My uncle was something of a magician. He started simple enough, just small tricks at first. When I was five he said, “You wanna see something neat?” then pinched my nose between his hairy knuckles and declared he “got my nose.” I touched my face in concern and my uncle barked out a laugh and waggled his wild eyebrows.
“Made you look!”
Every year he would give me and my sister each a shiny silver dollar as a birthday present. He made the coins appear out of thin air from behind our ears, or coughed them into his cupped palm. My sister would roll her eyes as she took her coin but I was astounded at the parlor trick.
When I was nine, my uncle made my mother disappear.
My uncle Rick had retired early from an engineering job and would stay with us from Thanksgiving straight through Christmas every year. This was back when we lived in my parent’s drafty house in Batesfield, right by Long Island Sound. It was freezing in the winter but in the summer I could walk right down to the rocky beach to swim and canoe.
I was nine then and we were all settled in the living room––my mother reading People magazine, my sister and I fighting over the television. My uncle came into the living room where we were all relaxing (except my father, who was at work).
“Wanna see something neat?” But this time he didn’t steal anyone’s nose, or pull a coin from our ears.
“I need a volunteer from the audience,” he said with a deep bow, performing as if he were on stage. My sister hooked a thumb at my mother who was still reading.
“Why thank you, this lovely lady will do nicely as my assistant,” said my uncle, shooing my sister and I from the couch.
My mother looked up in alarm from the glossy pages of People. “Er, what are we doing?”
“Just stay right where you are, madam.” Turning to us, he said, “I’m going to make my lovely assistant disappear!” He spread his arms expansively. I clapped. My sister snorted. My mother looked increasingly concerned. He took a blanket from the couch—this ratty thing my aunt Janet had crocheted a decade earlier—and raised it between us and my mother. He wiggled it once, twice, then let it fall. The couch was empty.
Even my sister clapped. It was great fun.
A few minutes went by. At a half an hour, there was still no sign of my mother. I asked my uncle where she was.
He exclaimed, “A magician never reveals his tricks!” then frowned. He muttered something and checked behind the couch.
We split up into individual search parties; we looked under beds, in closets, in the basement with the ancient washer and dryer, in the attic with its pull-down steps and dusty Christmas decorations and hockey equipment. There was no sign of her so we moved outside, looking behind the andromeda bushes, going to the shore and looking out as if the cold slate water would give us a clue. We knocked on the neighbors’ houses, asking if they had seen her. We got confused looks and headshakes.
We settled down on the couch, trying to figure out how to explain Mom’s disappearance to Dad (who would be home from work any minute) when there was a muffled sort of shout from the kitchen. We raced over and I pulled open the door to the kitchen pantry. There was my mother, standing with her People magazine, face white, with a box of granola bars tilted against her head.
To this day my sister swears that she had checked the kitchen, including the pantry, at least twice. I have no reason to doubt her. We had been all over that house with no sign of Mom. She reappeared as suddenly as she had disappeared, a full three hours later. We tried to ask her about it, but she absolutely refused to utter a word. From then on she was never comfortable around my uncle. Granted, she had never cared for dad’s older brother before all the strangeness. My uncle was a humorous, disorderly man; his clothes were musty and smelled of mothballs, his bushy mustache was apt to trap food, and he consistently made a mess of our guest room. He told off-color jokes in front of the kids and smoked acrid-smelling cigars. Worse too, my father, who never smoked, would often join him for a stogie.
Things went back to normal after my mom’s disappearing act. My uncle still performed magic tricks from time to time. He pulled a rabbit out of my baseball cap the following year. We kept the rabbit and named him Twinkie. My dad built a hutch in the basement. We had that magical rabbit until I started college.
When I was eleven, during his yearly visit, my uncle performed his greatest magical feat. I was excited for Christmas recess: no school, presents, my mom’s Christmas goose, a favorite family tradition though it was smaller than the Thanksgiving turkey and the fat from the goose dripped in the oven and set off the fire alarm.
There was a full moon that night. My mom had made a pot roast (since the Christmas goose had yielded no leftovers) with leftover sweet potatoes and green bean casserole. Dessert was leftover apple pie and my grandmother’s cranberry cake. My uncle pulled out two fat cigars after dinner then he and my father retired to the porch overlooking the ocean and smoked. My mother frowned and bit her lip as the rest of us joined them, coughing in the acrid smoke.
