In the gambling tent he played craps and robbed his table blind. He downed tumblers of whiskey and rotgut and played faro, winning fistfuls of coins and bills that he stuffed down into his pockets. The world rocked uneasily on a subtle axis and he stumbled out into the cold clean night. He went trawling drunk through the deserted streets in search of a fight but found none. He had lost his way.
The woman came so silently and easily out of the night that when she first whispered into his ear he did not startle but only looked at her wan face a moment. It was as though she had always already been by his side, the heat of her breath forever on his cheek.
“Care to see some miracles?” she asked. They were stopped in the dirt road and in the darkness she took his hands in hers and led him a short ways from the barren road into a tent shining with lamplight. “A magic show,” she said. “Miracles to see and admire. The real thing. Only five bits.”
There was money yet in his pocket and with a clumsy hand he fished out a coin. The woman took the money from him and when Ming gazed upon her face again he nearly stopped breathing. “Do I know you?” he asked, the syllables tripping over his liquored tongue. “Have we met?”
“In another life, perhaps,” the woman replied. “In another life everyone has met everyone.”
He asked her name.
“I travel with the magic show,” she said, as though she hadn’t heard, and he wondered if he’d spoken his question aloud at all. “We deal in miracles.”
Ming frowned in concentration, struggling to order his thoughts. “Ain’t that you, Ada baby? Ain’t you remember me?” he asked at last, his voice made small and childlike in his drunkenness. He turned to see her reaction but she was already gone.
Toward the far end of the tent was a semicircular area of hardpack earth, swept of pebbles and ringed with lanterns. Faded gray curtains strung from tentpole to tentpole marked off a backstage and wings, transforming the dirt semicircle and the canvas above it into stage and proscenium. Ringing the stage were a number of dusty pews that looked as though they’d been taken from the burned church in that distant ghost town.
He found a seat on a nearby pew and waited drunkenly for the magic show to begin, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his head drag his body toward the ground. There were a few dozen other men in the audience, all of them blind drunk. Some had stretched out entirely on their pews and fallen sound asleep. At length the ringmaster came out and rapped his cane on the stage, rousing the men. Ming’s gaze swung lazily left to right before coming to rest upon the ringmaster’s face, pale and pockmarked from adolescence or perhaps from war. The man was dressed in a thin and ragged suit patched in so many places that it seemed more patch than suit. Ming scrubbed his face with his hands and breathed deeply, hoping the liquor would ease.
The ringmaster strode to the center of the stage and spoke grandly, as though to an amphitheater of thousands. “Gentlemen!”
The audience lolled in their pews.
“Tonight you will see miracles. You will see them with your own two eyes and you will know that they are miracles. I want to assure you—to give you my word—that nothing tonight deceives you. While demonstrations of this type abound, and while you have no doubt seen parlor magic in some saloon or other, I swear to it that these miracles we have for you tonight are another thing altogether. For our miracles are flesh and blood, who live and breathe as you or I, and yet possess strange and fantastic powers. Such are their abilities that when our show is concluded I trust that you will be their apostles as readily as I, or any man.”
“Blasphemy!” called the man sitting beside Ming.
Ming turned his head to look at him. The man wore a priest’s frock and collar but his eyes were bloodshot and his vestments were ragged around the edges. Even from where Ming sat he could smell the whiskey on the man’s breath.
The ringmaster raised an eyebrow and appraised the heckler with amusement. “You, good sir,” he said. “Are you a priest?”
“I was,” the man slurred. He grinned and raised an amber bottle of whiskey high into the air. “Till I found God in the bottle!” he added loudly.
A few halfhearted whoops of approval ensued.
The ringmaster was unperturbed. “Then you have no quarrel with our secular miracles.”
The ex-priest shrugged. “Spose not.”
“Perhaps our first miracle will properly convince you,” the ringmaster said.
Two stagehands emerged from the wings dragging a heavy wrought-iron cage. A naked man squatted in a dim corner of the cage, his hair matted and his eyes blank. The stagehands brought the cage next to the ringmaster and retreated into the darkened wings. A lantern swung gently from the roof of the cage. The ringmaster knocked the iron grate with his cane and the man inside twisted his head round.
“Up, man,” the ringmaster commanded in a low voice.
The caged man stood and stepped forward under the lantern so that his full aspect was visible. A low murmur scattered through the assembled crowd. The caged man was completely covered in tattoos, inscribed from crown to sole with a litany of strange glyphs. He peered out at the crowd with an expression somewhere between curiosity and indifference.
“This here is Proteus, as we call him,” said the ringmaster, his eyes scanning the tattooed man up and down. The man seemed not to care. The ringmaster turned back to the audience. “He represents the first miracle you will see with your own two eyes tonight.”
