Flash fiction by R Alexander, a new author on Shunya's Notes who will contribute a piece each month; see his bio line at the end of this post.
The cut glass bottles tinkled in their felt-lined compartments, rattling loose their stoppers. Magister Xu balanced his beaten, cardboard, leather-bound case atop his knees, as the carriage swayed from side to side, and clutched it with a careful, arthritic grip. Though the driver called noisily to one of the horses, the wind and movement swept away whatever correction might have been intended. Magister Xu took the cap from off his head and laid it not ostentatiously atop the case. The cloth was embroidered with the patterns of the night sky, stars and symbols indicating their movements and meanings.
From courtesy, he tried to avoid looking into the eyes of the woman sitting quietly across from him. When Magister Xu averted his eyes, however, he found he seemed instead to be searching for a glimpse of her ankles. The thought of this unsettled him.
He cleared his throat. “You are traveling home?” It was forward of him, he knew to speak to a woman without an introduction, but it settled his mind some to hear the sound of his voice rising over the embarrassing sound that seemed to emanate from his lap, the sound of his case of glass bottles.
The woman sat motionless and silent and stared straight ahead. A yellow veil partially covered her delicately dusted face. He forgot to resist looking at her, and saw her wide, painted eyes, frightened and tearful. He had been thoughtless, he realized. There was no home for this girl. And for him to speak to her, when they were alone like this: such forwardness she must endure.
The heat was nearly unbearable. The coach was uncovered to the sky and the sun, which was no longer high, leered through the trees, dappling the travelers in an animated flow of motley.
They rode like this for an hour until Magister Xu began to nod off to sleep. His head felt heavy and fell repeatedly to his chest, as Master Xu dreamt. His wife, appearing older than she did even now, wore the heavy red silk of a bride. Her face was uncovered. He saw himself wearing the crisp white linen of the groom. He smiled. The stars on his silver cap glinted like a chandelier's baubles.
A look of annoyance gathered in his wife's face. “We are nought but dust.” The words came out in his old Nana's dialect, the language of a foolish people.
“Concentration," he said. “Potency.” Or did he? He had meant to flatter this woman, though over time he had grown to know her to be thoughtless and self-absorbed.
He felt a hand on his knee. What had prompted this?
“Sir Magician!” The the young woman insisted. Her voice was musical and deferential.
Magister Xu heard the rising sound of agitated glass and felt the precipitous movement of the case slipping across his knees. He opened his eyes and and was arrested by this face before him. It had the purity of action, round and soft. Never mind the paint which now caked in the creases near the eyes and around the mouth. For a moment he could see the young girl she had been, the woman of thin flesh she now was, and the bride she might have been had poverty or ignorance not chosen the yellow veil. Her fingers on his knee stirred him.
“Thank you,” he said, rescuing the case from the brink. Startled, he opened it and checked the velvet lined partitions. None of the bottles had broken. Touching the stoppers, he found one or two had shaken completely loose. Confused by an old feeling rising within him, something like hope, his fingers moved over the cut glass, until he selected one bottle and lifted it gently from the dark velvet. He closed the box and stretched his bony fingers towards her.
She took the bottle without a word. Magister Xu watched her white face, her young, glittering eyes, the angular bones of her wrists. The bottle's cut glass edges, though warmed by the sun, were sharp against her fingertips. Inside a green powder seemed pale and ordinary. She leaned down and took up the silver cap, from where it lay on the floor of the carriage, and placed it back on top of the magician's case.
Quietly he came to see that she would never be for him. The green powder would do nothing. Perhaps she knew this, too. Perhaps, however, his faded stock of tricks might come to matter to her in some other way, some day.
R Alexander writes fiction, poetry, and essays and lives in the Pacific Northwest.