“Welcome,” said the reedy voice, a thin stream of nasal syllables flowing down Main Street, “to Judehiah Dooldy’s Travelling Spectacle of the Sinister and the Sublime!”
Unbeknownst to the crier, an enterprising boy skulked beneath his feet, under the temporary wooden stage set up by the travelling show-folk.
Rex Summerfield reached the far end of the hastily-nailed board contraption and raised his head like a prize bloodhound, turning his keen senses outward. Usually he used his ability to catch the sound of a lizard’s swishing tail to catch the aforementioned lizards. Now he was trying to pinpoint any telltale sign of a sideshow performer coming too close to the stage.
He was almost into the show, free of charge! Normally, Rex would never have skipped out on dropping his quarter into the hand of one of the Shadow Sisters guarding the official entrance to the show, but his father Quint was punishing him for chores forgotten, three days in a row. There would be no allowance this month.
Crack! The rifle went off right above him. The old woman who did the trick shots crowed, and the crowd let out a collective ooooh. Rex imagined the bottle exploding and winced, wishing with tightly clenched fists she would drag out the next two shots and he wouldn’t miss Malachi the Marvelous.
By the time the trick shooter’s final shots were off, Rex had slithered out from under the stage and crawled as fast as he could on all fours to where a slender beanpole of a girl was serving fresh-roasted peanuts. She gave him a curious look.
“Peanuts?” she asked, rattling a bag.
Rex sniffled. “Can’t,” he said, “I’m broke.”
“Oh,” the girl said, “me too.”
She had the strangest green eyes, pale and bright and huge in her tiny face. Rex found it hard to look away, even as he clambered to his feet and heard the crowd’s appreciative applause, the way they fell to pleasant chatter after. The trick shooter was finishing up! Rex scratched the back of his neck and adjusted his bandana.
“Uh, I, uh, I gotta go, ma’am.”
Her laugh tinkled softly. “Ma’am! Yer funny, boy. I’m barely three years more than you, if maybe.”
“Uh, yes, ma’am.” Rex tipped the hat he’d forgotten at home and scrambled off, determined to put distance between the strange charmer and himself. Besides, Malachi the Marvelous was next. Rex had waited two whole weeks for the show to arrive, two weeks of agony for an eight-year-old boy. The idea of magic intrigued him, and he knew his father would never allow him to see such a thing, so he’d sat on his agony in utter silence.
Rex was quite proud of himself, truth be told.
Now, at long last, he wove through the thick knot of adults and older kids wavering on their feet. Rex could smell the booze in the air, heavy on the breath of the muttering crowd. It was easy to ignore, especially since it meant he squeezed easily past unsteady legs to claim a place at the front.
The burly assistants, one of whom was a heavily-bearded woman, rolled away the last of the trick shooter’s props, replacing them with a pair of worn Greek columns on wheels. Rex’s neck already had a crick in it from craning his head back to see what was happening, but he hardly felt it. The excitement built in his belly, thick as destiny.
Then! Malachi the Marvelous, wearing a heavy hooded cloak, stalked onto the stage. The crowd ooohed and then fell silent as Malachi raised both arms.
“Tonight, you have come to witness the sinister, the sublime!”
Malachi’s voice was both hard-edged and shrill. It scooped up the crowd’s attention like a fishing net. Rex’s jaw dropped.
“Perhaps you have seen the sublime in Caldonia Whittier, our magnificent trick-shooting grandmother of eighteen.” Malachi’s hands floated inside the robe’s sleeves, encompassing one half of the crowd. “She is incredible, quite heart-stopping, is she not? Or… perhaps you leered at the sinister Shadow Sisters and their devil-kin, the wolfhounds, and thought you had seen the worst of Satan’s brethren this night.”
At this, Rex whirled around, wondering how he could have missed such demonic creatures as would be called “wolfhounds,” but he saw nothing but tall, long-legged black dogs standing beside the Shadow Sisters.
Malachi snapped the crowd’s attention back with a sharp bark: “And I! And I, my faithful watchers, will show you both.”
