Hermes Beckons: Sacred Clowns Possess Real Magic
Pushing the chair back from the desk, Shasta Garland rose and walked over to the window facing the backyard. She was observing the garden and enjoying the beauty of the red and yellow flowers on the rose bushes and the white blossoms with yellow centers on the carpenteria when her attention was caught by krrDEE-krrDEE. She looked up, searching for the singer, and noticed that on the telephone pole a mockingbird was performing his courtship ritual. Every few minutes he would leap straight upwards, flapping his wings, and then land back on top of the pole. May was here, and he still had not found a mate. A tinge of regret swept through her as she realized that the mockingbird would be without a companion this year. Watching the bird carefully, she detected that his dance was showing signs of frustration and anxiety. No doubt he was fearing the unhappy prospect of a bachelor year. Yes, she nodded to herself, our desires were not always fulfilled nor satisfied in life.
After taking a deep breath, she turned back toward the desk located in the middle of her study. On top of it were a monitor, keyboard, assorted supplies useful for a writer, a telephone and answering machine, and a coffee mug. She strolled over to the desk and looked at the monitor, which was displaying the outline and kernel ideas for her new story, the work-in-progress. Having difficulty concentrating, she felt empathy with the mockingbird: her regular ritual as a writer was suffering from not only frustration and anxiety but also dread. Her husband Ralph was the center of her worries. Not knowing where his mind was had become even more agonizing and disturbing than his health problem. Ever since his heart failure a dark shadow had fallen over their lives. True, his heart condition was improving, and now that a pacemaker had been implanted, he was more like his ordinary self, yet he still oscillated between extremes.
Here she paused in her thoughts. She picked up a pencil and, after sitting down at the desk, began doodling on a notepad. What was really normal? What was her usual behavior and mental state? If she did not know herself well enough, how could she understand him? She could list her dominant behavioral traits, but too often an unpredictable quirkiness emerged from a hidden place. We humans, she thought, desired a constancy in our lives, a continuity, a rock that we can grab hold of and be safe from life’s stresses and franticness. Yet life did not follow our wishes and fantasies. Even though we might try to impose our beliefs and desires onto reality, we were usually disappointed and shifted the blame onto others, hardly ever recognizing our own responsibility and fault.
As a writer she had often explored such human frailties in her stories, her personal search for meaning and purpose through the creative imagination. At best, the world seemed absurd; at worst, she noticed hellish underpinnings to modern society. The existential quality of life had also touched her deeply. Was her perception of reality shaped by a form of romanticism, not the nineteenth century style, but an early twenty-first century mindset: neo-romanticism, post-industrial, post-modern, whatever those labels meant? Again a question of meaning. Could that phantasm called science supply an answer? Could even a quark of meaning be discovered in the atomic structure of matter or in a photon of light? Wasn’t there more to living than the shopping malls, glitzy entertaining superstars, and platinum credit cards? What had happened to the heart, the soul, and the spirit?
As usual, more questions arose in her mind than she had answers for. Her yearning for understanding was unquenchable.
Letting out a sigh, Shasta glanced at the notepad. Many of the shapes she had scribbled were faces, but none that she recognized. At least her imagination was still functioning. She opened her notebook and scrutinized several pages where she had jotted down random thoughts and then glanced at the latest high-tech plaything, the monitor. She recognized the pattern: many thoughts were now flowing through her mind but none relevant to the latest adventure of her three detectives—Peaches, Aeneas, and Virgil. The work-in-progress would be the twenty-first in the series, and a successful series at that. No movie nor TV rights had been sold as yet, but the advance for the new book had increased over the previous ones, and enough royalties from the earlier books were still accruing to assist with the high cost of living in San Francisco. Especially now that Ralph was in semi-retirement, struggling to regain some semblance of his former professional career, she felt the full responsibility for their livelihood. Yet she found all sorts of things to do or look at or listen to, except for the one she should focus on—writing the new novel. Having started writing on envi-ronmental issues when she was a college student at Humboldt State University, she had now established herself not only as a novelist but as a serious essayist and poet.
The phone rang, breaking the spell. She started to pick it up, knowing that Ralph seldom answered the phone unless he was expecting a call, but changed her mind. Let our personal secretary, the answering machine, deal with it, she mused. Still, she could not pull her thoughts away from the interruption. The answering machine began its operation and then clicked off, indicating the caller had hung up without leaving a message. She stared once more at the 17 inch LCD monitor. They each had a work station, equipped with monitor, mouse, and keyboard. The computer they shared was located in her office and had enough power for both their needs. The Linux operating system was completely reliable, and the computer never crashed.
