Milan Boudreaux had never heard a sound as simple yet terrifying as the pop of the glass jar which had shattered into a thousand just pieces six-feet across his room. Sand fell upon his head. He braced for his mother’s reaction. This was the third time that she would walk into a room of sand which Milan couldn’t explain. She was stupefied as to why her son kept leaving heaps of sediment all over the floor of their shotgun house. Milan was too.
Strange things had been happening to him for nearly two years. Turning glass into sand brought a new seriousness to it all. Just two days ago he had blown out a shop window while walking in the Quarter. Fortunately, he had made a quick getaway before anyone saw him or the piles of dust around the walls. Milan held his breath and waited to see if his mother would catch him in the act.
After a tense minute, Milan was sure she hadn’t heard. He walked to the closet at the end of the bedroom and pulled out a broom and dust pan. He set to work sweeping the sand while he trying to make sense of how it existed where the jar once had. Milan had no idea to why these things happened or if they would ever stop. All he knew was that these peculiar events seemed to be getting more frequent. After each new experience, Milan was thrust into a terrifying confusion.
The memory of his first encounter with his strangeness began to build an unsettling flush in Milan’s chest and head. He remembered himself in a downpour, not a drop of rain on his clothes as he walked beneath an invisible umbrella. He had been scared of the thunder, but became terrified at the unnaturalness of his dry pants. Milan suddenly felt very dizzy. He began to sweep faster. His eyes fluttered upwards; he clenched his teeth, fighting the urge to black out. Taking a deep breath through his nose, he shut his eyes.
“Calm down—“ No sooner had Milan breathed the words then there was a faint twinkling, and POP!
“What in…” Milan’s words trailed off. He placed his palms to his eye lids, opening them while keeping his hands fixed in place. A temporary cover from another accident. I’ll need a bigger broom, he told himself. With another deep breath of patience, he dropped his hands. But there, as if the sand had never existed, was the glass jar. Milan stared in disbelief. He had just felt it on his head. He looked under his nails at the grit still there. He picked up the jar. The glass was a rougher than before, but whole, all in all. Milan whooped aloud, laughing hysterically. POP! Milan stared at the sand covering his lap.
“MILAN BOUDREAUX— What is going on back there?!” He heard his mother’s voice, the sound of footsteps and the creak of his bedroom door.
“Just more Mississippi river sand Mama, no need to worry.” Milan beamed a smile up at her from the floor, the broom still in his hand. His expression, combined by seeing him already at the task of cleanup, warmed Minka Bourdreaux into her own grin.
“Go ahead and hurry your cleanup then honey. I need your help cutting the vegetables and minding the pots.”
“Yes Mama, if I can just have one second, I’ll be right in.” She looked to him, concern and joy, and backed out of the doorframe, closing it without a word. Milan listened to her retreat towards the front of the house. Shaking, he swept the sand into the dustpan, trying to get every particle he could onto the flat surface. Milan closed his eyes and concentrated hard on a picture of the jar he had been holding. With that same twinkling, POP! The sand spun up and into the shape of the jar, becoming glass. Milan picked it up and rolled it across his palm. Gripping his hand tight around it he stood, reaching for the pewter jug of water he kept bedside. Slowly, Milan tipped the jar. Water pooled at the bottom. When it reached the very top, Milan stopped pouring, set the jug down, and took a sip. With a satisfying gulp, he proceeded into the kitchen to help Mama cook dinner.
The sounds of the French Quarter’s nightlife were starting to feel like a subconscious hum to Milan. When he had first started slipping out to the square at night, it had been overwhelming. The crowd of chattering people and bleating saxophones; laughter, horsecarts, tolling bells crashing down on him, shattering the quiet existance of his Bywater yard. In the months since Milan had discovered his ability to control one of the unexplainable things around him, his mother had been forced to take on a new job, working as a caretaker in “one of tha’ big Manor houses.” She would have to work nights, so Milan found himself with beaucoup time to practice his new talent; he hadn’t yet figured out much else he could do with it. However, confident in the strangeness of this ability, Milan decided to go out among the vendors and performers of the Vieux Carre to try his hand at making some extra money. This magic was stunning, but he’d never heard of this kind of luck lasting for someone of his class. Better to try and turn a buck on it while he could.
Milan kept a low profile during his first several nights in the square. He walked around with his hands in his pocket, keeping his face low, but his eyes up. He observed everything— a trait which he had learned from watching his mother cook. Minka was known to talk about something entirely off topic while seasoning a pot. Watching her was crucial to understanding the recipes she made.
Now, Milan watched the performers in the same way; a mime, using his full body to push nothing; a comedian, calling to passerbys, “come have a laugh— its all in good fun!” There were two who looked like carnival-types: one peddled a unicycle, blowing bubbles; the other roamed on stilts. Everywhere, ordinary people walked and pointed, tossing coins to those with unique, persuasive skills. A street band played. Milan watched the performers methods, taking note of what he could use. He dreamed of himself, dressed as a wizard and crying out:“Step right up and meet… the Sandman…” But this wasn’t real. Soon, it would all disappear like a glass jar.