Rex’s stomach seized up as if he’d eaten some bad canned beans. He held his breath and craned forward as Malachi gathered the robe close, becoming a tower of darkness between the two Greek columns.
Explosions! Colored smoke! Flickering lights! The stage burst with activity, and Malachi threw off the robe and tossed long, dark hair out of her pale face.
Malachi the Marvelous was—a woman!
A collective gasp ran through the crowd—perhaps because of Malachi’s identity, or perhaps because the ghostly figures of a puma and a horse loomed in the lights and smoke behind her. She turned slowly as if floating, stretching her hand out towards the puma. The cat’s whiskers trembled and it stretched its muzzle out to brush its nose against her fingertips… and then it vanished.
Rex covered his mouth with his hands. The lights were still there, and so was the smoke, but the silhouette of the cat had vanished. Smiling a secretive smile, Malachi twirled and struck a pose like a frozen fountain, arching towards the horse.
Someone behind Rex stumbled, pushing him towards the stage. He grabbed at the edge, pulling himself an inch off the ground so he could see, and in doing so witnessed the formless shadow of a horse become a flesh-and-blood animal.
Smooth as water, Malachi floated to the great grey beast and mounted effortlessly, her hands lightly in the horse’s mane. Rex held his breath so long his chest threatened to burst, not daring to blink or move as he watched the horse’s hooves put very real dents into the stage boards.
Malachi brought the horse to a stop at the edge of the stage and raised one hand. “Are you astonished that I can bring such life into being? Lest you forget, tender souls, but the nearness of Death is equal to the fullness of life.”
She flourished her fingers, weaving the air between the horse’s ears. Rex’s eyes were drawn to the spaces twixt her fingers, where tiny strands of pale green light winked into existence. The luminance held his gaze and filled his heart.
“Death… is always near…” Malachi’s voice slithered into Rex’s ears, full of singsong promises. “Death… is right beneath the skin… always waiting…”
She slapped her hands together, the clap like the crack of a gunshot. Everyone gasped. Rex’s spine about crawled out of his back.
The green light exploded like luminescent dust around Malachi’s clasped hands, cascading down around the horse’s head. Rex’s eyes widened and his breathing came shallow. The horse was not alive—it was the living dead!
Instead of ears and a mane and soft eyes and lips, the horse’s head was a bleached skull. The eye sockets stared unseeing at the crowd. Slowly, as the hairs on Rex’s arms crawled upward, the horse swiveled the skull on its bony neck and pointed its sightless eyes right at the boy.
Tiny, raging fires burned in the horse’s eye sockets. Rex stifled a scream into his wrist, biting it savagely. A fear of eternity welled up in him, followed by a wash of awe.
Abruptly, Malachi ran her hands down either side of the horse’s skull, pulling with them a horrifying cover, as if she were dressing the horse in a sweater of its own skin. When her hands reached the end of the horse’s muzzle, it was back to its smoky gray self. Rex heard people rubbing their eyes and muttering their doubt of what they had seen, but he remained where he was despite his aching arms. He knew the truth of what he had seen.
That was real magic.
Rex pursed his lips as Malachi swung down off the horse and one of the other troupe members scrambled up to lead it away. He followed the animal’s bobbing head as it went carefully down the stairs and around the back of the stage, hoping to catch a glimpse of skull-like paint or the edge of a hood. But the horse seemed perfectly normal, if a little spooked.
Rex returned his attention to Malachi, and he appreciated the tricks she wove, but the sight of the horse emerging from nothing and revealing its skull stuck in his mind’s craw. When Malachi bowed, he clapped as wildly as anyone, but stopped before the crowd did. He knew he only had a small window to catch her as she came down off the stage.
Rex pumped his legs hard and shoved past a few drunken adults, who barely gave him enough notice to brush him off. He skidded to a stop in front of the peanut-girl’s stand. She had cleaned up for the night but was still leaning on the makeshift table; she straightened as Rex ran up.
