A good magician never reveals their secrets. But, today as I lie in my deathbed, I am prepared to tell you mine.
As a child, I took things more literally than most. My mother once asked me if the man in the moon stole a shoe I lost at a friend’s house. I peered at the full moon that night, searching for this unknown “man”. Never found him. When I was five years old, I heard my uncle tell my mother that it was “raining cats and dogs”. I wanted a puppy so bad that I ran outside to catch one. I came back inside a few minutes later, soaked, confused, and disappointed. Never got to have a dog.
On August 4th, 1987, taking things too literally steered me down a path from which there was no return. I was eight years old, and this is the day I discovered my passion for magic.
It was my best friend’s 9th birthday party. Billy’s parents hired a magician, Samil the Anomalous. Weird name, right? But this guy was amazing. He was a tall slender English gentleman with a dazzling smile. His hands moved with effortless fluidity, making the crowd of 9 year olds and their parents ooh and aah.
He had a small stage made of six giant wooden squares, raised about a foot off the ground. A long heavy white curtain supported by two trusses at the back of the stage gave the feel of a real performance so he could emerge as if he were performing at the Riviera downtown Chicago.
When I arrived at this party, there was a small cargo truck parked on the curb with a huge picture of Samil the Anomalous on the side. He wore a tuxedo with a black cape and a magnificent smile. A black wand in one hand, and the other extended in an exaggerated flourish as if to say, “Voila!”. I was mesmerized.
As my mother and I sat in folding chairs in my friend’s backyard, watching the magic show, I completely bought into the idea that this man was performing actual magic. Not tricks using slight of hand or unseen devices. He read minds, guessed cards, made a rabbit appear out of nowhere, levitated his wand in mid-air, and even sawed one of the moms in half and then put her back together. But with every trick, Billy yelled out, “He’s palming it with his left hand!”, or “There’s a false bottom!”, or “It’s dangling with fishing line!”.
These reveals momentarily ruined my enjoyment, but mom assured me this man was the real deal. And adults never lie, so I believed her.
During the trick in which Samil sawed Mrs. Geller’s legs off and then put her back together, I whispered to myself, “How did he do that?” Billy’s dad, sitting to my right, leaned over and whispered, “A good magician never lets you see behind the curtain.”
After awhile, Samil the Anomalous grew annoyed with my friend’s outbursts and called him onstage to assist him as a volunteer for his next trick. He brought out a huge black sheet and laid it on the stool next to him.
Taking Billy’s dad’s comment literally, I inconspicuously moved to the end of the row, then around the side of the stage and out of sight behind a Peegee Hydrangea bush in full bloom. I had a perfect view of the stage from the side.
With a twinkle in his eye, Samil promised to shock us all, Billy included. He raised the black curtain in front of Billy, making sure nobody in the audience could see him. He dramatically verbalized some foreign incantation, jostling the curtain to make it look like something was happening. All the while, I could see Billy just standing there, looking up at Samil with a puzzled look.
Then, in the span of just a few seconds, Billy transformed from a boy standing on his two feet to an animal on four. Long ears grew atop his head, and his hands contorted into hooves. His nose transformed to a long hairy snout, and fur sprouted all over his body. His legs bent into the hind legs of an equine. Oddly enough, the donkey was wearing Billy’s orange and white striped polo shirt, a pair of jean shorts, and even his white gym shoes. Only now he stood on four legs.
Samil dropped the curtain with a theatrical sweep of his arm.
The crowd gasped in awe, and Billy the donkey looked around, clearly confused. He brayed, causing those in the audience to erupt in laughter. Adults stood with their mouths hanging open. The kids cheered and clapped. One father barked, “It’s wearing the kid’s clothes! How did he do that?”
I stared in dawning horror. The other tricks were fun and harmless. This one was terrifying as I immediately wondered what it would be like if he turned me into a donkey. Billy became restless, kicking his hind legs while crying out in weak little squeals. Some of the kids in the front row yelled in panic and grabbed their parents while Samil got Billy under control. He uttered something quietly, and Billy stilled.
With another charming grin, Samil held up his hand and said, “Sorry folks, no need to be alarmed. Little Billy wants to be a boy again. And he shall have his wish!”
Raising the black sheet again, Billy the donkey was hidden from the audience. Again, Samil shook the sheet and chanted in a foreign tongue a chilling incantation. And just as before, I watched the donkey transform back into a little boy I knew as Billy. The look of sheer terror and confusion on Billy’s face gave me chills as he peered back up at Samil. Samil grinned down at him and winked.
