The following is an excerpt from Michael Cisco’s novel The Divinity Student, currently available in e-book form from Cheeky Frawg Books, in addition to several other of his novels. WFR is proud to serialize The Divinity Student in support of the author and his books, and we will be reprinting the entire novel over the course of the next few weeks. Wherever possible, formatting has been made to match that available in the e-book. This part of the serialization covers Chapters Nine and Ten. If you haven’t read the previous installment yet, please do so here.
The Divinity Student wakes with a soft head, lying on a concrete stoop. He was dreaming, a river carrying him away; now he sits up shaking his head alarmed, doesn’t know where he is — walked in his sleep. These are all symptoms of something . . . his mind is too foggy, he can’t remember. Around him, a slanting narrow street with white walls flaring in the sun, small children in cotton trousers running to crest the hill kicking dust, cinnamon brown door at his back; he looks down and sees the notebook in his hand, his thumb still jammed tightly between the pages, holding his place. He opens it and looks at words he doesn’t remember collecting but that touch his memory with vague suggestions — these two leapt at him out of a poolhall eight blocks from here; and that one floated down onto the page like a leaf, a woman speaking to her neighbor from a second-story window, and she let that one word drop clean and clear from a stream of unintelligible gabbling. Sleepwalking, he has collected them himself, without knowing. The Divinity Student stands up and counts — he has gathered more words in one day of sleep than in any day of waking. Why hadn’t he thought of this before?
With uneasy steps he navigates down the street to a crossroads, chickens scattering in his path, complaining in his wake. A kerchiefed woman beats a rug in front of her house singing “La, li, le . . . ” (thump) “ . . . lu, lo . . . ” and he asks her for directions. Red-brown face and fluttering hands heavy over her apron, her soft voice shows him in Spanish, goes back to hitting her rug.
The Divinity Student climbs ponderously up Horse Street. His body feels like a patchwork of ill-fitting parts. Tired of the desert, tired of the city, walking up the street feeling leaden and weak — make sure you survive killing yourself, that’s the way to go, and the red-green light winks on in his chest like an eye in the heart and it all comes into him at once. It’s too early in the story but he can’t wait, he jackknifes twenty feet straight up and tears off across the roofs, rolling over steeples, around the chimneys, ripping weathervanes and antennas loose, caught in his clothes he wears them like forgotten wire hangers, bounds over streets kicking up tiles, arms cartwheeling, face set a motionless stone mask, feet planting so hard he breaks through wood and plaster and down through someone’s dining room table, he smashes it in two, spilling food, breaking plates, family too dumbfounded to — he careens through the picture window taking the sill with him wrapped around his neck — strong enough now to punch through brick walls, outrunning dust clouds, his shadow so strong it’s cutting through the foundations of buildings and sending cobblestones flying up after him like a wake in water, nothing in him now but city and desert. Cars watching him make abortive gestures — “Don’t try it — we’d be ashes before we got within two dozen feet of him — no good while the spirit’s on him.”
A scent of dead flesh twists his track, he goes flying into a butcher shop, a horse carcass, pelt and hooves, eyes staring, tongue dangling a foot out of its mouth, the Divinity Student sends the butcher block flying, picks the horse up with one hand and runs outside to the trough; a single kick punctures wood, sends water sluicing out. One-handed, brandishing the body overhead, he stops the hole with a stone, just picks it up and shoves it home, empties ten gasoline cans of formaldehyde into the trough and dumps the horse in, spilling sour chemicals, weathervanes, and the windowsill, and, too impatient to wait, he jams his head under the surface and grabs the horse by its ears, ramming forehead to forehead he glares into glassy eyes and strains the horse-life in through his teeth, sucks it out in one mighty inhalation. His head rears back out of the chemicals streaming, and he staggers back against the wall of the shop shaking, a horror of dust and water and the fit that’s on him, people stopping, hands on throats and mouths as he drops to his knees eyes widening to the sun — so who does he run with now, and where, eating grass warm from the meadow or drinking from that trough once years ago, rutting in tree shade, pulling the bit down throwing the rider, now it’s he who’s doing the riding, the Divinity Student, his horse spirit boiling out of him as he shakes his head and droplets of formaldehyde spatter the crowd, snapping witnesses’ heads slapping their faces with images of each others’ past, and, terrified, they run like rats. The Divinity Student traces curves in the dirt with his hands and shoeheels, throwing up clouds of dust, and feels the spirit wrenching loose with a pull towards the sky. Red-green light dims and fades in his chest.
