The Magician

The Magician walked the winding mountain road towards the village, passing into the shadow of the towering volcanic peaks and observing out of the side of his eyes the commotion his arrival was causing. He walked on slowly towards the centre of the village, aware that by now one of the children would have run ahead to announce the presence of a stranger. Curious eyes peered out from the windows of the houses on each side and a few hundred meters later a small group of men stood in the middle of the road, their arms folded across their chests.

‘What are you then? Priest? Thief? Not a warrior, surely…’ they sneered, sizing up his slender frame.

‘Magician, actually.’

‘Then where’s your wand? Your spell book?’

‘Give me your hand,’ the Magician said by way of answer as he removed a feather and bottle of ink from the pocket of his cloak. With a series of quick flicks of the nib, he sketched the image of a butterfly onto the rough, calloused palm of one of his challengers.

‘Yes, very pretty, but not exactly magic, is it?’

The Magician sighed patiently and lifted up the man’s palm to blow onto his drawing. He was saved a punch in the mouth in response as the butterfly glowed, rose up out of the skin and then took off, fluttering around the company before disappearing off into the trees. Waves of astonished cries filled the air and the next thing the Magician knew, he was being led into a tavern and sat down at the best table in the house where jars of ale, and plates of meat and bread were already being set out for him.

As usual, it was the children who were first to queue up to see the magic. He entertained them for some hours by drawing on their outstretched hands tiny seals and bears, reindeer, wolves and buffalo, until the dinner table came to resemble a little zoo. By the time their parents arrived to take their children home to bed, taking with them their miniature pets, every able-bodied adult in the village had gathered for their turn, chattering excitedly as they waited, their eyes fixed on each successive miracle the Magician conjured up. Some asked for practical items like a water-skin or a new knife, but inevitably someone ended up asking hesitantly if they might have a piece of silver or even gold!

‘The more you ask for, the worse it will be,’ the Magician sighed but he drew the desired treasures on the hands of those who asked for them and then blew them into reality to shrieks of joy and wild applause. By the time everyone had received their request the gathering had turned into a party as the landlord pulled out his oldest bottles of spirits and musicians hurried home to bring their instruments. All in all the Magician had a hard time in getting to bed early but a good night’s sleep was essential to replenish his powers, he told his hosts and, already imagining what they might ask for tomorrow, they reluctantly let him go.

At last, closing the door of the tavern’s best guest room on the last of the grateful villagers bringing cakes, blankets and offers to marry their daughters, the Magician lay back on his bed feeling full of fine food and drink, wrapped up in furs and feeling quite wretched and alone. Alone with the secret that meant he would be getting up long before dawn to leave under cover of darkness and sneak out of the village. His passing footsteps would awake the roosters and encourage them to give the first cry of the morning as the Magician passed by in the shadows with only the light of the stars to guide his way. Only when light had begun to return to the world and the village was far behind would the Magician begin to feel his guilt lift and, by the time the sun rose, he’d already have stopped imagining the tears of the children and the violent curses of the adults when they discovered that their magical gifts had vanished, having evaporated like the stars with the arrival of morning.

By the time the Magician would have stopped to breakfast under the shade of an apple tree, his regret would have soured into scorn. Since when was happiness ever to be found in things? Just what did they expect? In a way, he conclude as he threw the core into the bushes, he’d done them a favour by teaching them a lesson far more valuable than a handful of gold. Well, it was a living anyway.

That particular morning, however, the Magician was taking a rest in the shade of a tree at the top of the hill, when he noticed that someone had been following him. A distant figure could be seen walking swiftly up the path and only as they drew closer did he perceive it was a young woman. Probably come to complain about the disappearance of a silver flower or a bottle of perfume he’d given her the night before. When she drew close, however, she threw off her hood to reveal hair as bright as the sunshine and she stepped forwards and laid at the Magician’s feet a parcel of bread and cheese. Some people never learn, he said to himself.

 

‘What can I do for you? A handful of gems? A silk handkerchief?’ But the girl shook her head and replied:

‘A baby.’

The Magician nearly choked on the mouthful of bread he’d just taken.

‘A baby? That’s just…I can’t…a baby I draw on your hand would be nothing more than a doll!’

‘So draw it here.’ she replied calmly, pulling up her dress to reveal her bare belly, free of stretch marks and wrinkles, the skin gleaming with youth and fertility. The Magician hesitated for a moment and then then reached for his feather and ink.

‘The more you ask for, the worse it will be,’ he reminded her.

He made her lie down in the grass and the rising sun cast the shadow of his plume over her as he worked and the falling light made her green eyes sparkle in a way that made it hard for him to concentrate on his work. Finally, he finished a life-size sketch of a baby wrapped up in a woollen blanket and he felt the girl’s trembling apprehension as he blew across her belly; a moment later the sound of a crying infant mingled with the gasps of delight from the mother. The Magician watched in awe as he saw the happiness radiate from her face as she held her babe close to her; it was quite unlike the glee of the villagers when they got their shiny trinkets – beyond getting what she wanted, she had received a gift that needed her. He had given her the opportunity to give.

For the first time in his life, the Magician experienced genuine regret that his gift would not last. The greater her delight the deeper her grief would be and so when she asked if she might accompany him on his journey, he shook his head sadly. For he had fallen quite in love with this girl who had come along with the morning breeze and he could not bear to see her heart break with the following dawn.

The girl’s eyes tracked the receding figure of the Magician against the horizon as she stroked the cheeks of her son and sang gently to calm his fears. She waited until his father had finally disappeared from view before she turned to walk home.

