Notes on the Magician’s Collection

He has toured all over Europe, delighting thousands with his illusions and sleights of hand, to say nothing of his menagerie of impeccably trained animals. And in the audience–-not at every show, mind you, but enough of them–-in the audience, there is a bright-eyed little boy (or girl, occasionally) who is entranced by Dr. Malin’s show even more than most. The theatre lights, the plush seats and the thrill of staying up late would excite most children, even were the act to be less extraordinary than Dr. Malin’s. But after this show, these boys (and at least one girl)–they lay awake all night savouring every moment of the magic they saw, only to pound down the stairs to breakfast to triumphantly declare, “I want to be a magician like Dr. Malin!” Their parents humour them, of course, as they do when the boys previously fixated on being sailors or soldiers or doctors. The boy’s room becomes filled with every book on magic and trickery he can find, and he always fixes his eyes on the poster of Dr. Malin before he goes to sleep.

“It’s just a passing fancy,” his parents whisper to each other at increasingly lower volumes, as the duration of their child’s magical obsession grows from weeks into months, and then years. Finally, before they fully realize it, there stands in front of them a gangly young man, barely old enough to shave, with a suitcase full of books of illusions and a top hat of very poor quality on his head, which he thinks makes him look handsome and grown-up. As much as they try to reason with him, it is too late–-this moment was fated from the instant the young man set eyes on the fantastic Dr. Malin those many years ago. He must follow in the magician’s footsteps. He must journey to find Dr. Malin and ask to become his apprentice.

Their journeys are different, but eventually they all reach their destination. It is not difficult, as Dr. Malin’s shows are widely advertised, and he visits Europe’s major cities at least once (but not more than thrice) a year. Yet his schedule is erratic, and when they reach him, they are dusty and dishevelled. The more fortunate young men have enough money left to see his show one final time, before approaching him backstage. He is a tall, imposing man, and makes no effort to set them at ease. They stammer and blush. They show him some card tricks and sleight of hand they have been practising. They beg, plead and implore him to take them on as apprentices. They offer themselves in supplication to the master magician. They are, in short, pitifully eager to learn from him.

Dr. Malin is pitiless. He has high expectations, and many demands from those who would work for him. He is not moved by their youthful exuberance and enthusiasm. There will be no excuses for failing him, no second chances. If they displease him, he will punish them as he sees fit, and they will be stripped of their apprenticeships. Do they understand? Oh, of course, they are undeterred by these strict conditions. They will try their very best to please him and accept his judgement in all things. They will do anything just to be given the chance to observe the master magician.

And he will stare straight back at them, with his steely grey eyes, and say, “Then we have reached an agreement. Do not forget what you have promised me today, for I will hold you to every word.” And they shiver in delight (though they should shiver in terror), and beam at all the excitement ahead of them, that they have dreamed of since they first saw his show.

Dr. Malin will lead them through his menagerie, introducing them to all his magnificent creatures, some so exotic the apprentices have only read about them in books. And as they walk through his array of animals, he will advise them on his expectations for his new apprentice, as though his whole zoo is a series of lessons. “Do not be vain,” he comments, to the peacock’s glorious plumage. “Do not be lazy,” he says, passing in front of the hanging three-toed sloth. And so he continues, through nearly a hundred animals, while his apprentice stares, agog. The hyena, “Be serious”; the bull, “be graceful”; the milk snake, “Be original. The world has one Dr. Malin, and I am he, and will be until I die, and after. Do not seek to be the second.”(When I have observed his show, I was most struck by the octopus with its undulating tentacles and large distended head, which seemed to me to show disdain for all the audience in its hooded eyes. I wonder what instruction Dr. Malin gave as he passed it.)

And so the apprenticeship begins. They will care for the animals, mucking out their stalls, brushing their fur, cleaning their cages, and riding in their custom-built car on train journeys. They will wash Dr. Malin’s clothes and brush his magnificent imported beaver-fur top hat (after trying it on for size once or twice). They will help the stagehands prepare for Dr. Malin’s performances. In return for their aid, he may let them catch just a glimpse more of this card trick, that illusion or this sleight of hand (although usually the glimpse serves only to demolish all their original notions of how they thought the trick was performed, while providing no insight into how he actually does it). If he speaks of books of magic to them, it is only to discredit the precise dog-eared volumes which they have lugged all the way from home. Their excitement fades in the face of weeks of hard work for only room and board, work which occurs only behind the scenes of Dr. Malin’s shows, and never, no, never on the fantastically lit stage in front of an adoring audience dressed up to see the famous master of trickery. They have received exactly what they asked for: the opportunity to work under him. What they have not received is what they are too timid to ask for, but too foolhardy not to want: to become him.

What happens next differs, depending on the temperament of the young man (or woman) in question. I confess, I am turning now to speculation. Accounts of these actions are much more difficult to obtain, and the stories become confused. Some young men turn to drink; others throw themselves back into the apprenticeship with fervour, hoping that if they are more passionate, it will be more rewarding. Some confront Dr. Malin with his perceived ill treatment of them. One young man wrote his family to say he would be abandoning the apprenticeship and journeying back home to them: he never arrived.

Whatever the route they take, the ending is always the same. It is reasonable to assume that Dr. Malin becomes dissatisfied with their poor performances and terminates the apprenticeship. And the former apprentices, embarrassed by their failure, cast off their dreams of becoming magicians and continue onwards, seeking their fortunes elsewhere. Anyone who has asked after a former apprentice of Dr. Malin has received a similar answer.

My own conclusions, however, are much more dire. I shall submit three points in evidence, and leave it to my audience to connect them. I confess that I fear voicing my peculiar theory aloud, especially against a man of such renown. These points are as follows:

One. That no former apprentice of Dr. Malin’s has been seen by his family, nor corresponded with them since losing his post, even those who frequently wrote letters home.

Two. That Dr. Malin’s impressive menagerie appears to grow at a rate of approximately three animals per year, which by my estimations compiled from the families of former apprentices, corresponds quite closely with the rate at which these young men set out from their homes in hopes of learning from the magician.

Three. That each of these animals is preternaturally intelligent and well trained, and that several audience members at Dr. Malin’s shows report being astounded by the human expression of these animals when one looks into their eyes (myself included, as evidenced by my remarks on the hateful octopus I observed).

Considering the above, do I wish Dr. Malin to discontinue his travelling show at once and face the consequences of the law? Yes, but upon further reflection, I fear he is too powerful to face any consequences of his acts, should he not wish them, and so I ask only that London revoke its open invitation to his show, lest our city lose more than the fifteen sons and one daughter he has already claimed.

Back to Stories