Christina Milletti

Now You See Her

The girl didn’t tell her par­ents she kissed the magi­cian.

She knew what they’d say. There would be volatile words. As though his dis­ap­pear­ance from the par­ty was her fault.

Naturally, the cel­e­brants expect­ed the magician’s return after a short inter­mis­sion, after he took a quick break, adjust­ed his hat in the vel­veteen heat. No one mind­ed a pause. The par­ents were foundered on over­stuffed fam­i­ly sofas. The kids on the floor som­er­sault­ed in heaps. Their knee high kinet­ics would go on. For days.

A final act after a short pause? Sure, the dad said. No prob­lem. He shrugged: the mild ges­ture rip­pling across the assem­bled liv­ing room vig­il. There were nods, oth­er ven­tures of agree­ment. All of them jostling aus­pi­cious accord.

The magician’s main act involved an egg. He had stuffed a blue ker­chief into his fist and—with a wave of his wand and a tuber­cu­lar cough—turned the blue ker­chief red. Another flour­ish, an accom­pa­ny­ing burp, and the red ker­chief became an egg.

The par­ents clapped polite­ly. The kids offered care­less dis­dain.

When the magi­cian fum­bled the egg—dropping it onto the floor with a poly­car­bon­ate smack—the par­ty guests gasped. Not the girl. She’d already guessed the egg was fake.

Acting sheep­ish, the magi­cian dis­played the prop to them. He even bent to let her friend cup the egg in her del­i­cate fin­gers. It was light and hol­low, she said. She could have crushed it with her small thought­less hand.

 Mistakes hap­pen, the magi­cian said, pat­ting her head like a neighbor’s dog, before stand­ing to toss the egg in the air again.  

This time, the magi­cian caught the egg deft­ly and, with a broad sweep of his arm, cracked its cal­ci­fied shell against the side of a bowl. As its con­tents leaked out in long, ges­tat­ing strands, the audi­ence ohh­hed. Then ahh­hed. The dry­wall shud­dered with applause. Even the kids stopped to watch the magician’s tux wrin­kle into an awk­ward bow.

Only the girl remained unim­pressed. She was aware the act was a trick. Just not how to do it.

How the egg, first staged as decep­tion, was then exposed as a decep­tion that was real. The egg had changed; the deceit had not. Lame, she whis­pered into her friend’s hot ear. Magic tricks are for suck­ers. She caught the magician’s eye. At 9 years old, she already knew she wasn’t a suck­er. Not her. No way.

Lame, she mouthed again. This time loud­ly enough for the magi­cian to hear. But not her par­ents behind her.

When the magi­cian mut­tered some words to him­self, the girl knew what they meant, that they were intend­ed for her. She smiled when she caught his eye.

Not long after, the magi­cian asked for a break.

The magi­cian was tall and thin and if his head seemed unsup­port­ed by the rest of his body, it gave him a mild air of impos­si­ble being that the adults sup­posed was a con­trived part of his act. Not the girl. She could see he looked sick. Rumbling, just above his stained ascot. Like a dan­de­lion gone to seed, she knew he’d erupt with just a hint of force: a tiny breath and he’d burst in the wind.

When he hur­ried off, the girl trailed him down the dark­en­ing hall. Only her friend saw her drift away, a leaf on a light gust of wind.

A few min­utes lat­er, she returned.

When the inter­mis­sion went on longer than expect­ed, the cel­e­brants quick­ly adapt­ed. In moments, bowls of chips were passed while the adults assessed the per­for­mance. How won­der­ful the magi­cian was! How tricky! All those cards and then none at all. All those ropes and then none at all.

The final act was espe­cial­ly grip­ping. The magi­cian had dis­ap­peared as silent­ly as an infant’s mid­night breath.

When a neigh­bor with over-ripe ear­lobes pro­nounced the mag­ic act “mag­i­cal,” the girl snick­ered, grabbed her friend’s hand, and led the tribe of chil­dren out­side. There was a swing to push above a car­pet of mud. Butterflies to chase in the uncoiled ferns. If you rolled the gar­den stones over, pota­to bugs tram­pled clus­ters of worms as they scur­ried for cov­er in the weeds.

The girls perched on an over­sized rock like a pair of lizards. They felt sol­id and true in the sun­light as car­pen­ter bees buzzed above in the branch­es, mar­bling the heavy air.

What did you do? the friend asked, dan­gling over the side of the rock.

The birth­day girl scraped away a beetle’s acci­den­tal ampu­ta­tion, while the rest of the insect hob­bled off. She didn’t want to dirty her dress.

What did you do to the magi­cian?

The girl shrugged.  I made him leave.

Her friend rolled her eyes. How?

 A mag­ic trick.

The friend pinched her. And?

Then he left.

Must have been a bad trick, the friend said.

