The Magican and the Butterfly: Part Two

I've always believed in magic, or hoped for it at the very least. When I was a child, I thought that if I looked around the corner fast enough I'd see the fairies and goblins of Granny's stories. Later, when I was older, I used to hope for magic in my marriage - for some fairy-godmother to come to her favorite child, wave her wand and eliminate all the problems between me and Cody. Yeah, pixie-dust and dreams are no basis for a good partnership, but nor are stolid pragmatism and unflinching acceptance. Cody described in five words.

I still ask myself why I married someone to whom I was obviously unsuited? I'm well aware that the good wives of Caldecott thought the same about him, asking themselves how he could settle on someone so flighty and odd when Brett Morton was available? (I've always pitied her - she's as placid and bovine as Daddy's cows, without any spice of evil in her to make her interesting.) Maybe it was that dreadful, old adage that opposites attract . . . . I don't know. Simply put, I believed that I loved him. I had never had other boyfriends, so had no tape-measure against which to compare my feelings for him. No way to tell that I felt friendly affection for him - although towards the end of our marriage even that had vanished - rather than any deep passion. I doubt that his emotions ran any deeper than mine.

I say that because his proposal was . . . as staid as our relationship. Sensitive as always, Cody had chosen an unpleasant, gray winter's day to propose to me. He'd driven up to our farmstead in his old pickup to have supper with me, as he usually did on a Thursday, and we were drinking coffee around the kitchen table. (My parents had gone to Macon for the week to visit family.) We were chatting about George O'Reilly's latest escapade, when, out of the blue, he asked me if I would marry him.

To this day, I'm not sure why I agreed. I guess it was the hope in his eyes, or the fact that momma had been pressing me to tie the knot. She was old-fashioned and believed that there was no higher calling than to be a wife. To have a hot dinner on the table when 'your man' returned from the fields. To silently cater to his every whim - fetch his slippers, his newspaper and never have a headache.

His widowed mother was horrified, of course, when we announced our engagement. It provided gossip for her quilting circle for weeks to come, lips piecing together scandal as they did patches. Old tales were aired as proof of my unsuitability for a Nice, Young Man like Cody. The time when I went to Jackson to watch Dazzler's concert and didn't return until dawn, was a favorite motif of their conversations. (They all assumed that I'd met a 'gentleman' there and had gone home with him. In reality, I'd spent the night waiting for a delayed bus and guarding my purse against pickpockets.) If that failed to get them clucking in disapproval, they'd mention the time that I sneaked out of the house at midnight to ride Pierre Moonstar's stallion, Northwind. (It was the most beautiful horse I had ever seen - so black as to be almost indigo - that shimmered darkly in the moonlight. I was sixteen at the time, and my mother forbid me to ride it, considering it to be beneath my dignity to go galloping across the fields, like a skinny tomboy.) All in all, they'd lament the fact that I was not Brett Morton, and that I had seduced their darling, golden boy.

To be frank, I could have cared less what that brood of old hens thought. My mother always told me that people talk behind your back, because they're two steps behind you. Of course, momma had been brought up in one of the finer Charleston houses and believed that everyone else was beneath her, as well as behind her. If that wasn't enough, his Jersey cows had made Daddy of the richer farmers in the district and she never allowed us, or anyone else, to forget it.

Consequently, she also told me more than once that my marriage to Cody Robbins was a mistake. He was a poor farmer with only five acres to his name - any rural person could tell you that that isn't enough to raise enough corn for a bowl of popcorn, let alone make a profit. I could have done better, she complained, and continued to speculate why I hadn't. I could have stood momma, if it was not for Mrs Robbins. Throughout our marriage, her specter hung over us, never letting us forget that we lived because of her kindness. Since he had little land of his own, Cody worked for her, farming the two-hundred acres of land that had belonged to his father. I could have accepted owing her, if it had only been the land which she had owned. However, the house, that she had given to us as a wedding present, had belonged to her when she was a young bride. Mrs Robbins' presence could be felt everywhere I went - the ugly, gingham curtains in the bedroom were her handiwork; the table had hosted her guests; the four-poster bed had been hers on their honeymoon night. . . . Even if I had been able to forget, she took pleasure in reminding me.

