by Braeden Collins
In their rejection letter for my article--Dispatches of Haywire Ray, the biography and reflections of the titular illusionist--the Editor of Hocus Opus Press denounced my work as “a pure work of imagination,” and continued on to “regretfully inform [me] that we are unable to publish this.” And the grounds for the rejection? “The attribution of your document to a character that appears to only exist in your personal visions, possibly dreams.” The call for submission was for strictly non-fiction works and Ray’s words were, by implication, condemned as a work of fiction.
Soon after this unfortunate email exchange with Hocus Opus Press, my friend and subject Haywire Ray died. Or disappeared. It’s impossible to discern what happened to him, given his nebulous habitat and his trade. Therefore, despite some correlative possibilities, I do not want to pin the responsibility on The Editor. But I cannot rest easily or allow my grief to be muted until I’ve properly memoralized my friend and argued for his existence. I don’t have paperwork,
identification, or pictures. But I have my own account.
On the night I informed him that the dispatches were rejected for publication, Haywire Ray just shrugged. He lit a cigarette that exploded and then talked instead about the development of his newest illusion, which he promised would exceed the spectacle of any of his previous efforts. I had seen it all from my front-row seat at the theatre: the sleight-of-hands, shuffling of cards, levitations. Knowing they were deceptions, I was still captivated and baffled by his technique; not even close friends are privy to the secrets of the magician. I was often rendered a stranger by
After he claimed that he was going to push the boundaries of his craft even further, I leaned forward and pressed him for details. Knowing he would evade and fib, I was still certain I could take clues and make some speculations out of them. We were backstage, post-show. He still had his black costume on, sequined like the night. I noticed stubble on his concave cheeks. He drank water and stared into the distance, allowing the pause to saturate with my curiosity. What drama the man brought to all aspects of his life! A consummate performer.
“I will make the world disappear,” he then declared. I sniffed and crossed my arms and asked how he would do that, immediately realizing the fate of such a question. He remained silent, finished his glass of water, and bid me goodnight. There are many ways you can make an entire world disappear. Within the framework of illusion, and being the novice I am, I couldn’t begin to guess how it could be achieved. Mirrors? Nebulae? Add so much milk to the galaxy that the worlds are displaced and pour out into the blackness? On a local scale there is the option of a
nuclear arsenal, but I don’t believe that counts as illusion any longer.
But death makes the world disappear, I thought. Technically. At least, it makes the deceased disappear from our world; I realized Haywire Ray did not make any distinction of whether he would be making the world disappear for himself or the audience or me. I was nervous. Ray looked thin, his eyes were crescented by gray rinds. I was afraid to ask him about his apparent ill health because everything was an evasion, or the foundation of a trick. Sometimes it seemed that the ligaments of our friendship were just gusts of wind.
Sure enough, the nightly performances soon began to fragment and drift. We spoke to each other in the scattered syntax of electrocution; at times, only one word was spoken through the night, between all the other places I visited. In these, I was forever running late, running too slow, running the wrong software on my computer. At last, one night, as a bent Haywire Ray pulled a scarf from the mouth of a drooling bulldog, he smiled a full smile, holding the entire audience in its beam. And then the scene disappeared. Just darkness and a barely perceptible static, like the tail-end of an old VHS. Before he disappeared, he had looked at the audience, the faceless men and women multiplying in the margins of my well-articulated form--I was often seated in a pillar of light, so my friend could see me--and he told us all that he was resigning himself to Fiction. I thought it was an ambiguous statement, that I was just being persuaded into the frame of another
illusion. But then he was gone, without even the curling theatrical smoke to follow.
I tried everything, but I could not reach Haywire Ray again except for brief flashes. Like someone punched the framerate of a television in the teeth. Wires and bones and wildcat growls. Gone was the joy of Ray’s illusions.
Upon informing The Editor of Ray’s apparent disappearance, I received no response. Was this guilt? If The Editor’s condemnation fueled Ray’s final act, were they even aware of it? It’s as though The Editor was mowing a lawn and shredded an ant balancing on a tilted grass-blade. There’s no scream, no blood, no signal at all. Perhaps the silence is meant to be a space for atonement, to rectify my sins against the submission guidelines. But I still have an impulse to present my rebuttal to the Editor. I realize that my naïve hope here is that if I can affirm Ray’s
being with a strong argument --then he may return. This is the antidote to the doubts of The Editor. But there is also the possibility that my friend does not want to return, that it was his intention to leave...
It’s true that I cannot manifest Haywire Ray for a cup of coffee here or show up to the Editor’s office and sit him down in a chair and say: Here he is! He resists the pull of materialization, the final flourish of the wand that could send him birth-damp and scampering down our fluorescent hallways. But rather than acknowledge the realness I have experienced with Haywire Ray, The Editor categorizes my friend as a Platinum Member of my imagination. What is the imagination--or consciousness--but the ultimate arbiter of our reality? There are hundreds of studies that point to the constructive nature of our consciousness: taking all the sensory elements in our worlds and rearranging the data into some intelligibility. It’s as though we have an interior editor of sorts, and mine has sifted through the slush pile and produced Haywire Ray. Even if materialists persist
in the faith that all conscious experience emanates from matter, the grey stuff in particular --then Ray is still truly Me.
Where else would he have come from? If we want to go along with Emerson, who dictates that we are all members of the One, and that history reflects us all, then Ray is still some cell of the mass, drifting close in orbit to my own. If we then use this frame in literature, I’ll argue that the only clear distinction between nonfiction and fiction is that the former is participated in with consensus, while the latter is the gift of our individual node of the One. It’s a majority rule, and we can deceive ourselves into collective acceptance of just about any fact. Including that our
experiences, visions, dreams, virtual interactions, are not real.
