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.

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.

Through the Flame

 

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Anita threw more wood onto what was already a blazing fire. Glowing embers popped and cracked, leaping into the air like fireworks. That should be enough, she thought. She sat on the smooth white sand to watch the flames. So far, the beach was barren save for herself. But that wouldn’t be the case for very long.

A few hundred yards ahead, where land met water, the ocean smacked into a pile of rocks, sending up a jet of misty white spray.

She was sure she’d been followed. She’d taken precautions, but the soldiers who pursued her were seasoned trackers, and she was certain they were at most a few hours behind.

Before her, bright orange flames reached for the sky like earthbound spirits, flickering in the confines of a crude stone ring. She stared at where the air shimmered from the heat, a flame-induced mirage, and concentrated. She could feel it, drawn to her through the fire like iron toward a magnet. The mirror world, which like her own would die without her help.

The mirage flickered. Dimmed. She pushed through the partition with her mind, picked at the boundary between worlds. She gave a relieved sigh when the dimness subsided, resolving into a beach very much like her own.

There, in the mirror world, was an identical fire, and beside it an alternate Anita, seated before the flames with her eyes closed.

Suddenly breathless and eager to be done, she reached into a small leather satchel, retrieving a faded parchment rolled and sealed with her family crest. She reached toward her alter ego, who had opened her eyes and was now simultaneously reaching out with her own hand. She pushed through the partition, feeling like her hand had been submerged in gel. They exchanged notes, pulled away, and just like that the bridge between their worlds evaporated.

Just as Anita came back to herself she heard horse’s hooves, pounding against the sand like distant thunder. It seemed her enemies were closer than she’d thought. No matter. The deed was done. She’d saved mirror-Anita’s world, and in so doing had saved her own.

She opened the scroll, read her alter ego’s note and smiled. Let them come. She would be ready.

Tainted Eyes

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They say you can see it first in the eyes, a blue tint in the whites like colored contacts. A day or two later, the madness sets in. Nobody knows what it is or where it came from. If they’d had more time to study it, they might have figured it out.

Now, blue-eyed monsters roam the streets at night, breaking the world, creatures that were once our fathers and our mothers, our sons and our daughters. Though human in appearance, they’re only hollow shells of their former selves, dark monuments of loss erected by an unknown disease. Not the zombies of pop culture, who prowl the remnants of a post-apocalyptic world. Something else. Something worse.

Nobody knows how it spreads, only that more of us turn each day, that any one of us could become the monster we fear. If tomorrow you wake with tainted eyes, make your peace with God and pray we put an end to you before the madness does it for us.

The Last Heir

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Tien walked along a grassy plain, bathed in moonlight. In the distance stood a ruined castle, the final defiant cry of a long gone age. Once a fortified structure crafted by the greatest of rulers, it was now nothing more than a weathered collection of broken walls and battered gates.

Tien approached the drawbridge, face covered with mud and sweat, clothes torn, streaked and stained.  He gazed up at the massive structure, turned dreamily from one gate tower to the next, crumbled and broken.

A low rumble sounded from within and the massive wooden bridge tumbled to the ground. Tien made his way across, rickety panels of ancient wood creaking beneath his feet.

He passed through the gate and emerged on the other side of a forgotten world, a wide open space that had once been occupied by laboring serfs and peasants. Now it stood empty and alone.

He continued past the inner ward, all the while clutching the handle of his sword, constructed according to the tenets of an ancient craft that had died along with the castle. He passed the remains of what had once been the great hall, then finally stood before the keep.

Here all four turrets still stood, untouched by the ages. It seemed that not even time had breached the castle walls entirely. Tien slipped through the open doors. He marched in the dark across a faded red carpet, past moth-eaten banners and flags, and stopped when he reached the throne. There he knelt and closed his eyes.

A wind gusted, blowing through the room, and for a moment the banners of a forgotten kingdom flapped once more. Then the keep flooded with golden light, and when Tien looked up he saw the King, holding audience from the throne.

Tien’s eyes fell to the floor.  The King, gazing down at him in solemn understanding, removed his crown and placed it atop Tien’s head. A flaccid smile grazed the old man’s lips.

Tien rose to his feet, spared a final regretful gaze for the world beyond. Then the room darkened, and once more the ruins stood in silence.

The castle had claimed its heir.

Grace

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Grace clutches a ragged teddy bear to her chest. It reminds her of her parents. The memories are bittersweet.

She gazes up, squints when her eyes reach the bright lines of yellow light that penetrate the wooden slats a hundred feet above. She blinks away tears.

