By Joel Armstrong
I hadn’t been to the Metropolitan Museum of Magic since college, but that same giddy excitement washed over me as I stepped into the central atrium. Vesuvius’s Thunderstorm hung over the entire space, the domed ceiling lost to dense clouds and electricity, the constant drizzle pattering on the marble flooring, on the ticket counter and the staff working their iPads—and yet the rain wicked away immediately, retransducted into the clouds above. I couldn’t help but stop and gaze up, that after five hundred years, with only minor restorations in the thirties, the Renaissance master’s storm system continued flawlessly.
I heard her heels clicking before I picked her out of the crowd. Her camel suit was slim, sharp, her blouse set off by a silk scarf. Megan Quinn had always been put together, even as a first year enrolled in Boston College’s Department of Magic, an overprepared classmate and an overclean roommate. She looked every bit the assistant curator of early modern European magic that she was, and then some.
I waved back and tried to smile, doubt settling in my gut.
This was a mistake, wasn’t it?
“We’d love for you to come to Boston to give a presentation to our committee and discuss if there are ways we might implement your work in targeted schools in our city system.”
I couldn’t believe it. I read the email again.
I’d never met Dr. Philippa Taylor, director of after-school programs at Boston Public Schools. I wasn’t even sure how she knew of me. Five or six months ago MagiCraft had run a short feature piece on the program I led at a montessori school in Springfield; the article heralded me as “a woman whose ideas could bring magic back to underfunded schools, one student at a time,” but beyond a few extra high fives from colleagues, I didn’t see a surge online or from local news outlets. I was the kind of magician who still worked at Starbucks on the weekends to pay the water bill, for goodness’ sake.
Of course I wrote her back immediately, then clicked over to Airbnb to look at places in Back Bay or Allston. Ideally I wanted something on the cheaper side. Too bad I didn’t still have any good friends in the city. After college we’d trickled away, back home or following new opportunities elsewhere.
Except maybe Megan.
Not that I’d call her a good friend. Sure, we occasionally liked each other’s stuff on Instagram, but we hadn’t talked in years. I’d followed her academic career from afar. Continuing on at Boston College for a master’s of magic history. Landing a fully funded PhD at Harvard after that. I even read her article on sixteenth-century Castilian household enchantments she placed in The Journal of the American Magicological Society. That’d been at least a year ago. By now I assumed she’d graduated and gone on to a tenure-track position at UCLA or University of Chicago.
Facebook informed me otherwise. “I’m thrilled to announce I’ll be joining the staff of @triplemboston as assistant curator of early modern European magic! The MMM hosts one of the finest collections of European magic in the nation, and I’m so excited to support the department as we conserve these amazing enchantments and make them available to the public.” The accompanying picture showed Megan smiling on the museum’s front steps, its classical columns and white-stone facade sprawling behind her. I’d posted pictures on those steps myself, probably in ripped jean shorts and a tank top, a few friends posing with me for a summer visit.
My pointer icon hesitated over Megan’s name, the hyperlink underlined.
To DM or not to DM?
“It’s great to see you!” Megan gave me one of those hugs where she only touched my shoulders.
“You too. I can’t believe it’s been eight years.”
She shook her head. “Don’t make me feel old. How’ve you been?”
“Good.” I should’ve said more, but what? I’d already messaged her about why I was in town, and I didn’t have any of the usual news about a partner or first child most of my friends would’ve led with. “You’re clearly doing well.”
She followed my gesture and turned to take in the atrium. She smiled, then shrugged. Nonchalant. Pretending indifference for me. Or maybe she really had stopped seeing it already, just another part of her every day, an inconveniently large room to cross from one part of her job to another.
“Pretty crazy, right?” she said. “It’s still sinking in.”
“I’m not sure it’d ever sink in for me.”
“Yeah, maybe it won’t.”
A lull. I hitched up my purse strap. “So where do you actually work? Like from day to day?”
“There’s a whole maze of offices and conference rooms behind the scenes. Lots of blank hallways and linoleum, really. Nothing too exciting. What you should see is our current exhibit of Ayotola Falana. Contemporary magician. I think she’d be right up your alley.”
