TEN DAYS (DAY TEN)
April 16, 2020
Zeffirelli Wand Shop
I should tell you about the day I walked into the shop. Wandered in is more like it. The day I wandered into the shop. I should start there.
I’d noticed that small door for years. Not small, really. Narrow. Normal height. And not a door, either, or so I thought. I took it for a window. It was a slender pane of glass in front of a busted Venetian blind. It stood between two businesses. There was a Chinese bakery to its left and a quick-stop market to its right. I noticed the place, the door, the door I took for a window, every time I walked by for years on my way to school. Well, every time I walked toward school. I didn’t make it to school that often, truth be told. I usually didn’t get past the strip mall. Sometimes I didn’t even leave our apartment.
All that time, I just assumed the narrow door was a floor-to-ceiling window, right off the bakery, or off the market. By “assumed” I mean I didn’t give it any thought. Didn’t matter. But one time too many I went into the market for a soda and, finally, noticed something: the cash register was on the right, while the wall on the far left was solid and lined with bags of dried beans, cans of wet beans, and plastic bottles of cleaning liquids. No door, no room behind the window. In fact, no window.
That day I immediately walked straight out of the market, no soda, and right across the parking lot, tripping over one of those cement blocks that keep cars from hitting the curb, and entered the bakery. I ordered a crappy croissant, a thick dry husk that was more roll than croissant, not because I was hungry but so I could spend some time looking behind the counter while the bakery lady heated it up and gathered a few coins in exchange for the three soiled dollar bills I had handed her. Again, solid wall, nothing more.
I walked back into the parking lot and stood there, munched on the roll, and got my bearings, as my dad would say, at least when he was speaking to me. The parking spaces were mostly empty. It was a bit after 2pm on a Tuesday. I know this because school got out – because school, which is about five long blocks away, city blocks, gets out at 2:40, and I wanted to get myself somewhere before the streets were covered with fellow students. Well, other students. Well, with students.
There were two more storefronts to the left of the bakery: a pretty good Eritrean spot, owned by a cousin of the guy who ran the market, and a dry cleaner, owned by the twin sister of the lady who ran the Chinese bakery. I knew this corner strip mall like I knew my own permafrown of a face. It had its own collection of mysteries, like why was the bakery Chinese and the laundry Korean if the two ladies were sisters? And why was the Eritrean place closed every Thursday? And was it possible no one had ever won the state lottery at the market? Like, ever?
I made sure no cars were pulling in from the street and walked backward into the parking lot. The tarmac was old and riddled with deep cuts. I don’t know what kind of bad driving can cause such damage. More like the pavement was just falling apart. The Los Angeles sun does nothing any good. The four businesses were devoid of customers. The restaurant didn’t re-open until 5pm, after a few hours for lunch starting at 11am, but the rest of them were open and empty. The lady in the Korean cleaner stood at the counter, resting her chin on her palm, elbow steady as a chair leg. She held a paperback novel with the other hand. I couldn’t make out the cover. The window to the bakery was all fogged up, but I’d just been in there, and I’d only seen the cleaner’s sister. The market had just the same old guy behind the register, watching soap operas from back home on a dusty laptop running an operating system older than I was, which at the time was 14.
I looked at that weird narrow door, or window, or whatever. And I walked straight to it. And pulled it open.
The door closed behind me. So, it was a door. Not a window, a door. I heard a tiny bell ring, and those blinds shifted noisily as they settled into place. I was standing in a small room. There was a couch covered with old magazines to the left, an open doorway across from it, and in between, directly ahead from the door I’d come through, was a large counter with a curved glass front. Inside, behind the glass, it was packed with slim cardboard boxes, old ones, some blank, many with printing on them, typefaces I didn’t recognize except to the extent that I recognized they were old, not even grandma-old, more like grandma’s-grandma-old. Behind the counter was another narrow doorway, and past that a room filled with bright yellow light.
“Be with you in a moment,” said a little voice.
The voice came from inside the light.
“Uh, thanks,” I said in reply, immediately regretting having done so.