In some way, it seems I have talked myself into agreement with The Editor. Ray is strictly fiction by their guidelines, and my attempt to make him non-fiction has thus far failed. I don’t think I will be able to convince them otherwise. Perhaps it is all for the better. I am not attempting philosophical discourse here; I am trying to memorialize my friend, despite the claims against him. In times where all we have left is the comfort of our minds and perceptions, it is natural to be defensive when it is derided and cast aside. Don’t mock my eyeglasses when they have given
me sight to see you.
Let’s remember Haywire Ray then. His greatest trick, surpassed perhaps by the final vertiginous bow-out, was performed on the same day I was replaced at work. As I left the building that day, with the bulbous tote bags that contained my desk contents at my side, my superiors were still trying to figure out how to turn my replacement on. Trying to get the indicator light to change from red to green. Years of labour culminated there at that moment. I was unfettered, but it was as though I had lost an appendage in the process. Such is life. A colleague escorted me out the
building. She was sweating at the possibility of her own replacement; it’s a quiet death of purpose. I returned to my apartment in the usual way and thought I ought to rearrange the furniture if I was going to be spending more time there.
But at least there was Haywire Ray to look forward to. Sure enough, he was soon in a halo of light on the stage, waving his hands at the audience. All focus had to be on Haywire Ray; us in the audience had no choice, nothing else to look at in the dim seats. He was flanked by red curtains and numerous props --items that, we assumed, would take significance later in the show. A fire hydrant, some bowls. Pacing around the stage at first, his undulant cape crackling, Haywire suddenly stopped and raised his arms like a Spirit-seduced preacher. He shouted some
incantation --a few words, staccato. If you asked me to repeat it, I wouldn’t know where to start. He knew languages that can only be spoken once.
There was a pause. After a moment of watching an inert Haywire Ray, one of the audience members nearby looked around the room, trying to determine the result of his sorcery. This audience member then proceeded to bark. Another, up in the balcony, retorted with a similar bark. Down there on the stage, Haywire Ray blew some whistle and the entire audience erupted into a tumult. Scrambling, panting, howling. We were all dogs. I had fur and a tail. Pulled by instinct, I began to make the rounds, sniffing the rears of the other audience members. I noticed that each one of them was a shitzu or a Yorkshire terrier; compact creatures, with their eyes
mostly concealed by fur. They shivered in my shadow: I was a German shepherd. Like a police dog. Scythes for teeth, the geologic musculature. My old friend, Haywire Ray, had made me leader of the pack. I ran to my master in the stagelight...
Since his Dispatches still remain unpublished and unseen, I wish to deposit fragments of his biography and memories here for the sake of public record. Some day it will be published, but for now I am too exhausted by the whole ordeal. Too much for a grieving man. I have edited some of his responses; he is an illusionist, not a writer.
Haywire Ray was born by strange waters. For the first ten years of his life he eked out a living with his pet dog, Sam, along the brackish coastline. They slept in a firmament of sun, water, roughage, and bug spray. Sam retrieved things. He taught Sam how to roll over and the dog accidentally rolled into the sea. Drowned, probably. A devastated Ray wandered into the city nearby. He had to learn to deceive and trick in order to prevent starvation. Soon, the police caught him and he was brought into the precinct office. In an act of mercy, the officer decided he would impart some life lesson on the boy rather than punishment. From a desk drawer, he produced a deck of cards with frayed borders and fanned them in front of Ray. Sighing, he explained that this was some configuration of the boy's head. Then he shuffled the deck and fanned them out again, saying See? His lesson was not entirely lost on Ray, but it ended up in his mind’s backyard. Too deep back to really acknowledge. Ray leaned over and snatched a card and tethered it to the
officers moving glance and then, with a snap of the wrist, made it disappear. And another one. Soon he was left with just the Joker, which he promptly dispatched as well into some ether. The officer was astonished. Soon this transmuted to anger: What happened to my cards? To avoid jail-time, Ray shook them all out of his sleeve and was released to the street, free but under threat. He was told that the only person he may trick and deceive is himself, or there will be consequences. The police officer wagged a fat finger and Ray tried not to remember Sam’s tail...
Q: Why illusions?
Ray: The beauty of illusion and fabrication is that it is nested in truth, yet it only reveals that perhaps the truth is maybe unknowable. It is as discernable as the Dao. Observing illusions is a way of training the senses to be skeptical of all that we see. But how is it done? Does it matter? The effect has regardless been accomplished in the eye of the beholder.
Q: Do you read Hocus Opus Press?
Ray: Does anybody?
Q: Can a machine make an illusion?
Ray: The entirety of what they do is an illusion, if we regard humanity as the only
truthful mode in this world. It’s all just aping and improving on some human ability. Otherwise we would have no use for technology. I sell you a shovel that can dig the stars out of the sky, but it’ll take you a million years to get close enough. And we like looking at stars. What good would it be to make a machine that could do that instead?
Q: Who’s a good boy?
Ray: You are.
NOTE: there was further umbrage taken with my unorthodox choices of font, text size, and width of page margin --all detestable offences against the providence of the submission guidelines. This was an oversight on my part and a crime of over-administration by the Editor. However, this is not the impetus for my missive.
Braeden Alexander Collins is a writer based in the frozen prairie in Manitoba, Canada. Rather than succumb to the usual torpor of small-town life, he chose to pursue writing as an inventive way of losing money and sanity. His work can be found in JAKE, bloodbathhate, and under a magnet on the fridge.