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The Liar

I first met The Liar on my ninth birthday. He was passing through the village as he used to during the summer, making his long, slow way through the little hills and valleys that were scattered about the countryside, setting up his little tent wherever anyone would pay to watch him.
He was an entertainer, and in those days, people needed to be entertained. He’d stop his little wagon on a conveniently open field and string a few curtains between a handful of haphazardly planted iron poles. Then he’d fix an oat bag for his mule, grab a few boxes and bags from under his seat and slip into his makeshift dressing-room to prepare. Well, I say prepare. I remember more than a few times seeing a thin wisp of smoke curling up from behind the curtains and a single eye sneak a quick glance out through a gap to see how much of a crowd had gathered. They were slow days, back then, and news that a show was about to start took a while to get around. Still, he would always choose the largest open space he could find and wait until dark, leaving his hide-away only to prevent the early-arrivals from getting too bored, or bum a fag. I guess he was an optimist.
My brother had come running in from the fields just before sunset to tell us that The Liar was in town, and my Da pressed a few coins into our hands and bundled us off to see him as fast as he could. There wasn’t much available by way of birthday presents for a nine-year-old girl in a community surviving off cows. This, he thought, would have to do.
He wasn’t far off.
I can’t remember what they used to call him in those days – something senselessly enigmatic, I imagine, like Balthazar or The Great Merovingian. Nowadays he goes by Peter the Salt. To me, he’ll always be The Liar. I think he likes it, but he’d never dare use it on any fliers. I like him, but not that much. And I’m still not convinced he’s right.
But my birthday. Oh, the night... You can only have a night like that when you’re nine years old. There were colours and smells that I’d grown up with every day – mostly brown and mostly cow-shit – but as my brother pulled me through the crowds to get a spot right up in the front, I couldn’t help but feel that everyone had arrived just for me. They’d come with me to celebrate my birthday, and every towering knee in the back was a congratulations my little angel, enjoy yourself. Even in my depressingly grubby day-dress, I felt pretty. Try that on any girl in the double-digits and see how well it works out for you.
Some of the more enterprising villagers had taken the marketing opportunity to bring out bowls of whatever they’d been making for supper, or whatever slices remained of any pies, breads or biscuits they’d had the good fortune to have about the house when the trickster’s mule-wagon rolled passed their window. I’m not sure if my brother was more of a sneak-bastard than I give him credit for, or if he’d just spotted a slice of fallout from a collision of two of the more unobservant and clumsy vendors, but by the time The Liar peaked through his curtains for the last time, this little angel was snacking on a heavy chunk of still-warm sweetbread at the centre of a world dedicated to her nine long years. She was a happy little thing.
Now, I’m not sure if it was just who I was at the time, or if it was the event, objective in itself, but something stirred in me that night. I’d liken it to your first kiss, but that’s usually sloppy and uninspiring, no matter how much you try romanticize it. I guess it was a bit of both, really – a childhood wonderment that coloured rosy an image already spectacular, like perfume around a beautiful neckline.
He started out by flinging the curtains back and holding still, arms aloft, hood down. He must have lit a dozen lamps around the corners of his tent, because light spilled out behind him, turning this simple robed figure into a flickering orange-black mystery. There were a collection of ooh’s and a few motley gasps, followed by nervous giggles. It was dramatic, for a nine-year-old and a crowd of dairy farmers.
He held the pose for a few moments, to let the scene sink in. The stillness of the night. The imposing stance. The intriguingly curled fingers. The cages behind him, where bats stretched and flapped in their upside-down confusion. Bats. You could feel the crowd shudder with the same thought. Who keeps bats? No one normal, that’s who. No one who doesn’t dabble in the eldritch and the occult. No one of a Godly bearing. Now shush, let’s see if he does something interesting before he gets carried off to Hell on the fires of his own dark sorcery...
“There are forces in this world that many do not understand.”
His voice was like a dark corridor.
“There are aspects to our being that are untapped by the masses – infinite wells of wasted potential.”
A long, dark corridor that drew you in and filled itself with monsters that you put there.
