At the Methodist Centenary, Columbus, Ohio, July, 1919
Was it a trick? Clare’s uncle could make coins disappear from closed fists and reappear in Clare’s ears, an act his mother assured him was no act of God nor even of a very clever man: “He just moves his hands the way the book taught him and makes you think you’re seeing something that’s not really there. If it was real magic, he’d be the devil.”
And this fellow lying on a bed of nails? To the naked eye, extraordinarily sharp nails.
“It’s just a show, darling.”
Well, he knew that! But how was this colossally long brown man doing it? Could all Indians do it? Was swarthy skin tougher than white skin? Did the cloth wrapped around the man’s head convey some special protection? Was he in a deep trance and did it make him oblivious to pain, or even to puncture? Clare needed to know because he wanted to do it.
While his mother, quickly bored with the sleeping giant, walked over to the Ganges to watch the holy monkeys cavorting on its banks, Clare conducted a closer investigation. It was apparent that the man wasn’t dead—his chest moved at regular intervals—Clare counted them up to fifteen. He even glimpsed the flutter of an eyelash.
Very tentatively, not wanting to wake this behemoth creature, he began to circle him. Round and round he went, sometimes on tiptoe, examining the spikes but from a respectable distance, observing that they only dimpled the man’s skin, that there was no blood. He had to know if they were real nails. Each time he circumambulated the platform he drew nearer, until he was so close he had to hold his breath for fear it would fall on the giant and rouse him.
Clare had never been so near a naked male chest not his own. He could almost feel the man’s skin on his fingertips—cool, taut, vaguely damp. He traced with his eyes the scant black chest hair down to the muscled stomach, to where the breech cloth began, and tried to imagine the size of what it concealed. It seemed to him that something moved and, startled into self-consciousness, he darted a glance up the long body to the man’s face: was the Hindoo watching him? No. Apparently not. He drew closer to be certain. The man’s face was soft and smooth. His slightly parted lips were full. He was, thought Clare, was beautiful!
He reached out and stroked a nail. It was hard and hot . . . .
“Claire! You get away from there! What if he’s dangerous?” hissed his mother. Clare jumped and fell back.
“Who dares to touch my holy bed?” the creature muttered and opened his eyes to glare at Clare.
What had he done? “Sorry sir, I’m so sorry. I just wanted to feel if your nails were real—I didn’t mean to bother you sir, Sahib sir. Really I didn’t.” pleaded Clare. The man’s eyes took the little tow-headed white boy apart. Then just as suddenly they dulled up and there was nothing more behind them.
“All of India is looking for the Unseen, for what is Really Real,” intoned the be-turbaned native. “I’ll do anything to find it. I’ve been lying here these thirty and more years,” He paused as people began to gather. “I’ve been lying here these thirty and more years looking for the Really Real,” he recited again.
Now there were several people circling the bed the way Clare had done, pointing, debating the materiality of the spikes in hushed tones. Sigrid Torkelson grabbed hold of her son’s hand and pulled him to one side as the great dark man slowly, gingerly, sat up. He looked around and frowned as if he were irritated that his sleep had been disturbed, but saw no recourse. People were here, he might just as well get up—and so, raising himself above the spikes with his powerful arms and pivoting his body, he jumped to the floor. Standing stiffly, expectantly, he waited, and so did everyone, until someone caught on and began to applaud. As people will do, the whole crowd clapped then and the man made a quick bow. He turned on his heel, and strode to a papier maché pipal tree with an urn at its base. He reached his hand into a hollow in the tree’s trunk, and Clare heard a familiar amplified scratch and then the crackle of a phonograph needle on graphite and a flute wavering exotically in the record’s warp. Then the sober giant bent down and pulled what appeared to be a heavy coil of rope from the urn. Cradling it in his arms, he took it to several ladies and gentlemen nearby to let them touch it. Yes, they agreed, it was only a rope, like one you’d see on any Ohio farm. Clare shyly waved at him to get his attention but the big man ignored him and his mother gripped him by the shoulders to stop him from bolder action. She was determined to keep him from making any more social gaffes with this frightening infidel.
The giant set the coil in the middle of the floor and squatted beside it. He began stroking it, moving his hands over it, reshaping the space around it. All the time he gazed at it as if it were dangerous and might strike if he glanced away for even a moment. Clare felt his mother’s hands tighten and heard her catch her breath at the same moment as he saw the rope move—almost imperceptibly at first, held in thrall by the snake charmer’s dancing hands, undulating to the music, then writhing on the floor like something alive trying to free itself. He slowly rose, his hands always moving, never stopping, and the creature began rising with him, spiraling, a serpent waking up, climbing the empty air above it, until it passed its master, until it had climbed so high it was almost to the ceiling and, Clare thought, craning his neck, it would break through the roof to the sky above like Jack’s beanstalk.
The rope trembled and the crowd oohed and Clare looked down to see the great man shimmying up it like a boy climbing a tree. But this was no boy, this was Clare’s great grim hero rhythmically pulling himself up a monster vine of his own creation, ascending, perhaps, even to heaven. The man reached the top. The recording abruptly ended, and in the amazed silence the only sound was the scratch of the needle on the turning record.
Suddenly, rudely, like someone sneezing in the middle of a silent prayer at church, voices trumpeted from a distance: “Onward Christian Soldiers, going on before….” Clare looked down the great hall past the bazaar, to the other side of a pagan temple, to see a whole choir of people filing in, making their way through water buffalo cutouts and live sacred cows, down a lane of pasteboard huts, professing God and Jesus Christ as they came. Remembering the dark giant, Clare spun around just in time to see the rope tumble down and the man vault to the floor with a handspring. Then the crowd closed in, and because of Clare’s short stature, he lost sight of him.