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 Seven and Eight. – The Editors
The day is long and slow. The Divinity Student leans over his desk, filling columns of words. Householder is absent, Blandings dozes over his ledger, and Ollimer works with typical diligence in the corner, conspicuously not looking at the Divinity Student.
“He’s waiting until after work to approach me,” he thinks, yawning dust. Cars race by beneath the one tiny window, rattling the pane—sometimes idling just close enough to set his teeth on edge. Every now and then he remembers the box in his pocket, gets nervous, “What if some car stops me and finds it? Bad enough I’m carrying the Holy Book—bad evidence.”
It’s hot in the office; he’s sweating, but he won’t take his coat off. He sits in a column of his own hot air, smell of wool and linen, and a fainter odor of old papers . . . an involuntary spasm jerks his arm, smears a word—remember a blast of light by a Seminary wall, jolted alive again in water? Blandings is looking at him, grinning, and the Divinity Student flips him off, hooking his thumb under his chin and snapping it at him; Blandings just laughs and turns back to his dozing.
No good trying to concentrate, his mind chasing after a dozen different things, just killing time. Is Ollimer actually his contact—why wait around? The Clown was sent to teach him how to use the box, make him ready to play it for Magellan.
So he goes for a drink of water, slouching heavily down the stairs, enervated, flat warm water from the cooler flavored with wax from the cup, just transferring weight from the cup to his mouth and down his throat.
Miss Woodwind walks by with her ledger. It’s thick and tidy, unlike those of the other word-finders with their pages sticking out or dribbling on the floor. She’s the best of the lot, has found more words than the rest of them combined, every page in her ledger neatly typed, with no mistakes. As she passes she favors him with a pretty grin and a graceful inclination of her head, fragrance trailing after, think then of father Woodwind sleeping on the clouds, her hair raining on his face in his dream.
He drags himself back up to the office again and stares at his record book for the remaining hours of the day.
He leaves Woodwind’s quickly—he doesn’t want to get trapped talking to Ollimer again. Once safely lost in San Veneficio’s warren of streets, he lets himself drift—today would not be right to go to Magellan, he thinks, “the time is not yet.”
This day was dull, flat, and now so is he. Tomorrow will be Saturday, he won’t have to go in to work, he can get right with himself before visiting the Orpheum again. The streets spiral him out to the city’s limits, this time to mount the encircling wall under the lictors’ watchful eyes, glittering behind hexagonal black panes set in their chrome half-masks.
The Divinity Student watches night descend upon the desert’s face. The great monitors are just visible, lumbering dark shapes streaking around, positioning themselves for their night-watch.
As the lights of San Veneficio come up behind him, he sees their eyes for himself, growing in brilliance like the stars overhead as they reflect the city’s luminance back in tiny points. Like statues, they stare at San Veneficio, and at the Divinity Student, and the Divinity Student gazes back, amazed, at them.
Moved by a nameless impulse, he wanders over to a dim lamp hanging from one of the battlements, and draws the book out of his pocket. He reads to them from the first chapters, about the first world. The gray twilight place, trees, and rain. The trees’ shadows fill with rain and the rain mixes with dirt until the shadows of the trees take substance in clay. And these shadows, having dimension and substance, begin walking around. They go to the beach, and eventually an intermediary comes from over the water and makes people out of them, and then leads them through the water up to this world.
He stops there. The monitors’ eyes shine impassively back at him, and he puts the book away with a sheepish expression on his face. Those old eyes make him feel stupid, standing there with his book.
The Divinity Student’s journal from his school days: “I met a cat dressed like me on a night road—all black but for a white collar, like me in my coat. We stared at each other across the road, orange yellow gold eyes it ran off when a car came, I went into the dark feeling em,powered, like an exchange had been made.” More recently he added, “Now I see them all the time.”
He goes, eats dinner alone, and sleeps in a grotto in the park.
