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art by Jonathan Westbrook

This Rough Magic

Christie Yant is a science fiction and fantasy writer, Assistant Editor for Lightspeed Magazine, occasional narrator for StarShipSofa, and co-blogger at Inkpunks.com, a website for new, nearly new, and newly-pro writers. Her fiction can be found in the magazine Crossed Genres and the anthologies The Way of the Wizard and Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011, both from Prime Books. She lives on the central coast of California with her two amazing daughters, her husband, and assorted four-legged nuisances. Follow her on twitter @inkhaven.
He is telling the wrong story.
He wants to explain it in terms of magic and wishes and fairy tales, but the right language for this situation is the language of gravity and magnetism, of galaxies and gas giants. It is a mechanical, technical problem--a problem of mathematics and science. The problem is that I want him to go back where he came from, and he won't.
He glances at the sky, where the Earth's rotation into shadow has leached the light away. The ancient saguaros stand out in silhouette against the fading orange rim of the horizon. The first stars--planets, really--are dim pinpricks in the painted sky. The heat leaves the desert with the light. I shiver.
"You should light the fire," he says.
"You have the matches."
But he doesn't produce them, just watches me in the deepening night with brown eyes I can no more escape than I could escape the planet's gravity well.
I light the fire. I pull the heat from the sand, from the distant stars, from the molten core of the Earth itself. The searing pain of it shoots through me, and the kindling ignites. He watches me as I struggle to contain it, forcing the fire back into the ground before it consumes me, him, the desert. He does not know what it is he sees--only fire where there was none before, and a woman who says she does not want him. He looks as though he might cry.
And he tells the story again, even though it's wrong.
"Once upon a time," he begins, and looks to me to supply the words that should come next.
"An ill-prepared scientist who thought he was an outdoorsman went for a hike, and lost his way in the desert."
"No. A knight set out from home on a quest."
I have known many knights, but in a different place, at a different time. Here and now--well, perhaps there's something to it. Perhaps the men and women of observation and data are the knights of this age.
I'm in no position to deny the existence of magic, or that he may have been on a quest, or that his quest has ended here.
"He was rescued," I remind him, "dehydrated and injured, by a woman who lives happily alone and had no need for company. He accepted her help and hospitality and then refused to go back where he came from."
"He was healed by the witch of the wild desert, and enchanted by her. Her power was so great that he could not leave."
I want to talk about calculations, about distance and velocity and time--the time it would take for him to reach the nearest town, the distance he would need to walk to get back home.
He wants to tell fairy tales, and believe in magic.
"You can leave any time you like." It hurts him when I say it. I am not glad.
I can hear the night creatures stir, and I walk the perimeter of our--of my--camp. I have a shelter nearby, but I prefer the open air. I reset the wards: a feather here, a stone there, a drop of spittle and the right words spoken. The words burn like acid on my tongue, and my fingers sting where they have touched the components of the spell. The spirits in them beg to be moved in a voice that only I can hear, as if being contained is as painful to them as releasing them would be to me. Our nocturnal neighbors go on their way.
"He was ensorcelled, and he could not leave," he says again, his voice low, almost a whisper.
"He met a woman who wanted to be left alone, and no amount of telling him so would make him go."
"You're just being contrary," he says, and I can see the pain on his face in the firelight.
He is right about that much.
He asks me about charms for finding water. I ask him what he knows about wells.
He asks me about spells for luring animals to their death for food. I ask him if he knows how to hunt.
He asks me for an amulet for health and protection. I tell him that he should watch his step, and carry enough water.
"And a charm to make you fall in love with me," he says, and there is something about the way he smiles that makes me want to reach out and touch the lines around his eyes.
"There's no charm for that."
"Is there a way to calculate love? Is there a formula?" He mocks me now, but his voice is gentle. "Can it be measured in Newtons? The force of attraction is equal to the product of two people, divided by the distance between them?"
"Wrong discipline."
"You see through the wrong lens. All of the fairy tales are true. The fact that you exist--that I found you--is evidence enough. We both know that if you wanted me to go, I could not stay. You have all of the power here."
He's right again. I could make him go. I could call fire from the heavens to frighten him away. I could set the animals of the desert on him, to chase him all the way back to Tucson. I don't tell him this. I say instead:
"Body language, eye contact, olfactory identification of a suitable major histocompatability complex--that's enough to cause the surges in adrenaline and dopamine associated with infatuation. Not physics. Chemistry."
He crouches on the other side of the fire, and I can feel his eyes again, but I refuse to look at him.
"You're wrong. It's magic," he insists. His voice has the texture of fine desert sand, and holds warmth the way the rocks do after a day in the sun. I think better of mentioning the role of vocal timbre in studies of attraction.
A shooting star passes overhead, and I collect my thoughts.
"I'll tell you a story," I say. "Once upon a time, all of the matter in the universe was one. It existed in an extremely hot and dense state, and then it rapidly expanded outward and cooled. Since then, cosmological bodies have continued to move further apart, away from each other into ever-expanding space."
He idly breaks off pieces of a twig and tosses them into the fire, where they catch and flare like the sparks in my veins.
"That is a sad story."
"But a true one."
"Bodies that should be one, moving ever apart. The depth of human tragedy."
We eat in silence for a time, listening to wind shifting the sand, and the bats as they come to feed on the cactus flowers. Eventually I bring the fire down, sending the heat back into the Earth.
"How does the story end?" I ask.
"In the heat death of the universe, apparently."
But something has changed, and now that's the wrong story.
"Not a very satisfying ending."
"I know a better one," he says as we settle back on our mats. "If there were a way to engineer devotion, I would find it." I watch the Milky Way turn slowly overhead. "If I had enough data points I would predict your heart. But I don't think there's a discipline for love." I can hear him kick his boots off into the sand. "There's just magic."
He won't go unless I make him go, and I haven't done that yet.
I think I like his story better.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

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