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‘So,’ said Juno casually to Doris on their way home from school on December 5, 1960, ‘your dad doing that Saint Niklaas thing again this year?’

‘Are you kidding? If he does I’ll disown him!’ said Doris in the way of teenage daughters the world over.

 

At long last, after a century-long seven year wait, Juno’s thirteenth birthday had come around. It was a Tuesday. Ever since the Sinterklaas incident a more informal arrangement had been in place whereby there was an open invitation for anybody who wanted to come by. Sure enough there always were cake and sandwiches and hot chocolate and punch. Juno was so popular that a lot of kids did come by, followed by most of their moms who’d take the chance to pump grandma for sowing secrets, followed later on by some of their husbands who’d empty pop’s bar.

Afternoon showed signs of turning into evening and the parlour had got more and more crowded. It was nearly dark outside. Strengthening gusts were blowing the last of the leaves up and down the street and rattling the windows. Grandma put on more lights. ‘Where’s your dad?’ Juno asked Doris. Doris’s mom had been parked on grandma’s couch for hours, but Mr Martin had only recently got over the reputation he’d had these past years as a bit of a recluse. ‘What’s all this about my dad?’ asked Doris in return. ‘He said he might pop in. Is there any more root beer?’ ‘I’ll get you some,’ said Juno, ever helpful back then.

She was just closing the fridge in the kitchen when all the lights went out. She heard the crowd in the parlour go, ‘Ooh!’ and someone said, ‘It’s a power cut!’ Then it went dead quiet.

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‘Sure you do.’ The assorted possessors of the gift all seamlessly ceased channelling and progressed to making elaborate hand movements over their crystal balls, earrings chiming. ‘Hmm… I see a boy… a dark boy…’

‘Has he got a cowlick? And an opening for a hand?’ asked Juno. If their strange client hadn’t been too young for that kind of thing, the fortune-tellers would’ve fancied they heard something like sarcasm. They always changed tack.

‘I see a far-away place… yes, far away…’

‘Well, not for us or the Martins!’ declared Juno. ‘We all gotta be here on my thirteenth birthday so Mr Martin can come through our door as Sinterklaas again! That’s what I wanna know about! And you’re a phony!’ And with that Juno’d storm out. But she only ever stormed as far as the entrance to the tent, where she loudly demanded her nickel back. Without fail the men in top hats and embroidered waistcoats who did the door for these tents were mighty keen on giving it back to her real quick. Somehow, though, they couldn’t shut Juno up. By that stage an interested crowd had formed every time. It always contained a couple folks who thought that slipping one over on dizzy adults was one thing but taking advantage of a helpless kid quite another, and made it known that they thought that way. Fortune-teller’s tents had a habit of shutting halfway through the Sunday of the fair in Hastings-Sunrise, and being gone by early Thanksgiving morning. Eventually, the fall before Juno’s eleventh birthday, there was no fortune-teller at the fair.

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Juno on the other hand wasn’t happy. Nice and adorable and top of her class, but not happy. The older she got, the less content she felt with the status quo. What was the point of being a witch if you couldn’t be it properly? She still tried a little big Magic a couple times a year, just to check she was still useless. And she kept her eyes open for any sign of Magic in anybody else. Every fall at the Thanksgiving fair in Sunrise Park she gave Doris the slip, paid her nickel and sneaked into the fortune-teller’s tent. It was a different fortune-teller every year. None of them was keen on returning to Hastings-Sunrise in those days.

It always happened the same way. By the time the latest prophetess had gotten halfway through wondering how she’d apply her usual bull of tall dark strangers and unexpected journeys to a girl that little, Juno’d got used to the gloom and the strong smell of incense masking the strong smell of soup. The sight of heavily made-up women in headscarves and dangly earrings didn’t faze her, mainly because the props surrounding them, like pentacles and crystal balls, made her feel strong and somehow older. She only ever needed one good look to pull herself up to her full height. The crystal-gazer usually got as far as, ‘Welcome, young la–– …’ before Juno’d say loudly, ‘You’re not for real!’

Now the fortune-tellers were used to this kind of thing, if not from girls that little. But they were pretty ready for Doris’s mom’s kind. So the mystic-in-residence would produce a toothy smile and say something like, ‘Why don’t you sit down right here, honey, and we’ll see if there’s really nothing we can do for –– …’ – cue full-body shudder, dramatic eye-rolling and hollow voice – ‘Child, there is something you oughta know!’

