My father once taught me how to speak to imaginary things. This was when I was a very young child – young enough to know that magic was real but old enough to have forgotten where to find it – sitting on the porch watching his cigarette smoke drift through the evening like something a little mystic. I was eager, then, to learn the shades of his sort of magic, the ways in which he coaxed the enchantment out of mundane things. & so I pestered him as only a child can, until finally he put down the cigarette & leaned down to reach my height.
I have never forgotten the words he spoke to me. He made me promise, before he began, to only share them with those I trusted as deeply as the fireflies trust twilight. & so I will share them with you, these words that he said, the way he told me how to talk to imaginary things:
Real soft & gentle, but confident too, like they’re skittish horses or panicking babies. The trick, see, is making sure they’re safe here & they know it, something like hey now, you don’t have to hide, I know you’re there, like we’re all a little lost & a little lonely, you’re no different from the rest of us, & it’s just me, what’s there to be afraid of? See, darlin’, the world’s built on the faith that everything’ll turn out okay in the end, so you’ve gotta remind ‘em, make sure they know it. Just ‘cause most folks don’t want to see them doesn’t mean they’re not there, doesn’t mean they’re not important too.
‘S easy to tease ‘em a little, let your words be sort of wry but honey-soft-sweet at the same time, get them laughing in the shadows where you can hear them but not see them. Echoes are easy as heat lightning, darlin’, & who’s got time for the parlour tricks? Not your daddy, & not you.
Nah, let’s skip to the ending instead. You’ve gotta coax ‘em out, see, make ‘em trust you. Way out in the open where you can see them through & through, no secrets here anymore. When they’re laughing in the open air, when they’re letting you get a look at the glint of sky off their wings, when the clouds pause overhead & don’t know what to make of a shadowed thing brought to light – see, darlin’, that’s when you know you’ve got ‘em. Sure as sin.
“What do you say to them, though?” I asked him.
Well, that’s the thing, now, isn’t it. See, darlin’, it’s tough to talk to imaginary things. Not because you need a full moon or newt’s eyes – no, no, this type of magic is harder ‘cause all you got is your words. You talk to ‘em like they’re real as anything, just need a little soothin’, somebody to tell ‘em it’s okay to quiet down. Once you’ve got them in the sunlight you could do anything you want with them, but you’ve gotta treat them all like porcelain lawnmowers or they’ll hide in the shadows again. Devils could be angels if you talk to them the same.
See, the thing about the imaginary ones is they’re invisible, don’t know how to stop talking ‘cause nobody’s ever been around to listen. That’s why you want to quiet them early, let ‘em simmer down soon as you can so you can start doin’ the talking. They were burnin’ long before you brought them into the light, darlin’, & don’t you forget it.
“But what if I want to listen?”
You want to listen?
“What if I did?”
Now, it’s tougher goin’ down that path. Not gonna lie to you, ‘cause the imaginary ones know the best stories. Hell, their atoms are woven out of stories, they’ve got so many it drowns ‘em, & who’s to say you won’t get caught up in the riptide? If you wanna listen, some days they’ll surround you, choke you in smoke & stardust. All those things the sun can’t reach.
But darlin’, I’ll let you in on a secret: the devil’s nothing more than a drunken angel, knife-eyed & shackle-hearted & tired of being underestimated. You know how it is with imaginary things – they only stay that way till you start believin’ in them, the stories they tell. Who ever heard of a witch letting her familiars wave the wand? You’ll be chewin’ on your own ribcage sooner or later if you sign up for this, but darlin’, you mark my words: when the world crumbles, the one that don’t exist are the ones who’ll make it out alive.
Here he paused. & both of us sat very still, alone & together, thinking & not thinking.
Finally my father took a very long drag of his cigarette. & these next words he said so quietly that I & the night & all of its creatures leaned in close to hear him.
So fine, my father said, fine. Maybe you let ‘em stay in the shadows. They’re creatures of the night, so maybe you forget about sun. Sit under the porch light. Swat moths & listen to invisible crickets & let them whisper secrets in your ear instead of the other way ‘round. Might do you both a bit of good, don’t you think? That’s all they want, darlin’, they just want to be heard. & don’t we all.
So maybe you let them be make believe, if only ‘cause nobody else is. Maybe you just listen. Listen. Listen.
Who even knows with these imaginary things, but maybe that’ll be enough.
He refused to say anything else to me on the subject of imaginary things, though I asked him time & time again. & so I went inside the house that night & left him on the porch with his dark cigarette & the moths gossiping at the porch light above him.
Before I climbed into bed, though, I peered out the window one last time.
My father sat there still in the summer hums, but all around him I could have sworn that I saw a group of figures, soft & silken, gossamer-quiet & not quite there, as if conjured from the recesses of his wild, effervescent head. He never acknowledged them, but they sat with the sweetness of things forgotten, keeping him company as the sky sighed around him.
I thought that I could almost hear their voices whispering secrets to him in the wash-worn night – but perhaps I was only imagining it.