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 One and Two. — The Editors
First black clouds dimming the sky, trailing shredded
white veils in the rustle of settling audience, and, as each cloud passes framing itself perfectly in its own outlines, one especially stands out—looming like an iceberg above the others. It’s moving steadily along now, coming fast and low over green canyons. It dips between the hills into a smell of water, and the placid anxious hush of rain falling on trees and grass.
The Divinity Student, in his heavy black coat, is scaling a steep mound down in the canyon. His feet are slipping on the wet grass; he steadies himself with outstretched arms. He’s wet to the skin, his spectacles are fogged and running with rain. The slope is water-softened and slick, so he’s forced to scrabble at roots and stones to avoid falling. He didn’t want to miss a walk in the rain. Above his head, the sky changes color from gray to black. Breathing hard and almost spent, he gives himself a last violent shove and crests the hill. For a few moments he stands bent with his hands on his knees, then he turns to take in the entire canyon rising about him on all sides like a green bowl. The sky above him thunders and blackens to coal black: a cloud iceberg-high. Flushed, he pads across the green breast of the hill’s crest to the highest peak. He passes a hand over his cropped hair and water rills over his fingers. He reaches the top—the sky splits above his head. Standing in tall grass, eyes lost in the distance and the wind playing in and out of his shirtsleeves and blowing up his coattails searing blue lightning scrapes its fingernails along his body in a column lifting him off the ground. The cloud opens a moment and reaches down, pulling him off his feet. Suspended in an infinite moment, flat in two dimensions between ground and sky, his body arching his eyes staring fingers close on snapping air white face splits apart as he turns down twisting to the dirt—stone dead. Quiet wet grass in his mouth and rain streaming over his sodden coat on his dead body, glassy eyes rigid and open, staring at one hand fixed in mid-convulsion, cupping the rain in its dead palm, his dead back shattered.
Overhead, the clouds pass by. Rain falls, time continues to pass.
Now they’re finding him. Hands take him up; they make off down the slope, in the mud, with his body. The ground levels and the trees close in like clouds and spatter them with big drops of rain. They carry him away to a low building enmeshed in trees and the shadows of trees. Quickly they bring him inside, lay him across two sawhorses and start cutting at him—they gut him like a fish, cut open from throat to waist, red hands pull his ribs apart, head and shoulders hanging down, his arms lying flat on the ground, tugged back and forth as they empty him out. They dump his contents cooked and steaming on the floor, and bring up stacks of books and manila folders, tearing out pages and shuffling out sheets of paper, all covered with writing, stuffing them inside, tamping them down behind his ribs and crushing them together in his abdomen. What pages they select and what books they tear are of little importance, only that he be completely filled up with writing, to bring him back, to set him to the task. Then they suture him shut again—drag him to the tub (his arms and legs dangling and catching on things overturning tables and chairs) and dump him in the water, slopping blue water on gray stone pavings, and together they draw breath and drop open their mouths, screaming noiselessly as they shove his face under the running tap and pushing him full under the water with their red hands, under their wings. The Divinity Student twitches, lashing water over the lip of the tub. Gaping they push him down harder. He jerks to one side. They turn the spigot up full bore and shove his face into the stream—he thrashes, his body goes livid and white then his eyes and mouth snap open and gape wide all screaming without sound (they grab him and pull him out).
Clammy, bleached colorless, hauled out of the water, flopping on the ground, they hold his head as he coughs water and stares across the floor at the heap of his own guts, and recognizing them he screams again, screams himself into shadows and clammy darkness.
Later he’s discovered back at the Seminary, lying pale and unconscious in an infirmary bed. Orderlies shake their heads over him “How did he get here?”
