Cheerless days. Serving up coffee, eyes clammy with fatigue. Shuffling home. Late. Leftovers. The kids whingeing about soggy beans. Long jagged cracks in the tiles that the landlord would never fix. The mold. Her bank account draining like the life draining from her heart. Her daughter’s sadness.
Yelling at the kids despite herself—get up, do homework, do the dishes, do something. They lay on the sofa, on the floor, flat to their screens. She yearned to yank them out of their lethargy—to squeeze them, slap them, wring them out—shock the life back into them.
Cal would be ok—he was lazy, sure, but still loud, and still telling awful jokes. Sash though—she got quiet, veered inwards, showed no interest in anything—not even her mouse house. Said nothing when asked about her day, just wandered off to her bedroom. So pale. Wouldn’t say what was wrong. And just these past few days wouldn’t eat—not honey and peanut butter on bagels, not jelly donuts, not strawberry ice cream with chocolate sauce.
The mother twisted herself every which way, trying to pull Sasha out of her misery—to get both of them interested in something—chess, Pictionary. Charades. No go. She bought Cal a second-hand guitar, Sasha new tiny wooden chairs for her mouse house. They barely glanced at these gifts.
The two of them lay sprawled for hours. Thrown into a dead stillness. Defeated in their bodies and minds, in their little half-lived spirits. It was Sasha—her refusal ran deep in her blood. And now she was pulling Cal down with her.
On an evening when the mother was so tired she couldn’t stand it anymore, she snatched Sasha up off the floor, clutched her shoulders and shook her. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ she screamed.
Her daughter scowled, shivered, light as a blade of grass, a wisp of a thing, so thin, so brittle. She pulled away and ran off to her room. The mother collapsed on the sofa beside her son. Hid her eyes behind her hands and groaned.
They sat quiet. The mother pushed out a breath like it was hard to get it out of her lungs.
Cal laid his hand on her arm. ‘Are you ok?’
‘Oh sure,’ she said into her hands.
‘Did you hear about the rope?’
‘This rope went into a bar and—’
‘Oh no. Not now.’
‘Yeah, but you’ll like it. It’s good.’
‘Good enough to make your sister laugh? Why don’t you tell her?’
He was quiet a moment, attentive, as if listening to an echo of what his mother had just said. ‘Ok. I will. I will tell her.’ He folded himself forward on to his knees. ‘I’ll try.’
It got worse. After a few months, Sasha was so thin that her mother took her to a doctor. The doctor said they should encourage her to eat.
When they were alone after school, Cal made sandwiches for Sasha, weird combinations that he called obnoxious concoctions: maple syrup and peanut butter, cherry jam and m and m’s, and he would give them strange names—a wink and a frog sandwich or a barfly and dustmop sandwich or a cosmonaut and sausage sandwich. And he cut them into strange shapes. Sasha never laughed, never smiled, never ate the sandwiches.
Four weeks before Sasha was scheduled to check into a rehab centre for eating disorders, the mother bought three yellow balls from the toy store. For two weeks she practiced in her bedroom at night until she got it right, and one afternoon she stood in front of her children in the living room and juggled for fifteen seconds. They watched her, amazed. Sasha smiled—a little timid struggle of a half-smile—the first smile in months. The mother taught them the basics she’d learned from a boy at work. This was something—finally something.
They both tried it—fumbled with the balls at first, laughing and dashing all over to retrieve them. Sasha got two balls up in the air, dropped them both and gave up. But Cal, thin and wiry and intense—he latched on to it with a vengeance and practiced for hours. Sasha watched him as if hypnotized. Cal would bow and apologize every time he dropped a ball, and Sash would smile and say, ‘Try again.’ And he did. He tried and tried until he got it right and Sasha would clap and say, ‘Bravo!’
When the mother got home from work now, she’d see Cal standing in the middle of the living room, arms pumping, a flight of yellow above him, and Sash curled up on the sofa watching intently, nodding and clapping.
The mother took Cal aside. ‘It’s a great thing you’re doing here,’ she said. ‘You’ve brought her back to life.’ She hugged him, stroked the hair off his forehead, tucked in his shirt.
‘Now can I tell you the joke?’ he said.
She listened to his joke about the rope in the bar and the frayed knot. He helped her set the table for dinner. She thanked him and he closed his eyes and put his arms around her and held on.
When he mastered the three balls, he asked his mother to buy more. He practised with four, then six, then eight. Sasha watched his every move.
After a week or so, he began to make sandwiches for her again, and now she ate them, almost without thinking, while she watched him practise. She put on a little weight, began to eat dinner again. Her mother cancelled the rehab centre.
