To swallow an axe, you must have control of the larynx, that swinging door between out and in. The magician, my boss, has swallowed daggers and swords. Thin blades slip easily past his heart, his spleen. If you know what you’re doing, he tells me, it’s nothing. He is tall, spindly, and moves like a praying mantis through the office, running a thumb through the dust on my monitor. He tells me he wants to do something new, something grand. He tells me to overnight an axe to his house in Marin, and though it takes me forty-five minutes, I find one online with no synthetic materials, just iron, from the earth, as he’s requested. But it is almost five on the east coast, so I call a number, and a woman with a small voice answers.
“What’s it for?” she asks. I’m worried she’s filling out paperwork, that my voice is being recorded or transcribed or on speakerphone, so I tell her it’s for a tree.
“It’s diseased,” I say.
She tells me she’ll walk the axe down to FedEx herself. She tells me to be careful, to check my other trees, to tell my neighbors. Her husband is an arborist, so if anyone knows, she does.
Disease, she tells me, spreads.
The next day the magician and I drive out of the city and up Grizzly Peak, the skyline filled with eucalyptus and pine. Near a path covered in crescent-shaped leaves, I spend an hour burying plastic figurines according to a map the magician has drawn. They are small and golden — innocuous things like a teddy bear, a pair of skis, a moon.
After I’ve dusted myself off and he is sure that everyone who has seen me bury the trinkets is gone, he tells me it’s time to find our subject.
“Turn the camera on,” he says. He is wearing pinstripes and velvet and in the low, orange sun his white hair seems to catch fire.
Most passersby refuse to stop. Two men raise their fists. One woman screams and swerves off the path. The magician strokes his long goatee as I zoom in on his eyes, red-rimmed and the kind of light blue that would have been invisible on film one hundred years ago.
Eventually, a young woman in aviators slows. She has a beer can in a paper bag; there is a silhouetted moose on her t-shirt. She sways as she walks. Her name is Michelle.
The magician asks Michelle if she has a minute to star in a short film. His voice is old-timey, like a character from The Wizard of Oz. When Michelle looks like she might keep walking, he adds, “I have half a million subscribers.”
This is the right number. Michelle stops.
“Just a card trick,” the magician says. “Pick a card, and sign it.”
Michelle scrawls an M that covers most of the queen’s face. The magician asks her if she is on her way to a game. No, she is on her way to her mom’s — it is her little sister’s birthday.
“Probably shouldn’t drink any more of that, then,” the magician says, and he tells Michelle to pour out her beer, which, after a second of hesitation, Michelle does, until something rattles inside the empty can. It is the card, of course, but only half.
“Kneel here,” the magician says, pointing to a patch of moss beneath a tree. Michelle and the magician get on their knees.
“Do you feel it?” the magician asks, his hand on the earth. “Do you feel it? Like a beat?”
Michelle puts her hands on the ground.
“Dig,” the magician says. It doesn’t take long. Michelle pulls the other half of the card out of the mud.
“Dig deeper,” the magician says. Michelle uses both hands.
“I feel something,” she says. It is one of the golden trinkets I buried earlier, a ballet slipper — just like, Michelle says, the ones in which she buried her sister.
Michelle stands slack-jawed for a minute, staring at the dirty gold slipper in the palm of her hand. Her eyes are blank, like a child watching a screen, like something is slowly being broken inside, and then she shakes her head and lets out a strangled yelp.
On the drive back to the office, the magician rests his forehead against the glass. There is a depression that follows these tricks, his old assistant wrote in the instruction manual she gave me on her last day. It’s your job to be present with him, to pull him out when he can’t do it himself.
“How did you know about her sister?” I ask. I have worked for him for nine months, and I can now recognize the twisting of the subjects’ faces, the pain. But I don’t know how he’s able to name it, how he turns that feeling into a symbol so small and cheap. That’s the magician’s specialty. Reducing memory to something that can fit into your hand.
“It’s not enough,” is all he tells me, as the bright city lights streak the glass, his face, like a carnival. He tells me to cut the footage and upload it tonight.
To swallow the axe, the magician needs the ability to unhinge his jaw. It’s a simple outpatient surgery and he knows a plastic surgeon who accepts cash. I wait in the waiting room and three hours later, the magician comes out with a bandage around his head. His eyes, normally lined with black coal, look fragile and old.
The surgeon, a tall and muscular woman, hands me an orange pill bottle. “Have him take two of these every four hours,” she says. “Someone should stay with him tonight.”
“He lives alone,” I say.
