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The Conjurer

the conjurer
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Estimated reading time — 15 minutes

Twice in my life I’ve wished for a magic wand. The first was eight years into my marriage, when our heart-wrenchingly tender obstetrician told us there was nothing left to try. I never shared my husband’s fascination with magic and conjuring tricks, but at that moment, hearing that news, I wished for a wand to magic up our longed-for baby. Conjure the missing piece of us. But there were no wands and there was no magic. There was nothing we could do. Everyone told us this.

So when I fell pregnant out of the blue the following year, I marveled over how such a miracle had occurred—fate? divine intervention? planets aligning?—while David knew exactly where his faith lay.

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“I’m telling you, Mama bear,” he said, touching his fingertips to my belly, “this kid’s magical.”

Fate, God, magic, I didn’t care what he called it. I exalted in every terrifying moment of my glorious pregnancy. We had a healthy boy and named him Danny.

As soon as he could hold a wand, our son wanted to be a magician. David bought him a magic set when he was three, and we played the captive audience to his one mini-man shows. As the years passed, even David couldn’t work out how our boy pulled off some of the tricks he showed us. I joked it was the day Danny wanted to saw one of us in half that we’d need to worry. Everything about those first five years of Danny’s life, our life as a family, was magical. If something had slithered onto my shoulder to whisper that my husband had only seven months to live I would have laughed. So help me God, I would have laughed.

But David collapsed one ordinary blue Sunday morning, and the future was shattered with a single word from the mouth of a stranger. Terminal was something you went through at an airport. It couldn’t have anything to do with the body of my husband. Danny was not yet six.

“How do we tell him?” I asked David as we stood brushing our teeth the first night we knew forever was fragmenting. “How do we tell him you’re going to leave us and it’s forever?”

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We stared into one another’s eyes in the mirror, as though the ghosts in the glass might tell us what to do. In the end, David spoke to Danny on his own.

“Us boys are taking a walk, Mama bear,” he said, taking Danny by one hand. “Guard the castle for us.”

I watched them walk out to the garden, the difference between their heights seizing my throat. That was the second time I wished for a wand, to magic away the present horror and the future pain. But no spell caused the lumps that rose beneath David’s skin. No enchantment lay waste to the body I cherished. I couldn’t magic my husband better. I could only watch as the essence of him retreated and retreated from the windows of his eyes, to a place where I couldn’t follow.

*

After David’s death, unpredictable moments pulled me to my knees. A man passing who smelled like him; a voice speaking in similar cadences. Behind such nothing moments my husband’s absence reared up to sucker punch me in the gut. If I hadn’t had Danny I wouldn’t have made it. My son became the bridge, connecting me from one side of life to another over the gaping gulf of David’s death. Danny carried me. Magic carried Danny. His dedication to practicing magic astounded me. At our library visits he chose only books about magic and conjuring. He’d spend hours watching TV shows of his favorite magician, who sported the pedestrian name of Mike, and I spent hours watching my son perfect new tricks.

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A few months after David’s funeral, I passed by Danny’s room with a load of washing and spotted him sitting, wand in hand, whispering to the photograph of David by his bed.

“What you doing, Bub?” I asked. Danny turned to me.

“I’m telling Daddy about the trick I’m working on. It’s a present for you,” he said, pulling the photo to his chest in a simulation of embrace. I dabbed the corner of one eye with my shoulder and nudged through the door to walk over to my son and kiss his head.

“Daddy would want you to keep doing the things you love, darling.”

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Whilst I worried about all the time Danny spent alone I reasoned that children, like adults, needed to deal with loss in their own ways, so I left him to it. I believed I was doing the right thing. But as the weeks ground by and Danny’s chats with his father’s photographs showed no sign of waning, I felt some facts needed checking.

“Danny, you do know that Daddy died and went to heaven, don’t you?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“And you know that heaven is such a nice place that no-one who goes there wants to come back?”

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“Heaven can’t be that nice for Daddy. We’re not there.”

“We’ll go there one day and see him again. We just have to wait a while.”

“I know. Mama?”

“Yes, Danny?”

“While we’re waiting, you should get a boyfriend.”

