Part 1 of 2
The magician's house looked like every other house in our neighborhood on the inside, except it had more doors. There were three doors in the foyer, two under the stairs, four in the hallway, one next to the fireplace, and another hidden behind the sofa. They were the builder's standard issue, painted the same blank white color as the walls. I pictured each one leading to a room in another house that looked exactly like this one. This house was the ur-house, the house that allowed all other houses in the development to exist.
We didn't go through any of those doors, like I had been expecting. Instead, the magician led me into the kitchen, opened the oven, and crawled inside. The oven seemed too small for a man that tall, let alone for me. I peered inside; there were no racks or walls or heat sources. There was nothing but darkness. I glanced up at the control knobs. They were turned to "OFF."
"Well?" said the magician's voice from inside. It echoed, as if coming from below ground.
I ducked my head into the oven; inside was strangely humid, and the air smelled warm and yeasty. There were no walls I could make out, only receding darkness. Taking a deep breath, I placed one hand inside, then another. I banged my shin on the oven's edge as I pulled my legs up. I crawled forward into the pitch black, the hard metal floor warming beneath my hands. Suddenly, this seemed like a terrible idea. But before I could turn around, the darkness enveloped me, and I slid down.
Inside the oven, a gas lamp flickered over upholstered chairs that I had seen in a dumpster a few months ago. I remembered them because they were lime green, and I had thought about hauling them home for my pink-and-floral bedroom to piss off my mom. The magician was already seated, waiting for me. He looked bored. I wiped the nervous sweat from my face, took a deep breath, and sat.
The magician was a tall, spindly man with surprisingly thick hands and dark, graying hair. He folded into the chair like a marionette. To meet me, he wore black stretch pants, a silk pajama shirt, a burgundy cardigan, and decaying black flip-flops. If I had seen him on the street, I would have laughed, but in the oven room he looked right at home, whereas I felt ridiculous in my khaki shorts and pre-faded T-shirt. I had even blow-dried my hair. For the first time, instead of feeling invisible in my prepster clothes, I felt exposed.
The magician stared at me for an uncomfortable moment. Finally, he leaned forward and said, "Tell me what you see when you see the color black."
I thought of the lightless oven tunnel. "I see . . . black?" I said.
The magician sighed. "What do you see," he repeated. "Black."
I closed my eyes. In the darkness, I saw a smooth, shimmering surface, taut against a woman's hip. Little black dress. Satin.
"Um," I said. I didn't want to tell him what I saw; it felt secret. "Um. Like, um, I see space. You know, outer space?"
The magician jerked forward and slapped me.
I yelped and pulled away. I pressed my hand to my stinging cheek. The magician gave me a knowing, angry look.
"Liar," he said. "You see a woman's body."
My eyes hazed over with tears.
"What did the woman look like?" he said.
I sniffled hard. "I just saw . . . her hip. She was reclining, in a black satin dress."
There was a strange light in his eyes when he heard this. Later, much later, he would tell me that when his master asked him this question, he saw the exact same thing.
"Why do you want to learn magic?" he said.
I blinked the tears out of my eyes. It was a stupid question. My mother had wanted me to find a hobby. She threw out suggestions: horseback riding, dance, music—I blurted out magic as a joke. But she'd had a thing for tarot cards at my age, and the suggestion delighted her. Since calling the magician, she kept recounting weird stories of things I did as a kid that suggested, in her mind, miraculous abilities. As far as I could tell, they were all about me eating dirt. I don't think she expected oven rooms.
But I didn't want to blurt out the lame, "My mother made me come." The magician had clearly already written me off, and I didn't like it. I said, "Because I want to know something real."
The magician sat back in his chair a little bit and glowered at me. "Come back next week," he said finally. "Dress like a human being. And bring a shovel."
I came back in ripped jeans and an old band T-shirt of my dad's. It felt like just another costume, but the magician nodded when he saw me, pleased. My dad had done the same thing when I asked to borrow the shirt.
The magician took me to his backyard and told me to dig. He gave me no other instructions, just a shovel (the one I had brought was "too puny"), and permission to destroy his yard.
At first, I dug shallow, lazy holes, and the magician made me fill them all back in. Then he told me to stop digging like a girl. I told him that it wasn't a bad thing to be female, but when I went back to digging I jabbed the shovel into the earth, hard and angry, like I imagined boys to be.
My next holes were narrow, deep, mysterious things. I dug them all over the yard, turning up rich, dark dirt that used to grow corn, back when this development was a farm. I turned up the occasional rusted can, too, lids hanging off in a lewd way. I sweated through my dad's T-shirt and covered my jeans with dirty handprints. As time work on, the digging started to feel a little like dancing, or a little like making music, with the rhythmic bite of the shovel, and the flow of my body. I found my holes very beautiful.
At the end of the day, the magician came out to inspect my work. He stuck his leg in a few holes to see how deep they went. He tasted the dirt. Then, he sent me home.
When I came back the next week, the holes were gone; I stared at the grassy, unblemished yard with something like grief. The magician wasn't home; instead, a diagram waited for me on his kitchen table, which overlooked the flat, hole-less yard.
The next hole I dug was sinewy and undulating. I thought of it as a drawing of a heart, taken apart and bent. The digging had grown easier, the magician said because the earth knew me better. I was pretty sure it was the arm muscles, but I didn't argue. I liked his idea more. While I dug, the magician played blues records out of a second floor window. Howlin Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell. Men with names that told you something about them, all except Robert Johnson, whose name was a black hole, a mystery. When the records ended, the magician would lean out his window and lecture me about these men, their genius and strangeness. They understood the earth, according to him. They understood where they were from.
As soon as I finished my hole, the magician jumped down into it with me. I was covered with dirt and sweat, and my arms were still shaking. The magician guided me by my shoulders, eyes closed, through the twists and turns of my labyrinth. His breath blew against my neck, and his hands were warm on my skin. When we reached the end, he took his shovel and told me not to come back until he called.
The magician didn't call until December, when he sent me a text message at two A.M. that read, "Come over." I squinted at the message and wondered if I was dreaming. But the phone beeped again, and I stumbled out of bed. I crawled out through the dog door so my parents wouldn't hear me sneaking out. The magician was waiting for me on his front lawn, bundled up in a blue and orange ski jacket from the eighties. He wore a red hat with a pom-pom. He looked like a tall, skinny bear dressed up in clown clothes. Cute at first glance, but ultimately sinister.
"Do you know what today is?" he said.
"The solstice?" I said.
The magician patted me on the head, so I guessed I had the right answer.
"Tonight the earth is in her deepest sleep. We will go learn some secrets. Then we will do our part to wake her up."
We tramped through the woods in silence, passing abandoned Boy Scout cabins, a rusting Coke machine, and a massive sign that said MILK. The woods used to be the trash heap for the farm—somewhere a whole car was buried. The magician picked his way along the path ahead of me, a blare of orange over invisible legs. I pretended I was tracking him.
We climbed to the highest point, where there was some exposed rock and a tiny cave. Kids went up there to drink, and when the magician climbed inside on his hands and knees I heard the clatter of empty beer cans. Inside was pitch black and freezing; it smelled faintly of cigarettes and dirt. I shivered against the frozen rock.
"Turn your face to the rock and whisper your question," the magician said to me across the darkness.
"My question?" I said.
His clothing rustled as he turned, and his voice hissed against the rock as he whispered things I couldn't hear. I sat with my cheek against the cold stone, silent, listening to the magician's breath move against the cave wall. I couldn't just rattle off questions to a rock at two o'clock in the morning. If he had warned me, I'd have thought of the perfect questions, the questions that would tell me everything I needed to know about my life, but instead I was sitting here silent and alone—
The magician's whispered stopped, and he crawled towards me in the dark. His hand found my shoulder.
"What do you want?" he said.
"What do you want in this world?"
I pressed my cheek against the rock and thought.
"You don't have to tell me," he said. "Just ask."
He crawled out with another clatter of empties, and the silence in the cave lulled me. The rock was freezing my cheek, so I lifted my head and whispered, "How do I become a magician?"
Images cascaded into my head, too many too fast, like I had asked a question too big to be answered. I gasped for breath. When it was over, all I had left was my desire, sharper than before, more focused. I hadn't even realized until then how much I wanted it, but now it was desperately clear.
While I had been in the cave, the magician had built a fire on top of the hill. When he saw me crawl out, he smiled. I wondered if now we were friends.
When I opened my mouth to say something, however, the magician turned back to the fire. He held out his hands to warm them, then stuffed them back in his mittens. In one quick, violent movement, he threw his head back and shouted, "WAKE UP!"
