The Proteus Cabinet

(From Real, a novella)

Something once was is now not. I feel it. Or maybe it has been substituted. Maybe it is in disguise. This feeling is possessing me, rendering me useless but for a devotion to finding the unknown thing tainting all actions. I search and sometimes I have it in my hands but it changes. A gust of smoke. Puff, there it isn’t. Not quite the same. Not all there. Not right at all. I loosen my grip and allow it to fall to the floor where it shatters. And once again I search. This time I must remember: when the thing seems within reach, when I am able to hold out my hand and grab it, I must not blink. I must hold its gaze very carefully and see how this magic is conducted. Don’t blink. Don’t view it as a performance see it as a scientific experiment with components and a method.

Components:

The Magician is the most prominent figure of the act. Charming by nature; charismatic, enigmatic, captivating. All well-balanced qualities emanating simultaneously. Alluring. Desirable. Distracting. A performer. Perhaps most importantly The Magician has a good sense of timing. He is a puppet master; but sometimes the magician is just a showman.

The Assistant is an indispensable disposable. A beautiful distraction. Good physique; nimble, able to contort the body into various shapes; into all sorts of nooks. Above all The Assistant needs to be believable as vulnerable. The key word here is believable. This does not necessarily mean The Assistant is vulnerable. The more believable as vulnerable The Assistant appears the less the other stuff matters. This is why quite often in old fashioned magic the magician’s assistant is slender, a meek but beautiful woman. A woman whose disappearance, whose being sawn in half, whose being poked at from all directions by sharpened poles provokes within us as audience, some profound horror. But sometimes the assistant isn’t a woman; sometimes the assistant isn’t beautiful; sometimes the assistant is a lout chosen at random from the audience. A believable vulnerable who is occasionally in disguise and is in fact a stooge. An actor. This seeming chosen-at-random coupled with a clumpy physique is probably more distracting than tits and teeth. Beautiful. The Assistant will bend over backwards with minimum effort for our entertainment. When The Assistant is on the stage in all her beauty she is other to us, her otherness compels us towards fear. When the lout is chosen from the crowd he is still one of us, chosen from a position not too dissimilar from our own. Ignorant and dumb to the maneuvers of the magician and his props. The lout has to be a lout not a stooge.

The Technician is the truth of the act. Truly enigmatic. Builder of mechanisms where magic is not believable as magic but known as engineering. Basic geometry, basic mathematics, basic science. The simplicity of magic is overwhelming because people always prefer the long way round: simplicity is laughable; unbelievable. The builder of the hidden. The true of magic. Always a private individual, unknown. Above all The Technician is invisible but consistently present through the mechanisms of magic: the beat of magic. Residing in a passage between the seen and unseen; the one the audience has chosen to ignore. A shift in perspective is required for The Technician to be seen. Such is the anamorphic nature of the magic trick.

Method:

Inaccessible and concealed, the mechanism is out of reach and sight. The hidden is essential to the trick. Currently the mechanism is out of sight because both Magician and Assistant dance around it luring my gaze towards them distracting me from the real of the trick. The magic itself isn’t hidden because magic is an addition to the mechanism. Magic is what occurs between Magician and audience; it is always seen. Further than that, magic is what happens between body and mind. Desire plays a heavy role and this desire is to be deceived. A willing suspension of disbelief. A battle of wits which invites deception to the peripheries and teases it. To be fooled or dazzled, one dares. Maybe floodlights will be switched on immersing everything in light allowing the possibility for all to be seen: but all can only be revealed if you are able to refocus your gaze effectively. Prodding and poking and attempting to outsmart The Magician but only ever in silence from the edge of your seat. Never rushing the stage. Never spoiling it for yourself or anyone else. Ultimately surrendering oneself into being tricked by something out of sight.

