Instruments of Flight

by C. A. Schaefer

The coin glints, suspended between pavement and his outstretched hand before it disappears, swallowed by the air. The children laugh and the bread line exhales discontent. He catches the eye of a nearby mother and meets her wan smile. His hands twist fluidly together.

“For the lady,” he says, and a pink and orange blossom appears between in his hands. Her sullenness melts into surprised warmth, and she pries a penny from her purse.

“Thank you, good audience,” he says. No one moves. They are still waiting for the coin. He loves the look of relief when he undoes the magic.

His most faithful audience is here today, still unnamed and unknown. She’s a woman who comes once or twice a week, leaves a nickel, and walks off without a word. He recognizes her by the navy blue coat, the neat curls, and her mended shoes.

“Now,” he says, “where is that coin of ours?”
The mystery woman braces her hands against a lamppost. “The penny, penny,” says a toddler.

“Penny,” says another, a pretty little thing. His lips part in a waiting grin, and he almost steps towards her, but the nameless woman tugs at him. He moves to her.

“But where is the penny?” Malcolm says. The woman (she needs a name, he has to meet her) clasps her hands in front of her. He decides to pull the coins from the seashell ear. The penny, the penny. His hand reaches towards her face, but her hand intercepts his. The chant dies at her touch. Her fingertips graze the hidden coin.

“The penny,” the woman says.

He has to salvage the show, so he pulls his hand away and lets the coin fall into her waiting palm.

“It came back,” says a boy. He pushes up the brim of his sailor cap in disbelief.

“It just hid for a while,” Malcolm says. He winks. The bread line leans perceptibly forward at the hint of money.

“Thank you,” he says. He spreads his arms wide and bows.

Before today the woman was always swift to leave. But now she busies herself adjusting her hat and gloves.

“I’m Malcolm,” he says. It’s a foolish thing to say. He introduces himself each time as Malcolm the Magician, the wonder of San Francisco’s streets. Only in this town, ladies and gentlemen, will you see these wonders.

“So you say,” she says, gently laughing.

“Yes,” he says. He tosses a few coins in his hand before he slips them into his coat pocket.

“I’m Sofia,” she says. Her fingers trace the sleeve of his coat before she draws back.

“Would you like a drink, Sofia?” he says. “My treat.”

“No,” she says. The wind blows her curls around her lips. She holds up his coins. When he checks his empty pocket, he has to smile.

“Mine,” she says.

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A dime buys them two cups of coffee at a tin-plated diner. She inhales the steam before she spoons the coffee in her mouth.

“My father was a magician,” Sofia says. A crescent-shaped scar is barely visible beneath her right ear. “He used small things. Everyday things. He took a grape, or an olive.” Her fingers grasp an imaginary object.

“How did he bring them back?”

“He didn’t,” she says. “They weren’t themselves anymore.” She sets the cup down. Her fingers curl around the china, bitten nails on the chipped rim. Her breath ghosts against the window glass.

“I don’t understand.”

“He always left us wanting. We never saw it again once it had gone.”

“It won’t work in a show.”

“It’s better magic,” she says.

“Then show me,” he says. He gives into his impulse and grasps her hand. It’s a magician’s hand like his, small and versatile.

“Not here.”

“I want to see you again,” he says.

“Come see me,” she says, and slips her gloves back on. “Come to my rooms.”

“You must have a landlady,” he says. “She can’t allow male visitors.”

This time he almost feels the heat of her smile. “Make yourself disappear.”

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On Tuesday, Sofia comes to the door before he can open it.

“I want to show you something,” she says. Outside her window, birds fly in gray lines. He sits down in a latticed chair and looks at her on the bed. She hands him a box enameled with a peacock. A lock, but no key.

He turns the box and feels for the trick panel. The tiny key is underneath, visible only when the panel is removed. The lid lifts to hundreds of paper birds.

“I don’t understand,” he says. Each bird is white and only a little smaller than his thumb.

“Mrs. Yamanashi, our—she did our wash when I was little. She taught me. Make a thousand and your wish is granted.”

“How many do you have?” he says.

