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The Red Magician

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About The Author

Lisa Goldstein

Lisa Goldstein is the author of seven widely acclaimed novels, including The Dream Years, A Mask for the General, Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon, Tourists, Summer King, Winter Fool, and Dark Cities Underground, as well as numerous works of short fiction, recently... More

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Chapter 1
In the town where Kicsi grew up there was a rabbi who could work miracles. It was a small town, and borders—Hungarian, Czech, Russian—ebbed and flowed around it like tides. Once, Kicsi remembered, she went too far from home and came to a place where the people spoke a different language. In the distance, on the horizon, stood the mountains, fat and placid as cows.
The rabbi who could work miracles was sitting in the living room talking to her parents as Kicsi came down the stairs early one morning. Outside the sun was rising slowly, its light falling on the trees and fields and the high tops of the brown and gray houses. Everything was silent, expectant, as though the town were spinning itself a tight cocoon of wool, preserving itself intact for future generations. The birds sounded muffled and far away.
“I’m sorry,” Imre, Kicsi’s father, was saying, “I don’t agree with you. I don’t see the point. Why should you—” He broke off as Kicsi came into the room. “Good morning, Kicsi,” he said.
“Hurry and eat your breakfast,” said Sarah, Kicsi’s mother. “All the others have eaten and you’ll be late for school.”
“Let her stay,” said the rabbi. “This concerns her too. She will not be going to school.”
“Not going—” said Kicsi. “But why? What has happened?”
The rabbi leaned forward onto his walking stick to face her. The tips of his white beard nearly touched his knees. “You see,” he said, “I’ve heard that the Hebrew language is being taught there as if it were Yiddish or—or Magyar. Is this true?”
Bits of Hebrew conversation came to her. My house, your house, our house. Hello, how are you? “Yes, it is,” she said. “But we learn other things too. We learn—”
“They speak Hebrew now in Palestine, the immigrants,” said Imre. “The school is keeping up with the times.”
“Palestine,” said the rabbi. “Immigrants.” He scowled. Kicsi played nervously with a fold in her dress. “You see,” said the rabbi, “Hebrew will be spoken only when the Messiah comes and we return to the Holy Land. That is to say, when God wills it. Until then Hebrew is to be spoken only in prayer.
“You must not send your children to this school, Imre,” he went on. “They blaspheme against the Holy Name.”
Imre looked at the rabbi. He was obstinate. He had been obstinate even as a young man, when he had overheard his parents making plans for his future. “And Imre,” his father had said, “I think Imre will study to be a butcher.” The young man had been so horrified at this that he had run away from his village. Twenty years later he had a house and a printing company next door.
“I want to give my children a good Jewish education,” he said now. “Where else could I send them?”
“At the school they will learn only lies and half-truths about their traditions,” said the rabbi. “You could teach them better yourself, at home. For reading and mathematics and so forth they could go to the public school.”
“I don’t agree,” said Imre. “Kicsi is thirteen, too old to be taught at home. And the rest of my children are older. They will continue to go to the school.”
The rabbi looked out the window. The only things that moved outside were shadows and chimney smoke. He raised his heavy eyebrows and turned to Imre. “I’m afraid not,” he said. “You see, I will put a curse on the school.”
Imre moved awkwardly in his chair. Sarah, watching him, felt a touch of terror at the rabbi’s words. Five years ago Imre had gone to Budapest to have a delicate operation on his spine, and Sarah, fearing that he would die, had asked the rabbi to pray to God to save him. The operation had been successful, but Imre had lost the use of his left arm.
“I am telling you this,” the rabbi went on, “because you are one of the most influential people in the town. If you take your children out of the school, the rest of the townspeople will soon do the same.”
“I’m not afraid of your curses,” Imre said finally. “My children will continue to go to the school.”
“You will delay things for a while,” said the rabbi. “But the school will die all the same. Soon your children will be the only ones attending.”
He grasped his walking stick and stood up. “No need,” he said, as Imre stood to walk him to the door. “I hope you’ll reconsider. Good day.” He opened the door and let himself out.