He studied videos on YouTube, got better at it. One afternoon, he noticed that Sasha was distracted—staring at her hands instead of at him. He picked up a spoon and juggled it with the balls. ‘Look!’ he called out to her. The spoon twirled and caught the light. Sasha laughed, delighted. ‘Can you do plates?’ she said.
Everything went up in the air: Keys, peaches, bunches of grapes, side plates and saucers, wooden spoons and small bowls. ‘Watch this, Sash!’ he’d yell, and then toss up into the air a series of household objects unremarkable in themselves but extraordinary in their patterns of suspension—running shoes, baseball gloves, candy hearts, frozen lamb chops. He juggled Oreos, rolled up socks, toothbrushes, rice crackers, bars of soap, dolls, ears of corn, face cream tubes, shampoo bottles, adjusting each toss according to the weight of the object. He juggled anything he could find, and she watched in awe.
It was strange, the mother had to admit it—and sometimes plates and saucers broke—but she loved how her children were now—vital, full of life—and she was grateful to her son. She’d been distant from him recently—her anxiety about Sasha pulling her away from him, but she’d change that. She bought Manga comics for him, and arranged guitar lessons.
But the comics and the guitar lay beside his bed, untouched. Cal was obsessed. He practised for hours every day. Sash watched him, in thrall, as she willed whatever objects were in play to stay up in the air. And they did! Sometimes the objects floated up there for longer than they should—as if they were suspended just under the ceiling by an invisible hand. When Cal juggled bright objects like glasses or jewelry, they glinted in the light. Every object soared up like a falcon, then floated down gently on moth wings.
When the mother got home from work, exhausted, Cal would tell her what Sasha had for lunch, how she had watched him, how she had laughed. His mother would slump down at the kitchen table and look up at him and smile.
It was summer, and the children were alone almost all day while the mother was at work. But she didn’t worry. Cal was her saviour, her daughter’s guardian angel.
Cal went out in the mornings with a plastic bag and brought home whatever he could find out in the neighbourhood—a baby’s boot, a plastic elephant, tiny toy cars, a keyboard, a doll, wine bottles, a stuffed lamb, beer cans, dvds, paperback books. Day by day he increased the number and variety of objects he juggled—he could toss up a whole heap of different things and keep them soaring—and the more objects he juggled, the more his little sister laughed and clapped and encouraged him.
He sweated and strained to keep heavier and heavier objects suspended – a frying pan and a pot, with a tricycle wheel, a bag of onions and an acacia plant – he made it look easy, kept all the objects upright as they soared up, each one on its own ellipse, each one describing a perfect arc. And at the apex of the arc, every object, no matter how heavy, would hover for a second – suspended, spinning there, winking in the light.
Sasha was entranced. The objects her brother juggled were alive and grew wings – and if they ever threatened to crash to the ground, Cal snatched them up out of danger and tossed them back up where they belonged, flying. A plate was a phoenix, a tire was a dragon, a doll was a dove or a cormorant, a wine bottle, a dragonfly. One afternoon, he juggled all the furniture from her mouse house, along with three peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cut into quarters. Not one sandwich fell, not one tiny chair disobeyed the trajectory of his will.
The sun came in through the living room window and glanced off all of these objects in the air, and it looked to both of them—engaged in this labour of juggling and watching—as if gravity itself gave up in the face of their intent and abandoned their living room. Simply walked away.
As the summer wore on, Sasha became well. She chatted with her mother when she came home, helped her with the cooking, ate two servings at dinner. She made marshmallow cookies with blue icing for Cal. She began to read the paperbacks that Cal had brought home to juggle. She memorized the jokes he told her, and told some of her own. Her pinched expression disappeared—she wanted to learn line dancing. Decided when she grew up, she’d be a ballerina or a pilot.
Cal tried harder and harder to keep the magic happening. He knew he’d have to scale up his efforts. Like Mesmer, Svengali, or Rasputin, he held her spirit in his hands. He found more and more interesting objects to juggle, and ways to make them spin at different angles, different speeds. Doughnuts, pillboxes, five-pound bell weights, his guitar, her collection of glass cats—all went up in the air. She was a little worried about those cats, but he didn’t drop one. She never even wondered how he did it—just accepted her brother was a magician.
Every morning Cal had to meditate for at least an hour to focus his concentration. He would sit cross-legged in his room, close his eyes and imagine the sky as a blue substance that could permeate matter, the stratosphere as a discrete orbit with its own gravitational pull, empty space as a collapsing star that drew everything into its centre. These visions were clear and precise.
As the objects became more difficult, he had to spend more time meditating. One hour became two, became three. One day in July, after a whole morning of meditation, he achieved his masterwork: He juggled eight lit candles, keeping them upright and lit the whole time—she was thrilled—and asked him to do it again and again.