She sidles to the right, her long dress brushing the dirt beneath her legs, and she feels the tug of iron chains binding her to the stone wall. She expects it, though it continues to fill her with despair. She returns to her previous position and the chains slacken. She closes her eyes and dozes.

She never meant them harm. She came after her parents died and left her orphaned in the woods outside their village. They took her in, fed her, clothed her. They took her to church. Taught her to pray. Then they discovered she was different.

They called her a demon. Spat on her. Beat her. Dug a prison beneath the earth, clapped her in chains and left her there to rot.

For the first few days she’d cried out in disbelief. Trembling and wailing, she begged them between racking sobs to take her back. She promised to be good, but nobody listened. She was an uncomfortable truth that was better off buried and forgotten.

She heard their whispers, knew they expected her to die. Yet years passed without food or water and she survived. They said it was unnatural, that she was the spawn of Satan. Every now and then, one of them would gaze down through the wooden slats, peer into her tear-streaked eyes and look away.

A generation passed. The children grew up and ventured out in search of a better life, and one by one the remaining inhabitants grew old and died. The last of them to peer down into her prison had white wispy hair and a thin grey beard. He cocked his head at her, hesitated, moved closer as if wondering what to do. Then he gritted his teeth, clutched his chest, closed his eyes and collapsed.

The first years of her life had been filled with love and light. She’d danced beneath the trees, sustained by the sun, the wind, the earth and the sky, a child of wild nature-born magic. But bound beneath the earth in isolation, her good nature soured. Her heart grew hard, and spite consumed her until her only wish was to set the world on fire, to look on with delight as the skin of those who imprisoned her crackled, blistered and popped.

She knows that one day she’ll be free. Perhaps her chains will rust through completely and she’ll dig herself out. Or perhaps someone will wander by unknowing and rescue her. It’s only a matter of time.

Grace dons a wicked smile.

The villagers could have bred a saint. Instead, they bred a monster.

How Is Fiction Like Telepathy?

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Words are powerful things. They whisper to us in the darkness. They seduce us. They cast a glamour over us, drawing us into their web with promises of beauty and escape. There they ensnare us, hold us captive, take control and have their way with us, until at long last, they’ve made us hear and conceptualize all of what they were summoned to express.  Fiction in particular exercises a singularly unique species of sorcery, one that most of us are powerless to resist.

What is this strange and exotic magic?

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, compares the art of storytelling to telepathy. He says that “all the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but[…]writing offers the purest distillation.” Though his comparison is primarily tongue and cheek, it nevertheless makes a very compelling point.

Stories are a means by which the thoughts in one man’s mind are transferred to another. If, as an author, I were to write about a chair, the instant those words reached your eyes, you would suddenly share my vision, a vision that previously existed only in my mind and which only I could see.  This is, arguably, the mind’s most magical and mystifying skill of all, to be able to communicate, through mere symbols and sounds, thoughts of all kinds — sensory stimuli, emotions and dialog — as well as to be able to receive, decode and reconstruct perceptions from those same symbols and sounds when sent by someone else.

Of course, words are not alone in their expressive power. We have drawings, paintings, photographs and movies, all of which communicate senses, emotions and ideas just as effectively, though in different ways. However, words are alone in their ability to convey a common message, while at the same time allowing for infinite variation in the way that they’re perceived. Everyone sees the same photograph or the same painting. But the sights and sounds that are conjured by one’s mind in response to the words of another always belong entirely to the receiver.

Returning to our previous example, what does the chair I told you about look like? What color is it? What kind of material is it made of? Everybody sees a chair, but nobody sees the same chair. As the author, I can further refine my description. I can tell you to imagine a red wooden chair. But what shade of red is it? What kind of wood is it made of? I can continue to describe the chair in ever increasing detail, but no matter how many words I use, I will never be able to communicate with any real precision the image in my own head, nor will anybody else share yours. The story is mine, but its incarnation belongs entirely to you. This is something that no other medium can accomplish.

The next time you pull out a book and prepare to lose yourself in its dusty ink-bound secrets, you would do well to stop and reflect on what you’re about to do. Understand that you’re about to link mind to mind with the author, living or dead, that a communication is about to take place. Reflect on the power of those seemingly innocuous symbols that are imperfectly stamped upon the pages you hold in your hands and rejoice that you have been endowed with such a profound gift.

Do so in earnest, each and every time you prepare to read, and I promise that your life will never be the same.

What Can Fantasy Teach Me About Reality?

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Who doesn’t love a good story?

