In 1998, I was 12 and at home a lot. Two years into a spree of hospitalizations for asthma, my lungs and I were not on the best terms. I was, by de facto, unschooled during this stretch, and time spread before me like an uninterrupted horizon, weekday and weekend indistinguishable. I spent a lot of it doing what any 12-year-old girl would do, inhale Hot Pockets and listen to Ricky Martin ad nauseum. Other times I would sit for hours at a time clicking through Encarta, listening to Shakespeare and the last section of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy read aloud. Some days I would stay up till 5am just to watch reruns of Amen on UPN 20, which only ever aired in the hour just before dawn. And, once it made its way into my hands, I played Baldur’s Gate.
My brothers played videos games. In 1998, the word “gamers” had not entered my household’s lexicon, but that is what they were: two boys totally dedicated to video games. I would play them sometimes, if it looked like my brothers were having too much fun, or if there happened to be some house decorating component. Generally, I was just bad at them. I couldn’t aim for anything, and my poor avatars tacked back and forth across fields like unusually speedy drunks. I fell into a lot of lava pits.
Baldur’s Gate is a computer game, and so it was already at a disadvantage when it was given, as a birthday present, to my brother Jake. Both my brothers were caught up in the world of Sega Dreamcast, which had just come out (they were firm Sega partisans), and had little interest in games on other platforms, much less the Byzantine world this one was set in or the labyrinth of choices it presented. And so it was me, likely on some empty weekday afternoon when the house was quiet, probably unshowered and in pjs with an obligatory Hot Pocket nearby, that pried open this brown, shiny box, a grinning skull with glowing red eyes on the cover.
I have always loved best books with magic in them, more than books about space or the future or any other rule-bending, world-shaping force. And why? There are a lot of things that often come bound up in books with magic, whether it is a quasi-medieval setting (abrim with monarchies, chivalry), or the literal escape some characters make from their own lives (the Pevensie children to Narnia, Harry Potter to Hogwarts), or the material comforts magic often furnishes (the Abhorsen’s house in Sabriel), or a demonstrably real—if not totally understood—universal order. But Harry Potter is without kings and Westeros affords few people escape; Juniper’s Euny lives in poverty and Pern is a world without religion. What they share are things magical.
This begs the question of what magic can do for people, and what people have wanted magic historically to do for them. Spells have been dreamed up that wound, heal, give flight, enact physical transformation, urge emotional ones, and summon something from nothing. How much of this has been accomplished already: what is magic if not technology, arcana but science? Newton himself practiced alchemy—Keynes famously said he “was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.” These magicians, I suspect, never left us: they only changed names.
Still, I don’t read about Narnia to find Newton. I don’t think that the magical worlds presented in His Dark Materials or the Lord of the Rings, or, for that matter, Baldur’s Gate, are any more magical, vis-à-vis what is possible, than our own. The difference, and so the locus of my persistent and deep attachment to these stories, is who can make what possible and when. The difference is the distribution of power.
The first time of that long string of times I went to the hospital, it was my 10th birthday. I could feel it, the slow grip of my asthma, tighten inside my chest as my birthday party stretched on into the evening. I didn’t tell anyone that I could feel the pressure inside my ribcage begin to bear down, that my breath was forced short and shorter. I pushed everything I could out of me when the candles were lit. I could barely put them out.
When people talk about asthma, they sometimes compare it to drowning on dry land. It is not like that at all. Drowning occurs when a person can breathe, but does not have the materials to do so. Asthmatics are surrounded by what they need but cannot use. Asthma is your own body strangling you from the inside.
After the party ended, it was apparent that my lungs were folding up, that tiny cords of muscle were squeezing my already-inflamed airways closed, all sorts of internal silt further clogging up their passages. I sat on the brown couch in our den and wheezed like a broken accordion while my mother set up a nebulizer, a machine that compresses air and forces it through a tube and into a small plastic container. There the liquid medicine is atomized and the resultant mist drifts up into the attached mouthpiece. I probably wore a mask, clear algae green, and I would have watched mist collect into droplets on its koala-nosed interior and drip down to collect, moist and profoundly uncomfortable, beneath my chin. Despite the treatment, each inhale shrank smaller than the last and my uncle draped me over his shoulder—the last time I can remember being carried like that, like a child—and took me to the car, where he and my mom drove me to the hospital. I grinned, crazy from lack of oxygen, at the RN who processed my information there. “Today” breath “is my” breath “birthday.”
Baldur’s Gate is a roleplaying game. You create a character—choose a name, a gender, a race, a profession (or class), what you are good at, and what you are not—and conduct it through a series of decisions. Not like the true, near-limitless collaborative storytelling of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, Baldur’s Gate is more stratified (though it employs D&D rules). It offers a wide delta of choice, each decision branching off to other, new decisions. Players cannot stray from the preset channels and they will always move with the current—from their starting point to the game’s inevitable conclusion—as all deltas end with the sea regardless of how meandering the path taken to reach it.
I try to picture myself, sitting at the computer at 12, making these decisions. A smaller, younger me, ballooning from anti-inflammatory steroids and the standard complement of hormonal shifts. I can summon up my legs long in front of me, propped up beneath the computer table. Or how, fish-belly pale, my stomach would roll into itself as I leaned into the keyboard. I can see the IV scars on the back of my right hand as I guided the mouse round its pad.
The players of Baldur’s Gate learn that they are the young ward of Gorion, a monk, and have grown up in the secluded and cloistered fortress-library of Candlekeep. The game leads them beyond the safe walls of their childhood and into spiders’ nests, archaeological digs, haunted bridges, trading cartels, more woods than they could shake a branch at, and the crowded web of interconnected lives (and side quests) that is the city of Baldur’s Gate itself. It is full of story.