A man just as little as the voice stepped out of the yellow light. He wasn’t four and a half feet tall, and he had more hair coming out of those ears of his than he did on the rest of his head combined. He was skinny as all get out, and wore a nifty leather apron, tied tight around his narrow waist. I dug that apron.
“Well, hello,” he said, in a tone that meant he knew I’d not been here previously. I was a surprise. A pleasant one. I wasn’t used to being anyone’s pleasant anything.
“Uh, hi,” I said, no more eloquent than before.
“What brings you in?”
“Sorta wandered in,” I said, grateful I had managed a few more syllables and had, for once, not said “uh.”
“That’s odd. No one wanders in here,” he said. Then, so as to clarify: “Odd is good.”
“I thought this place was part of the bakery or the market, and then I realized it wasn’t, so I just pulled on the handle and here I am. What is this place?” I actually did pause before that second sentence, but sensed he wasn’t about to say anything, and so I’d just kept going.
“Come on back,” he said. “I’ll show you.”
I just stood there.
“It’s OK. I mean, you could snap me over your knee if it came to it, right?”
He was right. I felt safe, but I also felt a little woozy.
“Oh, dear. Come. Sit,” he said, having noticed my wooziness exactly when I had, or maybe even before.
I took his advice and wandered across the floor, dirty rug on top of dusty old wall-to-wall carpet. Over my right shoulder I took a quick glance through that doorway. The next room, packed high with boxes, was an odd shape. The whole space, shop, store, wherever I was, was like a pie slice, built in the corner where the bakery and the market met. The narrow door opened at the wedge end of the slice. Physics wasn’t being defied. This was all just an optical illusion, a little shop inside an optical illusion.
“Come,” he said. “I’ll make you some tea.”
There was a small chair right up against a half door that swung in from the entry area to what turned out to be a workshop. The room was less yellow once you entered. I sat on the chair, trying to regain my balance.
Little man walked over to me with a tiny cup on a tiny saucer. “Try this,” he said. I’ve never been into tea, never could really tell the difference except for the ones that smell like spicy apple or nauseatingly sweet cinnamon, but this stuff was great. It was oily, almost slick, and had a slight citrus quality. I paused between sips just to breathe it in, and the moist warmth soothed my nostrils.
“You’ll feel better in a moment,” he told me, as if this was a normal occurrence, him offering hot tea to a strange girl who’d wandered in from the parking lot with croissant crumbs on her hooded sweatshirt and a sudden woozy feeling in her head.
I looked around the room. This was easy, since even while seated I could see right over little man’s head. I’m short myself, just a smidgen above five feet, but I felt imposing, at least physically so, compared to little man.
Three work benches lined the far wall. The first one was quite large, covered with odd tools and pieces of wood. Glass jars held spare parts or strangely colored liquids. The other two work benches were more modest. One had a tarp over it, and the other was bare, like no one had worked there for a while. I remember thinking to ask, if you’ve got so much stuff everywhere, why don’t you put some of it on that empty workbench? Not my place, though.
“You’ve already finished it up. Let me get you some more.” He walked over to the largest of the benches, which was apparently his, and took a kettle off an electric grill, a square surface that had a red-hot swirl of metal on it. He poured me some more, put the kettle back on, and appeared to return to his work. After a few sips, I felt my head clear. I put the saucer down on a table next to my chair. I stood up, wary about how I’d felt just minutes earlier. It was fine. The room didn’t spin. I walked over to where little man was at work.
Over his shoulder I saw him holding a narrow piece of wood, like a column, or a part of a shelving system, or the world’s most awkward chopstick. It was then that I noticed how beautiful little man’s hands were. No other word for it. Beautiful. In those hands, with their long fingers and narrow knuckles, he balanced the stick carefully. He kept it in his right hand, and with his left reached, without looking, for what turned out to be a small blade of some sort. It was kind of like what you’d use to peel the skin of an apple, but longer and more refined. He worked one end of the stick, and then put down the world’s fanciest apple peeler. He picked up a narrow piece of metal, short and hard, like a long piece of unbreakable pencil lead. With it he etched a line the full length of the stick, and then another directly parallel to it. I had never seen anyone make such a straight line before without a ruler, let alone a line etched by a piece of metal into hard wood. Then he picked up a glass jar and raised it to the light. It was from the batch with liquid in them. This held a red slurry mixed with what seemed to be wisps of blue. It was oily. Sort of like the tea.
