That Old, Old, Black Magic
There are old places in the world that keep old secrets. These groves, grottos, and hidden meadows have stood for thousands of years as humans passed through leaving legacies of betrayals, tortures, torments, and grief. They’ve witnessed brutality and wonder beyond measure, and the old places remember.
People call them magic, and maybe they are, but the thing about magic is that it’s not wands, words of power, or chants in languages long dead. It’s a subtle thing, like a reflex or a habit, a natural reaction to the weight of human emotion pressing itself upon the world. It operates in the whispers, the poignant cries of desperation, and the whimpers of the dying. It’s in the exultation of sex and wails of a parent who has to bury a child.
Words make waves in the air and carve their patterns, however imperceptibly, into the wood, and, moss, and stone, over thousands of years. Humanity presses down upon the world and marks it, building the world in our image. The old places listen, and they remember, and they keep the secrets of what they learn.
And over time, that all comes to have some power. Maybe that’s magic after all. The world is deeper and stranger, crueler and kinder than we like to believe.
The world has changed and new places have sprung up, new landscapes of glass and steel and order. These places may be magnificent, but they have a cost. There is no magic in the new world. Steel doesn’t listen, and hate and love don’t carve their plaintive cries into glass and plastic.
But there are old places in the world and they keep old secrets. There are more of them than you’d think. They listen, and they remember, and they keep their secrets still.
Johan Govic found one of these places, though he didn’t know it at the time. I won’t tell you where it is, lest you go looking for it. Actions have consequences, after all, and magic may not be something you truly want to find.
Johan sat on the well worn rock in a treeless clearing along the banks of the river, kicking his dusty shoes out over the flowing water. The clearing was about 80 yards across, made of flat stones and a soothing carpet of old moss. It was ringed by tall evergreens and old oaks that opened up to the hiking and running trails, shaded doorways to paths winding off into the woods and mountains beyond, where he spent most of his mornings. At this time of morning the sun flickered through the high branches of the trees showering the clearing with a kaleidoscope of light and shadow. He rested his sore muscles and watched the light dance on the water.
It was peaceful here, almost magical, and one of the last few places where Johan felt happy.
Life had not been good to Johan lately.
He thought back to conversation with his wife that morning with a pit in his stomach. It hadn’t been a bad morning, but he was haunted by the aching shame which hung between them like a heavy fog.
He’d gotten home from dropping his daughter off at preschool and was making coffee in the kitchen when his wife came down on her way to work. She was sharply dressed in slacks, a fitted suit coat, jewelry and makeup, beautiful as she always had been, and he felt a small twist of the knife that he knew she didn’t dress like that for him anymore.
“Hey honey, how was Chloe at drop-off?” she asked. They weren’t really even looking at each other as she put on her rings.
“She did great, I think she really likes it there. That was a good move for us.” Johan tried to put a positive spin on things, keep it light.
“So what are you up to today?” She fired off the question with a casual indifference, but that question always fell like a hammer. Johan glanced over in time to see the disappointment and the judgement on her face, just for a moment, before she put back up her mask of empathy and support.
“I’m going to shoot off some job applications this morning, I think. Then maybe go for a run, it’s supposed to be a beautiful day.”
“That’s great!” she said with a convincingly feigned smile, “I know you’ll find something soon.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and headed out the door.
Back in the clearing, Johan rubbed his eyes and sighed. His marriage was failing, but what may have been even worse was that it was failing in this quiet, heartless way. They had some fights, sure, but even the fights were growing fewer, and they felt more like roommates, where one of the roommates wasn’t pulling his own weight and was a constant disappointment. At least the fights and some fire in them.
Johan had lost his job as an auditor a few months back and was on extended unemployment. That was part of the trouble, but not all of it. Kate was still working, and he got the unemployment checks. The money wasn’t great, but they were getting by. But he knew Kate was getting tremendously frustrated by his inability to find new work, and his glumness about the whole affair. He claimed he was just being picky, he didn’t want a job beneath his skills and he knew something would come along, but so far, hundreds of applications in, nothing had budged.
