by Zoe Polach
We had a list of all the things that were important. It was a long list, but not too long, because it was very carefully edited. Thrift was on it, and wearing pants, and so was keeping good records. We’d made too many mistakes to forget that one.
One day at the end of winter, we were debating over lunch whether we should add something to the list. In the middle of the discussion, a stranger wandered in. We asked her what her name was, where did she come from, but she just smiled and asked politely if there was enough to share. We said, of course there is (hospitality was #14), pull up a chair and help yourself.
We continued talking, and the stranger listened attentively. At the end of the meal she thanked us for our kindness. She was a wandering magician, and she wondered if she might pay us back by putting on a little show. We said, we love a good magic trick, what’ve you got?
With great ceremony she pulled out a deck of cards. They were bigger than your average playing cards, and we thought they had different pictures, but we couldn’t quite make them out.
After shuffling them with all kinds of fancy flicks of the wrist, she fanned the cards out face-down and offered them to the nearest person. Take one, she said. He did, and turned it over. It read, simply, #20: paying debts. He read it out loud, and everyone looked at each other.
The magician took the card back. This is my best trick, she said, proud and a little shy. She traced the letters on the card with one long finger and they disappeared under her touch.
We wanted to be polite, but we didn’t understand. She said, you’ll see it if you try again. This time the card read #14: hospitality. As the word dissolved we felt something, a feeling whose name we couldn’t remember. Maybe we’d better see it again, we said, sitting up in our seats.
We erased our portraits, too, and our mortgages, and lots of things that people believed in. And every entry on our list had gone up in smoke before we were done. We felt better than we had in years.
When we were finished, we told her that after all this, we had to know her name. She said, I forget, I’m sorry, was it important?
Zoe Polach is from the Maryland suburbs of D.C. She started as a freshman at the University of Chicago this fall.