There was little magic left to those dark times. The world seemed cracked somehow, too weak for the magic to hold; latterly, as he’d performed his tricks, he’d begun to doubt they would work at all, he’d stand before his audience behind his patter and his sheen and a beaming smile that was well-oiled and ready practised, and he’d felt himself starting to sweat, he’d felt the fear take over – the magic wouldn’t hold, the magic would fail. Lucy never seemed to notice. Lucy never seemed to get nervous. And he supposed that if Lucy couldn’t see how frightened he was, then neither could anybody else. The magic had held. Still, it worried him.
They hadn’t performed for a month. It would be better, he supposed, when they reached the town. The villagers wanted nothing to do with their conjuring. They had no coins to waste on such a thing. But he had strong arms, they said, he could work alongside them in the fields – and the little girl, she could join the other children, there were always berries that needed picking. Sometimes the coins they earned were enough to buy them shelter for the night, and sometimes not.
And in the meantime they’d keep on walking, trying to keep ahead of the darkness. Because what choice did they have? He pulled the cart behind them. It would have been much quicker without the cart, but then they couldn’t have performed their magic. She walked by his side, and matched him step for step, and kept him company, though she never spoke.
“Is this the town?” he said one day, and Lucy of course didn’t answer, and he knew already that this couldn’t be the town, it wasn’t big enough, it was little more than a street with a few houses either side. But maybe it might have grown into a town, one day, had the blackness not come.
One of the houses was marked ‘inn’. He put down the cart, and beat upon the wooden door with his blistered hands. There was no reply, but he knew that someone was inside, he could hear breathing just an inch away, someone trying very hard to be quiet, someone scared.
“Please,” he called. “We mean you no harm. We’re two travellers, we just want a room for the night.”
“This is no inn,” a woman’s voice came back. “And the people who called it one are long since gone, or dead most like. There is no room for you here.”
“If not for my sake, then for the little girl’s.” And at that, as if on cue, Lucy lifted her head and flared her dimples, and opened her eyes out wide and innocent. It was an expression she could pull at a moment’s notice, and it had been a useful trick in the old days, to gather about a sympathetic crowd, to persuade the crowd to part with coins. He saw no signs that that anyone inside could see them; there must have been a secret window somewhere, or a crack in the wood, because next time the woman spoke her voice was softer.
“D’ye have money?”
“We are, at present, financially embarrassed,” confessed the man, but he puffed out his chest, and his voice became richer – somehow Lucy putting on her pose beside him gave him a little swagger too – “But we propose to pay you with a spectacle of our arts. We are magicians, conjurors, masters of the illusory and the bizarre. We have dazzled the crowned heads of three different empires with our legerdermain, the only limits to what we can surprise you your own imagination. I am the Great Zinkiewicz, and this, my assistant, Lucy!” And at this he delivered a sweeping bow, directed at where he hoped his audience was watching him.
There was silence for a few seconds.
“You can come in anyway,” the woman said.
The inn was dark and dirty, but welcoming for all of that, and warm. The woman showed them both to the fire, and the magicians stood before it, and baked in it, and the man hadn’t realised how cold he must have been. But now the heat was on his skin he realised there was a damp chill inside him it would take more than one night’s shelter to rid.
“My cart?” he said.
“It’s safe. No one will touch your cart.”
“It contains everything we own.”
“No one will touch your cart.”
The man nodded at that, turned back to the fire, turned back to Lucy. Now that they were at rest, he realised once again what an incongruous couple they made. For all that he spoke like the gentleman, his clothes were ripped and mud-spattered, there were ugly patches in his grey beard and his face was bruised. Burly and broad shouldered, he stood nearly seven foot tall. Lucy, by his side, somehow still looked refined. The mud of the fields had never clung to her quite, and as ruddy as his face was hers was as pale as milk. She seemed dwarfed next to him, she seemed small enough to be folded up and put away in a little box – exactly, in fact, as one of their tricks required.
“There’s no food for you,” said the woman. “But there’s a room upstairs, just for the night, you and your daughter are welcome to it.” So, she thought Lucy was her daughter. Perhaps that was for the best.