*

One year passed. Then two, then three. Danny settled into primary school and I went back to work, and a different kind of future stretched before us. A different kind of future required a different kind of man.

I liked Joe for the things that made him unlike David. He believed in eating meals around a table with the TV off and in giving logical answers to fanciful questions. Only when I’d been seeing Joe for four months did I introduce him to Danny, as nervous as if arriving for a blind date. But my son had been chomping at the bit for me to bring another man into our lives, and he welcomed Joe into the house like all his Christmases had come at once. Joe knew nothing about magic or conjuring, and so Danny had a fresh and willing audience to show off his repertoire to. Sitting on the sofa, Joe and I, watching Danny swirl his wand and swing his cape, it was almost the same. Almost.

One evening when we were alone in my bedroom after Danny was asleep, Joe stood by the bedside, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Stop me if I cross a line here,” he said.

“Ok.” I rearranged the duvet around me.

“I’m not sure about some of those books Danny reads.”

“What about the books Danny reads?”

“Don’t you think,” Joe sat on the edge of the bed and touched my hand, “some of them take the whole magic thing a bit too far? One looked a tad occult to me.”

I slid my hand away. “You think Harry Potter is occult.”

“Kids having lessons to harness dark arts. What’s not occult about that?”

“My eight year old son is not harnessing dark arts.”

“I’m just saying—”

“You don’t get a say, you’re not his—”

I stopped myself, but when Joe climbed into bed he turned his back to me. I wouldn’t apologize. I couldn’t. I liked Joe. In time I might love him. But he would never be Danny’s father. He knew it. I knew it. Danny knew it.

Two weeks before the third anniversary of David’s death, Danny came home from school effervescent and presented me with a letter. Mike the Conjurer was performing a show in a little theater in London, and Danny, along with thirty-nine other children, were the competition winners invited to attend.

“I didn’t know you entered a competition, darling,” I said.

“We all had to do a magic trick in front of some teachers at school. That’s what I was practicing all the times you were telling me to not be by myself so much,” Danny said, grinning from ear to ear.

“Gosh, well, well done, sweetie!”

“So can we go to the show? Can we?”

“Of course we can go! It’s your prize, my love.”

It fell, I noticed with a tug, on the date of David’s anniversary. Danny had passed no comment on this, and I wondered if this was the beginning of David vanishing amongst other figments our son would associate with childhood. If, like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, David was destined to be shelved amongst childish things.

“I get three tickets,” Danny’s cheerful babble permeated my sorrow. “Can Joe come too?”

I brushed my aching eyes, and smiled at my son. “Let’s ask him,” I said.

I phoned Joe and told him to save the date. I heard his smile through the speaker.

                                                                                                             *

When the day arrived, Danny sat strapped into the backseat of the car, clutching his wand, sunny with pride that adults were having a night out because of him. He’d insisted on carrying a picture of David in his pocket, and gratitude filled me, seeing the significance of the day wasn’t passing him by just yet.

“Daddy loved magic. He’d like to be coming,” he chattered as we drove to pick up Joe.

“Yes. I’m glad we’re doing something today that Daddy loved so much.”

“I’m not sure Joe’ll like it.”

I laughed. “Well, Joe doesn’t like magic the way we do, does he? Maybe this is the show that’ll change his mind, Danny boy.”

I turned onto Joe’s road and tooted the horn outside his flat. Joe emerged and hurried towards the car, beaming.

“Hello, you two!” He slid into the front seat and leaned across to kiss my cheek.

“Danny’s excited we’re all going out,” I said. “Aren’t you, Danny?”

“Yeah,” Danny said.

“Thanks for asking me, kiddo. Any new tricks up your sleeve?” said Joe.

“I’m working on one at the moment.”

“Maybe you can show it to me later.”

Danny chuckled like a toddler in the backseat. “I’d love to,” he said. My son the show-off.

We reached the theater, parked, and joined the throng walking to The Colosseum. Inside, the foyer bustled with parents accompanying children dressed in capes. Joe bought he and I a glass of wine, and a bucket of popcorn for Danny, and we made our way into the hazy auditorium to find our seats. Danny perched between us, the popcorn bucket balanced on his knees, waving his wand like all the other little conjurers. Joe looked over my son’s head at me and smiled, and I loved him for a moment—just a moment. Then the lights went down.

A low hum vibrated from the speakers. Children giggled. Time ticked. Then with a burst of confetti and a flutter of flashes, Mike materialized mid-stage, white gloved hands raised in greeting as Danny and the other children erupted into hysterics at the sight of their hero swathed in silver cape and purple, star-splashed suit.

“Good evening, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome! To the greatest show on earth!”

Music struck up from the pit in a blast of pianos and brass and Mike flowed across the stage, gloved hands up where we could see them, demanding our gaze. The communal enchantment being woven over the crowd drew me in. Mike swept about to the music, making crystal balls levitate, pulling a watch from behind the ear of a little girl in the front row, and tossing silver wands out into the audience. Joe lifted Danny, whose face was on fire with joy, to help him snatch a wand from the air. Another boy was lifted onstage, where Mike had him wave his new silver wand over a top hat, and the white rabbit Mike had lowered into the hat popped out again, no longer white, but brown. Ta-dah! Mike the Conjurer flourished the hat and presented its empty black innards to the audience. I gaped at Joe as we joined the audience in rapturous applause.

Bag under the table, Joe mouthed. David never had such cynicism.

The music shifted through various classical pieces. Mike’s choreography won ‘Ooo’s’ and ‘Aaah’s’ from the crowd. I watched through rising tears. How many hours had our magic three spent watching Mike perform, snuggled together on the sofa? David. Why aren’t you here?

Finally, the conjurer thrust his cape behind his shoulders and faced the audience centre-stage, mopping his brow with a star-specked handkerchief.

“For my next trick,” Mike scanned the auditorium, swirling his wand in circles, “I need someone special.”

Danny leapt onto his seat, both hands in the air as other children followed suit, while Mike stalked the stage behind the footlights.

“Me! Me, me, me! Pick me, pick ME!” Joe and I leaned away from Danny as he screeched.

Still the wand swirled. Danny wrenched Joe’s hand into the air and waved them both, mania in his face as, with a swoop and a flourish, Mike’s wand jerked to a halt. Joe’s eyes rounded in surprise as the spotlight lit up he and my boy in its silver beam.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we have our next volunteers! Give them both a hand!”

Danny pulled Joe to his feet and dragged him towards the stage as the white noise of applause rose around us. Joe looked back at me, grimacing. Thrilled it was him and not me, I motioned him on with genuine enthusiasm. They were led onstage, Danny bouncing on his toes and waving in the direction of where I sat, and looking breathtakingly, devastatingly, like David. A long black box on wheels with loose hanging straps was rolled out from behind a red curtain by three beaming women, each with a sheathed sword strapped to her back. Danny jumped up and down. Joe clutched his head with both hands.

Mike went down on one knee beside Danny. “What’s your name, young magician?”

“Daniel, and this is my Mum’s boyfriend Joe.”

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“Wonderful to meet you, Daniel. Hi, Mum’s Boyfriend Joe. Daniel, do you think Joe would be up for helping us with a little trick?”

Danny shrieked eager assent, causing a cheer of agreement to rise up from the children around me as the women rolled the box to a halt beside them. Several glances caught mine as the adults looked from each other, to their excited offspring. We shook our heads in mutual bemusement. Kids, eh?

With a dancer’s grace, Mike opened both ends of the box so the audience could see down its length, and invited Joe to do the same.

“Crouch down, sir, crouch down, and tell us what you see. Is it an empty box, Joe?” Mike asked.

Joe hunkered down and peeped through the box, then straightened and raised a thumbs up to the audience. We applauded. The sparkle-coated women strutted around him, reaching out to straighten his clothes and dust glitter from his hair while Mike took Danny off to the side to whisper in his ear. Joe hugged himself, shielding his eyes against the lights. When Mike and Danny turned back to the audience, the three women each took hold of Joe and led him around to the rear of the box, while Danny stood—like his father, oh my God—hip cocked, and one hand in one pocket. Mike gestured to Joe with his wand.