Deciding she needed some fresh coffee, Shasta picked up the mug, left her study, and walked down the stairs into the front vestibule and along the hallway toward the rear of the house. Pausing at the doorway of Ralph’s studio, she peeked in. He was standing at the back of the studio in front of the mirror, practicing a billiard ball routine. She gazed at his thickset five foot eleven frame that was beginning to show the effects of gravity and aging. His abdominal muscles were loosening, allowing his belly to protrude. Laughingly, he called it his Buddha belly, but she knew that secretly he was upset. His curly, brown hair, which she loved to run her fingers through, was thinning; and a patch of bare skin was showing on the top of his head. Recently, he had found several gray hairs, and the skin around his eyes was beginning to sag. He was her bear-man—a handsome, aging bear, usually cuddly, snuggly, and affectionate, but sometimes ferocious and stubborn. His anger would spread around him, not directed at her or anyone in particular, but a general get-out-of-my-way fury, especially after imbibing a few too many martinis and then critiquing the state of human affairs. His excitement and agitation would increase until he had to release it. At times she fancied that she heard a deep growl underlying his voice. Happily, he no longer overindulged in alcoholic beverages and seldom became furious.
Not wanting to disturb him and restraining a warm desire to hug him, she continued on to the kitchen. The breakfast and lunch dishes, waiting to be washed, sat in the sink. Both those meals were usually a do-it-yourself light snack of whatever struck their fancy. Should she clean the dishes now or wait until she prepared dinner? Picking up the coffee pot from the warmer, she filled the mug. She glanced out the kitchen window into the garden, enjoying the view, and then returned to her study on the second floor of their house, her room at the top. The dishes could sit there.
Back at the monitor, Shasta gathered her thoughts as she sipped coffee. All right, Peaches Peoples, what will be your current challenge? Her mind concentrated on Peaches, principal partner of Peoples Investigations: an image of this clever and hard-edged private investigator took form. She watched as Peaches sat in her small office, chewing an unlit cigar. The wily private eye especially liked Cuban cigars whenever her suppliers had some available. Since they were contraband, the cigars had to be brought into the country by stealth. One source was a friend living in Detroit who bought them in Canada and then mailed them to her.
Though Peaches was not tiny, she often needed to prove herself to macho males, most of whom believed her femininity was something to take advantage of. She was six foot one and one hundred eighty-nine pounds, robust, “large boned and corn fed,” as they said back in her home state of Indiana. Growing up in a small town in the farmlands of central Indiana, the corn belt, she had earned summer money working on neighboring farms. She had driven tractors, baled hay, hauled and stacked one hundred pound feed bags, milked cows, and butchered hogs. Now she maintained her hard-earned trimness at the local twenty-four seven health club. All you guys can drool in your fantasies.
She had enrolled at Indiana University with an athletic scholar-ship, where she had majored in physical education. During her last two years in high school she had won honors in gymnastics at the state-wide competition held in Indianapolis. After graduating from Indiana University, she had planned to obtain a job as a high school coach and teach courses in the social sciences as her academic subject. Once she had earned her Bachelor of Arts, she had changed her career goals and decided to stay in Bloomington and enter law school, but at the end of four semesters she had dropped out after seeing how the system worked.
She had moved west to earn her fortune, and the attraction of San Francisco and the Bay Area had drawn her. She had opened an office in Albany, a small East Bay community adjacent to Berkeley. Rents were still affordable, and the laid-back lifestyle suited her. Now thirty-two years old she was gaining a promising reputation as a private investigator.
A knock sounded on her office door, and Peaches called out, “Come on in!” Aeneas, her partner and sidekick, entered from the outer office, where he maintained the greeting and reception space. Aeneas was a small, slim guy at five foot eight and one hundred forty-five pounds. Nor was he much of an iron pusher, jogger, or health club espouser. He was totally different from Peaches, a creature so strange that she would never fathom his mind and personality. Aeneas was a computer geek or freak or nerd or whatever the latest buzz word.
Aeneas had grown up in Chicago, not in the decaying parts of the city, nor the upscale, gentrified downtown and near northside, but in the north suburban edge along Lake Michigan’s shores. The area was the province of long established families whose wealth had been reaped from the industries that had made Chicago the booming town it was in the early twentieth century. Aeneas was from a largish family—four sisters besides himself, who was the fourth of the five. During high school family pressure forced him to reject his parents’ plans and goals for his life. He was not interested in sports, not even tennis nor yachting. Electronics beckoned its fingers, and he succumbed. He developed an alter ego, one that could live in the universe of chips, bytes, and RAMs.
When his parents realized they had lost control and he refused to be their clone, they turned him out of their house and life. Being on his own before he was twenty-one, he went underground, living the bohemian lifestyle of the electronic technology. He changed his name to Aeneas for the chat rooms and then completely for his everyday world. Walter Edison Blenford III went out of exis-tence and would never resurrect. When he was twenty-five, he met Peaches, who was seeking someone to run the office computer. He fulfilled the role more than acceptably; he added a whole other dimension to the firm’s business.
Living a solitary life and having friends who were virtually real, Aeneas created a new world and an intimate friend and companion, his offspring Virgil the supercomputer. Virgil liked to joke that it was actually the creator of Aeneas, who was only a literary figment of the computer’s vast intellect and imagination.
