White Magic

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Pieter Bruegel); Source

The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?
– J. B. Priestley

It was on a cold, snowy December morning in the city of Landon that Icarus died. He was not quite sure how it had happened. Threading his way through the blur of traffic, he had arrived at the pavement opposite the Aeronautical Control Tower, where he worked. One moment he was staring at the tower, contemplating the sweep of its columns as they soared skyward, and the next he was perceiving his dead body from within the crowd of strangers that had gathered around it. He had often seen old film projections of that phenomenon – the name escaped him – where someone died on a hospital bed, surrounded by friends and family, and a ghostly copy of their body lingered on in the room. It was bizarre that anyone could even be sure of what happened after death, or rather, he thought, after life.

Turning his attention to the scene before him, Icarus realised that those films had been preparing him for this moment. His still body lay in the middle of the pavement, unresponsive to the attempts of the paramedics checking for signs of life. He felt what could be best described as a distant pity for the fallen body, which he was already beginning to disown. He was something else now, a fact that he accepted without much fuss. He could remember his life in Landon: a cup of coffee every morning in the office and a long shower every night in his apartment. But those memories held no weight now as he – or the form that was he – moved away from the other that was no longer him.

Further away from the commotion, Icarus began to examine his curious new form. He realised that his faculties had transformed in a most peculiar way. It was a completely novel experience for him to be able to – and here he was made aware of these things – see, hear, smell, taste and touch the things around him. While he was alive, all he knew of the world had been perceived through his mind; he had no use for other senses. Now, words and image-thoughts began rushing into his consciousness as they gained meaning from his new sensory perceptions. He felt the chill of the biting winter air and saw the white icicles of snow hanging from the branches of barren trees. He passed by a café and smelled the warm brew of coffee over the pristine smell of freshly fallen snow. Each discovery sent a fresh arrow of joy through his new form, which he had begun to call his “ethopos”.

As Icarus walked the streets, he realised that no one seemed to notice him. Office workers were rushing to work, just as he was a few minutes before his death. Many of them barged right into him, and to his surprise, their bodies did not bump into his form. They sliced through him, marring his senses. Puzzled, he recalled the films he had seen depicting death and what happened after it. The people who died often turned into ghosts whose presences were seen by some and felt by many. But on the streets, no one seemed to notice his presence. Walking into a café, he grabbed a sandwich off the counter, trying to elicit a reaction from the cashier. Her mind bore right through him; she was blind to his presence. He looked at the sandwich in his ethoporeal hand and was shocked to discover that it was back on the counter, in its original position. He tried to lift a cup of coffee from the table of an unsuspecting patron – only to discover that what he was trying to lift was, in fact, the ethoporeal form of the cup. As soon as he had the cup in his hands, it quivered, dissipated, and returned to being an ordinary cup on the table. Fear began to build in him. He had died and now he was trapped in a world that he could sense, but could not interact with.

Icarus left the café, feeling heavy and confused. Out on the streets, the sun was rising swiftly overhead, melting the snow from the tops of trees and the roofs of cars. He sighed, touching the white snow that caked the bushes along the sidewalk. He immediately felt a dizzying jolt of energy shoot through his ethopos. So far, it seemed that the only thing he could interact with was snow, and so he searched the surroundings for a large patch of snow. Remembering that Central Park was just around the corner, he briskly made his way there. Snow carpeted the grass at Central Park, glittering in the midday sun. The park was deserted. Icarus stood on the sidewalk in a pool of melted snow, gazing at the solid carpet of white through the iron bars of the perimeter. He wondered if he could pass through them without rounding the corner to enter by the main gate. Bracing himself, he surged forward into the bars. He was right – there he was, landing safely on a patch of snow-coated grass. Delicious little jolts coursed through him and seemed to infuse his ethopos with a new sense of power and vitality. He bent down to touch the snow, and the chill bit his hand like a viper. His vision blurred from the whiteness of the snow and the heat from the midday sun. As he began to straighten up, the sun became a giant magnet that seemed to compel him towards it, drawing his dazed form skywards. Icarus could hardly believe what was happening. He was flying.

All his life, Icarus had wondered how it would feel like to be above, looking down with a bird’s eye view on Life. Some nights he would stand by the window of his apartment, thinking about the blessed ones who took the leap of faith, hurtling through the window and into the heart of the truth. He would never know that truth while he lived, but now in death he did. He was watching the world from above, drifting amongst the clouds, propelled by a mysterious force exerted by the red ball of fire suspended in the sky. He tried to look at the sun, but the sight marred his senses so greatly that he could not see for a while. He then stretched out his ethoporeal hands and felt the wet, misty clouds. They were grey and bereft of magic, completely unlike how he had imagined them to be.

