I remember when I first came to really believe in magic. It was the summer after I turned five. My family lived on the Air Force base at Colorado Springs. Stepping outside of our front door, you were greeted by the sight of the Rockies rising purple and white over the houses across the street. The winters there were terrible but now I only remember the tunnels we used to dig through the snow banks, and the time my Dad helped us make a snow volcano with food coloring, instead of the snowmen that all of the other kids made. The summers were prettier than anything I’ve seen since; the air tasted sweet up there, and it only seemed to rain when the sun was shining.
I had a child’s belief in magic, previous to this. Fireworks were magic, and the pictures on the television were magic, and the way your mom could tell when you were up to no good was magic. But that was magic drawn from things, the sort that seemed to fade as you grew older and came to understand how the world worked. As you learned to take things for granted, that sort of magic disappeared. But there’s a different sort that stays on if you know where to look for it. The summer after I turned five, I was given a glimpse of it. I’ve been noticing that sort of thing ever since.
It was July, I think. Sunlight up in the mountains is sharper than sunlight down below. It seemed to pick out the details in everything, wrapping it up in pure color and light. I was five. My grandmother had crocheted a pink bikini for my birthday, just like the ones the big girls wore. My mom was horrified but I loved it. I was tall for my age, and elf-skinny, with my hair in a short brown bob because I’d taken scissors to it in a fit of boredom the winter before. Everything else I owned was blue or green. Those colors looked best on me and as a tomboy, they suited me best too. But that pink bikini was a wonderful thing.
The kids in my neighborhood migrated from house to house during the day. Military families tend to be close and the kids all formed a large pack. They roamed as one. My mother was known for her kool-aid ice-pops. My neighbor had the best jungle-gym set in their background. The lady across the street had a tree that seemed built for climbing. And the lady at the end of the circle was the Queen of the Sprinklers. She had no less than six sprinklers– sprinklers that spun, and sprinklers that whirled, and sprinklers that looked like Snoopy, and sprinklers that were attached to slip’n’slides. The pack spent a lot of time there in the short mountain summers.
I don’t remember much of my magic day, other than it was a sunny one and there were no clouds in the sky. I was late joining the group for some reason. Maybe my mom kept me after lunch because I wouldn’t finish my macaroni, or maybe I’d been caught up watching cartoons. But by the time I realized the hour of sprinklers had come, the other kids in the neighborhood had vanished into the hollow that was the Queen’s side-yard. I shimmied into my pink bikini and flipflops, grabbed a bath towel and went racing over the hot asphalt of the circle to her house. Cresting the rise, a skinny girl in a crochet bikini, a tatty old bath towel thrown over one shoulder, I saw magic.
It wasn’t flashy. There weren’t any sparkly lights or faeries darting around, tossing silver dust, or rings of toadstools springing up to swallow the children. What I saw was this.
There were about twenty children in that grassy hollow. Trees fenced it in on two sides, with the house on a third and the rise I was standing on making up the fourth. I was elevated, looking down on the hollow. It was filled with sunshine, and half-naked kids running around shrieking with laughter. Water was twirling and dancing out of the chk-chk-chk-whirrrrr sprinkler. When I arrived, it was chaos. But as I hesitated, watching, that chaos became a pattern.
Twenty children, for no apparent reason, with no apparent prompting, began to run together in a ring. That ring became two rings, together. Those two became three. Those three split into an intricate, constantly moving pattern, like a giant flowing flower, or a kaleidoscope spinning and turning and shifting and reforming. None of them held hands, or otherwise behaved in a way that said that they knew that what they were doing was coordinated, or beautiful. It lasted no longer than ten seconds and then the pattern shattered. They were just children again, laughing, jumping through webs of water.
I’d seen it. At five, I knew that what I’d seen was special, and rare. Something to be treasured. Something that made me, child that I was, think “I’ll remember that.” I’ve remembered it, and in remembering have caught glimpses of the pattern of magic elsewhere.
It was there when I ran over a dark dew-touched field, and the ground bled away beneath my feet, and I knew I was running the way a deer does– fast and sure and perfectly, with no risk of falling or finding my path blocked. It was there when, sitting on a bench in the middle of an old city, surrounded by glass and steel and people who couldn’t be troubled to glance at anything other than the sidewalk in front of them, a dragonfly touched down on my shoulder and sat there, humming to itself for a full minute before taking off again. It was there when I heard whispers in the ruins of a castle on the Rhine, when I caught my grandmother’s ghost hiding underneath my bed. It’s there every time I can dip into another person’s heart, and know what they’re feeling without them having to say a thing, or whenever I dream of some inconsequential scene in the future that almost always comes to pass.
But all of those times have been paler echoes of the first time, when the little girl that was me watched her friends dance like beads in a kaleidoscope. When I was shown magic. Real magic. When I knew it for what it was, for the very first time.