The morning sun strikes colors off the grotto walls and fills the chamber with pale halo-light. The Divinity Student has stripped himself and is bathing in a chuckling brook that spreads its sheet of water across a bed of smooth stone. He emerges glistening white in the new daylight and goes over to the sandy part of the cave, still full in view of the sun. With care, he draws the signatures of three spirits in the sand and kneels between them. He lights a small heap of incense beneath his coat, which hangs from a spur of rock within arms’ reach, to cure it in the smoke. He burns likewise a paper prayer next to each of the three signatures. He anoints his hands and forehead with a little oil. Then, he sits still.
Kneeling, he puts his hands together before him and begins a chant from the Seminary—these are words that will trail in the gaps between divine words. The glinting morning air chills his wet skin and chill blooms in ghostly waves over his body and up under the hair on his head. Now, he starts rocking, gently, forwards and backwards, just slightly, just waving a little back and forth, like a blade of grass in a weak breeze, still chanting. The air is quiet. His voice is quiet, touching here and there on the rock walls behind him and humming sometimes at the cavern’s rim, just audible over the hush of the stream. The chant rings hollow, the syllables proceeding chromatic in a slow kaleidoscoping pattern of cadence rising and falling. His hands rub together only a little bit, adding a dry, regular whisper of rustling skin pacing the tones. The chant is spiraling up with the smoke from the prayers and the incense to the roof of the grotto, to linger a moment and then drift out into the open air. The sounds all mount together, something nameless growing within them, to mingle with the light that strikes stone and water like a chime. Hands pressed together, fingertips brush brow, mouth, and heart in regular, circular motion, each gesture the same as a syllable, another sound falling, and all regular, nodding back and forth in rhythm, steadily back and forth in rhythm.
The chant ends, but the light, the water, the rhythm stays with him as he gets up, stays with him as he gets dressed and covers the traces, stays with him as he comes clean out of the grotto.
At the top of Calavera street, a small portal in the wall of the Orpheum opens onto a miniature courtyard. Above, Magellan’s window is visible just beneath the dome, and within the walls, a few young trees in circular planters, the largest, an oak, in the center, and all connected by a stream that flows from a low opening in the inner wall. The paving stones are black, but three concentric gold rings radiate out from the oak planter in the center, describing a compass. There’s no one there at all.
The Divinity Student steps out carefully, coming up close to the wall. He sees movement in the water and freezes—the channels are deep, the stones are smooth and clean, and there is a column of small children gliding slowly by, faces down, propelling themselves with only the barest movements of their golden arms and legs, so that the surface above them remains calm. Startled, the Divinity Student steps back, and then forward to look again. Still they flow by in a steady stream, alone or in pairs, and without needing to come up for air. He watches them, and then he sees it—a single child breaks off and vanishes into the submerged roots of one of the young trees.
These are larval oros, enjoying the relative freedom they are afforded before pupating in the trunk of a tree. Eventually they will emerge as mature adults, varying in form depending on the tree. Oak oros, for example, have porcelain mouths.
With care, he pulls the box out of his pocket, then looks up at the oak tree—and there, rustling, maybe the wind only but perhaps some moving black limbs, a brief glint of white.
“If you’re going to spy,” he says, not loud, but clear and sharp, “then help me. That’ll give you something to spy on.”
Without waiting for a response from the oak, he sits down and opens the box, trying to remember how he played with Filemon the night before. The oak’s boughs sway in the hazy light, its smell comes to him on the wind, settling in his face and lulling him into a reverie. Behind him, in the water, he can sense a change in the orbit of the oro larva. Each one parts its lips and sends a bubble to the surface, a tiny puff of breath popping into the air, filling the courtyard with a fresh cool green odor that lingers in his nostrils and wreaths his head. Cool and calm now, the Divinity Student begins pressing the box first on its sides, then around the rim, moving languid fingers over holes in the top, the edges and corners, playing as he had with Filemon, sending a resonant wood-tone through the stones and glass and up to Magellan’s office. The music grows wide and full without becoming loud, mingling as had the chant with the light and the water sounds. The trees rustle their fingers.
