A magician's routine is disrupted by a young woman with an unusual request.
|The big bell in the steeple of St. Felicity's chimed five times. Wilfort Meers pulled the brass watch out of his vest pocket and flipped it open to confirm that it was time to lock his shop up for the night. He turned a small knob on the side of his glasses. Tiny gears in the frames adjusted the lenses and the room beyond the book on his desk came into focus. Marking his place with a long red ribbon, he closed the book and carried it over to the metal cabinet in the corner of the room. Since he was a rather short man, he pushed some wooden steps in front of the cabinet so he could put the book back on the top shelf.
The heavy doors of the cabinet swung shut with a solid clang and Wilfort took out his key to lock them. The books inside were quite valuable, leather-bound and handwritten, the way few books were anymore, but that was not the primary reason they had to be stored so securely. It was the information they contained, the sort of information that could be disastrous if used by someone who did not fully understand it.
Wilfort was turning the sign in the window from "Open" to "Closed" when he heard quick steps on the cobblestones outside and the muffled rustle of petticoats beneath a long skirt. He hoped it was just someone hurrying by and he could head over to Kirby's Tavern for his supper. He was too fat to be in any danger of starving, but that did not stop him from feeling the hunger starting to gnaw in his belly.
He realized his supper would have to wait when the young woman called out, "Wait! Don't close yet. I've got to talk to you."
She hurried in as Wilfort held the door open for her. She looked at him and asked, "You're a magician? The kind who can change people?"
Wilfort nodded. "Yes, a transformist. That is my specialty. Wilfort Meers at your service, Mistress....?"
"Irene Penbrook. I'm supposed to be married tomorrow. Can you have the magic ready by then?"
"Certainly. That won't be a problem."
The magician thought he could guess what kinds of changes the woman would ask for. He had been practicing magic for over thirty years and it was not hard for him to predict what people wanted. She was extremely tall and thin, so she would certainly ask to be shorter and probably fuller in the bosom and hips. She would want her long pointed nose to shrink and her small receding chin to become larger. It was rather discouraging how willing people were to give up their individuality to conform with what was considered beautiful.
Wilfort was surprised she had waited for her wedding to change. Most women came to him before they started looking for a husband. He was about to become much more surprised.
Irene announced, "I want you to turn my betrothed into a donkey."
Wilfort just stared at the woman a few moments, then repeated, "A donkey?"
She nodded. "Yes, a donkey. Well, it doesn't have to be a whole donkey. Just the head would do."
"I'm sorry, Mistress Penbrook. I can't do that."
"You don't know how to turn someone into a donkey?"
Wilfort explained, "I know how, but I mean legally I can't."
Irene asked, "How about something else? A goat? A frog?"
"He'd have to sign a form giving me permission to transform him in any way. Otherwise, I'd lose my license."
Wilfort scratched the small, stubborn fringe of hair which was all that remained to separate his bald spot from his forehead. "Why would you want to marry a donkey?"
"I'm not going to marry him."
"I thought you said..."
Irene folded her arms. "I said I was supposed to marry him, but I'm sure not going to marry him now. Not after I saw him sneaking into the stable with Gertrude Harper."
Wilfort offered, "Maybe there's a good reason he..."
"Of course there's a reason. He's a typical man and he isn't going to settle for one girl if there's a chance he can have two. Well, he's got a surprise coming tomorrow, 'cause I'm nobody's second girl."
After a moment's hesitation, Wilfort asked, "You haven't told him yet the wedding's off?"
"Nope. If I told him now, he'd twist it around and make it sound like it's all my fault. I'm waiting for the ceremony tomorrow, so everyone can hear what really happened. Right after I tell him's when I wanted you to turn him into a donkey. Since you're not, I might as well go." As Irene headed out the door, she muttered, "I guess I'll have to settle for making him feel like a donkey."
Wilfort followed the woman as far as the door. As she walked away, he suggested, "Do reconsider what you're planning to do, Mistress Penbrook."
The next morning, Wilfort was wondering if the young woman had followed his advice, when the door swung open and Irene rushed in, out of breath. She gasped, "You've got to change me!"
