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The Magician's Lie

Chapter One 

Waterloo, Iowa 
July 23, 1905 
Six o’clock in the evening
Tonight, I will do the impossible. 
The impossible is nothing new to me. As I do every night, I will make people believe things that aren’t true. I will show them worlds that never existed, events that never happened. I will weave a web of beautiful illusion to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world. 
Before that, now, I will gather my strength. I will remain motionless, barely even breathing, here in this chair, while prepara¬tions happen around me, to me. I feel the feathery touch of brushes on my cheeks, on my chin, as my face is made up for the stage. I feel a heavy thumb press down on my eyelid.
Another hand lightly, lightly edges it with kohl. Fingers twist and pin my hair into place, snap a heavy gilded bracelet onto my wrist. It’s not possible to ignore the hands, but I focus on not reacting to them, on not reacting to anything. 
I go through the act inside my head, rehearsing my patter and my gestures, seeing the whole night unfold. I welcome the crowd and take charge of the theater. I produce hats from nothingness. I transport coins through the air with a snap of my fingers, turn¬ing gold into nothing into gold again. The details of each scenebloom and dive and swarm through my head as I picture the evening from first curtain to final bow, here in the chair, silent and still. Without giving any outward sign, I dance on the inside, hearing every trilling and tender note of the music, practicing every elegant step.
When it’s time, I rise on command and step into the dress held out for me, bowing my head. The dress is always last. This is how we proceed every night, and at least in this way, tonight is the same as every other. The hands close up the back of the dress, waist to neck, and then turn me around to pass three tiny buttons through three tiny loops, covering my throat, and my costume is complete.
Onstage I will act as I always act. I will do many impossible things. I will make mysteries of scarves and coins, enchant the audience sweetly, misdirect their attention to take them by surprise. I will entertain and flatter. Then I will close the show, as I always do, with the Halved Man. I will cut a man in two, severing him through his trunk, and he will scream for mercy as the blood pours forth. The audience will be unable to believe what they see, but neither will they be able to reject it. It will look entirely real.
Then I will heal him. He will spring up whole again, wiping away the blood from an expanse of flawless skin, as if there had never been a wound. My healing powers are legendary, though no one really knows their true extent. They don’t know how I wish away my own injuries, the cuts and bruises, the burns, the broken bones. It isn’t part of my legend, but it’s part of my life.
I’m escorted to the stage, as I always am, another set of footfalls moving exactly in concert with mine.
This is the routine now, every night.
This is the life of the most famed female illusionist in the world, very nearly the only one in existence, the life I have made for myself through luck and talent and sheer will. This is the life I have decided to leave behind. This is the life I will end.
Tonight, I will escape my torturer, once and for all time.
Tonight, I will kill him.
Seven o’clock in the evening
The magician raises the ax high over her head, lets it hang there a moment, then brings it down in one broad stroke.
The sound of splintering wood rings through the theater. At the same time, there’s a scream. It sounds like an animal, but Holt knows it’s a man. It’s the man in the box, a box the woman onstage just drove an ax straight into. Blood gushes out over the sides of the box, pooling wetly on the floor. He almost vomits.
The blood’s got to be fake. This is an act, he reminds himself, all an act.
His friend Mose whispers, “Like I told you, right? Never seen anything like it!”
“Never,” agrees Officer Holt.
As latecomers, they’re standing all the way at the back, behind the seated crowd, and he looks over the heads of several hundred silent Iowans, holding their collective breath. Even from here, he has a clear view of the stage. Earlier in the magician’s act, there were elaborate sets, like a life-size replica of ancient Rome, with a dozen dancing slave girls and lute players galore. Now there is only the magician, and her ax, and a man’s head and feet protruding from the ends of a long box like a coffin on tall wheels, now half-split through the middle and seemingly soaked with blood.
She raises the ax and swings it down again, workmanlike, as if it were only wood she’s splitting. The man bellows once, twice more, and then falls silent.
The audience waits.
When the magician tosses away the ax, it clatters to the floor with a sharp report, but she doesn’t seem to hear it. She lays her bare hands on the splintered wood and slowly, slowly pushes the two halves of the broken, bloody box apart. She shoves half of the box offstage to the right, returns to the center, and shoves the other half offstage to the left.
Holt finds himself leaning forward, rapt.
