The Magician's House

By Meghan McCarron

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

I did not see the magician for a few weeks after that. I had some legitimate excuses, a few fabricated ones. Family vacation, Easter, "sick" with the "flu." I wasn't leaving forever, but I didn't want to go back until I was more anchored in the real world. I had decided it was time for me to become a real teenage girl again.

My mom was thrilled to take me shopping for bright T-shirts and flowery flip-flops at the mall. My dad was equally thrilled when I joined stage crew for the spring play (to put my building skills to use)—he called it "a healthy hobby." In school, I sat with old friends at lunch for the first time in months and started cracking jokes in class. I said nothing about magic, and no one asked. When I went back to the magician, we sat a respectable distance apart and were back to holes and blues records. He didn't offer a new task, and I didn't ask.

Then I started dreaming.

I couldn't remember the dreams at first. Images would bubble to the surface, ruined cities, swollen rivers, skyscraper trees, but I didn't know why I woke at dawn drained, disoriented, sometimes aroused, sometimes afraid. I finally put a notebook by my bed, and when I woke put pen to paper. My hand moved on the paper; I read what I was writing.

I had a sister, and we had to build a house. The house was also an ark—it would keep us safe from catastrophe. We made it out of stones, a dome. But when I went inside it was my parents' house, white carpets and sand-colored walls. I opened doors, looking for my dome house, but the rooms were burnt out. Charred, crumbled furniture. Horrible stains on the floor. I found my house in the oven. It was one empty room, dirt floor, with stone walls rising around me. Sunshine fell through an opening. A naked woman waited for me in the pool of light. She had gray hair, large beautiful breasts. I was ashamed. I kept staring at the triangle of hair between her thighs. I wanted her to kiss me, but when she did, my mouth filled with dirt. I stumbled onto my mother's flowered couch, choking because—

I didn't know how to finish this sentence. I slid my hand beneath my underwear and felt between my legs. I was wet and swollen like—like I wanted someone. But the dreams had left me terrified. Or, the choking left me terrified.

I went down to the magician's basement that week with my heart thumping. I could barely stay awake in school anymore, because I woke up every morning gasping for breath. Clearly, I had to ask him for help. But this dream felt too personal, too true, to share even with him.

The magician waited for me on his orange couch, fiddling with his guitar. I sat down on the opposite end of the couch, my butt on the armrest, and leaned forward, elbows on my knees.

The magician didn't look up from his guitar when he said, "What would you like to tell me?"

"How did you know?" I said.

The magician put the guitar aside and smiled at me in a way he hadn't since the tunnel expedition. "You look very intent."

I looked down at my feet, trying to find the words I needed. "I've been having dreams," I said. "A dream. About a stone house with a secret room." I trailed off, and the magician nodded at me, prompting me for more. "And . . . there's a naked woman. When she . . . when she kisses me, my mouth fills with dirt, and I choke."

The magician jumped when I said this. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I—I'm sorry," I said.

He looked down at his fingers, which were thrumming against his bony knees. He looked like a little boy thinking over a difficult problem. His fingers stopped thrumming, and he reached out for me—the only thing he could reach was my foot perched on the cushion. He held it.

"How much do you want to know about magic?" he said.

He was nervous, watching me carefully like I might bolt.

"Everything," I said without thinking.

He shifted in his seat; his slick magician pants made a swishing noise against the couch.

"There are a lot of ways to—manage surges in power, which is what that dream is showing you," he said. "Some ways are faster and more demanding. Others are slower, and safer. The time has come for you to—choose one."

The moment crystallized—the look in his eyes, his hand on my foot, my shaking legs—and I gazed at the scene impartially, as if from high above. I'd read all the standard texts, heard all the rumors, read my sensational novels. This was what always came next. But in real life, it felt unnatural and unreal.

The magician started talking again, like the silence spooked him. "Your dream is telling you that your magic—well, that your magic is tied to sex. Earth magicians, they get like that, especially as adolescents, with all the hormones, when I was your age I had dreams and the power and desire that pumped through me made me miserable. Because I couldn't focus it. I—I could help you get through this. Help you ground it, otherwise you'll continue to have these dreams. I understand if this makes you nervous because of the way you've been brought up, but I—"

I couldn't speak. I just nodded.

"Yes?" he said. "Yes to what?"

I had an urge to curl up on the couch and giggle like a twelve-year-old when someone says "sex." I hid my face in my hands.

