Houdini’s Assistant

(This is a Short from last week I’m re-posting. I changed a few things which hopefully improved it. Btw: Joyce, thanks for the constructive criticism. Here’s a link to the old one http://wp.me/pCj23-eh)

Handcuffs slipped off Harry Houdini’s wrists like elastic bracelets. He was a famous magician and escape artist in the early 20th century. He was my hero when I was a boy.

His most famous trick was the Chinese Water Torture Cell. At his shows, Houdini would reveal the giant, water-filled chamber. If I close my eyes, I can see him performing the trick in front of an audience.

Houdini walks to the center of the stage, his eyes bright. The audience leans forward in their seats — shards of steel compelled by a strong magnet.

“Behind me,” Houdini gestures at the massive tank, “is the Chinese Water Torture Cell. My assistants will fill the tank with water, secure my feet in stocks, then lower me upside down into the tank … and I will attempt to escape before I run out of air.”

His assistants lock him into stocks, and then he is lowered upside down into the tank. The audience sees a last glimpse of Houdini through the glass front before a red-clad assistant whisks the curtain across the tank.

The average healthy human can hold their breath for 1-2 minutes. But it takes tremendous discipline to control your breathing when you’re locked inside a water-coffin. Other escape artists since have attempted similar tricks and passed out and almost died.

One of Houdini’s men stands offstage with an ax gripped in his hands, ready to rush out and shatter the glass. The Water Torture Cell is designed so the glass front can be smashed to save Houdini’s life. Even gods sometimes fail.

A minute drips away like droplets from a water faucet. The audience and I watch the curtain and strain our ears to hear. Now it’s two minutes since Houdini disappeared.

Suddenly, Houdini steps out of the curtain, dripping and victorious. He beams at the audience — his smile is not relief but rather joy at pleasing his audience.

The audience rises to its feet, cheering and clapping.

I imagine being Houdini’s assistant. What would it be like to stand close to that great man? He was small, five feet tall and five inches. This seems strange because I have trouble imagining him being shorter than me.

I would help him get into the stocks. The veteran showman sees the apprehension on my face and winks at me.

“I hope the water is warm,” he jokes.

After the show, I ask, “How do you get into the Water Torture Cell knowing you might not make it out alive?”

Houdini smiles slowly.

“None of us lives forever, Jonathan,” he would say. “I will die the same way I live — performing magic.”

And he did.

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  1. “Suddenly, Houdini steps out of the curtain, dripping and victorious. He beams at the audience — his smile is not relief but rather joy at pleasing his audience.”

    sorry to be picky – i feel like more can be done with this line apart from starting it with ‘suddenly’. it has the potential to be so much more dramatic. but then again, i’m not the writer, so maybe we’re thinking of achieving different things here. 🙂

    you being his assistant is a nice touch.

    ps: WHY are the randomest things in the world coined ‘chinese’ all the time when it’s completely irrelevant to anything chinese?!

    • I don’t know why the randomest things are called “Chinese.” It’s especially weird because he invented the Water Torture Cell, and he wasn’t Chinese. He was Jewish.


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