Why Magicians Have No Epitaphs
by Shannon Joyce Prince
Part 2 will appear|
in issue 298.
|part 1 of 2|
By the banks of the river Styx, which flows into Hades, the land of the dead, there are tiny blue flowers. They’re so small and so pale and shaped like stars. Despite the fact that these flowers grow by a river, I always felt obligated, as a child, to scoop up some of the silvery water in my hands and make sure the blooms knew no thirst. Of course, the blossoms would probably flourish on their own. But how could you be sure? In my heart of hearts, I believed that without my love, all the blue flowers in the world would die.
In the river of death was the other me, the Me-I-Could-Not-Be. She looked so poised lying among the ripples. Her eyes were steady and calm. Unlike the lengthy black Afro that seemed to be-wing my dark brown body, her greenish wavy hair draped like a curtain over her silver arms.
“Mirabella” was not the name I had given her. It was simply a recognition of who she was. Flowing and hydrophilic, she seemed to possess her title as logically as whippoorwills. I’d try in vain to get her to rise from the river onto the blue speckled earth with me, but she’d never come.
So resignedly, returning to the job of caring for the flowers, I tried to satisfy myself with the meeting of our hands on the surface of the water. And that’s how it was, the two of me always coexisting in my mind somewhere between death and life.
My name is Jane Doe, and I am the keeper of small flowers, pale blues, and all things needy. I am the hoop maker, hugging a ring around each tree on its birthday. I am the mountain painter draping the view with my cloak of mist and gentle color. I am the one who makes babies laugh when there’s no one around and who tucks you into bed when your parents think you’re too old for it.
I make coffee beans spicy and teach mocking-birds their trade. I’m a dreary day on the forest’s edge, and the dark gray mud on a riverbank. Sometimes, I am the whole sky. All this, and once someone had the nerve to tell me that I would always be average.
The land of my youth was a beast recently weaned off honey and ambrosia and supersaturated with rainbows, lemon yellow sand, and fruit-juice bright oceans. I know you know this place. If you’re reading this story, it must be because you’ve kept alive some quarters in your mind where people went during “happily ever after.”
You can see it now as I speak it, a resident confirming what you’ve always known to be true: the street of castles where Cinderella, Snow White, and the rest live, the lilac-pink orchid grove where fairies learn to fly, the gold bridge canopied by orange trees where you have mermaid sightings, a white marble coliseum with multicolored seats available for wizard symposiums on alchemy.
The best thing in the land, to me, has always been our national museum. The museum is actually a large chandelier that fell out of the home of the beanstalk’s giant. Unable to move it from the dark woods where it fell, people began draping it with other trinkets from our past.
Between the ebony shadows of the forest, the rare warm sunshine that filters through the tree-tops and glares from the apple-sized crystals of the chandelier, are resting one of Cinderella’s slippers, gold Rumpelstilskin had spun from straw, a rose from Sleeping Beauty’s briar. The things that had been the stuff of dreams, just as real and tangible as can be, are sitting there potent, because they’re legendary and lax, because they’ve proven themselves.
As I meandered through the golden branches of the chandelier, I dreamed of the day I too would join the pantheon. These dreams made my heart fly.
A glass flew at me axis after axis before shattering against a space on the wall above my head. “I-I’m so s-sorry,” my mom sobbed, appropriately maudlin for a drunk. “I-I didn’t me-mean to throw that glass. I hate that you have to-to see me la-like-ike this-is. I try to protect you from this-is. I thought you were at the ’seum.”
My mom’s life and her career were like a monkey with a mirror. The facts of her personal life paralleled the stereotypes attached to her career. Mother, a skin with maternal love and 80-proof poured in. She left me filled with longing for her touch and disgust at her vice.
Oracle, feared and loved because she was powerful. Society could only detest that someone on the sidelines could see the future — after all, heroes were the ones who shaped history. But let a hero toss and turn over his political future, love life, or debt, and my mother would be the first one he sought.
“Stop looking at me like that!” My mother glared at me. I hadn’t tried hard to hide my look of displeasure at her state. “Don’t you dare judge me!” She rocked heavily left and right trying to get her balance. “You don’t have the right to judge me you-you. Mmph.” She sat down heavily in a chair. Then she laughed drunkenly. “You’re nothing.”
She looked into her empty glass as if getting inspiration for the hollow tone in her voice. “Nothing. You see,” she pointed clumsily at me and lost her balance. “I’m a drunk!” She said it with the light happiness of a little girl explaining her Halloween costume. “But I’m a drunk who’s an oracle. You’re not a drunk,” she added accusingly. “But you’re nothing at all.” Her tone was winding to the finish of its pitch adventure.
She started walking away but suddenly turned around. Her voice regained its ammunition. “But you’re not even a real nothing! You’re not a complete zero. You’re just an average boring person in society. You’re a good barometer for society.” She was obviously proud of remembering the large word while tipsy.
“Don’t feel bad,” she said in a condescending tone of voice. “Don’t cry at being ungifted. Some people just want talent for nothing. So don’t you dare judge me.” She finished and wobbled out of the room. And Me-in-the-Styx began to rock Me-on-the-Earth gently to sleep.
Half of the museum is the collection of things you see. Half is the illusion of life in these inanimate objects. Turn around, and there are ashes courtesy of a magical dragon. Turn again, fairy dust glitters like fine eye shadow. A glass slipper that turned a maid into a princess shimmered beneath green leaves. But that maid was destined to be a princess. I was destined to be ordinary.
I drew closer to my favorite treasures, comforted by the aura of enchanted promises kept. Some places are conducive to magic. Perhaps then, that was why I heard Mirabella whisper to me that if I wanted to, there was a way I could protect myself.
