Dec 2 2010 9:30am
We hope you enjoy this excerpt of the first three chapters from Catherynne M. Valente’s latest book and the first in the A Dirge For Prester John series, The Habitation of the Blessed, out now from Night Shade Books.
John, priest by the almighty power of God and the might of our Lord Jesus Christ, king of kings and Lord of Lords, to his friend Emanuel, Prince of Constantinople: Greetings, wishing him health, prosperity, and the continuance of divine favor.
Our Majesty has been informed that you hold our Excellency in love and that the report of our greatness has reached you. Moreover, we have heard through our treasurer that you have been pleased to send to us some objects of art and interest that our Exaltedness might be gratified thereby. I have received it in good part, and we have ordered our treasurer to send you some of our articles in return…
Should you desire to learn the greatness and Excellency of our Exaltedness and of the land subject to our scepter, then hear and believe: I, Presbyter Johannes, the Lord of Lords, surpass all under heaven in virtue, in riches, and in power; seventy-two kings pay us tribute… In the three Indies our Magnificence rules, and our land extends beyond India, where rests the body of the holy apostle Thomas. It reaches towards the sunrise over the wastes, and it trends toward deserted Babylon near the Tower of Babel. Seventy-two provinces, of which only a few are Christian, serve us. Each has its own king, but all are tributary to us.
—The Letter of Prester John,
Delivered to Emperor Emanuel Comnenus
We who were Westerners find ourselves transformed into Orientals. The man who had been an Italian or a Frenchman, transplanted here, has become a Galilean or a Palestinian. A man from Rheims or Chartres has turned into a citizen of Tyre or Antioch. We have already forgotten our native lands. To most of us they have become territories unknown.
—The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres
THE FIRST MOVEABLE SPHERE
There is also in our territory a sandy sea without water. For the sand moves and swells into waves like the sea and is never still. It is not possible to navigate this sea or cross it by any means, and what sort of country lies beyond is unknown… three days’ journey from this sea there are mountains from which descends a waterless river of stones, which flows through our country to the sandy sea. Three days in the week it flows and casts up stones both great and small, and carries with it also wood to the sandy sea. When the river reaches the sea the stones and wood disappear and are not seen again. While the sea is in motion it is impossible to cross it. On the other four days it can be crossed.
Between the sandy sea and the mountains we have mentioned a desert…
—The Letter of Prester John, 1165
THE CONFESSIONS OF HIOB VON LUZERN, 1699
I am a very bad historian. But I am a very good miserable old man. I sit at the end of the world, close enough to see my shriveled old legs hang over the bony ridge of it. I came so far for gold and light and a story the size of the sky. But I have managed to gather for myself only a basket of ash and a kind of empty sorrow, that the world is not how I wished it to be. The death of faith is tasteless, like dust. Such dust I have unearthed by Your direction, Lord, such emerald dust and ruby sand that I fear one day I shall wake and my vision will be clouded in green and scarlet, and I shall never more see the world but through that veil of jewels. I say I have unearthed this tale—I mean I have taken it from the earth; I have made it no longer of the earth. I have made the tale an indentured slave, prostrate beneath air and rain and heaven, and tasked it to burrow under the great mountains and back to the table at which I supped as a boy, to sit instead among barrels of beer and wheels of cheese, and stare at the monks who raised me with such eyes as have pierced me these many weeks. They sent me here, which is to say You sent me here, my God, and I do not yet have it in me to forgive either of you.
But I plead forgiveness for myself. I am a hypocrite—but You knew that. I desire clemency for the tale I send back over the desert. It is not the tale I wished to tell—but that is not the fault of the tale. If a peasant loathes his son for failing to become king, blame must cleave to him, and not to his poor child. Absolve this tale, Lord. Make it pure and good again. Do not let it suffer because your Hiob is a poor storyteller, and struck that peasant child for lack of a crown. The tale is not weak, yet I am. But in Truth is the Light of Our Lord, though the beacons and blazes of centuries gone have grown diffident and pale of late, still I have never lied. I could sell my soul to the demons of historiography and change this tale to suit my dreams. I could do it and no one would think less of me. It has been done before, after all. But before my Lord I lay the pain and anguish of the truth, and ask only to be done with it all.
