He was raised to kill his sainted father, giving him plenty to talk about in group therapy…
We’re thrilled to share the cover and preview an excerpt from Vajra Chandrasekera’s debut novel The Saint of Bright Doors, a richly imagined postcolonial fantasy—available July 11, 2023 from Tordotcom Publishing.
“By turns mythic and modern, The Saint of Bright Doors delivers a spellbinding labyrinth of mysteries… A hypnotic and intricate debut.” —Sequoia Nagamatsu, bestselling author of How High We Go in the Dark
Nestled at the head of a supercontinent, framed by sky and sea, lies Luriat, the city of bright doors. The doors are everywhere in the city, squatting in walls where they don’t belong, painted in vivid warning. They watch over a city of art and avarice, of plagues and pogroms, and silently refuse to open. No one knows what lies beyond them, but everyone has their own theory and their own relationship to the doors. Researchers perform tests and take samples, while supplicants offer fruit and flowers and hold prayer circles. Many fear the doors as the source of hauntings from unspeakable realms. To a rare unchosen few, though, the doors are both a calling and a bane. Fetter is one of those few.
When Fetter was born, his mother tore his shadow from him. She raised him as a weapon to kill his sainted father and destroy the religion rising up in his sacred footsteps. Now Fetter is unchosen, lapsed in his devotion to both his parents. He casts no shadow, is untethered by gravity, and sees devils and antigods everywhere he goes. With no path to follow, Fetter would like to be anything but himself. Does his answer wait on the other side of one of Luriat’s bright doors?
Vajra Chandrasekera is from Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has published over fifty short stories in magazines and anthologies including Analog, Black Static, and Clarkesworld, among others, and his short fiction has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. He blogs at vajra.me and is @_vajra on Twitter.
The moment Fetter is born, Mother-of-Glory pins his shadow to the earth with a large brass nail and tears it from him. This is his first memory, the seed of many hours of therapy to come. It is raining. His shadow is cast upon reddish soil thick with clay that clings to Fetter as he rolls in it, unable to raise his head, saved from drowning in mud only by the fortunate angle of his landing. The arch of Mother-of-Glory’s knee frames what he sees next. His shadow writhes slowly on its nail. Mother-of-Glory dips her hands in that mud to gather up the ropy shadow of his umbilical cord and throttles his severed shadow with a quick loop, pulled tight. The shadow goes to its end in silence—or if it cries out, if shadows can cry out, that sound is lost in the rain.
The next hours and years are lost to Fetter. Even this first memory is forgotten, until, as a boy already wearing thin his first decade of life, he explores the maze of his mother’s house, looking for secrets, and stumbles across the lacquer box where Mother-of-Glory keeps a lock of his baby hair and the nail that tore his shadow from him. As he holds it in his hands that garrotting comes back to him, framed by the arch of his mother’s knee, the shadow falling away, bloody rivulets in red mud.
Having relived the memory, Fetter looks at his feet with new understanding. He goes outside into bright sunlight, but no shadow appears beneath. He raises one foot, then the other, but it is as if the light passes through him. As if he’s not really there. With both feet raised above the ground, he is suspended in the air, drifting slowly back to earth over a long minute, tugged aside by a light breeze. His bare feet drag a furrow in the soft dirt as he lands. This, too, is unusual. Mother-of-Glory stands firm on the earth, as does every other person he’s ever met. His lightness of foot, he thinks for the first time, is not normal, and perhaps is linked to the absence of his shadow.
He doesn’t bring up the nail with Mother-of-Glory that night, nor the next night, nor any night for a week. A week is about the limit of his patience, but he tries to make that week seem as normal as he can. He is neither more nor less inattentive than usual in the lessons with his tutors; when he goes out to play with the other kids, he is careful not to be more or less aggressive, or to spend more or less time at home, or to wander any further into town than he normally does, or to spend longer exploring the dry riverbed under the old bridge than usual. He is even careful not to experiment with his tendency to float. There will be time for that, he tells himself, when the lightness fills his chest in the mornings like he could breathe out and float away into the endless blue of the sky. He thinks he has achieved a sublime facade of ordinariness, hidden the turmoil in his mind.
He is nine years old, small, thin, and brown; his mother keeps his hair trimmed too short to curl. There is nothing between his mother and his mind but skin and skull.
Fetter plans how he will bring up the nail in conversation later and surprise his mother with his discovery as well as his self-control and skill in tradecraft.
