Hermes Beckons: Melancholia Is One of the Muses
Sunrise was beautiful. The light, growing bright, slowly climbing above the horizon, refracted against the clouds manifesting a crimson patina. Sunrise was a time of renewal—a new day, a fresh day, a day unblemished, waiting to bring forth a rebirth. Shasta found that an hour or two after sunrise, depending on the weather, was a delightful time to garden. Her feelings were vigorous, and many an insight occurred as she immersed herself in the vibrant presence of life. Some flowers, like the ranuculus and the California poppy, opened only when the sun shone upon them and then, as evening approached, closed up for the darkness. The evening primrose was the opposite, opening only at night, although the flowers did not completely close on foggy days. She breathed deeply, smelling the sweet fragrance of the star jasmine, and surveyed the garden, which was designed into microclimate areas for specific plants—full sun, partial shade, and shady; dry, moderate watering, and regular watering. The garden contained a blending of native California and non-native plants suitable for San Francisco’s climate.
Shasta marveled at nature’s magic, the transformative power of plants using the sun’s energy to turn basic elements into carbohydrates; and photosynthesis required the wondrous chemical chlorophyll. Even the weeds, those plants she did not want in the garden, were part of nature’s design. Perhaps, if she understood their purpose, she might relent and keep them as members of her plant community. The concept of bioregions and the niche each living creature has had shaped her thinking many years ago. This and related concepts she had learned while earning her Bachelor of Science degree in environmental science at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. Her major was in environmental ethics, which had honed her perception and comprehension of human activity and its effect on nature.
The gardener took a short digging stick, made of steel with a wood handle, and, squatting on a stool, began digging up weeds. The oxalis was the biggest problem, although the plant had some benefits. During the winter rainy months it grew tall and green, covering the earth with color and preventing soil erosion from runoff, but regrettably it was too invasive, blocking out the young shoots and stems of other plants. The oxalis was certainly designed for survival. Each plant sent a main root deep into the earth. By the time the yellow flower appeared, the root could be four to six inches long. It re-seeded itself primarily by small bulbs. When she dug into the soil, she always looked for these bulbs because they had a tendency to fall deeper into the hole made by digging. A clever way to burrow into the soil and take root next winter and then surprise her with new growth.
She was preparing to revitalize a patch of earth with compost from the slug—a black, synthetic, dome-shaped structure which made compost out of garden cuttings and kitchen wastes. After clearing the area of weeds, she walked over to the slug, shoveled out a bucketful of compost, and then carried it back to the cleared earth.
Her procedure was to mix the compost into the soil gently. She grasped some soil with each hand, squeezing it and letting it pour out of her fingers. The renewed earth felt soft and crumbly. A sudden desire moved her to take off her gardening sandals. Standing, she rubbed her feet into the refreshed soil, squeezing bits of earth between her toes. So fresh, so sensuous.
Laughing, she thought of how so many Americans tortured their language and their minds by the emotional associations given to common, everyday words. Soil and dirt were prime examples. These two words literally referred to the earth, the part that was the basis for life, providing a foundation with nutrients for plants and small animal organisms; yet metaphorically the two words implied something bad, evil, and even at times sinful. This usage indicated the hidden attitude many had toward their source of life, their mother and provider and nurturer. Children were implored not to get dirty under threat of punishment. One’s character could become soiled by unapproved behavior. What is there about soil, dirt, and the earth itself that threatens these people, she wondered? An interesting philosophic question which she might drop into her current novel, and by the way, she needed to get busy working on it. The distractions had been too numerous. First, though, she would finish the morning weeding and water the plants. Then after a small snack, she would open her imagination and peek in on Peoples Investigations as Peaches and her friends got involved in a new adventure.
She had cast aside the worries about Ralph’s latest bizarre adventure, his fishing expedition. The other night he had told her that the incident had been premeditated, though not the arrest by the police officer. The artistic happening, which was what he saw it as, was helping him garner ideas for his future magic show, a vital purpose in his life. To regain his equilibrium and confidence, he needed to engage himself in building a magical production that would act as a form of therapy and offer an enchanting public performance. She immediately recognized the necessity for his goals and silently felt deeply encouraged. Outwardly, she praised the plans he was making. The moment was then suitable for mentioning dream time and the benefit of keeping a dream journal. Nodding, he laughed and remarked that he was hoping to describe a recent dream but was uncertain whether she would be interested. Sharing his laughter and noting his self-reproach, she asked about the dream, and a strange one it was.
“People are outside the front door,” he related, “which is more like the old one rather than our new door; in other words, the door is flimsy with a thin central panel. In the dream a crack runs down the middle of the door. It is night, and I am standing in the dark living room, peering into the vestibule and watching the door. An eerie light shines into the vestibule through the window overlooking the porch. The people are noisy and obviously trying to break into the house. They even talk about coming through the window. I am frightened, so I look for a weapon and grab a fireplace tool. I decide the best defense is to open the door and yell at them, brandishing my weapon to scare them off. I open the door and yell—actually making a real sound which wakes me up. You, still asleep, hear me and say, ‘Huh?’”
