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Originally published in PLEASURE 2014

Illustration by Charlotte de Sédouy

Henri Michaux
In the Land of Magic
Translated by David Ball

Surrounding the Land of Magic, tiny little islands—buoys. In each buoy a dead person. This ring of buoys protects the Land of Magic and acts as an alarm for the inhabitants of the country; it tells them when foreigners are coming.

Then all they have to do is send them off in the wrong direction and far away.

* *

You see the cage, you can hear fluttering. You can make out the unmistakable sound of a beak being sharpened against the bars. But birds, no.

In one of those empty cages, I heard the most intense shrieking of parrots in my life. There were none to be seen, of course.

But what a racket! As if there were three or four dozen of them in that cage.

“…Aren’t they a bit cramped in that little cage?” I asked mechanically, but adding a slightly mocking tone to my question as I heard myself saying it.

“Yes,” answered its master firmly. “That’s why they’re jabbering so much. They would like more room.”

* *

Often in the evening you see fires in the countryside. These fires are not fires. They burn absolutely nothing. Hardly would a gossamer thread right in its center be consumed—and even then, it would have to be a terribly intense fire.

Indeed, these fires have no heat.

But they do have a brilliance unrivaled by anything in nature (inferior, however, to the glare of an electric arc.)

These conflagrations are charming and terrifying, without any danger for that matter, and the fire stops as suddenly as it had appeared.

* *

The Magi like the dark. The beginners absolutely must have it. They try their hand, so to speak, in wardrobes, sideboards, linen closets, chests, cellars, attics and stairways.

Not a day in my place without something odd coming out of the closet, a toad or a rat, looking clumsy, moreover, and fainting on the spot without having the strength to bolt.

We’ve even found people hanged there, fake ones of course, who didn’t even have a real rope.

Who can say he gets used to it in the end? An apprehension would always hold me back for a moment with my hand on the doorknob, undecided.

One day, a bloody head rolled over my brand new jacket, and moreover, without staining it. After a moment—an appalling moment—never would I want to live through another like that—I shut the door.

That Magus must have been a novice; he didn’t even know how to make a stain on such a light jacket.

But the head—its weight, its general look—had been imitated very well. Terrified and disgusted, I could already feel it dropping right on top of me when it disappeared.

* *

Suddenly you feel yourself being touched. Yet nothing really visible against you, especially if it’s no longer perfectly light out, toward the end of the afternoon (the time when they come out.)

You’re ill at ease. You go close your doors and windows. Then it seems that a Being truly in air, as the Jellyfish is both in water and made of water, transparent, massive, flexible, is trying to come back in through the window that is resisting your pressure. An Air Jellyfish has entered!

You try to give yourself a natural explanation for it. But the unbearable impression increases horribly, you leave shouting “Mja!” and you rush out running into the street.

* *

If we could, they say, get rid of all the needlefish, swimming would be something so ineffably delightful that it is better not even to think about it, for it will never be, never, never.

And yet they try. To this end, they use a fishing rod.

The fishing rod for needlefish must be thin, thin. The line must be absolutely invisible and go slowly, imperceptibly, down into the water.

Unfortunately the needlefish itself is just about totally invisible.

* *

Some of them sleep for twenty years on you (slowed down in this way, they prolong their life in the extreme). Others, it’s four to five hours a week. That’s quite enough for them. Another makes an appointment with you for after his nap. What can you do? It’s a real predicament. For perhaps by the time you’ve turned the corner his eyelids have already risen and he’s waiting for you, or, since his sleep lasts, it’s only your grandson who can gather, in his time, the words that were meant for you.

Sleep, thanks to their clever technique, can be replaced either by breathing or by sweating.

If the weather has grown considerably colder, making sweating impossible, the Magus may be caught off his guard and obliged to give in to sleep. In that case, he is not that good at magic although this did happen to more than one of them, who was quite upset about it. One told me, for example, that as winter this year had come much earlier than usual, he had been obliged to succumb to sleep for almost two hours. He was extremely mortified by this, consoled only by the fact that several of his colleagues had been forced to sleep for three or even four hours.

* *

In the dog oven they hold on to the dog’s affection. Otherwise, it’s dog dead, affection lost. That’s why with tears of sadness and a bit of play-acting, too, women who in fact will end up regretting it entrust their dog to the oven heater, a dog still full of life, waiting, without knowing for what exactly, trusting in his mistress’ friendship, despite his apprehension. Bad idea. The rest is done quickly and is not describable. The dog, with his moist eyes, tries to turn around and disappears behind the oven door.