Teo Desden, the butcher, drags him sympathetically back into the shop and props him against the display case. The Divinity Student, soaked and exhausted, pants to catch his breath. Time passes, and he comes to himself once again.
So, the Divinity Student sits watching the butcher. Desden works alone in the empty shop hacking mutton; rows of sheathed cleavers and razor-sharp knives with smooth stainless steel handles hum on a white counter, making the room look like a surgery. Gleaming meathooks on a chain hang over his head, along the back wall, one red raw animal smeared with white marbling swinging in the currents from the overhead fan; smells like wet concrete and rain, a clean place, regular thocking sound of Teo’s cleaver making clean bone splits, chops and ribs sliding along red streaks to nestle on lettuce in cool glass cases. The floor is checkered, the far wall one vast and spotless mirror — the Divinity Student notices that Desden stares at himself all the time he’s cutting the meat, contempt drawing lines taut around his mouth, turning his glazed eyes inward. He’s marked, his bare forearms and hands are scarred and cut in places, his lips and fingertips are badly chewed, and the Divinity Student sees how deliberate the butcher’s carelessness is. Desden mutters something at himself and breaks the animal’s back with one springlike hack of his cleaver. He tosses beautifully sliced slabs of meat into the cases, pulls on the chain to bring the next body around, gliding effortlessly forward on well-oiled wheels, pulls it clear off the hook and starts slashing recklessly at it, perfect cuts flying off and piling up neatly despite themselves next to him on the counter.
A car passes outside, the Divinity Student watches a fly zing in through the open door. With a speed that defies vision Teo uncoils, sending a four-inch steel blade silent across the room flashing once under the fluorescents and the fly runs right into it. Two black halves drop to the tiles, the knife lands on its handle on the sideboard and slides an inch to rest, just tapping the base of the mirror. Unsteady, the Divinity Student lurches to his feet.
“Don’t worry,” he holds up his hand and takes up the knife, “here you are.”
He walks back to the counter and hands it over, a narrow streak of clear jelly marking the steel where it hit the fly. Desden thanks him, and the Divinity Student meanders unevenly to the door and brushes the two halves out into the street.
“Oh,” he turns back and makes his way to the counter again, holding his head. “Your horse . . . ” He reaches into his pocket for some money.
“It’s not important. It didn’t even belong here.”
The Divinity Student obstinately starts counting coins, but Desden reaches over the scales to close his hand. The butcher’s fingers are cold and dry.
“It isn’t mine, one of my suppliers used to ride it,” Desden takes his hand away. “ . . . He came here yesterday to sell me two sides of beef, but the moment I’d paid him we heard a scream outside. His horse was drowning itself in the water trough — we did our best to pull it free, but it ended up dead anyway. In the meantime, my supplier ran off with my money and stuck me with the damn thing.”
The butcher goes back to cutting, turns a moment and says, “You saved me the trouble of having to decide what to do with it.”
The Divinity Student looks to the door, his head fills with air and for a moment he clings to the counter.
“You’re in no condition to go out there.”
“May I stay here?” The Divinity Student turns a pale face to Teo. “I’m willing to pay.”
“You can sleep in the meat locker.”
The Divinity Student pays the butcher and sits at one of the tables, decorated with a small white pitcher of white and pink carnations. Eventually Desden comes out in front and hands him a glass of water, sits opposite.
“What do you do?”
After he finishes drinking, “I’m a word-finder.”
The Divinity Student produces his notebook, shows it to Teo. The other man scrutinizes last night’s page carefully. He points to “redactor” — eyebrows go up, “That’s a good one” — looks a while and hands it back. His expression is sad.
“I suppose it’s a good business.”
“I collected these last night while I was sleeping.” The Divinity Student looks abashed.
With a sigh and a nod, Desden goes back behind the counter and starts cutting up the bodies again. His expression hardens and he starts cursing at himself.
Time passes. The Divinity Student sits silent and dazed, not thinking about anything but vacantly staring out the door. He is trying not to think, for fear that thinking will carry him off, or exhaust him. Eventually, he musters himself enough to ask what time Desden closes shop.
“I may be going out again,” he says.
“I sleep upstairs in the back, just throw something at my window if I’m not down here.”
