This wild, magic-realist ride of a novel, originally published in 1994, is funny, sexy, satirical, linguistically exuberant, and utterly unique. Written as a fictional biography, it tells the life story of a woman with magical sexual powers that she uses to heal people. The story follows our heroine from her miraculous birth through her childhood in a magical orphanage to adulthood, when she uncovers sinister conspiracies among political and well-hidden foes. Woven into The Magic Touch is that of her grandmother, whose mysterious background propels the story forward in ways that begin as Faustian and end up as spiritual. The story culminates in a spectacular—and hilarious—showdown between the forces of good and evil.
This ebook re-release of The Magic Touch includes a new introduction that should be a must-read for fans of this book and aspiring writers everywhere. It reveals how Rachel stumbled on the idea for the heart of the story, the long journey she took in producing the book, and the kind words given by a respected professor that inspired her, at her lowest moment, to pick herself up and keep going.
The Magic Touch was Rachel Simon's second book and first novel. It was a 1994 selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which highlights books of exceptional literary quality from authors at the starts of their careers.
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About the Author
Rachel Simon is a New York Times bestselling author best known for the memoir Riding The Bus With My Sister (2002), adapted for a film by the same name, and the novelThe Story of Beautiful Girl (2011). Little Nightmares, Little Dreams was her first book. Rachel Simon lives in Delaware.
Read an Excerpt
The Magic Touch
By Rachel Simon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Rachel Simon
All rights reserved.
A Promise Fulfilled
Celeste's mother had been dead two days when Celeste was born.
If, during those two days, Celeste could have looked down the long road of the birth canal and seen the life that waited for her, she might instead have backed away, chosen to remain in the womb, slowing her own heartbeat and suckling death, growing blue and quiet, until she and her mother were covered by sheets, laid in a coffin by people she would never know, wept and mourned over, lowered into the ground. There she could have drifted into darkness and silence. There she could have savored oblivion.
Sure. And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. Place your bid before midnight and I'll throw in some mystic secrets for free.
Truth is, if the birth canal had been a periscope into Celeste's life, and her ears had been open, she might instead have felt her grandmother Edwina Kipplebaum Runetoon Kelly babbling through her like blood, and the words might have snapped the child to attention, seized her with the responsibility of what she had to live. "Celeste! Celeste!" her grandmother would have exhorted her. "Those lucky enough to know themselves have an obligation to the world. Think of the many people who never know who they are: squatting openhanded, waiting for life to give them identities, certain they can do nothing of importance. Or worse yet — my dear, are you listening? are you looking? — worse yet are those people who know themselves but can't do anything about it. This could happen to anyone — even someone with a gift as wondrous as yours! Imagine: Einstein in a country where math is laughed at when it goes beyond fingers and toes; Dickinson in a house where Dad paddles anyone who scribbles a poem. Often, those whom the Powers That Be don't want to speak lose the ability to hear themselves. Oh, such a tragedy, to feel like the scraps left over after life snipped away the true creation. But you, Celeste, are lucky; you are a promise fulfilled. You know who you are, you have room to grow — and you have a gift so special, so tailored for its era, that the world doesn't just need you; the world must have you. So stop diddle-dallying. You should come out already, don't you think?"
Think? Good golly, Miss Kelly, how could Celeste have thought it through? Even if she could have heard your sales pitch. How could she have understood the birth canal and the corpse? Let alone the life that lay in wait after that day in the delivery room.
Sunbeams angled between the blinds, lining the delivery room with long fingers of light. The unborn Celeste and her dead mother lay on a bed. Around them stood nurses and Miss Kelly's children, their feet sore from the weight of their two-day vigil.
The three nurses knitted their brows. Among them was fifty years experience, yet they trembled at what they'd never seen before. Sweat outlined the underwear beneath their gowns: slips for the two women, a T-shirt for the man. The male nurse stood off by himself, his brown skin a sharp contrast to the paleness of the patient in front of him. His eyes flitted to the other nurses, to the children, to the sun stripes, but the place where his gaze kept coming to roost was the body of the dead woman.
