by David McLeod
Magic, even the "simple" magic they called "boy magic" was pretty impressive stuff, but I still do not know how it works.
It has been six months since we found ourselves on what we now know to be a different world in a different universe from our own. That would be six long months—the months are 40 days, based on the phases of the larger of two moons. There are however, 12 months, making the year 480 days. I talked to one of the monks about their lunar calendar and wasn't really surprised to learn that they adjusted their solar calendar to account for the slight difference between twelve, 40-day months and the actual length of the solar year.
Despite what we've been told and have seen, it is hard to accept that we are on a different world. Despite discovering magic, it is hard to accept. Despite leaving winter and finding ourselves in summer, it is hard to accept. Despite meeting Alan, and knowing that elves were real, it is hard to accept. What forced me to believe we were on a different world was what I saw the first night I saw the stars.
Both Larry and I had earned the astronomy merit badge. I was more fascinated than Larry, and bought a telescope, which I could take into the countryside outside J'ville. Larry accompanied me, of course, but he did it more for the cuddling in our sleeping bags zippered together afterwards, than for the stars. I knew the night sky of the northern hemisphere, and had studied star charts of the southern hemisphere. It had been my ambition, some day, to travel to Australia and see its night skies from the land around Uluru, what most people called Ayers Rock.
I realized the first full day we were on this world that we were in the southern hemisphere. The sun's position gave that away. I realized a few nights later that none of the stars I saw were those of my Earth. The galaxy, which we called the Milky Way, these people call the River. It is much brighter and more full of stars than at home. Is it our Milky Way seen from a different world? I did not know, and did not know a way to find out.
Yet, even as I asked that question, I knew the answer was no. It is a tenet of science that physical laws are everywhere the same—in our universe. But magic does not comport with the physical laws I know; therefore, I know that we are in a different universe—perhaps in another bubble in the infinite foam of universes that is predicted by some of the most advanced hypotheses of quantum physics. I will accept that explanation until I can show otherwise.
I have tried to remember the most essential things that have happened since we arrived on this world so that someday I could write them in a journal. These early entries may have suffered from the erosion of memory over time.
Artie was surprised when I asked for pen and paper. The words for pen (rather, "writing stick") and paper were in our new language, so I assumed they existed. What I didn't expect was how scarce paper would be. It's handmade. Of course it is, and once Artie said that, I understood the reason. There's no technology here beyond Earth's Middle Ages. Artie said that some of these monks made paper, and I offered to help in return for a few pages.
Artie warned me that there were both secrets and magic involved in papermaking, and he wasn't sure if the monks who made paper would share the secrets. I had made paper for a merit badge, and offered to tell them the secrets I knew. Now Artie was surprised. So was Brother Gergen, the monk in charge of papermaking.
Making paper is simple, really, using the process invented in China around 100 CE. Repeatedly pound and soak wood. The inner bark of many trees is good. Pour the mixture of water and wood fiber onto a piece of cloth, stretched on a wooden frame. When it dries, you peel off the sheet of paper. You can also squeeze out the water in a press. This is more difficult, but it yields a smoother paper.
Brother Gergen described the process they used, which includes putting an acid—vinegar—into the mix to soften the wood. I learned that most of their secrets were nothing more than high-school-level chemistry. Except that when I think chemistry the word in this language is alchemy.
I surprised them by knowing at least as much as they did about alchemy (and perhaps more than they knew), and also by showing them that adding fine, white clay to the mix would make the paper smoother and keep the ink from spreading. They didn't know that. I also showed them how to make a caustic solution by soaking wood ash in water. It turned out they knew about that. In fact, they do that to make soap, but it hadn't occurred to them to use it to soften wood pulp for paper. It's a lot easier than distilling vinegar, and will increase paper production significantly. On the other hand, I've introduced more new technology to this world. I wonder if that's a good thing.
