“Maybe this is my destiny,” Ro said, as she swept the top hat off the table and perched it on her head.
She spun around to show her cousin who laughed, gave her a thumbs up, and continued browsing the crates full of old magazines.
The two were at an estate sale that had intrigued Ro because it was for the former belongings of a magician.
Ro had stumbled upon the sale during a job search, which turned into a binge-reading session of articles about starting her own private investigation agency, which then somehow led to her looking up the species of butterflies she could expect to attract to her garden based on what she planted. After cycling through a number of jobs and fending off marriage inquiries from a slew of relatives who’d barely been a part of her life, Ro was convinced—and she had convinced her cousin—that she was going through a quarter-life crisis.
Ro had never been one of those people who knew what she wanted to do since she was a kid. And she’d never been one of those people who had some obvious talent that everyone marveled at and assumed she would pursue.
She kept the top hat on. It actually looked good on her, and she’d decided to buy it even if she didn’t find anything else that drew her attention—like an antique deck of cards or a notebook filled with the secrets of the magician’s tricks.
As it turned out, no other items called to her. Her cousin found no less than five out-of-print cookbooks that she was excited about adding to her library.
But Ro just went home with a top hat.
“Researcher is a real job,” her cousin said, over the clattering sound of metal utensils.
Ro frowned at her phone. The two were now both at their respective homes, one of them already making use of her purchases, and the other one trying to figure her purchase out.
Ro had looked up the magician superficially before going to the estate sale. Now she was doing a deeper dive of his life, hoping to find some profound story about his hat that might provide some sign or clue for her life. He was a little more well-known than she’d originally thought. He’d made a few television appearances at the height of his fame, near the end of the last century. And he’d done several interviews that appeared in print magazines and newspapers.
As usual, Ro’s research had led her down a few different rabbit holes. One of them about the fascinating lives of the magician’s ex-wives. He seemed to favor ambitious women, starting with his first wife, who was his manager. His last wife, the only one separated from him by death rather than divorce, had been the owner of a mid-sized biotechnology company.
By the time her cousin finished making one of the recipes she’d been excited to try from the books she’d bought, Ro had ended up on another one of the magician’s interviews.
“I know it sounds like it’s coming out of the blue,” Ro said. “But what if magic is my thing?”
“It could be,” her cousin said.
“Or it could be the newest shiny object that’s got my attention.”
“It couldn’t hurt to try it.”
Ro raised her brow at a line of the interview. She leaned back and stretched her neck from side to side and gazed off at the far wall to rest her eyes.
I’ll start with close up card magic, she thought. She knew that unopened deck of cards lying in her hall closet behind her tabletop game collection would come in handy someday. But first, she’d satisfy all her curiosity about the former owner of her new top hat.
“Hey, didn’t you minor in ancient cultures?” Ro asked her cousin.
“Classical mythology, why?”
“Have you ever heard of a poem or a story called the ‘Seven Keys of Mortal Life,’ or something like that?”
“Doesn’t sound familiar.”
“He says it’s his favorite rhyme. His mom taught it to him and it’s from her childhood. He says a couple of lines from it in this interview, but I can’t find the original poem anywhere.”
The conversation went on like that, Ro moving on to trying a few card tricks, unsuccessfully, then returning to her search for the magician’s favorite poem, also unsuccessfully, and finding another digression to follow in the life of another ex-wife, a flautist.
Long after her cousin disconnected, Ro kept reading and searching, and trying a few more card tricks, with a little more luck.
The only thing Ro ever persisted in doing was searching for something that seemed difficult to find. She did eventually locate the magician’s favorite poem, as a scan from a book in some small college’s library. She couldn’t find much information about the myth or the culture that gave rise to the idea behind the poem, the idea that life on the earthly plane depended on seven core things, necessities for all mortals. The poem called them “keys.”
Seven keys unlock this life, so mortal and so strange.
Water, wonder, blood, breath, mystery, light, and change.
