“Are you ready?” he asked. “Here we go.”
He pulled his dress off over his head in a single movement. His body was disturbingly white – suddenly whiter than the satin dress had been. An insistent music started to pound out of the radio as he shimmied and gyrated, and as he spread the feathers in his fingers they unfolded and grew until his hands had turned into enormous black wings at the ends of his long undulating white arms. He danced, and it was at once the most erotic and the most repulsive thing I had ever seen. Every movement of his body became extended and exaggerated by the rippling wings, from wide sweeps of the limbs to the smallest abdominal tremblings, all in time to a relentless rhythm. His body seemed to become more slender and delicate as the wings became larger, until at last he filled the whole of the bandstand, his wingtips brushing the apex of the fretted roof’s interior. When he did the big reveal in the last minute of the number, it was long, high-pitched, repetitive, scratchy with feedback, and ended in a scream. I grabbed his feathers with both hands and he heaved me up onto the bandstand beside him.
“Did you know that the word ‘burlesque’ actually means ‘in an upside down style’? Now we’re going to do a mindreading act,” he said, and I realised that I was now the one with the wings instead of hands, and he was fully clothed again. The rain had come back; it sounded like applause. “I want you to think of a shape. Don’t say it out loud, just think about it very hard.” I thought of a long, thin parallelogram, concentrating on it as hard as I could. “Got one? Good. Now bury your face in the feathers. That’s it, wrap the wings right around your head.” I did as I was told. The feathers rustled and writhed and moaned the words:
“A straight line.”
“Well done,” said the shaman. “Now the other way around. The mynah bird is going to think of something from its own experience and transmit it back to you.”
The feathers opened and stretched as if in flight, and I felt the tug of a single word:
I tried to pull the wings away from my face, but I could no longer move them.
“And now both at once!” cried the shaman. “Hopla!” Through the feathers in front of my eyes I could just barely see the mynah bird, alive and sprightly, springing out of the skin of his open white palms. “That went very well,” he said, “let’s pack everything away now.” He gently deposited the bird in his wooden travelling box, and as he did so I felt its lid close over my own head.
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