the man with the light in his window
When I was a child, I was fairly confident that I lived next door to a Magician (or at very least, a Mad Scientist). The reason for this speculation was simple—I’d just read “The Magician’s Nephew” by C.S. Lewis, and therefore the idea that a light in an attic window could be left on all night (as our neighbor’s always was) and it might NOT mean that there was a scientist or magician laboring over their experiment never occurred to me.
I would sit on my bed, kneeling so that I could stare out the window at the triangle of orange light that streamed out the tiny opening. Every once in a while a shadow would flicker across the glass as my neighbor, no doubt lost in the midst of creating a powerful artifact, rushed from one side of the room to the other. My mind filled in the details—where his desk was. Where he kept the tongs he’s use to draw strips of iron through exotic chemicals. Where the door was—and what he thought of the monsters he’d brought to life to guard those doors.
So enamored was I with this fairytale man I’d invented that I decided one sunny summer afternoon to meet him. Now, the biggest challenge was, of course, reaching the third floor window of his home (I had decided the window would be my mode of entrance, so as to avoid detection by his no doubt terrifyingly monstrous guards) without being spotted by my mother.
But before I could even face that challenge, I had to cross another barrier, which—while not as tall or unsurmountable—was certainly just as daunting.
I speak, of course, of my back-yard fence.
Oh, the days I spent wrestling with that first foe. I climbed our tree, but couldn’t reach the fence from its branches. The house ran directly up to the fence, but there was no way to climb the plaster walls. I finally hatched upon the perfect plan—at approximately three-fifteen in the afternoon, I snuck down into the basement. Standing on the laundry machine (another foe who’s use I left almost exclusively to my parents) I was able to reach the tiny window that lead out the side wall of my house, and into the yard of the Magician. After some scratching with the key that I’d borrowed from my father’s key ring (with the general idea that you were supposed to steal keys when you made your escape attempt, but not any clue as to what it unlocked) I managed to strip away enough of the paint around the edges of the window that I could push my invented exit open.
I did so, and squirmed my way through. It was a smaller window than I’d expected, and I scraped my elbows and my calves rather badly. I held back tears, and kept crawling.
A moment later, however, I stood, dirty and scratched and already exhausted, in the yard of the Magician.
The Magician’s house was rundown, and looked almost uninhabited from this close. That was obviously due to the fact that he, remaining in his study day and night, focused purely on his research and his magic. Of course he never went outside, and neither did his magical servants.
The side of the house was covered in ivy—my first thought was to climb it. Failure. The house itself provided no handholds. Was my quest to fail at this stage?
I sat, for a moment, in the shade of the two houses. How was I going to get up there?
After a moment’s pondering, I decided I might as well try the front door. I would face the monstrous guards if only I could meet the Magician who had so captured my imagination.
The front door, much like the one at my house, was set back into the house behind a covered porch. I approached the porch from the side, stepping through a garden of dead plants (definitely for use in potions) and slipped up onto the painted concrete.
I stood in front of the front door, staring. Should I knock? That might alert the guards. No. Better to just try handle . . . and sure enough it was unlocked. The door swung open silently. The hallway was long and gray, with rooms branching off of it and a thin, steep staircase at the far end. The floor was carpeted, and I knew that the Magician lived on the top floor, so I crept down the hall silently, ignoring the closed doors on either side. With every step I expected something to explode, or an alarm to go off, or a mummy to burst out from one of the doors and drag me into his undead world.
Nothing of the sort occurred, and by the time I reached the stairs I was somewhat disappointed. I hurried up, taking the stairs two at a time. The second floor passed in the blink of an eye. And then, I was approaching it. My final wall. The only barrier left between me and the wizard’s den.
The attic door.
I padded up the last few steps—as silent as I could possibly be. The air seemed to freeze around me, dust hovering, as time itself slowed down. I could hear my heartbeat pounding in my head. I stepped on the final landing, the boards seeming to scream beneath me, and reached for the knob of the door. It was cold.
Just as I was starting to turn the handle, the door flew open, filling suddenly with a giant of a woman. She stood twice my height, with thick red lips pursed in a semi-scowl. Her hair, long and thin, was pulled back in a bun. Her face was lined with annoyance, her eyebrows almost nonexistent and yet somehow raised in anger.
She scowled down at me, raising in fury, and I felt myself shrink even as she grew. Her arm shot out even as I went to turn and run, catching me by my shoulder.
“Where are your parents?” She said, voice raised in anger.
“I’m sorry—” I said, on the verge of tears. Her grip on my shoulder was painfully tight.
