Every night Rasputin chose a different one to come up and go inside the box of blades. Always they were pretty, and always they were thin, T-tiny thin like snakes, wearing green eye shadow and Burlesque on the Beach t-shirts. People thought it was a hoax: all the girls were plants. Rasputin was insulted.
One night, to prove his greatness, he filled the tent with sulfur and, using Mentalism, chose a different girl. A fat girl. Fat, fat. So fat no one could harp and complain anymore. Just as easily, he could have read her lips as her mind, for she mouthed along to his every magic word. MAJOOK! MAJOOK! SARUPY! Her fleshy lips protruding. He spotted her there like a bale of hay on the farthest most bench, sitting utterly to herself, her mind fizzing with whimsy. He called her forward and gave her a wilting rose. She put on a stage frown. He waved a hand, restoring its bloom. She smiled. No one clapped.
Then, lying bare-chested on a bed of broken glass, he had the fat girl stand upon his back. The crowd clapped, more or less, but it was not enough. They wanted the fat girl inside the box. In she went.
Rasputin donned his cape, caressed together his delicate hands. When they had paid their dollar to walk across the stage and peer down inside the box, they would see there was no fooling; the blades were real, the girl was real and fat, and there was no room for the fat girl to twist around all the blades. And how was Rasputin going to pull that off?
It was worth two dollars, Rasputin said. You will not believe it; it is the greatest feat of all time.
He pulled six great sabers from red velvet sheaths and laid them across the brightly painted wooden box. Each one gleamed with spellbinding ghastliness. To demonstrate their razor sharpness, he slit the bellies of watermelons, filleted mutton with ease, venison, hamhocks, whole sides of beef.
The audience sat smirking. Watermelons. Hmph. Big deal, they harried.
Rasputin flung back his satin-lined cape and shoved the first deadly blade into the box. The fat girl with yellow eyes screamed Oooww!
Rasputin flinched and bent to her. All right, my darling?
The crowd did not respond. They yawned.
Sorry, she said.
Rasputin held the second blade overhead, then slowly, slowly, slow-l-l-ly pierced the box. He felt the pinch of the fat girl’s flesh upon the saber, nearly heard a squeak as if perhaps she were made of cork. He paused. The crowd jeered, threw popcorn. Rasputin sunk the knife deeper, deeper until he felt the scrape of bone against blade. The fat girl shut her yellow eyes, grated her blunt teeth. The crowd bawled obscenities. They cackled and cajoled.
So it went each time, a slow and torturous tear through the corpulent body of the fat girl with yellow eyes. Her great round face paled with each mighty thrust of Rasputin’s blade.
Finally, it was done. The crowd paid two dollars and walked across the stage to peer inside. There was the fat girl, brimming over the sides of the box, squared like so much dough pounded into a bread pan. They could not see the blades at all, only the blade handles outside the box. Something’s wrong, they said. This is a trick box. They demanded to stand around close while Rasputin pulled out all the knives so they could see.
Five dollars each, Rasputin said. They paid. It was worth every cent in their pockets to disprove Rasputin. And if they couldn’t do it today, they would be back tomorrow.
He pulled the blades out slowly, with all the dramatic flourish they were accustomed to. They waited patiently, more or less. All right already, they said. Rasputin would not be hurried. He looked deeply into the yellow eyes of the fat girl who lay inside his box. She was transfixed by his mustache, by his shiny black eyes, he imagined. And she was. The fat girl with yellow eyes had been to his every show and had grown fat there on the bleachers of Rasputin’s Remarkable Sleight of Hand, eating kettle corn and pulled taffy from the boardwalk.
Rasputin held her hand. The coming out would be worse than the going in, he explained. She knew it would. He tugged at the first blade; it snagged. The audience harrumped. More tricks! They narrowed their eyes, tapped their sneakers on the plywood stage. Rasputin yanked, and out it came, bloody red with an organ dangling from its tip. The fat girl’s heart. The audience leaped back and gasped, then leaned forward. Hot damn, they said.
Rasputin was bewildered. The heart beat wildly. The fat girl lay calmly inside. She looked peaceful, but glum. Docile. Her yellow eyes locked wet and sticky onto the black eyes of Rasputin. He trembled. The audience guffawed. They liked seeing Rasputin’s cunning, his very acumen, laid bare in such a way. They did not know he was the real deal. Rasputin, himself, did not know it.
Only the fat girl with yellow eyes knew it.
Ever so gently, he plucked the girl’s heart from the tip of his blade and carefully laid it inside his satin-lined hat, standing next to a wand and a crystal ball on a velvet-covered, claw-footed table. The heart was big, like the girl, enormous really. It squished down inside the hat but rose up its tall, tall sides and beat red and blue mists of blood droplets that spritzed up from the top of the hat with each great quivering pulse.
Pearls of perspiration popped out on Rasputin’s bushy brows. The girl will die, he feared. I will be found out. He hurried with the rest of the blades. Each one came out like the first. Mired in the blood and bodily fluids of the fat girl with yellow eyes, with a different organ swinging from the sharp point of every blade. The gory liver, the gray lungs, the waggling intestines. Rasputin didn’t know where to put them all. He stuffed them in his pockets to keep them from being trampled on by the crowd.