“Where’s Malachi gonna be?” he asked her breathlessly.
She fixed him with those pale green eyes. Rex straightened as he registered the similarity between the peanut-girl’s gaze and the magic Malachi wove on the horse.
“Right there,” the peanut-girl finally said, folding her arms and pointing with her chin. “She always be there.”
Rex whirled around and looked where he imagined the peanut-girl had pointed. Sure enough, there was a small round tent, not unlike the tent of the fortune-teller who sat near the show’s entrance, though Malachi had decorated her tent with tiny pale spots instead of gaudy five-pointed stars and crescent moons.
He looked back over his shoulder to thank the peanut-girl, but she was gone.
Rex’s stomach churned uneasily, but he knew somehow that catching Malachi would be easier than finding the peanut-girl. He made a beeline for the speckled tent.
Cautiously, he lifted one flap and peeked inside.
“Hello? Ms. Marvelous?” His voice sounded flat and small in his ears, as if he was speaking into a snow-bound desert.
A moment of silence. Then a stuttering chuckle came from inside the tent, a laugh that sounded as if its owner had not wanted it to escape.
“Ms. Marvelous. Ha! You are a funny boy.”
Malachi’s face shifted into the weak column of light coming from the lanterns outside. Triangles and straight lines fell across her face so that she looked like a child’s drawing of a poorly-recollected relative. Her gaze passed over Rex and hardened.
“Go,” she said. “I have nothing for you.”
“Please, ma’am, I—” Rex shut his mouth. He had no idea what he had come to say, only that words were shoving one another in his head. How did you do that? What was that light? How did you make the horse’s skull show? Was that real magic?
The latter pushed its way to the front, banging against his teeth until he had to speak. “Was that real magic?” he blurted out.
The lines of Malachi’s face sharpened. “There is reality and there is illusion, boy.”
Rex considered this. “I understand, ma’am, but… what I saw. Was that reality? Or illusion?”
“It was what it was.” Malachi turned away, and her cloak was so black she vanished into the darkness. “Leave my tent, boy.”
“Please,” Rex said, lunging forward—to do what, he didn’t know.
Malachi caught him by the wrist and twisted him around so that his momentum carried him back outside. “Leave my tent! And—”
Then she stopped talking and pinched her fingers hard into his wrist, right where his pulse beat. Rex grunted and tried to break free, but Malachi’s grip was powerful. She turned him again, but this time to face her, and she squatted down and made fearsome eye contact with him.
Rex braced himself for whatever punishment might come. She might burn him! Tear his skin off to find his skull underneath! Put him under the horse’s hooves and let him be trampled!
But she gazed into his eyes, hers flicking back and forth, searching his face as if she had lost something there.
“You believe, don’t you?” she asked in a very different, very soft voice. “In the law of the unknown.”
Rex blinked. He kept blinking. That was so close, dangerously close to the truth. But no, no, he could not bear to betray his father that way.
“What do you want from me?” Malachi released Rex, but didn’t stand up again. In this new, soft tone, the question was curious, not accusatory.
Rex shuffled his feet, wishing he had his hat so he could tip it. “Well, ma’am. I was thinking… maybe I’d like to be a stage magician like yourself.”
He looked up sideways, hoping to catch something telling on Malachi’s face. There was something: a flash of ancient sadness, the helpless smile of a woman who knew she was haunted.
“I could help you,” she said after she let his words hang in the air a while.
Rex’s whole body lit up with joy. He physically had to press his arms down to stop himself squealing. “Oh, ma’am, thank you so kindly. It would be the best thing if you could teach me just one trick. Something to get started with!”
Malachi considered him, and he considered her back. She was smaller than he had thought when he’d seen the magician on stage, and probably wasn’t too far from his Ma’s age. Her face was round, but it wasn’t soft. Her eyes betrayed her. She had seen too much.
Now she seemed to make up her mind about something. She rose and vanished into the shadows in the rear of the tent, leaving Rex to scuff the earth with the toe of his boot. After a while, Malachi reappeared, carrying a sheet of heavy paper and a quill pen in her hand.
