Sunday, 23 May 2010

the other continent

The thing they most remember about the magician, Silvestri the Magnificent, was his tulips. Gaudy yellow flowers, glossy and radiant, which always formed a part of his act. He could pull tulips, literally, out of thin air. He would hold out a hand, pulling back his neat, black sleeve to show there was nothing hidden there, revealing a crisp white shirt and, underneath, soft, pink skin, then he would say something under his breath – a spell, charm or incantation? – and, out of nowhere, a bunch of yellow tulips would appear.

One of his special tricks was to walk down into the audience and choose a woman, apparently at random. He would take her bag and wave his black and white wand over it, telling her he chose her because she was beautiful and that her beauty shone in the crowd like a candle burning in a paper lantern. People would laugh and she would smile, and maybe blush, and he would place her bag on her lap and wave both hands over it, then the bag would spring open and out of it would pour dozens of yellow tulips on green stems. The audience would applaud and the woman would gasp in amazement and the magician, Silvestri the Magnificent, would hold up his arms and bow deeply.

Of course, most believed the woman was a plant. She had been sitting in the audience from the beginning, her bag stuffed with tulips, waiting to be chosen. It was the only rational explanation. Some, though, believed it was real magic. But only a few. In the end, only the women knew. Only they knew what had been in the bag in the moments before Silvestri the Magnificent bent to pick it up. Only Silvestri and these women knew whether it was really magic or not.

At the end of his act, he would declare that he possessed an ancient, sacred spell, handed down through the generations, which enabled him to open a portal to another world. He could open this portal and send a member of the audience into that other world if he so desired. But it would require the desire of the chosen person also. Then he would walk down the aisle and he would take the hand of the woman whose bag he had filled with tulips earlier. He would take her onto the stage. The same woman; more evidence that she was a plant. And he would tell her to stand perfectly-still. He would wave his wand over her head. Would she like to visit that other world? he would ask. Would she like to leave this world behind and go to a world of mystery and wonder? Invariably she nodded and smiled shyly. He would turn to the audience and shout: ‘Behold!’ And, around the woman, a pale blue light would shimmer, like sun reflected on water, a kind of light-filled pale blue window, which engulfed and surrounded her. And, in an instant, she would appear to fall into the light and, equally instantaneously, the light would disappear. And the woman would vanish into nothingness.

There was always much wonder at this. And Silvestri the Magnificent would joke that he could make all the women in the room disappear like this, so the men had better watch out. People would laugh. And then he would clap his hands and, from his cupped palms, wings of golden, glowing light would fly upwards, like shining birds. And he would point. There, standing in the balcony, was the woman, a confetti of silvery light falling around her hair.

It was a trick, of course, but no-one knew how it was done. Everyone wondered how she had managed to get up onto the balcony with such speed. And how he had made her vanish before their very eyes. And, each night, they would fill the theatre with loud, cheery applause.

* * *

A strange coincidence: women were disappearing across the town. Women who didn’t come back from the shops, or who went out for a drive and never returned, or who went to visit a friend but never arrived, but didn’t come home either. Six of them, in all. All disappearing in a matter of two weeks.

Some of the men noted that Silvestri the Magnificent had been in town for two weeks. Reluctantly, the police agreed to interview him, as a person of interest. He sat in a small interview room and was asked what he knew about the women who had disappeared?

“You think I had something to do with it?” he asked, incredulously.

He wore a red carnation in the lapel of his black jacket. He had a black goatee beard and a fine, neat moustache. In another time he would be called ‘dashing.’

“You threaten to do such a thing in your act,” said the female officer.

Silvestri the Magnificent smiled.

“It’s just part of the show. To make people laugh. You don’t really think I can do magic do you?”

“How do you do it?” the other one asked, leaning forward, “how do you make the women disappear?”

“Oh, I can’t possibly tell you that. It’s a trade secret. A magician’s art relies upon mystery and secrecy.”

There was an air of superiority about him which annoyed the policeman.

“There are no secrets with us,” he said.

“My magic has been secret since the time of Merlin,” Silvestri remarked with a little smile, “no temporary authority can make me reveal such sacred truths.”

The female police officer smiled quietly.

They quizzed him about his whereabouts over the last month. They checked with police departments in other towns where he had been. They had hoped to find women had disappeared in the other places, but there were no such reports. They put him in a cell over night, but they couldn’t hold him any longer, and so they let him go the following morning. The young policewoman with dark hair took him back to his hotel.

Once there, she asked if she could see his room. Perhaps she hoped to find some crucial clue? He obliged. He had a room on the second floor. It was small room with a balcony overlooking the main street. In the corner was a tall and slim, black, enameled box. She walked up to it.

“What’s this?”

“A Japanese magical cabinet.”

“It’s very beautiful,” she said.

It was dark, shiny and polished. Engrained in the black shellac of paint were tiny yellow dots, little dips from a paintbrush, in the shape of small, yellow flowers. It was as if the cabinet were encrusted with pollen. She touched the cabinet with her fingertips and let out a little surprised gasp. The wood thrummed, an ever-so-faint humming of energy, like a tiny electrical current. She looked at him.