But Mother-of-Glory confronts him first. She catches him after lessons one day at the end of that week and motions him to join her in the yard in front of the house, where she holds court and teaches her own lessons. Other, more mundane teachers will sit indoors with Fetter, or outside under a tree’s canopy, or summon him to their brick houses in town. But Mother-of-Glory teaches under the blazing sun, as if to ensure that it, too, is learning.
“I see you found the nail,” she says, seating herself on a tree-stump. Her tone seems serious, so Fetter remains standing in front of her. This is not playtime or bonding time: this is training.
“How did you know?” Fetter says, after a few seconds of furious wondering whether denial would serve any purpose, and then deciding that it would merely embarrass him. “I was so careful not to let on.”
“You were quite good,” Mother-of-Glory says. This is about as much of a compliment as Fetter gets. Mother-of-Glory is serious about the craft. “But you missed the telltale hair that broke when you opened the lacquer box. I’ve been checking it every day for years. What have you learned from this?”
“To always check for a telltale hair,” Fetter says, though not sulkily. Mother-of-Glory disapproves of attitude, at least when aimed in her direction, but sometimes appreciates humour. She smiles at this, but waves her hand for him to continue.
“To plan better?” Fetter says, and this earns him a wince.
“Don’t make an answer an ask,” Mother-of-Glory says. “What you should have learned is to expect your enemy’s intelligence. Look for countermeasures before you act.”
“Yes, Mother,” Fetter says. She seems not in the mood for questions, so he doesn’t ask any. They are both silent for a while.
“Don’t worry about not having a shadow,” Mother-of-Glory says, finally. It seems to Fetter as if she was going to say something else but changed her mind. “The effect on your covert missions will be negligible. Nobody notices things like that. You’ll have to learn how to stay grounded, though.”
That’s the only instruction that Mother-of-Glory ever gives on the floating. Over the next couple of years, Fetter teaches himself how.
There are other oddities that he doesn’t mention to his mother. He’s not entirely sure whether they are real, or some kind of fallacy in his thinking or perception. It seems to him that he ages slowly. At ten he’s smaller than his agemates; at twelve he looks like a child, and some of his peers have reached almost their adult height. Others haven’t, so perhaps this is an ordinary oddity.
He discovers one day that fire doesn’t burn him. Accidentally brushing his hand through a match-flame feels cool, as if the flame were a tiny waterspout. But several matches later he can’t tell if this is a consequence of the flame being so small and ephemeral. Perhaps a bigger fire would burn him. There seems to be no safe way to test this without risk of serious injury, so he leaves it be.
He finds out, too, that he sees and hears things that others don’t. He doesn’t find it frightening at first. Some of the creatures he sees seem as much a part of the natural world as the squirrels slipping between bleeding-thorns, the kingfishers in the trees that weep over the river, the deer skittish in the wild grass. There are bulbous-bellied creatures that cling to the sides of people’s houses, moving as if they were sucking in breath or slurping up something immaterial, perhaps feeding on something that Fetter can’t quite discern. There are things that look like sea creatures, many-legged and tendrils waving, skittering across the main street as if it were a seabed. Others are more human in shape, and he understands them as being both natural and unnatural in the same way as people: dim and elongated, their gait a strange cousin to grace, or eerily multiple, toothy and long of tongue. Sometimes they speak in voices that sound raw and pained, and he pretends not to hear. He learns that most people don’t see these creatures and manifestations; he learns that most people don’t hear their whispering in the thick dusk. He learns to fear them from the reactions of others when he tries to ask. Acusdab is a small town, and the people feel outnumbered by the invisible laws and powers that they know crowd around them. The creatures are orders of being outside the house of humanity, he is told: they are antigods and devils. He learns that his skin should crawl, and so it learns to horripilate when one of them moves past his field of vision, even as he looks past to not betray that he can see them.
But, most of all, Fetter discovers that gravity finds him slippery, as if oiled. It is easy to fall upwards, altogether too easy. All he has to do is breathe out and relax some clenched muscle in his lower belly, something that’s always tight. He finds a terror in his yearning for the open sky, the call of falling up and up forever. Looking up makes him feel like he’s standing on the edge of a precipice, and the urge to throw himself away is immense. He tries not to look at the sky.
He teaches himself that every step must be a conscious, willed act if it’s to pass muster as ordinary human movement. Lift the foot, move it, press it back down to earth. He drills until its second nature to test his footing, to subtly wriggle his ankle to make sure his heel is clamped firmly to the ground without making it obvious to the weighted what he’s doing.
He’s also learned to think of others that way—the weighted. The shadowed.
