New York is rarely a quite city, but on this night an unnatural silence had overtaken the Big Apple. It was as if the entire city were holding its breath, waiting in anticipation for something monumentous to occur. Aside from the wind softly tickling the grass with its invisible fingers, not a sound penetrated the stillness.
Then, a soft tap was heard by the silent sidewalk and the mute pavement. It was quickly succeeded by another, and then another, until the footsteps became as a loud symphony, playing off the mortar and stone of the quiet city.
The man walked down the street, absentmindedly looking down and waving his hands about. Anyone around would have thought him one of the drunken homeless, had it not been for his impeccable black suit. His coat tails flapped in the tendrils of the silent wind, as did his shockingly grey hair. He seemed much to young to be dressed so properly, but no one was around to comment on his strange manner of dress and behavior.
He continued down the sidewalk, completely unharrassed by anyone or thing, lost in his own world.
The soft *tap tap* of his feet continued as he walked past an alley that, despite the streetlight not two feet away, still remained in shadow like an ominous secret. The man walked by the breach between buildings, only barely glancing in a subconscious reaction to the change in light. He took two more steps, and stopped. His hands stopped their fluttering and came gently to his sides. He had seen something that intrigued him, and his eyes darted about as he mentally thought through his next course of action.
Unseen, he slid into the alley, only to find a wall that had been given a fresh coat of urban paint, more commonly called graffiti. Vile and vulgar words screamed out at the man in bright and various colors.
His brow furrowed momentarily as he read some of the writing, but then his gaze softened, and a look of contemplation settled on his features. He brought his forefinger and thumb up to his lip, staring at the brick wall as if it were a canvas. A jumble of melodies shifted through his skull simultaneously, a chaotic cacophony of discordant sounds. From the midst of this jumble, a single strand began to arise.
The man smiled, having found his quarry, and with a deft movement, produced a conductor's baton from his inside left breast pocket. His fingers held tightly, but his hand remained relaxed as he rose the baton over his head. He froze for but a second, checking once more the music in his mind. Then he began.
He quickly brought the baton down, and began lightly bouncing his hand in time to unheard music, his left hand mirroring his right. The tempo established, he then began making wide circles with the baton's tip. An almost imperceptible change began in the paint then. A slight shifting, but nothing overly noticeable. As the man slowly spiraled his baton in tighter and tighter circles, the paint began blurring and spinning to match.
Quietly, on the wind, if one would close their eyes and listen, a faint sound like a violin and piano ascending the scales in harmony could have been heard.
Continuing onto his next movement, the man began moving his arms in wide arcs, out and in and out and in. The mess of paint that was now on the wall began moving again, creeping along like so many colorful slugs. He continued in this way for some time, closing his eyes and listening to the music in his head, a soft, climbing melody.
Like a sculptor lovingly manipulating clay beneath his gentle hands, so did he adjust his movements as the work had need of it, creating a fluid dance with both hands and baton.
The music painted in his mind images of a tree, slowly growing throughout its many years. The steady growth, the unfurling of flowers, the wind dancing about its cracked bark and nimble leaves. All of these things were present in his unheard song, translated from the woodwinds and strings in his thoughts.
As the final note died away in his mind, he opened his eyes to view his work. There, before him, where the graffiti had once marred the wall was a painting of the tree he had envisioned. The soft green leaves, the crackling skin of the bark, the beautiful crimson flowers were all shown on the wall. His mind and soul was bared through this work, as is all art by its creator. He smiled at his creation; he had taken his time with this one and had thoroughly enjoyed it.
He walked out of the alley and readied to continue on his way, when he heard a soft sobbing coming from the nearby corner.
"Ladies and gentlemen..." an ominous voice echoed throughout the theater. "The Valentine Theater welcomes you to tonight's premier. This night marks the debut of one of the worlds finest magicians. Without further ado, Emily Barnard: The Stripey Mistress!" the audience burst into applause, as all do at the start of a show, and the curtain rose, revealing a stage.
