How Elsa learned magic, I couldn’t say. It wasn’t like it was a secret — Elsa loved talking about her hobby, as much as any twelve year old loves talking about her hobbies — but she didn’t know, either. It was just something she’d always done. Certainly her parents had an extensive library; a very extensive library, indeed, but of the two of them, neither Mark nor Isabel were in the least mystic or magical. Mark was a clerk of the court, and the most prosaic man I’ve ever met. Talking to him was like having a conversation with an ox that had somehow learned English. He was pleasant, enough, but slow and plodding. No one was really sure what Isabel did, if Isabel did anything. She was on sixteen different committees, and headed the PTA, and worked with the school board, and tended a soup kitchen, and was always busy busy busy. Now that I think about it, I doubt she worked a regular job. Volunteering was her entire personality; it is hard to picture her doing anything else. They regarded Elsa with a sort of confused pride, the same pride they’d have displayed, doubtless, had her inclinations and her talents run to the clarinet or student government. They rather embarrassed her with their unabashed, uninspired joy in her achievements. First time visitors were always beseiged with picture albums and scrap books of Elsa’s ‘career’ (as Mark and Isabel insisted on calling it): Elsa levitating a pig in a 4-H competition, Elsa writing a card to her grandmother with letters of fire, Elsa changing water into wine for a church banquet (which later resulted in the Bainbridges withdrawing from the congregation in some dudgeon).
Such displays always swamped Elsa with shame. The first time I met the Bainbridges — I was, I believe, selling brushes for the blind — I suffered patiently through the litany of wonder and transubstantiation with the same inattentive interest with which I greeted baby photos and home movies, while Elsa flushed and stammered objections and stared at her feet, like a thousand other snotfaced kids I’d met going door-to-door. It was all so achingly ordinary and peacably dull that I forgot the Bainbridges immediately after selling them a complete line of guaranteed one-hundred percent genuine horsehair brushes (made of nylon and hogbristle). I would have done the same with Elsa — just another spotty kid horrified by her parents — if I hadn’t later run into her at the state fair.
Why was I at the state fair? That’s a pretty good question, actually, because it sure wasn’t the music or the butter sculptures that had drawn me there. It was this gal I was dating, whose name, sad to say, I’ve forgotten, and her little boy that dragged me through two days of mud and horseflesh and tedium. She was a good enough gal, I suppose, and the kid was no more offensive than any. Anyway. Elsa was at the fair, demonstrating her magic for a politely amazed crowd, conjuring gold — coins, actually — and changing people into other things, and telling fortunes that would later prove to be entirely accurate. None of this reached the audience; ninety-nine percent of a state fair audience is going to have the exact same fortune, anyway, and even bupkus stage magicians can pull coins out of thin air and ‘turn’ people into frogs — or desklamps or wildebeests or whatever. Elsa was a good sport about it, though, gamely running through the same few dozen tricks for each show. My gal’s little boy — I think his name with Justin or Rustin or something — was absolutely fascinated with her. We sat through her show maybe a dozen times before the fair ended; we were there at the last show, where everything kind of fell apart, and that’s why I’m writing this story.
I don’t know why Elsa did what she did — maybe she was just tired of doing the same tricks over and over again for a bunch of hogsmelling lumps, or maybe it was an accident, I’m not sure. But that last show was a doozy, alright. Her big finale, such as it was, was always a fortune telling bit. She’d call some poor whey-faced bastard on stage and touch him or her lightly here and there, until whoever it was started glowing like a rotting log, and then she’d tell the future. Variations on a theme. Marriage, kids, a few deaths, dying peaceably. But this last one, well, he lit up like a roman candle when she touched him. It hurt to look at him, I mean hurt, like when you look at the sun for too long, but nobody could close their eyes, or look away, or anything. Then we all saw what I guess Elsa had been seeing all along, saw the man’s future, saw the uninterrupted roll of years, felt the weight of time getting heavier and heavier and heavier and knew where the bigs things where going to happen and how many of them there were and… it was a trip, and no fooling. I think four people had heart attacks, and I don’t know how many people fainted and had to be carried out. My gal was one of them; her little boy went with her, sobbing like his dog had just been run over, and I just kept sitting there, not thinking really, just breathless at how big the world was and how little I really understood it.
It was a moment.
I looked Elsa up, afterwards. The company still had her parents’ address on file, and, while policy is not to give that information out to anybody after the check’s cleared, you’d be amazed how willing the file clerks are to look the other way. It also helps that I got along all right with the gal who works Tuesday nights. But, anyway, I tracked down Elsa Bainbridge just after she graduated from high school, and convinced her to let me buy her a cup of coffee. It was a long and wild conversation, but the long and the short of it worked out that Elsa was not going off to college, and that I was going to be her apprentice.
You wanted to know my credentials, and I guess that’s what they are. I’ve been a journeyman magician for, oh, going on thirty years now; maybe someday I’ll be a master, but that’s still way in the future. One of the upsides to being a magician is that there’s never any hurry for anything. But I’m good enough that I wouldn’t mind taking on a couple of apprentices of my own, and growing the business. The pay’s not so great, not at first, but you’ll never go hungry, and you wouldn’t believe the kind of people you can meet.