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Mesmer and the Flying Boy

By the expression Animal Magnetism I mean one of the universal operations of Nature, the action of which, when directed on our nerves, offers a universal means of curing and preserving man. – Franz Anton Mesmer, 1871

Mesmer’s boy, Anton, took his first wavering flight in his attic nursery on a warm day in May.

The previous week, Mesmer had been researching specialty schools, wondering if Anton would do better under professional care, perhaps at Braidwood’s Institute in London, or in Paris under Epee.

When he had first learned of his son’s condition, Mesmer vowed to give Anton as comfortable a life as possible. This meant that Anton needed shelter from a world that could often be cruel, so Mesmer renovated their attic into a palatial dwelling fit for a prince. Three rooms to store the boy’s many books and toys, and a large balcony where little Anton could sit and watch the birds, even if he could not hear them.

On the day of his flight, Anton was playing with a doll, his back to the doorway. Mesmer entered the attic, pausing for a moment to watch his son. He hadn’t yet decided what he would say to the boy regarding his education and a flutter crossed his heart, equal parts nerves and sadness. He took heavy steps so that the vibrations would register through the floor. Anton paused, put his palm to the wood beneath him, and turned with a grin.

The boy stood, discarding the doll, and ran to embrace his father. Mesmer held him tight, pressing his face to the boy’s shaggy hair, then pulled away, slipping his hand into his pocket. Anton grinned again, anticipating chocolates or a new toy. The boy held out his hand, palm up. Mesmer raised an eyebrow and, with a flourish, pulled his closed fist from his pocket.

He opened it slowly, relishing the anticipation reflected on his son’s face. Two small metal bars sat in his upturned palm.

Anton cocked his head. A momentary flash of disappointment was replaced with the pure curiosity that defined the boy’s character.

Mesmer held the metal bars in both hands and mimicked pulling them apart, then held them out for Anton, gesturing for him to try.

Anton took the bars and tugged, looking up in surprise when he was unable to separate them. He signed a question.

Mesmer took the magnets, twisted them until they separated, then slowly drew them closer until they snapped back together. He turned them over to reverse their poles and, trying to suppress his smile, held them out for Anton.

Anton pushed and turned the bars, his eyes wide. He opened his mouth wide and gave a surprised cry. One of the magnets slipped from his grip and clattered to the floor, breaking the silence that had crept over them in the room.

The two of them played until evening began to set.

Later, after checking and re-checking the latches on the attic’s windows and balcony doors, Mesmer retired to his study.

Just as he had begun to read there was a thump from the attic. Not a loud thump, but he wondered what his son was up to, so he walked back upstairs and opened the door.

Anton was poised in the middle of his playroom, hovering in mid-air a foot above the wooden floor. His arms were outstretched at his sides, fists clenched, his face lit with unimaginable joy.

* * *

Emmalina Mayr sat poised in the velvet-covered chair. She wore a fashionable dress of green and maroon brocade, with a white wig on her head. Her brother, acting as her chaperone, stood by the window, watching Mesmer with his arms crossed.

Mesmer tried not to look at the brother’s stern expression, keeping eye contact with Emmalina instead.

“I understand that this may seem strange to you, Miss Mayr,” Mesmer said, “but try to relax your muscles and clear your mind. I have prepared this serum to aid in your circulation.”

He took a small vial from the silver tray beside him and handed it to her.

Emmalina took it and, after a moment’s hesitation, quaffed it with a grimace.

“It tastes of metal,” she said, scraping her tongue against her top teeth.

“As it should,” Mesmer replied. He had spent much of the previous night experimenting with various dosages. “The source of your pain lies in your magnetic flow. The iron in the serum will help resolve any obstructions.”

He took two magnetic bars, not unlike the ones he had given his son, from a tray beside him and held them out to Emmalina who looked at them in confusion.

“Please, take these and hold one in each of your hands.” She did so. Mesmer glanced up at her brother who, despite his obvious skepticism, was now craning his neck to watch.

Sudden inspiration flashed through Mesmer’s mind. “Now, if you would, please stand and face west. To your left, as it were.”

She glanced once at her brother, but he only frowned. So, she turned to face the western wall.

“Close your eyes,” Mesmer said. He held his breath and saw the image of little Anton in his mind, floating above his playroom floor.

After a few moments Emmalina opened her eyes in surprise. She whirled to Mesmer, to her brother, and back. “The pain! It is gone!”

Mesmer smiled and took a deep breath.

“What miracle is this?” She cried. “For years it has ailed me! How did you do such a thing?”

“I call it...magnétisme animal. Please accept the magnets as my gift to you, and do not hesitate to call on me if there are any changes in your condition.”

