The wizard rolls into town at dawn, his cart rumbling through the gap in Trinity’s towering fence. Scores of residents swarm around him.
Abel squints at the sun’s orange glare as it rises over the rooftops. “Come on, Pip,” he says, patting his thigh. A brindle-haired dog looks up at 1him and runs in a tight circle, her tail wagging. He looks around at the huddled shacks, at the curls of white smoke dotted across the settlement, and the people gravitating towards the wizard.
Abel follows the gentle sloping dirt track towards the entrance as Pip trots at his left. Chickens run in haphazard zigzags, confined by a line of wire mesh to his right, shedding feathers as they avoid the dog. The looming crucifix beyond the fence spreads shadows across the rooftops. Children duck past him, laughing as they chase each other.
A brown and grey mule lumbers forward, its head bowed as the wizard brings the cart to a halt. The cart rocks on four rubber tyres. Its sides are painted in garish daubs of blue and gold.
Engulfed by dusty blue robes, the wizard drops down from the cart, reaches behind his seat, and pulls on a blue point hat. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he booms. “I am the Great Alfonso. They call me the Wizard of the Wasteland.”
Abel joins the edge of the crowd as Pip sniffs around behind him, unconcerned by the new arrival. He looks around as people step aside for Sal. She moves past him and through the crowd to speak to the wizard, her dreadlocks hanging loose from her hooded robe behind her.
“My good lady, am I correct in assuming that you are the Sal these good people have been talking about?” the wizard asks.
“That’s right,” says Sal, folding her arms. “And you are?”
The wizard removes his hat with a flourish and bows his head in a single, fluid motion. His skin is darker than Sal’s, his hair an explosion of twisted curls, streaked in black and grey. He raises his bloodshot, yellow-tinged eyes and meets Sal’s gaze. “Madam, if you please. I am sure my reputation precedes me. I am the Wizard of the Wasteland.” He lifts his chin, offering her a toothy smile as he spreads his arms wide. “I am the magnificent, the splendiferous, the incomparable, Great Alfonso.”
Sal shakes her head, letting the silence hang in the air for a long, awkward moment. “Sorry, I’ve never heard of you.” She examines his cart, running her fingers along the whorls of paint. “Are you a trader?” she asks, turning to him.
“Yes, yes,” the wizard says, raising his voice and a finger. “But more.” He smiles again and sweeps his gaze across the gathered faces. “What I offer is the wonder of the Great Alfonso’s magical extravaganza.” He thrusts his arms out.
Abel smirks as a few titters spread behind him.
“Magical what?” asks Sal.
“What I have for you today, ladies and gentlemen, is the culmination of many years of tireless research into the arcane arts of magic and alchemy, glimpses into our once great past, now long lost to dust.” The wizard reaches down to the soil, grabs a handful, and lets it fall between his fingers.
“I still don’t understand,” says Sal.
“My good lady, you strike me as an intelligent and learned woman, which is why I will ask you to be my first volunteer.”
She looks around and shrugs. “Okay.”
She makes a face as the wizard moves around the side of his cart, unbolting a series of locks. An oak panel swings down on a pair of hinges, bouncing for a moment against its supporting ropes as it rests perpendicular to the cart’s side.
The onlookers move in closer as the wizard arranges apparent pieces of junk along a series of shelves — an ancient television set with a curved grey glass screen and wooden casing, a fish tank, a hand-generator in black and brass, and a toy car.
The wizard lifts the toy car from the shelf, its red paint faded to a cloudy pink along its edges. He takes a metal key from a pocket inside his robe and makes a show of putting it into the back of the car. “This,” he declares, “is an ancient and magical key. With this key, I can bring power to this otherwise inanimate object.” He places the car flat on the panel and winds the key, the mechanism clicking and crunching with each turn. The wizard mutters an incantation, closes his eyes, and wriggles his fingers over the toy. He lets go, smiling as it shoots forward, hurtling over the edge before landing in a clump of soft grass. A few people clap their hands.
“Thank you, thank you. You are all most gracious,” the wizard says, lowering his head. “What you’ve seen here is just a mere hint, a mere glimmer of the extent of my magical powers.” He leans down and takes the car and wipes away the dust with the corner of his robe before placing it back on the shelf.
He takes something down, turns to the crowd, and raises a pair of binoculars above his head. “Behold! These magical eye lenses allow their user to see objects that are far away, as though they were right in front of your very eyes.” He hands the binoculars to Sal and shows her how to look through them, gesturing for her to point them towards the spherical form at the top of the water tower behind her.
