art by Jonathan Westbrook
This Rough Magic
by Christie Yant
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.