Later that day I was called into Teitnl’s study. He was sitting at his desk when I came in, but he rose right away with something like lightning in his face.
“Henry, why is the estate agog about you fraternizing up in a tree with Olga’s niece?”
I felt a prick of annoyance at knowing I wasn’t allowed to climb a tree with a friend without it becoming a scandal.
“Don’t be smart with me! I can’t have you distracted from your studies by girls, now stop this nonsense forthwith or I’ll send her right back to where she came from!”
“Good! Send her back! She’s a lovely girl and should be somewhere else, making a real life of it, not here with me and you and cut off from the rest of the world!”
Teitnl blinked at me, for I am certain he didn’t expect my passionate agreement. It was true, though. Although I would miss Harriet if she left, she didn’t belong here, especially since she’d gained so much confidence in the past month. Perhaps I could convince Teitnl to send her back a changed girl, prepared to face life head on, instead of the shy wallflower she once was. Let him replace her with someone who truly did have nowhere else to be in the world. Someone like me.
“Yes… well…” began Teitnl, considering how to reply. “In time I will. Just… leave her alone.”
“Did you not hear what I said?”
“Sir, I have to object-“
“She is the only person I have to talk to!”
I was shaking, although I didn’t know why. Teitnl paused and looked at me for a long moment. Then he gestured for me to follow as he moved towards the door.
“Come with me, Henry.”
He led me outside. It was overcast, and everything smelled of thriving greenery. We walked along a narrow path that cut through the lawn towards the side of the estate. I could hear a stream nearby but couldn’t see it as we arrived at the small orchard.
Within the estate orchard, there were grasses of varying lengths, not cut like they were on the lawn proper, and a small number of fruit trees dispersed at intervals. They were pruned, but not neat, and their gray bark twisted with controlled growth. Something about the branches of orchard trees always reminded me of a piece of paper crumpled into a ball: affected by the random hand of man but not in perfect order.
We approached one of the trees. It wasn’t easily discernable from the rest as it was of average size and breadth, and on it numerous yellow-green apples were growing. Teitnl stood before it and studied it for a moment, then looked over his shoulder at me.
“Henry,” he began. “Illusion is like painting. You must create in your illusion the central vision of what it is your subject will most associate with that object. Come stand beside me. What do you see when you look at this tree?”
I stood there and looked at the tree. It was a tree.
“I see a tree, sir.”
“No, you don’t see a tree!”
I couldn’t begin to understand what he was getting at and he knew it, so he rolled his eyes and told me to close mine.
“Now,” his voice said from nearby. “I want you to create the illusion of a tree, just like that one. From memory.”
Hands took my shoulders and spun me around.
“Open your eyes.”
I was facing the other direction towards the lawn and estate so that I couldn’t see the tree I was to mimic. It seemed easy enough though, at first glance. At second glance, however, I realized it was more difficult than I had ever imagined it could be. I knew what a tree was, but what I knew was the symbol of a tree in my mind. The tree I tried to create didn’t look like a tree at all. It looked like a bunch of lines poking out of a thick stick with yellow balls on it. It was terrible. It looked like a monstrosity, or a keening mistake waiting to be put out of its misery. It looked like a tree drawing by a five-year-old brought to life, more accurately.
I struggled with it until Teitnl took my arm from behind and said into my ear, “Turn around again.”
I allowed my “tree” to die a merciful death, and then turned again to face reality.
“Look at it,” said Teitnl, and the hard edge was gone from his voice, and it was strange because he seemed to enjoy this part: he who enjoys nothing. “Really look this time. Look at the lines, not the tree.”
He lifted his hand and began recreating it, all the while narrating himself with a soft murmur that had wonder for the very act he was performing. He began with the outlines of the tree’s shape, which I saw wasn’t at all like what I had always thought a tree was shaped like, and it was as if my eyes had to form a sort of disconnect from the part of my mind that had always given trees their ideological shape. He then colored it in, as if painting, shading it, casting light on it, and then he made it move, as if affected by the breeze, the light, even a passing butterfly. He gave it sound, as the leaves within it rustled like trickling water in the wind, and then the scent of apples hinted across my senses. It was beautiful and glorious, possessing far more beauty than I had ever known, because I had never seen it even though it was always there.
“Sir…” I said. “You are an artist.”
“Illusion is art, Henry.”
He then did something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but suddenly it was more than a tree; more vivid, more fragrant, and the light played off of the trembling leaves like the silver wings of fairies. It made me catch my breath for its beauty, and then it was gone. He had taken it away in a blink.
“I want you to try it again, now,” he told me. “Begin as I did, with the outline.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the orchard, although I hardly noticed a moment passed. I made much progress, as he had taught me something from which I couldn’t revert. I would never see the world in the same way again.
I’m not sure if he was pleased with my progress or not, but he continued to teach me as much as I could absorb and we lingered until dusk arrived. I had been sitting in the grass working on trees, growing better with each try, and gaining a greater appreciation for the natural structures as a consequence. Teitnl had been working on his own small projects in the nearby tall grass of which I was hardly privy.
“Will you teach me how to make something invisible?”
“That’s a bit easier,” he said. “Think of it as filling in the blanks.”
“Think of a tree against a mountainous landscape. Then merely erase that tree, and connect the lines of the landscape so it doesn’t seem to exist. Simple.”
“What if you’re the one being invisible?”
“That’s harder, because you have to think about all sorts of perspective and be completely aware of your surroundings at all times.”
“Can you do it?”
“Of course,” he said, and he disappeared from where he had been sitting in the tall grasses.
I grinned, and then my grin faded as it occurred to me that was a very powerful and disconcerting ability.
“Hnnh…” I said.
He reappeared and said, “How do you think I knew so much about you when we met for the first time?”
He chortled at my obvious discomfort.
“Don’t worry, I have standards. Some illusionists don’t, though. You never know who might be watching.”
He glanced over at me with something like a grin (for I never saw him actually grin for real) and said, “I keep an eye on the village. They are somewhat like my charges, though they despise me. I prefer to be despised and mysterious because –“
“Because then you are left alone,” I said.
“But the lynch mobs?”
“Only an occasional annoyance. They tend to be stirred up by… ah… certain adversarial parties…”
“Lord Mortimer? Why would he want the village to lynch mob you?”
“Tch. Lord Mortimer doesn’t exist.”
I blinked at him and then realized, from my memories, that it was obvious. He had never seemed real to me and part of me knew it even then.
“Who sent him? Why would someone do that? It almost got me killed!”
“Calm down. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
He stood and brushed off his coat.
“It’s getting dark,” he said without frills. “I’m going inside.”
After he left I sat in the orchard for a long time, practicing and thinking. When the stars were in full bloom, I laid in the grass to watch them, rearranging them with my thoughts, until it occurred to me to raise my hand against the sky. I gazed at the back of my hand until it disappeared, a pattern of stars where my hand once was. I thought of Cherry and smiled.