"I want you to help me," I said into my palms.

He leaned towards me. "How?"

He drew my hands down from my face and rubbed his thumbs against the insides of my wrists. He was so beautiful in that moment, and his face seemed to have layers, like I could see him through time, my handsome old teacher, my hungry young man. I felt ill, I couldn't tell if it was with fear or desire. He had said I might be afraid.

He looked at me, waiting.

I kissed him, right on the mouth. He gathered me in his arms and pulled me down on top of him, straddling me across his lap. Our hips aligned, and he was hard against me.

Fear shot through me again, and I buried my face in his neck. I couldn't look at him. "You can't get tied up in this," he said into my ear. "This is about the work, not me. I'm a married man."

As he said this, he stroked my head, then slid his hand over my neck, down my back, and held my hip. No one had ever touched me like that, so softly, with such confidence. I saw him howling at the moon on the solstice, that freedom, that crack in the ice. His neck was dry and smelled like clay.

"I want to," I said and pulled away from his neck. "I want to be a magician."

He took my face in his hand and stroked it. "You and I are very much alike," he said, and slid his other hand between my thighs.

Once the magician and I started having sex, I gave up on being a normal teenager. All I wanted to talk about was magic, and the magician, and no one wanted to hear that. My friends nicknamed me Silent Bob in the cafeteria, stopped calling me on weekends. My parents said polite things about my renewed enthusiasm for magic, but in insincere tones, so I would know they actually disapproved. A girl I had been close with on stage crew finally asked me, bluntly, "What's your deal?" and I told her what the magician and I were doing. She rolled her eyes and said, "Of course you are."

It wasn't "of course you are." It was dangerous and exhilarating. Our time together was full of color, where everything else in my life was grays and beiges. I'd had sex before, exactly twice, with a boy I'd liked so little I'd blocked his last name from my memory. It was fast and painful and existentially disappointing—This is it? This is what makes the world go round? He took more care tying the condom into a knot afterwards and tossing it, ceremonially, out the car window.

The magician held me like I was a precious thing. He kissed me deeply, brushed his fingers along my face. He buried his mouth between my legs and stayed there until I sweated, screamed, cried. He put himself inside me and told me to concentrate. "What do you see?" he said, over and over, moving inside me. "What do you see?"

I saw his face, his ear, his arms, his shoulder, his chest. I smelled rich and fertile things. We didn't do magic; maybe we were magic. When I walked home afterwards, the earth lit up beneath my footsteps.

I stopped dreaming about the house, the dirt, and the woman. Instead, in my dreams I was underground. Beside me were seeds, and corpses. When I woke up, I believed I was one of the seeds, but I thought of those dreams with dread.

A week before the winter solstice, I found the magician sitting upstairs in his kitchen with his wife. There was a cup of coffee waiting for me.

I wanted to bolt back out the door. But the magician looked calm, and his wife smiled at me. I looked down at my clothes, as if there were something that would give me away. If she didn't already know that I was sleeping with her husband—maybe magicians understood this kind of thing?

When I sat, the magician's wife announced that she would like to invite me to a women's solstice celebration. She and her husband had agreed that it would be good for me to experience a more traditional rite.

I looked over at the magician; his face was still blank. His wife still smiled at me. I had no idea what a "traditional rite" was, and that did, with reflection, seem like a flaw in my education. Most of the rites I knew involved messing around with her husband.

"Sure," I said. Somehow, my voice came out smooth and even.

"Great!" the magician's wife said.

Then the magician and I retreated downstairs and began to remove our clothes, as if this were the most natural thing in the world.

"Does she, um, know?" I asked as he kissed my neck.

"Please don't discuss it," he said, and kissed me on the mouth, to seal the deal. This didn't answer my question, but I knew enough to let it drop. His hands were already fumbling for my bra.

"You're warm," he said.

I smiled against his shoulder. "So are you."

The solstice ritual took place in a park that had once been a battlefield. Cannons from the Revolutionary War pointed at me as I drove in the main entrance, the heat blasting in my little car. I hadn't had to sneak out this year; my parents had liked the sound of "a traditional rite." I had bundled myself in my thickest ski jacket and snow boots, though there was only a white film of frost on the ground. It had been dark since four thirty that afternoon, and now the dark was so complete that my headlights could not penetrate more than a few feet in front of me.