* * *

Anton left the balcony for the first time while Mesmer was at his desk, working on his latest treatise. A shadow passed over his papers, too big for a bird, too quick and small for a cloud.

It took him a moment, but when he realized what he had seen, he ran from the room and into the yard, his dressing gown flapping behind him.

Anton floated above a copse of lindens, his gaze following a bird’s flight. He twisted in the air and saw his father. Grinning, he soared to a stop a few feet in front of him.

Mesmer struggled to keep the fear and anger from his face. He had long ago resolved to never show his son any signs of displeasure, but his emotions betrayed him.

Anton’s face changed from glee to worry. He twisted his body vertically but remained floating. This is wrong? You are angry? he signed.

Mesmer hesitated. Could he allow this? Should he? Was it dangerous? He did not know. But if he told his son no, the magic would leave and the boy would have nothing but his vast, silent rooms.

Mesmer shook his head. It is fine. You are doing well. But please, be careful. And wear your coat.

Anton grinned and before Mesmer could sign anything else, the boy had soared up and away toward his rooms.

Mesmer returned to his study, occasionally looking up to see his son pass the window with a wave.

* * *

Maria Paradis fidgeted in her chair, her hands smoothing the folds of her petticoat. Her parents sat on opposite sides. Her mother reached across to still the girl’s hands.

“And there was no particular event, or injury perhaps, that led to your daughter’s blindness?” Mesmer asked, rubbing his chin.

Maria’s father shook his head. “No. It was a gradual process over several years.”

Mesmer smiled and nodded. “I know how this sounds, but this is good. Many of my patients have been cured of similar conditions once their restrictions are cleared and the flow of universal fluid is restored.”

Mesmer had drawn the curtains in the sitting room and set the oil-lamps low. He pushed his chair closer to Maria and sat at its edge so that his knees touched the girl’s. If this made the parents uncomfortable, they gave no sign. Perhaps they had heard the strange accounts of his other treatments.

“I am going to take your hands now, Maria. Please be still and try to clear your mind. The flow of the universal fluid within you has been obstructed. Through my own magnétisme animal, I will attempt to clear these obstructions and restore the circulation.”

“Forgive me, Doctor, but we had heard about a serum? Is it only prescribed in certain cases?” the mother asked.

“And the magnets, as well?” the father added.

“Those are no longer necessary, Mister and Missus Paradis,” Mesmer replied. Then, to Maria: “You will feel some pressure in various parts of your body as I attempt to discover the blockages. Please do not be alarmed. It will not hurt in the slightest. Try instead to envision the flow within you, circulating and balancing.”

He began with her fingers, pressing them between his own. He moved up her arms, stopping at her elbows, her biceps, her shoulders, her neck, and finally, gently, he pressed his thumbs to her closed eyelids and held them.

Maria began to tremble. Her parents looked at each other, then at Mesmer, but remained silent.

Maria’s trembling grew worse; she began to shake, then convulse. Mesmer turned his thoughts to Anton, pictured him floating above the Lindens. Maria’s father stood and began to speak. “Doctor…”

Mesmer removed his thumbs. “Open your eyes, Maria.”

She did.

“What color is my coat?” he asked.

She gasped. “Lilac!” she cried, then clapped her hands over her mouth and burst into sobs.

Mesmer smiled.

* * *

Mesmer stood in his salon and surveyed the gathering. There were over forty people in attendance. A good turnout. One of his best.

The lamps had been dimmed and covered with shades of various colors - purple, dark green, a warm orange. A young man played a glass armonica in the corner and its drone, combined with the myriad of lights, lent the gathering a dream-like air. A sort of subdued reverie.

The newly designed baquet was in the center of the room – a large, ornately carved tank fashioned of oak with lengths of intricately braided rope crossing and re-crossing the polished lid. The water inside was laced with magnetized iron filings. It was Mesmer’s largest yet, ringed by eighteen soft-cushioned chairs.

Each of the seats was occupied by men and women who sat in various poses, depending on the sort of cure they sought. Some held the iron bars that protruded from the baquet at various intervals or wrapped the lengths of rope around their limbs. Others simply placed their hands on the edge of the vessel. One young woman had gone so far as to bend over it completely with her arms outstretched and her cheek pressed to the lid.

Charles d’Eslon approached Mesmer from the refreshment table. His relaxed smile suggested he had been enjoying Mesmer’s hospitality for a number of hours.

“Ahhhh, Doctor Mesmer, there you are,” the man slurred. His lapel was spotted with wine dribbles and crumbs. “Count d’Artois sends his regards.”

Mesmer nodded his thanks. “Thank you, Charles. I trust the Count is well?”

“Exceedingly so. He speaks very highly of you. In fact, the rumor is that the good Countess is already expecting their third child. Perhaps I should sit at the baquet myself?” D’Eslon did his best to wink, but only managed to squint and blink.