Together they discussed possible meanings of the dream. She suggested that if during their discussion he had an aha feeling, he should seriously consider the idea which had triggered the feeling because, no doubt, it was important enough to stimulate that aha emotion. He immediately remarked about the primal fear that was the underlying theme. Shasta pointed out that the house usually symbolized the dreamer’s body; in fact, any building did or even a vehicle. So the fear centered on outsiders, people and their influences, getting inside. The positive element was the fact that he opened the door on his own. Though it seemed he was forced into that situation, other alternatives existed. He could have hidden or waited until the house invaders had entered.
Ralph showed a quiet relief, acknowledging that a hidden area in his inner self had been disclosed and secret dread had been released. He realized now that the dream presented a healing ointment, and upon waking, he remembered, he had felt serene. When Shasta had muttered in her sleep, he had patted her hand, uttering his love.
The dream-sharing had a very nurturing influence on Ralph. Buoyant and enthusiastic, he laid out his ideas for the alchemical light act. Barriers melted, and the delightful companionship of earlier years re-kindled itself. A rejuvenated spirit of verve prevailed, reminding her of the exuberant times they had enjoyed during the first year they had known each other. They were living an artistic, bohemian life then. Ralph was establishing himself as a magician in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she was working as a copywriter and editor at an advertising company and taking courses in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University.
Her attention returned to the patch of soil she had been working on. Now revitalized, it was ready for planting. She decided to sow a bed of mixed flowers: canterbury bells, calendula, echinacea, and columbine. Planting the seeds would occur after she had prepared several more beds. Picking up the digger and stool, she moved over to the five foot high Japanese maple. Dutch iris, gladiolus, and daffodils snuggled around the maple’s perimeter. Sitting down on the stool, she began weeding. She smiled as she thought about a seed sprouting and gradually growing roots that spread through the soil. The underground process added energy and heat to the earth as the plant absorbed nutrients. Both obtained benefits.
The physical activity of digging and removing unwanted plants, the weeds, soothed her soul. The routine required no thought and yielded pure exertion. Her mind was quiet and open to her surroundings, yet during those moments images often sprouted in her imagination, as if her intuitive voice could now speak without hindrance. She peered at several weeds. As she started to dig up a dandelion, she paused. Examining the plants, she noticed a lupine, four of its leaves spreading out. She had not sowed any lupine seeds here, so the wind or a bird had dropped it. The original group of lupines she had planted several years ago had died out. Happiness flowed through her: here was nature’s lucid example of rebirth and rejuvenation.
Very careful not to disturb the lupine, she dug up the dandelion. Then as she turned her attention to an oxalis, she heard a high-pitched stit-stit and glanced over toward the fuchsias. A hummingbird was effortlessly hovering next to a bush. It looked at her and pointed its beak toward the fuchsias, bobbing its head as if drinking. An aha illuminated her understanding. She was planning to water the bushes later, but the guardian of the garden, Ms. Anna Hummingbird, was obviously signaling her—water now, water now. So she would do that. The weeds could wait; they would always be present. As soon as one was pulled, up another took its place. Water, the source and sustenance of life, must be given whenever required.
While watering the fuchsias, she thought about Ms. Anna Hummingbird, who, as a single parent, builds her nest, broods two eggs, and feeds her young. Mr. Anna, the father of the chicks, is off guarding his food-bearing territory and probably never sees them until they have fledged and gone to seek their future. Ms. Anna constructs the small, cup-shaped nest from assorted materials such as bark, twigs, leaves, moss, lichen, and small feathers. Threads of spider or cocoon webs are used to glue the materials together.
Satisfying the fuchsias’ thirst, she decided to water the remainder of the garden. As she sprinkled the flower bed next to the house, a bee flew toward her and then retreated, circling and moving toward her again. She quickly stepped out of its path. The bee’s intelligence had mapped a route through the garden from one plant to another. The map was in its memory, and the bee was frustrated when a barrier was placed in its itinerary. The diverse patterns that intelligence manifested had always amazed her.
She contemplated the social organization of bees. They were arranged into three groups: the workers, the queen and queens-to-be, and the drone, the queen’s mating partner. All the workers were female as, of course, the queen. The only males were the drones whose primary purpose effloresced during the mating flight. The gametes of each gender exhibited a fascinating phenomenon. Females, developing from diploid eggs, carried the complete set of chromosomes while males, growing from an unfertilized egg, had only the haploid number of chromosomes or one set. When the queen bee wanted to fertilize an egg, she released a sperm. The resulting egg carried the two sets of chromosomes, and a female would be produced. She compared this situation with mammals.
