Outer City Magician

Digital drawing. At center, a person seen from waist up, wearing a coat with a wide collar, a vest and shiny necklace, holding bent arms out to the side, palms up, and looking up with a crooked smile. A tall pointed hat sits on the right palm, which is surrounded by a glow. Three bees are hovering over the person’s head. A wispy glowing line surrounded by tiny glowing balls seeps from the tip of the hat and curves around the bees.

“Okay, but can your so-called handyman repair the cracks in your foundation without having to level your whole house and build it up again from scratch?”

I waited.  There was silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds.  I released the needle of energy I’d been fiddling with between my fingers and sat up.  I thought she’d hung up on me. 

“I didn’t know you did foundation work,” she said.

I sighed.  “I…haven’t done it before exactly, but I’ve done similar work, work that’s just as delicate and complex.  And I can learn.  I have an extensive knowledge base.” 

I glanced at my bookshelf, the one that my mom had had custom-built for me for my sweet sixteen.  The one that contained all the books on magic that I had, including “Fundamentals of Architectural Foundations: A Magician’s Guide.”  It was a gift.  I’d flipped through it when I first got it.  But truth be told, I wasn’t sure it had anything that would have helped me get the job I was trying far too desperately to get.

“You’re being too honest,” said Iris.  “And you’re being a little…testy.”

I growled in frustration. “I can’t do this.  I’m not a salesperson.”

“You don’t have to be a salesperson.  Just be a person.”

“I can’t do that either.”

Iris laughed.

I instantly felt fifty percent calmer at hearing my sister’s laugh. 

“Sorry,” I said.  “And thanks for helping me rehearse.  I should let you go now.”

“Any time.  You’re getting better, slightly.  I’ll call you tomorrow—sooner if I find any cracks in my foundation.” 

Now, I laughed.  And Iris hung up.

But the smile on my face didn’t take long to fade.

***

I got into this business at the wrong time.

Now that huge factories could crank out standardized magic components that anyone could use, without even a basic understanding of the primary forces and how to shape them, not too many people were interested in “hand-crafted artisan” magic.  That’s what the kids called it now.  In my grandpa’s day, it was just called…magic.

When I was little, he showed me how to summon the threads, the needles, the sparks, and the wheedles.

Not that anyone still cared, but I could still spin a tiny vortex in the palm of my hand—well, my right hand—and forge it into a hundred different spells.  I could heal a bad wound, or make one (not that I would).  I could turn a patch of sawdust into a pencil.  I could grow hair or remove it.  Or maybe conjure a small scoop of ice cream.  That was a versatility no machine could manage, at least not in present times.  But it was average, everyday magic.  So no one cared anymore.

Grandpa would have cared, if his ghost hadn’t disappeared after he’d finished teaching me.

In his day, there was a guild school in every little town, several in the bigger cities.  All he had to do was join a guild and get his token, and he could practice magic anywhere in the country.  He could make his own decisions.  And yet, he wasn’t alone.  He was supported, protected.  He was part of a guild. 

But most of those guilds were gone now.

Now a magician had to be certified.  And the only way to do that was to sign away at least five years of your life to a company.  And after that, most magicians just stayed with their companies, or went to another one.  People in the city were used to it now.  Standardized magic. 

Magicians like me were only allowed to operate a legitimate business in the outskirts of the city.  And no one ever called an outer city magician to do what a certified one could do.

My dad told people I was a “solo private contractor.”  Technically true.  And more impressive than saying, “uncertified, barely employed magician.”

I suppose I’m exaggerating a little.  I have been getting steady work.  It’s just not very lucrative.  Much less was it meaningful, creative, fulfilling…

In addition to taking on field work, I received deliveries for odd tasks that needed doing.  Some people liked to hold on to small devices and appliances that the company’s service division no longer serviced.  They’d send those things to me to fix.  Some people wanted to get rid of those things and sent them to me as a donation.  I would then try fixing and selling them.  Some days I spent my whole shift at home working on those odds and ends.  But today I had a few house calls to make. 

I’d just been on the phone bothering Iris while I waited for the morning delivery.

It arrived and I quickly logged that items, and set them aside.  I got a little excited when I saw that someone had sent me a request for a custom craft.  Those requests were rare, but usually a treat to work on.  More challenging than a simple—or even complex—repair job.

It seemed someone wanted me to make a doll for their kid, a doll that automatically changed outfits once a day.

Well that’s creepy, I thought.  I could do it, but it’s creepy.

It was probably a toy trend I didn’t know about.  But maybe I’d follow up later, just to make sure the child was old enough to understand that it was magic, and not something spooky. 

I left the deliveries and went out on my first call. 

***

It was a minor medical issue.  Veterinary.

