In the City of Crying Merchants

     There was a city I never understood.
     Day and night there was wailing, only wailing, as morose merchants walked the streets tearing their shirts and beating their breasts.
      “What troubles you so?” I would ask them.
      “I have lost business to that man over there,” each one would answer, pointing at another man across the street, who was also crying. And so I would go to see what the other’s wares were, and they were always selling something completely different. The flower merchant would cry over sales lost to the fishmonger, who wailed over customers who’d crossed over to the chocolatier, who mourned the customers who left his stall to purchase books around the corner. Each one would blame the next, accusing them of unfair practices, cutthroat pricing, coercion, and defamatory gossip about their competition.
      “How can you even compare a rose to a trout, or a bonbon to a book, or a loaf of bread to a packet of turmeric?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it make sense to compare this baker to that one, or this florist to the other? Perhaps instead of crying you could ask yourselves what you could do to improve your own offerings.”
     By this time I was shouting to be heard over the din of their wailing and moaning. As soon as the last word left my mouth, however, the streets quieted. Men stopped poking their fingers at each other across the streets; they wiped their eyes and sniffled. For the first time since I’d entered the city, I felt relief—even hope.
     Then an apple whooshed by my head. A newspaper thwacked my shoulder and a stinking fish thwopped wetly against my back. After a stunned moment I ran, ducking heads of lettuce, wedges of cheese, pork chops, and bottles of perfume. I stopped at the end of the street, croissants and flowers bouncing off me as I turned to plead with the merchants.
      “This is madness!” I yelled. “I only wanted to help, and now look, you’ve just driven out your very last customer!”
     One last tomato squished on the ground, then all was quiet except for the flutter of loose pages and the trickle of milk running down the gutter. Then a sob.
      “He threw the first sausage,” moaned the spice merchant.
      “Lies!” howled the butcher. He pointed a shaking finger at the ice cream peddler. “The first missile was a scoop of vanilla.”
      “Truly you are blind,” the ice cream peddler responded. “Did you not see the cobbler throw the shoe?”
     I turned and left the blubbering behind in the City of Crying Merchants.

In the City of Falling Magicians

     Long ago, it is told, cards fluttered upward out of magicians’ hands; rabbits floated skyward from their palms; silk scarves slithered through their fingers into the air.
     The trick was invented here, in this city, whence it spread throughout the society of magicians around the world. It was a simple illusion, one that made the observers feel like they were falling, if just for a moment; a trick of focus and movement meant to startle—how shall I describe it to you—like when you’re sitting in an automobile and the vehicle next to you moves, and you grip the wheel and press the brake even harder, only to realize it wasn’t you who had moved.
     But what at first seemed a harmless sleight-of-hand kept surprising the magicians with unexpected variations, until they could no longer control it. They gradually lost the ability to hold on to anything, couldn’t keep a newspaper or pen in grip, couldn’t remember the last time they’d eaten soup, or rice, or anything that couldn’t be firmly grasped between two hands. Even the pickles atop their sandwiches went zipping up into space; and one by one, the magicians’ lovers slipped out of their embraces into the sky.
     And this, as they say, was just the beginning.
     Bit by bit, everything that was not these magicians began to disappear, floating upward into the stratosphere: farms, pig by cow; woodpiles, log by spider; jungles, monkey by tiger; savannahs, elephant by baobab; until every ant, every pebble, every blade of grass, every speck of dirt and grain of sand, every drop of water lifted up from Earth’s surface and hurtled into space.
     The magicians tried to hold down the strata of rock under their feet, but it was pointless: everything continued to fragment under their palms and float upward, crumbling skyward around them, silt flowing past them like snow in reverse and magma threading upward until there was nothing left but four hundred magicians from around the world pressed together in a knot of bodies, jostling to sort themselves out. For a moment they thought that was the end of the trick, far more than they’d bargained for to be sure, but at the very least over and finished.
     They couldn’t believe this had all started with a simple illusion. Indeed, it began innocently enough, with gasps and hands clutching chests in those moments before smiles blossomed across relieved faces, until that fateful night when—and we’ll never know how this could have come to pass—four hundred magicians around the world did the same exact trick at the same exact time, startling the planet into a chain reaction that began with annoyances of floating sandwiches and space-bound rabbits, but expanded catastrophically until the magicians were all that was left, a scrum of bodies in the middle of nothingness, relieved for a moment, hands on chests, bashful but smiling, until they began to compress even more, squeezing into each other because now that everything else had flown up around them, there was nothing left to do but to collapse into themselves.
     Only once these four hundred magicians had almost winked out did the planet comprehend the trick, blink open-mouthed, begin to reassemble its magma core, chuckling sheepishly as it patted its layers of rock back on, sighing with satisfaction at the return of sand and soil and water and trees, smoothing its grass and animals back into place, and after a brief deliberation, taking its humans back too (though at times it regrets this, chalking it up to residual shock), and for one brief beautiful moment every person, animal, plant, rock, morsel of soil, and particle of air on Earth exhaled a sigh of relief and laughed.
     Except three hundred and ninety-nine of the four hundred magicians. They cried, because they could no longer remember how to do the falling trick. It became a secret lost to time, and the last one who knew the secret was doomed to live for eternity, forbidden from sharing the illusion that might destroy the world once more, and for good.
     They say this one last magician lives here now, in this very city. But who knows if this is true, if one person could carry for all time the burden of a tantalizing trick they may never perform, a secret they might perhaps speak of, but never reveal? Who could possibly be asked to contain such a thing?
     I, for one, am certainly glad it is not me.

Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse, and graduate of American University’s MFA in Creative Writing. She’s the recipient of the following awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities: the Larry Neal Writers’ Award, the Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist, and annual Arts and Humanities Fellowships from 2018 – 2022. Current/upcoming publication credits include The Rumpus, SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Booth, Electric Literature’s Commuter, and CRAFT LiteraryShe’s the author of a novel and four multi-genre collections including her newest, Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection.

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