Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Mad Muggle's Secret*

Martin laid his newspaper down, draped his coat over the back of his chair, and sat down.  His guest, a reporter, was already in his battered little office, sitting in the better of the two guest chairs that crowded the space.

She was blonde and tall, though he couldn’t be certain just how tall.  She sat at least as tall as he did himself.  He had been expecting her, but before his afternoon break rather than after it.  Like so many magical folk, the woman’s timekeeping was apparently only approximate.  Her name, as he recalled, was Denise Prewett.

She was very attractive.  Martin found himself wondering, vaguely, just how much of that beauty was natural.

He settled himself.  “So, here we are.  You made the appointment, and we’re already a little behind.  Let’s get started.”

The reporter whipped out a quill and notebook.  Martin noticed that the notebook was just as mundane as he was: wirebound, thin blue lines on white paper.  Not a scroll of parchment or a self-turning book.  The quill, however, flourished itself self-importantly and hovered expectantly at the first line of the blank page.

“Right then, Mr. Miggs.  Let’s go with the very first detail.  Why do they call you the ‘Mad Muggle?’”  It doesn’t sound very charitable, does it?”

“Sound charitable?  I guess not.  But who’s looking for charity?  I think some of the ‘mad’ bit comes from me being a muggle interacting so much with wizarding folk.  The rest of it comes from the old prejudice of wizards against muggles.  Magic types just discard so much of muggle behavior as mad since it isn’t what they would do themselves.  But having no magic of our own, we muggles have to live our lives a bit differently, don’t we?  It’s not mad to be different.  It’s just different.”  Martin, having begun to relax, put his feet up on his desk.  He angled them off to the side, so as not to be putting his feet toward his guest.  He had no other appointments for the rest of the afternoon, unfortunate as that may be, and the young lady was likely to be an entertaining diversion.

“So do you take offense at the title?”  She leaned forward, avid.  The quill quivered on the paper.

Martin mulled for a moment.  “Hmm.  Well…I suppose I did, at first.  As you say it isn’t a charitable thing to call someone.  But eventually it sort of lost its power, didn’t it?  They call you something long enough and it stops being a commentary.  It sort of becomes your name.”  He twiddled a pencil in his fingers, thick fingers with short nails.  “It comes out of ignorance, I think.  If a wizard had to live like a muggle for a few days, he’d stop calling the things muggles do ‘mad.’  He’d have no choice but to do the same things, live the same way, wouldn’t he?  It’s that or starve, or die of frostbite, or wear mismatched socks, or any of a hundred things wizards don’t even think of because they’ve never had to.”

Prewett sat up straight again.  She was very pretty, and she had the most adorable little crinkle in her brow as she considered her next question.

“Mr. Miggs, it sounds almost as if you think it’s better to be a muggle than a wizard.”

Martin sat very still.


“Well, what?  You haven’t asked a question yet.”

Do you think it’s better to be a muggle than a wizard?”

“Do I think it’s better?  No.  And I don’t think it’s better to be a wizard, either.  I think, knowing as many wizards and witches as I do, knowing muggle life as I do, that I wouldn’t trade one for the other.  They each have their advantages, don’t they?”

“We all know what the advantages of wizard life are, well enough.”

“No, I’m not sure ‘we all’ do.  Let’s think about this.”  He reached up and twisted the knob on the lamp on his desk, and it instantly blinked on.  “There’s an example for you, right there.”

“What?  I can do that.  Lumos,” she added to her wand as she drew it forth.   “There’s light.  It’s easy.”  The wand tip ignited with a pale silvery light.

Martin got up from the chair and reached over the reporter’s head to flip a light switch by the door.  Startled slightly by the sudden brilliance, Prewett blinked.  Her wand went out.  “I know how bright wands can be.  The brightest wand I ever saw was barely equal to this lamp.  And even though I can’t take the lamp with me, I don’t have to think about it.  You have to keep concentrating on the wand, just a little bit, to keep the spell going.  I don’t.  The lights are on and stay on until I turn them off.”

Prewett looked up at the light fixture.  It was an ugly, rectangular thing full of a cold bluish light.  It hummed slightly.  “It’s not a pretty light.”

“Neither is wand light.  Wand light is the same color as moonlight.”

“But moonlight is beautiful!”

“Sure it is…when it’s coming from the moon.  But when it’s just a weak glimmer coming from a wand, it’s not.  And I’ve never seen anyone produce a different color of light from his wand unless he was casting a spell.  If I want, I can change the light bulbs to give a different light from the fixture.  I could make this fixture give any color I want.”

“Why have this color, then?”

“This is the most popular color they make.”

Prewett shook her head in a muggles are mad kind of way, her captivating blonde waves swaying hypnotically.

“But that’s a pretty mundane example.  I can have more light at my disposal just by flipping a switch than you can, but I can’t carry it around like you can, but I can change the color, but that takes a while…you see my point?  There’s a give and take of advantages and disadvantages.  It’s not obvious which way is more convenient.”

“But I can light all the lamps I want with my wand.”

“Yes, you can.  The same way I can just by flipping the switch.”