When he’s done and turns—there’s a black boat waiting for him, motionless in the narrow channel. Rock steady, it neither tips nor sways as he gets on board and sits—it’s small, carved from the trunk of an ebony tree, and polished. Once he sits, it begins to move, drifting toward the black recess in the wall. As he draws near, the Divinity Student can feel spray misting in his face—in he goes. The Orpheum weighs heavily down atop the arch a foot above his head, a turn, and all light dims and vanishes.
The progress in the dark is quick and steady, cobwebs of stale air brush against his face. It’s lightless and silent as empty sleep.
Presently, a dim phosphorescence limns a dirt shore before the prow of the boat. Drawing in close, a narrow beach, with cypress and willow trees beyond, stiff blades of grass, lit with eldritch yellow light. The boat glides hissing up onto blue sand, and the Divinity Student disembarks. He glides across the beach leaving no footprints, and moves cautiously through the copse to an open patch beyond. He looks up—no ceiling, around—but no walls, the light has no source. He sinks to his knees, pulls out a matchbox with a small mirror set in the bottom. He holds it in the palm of his left hand, and swings his pendulum in an arc over it. His right hand is the still point. He listens to the crickets, the cries of mourning doves from dead trees looming like spiders; in the gloom, the pendulum is a pale smudge drifting over his palm. It takes a long time, but eventually it stops, pointing straight ahead, toward a break in the trees.
Where he passes the leaves change color. Stepping over a low hummock, the grass beneath his feet shifts from yellow to blue, and up ahead—a ruddy glow, grainy at the edges, halos a boulder. The Divinity Student draws in close, and feels the rock warm against his palm as he feels his way to the light. He finds a small clearing bordered with frosty blue and purple-black flowers hiding in the lee of a rock face, crowned with flaccid tendrils of moss, and dead trees. Tombstones and crosses shine bleakly in clumps of grass all around, ringed round by a ruined wrought-iron fence. A few ghost lamps hang from posts, the grassy face of the clearing is littered with parcels, bundles. Dimly he can see small gray forms skipping over the ground like pebbles on water, carrying things to and from an open pavilion sprawling in the center of the clearing. Coming closer, the Divinity Student sees Magellan lying on a couch under heavy veils, his face still painted white and black, but now he’s wearing regal garments, a yellow half-coat and long green vest, ruffles at his wrists and throat, knee-pants and white stockinged calves marble-smooth tapering into black slippers. Incense coils around his dreaming head from braziers fanned by his imps, who pour him cups of poison that he drains in contempt of death.
The Divinity Student enters the burying ground unchallenged, lets Magellan’s blood-purple canopy draw him in, up to the couch. The high priest’s eyelids are painted dark, now two diamond-shaped openings in his face, the Divinity Student feels their non-gaze settle on him. He sits down in front of the couch, an imp slipping a cushion underneath him as he kneels, and opens the music box again, slowly, letting the air calm his fingers, not talking nor trying to talk, but just playing as the oro in the oak grove had directed.
The air guides his fingers. A ululating phrase whistles out like a jet of steam, or a moth’s fluttering wing, and repeats itself over and over again. Magellan snaps bolt upright; wan, hollow shapes come swirling in the pallid light around the circumference of the clearing, fast drumming follows, thundering up under the phrase, levitating it.
Magellan rises from his couch, bringing his arms out wide, he permits his familiars to bear back his sleeves, and he cuts his white arms with a cobalt knife.
Again, the Divinity Student repeats the phrase.
Ghosts boil in the air, rustling and crying, libations fall to them on the ground, witch lights glimmer for them, alighting on branches turning trees into candelabras.
Again, he repeats the phrase.
The drumming fattens and shakes the earth, timbre deepening, growing empty and vibrant at the core, each tone dwindles to a buzzing at the corner of hearing just before the next is struck, and faster.