“I don’t know.” She toys with one of the birds, her finger grazing one wing. He tries to gauge the number in the box and can’t precisely find an answer. Two hundred, perhaps. Or twice that, if the box is deeper than expected.

“A kind of magic,” he says.

“Yes,” Sofia says. “Your magic.”

“What happens afterwards?”

“I don’t know,” she says. The light falls across her face and illuminates the curvature of her cheek. “I could set them out on the ocean.” She lays a few of them out on the coverlet, lost birds on a white sea. She grasps the fabric and ripples it to mimic the motion of the waves. The birds bob and sink and finally settle between the folds of cloth.

He laughs and kisses her cheek when he leaves. He walks down to the streetcar and tries to make sense of her. She is, he decides, a pretty girl. She might be lonely. She is a girl with a box of paper birds and agile hands. When he leaves, she presses her cheek against the doorframe.

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“I don’t understand,” he says to her. They’re at dinner. These evenings are sunny and sluggish. The salt air smells fermented. He remembers Sofia on her bed, folding paper into tiny birds. She hides them in boxes and bottles, his coat pockets and shoes.

“I’m giving you the advantage,” she says.

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One afternoon in Washington Square, Sofia puts her hand on his knee.

“We should go to the shore,” she says.

“Why?” The seaside is not pleasurable; it is the smell of rotting things, sand in his shoes, and the impossible roar of the waves.

“No, listen,” she says. “I can get a car. New,” she adds with a small blush. “Well, a Model A.”

“That’s not new,” he counters, although now he wants to come.

“Close enough.”

“Show me your birds again,” he says, and puts his hand on her wrist.

“Not now,” she says. “Friday.”

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The shore is less grotesque than he remembers; Sofia places seaweed in squares on the sand. She gathers broken mussel shells, and cradles an empty cup of abalone in her fingers. They take a path that brings them onto an isle, towards the seething waves.

“Watch,” she says. She clambers up a large rock. Her grey scarf is a standard flying on the hill. It flutters down into his hands. He crosses his arms and smiles at her.

“Transform the rock,” he says. He cups his hands around his mouth and shouts to her across the churning water.

“Be patient!” She stands poised on the rock, throat lifted to the sky. She extends her arms. The dress collapses as she disappears. The skirt is the last to fall, a pale jellyfish in the air.

“Sofia,” he says. The tremor in his voice surprises him. He climbs up the rock and clutches her clothes. They are still warm and smell faintly of ginger and gardenia. He listens for a gasp of air. His eyes scan the waves for her hand. The persistent seaside groan fills his ears.

“Sofia,” he says. He stumbles over the shells and kelp. His shout hovers above him and then dissipates into the waves. He strips off his shirt and wades out into the water. The tide sucks in constant pressure, pulls his ankles in towards floating debris. He is about to swim out when a flash of wet silver stops him.

“Here,” Sofia says. She lies in the surf. Her bathing dress is grey jersey. Her hair is twisted around her neck. The foam washes up against her waist and bubbles away.

He grips her shoulders. She shakes with quiet laughter. He kisses her, then. Kisses the pale face, the dark shadows, and her red round mouth. His thumbs sear into her arms and he hauls them both up. They sit in the surf for a moment and clutch each other. The phosphorous spray glitters, knifelike in their faces.

“How?” he says. She sprawls out on the sand. It cakes her hair and bladed shoulders. He lies down beside her.

“How?” he says again and touches her. Here is her head, the curl of the legs, and the arch of the feet.

“Is it the light?” The question bursts out of him.

“Shh.” She shivers. He slides his hand against the small of her back.

“I have your dress,” he says. He splashes a few handfuls of water against her shoulders.

She draws herself up. “I should have warned you,” she says.

No.

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The wind pushes them towards her room, her small cell with a double bed.

She drops the bathing suit on the floor. There is more here than the room can contain. He could drop to his knees and examine the floor for a trick compartment, find trap doors and long falls beneath the wood.

“I’ll just change,” she says. He slides his arms around her waist.

“Do it again.”

“I can’t do it here,” she says. Her laughter is pleased as she unfastens a few crucial hooks on her dress.

