By Jan Zlotnik Schmidt (with thanks to Judy, who asked the question)
“Man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns…The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up…In the destructive element immerse.”—Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
What would Houdini do? Could he defeat the virus? A sleight of hand? A dramatic escape?
I wonder would he submerge in those ice baths, those nights immersing in Arctic waters, holding his breath—his toes and fingers blue with cold, blue and stiff—then burst forth rose flesh restored. The plague subdued.
Or would he believe he could worm his way out of harm, out of havoc, like a silkworm from a cocoon, wriggle free of covid’s tentacles, declare victory with arms outstretched?
Or would he escape the droplets, emerge unscathed from a watery cage? Eyes pressed closed, seeing only iridescent flashes of light in darkness. Deep intakes of breath. Breaking out of chains. Breaking out of a trunk. Swimming to the surface of the sea, like a god in ruins?
Or would he be foolish enough to dare the virus to take him—to venture into ICUs, to inhale the dreaded air of death, that destructive element. To taunt that dark enemy. Would his zeal be dampened or stoked by the numbers, the thousands, the millions? Would he breathe in contagion, for daring death was his aphrodisiac? Death, the invisible imposter he had tracked throughout his life.
Would he think because he was a mastery of trickery, inscrutable escapes, he could step into the box behind the curtain, exchange places with the shadow of death, and then emerge untouched? Metamorphosis achieved.
Would he be heartened, knowing that he came back from the underworld to stoke our hopes, not fears? After all he was capable of miracles—picking up pins with his eyelashes, escaping from the body of a dead whale like Jonah, and wriggling free from a straitjacket ten stories up. Why wouldn’t he defeat the plague?
For there are many ways to turn back fears of death. Many ways to emerge from the nether world. When I was young, my father and I went through the tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and we’d count the policemen in their glass booths as a way to calm me down—I hated being underwater—I could feel my breath quickening and my heart pound. Mute, stiff as stone, the figures watched us pass, protecting us from some unnamed harm. We counted and waited for a hint of movement or a glimpse of the open, lighter world. Then when I saw the patch of sunlight, I knew I was safe.
I think now of the men’s exhaust-ruined lungs, the mystery of their presence. We all are tunneling in. Into a netherworld we can’t control–counting won’t do it. And I wish for Houdini’s daring escapes, promising us a return from almost death. But then after all—he didn’t escape. Poisons invaded his body, and the illusionist died too young. Despite many séances over the course of ten years, he never gave a sign or came back from the dead.
And I wonder what he experienced in those dark moments underwater, closed in, chained. Did he hear the rise and fall of his own breath or the muffled cries of angels?
Jan Zlotnik Schmidt’s work has been published in many journals including The Alaska Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, and Kansas Quarterly. Her work also has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize. Two volumes of poetry were published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000) and another, Foraging for Light recently was published by Finishing Line Press (2019).