“You’re his assistant,” she says, “figure it out.”
There may come a time, his old assistant wrote, when you think to yourself, why am I doing this? It’s only natural. But it is best not to indulge such questions.
Before we leave, the magician shakes the surgeon’s hand and then moves to push her hair behind her ear. The surgeon pulls away, and the magician nearly misses, but his fingers are like wires, and when he moves his hand back, there is a card with something written on it.
“My mother’s name,” the surgeon says, gutted in the way the magician craves.
When I was five, my mom and I drove through the night to Las Vegas. She didn’t tell me why we had to go at night, why my dad couldn’t come, why we had to whisper, only that we were going to see the brightest city in the world. I can still remember how it looked in the desert night. A crown, just for us.
We checked into a motel and spent the entire night awake. My mother’s hair was curly then, and I remember her wearing a tight black dress with teal sleeves — a dress, I told her, I wanted to wear at my wedding. I loved all of it. The dancing water, the loud waterfall of coins, the dirty ground that sparkled, the waitresses in their short skirts and dark lips, always smiling, running their hands through my hair, sneaking me sweet red cherries, laughing with my mother, who almost never laughed at home.
“Let’s live here forever,” I told her before falling asleep, by which I meant, let me live forever in the show, forever in the fantasy, the magic.
The magician can’t talk through the bandages with his newly unhinged jaw, so he scrawls on the back of a receipt. Not home, he writes. Downtown. I have his pinstriped pants and white shirt in the back of the car.
When we get to his favorite bar, I help him out, pull the sweater off his head, get his top hat. He groans. His body is concave, like a canoe, and covered in white, wiry hair. I button all the little clear buttons. He points to his eyes, and I pull his kohl eyeliner from the glove compartment. He looks more alive once he has it on.
“Time for pills,” I say.
He shakes his head. Time for shots, he writes. Bring the camera.
We walk into a dark, industrial space with concrete walls and rebar poking elegantly into the room. Naked bulbs are strung over the bar. It makes me feel romantic, in the way that only old, broken things can. The bartender is wearing a Victorian dress with frills around her neck. Her hair is dyed lavender. She knows us. Her name is Red. She puts two shots of vodka down and starts a vodka tonic for the magician. The tonic nozzle sprays unevenly into the glass. He takes both shots, but with his jaw the way it is, most ends up on his shirt. I poke the straw for the vodka tonic into his mouth; he drinks it in one long sip, and signals for another. Red takes the glass and dumps the ice along a metal grate, then stills.
“Very funny,” she says. She tosses a gold trinket onto the counter, a little deer with long antlers. She pours another drink and says she’ll be back, that she needs a cigarette break. The magician won’t be ready until at least one more drink, so I bring out my own pack and find Red in the alley, leaning against the red brick wall.
“What’s with the deer?” I ask.
Red rolls her eyes. “He’s an asshole,” she says. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“I need the money,” I say, and then, after a few quiet seconds, “How do you think he does it?” I don’t mean the sleight of hand — I mean the memories, the secrets. How he extracts them.
She looks at me as if I’ve slapped her. “Like I said,” she says, blowing smoke between us, “he’s an asshole.”
We weren’t in Vegas for long before my dad showed up in the hotel room, told me to wait in the car. I remember the color of his face, how red it was, how it seemed to be keeping something hot and dangerous inside it. I tried to catch my mom’s eyes before I left, tried to remind her of what we were building here, of the magic we’d found. I wanted her to fight him, to tell him to leave, to tell him we were happy here. But she got in the car with my dad maybe twenty minutes later and shut her eyes so I couldn’t see them.
When I get back, the magician is seated on a purple velvet settee, surrounded by a bachelorette party. The women wear jeweled tiaras to identify their rank — the bride’s is biggest; it sits slightly lopsided on her head. Behind them, the rebar looks like metallic snakes. The magician signals to me, and I pull the camera from my bag. The women are squealing, huddling against one another. It’s nothing but cards at this point, but the women are enthralled. They cling to each other, as if for warmth.
I introduce myself, give a mechanical description of the magician’s work and following. “Would you mind if I film this?” I ask. “He has half a million subscribers.” The women straighten their backs and lick their teeth. “You’re all so beautiful,” I add.
Two of them run fingers into their hair. The bride waves a long wand of gloss onto her lips. I press record.
The magician writes instructions on bar napkins and hands them to the bride. She becomes his proxy. “He wants each of us to draw a piece of fruit on a napkin,” she says, “and make sure no one sees it.”
