EXCERPT: Beyond the Naked Eye — Rachel Swirsky

WISH.

The letters are chipped from emerald. Serifs sparkle. They hover in midair like insects with faceted carapaces. Their shadows fall, rich and dark, over a haze of yellow, which as the view widens becomes distinguishable as part of a brick and then as part of a road, which itself becomes a winding yellow ribbon that crosses verdant farmland.

Ten contestants. One boon from the Wizard.

Whose wish will come true?

***

We all watch in our crystal globes. Blue-tinted ones sit on rough tables in Munchkin Country. Red-tinted ones float beside Quadlings. Green-tinted ones are held aloft in the lacquered fingernails of Emerald Citizens.

Convex glass distorts our view. We see wide, but we do not see deep.

***

After revealing the rich lands of Oz, the view soars upward until it shows nothing but sky. A silver swing drops down. It’s shaped like a crescent moon. Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, perches on it. She wears a drop-waisted, sleeveless gown. Sparkling white fabric falls in loose folds to just above her ankles.

Her voice is as sweet as honeydew.

“We’re down to our four finalists. They’ve worked together to make it down the road of yellow brick. They’ve almost made it to the Emerald City. What will happen next? Only one can win. Will it be Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow, or Dorothy?”

She raises her finger to her lips, telling a secret to everyone watching.

“Remember, in Oz, wishes really do come true.”

***

Those of us who fancy ourselves members of the City’s intellectual elite gather in fashionable bathhouses to watch the show. This season, it is unthinkable not to wear hats during social gatherings, even when otherwise nude. This makes for awkward bathhouse situations. We hold ourselves stiffly, craning our necks to keep silk and felt dry.

Despite our collective ridiculousness, we still feel entitled to laugh at Glinda’s dramatic pronouncements, and at the overblown challenges she puts to the contestants.

“Bread and circuses,” we call it.

Some are of the opinion that it’s all propaganda. “The Wizard wants to rub everyone’s noses in how powerful he is,” they remark.

“Not possible,” others argue. “He’s not that stupid. He could grant all of those people’s wishes if he wanted to. He’s losing public sympathy by the day.” Smugly they tap the sides of their noses. “Someone’s making this to show him up.”

The two camps argue back and forth. Periodically, wild passion overcomes someone’s good sense, and they gesticulate wildly, splashing everyone with emerald-hued water.

In the end we all agree on one thing: bread and circuses.

Effective bread and circuses, though. Everyone watches. Even us.

***

I keep quiet during the evenings at the bathhouse. I prefer to watch and listen. Few people know the name Kristol Kristoff, and I prefer it that way.

I’m a jeweler.

I have a loupe that I inherited from my great-grandfather. It magnifies everything by ten times.

Sometimes I find it frustrating to look at the mundane, unmagnified world. There are so many blemishes that one can’t see with the naked eye. It’s impractical to evaluate everything by what’s superficially visible. If I had my preference, the ubiquitous Emerald City glasses would come with jeweler’s loupes attached.

Working in the Emerald City, I perform most of my work on emeralds, which are actually a form of beryl green due to the intrusion of other minerals, usually chromium. Most emeralds are included—which means that they contain a relatively high proportion of other minerals—and also fragile. This makes them both motley and transitory.

The Emerald City is the same. Like any city, it’s composed of a variety of minerals. It contains inclusions of Munchkins, Gillikins, Winkies, and Quadlings. An emerald would not be green without inclusions; a city would not be a city without immigrants.

An emerald will crack under high pressure. The Emerald City will do the same. Introduce a famine, ignite a fire, depose a leader. Stones or cities will shatter.

It’s happened before.

***

The show began with the image of a farmhouse whirling through a tornado. It crashed to the ground in an explosion of dirt and debris. Slowly the wind blew the detritus away, revealing what lay below.

Two skinny, old legs poked out from beneath the farmhouse. Two wrinkled, old feet wore two shiny silver slippers.

“Congratulations, Dorothy!” Glinda beamed. “You’ve killed the Wicked Witch of the East and won the first challenge!”

She removed the shoes from the corpse and presented them to the little girl.

“These silver slippers will give you an advantage in later elimination rounds,” Glinda said.

Smiling, Dorothy put on the shoes. She didn’t seem to care that they’d just been taken from a dead woman.

***

In the Emerald City, we wear green, which is regrettable for my complexion.

Still, I am fortunate enough to own a very fine silk cloak, clasped with a very fine emerald cloak pin, both of which I inherited from my grandfather. While the former is threadbare, few people notice such things, as few people are used to looking at the world with a jeweler’s eye for detail. It makes me seem much richer than I am, which is useful from time to time, such as when I visit the Palace.

A maid in a short frilly uniform, all white thighs and rouged knees, greeted me when I arrived. She threw her arms around my neck with overwhelming familiarity.

“Mister Kristoff!” she exclaimed.

When I paused to take a second look, I noticed with embarrassment that she was not actually a maid at all, but Lady Flashgleam Sparkle in costume.

“Why in the name of Lurline are you dressed like that?” I asked.

Flashgleam scanned for witnesses. “Not here. Come on.”

She took my hand—so forward!—and pulled me across the threshold into one of the Palace’s many emerald-accented parlors. As she led me briskly through corridors lined with gems and mirrors, I expected someone to stop us and ask Flashgleam why she was in costume, but apparently no one pays heed to maids who are escorting visitors.

We reached her rooms. She closed the door behind us and then went to her windows—which overlooked a courtyard where gardeners grew green orchids, green roses, and green hydrangeas—and swept the velvet curtains closed.

Flashgleam Sparkle is the only remaining scion of the house Sparkle, which had once sent its noble sons and daughters to attend the courts of Ozma III through Ozma XVI. Now that the line of the Ozmas has been broken, and the Wizard sits in their stead, most of the old noble families have departed the Emerald City for country estates.

Flashgleam, as the sole Sparkle heir, remained in the City of Emeralds, surrounded by the remnants of her family’s glory. Last year, after she had the family’s townhouse closed, declaring it too large for a single person, the Wizard offered her accommodations in his Palace as suited a person with her venerable lineage.

This was all according to plan.

While two people of our relative stations would not normally have interacted, Flashgleam had been my client for a number of years. Whenever she received gifts of jewelry—for instance, from suitors—she had the habit of commissioning me to craft facsimiles with which she could replace the original ornaments. Subsequently, she sold the genuine jewels through black market connections. It is always important—she says—for a woman to have unexpected reservoirs of cash.

My discretion in helping her create such forgeries had encouraged her to invite me into her secret cabal.

It has, I must say, made my life considerably more interesting than it was before.

Flashgleam arrayed herself on a divan. She crossed her legs, exposing white thigh with the casual disregard of dignity that only women of high station can afford. She said, “When I’m wearing this uniform, I can poke around anywhere.”

I asked, “What did you find?”

“The pot of treasure,” she said with a broadening smile. “We were right about everything. He’s a charlatan.”

[End Excerpt]