While Fetter is busy teaching himself these things, Mother-of-Glory gradually takes over his higher education. One by one other tutors fall away. Mother-of-Glory teaches him the core curriculum of a classical education: gramarye, dialectics, revanche, deferral, and murder. There are lessons in theory, and there are practice drills, what she calls his exercises.
Fetter learns the gramarye of summoning and binding. Mother-of-Glory tells him the invisible laws and powers used to come when called, to possess a human body and speak with a human voice, to prophesy, to teach, to leave when evicted. Everything is different now, she says. She does not explain why. He does his best to conceal that he can see them all the time, whether his mother is attempting to summon them or not. It is difficult for him to disguise startlement with his large eyes where the whites stand out like signal flares when they widen; he learns to keep his eyes low-lidded and still, as if always pained or fatigued, so as never to betray his shock at the doings of the invisible world. Headaches begin to curl in his temples.
In Acusdab, the invisible laws and powers—called devils by some, his mother sniffs, even though she too uses the word—are a high mystery. Even for her, they are the culmination of rare and difficult rites and not an ever-present horror, the blurred things that crouch in the corner of his eye while he pisses and brushes his teeth; the feeding things that cling to the walls of the house; the skittering things that circle warily around his mother’s path, or away from her devil-doctors, the infamous, fearsome aduro of Acusdab.
Devils fear his mother far more than they fear the doctors. Devils will submit to a doctor’s summoning and binding, as Fetter has seen many times in town, but Mother-of-Glory calls and calls and they don’t come. She says she taught the doctors everything they know, but Fetter sees how the devils writhe and howl and jeer at her. She doesn’t hear them, but Fetter watches, pretending he sees nothing but a failed ritual, wishing he could cover his ears and eyes.
When he summons, the devils obey, but he makes himself clumsy through the effort of pretending that he is not meeting their eyes, when they have eyes. He would make, his mother judges, a middling doctor, but this is sufficient. That is not the mission she envisions for him.
Murder comes even less easy to him. Mother-of-Glory all but holds his hand for his first. She says she is multitasking, combining his training with the bloody end of an old family feud. It’s past time, she says. The target is his grand-uncle, Mother-of-Glory’s father’s elder brother.
She drives him to this execution in much the same way she drives him to any other appointment, lecturing him the whole way while Fetter dangles a hand of out the window and tries to catch the wind and listens with half an ear. It’s a long drive to the far edge of town, as if his grand-uncle settled as far away from his mother as he could.
Apart from fussing over Fetter’s flawed underhand knife technique and reminding him to sing the song of sharpening under his breath to excite the molecules of the blade’s edge, Mother-of-Glory takes this opportunity to reiterate her teaching of the lore of the Five Unforgivables. This is, in her pedagogy, the absolute heart of Fetter’s education, red and meaty and pulsating. These are also the only occasions she talks about Fetter’s sainted father, the Perfect and the Kind, so Fetter sits up. These moments are his rare opportunities for hints of answers to a lifetime of questions about his father—manipulation so basic it barely counts, but Fetter resents it anyway.
“The Five Unforgivables are the major crimes as defined by your father’s ideological apparatus,” Mother-of-Glory says. She has given this speech so often Fetter knows it by heart, which is the point. “They are declared to be outside the jurisdiction of any regime of restorative or retributive justice. The Five Unforgivables are, in order of severity, matricide; heresy leading to factionalism; the sancticide of votaries who have reached the fourth level of awakening; patricide; and the assassination of the Perfect and Kind. By definition, they cannot be forgiven and cannot be redeemed. That means that if you commit any one of them, the cult will hunt you for the rest of your life, and make your name a curse for generations to come. Your mission is to commit them all. Your father abandoned us. We were unchosen, cast out of his eschatology. We are going to destroy your father’s cult and salt the earth where it falls. Now you say it.”
Fetter repeats the catechism, obligingly. He could recite these words in his sleep.
They reach his grand-uncle’s house. Mother-of-Glory parks outside out of sight, and they sneak in through a gap in the fence where a post is fallen and the barbed wire tangled low. Later, Fetter will understand that this opening would have been orchestrated by his mother—perhaps one of the devil-doctors came the night before to break whatever circuit of power might have protected this boundary. But at the time it seems fortuitous.
