Here is an excerpt from Smoking Mirrors. Illustration by Matthew Tuite. Story by Meg Tuite.
“Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character.”
Most people believe that small rooms can chain you to tiny destinies. I envision myself bent over my desk in my room at home whenever I am away from it. It is murky, diminutive and crammed with drawings, scribbled paper. My transparency there brings other worlds alive. It is what returns me to a universe I can tred on that has no need for convention or public forums. Homicide is a moral obligation and the women on my pages let me cower beneath them and lick their toes. It is the only room with a fate.
I am a professor, forced to sit in a classroom five days a week for money. I lift my head that is anchored in fear and resignation, but it rises like the sweat glands mingling inside my yellowing shirt. I look up at faces that hope for a derailment and start to vibrate. The nerves wear me down, pulse and yet I am jolted into that trembling sanctuary in my brain that somehow resurrects me.
A story, I say. The student’s eyes are smudged with irony and doubt. They study me as I look beyond them into a meteor of radiance that transforms a calamity of self-consciousness into a momentary revelation of false bravado.
Listen. Hear those shuffling feet and the anticipation peering over the precipice hoping to discover a body? I can taste the blood in their eyes. They sit back. Some boys clasp their arms behind their heads and smirk. Humans, en masse, do not exist without a hunt.
These boys in my class whisper about me. But they are two-dimensional cut-outs steeped with the steamed vapor of their odious neighbors. I am another day at a job that never merged with the fragmented rays of daylight. I see snarls of rabid dogs waiting for me to stretch my carcass into the abyss.
Let us contradict our toxic gloom. It is not so much survival that weeds through us, because we are more fertile with death than life. And that is the only way to begin the labyrinth of a story.
* * * *
Yes, the setting was provincial, they said, peopled with cousins, uncles, mothers and their offspring, what town isn’t? But what of the specter of an elephant parading across the streets, shitting on the cobblestone? The elephant bobbed his head and passed through crowds that gathered in groups of ten or more.
He had been shipped all the way from Africa, but any place reminded him of the land that stretched his horizon and the mound of desert that never owned up to the slaughter of his brother.
The townsfolk dressed the elephant up in neon colored regalia and bells during the festival of saints and the princess of the town who wore veils and black kohl around her eyes rode on his back and waved to the crowd as they bowed to her.
The elephant lowered himself when she was being escorted down from his back. His senses were heightened. Something on her reeked of death and dismemberment.
The party continued into the night with dancing and fireworks. It was an event so potent it brought unlikely couples together who might never had spoken, but for the supernatural presence of the elephant and his unrestrained girth.
The princess of the annual festival was a guest of the governor and all the highest ranked citizens. Her wine glass was never empty, each plump magistrate fawned over her, rambled some heinous poetry about the moonlight cascading off of her breasts. She rolled her eyes and let them sweat over her, breathe on her neck.
They unleashed the elephant from a post near the gathering where kids had been climbing on him all night long. He started moving in toward the party. The princess smiled. Finally, someone who had no agenda, nor subterfuge, just another elegant creature like herself. The crowd parted as he moved in and lumbered directly toward her. The music stopped and everyone was quiet, but for the jingle of the adorned elephant. The princess had been waiting for the recognition she so rightfully deserved. She bowed her head toward the elephant. His bells chimed and rang as he swayed in her direction.
When the elephant came up to the princess, the breeze hushed. All felt that something extraordinary would happen between these two exquisite beings. The princess was covered with jewelry from her tiara all the way down to the bangles on her ankles.
The elephant lowered his head. His trunk sniffed around her and then honed in on her wrist. She could feel the vacuum of his breath. She was nervous that this huge animal, so close to her, could crush her at any moment, but his gentle movements and the nuzzling of his trunk tickled her and made her giggle. Some of the men moved in closer, but the townsfolk were engrossed by the pristine, delicate princess and the cumbersome animal engulfed in a moment of intimacy. It seemed as though there was an inner dialogue of royalty between them that no one else understood.
The elephant lifted his head slowly and without warning let out a huge blast of a bellow that terrorized the scattering crowd. He stamped his massive right hoof that cracked through the cobblestone. His trunk lifted high into the air and he raged in agony. The princess backed away as quickly as she could and ran for cover, hiding behind the men of the village.
The mayor ordered a few of his men to get their rifles. It was no longer safe to have such a mad beast roaming their town.
None of them noticed tears trickling off of the wrinkled skin. The elephant was mourning. He had found his brother dangling off the wrist of the princess. Her ivory bangles were the last remains of his family in Africa.
Two of the men came forward and aimed their rifles. They wanted everyone in the village to witness the death of this dangerous threat. One blasted between the eyes and the other steered for the heart.
The elephant fell to his knobby knees before crashing to his side shattering most of the cobblestone beneath him. The princess hid her head in someone’s chest. Her ivory bangles rattled as she hyperventilated, clasped within some lucky man’s embrace.
A year later they had their festival again. The princess was sitting high on an Arabian horse this time. She was enveloped in the rarest of shimmering garb and hanging from her long, fragile neck was an elaborate ivory necklace that matched the bracelets on her arm that no one could help but admire. She had never looked so imperious.
* * * *
The boys were silent. Some were leaning forward in their chairs and others were in a state of languid introversion. There was nothing more to say. I nodded my head and dismissed them. They didn’t run for the door this time. Some of them lingered and studied me. None of them knew of the subterranean life I led. I could go on like this forever. There were multitudes of stories to tell.