Winds gather toward the town from all directions like water going down a drain. It's clearly visible on the road, where shadows chase one another around and around in deliberate wheels. People pause as they go about their day, as if there is something they're trying to remember. There's a communal murmur that hopes for rain-- if only to relieve the tension-- and remnants of their conversations drift about in the stillness if one only knows how to retrieve them.
It is exactly this sort of town that the magician prefers. He enjoys looking at the houses that sit precariously near to the road and those that draw back from it slightly beneath a snarl of trees. He enjoys unkempt yards especially, grass left to grow knee-deep with unidentifiable rusted things trawling throughout. Secrets flow in rivulets from the guttermouths and lurk quivering under the porch steps. In the dusty dusky hours the smell of honeysuckle drifts from one backyard to another.
He likes the people, even, although most of them speak in inanities or drink their wine from a box. It is easy for him to play the sophisticate, to be the honey-tongued blueblood instead of the tawdry stage magician.
He runs his tongue over his teeth before he steps onstage. He runs a hand through his hair, too, and it nearly disappears into the mass of dark curls. His step through the curtain is practiced perfect and he smiles, lifting his hands into the air to either side. White twinkle lights curve around the stairs into the audience, so he can count the heads. He is sure, as he looks from one face to the next, to look people in the eyes. He imagines a spark passing down his line of sight, something that makes this show only for them. He doesn't have time to do them all, but it's enough.
"Gentlefolk," he shouts out into the crowd, "Welcome. It is my pleasure to inform you that, in addition to my usual array of illusions, tonight's entertainment will contain a unique addition. Conditions are, as we so often say in the profession of magic, extremely favorable this evening and I will be able to test something altogether new."
He drops his voice to a conspiratorial low. "Let us hope that all goes well."
With a smile, he steps back a bit and begins.
Unlike many magicians, he performs with concealed assistants. They dress in black, like stagehands, and their faces are masked in black fabric. They appear to do very little aside from wheeling props in and out. But when out of sight they work within a number of the props, operating mirrors or boxes, lifting and turning and switching one thing or another. It seems natural, really, since they behave like props themselves. The magician dismembers them only to put them back together again, makes them disappear and appear at his leisure, shrinks them, changes them into birds, all with apparent ease. When he does an unassisted trick there is always really someone there, adjusting a mirror out of sight, offering a tray of hot coals to be eaten with a fork, hiding inside a magical cupboard.
Until, at the end of the evening, he stands alone on an empty stage, glancing from one side to the other.
He gives them all a sheepish grin and says that he has, apparently, run out of assistants. "But not out of tricks, because, as I mentioned before, there is one more... but I cannot do it unaccompanied."
He does not call for audience volunteers, merely beckons to someone apparently at random. It is not, cannot be a plant; this is a small town, and several people know this girl, if only because she works the checkout counter at the hardware store. They know her tired expression and her wispy cloud of hair worn impractically long. She climbs the stage with a look more apprehensive than excited, takes an uneasy seat on a proffered chair that the magician carries from off stage right. He asks for her name.
"Bernadette. Or Birdie. People call me. Birdie. Sometimes."
"Bird," he says, and leans down to whisper something in her ear. He gestures with one hand while the other covers his mouth. She nods, but does not seem to become any more at ease.
"This lovely young bird will be here to monitor the illusion and to take action in case things go wrong, as I have just explained to her. She will also be helping me at the end, as I will be otherwise engaged."
Before her lips can completely form the stroppy syllables of "I'm not a bird" he is gone, stepped back into the curtain and leaving her alone onstage. There is a long moment of silence interrupted only by the rush of a car going by on the next road over and the sound of crickets, like a tired cartoonish joke. Birdy begins to flush.
The magician steps out again, and he carries a deep purple backdrop. It glitters in his arms and trails behind him like a neglected bridal train. He sets it up on a small, simple rack. It is a little shorter than he is, and a little wider, so he stands with his arms draped casually over it.
A stagehand steps out and hands Birdy a sword.
"Now I've heard that the best way to kill a man, to really give him a good stabbing, is to put he knife right here, under the armpit. Or is that only with knights in shining armor? I am no knight and I could be wrong but for the sake of showmanship I think it should go between the ribs, don't you?" He grins and beckons to her. She gets up from her seat, letting the sword dangle from one hand.
Without further ado or instruction she shoves the sword into his body through the curtain, and the muscles in her arms sing with shock when they meet real, fleshy resistance. She lets go and the blade stays in, blood dribbling through the cloth already, so quickly, and there is a small scream from someone in the audience. The magician is slumped over, still supported by the frame. His head droops. It is impossible to see his face.
"Pull it out," he whispers, so only Birdie can hear.
She does, and she stands very still to watch the cloth turn slowly from purple to a wet and viscid black. The world has apparently gone silent.
A few stagehands come from off to the left and right, taking the sword and lifting the magician carefully under the arms. His head lolls; it is a strings-cut marionette of a head. It is possible, if one looks very hard, to see a grin on his face. His lips peel back from his teeth and his teeth gleam. They walk him over to the side of the frame and downstage until the gash and the blood are fully visible. One of the stagehands indicates the deep cut in his chest and asks, through gestures, if Birdy could please touch it. She places a hand against his shirt, against the slick wet bloom of it. She prods the wound with one finger and it parts, slightly and sickeningly, around her fingertip.
They drape the body back over the frame and leave. One of them comes back with a white sheet which covers the body and the frame entirely. The stagehand grabs Birdie's hand and abruptly places it against the sheet, against the magician's head, and she can feel the coarseness of his hair through it.
The body begins to stir. Birdy realizes that she just thought of it as "the body" and has been doing that for almost a full minute. It's a real trick, she thinks, a really good trick.