“Listen, boy,” she said, and her voice was sterner and more serious than ever, “this is not to be learned lightly. You take an oath when you read this spell: you must promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to anyone who doesn’t practice magic, unless they swear to take the oath themselves. You tell no one, not even your Ma, who will love what you show her and ask you how you done it, but try as she might, you cannot tell her. You understand?”
All night, Rex’s stomach had been a-flutter with nervous excitement, the anticipation of finally laying eyes on Malachi the Marvelous’s magical feats. Now his belly tightened up with a different feeling: fear. Whatever Malachi was about to give him, whatever secret she might whisper to him, he had to take it as seriously as the plague.
“Yes, ma’am, I understand,” he said, bobbing his head so she would be sure.
Malachi drew in her breath, but didn’t let it out, and pinned Rex with her stare. Finally, she broke eye contact and, seemingly satisfied, took the paper to a small table and lit an oil lamp.
Rex waited for Malachi to begin writing or drawing on the paper, but instead she leaned down and whispered to it. Strain as he might, he couldn’t catch her words, but the paper seemed to glint like gold under her breathy words.
Only after she blew lightly, scattering the light, did she pick up the quill.
Rex put his hands behind his back and rocked where he stood, mustering his patience, while Malachi wrote and scribbled and muttered to herself. Finally, she grunted and tossed him a look through her long, dark hair.
“This will have to do,” she said. “I forget how complex it is, how much there is to represent. But you should get enough from what I have put down. Here.” She blew on the paper again, then rolled it up and offered the paper tube to Rex in one smooth motion.
Rex swallowed, his mouth dry, and took the proffered page. He thrust it through his belt loop and then stood, unsure of what to do with his hands or himself in general.
Malachi raised an eyebrow at him. “Was there more, boy?”
“Oh! No, no. Sorry, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am. I’ll—”
Whatever Rex might have wanted to promise the marvelous magician he would do was lost on his tongue, because with a flicker of light and shadow, Malachi vanished. Rex touched the page, reassured by its hearty presence in his belt, and then ran out of Malachi’s tent.
He had more questions than answers, but the magician’s paper was prize enough.
“OK, Rex! We’re ready!”
Rex pulled the makeshift curtains—his parents’ favorite yellow sheets hung over a clothesline strung between the house and the barn—apart far enough to stick his head through. “I’m not yet, Ma! Just need another tick!”
Hadley Summerfield, her dandelion clock of hair billowing over her shoulders, tipped her head the way she always did and laughed her melodious laugh. “Alrighty, alrighty, calm your mustangs, kid, I’ve got a beer to drink.” She winked and Rex withdrew into his backstage.
He took a furious if thoroughly unnecessary inventory of his props: his favorite tattered leather hat, perched on his head; the well-worn deck of cards; the wriggly-nosed, rotund jackrabbit he’d trapped and subsequently christened Esau.
This was as ready as he could be. He had learned the steps off of Malachi’s paper and was confident he knew the ins and outs by heart, but there were always stage jitters and the wrench of staring into an audience.
Rex drew a deep breath, closed his eyes, let it out. He reached for the final touch: a rectangular piece of cotton flannel he’d asked Hadley to save from when she bought a few yards for Miss Alice to sew their summer shirts. Rex knotted two corners of the fabric around his neck and let it settle over his shoulders.
It was no Marvelous cape, but it would have to do.
He crossed his arms across his chest, gripped the curtains one in each hand, and threw them open with a flourish and a toss of his head that almost dislodged his hat.
“Lady and gentleman! Today you might doubt your very eyes, but Rex the Resplendent will amaze you with the natural wonders of the stage!”
Rex tried very hard not to make eye contact with his father, focusing on his mother’s beaming grin instead. He took a sideways shuffle-step so he was no longer blocking the small wooden stool he had borrowed from Mrs. McKee’s milking shed.