“Look at that moon,” my father said, reclining in his wicker chair. We were all dotty to be outside in that freezing weather. It wasn’t even a white Christmas, just bitterly cold, so we sat bundled in long underwear and sweaters and winter coats, gazing up at the moon. It was quite the moon, as my father had pointed out, bright and big, dominating the cloudless sky.
I shivered in my ski jacket, pining for all the things I hadn’t gotten for Christmas (no ten-speed bike, for starters). I eyed my uncle’s cheap cigars with envy, wondering when I would be old enough to try one.
“What a moon, looks so close, like you could reach out and take it,” said my uncle, blowing blueish smoke into the halo of the moonlight. “Wanna see something neat?”
My mother tensed, expecting the worst. My sister and I perked up, sure we were about to see something inexplicable. The only person not affected was my father who continued smoking philosophically.
My uncle stretched a long arm towards the sky, his bony wrist emerging from the sleeve of his pea coat. He wrapped his long fingers around the full moon, picked it out of the sky like a shiny coin, and tucked it into his pocket.
No one said anything. No one reacted. I’m not sure what we were expecting: another rabbit pulled from nothingness, his cigar transformed into a kazoo? Certainly not this prestidigitation of hiding a heavenly body. Stunned, we sat in the darkness––the moonlight had instantly gone.
My father chuckled. “Nice one, Rick.” He shook his head and put out his cigar. “C’mon, let’s head in; it’s getting cold.”
One by one they followed my dad into the friendly yellow light of the house. I stayed, staring into the blank sky, shivering in the cold.
Reading the morning paper over breakfast the next morning, my father said, “It was just a trick.” My mom was making apple pancakes, whisking the batter with irritation. “It’s not like the moon is really gone. Don’t be so gullible.”
“I wish you would talk to him about these…tricks. They are getting out of hand.”
My father shook his head and smiled. He seemed convinced nothing had really happened the night before. My mom’s frown and the toughness of my pancakes showed she thought otherwise.
I tried to talk to my sister while she was watching some terrible dating show.
“Dad’s right, it’s just a trick,” she said.
“Where did the moon go then?”
“Behind a cloud?”
“There weren’t any clouds last night,” I pointed out.
She sat up, rolling her eyes. It was her signature move. “God, I dunno, maybe there was an eclipse or something, maybe that was part of the trick. It’s the moon, okay? It’s not gone, we just couldn’t see it for some reason. Like that guy who made the Statue of Liberty disappear—it’s all mirrors and stuff.”
“Explain Mom’s disappearance then.”
“I dunno, she was probably in on it. That’s why she won’t talk about it.”
I sat down next to her and tried to steal the remote control but she was too quick.
“It will be back tonight though, right?”
“Of course it will,” she said.
I wasn’t convinced. And by her tone, I wasn’t sure my sister was either.
No one spoke about the missing moon the rest of the day. That night we sat around the dining room table. We used the dining room throughout the holidays rather than the kitchen table although we only used the fine china for Christmas dinner. My mother had made some mashed potatoes to go along with leftover pot roast. As my uncle was serving himself a large pile of fluffy potatoes there was a crash against the sliding porch door. We jumped in our chairs.
“I’ll go see what that was.” My father pushed his chair back from the head of the table. No one else moved.
“It’s a bird,” my father called from down the hall. Suddenly we were brave enough to follow. Sure enough, a crow had crashed headlong into the glass porch door. It lay in a broken heap of glossy black feathers.
“Oh no, the poor thing,” my sister said, tearing up. I was surprised as I was not used to her being anything other than sarcastic.
“It’s ok honey, let’s go back inside,” said my mom.
Uncle Rick’s “Anyone know a good taxidermist?” joke elicited silence.
My father returned with his gardening gloves and threw the dead crow into the bushes.
It seemed I was the only one who looked beyond the small, feathery corpse into the darkening horizon. The sun had set and darkness had fallen. Stars twinkled in a moonless sky.
The crow had been the first, but it wouldn’t be the last. The following day a junco and a sparrow also crashed into the house. The junco followed the crow into the sliding glass door while the sparrow bounced off the living room window. Like the crow, the junco died instantly, but the sparrow was only dazed. My sister and I went outside and watched it turn its head and blink. A few minutes later it winged away, its trajectory slightly askew.
