by G.G. Silverman
Issue 2: Game | 3,476 words
At my audition for the position of Magician’s Assistant to The Great Martingale, I waited in a dark corridor in a long line of hopefuls, young women with rouge-streaked faces, swimming pool eyes, and platinum hair from a bottle. A tall, thin man with a black mustache walked the line, handing each girl a corset plucked from a box.
He paused before me, dusting my body with his blood-shot gaze. “Oy, I’ve got one made just for you, love. A red corset for a pretty rose.” He lifted one from the box and shoved it in my hands. “When your name is called, put it on and proceed to the stage. The Great Martingale awaits.” He moved along, and I clutched the garment. My heart sank; I had no idea what I was doing at all.
“Kate! Where is Miss Kate?” a swarthy man with a bowler cap barked.
I leaned forward and raised my hand.
“Kate, you are next. Don’t dally, Mr. Martingale doesn’t have all day.”
I dashed to a restroom, closing myself in a stall. I peeled off my street clothes, filth I’d worn since I ran away from my boyfriend, when his drunken backhand bruised my face for the last time. I squeezed into the corset, sending one leg at a time through the too-small holes, then I tugged the garment over my waist, my ribs pinching inward as I stretched the corset over my breasts, which heaved up and forward. I left the stall struggling to cinch myself up, but a matronly woman waited in the washroom as if she knew I’d need the help. She motioned for me to turn around, then she tugged at my corset strings, jerking them tight, tighter, so tight my lungs ached to breathe. She turned me again to study my face, then wet her hands in the sink and ran fingers through my hair, combing it neater. She lifted a lipstick from the pockets of her dress and dabbed red stain on my lips to match my corset. Then we faced the mirror together. “Pretty, yes?” she asked.
I couldn’t nod. Suffering had changed my young face before its time; my eyes were tinged with loss, as if I knew my life was already in danger of being over, its potential squandered.
“Go,” the woman directed. “Go.” She ushered me through the door with kind urgency, as if the streets outside were growing teeth and being The Great Martingale’s girl was my last chance to survive.
I walked through another dark hallway, groping my way to the backstage entrance where a man stood guard. He yawned, took my arm, opened the door, and pushed me through. I took the stage from the side, my face hit by blinding lights.
“There you are!” a voice boomed. I raised my hand to shield my eyes. Who was speaking? Was it Martingale? Or another layer of keepers?
The lights were dimmed, and a man in a tuxedo and silk cape appeared beside me. I jumped, startled by his apparition. It was The Great Martingale himself, the man who had smiled at me from posters on the street.
Blue eyes sparkled under his top hat, and a blonde mustache curled up from the corners of his lips. He walked around me in a circle, hands folded behind his back. “So, what are your skills?” he asked, getting straight to the point.
I stated that I had no skills outside of staying alive, and, in my lifetime, I’d stolen one apple from a fruit stand when I was at my lowest, effectively making it disappear. I didn’t tell him that this was just yesterday, and it was more than an apple. It was a loaf of bread, a hunk of hard cheese, and a newspaper—for the job section, of course. I desperately needed a job.
“So your one skill is simply staying alive. That’s good, that’s good.” He chuckled, pacing.
As he circled me I detected a scent of shaving soap. He smelled clean and fresh, like newly washed linens on a spring day. I would give anything for a bar of soap. Literally anything.
“So, let me recap your application. You have no resume, no performance experience, and you claim you have no skills outside of staying alive. And you once made an apple disappear.”
I nodded. That was it. Those were all I had left. I didn’t even have my pride.
He chuckled again as if mulling over my words, then his chuckle grew louder, becoming prolonged and high-pitched, resounding throughout the theater.
Sweat dampened my forehead. Martingale stopped before me and tilted my chin up with a wand held by a white-gloved hand. “Staying alive is all you need.”
He resumed circling, and my heart raced. “There’s something different about you, different than all the other hopefuls. Tricks are cheap, and survival is a much more interesting game. I sense that you can be taught everything you need to know.”
“I can,” I answered, hoping to not overstep my bounds.
“Good. You are to start immediately. Have Gordo at the door dismiss all the others.”
I nodded and remained silent, afraid to appear overly eager.
“You may go,” he said.
I turned on my heels, heading toward the exit.
