Rereading Gene Wolfe

The Sword of the Lictor, Part 2: Here There Be Monsters

In the most recent installment of our reread, we last glimpsed Severian having just delivered the adulterous Cyriaca to the Archon Abdiesus. Or so we thought—but things are not what they seem in Wolfe’s narratives, especially when dealing with an unreliable narrator such as Severian.

The Sword of the Lictor, at least in its first dozen pages, seemed to represent a respite from the journeyman narrative. But that is not to be so: one of the things that marked The Book of the New Sun indelibly in my mind happens in this particular novel—a novel which is, by the way, filled with monsters.

The whole of the Book of the New Sun series is rife with strange, mysterious creatures that hail sometimes from other worlds, sometimes from the realm of myth, including naiads and ancient gods like Abaia (although Abaia won’t actually appear—or will they? I really can’t recall, though it seems to me they might finally appear in the coda). As I mentioned a while back, one of the creatures that really terrified me upon my first reading lurks in these pages, and we will get there shortly.

But first, there is another creature we must face. If you recall, in the last reread, Severian is asked to go to the palace of the Archon with two clavigers escorting him for protection, because of the two deaths the sergeant reported.  Those victims had been burned to death.

When he exits the Palace, though (right after the scene where Abdiesus surprises him and Cyriaca), Severian dismisses his escort, since there’s no reason he can’t find his way back to the Vincula alone. The soldiers at the door, however, don’t seem to want him to go, and insist that he stay the night there. He refuses, feeling even a pleasant excitement at the thought that maybe another death had occurred while he was at the ridotto. He walks up the cliff he passed on his way there until he returns to the jacal inhabited by the sick children he’d encountered earlier.

This time, he decides to use the Claw to heal them, but still approaches with restraint and a bit of fear:

Of all the names of the Conciliator, the one that is, I believe, least used, and which had always seemed the most puzzling to me, is that of Black Sun. Since that night, I have felt myself almost to comprehend it. I could not hold the gem in my fingers as I had done often before and was yet to do afterward; I laid it flat on the palm of my hand so that my touch would commit no more sacrilege than was strictly necessary. With it held thus before me, I stooped and entered the jacal.

He uses the Claw first on the girl, but he sees no immediate change in her condition, and wonders (since nothing happened when he tried to do the same with Jolenta as well) “if it were possible that it could have no good effect on women, or if it were necessary that a woman hold it.” But then he touches her forehead with the Claw, and the result is different. For the first time, Severian is truly amazed:

It may have been that the man-ape’s bleeding was staunched by his own belief, that the uhlan on the road by the House Absolute was merely stunned and would have revived in any event, that the apparent healing of Jonas’s wounds had been no more than a trick of the light. But now it was as though some unimaginable power had acted in the interval between one chronon and the next to wrench the universe from its track.

The girl opens her eyes, and her face is no longer the skull mask it had been, but only the worn face of a young woman. Then he touches the boy’s eye with the Claw , but he has the impression the eye was normal even before the Claw touches him, so maybe the infection had abated? (This is what he wants to believe, anyway.) After a while he leaves the jacal.

At a distance, he sees a light flashing out, and it’s like nothing he had seen before. It flares briefly and dies, and a heartbeat later he feels the wash of heat upon his face. Soon he is striding along a street “that ran for a time at least parallel to the cliff, with the smell of scorching flesh in my nostrils as a branding.”

He is about to retrace his steps when he collides with a woman in the dark. She is running terrified, and Severian recognizes her as the mistress of the Duck’s Nest, the inn where he had left Dorcas. She tells him something has just killed a man nearby, and they must run, but it’s too late now: the thing is already in the street with them. The woman tells him that the thing “burned three last night near the harena, and one tonight, close by the Vincula. And now Jurmin. It’s looking for somebody—that’s what they say.” Severian thinks of the notules and the unseen thing that haunted the antechamber of the House Absolute, and concludes that he must be the one the thing is looking for.

It’s very dark, and Severian feels the heat growing, but he can’t see anything. He almost takes out the Claw, but he’s not sure of its efficiency. But then two dimarchi turn the corner, and the glare of their energy lances outline the dark, crooked, and stooped thing that stood between them:

It turned toward the light , whatever it was, and seemed to open as a flower might, growing tall more swiftly, almost, than the eye could follow it, thinning until it had become a creature of glowing gauze, hot yet somehow reptilian, as those many-colored serpents we see brought from the jungles of the north are reptilian still, though they seem works of colored enamel. (…) It seemed a reptile still, but a reptile that burned in a way never known on Urth, as though some desert asp had dropped into a sphere of snow.