I believe I flew to that river. Running wouldn’t get me there fast enough. And when that rumbling thunder came up behind me, it only seemed like the crescendo of Mirabella’s power. The gray clouds and pouring rain were a manifestation of her strength.
“Don’t be scared, Janie,” she whispered. “I’m here now and I’m going to make you great.”
“What is Rumpelstiltskin famous for?”
“His creation. His gold. What he brought into the world.”
“I’m magic, and you created me. And now you’re going to bring me into the world.”
“You mean I’m going to carry you like a baby in my womb?”
“No. You’ve been carrying me for a very long time. You’ve created me, and named me, and loved me, and now I’m going to come into you with all the power of having lived in the river Styx and make you great.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“Just a little bit.”
“Will you be with me?”
“Well, I’ll fill up the part of you that’s empty, I mean, nothing.”
“Will you be with me?”
“Sort of. I’ll be here and you’ll be gone.”
“Will it hurt?”
“Just for a little bit. Then it will feel nice forever. If you get scared, just look in my pretty silver eyes.”
I only remember the banks of the river getting so slippery and wet that I couldn’t stay on. Tidal waves lusted for me with anger. I roared with the force of two beings, two worlds, and life and death.
The Styx began to rock me slowly back and forth like a loving, gentle mother. I was still screaming as I fell to the bottom of the stream. It was in this way that I cast my own transfiguration, or madness.
When I woke up, I was on the banks of the river. The silver Styx was in my eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. I stood and felt queenly. I leapt and seemed to be upheld by the atmosphere. I looked in the water for her and saw only the same nobody girl in the stream. I cried softly and weakly. “Come back,” I whispered. My plain Jane self in the river walked to somewhere beneath the depths of the water.
Just then, I noticed that the earth where I lay was pulsating. I held up my hands and saw fish-gray pasty palms. It worked! I was so happy. I know now what happiness is. It’s silver like mercury, warm and wet, and mostly it stinks, like fertile soil and inspiring drugs. Happiness has a beautiful stink.
I heard my mother calling me drunkenly through the woods. I almost laughed at the futility of her action. I was lovely now. Life was lovely now. I would never go back to that mean, stupid woman again. Jane was dead.
Once upon a time a beautiful woman with long, wavy, greenish gray hair, blind looking eyes, and brown skin that glinted silver walked into town. No one had ever seen her before, but they could tell by her otherworldly appearance that she was magical.
She did not live in the town with other people, but in a cave by a river that she sometimes talked to. Because the woman had hair like ripples and palms like fish bellies, everyone called her Mirabella — a name that bore all the essence of rushing water in its sound.
Mirabella was a madrina — a magician/healer. Many times, when people were very sick, she would cast a spell and cure them. If someone needed help with a witch, she would give them a potion to protect themselves.
One day an old soldier came to Mirabella and asked her for help in solving a mystery. He said that a king would let him wed a princess if he could figure out how she and her eleven sisters could wear out their slippers at night while locked in their bedroom.
“Well,” said Mirabella. “If you take this cloak you will be invisible to all the world. You can follow the princesses unseen and report their adventures to the king.”
The old soldier followed her advice and later became a Crown Prince. He told everyone that it was Mirabella who helped him.
Now Mirabella is famous, and sought after throughout the land. The princess’s slippers are in the museum in an exhibit dedicated to her. Now, Mirabella is happy. She must be. She got everything she wanted.
Once upon a time I was nothing at all, then I gave birth a little bit, and died a little bit, and now I am famous. Now I am happy. I must be happy. I have everything I want. Happiness is only getting the things that you want. The soldier came to me in the cave to be fitted for a cloak of invisibility.
“How come this cloak will work?”
“Because I’m magic. I lived in the river Styx.”
“Will it kill me?”
“Just a little bit.”
“Will it hurt?”
“For a very short time. Then it will feel nice forever.”
“Why will it feel nice forever?”
“Because you’ll be happy. Because you’ll be filled with the aura of princeliness.”
“What about what’s in me now?”
“Royalty will be in you. You’ll be gone. You’ll be happy, though.”
Perhaps the first signal that I was more alive than dead was the realization that my lungs were moving. Realized because of the change from Mirabella’s alto voice to my old hollow tone. As soon as I noticed this I rushed to the river. Very faintly and shimmery and looking kind of electrified was Mirabella floating on the river.
“You came out!”
“Well, you can see me.”
“Where is Jane?”
“Obviously back in you.”
“Why aren’t you in me?”
“Because your heart was pumping my water and it’s pumping too hard and it pumped me out.”
“Pumping too hard?”
“Yes, it’s accustomed to working hard. Haven’t you ever heard that blood is thicker than water?”
“Is that where that saying came from?”
“You mean other people have done this?”
“Of course. Do you think we’re so special? All over the world people are busy loving rivers and trees and clouds. They’re intoxicated by the thought of their own power and driven on by oracles whose only power is in their ability to act.”
“Don’t you talk about my mother!”
“I am your mother. I made you great!”
“I’m your mother, I gave you life.”
“What good is life? You’ve only been happy in death.”
“Well, I’m alive now.”
“You don’t have to be. There’s a way you can protect yourself.”
“Can you fix my voice?”
“Of course not. If I could have made the voice change permanent I would have done it in the first place.”
“Why are you so mean?”
“Because I like being alive. I hate being pumped out of you back into this river.”
“Why do you like being alive?”
“Why do you like being dead?”
“Because then I can be happy.”
“Well, I just want to be.”
“How do I get my voice fixed?”
“Go to a doctor, stupid.”
“Will it hurt?”
“Oh yes, more than you can ever imagine.”
Copyright © 2008 by Shannon Joyce Prince