My mother also rubbed it in at every opportunity, claiming it as yet another reason why I should not have married Cody. You have to understand a farmer's mindset to understand how humiliating it was to her. Farmers measured their wealth by how much land or beasts they had, and how low their mortgage was. Consequently, my mother saw the fact that my husband had to work for someone else as a stain upon her name and turned her nose up at him. Our marriage was marked by his mother's sarcastic comments and my mother's endless cataloging of my faults.

Poor momma, I guess my running off with Renard . . . Remy . . . would have scandalized her. A magician in the Gamesmaster's Circus, he is what my parents disparagingly call a 'shiftless drifter' or 'horse-thief'. The fact that he has played to packed houses at Las Vegas and New York - that he is acknowledged by 'Time' as the greatest magician since Houdini and Mesmero - means nothing to them. Really, it is of very little account to me as well. I love the person, not the personage. . . .

I remember the first time I saw Remy. It was during the Circus' parade down Main Street, and I was standing on the edge of the sidewalk. The final caravan - small, midnight-blue and painted with silver stars and golden suns - belonged to him. I was surprised that no-one was on top of it, as with all the others, and someone whispered to me that they must have got the magician mixed up with the Invisible Man. Suddenly, in an explosion of glitter and smoke, Renard was standing there, dressed in black and wrapped in his red, velvet cloak, smiling as if the world belonged to him. It is hard for me to recall how I felt on seeing him. I guess I've fallen under his spell too much to be objective when I look back, even after months of partnership in our public and private lives; even after coming to know Remy's faults. (He hogs the bed-clothes, smokes and is obsessively neat. The last is great, though, as it means that I never have to clean our caravan!) I probably felt attracted to his beauty, swept away by the drama of his entrance. Nevertheless, I do remember feeling a vague, nagging sense of guilt, as if a part of me had known what was to come and disapproved of it. . . .

Anyway, later that night, while we were eating our supper, I asked Cody if he would take me to the circus. The harvest had been more profitable than usual, and we had some money to spend on ourselves for the first time in a long time. I didn't expect him to agree, as he had told me more than once that we should save any extra money for the future. Of course, I knew he meant any kids which we might have. I think he was a little disappointed that I had not had our first child yet - something which his mother never failed to use against me. Brett Morton, as bovine as she was, would have been expecting their second by now, Mrs Robbins believed. However, to my surprise, he grinned and said that he'd be glad to take me and was looking forward to seeing the show.

In retrospect, the circus' performance was not one of the better ones, although, at the time, I was as thrilled by it as anyone else. I applauded the Flying Wagners - Kurt and Amanda, dressed as a devil and an angel, throwing their daughter between them as they swung on the trapezes - and Logan the Lionhearted brandishing his whip and forcing the lions through flaming hoops. Strong Guy lifted weights that would have broken any farmer's back, although Cody whispered to me that he thought any of 'our Caldecott boys' could have done the act just fine. Spiral spun balls, torches and daggers, not dropping one of them. Finally, the lights dimmed to a single point on the sawdust ring - a spotlight into which the magician stepped. Compared to his earlier dramatic entrance, the simplicity of it was disappointing, but it did allow me a chance to study him more closely. Renard was beautiful. Tall and slender, with an almost-too-handsome face that was saved by his crooked smile, he stood silently in the middle of the arena. He was younger than I had first imagined; barely older than Cody and me. I heard Cody swear softly to himself as Remy looked up at the audience, and we saw his eyes clearly. Like him, they were exotic - scarlet swirls set in black. Some of the older people whispered that it was witchcraft and the Catholics among them crossed themselves. (I'd later discover that they were little more than elaborate, contact-lenses which he used to create a stir. Yeah, I know a good magician never reveals his secrets, but I am his assistant, among other things.) He lifted his hands, showing that they were empty, then clenched his fists. When he opened them again, a flock of luminous butterflies flew towards the ceiling, before turning into rose-petals and falling down on us.

Consequently, by his standards, the stunt that brought us together was a fairly simple one; a trick common to every magician in every circus. (The Gamesmaster insisted that he include it for the crowd, who waited for it. I remember how Remy used to argue bitterly with the ringmaster, saying that the point of magic is the unexpected. Their different viewpoints were one of the reasons that he went solo, touring Las Vegas and taking me with him.) He 'd set up a wooden-screen, painted with aces and hearts, and had a set of daggers in his hands. The Gamesmaster had then asked for volunteers with suitably strong stomachs 'to brave death and demonstrate the power of the mind '. Melanie Judd, who had caught a lift with us and was sitting next to us, scornfully said that lack of common sense would be useful as well. Angry with her sarcasm and determined to do something to spite the old cats, I'd stood.

