"I don't see how a book is going to teach me to draw people." I protested. "I've read so many art books-"
"It's not." Josie said, as she fiddled with one book after another in her grandmother's library. "At least, not directly. I only want to -- ah." As she touched a book called The Well of Loneliness, the bookcase swung open.
"Secret passage," Josie explained, smiling. "Practically all decent magicians' houses have them." Josie grabbed my hand. "C'mon!"
As she pulled me inside, the bookcase swung shut behind us. Everything was pitch black for a moment. Then Josie snapped on a flashlight, which she held under her chin.
"I vibbed ealier," she said in a slow, thick Transylvanian accent. "I am not veally vrom Bwooklin..."
"Thanks a lot," I told her, "But I can already draw Frankenstein."
"Dracula, actually. And this is to give you enough light to draw by." Josie handed me the flashlight. She pointed at a little sliding door on the wall, about the size of my hand. "Look through there."
I slide the door open and peeked through the two eyeholes. On the other side was Josie's grandparent's living room.
"You're looking through the eyes of a painting. The glass is one-way, so you can see them but they can't see you. In a few minutes the room is going to fill with people, and you'll need to draw them."
"Part of the magic," Josie said. I turned to see her carefully replacing the book on the correct shelf. Then the bookcase slid back into place, and I was alone in the dark.
"Josie!" No sooner had Josie appeared in the living room than an old lady appeared behind her. I liked her right away, because she was fat but wore white. Every fat adult I know wears dark colors, as though they're trying to be invisible.
Josie looked meek. "Yes, Gra'ma?"
"Is it true that you've been using magic at school, on other kids?"
"Well, yes, but this kid took my friend's skateboard. He totally deserved it."
"Josie, what is the First Rule of Magic?"
Josie looked at her feet and sighed. "Never use magic to gain power, except power over yourself."
"Because it's wrong."
Josie's gra'ma knelt down so she could look Josie in the eye. "Josie, you're old enough to decide what's right and wrong. I can't decide that for you. The First Rule of Magic is because if people think you can do something they can't understand, they'll want to hurt you. And if enough people want to hurt you, sooner or later you'll be in trouble. Do you understand?"
"You understand, but you don't agree," Gra'ma half-smiled.
Josie's head shot up. "I don't mean-"
"It's all right, Josie. Some things you need to learn by yourself. Only be a little careful, okay?"
"Good. Now is everything prepared for today?"
Josie's grandmother stood up officiously. "All right, Apprentice. Then you'd better let our first guests in."
Just then the front doorbell rang. Josie opened the door and in poured the strangest-looking people I had never seen anywhere. There was Mei Xing The Amazing, who looked like a movie star. Fabulous Frieda, who looked like my Aunt Alberta. And Max Kooky, who had wild red hair like a rhododendron bush. Then came Merry-Andrew The Fairly Tolerable, who everyone called "Drew." I even noticed Oliver Twist, who once made the Eiffel Tower disappear on television. (I thought it was nice that at least one magician was unpretentious enough to use his real name.) There were maybe a dozen other people, all with colorful outfits and outrageous hairdos. And they all called Josie's grandmother "J.P." or "Magi."
Just as the last guests were arriving, another old lady plopped down in the sofa in the next room and switched on the television. "Leslie, could you watch TV later?" Josie's grandmother asked. "You know I have my class tonight."
"I just want to watch Skip's Action Weather Report," Leslie told her. "I'm hoping to paint the sunrise tomorrow, and I need to know if it's supposed to rain."
Josie's grandmother made a grumpy noise and trotted off into the living room to loudly fuss with her notes.
Once everyone had received a glass of iced tea and settled down, J.P. stood up and motioned for silence. Then she talked about magic. She had a warm, raspy voice that was just a little too soft. You almost had to hold your breath to hear her.
For the next hour, I sketched. I started with Max Kooky, because he was practically a space alien and he was easy to draw. But eventually I knew I'd have to draw the woman who reminded me of my Aunt Alberta. She would be a terrific challenge, since Aunt Alberta only looked like a monster that one time I woke her up at 4:00 am, for reasons I don't want to go into now.
I thought maybe Josie's gra'ma would do some magic tricks, but she didn't. Instead she talked about what it was like to be in front of an audience. She said that it was easy to make people look stupid, when you called them onstage to help with a trick, and everyone would laugh, but deep down everyone would feel bad. And everyone would leave with a sour taste in their mouth.