She was right up my alley, though I was surprised Megan suggested it. She’d always preferred long-dead magicians, preferably European. Falana had been born in Nigeria but raised in America, and recently exploded on the New York magical arts scene with a couple well-placed exhibitions. I fell down a Google rabbit hole after seeing images from her Black Matter / Black Energy show. She’d been working steadily since the late nineties, but only in the last few years had places like the Museum of Contemporary Magic in New York and the Wertheim Modern jockeyed for her pieces. In her early forties, she was twelve years older than Megan and me, but she seemed like a whole lifetime ahead.
Megan handed me a visitor lanyard, led me straight past the ticket counter, and kept up a steady commentary on all the logistics of installing the Falana exhibit as we headed down the east wing. We passed several rooms of their antiquities collection, glass cases full of cuneiform tablets inscribed with Mesopotamian spells, Babylonian astronomical charts, even Cretan wizarding staffs that were still enchanted but archaeological magicians hadn’t discovered how to activate them. Then Megan opened a wide glass door, and we were in the contemporary suites.
“This one’s my favorite,” Megan said, stepping aside.
The room was small by MMM standards, painted completely white except for the wooden floorboards. Two freestanding doorways rose in the middle of the space, simple arches with nothing inside their frames. A plaque on the wall read The Choice, 2020, illusion, auralmancy, and solar transduction.
“I’d walk through the left one first.”
My footsteps echoed as I approached the doorway. A translucent film hung in the empty frame, gentle heat wafting off it, but there was no other sign of enchantment. I stepped through.
I had to shield my face, the sun was so bright. So was the land, a single blaze of sandy brown. My eyes struggled to adjust, then something snapped into place and my brain realized I could focus on anything, no matter how close or far away. I could see for miles, my vision hurtling headlong into an unknown distance before I thought to pull it short. Trees rose in startling clarity, tall grass dotted with some kind of antelope under an endless blue sky. None of it was realistic-looking exactly, the textures of the illusions a complex embroidery of lines and colors. The sky was a light, almost washed-out blue, a million checkerboard squares like a cotton quilt, each intricately woven with boxes or circles or spirals. The trees and the antelope looked tattooed with black and brown ink, drawn like waves and triangles.
I turned, and my vision swept east across dry savanna sprinkled with towns and cities. Like time-lapse, the sun rose and fell and rose, thunder clouds marching across the sky, pouring rain fiercely before evaporating again. The grasslands exploded into lush color; the towns burst out in agriculture; the rivers filled with the teeming exuberance of waterbucks and warthogs. But in the snap of a finger it all faded, the green shriveling to brown, the ground cracking wide, the tattoo-like ink across the soil drying. The sun burned hotter, and in the far corner of the vision, a giant lake receded further into itself. The villages built along its shores inched closer, fishing boats crowded more densely on the water. My throat dried, my nose craving a shift in the wind, the telltale scent of coming rain.
Behind me, through the bare arch of the doorway, Megan stood in the museum. But beyond the doorframe my vision catapulted past savanna into dense forest, the humid growth fed by savage monsoons cascading from leaden clouds. A massive city like New York surged up from the coast, a constellation of skyscrapers scattered across mainland and islands. Floodwater washed across the streets, the ocean level rising; fish dispersed, swimming north for cooler water. And still the sun beat down, hotter and hotter.
Gasping for air, I staggered through the doorway—into the silence of the museum, the air conditioning and the white walls.
Megan said nothing, only smiled and gestured to the other door.
At first the illusion through the second doorway looked the same. The same quilted blue sky, the same savanna, the same dusty roads and bustling cities. But the rain fell more gently, longer; the bloom of grass and flowers didn’t race away so quickly; the rivers swelled but didn’t overflow, didn’t shrink away to nothing. Fishing boats glided across cool water, cereal fields raising heavy golden heads to the sky.
The sun was hot, but pleasantly so, a high summer’s day.
I stood there a whole minute, staring, trying to wrap my head around how Falana even designed it, the textures, the barely visible seams in the enchantments.
I wasn’t in the same world anymore as Megan or museums or after-school programs. I was somewhere else, a place where I felt very small.
This was what real magicians were doing with their lives.
Megan placed two lattes on the table, the foam art laced with tiny spells so the leaves kept growing, the buds unfurling into flowers. The museum café was half full, a comfortable mix of tourists, students, and families. Quiet classical music drifted from the corner where a quartet of violins and cellos played themselves.
“So tell me more about your presentation at BPS.” Megan sat, her back straight.