The Divinity Student comes to a few hours later. For a moment the memory comes racing forward like a black wave of frigid water, and he recoils and slams his mind shut. Fingers pulling, his flesh melting around them like clay, coughing water on gray paving stones—he snaps to attention and faces the windows across from his bed, reduced to a bland white smear of cloud-filtered daylight without his glasses. He stares at his hands. They look like talons hovering over the colorless blanket, something mechanical about them now. He sits perfectly still; nobody approaches or notices him, he fades in and out of consciousness with a bitter taste in his mouth and an ugly feeling throbbing behind his temples.
Disjointed he awakens again and it’s the next day already, morning or afternoon he can’t distinguish. Someone is drifting tall and angular down the aisle, coming to a halt at the foot of his bed like a docking ship. After a while he recognizes him—an important administrator, a teacher greatly feared in the Seminary. His face is blurred in the bland light. The Divinity Student sluggishly brings his name into focus: it’s Fasvergil. As if in response Fasvergil seems to click into place in his overlong cassock, bunched frayed and torn around his feet. He looks up in pale response. Fasvergil is staring at him.
“You’ve had quite an adventure. Two of the boys saw what happened to you.”
The Divinity Student feels a sudden weight in his chest. He tries to speak but his brittle throat cracks with the effort and he can’t.
“Who brought you back here?” Fasvergil leans in close, eyes fixed as if cutting him open, searching the Divinity Student’s face. “Yes what is it?” he hisses. But the Divinity Student is already blurring, a gray haze misting over his eyes, his vision occludes until he can just manage to stare at his clawlike hands resting on the blankets. He sits mute and emptied. From nowhere Fasvergil says he will return and goes off to nowhere, leaving the Divinity Student alone in nowhere.
Discharged back to his room, he spends his days sitting at his desk watching the clouds pass through his grimy windows. Sometimes the wind moans in the chimney and he jerks in surprise, but most of all he watches the sky, and presses his hands against the panes convulsively when lightning flashes outside. Why is he still here? What’s taking so long? Light goes dull in the stale air of his room, behind him his disheveled bed with sorry printed flowers waning on yellow linen. Incubating alone in his dormitory room, he gathers the clouds and swathes himself silently in them, with a jagged, glassy feeling in his head. The past few days he has seen signs and portents that something important is going to happen, and today he is preparing himself. Only just now he’s fallen prey to a delusion, confusing his destination with thoughts of returning to his ancestral home, his very early childhood. He simmers in his bed wrapped hot in thick blankets and hallucinates a homecoming for himself—through the trees to his ancestral home. On either side of him the hills like low domes sit pondering in green from winter rain, trees waving him on down the street in wind that brings the smell of sweet grass and sour brush. His house is low, sitting preserved in the gelatin of memory. Overhead clouds boil and blow away, sunlight crashes down in glassy sheets shattering in glowing white aftersights floating under his eyelids. The light sharpens, dashing down, his eyes water and his vision goes pink. The house flares as he walks up to it on broken pavement, moving past the flat gray porch and chimney cooking in the heat, the air rustling close up close pressing on him like the palm of a hand. Lightheaded, he passes the house and moves to the yard behind, grass grown waist high, scorched yellow-brown and dry in spots, lush and dewy moist in others. The sun flattens the landscape dead flat, like walking into the sepia of an old photograph.
The back of the house is blazing with candles, the flames churning the air. The backyard is like a chapel. The trees above ruffle their plumage and stretch their wings, speaking up into the blue-hot sky. He sits just behind the house, the candles jutting perpendicular to the wall glowing white-orange at his back; he sits in a wooden seat, splinters biting into his legs, the corroded metal frame rusting against his fingers. He sits there and watches the light ebb and surge across the grass. This is where he came from, and the whole world will always look a little like it for him. He left this house to live at the Seminary and to train for—whatever’s coming now.
Time shifts backwards, a wind winnows bricks away like leaves whittling the walls that frame the yard, the ground sprouts a white picket fence in their place. The yard undulates around him; the paving stones sink into the ground. He can hear birds, and the patter of wax dripping behind him. Grass shoots up around him and up his pant legs poking out through holes in the knees; squirrels and birds scrabble across the roof knocking leaves and acorns down on his head.