The fat girl was speechless. Rasputin kneeled beside the box and spoke to her. He lay down beside her and wept. The crowd laughed. Rasputin had lost his marbles. They wanted to see something else, but he only lay there on the step beside the box. Get up, they said, kicking his shiny shoes, tugging against his split-tailed coat. What’s this? You’re just going to lie there? You suck, Rasputin. You were never all that good. We’re out of here, and we won’t be back tomorrow. They ditched the finale, peeved and bitching.
The fat girl tried to speak, but she was in awe of Rasputin. Her mouth was dry. I love you was all she could say, enough to rouse Rasputin to kiss her lips.
Why? he asked. Why?
Because you’re magical, she said.
But Rasputin didn’t feel magical. He felt old. He was old. Very, very old, hundreds of years old. And this was what the fat girl loved most. She rolled her yellow eyes to look at Rasputin lying on the step beside her. He stared up at the ceiling, spoke of his long, long life, of all the great loves he had known, all the great losses, of victories, and addictions and illnesses. She had never seen him up so close. Her yellow eyes fell over his face. It was not a perfect face. Some thought it odd looking, but the fat girl with yellow eyes found it beautiful, even at such close proximity when every deep crag shone out from the corners of his shiny, black eyes. She loved every line. She felt small enough to fall inside them and travel to all the places he had ever been through all the eons of his existence. She studied his ear because it was the feature most easy to see from her awkward vantage point inside the tight, little box.
It was a glorious ear. Two deep furrows of flesh lay hidden just between the ear and his long-handled sideburn, and she felt so thrilled at having had that special glimpse of him, a glimpse no one she knew would ever have, that she was satisfied in a deep and lasting way she knew she would never be again.
I should go, she said.
Home, she said. He did not ask where she lived, and she imagined it was because he could not really conjure what such a thing was, home. She thought of him sleeping in rooming houses next door to girls of the night that probably he slept with, or else in trailers back behind fairground fences where the air was choked with the smell of elephant dung and cigarette smoke and the fumes of generators.
She sat upright in the box. I wish you’d stay, he said. She wanted to. For a fleeting second, she dreamed of staying, of being part of his show somehow. Only she had no talent of any kind, no beauty, no wit or charm whatsoever. She was just a fat girl with yellow eyes.
He seemed desperate, though, afraid of something. He needed her company like no one had ever needed it before. He needed her. She was the only person in all the world whose company he wanted, craved, had to have. Any number of things might happen to her later, during the course of her own long life. She might marry, have children; might slim down; become a Pilates instructor; take up Sudoku. But nothing would bring her to the edge of herself this way again, the brink of her very soul, looking at another human being who was not really human at all but something else entirely, something ethereal, something beyond her flesh, his flesh, all flesh altogether, something she could only think of as breath. Hers, his. It was the same. And it flickered like a candle and was gone as quickly as she could think of it.
She imagined the two of them outside the red-curtained theatre, no funny hats or velvet vests. No props or disguises. Just the two of them, walking along the boardwalk, watching old folks throw buns to the gulls; standing in line for the Wonder Wheel; buying corndogs from Nathan’s just like anybody else, just like she herself did on any given day. But it was all just a fantasy. He might turn to a pillar of salt.
So she leaned back into the box and stayed a while longer. But even as she did, she felt all of time sucking away at this spectacular moment. A million things ran through her mind, but they were distant and hazy. She cursed herself for being dense in every way; even her mind was fat, she thought. She wanted to remember everything; she batted her yellow eyes like flashbulbs. An ashtray, she thought. Had he just recently smoked a cigarette? He turned on his side still lying beside her on the step, and yes, she smelled the cigarette on his breath, and she had never loved a smell as much in her life. It was arid but not foul; it was the smell of thirst.
She wished he would levitate her, send her high into the rafters and dangle her there. But she did not ask. She could not speak. She could only marvel at him.
And Rasputin marveled at her, too. Why had she not died? He looked at her heart still beating strongly in his hat on the table, felt all her innards pressing in around him in his pockets, pulsing and quickening and writhing. But it was only a matter of time. She thought he was magical, had magical powers, but she was fooled, this fat girl with yellow eyes.
Levitate me, she said at last.
The fat girl frowned. I’m too heavy, she said.
No, Rasputin said. You think you know me? Ha! Why? Because of the tricks?
Yes, she said. They’re not tricks.
They are, he insisted. You don’t know anything.
The fat girl lay perfectly still inside the box. Her heart slowed in the hat on the table. Rasputin took off his coat. All right, he said. Close your eyes.
The fat girl closed her yellow eyes, and Rasputin waved a hand over her hulking body lying expectantly inside the empty box of blades. He spoke some magic words. Ali-ho-jeni! Kan-rupi! Tar-tuff!
When she opened her eyes, he was gone. She looked down from the roof beams, through the struts and trusses, through powdered-up cobwebs and flue soot and air ashimmer with sea dregs and silica. There was no painted wooden box, no red-handled sabers, no shards of glass. No magic wand, no crystal ball, no wilting rose.
No silk-lined cape, no split-tailed coat.
No tall black hat.
This story was originally published in Backwards City Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 2006. In October 2009, it appeared in the anthology Surreal South.