Even Twinkie, the rabbit my uncle had pulled from my hat, was acting oddly. When I went into the basement to feed him, he was racing in tight circles around his hutch. The normally timid rabbit bit me when I reached inside to soothe him.
The weirdness was not only limited to animals. That afternoon, on the third moonless day, my sister locked herself in the downstairs bathroom for two hours. I was annoyed as I had to use the upstairs bathroom, but also put out, as she was the only one I could really talk to. The adults were all in denial except for my mother, who seemed worried but didn’t want to discuss it, as if talking would make the situation worse.
I listened at the bathroom door, wondering if my sister was sick. Instead of vomiting, I heard crying.
“Now let’s get away from there,” my mother said, seeing my eavesdropping.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.
“Oh she’s fine. It’s just that time of the month.” I didn’t understand then what it was that happened to my mother and my sister once a month. Something mysterious and feminine.
The sun was setting, the shadows grew longer. I was bored. I had already watched everything good on television. My friends were spending time with their families and my sister had graduated from the bathroom to her bedroom where she was blasting music I was “too young” to listen to.
I was restless, eager to see the bizarre miracle of another moonless night. But it was not dark enough yet, so I went for a walk, passing through the sliding glass door onto the porch, alert for kamikaze birds. I kicked my way through the last desiccated leaves, wondering when we would get the first snowstorm of the season.
There was something lonely and sad about the ocean in winter. Even the big public beaches were deserted––sandy ghost towns. I shivered in my warmest winter coat, the one I took on our ski trip to Vermont with the lift tickets still attached to the zipper. As I walked, I picked up a few choice rocks for skipping: wide flat stones.
When I got to the shoreline I froze and the rocks tumbled from my numb fingers.
The ocean was flat as glass. Not just calm, like on a windless day, but completely and utterly flat. There was no tide, no ripple of water cresting against the dark rocks. I would say it was like something out of a painting but no painting has ever depicted such a motionless sea.
In science class that autumn we had learned how the gravitational pull of the moon affected the Earth’s tides. No moon. No tide. Staring out at the impossible ocean I knew definitively it hadn’t been a mere trick. My uncle had really stolen the moon away.
I raced home, stumbling over loose rocks and leaves. I blew past my bewildered mother and straight to my closet where I rooted around for my dad’s old Polaroid camera from college. I rushed back to the shore and snapped a few shots of the becalmed sea in the long shadows of the late afternoon light. Those grainy, blurry photos are the only proof I have that any of this happened.
My sister groaned in her bed. “Get out of my room before I murder you.” It was an empty threat and we both knew it. She had been popping aspirin all day and didn’t even have the energy to murder Twinkie. Ignoring her posters of shirtless boys, I turned down her screaming-swearing music so we could talk.
“But it’s real—I’m telling you—there’s no tide, birds are going crazy!”
“It’s a trick, just a stupid trick.”
“C’mon, it’s been days and there’s still no sign of the moon. Whatever Uncle Rick did, I don’t think he knows how to undo it. Or he won’t admit it. None of them will talk about it. We have to do something.”
“Assuming you’re right, what the hell could the two of us do?”
Her question floored me. First of all, because she had finally—at least hypothetically—agreed that Uncle Rick’s magic might be real, but secondly because I hadn’t thought of a plan. What would we do? What could we do? We’re just two kids.
“We have to talk to him,” I said. “Ask him to fix it.”
“You know he’s going to say, ‘a magician never reveals his tricks.’ He won’t tell us. I’m not even sure he knows how he did it.”
I thought hard and long. My sister groaned and pressed a pillow to her belly.
“Well, if he really did put the moon in his pocket, it’s probably still there.”
My sister sighed. “You want to look for the moon in our guest room?”
“You have a better idea?”
“Fine, once Mom, Dad, and Uncle Rick are out of the house we’ll raid the guest room. Now get out of here. And bring back more aspirin.” She punctuated that sentence by throwing the pillow at my head.
That night we were supposed to have dinner with the Monroes. Our elderly neighbors liked to invite us over for dinner around the holidays. Dinner was of course leftover turkey: turkey soup or open-faced turkey sandwiches, or turkey tetrazzini. There would be all sorts of pies and cakes for dessert. An hour before we were due, my sister cornered me in the hallway.
“You’re sick,” she said to me.
