Kris received a few letters this morning from friends from the Bernhold Academy of Magic. It’s been two weeks now into their respective apprenticeships, and everyone was sharing how things were going. One was helping analyze magic in deep-sea rock, while at the bottom of the ocean. Another wrote back on slightly singed paper, that she was experimenting with a new type of magic her master was developing. All of these letters describing fantastical magic kept Kris quite literally spellbound when he read them. But Kris would not dare write back. Two weeks in, how could he possibly say he was just on some mundane street corner in Buffalo, New York?
It was a chilly midday on the corner of Main and 23rd street. A fat man yawned. A foot taller than Kris, he was holding a grocery bag full of chips from the nearby bodega and loomed over Kris. Kris tried his best to keep his smile. He made a few missteps during his performance, and it was clear the man wanted to just leave but all that was left was the big reveal. A blue stripe backed deck of cards in hand, Kris remembered all the steps he practiced for hours on end. He flicked his wrist, bringing the card from the back of his hand to give the illusion of an appearance out of thin air. He lifted the hopefully correct card, the king of hearts, up towards to the man. “Now is this your card?” he tried to say but his voice cracked as he squeaked out the word, card.
The man looked unimpressed. “Yep,” he said and quickly went to leave. But Kris rushed to pick up in front of him the blue pinstripe trilby hat and grabbed the fat man’s arm. “If you enjoyed the show, it would mean a lot if you—”
The fat man shook him off his arm. It jiggled like a plate of jello. “Kid, I sat through your entire magic show! What more do you want from me!” he yelled before shoving Kris’s hand off and briskly walking away.
Kris thought about lighting his bag a tiny bit on fire, but he just breathed a heavy sigh. He glanced down at the hat in his hand, quickly counting the money he had. Altogether he spent five hours out in the cold, with only a disappointing three dollars and some change to show for it. Not just that, but half a week was spent practicing the trick, getting it to a level Faramouche would approve of. Kris got incredibly frustrated. In the end what was this all for?
His master had him doing card tricks when he should be in some mystical ethereal plane or deciphering mystical tomes or something with dragons! Dragons exist and yet for some inexplicable reason, Kris was here. He had enough.
Kris felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder. “At this rate, we’re never going to have enough for the bus,” Kris turned around to see his bright blue-pinstripe suit wearing master, the great Faramouche, the self-titled greatest magician of the world.
But Kris didn’t bother greeting him. Kris hated how well a tall man dressed like Frank Sinatra could sneak up on someone. “Where have you been?” Kris asked, his anger causing his voice to crack again.
Faramouche raised his hands in mock defense. “Calm down there tiger,” Faramouche pinched the money out of the hat, leaving the question unanswered. “There seems to be enough for one bus ticket to the Holiday Inn,” he put the money into his suit pocket. “So I guess I’ll be heading over now by myself,” Faramouche joked.
There may have been a point where he would have cracked a polite smile out of respect, but Kris frowned. Things had to change. He threw the hat onto the ground.“I’m sick of standing out here in the cold, looking like a clueless idiot!” he yelled.
Faramouche bent down and picked his hat off the ground. “I think the correct term would be a magician’s apprentice,” he dusted off his trilby and positioned it slightly off-kilter on his head. ”My apprentice to be exact,” he snapped back with a smirk on his face.
Kris threw his arms up. “Maybe if you were an actual magician! But all we’ve been doing is traveling state to state performing tricks! I’m tired of holding your jacket and hat while you perform. I’m tired of these card tricks. And I’m tired of not learning actual magic,” he screamed.
Faramouche just calmly shrugged. “All in good time, young grasshopper,” he said much to the chagrin of Kris.
“I’m beginning to think that you don’t actually know magic,” Kris challenged.
Faramouche responded by reaching over to Kris’s ear and pulling a quarter. He grinned a toothy smile. “This is magic.”
“Ugh!” groaned Kris.
“Maybe we should go over the lesson again. Now Kris,” Faramouche made a pensive face, “what is the building block of a good trick?”
