The Vile Game of Gunter and Landau

Michael Cisco (1970 — ) is an American writer best known for his first novel, The Divinity Student, which was published by Ann VanderMeer’s Buzzcity Press and won the International Horror Guild Award in 1999. Since then, Cisco has published The San Veneficio Canon, The Traitor, The Tyrant, The Narrator, and The Great Lover. Taken together, these books represent the greatest oeuvre of any late twentieth/early twenty-first century writer of weird fiction — all the more remarkable because of the difficulty of sustaining the visionary quality of such narratives over the novel length. The following story is reprinted courtesy of the author from Ex Occidente’s anthology This Hermetic Legislature, a collection of stories written as tributes to the life and work of Bruno Schulz. We’re delighted to feature “The Vile Game of Gunter and Landau” for our readers here. - The Editors

***

We are by nature builders …”

– Bruno Schulz, “The Republic of Dreams”

*

The scene is a vast and impressive hall, illuminated with countless flaming torches that punctuate the air with a scattering, fluctuating radiance, and between these is a pitchy blackness made all the more vivid by contrast with those raging golden blonde heads.  The players sit facing each other, adjusting by turns the pieces on the wide and undulating board set between them.  They fidget with eagerness to begin, and trade hasty glances, but are not quite able even now to look squarely at each other.  High above them in the air is the greasy-looking dial of a gigantic clock, like a face with mobile, squinting features, gradually assembling and disassembling expressions.  At last, a grim, sonorous knell sounds from within the invisible extremities of the clock.  The tones roll out and spread across the hall like waves on a leaden sea.  The two players crack their knuckles, and one of them, his hand darting out with the eagerness of a long suppressed impulse, moves the first piece as the game begins again.

*

The Wizard’s house can be found only by those who are able to find certain ambivalent landmarks, which seem at times to be invisible, especially to those whose vision and attention have been dulled by the brilliant pageants of light and color that ripple their banners in the streets and burst like shells in the shop windows.  However, when one rubs one’s eyes, when one is groggy with sleep or a sleepless night, or when one is drugged with a dream or infatuation, these landmarks loom into relief, and that lamp post, that sorry bedraggled little fountain, that street sign, that bit of ornamental statuary nearly melted in the rain, all seem to take on an uncanny distinctness and individuality.  Before one’s eyes, they become unique, and clearly point in the direction of the Wizard’s house.  Even the weather draws in near to the ground and clasps the earth in a close embrace in these moments, the trees whisper to the traveller, and the traveller hearkens not so much to the words, for there are none, but to the meaning, of which there is too much, and follows.  There are little yellowed and curling labels sometimes, too faded to be read, but by their presence, their strangely impersonal humanity, they point the way to the Wizard’s house, which is to be found on a suburban street of dingy brick homes with meager, damp gardens, at once barren and lush with juicy weeds and gently bending stalks of tall grass and fern fronds.  The street is broad, like a wasteland, with barely discernible borders, and the pavements of big slates look more like woodland paths than sidewalks.  The gate of the Wizard’s house is always open, black, stiff, and upright like a sentry with grass growing up over his boots.  The house is a vast brick pile whose outer extremities dwindle into ashen haze, a smudged pastel like the indistinct contour of a sketched scene, like a dense curtain of perpetual rain and smoke, so that only the very front of the house is plainly visible, like the huge face of an old wonder-struck man gone dumb and wild in the service of a thought that was too enormous for him, but that he won’t leave for a moment, like a faithful dog who stands by his ailing master.  The roof of the house is wan, pale, and ghostly, as if it were lit by a beam of colorless light from the sun setting behind it.  The cones and gables tremble like candle flames, and seem liable to melt into clouds.  The veranda porch of the Wizard’s house is a black flue, so dark that the traveller can barely discern the potted plants to either side of the massive front door.  Statues half apprehensive for themselves, not for the visitor, are gathered there, and the eye makes a tangle of silhouetted limbs and gestures where there is no real contact.