On the stage sat a large, worn trunk, and on the trunk sat a young woman. She wore a long sleeved shirt that alternated between maroon and black, solidifying her title as the Stripey Mistress. Over her shirt, she wore a black vest that matched her pants. Her right hand wore a black glove; the other was naked. She reached up with her gloved hand, grabbed the top hat from her head, and stood in a low, flourishing bow.
"Good evening. I'm sure you all came here to see fantastic feats of magic and wonder," she looked up with a devious smile. Her back straightened, and she produced from her pocket a wand as she replaced her hat with her other hand. With each following word, she flicked her wrist, and a section of lights went out.
"Well, I... am happy... to... accommodate." With a final flick, the room was diffused with darkness. The audience looked about in the total darkness for a moment, before a blinding spotlight shown onto the stage, illuminating their entertainer.
"What do I have here?" she asked, her forefinger and thumb out as if gripping something. One of the more adventurous members of the crowd cried,
"You don't have nothing!" Emily smiled at the easy set-up.
"You're right. I don't have nothing here. In fact, I have a very special something. Nemus," she whispered into her microphone. Suddenly, between her empty fingers appeared an acorn. The audience was momentarily stunned, before offering meager applause. Impressive, but nothing they had not seen before.
"Such a marvelous thing, a seed," she said as she walked back to the trunk. She began undoing the numerous latches while she continued speaking. "Such a small thing, yet it can grow to such a marvelous size. If only we had the time..." she mused as she undid the final lock and flipped open the lid, "to watch it grow."
Placing the acorn softly in the trunk, she then shut the lid and jumped up on top of it.
"Tonight, I will do something no other magician has ever dared do..." she let the claim linger to build suspense. "I will wind forward the clock of time," she boasted with a triumphant smile.
"We've seen this trick! The one with the tiny orange tree!" her plant yelled. It had been necessary to use the false heckler to separate her illusion from other, similar ones.
"Ah, good sir. That is where you are wrong, for you should recall I did not use an orange seed..." she said, the lights dying with her final words. Plunged into darkness again, the crowd was caught off guard by the strobe light that began blinding them.
In the brief instance that the strobe light illuminated the dark theater, the audience saw a tree begin to grow out of the trunk as if watching a flip book with every other picture missing. Roots began poking out through the bottom of the trunk, while a trunk spiraled out the top, growing in width and height by the second. Branches erupted every which way, and when the lights finally settled, a large oak tree dominated the stage.
From the crook between two branches, Emily sat on the lid of the trunk as if it were a bench. She remained silent for a moment as the crowd took in the sight of the tree. At first, they assumed it was fake, but as they looked closer, they could see the bark was cracked and smattered in dry sap. Several green leaves fluttered down onto the heads of the audience, and they clapped at the wondrous illusion.
The Stripey Mistress, however, was not done. She held up her hand to silence the clapping from her audience.
"You liked that didn't you? I bet all of you wish you could control time on a whim. To go back to your springful youth," she said, flower blossoms erupting from between the leaves in the tree. "Or perhaps the warm, lazy days of summer," the buds opening up to reveal beautiful red flowers. "I, however, have always been partial to fall," and at her words the blossoms withered and faded. The leaves of the tree began to turn a myriad of colors, running the spectrum from red to brown to yellow and everything in between.
"I always loved watching the leaves fall in autumn. They always reminded me off..." she said, letting her sentence dangle. For a moment, the crowd leaned forward in their seats, wondering why she had stopped. Then someone from the back yelled,
"Butterflies!" the crowd looked up, and to their amazement, the leaves of the tree began to flutter down, becoming butterflies mid-flight. They watched in wonder as the butterflies fluttered about the theater, landing on an audience member from time to time.
