magic

Just Doing His Job

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This post was originally published through Patreon on April 30, 2016.

He slipped inside the church, unseen; sat down in a nearby pew and waited.

It was an old stone cathedral, erected in the Philippines by Spanish Catholics during the 1600s. He paused to admire the architecture and took a mental snapshot. He’d never been to the Philippines before, and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be going back.

Every now and then he turned to peer at one of the three broad double doors. He was waiting for someone.

Ten or fifteen minutes of contemplative silence. Then he spotted an elderly woman in a faded blue blouse. He watched closely as she knelt to pray and, after a brief appraisal, his suspicions were confirmed.

It was subtle, something that most people either couldn’t see or didn’t bother to notice. A slight ripple, a liquid shimmer in the air, like a mirage in the distance on a hot summer day. In her presence, things would change in almost imperceptible ways, a brief tweaking of probabilities and outcomes. Some things would become a little more likely, others a little bit less.

Such individuals had effected profound changes in the course of human events, small alterations to reality that rippled outward into space and time, having an increasingly heavy impact on the world and beyond. Most had no idea what they were capable of and, of those who did, rarer still were those who could control it. It was simply a part of their nature, a manifestation of their existence.

Now that she was praying, her influence had grown strong. He could see it swirling all around her.

He got to his feet and quietly approached her from behind. It was best to avoid a confrontation, to avoid getting caught in her web of influence.

He reached into a coat pocket and produced a small pen-like object and pad of paper. Then he positioned the pen-like object so that it was pointed at the woman’s neck. Finally he pushed down on a spring-loaded button. An instant later, the woman swatted at her neck.

When she turned to investigate the source of the sting, he smiled and pretended to scribble words into his notebook. Confused, she returned his smile with one of her own and turned back to face the tabernacle and continue praying.

The sting would have been benign. She would have forgotten about it even before she turned back toward the front of the church. She would go home after mass, have dinner with her family, fall asleep at the end of the day, and, by morning, her family would be planning her funeral.

He punctuated an empty page, placed the pen-like object back into his pocket along with the notebook, and exited the church. The humid heat of Bacolod embraced him.

He had just been doing his job, and this one was done. Tomorrow, he would board a morning flight for Manila; an hour later, he would be flying out to California.

He had another job to do.

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King of the Crows

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Max dumped the contents of his lunch onto an outdoor wrought iron table—a six-inch turkey on wheat with lettuce, onion, bell pepper and olives—and gazed out into the parking lot, watching strangers as they wandered off toward shops and restaurants.

Among them stood a solitary crow, hopping from one spot to the next as it avoided the humans who surrounded it in that not quite trusting, not quite frightened manner that was so common in urban environments. It trundled up to his table, paused, and sounded a shrill cry before hopping up and perching on the chair across from him.

Max sighed, glanced down at his sandwich, then back up at the bird. A moment later, he tore off a piece of bread and threw it on the ground. The crow dove after it, head twitching from side to side like a junkie going through withdrawals, and on a whim, Max tossed more tiny morsels of bread, taking small bites in-between.

Two other crows followed, and when there were no more crumbs they perched once more, staring at Max with glass beads for eyes.

With a childish smirk, Max fancied himself a king. He imagined the birds were his loyal subjects, that they could hear his thoughts and awaited his orders.

Fly, he ordered the crow in the middle, and to Max’s amusement it jerked its head sideways and took off as if heeding his command.

Max turned his attention toward the others.

Perch on the chair next to me. They sidled right a step, then fluttered across the table in unison and landed on the chair next to him.

That took him aback. He tried to think what the odds might be that the crows would do his bidding twice in a row. Anyway, no matter how unlikely, it was only a coincidence. Still, it was fun to pretend.

Look at me. I’m King of the Crows.

Max decided to up the ante. He closed his eyes, and in his mind he visualized dozens of birds descending from the sky like an Old Testament plague, dive bombing the people around him.

Attack, boomed the voice of his imagination. Show no mercy! Max smirked. A ridiculous idea.

Then a woman screamed. Max opened his eyes.

Behind him, an elderly woman had backed into a wall. “Shoo!” she cried, swinging at a crow with her purse. The bird landed on the ground, backed away, then launched into the air for a second assault. When it clamped onto her head with its talons and began to peck at her hair, she screamed and swatted at it again.