Kicsi ran to Sarah and held her. “What will happen?” she asked. “Can he kill us? What will he do?”
“Hush,” said Sarah, still badly frightened herself. “You shouldn’t let the devil hear you say such things or they may come true. Everything will be all right.”
Kicsi hugged Sarah tightly. The overstuffed chair smelled of lavender and chamomile.
“Hush,” said Sarah again. “Now, go to school.”
* * *
“Cursed be the school,” said the rabbi. “And cursed be those who go there to study, and cursed be those who send their children there to study. Forty demons will dwell with them for forty days and nights, and their life will be filled with torment. And cursed be those who talk to them, and those who call on them, and those who sit at their table. Twenty demons will dwell with them for twenty days and nights, and they will have no peace.
“And thrice cursed be those who teach at the school, for they have blasphemed. From them the Holy Name has turned His face, and they are damned eternally.”
The rabbi paused. He remembered vividly the time Sarah had come to see him, her look of helplessness and the quick grateful smile she had given him when he had promised to pray for her and her husband. He felt no anger against them now. Well, perhaps Imre would change his mind. He sighed and said, “Amen.”
A few blocks away, Kicsi was working a different kind of magic. While walking home from school she had seen a nun, and she knew that if she made a wish and held the top button of her shoe until she saw a chimney sweep her wish would come true. Her arm hurt from stretching it and her legs were beginning to cramp, but she held on to the button as if it were a life raft. She wiped the hair from her face with her free hand as she looked hopefully up at the street, but she saw only a few students. Sighing, she lowered her head and looked again at her shoe, a hand-me-down from an older sister.
She was not quite sure what she had wished for. She knew it had to do with words—words that conjured up other words within her mind. Siam: silk, spices, tea, houseboats and jungles and sand under moonlight. Arabia: camels, figs, dates, leagues of desert sand, women with their faces hidden by veils of old coins. Paris, New York: fashionable dresses and silk stockings and more automobiles than she had seen in a lifetime.
Beyond the mountains, she knew, were other people, other ways of life. Her father had left his town, had escaped and made a new life; she wanted her turn. In her mind the suitcases were all packed, the good-byes all said. She was ready to leave, ready for whatever fate would send her.
She looked up again. There! It was a chimney sweep, unmistakable, covered with soot. She straightened slowly, stretched her legs, and flexed her fingers. She smiled with triumph.
That Friday at the synagogue Imre met a stranger. In a town where everyone knew everyone else the stranger stood out. He was tall, with bright red hair and beard, and his clothes—Imre did not recognize the fashion, but they were clearly not from Eastern Europe. Imre noticed the man during the services and planned to talk to him later and make him feel welcome, after he had talked for a while with the other men in the village as he had done every week for most of his life. But after the services the other men backed away when he approached them, smiling and nodding and making excuses about an early dinner. Word of the curse had spread. The school was half empty, and the parents of the children who remained were nervous and ready to change sides.
Finally only Imre and the stranger were left, standing in the shadows of the synagogue. The lamplighter made his slow way down the street, casting light against darkness.
Sholom aleichem,” said Imre. “Where are you from?”
Aleichem sholom,” said the stranger. “Lately? Lately I’m from Czechoslovakia.” Imre couldn’t place his accent. It wasn’t Czech or Slovak.
“Ah,” said Imre. “Czechoslovakia. When this town was part of Czechoslovakia, those were better times. The freedom—”
“You wouldn’t recognize Czechoslovakia now,” said the stranger. “The freedom is gone now—the Germans have seen to that.”
“The Germans,” said Imre. “The Hungarian government signed a treaty with the Germans, only last year. But so far they have not acted against us.” He shrugged with his right arm, his left arm a dead weight against his side. “We are such a small village, after all, and so far from things…”
A look, almost of pain, crossed the stranger’s face, but he said nothing. Sudden alarm took Imre. “Do you think—Are we in danger?” he asked.
