The Magic

 

In the bottom of Spiry Wood, in a clearing on its own, stands a tree. It's a very old, magical tree and it was planted there many years ago, so many years that no one knows exactly when or why. If you ask the villagers, they'll tell you it was a wizard that planted it. If you believe them, if you take them seriously and ask them to explain, this is what they'll say. In the springtime, they'll say, the tree is covered in gorgeous peach-coloured blossom that spreads itself generously around the forest floor like a benevolent uncle dispensing coins at Christmas. On Midsummer Eve, and only on Midsummer Eve, it bears fruit. The fruit it bears is a score of golden treasure boxes, each one perfectly formed just as you would imagine, like a tiny pirate chest - a dark, woody brown with bronze veins like metal clasps. Each fruit contains within it a gift. Sometimes that gift is gold or silver coins, riches beyond your wildest dreams. Sometimes, the gift comes in the form of a smooth, oval stone. Each of these stones confers a magic power on whoever finds it, each one different.


No one has ever managed to pluck a fruit from the Treasure Box Tree. The fruit is notoriously difficult to pluck. If any hand stretches out to take one, the branch from which it hangs sways suddenly and violently, putting its bounty out of reach. The fruit does not last long. As soon as it is grown to full ripeness, which takes only a very few minutes, the precious treasure box grows too heavy to be borne by its branch. It drops in an instant and falls to the earth. When the ground feels the fruit land upon it, a hole opens up to receive it and the treasure is buried.


It is said that some have managed to dig in the earth, find a treasure box, and prise it open to receive its magical gift for themselves. There are stories told of men and women who have discovered amazing wealth for themselves or who have developed supernatural powers. Murphy, the blacksmith, found a blood-red stone, which gave him the power to know when he was being lied to. Mrs Timson, who ran the general store, found one of azure blue, which gave her the gift of interpreting dreams. In the past, others found stones of different hues with other powers - the ability to freeze water, or the strength of ten men - but these folk passed away long since and their powers exist now only in legend. The fruit of the Treasure Box Tree, its appearance and disappearance, and the legendary properties it contains, all this has a collective name. The villagers call it The Magic. There is only one story about The Magic they are ever prepared to share. If they think you'll believe it, they might tell it to you.


 


This story begins on one of the long midsummer afternoons that were often spent by the children of the village - and the grownups too, on occasion - scrabbling in the earth under the tree, hoping to recover one of the magical boxes. The earth would not give up its treasure readily, however, and the effort was so rarely successful that the pastime was more of a game than a serious attempt and the discovery of an object underground was never expected. The pleasure came instead from the feel of the dirt falling through one's fingers and the satisfaction of poking eagerly stretched fingers into cold, moist soil, digging down as far as interest and ability would allow.


There was in the village a group of isolated men who treated the matter of the buried treasure boxes with immense gravity. They formed a group that called itself a religious organisation. Most of the villagers were of no religion themselves, never feeling the need for it, but these young men named their group The Brotherhood of Believers, although - to their considerable chagrin - most people referred to them as The Chanters.  This was because every now and then, when their other commitments allowed them, they would gather together near the tree and recite secret chants in a language they had invented themselves. Their belief was that in doing so they were seducing the earth with music - much as men and women woo one another with dancing and with song - and if they could strike the right note with their private madrigals, the earth would swoon before them, yield to their desires, and offer up its treasure boxes. They dreamed of one day finding rough, disturbed soil, with all the unclaimed boxes of the past nestled amongst the clods of moist earth. Then, they claimed, they should inherit the world and be its masters, and all would learn to appreciate their power. Most of the villagers ignored The Brotherhood. Those that paid them any attention at all rightly pointed out that, for all the trouble they went to, The Chanters had just as much likelihood of success if they scrabbled around in the dirt like the children.


On this day, it was only the children who were there amongst the parched roots of the tree, half-heartedly digging in the dusty ground and absent-mindedly wishing for a glimpse of golden fruit. Michael was there with some of the boys he knew, crouched on their haunches and poking at the topsoil with sharpened sticks like doctors prodding at an unresponsive patient. Nearby, another group of boys was gathered around a piece of rotten meat that one of them had brought along, watching flies feasting on the green-brown flesh. The only other children present were Shannon Marshall, who Michael knew from school, and her older siblings Becky, Jason, Mary and Craig. They knelt in a tight circle, each hunched forward, possibly digging or possibly not. The Marshalls were strange, a poor family shunned by most folk, and it was said they were inbreeders, the parents really brother and sister, though how this story had begun no one could say.


