Last week, I got a Houdini action figure for my birthday. He came complete with handcuffs, leg irons, rope, a straightjacket, and a chair to which to bind him. I’ve been having entirely too much fun tying him up in various poses on my desk.
Escapology fascinates me to no end – in fact, a character in the book I’m working on now is a young aspiring magician and escape artist. Add the water element, and you’ve got something that’s almost poetry. Think about it: bound, chained, locked, submerged, time running out, your heart pounding in your ears, the world blurred and muffled, and still finding a way to focus your mind, to escape – to rise to the surface and be reborn. To perform the impossible. Doesn’t everyone, at some point in their life, on some level, long for escape? Doesn’t the longing get more keen as the situation seems more impossible?
Houdini had a trick called The Water Torture Chamber. The chamber was a rectangular box of mahogany, glass and steel, about five feet high and two and half feet wide. He’d be shackled to the top of chamber by the ankles and lowered down headfirst into the water-filled tank. The top of the box was then locked on. The audience would see Houdini thrashing in the water behind the glass. Then a curtain was lowered, and somehow, impossibly, he’d escape.
When I was a kid, I thought Houdini was pretty cool, but the guy I really wanted to be was Aquaman. Hands down, the coolest superhero. He could breathe underwater. He could communicate telepathically with dolphins and flying fish, for god’s sake.
I practiced holding my breath in the bathtub while I pushed my little plastic sharks and dolphins around in the bottom of the tub, my eyes wide open and stinging from bubble bath.
I never got very good at holding my breath. (Houdini, I’ve read, could hold his breath an astonishing three minutes.) And I never did develop the gills I always secretly prayed for. I was only a mediocre swimmer. The lobsters in the tank at the supermarket didn’t appear to hear my telepathic messages to rise up and rebel. And though I tried escaping from thumbcuffs and rope I had my brother tie me up with, I never could get out. I just ended up with chafed thumbs and rope burns. I was not a superhero or a master of escape, just a too-tall girl who was destined to spend most of her childhood feeling out of her element and dreaming of escape, fantasizing about finding some other world that might just feel more like home.
The little Houdini on my desk is there to remind me that the impossible is always possible – if you know a few tricks, if you can calm yourself and focus. No matter what predicament I am in, I can always find a way out. If Houdini could get out of the Water Torture Chamber, I can find a way to get the next chapter written, answer all my email, take Zella to the playground, cook dinner, and still make it to the bookstore in time for the next reading.