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The Five Magicians

By Jamie Mason
May 17, 2020 · 4,001 words · 15 minutes

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This is the story of your grandfather and the four magicians. Now at the time, your grandfather wasn't living on the rez. He'd gone into the city to drive a taxicab and left me and my two brothers with our uncle Philbert. He'd do this every now and then to earn a little money. Back when I was six, he went and came back telling the story about the five magicians and it passed into the legends of the Chumash. And although our people come from up north, the Chumash have been kind to us and made us feel right at home so we were happy to share that story with them. And now you've come and brought cigarettes and beer, so I'll share the story with you.

Back in those days, the white man was up to his usual bullshit. But they were making a lot of music all of a sudden and the teenagers were growing their hair long and trying to behave more like Indian people and we thought that was kind of funny. Because after spending two hundred years killing us, they suddenly wanted to be like us. That was why your grandfather Lewis could usually get work driving the taxi. Because the people around there - particularly the rich actors and musicians - liked having a real Indian person to talk with. We thought that was pretty funny, too. Lewis used to make up stories and swear they were real Indian lore. But they were nonsense and he only told them to make the white people in his taxicab feel important.

White people don’t have potlatches or pow-wows so they don’t dance and sing the way we do. But like I said, they were making and selling lots of record albums of music and some were so popular they were on the radio all the time. And those songs were so powerful and influential that it was like the singers were magicians. Four of the most powerful ones came from England. Lewis, who listened to the radio, said those four had just made a record with a song about the Mother Mary but that they weren’t happy. They had all the money in the world but they weren’t happy.

Isn’t that just like white people?

Anyway, the four magicians wanted to stop being friends and go their separate ways. But somebody convinced them to leave their wives and girlfriends behind and come to Los Angeles for a month to live in a house together and write songs and play music and try to see if they could become friends again. That’s what they were doing when Lewis met them.

Lewis drove his taxicab all over Los Angeles but most often cruised around between Burbank and Laurel Canyon because that’s where the richest passengers and most generous tippers lived. He said it was in Laurel Canyon that the four magicians from England were staying together in a rented house. He ended up driving a white lady back and forth from one of the record companies to their place. He said Miss Colby was a very nice young white lady, assistant to one of the executives, and it was her job to take care of the four magicians. I guess Lewis must have done something to impress her because she always asked for him when she called for a taxi and, after a while, shared the secret with him about who was living in the house there.

“People in the music business know, of course,” she said. “But they’re respecting the group’s privacy. Can I count on your to do the same, Lewis?”

Lewis promised to keep his mouth shut and so Miss Colby began to trust him. Eventually, she and one or other of the four might call him for a ride somewhere. One night, her and all four piled into the cab, front and back and went to a party in Topanga Canyon. Lewis said the four magicians laughed and teased her a lot but it was obvious to Lewis that they cared about her and were grateful for how hard she worked, fetching their groceries and liquor and arranging for music stores to send the instruments they needed or plumbers to unplug the toilets they clogged. One of them, the sweet one with the sad voice singing about the Mother Mary, was having a cigarette out by the curb one night while Lewis was waiting to drive Miss Colby home.

“She’s really taking great care of us,” he said. “She’s our life-line here. And she’s got a really good heart, you know?”

Lewis said he agreed because he had gotten to know Miss Colby. She was planning to work for the record company for another year or so before going to law school. Lewis said she wanted to go into the public defender’s office and help poor and Indian people, and the black and the Mexican people, too. He said she was very special. The four magicians knew it, too.

It was right around this time that Lewis began to notice a group of girls he’d see whenever he was driving around downtown. Not much younger than Miss Colby but on a different path. He’d see them climbing in and out of dumpsters, collecting food, sometimes hanging out on the street corners. They were pretty girls, he said, but aloof from the rest of the hippie crowd. They way they’d wander around in their jeans and bare feet, holding hands and singing nonsense songs are staring off into space, they seemed to belong to a cult or something. When Lewis asked around, his friend Kermit said they were from a group called the Family and that they were Charlie’s girls.

There were lots of cults and groups and sects around in those days, groups like the Hare Krishnas and the Source Family and the Process Church, eating weird stuff and doing weird exercises. White people like that sort of thing. And Charlie’s Family seemed no weirder than the rest except that they would get picked up by a black VW bus driven by a wild-eyed man with a beard who turned out to be Charlie. And Lewis recognized him for a magician right away, but different from the four staying in Laurel Canyon. He always said the four from England had a light around them, like they were angels, but the one driving the bus had shadows around him and was very dark. Lewis would have coffee with the other taxi drivers sometimes and ask about Charlie. They said he had been released from Terminal Island just a year before and that the girls gathered around him like honeybees buzzing for a flower and that he collected his favorites.