Fiction is an indispensable part of the human experience. Without it, the world would be a dreary place. Imagination is essential for one’s sanity and happiness. But we always go into fiction with the understanding that what we’re experiencing isn’t real. Though we choose to suspend disbelief, there’s always that part of our brain that maintains the distinction between reality and fantasy. A vast unbridgeable chasm exists between the two: one is real, the other is not.

You might reasonably ask yourself, “what can fantasy teach me about reality?”

Fantasy teaches us about real people.

Though fictional characters are spun from the thread of dreams, their underlying natures are based on real people. Authors must always draw from a massive catalog of real-life experience; if what they want to write about can’t be found within its pages, it must be labeled as unbelievable and cast aside.

Fantasy is, in fact, an exhaustive study of humanity. It offers lessons from three unique angles:

  1. We learn about the characters. We’re privy to their thoughts, we observe their actions and we witness the ways in which they relate to others.
  2. We learn about the author. The way a storyteller’s characters think and act is a reflection of the storyteller himself. They can teach us about his cultural heritage, his upbringing, his prejudices, his interests, even how he might have gotten along with others. An artist’s creation is as much an expression of the artist as it is of the art itself.
  3. We learn about ourselves. Given that a realistic fictional character is based on authentic human nature, and that we are in fact real people, it stands to reason that we would find ourselves at least partially reflected in their image. We experience bits and pieces of ourselves in the characters we encounter, and we have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective. As a result, we discover more of who we are.

Fantasy teaches us to appreciate the extraordinary within the ordinary.

All good fiction no matter how whimsical is rooted in reality, because we can only relate to something that aligns with our understanding of the universe and how it works. There might be magic, but that magic is always governed by rules, and the basic laws of nature, though extended, always remain backward-compatible with our own. People don’t walk through walls or breathe under water unless they possess special powers, and in such cases they are the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, we take reality for granted. Because it’s something we interact with every day, because it’s no longer new as it once was when we were children, we disregard it. Thankfully, fantasy reorients our perspective.

Free from that thin veneer of mundanity that ordinarily coats the surface of reality, we’re involuntarily struck by the raw beauty we encounter in the world of our dreams. We take these experiences with us and assimilate them into who we are. Gradually, we become accustomed to seeing things through the lens of childlike awe. Eventually, without ever realizing what’s happened, we rediscover the extraordinary that lies hidden just beneath the surface of the ordinary.

We become sensitive to the great emotional epics that play out within the confines of real relationships. Our hearts are smitten by the jaw-dropping beauty that manifests itself in real landscapes. We become aware of the magic that’s existed all along, operating under the name of Science. We become sensitive to a hidden splendor that’s always been accessible to us, but was until recently outside our once narrowed field of vision. Imagination is like a mirror: the mystery and wonder we encounter in fantasy is reflected back onto our perception of the world, flooding it with new light so that we can see the world anew.

Fantasy teaches us to accept difficult truths.

There are uncomfortable realities we prefer not to think about. We’re faced daily with poverty, hunger, war, mental illness, even the evil within ourselves. Life is much easier when we allow ourselves to forget that the world is a dark place. As a result, we erect mental walls when sensitive topics are broached. Our eyes glaze over and we assume the mental stance of a three year old, covering his ears and singing “la, la, la…”

Reading fiction is one way to become more receptive. Because stories aren’t real (at least on the surface), we have a much greater tolerance for controversial ideas. We open the gates and we allow the author’s beliefs to make a home inside our hearts.

Because good fiction is grounded in reality, it’s inevitable that we begin to apply these beliefs alongside our own. Like Inception, the ideas communicated through stories bubble up into our conscious minds as if they were our own. In this regard, artists wield a very real and profound power over the rest world, and therefore have a grave moral obligation to always tell the truth.

Fantasy teaches us how to approach and solve real problems.

Simply put, fantasy makes us better problem solvers. We observe how different kinds of characters respond to adversity, learn from them and apply what we learned to our own problems. Fantasy teaches us to be creative, to think “outside the box,” to be more adaptable.

Neil Gaiman cites an interesting example. In an article for The Guardian called Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, he writes:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Conclusion: Fantasy is reality remixed.

Fantasy is only fictional on the surface. Humans may be capable of imagining things outside their immediate scope of experience, but they can only do so by forging new connections between existing ideas. Like so many songs on the market today, stories are nothing more than reality remixed.

If it’s not real, it won’t make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, we won’t connect with what we’re reading. And if we don’t connect with what we’re reading, we’re going to get frustrated and put the book aside.

In order to concoct convincing tales, authors must resort to unabashedly plagiarizing reality, and in the end all they can do in their never-ending quest for originality is to hope and pray that they were clever enough not to get caught.