A man had an indoor cat who’d run away a few days back, then returned that morning.  She’d thrown up a few times already.  She drank water but wouldn’t take food.  The man couldn’t travel.  And he couldn’t get a veterinary service to visit his location.  He’d tried purchasing a diagnostic kit, but the instructions were too complicated.  So he found and called me. 

The forces that governed magic were not like electricity or gravity, my grandpa told me.  Those forces were magnificent and arcane, just like magic.  But as far as he knew, they didn’t have a mind of their own.  The forces that governed magic could be stubborn, mischievous, curious—all the things a person could be. 

There was a time when the very idea of machine-made magic was considered preposterous, laughable. How could a machine coax the coy force of magic?

Well, someone found a way to make it happen.

I ended up using the kit to start with.  My client was right about the instructions, but once I got the hang of it, it wasn’t too hard to figure out.  And I had to admit it was faster than I would have been.  We figured out his runaway-and-then-returned cat had some kind of food poisoning.  The kit was able to synthesize some kind of oily salve to put in her water that would make her feel better sooner.

I was done in an hour.  And the man was so grateful and gracious, he actually tipped me, and wouldn’t let me return it. 

The next call didn’t go as well. 

A couple was having a birthday party for their four-year-old.  They wanted me to just conjure some tricks and twist balloons into shapes that vaguely resembled animals and things.  I shaped the balloons, and made them walk around.  The kids loved it until one kid threw a tantrum for some reason, and someone else started crying, and the balloons started popping and scaring the kids, and more of them started crying. 

I was asked to leave, which I was all too happy to do.  So I asked for my fee.  And the look of disgust on this guy’s face.  How dare I have the gall to bring up such an unseemly topic as money, while his precious child’s face was marred by half-dried tears, and a single gob of butterscotch buttercream frosting?  Especially after they’d paid for a special permit to allow me to work in the city for their special day.

I told them I would bill them.  With any luck, they’ll actually pay.

So, I wasn’t in the happiest of moods when I went to go face…the bees.

***

This may sound strange, but I used to be pretty good at bee removal.

When I was young, and the ghost of my grandpa could come along if I needed help or guidance, I’d volunteer to help people clear their homes of bees (and once or twice even wasps).  I took my time, which surprised my grandpa the first time he saw it.  But it wasn’t my time.  It was theirs, the bees.  I had to go at their pace.  And even the first time I tried it, I succeeded.  The bees never came back.  Even I thought it might have been a fluke.

But I did it for someone else, and it worked again.  And I knew exactly how I did it.  But when people asked me to explain, I couldn’t put it into words. 

When my grandpa asked, I summoned the forces I’d used between my hands and flexed my fingers to show him what I’d done, in summary form.  He understood, at least enough to slap me on the shoulder and tell me how impressed he was.  (That is, he tried slapping my shoulder.  His hand passed right through me of course).

I was twelve. 

And I decided that being a magician was my destiny.

Later, my grandpa joked—at least I think it was a joke—that I was good with the bees because I was a lot like them.  Friendly, harmless, and even sweet under normal circumstances.  But if I or my hive were threatened, I would buzz and drone and sting, even if it meant I might die.

I don’t know where he got all that.  My mom said it’s from when I was very young, past the limit of my own memories obviously.  Some older kid was teasing one of my younger cousins and I threw myself at him.  I caught him by surprise.  And then he tripped and fell.  Then grown-ups arrived.  Otherwise, I might have suffered far worse than being shoved around a little.

Those days are long past.  You won’t see me yelling at a potentially dangerous stranger on the street these days.

Part of me was afraid that I was good at communing with bees because I was like them in a different way.  I was supposed to be a worker, doing the same thing day after day, at the bidding of a decadent queen.

Whatever the reason, I was good with bees.

But it had been a while.  I remembered how.  And I’d double-checked my bag to make sure I brought all the proper equipment and materials.  I just hoped the bees and I still had that certain spark.

***

“I don’t even know if any of us are allergic,” my client said, walking me to where the hive had settled in her house.  “I’m worried about my daughter getting stung.  My dog.”  She threw up her hands.  “Myself.”

“You haven’t been so far?”

She shook her head.  “I’m afraid it’s just a matter of time, you know?  An accident.  Misunderstanding.  I like bees.  I just don’t like them in my house.”

I nodded.  “Yeah.”

She went over all the services she had already tried.  She showed me pictures and documents.  She’d kept a thorough log too.  She had, of course, attempted to use machine-made magic.  It was the first thing she tried.

“It seemed to work,” she said.  “I was on alert for a couple of weeks.  But just when I started relax…”

I smiled.  “I’m actually impressed that they didn’t come back right away.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard since then that it needs a human touch—a magician’s touch—to do the job right.”

“And the certified service didn’t work?”  That surprised me.

