The Old Black Magic
It was an age of quiet deaths at midnight and knives in the dark, when a life could be bought and sold for a few words, and men and women filled the bars and taverns to drink in stolid silence, each lost in their own worries and ruminations. The city was a wounded beast that panted in the dark, black swathes lightless where the power had failed. Traffic had been routed away from the broken arteries and toppled towers, grasses grew on the rubble that still choked the streets, which people still walked because the cabs had all gone and the train was a snarled knot of steel. The people walked with eyes downcast to see not the toppled towers, and to miss not the sudden gaps where the paving stones gave way, and stopped to listen from time to time for the snicker of a knife unfolding in the dark, or the terrible drone of the aeroplane, then hurried on to fight for their space at the bar, where dourly sober celebrants poured the harsh, foul medicine into dirty cups held in eager hands. One such priest of gin was M'Kenny, and as the hour passed he traded his apron to another, to take his own position at the end of the granite-topped bar.
Except this night, M'Kenny put on the flat cap with the brim brought down level with his brows, and the faded jacket of the revolution - still in one piece after sixty years, though the trousers had long since worn out - and stepped into the dry, hot night. There was lightning in the air, flashes like gunfire in the heavens lit the gaping, broken windows of the towers, which even in their ruination stretched above the surly ground-hugging anthills of the common city, and sirens gave out their dying banshee squalls. M'Kenny crossed the broken streets and vacant lots, up hills whose earth had been buried under cement in decades past and were half-forgotten save in the names of old roads and alleyways, to where the cement pyramids of bollards blocked the traffic to the festering wounds of the city. The graffiti scrawl gave way to the field of crosses and eternal plastic flowers which had formed the first, spontaneous monument to the tragedy; and in the wake of all that came after the only one yet to be erected, or likely ever to be.
M'Kenny found him in the shell of a library with a shopping cart, sifting through the books for those least eaten by mold, insect, and rat. There was nothing to the man, no trace of muscle beneath the baggy clothes, the unkempt beard with its twisting knots of black and grey, and the heavy metal rings covered his fingers like armor, some stretching past the second knuckle. The bartender imagined the old man stopped in an ally, running his hands against the wall, scraping sparks to flitter for a moment in the darkness. Between the old man's fingers, M'Kenny caught peek of a pentagram on the book's cover.
"Magic." M'Kenny breathed the word, tasted the reek of rotten paper. "Black magic."
"Oh yes," The old man said, without looking at him. "Nothing but."
The old man let the question hang in the air for a moment, then the book dropped from his hands, to collapse at the top of the pile by his feet. M'Kenny saw no trace of a smile nor frown on his features, no wrinkle of concentration; the old man's forehead was as smooth and unblemished as the glass image of a cathedral saint, nor did his hands or voice shake.
"Come with me."
M'Kenny followed the old man through ten thousand years and ten rows of history, to a stairwell that had become an open sewer when the lights had gone out, and the smell lingered still. There was a steel door in the basement, blue paint chipped and scratched, a single red bulb burning above it like a guardian eye, and the old man unlocked it with a jangling key and they went in.
All the antechambers of hell could not have matched that basement, furnished with all the stolen images of a benighted city, five thousand year old devils worn and gray sat roost over upstarts of leering plastic; naked succubi danced with rings of skulls, all black skin and pointed, upturned breasts, tongues lolling like desperate bitches in heat, eyes painted with heavy rings of kohl, and from the ceiling hung impotent satans in a council, to look down at the rows and rows of books. Those volumes varied from heavy leather, the dye worn off with age, to flimsy things with garish, floppy covers. Certainly every devil and demon and dark spirit that man had ever dreamt lived in those pages, ever spell and rite, all the black instructions for human sacrifice, psychic vampirism, the capturing of souls and dying breath, the ruin of children and the foulest necromancies, and more - all this M'Kenny grasped and thought and imagined under the unfamiliar flicker of fluorescent lights, and the old man watched him.
