BASS 2013: Sheila Kohler: “Magic Man” from Yale Review, April 2012

Art by Oxyvia on deviantart

Art by Oxyvia on deviantart

Cold, late night so long ago
When I was not so strong you know
A pretty man came to me
I never seen eyes so blue
You know, I could not run away it seemed
We’d seen each other in a dream
Seemed like he knew me, he looked right through me, yeah

“Come on home, girl” he said with a smile
“you don’t have to love me yet, let’s get high awhile
But try to understand, try to understand
Try, try, try to understand, I’m a magic man”

~~ lyrics from “Magic Man” by Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart

I wasn’t able to get this song out of my head. In theory, it has nothing to do with the story. Except… it is the story.

S.P. (it might stand for Sweet Pea, or Sweetie Pie, or Simply Perfect, even her mother Sandra can’t remember) is eight years old and, though they live in Paris, she’s quite enjoying her Christmas vacation with her mother in South Africa. She knows something’s wrong in the family – that Dad isn’t really in Brussels running a bookshop all the time – but she doesn’t know what, exactly. What she does know, is that she’s in a magical place, and magical things can happen.

“About the Magic Man. He’s called Proppy, and he can do anything he wants to,” she says, and waves both her hands in the bright air in circles, magic circles – see can see the stars – to show her mother and her aunt all the magic the Magic Man can do and how he can turn you into a toad too, if he wants. She wonders if the Magic Man just might appear out here in this strange country, which seems a little like a fairytale to her.

Mom loves her kids, especially S.P., but she’s got a few things on her mind, like the philandering genius husband she can’t cut loose, and her own sense that she’s wasted her life being a wife and mother when she and her sister intended to be poets. Sis is along on the vacation as well, recovering from the bruises her own husband left last time he smacked her around.

It’s almost textbook: two adults serving as role models for The Abused Woman, a little girl who “would desperately like to fix things for her mother, though she is not certain what needs fixing.” A distracted mom, an inquisitive, imaginative child. The Magic Man was inevitable.

And it seems quite right to her that she would meet the Magic Man out here in this wonderfully sunny place, which is both strange and familiar to her, with all the bright flowers and the brilliant blue sky and the sun. The sun is making her feel a little dizzy, and her head spins, so she lets the Magic Man take her hand, and she follows him through the streets…

In her Contributor Note, Kohler names, not Heart, but Der Erlkönig as her inspiration. The Erl-King is a Germanic legendary figure, a sort of bogeyman who lures children to come with him to their deaths. Goethe wrote a poem about him; Schubert set it to music (and you’ve probably heard the piano intro though you may not have realized what it was). I sang a choral arrangement with my high school choir; the director told us it was considered one of the hardest solos, not to sing (it’s not vocally demanding) but to interpret: each of four separate narrative voices must be articulated in distinctive tone colors. I wonder if the Wilson sisters knew of this legend when they wrote their top-40 hit, “Magic Man.”

Frankly, I’m a little tired of child abuse as the vehicle for short stories, but it’s handled well here; the narration ping-pongs back and forth between Mom and S.P. broadens the focus to cause, and the tidy little flash-forward epilogue brings in effect. It works. I feel sorry for all three women in this story. I’m not sure I like that; it’s a lot easier to have someone clearly to blame. But if literature were about easy, it wouldn’t be literature.