At the edges of the stage, ribbons of black smoke rise in slow cur¬rents. The smoke swirls and grows, spreading in inky clouds towardstage center, until the magician—standing with her long, pale arms thrust into the air, waiting—is swallowed whole.
There is a noise like a thunderclap, and the black smoke turns white.
Another noise, and the smoke is gone altogether, along with the magician.
Then there are murmurs from the front of the theater. A distur¬bance in the audience, shifting motions, turning heads. Something’s happening in the front row. Holt can’t see what it is, trapped in the back with his roiling gut. He wants to surge forward. He burns to know how this all ends.
All at once, everywhere around him, applause breaks out, so loud it hurts his head. People gasp, whisper, cheer. The magician is on the stage again—how, when did she get there?—with her arms outstretched once more. The sight of her takes what’s left of his breath away. Her face floats like a moon above the high neckline of her sparkling black dress. One porcelain cheek is splashed with blood.
Then he sees what has amazed the audience. She welcomes to the stage the man from the box, whole again. The man grins and waves. Once broken, now healed, as if the horror and the blood of minutes before had never been.
It’s too much for Holt, and he turns tail, pushes open the back doors, stands panting in the lobby. He hears Mose follow him, not too close behind. He stares at the nearest unmoving thing to try to steady his head. It’s a poster for the magician, the Amazing Arden. She stares out proudly with one blue eye and one that’s half-blue, half-brown. Her body hovers above a halved coffin. Strange stuff. There are other words too blurred for him to read. The fault is probably not in the words.
Mose says, “Steady there, Virgil,” and claps him on the back.
“Not sure why you thought this would help,” Holt tells him dryly.
“Take your mind off your troubles.”
“Kind of you to try.”
“If magic won’t distract you, I know what will,” Mose says and leads him down the street to a tavern, half-empty, friendly, dark.
They drink and talk of innocuous things: whether the lack of rain is stunting this year’s corn, how little Janesville has changed in twenty years, how the taste of lousy gin seems to get better the more of it you drink. They don’t talk about Mose’s promotion, or their rivalry, or Iris, or Holt’s bad news. Holt asks politely about Prudie and the baby but is relieved when Mose only says that they’re well. Talking about their wives could open doors Holt doesn’t want opened tonight.
They are still there three hours later when the door of the tavern bangs open and someone calls, “Sheriff Huber!” While Mose leaps up to answer, Holt remains on his stool. He sits by himself and drinks yet more gin he should leave alone. Unlikely he’ll ever be sheriff. His hand creeps toward the small of his back from habit. He forces it back down.
When Mose calls to him, it takes a few long moments for him to hear and stir himself from his reverie.
“Holt! Up and out,” says Mose.
“It’s a police matter.” He points at Holt. “And you’re police.”
“Twenty miles down the road. Not here.”
“Doesn’t matter. You won’t be there in an official capacity. But you’re going to want to see this.”
Holt rises as best he can and follows.
A few hours’ time has transformed the theater and not for the better. The house lights have been turned all the way up, making visible the wear on the empty seat cushions, the stained and faded carpet. The voices of a small crowd near the stage carry all the way back as the two of them head up the center aisle.
Holt catches the metallic tang of blood on the air right away. The bile rises in his throat again, and he fights to keep it down. Pouring cheap gin on top of today’s news and tonight’s gore has hollowed him out like a rotten stump.
He keeps moving, forcing himself forward, even when he hears Mose frame the question, “All right, who found the body?”
“Stagehand,” says one of the men in uniform. There are several, standing in a tight circle in front of the stage, heads down, staring through an open trap door. Holt joins the circle and follows their gazes down. Underneath the stage, there are another half dozen officers, clustered around the remains of the Halved Man trick. Where there are more officers, there are more lamps, and the space under the stage is almost as bright as day. He can see clearly despite the distance and the drink.
The long, coffin-like box is split in half, nearly pulped in the center by the magician’s ax. The stains near the center are cherry-red, clearly fake stage blood, but the spreading pool of liquid around the base of the box is a darker red, somewhere between wine and rust. One half of the box is empty. A man’s dead body has been jammed into the other half. As he watches, two of the officers free the body from the box. When he sees what sorry shape the dead man is in, he stops watching.