There was noise on the staircase, and the man looked up, and realised why the woman had taken pity on them. Grinning at them in wonder was a little girl, surely no older than Lucy. And she was a proper little girl too, the man could see that, she had somehow managed to keep her youth, unlike Lucy who just pretended. She was dressed in pink; there was some attempt still to curl her hair.
“My daughter,” said the woman, and she said it gruffly enough, but the man could see she was trying to hide her affections, he could sense how she burned with love for the girl, he didn’t need his magic arts to tell. He was glad for them. He wondered if there was a father. He knew better than to ask.
Her mother said, “We have guests, Make up their bed.”
The little girl’s eyes widened. “Like in the old days?”
Her mother hesitated. “Yes,” she said. “Like in the old days.”
The innkeeper and her daughter ate their bread and cheese. The innkeeper wouldn’t look at her visitors, but the daughter couldn’t help it, she kept stealing glances in their direction. The man knew not to make eye contact yet, not to ask for a single crumb of food. Lucy just stared into the flames, as if fascinated by something she saw there.
“What’s your name?” the little girl suddenly asked her.
“She’s called Lucy,” said the man.
“How old is she?”
“How old are you?”
“Then Lucy’s seven too.”
The little girl liked that. And the magician looked at her directly, and held her gaze, just for a few seconds, and he caused his eyes to twinkle. Lucy never looked up from the fire.
“The magic you perform,” said the mother. “It’s an entertainment?”
The man nodded gravely. “Madam, many have told us so.”
“But it’s not real magic? I wouldn’t have real magic in my house.”
“I assure you, it is nothing but tricks and sleight of hand. There is a rational explanation for everything that we do.” The woman nodded at that, slowly. “We would be happy to give you a demonstration.”
At this the little girl became quite excited. “Oh, please, Mama!”
The woman looked doubtful. “But what good can it do?”
“It cheers the soul somewhat. It amuses the eyes. It nothing else, it makes the night pass that little bit faster.”
“Please, mama!” The little girl was bouncing up and down now. “I do so want the night to go faster!”
“No magic,” promised the man. “Just a little trick. So simple, your child will see through it. I give you my word.”
Words counted for nothing in those days, but the woman chose to forget that. “All right, if it’s just the one.” And then she smiled wide, and the man could see how beautiful she was when she did that, and how much younger she looked, and how like her daughter, and how she wasn’t that much older than her daughter, not really, nor so different either.
Lucy rose from the fireplace, stood as if to attention. The man said, “We’ll get changed into our costumes.” The woman told him there was no need for that. The man said, “Please, madam, you must allow us to present ourselves properly, presentation is what it’s all about!”
The magicians went outside to the cart. They changed into costume. No one was in the street to see, and besides, there was no moon that night, it was pitch black.
When they went back to the inn, the little girl clapped her hands at the sight of them, and her mother’s smile widened even further. What a pair they looked! The Great Zinkiewicz wasn’t a tramp, how ever could they have thought him so! – he was a lord in a long black evening coat, and his blistered hands were hidden beneath white gloves, and the top hat made him taller still, my, he towered over the room! And he looked smoother, softer, he was charming. Lucy was in a dress of a thousand sequins, and when she moved even the slightest muscle the sequins seemed to ripple in the firelight.
“The Great Zinkiewicz will ask his beautiful assistant to give him a pack of playing cards.” His beautiful assistant did that very thing. Zinkiewicz held the pack between his thumb and forefinger. “I shall now ask a member of the audience to confirm these are just ordinary playing cards. You, little madam? Would you do me the honour? Would you be so kind? Would you tell everyone, we have never met before?”
The little girl giggled. She inspected the cards. She confirmed they were very ordinary indeed.
“I shall now ask you to pick a card. But don’t let me see it. Don’t let my assistant see it. Trust neither of us, keep it secret from us. Yes? Good. That’s good. Now, put it back in the pack. Anywhere you like, good.”
He handed the pack to Lucy. Lucy fanned the cards in her hand, held them out. The Great Zinkiewicz produced a wand, and tapped at the deck once, twice, three times. “Abracadabra,” he said.
“What does that mean?” asked the girl.
“I’m glad you asked me that. I don’t know. No one knows. That’s what’s makes it magic.”
“All right,” said the girl. She seemed unconvinced by that, so he winked at her.
He took back the cards from Lucy. He shuffled them. He removed one. “Now,” he said. “Is this your card?”