She pointed to the wall inside which the bees had made their home.  A few were hovering.  Some were perched on a nearby windowsill.

“He really seemed to know his stuff when we had a preliminary meeting,” my client said, “but then when he went in there, he seemed scared of them.  Even more scared than I am.”

My client didn’t seem all that scared of the bees.  Not when we were all just having a calm chat on a sunny afternoon.

“There are non-magical ways of doing this too,” I said.  “If this doesn’t work, I can give you the contact info for someone I know who can do it.  They live overseas now, but they would definitely help.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“I’ll have to set up and call all the bees back to the hive before I move the whole thing.  It’ll take me most of the day.  And I may have to come back once, maybe twice.”

My client furrowed her brow just a little.  After everything she’d tried, I could understand why she would be skeptical of some no-name uncertified magician.  But I had good references for this kind of job.  And she seemed like the person who would check up on something like that.  I offered her a thirty-day money back guarantee if the bees returned.  She accepted.

“Do you mind if I watch you?” she asked.  “Will that interfere with what you’re doing?”

“No, and no.” 

She’d brought me a folding table for the few things I’d need to set up.  A potion that smelled a lot like honey.  A tuning rod to help me calibrate the frequency of droning I’d need to produce.  And a focusing cone, which my client commented on, as expected. 

I was afraid she’d look skeptical again, but she perked up when she saw it.  When I told her it was for focusing, she expected me to put it on my head to focus my “mental energies.”  It was certainly big enough to have fit on my head if that’s what I needed. 

“It’s for focusing magical energies actually,” I said, as I placed the wide end of the cone over my right palm, resting the wide brim against my forearm and fingertips. 

“I favor my right hand,” I explained, as I felt the prickle of a dozen needles forming above my palm.

“The energies will condense at the tip,” I continued.  “And then I’ll be able to use them.”

It must have looked boring to my client.  It must have looked as if nothing was happening. 

My eyes couldn’t see any more past the black satin of the focusing cone than hers could.  But my hand could track all the needles and spheres—like little ball bearings—forming and assembling and rising to the tip of the cone in an orderly stream.  Sometimes, something fell out of formation, and I would coax it back, or let it fall and catch it elsewhere. 

It took a few hours, and my gracious client put half a sandwich and a glass of lemonade in my left hand when I started feeling hungry.

When the cone was ready, I picked it up, put the wide end against my mouth, and hummed through it.  The sound that emerged from the other end was like a swarm of bees buzzing, only slightly lower.

***

The bees sitting on the windowsill responded first.  They hovered around the tip of the cone and then veered away toward the hive.  After I ran out of breath, I removed the cone and set it just outside the hive.  The humming continued, calibrated and propagated by the magic in the cone.

There was something a little strained, or maybe just a bit off. 

“What is it?” my client asked.  I must have been showing my doubt on my face.

I shook my head, and tried smiling.  “I’m a little rusty.”

“Is it—it seems to be working, no?”

I pressed my lips together and peered at the focusing cone.  “Let’s give it some time.”

I didn’t feel confident enough to let the cone do its thing.  So I didn’t leave the room.  I knew there was a chance I’d have to leave the process to “run” overnight.  

But there was something bothering me about the humming from the cone.  The sound and the vibrations of the magic energies were…discordant.  There was something out of sync, out of harmony.  But I went over everything I’d been doing.  I couldn’t see where I’d made any mistakes.  I couldn’t see if I’d slipped somehow. 

Good thing I’d brought some reading material.  I pulled out the novel I was in the middle of and kept the cone and the hive in the corner of my vision.

After an hour, I looked up and noticed that there were several bees crawling over the tip of the focusing cone. 

My client walked into the room just then.  She spotted them too.  “Sounds different.”

She was right.  The frequency of the humming had shifted.  I didn’t remember that ever happening before.  I had to reset it.

I picked the cone up from the brim.  I used the edge of my book to try to gently brush the bees off, but they kept returning.  It shouldn’t have hurt them if I hummed into the cone with them on it.

I put the wide end of the cone against my mouth again.  I inhaled.

And I caught a glimmer inside the tip of the cone.  Spikes forming.

I dropped the cone just when the spikes shot toward the open end.  Several hit my left hand.

I cried out and wrapped my right hand around the left.

It felt like needles had pierced the side of my palm.  The sensation faded right away.  But it felt like…getting stung.

My client was at my side.  “Are you okay?  What happened?”  She reached for my hand, but I showed her and flexed my fingers.  My hand was fine now.

“I think they just stung me,” I said.  “Magically.”  I gaped.

“They’re angry, aren’t they?”

I peered at the hive.  It was not buzzing with anger.  “It’s never happened before.”

“Maybe they’re fed up with me trying to get rid of them.”