Even in this alternate world, one shaped by desire, I was not the hardiest of characters. Strength was frequently my lowest ability score, my constitution not much better. (I poured all my points into intelligence, wisdom, and charisma.) I was able to make do because there, in that world, I had magic, and when you have magic, you barely need a body.
Magic is power. This is its most salient quality. It can be accessed freely, on an individual basis, with or without tools. Some magic is learned, some inborn; often it is a mixture of both. Though many stories involve schools of magic (The Wizard of Earthsea, The Magicians, etc.), its use does not require a formal education. It is not bound by class; the richer are not more likely to do better. It is not delineated by gender, and—in the European tradition so much of high fantasy is steeped in—magic is the province of women. It does not need bodily strength; it does not ask for health. Obviously there are exceptions to all these commonalities, but on whole they are true. In science fiction, a cousin to fantasy, nearly everything possible in a magical environment can also be achieved with technology. But because its source is external, and because it requires collective effort to create, its use is at the mercy of the society it exists in. Magic is organic; there are few barriers to its employment. Unmediated by cultural strictures (though nothing is not shaped by them), magic can be a radical force. It is meritocratic. It is feminist. It is revolutionary.
Between the ages of 10 and 13, I went to the ER 22 times and was admitted to the hospital 17 of them. The absences—from home, from class—first started in 5th grade, and steadily grew so that by the middle of my 7th grade year, I was pulled out of school altogether. I regularly felt my body surrender first to itself, as my lungs constricted shut, and then to the powerful drugs the doctors and nurses pumped into my system, making me alternatively shaky, nauseous, sleepless, or just plain loopy. All people who have experienced illness know intimately how it strips you of all your illusions of control. I often felt disembodied, either because the medicine made me feel alien to myself, like a brain floating inside a body that was not mine, or because desperate boredom drove my mind far beyond the circumference of the hospital bed that would be my whole world for days at a time.
Once, an ambulance took me to Georgetown University Hospital. On less urgent trips to the ER, my mother would drive me, slightly slower and at the mercy of stoplights, to Children’s Hospital, a little farther away. But on this occasion I could not spare the time, and I was ushered as quickly as possible to the nearest possible place. In the ambulance, I looked up from the stretcher at a ring of faces, the EMTs bending over me. I wasn’t afraid of barely breathing; it is an edge I have spent a long time sitting on. So long as I had a bit of air, even if it was the smallest sliver, I knew I would be okay. I trusted the doctors and nurses who tended me to pry that sliver wide. Instead I was afraid of needles. It had something to do with veins, specifically. (I was far less wary of a flu shot than having blood drawn.) Worst of all was an IV, where the needle slid in and stayed, where it did not belong, indefinitely. I was not doing well that night—why I was in the ambulance in the first place—and that made the likelihood of an IV much greater. When one of the EMTs, a broad but kind-looking man, unwrapped the needle from its plastic sheath, I started to cry. I begged him not to give me an IV (I’m not sure how I even had the air for the words), I begged him to wait until we had gotten to the hospital, because a needle in the swaying, sharp-turning ambulance was too much. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He was surprised, and sad. He looked so sad.
I died all the time in Baldur’s Gate. A stray arrow or sprung trap or hurtling fireball would throw my little avatar to the ground, lifeless, or, on particularly unlucky occasions, would cause its body to violently rip apart, limbs that looked like supermarket cuts of meat bouncing down around the area it had once stood. I say it but I also mean I, I exploded or collapsed, and the game would cut to a video of an extended hand, presumably mine, that dissolved into golden motes of dust. I watched this video many times. After it ended, I would be given the choice to load the game at the point I last saved my progress. I was, in a fashion, immortal.
My mother hadn’t been allowed in the ambulance but she was there in ER almost as soon as I arrived. I finally had my IV, administered by the sad, sweet EMT in the lobby of the hospital. Everything moved so quickly after that, the doctors seemed a contiguous blur, a ministering hydra. Something was happening that had never happened before. That sliver of air, my thin but ever present cord to life, began to narrow. Even with the steroids streaming into my right hand through the new IV and the heady mixture of oxygen and medicine wafting into my nose and mouth that had reliably cranked open my airways so many times, my lungs continued to squeeze shut. The sliver closed.
What is there to say about an occasion in which you could not breathe? As one might imagine, it is both viscerally unpleasant and spiritually terrifying. I had sat on the line between air and vacuum all my remembered life. I had known scarcity at 12 with greater intimacy than most people will in their entire lives. But absence?
The doctors, swarming around me, told me they’d be giving me epinephrine, or adrenaline. I didn’t know what this meant, but I recognized it a few years later in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta administers it to a failing Uma Thurman after she ODs. The doctors moved quickly but firmly, and I knew when the young man who looked into my eyes and told me they’d administer it to one of my major veins, the soft, dark strings of blue beneath my already bluish wrist, that he would not listen to any plea I, anyway, didn’t have the breath to make. Right underneath my palm, in that tender swath of skin and blood, he injected the adrenaline. I screamed, though I do not know how. Later, I could breathe again.
In Baldur’s Gate, to discover the truth of who you are, you must return home. Armed with a rare book (the price of entry), you re-enter Candlekeep to plunge into its vast library. This research trip is interrupted by battles and the like, but what matters here are the texts and what you must find within them. The answer, it seems, is part of a story you’ve known your whole life.
This is the girl-child I remember, pale and soft and flecked with scars with limbs that shook with medicine. A girl who built a fortress-library inside herself, who dreams of worlds where, even breathless, even weak, she could be a terrifying force. A girl who, for a time, imagined herself in the wilds of the woods and cities of Faerûn, unchecked by body and immune to death, whose power, her own domain, lay inside herself.