Eliot was not like other magicians. On his sixth birthday while all the other boys were set to begin school, his father – known on the lips of all in the village as Rolfe the Renowned – caught him letting flee his first white rabbit through an alleyway, slapping through pink puddles with two furred torpedo hind legs in a dash to make a better life for itself than squeezing into trick black hats and getting yanked out for Oohs! Ahhs! and applause. It had always been Rolfe’s dream for his only son to inherit the family business, a modest magic company specializing in transubstantiation: the fine art of artifice and handsome handling with two quick and canny hands. But always more interested in measuring the edges of the decks of playing cards than splaying them out on a table, balancing them by their corners on the tip of his nose or narrow elbows, Eliot only wished to understand the concrete nature of things, not the means to manipulate matter for sheer spectacle. To witness his boy fall asleep during his famous evaporating goldfish finale was enough to break his father’s heart. Why didn’t he love magic like his dear old dad? The answer came to him one morning when Eliot begged to attend school, having fallen for a different kind of magic called science. Out of the question, Rolfe answered without even considering it . . . and if you go ahead with this you can consider yourself no longer my son. Very well then, Eliot said, seeing that his father’s hate was more hurt than anything else. Very well . . . I would rather stay your son. Rolfe thawed a little at hearing this, until Eliot added: But may I show you a trick greater than any trick of yours? The master magician’s ego inflated beyond anger, blooming with wonder. On with the performance then! Rolfe laughed, falling squarely in a stool tickled by his son’s tenacity. Young Eliot took center stage, revealing his sleeves to contain nothing but air, then producing a handful of marbles. First he attempted to juggle them, and they fell, but without rattling upon the stage. Rolfe began to mock him, until he noticed how the marbles were levitating by Eliot’s feet. Surely there were no strings? There had been no time for such preparations. Yet there they were, hovering inches from the floor of the stage. Rolfe sat speechless. Eliot finally caught the marbles again and moved to lift a thin panel he had been standing upon, placed there days before in advance. They’re called magnets, Eliot explained, and I’ll teach you how they work if you want. That night, each magician went to bed without a word, but Rolfe knew he had been defeated. The next morning when Eliot came downstairs he found a textbook, registration form, and S-O-R-R-Y spelled out in marbles upon the table. Of all the kinds of magic in the world, Young Eliot had triumphed with sleight of heart, not sleight of hand.
Eliot was not like other slugs. Convinced the sky would one day rain salt, he set off through the endless green of Yard to salvage the necessary parts for a death-proof shell, saying goodbye to his family and friends. Considered tragically paranoid by most, he knew it was the only way to withstand an impending salt apocalypse. After some time he came to a bee marching through the air humming patriotic tunes. For what do you stand? Eliot asked. The bee saluted his beloved queen and answered, verbatim as if reading from an invisible brochure: I am willing to die for my cause and bring honey home for the good of my people even if it means planting the tip of this stinger in one of those moving mountains, which would surely be the end of me. At this the soldier rushed off to die for some foolishness. To stay alive is all that matters, Eliot knew. After some time he came to a firefly riskily flickering his body, igniting himself around the moving mountains who were known to hunt by night. Why do you call attention to yourself? Eliot asked. The buzzing lantern sang out: To shine every moment until I am extinguished is best! That’s when one of the moving mountains swallowed him into her hands and sacrificed his blazing torso on the hem of her skirt. To stay alive is all matters, Eliot knew. After some time Eliot came to a snail, feeble and withered within its freckled shell, mumbling to itself. What are you muttering, old snail? Eliot listened harder: To sleep, he was saying, for life has been long and good but everyone I know is now gone and I am indeed tired. With this, the snail slipped out of its shell and offered itself to the savagery of the ants, who would eat anything. Eliot fit the shell over him and rejoiced. To stay alive is all matters, he knew. Just then, the clouds parted and down came a white wash of glazed particles. He withdrew into his shell, and when he came out found that too many years had passed, and all his family and friends had been lost. He had been proved right, but at what cost? Here he was – the last living slug left in the world, and if he could buy back the time lost with his family and friends he would trade every last inch of his travels to perish with them. Instead, he lost himself, becoming senile, feeble and withered within his freckled shell, mumbling, always mumbling: To sleep, for life has been but everyone I know is now gone and I am indeed tired.
Eliot was not like other unicorns. Because – he had been corrected all his life – he was only a horse. The horn is there, Eliot would insist, you just can’t see it. Galloping through the known meadows he would softly neigh the pain away, pretending to be a more mythical mare until the long shadow crept across Great Stable, the meadow of his birth. One evening as the long shadow approached, tired of being himself, he slipped across the border of Great Stable into an uncharted meadow, coming at last to a palace of glittering mirrors in the middle of nowhere. There at the gate he was greeted by a friendly blacksmith who invited him inside for his fill of oats and apples. Sure enough, throughout the palace interior were bottomless buckets of oats, apples, and beyond. To his surprise, Eliot found the mirrored walls displayed him with a triumphant horn atop his head. You can be as glorious as you appear in these walls if you’ll agree to wear my shoes, the blacksmith told him, then offered four silver horse shoes upon a platter which glinted under tinny lamplights. He imagined flaunting his new horn to all his naysayers. Agreed, he said, admiring his wishful reflection. That night though, attempting to leave the palace, Eliot felt his feet magnetized to the mirrored floor. Oh, the blacksmith spoke from the spiral staircase: There can be no leaving here I’m afraid, for that is the price. For weeks Eliot remained, admiring his image around every corner, eating oats, apples, until they began to taste like nothing, like water, and then like dirt. Soon the mirrors began to blacken, and Eliot fled to his host. It’s not there anymore! he complained. The blacksmith stopped hammering for a moment. Is it not? he asked. But hasn’t it always been there? Eliot, embarrassed, considered the question carefully. Sure it has. I mean, of course it’s there. At this the wise blacksmith smiled. Raising his hammer high to strike the anvil, he said: Then why does it matter whether or not anyone else can see it? That night, Eliot offered his hooves to the blacksmith, leaving behind his horse shoes and palace of glittering mirrors, which had also been a palace of glittering, lonely lies.
Matthew Burnside’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Kill Author, PANK, Gargoyle, Contrary, NAP, and others. His chapbook, Escapologies, is forthcoming from Red Bird Press. He is the managing editor of Mixed Fruit magazine and an MFA fiction candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He keeps a list of sins at matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com/.