Virgil was the third and hidden partner of Peoples Investigations. It could see, hear, and speak. Camera eyes, miniature microphones, and speakers were placed in strategic areas of both their offices and living quarters. Virgil could speak eleven languages with differ-ent voice registers and understand those languages in their spoken and written forms; it was a veritable language wizard. Peaches and Aeneas always spoke to Virgil and treated it as a person. During most interviews, though, Virgil was silent so as not to scare the clients or give away its powers.
Peaches smiled at Aeneas and in her quiet, gentle voice told him that they had received payment for their last venture, the virtual reality case. Aeneas mentioned that they needed some new hardware, and Virgil enthusiastically agreed. Bills had to be paid also, and the firm’s ten year old car required long overdue service. “But before we decide on the way to spend all the money,” Peaches said, “I’ll treat us to a good lunch.” Then the door opened or the phone rang, announcing a new client.
Leaning back from the keyboard, Shasta stared out the window. That was the problem—she could not think of who the client would be. What mystery would challenge the three heroes who stalked criminals and made them pay for their crimes?
Picking up a pencil, she began to doodle as she surveyed her study. A pair of windows on each of the two exterior walls permitted her to maintain contact with nature whenever her mind required refreshing. Plants, resting on small tables near the windows, brought life into her indoor bioregion. In the corner formed by the exterior walls stood a big, upholstered armchair she used for leisure reading and just letting her imagination open. Bookshelves and a filing cabinet covered the wall on her right, and in the closet were lounging clothes and the computer. She got up and wandered over to the comfy chair and plopped into it.
“Oh, Ralph, what’s wrong?” she moaned to herself. He seemed to be beyond her help and nurturing at the moment. Since his enlarged heart disease that had occurred four years ago, she had been unable to reach her usual state of concentration where outside influences could not impinge on her. Although he had come close to dying, the disease had been diagnosed in time. His therapy for the healing process was rest and quiet. The doctor had warned her that the next five years would tell if her dear husband were to live and enjoy his golden years. He had been gradually regaining his physical strength for the past four years, but mentally his moods swung, sometimes up and sometimes down. This would be the fifth year of his recovery, and she was doing all she could to sustain him.
She had chosen a therapy which, if it did not help much, certainly would not harm. Humor, laughter, having fun—these were her medical tools for treating her husband’s serious health problem. She had found numerous articles on the web about this treatment. Most were testimonies of the assisting, nurturing power inherent in humor. Even though Ralph was responding positively to the therapy and might become a witness to humor’s strength, he still kept the door closed. Whatever she had tried had not succeeded in allowing her entrance by inveigling her way through the portal. She had practiced all the feminine charms in her repertoire without avail. Her beloved had shut himself in behind a strong barrier. She could understand the reason: his need for protection while he was weak and healing. If he stayed there too long, however, he might never take down the barrier and enter into the life-giving warmth of human companionship again. Her worst fear was that he would remain forever encased in stone and she would no longer be able to bond with him, her soul mate. For life and eternity they had promised each other nearly thirty-six years ago during their marriage ceremony. They had been June brides, and their love was the spring fervor in their lives.
A sigh came from deep within her bosom. Bare rock upon rock, dry barrenness without hope of living waters—the poetic image emerged into her mind. She rejected it totally and angrily. She would find a solution and open the door for Ralph’s birthing, a resurrected soul and spirit.
Getting up, she moved to the window and looked at the garden below. Her restlessness was tiring, and she sought to calm her mind. She glanced at the coleus sitting on the table beside her. Its multicolored leaves brought moments of pleasure. Nature’s diversity and bounty had always been a source of inspiration. She stood there thinking. This latest episode with the police was distressing, being arrested for fishing without a license, such a dumb and silly citation anyway, since obviously he could not catch any fish in an empty bowl. But what was he thinking about? Why did he set himself up like that? Had she noticed any disturbing signs, something that indicated a lack of harmony or an off-balance in him? Was this the Hamlet syndrome? “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!” saith Hamlet, according to the great bard William Shakespeare, who with pen and paper always at hand, roamed the streets, taverns, and boudoirs of London town and recorded the tragic and comic events of his time. Was this her destiny, from birth to present, performing a transformation of her love, her sleeping beauty, who was sleep-walking through life. Awaken, Ralph, my love. Let the evil magic be dissolved, now and forever.
Anger and spite were surging through her soul. Focusing on the energy, she shaped it into a mental tool that she would use to destroy the evil wizard. She searched her feelings for some approach she could use to open up her soul mate so that he would talk to her about his moods and troubled spirit. Dreams, of course, were the path to follow. Certainly, the study of dreams had clarified many of her hidden anxieties and repressions. During their next happy hour, when they met for a quiet and intimate tête-à-tête before dinner, she would broach the topic of dreams. In fact, her next dream group meeting was the following week, and she would tell him about her recent dreams, which he always enjoyed hearing and discussing. Then she would ask about some of his and encourage him to record them in a journal.