Clustered among the nurses stood Miss Kelly's children. Tall and short, boys and girls, post-diaper to post-puberty, they wore a hodgepodge of clothes that broke every fashion barrier: mod, macramé, greaser, mini, rock star, migrant, Maoist, hoot-a-ninny, haute couturist, cardigan allurist, black leather purist, American tourist, spandexed, cross-sexed, Tex-Mex, and jeans. But despite the diverse attire, in the delivery room they all seemed to look alike; every face was equally strained with worry.
The pregnant woman lay on the bed, her brown hair loose down the pillow. When she was alive, the sun's rays had dived into her hair and lit up the red curls like stashes of buried rubies. But death stole all her color. Her red strands sank deep into brown. Her pink fingernails flooded with blue. Her skin looked like frosted glass on which no life had been written.
Only two days earlier, the nurses had thought the woman seemed ageless. That was not what she told Nurse Molly Bee when she admitted herself — "Seventeen," she answered on the forms — but Nurse Bee, cocking an eyebrow beneath her supersprayed, foot-high coif, felt that the patient carried herself closer to middle age. The girl seemed so serious, dressed to the zeros in a plaid maternity dress and clogs, her curls twisting free of a braid, her fingers clutching a knapsack that the nurses later learned was full of students' tests. Her gray eyes seemed haunted, as if layers of ghosts lived inside her. And when she spoke, it was in the calm words of someone seasoned enough to tuck pain into a back pocket. "I think I'm ready for my baby," she said.
Molly Bee had never seen this girl before, despite having worked in the clinic for years. People in more populated areas could go to hospitals, but the small mining town of Fossilfink Falls, Pennsylvania, down on its luck since the bust in coal, was too poor and remote to have a hospital. The clinic was it. Located in a converted farmhouse, with gadgets more state of the hobby than state of the art, it was overseen by a single doctor, who trudged into this black valley only once every three days.
Molly Bee sat at the receiving desk, studying the girl. Plump yet perpetually famished, Nurse Bee stuffed her soul with newspaper gossip and fantasized about becoming a celebrity columnist: blissful access to the pantheon of the famous! joyful nirvana of the A-list! muscled hunks licking her every crevice in exchange for a smidgen of bold print!
But instead she was stuck in this boondock that had long ago been strip-mined down to infertility, and all she could gossip about were people as trapped as she. So she scrutinized this girl, and — aha! — homed in on a naked ring finger. "Your husband," Nurse Bee asked casually, "know you've made your way here? We can call and tell him."
The patient smiled politely. "I'm not married."
The thrill propelled Nurse Bee backward in her chair. She composed herself, adjusting her uniform and her lacquered hairdo. "You've been seeing Dr. Twitcox at another clinic? It'll take him a while to get to us, but I can track him down."
The girl shrugged. "I've been doing my own doctoring. I'll just see him when he comes in."
Nurse Bee regarded the young woman. No doctor! But she didn't look poor. "All right," Bee said, struggling to remain efficient. "You need to fill out forms. You are insured, hmmm?"
"I have money." The girl reached for a pen, and Nurse Bee mentally paparazzied every detail — no jewelry, no cosmetics — so she could broadcast this story later to any ear within drooling distance. It would provide the local entertainment for at least a week; Nurse Bee had friends all over the valley.
Little did she know how widespread her audience would eventually be.
People still ask me if I can remember my birth. I guess they figure that since it made such headlines for a while, it should somehow be imprinted on my mind. But of course I can't.
I wish I could. Was I scared in my mother's womb? Sad? Or too preoccupied with myself to notice she'd died? I hate to think so, but I've been intimate with lots of people, and I've learned that when we're caught up in our own mess, we don't often think of others. No one is above this. Despite what your readers might believe, not even me.
— Interview with Celeste, SNM Today
Nurse Bee's eyes shifted focus. After all, the girl was breathing normally, so once Bee freeze-framed the visual highlights, she didn't need to concentrate on the here and now. It was more important to get going on speculation: to spin herself a hypothesis that might encompass this girl's life story.