‘Yes there is,’ Juno’d say firmly at this point. ‘I wanna know what happens on my thirteenth birthday!’

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That was about the end of big Magic for little Juno. She did try a couple more low-key things, namely bringing some of her toys to life. When her old rocking-horse, which had been grandma’s before, pulverized in front of her eyes, though, and all her favourite doll Bernice did was to start squinting real creepily and never stop again, the last rest of belief in her Magic abilities was crushed. Not in her ability to do Magic, mind. But there could be no doubt that she was extremely bad at it. So she kept going like before, everybody adoring her and everything working out just fine, with one slight but crucial difference: the fact that there was something she couldn’t master actually moved Juno to humility. Savour this moment, reader. You won’t come across another sentence in this story that features the words ‘Juno’ and ‘humility’ without also featuring the words ‘opposite of’. But for the moment Juno was a genuinely nice kid, which obviously made everyone adore her all the more.

Seven bumper years of bliss followed for grandma and pop. Bernard’s garage prospered as automobile ownership became the norm. He was better able to support his folks back in New York. By the time Juno was too old for them, his puppet shows had turned into slapstick. Grandma won first prize in the quilt show of the 1955 Pacific National Exhibition in Hastings Park. After that she was Hastings-Sunrise’s undisputed needle queen. No wedding, christening or prom happened without her help.

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Amazingly the miter was still on, and stayed right on as Doris’s dad teetered on the edge of the step. His priority obviously was not to tread on his daughter underneath it, but he couldn’t right himself enough to move sideways or backwards. His only option was to leave his feet where they were. His wife seemed happy to leave him to it. And so a fuzz-covered, soot-caked man with early disco lights on his head fell over in what seemed like slow motion, and scraps of paper flew everywhere as Zwarte Klaas came crashing in all his glory into a room full of frenzied children, a number of whom would start bedwetting again. 

‘My, oh my,’ fretted grandma seconds later while she and Doris’s mom were trying to stem the blood from the gash on Doris’s forehead. Pop was delegated to calm down the other kids. Nobody paid any attention either to the prostrate Mr Martin or the motionless Juno, and least of all to the inside of Mr Martin’s gunny sack, where the cookie dough had turned into an inedible mixture of chalk and linseed oil.

Another genteel tradition died in the bold new world that day. While mystified Juno wasn’t to know that in exactly seven years’ time the world would be putty to her. And that there’d be hell to pay if you willed it too hard to be, and that you couldn’t eat putty.

‘I wonder, Bernard,’ said grandma that night after Dr Pippet, Esther’s dad, had drunk up his fifth whiskey and finally left, and she’d at last been able to sponge down the couch. ‘I wonder what he meant when he said that they’re no trouble when they’re little but grow up to be toads…’

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‘Quit it, Doris,’ said Doris’s dad. He felt the sack kind of shifting and thought Doris was pulling at it. His grip on it was going. Since he couldn’t make any hasty movements due to his precariously balanced scrap-filled miter, he had to let go. The sack landed on Doris and made her plunge forward to the floor, where her head hit the edge of the step into grandma’s parlour. ‘Uh-oh,’ said Mr Martin. Turning around he did make a sudden movement now, with the hand that still held his bishop’s crosier. The bottom end of the staff hit one of grandma’s flower pots on its pedestal and sent it flying into a circle of already nonplussed-to-stressed children. The wailing started just as the curled top of the staff got entangled in Saint Niklaas’s beard. The staff’s momentum briefly lifted the beard before both were pulled back sharp by the beard’s elastic and the bishop-cum-sidekick whacked himself square on the chin with his own fancy stick. This made most of the children laugh through their tears. Some started hiccupping. It also made Doris’s dad lose his balance. He let go of the staff, which kept on dangling from his beard, in order to whirl his arms windmill-fashion and heighten the kids’ hysterics. In the meantime Doris’s mom had pulled the sack off of her knocked-out daughter and was kneeling by her side. She got smacked on the head by the dangling staff and instinctively put her hands up to grab whatever had hit her. She’d given it a good hard yank before her brain almost caught up with her reflexes and she let go. A couple kids were already hyperventilating.