“You are capable of much. But you are fearful.” He lowered his arms slowly. “I am not.”
Admittedly, the corridor was a hack, but for five pennies on the village green, it was a hack that we could live with, especially when he flicked his wrists up again.
Because that’s when the hack made the world explode.

The thing about belief is that it can’t be proved. No, sorry, it can’t be subject to proof. If you believe in something, you believe despite the lack of evidence. Irrationally. Illogically. Proof doesn’t enter into the question at all. In fact, proof is a notion so aberrant to the idea of belief that the presence of one – almost by definition – excludes the other. You can’t prove something you believe, and you sure as Hell can’t believe in something you can prove.
At the time, I believed in magic.
Who wouldn’t, as we watched The Liar spark flames from his fingers and hurl great plumes of fire into the crisp summer night? He was a man who could reach into a bowl of embers and hold the heat in his hand, a single tongue dancing in his palm. He was a man who could swallow this tiny flickering and belch out a streaming conflagration. He was a wizard. That was obvious.
And this is how he entertained us, sparks over the heads of a mess of herders and tillers. He wove lights through the air almost as well as he wove his stories. Tales were punctuated with flares, counterpointed with crackling lights. Ambience swirled from his robes in thick, choking clouds. Distant lands with mighty princes and terrible monsters. Well-proportioned women. Wealth and adventure.
His words would flash through the sky as he spoke, and after they’d faded their after-image would burn in our minds. Our souls craved a taste of this life – this existence written in fire and starlight. I looked up from the magic for a moment and I could see the bright hunger in our eyes: the young smith’s behind us; my brother’s; mine. The hack was right. There were forces in the world that we didn’t understand – couldn’t understand. So blinded were we by the routine of daily living that we hadn’t even the vaguest notion of anything outside of it. The magic had faded into the background, behind the morning milking, mucking out the dairy, setting the day’s grazing, repairing fences, fixing lunch, scrubbing floors, mending socks, the afternoon milking, mucking out the dairy again, rousing the filth from yesterday’s clothes, bartering what you could for a more interesting dinner, making a less interesting dinner, clearing away, washing up, tidying, fixing, making, working, worrying, trying and collapsing at the end of a thousand chores that would be reincarnated yet again before the dawn broke.
We fought for breath, out there. But here, amid the flames, we were breathless. The chores weren’t the only world, but one of many, and it was our choice as to where we would live.
                The awe and admiration was palpable. I could feel it when he’d finished his act and began collecting what coins the audience could spare – each one vanishing into nothingness almost as soon as it was pressed into his palm. I watched as the mass of legs thinned and each pair walked away in slow wonder. When it came to us, my brother made to offer both of our coins, but I gripped mine tightly, determined not to give up my ticket to a personal meeting. The Liar crouched down and gave me a warm smile, extending his fists towards me and resting them on his knees. I could see the places where his magic had faltered and errant flames had scorched and blistered his hands, causing hair to grow in patches, if at all. He opened his left and waited for me to lay the coin reverentially on his palm. Then he smiled, opened his right and snapped a finger.
A tiny flame sprang to life and danced in the centre of his palm, solely for me. My elemental birthday present. My brother laughed and squeezed my shoulder. He asked me if I liked that, my personal encore. I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t say anything about the small contraption I saw strapped to The Liar’s wrist, tucked away under his sleeve. I didn’t say anything about the thin tubing I saw snaking up from it to just below his palm. And I didn’t say anything about the tiny flame that it was belching forth into the centre of The Liar’s palm, solely for me.
I thought about it a lot, though.

I saw The Liar nearly every year after that as he meandered through the villages. I never mentioned anything about what I’d seen, but I always watched him, closer and closer. I would be there when he arrived, when he unpacked, when he had thrown together his loose-hanging curtains, full of holes. And the more I watched, the more I understood.