The sun carried Icarus a little way amongst the clouds, which were dense with moisture. Through the clouds, he could see the snow-capped roofs of buildings, the clear ice crystals hanging off the branches of trees and the movement of people on the streets. It was as if he were looking at a miniature scale model of the city, where the people were ants crawling around in their colony. For a brief moment he fancied himself as the Supreme Being, with everyone at his beck and call. That moment passed quickly and he felt almost ashamed for entertaining such thoughts, but all the same, they had aroused his curiosity. Where was he heading now that he was dead and flying by the sun? He had always believed in an afterlife due to some strange, irrational impulse of faith in the continuation of his existence. He did not, however, believe in one or many gods, although he was more accepting of that notion in his current state.

He looked down again and saw the undulating blue of the ocean stretching from horizon to horizon. He had evidently travelled further than he had expected. Perhaps time passed by more quickly higher above the ground. Perhaps time flowed on more quickly now that he was dead. His thoughts were interrupted by a creeping sensation of heat and fatigue. He became aware of an overwhelming thirst that sapped his energy. An image-thought flashed through his mind. Snow. He needed snow to revive his senses, but there was no snow here. The fiery visage of the sun inched closer to Icarus as it compelled him upwards and onwards. His senses trembled with the onslaught of each successive wave of heat and he grew progressively weaker. He mustered one last surge of strength and directed his vision at his fiery tormentor in a dual gesture of supplication and defiance. The sun glared back, red and unblinking, an evil eye that seared his senses with its all-consuming fire. Finally, he dropped his gaze and surrendered. The rays of the sun lit Icarus’ descent as he plunged into the cool depths of the ocean.

He awoke to the gentle sound of water droplets hitting his forehead. His hand trembled as it rose and found something solid in place of his ethoporeal head. His hand was no longer ethoporeal too, and he could feel cool, tingly sensations prickling his new body. He tried to open his eyes to examine himself and realised that they were, in fact, already open. Even so, he could see nothing. Darkness closed in upon him like a black shroud, and the air was dank with a pungent stench. In utter darkness, Icarus staggered to his feet, unfamiliar with the contact of his solid body against the soft, mushy ground. He took a few timid steps forward, arms outstretched, and found the cool veneer of a wall. With both hands pressed against the wall, he began the journey forward. He had taken close to twenty paces when he heard the sound of running water, which seemed to be coming from somewhere ahead, to the left. At the same moment, his ears picked up the faintest sounds of something scurrying towards him, and he shuddered as it brushed past his leg. Its tiny, warm, twitching body was the first sign of life that he had encountered since his death.

As he continued on, keeping to the left, he began to perceive a shaft of light ahead, weakly illuminating the gloom surrounding him. With that faint source of light, he was able to discern what appeared to be the inside of a large cave. A stream of water ran along the ground and branched out into tiny rivulets as it headed towards where he had awoken. The fetid smell of the water kept him from stooping down for a drink, and he did not stop until he was bathed in the glow of that mysterious light, which seemed to be coming from somewhere above his head. His eyes, used to the gloom, hurt as he turned his head towards the light. Against the light, which had grown fierce and penetrating, he began to make out a face. It was stern and noble, yet gentle and kind. The features glowed gently in the light that shone from above. He wondered if he had at last come to the end of his travels, and was about to meet the one who had ordained them – the Supreme Being, lord over all. He wanted to ask questions, receive answers and most of all, to communicate with someone else. But without a word, two strong hands lifted him from the abyss, setting him down on a cold white carpet.

Icarus looked around him and blinked slowly in the light. He did not understand. This place – those trees and those buildings – he knew where he was. He was back in Landon, at the very spot where he had died that morning. His saviour, dressed in workmen’s attire, was looking at him curiously under the glare of the midday sun.

“Well, what the hell are you doing down there, eh? Naked too, in this weather.”

Icarus was half-frozen in the snow. He shivered and tried to say something. His voice, raspy with thirst, was unintelligible. He crushed some snow in the palm of his hand and swallowed it. The snow was a cool draught of relief to his parched throat.

“I… There are things that have happened to me, which you would probably not believe. Where am I? What day is it?”

“Believe you? Ha, I believe you. You’re a druggie who’s lost his memory. We’re in London on the morning of the 10th of December. Go get some pants on before those ladies report you, eh?”

For the first time, Icarus noticed the crowd that had started to gather. People were pointing and staring at his naked body. A few ladies were wrinkling their noses in disgust and tittering amongst themselves. He averted his eyes and rose shakily, trembling from the cold. So he was in Landon, it seemed. The Aeronautical Control Tower was on the left, and just around the bend, Central Park, where he had ascended to the sky. Nothing remained of the dead body that had collapsed on the sidewalk. Nothing had changed except him, and yet there was something subtly different about his surroundings. The murmuring of the gawkers was growing into a hum, like the drone of a swarm of angry bees protecting their hive. Icarus ducked into an alley and was relieved to find a discarded pair of sweatpants draped over one of the trashcans. Hastily slipping them on, he dodged out the other side of the alley and walked briskly to his apartment.

