The Color of Magic

by Paula Kane

I liked to eat red things but only in the dark. I devoured sticky-sweet, sugary red things, but only in the enfolding blackness of the theater and only when horror was the featured attraction that filled the screen. It could have been a long red rope of licorice, tiny and sharp red-hot cinnamon hearts, broken sticks of red-veined peppermint, or a smuggled slice of Oksana’s dyed-too-deep-red, red velvet cake.

In the theater, there was just enough light from the images of new-age Scottish zombies, white haired Serbian veela, or Russian and Romanian vampires, as they flickered across the distant screen, to tell that the color of what I was eating was red and not the black of the air around it.

I would watch most any horror film, a classic Hollywood black and white Bela Lugosi vampire, even a sixties Warhol or Polanski version of the undead, but it was the magic lantern novices of the silent-era moving pictures, or the new Young Turk Europeans, mostly East Block, who I thought had really got it right. There was something eerily feasible to me, about the need for a sadly chosen few to exsanguinate their fellow man in both of these worlds. One was the post-communist landscape; frighteningly impoverished, crumbling infrastructure and yet a pristine Starbucks or McDonald’s on every corner, all pulsating to a deafening American techno beat, the other, a place of only shades of black and gray or bright white without a sound.

I bought my red things, like I did that night, at Oksana’s bakery, The Cossack’s Daughter. It was next door to the cinema, a little art house, which, Oksana never believed when I told her, (“Mira, very funny joke,” she would say), used to be a porno theater in the bad old good old days; or was it the good old bad old days?  It had stood abandoned for a long time, and then was renovated in the eighties, before the bakery opened. They had done a good job, putting in new plush crimson velvet carpets, curtains, and seats, but had kept the little apron stage in front of the screen where there had once been live girlie shows.

Oksana was born near Belgrade and had been one of the last baby ballerinas with the Ballet Russe. She came to the States during the occupation as the prized war bride of a Marine who couldn’t believe his dumb luck, and therefore liked to hit her. She was his gold mine for a while, the principal dancer of a big Midwest City company. While she danced, Mr. Marine drank up the profits. But Oksana suffered under the beatings and when she gave birth to their only child, the evil Alexa, she began to gain weight. After that, all she was good for was indulging the then tiny Alexa’s every desire and teaching ballet to undisciplined American girls.

Oksana told me Alexa took after her father, and in spite of the white and lilac tutus, the soft pink ballet shoes, and the expensive visits to the top ophthalmologists, that her mother scrimped and saved for, she was still a fat, short, grotesquely near-sighted lump of a child, and for that she hated her mother.

Oksana said it was like in the old country, when a window was left unguarded and a black moth, who is really a witch, enters and eats the heart of the child. The Alexa she longed for would never exist.

In the end, Mr. Marine drank himself into a not-too-early grave and Alexa, eternally resentful, disappeared without a trace at nineteen into the chaotic drug culture of 1980’s L.A. It was then that Oksana had decided to take up her first profession and move south.

After I’d bought my red things, I walked up the short hill from Oksana’s to the theater. I pulled the baffled cocoon of my old down coat across my chest and clutched the steaming coffee and waxy paper bag close to my heart. There was no line at the ticket box. It had started snowing outside and everyone was afraid to be out. The roads could be slick and dangerous with black ice by the time the show let out, but I didn’t care, I had no fear of danger or death. I was, in fact, on my way to commune with it. That night it was not a new-age generic horror film I had come to see, but the 1921, German silent classic vampire movie, by Wilhelm Murnau, “Nosferatu.”

Once I passed through the lobby and entered the old theater I looked about and realized that I was completely alone. I always preferred to sit in the tiny upstairs balcony, which retained its own kind of mystery, having once been reserved solely for the Dark Continent’s race. I chose a seat in the center of the front row and sank down into the comfort of its deep red velvet.

I arranged myself comfortably in the nest I’d made of my coat and inhaled the steamy fumes from the strong and heady mix of what Oksana called coffee. There was a ticking fluttery sound and the screen glittered bright and white for a few moments then everything went black and the titles appeared.

Nosferatu, eiene Symphonie des Grauens, Plague Carrier, the Insufferable One, a Symphony of Horror, translated the Gothic subtitles.

As the story unfolded, I stared mesmerized at the huge black and white figures moving in front of me. Then the sickly shadow of Count Orlok, the Nosferatu, glided furtively across the screen, appeared in the corner of the half-timbered bedchamber then jumped invisibly through time and space to the head of the bed where lay the Innocent. But something was wrong.

I’d been wrenched violently from dark Transylvania. Floating up from somewhere down below was the odious smell of popcorn. I leaned far forward over the balcony banister out into black space and hovered there, only the toes of my boots hooked under the brass foot rail anchored me to the earth. I searched out the offender and found him sitting in the seats just below me. He was a big man, wearing one or those heavy mafia-style black leather jackets. His head was nearly bald on top and the reflections from the screen danced on his shiny skull. He munched loudly and I could hear the squeaking and popping of the puffy white and yellow kernels between his teeth. He seemed careless to me, unaware of what he was seeing, vulnerable. He threw his head back, opened his mouth wide and guffawed loudly as Count Orlok sank his fake fangs into the pretty victim’s jugular.

