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 publishers, and she’s working on a new collection of stories called Erratics.