As he sits dozing, he gradually becomes aware of another presence; he is certain someone else is there. Without hurrying he looks up from the ground, unsure that he could get up if he tried, thinking that a voice or music is there, a white film shimmering over the yard, discrete from the flow of light and the dappled shadows of the passing clouds. Like highlights on pleated fabric, or a pale figure moving in fragmented light—fragile and transparent, a membrane speaking voicelessly at him, an original premonition of the future that he remembers for the first time. It gets hotter, heat closing in and descending from all sides, and he pushes it out from him again, pushing his chair back furrowing the ground—he thinks he can hear better with the chair pushed back. He opens his arms, and for a moment his heart murmurs and jumps as he sees the paleness rushing towards him, the tall grass beaten aside in great wide swathes as it comes. It’s coming, it’s coming for him finally.
A drop of wax lands pat on his shoulder. He looks at it as another spats his sleeve. Slowly, he looks up at the candles, and wax begins to rain gently down on him. He smiles. He opens his mouth and a tiny drop stings his tongue. Lowering his head he feels an aromatic evaporation sifting up through his head, a flavor like a continent of flowered meadows, sour-smelling hillsides, fresh grass, wet dirt, rotting leaves, dust. Wax coats him and he begins to burn in the sun like a candle. It comes down, he can see the grass curving down to the earth, the trees sagging, paint baking off the house, coming loose in flakes, then bubbling and liquefying on the pavement. The concrete flows off like mud. Holding out his hand, he sees the wax dribbling from his fingers, pink droplets. Inside, his bones glow white and expand, turn elastic, his blood evaporates, runs down his legs into the grass with a pleasant sighing sound. Heat brighter, whiteness all around, he reclines back in the chair to lose himself—and wakes, disappointed, in his bed. It’s all still before him, still to be done.
The Divinity Student stares out the window, oblivious, fading in and out. At this moment, he is conscious of the Seminary expanding ancient and vast on all sides—the yawning cold hallways like caverns of stone, the dank subvestries and classrooms with bubbling peeling plaster walls and a mildewed smell, frosty choirs of icy wood polished to a dull luster by the chafing of nervous hands. Huge, gaping wide on all sides for him, also crushing inward collapsing upon him. He seems to be present in every room, feeling the students coming and going—as they learn, they come and go with greater earnestness of purpose, striding powerfully along the halls as if they were on rails.
This has always been his room; it is the center of his world, his only place. The world seems to turn pinioned on a cold-burning point in his empty chest. The other students have been avoiding him lately; he’s become intimidating. It could be lightning-infection trickling in tiny courses through what’s left of his body, like a minute trace of poison. He’s ready to go.
Fasvergil summons him to his office. Another Prefect stands beside him, together behind a massive desk. The Prefect speaks first: “Your studies are finished—consider yourself commenced.”
Fasvergil scans the contents of a folder with lazy eyes. “We have been preparing an Assignment in the hopes of receiving an agent of your caliber. You have been selected for us.”
Fasvergil and the Prefect eye the Divinity Student uneasily. He makes them nervous. His eyes stare straight ahead, as if he were laying track right on top of them. Now they can get him out of the Seminary and for that they are grateful.
“You will leave for the city as soon as possible,” Fasvergil says with concealed relief, “your letters of introduction are in this folder. Further information will be forthcoming when you arrive. At the moment, certain things are still up in the air—when they settle again, we will be able to tell you what to do.”
“I’ll do as I’m told,” the Divinity Student says, surprised despite his premonitions.
“There’s no question of that. Go and pack.”
“Chapel in one hour,” the Prefect says.