Again he repeats the phrase.
Vague whitenesses gather about him; they open their dark smudgy mouths and exhale together, filling his head with a voiceless whispering of breath like wind in trees, whistling and yawning all around him, rising up over the thunder of the drums to lighten his head.
Again he repeats the phrase.
Sensation now of his face being pressed against something like a metal barrier, already it bends as he is pushed into it. Magellan steps forward, lifting him, lightest possible touch of Magellan’s hands under his arms, as if he is only a column of air, bursting through headfirst and the metal shatters and tears, rising into a rare darkness he has seen before, frozen a moment over the earth in a column of light, the unique nothing in the shadows of Magellan’s eyes, flame rilling over his body, blood and perspiration and the rustle of dry papers sewn inside like a rag doll. He’s a column of air. He’s a vapor. He is evaporating out of a jar of formaldehyde.
The sun settles mundane light on a courtyard filled with trees. Quiet, not busy yet, empty canals of free standing water, the Divinity Student sprawled sodden on the pavement. A custodian wakes him, leaves him dazed on the ground and goes for a lictor or a guard. When he comes back, the Divinity Student is gone—wet footprints, sour smell of chemicals.
eight: the commission
In an empty garage that. yawns onto the street the. Divinity
Student wakes, lying on his side, coming to himself only after staring at the supernatural brightness outside, blades of grass poking through the pavement, looking hot enough to burn. Turning to rise, the light stays in his eyes and colors the shadows.
This morning he won’t go to Woodwind’s, instead he forces himself sternly through the light, to assemble ingredients for today’s experiment. After two hours he finds a chemistry shop on Jack-o’-Lantern Street; it’s an impersonal place, simple metal racks with bottles, a counter, a plain old man behind the counter blowing test tubes from glass glowing pumpkin-colored. He pretends to browse awhile, always embarrassed when he has to buy something, eventually he gets up to the counter, has to wait five minutes for the attendant to finish blowing a flask. Finally, he manages to exchange a grubby bill for six long silver cans of formaldehyde in a brown grocery bag. A brief stop along the way back to buy some bread from a street vendor with a monkey, and he returns to the garage ready.
The first thing, he goes out back, under a tree, crumbles the bread and piles up the crumbs, kneels there nearby and waits. It’s quiet. He keeps his eyes on the pile, begins rocking gently back and forth, feels his coat moving on his shoulders, blood in his temples. He does it slow, humming, burns a little prayer written on the formaldehyde receipt on a bare patch in front of him, writes a signature in the dirt with the matchstick. His palms tingle, warm all the way up to the shoulder, that’s good, like a little silver filament up each arm. The Divinity Student sits rock-still and waits.
A lizard appears through an overgrown gap in the wall. Expressionless with concentration the both of them watching the pile of crumbs, he’s drawing the lizard with a quiet sound he makes in his nostrils, breathing the hot air out so as to make a pitch that sounds like straw rubbing together. The lizard likes that—it’s brown, a foot long. Legs moving in circles it comes forward to get that bread; the Divinity Student’s eyes go black; two black clouds settle over his eyes, black clouds like swarms of flies, and up comes the lizard. It starts eating the bread.
The Divinity Student’s hand whips out, strikes the lizard with certainty on the side of the head, sending it sprawling on its side, legs in the air—it thrashes and dies. The Divinity Student gets to his feet and runs inside, coming out again with the bag and a bucket. Hastily, he pops the tabs on the cans and pours the formaldehyde into the bucket, all of it, and then snatches up the lizard and eases it in, coiling it at the bottom of the bucket, his eyes tearing from the sourness of the stuff. With care, he lays a board over the bucket’s mouth and weights it with a cinderblock. In a day or so, it’ll be mature, heated in the sun. He pauses to draw a special mark on the bucket with charcoal, and turns towards Woodwind’s.