There was a jar of water he had, for instance, housing a lump of soft whiteness. He would break away small pieces from it and place them worshipfully on a carved clay tablet in front of the crowd. Then he would wave his hands and mumble something incoherent and – just as the last of the moisture drained away into the grooves in the clay – the small white slivers would flicker, flare, and burst into flame. I never listened to his words, but I watched his eyes, and every time The Liar performed this bit of magic he seemed very interested in how quickly the water disappeared. He needed to know when to lift his hands in a flourish, after all. I commended his reflexes.
They were all tricks – that much was clear. On the rare occasions that the audience seemed to be drifting, he would reach for a pinch of fine granules that rested in the small pouch on his belt and fling it into the nearest body of water. A swarm of fey bonfires would blossom across the surface – two elements having borne a third, he would say. I don’t think they needed much convincing, considering how quickly the pouch was shoved into a rubber sack when the summer rains started.
Then there was the year the carpenter’s son didn’t have enough money for a ticket. He bartered with The Liar, offering a new set of simple wooden cages to replace the filthy, muck-ridden ones that currently housed the wizard’s bats. A good deal, and The Liar took it, but he wouldn’t let the boy take the old cages away for firewood. He was adamant about keeping them – emphatic, even. Who was a carpenter’s son to argue with a mystic?
I saw him after the show, scraping the muck from the old cages into a barrel of water. Not a single drop of bat-shit went to waste, and the next morning we found the old cages discarded by the roadside.

When I was fifteen a new family moved into the area. They weren’t wealthy and had to rent a small room from one of the older matrons who, sadly, didn’t need so much space after the previous winter. The father found some surplus work in the fields and the mother managed a decent enough job at fixing old clothes that they stuck around for a while, but we could tell it wouldn’t last. Unless they found something more solid, they would be gone by the spring.
But they weren’t. They stayed. For two years, through the harshest summer and long after all the village dresses had been stitched up new, they paid their way. They ate. They stayed. Even despite their son.
The lazy little shit never joined the other men in the fields, preferring to watch from under his hat-brim. Or sleep, we never could tell. He never sweated like the rest of us, and every so often we would catch sight of him taking the widow’s horse for an unsolicited ride to the neighbouring villages. He would bring it back only well into the night, and never along the same road he went out on – sometimes he came in straight across the fields.
I’m surprised it took so long for the rest of the village to drive him out, on reflection. I guess the robberies had become more brazen. A community can understand the universal harshness of living and so lending a hand where needed is part of the job description. Presumably it was a form of charity that they let him get away with it for so long, hoping to smooth the way for a struggling family, waiting for their son to wake up to his responsibilities. But he didn’t, and so a few of the more imposing cowherds decided to do it for him. They had sticks.
The point is, everyone has to make a living. It’s unfortunate, however, that some of the niches available are a little less than honourable. But all said, at least the highwayman is true to his profession – when he steals from you, he’s open about the fact. He may well be a bastard, but at least he’s an honest bastard.
The Liar wasn’t.
He was a hack. A trickster. He was a con-man and a charlatan. He toyed with people’s emotions, gorging them on falsehoods until they were bursting with a wonder that was grounded on emptiness. Then he charged them for it. He was a Liar, deserving of the capital letter.
And still the villagers lapped it up. In all the years he had been presenting these faithless fire-works, I seemed to have been the only observable cynic – the only one who knew him for what he was. The rest treated him as I once had; with wide eyes and an almost sycophantic respect that put his life and abilities at a higher level than their own. He was worse than the thieving bastard because his victims came to him willingly to be robbed. He was worshiped wherever he went, because nobody knew any better.
A few nights after the cowherds had put away their sticks and massaged some life back into their knuckles, The Liar came rolling through the village again. An air of vindication still hung about the place. I guess I decided to breathe deeply.

He looked me in the eyes, cool and calm. The evening’s audience had trickled back to their beds to dream of dragons and kings that had never existed.
I had expected denial, at least. Maybe rage or supplication. Threats, even – he had the equipment to carry them out, after all. Something about him told me that he’d been through those routes before, however, and that each one had thrashed its way to where we were now. He was simply hurrying the process along.
“What do you mean, ‘and’?” I seethed. “You’ve lied! Cheated!”
