mouth remained slackly open in wonder. Mourra said scornfully, “You put all those things in his hair. You had them in your hand, up your sleeve. I saw.”
The green eyes considered her, and the tall man nodded slowly. “You’re quite right. It was just a trick, nothing more. That’s what I do, tricks.” His voice sounded to Mourra as though he were biting down on something hard. “But then again, I know your names — Findros and Mourra, children of Sairey. There’s a good trick, surely?”
Both children stared — Findros in wide-eyed fascination, Mourra in sudden alarm. No one outside family was ever supposed to know a person’s birth name: you could never tell what might be done with it by the ill-meaning. The stranger said, “My name is Schmendrick.”
Findros shook his head. “That’s a funny name.”
The stranger agreed cheerfully. “It is, indeed, but I’m used to it. Now that’s a fine, strong name you have — Findros! I’d much rather have a name like that.”
“I’m just Findros for right now.” The boy made a gesture with two fingers, as though he was flicking something away into the grass. “When I grow up, I’m going to tell people my name’s Joris, because that was my father’s name. Our father’s name,” he added, in a quick concession to his scowling sister. “He’s dead.” The stranger nodded sympathetically, but said nothing.
A low-hanging twig brushed Mourra’s hair, and a small spider dropped onto her arm. She screamed involuntarily, shaking the creature to the ground, lifting her foot to crush it. Schmendrick said quickly, “Ah, don’t do that,” and although he neither raised his voice nor reached to interfere, she moved away without stamping on the spider. This made her even more annoyed with the tall man, for reasons she could not explain. She kicked a stone, and followed sullenly on.
The magician said, “I knew a woman once who collected spiders.” Mourra shuddered in revulsion, and though she made no sound, Schmendrick turned his head to regard her out of his green eyes. “She treated them so kindly,” he went on, “and they became so fond of her, that in time the spiders wove all her clothes, every last garment she wore. What do you think of that, Mourra?”
How did he know our names? Mourra’s own voice was thin, but steady and clear, as she answered, “I’d never ever touch a dirty old spiderweb. I hate spiders.”
“Mmm.” The stranger nodded thoughtfully. “Oh, but you should have seen my friend in those gowns and capes and dresses that the spiders made for her. I promise you, Mourra, when she walked out in the moonlight, when she spun on her heels with her arms straight out, the same way you spin and dance when no one is watching —” Mourra flushed angrily — “oh, then you would have thought that she carried the moon inside her, so that it shone right through her. That is just the way those spider-clothes made her look, and that is one reason why you should always be good to spiders, among many others.” He reached for her hand, but she sidled a step away, and he did not press the issue. He said, “You should always be good to anyone — any thing — that can create such beauty. Do you understand me, Mourra?”
“No,” she said, and nothing more. He walked on, matching his stride to Findros’ short legs; even slowing down a little to accommodate Mourra’s sulkily dragging pace. It seemed to her that he was beginning to look a trifle anxiously from side to side; now and then he made an odd, twisting gesture with his free right hand, or mumbled something under his breath that she could not catch. By and by he said, “I am very sorry your father died. How did it happen?”
Findros looked at Mourra, for once waiting for her to speak. She muttered, “The dragon.”
“Dragon?” Schmendrick wrinkled his forehead. “This is not dragon country. Far too low and wet. Dragons hate wet.”
“It was lost, too,” Mourra said. “It didn’t belong here.” She bit back the impulse to say, like you, and only continued, “It was going to eat us, but Papa fought with it. Papa killed it.”
“A rogue dragon,” the magician murmured, as though to himself. “I suppose that could be.”
He had not questioned the story, but Mourra bristled as though he had. “I was there! I was little, but I was there! Papa killed it, all by himself, but it killed him too. I remember!”
“Me too,” Findros said to no one in particular. “Me too, I member.”
Mourra turned on him scornfully. “You do not! You were a baby, you were in your cradle — you never even saw the dragon!” Seeing his eyes grow large with tears, she yet could not keep herself from adding, “You don’t even remember Papa!”
A sound came out of Findros that might have started out to be you take that back, but had dissolved into a wordless screech of outrage by the second word. Schmendrick caught him round the waist in midair as he lunged at his sister. Studying her over the boy’s struggling body, he said, mildly enough, “That was a cruel thing to say.”
Mourra had known that before the words were out of her mouth, but she would have dared Willaby’s bull before apologizing to Findros in this man’s presence. The magician set Findros on his feet with some caution, saying, “Come, we must walk faster if I am to have you home before dark.” Findros took his hand again without question.
Brooding behind them as they walked, Mourra heard the boy announcing, “You could have killed the dragon. Gicians can kill dragons, can’t they?”
“Some of us can,” the tall man answered absently. “Myself, I usually try to talk to them. You learn more that way.” He was silent for a moment, and then asked, “What sort of a dragon was it?”
Findros looked confused for only a moment. “It was black. All black and normous, and with big orange eyes. And horns, and things all over it. Bumples.”
Mourra said tonelessly, “It was gray. A kind of purply-gray, like a storm cloud. Like thunder. And its eyes were silver, and it didn’t have any horns or anything — it just had fire. Fire and teeth and claws.”
The magician said, “Your father must have been a very brave man. I never knew even a knight or a soldier dared face a dragon alone.”
He was not looking at Mourra now, but she felt his eyes on her even so. She said, “He was the bravest man in the world.” When Schmendrick did not reply, she continued fiercely, “There’s going to be a statue of him in the town, on the green. Him fighting the dragon. It’ll be finished soon.”
“And I wish I could be here to see it properly dedicated,” the magician responded heartily. “But I must deliver you to your mother and be on my way, for I’ve a long journey yet to go. Yes…” The last word was uttered in a different, softer tone, almost a whisper, as though he had not meant to say it, or for the children to hear. Mourra still did not take hold of his hand, but she moved slightly closer.
Findros said stubbornly, “It was a black dragon. I was there.” Mourra did not answer him. Findros peered cautiously into his closed left fist. “I like turtle eggs. You can bounce them.”
Schmendrick halted, no longer attempting to conceal the fretful, mysterious movements of his long hands, nor to disguise the fact that he was looking apprehensively in every direction. Mourra said, “You’re lost.” It was not a question.
The magician looked embarrassed. After a moment, he said, “Yes. I have taken you even further out of your way than you were, and I haven’t the slightest notion of how to bring you home. I am very sorry.”
Mourra had expected her brother to burst into frightened tears a second time — the horizon was definitely growing transparent with approaching sunset — but Findros only said confidently, “But you’re a gician. You can do a trick.” He leaned against Schmendrick’s leg.
Schmendrick said, as though to himself, “I thought I had that much magic in me. At least…that much. I was wrong.”
Findros looked up at him, and began to sniffle again. Mourra said, “Maybe if we go left, just up there, maybe…” But her voice trailed away, and she could do no more than point diffidently to a path further ahead. The magician shook his head.
“There is one more…trick I can try, but I will need your help. I cannot do it without you.” He held his hands out, reaching silently for theirs. Surprisingly, it was Mourra who — after a long moment — took firm hold of his left hand, while Findros hesitated until his sister nudged him sharply. The boy’s grip on Schmendrick’s hand was more than tentative, barely making contact with all five fingertips. But the tall man smiled at him, saying, “Very good, thank you. Now close your eyes, and repeat everything — everything — I say. We will get home together.”
He closed his own eyes and began to chant softly and musically. The syllables meant nothing to the children, but their sound was curiously comforting, though Mourra could not imagine why that should be. She kept her eyes tightly shut and repeated the words as clearly as she could, half-singing them as the magician did. When I open my eyes again, I’ll be home. I’ll be home with Mama.
But when her eyes did open, they saw nothing at all different. The countryside around them was as unchanged as the stones under her feet and the pale-gold clouds over the distant red-oak hills. Schmendrick had let go of her hand and her brother’s, and his face was so despairing that Mourra would have felt sorry for him if she had not been so concerned to forestall a second tearful panic on Findros’ part. She said, “I think we ought to turn around. There’s a cowpath we always take, we must have missed it.” The magician neither answered nor looked at her.
They had started to turn back — Schmendrick offering neither leadership nor resistance — when they saw a farm wagon emerging from the narrow path Mourra had pointed out earlier and swinging toward them. The driver recognized them, as did the horse; it stopped before he had even touched the reins. He was a big man with a white hair topping an amiable red face, set in its turn above broad shoulders and a cheerfully aggressive belly. He grumbled, “Sairey’s lot — I know you. Whatever be you doing, so far from home at dinnertime?”
Mourra answered him quickly, saying, “We were coming back from the picnic, and we got lost.” She nodded toward Schmendrick. “This is our friend. He was helping us.”
The farmer eyed Schmendrick up and down, turned his head and spat to the side. “H’ant done much of a job, got to say. Get y’selves up behind me.” He considered Schmendrick again, at some length, before he nodded. “Him, too.”
Mourra yanked her brother away from feeding handfuls of grass to the old horse, and the children scrambled into the wagon. Schmendrick hesitated, looking as though he would have preferred to walk, and not necessarily in the same direction. But after a moment he sighed briefly, then shrugged and climbed up beside them, doubling his long legs like a grasshopper to leave room. The driver grunted a single word, and the wagon started on.
They had indeed, following Schmendrick, wandered far enough from their road home that it was full twilight by the time the horse halted of its own accord and the farmer pointed down a wildflower slope toward a small, tidy house tucked into a ripple of hillsides. A woman stood in the doorway, shading her eyes, beckoning uncertainly.
Findros was out of the cart and running before the farmer had had a chance to growl, “Figure he’ll likely get you the rest of the way,” jerking his chin at Schmendrick. “Best to your ma.”
The woman was hurrying toward them now, picking up her skirts, as the farm wagon rumbled off. The magician said quietly, “Not much use for finding your way home, are they? Tricks.”
Mourra stood still, peering up into the magician’s green eyes, suddenly so far above her. She said, “We got home. Maybe the wagon…maybe that was the magic. That could be.”
Schmendrick stared at her without replying. She looked away, looked back at him, stood on one foot, scuffling the other in the soft earth, and finally asked, “I know you had all those things in your sleeve — I know that — but…but is there anything in my hair? Like with Findros?”
The magician went on regarding her for a long moment before putting his hand lightly on her head. “Mmm…well, definitely no eggs of any sort…no money, more’s the pity…no pretty shells…hello, hello — now what on earth have we here?”
Mourra found herself holding her breath. Something smooth and cool moved in her hair — don’t let it be a snake, I’ll scream if it’s a snake — and the magician grunted with effort, as though he were hauling an anchor up from the depths of the sea. Then the coolness was fresh dew on her cheek, the smoothness a velvet petal. The magician was holding up a single flower as pale scarlet as the approaching sunset, as golden as a bee. There was nothing else in his hand.
Mourra took the flower from him slowly, without speaking. Sairey was nearing them, her expression a mixture of anger and immense relief, her right arm occupied by a clinging Findros, the left reaching out for her daughter. Mourra put the flower into her hand, saying, “I found this for you. It’s a magic flower.” She closed her eyes then and leaned into her mother.
Sairey was a small, dark, sturdily-made woman, with a quick eye and a disturbingly level glance. She considered the magician briefly, bent her head in acknowledgment, but immediately turned to Mourra and Findros, demanding, “Why are you so late? Where have you been?”
“She got us losted, I told you,” Findros mumbled against her shoulder. “The Gician saved us. His name’s Schmoondrake.”
Mourra was too tired to contradict him. She said only, “I’m sorry. I thought I knew the way home from the picnic.”
Sairey swept her into her free arm before Mourra had finished speaking. “I kept looking for you under the willow.” The magician could hear that her voice was shaking. She waved her hand toward the huge old tree in front of their cottage. “I kept thinking that you might be having a tea party under there, and forgot it was getting dark. The way you do sometimes.”
A child on either hip, she looked up at the magician, smiling slightly. “I thank you for bringing my pair of disasters home to me. Though perhaps you’ll be thanking me now for taking them off your hands.”
Schmendrick bowed more formally than she had done. “A man with a cart’s more to be thanked than I, who only led them more astray than they already were, being lost myself. As I am still.”
“I don’t understand,” she said slowly; and then, “But where are my manners? Will you not come in and sit to dinner with us? It’s the least I can offer you, surely.” She eyed him more critically than she had at first meeting, and could not forbear adding, “And a good meal or two would do you no harm, I’ll say that much.”
The magician hesitated — seemed about to decline the offer — then abruptly smiled and nodded. “My thanks. I do sometimes forget that I am hungry.”
“I, never,” she said; then, quickly, laughing, “As you see, they never let me,” for Mourra and Findros were already tugging her toward the little house. “And getting food ready for them always makes me want to eat something myself, and will end by making me as big as a barn, I know this.” She shooed the children ahead of her, telling them briskly, “There’s lentil soup, and if you don’t wash your hands and your faces, nobody gets any.” They whooped and ran off, and she led the magician into the house, calling after them, “And, Findros, the turtle egg is not coming to dinner.”
There was a vegetable stew as well as the soup, and cold, sweet well water. Dinner was — according to Sairey — a quieter affair than usual, the children both being too weary to squabble. Findros actually fell asleep at the table, but Mourra lingered, fishing sleepily but stubbornly for reasons not to go up to bed. She still avoided sitting close to the magician, nor did she meet his glance often. But the flower that he had taken from her hair reposed precariously in a lopsided clay drinking mug next to her own, and now and then she brushed it against her closed eyes, as though to feel its colors through the lids.
A dog howled, somewhere nearby, and Sairey half-rose from her chair, apologizing as she sat back. “I don’t know why that one always startles me. There’s no harm in him — he’s only an old sheepdog baying at the moon.”
“He sleeps all day,” Mourra muttered scornfully. “The sheep make fun of him.”
Schmendrick asked, “Do you know why dogs do that?” Both mother and daughter stared at him. “Because the moon used to be part of the Earth, and that is the part that all the dogs come from. But the moon wanted to be free, and it struggled and struggled until one night it broke loose from the Earth and sailed right off into the sky, the way it is now. Only all the dogs had their families there, all their mothers and fathers, and their children, their houses and all their buried bones, and their books —”
Mourra giggled. “Not books. Dogs don’t read books —”
“Of course not, because they’re all gone up in the sky, you see. And every night the moon comes out and all the dogs in the world see it, and they cry for their families. That is why they always sound so terribly sad.”
Sairey refilled his cup from the sweating pitcher of well water. She said, “I don’t believe I ever heard that story.”
“It is well-known where I come from.” The magician’s expression was entirely serious.
“And that would be…where?” He was savoring the cold water, and did not appear to have heard her. Sairey said, “Daughter. You are about to fall asleep in your stew. Go to bed.”
Mourra did not protest. Drowsily finding her way to her feet, she asked, “Can I take my flower with me? Just tonight?”
“I thought it was my flower,” her mother teased her. “Very well, I will lend it to you for the night.” She rose herself to give the girl a quick, warm hug; then prodded her gently toward the stair. “But you must not be upset when it dies, in a day or two. Flowers die.”
Trudging up to the loft she shared with her brother, Mourra heard Schmendrick’s reply, “Perhaps not this one.” She looked over her shoulder to observe Sairey’s wordless surprise, and to hear the magician continue, “It did not come from the earth, after all, but from her hair — from her head. The flowers in our heads…those survive.”
Her mother did not respond, not until Mourra had put on her nightdress and crawled under her blanket with the blue and green birds on it that Sairey had woven especially for her. She brought her flower with her, pressing the fragrant stem against her cheek. Then, distant but clear, Sairey’s quiet, even voice, “Who are you?”
Mourra fell asleep before she heard the magician’s answer, but the full moon rose into her open window, and she woke to see it burning itself free of the willow branches that she could almost have touched. Like a firefly in a spiderweb, she thought, remembering the story of the woman whose clothes were made for her by spiders. She sat up and leaned her elbows on the windowsill to see her mother and Schmendrick standing near the old tree. The earliest stars were waking in the deep sky, one by one, and the magician was telling a story.
“No, they used to stick straight up, just as though the tree were reaching for the sky. That is a fact — any willow will tell you that. Listen now. The rain god’s daughter fell in love with a mortal, a human, and they ran away together, for fear of his anger. He could never catch them, because they fled so fast, but they could never rest, either, for he would always find them, no matter where in the world they hid themselves. Because all the trees of the world were afraid of the rain god, and none would give them shelter. Only the willow.”
Sairey laughed softly. “Yes, of course. It would be the willow.”
“The willow felt sorry for them and said it would take them in, which obviously wasn’t much help, not with its branches as wide-apart as they were. So the willow tried and tried — slowly, painfully, so painfully, all night long —”
Like that time I got my finger bent back, playing ball with Findros…
“— but at last it managed to get all its branches turned down, all the way to the ground, touching the ground, and so they hid the rain god’s daughter and her husband, and the rain god never could find them. So then they were safe.”
“The rain god must have been very angry. Gods don’t take that sort of thing well. As I know.”
“Oh, naturally he was furious! So he commanded the willow to stay like that forever, with its branches drooping down, as a warning to all the other trees.” Mourra heard the magician chuckle himself. “And he still makes certain to send rain, constant rain, wherever the willow trees are. But he forgot that the willow likes rain — indeed, loves rain — so he is content in his vengeance, his daughter is happy with her husband, the willow’s deep roots are always damp and happy —”
“And my children have a place for their tea parties. Thank you.” They passed into the moon-traced shadow of the tree, and Mourra lost sight of them for a moment, but she heard her mother say, “I like that story. I will tell it to them.”
Schmendrick said something in response that Mourra could not catch entirely, ending with “…sad story they told me. About the dragon.”
“Dragon?” Sairey’s shadow stood still, turning to face the magician’s shadow. “What dragon?”
“The one who killed their father. I am very sorry.”
Another puzzled silence in the willow-shadow. “They told you — a dragon…?” There was a sound under the words that could have been laughter, and was not.
“It was either black, with horns and things all over it, or it was the color of a thunderstorm, and had silver eyes. Depending on whom you talk to.” The magician’s voice was as quiet as the small night breeze in the willow branches. “Was that not so?”
Sairey sighed. ”My husband’s name was Joris. He was killed plowing a field, when a sinkhole opened under his feet without warning and swallowed him up. One of the rocks in the hole broke his skull.” There was a laugh in her voice now, but it hurt Mourra to hear. “That was all there was to his death, and little more to his life as well. No wonder the children made up a brave ending for him.”
No. No, that isn’t how it happened. There was a dragon — there was! Mourra fought back the urge to shut the window and clap her hands over her ears, She leaned against the frame, head bowed, hugging herself, rocking back and forth.
Schmendrick’s voice remained expressionless. “Death is death — loss is loss. Grief is grief. What difference?”
“None, except to children — children nourished on the fairy tales their father so loved to tell them. Findros was too young, but Mourra…Mourra knows.”
I didn’t make it up! Mourra ground her knuckles painfully into her eyes, warning them against tears. The magician said, somewhere far away, “Have you ever faced her with the truth? I rarely recommend it, but sometimes…”
“Once. Not again.”
“Ah. Quite wise.” Her mother made a sound that Mourra could not translate. Grownup talk, grownup noises. They were clear of the willow shadow now, and Sairey had seated herself in the wooden chair that the children’s father had made for her shortly before his death. Mourra knew from her own experience that Joris had not been a particularly good carpenter: the chair was ruthlessly uncomfortable, however one shifted position; there was no natural headrest; and there were always previously-unnoticed splinters to be dealt with. She could never imagine how her mother could possibly find any ease on the rough planks, but from time to time she would stubbornly sit there herself, as long as she could bear it.
Sairey was saying, “I’m sorry, I have no other chair.”
“As well. I have far to go, and if I sat down it might be a long time before I rose again. Thank you for your kindness. I will not forget.”
Her mother’s answer came slowly. “The pathway back to the main road is elusive at night. You may lose your way.”
“I have no way, as you mean it, and my road is elusive by any light. As I told you, when I encountered your children, they were a little bit lost, yes, but I was much more so. Lost and very weary, and out of stories to tell myself, out of all the games I know to persuade myself that I am what I pretend to be. The children’s company…helped.”
She wants him to stay, I know she does. My mother wants him to stay.
“Well, you’re a storyteller, no doubt of that.” Sairey was leaning back in the old wooden chair, considering him with her arms folded across her breast. “And you may ask my children if you need reassurance about being a magician. Findros would have taken that silly turtle egg to bed with him if I’d permitted it, the same way you saw Mourra asking to have her flower. They recognize you, those two.”
“As a trickster, nothing more. What I did to amuse them — to distract them from their fear — any half-competent parlor entertainer could have done. In truth, I am amazed that I managed those common little flummeries as well as I did. It is not always so.”
In the moonlight Mourra could see her mother lightly touch Schmendrick’s arm, then draw her hand back quickly. “But they tell me you knew their names without being told — and mine as well. True?”
“Mmm. Yes, well. A very small charm, much less difficult than people imagine. A beginner’s practice spell, really — I get it right perhaps half the time. Perhaps a little less.”
