aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 8: Laughing To Scorn Thy Laws And Terrors

Love is the law, but it is poorly enforced.
— Reverend Raymond Stevens, “Singers In The Hands Of An Angry God”

March 20, 2001

The holy city of traditional kabbalah is Tzfat in Israel, where Rabbi Isaac Luria taught and died. The holy city of modern kabbalah ought to be Agloe, New York.

The story goes like this: two mapmakers had just finished collecting geographic data for the definitive map of New York State. They worried that other people might steal their work and pass it off as their own. They’d never be able to prove anything, since all accurate maps look alike. So the mapmakers played a little trick; they combined their initials to make the word AGLOE, then added it as a fake town on the map in an out-of-the-way location. Any other mapmakers whose work included Agloe would be revealed as plagiarists.

One day a man came to an empty crossroads and decided to build a store there. He looked at his map, found that the spot was named Agloe, and named his business AGLOE GENERAL STORE. The store was a success, the location attracted more people, and soon the town of Agloe sprang up in earnest.

In traditional semiotics, reality is represented by symbols which are themselves inert. In kabbalah, reality and symbols alike are representations of Adam Kadmon. The territory is a representation of Adam Kadmon, and the map is a representation of the territory and Adam Kadmon. Differences between the map and the territory may not be mere mistakes, but evolutions of the representational schema that affect both alike. The territory has power over the map, but the map also has power over the territory. This is the kabbalah. The rest is just commentary.

When map and the territory both depend on each other, to assert copyright is a dangerous act. The two cartographers stuck their name on the map to claim dominion, but dominion over the divine order producing both map and territory belongs only to God.

But the two cartographers named the city by combining the initials of their names. This is an ancient kabbalistic technique called notarikon in which words are generated from the initials of longer phrases. Many of the Names of God are notarikons of Bible verses or prayers; some say all Names, however long, are notarikons for increasingly accurate descriptions of God. But the most famous such notarikon uses only four words: the short liturgical formula “atah gibor le’olam A—-i” meaning “thou art mighty forever, O Lord”. The phrase’s initials become the famous four-letter Name AGLA.

Does it have to be AGLA? The “le” in “le’olam” means “to”; the “olam” means “the world”. The Hebrew word translated “forever” literally means “to the (end of the) world”. Nice and poetic, but “le” and “olam” are two different words and should be counted as such. And why “A—-i”? Yes, it’s one of the common divine Names in the Bible, but the Bible has other divine Names. How about the more common one “Elohim”? Then the formula becomes “atah gibor le olam Elohim,” and the Name becomes AGLOE. This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.

Two cartographers add a town named after themselves to a map to assert copyright. Because the map and territory correspond to each other, a few years later the same town appears on the territory. The town in the territory also functions as an assertion of copyright, but because the notarikon producing the town name matches a notarikon producing one of the Names of God, the kabbalistic implications of the copyright remain accurate.

Despite all this there are no yeshivas or great gold-domed synagogues in Agloe. To the casual traveller it’s just another sleepy upstate-New-York town. But sometimes people who need a site with very specific kabbalistic properties find the town’s name and story conducive to their activities.

And so tonight the leadership of the American Board of Ritual Magic was holding a special meeting in an old mansion in the hills outside town.

Mark McCarthy, Archmage of the West, stepped into the banquet hall. He leaned upon his staff of mesquite wood and inspected the area. All the furniture was gone, and an exquisitely precise map of the United States had been drawn in chalk in the center of the room. There was a long pendulum hanging from the ceiling, currently over the Midwest, and a trap door under Wyoming.

“Why,” he asked, “is there a trap door under Wyoming?”

Two others were already there. Like himself, they wore grey robes and carried wooden staffs. He recognized Daniel Lee, Archmage of the South, and Clara Lowell, Archmage of the Northeast and current Board President.

“This was the largest space we could reserve on short notice,” Clara said. “The trapdoor’s to the wine cellar. One of the best collections in this area, I hear. Once we’re done with the ritual, we can go downstairs and get something to celebrate.”

