I have a very clear memory of going to see a magic show when I was five.
It was in Ireland; we went to a venue there located on the top of a cliff.
I remember the bright blue and purple carpet as we walked in, the bar that stretched down the entire right side of the reception area. On the left, down a set of stairs that staggered downwards, there was a casino filled with bright flashing lights and obnoxiously loud drill sounds. It was a big place, and I remember feeling a tingling sensation at the base of my diaphragm.
I remember feeling as though real magic had surrounded me.
The magic show was amazing, but even at a young age I was able to figure out how many of the tricks had worked. There were simple ones, like making a rabbit appear out of a hat, or a dove being pulled from the magician’s sleeve, but as the show progressed, the tricks grew more complicated.
The magician’s finisher consisted of a large cage being rolled on stage. The magician’s lovely red haired assistant was told to enter the cage, and she did it with a flamboyant wave of her hands and hips. She posed in the cage and smiled to the audience, then she disappeared under a large purple sheet that the magician had thrown overhead.
We all watched in anticipation as the magician waved his hands. Seconds later, the sheet was pulled.
The assistant was gone.
In her place stood a real live tiger.
The audience roared with applause, but even as I stared at the tiger, even as my parents rose in a standing ovation at my sides, I could see the trap door beneath the cage. I knew how the trick was done. But the magic tingling inside of me didn’t dissipate. At that age, I wasn’t quite sure why.
As I grew older, I became obsessed with magic tricks and how they worked. I would buy all the magic kits my parent’s money could afford, I’d read books about tricks, and I lost count of how many live shows I watched – entranced - as the magicians performed.
But then, as they usually do, things changed.
As the years passed, the internet became more popular. Websites were designed specifically dedicated to debunking magic tricks. The magic of understanding how a trick was performed trickled away. There was no magic when anyone could find the answers they were looking for by typing a few words into Google.
My interest in magic fizzled out through the years, leaving nothing left of it but a sour taste in my personality. As I grew older, I began to forget about my earliest interest and as I graduated school and moved onto University, magic became the last thing on my mind.
It was only when I graduated University that one of my friends invited me to a show.
She’d bought tickets for the five of us as a sort of ‘coming of age’ gift. Even though we were all well into our twenties and most of us had steady jobs, we made the time to indulge her.
I remember that for the first time in two decades, my memory of that cliff face in Ireland emerged in my mind, as did the tingling in my chest as all those people had applauded the gaudy little magician on stage. For the first time in two decades, I wanted that feeling back.
I was ready to hate the show.
The back of my mind droned on automatic, replaying all the old tricks I’d memorised as a kid. I was ready to go in there, arms folded, and casually list off answers to the tricks as the magician performed them. I knew my friends would hate me for it, but that wouldn’t stop me.
The venue was big and shockingly crowded. I guess after all these years I’d assumed people would have grown bored of magicians, especially when most people knew how the tricks worked. Some people liked to live in ignorant bliss, I conceded. Some refused to learn what they needed to debunk tricks so they could keep the magic ‘real.’ Some part of me wished I’d done that, too. Some part of me was relieved I hadn’t.
When we were seated, we talked amongst ourselves until the lights went out. The audience bristled with excitement; you could feel the energy in the air, buzzing around our ears like white noise. Talking turned to murmured whispers turned to silence and suddenly a spotlight hit the stage.
Five seconds later a man emerged from the left. He strode on stage, a cane in his hand, though he was far too young to need it for anything other than show. He wore a very typical magician’s suit and tie, right down to the tailcoat that swished behind him. His hair was long, dark and wavy, falling in relaxed curves around his shoulders. He wore a tall top hat, which he tipped towards the audience in an overt gesture as they laughed and applauded.
To mark off the look, he had a moustache, bushy and curled at the corners but far too large and ostentatious to be real. He bowed his head - making his hair fall forwards - before rocking back on his heels to his original position, straight as a ruler. I clapped my hands, but didn’t smile. The act was already far too typical for me.
Once the audience had calmed down, the magician raised his kid-gloved hands. With a sly smile and wink, he gestured to himself. “For my first trick,” he announced, grabbing the lapels of his jacket, “I would like to invite you to a different kind of show.”
With a quick movement, he ripped the jacket from his body, revealing a plain t-shirt underneath. I heard a few people gasp. I looked to my friends, they all seemed to be just as confused as I was.
The magician continued. He untied his bowtie and threw it off stage along with his cane. He took his hat in his hands and propelled it into the audience. A few people screamed as they fought over the prize. Finally, he ripped the moustache from his face, wincing only slightly as he shoved it into his trouser pocket. He peeled his gloves off before raising his hands again.
“Just as my outfit was an illusion, so is this show!” he declared. “Tonight you will see a mixture of my abilities. Some will be magic tricks, others will be as real as you and I!” As he finished his sentence, two stage hands in black rolled a large human-sized water tank onto the stage.