She might have been right.  They weren’t angry, but they could have been irritated.  They had sent the magic back to me, to warn me.  They wanted me to leave them alone.  It had never happened before.  I didn’t know what to do.

No, that wasn’t true. I did know what to do.

I was anxious.  I was sweating and my heart was beating faster.  My breath was erratic.  I had to calm myself.  I couldn’t coax the forces of magic if my mind was disturbed and anxious.  Magic was volatile and dissipated quicker than vapor.  Only a calm mind could keep hold of it, and only an anchored mind could shape it.

I picked up the focusing cone and peeked over the edge of the brim into it. 

All the magic I’d condensed was gone. 

“I didn’t work did it?” my client asked.  “And it won’t work, will it?”

“They like it here, and they don’t trust me.”  Those were the hurdles.  So the simplest solution was to show them some place just as nice to live, maybe even nicer.  And to show them the way to that place, so when I took them, they’d know I wasn’t tricking them. 

I explained my reasoning to my client. “Either that, or I’ll have to find a bee I once knew and have them vouch for me.”

“You can do that?”

“Uh…no, I was joking, sorry.”

I already had a location I was sure the hive would like, with a wide field full of wildflowers nearby.

It took some trial and error, but I managed to attune the formations inside the cone to something that I hoped the bees would interpret as a request to follow me.  A very humble request.

When a few scouts started hovering around me, I hoped the message went through.  I took the cone and walked out of the house, and they followed.  They followed me right into my car.  I drove them to the field, and with a little more trial and error, sent them a message that I hoped they interpreted as “home.”

I set the cone done then, and let the bees settle on the tip.  They didn’t seem to be manipulating the magic.  They were just doing their little bee dances, thrumming their wings, and wriggling their thoraxes.  When they detached and hovered in the air again, I picked up the cone.

“I really hope you’re not about to sting me again.”

I put my right palm against the wide end of the cone, and peeked over the edge.  I didn’t see spikes this time.  I saw a shimmering blob.  The condensed magic oozed toward my hand, and when it touched my palm, I thought I smelled honey, with a floral note.  And I felt a sense of…harmony.

“I think that’s a ‘yes.’  Am I right, girls?”

The scouts hovered around me and followed me when I returned to my car.  Night had fallen by the time I returned.

I told my client that I had made progress and would return the next day to finish the job. 

I returned the next day.

I finished the job.

The scouts must have spread the message.  The bees came willingly.  It was the only way it would work.

My client still had a slight furrow of skepticism on her brow.  But I wasn’t surprised when she reached for her purse.  I stopped her and told her I’d send her a bill in a week.

I did send the bill, after I went to go check on the bees.  They were still in their new home.  And I didn’t have my cone with me, but their buzzing sounded happy.

***

“Cooking?  I never thought you’d get tired of ordering pizza.”

I smiled.  “Pizza is a special treat now.  I’m only going to get it if I’m doing a house call,” I said, stirring the pan full of onions, bell peppers, and garlic.

I’d been working at home for two weeks straight, and I never would have expected it, but I was loving it.  Someone had sent me a big order to fabricate a custom craft for a graduation party.  An enchanted tapestry.  Better still, it was local, so someone would be coming to pick it up.  No need for me to figure out how to find a box that was long enough to fit the rolled up tapestry.  I was going to do something simple, but then I dared to present a more complex option, nothing flashy, just more intricate than the animated waterfalls and fireflies he’d asked for.  The client went for it, and approved the extra elements and the extra fee for making them.  Working on the tapestry had been more fun than I’d had in a while. 

Of course, once that job was done, even before, I’d have to start lining up more.

But Iris told me she was glad I was letting myself savor the job I was currently doing.

The doorbell rang with my evening delivery.

I set aside most of the boxes, but one of them caught my attention.  It wasn’t a service request.

“Hey, it’s a ‘thank you’ note from the client whose house I cleared of the bees.”

It had been a month or so.  The client had already sent payment, along with a nice bonus.

“Read it out loud,” Iris said.  “You should do the bee thing more often.  You’re good at that.”

My client said she was thrilled to be living in a house that was bee-free.  After her struggles with factory-made solutions, and other services that just wanted to exterminate the bees, she was grateful for my help.  She admitted to being surprised that an outer city magician could do such a thorough job, ask for such a reasonable fee, and leave her home feeling so much homier than she’d felt since moving in.  She would keep me in mind for future jobs, and recommend me to friends and family if the opportunity presented itself.

Accompanying the note was a tin of cookies.  She made a point to say that the cookies were homemade.  That is, she wasn’t much of a baker herself, but she had found a small shop run by a father and son who baked every cookie, pie, and pastry themselves.

I grinned when I read the last line.

I’ve heard some things require that human touch to do the job right.


Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

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