He nods and shoves a handful of meat into the grinder, sneers, “I don’t have any plans for the evening.”
The Divinity Student tilts out the door, street air hitting dry and yellow, just down the road and around the corner, colorless dirt road twisting down toward the middle of the city, shallow shadows under hissing branches. It’s quiet, the street narrows at the bottom, silent stones bearing witness. He passes the churchyard and moves to the mouth of the Street of Wax, pulled up short by a low whistle.
Just past the churchyard, along the treeline at the city’s border, he can see a column of white vapor moving, sweeping along into town; curiosity bringing him closer, he comes in, watches the train slow and pause amid the grating of brakes. Steam envelops the station, billows out into the courtyard, and gushes through gargoyles’ mouths as it pours over the chapel. A group of people veiled in black darken the platform, dry hands like branches in the air, to receive a casket from a Pullman car. Six dark men in suits bring the coffin. An open carriage bowered in back with wreaths and garlands emerges from behind the church, pulled by a black mare with a high black plume.
The Divinity Student watches them load the hearse; the horse bows its blinkered head to gaze at the cobbles. He thinks of the horse, Desden’s horse, and recoils himself at a terrible idea. As they load the coffin into the hearse he has an awful idea.
He measures his pace, turning deliberately from the courtyard, and following the Street of Wax once again to the plaza, and he denies that he’s thinking about what he’s thinking about.
Then, just outside Woodwind’s, in the alley, he stops to regard a handsome cat perched on a windowsill. It’s all in black save for a white spot at its throat, just like him — all black but for a bleached collar, vaguely phosphorescent, peering out from his heavy coat. The cat is green-eyed, as is he, just sitting there, just looking at him. It tosses its head once toward a building off to one side and bounds past his shoulder, across the alley, disappearing. A hot wind snaps the tails of his coat; he looks both ways, up and down the boulevard, but there is no one. He slips into the building.
The lobby opens to him, scented with her fragrance, turning, and suddenly she’s there, within inches of his face, watering a potted rubber plant. Looking at him, her eyelids flare a moment, head inclining slightly to the side; she can see something’s happened. Then she relaxes, eyes almost closing, their color changing to purple, their luster deepening into distant facets, and she smiles brightly at him.
“You look different,” she teases, and shakes her head, light strands of stray hair tapping his face like drops of rain. The Divinity Student looks down at her pearls and grins faintly.
Miss Woodwind seizes his ear, “Tell me what happened!” just cajoling him, still smiling, her breath spreads twin crescents on his spectacles.
“I walked in my sleep,” a mock wince, his hands flutter at his side.
She releases his ear, but the contact brought her close. Her soft fingers had pinched his ear; her voice hummed through him.
The plant across the room needs water. He wanders up the stairs.
Householder and Blandings are playing dominoes in the corner; they ignore him — Ollimer rushes up.
“Could you do me a favor? I wouldn’t ask otherwise, but I don’t know who to turn to . . . ”
The Divinity Student tells him to wait, sits down at his desk and copies out his ledger, Ollimer all the while running fingers through his copper locks, cleaning his glasses, rubbing his palms on his vest, swaying from foot to foot. The other two rattle their dominoes and mutter to each other in subdued voices.
He finishes quickly and strides out the door, Ollimer following closely. “Please accompany me to the house . . . ”
He knows what to expect. They pass through the empty lobby and out into the alley, shooing dogs away from the door. With a furtive casting about for witnesses, Ollimer leads him back, quiet, glancing over his shoulder, nervous, and sad.
Ollimer’s parlor. The Divinity Student enters slowly, expecting the other man to trot out the wallet, produce the next fragment of the Catalog. With a stricken look, Ollimer gestures vaguely to the corner of the room, his aunt’s body is leaning up against a chair, stiff as a plank. Her eyes and mouth are open, her flesh looks like blue cheese. She’s been awkwardly dressed in a fraying gray terrycloth robe, twisted, plastered, and strangely wrinkled in her nephew’s haste to cover her. Her feet are curled up like two pillbugs.
“I’m terribly sorry to trouble you, won’t you please give her the last rites? You’re the only religious person I know.”
Ollimer cuts him off as he opens his mouth, “No priests — they all hated her, she wouldn’t want a priest.”
“All right. Does she have a bedroom?”