His first night as a performer started out quietly. Milan hadn’t anticipated how he would be received. On a dark spring night, he found himself in a nearly deserted town square, isolated. Many of the other performers had gathered into a group just a short distance away. Every so often one would cast a glance his way. Milan stood behind a small wooden card table, on which a single glass jar was placed in the middle. He felt like an outcast.
It was shortly before midnight when the first revelers trounced through the square, filled with whiskey, wine, and grits. They stumbled, arms draped over shoulders, singing loudly. As the square livened, more people followed. A man on a 10-foot high tightrope, sang back. The brass band struck an ambling, romantic note. Strings of hanging light flashed alive. Soon, the square was alive. Milan sat rigid in his chair, hoping he could do his sand trick under the pressure of an audience. Maybe he could gain acceptance. A bald gentleman with a white beard and light brown skin approached Milan first.
“Just a glass jar?” the man asked, beckoning around to the extravagant acts behind him, “is it some sort of riddle?”
“Well sir…” Milan began, “I’d say that the only riddle is how come I can do this…”
“Ah?” asked the man.
“Watch,” Milan said. He closed his eyes and concentrated. There was the familiar POP! and Milan opened his eyes to see a table full of sand. The man looked un-phased, but impressed. He spoke slowly, with intention. His eyes stayed on the pile of dirt.
“Mr… Sandman, is it?” Milan shook his head slowly. “I’d say that this talent of yours is more than some carnival trick... Would you?”
Milan remained quiet for a moment. What was this man getting at? When Milan finally spoke, it was as slowly and carefully as the question had been asked. Feeling flushed with foolishness for exposing his uniqueness just for money, Milan became wary. If this man knew the truth about this weird power, did he also know how to take it away?
“Well sir,” Milan began, “like I said… its a riddle as to what it really is, carnival trick or… something else. I don’t suppose I know if its more than smoke and mirrors.”
The man quicker with a reply this time.
“Those would have to be some exceptionally well placed mirrors. In fact, they might suggest a talent for performance art beyond what many of these veterans know,” he waved again, “Now, I’d sooner believe that a young man turning glass into sand is possible before I believed that a young man is out-showing the best entertainers in New Orleans… Tell me, Mister…”
“Boudreaux,” Milan finished, “Milan Boudreaux.” There was something about the defense of these artists, who Milan respected, which triggered a feeling of trust in the man. They may have ignored him, but they were talented. Milan wanted to be them.
“Yes… Now tell me, Milan, do you believe in magic?”
BONG! The sound of the dinner bell one floor above caught Milan unaware, but not by surprise. He had guessed that as soon as Chef heard that he was doing chores in the cellar, there would be a call for the staff dinner. A stampede of servers, cooks and porters would ensue, and if Milan wasn’t present, he would be left with only the scraps. Chef had held a grudging attitude towards Milan since the day that Guidry had brought him from the square and into work at his bistro, Catherine’s. Recently, the resentment had sharpened into spite. Milan could trace his missed dinners to the night he had caught Chef in the cellar.
Milan raised the chipped, borrowed wand that Guidry had provided him, pointing it at the tap of a large port barrel. He muttered a spell. The tap twisted open and red wine flowed into a container. The rush of the wine reminded Milan of the bottle that he had seen Chef drinking just two weeks ago. He had come down to the cellar to practice some lifting and moving spells that Guidry had taught him, not anticipating anyone else to be this late, or in the dregs of the restaurant. The stairs had been unlit. Milan whispered the password to the door and there, propped against a barrel with a bottle in hand, was Chef. Two more bottles lay empty at his feet.
“Jusss, returnin’ whut I… returnin’ my sewpplies—“ he hiccuped, “Yew… yew understand? Restockin’ my night sewppliesss…” Chef tried to push himself upright.
“Sure, I… I understand,” Milan said. Wordlessly, he retreated up stairs. He used his wand to light a few of the torches along the way, supposing Chef would need them on his way out.
When Milan had arrived at Catherine’s he had been ecstatic. A magical restaurant, where the porters used wants to drift cases of sausages through the air under the arched roof. Cooks started fires with wand tips while knives floated above a kitchen island chopping vegetables. Milan had been sure that he would learn some new cooking techniques to bring home and show his mother, in addition to the magic lessons Guidry had promised. But, when he accidentally sputtered that thought to Chef, the idea was crushed immediately.
“Show your mama? Don’t yew know it’s illegal to share your magic? You’re lucky Mr. Guidry found you before the cops did.” Chef continued on with his respite, assuring Milan that someone who failed to appreciate magical secrecy would never be given a chance to accidentally spill the kitchen secrets of Catherine’s. Chef’s star was on the rise; he would protect his ascent at all costs.
