The Night Circus

Page 3


Shades of Grey
The building is as grey as the pavement below and the sky above, appearing as impermanent as the clouds, as though it could vanish into the air without notice. Nondescript grey stone renders it indistinguishable from the surrounding buildings save for a tarnished sign hanging by the door. Even the headmistress inside is clad in a deep charcoal.
Yet the man in the grey suit looks out of place.
The cut of his suit is too sharp. The handle of his cane too well polished beneath his pristine gloves.
He gives his name but the headmistress forgets it almost instantly and is too embarrassed to ask him to repeat it. Later, when he signs the required paperwork, his signature is completely illegible, and that particular form is lost within weeks of being filed.
He presents unusual criteria in what he is looking for. The headmistress is confused, but after a few questions and clarifications she brings him three children: two boys and one girl. The man requests to interview them privately and the headmistress reluctantly agrees.
The first boy is spoken to for only a few minutes before he is dismissed. When he passes through the hallway, the other two children look to him for some indication of what to expect, but he only shakes his head.
The girl is kept longer, but she too is dismissed, her forehead wrinkled in confusion.
The other boy is then brought into the room to speak with the man in the grey suit. He is directed to sit in a chair across from a desk, while the man stands nearby.
This boy does not fidget as much as the first boy did. He sits quietly and patiently, his grey-green eyes taking in every detail of the room and the man subtly, aware but not outright staring. His dark hair is badly cut, as though the barber was distracted during the process, but some attempt has been made to flatten it. His clothes are ragged but well kept, though his pants are too short and may have once been blue or brown or green but have faded too much to be certain.
“How long have you been here?” the man asks after silently examining the boy’s shabby appearance for a few moments.
“Always,” the boy says.
“How old are you?”
“I’ll be nine in May.”
“You look younger than that.”
“It’s not a lie.”
“I did not mean to suggest that it was.”
The man in the grey suit stares at the boy without comment for some time.
The boy stares back.
“You can read, I presume?” the man asks.
The boy nods.
“I like to read,” he says. “There aren’t enough books here. I’ve read all of them already.”
Without warning, the man in the grey suit tosses his cane at the boy. The boy catches it in one hand easily without flinching, though his eyes narrow in confusion as he looks from the cane to the man and back.
The man nods to himself and reclaims his cane, pulling a pale handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the boy’s fingerprints from the surface.
“Very well,” the man says. “You will be coming to study with me. I assure you I have a great many books. I will make the necessary arrangements, and then we shall be on our way.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Do you wish to remain here?”
The boy considers this for a moment.
“No,” he says.
“Very well.”
“Don’t you want to know my name?” the boy asks.
“Names are not of nearly as much import as people like to suppose,” the man in the grey suit says. “A label assigned to identify you either by this institution or your departed parents is neither of interest nor value to me. If you find you are in need of a name at any point, you may choose one for yourself. For now it will not be necessary.”
The boy is sent to pack his small bag of negligible possessions. The man in the grey suit signs papers and responds to the headmistress’s questions with answers she does not entirely follow, but she does not protest the transaction.
When the boy is ready, the man in the grey suit takes him from the grey stone building, and he does not return.
Magic Lessons
Celia grows up in a series of theaters. Most often in New York, but there are long stretches in other cities. Boston. Chicago. San Francisco. Occasional excursions to Milan or Paris or London. They blend together in a haze of must and velvet and sawdust to the point where she sometimes does not recall what country she is in, not that it matters.
Her father brings her everywhere while she is small, parading her like a well-loved small dog in expensive gowns, for his colleagues and acquaintances to fawn over in pubs after performances.
When he decides she is too tall to be an adorable accessory, he begins abandoning her in dressing rooms or hotels.
She wonders each night if perhaps he will not return, but he always stumbles in at unseemly hours, sometimes petting her gently on the head while she pretends to be asleep, other times ignoring her entirely.
Her lessons have become less formal. When before he would sit her down at marked, though irregular, times, now he tests her constantly, but never in public.
Even tasks as simple as tying her boots he forbids her to do by hand. She stares at her feet, silently willing the laces to tie and untie in messy bows, scowling when they tangle into knots.
Her father is not forthcoming when she asks questions. She has gathered that the man in the grey suit whom her father called Alexander also has a student, and there will be some sort of game.
“Like chess?” she asks once.
“No,” her father says. “Not like chess.”
THE BOY GROWS UP in a town house in London. He sees no one, not even when his meals are delivered to his rooms, appearing by the door on covered trays and disappearing in the same manner. Once a month, a man who does not speak is brought in to cut his hair. Once a year, the same man takes measurements for new clothing.
The boy spends most of his time reading. And writing, of course. He copies down sections of books, writes out words and symbols he does not understand at first but that become intimately familiar beneath his ink-stained fingers, formed again and again in increasingly steady lines. He reads histories and mythologies and novels. He slowly learns other languages, though he has difficulty speaking them.
There are occasional excursions to museums and libraries, during off-hours when there are few, if any, other visitors. The boy adores these trips, both for the contents of the buildings and the deviation from his set routine. But they are rare, and he is never permitted to leave the house unescorted.
The man in the grey suit visits him in his rooms every day, most often accompanied by a new pile of books, spending exactly one hour lecturing about things the boy is unsure he will ever truly understand.
Only once does the boy inquire as to when he will actually be allowed to do something, the kinds of things that the man in the grey suit demonstrates very rarely himself during these strictly scheduled lessons.