It wasn’t just that he was unemployed now, though that caused issues. The tension had been building for a while, even before Johan was laid off. He hadn’t enjoyed his work and was increasingly working late and coming home in a bad mood. At first Kate would pour a couple glasses of wine and help him talk through his problems. Bad days happen to everyone, and it’s great to have a supportive partner to talk it out with. But that could only go on for so long. Occasionally there should be good days too, but he hated his job, so there were fewer and fewer of those.
The bottom line was that Johan spent a lot of time feeling bad for himself, both when he was working, and now that he was unemployed, and his wife was getting sick of it.
“Sometimes you have to make your own luck!” Kate would tell him when they chatted about it and her mask was up, “you just need to go out there and make something happen, even if it’s not ideal, it’ll give you confidence. That’s how you get back out there!”
But in the darker moments she’d say what she really meant. “A man doesn’t sit around and bitch about his problems. He looks after his family. A man provides. Are you a man, Johan?”
He stood up and dusted off his pants and breathed deep of the mountain air, holding it in his lungs until it burned and he started to see spots. Then he blew it out, stretched for a minute, and sprinted off into the woods.
As he spent less and less time on the fruitless endeavor of job hunting, he spent more and more time running in the woods, and in these woods in particular. He loved the way the light filtered through the treetops and covered with undergrowth with dappled shade. He loved the way the moss felt under his feet, and he loved running through the dust, and the rocks, and the mud. He liked the breathlessness of running uphill and looking out down the ridge line over rolling meadows and farmland, full of people doing real, honest work with their hard and honest hands. And loved running down into the valleys along the rivers that smelled like brine and foliage, and that indescribable scent of water on moss covered rocks.
And most of all he loved the clearing by the riverbank with its softly sloping banks of moss and smooth, flat stones. He’d stay there for hours if time allowed.
Johan reached the trailhead, exhausted and sweating, but with a clear head at least for now. Turning to face the woods, he wished he didn’t have to leave. The woods were a peaceful place, and the world at home was stressful and trying, but it was time to pick up his daughter, and he’d have to get dinner ready. So he climbed into his Suburban and headed to the school, leaving the peaks and valleys behind him, still and silent.
Over the next few weeks, things got worse. There were more fights, and Johan’s despair deepened. As he started to lose hope he could feel Kate pulling further and further away. She would take Chloe out to the park on weekends, or to visit with her parents. Johan wouldn’t be invited, she didn’t want him to bring down the mood. He’d stay in bed until odd hours, and he’d spend a lot more time in the woods.
The woods were always there for him.
One day, out in the clearing, he put his head in his hands and cried. “I just can’t take it anymore,” he muttered into his hands between heaving cries. “When will it get better?” The woods didn’t answer. Their leaves swayed in the breeze, the water rustled down by his feet. Everything was as it had been, but it felt good. It felt good to talk and just be heard. Sure, that’s what therapy is for, but who needed that when he had the woods? The trees and stone leveled no judgment on him. They just listened.
So he began to talk more often.
On his daily morning run he would stop in the clearing, and he would talk about his problems. He’d talk about the good days, and the bad. He’d talk about his struggles with looking for work and the problems in his marriage. He’d pose rhetorical questions and listen for the answers in birdsong and the rustling of leaves. The vibrations of his words would fill the air with their rhythm, cadence, and force. Their sound waves would carve that rhythm into the trees and stones, and waft over the running water leaving ripples like runes, too faint and fleeting for human eyes to notice. His desperation, loneliness, and pain would fill the clearing and press their weight into the surrounding forest, and the old place breathed deeply in the outpouring.
Of course the place never responded, and Johan liked this about it. He could speak freely. But the place listened. And it remembered.
Then Johan would go pick up his daughter and head home to make dinner, unburdened, for a time.
One night things were exceptionally bad. The day had actually been alright between them, but Johan was still stuck in the same rhythm of life, the same struggle with unemployment and the never-ending war against job search algorithms and online applications, and the same loneliness and failing confidence. He just wanted to talk to someone other than the trees.