The office is empty; the building is quiet. He’s there, filling his ledger, every stroke of his pen scraping on the silence, until that is stilled too. The room is poising itself, something invisible is gathering—looking up from the page, it seems to him this place is more than empty, more than abandoned, that no one has ever been here, that he is dreaming the office, or that the office is dreaming him.
He pushes back in his chair and goes to the window, but outside the city is static and motionless; he can see no one. A set? Turning around, he examines the office, floor, walls, ceiling, furniture, all made of the same dull wood, stained black in places. The place could have been carved from a single block of wood, or maybe it grew this way naturally.
Pen and ledger rest waiting on his desk. Unconsciously, he puts his notebook into his pocket.
He rifles through Ollimer’s desk, looking for the Catalog fragment.
What are you doing?
I’m trying to find that bit of paper Ollimer got from the tree the other day.
What paper was this?
A fragment of a Catalog of unknown words . . . the original was destroyed somehow . . . he showed me one of the entries once . . .
Shouldn’t you wait for him?
I don’t trust him. What I’m looking for now, he got it from an oro, the same oro who sent me to Magellan to learn the formaldehyde protocol—don’t you remember?
Yes—a tree spirit.
Do you mean to tell me that you’re breaking into his desk because you suspect him to be in league with trees? Trees that hand out Catalogs?
The Divinity Student starts slamming drawers in Blandings’s desk, and then Householder’s. Were they involved?
Then he stops. He’s heard something. Motionless, he tries to look out through his ears, finding only the sound of his breath, his heart.
But then, another tiny clinking sound, coins flattening on each other, through the wall.
Slowly, crumpling himself up into his hearing, he draws up to the wall, placing his feet with such care that not even a mote of dust is displaced, and presses his ear to the cool wood paneling.
The coins drop, one by one or in pairs.
He feels his face go hot and red, his collar tightens, for a moment he feels something like a fever thrum in his temples and along the seams of his cheeks and forehead, and his throat constricts around his breath. Something moves in his belly; he wants to shake or fall down, but he holds himself absolutely still, breathing through his mouth.
It takes him a long time, but he gets through the door and out into the hall, not knowing what’s happening to him—but there’s nothing at all. Everything is as it should be, and as it always was, except abandoned.
Then he hears it again, behind him, and he looks and there he sees it. He hadn’t ever noticed before, but here in this one place, the wallpaper is stretched tight over a door-sized hole in the wall. The heat and closeness of the past week has made the paper sag, and now the opening is visible. The noise comes from in there.
Dizzily, he steps forward and parts the paper with his fingers. The paper is red and velvet-feeling, opening easily along a seam, dilating without tearing to let him into the walls. The darkness grows transparent by degrees, and then he can see two candles burning on a tiny shelf set high above him. They burn before a small sepia photograph of a blank-faced woman with clear eyes, hanging on the wall, and beneath the shelf Mr Woodwind lies, sternly sleeping, hands folded on his chest, leaning against an upright board.
Will he wake up? The Divinity Student creeps forward, but again comes the rattling of coins, very near. Then he sees Miss Woodwind, sitting smiling beside a card table smoothly set with a white cloth, with a scales and a cashbox. A Chinese lantern sheds red light down over its tassels, makes her white dress glow red. To him it seems as if a veil or shadow lay between them, he can see her distinctly and yet she is vague as a blurred photograph. She extends her hand to him.
He waves his hands. “What?”
“Your notebook!” she says with a grin, and light flickers across her features, kaleidoscoping all colors from her lips and eyes, her temples, cheek’s hollow, and beneath her chin.
He hands it over, coming closer, into her fragrance, and he can see the perfume in a glassy fog around her. Miss Woodwind lays the notebook smartly on the balance. In a few moments she efficiently tallies the new weight of the book and compares it to the old, reckoning how many words he has collected by weight, and calculates his pay on a chart. She counts out seven heavy gold wheels from the cashbox and extends them, cupping the money on her fingertips, so that as she drops them into his palm, her nails brush his skin just barely, only just touching him. This is all she has to do. Now he won’t forget her looking up at him through the gleam of the gold, nor the touch of her hand. She smiles at him, pleased.