Wilfort spun around in his chair. "What? Change you how?"
"I don't know. Something small. Something people won't notice. How about a cat? Can you turn me into a cat?"
"Well, yes, but..."
Irene interrupted, "I know, I got to sign a form. Hurry up and get one, 'cause they'll be here soon."
Wilfort asked, "Who'll be here?"
"The police. I told Bradley I wouldn't marry him 'cause I saw him with Gertrude and he sent the police after me. Don't you have that form yet?"
The magician opened a drawer and pulled out a transformation agreement. "Mistress Penbrook, by signing this form you are agreeing..."
"Just give it to me and let me sign it." She pulled the paper from Wilfort's hand and signed her name on it. "There, everything's legal. Now, make me a cat."
Wilfort closed his eyes and concentrated. Most people were somewhat disappointed to find out that was all he had to do to perform magic. Usually, he made bit of a show with some props and effects to make it more interesting for his customers, but he did not take any time for that now.
Irene began shrinking, slowly at first, then faster. Her long, white wedding dress and all its undergarments did not shrink with her, so when the transformation was finished, she was buried beneath a mound of clothing. She batted at it with her paws and shouted, "Get me out of here!"
Wilfort lifted the dress off of the small, black cat Irene had become. "Is that better?"
The cat nodded. "Yeah, but you'd better hide that. The police will get very suspicious if they see you holding a wedding dress." As Wilfort folded the clothing and put it in a large chest, Irene continued, "When the police come, just tell them I've left. You know, ran out the back or something."
"You want me to lie to the police?"
"I suppose you're the kind who wouldn't think of doing that. If it makes you feel better, I'll really go out there." She followed Wilfort to the back door, then said, "Will you at least not mention that you turned me into a cat?"
"As long as they don't ask me specifically if I did, I won't say anything about it."
Irene remarked, "I suppose that'll have to do."
The cat ran out the door and into the alley. Wilfort shut the door, making sure he did not see which way she went.
As soon as the back door was closed, Wilfort heard knocking at the front one. When he opened it, he saw two men in the blue uniforms and tall helmets of the city police force.
"Can I help you, officers?"
The older policeman introduced himself, "Officer Kepple, Lumburg Police. We're looking for a young woman--tall, skinny, black hair, wearing a wedding dress."
Wilfort paused for a moment, then said, "Yes, someone like that just came in here, but she ran out into the alley."
The policeman asked, "Would you show us the door to the alley, please."
"Certainly, just follow me."
"We appreciate your cooperation. I take it she did not assault you?"
Wilfort nearly stumbled when the officer asked him this. "No. No, she didn't. Why would you think she would?"
"She punched her groom in the nose. Have to assume she's a violent person. Don't worry. We should have her captured soon."
They reached the back door and Wilfort opened it. "Here's the alley."
Kepple asked, "Did you see which way she went?"
Wilfort shook his head. "No, it happened so fast."
To the younger officer, Kepple said, "Burksted, you go that way, I'll go the other and we'll circle around and see if we can find her."
A few minutes after the policemen ran off, Wilfort heard scratching at the back door. He opened it and found Irene sitting there.
"Mistress Penbrook, you were just outside the door all the while?"
The cat sauntered into the back room of his shop. "Why not? They weren't looking for a cat, were they? And I think 'Mistress Penbrook' sounds awfully pretentious for a cat. Call me Rinky."
"Kind of short for Irene. It's what everyone called me when I was a little girl. Works for a cat, too."
More sternly, Wilfort said, "You didn't tell me you punched anyone."
"You didn't specifically ask me, so I didn't mention it." She made a purring sound that was the feline version of laughter. "But, you must've figured I did something. I mean, the police wouldn't be trying to arrest me just for refusing to marry that lout."
Wilfort led the cat to the front room. "Maybe I wouldn't have helped you if I'd known you'd done something like that."
"But you know it now and you're still not turning me into the police." Rinky jumped up on the desk and looked at the big book Wilfort had left open there. "What's this. A book of spells?"
Wilfort rushed over and slammed the book shut. "You mustn't look at that! Magic is very dangerous for someone who doesn't understand it."
