A Short Bloom

The old man was puzzled by so many selfies.

“Why? Because people want to see themselves in Heaven,” explained the gardener. He held a rake loosely in one hand. The park was crowded.

“That is why eyes look into cameras, into lenses. For one moment in spring the cherry blossoms bloom, so everybody smiles, frames their own face.

“They would like to appear in Heaven. But few understand the nature of what they see.

“Blossoms soon fall. Blooms are crushed under feet.

“With a button every person will make a painting of Heaven. Perfect white and pink clouds, angel faces, snowflakes fluttering in this unending wind.

“But snow melts into the thirsty Earth. Delicate blossoms are tread to dust by a thousand searching feet. All things return to the Earth. This good Earth.

“Paintings are put into vaults. And we become old.”

The Child and the Koi

“What’s that, Mommy?”

“That is a koi.”

The child leaned over the still water to stare down at the beautiful koi. The water was perfectly clear, like crystal. The koi rose to the surface, mouth working.

“Hello,” said the fish. “Why are you looking at me?”

“Because you’re orange.”

“Is there something wrong with orange?” asked the fish.

“No. I like it.”

“I’m glad you like my color. But if there’s nothing wrong with orange, then why do so many of you people stand there and stare down at me?”

“I know why!” said the child.

“Then please tell me.”

“Because they think you look like fire.”

“I look like fire? What is fire?”

“Fire is a mouth that rises.

“Fire is always hungry, like you. It eats every little thing it sees.

“Fire eats houses.  Fire eats schools.  Fire swallows cities and sacred temples and palaces of adamant.

“And fire is very beautiful.”

“It is?”

“But fire quickly vanishes in clear water,” explained the child.

“Now I understand. So I must go.”

The koi swam away.

The Piano Player Sat Down

The piano player sat down. For a moment he paused. Then he opened his hands.

From his fingertips emerged a shining coin.

The pianist spread 88 playing cards smoothly in a row. Every listener picked one card. With a touch he found it.

A flower sprang from his sleeve.

Inescapable ropes were cast aside with the twist of his hand.

Handcuffs fell off.

Into the black cauldron his moving fingers stirred fallen tears, a sprinkle of stars, lost memory, alchemy.

A white rabbit leaped from the cabinet, vanishing.

Applause.

Final Real Magic

The Great Sampson was a magician without peer. Five thousand shows in a hundred grimy towns and he never complained. The stiffs working the carnival regarded him with a mixture of wonder and derision.

“And now,” the Great Sampson waved, “my final act!”

A few people in the dingy, striped tent regarded the theatrical old man. They were thinking about home. In a few minutes night would fall. Other sideshow tents were already being hastily dismantled, folded up. The Great Sampson, in his shiny top hat, had picked up a thin book covered with gold lettering and had shakily climbed into an open black box that resembled a coffin.

He ran his fingers through an ebony beard, which he had obviously curled and dyed. He opened the book as he faced the audience: several bored adults and one boy.

“Until this very moment,” he announced grandly, “no magician in the entire history of the world has performed magic. Illusion and deception have been substituted for magic, and millions of believers have been told by deceitful entertainers that they are witnessing the effects of true supernatural power. You, my good friends, will be the first to ever witness real magic. You will remember this day for the remainder of your lives. So pay very close attention. Don’t blink!”

The Great Sampson took a deep breath. He visibly trembled. “And now, after years of struggle, after years of false starts and dead ends, after years and years of searching, my life’s greatest and only worthwhile achievement! Good bye!”

He held up the strange shining book and read: “Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum!”

The Great Sampson vanished.

The carnival sideshow audience, like any audience, stood with jaded expectation on the crushed dirt floor.

Nothing happened.

The people waited patiently for a minute, then two.

Nothing happened.

A man in back finally slipped out of the dark tent.

Nothing happened.

A couple near the black box shrugged, laughed and left.

Nothing happened.

Everyone left.

Everyone forsook the lone, silent black box except the boy. In that shadow of doubt he didn’t dare move.

Something terrible–something extraordinary had happened. The boy could sense it. A shivering fear and thrill fixed his feet in place.

Summoning courage, he inched forward, leaned slowly over, and peered into the box.

Skittering nervously at its bottom, a gray mouse was frantically trying to escape.

The boy’s heart pounded. His mind raced.

He jumped.

“Show’s over,” boomed a voice behind him. A carnival worker’s face was poking into the dark tent with a glare of impatience. “Time to go home kid.”

“But what about the Great Sampson?” the boy protested.

“What about who?”

The boy was indignant. “The Great Sampson is gone!”

“You need to be gone, too! Now get the hell out of here or someone might call the cops.” The worker shot him a exasperated look and left.