The poem wasn’t compelling or charming at all, but those first two lines stuck in her mind. Maybe they were the reason the magician liked the poem. Ro could imagine him—or maybe even herself—flourishing a black satin cape and dramatically projecting the words from a stage.
She glanced at the time. It was late. But not too late yet.
Ro memorized the couplet from the poem. She put the top hat on and tied the arms of a nearby hoodie around her neck in lieu of a cape. She stood in front of the mirror hung on the back of her bedroom door.
She imagined looking down at an audience from a stage. “Seven keys unlock this life,” she said theatrically, shuffling her deck of cards. “So mortal and so strange.” She held the deck in both hands and fanned them out. As she said each word of the second line, she pulled out a card from the deck and flicked it away. “Water.” Flick. “Wonder.” Flick. “Blood.” Flick. “Breath.” Flick. “Mystery.” Flick. “Light.” Flick. “And change.”
A sudden heaviness on her shoulders made Ro glance behind herself. She sighed in relief when she remembered that she had tied her hoodie to her neck. She untied it. She was feeling the cold now. She slipped the hoodie on, wearing it as intended. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
“What?” she whispered.
The view behind her was not that of her bedroom. She turned around.
She was standing in a large room. The main area was furnished with a heavy wooden table in the center, various long tables surrounding it, bookshelves arrayed along the entire length of the side walls, and on the opposite wall, a small stage raised two steps above the ground.
Ro turned around again, only to find that she was no longer facing her bedroom door. The door before her now was heavier, like her front door. There was a plaque mounted at eye level. A dedication plaque with the name of someone who was attributed with building the workshop and crafting the portal-hat.
Ro peered at the word “portal-hat” as she touched the rim of the top hat she was still wearing.
Her heart began to pound as she reached for the doorknob. She gulped and opened the door a crack. She peeked through.
She saw her bedroom. She swung the door open all the way. She didn’t recognize the angle at first, but then she realized that she was looking through what should have been her closet door.
Still holding the doorknob, she glanced behind her at the “workshop.” She turned forward again to see her bedroom.
“Curious,” she said.
Maybe she’d fallen asleep in front of her computer. It wouldn’t be the first time. It would however be the first time she’d had a dream so vivid that she could have sworn she was awake.
She found a doorstop conveniently lying nearby and used it to prop the door open. Because she was curious, but she was also suspicious.
On second look, she noted the memorabilia that was displayed on some of the cases, in between the books. A glass case containing what looked like a metal wand. Another enclosing a deck of cards lying face down, except for one card, which was sitting inclined on a stand, the Queen of Clovers. Still another case was preserving a set of small posters, announcing performances.
This workshop was specific to magicians.
One of the bookcases was filled with various journals and notebooks, some of them tattered and warped, and some of them embossed at the spine with the name of the magician who wrote in it.
Ro reached toward them, but stopped herself. She was alone in the workshop. But she might not be for long. Then she recognized one of the names on the spine of one journal. It was the name of the woman on the dedication plaque, the builder of the workshop.
Ro started shivering as she moved further into the room, closer to the stage. She was in her bare feet, and unlike her carpeted bedroom, the workshop had wood floors. She returned to the door. Standing at the threshold, she scanned her bedroom floor, searching for her slippers. They were near her desk where she’d kicked them off earlier.
Shrugging, she stepped into her bedroom, meaning to grab the slippers and return to her exploration. But just as she left the threshold, she felt that heaviness on her shoulders lift. She whipped around to find that the workshop was gone, and she was just looking at the inside of her closet.
When Ro woke the next morning, she had one thought, one word, on her mind.
She smiled and lay in bed gazing at the top hat lying on her desk. The dream that didn’t feel like a dream had given her something that she hadn’t had in a long while, certainty.
She looked at her desk, cluttered with unopened mail, two notebooks, her laptop, a crumpled tissue, random hair ties, and other sundries. A nearby stool was piled with clothes. Her daily bag lay on her chair. On a visual survey of her room, and an imaginary survey of the rest of her place, she could not find a clear surface.
“I could use a workshop,” she said.