“It’s just a work thing.” That uneasiness moved through my gut again. It felt bigger than before, probably nerves about standing up in front of a bunch of people I didn’t know tomorrow. I suppose also hopeful excitement I couldn’t quite push down that they really might want to replicate my program in the city. And maybe self-consciousness that we were going to talk about after-school magic in the MMM, among some of the world’s greatest enchantments.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Megan said. “It sounds fascinating to me. Kids in lower-income neighborhoods need magic as much as kids going to Boston Latin.”
“They absolutely do.” I deeply believed it, but I sure didn’t sound like it. I sipped my latte, found myself avoiding eye contact. Didn’t she already think I’d sold myself short? I never went on for that master’s of magical education I’d talked about before we graduated. In eight years, all I had to show was an experimental program that’d seen not quite a hundred and twenty students through its doors.
“It must be a hard balance,” Megan mused. “With budget cuts and standardized testing, I bet a lot of kids only hear about magic in fields like engineering and medicine. Or parents worry about them using magic for sex games with their friends or mixing it with drugs or whatever. I think what you’re trying to teach them that magic can be both practical and self-expressive is really valuable.”
I studied her. She must’ve googled me after I reached out online. Maybe she found that MagiCraft piece.
“It is hard,” I started carefully. “And there is resistance against magic in schools, especially schools like mine. Never mind that when most students hear ‘creative magic,’ they think of something a hundred years old sitting behind glass. I have to tell them it’s okay their magic isn’t perfect or permanent. Magic that’s always changing and never finished can do and say different things. And they have experiences and perspectives to bring to magic that no one else has.”
“And that can be practical too,” Megan pointed out. “Maybe they think they’re just messing around with enchantments, but that can lead to problem-solving in their own ways and not simply in the categories Western, patriarchal magic says we have to think about spellcasting.”
“Exactly!” I said. Though her words weren’t exactly mine. They were clearer, more succinct. I’d been turning this problem over and over for the past four years, and Megan looked at it for five minutes and had the right words for it. Like we were back in magic theory class, and she knew immediately how to tie the new theory we were discussing into last week’s material.
“Do you remember Professor Morgan’s class?” I asked. “When we analyzed Barthélemy’s The Generation of Heat and she asked us how we’d define practical magic and creative magic?”
Something glimmered in Megan’s eyes. Barthélemy’s piece was standard college fare now, but in the 1860s it was revolutionary. Mimicking the ornately shaped magical fires ubiquitous in upper-class households across Europe, The Generation of Heat was an eternal fire that gave off no heat at all. Critics decried it as a hackneyed repetition of outdated fashions that didn’t even have the practical value of warming a room. But Barthélemy insisted a piece that raised the question of what magic was and wasn’t worth making was more “practical” than half the magic his contemporaries were casting. The extra twist for magic historians was that parts of Barthélemy’s negative heat transduction spells were instrumental in developing modern refrigeration enchantments.
“I was thinking about that too.” Megan leaned forward. “But now I’d argue it’s a false choice. I was talking to a colleague about this the other day. Maybe it’s a sore spot for a lot of curators. But it’s frustrating when guests only see the aesthetic value of historic enchantments. I mean, take Vesuvius’s Thunderstorm. It’s a masterpiece, obviously. But the Medicis commissioned it as a statement of human superiority over nature, and it was a clear message to the serfs that their magicians controlled the region’s water. So imagine their horror when Vesuvius actually made it rain inside their palace in Florence for hours. The entire building would’ve been ruined if he hadn’t changed the spell. They wanted his head, but he was the most powerful sorcerer in Italy. So they had to settle for humiliation and know he then shared the secrets of his rain enchantments across the Tuscan countryside. But all we get now is a tiny plaque in the museum’s largest room to try to explain what it’s about.”
I was the one grinning now, her saltiness going fine with my latte.
“Sorry.” Megan sighed. “I get intense about early modern magic.”
“Don’t apologize to me. I spend my days reminding kids magic doesn’t have to be practical or political or even beautiful to be worth their time. And magic sure as hell can be beautiful and political and practical all at the same time.”
“I can drink to that.” She raised her coffee cup.
“Cheers,” I said.
She brushed her hair behind her ear, the same cut she’d had in college. But there was something in her face I hadn’t seen before. Or had it always been there? I remembered her saying in Morgan’s class that day that creative magic is more sophisticated because it doesn’t have the same narrow confines as practical magic. But had I been too focused on how we thought differently back then to see the similarities underneath?