The boy hesitated. Nothing that had just happened–the magician’s strange speech–that split second when the magician had vanished–none of it seemed real. He remained alone in the tent, looking down at the small helpless mouse. He had to decide. Quickly. He reached into the black box and took the mouse gently into his hand and slipped out of the tent into the twilight. The carnival was over. Indistinct lumps of canvas littered the ground.

The soft mouse in his hand had calmed down. The boy saw a man heaving plastic garbage bags onto a flatbed truck and hurried over.

“I think I know what happened to the Great Sampson!”

“What happened? What are you talking about?”

“The Great Sampson disappeared about ten minutes ago! He was doing his last magic show and I think he actually turned into a mouse. He said it was his final act! He said he would finally do real magic!”

“Get the fuck out of here. You’re crazy.”  The man turned back to the garbage.

As the boy walked rapidly home, he stared frequently through his fingers at the mouse. It seemed to be an ordinary gray mouse.

He slowed at the grassy park several blocks from his home, and he sat down on the bench in the lamp’s soft light. He opened his hand just enough to closely examine the mouse. It seemed so ordinary. “Can you hear me?” the boy quietly asked.

The nervous mouse looked about, seemingly at nothing.

“If you can hear me, let me know. Do something. Nod your head.”

The mouse’s head quivered. It looked up at the boy.

“I don’t know what to do. Are you really the Great Sampson? Can you turn back? Are you going to turn back?”

No answer. None was possible.

“If that was really your final act–” The boy looked at the mouse feeling puzzled, hopeless. “Why did you do it?

“So you wanted to do real magic? Why? To become something different?”

He leaned sideways to pull an object from his back pocket. It was the thin book with gold lettering. It had also remained at the bottom of the box.

The book appeared to be a journal. It was the type of cheap mass-produced journal that anybody can buy for a couple dollars at a store. The boy read the fancy gold letters. They formed the words: Follow Your Dreams.

. . .

Sitting on the bed in his room, still holding the mouse in one hand, the boy opened the thin journal. Its few pages were handwritten beautifully in black ink, clearly and elegantly. Page after page after page, with an occasional word or sentence neatly crossed out. Page after page. It seemed to be the life’s work of one person.

With one hand he clumsily turned the pages until he reached the last, where his eyes froze on the final words: Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum. Those had been the final words spoken by the Great Sampson. The fatal incantation. The final words.

Were they really magic?

He mouthed a few of the dangerous words inaudibly, a shiver crawling up his back, then stopped.

He jumped.

A very loud knock on his bedroom door.

“What are you doing” demanded his mother. “I called you for dinner five minutes ago!”

“Just a second.”

“I’m running out of patience–you come out of there now!” His mother burst into the room. “What on earth have you been doing?”

“Nothing.” He turned and quickly placed the mouse in a drawer by his bed.

“Well, come on. You know how your father doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

Reluctantly, the boy stepped out of his room and headed for the stairs. Turning back, he saw his mother enter his room.

. . .

The mouse was gone.

Whether his mother had found it, or the mouse had escaped, the boy couldn’t know. It didn’t matter.

He lay on his bed, almost in tears. He didn’t know why.

Of course, it all was plain silly. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as real magic. The Great Sampson was gone, that was the only thing that mattered. The Great Sampson had performed his final act. And nobody really cares about an act. Everything in life is an act.

The boy picked up the thin book with glittery lettering.

He didn’t dare open it.

He placed it on his bookshelf, among other wise books he would probably never read.

Perhaps he’d read it one day.

How to Paint Angels

Another angel, not quite perfect. Carol snatched the canvas off the easel and balled it up hard. She flung her creation into the fireplace and watched the devouring flames turn wings black.

Like a dead weight Carol sank to the carpet, then lay on her back and shut her eyes. She tried to shut out the world.

That evening, after some television news and a bite to eat, she was compelled to place a new white canvas onto the empty easel. She stared at the blank space. She dipped her delicate brush into silver.

As usual she began with the angel wings. Her strokes were precise, slow.

The most difficult part was always the eyes. They never came out right. Angel eyes were a puzzle. She would do them last.

A knock at the door.

“Come in!”

It was her new friend Monique. “I’m sorry–I didn’t know you were busy–here’s the jacket you left in Tony’s car. I’ll leave you here to your work.”

“No! Please stay for a minute! The apartment can feel so empty. It’s nice to have some company for a change.”

“What’s this? You painted all these?”

Carol laughed. “It’s my hobby, I guess.”

“Seriously? It beats making tin foil Christmas tree ornaments, or any silly thing I’ve ever attempted. I didn’t know you were an artist! They’re absolutely beautiful!”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

“Wonder what–if they’re beautiful?”

“If they’re as perfect as angels should be.”