“I have three tricks today,” Rex went on, feeling his confidence dip under Quint’s skeptical stare, “and I’ll show you them all now. First, the vanishing card.”
This trick he had learned from a pamphlet he had mail-ordered from a museum catalog that Eddie Jones had shown him at the general store, something he’d lain awake at night practicing. So it was easy, and went smoothly, and helped untangle some of the knots in his stomach as he thought about the third and final trick.
Upon his reveal of Hadley’s card, she whooped and clapped, nudging Quint with her elbow. “Some trick! Eh, Quint? You watching this, same as me?”
“Mmm, yes,” Quint said noncommittally. He clapped four times at a nearly imperceptible volume.
“For my next trick,” Rex said, “I will tell you, it is one I have invented on my ownsome! A Rex the Resplendent—” He stumbled over the word, the syllables awkward on his tongue; Miss Francis had recommended it for the alliteration, and Rex had studied it for several squirming minutes to try and memorize its odd sound. “—original trick, you might say. Watch carefully…”
That was always a strategy of the magician, Rex had learned from the long-winded ads in the back of the newspaper he saw at the general store: though it was always a matter of drawing the audience’s attention away from the truth of the trick, the way best to do that was to ask them to focus all of their attention on something else.
His performance was passable, though his hand slipped and betrayed the object he had palmed. Hadley pretended not to have seen it and gave Rex an embarrassing round of applause. Rex bowed slightly and raised his hands for silence.
“And now, for my third and final act, I shall…”
Quint’s features twisted unpleasantly, and he turned his head to look out at the distant desert.
Swallowing down a churning sensation in his stomach, Rex spun on his bootheel, the makeshift cape swirling around him. He thought of Malachi and wished she could be here for this, his first performance of the trick she had gifted him. He channeled her grace and presence as he stepped around behind the milking stool and took his hat off with a flourish.
“…I shall bring from the other realm a spirit itself!”
Now Quint’s discomfort was audible. He grunted and sat forward, looking as if he would spring up and tackle Rex’s props at any moment. Rex shivered and tried to steady his hand; the hat trembled at its brim.
Rex stared into the darkness inside the hat and concentrated. He envisioned the strokes and whorls of Malachi’s handwriting, the way the dots and lines chased one another and intersected and lay in eternal combat with one another. He thought very hard about how the shape of Malachi’s spell seemed to form a familiar shape when he held the paper at arm’s length.
He envisioned that shape and then he plunged his hand into the hat.
Rex’s hand passed through every sensation imaginable. Heat and cold and wet and wind. Life and death and birth and love and loathing. He felt the fabric of the universe.
His mind and his hand, guided by the shape of Malachi’s spell, reached out and took hold of Esau by the ears.
The rabbit emerged out of the hat, blinking wildly against the sudden sunlight. Registering his new surroundings, Esau twisted the lower half of his body, trying to get free of Rex’s grip, but Rex had anticipated that the creature would not enjoy being pulled through the universe and held on tightly.
Hadley gasped, hands flying to her mouth. Rex knew his mother well enough to bask in her genuine surprise and awe. Breathlessly, fighting against Esau’s contorting weight, Rex shouted, “Ta-da!”
Rabbit spun. Boy panted. Mother held her breath.
Father stood decisively.
“Quint, don’t,” Hadley started, catching Quint’s wrist, but he shrugged her off.
“Reginald Alvis Summerfield,” Quint said in a dangerous, low growl, “if I ever catch wind of you pretending at magic again, you will not be my son anymore.”
Rex was rocked by the force of his father’s words. He took a staggering step back, swaying on his feet. Esau ground his teeth together audibly. With numb hands, Rex set the rabbit down to let Esau scurry under the milking stool.
Quint’s fists trembled at his sides. He never broke eye contact with Rex. “I mean it, boy. What you did is blasphemy in this house, do you understand?”
Rex swallowed hard, but his tongue refused to form words. He stared back at his father, despair dragging at his shoulders.
