The Ballad of the Charlatan’s Sister
THE BALLAD OF THE CHARLATAN’S SISTER
The first thing that you notice is the smell.
Cinnamon, ginger, smoke of fine cigar,
flaked leather of old books, and bubbling tar
heating over a flame. And beasts as well,
living and dead, a great stuffed crocodile
hanging above his desk. Cages of birds,
a parrot that knows fifteen thousand words
in twenty languages, most of them vile.
Two slobbering mastiffs guard him, at his feet,
they lie, or pace the room. He strokes their ears,
absently watching you, then disappears
into the next room, comes back, gives them meat.
And all the while is talking of his plan
to make the stone, or take men to the moon.
You hope he’ll go on, will not end too soon.
There is a charming magic to the man
a velvet in his voice that soothes your brain
down into folly. And she brings the tea
and takes your coat and offers sympathy
when all you plan with him has failed again.
Mostly she is his drudge, takes dogs for walks,
dusts all those books, hair tied up in a rag,
and listens to her brother’s endless brag
about the djinns with whom he often talks.
She keeps his rooms so neat; he’ll sometimes claim
that spirits do it, or some magic slave.
And you believe, or do at least behave
As if you think he knows the thousandth name
of Solomon his Key to djinns and sprites.
She brings in coffee, brews it strong and black
It keeps the marks excited, so they lack
all sense, as happens after sleepless nights.
And when you think you meet your spirit guide
the one who’ll make you rich, that stunning girl
who sets your senses reeling in a whirl
seducer, succubus, bitch whore and bride.
It’s always her, but you don’t recognize
because you think her such a dowdy mouse
you hardly notice working round the house.
You really never look deep in her eyes.
You see the dirty smudge high on her cheek,
the shawl around her shoulders, think her age
three decades more. Her brother is no mage
she changes though some five times in a week
more than by magic. She has equal power
to work deceits, offers herself to you
but never gives a single thing that’s true,
or if it is, is only for an hour.
You’re all the same to her – not him, and so
are nothing. She stares at adoring eyes
and does not see there anything to prize.
He’s always in her life. You come and go.
She loves the fact that he believes his lies.
Whatever scheme or spell he tries to sell
to foolish rich men, she can always tell
it is not all a trick in his bright eyes
that shines excitement. Miracles may come
if money stirs the crucible a while.
And there is something touching in his smile
she thinks, remembering how he sucked his thumb
when he was three and she was only five.
And when he claims long life, or angel friends,
it is the means to vague well-meaning ends
as well as how he keeps them both alive.
He really thinks the world a wondrous place
where angels walk and you can summon gold,
where you’ll find secrets out if you are bold.
She loves the simple wonder in his face.
And his rich patrons, you can spare the wealth
he makes you spend on sharing in his dreams.
It’s not half the chicanery it seems,
she thinks, you’ll only spend it on yourself.
You get your money’s worth in sweet deceit.
You feel included in a brotherhood
knowing all truths, and feeling strong and good.
And we eat baker’s bread and butcher’s meat.
After a while, good things come to an end
You wake from dreams of magic, love and gold.
Alone in bed, you shiver from the cold
and understand he never was your friend
So disillusioned, your love turns to hate
You charge him as a fraud and charlatan,
he’ll take the blame, because he is the man.
She’ll stand for hours outside the prison gate.
Just for a minute with him in his cell.
You’ll give her alms. It’s not her fault, poor dear,
The girl you lust for will just disappear
and take your money off with her as well.
Beyond all tracing. Buy your day in court
and get hot iron burn LIAR on his hand.
She’ll pour the acid to erase the brand.
She’ll weep over his pain. That he was caught
teaches her lessons. Learning them, they’ll thrive.
Teach marks no fantasies; tell them they’re scum
Learn your mark’s every weakness and defect
Strip him of all his wealth and self-respect.
It’s a harsh business. Spit on marks, they’ll come.
This above all. Don’t leave the mark alive.