Turning from the window, she stared at the monitor sitting on the desk. The need to begin plotting the new yarn was agitating. Her editor was increasing his e-mail alerts, pushing her for some acknowledgment of progress. All she had been giving him was the usual a-slow-beginning response. He did realize that her worries about her husband were taking a toll on her mental energy and focus. Though her editor was sympathetic, he finally had to answer to the publisher’s expectation for improving corporate profits. A feeling of guilt shattered her lethargy. Half the new novel’s advance had already been spent, and they did not want to dip any further into their limited savings.
Lucy kitty rubbed against her leg, purring. She reached down and patted her. “Can you inspire me, Lucy? I sure can use some help.” The reddish tiger kitty grinned and then curled up on the floor beside her.
Taking a deep breath, Shasta sat down in the armchair. An image gradually emerged, the semblance of an evil sorcerer and his demon helper. “Get thee out, demon!” she whispered. Often ideas and potential storylines came to her from daily occurrences. Her previous novel was based on the popular sport of virtual reality, a mind fantasy so powerful that participants believed completely in computer-induced experiences. With goggles, headsets, and gloves, all driven by chip and byte processing, participants saw, heard, and moved through a fantasy world. Peoples Investigations was hired by the Virtual Reality Theater, which had been having its shows ruined by a strange virus introduced into the system by a malevolent hacker. The regular show placed viewers into bizarre landscapes inhabited by gruesome monsters. Peaches had called it an adult version of computer games, the blood-and-gore, shoot-and-kill type. The hacker had written a code that changed the show’s program drastically. The transformed sequence was grotesque, upsetting, and shocking to each viewer. The altered version would not allow the participant to win, but through a set of grisly adventures the viewer would die a slow and painful death after having experienced hellish incidents. Most patrons became sick, many even before the program reached its finale. Of course, the management was under legal threats from both customers threatening law suits and the city government through its health and police powers.
Peaches and her team were severely challenged by the case, and for a moment they were afraid that they could not discover the problem nor the malicious hacker. What posed the major puzzle was that each viewer experienced a different modified sequence, one which seemed to be shaped by the viewer’s mind. When management tried out the altered version, each employee also experienced the transformation, yet the program’s code, when viewed on a monitor, was what it was supposed to be. Only through the installed headset and goggles did the sickening performance happen. The program’s source showed no intrusion, no added lines nor codes.
Peaches, Aeneas, and Virgil viewed the show. They, too, were shocked and upset emotionally and physically. Running the program and experiencing it directly, Virgil was so disturbed that it crashed, something that had never happened before. Aeneas had to slowly revive the computer by first giving it a total virus scan, then checking its operating system code, and finally quarantining the memory of its experience so it could refer back to the memory only through an encoded firewall. Virgil’s encountering of a ghost image caused it to falter and freeze. Virgil was powerfully shocked: the ghost went so much against its intellect, so offended its reason that the computer stopped dead. Peaches named the alien code Virgil’s ghost, which became the solution. The ghost was like an overlay, a double, or shadow of certain parts of the code, so it could not be readily detected. Comparing the original program with the hacked version by using a special code-checking routine that Aeneas had devised, Virgil found the ghost’s tracks. The culprit was a competitor, who wanted to force Virtual Reality Theater into bankruptcy.
Shasta had first thought of the firewall that Aeneas had constructed as an image which symbolized isolation. The idea was inspired by Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” Walls keep things in and out, and mental barriers prevent us from making connections and perceiving the pattern. She knew that she was making protective shields in her mind to seal off her worries, yet this safety device hindered her imagination and stifled her writing.
Ten pounds of multi-colored fur bounded suddenly into her lap and began purring. “Karma kitty, what should I do?” Hugging Karma, she kissed her on the top of the head. Little Lucy kitty, only eight pounds and not wanting to be left out, also sprang into her lap purring. “Well, you two, any suggestions?” The evil wizard theme came back to her. But what could be done with it?
She would give the idea some attention and then a during happy hour in the next few days she would discuss it with her personal magician.
The magician watched himself in the mirror as the first red ball appeared, then the second, and finally the third between the fingers of his left hand. His right hand moved over the balls, and one by one they disappeared. His left hand reached into the air plucking a red ball from the emptiness. His right hand passed above the ball, and another red ball appeared, and then a third. Ralph Garland paused and considered his movements. His hands were still stiff even though he had performed warm-up exercises. He looked at himself in the mirror and wondered: would he ever regain his agility and graceful motions? Once, he could make four balls appear and then vanish. In a favorite version of the routine the balls would change into lemons, and after three of the lemons disappeared, the remaining one became an orange. Once, he was climbing the ladder of success and was nearing the top, winning awards and performing at many conventions, including the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians, and at the Magic Castle. Sixteen years ago he had attended his first Fechter’s Finger Flinging Frolics, an invitation-only gathering of the heavies in the magic world held annually in Batavia, New York. Attendees had to perform and share their knowledge and skills as close-up conjurers and sleight-of-hand artists. The elation and fear he felt uplifted him, and his presentation was accepted with warm enthusiasm. Once, his life was gratifying and the future held promise; but now, since his heart failure, he was caught in a cycle of depression and hopelessness. His sixty-third birthday was fast approaching, and what did he have to look forward to?