Our troupe arrived in the provinces of Lavapuri in the Year of Our Lord 1699, in search of the Source of the Indus River. Officially, we had been charged to shine a light in a dark place, to fold up the Dove of Christ into our saddlebags and bear Him unto the poor roughened souls of the Orient. Of course You know better, Lord. You saw us back home, huddled together and dreaming of gryphons and basilisks. And in the crush of our present heat and dry wind I well recalled those frigid, thrilling nights at home, crouched in the refectory, when a man was compelled to break the ice on his milk before he could drink. In the cold lamplight we whispered brother to brother. We hoped to find so much in the East, hoped to find a palace of amethyst, a fountain of unblemished water, a gate of ivory. Brushing the frost from our bread, we dreamed, as all monks had since the wonderful Letter appeared, of a king in the East called Prester John, who bore a golden cross on his breast. We whispered and gossiped about him like old women. We told each other that he was as strong as a hundred men, that he drank from the Fountain of Youth, that his scepter held as jewels the petrified eyes of St. Thomas.
Bring word of him, the Novices said to me. Tell us how the voice of Prester John sounds in your ears.
Bring gifts to him, my Brothers said to me. Tell us how the hand of Prester John weighs on your shoulder.
Bring oaths to us, the Abbot said to me. Tell me how he will deliver us from the Unfaithful. Also in your travels, if the chance presents itself without too much trial, endeavor to spread the Name of Christ into such lands as you may.
Yes, they did tell me to convert and enlighten the savages. But my Brothers’ mouths were so full of golden crosses and the names of kings. I could hardly hear them.
The Indus seeped green as a weeping eye, and our horses’ delicate ankles did not love it well. The dust of the mountains was red beneath grey, and to me it seemed as if the stones bled. The younger Brothers quarreled among themselves as to who should have the delight of hunting the shaggy, truculent sheep of these parts, and who should have the trial of staying with old Hiob in case he needed a less wizened mind to recall scripture and blessings, should we ever meet a soul in need of scouring in these crags of the dead. Two of our number had died already: Brother Uriel fell from a stone jut to his death, and Brother Gundolfus perished of an insect bite which grew to the size of an apple before he showed it to us. I am ashamed to say I was overcome by thirst, and Brother Alaric was compelled to administer their Rites. We buried them both beside the pilgrim road.
But I do not wish to furnish You with a litany of the sufferings of my small band—You know where we failed, where we starved. You know how many had gone to Your same cruel river. Truly, only You know the exact number of fools who came strident and arrogant, making the same demands of the locals: that they must lead them to the cathedral-palace of Prester John on the double, and do not forget to point out the Fountain of Youth along the way! You know how the mountain-folk laughed at them, or called them mad, or flayed them and gave those pilgrims over to the Indus to decide their fates. Uriel and Gundolfus were good men, and at least they died still hoping to see the Priest-king one day; their goodness has been faithfully recorded, and Christ alone knows their sins.
The sky bolstered a spiteful sun, whose dull, thirsty light was scarcely enough to lift our eyes to heaven. Yet the river was true, and cold, and we drank often. Sharp, spicy leaves were all we found to eat for many days—all the squabbling over who was the greater hunter meant little when the sheep were cleverer than the monks. It was not until the thirteenth day—unlucky, yes, but Hiob cannot be blamed for happenstance!—since we had entered the coriander-strewn provinces of Lavapuri that we came upon a village, and a woman, and a word.
The village was mean: twelve small huts and a larger house, some local fiefdom. The village, too, glowered grey and dull in our sight, as though it had burned once, so fast that the ash remained in the shapes of daub and stick huts, in the shape of scraggle-haired goats, in the shape of sharp-ribbed children. The sun lies too close to the earth in this place.
The woman was tall, her clay-colored skin dark and sunburned beneath smudges of charcoal and dust. She wore a yellow robe, wet at the hem where she had been in the river, pulling reeds into her basket to wrap the evening’s rooster, which she carried by the broken neck in one slim hand. And so she seemed to me a candle in the grey mere, a benevolent Virgin in gold, her arms all full of green. Her eyes unsettled me, being a shade of dusty gold like an illuminated page, and tired, greatly grieved. Thin, white hair prickled on her arms and shoulders, not unpleasant to look at, though I am not accustomed to marking a woman’s bodily hair, and felt a dim flame in my cheeks even then, noticing how her silky down fairly glowed against her dark skin. I went to her, with three of my novices clutching crosses to their young and rampant breasts. I stumbled in my eagerness—I beg forgiveness for that indignity.