Fetter’s knife technique turns out to be redundant, the song of sharpening useless. He ambushes Grand-Uncle puttering in his own little back garden, a lonely place full of sad vegetables, ideal for a first kill. Even with the advantages of youth and speed and surprise, he can’t get his footing right before the old man disarms him, his wrinkled hand snaking out to twist Fetter’s wrist until he lets go of the knife. Startled, Fetter forgets all his training, forgets to stay grounded—he leaves the ground altogether, his feet flailing and rising skyward, pivoting around the old man’s grip on his wrist until he’s upside down. Grand-Uncle shouts out in surprise and lets go, and Fetter instinctively grabs his mouth and throat to silence him.
After that, it’s a hanging. Fetter, upside down, a rising noose. Grand-Uncle is lifted slightly off his feet, his desperate toes scrabbling at the earth and making patterns in the dust.
Even someone raised to the Unforgivables will have ingrained inhibitions against violence, which must be overcome in the heat and pressure of the moment. Mother-of-Glory has warned Fetter about this many times, but it’s still difficult. A poisoned breath pools at the bottom of his lungs; it will never come all the way out again.
Grand-Uncle gets a foot planted on the ground and begins to struggle again, so Fetter frees up a hand and goes for the old man’s face. He crushes his nose, jabs him in an eye hard enough to pop, claws at face and throat until there is red. It’s high noon; when Fetter glances down at his feet, the sun is right there. He’s standing on the sun. He tightens his grip on Grand-Uncle’s throat, and remembers his first memory again. He is the garrotte. Grand-Uncle bubbles like he’s trying to speak, but Fetter is rising again, and Grand-Uncle’s feet leave the ground again, hung like meat.
The dead weight brings Fetter back to earth. The body settles and pools. Fetter comes down, twisting back the right way, until he settles on Grand-Uncle’s chest like a carrion bird. He can’t see his knife anywhere, but Mother-of-Glory is particular about follow-through, so Fetter gouges and claws until he’s red to the elbow, until Grand-Uncle’s face is a ruin that he can’t even look at without his gorge rising. Fetter’s heart is hammering in his temples. His entire body has turned into ice, so light, so clear. He doesn’t notice he’s drifting away in the breeze until Mother-of-Glory catches him by the ankle as he passes and drags him back.
Fetter wriggles his ankles and sets his feet firmly on the soil, clenches himself down. He does not look around, seeing from the corner of his eye that what seems to his mother a deserted vegetable patch is crowded by invisible powers. Many strange and terrible shapes have stopped to look at him. He looks at his bloody hands instead.
“That was the easiest it’s ever going to be,” Mother-of-Glory says on the drive back. Fetter is curled up sullenly in the passenger seat. His head hurts, and his throat too, as if he’d been screaming the entire time. He doesn’t remember making a sound. He’s cleaned up, but his hands are still sticky. He studies his fingertips carefully the whole way home, looking at the bruises and the cuts he doesn’t remember getting, peering into the deep canyons of his whorls, looking for more of the flaking brown residue. He can feel it rasping when he rubs his fingers together.
“Next time,” Mother-of-Glory says, “You’ll have to clean the scene yourself. Remember, the First Unforgivable is matricide. After that, you won’t have me around to hold your hand.”
A couple of years vanish into higher education, including more exercises. Fetter learns to clean a crime scene. He calls these murders his forgivable crimes, as a way to subtly annoy Mother-of-Glory; she stops reciting the catechism so often but he already knows it by heart and, to his own annoyance, finds himself reciting it in the silences that it used to occupy. It helps him feel directed, that all this is aimed at something. The forgivable murders are covered by the constant violence of his extended family, Mother-of-Glory explains, timed and ordered to drift into the background noise of assassinations and funerals that structure the family calendar, feuds he doesn’t keep track of. Most of Acusdab seems to be family and they don’t need to know about the special mission she is training him for. There is no shortage of targets. Some distant cousins even attempt to assassinate Mother-of-Glory herself, which she turns into another lesson for Fetter.
This family didn’t used to be like this, Mother-of-Glory says, sadly, even as she prunes its tree.
Even with all this practice, Fetter cannot say if his skill in combat or the use of weapons improves. He eventually becomes accustomed to violence, which, he supposes, was the point in the first place. One day Mother-of-Glory pronounces him ready for the real thing. She packs him a lunch and gives him some money and a knife and a blessing, the words impatient and mumbled because she doesn’t believe in blessings, not even her own. Such things are his father’s territory.
“Remember, son,” Mother-of-Glory says, compensating with pomposity for her deficits of piety or affection. “The only way to change the world is through intentional, directed violence.”
And Fetter goes out into the world, armed and dangerous and thirteen.
Excerpted from The Saint of Bright Doors, copyright © 2022 by Vajra Chandrasekera