As he dropped the black sheet, Samil raised his hands in the air in triumph. The audience erupted in applause. Samil took a bow, pointed at Billy, and yelled, “How about a hand for our brayyyyve volunteer!”
They cheered louder, and Billy wobbled back to his seat.
After Samil’s show ended, I emerged from behind the bush, shaken but curious.
As he packed up his tools, I approached the stage. He glanced up at me as he packed a box with his wand and deck of cards and handcuffs.
“Tell me, young man, did you enjoy the show?”
I nodded slowly and asked, “How did you turn Billy into a donkey?”
Without looking up, Samil grinned. His teeth appeared pointed, like fangs. And his eyes. Even though he didn’t look directly at me, his eyes flashed a haunting confidence bordering on arrogance laced with hunger.
Finally, he looked up at me and said, “It’s magic, dear boy!”
I eyed him closely, wanting to delve deeper.
“Was he really a donkey?”
He leaned toward me and whispered, “What do you think?”
My mouth hung open, and I couldn’t speak. I could see in his eyes he already knew what I thought. I knew what I saw. But my initial horror was replaced with a thirst. I was hooked. I wanted that power.
Samil read me like an open book.
I asked, “Could I do magic like that?”
He stood upright and watched me for a moment, then smiled. Without a word, he turned around and rifled through a box, then brought out a large old-looking leather bound book. The cover was thick and soft, like flesh. Intricate patterns sewn with a luxurious black thread adorned the cover. And black letters stitched with the same black thread formed three words in Latin.
Ars Obscura Intus
I would find out years later it meant, “Within lie the Dark Arts”.
Samil sat on the edge of the stage, motioning for me to join him. All this time, the other kids ran around the backyard with cupcakes and fruit punch, too hopped up on sugar to sit still. The parents, including my mother, gathered inside for an “adult” drink.
In the presence of this majestic book, though, we were alone.
He ran his fingers across the cover, and I could have sworn it shimmered. More magic?
“In this book are all of my tricks, illusions, games…every bit of debauchery a boy could desire.”
I asked in the quietest voice imaginable, “All of your magic tricks are written in there?”
He nodded and whispered, “And they’re all real. As long as you truly believe. Do you believe?”
As if in a dream, I nodded slowly and said, “I do.”
I sat there for some time as my mind danced with the possibilities. All the tricks I saw that day, and all the tricks I didn’t see. My mind veered away from the scary one in which Billy turned into a donkey, and I daydreamed about flying, lifting heavy objects as if they were as light as a feather, and reading minds. That was my favorite.
Some minutes later, a burly guy in denim overalls tapped my shoulder and said, “You gotta move kid.”
I shook my head to clear it and stood up. All that was left of Samil’s portable magic theater was a few pieces of the stage. Off to the side nearest the house was a stool. The stool Samil used on stage. On it was the book. Ars Obscura Intus.
I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I hungered for what was inside. Grabbing it and holding it tightly to my chest, I retreated to the corner of the yard next to the bush I hid in while watching Billy turn into a donkey. What began as an escape from reality slowly became my prison.
The cargo truck pulled away from the curb, and I felt the ownership of this magnificent book transfer from that charming man in the black cape to me. My childhood died that afternoon, replaced by a coldness that had no home. It was only renting me.
That night, I spent hours reading by flashlight under my covers. I read of fun little tricks like guessing a card someone picked from a full deck, to making a coin disappear in thin air, all the way to some darker ones like making an enemy’s nose bleed uncontrollably by recanting a simple spell over a sample of the person’s hair steeped in venison blood. That one made me shudder. There were countless more, but I was too scared to go any further.
For the next few months, I learned the fun tricks and became an expert at the illusions. The details explained what to do with my hands and all of the objects involved, plus the incantations to recite while I did them. They were all in another language that I did not bother to learn, to my dismay.
I found one ubiquitous phrase at the end of every single incantation: “hoc voto, dono tibi animam meam”. I figured it meant something like “Voila!” or “Abracadabra!”. It did not.
By high school, I had shot up six inches and seemed to be much older than my fellow thirteen year old freshmen. I spent my afternoons learning new tricks. The incantations became more elaborate with the seemingly more powerful illusions.