Little man put the stick down on the bench and unscrewed the top of the jar. He managed with a bit of difficulty. I briefly wondered if he’d ask me for help. I listened for him to grunt at the effort, which is when I realized I couldn’t even hear him breathe. He picked back up that piece of metal and held one end to the same electric burner where he’d heated up the kettle. He then stuck the hot end into that colorful liquid. Whatever was in the jar, it didn’t sizzle or steam. It just coated the end of the metal, kinda oozed up it like a caterpillar making its way along a branch. He pulled the metal back out and held it in his left hand. Then he raised the stick, which I’d sort of forgotten about, lost as I was in the marvel of that slurry. He took the sharp, hot end of the metal and stuck it right into one end of the wood.
And it … it went … it went … I still don’t fully know how to describe my experience of it, even today. It’s like, one minute it was just a stick, and the next it seemed to be glowing from within, like he had turned it on. Turned on the stick. Like that’s a thing.
“What did you just do?” I asked.
He didn’t answer directly. He just asked me a question in reply. If I had known what would come of my answer, maybe I would have answered differently, maybe all of this would have worked out differently, but I didn’t know, and so when he asked me “Why?” I said, “Because I want to know how to do that.”
“Then,” he said, “let me show you how to make a magic wand.”
“Let’s get you measured,” he said, as he bent my right arm so that my hand, utterly limp, leaned dead against my cheek. I had returned to my seat. My elbow rested on the same table as the now empty teacup. The cup and saucer made a most pleasing rattle as he positioned my arm correctly.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“Taking the measure of your ulna,” he said.
“I’m measuring your ulna,” he said, as if that explained everything. Then he explained everything, what felt like everything but was, in fact, I’d learn over time, merely a sliver of everything: “Each wand bears various signatures of the one who crafts it. The most essential of these signatures is length: you make the wand just as long as your ulna, the bone here on the lower half of your arm, right up to your wrist. This factor explains why my original wands are quite short and yours will be” – he looked sideways at his measuring stick – “only a little short. Unless you’re still growing. Are you still growing?”
“Ul-na,” I repeated, like I was waking from a stroke and still regaining the ability to form basic sounds.
He ignored this and continued. “From what I’ve read, they used to use the radius forever, and then for some reason, maybe 500 years ago or so, they switched over to the ulna. Not they, in fact. We. And soon you, as well.”
“Soon, me,” I said, which sounded like a second pair of syllables being spoken by someone unsure of their meaning, even though this time it was two actual words, and I knew what they meant, if not what they meant in combination.
“Point taken. Perhaps not particularly soon. So let’s start with the basics.” I could tell he was trying to say this as simply as possible without sounding like he was speaking to an imbecile. Except he was. That is, I was. An imbecile, that is.
Make a magic wand. That’s what he had said. I laughed. Out loud. A laugh. Not rude, but definitely spontaneous. An actual ha ha ha. I gave myself points for managing three syllables. I then pulled my right arm next to my left one, so both my hands could fit snuggly between my legs where it was warm.
Little man looked at me quizzically. He turned his head ever so slightly, not so far as he had when measuring my arm bone with that stick, but pretty close.
Then his eyes went wide.
“Oh, dear, I have left a lot out, haven’t I,” he said, no question mark required. “My name is Zeffirelli. This is the wand shop. I make and spend most of my time repairing wands, magic ones. You have wandered into my workshop, which I inherited from my father when he passed away about” – he took a purposeful breath – “ten years ago. I’m telling you all this because no one wanders into this shop. It’s not that this doesn’t happen. It’s that it has never happened – until now. I’m taking your arrival to mean something. I don’t know what it means, but I have a sense you are intrigued by what I tell you, and you would like to learn more.”
“Yes,” I said. “More.” Again, two syllables. I trusted he was as surprised as I was that I hadn’t begun drooling.