“So? But Mourra’s flower?” When he did not reply she pressed further. “Mourra’s flower that you said would never fade. Surely, anyone who could manage such a thing…” She left the words hanging in the air.
“Ah,” the magician said. “Mourra. Yes.” He chuckled dryly. “Well, if that bloody flower does die, I won’t know about it, will I?”
“Oh, I think you will,” Mourra’s mother said. “And I think that flower may very well survive.”
“Then it will be her doing, the magic of that child’s will, and none of mine.” Schmendrick’s voice had risen sharply. “No, I didn’t put it in her hair…but I didn’t find it in her head, either. Or perhaps I did, and never knew. I never know why any attempt at enchantment succeeds or dissolves in my hands. I search for patterns, for signs, guideposts, masters, for anything to tell me who I am — what I am, wizard or carnival cardsharp, either one. I could live if I knew!”
At the window Mourra clutched her flower, understanding nothing of his words but the sorrow and loneliness under them. The magician chuckled suddenly, mimicking himself. “‘I could live…’ Now, that’s funny. That is funny.” He turned and bowed to her mother, not at all mockingly, but with a kind of slow, formal courtesy. “Well. Thank you for that excellent dinner, and for…for the loan of your children. Good night.”
He had been turning the funny many-pointed hat in his hands all the while they spoke. Now he set it on his head, bowed a second time, more briskly, and turned away. Even from her window, even in the dimness, Mourra could see him straighten his thin shoulders under the ragged cloak, as though settling a peddler’s pack. Then he set off, and the moon-shadows swallowed him quickly.
Sairey said after him, “I will tell you a story.” Her voice was soft but very clear in the still night.
Mourra could only tell that he had halted and turned by the angle of the funny hat. Her mother said, “You are a magician who cannot believe in his own gift. I am a widow with two children. I do not imagine that I will ever marry again, since I have no intention of ever giving another hostage to a sky that can snatch love away from me so randomly, so absurdly, so completely. So I believe in nothing — nothing — except looking at my sleeping Mourra, my Findros who always curls up into such a tight little ball, twice and three times during the night.” Sairey’s voice was now as tight and thin as her lips became when she was truly angry. Mourra put her fingers to her own mouth and bit down hard on them.
Schmendrick did not respond. Sairey said, “So I tell myself stories, just as you do, to comfort myself, to endure — simply to get through to another morning. And there is one story in particular that has always meant something to me. Different things at different times, perhaps, but something always. Sit down where you are, magician, in the soft grass, and listen.”
The night had grown so dark that Mourra could not even be certain whether Schmendrick was still there, until, after a moment, she saw the pointy hat slowly lower itself. Sairey began, “There was a woman once who fell in love with the Man in the Moon — yes, a moon story of my own. This woman loved the face she imagined she saw — everyone sees something different in the moon, you know — and she let it be known that if that man should ever choose to walk on this earth, she would marry him instantly. As to whether or not he would have her, she never questioned that, no matter that she had always been a plain woman, even rather drab and dowdy. She knew beyond any doubt that the Man in the Moon would come for her in time.”
“And so he did.” The tall man’s voice was almost without inflection.
“Well, somebody did. Because one evening a strange man came to her door.”
The pointy hat nodded. “And naturally told her that he was the Man in the Moon.”
“That was not necessary. She merely looked at him and knew, as happens sometimes. To anyone with any doubts, she pointed out that there was no longer a man visible up there — which was true, because, for whatever reason, there had come a season of clouds and mist hiding the surface of the moon, and there was nothing at all to be seen but a few dark craters. It was plain for anyone to see that the Man in the Moon had at last come down to claim her.”
“Which, of course, he had not done at all — merely taken advantage of a lonely woman’s foolish fantasy. I told you and your children better tales.”
“Perhaps because we were not forever interrupting you, ordering the story this way and that. Listen to me now, pay for your dinner. Like herself, this lady’s lover was no great beauty, at least on earth, being rather short and decidedly gray-complected, with no grace that any of her friends ever noticed. Nevertheless, by all accounts he was kind to her, and she appeared to be blissful in his company. She listened enraptured to his own stories of his palace in the moon, and sighed in wonder as he described the beauty of shooting stars, comets and constellations seen from the far side no human ever sees. Who knows anything about anyone else’s happiness, after all?”
“Go on, then,” the magician said when she fell silent. “What became of them?”