Gleaming like silk, the black door is wide enough to admit three people at once, and drifts open in perfect silence, just a few inches, so that the shadow inside, its human eyes illuminated from some external source, like two spotlit figures on a dark and empty stage, may curiously examine the visitor.  The shadow sees, in a gloom that is if anything too bright for its sensitive eyes, the human figure of an ambivalently beautiful woman deviating very slightly from the middle in age, in dress, in appearance.  She asks admittance to see the Wizard and presents a ticket, which is deftly pocketed by the shadow as it recedes to draw wider the door and admit the woman into a sumptuous foyer half overcast in crystal-clear shadows, the tiny glass baubles dangle like earrings from the unlit lamps, the fractured light coming in through the small panes of the leaded windows catches in the gleaming varnish of the floor and wooden fixtures making them look as sticky as freshly-glazed cakes, spangling the indoor dusk with minute streaks and flourishes of luminescence caught in the whorls of the old carving.  The Wizard’s house has soft, cool air that smells very faintly and pleasantly of something like glue or paint or wax, and a more elusive forest fragrance like deer’s tongue or woodbine.  The visitor notices that the shadow now stands by a door opening off this foyer, and gestures for her to go inside.

This next room is spacious, light, airy, and refreshing, as if it were overlooking the ocean and a white beach, or a mountain landscape bright with snow and a sky like a blue ember.  The colorful spines of books form an abstract mosaic on the wall facing the shallow fireplace all scaled with green glass tiles and topped with a meringue of white marble, a golden clock, a spacious mirror.  Green plants shiver happily in heavy brass pots, and yielding chairs and a sofa lounge here on the lawn of intricate carpets.  The room is empty, and its farther reaches are like ethereal gulfs of white haze.  Outside the window, a servant is visible, a solid, tightly-packed, heavy woman in white, hanging white laundry to dry on the line, and beating white clouds out of white rugs intricately worked with white-on-white patterns, without a sound.  The visitor is taken aback by the silent apparition of a maid, who seems to have sprung up from between the floorboards just behind her, and to such an exceptional height that she has to bend a little forward to look the medium-height visitor in the eye.  The lean maid bends without stooping like a willow tree, her black hair gathered in closely to her head and surmounted with a visor of stiff white linen, her face tranquilly collects all the lineaments of agreeability.  “Excuse me,” she says mildly, her voice a little hoarse, “I hope I didn’t startle you … Is there anything you’d like?”  The visitor rubs her hands nervously together.  “What do you have?”  she asks.  “Anything you like,” the maid replies.  “Anything whatsoever.”  As if in answer to her unvoiced thought, the oceanic feeling in the room brightens, the air loses weight, the smell of the sea sifts in through the windows with the aromas of tropical plants.  Before disappearing, the maid seems to have conjured from nothing a certain, preferred cocktail, incongruously served in a robust goblet of heavy glass.  She steps out onto a white cloud of sand laved in sky blue water, the sky overhead flashes proudly like a knight at a tournament, displaying his armor.

*

Meanwhile all is silent in the rapt concentration and enjoyment of the vast hall.  As each player makes his moves, now with caution and subtlety, now with the abrupt abandon of pouncing and capturing, the fabric of their garments creaks over their powerful bodies, the sound of their quiet voices murmuring, sometimes chuckling to themselves, carries over the room beneath the silent strokes of the clock, slithering like snakes across the bare, incessantly-swept floor, the faintly shining polished brass of the fittings of the hall, which is appointed in nothing but what is fresh and new and unused.  Every object in the hall seems still to gleam under the steady eye of those who made and commissioned its making, and stands exactly in its place as if at attention, fairly bursting with pride in their own utility and readiness and obedience.  If something breaks, or chips, or is scratched, a water glass, or a chair, it is instantly removed altogether, leaving not a stick or a grain of glass behind, and replaced with a new one, utterly new, never before used.  No one ever sits in most of the chairs.  No one ever drinks from the water glasses.  There is no dust in the hall.  The torches drop no ash, no soot;  like censorious old parishioners, they don’t smoke.

*

When the voice of the maid repeats its, “Excuse me …” the vision of the ocean recedes without breaking, the sense of abrupt change that attends awaking from a dream does not occur, the visitor’s feet do not settle firmly back on the ground, she does not stop floating, but instead slips light as a cloud herself back into the room with the potted plants, the mosaic of books, and a door standing open again, a shadow half hidden behind it.  There is no sign of the maid, whom she improbably guesses is bathing in the next room, and perhaps spoke on impulse, or at the prompting of an invisible thing.  When she reaches the doorway, the shadow is already standing at the top of the stairs, which split into facing branches at a landing above the foyer.  The upper hallway is empty, and all the doors but one stand shut.  The walls, unpierced by any window, are panelled with the same dark wood of the doors and floor, and the only light comes from the dim foyer below and the white glare that reflects from the polished threshold of the open door and scatters a diffuse, wintry glow into the air.