Michael was often the first to get bored of the games that he and his friends invented.  Other people, he noticed, always seemed to have more interesting ideas for amusement than he did, and his friends were the same as him. Michael wondered if that was the way everywhere, that some people could always make life interesting and fun while others were condemned to a mundane existence. No matter how much they might crave excitement, thought Michael, people like him just could not create it. But today he was not bored, there was something hypnotic about the simple act of poking the stick into the earth that captured his attention. It certainly kept his interest more than that of his friends. Michael continued to poke the stick into the earth in exactly the same spot, over and over again, oblivious to all around him.


In the place where the Marshalls were gathered, there was a sudden flurry of activity. Shannon was standing up, her hands cradling something under her shawl, an unknown object clutched tightly against her waist. The rest of the clan were clucking around her like mother hens. All of a sudden, the lot of them took off, running away to their tin shack by the river as if the devil himself were at their heels. The boys, all except Michael, who stayed where he was and continued to poke at the ground with his stick, walked softly over to where the Marshalls had been and, without a word between them,  peered at what was left behind. Michael kept on digging while the others paid him no mind. They were too intent on the hole in the ground where the Marshalls had been. It was elbow-deep, as black as any void, full of promise. None of them could be sure, of course, but it seemed to have been recently emptied of something. They stared until the sun started sinking and then they turned to leave. Michael's friends suddenly remembered him but, when they looked for their erstwhile companion, they saw he had already headed home. They shrugged and made their separate ways to their own doorsteps where lemonade and fresh corn awaited them.


Word soon went around the village that the Marshalls had unearthed a treasure box. Folk waited patiently to see what change occurred in their circumstances, but time went by and there was no visible alteration at all. The children still went around in threadbare rags, while the parents did nothing to improve the tumbledown shack in which they lived. It can't be riches then, thought the villagers, it must be powers. If it were Shannon who had found the box, she'd be the one blessed by The Magic, but no sign of any new ability did she display. No one wanted to interrogate the family, to discover if the talk of the treasure box were true, for they were a little afraid of Billy Marshall with his tattooed forearms and his missing teeth, and in any case no one could find an excuse to go and visit them. No one ever wanted to be anywhere near that family. After a while, the stories died down and nothing more was said. It was all but forgotten.


All but. The children didn't forget. Many of them still believed Shannon had found one of the rare boxes. All through the rest of that summer, they stood outside her house until darkness came to swallow them, when they heard their mothers' voices calling them home to dinner. The children would never forget, they told themselves, but the grown-ups found new topics to occupy their time. By the end of August, there was the harvest to get in. By the end of September, it was starting to get cold and hardly anyone visited the tree or talked about The Magic anymore. When they decided it was the end of the season, The Brotherhood of Believers held a ceremony under the boughs of the Treasure Box Tree, during which they chanted their chants and swung around some burning incense, to further seduce their mistress the earth, but to no avail. Some of the villagers attended the ceremony, more out of a lack of anything else than to do than any interest in the proceedings themselves. Michael attended too, with his mother and some of his friends from school. Shannon and her family were not there.


Towards the end of the event, Michael felt cramps in his stomach. The feeling grew into a pain so intense that it made him bow forward, hunched over himself. He took a few steps away from his mother so that she would not notice and start to worry, then he sank to the ground and squeezed his tummy muscles to try to shut out the pain. He had heard tell, in the stories of long ago, that a sudden stabbing pain in the stomach was a sign of a gift ready to be bestowed, but it felt more like indigestion to Michael. He waited for the feeling to pass, which thankfully it soon did, and wondered where the stories came from that said such pain could be the harbinger of promise. There was no answer to his wonderings, however. That knowledge was lost long since, buried deep down in the bowels of the earth.


Summer turned to autumn, as The Brotherhood of The Believers had said it must, and as every man, woman and child had anyway known it would. Michael found he had less and less to say to his friends at school. He could think of no activities for them to do on their long walks home, no games to play or adventures to begin. His friends were just the same as him. Sometimes they would find themselves drifting towards Shannon's house, to spend the twilight hours grouped disconsolately down the road from the ash path that led to her front door. Sometimes they would follow Shannon home, taking it in turns to tread exactly where her feet had trod, planting themselves in the dusty footprints like early explorers. On other occasions, it was she who followed them. Yet if she wondered what this group of melancholy boys was doing gathered in the gloom outside her home, Shannon never said. Like Michael, she spoke less and less to anyone these days, lost in the contemplation of her own imagination. When Michael watched her wheeling her arms like a bird of prey or hopping and skipping her way along the stony paths, he would wonder idly where she went to in her mind, if he could follow her there and whether that place was a better land than theirs or sadder.


Winter came and it grew dark so early that the children all rushed home at the end of the day, wanting to be safe indoors before the darkness came. None of them wanted to stand outside the Marshalls' tin shack any more. They craved only the warmth of their own firesides, the magic of their own hearths. Michael's friends would sometimes talk about what they would do first when reaching home - eat buttered toast they had cooked in front of the fire or play Dragons In The Dark, which was their name for Hide and Seek. But Michael rarely talked these days, even to his friends, and wandered home alone with the feel of the wind like ice against his cheeks.