She could use a workshop where she could build truly wondrous things to delight and inspire.
Ro busied herself that morning and somewhat successfully managed to clear a space on her kitchen table. It wasn’t until it was close to lunch and she went to check her phone while she heated up some food that she noticed the missed call and the message.
She listened, expecting some claim about a warrant out for her arrest in a state she’d never been too, or an offer to sell property she didn’t have.
But the message was from an actual person addressing Ro by the correct name and explaining that she was the niece of the man whose top hat Ro had purchased.
The woman sounded flustered, apologizing for the misunderstanding. But the magician had meant to bequeath the top hat to his niece, and when she’d found out it had been put out for sale, she’d rushed to go get it. But she’d been too late.
She entreated Ro to give the top hat back, for a full refund of course.
Even as she wondered if there was such a thing as customer privacy, Ro began dialing the niece’s number. She felt herself deflating as the enthusiasm she’d woken with slowly seeped away.
The woman who answered the phone repeated the same thing she’d said on the message she’d left.
“I’ll give you a full refund, of course,” she said. “I apologize. It’s just—and I know this is silly, but…”
She went on about how close she and her uncle were, and how she’d hoped to follow in his footsteps when she was younger. She never did pursue magic, but she’d always associated that top hat with her uncle and she’d jokingly asked him to leave it to her, and he’d agreed. Now that he was actually gone, she found that she hadn’t really been joking. She’d meant it when she wanted that particular memento of him.
“I understand,” Ro found herself saying. She was halfway distracted with wondering how the woman had gotten her number. She didn’t remember providing it. But maybe estate sales weren’t final if there were heirs who came forward with legitimate claims.
The woman said she’d start the refund process and that she could pick up the hat that very day. Ro, being unemployed and unoccupied, agreed.
Her lunch forgotten, Ro wandered back into her room and picked up the top hat. She frowned, wondering how she could have become so attached to it in just a day.
By the time the magician’s niece came to pick up the hat, apologizing profusely again and sharing another anecdote about her uncle, Ro had talked herself into believing that her short time with the top hat was meant to be.
“I didn’t have it for long,” Ro said. “But I think your uncle’s hat might have helped me figure a few things out, about what I should be doing with my life.” She immediately felt embarrassed at her mild confession to a complete stranger.
“Oh, well, I’m glad,” the niece said. She smiled and waved politely and was on her way.
Ro told herself that her brief experience with the hat was meant to be a spark that led her to her true path. Maybe magic wasn’t her thing, after all. Maybe her thing was building and crafting. The vision of the workshop had been so real and detailed, so vivid, it gave her an idea, one she had been resisting because it wasn’t practical or mature or realistic.
Ro started pulling out some old arts and crafts supplies she’d accumulated over the years and stowed away in her “someday” drawer. Some of the paints had dried and the glues hardened, and fixatives had separated out. But there was plenty of usable stuff there. Cardstock in various colors. A kit for building a wind-up robot—that must have been a gift. A tin box full of wooden pieces in various basic shapes. She found a paper butterfly that she’d made for her mom’s birthday.
She wanted to make a plan. But making a plan felt overwhelming. So she started by making more butterflies.
A few days later, Ro received another unexpected call, in the evening, again from the magician’s niece.
“Are you sure there wasn’t anything else?” the niece said. “Maybe something could have fallen out of the hat when you brought it home? Could you check?”
The magician’s niece sounded anxious, even a little upset, though still apologetic, when she asked Ro if she’d bought any other items besides the top hat. Apparently something connected to the hat was missing.
The only thing Ro still retained was her receipt. And the only item listed on it was the hat.
“I’ll check,” Ro said, hoping that her irritation wasn’t filtering through into her tone. “It would help if I knew what I was looking for.”
“I know it sound unreasonable,” the niece said. “But if you’ve cleaned or vacuumed, could you please check your trash or your vacuum bag, just in case?”
“Okay…but, check it for what? What if I find what you’re looking for, but I don’t recognize it?”
