Chapter 12: The Living and the Dead
“Can you actually levitate your own body?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t tried,” I said with a shrug.
“What’s the coolest thing you’ve tried and succeeded at?”
“When I came to this country, I wore glasses. Thick ones. Today, I have better than 20/20 vision.” Then, because it was obvious that I wasn’t wearing glasses now, I clarified, “And I’m not wearing contacts.”
She stared at me, disbelieving.
“Your jean shorts are Land’s End brand. I saw the embossed text on your fly button as you were removing them. It’s a tricky brand to identify, because the design is so understated and missing all of the gaudy branding on most other jeans.”
“So, you were staring at my fly, were you?” she teased.
“Intently,” I admitted. “If you want more proof, walk ahead several feet and flash something I can’t have seen already, which has small print on it. Maybe a business card from your wallet?”
She walked on for about five seconds, then said, “It’s fine, I believe you.”
“Pretty darned cool, yeah? It’s actually a near necessity to get on with as a mage, since glasses and contacts are technology, so they interfere with magic use. I got lucky with my first nudism explorations out here in the desert, choosing to treat my glasses as part of my clothing, taking them off along with everything else; I wanted to be as bare as possible. That was a lucky choice, because it was only in that condition that I could discover my magic. Shortly after I figured out the correlation, I decided to fix my eyes, so I could still see while doing magic.”
She didn’t respond, so I continued, “Ever wonder why doctors in the Harry Potter universe can heal broken bones from Quidditch accidents overnight, but so many of the mages wear eyeglasses? Why don’t they magic their eyesight better, too?”
She nodded, accepting my fanciful premise. I noticed that her eyes were a pale green, almost grey.
“I wondered that, too. I didn’t take the books’ description of magic seriously, of course, not just because they’re children’s stories clearly written by a non-magician, but also because I’d already come up with several other discrepancies between the way Rowling claims magic works and what I’d witnessed firsthand. Therefore, I decided that it had to be a plot hole, and that real magic would allow this. I simply decided to reshape my eyeballs to be more nearly spherical, and now I don’t need glasses. It didn’t take too much work. The correct shape was pretty obvious once I got in there and started to feel things out. It’s kind of like how you can tell a perfect circle on paper from a slightly flattened one without pulling out the compass and straightedge. Once I’d gotten it close, refining it was interactive, like focusing the lens on an old manual camera. It was easy.”
“The difficult part,” I continued, “was getting past the fear. I was basically doing first-time-ever eyeball surgery on myself, with no help. What if I’d screwed up? But I just knew it had to be possible. Nature knows what the correct shape is; she’s just imperfect at implementing it. It felt right that I should be able to nudge things back into her correct pattern. I turned out to be right, and didn’t end up blinding myself.”
“Wow. That kinda makes me pucker up just thinking about it.”
That got my attention. I couldn’t help but think of her tightening buns. She realized the effect she’d had on me and blushed, but I didn’t say anything, and neither did she.
She valiantly tried to drag the conversation back on topic. “Wait a minute. You just said you did experimental eye surgery on yourself… Why not get laser eye surgery from a real doctor? You didn’t, did you?”
“No, I thought about it, but the failure rate is still too high for my comfort. Also, I suspected at the time that it might actually wreck my budding magical career by inscribing permanent geometrical scars on my eyeballs. That sounded to me like a permanent mark of technology, which could forever prevent me from being a good magician. But scars are also natural, so I now wonder if that was a foolish worry. I’m not quite sure how that difference shakes out now. What I do know is that I’m not willing to try the experiment, nor to ask anyone else to try it.”
“What about other body modifications?” she wondered. “Tattoos? Dental fillings? Surgical scars? Amputations?”
“I don’t have any of those myself, but I don’t think remaining untouched and pure is a prerequisite to being a magician,” I opined.
Kaitlin interrupted, “Wow, no fillings at all?”
“Nope,” I confirmed. “I grew up in urban India, where we had access to reasonably good dentistry, but we were also poor enough that we had a strong incentive not to use the dentist’s services. My parents made very sure I developed good dental hygiene habits, that being a much cheaper option. I think people in this country treat it more casually, because it’s so much easier to get a procedure done as a percentage of household income. With insurance, people treat it as ‘free,’ a common logical fallacy.”
I resumed the prior topic. “As we teach more magicians, we’ll gather enough natural data to piece the answers together without actually doing human experimentation. For instance, if we never find a budding magician with an amputation, well past the occurrence of amputees in the population as a proportion of the magical community, we’ll have fairly good evidence that losing a limb means you lose your magic as well. Or vice versa, if we have a trained magician that has to have an amputation for some medical purpose, that’ll be a natural experiment, in the scientific sense, which will help answer the question.”
“Teeth are only somewhat living, so drilling a bit out of them for a filling isn’t a huge intrusion into your body’s magical field, especially if you use an amalgam filling, a much more natural material than the more modern white composite ones. Also, baby teeth fall out, and wisdom teeth often have to be pulled out. I suspect teeth are only lightly connected to the body’s natural field. An even better case can be made for fingernails and hair, since if their loss or damage materially affected the mage’s power, we’d only ever have infant practitioners. As for sympathetic magic… Well, never mind that; let’s not get off topic.”
“Surgical scars are marks of unnatural technology, but the body’s response to the damage is natural. If every historical magician lost his magic over his first cut or scrape, I’m not sure we’d even know the word ‘magic.’ I can argue this one either way, so I think we just need more data.”
“As for tattoos, that’s also iffy. Maybe they’d actually help, being injections of natural pigments into the body. There are historical traditions that actually used tattoos in a magical context, such as the Druids, so I lean towards them being a help, but figuring out which patterns help and how will be tricky. Or, maybe it is the case that Druid magic doesn’t work because their potential practitioners all got themselves tattooed. That sort of thing could help explain why so much of magic is bunk.”
“If you want a body modification with a high chance of preventing magic use,” I mused, “I think getting an RFID tag implanted would do it. A pacemaker is also probably a finishing blow to a mage’s talent.”