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Basic Vanishing Act, Three Parts
If the magician closes his eyes, he can no longer see the ceiling. If the magician does not look at the ceiling, he can pretend that it is not there. And yet he knows, or a part of him knows, that it is still there.
He is hungry: five months has the city been under siege. Five months has he shuttered and barred his windows, five months has he scraped cobblestones for bread crusts, empty flour sacks, burnt dictionary pages – anything to burn, anything to eat. Once, a dead man with dozens of balloons tangled around his neck went drifting over the city with his heels brushing the rooftops, and the magician followed him over frozen rivers and along barren rows of shops. That was a lucky day. The man’s pockets were full of strange spoils: lightbulbs, eggs, chocolate, even a box of colored pencils.
It was, the magician thought later, flambuoyant for a suicide, not to mention generous. Being what he was, he had a deep appreciation for theatricality. The dead man’s coat thus became the two coats of the magician.
Back at the apartment, he revealed the many gifts over dinner. Presentation was key. His wife gasped at the eggs, and his daughter squealed when he plucked a set of nesting dolls from behind her ear. His daughter’s lips were the color of sea spray. His daughter had never been to the sea. The magician knows how old she was, but he does not know how old she must be now.
If the magician closes his eyes, he can no longer see the walls. If the magician cannot see the walls, he can pretend they are not there. In this way, he pretends that he is at home once more. Home is different depending what day it is. At times he is in the house where he was born, and everything smells of either apples or old books. At times it is his apartment in the city, and a pack of cards presses into his palm as his daughter watches his fingers intently.
But usually, it is behind the curtain at the theater. Everything smells of dust and wood polish and powder on opera singers’ noses. He was twenty on the first evening, and before the virtuoso violinist with hair the same color as her instrument appeared, he was required to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
The rabbit-conjuring deed was accomplished with ease, and the magician then reached up his tuxedo sleeve and revealed twenty-four white roses; tossed them in the air, sending twenty-three white doves flapping about the hall; caught the last rose in his teeth –
Exactly thirty seconds later, he was treated to a tirade by the ancient manager, who informed him that it was the action of a dissident, his going off-routine, that he ought to be turned in just for that. Exactly seven minutes later, the magician wiped the spittle not belonging to him from his thin lips and rested his head against the wall, which thrummed with thunderous applause that he had not inspired, and sat there with his throat twisted about his lungs.
A poet, on the evening before his execution, once said that the world is divided into two kinds of people: magicians and audience members. The audience members believe in magic, and thus are constantly amazed, and thus are constantly fooled. The magicians never believe in magic, but they wish even more ardently than the audience that it were real. The magician, needless to say, wished that magic were real. More accurately, he wished that the police had not found his father’s poetry; that they had not thrown him in jail; that the war had not started; that his mother had not died; and that he had not, at fifteen, been forced to flee to the city, adopting his mother’s maiden surname, performing stupid little conjuring tricks in assembly lines, making reconstructed engine parts vanish into his coveralls and reappear within an instant.
The magician had only two talents: finding things and appearing to do what he was not really doing. The first was a gift; the second was an art.
As it happens, the violinist also had two talents: playing her instrument of choice and understanding what people were trying to say. The first was an art; the second was a gift.
This is why, when the violinist, exiting the stage with rose petals in her hair, tripped over the magician’s long legs and her violin cracked and he said “sorry” several times in a stuttering sort of way, she forgave him and avoided looking at his eyes, which were wide open and red-rimmed. It is also why, when she joked that he must be a real wizard, he responded only with, “that’s dissident talk, you know.” And when she told him that she didn’t care, he smiled and finally looked at her and said, “neither do I.” That is not why they were married exactly five years later, but it is a reason.
One day during the siege, the magician paced the streets of what had once been the richer part of the city. If he closed his eyes, he could not see the ruins of the theater. The magician might have given over to sorrow for the stage he had stood on for literally thousands of nights. He might even have allowed himself the luxury of stupid impotent rage against those responsible. Yet he, like everyone else who had somehow survived, was too tired. He opened his eyes just in time to see a bunch of colored balloons bobbing over the river.
The magician does not remember what color his wife’s dress was the first evening he met her. He does not remember whom her favorite composer is. He does remember that all through the five months of siege, she shivered when he held her, which was often, and she coughed when they lit a fire, which was rarely, and she refused to go outside when he invited her, which was always. The streets were too empty, she said, which was true. He wouldn’t do anything stupid, he told her, which was false.
If the magician closes his eyes, he can no longer see the floor. He cannot see the drain, or the cracks in the concrete, or the ruddy smear at his feet. At least, he thinks when his eyes are open, he knows whose blood it is. But when the magician cannot see the floor, he can pretend it is not there, and the city spreads beneath him, and even bullets are not enough to break his bones.
“Listen to this!” his father crowed in the years between the magician’s birth and orphaning. What followed was sometimes Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Hugo, sometimes something his father himself had authored. Whatever it was, it was hard to tell, because his father read everything with the same bombastic pride, gesticulating, enunciating the hard consonants with a ferocious determination. The magician, the audience, would sit enthralled as chairs groaned under his father’s weight. Before the war, poetry was as valuable as stained glass. After the war, a poet was a dissident, and the son of a dissident was a dissident as well.
It was among the stacks of his father’s books that the magican taught himself how to lie. He vanished pebbles and bits of string for the girls at school; he conjured seashells and pencil stubs for his mother. Though he would not know it for years, would not know it until one frost-colored afternoon in a besieged city, he never did perfect how to make himself vanish.
He wonders what the world must have looked like to the dead man as the twine strings wrapped about his throat. He also wonders, of course, where the man acquired the balloons in the first place, as well as why his pockets were so full, and what his name was, and whether he had a family, and what awaits past death. But mostly he thinks about how beautiful the city must have looked, all that ash topped with all that snow, so much cleaner with only dozens left alive. He thinks that, if he must die, that is how he would like it to be, something colorful, something strange. Something that would make a single man’s childish applause echo through the empty streets; something that would make a little girl laugh for the first time in weeks.
That’s not what’s going to happen, of course. Tomorrow the sun will rise and blood will be spilt and the magician will close his eyes again. Tomorrow he will be hungry, and his wife will be hungry, and his daughter will be hungry, and yet he knows, or a part of him knows – why must he have been a magician? What is a magician? One stands on a stage slightly higher than the front-row seats, but it is not the center of the hall, and those in the balcony are still higher. Which one is the audience? Who lies to whom? Where is everyone?