“He only came to her by night, of course, just as the moon would, and she thought it perfectly proper that there were always one or two nights in the month when he did not come at all. And it must be said that his attentions made a wonderful difference in her appearance, for her hair and her skin and her manner alike all took on a certain shimmer very like that of the moon itself, and as time passed people began to say that she walked in moonlight, such was the radiance of her joy. It can happen so, even with foolish fantasies.”
Resting her chin on her folded arms in the window, Mourra thought, yes, that was how she looked when Papa was here — shimmery. I remember. I do.
As though she had heard her, Sairey went on, “Her man suited this woman very well, in the moon or out of it, and so she lived contentedly for quite a long time. And the world jogged along serviceably with no Man in the Moon — especially since many folk see no Man there at all, but a Woman, or even a Fox. And they went on together as well, those two.”
Schmendrick said, “I can see sorrow coming. I can smell it on the wind. This story is going to end badly.”
“Stories never end. We end. If we could but live long enough, we would see how all tales go on and on past the telling. Now there came a night when the woman could tell that her lover was not falling restfully asleep in her arms, as he had always done, nights without number, even though he left her before each dawn. So she said to him, ‘Beloved, what troubles you? Tell me, and I will help if I can.’ For loving had made her sensible of others’ griefs and fears — which also happens, as I am sure you know.”
“I have been…told so. Go on.”
“And the Man in the Moon — if that indeed is what he was — answered her, ‘My dearest Earthwoman, one love of my endless lunar life, the time has come for me to return to my lonely home. It is home to me no longer — this, our bed, this is my true home — but the moon is my fate, the moon is where I am ordained to be. If I stay away even one day further, it will fall from the sky, likely causing the world’s end. Tonight must be our last together, for the very planet’s sake.’”
“What nonsense!” The magician was surprisingly indignant. “The scoundrel was just seeking to be rid of that poor woman!”
“Was he, then?” Sairey’s voice was as slow, and even tentative, as though she were telling the story for the first time. “Yet when she said to him, ‘May I not go with you, as I have been ready to go from the night we met?’ he replied, ‘I had not dared to ask you. I do not ask it now. You will be lonely for the Earth, and there will be no returning. I cannot take such advantage of you.’”
Schmendrick snorted contemptuously. “One of the oldest ruses in the world to discard a woman. Your Mourra would never be taken in so easily.”
“Perhaps not. She is a very perceptive child. But this woman answered, ‘I was lonely for the Earth until you came. You may be from the moon, but you are my planet — you are my Earth. I know this as an animal knows its home, if it knows nothing else of the universe. Take me with you.’
“‘My palace is a little cold,’ said her lover. ‘Bright, but cold. I should warn you of this.’
“‘Then we will warm it together,’ answered the woman. ‘Where did I leave my good shoes?’”
“And in what town, what miserable inn, what hovel, did he finally abandon her?” Schmendrick was on his feet now. “Or did they find her body in some river? On some dungheap?” He was shaking his head, half in anger, half in amusement. “Go ahead — tell me the wretched rest of it.”
“All I can tell you,” came the quiet answer, “is that on that same night there came a total eclipse of the moon, and when it passed, both the woman and the man were gone, and were never seen again. Nor was any trace of them ever found.”
As the magician drew breath to respond, she added, “I am sorry if my story displeases you. I told it for a reason.”
“Of course you did. To make the point that whether or not her lover was actually the Man in the Moon, the real magic was in her belief — it was belief that kept her blissful and shimmering, and what else matters, after all? Understood, but my fairy tale is a little different, and I have already known too many who flourished on the belief of others. Thank you once more for the meal and the delightful children. And so good night and farewell, mistress.”
He turned, tugging the old cloak closer around himself. Mourra could not see her mother’s face clearly, but she heard her begin to speak — then stop herself — then finally say “You are a fool.”
Over his shoulder, the magician answered her, “Oh, I know that.”
Sairey said, “I did not tell you that tale in praise of blind belief. I meant you to understand that it was her faith in herself — not in him, not for a moment — that made whatever magic there was. I’ve no least idea whether or not she ever credited a word that man told her, but what I am sure of is that she knew — not believed, she knew, always — that she was a woman for whom the Man in the Moon would certainly come down to Earth.” Her voice sounded strangely breathless to Mourra’s ears, as though she had been running. She said, “Magic is not what you think it is, magician.”
She had also risen to her feet, and was standing with her back fiercely straight and her hands on her hips. Schmendrick had stopped walking, but had not turned again. “All I know,” he said, “all I have ever known, is that there is just enough magic in me to do me no good.” He drew a deep breath and held himself as erect as she. “Your children found me in a tree, where I was looking for a certain branch, one strong enough to take my weight. I thought I had at last found the right one, but it broke and I fell at their feet. Do you understand me now?”
Mourra heard a strange sound in her mother’s throat: a muffled click, as of a soft lock closing. The magician said, “I had been searching for some while. It is not as simple a matter as one might suppose. Not just any tree or branch will do for a man with my…blessings.”
From her window, Mourra saw her mother’s lips move, but no sound came out. Schmendrick continued, “But then, of course, I was obliged to see your Findros and Mourra safely home — which I accomplished no more skillfully than I had that other. Not my finest showing, all in all.”
Sairey whispered “Why?” more clearly this time, and Mourra’s face was suddenly so cold that she did not even notice that she was crushing her flower against it. She was terribly thirsty, but she could not move from the window, even for a moment, to reach the pitcher of water near Findros’s bed. Sairey said, “Why?” again.
“Your son said it — magicians do tricks. I was weary of tricks before he was born.” His laugh sounded as painful as though his throat and his mouth were full of glass. “Before you were born.”
Sairey’s voice softened, as it had when she spoke of watching her children sleep. “Listen. Listen. You don’t know. That branch breaking when you…what if that were the magic, protecting itself and you? That farm cart coming when you were lost with the children, when you called for help together…”
“Mourra said that.” The magician might have been talking to himself. “But the child was being kind.”
Sairey said, “The woman in my story never thought about whether what she was doing was magic or not. She was no magician at all, she simply opened herself to whatever there might be within her. You must do just the same as she to allow yourself what you wish for.”
Schmendrick stubbornly kept his back to her. “Wishing will not make it so. Believe me, I would know.”
Mourra heard her mother’s breath catch briefly once more before she spoke again. “So would I.”
The magician finally turned. He said nothing for the longest while, his face shadowed, his shoulders pale with the moon. “I expect to go on being a fool. I feel you should know this.”
“You’re alive. It’s much the same thing.”
“No more searching for the perfect branch, you think? Mind, I can’t promise.” He walked slowly toward her as he spoke.
“Oh, you’ll do as you must. People do.”
“But you will hope.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes.”
“So, then.” He leaned down, holding his open hands to either side of her own, where they rested in her lap. “Another gift. Palms out, please.”
From the window Mourra saw her mother raise her hands slowly, almost shyly. She wished she could see her face.
The magician laid his own palms gently against Sairey’s, his large, smooth hands completely hiding her small rough ones from view. He stood still for a very long time, murmuring, his head bowed and his hat near tumbling off, before he finally stepped back and said, simply, “There.”
Sairey spread her fingers. “I don’t see anything.”
“No, neither do I. But I don’t think I’m supposed to.” His tone, which might have been expected to be sad or frustrated once more, was in fact curiously pleased. “You might ask Findros in the morning, or Mourra.”
Ask me what? Mourra thought sleepily.
“You are a very strange man…and always welcome. Farewell, friend. Come to us again.”
To Mourra, eyes closing, chin now on her window ledge, it seemed that she heard the magician’s faint answer, “I will,” though later she thought that she might have dreamed that part. He never once looked back; her last glimpse of him was of a silly hat bobbing with determined jauntiness against the rising moon. As young as she was, and no matter what adults told her, she had never convinced herself to see more than a profile of some sort on the moon: now it seemed that she could make out almost the entire figure of a man leaning forward over something that might have been a fishing line. And behind him, over his shoulder…
Maybe that’s Papa. Maybe that’s Papa in the moon.
Sairey looked after the magician for a long time, before she finally patted the arm of the old chair. “Well, you were always my Earth,” she said aloud into the soft night air. “And I would have gone to the moon with you, or anywhere else. Except for the children, I would have gone.”
But Mourra missed the last words, and only noticed the new flower lying next to hers on the window ledge — white as the stars, except for its wine-red center — when the sun turned her pillow golden, and she awoke.
© 2011 by Avicenna Development Corporation.
Originally appeared in Sleight of Hand.
Reprinted by permission of the Avicenna Development Corporation.