Witherward – Hannah Mathewson

Ilsa did not need to pick pockets any more, but some people deserved it. And the heckler at her shoulder had it coming. It wasn’t just that the boy looked hungry, and his upturned cap was nearly empty of change. Or that he was only trying to entertain, even if his card tricks were well worn. It wasn’t even that, as a fellow performer, Ilsa felt his blushes every time the man booed. It was that he was distracting her. She had squeezed to the front of the small street crowd so she could be sure of anything untoward in the boy’s technique. Rarely, once in a hundred days perhaps, she would spot something that shouldn’t be. A man moving too quickly through a crowd. A girl who noticed Ilsa and Martha whispering about her from fifty paces away. A teacup hitting the café floor with a smash, then being whole a moment later. It was hardly worth her vigilance, but if there were other people in London with peculiar talents, then they were to be found among magicians, and so Ilsa would scrutinise every single one. This little magician was no older than ten or eleven, and his pack of cards was too large in his hands. His levitating card was clumsy, and its method on show, if you knew where to look. He made cutting the aces harder than it needed to be, but when it worked, the crowd didn’t seem to mind.

But whether his next sleight of hand was standard, Ilsa couldn’t be sure. The man to her right raised his hands to cup his mouth, and hissed loudly, obstructing her view and snagging her attention. For that, he was losing his wallet. Martha sighed loudly; she was losing patience. But when Ilsa winked and indicated the man’s fat pocket, a finger’s breadth from her hand, the other girl’s eyes twinkled. For Martha, unlike Ilsa, was not a reformed thief – she was a practising one. She smiled sweetly at the couple behind Ilsa as she repositioned herself to obscure their view, and when she nudged Ilsa’s elbow to indicate the all-clear, Ilsa dropped her hand deftly into the heckler’s pocket. Her fingers closed around a wallet, and without hesitation, she lifted it smoothly and softly, and deposited it into her own bag. A serendipitous spatter of applause from the crowd was distraction enough for the girls to slip casually to the side. They were nearly away when Ilsa’s attention was drawn back to the boy, and the cause of the clapping.

He was performing a simple snap change. The three of spades was gripped between his thumb and forefinger. He snapped his fingers and it became the jack of diamonds. Ilsa could do the trick perfectly herself: the performer would hold one card hidden behind the other, and swap them when he or she snapped their fingers. But as Ilsa continued to watch, the jack of diamonds became the ace of clubs, then the seven of diamonds, then the king of hearts, and so on. As Martha tugged impatiently on her coat sleeve, Ilsa watched the boy produce eight, twelve, fifteen different cards, snapping his fingers again and again until nearly a whole deck had flashed by. It wasn’t possible. To hold even three or four cards as if they were one was a delicate enough act, but to manipulate that many with two fingers and thumb? With a crowd surrounding him on three sides? It was no card trick she had ever seen before. Her breath hitched. Perhaps the boy wasn’t ordinary.

Perhaps he was like her. The owner of the wallet now in Ilsa’s purse was shifting as if he’d noticed something awry. Any moment now, his hands would go to his pockets. “Ilsa,” Martha hissed urgently, but Ilsa couldn’t move. The boy finished his act by tossing the entire deck into the air and letting his cards rain down on the audience. She tried to keep her eyes fixed on a single card as it descended, but amidst the motion of the crowd as they patted themselves down and searched around their feet, she lost it – and all fifty-one others. The realisation among the punters was slow, and met with nervous laughter. The cards had vanished. The crowd had seen them – heard them – fall all around, and now they weren’t there. It was too unreal to be a trick, and not fantastic enough to be real magic.

Or so the crowd thought. Ilsa, on the other hand, had seen real magic. She had performed it herself. As the onlookers dispersed – Martha slipping away with them as their victim looked frantically about – Ilsa cornered the boy magician. He was scooping up his cap, in a hurry to leave, but she stalled him by fumbling in her bag and gathering some stolen change. “That weren’t just a card trick, was it?” she said. The boy blinked in surprise but didn’t answer. His hands shook as he collapsed his tiny folding table. “I know it weren’t. I know what you did.