One night, Lewis got called to go up to the house in Laurel Canyon and arrived to find that black bus parked outside. Lewis supposed it must be normal for magicians to visit one another, although it seemed strange. He pulled up and waited. After a minute, Miss Colby came out, but she seemed different. Her hair was down and she had taken her shoes off and she seemed a little happy and dizzy, like maybe she’d had something to drink. She came to the open cab window.

“Lewis, we have people over and we’re all having a wonderful time. Won’t you come in and have a drink?”

Lewis said he didn’t drink but would love a cup of coffee so went inside. He said the house was lovely and big, with room enough for ten people to live comfortably with their own space. Miss Colby got herself a glass of wine and brought Lewis into the kitchen to make him some coffee. In the next room, Charlie and the girls were singing songs to the four magicians from England. Lewis said he went to the door to look.

Charlie was on the floor strumming an acoustic guitar and the girls were sitting around him. Lewis said Charlie wasn’t a very good guitar player and the words of his song were mostly nonsense, but that all the girls singing together with him made it sound a bit better. Lewis examined the four magicians from England. The one with the little round glasses was smoking boredly and staring at the ceiling while Charlie sang. The guy who played the drums was looking around all nervously while the other two were kind of rolling their eyes at each other. It didn’t look to him like any of the four were enjoying the music but they said nice things when Charlie was finished. Lewis drank his coffee and went back out to his taxicab. He sat out there for an hour before the magician with the little round glasses came out.

“Miss Colby has a lift home, I guess.” The magician gave Lewis twenty dollars. “Thanks for helping us keep a low profile. We really appreciate it. We’ll probably call you tomorrow.”

Lewis thanked him and drove home for the night.

He didn’t hear from either Miss Colby or the four magicians the whole next day but he was busy working so didn’t have time to worry about it. But when he went to bed late, he said he felt like something had been missing from the day and that was when he realized he hadn’t heard from the four magicians. The only magician he’d heard about all day was Charlie, when he overheard two passengers talk about Charlie and say he was bad news. Lewis thought about all these things and then went to sleep. He said no sooner did he close his eyes than the phone rang. It was the taxi company. The four magicians were asking for him, so Lewis put on his clothes and drove up to Laurel Canyon.

The black van was there, parked on the sidewalk outside the house. Lewis said it gave him a bad feeling. He saw Charlie and a gang of his girls dash out of the house and jump into the van. As they were pulling away, the magician with the little round glasses ran to the curb.

“Lewis, we need to follow them. Charlie’s got Miss Colby drugged or brainwashed or something and we need to go get her.”

And so they all four piled in, the one with the little round glasses, and the one with the sweet voice who sings about Mother Mary, the drummer and the religious one, who had an electric guitar strapped to him. And Lewis could tell right away that something was wrong because up until then they had all looked very tired and unhappy. Now suddenly they were wide awake, focused and united. So Lewis started the car and sped after the van.

Lewis followed the van up into the hills. The religious magician was looking at a map and giving directions. At one point, the magician with the little round glasses mentioned a private detective – I guess one they hired to find out where the Family was living.

“John, it was a ranch. But like a movie ranch.” The sweet, sad-voiced one sighed. “I suppose the horses are actors, too.”

“If so, they work cheap.” Lewis said that John, the magician with the glasses, was very fast with his words. It turned out the religious magician looking at the map was named George and he had an idea where to go. But your grandfather Lewis knew they were talking about the Spahn Ranch because he had driven Robert Mitchum up there one day. It was about forty minutes away. Lewis told them about Spahn Ranch and they all immediately agreed that was the place the detective had told them about. So Lewis spun the wheel in that direction.

He could see in the rear-view mirror the slender, maple neck of a guitar poking up over the back of his seat. The sweet-voiced one said, “You planning to do some magic with that, George?”

“All the magic I know, Paul,” replied George, grinning.

“Miss Colby could be in trouble.” The drummer, Ringo, was taking it very hard. “Charlie’s right bonkers.”

“Charlie’s bloody dangerous,” muttered John. Lewis agreed.

Lewis took the road up the Santa Susannah Pass and turned off onto a dirt track. He pulled over and explained the ranch was just up ahead. He asked if he should just drive right in. The four magicians decided against it.

“Paul, you and George hike go back to the road and circle around,” said John. “Ringo and I will follow the track.”