“I can light fires.”


Prewett frowned, a delightful moue of amused displeasure.

“Wizards don’t get sick like muggles do.”

“No, you don’t, do you?  I’ve never heard of a wizard getting the flu, or coming down with so much as a common cold.  No, you don’t get sick like muggles do at all.”  Prewett started to pull on a face of triumph, which came to an abrupt halt as Martin continued, “No…you get sick like wizards.”


“Spattergroit.  Loser’s Lurgy.  Any number of illnesses and infirmities that are completely unknown to muggles.  We don’t have enough magic in us to support those illnesses, so we don’t get them at all.  But last year nearly twenty people died from spattergroit, didn’t they?  That fatality rate is much higher than muggles experience for flu. It’s a shame there isn’t a vaccine against it.  If muggles didn’t have the vaccine for flu, the fatality rate might equal that of spattergroit.  As it is, it’s not that bad.
“I have a few theories about how muggles and wizards differ, biologically speaking.  Let me just throw these out there, and you can pick them apart if you like.  Ready?

“Wizards and muggles are both human beings.  But I suspect that they are not the same kind of human being.”

“Whoa…wow!  That’s an awfully big thing to say, are you suggesting…?”

“Please let me finish.  I say not the same kind of human being, but maybe I’m being a bit glib.  How familiar are you with genetics?”

“Not at all.  Is that some kind of biting bug?  I hate ticks.”

“No, no.  Genetics is just a broad term that addresses how living things become what they are.  ‘Genetics’ refers to genes, individual instructions in a living thing that make it unique in certain ways, and like its relatives in certain ways.  And genetic variation can describe how those similarities can shift and change and be different from one generation to another.”


“Like a recipe.  Change the recipe a little bit this way or that, and the dish comes out different.  Change one thing just a little bit and no one will notice; change every item just a little bit and you might have a completely different dish, right?”


“Well, in the genetics of humans, the recipe is thousands and thousands of pages long, and there are almost countless ways to make it different.  Most of the details are both tiny and very important, so they don’t ever get changed.  Details about how livers work, and about keeping the skin growing on the outside of the body, stuff that you don’t even think about.  But then there are lots of details that are optional, like hair color, and eye color, and whether you have a flair for music.”

“Oh?  And like, oh, left-handedness?”

“Yes!  Good example.  Some of the details, optional though they are, have pretty big functional effects.  Left-handedness is one of those.  And, I think, magic ability.”


“Think about that.  In the muggle world, about one person out of every seven is likely to be left handed.  Out of all people, maybe one in a thousand is magical.  And magic ability tends to run in families.  But the same way you can have an entirely right-handed family suddenly produce a left-handed baby, you can have a nonmagical family produce a magical child.  I think it’s a gene, a very uncommon gene.  And it goes the other way: magical families can produce nonmagical children.”


“That’s not a very nice word, is it?  It carries such unpleasant connotations.”

“Well, it’s what they are.”

“No, it’s a name applied to them.  They’re the left-handed baby from the right-handed family.  The odds are against them ever happening in the first place, but that doesn’t make them impossible or wrong.  What they are is human, just like you and me.  There are many names people call each other, and they’re almost always unkind names.  The kinds of names people apply to those who aren’t like themselves.  It’s a way of setting themselves apart from what they don’t fully understand.  By setting it apart from themselves, they give themselves permission to disregard it.  If it isn’t like you, it must not be as important as you, equal to you.  And that’s a terrible place to be.”

Prewett was still watching Martin intently as her quill raced back and forth over the notebook.  Suddenly it stopped and poked her sharply at the base of her thumb.  She jumped, looked down, and turned the page.  The quill resumed its recording.

“So do you think that squibs, then, are equal to both wizards and muggles?  You seem to carry an extremely egalitarian view, Mr. Miggs.”

“Equal?  Absolutely.  If wizards are no more or less than muggles, then I’d say the same for non-magical folk from magic families.  Even ‘squibs’” – and he sketched quotes in the air with his fingers – “have advantages that full wizards don’t enjoy.  Haven’t you noticed their affinity with animals?  When was the last time you saw even a full wizard with the kind of rapport with any creature that a squib has?  If you need to get a recalcitrant animal to behave, ask a squib to do it.”

Martin stopped talking for a moment, listening to the thin scratching of the quill.  It was very true, the bit about animals and squibs.  He’d had a cat once that patently ignored him unless it was meal time, and his mother had talked about her birds and a horse she’d known as a child, all very nice but not especially engaging.  Then he’d met the slightly odd but entertaining little lady down the road who didn’t like to admit she was a squib, but she practically had cats lining up in parades, bringing the newspaper, parting before her as she walked and never tripping her up.  It was almost eerie to see that the first time.  Since then, he’d noticed that every squib he ever met had at least a couple of pets, and those pets were invariably extremely responsive to their masters, much more responsive than any muggle pet or even a wizard’s owl.  He’d also noticed that the squibs didn’t appear to notice their strange influence over their animal companions.

