First in a holiday-season series of posts that will reprint short fiction written — by twelve HiLobrow contributors — for the collection Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, eds. Rob Walker and HiLobrow’s Joshua Glenn (Fantagraphics, August 2012).
The following story is by Matthew Battles. Enjoy!
You had passed him at the entrance to the subway station countless times before, not so much sitting as thrown into the corner, his plump bulk indistinct beneath the rags he wore. What was different about this day? What changed conditions made you take notice of him? Was it some look in his eye, a trick of the light? But no, you’ve learned that there was nothing random about such days, when the cards flip and the world changes color. Or everything is random, but the deck was shuffled long ago — the moves determined, the game already played.
You caught a glimpse of his eye; his smile bubbled forth from the foul hood. The sounds of the street receded. “Pick a color,” he said with a strangely rich voice, a voice less like the barker than the circus itself. “Any color!”
“What?” you asked.
“Choose your color!” he replied. “Doesn’t matter which. Your favorite color. Whatever color catches your… your fancy! It will be the right one, I’m sure.”
You shuddered — and then simply, with a shrug, you said, “red.” The man drew from his pockets the small plastic box, the prism mapped with colored blocks and candycanes. He shook it slowly in the plane of the earth’s surface. As if sifting for some artifact. A smile hung in the depths of his hood, and the smile grew. Tiny figures darted up and down the rainbow trail, until the hand — dry, you noted, but somehow shockingly soft — the hand froze when the red man came to rest at the end of the trail. And with a seeming gust of wind (though nothing rustled, nothing shifted), the world went red (though nothing changed).
And now the little box was in your hands; the plump and shapeless man was gone. How had he so quickly transferred it to you? How did he make his vast bulk so thoroughly disappear? Questions that disappeared in a purple mist that faded to red, leaving you with the little rattle-box labyrinth and a growing deadness that flowed down your limbs and into your heart.
The world of acts and things became a rosy shadow. People swept along the sidewalk borne by what currents you knew not; they flowed right through you. Trucks trundled by without a rumble; music rang out soundlessly; the chess players in the courtyard were reduced to calculating clouds. What was vivid and solid, what was real, was invisible to them: candycane fences, molasses swamps, plumdrop trees that sprang up wherever you went. They alone had the power to dazzle — yet they lacked any sweetness; they did not nourish you in your entranced despondency. And so the years streamed on from red to green to yellow to blue. The bright limits of the old life — goals, friends, loved ones — were crowded out by colors that had been present from the dawn of things, determined by a turning of cards that was simple in its unwavering instantiation. For you it was only the turning of the years; the sweets without succor; the endless hopeless shaking of the box.
Until your recent deliverance! That revelation of holy oblivion, it occurred not long ago: there you sat by the turnstiles shaking the little maze-box when reason flooded your mind. The figures — are trapped inside — and yet their movements are — random! Undetermined by past events, with no bearing on the future! And with a clap the colors merged again, great annuary blocks of diffraction colliding and conceding one to another. The misty figures of passers-by resolved, and the flood of consequence rolled like unredeemed refreshment. And the strange talisman, the map of your unbecoming, became all it had ever been: a silly plaything, a game for unconsidered moments, freedom in the swerve. And so, do pass it on; its curse is broken.
Original price: 29 cents. Final price: $11.50.