“I think—perhaps you are,” the stranger said softly. “But perhaps not for a while. Still, if you have relatives in America”—he glanced at Imre, and Imre found himself wondering how the stranger had known about his family—“you should make plans to leave this place.”
“To—to leave?” Imre said. “To leave my village ?”
“If you can,” said the stranger. “But come, my friend, let’s talk of more cheerful subjects.”
 “So,” said Imre, saying the first thing that came into his mind, “are you planning to stay here a while?”
“No,” said the stranger. “Only for a few days.”
“Do you have a place to stay?”
“Then I insist you stay with us,” said Imre. “Though I should warn you—we’ve had a disagreement with the rabbi. And the townspeople, for the most part, have sided with him.”
“Your rabbi,” the stranger said. “They say he’s a great scholar, or so I’ve heard.”
“He was at one time,” Imre said. “And perhaps he still is. Though I find myself disagreeing with him more and more.”
“Well, then,” said the stranger. “I would like to stay with you very much. What the rabbi thinks of you is not my concern.”
“Good, very good,” said Imre. “What is your name?”
“By my friends I am called Vörös,” said the stranger. Vörös means red or redhead in Hungarian.
“Very good. Let’s go home.”
So, Imre thought, glancing at the tall man beside him as they set off through the evening streets, you don’t want me to know your name or your business. Very well. You didn’t want to know my business with the rabbi and the people of the village. You could be a political prisoner, escaped from those dogs in Germany, or you could be running guns to Palestine. Perhaps, perhaps. You could—who knows?—steal my silverware or one of my daughters, or murder me in my sleep. But I think not. I think you are an honest man, Vörös, and I think your business is your own.
The shadows were lengthening and the streets almost deserted as Imre and Vörös came home. “Gut Shabbos, Sarah,” said Imre. “I have brought a guest. This is Vörös.”
“Come in, come in, Vörös,” said Sarah. “Girls, one of you run and get another plate for our guest. We have company!”
Kicsi turned and saw the stranger in the doorway. Light from the house fell upon him, turning his beard and hair golden. He looked at her, and she thought that he could not be much older than Magda, the oldest sister. His skin was pale and his eyes in the light were very blue.
At dinner the girls made much of the stranger, laughing and softly teasing him about his hair. Their brother Tibor sat near Imre and watched Vörös quietly. “Where are you from?” asked Magda.
Vörös repeated his words to Imre. “Lately? Lately from Czechoslovakia.”
“No,” said Kicsi. “Where were you before that?”
Imre shot her a warning glance, but she ignored it and looked instead directly at Vörös.
“All over,” Vörös answered, smiling. “Europe, America, Asia…”
“Asia!” said Kicsi, breathing the word, savoring it.
“He means Palestine,” said Ilona scornfully. “No one goes any farther than that.”
“No,” said Vörös. “I’ve been to Palestine, certainly, but I’ve been farther. Shanghai.”
Shanghai. It was another word for Kicsi to store away and save, to bring out later and examine. This, then, was the way her wish would be answered. “Where else?” she said. “What was it like? Did you see statues and ruins and bazaars? Did you go to the Great Wall of China? To the Himalayas?”
Vörös laughed. “Yes, yes, all of that and more,” he said.
“What did—” She stopped, noticing for the first time the thin scar that ran from his hairline, cutting across one eyebrow and disappearing into his beard. “Where did you get that scar?”
“Kicsi!” said Imre.
“It’s all right,” said Vörös. “I don’t mind. It was during the last war. We were attacked by looters.”
“The war?” said Kicsi suspiciously. “You’re not old enough.”
“Now that is really enough, do you hear me!” said Imre. “Excuse my daughter, please. She sometimes gets carried away.”
“Oh, she doesn’t bother me,” said Vörös. “I’d be happy to answer her questions.” Then, seeing Imre’s expression: “Some other time, perhaps.”
The next day Kicsi found Vörös seated at a table, looking through the books in the library. “Tell me a story,” she said.
Vörös put down the book he was holding. His hands, Kicsi noticed, were pale and slender, and covered with fine golden hair. “What kind of story?” he asked.
