After The Magic

 

 

This story, which appeared in Wild Violet originally, falls on the cusp of traditional fantasy and magic realism.

 

AFTER THE MAGIC

Kent McDaniel

           Two statues of golden stone stood on the courthouse lawn, a man and woman holding hands, smiling at each other. They were on no base but their own feet, and so detailed it seemed they might stroll off. Bathed in twilight, a mother and little girl stood before them; the mother turned to an elderly man on a bench alone.

“We’ve been admiring the statues.” She lifted her hands. “So life-like….”

He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his bald head. “Beautiful, aren’t they?”

The little girl asked, “Who made ‘em?”

“Ah, you want to know about that?” Eyes shining, he gestured beside him.

The girl plopped down next to him, and her mother sat beside her.

“First off,” he said, “it’s a story about love. And magic. And a conjure woman named Ludeana Quinn.”

“Conjure woman?” The girl frowned.

“Woman who does magic.” He gazed at them. “That interest you?”

The girl nodded and bounced; her mother smiled.

            “Well, then.” He slipped his handkerchief into his shirt pocket.

*****

             Back in 1954 Tom Norwood was almost twenty-seven, and lonesome, real lonesome.   Oh, he’d had an eye for the girls. Escorted many a girl to the dances, and many a girl waited for him to get serious. And waited. He was slim and strong; his brown hair was curly; his eyes were blue. He played the field, and if it’d started to shrink, he hardly noticed. Then June of fifty, the North Koreans crossed the thirty-eighth parallel. He could never say why exactly, but at twenty-three Tom up and joined the Air Force.

He spent the Korean War in Okinawa, an airplane mechanic. Back home afterward, he couldn’t wait to play the field again. Only in those three and a half years, the field had plain disappeared. His friends’ kids were almost ready to start school, and he was too old for the girls in town. Before, he’d done light carpentry and house painting; but now he took to just sitting by the river. Or sometimes at Washington Park, he sat by the bandstand, like some ghost up there sang the blues. Sometimes he just followed his footsteps.

In May one morning he found himself in front of the First Methodist Church. Across the street stood a two-story white house, a sign in front: Miller’s Inn. Flowers bloomed by the front porch–geraniums, mountain daisies, pansies, irises. In a pale blue dress, Sara Miller was watering them, and Tom’s heart went boom. Her blond hair glowed like the daisies; her face itself was delicate as a blossom. He’d known her since third grade, but this was like love at first sight. Heart thumping, he walked over.

She turned his way and blinked. “Tom, how are you?”

“Okay.” He shrugged. “Your flowers look good.”

“They do, don’t they?”

“You look pretty as ever.”

A smile crossed her face, and he asked, “You think we could have lunch sometime?”

She turned off the water. “I don’t think so, Tom.” She hurried inside.

Where had her old smile gone, he wondered, but really he knew: Cyrus West stole it. Back in seventh grade Sara had fallen for Cyrus, a gangly redhead, and they went steady through high school. After that, Cyrus went off to college, and Sara went to secretarial school across the river, in Riggsville. But he was home every weekend. After he graduated, they’d marry, and he’d go to law school. So much for plans. Three weeks before Cyrus graduated, he ran off and married Sara’s cousin, Judy.

Sara’s one friend, other than Cyrus, had been Judy. Her parents weren’t people who could handle emotion. She was torn up, with no one to talk to. When word got out, some girls at church snickered. Sara quit church, and before long her job, and left home less and less. She couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, deal with it all.

It’d all happened before Korea.

Next afternoon, Tom called her, his heart going like a jackhammer. “You know, Sara, The Glen Miller Story is showing over in Riggsville. I wondered if you’d like to go.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” she said. “Things are just too busy at the inn. But it was nice of you to ask.”

Couple days later he tried again, with The Creature from the Black Lagoon. She turned him down and didn’t bother with an excuse. He left his parents’ house, across from Central School, and plodded down to Haley’s Drug Store, by the courthouse. The girls had always liked him before.

In Haley’s he carried a Mechanics Illustrated over to the soda fountain. A mom and dad with two boys were at the counter; he sat at the other end. He was slurping the last of a cherry phosphate through a straw, when someone tapped his shoulder. He turned, and Cyrus West was on the next stool, thirty pounds heavier than he’d been in high school, a lawyer now. His eyes twinkling behind horn-rim glasses, he pointed at Tom’s glass. “Looks like you could use another one.”  

