Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Magician


Enrico waited in the shadows. There she was, smiling at some stranger, and that diamond ring sparkling bright on her finger. Her face was emaciated; she was old, withered, no longer his young lover, yet her hair still shone like coal under that brilliant night sky. I found you, he told her, stepping into the street light, I found you, my Medusa. Quite a trickster, aren’t you?
 

She did not quail under his gaze, as he thought she should have. She heard him inside her head, his voice cold as steel, throbbing in her mind after twenty long years.

I taught you to read minds, and you learnt well. Exceptionally well. He smiled. What made you betray me then?

“I did not want a life carved out of secrets, Rico. We both were far too young for something this dangerous.”

Aren’t we both magicians? Our breed thrives on secrets! We are both master and slave to concealment. That bitter and exact voice kept piercing her mind.

“I am a performer, an entertainer- not what you’d call a magician.”

Whom would I call a magician?

“None but you, I guess. How long has it been since you have felt something? How do you survive, Rico, mirroring what only others have felt? Or accomplished? Who reads your mind? What did you last experience?”

You still wear my ring, I see. 

After a moment’s hesitation, she gave him the ring and he put it inside his pocket. He had to perform tonight, the past would not bind him down, and it must not. He had half turned to leave, when he barely whispered: And a lock of your hair Medusa. That too, is rightfully mine.

***

I was working with a newspaper house in Singapore when I first met Enrico. He sat brooding in his dressing room post the show, waiting edgily for this interview to get over. He had kept all the lights off, but one, near his mirror. His face bore traces of make up, his eyes too dark and his lips, too red. “You try my patience boy”, were the first words he said. I had been through this many times, the instant dislike that people took to reporters, the cold, almost frosty, sneer. I dug my palms further into my pocket, managed an easy smile and said, “It won’t take more than five minutes, I promise.” The room was bare except for a battered old sofa, a wooden armchair and an antique desk with a mirror propped up against it.

I did not know why I, a greenhorn at the desk in the firm, was asked to interview him. Kim, my colleague, had warned that Enrico was, politely put, temperamental. He was known to have turned down every single request for an interview before this. It was nothing short of a miracle that for once, in his career, spanning over a decade, he had agreed. 

Enrico Varella, it was rumoured, had a heart in pieces, but the mind of a genius. Varella performed on stage as a magician. His profession was unusual, his passion almost demonic. He had supposedly started out as man who could have guessed with just a slight trepidation, the card you held in your hands without your having revealed it to him, and a few years later he ended as an obsessed, manipulative reader of minds- ruthless, cold and precise. He’d lovingly draw out one’s shameful, menacing secrets, his lips caressing each syllable, stretching them taut. That was all I had gathered about him before being asked to conduct this interview.

The producers of his shows labeled him a ‘psychic entertainer’, a performer who excelled in clairvoyance, memory feats and mind control. Enrico vehemently disagreed. He claimed, in the first five minutes of the discussion, that he was a ‘magician’ par excellence. He disregarded other stage illusionists. Escaping from chains, ropes, handcuffs and straitjackets was not proper magic, he felt, it was far too gimmicky- not subtle enough. He had advanced further into the territory of the mind, no longer dealing with the spectacle. This was magic, he felt, foraying into the indefinable, the unknown and the limitless: the human mind. There was nothing like commanding the mind, controlling it, and abusing it.

I saw him on stage that day. He moved like a gliding star, and his face with its unibrow and long crooked nose, shone like one. The packed hall was eerily silent; the audience felt both awed and threatened in his presence. Enrico knew that intimidation was power. His skills alarmed me. During the show he offered to read the minds of five spectators, he probed deep into their heads, and further into their souls, and further still, gleaning thoughts, words, images that should have never seen the light of day. That was one thing about Enrico, Kim said, he never knew where to stop. Neither did the volunteers. There was always that secret thrill of being challenged and exposed on stage. Humiliation for some was nectar for others.