Despite the passage of time and long discussions with the senior and Brother Sebastian, I am no closer to determining how we got here or who brought us. The senior is not as certain as I that it was someone and not something that is responsible. I have told him that I cannot believe in an impersonal, magical force, and I believe that I have convinced him that any force must be from people, and not myth. On the other hand, I wonder if I am introducing skepticism where it should not exist.
Dad had taught me how to cook. He told me that before he met Mom he'd lived on cheese sandwiches, tuna fish, and something called "TV Dinners." It all sounded pretty awful. I was accustomed to being in the kitchen, even though our current cooking for—and cleaning up after—a couple of hundred people is a lot different from what I did at home, and is actually quite a chore.
The spoons we use to stir the cauldrons are eight feet long. We stand on a stone platform beside the stove in order to reach the kettle. It took a while, but with Artie's help, Larry and I learned to channel the magic we received from each other, and increasingly from other boys, into our tasks. It didn't make them easy, but it did make them easier. Magic channeled into our hands, for instance, made dishwashing almost a breeze and—after patient lessons from Alan, who was fast becoming a friend—we learned how to sterilize the dishes at the same time. Magic, even the "simple" magic they called "boy magic" was pretty impressive stuff!
I still do not know how it works.
I had not given up on my love of flying, and was thinking of making a kite—something these people are familiar with—but Larry suggested that I make a hot air balloon.
I thought he was kidding, and nearly dismissed the idea. However, the opportunity came sooner than either of us would have expected. The winter solstice is an occasion for celebration. It marks the "return of light" to the world, although it has a purely symbolic meaning. I was relieved to learn that these people had not invented a religion to go along with their dedication to that which is good. I remember telling the J'Ville School Board that it is possible to be good without god. These people are constant proof of that.
With Artie's help, I constructed globes of rice paper, using glue made of fish guts. Alan took pity on us, and taught Larry a spell to take away the smell from the glue. Larry's other responsibility was preparing a heat source to push hot air into the globes, causing them to rise. At first, I tried to model the globes on the hot air balloons of our Earth; however, they were unstable. Larry reminded me of the design of the first balloons, flown by the Montgolfier brothers and their contemporaries. That worked quite well.
The best-laid plans gang aft agley in the words of Robert Burns, or so it seemed. In order that the balloons would be visible in the gloaming, we attached tiny beeswax candles to them. Unfortunately, this also set them on fire, much to the delight of the village children who had gathered to watch. Larry's magic worked both ways: he was able to draw the fire from the falling balloons before anyone was burned.
I thought perhaps of making a larger balloon—one that would carry Larry and me aloft. While we might have kept it airborne using strictly heat magic, there was no way I'd be able to construct a balloon large enough. It was a fun, but highly impractical idea.
The afternoon after the festival, Brother Sebastian summoned the four of us to his workshop. I sensed that he wasn't happy about something, and that it had to do with my balloons.
I was right about that. I thought I was going to get in trouble because they burned. I was wrong about that.
"Paul, those balloons were an example of your world's technology, were they not?"
"Yes sir," I said. "It's like I said about lightning: heat makes the air expand—"
"Is it a good idea to spread technology to our world?" Brother Sebastian interrupted. "I know you've improved our papermaking—both quality and quantity. I have asked Brother Gergen to ensure that is kept secret among only our people. These balloons, innocent as a child, hold a potential that may not be innocent. And that concerns me."
I remembered, then, something from flight school. Benjamin Franklin had been present at the launch of one of the Montgolfier Brothers' early balloons. Someone had asked him of what use it was. Franklin had replied, "Of what use is a child?"
I'm afraid I nearly passed out when I understood the implications of what I had done. Balloons were used in the American Civil War to watch enemy forces, to direct cannon fire. The earliest airships were built for war.
Brother Sebastian must have seen my reaction—I'm sure my face must have turned pale. "Paul, you said someone was preventing you from talking about your science and technology, at least, was preventing you from talking about certain parts of it. Is that still true?"
I tried to explain an internal combustion engine, and then a steam engine, and found I could not. "Yes, sir. There are still things of which I cannot speak. But thunder and hot-air balloons are not included."
