This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “The Disillusionist.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
Ah, this is one my favorite stories! It was first published in Would That It Were, August 2003, and it was an Honorable Mention story in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror vol. 17. It was also reprinted in Gunning for the Buddha. I thought it would be a nice tale to tell before Halloween…
“A very thoughtful exploration of the place of illusion and truth, with nice special effects.” — Tangent Online
“About three quarters of the way along I realized I was picking up hints about the identity of the deputy, which caused my interest in an already creepy, thoughtful, sensorily complex story to zing. My favorite of the collection.” — SF Site
I was a day behind him, riding west as fast as my horse would allow. He held my future in his rotting, trembling hands, though neither of us knew it then.
Until my deputization just fifteen days ago, I had been flailing and floundering with the direction of my life like a tired man in deep water. I left Kentucky years ago, traveling to Orleans and Illinois, searching for something more from life, knowing I needed to do my part for my country. This nomadic life came hard on the heels of my defeat for the Illinois General Assembly, which in its turn followed the nightmare of the Black Hawk War. It was the summer of 1834, and I was twenty-five.
I rode west, followed hard by spirits. Everywhere I looked, I could still see their faces—not those of my political opponents, but those of the dying redskins. To be honest, I had no qualms about volunteering to help with the Indian troubles in my adopted state of Illinois. I was elected captain of my company, though we did little fighting, and my men reminded me to duck to avoid making such a large target. I would respond that, despite my height, I was too thin to hit.
The sudden appearance of Chief Black Hawk leading his hungry people across the Mississippi back to their ancestral lands near Rock Island to plant their corn created a panic. The Indians were driven by the militia into Wisconsin and slaughtered like wild animals. I could hear the gunshots in my head, as if my skull was empty and the bullets still reverberated inside it.
Since that battle, I’d been rootless. As spring drifted into summer, I again considered running again for the legislature. Part of me knew that if I brought in the killer with the strange nickname, I would have an easier time of being elected.
I pushed those prideful thoughts out of my head as I read about the him, spreading madness and death across the Great Plains: he would enter a town in the morning, plant posters at noon, and perform in the evening. By midnight he was gone again, leaving most of the townspeople dead in his wake.
I decided that my future in civil service could be put on hold until this madman could be stopped. I volunteered to bring in the disillusionist.
* * * * *
According to the stories of the survivors, the previous night’s show commenced at nine o’clock.
Despite the late hour, all were welcome, including the children. Every row of chairs in the town hall, which also doubled as the courtroom, was filled with expectant farm families dressed in their Sunday best. The town elders sat off to the right, in the front row. The smell of hay and sweat was reputed to not have been strong enough to squelch the odor of something rotten coming from the man standing at the front of the hall.
The posters he had distributed had done their job, filling the town hall long before the church bells sounded nine times. I myself had seen his posters, and I had to admit, they were attractive, with their bright colors and elegant calligraphy proclaiming his arrival, trumpeting his Feats of Truth.
“If you care not for the Truth,” the man at the front of the hall announced, a skeletal hand pointing at the exit, “if you care not for the dissolving of Lies and Illusions, I show you the door. You may leave now, if you please.”
He stood on the stage, arm still upraised and aimed at the exit. Not a single soul stirred from the chairs.
The witnesses described his performance as starting badly, and fast becoming painful to watch. His voice was so weak that the entire audience spent the first half of the show craning their necks closer to him. But the people of the town rarely had entertainment, and they were willing to endure just about anything to take their minds off their crops and their chores.
Foregoing any preamble, he asked for the mayor’s watch and without pause, smashed it with a tiny hammer he pulled from his sleeve. Shards of glass and metal flew as far as the third row.
The man in black never tried to undo his damage. He simply held up what was left of the watch, mostly springs and bits of metal, and then dropped it to the warped wooden floor, looking at the audience as if to say, “What were you expecting? Magic?”
While the audience sat stunned, he continued his act. He pulled a dead rabbit from his top hat and threw it behind him onto the empty judge’s desk. Setting the fouled hat back on his head, he pulled a mirror from his breast pocket and procured a thick golden coin in his right hand.
“Behold the magic doubloon,” he whispered in a voice similar to the pulling of bent nails. “It goes up, yet never comes down. At least not where it is expected.”
Walking the coin down the cracked skin of his gray knuckles, he held the mirror so it caught the light of the lanterns on either side of the audience. He threw the coin high into the air. Wiggling the mirror, he pulled an identical coin from the brim of his hat with a guilty brown grin.
“Presto,” he hissed, even as the first coin dropped to the floor and rolled into the first row, where the mayor’s wife squeaked as it touched her shoe. “The mirror distracts, while a second coin is produced. What a Feat! How like magic it is!”
Two teenaged boys from the middle of the crowd began to boo, and they gained confidence when no adults scolded them. “Boo!” they cried, though their voices broke when the yellowed eyes of the man in black came to rest on them. One of the survivors who sat near the front claimed that the man’s eyes gave off a smoky light as he stared the boys into silence.
I did not disbelieve such stories. I only reported what I heard; it was not my place to doubt the witnesses’ testimony.
Ignoring the interruption, the man continued talking in his soft, raspy voice, as he performed more failed tricks. By this time, more of the audience was beginning to boo and hiss, careful to do so behind their hands or when the man at the front of the hall was not looking.
Finally, the man in black held up both hands, silencing the crowd. He bowed with a smile like a grimace, and then he announced his final Feat of the evening. Sarcastic applause and cheers rippled through the crowd, but when he turned his smoky gaze on them, every person in the hall fell silent.
What followed was next to impossible for the survivors to describe.
Some told of the way he threw all of his props into his slim pack, even his dead rabbit and the corpse of the broken watch, and then faded from sight. Others described how his voice grew louder and his eyes brighter as he talked about the nature of Truth. How he claimed that every person, young or old, male or female, carried within them countless fabrications and falsehoods, created on a daily basis.
“And now, tonight, I’m taking them,” he said. “I’m taking each and every one of your lies. I leave you with only…the Truth.”
The effect was instantaneous. Removed of all falsehoods, from harmless fibs to long-hidden indiscretions and nasty secrets, the people of the town turned on one another. Mrs. Smithfield saw the affairs of her husband as plain on his face as the wart on the tip of his right eyebrow. Janey Recker learned that Little Jim Fickling had meant to throw that rock at her and split open her chin. Paul Wandrey discovered that his best friend Matthew Tildmann had been selling him bad feed and overcharging him for it for decades.
Friend attacked friend, husband on wife, wife on child. No one in the audience was left unscathed as secret affairs, untold grudges, simmering hatreds, and so many more falsehoods were stripped away by the whispering man in black.
“I am exactly what you see before you,” he was reported to have said over and over again as he went through purses and pockets and coats, dodging swinging fists, booted feet, and biting mouths. “I would never lie to you about who I am. For I am solely what you see, nothing more.”
His pack stuffed full, he took the best horse from the mayor’s stable and rode west out of town. The town hall’s walls were stained with blood, the chairs broken underfoot like so much kindling.
The disillusionist left no trace of himself, just the damage he left behind.
* * * * *