I despised the man and his popcorn, and thought about the tiny soft spot on the top of the head where all the bones almost fuse together and what would happen if I dropped say…a lawn dart or a sharpened stake from that distance.

I slumped back into my seat and settled into the warmth of my coat frowning. I needed something red. Carefully I opened the wax paper bag and unwrapped the tissue that surrounded the Linzer Heart I’d bought from Oksana before the show.

The Linzer was two large, pale yellow, heart-shaped shortbread cookies with toothy serrated edges and a thin glassy film of raspberry jam smeared between them. There was a smaller heart-shaped window cut sharply out of the top cookie, which revealed the sweet dark red stuff within.

Oksana worried about me. She thought I might disappear into the darkness of the theater like Alexa had disappeared into blackness of the drug world.

It had already been late when I went into her shop; the big plate-glass windows had started to steam up against the cold. Sasha-the-sweet, a blond-headed Americanized Russian boy, who worked part-time for her, was vigorously sweeping the black and white tile floor.

“It’s cold out tonight Mira, why not something less dainty, more hearty, a Toll House or a Snickerdoodle, something more American? You know it’s going to snow,” Oksana had suggested when I chose the Linzer cookie.

“No,” I’d said, staring at the wet ruby heart. “It’s what I want.”

Oksana made a face, “Very well. Why must you be so gloomy?” She put the cookie neatly in a bag but set it aside on a table behind her.

Oksana had become a large woman, with silvered dun-colored hair, which escaped in a kinky spiral from her black net-covered chignon. She had to be in her late seventies but it was hard to tell how old she was. She had surprisingly big and strong hands, which harvested wheat in Serbia when she was still a child, before she was sent to apprentice with a pastry chief on one of the grand liners that cruised the Black Sea out of the port of Odessa. She stayed on board just long enough to learn the best secrets of the trade, when one of the Ballet Russe’s recruiting scouts saw her practicing her pliés in the gymnasium during the staff’s daily mandatory fitness regime.

“What is showing tonight?” she asked.


“Another scare movie? Some horrible beast-man or witch-woman?”


“Ha!” She shook out a clean towel with a snap of incredulity and began to dry stainless steel mixing bowels and a big metal dough hook. She talked as she worked.

“In my village, we always knew whenever there was a vampire about. You knew because the milk turned sour, or the poppies bloomed white, or the priest’s daughter, who was as pure as the snow on the crown of the Virgin,” she crossed herself three times in the Orthodox manner, “turned up pregnant.”

She placed each item she dried on a wire rack, then turned back toward me and rested her heavy arms on the pastry case. She had been sucking on a large rose-colored jawbreaker and now she rolled it around her mouth and it clicked against her large teeth.

“They use black horse to hunt the vampire.”

“Like a fox hunt?”

She set her tongue against her front teeth and made a noise that sounded like stssh. “No, our horses were big and strong not like the skinny-leg creatures I see here. Feet big as platters, and their shoes made the cold ground ring like the iron of the bell in the church. Men take black horse, the smartest horse in the village; smartest horses are always big and black. He’s the one who stands in the harness before the farmer comes to get him, the one who figured out how to pull the pin in the gate, the one who can always find his way home in the snow no matter how bad it is, a fearless beast.”

I set my coffee on the case top and noticed that Sasha had moved closer and was sweeping very slowly.

“They go to the graveyard with horse, but when he gets near, he rears back in great fear, his eyes roll and turn red, and his nostrils flare like he smells fire. The men have to grab the reins and drag the horse forward. They force him among the graves, past each stone one by one, until he comes to the one where they can no longer hold him. He screams and tramples the ground, shifting the stone off its base.”

Sasha stopped sweeping and stood very still in the corner. I leaned forward listening closely. “And then?”

“Then they dig him up, if he’s still there, and,” she lifted her heavy right hand off the counter top then slapped it down hard, “drive a wooden stake through his heart.”

Sasha jumped and dropped his broom. The long birch handle smacked down hard on the tile floor. Oksana and I turned to look, as the blushing boychik scrambled to recover the broom and return to sweeping.

“And that works?" I asked Oksana when I turned back to her.

She stepped back and put her hands on her hips, which made damp handprints on her white apron, and looked me in the eye.

“Of course not, it’s a load of shit. The cows got into the horseradish, the poppies had the blight that year, and the priest’s daughter was,” she made a rude gesture with her fist, “riding three of the shepherds. When will you learn? It’s all stories for children.”

I looked away. “I need to go.”

Stssh,” the air hissed through her teeth, “Why must you waste you time in those dark places? You’re like some prisoner in the camps, cutting lines in the wall each day.”

“Marking time,” I said.

“What is that?”

“What you said I do, counting off the days.”

“Is true.”

“If you say so. Maybe.  Give me the Linzer. I’ll be late. The previews are almost over.”

Stssh," she said again and handed me the bag.

Back in the dark theater I thought about what Oksana had said about me. It was true. I was spending more and more time there. Catching a late matinee after work whenever possible, even occasionally calling in sick for the early matinee and staying for every screening.