There must have been some real magic at work that night, because, of all the would-be volunteers, the magician chose me. (Remy would tell me later that it was customary to select a pretty woman, as it appealed to the audience's sense of the dramatic.) Cody, of course, attempted to stop me, telling Renard that I had stood because I wanted to attract the attention of the popcorn vendor. I replied, battling to keep the anger out of my voice, that I thought my husband had had too much sun, and I was happy to volunteer. The magician's answering grin was enough to make up for the fight I knew I would have with Cody later that night.

Taking my hand in his, Renard helped me into the ring. I still remember the sweet smell of sawdust and the blinding lights in my face; the stares of my fellow townsfolk and Melanie's lips tightened in disapproval. I recall that his hand was warm and solid against my cold one - more reassuring than his whispered words as he tied me to the wooden screen with silk scarves. I'd learn later than it was the standard, company line: "It's just an illusion. You'll be fine." (I've said it to enough shivering teenagers and nervous women myself.)

Flashing a final smile at me, the Magician took five, measured paces away from me. Suddenly, he spun on his heel and let loose a volley of knives. In my panic, I bit my lip, tasting blood, and shut my eyes, praying desperately. I heard five hollow thwacks as the daggers impacted with the board, then the cheers and whistles of the audience. Twisting my head to the side, I saw that each blade had embedded itself in the center of a heart. Renard bowed to me, as became our custom over time, then lifted a hand. The scarves fell from my wrists and ankles, turning into multicolored smoke and leaving me free. I don't know if it was the adrenalin or the sure knowledge that I was falling in love for real, but I had never felt as alive as I had at that moment.

As he walked towards me, Remy pulled a bundle of a dozen, perfect white rosebuds out of his pocket. In his hands, they deepened to pink, then red, opening as they did so. I know that the old cats still wonder what he said to me, as he handed me the bouquet. I'm sure they use the same scandalized, hushed tone of voice as always. They probably think that he asked me to elope with him, or praised various bits of me. (The quilting circle always hid a cheap romance inside their Bible, taking turns to read it.) Nothing could be further from the truth. He said that he hoped that he hadn't got me into too much trouble with my husband. Touched by his concern, I replied that I knew Cody would understand, and, if not, that this had been worth any argument we might have. . . .

He didn't. It was a typical spat. He had sat at the dinner-table, somehow looking disapproving while eating his peas. (I always hated Cody's habit of forcing me to make the first move, turning me into the villain while he remained the innocent victim.) He had smiled at me and said that 'he wondered how I would be happy in a backwater town like Caldecott now that I had had a taste of the spotlight.' Like his mother, Cody's innocuous comments and observations could cut deep. Still angry at him for humiliating me in front of Renard, I sniped back that Caldecott was fine, but I couldn't be happy with a backwater farmer who had only five acres to his name. His lips had tightened in much the same way that Mrs Judd's did and I realized that I had struck a blow. I knew that his lack of land was his sore spot, yet I was too frustrated to care how much I hurt him. I wanted to hear him yell back at me, defend himself, do anything except stare at me with his heart in his eyes. . . .

I was still crying into my pillow when I heard the kitchen door swing open and the old car in the garage start up before driving down the road into town. Cody on the way to the bar. When he returned hours later and climbed into bed beside me, turning his back to me and smelling of alcohol, I knew that I had to escape. That the Gamesmaster's Circus of Wonders was my one chance to get out of Caldecott.

I had no clear idea of the specifics as I planned how I would run away with the circus. At the time, I was willing to do anything, including sell popcorn or sweep up after the elephant. Heck, I imagined anything would have been preferable to being a farmwife, to being Mrs Cody Robbins. Now, knowing better, I realize that I was very lucky to land the position I did. Assistant to someone who became one of the world's foremost magicians. . . .

Sometimes I lie awake in Remy's arms at night and wonder if this isn't all a dream. If the clock will strike twelve and I'll turn back into Sabine Robbins, farmwife. At moments like that, I concentrate on the beat of his heart, the warmth of his body against mine, and his soft breath on the back of my neck, knowing that I will never return to Caldecott. That I love him like I could never love Cody.