“If you so desire, Charles.”

D’Eslon laughed. “Perhaps,” he slurred, “perhaps I will. I must confess that if I had come upon such a scene as this without the Count’s recommendation, I am not sure what I would have thought. Strange does not begin to describe it.”

Mesmer gave a tight smile. “I understand your perception, but I assure you, everything you see here is specifically designed to aid in the treatment.”

D’Eslon raised a placating hand. “Oh, I am sure it is, Doctor. Please take no offense. Your work would not attract such high-minded people if it were not effective. People of such wealth and status! I am glad to see you doing so well for yourself.”

Before d’Eslon could pry any further into that particular subject, Mesmer saw a number of heads around the baquet raise and look his way. He made his excuses and left d’Eslon to refresh his glass.

The climax was approaching and his guests watched him in anticipation. He stepped to the center of the room and straightened his coat, brushing a bit of lint from the purple velvet. Then he raised his right hand.

A servant appeared at his side holding a silver tray, upon which sat two magnetic bars, each a foot and a half in length. Mesmer took them and the servant stepped away.

He held one in each hand and stepped to the baquet. The trembling had already begun in a few of the seated patients. Mesmer approached the first of them.

“Please, my friends, if you would, close your eyes and let the magnétisme do its work.”

He visited each of them in turn, sliding the rods down their arms, along the sides of their necks and their backs. One by one, his patients’ trembling turned to gasps, to convulsions, to small cries of relief. The sprawled woman let out a groan and a shudder, which turned to a shriek bordering on the obscene.

Mesmer circled the baquet twice, repeating his wand-work as needed until the whole of the room was filled with screams and groans, ecstatic utterances in languages both foreign and invented.

When the cacophony finally subsided and the room grew quiet once more, the armonica started up, playing a lively tune. The guests stood and began chattering with each other, smiling and shaking their heads.

“Esteemed guests, please note that two rooms have been set for you down the hall with various accoutrements to further aid the flow of the universal fluid. If you wish to schedule additional treatments or make referrals, please speak to either myself or one of my assistants. Otherwise, enjoy the rest of your evening.”

He gave a bow and the room erupted in applause. Guests mingled or stepped down the hallway and into one of the padded rooms where the women could loosen their corsets and the men could loosen their ties.

Mesmer did his rounds, making sure to personally greet and thank each and every individual. Nearly all of them promised him repeat visits or spoke to him of friends and family members who would surely hear of his incredible talents. He accepted it all graciously and humbly.

He did not think of his son until long after the house was cleared and all the carriages had clattered away.

* * *

Anton’s rooms were dark and cold. His bed was still made and empty. The doors to the balcony were wide open and the drapes fluttered in the breeze.

Mesmer stepped outside and saw Anton’s shoes strewn haphazardly on the balcony floor. Something about the sight unnerved him and he walked quickly downstairs and out into the yard, pausing only to put on his coat.

He searched the gardens. He searched around the house and the fountains. The moon was high in the sky but had begun its descent.

His heart began to pound. He called out despite himself and clapped his hands. He took great pounding steps across the lawns and towards the trees at the edge of the property.

He finally found Anton, lying in the moon-shadow, in a crumpled heap at the base of a linden.

* * *

He sat one morning beside Anton, tightening the rail screws that lined the boy’s turning-bed. Anton twisted in his sleep, creaking the brass braces. Mesmer put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

Anton opened his eyes and looked at his father, blinking away the sleep. His skin was chalky and drawn.

I am sorry if I woke you, Mesmer signed. How do you feel?

Anton made a weak smile, the only answer he could give with his hands bound to his sides.

I need to check your bandages, Mesmer continued. Anton gave a slight nod.

Mesmer pulled back the blanket and the sheet and twisted a small crank, turning the bed until the boy faced the wall. Mesmer pushed aside the pads and checked the wool that wrapped the boy’s torso. There were no stains, no fluid leakage.

The surgeon had promised clean work and was true to his word. It was the third of the boy’s operations and, based on needle and pressure tests, Anton seemed to be regaining some feeling in his lower extremities. There was hope, however slim, that he might walk with crutches one day.

Mesmer forced himself to remain optimistic.

He turned the crank until Anton lay on his back once more, then slid the stop in place so the bed wouldn’t slip or rattle.

He sat for a few minutes, staring into the mirror that had been mounted on the wall to allow Anton to see out the windows.

He considered opening the balcony doors to let in a breeze but thought better of it. They hadn’t been opened in close to a year and he still wasn’t sure how Anton would feel about it. When he could ask him, he would.