So, Milan had been given the duties of a bus boy, clearing tables and washing dishes. Guidry taught him several cleaning spells and after some practice Milan had pots scrubbing and brooms sweeping at the same time. Still, Chef refused to let him into the cooking kitchen. Determined to prove he could keep a tight lip, Milan refused to turn to Guidry about Chef’s injustice. Though his resolve was weakening with every missed meal.
BONG! The note sounded again. A second bell, Milan thought, whats going on? He flicked his wand, and the wine tap closed. He stooped to pick up the bottle and he headed upstairs
Milan heard commotion at the top of the stairs. When he made it to the platform, the smell of baked chicken and stewed greens filled his nose. Called to it unconsciously, Milan pushed through the door in a daze. The entire kitchen turned around, thirty eyeballs breaking his trance. Milan looked down; a tray had flipped upside-down on the floor, roasted brussels rolling out in every direction. Milan looked up to see Chef, holding himself upright by the edge of the island. The rest of Catherine’s staff followed Milan’s gaze back to Chef.
“I’m telling you,” said Sous, the chef di cuisine, “this man should be with the winos in the Quarter, he’s so drunk—“
“—Aye, and during the peak of our busy season too. He’s just cost me ma’whol dinna’ there on tha’ floor. Us porters don’t get’a eat casually like you cooks do, samplin’ and tastin’ everyting.” The burly porter hardly looked like he needed a meal immediately, but Milan knew him to be sensitive and slightly underfed.
“It’s not just y’all whose disadvantaged this evening,” Sous continued, “Chef cannot work in this state. We’ll be down a cook on a spring night!”
Milan was still staring at the brussels. He looked up, catching Chef’s drifting gaze. At first, he panicked; even in this inebriated state, Milan was intimidated by the impression Chef had made. A second later, and Milan felt pity for the man. How many people had Milan seen fall to drinking under pressure— in his own neighborhood no less? Chef was having a problem. Milan wasn’t sure what it was, but he knew what he could do.
“I can help cook,” he nearly shouted.
“You know cooking spells?” Sous asked, “I thought Chef said you had no interest—“
“—No, I don’t know any cooking spells,” Milan replied hurriedly, “But I do know how to cook. My mama taught me all my life. I can do this, without magic.” Sous looked around wildly.
“Well, unless anyone else knows how to make a quick roux…” she waited, “no takers? Alright then, Milan— grab an apron…”
That evening was the greatest fun Milan had yet to experience in the magical world. Despite all the new ways he had learned to channel his powers— just this morning he had perfected the Repairing charm— nothing replaced his joy at being behind the stove. Sautéing was his speciality; he had an eye for measuring seasonings. Milan was sure Minka would be approve the food— and he cooked nearly as fast as Sous, without raising a wand. It was a busy service with many different recipes. He wasn’t perfect, but Milan cooked well.
That evening, Guidry arrived for an evening report. When he was greeted by Sous, they took the meeting to a table in the empty courtyard. Soon, Milan was called in. Sous left as Guidry motioned for Milan to sit.
“Milan…” his voice was earnest, “I want to thank you for helping out in the way you did this evening. While I heard you had great fun, it wasn’t your responsibility to take on such stress. Sous tells me that your mother taught you to cook?”
Milan spoke immediately, choosing his words carefully.
“Yes. It was my mama. I just recently decided that I had an interest in cooking at Catherine’s. Sous was the first one I told, and it was everything I thought it would be. I think I love to be a cook, sir…”
Guidry peered thoughtfully into the star-lit sky.
“Well, I suppose you’ll have a good chance to. It seems we’ll be moving Sous to Chef’s job. You’ll be able to take a cook position once we settle her old spot. All this shuffling, and because of a drunk—“ Guidry huffed, “—I brought Chef in hoping he’d be more. For awhile he was… It’s a shame he’ll be back out there—“
“—Guidry,” Milan cut in, “you told me that the only people calling you mister were business associates, and the people who work in this restaurant are family…” Guidry’s eyebrows rose. Milan continued, “Just this morning, Chef was still calling you mister. Sir, I don’t know if he ever felt home here…
“But Chef has been here for a year—“
“—sometimes, it takes people a little longer,” Milan said, finishing Guidry’s sentence. “He’s going through something, Chef is… I think he could use some help…maybe some family… As you see sir, magic only solves so many problems.”
Guidry turned his gaze to the swaying palmetto. He considered Milan for a moment. When he spoke, Milan thought he heared a quavering note in his voice.
“Well… I don’t have room for two cooks, so I suppose you will be sharing your workload. As you said Milan, Chef will need a family to lean on.”
With a wave of his wand, jasmine sprouted from the ivy walls, and Guidry had disappeared. Milan looked at an untouched glass of water he had left behind. For a moment, he considered turning it to sand. But he picked it up, and he took a sip.