“I don’t like it,” said Mark. “It ruins the ambience.”

This was a grave accusation among ritual magicians. Ambience was a vital ingredient of rituals. It was why the room was lit by flickering candles. It was why they were all dressed in grey robes. It was why they met so late in the evening, so they could do the deed precisely at midnight. And it was why they were here in Agloe, New York, a town corresponding both phonetically and procedurally to one of the Names of God.

“It doesn’t,” said Lowell. “The trap door is a rectangle. Wyoming is a rectangle. It’s fine. This whole thing is overkill anyway. You’re the one who insisted we do this high-level. I wanted to delegate to five interns in the basement of the DC office and save ourselves the trouble.”

“And I’m telling you,” said McCarthy, “I know Alvarez. He probably doesn’t sound scary – one guy who isn’t even fully licensed – but if we leave him any holes he’s going to slip through them and something awful will happen.”

“I see the doomsaying has already started,” said Ronald Two Hawks, Archmage of the Pacific Northwest, walking in with his staff of Sitka pine. “I’m with Clara. Getting all the way here from Olympia was a mess. And for what?”

“To deal with the biggest threat that the Board and ritual magic itself have ever encountered,” said McCarthy.

“So a low-level magician has gone terrorist,” said Ronald. “Killed a Senator. Embarrassing. Certainly something we have to condemn. But by making such a big deal of this, we just reinforce our link to him in the public mind. We should have put out a statement distancing ourselves, sent someone over to the Shroudies to help them catch him, and ignored it.”

Carolyn Pace, Archmage of the Midwest, walked into the room. “There’s a trap door under Wyoming,” she said.

“Yes,” said Daniel, “we were just talking about that.”

“Let’s get started,” said Clara.

A chalk circle had been drawn around the map. Clara positioned herself at the east, Daniel at the south, Mark at the west, and Ronald at the north. Carolyn went in the middle, stood at the precise center of the United States near Lebanon, Kansas. Her nose almost touched the pendulum; the force of her breath gave it an almost imperceptible swing.

The clock read 11:54.

“Let no evil approach from the North,” said Ron, and he held his staff of Sitka pine towards Carolyn in the center of the circle.

“Est sit esto fiat,” chanted the others.

“Let no evil approach from the West,” said Mark, and he held his staff of mesquite towards the center.

“Est sit esto fiat,” came the chant.

“Let no evil approach from the South,” said Daniel, and he held out his staff of magnolia.

“Est sit esto fiat.”

“Let no evil approach from the East,” finished Clara, and she held out her staff of white oak.

“Est sit esto fiat.”

Carolyn raised up her staff of cottonwood. “The Flaming Circle keeps everything in! Aleph! Gimel! Lamed! Aleph! The Flaming Circle keeps everything out! Aleph! Hay! Yud! Hay! Let the Worlds open, but let the Circle hold!”

No black flames shot up from the boundaries of the circle, no alien light appeared within it, but the chalk lines upon which they stood started to take on an odd sheen, reflect the candlelight a little differently. Ritual magic couldn’t do the impossible, couldn’t break the laws of physics on an observable scale. But they shifted things within that envelope, made coincidences happen a lot more frequently. The sudden appearance of flames would have broken natural law, but there was nothing impossible about five sleep-deprived people in an unusual emotional state seeing the gleam of a chalk line a little differently. So they did.

“Before me, Michael,” said Ronald in the north.

“Behind me, Uriel,” said Daniel in the south.

“On my left hand, Raziel,” said Mark in the west.

“On my right hand, Gabriel,” said Clara in the east.

“Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius,” said Daniel in the south.

“Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius,” said Ronald in the north.

Then Carolyn raised her cottonwood staff high. “Around me flare the pentagrams, and in the center stands the six-rayed star.”