“Thank you so much, at the end of the hall, the door’s open . . . ” Ollimer’s gratitude pours out, meanwhile the Divinity Student hauls the old woman into his arms and turns in time to see Ollimer heading for the door.
“Get back over here!”
The other man freezes.
“Idiot! I’m not going to do everything for you! Now get in there and shut the curtains, and get the damn bed ready!”
Ollimer bolts down the hall like a scared rabbit, the Divinity Student swaying behind carrying the body. She’s heavy-soft like a cushion, all save her neck, her head stiffly upright, eyes pasty and dull, turning blue about the lips. In the dark of the hall a dim light shining through doughy flesh becomes visible just at the center of her head, he can see drifts of shining dust in her mouth and nostrils.
Just at the threshold of her room her weight seems to double and the Divinity Student stops, almost losing his balance. Her dead eyes roll in her head and the corners of her mouth turn up. She stares at him, winks an eye and grins wider. He steals a glance at Ollimer, who’s lighting candles with his back turned, then looks back at the body — she follows his eyes and draws air through her gums with a sticky sound, hushing him, a little secret.
“Quiet, stupid,” he says and slams her head hard against the door jamb. Her head drops, she goes still.
The room is small with rose wallpaper, the floorboards taken up in the corner, water rushing far below breathing mist up into the room. With care, he lays her down on the bed and straightens her robe. Not a large woman, wouldn’t take too much formaldehyde to pickle — and that’s enough of that!
“You,” he takes Ollimer by one shoulder and manhandles him to kneel at the foot of the bed, “stay.”
He leaps onto the bed, pulling a hammer from his pocket, and starts pounding nails all along the top of the headboard. In a moment, he turns and drives another row of nails into the footboard, Ollimer wincing as the hammer falls within an inch of his face. No time to waste, the Divinity Student withdraws a fistful of wires and some pliers from his pocket, and starts stringing wire from nail to nail over her sodden body. With much slicing of fingers and screeching of metal he draws the last one tight.
Then the Divinity Student stands over the body with the Holy Book in his hands. He sets himself on his feet, kneading the cover a moment with his hands, then opens it, to watch letters flicker on rippling pages in wan yellow light. He lets the words out into the room, lets them hum through the wires strung across the bed like a tone across guitar strings.
Air trickles out around her teeth and the hollow of her mouth humming in the walls and bedframe, rattling the windows, buzzing in the cords strung tight above her, draft reeking of stale ice, words bubble from her lips, shaped somewhere deep in her chest — but Ollimer doesn’t hear. The Divinity Student bends down to listen . . . only silence, wires blurred but quiet. The room goes dark, he can see her head lit up like a paper lantern, thin curtains of flesh shining orange from inside, out of her gaping mouth, lights shining on the threads, passing up and down their length like mercury in a thermometer. He passes his hand over her face — the words stop, the light winks out. He signals Ollimer to get up.
“Thank you,” Ollimer is fumbling in his pocket — the Divinity Student knows what he’s got. “ . . . here,” a familiar-looking scrap of paper.
Ollimer insisted that the two fragments stay together, that the Divinity Student could not keep it; the point wasn’t pressed. Later, the Divinity Student couldn’t recall the word itself: mermeral or mermarescent but definitely with mermer ormermar in it, with this definition, handwritten:
A prince, or a prisoner, on his deathbed remembered for the first time a childhood incident. Wandering in his ancestral home, he found himself in the dining room. Up until that time he had only seen it at night, in the company of adults, and now, daylight revealed it to be a false room — the windows were plain white paper, the furniture, decorations, even the plants, were all props, hastily slapped together, where they had seemed so fragile and elegant before. Upon leaving the room he found the house was empty. Then he died. The boy is a man remembering, on this one occasion, he is dying.
Again, the same disorientation, vertigo on the edge of the paper, words written as a guide toward an obscure center—
“This is my payment?”
“Don’t put it like that!” Ollimer comes up to him, hands open in supplication. “I’m very sorry — ”
He brandishes the Holy Book and seizes Ollimer by his collar. “You’re going to be sorry for real this time if you don’t tell me who’s putting you up to this!”
Ollimer squirms. Perspiration oozes on his forehead.
“Baiting me! What is it — is there a schedule, do you give me a fragment a week, and more and more? And then what happens? What happens then?”
