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A Fable: The Story Of Alex The Muggle

The terrible balance between security and fantasy, in honor of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Alex surges into space, aided by the fact that his opponents are subject to gravity, too.
Alex surges into space, aided by the fact that his opponents are subject to gravity, too.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

As a child in Macondo, Alex de Lima found common cause with the mud. He went about unshod even in the wettest seasons, delighting in the comfort of the soft ground while his classmates fashioned flying-machines from fairy-wool and mallorn leaves. They did something he didn't quite understand to combine the two and soar, as if weightless, upon even the gentlest of breezes.

Alex could not soar. The fairy-wool, so hard won, stuck to his hands with gleeful determination, spreading slowly up his forearms as he (first calmly, then with some alarm, finally with a suffocating desperation) tried to remove it.

At the center of the town, near the fields where the children ran and kicked a ball, a bandy-legged wizard named Garrincha had set up a rickety stall filled with tinctures and baubles. Mud-footed Alex found himself drawn to the tiny glass bottles half-filled with murky essences of unknown origin; most were unlabelled, while some few had painted odd names in a shaky hand: "the Galeano," "Cruyff."

"I want to float like them," he said to the old man, who smelt like whiskey and woodsmoke even in mid-morning. The wizard's dark skin was creased, especially around his eyes as he gazed out at the children playing the ball-game in the park. One of the smaller children waved at the ball, setting it spinning, and kicked off the ground to float there aloft; the others converged from every angle, slighting the wind to move where they willed, but the small one was a step ahead, striking the spinning orb mid-flight, leaping off his foot toward the (hastily sketched, barely notional) goal. Everyone squealed and hugged; it began again.

Garrincha's eyes had seen the ball-game played in all the world's corners. "You will never float," he said, glancing at Alex's mud-covered feet momentarily. The game in the park had reached a fever pitch, the ball pinging wildly about the sky; it was difficult to discern teammates. The alchemist's grin showed a few missing teeth. As a seeming afterthought, his hand glided over the potion-display, plucking up an unmarked glass vial filled with a viscous lavender oil.

"You want to float, I can't help you," the ancient man croaked, handing the vial to Alex. "You want to forget Macondo, just be what you are, you take this." Garrincha's eyes never left the floaters playing the ball-game as he said this, even as he placed the potion in the lad's hand. Alex stood by for hours, waiting for further instructions, but none ever came; the wizard grew still as he watched the game in the park, only stirring from his reverie to abruptly close his ware-cart and putter off toward the edge of town.


Switzerland seemed a safe place. Good, ordinary football played by serious, milk-fed Swiss lads, and besides the winds around the Alps were too treacherous to attempt a float. He and his teammates toiled into dusk on the ground, battling over a ball that displayed no ability to simply hang there, waiting to be launched.

Alex grew to love the cinema, and bland dishes filled with white cheeses, and the muddy certainty of the ball-game without all the floating. Occasionally people would ask him of Macondo - usually exclaiming that he didn't seem the type - and he learned to take these encounters in stride. He began to understand that the world knew of Macondo, but did not know Macondo. Within him the idea grew that, absent the stories of Macondo, he would be loved for what he was. He imagined a world where he was not Alex de Lima of Macondo, the boy who could not float, but instead Alex de Lima of no place in particular, who was very good indeed at covering space for other (ground-bound) teammates and winning the second ball after an errant touch (for balls made of leather and not dream-stuff obey only the cruel and cold-eyed laws of the physical realm). But the idea of Macondo beckoned to the rest of the world so. Alex began to feel like the jilted first husband of a very famous, universally beloved woman; he clung to the fantasy that in Switzerland, the mud was enough.

It was until it wasn't. One afternoon, after a cold, snow-flecked training on the dead grass of Wohlen, the manager asked him for a word. Alex's manager was a cold sort, as apt to answer direct questions with silence as a word, but on this day he held the door, gestured to the chair, and asked Alex if he'd like a drink. Stunned into acquiescence, Alex swirled the liquor in his glass, hoping to avoid sipping, while he listened to the news in his adopted French: A young kid from Macondo. High hopes for the future. Help him get settled.

"He'll never be settled here," Alex said, finally trying his drink, which smelled like gasoline and peat-fires and death. Small flames outlined his digestive system, then shattered into a million-million flickers of light, dancing sideways into his blood. "I will do what I can."


When the USA came calling, Alex was ready to go. The lad from Macondo floated the first session, showing off like an idiot. When Alex, prepared for these shenanigans, barked orders in their native tongue for him to come down out of the sky right this instant and fill this space here on the left wing, the manager peeped his whistle. ‘What did you say to him?' he asked Alex, and Alex saw the look on the manager's face meant something more; it meant, ‘Why can't you do that?' When the session ended, everyone stayed to watch the new kid float.

Less than a week later, a delegation arrived from the USA - a city called Chicago, which everyone knew as the home of Michael Jordan. Somehow, in the USA, the floaters played this other sport, or so it seemed; the tapes he was left of the local side were wonderfully muddy and perfectly ground-bound. He'd leave it for the Swiss to figure out for themselves they couldn't float. In the USA, he could play the game his way, without everyone expecting him to turn the sun back in the sky or make the ball float alongside him like a soap-bubble. He'd win the second ball. He'd surge into space and make the simple pass. They'd appreciate how hard he works, and how sturdy he was with both feet planted in the mud. There'd be no whispers about Alex the Muggle.

It worked until it didn't. He played his game, fought every day alongside these other mudders, and gradually won his way into the starting squad. He won second balls, and he minded the space, and he was very, very sturdy. The team he played for seemed to accept that, in a fallen world, maybe wrestling about in the mud was as good as it could get.

But the idea of Macondo was rising; this had become a time when ideas were not local things. Persuasive ideas, beautiful ideas, began to rise in the public mind, simply by the process of dissemination - and there were few ideas more persuasive or beautiful than Macondo. He began to feel the world had drunk Macondo the way he'd taken that swallow of liquor - that its fire had been shattered into an impossble number of fragments which were now flickering away in the minds of the entire world. Everywhere he heard questions which sounded like, "What is Alex's best role?" but which really meant, "Aren't you from Macondo? Why can't you do that?"

Alex had answers - stability and reason are surer bedrocks than hope and magic; who ever fed a village with hope and magic - but he never voiced them. It was a time for Macondo. He kept the wizard's vial, unopened, in a sweatshirt in his locker; his teammates mistook his daily contemplation of it for a religious observance. In some ways, it was.