“Anything,” said Kicsi fiercely.
“Let me see,” said Vörös. Kicsi watched him carefully, studying his smooth young face, his clear wide eyes, his short curly beard. “All right. When I was in America I worked for a while for a magician.”
“Yes, a real magician. He looked like a cat—like an old cat that’s been left out in the rain too long, sort of seedy and mangy—but you knew that he’d always find enough to eat, and somehow, no matter where we were, he’d always manage to keep himself spotlessly clean. He had long sleek black hair, and an elaborately curled black mustache, but under the mustache all his teeth were rotten. We’d travel around from town to town, putting on shows, and once a year we’d return to New York.
“He loved New York. I don’t know why. New York is dirty and noisy and crowded, and likely to get worse. But he seemed very much at home there, and he’d always tell me, after a particularly good night, that when he’d had enough of touring he’d settle down in New York and never go back on stage again.
“Well, one night in New York we’d done fairly well. He’d taught me a few tricks with coins and flowers and cards—”
“Can you still do them?” said Kicsi.
“Surely. You never forget. I’ll show you a few, after the Shabbos. Anyway, toward the end of the show we did a vanishing act. What usually happened was, I’d build a box around the magician, made of thick boards, and when I opened the box he would be gone. Then I’d close up the box, open it again, and—lo and behold— there he’d be again. But this particular night, when I opened the box again, he was still missing. I was panicked. The audience got restless, and then furious. Then they began to throw things. I hurried off the stage. But as I left, I swore I saw a sleek black cat walking out the stage door.”
Kicsi thought a while. “That’s not a true story,” she said finally.
“Well, you know how stories are. Parts of them are true and parts are made up. And anyway, you didn’t ask me for a true story.”
“Kicsi!” someone called.
“That’s Magda,” said Kicsi. “I’d better go.”
“Come back any time,” said Vörös. “We’ll talk some more.”
“I will,” said Kicsi.
The next day Kicsi waited impatiently for school to end. The few students that remained fidgeted restlessly, certain the curse was coming home to rest on their shoulders. They were afraid to stay in school and afraid to disobey their parents by leaving. The teachers could do nothing with them. Kicsi, unnoticed, sat in a corner and daydreamed of Vörös.
She ran home after school, stopping for no one. He wasn’t there. All afternoon she waited, wandering through the old, vast house until at last she heard his footsteps at the door. She ran to the living room.
“Vörös!” she said. “Tell me a story.”
“Give me a minute, please,” said Vörös. He sighed and sat in one of the chairs, stretching his long legs in front of him. “I have a better idea. Why don’t you tell me a story?”
“Me?” said Kicsi. “About what? I haven’t been anywhere.”
“Oh, about anything,” Vörös said. “Why do they call you Kicsi, for example?”
“Oh, that,” Kicsi said. “That’s not important. They’ve called me the Little One since I was born. Because I’m the youngest. My real name is—”
“No,” said Vörös. “If you tell me your real name I shall have to tell you mine. Tell me something else. What did you do in school today?”
“Well,” said Kicsi. She thought a while. “The school is under a curse.”
“A curse?” said Vörös.
“Yes. Because they teach Hebrew, and the rabbi says no one can speak Hebrew until the Messiah comes. So he cursed it.”
“Really? Can he do that?”
“I suppose he can,” said Kicsi. It no longer seemed as important. “A lot of people think he can, anyway. There’s almost no one left in the school.
“Wait a minute,” said Kicsi suddenly. “Do you think he’s wrong? Maybe the Messiah’s come and no one has noticed yet. Do you think so? You’ve been to Palestine—maybe you’ve seen him there and didn’t know it.”
Vörös laughed. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “When the Messiah comes, everything will be different. Elijah the Prophet will walk into Jerusalem and the Messiah, the son of David, will follow him. Then the air will be like myrrh and cinnamon, and the rivers will run with honey. The Temple will stand where it stood of old, built of gold and cedar wood and ivory. All promises will be fulfilled and all questions answered. We will come from the four corners of the earth, and the graves will give up their dead, and we will meet in the Promised Land and rejoice.” He sounded wistful, as though recalling a dream. “Didn’t the rabbi tell you that?”