So that night, as they climbed into bed and talked about their days, he let slip, “It’s just been so hard, honey, I’m starting to lose hope. I just don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.” And that kicked off the conflagration.
Kate had already had enough of Johan’s despair. She hated him going about life like he was on death row, and the last thing she needed was to be the caretaker of his emotions after all the late night talks about how he hated his job, after 6 months struggling with unemployment, after the sleeping in and the skipping days with the family. He at least owed it to the family to keep his head held high and try to let them enjoy some semblance of life, or otherwise get help for his problems. It wasn’t fair to burden everyone else when he wouldn’t do what he had to do to make things better. She told him all these things, probably not so eloquently as that, and certainly not as kind.
Johan, for his part, just wanted a little support. He wanted someone to tell him it was all going to be okay so he didn’t have to spend his days crying and talking to trees. He thought they took vows, for better or for worse, and that used to mean something, at least it still did to him. He told her those things, and he wasn’t kind either.
“I can’t even look at your face right now,” she gestured vaguely in his direction, her mouth open as if she was going to say something else, then she turned and left the room.
He would always remember being alone in the bedroom looking out the window at the SUV with Kate inside with a bottle of wine. She wouldn’t drive away, Chloe was sleeping upstairs and she wouldn’t leave their daughter alone with him. But she couldn’t be in the house either. Johan didn’t know when she came back in, he eventually cried himself to sleep. When he woke up with the sun high in the sky, he was alone in the house.
He wandered, trance-like, downstairs and picked some bacon from a leftover breakfast plate. He just wanted to disappear, maybe forever. He wasn’t prone to suicidal ideation but he couldn’t see any other way forward. He couldn’t see any path at all, except one, up the ridgelines and through arched corridors of oak and cedar and down the valleys to the moss covered banks where it smelled like lichen and dirt and old earth.
He put on his dusty running shoes and headed for the woods.
He sprinted that day through the forest trails harder and faster than he thought himself capable of. He had to exorcise the rage and the sadness and thought maybe he could do it through pain, or maybe he’d just die in the woods and that would be enough. It was hard going. The late night and the toll that grief had taken on his body made his lungs burn and his muscles ache. He fought to climb the ridgelines and cross the meadows, getting weaker by the step. The only way that felt easy was when he ran in the direction of the clearing. For some reason, that always felt like going downhill.
When he reached the clearing he ran straight to the water’s edge and fell to his knees on one of the flat stones that angled into the river, at last completely empty of energy, drive and hope. The water lapped against his pants as he cried huge, sobbing tears into the flowing water. He spoke then only to himself, almost in a whisper, between the sobs, “I can’t do it anymore. I would give anything to make this feeling go away.”
And then it did.
The change was sudden, but subtle. Less like a lightning strike and more like gauze slowly being peeled off of a wound. He felt the tears stop and the aches in his muscles cease. Like a weight was lifted off his back, his shoulder tension eased and the familiar ache in his jaw subsided. He stood up, bewildered, and a little embarrassed. How did he let this happen? What was he even doing out here? He hadn’t even said good morning to his daughter, and he felt like he’d spent most of the last year, if not more, in a haze of grief and self-pity. He looked around at the radiant blue sky and the sun shining through the treetops on vibrant greens of the leaves and the reds and whites of mountain flowers. The clearing rustled pleasantly and the branches swayed with a sense of peace and leisure. He stood for a moment, enjoying the serenity of the place and waiting for his tears to dry. Then he walked out of the woods, a man reborn.
He checked his calendar and saw that Kate was picking up Chloe today, so he went home and showered, then went back out to a coffee shop in town, part of a national chain. He had seen a sign that this store was hiring and he talked them into giving him a job as a shift manager. He was overqualified, sure, but his financial and analytical expertise would be a boon, and he was willing to work hard if there was a possibility for growth.
When he got home Kate and Chloe were already there in the kitchen. This was normally the sort of thing he would have dreaded. There was normally a cloud, viscous with anxiety and dread, after a bad fight like they had last night, but today he didn’t let it get to him. He burst in with his messenger bag and a coffee shop to-go holder full of iced coffee and hot chocolate.