This time it was a real neat thump. It spun Mr Martin halfway around. He was whirling his arms again when pop appeared in the open door. Although Bernard had seen Sinterpiet before, it was always an experience. So it took a moment before it dawned on him to do something to keep his neighbour from falling over. There seemed to be a stick handily attached for that purpose. Bernard started pulling just as Doris’s dad looked like he would join his daughter on the floor one step down. ‘Nooooo!’ yelled Mr Martin, nearly upright again. Startled, pop let go.

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Juno wasn’t in the room at that time. She came back from the kitchen a couple seconds later to flinch at the sight of Doris’s dad still half-framed by the front door, slowed down by his sack and the weight of the collective perplexity. That instant Juno experienced what in upmarket Magic circles is known as pas encore vu. The rest of us call it a flash-ahead. Basically she had a lightning-quick vision of a moment in her future. She somehow knew it was an extremely important moment, and somehow she also knew when it was going to happen. It looked pretty much exactly like what she was seeing right now and would only make sense in another seven years’ time, but it left little Juno tingling with the high you get from supernatural Magic, Magic you got no hand in. And not a little curious. She went on to stray the furthest she’d been out of her depth yet.

She decided she wanted a good look at this important bit of her future she’d barely got to glimpse. She didn’t close her eyes this time. She opened them as wide as she could and stared hard at the setting of that abrupt preview, willing the scene to play itself out in full. The setting obviously was the front door, where Mrs Martin and Doris were just squeezing ’round their stalled breadwinner and his cookie load. He’d kind of spun sideways, so that Doris had to duck under the sack. Her mom was making good headway into the room with a smile and a ‘happy birthday’ on her lips, but Doris was right underneath Zwarte Piet’s goodies when they took the full force of her friend’s clumsy spell.

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Once kitted out, he’d shoulder his sack full of cookies, his wife’s only contribution. He then called at all the houses in the neighbourhood with kids, which was most, to the total bewilderment of the older kids and naked terror of the youngest. The adults of Hastings-Sunrise, many of them immigrants and the rest the offspring of immigrants, reckoned the updating of old-world traditions was a Good Idea. Except for the only other Dutch family in the area, who hid behind the couch every year and pretended they weren’t home.

Another part of the old tradition bit the dust a couple years before these events, when Doris made friends with Juno. Juno’s birthday was December 6. Ancient Dutch scheduling didn’t stand a chance. It was decided by Doris and her mom that the Sinterklaas expedition would become the traditional way by which the Martins would present Juno with their gift. They’d set out together and go to Juno’s house first. After Juno had recovered, Doris and her mom always stayed for hot chocolate and birthday cake, while Doris’s dad went on to shock and awe the rest of the street’s kids.

It was 1953 and this particular December 6 Juno turned six. Grandma was throwing her first party for her. All the kids except Doris were already there, which saved Mr Martin a whole lotta walking and knocking that year. The intense concentration of bafflement that hit him when he lumbered in all but floored him, though.

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This time it took longer for Juno’s spirits to recover. Over a month passed before her next attempt at big Magic.

Doris’s dad was Dutch. Since Doris’s arrival he’d made it his mission to keep the old-world tradition of Santa Claus’s predecessor, known as Saint Niklaas or Sinterklaas, alive by dressing up in a big furry coat and fake furry beard the afternoon of every December 5. He’d also made himself a giant bishop’s miter out of cardboard. Back in the old country Sinterklaas had an assistant called Zwarte Piet, which means Black Peter. This was the guy who carried the gunny sack with the gifts and went down chimneys to deposit them. Hence the soot that gave him his name. Meanwhile Niklaas himself sensibly entered houses by the door and read from a large golden book whether the children he’d come to see had been good or bad that year.

Doris’s mom refused to walk ’round the neighbourhood with a big sack and her face painted black. Her husband’s heart bled at the thought that half the tradition should be lost, so he decided to merge the two figures. His blackened face was contrasted pretty effectively by the white furry beard. Since he had to carry his own sack and also the bishop’s crosier that tradition demanded, he figured he’d lose the book and read instead from scraps of paper he’d pull out of his hat. He also pulled out all the stops for that miter, with battery-run flashlights in different colours that were pretty novel back then. But unfortunately the whole effect was of a guy who’d been dragged through mud, hit by fragments of exploding sheep, and finally had a traffic light dropped on his head. You could say that Mr Martin gave a whole new meaning to the concept of preserving tradition, by changing it beyond recognition. He looked deranged.