And then just that moment, I heard a familiar sound, which struck me as strange since nothing here was familiar in the slightest. There was a pinprick of a bell ringing, along with some sloshy metallic brushing. The door, the one with the blinds. It had opened, and someone had come in.
“Be with you in a moment,” said a little voice, which I then realized was my own.
“Ingrid, welcome,” said Zeffirelli as I followed him out of the workshop and into the duller light of the entry. “How are you?”
“Wonderful, Zed, just wonderful. I was in the neighborhood and thought I would drop by.”
“Always a pleasure.”
“And, yes, I am finally returning the loaner,” she said, pulling a dark black void the shape of a wand from some recessed pocket of her oversize coat.
“So, so, what do you think?” he asked, taking a small notebook, unlined, and a pencil from his leather apron.
“Incredible. I had no idea carbon fiber could be so pleasing.”
“Tell me more. The weight, the density? The heft? In what capacity did you employ it?”
“Just simple things,” she said, pausing to collect her thoughts. “I’m not ready to commit, but the trial run was phenomenal.” Then she pulled off her jacket, tossed it over one of the couch’s arms, pushed some magazines out of the way – I spotted one for violin aficionados, one for fly fishers, and one for guitar collectors – and took a seat.
Zed then, for the first time since Ingrid arrived, acknowledged my presence. He turned slightly, caught my eye and raised one of his eyebrows, which I took to mean, “You have this?” I gave a few hurried and shallow nods. I had this.
I backed into the yellow-lit workshop and only once inside did I turn away from this Ingrid and from Zed, or Zeffirelli, or little man, the one who said he makes magic wands and who may want me to learn about them. Did he say “apprentice,” or did I just think it? I think I just thought it.
The kettle was still warm, which seemed magical to me until I reminded myself this is how things that are plugged-in work. I pulled a cup and saucer off a shelf, took a mesh bag from a stack and filled it with some flowery petals, placed the bag in the cup, and then poured the water in slowly, as Zed had. For all my anxious habits, I’ve always had very calm arms, almost freakishly so, my friends tell me. My few friends. Well, friends I’ve had in the past.
I held the saucer and crossed back into the entry area, where conversation was still flowing. I tried to make sense of what I heard while I handed the tea to Ingrid, who gave me a tiny wink of thanks, never pulling her gaze away from Zed.
“I was eager to try it,” she said. “All the advance notice, the reports of Chavez and Perich making such strides back East with this curious utilization of the material, was more than enough to pique my interest.” As she spoke, Zed and I came closer. She had a quiet voice, and what I think you’d call an unassuming one. I’d sorted out by now that this Ingrid must be a real mage. Given all the fuss around people of her rank, I’d expected a fake English accent and not a small amount of snobbery. But Ingrid was nothing of the sort. Even the word “pique” came out as natural, inviting. She had authority, sure, but she wasn’t throwing it around. I felt guilty, but I figured if she could read my mind – could mages do that? – at least she’d know I was sorry for having assumed the worst of her.
“Then I started to read the specs,” she said, continuing. “Yes, yes, online. I do go online. For those of us on the electric side of the aisle, I can’t deny the core coherence rating and what that means, in terms of relieving us of some of the cognitive burden. Maybe it has an even wider audience than I’m imagining.”
All I got from that statement was “cognitive burden,” which I could relate to since I had absolutely no idea what was the heck she was talking about.
As if sensing my considerable confusion and deciding to show rather than tell, Ingrid at that very moment lifted the wand in question, the one made from something called carbon fiber, which I knew to be something that wasn’t wood, such as what Zed had been working at with his fancy apple peeler when I first met him, all the way back to about half an hour ago.
She held the wand, black and thin and vaguely threatening, at her eye level. I wondered whose ulna it matched in length. I wondered if you could make an ulna from carbon fiber. I wondered if you could make a wand from human bone. I wondered when I would learn to pay attention. Then I did. Ingrid was still seated, so this meant the wand was about neck-level for me, and just over Zed’s head. She gave us both an eyeroll, which signaled, unambiguously, that we should step back.