She hardly talked about magic at all. She used words like showmanship and courtesy and respect. And a roomful of magicians nodded and took notes. When they asked questions, they called her "J.P." And Josie stayed quiet the whole time, just freshening people's tea, and whispering where the bathroom was, and sometimes scribbling down a note herself. I hadn't seen her be that quiet at school for even five minutes.
Finally, right about the time I was putting the finishing touches on my sketch, J.P. said, "As you know, I usually like to close with a trick."
Something about the way she spoke made me put my sketchbook away and lean forward. I noticed that most of the other people in the room were at the edge of their seats. Except Josie -- she looked right into my eyes and tapped the side of her nose twice. I caught my breath.
"Most of you have heard of Wilhelm Reich," J.P. said grandly. The magicians excitedly whispered among themselves. "Some people consider him one of history's great thinkers -- a writer, visionary, scientist... and dabbler in deep magic. Others call him crazy."
"Cue the music," she whispered, gesturing to Josie.
Josie flipped a switch on a CD player and on came Carmina Burana, by Carl Orff, which is one of the coolest songs of all time. It sounds exactly like what heavy metal music is trying to sound like, but adults can't complain when you listen to it, because it's "classical."
"Back in Reich's day, there were those who said Reich was a little around the bend," J.P. continued. "Even... dangerous." She raised her eyebrows, as if wondering herself whether this was true.
"CUE THE WIND MACHINE!" she yelled suddenly. The front row jumped back.
Josie hit a switch, and on came the wind machine. It was actually more of a fan than a wind machine, but it was pointed right at J.P., and made her hair and scarf blow dramatically as though a storm were blowing through the house.
J.P. had to almost shout at this point, to be heard over the music. The top of the coffee-table began slowly flipping over, like something from a science fiction movie. Bolted to the underside of the tabletop was an elaborate contraption made of hollow brass pipes and a fishtank. It pointed up towards the ceiling.
"There are those who believed Reich had discovered a new form of energy! A force which would give mankind power over the elements themselves! Wind, storms, rain -- they could all be controlled through this awesome new magic. And the simplest demonstration of his power was cloudbusting -- to dissolve the clouds themselves into nothing, through a sheer act of will!"
Josie nudged the fan up to "high," making J.P. look even more dramatic. A few of the magicians were clutching the arms of their chairs as though they were worried they might blow away. None of them looked bored.
"CUE... THE... SKYLIGHT!!!" J.P. shouted.
Josie pulled a cord, and a white tapestry fell from the ceiling. Sunlight poured in from the skylight, making the magicians blink and cover their eyes. I hadn't noticed up till then how dark the room was.
Through the skylight we could see the most beautiful, cotton-white cloud. The music was almost deafening, now -- I think Josie had nudged up the volume.
J.P. was shouting at the top of her voice now, over the music. You've never seen anybody's grandmother jump around and wave their arms as J.P. did, staring up at that humongous cloud through her skylight. "NOW I CALL UPON THE SPIRIT OF WILHELM REICH TO GIVE ME MASTERY OVER THE ELEMENTS! TO GIVE ME POWER SUCH AS NO MORTAL WOMAN HAS EVER KNOWN! CLOUD.... BE GONE!"
The music reached a crescendo. I think every single person in that room held their breath, including me.
The cloud didn't budge.
"CLOUD... BE GONE!" J.P. repeated.
The cloud may have swelled up just a little, as though to make it perfectly clear that it had no intention of going anywhere.
Josie snapped off the wind machine. "Cloud... just shrink slightly?" J.P. looked up meekly. "Maybe get a little less white?" Nothing.
J.P. drew a finger across her throat, and Josie switched off the music. The silence in the room seemed even louder than the music had been, if you know what I mean. The only thing you could hear at all was Josie's Aunt Leslie, still watching TV softly in the other room.
Finally, J.P. broke the silence.
"Well, what do you know?" she smiled. "Maybe he was crazy!"
Josie rolled the wind machine/fan into the other room, J.P. pressed a switch which made the coffee table return to normal, and everyone had their tea freshened.
"Wasn't that interesting?" J.P. asked finally, smiling. She didn't seem disappointed in the least. "Does anyone have any ideas why the trick didn't go well?"
No one answered for a long time. I think they were too scared.
Finally, Josie raised her hand.
"Yes, the apprentice in the back," J.P. pointed at Josie. "Please stand up while addressing the group."
"Well...," Josie began, taking her time standing up. "Didn't you kind of break the first rule of magic?"
J.P. looked stern. "Are you saying that you -- a mere apprentice -- may have noticed a mistake that I, your Magi, didn't see?"
Everyone in the room gasped. Josie swallowed hard.