“Lady,” I said to her in the liquid syllables of her own Mughal dialect, for in Your kindness You graced me with a love for foreign tongues, and an ease in their learning. “Tell me!” I said to her, as every fool priest must have done to every poor unbaptized goat-wife since this whole business began. “Where is the great king Prester John?”
She blinked at me, no doubt surprised to hear her own ululating dialect spill from the mouth of a foreigner, and then bent her head as if in prayer, as if in acknowledgment of some old sorrow long past its sting, and her scalp gleamed dully in the slant-light. When she raised her head, she looked down the long scrub-specked plain from whence she had come and sighed through her nose, her lips clamped tight against speech, her reeds already wilting.
Then she spoke her word. Everything that followed was born in that moment, from her mouth, in the dusk and the dust and all of us waiting on her like suitors on a princess.
The word was: Gone.
How can such a man be gone? The Letter tells us he has clapped up the Cup of Life within his treasure-house, that the Fountain of Youth bubbles in his courtyard like a pretty Italian marble. Surely his heart swells still; five hundred years is but a cough in the long breath of such a potentate. We were not the first to come with a vision of him blazing like the Sacred Heart in our bones—but none yet had reported him dead, or even reduced in splendor. Yet the woman in yellow shook her head and would not say his name or her own. She took us instead up the small path to the low-roofed house of her Lord, who was called Abbas and presided grandly over a field of rice, fourteen sheep, and a healthy family of breeding goats. The villagers lounged in his hall, laughingly gulped his fermented milk, lustily ate his rice, kicked his one-eared dog and called him the son of a second wife while he smiled ruefully at me, as if to say: What may a Lord do on this earth but love the roughest of men and care for them as children?
Our yellow-eyed guide knelt at a fire set into the floor of the Lord’s house, and put her reed-wrapped rooster under the embers. Its scent broke the air into savory sighs, and Abbas kissed her brow as though she were a favored sister, or a daughter whose mother had gone before her. He cupped her face in his brown hand, and it was he who fed her when the chicken had done! She knelt before him, though I did not see in her the submissive aspect of a demure and humble woman. It seemed only that she felt it most comfortable to kneel while Abbas placed each golden slice of roasted flesh carefully on her tongue with his own fingers, as if she were the queen and he a slave bound to her ankle. The hall was quiet during this strange rite; the shabby courtiers did not speak nor drink nor torment hounds, and in the corner of the hall, a man wept softly.
By the time she had finished her meal, the sky had cooled, a flush of pink rising in the east, as if the deeds of men embarrassed the heavens. Slowly, conversation took hold of the room once more. A pleasant sort of flute and drum struck up, played by two children, twins most likely, with our guide’s same downy white hair on their bony shoulders. The tune felt sad against my ears, and against those of Brother Alaric and the others as well, if my guess is correct. When the men had returned to gossiping about whose daughter had snuck about with whose son, the woman in yellow left her Lord and took up my hand in hers. The eyes of Abbas followed us as we withdrew from the hall, and those of all the village, too.
She would take only myself: the novices Abbas bade to stay, plying them with goat-liver and chickpea-mash—for once I was not sorry to miss a meal. Young men are often satiated by a little rich food and strong drink, but at my age my liver cannot bear very much of anyone else’s. In the red shadows of those toothed mountains my silent Virgil took me through that long plain of garlic-flowers and withered plants, a field agued and sallow. Beneath my feet, O Lord, Your earth sagged in its dying. There are places older than Avignon, older than Rome, and the world there is so tired it cannot rouse itself, even for the sake of guests.
We reached the edge of the plain, where it shed all growing things and began a sheer rise into blue stone and thirst. There she knelt as Eve beside a tree, and beside that tree I laid too all my faith and learning, all that which is Hiob and not another man, and nevermore from that spot would my soul move.
This tree bore neither apples nor plums, but books where fruit should sprout. The bark of its great trunk shone the color of parchment, its leaves a glossy, vibrant red, as if it had drunk up all the colors of the long plain through its roots. In clusters and alone books of all shapes hung among the pointed leaves, their covers obscenely bright and shining, swollen as peaches, gold and green and cerulean, their pages thick as though with juice, their silver ribbonmarks fluttering in the spiced wind.
I leapt like a boy to catch them up in my hands—the boughs arched thick and high, higher than any chestnut in our cloister orchards, knottier than the hoary pines which cling to the sea-stone with roots like arms. In Eden no such tree would have dared to grow so high and embarrass the Lord on his Chair. But in that place I felt with a shudder and chill that You had turned Your Eye away, and many breeds of strangeness might be permitted in Its absence.
