A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Magic.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
At Divine Redeemer Catholic School, where I attended kindergarten through eighth grade, there were a lot of rules. We attended mass every Monday. We were always to walk in lines. We could only use the bathroom before or after lunch, or with special permission from the teacher. When we misbehaved, we were made to “turn our cards to yellow.”
But, these rules never bothered me…except for one of them: At Divine Redeemer Catholic School, Harry Potter books were banned in the library.
As a fifth-grade bookworm, I found this rule particularly problematic. If I was going to make my goal of reading 600 pages per month, I needed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on my reading queue! So imagine my disappointment when our school librarian, Mrs. Swain, informed me that I would have to go elsewhere to find a copy of the year’s most talked-about book.
As a literary free spirit, Mrs. Swain wasn’t always so keen on following the rules. Though she couldn’t smuggle in a copy of the contraband, she did find other ways to bend the rules in the mystical favor. At Divine Redeemer Catholic School, Wednesdays were library and computer days. Our class alternated weeks in the library or computer classroom. But on some Wednesdays, when my friends and I were supposed to be in computer class, Mrs. Swain would request that we help her shelve books. In reality, we watched episodes of Charmed on the library VCR.
Charmed was a popular television series in the 1990s and early 2000s. It centered around three sisters known as the Charmed Ones, the most powerful good witches of all time. While the supernatural wasn’t necessarily promoted at our school—other than in the theological sense—it was simple for me to draw similarities between the show and what we learned in religion class. In the most basic of terms, both involved good overcoming evil and temptation. Both involved a “hallowed” book. Both involved demons and a trinity. Could it be possible that both were simply reflections of the other?
Episodes ran around forty-five minutes, which was the same duration as computer class. As much as we wanted to rub it in their faces, my friends and I never shared our secret with our fellow classmates. We’d hate for the day to lose its magic.
You are ten, and alone.
In the future, you’ll be so lightheaded, and yes, smaller, small enough to fit into the best costumes. Still, each year you will opt for plastic devil horns and a baggy Sean Jean sweatshirt. Your friends will forget to drive you home from parties. You’ll find yourself stranded in suburbs, fingers shaking as you scroll through contacts on your flip phone, devil horns snapped to pieces on the bathroom floor.
That is the future.
But for now you’re just a young’un with a hand-me-down witch costume. You have not dared to wear it to class, for it is monstrously tight. You thought, when you’d tried it on last week, that you would be skinny enough for it by now. You stood at your brother’s mirror, pulling the pointy hat far over your eyes. You placed a spell on your body by hitting yourself in the stomach, searching for enchantment through sacrifice.
You bite into a pumpkin cupcake. You are crammed into a class of thirty kids. Hocus Pocus blares on a TV mounted in the corner. Your teacher is asleep, head cradled in her hand. Her skin is papery, nearly translucent. It shrivels, fluttering under the force of her stale breath. She seems to be aging with every twitch of her sagging left eyelid. Perhaps you had misfired; perhaps your spell had worked on her.
You consider your costume. It once belonged to your cousin. She had been a fat girl until she’d woken up one morning thin. The fat had tried to flee as she slept, had ended up dead on the floor. She swore it had lain there for weeks before curdling into air.
You stuff two Oreo cookies into your mouth and soften them with a gulp of soda. You will your body to be transformed by a cloud of fairy dust. You will your costume to fit. You will yourself to wake up as a fifteen-year-old version of yourself with a visible rib cage, none of the past etched into your skin.
If it works, you vow not to take it for granted. You’ll devote yourself to the power hidden in your tiny, cushioned heart. You’ll sob your endless thanks.
You are neither right nor wrong.
You are a child.
You are far too overheated, too anxious to see that all your thoughts and words are fairy dust.
—Diana Rae Valenzuela
We met on Halloween, but all I remember is that his costume was unmemorable. A police officer, maybe? A fisherman? Something unimpressive, an ordinary man. He had an ordinary name: John, like Doe. The pledge.
A long-form trick: it would be months before he kissed me, in front of a dive bar on Hawthorne. My eyelashes fluttered like dove’s wings in the dark. We had our first date at Skidmore Bluffs in June and ate smoked salmon as the sun dropped to the horizon, where it stretched long and lazy like a cat along a windowsill. The first night we slept together, he sawed me in half and put me back together half a dozen times.
Years ago I wrapped my heart in heavy chains, secured it with seventeen padlocks, placed it in a safe, and dropped it to the bottom of the Columbia River. He kissed me awake one morning in August and I felt its weight, safely returned to the inside of my rib cage. The turn, in which the ordinary act becomes extraordinary.
The prestige, the punch line, the abracadabra: I love you.
I am still waiting to learn if this magic leaves its audience delighted or deceived.
I used to dream that seven angels visited me every year around Christmas. They came on bikes, riding down 8th Avenue, passing the gray suburban house where I played by the fire hydrant.