Mose calls gruffly to one of the officers onstage. “And they’re sure who it is?”
“Confirmation from these two,” says the officer, indicating a pair of trembling girls off to the side. They clutch each other’s sleeves and wipe their eyes over and over again. “Tell them what you told me.” But the girls are unable to string a sentence together, and at last the officer says, “It’s her husband.”
“Whose husband?” asks Holt, thinking he means one of the girls.
“The magician’s.”
Mose says, “So where’s the magician?”
“Nobody knows.”
“Obviously, we’d like to talk to her.”
Her trick, her husband, almost certainly her doing. Of course she’s wanted for questioning. Holt pictures that ax falling again, the matter-of-fact way she brought it down, without hesitation. The image is so clear in his head that he thinks he feels the blade.
He should go home. He didn’t sleep last night, just lay in his bed in a panic, and it’s starting to catch up with him.
He taps his friend on the shoulder and says, “Listen, I’m going to get on the road.”
“Just let me—”
“No, you need to stay. Good luck, Sheriff Huber. I think you may need it.”
“Why don’t you stay the night?” Mose asks. “We’ve plenty of room.”
“No, thank you. Really need to get home. Iris’ll worry,” he says, all of which is true.
Outside in the warm night, the summer air does little to clear his head. He swings his leg over his horse and lowers himself into the saddle inch by inch, angry that he has to be careful about it. The alcohol has dulled the pain enough that he can almost forget it, but not quite. It still gnaws. He’s sore from the doctor’s poking and prodding, as if the wound itself weren’t bad enough. At least he can put this place and this day behind him now. He turns the horse’s head toward Janesville.
Fifteen miles down the road, still five miles from home, he slows at the crossroads. The night is silent and warm. For a moment, he pictures himself turning right. Continuing east toward Chicago and Ohio and New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, none of which he’s ever seen. Throwing caution to the wind and spurring the horse as fast as he can go, galloping across the open flat land till they’re both gasping. Hunger is what makes up his mind in the moment. The lighted window of a restaurant just before the bend, perched here for travelers at all hours, draws him. The road will be there afterward either way.
He ties his horse out front, goes inside, takes a seat. Late as it is, just past midnight, the only other customer is a gentleman in the corner with his head down on the table like he’s asleep. Reading the menu, Holt wipes his face with a handkerchief and feels the alcohol sweating out of his pores. He asks for coffee, but this time of night, they don’t have a pot ready, and the waitress disappears to put one on fresh. Every single thing on the bill of fare sounds delicious. Fried ham and creamed hominy, roly-poly pudding, and blueberry pie. He could hardly go wrong, whatever he chooses. As Iris says, hunger is the best sauce. He loses himself for a moment, thinking of her. She doesn’t yet know the news he heard today. He isn’t sure what to tell her. Or what to tell anyone. No doubt they’ll force him to resign, give up his position as the town’s only police officer. Who will he be then?
Would Iris still love a nobody, if that’s who he becomes?
The bell atop the doorframe jingles. He glances up from the menu for just a moment, and when he does, the whole world shifts.
In the doorway is a young woman in a long cloak, gripping a valise. Since he last saw her, she has wiped the fake blood from her cheek.
He wastes no time, standing from his chair and meeting her in the doorway, before she can step farther inside. He reaches for her elbow and says, “Ma’am?”
She seems much smaller now than she did onstage. She stares up at him with those odd, mismatched eyes. One blue eye, like a regular eye, the left one.The right one, half-brown, half-blue.Divided right down the middle, straight as a plumb line. Even if her sparkling black gown weren’t peeking out from under her cloak, which it is, the eyes would have given her away.
He says in a clear, firm voice, “I’m Officer Virgil Holt of the Janesville Police Department. I’m placing you under arrest, ma’am. On suspicion of murder.”
“Murder!” she exclaims, blinking, her hand flying to cover her lips.
“Don’t be alarmed, ma’am. Just come with me and we’ll discuss it,” he says, reaching for her elbow, which he almost manages to hold for a moment before she bolts.
They struggle in the doorway, and the bell jingles madly as he maneuvers her outside. As they jostle and his shoulder slams into the doorframe, the thought strikes him—he shouldn’t be doing this, it’s dangerous—and he relaxes his grip just a little.