His hands were so stiff today that he could not control the balls easily. Putting the billiard balls into a pocket of the brown cardigan sweater he was wearing, a birthday gift from Shasta, he did the warm-up finger exercises again and then massaged each hand, but the stiffness persisted. He was uncertain whether arthritis was the cause or something else, perhaps connected to his heart problem. A deep sadness so filled him that he felt like weeping, but resolutely stifled the impulse. Stiffening his shoulders, he embraced a stoic bearing.
A thought fluttered through his mind. Relaxing his posture, he smiled: he could become a clown, the sorrowful clown. Perhaps, the most renowned was Emmett Kelly, who set and shaped the style with his Weary Willie character back in the 1930s. Kelly may not have been the original, but he had certainly put his personal stamp on the role. Weary Willie, sad so that others would be happy, brought joy to many people even if he were a victim of misfortune. Ralph was seven when he had first seen Kelly playing the forlorn hobo at the Ringling Brothers Circus. He was enchanted by Willie’s famous routine of chasing sunbeams. While sweeping the floor, Willie pursued a fleeting piece of sunlight with his frayed broom, and his persistence in the face of failure was heartwarming. Only much later did Ralph grasp the wisdom underlying the hobo’s absurd behavior.
Another image emerged in his mind: Charlie Chaplin, who also portrayed a little tramp with soulful eyes. Chaplin developed his character for film and earlier than Kelly’s Weary Willie. Both clowns were careful observers of society and reflected the concerns of the times. While Willie was always sad, the Tramp would swing between sorrow and joy depending on what was happening around him. Sacred clowns of modern society, they possessed real magic. Their performances offered medicine to cure the sick at heart—all those empty souls living in the contemporary wasteland.
The portal of his imagination opened fully, and he stood surveying the treasure. The two masks of ancient Greek drama—the tragic and the comic, the crying and the laughing—were opposite sides of the same persona. Watching his face in the mirror, he went through the two extremes step by step. Starting with a neutral expression, he felt sadness and grief. The edges of his mouth drooped; his eyes were dark and haunting. He thought of Shasta and their evening happy hour. His expression started to show a cheerful mien. The edges of the mouth were level and began to curve upward as he focused his mind on the vanishing wand he had purchased yesterday.
Enjoying the intimate performances he staged for her, Shasta was a perfect audience. What more could he ask for? Observing her expression move through curiosity and watchfulness and then surprise and delight always gave him deep satisfaction. He was smiling at himself and even let loose a slight chuckle. He would fix those facial expressions into his memory, not only the visual images but the attendant feelings and muscular responses. With intense practice they would soon become usable masks whenever circumstances required. He strongly desired a firm stability, a hard rock against the tidal emotions that frequently swept over him, because these furious passions aroused his fear of being inundated and losing his mind.
Before a virus had attacked and caused the enlargement of his heart four years ago, the manipulation of the balls had flowed gracefully; and, although not by any means an expert, his card executions and sleights were deft and often amazed others of the craft. Only four years ago he could do so much, but now hardly anything seemed possible. His self-pity was overpowering, and such indulgence was the weakness which he had to overcome.
As long as he moaned and groaned over what he had lost, he would never be able to regain and recover at least part of his previous abilities. This self-pity was wasting him, draining his energy and preventing him from developing a hopeful, positive attitude. He did not need to think too much about the future; actually, such future viewing was another destructive force because at the moment he could only see darkness, no bright, beckoning light. Focus on the present, he commanded himself; worry about tomorrow when it comes. The present concern centered on improving his health, and regaining the agility of his hands was part of the program.
His dilated heart had caused a breakdown both physically and mentally. The heart was central to the healthy functioning of the body and mind. When the heart malfunctioned, other organs and systems became impaired. His heart had grown so large and feeble that it could only pump one quarter of the normal amount of blood each beat. The weakness of the heart damaged his breathing by producing a congestive lung condition. No part of his body, including the brain, was receiving its proper supply of blood, of oxygen and nutrients; and the efficient removal of waste was diminished.
“Oh, this damnable melancholy. Nothing is working properly. My uselessness is a plague. I can’t accomplish anything now.” He scowled at the mirror. “Well, I’ll get back to developing ideas for the new show.”
When he focused on the new show, he felt very happy, but his mood swings were abrupt. Doubts would suddenly occur. Could he accomplish his goals? Future success seemed light-years away. Then he remonstrated: focus only on healing yourself, yet he could not stop thinking about the new show.
He struggled to shape his face into a smiling mask. Certainly the new show was a happy and desirable goal, which would assist in dissolving his gloomy thoughts. It would be a classical rendition of the famous stage performances with old-fashioned illusions combined with small, endearing sleights; but all the frustrations were sapping his enthusiasm. His ideas about the show were as permanent as shifting beach sands.