One day recently while I was eating lunch at my tiny desk, as I had done most every day for the past sixteen years, my supervisor stopped by. She was a tall thin harassed kind of woman with thick dark shoulder length hair. She wore fashionable glasses but with a strong prescription that left a white circle etched on the lens inside the frame.

“Mira, I need to speak with you,” she said, as she rustled a slippery sheaf of computer printouts in her hands. They were covered in columns of tiny names and numbers.

“All of your annual, sick and PTO balances are dangerously low.” She looked at the figures and held her place on a column with her index finger, then looked back at me. Her eyes blinked behind the glasses as she tried to refocus on my face.

I looked down at my desktop. “A-huh,” I said as I attempted a small bite of my sandwich, tearing unsuccessfully at the lettuce. A ruffle of green was left protruding from the crescent imprint left by my teeth. At that moment, I felt like nothing so much as a small gray mouse nibbling stolen crumbs between tender pink feet.

“I’m concerned about you. About how this will effect you, your …”

I stopped chewing for a moment surprised. I swallowed and looked up into the computer monitor screen on my desk. I could see my supervisor’s face clearly but my reflection was not there.

“Your productivity,” she said.

I nodded.

Day in day out at work, I moved the same numbers on a page from one line to another then back again, commuted the same .7 mile route back and forth to my house, parked in the same parking spot, under the same red maple tree that shed the same pollen, seed pods, and then leaves, on my ‘94 Honda every summer and fall.

Each morning I drank one small cup of the five-dollar-a-month Java Club coffee that tasted distinctly more like beef bullion than it did coffee. For lunch I always ate thin-sliced white cheese, Munster or Alpine Swiss, and lettuce, no mustard, on whole wheat, or a pale lunchmeat, turkey or chicken on whole grain, with a cup of weak ginger tea to aid digestion.

I never ate red things at work, I don’t really know why, although once I had chanced on an entry in Black’s A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable that read, “since time began red has been the universal hue for mage and magician.” And if that were true, work had nothing to do with magic or the color red.

Toward the end of the film, when Count Orlok assumes the shape of a bat, the big oaf downstairs let out a loud snort of disgust.

“Enough of this, I’m out-a-here!” he said.

I leaned forward to watch as he struggled to his feet tipping over his bucket of popcorn in the process.

“Crap!” He wiped frantically at his buttery stained coat and pants. “Stupid movie,” he muttered like a rather large small child.

He bullied his way through the plush seats, kicking each one up as he went until he reached the end of the row. Leather coat creaking, he made his way up the aisle slammed open the exit doors with his fist and was gone. I was pleased to see him go and that once again, I was alone.

To people like Oksana it was ridiculous, but I longed to shape shift like the Nosferatu, to flicker overhead as a tiny bat in the twilight watching the world below, or prowl the underworld of unsavory back streets as some feral cat or wild wolf, or hover as a mere shadow across the ceiling in the warm rosy-lighted homes I passed on my night-walk home from the theater.

I thought about the bakery next door. Sasha would have long ago gone home to his father, mother, and six round-faced nesting-doll brothers and sisters. The Cossack’s Daughter would be cold and dark. Oksana would have been sound asleep after a large tumbler of vodka, snug under a thick feather duvet with one large orange cat on her ample chest and another at the small of her wide back. There she would sleep peacefully until four in the morning when she began the baking.

I walked downstairs as the film neared its end, the last frames clacketed by while I stood waiting at the top of the aisle. The projector whirred and the stream of light went brilliant white, except for a momentary last image, a red spot, like an irradiated red eye burned in the center of the screen. It pulsated for a few moments and then was gone, but the image still glowed on my retina like an ember.

Before I knew it, I was halfway down the aisle gliding over the deep red carpet, feet barely touching the ground, fingertips trailing the velvety backs of the seats on each side. My feet flew up the few steps to the old apron-stage and I stood with my arms outstretched creating a giant shadow like the winged vampire. I came face to face with the crystal screen that glittered like snow, or mist lit from behind. Then it shifted like a thick fog, a moving miasma, and I could see a pale but constant red light far in the distance. I pushed my face inch by inch into the whiteness and it flowed over my eyes, lips, and nose like water in a bowl. I took a step forward and passed through into the world unknown.

Paula Kane grew up in “gray central Ohio” and couldn't wait to move to the Southern mountains to attend college. Except for a few short stints in far-flung places, she’s been in the Asheville area ever since. She has a background in art but became a midwife and currently works as a public health nurse. In 2000 she started writing short stories and taking classes with Tommy Hays through the Great Smokies Writing Program. Dickens, Hardy, Murdock, the new young Irish writers, John Irving, James Lee Burke, and George Singleton are some of the writers she loves reading. In a few years she plans to move further south to Louisiana with her German Shepherd, Rose Red.

About The Color of Magic—In this story I wanted to create a sense of tension incorporating the stresses of everyday life but intensified by a hint of the possibility of supernatural influences. I love ethnic folklore and used it, and the color red to propel the story. The ending seems open to me, as if life could go on as normal in the next moment or could move into a completely different world.