Cyrus ordered Tom another and himself a Green River. Tom was puzzled: He and Cyrus had both played high school baseball, but hadn’t run around together. Cyrus said, “I hear you got a soft spot in your heart for Sara Miller.”

Tom leaned back. “Word does travel fast.”

“Well,” Cyrus said, “my wife is Sara’s cousin.”                                                                                                                               “One morning I looked at her, and something just came over me.” Tom gave a small shrug.

Cyrus smiled, but he looked down.

“When I was a kid,” Tom said, “I’d be last one to leave the playground every afternoon. I’d shoot baskets, everything quiet. That morning, seeing Sara was like somebody showing up at the playground.” He turned to Cyrus. “Am I making sense?”

“Probably not.” Cyrus slapped Tom’s shoulder. “But I get you.” He tapped his hand against Tom’s elbow. “I think it’d be great if you and Sara got together.” And Cyrus did. It might end his guilt–and Judy’s. When they’d run off, it was like they lost their minds.

*****

That Saturday afternoon, Cyrus was at his parents’, fidgeting, glancing outside, until finally he slapped his textbook shut. He went out to the garage for his bike, which had gathered dust for years. He was riding it toward the Tastee Freeze when Judy came his way on her bike. Quieter than Sara, with black hair and cat-like eyes, she wrote poems, liked to be alone.

She was headed out to the country, and Cyrus rode along. Soon they were rolling between meadows and fields–not a cloud in the sky. They stopped on a little bridge, and below, water splashed over stones. Beyond the bridge, wildflowers bloomed all over a meadow. Honeysuckle, Alfalfa, Sweat Pea, Wall Flowers, Comfrey, and more; in the sunlight, they all glowed like they were electric. Cyrus and Judy strolled into them. Halfway across the field, a cloud of yellow butterflies–there must’ve been over a hundred–rose up around them. Judy held out her hand, and one lighted on her palm. Smiling, she moved closer to him and turned his palm up. She put her palm beside his, and the butterfly tiptoed onto his. With shining eyes they watched it rise and fly away, and then they turned to each other.

They kissed, and Cyrus’s body sang, every cell. That kiss zapped his plans like an atom bomb and hit Judy just as hard. It was bad; they should’ve handled things better. What they did was run off and get married.

                                                                                                *****

 The day after Tom talked with Cyrus, he called to invite Sara to an ice cream social at New Liberty Baptist.

  Her mom answered. “No, Tom, I’m sorry, Sara can’t come to the phone.”

He tried again next day, but her mom answered again. Sara couldn’t come to the phone, he guessed, because it was him. He should forget it, but he couldn’t. People had always said he was stubborn anyway. One morning a couple days before the ice cream social, he walked over to Sara’s, and she was working in her geraniums. She stood and tried to smile, but couldn’t quite make it work.

“Hello, Tom.” She held her hands together at her waist.

“Hi,” he said, “New Liberty is having an ice cream social. I wondered if you’d want to go.”

She said soft-like, “I don’t go out much.”

He wondered how anyone could always stay home.

Like his thoughts showed, she said, “I read. I work in the garden.”

“Well,” he said, “maybe some other time.” But it looked like it’d take a miracle.

Still, Monday he went over to ask her to the roller rink. When he got there, it wasn’t Sara in the garden, but her mom.

*****

On the bench in the town square, the little girl tugged at the old man’s shirt. “Why won’t she go out with him? Was he ugly?”

The old man shook his head. “Tom was good-looking; people liked him too. She was scared, that’s all.”

The girl stared. “Of what?”

“Love. Friendship. Life…” He spread his hands, then dropped them.

*****

            So now Sara wouldn’t even come outside. Tom couldn’t sleep at night, and still her face was there, before his eyes. Finally he bought a box-ad in the classifieds of the town’s weekly newspaper: “Tom Likes Sara.” He ordered flowers too, to be delivered to her on Wednesday, when the paper came out. That night, he went to Haley’s and found Cyrus there at the soda fountain.