On the threshold’s other side, she finds an overcast landscape of vivid contrasts and intense details, a barren plateau monochromatically unfolding to the horizon in all directions, black boulders standing all over it in haughty and conspicuous isolation from their neighbors, or in places heaped together like fallen menhirs, and an icy white wind flaps lazily overhead.  The visitor is aware of the cold without exactly feeling it, the way she would be if she were to look at a photograph of ice.  “Ahem,” a throat clears behind her.  The visitor turns to see the Wizard, standing nearby, with his hands clasped behind his back.  He wears ordinary clothes and is clean shaven, which makes it that much easier for the visitor to recognize him as a man who once told her he was in love with her — “He just looks a lot like him,” she says to herself, struggling to remember the name of the man she’d indignantly rebuffed such a long time ago.  The Wizard continues to stand where he is, observing her with his hands behind his back and his eyebrows raised, inviting her to speak, and even bending a little towards her, as if to hear her better, but then, although she had neither asked nor even had time to wonder, he says, “… This is my laboratory …” with evident pride.  There is no color in his face, nor in his clothes, nor, she realizes now, anywhere, but only light and shade, which delineate every object — feature, contour, and detail — with supernatural sharpness.  Glancing at the ground, collecting herself, each individual particle of the soil is unique and clear, all the details of the landscape seem ready to unravel into a chaos of fragments but for a trembling, muscular tension in exasperated, mirror-edged outlines that holds everything, even the particles making up the Wizard himself, strictly in position.  This discovery leaves her feeling not unpleasantly out of sorts, as if she’d just stepped off a speeding merry-go-round, and, although she has not been asked, she explains her reason for coming to the Wizard.  “I found this, you see, and I felt sure there was something unusual about it.”  The Wizard advances toward her and asks her to hold the pocketwatch up where he can examine it, bending forward at the waist with his arms still behind him, peering at the watch, which is black with an undulating triple stripe of rust-colored ribbon or stone set in its reverse side.  “You will have to leave it with me,” he says.  “I will have an answer for you the day after tomorrow.  Find a flat place on a stone and leave it for me there.”  The visitor hesitates.  “What is the charge?”  she asks.  “Tomorrow,” the Wizard says at once, “you must get up early in the morning, go through every room in the house you live in, from attic to basement, omitting no corner, and then go out for a walk and spend the rest of the day wandering the streets, the fields, everywhere, until you find something beautiful, one of those arrangements of things that happens only once, and then vanishes forever, unless someone is able to capture a little of it in a description.  Bring me your description the day after tomorrow.  One more thing;  it must be your description alone.”

*

A sharp crack splits the darkness.  A player has lost one of his pieces, and angrily strikes the arm of his chair.  The other player smiles, virtually purring in self-satisfaction, and fingering the captured piece while he drinks the savory peevishness of his rival and licks his chops like a fiendish cat.

*

On the appointed day, the visitor returns to the Wizard’s study, passing, as she crosses the threshold, from that tenebrous and silent upper hallway faintly redolent of incense, into a bleak, monochromatically grey and preternaturally distinct heathland where grey cliffs stand above motionless black waters, the stones are black and lie flat as graveyard slabs, and myriads of unruffled ponds and puddles dot the rolling country and reflect the immense slide of the overcast sky above like dreamers and philosophically inclined animals.  The Wizard breaks off his contemplations, whether topological, anemonological, chronological or otherwise, and turns to the visitor, his hands returning obediently to their station at the small of his frock coat.  The visitor begins her description at once, laying out the whole of yesterday like a magnificent tapestry unscrolled on the damp grass at her feet.  Unable to select any single piece from the treasury of that day, she inventories it all, or as much as she can, touching now on this and now on that.  The Wizard listens with downcast eyes and a smile of contentment and satisfaction on his lips.  When the visitor has completed her survey, he bows suavely, saying, “You have paid me lavishly.”  Slightly shaken by a wave of esteem, the visitor smiles with relief.  The Wizard’s right hand emerges from behind his back and, dipping smartly into his pocket like a trained mouse, produces the watch.  He explains that it is part of a matching set, which includes also a fountain pen and a woman’s wristwatch, and that its apparatus, in addition to telling time, may also recreate past events in the life of the one who holds it, communicated to its delicate mechanism by the inscrutable vibrations which traverse the human nervous system — “Recreate, mind you,” the Wizard says, raising an index finger.  “I select my words with care.  The moment is always past and gone.  This device cleverly re-enacts, with a minimum of trouble and expense.”

