This week my journey to read all the award-nominated and award winning short fiction from the last decade led me to Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician”, which originally appeared in Lightspeed and was nominated for a Nebula. Narrated by the cold and distant voice of an insightful observer, the story tracks a boy’s ascent from street illusionist to court magician, or one “who makes [the regent’s] problems disappear.”
Everything comes at a cost. After learning a single word, he can make any problem disappear, starting with someone standing outside the regent’s window at night reading a list of names. At first, the cost is a pinky, the rest of a digit, and soon it’s the teeth he doesn’t need to pronounce the word. He tries to trick the spell, pretending that he loves certain furniture: a painting, a pillow, but that only causes him more anguish.
Why would anyone sacrifice so much to solve someone else’s problems?
Everyone worships something. Pinsker’s story reminds me of Brian Evenson’s unforgettable novel Last Days, cult members willingly amputate parts of their bodies to reach higher spiritual rungs, worshipping not only the pain, but the adoration of their fellow devotees.
For the boy in Pinsker’s story, the self-amputation, although far less gruesome than in Evenson’s work, the motivation is the same: power. To know the secret of the word, the way it works, its secret knowledge.
What we worship can become our undoing. The word derives its power from the desire for knowledge that only the truly young can wield. The same can be said for the masochistic characters in Evenson’s work; they want the truth, the next secret known only to those initiates who have lost more of themselves.
It seems impossible to be both whole in body and enlightened after reading these stories, and almost every religion teaches that the neophyte’s journey ends, or truly begins, when they leave their bodies and journey past death. It is a logical manifestation of this search for enlightenment then that hastening that enlightenment could be achieved by losing parts of yourself, both metaphorically and physically.
Can we reach the highest rungs without leaving what we love behind? Both alive and vigorous, yet wholly enlightened?
Pinsker and Evenson say it plainly: without pain, there is no learning.