“Can I see inside?”

“Most certainly.”

He opened up the door and she looked inside. She was disappointed. She had expected something exotic, but it was just an empty box, dark and unmysterious. It smelled faintly of spicy wood.

“See? No hidden bodies,” he smiled and she smiled as well.

* * *

Silvestri the Magnificent was doing thirteen shows over two and a half weeks. Word soon spread about how good he was and each show was quickly booked out. The town was a little on edge, worried about the disappearance of the women, and they were looking for something to distract them. They were never disappointed, for his act changed all the time and, each night, he performed ever more wonderful tricks.

He always started with the usual ones. Tulips falling from thin air. The tulips in the woman’s bag. And he ended, as always, with the vanishing woman and her miraculous reappearance on the balcony minutes later. But, in between, were a variety of different acts.

One night, he made a tiger appear on the stage, fierce and fierily muscular, roaring with primitive, raw anger. As the bewildered animal leapt through the air at the magician, he waved his hands and the tiger vanished before their very eyes. Silvestri the Magnificent bowed to a sea of applause.

Another night, he told his audience to look up and they were astonished to see hot, boiling flames rippling along the ceiling. There were screams. The theatre was on fire! But, even as some leapt to their feet to flee, Silvestri the Magnificent turned the flames into sheets of water, which began falling towards the audience, only to vanish mere seconds before inundating the crowd with wetness.

Yet another night, he made a flock of brilliant green parrots appear in the air above the audience. They flew in a mad, iridescent panic, screeching noisily, until he made a square of sky-blue light appear in the ceiling, and the birds flew out, high up into the sky. With a whispered incantation, the hole closed and Silvestri the Magnificent bowed.

* * *

One night, as he was sitting drinking tea in his room, there was a knock on the door and, when he opened it, he was surprised to see the young policewoman who had been to his room before. She wasn’t in police uniform this time, but was wearing a simple cotton dress with leather shoes.

“I hope you don’t mind me coming? I wanted to ask you a question.”

He invited her in. He took a mini-bottle of champagne from the fridge and poured it into two glasses. He handed her one.

“What is it you would like to ask?”

She studied him carefully.

“I was wondering. How do you choose the women? The ones whose bags you fill with tulips? And then make disappear?”

He sat on the bed and smiled.

“Let me tell you a secret. What is your name?”

“Claire. Claire Waterford.”

“Let me tell you a secret, then, Claire Waterford.”

He sipped his wine, then said:

“Everyone, at the very core of their being, is lonely. To varying degrees, everyone yearns for something they can not have. They want to be someone they can not be. They have an emptiness which can not be filled. They ache. They cry.”

He paused, sipping more champagne, then put the glass on the table beside the bed. He looked at her.

“All I do, when I look for the woman of the night, is look for the most lonely woman there. The woman who, of everyone in the audience, would most want, even need, to see a glimpse of another world, where such loneliness is banished.”

“But, that’s just silly. How can you see loneliness?”

“Oh, to the experienced practitioner, loneliness shines from within like a candle burning inside a paper lantern.”

She looked at him as if trying to work out if he were having her on. Then she laughed.

“Okay. I understand. It’s all part of the act.”

He stood. He walked over to her. He very gently brushed the side of her face with his fingertips.

“Why did you come here?” he asked.

He looked into her eyes and she was a little afraid.

“I don’t know.”

“Let me tell you why,” he said softly, “you came here, Claire, because you are very lonely. You go home at night and you yearn for happiness but that part of you which needs happiness is just hollow and sad.”

He brushed the top of her mouth, just above her lip.

“You came here because you sensed I could take you to that other place. The place where happiness exists. That’s why you came, isn’t it?”

She didn’t answer at first, she just stood there, looking at him, but then she said: “It’s hypnotism, right? All your tricks are just hypnotism.”

He didn’t answer. He held her by her narrow hips. She should have pushed him away but, instead, she felt herself falling towards him. And he stopped her falling by putting his mouth on hers. A kiss so gentle it almost wasn’t a kiss, but it was the loveliest kiss she’d ever experienced, and she was suddenly filled with the most wonderful, warming desire. He was right. She was terribly unhappy and had been for some time but, here, in this room, she could feel the unhappiness fall from her like a discarded gown, and she was almost overwhelmed by it.

It wasn’t long before she was naked and he was caressing her deliciously, kissing her body, stroking her skin. He told her that her nipples were like rosebuds and wet them with the touch of his mouth. Her neck was like soft silk and he made a necklace of tiny kisses in a slow circle around her delicate throat. He held her by her boyish hips and he tugged her gently towards him, kissing her shoulders and arms. She wanted to surrender to his embraces, to be swallowed-up by the hungry feelings she felt inside.

But then there was a loud, urgent knocking on the door and a male voice demanding to be let in. She looked at him with a startled, scared expression.

“My boyfriend,” she said.

He nodded. He scooped up her clothes and opened the Japanese Magical Cabinet. He threw them in.

“Hide in here,’ he said.