I managed to snatch but one sweet fruit between my fingertips—a little brown hymnal that had been a fair feast for worms and parrots. I opened its sleek pages—a waft of perfume assailed my senses. Oh! They smelled like crisp apples soaked in brandy! The worms had had the best of the thing, but there on the frontispiece, I saw a lovely script, elegant and sure, and in a language I could read only with difficulty, a tongue half-infidel and half-angelic, I read:
Physikai Akroaskeos, or,
The Book of Things Made and Things
Authored by the Anti-Aristotle of
Chandrakant on the Occasion of his
in the Seventeenth Year of Queen Abir
Translated and Transcribed by Hagia of
the Blemmyae during several Very
Pleasant Afternoons during
the Lenten Fast, commonly Called the
Weeks of Eating in Secret, in New
Byzantium, Under an Ink-Nut Tree.
Only two pages remained intact, the others ruined, a rich feast for some craven bird—and in my heart I cursed the far raven in whose belly my lost pages whispered to its black gizzard. You see? I already thought of them as mine. I touched the lonely, clinging page with a finger, and it seemed to brown like the flesh of a pear beneath my skin:
As an indication of this, take the well-known Antinoë’s Experiment: if you plant a bed and the rotting wood and the worm-bitten sheets in the deep earth, it will certainly and with the hesitation of no more than a season, which is to say no more than an ear of corn or a stalk of barley, send up shoots. A bed-tree will come up out of the fertile land, its fruit four-postered, and its leaves will unfurl as green pillows, and its stalk will be a deep cushion on which any hermit might rest. Every child knows this. It is art that changes, that evolves, and nature that is stationary.
However, since this experiment may be repeated with bamboo or gryphon or meta-collinarum or trilobite, perhaps it is fairer to say that animals and their parts, plants and simple bodies are artifice, brother to the bed and the coat, and that nature is constituted only in the substance in which these things may be buried—that is to say, soil and water, and no more.
A fat orange worm squirmed out of the o in Antinoë, and I flung the hymnal away in disgust. Immediately I flushed with shame and crawled for it, clutched it back, worm and all. A book is worth a worm or two, even vermin so fat and gorged as the one which even then oozed around the spine unconcernedly. I should have honored all Thy creatures, my Lord, and bowed to the worm, who after all, came first to this feast. I seized the last page, which tore free in my hand with a sound like a child’s cry. It read:
That which is beloved is the whole of creation.
Yet there must be an essential affinity, a thing which might be called the blood of the spheres, which exists between and among that which we have determined is artifice and that which we have determined is natural, e.g. Pentexore and all it contains and the soil and water which produce Pentexore and what folk call “creation.” For if it is created, it cannot be natural!
In my heart I see all things connected by diamond threads, and those threads I call the stuff of affinity. But I am an old man, and my son makes the palm-wine far too strong these days, and the sun burns my pate.
It is with these thoughts in my heart that I go to bury you, my sweet Pythias, in the black field where you planted sugar cane last spring, beside your orange bride’s veil, whose gauzy flowers still blow in the salt-wind off of the Rimal. It is with these thoughts that I will water the bed of veils and cane all winter long, and hope to see your face swell like fruit from some future hanging bough.
“Is there no more?” I cried.
The woman in yellow shrugged her downy shoulders. Finally, she spoke, a full sentence, falling reluctantly from her mouth like a costly jewel.
“Birds and beasts must feast as men do. I do not deny them their sustenance.”
In a madness I turned from her, and in a madness I clambered up into the scarlet tree as no man my age should do, reaching for the book-fruit, stretching out my veiny fingers to them. They glittered and swung away from my grip in the hot breezes, the green and the gold fluttering, the covers stamped with serpents, with crosses, with curved swords, with a girl whose right arm was a long wing.
Below me, my guide made a sign with her long fingers. Three, her hand said. Three alone.
Of course, it must forever and always be three. Three is Thy number, O Lord, of Thy Son and Thy Spirit. How wicked of me, no better than a worm or a raven, to strip the tree for my own gorging. I breathed to calm my heart and reached out again, to the brambled deeps of the tree. I sought out the most complete volumes, in the nests of branches where no hoopoe crept, and this time my grip fell firmly on them, cool and firm as apples.