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Nobody at school had anything to say about Juno’s new bonneted look other than how cute it was, and underneath it her hair grew back surprisingly quick. Emboldened by this, Juno shut her eyes hard a couple evenings later, after Doris had stamped her foot and exclaimed, ‘I wish I was grown up already!’ For a few seconds nothing happened, other than Mrs Martin, Doris’s mom, repeating that this was the last time she’d bother calling and adding that if a certain person wasn’t inside within two minutes she’d take it that this person had decided to live in the yard from now on. Then Mrs Martin’s head disappeared and the back door closed. And Doris let out a crazy yelp, flinging herself to the ground while at the same time being jumped on by the neat pile of leaves her mom had raked up earlier. In a moment she was rolling ’round the yard in a roaring, frenzied, rust-coloured cloud, watched by Juno, who stood awestruck in a corner. The back door flew back open just as the horizontal twister that was Doris came to a panting halt. Leaves were everywhere. Doris looked like an object lesson for camouflage. Her arm bandage was wrapped around a holly bush. She had a new gash on her cheek.

Dusk was falling on Hastings-Sunrise, and Doris’s mom’s dark shape against a rectangle of her bright kitchen threw a long shadow as she took in her rustic-looking dazed daughter, her no longer raked yard, and her daughter’s immaculate bonneted friend. Her honed prairie senses told her loud and clear that there was something fishy going on, but those same senses urged her not to dwell on what that might be. To her and her forefathers’ eternal credit she didn’t come down on Doris for messing up the yard. She just said, ‘When I was saying about you living out here, I didn’t mean you could make it look like your room, eh. Dinner’s ready.’

The whole episode makes sense once you know that Doris went on to struggle with piles all her adult life. She even had a couple operations.

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Obviously she didn’t get tired of it, but she got careful pretty quick. Although Juno’s life remained charmed in every low-level kind of way, it seemed that whenever she tried to do an act of Magic that blatantly went against nature, things would go slightly but crucially wrong. The day after Halloween she wound up with a whole lot of wood pulp on her head when she spontaneously tried to recreate the flowing green locks of a mermaid in a comic strip. She was too shocked to do anything else fancy and the stuff came off quite easy, so she flushed it down the toilet before collapsing in tears, because of course she was now bald. By the time grandma came back in from the yard, though, stubbles were already poking through Juno’s scalp. Grandma still about dropped. No sensible word was to be had out of Juno. She kept on sobbing that she’d Magicked her hair away by mistake. She couldn’t get herself to reveal the part involving the nasty wood pulp her angelic curls had become.

‘Y’know, Bernard,’ said grandma that night after she’d put the finishing touches to a bonnet, made sure she locked her scissors away this time, and mopped the flooded bathroom for the second time in as many hours, ‘I reckon that’s the witch craze definitely over.’

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Juno spent the whole rest of the day scrutinizing every witch she met on the street. She even told a couple that she’d made her dad’s mug fly out the window. The first one, who looked Juno right in the eye as they spoke, said what a smart thing that was and how very much she’d like to be as smart and pretty as Juno. The second one was Juno’s classmate Esther. Her costume’s hooked nose came with bushy eyebrows that hung halfway over her chubby cheeks and that she could barely squint past. Esther’s vision thus obscured, Juno was surprised to hear that making mugs fly was nothing and that Esther had earlier turned her house into a giant toad. Juno’s group had just done Esther’s street, and the only slimy thing about the house had been Esther’s sophomore brother passing out the treats. But somehow Juno would’ve known anyway that she was the only real witch around.

All in all that day was more of an education for Juno than her whole first term at school. She’d learned not only that she could do Magic, sort of (which she’d confirmed by giving Esther a croaky voice when trying to turn her into a toad for telling lies), but also that she could tell, for sure, whether somebody else had Magic in them or not.

For grandma and pop that particular Halloween was less enlightening. ‘Oh, quit rummaging and use another mug, Bernard,’ said grandma just before she turned in. ‘She’ll tell us soon enough where she’s hidden it. She’ll be tired being a witch tomorrow.’

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Now grandma and pop weren’t bookish. Bedtime stories hadn’t figured in Juno’s life. Pop, whose name was Bernard, did love to act out puppet shows for his only child, with glove puppets grandma made. But there were no dragons or captive princesses in his tales. The main character was always a dark little boy. His puppet wore a lock of pop’s hair in a towering cowlick. He generally came from far away in a perilous journey, mostly on a ship. Sometimes he was an orphan, sometimes he had to leave his sick mother, dirt-poor father and only surviving brother, but he always went west and had to cross a whole continent to find his piece of happiness by the shore of a new ocean. These were the kind of fairy tales Bernard loved and believed in.