“Let me go!” Ollimer casts fearful eyes up at the book. “There was only one left to go after this one! They’re getting ready to tell you everything — you know as much as I do! You can’t possibly blame me for this!”
The body on the bed emits a high arching wail, the Divinity Student hurls the book at it hard, striking it across the forehead. The wailing stops. Dragging Ollimer with him, he staggers over to the bed and reclaims the book.
“Well, I think we’re going to wrap this one up ahead of schedule. I think I’m going to go straight to the source this time!”
Ollimer actually relaxes. “Yes, all right, that’s a good idea.”
The Divinity Student releases him gingerly. Ollimer looks as if he’ll faint.
“I’ll relay your wishes and get an answer — ”
“You’ll tell me now.”
Ollimer deflates. With an effort, he turns to the desk and scribbles a name and address, sweat spattering the wood and scattered notes.
“Here,” he croaks, holding out a crumpled paper covered in botched handwriting.
The Divinity Student puts the book away, takes the paper, and walks out the door without looking back.
ten: the mission
So the Divinity Student. whittles away the daylight hours in Desden’s meat locker, alternately watching the Saturday crowd marketing up and down the road through the doorway and playing hide and seek with the address Ollimer had given him. He puts it away for a while and then picks it out of his pockets again, stares at it without seeing, then folds it up, making shapes, being bored, paper
gets rattier and more crinkled until he can barely read it in the dull glare filtering in from the shop. He avoids making a decision by counting tiles on the wall and calculating how many checks there are in the floor, then how many black checks and how many white checks and trying to reckon their length and breadth measuring in hand-widths. It won’t be until sunset that he’ll make his decision, whether or not to go. He’s been missing nighttime, and being able to look up at the sky without burning his face, so he’ll wait.
Watching Desden he notices something. Every time a woman comes into the shop he tenses up, and just as she’s turning to go out the door again he’ll raise his hand and just wave at her a little. He waits until she’s almost all the way round with her back to him, but not so far that she couldn’t possibly see him, only enough to make it improbable that she would see him. The expression on his face — he’d jump under the counter if he was caught. But every time, like clockwork, that tiny wave at the turning head, hair and shoulders and curve of her cheek, a glint of her eye framed with lashes, then he goes back to his cutting, always watching the mirror as he cuts, staring hard into the glass.
Eventually, the Divinity Student gets up and meanders into the shop. Teo is sitting on a folding chair, knees spread over a bucket, plucking chickens with a sour, bored expression. It’s dimming outside, orange lights coming on at crazy angles along the street, pedestrians pass in glowing white cottons.
“I’m going out for a while,” he says.
“After I close up I might be able to find you a cot.”
He thanks the butcher and swings out the door into wine-colored air, his collar goes phosphorescent blue-white, and he looks up into cool azure sky and first pale lights, air stirring slightly with spare desert smells. He settles down, and sets off to meet Ollimer’s contact.
Behind him, a mush-faced little girl is watching the shop, sees him leave. A fly is buzzing in and out of her mouth.
He dawdles and hangs about, taking time to investigate back alleys, cockfights, musicians; he stops at a corner to eat bread and cold water, indulges himself with a stale plum-sized sugar skull branded with his name.
The address belongs to a house standing alone at the edge of an athletic field, an oversized brick box with one door in the middle of its face, and one narrow window immediately over it, resembling nothing so much as a cyclops. No lights nor mailbox, only a chain-link fence and concrete path. He knocks on the door and it swings open before him on an empty hallway lost in a vast unlit building. With a little investigation he discovers a pair of fine fishing lines running from a hook on the back of door to a motor, poorly concealed behind a bust on the hall table. The cobwebs on the bust are artificial.
Swift footsteps herald his appearance: Fasvergil floats up out of the unlit murk of the house into the paling orange light of the single window.
“I was told to expect you. You have been extremely impulsive.” Fasvergil’s voice is dry; it rustles along the walls like dead leaves.
“The power went out only a few moments ago.” He deftly lights a storm lantern, a column of light touching his saturnine features. Fasvergil is wearing his ordinary black habit. Chalk-dust still powders his sleeves and shoulders. Beneath, his thin ankles descend from the hem into small dark shoes.
“Shut the door.”