A hush drops over the crowd as she looks through the lenses. “These are wonderful,” she says. “Where did you find these?”
“That, madam, is a secret.” The wizard taps a forefinger against his nose. “Please, pass those round, let the other members of your wonderful community experience this glimpse into the possibilities of alchemy and magic.”
People take turns looking through the lenses. Abel smiles at the gasps of awe and the occasional burst of laughter. When they reach him, he looks through the lenses and focuses on the wizard rifling around one of the shelves. He looks down at a tug to his elbow. A kid jumps up and down with eager excitement, clapping his hands and staring at the binoculars. He hands them to the boy, takes a moment to show him what to do, and turns his attention back to the wizard.
“As you will observe,” the wizard says, holding up a light bulb, “this is a simple globe of glass. I would offer to hand this round, so you can witness for yourselves my ingenious design. But, because the magic is so powerful and so very dangerous, I will instead ask that you all take a few paces backwards to give me room to perform this most incredible and delicate of spells.”
He places the light bulb on the panel and checks the wires are connected to the hand-generator. He steps over to the dynamo and mutters an incantation with a raised chin and half-closed eyes. Smiling to the crowd, he winds the handle.
A low hum and the sharp crackle of electricity emanate from the generator as he turns the handle. A scattering of gasps spread around the wizard as the light bulb glows a brownish-yellow. “As you can see, with this ancient magic, I have created fire within this glass. I’m sure you will agree that this might be the most marvellous, magnificent, magical accomplishment you have ever had the good fortune to witness.”
He stops abruptly, sweeping his gaze across the faces of the crowd, now rapt. He raises his right forefinger with a sudden jerk. “Oh, but there is more.” He makes a dramatic turn, his robes billowing in an expanse of dusty blue.
The crowd moves forward with tiny, hesitant steps as they strain to get a closer look. The wizard disconnects the wires from the light bulb, places it in a pot filled with cloths on the middle shelf, and then connects the wires to the television. He turns back to the crowd, spreading his arms wide. “I must ask again that you take a few steps back. This is very ancient and powerful magic. What I am about to show you is the most amazing sight. Where are the magical lenses?” He waits a few moments for the binoculars to return to him. He looks through them, smiles again, and places them on a shelf. “With those lenses, you were able to make objects far away seem as though they are close enough to touch. Using the same principles, I have devised and constructed a magical box that allows you to see over great distances to lands to the west, beyond the edges of the wastes.”
He reaches for the hand-generator and cranks the handle again. The belt hums, crackling and sparking as the smell of burning rubber fills the air. He leans over to the television set, mutters a spell, pushes a button, and keeps turning the handle.
White noise hisses from the television’s speaker as the screen comes to life in a random array of white, blacks, and greys — a dead signal. “As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, what we are witnessing is a window into another land, another land shrouded in —what is it?” He tilts his head and rubs his chin. “A dust storm, perhaps?” He drops the handle and turns to the audience with a dramatic shrug.
The white noise drops to silence, the screen fading to black. The gathered crowd applauds. The wizard makes a deep bow. “Thank you, thank you. You are all too kind.”
“What I am about to show you now may be my greatest miracle, the pinnacle of my magical achievements.” His face drops to a grim expression. “I warn you all that this is ancient and powerful magic and urge you again to stand back.” He reaches up to the fish tank on the top shelf and takes it down, placing it carefully on the flat panel.
He reaches into the tank and pulls out a green frog, holding it up by one leg for the audience to see, its body squirming as its free leg flails wildly. Stepping over to Sal, he dangles the frog before her. “Madam, please do me the honour of telling the members of your wonderful community what you see before you.”
“It’s just a frog,” she says.
“It’s just a frog,” the wizard repeats. “Never has a truer phrase been uttered. So you will agree that this is a living, breathing frog? You agree there is no trickery, no shenanigans? It is, as you say, ‘just a frog’?”
She nods, looking around. “As I say, it’s just a frog.”
Without ceremony, he swings the frog in a downward arc, smacking its body against the panel. He waits with his back to the crowd for several seconds and then raises the frog’s lifeless body for all to see. “As you will observe, the life of this frog has been taken.”
He turns his attention back to Sal. “Madam, would you like to take a moment to examine this frog, assure the ladies and gentlemen gathered that this is the same frog?”
“You killed one of God’s creatures,” she says, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t call that magic.”