The audience stirred.
“Now, gentlemen, I want to tell you about Proteus. He is a pagan from a remote Pacific island antipode, found by a Nantucket whaling ship, the solitary inhabitant of his own tropical isle. He speaks not a word of any civilized tongue that we know of. His curious abilities were not discovered until it was nearly too late. The whaling ship that found him was itself found when she drifted ashore off the coast of Chile, bereft of man or beast. On board only our pagan Proteus remained.” A smile crept across the ringmaster’s face. “For this miracle, I’ll need a volunteer from the audience.” He pointed his cane at a drunk sitting in the first row. “You, sir. Step right up.”He found a seat on a nearby pew and waited drunkenly for the magic show to begin, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his head drag his body toward the ground.
Mumbling unintelligibly the man stumbled up and onto the stage.
The ringmaster steered him firmly before the caged pagan. “On my cue, you will look Proteus in the eye and move about.”
“Move about?” the hapless volunteer mumbled.
“Aye, move about,” the ringmaster replied. “Wave your arms, tap your feet.”
The drunk shrugged. “If ye say so.”
“Behold!” the ringmaster called. He snapped his fingers and at this cue the first man stepped to the cage and waited. After a moment Proteus turned his gaze to the man who had approached him. The tattooed pagan grasped the iron bars of his cage and leaned forward. The men stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Hesitantly the volunteer raised his arm in a kind of strange salute. Proteus moved his arm to mirror the volunteer’s, lagging behind, like a slow reflection in uncertain glass. Now the man lowered his arm and Proteus did the same, the delay between them diminishing. Together they blinked, opened and closed their mouths, raised and lowered their limbs. Each was becoming more attuned to the other’s movements. And then it happened.
It was so quick that at first Ming didn’t notice anything and by the time he might have been able to articulate what, precisely, had taken place, the effect had already vanished. In the cage stood Proteus as he had always been, and outside it the volunteer as he had always been. But it was undeniable that for a moment it had not been Proteus in the cage, that for a moment this naked and tattooed pagan had become a precise duplicate of the man outside his cage, such that Proteus had disappeared altogether.
The volunteer staggered backward in shock and fell to the stage floor. Beside Ming the former priest sat motionless, his mouth open in awe. Several men in the audience cursed and leapt up, their pews skidding across the dirt. One man drew his gun and waved it about, though even in his drunkenness Ming knew this was activity without purpose or aim. The ringmaster called for the men to settle, settle, and one by one they took their seats. The man who’d drawn his iron returned it to its holster. Proteus stood serenely in the cage unchanged.
“Thank you, good sir,” the ringmaster said, helping the drunk on the stage to his feet.
The volunteer’s expression was fearful and the ringmaster motioned with his cane, indicating that the man should find his seat again. From the wings came the stagehands again and with low grunts they dragged the cage back into the shadows.
Now a small figure walked onto the stage into the lantern light. It was a young boy. The ringmaster tucked his cane under an arm and with both hands guided the child by the shoulders to center stage.
“This here is Hunter Reed,” the ringmaster said. “He represents the second miracle you will see with your own two eyes tonight.” The ringmaster stooped low so his face was level with the boy’s, inspecting his face for a moment before again addressing the audience. “As you will soon find, Hunter Reed’s miracle is one to be heard rather than seen. For this here boy is the world’s first and only true ventriloquist.” The ringmaster moved his hands through an inscrutable series of designs and the boy nodded and held his thin arms aloft, palms open toward the audience. “You can see for yourself that he comes to us empty-handed, bearing no puppet, no props to fulfill his promise of ventriloquism. This for good reason.” The ringmaster smiled broadly and now his hands traced out a second, more complex gesture that Ming could scarcely follow.
The boy lowered his arms and nodded again. “My name is Hunter Reed,” he said. Or seemed to say, for his lips did not move. “When I was a child I fell ill with ague. My parents made preparations to bury me. But my fever broke on the fourth day, and with the grace of God I made a full recovery. My dear mother and father were not so fortunate. They took ill with my same fever and died hours apart, soon after.”
The words were coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. The boy’s voice sounded high and clear in Ming’s head. The ex-priest beside him wore a confused and fearful expression.It was so quick that at first Ming didn’t notice anything and by the time he might have been able to articulate what, precisely, had taken place, the effect had already vanished.
“The fever left me deaf and dumb,” the boy said. “But I found I could still speak, and people might still hear me.”
“Gentlemen,” the ringmaster boomed, “you are not deceived. This is no trick of the ear. This is the second miracle, the true ventriloquist.”
The boy bowed. Someone in the audience called out to him, to ask whether he had any brothers or sisters like him, but he gave no reply.