The niece sighed. “I don’t really know. It could be a key…or instructions. My uncle had a special place where he would go. He called it his workshop.”
Ro felt her gut drop.
“I’ll have to call you back then, so I can really focus on looking.” Ro heard the tremble in her own voice, but the woman didn’t seem to notice. She just thanked Ro and hung up.
Ro was a few days past the experience of losing the top hat that she’d imbued with perhaps far too much meaning, especially for having just bought it. Even before she walked into the workshop, she’d decided that the top hat was the key to unlocking her destiny.
Or at least to unlocking her true career path.
Ro had, of course, asked herself, “What if the workshop wasn’t a dream?”
But she hadn’t really taken the question seriously. It had been late. She’d been delirious from sleepiness. She’d had vivid dreams before. She’d woken crying. She’d walked through rooms in her dreams before. No dream had ever been so vivid or detailed. But…she couldn’t afford to take the question seriously. For one thing, she no longer had the top hat.
The magician’s niece had it. Or the woman claiming to be the magician’s niece. In all the research she’d done on the magician that night, Ro had read about accomplished wives, estranged friends, beloved pets, jealous managers, and talented assistants. She didn’t remember seeing anything about a favorite niece.
But the workshop was real, and Ro had found a way into it. If the workshop was real, then the niece was right, Ro had the key.
“Instructions?” Ro wondered. But she hadn’t found any instructions.
Ro returned to her bedroom.
“How did I get in?” She retraced her steps. She’d worn the hat, stood in front of her mirror, and fanned and flourished some cards, pretending she was in front of an audience. She’d spoken words, a rhyme, about keys.
She mimed all the actions, in the hopes of jarring more details out of her memory. But she couldn’t remember anything more. She even tied her hoodie to her neck again. She recited the rhyming couplet and flicked a playing card with each word of the second line, just as she had before. Nothing changed.
She found herself standing at the threshold to her closet. And even stepping into it. She felt foolish when she ended up in her closet and not in the magicians’ workshop.
Her own home workshop had become even more cluttered. Several paper butterflies were now piled on top of her desk, along with a pineapple made from felt that she’d hand-sewn after finding her sewing kit. And while the pile of clothes was now gone from the stool, the surface was now occupied by the wind-up robot that she’d finally assembled from that kit someone got her.
She shook her head. “Clear space, clear mind,” she muttered to herself, as she reached for the robot. She aimed to put a few things away, hoping that clearing her space would clear her mind, and make it easier to search for any object had might have fallen out of the top hat. She’d start at the bedroom and trace its path all the way until she handed it off to the niece.
Ro grabbed the robot, tucked the pineapple under her arm, and swept all the butterflies into a plastic tray. She walked them over to her closet and gently lay them on a shelf.
The robot tipped over but somersaulted back to an upright position. Ro drew back her hand and chuckled.
“What about laughter?” she said to the robot as she wound him up. “That’s got to be one of the keys to mortal life. And food? How did water make it in, but not food?” She set the robot down. “Food and laughter. Water and wonder. Blood and breath.” She peered into the dark depths of her closet. “Mystery.” She reached up and clicked on the light. “Light.” She turned and took a breath. “Change.”
The heaviness descended on her shoulders. And Ro was in the magicians’ workshop.
She felt her heart swell. She glanced around, but she didn’t see the top hat anywhere. She did however see her robot, the butterflies, and the felt pineapple. They had traveled to the workshop with her, but nothing else from her closet had.
“Curious,” she said.
She glanced down at the robot. “I didn’t have the top hat. Maybe I just needed it the first time? Like unlocking a door. Now that it’s open, I just have to go to the door and turn the knob.” Her closet and the rhyme…or part of it. Just the seven words. That’s all she had spoken.
Ro walked over to the door. Now that she knew the workshop would vanish if she stepped out of the door, she’d stay, long enough to do some heavy reading and see if she could find anything out about the magician’s niece. If she were so close to her uncle, he surely would have told her how to get into his workshop. Maybe Ro had been too hasty. Maybe she’d been scammed into giving up the top hat to someone who had no association with the magician.
