Glen Engel-Cox has lived and worked in Texas, California, Malaysia, Ohio, Saudi Arabia, and Washington (both state and District of Columbia) providing communication management to energy research and international development companies. Glen has published a novel, Darwin’s Daughter; a non-fiction compilation, First Impressions; and short fiction in Utopia, Nature, Triangulation, Factor Four Magazine, SFS Stories, Riddled with Arrows, Alternate Presidents, and New Pathways.
A Kind of Magic
Of course, I remember. It happened here, next to this tree, before the palace steps. You were attracted maybe by the fish in the sky—you notice that they all copy me on this. Yes, I painted the fish first, because of what the music meant to me. You see, I based my masterpiece on the day we had three presidents. Did you hear about that? There was much excitement, just as you might think, and for us in the square during that time, the magic and the fear surrounded us and it felt more wondrous than anything we had ever known.
Francisco Alamazar ruled as the first president. He had been the elected one in a fit of silliness and disgust by people in the country who thought an older man with a voice like Elvis would be just as good a ruler as the deranged general who had finally died..
We do not believe in democracy here. I do not mean that we don't practice it. You see, we vote, we hang the posters. That pays well. But we do not believe in your democracy. Its magic is not our magic, you understand, and because we do not believe, we think our votes affect nothing and thus mean nothing, and it surprised us as much as it surprised you when Alamazar won because we thought General Hernandez would be the winner. Even then, he had been Alamazar's rival, and everyone thought he would win because he had the army, just like the dead general and generals before had always needed to win. They say the war had distracted him, and Alamazar had gotten your people to watch the election and probably General Hernandez thought everything had been arranged for him as it always had been and he was surprised, too. And he couldn't fight it, because of the war and the debt and the need for your aid. But we thought the army would take over, so when Alamazar held his victory concert on the front steps of the palace – yes, right there – and I danced with Consuela and Ernesto, we thought maybe we had finally captured your magic. Alamazar had a presence.
Did you ever hear him sing? He could sing like no one else, not even your Elvis, although Ernesto says he once saw Elvis and Alamazar could have been his brother, and Consuela said Alamazar was Elvis, because she had read that Elvis still lived but had gone into hiding, and what better place to hide and to be alive than here, which is the truth, I think. His voice had a quality that made you weep, that instantly made you sad, and then he could change that sadness to joy that began down here, here in your gut, and you could not resist it, and you had to dance. When Alamazar sang and we danced, we did not think about the war, or the ships off the coast, or the oil, or the smoke starting to leak from the Old Man, yes, up there it is smoking again today, those are not clouds you see.
That next morning, after we had danced the night away, I felt like staying in bed, but the stomach will only take so much sleep, and my painting called to me, and so I came and set up my paintings. The tourists asked me how much, and it was a day like the day before the election day and everything that had happened–the election, and the singing, and the dancing – felt like a dream. Except Alamazar now lived in the palace and that night the trucks arrived from the coast. They weren't army trucks. It was a a movie company, and they unloaded the lights and the cameras, and that night Alamazar came out to sing and we all joined in another party, but this time a television crew filmed it. Alamazar had this group of women – fine women, like in my paintings – who hung on him and sighed as he sang, and he told us he was celebrating his victory with this video he said he would sell to you, and our country would be rich again because the new world order was entertainment, not oil, and entertainment prices would rise faster than oil prices, and what he said made sense, at least when he sang, you see.
We danced that night, too, and maybe you saw me on your video because I was there, and Consuela, and Ernesto. Alamazar and the army were here, too, and when we saw them at first we feared the worst, but Alamazar had called them to control the crowd because people had arrived from all over the country for this video. He had offered them free bus rides. People who had never seen him or heard him sing before danced more wildly than we did and the army controlled them. We could not believe that the army worked for him since they had always worked for the generals, and we thought Alamazar would always rule, for we were now a democracy, and he had won because of democracy, and we thought we finally had your magic. Did you see the video? I have a copy if you didn't, cheap. I have watched it many times, and sometimes I think I see myself in the crowd, but it is enough to know that I was there, and when I hear Alamazar singing, my memories flood back and I see the square, and Consuela, and Ernesto, and the army, and the women in white who sang with him, and Alamazar in white singing so strongly, and I feel satisfied.
I did not paint much in that first week, because the trucks did not leave, and the next night Alamazar sang again and surprised us when he announced a holiday. We had not had a holiday for so long, unless the army had been victorious, and that had been long ago, but a holiday, with people in the square again was so wonderful. I even sold a painting or two because people did not dance the entire time and everyone had to take a break, and Ernesto sold his glass, and Consuela sold her charms, and then I started selling so many paintings that I wished – and how I hate myself for this now – I wished Alamazar would stop singing. I know. I know. I wished it, and Ernesto and Consuela wished it, too, because Ernesto could not blow so much glass and Consuela had no time to gather her herbs and weave her purses. Too much of something is as dangerous as too little, especially when you have only had too little, and maybe that is what happened here.