Rinky leapt off the desk to his chair. "Don't get so upset. I wasn't going to do anything. I was just looking at it."
The magician carried the book over to the cabinet and put it away. "I'm not angry, just concerned. Without the proper training, even a bit of knowledge from that book's enough to make something horrible happen."
"Don't worry. I didn't have a chance to see anything." Rinky perched herself on the back of the chair. "I'm guessing you did something kind of horrible yourself when you were starting out as a magician?"
Wilfort shook his head. "No, I had very good instructors who made sure I didn't. Especially, before I learned how to tell for myself what was bound to be."
There was a knock at the door. Rinky jumped down and hid under the desk, while Wilfort answered the door. Outside was a plump, middle-aged woman in an expensive dress. Even though a silk scarf covered the lower half of her face, Wilfort recognized her.
Mistress Greenrich, what can I do for you?"
The woman snorted, "You can do what I paid you to, Mister Meers."
Wilfort replied, "I don't understand. What's wrong?"
"Warts!" The woman removed her scarf. "Those warts you removed have come back."
The woman was much taller than the magician, so he stretched up to look at her face. "The old warts didn't come back. Those are new warts. They aren't even on the same side of your face as the old ones."
"Old warts! New warts! I don't care. I paid good money to have a face without warts and I expect it to stay that way."
Wilfort smiled to reassure her. "Don't worry, Mistress Greenrich, I'll fetch the ointment."
He went into the back room for a few moments, then came back with a small, brass jar. Rinky crept over to watch what he was doing.
Wilfort swept his hand toward a large, overstuffed chair. "Please, have a seat, Mistress Greenrich."
It was not just politeness that caused him to say this. He was too short to reach the woman's face while she was standing. When she was sitting down, he dabbed something purple and greasy from the jar onto Greenrich's warts. Then he raised his arms and chanted, "Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur."
After standing silently with his eyes closed for a few moments, Wilfort handed Greenrich a cloth and said, "You may wipe off the ointment, now."
The woman removed the ointment, then rubbed her face again to check that the warts were really gone. "That's much better, Mister Meers. Let's hope it stays that way."
As she left, Wilfort told her, "If you do get any more, just come back and I'll take care of them."
Rinky followed Wilfort into the back room. "Strange, you need to do all that to remove a couple warts, but you changed me into a cat without even saying a word."
"Mistress Greenrich expects it. She wouldn't think I was a proper magician if I didn't do that."
The cat challenged him, "But, you don't really need to do that?"
Wilfort said somewhat sheepishly, "No, not really."
"And your magic ointment?"
He opened his icebox and set the jar inside. "Just pig lard with some grape juice mixed in for color. Would you care for a little cream." He took out a glass bottle and held it up for the cat to see.
Rinky purred pleasantly, "Yes, I'd love some."
Wilfort set a shallow bowl on the floor and filled it with cream. Rinky was lapping it up eagerly when someone rapped on the back door. The cat dipped her tongue in the cream one last time, then hid behind the icebox.
The old woman that Wilfort helped to a chair was so bent over her cane that she was even shorter than he was, although she would have been much taller if she could have stood up straight. The magician saw the cat peeking around the icebox and said, "It's alright, Rinky. It's just my mom."
His mother asked, "Who's Rinky, Wilfie?"
"The cat, Mom."
It took the old woman a few moments to focus her eyes, then she smiled and beckoned the cat. "Com'ere, sweet thing. I won't hurt you."
Rinky approached cautiously. The old woman patted her lap and the cat jumped up into it. As she stroked Rinky's back with her bony fingers, his mother said to Wilfort, "You didn't tell me you got a cat."
Wilfort put a tea kettle on a small, black, iron stove. "She's not really my cat. She just showed up here this morning."
"Well, if nobody claims her, you ought to keep her. It'd do you good to have a little companion."
"I'm fine, Mom. Want to try some of this new tea? Elderberry. The herbalist said it's very soothing for o..."
His mother finished, "For old people. It's alright to say it, Wilfie. I'm old enough to know I'm old."
When the water was hot, Wilfort poured it into a cup, dipped a teabag in it and set it on the table by his mother. He sat down and the old woman handed the cat to him. "You better take her. My hands are shaky and I wouldn't want to spill hot tea on her."