I graduated from guessing the number a person was thinking of, to the contents of their wallets. From levitating a magic wand, to levitating actual people. From making a coin disappear in my hand to making people disappear and reappear.
One time, at a college talent show, I made it rain inside. Everyone assumed I made some agreement with the janitorial staff in the cafeteria to gain access to the fire sprinklers, but they swore they had no idea how I did it. I made it pour on only the second row. A thin bar of precipitation that followed the ten audience members when they jumped up to get out from the unseen cloud.
And yes, one time I even tried the old “turn Billy into a donkey” trick with a girl I dated when I was twenty. But I turned her into a toad. Oh how I howled with laughter as she hopped around madly, trying to get my attention. We were outside at a park with her friends one hot summer night. They searched everywhere for her, demanding to know where she went. When we were alone, I turned her back. It was a mean trick, I know, but she said kissing me was like kissing a frog. And the power I felt when I brought her back and she cowered like a dog. It was intoxicating!
I first noticed something was amiss when I turned twenty-five. I had developed a pretty severe arthritis in both wrists. The discomfort spread up my arms to my shoulders. My hair grayed, then stopped growing altogether by the time I was thirty.
With each more powerful trick, I felt a physical draining of my strength and stamina. I became known as Spellbinder Extraordinaire - Jonathan Magnifico by my early thirties. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? I’m the guy who summoned a tornado inside the Metro in Chicago. To this day, nobody has any clue how I did it.
The newspapers interviewed experts who speculated, but none of them came up with the simple answer: Magic. No trickery or illusions. Real actual magic. They interviewed me and demanded to know how I could come up with such elaborate and believable illusions. I just shrugged and said, “A magician never reveals his secrets”.
Five years ago, I turned forty. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a man who appeared on the verge of a hundred. A hundred years old, that is. Yes, you read that correctly. One hundred years old. My body was frail and gaunt. My face, haggard. My skin, translucent with thick blue veins and sallow tendons clinging to weakened muscles.
I walk hunched over now, with a cane. That is, when I can walk.
I have no family to speak of. My children are the tricks. The illusions. I gave birth to countless tragedies and horrors, my only spawn on which my name will be my legacy.
The reason I tell you this now is because last week I saw Samil again. Thirty-seven years after Billy’s 9th birthday party. I was signing books at a local book store called “Hilde’s Rare Books of the Occult” near my hometown. It wasn’t a book I had written, but a book about twenty-first century magicians. The new magician. There was a chapter on me, and the publisher got the idea that fans would want to meet me and get my autograph. They were right. About a dozen fans showed up.
And then there was Samil. He waited patiently in line with a copy of the book. I was feeling particularly ill that day. A dull ache in my side had grown to a ball of fire, roaring with every step I took. I did not dare to get it diagnosed, I already know what it was. Cancer. Of what I have no idea, but whatever it was, it’s beyond the point of treatment.
All these years, a sense of the growing debt on my account haunted me. With each new trick, I felt more drunk with power, and closer to deadly intoxication. And now, the balance was due.
He introduced himself, but I told him I recognized him. He seemed delighted by this, responding with a charming grin and a chuckle.
I met him over thirty years ago, and I swear to a God I no longer believe in, he had not aged a single day. How can a man not age at all over thirty-plus years? Probably the same way another man can age a decade in a single year.
He held out his copy of The New Magician and whispered, “Could you make it out to Samil, please?”
As I scribbled my name on the inside cover, I felt him looming over me. After I handed him his book, he stretched his other hand toward me. I glanced at it, then back up at his face. He waited patiently. And then I understood.
I didn’t know why, but I brought the book with me that day. I hadn’t touched it in months, but that day, Ars Obscura Intus was with me. It was that morning that I finally had the audacity and courage to look up those six words, “hoc voto, dono tibi animam meam” at the end of every single incantation I had spoken over the decades. To find out what they meant.
They’re Latin. They mean, “With this wish, I gift thee my soul”.
I handed the book over to him. The leather bound book with the darkest words I’ve ever read in my life. And I believed in those words because he told me to. I believed they would fuel my magical power, and they did. Because adults never lie, do they?
A week ago, handing him that book was me writing the check on the debt owed. And now, I just wait. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.
Is the intoxicating power that came with such dark sorcery worth it? In a man’s final moments, he’d give anything for another year, another week…or even another day. I believe I will have more days. But not here. For my soul has been imprisoned within a book that has captured a thousand hungry souls.
Soon, I will join them.