“Did you see the paper?” Tom asked. “I sent flowers too. I figured–”

“I saw it,” Cyrus cut in. “And it’s just too darn much.”

Tom stared.

“You’re embarrassing her, Tom. It’s time to give it up.”
“I can’t,” Tom insisted.   “She’s the one. I know it.”

Cyrus shook his head. “Sounds like a case for Ludeana Quinn.”

*****

            Beside the old man, the little girl bobbed her head. “The woman who does magic, right?”

He nodded.

“What kinda magic?” Her eyes sparkled.

“Hold on.” He held up his hands. “I’ll get to that. Just give me a chance.”

*****

            People told stories about Ludeana Quinn, late at night. Back in the frontier days, when she was little, the Shawnee had captured and adopted her. Eventually, people said, a shaman took her as an apprentice. When the Shawnee lost their land, she’d run away to the deep woods, and to this day there she remained.

People claimed she could make herself invisible. Had supernatural strength. Saw the future and the past. Read minds, brought rain, healed the sick, mended hearts. You could wander the woods for days, though, and never find her. Your chances were best under a full moon, but if you didn’t find her then, you’d be smart to stop looking. Lest you disappear. And if you ever did reach her, whether she’d help or make you sorry was harder to predict than the rain or the winds. She’d seen her parents killed, and grew up a savage. War dance, torture, and starvation, she’d watched them all. A trance came natural to her, and she traveled in it. Her ideas might be way different from yours.

People told stories: lovers joined, calamities avoided, miracles. Darker ones too: people regretting their wish, people chained to attic walls. They said a man named Joel Avery kept after her until she gave him a skunk’s body. The rest of his days, he snuck around the woods, head on the body of a polecat. But who could believe all the stories? Back in high school, boys and girls used to go looking for Ludeana Quinn in the moonlit woods. Far as Cyrus knew, nobody ever found her. When he said a case for Ludeana Quinn, he meant lost cause.

Still, Tom’s eyes lit up. “Ludeana Quinn,” he whispered.

“Aw, heck, Tom.” Cyrus slapped the counter. “Are you nuts?”

Tom smiled. “Most likely.”

******

A week later under a big orange moon, Tom pulled his Studebaker into Cyrus’s driveway. He beeped his horn, and Cyrus stomped out. He jerked the passenger door open and dropped onto the seat without closing the door. “You don’t plan to go through with this, do you?”

Tom smiled. “You coming?”

They drove southeast. Tom left the highway at a blacktop road, and they rolled past soybeans and corn, past cottonwoods, meadows, and ponds. On the highway, they’d passed cars, but the blacktop was deserted. After several miles, they turned down a gravel road. Cows grazed in moonlight, and here and there a maple or oak overhung the road. Then Tom left the gravel for a rutted dirt lane through tall slender trees– hickories and elms and sycamores– and a half-mile down, the lane ended. In the moonlight an abandoned house stood, paint worn away, windows broken, and he parked in front. Woods were all around, bugs hummed, and the moon was halfway up the sky. Something told Tom that from here, he needed to go alone, so he left Cyrus in the car and marched off.

Tom was thinking: The woods weren’t that big, 2,500 acres, maybe a little more. So where did Ludeana Quinn hide? But people said that under a full moon, you could wander into clearings, climb mounds, and rest by ponds you might never find again. As the trees closed around him, Tom caught himself walking on tiptoes. He stopped and looked up. Pieces of moon peeked through the leaves, and somewhere a night bird screamed. Standing on a leaf-covered trail, he squared his shoulders and started walking. Again the night bird’s wail echoed, and the hair on Tom’s neck stood on end.

The trail wound into deeper woods. Among the other trees, stood smaller twisted ones he’d never seen. The trail narrowed, and the leaves overhead got thicker. The twisted little trees, with black leaves and bark like thorns, lined the path. Here and there boulders blocked the path. Some, he could go around; some, he climbed over.

Finally leaves blocked the moon completely. His throat tight, he stopped in the pitch black. From his pocket he pulled a plastic flashlight the size of a harmonica, holding it like some good luck charm. Again the night bird screamed, bleak, mournful. Tom switched on his flashlight. Twenty feet down the trail a stone blocked it, ten feet high, trees right up to its edge.   Several limbs stuck over the rock, inches away from it.