“We’re angels,” they said, “Don’t tell anybody that we came, or we won’t come again.”
Every year, in my dreams, playing by the fire hydrant. On the exact corner of 8th and Cypress. Angels on bikes, coming from the west. The air with some strange starlight quality, glittering in a way it never did during our prairie winters. Every year until I was nine or ten, and I told someone.
I wonder if this story is even real. It feels ancient and unreachable. It feels like the dreams I still have of wandering through my little hometown church, getting lost in strange cavernous depths and dizzying dark heights somehow contained in this small structure built by immigrants long dead. The faces in the dreams are blurred and unclear, the steeple holds some sort of mystery, and maybe I also dreamed that a man who saw ghosts took me up there where I was fourteen, through a trapdoor in the ceiling right outside the sanctuary, and I was careful not to step on delicate bat bones as we climbed.
In some folk-magic traditions, a crossroads has a supernatural element, a place between worlds, where spirits can visit if they so choose. The church also sits right in the cradle of a crossroads: 6th and Old Main.
I wonder what would have happened had I kept the secret of the angels. Would I still dream of them? What would they tell me?
Would I still believe in God?
I used to think that magic didn’t come from the Midwest, with its scrubbed prairie grass, its winters so cold and still. But now when I go back for Christmas—visiting for Christmas like the angels—I notice the night sky in winter has a tangy quality, like if you tasted it you’d taste metal, a strange glow capturing it from the edges, maybe the reflection of the snow or maybe the angels back again. The sanctuary of the church is such a deep red for the Christmas service, and the candlelight so lovely, that I always forget to look up when I walk through the narthex, to see if there is a trapdoor there.
—Kelsey K. Larson
Lance Corporal Sligo: suburban mall goth, Hot Topic, hermetic, pale, slight. Dog tags said WICCA for religion. He was from Austin.
Sligo found this book of spells on Amazon and had it mailed over to himself along with a dozen anime movies on DVD. We laughed as he opened the cardboard box to reveal this book of four-hundred-year-old German magic(k). The book wasn’t four hundred years old, just the content. The book had been published in 1983 in New York City.
“What are you going to do with that, Fuck Pig?”
That was Sligo’s nickname. He was nicknamed after his favorite porno movie. Back in North Carolina, he could be found up in his barracks room burning incense in an iron censer, shirtless, chest and arms covered in arcane symbols he’d written in his own blood. But that was back in North Carolina with its lower stakes. In Iraq, he had to resort to much more powerful incantations.
“There’s djinn out here along the river, and I think I can harness them to keep the IDF from hitting the palace.”
Indirect fire weapons. The insurgents were lobbing missiles and rockets at us almost daily from the cypress groves around the little farms. Several men had been killed or maimed by these, and the fear of them haunted every moment we spent outside the palace or our bunkers. Only nightfall gave us respite because they feared our night vision goggles.
Right on cue, the muezzin started with the evening prayer over a loudspeaker somewhere outside the base. The muezzin’s anger that night was about a six of ten but if he knew we had a pagan inside the walls of the palace about to weaponize some djinn for use against the insurgents, he probably would have hit a ten like he did during the Second Battle of Fallujah.
I won’t lie. I was skeptical. There are atheists in foxholes, and all along the river, men were losing faith in everything there is to lose faith in.
But the truth is this: Sligo did this thing with some pentagrams drawn with burnt plants outside in the dead gardens behind the palace. After that, not a single rocket or mortar ever struck the palace directly, and we slept easy in its ruin with the huge brown river rats.
So mark one up for the Djinn of Ramadi.
Brian was licking barbecue sauce off his fingers when the ocean suddenly turned into a field.
He looked to his left. He looked to his right.
“Well, I never.” He looked behind him. He put his hands on his hips. “I guess I should take a picture.”
He walked up to the edge of the sea wall and pulled out his phone, and in his attempt to avoid smearing it with whatever concoction remained on his fingers, dropped it.
“Fuck!” He threw his hands up. “Fuck.”
He walked out onto the docks and took a tentative step onto the grass. It was solid and loamy, thick with age, and had a perfect firmness beneath his feet. A kind give. He walked over to his phone and picked it up. The screen was cracked.
“Fuck. Fuck.” He looked around. He licked his thumb. “Ugh!” He threw his hands up again.
Then the field reverted back, and he fell through the surface. The water was only shin-deep, though the sudden stop jarred him and he fell to his knees. He craned his neck back and looked up. “Why is this happening to me?”
His phone started to ring but it went unnoticed. Brian put his hands to his face. The sun was bright. On the other end of the line, someone was waiting, but no one answered.
You’re disappearing, her mother had exclaimed. She’d found that rather annoying. As if her mother had suddenly realized her invisibility after nineteen years. It was her only talent in such a gifted family. Ma could split an ear with a siren’s yell and go without sustenance for years. Pa, he was super strong, immune to poison, and could speak several languages without much schooling. Her brother was following in his footsteps.