At present all that stands between myself and deception are two performers and a magnificently decorated empty box. The Magician sets it spinning. Painted onto the upper third of the box is a most striking feature, an eye which appears to blink as the box rotates. Blue and black and white diagonals embrace the perimeter of the case giving the impression that the box is screwing into the ground. Turning on four small wheels elevating it a couple of inches from the ground. The elevation itself is a deception provoking a question as to their purpose. Mobility for one: such a hefty box must be difficult to move around. But it is also an invitation to examine the hidden or at least to put a strike through a potential mechanism. No one is getting into or out of this box through a trap door situated directly beneath, at least not without being spotted by the audience. An old theatre trick. But this too is an old theatre trick. I have seen it performed many times before and everybody knows exactly how it works. The mechanism is so arrogant it stares directly at its audience. Mirrors. All magic tricks are smoke and mirrors: concealment and deception.

The Proteus Cabinet: a place where one enters and is able to mimic the changing form associated with the Greek God of its namesake. Myth is also at play here. In its time it was spectacularly executed by many good showmen but the trick itself relies not only on a showman but simple geometry and the laws of reflection. Two slabs of mirrored glass about the height of the cabinet and half its width are positioned at two corresponding corners meeting in the exact centre, at angles of exactly forty five degrees forming a prism. They are positioned just so. Just so the box appears fully as whole and empty from the perspective of the audience. But behind those mirrors a person is hidden waiting for the moment of the big reveal. The Magician walks past the mirrors avoiding any angles of incidence: positioned just so and thus revealing that the mirrors are very well concealed indeed. The mechanism is so arrogant in its blatancy. We have seen it all before. Why do we need to, would we want to see it again?

He spots me. Our eyes meet and panic strikes down to my core. Did I say something out loud? He theatrically raises his finger making circular motions pivoting from the wrist then the knuckle of his ringed index finger. I immediately redden feeling the eyes of the room fall upon me. I am mistaken. It isn’t me. He points towards someone else; sat next to me or to my left or right or behind me maybe. I shift slightly and his finger moves with similar slightness as if there is a strong pulled thread connecting the two of us. Despite the ringed finger which follows my every movement I am certain it is not me he seeks and so I laugh a little nervously. I turn to my right: no one. Then to my left: no one. Then I glance over each of my shoulders: no one. And before me: no one. Just rows and rows of empty seats. Then all around the theatre: the same. There is nobody. Anywhere. The theatre is empty but for myself, The Magician, The Assistant and a supposedly empty box. He once again raises his ringed finger in a circular motion settling patiently in my direction

May I have a volunteer?

A voice bellows detached from anyone in the room and seemingly unreal. What motive could I possibly have for standing in such a claustrophobic space. About as wide as my shoulders and as tall as my bad postured self. I would fit almost perfectly but this box wasn’t made for me. What motive could anyone possibly have to enter into it and have oneself disappear: become elsewhere; in between visible and invisible. And if not disappeared then physically altered in some way. To be manipulated and made an example of. Maybe the skeptic looking to outsmart, humiliate and expose the showman. You hear of that. In the early days of seance; the beginnings of magic, people would rush the stage through fear and an unwillingness to believe that any of these otherly happenings are true. All of this is a denial of order. We live in a structure familiar and accepted by us all, we will not allow anything to exist outside of this structure and if it does we will destroy its strangeness. And so with a great ferocity they would tear the stage apart and expose the showman: take off the skin of magic and expose its innards; the truth; the mechanism. End it. Hide its remains in flames or beat it until it is no longer recognisable then sigh as order is restored. The mechanism revealed through panic, fear, and the machismo of terrified audience members: you cannot trick me, I know what is real. Post revelation, the act would invariably remain despite their altered reputation. Anxiously continuing their tour expecting it all to fall apart on the back of an audience member’s cocksuredness. Yet there was always an audience. There is still an audience of people longing to be deceived. The difference between now and then is that we now know it is absolute deception and does not threaten any symbolic order even though we deeply desire it to do so. It merely threatens my intelligence. I suspend my disbelief and permit the act to continue. As long as I am secure within the symbolic order, it remains untouched; the world and my position in it remains unthreatened by any deviant. I know it is not real. I am allowing myself to be fooled. I can laugh and applaud rather than flee in penetrating fear. I am being lied to, that is how I know all is alright.