“And congratulations,” he called after me. The lights went down abruptly, leaving me to exit in the dark.
My training began immediately.
In the wee hours, night after night, I practiced folding myself into tight spaces: ovens, drawers, shoeboxes. This is what The Great Martingale demanded. I learned all the ways to make myself smaller, all the parts of myself I could compress and collapse, breathing with only a small portion of a lung, if I had to.
I practiced pulling myself apart: self-decapitations and splitting myself in two, torso and lower body, so he could feign sawing me in half in a coffin-shaped box. “Look,” he would shout to the crowd, pulling the box apart to demonstrate my halved body, “she’s split in two and there’s no blood!” The crowd would roar, they always did. Nothing pleased the masses more than the bloodless mutilation of a woman, the little harmless almost-deaths. I would smile wide every time, in triumph over my self-severed body.
Every night, I’d wear a red satin corset on stage, the same one I auditioned in. It cinched me in so tight; it was another kind of magic trick, another form of collapse. Over time, I stopped taking it off and even slept in it. I’d forgotten my old ways, how to breathe deeply, how to push my belly out in heartfelt laughter. The illusion was everything.
After a month of sold-out shows, Martingale slipped his arm around my waist backstage, told me how gorgeous I was, that I was the real reason there was a sold-out show every night. He leaned in, kissed me, sucked on my lower lip until it bled. He pulled away, eyes bright, and I felt a tingle in all the places that make me a lady. “You’re the miracle. You’re the true star.”
He said all of this, yet it was his name on the marquee, not mine.
I was drunk on being wanted.
There were other things I practiced—like filling myself with birds to make them disappear. Martingale showed me how to eat them. “This is how we make the illusion.” He held a bright yellow canary in the palm of his hand. It was unsuspecting and cheerful, a ray of light in a dim room. “You have to do it quite fast,” he explained, “quickly so they won’t feel pain.”
I arched an eyebrow and he demonstrated. In the blink of an eye, he waved his hand past his face while clenching a fist over the bird; it was gone without a sound. Then, voilà! He waved his arm, opening the palm of his hand in the air to reveal how the bird had disappeared. After this, he flourished downward, taking a deep bow.
“Did you catch that?”
I shook my head no.
“Stand here and watch me from the side. You’ll see it better from an angle. I’ll slow it down for you.”
I did as I was told, standing to the left so I could see him in profile, and he did it again, this time in slow motion so I could catch everything, the way he moved his hand past his face while snuffing the bird’s life, pinching its crushed form in his mouth in passing. He swallowed, smiling like a boa constrictor.
“Now you,” he directed.
I hesitated, and he shook his head. He pulled me toward the window and pointed outside. Dozens of young women milled about the street below his apartment. They jostled and pushed, jutting out their hips, waiting for The Great Martingale to leave through the front exit and possibly notice them, give them the job of their dreams. The Hopefuls, he called them.
I was one once.
I held out my palm and he placed another canary in it, another innocent bright spot about to go dark. I sighed. The bird gave a small flutter, and I could feel the rapid beat of its heart in my hand.
“Go on, do it,” he ordered.
I attempted the wave movement and fumbled the crush. The bird screeched, and remorse for the animal stabbed my conscience; my mistake would result in a longer, more painful death. I clenched my fist again, finishing what I started, ending the bird’s life for good. Blood oozed from my closed hand, wet and warm. I pinched the bird in my mouth, gagging on its feathers as I swallowed.
I really needed my job.
I practiced every night after that, gaining speed and precision, and soon I had the disappearance of birds down to an art: no blood, not a trace. Only the illusion remained.
We killed so many birds that year. It became the only thing I was allowed to eat, their bones so small and light that soon I became light too, my body insubstantial. It became easier for Martingale to levitate me; though the truth was, I floated on my own at his command. The crowd always roared, and Martingale would reward me with an embrace after a show, his tongue and gloved hands wandering and probing, his stage crew looking the other way. All I could think about then was how hungry I was, how I couldn’t wait to feed again, how I needed to quell my own hunger with the act of disappearance, snuffing out lives to save my own.
The illusion truly became everything.