” It wasn’t true. She was mystified. But she could see her chance disappearing, and she was desperate. “Please—” she began, but he was already running. If he vanished, she might never know, so she gripped her skirt in one hand and took off after him. The afternoon matinees were letting out, and the West End streets were teeming with people. Ilsa couldn’t move quickly, but neither could the boy. He took the first turn he came to, and as Ilsa rounded the corner after him, she saw him dash into a narrow alley. She had been him once. She had hidden from both coppers and other thieves – not to mention pimps and drunkards – in the secret corners of these streets, and she knew that unless he planned to climb the wall and sneak into the Beringer Hotel, the alley was a dead end.

With soft breaths and softer footsteps, she approached the corner. But he must have heard her anyway, because he bolted from the alley and nearly escaped again. Ilsa snatched at his jacket collar, nearly missing, and yanked him backwards hard enough that he lost his footing. His folding table clattered on the cobblestones. “—the bloody ’ell off me!” he yelled as he struggled. “Who are you? Where’re you from?” She stood him upright and shook him as though the answers might fall out. “I got some money. Please.” “Ilsa?” Ilsa jumped and spun around, but she kept her hold on the kid. Martha stood in the entrance to the alley, gripping the wall for support, her cheeks flushed from the effort of the chase.

Her brow was knitted in confusion as she looked from Ilsa to the boy she was accosting and back again. “What’re you—” Martha’s eyes grew wide and she cut off just as Ilsa felt the boy slip from her grasp. She made to grab him – only he’d vanished as completely as his pack of cards. Her fingers clutched at nothing. The alley was deserted save for the two of them. Ilsa didn’t have time to process this; she knew what was coming next. She lunged for her friend and clapped a hand to the other girl’s mouth before Martha could let out a cry. “Don’t go bringing no coppers down on us, Martha. Not when I got some fella’s wallet in my bag.” Martha made a smothered shriek of protest and pointed to where the kid had vanished.

“It’s a trick,” Ilsa lied. “Not even a clever one. I do it myself, every night of the show.” Martha wrenched her hand away. “That weren’t no trick,” she said, eyes sparkling with unguarded awe, and a hint of fear. “Madam Rosalie told me about beings like that. It was a spirit messenger! From the beyond!” Ilsa cringed. She knew better than to discount such possibilities, but if Madam Rosalie was correct then it was entirely by accident, as the woman was a charlatan. Ilsa had told Martha so, and Martha had rolled her eyes and called her a sceptic. She couldn’t guess how closely Ilsa had studied the medium.

How she’d watched the woman’s ‘niece’ – Ilsa had no doubt the girl was in the medium’s pay – shift slyly in front of the trick wall of their parlour to let a draft gutter the candle flames at the precise moment. How she could tell from the set of Rosalie’s fingers that she was guiding the planchette across the Ouija board as her guests gasped. Martha’s revered medium was one of the hundreds of dead ends Ilsa had reached in her search for answers. And while she hadn’t ruled out the existence of spirit messengers or those who could build a bridge to the beyond, Ilsa knew that she wasn’t communing with the dead. And that meant there was more magic in the world than the likes of Madam Rosalie liked to pretend. Martha didn’t miss the look on her face. “You still don’t believe!” She pointed to the spot where the boy had vanished. “Well, what do you think just happened?” Then her gaze turned suspicious. “And why’d you take off after him, anyhow?” Ilsa took Martha’s arm and tugged her away from the alley, but she was just trying to buy herself time to put together a lie. Martha was a confidante and a true friend; the first girl she had come to ally with when she moved in across the way from her in a bottom-of-the-barrel boarding house.