Only I do fear. Maybe I am not a skeptic after all; maybe I am a believer. A true believer fears the consequence of this trick. He wants to involve me in this trick and I fear being annihilated. I fear being made out of sight; shattering my sense of self in the cocksure hands of this overly theatrical and extremely out-of-date magician. I fear realising that my material self is reducible matter able to be manipulated for the entertainment of others

He once again raises his finger and theatrically spirals it in my direction. So patient, so certain that I am the one. But he has got it wrong. He thinks I am a stooge. A stooge would approach the stage, walk up there with the inner confidence of someone in the know but with outward appearance of a skeptic or a believer. Fearful and anxious but excited by the randomness of their selection. Knowing exactly what they are supposed to do: conduct an examination taking care not to reveal any of the ins-and-outs of the mechanism. It ain’t me. He’s got it wrong. I may profess to know. But I don’t know. I reassure myself: it isn’t real. But I don’t know. I just don’t. I mean we’ve never met before. Have we?

My legs carry me towards him against my inner will. I am approaching the stage hypnotised in motion. Kicking out one foot in front of the other as if they aren’t mine but someone else’s. The Magician mimics me throwing his hands one in front of the other and then pulling me towards him as if in control of my unwilling motion. His magic is working. Am I the stooge? The way my legs move is so unfamiliar; I am walking a treadmill and the scenery is moving about me, the stage towards me. A loud applause strikes up from somewhere above the empty theatre and stops abruptly as I approach the centre of the stage.

Through gesture The Magician insists I look into, through, and around the box.

Examine it.

Here I can see the patterned box close up and follow its stripes from top to bottom. The eye grabs my attention, repeated on each side glazed and flat against the matt blue, black, and white of the diagonal stripes. The Magician halts my motion and sets the box spinning. Four separate but identical eyes meet with mine four separate but identical times, and again and again and again and again. The Magician then stops the box from spinning and gestures for me to open it. The boundary of the box is seen as a continuous enveloping pattern deceiving me into thinking this is one continuous border which contains the boxness of the box. All four sides are doors able to be opened simultaneously, when they are all open they reveal nothing but the framework. No mirrors positioned just so. No extras. No person in waiting: hiding. The insides of the doors have been painted black and then varnished over. I allow the scent of varnish to travel through my body recalling something which I lose the instant it is broached. It is nostalgic. I caress the surface with an urge to press my mouth against its blackness, stick out my tongue and lick at it. I resist the temptation and bite my trembling bottom lip. The surface holds a distorted image of a person I think is myself. This distortion implies a deeply flawed surface perhaps because it is hiding something: a mechanism. Black is a very clever colour: stubborn to nuance; flat and concealing.

It is concealing something. It has to be.

And running my hand along its surface I feel its truth. Not smooth but rugged; uneven with marks and scores and the occasional pointed lump where something has been caught beneath the paint. Strokes of the paint brush felt under my hand; traces of a hand which once sanded down and painted. Wait. When fully dry a coat of varnish can be applied. This drying period attracting all kind of small objects: particles of dust, fruit flies, fragments of skin and hair all becoming stuck upon its stickiness then varnished over and trapped there. The trace of hidden process: the hand of The Technician. I desire to tongue its flaws.

The Magician thanks me with a nod of his head and both hands pressed together as if in prayer then gestures with his ringed hand through the centre of the box towards my seat. He does not wish to disappear me. I am free; relieved from his magic. I can sit and submit myself to the show unable to fully expose him. I step through the centre of the box stroking the surface of one of the doors, which pulls away as my finger tips brush against. I move more freely and eagerly this time to my seat. I am light; I fly there. From down here the eye of the box seems more convincing, setting itself away from the diagonally-lined back-drop, floating before the box casting a shadow behind itself. The shadow mimics the shape of the floating eye but refuses to be the same as it; remaining in the dark it grants the thing the ability to float. Is it? I know the box and the eye to be together, fixed onto each other a part of the same trick. I could have missed it but maybe a faint shadow has been painted beneath the eye; painted just so; just so as it can only be seen from the perspective of the audience. Here, where I now sit. And this suggests I did not examine the box thoroughly enough. I raise my hand over my mouth, a gesture of disappointment.