My car wound through dark, narrow roads up to a summit Washington's army had once seized from the British. Now it was nothing but frozen grass and hibernating trees, not a hint of ghosts or bloodshed. There was a single other car parked in the spot where I'd been told to leave mine, and a number of bicycles, which seemed like relics of another era on such a cold night. My feet crunched on the frost as I ascended the rest of the way to the hilltop, where a massive bonfire burned. At least ten other women clustered around another cannon; they were removing their clothes and draping them over the cannon's snout.

The magician's wife, about to pull her sweater over her head, spotted me and waved.

The women were greeting each other like old friends. They ranged from twenties to eighties, though most were middle-aged. There were a few girls my age, too; some of the women were introducing them as their students. The magician's wife put her arm around me possessively and introduced me to the group as her husband's student.

"She works with the earth, then?" one of the women said.

"She does," the magician's wife said, in a way that suggested she wasn't sure how that would go over.

A few of the women giggled, and one or two gave me uncomfortable looks. Another smiled at me, in a half-knowing, half-embarrassed way.

The magician's wife rolled her eyes and turned to me. "We do this ritual naked. You okay with that?"

"Of course she is," one woman whispered to another.

"Sure?" I said, not understanding anything.

"Go ahead and undress, then," the magician's wife said, and turned back to the cannon where she'd draped her coat. She pulled her sweater over her head, revealing breasts that spilled out of her black bra. I didn't realize I was staring until the woman who'd caught my eye caught it again and smirked. I crouched down to untie my shoe.

"She's cute," a naked woman said to the magician's wife, making it sound like a strike against me.

"You're lucky to have an earthy husband," another added.

"No, she's just lucky his students will never be interested in him," the first woman said with a laugh.

The magician's wife cast an uncomfortable glance back at me; I pretended to be engrossed in the mechanics of unbuttoning my pants. There was some reason I shouldn't be attracted to the magician?

"She's a talented kid," the magician's wife said. "It's been good for him to have a student like that again."

The rest of the women drifted towards the heat of the fire as I struggled out of my layers of clothes. My legs shook and pimpled with goosebumps as soon as I slid off my pants. I ripped the rest of my layers off as fast as I could and sprinted for the fire, expecting relief. Instead, the heat of the fire hit me like a wall. I felt trapped between two walls, the fire-heat wall in front of me, and the ice-cold wall at my back. The women around me stood comfortably, laughing and chatting. They were warm. Again, I was on the outside of their society. The magician was probably just crawling out of bed right now, getting ready to go out to the cave and learn secrets. It seemed much more dignified than public nudity and women talking about me like I wasn't even there.

"This ritual is hardest for people like us," a voice said next to me. It was the woman who had caught my eye. Her arms were crossed over her breasts, like mine, and she shivered with cold. "Our element is too asleep to warm us. But we're the most important. You've never done this before, have you?"

I felt like a kid on the first day of school, whose mom had dressed her and given her all the wrong advice. "Last year I went into a cave, with my teacher," I said.

"He is a private man," the woman said thoughtfully. "It's good you're here this year, even if you're cold and confused and . . . distracted."

"Distracted?" I said.

"Oh, you know. Earth women. Our blood runs hot, even when we're freezing."

She smiled when she said that, but she wasn't looking at me anymore; she was embarrassed. I looked around the circle at all the naked women, orange and beautiful in the firelight. Heat flushed me as I gazed at them, a familiar, latent feeling; I wanted to hold them, to kiss them and see if my mouth still filled with dirt. Is this what the women had been talking about? How looking at them made me feel?

The magician's wife lit herself on fire.

"Come on," the other earth woman said, yanking me out of my daze. "We're starting."

She crouched and dug at the cold, frozen earth. She worked it with her hands until it softened and spread it over her body in messy handfuls. I crouched and followed her lead. The dirt was grainy and dry in my hands, but it stuck to my skin as if I were the other side of a magnet.

Time jittered. My hands pulled up dirt, but didn't spread it. I dug, and then dug again. The magician's wife lit herself on fire once, twice, too many times. She was consumed. She was extinguished. She burned steady, like a wick. Time blurred completely. I spent days spreading dirt on my shoulder, my thigh, my cheek. Every grain of dirt worked into my skin, mingling with it, transforming me. The circle joined hands and rotated around the fire. I had the earth woman's clay hand in my left, and a wet, icy hand in my right. The air women blew counter-clockwise, driving the circle; they floated in the air and pulled the fire and water women with them. But the earth woman and I had stone feet, and we kept the circle bound to the frozen ground.

