Fiction · 09/09/2020

Hocus Pocus

Denny’s father bent over the bottle on the coffee table. The magic had happened, the ship was inflated — sails and all — and encased in its glass sea. The trick, now, was to get the fly out of the bottle. The insect had crawled in before Denny’s father screwed the cap and planted itself on one of the sails as if ready for a long voyage.

“Never in my life had such a thing happen,” Denny’s father said.

Denny echoed, “Never in my life.” With the hand missing a finger, his father smoothed Denny’s hair.

Daddy’s magical, his mother had told him. That’s how he got out of Afghanistan losing only a pinky. Now he spent his time saying “hocus pocus” and conjuring boats in bottles, but Denny’s mother’s admiration shifted, and she’d gone from calling him her Magic Man to That Tricky Son of a Bitch.

“Suggestions?” Denny’s father asked.

If he made boats appear in impossible spaces, shouldn’t it be easy to make a fly disappear? But Denny didn’t want to test his father’s powers. Magic, maybe, was overrated. Unreliable.

“It’s kind of pretty,” Denny said. The oddness of the fly’s setting made that almost true. Its body shimmered like oil in a puddle, like the pearl-sized buttons on the blouse Denny’s father had given his wife for her birthday days before. She’d pulled it from the bright wrappings and the buttons gleamed before she tucked it back into the box and shoved it under the coffee table. That same day, from papers hidden deep in a sock drawer, she’d discovered her husband would be returning to Afghanistan.

“A dead fly’s going to ruin the effect.” Denny’s father said. “Help me lure it out.”

“With something pretty,” Denny said. In his mind, pearly buttons winked. He reached beneath the table and opened the box. Buttons strung across the blouse like a necklace. He tugged one. A hard, wild feeling rose within him. The button tore free.

His father took away the blouse, absent-mindedly touching the buttons. Then, he plucked one, too, closing his fist tight around it. The space where his pinky should be gaped. “Cheaply made,” he said. “No wonder she didn’t want it.”

Denny didn’t think that was why. His father opened his palm and the button sat in the middle, expectant, like the fly on the mast. His hand trembled, and he dropped the button. He picked up a pair of long tweezers and stabbed them into the bottle, pressing hard against the mast. At once it collapsed, propelling the fly into an angry buzz as it knocked crazily against the sides of the bottle. The flattened sails shook Denny, made his insides feel loose, unstable.

“It’s all pieces, Denny. Nothing but bits and pieces. You put it together inside. Then with the string, hoist up the sails. Just hocus pocus.”

Fear seeped from the pit of his belly up through his chest. His mother was right. Words roared through his head so that he almost said them aloud — tricky bitch son — but in the roar something different took hold and grew. It unfurled into a bubble that felt like light pressing warmth into his chest. She was right.

Denny grabbed his father’s hand. His finger traced the scar, the place where the pinky had been. Not magic, but tricks, something his father possessed, something he knew how to do, like pulling a string and hoisting sails. Denny closed his eyes. Explosions etched fiery into his lids, the world shattering violently apart, but he would tell his mother that his father, whole, would come home again.


Linda Woolford’s fiction is published or forthcoming in Harpur Palate, Natural Bridge, Kenyon Review, West Branch, and Hobart, among others. She’s the recipient of a 2020 Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship in Fiction. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart and anthologized.