“And you would be correct in that most astute of observations,” he says, giving a slight bow. “There is no magic in killing a frog, but as much as it pains me to do it, as much as it pains me to take the life of an innocent creature, it is unfortunately a necessary component of the Great Alfonso’s most important magical discovery.”
The crowd looks on in silence as the wizard lays the frog flat. He takes the wires from the television, attaches the crocodile clips to the frog’s torso, and mutters the words of a magic spell, making complex shapes and symbols in the air with his fingers. He turns to the crowd, gives a solemn look, removes his hat, and gives a deep bow. “Observe,” he says, looking up, his voice little more than a whisper. He steps over to the generator and turns the handle, building up a rhythm until the belt hums again.
The frog’s right leg twitches. The wizard winds the handle faster, smiling when the frog begins to convulse, its arms and legs quivering spasmodically. Dropping the handle, he places his hat back on his head and turns to the audience, triumphant. “As you have seen, ladies and gentlemen, the Great Alfonso has brought this frog back from the dead.”
He turns back to the frog, now limp, and drops it into the fish tank. He faces the crowd, taking in the applause. “Thank you.”
A few men shake their heads and walk away. Children run over to the wizard, jumping up and down as they ask him questions. The wizard closes his cart.
Abel weaves through the crowd, making his way over to Sal. “What did you make of that?” he asks.
“He’s clearly a charlatan.”
“Yep. But he certainly knows how to put on a good show.”
“It’s just technology from before the end times,” she says. “There’s no magic to it.” Her eyes narrow as she watches a few residents leading the wizard’s mule away to be fed and watered.
“I know,” says Abel, rubbing his beard. “But you got to admit, pretty fascinating stuff.”
A frown spreads across Sal’s face. “You’re not seduced by this fraudster are you?”
“I’m intrigued,” he says, shrugging. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything with real electricity.”
Sal nods. “Perhaps.”
A tall lean man with pale skin and dark hair wanders over. “Jacob,” says Abel, dipping his head in greeting.
“You look healthy. I take it you’re still keeping clean?” Jacob asks.
“Yep. I’m a full-time trader now, no plez for me.”
Jacob nods and turns to Sal. “What’s the plan for this guy?”
Sal shakes her head and sighs. “I don’t know. The residents are clearly taken with him. Might cause friction if we ask him to leave.”
Jacob casts a cursory glance towards the wizard then nods his agreement. “What do you say? We treat him like any other trader and hope he goes by the morning.”
“I don’t trust him,” says Sal.
“Come on, Sal,” Abel says. “It’s hard out there. He’s surviving. It’s different, I’ll grant you, but he’s not raiding, or dealing. He looks like he’s probably clean.”
She raises her hands. “Okay, you’re probably right. But I still don’t like it. This promotion of magic and mysticism doesn’t sit well with me.”
“Just a different kind of magic to what you’re used to. You’ve got God, this guy’s got…” Abel’s voice trails off at the sight of Sal’s glare.
“He can stay for breakfast, but then I want him gone,” she says, turning to Jacob. “Hopefully, we’ll see the back of him.”
The communal hall rattles with the noise of chatter and movement. Abel takes a tin plate from a pile being passed along the central table. The plate has a blue rim. Occasional chips in the enamel expose the tin beneath. He sits at the end of a long pine bench. Jacob takes a seat to his right, handing him a clay cup.
Abel passes the plates along to Sal. She sits to his left, leaning back on a chair at the head of the table. Pip rests against the front of his legs, warming his feet with her body heat. The wizard vaults the seat across from him.
Abel takes a boiled egg from a tray and watches with anticipation as fresh slices of bread make their way towards him. “Where are you from?” he asks, smiling at the wizard.
The wizard gives half-shrug. “My travels take me far and wide.”
“You ever been by the Grid?”
“The Grid?” The wizard pinches the bridge of his nose. “Yes. I went there once, had half my stuff stolen.”
“Yep. That’s about right.” Abel takes two slices of bread when the tray reaches him, drops them on his plate, and cracks open the boiled egg, its orange yolk soft and steaming.
“Where do you get the items for your show?” Sal asks.
The wizard shuffles in his seat, raising his chin. “Many years of exploration, painstaking research, and alchemical experimentation.” He makes a wide gesture with his hands. “Understanding the ways of the ancients, understanding the inner workings of magic is something I’ve made my life’s work.”