A neat analogy formed in her mind. For Hymenoptera and some other insects females had two X’s, as the females of many other species did, but the males had only one X and a blank, not a Y as mammal males possessed. Yet nature’s diversity was plainly evident. XY chromosomes and XX chromosomes are not always possessed by males and females respectively. For most birds the opposite holds. Besides, the hermaphrodite prevails among many plants and marine invertebrates and vertebrates. Most hermaphroditic plants contain both gametes for life while many animals change their gametes during their life cycle.
The amazing sexual reversals of many fish were excellent illustrations, she realized. Several species like the hamlet fish are hermaphrodites throughout their life, carrying both male and female gonads. Many others change their sex during their life, and some like the barramunda change into the opposite sex after spawning. Others like the sea bass start as a hermaphrodite and go through a female stage before ending as a male. The fairy basslets form families of one male and several females. When the male dies or disappears, the dominant female transforms into a male. Another example of sex change in sea life is the spot shrimp (Pandalus platyceros). During the first three years of their life the shrimp are male but become female for their last two to three years. Nature’s plenitude of marvels is seemingly unending.
Having finished watering the garden where needed, she carried the tools and stool into the garage, which not only housed their car but also provided space for storage and a small work area. The wood for the living room stove was stacked against one wall. First she would fix a small breakfast and then get back to Peoples Investigations. ***
The gardening activity had fertilized her imagination. Many potential story ideas floated through her mind, and clusters started forming. She was focusing on the evil wizard image when she heard Ralph’s voice. Looking up from the monitor, she turned toward the sound.
He was standing in the doorway of her study. His eyes were sparkling, and amusement played upon his face. “Care to take a break?”
Stretching her arms above her, she sighed. “Definitely. Where do you want to go?”
“How about Ocean Delights?” It was a coffee, pastry, and sandwich shop on Ocean Avenue, and one of their favorite places for a pleasant outing.
“I’ll be ready in five minutes.”
Clouds were drifting in from the southwest when they left their house in Ingleside Terraces, located in the southwestern part of San Francisco, and hiked up to Ocean Avenue. With a leisurely pace they strolled along the street, pausing frequently to peer into shop windows.
When the Garlands entered Ocean Delights, they saw Rafé, whose long black hair, pulled up into a ball, shone in the light. She was sitting at a table near the cage housing the canary, who entertained habitués by singing along with the music playing in the background. Shasta walked over to her while Ralph got two cups of café latte and then joined them.
The young woman had appeared unexpectedly into their lives a year ago, not so much as upon their doorstep as at Ocean Delights, one fine morning when they were indulging in café latte. There she was, Rafael Courbet, newly arrived in the neighborhood if not in San Francisco. Shasta had first noticed her standing at the counter. The young woman had a delicate physique and was probably no taller than five foot three. What struck them both was her shyness, a talent for not attracting attention. After getting a cup of coffee, she selected a lonely corner of the cafe and sat there until Shasta went over and started talking with her. Once Shasta had established a warm rapport, she beckoned Ralph to join them. It was the amusing tale that Rafé spun that won their hearts.
“I call it the ‘Start from Scratch’ story, a quest type of tale,” she began. “There was this girl Suzanne, who often heard her grandma, and also her mom on occasion, say that she started from scratch when asked how she made some food preparation or what her recipe was for a special entrée. ‘I started from scratch,’ Grandma often answered. So Suzanne grew up believing that scratch was a marvelous, miraculous substance from which all good things came. Scratch was the primal stuff from which Creator had made the world. When she reach womanhood, Suzanne went in search of some scratch so that she, too, could make wonderful tasty dishes of food. She traveled through many cities and towns all over the world. People frequently swindled her by selling items that they feigned were scratch.
“One day as she pursued her quest in a village plaza among the vendors of fresh produce and cooked foods, she heard an elder woman, who was selling loaves of bread, say to a customer, ‘I started from scratch.’ The customer nodded and purchased a loaf. Suzanne walked up to the elder and asked if she could buy some scratch. The woman looked at her and then broke out laughing, a cackling sound that became an amused sigh. Grinning, the woman pointed to all the ingredients on her work table and informed Suzanne that was her scratch. She started with all the essentials and combined them together to make her bread. At that moment, an epiphany of sorts occurred, and Suzanne realized that she had always had scratch, that she carried with her the essential skills learned from her mom and grandma and only needed the required ingredients, which she could purchase in most markets. The miracle resided in the transformation that took place as the raw materials became the finished food through skill and knowledge.” When she had finished, a sly grin had appeared on her face that reminded Ralph of a coyote.
Little by little Rafé Courbet had became a part of their lives and a permanent member of the community. They had assisted her in locating a small two room apartment, which she shared with another young woman, on Urbano Drive in Ingleside Terraces, only a few blocks from their two-story home. Last fall she had enrolled at San Francisco State University, taking three beginning courses in the Theatre Arts Department, working toward her Bachelor of Arts in that field. Her excellent performance and grades had earned her a scholarship for the next fall term.