The next day comes, and the Divinity Student leaves the Seminary knowing he won’t be back.
two: the city
San Veneficio gleams in the desert like a cut emerald on a naked seabed. The sky is a still canopy, like the underside surface of a lake, and blue light shines on the marble walls striking patterns across the hot ground like dancing traceries of light reflected from rippling water. Sitting alone in a spacious cab, the Divinity Student watches the sweat trickle down the drip on the face of the land flaring white in the steady beam of the sun, and for a moment he sees the cab from a bird’s-eye view—a tiny white speck speeding along a black stripe. They pass long autos with black windows roaring hoarsely toward the city, which expands to fill the horizon. He rests his head on the vibrating door jam and squints against the dust pouring in on the wind—spotting now for the first time the famous monitors, giant lizards over ten feet long, racing with alarming speed over the dirt. One comes up by the side of the road and paces the cab for a mile or so, its oversized eyes fixed straight ahead on its coffin-shaped skull. He’s heard that at night these lizards watch the city—it’s said that someone looking over the town walls can see them staring back, their eyes blazing with reflected city light, the entire desert punctuated with pairs of lights, so that when the night sky is clear and dark it seems to extend down into the desert and surround San Veneficio on all sides with stars. Baked white clay streaks by, extending flat to the mountains in the distance. The Divinity Student was schooled exclusively in cold places, always rain and chill waiting outside the walls; he would anxiously look forward to the halfhearted springs and moist, wilted summers. Now, here, it’s parched sharp bright heat stabbing in under his heavy coat, pricking him awake and alert and buoying him up. Only the two letters in his pocket stay sharp and white, like two rectangles of silvered glass, rigid, crisp, and cool. His assignment: go to San Veneficio, obtain a position with a professional word-finder, and wait for further instructions, followed by an illegible signature. He had found the sheet under his door and brought it to his Prefect:
“Where did this come from?” he asked.
“Higher up classified—ep!” raising his hand to shut him up, “No no sorry nothing more can’t tell you strictest confidence!”
The other letter will introduce him to the word-finder. He shoots towards San Veneficio, confident that this is where he is meant to go, he is starting. He has a momentum that came out of the sky. The dark marble walls draw near, black veined with green as far as his eyes can see. Beyond, the city bristles with spires and precarious minarets, lonely groups of statues standing against the sky atop copper domes, glyphed obelisks of polished basalt, gilded fountains, gargoyles; it’s a city of monuments. Above, birds circle rising on hot currents watching below in lazy ascent, quiet.
“This is the Eye Gate,” says the driver, raising his index finger from the wheel. A circular breach in the wall a hundred feet across looms up and swallows them, flattened at the bottom where it meets the road, and around it the Divinity Student can briefly see a pointed ellipse carved deep into the wall; huge triangular pieces of green jade gleam, smoothly radiating out to form the iris around the pupil-gateway. Lictors, in their heavy coats and bloodred gloves, silver face masks shining, turn this way and that, bored, waving the traffic into the city.
They drive up the Street of Dogs, making for the central plaza. The streets weave and twist passing through people’s houses and doubling back on themselves. The buildings are old and venerable, white plaster and modest columns, flat onyx streets, searing hot sunlight, smells rushing in through the window—orchards, wisteria, grilled meat, and people smells, carried on hot desert air. Finally, they make their way up the Street of Wax and into the plaza, vast and wide open, a colossal fountain at the center, buildings for giants looming all around. He pays the driver and makes his way to the fountain.
The plaza seems to curve downward as if San Veneficio is the only city on a tiny planet, hanging over the sky’s open void. He weaves through currents of natives in white cotton, wealthy ladies walking pet monkeys, occasional dignitaries in loiters, and he follows in their clear wake, pardoning himself in Spanish. Now and then he checks to see that the letters are still in his pocket as he hurries to the fountain.
There, he stands a moment in the spray, watching luminous fish circling sluggishly, the level of the water surging and dropping every few seconds as if the pool is breathing. He looks back at the town, eyes smarting from the dancing reflections on the water, and then thinks for the first time to check the letters for addresses. They are blank.
