Z for Zero-sum (Part I)

Freida Dantas stepped out of the queue to look around. The machine wasn’t that far from here–only a few hundred more. She looked behind. The queue went on for as long as she could see. She too had started from the end of the queue many hours ago. The machine took only a second to judge, so the queue had kept moving continuously. But she worried if there were more hopefuls in the queue than seconds in a day. She had been queueing up religiously for her pronouncement every day since she had died.

She’d learned of the system the day she had arrived at the purgatory. Learned is probably not the best word to describe the process. She had woken up in the purgatory a week ago knowing about it instinctively, with no recollection of her prior life. She knew exactly when and where to queue up for the machine. The machine would tell her if it was her time to ascend to the heaven yet. She’d witnessed thousands of ascensions on her first day. The ascendants one after the other had stood under the

A Tale of Sorcery

    “Jay loved magic. So, when he got the tickets to the magic show, I couldn’t refuse. He was so excited about it.
    "Sleight of hand, optical illusion, visual trickery  call it whatever you want  Jay loved it. He even made my engagement ring materialise when he proposed.  I was never so interested, but I thought it was a good pastime for him.
    “He had never heard of Zangora before, which was surprising, because he would follow magic with such gusto. He found out about the show through a gaudy flyer he saw at the bus station. The flyer announced the ‘greatest magician the world has ever seen’ in bright golden letters over a picture of a caped man enigmatically covering his face with the brim of his top hat. Jay figured it was a new magician trying to make his mark. He bought two front-row tickets to the show anyway. Our town did not host many magic shows.
    “We reached the venue a few minutes late. The amphitheatre was bustling with people. There were muffled sounds of people adjusting their seats and jostling for the armrest. We found our seats rather easily in the centre of the front row. They were quite comfortable. I held Jay’s arm in my hands and rested my head on his shoulder.
    “In a minute, two clowns appeared from behind the crowd and dashed to the stage amidst a big applause. The getup was usual and the comedy was slapstick, but the audience cheered. This went on for about 20 minutes. I noticed Jay check his watch a couple of times while the clowns juggled with swords, and rode on large unicycles, colliding into each other so very often.
    “There was a huge bang and the lights went out. The audience fell silent. Flickering red light shone on the clowns, who now appeared nonplussed by the sudden development. The lights went out again and when they came back, the clowns had disappeared. We waited with bated breath. The lights went out again, and when they came back on, the magician from the poster stood before us all. All of us erupted in an applause of recognition for the man we had never heard of before the show.
    “The magician was dressed from head to toe in black, save for the dark crimson on the inside of his cape. He wore a shiny top hat on his head and tall black leather napoleons on his feet. He walked on stage with the charm of a prince. The audience followed the flourish of his wand as he began with his magic tricks.
    “The magic tricks were not extraordinary at the start,  Jay enthusiastically whispered the explanations to me — but as the night progressed, the nature of the tricks became increasingly intricate. We watched the magician perform tricks which did not seem humanly possible. Jay thought we were witnessing real sorcery.
    "Each trick was preceded by a keen silence, and followed by incredulous applause  it was like an emotional roller coaster. He owned us all.
    “‘I need a volunteer for the next trick. Who wants to come on stage?’, he asked in his charismatic voice. Jay raised his hand. The magician waved Jay to come on stage. Jay stood next to a huge bronze coffin that stood upright in the shape of a regal woman despondent by the ways of the world. The magician knocked gently with his knuckles and the coffin opened. He demonstrated the impenetrability of the coffin and asked Jay to confirm it for the audience. He then signalled Jay to enter the coffin.
    “Jay waved his hand, smiling, as he entered the coffin. The magician closed the doors of the coffin and started to circle it, reciting incantations, and gesticulating at it. With each circle it seemed to take him more effort just to keep walking  as if he were pushing against an invisible force. Smoke started to rise from the coffin and with a final effort  as if pushing an invisible boulder towards the coffin  the magician threw both his hands strenuously at the coffin. The coffin contracted to the size of a matchstick and exploded into smoke and sparks.
    “The whole audience was taken aback by the transformation of the huge coffin into smoke in front of their eyes. The room fell silent for a moment before erupting into a deafening applause. Everyone was on their feet, clapping and hooting. He took a bow, acknowledging the appreciation and began to leave. That was the last time I saw Jay.
    “I ran behind the magician even as he reached the exit. He looked at me with his gleaming purple eyes and smiled. Yes! Note that down. He had purple eyes.”

    “Are you sure, madam? None of the other reports have mentioned the eyes.”

    “Yes, I’m sure. I can never forget that again.”

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