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.
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
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
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.
THE CONFESSIONS OF HIOB VON LUZERN, 1699
My candle-of-the-hours had dripped its way down. The nail I had set between the seventh and eighth marker clattered onto its tin dish, and I started from—dare I say such a thing?—John’s chronicle, John’s book, his own hand and thoughts. I could not help but believe it genuine. This was certainly bad scholarship, but faith and hope are inarguable virtues. I believed it; it was so. Where my unworthy fingers had pressed the corners of the pages, brown blemishes rose up, as on the flesh of a pear left out too long. I trembled, with that unnamable emotion that only those men devoted to books and letters know—to come so intimately close to that which I had studied so long, with passion and sleeplessness and cramped hands.
I set aside the golden book, my back stiff and aching with the effort of copying. Such work I had not done since I was a youth, struggling with my rosa-rosae-rosam and my tripartite God and my lust for certain city girls who, even if my mother had not promised her sons to the Church, would have been far out of my reach, their round, milk-colored bodies swaying down other roads, toward other men. I have boys to scribe for me now—for I have often and in secret thought that it is boys’ work, to copy and not to compose, to parrot, and not to proclaim. Out here on the edge of the world I feel it safe to confess, my Lord: I once wished, and still do, on some idle occasions, that there had been wealth enough in my family to give me a poet’s leisure, to fill my days with wine and quills and all those women with their braids bound up so tightly, so terribly tight I thought it must hurt them so, and how much more lovely they were to me then, suffering the passion of their beauty. Young Hiob, in his garret, with his sonnets whirling like starved angels in the snow-motes of some sweet Alpine November—he would have entertained a cheese-merchant’s daughter on each arm, and with his toes scratched out such verses as to give Chaucer a good thumping.
But that impossible Hiob would not have journeyed so far, to the grey and red and thirsty land of Lavapuri, or seen the lady with the downy arms, or held the book of Prester John in his old, spotted hands that never touched so much as one cowherd’s girl. He would have been abandoned of God, and possibly have written verses more concise and less meandering than this old man’s babbling. Yet I fancy that the Lord my God is the most elderly grandfather of us all, and is perhaps comforted by hoary chatter and reminiscences—after all, He sometimes longs to share His own.
I found myself disturbed by the strangeness of John’s words, so riddled with baleful ghosts of the Nestorian heresy, and darker things still. All men know Christ was one being, united in Word and Flesh, the Divine Man, who walked among us so briefly. I did not like to think of John as a heretic, subscribing to that mad false prophet Nestorius and his confusing philosophies, slicing Christ down the middle like a joint of meat. Word and Flesh, separate, struggling one against the other? It is an ugly thought. It was always an ugly thought. I did not wish to send back word that I had found the great king, only to have him repeat the Devil’s own lies. Even less did I enjoy the thought of his friendships with half-literate Turkic cobble-rats. I shook my head to clear it in the close, damp cell. Hiob, you old rooster, have you not yourself been as close as kin to your own scribes and novices? Have you not embraced them with fatherly love, frankly and without judging their poor parentage? If boys came to you uneducated, did you not take it on yourself to do the work of making them wise? I passed my hand over my eyes. They should have sent a younger man. With less fog in his pate. With more hair on it, too. I called one of those dear and gentle novices to me, and bade him fill me up with bread and that runny cheese they favored here and also something fortifying to drink, even if it be full of spices whose richness endangered both my soul and my digestion.
There, there, belly of mine. Be peaceable. I look after you, don’t I?
I took up the scarlet tome, with its embossed eyes staring, staring, pricking up my marrow with their gaze. It possessed a bloody scent, lurid, like a pomegranate, or bubbling sugar, or beer when it is still so sweet, and the yeast bellows up from the barrel, soft and thick as skin.
I reminded myself: when a book lies unopened it might contain anything in the world, anything imaginable. It therefore, in that pregnant moment before opening, contains everything. Every possibility, both perfect and putrid. Surely such mysteries are the most enticing things You grant us in this mortal mere—the fruit in the garden, too, was like this. Unknown, and therefore infinite. Eve and her mate swallowed eternity, every possible thing, and made the world between them.
But oh, those eyes, they did hound me, and I feared them.
THE BOOK OF THE FOUNTAIN
an Account of Her Life
Composed by Hagia of the Blemmyae
Without Other Assistance
When I was born my mother cut off her smallest finger and treated the skin with a parchmenter’s oils. She stretched it on a miniature frame of hummingbird bones, making a tiny book in which she recorded one word for each year of my life with her—the tiny pages left room for no more. It was a strange thing, a little horrible, but I often asked her to take it down from the shelf so that I could look inside it. Hagia, it said on the first page. Cry, on the second. Lymph, on the third. Silence, the fourth. I did not understand. But I understood the tenth page, which said Fountain in Ctiste’s tight, angular hand. No child could mistake such a word, written in such a year. I would go to the Fountain, and I would drink.
My mother tied red skirts below my mouth and, though I protested, buried the little book she made me in a patch of wet, cakey soil ringed in henna bushes. I wept and scrabbled at the dirt for my book, but she would not be moved, and she had buried it deep. With red eyes I clung to her as we walked together over the Shirshya fields, past our donkeys and cows, past the skin-trees waving, past the brindles and reds and whites.
As we walked, I considered my life, as solemnly as a child may weigh her slight ten years in the world on each of her small hands. Our family tended groves of vellum-trees, sprouting out of the earth with bark of gold leaf, their boughs bearing strips of pure skin, translucent and wavering in the peppery wind. Each year, when the harvest lay stretched on hoops in the fields, tightening in the sun, we would cut squares of skin from our dumb, mute beasts and bury them in the earth to sleep until spring: donkeys, calves, camels. Up their skin-trees would come when the winter released the soil: white skins for scripture, brindle for scientific treatises, red for poetry, black for medical texts, dun for romances. Spotted for tragedies, striped for ballad-sheets. The skin of each shows differently when it is stretched and treated and cut, and we knew how the infinite gradations of literature may be strained and made more perfect through the skin of a cow.
Despite my muscular memory, which may easily lift both my mother’s laugh and my husband’s psalms and still have strength for my own long-buried desires and soliloquies, despite the coming darkness and the urgency of my pen, this thing beneath my hand is a difficult book to write. I have been all my life a scribe. I have personally translated and copied the works of the Anti-Aristotle, Artavastus, Catacalon of Silverhair, Stylite the False Lover, Pachymeres-who-spoke-against-Thales, Ghayth Below-the-Wall, Yuliana of Babel, and countless catalogues of poisons, harvests, sexual adventures, and pilgrimages to the Fountain.
It is strange. I have forgotten when we began to call them that—pilgrimages.
I have copied out the great works of our nation in ultramarine, walnut gall, and cuttlefish. Very occasionally, for the most precious volumes, I have crafted my own tincture of zebra-fat and mule-musk, the soot of frankincense and errata pages, and tears. It is this last I use now, though I thought for a long while that something humbler might be best, as I do not consider myself an author, and therefore cannot expect to be allowed to use the finer tools. But in the end, as I attempt, with clumsy but earnest need, to compose and not to copy, perhaps the quality of the ink will stand in my place, and lend some small beauty where I, of necessity, must fail.
As I write, it is morning in New Byzantium. I am comforted, as I have always been, by the scrape of quill against parchment, something like the scratching of chickens in dust—it seems full of tranquil meaning, though the next dancing rooster shall erase the work of all those white and fluttering hens, and the next scribe with her pumice stone will someday take up these pages and make room for a decade’s record of the Physon’s chalky inundations. I am not entirely at peace with this. But I shall have my comeuppance and must be sanguine in the face of it—for I have scoured my own healthy share of careful calligraphy from donkey-skin. It is the natural life-cycle of literature, whether I like it or not.
I live now in a red minaret whose netted windows let in a kind of glassy light, cut by palm-fronds and the tips of quince-trees into fitful scales of shadow, scattering this stack of neat lion-skin pages. My friend Hadulph cut them for me with much solemnity out of his uncle, who fell into a chasm and spilled out the gift of the Font into the dust. Hadulph’s claws were quite sharp enough to the task, but he wept, and the pages are spotted with feline grief. This is not, I think, unapt to my tale. When my pen passes over the stretched and chalk-dulled tracks of my friend’s tears, it goes soft and silent, and so must I.
In truth, I do not rightly know where to begin. I want to speak of my childhood; I want to speak of those terrible events that occurred when I was grown. In my head, in my heart, it all happens at once, one moment lying on top of the other, a palimpsest of days. But that is no way to write a book, and if it is a choice between beginning with him or beginning with myself, I must turn my back on the shade of the man who was once my husband and abjure his usual assumption that all things in the firmament are primarily concerned with his person. I am sure he will be affronted; I feel the wind off of the persimmon groves chill and bristle.
Quiet, John. Quiet, my love. The world existed before you came. We lived; we ate—we even managed to laugh and have a few children before we knew your name.
Bells ring low and sweet in the al-Qasr. It will be warm today, and the wind will bring roses.
When my mother took me to the Fountain for the first time, when I was ten years of age, I felt nothing in the world could be hard or cold or implacable. These days we would call our long walk a pilgrimage, but I did not know the word pilgrim then. No one did. What could such a thing possibly mean? But I knew that my mother was called Ctiste and that she had a waist like a betel-tree and high, small breasts tipped in green eyes like mine—for the blemmyae carry their faces in their chests and have no heads as men do. But we are capable of beauty, whatever you will hear men say. Ctiste was beautiful, and I loved her. I remember her best bent over her parchmenter’s work, and so too my father, working the hoops of laurel wood outside our house, fragrant and white, stretching piebald skins over their curvature. My parents set the pegs true under boughs of champaka flowers; pale orange shadows flitted on their long, muscled arms, the mouths in their flat stomachs no more than hard, thin lines.
I held her hand very tightly as we walked from the city—for you must always walk to the Fountain. If your feet are not road-filthy when you arrive, you have not suffered enough to be worthy of the water. My mother was very strict about this, stopping every few miles to rub red, clayey mud onto the soles of my bare feet, in case I was not sufficiently squalid. The Fountain bubbles and flows quite far from what is now Ephesus Segundus—then sweet, gently dilapidated Shirshya, where no one wrote their name without touching my family, our work, our skin.
The Fountain-road astonished me. Such an extraordinary thing for a child to tread. So long, so bright, so loud! Tight as a girl’s hair it curled northward from Shirshya, cutting through fields of spiky kusha grass like brown bones. Pink-violet lotus floated on pools of white sand like lakewater, pale green leaves tucked neatly up beneath their petals. Around her ample waist my mother had tied a belt of books for barter; the spines and boards thudded dully against her hips as we walked, and the smell of the dry grass smoked the air. Ctiste wore red, too. We all wear red on the pilgrim road.
A road can be a city, no less than Shirshya, no less than Constantinople. The Fountain-road formed a long, wending capital—we must all walk it, and so it became our own sweet home, no matter where we were born. Every mile was occupied as firmly as war-won territory, by lamia selling venom and lemon cakes, by fauns selling respite in their arms, by tigers selling tinctures of their claws and eyelashes, by gryphons selling blank-faced idols of chrysolite and cedar. The turbaned tensevetes, their flat, frozen faces gleaming, let their cheeks drip and melt slowly into amethyst vessels, which are then sold to the peregrinating multitudes as holy and magical draughts. At the time we thought them charlatans, but now, when my journeys Fountainward are long done, I think on those cerulean hermits and suppose they never did lie. They let their bodies flow out to ease the throats of the faithful, and that is holiness true, even if it was never more than water. We drank those purple phials; we paid the sharp-toothed tensevete with a novel about a river of ice flowing deep within the earth, peopled with the ghosts of jewel-divers who lived upon the pearls that line the river-floor, feasting on them in misery. It was written on silvery sealskin, and clasped to Ctiste’s belt with an ivory buckle.
At night, the road stretched on forever, up into the mountains, lit by countless lanterns, a thin, spiraling line of lights, moving slowly in the mere, buffeted by gentle laughing and gentler singing. The lotus fields turned to turmeric and coriander, wide and green, and the sharp, fresh scent wound among our silver lights, wound among the shadows, wound among a thousand and more arms swinging in time to a thousand and more steps. Where the land grew rocky, we helped each other climb—a man with stag’s horns and a chest thin as balsam lifted my mother onto a high ledge dotted with shoe-flowers, glinting wrinkled and red in the dark, and placed me beside her with a chaste wink. I carried a bronze-eyed woman’s child for several miles, pulling the girl’s braid and telling her stories about headless heroes with stomachs like beaten brass.
When the turmeric died away, and the rocks grudgingly allowed only moss and the occasional lonely pea-plant, we came upon a cart owned by an astomi, her gigantic nose twitching to catch the faintest aroma on the wind, her prodigious nostrils grazing her own breast. Her cart brimmed full of the most extraordinary wares—at least to the eye of a girl who had seen only parchment-trees and the Shirshyan toymakers’ wooden baubles. The cart-woman’s nostrils shone; astomii have no mouths, but eat scent from the air itself, sniffing apples and turmeric and girlflesh with abandon. Ignoring my impatient mother, as a canny merchant will, she showed me a miniature model of the universe, no bigger than a walnut, impossibly intricate, all in gems dredged from the Physon’s glittering inundations.
“The crystalline spheres,” the astomi said, her voice coming pinched and nasal from the vast tunnels of her nose. “With Pentexore at the center, bounded by her sea of sand—rendered in topaz—and ringed in jeweled orbits: opal for the Moon’s circuit, gold, of course, for the Sun, carbuncle for Mars, emerald for unfeeling Saturn. The cosmos on a chain around your neck—excuse me, charming blemmye, your waist—and, if you’ll allow…”
She turned a tiny silver key in the base of the device, and the spheres began to click and whirl slowly around the plain of Pentexore, where I could make out a thin sapphire river and specks of carnelian mountains like pin-heads. Oh, how shamelessly I begged for this thing! How wickedly I wheedled! But Ctiste was merciful, as indulgent as any mother on a holiday. Quiet as ever, and more patient than I deserved, she unhooked a volume from her belt: a dissertation on the matriarchal social structure of the scent-farmers of the plains, bounded in bone boards, and into the bargain the astomi threw a little ring of lapis and opal which my mother slipped over the stump of her severed finger.
I wore the cosmos on a belt around my waist. Even now as I write, it dangles in my lap like a rosary, and the slow clicking of the spheres calms me.
I fear this must be tedious: any child in Pentexore could tell the same story, describe the same road, the same lanterns, the same trinket-bearing nose-maiden. There is comfort, there was always comfort in the uniformity of our experience. Yes, my child, says each grandmother, I walked that road, my blisters pained me just the same as yours. I saw the line of lights; I broke my feet on the same boulders.
John, too, walked this road, our dilapidated priest—do not believe otherwise, no matter what he assured certain of his own folk. Who does not elide their private matters in the presence of family? But no—no matter how his shade rattles the quince for attention and demands I perform as graceful amanuensis for his gospel, this is not his story. It is mine. He cannot have this, too.
The air of the Fountain howled thin and high, blue as death, giddy. A rock-table wedged itself in the ring of mountains like a gem in a terrible crown, and in the rock-table sunk a well, deep and cold. The table allowed room for only a few folk at once on that narrow summit. Just as well, for each creature’s experience of the Fountain remains their own, uninterrupted by the rapture of another. Thick, grassy ropes edged the last stony paths, so that our lives might not be entrusted to disloyal feet. Clutching these, clutching the rocks themselves, we climbed, we climbed so far, by our fingernails, by our teeth, panting in the ragged wind. The silence loomed so great there, so great and vast, wind and breath alone polishing the faces of the mountains. It was hard. Of course it was hard. All pilgrimage is difficult, or what use would it be?
I crawled up into my mother’s lap and laid my thin chest between her breasts as we waited for our turn. I felt her lashes on my shoulders; the wind beat at us with both fists, the ropes swinging wildly below. Finally, hand over hand, our red skirts snapping against our legs, we balanced on the thinnest of rock-spindles, our toes sliding off the shale into the ether, and we crossed to the well, to the Fountain.
Apples grew there, withered and brown, branches tangled in the masonry of the well. The stone snarled like ugly, purpled roots chewing their way out of the ground to make a vaguely well-shaped hole. I thought it looked like the mountain’s mouth, sneering at me, grimace-twisted. The apples slowly swelled as I watched them, thickening red and fat and glossy, huge as hearts, even budding a glisten of dew. Then they shriveled again, extinguished, sallow and past cider-making. As I ran my fingers over their soft, rotten faces, they began to rouse once more, billowing up hard and scarlet. They stuck through the cracks of the well like tongues. Ctiste ignored them and knelt by the well where the Oinokha sat, a woman in scarlet wool with a swan’s head undulating out from her thin and narrow shoulders, her feathers buffeted by the winds.
The Oinokha pulled me forward and fixed my hands to the twisted blue-violet stone of the well. I looked within—and the roots of the mountain twisted in the pool like jealous fingers, still and sharp and violet-grey, pulling the water away from a thirsty wind. The Fountain was a low puddle in a sulking, recalcitrant cistern opened up in the crags by a hand I could not imagine. The water oozed thick and oily, globbed with algae and the eggs of improbable mayflies, one corner wriggling with unseen tadpoles. It glowered, bracken-green with tracks of brown streaked through it, unmoving, putrid, a slick skin of frothy detritus over water which had sat motionless for all time at the bottom of a dank hole.
I had imagined the water would be so clear, clear and clean as a gem. I thought it would be so sweet.
The Oinokha put her hand over mine, the palest hand I have ever seen, as white as if it had been frozen, and her blood turned to frost. Her fingernails shone black.
“Somewhere very far away,” she said, her voice playing underneath the wind like a violin bow caught up in a sand-dervish, “a mountain rises out of a long, wide plain and an ocean of olive trees. Clouds as white as my thumb cover its peak. On top of this mountain lives a crone in a pale dress that falls around her body in crisp folds, like marble cut into the shape of a woman. She lives alone among eleven broken columns, and her eyes shine so clear and grey, grey as the tip of her spear, grey as the feathers of the owl that lives in the place where her neck curves into her shoulder, his broad, breathless cheek against hers, talons always gentle on her collarbone. I know her—she likes her olives a little under-ripe, so that they slide hard and oily beneath her tongue. There are people who call this mountain Olympos, but they do not guess that mountains have roots like trees, and the purple stone of Olympos reaches under the earth to join with the gnarled, senescent root-system of volcano and sea-drowned range, foothill and impossible cliff. Under everything, they knot and wind, whispering as old folk will do, chewing darkness like mint-leaf and grumbling about the state of the world. Olympos is far away, my child, but she splays out here, like an oak whose smallest root humps up a mile from any acorn. Sometimes, when I press my head to the stone, I can hear the crone and her owl spitting olive pits at little laughing rills.”
The Oinokha gripped the roots with her strong, pale hands, and bent her head into the well. I could not breathe—I had never seen a meta-collinarum before, the swan-maidens who stayed so private and silent when, rarely, so rarely, they graced Shirshya with their swaying steps. Her feathers puffed and separated in the wind as she pecked at the apple-leaves with a flame-bright beak.
“The same people who know the name Olympos,” the swan-woman went on, “say that there was once a dark-skinned girl named Leda who loved a swan—and who among us should judge the habits of foreigners? They say she bore two sets of twins, two daughters and two sons who burst out of eggs dripping with yolk like liquid gold, and between the four of them they broke the world on their beauty.” The Oinokha smiled, as much as a swan can. “But my friend who piles up olive pits among the columns whispers to me through the mountain-roots that Leda had a fifth child, who did not have the beauty to fill out recruiters’ rolls, but the head of a swan and the body of a woman, a poor, lost thing, alone in her egg, without another heartbeat to keep the beast in her at bay. Her sisters loved only each other, and her brothers loved only bronze swords, and so she wandered into the desert, away from her family’s burning cities, to the end of the world.”
The Oinokha turned her arched neck to me, and a tadpole caught from the masonry wriggled helplessly on her bill before she slurped it back.
“Why is the water like that?” I asked, bashful, trying to retreat behind my mother’s skirts.
“What do you expect a mountain’s blood to look like?” the swan replied.
My mother laughed gently. She reached just behind her left hip and unbuckled a book—a compendium of the traditional mating ballads of the seabirds who lived on the edge of the Rimal, the dry sea that hurls its sandy waves at their nests on golden cliffs. The Oinokha took it shyly, her eyes glistening. She ran her icy hands over the feather-stalk spine.
“Such riches!” She pressed it to her breast. “It is so tedious here, with nothing to read!” she chuckled, and reached for a stone ladle, stained by countless circuits through the water. And I understood why she had told me about Leda—a trade, a story for a story.
I did not want to drink from the Fountain—it smelled like peat-wine far past wholesomeness, and my throat closed against it. But suddenly white, downy hands pressed my face, and my mother’s dark mouth whispered soothingly against my shoulder. I squeezed my eyes and lips shut, but between them they coaxed open my mouth. The Oinokha lifted a brimming ladle and I am ashamed to say that I choked on the sacred waters of the Fountain. My body did not want it; my tongue recoiled at the over-rich taste of earth, thick and dank, and several slippery, too-green lumps of algae like phlegm rolling over my teeth. I choked—it was not at all seemly, and they held me while I spluttered and spilled it onto my pretty red belt. The Oinokha laughed; a tight, fluted sound from her slender neck.
“I choked the first time, too,” she said kindly.
There are no more journeys to the Fountain, and the turbaned cart-masters are gone. No more graffiti on the mountain walls extolling the truth of it all: pilgrimage is long and monotonous and we do it because we must, as children wash the sink. If there are ropes still atop that mountain, they wave in the scentless wind and help no one to cross the chasms.
But I drank there, and so too did all the folk of Pentexore until after the war. After John. We drank at ten, at twenty, at thirty, the great pole-marks of our lives, and once we had forced down a third draught of sickly, fetid, fecund water, we aged never after, and never died save by violence or accident; and this is not so terrible a trade for three long walks and three foul swallows.
THE CONFESSIONS OF HIOB VON LUZERN, 1699
I wonder sometimes what the memory of God looks like. Is it a palace of infinite rooms, a chest of many jeweled objects, a long, lonely landscape where each tree recalls an eon, each pebble the life of a man? Where do I live, in the memory of God? When Your great triple Heart turns to me, where do You look?
Do you remember, Lord, when I was a boy, and my father ordered me to assist with the birth of that calf? How are child’s prayers ordered in Your sight?
I did not like the cows. They stank, and nipped at me wickedly as if they sensed and shared my distaste. What pot, said my old father, you like milk and cheese well enough. Nothing you make of your body is half as sweet, yet we turn up no nose at you.
Truthfully, my contempt for the farm was no fault but his. Since I was a babe my mother had told me I was promised to God, and upon my twelfth would be delivered to You. What should I care for cows, then, knowing the comfort of a monk’s bed and the gentle work of paper and ink and prayer and song were to be my vocation? If one morning had risen fresh and pink to reveal all our cows lying dead on the frozen field I would have rejoiced. I have no shame left on it: I was a bad son.
But my father dragged me anyway, out to the stable with the cold cracking like broken bones, and the stars overhead so bright and sharp and white, streaked with milky, diaphanous mist. Take me now, God, I prayed silently, sure You would Hearken, as I was Your promised child and so specially loved.
The heifer lay in her straw, mewling pitifully and glaring with spite at myself, a little furry ear sticking out of her rear. But there was much blood, and other fluids besides that I dared not guess at, the secret wetness of women, be they cows or angels. But my father could not content himself to let me watch and learn and quickly forget the whole affair. He got me into the great beast up to my shoulders, hauling at the calf. The hotness of her pressed all around me, the smell buffeting me, barnyard and blood and fear. I could feel the calf in my arms, its complicated bones, its hooves and its ribs, and my skinny arms wrapped around it, pulling, weeping along with the mother as she lowed. Finally the babe came free, and I fell back with a huge lump of cow and blood and white mucus in my arms, so sopping I could not even tell where its eyes might be. My father righted the creature and scooped muck from her eyes with a tender grin such as he never had for me—for it was a heifer, and that meant good milk and breeding with my uncle’s brown bulls.
“Life is like this,” quoth my father. “Ugly to begin with, ugly to end with, and hard to manage all the way through.”
The girl-calf wobbled on her new legs in a way I suppose others might find endearing but I saw only as a clever attempt to curry favor with humans. I refused to love it. The creature plopped herself down in my lap and proceeded to fall asleep while my father tended to the mother, whose privates were torn and miserable. And as I sat there with the calf snoring lightly against my knee, I could not help but think of the Christ child, and His birth in the hay and stink of what was surely not a very clean barn. Was it like this, I thought? Did Joseph or some other poor country midwife struggle against the close hotness of Mary, hear her pain and smell her blood, pull the Divine king from her body like so much cow? Perhaps Joseph did not much care for babies, as I did not, and stared stupefied at the son who was not his son, and wondered how something as big as a man could grow from a wet lump of squalling?
Of course, one ought not to entertain thoughts of the close hotness of Mary, or, for that matter, of the squalling of Christ. Yet I have always considered these practical things, and wished to know not only what is written, but what it was really like, if I could have been there. If You were troubled by human ugliness and the workings of women, I suppose You would have chosen some other way to be born. Yet I wonder if I could have stood by and held Mary’s hand in her travail. Would I have been steadfast? Would I have loved a wet, unhappy child?
I am not too much bothered by cows or blood anymore. And if I could have been there when a priest called John stumbled onto this kingdom, if I could have held Hagia’s hand as she drank her strange draughts, I believe I could have been stalwart. I believe I could have stood with them. Though surely it was not the Fountain of Youth, not that oozing, disgusting mountain crevice she believed to be the holy Font. The Fountain of Youth is no such miasma—it is crystal and gold, trickling in perfect melodious harmony from dish to dish, a water pale as diamonds and as pure. All men know this to be so. But I allowed it might have been some unloved sibling of that radiant spring that sustained John’s strange and hideous wife—and oh, how my heart disturbed my chest, to think that our Presbyter, Priest and king, should have sullied himself with a spouse.
Guide me, Lord. Should I have told all to my brothers at home with their frozen feasts and their dreams of righteous rule, or concealed at least the wife, who could not be suffered to exist? Is it the historian’s part to include what is right, and excise what is shameful, so that in the future souls may be elevated by our deeds? Or is it his duty to report everything, and leave nothing hidden?
I was all full of disquiet in that long first night, as though I were even still struggling to bring forth some hoofed, toothy thing from black innards.
The last book, the small green antiphonal stamped with the sigil of a single great ear, glinted at me, its sharp, herby scent piercing the air: serrated coriander leaves and lime pulp and bitter, bitter roots. The nail had fallen from the candle. I could not afford idle dreams of cows who were now long dead and all their milk drunk. I prayed for no new surprise to dint further the golden image of the king in the East that hung still within me, like a lamp.
THE SCARLET NURSERY
Told by Imtithal the Panoti
to the Three Children of Queen Abir,
Who Were Lamis the Reticent, Ikram
the Intractable, and Houd, Whom You
Might As Well Indulge.
Here I shall set down some few of the things I told to the children of the queen during the long spring of their rearing, when they seemed to my heart like fig blossoms blowing wild in white whorls around me. I shall also speak of my own love and thoughts, for no tale can be believed if the teller is a stranger to the hearer. Let it be known that in that life I was called Imtithal of Nimat-Under-the-Snow, but the children called me Our Butterfly, because I slept with my ears wrapped around me like a cocoon, disappointing them when I emerged each morning still their old nurse, without spectacular violet wings or antennae tipped with emeralds. Of course, it is part of the duty of a nurse to disappoint her charges as often as possible. Children must practice disappointment when they are young, so that when they are grown, it will not go so hard with them. It is the hope of this small being that these tales might form a long rope, connecting me to those long-grown children. I loved them, and where they have gone now I cannot say. That is what happens with children—they leave you. It is a kind of heresy to try to pull their little hearts back from the wide world and into my arms again. Thus, I am a heretic. And perhaps those who read this book in some future summer I cannot know will also be as my children: many Lamises, many Ikrams, many Houds. I imagine you all now, and you all will imagine me then, and together all our imagining makes a kind of family of the mind. Perhaps some gentle souls read my little letters even now, already, as I am still writing them. For when a body lives forever, all of time is one thing, a single bauble hanging in the black. Perhaps, when you have finished what I now begin, I might be your butterfly mother, too.
Perhaps I might even, one day far from now, in another place, open the wings of my ears in the morning to reveal something quite other than Imtithal, and everyone who has read this will gather round me to be amazed—and Lamis and Ikram and poor Houd as well, and they will all run to me laughing, as they once did, and so will you, and we will all of us lie in the sun together.
First I shall enumerate the virtues of the most famous of my charges, and afterwards my own.
The royal family in those days were in the main part cametenna, (barring those married into the noisy brawl of them or adopted), whose hands are as huge and deft as the ears of the panotii, which is to say my own ears. One of their palms spread open could hold my whole body, though my ears would drape like silk over their fingers. I spoke softly to them, cross-legged in their great hands, while they leaned their small faces in to hear. Lamis, whose wide eyes shone orange as a tiger’s fur; Ikram, who possessed the most beautiful lips ever recorded in Pentexore, as deep a rose as I have ever seen, forever pursed as if she were kissing the very wind; and Houd, who did not love me until I had told him every story I knew. Only when I finished the last of them did he set me down on the ruby floor of the Scarlet Nursery and say: There, Butterfly. Beginning tomorrow I will love you for all the rest of my life.
How strange children are. As strange as any story I ever told.
Lamis enjoyed best the tales of how things came to be, for she could never quite believe that she was alive and everything around her was real. This may seem a peculiar attitude for a child to hold, but many think such things, and deeper and more peculiar still, but never tell a soul. How could they bear it if they, tremulous, asked after the solidity of matter over boiled bananas and lamb-hearts one evening, and the terrifying grown folk laughed imperiously and answered: How can you be so silly? Everyone knows nothing is real. And so they keep silent and try to discern by listening whether anything that keeps them wakeful and shivering in the night is true. But in time, in the dark closeness of the nursery, when all the stars have come out and the wind is very sweet, they sometimes confess to their butterfly mother.
Ikram liked best the stories of love, particularly the sort of love that hurts and is never satisfied and comes to no good end. If it had been up to her, no lovers would ever have been at peace, but permanently masked, disguised, betrayed and betraying, stolen and stealing, mistaken at every turn and forever in the dark, reaching out to one another but not touching. She cheered when wicked men with handsome black wings kept maidens from their darlings, when hippopotamus-princesses killed their rivals with vicious tusks and took as many kings for their own as they could manage, the poor males lamenting all the way.
At first, Houd did not want to hear stories at all. So he told me, many times when I arrived to care for him. Stories are for babies, and other helpless things. He sat in the corner more often than not, and put his hands over his ears, which meant that his whole body disappeared into his huge, graceful fingers. I do not think he knew how much like me he looked in those moments, hiding inside his own body. But when I spoke of battles, and gentle boys dying, and bad fortune, and young girls with hair like his sisters’ losing hope, I heard him weeping from within his cage of knuckles, and saw him peeking out.
For myself I will say that I was born in Nimat, where snow begins. Like all panotii, my eyes gleam white as winter, and my ears flow out like wings from my skull, shot through with the pink of my blood, and whatever you think is silent, beyond silent, but incapable of the smallest whisper, that thing I hear as a trumpeting song arcing through space for myself and myself alone. We live in the high places, where snow covers all things and hushes them for our sake, where the air is gentle on our ears. We are listeners, and before the reign of Queen Abir, when the cycles of all of our lives were set by her prodigious hands, I had listened in the yak-huts of Nimat to every soul who would speak to me, every creature who looked up at the peaks of our great mountain and called it the Axle of Heaven, or Chomolungma, or Sagarmatha. And I wrapped each sore traveler in my ears and they would lay their heads on my breast and tell me of such grandiose griefs and passions and histories. So I made the acquaintance of Queen Abir, around whom my ears could not fit. She wrapped her hands around me instead; her body overwhelmed me. I could hardly bear to be held when I was accustomed to holding. She kept me warm while the mountain howled and groaned, as it does, as it always has. The world has forgotten how beautiful she was, how orange her bright, bright eyes.
Come with me, she said, and make my children into good people.
What would you pay me for such a hard and cruel task?
When it is done I will tell you the story of my life.
So I ate my last meal of the sound of icebeer trickling into a cup and the melody of bone stew boiling. I kissed everyone who would bear kisses. I went with her, seeking that story. I followed her into the warmth of Pentexore and the al-Qasr with its amethyst columns, and that red, red room, with all its silk and garnet toys and wooden scepters banging against bedposts.
This is the first story I told the children, when the heavy summer rains had come and banana leaves clung to the window-papers and they could not be calmed by any song or game. I will tell it to you as I told it to them, and where they would not let me go on until I satisfied their endless, urgent questions, I will not go on until I have answered them. You must know my audience to understand my tales, for as all tellers do, I molded each story to their little hearts, to their savage ears.
I began with a question. This is a very good way to begin a story. The question was: Do you know how the world began?
Lamis, Who Always Answered: Mother made it.
Ikram, Who Always Argued: She did not! Grandmother made her, so if anyone made it, Grandmother must have.
Houd, Who Always Frowned: I think the world was baked, like the apricot cake we had for supper, all soaked in wine. The apricots are the stars and the cake is the earth and the wine is… souls, I suppose. Or blood. Not that I care.
And I, Who Was Always Patient: In the beginning were the Spheres and the Spheres were with us and the Spheres were us. Think of the little glass balls Rastno the Phoenix-king brings for you when he visits: all clear and shining and so many colors, and how you love bashing one against the other, even though they never break, for Rastno knows you all too well. They make such a lovely sound, don’t they? Well, imagine thousands and thousands of them, all crowded together in a long black void, hanging like lanterns, silver and gold and scarlet and violet. The only sound in the beginning of the world was the Spheres creaking against one another as the lightless wind of the void rustled through.
Ikram, Who Demanded Walnut Milk Before Bed: If it was a void, how could there be wind?
Where the wind came from we cannot know. There has always been wind, because there has always been change, and the wind is the sound that changing makes.
Houd, Who Didn’t Care: That’s stupid. How could there be change if the world hadn’t even begun yet?
I answered the needful, grasping hands of my charges: The world didn’t begin only once, dearthumbs. The Spheres, milky and rose, crystal and gold, clanged one against the other in the darkness, for they were as blind as they were bright. Now, you will ask me why they did not go along scraping and knocking as they always had forever, which would have meant no scarlet bedclothes or walnut milk or mother or Lamis or Ikram or even Houd, even though he wouldn’t care if they had just kept bumping along forever.
I have no answer, except that nothing can stay as it is forever, no matter how sweet, no matter how bright in the black. No matter how much we might wish that all we love could stop and hold its breath in our arms, things will insist on happening. Catastrophe is natural, my darlings, perhaps the only natural thing. And so, though there can be no reason it occurred at the moment it did and not another moment, or another, one of the Spheres cracked.
It was the Crystalline Heaven who did it, as best folk very much wiser than your Imtithal can measure it. Why the Crystalline Heaven and not the Benevolent Gold of the Sun’s Sphere, or the Base Metal of the Leaden Spheres? Lean in, and I will tell you a secret: because the Heaven was lonely, and it had a weakness in its upper hemisphere, due to some trauma in its mysterious infancy. It is important that you know this. That loneliness and weakness were always part of us.
The Sphere of Heaven ground slowly through the windy pitch, and crushed against the Benevolent Silver of the Sphere of the Moon. All along its rose-colored meridians, the orb of Heaven cracked, and splintered, and shivered. Lines of gold like fire appeared in its great face; glass formed and bubbled in long rivers, and in the beginning of everything it cried out as the Sphere of the Moon passed into the Sphere of Heaven. Where the Moon had entered, so the Sun followed, and Mercury Lined with Quicksilver, Jupiter Hot and Moist, and all of the Planetary Spheres and Elemental Spheres, one after the other, like one of Ikram’s poor dolls. The Crystalline Heaven swelled with all it contained, and lost all its rosy color, becoming instead the color of black glass. Thus when we look upward in the evening, we see the very furthest rim of Heaven that can be seen from where we stand, on the last and smallest and best of the Spheres, the Habitation of the Blessed, our own dear Earth.
Being lowest, it falls to us to anchor the rest. In a place utterly hidden, somewhere in our gentle world, a pin is fixed that keeps all things turning. The pin is called the Spindle of Necessity, and all the rest whirls around it, bound, tethered by invisible strands. But each of those Spheres is studded with a world like our own, as a ring is studded with a gem, and though we may not go there, we can imagine how, perhaps on furthest silvery Saturn, another Imtithal speaks softly to another Lamis, another Ikram. But not another Houd, for on no heavenly Sphere is there a Houd who likes stories or can keep quiet.
All you see and can be seen is fashioned from the stuff of the Spheres. The sea is where the Benevolent Silver of the Moon meets Venus, Cold and Moist. The panotii are the children of Saturn, Cold and Dry, and the Fixed and Colorless Stars, who dwell in the deeps. You cametenna carry shards of Jupiter, Hot and Moist, and Mars, Hot and Dry, within you, the Jasper and Ruby Spheres of such hot hearted worlds, born in the strange circling of Spheres within Spheres, that motion which only the panotii can hear.
I can hear it now, ever so softly, the flowing music, like a sea, a tide moving round and round and round us, singing its private songs as it goes. It says: go to bed, little ones, fold your great hands over your small hearts, and listen to your nurse.
Houd, Who Did Not Like Being Teased, Even in a Story: Imtithal, what was there before the Spheres? Did someone make them? Is there someone out there, beyond the Spheres, who made everything, and watches us, and loves us and punishes us?
And I thought on this a long time, for some many folk do think so, and tell such stories: of gods with swords that drip with flowers, of the moon walking upon the earth in a dress of deerskin—but to that child I owed nothing more or less than my whole heart, and all I believed and knew to be true, and this is what I said to him:
No, my golden-eyes. There is only us, making and watching and loving and punishing. Only us, sleeping below the stars.
THE CONFESSIONS OF HIOB VON LUZERN, 1699
Full of the strength of supper, I sprang from book to book, from Imtithal’s odd Sanskrit dialect back to the marvelous clarity of Hagia’s charmingly creaky Greek. Excitement flowed in a constant circuit from my left hand turning pages to my hungry eyes to my right hand scratching a translated copy with admirably few mistakes. The work, in those early hours, seemed a pleasure, and I found my rhythm in it, my body remembering old days in the library, adorning manuscripts with golden cameleopards and angels with the heads of lions. Stopping for lunches of a few apples and bits of bread soaked in milk, and then back into the breach, into the sub-clauses and hexameters, into the lions’ heads and allegorical bodies. I touched the Word of Christ—Thy Word, O Lord. I put my hands on it and it was as warm as if it lived. I felt so close to the Divine, to You. As close as a calf and its mother. I could not help but touch the pages of John and Hagia’s books the same way, with the same thrill of recognition—and these books did live, and have scent, and browned slightly beneath my fingers like true fruit. Then, I felt it was all a kind of sanctified play, and that feeling returned in the little hut, surrounded by books reeking of fruit, my candle burning, my ink-cup brimming, and Hiob with a young man’s ardor.
Pride has always been my sin. On Your Sea of Glass You must know this, and chuckle at my stating so plainly what should be obvious to the king of All. Indulgently, I hope, as Your servant compares Your Own Writ with the mortal work of these tarnished, motley souls. But at first, I was so happy, just to be in the presence of those volumes, hearing their confessions as though administering, at last, the great rites to their dust.
No longer did I take the time to rest my knuckles and stretch my back and think on how Mary was like a cow and Hagia was like Mary—I leapt like a faun between the tomes, without a break between them, and my pace quickened where I had been certain I would fail. Truly, You were with me then, Lord, and guided my hand and my eye. I dwelt in Grace for a few sweet hours before my doom came on me.
THE WORD IN THE QUINCE:
Chapter the Second, in Which the
Borders of a Strange Country are
Explored, the Name of the Country
Revealed to a Stranger by a Bird of Very
Great Size, a Peculiar War Commences,
and a Brusque Hospitality Offered.
Sand washed up onto sand. Golden skeletons skittered onto the shore, the points of their ribs finer than needles. I dreamed, face down on the beach, and while I dreamed the sun peeled my skin from me, pink, then red, and no wave came to cool my flesh. I dreamed that I swam in the cisterns underneath Constantinople, through that underwater city with columns carved as precisely as if men meant to live there, frescoes stippled into the wall as if some fish-faced, green-eyed lady might come to view them. But it was never so—black water covered all like a drop-cloth. In my dream I swam near the ceiling, in the space between the slow little waves and the roof of the busy streets, washed in slant-light from bronze grates.
And Kostas was there, by my side, with a spearful of blue mackerel and a smile. His white teeth hurt my heart. I wanted to tell him I was sorry I left, that the iconoclasts had returned to the Patriarch’s roost, and they painted over every Christ-face in the city. I could not stay, not each night filling with the wet sounds of hooded fools knifing painters of a mild-eyed Christ, not with the unpaintable Logos so strong at my back, burning into me, burning me crimson, burning me white. Not when I myself had painted the Mother of God, and made myself a criminal.
We are heretics now, I whispered to Kostas as we floated on our backs and looked up through the grates at passing hooves and cart-wheels. Or, I should say, we are heretics again. Who can remember if on Tuesday we are damned and on Thursday we are saved? My soul is weary of wars of art.
Kostas shrugged and ate a blind cistern-fish raw, the dark entrails wriggling into his brown mouth. He understood. Kostas always understood. He held the dead fish out to me, its pale belly ruptured and torn. In the dream, I wanted to eat it, to take all that Kostas offered, ever offered, and I tried furiously to remember that there was no beauty in a body. Flesh was no more than corrupt, dead meat. The divine self has no hunger for such a thing. Kostas was no more beautiful than the poor fish with its tiny blackish liver splashing into the cistern. I was no better.
Dreams scrape everything up from the underside of the heart. It is rarely lovely, the sludge that comes dripping out. I am a good man. I am a good man.
I dove down beneath the dark dream-water, down through the lightless ripples, past the shadowy columns with their intricate capitals, the frescoes with their leaping dolphins and bared breasts: I saw them, I marked them, and coral quietly covered the faces of dancing nymphs. I dove deeper, until there was no breath in me. In the place of breath, a light grew, pushing my lungs out like hands. Deeper still sun-deprived fish glided by, their tongues glowing ghostly against the walls. In their tongue-light, unwholesome and pale, a mockery of moonlight, I saw the depths of the cisterns and the colossal stone feet of Constantinople herself, still delicate and graceful in their enormity, sandaled demurely, holding up the city. Mussels clustered at her heels; mold greened her nails. I touched the stone of her toes. They prickled like flesh, and I took her warm marble ankle in my pitifully insufficient arms, weeping against the impassive limb. I opened my mouth to call her name, and the cistern flooded through me, black and cold.
I woke at night, my skin hot and tight enough to crack like the shell of an egg. My mouth was full of sand, my chest scoured raw. The sand brought me back to myself, and I was relieved to find I still remembered Kostas and Constantinople, still clutched them in my heart’s hands like two tiny marble figures. Much else had spilled out into the sea. My heart was a net of fish torn open. I came for something, didn’t I? To find something. Images flickered and died: a tomb, a cross, a face with hollow eyes. I thought that I had a purpose, once.
The moon lay long and silver on the planks of dead ships on the beach-head, masts tangled with golden seaweed. Far off, in the shadows, I thought I saw the broken, useless hulk of a lighthouse, its thin, fiery beam illuminating only the endless sand. Dark cliffs hunched behind it, circled by silent birds battling the wind through a heaven crowded with unfamiliar stars, a flock without their shepherd, wheeling wide, constellations broken open against a sharp sky. I moved towards the black mountains, my bones weeping in my flesh, begging to be allowed to lie down on the shore of the sand and perish.
In this way shall I grind sin from my soul, I thought then, for the desert was always the redeemer of folly and flesh. Who under the copper domes will not laugh when I find my way home, and tell them of these far places? The purity blazing from my scalp will blind them! It will force their gaze aside, and crown me in silver! When I crest that range I shall sit upon it as on the wall of the world, and the Logos will sit on my shoulder like a keen-eyed crow. I shall feel its claws in my bones.
Thus I made my way, babbling to myself, imagining the wonder and envy of distant monks, and found grace for my blistered feet: a smooth rock path through the cliffside, winding thin and reluctant, slowly upward. The sandy sea pounded below, its gold turned to white by the moon gliding through her sphere. Waves sent sprays of glittering mica into the wind. Long cries, like unhurried arrows arced through the sky, low and sweet along the crystal breakers. If not for the sand and my bleeding back, the land would have seemed something like the coast of the Bosphorus in the summer, if lacking a thousand colored tents gleaming in the heat.
Dawn was nearly on me when I saw them—there had not been enough light before, or too much mountain. A line of stone cranes peered down at me from the heights, their long beaks beaten out of the golden cliffside rock, fronds of waving palm crowning their small, curious heads. They were fitted to the crest of the crags like a small fence, and as I squinted it seemed to me that real cranes crept cautiously up between them: scarlet faces and long, lithe bodies all of blue, fine, thin feathers like gold thread spiking from their delicate heads. They frowned grimly, like nothing so much as the front face of a phalanx staring me down, stone pupils and black, wet eyes alternating.
“You’re too big!” one cried out, the largest of all, whose cobalt feathers shone even in the thin light of just-before-dawn. “It would be Unfair Advantage!” It snapped its long beak several times, like drum-strikes.
I finally struggled up the last rough stair of stone and stood upon the summit, the sea of sand whirring and heaving far below, my face welted with yesterday’s heat, my rags scant comfort against the high winds that tore at me with their bony fingers in place of the moon’s flat, hard palm. The great crane stomped in consternation and danced up to me. With its neck fully erect, it nearly rose to my chin.
“No!” It stamped its clawed feet. “Go back down! You’re far too big, it is entirely out of the question! The whole affair would fall to the enemy on grounds of unsporting conduct!”
I blinked. In my reasoning, I supposed that if birds could now be expected to talk, it was not too surprising that they talked nonsense.
“I can’t go back down,” I said slowly, as if to a very dense foreigner, “I’ve only just come up, and I am lost.” I paused, wilting slightly under the accusing stares of two dozen birds. “Lost beyond measure. My name is John; I am a priest.”
The crane looked somewhat disappointed. Its fronds drooped. “Then you haven’t come for the war?” it sighed.
“I have no hunger for war,” I answered the crane. “It’s all the fashion in my own country, but unlike fish stew, each nation does not perfect their own recipe. It’s much the same everywhere, bland and bloody, and I have no more stomach for it here than I did there.”
The crane gave an odd avian snort. “You are foreign, and therefore ignorant. It is forgivable, but not attractive.” It cocked its head to one side. “The Rimal is treacherous and deep. You are lucky. Perhaps your survival is an omen. As to where you are, lost creature, well, that is easy. This is Pentexore—but of course, that is like saying ‘this is the world, and you are in it.’ This is the land of the Gharaniq, the great cranes, and we litter it with our feathers. I am Torghul, I lead the charge this year, and I have come with my crane-knights to survey the higher ground before the enemy arrives.”
Torghul stamped the now-sunny ground and screeched; an answering cry ululated from the long throats of the other birds. Their long wheat-stalk legs flushed red in anticipation.
“And who is the enemy?” I asked, if only to be polite.
Torghul blinked slowly, masterfully retaining his calm in the face of such shocking idiocy as mine. “The pygmies, of course! We fight them every year. Miniature men, miniature women, like little dolls—their fingers are so tiny, we might mistake them for worms if we are not careful! They invade our territory in the spring, armored in mint leaves and fossil-filthy amber, waving miniature swords of sharpened antler. They come screaming up over the hill with such a distasteful sound! They say we took a queen of theirs once, and made her a crane—oh, who knows if it ever happened? War cares nothing for factual histories. We beat them back with our wings, our claws, but it is harder and harder, as the years go by, and they grow cleverer while we grow tired. But war gets our blood up, and we cannot help but feel joy when the spring winds blow over the Rimal, bringing the scent of mint with them.”
I sighed, and spoke slowly, rasping in my thirst. “In my country, I remember, I seem to remember, there were endless wars over pictures: some thought it was a sin to paint the face of God, others thought it a virtue. And they met, and fought, and died, and met again, and the paintings came up and down, up and down, like leaves changing.”
Torghul hooted derisively, but some of the other cranes nodded as though seriously considering the issue of iconography.
“There is no silly aesthetic debate here,” Torghul answered, tossing his golden fronds into the air. “The pygmy must be fought, or else the Crane would perish! There is no choice. But as I said, you are much too big—if you fought with the pygmy it would be Unfair Advantage, as you are twice the size of their tallest warrior. If you fought with us they would cry foul for the hiring of mercenaries. In either event the whole business would have to be halted on account of the technicality.”
My whole flesh shook. I wanted no blood, no talking birds, no arcane military lore—only to rest in a shadow and drink cool water. When I think on it now I flush with embarrassment still, for my body’s weakness, then—and later. I said to Torghul: “I do not wish to fight. I did not wish to fight for paintings, I do not wish to fight for birds.”
“But we cannot let you go,” the crane-general protested. “You might reveal our positions, expose us to despair and defeat, for the sake of a simpering pygmy woman and a bed of mint!”
“I swear I will not. I am chaste; I have taken vows. But give me water and point my feet in the direction of a city, and I will not trouble you.”
The cranes conferred, blue heads bobbing up and down. Torghul finally cried out, clapping his beak again—clack, clack, CLACK. “We have determined that water is acceptable, if you stay well out of the battle, and we will send you on your way when it is done, but for now, you are a prisoner of war, and will be treated as such! Now go sit under the old fig tree and don’t talk—the army will be here soon, and on their heels the pygmies in their preposterous armor.”
I sank gratefully down beneath the glossy brown branches of the fig tree. Green fruit hung above me in crowded constellations. Shade closed over my wooly, grown-in tonsure, and I could have wept for its cool hands on my brow. I plucked a fruit and cracked it open, slurping the juice from the seedy pulp. It seemed odd only afterward that each seed was colorfully painted with the tiny image of a woman cradled in the blue shell of a mussel, her head rimmed in silver. My belly would not hear of examining such things when they could be eaten instead, and so I devoured five figs before a crane, smaller than Torghul and more silver than blue, walked gracefully towards me on legs I could scarce believe would hold the weight of the bird, so like were they to stalks of white grass.
The crane gently tapped the lids of her beak together, a much softer and kinder gesture than Torghul’s loud clapping. She approached, I realized, as a man would approach a wild lion, with ginger politeness.
“I am Kukyk,” she said in a fluted voice, “I have been…” her cheek-feathers flamed orange, “excused from the war. I am here to feed and water you.”
I tried to smile, though my teeth ached and rattled in my skull like rusted locks. The crane ruffled her feathers in a starry display and then, quick as a pelican collapsing into the sea, wrangled me onto my back and wedged open my jaw with her long, precise beak. I fought her and screamed protest, but she was so strong, stronger than a shipwrecked, starved man like me. So pinioned, I had full view of Kukyk as she closed her eyes and worked her pink throat until her gift came retching out of her: a pale mash of fish and fig and mouse and nameless prism-winged insects. I gargled and thumped the ground uselessly with blistered fists, but my mouth was already full of it, over-sweet and over-salty, porridge-thick and thin as water by turns. I could eat or choke, and so like a baby bird I submitted to the crane’s ministrations, and swallowed over and over until she had no more to give. Trickles of the stuff dripped from the corners of my mouth, and my jaw throbbed when she withdrew her beak. I sat up, slightly sick with the indignity—but already stronger, less ravenous and addled beneath the wide fig boughs.
Kukyk sat herself beside me, beaming, quite without any notion of my discomfiture. Without hope of apology, I thanked her; she demurred.
“I am glad that at least you are spared the battle to come,” I said, attempting genteel conversation.
The crane deflated. Her shoulders slumped and her wings made disconsolate gestures in the sand. “I am not glad,” she said. “I shall have to wait all year now, before I can fight. My heart is ashamed, and lonely for my comrades. But it is not in the smallest part correct to let prisoners starve. I have been assured that I will be in the front line next spring as compensation.”
I shook my head. “In my country birds do not battle at all, yet you are so thirsty for it!”
“This is not your country—and anyway, my heart doubts your words. Have you never seen a flock of crows savage a hawk?”
“Then do not wonder at us. I daresay you do not make a study of the sociology of birds. All Nature wars with itself.”
“Well, if I may not rejoice for you, I do rejoice for myself, who might have been drafted but for my height.”
Kukyk laughed, a long sound that took a great while to work its way through her sinuous throat. “Would you like to watch the battle at my side, Stranger John? It is certainly an honor, and in this fashion I may not be entirely robbed of the season.”
I wished to do no such thing, but I feared to be wrestled to the earth once more, and so I followed the stately crane from the shade of the fig to the rear edge of the golden cliff. The sun hung high in the air, like a bucket in an endless blue well. Kukyk searched us out a squat ink-nut tree and leapt into its branches, waiting for me to follow. We leaned out of the leaves to peer at the valley not far below, filled with two gilt armies standing at the ready.
The cranes needed no armor or banners—their golden fronds bristled in the hot wind, and they puffed out their chests, screeching and stamping. Blue and silver and red their ranks went; as one they clapped their beaks like sergeants rat-a-tatting on a thousand drums. Across from the avian line, the pygmies stood as a mass of bright green and gold, the joints of their amber breastplates bulbous and bubbled, knotted with mint leaves, and those same leaves spiked through their hair. Some rode liquid-eyed fawns, others stood their ground on bare feet. Their swords were dull bone, some antler, some the sharpened ribs of creatures I did not want to see with their skins on. The pygmies threw their heads back and keened, their tongues loose and wild. The sun blazed on them all, and the color rose high in countless cheeks.
Kukyk had begun to breathe heavily, hardly able to contain her excitement.
Without warning the two armies charged at one another, and for a moment the valley was nothing but dust and feathers and terribly bright leaves. Kukyk hooted in solidarity for her brothers and sisters, and flapped her great silver wings, sending a shower of nuts into the sand. When the first flurry of dust settled, I saw that the pygmies and cranes did not often kill each other, but were satisfied at a wound, a simple gash or dent in the bone, a bruise, their opposite numbers winded and gasping. The cranes danced with arresting grace around the pygmies, who for their part vigorously stomped and arched their backs in their own arcane steps. I was relieved, and thought that perhaps I had been wrong to be so intolerant—it was clearly a sportsmanlike, theatrical kind of war, nothing serious, quite provincial and charming, really.
Kukyk began to writhe beside me in the boughs. Her wing-tips brushed my chest, and they grew terribly hot, as if she had fallen into a great fire. I tried not to watch her in her martial ecstasy and squinted, trying to see more clearly into the melee.
My lips drew back in horror.
A crane had leapt upon a prostrate pygmy maiden and thrashed gently on top of her, his great wings enveloping her green-leafed hair tenderly. Her face beneath him was contorted in pleasure, her heels digging into his blue back with delight, and she had her arms thrown wantonly around his feathery white neck. As I watched, I saw that the whole battlefield had degenerated thus: pygmy men, small and fierce, had fallen upon the crane-hens, and their lustful cries were like wolves howling. One maiden had thrown herself over a black crane and was rocking back and forth lasciviously, holding her brown breasts in both hands, her amber armor cast aside. The war-ground had become a rutting field, and the wind was full of gasping. I turned to Kukyk, who was in a frenzy of envy and loneliness, gazing at me with flashing wet eyes.
“What is this?” I cried. “What is this disgusting ritual? What sort of perversion do you practice here at the end of the world?”
I was unkind, then. I would like to say I am kinder now, but no man is a meet judge of his own virtue.
The crane stared at me. “It is our mating dance. Have you never heard how the cranes dance to call their mates?”
“But they are not cranes!“
“Do your women mirror your men in every way? This is our great dance! It is the most magnificent of our behaviors. We battle every year, and every year we mate. If we wound them overmuch, and take the day, the children are cranes, long of neck and wing. If they win, our eggs crack open and out run little pygmies with golden eyes! We are eternal enemies, immortal lovers, it is our way; it is our nature. Perversion would be to deny our beloveds, to deny ourselves, and simply look with longing over a wide field, holding ourselves back from the charge.”
“It is against the law of God,” I insisted. “Nature dictates that like shall go with like.”
“What?” Kukyk blinked. She shook her garlanded head. “You are a stranger here, you ought to keep uncharitable thoughts to yourself.”
“Please, Kukyk, I cannot bear to witness such debauch. Send me to a city, where men and monks live with whom I might converse, with whom I might hear and see sense, who can find me a map to Byzantium and away from this place.”
My cheeks burned, and though my body was weak—cursed flesh, wicked and corruptible!—it was moved by the keening of joy below. I tried to stifle myself, and thought of the cool shadows of the Hagia Sophia, of the mosaic Mary and her small grey mouth. The Flesh may err, but never the Word, I whispered to myself. The air around me rippled with sin. I shut my eyes to it. The silver-blue crane was very near; I could hear her breath, smell the figs-and-fish still lingering there. The Flesh may err, purred my body, betraying me wholly, allying itself with serpents and goats. The Flesh may err.
“Please,” I whispered, “I am a good man.”
The ink-nuts rattled in the boughs as Kukyk spread her wings wide and drew me inexorably into her embrace. I could not resist her when she fed me of her mouth; I could not resist her when she fed me of her body. I opened my eyes and was full of her, her silvery plumage, her black eyes which lashed at me in frenzy. She bit my shoulder; blood sluiced down my blistered arm. I snarled and tore her feathers from her skin. Perhaps I hoped to find a woman beneath. If so, I was disappointed.
Yes, I did these things. Hagia, my wife, forgive me. I have tried to remember this as beautifully as I can. To give myself good arguments, but not to show the cranes in too poor a light. They believe themselves to have a virtue, too. Do not turn your face away from me, when I tell you what I have done. I did not even know you yet. In that moment, I betrayed only my God and myself.
Kukyk folded me up against her, and I could smell the Rimal, the sand-sea, on her hidden, secret skin. Her heart beat very fast within her feathery breast.
“I am the only one kept from the war, for your sake,” she breathed, “I have fed you of my body, no less than your own mother. You must feed me, too; I am so alone, the world has gone to roost and I am bereft!” She wound her neck around mine, and I felt its awful softness against my fever. “You are not so unlike a pygmy,” she whispered. “Think of Leda—it will not be so terrible.”
THE BOOK OF THE FOUNTAIN:
We find it difficult to demarcate the time, when time is infinite and lovely as polished silver. Even so, Pentexoran engineers once tried to make a Rimal-hourglass from copper and mahogany. The panotii polished it with their long ears until the wood was red as cinnabar paste, the copper as bright as the wet eyes of those shy folk. But when the sands were poured into the glass they stormed and raged so against their prison that the glass was shattered and the angry sand skittered away, refusing to be used so roughly.
Thus ended our clockmaking ventures.
But the panotii are never stymied. They fashioned from the polished shards a far more useful mechanism: a mahogany sphere top-ful of sand, pierced with copper poles, which, when held to the ear, tells us when those four blessed days of the year have arrived, and a bridge forms within the sandy sea, adamant beneath a scalded sky.
John, my priest, my husband, made me a true clock once. It stands near the window as evening descends on our new Constantinople, wheedling through my minaret with blue and diamond fingers. I can hear the night-wine sellers in the Lapis Pavilion; the dueling songs of the prayer-callers in the north and south meeting below my window in a violet puddle of exquisite dissonance. The face of John’s clock is warped and bubbled amber, in which is trapped a most peculiar skeleton, the tiniest bird I have yet seen, its neck contorted in death. He fixed golden fish-bones as clock-hands, chiseled gears from the roots of his Relic-Tree. It was well made, and with love—but I let it wind down years ago.
How I wish I had an imp at my shoulder to dictate each passage to me! I should stretch my feet, drink green wines and read silly poems, while she scribbles away in my place, her claws like a familiar parrot, and how much easier my work would be then! But imps are selfish and conceited creatures, and I would end in cataloguing the fathers of the kingdoms of the goblins and seasonal varieties of maiden and forget my purpose entirely.
I prefer translation infinitely to this gross composition: the lattice-work of another woman’s text lying beneath my fingers, glowing white where I ought to choose words of passion, blue for the terminology of sorrow. The original author’s intention guides my hands, like the grain in marble that cannot be avoided even by the finest chisel—it will be a faun’s mouth, or a fish-tail, and no sculptor may defy it. In translation I feel safe. I lie by the side of the dead author, curled into the shape of their salt-sweet body, and together we whisper, and together, hand upon hand, we write. How many lovers have I had in this way! How many lovers wooed and won!
But to have only myself to seduce, only Hagia’s story to tell—it is a meager victory.
To write my own words is more kin to reaching out into the darkness and commanding the shadows to coalesce into a marble figure the dimensions of whose face I cannot imagine, even for myself. I lie alone with no friendly ghost-hand on my knuckles, and am buffeted by didacticism, digression, daydreams. I imagine that when I look up from this work at last, there will be nothing left of the world but an old clock long run down, as useless as my old heart.
Time stretches out so far before and behind me. No clock could demarcate a tenth of my memory. Yet in this wasteland of the hours, Time still seeks some hold, and we in Pentexore do know a kind of calendar.
The Great Queen Abir reigned over the Age of Tallow and Tines, in which the Fountain was first discovered and the Oinokha set in her place like a jewel fast in a ring. With her wide hoof Abir marked out the laws which have kept us aright as little ships in a great storm.
I recall once that John asked me if I knew the tale of Eve in Paradise. To which I gave his favorite reply: “I know nothing of this.”
He did so love to lecture, and he told me straightaway of the apple and the named animals and the flaming sword set across the gate. In those days it was his theory that we Pentexorans dwelt yet in Eden, no matter how many times the lions showed him the several gates of our country and not a one of them with a sword stuck through the bars.
His allegory spent, I took his head between my breasts, and he clasped his arms about my waist. While the glass bells rang out high as a hummingbird’s song in the al-Qasr, I told him the truth of his story. Sometimes I think that was my greatest use to him, to take his ugly tales and teach him the gorgeous truth hidden in them.
I said: “Your Eve was wise, John. She knew that Paradise would make her mad, if she were to live forever with Adam and know no other thing but strawberries and tigers and rivers of milk. She knew they would tire of these things, and each other. They would grow to hate every fruit, every stone, every creature they touched. Yet where could they go to find any new thing? It takes strength to live in Paradise and not collapse under the weight of it. It is every day a trial. And so Eve gave her lover the gift of time, time to the timeless, so that they could grasp at happiness.”
John did not think I interpreted the text correctly, and he scribbled for days in the corners of the palace in the strange, patchwork Bible he had compiled from memory, trying to make right his story of Eden. It was some time after this, his memory coming and going like a vicious tide, that he gave in to my theory and presented me with the gift of the clock: time to the timeless.
And this is what Queen Abir gave to us, her apple in the garden, her wisdom—without which we might all have leapt into the Rimal within a century. The rite bears her name still. For she knew the alchemy of demarcation far better than any clock, and decreed that every third century husbands and wives should separate, customs should shift and parchmenters become architects, architects farmers of geese and monkeys. Kings should become fishermen, and fishermen become players of scenes. Mothers and fathers should leave their children and go forth to get other sons and daughters, or to get none if that was their wish. On the roads of Pentexore folk might meet who were once famous lovers, or a mother and child of uncommon devotion—and they would laugh, and remember, but call each other by new names, and begin again as friends, or sisters, or lovers, or enemies. And some time hence all things would be tossed up into the air once more and land in some other pattern. If not for this, how fastened, how frozen we would be, bound to one self, forever a mother, forever a child. We anticipate this refurbishing of the world like children at a holiday. We never know what we will be, who we will love in our new, brave life, how deeply we will wish and yearn and hope for who knows what impossible thing!
Well, we anticipate it. There is fear too, and grief. There is shaking, and a worry deep in the bone.
Only the Oinokha remains herself for all time—that is her sacrifice for us.
There is sadness in all this, of course—and poets with long, elegant noses have sung ballads full of tears that break at one blow the hearts of a flock of passing crows! But even the most ardent lover or doting father has only two hundred years to wait until he may try again at the wheel of the world, and perhaps the wheel will return his wife or his son to him. Perhaps not. Wheels, and worlds, are cruel.
Time to the timeless, apples to those who live without hunger. There is nothing so sweet and so bitter, nothing so fine and so sharp.
My first Abir came for me when I was quite young. I had only sixty years, practically an infant, still full of my third draught of the Fountain. Festival flowers swept scarlet and green through the square of Shirshya, violins of orange-wood and cinnamon played songs both heavy and sweet. My mother and father kissed my eyelids and rubbed the soft, empty space above my collarbone—like a fontanel, it pulsates silkily, a mesh of shadow and meat under the skin, never quite closed. Each blemmye finds their own way with it, protective or permissive. But often others catch us, deep in thought, stroking the place where our head is not. My parents caressed that place quietly, and kissed it, too. They embraced each other with abandoned tears beneath the vellum-trees, and left their parchment fields to the next family, thoughtfully sown and ready for new hands.
The bronze Lottery bell spun in the courtyard; we drew our stones, our old selves vanished.
Ctiste drew a small amethyst, and went north to crush grapes and sell wine on the Fountain-road; my father drew a pearl, and walked west to dive for sapphires in the cold, depthless Physon. They trembled with joy and sorrow, but my stomach was as full of fear as of breakfast, for I was unready to lose them, and it was my first Abir. I did not yet know how to bend with grace beneath it. My mother looked so beautiful, so young, her black skirts flapping, her eyes bright and wet! She already thirsted for swollen purple grapes, for a new man beneath her and new children at her heels. I wept, as the innocent will do, and envied her first new daughter.
I changed too, that day. I drew an amber bead and married an amyctrya named Astolfo, who had bright green eyes and a great huge mouth like an empty barrel, in which he brewed tea and stew and poisons and perfumes, squatting and stirring draughts in his deep jaw with an iron ladle. I married him in a yellow crown, and on that day he became an ink-maker, to brew walnut-leech behind his teeth, and I no longer a child at play but the keeper of all our groves, which stood still and pale and waving, a long and shady library waiting for Astolfo and I to read it all. The Lottery went gentle with me that year. It did not send me far. My heart tore open and was stitched back together in one stroke, and this is the way of the Abir. It has a wisdom we cannot know or guess at.
After the yellow crown was quite ruined in the mud by the laughing, eager thrusting common to all newly married folk, I went walking. My skin flushed with heat and memory, I wound through the groves to find the place where my mother had buried my little book, the one she had made of her smallest finger. She was no longer my mother, and could say nothing about it. I ate dry and spicy page-berries as I strode, and my shoulders were already red with summer.
I found it, after some searching, between a pomegranate-quill tree, hunched and spiked, and a tall, stately glue-pine. My breath caught, and I clasped my hands to my belly.
It was small, hardly as tall as I, its bark smooth as a front-board, pearlescent as a fingernail. Its leaves drooped, rustling faintly in the lazy wind. It bore few fruit, peeking from the page-leaves: the soft brown hands of my mother, with her long, graceful fingers, the oft-traced lines of her palm. I knelt beneath the little tree, and one of the dear, familiar hands turned slowly on the branch, as an apple will turn in a wavering breeze. It cradled my breast, wiping the tears from the eye at its tip, and another caressed gently the empty space above my collarbone. The hands of the tree held me so tenderly, and later I would swear to Astolfo that I could hear her old humming in the branches.
Cradled so, I looked up into those boughs, clustered with pale pages, and read on each the same word, the single word of my thirty-first year:
THE SCARLET NURSERY:
Children wish to know where they come from. It is a burning, terrible question for them, and they will phrase it a hundred ways: Why is the grass green? (Why am I not green?) Why does the wind blow? (Why do I blow and blow and make no storms or snap flowers from the stem?) Why do we live in a city? (Why am I myself and not some other child?)
It was always my part to answer, little by little, the questions they asked and did not ask, until they woke up grown.
One evening, Ikram, who liked the bloody parts best, gathered up all the bones of her supper and brought them into the Scarlet Nursery. I believe she had the entire skeleton of their delicious black swan in her enormous hand. Her fingers had been quite scratched by her brother earlier in the morning over the not-insignificant matter of a toy gryphon and his missing feathers. I myself had dined already, as I am accustomed to do, upon several savory dishes: the sound of their laughing, of the bones rubbing together in Ikram’s brown hand like a witch casting her eye, the whispers of the moon moving over the floor of the nursery, the snorting of the camels in the stables, the little harp a queensmaid played that afternoon in a far room of the al-Qasr, plucking to herself a little ballad in which some lover or another suffered calamity. It was a rich meal; I groaned with the weight of it. I sat in the center of the red room, the walls soft and crimson, the pillows of the floor sewn with ruby silk, even the bowls of the lamps lacquered as red as burning hearts. Everything large, everything strong, everything shaped to their mountainous hands, and meant never to break except on purpose.
I sat while they ate below, opening my ears to their full span, which is to say I filled the room entire, my ears waving softly in the red light like sweet fishes’ fins, sampling a few notes of the roof creaking as a dessert. Only in solitude do I eat, and open myself so far, so wide. I have only to listen and I am nourished; my food is the sound of the world.
If I was forced to eat with the children, I chewed demurely upon a flute of bamboo or stick of cinnamon. I never wished to be rude.
That evening, Ikram set out all her supper-bones, according to size. She was an exact child, and very orderly when it came to things like bones and pinching and other things that might result in tears out of her siblings. Lamis watched her carefully, her long fingers twitching as if to help, in secret. Cametenna may have hands like boulders, but their fingers are deft, and Ikram cleaned each bone of meat, washed it, and set it beside its brothers.
Lamis, Who Loathed to Be Left Out: What are you doing?
Ikram, Who Was Proud of Her Bones: Houd broke my gryphon, and since Our Butterfly says I may not break his head, I am building a new toy which only you and I may touch. It is a Houdless Toy.
Houd, Who Hated That Gryphon Anyhow: When I am grown I shall thump you, then everyone. I don’t want your horrid old bones!
And then Ikram showed me what she meant with her bones, and I smiled, for she was so very dear and clever. It is the Ship of Bones, she said, and my gryphon’s old feathers will serve for the sail that was virgins’ hair in the story, and I shall set it sail upon a sea of pillows, and that will be the Rimal, and I shall wiggle my fingers among the pillows and that will represent Octopuses, who are very fearsome, and if I meet one I shall make it throttle Houd, for I am very good with pets.
I asked if I should not then tell them the tale of the Ship of Bones, and how Folk came to Pentexore, while Ikram harassed with her waggling fingers the little ship she graciously allowed her sister to pilot over the pillows. Lamis squealed and giggled when the bony boat crashed on the silken red waves. It was not a pretty vessel, but we all forgave its awkward disposition and that it smelled very strongly of roast swan.
Houd, Who Had Been by That Time Much Maligned: I would rather a Moral Tale. One that teaches us something Grown-Up and Important, such as how sisters ought to shut up, and those who are insulted and trod upon shall inherit the Earth.
Ikram left off her worrying of the ship and held out her palm for me. I confess that I loved those girls so when they held out their giantess-hands. It meant they wished to hear a story, they wished to listen, and in that I felt kin. I always wish to listen. That I spoke endlessly to them was my sacrifice for their joy. I settled onto her hand, nestled next to the pad of her thumb, upon which I reclined like a marvelous prince. This is what they heard:
In the old books, the place we came from was called Ifriqiya, and also Afar. But who is to say whether those are real words and true names? Perhaps there is no more meaning in them than in Lamis calling her toy lion Grof. Sometimes, we cannot remember what a thing is called, but we pretend to, because it is better to know something than to have to admit you have forgotten it. Forgetting is sad, and knowing is sweet. But one thing is certain: all the folk we know now came from Some Other Place, though not all of them rode on the Ship of Bones. The panotii, for example, came from the icy places at the top of the world, and followed the sound of laughing and building and orating down through the many rivers until we came upon the Axle of Heaven, and there we stayed. I believe I have heard it said that the red and white lions came out of the sea, though they do not like to speak of it. And of course, the phoenix come from Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, and they tell no one else how to get there.
But that does not mean we found Pentexore empty! At the very least, octopi were in abundance.
Ikram, Who Feigned the State of Being an Octopus: And fearsome?
I smiled solemnly and answered her: Very. But do you remember when I spoke of the Spheres, and that Things will insist on Happening, and nothing stays forever? Countries are like that too. Many people come and go from them, and no one can say they were the first, for before them there were at least ants and spiders and wooly beasts, but very probably the sort of beast that writes down their own history and thumps their sisters and wants to learn Grown-Up and Important Things.
Lamis, Who Wanted Very Much to Know Everything in the World: Who was here before us?
The crows say they have always been here. But others, too, who are no longer here to claim it, perhaps lived and died right where we sit.
When the ragged and wretched souls who sailed the Ship of Bones across the Rimal stumbled past the wetlands and the mountain-rills and the long colorless desert, the al-Qasr waited for them, already shining, and empty, with a wind blowing through its halls. The al-Qasr, your very home, your mother’s palace, all its amethyst walls, its porphyry columns and hematite staircases, its cypress roof and endless halls. This room, Lamis, was already red. A very famous philosopher called Catacalon, who lives yet in Silverhair and has horns on his head like a ram, wrote that once a race of stone men and women lived here, their faces faceted, their skin every color, and the al-Qasr is a living child of theirs, so old it does not even move any longer, but broods and sinks in the earth and dreams of the old days when every cheek sparkled.
The children breathed, even Houd, looking about at the walls, the floor, the ceiling. They fell very quiet.
But I was speaking of the Ship of Bones, wasn’t I? Every sort of Pentexoran claims to have had an aunt or a cousin on it, but Ghayth Below-the-Wall, who was a Peacock and a Historian, tells us that the crew consisted of the sciopods, the cametenna, the astomii, the amyctryae, the meta-collinarum, and the blemmyae. Some few crickets also stowed aboard. Some argue over the list, when they are drunk or grieving or boasting in a strange city or in need of tenure. But if everyone who claimed to have been on the Ship had been, it surely would have sunk under the weight. Why these creatures and not others? It is not for your butterfly to say. Perhaps they were prisoners, set adrift with prayers of drowning, or representatives of some extremely dubious government sent to make a glorious new kingdom, or a persecuted religious sect in search of holy land, or a troupe of actors. They had but bones and hair to build their ship, and so I think they must have come from a war; they must have been so tired, and in such grief, living in some awful place where bones were as plentiful as wood to them, and hair as easy as linen to weave.
Even if the worst of these is true, even if they were prisoners or actors, their lives were hard, so terribly hard. We must never forget, and never forget to pity them. They did not discover the Fountain in their first halting steps into the gold of this country, and so died in their time and speak to us no more, for their children did not know to plant them and have flowering branches bearing their loved ones to converse with, but instead set them in high trees according to some dreadful custom only they know. Even the heart of the roughest beast must pity them for their cold blood, for their hearts of dust.
Houd, Who Was a Rough Beast: I don’t.
Whoever they may have been before, they became lost upon the Rimal.
Ikram, Who Loved Tales of Disaster: Mother tells that joke! A blemmye, a red lion, and a centaur became lost on the Rimal—
Everyone tells such jokes. Woe to the man who is not a queen possessed of giggling children, who in his cups leans in to tell his friends of the amusing antics of a trio of mismatched fellows lost on the Rimal, for he will surely be doused in beer and shunned. Of course, our sea of sand is passable but four days a year, when a kind of road forms in the currents, and whisks ships through this golden channel and to the shore. The Rimal is a strange beast, rougher even than Houd and more cunning. It rings the blue, briny seas of other nations in mischievous and insidious ways, sending its yellow tendrils into the water and catching the rudders of foreign ships, hauling them from their familiar waves and snatching them into the sand, where the Octopi and worse have at them.
Ghayth says that the pilot of the Ship of Bones, who was a sciopod, saw a light in the sky that called to him, a violet light so lurid and awful and beautiful the sciopod felt his arch ache and his heart pull apart within his chest. None of the others aboard the Ship believed him, or so the sciopods now say.
Was it a star? his companions said. No, not a star.
Was it the moon? his companions pressed. No, not the moon.
Was it a thing like us, with eyes and a soul and a hunger for bread?
I do not know, said the sciopod. It might have been, but I think not.
Yet he could not unsee it, and he steered the ship towards the violet light in the sky, and sometimes he thought it was a living being like himself, but with wide wings and eyes like wounds, and sometimes he thought it was a great fire in the distance, and that when they reached the shore he would find only charred earth and more bones, more and more. The light tormented the pilot, and even when he shut his eyes, all he could see was the light that was not a star, or a moon.
On the thirteenth night of the pilot’s watch, the Ship shuddered and quaked, and the grey-blue arms of an Octopus—
Ikram, Who Had Been Waiting for This: Hooray!
The grey-blue arms of an Octopus—though some say a Squid—wrapped around the hull, lapping at the rails, sucking at the sails. With great difficulty, the crew struggled to steer, and though one astomi was caught by the nose and died, they rode the Octopus into the beach and stove in his soft head against the rocks. So it was that the first meal eaten in Pentexore by our people was Octopus, raw and dripping under a very cold moon, for they were so ravenous they could not take the time to cook it. This is why we eat Octopus during Midsummer, in remembrance. Perhaps you will not slurp it down so greedily next year.
Houd, Who Was Always Hungry: I shall. And I shall not cook it either! It will be delicious.
Lamis, Who Had a Delicate Stomach: Ugh! It will be slimy!
I have not finished. The sciopod-pilot woke in the night, and he saw again the violet light, brighter and more terrible than it had ever been at sea. He followed it, hopping on his single foot, over the desert hills and the wetlands and the long, long fields of wild pepper, pink and black and green, until he came upon a valley so green it shone white in the dark. There he saw the violet towers of the al-Qasr, gleaming, silent, satisfied, as if the stones themselves had called him from the other side of the world, and now held him fast.
THE WORD IN THE QUINCE:
Chapter the Third, in Which a
Certain Morbid Orchard Entraps
a Pilgrim, Whereupon He Devours
an Entire Cannon and Engages in
Debate With Several Sheep.
On the day I discovered the forest, the sun opened sores like kisses on my head, and I thought of my mother. Creeping knock-kneed from the satisfied and sleeping crane in whose softness I shamed myself, I found my thoughts full of the woman who bore me, far across the stony face of the world. In the places I walked, veins of red writhed through golden, half-shattered plinths and cairns—everything rock and dust, everything hard and dry, and not a little grass feathering up to feed me, not a green bulb that might hide water. I trembled beneath the weight of the sky, the bloody smear of sun that seemed to droop too close to the earth, too close, too close. Only the cairn-shadows offered solace, and that of a grim, hot sort. The colors of the place blinded me, gold and blue, a brightness like a blow.
And yet, instead of water, instead of shade, I thought of my mother. If she had been a man I think she might have been no less honored than Nestorius himself—but she was not a man, and she lay her hands not to holy books and relics but to cloth and to water, to bread and to cheese-straining. Each of these acts she performed as exquisitely as a priest lifts his chalice, and I remember her black eyes always through a veil: the steam of a bath, or of some sweet thing cooking. All the daughters she bore my father died, and then my father, too, long before I could remember him. Only I lived, small and coughing, and every year until I took my orders she told herself to be hard and strong as bronze and bone, for that year would take me, too. Because I stood so near to the doors of this world, she fed me of her breast long past other children, and spoke to me of myrrh and aloe and the kingdom of paradise, where every possible tree grew and would sate me, where angels with wings of fiery violet and black would take me up, and call me good. Those visions filled me, and weighted me toward God.
But she also spoke strangely, as a mystic in the desert might, balanced on his high pale pillar under the infinite stars—if a woman could stand thus, and speak thus, and bear the pain of it—which she could not.
Shame comes upon us like lightning in summer, she whispered once, over the sound of her needle pricking a hem with a tiny pop, and though the horror of it flashes so fiercely, there is pleasure in it, too, a prickling of the skin, of the stomach. That is the danger. Like the lightning, shame shows the world in terrible colors, so that you might see, if you look closely, not only the stain of your sins as they seep into your soul, but the extent of your act, all its consequences, revealed like a thousand burning reflections, everything that was changed by the moment of your fall. Perhaps Eve saw that way, not just the fig in her hand but a hundred thousand figs, shivering forward and backward, sizzling, deadly, in that moment, through all the sorrows to come, and slipping backward through all her innocent days, tainting them even though they had passed.
Even then I wondered how she could think such thoughts. Even the gossipy market-wives, their strong arms full of honey-soaked cakes and wine-jugs that we could never have hoped to buy, considered my mother pure and kind as a clutch of doves. What did she know of shame? Her heart was unfathomable to me.
And as I walked inland—though I knew nothing of where I meant to go I could not escape the feeling of inward, of moving up and in and toward something—I thought constantly of my mother’s words, her blasted, weary black eyes, and the lightning of her shame. I felt as though I could almost see that way, something dancing at the corners of my vision, Eve’s fig, my crane, moving forward and back, to what end—or beginning—I could not then say.
But it would not be long. Illumination came swiftly in that place, and with the heaviness of a great stone.
The cranes had hooted vaguely in the direction of the sun, east and north, now a little more east, now a little less north. Many cities, they shrugged. That way, out there, not so far. Post-coital etiquette occupied them, and I felt desperate to leave, to stop blushing like a child, to forget it all. And so I aimed my broken body, east and north and in and up. After days wandering through the golden stylite-pillars with their pitiless shadows, days under the accusing sun and a moon that burned me no less than her brother, her great single eye like God’s own, staring at me with such disappointment, I came upon a kind of forest. My sunken chest heaved, and I wanted to die for the hideousness of it, the kind of ugly madness contained in those trees. I would have died happily, if dying would have recused me from that place, from whatever thing my mother’s black-violet angels had planned for me here. But a man cannot die his way out of Hell.
The sky poured the first of its sweet-sour light over a copse of trees, each of them withered and twisted and grotesque in equal parts. Some trunks glowered blackly, slick with grease, and as I came near I saw them to be cannons, worked in fine designs like those of some great Emperor’s ship, and among their silvery leaves hung fruit like shot. In the wood of others I perceived arched windows and platforms on which small birds sang and pecked—these trees were fashioned like siege towers, the color of baked mudbrick, shrunken and warped as all living things may be, but nonetheless, arrows that might have flown from their heights thatched themselves into branches, and pitch-berries dripped from their boughs. Worse yet were the horse-trees, whose bark bristled like chestnut pelts, their long, whip-like leaves snapping at passing flies. The devilish fruit grinned at me: horse-heads, in full silver armor and bits, their plates clinking lightly in the wind. One snorted. I stared at the war-garden as it stared back at me, for many of the trees—which I shudder to relate—were soldier-oaks, and knight-elms, swords and helmets crowned with long white plumes sprouting from their foliage, and here and there, here and there I thought myself to see brown eyes and blue peeking among the thick green leaves.
A good man would turn away from such a clearly infernal presence. A good man, on returning home, could say: though I starved and thirsted I did not so much as look at that serpent’s orchard. A good man would have let the sun hollow his body and think nothing of how if a thing grows it must be possible to eat it, no matter how strange, and given enough days to starve in the desert, he might succumb to that awful, awful fruit.
But the flesh, the flesh may err, and I am not, I am not, I was never a good man.
I dug my nails into the fleshy wood of the cannon-tree; it gave beneath my fingers, slushy, slimed, and beneath the grease I felt hard iron. I reached up and from the harsh boughs, twisted and spiked as all desert trees are, pulled a heavy fruit, round and black and pitted as any cannon-shot I have known. I tested it; it was warm, solid, a little soft. Oh, Mother of Us All, how must you have stood, at that first tree, testing the weight of a fig in your hand, wondering what world might crack open at the meeting of your jaws in that sweet, seedy thing?
I bit. The charcoal skin of it gave, a crackly, papery crust. Within, the meat of it melted into my mouth, powdery, soft, but oh, the spice of it bloomed in my senses, a black pepper snapping on my tongue, an overwhelming, dusky sweetness, worse and better than any plum, and the metal pit tanged the flesh all through. Black juice trickled down my chin, into my beard, staining my teeth. I drank it, slurping, slovenly, and reached for more. I stripped the bark from the cannon-trunk, and this, too, I found good, a kind of coppery cinnamon. I dashed to the siege-engine tree, and chewed with relish the sticky pitch-berries, treacle-thick and bitter, bitter, as bitter as a walnut-skin. I spat. But oh, how much more terrible the weight of all that dark fruit in me. Not a fortnight in a heathen land and already I had soiled my body in several unusual ways.
And hadn’t I come for something? Wasn’t there a reason that had driven me from olive-shadows of Constantinople and shared mackerel-slurry with Kostas in the market? Didn’t I want something, then? Why was I here?
“He who shall eat of such a tree is like to a grave-robber,” came a soft, bleating voice from further into the awful forest. “And a grave-robber is like to a devil, and if the devil had been punished more in his youth, he’d never have come to such an end.” Silence, and the sun slashing through the leaves. “Bad!” the voice cried louder, reduced in its rage to a squeal. “Bad man! Stop! Desist! Bad, bad man! That’s not yours!”
I peered into the wood and crept forward, afeared to find the voice and yet too curious to leave the place and press on without seeing the source of that reedy bleat. Some ways into the nodding trees I saw it, and for all the cannon-fruit heavy in my stomach and the sun-boils weeping on my skull, I sank to my knees and laughed. A man can only take so much. The grave horror of a siege-engine planted in the earth is one thing—but before me a sweet green tree shaded the cracked earth, broad leaves fluttering over several large sheep-heads, their wooly bodies like stalks of wheat puffing out below their necks before disappearing into the trunk, which seemed to be made of ram-horn. Some of the sheep had black faces, some creamy and pale, drooping lazily, half-asleep or wholly. A few sported their own curling horns and chewed at the wide leaves; the tree fed itself and on itself, round and around. One ram glared at me with a sharp look.
“You haven’t the right, sir. Not to eat of us. Or else give me a bit of your blood in exchange—that would be only fair!”
“The fruit of the forest belongs to God, and thus to all men,” I said softly, drawing my laughter back in.
“Whose God is that, then?” sneered the sheep.
“Our Lord in Heaven, and Christ at His right hand.”
The ram snorted, and a puff of wool drifted off on his breath. “Well, I’ve never heard of such a creature, neither one of them. The Shear, who is the god of my people, and certainly far more terrifying and important than yours, who doesn’t even live here but in hefen, spake unto the first ewe and the first ram and said: Let no one enjoy the produce of thy body unless he offers his own in kind. Which we have always taken to mean: if you and your own want to spin and weave from our fleece, you owe us at the very least a nice soft pen and sweet clover and a bit of cold, clear water. I hardly think it goes differently for cannons!”
“While it is charming that you think thus, there is certainly no God but Christ, and He gave men dominion over the land beneath His feet, the sheep and oxen, and the beasts of the fields.”
The ram regarded me stonily. “When I lived I saw my God in his Fearful Aspect come upon the dewy field before dawn. His great black fleece blotted out my sight, and the candles of his eyes dripped tears of tallow. His teeth were gnashing shears, and with them he took up my lambs and chewed them, and I wept, but where his shadow fell clover grew, and new lambs gamboled as if in the sunlight, and I knew I would mate again. In the morning my young had been carved up for winter supper, but the spring brought more, and they grew strong. Can you say the same of your God? Did he come and sit by your bedside and offer you peace when pain came? Did you look into the candles of his eyes, smell the brume of his musk? Or do you make up stories because you are lonely and bray about it all day long?”
“You are a beast, and do not have a soul. Worse, you seem to be a sort of plant as well. What purpose could there be in ministering to you?”
“That’s the loser’s argument if I ever heard it,” smirked the ram, and chewed at a bit of leaf.
I felt it best to inquire after some other subject—I have never been a missionary, or aimed at that golden felicity of tongue that such men possess. When I attempted it, I used too many words or too few, and no one was converted by peals of light exuding from my inspired mouth. In the world I knew, in the world I loved best, the world of Constantinople, painted blue domes and artichokes and quinces and loyal, simple men with God’s own devotion in their eyes, everyone knew what God looks like. We may have disagreed on points of scripture, we may even have divided a room and called some heretics and some pure on the basis of a single verb, but no one argued that Christ reigned in Heaven as king, that His Crown was Many-Storied, that Mary was His Mother and He Died to Rise Again. Except the heathen Saracen, or even more perverse Easterner. I often thought in those days that deviance and perversity must increase the further one ventured eastward. But even in the east they admitted that Christ was holy, His Birth miraculous. When the argument centered not on whether Christ lived as one being and one flesh or separate in the Word, His Breath and Spirit, and the Flesh, His Earthly Body, but whether or not a gargantuan sheep had appeared to another sheep in some blasted farmyard, there could be no real discourse.
I tried another tack, less successful even than the first. “You said ‘when I lived.’ Are you dead, now, then? I confess I would prefer you to say you are, for then the logical conclusion would be that I have died myself and blundered into some heretofore uncharted sphere of Hell, and that would explain much to my heart.”
The sheep marveled at me, his yellowish-green eyes wide and rolling. By now the other heads had roused themselves and regarded me with the drowsy interest common to their kind.
“Of course I am dead. What kind of simpleton are you?”
One of the black-faced ewes snapped at the scrap of fleece that ringed the ram’s neck like a collar.
“He’s a stranger,” she bleated. “Can’t you smell it on him? It’s a wonder you lived as long as you did, old hoof-rot.” She turned back to me. “A sheep knows three smells best: master-bearing-food, stranger, and master-bearing-a-blade.”
The ram snorted. “I lived to a fat old age with a patch of ewes to my name and more young than I could count. I and the missuses made a good mutton for our master’s table, and they buried the bones like sensible farmers. They still come to collect the wool off of the trees, though not so much these days—most humans find this a sad and ugly place, on account of the war.”
“I am sorry,” I said, shading my eyes from the sun which would not let me be, not for a moment, dazzling my vision and my wits. “But you are a tree, are you not?”
“Certainly,” sniffed the ram. His horns gleamed bronze.
The ewe chortled to herself. “I suppose you weren’t well brought up? No education to speak of? Never read the classicks, I’ll warrant. Never learned your letters.”
“Not at all,” I protested. “I read very well, in four tongues and half a fifth. I have read Scripture and much more, Augustine, even pagan books. I know my Plato and my Aristotle.” Forgive my pride, O Lord, but the learning of tongues was hard-won for me, and a man may treasure that which he bled to gain.
The ewe wrinkled her dark, soft muzzle. “But it is Aristotle who teaches: 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. I remember the master’s daughter reciting that for her lessons while she spun my wool, I do. She said it so many times I can’t help but remember, even all these years down the warp.”
“But Aristotle didn’t say that at all! He said a bed-tree could never grow, even if you planted a bed deep in the earth, because a bed is made by man and a seed is grown by nature, and that is how one may tell the difference.” I stumbled in my argument. “If I had a place to sleep in the shade and water, I might recall the quotation exactly.” I felt myself blushing.
“And yet, we are talking, you and I,” the ram opined, cutting the ewe quite out. “So someone here has Aristotle wrong and I rather think it’s the one who thinks God isn’t a sheep.”
My head pounded and ached. “No, I know I have it right, I know it.”
“When you bury a thing, you must tend its tree. You gave it life, and owe it obligation. Achyut, the Saint Under the Root said that,” bleated the ewe, but she was beginning to nod off again. “I know a lot of quotations. The master’s daughter was very clever. They buried our bones, and we grew, and we remember being their sheep, but now we drink rain and feel very fat about things generally, as there’s no chance of being mutton any longer.”
The ram eyed me with suspicion. “We aren’t good to eat if you were considering it. Of course, a man who’ll eat a cannon-ball…”
“Well, at least I didn’t eat the horse-heads!” I pleaded. “And who buried cannons and engines and horses here? What happened that such a vicious orchard was ever planted?”
Behind me, one of those damned horses neighed softly, mournfully, and the wind clanked armor against bough.
“It was before the Wall,” the ram whispered, and cast his eyes away. “Gog and Magog walked here, and where they walked fire followed, and towers rose, and there was no sun or moon but the blaze of their hearts, which they wore outside their bones, like jewels on their chests. When it was all done, the earth covered the wreckage, and nature took its course.”
My mouth dried and the pulp of the cannon-fruit went sour within me. I could not think where I had beached myself. It was as though every story I had ever heard had broken itself on the shores of this place like blind, brittle whales, and I walked among their shards, that could never be made whole again.
I passed out of that forest with the laughter of sheep following me, and into lands so blasted I thought I walked on ash alone, with no rock to bear me up, only the void opening beneath my blistered feet. I saw the moon both day and night and thirsted so sharply that in the depths of those wastes I opened the vein of my arm and drank my own blood, as the sheep ate the leaves of their own tree. I thought of nothing. Not the wild dreams and visions of the great sand sea, not my mother or her black eyes that are Mary’s eyes that are my mother’s eyes, nothing at all. My mind became sifting ash, ash upon ash, and where the grit of my intellect fell, there too was ash, and the whole world burned and I burned with it and when I think of it now I see nothing but grey before and behind and beside; grey, and the scalded, terrible face of the moon stripping the life from me.
It seemed to me, near the end, that I smelled costly spices, pepper and myrrh, and I thought: I am dying and it is as my mother always said, after all. The sanctified dead smell sweet, and on their beloved breasts the living array spice and perfume.
I cannot say how many days and nights wound their way around this earth before I possessed a calm thought again, or knew my name.
THE BOOK OF THE FOUNTAIN:
The close of day has a kind of music to it. The descending blue, the rising silver stars, the parrots croaking their paeans to their own reflections, the market below my minaret closing up, clapping board to board, the boil of their last huge stew, full of every unsold thing. And my pen, always my pen, scratch-scratching away the last minutes of the world, little clock of my pen. The branches of the quince and the pomegranate began to snake through the upper rooms of my minaret some years back. I find them friendly, and now and again they have fruit for me, red and cracked as a heart, green and new as faith.
The fish-sellers call up to me. Hagia, come down and try my oysters, they’ll turn your guts to pearl! The artichoke-mongers, too, who know, still, after all these years, to keep the heaviest for John, and now for me. It doesn’t matter, him or me. They keep them back out of habit, for someone who loves them best. He loved the fruit because they brought his home back to him. I love it because they bring him back to me.
I recall several lines of Catacalon. Sometimes my brain claps upon some phrase and I cannot shake it loose; it runs the circuit of my body, down to my stomach and my heels and all the way back—a chariot-race, and tonight the old ram of Silverhair whips his beasts on that track. Maids of amethyst there lived, and youths of jet! Each stone of our palace, not cut but born weeping from the warm womb of some crystal bride. Would but those silent bricks could reveal to me one of their names! What a betrayal is death, in the land of life.
You betrayed me, John. My love, who chose death over me. In all your world of sins, was it never shameful to reject life and all its works?
I once met the philosopher himself—who during his third Abir lived as a gem-diver in the great caverns. His eyes had grown large and waxen in the lightless caves where the strong plunge into black pools, prying jewels from those secret clefts to bring into the light. I could not bear it, the closeness, the darkness, the cold water—the colder the tide, the brighter the stone, I heard the divers say. But Catacalon said, over a plate of orange cakes, that it suited him. In the dark, he came closer than ever before to the bones of those ancients who lived in this blessed country before us. It is not polite, of course, to make much of who we have been in lives past—more than impolite, it is forbidden. But I am a wicked girl, I have always been so, and loose with my love and my memory. He let me embrace him as he was and in my heart will always be, down there in the black, and I kissed his ram-horns, with orange sugar on my mouth. Sometimes the terrible pleasure of remembering is too much to deny.
Here in the al-Qasr, I almost believe that these stones could live as he said. I almost believe that nothing dies, and I am not a widow, but that someone among us must have been right, and I will see my mate again, in a strong brown tree, or in Heaven, or in a citadel built from his bones.
Oh, how I miss you, John. What a betrayal is death, in the land of life.
But I was speaking of my life with Astolfo, after my first Abir. Simple and sweet as cream we lived. The Lottery had gone easily for me—I kept my parents’ orchards of parchment-trees and my name and gained a handsome boy with a mouth like a chalice in the bargain. Not so my husband’s lot. Astolfo, as I have said, was of the tribe of amyctryae, whose mouths jut from their skulls and provide a deep bowl in which they brew all manner of things: teas and tinctures and unguents and intoxicants, poisons, even, and brandywine. His previous life had been well suited to him: a vintner, tending the vines grown from full bottles of old, dusty wines, ripened in the sun. Sometimes this viticulture failed him, and the vines would sprout berries of solid glass, or dozens of red wax stoppers. But sometimes the most delicate and marvelous liquors would blossom there, and Astolfo knew all the best coaxing ways—well I knew his coaxing ways! In his vast mouth he sampled and mixed those wines, sometimes vowing silence and shutting his lips for months, just to give them space and shadow to grow. What knowledge had he of the stretching of parchment, the scraping of vellum, the preparations of books for poets, tragedians, record-keepers? What use could his wonderful throat be to me?
I remember our wedding, in the Lapis Pavilion, how the little red bell-shaped flowers garlanded everything, and me in gold like all the other brides, gold and a black veil. The light of the future, and the laying to rest of our old lives. The great communal wedding takes place on the third day of the new Abir. The red lion Hadulph roared his benediction, he who would be my friend one day, against whose flank I would sleep in the pepper fields. We all cheered, and kissed, and there music shone as heavy and bright in the air as food on a table, and we were so fed, so fed by all those fiddles and psalters and drums.
The Fountain is gone now, and I know that should anyone one day read my little hand on this broad page they will be to me as a firefly to a woman—abrupt, here and gone. You must choose your mates so carefully, your pursuits, your kings. In your lives there can be room for but a few, perhaps only one. I have read John’s books. They teach the virtue of choosing but one love, one passion, one occupation, perhaps even your father’s occupation, so that he might not feel so brief. In the small space you have, to make that singular choice is so momentous that you can feel the grinding of your life as it opens to allow only one thing to enter. For us—perhaps the only new thing John brought us was regret. What need had we for it? If we did not like the mate the Abir brought us, we had but to wait a little while, and she would be gone. Perhaps we would grow to like her. Perhaps we would take lovers and leave her to her own pursuits. Perhaps we held back our mating stone from that Lottery entirely, and let a span pass by alone, in peace, or loneliness, or joy. If we did not wish to be a shepherd and hated the smell of sheep, before we knew it the time came again to stand before the great barrel, turning in the sun, and we would hold our single breath in such excitement, to hear what the world had prepared for us now, and a little unhappiness would have made us lean and sharp, bright and ready.
In your world there are more choices than time. But not for us. Not then. We had time enough to make them all.
So when I say I loved John the Priest, it does not mean I did not love Astolfo, or Hadulph, or Catacalon, or Iqama who came after John. Love is a fish: it grows as large as its vessel, and I—and all of us—were vast.
On the night of our marriage, Astolfo opened his great jaw and showed me what he had brewed there: the secret silver liquor of the wed, the bride-milk meant for me. It tasted like frost on the honeycomb. It tasted like a new life. It flowed between us as we kissed, his face to the mouth of my belly, and when I had taken it all he kissed the place where my head is not and I moved my hands once more in his dark hair. He never spoke much, but from the draughts he mixed in his jaw I took communion, and comfort.
But he did not love my orchard, nor the work of cutting and quartering the pages from the trees. He hated the taste of ink steeping in his mouth, the bitter iron gall, the grease of musk-glands. I showed him the tree of my mother’s hands, and he wept bitterly for the loss of his old life, where he knew every step through every row of green and curling vines. This happens sometimes—it is unavoidable. I tried to show him how beautiful a finished book could be. The crispness of the paper, the scent of it, the ghost-patterns of the old hide that had made it, like a story, even before a story had graced the pages. I tried to sweeten the ink with honey and cane. We were very young, both of us, and trying with all our strength to get older as fast as we could.
Hadulph, the red lion who brought me these very pages on which to write the long tale of my life, who cut them from his uncle’s hide and wept all the while, met me first in those days, when Astolfo sat sullenly by our hearth, letting the least offensive of my favorite brown inks darken against his teeth.
In those days Hadulph was a satirist—you see how even writing this is a crime, small or great. I betray him with every stroke of the pen, betray all of them, all my friends and even myself: I tell you who we were then, and who we would become, and do not grant any of us the Abir’s privacy. Let me be forgiven or despised—I am what I am, and a historian knows no propriety.
Hadulph embraced his profession with typical leonine relish. He savaged our mule-headed king Abibas in sketches and poems, the braying lord of velvet nose and chronic indigestion, all on my paper, in my books. Abibas did not take it personally—everyone must make a living.
Now, among the lions of Pentexore are two tribes: the white and the red. They grow enormous, less like cats and more like horses. Their language rolls and drawls and was easy to learn. Much philosophy separates them: the white lions live in solitude on the slopes of the freezing mountains, often bearing the panotii of those snowy wastes upon their backs through long hunts. They hunt by singing, each to each, like the whales of the sea, and are devoted to the faith of the panotii: a godless cosmos, governed only by their own pale paws and what tenderness they feel in their thundering hearts. The red lions do not allow themselves to be ridden, and worship Yiwa the Nine-Horned Antelope Whose Eyes Weep Milk, the gentlest of all the gods, who allows herself to be continually and eternally devoured to nourish her people.
Once, I remember, I told John of the red lions’ god. He expressed amazement that they would worship an antelope, and I said: They think you childish, that you insist your god looks just like you. That is how a baby thinks, because she has only her parents to protect her, so all the power in the universe bears her own face.
But red lions are city cats, while their white cousins remain wild highland beasts. They stamped the streets with their scarlet paws, in Shirshya, in Silverhair, in Nural where the al-Qasr shone and stood. Hadulph, with his broad blaze of white on his red chest, had been born of such delight: a red mother, a white father. Some cross-mating between the two tribes does occur. Pentexorans bear children but carefully, for if we did not we would soon be overrun with a million deathless babies. Still, we are flesh and bone, and the forbidden is always alluring. Sometimes I think Queen Abir perforated our lives in her way so that we would know keener pleasures. If nothing is forbidden, nothing can be perverse, and what delight is there in that sort of world?
In his despair, Astolfo did not agree with my generous assessment of the virtue of Queen Abir.
“She was a despot. A tyrant. What right had she to give over our lives to chance?”
“Everyone agreed to it. They voted, with tiny carbuncles for their chits, and into a black basin and a clear one they plinked their stones. You know this. In the end the black basin was empty save one speck of ruby, and the clear basin was full.” I let the heaviness of my breasts fall against his shoulder, and blinked my eyelashes there, against his skin, the tiniest of kisses. I believe we both thought on that solitary red gem glinting in a dark bowl at that moment. We did not need to say it; we knew whose stone it had been.
“It’s not fair. I wasn’t born yet. I had no say.” He frowned more deeply, the massive line of his jaw setting into a full grimace. He had no trouble speaking with his mouth full of ink—like pelicans, an amyctrya’s throat is deep and two-chambered.
“But if not for the Abir, we would not have each other, Asto,” said I, for I was young, and I was in love, and we all say foolish things when the world seems well-ordered. But he relaxed in my arms. I settled into our long bed, and absently he stroked the soft place where my head is not, his fingers on the rough hoop of bones that do not quite meet, as if our bodies meant to have a head, but simply never got around to it.
“How wicked must men have been,” my husband marveled, his green eyes shadowed, “if this was the remedy?”
I touched the corner of his mouth with my finger and tasted the ink there. Not ready, too tannic, not nearly ready.
“Did you mother ever read The Scarlet Nursery to you, when you were a child?” I whispered. When one lies in bed at such an hour, every word seems a secret.
“Oh, yes,” he smiled, his ink-stained lips shining in the dark. “I haven’t thought about those stories in years. I think I spent most of my youth in love with Imtithal. In my first Abir, I prayed to be matched with a panoti. I wanted to be wrapped up in those ears, and told tales, and kissed by a cold mouth. I could have killed Houd for his cruelty to her.”
I bit him playfully on the hip.
“Think of it, Asto. She lived through the first Abir, when it would have been hardest, most agonizing to endure. When no one knew how to keep from calling out to their former mother in the street or embracing their former husbands at the market. When no one knew how it was done. And she chose to live by the queen’s law, not to return to the snow and her family, to cast her lot with us.” I moved sleepily against my new husband. “We do not think of Imtithal the sherpa, leading pilgrims into the mountain peaks, though we know she lived that way before, or Imtithal the lamplighter, though we know she lived that way after. We love Imtithal the storyteller, and wish she had been our butterfly. But the Lottery chose that for her, chance chose it—and who knows when it may choose a life for us that will lead to glory and love, and tales told over and over by a thousand fires? What if this life holds wonder for you, my love, and you pull blackness over your eyes, down and down until you cannot see it?”
“But the queen cheated,” Astolfo countered. “She wanted Imtithal for a nurse for her children, and that’s what the barrel chose. How could that have been true chance? No, she rigged it, to have her way.”
“You don’t know that,” I sighed. It was an old debate, even then. “Chance is a kind of god, and what ought to be generally comes to pass. We love her now, so she had to be a nurse then, or we wouldn’t be talking about her in our safe, rosy house.” I looked out at the warm, orange-gold moon, hung like a gourd drying in the sky. “And what if the old queen did cheat? It was worth it, if our Butterfly came in the bargain.”
Oh, my memory. I wish you would soften, I wish I could hang a veil over those times and remember only whispering and love in the dark. Instead, my own words mock me, and pierce me to the very quick.
And in the morning, Hadulph came for his monthly pamphlets, and nuzzled my shoulder, and asked what sucked my belly thin and turned my eyes red.
“My husband does not love his life,” I answered, and that was the first day Hadulph and I went into the pepper fields and I learned how his tangled mane bristled, and how rough his tongue could be, and that some coupling among Pentexoran goes easier than others. Ours was difficult, and brief, and earnest, and fierce. I did not care, I only knew that with the lion I was not alone, I did not have to coax him to love this world. I did not know how much I could come to love that old beast, and how far we would go, he and I. For it would not be the last time. I told Astolfo of it that night. He had no jealousy, only interest in how we managed to contort ourselves enough to accomplish it.
I have told you. An infinity of time crafts a much different soul than a few anxious years. I knew that Astolfo had at least once visited his old vineyards and seduced a panoti girl there among the grapes. He told me how her ears enclosed his whole body, and I marveled, even envied him. Envy and jealousy are sisters, but not twins. Anyway, the first years of a change are hard, and we soon had other griefs than fidelity—for in time my husband grew sick, and though we do not age much past thirty, sickness we do know, even if it is rare, and disease, and plague. His face lost all color, and I drained the ink from his gullet, for he could no longer hold it all in. His weakness sparked such fear in me; I trembled with it, as with a child, knowing that it must sooner or later come to term. He slept often and rarely woke, and my arms ached from the stretching of every parchment alone.
Finally, I lifted him from our bed and strapped him onto Hadulph’s broad crimson back. We walked thus, Astolfo as silent in his illness as in death, and the sun overhead dim and diffident. The tall banana trees let us pass, and the mukta flowers, clusters of pearls heavy as peas on their stalks, bent under our feet and shattered, the rain came and just as quickly went. More than once, I fell to the ground weeping, so tired and thirsty and afraid. It was a long road—but like the road to the Fountain, if it were not long it would be worth nothing, and I find it hard to speak of such a private thing as that journey.
As Imtithal said, weakness has always been a part of us, from the beginning. And so the world knows how to answer weakness. There are many secret places in Pentexore, many answers. I knew the place I sought, deep in the forest, a still white pool, like milk but not milk, where two old men stood knee-deep in the chalky water. Cattails of glass would bob and chime there, but no birds. The two old men, whose white mustaches had grown so long that they braided them in huge spirals like wheels of hay, hummed a single note, forever, unbroken unless a broken body came before them. I knew the place, so did Hadulph, though we had no name for it. He bore Astolfo’s body stoically, and never once complained.
In that pool, a mussel-shell taller than a camel rested, dark blue, crusted with barnacles like lace. The two men, so old their wrinkles pressed on their eyes until they could not see at all, guarded it and tested the patient. They wore identical gowns of long grass. I propped Astolfo up on his feet; he groaned, his head sagging under the weight of his jaw. I staggered beneath his heavy body, which stank of sickness, sickness I thought bloomed from his despair as a nut from a nut-tree. If he had not despaired he would not be sick now, I was sure.
“Do you wish to be healed?” said the first man. It would be their only question.
Astolfo moaned and struggled to open his eyes in the thin sunlight.
“Do you wish to be healed?” said the other.
If he lied, the water would turn black and nothing the mussel-shell could do would help him. Faced with the gaze of the ancient men, many say no. They realize they want death, rest, not to be well and go on with living. Not everyone wishes to be well, in their hearts. Some wish to vanish. The question is not an empty one, no matter what John said later. Some reach out for darkness instead, and find it.
But Astolfo murmured: “Yes. Please, help me.” His body could summon up no further word, not even one.
The men opened the mussel along its edge with their fingernails, grown long and orange with age. Within, it showed pinkish-white wetness, like soaked silk, and a kind of pearly sweat seeping from the flesh of the shell. I helped my love forward, my poor creature, my lost one. He stepped into the deep blue mussel; it closed up after him. He did not emerge for four days, and all the while I kept vigil, leaning against Hadulph’s flank, watching the stars wheel, warm and certain in their spheres. I tasted the milky water once—it tasted like skin. Once, as we waited and the old men hummed, Hadulph asked me:
“Do you wish the Abir had gone another way? That it had paired you and I, or you and some less delicate soul?”
After a long while I answered: “No. I wish everything to happen exactly as it did, for if it had not, it would not, and what trouble we would be in then. And after all, I have you anyway.” And I rubbed his soft muzzle.
When he emerged, Astolfo was whole and flush, and such joy shone from his eyes that I felt it as a blow, heavy and pleasant against my breast.
And from that day, he never spoke again.
The shell takes its trade, always.