We did. And then further still.
Her sleeve, I noticed, was black linen. Nothing fancy, except it was woven through with fine, rust-colored threads. I took these to be copper, the union marker of the electric mages. I felt ashamed, again. When I first got to junior high, I wrote some politically charged essays for the school paper. One of them was titled “Hypocritically Conductive Vestments.” What, I went on and on, would a real mage need of metal in their clothes, what with the power of, you know, magic at hand. Oh, magic. Magic magic magic.
As I recalled this, I felt even more ashamed. Fortunately, Ingrid’s concentration took my mind off my shortcomings. Her left hand circumnavigated the wand, which was still in her right. It no longer looked like she was simply holding the wand up, so much as she was keeping it in place, as if she were pulling at it.
The whole room seemed to grow smaller, as if the wand, in some heightened state, were warping everything in its proximity, pulling everything closer, much as my own attention — and, from the look of his face, Zed’s — had been drawn in, magnetized.
Through all of this, Ingrid’s hand and wand stood still, even if the tension between them, that sense of push and pull, give and take, of an uneasy truce, remained evident, even to my untrained senses.
Slowly, a brace of air coalesced around the wand. That’s the only way I can describe it. I know more, today, about what was happening, but I’m trying to describe what it felt like at the time, which isn’t terribly difficult because the mix of shock and elation I experienced is still with me to this day. This was magic, plain old simple magic, something I historically couldn’t have cared less about, any more than I did about symphony orchestras or French cuisine, and yet I was entranced, fixated, engrossed.
The wand was the center this slowly expanding globe of thin, clear airspace. Given the absence of windows in Zed’s workshop, with the exception of his blind-covered door, and the sheer amount of mess — the old floor coverings, the dusty display area, the accumulated detritus in the workshop itself — it’s no surprise that the globe of air encompassing the wand became quite bright in contrast, and all the more so as it expanded.
Ingrid concentrated, slowly lowering the wand, as if keeping it aloft were too much of a strain. The perfect globe of pure airspace grew larger still. Because of the void’s shape, it approached my midsection before it did my sneakers or my head. I felt nothing as it pushed invisibly past my stomach. Well, nothing aside from amazement, which I think I managed to carefully disguise with a practiced emotional neutrality that served me well at home and school.
Eventually, though, the wand’s creation had grown large enough so first my nose then forehead, and eventually the back of my skull were touched and, finally, fully encompassed. The purity, the sweetness, of the space was overwhelming. I could feel a pulsing in Ingrid’s exertion, in her … spell? I wondered if that word was OK to use. Was it disparaging? Or just plain clueless?
And then, in an instant, Ingrid loosened her grip on the wand, and it flew from her right hand, only to be caught by her left. The void collapsed under the pressure of the room’s air returning to its natural state.
Light applause filled the wand shop. I looked around, and two other people had joined us at some point since Ingrid’s impromptu performance began. There was an older man, who I immediately took to be another mage. He wore a dark cloak, its green the color of something that would grow on a tree in a humid forest. His back was slightly stooped. Even standing still he exuded the impression of someone who moves slowly and with difficulty.
Beside him but not with him was a boy, who I took to be just a couple years older than myself. He had a purple folder under one of his arms, and what I took to be his wand, in a small black case, like a pool cue, under the other, which left his hands free to clap. He clapped like someone who had clapped many times before.
So, here was an awkward and funny coincidence. Had I made different life decisions that morning, this would have been the second time that day I would have been in the presence of Ingrid Inman, Mages Cabinet Member from the Coastal District. I, to be clear, hadn’t recognized her. That is simply how she introduced herself, testing my blank expression’s capacity to mask astonishment. “And Cabinet Chair,” Zed added, while Ingrid wiped the wand with a soft cloth. “Yes, yes,” she replied, which didn’t sound like false modesty, more like “It’s simply a job, but yes, a big one.” Which is to say, just as the room had returned to its ordinary, everyday physics, I was thrown for another loop. This shop felt like some hoarder’s dingy apartment, and yet here was perhaps the most senior mage in all of California, certainly in all of Los Angeles. And she was, by all appearances, a regular.