“Our volunteer approacheth the magic box, ladies and boys!”

All around me, children had leapt onto their seats to get a better view. In the midst of the raucous, I understood why the theater was named The Colosseum. Joe gripped the sides of the box, hefted himself inside, and lay flat. I watched the women shut the lid and secure the buckles tight before spinning the box around on the spot so we could see for ourselves that every belt was buckled and Joe was secure, his head and feet poking out either end. Mike perched Danny on top of the box as the women took up position along one side of it, the hilts of their swords glinting under the stage lights. Mike raised his hands. Silence fell.

“Is the box locked, Daniel?” Mike asked.

Danny tugged each belt. “Yes!”

“Can Joe get out, Daniel?”

“No!”

“Mum’s Boyfriend Joe is trapped ladies and gentlemen!”

Any audience member looking at me might have thought they were tears of pride running down my face as I watched my son. Everyone thinks their children are beautiful, but Danny, with his teeth perfect as baby pearls, his ecstasy—and I had never seen him this ecstatic—so plainly on display, Danny was captivating. And David was missing it. David would always miss it. I would never turn to him to share the joy of looking at the person we’d created who surprised us everyday. We would never notice together how Danny’s mannerisms echoed our own.

Every direction I looked, children were sandwiched between two parents whose fingers were thoughtlessly entangled. Danny would always have an empty seat on one side of him at every big event, every birthday, at his graduation. It wasn’t David who was with him now onstage. Could Joe ever truly share what I felt watching Danny grow? This child who everyday reminded me of the greatest loss I’d yet faced? I married David for life, and still had the heart I’d promised to love him with beating within me. Who was I supposed to give this love to if not him?

A hush descending on the crowd pulled me back into the auditorium. Mike had called for quiet. There was a flourish of drum rolls. One of the women sashayed to Danny’s side, eased her sword from its sheath, and presented its sparkling tip to the audience. The drum roll grew in volume and it grew in speed until, with a clash of cymbals, the woman thrust the sword through the side of the box, tearing a gasp from the audience. I winced at the sight of Joe’s face scrunching. Mike froze in an attitude of horror, while the spare women clapped their hands to their mouths in pantomimes of shock. A popcorn scented silence. Whispers of waiting children teetering on their seats.

Joe’s eyes sprang open, and he waggled his head back and forth. A screech went up from the children. The adults grinned. It took me a moment to realise the children weren’t grinning. Their screeches had not been in appreciation of the jest. The children bayed at the stage like tiny wolves deprived of blood.

“Again!” they shrieked.

A tremor passed through me at the little milk fangs they bared as they lashed arms and pointed fingers at the stage, yelling. Mike waltzed around, riling them up.

“Is that again I hear you cry?”

“Yes!”

Gloved hand cupped to one ear. “You want more?”

“YES!”

“Why, then, drum roll!”

Drums rolled.

Beneath Danny’s knees, Joe played dead. The second woman walked to the foot of the box, unsheathed her sword and showed the tip of it to Danny, who tapped it before nodding at the crowd and sucking his finger. Ooh, sharp! The crowd cheered, the drum roll intensified, then the second woman thrust the second sword into the box through Joe’s thighs to a crash of cymbals and the thud of Mike dropping dramatically to his knees. The same expectant pause, then the same jeer from Joe as he came alive again, waggling his feet and sticking his tongue out at the children. I was touched by his getting into the spirit of the night so whole-heartedly, though the kids’ blood-thirst had me spooked.

The third woman strutted forwards, sword unsheathed, straight as the horizon. She held it above her head, hilt against one palm and tip against the other, and presented the sword to my son. I sat up when Danny took it. The woman lifted him and stood him on the small table near Joe’s head. Joe smiled at Danny. Hey kiddo. Somewhere a drum rolled. Danny held the sword tip pointing towards Joe’s chest within the box. The goads and cheers of the children in the audience blistered into roars around me as I looked at Danny look at Mike. A pause, a tantalization. Then Mike made a sign. But Danny did not thrust the sword into the box on cue as I expected. Danny clenched the sword in both hands, raised his arms above his head, and plunged the weapon into Joe’s exposed throat.

Perhaps for some audience members Joe’s reaction was immediate. For me, it hung for a moment, a drop of blood easing from a pricked finger. I waited for the clash of cymbals, the trumpet Ta dah! I waited for Joe to laugh and stick his tongue out at Danny as he’d done before. Joe didn’t. He started gurgling. I saw my little son lean his weight against the sword’s hilt, and Joe’s jaws stretch wide as he let loose a sound I’d never heard before. The women onstage huddled together as Mike’s animated hands fell to his sides, and they stared at Danny standing over Joe. Danny’s lips were moving. A bubbling sound edged Joe’s screams. Parents stared at each other, unsure whether to believe their eyes.

I tried to think straight, but my thoughts veered off track in directions I didn’t send them. I wanted to run to the stage, but when I tried to move, no muscles kicked into gear. I felt . . . unbodied. Something was happening. My son was speaking words that sounded like—

I’m telling you Mama bear this kid’s magical

—an incantation.

Daniel was conjuring.

Joe’s screaming intensified in pitch. Daniel pulled the sword, with difficulty, until he yanked it free, splattering his knees with red.

As though released, terrified parents sprang into action, bearing their children from the auditorium, screaming. Some children remained, those whose parents were frozen in shock. Had someone called the police? An ambulance? Someone had to call the police.

Joe screams frothed into silence.

Daniel hopped off the table and picked up his wand, blood spatter gleaming on his face. He spread his arms wide, cloak fanning out in a shimmer of silver, and bowed to Mike and the women, who backed away from him as one. Feeling returned to my feet and I slid into the aisle, wanting Danny and not wanting him. Someone had to call an ambulance. Joe . . .

I fell to my knees as Daniel jumped off the stage and strolled down the aisle towards me.

“Dan.” I made no attempt to touch him. “What have you done?”

“My new trick,” he said. “A present for you, Mama.”

I looked behind him to where Mike stood, white-faced, staring at my child. The women had disappeared. Joe’s blood pooled around Mike’s feet and seeped over the glass of the footlights, filming the auditorium in a glaze of gore.

“That’s not the end yet,” Dan said. “For the next part, we need to go home.”

                                                                                                                 *

Daniel chattered in his seat beside me in the car as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. It might have been paint on his face and I’d picked him up from craft club. The car reeked of blood.

“Can we go faster?” Danny asked. “I want you to see the surprise.”

The weight of the darkness closed in as though the night were something we were driving into rather than through.

A pregnancy out of the blue with no particular effort after almost ten years of struggle. Some people had called Daniel’s conception a miracle, some fate, others divine intervention. Had it been something else?

I’m telling you, Mama bear, this kid’s magical.

Had my magic loving husband pulled a trick from up his sleeve?

Us boys are taking a walk, Mama bear.

What had my son and my husband talked about between themselves that day?

“What surprise, Danny?” I asked. “What present did you mean?”

“If I tell then it won’t be a surprise.”

“Tell me or I’ll stop the car and we won’t go anywhere until you answer me.”

Danny sighed. “It had to be an exchange. The book said if you want something you have to give something in exchange to keep it fair, like swaps.”

“Exchange?”

“Yeah, an exchange.”

“What did you want to exchange, Danny?”

“Are we nearly home?”

We were.

All the downstairs lights were on when I turned the car into the road and approached our house. I hadn’t left any lights on. Seeing the house aglow, Danny flung his seat belt off and gripped the door handle, yelling “It worked, it worked, it worked!”

He was out of the car and racing towards the front door before I’d pulled the handbrake.

My son did not read occult literature. My son read books on magic tricks. He made coins vanish and always knew what card you’d pick. My son, like my husband, loved conjuring tricks, loved magic, one of the oldest forms of entertainment.

Through the windscreen I saw my front door open, spilling an oblong of orange light out onto the path. I tried to look but couldn’t raise my eyes above my son, who stopped in his tracks as a shadow loomed in the sunset-shaded light from the hall. A smile broke Danny’s red stained face in two. He ran up the garden path, with endless love shining in his eyes, and leapt at the figure standing in the doorway.

“Daddy! You’re back!”

Credit : EJ Robinson

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