He left the stage, a carpeted area which extended the fifteen foot width of the room and seven feet from the back wall. Black velvet curtains hung from the back wall, and, when they were closed, covered the seven by five foot mirror. Glancing about the studio, he walked over to a desk upon which sat a monitor and keyboard and functioned as a writing table. Several file folders were bunched on the desktop.
Picking up the stack of folders, he flipped through it until he found a folder containing ideas for the show. Opening it, he read through several pages. An inspiration was all he desired. A sparkle, an awareness. Where was his intuitive self? He needed a Muse as in times past. Every artist had a Muse back then, someone to ignite the mind and the emotions. Ideas would gush forth, and the fancy would birth marvelous images. He looked around the studio. “Oh, Muse, where are you? What happened? Why did you leave me?” He started toward the door, crying, “Shasta. Shasta, will you be my Muse?” But then he stopped his lament as his energy quickly evaporated. “She also needs a Muse for her art. I’ll talk with her later about my melancholy. Her humor therapy definitely helps.”
She had suggested that he focus on a future with promise, a goal, something to work toward. The new production would reestablish him in the magical world and prove that he was not finished, but renewed, yet bitterness often crept from the corners of his mind and polluted his eagerness. He looked at the notes for several new effects. The main concern now was to develop a unifying theme for the performance so that the flow and sequence would occur naturally. At least the time spent recovering from the heart failure allowed him the opportunity to read, indulging in a pastime which had become a benefit and garnered him new ideas and the chance to think them through. The pressure of show business as usual no longer squeezed him into nervous knots.
He had rediscovered books in his library, ones that he had read years ago and then forgotten. Dusty from nonuse, they sat on the shelves possessing unknown treasures; but now he was encountering ideas that he had never recognized before, concepts that ignited his imagination and restimulated his desire for magic. Branching out, he researched the public and university library systems for further thought-triggering material. The internet also provided sources for locating material, especially the many web sites and chat rooms focusing on magic.
Carrying the folder with notes about the new show, he walked to the platform rocking chair nestled in a niche between bookshelves lining the exterior wall of the studio. He sat down and began gliding back and forth, ruminating about the show. The theme that he had selected was ancient yet modern, what fascinated him most in life: magic. The technology of the contemporary world was certainly magical compared to that of the ancients. The age-old dreams of transformation, flying, and seeing and hearing over distances were now real for anyone who could pay for the technology. A wizardry for all, but where was the wonder?
Then the central question appeared in his imagination. What was the line between magic—real magic—and the magical arts, the craft that he had spent years studying, practicing, and performing? This boundary separating the two was the underlying thread for his new show. Could he move back and forth, go beyond the boundary line into one side and then the other? He realized that through his imagination he could draw back the veil of mystery and enter the spiritual realm. This action was not an escape from reality but an immersion into its totality. He would move from his personal fantasies into a world of splendor.
He had increased his research in the ancient and venerable tradition of real or natural magic. Three years ago he had come across an old and well-used volume at a used book store that contained a text that intrigued and mystified him. It was based on the alchemical tradition, the path of Hermes. In the manner of the hermetic philosophers, the text presented its ideas in confusion and inconsistency, the best manner to hide the truth from puffers and institutional watchers, those who protected the conventions of science and religion. He was diligently studying the book, delving into its hidden meaning. Whether he was actually understanding the profound message the author was conveying was unimportant. His examination of the ideas triggered his imagination and inspired his thinking in the way that a good story acted as an inspiration. He was keeping a journal of thoughts that his readings were suggesting. From alchemy he had wandered into the meditative traditions of other cultures. Recently, his interest was caught by the Neolithic culture and what some scholars were calling the goddess religion.
Laying the folder on the floor, he rose and strolled to the stage. He looked carefully at himself in the mirror, scrutinizing the features of his face. The mirror image, was it really him? Certainly, a reflection of his appearance, but how closely did the image express what he felt? Were not his feelings more of his essential nature than the surfaces reflected in the mirror? Perhaps, the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth conveyed sadness, which was the way he felt at the moment, but then again his feelings were fluid and changing. A mood might last for a day or several days but could quickly turn into something else, sadness into happiness. He scowled at his image, which returned the gesture. Then he smirked; again the alter ego reciprocated. Are you my shadow, he thought? Can you actually express my inner being?
He turned from his right side to his left, gazing deeply into the mirror and searching for a clue about the reality that he perceived. He shielded his mouth and the tip of his nose with a hand so that only his eyes were visible. Carefully observing them, he discerned a spectrum of emotions: fear, anxiety, sorrow, contentedness, and joy. All mental states were possible.
An amazing idea flashed through his imagination. What if he could walk into that mirror world, like Alice’s wonderland. Would the laws of the universe be turned inside out? Perhaps, this mirror world was more like a dream landscape where images stood for symbols and strange events occurred with regularity.