She breaks free and runs as he stumbles, righting himself quickly, but not quickly enough to hold her. When he looks up, he sees her untying his horse and neatly balancing on the rail to hop up onto its back. He lets her. Because when he whistles for his horse, it brings her over to him, and he smoothly mounts up into the saddle behind her while she’s still figuring out whether to jump. The horse knows him well enough that he doesn’t even need the reins. He locks both arms around the magician.
“Don’t fight,” he says. “We both fall off and get trampled, that helps no one.”
She still struggles for a moment but seems too afraid of falling off the horse to put her whole self into it. She seems even smaller to him now. The top of her head is just under his chin, and her hair is twisted into ropes and knotted together. A clove hitch, like a hunter would use.
“I didn’t murder anyone,” she says, her voice hoarse and uncer¬tain. “Who’s murdered?”
He doesn’t answer. Back in the restaurant doorway, he can see a shadow. Either the waitress coming out to see what’s happened, or that other patron, if the noise woke him. Best to go before anyone sees. He can’t stay here and conduct an interrogation on the back of a horse. He needs to find out what she knows, what she did.
North then…or south? If she’s guilty, he should take her back to the theater in Waterloo immediately and hand her over. Mose is probably still there. But the horse, eager for his hay-bed, starts moving in the direction of Janesville, and Holt lets himself—lets both of them—be carried. He’ll sober up on the way. He can always bring her back. He’s an officer of the law and bound to do the right thing, except he’s not sure what the right thing is just now.
If she’s guilty, she’ll be the most famous criminal in the state in years. And he’ll be the one who brought her in. They won’t be able to force him out then, wounded or not. He needs all this to go his way. She could change everything.
Holt’s head is buzzing and clouded, but the horse knows the way home.
Janesville, Iowa
Half-past eleven o’clock in the evening
The station is a single room, not much more than a wooden box with a door on it. There’s a chair and a desk and a window. Only the gas lamp on the street outside to see by. He drops her into the plain wood chair like a heavy bag of feed, a solid dead weight. She sags forward. Her reddish hair, now escaped from its intricate knot, is a nest. He pulls away her cloak and valise and throws them near the door, which he locks, then grabs his uniform belt from the nearby hook and buckles it on in haste.
Wearing his gun helps clear his head a little. He turns back toward her and sees she isn’t moving. As he steps closer to examine her in the dim light, his foot slips on loose sequins. He loses his footing a moment, unsteady.
She is up out of the chair on her feet, a blur of motion. Instinct kicks in. He throws himself at her, arms around her knees, and brings them both crashing to the floor. Again he tells himself these exertions are dangerous. It’s exactly what the doctor said not to do. But the doctor couldn’t have foreseen this circumstance, and anyway, now he’s in it.
He hears the air go out of her lungs. He’s breathless too but recovers faster. A second chance. This time, he’ll do better. He hauls her body up onto the chair again, shoves her against its back, and secures her wrists to the chair with the pair of handcuffs from his belt.
Will it be enough?
Officer Holt goes to his desk, feeling his way in the dark and shoving his own chair out of the way, and retrieves four more pairs of handcuffs. He’d use more if he had them. He affixes all four pairs to her slim wrists, one after another after another, to total five. He loops the chains through the chair back’s straight wooden slats as he goes.
She’s breathing. He can see her shoulders rising and falling. Mose told him all about her on the way to the theater. That half-brown eye is believed to be the source of her power. She uses it to hypnotize the audience into swallowing her illusions. He should avoid looking into it, just to be safe.
Just as the last cuff clicks into place, her voice ragged, she says, “I am not an escape artist. Perhaps you’ve mistaken me.”
“I know what you are,” he tells the magician.
“You have the advantage of me then,” she replies.
“I told you, I’m a police officer.”
“And yet you wear no uniform and you smell like a wet dog drowned in gin.”
It stings that she’s right. Now that his hands are free, he lights the lamp. “I’m a police officer, and you’re a suspect in my custody.
Those are the facts.”
“Are they? And what am I suspected of?”
“As I told you when I arrested you, ma’am, you are suspected of murder.”
“Your husband’s.”
“Husband? Me? That’s a laugh.” And she does laugh, a short dry bark. But she shifts in her seat.
“Not a laugh. A fact. Your husband was murdered in Waterloo.”