After careful deliberation Ralph hired her as his assistant. He had used assistants earlier in his career because they were necessary for many shows. When he was performing at California casinos with large stages, he benefited immensely. With assistants he could stage productions that created a fantasy realm that filled an auditorium.
Her dark brown, nearly raven eyes sparkling, Rafé pulled a deck of cards from her large, brown purse and proceeded to show them a routine she had recently learned, her version of the classic four aces. She removed the four aces from the deck and placed them face down, side by side, on the table. Keeping the deck in her left hand, she picked up the first ace with her right hand and asked Shasta to mark its face. Retrieving the card, she handed the second ace to Shasta with the same request. Turning toward Ralph, she gave him the last two aces separately to mark. Rafé then dealt the four marked aces face down in a row and afterwards dealt three cards on each ace.
The magician watched his assistant closely. She was performing Nate Leipzig’s favorite version, and her handling was deft.
Rafé asked Shasta to select two piles, which she put on top of the deck. Looking at Ralph, she requested him to select one pile, which she picked up. “Let’s see how lucky you are today.” She turned over each card. The four marked aces lay in a row.
“That’s quite remarkable.” Shasta was delighted with the performance.
“Yes, your handling was superb. Let’s see how good my luck really is today.”
Ralph picked up the deck and fanned the cards face up. He inserted the four aces into different parts of the deck, squared the cards, and then cut the pack a couple of times. He handed his assistant the cards and said, “Please turn over the top card.” The card was the five of diamonds. “That is our signal card,” he remarked. “Please deal five cards and turn over the next four.” Rafé smiled with pleasure as she turned over the four aces. Shasta sat with her coffee cup in her hand totally astonished.
Rafé had become very adept at performing sleights-of-hand since Ralph had hired her as his assistant. A remarkable protégé, she had a quick sense of timing and clever hands. Ralph often displayed some of his legerdemain at Ocean Delights for both Ben Said, the shop’s owner, and the patrons, especially the small group that made up the gang, as Shasta called them. Several weeks after Rafé’s arrival in the neighborhood, he had performed a torn-restored napkin effect, and he had chosen her as his assistant.
Ralph asked if she wanted to test her magical powers. Although hesitating from shyness, she agreed to participate. He took two paper napkins, giving one to Rafé and requesting that she follow his actions. He opened the napkin and tore it in half, into quarters and finally into eighths. He nodded approval as she did the same. Then he squeezed the pieces into a tight ball and watched as she did likewise. Then he put his hands together, shaking his paper ball and blowing on it. He smiled at her, but when he opened his hands and took a corner of the napkin, shaking it, surprise flashed quickly across his face. He picked torn pieces of paper from his palm. He seemed very disappointed, but bravely asked her to make the magic move. The assistant shook her hands together, blowing on them, and then she opened her hands and unraveled the ball: the napkin was restored! With finesse the magician praised her new found skill.
Rafé was delighted. Then, showing a keen perceptiveness, she questioned him about the presentation. Why did he fail, but she didn’t? Obviously, she wanted to know the secret, but, of course, he had been asked many times for revelations, and he had always given the standard reply that magicians did not reveal their secrets. Rafé, though, never directly asked him for the forbidden knowledge; instead, she furtively maneuvered around the edges so that he would not feel restrained and would provide the information she sought. Once he recognized her strategy, he was amazed and quite taken with her mental abilities.
When she realized that she could not gather any further information about the effect, she asked him to teach her another routine. Seriously considering his need for an assistant, he decided to learn more about her. So he turned the discussion around and pursued his own search for data about her interests and goals in life. Until then, Shasta had been her primary mentor.
Rafé Courbet had veiled a mystery about herself, which the Garlands respected. What biographical facts she released to anyone was a carefully deliberated decision. She maintained control over her privacy and at the same time proffered the self-image to suit her needs.
Several months after they had met her, she told them about her Native American ancestry, that her people were Potawatomi. She had grown up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s reservation there, and she had frequently visited with her mother’s family who resided in Mayetta, Kansas, and were members of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Indians. Ralph had gone to the well-stocked library at San Francisco State University and researched these people. He discovered that like so many Indian nations they had been forced from their lands and removed to territory further west. They were part of the Algonquian language family and closely related to the Anishinaabe, also known as Ojibwa or Chippewa. At contact time with the Europeans, their homeland was located around Lake Michigan. Although most of the people had journeyed on the trail of tears, a few had remained or returned to northeastern Wisconsin and southwestern Michigan where they now resided.