“Misdirection,” Kris said exasperatedly. This had been drilled into him for hours. He was tired of Faramouche playing games with him. “At least tell me why you’ve been gone for the last five hours!” Kris yelled, hoping for any kind of clear answer from Faramouche.
Faramouche smiled slyly, a smile Kris knew meant unneeded melodrama. Unbuttoning his jacket, he grabbed the right corner. “Are you prepared? Are you ready for it? Can you handle it?” Faramouche put on a skeptical face and raised an eyebrow.
Kris didn’t answer. He just wanted Faramouche to finally get to the point. Whipping the right side out, Faramouche showed the silk inside. His hand went to the pocket, and slowly he began to draw it out.
Without noticing, Kris was leaning in to get a closer look. With a flourish, Faramouche revealed what seemed to be another playing card.
“Really?” Kris said in disbelief. “You left me alone for five hours for a playing card!”
Annoyingly Faramouche shoved his other hand in front of Kris. “No, no, no, my dear apprentice,” Faramouche waved his pointer finger back and forth. “Like with all magic, things are not as they seem. This so-called playing card is a result of a four-year-long search. High and low I looked, searching every nook and cranny of the dirty magic underworld.”
Throughout his apprenticeship, Kris realized more and more Faramouche’s habit for theatrical monologuing. And how much he disliked it. He was about to make the point that this was Buffalo. What magic underworld? But this was the first time, he seemed to be talking about magic. So despite wanting to, Kris wasn’t going to interrupt.
“Yes. Yes. It has been a truly harrowing quest of the highest difficulty. But now, finally, here it is!” Faramouche raised the card up into the air in triumph.
Kris couldn’t help but get curious. He looked up at the card when a question suddenly hit him. “But what does it do?” he asked.
And then the usually quick-mouthed Faramouche faltered. His arm lowered and he quickly reinserted the card back into his jacket pocket. “Sorry. Uh, trade secret,” he said.
“What! But aren’t I your apprentice?” Kris said.
Faramouche buttoned his jacket. “Look kid. It’d be too dangerous to tell you. You just aren’t ready to know,” he explained.
Kris couldn’t accept that as an answer. He spent countless days in the library at the Academy. “Then when am I going to be ready? How much longer do I have to do this?”
Faramouche frowned. Kris could tell Faramouche had enough of the questions. “However long I tell you, Kris,” Faramouche stated. “You’ve just got trust me on this, okay?”
“How can I trust you, when you don’t tell me anything! All the other students from the Academy have gotten to actually use magic. I’m falling behind!” he ranted. This apprenticeship was supposed to make him a better wizard, but how is that possible when he doesn’t get taught any real magic.
Faramouche massaged his temples. “You’ve got to get over your preconceptions and look deeper, Kris. Magic isn’t just what you think it is,” he muttered. “I don’t know what else to tell you. Just trust me,” he repeated.
Kris couldn’t look at him. Kris kept his head pointed towards the ground. He told himself that all of the magic tricks, was a test for his perseverance and eventually Faramouche would teach him magic. At the beginning, he knew not to expect an easy apprenticeship. Faramouche hadn’t given an apprentice a pass in the last ten years. Forcing enough students to repeat a year, he was avoided like a plague, with the last few years having no Academy students apprenticing under him. Until Kris came.
Kris could have chosen anybody else; he was a top Academy student. But Kris chose Faramouche because he wanted the hardest challenge to better his magic. He could not have anticipated the reason for other student’s failures. Since he began his apprenticeship, Kris had yet to learn or even see the self-proclaimed great Faramouche perform any actual magic. Kris wanted to quit, to leave Faramouche, but repeating a year was not an option. It would be a black mark on his record if he quit, or worse got expelled from Faramouche’s tutelage.
For two weeks, he did his best to tough it out, but now Kris was tired of being left in the dark. Five hours, he left Kris alone, and he wouldn’t even explain the single card. He saw the cards in his hand. It was the same as the rest of these. Then an idea came to him. Kris decided if Faramouche wasn’t going to tell him anything, he’d just figure the secret of the card out himself.
