by Avra Margariti
Every night, Harriet Houdini peeks at the crowd calling her name and imagines rats in a labyrinthine cage, eagerly awaiting their daily stimuli.
Harriet Houdini lives to please, so she steps onto the stage in her rhinestone-and-spangle leotard, waving. Her parents, a retired magician duo, sit in the front row. They claim to have pulled her out of a top hat as a baby. Just like that. Like a miracle, her mother likes to say as she hotglues more sparkles on Harriet’s already heavy costume.
Harriet Houdini privately thinks something went wrong between the hat’s silk lining, velvet rim, and fathomless ether. She maybe left a part of herself there, a part that cannot be reclaimed or reassembled.
Harriet Houdini’s assistant Len ties her hands and legs to her body with the help of a thrice-padlocked chain contraption. Len offers her a shy smile as he snaps the last lock into place to the audience’s cheers. They might meet in her dressing room after the show, but he’s not the answer to her unasked questions, the missing link of her. When she smiles back, it’s thin as a paper moon. Len pulls on another chain attached to a beam and lowers her into the tepid water. Her breath is held with ease.
Harriet Houdini sometimes thinks her lungs have been overused but her heart hasn’t seen much action as far as organs go.
Harriet Houdini has freed herself from fifty-eight water tanks, two-hundred loops of chains, forty-one straitjackets, three alligator ponds (twelve alligators), and fifteen cages of fire, but she’s still looking for that elusive something.
Harriet Houdini is not actually Harry Houdini’s descendant, but she likes to make people wonder.
Harriet Houdini has discovered the secret to escaping all the water tanks and iron chains of the world. She has to let her hands and lungs do all the work while her mind wanders into a meditative state. She can only save herself if she tricks her brain into safety. She looks at the bedazzled red blur that is Len, the rat-army audience. Lastly, she watches her parents. Like most people, they’re drowning but pretend their lungs hold all the oxygen they could ever need. They’re bound but convince themselves their chains are made of daisies.
Tonight, Harriet Houdini imagines she’s in a vat filled with green plasma, and she floats, embryonic. A scientist stands on the other side: tapping the glass nearest her twitching fingertips, chicken-scratching something in their notebook, looking at her with unmasked adoration. “You’re doing so well,” the scientist says. “Just a little bit. A little bit more and you’ll be reborn.”
When I was nine, I watched The Prestige, a film whose plot I don’t remember. What I can clearly recall is the water tank scene, and the escape artist trapped inside it. Later, I became interested in Harry Houdini, the truth and the illusion. Houdini was famous for escaping the Chinese Water Torture Cell predicament. There’s something about water tanks that invites adrenaline-induced dream sequences
Avra Margariti is a queer social work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Forge Literary, Baltimore Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other venues. Avra won the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review prize for fiction. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.