Not knowing where to go, the Divinity Student sits on the clammy bank of the fountain and waits. People pass in streams and groups, cars roll by. Unthinkingly, he reaches into another pocket and produces a small metal weight on a cord that Fasvergil had given him back at the Seminary. Sheltering himself from crowd and wind, he spits in his palm and swings the weight like a pendulum above his open hand. His face drains and closes—he watches the swinging weight. Dry lightning sparks near the mountains on the horizon as the pendulum’s point first swings over his palm. Even in the middle of town he feels completely exposed to the mountains and the freely moving air. He stretches a little into the rising wind—for a moment his hand is a still point. The weight swings back and forth, each time rotating a little more to the left, until it finally stops, hanging at an angle in the air. He gets carefully to his feet and orients himself by the pendulum’s direction; he starts walking. The weight floats before him taut on the end of its tether like a dog on a leash, pulling him to one corner of the plaza, down close streets, past shouting water-sellers with earthenware vats and brass ladles, air growing closer—the sky rumbles overhead, people race to hide their stalls under umbrellas or find refuge under the awnings of clay buildings. Candles burn in absentminded alcoves, spice and paraffin smells, his eyelids droop and he feels lightheaded, but the pendulum tugs at his hand, threatening to come loose, he pushes himself off the voices of the fruit vendors and shouts of old women, shuffling awkwardly among the milling people.
Finally, he staggers into a small laundry with sweating walls. Steam billows hissing in corners, more Spanish over shrieking presses. He’s pulled through to the back door and out onto a catwalk above a narrow alleyway. Stairs lead up a scarred brick wall to a deepset door with frosted glass panes. He scales the stairs and goes in, pocketing the weight and string. A tiny waiting room with oak paneling and red wallpaper.
The contrast of the brightness outside and the dimness here makes him blink. A plain woman is sitting behind a miniature desk in one corner, making columns of numbers in regular handwriting on tiny sheets of ruled paper. She looks up at him blandly.
“Is there anything you want?”
“I’m here for my appointment,” he rifles through his coat and produces the letters. She looks at them distractedly with two quick gestures.
“You should see Mr Woodwind,” she says, and directs him up a flight of stairs concealed behind a potted rubber plant.
The stairs are narrow and shallow tilting down at an angle making them almost impossible to climb. He picks his way carefully up, following a series of random landings and new flights, lit always by red light through glass-filtered fixtures.
Woodwind’s door is enameled, set directly into the wall, ajar and moving gently back and forth with the draft. The Divinity Student pushes it open with his fingertips.
Inside—a vast room, narrow but deep, with high windows, light filtering through a white haze, a smell of books. Shelves loaded with notebooks line the walls, their covers bulging with yellowing paper. Three clerks are shuffling about the room in excessively long robes, carrying stacks of printed pages, an occasional page spiraling to the bare wooden floor. Having crossed the room three times bearing ever larger stacks of paper, one of the clerks pauses, peering nearsightedly at the Divinity Student.
“I have letters of introduction for Mr Woodwind.”
The clerk sniffs at him dubiously and trudges off, absently waving the Divinity Student after him.Woodwind is standing at a table in the far corner: a tall whitehaired man with rolled sleeves and an apron. He is excising a page from an open book with a long pair of tweezers—dropping it into a pan of clear gray liquid. Having soaked it thoroughly, he retrieves it and plies it over a blue fire; his heavy brows knit as he reads the page’s new contents to a clerk taking dictation. Finished, he brings the page down just over the fire, and it bursts into flames. Black tatters flutter up to the ceiling. After repeating this several times, Woodwind sets down his tweezers and looks at the Divinity Student in irritation.
The Divinity Student offers him the letters. Woodwind tweezes them out of his hands, opens the envelopes with a few deft strokes and studies the writing offhandedly. Then he drops both the letters into the flame and they vanish brightly, Woodwind snapping his fingers for his secretary.