Swinging his beam side to side, he stepped toward the stone. As he shone the beam across it, its surface moved. He stopped three feet away. All over the stone, blind, pasty maggots squirmed. He looked left and right. The trees were so thick both ways you couldn’t get through. No way. Trees that tight seemed impossible. He swallowed, and glanced down. Stuffing the flashlight into his pocket, he stepped up to the stone. Not only the wet maggots showed life; somehow the rock itself seemed to hum with it.

There was no reason to climb over. Even if he found Ludeana Quinn, who knew if she’d help? If she was even real. He lowered his head. Gritting his teeth, he pressed his hands and knees into the thick, squirming mass. Growling like a dog, he began to crawl up, grabbing at slimy handholds. Halfway up he slipped and slid back to the bottom. He jumped back onto the rock and scrambled up again. Maggots were under his t-shirt and squirming up his pants legs. He wanted to scream, but his face almost touched the maggots. He gritted his teeth and climbed. With sticky fingers he grabbed a knobby branch and scrambled up to the top. He lay on his back panting. Somewhere inside the branches, the night bird screamed. Like arms, the branches whipped down and wrapped around him, pinning his arms, choking him.

The night bird sang out, hoarse and triumphant. The limbs tightened, ripping Tom’s skin.   Desperate, he got his hand into his pants pocket and found his Barlow knife. He jerked it out, pried the blade open, and shoved its edge against a limb gripping his thigh. He dug the blade into the bark, pulled it along the limb. A tremor ran through every branch, and their grip let up. He whipped the knife loose, and sank it into the limb on his neck. He shoved the knife ahead. Again a tremor shook the limbs, and they fell from him. He rolled across the rock and down the other side. He landed in a heap and got up bloody and trembling.

From the treetops two yellow eyes floated down, and six feet ahead, stopped level with Tom’s waist. In his flashlight’s pale light, the night bird stood like some huge crow. For maybe a minute, they stared at each other. Then graceful as could be, the bird spread its wings and rose. So slow and smooth it seemed to float, it flew off down the trail.

Tom hurried after it, shifting the flashlight between the trail and up above. After a quarter hour he turned off the flashlight. The moon shone down, the twisted little trees were gone, and the hickories, elms and sycamores stood reasonable distances apart. He came to a stream, and on the other side sat a clearing, a wigwam at its back, a bonfire in the middle. Between the flames and the wigwam a figure sat outlined. Silent as a ghost, the night bird flew over to it.

Tom stepped onto a fallen elm that crossed the creek. Halfway across, he stopped and sat down. He eased into the chest-high water, and the stream washed over him. He splashed water over his face, then climbed back on the elm. Shoes squishing, he crossed the creek and walked to the fire. The night bird had vanished, but by the fire a woman sat cross-legged, her back straight. She was slender, and reddish brown hair fell past her shoulders, her long face beautiful, stern. Even though it was unlined, something about it suggested age, maybe her eyes, or the set of her features, maybe the air of power she had.

He stood in a puddle dripping from his clothes. She smiled without much warmth. “Enjoy your bath, Tom Norwood?”

He nodded as he sat down across the fire from her. “Well, I needed it, that’s for sure.”

She chuckled. “Oh, I would say so.”   Brown, gold and green shone in her eyes.

“You come about Sara Miller.” She stared into his eyes. “Why should I help you?”

He gave a shrug. “I don’t know, I guess. But I hope you will, if you can. You are Ludeana Quinn, aren’t you?” In the fire, wood crackled and shifted, sending up sparks.

She nodded. “Now let me ask. How can you be sure you want Sara Miller?”

He moved his head to one side and back. “I think I love her. Maybe I’m nuts. But I want to know.” He leaned back. The moon had turned silver.

When his gaze came back to Ludeana Quinn, her face got softer. “An honest answer anyway.”

He leaned toward her. “I’m not asking you to make her love me. I just want her back together, whole. Then, whatever happens, I can live with.”

She closed her eyes. A breeze blew over them, and above the clearing, a few stars sparkled around the moon, the air sweet, everything quiet. After a time, she opened her eyes. “Very well. I’ll do what I can.”