“Do you have time to stop by my office?” Megan asked. “I want to show you something.”
She hadn’t been kidding: the staff hallways at the MMM were blank, the linoleum plain. In the interior of the sprawling building, windows and sunshine gave way to fluorescent lighting, the marble replaced with concrete. Down a long corridor, Megan waved me into a small office with a magic security ring. The walls were bright with conference posters and Renaissance art prints, a couple leather chairs huddled next to a telescoping window, which showed a view of the sea, maybe off Cape Cod.
“This is cute,” I said.
“Thanks.” She said the word long, like she didn’t quite believe me. “It’s starting to feel homey. My parents got me the window after they first visited me here.”
Megan rummaged through her desk drawers; I stood by the door, unsure if I should sit.
“Here it is.” She held up a white box with the museum gift shop logo on it.
“For me?” I asked as she handed it over.
“Well, not exactly. I got it for me, but when you messaged me and said you’d be visiting Boston, I thought you’d like it.”
I meant to protest, but I was curious. Inside the box sat a paperweight replica of Barthélemy’s The Generation of Heat, the tiny flames curling in delicate scrollwork but emitting no heat, not even enough to catch the tissue paper on fire.
Megan smiled at my puzzled look. “The museum had a big Barthélemy exhibit when I interviewed, and they had the original Generation of Heat here. In Boston. I was fangirling hard. I really wanted the curator job, and I knew I wanted a keepsake from my visit even if I didn’t land it. This seemed appropriate. Barthélemy made me think of Morgan’s class and all the years of studying and writing and researching that led me this far.”
I tried to imagine where I’d put it, in my office next to the shelf of loud, messy student magic pieces, or on my desk in the second bedroom of my apartment I never actually used for work at home. It didn’t fit. Yet Megan had wrapped it up for me, before I even got to the museum this morning.
“That’s so sweet of you,” I said. “But I can’t . . . It’s for you, and how you’ve worked your ass off to get here.”
“No, it made me think of you, even when I first bought it.” She looked down, hesitated. “It’s a shame we were never really friends. I’ve thought about messaging you before, but I figured you made your own way in magic, in a different direction than me. But I’ve always been interested to see what you did next. After college I was jealous of your internship with Wizards Without Borders. I googled your school in Springfield when you started there. I’ve followed your after-school program on Instagram since it launched and look forward to the out-of-the-box projects your students are working on. I loved the MagiCraft article.”
I shook my head. I was missing something, wasn’t I?
“Why?” I asked. “What was there to see?”
She laughed uncertainly, looking for the right words.
“Real magic,” she said. “Magic that’s alive and happening right now. Sometimes I’d feel lost, deep in the library stacks, or sifting through endless analyses of five-hundred-year-old enchantments on JSTOR. Don’t get me wrong. I love my research, and I love my work. But like I said earlier, so often it seems like no one cares about magic history anymore, or what we can learn from what the great magicians of the past were really doing in their day. That’s when I’d look you up online and wonder if you’d chosen better, teaching people magic that makes a difference to their lives today.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe my ears. All I knew was I was tearing up.
“I’m sorry.” Megan sat on her desk and folded her arms. “You don’t have to take the Barthélemy if you don’t want it.”
“No,” I said, firmly. I touched her arm. “It’s just I’ve always thought the same of you. You know, that’s what real magicians do. When I saw you were at the MMM, I almost didn’t message you.”
She tilted her head. “I’m glad you did.”
I closed the gift box, slid it in my purse.
“I hope it goes well. Your presentation. You’ll have to text me afterward to tell me how it went.”
That familiar flutter in my gut. But it wasn’t as strong this time.
“I hope so too.”
Megan smiled. “I know it will.”
I couldn’t say it then, I know it will too. But as I crossed the atrium, my footsteps echoing down the marble front stairs, Vesuvius’s Thunderstorm rumbling behind me, the words resonated deep inside me.
I know it will too.
About the Author: Joel Armstrong is a speculative fiction writer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also an editor at an indie book publisher, and speaks at conferences for writers and editors. He and his wife share a house with two naughty cats, Gadget and Rigby. Find out more at joeljarmstrong.com or follow him on Instagram @joelarmstrongwrites. This is his first published story.
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