The lamp draws him in after Fasvergil, and as he immerses himself in the depths of the house he can see that the entire place is one vast chamber separated by high partitions, supported like stage flats by chains hanging from the ceiling. Their footsteps echo over their heads, and meet an answering tick of a hidden clock. Emerging into the vast central parlor he sees it is a lumberyard of carnival haunting-props from cannibalized ghost-trains, mired half in shadow, in failing light, like shipwrecks: dressers’ dummies leaning in the corner next to a skeleton, glass eyes on a shelf, chain-bound books with uncut pages next to a crystal ball on the table, all cluttered with deliberate disarray and aged with tea stains and fake dust. A heavy grandfather clock raps solemnly in the corner, and a dull bread smell comes from Fasvergil’s dinner, sitting in a pool of light from a wine-bottle candle on a card table; he pulls a Chinese screen across that corner of the room and brings the light out, setting it on an endtable.
“Sit,” he says, indicating a ponderous armchair. The Divinity Student obeys. Fasvergil takes his seat and fixes him with a baleful look.
“Looking there on your left, just on top of that pile of books there, you’ll find the third fragment Ollimer told you about.”
Fasvergil points obligingly with a long, weary hand — the Divinity Student looks around and pulls a thin sheet of folded paper from between two featureless volumes. The page has been prematurely aged with tea stains. He looks up and sees Fasvergil watching him, and while he knows he is being manipulated he cannot resist reading the page. Silent in his chair he reads a word meaning:
A very aged man finds again the love he lost as a youth. As he moves to embrace her, he is suddenly transported to a lightless place. He can feel a cool, sterile wind blowing upon his face, a numbness in his limbs. Nearby are shrieks and mutterings, unseen yammering things surrounding him on all sides. After an infinite time he wakes beneath a tree, when a raindrop, a single one, drops into his right eye. When he understands that all he had just experienced was merely a dream, he walks into a river and drowns himself.
He reads, and he feels Fasvergil trying to read him. A headache developing, the page turning gray and blurring a little as he reads. The Divinity Student is struggling to keep the vertigo from showing. Inside he feels a yawning sensation, waked and tantalized and he wants to seize Fasvergil and shake the rest out of him sheet by sheet, scrabble into a corner and roll himself up in them; these unknown ghost-words leave him clutching the air. Catching himself swaying he throws a look at Fasvergil. “What have you done to me?”
Fasvergil’s look of surprise is unfeigned. “What?”
“Where does this come from?”
Fasvergil collects himself and says, “Ollimer may have told you that these are all fragments of the Catalog of Unknown Words, compiled by a man named Schroeder and a small team of mediums, word-finders like yourself — this was many years ago — at any rate, from what little evidence endures, we know that Schroeder destroyed the Catalog just before he committed suicide. The other word-finders were dead by this time, or died shortly thereafter, and it is possible that Schroeder may have killed some of them himself, presumably to keep the secret of the Catalog.”
The Divinity Student feels a weighty, obscure pressure fasten upon his head, and clutches at the armrests. All his powers of concentration are focussed on Fasvergil’s words.
“The fragments to which you have been exposed were found among the possessions of a man named Chan, one of Schroeder’s word-finders, who was found dead in his hotel room.” Fasvergil is nodding his head and steepling his fingers, reciting, “I acquired them myself, and I’ve been rationing them to Ollimer to give to you.”
“You were baiting me . . . ” and now, slowly, it starts in his throat and fans out cold at the edges settling into him, “ . . . you want me to resurrect the Catalog for you.”
Fasvergil’s face goes dead-sea calm, remaining just affable enough. “With the training you have received from Magellan, you could walk directly into the memories of any dead man, and bring them back — specifically I mean the words, that is, you of all people can bring them back again.”
Even though he doesn’t trust Fasvergil — he’s been set up: go into Magellan, find out how it’s done and then bring that back, now do it for us, young man, Magellan wouldn’t, but you will, won’t you? — even though he has a dirty feeling of being used and puppeted by his own teachers — there’s a cold tang that billows through his head like frigid, early morning light. For this he came to San Veneficio, and the job as a word-finder, everything has been preparatory to retrieving those words. Now, understanding everything for once, he is in a position to choose with open eyes. The pressure at his temples spreads to mantle his shoulders and flatten his arms to the chair.
“You’ve read about the Eclogue,” Fasvergil says, hanging his words carefully in the air. “These unknown words of Schroeder’s are its vocabulary, we believe. ‘Eclogues’ are dialogues between shepherds. The Eclogue is the dialogue of the shepherds of men. That is our conclusion. You are in a position to prove it.”