Lewis thought hard about what he should do. This was really between the four magicians and Charlie, but he felt obligated to Miss Colby. She had been a friend to him and our family and he had begun to care about her. So when the four magicians got out, he did, too. He said they all turned and looked at him, but no one said anything. But as they started walking down the path, Lewis said John reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

Up ahead, the dark shapes of buildings crowded in on main street. The first one, and tallest was Mr. Spahn’s home. Lewis had met the old blind man last time he’d driven Robert Mitchum up here. The rest of the buildings were basically just movie sets.

Movement and whispers in the shadows ahead: someone was out in the street. Lewis had his eyes and ears wide open, paying attention in the dark in the way no white men can, and he noticed first and stopped. The other two had the good sense to stop beside him. A shadow shifted and orange light from a wood stove glowed through an open doorway. Charlie’s Family was kneeling in a circle in the street. Charlie, attended by one of the girls, was going from one person to the next, pretending to be a Catholic priest, giving each some wine to drink from a goblet and then placing something on their tongues.

“LSD,” whispered Paul. “They’re taking communion with tabs of acid.”

“Like I said, Charlie’s bloody dangerous.”

Lewis tapped both men and pointed. Miss Colby was there, kneeling between two of Charlie’s girls. It was right about then Charlie started talking about death. He was saying that a part of his followers had to die so that a new part of them could be reborn. He said that society was just the same, that sometimes people had to die in order for the community to grow and change. Charlie said that the Beatles had come to him in a vision and explained to him how it was time for society to be purified and transformed. Lewis understood Charlie meant to do this with blood and agreed once again with the magician who said Charlie was dangerous.

“Out of his bloody mind,” muttered John.

He and Paul approached the circle of people kneeling on the ground but Lewis hung back. He said something about being in an old West town made him skittish, made him think of all those cowboy movies where the Indian gets lynched when he walks into town and he didn’t want history repeating itself so he hung back and watched. He said Paul had his hands in his pockets and was whistling a tune and that John was lighting a cigarette as they approached. The music and the flame got everyone’s attention.

“Death doesn’t purify anything,” said John. “You’re daft, Charlie.”

“Such a beautiful place,” said Paul. “It’s a nice night for a picnic.” Stopping beside one of the girls, he lifted her to her feet and guided her into a pirouette. “Or maybe a nice dance, you know? Sort of a square-dance thing. Charlie, what do you say?”

“C’mon, Charlie. We are in the Old West, after all,” said John.

But Lewis said Charlie got over his surprise quickly and became enraged. But the kind of rage that smouldered instead of exploded. Lewis said watching Charlie then was like watching a snake coil up and get ready to strike. It made Lewis nervous so he stepped into the shadow between two buildings.

“You were the walrus!” cried Charlie, pointing at John. “That’s a symbol of death to the Eskimos!” Then he pointed at Paul. “And he’s dead! So there’s death, dancing!”

Lewis said by then a few of the girls had got up to dance with Paul but they stopped, uncertain. He said they were looking at John and Paul like they were brothers or fathers but looking at Charlie like he was some kind of mad animal, like maybe a dog with rabies. Lewis knew how dangerous rabies can be. He figured Charlie was insane and wondered if that might be contagious. “I was nervous around all those white people. I knew that if any violence happened, I would catch it first. I just figured I had to protect myself if I was going to be any help to Miss Colby,” Lewis told me. So he stayed in the shadows and watched.

“Death?” John lit a fresh cigarette off of his old one. “That’s too simple, Charlie. It’s the simple answer leaders always go for, don’t they? A problem in society? ‘Somebody’s got to die.’ Maybe a group inside society. Or else some outsiders. Either way, it’s always just a distraction.”

“Yeah, it is.” Paul had his arm around the shoulders of two girls. “Why else would anyone focus on death when there’s so much life around?”

Lewis decided to walk around the building to the other side, keeping to the shadows. Nobody noticed him. He said when he got to the other side, he was just a few feet from Miss Colby, who was focused on John and Charlie. Lewis said she looked blank but that she livened up when he hissed her name and she looked over and recognized him. Some of the girls were up and moving around a little now so she was able to slip away into the shadows beside him.

“I don’t feel well,” she whispered. Lewis said she was very pale and shaking. He said he figured it was the drugs and that it would be his job to get her back to the taxicab as quickly as possible. But with all those people around, it wouldn’t be easy. Plus sparks were really starting to fly between Charlie and the magician named John.