“I don’t let people pry into my life, that’s my job.” He kept staring into my eyes. It took me a moment to realize that he was trying to read me, deciphering my body language. I was aware of the intense scrutiny and I let it pass. Varella kept sitting like a snake waiting to strike, alert and tense. His stance partly amused me. “You are the expert at reading minds here,” I told him, “what makes you so uneasy?”

Taken aback, he answered with ill-veiled contempt. “Uneasy? Next thing I know boy, you’d be writing in that newspaper of yours that Varella is a maestro on the stage and a nervous wreck off it. I know your breed, I know them too well. I don’t need this interview, you do. I get my audience, with or without your column. You see my point?”

I settled down and took out my recorder. I wanted to ask him why he insisted upon calling me ‘boy’ but resisted the urge. Here was a man who thought too much of himself, believing he could change the world. He was a marvel, no doubt, but his was a limited world; his skill priceless, but only on the stage.

“How old are you?” I asked him

“Forty-one.”

“So am I”, I smiled. 

I was lying, of course. I had just turned thirty one a week ago. And he caught that little lie. Enrico was an intelligent man and knew the purpose behind this little exchange. His eyes glittered, amused. Instead of becoming completely opaque, as I was afraid, he warmed up to me.

“Tell me, how did you discover magic?” I asked.

“When, you mean? Magic was always inside me, I grew up with it, I just never knew.”

“Alright, when?”

“When I realized that all those things I kept hearing weren’t always spoken out aloud. I was ten. The day before my birthday my mother bought a new bicycle for me. She would not give me the keys, she said, “Not until tomorrow Rico.” She had hidden the keys. I looked into her eyes, and what did I see? I saw a seashell keychain, with a key dangling from it, kept beneath her favourite vase. I was puzzled, you know? Puzzled because I was hearing and seeing two different things.”

“So, you say it is a natural gift, reading minds? There’s no illusion involved, it is all real?”

“I would say that it occupies this bizarre fringe, straddling both magic and psychology.”

“And the supernatural?”

The corner of his lips twitched. “I don’t talk to ghosts, if that is what you mean.”

“And this knowledge, being natural and intrinsic to you, cannot be imparted?”

His brow darkened. “One can learn.”

“Despite… limitations?”

“As always, there are exceptions. And I have met one myself.”

I looked at him, expecting him to continue. He stared at the desk, silently, kicking it lightly with his foot, time and again. After a few minutes he said, “I had a partner once. I had taught her, trained her. She left saying, this was not a field for honest folk, heh. I have run the show alone, ever since.”

“So, how did you start?”

“Like they all do, as a street magician.” He lit a cigarette and rubbed his eyes. “I am tired, you know? I’d rather do this interview tomorrow, or never at all.”

I ignored this comment, and said, “Where? Chinatown?”

He nodded. “Yes, the famous little ethnic belly of Singapore.” His voice grew metallic, almost flinty. “I grew up there. I started performing when I was sixteen. Entertaining tourists is easier than entertaining the locals, I must say. The tourists are ever so eager to applaud, to laugh, to appreciate. When you think of it, maybe they are simply trying to justify the reason they spent so much money to get to Singapore. There they are, buying gimmicky things like a mahjong set in jade, or tasting some bland, peculiar fare, doused with authentic Chinese herbs, clicking photos, dozens of them, hundreds of them, collecting souvenirs from sham curio shops. Sickening. Yet, I wore striped suits and held out cards for them.”

He stopped. “I should not be telling you this, eh? But how does it matter? I am a dark one, you know. And that is exactly why they come streaming into the hall when my shows are announced. If possible, they’d wear masks and come. Guilt, secrets, shame, horror- I trade in them, and the audience loves me.” When he grinned, his teeth shone like pearls. I knew he was trying to bully me, but intimidation was a skill he had practiced on stage- it did not work in this sad shabby dressing room. I smiled.

“Tell me about you first proper stage show”, I ventured.