The Garlands had long time interests in the cultures of the First Peoples. A small but prized basket collection was displayed in their living room while other art works by Native Americans were exhibited throughout their home. Their library contained many literary works by contemporary American Indian writers and several anthologies of traditional stories. Early in her life, Shasta had heard stories about the Wintu people, who resided around her home town of Dunsmuir, California. The Forest Service Cultural Center would frequently sponsor story-telling sessions, especially during the winter. The elders of several First Nations, who acknowledged Mt. Shasta as a sacred land, would give presentations of their cultural traditions.
Ralph had become involved with the history of the Ohlone people, whose ancestral lands extended from San Francisco Bay to Monterey Bay, when he was a child, first hearing a little of their story from his Uncle Darrel, who was an enthusiast of California history, and later borrowing books from the public library. Born and raised in San Francisco, Ralph was enchanted by the city and its history. As he grew older and became more aware of the darker edge of its citizens, he attempted to find a balance and resolution for the good and evil that resided side by side.
The Garlands supported the Ohlone people’s effort at regaining recognition from the federal government, which had terminated them, along with over one hundred other groups of First Californians, back in 1927.
Glancing at her wristwatch, Shasta noticed that it was 2:30 P.M. She wanted to stop at the Produce Barn for dinner supplies and so asked Ralph if he were ready to leave. Although a practice session had not been scheduled for that afternoon, he inquired of Rafé if she were interested in a short session. Her last final exam had concluded, so she was free of academic obligations until summer school began. Agreeing with enthusiasm, she placed the deck of cards in her purse and left with the Garlands. ***
The evening was foggy with a chilling breeze blowing in from the ocean. In the coastal fog region that extended over the western part of San Francisco, days in the late spring could begin clear and sunny, but finish with a foggy covering and cold winds. The residents of the eastern half of the city were frequently protected from the harshness of the coastal weather by Twin Peaks and Mt. Davidson, which acted as barriers, as did other prominent hills that dotted the landscape.
Ralph had lit a fire in the wood-burning stove set into the fireplace. Their early evening before dinner get-togethers were central to their lives. A moment of sharing, pleasure, and fun—they called it their happy hour. Since Ralph’s illness, they had reinstated a tradition that they had enjoyed when they had first met at a beer and pizza parlor on Stanyan Street near Kezar Stadium.
He was gazing into the fire when Shasta entered the living room. She placed her notebook on the circular wood table she always sat at and went over to where her husband was seated on the couch and gave him a kiss. “How was the practice session?” She smiled as her hand caressed the side of his face.
“We worked on the floating globe routine. We were able to eliminate the wobble that so often occurs, and now the globe glides gracefully through the air. I think it’s going to be one of our best effects. Rafé is a quick learner, and just getting one of the routines to execute smoothly is an upper. I’ve been so caught in the embrace of melancholy that I’ve started to doubt whether I can ever stage a major performance again. The plan is to use the floating globe for the alchemical light show. What about you?”
“I had a breakthrough. I’d like to discuss it and get your feelings.” Noticing he already had a martini, she went to the kitchen to fix hers and then returned.
He watched as his wife settled herself at the table, arranging magazines and books and clearing a space for notebook and pen. She still maintained the robust beauty of her youth, exuding a warmth and captivating sparkle. When they had first met, he perceived her as a young earth goddess, who was five foot eight and had a curvaceous figure. After she began writing the Peaches Peoples series, he soon realized the similarity between Shasta and her creation. Although Peaches was taller and more muscularly developed, they were both members of the earth tribe: physically, emotionally, and intellectually firmly rooted in the soil of life. Middle age, he observed, was treating her well.
Once she was satisfied with the placement of the objects on the table, she looked at her husband and sighed. “You know, I’ve been at a sticking point too. My mind wanders; I can’t concentrate; instead, a bunch of trivia grabs my attention. Organizing the objects on my desk, rearranging the files in the computer, checking to see if the houseplants need watering—all these activities and more consume my energy, which should be creating the new novel. This morning I even vacuumed a little.” She paused, amused at her domestic conduct, and noticed him smiling at her. “I hope I didn’t disturb you too much.”
They both laughed at their private joke. Twenty years ago she would always tell him when housecleaning would happen, especially when she vacuumed. He would hang a large “Quiet. Wizard Conjuring.” sign on the outside of the studio door and shut it. Then he would turn on the portable tape player, purchased for these occasions, at high volume. In his later years domestic chores no longer disturbed nor distracted him. His power of concentration seemed to have increased, or was it that he was only more immersed in self-pity? Perhaps, he should become more aware of the exterior surroundings.
Picking up the thread of her thought, she remarked, “When I sat at the desk, an image for the poem I’m writing came to mind, so I played with that for awhile. I guess working on the poem opened my imagination because an inspiration that had come to me last week blossomed with an exciting cluster of ideas. All of a sudden there it was waiting to be enjoyed.”
