The heat is on. Weather, I mean. This is full-on, undoubtedly by anyone’s definition, summer. At night, there are fireflies. In the daytime, we hear cicadas. We shut the Mansion up tight against the heat before we leave to go about our day. By mid-day, the Great Hall is dark and cool and almost deserted.
Almost. Sometimes, when I pass through, I find someone else sitting quietly there in the gloom and sometimes I stop and talk to that person—it’s often Allen. I like having these little, apparently accidental meetings with him.
Today, I saw him sitting there on one of the couches, which had been turned around so it faced outward, away from the fireplace. I almost didn’t see him. Allen can make himself curiously invisible—he’s not literally invisible, but he’s hard to see. Your eyes slide off of him. But today, when my eyes passed over, something tickled my brain and I looked back. He smiled and de-cloaked—I mean, he suddenly became much clearer and more obvious. He was sitting there, petting Greg’s Cat, who got up and ran away the instant Allen became plainly visible.
“How do you do that?” I asked. He laughed.
“How do you see me?” he asked, by way of reply. “You’re getting quite magical yourself.” He patted the space beside him on the couch and I sat next to him. “I’m glad you see me.”
I wasn’t sure whether he meant that he’s glad to be known by me, to whatever extent I actually know him, or that he was glad I’d noticed him that particular moment, like he was glad for the chance to talk with me. Either way, I felt quite touched.
We didn’t actually talk for a bit, though. The room was so dark and quiet and still.
“Can I ask you a question?” I said, finally.
Allen laughed again, a minimal laugh, something between a grunt and a snort, a single huff of laughter. I wish I had more words for the sounds people make when they are pleased or amused. I glanced over and he raised one eyebrow at me—I’d left myself open to a smart-ass remark so obvious that he wasn’t even bothering to say it. I chuckled and shook my head.
“That thing Ebony does to see that you don’t know about,” I began, meaning her use of cannabis, which Allen certainly does know about. There’s no internal rule of our community against drug use, provided nothing illegal comes on campus, but the masters don’t want to appear to condone it, and there’s a strict rule against using mind-altering substances as part of one’s studies. You can’t use hallucinogens to see spirits, for example. Ebony doesn’t use cannabis to see spirits, but she does use it to see and Allen helped her learn to understand vision. “Why did you make an exception?”
“Why do you think?” Allen almost always answers questions with more questions. “I’m not quizzing you, I really want to know what you think.”
He may be my friend, but his status as one of my teachers is ever-present. He weights different parts of the conversation with his experience and authority very deliberately.
“I think you like her,” I hazarded, “and that you knew she wasn’t going to do any of the stupid things that made us have to have the rule to begin with.”
“Right on both counts, but those aren’t the reasons. I’ll give you a hint; what kind of stupidity do you think required the rule?”
“People using spirituality and magic as an excuse to party and be irresponsible? And I imagine you didn’t want to enable addiction.”
“Half right. Another hint; why do you think people try to use drugs for spirit and magic? Aside from excuses to party, I mean.”
“I don’t know. Maybe for seeing spirits? But that only works for hallucinogens. I don’t know, Allen. Will you tell me?”
“Alright. A lot of people look for spiritual experiences, by which they mean feeling or thinking differently from what they normally do--and drugs will give you that. So will sex, extreme exercise, fasting, whatever. But how you feel is irrelevant. Your experiences, all by themselves, are irrelevant. You blow your mind, then come back to Earth and live exactly as you did before. There's no magic in that. The magic is the process by which you engage with experience, how you actually accomplish change. Drugs are a tool--but they're a very distracting tool, and I doubt if anyone can really use them well without guidance from a teacher, and we have no such teachers here. Except Ebony actually uses a drug to give her an experience that I can teach her how to use. I made an exception for her because she made an exception of me. She is exceptional."
"She is." I could think of no other response, but his explanation was interesting.
"Ok, my turn," announced Allen. I turned to him, expectant. "How's the search for magic going?"
I looked at him, a moment, confused. I didn't think he was asking about my studies with Joy. He waited. Finally, giving me a hint, produced his wand, waved it, and pointed--and when I say "produced," I mean it appeared apparently out of nowhere.
"Harry Potter!" I exclaimed. He nodded.
When I first got here, I'd just read some of the Harry Potter books and they formed my image of what magic, and a magical community looked like. When I talked with Allen a few weeks in about magic and he asked me why I'd come to the school, I'd confessed to him that I wanted to live inside a Harry Potter story. I didn't mean literally, I just meant there was some indescribable quality to those stories that I wanted. He didn't laugh at me. He understood. And, all these years later, he'd remembered.
I thought for a minute.
"I've got it," I told him, quietly. "I mean, I'm doing ok with manifestation with Joy--I think she's going to give me her signature in that area soon, but that's not it. That's interesting, I suppose, but it's not wonder. But when I'm outside and I see something...it could be a little bug, or a bird, or a deer, or a new plant...it doesn't happen all the time, but sometimes...it might as well be a unicorn--or a hippogriff, or whatever. Something mythological.And, at the same time, it's so real. More real than anything normally is."
"Unicorns were real," he commented*. "They were a species of large, extinct rhinoceros. Magic isn't just real--the real is magic. That's why I'm a rationalist magician."
"The real is magical. Yeah. That's like something Charlie would say. It's like...realler than real, like the world suddenly opens itself up to me and I can see what's actually there, not just any plant or bug or squirrel, but that particular plant or bug or squirrel just...opens itself to me. It's intimate."
I was starting to babble, to repeat myself, and still I felt as though I hadn't quite explained it. And yet Allen nodded.
"That's why you can see me when I'm invisible," he said.
*That Siberian unicorns shared their habitat with humans is a recent discovery, and hadn't yet happened when Allen and I had this conversation in 2003, but Siberian unicorns themselves were discovered in the 1800s.