Spellbound: A short story

magic on UC Berkeley campus
Katherine Qiu/Staff

Your friends, your family, they don’t understand it when they visit. When they step into the city for a day or indulge in the nightlife for a while, the magic doesn’t rub off on them. But you, with hours and days that turn into months and years under your belt, you start to notice it over time.

The first time, the Campanile is tolling. You move on instinct into the swarming crowd that has heard the same echo all over campus. The familiarity lulls you, but somewhere along the way to your next class, you’re struck by a certain strangeness — a bell tolls and moves a crowd without force; a bell tolls and, with not a finger lifted or a thought uttered, you understand. More than instinct, a common tongue. The idle thought crosses your mind, but you reach your class with only the softest impression of the idea before it’s gone.

You next encounter it walking home after a late class. You duck down to Lower Sproul, weaving around dancers practicing to a hypnotic beat. There, the air with a quality of pressing, submerging darkness, the ground shimmers. It catches light and scatters it across the plaza, like fragments of glass skipped over a concrete ocean. It moves as you do, a visual dance. You cross it to go home, and when you leave, you forget. But the impression of magic stays.

Once the impression takes root, the rest cascades.

Magic.

A whisper that could be the trees enclosing you from above when you cross bridges and follow forested paths to class. A bubbling laugh that could be Strawberry Creek, below you, tumbling down the riverbed before you can ask it to repeat itself. You do a double take sometimes at the people sitting over the creek, dangling almost like nymphs, heads bent or turned away so you can never be too sure.

A carved sculpture of a head appears on the east side of campus one day, no name, no explanation. It looks familiar in a way you’ve never seen.

You hear music, so much music on campus, even where there is none — the piano that reappeared on Sproul Plaza, the drumbeat of footsteps and high tones of flyering, the singing in a language you don’t understand when you walk by an open classroom door in Morrison. There is so much you never noticed. You find a tree tucked in a corner of campus that smells like cinnamon and snickerdoodle when you walk by it just right. You meet a deer on the north side of campus, in the foliage, out of place (or maybe you are). The campus has secrets to tell but only to those who are looking. There is so much you don’t notice until you do.

On a night when your walk down Sproul is accompanied by the intermittent glow of streetlights and rhythmic taiko drumming — a steady thrumming, a pervasive heartbeat — you find the magic lingers. Like smoke in your clothes, it follows you. Down Sather Lane, its own self-contained dimension, enclosed, apart, where the sounds from the streets around it fall muted and muffled. Onto buses that don’t talk, that are silent and expect you to know when to alight. They swallow you and spit you out and you’re home. They’re gone before you can thank them.

Even in parts of the city you’ve never known, at a glance, you see what’s hidden. (The magic.) The streets are bigger there. Yawning spans of asphalt dwarf you; looming buildings threaten to fall into you. Nothing is as close to each other on this side of the city. Everything is bigger when you are lost.

Part of you wonders if it’s even the same city you’re in, but you know it must be. You have the same wave of feeling here, that plain-sight mysticism. Like mist over the city in the middle of a Berkeley winter, blanketing the road just ahead so thickly that you walk with only the sense of knowing—never really being able to discern the details, only trusting that something magical holds it all together.

Contact Sean Tseng at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @STWeekender24.