Honourable mention in the 9th Annual Geist Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest.
Eleanor the Armless Wonder fell in love with Harry Houdini for his sleight of hand. How quickly he could make something disappear—a canary, a playing card, a paper fan. Even when he made her cigar disappear—Tut tut! You’ll brown your teeth!—she could not help but smile. Of course she, who lacked arms, would love a man who took such pride in absence.
She lived in a caravan inherited from a tattooed woman (“A human canvas! A living art gallery!”) who had used the caravan’s walls to test images before needling them onto her skin: blooming roses in every shade of red and pink, lounging tigers, golden ships with billowing sails.
Every evening, Eleanor served Houdini tea with her toes. He watched closely, the caravan silent except for the occasional crack of her bones. She taught him her secrets: how toes could be fingers, how legs could be arms. She played his favourite song—“Yankee Doodle”—on her small violin, which she brought to her chin with a practised bend of her knee. He learned how to pinch (a red bloom on her thigh as evidence) and how to write (Wonderful Eleanor! What fine feet you have!).
Then Harry discovered handcuffs and the crowd swelled around him and floated him off to gilded stages. And he married: a tiny spark of a woman who could pick a lock almost as quickly as he could, her fingers darting like hummingbirds.
The caravan howled at night when the wind blew through it. Morning was cruel to the flaking roses on the walls, to the tigers’ fading stripes. Eleanor browned her teeth with cigars and in their boxes stored Houdini press clippings. She housed him inside Drum Major, El Mona, La Palina; under palm trees and gentlemen riding camels and women in red with roses dotting their cigar-coloured hair. She smoked more than she would have, just to make room for the clippings.
Then she met Count Orloff, the Human Window Pane (“You can see his heart beat! You can see his blood circulate!”). He loved her, and she loved that his whole anatomy was visible when he sat in the sun: there was his heart, secure in his chest. Mornings he spent with a tiny paintbrush in hand, an opium pipe in the other, touching up her roses as she played him plaintive songs on her violin.
“Let’s put wind in these sails,” he said about the ragged ships.
The circus took them to places they never would have reached alone—the castles of Europe, the Canadian Rockies with their fresh scent of gold.
She read that Houdini, lashed in front of a loaded cannon, escaped by untying the ropes with his toes. When asked where he learned to do that, he said, Did you know there is a Chinese armless artist who can paint with his teeth? Beautiful landscapes. Big, big skies!
But it was me, she thought. Then consoled herself by watching Orloff’s heart, beating steadily in its glass chest.