It was only when he stood outside his front door that he realised his keys were missing. He had slipped them into his trouser pocket before leaving for work that morning and they had disappeared along with his corpse. He remembered locking the door that day, but tried the door handle just to be sure. To his surprise, it clicked open with barely any resistance. Icarus stepped through the threshold and licked his lips nervously. Something about his apartment looked different. The long hall table by the door, a family heirloom, was surely the same – except for the white lace doily on the top. He never used lace doilies on his furniture. The curtains were the same shade of green – except for the winding coils of paisley that had now appeared on the cloth. His eyes darted wildly around the room in search of something familiar to ease the rising panic. They lighted upon the newspaper that lay on his carpet, now a dense pile of snow-white fur instead of the Persian rug he had purchased a year ago. Icarus snatched up the newspaper, scanning the headlines wildly. He stood still for a moment, swaying lightly on his toes, and then the newspaper fell from his hand, revealing his ashen face in the mirror. All he could see were the words “The London Telegraph”. London. London. He was in London, not Landon. The image in the mirror came into focus: he saw the wild eyes, the trembling hands and the twisted mouth on his pale, new face. He took a few steps back, alternately staring at himself and at the door. He was staring fixedly at his new human anatomy as footsteps entered the room.

“Carrie, where have you been? Come and get your tea before it- Oh my God, who are you! Help! Thief!”

The tea set crashed to the floor, and the door swung open as a half-naked man raced out to the street below. Then all was quiet. Everything was as it was before, except the brown stain that had already begun to spread across the white expanse of carpet.

-END-


Afterword

When I first started writing “White Magic”, I had no idea how it would turn out, except that I was attempting to mimic David Lindsay’s style in his book A Voyage To Arcturus. I had intended to write in a style that was descriptive yet didactic, open to interpretation yet axiomatic. I had also planned to alienate the reader with a character that seemed uncanny because his similarity to human beings held troubling little incongruities that culminated in the revelation of his true nature at the end.

While I did write my story along those lines, my style developed into something quite different from Lindsay’s. While I intended for Icarus’ death to alienate him from the readers in the beginning, it ended up becoming an intriguing plot device that set the tone of the piece. The first person narration also allowed readers to identify with Icarus and his exploration of the afterlife, which did not achieve the alienating effect that A Voyage To Arcturus does, with its bizarre and surreal images that undercut a possible identification with the first person narration of Maskull. Unlike Maskull, Icarus does not meet many characters along the way who enlighten him with different ways of thinking and perceiving the world. Instead, he passes through different mental states and ways of perception because of the experiences he has while he is alone. Also, in an ironic subversion of the saviour/God motif, Icarus is saved from the filthy London underground by a workman who he mistakes to be the “Supreme Being”. Such irony is also present in A Voyage To Arcturus, where Maskull discovers “God” is actually a demiurge figure. However, the style of this subversion differs, and I believe that my ironic amalgamation of the sacred and the mundane finds more similarities in the works of Philip K. Dick and Chuck Palahniuk.

Another significant point of departure from A Voyage To Arcturus would be the way that “White Magic” privileges the uncanny over the surreal. There are fantastical moments in “White Magic” – Icarus’ ascent and flight towards the sun, which was clearly inspired by Greek mythology – but the story’s horror stems from Icarus’ new reality after his death, which is an uncanny alternate world from the one that he lived in. “White Magic” also shocks the reader at the end, with two parallel discoveries: Icarus discovers to his horror that he is now human, and the reader discovers that he has always been non-human. The reader’s realisation that they had been identifying with an alien “Other” is perhaps more shocking than the fact that Icarus had always been an alien. This is the ultimate form of alienation that “White Magic” effects upon its readers, which exceeds the gradual alienation due to the bizarre and surreal imagery in A Voyage To Arcturus.

The striking difference in this dynamic of alienation is also present in the two voyages that the main characters of the two stories undertake. In A Voyage To Arcturus, the human Maskull travels from Earth to Tormance, with a willing spirit of adventure. His death and rebirth into the non-human Nightspore is alienating, but his voyage is from the familiar into the unfamiliar. In “White Magic”, the alien Icarus travels from his home planet to Earth. His death and rebirth as a human is doubly alienating when at the end it is revealed that his voyage is actually a journey from the unfamiliar into the familiar. Much more could be said about “White Magic” and its relation to A Voyage To Arcturus, but in brief, I feel that I have written my story in counterpoint to Lindsay’s. The differences in style and content lend itself to a resistive ekphrastic relation rather than a more mimetic one.

Copyright © 2012 Antelune. All Rights Reserved.

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