The girl point­ed at a baby rab­bit far off in the neighbor’s yard. Look. At one time, there had been a colony of them, nib­bling the morn­ing shoots on the neighbor’s lawn. Then, a fal­con began vis­it­ing a near­by tree. There was a flut­ter of wings over­head, the hint of a shad­ow, and the tiny rab­bit dis­ap­peared beneath a thatch of wild­ing oregano. The girl whined soft­ly at the fore­stalled exhi­bi­tion. She didn’t real­ize she was hold­ing her breath.

After the guests went home, the kitchen was filled with the order­ly sym­pho­ny of the post-par­ty cleanup: the gen­tle clink of plates being stacked, of sil­ver­ware sort­ed. The mild bump of cab­i­nets yawn­ing and clus­ter­ing with inel­e­gant affect. The swish of brooms. The indif­fer­ent hum of parental exchange acknowl­edg­ing neigh­bor­ing lives and their famil­iar pat­terns of order and dis­ar­ray.

The girl sat out­side on the swing com­fort­ed by the upticks and heart­beats of the mur­mur inside, a res­o­nance that began in the womb and, still remem­bered, would com­fort her for years to come, even into old age when, paper-thin and gray, she’d lay wrapped in a sheet in a far away city, eyes closed as she lis­tened to the drone of fam­i­ly and nurs­es, the metal­lic hic­cup of life-com­pound­ing machines.

The girl already knew that the uni­verse hums ongo­ing life with mon­u­men­tal paci­fici­ty. Until it does not.

Perhaps, as she lay there, the girl would remem­ber her 9th birth­day. Remember how she woke up, her moth­er blow­ing on her eyes. How her friends came to cel­e­brate with fes­tive­ly bound presents. How they’d eat­en a pud­ding-filled cake, flecks of wax embed­ded in the frost­ing, before a magi­cian arrived and began his ron­da of tricks. How she laughed at the magi­cian. How he sput­tered. How, on the verge of ado­les­cence, she found the magician’s mis­placed child­ish­ness alarm­ing, the way a maimed rab­bit is alarm­ing, before it is dead.

How she fol­lowed the magi­cian away from the guests and spied on him through a crack in the bath­room door. How he took a piss in the sink. Until his reflec­tion looked at the door, cap­tured the glint of her girl­ish eye in the glass.

How he licked his lips.

When she dumped his bag in the hallway—spilled his cards, ker­chiefs, even the plas­tic egg on the floor—he opened the door and stared at her. The two of them on oppos­ing sides of the door­way. His fly tricked at half mast. She didn’t back up. Didn’t back down. Instead, she looked at the egg on the floor between them and, with­out hes­i­ta­tion, stepped on it. The egg crum­pled but the magi­cian did not. Instead, he grabbed her chin. Then stuck his tongue in her mouth.

The girl kicked him once—hard—and he let her go. In a moment, she ran back to the guests. No one ever the wis­er.

A few days lat­er, she found a rab­bit in the gar­den, its neck claw-gashed, and eat­en by bugs. The rab­bit had escaped the fal­con, or a neighbor’s cat, before crawl­ing away to die. The girl watched the flies annoy its corpse, twitch­ing the fur on its ears, its fer­ment­ed bel­ly. The glassy shell of its hard­en­ing eyes.

With a small shov­el, she dug a hole in the gar­den behind the big rock. While her par­ents ate lunch in the kitchen, she waved away the iras­ci­ble flies, scooped up the hare in a buck­et. There was some sponge, still, in its resid­ual body. Fouled liquors. But, already, the rab­bit was trans­form­ing into paper and air.

She emp­tied the rab­bit into the hole, then cov­ered it with stones, flow­ers from a sand cher­ry tree, bits of rib­bon she found beneath a braid­ed copse of pachysan­dra. Soon, dirt was in her hair, trapped under her socks, creas­ing the mild wrin­kles of her thighs.

Into the grave, she tossed the plas­tic egg too. The girl had found it, col­lapsed in a scrum behind the bath­room door, after the magi­cian left.

Back in the house, the girl’s lunch was wait­ing on the kitchen table. A jam sand­wich. A clutch of grapes. An exquis­ite nap­kin fold­ed with care.

As the girl nib­bled her meal, she thought of the hole in the yard that now was filled. The rab­bit that once was alive but was no longer. The egg that remained an egg.

She knew what she’d find when she returned to the grave in a few weeks. Cracked it open.

Sank into the unloosed earth again.

~

Christina Milletti’s fic­tion has appeared most recent­ly in the Akashic Books anthol­o­gy, Buffalo Noir, The Masters Review, Denver Quarterly, American Letters & Commentary, The Cincinnati Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Chicago Review, and Best New American Voices (among oth­er places). She teach­es in the MA in English/Innovative Writing Program at the University at Buffalo where she found­ed the Exhibit X Fiction Series. Her sto­ry col­lec­tion, The Religious & Other Fictions, was pub­lished by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her first nov­el, Choke Box, is cur­rent­ly cir­cu­lat­ing with pub­lish­ersand she’s work­ing on a new col­lec­tion of sto­ries called Erratics.