“The register the register” he mutters.
Woodwind’s secretary appears with an overstuffed ledger and flips hastily to a page half covered in meticulous illegible handwriting. Woodwind himself scans down the page with his tweezers, looking up only at the end:
“Yes we have an opening for a word-finder,” he says in punctilious monotone.
Offered, accepted. Woodwind snatches up another page from the book in front of him and dredges it in the pan. The secretary presses a small buzzer on the wall; a thin reedy tone trills across the room. Within a few moments the young woman from downstairs appears at the door, and, directed by a hurried gesture from the secretary, walks over to him.
The Divinity Student looks back at Woodwind and his clerks, another flash of burning paper.
“I’ve been hired.”
She inclines her head a little to her left.
“You’ll be the new word-finder then.”
He has nothing to say. He nods.
She is satisfied and extends her hand.
“Let me show you.”
He follows her into the hall and up the stairs to the fourth floor landing. The red walls narrow until he’s hunching his shoulders inwards to get past. Her perfume is wafting back in her wake, passing in currents over his face until he feels ready to topple over backwards. Finally they come to a small door in a cul-de-sac, set directly into the center of the wall. She turns to open it for him; he looks intently into her face, her bookish face, which returns his gaze calmly. The doorway is narrow, he has to brush up against her to get into the room, passing through a curtain of her perfume and the serene scrutiny of her sphinxlike gaze. He steps up onto a high scuffed floor, and she smiles as he turns back to her.
“Come on.” She walks across the small office with its low ceiling to the back wall, a little window there with asymmetrical panes, shining with dusty light that seems to collect within the membrane of her blouse, making it glow like a paper lantern. She indicates a desk to him.
Slowly, he follows. There are three other desks in the room, a man at each, transferring columns of words from notebooks into codices by hand. Their presence is irritating, reminding him of the Seminary: the insect-scratching of their fountain pens, sleeves rubbing along word-wooden corners rattling papers. He steps up beside her, standing in a warm pool of light. With a modest gesture, she pulls his chair out for him, like a maître d’.
“You should find everything you need in the desk,” she says in a low voice, as if she doesn’t want the others to hear.
He thanks her.
“Anything else?” Eyebrows raised, a small shake of her head. He stares blankly back.
She nods pleasantly.
“Yes, that’s all. Any word that you encounter in your daily rounds that’s not in the dictionaries should be recorded in your ledger. New words only, please.”
She stands upright again, looking down at him. She stares at him. Then she leans down close to his face and wishes him good luck. A moment later she vanishes out the door and down the stairs.
As soon as the door is shut, one of the others wheezes and snorts. His partner giggles. The Divinity Student opens his desk, finding a notebook with the first dozen pages or so ripped out, a new fountain pen and ink bottle, and a huge binder with a sheaf of paper unopened beside it. Underneath the notebook, there is a small leather-bound dictionary in impossibly tiny print with a magnifying glass tethered to it by a faded ribbon. He pockets this and the notebook and reaches for the filing drawer.
One of the other word-finders clears his throat.
The Divinity Student looks up. It’s the one who snorted as the woman left. He’s heavy with short black hair and a threadbare black sweater, a pale, doughy face with small black eyes like currants. He rises from his desk.
“Switch desks with me! Yours is bigger!”
The one who giggled is looking on conspiratorially, grinning.
“You deaf? I said I’ll take your desk! I waited, didn’t I?” He briefly turns to the giggler, who nods once, “I didn’t take it right away—I don’t think you want to give me any trouble!”
The Divinity Student fills his fountain pen calmly. He is already ignoring them.
“Hey, I’m talking to you!” The snorter says.
The Divinity Student pockets the pen and caps the ink bottle.
The snorter stares at him a moment, then sits back down at his desk again. “Idiot,” he mutters.