Wilfort took Rinky uncertainly. "I don't really know much about cats."
"Don't fret. She'll teach you." Rinky rolled over on her back and the old woman said, "See, she wants you to rub her belly."
Wilfort hesitated, then started gently rubbing Rinky.
When his mother had left, Rinky asked Wilfort, "Why don't you do something for her, with your magic?"
"Make her younger?"
"Yeah, something like that."
Wilfort frowned, "I wish I could."
Rinky asked, "There's some kind of rule against helping your own mother?"
"No, but she's bound to be the way she is." Wilfort took off his coat and hung it on a hook.
Rinky squinted at him and asked, "What do you mean?"
Rolling up his sleeves, Wilfort said, "I imagine you've heard of destiny."
The cat scratched her back against the rung of a chair. "Some kind of force that's supposed to determine everything that's going to happen. I never thought about it too much."
The magician scooped some soap powder into the small sink by the window and turned on the faucet. "There are scholars who spend most of their time thinking about it, but even they can't agree what it is. Some say it's produced by the judgements of humanity's collective mind. According to others, it's the way God imposes His will on the world. Then there are those who maintain it's the manifestation of aspects of reality so fundamental that God Himself dares not change them."
"And whatever it is, you can't help your mom 'cause everyone's destined to grow old."
Wilfort picked Rinky's bowl off the floor and put it in the sink with the teacups and saucers. "Not everybody. Destiny binds people in many different ways."
Rinky jumped up and sat on the counter near the sink. "Then how do you know what's destined to be and what isn't?"
"Part of a magician's training is learning how to sense the bindings of destiny. We have to check for them every time we do any magic. Destiny will always find a way of asserting itself and anything we do to prevent it only makes things worse. That's especially true if we try to do it with magic."
A large bubble floated from the sink, but it burst when Rinky tried to catch it on her paw. "And you could change me 'cause I was destined to become a cat?"
Wilfort said, "No, destiny never depends on magic to be fulfilled. What magic can change are the things that aren't bound by destiny at all."
"You're saying it makes no difference to destiny whether I'm a human or a cat? Doesn't make me feel real important."
"Sometimes it's better if destiny doesn't notice you too much."
As Wilfort scrubbed the bowl she had used, Rinky teased, "You know, I already licked that clean."
Wilfort chuckled, "I prefer having my dishes washed with soap."
"Then you'll have to do it yourself, 'cause licking's the best I can do without hands."
Of the half dozen people that came to see Wilfort that afternoon, the bindings of destiny only forced him to refuse one request. That was a young man who could not understand why the magician would not reshape his nose so it did not whistle whenever he spoke. For the rest, he made a short man taller, a tall man shorter, two fat women thinner and a bald man hairy.
Rinky stopped hiding every time there was a knock at the door and found a comfortable windowsill in the afternoon sun where she could watch Wilfort perform his magic. He did make quite a performance of each transformation. None of his customers suspected his silent moment of concentration was when the magic actually happened.
The cat yawned, then asked, "Are they usually like that?"
Wilfort was locking the door to his shop. "Like what?"
"So dull. You could turn them into anything they could imagine, but it seems they just want you to make them more...average."
"I'm afraid you're right. There aren't many like you. Have you enjoyed being a cat?"
Rinky stretched herself in the red light of the evening sun and purred enthusiastically. "I certainly have."
Wilfort looked out the window to the growing shadows. "That's good, but it's almost time to become human again."
"At sundown. If you had given me time to explain the agreement before you signed it, I could've told you this was only a temporary transformation."
"I don't care what that agreement says, can't you forget about the rules for once and just let me stay a cat?"
Wilfort explained, "It's not just the agreement. It's how I performed the magic. I've already set the transformation to end when the sun sets and I can't change that now."
"Couldn't you just cancel it somehow?"
"The negating magic would have to be perfectly aligned with the original transformation. I don't have the skill to even attempt something like that." Trying to sound more encouraging, Wilfort added, "Of course, after the transformation's finished, I can always change you into a cat again."