He nodded.

She said,   “Go to Sara Miller in the morning.”

“How can I ever repay you?”

“Don’t waste this gift.” She put her hand into a deerskin pouch on her belt, and took out a black cloth, gold needles and a spool of silver thread. She waved him off.

He started back the way he’d come, and in five short minutes, found himself at the edge of the woods, where he’d come in. He glanced up the trail, and a piece of the darkness seemed to fly away. Two gold eyes stared for a second and were gone.

*****

That night Sara dreamed she was with Cyrus West, both of them thirteen, the afternoon they fell in love. They’d sat together at the Saturday matinee and afterward strolled down to Washington Park, where tulips bloomed. On the swings they talked about movies, music, friends.

Suddenly she was riding bikes with Judy down First Street along the Ohio River, its waters sparkling. They were laughing. Then as she walked up to Haley’s Drug Store, Cyrus and Judy strolled out, smiling into each other’s face. They looked up at her, stricken. From somewhere, golden light came down and surrounded her. She gazed into Cyrus and Judy’s guilty faces. Then many other faces swam in front of her, smirking at her loss, leering. Still the golden light was all around her, and she saw below the spite to their shriveled hearts.

In the morning, after breakfast Sara went outside. The grass was wet, and a breeze was blowing. Her snapdragons were blooming; the buds on her Zinnias looked almost ready to open. As she watered the flowers, she glanced toward the street, and Tom Norwood was coming. He waved and strolled over; his eyes twinkled, but they were wary. He stopped five feet away, like she might run.

“Hi, Tom.” She smiled.

He smiled back like a little boy. “Could you use any help here?”   He pulled his hands back. “It’s ok if you can’t.”

Together they pulled weeds, talking. They’d never been that close, but they’d known each other since third grade. After a while, her mom came out, carrying a tray with two glasses of iced tea. Rolling her eyes at her mother’s smile, Sara took the tray and led Tom to the backyard. In the shade of an elm, they sat in a swing, the sky above very blue. Hostas grew by the house; chrysanthemums and sage grew by the backyard fence.

Tom finished his tea. “Well, I guess I should get going here.”

“I’m glad you came by.” Sara smiled.

“Yeah, me too,” he answered. “You know, Three Coins in a Fountain is playing at The Columbia. Would you like go?”

She glanced around the backyard, then slowly a smile spread across her face. “Hey,” she said,   “I think that’d be great.”

*****

 

After that, they went everywhere: baseball games, dancing, the movies, you name it. People were glad to see Sara’s heart mend. Everyone who’d wondered if Tom would ever settle down was happy. And Cyrus and Judy were probably happier than anyone. Fall rolled in, then Christmastime. Christmas Eve at the Emmanuel Baptist Church, Sara stood up, sparkling like a Christmas tree, and said that come summer she and Tom were getting married.

 

*****

 

Now, if the story ended there, wouldn’t it be nice?

One Saturday afternoon around the end of February, Sara was at her parents’ kitchen table having coffee. Tom came in all bright-eyed–could hardly sit still while she got him a cup. When she sat back down, he said, “I got a surprise for you.”

Grinning ear to ear, he handed her an envelope. Inside, she found a deed to three acres out on Obermark Lake.

“I’m gonna build you a dream house,” he said, “out there on the lake.”

The look on her face wiped the smile off his. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

Sara held her hands up beside her head. “Tom, I was figuring we’d live here at Mom and Dad’s.”

His face twisted. “I’m talking about a dream house, Sara, built with my own hands, out on that beautiful lake.”

“This is my dream house. And Mom and Dad need my help.” She looked down at the table. “And my flowers…”

“But, we need our own place.”

She looked up. “I just wish you’d talked to me about it first.”

“Yeah, well. Sorry you didn’t like my surprise.”

Sara tried to think of something to say.

“Guess I got a surprise, too.” He walked out.

*****

            Next day he went to church with Sara, and afterwards had fried chicken at her parents’. But he and Sara didn’t say three words, and he was home by one-thirty. A couple hours later there was a knock at the front door. It was Cyrus West with a basketball, and under a grey sky, they crossed the street to the courts behind Central School. Their breath showing in little streamers, they took turns shooting. After a while Cyrus hit a long jump shot, and Tom passed the rebound back to him. Cyrus bounced the ball and caught it. “I heard you and Sara had a fight.”

