The Great Mala L.

Based on a character prompt from creative writing club.

MALA L. stood shining, perched atop the box in human form, with her left arm outstretched as though she were holding the entire world in her hand. She tipped her velvet top hat and bowed. The theatre went wild.

     After the curtains had drawn to a close and the audience deprived of their collective bemusement, the crowd gradually filled out towards the exit. One man in the sea of people, however, pushed his way towards the stage. He was partially bald, with thick-rimmed rectangles for spectacles. With effort he made his way finally to the side hallway, where Mala’s assistant stood guard.

     “Halt. Who are you?”

     “I’m James Morley, journalist for the Boston Herald. I believe I have an interview arranged with Ms. L.?” He showed the stagehand his pen and notepad.

     “Right this way, sir.”

     The assistant took James’ coat and led him backstage. He took a seat on a crate, one of the wooden ones that was closer to the light of the hanging oil lamp. It was most unusual, thought James, for the preparations of a magician’s showing to be so empty and unassuming. Throughout his entire career, he had frankly never seen a backstage consisting of only a few boxes, some carpentry, and a mirror.

     Mala strode down from the stage. She sat down across from James and shook his hand.

     “And what might you want from the Great Mala L. today?”

     James adjusted his glasses. “I have a few questions, that’s all.”

     “Very well, go ahead!”

     He cleared his throat. “The audience of your charming shows are quite perplexed by your appearance. The audience would like to know, erm, what is your age?”

     Mala L. turned away. “I prefer not to answer.”

     “Of course,” James flipped through his papers, “onto your main show. The audience would love to know how you do some of your tricks,” James remarked, “in particular, how do you perform your concluding act, where you pretend to turn into and back from a llama?”

     Mala smirked at the word “pretend.” She leaned in. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that either, dear. After all, that is my signature act.”

     “Do you have a trapdoor on stage?” James pressed on, “Does that happen to be the way you do it?”

     “Why don’t we go take a look?”

     The two walked over to the space beneath the stage. James ran his hand across the spot where the box would have sat. Nothing. No hinges, no creases, not even a seam or two.

     James turned to Mala, dumbfounded.

     “So how do you get the llama on stage?”

     Mala only smiled.

     “Okay. Once you get the llama on stage, how do you control it? In fact, where do you even keep the llama?”

     James took a wide look around. There wasn’t a cage in the entire place.

     Mala sighed. “Follow me.”

     James, confused, followed her.

     The door opened up into a side alleyway. A few rusted pipes ran parallel to the buildings, bringing water from a nearby pump. In the distance, a train horn blared. It was probably headed for New York, thought James. That’s about the only place anybody would go at this time of day.

     The two of them, Mala and James, stood in the moonlight. Her silhouette was static except for the quivering of her short-cropped brown hair below her hat.

     James paced about uncomfortably. “What are we here for?” he asked.

     “Just to get a change of perspective,” she replied. She dug into her suit and retrieved a red-inked package. “Would you like one?”

     “Suppose why not.”

     James dug around in his vest for his lighter. It wasn’t there.

     “Do you happen to have a lighter?” James asked.

     Mala lit his cigarette for him, then put both the box and lighter away. They stood there together, in the late autumn breeze.

     “You don’t smoke?”

     “Nope. It’s not like me.”


     The murmuring of the streets drifted over the rooftops.

     “When you look into the night sky,” Mala asked, “what do you see?”

     James gazed skyward. “Why, the stars, of course.”

     “Yes, and do you understand the stars?”

     “Well, I personally don’t, but I believe there are some scientists over in Greenwich working at it as we speak.”

     “You see, that is the key,” Mala explained, “Mankind looks up at the stars and admires them. He has done so for millions of years. And yet, somehow now he believes that he may discover how the stars work their magic, and even understand it! But the truth is, mankind will never comprehend the stars.”

     James was staring at Mala now. “Why?”

     Now she was gazing skyward. She continued, “After all, how would man understand the heavens? If you ask those pesky empiricists, they would surely say through experiment. That is the hubris of humanity. There is no way to know the stars unless you build one or become one.”

     James nodded. They stood in silence for a little while longer.

     “Mr. Morley, why did you become a journalist?”

     “Why, er, I suppose it was because I loved to write.”

     Mala chuckled.

     “What’s so funny?”

     “If you really loved to write, you would’ve become a writer.”

     “Well, I suppose I’m also a bit intrigued in finding out the truth.”

     At this Mala laughed even harder.

     “What? Is not finding out the truth—the real truth—the most noble pursuit of man?”

     “Yes, it is, but like I have said, I wonder if—”

     The assistant broke through the door, panting, “Ms. L.! The theatre is on fire!”

     They looked inward. Indeed, the entire place was ablaze. Tongues of red-orange licked and crawled their way outward, along support beams, leaping across crates, and up into the canopy. Dust transmuted into billowing smoke.

     “You all, go.” Mala commanded. “Do not wait for me.”


     “What about you, Ms. L?” James urged, “Surely you must come to safety as well!”

     “I will,” replied Mala, “In my own way. Now go!”

     The stagehand pulled James Morley along, out of the alleyway and into the open street. Mala L., alone, looked onward into the gaping flames. She looked up, where the vast magnificent sky was framed by three walls and a fire escape. The metal stairwell glowed both blue and orange, between the stars and the earth.

     By the time the fire wagon arrived, the theatre had been reduced to a pile of ashes within a brick frame.

     The Herald published the next day, its headline read:


     Of course, if you read further, a page in and in the bottom right, there was a peculiar little paragraph. It was a brief excerpt, only a few sentences long. It read thusly:

A llama was spotted near North Station soon after the fire yesterday night. Authorities were unable to confirm its existence. Witnesses say it was wearing a purple cloth and a tall, velvet top hat.

     James Morley had some idea of what that meant.

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