“Clearly, we’re not in Waterloo anymore, are we? They have buildings. And electric lights.And a police force that isn’t made up of twelve-year-olds. Is that a mustache on your face or a pigeon feather?”
He opens his mouth to strike back and then shuts it again. He shouldn’t be in this situation, but he is, and he needs to make the most of it. Whether he finds her company unpleasant doesn’t matter. Whether she is a murderess is the only question. Once he has his answer, the right course will be clear.
“I’ll thank you not to insult me, ma’am,” he says and moves his hand a few inches, resting it on the butt of his gun.
Her eyes flick down and then up again, and he knows she gets his meaning.
“Please,” she says, in a softer voice. “No more ‘ma’am.’ Call me Arden.”
“Due respect again, m—” He swallows the end of the word. “Due respect, I’m certain that’s not your real name.”
“It’s the only name that matters, isn’t it? The one on the posters. The Amazing Arden, the Alluring Arden, the All-Powerful Arden. Depending on the poster, depending on the town. And what town is this?”
“It’s called Janesville,” he says.
“Not very big, is it?”
“Big enough.”
She says nothing for a few moments, and then her bravado seems to crumble all at once. “This is ludicrous,” she says, sounding half-strangled. “I don’t—I don’t even know—if it’s—I didn’t kill anyone, officer.”
He expects to find her looking up at his face, watching him, reading him. But she is only staring down at her boots.
“Ma’am?” says Officer Holt.
When she meets his eyes, he sees the wetness on her cheeks. She’s crying. Now that she’s still and silent and facing him, she doesn’t look like a powerful enchantress. She looks like an exhausted young woman in the grip of enormous sadness, helpless beyond words. It almost melts his heart. Almost.
He pulls the handkerchief from his pocket but immediately sees his mistake. He can’t offer it to her. With five pairs of handcuffs holding her wrists fast to the chair, she doesn’t have a hand free to take it.
“Just dab at my eyes, please,” she says and raises her face toward him. “The salt stings.”
He can’t help but notice, while wiping the tears from her cheeks, that her skin is smooth and lovely. There’s something childlike about her, though she’s certainly not a child. If he had to guess, he’d put her about halfway between twenty and thirty. A little older than he is, but not by much.
“Thank you. Now, due respect, Officer Holt,” she says, sound¬ing resigned. “Let me say this again. I am not an escape artist. I am an illusionist. I could conjure a dove from nothingness if you like. Or I could pour a glass of milk into a hat, which will later prove to be empty. That’s my business.”
“You know your business. I know mine.”
Her soft voice turning more insistent, she says, “Look, you’re a lawman. I understand. You think you need to do this. But you don’t. We can end this now. Let me go.”
“And why would I?”
“If you don’t, you’re killing me. Is that what you want? To be my executioner?” She stares up at him fiercely, and he wants to feel superior, looking down on her, but he doesn’t. It’s the eyes. The half-brown eye, to be specific. As if she can see him on the outside and the inside at the same time. He doesn’t want to be seen.
“It’s not up to me. You’ll get a trial.”
“The supposed witches of Salem got trials,” she says with obvi¬ous bitterness, “for all the good it did them.”
He unfolds and refolds his damp, streaked handkerchief. “I can promise you a fair shake.”
“Can you? Some think a trial with a judge and jury is justice, sure. Other people have a different idea of it. People who’d lock me up with vagrants and violators and let things take their natural course.”
He can hear the edge of desperation in her voice now but can’t tell whether she’s put it there on purpose. He answers firmly.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry; I have no choice.”
“We always have a choice. Sometimes it’s just the will we lack. And again with ‘ma’am’? You won’t call me Arden?”
“No.” He folds his arms and avoids her gaze. He stares out the room’s only window, as if she’s not even interesting enough to look at, which of course she is. All else aside, she’s a beautiful woman. But there is too much else to put aside.
Beyond the window, it is pitch-black. Darker than it should be.
The gas lamp must have gone out, and now nothing is visible. No grass, no streets, no trees, no town. Just black. They call this the dead of night for a reason.
“Officer,” she says at last, “could you at least do one small
thing for me? Could you unbutton my collar? I—it’s a little difficult to breathe.” 