Others began shouting too, and in the span of a heartbeat the food court had erupted in a flurry of feathers and upturned tables. Some sought refuge in shops and restaurants, darting through doors and slamming them shut just as flying avian projectiles smashed into them.

Max observed the melee unscathed. A storm had kicked up in his head, battering against the invisible boundary between fantasy and reality. Immobilized, Max could only stare.

Two voices in his head shouted at the same time.

You made them do this. Now stop them, said one.

It’s just a coincidence. Birds don’t read minds, said the other.

The voices grew incrementally louder, each trying to subdue the other, and before long, they were hurling insults at each other like a couple of elderly senators. Max slapped his hands against his ears and closed his eyes.

Just stop, he cried inside his head. No more.

And then it was over. The few birds that still remained in the air, poised for attack, floated to the ground, puffing themselves up in a mass of ruffled jet-black feathers. Some pecked at crumbs and half-eaten food that had toppled over during the attack (to Max’s left, a pair of crows waged war over an abandoned doughnut.)

The people in the food court hesitated before slowly emerging from makeshift sanctuaries. They stared down at the birds on the ground, eyeing them like venomous snakes, and tiptoed around them as if the smallest misstep might rouse their ire once more.

A breeze stirred, followed by disbelieving whispers.

“Have you ever seen anything like—?”

“—just like The Birds! I—”

“—scared the shit out of me!”

“What was—”

“Are you okay?”

Max withdrew into himself.

What did I do?

He’d never wanted to hurt anyone.

If that was the case, why did you imagine hurting people?

Terror and self-revulsion wracked him in waves.

But how can any of this be my fault?

There was no way he could be responsible for what had happened. It’d only been an act of the imagination, unless birds could somehow read a person’s thoughts.

Could they?

Of course not, and he dared any crow to tell him otherwise.

One of the birds vaulted up onto the chair opposite him. It stared, piercing him with its dark glassy eyes. Max gazed at the creature for one breathless moment, then rose to his feet and bounded off into the parking lot.

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The Magic Returns

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He sits in a cold, dark corner, alone and afraid. It’s been too long, he thinks. He’s like an ancient, dried out riverbed, where the magic hasn’t flowed for ages. What makes him think he can summon it now?

Once, he was capable of great things. Through his unique talent, entire worlds emerged from nothing, whatever the heart and mind could conceive. He took it for granted, thinking it would always be there to serve him.

But he was soon swept up by worldly concerns. He stopped using the magic, stopped creating, and though the fire inside never stopped burning, it grew small and ashen through a chronic lack of practice. He was too busy with work, he told himself, too busy trying to feed his family, too busy doing a hundred other things. Only later, when it seemed too late, did he realize those were excuses, that he could have retreated to his study for as little as five minutes at a time, because there were always pockets of time to be found if only one was dedicated enough to search for them.

He hasn’t created for so long now that the channels through which the magic once flowed have closed up. It’s too late, he thinks. Only the fire inside still burns, no longer just a pile of dying embers as they’d been for so many years, but a raging inferno.

He sits at his old desk because he doesn’t know what else to do.

“Is this what you want?” he whispers to nobody in particular, “To mock me? To remind me that I gave up?” Mad with grief, he hardly knows what he’s saying.

Anguish reaches a climax. He feels small and helpless, like an ant caught up in a sandstorm. There’s nothing to lose anymore, only an ache that will grow deeper and fuller the longer he stays away.

He reaches into the void and at long last does the only thing he’s ever known how to do.

He closes his eyes and opens himself to the magic.

At first, nothing comes. In a moment of despair, he’s certain his worst fears have been confirmed. But then he hears it building as if from a great distance, and the shriveled conduits in his mind quiver with anticipation. The dam breaks, and the dried up riverbed floods once more, a raging rapid of pent up magic he thought forever inaccessible.

He doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting in the dark before the colossal torrent finally ebbs. When he comes back to himself, he stares at his latest creation, mute and disbelieving.

At last, a work of art he can call his own.

Tears blur his vision as he realizes the truth, that the magic never left him. He turned his back on it for a while, but it was always there, waiting for him to embrace it. Like a guiding star, it reorients him. Old priorities wither before a renewed sense of purpose.

For the first time in decades, he can call himself an artist.

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