Instead, he reached into his coat and pulled out Anton’s two magnets and rubbed his thumb over them. He sat for a few minutes, twisting them apart and reconnecting them, then turning them over and feeling the pressure as he moved them back and forth.

He had offered to use them on the boy one day, but Anton had shaken his head until his neck brace had rattled. After that, Mesmer held them in his lap, out of sight.

Mesmer thought of the letters that had been arriving almost weekly. All of his disciples had been visited by Count d’Artois’ solicitors over the previous months. Doctors had complained to d’Artois about their decline in business and the Count had begun investigating Mesmer’s practices and the claims of healings.

Because of his standing, Mesmer had yet to receive such a visit, but a letter had come that morning, closed with the royal seal.

It was a summons. Louis XVI, God save him, had gathered a number of commissioners from both the Faculty of Medicine and the Royal Academy of Sciences. The list of men was nearly as intimidating as their combined credentials. Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier were listed at the top.

His presence was requested at Count d’Artois’ estate on March 15th. Two weeks away. Mesmer fully expected to see d’Eslon there as well, possibly even sober.

They meant to discredit him, or at least his practices. In reality, they already had. The Franklin Commission, as it was now being called, was merely a formality.

The details had been kept from him, but there would no doubt be a public test. Some demonstration of his abilities.

Abilities he feared he no longer possessed. Maybe never had possessed. Whatever force or power had flowed into his life had bled away.

The baquet sat rusting in a forgotten tool shed.

But perhaps he could prove them wrong. Perhaps his magnétisme had not left him completely.

Perhaps there was still magic flowing through him.

* * *

The Count’s estate was sprawling and vast, his gardens lush and green, complete with granite fountains that poured and spat clean water from a hundred different spouts. Even the trees along the road were manicured, trimmed and shaped into one long winding archway that beckoned him onward.

Mesmer barely noticed. His thoughts were on his magnets. He had brought a case filled with dozens of bars, discs, and rods, each one tuned and crafted to fulfill a specific purpose, a specific cure.

The carriage pulled to a stop in front of the towering mansion. He was led down hallways and through rooms and finally to the Count’s salon where he was introduced to the commission. A long row of stern and serious men, all gazing at him with piercing eyes. Franklin sat at their center.

Instructions were given. Mesmer barely heard them, just nodded his assent.

A door opened at the back of the salon and a girl was brought forward and led across the cavernous room to a chair that had been set out for her. Another chair was brought and set down across from her.

Mesmer slowly crossed the room. A servant beckoned him to sit. He did.

“Do you know this girl?” someone asked. Mesmer wasn’t sure. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t place her.

Not until she opened her milky eyes did he realize it was Maria Paradis. Blind Maria. Once a child, now a flowering woman.

“Doctor, do you recall treating Miss Paradis?” another man asked. Franklin perhaps. Mesmer never looked up.

“I do,” he replied, trying to keep his voice firm. Confident.

“Can you describe for the record how you came to know Miss Paradis, and how you ultimately treated her?”

Mesmer described it all. How he had harnessed and channeled the universal fluid through his body into hers. Using his magnétisme. Curing her blindness. He told them how her parents had witnessed the miracle themselves.

Where were her parents? What had happened? When had her blindness returned?

“Will you please demonstrate the treatment for us? Here in this room, before this esteemed council?”

Mesmer took a deep breath. He cleared his throat. “Yes.”

He bent to open his case but stopped. Nothing in there would help him. He patted his coat pockets, reaching inside each of them, fumbling at the buttons, opening it, searching the inside pockets, his vest pockets, until finally he found them.

He twisted them apart, trying to keep his hands steady. He pulled his chair closer to Maria until their knees were touching.

He opened his mouth to speak, to explain the treatment, to Maria or to the gathered men, but the words didn’t come so he closed his mouth.

Instead, he thought of Anton, the glow of sunlight on the boy’s face as he soared, his smile as he passed the study window, his shadow crossing the pages as he wrote.

Mesmer lifted his arms, a magnet in each hand, and reached out.

* * *

Mesmer stood in the attic doorway, holding the last pages of the commission’s report.

…imagination is the true cause of the effects attributed to…

He let the pages slip from his fingers. The empty room stood before him, the balcony doors closed, their lock rusted shut. Decades of dust coated the floor and piled into the corners.

Years of hope, dreams of a different life, dreams of something real.

Would Anton return? Would he be able to conjure him again, his little feet pattering on the floor, the boy’s shadow crossing the window?

Mesmer stepped into the attic, closing the door behind him. He sat on the floor, facing west, and waited.

Pieter Van Tatenhove lives in Northern California with his wife and daughters. His passion is speculative fiction but he has written across many genres. When he isn't writing you can find him playing banjo, printmaking, or cooking.

Photo credit: Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney AI


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