“No,” said Kicsi. “He just tells us what we can’t do.”
“Oh, now,” said Vörös. “He can’t be that bad.”
“You don’t know him,” said Kicsi. It was strange to think that she had stood in almost the same place a few days ago and the rabbi had leaned on his walking stick to talk to her. “I don’t like him at all.”
A crystal candlestick holder fell off the mantel onto the wooden floor and broke into a thousand pieces. Vörös half-stood, then sat back in his chair.
“Kicsi!” Sarah shouted from the kitchen. Kicsi heard hurrying footsteps and then Sarah came into the room. “What did you do?”
“I—it just fell. I didn’t do it. I didn’t do anything.”
“That’s right,” said Vörös. “It just fell to the floor.”
Sarah saw Vörös for the first time. “Didn’t your father say you weren’t to talk to him?” she said to her daughter. “Now go. Get the broom and clean up this mess, and then come help me in the kitchen. And I don’t want to catch you talking to Vörös again. Do you hear me?”
“No buts. Do as I say.” Sarah left the room.
Slow tears formed in Kicsi’s eyes. She went to get the broom and began to sweep, slowly, methodically. The pieces of crystal blurred and ran together, sparkling. Suddenly she turned to Vörös, leaning forward on the broom.
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
“In—” He cleared his throat. “In a few days.”
“Take me with you.”
“What? I can’t. Why?”
“I want to leave home. I’m almost an adult, you know. They treat me like a child because I’m the youngest. They don’t know. I want to see faraway places, I want to do things—I want to be like you.”
“Faraway places? What do you know of faraway places?” Vörös moved forward in his chair. “All too soon you will leave this place, your village. You will go through pain and fire and hunger, and I cannot say what the end will be. It may be that you will finally come to Palestine, or to America. And there you will tell your children stories of your childhood, and they will think this town as exotic, as far away, as Shanghai. And all too soon they will want to leave you for faraway places. Things happen, you know. You cannot rush them.”
She looked at him in amazement. America! What did he mean? “I don’t understand,” she said.
Magda came into the room, turned slowly in a circle to look at both of them, and ended by looking at the broken glass. “Mother’s very upset about something,” she said. “She said you’re to clean that up and then go help her. I’m supposed to make sure that you do it. What did you do, knock it over?”
Kicsi said nothing. She resumed sweeping, quietly. After a while Vörös cleared his throat, interrupting the rustling of the broom and the clinking of glass. He stood, walked to the door, and let himself out into the cool evening. Kicsi never looked around.
She didn’t see him for nearly a week. She suspected some conspiracy between Vörös and Sarah, designed to keep them apart for the time he was staying. The next Friday at dinner time, however, he came in with Imre. She was helping to set the table. As she saw him, her heart leapt like a salmon from a stream.
“I’m leaving after Shabbos,” he told the family, not looking at her. “I came for one final delightful meal.”
“Where are you going?” asked Sarah. Kicsi, setting down a wine cup, pretended not to listen to his answer.
“To England, I think,” he said. “And then to America.”
“We have cousins in America,” said Tibor. “In New York. Will you be seeing them?”
“Silly!” said Magda, laughing. “America’s a big place. Not like here.”
“I know that,” said Tibor, furious. “I could give him the address—”
The telephone rang. It was the private line, recently installed, that ran from the house to the printing plant next door. Imre looked at his wife.
The phone rang again. One was not allowed to use the telephone on the Shabbos, the day of rest, since the rabbis had ruled that using electricity constituted lighting a fire, which was considered work and so prohibited. But any rule could be sacrificed in an emergency.
“Who can be at the plant at this hour?” asked
Imre. “Everyone should have gone home hours ago.”
 The phone rang again. “Perhaps you’d better answer it,” said Sarah. “Someone may have gotten locked inside.”
Imre went to the phone. “Hello?”
