There was always someone who thought they had it figured it out. They all had the same cocksure smile, the same glint of forbidden knowledge behind their eyes, as they came knocking on my door. This newest visitor was no different.
He wore a leather jacket and had a face full of piercings. His hair was shorn short on one side, but long enough everywhere else to fall into his eyes. A goatee completed the look, and I imagined he thought himself a real edgy soul.
He appraised me. Mandrake the Magician T-shirt, cargo shorts, tattered bathrobe, sneakers. He smirked. I ignored that. He’d figure it out.
I took a sip of my Irish coffee in my favorite “Ketumati is for Lovers” mug. “Something I can do for you?”
“I’m here to learn,” he said.
“Who says I’m here to teach?”
His smile stayed. He thought this was a test. Maybe it was. I hadn’t decided yet.
“I seek knowledge. I seek truth,” he said. “I know the power of the old wisdom, and I am worthy.”
I shook my head and laughed. “Yeah. Okay. Come in.”
My home was a mess, but I kept the front tidy enough that we could make our way to the couch. The couch was covered in books though so there was only room for one person. I sat and said,
“Tell me what you know about magic, Richard.”
“You know my name?”
“If I can decipher the ten thousand and three names of the inner gods, figuring out yours is easy, Richard Vincent Hershey. Though you prefer Richie, and your secret name, the name you’ve never told anyone, the name you’ve never even spoken aloud is . . . Dennis Nightflower?” I shrugged. “Good as any, I suppose.”
His smile dropped. There was power in names, and I’d just shown him I knew all his cosmic passwords.
“So, Richie, tell me what you know.”
I could’ve made him do it. I knew his names. This was my home. He had precious little defense against anything I’d throw at him. Yet here he was, compelled by that combination of curiosity and arrogance.
“I know the Six Truths,” he said, “the Seven Secrets, the Untold Laws–”
I held up my hand. “I don’t need a rundown of the lessons you’ve learned. I need to know what you know.”
“There’s a difference?”
“If monkeys could watch YouTube videos, they’d all know how to drive cars.”
“Uh huh.” He tried to sound like he got what I’d meant.
“Memorization is not knowledge,” I said. “It’s part of the process. Admirable even. But it’s not understanding.”
“I want to understand,” he said.
“Do you? It’s not an easy path. It demands sacrifice.”
“I’ve made sacrifices.”
“I know. I can see those sacrifices staining your soul. The things you must have done . . . .”
“It was all worth it,” he said. But he didn’t sound so sure.
I finished off my coffee in one hearty swig, and then we went to the back porch where I had a great view of The Invisible Sea, where dwelt things humanity thought it imagined as well as things humanity had imagined that had become real because the universe could be easily confused.
Iku-turso breached the surface on the horizon. Just a tiny portion of the creature. Enough to send giant waves crashing on the beach below. Some of the mermaids, the ones lounging on the lower rocks, were washed back into the sea.
“Everyone stumbles upon magic in their own way,” I said. “I’m not going to judge you. We’ve all done . . . things. But maybe you’re here because you’re ready.”
I glanced at him, but he said nothing. No cocky declaration of his worthiness. Humility was a bit much to ask of anyone who made it to my door, but at least he wasn’t an ass.
I took him out another door, where the woods waited. Not magical in any way. Well, no more magical than any other woods, than any other thing. I led him to an altar where a knife lay. He averted his eyes.
“It’s all about what price you’re willing to pay,” I said, “but so far, you’ve been asking others to pay that price.”
“I’ve never killed anyone,” he said. “Only animals. It’s no different than eating meat.”
“Maybe. Although you have to eat, but you could always just choose to not learn magic.”
“So you’re vegetarian?”
“I love burgers,” I said with a shrug. “Doesn’t matter. We’ve all done things.”
I picked up the knife. It was an old kitchen knife. Nothing special about it. But there was nothing special about anything until it was used in the right way. Or the wrong way.
“So what?” he asked. “I have to offer my own blood? A finger? My arm?”
God, they were always so melodramatic. But I suppose I hadn’t been so different.
“Blood is easy,” I said. “Anyone can offer blood. The blood of others. Their own blood. What’s a finger offered in exchange for power?”
I set the knife back on the altar. There was still some old stains dried on it. A reminder.
“You think that it’s a question of offering something and then, bingo, the secrets of true magic are yours? We all wish that was true.”
I led him to our final stop: my library. It was a modest collection at first glance. Several hundred books on magic in all its forms.
“When you read these,” I said, “then maybe you’ll be ready.” I held up a finger. “Maybe.”
“That’s not so bad,” he said.
“Isn’t it?” I led him into the back, where my library transitioned into a The Library, the cosmic storehouse of magical knowledge. The shelves stretched to the horizon.
“I can’t read all of those,” he said. “I’ll die before that.”
“Well, you don’t have to read them all,” I said. “Just the right ones.”
“Which ones are those?”
“That’s not for me to say,” I replied with my own smile.
Magic had its own rules for everyone, and what opened my mind to the truth would not open his.
I said, “All the things you’ve studied so far, they’re just the surface. They’re not really secrets. They’re just obscured entry points. Now you stand on the precipice of answers. If you are willing to keep searching for those answers you may find them. If they choose to reveal themselves.”
He hesitated. It wasn’t weakness that he did. This wasn’t a test of faith or determination. He couldn’t plow ahead through sheer stubbornness. That never worked. I’d led many a student here, and the ones that thought they had more strength of will than The Library never found its secrets.
“You won’t die if you make this choice. Not here,” I said. “You will either learn or you will forever walk among these shelves, clinging to a search for knowledge always beyond you. Until you’re only a shadow. Until you’re less than that.”
I snapped my fingers, and all those failed searchers revealed themselves. Gray shapes by the hundreds. They saw nothing. Not us. Not each other. They wandered forever among these secrets, forever apart from the truths they yearned for but could never find. If there was a spark of their souls left, it had dimmed so low that I couldn’t see them anymore.
They faded away. Not gone. Just no longer visible.
“And if I find what I’m looking for?” Richie asked.
“Then you will know what I know,” I said.
“Is it worth it?”
I couldn’t answer that question.
I’d thought about not showing him this, sending him on his way. He might spend the rest of his life pursuing magic. He might even unlock a secret or two and in the process think himself accomplished. But now he knew what he didn’t know, and there was no coming back from that.
I told myself that it wasn’t my place to make the decision for him. For any of them. But considering they only found The Library through me, I couldn’t say whether I believed it or not.
Richie walked toward the shelves and pulled a book down. He started flipping through the pages.
I might see him again in a week. Or a decade. Or a hundred years. Or never again.
I left him to his search, closing the library doors behind me.