“Some of you may be acquainted with this trick,” the man said, waggling his finger at the audience. “But I assure you, this isn’t magic. I’m sure you will have seen tricks like this performed with a sheet over the tank, obscuring your view. This is so you don’t see the magician in question struggle… of course you never get to see the answer to your questions, either. Well!” He raised his hands. “Tonight you will all receive an answer for every trick I perform. Including this one.”
The stage hands returned with two sets of hand cuffs. The magician winked. “If any of you are squeamish, you may not want to look. There is no magic in this trick, for all I will need to do is dislocate parts of my body to escape. There are no sheets, for I have nothing to hide. Every move I make to get out, you will see. And if I fail, you will see that too.”
I was on the edge of my seat. A similar tingle in my chest to the one on that cliff face in Ireland returned to me. But this time it buzzed like a swarm of angry bees, roiling inside of my whole torso in sick anticipation. A few of my friends began to mutter unsurely, but at least two of them were watching like I was; only their eyes betrayed their fear.
The magician did as he had promised. He was lowered into the tank with both his arms and legs cuffed. The second his whole body was submerged, the stage hands closed the tank’s top. That’s when the timer started.
No one watched the seconds tick by; our attention was focused solely on the magician. With his breath held, he began to contort his body, expertly dislocating joints in his wrists and arms to pull himself free of his restraints. The audience gasped and murmured as his body moved in impossible angles. Some people looked away, but the majority of the audience didn’t. Or rather, perhaps they couldn’t.
It was entrancing seeing a man bend his body in such ways. When he grabbed the key at the bottom of the tank for the binds around his ankles, one of his wrists was still dislocated. A few horrified shrieks echoed through the auditorium. One of my friends suppressed a gag. I could only stare in morbid fascination.
As he fiddled with the key - trying to get a good grip with only his left hand available to him - I could see his chest begin to spasm. An air bubble escaped his mouth. The audience got louder, more restless, but I didn’t dare move. I watched the magician struggle as more bubbles burst from his mouth. He turned the key three times before the cuffs unlocked.
In a flurry of movement, he surged upwards, pushing the top of the tank up with a burst of strength. As his head broke from the water, the audience gasped with relief. I heard a few whimpers, but in seconds the audience were on their feet in a standing ovation, cheering the mad magician on.
I joined them. I wasn’t sure why, but I did. The energy in the audience was too infectious; the morbid possibility of certain death had infected me. I cheered as loudly as the audience around me, clapping so hard that my hands came away stinging and sore.
But that was just the beginning of the act.
The magician continued; he debunked his tricks as he went, showing us mirrors, hidden pockets in his costume changes, even the apparatus behind some of his more complicated tricks. In others, there were no illusions, just simple points of fact. Card tricks he’d memorised, hypnotic tricks that successfully befuddled the mind. But it was the dangerous tricks I enjoyed the most.
He finished his act with his assistant, a stocky female who hadn’t seen the light of the stage all evening. She wore a simple suit and tie; two diamond cufflinks glittered on her wrists. Other than that, there was no bounce in her step, no performance at all. She walked silently to a large wooden target three times her size that had been rolled onto the stage. She didn’t blink.
“For my final trick,” the magician announced, “I will need the use of my assistant here.”
The assistant nodded stiffly. A few people chuckled warily, unnerved by her standoffishness.
“As many of my tricks tonight have been, this one is entirely real,” the magician said. As he spoke, the stage hands rolled a metal tray to his side. The tray was lined with a set of very real blades.
I nearly fell off my chair.
The magician fingered one of the blades. He picked it up in his left hand, using his right to gently press his index finger to the tip of the blade. The cameras that were focused on his close-ups caught the spot of blood that immediately blossomed from the wound.
The audience began to mutter again.
“This trick is assuredly dangerous,” the magician said with a wicked glint in his eye. “I would ask that none of you try anything similar at home.”
Before we could even react, the magician struck. His body blurred in one fierce move. His arm snapped backwards, the knife perfectly poised in his grip, then his arm shot forwards and the blade withdrew.
Several people screamed as the blade imbedded itself an inch from the assistant’s right ear. The assistant hadn’t moved, but the camera zoomed in on the sweat that beaded around her head, trickling down the side of her face. Her eyes stared lazily at the magician, as though she wasn’t quite convinced that what had happened was even real.
I believed it, though. So did the rest of the audience.
The magician picked up a piece of ribbon from the table. He tied it around his face, covering his eyes. He drew his hand along the table again, feeling for the handle of another blade.
The audience was alive in panic. One of my friends had a low-voiced argument with the person sat next to her before she stood and stormed out of the auditorium. A few others followed her lead, but not many. I continued to stay seated, my eyes fixed on the sweating assistant and the blindfolded magician.
He made another shot, then another, then another. The second knife imbedded itself close to the assistant’s side. The third hit just above the crown of her head.
The fourth and final shot grazed her thigh.
It cut through the material of her trousers with a sharp tear of cloth. Blood sprang from the wound almost immediately, but even from this angle I could tell the wound wasn’t life threatening.
Most of the audience saw what I saw, but a lot of others yelled out in shocked outrage. A dozen more left all at once. A few left minutes later, as though the shock had taken its sweet time to set in.