“Hey guys!” he shouted as he put the drinks down on the table. He leaned over and kissed Kate on the cheek, “these are some complimentary treats from my new job!” She looked up at him quizzically. She had been prepared for a fight, or uncomfortable awkwardness, but not for this.
“Yep, I’ll be starting as a shift manager on Monday. Not glamorous I know, but it’ll give me something to work towards. I’m tired of beating my head against the wall all day with these job applications.”
“Isn’t that… beneath your skills?”
“It’s easier to get a job when you have a job,” he shrugged, “now I’m thinking burgers for dinner. Let’s fire up the grill.” And he walked out on the back porch.
As he left Kate gave him that confused look where her mouth would be a little bit open and she’d wrinkle her nose. He’d always thought it was so cute, and as he left the kitchen he may even have been whistling a little. “What happened to Daddy?” Chloe asked, as the screen doors slammed. Kate just shook her head in disbelief as she quietly nudged an overnight bag under the counter. Maybe she’d need that later, but maybe not tonight after all.
The turn for her was sudden and extreme, but not at all unwelcome. She woke, it seemed, every morning to coffee by her bed and the smells of breakfast downstairs. Johan was happy to have work in the mornings and still went on his runs in the afternoons. He took Chloe to the park and he and Kate even started having date nights again, every once in a while.
Johan worked his way up in short order to be the store manager, and then a regional manager, due to his expertise in time and inventory management. He thought maybe this could be a career.
One day when Chloe was with her grandparents, he surprised Kate with an outdoor movie and a bottle of wine. They had sex for the first time in longer than either could remember. Eventually they took a trip to Munich and renewed their vows. Kate got pregnant again, it would be a boy named Hans. And things were good.
Johan loved taking Chloe and young Hans to the woods that meant so much to him. Sometimes Kate would even tag along and see the places Johan spent so much time. They would scramble up the ridgelines and look down on the farms below. He taught Chloe how to fish in the river and clean and cook her catch over a campfire. One day she would get engaged by a waterfall in those mountains. Hans became a trail runner like his father, and Kate and Johan fell madly in love, all over again.
But he never took them to the clearing, not in all those years. He never went there himself either. Occasionally he would see the archways between the trees that would lead to the old mossy clearing, but they seemed colder and more dreadful than he remembered, not gateways to that place with the dappled sunlight and cool running water where he had been redeemed. No, that was an older and darker place now, meant for darker and more secret things.
The years crawled on and they were happy. Not always, of course, but more often than not. And when they did have troubles, they felt manageable and sane. Both kids went to college and Johan’s career trajectory went up and up, as did Kate’s. They talked of retiring early and seeing the world. They earned that after all, they had built a life they could be proud of and their foundation, though some bricks may have been cracked or damaged, was strong and firmly rooted. They felt, together, that the hard work had been done.
At least Kate felt that, and Johan wanted to as well, so he said he did. But something gnawed at him: one word he remembered saying back in those dark days.
What a humble thing to utter so long ago in a weak moment. But something was amiss and he knew it, the way we know things deep down in our own secret places where we hide things to try to lie even to ourselves. The thing was that in magic, as in life, everything has a cost. Johan was happy. But Johan was not free.
The first cracks appeared subtly, as cracks often do. Johan started to feel an emptiness. He would shrug it off, but it was always there. Not like what he’d felt all those years ago when he was hopeless, and weak, and in despair. He had asked never to feel that way again, and so he didn’t. This was something new, like he was missing a piece.
One night, out by the fire pit, he confided in his wife (they could do that sort of thing now, talk to each other about their problems earnestly. They were confident in their love).
“I don’t know, part of me just feels like something is missing,” he said as he swirled the wine in his glass. “Not us, you know, we’ve never been stronger, but something else.”
“Like you’re forgetting something?” she asked.
“No, more like a piece of me is missing. Like something is missing about who I am.”