Towards the end of the summer, the objects—no matter what they were, no matter how heavy or awkward or unusual—were no longer enough for her. She’d grown used to them and now wanted to see something truly spectacular—Catherine wheels, lit sparklers, whirligigs—there had to be frantic motion, flashing lights, intense spinning.
Cal worked harder, using every scrap of his concentration and will to get those objects to spin and stay alight and to achieve that remarkable almost impossible floating effect, when the objects seemed buoyed up above the air, beyond the natural impetus and arc of their trajectory.
He meditated now for four hours every morning. Sometimes his visions blurred—and he had to get the pictures clear and distinct before he could start. The effort of concentration began to tire him. The higher and longer he made the objects float, the dizzier and weaker he felt. He went to bed early, often before Sasha, and woke up late, barely able to lift himself out of bed.
He would sit on the edge of his bed, holding his head in his hands, unable to stand. Strange dreams stole his sleep away from him. He dreamt one night of a crow he was digging up out of the earth, brushing the dirt off its wings. His mother asked him if he was alright. He told her a joke about a duck and some grapes.
Every object he found made him more anxious—would it work—would it float. He caught a mouse, hid it and juggled it with her stuffed mice. She found that hilarious, begged him to find more mice, and juggle with twelve of them. He could only find three. One of them died of fright in mid-air. Had a tiny heart attack. She was distraught and cried. He buried the mouse in the acacia plant and made up a prayer for the mouse which he taught her word for word and asked her to recite until she stopped crying.
It was late August. On an afternoon when it was grey and rainy outside, Sasha was standing by the window staring out. Cal came into the living room with his bag of objects and she slumped onto the sofa, and burst into tears.
‘What’s wrong?’ Cal said. He knelt beside her, staring at her as if she had a fatal wound that he could do nothing to heal. Or as if she was that wound.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I don’t know.’ Her voice was a whisper, her eyes dull, her expression flat. She looked like she did before—turned inwards, empty and blank. The sadness—that didn’t seem to have any cause at all—or none that he could see—had come back and taken her over again.
He juggled three bananas, six foil pie plates, two pairs of sunglasses, five trivets and a little plastic dog. He got the dog to spin. ‘Look, Sash!’ he yelled. But she didn’t watch. A trivet veered out of its orbit and smashed to the floor. He picked up the pieces.
The next day at lunch she wouldn’t eat her barfly and dustmop sandwich. He told her a joke. She stared at the table. ‘What can I do?’ he said.
She was silent for many minutes. ‘I don’t know,’ she said.
‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll break my record,’ he said. ‘I bet I can juggle twelve candles, three sparklers and eight side plates, all at the same time, and I bet I can get each one to touch the ceiling.’
She looked up at him then. ‘Really?’ she said, with a premonition of a smile.
For five hours Cal prepared himself for this stunt. He tuned his thoughts like a laser beam. He banished time so that his visions were not of the future but of the present, simply pictures of what was actually happening. He imagined every object rising, saw the ceiling of the apartment as the horizon of the universe. He called on all his strength, his will, his force of focus, until finally he stood in the middle of the living room, the lit candles in one hand and the plates in the other.
He began with the candles. Up they went, upright, arcing gently, scorching the ceiling and floating back down into his left hand. The three sparklers followed, spinning and brushing the ceiling. Then up went the plates, wobbling, grazing the ceiling, and then sinking back down. At one point all the candles, all the plates, and all three sparklers hung suspended an inch below the ceiling in a spinning, defiant constellation. Cal was aghast—for an instant he felt a terrible fear—but Sasha was amazed. She laughed and watched in awe as each candle, sparkler and plate came back down, and went back up, one by one, under perfect control of their master.
After three minutes of juggling, Cal opened his palms and allowed each object to return, like a tethered beast, to his waiting hands. He grinned at his little sister. ‘Tada!’ he said, opened his arms wide and began to bow. She stood and smiled and clapped. He caught her eye and tried to speak. Then he folded, crumpled, collapsed on the floor. The plates fell to the ground and smashed and the candles and sparklers went out.
The mother came back from work at 6:00. She found Cal lying on the living room floor, broken plates, candles and sparklers all around him, and Sasha kneeling on the floor beside him, patting his cheek gently, trying to wake him up.
The mother tried to revive him, screaming his name, shaking him, but he didn’t respond. She called an ambulance and sat on the floor beside him, holding his hand, begging him to wake up. For a few seconds his eyes fluttered open. He saw his mother’s face beside his, and looked into her eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I tried but it’s no good.’ He looked at his sister who was crouched beside him, tears running down her face. ‘Sash,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to learn to—’ He sat up suddenly and fell back down, his hand reaching up towards her face. AQ