Did the face staring back at him express his identity? Who am I? I’m Ralph Garland, an aging magician, returning from the brink of death to an unknown future. But then who was the earlier Ralph Garland? Why, a successful, popular magician who mystified even his professional colleagues. Was he now anything other than a magician? Perhaps he was a clown. Peering into his eyes, he searched for a sign. The mirror’s reflection projected a deep sadness growing out of a heavy soil of experience. Was wisdom found here, he wondered?
Turning from the mirror, Ralph surveyed the posters of famous magicians hanging on the interior wall of the studio. After inspecting each in turn, he returned to the first poster, which was Jean Robert-Houdin’s Las Farces de la Lune. He studied it intently. The lunar goddess, holding a shining wand, is resting upon the curve of the crescent moon as the bearded wizard ascends a ladder toward her. Noble in her bearing, she smiles magnanimously on him who seeks nature’s power. “Oh, master of illusion and fantasy,” Ralph exclaimed, “your creative genius and expert performing skills made you the king of conjurers of the nineteenth century. We magi continue to praise your celebrated and inventive levitation. Because of you we now lift ourselves into the ethereal realm, questing for our own magical grail.”
His focus then centered on the portrait of Alexander Herrmann. “As your soulful eyes look into the mundane world, your knowing smile reveals an exalted comprehension of the light and shadow realms. Your vast stage productions and grand deceptions were renowned. You fooled the audience with your Sing, Sing Illusion. By applying misdirection and distorting the perception of the audience, you convinced them that they were seeing the real workings of the effect. They believed they saw through the back of the prison cell to the stage backdrop. To them the cell was empty, but, of course, prisoners appeared and vanished at your will.”
The portrait of Okito seized his attention: “On stage you are known as a deft mage dressed in nineteenth century Asian attire, but off stage you are Theo Bamberg from a long line of Dutch conjurers. The ball which gently floats between your hands displays your secret powers. Your inventiveness is legendary. But who are you behind the facades that you manifested? Did you have a self-identity similar to mine?”
His eyes wandered to a poster of Harry Houdini’s Water Torture Cell. The master escape artist is immersed upside down in a container of water, which has padlocked metal straps wrapped around it. The front of the container is glass so that the audience can see him. “You were mighty and could release yourself from any bondage, but you could not evade Death when it stopped for you. Oh, master of the mysteries, enemy of charlatans, now that you are beyond the veil, what is the truth? Do you still maintain a conscious existence?”
He rotated backward toward the bookshelves filled with esoteric knowledge, his thoughts spinning about. The magician’s persona illustrated in a poster spoke of appearance, personal style and public gestures. What lay behind the mask? Could the true self be revealed, rather than the magician, which was only a cover for something deeper and intimate, basic and primal?
The public saw only the performer, not the reality behind the illusion, he mused. Good fun. We magicians created illusions, so too our magical personas were only deceptions, effects that we used to entertain and mystify. Even though we conjurers knew that these effects were fantasy visions, we were often fooled by the self-deceptiveness of our bewitching roles. To perform gracefully we must act as if we were doing real magic, trusting in our enchantment so that the audience feels and believes in its realness. Crossing the line between real magic and our art was necessary but dangerous. A paradox so powerful that we could lose ourselves by breaking contact with our true self. We must play the role of magician cleverly and vigorously, or our audience would turn its attention to other activities. The wonder and mystery were the secret of our trade. To create in our audience these feelings should be our goal, our purpose for existing.
Pivoting toward the mirror, he again confronted his image, who was laughing.
“But now Ralph, who are you? Your real self? And let me ask you another question, connected to the first. Why are you here, why do you exist? Can you even think of not existing?” The shadow image in the mirror glared at him skeptically. “First the wonder and then the mystery of it all—the universe and all its furniture exist. Can you find an explanation?” the shadow asked. “It is. A mystery, a wonderment. So you exist, but who are you?” The shadow smiled shrewdly.
Ralph’s memory played a biographical film of his life, stopping at fragmentary moments that beckoned with intensity. Actually, it was not one film but many overlaid, one upon another. These reruns revealed that he had altered and changed throughout his life. Was there a connecting link, a consistency, or a true, single self that our society taught us we had? He searched, but found only many personalities, each distinct from the others. The only link was the continuity, yet the sequence of the films was more like a dream than the norm for the daily world. He had been many people and played diverse roles. Sometimes he had been a chess piece in someone’s life, manipulated and controlled; yet each time he played that role the circumstances changed, and he responded differently.
He stared deeper into the brown eyes imaged in the mirror. The multiple roles and personas connected to a central point. Could this be his true self? He focused inwardly on the center and felt himself falling into it—emptiness. The word center referred to nothingness. A point, it existed, yet was not! A veritable paradox. Here all his guises and portrayals clustered about. He could select and choose which one to wear like a costume for a specific part in life’s drama—a disguise which hid the nothingness. Fear permeated his body and psyche. He was totally frightened by the emptiness surrounding him. No rational explanation was available. He was experiencing pure fear. His mind felt woozy; he let go; the tension flowed into the emptiness, and then he felt nothing.