“WHERE ARE YOUR PARENTS?” She asked again, voice booming in the tiny hallway.
In desperation, I shouted out the only thing I could think to say.
“I came to see the Magician!” I said, tears streaming down my face. “I want to see the Magician.”
The woman snorted. “No magician here, kid. no magician, no money, and no trespassing either. You know what they do to trespassers?”
Images of jails and cells and being put in the stocks and hanged filled my mind. “I just—” I started to say again.
She started to turn me, to make me go back down there stairs, but before we could move, a voice called out from behind her. It was most definitely a Magician’s voice—weak and thin, but somehow sharp and intelligent at the same time.
“Bring him here.” said the voice.
The woman glanced over her shoulder through the still-open door, then rolled her eyes.
“It’s just some kid.” She said. “Parents probably sent him in so they could sell their miracle cure or something.”
“Bring him here.” was the only response.
The woman sighed, then nearly lifted me from the floor, turning me and setting me back down in the doorway. There was a bed across the room—a room which was lit solely by the sunlight streaming in through the window. A triangular window. I was in the Magician’s room.
But this man didn’t look like a Magician. Instead, he was a frail figure in the bed, wrapped in sheets and blankets. His head was nearly bald, and covered with sun spots, and his hands were wrinkled. There was a complicated looking system next to him, metal poles supporting a bag of liquid. A long, thin, tube ran from the bag down and under his blankets. Maybe he was a scientist after all, I thought, walking towards him.
I was aware of the woman behind me, her anger vanished.
The man turned to face me, his head resting on a pillow. The woman rushed forwards, propping him up and helping him slide to a sitting position. I got closer to him again, standing next to his bedside table. One of his arms was under the blanket, the other rested on top. His hand was withered with age.
“So what’s this I hear about a Magician?” he asked.
I shrugged nervously.
“Well,” he said, his voice frail “I may not be a Magician,” my heart sank “but would you believe me if I said I knew some?”
My eyes widened. Perhaps I’d missed my chance to meet a Magician, but surely meeting someone who had met him was a close second best.
The old man smiled. “That’s right. There’s the Magician who gave me this—” he nodded slightly to his metal contraption.
“What does it do?” I asked, awed.
“It gives me chemicals and keeps me healthy.”
“Like vitamins?” I asked.
He chuckled. “Yes, like vitamins. But I don’t have to chew or swallow. They just put it right into my arm.” He drew his second arm from underneath the blanket—the tube from his contraption came out as well, and sure enough, the tube connected to what looked like an oversized Band-Aid just below his elbow. “There you go.” He said, setting his arm exhaustedly on the bed sheet “Vitamins.”
I heard the woman murmur something behind me, and wondered if maybe he wasn’t supposed to show people his magical vitamin device.
“Could I get one?” I asked. He smiled.
“They save it for people who need lots of vitamins all the time. Maybe someday, though.”
Maybe someday. Maybe someday I’d meet this Magician. Maybe someday he’d give me a vitamin thing. Maybe someday.
After a minute of me staring in silence, I realized the man had fallen asleep.
The woman said I should probably be going and led me back down the stairs. The front hallway didn’t seem nearly so long or gray from the other direction. She walked me to the sidewalk, then headed back into the house. I immediately followed her path back up to the porch, then slipped off the side of it into the Old Man’s backyard. I passed through the dead garden, which reminded me suddenly of the Old Man himself. A moment later, however, I was squeezing back through the window into the basement. I went back upstairs, washing myself off and doing my best to cover up my scratched legs.
I never did see the Old Man again, but looking back I remember a conversation between my parents that I overheard several weeks later.
“Did you hear about the people next door?” asked my mother to my father.
“That lovely lady’s father? Who died?” was his response.
“That right.” said my mother.
“What a tragedy.” said my father vapidly from behind a newspaper.
Vapid was the perfect word to describe their conversations. Discussing death with less sincerity than I discussed dragons and knights. There was always a disconnect between words and feelings in my family. I wonder sometimes if bridging that gap wasn’t why I became a writer.
Che Pieper is a rising junior in the Literary Arts and Theatre Conservatories at Nashville School of the Arts in Nashville, Tennessee. He offered his first literary criticism in his preschool Montessori classroom, when his teacher edited her read-aloud of Charlotte's Web in a manner inconsistent with the author's intent. While his attentiveness as a reader and a writer have continued to grow since then, he's still working on his diplomacy. Che writes fiction and plays for pleasure, essays on demand, and avoids spoken word at all cost.