Only the friend who had bought the tickets was sat next to me now. The other three had cleared out after they’d seen the assistant’s blood spatter onto the stage.
The magician took off his blindfold, completely unsurprised to see his assistant crouched to the ground, clasping her wound in bewilderment. Only now did her eyes seem to register what was happening, but even still, she didn’t look angry. Instead, she seemed rather subdued. The magician nodded to her and she stood straight, bowing to the audience awkwardly before two stage hands helped her limp behind the curtain.
“All tricks come with a margin for error, it’s what keeps us uncertain, it’s what keeps us on our toes.” The magician looked out to his remaining audience, raising his hands. “I have been the Truth Teller, goodnight!”
A puff of smoke erupted from the stage and the Truth Teller ran off.
I rose into applause, as did most of the audience. My friend remained seated and as my eyes scanned the seats, I noticed a few did the same. Some of them looked pale in the dim light. Other’s eyes were red and splotchy. A few people started to leave immediately, others simply sat in silent shock, mentally exhausted by what they had seen.
The energy inside of me was amazing. As I left the auditorium and joined my friends at the bar, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. The show had been the most entertaining thing I’d ever witnessed, miles better than the gaudy little magician from Ireland and his live tiger trick. I washed down my buzz with a double whiskey, but my body still tingled all over. The magic was real inside of me. I never wanted the euphoria to end.
My friends were not as excitable as I was, and after a few rounds of drinks, they decided to head home.
I decided to stay behind.
I ordered another drink, watching as the audience slowly trickled out. I overheard a few conversations.
“Absolutely horrendous, who let’s that happen in a live performance?” one woman asked.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” a grey haired man said, his eyes glazed with astonishment.
“That guy’s gonna get himself arrested, how the Hell is doing something like that even legal?”
I listened to them all, sipping my drink and staring idly at my phone.
When the bell for last calls rang, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder.
“Did you enjoy the show?”
Behind me stood the Truth Teller. He wore the same t-shirt from his act, but now he was in jeans and a leather jacket. With his long hair and soft eyes he could have been a discount Jesus. He certainly didn’t seem like a man capable of injuring his assistant for the purpose of a show.
I stood from my seat, eager to shake his hand.
“Your show was amazing,” I said hurriedly, shaking my head. “I-words can’t describe how much I enjoyed it.”
His eyes crinkled with a smile.
We sat at the bar together. I offered to buy him a round, but he turned me down, buying the two of us three drinks instead. The bar remained open for us and as the final patrons scurried out, we got to talking.
“My real question is how?” I said, my voice lightly slurred. “How the Hell did you get a magic show like that so popular? A show with no actual magic?”
The Truth Teller shrugged, sipping his drink. “A lot of people pay to be tricked, that’s true,” he conceded, “but more will pay to find the truth behind those tricks.” He grinned. “But that’s not quite as magical.”
“But it is,” I insisted, then softened. “I… I used to watch shows all the time as a kid and none of them compared to how I felt coming out of yours.”
The Truth Teller’s lip quirked. “Is that so?”
“Swear on my life.”
The Truth Teller bumped his glass with mine. “Then I’ll tell you my other secret.” He paused for dramatic effect. “People love danger. A trick isn’t complete without it. If you pull a dove from your sleeve, the biggest danger to you is getting pecked on the finger. But throwing a knife at someone’s head? Submerging yourself in water? Well, why do you think Houdini was so popular?”
I gave the Truth Teller another once over. “So… the thing with your assistant wasn’t an accident?”
The Truth Teller smiled secretively. “It’s more of a surprise. Some nights it may go wrong, others she comes out completely unscathed.”
“And she signed up to do that?”
“Of course.” The Truth Teller winked. “You’d be surprised what kinds of people there are out there.”
“Are you doing any more shows?” I asked after another swig of my drink. I tried to hide the desperation in my voice, but I knew it was still achingly present. After living so long without ever feeling a rush anywhere close to that, I couldn’t wait until I could feel it again. I needed it.
The Truth Teller pushed his drink away with one hand. He examined the small wound on his right index finger. He seemed to consider something before smiling. “You’re in luck.”
He turned to me, his dark eyes imploring. “I’m doing another set of shows at a venue not far from here. It’s small, so there’s no guarantee you’d get a ticket if you tried to buy a seat but…” He slipped a hand into the inside pocket of his leather jacket and extracted a rectangular card. “This will ensure access to the first show,” he promised, placing the card into my waiting hand.
I stared at it numbly.
It was a tarot card, or at least it looked like one. The card was of a black and white picture of a castle tower; a flame was burning from somewhere inside the window.
“The venue’s called The Tower,” the Truth Teller said, his eyes sparkling with humour. “Although that might have been obvious.”
I held the card close to my chest. “What’s the address to this venue?”
“I’ll text it to you,” the Truth Teller said.
I perked up. “Seriously?”
“Of course.” He grinned. “Anyone who enjoys my shows as much as you I consider a close friend.”
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