Fiction · 11/02/2016

The Magic

The audience leaned forward in the dark. The only light shone down like a heavenly blessing on the magician in his black silk cape as he caressed the box in front of him, murmuring to it as he might to a lover. His every gesture — the sensual tenderness with which he touched the box, the excitement on his face when he turned to look out at them in the dark — was obscene. They wanted to turn away, but could not risk missing what he did. And when he gave a hard rap to the box he’d so softly petted, and jumped back with a flourish of his arm, the side of the box dropped open, and it was empty — the woman who had been inside had vanished. They had expected her to, yet, they were happy to see that she had disappeared. The magician had fulfilled his promise.

“But there is more!” he shouted.

The vanished woman came strutting back on stage, smiling the same bright, toothpaste commercial smile and waving. The crowd applauded.

The magician took her by the wrist, and that gesture, not offering a hand to her as though she were a high lady, not beckoning, but grabbing like that, made them feel suddenly dirty, as if they were in a man’s home, witnessing a private crime that they would all be compelled to condemn, and not watching a public show. Yet the gesture was over already — already, he’d released her, and they could forget — it was so brief, and maybe they hadn’t really seen what they thought they’d seen.

The magician removed his cape and wrapped it around her. He flourished his arms, then, as if he didn’t care a bit what happened, he looked over his shoulder and snapped his fingers. The cape fell to the floor and what emerged from it was not the young woman, but a pig, large, pink, hairy, with a red wig that matched the hair of the woman and lipstick on its snout.

Some of the audience gasped. Some laughed.

“It’s OK, folks!” the magician said in a loud voice. “She’s better off this way, believe me!”

He made as if to kick the pig, and it squealed, running off into the wings.

Now, they knew what must have happened. They knew there must be a trapdoor under the cape, and that the female assistant was even now back in the wings after having fallen expertly through the stage and crawled beneath it to the stairs where she’d emerge later in the show, glittering in her sequined leotard, long legs drawing the eye.

She didn’t emerge, though. There were only a few more tricks, and the show was over. The audience funneled out of the dark and into the uncertain light of the outdoors, and some laughed openly — “Did you see? A pig? A real porker!” Some didn’t speak at all, unsure how to balance their interest in the spectacle with their discomfort.

The magician’s crowds grew. Some of them even waited for him after the show, asking for autographs. This excited him. They looked at the magician with longing and pleading, so much that he could almost hate them, yet they loved him. They appreciated his greatness. So he loved them. He did his tricks, and their faces lit up in amazement. When he saw that amazement, it filled him up, overwriting the times he’d been empty.

He started to talk to them between the tricks. They knew him and he knew them. They had the same fears he did. The same foes. The same desires.

“Some people don’t want to admit it,” he said one night. “But bacon is the most delicious meat.”

He paused, waiting, and the audience cheered.

“Who likes bacon?”

More cheers.

“‘Poor pigs,’ some of them say, but they’re all eating bacon back home, frying it up with their eggs.”

There were a few men who yelled “Yeah!”

“Who wants some bacon?” he asked.

The crowd roared.

“You want some bacon?” he yelled.

The crowd roared again, and it was like a tide that carried them, building momentum — some even stood up from their seats.

“Geneva,” he called.

Out came the red-headed assistant with the long legs. She wore a black cape and she smiled, that old-fashioned commercial smile. She ran her fingertips along the magician’s shoulders while she faced the audience, smile fixed and unwavering.

The magician held open the box lid, and she climbed in, assuming a crouch, still smiling. He shut the lid. He murmured and caressed the box, tapped it once, hard, with his heel, and it opened. Inside was a pig, wearing a red wig, lipstick, and a cape.

“Here’s the bacon, folks,” he said. “Who wants a bite?”

He cupped a hand around his ear.

Some of the audience was quiet, shocked, asking themselves if he really meant this. There were some though, who loved it, who wanted this. They stood, calling out to the magician.

The magician waved a finger back and forth at them, smiling. “Not just yet!” he said. “One more step before we get to bacon. Can’t eat her while she’s still running around on those little trotters, now can we?”

“No!” shouted the fervent audience members.

The magician closed the box back up with the pig still inside.

He then took off his top hat and reached his hand in. He did the classic gag, and his whole arm seemed to disappear into the hat, and people laughed, even some of those who’d been nervous before. Now, they were on familiar ground again. Something that could be shown to children, that could have been on TV during the day in decades past.

Then, he withdrew his arm, and in his hand, he held a gleaming butcher knife. He tossed the hat into the wings.

There was no sound as the magician gripped the knife and walked to the edge of the stage. He put on a blindfold, facing away from the box, then he turned, quick as a wink, and let the knife fly. Several people gasped audibly as the knife sank into the end of the box. If the pig made a sound, they didn’t hear it.

The magician, free of his blindfold, was now opening the lid of the box, which he let drop. The pig was gone. Now, there was only a tray of bacon, sizzling hot and gleaming with fatty moisture in the glare of the stage lighting. He took a strip, bit into it and smiled. There were shouts of approval and startled applause. Theater employees began circulating through the aisles, dispensing bacon.

Word started to travel about this new kind of magic show. The magician played in bigger theaters. The crowds paid more money. The magician bought a fast car and stayed in lavish hotels. The magician was in love, but there was more. His love had an appetite, and he had the magic capability of feeding it, however it grew. Women were turned to pigs, were turned not just to bacon, but ham, sausage, and pork chops.

News anchors covered the shows and clips were played. One news anchor called the magician a self-aggrandizing misogynist. The next pig to be disposed of was dressed as the news anchor.

His crowds began to look alike, and there were fewer quiet, nervous ones. The ones who came were excited, ecstatic, in love with him. And so he loved them, too. He fed them. To feed them was to love them. And he had to keep doing it. If he paused, that booming voice that shouted at him from above, and the large disdainful eye, would land on him again and snare him in insignificance.