Maybe ... she'd come from a city. Yes. That's it. Erie or Scranton ... in a car listed on a college ride board ... Lacking family support and the love of the ... rogue who dumped her, this girl came anonymous to these dismal Pennsylvania coal hills. Right. She'd be challenged but would maintain her dignity. She'd battle the odds, resist poverty, struggle against the uncertainties of a life lived without a man ...
Papers piled up on the desk. Nurse Bee glanced at one, and her engine gagged: the address was not some city but the old school outside town. It had been a school, Bee corrected herself, but closed ages ago, after the Fink Coal Company went bankrupt and families packed up in search of work and the remaining kids got bused down the single road out of town to a school an hour away. For years, the old place sat forgotten, with weeds of every nastiness growing high. Then the property was bought by a stranger, Edwina Kipplebaum Runetoon Kelly, a wealthy eccentric from New York City, who imported her utopian ideas to Fossilfink Falls and turned the school into an orphanage. She called it, natch, the Kelly Home. Children came from all over the country, not only the truly orphaned but also kids whose parents had other places to be or other people to love. Now pink and set behind an iron gate, the orphanage was known as a place where kids ran about unsweetened, unfiltered, and unpreserved, free of additives, religion, and television. They were educated — in fact, the older kids taught the younger. But they were also allowed — no, emboldened — to create themselves: to pick their own names, develop their own talents. And how outlandish were the talents they developed, or so went the rumors: kids who could understand the language of animals, or catch a piece of sky in a jar, or turn other people into trees.
To what end these "talents" were to be developed no one knew. Speculation bubbled up from time to time but always simmered back to the stock understanding that these were just rumors, possibly even generated by Edwina Kelly herself — who was, as far as the locals were concerned, a little cuckoo. After all, this was the lady who'd installed an iron gate across her drive that declared: TO KNOW ONESELF AND BE A SQUIRE, TO SERVE THE WORLD AND BE A KNIGHT. You have to be kind of flaky to do that.
Locals had always steered clear of the orphanage. Though not just because of Edwina Kelly. When the place first opened, years ago, Edwina Kelly had marched the children into town one morning, a ragtag menagerie dressed in oddball clothes. As they crossed the town green, Gluper Flugel, who was working off his usual morning blur at the coffee shop, peered out the window and proclaimed that they looked like a circus from hell. "They give me a fear," he told everyone. "Best stay away from them." The few who witnessed subsequent dawn marches agreed with Glupe, but after only a month, Miss Kelly and her orphans ceased the walks. Thereafter they rarely came to town except to go to the clinic, and Gluper's pronouncement held sway.
Nurse Bee, however, wasn't sure she concurred with Glupe. To her eyes, the orphans seemed like decent kids. A little rambunctious and sacrilegious, maybe. But they never displayed any of the rumored weirdo talents, and though they were rather fast, at least they used birth control.
Until now, that is.
Nurse Bee squinted at the girl's face. "You're not one of the orphans we've seen before," she said. "You new out there?"
"I'm not in the orphanage," the girl said. "I live at the orphanage. My name is Marina Kelly. My mother is the director."
Nurse Bee blinked, and floated an image of Edwina Kelly on the girl's face. The old double exposure trick; most effective genetic test ever devised by gossipkind.
Well, what do you know: same rounded nose, same arched cheekbones, same thick lips. The girl spoke the truth. Bee's bangs fell flaccid at the sight. She licked her fingers and swept them into place. "I didn't know Miss Kelly had a child!"
"It's not exactly new news."
"Shouldn't she be here with you?"
"She's got a class to teach."
"A class! This is more important than a class!"
"The hospital will take care of me."
"Does she even know you're here?"
"I left her a note."
"You're about to have a baby!"
"A note should take care of things."
"Where did you leave it? How are you sure she'll see it?"
Marina set her hand flat on the desk. "I have been her assistant for ten years. I know where she keeps her messages."
Nurse Bee said nothing, but her mind ticked off each person she'd call, who would then call someone else, the news spreading across the valley like the lighting of a giant Christmas tree.
"Okay?" Marina said. "Now can you show me to my room?"