“Hello?” There was an unmistakable sound of relief in the voice at the other end of the phone. “Hello. This is Arpad.”
“Arpad?” said Imre. Arpad was an employee at the printing plant, stolid and unimaginative and not very bright. His face was marked with smallpox scars. “What are you doing there?”
“I—I followed a light,” said Arpad.
“A light?” said Imre.
“Yes, sir. When we were closing. I was about to leave, as all the lights had been turned off, when I saw this light, sir, and I thought that maybe one of them had been missed. So I went to look, and—and it moved. And I followed it, and it kept moving from room to room, past the presses, and into the offices, and then back to the presses—a sort of thin yellow light, sir. And then finally it went out, and I found the door, and then, well, I was locked in.”
“A light?” Imre said again. “I don’t understand. Was it someone holding a torch? Do you think he’s still there?”
“Oh, no, sir,” said Arpad. “It wasn’t anyone holding a torch. I would have seen that. It was just a light.” He paused. “I’d rather talk about this outside, sir. You see, it’s fairly dark in here. I can’t seem to get the lights back on, somehow.”
“Very well,” said Imre. “I’ll be coming through the entrance connected to the house. Just wait there.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Just outside the dining room was a door that led to the plant. “Get me my keys, one of you,” said Imre, putting down the phone. “I think I left them upstairs.” Ilona ran to the stairs.
“Sarah, tell him I’ll have to wait until I get the keys—”
A slow rumbling started. They heard it in two places—over the telephone and from the plant next door.
Magda cried out. Sarah said, “What’s that?”
“The fool,” said Imre. “He’s somehow started the presses.”
The sound became a muted roar. Occasionally the clanking rhythm of an individual press could be heard before it faded back into the general noise.
“Let me out!” said Arpad. “Please. Help. Let me out!”
Sarah picked up the telephone. “Imre will get you out as soon as he gets the keys,” she said. “How did you manage to start the presses?”
“I didn’t start them,” said Arpad. “They’re just going by themselves. I had nothing to do with it.”
“God help us,” said Sarah. “It’s the curse. The rabbi’s curse.” She sat down, the phone still in her hand, and looked blankly at the connecting door.
Ilona returned with the keys. “Here they are,” she said, panting.
Imre fitted the key to the lock. The door began to shake. With his paralyzed left arm he could not hold the door steady.
“The light!” said Arpad. “The light is coming back!”
The door began to swing back and forth, although Imre had not turned the key in the lock. The Shabbos candles flickered. A glass of wine overturned, the stain spreading slowly through the white linen like a fist unclenching.
“Help!” said Arpad. Everyone in the room could hear his thin voice through the telephone. “Help! He’s strangling me! I’m being strangled!”
The dinner table began to tremble. Silverware and china rattled like chattering teeth. The candles went out.
“In Heaven’s name!” said Vörös. “What does he think he’s doing?”
The door closed. Imre fumbled with the lock.
“Please! Somebody! I’m being strangled!”
Vörös ran to the door, pushing Imre out of the way. As the door tore itself loose from the frame once more, Vörös pushed at it with his shoulder. The door flung open. The presses became louder.
Vörös said one word into the din. The word sounded like breath, like wind, like the sea speaking to the sand. The presses stopped.
Arpad came to the door. He looked at the family, gathered around him like the crowd that gathers around a man feared dead, and fainted. Imre and Vörös together dragged him to the table.
Imre unbuttoned Arpad’s shirt and peeled back the collar. He sucked in his breath in dismay. Standing out against the pale skin were deep red marks, marks like fingers.
“Somebody! Somebody get a doctor,” said Imre. “Sarah, wet a napkin and bring it to me. Stand back, all of you—he’s fainted. You can look at his neck another time. Get back!”
Kicsi looked, horrified, at the red marks. Slowly she moved back with everyone else, as Sarah applied the wet napkin, as Arpad opened his eyes. She looked around for Vörös. She wanted to ask him if the word he had spoken was the holy and unutterable Name of God. But Vörös had gone.
Copyright © 1982 by Lisa Goldstein

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