Monday, March 31, 2014

Of Magic (Of Baseball Planets, Death-Roses, Persian Kings, Lemonade)

Newsflash: Magic is real.
Petition: (Please don’t run yet.)
Allow me to explain. There is magic in this boring world of ours. Or rather, perhaps more accurately, our world is a world of magic. Not flying-carpet magic. Not wand-and-incantation magic. Not Expelliarmus magic.
Consider: Seasons change. They whirl in and are swept out, successive kings and queens on a throne that cannot be held onto. 
Zoom out: The seasons don’t change themselves. We’re on a baseball, hurtling through space, hungering to burst into flame and fall apart, freeze and crumble and turn into meteors to pepper some storming planet-side. But all baseballs have stitching, and we are stitched together by something so powerful that it makes a hunk of space-rock and a smat* of water habitable. And don’t you dare mention gravity. Don’t you dare ask me to trust it, even for a moment.
Because stars collapse. They cannibalize and decide to eat themselves, like a puppy chomping on his hind legs. They shrink and digest earth-spattering power, and then they crack and split, and they try to devour everything in reach. And if they can’t reach, then they need only be patient.
From a distance, safe behind our centuries and a blast-shield of lightyears, we watch through glass and we “ooh” and “aah” like we’re at a firework show. Bursts of color. A celestial rainbow. As if they couldn’t disintegrate us. I suppose that it is the same way that we look at a brightly colored poisonous snake. Stay away. Wear your gloves and your boots. (And polarized safety goggles, just in case.) But take pictures.
And yet here we are, a few quadrillion-stone-throws from our own solar warhead. A ball of nuclear death. Just waiting to cannibalize. To chomp down on its own back legs and swallow.  To become an intergalactic death-rose, beautiful from a billion miles away, but monstrous up close.
At any moment, we could erupt. We could be eaten by a star, or left alone to freeze to death without it. We could shatter. We could stop being whole without reason, and stop spiraling. But we don’t. We’re a baseball with red stitching all around our edges, frayed but holding. And held together by magic.
Zoom back in: There is a magic in our world. A magic that makes the seasons change. That makes the trees point at the sky like arrows. That turns caterpillars into butterflies (and, more impressively, boys into men). There is a magic that makes the wind blow, the same wind that has blown for ten thousand years, captured in cages of stone or pulsing lungs, rising and diving. There is magic in dust; dust which rolls on the wind and sails microscopic ships through slanted sunlight. The dust that touched the feet of Persian kings, and the dust that was the feet of Persian kings, all collecting on kitchen counters.
There is magic in the power of memory. In antiquity, the memory of time itself. The flavor of life and dust and words, rubbed into stones and wood generations old, polished into eyes, like doorknobs. Into arches and dancing halls, into coliseums and mountainsides and standing rocks in a field in England.
There is magic stuffed into books, and heaped onto shelves. But not on the pages; in the pages. In the binding. In the words. In the thumbprints of the curious and the dirt and the tears and the tea-stains. Here, where the dust is not the only life that rides the stale currents.
The magic of summer. The magic of falling leaves or gripping breezes or gnawing cold. The magic of life and death and everything between, the pulling and tearing over every bouncing atom.
Now, of course, I know that there are libraries full of books (of a non-magic variety, all glossy and boring) that argue against me. There are more college classes than I could count that waste precious (tree-woven) oxygen trying to convince us that there is no such thing as magic.
That the sunset is only red because of the way the sunlight hits the dust particles. But the fact remains that particles of rubbish can paint a sky red. That lighting jet-fuel on fire can hurl a five-hundred-ton cylinder through the sky at three-hundred-miles-per-hour, and not nearly enough people cry and pray and find God in the air. (Forget magic carpets, we can fly whole crowds, and serve drinks and crackers on the way.)  
Because here’s the honest truth: Life is too short, and this world too beautiful, not to believe in magic. It is too short not to believe in legends, and not to immerse ourselves in fairy-tales. Not to lose our imagination (our greatest magical tools) in love stories older than sunsets, and words older than darkness. There is magic in that a word is all that separates us from the dust. There is magic in galactic thunderstorms on Jupiter, and in a cup of coffee in a downtown cafe. Magic is simply that which cannot be explained. Perhaps that which ought not be explained, or needn’t be.
Or perhaps it is just something you feel. Perhaps it is a smell, like midnight and dry grass and black powder on the Fourth of July, with the crickets choiring and the stars glittering, and clothes that reek subtly of stale bonfire-smoke and soda. Hay-bales. 
Perhaps it is the sanctuary of solitude when you are standing alone on the mountain, with the wind pouring through you, sucking in breaths which have been recycled a million times, shared by peasants and kings and elk (and probably a flying fish; no race has a monopoly on air, after all), offered up by trees that were cut down for a palace that has since been lost.
Or the smell of water, the sound of sea waves, or the wind dancing with the leaves in the tops of the trees.
Maybe it’s a hammock.
Maybe it’s a catacomb-cathedral in a mountainside, still resounding with the hum of hymns so old and fervent, they have transcended antiquity and attained immortality. Words of power. (It is a word, after all, that separates us from the dust at all. But that is a different post.)
Maybe it’s a glass of lemonade, and the smell of freshly cut grass.
Life is too short not to believe in magic. Not to believe in fairy-tales. Not to eat food that tastes good, or listen to songs that hurt, or read stories that make you want to fall in love. Life is too short not to daydream and write poetry that doesn't (have to) make sense. 
Life is too short not to live.