Faramouche patted his shoulder. “Buck up, Kris. This is about to be prime time. You’ll be done in a few more hours.”
Kris angrily shoved the deck at Faramouche, hard enough Kris hoped he wouldn’t notice Kris pinching the card from his jacket. He palmed it like he practiced, the way Faramouche taught him, and quickly pushed both his hands into his pockets.
Faramouche, clutching a messy pile of cards, just shook his head. “Alright. I see how things are going right now,” he said. Kris worried he might have noticed. “You’re taking a break,” Faramouche said sternly. “I’ll get us the rest of the money.”
Kris felt relief wash over him. “But we will be finishing this lesson up later,” Faramouche placed his hat back on the ground.
Kris, convinced he didn’t notice, had to leave to finally figure out what the card was. “I’m going to the restroom,” his voice cracked slightly.
Faramouche was shuffling the cards back into a stack. “Fine,” he said reluctantly.
Kris turned and walked across the street towards the bodega. There he could be alone to study the card, and afterwards he’d slip it right back into Faramouche’s jacket. He was at the door of the bodega now.
“Kris!” Over his shoulder, he heard Faramouche yell after him. Kris glanced behind him. His master was sprinting towards him, his suit sleeves and pant legs billowing. He noticed faster than Kris hoped.
With a ding, Kris pulled open the door to the bodega. “Where’s the bathroom?” he asked.
“In the back,” the clerk said.
It was a small store, aisles with barely enough room to walk through. As fast as he could, Kris bumped his way through and found the only bathroom. He ran in and was hit with an indescribable stench. It was horrendously dirty, not a clean tile on the floor. He was surprised the mirror could even hold a reflection with all the grime on it. Like an afterthought, the toilet was squeezed into the corner of the small box of a room. Kris didn’t want to stay, but he closed and locked the door behind him. Faramouche would reach the bodega soon. Kris quickly piled on incantations onto the door that would keep it locked. They weren’t impenetrable, but it would take at least 5 minutes to dispel all of them, if Faramouche could even use magic.
Catching his breath, Kris took the card out from his pocket and brought it up to his face. The back was an average blue pattern of a playing card. Kris flipped it over. The front, rather than a suit of a card, had intricate swirling symbols engraved on paper which had a strange shine. Kris recognized them as magical runes, but he couldn’t read them at all. It was unlike anything he had studied at the Academy. Kris wanted to learn about new and strange things like this. That Faramouche would hide this from his own apprentice, made Kris ball his other hand into a fist.
He still couldn’t tell the purpose of the card. But touching the intricate rune design, he could sense a switch he could press on if he just fed a little magic in. But what happened after, he could only guess.
“Ding,” it was the sound of the bodega door.
“Where’s the bathroom?” it was Faramouche’s voice. When the clerk told Faramouche, Kris heard the sound of rushed steps and the bumping into of store aisles. The doorknob jiggled up and down from Faramouche trying to get in. There was a quick succession of raps onto the door. “Kris, give me the card back!” he yelled.
But Kris didn’t answer and continued studying the card. The runes tingled to the touch. Just some magic and they would activate. Easy enough.
Faramouche was banging on the door now. The doorknob shook violently. “Open the door, Kris! You have to give me the card back!” Kris looked to see if there was a window to climb out of, but there was nothing. Kris was trapped in the bathroom.
He stared at the reflection of himself in the grimy mirror. Kris was apprehensive about what to do next. Never had he disobeyed a teacher before, and Faramouche seemed incredibly mad. But he had gotten this far. If he gave the card back now, Faramouche would never tell him what it was. If somehow he didn’t get expelled from his apprenticeship, there were still only more pointless card tricks on street corners, trying to make money for the next bus waiting for him. He looked at the card. It was so thin. Add magic and then the runes would activate. What could the harm even be? In the end, Faramouche would eventually unlock the door. This was the only opportunity to figure something out.
There’s more banging on the door. “Kris, dispel the enchantments and open the door! I’m going to make it in sooner or later!” he screamed.