Late one night, I met the janitor after a show, an older, heavy-set man with haunted eyes. He swept the theater’s aisles with a quiet perfection, maintaining another illusion—that of a world with order. He looked up and noticed me, nodded hello. I offered him my hand in greeting, and he took it gently in his warm calloused grip. He introduced himself in a soft voice, told me his name is Lalo. He told me that I reminded him of someone. I imagined it was someone he lost, a woman or a girl, maybe a wife or daughter. I prayed I was wrong. I smiled kindly, too afraid to ask. I told him the theater was so beautiful under his care; his work was extraordinary. Then I wished him goodnight and said I would see him tomorrow.
“Thanks, kid,” he returned. “You take care of yourself.”
After that I saw Lalo nightly, making a point to say hello. I was the only one in The Great Martingale Company who noticed Lalo’s good work. Plus, he seemed lonely. One night, he stopped sweeping, leaned on his broom, and began asking questions, starting with an old cliché: “Okay. So what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, looking around.
The theater glowed with red velvet seats, plush curtains, and gold-buffed details, roaring lions and cherubs. It was not, in any way, a bad place to be. It was much better than the streets I had been sleeping on before, by a long shot.
“I mean, this job,” he clarified, motioning vaguely toward my corset while averting his gaze. He continued sweeping around me, knowing I’d respond in time.
I said nothing. I’d begun to feel a gnawing sense that something was wrong, that there was a part of myself buried alive somewhere here in this very theater, but lost in slumber, lulled by the promise of safety, the illusion that Martingale had chosen me and that was enough.
“I can collapse myself really small! I can tear myself apart!” I told Lalo. “I’m the best. No girl can do what I do.” I clenched my fist, feeling nails digging into my palm, drawing blood.
Lalo rested his chin on the top of his broom and gave me a look that reached into the depths of my soul, a look of mourning. “Is that so,” he finally said, more a statement than a question.
I nodded, indignant. Then my shoulders slumped. I was tired, so tired. There was something else Lalo knew. Something unspoken, a danger, a warning. I decided then it wasn’t the time for a big, life-changing reveal. I needed my job. “Goodnight, Lalo,” I finally responded.
He resumed sweeping. “Take care of yourself, kid.”
Lalo finally asked it one night, the question I feared most. He leaned on his broom and began with a sigh, as if the words had been eating him from the inside: “Do you ever worry that someday you won’t be able to put yourself back together?”
I ignored his question, avoided looking him in the eye. Back in my room, I studied my neck and waist, noticing that fine purple lines had appeared there. They were seams left on my body from constantly pulling myself apart and putting myself together again, except putting myself together was becoming more and more difficult. The wear and tear, the frayed edges of myself brought on by repeated self-decapitations and self-severings, it all meant my days as Martingale’s Girl were numbered. Someday, my body would betray me, and all of this would end.
I wondered if the streets outside had indeed grown teeth while I was gone.
I began to wonder about the other assistants, the ones before me. What happened to them? Did they look like me? Could they smile big and pretty, fold themselves up real small, tear themselves apart? Rumors of Martingale’s revolving door plagued me in the gossiping eyes of women who exited the theater every night after the show, women who leaned into one another’s ears while their eyes met mine, as if they knew something I didn’t. Or maybe they wondered about me: how long I’d last, how would I disappear, and who would replace me? Those thoughts eroded my sanity. One night, long after Martingale had gone to sleep, I returned to the theater downstairs and searched backstage, rifling through wardrobes and trunks, looking for clues among the costumes and handbills.
“You okay, kid?”
Startled, I stopped and saw Lalo standing beside me, his eyes haunted again. He knew what I was about to say was a lie. “I’m okay.”
He made a small noise, as if choking on his thoughts. “You should get some rest,” he finally uttered. “Beauty sleep, and all.”
That night, my sleep was anything but beautiful. It was cursed with hidden chambers that plunged into infinite darkness, disembodied women, probing tongues, a thousand doves pecking out my eyes.
Within weeks, other girls came ‘round the theater looking for a job, as if they knew I was about to expire. They hung outside, already dressed in corsets despite the rain, and they flashed broad smiles and waggled their bottoms as if auditioning. I yelled out the window, told them we weren’t hiring. In the back of my mind, I begged them, Girls, run for your lives.
I found myself becoming irrational, hell-bent on finding Martingale’s secret. I trashed his room looking for clues and told him it was thieves.