“God, you’re so dumb,” she said, brushing back her long dark hair. “We have to get the adults out of the house right? This is perfect.”
“Why don’t you fake sick?”
“Because if I’m sick they will leave me home alone, but if you’re sick, I have to stay home to babysit you.”
My sister was far superior to me at subterfuge.
“Fake a stomach ache, ok? No flu or mom will take your temperature. Just say you feel like you’re gonna barf. They definitely won’t make you go to a dinner party.”
I had to admit I was impressed. My sister did seem to come down with something just before an exam, or when a new movie was out.
I told my parents I felt nauseated and they practically forbid my sister to go to the Monroes; she even managed to sound annoyed about it. I thought of Ms. Monroe’s German chocolate cake I would be missing.
We waited until we heard the garage door close and saw the headlights of dad’s car disappear into the night.
We opened the door to Uncle Rick’s room and wrinkled our noses, immediately understanding my mother’s lack of enthusiasm for his long visits. It is the smell I have ever since associated with old people: a potent combination of mothballs, Aqua Velva, and talcum powder, mixed with the overbearing smell of cigar smoke. My uncle had turned our usually tidy guestroom into an avalanche of dirty clothes and toiletries encircling an unmade bed.
My sister and I picked our way through the room trying not to step on laundry. “Which pair of pants was he wearing three nights ago?” I asked.
“Those, I think,” my sister said, pointing to a pair of wrinkled corduroys. She refused to touch them so I stuck my hand in their pockets. The left was empty, but in the right I felt something round and cold.
It looked like a coin. It reminded me of nothing so much as the silver dollars my uncle gave us every year. But this wasn’t a silver dollar. It was of similar size, but this small silvery disc emitted a pale light. It was more than cool to the touch; it was cold enough it made my fingers ache. It seemed to carry a strange energy, an almost imperceptible electric charge. I held it up and the silvery light bathed my sister’s face.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“We put it back where it belongs,” I answered.
It was dark outside and we shivered as we rushed outside, not even bothering with coats. We stood on the porch in the pale light from the miniature moon I held in my palm.
I knew what I had to do, or at least I thought I did. I moved forward, holding my impossible cargo up to the sky. For an instant, I was tempted to keep the moon. I could put it in a glass in my room and have the moonlight all to myself. Or hang it on my ceiling like those glow-in-the-dark moon and stars my friends had. Only this would be the real deal. But I thought about the poor crow and the junco and the sparrow and the unsettling vision of a frozen ocean. So I held the moon between my thumb and forefinger, and, using my best guess of where it should hang, reversed my uncle’s motion, and placed the moon against the black velvet sky. We held our breath as I let go.
Sure enough, the moon stayed. I waved my hand in front of it, quickly, experimentally. Nothing happened. I could no longer reach the moon. It had become what it had always been, a thousand-mile-away fixture in the sky, not a coin that could be palmed in a magician’s trick.
That night my dad and my uncle each smoked a cigar as we sat on the porch under the moonlight. Even my mother seemed relieved; she didn’t complain about the smoke or frown disapprovingly at my father every time he puffed.
“Great trick, Rick,” said my father, the only one convinced that nothing unusual had happened.
“But it’s still full,” my mother said, tilting her head quizzically. We looked at her. “I mean the moon is still full. It shouldn’t be. It was full three days ago.”
No one said anything. She was right of course; the moon should be waning by now. Not as big and bright as it was three days ago. Still, after three nights with no moon it felt like nit picking.
After that, things went back to normal. Or at least as normal as they ever were. No more birds flew into our windows. Twinkie went back to being sweet and scared of everything. The moon gradually disappeared and reappeared on its regular schedule. The news never commented on the three moonless nights. But I don’t think it was a localized effect. I think adults everywhere went about their business, content that such things were impossible, while the kids of the world gazed up in wonder.
My uncle returned to his home in North Carolina. His yearly visits continued to my mother’s chagrin. Over the years, lines appeared around his eyes and mouth. His moustache grew bushier and hair sprouted from his ears and nose as if he were filling up with hair from the inside.
I wonder if my uncle learned a lesson after that Christmas. He would still give us each a silver dollar every year, and still pulled them from thin air. He never tried big magic again—as far as we knew—and stuck to small parlor tricks. Yet every time he would say “Hey, wanna see something neat?” there would be a collective gasp around the dining room table.