“An aha experience!” he concurred. “I’ve been having a few such moments recently after we discussed my dream time. You suggested I should become aware of those moments of revelation. Once you guided my focus to those specific phenomena, they’ve been happening frequently. They had probably been occurring before, but were hidden from view until I became aware of their existence.”
“You were charming yourself with your own magic, dear. As the magician you can now see through the illusion.” She gazed out the window next to the fireplace, watching the fog roll in. The warmth of the fire soothed her soul and brought forth ancient feelings of comfort and security. Her parents had heated their home in Duns muir with a propane fueled furnace and a wood-burning stove. The gatherings around the stove doing the cold winter months were happy memories.
Turning toward him, she remarked, “Yes, it definitely was an aha. Magic is the latest mystery theme. The criminal will be a magician, the Case of the Evil Wizard.”
Ralph winced as if pained. She looked at him questioningly. “Did I say something wrong? You don’t care for the idea?”
“Maybe the wizard could be the victim.”
“What’s wrong with being the criminal?”
“I don’t know. The idea makes me feel bad, deep inside. It’s probably just my mental state, altering between ups and downs.”
“Dear, let’s talk about it. Victim, criminal, or hero. How do you feel about each one?”
“I guess I’m in the mood to hear about a magician hero who rights the wrongs and brings balance back into the world. In my youth I was a great fan of Walter B. Gibson’s magic stories, especially the ones involving the Shadow, both on the radio and in magazine form. I collected some of the magazines toward the end of their run. I wished I had saved them. They’d probably be worth quite a bit now.”
“The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the minds of men.” With a sly grin on her lips, she feigned secret knowledge of human nature. “They were a favorite of my dad, who faithfully listened to them. Anyone staying at home during program time heard them. And I became a devotee. I never read any of the stories though. What were they like?”
“Eerie and enchanting. Besides Gibson’s tales of mystery we also had J. R. R. Tolkien’s stories like The Lord of the Rings to enliven our minds.” Ralph paused, amused. “Tolkien was something of a Luddite, I believe. Now the film versions have become exceedingly popular.”
“Don’t forget T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. It captivated me totally. And then P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins series were quite magical.”
“Of course, the young people today have J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories.” He paused and stared at her expectantly. “If you’re interested, perhaps helping you with this latest novel, I can download many of the Shadow stories from a web site dedicated to Gibson and his magic tales.”
“They also have Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series. Yes, please download those Gibson files. Enchantment and magic have always been part of human culture.”
Ralph stood up, walked over to the stove, and added another log to the fire. He gazed into the flames, observing their fluid movement. An alchemical image of fire in its athanor manifested itself. An idea was hidden there, but the moment passed without enlightenment. He returned to his immediate surroundings. “Now that I’ve been mulling over the idea, a criminal magician isn’t so upsetting. A victim would be even worse. When I’m melancholy, I guess I feel like a victim.”
“How about all three: one the criminal who harms another magician and, of course, the hero uses magic to solve the case.”
“Do Peaches and Aeneas know the art?”
“Obviously, they can learn. And don’t forget Virgil, the virtual magician.” She laughed.
His grin widened. His feelings were buoyant, and his mind was filled with thoughts. “Have you decided on the crime?”
“That’s what you can help me with. What crime would be a magical one? I don’t mean committing a regular crime, like robbery or murder, with the use of magic. Within the career of magic how can one magician harm another?”
Sitting back down on the couch, he leaned over and scratched Lucy, who had rolled over on her back with her legs raised, giving him the “aren’t I cute” mien.
“My, my, such a cutie pie.” Shasta chuckled sardonically. She glanced over to Karma, who was nested in an upholstered armchair. Karma had started to lick herself as if declaring that the present state of affairs was of no importance, at least not to her.
“An idea. Yes.” He pretended to bow to both cats. “An insight channeled by our kitties. The craft is based on mystery, which means secrets. That Masked Magician TV show, you know, where he reveals all to the public. What an uproar the series has caused.”
“Revealing secrets, certainly a moral, ethical issue, but is the unveiling of an effect a crime? Could the villain be sued in court or be prosecuted by the district attorney?” She doodled on a blank page in the notebook, contemplating the potential that the idea could actualize. The flames in the stove flickered endlessly and the warmth permeated the living room. “Do magical routines carry any property rights? Like copyrights, patents, or trademarks.”
“Usually not in a legally verifiable manner like copyrights or patents, although some effects have been patented. Many conflicts have arisen, however, over who was the first to perform an effect or whether a new version or modification is actually that different from the earlier routine. Magicians have been severely criticized, sometimes ostracized, by those in the profession. Ridicule and scorn can be a grim punishment, especially if the culprit loses employment opportunities. Or in the cases of sellers and producers of effects, when the word gets around, no one will buy from them. But, yes, the exploitation of someone else’s magical invention is a very serious matter, although it may never end in court.”