Then, one day, I found them.
Boxes upon boxes. Steamer trunks with brass clasps.
I opened their lids, and pieces of young women lay in jumbled heaps, women like me, smooth-skinned legs folded in on themselves, eyes turned upward, cherry-glazed lips frozen in a tortured stage grin. I turned my head to the side to vomit, even though, deep down, I’d known all along.
I spotted Lalo standing in the shadows.
“You lost someone here, didn’t you?” I asked him, wiping my lips on the back of my hand.
His shoulders sagged. “It was too late for me to do anything about my kid. But you, it’s not too late for you.”
I’ve begun my quiet rebellion. In secret, I take up magic—real magic, not just illusions. I read as many books as I can, learning more than just tricks. Illusions aren’t enough; they don’t do exactly what I need them to do. So I make up my own rules, treading in dark territory Martingale would never imagine.
I keep digging deeper, acquiring new books from black market book thieves, ones who dealt with the occult. Then I burn candle after candle in an abandoned warehouse, chanting before mirrors to aid in the summoning of monsters.
One day, it finally happens.
The monster I summon is myself.
Back at the theater, Lalo notices a change in me, a defiance. We trade silent but knowing glances in hallways and backstage. I find a packet of false passports in my dresser, all with pictures of my face, but each with a different name and country of origin. Lalo has learned magic of his own, the art of misdirection.
He knows I’ve been planning my greatest trick, my own disappearance.
On the night of Martingale’s biggest performance yet, the air is thick with electricity.
I will become the greatest show on earth.
The show has begun. The crowd roars as Martingale takes the stage with me beside him, but it’s not really me—it’s another Kate, a doppelganger I’ve conjured. Martingale announces what the crowd hungers for: his most stunning illusion ever. The other Kate smiles and flourishes, swinging her hips as she engages the masses. A mist creeps from the sides, and the audience hushes as the fog swallows the stage, not part of Martingale’s plans. Slowly, through the mist, a legion of women come forward, women who look exactly like me, bodies reanimated from parts hidden in boxes beneath the stage. They shamble and jerk, some dragging a leg behind them. As the fog thins, they stand in awkward formation, moaning softly, stricken with grief. The crowd murmurs, and Martingale sputters. His rage at the women is palpable; it ripples through the theater in waves of sound.
“What’s this?” Martingale shakes the other Kate like a ragdoll. “What have you done?”
Lights flicker. Chandeliers swing, then flare bright, blinding the room. My lookalikes convulse, heads tilting back in spasms, opening their mouths wide. Black oily birds fly out of their mouths in a steady stream of darkness. The air fills with the stench of death, and the birds swarm Martingale in violence. The reanimated girls collapse, lifeless once more.
The crowd shrieks, stampeding from their seats.
In three minutes, all the gold in Martingale’s vault will vanish without a trace.
In ten minutes, a fire will begin in the basement. It will rise, consuming everything.
From the balcony, I slip into the shadows and disappear.
In my new life, I no longer fold myself into tight spaces. I burned my corset in a ritual fire and no longer crave the flutter of birds in my belly. I buy myself cakes and take sumptuous bites, swooning at butter and cream.
I walk the markets in exotic cities with my newfound powers, looking for stacks of birdcages towering high with doves, canaries, parakeets, and finches. I summon open the latches, setting the sky aflutter. I set free beasts of burden, loosening them from their yokes with a muttered spell. The animals run, disappearing in a cloud of dust. I rescue a girl caught stealing from an apple cart, summoning coins to the palm of her hand. I tell the stall-keeper in a foreign tongue that the girl is my daughter, please forgive her, she is only just learning to understand the ways of the world, that everything has a price.
The ways of the world, indeed.
I pull the girl aside, tell her an address she must find. There she will find a school where she’ll learn all the magic she needs to know.
G.G. Silverman’s short fiction was most recently nominated for the Best Small Fictions anthology, among other honors, and her work has appeared in Corvid Queen, Fantasia Divinity, PopSeagull, So To Speak, The Seventh Wave, Molotov Cocktail, Ellipsis Literature & Art, and more. She is currently at work on a short story collection as well as her third novel. In her free time, she’s an improv performer and theater artist, and hopes to never audition for The Great Martingale. To learn more, please go to ggsilverman.com.