Every candle in the room sputtered out at once – not magically, Clara’s staff had electronics that controlled the room in various ways, all part of the ambience. The moon came out from behind a cloud – that part was magical – and shone its cold white beams into the room, reflecting off the hardwood floor and the windows in odd patterns. For a second everyone saw the pentagrams and the six-rayed star just as they had named them. Then the moon went back behind a cloud and they disappeared before anyone could be entirely certain it hadn’t been a coincidence.

Clara spoke: “We gather here tonight to call penalty upon one who has broken our law. Dylan Alvarez, apprentice ritual magician, has broken fellowship with the Board. He has violated federal and state regulation that prohibit practicing ritual magic without being a Board member in good standing. He has announced his intention to continue practicing without a license. He has killed several local officials of the American Board of Ritual Magic in order to, in his own words, ‘make a point’. He has assassinated Senator John Henderson, the Board’s foremost ally in Congress. He has declared war on the American magical establishment. He has mocked ritual magic as ‘placebomancy’ and publicly released the secrets he had sworn to protect. For all this, he has been condemned by our Board and by our order.”

The room was dead silent. The only light was moonlight from the high windows. The clock read 11:58.

“He has violated the laws of God and Man and we will have justice. The justice of God does not concern us. The justice of Man will be swift and merciless. Show the location of Dylan Alvarez unto us, O Powers, that we may pour upon him the cup of our wrath.”

“Show!” said Daniel in the south.

“Show!” said Mark in the west.

“Show!” said Ronald in the north.

“Show!” said Clara in the east.

“SHOW!” said Carolyn in the center, and she gave the pendulum a big push, then retreated to the outside of the circle.

The clock read 12:00.

The giant pendulum veered wildly over the map of the United States. It hung by a special rope with odd kinks and tangles that gave its motion an unpredictable, chaotic quality and prevented it from ever quite going vertical. After various false starts and sudden jerks, it ended up pointing to the city of Amarillo, Texas.

Clara flicked her staff, and the lights came on again.

“Well,” she said. “That was easy. We’ll contact the Texas Republic and the Amarillo police tomorrow morning. Shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Better send the Shroudies,” said Mark. “I’m telling you, things involving Dylan Alvarez are always hard.”

“You thought this ritual would be hard,” said Ronald. “I know you knew the guy in college, I know you’ve got a history, but give it a break. He’s an unlicensed magician. Sometimes it happens. We always get them.”

“Someone said something about wine, didn’t they?” said Daniel. “What are we waiting for? Let’s cele – ”

The pendulum made a sudden jerk and ended up over Little Rock, Arkansas.

“What the – ” asked Ronald.

“Oh, this isn’t good,” muttered Mark.

Clara stepped into the magic circle, inspected the pendulum. Then: “Relax. The ritual is over. The lights are on. At this point the movements of the pendulum are just random noise. He’s in Amarillo.”

“Random noise?” asked Ronald. “You saw that. There was nothing touching that pendulum, and it just gave this sudden lurch.”

“One of the kinks in the rope straightening itself out,” said Clara. “Could have been a coincidence.”

“Of course it could have been a coincidence,” said Carolyn, “this is ritual magic. It could always have been a coincidence. But it never is.”

“You’re being silly,” said Clara. “All the darkness and ritual and everything have got us all in a horror-movie frame of mind. Let’s go get some wine and forget about it.”

“I am telling you,” said Mark, “something is wrong. Nothing’s ever simple with Dylan. It’s always like this. We need to figure this out, or he’ll run circles around us.”

“So what do you think?” asked Clara. She was starting to sound annoyed. “That he teleported from Amarillo to Little Rock the minute we completed our ritual? Dylan Alvarez is a two-bit hedge wizard. Let’s just – ”

She barely dodged the pendulum as it swung straight through where she had been standing. Now it was above Lincoln, Nebraska. Then another swing. St. Louis, Missouri. Then another. Somewhere in the middle of North Dakota.

“You saw that!” said Mark. “Don’t you dare tell me you didn’t see that! I knew this was going to happen! Something’s wrong with the ritual and I told you this was going to happen!