“They’re angels. How can they not be beautiful?” laughed Monique, wandering slowly about Carol’s small apartment, turning right and then left. She gazed with increasing wonder at a dozen silvery canvases on easels. There was such a clutter of angels that it was difficult to maneuver.

Monique looked quickly at each canvas. The heavenly paintings were exquisite but something about them was odd. They felt unnatural. Something vital seemed to be missing. And there were so many. She didn’t want to say anything. That would be impolite.

“You might have noticed that none of my angels have eyes,” Carol remarked, trying not to sound embarrassed. “Not yet.”

“Oh my gosh! I was just thinking there was something kind of strange about them. Now I see why! They’re absolutely wonderful but the faces are wrong. So you’re waiting to paint the eyes on all these? Are they difficult to do?”

“I always have trouble with my eyes.”

“Me, too,” smiled Monique. “That’s why I wear glasses.”

They both laughed.

Carol rolled in a nightmare. It was another lucid dream of Hell.

Blackness swallowed her. She was spinning, drowning in an infinite void, suffocating in ungraspable nothingness. There was no light, not a trace of substance or form.

A tomb.

In the blackness she struggled to find her hand. She was desperate to lift her hand and touch something, feel anything. She could find nothing. Spinning, spinning, she was alone, less than nothing in the consuming nothingness.

It was a Hell without flames, without demons or evil, without time, only emptiness. A devouring nightmare that had erased her entire world.

No hope.

Panicking, she strained in her mind to remember some known thing. A face, a ray of sunshine. Something in a vanished life she understood. Something near. Deep in her mind she tried to grasp at anything, a momentary spark, an atom, to cling to, to push back the black, ruthless, eternal Nothing.

Nothing.

In the blackness she caught a glimmer.

She woke.

Her dark apartment was strangely aglow. She lifted her head from her pillow. All about her were living eyes. Eyes of pure light, living light. Warm light.

Carol jumped out of bed and flipped on the cold apartment light.

She began painting eyes.

Dew on the Grass

Missy smelled dew on the grass.

She smelled the damp earth and yesterday’s rain. The roots of trees, mouldering leaves.

She smelled freshly broken twigs, the scent of crisp, tart, yellow and brown autumn.

And a newly blue sky.

Simply by breathing, Missy understood everything.

A ten-mile-away fireplace, a nearby muddy puddle.

The rising warm sun, startled birds taking flight.

Bees, butterfly wings, the erosions of mountains, dandelion dust and the movement of time.

From beyond the horizon, just as clear as the taste of autumn, Missy sensed all of those infinite things. Their unending motion. That residue of untold lives.

She smelled happiness and fear and the atoms of those long-vanished.

She smelled the new moon and hidden stars.

A human pulled impatiently on her leash. Missy followed.

An Old Man on a Bus

The man was fading.

From the very slight hair on his scabbed head . . . to his watery eyes . . . to his shaking hands . . . the man was ghostly and gray. But his pressed white shirt was spotless.

“Good morning,” he said politely as he boarded the city bus.

The driver barely glanced at him.

The old man nodded and labored down the aisle to get to an empty seat. His feet slowly shuffled. Slowly, painfully, he turned his body, grabbed the rail and bent his knees to sit. The passengers on either side did not look up from their phones.

The bus started with a sudden jolt and the old man tipped into a neighbor. “I’m so sorry,” he laughed with embarrassment. “That was entirely my fault.”

No answer.

Each stop on Fourth Avenue brought a fresh tide of riders. The old man sat very still. Fresh eyes avoided him.

Until the arrival of a young man.

“You’re really, really old,” said the youth, sitting across the aisle, staring directly at him from behind dark sunglasses.

“Yes, I am.”

“Doesn’t life really suck when you’re old and about to die?” The young man spoke with raised chin. He mocked the old man.

“It certainly does.”

“How old are you? You have to be at least a hundred years old. Don’t you worry someone like me might beat you up?”

“I can tell that you won’t,” replied the old man thoughtfully.

“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

“Because I can see you’re an ordinary person.”

The youth turned his head and laughed at the window. Outside the city blurred past.

The old man continued, his voice barely audible but polite: “I know you’re an ordinary person because a long time ago I was exactly like you. I thought I was something special, King of the World, nothing could touch me. I could insult the entire world and nothing would happen. But I was a coward.

“When I was a young man I was exactly like you. Then one fine day the world answered my insults. It beat me up.

“The world punched me square between the eyes with a blow that would’ve snuffed an elephant. The world tried to strangle me, as it will you. It took away everything that I held dear. The world took my dreams. The world took my vigor. The world took my looks. The world took my money. The world took my loved ones. The world took my strength.

“The world has taken everything, except this: I now will fight.

“I will fight. Until the day I die.”

The young man regarded the old man’s ghostly reflection in the bus window. The young man jumped up at the next stop and hurried off.