Brother Sebastian took several minutes to think, and then said, "Paul, Larry, Artie, Alan, on your oaths do not discuss thunder or these hot-air balloons with anyone not present in this room today. Do not, on your oaths, introduce any more technology without first talking to me and getting my approval.
"I do not want to inhibit you, but I do not want to see World disturbed by things for which we are not prepared. Do you understand?"
Although he asked us all, I was sure the question was addressed to me. "Yes, sir. I have wondered, especially about the papermaking. I think I was depending on the person who brought us here to guide me on this. I think, however, you would be a better guide."
After the failure of my hot air balloons, and my understanding of their impracticality, I had just about given up on ever flying, again.
"Why," I asked one sunny afternoon when we boys had escaped our chores to swim in a pond. "Why can't you use your magic to make us fly on a magic carpet? Or blanket—I haven't seen any rugs around here."
Alan heard the question, and answered it for Larry. "The spell would have to be continuously renewed, and if Larry were interrupted the spell would be broken and you would fall. There are spells that last a long time, but they are very difficult. Usually, they are not very powerful, either, and such a spell would have to be one of great power."
"It would be hard to control, as well," Larry added. "Magic isn't constant. It isn't at the same strength everywhere. If we flew over a lake, for example, where it was concentrated, we might fly too high or fast, and fall off."
I was tired from work as well as the boisterous play in the pond. I'm afraid that my fatigue allowed my disappointment to bring tears to my eyes. Both Larry and Alan comforted me, so it wasn't all bad.
Even though our principal job was in the kitchen, Larry and I—and everyone, for that matter—were also farmers. It was a different kind of work, and we enjoyed our time outdoors.
We'd been at the commune (I prefer that term to monastery) for about nine months. It was spring, and time to put in the new vegetables. Everyone worked at that task.
Artie knelt beside me and put his hands around the tomato seedling I'd just planted. "Now," he said. "You tell it to grow."
"You're kidding, right?" I asked.
"No, really," he said. "You must tell it to grow."
He cocked his head, and then looked at me. "You're a strange boy.
"Oh," he added. "I mean that in a good way. You question everything I grew up accepting without question, and make me think about things I've never thought of, before. Thank you." He turned his face and kissed my cheek.
I felt a jolt of magic course through my body. I gasped, and felt my penis pushing uncomfortably against the linen fundoshi that was all we boys wore in the garden. "What was that?" I whispered.
Artie put his hand on my cheek. "Magic," he said. "The Great Magic. I'd gathered it for the plant. Some went into you when I kissed you.
"What did you feel?" His hand was still on my cheek, and my penis was still throbbing. I put my hand on his.
"It felt like . . ." I couldn't think of the word I wanted, so I said, "It felt like shuffling across the floor on a cold winter day and then touching someone, or a metal door handle, and seeing a spark fly from your finger. Do you know of that?"
Artie nodded. "Oh, yes," he said.
I continued. "It was very, very sexual—and still is . . ."
"That's because I love you so much," Artie said. Then, he said, "What's wrong?"
My erection had gone away like a burst balloon, and a chill ran down my spine. Artie must have seen on my face the effect of his words. He loves me? Oh, shit! I thought.
"Uh, Artie, I like you a lot, and sex with you is truly wonderful." I took his hand from my cheek and squeezed it. "But I love Larry, and he and I are pledged to one another." At least, that's what I wanted to say, but it came out, " . . . sworn to one another."
Artie laughed and then kissed my cheek, again. Again, I felt a shock as my penis hardened. How does he do that?
"I know that, silly!" Artie said. "Everyone who can see magic can see your bond with Larry! That doesn't mean I can't love you, or you can't love me, or that we can't be friends forever."
By this point I was so overwhelmed with sensations, emotions, and questions that I almost missed the most important thing Artie said: "friends forever." Either that, or I dismissed it as his culture's version of the "BFF—Best Friends Forever" fad that swept J'Ville when Larry and I were about 15. Of course, we wore the matching bracelets. It was a long time before I began to understand the notion of reincarnation that is so important to this culture—and even longer before I could accept it.
