The amusement park was so large that it had two trains named after root vegetables. Vienne got on the wrong one.
Lugging her magician’s trunk in one hand and a map of Wonder Gardens in the other, she clambered onto the Rutabaga Express. The seat was sticky with pineapple gunk and the car was open to the sky.
As the train chugged past the Bananarama Coaster and the whirling Strawberry Surprise, a sweet scent wafted through the air. Hordes of people milled around, clumping up to watch the organic farming demonstration or three women juggling zucchini. Lines for rides and food carts snaked around and around. The sound was tremendous—laughter and shouting, the whoosh of the Bananarama Coaster, and the train chugging along, whistling occasionally.
Vienne pulled out a deck of cards and shuffled, the rhythm of the cards matching the churn of the train’s wheels.
Another performance at another weird amusement park. But the produce theme wasn’t so bad. Last week, it had been cats—a tabby tea cup ride, catnip funhouse, ice cream sandwiches shaped like mousey toys. The Performers’ Guild was always sending her to kooky places.
It would be different when she made a name for herself. She’d travel around the world—hike in New Zealand, read on a beach in India, take a cooking class in Japan. But first, she’d go to Iceland. Iceland had all the best things—tiny horses, magma caves, medieval manuscripts, super cool birdwatching. Ever since she was a kid, Vienne had wanted to visit.
She flipped four aces out of the deck in a flourish. Maybe someday, she’d do that trick on an Icelandic stage.
The train chugged along. It wasn’t until the Carrot Waterslide that she realized she was going the wrong way.
Facepalm. She couldn’t be late for the performance, not when the Performers’ Guild already wanted to revoke her membership. The accident with Flying Death or Parasites hadn’t been her fault, not really, but the Guild didn’t see it that way. Vienne had always hated that illusion—it was the worst sort of magic.
The trick, in its entirety.
Step 1: Suspend yourself above a tank of creeping nematodes.
Step 2: Wiggle around a bit.
Step 3: Wait for the audience to be blinded by flashing lights and glitter explosions.
Step 4: Signal your assistant to lower you down and untie you.
Step 5: Hold up your arms to encourage applause. Undeserved applause.
Flying Death or Parasites required no skill, no knowledge of knots, no craft. It wasn’t real magic—the kind that took years of practice to perfect.
Vienne had created plenty of her own tricks, and none of them included glitter. Or nematodes. She could produce tiny glass swans, making it seem as if they had flown out of a mirror. She could grow a rose from the palm of her hand. She could send paper dragonflies zooming around the audience, each one marked with the symbol of a playing card, and bring back the dragonfly that matched the card a volunteer picked from her deck. The Guild wouldn’t let her do those tricks. Not flashy enough, they said. The Guild booked her performances; they made the rules. If the Guild wanted glitter explosions, they got glitter explosions.
The Rutabaga Express pulled into a station. Vienne climbed out, pulling her trunk after her.
“Excuse me,” she called to an attendant dressed like a bulb of garlic. “What’s the fastest way to get to the Wonder Arena?”
The garlic waddled over. The costume was absurdly round, with sunglasses painted across the body, but Vienne didn’t think less of the person in the suit. If you had a passion, sometimes you did silly things and worked your way up, even if that meant dressing like a vegetable, or performing at weird amusement parks, or wiggling above a tank of nematodes.
“You’re going the wrong way,” said the garlic.
“I know. I need the Turnip Train, right?” She refrained from asking who had thought it was a good idea to name both trains after pinkish root vegetables.
“Not exactly,” said the garlic.
The conductor sounded the whistle, and the Rutabaga Express chugged away.
The station platform was rather high up. Vienne grabbed the railing. Ever since the mishap with Flying Death or Parasites, she wasn’t so fond of heights. She wished she could forget the whole embarrassing episode. The rope had snapped, and she’d twisted in the air, clipped the side of the nematode tank, then hit the stage with a tremendous thunk.
