We Are Not Phoenixes

Edited by Danny Lore

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

March 2021

817 words — Reading time: around 4 minutes

Remember that they are people. Most of them will be just as awed by what you can do as all your other audiences. If they’ve invited you, then they want you here. Don’t treat them differently. The patients deserve magic, too.

The easiest opening trick of your life is Nothing Up My Sleeves. Show the audience that nothing is inside your left sleeve, and then that nothing is inside your right. Take a beat. Then make both sleeves spontaneously combust.

They loved it, didn’t they? It doesn’t matter if this feels old to you. It’s guaranteed that people will be interested in what you do next.

Many patients experience temperature differently than healthy people. It always amuses a patient when you play up feeling as cold or hot as they do, and then cast a spell to change the temperature of the room. This is bait to get some of the audience talking. They always ask how a pyromancer can make things cold. Start with small spells, like transferring heat between two glasses of water so that one boils and one freezes. The act eats up time and keeps everyone rapt.

Don’t expect the same enthusiastic feedback other audiences give you. Some patients lack facial control. Others will be noncommunicative or emotionally checked out. But know that most of them are enjoying your performance in their own way. Don’t add your anxieties to their space.

Anxiety can make you overextend yourself. Pace your tricks so that you don’t burn yourself out. Drink plenty of water, and check your thyroid regularly to make sure it isn’t swelling too much.

Ask the room if anyone wants to “do a trick” themselves. There’s always at least one taker. Let them wave their hands or dance as they like, and at the suitable moment, summon your finest fireworks. If a patient can only lift a hand, send the bolero of flame from their fingertips. If you restrict yourself to using orange flame for the first part of your act, then pulling out greens and violets here will make the participants feel like this really is their magic for a minute. That minute is worth the whole day.

Of all the traditional crowd-pleasing tricks, avoid unburning things. Don’t unburn a candle back to being full. Don’t burn a playing card and make it reappear later. We all love unburning objects with reverse pyromancy, but it can lead patients to think about reversing their own conditions. You don’t want that conversation.

Above all, stay away from the topic of phoenixes.

Sometimes one of the patients will be a fellow pyromancer. They’ll be significantly younger than most of the other patients, and you’ll recognize the scars where their thyroid was removed. They are always the most eager to have you help them perform a trick. It will be their last, and every time it’s a privilege to help them perform.

View these pyromancers like everyone else in hospice: someone who could use a better afternoon. It doesn’t matter that you’re going to be in their position sooner than later. What matters is that you’re bringing light today.

If a patient’s loved one tears up, jokingly blame it on your smoke. Your fire should be as smokeless as possible given the lung problems some patients have, but it’s a funny way to dispel tensions.

One in every dozen performances will inspire some loved one of a patient asking about phoenixes. It’s easy to spot them in advance, as they’re never just watching your magic. You can’t avoid talking to them, either. If they have to, they’ll follow you to your car.

Usually they’ll approach you when you’re on a break. This is better than them approaching when you’re near the patients, who don’t need the stress of hearing this conversation. It can be stressful enough to let the loved one down without dragging a patient into it.

Even with these loved ones, avoid talking about how your pyromancy itself is terminal. The chances are that they already know and don’t care. They’re just hoping at your expense. Bringing up how pyromancy shortens our lifespans is likely to upset you both. Neither of you need that right now.

Instead, remind the loved ones that everything human is limited, and this includes magic. The doctors and nurses know amazing medicine, but they can’t do everything. We pyromancers know fire, but we can’t unburn everything. Not even ourselves. We are not phoenixes.

On your way out, don’t say, “See you later,” or, “Stay strong,” or any generic encouragements. Patients in palliative care don’t need to be told to fight. Instead, keep stoking the positive vibes of the performance so they last after you leave. You’ll probably leave feeling upbeat because of how receptive they were to your intentions, even more than they were to your magic. Hold onto that feeling. You earned it, and they did too.

© 2021 John Wiswell

About the author

John Wiswell

John (@Wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all of its trees. His works have appeared in Nature Futures, Uncanny Magazine, and Daily Science Fiction. This story is dedicated to his late grandfather and to all the friends he can no longer visit.