She was born with only one power, though. She didn’t always consider it as such. Initially, she didn’t even know of it. She could always see herself, but it was apparent that was not always the case to others. It was then a curse to her, as are many things to adolescents. She didn’t appreciate that her mother never asked what she wanted for dinner. Her dad only did things with her brother, who only noticed her when she spoke and demanded to be seen. Shut up Lard Ass, was his usual response. He was never reprimanded.
It wasn’t until junior high and high school that she began to understand her gift. As little factions formed around her, she was thankfully alone. In gym, she didn’t have to fake her period like the other girls. She could just sit on the bleachers and no one called on her. She could’ve napped or at least laid down, but even invisible she followed the rules. It was a point of pride. She was a model citizen, visible or not. It boded well for her. She was the first of the family to go to college, despite their powers.
Her father was reproachful in his actions when she broke the news. She couldn’t understand his slurred language of choice and didn’t particularly want to. It was the same with her brother. Her mother screamed and they all fled the house for safety.
She’d learned so much her first semester. Being invisible saved her from the distractions bemoaned around her in lecture halls and by her roommate’s friends. She’d become intrigued by psychobiology. That’s apt, she’d chuckle to herself. A little inside joke.
She hadn’t been excited to return home. Her powers waned. She thought of the fried mac and cheese and chicken skin disappearing into the toilet. Her mother stared inquisitively. Magic, she replied with a shrug.
Saint Patrick’s Day a long time ago, a friend and I found leprechaun tracks in the woods.
That is, we were old enough to know better. On some level, we must have realized the prints in the snow behind her house were made by raccoons. But we looked at the marks made by little splay-toed human-looking bare feet and told each other the feet had to belong to leprechauns. We managed to suspend disbelief about this for a couple of hours. I can remember almost completely expecting we might find a pot of gold sparkling in the light of an actual rainbow if we could track the owner of those footprints all the way home.
We didn’t discuss—or not that I can remember—what to do if we found the pot of gold that we said we were looking for. We were old enough to know treasure isn’t free, nobody gives it away out of kindness, it’s always guarded. I guess we weren’t the first nor last pursuers who have chosen not to spoil a good chase with practicalities.
We followed the tracks a long way, not on trails. Finally there were multiple tracks crossing each other confusingly, and the ground got steeper and it was getting colder and we gave up. I think my friend got in some trouble with her parents later for the distance we’d gone back into the woods.
That was a good day. New England raw early spring with snow getting into the tops of our socks. But a good day. I didn’t get to join in another day of shared enthusiasm like that for a long time.
Does “magic” have to do not incidentally, but centrally, with giving yourself, or each other, permission to fall for a hope about which you are old enough to know better?
My ex-wife once took me to a mystic named Ms. Jackie who shared a rusted camper trailer on the outskirts of town with two feral cats and a collection of porcelain saints. A glowing green neon hand with “Psychic” written underneath in curlicue script hung outside. Stephanie was a big believer in things unseen, in omens and apparitions, and we had reached the point where she was looking for a sign.
Ms. Jackie was a large Eastern European woman with unwashed salt-and-pepper hair and a surprisingly direct manner of speaking. We sat in what functioned as her parlor around a fold-out coffee table cluttered with coupon clippings and chunks of sparkling purple geodes, and we unburdened ourselves to her.
“You’re too closed off,” Ms. Jackie told me, wagging a bejeweled finger. “Your aura is orange-y.”
I admitted that perhaps my aura was not its optimum shade, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Ms. Jackie’s kitchen was visible behind her. An icebox was propped open and dripping water onto a pile of dingy towels. There was a musty smell in the trailer that might have come from the cats prowling the cabinets around us. She frowned and pointed to the gold watch pinched around her wrist.
“It’s 4:44,” she told me. “Time to talk to your angels.”
Stephanie nodded sagely and handed me a pair of L-shaped dowsing rods.
“Ask about our future,” she urged. “Or whatever.”
I closed my eyes and focused on the question I’d been puzzling over for months. The metal prongs felt cold and flimsy in my palms. When I started to speak, Ms. Jackie hushed me.
“To yourself,” she said. “Left means no, right means yes.”
I concentrated and the rods began to quiver hesitatingly toward the right, then swung decisively to the left.
On the drive home, Stephanie wanted to know what I’d asked and I refused to tell her.
“Can’t,” I said. “Bad juju.”
That night, she nudged me awake and began dealing out tarot cards across the comforter.
“Pick one,” she said. “For me.”
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and pointed. She flipped the card to reveal the Nine of Swords and her expression changed.
“Is this going to work?” I asked.
The question levitated between us, but the answer had finally appeared. And that’s the hardest part of any trick, not the disappearing like you’d think.
Original Rumpus art by Reid Psaltis.