Saturday, December 27, 2008

118. Laughing Matter

Contest winner: rory86

Part 5 in a 7-part Special Report

Bo Dwyer, our top correspondent, continues the report of his week following Professor Algernon Swerve, the Magic theorist whose recent discovery of magically generated states of matter would have won him the Nobel Prize for Paraphysics, except there isn’t one.

During breakfast on Saturday, Dr. Swerve suddenly announced that he was going to a wedding in Hogsmeade. The invitation had come by owl that very morning, and it entitled him to bring one guest: me.

I soon understood that the wedding would be a newsworthy event in its own right. There are not many couples who choose to have their nuptials performed at the Hog’s Head pub. In fact, the last one on record was the marriage of Richard Pellamonter and Elizabeth Polkenhorne in April of 1565 or 1566 (depending on which set of records you go by), a day which saw dozens of Britain’s best wizards lose control of their magic due to a bowl of contaminated punch. This is why all the buildings in Hogsmeade had polka-dotted walls until 1611, and weddings within village boundaries were banned until 1865. When I first heard that Saturday’s wedding was to be the Hog’s Head’s first since 1566, I was moved by the progress and enlightenment of our wizarding community. Then I smelled and, rather later, saw the Hog’s Head and such notions were dashed. It was clearly the only place the couple could afford; which is too bad, because the proprietor should be the one who pays the rest of us to drink his swill.

At least the punch was unpolluted. After about one o’clock Sunday afternoon, at any rate, the buildings and streets of Hogsmeade seemed to be their usual color again.

By coincidence, the bride and groom were both people I had interviewed before. Erastus “Merlin” Sidwell made an unexpectedly strong showing (12th place) in an Iwixarod broom race some years ago, and he was quoted in my report of that race. His exact words were: “I prefer bundimun grease, myself.” And his intended, Miss Doreen Pinch (known as “Endora” to her friends) had guided my tour of the Bertie Botts Flavor Lab, where she was a taste-tester at the time. I remember her as a remarkable woman who was able to tell a great deal about me by smell alone. During the day I learned that Merlin now works as a “special consultant” — I’m not sure what that means — while Endora has moved up the career ladder to Senior Potion Designer. Bride and groom wore matching carnival masks, as a nod to Hog’s Head tradition (all the guests were furnished with masks as well).

I didn’t see very much of my subject that day, but I did encounter a surprising range of people considering the caliber of the establishment. I met a married couple of highly decorated RMB agents who were also once Owlympic medalists (I had interviewed them too), an American agent who specializes in quick-change disguises (I believe he was at least five of the people I shook hands with), and a dodgy looking couple covered in animated tattoos (which posed witty remarks to passersby, in ornate handwriting). I met a wandwright from Finland, an Austrian couple who run a survival school for wizards, a Ukrainian art-wizard (who, by the way his eyes lingered on the tattooed couple, must have been responsible for their body art), several Italian clown-wizards, and a couple of Durmstrang professors. A former member of Nasal Drip gave a solo musical performance that was at least as loud and obnoxious as anything his old band could do. A wizard rich enough to keep his name out of the paper stood near me through the whole song, stoically enduring it in order to keep an eye on his teenage son, who has enough mischief in him to make the name-out-of-paper thing more expensive every year. Sir Lionel Niblet and Dr. Miles O’Roughage were also on hand, holding a soft yet animated conversation in a corner throughout the wedding.

After the ceremony came a meal which I would rather not recall in detail; the punch helped in that respect. At the climax of the banquet, toasts were made and gifts were given to the newly wedded couple.

The RMB agents gave the Sidwells a stoppered flask of some blood-red potion which, they warned, was not to be unstoppered except in the gravest emergency, and only then when Mrs. Sidwell was wearing nose-plugs. It was difficult to follow the explanation of this potion, owing perhaps to some shared background between the agents and the Sidwells, but I gathered that the potion came from a variety of orchid bred by Sir Lionel, and was brewed by Dr. O’Roughage. “It smells like rotting flesh, and it evaporates instantly when struck a violent, physical blow,” they announced. “But until then, a few drops of it shield the wearer against all magic directed against a conscious, living person.”

The next noteworthy gift, following a set of wands, some gag gifts from the clowns, a flask of “eyedropper banquet,” chits for free body art, and similar items, was a large box delivered by two house-elves. I knew the elves at once. Their master, a portable-wall magnate, has been very reclusive lately, and I was curious to know what gift he might have sent to a wedding without appearing himself to give it. It turned out that the box was empty, but it came with a cryptic message which Merlin read aloud: “If this is empty when you receive it, don’t be distressed. My calculations have a wide margin for error. Keep the box, and look inside it now and again, until you find a token of my very personal affection and esteem for both of you. Eventually, the day will come when I will have put something in this box before it was going to be delivered.”