Martin watched the girl across the desk a bit more carefully.  She seemed to be, if anything, even more beautiful now than when he had first met her.  Her hair shimmered with a luster like hot gold, her skin was smooth and clear and supple.  She inhaled and he almost felt his heart skip a beat.

Martin leapt up from his seat.  “Excuse me a moment, won’t you?  I need water.”

He fairly jogged down the corridor to the water fountain, filled a paper cup and paused long enough to drink it all down, wet a couple of fingers and rub them vigorously across his forehead.

He refilled the cup and brought it with him back to the office.  He sat down and opened a drawer in the desk and drew out a ruler.  Prewett watched him disinterestedly.

As she leaned forward to ask him her next question, he could see it as it happened.  Her eyes became larger, and fairly glowed with a mesmerizing light as her hair appeared to lengthen and thicken, and her blouse seemed to become a little too small.

There was a loud SLAP as Martin brought the ruler down flat, hard on the surface of the desk.
Prewett snapped back in her chair as her appearance abruptly changed.  Her face became a little longer and sharper, her hair seemed to suck back into her head a few inches, and her eyes stopped glowing.

“What was – Mr. Miggs, what was that for?”

He shook the ruler at her.  “Ms. Prewett, you will kindly cease and desist your infatuation charm right now.  We are conversing just fine without any kind of coercive or leading efforts on your part, yes?”

Prewett had the decency to look abashed.  “I beg your pardon, Mr. Miggs.  It’s something of a habit I use when interviewing muggles.  When they think I’m very pretty, they tend to be easier to handle.”

“There will be no handling of any sort, thank you.  I don’t need handling.  We can talk as equal adults, or you may leave, or I shall escort you out.”

Prewett looked a tiny bit doubtful.  “Mr. Miggs, do you really think that if I don’t want to leave…”

“If I want you to leave, you will leave.  It’s important that you understand this.  Wizarding folk have the most ridiculous assumption, to think their magic gives them an automatic command of any situation.  If I want you gone, you will go.  Don’t test this.  It won’t be pleasant.”

The scratching quill was writing at a furious pace, and stopped again to jab in apparent frustration for a new page, which Prewett again provided.  As she turned the page, he could see her watching him with newfound respect, and maybe the tiniest trace of, what was that?  Could it be fear?


“I’m the ‘Mad Muggle’ because I interact with wizarding folk on an equal footing.  If you’ve read any of the comic books that purport to be about me, then you’ve noticed that I don’t often fail.  Yes, I find myself in some devilish tricky situations, but I make it through okay.”

“And how do you do that, exactly?”

“Ms. Prewett, I’m a muggle interacting with wizards.  The wizards have the capacity to bring tremendous power against me if I give them the chance.  It is imperative that I not let them have that chance.  I prefer not to give away too many secrets, lest I yield my tactical edge to someone who has a grudge against me.  So you’ll forgive me if I choose not to answer that question.”

Martin watched Prewett sift through that statement.  He’d come close to the crucial point – that magic required a constant dedication of concentration and intent to work, that a distracted and startled wizard could be shocked into powerlessness.  He’d even demonstrated as much with his ruler on the desk, though Prewett had apparently failed to pick up on the significance of his breaking her spell.

He had a greater secret that he didn’t dare let her even guess.  It could rattle the underpinnings of the entire magical world, and so even he, a muggle himself, didn’t delve too deeply into it.  Muggle though he was, his belief and confidence in the existence of magic made it very real for him.  It could affect him as fully as any wizard or witch, heal him just as strongly or kill him just as dead.

But based on what research he had been able to conduct, Martin had become increasingly sure that due to their complete ignorance of magic and resolute disbelief of its reality, muggles were almost completely immune to it.  Certainly muggles were affected by the world around them and magic could have effects on the environment, but by and large muggles could not be affected by magic directly.  There were exceptions of course – extremely powerful wizards, muggles whose disbelief was shaky, combined efforts could all overpower the skepticism of the most mundane mind.  But even more rattling than this was that the wizard’s own confidence in magic could be shaken.  And once shaken, it could be entirely undone.  A wizard could be turned into a muggle.  Not even a squib with their convenient rapport with the neighborhood pets, but just another person.  And even worse than a muggle, a mundaned wizard, one who knew of the reality, but no longer trusted what he knew.

So Martin kept certain facts to himself.  Some arguments he deliberately lost, some cases he let slip through his fingers.  Certainly he could clear them if he wanted – magic or no, wizards were people after all.  And people, even He Who Must Not Be Named – now very thoroughly dead – made mistakes.  That was why he was dead.  Mistakes. 

Martin didn’t insist that he was completely rational, that he was doing everything the way it ought to be done.  To tell everything he knew would shake up everyone, and as things stood the world kept spinning comfortably along, wizards in their own world and muggles in theirs.  It would gain him nothing to upset that order.

Better to be imagined mad.

*NOTE: The character "Martin Miggs the Mad Muggle" is the intellectual property of J.K. Rowling, as is the magical world** as depicted in the Harry Potter series of stories by J.K. Rowling.

**He Who Must Not Be Named, however, is pretty vague and could be anyone.