Emily smiled; finally, it was all paying off. This show had been absurdly expensive to put together, costing her every cent she had to her name. But seeing the crowd's faces, she knew it was money well spent. Besides, her paycheck for this show alone should pay for most of her expenses. Now all that was left was for the mechanical butterflies to be lifted by the nearly invisible wires back up to the tree, where the tiny explosives would burst the miniscule bags of liquid that would turn into artificial snow-
Her train of thought was stopped when a sudden *crack* split the air. She looked up to see that one of the butterflies had exploded with much more force than she had anticipated. As if the first one had given a signal, all the butterflies began exploding in succession. Each explosion seemed larger and louder than the next, and instead of snow, what appeared to be water fell from the butterflies's shattered remains.
Streaks of blue began running all over the stage, the tree, and Emily. She looked up at the exploding butterflies, unable to comprehend what had gone wrong. As the last butterfly detonated, the crowd began yell.
"What the hell was that?!"
"My hair is ruined!"
"This is a new dress!"
"We could have been killed!"
"What are you trying to pull?!" the audience shrieked, one after another. They began to stand, some of them walking out, others approaching the stage. From behind the curtain, an older woman dressed similarly to Emily quick stepped out. Bringing her fingers to her lips, she let out a shrill whistle that stopped everyone, including Emily, in their tracks.
"Everyone, I'm the manager, Emma. I assure you this was not planned on our part, and you will be fully reimbursed for any damage caused." Emma glanced back at Emily, giving her a look that was compassionate, but disapproving. Emily knew they were going to have a talk, and she was certain she wouldn't enjoy it.
"I told you not to do the butterfly trick," Emma scolded from behind her desk. It had taken almost an hour to placate the crowd (which had very nearly turned mob), and everyone had received a refund, along with a promise to pay for replacement clothing or dry cleaning bills.
"I know but-" Emily began before Emma raised her hand to silence her. She brought her hand to her forehead and rubbed her temples, her elbow set firmly on the desk.
"It's to late now either way. Look, Emily... I won't beat around the bush. I just managed to get this theater off the ground; I can't afford to pay for these damages and you're salary."
"I understand! You can take whatever the cost is out of my paycheck," Emily offered, dying to make things right. Emma sighed and leaned back in her chair, looking at the ceiling to avoid eye contact.
"That's the problem... this is going to cost at least twice your salary."
"Then I'll do two shows for free-"
"No, I mean twice of your salary for the entire month." Emily fell silent, ashamed that her trick had gone so far awry.
"Because you're my pupil in the illusionary arts, I won't charge you for the full price, but I can't afford to pay you. And after that performance, it will be hard to book anymore shows as long as you work here. I'm sorry, Emily," Emma took in a large breath as if it would make what she said next easier. "You're fired." If Emily was shocked before, she was floored now. Tears began to well up in her eyes, but she repressed them.
"I- I understand," she said. Emma got up to comfort her, but Emily was already out the door. Emma was left staring at the door, and she felt as if she'd been punched in the gut.
Emily walked down the street, not bothering with trying to rub the blue stains out of her clothes. She knew it was pointless, and she simply didn't care anymore. With each step, it became harder for her to hold back her tears as she thought about all the dreams she had just lost. Magician, headliner, running the Valentine troupe when Emma retired: all her ambitions seemed to disappear with each step she took away from the theater.
Without realizing, she began to speed up, trying to distance herself from her dying hopes. Each footfall rang louder in her ear, like the death bell tolling over the grave of her ambitions. Finally, she couldn't bear the weight of her crushed dreams anymore, and she sat on the curb and sobbed.
She sat there for a long while, letting her frustration come out through her tears. She didn't understand why this was happening; she had tried the trick already once before, and it had worked flawlessly. It could only be bad luck that the second batch of butterflies had been defective. Now she was broke and without a job. She'd be evicted from her apartment, and forced to live on the street with the few meager possessions she owned.
Many minutes later, her sobs began to quite and lessen, and she became aware that someone was standing next to her. She quickly whipped her eyes and nose with the handkerchief from her front pocket, and looked up to see who it was. An angry audience member no doubt.
But as she looked up, she saw a man in a dashing black suit (completely free of blue, thankfully), with grey hair, an outstretched hand, and a smile.
"Hello. I believe that we could make beautiful music together."