“Wait a moment,” she said. Trying not to look at the ground, which was much too far below her, Vienne dropped her trunk, then plopped down on top of it. She tried to steady her breathing.
“Are you okay?”
She pulled out a deck of cards, the familiar weight settling in her hands. “Can you see in the garlic suit?”
“Surprisingly well. You get used to it. My eyes are up here.” The garlic pointed to the top of the suit, above the huge sunglasses, where white mesh scrunched against a shock of green leaves.
Doing a magic trick was the only way she could think of to calm down. She fanned out the deck. “Pick a card.”
“Any card?” asked the garlic, sounding amused. He took one from the middle. Even though the garlic didn’t reveal his card, Vienne knew it was the four of hearts.
She did a one-handed cut, then spun the top card around, her fingers nimble from practice. That was the real secret of magic—practice. Doing more work than anyone thought possible. Spending all of your time with a quarter palmed in your hand, until you could move as if the quarter wasn’t there at all.
“Now, we’ll need to turn this ordinary deck into something extraordinary,” said Vienne, falling easily into her patter. “To do that, I’ll need a magic word or phrase from you.” As she spoke, Vienne shuffled, expertly spinning the cards.
Her favorite part was finding out what her volunteer would pick. Most people chose traditional magic words, like abracadabra, or nonsense phrases or whatever popped into their heads. Rarely, someone would pick a phrase that was meaningful to them.
As the garlic thought, she maneuvered the cards into place.
“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” said the garlic.
Vienne paused. “That’s the first time I’ve heard that one.”
“It’s from a Walt Whitman poem.”
So, the garlic was interested in poetry. It was amazing what you could learn about someone in just a few minutes. That was one of the reasons Vienne loved close-up magic—it gave you a real connection to people.
Vienne snapped her fingers. “Barbaric yawp! Now, it’s a magical deck. It’s going to tell us what card you chose. Let’s look at the top three cards.”
Slowly, she turned over the four of clubs, the four of diamonds, and the four of spades. “These cards are looking for their friend.”
The garlic revealed the card in his hand. The four of hearts, of course. “How did you do that?”
“Practice. Lots of practice.” Vienne remembered she was in a hurry. “I’m performing today, but I have to get to the Wonder Arena.”
“Let me see your map.” The garlic pulled a pen from a hidden pocket. He scribbled a line. “So, you’re here, by the Potato Horror House. Don’t go in there, by the way. All spuds and mold. You need to get here.” The garlic jabbed an ominous laughing skull surrounded by purple blooms. “That’s the Eggplant Cannon.”
“Cannon? I thought I needed to take a train.”
“The Turnip Train is scenic. Takes two hours to complete a circuit. When did you need to be at the Wonder Arena?”
Vienne checked her watch. “Twenty minutes. I need time to set up.” She wanted to triple check her equipment. No more accidents.
“The Eggplant Cannon will shoot you over the park. Totally safe,” the garlic said, in a way that suggested it wasn’t.
Vienne thanked the garlic, then made her way down the stairs, gripping the railing with one hand and her trunk with the other.
“Wait,” the garlic shouted, waving a playing card. “Your four of hearts.”
“Keep it,” she called back. “A reminder of your barbaric yawp.”
Vienne hurried through the park. She couldn’t help thinking that this sort of mix up would have never happened in Reykjavik. They probably labelled their trains properly in Iceland.
She pulled her trunk past a large rose garden, panting. The trunk, which she had never much liked, was weighed down with glitter and props. The worst part was she’d had to purchase the glitter herself. The Guild didn’t pay for stuff like that—not unless you were a senior member.
She ducked under a trellis awash with yellow flowers. On her right, a river squashed full of paddleboats.
A group of five teenagers clambered into one boat, which had to be against regulations. There was quite a line for the paddleboats.
However, there was no line at all for the Eggplant Cannon.