The magician rises gracefully, like a dancer, and throws the sheet aside. The frame has disappeared along with the wound and the blood-- his shirt is clean now and completely whole. He nods to Birdy, thanks her under the applause.
As she returns to her seat he gives his final speech and people rise to leave. She doesn't listen, lets the words wash over her like an unfamiliar language, without comprehension. Her mind is elsewhere.
Under her bag is a small note, handwritten on a torn piece of lined journal paper which she turns over and over in her hands after reading.
She glances at the stage before leaving, but the curtains are already drawn.
The moon hangs outside like a matte painting. It doesn't look real when framed by the trees like this; it looks too close and artificial, like something to tear. It's too dark and somehow too pretty and he wishes he could turn it off. The diner is nearly empty at this time of night, so it's easy to notice when Birdy walks in the door. She has her hair pulled back almost violently from her face. The fluorescent lights beat down on her features and compress them into a flat, blue plain. Chrome and glass distort her in every reflection. She walks through the room fragmented, squat and bent-up against the side of a table. Tall as a spire in one convex metal wall. There is a moment of hesitation before she sits down at his booth in the back, settling into her seat and plucking at the lapels of her coat. Her fingers fold and unfold repetitively, rapidly.
"So," the magician smiles, "You received my note."
"And do you have an answer for me?"
The faint smell of horrible late-night diner coffee drifts through the air. She shuts her eyes and breathes it in before answering him. She stares at his left elbow.
"I didn't really understand the offer. I don't know anything about stage magic, and I already have a job and a two year apartment lease, not that you would know that, but I felt like you probably had some kind of... uh..."
The magician coughs. "Ulterior motive?"
Her hands squirm together. "I guess. Whatever. Do you often ask random strangers via note to come on the road with you and help with your magic act? Because that's a really weird fucking thing to do to people, in case you were wondering. And if it was a come-on, that's even weirder."
"So why are you here, then?"
"...Christ, I don't know." She rises to her feet just as a waiter passes their booth. He goes on wiping off the other tables and tidying up as if no one is there, even walking around to stand behind her. But when he's out of her sight, positioned slightly behind a dusty silk potted palm tree, he does glance up and the magician follows the line of his eyes. They look Birdy up and down with appreciative slowness. Thorough. His gaze comes to rest on the side of her leg, in the curve of her back. The tips of her spine. There is a dry fleck of food caught in the hairs on his upper lip. After a moment the waiter looks away again and turns, humming tunelessly as he wipes down the other teal plastic tabletops. The magician's tongue darts out from between his lips for a second and he rises, offering Birdy his hand.
"It never would have worked, tonight, if you'd not been there," the magician whispers. "That's why I made the offer. The favorable condition I mentioned at the beginning of the show, that was you. You have something I am decidedly lacking, something not even my... assistants... can duplicate. And I know for a fact that you detest your job and your apartment is a ruin."
She slides down into the seat. Every movement she makes is slow, deliberate, as if she's trying not to startle him. But her fingers are restless and he can hear the rustling-squeaking sound of her skin sliding across the seat fabric. "I came here to tell you off," she says. "Because I was bored. That's all. That's the only reason."
"You will get a cut of every performance's profit, as I mentioned in the letter, and free room and board with the company as we travel. You will learn a fascinating trade. And, as I also mentioned, I will give you a gesture of good faith."
Her eyes dart up and pinch slightly at both ends. This time, it's her tongue that darts out. He wonders if she knows she's mirroring him, if she's doing it on purpose.
"Your condition... 'anything, within reason.'?"
"A gesture of your choosing. To prove I am trustworthy."
Her hands walk across the table like quick, ambulatory spiders. Where they were laid, a dewy handprint fades.
"Any kind of gesture?"
Overlooking the town there is a small hill which peeks up out of the foothills of larger mountains. Every so often someone will hike or camp there, but in the early hours of the morning it's a silent place, waiting for dawn. Between the trees it's possible to see the entire town spread before one, a little lake of dark and light flecks beside a patchwork farmland.
It is the perfect place to watch the town burn.
Birdy stands a few feet in front of the magician, eyes sparkling as they move from one flame to another. The fire was started from several places at once, impossible to stop before it caught, and now the town is an inferno. Soon helicopters will fly over, perhaps, and drop chemicals to put out the flames, but it's already too late. The modest dome of town hall falls in a bloom of flame. The magician moves to stand beside her, and she looks at the way the firelight plays on his face, for a moment. They will have a use for one another, she thinks.
"I still have to meet your assistants," she says. "They're very good. They pulled this off spectacularly. I'll have to thank them."
There is a long pause."They might not be quite what you expect."
"Nothing seems to be," she says. She imagines that she can feel the heat drifting towards her, luxuriant and warm and soothing as hot tea.
"Are you human?" She asks, keeping her voice very flat.
"Not entirely, no. That comes with the territory I'm afraid." He pauses for a moment, reflecting. "I don't think you'll miss it."
"What will I be, then, a lovely assistant? Or some sort of arcane wizard power source like a magic crystal, perhaps. Or a twisted and inhuman goblin. Maybe you'll suck my youth out and add it to your own so you can live forever."
The sky is growing lighter in streaks of deep purple and airy pink.
"You will be something like an apprentice."
He takes her hand and lifts it to his mouth to kiss, and she lets him. It feels as though a seal has been stamped into her knuckle, as if he has claimed something. She wonders what use killing him would be, since she seems to bring him back again. There's a theory worth more experimentation.
The sun rises. Under it, the town continues to smolder, sending curling dark gray smoke into the air. When the sun hits the smoke the effect is breathtakingly beautiful. It is almost as if one could climb into the clouds and find a fresh country, blank and untouched and new.
They turn away and begin walking back to the road, arm in arm, and Birdy is smiling. Her face is slightly flushed and very bright.