“Yes. I have. What is your point?”
“You’ve stolen from us. All of us. For years!”
“I have stolen nothing.”
He was talking softly – carefully – maybe from practice, maybe from caution.
“They gave you money and you gave them lies!”
“I gave them what they wanted. Just not in the way they were expecting it.”
“That’s stealing!”
“That’s marketing.”
I threw my hands up in exasperation.
“Everyone believes you’re a wizard! They’ve given you money. They’ve given you clothing. They’ve fed you and housed you and respected you for what they think to be knowledge and abilities that they can’t have. You arrive only once a year, but they speak about you far more than that!” At this the Liar raised an eyebrow. “When the children can’t sleep for fear of monsters,” I continued, “they’re told about how many you’ve slain, and how foolish any creature would have to be to attack a village on a wizard’s path...”
I stopped. The night was cool and a breeze turned it into an uncomfortable chill, but there was a furnace blazing away inside me. My teeth had gritted so tightly, my words had to be spat out.
 “When my brother left us,” I pushed, “he said it was to explore the world that you’d opened his eyes to. He said he wanted to find a princess.”
The Liar sat quietly for a long while. Maybe he was letting me cool off. It wouldn’t work.
“They respect me for a reason,” he began eventually. “The details might not be correct, but the gist remains valid.”
I exploded.
“They think you’re in possession of a power they don’t understand!”
“I am.”
“You’re not!”
“You can extract potassium nitrate and work it into a sufficient propellant, then? You can filter guano?”
“They think it’s magic!”
“To them, it is.”
He sighed and rubbed his nose absent-mindedly.
“If I were a wizard, I assume I’d know what I was doing – how it worked, the ins and outs. I’d be able to draw diagrams with figures explaining the processes involved. Most importantly, though, I’d be able to teach others.” He narrowed his eyes and went on. “But if I did that, little girl, the mystery would be gone, and with it the mysticism.”
He flicked his wrist and a single flame flickered to life on his palm.
“Housing, fuel, tubing, spark,” he said. “How is that any different from what your mother does? Wheat and water into bread? Without explanation, everything is magic; with it, nothing is.”
He flicked his wrist again and the flame snuffed out.
“But they believe you to be more than you are!”
“Be careful what you say, girl,” he threatened, coolly. “They believe me to be more than they are, which is true, in part. I am travelled, I am learned. I am able to put an exploding rainbow in a cardboard tube, using a variety of different kinds of sand. And I am able to make people give me money for the experience of watching it. These are things they cannot do. That I might profess to be more than I am is irrelevant.”
“Bullshit,” I scoffed. “People need to know what they’re buying, and you’re intentionally not telling them.”
He lowered his head and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Tell me about your brother, girl”
“Where is he now?”
“He sent a letter over the summer, from the city.”
“And is he happy?”
“He’s apprenticed to a mason.”
“Solid work. Anything else?”
“The mason has a daughter.”
The Liar smiled, head still down.
“And you say I caused that. Laying aside the fact that his choices are his and his alone, was I wrong? Did I do him a disservice?”
“It’s based on lies!”
“So? He walked away fed on falsehoods of a world of adventure. He didn’t find the kind I spoke of, but clearly he found something else. This is a world of adventure.” He waved his hand towards a nearby cow. “Especially outside of this place.”
His eyes were honest and his voice was soft. There was no hack anymore; just a man and his philosophy.
“Sometimes a lie is better than the truth, little girl. It can inspire us.”
“And if I expose you?”
“Then that inspiration will crumble. Everyone will react like you have – it’s natural. They will feel betrayed and they will hate me. And all the dreams they have built on my stories will die. The world will become a darker place, founded on lies and deceit. The only truth will be the monotony of the everyday. Is that what you would prefer?”
I said nothing.
“I have never exploited anyone. I have taken what I needed to survive and given what entertainment and faith I felt was required in return. I am dishonest, and I am dishonest about my dishonesty. But honesty is overrated.”
He stood up. Our discussion was over.
“Fairness, however, is not. And that is what I am.”

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