For a brief time he and the woman are caught as if by a spell, transfixed by the creature, with everyone frozen as if in a tableau. Then a shout breaks the spell, and a second band of dimarchi on horses attack the creature. To no avail: Severian doesn’t see what happens, but sees a blinding flash and feels a “fearful heat,” and suddenly the creature, “a twisted, dwarfish thing but radiating a terrible and invisible energy” was at the mouth of the court he was in. There is a jacal there, a structure bigger than the one inhabited by the two siblings. Suddenly the door opens, and the creature enters the jacal. Severian must then face one of two fates: either he can fight as the dimarchi did, and die, or he can jump off the cliff. He knows that Terminus Est, though he believes it to be the best blade ever forged, will not kill the beast. Instead, he takes the Claw out of the bag.

The creature sees the Claw but is not afraid, and Severian believes this is the end of him…but when the beast reaches the doorway, there is a burst of smoke, a crash, and suddenly it disappears. The creature has fallen into a hole in the center of the jacal. Thus, Severian escapes and goes with the woman to The Duck’s Nest, where he finds Dorcas asleep. He doesn’t wake her, but instead sits on a stool near the bed, drinking wine. He empties half the bottle by the time she wakes up. She remains sad, but now she has another reason for her melancholy: she tells him that she had vomited up sling-stones that afternoon. These heavy slugs of metal were of the same kind they use to weight down the recently deceased so they will sink straight to the bottom of the lake. The eerie conclusion to be drawn is that Dorcas was dead in the lake until the time came when Severian rescued her.

Severian will correct her, telling her the people he resurrected probably were just asleep (this provide us with an interesting deviation from the Catholic norm, putting us into evangelical-Reform territory, where there is the idea that the dead go to sleep until they hear the sound of the trumpets signaling the end of the world). He tells her this:

“From sleep,” I said. “Since if one can be recalled from it, it is not death—not death as we have always understood it, the death that is in our minds when we say death. Although I have to confess it is still almost impossible for me to believe that the Conciliator, dead now for so many thousands of years, should act through this stone to raise others.”

Dorcas defies him and is adamant: she was really dead, “a shrunken corpse preserved in the brown water.” She adds, “And there is something in me that is dead still.” She announces that she’s going back to the lake, to find out who she was and where she lived. She doesn’t want Severian to go with her (and she knew he wouldn’t do so, anyway); she tells him she loves him, but also that:

You are another death, a death that has stayed with me and befriended me as the old death in the lake did, but death all the same. I don’t want to take death with me when I go to look for my life.

She asks him for the money Dr Talos gave them, and Severian gives her all of it. She leaves the next day. Dorcas ends up asking him if he won’t go with her, after all. He says he can’t, because Cyriaca told him where the Pelerines might possibly be, and he needs to find them so he can give them the Claw.

The interesting thing about his encounter with Cyriaca is that he doesn’t, in fact, execute her. I had to go back to the part of the book that describes the arrival of Abdiesus at the scene of the tryst, but I didn’t find anything to corroborate what Severian says afterward to Dorcas: that he let Cyriaca go. Did I fail to notice something? Most probably—there seems to be a gap here, a gap that is quite common to Brazilian or French narratives (we call such texts lacunar narratives), and not exactly unusual to Gene Wolfe’s stories, but usually he is more subtle than this. What did Severian do to allow her to escape literally under the Archon’s nose? It remains a mystery. Since he apparently didn’t kill Cyriaca, Severian is heading north as a fugitive. When he gets to the Vincula, he escapes Thrax via the sluice gate that runs underground and travels into the mountains.

The Sword of the Lictor is perhaps the novel that moved me most strongly above all the others in this first saga of the Sun Cycle, because of a silly—but powerful—thing: its excess of monsters (I searched the web to find the collective of monsters, but apparently they are a class, and therefore don’t merit a collective noun, even if different kinds of monsters do). First we have the fiery beast (later Severian will be told that is a “salamander”). But, above all else, the creature which terrified me most the first time I read this novel: the Alzabo.