The apparatus was glazed with purple paint. A gigantic cylinder rested on two spoked wheels, decorated with festive cartoons of eggplants smiling, parachuting, and splattering into mounds of goop. Piles of oversized plastic eggplants littered the space, reminiscent of cannonballs.
Vienne had never actually eaten an eggplant. She didn’t trust a vegetable that purple.
A sign read, “Flailing while in air prohibited.”
An attendant with neatly braided hair sat in a booth. “Ignore the sign,” she said. “Everyone flails.”
It won’t be so bad, thought Vienne, even though her insides were bopping like she’d ingested a parasite. Sure, the eggplant cannon would shoot her high into the air, extremely high, unreasonably high, but there wouldn’t be any nematodes. No nematodes. That was something, at least.
“I need to get to the Wonder Arena,” Vienne said.
“Okay, I’ll calculate a route. You want to shoot the trunk over, too?” The attendant scribbled out some equations.
“Is this thing—” Vienne gazed at the shiny purple base, the straight lines of the cannon, the lack of any track or guidance system. “Is this thing safe?”
“Completely safe. Please sign this waiver,” said the attendant.
Vienne pulled out a deck of cards. Her hands were shaking so badly that she could barely hold the deck steady, but the act of shuffling calmed her. The cards whizzed in her hands. Blind shuffle. Bevel. False cut. Mercury fold. She knew the location of every card and could return the deck to its original order, spinning the cards back to where they had started.
She imagined soaring over the park, the ground coming at her much too fast. During the mishap with Flying Death or Parasites, she hadn’t had time to be afraid. There was only falling, then the pain of hitting the stage. Now, she’d be much higher.
Her phone buzzed. She answered to the panicked voice of her assistant. “Where are you?”
“Minor setback,” said Vienne.
A string of curses followed. “You’re this close to being kicked out of the Guild, and you can’t even be bothered to show up on—”
Vienne hung up the phone.
The Wonder Arena shone in the distance, impossibly far away.
Vienne took a breath and signed the form, bouncing on her toes. Sometimes, magic required a bit of discomfort. Once, at a cocktail party, she’d pulled a large ice cube out of a party goer’s hat. She’d chosen a woman who’d just taken off her red-feathered cloche. When the ice cube appeared, dripping and cold, the astonished woman asked her how it was done. Vienne had been tempted to say, “Well, you start with a much larger ice cube, and the capacity to be very chilly.”
The attendant fitted her with a purple helmet and a suit covered with flimsy mesh, then asked Vienne to scrunch down in the cannon. The suit chafed against her shoulders.
“No nematodes,” Vienne chanted. “No nematodes.”
The attendant gave her a weird look, then went back to the controls. As the Eggplant Cannon booted up, a scraping noise filled the air, eerily similar to the sound of a tank of parasites being dragged onto a stage.
Inside the cannon, a cheerful eggplant clock buzzed to life by her nose and began a countdown.
Flying above an audience. A snapping rope. Nematodes.
“Wait!” Too late. Much too late.
Vienne shot out of the Eggplant Cannon, arching over the park. She flung her arms out, then back. Despite her best efforts, she was flailing. Below her, the Cauliflower Carousel glimmered, luminous and majestic. She flew over the Radish Maze, its shadowed corridors visible from above. People stopped to watch her hurtling through the air.
Of course they would watch. Shooting out of a cannon was exactly the sort of thing that drew attention, just like all of the magic the Guild preferred. Flash. Bang. Explosion of glitter. And, when the trick had ended, that shocked afterglow, eyes adjusting after an assault of light. Vienne much preferred magic of a quieter sort, but it was hard to make a career out of close-up magic, the kind you could do with cards and coins. People wanted big illusions. People wanted escapes.
Air brushed past her, quick and cold. She spread her arms out wide. No more flailing.
The world looked different from high up, as if the edges of things were blurred together, like cards being shuffled into a deck. Now you see the world, now you don’t.