"Well, I don't mean to be disrespectful. But... didn't you once say that everyone makes mistakes, even you?"
J.P. smiled. "Yes, I suppose I did. Very good, Josie. Knowing your mind even when someone in authority tells you otherwise is absolutely essential to being a decent magician. And it's best when you can hold your ground without being antagonizing or adversarial" I scribbled down the words "antagonizing" and "adversarial" to look up later. "Would you mind reminding us what the First Rule of Magic is?"
"Never use magic to gain power, except power over yourself."
The class all nodded and wrote that down. "Exactly right," J.P. said. "Using magic to control the world usually leads to problems... when you can get it to work at all."
Everyone wrote that down.
J.P. began pacing, clasping her arms behind her back and walking toward the far wall. "The superior magician doesn't try to control the world. She tries to understand the ways the world is moving, and move with it. Imagine a surfer -- she doesn't make the waves, but if she learns to ride them she can get where she's going quickly and easily."
She spun toward the class suddenly, coincidentally standing right in front of a wildly-colored surfboard, which was mounted on one wall. It looked a little beat-up but well-cared for, as if it was used often. "Also," she said, "Surfing is a total blast. Who else can spot opportunities for improvement in my cloudbusting trick?"
The man with the red hair like a rhododendron bush stood up. "Didn't you also break the Second Rule, or at least bend it?"
"Very good, Max. The Second Rule is 'Don't use magic to impress people.' A wise magician uses magic to help remind people that the world is an amazing and wondrous place. Anyone else?"
"Rule three?" asked the woman who looked sort of like my Aunt Alberta.
J.P. snapped and pointed at the woman. "Excellent, Frieda. And would you mind reminding us what the Third Rule is?"
The woman stood up. "A Magician doesn't use magic to focus attention on herself."
"That's exactly right," J.P. said. "A first-rate Magician uses magic to remind her audience that other people are what's worth paying attention to, not some performer they'll probably never even meet in person. Certainly not some trick. The absolute highest accolade a Magician can have is when two members of the audience who arrived as strangers leave as friends. Because they were reminded of the joy of other people."
J.P. poured herself some iced tea. Something about the slow, deliberate way she arranged the glasses and held the pitcher drew the eye, so you almost had to watch her.
"The foolish magician attempts to dominate the audience, to impress others or gain power over them. The superior magician finds the threads of imagination which already exist in her audience, and helps to draw them out. She doesn't control her audience, but is guided by them. The trick itself is almost irrelevant. Finally -- and this is very important -- the more she can keep the focus on the audience, instead of herself, the purer the magic."
J.P. lowered her voice again, till it was so soft you had to strain to hear it.
"The true magician becomes great by making herself small."
For a moment no one spoke. J.P. took a long, leisurely sip of her chamomile tea.
"Now," she said finally. "Let's try the trick again."
"I'll need someone to facilitate...," J.P. said, looking around the room slowly. "Josie?"
Josie's face became red. "I dunno, Gra'ma... I mean, Magi. I've never led the group before..."
"Then don't lead. Let the group lead you."
Josie hesitated. "Well, I thought you were ready," J.P. said finally. "But if you don't feel comfortable facilitating yet, I'm sure we can..."
"No, wait!" Josie stood up. "I'll do it."
Max and Mei Xing lifted Josie up onto the coffee table.
"Okay," Josie said uncertainly. "Well, first we should... hold hands," Josie said hesitantly. "Because we're doing this as a team. Right?" Josie looked over at J.P., but J.P. just sat quietly in the corner sipping her tea, without giving a sign what she thought one way or the other.
"Okay, so let's all hold hands," Josie said more confidently. Everyone did.
"Now, this time we're not going to make the cloud disappear. We're going to ask the cloud -- very nicely -- if it wouldn't mind shrinking a little, temporarily, or maybe moving to another part of the sky. And we'll need a mantra."
"A what?" someone asked.
"A mantra -- a word or phrase we can repeat over and over. This will help focus our attention and remind us that we're doing this as a team. Any ideas?"
"What about 'teamwork'?" Max asked.
"Good," Josie answered. "But remember the Fourth Rule of Magic: 'Create a sense of occasion.' We might use something a little more exotic."
"What about móshù?" Mei Xing asked.
"Great," Josie answered. "What does it mean?"
"Magic," Mei Xing answered. "In Mandarin Chinese." A few people laughed nervously.
"Okay, now as soon as everyone's ready, we can start repeating our mantra and focusing all our energy on asking the cloud -- very nicely -- if it wouldn't mind shrinking or moving a little bit. When the energy in the room peaks, we'll raise our hands towards the cloud and stop chanting at exactly the same time. That's the signal for things to happen."