I drew forth first: a golden book bearing a three-barred cross on its cover. Second: a green antiphonal with a wax seal over its pages that showed a strange, elongated ear. Lastly I strained to pluck, furthest from my reach, a book as scarlet as the leaves of the great tree. A pair of staring eyes embossed on its cover seemed to rifle my soul for riches, finding less than they hoped for. Cradled in the fork of the tree, I opened the pages of my last ripe fruit, my prize, and on the page was the same certain hand as had recorded the strange science of Anti-Aristotle. But it was not the same book—the paper shone a pale, fresh green, and small paintings grinned and gamboled at the edges. Perhaps the same scribe had copied both—to be sure many books in our Library bear my own hand.
I bent my face close to the script, squinting—and onto that page my heart fell out, for the sweet-smelling book promised no hope.
We carried the body of my husband down to the river, he who was once called king, called Father, called, in the most distant of days, Prester John.
The river churned: basalt, granite, marble, quartz—sandstone, limestone, soapstone. Alabaster against obsidian, flint against agate. Eddies of jasper slipped by, swirls of schist, carbuncle and chrysolite, slate, beryl, and a sound like shoulders breaking.
Fortunatus the Gryphon carried the body which had been called John on his broad and fur-fringed back—how his wings were upraised like banners, gold and red and bright! Behind his snapping tail followed the wailing lamia twelve by twelve, molting their iridescent skins in grief.
Behind them came shrieking hyena and crocodiles with their great black eyes streaming tears of milk and blood.
Even still behind these came lowing tigers, their colors banked, and in their ranks sciopods wrapped in high black stockings, carrying birch-bark cages filled with green-thoraxed crickets singing out their dirges.
The panotii came behind them, their great and silken ears drawn over their bodies like mourning veils.
The astomii followed, their mouthless faces wretched, their great noses sniffing at the tear-stitched air. At their heels walked the amyctryae, their mouths pulled up over their heads as if to hide from grief.
The red and the white lions dragged their manes in the dust; centaurs buried their faces in blue-veined hands.
The meta-collinara passed, their feet clung with hill-dust, clutching their women’s breasts while their swan-heads bobbed in time to some unheard dirge of their own.
The peacocks closed the blue-green eyes of their tails.
The tensevetes came, ice glittering in their elbows, the corners of their eyelids, the webbing of their fingers, the points of their terrible teeth. And from all these places they melted, woeful water dripping into the dusty day.
The soft-nosed mules threw up their heads in broken-throated braying.
The panthers stumbled to their black and muscled knees, licking the soil from their tears.
The blue cranes shrieked and snapped their sail-like wings sorrow-ward.
On spotted camels rode the cyclops, holding out into the night lanterns which hung like rolling, bloodshot eyes, and farther in the procession came white bears, elephants, satyrs playing mourn-slashed pipes, pygmies beating ape-skin drums, giants whose staves drew great furrows in the road, and the dervish-spinning cannibal choir, their pale teeth gleaming.
Behind these flew low the four flame-winged phoenix, last of their race.
Emeralds rolled behind like great wheels, grinding out their threnodies against the banks.
And after all of these, feet bare on the sand, skirts banded thick and blue about her waist, eyes cast downward, bearing her widow’s candle in both hands, walked Hagia of the Blemmyae, who tells this tale.
I sat in the house of Abbas, my habit and hood full of fruit. The book-plums left a sticky honey on my hands, and they tasted, oh, I can remember it still—of milk and fig and a basket of African coconuts Brother Gregor once brought home to the refectory from sojourns south. I stared at my precious three books with the eyes of a starving child—could I not somehow devour them all at once and know their contents entire? Unfair books. You require so much time! Such a meal of the mind is a long, arduous feast indeed. And then I was seized with terror: What if they rotted as fruit will do? What if time and air could steal from me words, passages, whole chapters? I could not choose; I could not bear to choose, and the liver-scented snoring of my novices rose up to the rafters.
I decided to make a liturgy of my reading. I would fashion my work in the image of Thy Holy Church. I would read and copy for an hour from each book, so that they would all rot—and I too, in my slower way—at the same pace, and no book should feel slighted by preference for another. All those fleshy, apple-sweet riches I meant to bear home intact to my Brothers in the cold of Luzerne.
I could choose no other than the book with the golden cross on its cover to begin: I am ever and always the man that I am, a man of God and the Cross, and that cannot be altered. I believe now that You put these books in my path, O Lord, with Your mark upon them so that I should know that You moved on the face of my fate as once on the deep waters of the unmade world.
I reached for salvation, and opened its boards like curtains.