The Magician found that the encounter had quite taken away his taste for making magic for the public. After having seen the look of infinite love on the girl’s face, he could no longer bear to see the greedy expressions on the faces of the villagers as they clamoured for silver bracelets and gems. To hell with their shiny trinkets, he growled to himself, let them look for their gold at the end of the Rainbow.

And so the Magician retired from the world to a cave by the sea and passed his days painting little boats on the walls of the cave and then sailing them out to sea, indifferent as to whether they disappeared over the horizon or were dashed upon the rocks by the returning tide. And not a day went past when he didn’t think of her. He saw her face in the clouds that formed around the sunset. He heard her laugh in the water as it splashed upon the rocks.

When five years had passed the Magician could bear it no longer and, leaving his cave behind, he set out to return to the village, taking the long, winding path up under the shadow of the volcano. For the first time in his life the Magician experienced something akin to fear; he wasn’t sure if he was more afraid that she might have left the village or was still there. He, who had always had the answers, didn’t know how he would begin to explain it to her that that was just how it worked; Magic was a creation of the moment, free of yesterdays and tomorrows. Nonetheless, he expected anger, he expected grief and pain…what he didn’t expect was for a 5 year old boy to run up to him wrap his arms around his waist and cry:

‘Daddy!’

His mother walked out from the field with a basket of corn slung against her hip, her red lips curving at the Magician’s confusion.

‘He’s your son?’ he stammered.

Our son!’ she corrected him. The Magician pulled back the hair of the young boy clutching him and instantly recognized the kind of nose he most liked to draw.

‘But how…how is he still here? My magic always fades the next day!’

‘Perhaps because you forget,’ his love suggested, ‘Did you…ever forget us?’ The sight of the Magician’s trembling face was answer enough. ‘Things have been hard for us. When I returned to the village with a baby my family threw me out of the house. We had to survive on what we could hunt and grow. But now you’ve come home.’

And so it was the Magician learned that while everyday magic may be of the moment, the magic that lasts lives in the heart and is sustained by memory. He picked up a large stick and drew a gorgeous house in the muddy field and, one breath later, they had a home to live in happily ever after.

At least they would have in our minds if we left the tale there. If you like happy endings then the trick is to know when to stop as otherwise all stories end in death. At least, eventually. It happened that some years later the village awoke early one morning to the trembling of the earth beneath them. They stumbled out to see the volcano above them spit out red hot lava and dark, noxious gases into the sky. The Magician dashed around to the side of the house and, grabbing a broom, he dunked it into a barrel of water to draw a horse and cart on the wall. As the villagers began to scream up the road, the Magician and his family were riding down the road, a tide of death close behind them.

They rode 20 miles at top speed down to the beach where they found hundreds of others gathered on the sand, some of them knee-deep in the water and all eyes were on the furious volcano in the distance. The Magician knelt down and used his fingers to sketch in the sand a boat with a single sail big enough for himself and his family. He heaved it into the water, loaded his wife and child on board and was about to jump on himself when he heard the crowd give an angry cry and then a thick arm landed around his neck, pulling him back onto the beach. The mob surged forwards and would have jumped on board but the Magician quickly sketched a swarm of hornets and all fell to the ground, clutching their faces. Others clambered on top of the pile of bodies and started to leap forwards into the waves but at that moment the wind picked up and the boat began to sail away. His wife and child waved desperately but there was nothing he could do from beneath the pile of bodies where he lay other than to use his one free hand to scratch a butterfly into the leather coat of the man on top of him, he blew it into life and it fluttered out of the scrimmage, over the waves and landed on the cheek of his Beloved.

This all happened nearly 2000 years ago, the Magician told me.

I had been walking through the park and came across a travelling fair. I’ve never been a fan of fast rides and the food on offer seemed like an express ticket to the dentist but I paused in front of a tent offering temporary tattoos. I’ve always wondered what it might be like to have some ink on my arm but I could never decide what I might want to look at for the rest of my life. I stepped inside the tent and an old guy, who seemed somehow familiar, listened to my request for a dragonfly to be drawn onto my arm. It was superbly done. It seemed almost like it was dying to leap off my skin and take flight! Which is exactly what happened when the artist blew lightly across my arm when he’d finished.

He then told me the story that you’ve just heard. In the end the burning lava stopped short of the beach and although everyone knew they had to rebuild their villages and food would be scarce for some time, a cheer went up as they celebrated still being alive. The Magician had immediately drawn another boat in the sand and set out to look for his family. The capricious currents and breezes had already taken them far away, however, and it was another week before his boat hit land again and he could continue his search. He looked for as many years as it was reasonable to hope that they might still be alive somewhere and then he gave up, wandering each day without direction, feeding himself only when his hunger grew stronger than his loss.

Until one day, a couple of hundred years later, he came to a crossroads in a market town and happened to see a young man with exactly the same kind of eyes as he’d given his son. And a joy rekindled in his heart as he realised that he was looking at a descendant of the boy he’d last seen disappearing from view on a little sail boat. He watched until the young man disappeared from view and faced the world with a new sense of gratitude and belonging.

Yes, very moving, I interrupted, still quite thrown by the dragonfly performing loops above us, but why tell me?

Because, the Magician told me, I had exactly the kind of nose he’d always most liked to draw. And in that moment, I understood I was looking at my great-great-great-great-great-many-times-great grandfather.

It was only later that I did the maths. Now assuming that each generation had had two kids, then over 2000 years or so that meant that today 1 in 7 of us walking the Earth are descended from that original drawing on a young woman’s belly as she lay on the grass one sunny morning. The question is, if his son was only saved from disappearing because his father never forgot him, what about his descendants? A Magician lives a long time, it would seem, but perhaps not forever.

Let us pray for his health and also his memory against the ravages of age lest one day the sun will rise to find that 1 in 7 of us has disappeared.

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