At the same moment, the earth woman and I were crouched on the ground, whispering our questions, hopes, and fears through our dirty fingers. Questions flowed out of me, and insight flowed in with perfect clarity. I understood roads, I understood rocks, I understood dirt and plants and even dared to ask about the hot, rushing lava beneath. The water women slept on their backs, arms splayed as if floating. The air women had climbed trees. And the magician's wife, still aflame, stared at me with eyes full of disbelief, or perhaps anger, or perhaps sorrow, or the peculiar mixture of the three that comes when you discover the impossible thing you suspected was actually true.

Before I could react to her stare, I was back in the circle, and it turned faster and faster, the fire was driving it now, burning the ice off the water women, making the air women float to the sky, melting our stone feet to clay.

The water women's ice melted, and now the circle moved so fast it flowed. We rushed around the fire, moving from creek to river to ocean to rain, my feet broke and I fell from high above—

The circle stomped its feet, STOMP STOMP STOMP. Wherever my feet fell, shoots of green sprung up; they would only die again in the cold; it was cruel and beautiful. We no longer moved, or flowed, or fell; we shook the ground and shouted with one voice, "WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!"

This was not just a dance around a fire. The earth woman and I pulled the whole world around. We were the earth, and all these women shouted our name.

When the first line of light appeared on the horizon, the circle broke apart. The sun burned the magic off like a fog, and in the light of day we were sweaty, sooty, winded and undressed. The women hurried to douse the fire, to clean their bodies, to put on clothes. I stood stock-still as everyone else normalized around me, my thoughts racing, my heart crashing from an enormous high. The sky glowed blue in the east, and the earth opened its eyes.

Finally, the earth woman took my shoulder, and invited me to meet up with them at the local diner for pancakes and coffee. That reminder of the real world—coffee, breakfast, shiny red booths—shook me out of my trance. I shuffled back to the cannon and pulled clothes on, trying to put together what had just happened.

As I pulled my frozen hat off the cannon, the magician's wife approached me. Fear filled me, though I couldn't remember why. Something about fire. The sun was about to rise, and the light filled her singed, blackened hair. I could barely see her face.

"What did you think?" she said in a tone impossible to read.

I worked the hat in my hands, breaking off the frost. "It was—it was like nothing else."

The magician's wife crossed her arms. "Is that a good thing?"

"Yes!" I said. "I'd like to do . . . more magic, like this."

"What kind have you been doing—" she began, then trailed off.

The answer to the question—sweaty limbs, coursing energy—leapt to mind, and I saw her staring at me across the fire again, that devastated look on her face. I took a step backwards before I remembered that I couldn't run.

"Can I ask you a question?" she said.

Please don't, I thought. "Sure," I said.

She sighed, like she hadn't thought up the question yet. Finally she said, "When my husband interviewed you, what did you see?"

I was overcome by the urge to lie, but I knew she expected me to. "A woman's hip, under a dress," I said.

The magician's wife nodded. "And when you dream, what do you dream about?"

"Being underground," I said.

This threw her. "Well, I don't know what to make of that dream, but—"

"Before that," I interrupted. "I dreamed about a house, and a naked woman who kissed me and choked my mouth with dirt."

She fell silent, and looked at me. I wondered if I'd confessed too much. "Did you tell my husband about that dream?" his wife said.

"Yes," I said.

"What did he tell you, after you told him?"

Again, an urge to lie; I pushed it away. "That it was . . . about sex."

The magician's wife laughed once, hard and sharp. "You hadn't picked up on that on your own, had you?" she said.

Her words were a slap, both to me and to him. I grew angry. "Those dreams were terrifying," I said. "He said he could help me."

The magician's wife looked at me. "Magic is supposed to be terrifying."

The sun broke the horizon and the light, in one moment, changed. The magician's wife gave me another look, then walked away, to catch a ride to the diner. I waited until she was gone, and then I drove to the magician's house.

The magician answered the door in his robe, his hair wet from the shower. It was so warm inside that I started to sweat under my coat. I stripped off layers in his kitchen, draping them over the counter across from the oven. I wondered what would happen if we opened it now.

He watched me peel off my winter clothes. His eyes were red from the smoke of the fire, and his shoulders hunched more than usual. I wondered what he'd asked the earth last night. I asked for some coffee.

Coffee, the drink for talking over. I had questions, and I was going to ask them. He pressed a mug into my hands and stood too close as I sipped it.

"Good solstice?" he said.