The Magician makes another overly dramatic gesture and The Assistant takes centre stage. Somewhere between the vulnerable flexible female and the loutish supposedly unassuming audience member. She sucks air in through her nose then out through her mouth. Her chest rises and falls in synchrony. In and out and in and out and in and out and in and

out

and

in

and

out

and

in

and

out

and

in

and

out

and

in

and

out

and

in

and

out

and

in

and

out.

And keeping this rhythm she steps into the box guided by The Magician’s hand. I am fixed. Relaxed. Seduced.

In

and

out.

My fixation disturbed as the cabinet doors are closed and a mighty click penetrates the engulfing silence of the room. The silence I hadn’t previously noticed. The type of silence that amplifies the natural hum of a large space; that carries the breath of the now out-of-sight assistant; in which any other sound is an unwelcome addition. Shock speeds to my heart. I am panicked but I can still hear her. Then she is still there.

In

and

out.

The Magician begins to turn the box clockwise; plastic wheels scratching against the splintered wooden floor adding to the strange silence. The wheels graceful against the uneasy coarse grain beneath. The hum: constant in pitch and tempo. A heavy breath. In and out. The Magician begins a peculiar dance in an anti-clockwise direction about the cabinet. The floating eye disappears then reappears as each of the four faces turns into a position of looking towards, and then away from me. Slowly at first, then a little more quickly, and more, and more, until giving the impression that the eye is blinking. Occasionally The Magician encourages the velocity of the box by shoving it. The eyes start to blur into one horizontal line cutting through the diagonals which screw into the ground. As the box further accelerates so too does the ferocity and strangeness of The Magician’s dance. He moves to the melody of the scratching wheels; the consistent humming drone; the beat of the breath. He skips gracefully, arms floating either side, slowly bending his back and tipping his head towards the ground, slowly windmilling his arms followed by the draping fabric of his sleeves. Whilst the diagonals confirm the box is still turning the eye further separates itself and floats alone outside of the constraints of the box. It is still; unblinking. It stares at me returning my gaze. I cannot remove myself from the eye. I am still. Unmoving. I do not blink, I promised myself this much. I cannot blink. But I cannot look elsewhere. The eye has me. Not even the bizarre motion of The Magician interrupts the thread of our reciprocal gaze. Then the eye begins to blur again, then blink and I blink too. Again and again. The Magician stops it all, embracing the cabinet as he might a lover, his head resting upon it at shoulder height. Both cabinet and Magician are still. I am still. The room is unmoving and silent but for the hum and the sound of heavy breathing

And there is nothing else. My heart slows and I turn a little numb. The Magician hangs his head. All doors of the cabinet remain closed. The Assistant both there and not there. Already vanished. But the sound of respiration reassures me. I am on the edge of my seat ready to fall; I am at the edge of my own consciousness and I wait. I have seen this trick performed before and I am expectant. I am also dazed and unsteady. My head starts to spin and I dig my fingers into the arms of my chair for support.

There are mirrors concealing an empty space; giving the impression of a second empty space but this space is false. It is an optical illusion. A space you cannot trust because if you walk up to it you are met with a parallel world wherein a parallel you has witnessed a parallel trick within a parallel box and now this other you wishes to inspect the mechanism at work. Only as the mechanism is approached the other’s gaze is met with yours: the real you; and the shock on your face is reflected in the face of the other. And her hand reaches out to touch you but she is denied as there is a transparent surface between you both, and she disappears only to reappear with a heavy prop; a part of a separate trick. She raises it high above her head, determination in her eyes and as she brings it down onto the mirror and you cry: No.