The newspapers said Alamazar had sold the video and the money would be here soon, and that became another holiday. But by then we knew something else, for we had seen her step into the spotlight in front of Alamazar and we did not know her name but we knew her voice, so when the newspapers reported she had been appointed Vice President, no one thought twice. Her voice on the radio sounded as sweet as it did in the square, and everyone felt reassured. I cannot say when I first saw her – she might have been one of the original women in white who sighed as Alamazar sang. Her name even sounded like a song. Mariah. When she breathed into the microphone it sounded like the wind off the Old Man, who was smoking even more than usual then, but no one worried, for what worried us, there in our golden age?
Every night we danced while Alamazar and Mariah sang, but now the party lasted only for an hour or so, and Ernesto and Consuela and I could finally get our work done and had things to sell again. The tourists loved it, because they could see Alamazar and Mariah and the singing and the sighing, and we loved it because the tourists bought our work. I tried painting Alamazar and Mariah in those days, but my paints could not capture them because they lived in front of me every night. Have you seen the Angel on the Hill? She became my subject instead, and I painted the Old Man, who towered over the city majestically, and sometimes both the angel and the Old Man, and sometimes the square filled with people – a couple of white dots on the steps here are Alamazar and Mariah.
We had forgotten the war, even though it had not forgotten us, and the tourists never mentioned it, or the debt, and all I knew of the trouble was that the prices for my paintings increased – I thought because people liked my new subjects, and I liked that, but I had to pay more for food and scarce turpentine. Alamazar and Mariah sang every night and, though the cameras had long gone, the tourists sat and watched and bought, and when General Hernandez showed up on the steps, people at first thought it was part of the show. We all knew who he was, but you were surprised by him, if I remember. When did he fall in love with Mariah? It had to be the same time we all did, in between the time when Alamazar sold the video and the night before the Old Man stopped smoking. I know that is not exact, but love is a brush stroke on canvas and who knows how much paint you need before you start to see the picture? People talked about it before, you see, but everyone loved Mariah, almost as much as Alamazar, so no one thought any different about it.
Of course, I remember that night, for it happened here. I had taken my place there by the tree as I had done for twenty-seven years, through the generals and all during the parties, with Ernesto's glass on my left, and Consuela's charms on my right . We knew each other and watched out for each other, and we danced together and laughed together, and that night we cried and prayed together. A couple from America, like you, bartered with me for a painting I had done the night before, the angel lit by the fires here in the square and the Old Man so full of smoke you could not see the peak at all. We ignored the dancing and singing just steps away – yes, right there – until something changed in the music or the air, and when I looked up, General Hernandez was standing beside Alamazar and Maria, and the music had stopped. Consuela said she heard the general order the silence, but Ernesto thinks Alamazar just stopped singing, and without his voice, the music did not sound as good. I think it was Mariah, because she looked at the general in horror–as if she had heard something that she didn't like – and how could anybody dance or sing with her face like that? Maybe General Hernandez did or said something to her and that's why Alamazar stopped singing?
Everyone looked at the steps and the three people on them, and that's when General Hernandez stepped to the microphone and said the army had lost the northern border –the valley next to the Old Man – and that we must prepare for the invasion. Then Alamazar tried to start singing again, but Mariah stepped forward and Hernandez reached for her – out of love or as a hostage no one could tell, because he held his gun in his hand by then. As soon as he touched Mariah, Alamazar swung the microphone stand at him, and Mariah screamed, and Alamazar fell, clutching his stomach. As Mariah bent over Alamazar, General Hernandez took the microphone and declared himself President, and looked at Mariah as if he owned her.
That's when we noticed the square had filled with the army–just like that –you –see–and Ernesto and Consuela and I, well, we looked at the army like Mariah looked at General Hernandez, and that was when the Old Man stopped smoking and began to rumble. In the aftermath, with Hernandez running down the steps as the shaking continued to increase and we saw the red lava flow run down the mountainside, like the blood flowing down Alamazar's white suit, Mariah took the microphone. She told the people to be calm, that she was now President, because the Vice President becomes President when the President dies . You see, she still believed in the magic of democracy and did not understand the music had died along with Alamazar. We did not care, for there were anxious soldiers around us and the smell of sulfur in the air, and I will always think of that smell and the fear, and that is why I painted what I did, because you had to be here when it happened, for both the magic and the loss.
The next thing to being there is the ability to picture it, but the video cameras had long gone and all we had left were our memories. Yes, and the fish swimming in the air, they symbolize Alamazar's music, you see. Thank you. You understand. My best work–no, really, you can't be serious. For a work like that, it would be robbery. But I have others, not so expensive, if you like. But similar, you understand.