"Okay, I can understand the love part, I guess. I think I can love you—"
"And Alan! You must love Alan! He loves you—and Larry, too."
"And Alan." This time, I kissed his cheek. "But not now. Brother Tuber is walking this way, and that's not a smile on his face!"
Artie tried to teach me how to gather the Great Magic and to use it to tell the plant to grow. It was only when we held hands that I got any idea what he was doing. He said it took years to learn. Oh, and the sex Artie and I had after our bath that day was utterly incredible.
That was the day I found out the monks grew rice, not in flooded paddies, but on dry land, watered only by rain. I remembered reading about that in a book. I think the title was something like "One Straw Revolution." A guy I had met on a gay web site had told me about it. He was a great correspondent, and an excellent writer. I miss him.
I talked to Brother Gergen about using rice stalks for paper. They'd never tried that, but he was very interested when I told him it made a much lighter paper than they were making.
The magic of this world has some unexpected side effects. The most important is that it explained itself to us. That, of course, is illogical and impossible since I am certain that someone rather than something is responsible for our being here, and for helping us cope with the changes we've experienced as well as preventing us from talking about our science and technology—at least, most of it. That is not, however, entirely comforting.
We have learned that the magic we share with one another and with the other boys is a weak form of a greater energy. Larry is becoming quite adept at controlling the greater magic: he lit the fire in the stove, yesterday, using nothing but his mind and a wave of his hand. I cannot do that. I told him he was quite a magician, but the word that came out was mage. Artie was very impressed when we told him what Larry had done. When Artie says cleric, he means magic user. The boys here don't get to become clerics until they've shown they can control magic.
Life at this monastery-that's-not-a-monastery is not difficult. Our tasks in the kitchen are not onerous, and we have time for study and play. We are often asked to help with the gardening, and both Larry and I enjoy the time we spend out-of-doors. The weather is mild, and rain is plentiful. Still, the truck garden requires a lot of work. I've finally learned how to use the great magic to help with some of the simpler tasks—and I can "tell" a plant to grow and see the results of my work. (I did an experiment, telling every other bean seed to grow, and ignoring the ones in between. Brother Tuber knew of it, and approved. Yes, magic works, and you really can tell a plant to grow.)
Even with magic, however, a day of farming leaves me exhausted. Not, however, too exhausted to share with Larry, and with other boys. I remember Andy, the Australian boy who was the first—and only—person to share a bed with Larry and me on Earth. He taught us that love shared was love enlarged. That is even more true on this world. At first, I thought all the boys were just promiscuous; later, I understood that sex is an adjunct to love, and that it is possible to have a deep love for more than one person. Most of the adults in the community have formed life bonds and are monogamous or polyamorous in small groups, and I expect that Larry and I will be that way, someday. However, while we are boys (or teens—or "tweens" as they say) things are considerably more relaxed—and, a lot of fun.
Larry continues to learn how to control the great magic, something that I still have difficulty with. Alan is quite advanced. I found out that he'd been studying magic here for more than four hundred years. Yes, that was another assumption burst by the reality of World: people live hundreds of years. I should say humans live hundreds of years, which explains why neither Larry nor I seem to be aging. And Elves like Alan live thousands of years.
My next plan for flying was to build a hang-glider. I'd never built anything larger than a kite, although at eight years of age I did build a replica of the Wright Brothers' first airplane that flew across the living room before crashing into Mom's china cabinet. Still, I made elaborate plans, until Larry pointed out that hang gliders were made of aluminum and synthetic fabric, neither of which exists here. I tried to argue for willow branches and silk, until I realized that we'd not seen any silk, either. The idea never even made it to Brother Sebastian for vetting.
Larry says he shares my passion to fly. And I know he's speaking the truth. So far, I've been trying to do it through technology. Larry has focused on learning the ways of this world, so that he can find a native solution. I've begun to think that the only way is to find one of those mythic, giant birds or—more unlikely than that—a dragon.