Do You Believe in Magic?
“Do you believe in magic?” The man looked quizzically at the boy who was sitting in front of him. The two of them were roasting their hands by the fire trying to keep warm.
The boy looked up and gazed at the man with an expression which was hard to place. After a minute of regarding him with a steady, measured gaze, he went back to studying the flames.
“No,” he replied mendaciously, the fire light reflecting in his eyes. And curious eyes they were too; dark like pools, but deep within them there lurked the faintest hint of amber, like one more normally saw in a cat. They gave a strange, otherworldly quality to his face.
The man put some more wood on the fire, stirring the flames with a long stick. The boy was a strange one, that was for sure. He had appeared recently, seemingly out of nowhere. Taciturn and serious, kept himself to himself. But the man recognised himself, the boy he had once been - oh far too many years ago to count - in him. He saw. He knew.
“There is magic in the of strangest places,” the old man said quietly. “It is not where people seek it. When we try and see, we will never find. That is why it is magic.”
The boy kept his attention on the flames. The old man’s words had touched upon a deep secret he held. But he was beginning to be aware that the old man knew far more than he would ever admit.
“So you are saying that there is magic in that stick you hold?” he asked, still not looking away from the flickering fire.
The old man smiled slightly. He raised the stick slightly with which he had been stirring the fire.
“Maybe this stick is my wand. Maybe I am a magician. Maybe it is but a piece of wood, inanimate, useless. But do we know for sure what it really is?”
The boy looked up.
“No, we don’t see. Or maybe you do.”
The old man smiled and went back to stirring the fire.
“Let me tell you a story…”
And he began to tell a tale.
* * *
Once upon a time, where the desert met the sea, there lay a city - or so legend told. It had long crumbled into ruins before any could remember and none lived there now. None dared. Sometimes an unwary traveller would happen upon it and wonder what had existed in the place long before. And rarely a stray nomad would unwittingly spend the night amongst the fragments of stone buildings which had once stood so proudly. They had tales to tell of their experiences that…well…no-one believed such fantastic yarns.
The boy interrupted, raising his hand slightly as if he were in school.
The old man looked secretive for a moment and smiled a knowing smile.
“Yarns which none believed.”
“Have you been there? To the city I mean,” asked the boy. “You speak as if you know it.”
The old man looked back at the flames.
“I knew it once, oh so many years ago. It was the place where I was born.”
The boy was very quiet for a moment.
“But you said that it is in ruins.”
The old man was silent for what seemed like an age.
“It is in ruins now. And was in decline when I was young. But I am very old and I am talking many years ago. Far too many to count. But time is relative, an elastic thing.”
The boy’s curiosity was now well and truly piqued.
“Yes, I know that time is not as it always appears.”
“I know you know,” the old man replied cryptically. “So back to the story…”
One day, when the summer was at its height and the city’s ruins baked under a blazing sun, a traveller arrived there. He came from far, far away and had heard that the city was a port from which he could travel from on his journey to Mecca. But, alas, these stories were ancient and the port was no more. Decayed and disintegrating wharves stretched out into the water. No ships had stopped there for many a year. The traveller was perplexed and not a little annoyed. His journey must now alter, but of course all good journeys do. They are never as we plan them. If they are then they were not worth taking in the first place. Of course there was nowhere to sleep and he had no choice but to set up a makeshift camp amongst the wreckage of the city.
The night was still and the air close and sticky. The waves lapped the shore but they did not mask the strange sounds which seemed to whisper amongst the ruins. The traveller, unfortunately perhaps, was of a sensitive disposition. He had been raised on tales of jinns and magic and the queerness of the place and the odd sounds began to considerably jangle his nerves.
“What were they?” The boy piped up excitedly.
“Well what do you think they were? These noises which haunted him in that dark, forgotten place.”
The boy mused quietly and shook his head.
The man couldn’t seem to fall asleep but, eventually, sleep did come. And with sleep came dreams. The strangest dreams which disturbed him greatly and abruptly woke him from his slumber. The night still reigned above him, stars strewn across its vast inky blue vault. And standing next to him was a woman. She was unlike any woman he had ever seen. She was tall and as slender as a reed, as pale as marble. Her hair was dark and shimmered in the starlight like coal. Her eyes were dark, as night as the night and she wore an expression of such sorrow that his heart was wounded beyond his understanding. He wanted to speak but words had fled.
Suddenly she was gone. The man rubbed his eyes in disbelief. Where she had just stood the air felt icy, like winter in the mountains of his home. He looked around but there was no sign of her and he unexpectedly felt very afraid. Without quite knowing why, the man packed up his camp and left. In the middle of the night!
A few days later he arrived, not in the happiest state, at a small town further along the coast. He told his tale to the people there. Most mocked him but one, an old man, listened carefully. He then told the traveller that few who spent the night in the ruins survived and those that did were scarred inextricably by their experience. The legends said that the city was inhabited by ghouls, the undead, who preyed upon those who stumbled upon it. But those who survived said they saw a woman, tall and pale, who instilled such a strange fear in them that they immediately left, although they did not know precisely why.
The boy narrowed his eyes.
“You said you know this place…”
The old man nodded.
“I did. I knew it well.”
“Was it full of ghouls? And who is the woman?”
The old man’s eyes flitted back to the flames. Something within them fascinated him. Slowly he spoke.
“Yes, it was. Or is. I doubt they have left. And the woman…she was one of them but not of them, if you understand my meaning. Yes, of course you do.”
He glanced at the boy with a look which took the latter aback.
“She could not bear unnecessary suffering and so warned those that she could to go. Not all monsters are monsters…much like yourself.”
At this the old man looked squarely at the boy.
“Don’t worry,” the old man said. “Your secret is safe. As is mine. I know you won’t tell. Who would believe you? Who would believe me?”
He laughed softly.
“Why did you leave?” The boy asked.
The old man sighed.
“Do you know what it is to live in the city full of the dead? I wanted to see the world. To journey to distant places. And I have never returned. One day. One day I will go back when my days of wandering are over.”
The boy watched the fire again. In it he suddenly saw things, the past, the future. He glanced at the old man in wonder.
“And then I will need someone to take my place, someone to tell the stories. Because if they are not told they will die. And when stories die mankind is doomed. It is only the imagination which keeps them going. The sheer mundanity of reality is far too crushingly dull to endure.”
“Can I be your apprentice?” The boy asked eagerly.
The old man smiled, but a broad, wide smile.
“My boy, you already are.”