“She wants in here,” Ro said, turning back to look at the breadth of the workshop. She had a feeling that the niece—or whoever she was—would not be willing to share the workshop with Ro. She would probably not be too happy to find out that Ro didn’t need the top hat to get in. If the niece knew how to lock the door again, she could lock it against Ro. But Ro had a feeling the niece didn’t know much about the workshop at all.
Ro couldn’t be sure she had figured it out herself. She wanted to test it again.
She knew if she stepped all the way out of the workshop, it should vanish. Then she would try to recite the key words again while standing in her closet. If the workshop reappeared, then she’d know, the door was open for her.
Ro put her hand on the doorknob of the workshop. Expecting to open the door to her own bedroom, she twisted the knob and pulled the door open.
The door did not open to her own bedroom. The room she looked into was much larger. The king-sized bed was fitted with crisp cream-colored sheets. The curtains were drawn. The overhead light was on. There was a table beside the bed, and on the table was a hat stand, and sitting on the hat stand was the top hat. From one of the two doors leading into the room, a woman emerged. She spotted Ro right away. It was the magician’s niece.
The woman glanced past Ro. She dropped her hairbrush.
“The workshop,” she said. Her eyes grew wide and she rushed toward Ro.
Ro stepped back and swept the door closed. She held onto the doorknob. It twisted and jiggled. The woman screamed for Ro to open the door. She banged, and she twisted the knob again. Within seconds, the banging faded. The doorknob was still.
The workshop had disconnected from that closet.
Ro slowly let go of the doorknob and stared at it for a few minutes.
After she’d calmed herself, she realized that she was trapped. She wanted to open the door and hope that she’d end up in her own bedroom. But she knew she wouldn’t. If she were home, she would start asking questions, defining problems, and looking things up so she could gather information, get some answers and devise some solutions.
But she didn’t have her computer.
Ro looked around the workshop, at all the books. They were the only resources she had in the workshop. She had to find something in them that would tell her how to get out of the workshop. But she needed more than that. The niece knew now that Ro had found and entered the workshop. And that some instinct had caused Ro to shut the niece out.
Ro was certain she’d just made an enemy, a dangerous one.
She would read the books. And only when she’d found something she could use to stave off the niece would she leave. But she had to be quick. She didn’t have any food or water. And there didn’t seem to be a restroom anywhere.
Ro checked the bookcases and found some intriguing titles.
Animating Your Crafts
Finding the Right Writer to Type on Your Haunted Typewriter
Philosophy and Alchemy: A Foundation
Illusions to Fool the Physical Senses: A Foundation
Illusions to Fool the Psychic Senses: A Foundation
Love Potions, Snake Oils, and Other Tonic Myths
In fact, they all looked intriguing. “Where do I begin?” she thought.
It was strange. She could have sworn there were more books and volumes in the workshop now than the first time she’d visited.
“Maybe an illusion has broken,” she said glancing at her robot.
Ro began reading. Given her situation, and that it was late, she was mildly surprised at how keen her focus was, how quickly she was reading, and how well she was retaining what she read.
She first read about the top hat. She learned that if she entered the workshop without the hat, she would exit wherever the hat was. But if she was in the workshop with the top hat, she could set the exit location to wherever she wanted. So all she had to do was get the top hat back.
She could make use of the knowledge she’d just gained from her reading, but she needed resources she didn’t have. She was in a workshop, but there were currently no materials in that workshop. The magician-in-residence was responsible for keeping a stock of raw materials, but there was no current magician-in-residence.
The only items she had were the things that had come with her. Ro animated the paper butterflies and the wind-up robot. She enlarged the robot as much as she could, growing him from a few inches to a few feet. To her surprise, the robot began to speak.
“I’ve recklessly given you sentience,” Ro said, her eyes wide.
“I already had sentience. You’ve just given me a voice.”
Ro was too anxious to make anything of this new development. She pointed to the butterflies. “Do they…?”
“I don’t think so. But I can’t really tell with paper.”