He began to dance around the fire, a funny, undignified dance, lots of flailing arms and bent knees and shuffling. I couldn't stop myself from giggling.
He ignored me. He threw his head back again and shouted, "WAKE UP!"
He didn't invite me over, and at first I was too scared to join. Instead, I lingered at the edge, just outside the fire's halo of heat. When I finally joined in, it was as much about the warmth of the fire as the ritual. I ducked in the dance right after him, but I danced better than he did. I moved my arms up and out like a rising sun. I shook my hips to remind the earth of the pleasures of spring. When he threw his head back, I threw mine back too, and together we shouted, "WAKE UP!"
We danced and shouted until dawn, then put out the fire and tramped back through the woods. He cracked some eggs and made omelets, filled the room with the smell of coffee. While we ate, his wife came in the front door, fresh from her own magic's solstice. The magician had told me she was bound to fire; maybe that was why her face was flushed in an athletic, almost sexy way. She was tall and elegant and graceful when she kissed her husband on the cheek. I found her terrifying.
"Good solstice?" she asked.
"Oh yes," the magician said.
She faced me and smiled a big hostess smile.
"Nice to see you again, dear," she said. "Good solstice?"
I smiled and nodded.
When it was time for me to leave, the magician walked me to the door, then swooped in to kiss me on the cheek, a dry, awkward peck. I made, belatedly, a kissing noise in the air near his own cheek, but I was too shocked by the gesture to get the timing right, so I air-kissed his neck instead of his face. His wife called from the kitchen, "Is she too tired to drive?"
"She's fine," he called back. "She had coffee."
I nodded along, as if his wife could see me.
"Happy solstice," the magician said.
He stood in the door as I left and watched me drive away.
In the spring, I began to have tasks. Not like the hole digging, which had been more of a test. Real magicians have deeds, but to learn to have deeds, first you must have tasks. To be honest, I was a little fuzzy on the distinction, but I guessed you got more credit for one than the other.
The magician sometimes talked about other students he had. They were all boys and, in his opinion, dull. When I asked him if they had tasks, the magician gave me a secret look. "No, none of them are ready for tasks," he said, waving a hand as if brushing them aside. Then he smiled at me again and said, "None of them are like you."
I carried those words around with me for days, shivering with pleasure when I replayed them in my head. The magician believed I was like him. He believed I would be great, like him. I would be nothing like the person I'd thought I was.
My first task was to connect two places that had yet to be connected. I couldn't feel the earth through the wheels of my car, so I went for walks. I quickly discovered, to my dismay, that most places were already connected in the suburbs, albeit in terrible ways. Thoughtless roads linked houses to strip malls, churches, synagogues, schools. Trees clung for dear life to other trees by the roads of their roots. Animals left roads with their scents, roads that faded over time, but provided all the connecting they needed. I could connect houses to other houses, but people put up wardings to frustrate me: wooden fences, electric fences, stakes marking exactly where their property ended, even in the middle of the woods.
I explained these problems to the magician, and he laughed at me. "You're being very literal," he said, like it was cute.
I walked on the cul-de-sacs and main roads and driveways and unfinished dirt tracks in the development the magician and I shared, feeling the way the earth groaned and strained against the ill-placed swaths of asphalt. The people who didn't drive around the neighborhood—children—zigzagged in all directions, flying past property markers, hopping fences (much to the consternation of family dogs), and avoiding the roads whenever possible. The only things that hemmed them in were the big busy roads that surrounded the development, when clearly all they wanted was to run, on and on and on.
A four-lane road separated us from a farm that sold ice cream. Children crashed against the barrier like waves on a cliff, looking longingly at the freshly plowed cornfields and dairy cows and signs announcing Cho-co Mint Chip! At first I thought about building them a bridge, but I didn't know the mechanics of air, even if a road was involved. A crosswalk was a silly idea, but I considered anyway; I drew scale diagrams and observed the road late at night, to see if the cars disappeared for long enough to paint (they didn't). I already knew how to dig. A tunnel it was.
There was an undeveloped lot across from the cornfield, so I started digging there, at the edge of the road. I dug at night, and dumped the dirt in the lot next door, where they were digging the foundation of a house. The earth was wet and heavy from the spring rain, and at night I could still see my breath. It was exhausting work, and by the third day, I wasn't sure I could go on. But when I arrived the next night, I found a little boy waiting for me, holding a plastic shovel. I let him help. The next night there was another child, then three more, then ten. Thirteen children dug along with me using sandbox shovels, garden trowels, and even a real shovel or two. Bikes were rigged with buckets and hitched to wheeled trashcans, and the children hid the dirt in their playhouses, in their parents' mulch piles, or out in the dry, grassless plain of the undeveloped lots. On the twelfth night, we finished digging and planted mailboxes on each end of the tunnel, though there were no houses in sight. On the thirteenth, I slept in the center of the tunnel alone and asked the earth to remember what it was like to be a hard and sturdy stone as the cars rumbled above me.
The next afternoon we were together, the magician and I walked across the development to see my handiwork. We had spent so many hours together in the basement that the sight of him in the sunlight was shocking—he was so strange looking, tall and translucently pale, with his too-big T-shirts and long, skinny pants. I was embarrassed that someone might see him loping beside me; I was ashamed to feel that way, but I still hid my face from passing cars.
We crossed the scrubby, vacant lot to the lone mailbox. It was shaped like a goose in flight, flying towards its sister mailbox. I had given in to a little bit of silliness and bought another one shaped like a swan, also in flight, so it looked like they were heading for an epic battle. Goose vs. Swan.
I made this joke, but the magician didn't smile.
"So?" he said, nodding at my twin mailboxes. "What is it?"
"Pull the goose's beak towards you," I said.
The magician reached out a long wiry arm and pulled. The whole mailbox came with it, as well as the piece of earth the mailbox was rooted in, revealing a ladder that glinted in the sunlight, and a dark tunnel below.
"Ha!" the magician said. He climbed down, and I followed, closing the trapdoor behind us.
I had instructed the kids to leave a stash of flashlights at the foot of each ladder, but they hadn't done it yet, and the tunnel was pitch dark. I had dug it, dreamt it, but this perfect blackness paralyzed me. The magician breathed next to me.
"Do you have to stoop?" I whispered. It seemed wrong to speak normally.
"A bit," he said.
"Follow me," I said, and fumbled backwards for his hand. He took mine loosely, leaving it up to me to hold on. His fingers fidgeted over the back of my hand.
It took us only a minute or two to cross the tunnel, but every second felt essential as our two bodies moved through the cold, clammy dark. Even the sound of cars overhead disappeared. The magician bumped his head twice, and once he inhaled sharply, as if something surprising had occurred to him. His hand continued to fidget over mine; the space between our palms grew warm.
"This is remarkable," he said. "Just remarkable."
He squeezed my hand when he said this, and then held on tight. I shivered.
"Cold?" he said with an odd urgency.
"No!" I said, equally jumpy. "No, no, I'm fine."
I walked right into the ladder with a deafening clank. I giggled and released his hand. After a brief hesitation, he let go too, and laughed.
I put a foot on the ladder, ascended a rung.
"This really is remarkable," the magician said again. "You have real talent."
I paused mid-climb to bask in his praise, and the magician's chest brushed against my arm; we were closer than I realized. "Thank you?" I said. My chest was tight.
The magician reached for my hand again. In the darkness, his breath brushed my neck. The sensation was delicious, but my stomach felt sick.
I took back my hand and climbed.
I busied myself with brushing the dirt off my clothes in the sunshine as the magician emerged from the tunnel. The field beneath my feet was a dark, wet brown, freshly turned and rich. Green shoots rose in rows all around me, fresh and alive in the sunshine. The magician set the mailbox back in place and laughed to himself in a high, odd way. I kept my back to him. I didn't want to see what an absurd figure he cut in the sunlight, what an ugly person made my heart hammer, my skin sweat.
"You made a lovely road," the magician said behind me. I turned around; he was running a finger along the edge of the swan mailbox, taking it in. He looked up at the roaring cars between us and home. "Should we . . . go back down?"
My stomach jumped. "I'll just run across," I said.
He had been holding my eyes, and when I said this, his face crumbled.
"All right. Run away," he said with a small laugh. "I'm going to take another look."
For a long, tense moment he hesitated, while I waited for a space to open between cars. Finally, he pulled the trap door open and disappeared below ground. A second, maybe two, of space opened between the cars, and I ran. When I got across, I forced myself to slow to walk, but I walked hard, like I knew someone was following me. My fists balled at my sides, and a steady stream of fuck you fuck you fuck you ran through my head. But all my skin could feel was the caress of his thumb across my palm, the rush of his breath, and the thick, humid feeling of his warmth underground.