Another wrong turn, he looks around in anguish, lost. The streets weave sometimes changing direction; he’s recognizing the buildings, but the streets don’t match. The Divinity Student is following the train tracks, another passing in a blast of diesel pushing hot air and thick flakes of dust before it, electricity snapping at the synapses. These trains run aboveground, their tunnels burrow through buildings, not earth, roaring through restaurants, hotels, private homes, churches, libraries, hospitals. The Divinity Student is staggering, disoriented, sweating in the wake of the trains, thinking only that he wants to sit down with her at the table and watch her filling columns of words; he’ll gladly be a mirror-glass, simply to sit by her and watch, bathed in her cool breath; or a lens for her to see through, so that he could be frosted with the rays that beam from her eyes, and these ideas push everything else out of the way. Dimmed and confused, he boards the train.
Under him his seat is rocking, only lulling him further into reverie, they plunge into the bowels of some public building, lamps streak by in horizontal bars of light, a fetid smell creeps damply through the car vents, and through his faint reflection in the window he can see the tunnel walls falling away into nothing on either side, rusted parallel tracks lying brown on lifeless gray earth, rancid pools, and occasional lamplit islands, a few men in construction uniforms lying idle.
He rides for a long time, people pass through the car, men in suits, lictors, old women. Some boys horsing around.
Fragments, incomplete ideas, but he’s sobering a little. They crash out into sunlight again, the train shrieks and complains—melancholy sighing of old metal—and stop at a tiled station with slanting roof of clouded glass. The doors hiss and roll open.
A hand seizes his arm and drags him out through the doors, before he can react they shut behind him and the train drags out into the street sending a car skidding into a heap of trash cans to avoid it. The Divinity Student turns and finds himself alone on the platform, but he recognizes the station now. Outside, he can once again find the familiar streets and buildings, and a familiar city once again.
From the Divinity Student’s journal, more recently: “I see those cats everywhere now. Last night I think I saw an albino cat. Led me to an infirmary I had not seen before, eerie brick houses and sodium lights. Everytime I go out at night, there they are.”
The garage was only two blocks away, he lurches in and drops onto the gutted frame of an easy chair. Now he’s pulling himself together, finding that again. No more feeling whipped about, he cleans himself out—and then goes to the bucket out back. Who knows how long it’s been?
He drags it inside and sits on the cement floor before it, shedding the day’s last strange fragments, and watching sunset light gild his hand through a cobwebbed window. He removes the cinderblock and the plank. A cold, flat odor out of time, not emerging from the bucket but just all about him instantly, as if it was his own native scent, there it is. The monitor lies inside, already blanching, skin ribbed with folds.
He was brought here—to learn this. He doesn’t know why yet.
No prayers now, only quiet, he reaches in, down, so that his fingers touch the bottom, bringing up the heaviest, richest lees on his fingertips, stinging cold and fuming on his hands and shirt cuffs. He does as Magellan had shown him; he atomizes the formaldehyde with a blow of breath, a nonsense word, sending it out like a sneeze, tiny droplets drift like snow in space, and he lets them fall boiling on his face. He breathes it into him.
For a moment he sits, feeling the vapor creep in his nostrils and down into his chest. A shadow falls past his eyes, a dry voice dusts his ears, whisper past ears into head, dry hands tug at the back of his eyes, clap behind nose, rustle in throat. Dry warmth settles on flesh and skin, cool to the middle, low to the ground, baking earth heats his belly, eyes watching the sides all the time, dry sounds, cracks and wheezes, grass parts in front of him, dry-faced insects scrabble away, dull thud of footsteps, giants streaming all around—light falls in sheets on his face, figures blazing ghosts around him, hollow ground and hollow air, empty noises, hollow, unmoored, gray-faced the Divinity Student tumbles down with his vision’s passing shivering on the garage floor.