“Oh.” Zinkiewicz pulled a face. He looked at Lucy. Lucy pulled a face back. It was so perfect an imitation, and was so unexpected, those blank passive features suddenly contorting like that, really, you had to smile. “Oh. Well. I’ll try again. Hmph. Is this your card?”
“This one, then?”
“Then this one!”
“No!” She laughed, she could see something good was coming.
“Well then,” said Zinkiewicz. “Well, I’m stumped. Lucy, do you have any idea?”
And Lucy sighed, a big mock sigh, why was she saddled with such a dunce for a partner? She walked up to the little girl. She reached behind the girl’s ear. She seemed to tug at it, gave a little grunt of exertion. And then out she pulled a piece of card, and it was all rolled up tight like a straw. She opened it, presented it to Zinkiewicz.
And, as if taking credit for the magic himself, Zinkiewicz then presented it to the little girl, with a bow and a flourish.
“Yes! Yes, that’s the one!” She clapped, so did her mother.
There were a few more tricks performed, for as long as it took for the fire to burn out. And, at length, the innkeeper offered the magicians some bread and cheese. Zinkirewicz thanked her, and they ate.
“I know how you did the trick,” said the little girl.
“Oho! Do you, indeed?”
“Well, we have to keep these things secret. You better whisper it in my ear.”
The little girl laughed, looked at her mother for permission, and the mother nodded, laughed too. So the man got down on his knees, and the girl bent close, putting her lips right up to his ear, and whispering softly, and covering her mouth with her hand so no one could see. She told him the secret, and the man rolled his eyes, slow and despairing.
“You’ve seen right through me!” he wailed. “You’ll become a magician too, I’ll be bound, like my Lucy!”
But the little girl had got it wrong. The man had broken his promise. There had been real magic tonight, he had felt it flow right through him, he had felt the old confidence back, and it had been good. There had been no fear at all, it had been so very good. And the innkeeper and his daughter need never know. Lucy would know, but she’d never say.
“Does she ever say anything?” said the woman suddenly. “Is it just part of the act, or…?”
The man shook his head, put his finger to his lips, as if it were something mysterious he wasn’t allowed to divulge. But the truth was, he had no idea.
They sat up late that night, into the small hours, the magician and the innkeeper. The children had gone to bed. The woman fetched an old bottle of Madeira wine, she said she’d been saving it for a special occasion. Maybe this was one.
He said to her, “Aren’t you going to run away?” And then he blushed bright red, because he supposed that would sound like an invitation to accompany him, her and her kid, and he didn’t want that.
“We’re going to stay,” she said. “We’ve decided. We’re happy here. There’s nowhere out there that’s better. And maybe, maybe they’ll leave us be.”
The man nodded, and finished his glass, and went to bed.
In the morning, the magicians left. The woman gave them some bread for their journey. The little girl gave Lucy a hug, and Lucy didn’t quite know what to do with it, but the girl didn’t seem to mind she wasn’t hugged back.
They never saw the innkeeper or her daughter again. In the weeks to come, as the blackness overtook them, the man would suppose they were dead.
For there was little magic left to those times, not since the demons and angels had gone to war. No one had seen a demon and lived. And yet some said they were monsters, giants, dreadful to look upon, so terrible that if you so much as glimpsed one your heart would stop in terror. And other said they looked just like us. They looked just like us, except if you got close you’d find out their eyes were sharper than ours, and redder too, maybe; and they had little bumps on their head, just small, not quite horns, but maybe, no, horns, small – they could be hidden beneath hair, or a big hat; and when they spoke sometimes fire and brimstone would come out their mouths. But they looked just like us. No one had seen an angel either, but they were just as deadly, and they looked just like us too, like every stranger coming into town, like everyone you do not recognise. There were no wings, nothing so easy or giveaway, no holy trumpets playing to herald their arrival. Some had halos, but they were very ordinary halos, a little grey, a little rusted. The angels and the demons, they could be everywhere, anywhere, all about us. And yet no one had ever seen one. Not seen one, at any rate, and lived.
No one could guess why the demons and angels were at war. But it wasn’t about us. They didn’t care about us. And wherever they met in battle a blackness would descend, and it would engulf everything, and nothing could escape it, and it was spreading across the land.