"Ready?" Josie asked. Everyone held hands, then nodded.
Josie wet her finger and ran it along the edge of her tea-glass. After a few seconds of experimentation the glass emitted a clear, bell-like tone, like a tuning fork.
Then the chanting started. At first it was so soft you could barely hear it. "Móshù... móshù... móshù...," getting louder each time. After a while it didn't sound like separate words anymore, but a continuous hum, like bumblebees or a car engine, with Josie's tea-glass barely audible underneath.
J.P. produced a pair of conga drums from somewhere. She drummed loudly enough to hear, but soft enough to not drown out the chanting or the tea-glass.
"Móshù... móshù... móshù...," the mantra became louder and louder, and sounded more and more like music. A melody crept in, and soon a few of the magicians were singing in harmony. The cloud in the skylight trembled and quavered, but didn't shrink or move.
I noticed that everyone looked just as excited as they had during J.P.'s trick earlier, but this time they also looked happy.
Finally, when the chanting was so loud you could barely hear the tea-glass, and the drumming was like dancing and the mantra sounded like music, Josie put down her tea-glass and gestured "up."
I couldn't tell you how everyone managed to raise their hands at exactly the same moment, without discussing or practicing beforehand, but they did. Josie slipped off the table and faded into the group, joining in the chanting. Finally, when everyone's clasped hands here as high as they could possible get them, at exactly the same time, they stopped and the room fell quiet.
The cloud hadn't budged.
"Nothing!" Josie hung her head. "I can't believe it! That was the most amazing..."
Mei Xing stood up and gestured for complete silence. In the other room, we could barely make out Aunt Leslie's television: "...most amazing atmospheric effect I've ever seen in my twenty years as a meteorologist! El Bambino has completely disappeared! I repeat, the El Bambino Hurricane is gone! Scientists worldwide are baffled as to how this enormous weather system could completely dissipate within the space of only a few minutes! This is Skip's Action Weather, getting reports..."
Aunt Leslie had fallen asleep in her easy chair. She woke up in surprise as J.P.'s students poured into the television room to watch the news report.
"I don't believe it!" Mei Xing said happily.
"It's incredible!" Max agreed.
The magicians all excitedly agreed that this was the best trick they had ever been a part of. No one, even Wilhelm Reich, had ever cloudbusted a hurricane. They whispered privately with each other for a minute, then returned to the living room.
Mei Xing gestured, and two magicians lifted Josie back up on the coffee table.
"Josie Taylor," Mei Xing began, "You have demonstrated magic above and beyond the call of apprenticeship. By the power vested in me by the International Order of Magical Persons, I am authorized to welcome you into our hallowed organization. Do you promise to uphold the Principals of Scrupulous Magicmaking?"
"Do you promise to do your part to increase the world supply of wonderment and amazement?"
"And do you promise to diligently wear at least one clothing item which fairly obviously does not 'go' with any other clothing item, at least once a week?"
"Then as Assistant Grand Vizier, I hereby dub thee 'Josie Cloudbuster, of the International Organization of Magical Persons.'"
"Thank you, Assistant Grand Vizier," Josie said solemnly. "I shall discharge the duties of my office with great rigor, and equally great..." Josie paused, trying to think of the right word. "...Great magicalness."
The applause was deafening.
After everyone left, Josie smuggled me back into the living room, where I could finally see the picture I had been looking through all night:
It was an illustrated poster, with the headline "A night of magic by the spellbinding J.P. Taylor, with music and scenery by the sublime Leslie DesJardin." To the left was a young woman who looked like a cross between Josie and Gra'ma. She wore a black three-piece suit with a top-hat and pocket watch. Flowers and doves peeked out from her pockets. On the right was Aunt Leslie. She looked as if she was barely a teenager, playing a grand piano and wearing a long black dress. In tiny print in the bottom right the painting was signed "Leslie DesJardin, 1942."
"Would your friend like to join us for milk and cookies?" J.P. asked from the kitchen.
I was about to ask Josie how her grandmother knew I was there at all, but before I had a chance Josie looked over at me and silently mouthed the word "magic."
"Darla's an artist," Josie said, helping herself to an enormous oatmeal cookie. "She can draw anything."
"Except people," I added.
Josie talked with her mouth full of cookie. "I told her Aunt Leslie could explain about drawing people."
"Please don't talk with your mouth full," Leslie said. Then she turned to me and said, "Is that your sketchbook?" I nodded.
