Dad was on big important phone calls all the next day, with bankers I think. Mr. A. Tranjay had said at dinner that his work would be done soon, and that was quicker than anyone expected. I didn’t want him to go. I liked having him there. I didn’t know where he lived but I thought he should move in with us. I looked all morning to see if he was in the garage, but the light was off and the door was closed, so I looked at the book he gave me instead. I had hid it under my mattress, which seemed like the only place no one would look. I had my dad’s laptop on my desk—I was supposed to be doing homework—and I was trying to translate it like he said, but it wasn’t going very well. Still, I wanted to show him I could do it, and it was better than math. That’s when I heard flute music.
I closed the computer and put the book back under my mattress. I went to the back door but Dad had remembered to lock it that day, like he said he was going to do. I sighed. I looked at the ceiling. I could hear my dad in his office. He had left the key hanging from a nail high at the top. He said it was just for emergencies. In case the house caught fire or something. I stared at it as the music came through the gap under the door along with the cold air. It was a drafty old house. That’s what Dad said. That’s why we were renovating.
Dad had locked the door to keep me safe. But if I went out, I would be with Mr. A. Tranjay, and I knew that was safer than anywhere else. I slid a kitchen chair across the floor quietly and opened the door. Then I put the key and the chair back.
It was cool outside but warmer than the day before. The music was coming from the hollow, from a little clearing over the first big hump of earth. He heard me coming, I think, because he stopped playing. But when he turned and saw me climbing over a fallen log, he seemed disappointed, like he was expecting someone else.
“I’m sorry,” I said when I saw his face. I wanted to turn around and run home. It seemed then like no one wanted me. Not my mom. Not my dad. Not even Mr. A. Tranjay, who didn’t have anyone and still didn’t want me.
He sighed. He seemed so weak, weaker even than the night before. “No, no. It’s not you. I had just hoped—”
I looked around at the bare trees and all the leaves on the ground.
“I had hoped for help.”
“Help? With the lot?”
“No.” He smiled and raised his hand for me to approach. “Our allies. Against the dark power.”
“Allies? Like in a war?” I stood near him but I didn’t sit. I thought maybe I still wasn’t welcome.
“Quasi. There was a time when men respected what came out of the cracks under the trees.” He pointed to one across the little clearing. It looked like a little animal den to me.
I asked if those men were ever afraid like I was when my secret was close and he said sometimes. He said people used to respect the Others but that some important men who lived far away in a secret castle had said all the Others were bad, even the good ones, and so the people chased them away, and that was bad because the nice ones were our best help against the mean ones. Then he said sending the bad ones back where they belonged was a special kind of job, and in the old days only people with special training were allowed to do it.
“In the Old Country,” I said, mimicking my dad.
“Older than that,” he explained. “Before chariots and bronze.”
He motioned to the spot next to him and I sat. He said in the really, really old days there were special people who could step through the holes in the ground—and those in the sky and under the water and inside the fire. They could walk the lands of the Others. He said there were so many different lands, no one could ever count them all. And it was dangerous. Sometimes these special people got lost and never made it back, and that was bad for the folks at home who relied on them. But for the most part, he said, these special people knew ways of helping the Others move on, or if that didn’t work, of trapping them so they couldn’t hurt anybody, or pulling them out of a body if they already had. Sometimes they even had to be destroyed. But he said you shouldn’t ever do that though because it made the other Others really angry and more would come.
“Like a bee hive?”
He nodded. I think he liked telling me things, like a teacher. He seemed lonely. Like me.
I asked if any of the Others were bad, and he said yes.
“Like my secret,” I said.
I nodded. It seemed like we were sort of the same then. We both had a secret we were trying to stop from hurting people. But we were different, too, because I hadn’t finished my math but I think he was done with his work on the lot and just didn’t want to tell anyone. It seemed like he was waiting for something.
“The good ones rarely come across.” He looked to the sky. “They remember how we treated them. And besides, like all good and noble things, they’re happy with what and who they are. There is nothing for them here.” He sighed. “Help, it seems, is not coming.”
“Is that why you’re playing the flute?”
He cradled it in his hands. “I thought if I divested myself of all that I had gained, if I gave it away or let it burn in the fire, if I retired from everything and everyone, if I fasted and observed the ancient rites, if I humbled myself . . .”
He said that word like it was more important than the others. But he didn’t finish his sentence.
“Is there really such a thing as magic?” I asked.
He raised his eyes to me. “What do you think?”