But Kris ignored it. He focused and stared hard at the swirling rune pattern. He willed magic to flow from his fingertips, and it leaped into the card’s runes. He felt it energize the card which began to project a rainbow light spectrum. But then nothing else. For a moment Kris got disappointed that perhaps it was just a Faramouche designed spectacle.
Suddenly through his finger, he felt a rebound of magic rush back into him. The power of it paralyzed him. It was the most magical power he had ever felt. But it was too much. Soon it filled his entire body. His insides burned while it coursed through him. “Ahh!” he screamed in pain. The mirror shattered in front of him, and Kris could feel the cracking of tile under his feet.
“Kris!” Faramouche yelled.
He tried to scream for help, but it was too much. He felt like he was bursting at the seams. Unable to move, all he could do was scream. Beams of dazzling lights flashed through his vision, but from the corner of his eye, he saw the door lock turn. Faramouche must have finished dispelling it.
Faramouch burst into the bathroom. His suit was ruffled, his face distressed, and strands of hair were falling out of his hat. He was more unkempt than Kris had ever seen him. He tried to grab the card from Kris’s hand but his arm got pushed back when he touched it. “Ah!” Faramouche shook his hand in pain. “Hold on Kris,” Faramouche looked into Kris’s eyes and tried to assure him, but the pain was excruciating for Kris. Faramouche pulled the deck of cards out of his pocket and threw them up. Instead of falling, the cards were suspended in midair and began to slowly rotate around Kris. Arcs of light shot from Kris’s body, and he felt magic being siphoned from him. Still, it wasn’t enough. The magic continuously flooded into him. His senses were being overwhelmed.
“Kris, listen to me,” Faramouche tried to explain. The card! It’s misdirection! You have to look…” Faramouche’s voice faded to nothing, despite the movement of his mouth. Kris’s couldn’t hear anything, not even his own screaming. Faramouche looked on helpless, just mouthing out directions Kris couldn’t hear before even Kris’s vision became a dizzying kaleidoscope of incoherent colors.
Kris didn’t know what to do. He felt a terrible numbness in his hands, burned out from pure magic. Kris tried his best to remember the long hours learning the card trick.
What was misdirection? Days earlier Faramouche was teaching him, and Kris wished he paid more attention then “It’s all about misdirection, Kris,” Faramouche said. “This is the building block of all good magic. Manipulating someone’s attention, while the real secret is hidden right in front of them.”
Kris struggled to understand how it applied. He racked his brain for a solution, while his body was burning and a sickening numbness in his hands began to spread. He could only feel the magic coursing through his hands from the runes.
Then he remembered the back. It was the same average back as any other playing card. But why would it be? Why isn’t the same rune pattern on the back? The intricate details on the front were the misdirection. It had to be the real secret. If not, then Kris didn’t know what else to do.
Kris mustered his last sense of control, willing magic to leave his hand towards the card back. But the magic fought him. He was swimming against the current. He fought to inch it forward until it was on the cusp of leaving his hand. Kris could sense hidden runes on the card back. He was right. He just needed to bridge the connection. But the numbness was overtaking him, the cycle of colors flashed faster and faster, and he could feel himself about to faint.
But when his mind began to slip he remembered. “Look deeper,” his master had said. With a last push, he exerted as much magic he could. A small spark exited his hand, and the card back emitted a brief glow. Then like a close of a door, the flood of magic stopped. His hand relaxed and the card fell, fluttering harmless, towards the ground. Kris, finally able to see, saw his master Faramouche, sweat beading on his forehead, quickly grab the card and threw it back into his jacket. The rest of the cards stopped their orbit and flew into Faramouche’s pant pocket.
Kris was short of breath. He could barely stand up. Before he knew it, he was tipping over.
“Kris!” he yelled out. Faramouche grabbed his arm and caught him. “Don’t worry. I’ve got you, kid,” Faramouche said before Kris shut his eyes and slipped into a stupor.