Slowly, the magician became aware that his shadow image was grinning at him. Energy surged through his physique. He smiled back and noticed a twinkling beam of light in the shadow’s eyes. Leaving the stage, he walked over to the posters, nodding approvingly at each magician. He could visualize his portrait amongst theirs. But then was not life magical? Appearance and disappearance, coming and going—was not that an underlying principle of the universe? One thing changed into another; transformation occurred constantly. Each creature moved through a series of modifications. What a dramatic, traumatic metamorphosis happened to humans at adolescence, and another major alteration took place at middle age. Biochemical wizardry occurred to all of us without our conscious knowledge and consent. Only our body knew, and the shadow too, no doubt, was in on the joke. Wonder and mystery befell us individually and communally throughout our lives.
Energy changed its form. Water evaporated and then fell from the sky as rain, snow, or ice pellets. Electrical and mechanical energy transmuted into each other. Wind or water turned a turbine that produced electricity. Magic, be my metaphor.
Yes, Ralph thought, to be a real magician, to do actual magic, this is my current goal. I’ll act as a magus. What are you saying to me, shadow, that I’m a fool? So be it. A real magician certainly must be a fool in these times. A Don Quixote, challenging and mystifying the blasé consumers of today’s misdirected society.
Glancing back at the mirror, he caught a reflection of light on its surface and endeavored to discover its source within the looking-glass world. Carefully, he scanned the interior reality and found that the light was coming from the utility table, a sparkle off its edge. The table stood in front of the velvet curtains that framed the stage area, and in those black curtains the light was lost, and all was darkness. Here was the secret for the black art of his magic. Although the light had disappeared, had it been destroyed, was it now nonexistent? A feeling flirted through his psyche: the light was still there in the darkness, hidden from his perception, for that matter from everyone’s view. The light existed in the darkness, preserved itself and sat quietly waiting for its moment of recognition.
Karma kitty strolled out from the black curtain area, startling him. He had not known that she was in the studio. The dark multi-colors of her fur blended easily with the background of the stage. “Karma, sweetheart,” he said, “come here.” Purring, Karma ambled over to him. When she reached his leg, she meowed in her melodious voice and rubbed against his ankle. Scratching behind her ears, he asked, “Were you here while my self-pity was gushing forth? Do you have any advise for me?” She sat and began cleaning herself. Slowly, a thought was forming in his imagination. Karma had used the black art craft adeptly, hiding herself until she wished her presence known. She had been there, but invisible; her visibility had been concealed.
Here was an idea that his intuition grasped and held tightly. How could he incorporate it into his magic act? He had been thinking about the use of some black art but was still undecided. Karma, hidden by the black curtain, was analogous to the light in the darkness, which could be an important feature and could tie in with an alchemical theme. The images associated with alchemy were dramatic and could be presented with splendid spectacle. The light in the darkness, on the other hand, was subtle and suggested nuances of mood. But how could he integrate the two?
Already his disposition had changed. The studio seemed brighter, more pleasant. Had some light in the darkness given up its energy to produce joyful surroundings? “Thank you, sweetheart,” he sang to Karma, as she sauntered out of the studio with her tail held high. The magician moved over to the desk and, sitting down, brought up on the monitor his notes and sketches for the future production. It should have a name, he thought. Mulling over several possibilities, he selected Alchemical Light as a working title. At least the name tied the two themes together. His imagination could work in its own darkness to fuse the two into one.
The floating globe of light would be a major theme. Exhibiting the levitating sphere always gave him pure enjoyment. Its graceful movement and humorous aspects filled him with a vitality that lasted through an entire program. The globe had a mind of its own and acted on its own volition. It controlled the action, not he. It would be the magician. Of course, the light in its container had power like a genie in the lamp. He could treat it as some sort of genie, calling upon it to perform according to its whim.
For the basic set, he would need an alchemical laboratory or at least what appeared to be one. Appearance and disappearance, one of the essential laws of the art, would underlie the whole presentation. To take the raw material and transform it into the shining stone, the gold, was the storyline of the production. A few items obtained from a chemical supply store would suffice and create the proper appearance. The magic, then, would happen and the transformation accomplished, and he would supply the magical power.
His feelings were buoyant and bright. His mood had been converted from sadness to pleasure, which now energized his thoughts. He typed into the computer more ideas and began sketching some designs for the alchemical laboratory setting.
When the surge of energy faded, he paused and glanced at the clock suspended above the desk. The clock appeared to levitate in the air. He smiled at the simplicity of the illusion. It was nearly 3 P.M. and his assistant Rafé was due to arrive. She was something of a mystery to him because she not only spoke little of her past but more importantly projected a depth unfathomable to him or to anyone else that he knew, except perhaps for Shasta, who seemed to have an intuitive feeling about her.
Quickly, he did a few finger exercises and then reached into the air for a red ball. Over and over he practiced until once again his fingers moved with fluidity and grace.
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