As for that coincidence: My social studies class had taken a field trip that day to visit City Hall to watch the M.C.s do their thing. I didn’t go because, well, school. I had, however, exerted myself enough to look at the day’s program online. As I recall, there was some sort of environmental effort, and some mediating of regional parties who were in disagreement. The M.C.s only hold these sessions a few times a year, and it had taken Ms. MacGillicuddy a lot of work to arrange for two dozen (minus, er, one) junior-high students to attend. The only teacher who kinda gets me, Mr. Inouye, said I would really enjoy the experience of watching the M.C.s in full regalia, but I bowed out. Had more pressing things to do, which amounted to sleeping late, eating a bad croissant, and, apparently, walking blind into a magic wand repair shop.
“I was supposed to see you earlier today,” I heard someone say, then realizing the voice was mine. Second time that had happened.
Ingrid looked up at me, pulling her attention away from the wand. She seemed used to being the center of attention. “Oh, the spring covenant? Are you involved in a dispute? I don’t recall anything in our docket not being attended to.”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. School trip. My class was going to. Well, my class went today to see the … the Mages Cabinet in … in … at work, yes. At work.” I made a mental note to give myself a talking to about learning to, well, talk.
“Oh, Matilda’s crew?” Ingrid said, sitting up on the couch. She had playfully yanked the wand back out of Zed’s hand – I hadn’t even noticed he’d gotten hold of it – and was eyeing its contours closely, as if it were about to do something on its own, or more likely because she was coming to grips with just how much she was going to miss its carbon glory.
“Uh, Matlida?” I asked, immediately regretting that my “uh” had returned, like a single-syllable hiccup.
“She’s probably Ms. MacGillicuddy to you, correct?”
“Oh, yes, our social studies teacher.”
Yes, Ms. MacGillicuddy, who drags her 8th graders to the M.C.s’ gaianations every spring, a final hurrah before we go on to neglect to attend high school. Such cause for celebration.
As for the gaia ceremony, my grandparents used to attend annually, and drag me along. I just couldn’t deal with the pageantry. It was so stuffy. I have two main memories of going with my family when I was young. The first was this chatty guy in the lobby, holding court, as I’d later learn it was called, bragging about how big his yacht was. Then, during the event, I saw him asleep a few rows over. As the evening unfolded, at least a dozen people were totally asleep. All this high-tone rigamarole, and they couldn’t keep their eyes open. That’s magic for you, or so I thought. The impromptu wand activities today had, I admitted to myself, made me wonder.
“Marvelous, you must give her my best,” said Ingrid. And then she returned her attention to Zed. I mumbled something while I retrieved her empty cup. She signaled that she didn’t want it refilled, so I carried it back to the workshop.
It was strange walking back into the workshop precisely because the workshop was no longer strange. It felt, somehow, like home. I was comfortable there, which is a feeling I wasn’t particularly familiar with, certainly not at school, and not at home, either, but that’s another story. I took a deep breath through my mouth, filling my lungs. I tasted the wood remnants and the tea leaves and the metal shavings and the strange liquids and the dust and just everything, and I felt settled.
Ingrid and Zed’s voices came from the next room, and I wanted to get back to them. First, though, I had to do something with the teacup. There was no sink in which to leave it. I couldn’t put it on Zed’s bench because every square inch was jam-packed. The smaller bench was covered with that tarp. I decided to act on my organizational ideas from earlier, which meant making use of that empty spare bench in the back of the room. But, to my surprise, the spare bench was no longer spare. There was a block of wood on it, and three tools carefully laid out side by side, all sharp blades of various sorts, including one that resembled that apple peeler thing. And right next to them was a tidy pile of something that had been expertly folded. It was a leather apron, just like Zed’s. And I didn’t well up. That didn’t happen, really.
This is the opening section of a novel-in-progress that occurs in a world where most people, especially young people, consider magic to be old-fashioned and utterly boring, and about a teenager’s chance apprenticeship and cultural awakening.
Series: TEN DAYS on HILOBROW