Marina had spent her whole ninth month in the office, rushing to finish work before the baby came. But in the Kelly Home, anything was cool, even being a grind. Besides, she did one thing that was viewed with awe. She had these incredible dreams, complete sagas of whole countries, intricate tales from other times. She could spend hours describing them, stories about Chinese peasants and Mexican farmers and people from the Revolutionary War. We loved listening to them. But then when she got pregnant, she stopped the dream telling to concentrate on office work. This was a great disappointment! Some of us tried to coax her out of work mode, but the only success was this boy who knew how to sculpt bread. He made her sourdough flutes, and even though she'd never been musical, she took to those flutes like Bach to the organ. So no dream talk, but good tunes, which made losing the dreams okay. You know, I'd forgotten about those flutes till now. And I still can't remember the sculptor's name. I don't believe it. This is going to drive me crazy.
— Iambia Teneye, as told to author
Nurse Regina Patchett, long of nose and long of legs, escorted Marina down the hall of the second floor of the clinic toward the birthing room. Light blazed with unusual passion through the open doors. "Oh my, look at the sun!" she said to Marina, about whom the nurse knew nothing. Not that it would have mattered; Patchett's experiences at the clinic stayed corralled in her mind. She was married to the local minister and never disclosed the slightest detail from the hospital to him, even when she knew it would provide the perfect embellishment for his sermons. She thought of her mind as a secretary-style desk, where every event got its own pigeonhole. As she later explained, she had no interest in being a messenger for scandal; she was only interested in being a messenger for God.
"Your baby picked a lovely day to come," Patchett said, fanning her arms outward. "The sun is so strong, I feel like I could touch it."
Marina's face lit, then darkened, lit, then darkened, as she passed in front of successive doorways. "I hope it doesn't take too long," she said, and then paused. "What's normal?"
"That depends on a number of things," Nurse Patchett said. "How close together are your contractions?"
The girl stopped. "My what?"
Nurse Patchett, a step ahead, turned. "Your contractions." When that got no response, she added, "The things that feel like cramps." Marina peered at the floor. "When was the last cramp?"
Eyes still down: "When I signed in downstairs."
"How long have you been having them?"
The girl's eyes ran back and forth, as if reading her recent past in the floor. "I had one after dinner, and then I felt nauseous all night. The second cramp came this morning." She looked up. "That's why I figured it was time, so I walked here."
"And you didn't have problems walking? That's four miles!"
"I did feel a little tight in my chest."
"Your chest is not where you'd feel it. That was probably because you hadn't walked in a while. Any more cramps?"
The nurse smiled. "I think you might be early. But you can relax in your room while we wait. We have a TV."
"Do you have a calculator?"
"I said we have a TV."
"I heard you."
"It's color. We've even got remote control."
"I've never watched TV."
Nurse Patchett's voice retreated before her mouth could grab on. Her trachea gave chase, finally rooting it out from the pigeonhole labeled "Deprived," where it cowered beneath Life magazine images of starving children. "Well, maybe it's time you did," she said, locking her voice back into its box. "Let's get you settled in."
Marina continued down the hall. She sighed quietly and, as if speaking to herself, mumbled, "At least it's during the day."
Patchett considered that the girl might be scared by the dark. After all, their exchange so far indicated she was more sheltered — more a child — than Patchett had expected. "Does the dark make you uncomfortable?" Nurse Patchett asked.
"No," Marina said. "The fall term ends in a few days, and night is the best time to tally up grades —"
A choke cut the sentence short. Marina's eyes grew wide, and she clamped a hand on her chest.
"What's wrong?" the nurse asked.
The girl bent forward. "I — can't — br ..." She sucked in air with a heavy wheeze. "Uh! Uh!" Her face wrinkled in pain.
Excerpted from The Magic Touch by Rachel Simon. Copyright © 1994 Rachel Simon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Promise Fulfilled,
The Secrets of Shadows,
Coming of Age,
The Truth Comes Out,
The Fuck to the Finish,
And So ...,
The Story of the Sea also makes regular appearances,