The world seemed cracked, somehow, too weak for any magic to hold; or happiness; or faith; or love.
Still, he pulled his cart onwards, and sometimes he faltered, and Lucy never faltered.
One week away they found a road sign directing them towards the town, and it wasn’t even damaged, it was in one piece, and the man felt his spirits lift.
Four days away they found the old road itself, and there were some holes in it, and it wasn’t strictly straight, but it was still easier going for the cart.
One day they arrived at the town. There were bridges and churches and statues and shops. The road was choked with old discarded vehicles. There was litter. There was a theatre. They went into the theatre. It was big and imposing and the roof was still on.
The man took Lucy’s hands, and he made her look at him, directly, into his eyes. And he said, “Listen. We don’t have to stop. We can keep going. We can just outrun the blackness. We can keep going.”
And Lucy didn’t even shake her head. She pulled free, began to unpack the cart.
It was all in good condition, considering. The Sword of a Thousand Cuts had rusted, but that could be put right with a good dose of varnish. A trick mirror had fractured, but just a little, it needn’t spoil the illusion too much. The Cabinet of Vanishments was soaked with rain water, and one of the doors had warped slightly with the wet, and they sat it upside down on the stage to let it dry out. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, they didn’t use the Cabinet any more. They only kept the Cabinet for show.
The man unrolled the pack of posters. He walked over the town, stuck his posters up against the sides of buildings, walls, the disused telegraph poles that stuck out of the ground like dead tree stumps. Really, he stuck them up against anything that was still standing. He didn’t see anyone, but they saw him, he knew; he knew that once he’d moved away the people would come out from their hiding places and see what he had to sell. They were old posters, he’d stuck them up and pulled them down from any number of towns upon his tours – he looked younger in them, photographed in his full costume, in days when he filled out his clothes better and his smile was more fluent – “The Great Zinkiewicz Entertains!” it said, and beneath, “With His Glamorous Assistant, Lucy!” – but this was the old Lucy, the Lucy from before, buxom and beaming, almost as tall as he was, standing proud in her sequined gown and her feather head dress, gesturing towards him in the picture in a display of pride and awe. His assistant, his best friend, his wife, back before he’d lost her, and the blackness had swallowed her soul. How he missed her.
By the time he got back to the theatre the sun was already starting to set, and he could sense that the townsfolk were on the move, in spite of themselves they wanted to be dazzled and entertained. Little Lucy was already in her dress. He put on his white shirt, black trousers, white gloves, black hat. He stood with Lucy in the wings as he heard the auditorium fill, and he felt a sudden sickness in his stomach, performer’s nerves. And he wanted to run away, and he wanted too to do what he was born for, and stand in front of the crowd, with all those eyes on him, all expectant, all hungry, all making him the centre of their diminished worlds for a couple of brief hours.
“Break a leg,” he muttered to Lucy, and together they stepped out into the lights.
The lights shone in his eyes, he couldn’t see his audience, couldn’t see how large they were, how apprehensive. He gave his smoothest smile and hoped it passed as confident. He spread his arms out wide, as if inviting everybody in for a special hug.
“I am the Great Zinkiewicz,” he cried, as if challenging anyone out there to deny it. No one did.
The patter went well. He felt he had a real rapport with Lucy that night, their little rehearsal at the inn those weeks ago had sharpened them both. He was garrulous, the bigger the tricks he performed the more grandiose the metaphors he used to describe them, he’d never use one syllable when five would do. And beside him Lucy in all her blessed muteness struck such a comic contrast; she’d never open her mouth, she’d talk to the audience in her own way, she’d roll her eyes, she’d shrug, she’d flop her arms once in a while as if to demonstrate the physical heaviness of having to work with such a braggart. The audience began to chuckle. This was one way in which little Lucy always scored over her glamorous original; his wife had often tried to top his jokes, and she’d never been a funny woman, it had never worked.
So they chuckled, then they laughed outright. At some of the tricks there were even admiring gasps, and there was lots and lots of applause.
There was no real magic. Not tonight, it seemed. But that didn’t matter.