Quint shook his head, his lip curling, and then abruptly he threw up his hands and walked away. The sound of his boots thudding on the hard-packed earth lingered long after he had left their homestead.
For once in her life, Hadley remained motionless and wordless. Rex looked at his mother in time to see a tear scuttle down her cheek, carving a line in the mine dust powdering her face. She rose, dashing the tear away with her sleeve, and extended her arms to her son.
“Come here. Your father… Well, I won’t say he didn’t mean it.” Hadley rested her cheek against Rex’s hair; he let his head loll against her bosom, his thoughts racing so fast he could hardly separate one from another. “I’m sorry, my little love.”
Rex let himself cry against his mother’s dress, but some part of him had separated from his body to follow Esau’s halting steps into the desert, to seek out what he was, in the way of a boy nearing adolescence.
As he grew, Rex pored over Malachi’s spell like it was a religious text. Alongside the rage and pain he felt over his father’s rejection of what he now knew was his true nature, Rex nurtured and grew the knowledge of true magic.
Because three years into studying the spell, he saw it: the way that the very essence of magic itself was described by the shape of the spell, the rise and fall of the runes and diagrams Malachi had used to convey the rabbit-from-a-hat spell’s instructions. The more he studied it, the more Rex saw, and the more he understood how little he understood of all there was to understand. Malachi had embedded the shape of true magic into every aspect of the spell she had drawn, and that was why Rex had been able to access such power simply by learning to pull Esau through the hat.
Five years into studying the spell, and young teenage Rex kept to himself, because the weight of his knowledge was always at the tip of his tongue, and Quint was never far from anger. Neither spoke to the other; neither had since the fateful performance. Quint toiled at his experiment. Rex toiled at his learning. They made no eye contact and they exchanged no words.
Rex carried the weight of his father’s anger heavy. It was one thing for a parent to reject their child’s interests, or choice of career, or even their choice of partner. But this was not a choice. This was something that was at the heart ofRex, and yet Quint had rejected it without a second thought.
Eight years into studying the spell, and Hadley, bless his mother’s heart, seemed to put two and two together and assumed Rex was under a different kind of spell: a girl’s affection, or at least want thereof. Rex let her keep this assumption, not wanting to disappoint his poor mother with the truth: that he was a magician, pure and simple, and loved nothing more than the truth of magic. The song was within him and it would not be still.
The full heft of Quint’s rejection settled onto Rex’s shoulders around his sixteenth birthday, when he registered the other fathers in Silver City handing down the same rifles their fathers had given them, gifting horses they’d trained for years so their sons could ride beside them on the trail, and passing on other kinds of responsibility with looks of pride and satisfaction. For his part, Quint kept to his experiments; some days, only smoke rising from the shed’s tiny chimney told Rex that his father was alive and kicking.
Then there were the tense meals, when Quint couldn’t manage to inhale his food and split for the shed before his son finished washing up. Hadley did her best to manage conversations with each of them, gracefully navigating the turbulent yet silent waters lying between father and son, a river through the dinner table.
One evening, with the descending sun glaring in through the west-facing window and throwing long, sharp shadows onto the tablecloth, Hadley set pork and beans in front of Rex and ruffled his hair.
“Are you going to see Pearl tomorrow, Rexy?” she asked.
Rex concentrated on cutting the pork without the knife making that terrible sound against the plate. “Nah, Ma. I have to be at the library with Charlie. Miss Francis says we only need one more passing grade in English, and we graduate smart enough to go wherever we want.”
Hadley straightened, her smile brighter. “Really? That’s amazing. All those hours paying off.”
“Never seen the boy without his nose in a book,” came Quint’s unexpected growl from the other end of the table.
Rex and Hadley both came up sharply. Unable to stop himself, Rex made eye contact with Quint.
The force of the rage burning in his father’s brown eyes physically rocked Rex. He dropped his eyes to his plate and sucked in breaths that were suddenly hard to get all the way into his chest.
“Too bad,” Quint continued deliberately, “he didn’t learn much from all that reading.”