"May I see it?"
I could tell Aunt Leslie knew art, because she oohed and ahhed at all the right places. A few times she asked insightful questions like, "Was Principal Laquit your model for the evil swamp creature?" or, "How did you get such a good color for the zombie ooze?" Finally she came to the sketch I had done of J.P. and the magician's class.
"What an interesting vantage point," she said in an odd tone of voice, holding the drawing up so J.P. could see it. "Mmm," J.P. said, and glanced meaningfully at Josie before returning to washing the tea glasses. Josie pretended to be too busy drinking her milk to notice. I didn't know the word "vantage," but obviously the only place that drawing could have been done is from behind the poster in the secret passageway.
Aunt Leslie looked at the drawing for about a gazillion years, holding it out and then close and then turning it upside-down. I wished I could melt into my shoes (like the Forest Hill Anti-Monster Brigade in my earlier work, The Forest Hill Anti-Monster Brigade vs. Meltar, the Creature With Heat-Vision Raybeams).
"I see the problem," Aunt Leslie said finally.
"The problem is I'm not good enough at drawing," I said.
"Oh, there's nothing wrong with your drawing," Aunt Leslie answered. "You can draw perfectly. The problem is you're too good at thinking."
Josie stopped chewing mid-cookie. "Mmph?" she asked.
"Let's do an experiment," Aunt Leslie said, standing up. She grabbed Josie's skateboard from where it was leaning against the wall. "Would you mind holding this?" she asked, handing the skateboard to Josie.
"Now," Aunt Leslie began, squatting so she was eye-level with me, "I want you to look at Josie for a minute, as though you're getting ready to draw her. Remember as much as you can, and then shut your eyes."
I looked at Josie for a long time before shutting my eyes.
"Ready?" she asked.
"What is Josie wearing?"
"Faded blue overalls with a daisy patch on one knee."
"How is she wearing her cap?"
"Backwards, but slightly tilted to the left, with a few bangs peeking out in front."
"How many freckles does she have?"
I heard a creaking noise, as Josie leaned forward in her chair.
Aunt Leslie spoke again: "How many skateboards tall is she?"
"Um... what?" I think I was blushing. What a weird question!
"If Josie was standing up," Aunt Leslie asked, "How many skateboards would it take to reach from the floor to the top of her head?"
"I don't know. Four?"
"Open your eyes."
As soon as I looked at Josie again it was obvious she was only 2 1/2 skateboards tall. "I'm such a moron," I said.
"Not at all," Aunt Leslie smiled. "You've only confirmed my theory. You interpret the world as ideas: Josie, overalls, daisy patch, cap, freckles." She tapped her head. "Always thinking. To draw people, you need to turn off that part of your thinking and see the world as shapes and proportions: a tube that's 2 1/2 skateboards tall is sitting on a box that's 1 skateboard tall, eating circles that are 1/3 of a skateboard tall. The skateboard is as long as 3 cookies, and the cookies are 1/2 the size of Josie's cap. Everything has a shape, and every shape is a certain proportion to every other shape."
I slumped down in my seat. "So you're saying I'm the wrong kind of person to draw people, if I see ideas instead of shapes."
Aunt Leslie waved a cookie. "No, I'm saying that once you learn a few basic techniques, your ideas will really come to life. But the ideas are the magical part. Ideas are what separate an okay painting from a great painting."
The doorbell rang. "I'll get it," J.P. said, drying her hands with a towel as she went to answer the door.
"I've been drawing my whole life," I said, fiddling with my notebook. "Maybe I just can't see shapes the way you can."
Aunt Leslie gestured, and Josie handed her the skateboard.
"Darla, look at me," she said. I looked.
"Now close your eyes," she said, and I did.
"How many skateboards tall am I?"
"3 and 1/2," I answered, and I knew I was right.
"How many skateboards am I away from the wall?"
"Open your eyes."
I opened them. Josie was giving me the "thumbs up" sign. Aunt Leslie was 3 and 1/2 skateboards tall, 5 skateboards away from the wall, and smiling broadly.
"I could use a little part-time help in my frame shop," she said, dunking her cookie in a glass of milk. "If you're available, I'd be willing to trade for painting lessons."
"That would be great," I answered. "But what about...?"
"Careful," said a familiar voice from behind me. "Once you start making deals with the Taylors, it's hard to stop."
J.P. had reappeared with the person who had rung the doorbell. He was wearing a police officer's uniform, but I'd know that face anywhere.
It was Skip, the guy from the Action Weather Report.
go to chapter four | return to josie homepage