She looked at him then with that look of sympathy, not the mask she used to wear, but true, enduring affection. “Oh honey, they call that empty nest syndrome, and it’s normal. I hear,” she said as she kissed his cheek, “sometimes people even come to enjoy it.”
He smiled and nodded and kissed her back. But in his heart he knew this was different.
That feeling of emptiness, of longing, grew and grew. He wasn’t whole, like he was hollowed out on the inside. No matter how happy he told himself he was, how many family dinners he arranged, how many date nights with Kate, there was always a feeling that something was missing.
Then things started to get strange. A baby on the street would look at him and cry. A toddler at the grocery store would stare up at him, shocked, and say “Mommy what happened to that man?”
“Nothing, sweetie, and don’t be rude,” the mom would say as she bent over, but when she looked up, Johan could see in her eyes that for a fleeting second she wasn’t so sure.
One day he went to visit his mom at the assisted living facility. There was an old blind lady on the same floor, and he stopped to help her to her room. Outside of her door, she looked up at his face with those eyes, long useless, and, holding his arm tightly said, “I’m sorry, son, I hope it was worth it.” He watched her enter her room in stunned silence.
He told Kate he wanted to take up running again. After all, the kids were out of the house so he had the time, and it would be good for his health. He wasn’t getting any younger. She said she thought that was a great idea. So he went to the store, bought some brand new running shoes and started up on the trail loop around town. It did nothing for him, it was too tame, and too restrictive. So he headed out of town the next day and tried running on the roads around the ranches through the foothills of the mountains. The air was better there, sweeter, and he could see the snowy peaks, but he still felt so empty.
One night, Kate and Johan were brushing their teeth in their bathroom and she turned to ask him a question. As she looked over he turned towards her, and she found herself staring directly into the cracked and hardened skin covered with deep grooves, oozing viscous pus and blood as thick as sap, the yawning, toothless mouth, and those vacant, dead holes where a man should have eyes. She shrieked and dropped her cup of water which shattered on the bathroom floor. When she looked back up, there was her beloved Johan, with a look of deep concern and consternation. She muttered something about nerves and ran off for the broom. Johan pressed and pressed to make sure she was okay and to find out what was wrong. She never told him.
The next morning, Johan drove off for a run in the mountains.
The air was crisp and clean, the views were pristine. He never felt stronger as he raced up the ridgelines and down the valleys. He hadn’t run those trails for twenty years but he could have done it blindfolded. It was like he remembered the location of every rock and root and branch, even though surely none of them were the same. He let the winds and the mood take him, and when he came to his senses, he was there.
He felt the river flowing at his shoes, and saw the dappled light and shadow dance across the flat rocks and moss. He was home, in the old clearing, surrounded by the old trees and the sound of birdsong. It didn’t feel ominous and dreadful. It felt like where he belonged. And for the first time in quite a while, he felt whole.
Weeks went by and Kate and Johan were still happy, and Johan ran more and more. They thought they’d found the cure for his malaise, but Johan wanted to spend more and more time in the clearing in the woods, and some distance started to grow between them.They didn’t fight and Johan never lost his confidence or his love for their family. Kate simply blamed it on getting older and new habits, but she never forgot that night in the bathroom and the face of terror that still haunted her in her dreams.
But she also remembered the dark days of late night fights and bottles of wine in the SUV when her friends told her to pack her bags. This was better than that, and those days were behind them, never to come again. She and Johan made it through that, and they could make it through anything.
Until one day, it turned out, they couldn’t.
Johan told Kate he needed to go spend a couple of nights with his brother who was going through hard times of his own. Kate knew this to be true, and she thought the time with family would do him some good, so she sent him on his way. He made her coffee that morning as did every morning, and kissed her on the top of her head as he got ready to leave.
“I love you, Kate,” he whispered, and she mumbled happily as she rolled over in the morning light. He watched for just a minute from the door. She was breathing peacefully and looked beautiful beneath the thin bedsheet. For a moment all he wanted to do was crawl into bed with her and go to sleep, then wake up in the late morning, make pancakes, and plan their retirement adventures. But it was just for a moment, and then the emptiness returned and he didn’t want that at all.