Tom told Cyrus about it.

Cyrus bounced the ball again. “Well, can’t you compromise? Maybe you could still build a cottage out there. Spend the weekends.”

“Or maybe,” Tom said,   “we could live out there. And Sara could drive in to help her parents. Since they need her help so bad.”

“Well, main thing is, you’re gonna be together.” Cyrus held the ball against his hip. “Maybe where, doesn’t matter.”

“I’m right about this, Cyrus,” Tom said. “And if Sara gets her way, that’s how it’ll be from here on.”

Cyrus nodded, but his face was long. When he first fell for Judy, the world had started to sparkle. She could do no wrong, and he’d be crazy about her forever. She was like God’s gift to him. The gift wasn’t exactly what he thought at first, though. He had to deal with her sides that weren’t perfect, and get through the daily grind with her. Right now, things with Tom and Sara looked bad: Like the first battle in a long war…

*****

Neither one gave an inch about the house. Then one evening in April, Tom was driving them to a dance over in Riggsville. As they crossed the bridge above The Ohio, he glanced at Sara, the sky wide and blue, sun not quite down, the river sparkling. He said, “Hey, Sara, I been thinking. About my best man.”

“Oh?” She turned his way.

“What do you think about Cyrus?”

“Are you joking?”

Tom glanced her way. “Cyrus is my best friend these days.”

“Have you forgotten what he did to me?”

Tom glanced away. “That’s all behind you, I thought.”

“Forgiving Cyrus is one thing.” She crossed her arms. “Him standing up at my wedding is another.”

So Tom didn’t bring up Cyrus again, or any other best man.

Then when they got in another argument the next week, about their honeymoon, they postponed the wedding, until they could straighten things out. But they didn’t set a new date. And with the months, it got so anything one said, the other disagreed, voices always cold and hard. Cyrus hated how things were turning out. Tom was his friend; Sara was his childhood sweetheart. He’d helped bring them together, and it had come to this. He talked to Tom again. No good. Sara’s parents talked to her. No good.

Late that August, under a full moon, Cyrus went to the woods. He had as much trouble getting to Ludeana Quinn as Tom had, but he did find her. They sat by her fire, and Cyrus asked, “Can you make it right?”

She said nothing, the flames throwing strange shadows. At last something sad came and went in her eyes. “I’ll do what I can.”

*****

Cyrus expected big things, but nothing seemed to change. Tom and Sara still marched around, their voices shrill. Cyrus figured maybe Ludeana Quinn couldn’t work the same magic twice. Sunday morning Labor Day weekend, he went up to Haley’s Drugstore. As he left with a newspaper, he looked over at the courthouse. Dressed in their Sunday clothes, Tom and Sara stomped across the lawn, sneering into each other’s face, arguing. They stopped in the center of the lawn, and Sara jabbed a finger at Tom.

Ludeana Quinn stepped from behind a maple, no expression on her face. She spoke words Cyrus couldn’t understand, raised her hands, and threw them down. More reds, blues, and golds than you could count flooded the square. When the last shreds of color finally seemed to blow away in the wind, she was gone. Cyrus stared at Tom and Sara: Gold statues of sparkling stone, and everything about them spoke of love.

*****

On the bench, the mother, daughter, and old man sat. It was still dusk, but the streetlights had just winked on.

The girl gazed at the statues. “Is all that stuff true?”

“Well, I had to guess a few details.” He nodded slowly. “But 99 percent of it’s true, that I guarantee.”

“How do you know?” she demanded.

“Oh…” He shrugged. “Everyone round here knows about each other.”

A white-haired woman in blue jeans and a Daisy Duck t-shirt walked up to the bench and gazed at the old man.

“Thought you might be here.” She smiled.

He pushed his hands against his knees to rise, and then hand in hand with the placid lady, wished mother and daughter a good night.

The mother watched the two cross the lawn. At the street’s edge, the white-haired lady loosed her hand, patted her companion’s back and spoke, her words faint but clear.

“Time to come home, Cyrus.”

 

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About kentmcdanielwrites

Writer and musician.

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