Photo by Christal Yuen (copied from unsplash)

His bottle’s gone. His power.

He turns towards The Lovely Adrienne to tell her: stall them, feed them a line. Too late, she’s already in the ring, her feathers sweeping the sawdust.

Adrienne, Bird of Paradise; her intimate fingers conjuring, beckoning him forward; fluttering their hearts, his heart, just for a moment again — even here.

“The Great Brusilov will now perform his final feat of magic, bravery and daring.”

A delighted coo. She has them in her palm.

“A feat worthy of kings and emperors.”

A butterfly hush settling. Rows of wide, expectant eyes.

A beam of light on him; he stands snared in its moon — unable to move, to perform. To replace the hollows behind those dark, staring eyes with the wonder of something which suspends belief — if only for a moment.

“Come on,” she mouths.

He remembers, three years ago — a different world — her fingers leading him along the gloomy corridor. Her featherbed eyes; her hair cascading gold.

“Mon brave,” she whispers.

He remembers: the army chaplain raising the chalice through the smoke. Always smoke.

“Drink this in remembrance of Me. Take, eat — for this is my body.”

The sun breaking through and God is with them — if only for a moment — even in this place. For Him, King and Country, we must all do our duty.

“Our duty,” she mumbles; strokes him.

The world outside; the sanctuary of her brown eyes. Her fingers touching his tongue, hair cascading gold. The scent of violets. Mumbling, reaching for him. Pouring the harsh, red wine. The ecstasy of forgetting. But now, “Don’t worry sweetheart, it happens.”

No choice now but wait for the whistle. Strings of sweat — beads of lust — congeal, grow cold.

The whistle blows. A hand on his back.

“Get out there, son; you’ve got a job to do.”

Stumbling forward, trying to conjure it back: his power, his manhood. Christ’s gold. If you believe in it all, magic can happen.

Coins of sunlight stippling the sawdust — floating across his palms.

An elephant, lumbering into the ring, lifting its head and bellowing. The audience stills.

Those tiny, pitiful eyes — as terrified as he is.

The creature heaves forward and he scrambles, searches for the power he once had to make it all disappear. For his comrades too — just for a moment. To vanish like the coins behind their ears and the rabbit hopping through the quagmire to the safety of its hole. 

Along the dark corridor, closing the door. The ecstasy of forgetting.

The Lovely Adrienne (she knows, but the show must go on) still beckoning him forward.

One step — his duty. Another step — and out, out into the smoke. Great clots of earth falling around him; sky burning, a deluge of screams.

He raises his arms and it’s gone. Vanished.

An inhalation of breath — held before the final exhalation. The explosion of applause.

But the girl, the girl with gold hair, drowned in the mud of his dreams.

by Julie Oldham.

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