“Mark, calm down,” said Daniel. “Dylan’s probably doing a ritual of his own, to interfere with us. It’s not like this ritual was particularly secret, we all had to get to Agloe, anyone who’s watching our movements would have known we were planning something for today, and it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out what that was.”

Salt Lake City, Utah.

“You’re saying Dylan Alvarez has spies in the American Board of Ritual Magic?” asked Carolyn, horrified.

The Idaho panhandle.

“Well, why not?” asked Ronald. “I’m starting to agree with Mark. Maybe we’ve been underestimating this guy.”

Casper, Wyoming.

“For the last time,” said Clara, “Dylan Alvarez is a two-bit hedge wizard who doesn’t know anything about…”

“SURPRISE, MOTHERFUCKERS” yelled Dylan Alvarez, jumping out of the trap door with a revolver in each hand.

Bang. Bang. Down went Daniel Lee, Archmage of the South. Bang bang bang. Down went Ronald Two Hawks, Archmage of the Pacific Northwest.

Carolyn Pace traced figures in the air with her cottonwood staff. “Libera nos, Domine,” she said as she traced. “Te rogamus, audi nos.” Bang, bang, bang. Three bullets went wide. It could have been a coincidence, but coincidences tended to happen more often among ritual magicians at work. Bang, bang. Another two coincidences.

Dylan dropped the guns, reached back down into the trap door and grabbed his staff. Boojumwood comes from the boojumtree, a bizarre species of plant that grows only in a tiny part of Baja California. It looks a little like a seventy foot tall upside-down carrot bent at undignified angles. Dylan Alvarez came from Baja California, and his staff was of boojumwood. He swung it wildly at Carolyn, a huge berserker swing. Carolyn countered with her own cottonwood staff, but Dylan executed a very precise disengage and smashed her skull straight in.

Clara and Mark were practically on top of him now, reciting their own incantations. “Imperet illi Deus, deprecamur,” chanted Clara. “Defende nos in proelio.”

“Caecilius est in horto,” chanted Dylan. “Servus est in atrio.”

Clara looked at him with hatred in her eyes.

“Veni in auxilium hominum!” chanted Clara. “Fugite partes adversae!”

“Cerberus est canis!” chanted Dylan. “Canis est in culina!”

Staffs crossed with a sound like a thunderclap. Dylan took a second to parry Mark, then ran at Clara as fast as he could. Clara stood fast, her oak staff en garde in front of her.

At the last second, Dylan rolled out of the way, and the pendulum – still tracking his movement – smashed into Clara, knocking her off her feet. Dylan drove the staff into her neck and finished her off. Then he turned to Mark McCarthy, the only one left standing.

“Mark, please tell me you’re as embarrassed by these people as I am.”

Mark McCarthy, Archmage of the West, took off his hood. “Dylan,” he said. “I wish I could say I was surprised to see you here. But not really. Look, I even wore a bulletproof vest.” He opened his robe a little bit to show the Kevlar beneath.

Dylan laughed, then slapped him on the back. “Mark! Me, hurt you? We went to college together! Compadres para siempre!”

“That was the plan,” said Mark. “And then you turned weird magical terrorist.”

“Weird magical freedom fighter, more like!” Dylan corrected, then laughed at his own joke. “Is that really how you think of me? I’m not that scary, am I?”

“Dylan, you killed Senator Henderson with a letterbomb, two days after the Shroudies assigned him a personal bomb squad to search through all his mail. How did you even do that?”

“You think I can’t pull off a convincing Shroudie if I want to?”

Mark groaned as it snapped into place. “There was no bomb squad. Your people were the bomb squad.”

“In my defense, if I had meant to offer the Senator a bomb removal squad, I would have said bomb removal squad.”

There are a couple different ways people can freak out when the necessity arises. They can curl up into a little ball and mutter to themselves. They can go berserk and start smashing things. They can freeze up and go very, very quiet.

Mark McCarthy started laughing uproariously, a little longer than could be considered strictly appropriate.