When Kris next opened his eyes, it was to the sight and smell of a green bus pulling up. He was laying on the not very soft cushion of the bus stop, the blue pinstripe jacket laid over him. He carefully bent and stretched his fingers, testing his magic. His weren’t numb anymore, just sore. Performing actual magic he’d have to hold back on for now, but other than fatigue, he felt somewhat alright. Getting up, he sluggishly looked around for Faramouche.
“Now is this your card, sir?” Kris heard behind him. He turned to look. A small crowd had gathered around Faramouche. Kris slowly walked over.
“Are you completely sure this is not your card?” Faramouche continued. Everyone laughed.
“Yes,” a man said.
“My god that is strange,” Faramouche feigned confusion. He noticed Kris and gave him a slight nod. Kris joined the crowd, apprehensively waiting for the end of the show. There was no way Faramouche was letting him get away with stealing the card.
“Perhaps the young lady to your right would happen to know?” Faramouche pointed to an elderly woman who blushed at his comment. “Young miss, could you please open your purse?” she grinned and opened it.
“Oh my god!” she squealed. She pulled the card, the king of hearts, out and the crowd cheered.
“Now is that your card?” Faramouche boomed, with the answer, of course, being yes, before giving a deep bow. “Today’s show is over! You were a great audience!”
After the crowd dispersed, either leaving or getting on buses, Kris walked up to Faramouche. He handed him his jacket back.
“How you feeling?” Faramouche asked, in an uncharacteristically soft tone.
“Fine. Just tired,” Kris sheepishly said. “How long have I been asleep?”
“A good two hours, kid,” he chuckled. “Check the hat,” he pointed down at the hat. It was filled to the brim with cash.
Kris smiled. It didn’t seem like Faramouche was mad. “Enough for two tickets, huh?” Kris joked.
But Faramouche didn’t smile back. “I, uh, don’t think you should come with me anymore.”
Kris was disappointed. He thought he might have escaped the consequences of his theft. “Is this, is this a punishment?” Kris stammered, assuming the answer to be yes.
“No, it’s not,” Faramouche said much to the surprise of Kris. “That amount of magic coursing through you, Kris, it could have fried your ability to do magic. Or worse, you could have died.”
“But I’m fine!” Kris raised his arms and then winced in pain.
“I’m your master, Kris. You are my apprentice, my responsibility. And I think you’d agree, that I haven’t been the best master. Frankly, I never have been good at this kind of thing. I think it’d better if you went back to the Academy to request a switch in master. There’s enough money in the hat to get you back uptown, back to a portal that can get you to the Academy. You have my approval for the switch. Don’t worry. Your records are going to be clean, and you won’t have to repeat a year,” Faramouche smiled, but his eyes looked sad. Kris was too shocked to say anything. “Compared to most of my other apprentices you’ve actually lasted a helluva lot longer. Course, then again most of them also don’t try and steal stuff from me,” Faramouche awkwardly chuckled.
Kris stared at him in disbelief. There was a time where Kris had wished for such an easy way out, to escape the teachings of Faramouche. But not now. Despite almost dying, Kris felt like he finally uncovered something new, something magical.
Faramouche took Kris’s hand. “Something to remember me by. You’re going to do great things, kid,” he placed the deck into Kris’s palm. “Goodbye Kris,” he patted his shoulder and walked away.
Kris watched in silence as he gets on the bus. He looked at the cards in his hand. For hours, he practiced with these cards, doing the same thing over and over again. Shuffling, palming the card, hiding it behind his hand, and then with a flick of a wrist making it appear. No matter how alien or difficult it was, Kris practiced till his fingers hurt. Because Kris wanted to be a great magician.
So Kris began shuffling the deck. Selecting a single card, he displayed it to an imagined audience. In one smooth fluid motion, he gripped the card’s edges with his pinky and pointer finger, curling the card slightly. And sliding it behind his palm, the card vanished. The trick was obvious once you knew the secret.
With a snap and a flick of his wrist, the card was back. Taking the deck of cards and the blue pin-stripe hat, Kris walked onto the same bus Faramouche did.
By Matthew Viriyapah