He lit another cigarette, and turned his eyes away from me. “It was in December, there was a parade near the Boat Quay. I was paid fifty dollars to dress up like a gypsy, and read from a crystal ball.”

“A gypsy woman, you mean?” I asked incredulously. 

He smiled indulgently. “I had dark hair and dark eyes, and I was just a young boy, without a trace of any beard. They dressed me up in skirts and veils, painted my lips, stuck a peacock feather behind my ear. By the time they were done, you couldn’t guess. Yes, comic and unusual, yes.”

 The room felt less stifling, less shadowy- his sourness was slowly vanishing. Enrico’s eyes crinkled when he smiled and he leant forward to touch my knee. “You’d think I’d be embarrassed, eh? I am not, not at all. It was a magical night, it was. When I walked back home that night, my pockets were heavy and my head was buzzing. I did not lie to, or disappoint any of those people who came into my tent seeking help, or looking for amusement. I couldn’t tell them the future, but I knew their past, I knew their present- and for them, that was miraculous enough. I had found my destiny.” 

He drew open a drawer and took out a seashell keychain, an old peacock feather along with a grimy, yellow envelope containing, I suspected, fifty dollars. “Fond of my keepsakes”, he murmured, “my only weakness.” That film of aloofness, of being superhuman somehow, had disappeared entirely. 

He grinned and said, “Do you recognize how it feels to like to finally be on the right trail? I was going to be a magician, and I knew it.”

“You say you started twenty years ago or perhaps even more. But people have seen you on the stage only in the past ten years…”

“I was in jail.” 

The transition was abrupt. The voice, clipped, again. I looked at him, but Enrico was lost in his own bitter world. This was no longer just an interview for him, I realized. He reached out for his coat and took out a diamond ring from its pocket. He kept turning it over his palm, this way and that. For a moment it seemed that the room was nothing but darkness, while the diamond shone like a coagulated mass of sheer white light. “I gave in to temptation, once. I stole from a client. I was a skilled magician, but not so adept at burglary.” His gaunt cheeks broke into a mirthless smile. “I returned everything, but not this little precious ring. This I gave to her.” 

He looked at me, his eyes wild. “I paid for it too, you know? I paid for it with ten years of my life.” The grin grew ghastlier, the eyes, wilder. Enrico was at long last delving into his own tortuous mind, reading his own memories, no longer catering to strangers or fortifying himself against them. I was scared, terrified at the prospect of witnessing his moment of self discovery. 

I rose to leave, having perceived many a crack in that supposedly impenetrable veneer of his. He did not stop me. Did he even notice me? As I closed the door behind me, I saw him bending over that desk, replacing that odd assortment of items he had laid out before me. 

The next morning, while I walked towards my office, my views had slightly changed. For one, I thought, off the stage, Enrico was like a fish out of water. I was no longer scared stiff, but disgruntled. Magic, I felt, did not have any relevance in this mundane world of ours, and when you plucked mysterious creatures, like these magicians, out of that little shell of stars, and placed them in the real world, they began to lose their sheen. Up close, Enrico was sentimental, anxious and wary. I was prepared to type out a suitably modified version of the interview and be done with it. 

***

Enrico sat alone; running the lock of hair between his fingers, long after the journalist had left. His thoughts ran unhindered; slipping back time and again to the woman he had met that evening.

Whom would I call a magician? He had thundered inside her head.

She had not winced, not the slightest bit. “None but you, I guess. How long has it been since you have felt something? How do you survive, Rico, mirroring what only others have felt? Or accomplished? Who reads your mind? What did you last experience?”

He thought about the journalist. He could not remember either his face or his name. For once he had not meddled with a stranger’s head, or sifted through his thoughts, knowing all, experiencing nothing. The magic, he felt, was leaving him. He was tired; it had been a steep hike to the peak of success, of authority and influence. It was time to leave, and time to let go. He carefully placed the lock of hair beside the diamond ring, and shut the drawer. 

The show was over, once and for all. 

***


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