“So the stealing of secrets is not uncommon, then?”
“It’s been going on for a long, long time, probably since the beginning of the art. Some very big names in the profession have castigated each other for stealing and argued over who was first to perform a specific effect.
“A famous example was the conflict that erupted in 1912 between Harry Houdini and Harry Blackstone. Houdini claimed Blackstone had stolen his underwater escape from a tied and sealed box. Houdini had developed his act into escapes and put other magic routines aside. Until 1912 Houdini was chained and handcuffed for his underwater escapes, but not enclosed in a box. Blackstone, ten years younger than Houdini and challenging the world renowned escape artist, designed a sealed, metal box that would be bound with heavy ropes and lowered into the river with the magician, hands tied, inside. The spectacular effect revolved on pulling the box back to the surface still sealed and tied while Blackstone was safely swimming beside the rescue boat. Blackstone told the secret of the device to his friend Walter B. Gibson, who later published it in one of his books. When Houdini heard of Blackstone’s feats with the sealed box, he improved upon it by having a new wood packing box constructed wherever he performed the act so that the public would believe that a special box was not being used. Blackstone so liked the improvement that he put the metal box, which he had carried around for the performances at different locations, in storage and had a wood box built for each performance.”
“So they were borrowing from each other, then.” An inner feeling arose, alerting her that hidden treasures would soon be revealed.
“Yes, but Houdini became angry and incensed when Blackstone began having his underwater escape box built locally. Houdini publicly challenged Blackstone for having stolen the idea and threatened legal action, demanded that the Society of American Magicians drop Blackstone from their membership, and made charges against him with the National Variety Artists, a trade association. Blackstone did answer the complaint placed with the NVA, telling them of the special box he had originally used before Houdini added the improvement and stating that he could produce the box as evidence. Blackstone and several members of the NVA went to the warehouse where the box and other magic props had been stored. Surprisingly, the box and some other equipment could not be found. The NVA, however, believed and cleared him of the charges. The unsurpassed irony of the story is that years later after Houdini’s death Blackstone’s specially designed escape box was discovered in guess whose basement? Houdini’s! The box’s identity was verified by Walter B. Gibson, who was a friend of both magicians. The secret of the disappearance and reappearance of the underwater box will probably never be revealed.”
“That’s an amazing story.”
“Harry Blackstone’s son Harry, Junior, gives the details in The Blackstone Book of Magic and Illusion. If you’re interested, the book is in my studio.”
“So what’s the gripe with the Masked Magician?”
“The magician’s first commandment is never give away the secret to an effect. But there’s an irony, a catch. Think of all the books on performing routines with the secrets revealed; these books are usually written by magicians, who often offer workshops and lectures that disclose the workings of different effects. In fact, when I first became charmed by magic, my father bought me Howard Thurston’s book, which taught some basic routines and effects. Now video and DVD are the latest forms for presenting material and unveiling the mysteries. ”
“I don’t understand, then, what the complaints are about.” She was perplexed by the apparent inconsistency.
“In ancient times someone who wanted to learn conjuring would become an apprentice to a master. With the advent of books as a teaching tool and now with the modern approach of group education, discovering the secrets of the magical art is quite simple. Where most of us draw the line is between those who acquire the art for use, whether for employment or for a hobby, and the members of an audience.”
“But aren’t magicians often watching each other perform, like at conventions we’ve been to?”
“An audience which only desires to be entertained and are not seeking performance skills and which moves from one show to the next with insatiable appetite—for such people learning the secret is only information to solve a puzzle, and they lack the understanding and appreciation for the skill required to achieve the magical effect. So often, someone says, “Oh, the trick must be done with mirrors or invisible string or a hidden compartment. The ball is in his pocket or up his sleeve or wherever. So if the entertainer reveals the method, what has happened to the skill requisite for producing a mystery? Where is the wonder? Everyone knows that the mystery can be explained, but most spectators will suspend worldly practicality, returning to child-like innocence when the world held infinite possibilities.”
“It’s coming through to me. All the arts request the viewers, listeners, and readers to leave the daily world and enter another reality. To defer judgment, to change our perceptions, and to open ourselves to another’s imagination—these are requirements which the arts have always demanded. Artistic excellence occurs when we’re jolted out of our daily complacency and thrust into the unknown and unpredictable.” Shasta stood up and stretched, arms raised in the air. Muttering a sigh of relief, she picked up her martini glass and went into the kitchen for a refill. Ralph got up and followed her with his empty glass.
