Mrs. Bilbo, my first and best teacher, presided over grades one through five at Murphy Adventist School, a two-room A-frame that sat upon a hill, not far from a church whose members worshipped on the seventh day of the week, as God had commanded the Israelites, in Exodus 20, to do. Mrs. Bilbo had freckled arms and short, curly, strawberry blond hair. She kept a wadded Kleenex in the pocket of her calf-length skirt and left very little fruit on an apple core, eating down to the stem and seeds. The giant notecards upon which our memory verses appeared showcased her perfect handwriting, and whether she was standing at the chalkboard, using that four-pronged instrument to simultaneously draw musical staff lines, or sitting at her desk, grading our exams and Phonics worksheets, she exhibited the very best posture; as a rule, Mrs. Bilbo did not slouch, nor did she permit others in her presence to do so. I can’t remember anyone ever making fun of her name, and if any of us had read The Hobbit and made the connection between hers and the name of that book’s protagonist, it was never mentioned. Thanks to Mrs. Bilbo, my classmates and I learned how to say the pledge, fold the flag, write in cursive, memorize the 23rd Psalm, and identify the birds that arrived at our feeder, which stood outside the large window behind Mrs. Bilbo’s u-shaped desk: nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, goldfinches, and wrens. We also learned how to play “black magic,” a game we reserved for rainy days, or when Mrs. Bilbo deemed it too cold to go outside. I can’t remember if we played black magic on the day of the tornado warning, when low black clouds turned the morning dark as night, and the windows reflected a ghostly version of our classroom, but we might’ve. And I can’t remember how the game started, though I expect somebody got excited about having recess inside and said, “Can we play black magic?” a suggestion that enlivened the rest of us, because black magic represented the kind of activity children loved most: the attempt to unlock a mystery, and also to preserve it. Those who were smart enough to have solved the game’s central enigma took turns as guessers, exiting the classroom while the rest of us took turns to select, in secret, an object that the guesser would attempt to identify: an eraser, Misty Dawn’s moccasin, the zipper on the side pocket of Tommy’s shoe, the red barrette in Dorena’s hair, the zebra at the end of the illustrated alphabet that lived above our chalkboard. Once the secret thing had been selected, we summoned the guesser—for some reason, I always imagine this role being played Chris Brunner, a mischievous kid who surreptitiously shot other kids the bird and bragged about smoking rabbit tobacco—back into the room. Since Mrs. Bilbo was in charge of the game, she served as our interrogator, and began pointing to random objects, so as to present them to the guesser for his consideration. Was it that paper snowflake taped to the window? The guesser might tilt his head, might even shut his eyes, as if using his mind to see into the object, and thus verify whether or not it was the one we had chosen, but of course it wasn’t, since a. the actual rules of the game dictated that the chosen object could never be the first thing Mrs. Bilbo pointed to, and b. the unspoken rules dictated that our leader must take, if for no other reason than to increase suspense and thus dramatic tension, a circuitous route through a series of things we hadn’t selected to reach the actual thing we’d chosen. Well, Mrs. Bilbo might say, sashaying across the room, is it this blue math book? Not likely. Could it be this empty red milk carton? Hm, the guesser might say, tapping a finger on his pursed lips, No. Then is it Donnie’s blue erasable pen? Nah. The yellow chore wheel on the door to the utility closet? Nope. Was it this part of the wet vac—the black nozzle? Ha! No way. Was it Jolene’s pink dental appliance, sitting on a napkin atop her desk? Yes, the guesser said, and in fact it had been. How did the guesser know? Those of us who hadn’t unlocked the mystery begged someone—anyone—to reveal it to us, but nobody ever did, perhaps because knowing the secret of black magic granted to these knowers a kind of power, one that would be diminished were they to reveal it. It strikes me now as significant that we were allowed to play a game called “Black Magic,” since, as a Christian school, and especially as an Adventist one, we were taught to eschew anything that reverberated with the slightest suggestion of the supernatural; certain children, I knew, did not celebrate Halloween, and some, I think, did not celebrate Christmas, because the placing of a lighted tree in one’s house had its origins in the pagan world. There were a great many other things we could not do, like say, “gosh” or “gee,” because it they were euphemisms for “God,” and thus would constitute the taking of the Lord’s name in vain, nor could we say, “oh my goodness,” because we were sinners and couldn’t be said to truly have any goodness in us; our righteousness was as filthy rags. We could not listen to the Your Story Hour cassette titled “Footprints,” because it told a story with mature themes, which of course was the reason that Chris Brunner always tried to choose it. But we could play black magic, perhaps because it wasn’t magic at all. I don’t remember how I figured out the secret to black magic, if I raised my hand frantically—as those had who thought they had figured it out, scrambling towards the front of the classroom to whisper their hypothesis into an ear of Mrs. Bilbo, whose eyes darted back and forth while she listened, but eventually I did solve the mystery, and the game became fun in a different way: instead of being in the thrall of the unknown, I was a knower, a smug master who, with Mrs. Bilbo’s guidance, could dazzle the unenlightened with my superior brain. The sad thing, of course, was that once the mystery had been solved, there was no going back; I couldn’t return to that state of unknowing, nor could I experience the drama of wondering whether the guesser would succeed in choosing the correct object—or marvel at the how. I suspect that those of you who know the secret of the game understand what I mean, and if you don’t, perhaps you expect me to disclose it here. It would please me to say that, in order to remain true to the spirit of the game, I must remain silent, but the truth is, in describing the game, I have already revealed its secret, which, as always, is not hidden at all, but presents itself every time, in plain sight, for all who have eyes to see.
Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of short fiction—Gateway to Paradise (Persea, 2015) and Future Missionaries of America (MacAdam/Cage, 2009; Salt Publishing, 2010)—as well as a collection of essays—inscriptions for headstones (Outpost19, 2012). With David Shields, he co-edited FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012), and served as editor for The Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology of everyday invocations featuring the work of over 60 writers. He teaches at Virginia Tech.