At this next show, he would really give them something to talk about. They were outdoors in a park, at a giant amphitheater, and Geneva came out in her sparkling leotard. She led a pig on a matching silver leash. He spoke from a podium, and then he took out his knife and slit the pig’s throat right in front of the audience. Blood appeared in a satisfying red line, and then spilled over his white-gloved hand, onto the stage. There were a few gasps — fuck them, the ones who gasped, the ones who wanted him to stop here and not go further, who were too scared to come along with him to the very brink and beyond. Mostly, the crowd salivated. They called for blood and he gave it to them. They put the pig on the spit and roasted it, right there. The magician walked among his people, shaking their hands and asking them how they liked the food.

You know what’s what,” a man told him.

The magician smiled and shook the man’s hand. He did know. When he stood on the stage, raised above these people who craned their necks to see him slit the throat of a beast, he felt better than he ever had. He had nearly forgotten where he came from. More magic, and he’d have done it; he’d be someone new, and all that had happened before would be erased. Once, there had been a small life with meager furnishings. Once, there had been a giant who’d said, “put that wand away and grab a football, you little snot!” The giant had told the woman who lived in the house, “it’s your fault. You’re ruining him, making him soft, like a little girl.” The giant’s voice still spoke to him in dreams, in the mirror, or when an animal rights protestor screamed at him outside the theater, but he would silence it soon. He just had to do more. He would take this show to a bigger stage, and damn it, the world would eat bacon from the palm of his hand.

Though there were people who said PETA should shut him down, and though there were angry letters and social media rants against him, venues were eager to book him. He brought the crowds and the money, and they needed him.

From his new mansion overlooking his own stretch of coastline, he prepared for his next show, his biggest yet. This one would really make a mark. This one would show everyone, and shut out the voice in his head. He had one hundred women and one hundred pigs, each pig on a silver leash led by a woman in a silver leotard. It was his signature; it hearkened back to his beginnings. He felt a little nostalgic, even as he was filled with anticipation.

From the wings, the magician looked out at the crowd and felt a little unsteady on his feet. They were so loud, like the voice of the giant. He adjusted his collar and made sure his cape was secure. He strutted out to face the crowd to the sound of raucous applause. At his signal, the women led the pigs onto the stage and the crowd roared. He waited a moment, letting the heat and sound of the crowd fill him up, letting it guide his hand. The old, tired tricks were not for him now. He improvised. He took the moments as they came and shaped them into greatness. He breathed in the sweat and ardor of the crowd once more and exhaled. He had it.

“Who wants some bacon?” he called.

The crowd broke the sound barrier. That was his line. He raised a finger for silence.

Then he shouted, “Who wants to help me stick these pigs?” and raised his arms to the heavens. He looked down, scanning the first few rows, and picked a young boy, maybe ten. “You, young man, come up here!”

The boy came up, looking nervous and red-faced, but pleased. The magician led him to the pig at the center of the stage and took out a knife from the podium. He handed it to the boy and stood back.

“The next generation!” The magician shouted. Then, more gently, “go ahead, son.”

The boy looked pale now, and the magician saw his hand was trembling.

The crowd was shouting, screaming, needing the boy to do it, now.

The boy was frozen.

Then, the pig moved suddenly, ramming the magician in the shin. He dropped the microphone and the crowd winced and groaned as feedback came through the speakers.

The pig lowered her head to the microphone, and spoke:

“We’ve had quite enough,” she said. “Enough of all of this.” She and the other pigs exited stage right, their hooves drumming smartly on the wooden stage.

It was only after their exit that the crowd could react. The magician didn’t know what to say. All the heat and energy that had filled him was gone. It had left with the pigs. The boy pressed the knife back into the magician’s hand and jumped off the stage, crumpling onto the carpeted floor. His parents helped him up and ushered him toward the exit.

The crowd watched the magician. Their silence enveloped him, and he wondered if he could hear properly. Their eyes were wide with waiting, but their confidence in him, their belief, was gone. The magician picked up the microphone, and put it to his lips. He tried to speak, but nothing came out. Again and again he moved his lips, tongue, jaw — and nothing.

The crowd began to grumble. Some even booed. Then they all rose and started filing out the exits. The women in their silver leotards left too. He was alone.

The pigs were nowhere to be found after the show when he looked for them, though he saw them soon enough, moving on with their lives, buying magazines at bodegas, working in coffee shops as they saved money for school, publishing memoirs that painted him in a bad light.

The magician tried to continue his shows. He even went back to doing his old tricks, with the box, the hat, and the wand, but none of it worked anymore. The theaters were nearly empty, and the people who came seemed dimmer. The glow of pleasure and devotion was entirely absent from their faces. Even the giant’s voice was silent in his head, though he could still feel the giant’s disgust for him. It radiated through him.

Finally, Geneva put a gentle hand over his. She wore a smart trench coat and held the handle to her roller-suitcase in the other hand.

“Why don’t you go home?” she said. “Think about where you came from, how you got here.”

The magician didn’t know what else to do, so he decided to follow Geneva’s advice. It took him a long time to figure out where home was. He went to several hotels and his coastal mansion, and realized they were not home. He searched his possessions. Finally, he found an old photo and was surprised to see the giant there, standing with the woman and a little boy in front of a house with red shutters and a ripped screen door. The giant wasn’t as large as the magician remembered — only about a head taller than the woman — but he was quite a bit bigger than the boy.

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Emily Livingstone is a high school English teacher and writer living in New England with her husband, daughter, and German Shepherd. Her work has been published in The Molotov Cocktail, Chiron Review, and Gravel. She also writes at emilylivingstone.wordpress.com.