Putting several ice cubes in each glass, she filled the ice tray with water and placed it in the freezer. As he poured the martini mix into the glasses, she remarked, “I can compare literary stealing and misuse of others’ works to your art. It’s really the same. The short time I taught composition at City College I discovered that only a few students were interested in the secrets of my craft, the way to create mental states and emotional experiences with words. When I revealed to them the methods of well-known authors, most were asleep or their thoughts elsewhere. One or two would come up after class for a better understanding. One student, quite rigid in his thinking and view of the world, told me that learning writing techniques spoiled all his fun when reading adventure novels. He could never again be taken in by the literary devices. I was astounded at his reproach. I was certainly delighted that the teaching had born fruit. I hadn’t been certain before then whether the lessons were getting across to him, but for him to be affronted by knowledge and wishing to return to an unthinking state of ignorance was mind-boggling for me. It was a definite aha encounter.”
“I remember now. You retired from the classroom for a full time writing career after the following semester.”
Requiring more time for her writing, she had left her job at the advertising firm and taken a part-time position at City College of San Francisco. “And I never looked back. How did we get on that track? Oh, yes, giving away secrets, which only a few actually appreciate. The secrets-revealed theme has already invigorated my imagination. I’ll let it germinate.”
Ralph thought now was a good time to share his recent dream with her. A feeling of openness pervaded the living room. They all were enjoying the intimate moment. He glanced at his best friend and confidant inquiringly. He was still having difficulty sharing his dreams, extracting them from the subterranean levels of his mind. Even writing them down in the dream journal would frequently cause a sharp anguish or dread to arise. His emotions had their own sovereign who seemed to despise him and was usually in conflict with him. She had been encouraging him to delve deeply into his dream time for its healing abilities.
Gaining inspiration from the dream landscape was an ancient artistic tradition, and even spiritually oriented people recognized dreams as a source for divine expression. Shasta was a member of a dream group which held monthly sessions. Each participant was given the opportunity to describe a dream she had had. Then one dream was selected by the group for an in-depth analysis. She was developing her talent for lucid dreaming when she would know she was in a dream state, yet not wake up but continue dreaming. These lucid dreams seemed more real than ordinary ones because the images were very clear and detailed. The logic and structure, however, were still extraordinary.
So far Ralph had not attained the lucid state, although several of his dreams were quite clear and detailed, including the recent one. “Shasta, I had a strange dream fragment last night and perhaps you can give me some insights into it.” Smiling her acceptance, she waited for him to begin.
“Clowns and other performers are on stage in lines on tiers. At the top stands one clown above the others. He is radiant. His smile is exuberant. He tells the audience that he will no longer play the crying, sad-faced clown—Emmett Kelly is alluded to—but will be a happy, joyful clown. The audience is amazed and thrilled. As one of the spectators I’m picking up on conflicting feelings. Would the new situation be better or worse?”
Shasta sat quietly, allowing the images to parade before her imagination. She nodded thoughtfully as an understanding formed. Her interpretation centered on the idea that the dream foreshadowed an important change in his inner life. She suggested that the images made her think of the shadow or trickster coming into the light. The clown symbolized both darkness and light, happiness and sadness, the twin masks of comedy and tragedy. Ralph remarked that the shadow-becoming-light image could refer to the light in the darkness which was now visible.
Lucy kitty, lying on the couch beside him, agreed by meowing and rolling on her back, stretching her legs out. “Lucy,” Shasta declared, “is the clown beating the drum leading the parade. She’s in your dream too, dear.” Lucy consented by gazing at him with her rub-my-belly sparkle. Sitting up in the chair, Karma enthusiastically voiced her affirmation.
Delighted that he was showing positive energy, Shasta mentioned his bouts with melancholy. When she asked if he had read The Anatomy of Melancholy while in college, he remembered, even recalling the author, Robert Burton. Assured that he was in the proper mood, she presented her thoughts. “Dear, you can change your attitude about your blue periods. Melancholy is a general state of mind—just like having the flu. It has nothing to do with your work or heart problem; it is not caused by either; it is. The first step must be to realize it exists as itself. Even when you have the blues, you can still work. Why, you might even do your finest thinking and performing at that time. Melancholia is one of the traditional Muses. She is the basis for creative energy and the imagination, our genius. When melancholy arrives, it is time to achieve our goals. Self-pity must be pushed aside. Melancholy is the decomposing stage. Creative attainment disperses melancholy.”
She waved her hand in the air. “Sadness be gone!”
Ralph was hopeful that he would escape from his recurring state of self-pity. Yes, charmed by her intuitive understanding, he was determined to make a beneficial change. Smiling and with an inward feeling of certainty, he realized the truth of her thoughts. He could call upon his Muse whenever he was ready for stimulation, and by going with the creative stirrings, he would emerge from the black hole he had fallen into.
Shasta got up and went into the kitchen to prepare dinner with the kitties following her, hoping for a special treat.
Ralph focused on the flames and contemplated the fleeting forms that were manifesting. Thoughts arose and morphed into others: a continuous, enchanted process-flow that, no doubt, disclosed the foundation of reality. A magic potion for his sorrow existed somewhere, and his quest was to find that healing treasure.
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