* *

It seems to me that they have no mechanical sense at all.

Few simply admit it. They answer that it’s anti-philosophical, anti-magical, anti-this, anti-that. One of them, to whom I was explaining the bicycle, thinking I would surprise him, claimed that in the past they had invented a bike for insects, a present they gave to children who played with it for quite a while. That’s all it was worth, he seemed to be saying.

* *

One day I saw a lizard at the edge of a field that it was crossing with some difficulty. As big as an arm, it left a rut almost half a yard deep, as if it weighed not a few pounds but at least a ton.

I was amazed. “There are at least fifty of them inside,” said my companion. “Fifty what? Lizards?”

“No, he said, “Men, and I’d really like to know which,” and quickly he ran to the neighbors to ask about the absent people. Who? That alone intrigued him and never was I able to learn anything more. By what magic and for what extraordinary reason did people cram themselves into this tiny lizard body; that was what surprised me and seemed to him to deserve neither a question nor an answer.

* *

When they spoke to me of withdrawn horizons, of Magi who knew how to take the horizon and nothing but the horizon away from you, leaving all the rest visible, I thought it was a kind of verbal expression, a joke only in the language.

One day, in my presence, a Magus withdrew the horizon all around me. Whether it was magnetism, suggestion or some other cause, the sudden removal of the horizon (I was near the sea and a moment earlier I could appreciate the huge expanse and the sandy beach) made me so anxious I would not have dared to move an inch.

I immediately admitted I was totally convinced and everything. An intolerable sensation had invaded me, a sensation that even now I hardly dare recall.

* *

The K…s ridiculize their neighbors the E…s by making them yawn, yawn all the time, all the time, yawn every other minute, irresistibly.

A small revenge for an affront suffered long ago. As usual, no one can even remember how it all began.

But the K…s are vindictive and have never forgiven the E…s, so they make them yawn

It’s not so terrible. But who likes to look silly?

They can’t defend themselves against those incessant yawns, the flagrant, shamefully banal proof of their inferiority in magical power, and it makes them sad, increasingly sad. They can’t manage to take that yawning lightly.

It is a question, they think, of their honor.

* *

They get a team of large seabirds to carry them through the air when they have to make or finish a long sea voyage and don’t have the magical strength to transport themselves “by re-forming.”

The trouble with those birds is, they can't do without fish for very long and try to land on the water, which is not at all to the taste of the traveler. With his behind all wet, he soon regrets having embarked on this journey.

From fish to fish, the trip finally comes to an end, for as far as the destination is concerned, these birds are extremely obedient.

* *

The punishment of thieves, their arms harden, no longer can be contracted or turned or folded. And harden more, and harden more, and flesh hardens, muscle hardens, arteries and veins and the blood harden. And hardened, the arm dries up, dries, a mummy arm, a foreign arm.

But it remains attached. All it takes is twenty-four hours and the thief who is not suspected, he thinks, savoring his impunity, suddenly feels his arm drying up. An agonizing disillusion.

The silver arms are the arms of a royal princess who lived centuries ago, named Hanamuna.

She must have stolen. Despite her royal blood she could not escape the punishment of the Magi.

In the space of perhaps one hour of sleep, her arms hardened. In a dream, they say, she saw herself with silver forearms. She woke up horrified to see them at the end of her arms, an appalling vision. Her embalmed body is still displayed, with its little silver forearms sticking out. I saw them.

* *

“You see, we can't go near him any more: he waves that flail around as soon as he hears steps approaching. He’d smash the head of an intruder who opened the cage within his reach. It’s lasted for over four years now. Somebody else would get tired. Not him, he’s crazy. That flail for threshing wheat must weigh about sixty pounds; add on the force he puts behind it…”

“But I don’t see any flail,” I cried, “He doesn’t have one right now, quick, get hold of him…”

“That flail is magical.”

I was somewhat skeptical and walked over to him. At that moment the prisoner gave a tremendous blow in my direction, stopped only by the bars of the cage, which shook and rang out as if struck by a huge mace.

I realized that some insane people over there still retain their magical power. That, I must say, still surprises me, and may also surprise a few Gentlemen who think they know something about Madness.

A slightly different version of this section appeared in Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology 1924-1982, University of California Press, 1994.

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