"All this is shit." The gestured with his arm, taking in with the arc the mountains of Hallowe'en skulls, the pentagrams and animal bones, the masses of literature. Turning, the old man turned his back on M'Kenny and walked down an aisle, deeper into the place, and the barkeep followed. There was a story as they walked, the dry voice rising and falling into the gravelly death metal growl of a chronic smoker or a wound to the throat. How early he had discovered it, in his father's things; of the child's spiralbound note-book he had kept to write down the spells and magic words he found, and how he would practice them. The early flirtation with religion that first delighted and then disquieted his parents, and those early blasphemies. Years of discovery, reading, teaching; he had knelt at the feet of others, buggered and been buggered, then paused on reflection and cast off the virgin altars once more for rumination and introspection. Afterwards, he was more selective in the old monsters he served, harder with his questions, more ruthless in his methods. The young old man began, finally, to conceive the scope of the things he had done and said and sought for, the vast shape of darkness that had lain under history, behind it, unrecorded save when some inquisitor or merchant kicked down the door and dragged it into the light - and each time it was a poor and bedraggled shell of a thing, often poor and ill-educated, wretches drawn to darkness that answered prayers more venial and immediate than the light - and hadn't the religions great and small spoken of such things, for countless centuries, all the way that man had faltered and stumbled and striven to build something of this vast and hostile world, fighting at every turn, over every bit of fruit and foot of land? How could there not be, at the end, something in it, something behind it, some dark science or truth that those in power had wished to conceal, prevent, stamp out, and diminish?
"It doesn't work." The old man told him. They stood in a circle - not a pentagram, but a square within a circle, with a cross and letters or words in Hebrew and Greek, that smelled of copper and piss and incense. There was a human skull resting on a glass-fronted book cabinet full of spiral-bound notebooks. M'Kenny stared at it, saw his own reflection overlaid on its empty sockets. It looked realer than the others. Smaller, miscoloured, less perfect.
"None of the rites or rituals or formulae achieve any physical effect. There is no objective existence of demons or dark gods, no familiars to summon or hellfire to unleash on your enemy." The old man took a long spiral of paper, struck flint with those heavy metal-covered hands, and used it as a taper to light candles around the edge. "Though I find them comforting."
The robes came off. There were wiry muscles there beneath sagging skin, a map of pain - crisscrossing scars, bands of raised flesh, dark lines where salt or soot had been rubbed in the wounds, pebbly rashes, ragged scabs, and faded tattooed letters and spirals covered every inch of him, so even the grey body hairs came sprouted sporadically, wherever the pores had not been destroyed or healed over.
"Black magic - and white - have a subjective reality, if they have any reality at all. We may experience things beyond what we consider normality, that seem to defy the laws that we know, that conform to the fantasies of occult lore. Drugs, fasting, meditation, trance states, biofeedback experiments, lucid dreaming - to trick our brains into a new state of perception or being," the old man squatted in the center of the circle, dangling manhood in line with the one of the arms of the cross "Even then, sometimes the drugs are shit."
There was a blade in the old man's left hand. He gripped it overhand, point scratching lines on the right wrist, blood dribbling onto a glyph.
"Then why all this?" said M'Kenny, staring at the circle, the library, the skull.
"Because this is all there is. No demons, no hell, no black magic beyond these pages. Men have fought and bled for this. Is it not beautiful to you, the vast construct of the imagination? Is it not a tradition as worthy of preserving as any other? Do you think there are none that look for it in their hour of need, that find hope and comfort in the desperately mumbled spell, the flash of a knife and the welling of blood, the infant's cry silenced forever?" The old man flicked the blade, spraying a few drops of sour blood on M'Kenny's face. "We need our monsters in the dark, our bogeyman in the shadows. If they do not exist, then we will make them exist, and if needs be become them. The fallen angel rising to meet the descending ape."
It was an age where men died and their killers never saw their eyes, where the greatest atrocities were greater and the smaller ones less, so that all the world lived on the edge of the knife. There was a city that wore the scars less proudly, that reclaimed stolen blocks by inches, and whose people ducked as if afraid the very sky would fall on them. A bar stood open every day, and never wanted for custom, nor brake the silence of a people holding their collective breath, each lost in themselves. A man named M'Kenny took his seat at the end of the bar, and drank without tasting, and stared without seeing. Then maybe he slept, and it was his shift again. Sometimes it may have been an old man came in, M'Kenny's steady hand would shake a little, and the old man would have a quiet word with a young man who was never to be seen again, or those heavy rings would scrape the granite counter and leave a chickenscratch symbol that M'Kenny did not like the look of, but could never quite rub out.