(Now you can run.)

*It’s a word. Look it up. You won’t find it, and that’s sad.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Elika (A Short Story)

Buried alive beneath a heap of a coat and filthy scarf, a small girl stared out at a cold world. Her eyes were freshly polished; that is to say, that she had very recently been crying, and the fading light made them shine. She was a little smear of a girl, hardly noticeable at all. Amidst the shadows and the soot-stains and the bodies, she was just another blot.
In the last few hours, she and the bricks at her back had become one entity; she had not strayed from their cover, or attempted to move from the alcove, which just managed to hide her. People had trotted past all day, through the mud and sludge, and she noticed that there were two kinds. There were those who ran for cover, clutching at hats and coats and wives and children. And then there were the other kind; the kind with stones in their pockets and clubs in their hands. She had seen some with bows, and others with swords. All wore scowls.
The tears hadn’t come then. They’d come later, when the sound of the fighting grew more severe, and something whistled over the building above her. An explosion jarred her very being and left her head pounding, her tongue bleeding from tooth-shaped holes. Her ears, beneath her small, cold hands, were ringing, and for a while that was the only sound there was. Then came the tears. She hadn’t been able to help them. Of course, no one could blame her. Not that anyone would have noticed. She was a piece of the scenery, now as always, and she was far from the only one in the city with tears on their cheeks.
Even the dogs, typically so savage as they hunted through the streets, had scurried past and left her be. Perhaps there was simply other prey to fight over.
How many days the battle had been going on, she couldn’t tell. She only knew that eventually the traded words had swelled into traded stones. She didn’t know who was throwing them, or at whom they were being thrown, but she could feel the fear. It was in the air, like the smoke. Like the cold.  Like the hunger. How long had it been since she had eaten? She couldn’t remember her last meal. Even the dogs were better fed than she. Perhaps that was because the dogs had no natural aversion to human bodies.
A scuffle of feet made her bury her face deeper into her scarf and draw her legs closer to her chest. Two men scampered into her alley, their faces encrusted with grime, their clothes dripping wet with mud. One was holding a bare-bladed sword in his hand. The other held a stone, and by the looks of the scrapes on his face, had been on the receiving end of one fairly recently.
They neared her hiding spot and she held her breath, wanting to close her eyes but not daring. She tried to make herself invisible, tried to will the light to bend around her and ignore her completely. One of the men—the man with the sword—turned, shouting over his shoulder: “You’ll never take us alive, bloody tyrants!”
His companion did likewise, cupping both hands to his mouth. “Go back to Arlan! Leave us be!”
The man with the sword would have shouted again, had not another figure arrived at the end of the alley. He was taller than the other two, and broader in the shoulders. A black cloak hung all the way to his ankles, and a shining, silver helmet gleamed on his brow. The two men looked ready to fight, until they saw the broad edge of the long axe appear beneath the cloak.
Without a word, they turned and took off, slipping through the slush, tripping over the bodies that blocked the far entrance, in an attempt to escape a pursuer who did not pursue.
With a sense of growing terror in her stomach, the newcomer’s eyes settled upon the girl in the corner. She hid her face beneath the scarf now, not daring to look up as her heart pounded faster, each drumbeat echoing in her ears and her tongue. Footsteps were coming closer. Why? What did he want with her? He was right above her. She could feel his shadow. Hear the sound of metal.
“Are you hurt?”
The question hung. She moved her fingers from her face, and found a man kneeling before her, helmet beside him on the ground. He seemed young; his heavy eyes accentuated by substantial side-burns. Slowly, the girl shook her head in response.
He would move on. He would forget her, and she would be safe again. But he didn’t. After a few moments she swallowed, managing the words: “Aren’t you going after them?”
“No,” he looked off at the street. “They’ll be hiding in some hole by now. No use in it. Where’s your family?” She blinked, but he understood the meaning. A look of profound pity entered his eyes, and his heavy brows creased. “Up with you, lass,” he said softly, and she did not attempt to struggle when he reached out both hands and gathered her up, forgetting his helmet, forgetting his axe, and cradled her in his powerful arms.
“This is no place for a wee thing like you,” he said as he trudged along. “No. You stick with me. You stick with old Kilfreg. My lady’ll see you righter’n the summer rains in no time.”
“Where are you taking me?” She dared.
His reply was searing. “I’m taking you home.”
Home. What a strange word it seemed. What a heavy word; so pregnant with meaning, so full of life and color and emotion, so foreign. Speaking it was painful. But it was a good pain. A glorious pain. It was a pain in her soul, in that terrified, aching soul, so long alone. Elika was going home.
Her eyes, once more, began to shine.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Memory of Gold (A Short Story)