And at some point the mood shifted. The applause seemed thicker somehow, not crisp like clapping should be, thick like syrup; the laughter… what, more ironic? Crueller, even? He didn’t know what had caused it. Had it been him? It might have been him. Because the fear was back. Everything had been going so well, and he couldn’t believe the signs as the fear first stole over him – a coldness in his heart, a slight loosening in his bowels – no, he thought to himself, why now? He heard his jokes for what they were, and they were just words, pointless words; he felt how forced his smile was, could feel just how far it stretched across his face and no further; he began to shake, and sweat. He could see himself, one man caught in the lights, pretending that there was still something magical to the world when all about him was darkness.
The darkness, the darkness had come. The proper darkness, solid, weighty, and it lumbered across the theatre towards him. And he could hear his audience die, every one of them, and the demons came in, or was it the angels, or was it both, were they both here together, had they put aside their differences and stopped their war and come to see the show? His audience were lost, the angels and demons were in their seats now, crushing down their corpses. And the darkness, all the darkness, all about, unyielding, and pure, and the only light left in the world shone down upon him and Lucy.
His patter dried. He stumbled over his words. Stumbled over his feet. He panted, he licked his lips.
From the void came a voice, a single voice, and it was sharp like gravel, and he didn’t think there was anything human in it at all.
“Give us a good trick, magic man. And maybe we’ll spare your life.”
It was in just such a theatre that the Great Zinkiewicz had first seen the darkness. It had not been a good show. The audience weren’t attentive, he thought some of them were drunk. And Lucy was talking too much again, in spite of what he’d said to her the night before: it was all in the rhythm, he kept explaining to her, gently, the act only could work in a very exact rhythm. “I just feel there’s more I can offer,” she’d said. “I just stand about looking decorative, and getting sawn in half, and stuff. I’m worth more than that.” And he had promised he’d try to find a better way to include her in the show, and they’d kissed, and then made love. And, do you know, he thought he’d probably even meant it.
As they’d trudged towards the grand finale, he’d given her the signal, and she’d nodded, gone into the wings. And out she had wheeled the Cabinet of Vanishments.
“Behold,” said Zinkiewicz. “The Cabinet of Vanishments! Now, my wife will vanish before your eyes. When she gets locked up in my special box, and I tap upon the door, and say the magic word – yes, you all know it, abracadabra! I don’t know what it means, no one knows what it means, if we knew it wouldn’t be magic – I’ll say the word, and my wife will be gone!”
He’d felt at last a flutter of interest from the audience.
His wife had said, perkily, whilst wagging her finger at him, “And just you make sure I get back in time for tea!” Audience death once more. Jesus.
He closed the door on her, and he felt a relief that she was out of sight. And a sense of something else, deep inside, some new confidence. Or power.
He tapped on the door three times with his wand. “Abracadabra,” he said.
He opened the door. She’d gone. There was some half-hearted applause.
He closed the door again. “Now to bring her back,” he said. “I suppose!” And there was some laughter at that, and he thought to himself, you see, Lucy, one can improvise comedy, but only if one’s a professional.
“Abracadabra,” he said. He opened the door. The cabinet was empty.
He closed the door. He turned to the audience, smiled, but he felt it was a sick smile, and he could feel himself beginning to sweat.
“I’ll try again,” he promised them. “Abracadabra!”
Still nothing – but no, really nothing – and this time it seemed to Zinkiewicz the cabinet was not merely empty, it somehow seemed to have no inside at all. Black, just black, a darkness. That would spill out into the world unless. Unless he slammed the door shut.
He did. He held the door closed. He felt it, he felt something beat against it, thrum against his fingers. He didn’t dare let go. He didn’t dare hold on either, he didn’t dare stand so close, because he knew that for all its fancy design and name the cabinet was just a bit of plywood a few inches thick, it wouldn’t be enough to contain what was growing within. And at the thought of it he pulled away, as if he had been burned – and for a moment he thought he had, and he stared down at his fingers, expecting them to be charred and black. They weren’t. They weren’t, but he stared at them anyway – and for too long, he could hear behind his back the audience stir from stultified silence and begin to heckle.
He turned back to them. He didn’t know what to say. His tongue felt heavy, sick, and yes, his fingers, they still burned. “I’m sorry,” is what he came out with. “I’m sorry.”
And behind him he heard it, and he knew now he wasn’t imagining it, there was a knocking from within the cabinet, something impatient to be released. And then there was a voice to it – “Hey!” Muffled, but still sounding perky, so annoyingly perky. “Hey, let me out! Is it time for my tea yet?”