She shook her head. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but her eyes felt sore from long waking. “Well, just in case, I need all your help to get out of here. The plan is basic. We’re going to rush the magician’s niece and anyone else she might have recruited to lie in wait outside that door. You might get captured or hurt or destroyed. So anyone who doesn’t want to risk it, please step away from the door. I’ll just have to do my best.”
The robot and all the butterflies approached the door.
“Wow, thanks everyone.”
Ro braced herself by the door. She placed her hand on the doorknob. As soon as she twisted, the workshop would connect to whatever room the top hat was in. Ro swung open the door, letting the butterflies burst out. Several people in the room all started moving toward Ro. The robot somersaulted to the left, knocking over three people. In the confusion, Ro managed to jump into the room as she pulled the door closed. The workshop vanished. The butterflies fluttered for a few seconds more and then dropped to the floor. The robot shrank and tipped over. And Ro didn’t manage to take a single step.
“I’ve been inside before,” the magician’s niece said, waving off the other attackers. “When my uncle walked me in and showed me around. ‘You can bring things in,’ he said, ‘but don’t ever take anything out that isn’t yours.’”
Ro peered at her. “What did you take?”
The woman grinned. “There’s a book in there about love potions.”
Ro glanced at the robot and the pile of butterflies on the floor and frowned.
“By the time he found out I had it,” the niece said. “I’d already made a potion. The book seems like it’s about debunking myths. But surprise, surprise, all the potions in it work.”
She pulled her hand out of her coat pocket. “And even though he took the book away.” She was holding a small vial of liquid. “I never forgot how to make that potion.”
Ro braced herself to hold her breath or run, expecting the woman to throw the potion at her feet or something. But the woman instead flicked off the stopper with her thumb, threw back her head, and swigged the entire contents of the vial.
Am I doomed to fall in love with her? Ro thought. The thought made her laugh. As she laughed, the robot became animated again. He somersaulted toward the hat and grabbed it between his pincer-like hands.
The woman picked up the robot. “It’s a muscle tonic,” she said. She crushed the robot’s middle until he broke in half.
Ro reached out and tried to grab the top hat, but the woman caught her arm and started squeezing. Ro collapsed to her knees. The woman placed the top hat on Ro’s head.
“Open the door to the workshop and walk me in,” the niece said. “If you haven’t already learned how, I’ll want you to read up on how to reset the door. And you’re going to set it to open into a very lucrative location.”
Ro frowned. “Robbery?”
“Trust me. That workshop isn’t good for anything else.”
“How would you know?”
The woman squeezed and Ro cried out. “Open the door, or I’ll break your arm right off just like I broke your toy.”
Ro gasped and sucked in a breath. She calmed her breathing and began a low muttering. She started muttering words that were keys.
And she started muttering words that were illusion.
Words that she had learned from reading.
Words that were part of her plan.
Her plan to ensure that the workshop would not fall into reckless hands.
Like the hands of one magician’s niece.
Who only wanted what she wanted.
Ro felt the heaviness descend upon her shoulders. She hoped against hope that she had applied her new knowledge correctly. She hadn’t practiced for long.
She glanced around. They were inside the workshop, she and the magician’s niece.
“What have you done?” the niece said. While she was disoriented, Ro pulled her arm away and stepped back.
“I’ve done what you asked me to do.”
The magician’s niece shoved past Ro and press her hands against the glass wall. She gazed up at the glass ceiling. She glanced over at what seemed a giant deck of cards. She turned, her jaw clenched, her hands curled into fists. She turned just in time to see Ro vanish.
Ro looked down at the glass case containing the magician’s niece.
“An illusion?” the robot beside her asked. He was back in the workshop too. As were all the butterflies, who now fluttered around the glass case.
“It won’t hold her forever,” Ro said. “Only long enough for the resident magician to find a better solution.”
The robot rotated his head toward her. “And will you?”
Ro touched the rim of her top hat. Her stomach lurched with fear and excitement. And then it calmed as she shifted her gaze toward the robot.
“Yes, I will.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel