Thu
Dec 2 2010 8:30am

The Habitation of the Blessed (Excerpt)

Catherynne M. Valente

THE WORD IN THE QUINCE

an Account of My Coming to the Brink
of the World, and What I Found There.
As told by John of Constantinople
Committed to Eternity by his Wife,
Hagia, who was afterward called
Theotokos

Chapter the First, in which a Man is
delivered into India Ultima by means of
a Most Unusual Sea, and thereby forgets
the names of the Churches of
Constantinople.

Salt and sand sprayed against the hull, which the roasting wind had peeled of scarlet paint and bared of gilt. The horizon was a golden margin, the sea a spectral page. Caps of dusty foam tipped the waves of depthless sand, swelling and sinking, little siroccos opening their dry and desultory mouths. Whirlpools of dead branches snapped and lashed the bulging sides of the listing qarib; sand scoured her planks, grinding off crenellations and erasing the faces of a row of bronze lions meant to spray fire into the sails of enemies. The name of the ship was once Christotokos, but the all-effacing golden waves had scraped it to Tokos, and thus new-baptized, the little ship crested and fell with the whim of the inland sea.

I huddled against the wretched mast. A few days previously, a night-storm had visited this poor vessel, and its boiling clouds littered the deck of the ship with small dun mice. They tasted the mast, found it good, and stripped it to a spindly stick. In the morning, they leapt overboard as one creature, and I, lone inhabitant of the wretched Tokos, watched as they bounded away on the surface of the sand, buffeted by little licking waves, unconcerned, their bellies full of mast. I captained this thin remnant of naval prowess as best I could: shuddering, blister-lipped, no sailor, no oarsman, not even a particularly strong swimmer. My teeth hurt in my jaw, and my hands would not stop shaking—the true captain had leapt overboard in despair—a month past, now? Two?—and the navigator followed, then the cook, and finally the oarsmen. One by one as the sand snapped off their instruments they leapt overboard into the dust like mast-fed mice. But the sea did not bear them up, and they drowned screaming. They each watched the others sink into the glitter and grime, but believed in their final wild moments that theirs would be that lucky leap that found solid land. That they would be blessed above the others. Each by each, I watched the sand fill up their surprised and gaping mouths.

I ate the sail one night and dreamed of honey. The stars overhead hissed at me like cats.

Every morning, I prayed against the wheel of the ship, knees aching against the boards, the Ave Maria knotted like a gag in my mouth, peeling my lips open against those blasting hot winds that always smelled of red rock and bone-meal. But Mary did not come for me, no blue-veiled mother balancing on the shattered oars, torso roped with light. Still, I counted the beads of an invisible rosary, my body wind-dry of tears. The dawns were identical and crystalline, and the sand kept its own counsel, carrying the ship where it willed, with no oar or sail to defy its will.

Some days, I seemed to recall that my name was John. Searching my memory, I found Constantinople lying open as a psalter, the glittering quays blue and green and full of splashing mackerels, the trees dripping with green peacocks and pomegranates—and the walls so high! And I, I thought, I myself sat upon those walls. I remembered the city’s name, but not my own. A scribe with kind eyes sat at my side, and drank quince-wine with me as the sun spent itself gaudily over golden domes behind us. Mosaics glowed in my heart, dim as a dream, removed pebble by pebble and replaced and removed again as the whims of Patriarchs and Empresses decreed—until like my ship no gilt remained, and seabirds began to make off with the cobalt-stained eyes of Christ and Evangelist alike, according to whatever laws concerning icons seagulls and pelicans possessed.

With sand in my ears I remembered, with difficulty, pressing my cheek against the cool little stones, against the face of God, half in darkness beneath a towering window. Then, my feet knew the way to the tomb of Nestorius, to the hard, cold shadows there, the font with its porphyry rim. It all swam in my head, sloshing like a tide, as if I were full of the water that had abandoned this place. I remembered horses racing in the Hippodrome dust, an Empress’s hair plaited in gold.

But if I am honest, most days, I couldn’t even remember the taste of that quince-wine. I lay on the deck and tried to die. Perhaps God had simply taken pity on me, and erased quince from the face of the world, so that it could not hurt me to know how far I had strayed from any branch heavy with rough-skinned fruit.

Thus I lived on the sea of sand, in fear of storms and more mice. I ate my monk’s habit, too, after the sail was gone. It tasted only of myself, my own sweat and sickness, and I was wracked with it for days. But the bone-bare ocean was not entirely without pity. After some indeterminate number of days and leagues, the waves began to spit spectacular fish up onto the decks at dusk, sinuous beasts with long, twisted horns and scales of sapphire and gold that I had to chip from their skin with the chisel of the poor, dirt-drowned carpenter. The fish-skins clattered to the decks with tinny, tinkling sounds, and all the corners of the qarib glittered with piscine corpses. I gouged out their wet golden innards, soft as water. Under the scales and gleaming livers I found the sweetest possible flesh, delicate and translucent as moonlight. I drank the blood of the sand-fish through tortured lips, slurping the cool, raw meat from their knobby bones.

Not long after the advent of the fish, the ship learned to speak.

The Flesh may die, but never the Word, not even the Word in the Flesh, whispered the mouse-hewn holes in the mast. The sun blazed through those holes like a seraph’s many faces, and I listened obediently to all their sermons. After all, the ship spoke words I knew so well, somewhere deep in my desiccated stomach: the holy writ of Nestorius, condemning the Catholic heresy that Christ was one, indivisible entity, an ugly idea, both preposterous and obscene.

When I was a young man in Constantinople—was I a young man in Constantinople? Was I ever a young man? In my mind, the summers there stained thousands of blue silk beds black with sweat, and I cooled myself in the halls of the order of Nestorius. The incense made me giddy, the incense and the droning voice of the diakonos wobbling around my ears like a bee flexing his wings. The mosaic floated above me, the pebbled veil of Mary in her floating mandorla like a sea-ray, alien and gorgeous. Her rough mouth seemed to twist in the smoke and show blackness beneath, blackness to the depths of her, where there had never been light, only a child, his umbilicus fat and veined.

The Flesh may die, but never the Word, not even the Word in the Flesh, came the phlegmatic voice of the diakonos. Mary’s lips contorted above, wide as a fist. She seemed to speak only to me, into the bowl of my heart: The Logos is perfect, light made manifest. It is the Word of God. You must see it in your mind suspended upon the Body of Christ, a lamprey affixed to the flank of a shark. I laughed at the image then, my voice high and ridiculous under the dome, and Mary clamped her mouth shut.

I had a son, Mary seemed to whisper tightly, warped by the summer heat and the scented smoke pressing her cracked stone cheeks like bellows. I felt dizzy. I had a son like any other son. Is it my fault the Logos loved him? That the lamprey held him tight?

They took that mosaic down in the winter, when the new Patriarch took his mitre and announced that icons were the work of demons tempting us to worship stone and paint and gold instead of the ineffable substance of Our Lord. I remember the smells of the new image-less world as if they were paintings—winter lemons washing the air with their peppery rinds, the sea crusting the streets with salt. I wept, in private, for the loss of my Mary—but they brought her back just before I took my vows, when the old Patriarch died and the new one changed the game once more. Seagulls cried out above bloody Basilicas as the icon-breakers were shown the error of their doctrine, and everyone was free to make wretched, lopsided paintings of God again. It was exhausting. But Mary’s black eyes burned at my back as I repeated my holy vows. She said nothing, her stone lips pursed and thin.

 

The Flesh may die, but never the Word, not even the Word in the Flesh. The mast whistled in the wind, and its voice was not the voice of the old diakonos, nor Mary, but something else, raspy and pale and harsh. I snarled at it, shaking, fresh sand spattering my beard, but the dome of the sky was unmoved. I begged it to be silent, and it laughed, a shower of sunbeams scattering over the deck.

In this way did I keep myself from the despair of the sailors who bore me to this waste: I tended to Mary-in-the-Mast like a fresh-shaved novice. I ministered my parish of golden fishes. John, salt-spackled and wind-mad, kept his church. I cried to the sands and promised the life within that I would not falter, would not forget, and perish quince, Mary, Constantinople, forever from the Earth. The sea did not answer, but I feared that soon the fish would begin to speak as well, and their voices would be like horses snorting and thundering in the Hippodrome, scrabbling hooves rounding bronze tripods as they draw so close to the end.

 

It became my habit to fashion a blue cross each morning from the horns of the sapphire-fish, lashed together with their ropy, golden intestines. The sea of sand was unwilling to tolerate this new divinity, to allow its lone mendicant friar to consort with any other deity but itself. When the moon clattered like alms in the cup of the sky, the waves tore down my poor, wet cross and were satisfied. In the mornings, I set it up again, and said my prayers. But as the suns and moons rode their tracks, I began to lengthen my salutations, so that in addition to my phantom rosary, I would recite the names of all the churches of Byzantium I could remember. For if God could remove quince from the cosmos for the sake of His lost servant, what might He do to that half-imagined painted city of domes and mackerel? With my hair knotted back and my red skin bleeding, I called out to the whistling mast: Holy Apostles! Sergius and Bacchus! Theotokos Panachrantos! Christ Pantokrator! John the Baptist! Theodoroi! Theodosia! Euphemia! John of Studius! The Myrelaion! And Hagia Sophia, oh, the Sophia!

In time this seemed not quite enough to keep God from cupping His Hand over Constantinople and raising it out of the Bosphorus of my heart like a dripping fish-heart plucked from the world. The streets and alleys and grocers faded from my mind, scratched out by sand. So I began to add the names of all the people I had known, the presbyters and diakonoi, the scribes and fishermen, the dancers and date-sellers. Damaskenos with your damned bee-voice, Hieronymos whose hand was so tight and clear on the vellum, Isidora with your sweet kisses, Alki of harborside, your swordfish blue as death! Niko who sold artichokes with tight green leaves armoring their hearts, Tychon who drank fennel-liquor until he vomited after evening services! Pelagios with such a voice, Basileus the eunuch, Clio with her belts of coins, Cyprios with his seven daughters! Phocas made beer and Symeon was a calligrapher, but his wife could not read. Iasitas was the man to get your lettuce from, and old Euphrosyne sold linen that would make you cry to touch it. And Kostas, Kostas, with your black hair shining, you sat on the wall with me, and the quince was sweet.

Soon my devotions spanned sunrise and sunset like a bridge. I held to my fish-cross at night, and the sand threw itself upon my helpless flesh instead. I wept against the hard horn crossbeams, but the desert tide had wracked my eyes of all moisture. I sobbed empty and hoarse against the waves, and began again my litany of churches and apricot-sellers.

But each time the moon went dark, I lost one of them; a Basilica with tripartite windows snuffed out within me, a distiller of lime-liquor scooped up and away. I thought in those days that the sand would never cease, that in this world there were seas that had no end.

 

The flotsam of jeweled fish crammed the decks of the Tokos, scales spilling out onto the salt-surf. Rheumatic Euphrosyne and the emerald reliquaries of the Myrelaion had gasped their last and dissolved from my desiccated mind. It seemed to me then that there had never been a soul aboard but my own and those tiny, squeaking spirits of the storm-brought mice. I had not been able to close my eyes for days. Sand filled all the creases and ducts. I wept sand; I breathed it. Had there been a captain, I wondered, before me? Had there been a man with a green belt and a young wife in Cappadocia, whose hair was a most extraordinary yellow? Had he known a song about St. Thomas? Had he knelt in horror at the feet of the navigator when the blue and cheerful sea turned to sand? I could not tell, I could not tell.

Folly, I assured myself. No man knew this ship before me, it was impossible—yet I seemed to remember a green belt drifting on the golden eddies. I could not be sure.

The Word Dwells in All Things, whispered the mast, the Word in the Quince, the Word in the Mouse. The Logos of the Sand. Mary-in-the-Mast, John-in-the-Ship—the Word in the Flesh.

“Leave me alone,” I said. I could not close my mouth, with the sand so hot in my jaw.

Listen, John-my-Grist: Christ, the Shark, and the Logos, the Lamprey, hummed the lacerated pillar. Go into the Sea, Trust to the Sea, Breathe the Gold of the Earth and Fear Not. In the Depths, the Lamprey will Find you, and you will know It by Its Teeth in your Side.

“I am afraid,” I said, clutching my blue-horned cross before me.

I will take the Sophia from you, hissed the mast, with its great bronze dome. I will take your Purpose, what you came for, to find the Tomb of St. Thomas and glory for your Master. And I will take Kostas on the wall. Be my Shark, John, and I will be your Star-of-the-Sea, your Star-of-the-Sand.

“No,” I whispered. My hands shook terribly. “I need them.”

Be my Shark, be my Endless Swimming.

I clutched my cross to me, glancing back fearfully at the stern mast, its mouse-mouths grinning. The sun seemed so bright, bright as the sugary wine in my friend’s brown hand as we sat on the wall and discoursed as the fishing boats came in, his gentle voice chiding: John, surely the nature of Christ is vast enough to encompass all of these things, the Logos and the poor lost boy and the Dove moving in His breast. Surely we are all vast, and He, the greatest of us, cannot be less than you or I, who are made of light, and still suffer in our flesh. I clung to his voice, receding down the darknesses inside me, the memory of Kostas, ever wiser, ever more gentle, growing weak and dim, his echo coming before his words, dissipating along the rim of my heart until only fragments of his whispers floated unmoored in me: vast, vast, vast.

I could not even close my eyes to leap; the sand had wedged them open with fire and pain. But leap I did, and the wind made no sound when I landed—hard—on a solid spit of sand. I stood shakily, my eyes scalded, my cross bent irreparably.

The mast laughed with all its hundred broken mouths, and the Tokos rode on in the glare, across liquid dunes, unmoved by the loss of her last man.

 

I, John, lately of Constantinople, began to walk East, as though a star ever rose in another direction.

2 comments
CassR
1. CassR
Oh, wow... I've been listening to Cat talk about this book for months, building up to the release - the shows, the cover, the boxes - and now I realise why she was so excited about it.
Kim B
2. Amaranthine
Wow, I love this. The language is so rich. Gorgeous stuff.

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