There was some polite laughter, they thought it was part of the act. He opened the door. There was Lucy. He took her hand to help her out, she had to bow so her feather head dress wouldn’t get caught, and her sequins sparkled as they came out from the dark. They made their bows together. They went for two bows, although the applause didn’t really warrant it.
That night in their digs they had argued. She told him this wasn’t what she had expected from their marriage. It wasn’t just the act any more, it was the entire marriage. She was bored with the constant travelling. It wasn’t as exciting as she’d expected. She thought they’d be on television by now. “Do you still love me?” he’d asked. She’d thought about it. “I don’t know,” she’d replied.
She turned away from him in the bed, and he wanted to reach out towards her, but he was too proud, or too frightened he’d be rebuffed. And he lay there in the darkness, and it seemed to him that it was a darkness so profound, and he wished they’d left the bathroom light on, or had the curtains open, anything, the darkness was beginning to hurt his eyes. And he felt that surge of power inside him again, and he knew she was right, he should be better than this, it was all supposed to be better.
He didn’t know her any more. He didn’t know her. Their magic was gone.
And he realised all the darkness in the room was her, it was her, it was coming from her. He could feel it now, it was pouring out of her. With every breath she made she was spitting more of it out, and it lay heavy on her, and it lay heavy on him, and it was going to suffocate him unless he stopped it. He’d lost her. He’d lost her. She’d been swallowed up whole.
He got up. She didn’t stir.
He packed the truck with all the props he needed for his magic act, his costume, the takings from the last three weeks of performance. He drove off into the night.
Within a few days the truck ran out of petrol. There hadn’t been a petrol station. There was barely even a road any more. He abandoned the truck. He found a horse cart amongst the rubble that lay about, so much rubble, things thrown away and no longer wanted. He loaded the cart. He picked up the handle. It was so heavy. He had to be strong. He walked.
The world was cracked, and the darkness was pursuing him, and he had to outrun it. And in some towns there was talk of war.
He did a few tricks for coins and food. Most of his tricks didn’t work without an assistant.
Some nights, if the ground was dry, he slept underneath the cart. He could pull the canvas covering down for added warmth or shelter. One morning he woke to find a little girl was curled up, at his feet, like a dozing cat.
“Oi!” he said. “Wake up!” The girl did, stretched, looked at him without shame or curiosity. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Where have you come from?”
She didn’t answer.
And he didn’t ask again, because he felt somehow if he did she would go away.
When he pulled the cart along, she walked beside him. And the next town he reached, he played his act, and she was there. She knew the tricks just as well as he did. And she had her own sequined dress, it fitted perfectly.
The distance between towns seemed greater and greater. Sometimes they’d walk for weeks before they’d reach a new one. And when they did, the people were hostile, or hid from them altogether. The paths were hard to walk, the ground rough, chewed up even, and no matter how much it rained the mud beneath their feet seemed so hard and sharp and unyielding. “I can’t go on,” he’d say to the girl, “I don’t see why we’re going on,” and he might cry, and then the girl wouldn’t look at him, as if she were embarrassed. One day he dropped the handle of the cart. “I’ve had enough,” he said, “if we must walk, I’m not carrying this any more!” Without missing a beat she went to the cart, tried to lift it herself, tried to drag it behind her. She was such a little thing, but she managed it; he could see her grit her teeth with the effort, and then force one foot on in front of the other, so slowly, too slow – she was going to pull the cart no matter how long it took. Shamed, he went back, relieved her. She smiled at him then, just a little smile, and it was of triumph, but it was not unkind. On he walked. On she walked, always keeping pace.
He called her Lucy, it was what it said on the posters. And sometimes as she slept beside him he thought he could see something of his wife in her face. Sometimes he liked to pretend this was his wife, but small, and silent, from the years before he’d met her. And sometimes he didn’t need to pretend, he knew it was true.
“Give us a good trick, magic man. And maybe we’ll spare your life. You, and that brat of yours.”
He tried his best. But the cards kept slipping through fingers damp with sweat.
“Haven’t you got anything better?”
He pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He pulled a hat out of a rabbit.
“Last chance, magic man.”
He didn’t know what to do. He looked at Lucy for help.
Lucy didn’t seem afraid. She seemed as blandly unaffected by this as she was by everything else. And for a second the man rather envied her. And for a second he was rather frightened of her too.
She held his gaze for a moment, then turned, and left the stage.
He thought she’d abandoned him. And he couldn’t blame her.
But she came back, and when she did, she was wheeling on the Cabinet of Vanishments.
“No,” he said to her. “No.”
She shook her head at that. She set it down centre stage. She presented it to the audience. And so, he went on with the act. He cleared his throat.
“I shall say the magic word, abracadabra. I… I don’t know what it means. No one does. What it means, I.” His voice cracked. “Maybe that’s why it’s magic.”
There was laughter. Real laughter, or were they mocking him?
He opened the cabinet. There was no darkness in there, the darkness had all got out long ago.
And Lucy gestured that he should step inside.
“No, I’m the magician,” he said.
She ignored that. With a bow, with a flourish, she once more waved him towards the box.
“No,” he said. And this time he was quite firm.
She stared him down for a little while. Then she leaned forward, and he thought she was going to speak at last, he thought she was going to whisper something in his ear. He bent down to listen. She kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Get on with it,” came the voice from the audience.
They got on with it. Lucy climbed inside the cabinet. She looked so tiny there suddenly, you could have fitted five Lucys inside, more maybe. He closed the doors on her. One didn’t shut properly, the rain water, the warping – and there was laughter again, and this time they were definitely mocking him. He had to hold the door to keep it flush.
“Goodbye,” he said to her. And he liked to imagine that inside she mouthed a goodbye to him too.
He tapped on the box three times with his wand. “Abracadabra,” he said. He stepped away from the box, the warped door swung open and revealed that the cabinet was now empty.
“Can you bring her back?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Bring her back.”
“No,” he said. “I’m not bringing her back. Not to this place.”
They came up on to the stage then, and took him by his arms, and bent him over backwards so his spine hurt, and held him tight. He saw that they were demons and angels, both – that they had little lumps for horns, and lapsed haloes, both.
“Bring her back,” they said.
And he felt such a power surging through him, the magic was back, even in a world as cracked as this. And he thanked them, sincerely – he thanked them that they had helped him give his best performance, that they had made his act at last mean something. The fear had gone. The fear had gone forever, and they could now do what they liked to him.
They bit him, and punched him, and pulled at his skin and hair. And he didn’t cry out, he laughed, he barely felt a thing, he was so full of magic now, he was invincible. This enraged them still further. They shut him inside his box, and they set fire to it, and he didn’t cry out, not once, and he looked deep into the flames and fancied he saw in them what Lucy had found so fascinating, and it didn’t hurt, not very much, right up until the end.
And Lucy turned about, and opened her eyes, and there was noise, and people, and the buildings stood intact, and the smell in the air may not have been clean but at least wasn’t sulphur.
Her sequined dress was ripped, and spattered with mud.
There was a pack of playing cards in her hand.
There was a tongue in her head.
She began to speak, and the more she said the better she got, and the better she got the louder she became.
She fanned out the playing cards to the world.
“Roll up, roll up,” she said. “Prepare to be dazzled by the Great Zinkiewicz!”
For a while no one paid any attention. But then, even in a world so cracked, the magic began to hold.
Hello! Rob again!
This story was first published in the anthology ‘Magic’, edited by Jonathan Oliver for Solaris Books under the title ‘Dumb Lucy’, and has been reproduced here by kind permission. It’s a fantastic book (in every sense of the word) and I’m very proud to be in it, especially because I rub shoulders with friends and heroes like Will Hill, Gemma Files, Christopher Fowler, Alison Littlewood and Audrey Niffenegger. I’m thoughtfully going to provide you a link to it on Amazon – do take a look! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Magic-An-Anthology-Esoteric-Arcane/dp/1781080542/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352095781&sr=8-1
Lucy’s is the 60th of the 100 stories. I never expected to take a break every twenty stories, but it has seemed to work out that way – and I must say, it’s something of a lifesaver, giving me a chance to breathe and to recharge the brain a bit. I’ll be back again for the next stint in the New Year – so let me be the very first to wish you all a merry Christmas, and to say thank you for reading along with me this far. The oddest stories are yet to come…