The Pistachio Rocket

High arches shaped like immense bones had been erected in the city plaza. According to a sign it was a temporary art installation. At night hundreds of suspended lights illuminated the space beneath the bones. The effect was fantastic. The bones vanished and the colored lights became a galaxy of stars.

During lunchtime many in the plaza paused to read the sign. The thing was titled Earthbound. Predictably entering the yawning entrance, a line of people passed through unelectrified bones. When they exited they walked on as though nothing had happened.

I watched people move through the bones from a bench as I devoured my sandwich.

People walked steadily through. I’m not sure what they expected to see.

A tiny girl with an ice cream cone came flying across the plaza. She darted straight into the bones. She sprinted wildly to the opposite end, twirled around, ran back out into the open. She jumped up and down excitedly, laughed, yammered something I didn’t understand, then dashed once again into the bones. Stopping halfway through, she began leaping up and down with abandon, swinging her arms with glee, sending the pistachio ice cream on her cone up through the air like a green rocket. I don’t believe she read the sign.

A Dog’s Tail

Every Sunday afternoon a large dog accompanied an elderly woman to the park. The friendly dog would sprawl in some shade on the grass, sniffing the warm air or watching the birds flit from tree to tree, while the little old woman sat nearby on a bench. Sometimes I would peek over my book and secretly watch the two.

It was the dog’s tail that inevitably drew people. Swish, flop, swish, flop that ragged tail went, like a crazy outlandish spring. The unstoppable tail was a signal understood by everybody in the park to waltz on over.

Whenever a stranger came near, the tail would really start banging. Lying with its four legs stretched out, seeing the approach of a human smile, the dog would sometimes let loose with a joyful bark, but it never jumped up. When the stranger bent over to rub its belly, the tail moved so excitedly I thought it must defy the laws of physics.

The stranger, after a few more rubs, would glance up at the silent old woman. Her eyes were always down upon the dog. “A very big animal, isn’t it?” the stranger would ask. An almost imperceptible nod for reply.

The stranger would then turn and walk away.

Then the dog would rise beside the old woman. She would place a wrinkled hand atop the dog’s head and the tail would gradually slow.

When a small group of children came up to the dog one early afternoon they didn’t even look at the old woman. They were too enchanted. The dog’s tail thumped madly. Every young hand sought its soft, warm coat, accelerating the tail. Every hand transmitted love. The dog soaked it all up. Like a furry, vibrating battery. The old woman remained motionless.

The old woman never spoke. But I do know one thing about her. When strangers walked away, the dog rose. And her hand always sought the dog’s head.

And as the tail moved slower, slower, slower, the large dog would stare directly into her eyes.

It seemed to me that a strange, undefinable energy passed up her thin arm.

But I never saw her face.

The Ghost Ship

Lynn sat alone on the gray rock at the edge of the pond gazing into the distance. Different day, same rock, same pond. The same dirty water. The same life.

The breeze was slight; the humidity was stifling.

Lynn’s break time at the factory was strictly 15 minutes. That left nowhere else to go but out the back door, past a pile of broken pallets and to the edge of the pond. And that’s where Lynn sat. Her eyes sought the distance.

Something moved on the water. A snake, probably.

Far across the pond were the shade trees. They appeared like an oasis mirage in a desert, so green, so inviting, but never within reach. At the factory workers had only 15 minutes. And of course a quick lunch in the cafeteria. And after work one hurried home to beat the traffic.

The water of the pond was just as muddy as the ground surrounding Lynn’s rock. Where the water came from, Lynn didn’t know. The torpid pond seemed a shallow bowl of dust mixed with tears, broken earth, rusted things, time’s remnants.

As always her time passed.

Soon time to go.

The thing on the water appeared closer. The slight breeze seemed to be pushing it.

Lynn sat on the hard rock and watched the mystery as it moved.

Garbage, she assumed.

The thing moved slowly across the water, drawing closer, closer, into focus. It was nothing more than a piece of dead bark.

Lynn watched the bark inch across the dust-specked pond, until it finally bumped up against her rock. Lying upon the bark was something white.

The tiny flower was perfect, white, inexplicable.

Like a snowflake.

Lynn looked down. A flower? From where?

Almost time to go.

Something urged Lynn to gently pick up the small flower. Quietly she placed it beside herself on the rock.

A change of air.

The ghost ship departed, its cargo delivered.

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 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 black 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.

The old man ran his fingers through an ebony beard, which he had obviously curled and dyed. He opened the shining 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 actually 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 hesitated. 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!”

He held up the shining book with gold lettering and read: “Minui fines vitae justo in aeternum!

The Great Sampson vanished.

The carnival sideshow 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 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 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 he had vanished–none of it seemed real.

The boy 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 the hell are you talking about?”

“The Great Sampson disappeared about ten minutes ago! He was doing his very 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 perfectly ordinary. “Can you hear me?” the boy 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 strange shining 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 elegant gold letters on the cover. 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 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.