A demonstration is in order, and the Wizard escorts his visitor from his study to a cramped, shadowy drawing room on the ground floor of the house, with French doors leading into the garden beyond.  After carefully selecting which of her moments she wishes to see reenacted, the visitor quickly writes down a few particulars on a slip of paper tape that is inserted into a compartment in the back of the watch.  The Wizard discreetly retires and, as per his instructions, the visitor excitedly presses the switch that animates the watch’s special device.  The room remains much as it is, but the quality of its light billows, shifting at once to the triumphant radiance of a day in early summer.  Two figures are there in the drawing room, which looks more and more like a parlour, or to be more precise, like a drawing room got up as a parlour by certain effective makeshifts.  The two figures are neither actors nor puppets, but ingenious contrivances whipped up out of thin air, representing her younger self, dressed for a party, carrying a little nosegay of flowers and the thin pocketbook she’d adored, and that of a young man with an old-fashioned moustache, a loaf of bread under his arm, bicycle clips on the legs of his trousers, and a glittering mantle of new raindrops across his shoulders.  In halting, unsteady voices, the two figures address each other, drawing near to each other and finally embracing.  As she watches, the surprise and delight on the visitor’s face give way, however, to an expression of dissatisfaction, until finally she is moved to intervene.  She claps her hands and orders the two of them to begin again, an order they promptly obey.  The young man picks up his bread, goes out, enters the room again, the drops of rain standing once again unabsorbed on the shoulders of his jacket, and looks at the young woman with the nosegay of flowers and the wonderful pocketbook, who swivels her head in his direction.  The young man greets the woman, but before he can say more than a few words, the visitor peremptorily interrupts him.  “You sound like you’re reading your lines out of a manual!”  she cries.  “Do it with feeling!”  The scene continues, the visitor irritably breaking in at every point, reciting each line back to the replicas with the correct intonation, the correct feeling, showing them how to act their parts.  They reproduce her action with punctilious exactness, expressing not only the emotions she wants them to represent, but unfortunately also the undercurrent of frustration and impatience with which she instructs them.  Exhausted by her efforts and bitterly disappointed, she finally stops the special action of the watch, and the dummies slump at once back into a swirl of dust, attic gloom, and basement damp.  The difficulty, she thinks, as she sits wearily, half-reclining in an uncomfortable wooden chair, is that, when I lived that moment, it had never been before, but when the moment is recreated, it must conform exactly to a model.  He and I did not tramp into a room together intending to perform a love scene, he setting his bread and I my flowers exactly fifteen and one eighth inches from the narrow edge of the table, nine and three quarter inches from the wide edge, two inches apart exactly, carefully placing our hands on each other’s bodies in these particular spots, trying to look into each others’ eyes, and then waiting for the feeling of love to arise in us, the way a rainmaker peers into the dusty kiln of the parched sky after his completing his operations.  Just as she glances up, the French doors open, and the tall, willowy maid enters the drawing room from the garden.  Though it appears all her wishes are known at once in this house, nevertheless, the Wizard peculiarly requires that he be retrieved by a servant, and so the maid, who might be the Wizard in disguise, is dispatched to inform him of his visitor’s desire to consult with him again.  Taking the far more comfortable embroidered chair which beckons to her from a dimly radiant nook by one of the long narrow windows shrouded in filmy curtains, she, waiting for the Wizard to come down again, allows her gaze to wander in the cool, shady spaces that fold and unfold between the swaying leaves of the ivy below the garden wall.  The Wizard, she dreams, will know how to instruct these players, or perhaps he will enchant her so that she will no longer notice the inadequacies of the counterfeit –

All this time, the players have been playing with algorithmic heat.  Making a move that is hardly the game’s last, a player retaliates against his rival.  “The shots were fired and the brains whizzed through the air.”  A blood-spattered loaf of bread lies outspread in the street.  This is my body.  This is my blood.  So long … So long in coming, the Messiah will never arrive.