A Memory of Gold 
So it begins. The same as it begins every time. With the birth of a child, the fulfillment of a prophecy, the war, the victory, the peace that follows. But this time it is different. Just as it always is. The birds have taken wing; they are leaping from place to place, avoiding the storms, cowering from the frozen rain. They have a message to bring. A message for all people, and they are the heralds.
The child is born! The Old Man on his iron throne has lost his power at last. See, the faces, hesitant at first, then bursting out to welcome the news. A daughter of the old blood, at long last she has been found. See, how fast she grows, from infant to queen, how she mounts her chariots and races through the trees, how they bend to greet her. How they shine, how they sing as the wind plays through their hair, and it is a new wind. The wind of a new age, a wind which basks in the light of a new, yellow sun, and rides the channels down to kiss the foamy sea and the heads of the newborn fawns.
See, her chariot, fair-built and blazoned with the rising dawn, pulled by the proud and lofty stag. Hear her song; tis a song of healing. A song of life and warmth and rebirth. The Old Man’s hands have left scars, but she is accustomed to their pain, to their bite. She has no fear of the wolves, or of the frost, which skulks in the still-deep shadows. She has no fear of the cold, for where her bare feet kiss the loam, flowers spring up. Where her hands stroke the trunks of the sleeping kings, their muscles swell.
Oh, the joy of the birds, of the animals as she reaches the frozen river, and its gentle, mourning murmur becomes laughter once again. The water has come, the giggle of her waves and the brightness of their winged melody rise.
The world is awake. The Old King is no more than a nightmare’s memory, when morning comes, no more than the lingering pain of a wound that has been healed.  The queen sits upon a throne of ivy and gold; the cherry boughs crown her. The birches bow; the willows weave their words into song, a melody united by the harp in her hand.
But hear! The birds’ song is anew! Another life, they cry, has entered the shining world! And how innocent the infant seems! How soft are her hands and feet, how glorious those eyes which know nothing of pain, nothing of the Old Man’s rule. They know no frost, nor do her arms know the cut of the cold.
How sweet she is! The brow-stone of this crown. Hear her laughter echo across the hills, which preen their ears if only to catch a moment of it again. See how the sun-warmed winds rush to meet her, like a kinsman once long-lost returning home. A child, she is, no queen of wrath, nor of ruling might. Laughter is her scepter. Light is her crown. Love is the train, which flows behind her.
Her long, golden hair, is the wealth of nations. Her eyes, how they shine with unbridled youth, with energy and passion, all green and gold and brown. The forest is her kingdom, and while she wears the forest’s wreath, her people join her. See how she races amidst the leaves, outrunning the deer, how speaks to the birds. How she marvels at the light, which parts twixt branches and falls in towering tatters when the sun sinks into night.
She is loved as the sun is loved, as its rising every morning is praised. She is the adoration of the old and the infatuation of the young. None who have seen her face remain unchanged, and none who have stood in her presence and danced her dance, sung her song, or tasted the wine of her kiss could have remembered what it was like, back when the Old King was on his throne.
There is no sorrow, here, no memory of what it was like, back before the Queen had woken the trees from their deathly sleep. No memory of nightmares. There are no shadows. No fear.
But then something begins to change. At first, no one is sure what has happened. A wind has stolen in from the north that is not like the others. It snarls through the trunks and howls through the mountainsides. It bites, and its teeth are sharp. It claws at the earth, and all men feel its sting. It hunts in the darkness and prowls the shadows.
The grasses, so tall and graceful, turn white. Their bodies become husks; they rattle when the wind sweeps through, cutting like a reaper’s scythe. Where the Great Wolf’s paws touch, frost has formed. Frost which spreads to the feet of the trees, and crawls up their bodies. Frost which causes the leaves to change.
And then it happens. The queen is sick. No one says it, but everyone knows. Her smile is fading. Her golden hair has turned red, and then brown. Soon, all color will be gone from it completely. Her eyes have lost their shine. And no one knows it, save a few who remember the older times, that it has begun again. That the Iron Throne is no longer empty. That a king sits in a palace in the north. A Winter King. He who wears the crown of thorns, whose scepter is the death and whose eyes are lifelessness.
And now, she is dead. But with her death, a prophecy is given. That one day, a queen shall rise. From the hardship, from the nightmare, from the hundred-year-reign of the hopeless shadows, she shall spring, like the flowers, which shall rise in her wake. The same as it always is. A promise. Someday, winter will end.
Someday, spring will come again.