Storytime: Tricks of the Trade.

July 8th, 2015

Four old men and one campfire. However knobbly their knees, there just wasn’t enough room for all of them, and so they grumbled extra hard and shuffled some and generally made all the harrumphs and mmmrrphs and gnk-gnk-wchoo noises you expect from that sort of person at that sort of age. And to the surprise of none this did come to irritate them, and they did require distraction, particularly a distraction from their current distraction, which was oily, full of dead gnats, lacking in meat, and not enough to go around properly.
“You know,” said the wrinkliest one of them – a creature resembling a walnut as much as a man, but with more hard edge – “I used to be a magician.”
This generated a few raised eyebrows around the rest of the flames; fine, heavy-set eyebrows that had been gnarling and twining in place for decades now. There were plaits. And, above the plaits, a certain amount of half-interest.
“I wandered up and down the coast, selling gossip as fortunes and cards as futures. I could take a cut deck and stack it faster than a lumberjack could a cord. I could breathe fire as easy as air. I could shake a man’s hand and tell him his family history better than he could, and he’d thank me for it. And when I was down and out – really down and out, so far down the cockroaches looked under their feet for my wallet – I’d show people pennies in my ears and lift dollars from their pockets. Just in emergencies, mind you. Nothing important. I didn’t do all that much.”
A nod, a shrug. A gradual widening of the ring until there was a bit more equitable kneespace. But mostly, the convsersation was put to a dull simmer while they all digested this.
“Huh,” said one of the others, eventually. Everything about him was eventual. His chin turned into his neck, eventually. His breaths wheezed into words, eventually. His knees ran out, eventually. And eventually he wheeled up another few words from somewhere deep and secret inside his skull: “how’d you do it?”
“A good magician never reveals his tricks,” said the first and wrinkliest. He took a long, slow swig from his bowl of their horrible soup.
They waited a moment.
“Mostly just quick fingers,” he said, wiping his mouth. “And a bit of cold reading. Start with general assertions that anyone can agree with, narrow in based on quick clues of whatever’s at hand. You can get pretty good at it. I was pretty good at it.”
“But not a good magician,” said the eventual man.
“Well, I only stole from those who could afford it, mostly, often. And it was usually just when I needed it or I was cross with them occasionally.”
The jury of the wrinkliest man’s peers shrugged at him, abstaining judgement.
“Besides, I’ll wager none of you’s done better,” he said. “I mean you, what’ve you ever done, eh?”
The eventual man pondered this, staring into the depths of his soup bowl as if they held all the world and he’d only just realized how much of it was worthless.
“I sold bottled miracles,” he said after a while.
“Cure-alls. Or cure-mosts. I never claimed all of what it could do. Never. But if you only claim half of that. Well. They just fill in the blanks.”
“What’d they use it for?” asked the wrinkliest man, curious.
“Hair loss. Childbirth. Bad breath. Sore fingers. Cut toes. Stomache and bellycramp and indigestion. Hair removal. Bad temper. Crying children. Ingrown toenails. Reddened skin and greening skin. The gout. The pox. Measles and mumps and malaria. Leprosy and leukemia. Wrinkles. Cancer of all stripes. The clap. And even for a painkiller when you had to have your leg sawn off.”
“What was in it?” asked the third man, who was mostly hair.
“A good magician never reveals his tricks,” said the eventual man.
The campfire hissed and fussed to itself as they waited, unsmiling.
“Water. And a little bit. Mostly dirt and a bit of soda. For the fizz. Colour from anywhere.” He shrugged, which was a very difficult gesture for him as it was hard to tell his shoulders from his back from his arms. “But sometimes it worked. Or did no harm. Now and then. Or so.”
The man who was mostly hair snorted. “Common con-men.”
“Oh?” asked the wrinkliest man sharply. “And what did you do that has you feeling oh so holy, padre?”
“I was a holy man,” said the man who was mostly hair.
“Was,” said the eventual man.
The mosquitoes were fierce that night, humming their nasal fury just beyond the smoke the old men squatted in.
“What happened.”
“Oh, nothing much,” said the man who was mostly hair with a wave of his hand, slopping his lukewarm soup bowl over his wrist. “At least, nothing much at any one time. But I would come into towns, you know. And I would find them…well, EMPTY. DEVOID of inner life or spiritual well-being. And they would have no sense of community at ALL, poor things. Poor, poor things. So I would take care of them, and watch over them. I would give them meals, give them morals, teach them rightfulness. And when the rest of the little hamlet saw how well-improved their beggars were, I would show those of needful mind the way themselves. Hard work! Good rules! Honest living! Thriftfulness! Mindfulness! And a happy, wholesome, loving, one-big-family town that was EVERYONE’S home! All thanks to ME. To MY work. The GOOD work! For which I was SUITABLY rewarded, I ASSURE you. And my flock loved me, and the rest would LEARN to love me, and then… And then I would leave because the road goes ever on etc etc and help someone else.”
“You mean they caught you with the poorbox,” said the wrinkliest man.
“Seldom!” said the man who was mostly hair.
“Or maybe,” said the eventual man. “Maybe it was with someone’s daughter.”
“Never proven!” said the man who was mostly hair. “And besides, a good magician never reveals his tricks.”
They stared at him.
“Look, I only ever told them what they wanted to believe anyway,” he said. “And if it made them feel better to repay me, then so what? And it was self-defence plain and simple to tell my flock to protect me from the heathen. They hated me so! The world has been a better place thanks to me, I can tell you that much. Or it WOULD have been, if others would LISTEN to me and stop DOUBTING me. Besides, the poorbox was for as much their benefit as mine. Money is a SIN. I am not SINFUL. Therefore, I will take their BURDENS from them. It is SIMPLE AS SALT.”
The wrinkliest man laughed at this, then coughed into his soup as the campfire retaliated in the only way it knew how. “And you,” he said to the last member of the little ring, eyes watering. “And you, what’d you do, eh? Not that any of us do much now.”
“Me?” said the man. He was short and hunched, like he’d carried too much too far one day and never straightened up. “I tell stories. I told them when I was little and I got thrashed for them. I told them when I was a man and I was laughed at for them. And now that I’m old sometimes people don’t even listen at all.”
“Those young people,” muttered the wrinkliest man.
“They have no morals whatsoever in any way, shape or form,” agreed the man who was mostly hair.
“Tell us. What kind,” said the eventual man.
“Well, my story begins a very long time back,” said the last man. “Once upon a time, there was a very small boy with very poor parents. And then one night they took their children to watch a mountebank make flashes in the air and tell their fortunes, and when they got home their purses were gone. Six months later, their home was gone. And two years later, his parents were gone.”
“Scandalous,” said the wrinkliest man. He felt absently at his side for something hidden and curved.
“And then when he was very little, his brother grew sick, and the medicine he bought for him with his mother’s old watch was nothing but water and oil.”
“How horrid. That must have been,” said the eventual man. If he’d possessed gills – they could’ve been anywhere along his neck(shoulder?), they’d have been turning green.
“Then, last of all, when he was alone in the world and lost, a kindly priest took him in. He taught him good solid work cleaning and serving and counting money. And one day when he saw that the money didn’t make sense, the priest smiled at him and thrashed him and deemed him a sinner to be shunned by all good folk. So the village cursed him, and he left.”
“How appalling,” said the man who was mostly hair. “But I’m sure there must’ve been GOOD reasons for WHATEVER happened there are ALWAYS reasons AND LISTEN-”
“Not much happened after that,” said the last man. “There was a life in there, I guess. But it was mostly leftovers, the meat left on the bone. Everything else had already been taken. But one day that man, when he was tired and hungry, saw a fire on a hill. And he just sort of up and sat down and invited himself and served the soup, and he watched strangers tell stories until they weren’t strangers anymore.”
There was a quiet time as three brains performed thirty-three calculations of weight and reach and speed and sharpness. Old maths. Practiced maths, if not preferred ones.
“But anyways,” said the last man, leaning back on the half-rock that served him as a half-stool and staring into the fire, “none of that matters now.”
“Oh?” said the wrinkliest man.
“Yes,” said the last man. “Because I did learn one thing from all those hard lessons and hard times. One each, from last to first. Keep talking so they don’t have time to think. Mix the brew thorough, so the lumps don’t show. And have quick fingers.”
He looked up.
It was too late for the wrinkliest man. His leather skin was tanned purple now, with lavender foam over his lips, and his eyes had gone to look at places nobody’d ever imagined.
It was too late for the man who was mostly hair. Half his moustache had been taken down with him, and the rest was already matting over, mouth frozen.
But the eventual man was still falling over, legs(waist?) still working, his face trying to sort itself out even as he toppled.
“How?” he asked.
The last man shrugged. “I just told you. Tricks are for magicians. I’m just tired.”
And even the eventual man stopped, after a while.
Soon after, the fire went out. The mosquitoes came in. And a little bit of good came out of that night, as long as you don’t mind more mosquitoes.
At least they never pretend to be your friends.

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