Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Day We Killed Mystery

From an old newspaper review.

The Joseph Rockstacker Illuminated Circus, Carnival and Menagerie have come to Anchor for the coming week’s festivities and I was sent to see the sights.
The spot chosen, as all my readers have probably already observed, is the sports fields by the swimming hall, and never have I seen it looking so splendid. The grand Big Top, the Ferris wheel and the old Steam Carousel were all there. I wandered the Midway and took it all in, and a fine sight it was. I have chosen to use this culture column, not to review its main attraction, the grand Circus, but rather I want to convey what I experienced in a most singular and curious side attraction.
I was drawn to the anomalous little tent because it seemed to promise a different, almost anachronistic kind of Magic. The beautifully ornate woodcarvings on the show-front depicted strange symbolic images of Magicians. Their style was different from the other banners and circus pictures in that they seemed to hold some deeper significance outside of my understanding.
To me it had the air of times past, when Magicians were not just tawdry additions to children’s parties or entertainment on cruise ships or shopping malls. My interest was piqued, so I paid my dollar to enter and found inside the same style of decoration. The canvas walls were covered with painted symbolic depictions. One that caught my attention had a man climbing a freestanding ladder. He was almost at the top and held a key in his outstretched hand. Perched atop the wobbly structure his key pointed towards an eye with a keyhole pupil. The atmospheric imagery was indeed most esoteric and made me think more of secret initiatory fraternities, rather than venues for lighthearted sideshow amusement.
The little stage had deep red velvet curtains, with the letters BIS embroidered on them. They opened and with very little bravado an unassuming, but fiery showman with a big mustache came out. He smiled, seeming genuinely pleased that so many had chosen to join him in the afternoon’s spectacle. He began an oration about himself and his origin as an assistant in his father’s magic show then proceeded to perform a series of funny and baffling routines.
I found him a very amicable Showman, and could not help thinking I would very much like to count this chap amongst my friends. More than being fascinated with his particular tricks, I was captivated by the sense of genuine warmth and deep enthused passion that radiated from this curious prestidigitator. There was no shadow of doubt that this man loved what he did, and so did we. The crowd was all very much engaged, laughing and carrying on.
In one routine the Showman slipped an over-sized dice into a small cabinet with four doors, and promptly claimed it vanished, although it seemed obvious to us that it merely slid back and forth, with the clever conjuror always opening the wrong door to demonstrate the dice’s absence. The comedy of errors and his witty banter made frivolity rise to almost ecstatic heights. The children and more boisterous of us cried out, half chocked with laughter, at the misunderstandings, trying to get the Showman to open this or that door. In the end, when he finally opened all four doors of his dice cabinet, it became apparent he had indeed made the dice disappear and all the misunderstandings and fun that ensued was merely part of this man’s terrific showmanship. With many jubilant members of the audience wiping tears of joy from their cheeks, the lights dimmed. In the stark light from the spotlight, as dust rose from the dirty showground through the beam of light, the Showman proclaimed:
“It is time!” and held up a dead twig and a piece of red paper. In one swift motion he scrunched it up and stuck it on the end of the twig. Then he stepped towards some men in the front row who were drinking beers. With a slight nod he picked and pulled the green labels of their bottles. The men looked mystified by this strange behavior. The Showman then stuck them onto the twig and with this finished a crude imitation of a red flower. To this there was a smattering of goodhearted applause, but it also raised a few eyebrows in wonder of where this was going. The Showman continued with a serious tone:
“What power in us can transform what we see every day into something beautiful?” Of course no one answered this rhetorical question, and he continued to answer it for us.
“Love.” He said. “Love transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. Love lets us see the wonderful in the wonderful, lets us realize the beauty of what we thought ordinary and lets us discover the mystery of life wherever we turn.”
With that the Showman snapped his fingers, and here I must admit I don’t know if the transformation happened just then, or if this was when I noticed it, but the paper, beer label and stick had indeed turned into the most lush and perfectly formed rose. The inanimate had come alive, life from death, the mystery of mysteries. The Showman stepped forward and graciously let the ladies in the front row smell its exquisite fragrance, so strong in fact, even yours truly, could smell it from the midst of the crowd. Then, back in the centre of the stage, the Showman snapped his fingers again and with this the rose ignited and in a flash of instant fire it was gone. A gasp rose from the crowd and a man turned to me with an expression of awe on his face, his mouth moving, but no sound passed his lips.
Here I must interject that this might not sound like the greatest of conjuring effects, but dear reader, you must understand that at this stage in the performance this simple effect somehow struck the deepest and most resonant chord with myself, and dare I say the entire congregation. Perhaps precisely because of its simplicity, we the audience could see the miracle and mystery clearer. The applause was different than for all preceding feats, more quiet, but also more intense and heartfelt. I thought this would be the end, but little did I know.
“Now, we all just witnessed something extraordinary. We saw and together touched the mysterious. And I know you are wondering how it was executed. How can one do such a thing, what is the secret? Where did the rose go?” Murmur spread through the crowded canvas room.
“You all seem like warm and good people so I will let you take the final choice. Would you like me to reveal this secret? Show you where the rose returned to? Just let it all be explained, mundane and deflated? Or would you instead like to end this performance carrying this feeling of beautiful unexplained mystery with you? I will let you decide which feeling to leave with.”
I believe it was one of the guys in the dirty shirts wearing trucker caps that first said it, but regardless, as soon as one had uttered it we all shouted for the secret. The Showman raised his hands, but said nothing. He removed his jacket, unbuttoned his shirt and with his fingernails grabbed his flesh and tore. Before my eyes the Showman ripped open his chest. Blood poured from the rip and as the wound opened I saw the ribs beneath. He pried his fingers between them and broke them apart. An awful sound, somewhere between stepping on a dry stick and cracking a lettuce, made my skin crawl. Ribs wrenched open, he forced his right hand in and after some searching proceeded to pull out his heart. The thick veins and arteries hung long, thick and dripping from the still beating heart. With each beat blood flowed in great abundance out of the torn arteries. The Showman, pale and white as a ghost, again with his nails, tore his heart apart and from its core he revealed the rose. Gently holding its flower he began pulling it out. It’s thorns turned the flesh of the vain it protruded from inside out as he tore it free and held it forth with no strength in his arm. For a few moments he inspected us with a quizzical look upon his ashen face. His chest still open, blood still flowing. No one clapped. No one spoke. Then he fell, and was dead.
Suddenly the lights turned up to full and the sidewalls of the tent rolled up like spring-loaded roller curtains and the crowded midway looked in on us all. The spell was broken and in that instance I understood we had just killed Mystery.  

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