She pauses and turns, body oriented towards the clean light. Her dress spills to the floor. She bends her body fluidly back, and the bed puffs out at the moment of landing. He looks at her, an angled odalisque, and the spill of dark hair across her sheets. His hand cups her shoulder first, then he traces her, that shallow concavities of skin and the downy plains of hair.

“You reappeared,” he says. He imagines all that it must take for her vanish. He touches the smiling jaw, the birdlike collarbone, and the jutting ribs.

“You’re the magician,” she says.

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After that he stays with her. He packs up his things and stows them in between Sofia’s silken underthings. He begins to experiment with lights and lanterns. It’s showy for the street, but he earns more money. Soon Sofia’s paper cranes take flight. They land in hats and open hands. He learns to love the astonishment when the small bird appears.

It’s better than cards and coins. Grown men linger on the edges of the crowds. He could have a theater: his name on a marquee between a pair of dancing girls. But he needs something else, first.

“One show,” he says. Three orange poppies hang in her hair like jewels. “That’s all I’m asking for.”

“I don’t know,” she says.

“It’ll be late afternoon, with the lanterns,” he continues.

“I need wings,” she says. She spreads her arms to let her lace shawl unfold, and grasps the ends to mimic a bird. He could make her paper wings, painted and stiff from her shoulders, but she’s right, it’s not enough.

“The bird woman,” he offers.

“One show.” She holds up a warning finger. Her wings collapse at the sign of movement and become the shawl again.

“At first,” he says. He sits on the edge of the bed and watches her. She desires the audience and the recognition of their applause. He tilts his head back and exhales, wanting a cigarette.

“I’ll show you everything,” he says. She turns her face into the pillow and nods again.

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She surprises him. At the end of the show the wings appear with a flick of her nail. They’re the wings of which he’s dreamed. Pleated feathers folded from sheets of paper. Light moves through them and doesn’t expose the bulky apparatus she must need for them to hold. For a moment he expects her to rise over the cable tracks and into the sun. The crowd’s applause is startled. It’s too much for the corner of Stockton and Pine.

“It was beautiful,” he says. He lies facing her in the bed. The shadows sculpt her expressions into a quick smile and a trembling lip. Her unwashed hair falls into his face, blinds him with its touch and smell. He falls asleep against her damp back and the cool sheets.

The next morning, he wakes early and lingers, shaving his face and oiling his hair. He pauses with his hat in hand, but she does not wake up. She sleeps with her legs tucked to her chest.

“I’ll be back soon,” he says. He leans over and kisses her cheek.

He returns in half an hour and approaches his usual entrance. He is full of coffee and newsprint, and doesn’t see her landlady at first. She stares at him.

“Sorry,” he says. He walks past her and the scent of sour bread.

Upstairs, the room is wrong. The door is open by a few inches. Inside he can see a sliver of a barren room. The floors shine with polish and wax. He’s walked into the wrong room, mistaken a door, but the window, the bed, and the latticed chair all remain.

She has disappeared, and with her have her wings, her shell-pink underpinnings, and her kid gloves. He circles the room and feels the walls blindly. The rough plaster is the same. He glances at the bare mattress of her bed. He feels for the trick compartment. He searches for a note, her neat writing looped on newsprint.

He turns his face to the window. The glass is clean. No fingerprints until his damp hand touches the surface. The street is empty. The window doesn’t open. A tuneless hum rises from the back stairwell and he stands and shuts the door.

“Sofia,” he says. He squeezes his eyes shut and moves towards the bed. His hurried breath overwhelms the silence.

The mattress is rough to his touch. He draws his hand away and sees what he wants. Hundreds of tiny paper cranes the color of the mattress, of her skin, of spilled milk. These were what she had hidden in boxes and bottles and shoes. He rests his mouth against the paper. They fold beneath his weight into crumpled balls. Later, much later, he will stand and walk across the room, his steps measured on the floor.

He’ll look out the window for birds, but of course he won’t see them.

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C.A. Schaefer is a doctoral fellow at the University of Utah, where she has taught creative writing and been a managing editor of Quarterly West. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from So to Speak, Passages North, Rappahannock Review, Tidal Basin Review, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. She lives in Salt Lake City with her partner and two small beasts.

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