As she said this, the sun dipped out of sight and she started to grow, changing from a cat to a young woman again. As the transformation reached completion, Wilfort blushed and looked away. Sounding a bit puzzled, Irene asked, "What's wrong? Didn't I turn back right?"
Wilfort was a bit hoarse when he said, "Yes, certainly, but you're...naked, Mistress Penbrook."
Irene looked down at herself, "Yeah, I am. I guess I got so used of it this afternoon, I didn't even notice." She laughed at Wilfort's embarrassment. "If you don't want to see me this way, just change me back into a cat."
"There's more paperwork for a permanent transformation." Wilfort took off his own coat and offered it to Irene. "At least put this on while we take care of it."
"Alright, I don't suppose we'll get anything done while you're trying so hard to not look at me." It had been a long coat on Wilfort, reaching down to where his breeches were tucked into his boots, but Irene was much taller and it left her long legs almost entirely exposed.
Wilfort turned the knob on his glasses to the reading setting. To his relief, it also turned Irene's rather immodest appearance into a rather indistinct blur. He opened a desk drawer and took out several sheets of paper. He looked them over, saying, "This is a permission form for the transformation."
Irene remarked impatiently, "Didn't I already sign a permission form?"
"Only for a temporary transformation. A permanent transformation requires a different form." Wilfort paused for a few moments. "So far, the law considered you a human who just seemed to be a cat for a while, but now it'll say you're really becoming a cat. You're sure that's what you want?"
"Yeah. It felt like I already was a real cat before."
"You were. It's just a legal distinction, but it does mean I won't be permitted to change you back, not permanently. Humans can choose to become animals, but animals don't have the right to become human."
Irene frowned and folded her arms. "Fine with me. There's no reason I'd want to be human again."
"I'm sure it isn't that bad."
"It is. I've spent most of my money on the wedding. I quit my job and cancelled the lease on my apartment, 'cause I didn't think I'd need them when I was married. Bradley has a big house and more money than I'd ever make."
Wilfort asked, "You think there's any chance you could still work things out with him?"
The suddenness of the reply startled Wilfort. "Because of what he did with that other girl?"
Irene shook her head. "No, it's not really that. I thought they were kissing and stuff, but they probably weren't."
Wilfort adjusted his glasses to focus on Irene's face. "What did happen?"
"Well, I did what I said I was going to do, I accused them at the wedding of sneaking into the stable together. Bradley admitted they had, but said it was because he wanted to give me a locket and he had Gertrude pick it out to be sure it was the kind I'd like. Of course, everybody believed him and thought I was just being jealous."
Wilfort asked, "You didn't believe him?"
"I didn't want to, but he had the locket with him and it was just like the one I had always talked about with Gertrude. Then he said he understood how I could've made that mistake and he forgave me, so I punched him in the nose."
"For forgiving you?"
"It sounds horrible, but I felt like a fool and I was mad at him because I couldn't blame him for it. Then I ran away and ended up here and you know the rest."
Wilfort suggested, "From what you've said, if you went and talked this over with Bradley, I expect he'd still be willing to marry you."
"I'm sure he would. He really wanted to get married."
"And you didn't?"
"I wanted something to change. I wasn't happy and I thought maybe I would be if I got married. I was wrong. It wasn't being single that made me unhappy, it was being human." As she spoke, Wilfort was certain he could see a sparkle in Irene's eyes, "I want to be taken care of. I want to be fed when I'm hungry and never worry about money or a job. I want to lay in the sun all afternoon and not think I should be doing something useful. I want to go where I please without being stuffed into a ton of clothing. I want people to rub my belly for no other reason than they know I want them to."
Wilfort thought about what Irene had said, but he found it difficult to accept. "I can't imagine you'd be really happy like that."
"Because you're human. Any human who had to live like that would be miserable. We're not made to be satisfied with that." Irene stepped closer so she could rest her hands on Wilfort's shoulders. "But cats love it! It might've been only a temporary change, but that was enough to let me know how cats feel about living like that. I don't just want to be a cat because cats are allowed to live that kind of life. I want to be one because cats are happy with that life."