“When you are ready” is the only answer he receives.
He is not deemed ready for some time.
THE DOVES THAT APPEAR ONSTAGE and occasionally in the audience during Prospero’s performances are kept in elaborate cages, delivered to each theater along with the rest of his luggage and supplies.
A slamming door sends a stack of trunks and cases tumbling in his dressing room, toppling a cage full of doves.
The trunks right themselves instantly, but Hector picks up the cage to inspect the damage.
While most of the doves are only dazed from the fall, one clearly has a broken wing. Hector carefully removes the bird, the damaged bars repairing as he sets the cage down.
“Can you fix it?” Celia asks.
Her father looks at the injured dove and then back at his daughter, waiting for her to ask a different question.
“Can I fix it?” she asks after a moment.
“Go ahead and try,” her father says, handing it to her.
Celia gently strokes the trembling dove, staring intently at its broken wing.
The bird makes a painful, strangled sound much different than its normal coo.
“I can’t do it,” Celia says with tears in her eyes, lifting the bird up to her father.
Hector takes the dove and swiftly twists its neck, ignoring his daughter’s cry of protest.
“Living things have different rules,” he says. “You should practice with something more basic.” He picks up Celia’s only doll from a nearby chair and drops it to the floor, the porcelain head cracking open.
When Celia returns to her father the next day with the perfectly repaired doll he only nods his approval before waving her away, returning to his preperformance preparations.
“You could have fixed the bird,” Celia says.
“Then you wouldn’t have learned anything,” Hector says. “You need to understand your limitations so you can overcome them. You do want to win, don’t you?”
Celia nods, looking down at her doll. It bears no evidence that it had ever been damaged, not a single crack along the vacant, smiling face.
She throws it under a chair and does not take it with her when they depart the theater.
THE MAN IN THE GREY SUIT takes the boy for a week in France that is not precisely a holiday. The trip is unannounced, the boy’s small suitcase packed without his knowledge.
The boy assumes they are there for some manner of lesson, but no particular area of study is specified. After the first day, he wonders if they are visiting only for the food, entranced by the luscious crackle of fresh-baked bread in boulangeries and the sheer variety of cheeses.
There are off-hour trips to silent museums, where the boy tries and fails to walk through galleries as quietly as his instructor does, cringing when each footfall echoes. Though he requests a sketchbook, his instructor insists it will be better for him to capture the images in his memory.
One evening, the boy is sent to the theater.
He expects a play or perhaps a ballet, but the performance is something he finds unusual.
The man on the stage, a slick-haired, bearded fellow whose white gloves move like birds against the black of his suit, performs simple tricks and sleight-of-hand misdirections. Birds disappear from cages with false bottoms, handkerchiefs slip from pockets to be concealed again in cuffs.
The boy watches both the magician and his modest audience curiously. The spectators seem impressed by the deceptions, often applauding them politely.
When he questions his instructor after the show, he is told the matter will not be discussed until they return to London at the end of the week.
The next evening, the boy is brought to a larger theater and again left alone for the performance. The sheer size of the crowd makes him nervous, he has never been in a space so full of people before.
The man on this stage appears older than the magician from the previous night. He wears a nicer suit. His movements are more precise. Every exhibition is not only unusual but captivating.
The applause is more than polite.
And this magician does not hide handkerchiefs within his lace shirt cuffs. The birds that appear from all manner of locations have no cages at all. These are feats that the boy has seen only in his lessons. Manipulations and illusions he has been expressly informed again and again must be kept secret.
The boy applauds as well when Prospero the Enchanter takes his final bow.
Again, his instructor refuses to answer any of his questions until they return to London.
Once in the town house, falling back into a routine that now feels as though it had never been disrupted, the man in the grey suit first asks the boy to tell him the difference between the two performances.
“The first man was using mechanical contraptions and mirrors, making the audience look different places when he did not wish them to see something, to create a false impression. The second man, the one named for the duke from The Tempest, he was pretending to do similar things, but he did not use mirrors or tricks. He did things the way you do.”
“Very good.”
“Do you know that man?” the boy asks.
“I have known that man for a very long time,” his instructor says.
“Does he teach those things as well, the way you teach me?”
His instructor nods, but does not elaborate.
“How can the people watching not see the difference?” the boy asks. To him it is clear, though he cannot properly articulate why. It was something he felt in the air as much as observed with his eyes.
“People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.”
They do not discuss the matter further.
While there are other not-quite holidays, though they are rare, the boy is not taken to see any other magicians.
PROSPERO THE ENCHANTER uses a pocket knife to slit his daughter’s fingertips open, one by one, watching wordlessly as she cries until calm enough to heal them, drips of blood slowly creeping backward.
The skin melds together, swirls of fingerprint ridges finding one another again, closing solidly once more.
Celia’s shoulders fall, releasing the tension that has knotted in them, her relief palpable as she draws herself safely together.
Her father gives her only moments to rest before slicing each of her newly healed fingers again.
THE MAN IN THE GREY SUIT takes a handkerchief from his pocket and drops it on the table, where it lands with a muffled thump, something heavier than silk hidden in the folds. He pulls the square of silk upward, letting the contents, a solitary gold ring, roll out onto the table. It is slightly tarnished and engraved with something that the boy thinks might be words in Latin, but the script is looping and flourished and he cannot make them out.
The man in the grey suit replaces the now empty handkerchief in his pocket.
“Today we are going to learn about binding,” he says.