I hear my voice penetrating a contained silence. All in sight is replaced with nothing but blackness. A scent fills my nostrils which provokes a desire to stick out my tongue and lick at the nearest shining surface. This must be unconsciousness but I am reassured by the sound of a heavy breath. My eyes feel as if they are open but the encompassing blackness confounds perception. I bring a finger to my eye and touch its wet surface to confirm its openness. I jerk at the suddenness of my salty finger stinging the ball of my eye, hitting the boundaries of the thing which apparently contains me. I am encased. Something. Surrounded. Little space to manoeuver. About as wide as my shoulders and as tall as my slumped posture. My body collides again and again with its boundaries as I panic. With an explosion, light painfully rushes into my eyes which I quickly close. Open slowly. My vision is returned. There is no smoke obscuring my view despite the seeming force of the explosion which liberated me. Then there is a realisation: my gaze is no longer met with blackness nor is it returned by the eye of the box; it is now returned by a couple of hundred or so people. All gobsmacked. I reflect this.

To my right a hand is offered, a ring gleams from the index finger and holds me. Within this feature a character is contained: androgynous and ambiguous. What is it? I take the hand and bring the ring closer to my eyes so that all external to it turns out of focus. The ring is gold. I take it to my mouth and bite at it: solid. With a firm tongue I lick a curved surface. I lick until its metal coldness turns warm under my breath and then remove it from my mouth, polish it against my breast. Not once does the hand resist my grip nor does it encourage my examination it simply permits. Pinching, I attempt to twist the ring off a swollen index finger which denies my efforts. I spit to lubricate the friction. I create a condition so the ring may succumb to my prying hold. As it twists the image within reacts to my manipulation, swaying and flitting between flaws: slight scratches and dents and scuffs. All implying age. An old artifact belonging to a different time finding itself in the now but always nodding back to a separate origin. An ambiguous character within the ring remains still, fixated on the thing attempting to manipulate it. I watch as the flaws alter and redetermine this character again and again and again. The ring imposes its shape onto the objects contained within, these objects are reflections of the external but their distortion belongs to the ring only and I will never see this strange creature which stares back at me again as long as this ring remains the property of The Magician. I contemplate stealing it but before my hand catches up with motivation the ring is snatched away from me; I am pulled back into my situation and away from a collapsed box.

Before me is an audience, surrounding me is silence but for the hum of the room, a faint ringing in my ears and the sound of heavy breathing. All is still. All is slow. All is frozen. The audience, The Magician; their shoulders, their chests do not rise and fall in the act of respiration. They do not breathe. I can still hear it. A heavy breath. There is someone else here with me.

Where am I?

How did I get here?

Did I blink?

The last thing I am able to recall: the shattering of a mirror but there are no mirrors. No mirrors. No smoke. Just four varnished surfaces belonging to collapsed cabinet lying separate and flat against the splintered stage floor. Four MDF slabs painted black then varnished over creating a reflective sheen. The smell lures me to my hands and knees and there, on all fours, I crawl about looking into a varnished surface. I stop and place my head close to a distorted image I think is myself. I watch this image appear and disappear under the condensation of breath.

There.

Not there.

There.

Not there.

My mouth pressed against the mouth of the reflection, I begin to tongue its rugged, occasionally sharp surface. A hair flattened against and now inseparable snakes under my tongue. I follow its trace up and down for some time. Still recognisable as a hair but restrained and unable to cause me to gag. Still recognisable as other to, but a definite part of all the same.

It is silent but for the hum of the room and a now quite irregular breath. I am startled and leap back onto my feet into the centre of the collapsed box. Such uncharacteristic gymnastics, I am unable to recognise this gesture as being one of my own; carried by something external. What I am able to recognise: the stifled breath not of The Magician nor The Assistant. Something else. The surface. The image. Silence is annihilated by roars of laughter, a mass of active people and a great round of applause. I sweat. I clench my fists. A light falls into the audience; onto the seat in which I had previously been sitting; now occupied by The Magician and on his lap The Assistant. I am devastated. Under the heavy light The Assistant looks to be familiar: too much so. I can’t place it. They do not laugh. They do not clap. They merely return my gaze.