Two years older than Ilsa, Martha had taken it upon herself to watch out for the new arrival, and had inserted herself into Ilsa’s life the day she arrived. “Where’re your family?” she’d asked, poking through the sad contents of the carpet bag containing everything Ilsa owned. “Don’t have none.” “I’m an orphan too,” said Martha with a grin so cheery that Ilsa could see right through it. She knew they were alike even before the other girl had plonked herself down on the narrow bed and shared her story. They had both lived on the streets; Martha after her mother had died, and Ilsa when she had run away from the orphanage where she had grown up. They had both picked pockets to scrape by, and been good enough at it to avoid the pimps. Those were the hardships she knew Martha could relate to, but the strangest of Ilsa’s secrets? Those, she couldn’t bring herself to share. Because Ilsa had her own ideas about what they had just witnessed. Ideas she loathed but couldn’t shake.

They had been planted in her mind by the woman who had raised her, the matron of the orphanage Ilsa had fled from at the age of nine. Devil’s get, she’d called Ilsa. Any desire to tell Martha the truth fled at the sight of Ilsa’s memories. To the matron, mysticism and mediums were nearly the pinnacle of evil, second only to Ilsa – a child of the devil’s earthly realm, told this back when she was too small to question what even the cruellest of adults said. She thought it was from the Bible, like everything else the matron subscribed to, but when she’d worked up the courage to talk to a priest, he’d known of no concept like the devil’s earthly realm. Ilsa knew she wasn’t evil. She didn’t go to church, nor study the Bible, and she cursed, and lied; and yes, perhaps she had stolen from a man that very day just to be petty, but those were the worst of her sins. And yet the suspicion that there was some truth in the awful things the matron had hissed at her – Demon. Devil’s get – clawed at the back of her mind. At the heart of Ilsa’s search for answers, it was the theory she needed to prove or disprove.

For if there was no such thing as the devil’s earthly realm, then what was she? And if there was… what was she then? Martha was still waiting for an answer and Ilsa wanted to give her the truth, but every time she thought of confiding in her friend, the very worst possibilities reared their heads. Martha would tell and the wrong person would find out. Miss Mitcham would hear of it and track Ilsa down. Most of all she could not stand to think that Martha herself would be afraid of her if she learned the true nature of Ilsa’s magic. “Thought I knew him, was all,” Ilsa lied, her heart heavy. “Break a leg,” said Martha a short while later when they stopped outside the Isolde Theatre. “The shop”, they called it when they were pretending they had more respectable jobs. Martha’s shop was the busy thoroughfares of Soho, where she stumbled into drunkards, batted her lashes, and helped herself to their belongings. “Oh lord, Ilsa. Let me fix your hair.

” She started pushing pins back into place around Ilsa’s ears. “I’ll redo it inside. Yours is worse,” Ilsa warned her. Their nearly identical golden-blonde hair often had them mistaken for sisters, but Martha’s was finer, and right then it was bursting from its pins in a halo of wispy curls. Martha snorted a laugh. “Ain’t no one going to notice.” Ilsa knew Martha would forget about the boy. She would tell her friends she saw a spirit messenger, they would shriek and ask questions, someone would suggest a séance, and then the story would fall into myth like every other, to be recounted piecemeal by a friend’s sister’s husband’s cousin next time something supernatural happened. But pickpocketing came with real dangers, like the gaol. Ilsa squeezed Martha’s hand and kissed her on the cheek.

Every time she saw her off, she wondered if this was the night she wouldn’t return. She had tried to get her work at the Isolde more than once, but the manager, Mr Johnston, must have suspected her for a thief, or perhaps even a prostitute, because he found her “unsuitable”. Instead, she persuaded Martha to take scraps from her plate on the weeks when she couldn’t afford meals at the house. They managed that way. They were both better fed sharing two plates a day than they had been as street urchins. “Be safe, Martha,” she said. The other girl shot her a weak grin and hurried on down the street. When she had vanished in the crowd, Ilsa swallowed her fears for her, went into the theatre and slipped backstage.

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