Magic Realism

(October 29, 2008)
Comment on this story | View comments

The master turned toward the apprentice and patted the ground to his left. "Sit." His voice was oddly modulated, and the word ended with a sharp breath that broke its flow. The boy frowned, visibly preparing to complain about this perfunctory cue, but his knees buckled and he collapsed into a disjointed heap - directly on top of the indicated spot. The master looked away, hiding his grin and giving his companion a moment to sort out his limbs.

"You're here for the speech, are you?"

"I guess. They said that you're the only one who can teach me to-"

"-of course they said that. They're not even trying anymore." The old man snickered under his breath - and his beard - and dragged his fingers through the soil. Leaves fanned out around his palms as freshly-exposed earthworms bent and wriggled in the shape of half-familiar sigils; the boy tried to avoid staring, and failed.

"They say that magic doesn't work anymore; the rituals are broken, and the mystics are despairing. You're the only one whose voice brings the rain; this is the one spot in the whole bloody forest that isn't likely to catch on fire if someone accidentally rubs his feet against the ferns a little too energetically."

The master bowed his head. "And you're the only one who's bothered to seek an answer, rather than wailing at the sky as if a sufficiently heartrending plea could move the clouds to tears. I'll explain things to you, but it's not going to be as simple as all that - there is no series of words or gestures that will make everything look like it used to. So if you please, sit," he glanced up with a wink, "and listen, and think.

"If magic worked the way you expect, cleaving to age-old rules that anyone could memorize, it wouldn't be magic; it would be physics. Despite the general public's feeling about that discipline, it is something very different, with no room for the elegant improvisation that mages thrive on. No, my friend, the first thing you need to learn is that magic is the knife that cuts against the grain, and as the fabric shifts and bends, so does its angle of attack; it is liquid, self-editing, constantly changing, and influenced as much by the people who don't care about it as the people who do. It is by nature both deeply intuitive and incomprehensible – mystics must not understand exactly what their techniques are or why they should work, or they won't. They can feel their power when they reach for it, and with time they learn to control it - but its texture is slick, and it can never really be caught."

The old man lifted his arms, palms-down, and whispered an incomprehensible string of sounds under his breath. They weren't syllables so much as jagged fragments, morphemes spreading disjointed away from his lips to wrap around his wrists. A soft blue glow rose from his freckled skin, arcing between his fingertips and gradually dissipating into the darkness.

"If you can take it on faith that the ancients fueled their spells with the strength of volcanoes and the tides - and you should, because some of us have watched them do it; the air atop the mountains has barely changed in a thousand years, and you can breathe the past if your lungs aren't too delicate - then you probably wonder why it is no longer easy, or perhaps even possible, to draw magic that way. Forest Ins'areh was once a clean canvas just waiting for the right fingers, the right arrangement of pigments; now it is a pleasant backdrop, rather than a focal point. This is partly because it has already been touched and modified by dozens of wizards - the white space is all filled in - but that's not all.

"There may be gaps in our knowledge, but we've reduced the mystery of the tides to a series of neatly-labeled sine waves, and we understand enough about plate tectonics and chemistry to build papier mache volcanoes for our children's science fairs. Where do chimeristry and other fantastic studies fit into science when there are no blank spaces waiting for them? Cultural consciousness gathered up the lore of the natural world long ago, and wilful ignorance does not help; you cannot pretend that you've never heard anything about how weather works, so the thunder has lost its power."

The apprentice tilted his head to the side, frowning. "But what about the people who really don't know anything about science? The mystery is still there for them, isn't it?"

The master shook his head. "Good question, child, but no. That would be too straightforward.

"Yes, there are still individuals who live in places unexplored by science, but these methods are not available to them, either. Why? Because magic is a shared experience, and if meteorologists in eleven countries have debunked the possibility of rain being caused by the dancing of familiar spirits, then a shaman in a village still lit with hog-fat torches cannot grasp that source of power by calling his light-footed ancestors, regardless of his own beliefs.

"But there is no less magic now than there was before recorded history, before natural philosophy; it has just taken three steps to the left in order to remain incongruous. Humanity as a whole has agreed that nature is no longer magical; the mysterious and chaotic has become structured and rational. Listen carefully, because this next bit is the reason you've been sitting here pretending you care about my lecture; this is the meat of the meal. In response to that change, on a mystical level, the structured and rational has become mysterious and chaotic. As we describe the world into which we were born and force it to become more regimented, the world we have created has become steadily more flexible, moving in directions we did not foresee. Nothing related to this art is ever straightforward, but the essence is clear: the power is running parallel to our technology. Learn the right language, and you will see how it moves.

"You can command the world to change if you know how to pitch your voice just right, to throw rules to the wind and catch the exceptions that return to you. You can grasp the fundamental properties of the methods and objects that form us if you master their syntax. It won't work forever; no one type of incantation ever does. But it works for now, and once you've taken a long swim in one of magic's tributaries, it's easier to locate the source."

After a moment of silence, the old man began to repeat the series of sounds he had made earlier, drawing the dusky light back up from the ground and into his cupped hands. The apprentice's eyes widened as he recognized the pattern; this time around, he was able to catch the phrase's constructors and the whitespace around them. He nodded knowingly, leaned over, and traced a simple program into the dirt. Seeing this, the master grinned.

"I was hoping they'd taught you that in school. Do you understand how to begin looking, now?"

"Yes," replied the boy. He turned his face to the sky and began to sing, a soft and lilting melody that repeated itself every three syllables, every two words. The sky had been clear, a broad swath of carbon spread thin above the trees, but as his voice carried, clouds began to slide in from the horizon. They covered the space directly above the pair, fretting their way into position at the behest of his call:

("Hello, World. Hello, World...")