Rex’s head snapped back up and he stood in one swift motion. Quint threw his chair back with the force of standing and he slammed both open palms on the table.
Hadley jumped at the sound and rested her hand over her heart. “Quint, don’t,” she said in a low warning tone.
Quint’s right cheek twitched, but he flicked his eyes over to his wife. Rex stared with an aching jaw as a thousand conflicting emotions skittered across Quint’s face, then resolved into something that slackened Quint’s shoulders.
Quint took three slow steps towards the door.
Rex’s hands trembled and he shivered with an artificial cold that didn’t come from the thick summer air. He could still hardly catch his breath, and an iron fist clenched at his chest, but he couldn’t be silent any longer.
“Pa, you always taught me—”
“And you never listened,” Quint cut in, glowering over his shoulder. “I taught you to open your damn eyes and believe what you can see.”
When Quint didn’t elaborate, Rex swallowed hard and folded his hands in front of him, gathering every reserve of patience that eight years of learning how to weave the fabric of the universe had given him.
“Pa, you always taught me to interpret the phenomenon I observed through natural and scientific means,” he started again. “I did listen. I listened to you tell me that, every day of my life since I was old enough to know what you were saying, and probably before that if I’m thinking about it.”
Quint began to shake his head and opened his mouth.
Rex raised a hand, slackening it out of a fist. “May I finish?”
The boldness of his tone brought Quint spinning around on his bootheel to glare full-force at his son. “You arrogant ratbag. You may not finish. You are about to offer me a lecture, as if you have any right to the knowledge you pretend to have. You were not cornered in a barn in Salt Spring and made to fear for your life because you refused to deny what you saw with your own eyes. You were not told that ‘magic’ wanted you dead for doing the devil’s work. And you, turns out, are the kind of person who did and said those things to me. My own son.”
Quint’s voice broke.
Suddenly, a strange peace of certainty and understanding washed through Rex. He was no less angry, no less hurt, but he knew what he had to say. A clarity pierced the fog in his head and chest.
Rex looked at Hadley, who blinked twice and opened her arms. Rex went into his mother’s arms and hugged her, not too tight and not too light. Then he turned and walked towards Quint.
For the first time, Rex registered that one of those complicated emotions he saw often on Quint’s face was fear.
As if sensing that Rex had spotted his weakness, Quint deepened the lines in his face. “Stay away from me, boy.”
“You’re afraid of who I am.” Rex felt the words leave him, even though he had barely thought them. Never had he felt such confidence in speaking. “You see what’s real and true about me, and you’re afraid of it.”
“I ain’t afraid of—” Quint started, then coughed and crossed his arms over his chest. “I am not afraid of you. You are a child.”
“You know that isn’t true. Every other boy my age is taking on responsibilities.” Rex marveled at how low and deliberate his voice was; there was no sign of the tremble he had felt a moment earlier. “Look, Pa. I don’t know if we can be friends again. You don’t have to like me. But I am going to show you that I am your boy, because of what you taught me, not in spite of it.”
Quint raised a hand as if to attack Rex, but Rex turned sideways and went easily past his father, out into the yard. He stepped around the chickens and the indignant rooster and made straight for the shed.
He could hear Quint sputtering and scrambling after him, so without raising his voice, Rex said, “You’ve always told me you ascribe to the belief that if you can observe it, you’ll be able to find the natural and scientific means to explain it. Do me this one favor, even if you choose to disown me: the phenomenon you observe today, please interpret it through natural and scientific means.”
“What you want to show me, it is unnatural.”
Rex closed his eyes. Burned into his mind’s eye, he saw the rabbit-from-the-hat spell, saw the art and the enchantment and adherence to the same laws that conjure spirals from nautilus shells in the descriptive interpretation Malachi had drawn for him.
“Magic is natural, Pa. I’ve never been more sure of anything.”
Rex opened his eyes. He was standing in front of the door to his father’s shed.
Quint seemed to register what Rex intended to do. His boots rasped the sand and rocks with aggression. “Don’t you dare. No. If you destroy a thing in that shed, I—I will destroy you.”