Dylan tapped his boojumwood staff impatiently. “Your talents are wasted with these people, Mark. Back in college you always agreed with me about the government and the Board and all those asshats. Well, I’m done flying solo. I’m putting together a group of…like-minded individuals. We call ourselves BOOJUM.”

“BOOJUM? What does that stand for?”

“Solidarity with the oppressed everywhere. You should join us, Mark. We could use a man of your skills.”

Mark McCarthy glanced toward the exit. So enticing, just a few dozen feet away. He could just make a mad dash and be out of there, couldn’t he? Or was Dylan one step ahead of him again? He looked at the door. Looked at Dylan. Looked at the door again. If he was going to survive this, he would have to think like Dylan.

The problem was, Dylan was insane.

Thirty years ago, when the sky cracked, the assortment of hermeticists, Wiccans, and uncool teenagers practicing magic noticed that their spells were starting to actually work. Never unambiguously. But the perfectly possible things they asked of their magic were starting to happen more often than chance. Of course they ran around telling everybody, and some people did controlled experiments, and finally people started to believe them. A hundred different schools of witches and warlocks went around curing people’s illnesses and blessing sea voyages and helping people find their true loves.

After that first rapid expansion stopped, the schools started competing with each other. Our magic is good and effective, your magic is evil and worthless. As usual, the well-connected Ivy League graduates won. They declared the Western hermetic tradition to be the One True School, convinced the bigwigs that everyone else was unsafe, and got a state monopoly as the American Board of Ritual Magic. Anyone who wanted to practice ritual magic had to complete an eight-year apprenticeship under a licensed ritual magician or face fines or imprisonment for practicing magic illegally.

The other schools went underground but never disappeared completely. After a decade of irrelevance they found a new champion in Robert Anton Wilson, who proposed a theory that directly contradicted the urbane hermeticism of the Board. According to Wilson, ritual magic is to Reality as the placebo effect is to humans. Tell a human that a sugar pill will cure their toothache, and the pill will make the toothache disappear. Tell Reality that a ritual will make rain fall, and the ritual will cause a downpour.

In Wilson’s system, ambience wasn’t just the most important thing; it was the only thing. Doctors have long known how every aspect of the medical experience enhances placebo effect: the white coat, the stethoscope, the diplomas hung and framed on the wall – all subconscious reassurances that this is a real doctor prescribing good effective medicine. Likewise, the job of a ritual magician – or in Wilson’s terminology, placebomancer – was to perform a convincing wizard act. The grey robes, the flickering candles, incantations said on the proper day and hour, even shrines and holy places. They all added an extra element of convincingness, until finally Reality was well and truly bamboozled.

Wilson teamed up with Robert Shea to perform a series of experiments testing his hypothesis. In their work Placebomancer! they tested two rituals to produce rain – one invoking the demon Amdusias, the other the demon Crhvano. Both produced the same couple centimeters of rainfall, even though Amdusias was a Great King of Hell who had been known to occultism for hundreds of years, and Crhvano was a set of seven letters pulled out at random from a bag of Scrabble tiles. As long as they gave the ritual a sufficiently ominous ambience, both invocations worked alike.

The American Board of Ritual Magic answered the challenge by getting Wilson and Shea locked up for unlicensed practice of magic, then paying for a series of TV ads where attractive women in robes told viewers that their children were too important for the government to allow charlatans to go on practicing untested magic spells. So much for that. A few licensed magicians complained, or poked at the boundaries that the Board had set for them, but whenever it became too much of a threat the Board would revoke their licenses, and there the matter would rest.

For to get one’s magician’s license revoked was a terrible thing. Who would trust a placebo given by a doctor stripped of his medical diploma, dressed in street clothes, working out of his garage? A magician who lost his license would lose the ability to convince Reality of anything. The American Board of Ritual Magic, originally a perfectly ordinary example of regulatory capture, had taken on ontological significance.

So nobody had been too worried when young apprentice magician Dylan Alvarez had pissed off one too many people, gotten expelled from the Board, and vowed revenge. He was just an apprentice, after all, and anyway he’d lost his license. Good luck convincing the universe of anything now.