Fasvergil seems oblivious to the Divinity Student. He sits motionless in his chair, his large, colorless eyes fixed on empty air, he speaks as if he were reciting his catechism.
“The Eclogue is the essential substance, or first cause, of creation, and is the source of all renewal. It is much like an invisible fundament that buoys everything up. Also, it is the communion or synthesis of all natural forces.”
“That’s what you think,” the Divinity Student says to himself.
“It is a mystery and will forever be unfathomable to mortal understanding — our purpose in sending you to find these words is not the deciphering of the Eclogue. That is not our goal, and regardless it is an impossibility. Rather, we at the Seminary feel that a more comprehensive semantic understanding of the basic qualities of the Eclogue will enable us to convey the essence of its mystery to the uninitiated more precisely. We must, in short, strive toward an apprehension of what the Eclogue is not, and by filling in the darkness around it, develop a corresponding conception of what it is — without pursuing the folly of a direct definition. Then we may create a precedent, whereby the knowledge of the mystery of the Eclogue may be transmitted in such a manner as to preempt misunderstanding or heresy. Do you understand?”
The Divinity Student nods. Fasvergil has just named the stream that runs through his head, right through and behind, just obscured by himself, in his blind spot. Whether he understands or not, Fasvergil is asking him to remove that blind spot for both of them, as if that were possible. The Divinity Student will get closer to the Eclogue. He tries to dissemble, appear disinterested and force Fasvergil to bargain with him. But even as he hides his feelings he knows he must not refuse — this is his mission.
“Will I be allowed to keep what I find?”
“Provided I receive copies of everything,” he gives him a frosty look, “that you find; naturally any notes you take are your own.”
Time passes. They look at each other, clock ticking, dust gathering, this is what he came here for, and heart in his mouth the Divinity Student says, “I’ll do it.”
Fasvergil nods at a foregone conclusion.
“If you will look to your left, in the upper drawer of the end table, you will find a list of the word-finders and where their bodies are buried. Your procedure in probing them is of no consequence to us, but I am under orders to exact from you at this point your most solemn promise that, in the event of your capture or arrest, you will not under any circumstances mention your affiliation to the Seminary or the Mission with which you have been entrusted.”
The Divinity Student takes the list and swears.
As the sun settles overhead the Divinity Student steals away from Fasvergil’s house. He’s walking quickly, holding his legs out stiffly, and his face is pale and drawn. There are dark blue circles beneath his eyes. He imagines himself growing a second pair of eyes, ghost eyes, animals with the power to see the future, look into a mirror to wake yourself. A maze of streets opens before him like a jigsaw puzzle, and he meanders in and out of alleyways and private homes, beneath balconies and gargoyles, but the city walls seem to close in tightly about him, crushing him in a thin envelope of space, and reducing his path to smaller and smaller circles, going about the same landmarks and places again and again faster and faster. Fighting vertigo and intimations of nightmare, he pushes himself harder, trying if possible to force his way through the streets, but they catch at his effort and pull him down to the pavement. For a moment the buildings swim and dodge away from him and his head goes light, and then he is tumbling head over heels, unable to trace the course of his various parts to the ground. Before the blackness swells absolute, he can dimly sense low music muttering around him.
When he comes to himself again, he is looking into the seamed face of a stranger. Other faces peer over the stranger’s dark shoulders, thinly draped in a frayed linen shirt. The man is speaking but his language is unfamiliar. Whoever it is has retrieved the Divinity Student from the middle of the street and set him leaning against a wall, cradling his head with his hand.
The Divinity Student looks dazedly from one face to another, and then in a moment is filled with gratitude, and from this gratitude he gathers his wits again. He draws himself to his feet sliding upwards along the wall, and follows the men toward the music. There’s a sizable circle of people down one alley, playing instruments. One man has a guitar that he is playing upright. The rest clap and sing in their language. Standing there in their music, the Divinity Student feels calm. The feeling is intense, it reminds him how long it’s been since he’s felt calm. Like a rush of involuntary memory he recognizes the hymn, which he has learned a long time ago in another language. He tries to sing it himself, but his voice is rusty and unpleasant. He stands silently to one side and rests, listening. He imagines the Eclogue holding them all in barely palpable tension.