Jacob gives an incredulous smirk. “You may have most people believing what you do is magic. That’s fine. You’re a showman. I get it.” He raises a silencing hand when the wizard poises to speak. “You’ve obviously found a haul of technology from before the end days and worked out how to use it for your little show.”
The wizard gets to his feet. “I have never…”
“Sit down,” Jacob snaps. “You can eat with us and trade, or you can leave now. Either works for me.”
The wizard hesitates, drops to his seat, picks up a slice of bread, and pouts.
“Jacob, please,” says Sal. “That’s no way to speak to our guest.”
Jacob nods and raises his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “You’re right.” He turns to the wizard, offering a handshake. “Great Alfonso, if that is your real name, please accept my apologies.”
“Of course. I understand that my work can sometimes leave some people feeling…” the wizard hesitates, reaching for the word. “Uncomfortable.”
“My issue is that you’ve found this important technology, the ability to generate electricity, but instead of doing something for the betterment of everyone, you waste your time on a frivolous magic show.”
The wizard gets to his feet again, grabs another slice of bread, stuffs it into his mouth, and storms out, his dusty blue robe flapping behind him as he leaves.
“What did you do that for?” asks Sal, her lips pursed.
“He is only walking away because I told him the harsh truth.”
Abel turns, leans away from Jacob, and rests on his left elbow. “I’ve got a lot of respect for you, Jacob, but Sal’s right. You say what that wizard guy does is frivolous, that it’s not for the betterment of others, yet I saw the faces of the people watching. There’s not much in this damn world to smile about. You’ve got your God, but a flesh and blood man showed these people something real, something miraculous.”
Jacob sniffs. “It’s just old technology. There’s nothing magical about it.”
“It doesn’t need to be magical. It’s still something marvellous. I feel sad for you that you can’t see that.” Abel stands and turns to Sal. “Are we okay to go to the trading house? I need to get on the road.” Pip jumps to her feet, her tail wagging.
“You ready, girl?” He leans down and pats Pip’s back.
The trading house stands dark and musty. A cocktail of smells hang in the air: old clothes, damp leather, paraffin, and bread. Abel’s eyes adjust slowly to the candlelit gloom. He walks around tables scattered with shoes and clothes, car parts and cutlery. He steps over to a sagging table piled high with books, scanning the familiar titles. “Anything new?”
Sal shakes her head and folds her arms. Pip sniffs around the bottom of her robes. Sal looks down, smiling.
Abel leaves his backpack on a table, reaches inside, and takes out a few office supplies: a pencil and a ruler. He reaches farther and pulls out a copy of the New Testament. “I remember you saying you’d offer me top trade if I ever found any Bibles,” he says, handing her the book.
“This is in wonderful condition,” she says, turning the leather-bound volume in her hands, its embossed gold title flashing against the candlelight.
“Yep.” He walks around the tables, examining the goods. He picks up a child’s doll, pink and naked and grimy around the fingers and toes, its hair a tangle of matted blonde. He shakes his head and puts the doll back. “I’ve not seen anything great around here to trade though. I don’t think I’d be able to carry the amount of tins I could get for this.”
Sal nods. “There is something that came in. A piece of old technology, something electrical.”
“What am I going to do with something electrical?”
“This is different,” she says. “You’ll see.” She opens the door at the far end of the room, hidden by shadows, and emerges a few seconds later holding a black cylindrical object, a little longer than the length of her palm.
Abel takes it, feeling its coldness and weight. There’s a glass lens at one end, and a handle at the other. “What does it do?”
Sal takes the object and winds the handle. A broad grin passes over her face, illuminated by yellow torchlight.
Abel’s jaw drops. “How?”
“You think this will be enough for the Bible?”
“Yep. Throw in a few tins, and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Sal flicks through the Bible’s pages again, smiles, and shakes her head. “Fine, fine. You win.” She walks over to a pile of unlabelled food cans. Taking four tins, she drops them into Abel’s backpack. “What are you going to do now?” she asks.
He shrugs. “Get back on the road, I guess. Head back east.” He swings the backpack onto his shoulders and adjusts the straps. “Hopefully, I won’t bump into anyone from the Family again.”
“You’re past that part of your life.” She places a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s still hard though. It never leaves you.”
Sal offers a gloomy smile as she leans forward for a hug. “You look after yourself, and look after this one.” She gestures to Pip.
“Thanks, Sal.” He pats his thigh, makes a clicking sound with the side of his mouth, and heads to the door. “Come on, girl.”