Paddleboats wound through the river below, impossibly small.
The flimsy mesh of her suit ripped away. A parachute bloomed behind her.
Flying was both terrifying and freeing at once. Part of her wanted to be safe on the ground, but another part wanted to zoom farther, over the park, over the woods past the boundary fence, where the trees were a distant blur.
A landing zone marked by a large eggplant loomed closer.
She decelerated, the parachute flaps whipping about her ears. The outlined eggplant grew larger, rushing up to meet her. Vienne bounced three times, careening through a pile of eggplants, before coming to a stop.
The first thing she did was check her watch. She’d make it backstage on time if she hurried, but she needed her trunk.
Vienne paced the landing pad, kicking eggplants out of the way. One overripe eggplant exploded on impact, splattering her leg with goop. One minute passed. Two. To her right, the Wonder Arena beckoned, its walls adorned with posters of her face framed by glitter explosions. Crowds of people were already lined up. To her left, a stand shaped like three ears of corn, filling the air with a popcorn smell.
At last, she spotted the trunk. It arched over the park at tremendous speed. The buckles glinted in the sun. Half the trunk was obscured by purple mesh.
The parachute deployed, but something was wrong. The ropes caught. The mesh twisted up. Half the parachute shot out, causing the trunk to careen in the air. It changed course, jerking at an angle. The trunk overshot the landing space, picked up speed on the descent, and crashed into the woods beyond the park.
A puff of glitter shot into the sky, marking the place where the trunk had landed. Vienne considered hopping the fence and dashing into the woods. Perhaps some of the equipment was salvageable.
Glitter descended on the trees, glinting in the sun, annoyingly bright. Instead of fetching the trunk from the woods, she turned away. She was surprised to find herself smiling. Good riddance to glitter.
And good riddance to the Guild, which would surely revoke her membership. It was the worst possible scenario, the one she’d tried to avoid for so long. No gigs, no career advancement, no recognition.
Vienne shucked off the parachute. She thought of flying over the park, that freedom, and the Eggplant Cannon, which had at first seemed awful and deadly and unknown. Wrong routes and mishaps had led to some of the best things in her life. Being thrown out of the Guild would be a major setback, but perhaps it was also an opportunity.
If the Guild canceled the rest of her gigs, she’d have a lot of free time. She wondered how much it would cost to fly to Iceland.
More people flowed into the Wonder Arena. Vienne kicked the parachute aside.
The show would go on, but she would do it her way.
In her pocket, a deck of cards. Her old act sang in her hands. There were only two handkerchiefs in her coat, both bright blue with stars, but she knew how to hide them in seventeen different ways.
She could call on volunteers. Audience members always had interesting items—the adults, watches and credit cards. The kids, rocks and toys and packs of gum. She could work wonders with gum, flitting the pieces in and out of the pack.
Vienne grabbed an eggplant from the pile. She could incorporate it into the show. Magically cut it into slices. Make it appear as if from air. Cut open the eggplant to reveal a prediction, or better yet, have the prediction cut itself into the rubbery, purple skin. If the Wonder Arena had a mirror, she could do a version of the trick with the glass swans, making pieces of eggplant fall from the air, reflected in the glass.
That was real magic—taking something ordinary like an eggplant and turning it into an object of wonder.
No parasites. No glitter. No flashes of light. Just her on the stage. She’d start with the deck of cards. That was something, to fill an audience with wonder using only your hands and voice and a deck of cards.
Vienne palmed a quarter, then opened the door to the Wonder Arena so deftly that it seemed as if the coin wasn’t there at all.
Oh, I loved this. Strangeness and wonder and charm all in one. I could really feel myself in Vienne’s head as this was going along, and, much like the eggplant cannon, it was a wonderful, messy ride.
Amazing story. One of the best I’ve read all year.
A fine “moral”: Seeming disasters often are the doorways to better things. Lovely story! With eggplants!