The girls obey, laughing and making exaggerated motions to hide their fruits from one another. Next, the magician motions to me, and I relay the rest of the script. I tell them to sit in a circle, to place their drawings on their chests.
“Place your right hand on the chest of the woman sitting next to you,” I say, “Help her hold her drawing. Concentrate on her heartbeat.” The magician raises his fingers — one, two, three — and then claps, moving his hands down to his lap. The girls mimic him. On their chests are identical crude fruit drawings of a banana, not their own, not the fruit they themselves have drawn, but the one which the bride has drawn. They roll with laughter and giddy fear at the realization. They press their chests out to me and the camera. They scream.
The magician brings his finger to his mouth, and the girls become silent. He writes something and places the napkin in the bride’s hands.
“He wants me to pull a card from the deck,” she says, “and write my name on it.”
After the bride is finished, the magician places the card back into the deck, and then signals to Red behind the bar. He holds up a napkin with champagne written on it in all caps. Red comes with a bucket of ice, a bottle, and a tray of glasses. She moves to pop the cork, and the magician wags his finger. He has the bride do it. You last, the magician writes.
Once the bride has poured a glass for everyone, she tries to pour her own, but nothing comes out. She pulls a wadded card out of the neck of the bottle and unfolds it. There, of course, is her name. She finishes the pour, and a gold trinket falls into the flute. Even from far away, I can tell that it is a baby. It floats to the surface, covered in a cloud of foam.
The bride fishes the child out, and her maids look at her, confused, and when she does not react, one of them shouts, “You’re pregnant!” and the girls squeal. The bride remains silent as she shakes her head, no, no, no, but the girls don’t seem to notice she’s crying.
My dad brought us back to the life where my mother rarely laughed. We never talked about Vegas, and sometimes I thought I’d made the whole thing up. There were times I wanted to force my mother to confess. Times I wanted to scream at her. Times I fantasized about ghosting her until she was so angry, she’d explode, and the thing she was hiding from me — whatever it was that drove us away from our home; whatever she thought was so awful that it would ruin me if we stayed; whatever made her return, give up on herself, on me — would pop out of her mouth like a little trinket I could read.
I drive the magician to his home in Marin, turn onto the gravel driveway that leads to his house. His French bulldogs are at the gate, barking and kicking little pebbles onto the walkway. I park the car and he is slow to get out, emerging like a man on stilts. He cradles his top hat like a child in his arms. The bulldogs sniff at our feet, and the magician extends one of his hands for the dogs to lick, which they do, eagerly, their eyes wild with greed for him.
The axe is waiting on the porch in a box as tall as me. I unlock the door and the magician walks inside and collapses on a chaise. I pull the box over the threshold and cut it open with a kitchen knife. The axe is in a solid plastic case, like a gun.
When he was learning how to swallow a sword for the first time, the magician sliced a chunk out of the inside of his esophagus. It was just the two of us in the office, his old assistant wrote. She sat in the receptionist chair as he began to cough blood. Little droplets landed on the back of her hands.
Now, I unlatch the case. It is lined in purple velvet. The axe is unassuming. Matte finish, wooden handle.
The magician scribbles vodka tonic on a notepad, his handwriting drooping. The limes in the fridge are covered in mold, but I cut around the fuzz, find a straw. He swirls the ice and pushes the green wedge against the glass. When his glass is empty, I bring him the axe, and his face brightens. He picks it up and runs his thumb against the sharp edge.
On the pad he writes, Not for me. For you. He points to the sliding glass door that leads to the backyard.
I’m not sure what he means, at first, and I almost protest. But then I realize what he’s doing, what he’s pulling from me. And I won’t be like the others. I won’t cry. I take the axe outside and in the middle of his manicured lawn, next to the fire pit, on a wooden stump, is a snow globe, and I know before getting close enough to see the miniature city inside that it’s Las Vegas, that among the bright lights and dirty streets are trinkets meant to be me, meant to be my mom, and I don’t know how he’s done it because it doesn’t matter, he’s pulled it from me, and left it, like an offering, like a spell I can break.
I could just drop it. It would easily shatter. But I can feel the weight of the axe in my hand.
To swallow an axe, you must have control of the larynx, that swinging door between out and in, but to yield an axe is to break the door, to shatter it as if it never existed.
I bring it above my head and down on that little city, my mom, myself. But when I approach the broken glass, looking for the decimated trinkets, there is no city, no mom, no self. Just a plastic golden man. His features so plain they’re nearly invisible.
Image credit: InSapphoWeTrust