The Magic Lantern by Zak Labiad (July 2022)
We were quite a happy family. My mother used to take us two boys, Frank and myself, on regular trips to the park. This was about a mile’s walk. Frank used to take his wooden horse on wheels, and I used to follow on these trips, sometimes in the winter in the old London fogs. Mother, in her elegant Edwardian dress, would lead the way.
On arriving home, father would be making dinner – that night it was sausages, while Frank and I regaled him with all the squirrels and birds we had spied that day.
After this, my father would sit smoking and we would talk amongst ourselves, before he rewarded us with a showing of magic lantern slides. The projector had a big chimney outlet, which belched forth paraffin smoke from the oil lamp inside the lantern – it was a great treat, and some of the colour slides could actually be animated, and we thoroughly enjoyed these evenings. Except for the last one, when everything changed…
My family were asleep in the living room after the showing of a green, exotic land; a world of waterfalls and emerald shrubbery; and fauns playing harps and flutes.
I was the only one awake, studying these images. I fancied what it would be like to live in this land if it were real, to breathe its fresh air and escape the London smog and my boorish prep school, when suddenly the image seemed to swallow me up. I cannot explain how it happened. I simply seemed to dip forwards, as easy as dipping one’s head into a pool of water. The chilly air of England changed to a tropical humidity, and the bright azure sky was open and expansive; one I had dreamed of. It sang with birdsong.
The next thing I knew, there came a rustling from behind some leaves and out sprang three pot-bellied fauns, the hair on their legs bristling, their horns and hooves sharpened into points, and their eyes gleaming with a wicked glint of gluttonous hunger.
‘Don’t eat me,’ I pleaded, for they had seized their swarthy hands on me. ‘Please!’
‘If not you,’ snarled the largest of the fauns, ‘who else?’
‘I… I know someone much tastier than me. Honest!’
I hardly had any conception of what I was saying, but I was aware that my mouth was moving fast, and the faces in front of me were sliding into grins of greedy rapture.
Then the leader of these beasts brought a foul, muddied hand to my throat.
‘If you are lying,’ it said to me, ‘my brothers and I shall trample you to death. We know where you live, in your city, for the device you have just used is a gateway into your world just as it is to mine. We shall know if you are lying to us, so be warned of that.’
By then, I was a jangling wreck. I could barely gulp, nodding before I was thrust forwards and in an instant found myself back in my living room, my family undisturbed.
Without giving myself much time to think – for I knew it could very well lead to a lapse of courage that would doom me as the dinner for these cloven-hooved men – I woke up Frank, put a finger to my lips and quietly led my younger sibling to the corner of the room.
‘What’s going on,’ he yawned. ‘Are we playing a game? Sleeping lions, is it?’
‘Sort of,’ I whispered, clocking the three fauns in the projection.
They looked perfectly still and harmless now. But they had revealed that they knew about the lantern, that it was a portal to another world. They had demonstrated that they were wiser beyond their appearance.
‘Follow me, Frank,’ I ended up saying, and then we tiptoed to the slide.
I knew the sudden swallowing of body and matter would begin again. And it did indeed take Frank and me back to the jungle, back to the pot-bellied fauns, who seized upon us the moment we landed. Like a rabbit caught in a trap, my young, bewildered brother made a fool of himself, gasping in their grip, not knowing what was what.
‘He’ll do,’ said the leader of the fauns, and his two accomplices giggled in agreement, both of them eying my brother, who at that age was endowed in puppy fat.
By then, I was crying. ‘I’m sorry, Frank.’ I wanted to fall to the ground and weep and beat the hot foreign earth.
Frank looked at me wide-eyed – the most confused he had been yet. ‘Sorry for what?’ he asked.
‘Come you!’ snarled one of the creatures.
The fauns then carried him into the undergrowth of vines and thorns of the jungle, where the leaves of the foliage trembled and danced, and a flute then began to sing and trill. The moments waiting for them felt like aeons, until the foliage suddenly parted and out came the fauns, along with my brother Frank, who was alive and well.
Thinking I had sent this young boy to a grisly death, I had been in such a terrible state, preparing to live whatever years I had in a crippling existence of guilt for my betrayal. But Frank had not been eaten. I embraced my little brother, who did not share the hug. I looked at him and noticed no expression, no feeling of relief at being free from the monsters, not even the fear he had exhibited upon landing in this strange world.
‘We have had our fill,’ burped the leader of these fauns. ‘Be gone!’
And upon his word, we were then sucked out of the world once more and returned to the dark, sleepy square of our living room.
Frank sat on the floor, a glassy look in his eye.
I left him alone whilst I turned off the picture, ending the light show. I took the slide out, crushed it with my hands, scrunched it with my shoes, and then sent the tiny shards out the window, until my hands were clean.
Frank was still the same. Still odd. Still blank.
‘They didn’t eat you,’ I whispered cautiously. ‘Why not? Why didn’t they?’
‘Oh, they did,’ said Frank, quietly. ‘They supped my flesh. They had their fill.’
Some instinct told me then that now would not be the time to press him for a better answer. We had both endured a very long and extraordinary night, one we would remember for the rest of our lives – and we did.
In all his life, which was short, troubled and plagued by ill health and little speech, my brother never did say what the fauns did to him, behind the leaves in the world of the magic lantern. In some ways, he died that day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zak Labiad is a 6ft6 curly-haired London-based writer, actor and film journalist (Filmdaze, Taste-of-Cinema, Madame Figaro Magazine). He has published flash fiction (Blinkpot 2021 EBook) and literary criticism (Wizards, Werewolves and Weird Engines 2018). He would jump for joy if you gave him a follow on Twitter and Instagram, and would happily follow back, for he believes there should be a lot more community in this world of creativity. Cheers!