But Alvarez had realized that there are people without medical degrees who hand out convincing placebos. They just don’t do it by pathetically begging people to believe they’re doctors. They do it by saying they’re better than doctors, that they’ve discovered hidden secrets, that the medical establishment is in cahoots against them, but they’ll show the fools, oh yes, they’ll show them all. A good naturopath armed with a couple of crystals and a bubbling blue solution can convince thousands, millions, even in the face of mountains of contradictory evidence. Ambience, they realize, is really a subset of a stronger power. The power of narrative. The literary tropes declaring that, given A, B is sure to follow.

All the other shmucks who had been expelled from the Board had begged to be let back in. Or they’d tried to hide it from Reality, to claim that they were really magicians after all, that the decision had been unfair, didn’t count, wasn’t a big deal. Reality hadn’t bought it.

Dylan had declared that if the Board had set themselves at odds against him, so much worse for the Board. And Reality had eaten it up. Now an entire guild of people who prided themselves on remaining on the right side of narrative tropes had to deal with a devilishly handsome rebel with a cause who had sworn to dismantle their entrenched oppressive bureaucracy with fire and sword, and who did clever witty things like hide in a wine cellar so that a magically-charged pendulum would track his real-world location underneath the floor rather than his analogical location on a map.

Can you imagine a story where a man lies in wait to assassinate the five masters of the American Board of Ritual Magic even as they are plotting to kill him, confounds their ritual, bursts out of the trap-door to their wine cellar at the most theatrical possible moment, raises his staff made of a rare and exotic wood that grows only his far-off homeland – and then dies ignominiously, shot by a security guard before he even can even get a word in edgewise? No? You can’t imagine the story ending that way? Neither can Reality. That was Dylan Alvarez’s secret. He always tried to be the protagonist of whatever story he was in, and the protagonist never dies.

The protagonist’s old college buddy who has sold out to the establishment has no such protection, a trope of which Mark McCarthy was painfully aware.

“Dylan,” he said. “I’ve got a wife now. And kids. You’re not going to kill me if I say no, are you?”

Not a plea. A gambit. Dylan Alvarez wanted to be the protagonist. But the sort of guy who kills a man with a wife and kids; well – that’s not just evil. It’s crass. The sort of thing that breaks narratives, turns you from a dashing rebel into a pathetic thug.

“Mark!” said Dylan, looking genuinely offended. “Don’t be dramatic! Compadres para siempre, remember?”

When you had known Dylan Alvarez for a long time, long enough to learn the difference between bomb squads and bomb removal squads, you learned to notice when he hadn’t directly answered your question.

“Look, Dylan, it’s not that I don’t have – good memories of our times together. It’s just – after what happened with Senator Henderson, and now everything that’s happened here tonight – everyone is after you. The police, the Shroudies – heck, maybe even UNSONG. And – well, like I said. I’ve got a wife and kids. No,” said Mark, finally. “I’m not a terrorist. Kill me if you will.” And he dropped his staff on the ground and held up his hands.

Dylan made a “pfffffffft” sound, then went back to the trapdoor. He picked up his guns, a few odd devices, and a bottle of wine, slipped all of them into the pockets of his robes. Then he walked back to McCarthy and hugged him hard.

“Good luck with things, Mark. And if you ever change your mind about BOOJUM, you know how to find me.”

“I really don’t.”

“Just hang up another pendulum!” Alvarez laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world, slapped McCarthy on the back, then grabbed his staff and disappeared out the door into the night.

Mark McCarthy, the last remaining Archmage of North America, took a deep breath. Out. Then in. Then he started shaking and fell to his knees in relief. He picked up his cottonwood staff and grasped it to him, kneeling, trembling.

Three and one half minutes later, the police burst through the door. They had received an anonymous tip by a man with a slight Mexican accent, saying that they would find the man who had killed his four fellow Archmages sitting alone and sobbing among the bodies of his victims.

[There is now an Author’s Notes section on the menu above, and Author’s Note 1 is up.]

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