Even so Juno had obviously come across the idea of witches and stuff. She’d taken no notice, like a bird takes no notice that it’s way up there in the sky, I guess. But that Halloween the world was out of kilter, and when grandma put a moon- and star-encrusted pointy hat on her little girl’s head, something stirred.

‘What’s a witch exactly, mommy?’ asked Juno.

‘Why, a witch, sweetie, is a lady in fairy tales who does Magic,’ replied grandma.

‘What’s Magic exactly?’ enquired Juno, puzzled by her matching moon- and star-encrusted broom. Nobody’d ever dreamed of asking her even to pick up a dumped toy, never mind sweep the house.

‘It’s… it’s when people in a fairy tale can make anything happen they like, even things that aren’t normally possible and that other folks can’t do, like… like turning a teacup into a bird. It only happens in fairy tales, though.’ Grandma’s last sentence was muffled since she’d gone to answer the doorbell.

There was a chorus of ‘Trick or treeeeat?’ from the porch as Juno thoughtfully opened the kitchen window and watched her dad’s favourite coffee mug fly away. It wasn’t a bird exactly, but it definitely had wings.

‘I’m a witch, mommy,’ Juno informed grandma on her return.

‘Oh, and what a darling one!’ replied grandma.

And that settled that.

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Mom’s parents were as near to normal as you can probably get. My number one treat as a kid used to be to go stay at their house. They lived in Hastings-Sunrise, just outside Vancouver. Front lawns tiny but combed, weatherboard always touched up, that kind of neighbourhood. Pop ran a small garage, grandma was a housewife. Adorable people. And then they had this daughter. Juno. But I guess they did give her an ominous name. I still haven’t figured out where she got the Magic from. There’s some Inuk on grandma’s side and pop came from Hungary as a boy. But for reasons that will become clear I’m not keen on delving into this kind of thing.

From an early age Juno had a way with people. This is probably the reason why nobody noticed something was up with her before she did. Everything always went exactly her way, so she was never obliged to actually do anything. Even when she first started school.  She was hailed as an all-round prodigy. And nobody could help adoring her, with her perfect blonde curls and little doll face and smile that could charm the leaves off the trees in high summer. Everything was so easy. Too easy.

One sunny fall afternoon when they were both five years old, Juno and her best friend Doris ran across some open ground towards the creek at the back of Doris’s house. It wasn’t a race. If it had been, Doris would’ve arrived at the creek’s bank at least a half minute after Juno. As things were, they slid down it together. Juno landed on the only sandy patch in sight. Doris hit a rock that tore a gash the whole length of her arm. As well as about deafened, Juno was stunned. She couldn’t believe that anybody could be so stupid, and said so to Doris’s mom back at the house. Doris’s mom was the product of generations of solid Canuck farming stock without a metaphysical bone in her body. Over Doris’s howling she explained the concept of accidents to Juno. She said that sometimes stuff happened to folks that they hadn’t planned or foreseen and that they could do nothing about, because no person could control everything. These things just happened, she said. No use crying over spilt milk.

While walking home in the twilight shortly afterwards Juno felt for the first time in her life that the world was out of kilter.

By one of those accidental coincidences Doris’s mom was so well up on the next day was Halloween. In her short trick-or-treating career Juno had already been a pumpkin, a ghost and a cat. Ever the model mother, grandma had made her yet another surprise costume that year. (Doris’s mom on the other hand did her forefathers proud by turning misfortune to her advantage and, after bandaging up the rest of her daughter as well, giving Hastings-Sunrise its finest ever mummy.)

 

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Laurel Canyon Fantasy

Laurel Canyon TextL.A., mid-1960s: Like many young people, Juno has come to California in search of rock ’n’ roll and herself. Unlike anyone else she knows, though, Juno is a witch. Surrounded by beautiful, talented new friends, she soon starts using her magic powers to win love and respect. Band members are pitted against each other, fancy guitar solos play themselves, folks find that they can’t help messing up everything from romance to crowd control… But, as Juno was told on the day she came of magic age back in Canada, there is a price to pay for altering the course of things. Particularly, it turns out, for almost ruining rock ‘n’ roll. How long until everything comes crashing down around her ears?

Peace n Love Grey Back