He piled into his car with his bag, but didn’t drive towards his brother’s house. He drove towards the mountains. He missed that feeling of calm he felt in the clearing, and he just wanted to spend a little more time there alone and see if it helped with everything he was feeling, and maybe more importantly, all of the things he wasn’t.
A few days at the most, and with any luck Kate wouldn’t check in at Aaron’s house while he was supposed to be there. He could set things straight later, but he would have a few days on his own. From the trailhead he hitched up his pack and started into the woods. Packing thirty pounds with him, he wasn’t in the mood to run, but he wasn’t in any hurry either, so he enjoyed the walk and the growing feeling of serenity as he moved towards the clearing.
He took a few detours to see the familiar sights of the forest and stopped by a waterfall for a leisurely lunch. It was late afternoon by the time he reached the clearing. He set up his tent and filled a thermos with water from the stream to make some coffee on his camp stove.
While the water came to a boil he sat by the side of the water on a patch of comfortable moss and dipped his feet in the stream. He felt the sadness and the emptiness flow out of him, and then more than that, he started to feel himself empty of the hidden pain and remorse and anger he didn’t even know he was carrying. Slowly that empty place in him began to feel less important, and his thoughts calmed.
He leaned back with his arms behind him and sank his fingers into the cool earth and looked up at the afternoon sun. Such a weird thing, he never looked directly at the sun with unprotected eyes before, but it wasn’t so bad, once you got used to it, and the burning was brief. He stretched his fingers further and further in the damp soil, further than he thought possible, and thought “yes, this is what I needed. I would give anything just to stay here a little bit longer.”
And so he did.
Kate didn’t call Aaron that night, she figured the drive was long and Johan must have been exhausted. When she didn’t hear from him the next morning she called to check in, and of course Aaron knew nothing about the visit. She called Johan, then texted, then called again. She called her kids, they hadn’t heard from him. Then she called the police, who told her she had to wait until 72 hours to open a missing persons investigation. She paced along the patio with a glass of gin to calm her nerves, then stopped suddenly. She put her drink down on the table and called the forest service.
She knew of Johan’s old trails, and some of his favorite places, and she was able to point the rangers in the right direction. It didn’t take long to find his car, and with the help of a helicopter, find the clearing. There they found Johan’s tent, a camp stove with a spent fuel canister and a cold pot of water, and a backpack leaning up against an old tree on the riverbank, reaching its thick branches up towards the sun and its gnarled roots into the river. They marked this as ground zero and sent search parties out in every direction. The helicopter stayed airborne for days examining every inch of forest it could see, but they never found him.
Kate, to her credit, pushed as hard as anyone could be expected to push, and she drove the rangers as hard as they were willing to go. She brought in the news to put pressure on them, and offered a handsome reward. The kids came to help in the search, so they said, but they were really there to comfort her as she went through the stages of grief.
They had been through so much together, which made it all the more brutal. They had raged at each other and endured unimaginable pain, and been through the heights of joy and ecstasy watching their two kids grow. They had reached the reward, as she saw it, the time to enjoy each other, to fall in love all over again, and again and again, and travel the world in each other’s arms. Of course he had to disappear now. The world is crueler than we like to believe.
At the end, Kate drove the SUV to the trailhead and marched toward that dreaded spot by the river. She stomped on the moss and flowers as she walked toward the center of the clearing and shouted over the rustling water, “GIVE HIM BACK TO ME!” She fell to her knees, shaking. “I wish these trees could talk,” she sobbed, to no one in particular, “I’d give anything to see him again.”
She never would. And the story ends there, because that’s not how magic works. It’s in the whispers and the habits. It’s in the repetition, and the stories we leave carved into stone and root and branch as we write our legacy on the fabric of the world. The world doesn’t bend simply when you ask it to.
And, of course, the trees can’t talk, so they couldn’t answer Kate even if they wanted to, even if wanting was something they were capable of doing.
No, they can’t talk, but they listen. And they remember, and the old places will keep their secrets still.