“You come to my house and tell my girls what’s what?” Charlie was a volcano, exploding. “They’re my mind. Part of my consciousness.”

 "You don’t love them.” Lewis said John was working really hard to hold onto his rage. “You’re just in love with the power you have over them.”

But by now Charlie was shaking his head and pacing back and forth, not wanting to believe. Lewis said Charlie began talking nonsense again, like the words to his songs. He spoke of the magicians as angels who had spoken to him. And then he said he was wrong, they weren’t angels but fallen spirits. And that’s when he began singing a song of his own – a weird, mournful song like a funeral dirge. Lewis said it sounded like a wolf playing a flute and perhaps it did because it caught everyone’s attention.

Lewis said suddenly the girls had all turned their eyes to Charlie. He said they were watching him like he had grown wings or begun to levitate. And then they were getting up from their knees and turning toward Paul and John.

“And some were drawing knives,” Lewis said.

They came on slowly, in silence, one step at a time. Silent in their bare feet and staring blankly ahead, like zombies. By now Paul had dropped his arms from the two girls’ shoulders and he and John were backing away.

“And behold!” cried Charlie. “They were driven back by the rage of angels!”

“What about the dead spirits, Charlie?” John waved a hand. “Don’t you know this whole canyon is haunted?”

And that’s when the ghostly moaning began.

Like a guitar.

Gently weeping.

The crew of girls stopped, some holding knives in their hands, and turned. The weird moaning was echoing down from the rocks above. Lewis took that opportunity to start drawing Miss Colby away from the buildings toward the taxicab.

And now the sounds from the guitar were like a wind of spirits, blowing through the darkness to shake the little move-set town. It happened, Lewis said, that wind – actual wind – came right then and blew sand and leaves and the branches of the trees, and that was when the thunder sounded.

BANG! BOOM! CRASH! It was a terrible, terrible sound, Lewis said. Like hell splitting open. The ghostly moan became a screaming. And the dark raged and the wind blew and suddenly Charlie had no power over the girls anymore because they all turned and ran past him into the buildings, leaving Charlie alone to stare at John.

“Man, you’re a buzzkill,” said Charlie.

“And you’re a bloody lunatic,” said John and flicked his cigarette butt at Charlie and turned to go. He and Paul were heading for the taxi when Lewis turned and saw Charlie charging up from behind, drawing a knife.

That’s when the one named Ringo stepped out from behind a building holding a lead pipe. He smacked Charlie upside the head and Charlie went down with a crash.

“Where’d you get that pipe, Ringo?” asked Paul.

“Found it on the ground.” Ringo shrugged. “Picked it up in me hand and bashed on that tin shed to accompany George.”

John was nodding. “That mini amplifier sounds pretty good. We’ll use that on the next record.”

Lewis got them to the car and drove down the dirt track. As soon as he reached the Santa Susannah Pass road, he floored it and got the four magicians and Miss Colby back home as quick as he could. After he dropped them off, he went back to the place he was staying and he prayed. He thanked the ancestors for protecting him and Miss Colby and the four magicians. He prayed for the girls over Charlie had taken dominion. He prayed for the liberation of their spirits. Then he went to bed and had very troubling dreams.

Miss Colby recovered and went to law school. Not long after, Charlie was arrested and sent to prison in another state. Lewis said he would sometimes see the girls hanging around together downtown. They would be together in groups of four and five, then groups of two or three. Then he might spot the occasional face in the crowd but by then they were gone as a tribe, absorbed into the crowds of hippies on Sunset Boulevard.

The four magicians went back to England and recorded the album with the cover where they’re crossing the street together. Then they went on tour for the first time in years, playing little clubs. They released an album of rockabilly songs. Then they took a year off before recording together again.

Lewis worked another few weeks before coming home. His last fare was a run from the airport to a party in the hills. His passenger was some famous actor from France who was excited about speaking to a real live Indian.

“If it true that your people name a newborn the first thing the father sees when he opens the teepee?” the actor asked.

“I don’t know.” Lewis shrugged. “We have long-houses, not teepees.”

The actor laughed. “That’s fine. This child already has a name, anyway.”

“What’s that?”

“Paul. Paul Richard Polanski. I worked with his father, Roman. He’s a great film director.”

“Oh yes,” Lewis lied. “I’ve heard all about him.” They pulled up at the house where a party was underway.

“You should come and say hello.” The French actor smiled. “I’m sure Roman and Sharon would love to meet a fan.”

“No thanks,” said Lewis. “I’ve got to be getting home.” He smiled. “I’ve got family waiting.”