"As long you're certain that's what you want." Wilfort adjusted his glasses for seeing the papers he was holding. "All we have left is the question of ownership."
"Unless you want to be considered a stray, you need to designate who will own you."
Irene grinned at the fat, little magician. "I want you to own me."
"You're sure there isn't someone else?"
"Your mother said you ought to keep me. Don't you listen to your mother?"
Wilfort smiled back at her. "I think this time I should."
Irene signed the form and Wilfort filed it away. When he came back, Irene had taken off his coat and laid it across a chair. Wilfort blushed again and gazed down at his feet.
"I just don't want to get buried under anything this time, so don't make such a fuss about it."
She waited for Wilfort's eyes to meet hers, then said, "I know it's not necessary, but can you do some extra stuff this time, like you did for the other people?"
"Of course." He put his coat back on, not letting Irene see the handful of powder he took from a secret pocket. He raised his arms and called out, "Esse quam videri." Suddenly, he flung his hands forward and Irene was surrounded by swirls of sparkling lights. When the last one faded, Rinky was a cat again.
Then, for the last time that day, there was a knock at the door. When Wilfort opened it, Kepple and Burksted, the two policemen, were there again.
Kepple looked sternly at Wilfort and said, "Are you the owner of this shop?"
Wilford tried to sound calm. "Yes, this is my shop."
"Your name, please."
Kepple walked into the shop with Burksted behind him. He looked the shop over, then said, "I take it you're a magician, Mister Meers?"
The policeman moistened his finger and used it to smooth his bushy mustache. "Remember that 'young woman' you said ran through here? The odd thing is she was quite easy to follow this far, but after we left here, there wasn't a trace of her. We couldn't find anyone who'd seen her all afternoon."
The policeman paused and Wilfort felt it was best to say something, so he just agreed, "Yes, that's rather odd."
"Or maybe, it's not so odd. Maybe it just means she came here and didn't leave."
Wilfort said, too carefully, "There's no woman in my shop."
"I'm sure that's true, Mister Meers. I suspect we won't find anyone here but you and your cat." Kepple tapped his rather large nose. "I've got a cat myself and I know what a place with a cat smells like. Now the question is, was your cat a cat all day?"
While Wilfort fumbled for words, Rinky walked out from under the desk and said, "I'm here."
Burksted's mouth fell open when the cat spoke, but Kepple did not show any surprise. "You're Irene Penbrook?"
"When I'm human. As a cat I like to be called Rinky." Wilfort looked at her and pressed one finger to his lips, but she shook her head slightly and continued. "Mister Meers transformed me, but he didn't do anything wrong. I'm responsible for all the trouble."
Kepple's face softened into a smile and he chuckled. "That's quite a cat you've got. If mine could talk, he'd be blaming me for all the stuff he does."
Burksted asked, "So who do we arrest, the magician or the cat?"
Kepple waved him back. "I don't see the need to arrest anyone. Looks like it's just a case of a pet causing a little mischief." Looking straight at Wilfort, he asked, "She really is a cat?"
Wilfort answered sincerely, "Yes, she's really a cat. My cat."
Kepple smiled again. "I know how much of a handful owning a cat can be. Now, if you make her seem to be a girl sometimes...well...that's your business. Just make sure she doesn't go around pretending she's going to marry some poor fellow and we'll let today go by with only a warning."
Rinky ran over to Wilfort and he reached down to pick her up, saying, "I will, officer. Thank you so much."
After the policemen had left, Wilfort looked down at the black cat resting in his arms. "I don't know about you, Rinky, but I'm famished. I'd say it's time for supper."
Rinky looked up at him, "Long past it by my stomach. Do you just make your meals appear by magic or do you have to actually cook them?"
"Neither. I usually have supper at the tavern. I imagine Kirby would be happy to let you catch some mice in his storeroom for your supper."
The cat spat in disgust. "Yuck! Even if I'm a cat, I'm not eating mice. Some fish would be nice, though."
Wilfort smiled as he went out the door and locked it. "Then this is your lucky day. Kirby makes the best fish in the city."
After a few moments, Rinky said quietly, "You're right, I think this has been the luckiest day of my whole life.
Wilfort nodded. "Mine, too."