"Um. Yeah," I said.

"I missed you last night," he said.

Missed me! my brain sighed. I smothered the thought. "Look, I—" I began.

He pushed my coffee aside and kissed me. He pressed my hand against his bare chest, slid it down between the folds of his robe. His skin was warm and moist beneath my palm.

I dropped the mug on the counter, because otherwise I would throw it. I tore myself out of his arms and turned away.

"I'm pissed!" I said, clenching my arms around myself.

"What—what's the matter?" he said.

"Are you really—helping me?"

The magician took a step towards me, then two. He put his hands on my shoulders. "I think you know that better than I do."

I shook my head, then turned and buried my face in his shoulder. "I don't."

He stroked my hair, and I leaned into him. He tilted my face up to his and kissed me tentatively. When I returned the kiss, he put his hand behind my head and pressed me to him. His hands tangled with my shirt, the waist of my jeans; he slid the clothes from my body, then let his robe fall on the floor. He held me naked for a moment, the warmth of the sunlight on our skin. Then he led me down to the basement, where we were safe. He bent me over the couch and slid himself inside of me, fucked me hard as I braced my hands against the scratchy fabric. Then I was on my back, and he kissed my face as he climbed on top of me. I started to wrap my legs around him but he pushed them away and sat up as he fucked me, watching me from above with a face I couldn't read. As he got closer, he doubled over me, moving his sweaty body against mine. I felt buried, underground. His breath was too hot on my shoulder as he came in a spurt on my stomach. He wiped it off and settled on top of me. I stroked his gray hair.

Before I could chicken out, I said, "I love you." I wasn't sure if I meant it, but I'd been wanting to say it for so long that I didn't want to miss my chance.

"Don't say that," he murmured and kissed my ear.

After I left, I drove in circles around our town. I traced all the gray, groaning streets linking my neighborhood to the supermarket, the big box store, the pizza delivery place, the gas station, my high school. The parking lots were deserted this early in the morning, and the empty, anonymous buildings looked sinister without people. I didn't want to stare at these places, but I didn't know where to go. My house? Back to his? California? Where did you go, when you felt like this? I couldn't put a name to the panic filling me; I couldn't see straight.

The mailboxes still marked my tunnel, though the cornfield was frozen and the empty lot had a huge hole where the basement of a new house would be. Inside the tunnel, I found several flashlights, all of them dusty; I took the one shaped like a cartoon superhero. Its battery was low, but I could scry crumpled candy wrappers, gutted stuffed animals, a broken bicycle, a heap of frozen crayons. I had forgotten how disgusting kids were. I curled up on a pile of smudged dinosaur sheets, put my head on a lion leaking stuffing, and shut off the light.

No advice came to me from the just-woken earth, no visionary dreams. I cried, and the sleeve of my coat chafed my nose. A stash of fun-sized Halloween candy became dinner. In my sleep, a girl just like me threw up, over and over, into a hole in the ground.

When I pulled myself back above ground, it was already the middle of the morning. My cell phone was frozen from its night in the car; no missed calls. The magician's number was at the top of my recently dialed; I called it.

The speech I had rehearsed underground flew out of my head as the phone rang once, twice, three, four times. I had steeled myself to leave a dignified message when the magician's voice said, "Hello?"

"Hey," I said. My voice was so rough I coughed, and then repeated, "Hey."

"Hey," he said.

Silence stretched out.

"I want to come over," I said.

"Where are you?" he said. His voice was full of expectation. Maybe his wife still hadn't come home.

"Look, I can't—I don't want to—I can't, um, make out with you, okay?" I spat. I took a deep breath. "Can I just come over to talk?"

"Today isn't good," the magician said. "I'll see you at our usual time. Call me later in the week."

I was too shocked to respond. "Um. Okay," I said.

He hung up, and I stared at my phone's screen, as if an answer would appear to explain what had just happened. Nothing happened.

The car's engine took several tries before it turned over and slid into gear with a groan. I wasn't going to call him. I wasn't going back at my usual time. I didn't know what I was going to do. The car and I were moving; I hadn't noticed. I had exhumed myself, or sprouted. Farm land rolled by outside my window. The cornfields were dead and frozen, but in the corner of my eye they were seething beneath the frost. The earth was awake. So was I.

Meghan McCarron's work has appeared in Best American Fantasy, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and previously in Strange Horizons. In a few weeks, she is moving to Brooklyn. She maintains a blog here.