It could be a trick, of course, but he wants her to trust him. So he reaches out for the buttons at her throat, taking care not to look her in the eye and keeping the hip with the gun on it on her far side, well out of reach. 
There are three tiny buttons on the high lace collar of her gown, and once all three are open, he can see the vulnerable hollow at the base of her throat. He can also see a deep bruise across the front of her neck, a spreading purple mess roughly an inch high and several inches across. He spreads the lace of the collar open with his fingers to get a closer look. The bruise is a single thick line running side to side, as if someone had tried to behead her with something blunt. It is more pink than blue, with no yellow or green at the edges. 
“Is this fresh?” he says. “It looks fresh.” 
“It doesn’t matter.” 
He takes out the handkerchief to dab lightly at her tears, which have started again. 
“It’s entirely your choice, officer,” she says. “To turn me in or let me go.” 
She’s right, of course. He has to make the decision. Capturing a notorious murderess would change everything for him, but at the same time, what if she’s innocent? The truth of what she’s saying can’t be denied. The law is perfect. The men in charge of executing it are not. 
“Tell me then,” he says. “Tell me what happened.” 
She does something he’s never seen her do. Not in the posters. Not onstage. And certainly not since he recognized and appre¬hended her in that restaurant. 
She smiles. 
The Amazing Arden looks at him out of her half-brown eye, tilts her head, and asks, “Where does a person’s story begin?”
Chapter Two
A Night’s Alteration 
Where does a person’s story begin? Mine starts with a hole in the middle, a hole where a father should have been. I must have had one, but the truth was that no one wanted to say out loud who he had been, if they even knew. I was raised in my grandparents’ house in Philadelphia. My name was Ada Bates. There was plenty of room and plenty of money, and I grew up straight and strong. 
In my earliest memories, I remember my mother as a cello. She and her instrument fused: a deep voice, a wasp waist. She wielded her bow fiercely, the notes soaring high and plunging low until the very windows trembled in their sills. I heard her at a distance, practicing at all hours, from down long hallways and behind closed doors. As she and my father were never married, she must have been in disgrace, but she never seemed to feel it. She was always cheerful as a songbird in those days. 
She taught me music herself, though I was at best a middling stu¬dent. From her, I had inherited milk-white skin, large eyes, and a cleft in my chin, but the other side of the family delivered a tin ear. My singing was perpetually flat and my piano clumsy. I still looked forward to the lessons, because I rarely heard or saw her otherwise. Once a month, we both had our hair dyed from its natural red-gold to a more sedate brown, a tradition my grandmother had startedwhen my mother herself was a child. I looked forward to those days, when we sat side by side for more than an hour, but they were all too rare. The rest of the time, a freckled governess named Colleen woke me, managed my days, and bid me good night, and I took my daily meals with her instead of in the dining room with my mother and grandparents.
Except for music, my education was conducted by a series of tutors: French, history, grammar, drawing. All my tutors were so alike in demeanor—pale, cool, severe—that I believed when I was very young that they were all brothers and sisters from the same family. When not engaged in lessons, I was nearly always reading, my bookcases filled with Shakespeare and Seneca, Emerson and Donne. Reading was learning, and learning was a matter best conducted in privacy. My grandmother never trusted the schools.
As it turned out, my grandmother would have done well to be even more distrustful.
In 1892, when I was twelve years old, my grandparents arranged what was to be the greatest opportunity of my mother’s life. At considerable expense and trouble, they secured passage for her to travel to Europe for an audience with Franco Faccio of Teatroalla Scala in Milan, for whom she was to perform. If she impressed him, she might have a place with the orchestra as a first chair and soloist, appearing before large audiences to great acclaim.
And she might have amazed Signore Faccio with her skill at the cello, and she might have been a great star, except that she sold the tickets and traded away her best jewelry and gave the money instead to a man named Victor Turner, who had been her music teacher for several years and would later be a frustrated farmhand, my stepfather, and the love of my mother’s life. The day that she would have left for Europe became, instead, the day they ran away.
And that day, they took me with them. Heaven knows why.
Someone else could have stood witness at their wedding, which was the only service I seemed to perform on the journey. I stayed silent and didn’t ask questions. I didn’t want them to think better of the choice.