I immediately pictured my dad reading his Tolkien books in his armchair at our old house. And the collection of books he ordered on the internet about dragons and fairies and stuff. He got rid of everything after “the incident.”
“My dad says it’s not true. But I think that’s because he wants it to be true and he’s disappointed he hasn’t found any.”
“Hasn’t he? What would magic look like? If it was real? Wands and sparkles and blasts of light? Like fireworks and laser beams? Or perhaps cups of blood and snarls and levitating candles?”
I shrugged. “We had a magician come to school once.”
“But he didn’t saw anyone in half.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“And there was a guy who threw knives at this woman. She was tied to this big spinning circle and he threw the knives at her, but he kept missing.”
Mr. A. Tranjay smiled. “When you coaxed your secret away from the girl, your classmate, what did you say?”
“You spoke to it. You used words, right?”
“A spell. Of your own devising. To summon a creature not of this plane. Albeit only a few feet away.”
I scowled. “But if that’s all it is, then how is magic any different than anything else?”
“Who said it is?”
I hadn’t expected that. “Everyone. Everyone says it’s different.”
“Because that’s what they were told. And that’s why they don’t see it.”
I made a face.
“It’s all around you. Even now.”
I looked around. I didn’t see anything but the hollow. I looked back to him.
“Do you believe your father loves you?”
“How do you know? Have you seen this love? Has it come out of him in a brilliant flash and wrapped you up in a twinkle of flowers? Can you conjure it from the sky with incantations?”
“Then how do you know? If it isn’t made of atoms? If you can’t pour it into a bottle and weigh it?”
I suddenly got very scared. I worried Mr. A. Tranjay was going to tell me my dad didn’t love me, that it wasn’t real. Maybe my mom, too. Dad said she still loved me more than anything, but maybe she didn’t and that’s why she went away.
“Because of what he does for me,” I said. “And the things he says. And how he worries so much.”
He nodded. “So your father loves you. Very much. You know it’s there. And it’s as real as anything else. You can’t see it or touch it or measure it or melt it or dunk it in acid, yet it matters more than any of those things you can. Right?”
“There are people in the world who don’t believe in that. They don’t believe in anything that won’t return a particle, as if we could ever hold the best of life in our hands. Like humor. Do you know what that is?”
I nodded again, but I wasn’t sure.
“It’s the good feeling you get when you hear a funny joke. It’s what shakes your throat and pulls a laugh from your belly. You can stop yourself from laughing, but the greater the humor, the greater the effort to resist. You have to push back against something. Sometimes very hard. The thing you’re pushing against, that’s humor. It can be felt. But like love, it can’t be captured or weighed or smelted into hate. And just like love, our capacity for it is innate, but our expression of it has to be learned. Has anyone ever tried to explain a joke to you?”
I nodded. “My friend Chelsea. At my old school. She would make jokes and explain them. Sometimes I don’t think they were jokes. She just said they were because she was embarrassed.”
I realized then that I missed my friend Chelsea, and that I had almost forgot about her. I wondered if eventually I would forget her completely. Would she still be real? Then I thought about my mom.
“Were the jokes funny when she explained them?”
I shook my head.
“They lose something, don’t they?”
“The humor goes away?”
“Magic is like that. It can’t be memorized. Or learned. It has to be understood. Felt. Inside.” He put his fingertips to his heart. “Like humor. It can’t be explained. You can’t instruct someone in it. Just as an explained joke produces no humor, a dissected spell is a lifeless thing. Stillborn. That’s why no one ever learns magic from a book—as if you could compose a master symphony simply by reading a history of music. It’s why magicians always sound so hopelessly obscure. Like poets. They can never get at their subject directly. They can only point to it. It’s why people who don’t know magic can walk through the world and not see any of it. Even though, like humor and love and all the rest, it’s all around them. All the time.”
He waited for me to say something. I think he’d told me something very important then. But maybe he knew I didn’t understand.
“When your friend explained her joke, did you laugh?”
“Even though it wasn’t funny?”
“Because I wanted her to feel good.”
Mr. A. Tranjay patted my arm. “That right there. That is the most important kind of magic.”
“Are you going somewhere?”
He smiled at me with his eyes. “I think that’s enough for today.” He stood with a groan, like it hurt his knees. He looked so thin. His eyes had seemed so bright before. Now they had shrunk into the shadow of his eye sockets.
I thought the stag would be coming through the door again soon.
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s scheduled to be released later this summer. You can sign up here to be notified.
The next chapter is: Salamongue Greymouth, Waspkeeper of Hell