One of the last gifts was presented by Professor Swerve. The couple smiled politely as he handed them an ingot of some dull-brown metal. And this was where I was repaid for all my difficulty in following him at this wedding. As Merlin Sidwell hefted the heavy bar of not-very-precious-looking material, the paraphysicist explained:

“For your special day, and for all your days together, I give you the gift of laughter. As you know, I have spent the last two decades studying the effects of magic on molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. Last year, I finally published my discoveries, including several new states of matter that can only exist under the influence of magic. This bar may seem to contain nothing but a blend of ordinary minerals. But I have charmed it into a state that I like to call ‘laughing matter.’ Whether there is a lot of it or a little; whether it is precious or common; whether solid, liquid, or gas, laughing matter is held together by the energy of pure joy. Touch it when you are angry or frustrated, and you will see the absurdity in your situation and your frown will become a chuckle. Touch it in a time of grief or pain, and you will suddenly remember the good things you still have to be happy about. Touch it when you are terrified and hopeless, and that which you dread may reveal desirable aspects. Touch it at a joyful time, like today, and you add to its stored energy, and to the good memories that will return to you at a time of need.

“Touch it together,” Professor Swerve continued, “and it fosters trust and contentment. Break it in half” – here Merlin effortlessly snapped the ingot in two, causing a stir throughout the pub – “when you cannot be together, and when you both hold it at the same time, you will feel closer to each other. Put the pieces back together” – Merlin did this – “and it sticks in one piece, as if you had never broken it. It also makes an excellent doorstop, for few things are as friendly as an open door; and, when used as a bookend, laughing matter causes nearby books to seem more entertaining the next time you open them. Tonight, I suggest that you tuck it under the...”

“What a lovely gift,” said Merlin, loudly interrupting the professor’s speech, while his bride reddened to the tip of her rather impressive nose.

After taking the Floo network back to Professor Swerve’s study, I told him how impressed I was with what he had said and done at the Sidwell wedding. He shrugged, smiling mysteriously, and said, “You don’t think I would really give such a priceless specimen – moreover, one that neither science nor magic has yet fully explained – to a couple of risk-takers like them? It would be murder. Or, worse, it would be a methodological blunder. I had forgotten to bring a gift, but I found a pile of those bricks out behind the Hog’s Head and checked to make sure there wasn’t anything dodgy about them before choosing one. I put a breaking-and-rejoining charm on it – a little trick on which I often dined out in my salad days. The rest of it was pure codswallop.”

Seeing my shocked expression, Professor Swerve laughed kindly and added, “I also applied a bit of magic in my speech. The magic of psychology. If those youngsters took me even a wee bit seriously, that brick will be a symbol to them, a symbol whose meaning they will pull out of themselves. I mean, really! To give them, actually give them, what I described would be meddling in things where I have no business. It is better this way.”

“So,” I asked, ashamed to notice a tone of childish disappointment in my own voice, “so is there no such thing as ‘laughing matter’ at all?”

“Oh, to be sure, there is! I’ve got some of it right here,” said Professor Swerve, getting up to fetch a waxy looking lump, encased in crystal, out of a locked cupboard. “And if they knew anything about it, they would thank me for not giving it them. Real ‘laughing matter’ is terrible, chaotic stuff; absolutely insane.”

He handed the crystal to me and I turned it over in my hands. “What does it do?” I asked.

“Oh! It is the stuff that moves things around when your back is turned. It hides your keys, causes your toilet to overflow, and stops nearby timepieces just when you are waiting for a certain hour to strike. I once observed a lump of ‘laughing matter’ to re-tune a piano so that, no matter what keys you played, the only thing you could get out of it was the ‘Tristan chord.’ Whenever you feel that someone, somewhere, must be laughing at you, you might have a bit of this stuff stuck to your shoe. With a brick of real laughing matter, the Sidwell’s marriage wouldn’t have lasted a week!

“Promise you won’t print any of this?” Professor Swerve added meekly.

“On my honor as a journalist,” I said, handing the crystal-encased lump back to him.


SURVEY: How does the angel-faced villain from TMQ #117 combine magic with golf? (A) He uses magic to create a self-maintaining, perfect golf course. (B) He uses magical plants, beasts, and other hazards to make his links the most difficult and dangerous course in the world. (C) He plays a wizarding variant of golf involving balls that go up but do not come down (unless played in that direction); players must be able to fly and, on occasion, play underwater. (D) He uses magic to enhance his performance in order to collect huge winnings on ordinary golf tours. (E) Other...

CONTEST: Describe a magical piece of jewelry and its properties.

Special thanks are due to the Cornwall County Council for inspiration provided by their Silly Names List [EDIT: Alas, this webpage no longer exists]. ANOTHER EDIT: What a pity that Blogger has a 200-character limit for labels. The list below should also include Algernon Swerve, Harvey, Dinty, Heidi Svendanna, Tatyana, and Owlympics.

[Originally posted 5/16/07]

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