The following text is an essay by Karen Heuler about a story she wrote titled Ball Lightning, which appeared first in Oxford Magazine and later in this awesome book: Best of the Web 2009; a print anthology of the ‘best’ internet-culled short stories, edited by the folks at Dzanc Books (one of my favorite publishers.)
The essay, these words below, is as beautiful as the story it expands upon, if not more beautiful :
One of my uncles saw ball lightning—or was hit by it, I forget; I was young when I heard the story. He told us, I believe, on the same night he was showing slides from his latest trip abroad, and someone slipped in a slide of him naked in the shower. It was the fastest slide click I’d ever seen, accompanied by whoops and squeals from aunts and cousins.
Years later I met someone with perfect pitch—a useless bit of magic if I’d ever seen one. She was ordinary in every other way, but you couldn’t hear anyone mention her without hearing about her perfect pitch.
Another uncle left his wife and eight children—another family story, and for some writers family stories are like gifts under the Christmas tree. Not for me, usually; I make my own presents. But I’ve got a series of interconnected stories about a family of ten abandoned children (I added two) and the aunts and uncles and cousins who know them. One cousin, Eugenia, is pretty much the eye of the stories, and she’s the narrator of this one, which uses bits and pieces of unrelated things I’ve heard.
Because the ball lightning and the perfect pitch are magical (to say nothing of the magic of love and the loss of it), Eugenia also performs a rite of magic. I like her because of that—because she’s still in touch with the hope for magic, and she has the desire to act on it, and she’s doing it for someone who has touched her heart accidentally.
Magic is of course our name for illusion which, despite its negative connotation, pinpoints our persistent hope for true, supernatural change. Everything is magic until it’s understood, and then it’s just a cheap trick.
Is there room for middle ground—where the gesture, the possibility, the suggestion is real but magic nonetheless? Religions and cultures have rituals, and so do individuals, those little taps of superstitious acts—lucky charms, lucky shirt—that we think can influence the universe.
In dealing with the stories of the displaced children, there is indeed a strong current of both good and bad magic going through it—because as a child things happen without reason, and because adults can be cruel or benevolent sorcerers. Children enact the world they think they will inherit. It’s as if they belong to some cargo cult, where if you pantomime the action, you might get the desired results. They observe the strange power that is adulthood, and try to adapt and adopt it.
In some ways, using the viewpoint of a child in a story allows me to suspend the dogged acceptance that comes with being an adult, and turn back to viewing the world when its possibilities were multiple and manifold. Writers pretend all the time, but pretending a world where everything is ordinary is never as pleasing as imagining a world both real and rare.