Our destination was Jeansville, Tennessee, where Victor’s brother Silas owned a small farm outside the town, growing hay and breeding horses. Victor was a versatile teacher, a master of everything from singing to piano to woodwinds and brass, and his plan had been to teach music to the families of the town. It took only two weeks for this plan to fail. The people of Jeansville were suspicious of newcomers. No one owned instruments, of course, and even if they’d had the money to pay a singing master, it would have been seen as too frivolous. He may as well have been selling champagne coupes or china shepherdesses. With unwise optimism, they had paid ahead a full year’s rent on the house, and the rest of the money wouldn’t stretch far enough to make a stand in a differ¬ent town. Therefore there were only two possibilities: crawl back to Philadelphia in supplication, or stay. Had this been my mother’s first misadventure, supplication might have been more tempting. She’d been forgiven the first time and given another chance. But she knew she was no longer welcome in her parents’ house. With the second chance squandered, there would be no third.
A new plan was hatched. Victor’s brother Silas was a fat man with a thin wife, and she had been complaining about the isolation of their farmhouse, which was too far from her friends’ houses in the town. She was as dedicated to the art of complaint as my mother was to the cello, and her virtuoso work had finally reached Silas’s ears. So they and their son Ray moved into the rented house, and my mother and Victor and I took occupancy of the farmhouse. It seemed like a fair trade. With no job prospects that matched his skills, Victor began working for his brother as a farmhand, and in this way, our cobbled-together household found its new equilibrium.
I began attending school for the first time, which I did not enjoy. I was an indifferent student at best and insolent at worst. My man¬ners, so carefully inculcated by my high-society grandmother and the etiquette experts she had paid to reinforce her, were unraveling rapidly. Never having set foot in a classroom with other students, I didn’t see the point of sitting still or waiting to be called on. Evenwhen these things were explained to me, I resisted. They seemed silly. If I knew the answer, why shouldn’t I say so? If the lessons bored me, as they often did, why shouldn’t I find something better to do? My teacher wore her hair in two braids over her shoulders like a girl, and she seemed to know only answers that had been written down for her by someone else. Besides, the classroom was always too warm. It stank of chalk, spit, and cheap slate. I missed my shelves of books, all of which we’d left behind. I missed the idea that behind those cloth covers lurked endless surprises—spare slashing lines of poetry, or the rhythmic cadence of a play, or char¬acters who, despite being only invented, sprang warmly and fully to life. There was none of that in our simple schoolroom primers, none at all. Their singsong phrases were, only and always, exactly as expected.
With all of its drawbacks, however, this new life had one com¬manding advantage over the old. I was in my mother’s company for hours at a time. She was the only one of us with the luxury of rising late, so I didn’t always see her in the morning before I started down the road to school, but she was always there when I came home in the afternoon. She would hand me the cloth to wipe the dust of the road from my shoes, then we took a small glass of milk each, seated at the kitchen table in silent companionship. At dinner every night, I drank in the novel sight of her lovely, animated face and the reassuring hum of her smoky voice. After so long without her, I found her slightest attention intoxicating. I could subsist for a week on one of her smiles.
After dinner, she would often sit down with her cello between her knees and coax the most beautiful music from its strings. If he wasn’t in the fields, Victor would sing to accompany her. I wanted to do more than listen but had nothing musical to contribute, so I began to dance. Mother had taken me to New York a handful of times to see the ballet, and I emulated what I remembered of the ballerinas’ movements—long graceful arcs of the arms, fluttering pointed toes, the basic arabesque. My dancing made my mother smile, so I did it at every opportunity.
I took to it so well that my mother decided I should have more formal training, but of course there was no dance school in Jeansville, nor possibly in the entire state of Tennessee. I was in no rush to leave, of course, so I asked if it might be possible for her to handle my instruction? She agreed that it was. She wrote away to a woman in Russia for lessons, and we regularly received letters of detailed instruction. Eagerly we put these into practice. The Cecchetti method involved repetition of motion after motion. But not carelessly, not just with a mindless echo. Every motion was important, and it needed to be performed consciously, with purpose. One day, I would make a certain set of motions with my leg, the next day, a set of motions with my arm. One week was the right side, one week the left. It took discipline, and while I may have been undisciplined in other areas of my life, in dancing I was absolutely obedient.
And all was well. We were happy.
Until a boy named Ray changed everything.

The Magician's Lie
by by Greer Macallister