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What is magic?

To celebrate Lost Things being a Nook First selection, one of my favorite pieces from the book, in which Lewis asks, "What is magic?" and gets an answer.

Come on in -- if you've read The Furies and you've got two months to wait for Secrets, why not try Lost Things in the meantime?




Lewis waited until they were back at the hotel, waited through the end of the party with its explanations and awkwardness, through Mitch taking charge and calling them a cab, through the long ride back to the Roosevelt. Lewis waited until they'd let themselves into Alma's room, all four of them crowding into the circle of light cast by the lamp. Lewis looked around at the three of them, suddenly seeming like strangers rather than people he'd known for five months. "What just happened?" he said.

Mitch sat down in the chair, his hat in his hand, looking suddenly old and tired. "Davenport attacked Jerry. He was using some kind of projection of elemental force, and if Alma hadn't countered it…." He glanced up at Jerry. "It would have been bad."

"A stroke, a heart attack…" Jerry smiled thinly. "The strain, you know. Not good for someone in poor health."

Alma stalked around the bed and sat down, unbuckling her shoes. "Well, it didn't happen that way," she began.

"I still don't understand," Lewis interrupted. "You're saying that these things, this magic, can kill somebody and make it look natural! That's…." He scrambled for words. Wrong? Impossible?

"It would be natural," Jerry said quietly. "I would die from a heart attack. It's the most natural thing in the world. The question is what precipitated it."

"I think killing somebody with a curse is pretty much supernatural," Lewis said.

"There isn't anything supernatural about it," Mitch said from the chair. "Magic obeys natural laws. Look, everybody knows that being shocked with an electrical current can make your heart stop. All this is doing is delivering the shock without the wires." He shrugged. "Current moves through air all the time by ionizing the atmosphere. That's what lightning is."

"You're saying this man can control lightning." Lewis twisted his hat brim in his hands.

"Not as much current as lightning," Alma said, dropping her shoe on the floor. "A much smaller amount of energy, but one that can still do harm. I couldn't have grounded it if it had been much more current."

"Grounded it."

Alma nodded. "That's what I did. I ran the current to ground, absorbing it back into the earth so it wouldn’t hurt anybody, the same thing that happens when lightning hits a lightning rod. It grounds."

Lewis frowned. "How?"

Alma opened her mouth and shut it again. "I don't know," she said. "I just know it works."

"That's what our tradition is about," Jerry said ponderously. "Hermetics is about the experiential discovery of effective esoterica through empirical study. Based upon the philosophy of the Hellenistic sage Hermes Trismegistus…."

Mitch got to his feet. "Come on, Jerry."

"What?"

"Let Alma explain."

For a moment Lewis thought Jerry would protest, but instead he shrugged, his eyes on Alma, a look passing between them that Lewis couldn't interpret.

"It's her place," Mitch said, and Lewis wondered if he meant because they were sharing a bed, or because of something else.

"Goodnight, then," Jerry said. He opened the door and waited for Mitch to precede him out. "See you in the morning."

"Goodnight, Jerry," Alma said. "Mitch." She twisted around on the bed, crossing her stockinged feet beneath her. Mitch gave her a two fingered salute and pulled the door closed.

Lewis came around and sat down in the chair, still hunting for words. "I don’t understand how these things can be real," he said quietly. "It flies in the face of science."

Alma shook her head. "No, it doesn't." She took a deep breath, as if considering. "Do you understand how an aircraft works?"

Lewis nodded. "Yes. I mean, I understand about lift and thrust, about airspeed and wind direction and all of that. That's science."

"And it's new," Alma said. "People forty years ago didn't understand it, much less people five hundred years ago. The principles of flight were always there, but we didn't understand how to use them yet." She sat up straighter, her bare feet in their silk casings tucked under her legs. "But people could observe birds. Probably people have done that since the dawn of time! They could see how birds flew and they could imagine flying. They could observe how baby birds learn to fly, how they glide first and how they tilt their wings to provide lift. Leonardo da Vinci designed a glider that works. He just didn't have an engine to give him sufficient airspeed to actually build a plane." Alma smiled. "He didn't understand the principles, but he knew what he saw and he could experiment based on what worked."

"Ok," Lewis said slowly. "So what does that have to do with magic?"

"To Leonardo, flying was magic. If somebody from the fifteenth century saw one of our planes they would think it was supernatural. But it isn't. It's just that we know more than they did." Alma reached for his hand. "But we don't know everything. We know a tiny little fraction of everything there is to understand about the universe. And a lot of the things we don't understand seem supernatural to us. Like Leonardo, we can observe and we can theorize and we can use to a limited extent the things our observations teach us, but we can't explain it all. Not yet. Hermetics is sometimes called scientific magic, and that's why. We use the empirical knowledge accumulated by different generations and different cultures and we try to understand why it works. Sometimes we can reproduce results and sometimes we can't. Sometimes we can see why a formula has power, and sometimes we don't know anything except that it does. And every century, every decade, we understand better. We understand more about the 'supernatural,' about the way the world works beyond what science can currently explain. Does that make sense?"

"I suppose," Lewis said slowly. "But I don't understand…. How can a person influence electrical energy?"

"We are energy," Alma said. "We all have electrical energy in our bodies." She looked down at their interlaced hands, turned hers in his so that their palms were together. "Hold still." She let go of his hand and moved hers back, three inches between their palms. "Now tell me what you feel." Slowly she moved her hand closer, quarter inch by quarter inch, until only three quarters of an inch remained between. She looked up at Lewis with a smile that was pure trouble. "What do you feel?"

He stared at their hands, ordinary, not quite touching. "It feels warm," he said. The warmth was growing between their palms even though they didn't touch. "Really warm."

"That's what happens when your electrical field interacts with mine," she said. "You can feel it. That's what energy feels like. That's the thing we're manipulating."

Warm, and stronger than he'd expected, right there against the heart of his palm…. And then stronger, like pressure, like she'd pressed her palm to his, though she hadn't moved. He looked at Alma, at the faint pleased expression of concentration on her face, the same one she wore when she flew. "What are you doing?"

"Pushing a little," she said. "That's all. Just manipulating it a little bit, like pushing with my hand."

"That's…." Lewis didn't have the words for it. His eyes met hers, blue and delighted, as though it were fun. "That's real."

"I told you it was," Alma said.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
delos13
Jun. 25th, 2012 12:19 pm (UTC)
I like this piece and very much agree with how Alma explains magic. I didn't read the book yet but hope to do it soon.

Thanks for sharing.
jo_graham
Jun. 25th, 2012 05:53 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I hope you enjoy the book!
tricksterquinn
Jun. 25th, 2012 07:35 pm (UTC)
Oh, I love this explanation of magic! I'm so excited for the book.
jo_graham
Jun. 25th, 2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
Me too! I think it's a lot of fun, if I do say so myself!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )