March 23, 2009KR OnlineFiction

weekend-readsThe Conjurer’s Repository

The conjurer doesn’t carry much. His tools are few, his finery reduced to the flimsy tunic on his back, his fortune nil. But there appears to be no limit to what the conjurer can call up, when called upon. Behold the conjurer: shaggy mane, ragged nails, wild and darting eyes. What’s that he carries in his . . . in his what? We were going to say hand, but can we be certain of what’s hidden in the folds of his wheeling sleeve, his fluttering cuff? Blink, and we see nothing of the conjurer, the living conjurer, as such, just flashing teeth, dashing manicure, and, amidst a bushy ring of beard and wig, two paper-white balls with black dots, dropping to the floor with a plop-plop, plop-plop, plop-ploploploplop. The tunic, too, collapses in a puddle. A child climbs up on the platform to poke the pile of rags with his hoop stick, and just when we think there’s nothing in there but horsehair, the cape, spun silk, rises again to man’s height, hooded, back turned upon us. Surely this has been another trick, a device of string and wire. When the child strikes the column of silk, his stick splinters, and the boy, clutching a smarting, empty fist, explodes in tears. Tunic slips to floor, revealing an obelisk of polished marble twice the child’s height. The child wails and tears the cape in rage. He rips, and the pillar begins to tip. The final seam proves hard to burst. The child tugs, and now the stone starts to rock. Before anyone can stop it, the stone collapses atop the angry child: a terrible shudder, an awful squawk, a cloud of bone-white dust . . . an interminable silence . . . and then, a far-off, rhythmic ticking. From behind the toppled slab, the cape, restored, begins to rise: one, three, five feet in height. It stops at six, a pillar of silk, and arms sprout from the sides. The tunic spins, and a hand throws back the hood to reveal bright, winking eyes, a flashing smile, a handsome, just-shaved face. Winking, the conjurer squats to give the stone a heave: nobody—no gore—beneath. Satisfied, the conjurer strikes a match, raises it to his mouth, and puckers as if sucking on a butt. But it’s his lips smoking. They burn orange, and the conjurer’s face turns ashen. From head to toe the tunic goes up in smoke. The match drops to the floor and sputters out. A distant figure is visible in the haze. You ascend the platform, and as the final wisps dissipate you recognize the figure approaching: yourself. It’s quiet. You step forward. The closer you approach, the larger you appear. You step back: smaller. There’s no one else, just a whiff of smoke, a slab of stone, and a pile of ash, so you set about entertaining yourself. You raise a hand and find you are holding out a feather. Delightful, but you already know it’s not enough. The sight of you holding out a feather is too much to bear. Something must come next, but what? The spectacle must progress. Or unravel. Stalling, you raise the feather above your head and do a few twirls. Not quite magisterial, your gesture, but the feather is: large, not so colorful, and yet intricately patterned. Probably belonged to a bird of prey, and the circle it spins above your head would seem sufficient to summon her, as if eagle or hawk might at that second swoop down from the shadows and snap up the rabbit sitting atop your skull, wrinkling his nose and wiggling his whiskers. Well, well, little fella, says a voice inside your head, and you tickle his foot with your feather. What feather? Open fingers with a flourish and show yourself an empty palm. You pinch the rabbit’s scruff and cradle him in both hands, trembling, quivering, shuddering, fluttering: not a rabbit at all, but a deck of cards, fifty-two laminated corner-cuts. You manipulate them with unbridled dexterity, barnstorming through the hairiest aerodynamics: double waterfall, kissing swans, vertical liftoff. Show yourself the top card: king of diamonds. Twirl it and the face morphs into a laughing joker. Sort and flip and in one deft maneuver you’ve got the queen of hearts in the palm of your hand. Throw her in the air, catch her in the slit between front teeth, and now she’s a spadey ace. Let that drop back into the cut, shuffle with a supersonic splat, fan out the entire deck, and they’re no longer numerals and royals but the alphabet, every character, lowercases and caps. Throw the pack in the air and watch the bright backs flutter down to land in a puddle of light—to land as light: a tight, lime spot, emanating from no visible source. You scratch your head, bristly as a broom. You scratch your broom. Oh well, time to pick up. The spot shrinks tighter as you sweep, and just as you’re about to swift the tidy pile into the pan (part of a set) you sneeze, scattering photons all over the floor. You start over at the edges, working in, careful not to track any phosphor on your shoe. But it’s the moon, glowing so full through where there was a roof, which distracts you from your task, for as you begin to mop up the spot, moon mirrors the missing edge with a partial eclipse. One more stroke and it becomes a half-moon. Another tentative whisk and it’s a waning crescent. Wait a second . . . . You scatter the shine and it’s gibbous again. What are you supposed to do? Leave this mess behind so the moon can shine? You wish you weren’t holding a broom, and then you’re not. It’s a hose, in fact, and if you’re not convinced, there’s an inch of water all over the floor and rising above your shoes. Hmm . . . . The moon shines up from the bottom of the pond. If you point the hose jet that way, the sky-moon, too, begins to ripple. Okay. You put down the nozzle and dive beneath the surface, coming up with the moon, cool and slippery, thin as a dinner plate. You hold it over your head and it drips, and so does the sky-high moon, dribbling pearls into your pool. The droplets spread like flapjack batter into more underwater moons, dozens of them, not counting the pancake in your hand, which, you discover, is becoming hot, too hot to hold, and so you let it drop, which causes the pond to lift you up. The soles of your shoes are barely wet as you rise inside the bright room, illumed by moons. In the sky the ocean shines. The walls have gone to where there is no room. And then there is no moon, no more orbs. Just light, bright, white all around. The ocean turns to tile, one immense, pallid plane, booming with deep-space reverb: Hello! . . . lo . . . lo . . . lo . . . . It must be time to go. No audience, no show, but—uh oh—here comes, like a locomotive, rolling from the cold valley below, where it left just seconds ago, the chorus of nevermores, the timpani of to-be’s. Close your mouth and the symphony is silent; open again, and the crash of mad melodies is all about you. Kettledrums resound my love! The chimes: once upon a time. Strings sing, have you, well have you, have you ever been a conjurer. RANDOM blurt the brass. RANNNNNNNN dumb da dumb dumb toot the woodwinds. Now it’s so loud your hole is frozen open, and the noise elbows its way into the other senses, overwhelming the stage with cacophony, a calliope of tonics and tom hits. Straining for breath in a sea of crescendos, your lips lock around a brass knob, and when you cock your head in puzzlement the knob turns and all volume diminishes to a little click, and you find your opening: a door back through your ringing medulla, dropping into a cool, dark silence like nothing you’ve never heard. Plummeting, your body colors orange, red, fuchsia in the throes of your greatest trick. You conjure night like a curtain, mystery like a knife, and all the black-purple world remembers your plunge into the azure of its winning ribbons. A child laughs, claps. A man coughs. Cards flutter to earth. But where is earth if not somewhere you’ve turned your back on, not forever, perhaps, but long enough to render it for the moment (a long one) inconsequential as a spent match?