One winter's day, Michael reached his house with a strange sensation there was something he had to do. Trying to turn his mind to other distractions made no difference, for he always found his thoughts returning, like moths to a flame, to the one thing. He knew he would have to do it and do it at once. His parents always left him to his own devices before dinner and this would be the safest time. Sure enough, as he expected, when he got home Michael found his father sharpening his hunting knife by the fireplace and his mother stirring the stew for their evening meal. Nodding a hello to each of them and receiving a smile from his mother and a gruff bark of a greeting from his father, Michael went straight into his room and shut the door. From behind a loose part of the wainscot (Michael had himself loosened it to provide a hiding-place) he took out a small wooden box. It had been a present to him from his father three years earlier and Michael had never really known what to keep in it. Until now. Gently lifting the lid, he took from inside the beautiful fruit of the Treasure Box Tree. The dark brown of its exterior had been perfectly preserved by however long it had remained in the ground and the golden veins shone in the dusk of the room like harp strings of the angels. Ever so delicately, hardly daring to breathe, Michael loosened the top of the fruit and gazed in wonder at the smooth, round orange stone that lay within. As Michael gazed at the stone, he felt his feet lifting from the floor. Quickly, he covered up his prize and returned it to its hiding place, then went to wash his hands and face before dinner.

 

It was only later, when all was quiet and still and everyone was in bed that Michael dared to use the power he'd been given. First, he pulled open the curtains of his room and felt the breeze wrap his face and neck in its cold embrace. Then he took again the treasure box from its secret spot and this time removed the orange stone completely. Glowing like the embers of a fire in the darkness, the stone seemed to smile at him. Michael smiled in return as the warmth of The Magic enveloped him. Without any effort on his own part, Michael felt his feet rise from the floor, his whole body floating upwards in the air. Then, before his head touched the ceiling, he made a darting movement downwards and towards the window, something like a fish changing direction in the water. Out through the window Michael flew, his arms by his sides, his legs and lower body the only part of him moving as he swam through the atmosphere, upwards above the village and then on through the sky towards Shannon's house. It had taken him several attempts to master how to direct himself in flight, the first few of those being rather frightening exercises in unwilled propulsion through the atmosphere. Surprisingly quickly, however, he had learned the techniques to take himself anywhere he wanted to go, and where he wanted to go was to the Marshalls'.

 

Hovering above the old tin shack, Michael gently wafted his arms through the air, lowering his body down to the level of the window at the back of the house. Peering through the aperture at the golden interior, Michael hung in mid-air like a hummingbird, keeping himself still by the power of The Magic alone. He thought how marvellous it was to be able to fly like a bird, to soar and swoop and feel the rush of wind all over his body like a promise. His only sadness was that he could never share his gift, that he could not be seen, that he was still alone. After he had mastered the knack of flying, he had tried to show his friends what he could do, but was disappointed to find that even when he swooped down to hover before their very faces, they saw nothing. To others, Michael in flight was just a sudden gust of wind in their direction, an unwelcome atmospheric intrusion into their solitude. His gift was invisible flight and Michael wondered what exactly the use of it was.


Only here, at Shannon's, did Michael feel any sense of connection. Gazing in, he saw what he always saw. There, gathered in a circle on the faded rug of their living-room, was the Marshall family, all kneeling, eyes closed and holding hands as usual. From the centre of their circle emanated a golden glow which suffused the whole room. Their faces, wreathed in smiles, were lit up and the effect of the gold was to enrich them - not with warmth alone, Michael knew, though warmth there certainly was, but with goodness, too. Happiness. The Magic was in the air and Michael could feel it all around him, all around the Marshalls, and everywhere between them. He smiled inwardly as he looked down at Shannon, whose back was slightly towards him and whose long hair, no longer seeming straggly and unkempt, flowed like a golden waterfall all down her back. In her bliss, Shannon turned towards him and opened her eyes. She looked up out of the window at Michael. She saw him. She saw him and she smiled. And when she did so, Michael's heart was lifted up like a bird in flight. It flew up and up and it flew out into the atmosphere, where it soared and swooped higher than his body had ever flown.


If you are careful to show that you believe them, and you take seriously what it is they say, this is the story the villagers will tell you. But no matter how careful you are, they will eventually sense your lack of conviction. At that moment, they will close their mouths and turn their eyes away, maybe downwards to the earth from whence The Magic comes. They will smile softly to themselves and wander away from you and that is all you will ever hear of The Magic and the way it transformed the lives of Shannon and Michael.