Afraid, she stepped into the cabinet, and he closed the door. She stood in the darkness, the woody, spicy darkness, naked, but not cold. The wood seemed to emanate a kind of gentle heat which warmed her. She could hear her boyfriend on the other side of the door, demanding to know where she was. Silvestri the Magnificent pleaded ignorance but her boyfriend was insistent. Then he demanded to know what was in the box. Let me show you, said Silvestri. She shivered, not with cold, but fear. She slid down to the floor of the cabinet, feeling wood touch bare skin, and she held onto herself, closing her eyes, waiting for the door to open.

* * *

He opened the cabinet. The boyfriend looked inside. It was empty.

“See,” Silvestri the Magnificent said with a smile, “there’s nothing there.”

* * *

Claire was the seventh woman to disappear. She was a cop, so the police investigated with even more enthusiasm than normal. They arrested Silvestri the Magnificent. The person at the hotel reception swore he had seen Claire Waterford going up to Silvestri’s room. The boyfriend said he believed she had visited him, though he had no proof and he had to admit that he hadn’t found her there and, if she had been there, there was no way out other than back past the reception. They interrogated Silvestri the Magnificent for hours but he remained perfectly-calm. Whenever they asked him where Claire Waterford was, he answered truthfully: “I have no idea.”

When they finally let him go, he turned at the door and said to them: “Let me tell you this. All of the women who have disappeared were very unhappy. They all wanted to go. Where ever they went, they went because they wanted to go.”

They told him to get out. To leave town and never return.

* * *

The final three shows were cancelled. Word got around that Silvestri the Magnificent was leaving town. Some of the men gathered in the pub to discuss what they were going to do about it. The men whose girlfriends and wives had disappeared favoured taking things into their own hands. Someone came in and said he had been seen at the train station with a strange black box. The men downed their drinks and headed off after him.

They found him standing beside his lustrous black cabinet. They rushed him. He was held roughly by his arms. He had a large, black leather bag on the floor beside him. They emptied it and assorted items – wand, clothes, balls, playing cards, plastic crocuses, beads, silk handkerchiefs, a tarot deck - fell out onto the station.

“Where are the women?” one man asked angrily.

“I have no idea.”

He was slapped.

“We’re not mucking about. We want to know where they are.”

He didn’t answer. How could he tell them what he did not know?

They opened his cabinet and found it empty. They asked him over and over again but he just kept reiterating that he didn’t know where the women were. Eventually, frustrated, one of them threatened him with murder.

“If you don’t tell us where the women are, we’ll put you in your precious black box and throw you in the river.”

They waited, but he had no answer. So they tied his hands with his white scarf and dragged him up the road. Four of the men carried the cabinet, which was surprisingly light. When they reached the bridge which crossed the river, they put the box down.

“This is the moment of truth,” their leader told him, “you live or die. Tell us the truth.”

He looked at them calmly. Perhaps they were bluffing? Perhaps they were angry enough to do it? Either way, what could he tell them?

“The women left because they wanted to,” he said, “they are part of a great continent. Part of the great whole. But they ached inside because they didn’t know it, though they yearned for it.”

They looked at each other, perplexed. He said this in a calm, authoritative voice. His commanding manner infuriated the men. They bundled him into his cabinet and closed the door. With some difficulty, they pushed the cabinet up so that it hung precariously over the edge of the bridge. He lay inside, waiting, smelling warm, dark wood.

* * *

The cabinet toppled over the edge and fell, landing with a great, loud, hard splash in the river below. The men rushed to the edge, looking down. The cabinet floated for a while and they thought he might float away, but it soon filled with water and was sucked under the surface.

The men stood watching the bubbling water for a while then, because they were good men, who now regretted what they did, they went to the police station and told them what had happened.

An hour later, a rescue team stood on the edge of the river, looking at the dark water. A couple of the men pointed to where the cabinet lay. Divers went into the river. Word had spread and women from all over the town congregated on the banks of the river, many of them crying. The cabinet was pulled out of the river, water gushing from within. Everyone looked at it and a pall of heavy sadness hung over the crowd. No-one dared to open up the cabinet. A few camera flashes went off.

A policeman approached the cabinet. He had been at one of the shows a few nights earlier. He had spoken to the woman who had vanished on stage at that performance.

“Where did you go?” he had asked, smiling.

She had looked at him, stunned, silent. At last, she had said: “Somewhere wonderful.”

Some of the other police helped to turn the Japanese cabinet on its side, to let the water pour out. The policeman knelt down beside it, wetting his knees. He looked up at the anxious faces of the women all around him. He took a deep breath and opened the cabinet doors.

Everyone expected a body to fall out. Instead, from inside the darkness of the cabinet, tumbled dozens and dozens of buttery yellow tulips; a glorious, golden mess of them, bright and summery, falling out across the grass in a wonderful perfumed torrent. Everyone looked on in disbelieving, shocked silence.

Until, at last, the air was filled with the sound of clapping; all the women cheering and laughing, raising their hands towards the sky in jubilant, triumphant applause.