The words landed like blows on Rex’s shoulders, and though he flinched, he straightened. “I won’t break anything I can’t put back together. I’m not like that.”
And he opened the shed door.
Inside, it was dim, with dust particles dancing in the lone beam of sunlight. Rex stepped in and aside to let his eyes adjust, taking in the glass jars, the thermometers, the magnets and test tubes. Quint came in after him, half-barreling, half tiptoeing, huffing with unexpressed frustration and concern.
Rex let his eyelids drift half-closed and sought out the shape of the spell his father was trying to work, what puzzle he was working through in rigorous fashion. The clues were there for the discerning scientist’s eye, but Rex had the advantage of magic, and he simultaneously saw and fathomed, even if he did not understand.
Until that moment, he had not been sure what kind of demonstration he would perform for Quint, what performative act might sway his father or at least leave him with a strong impression. But when Rex saw the tubes and the magnets and the heat, he knew.
It was always a matter of drawing the audience’s attention away from the truth of the trick. And the way he would do is to ask Quint to focus all of his attention on something else.
“Take that magnifying glass,” Rex said, pointing to the tool on the worktable. Quint grunted but complied, holding it out in front of him as if it would burn him.
Retreating into himself, Rex sought for the right object: not too large, not too small, not too valuable, but absolutely unique. He found it in a stone statuette Hadley had given Quint a few birthdays ago, a small quartz horse with flint chips for eyes.
At the same time, he reached out to the liquid in the test tubes and felt for the spaces within them. The magic whispered a suggestion of a shape to him, and with that understanding, Rex perused the chemical supplies arrayed on single dusty shelf. He found what he was looking for, satisfied himself that he had hold on its essential form, and came back out of his mind to find Quint staring at him with a strange, pained look.
Rex felt the imagined weight of the knotted sheet on his shoulders and braced himself.
“And now, for my final act, I will shrink this horse and make it appear in miniature on the table before you.” With one hand, Rex gestured to the quartz animal, and with the other, to the empty corner of the table crowded with half-finished experiments. “You may want to use the glass to inspect the horse, and to note the chip in its right front leg, so that you will know I am not fooling you with sleight of hand.”
Quint eyed the magnifying glass and snorted his doubt.
But doubt was of little matter to Rex now. He returned inward, stretching out to take firm hold of the quartz horse, but also the final chemical in Quint’s undiscovered recipe.
Then he reached for the insight of magic, unpacked the shapes Malachi had drawn for the thousandth time, and for the thousandth time, he realized more intimately and more acutely how much of the enigmatic universe had not yet opened up to him. The law of the unknown was still an infinite mystery.
But Rex knew enough, and he took the quartz horse and lovingly shrank it down to barely larger than a fingertip.
And he took the chemical, just the right amount of it to bridge the gap between what the experiment was now and what Quint wanted it to be, and carefully braided the elements together.
As Rex did this, something else clicked into place inside him. Perhaps it was confidence, or faith, or simply a new tier of self-knowledge. But it meant that when he emerged from his mind, the sense of peace only grew stronger.
Through the magnifying glass, Quint was staring at the tiny quartz horse that had appeared on the table before him without so much as a flourish from Rex. He raised his eyes to his son with a mixture of awe and fear.
Rex folded his hands in front of him, refusing to show the exhaustion that always gripped him in the wake of touching the source of magic. Instead he took a long, slow breath and said, “I won’t lecture you, Pa. That isn’t my right. But maybe don’t deny what you just saw with your own eyes. I don’t do the devil’s work. I saw that the world was full of magic, and I decided I wanted to find the natural and scientific means to explain and harness it… just like you always taught me.”
If the words landed, Rex didn’t linger long enough to look. He didn’t point out the completed experiment; let Quint find that on his own another time, and wonder. Rex went out of the shed into the lengthening twilight, to Hadley’s open arms, to a future where he was as sure of himself as he was of magic.
Cover art by the incredible Robyn Clements.