(This is one of my favorites. Done in writers’ group in June 1992 while listening to gamelan music)
Balinese music conjures up a bazaar — silk saris and brass teapots and huge masks carved out of wood and painted brilliant colors.
What if there was a street market that sold magical wares? Powders, potions and wands. Crystal balls and tarot decks. Cloaks of invisibility. Seven league boots. Magic animals that would talk to you, or transport you over an ocean or help you slip through the walls of a castle. Charms for finding hidden objects: I have a sense of something very precious hidden in a box with an inlaid cover, black and gold and red. The box is inside a chest carved with figures of demons and filled with blankets woven of wool from mountain goats. The chest is in a room in a turret up a winding staircase, but the entrance to the staircase is a secret panel next to the fireplace. To open the panel you need to know to press on the rose that’s second from the left in the carved swag of flowers. To get into the room with the fireplace you have to be known to the people of the ruling class, and you have to be important enough to be invited to a party in this room.
Or else you could be a servant. Servants come in to clean the room after the party is over, if you were dressed in drab nondescript clothing you might get left behind and no one would notice that instead of going back to the kitchen with the others you had pressed the second rose on the left and gone up the secret staircase to the tower room, found the carved chest, silenced the wailing demons with a word of power, plunged your hand deep under the blankets and brought out the inlaid box, opened it to find an enormous ruby set between a pair of gold wings and hung on a chain so you could put it around your neck. Because of course you are not a servant but the disinherited princess of another country, and you have come here disguised as a servant in order to recover your ancient power.
With the ruby around your neck you do not need a cloak of invisibility, you can walk back through the castle and only those who have good will toward you will be able to see you, and they will not be able to speak of you to your enemies. Or you could ascend to the topmost room of the tower. Here are secret books filled with knowledge, written in ancient and forgotten languages. The ruby gives you power to read the languages, and you choose the most important book, the one with a leather cover studded with jewels and a huge gold clasp holding it closed, and pages adorned with huge elaborate illuminated calligraphy — but after reading it for a while you realize that here is not the wisdom you are seeking. So you look around at all the books, large and small, some bound in leather, some tattered and torn. Which is the most important — there’s a sense of urgency now. I can use the ruby to call a bird, one of the huge condors from the mountains, and he will carry me back to my home. I can’t take all these books with me, but they represent the wisdom of the ages.
I realize that with the ruby I can call the animals and understand their language, I can tell friend from foe, I can travel safely through any city in the world — I can do something completely new! What do I want with the wisdom of the ages. I call the bird, and leave the tower.