According to Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus, the etymology of the name is Arabic, “being an archaic transliteration of “al-dhi’b”, meaning wolf, jackal, or a star in Canis.” He also comments that this creature might very well be the “ghoul-bear” of Sainte-Anne in The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

I would like to offer another interpretation, albeit a very loose one that may well be incorrect, but I couldn’t avoid relating the sound of the word “alzabo” with the name “Beelzebub,” the Lord of the Flies or the Lord of the High Place, depending on which religious text or etymology you consult. The fact that the alzabo is red hasn’t escaped my attention: even though I could find no particular color for Beelzebub in the source texts I perused (I did only a superficial search, so I might have overlooked something in that respect), the devil is usually depicted as red at least as far back as medieval times; in Dante’s inferno, Satan had three faces, the one in the middle red ) Unfortunately, I have nothing on which to confirm this hypothetical link, so let’s just assume it’s a wild guess on my part and move on, unless anyone has further thoughts or information that can help shed light on the beast’s origins.

Severian goes to the mountains, which are lonely and cold, and he spends a lot of time watching observing nature, looking at the sky and the constellations (none of which are in the least similar to those we know today, of course), and musing about human civilization and its place in the scheme of things. He walks for two days, hoping to find at least a woodcutter or hunter from whom he might claim hospitality, but to no avail. He ends up at the edge of a huge cliff, which he manages to climb down, and he sees that this is the result of ages of mining, through which he can observe layers of earth, fossils, and other remains of Earth’s past, and maybe even evidence of other civilizations. He passes an enigmatic wall full of tiles of different colors, and this description reminded me of what archeologists in the last century must have seen when they first started to dig beneath the ruins of Pompeii. I kept rereading this passage, to see if I could identify where this site might be, if it exists in our modern world. But, since we are talking of the distant future (remember it is probably 100,000 years from now, as Andre-Driussi have surmised), it’s not probable that any of our cities would remain, even as ruins.

He continues his way down until he finds a solitary house in the middle of the woods. He hears the barking of a dog, and when he finally approaches the place he shouts, but there is only silence. After a moment, a woman and a small boy appear. The woman lets him inside, where there is also an old man with his back to the fire. By the look of the furniture and other aspects of the house, Severian sees that they are very poor. The woman tells him that her husband will be there soon, before supper. He tells her he means no harm: all he wants is to eat a little, to sleep there for that night, and then get directions in the morning. The boy suddenly asks him if he had seen Severa, causing his mother to promptly respond with a sharp blow. Severian understands that this Severa is probably her daughter, and that she told the young woman to hide, prompted by fear of what he might do. He decided that it’s best if he stays silent, asking only for some water to wash himself.

After a while, he introduces himself properly, and the woman tells him that the boy is also called Severian. For a couple of pages, I caught myself thinking (as I now recall that I did when I first read this novel) that maybe Severian had entered a kind of time loop and was now witnessing his own past, but then I decided that this was absurd, because he has told us several times his parents were dead and he had been given to the Order at a very young age, probably younger than this boy.

Severian—our Severian—tells the woman, whose name is Casdoe, that he wants to find the Pelerines, or, failing that, to join the army the Autarch is leading against the Ascians. They wait, but the husband doesn’t arrive, and they eat supper without him. After the meal, Casdoe goes out to find her husband, and Severian suggests to the old man that maybe Severa could get down from the other floor (he sensed her movements earlier) to take care of little Severian. He tells the boy to go ahead, and the boy goes, but first he says “bad woman.”

The woman, as it happens, is not Severa, but Agia. She is haggard and her dress is dirty. Severian tells her he now knows everything, going back to the beginning, when she first threatened him. Then they talk of a man I haven’t mentioned so far. His name is Hethor, and he appeared in the end of The Shadow of the Torturer, as a minor character—one so small and humble that I chose not to mention him at the time. But I was wrong, because I had all but forgotten Hethor, who is, like Jonas, a star traveler, maybe even his crewmate. He has definitely been maddened by his experience, but has managed to manipulate Agia into attacking Severian for reasons I can’t remember now (this failure on my part should serve as a reminder that there is much that I chose not to mention in this rereading that turns out to be significant at a later point in the narrative, and I may have to tackle these forgotten or overlooked topics in future posts as their importance is revealed).

Casdoe returns, and Agia tells her Severian is there to kill her. Severian tells he is not going to kill anyone, not even Agia, but she doesn’t believe him. Suddenly, before this situation can be properly resolved, thunder booms among the peaks of the mountains above them, and a voice from outside the house answers the echoes. Severian is unable to describe it properly, because it isn’t quite a human shout, but it also is not the bellow of a beast.

Then, through one of the open windows, Severian heard a child’s voice call: “Father, can’t you help me?”

The following chapter, my fellow readers, is the one which utterly terrified me in my twenties. Upon reading it again more than thirty years after, I found that I wasn’t so amazed as before—the creature had made such an impression on me then that somehow I remembered it as even more horrible than it seemed, upon rereading. But this is not to say the scene is not bloodcurdling, for it is. I don’t know why, but I created a different alzabo in my mind, less scary physically, and yet more wonderful precisely because of that. (I had pictured it as some twisted hybrid of bear and ostrich, with almost human features—don’t ask me why. It is possible that I had a nightmare featuring this creature after reading this chapter for the first time.)

But the gist of the text was there in my mind all the time. The alzabo, as we had already seen from the scene of the feast in The Claw of the Conciliator, is an animal of offworld origin that assumes the personality of the prey it has devoured. The animal is now at the door of the house, mimicking the voice of a child and asking to be let in, because it’s beginning to rain.

But when this happens, Severian doesn’t know what’s going on, nor what kind of creature lies outside the door—maybe a beast summoned by Hethor? Agia denies it, and Casdoe explains:

It took Severa three days ago (…) I never let her or Severian go among the trees, but it came into the clearing here, a watch before twilight. Since then it has returned every night. The dog wouldn’t track it, but Becan [her husband] went to hunt it today.

At this point, he guesses the identity of the creature. Agia laughs at him as the realization dawns:

He has tasted the creature’s wisdom, and carries his beloved about within himself. I understand one hears them whispering together by night, in the very heat and sweat of love. (…) Aren’t you delighted, Severian, that when the animals came to Urth to replace all those our ancestors slew, the alzabo was among them? Without the alzabo, you would have lost your dearest Thecla forever. Tell Casdoe here how happy the alzabo has made you.”

But Severian tells Casdoe he is sorry for her daughter’s death and will defend her house from the animal, if it must be done. As soon as he says these words, though, Becan’s voice urges Casdoe to open the door, and she does it faster than Severian can react. The alzabo attacks. Wolfe describes a very different creature from what I’d mistakenly remembered for all these years:

The beast that waited there stood upon four legs; even so, its hulking shoulders were as high as my head. Its own head was carried low, with the tips of its ears below the crest of fur that topped its back. In the firelight, its teeth gleamed white and its eyes glowed red. (…) The red orbs of the alzabo were something more, holding neither the intelligence of humankind nor the innocence of the brutes.

Casdoe tries to close the door, but the alzabo is too quick, and pushes the door back, striking her ribs with full force. Severian unsheaths Terminus Est, but he calculates that he will have to strike the head of the beast swiftly and surely to kill it, but he has no room to do that, nor the necessary light with which to see.  Desperate but still keeping his cool, he asks Agia to give him a candle, promising to battle the creature for her if she only could do that. The alzabo seems very intelligent, and approaches Severian while contriving to keep just beyond the reach of the blade. Then they begin, in Severian’s words, “a careful game, in which the alzabo sought to make what use it could of the chairs, the table, and the walls, and I tried to get as much space as I could for my sword.”

Suddenly thunder booms again, and a tree nearby crashes struck by lightning. Blinded, Severian swings Terminus Est and strikes the alzabo, but fails to deliver a killing blow; the following sentences still manage to give me goosebumps:

Its fur looked red and ragged in the firelight, and the nails of its feet, larger and coarser than a bear’s, were darkly red as well, and seemed translucent.  More hideous than the speaking of a corpse could ever be, I heard the voice that had called, “Open, darling,” at the door. It said: “Yes, I am injured. But the pain is nothing much, and I can stand and move as before. You cannot bar me from my family forever.” From the mouth of a beast, it was the voice of a stern, stamping, honest man.

Severian takes out the Claw, but the gem doesn’t let off more than a spark of blue. He calls to Agia, but no light comes. The alzabo tells him he can’t escape now, and so we see the animal is not irrational at all—or maybe he is temporarily rational because of the humans he has eaten. Their eerie dialogue continues:

“You know yourself a beast, then.”

The man’s voice came again. “We know we are within the beast, just as once we were within the cases of flesh the beast has devoured.”

“And you would consent to its devouring your wife and your son, Becan?”

“I would direct it. I do direct it. I want Casdoe and Severian to join us here, just as I joined Severa today. When the fire dies, you die too—joining us—and so shall they.”

Severian tells it that this is not going to happen, because he has wounded it; now all he has to do is letting the alzabo bleed, and when the light has failed completely, he will advance and kill it.

There is silence, and another eerie moment:

(…) nothing in the beast’s expression hinted of thought. I knew that even as the wreck of Thecla’s neural chemistry had been fixed in the nuclei of certain of my own frontal cells by a secretion distilled from the organs of just such a creature, so the man and his daughter haunted the dim thicket of the beast’s brain and believed they lived; but what the ghost of life might be, what dreams and desires might enter it, I could not guess.

But then the alzabo, still speaking in the voice of Becan, asks Severian what would happen if it decided to go away for the night: would he try to go after it and kill it, or remain in the house to keep it from the woman and child that—the creature says—rightfully belong to it? Severian promises on his honor that he won’t do any of those things. Then the beast slinks out of the house. They all can breathe now—but Agia has escaped.

The following day, Casdoe decides to go away from the house. Severian will keep his promise—but if the woman and child go away by themselves, this is not part of the agreement, so he has kept his honor (though what good is it now, especially after Severian has broken so many pacts and promises in the past? But he is still deep down a creature of ethics, or perhaps of habit). Severian lets them go, then decides to follow them at a distance. After a while, he observes footprints of several barefooted men. If they were autochtons, or savages of the mountain, Severian doubts they would do any harm to Casdoe, her son, and the old man, but they would probably pillage her goods. On the other hand, if they were deserters of the army, the family could be in danger.

When he’s almost finished climbing a steep incline, he hears a wild yell, but it’s not the alzabo. The creatures surrounding the small party are zoanthrops, beings similar to the man-apes. He hurries to help them, but one of the creatures strikes with his club and kills the old man. Severian then hesitates, but when one of the creatures throws Casdoe to the ground, apparently to rape her, he unsheathes Terminus Est and hurries to help her.

But the alzabo gets there first. The beast kills several of the zoanthrops, and Severian gets there in time to kill the rest. Casdoe is already being devoured by the alzabo, which has been wounded and is now in its death throes. The boy huddles against the alzabo’s back. Severian gently takes him away, and, together, they built a cairn over the bodies of Casdoe and the old man. After that, they wash in a river, and little Severian asks the big one if he is his uncle. His answer is:

“I’m your father—for now, at least. When someone’s father dies, he must have a new one, if he’s as young as you are. I’m the man.”

And he finishes this chapter—practically at the middle point of the novel—with this beautiful conclusion:

I, who did not know my own mother’s name, or my father’s, might very well be related to this child whose name was my own, or for that matter to anyone I met.”

And off they go, saddened by their losses, solemn, not knowing at all what the road will have in store for them. Nor do I, because I can’t quite remember what lies ahead, and I’m still reading this novel as I write this installment. But the mists are parting now, and soon we will get to the end—of this part of the saga, at least.

I’ll see you on Thursday, December 12th, for the Part Three of The Sword of the Lictor

Fabio Fernandes started writing in English experimentally in the ‘90s, but only began to publish in this language in 2008, reviewing magazines and books for The Fix, edited by the late lamented Eugie Foster. He’s also written articles and reviews for a number of sites and magazines, including Fantasy Book Critic, Tor.com, The World SF Blog, Strange Horizons, and SF Signal. He’s published short stories in Everyday Weirdness, Kaleidotrope, Perihelion, and the anthologies Steampunk II, The Apex Book of World SF: Vol. 2, Stories for Chip, and POC Destroy Science Fiction. In 2013, Fernandes co-edited with Djibrilal-Ayad the postcolonial original anthology We See a Different Frontier. He’s translated several science fiction and fantasy books from English to Brazilian Portuguese, such as Foundation, 2001, Neuromancer, and Ancillary Justice. In 2018, he translated to English the Brazilian anthology Solarpunk (ed. by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro) for World Weaver Press. Fabio Fernandes is a graduate of Clarion West, class of 2013.

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