“He can’t hear a damned thing,” someone else said in wonderment. Another man marveled how awful silent it must be inside the boy’s head.
Next the boy demonstrated singing, and he sang a song that played in Ming’s mind. He demonstrated whispering, and shouting. He demonstrated how he could choose to speak to only one person, or two or three, or the whole lot of them. When he was finished the ringmaster caught his gaze and signed something to him and at this the boy bowed once more and bid the audience good night.
Now the ringmaster called for the third miracle. Their last miracle, he said, was also their most impressive. It had caused men and women alike to faint, horses to scatter, and observers to utter cries of witchcraft and terror. From the dark wings of the stage emerged the woman who had first called Ming to the magic show. She was dressed in a diaphanous gown and she carried in one hand a torch and in the other a crystal decanter that glinted in the inconstant light of her torch. Ming sat transfixed.
“Gentlemen,” the ringmaster said with a twirl of his cane, “I present to you, for your consideration, the third and final miracle which you will see with your own two eyes this evening.” With an outstretched hand he motioned to the woman with the torch and decanter and began to retreat toward the wings. “The fireproof woman,” the ringmaster announced.
The fireproof woman swept her torch in an arc, describing a curve of heat and light. She brought the flame down close to the earth, where it spilled and licked over the dirt. And now she waved it before the men sitting closest to her, who shrank away from the fire. A stagehand carried out a small pyre of kindling and brush and set it down on the stage. The fireproof woman lofted her torch into the air and theatrically she strode over to the pyre.
“I test the reality of the flame,” she said. She touched the torch to the kindling and shortly the pyre erupted in gouts and swaying tongues of fire. “Real fire,” she said. She set the crystal decanter down by her feet and holding the torch close to her body she danced her free hand through the flame, slower than seemed possible, a slowness lingering at the edge of believability. She smiled at the audience and Ming’s breath caught in his throat. “I do not burn,” the woman said, bending down to collect the decanter. “I cannot burn,” she declared, her voice firm.
In a single smooth motion she uncorked the decanter with her thumb and upended it over her head. The wet contents poured out and saturated her gown heavy and translucent, so that the curves of her body were visible in the wavering firelight. It took only a second for the fumes to travel to the pews and when they reached Ming he knew that it was kerosene. He was gripped by an unconscious urge to leap up and stop her. Dripping in kerosene that shimmered gossamer over her body the fireproof woman dropped the torch at her glistening feet and in an instant she was afire. The men in the front row kicked backward reflexively and nearly toppled their pews. The audience cried out in earnest.
Ming stared, paralyzed, as wreathed in flames the fireproof woman touched a burning finger to her incandescent lips—hush now, look, she was all right. Her gown was burning away into drifting embers and she stood naked and utterly untouchable before her shocked audience. She clasped her hands together and bowed low, picking her torch up again. At this precise moment the fire began to sputter along her lithe body, snaking and writhing in twisting sheets of flame. And then she clapped a hand over her torch and snuffed it out. In an instant woman and torch together were extinguished, leaving a darkness total and cold. Someone had turned out the lanterns and the stage lights. In that sudden darkness Ming heard her quiet footsteps receding from the stage and then the shuffling of stagehands followed by the booted feet of the ringmaster returning to the stage.Ming stared, paralyzed, as wreathed in flames the fireproof woman touched a burning finger to her incandescent lips—hush now, look, she was all right.
One of the stagehands relit a lantern and the ringmaster appeared before them in dim relief. “Thank ye,” he said simply, and with that, the show was over. The man seated beside Ming broke into cheers and the other spectators soon followed.
Ming sat for a while as the audience thinned and filtered out. He had half a mind to go and speak to the fireproof woman, to tell her how familiar she was to him already, to hold her in his arms and call her by a different woman’s name. Ming rose from his pew and at once was forced back down by a wave of nausea. He was still blind drunk. Again he tried to stand but again he had to sit, breathing slow and deep. He closed his eyes and the world reeled. He wondered if the fireproof woman would understand if he told her how much she reminded him of his Ada, whose face he could not quite remember anymore anyway. Besides it was not that the two women looked alike, exactly, but rather that they seemed to be iterations on similar forms. He felt himself falling, or perhaps sliding, whether forward or backward he did not know, did not care to know, all movement tended downward at close of day, all movement everywhere has always tended downward. His head came to rest on the cool earth with a muffled and painless jolt. A moment or a thousand moments passed; then hands were tugging at his arms—he was pulled upright—and with one arm draped around a small figure at his side he began to walk.
Excerpted from The Thousand Crimes Of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin. Copyright © 2021. Available from Little, Brown, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.