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 Five and Six. If you haven’t read the previous installment yet, please do so here. – The Editors
The next day, a gray little clerk shuffles into the office and beckons to the Divinity Student. The others give him peculiar looks as he leaves the room, wending his way out back to the library, where Mr Woodwind crouches over an ancient book with a miniature knife, scraping ink samples from illuminated characters. He gathers the flakes of dried ink on the edge of the blade and deposits them in glass dishes filled with different solutions, watching them react and change color. The rest he heats on a small metal pan until they glow in the flame and combust.
Eventually, Woodwind notices him. “You, you’re from the Seminary? I need you to take these to the high priest of San Veneficio. His office is in the Orpheum.” Woodwind withdraws a black satchel from under the table and thrusts it at him. The Divinity Student has no more than touched the handle before Woodwind turns his back and goes back to his scrapings.
Outside, the air is warm and close and still, rich with orchard smells, and, looking down, he can see the heat boil all around him, rising in curling threads, shimmering around his shadow on the pavement. Above, the sky is empty: a fathomless, midnight blue color, some dark birds circling. The streets are unusually empty, and no cars watch him go, making his way down to Calavera Street in the center of town. He can see the Orpheum approaching over the rooftops, coruscating in the hot air. It’s a palace and a theater, with screens and stages; inside, cool night air coils in deep purple velvets and muted blue satins of curtains and chairs, mingling with the clean smell of water tossed from a few small stone fountains, and sometimes spiced with a faint warm breath off of someone drifting in from the frying street to press his face against cool stone and sit on cool plush seats. Like a gem set in the middle of town, the first public building in San Veneficio, the Orpheum rests today as it always has at the midpoint of Calavera Street, surrounded by peppery-smelling trees, some with reddish-black leaves, others adorned only with blue flowers, petrified now like coral in the light. The Divinity Student looks at the Orpheum with difficulty, so much of it is lost in white smears of reflected light from the polished marble and the huge dome, carved from a single vast piece of green jade. Blinking in the searing light, he can see the statues hiding in alcoves, heavy basalt pillars supporting the facade: Orpheus soberly in the center—on his right, a smaller image where he enchants the animals and all of nature with his playing, and on his left, his head sings, drifting on river foam.
The sun’s burden lifts from the Divinity Student as he passes into the shade of the pillars and the muted light within. He enters the main hall directly, huge and round with many doors set into its circumference both along the floor and above on the central gallery. High overhead, the dome glows green, translucent sheets of white marble set like windowpanes fill the room with warm diffused lambence. Water runs in thin sheets over the pillars supporting the upper concourse, collecting in a ring-shaped pool. On one wall, Circe is beguiling a crowd, already a handful at the edges are turning into pigs. On the other is Medusa, turning men to stone. A statue of Orpheus stands in the center of the room. The Divinity Student gets directions to the high priest’s office from a young docent in a black uniform.
So, he pads up a wide, curving stairway, bypassing the public rooms to make straight for the gray, rounded service passages beyond. Soft red floors, light dapples the walls like water reflections, a museum smell of fresh paint, and over all a deep hush, save for an occasional courier rushing by on whispering feet. He follows the passage to its end, and there finds the high priest’s door set in a funnel-shaped wall. The nameplate reads: Magellan. The door is wine-colored wood with brass hinges. He raises his hand to knock, but the door is already opening; a hairless little man peers up at him with large eyes.
“I’ve come from Woodwind’s . . . ” his quiet reply.
“You’re the Seminarian?” The words seem to bypass the air and sound in the Divinity Student’s ears directly. He nods.
The other nods and gestures for him to enter. The ceiling slopes down to meet with the top of the door jam; the room is shaped like a funnel—the far wall is an ellipse three stories high into which is set a circular window with a pane fragmented into hundreds of palm-sized pieces of varying thicknesses and shapes, a gigantic eye. Immediately before this window is Magellan’s huge desk and before that are seats for visitors, one of which is currently occupied by a nondescript client. A few others wait in chairs along the wall to the right.
Magellan’s familiar waves the Divinity Student to an empty chair and scuttles off to the wings—where racks of jars stand in static dust: later the familiar will tell his wife, “Today I saw a bottle containing a witch.” A witches’ ladder, a rope with cockfeathers woven in between the strands, throws curses. An impaled slug on a thorn, in a jar, withered, colorless, still, in formaldehyde. Shelves of stuffed animals, motheaten, ragged, semicollapsed, dirty, glazed milky eyes. Flat glass slabs for the invertebrates—fish, eels, worms, phosphorescent. On every surface, tiny, neatly penned labels in precambrian ink, dark jumbles.
The Divinity Student then sees Magellan. He sits almost invisible in a haze of window-refracted light, fragrant smoke curls about his head, wafting up from two braziers burning on his desk. He’s of no certain age, in his shirtsleeves and suspenders, and his face is painted white, white with black marks around his eyes, and his upper lip is also black. His eyelids have been painted with two green irises and black pupils, making it impossible to tell whether his eyes are open or closed.
The client’s voice breaks the silence. He’s looking down into his lap, a little embarrassed.
“Uh show me what it’s like to be uh—” he looks up at the high priest, “—a cat.”
The familiar runs up from the wings with a large jar. Inside, the Divinity Student can see a marmalade-colored cat preserved in formaldehyde. With a slight bow, the familiar sets the jar on the desk and retreats again.
Magellan, moving for the first time, slowly twists the lid off the jar and sets it down on the desk. A thin, sour smell rises from the open jar and trickles in the Divinity Student’s nostrils, pushing him a little back in his chair as if a little had seeped just into his skull. Magellan gets ponderously to his feet and dips his fingers into the jar. He slaps the air twice with the back of his hand, spattering the supplicant’s face with formaldehyde. Magellan scoops a little in the palm of his hand, brings his painted face down, and blows it in the man’s face like an atomizer.
The client remains perfectly still, breathing deeply as the spray settles on his face. After a moment he begins to sway in the chair, his breathing alters, and for a time he sits there entranced. Magellan lowers himself back into his chair. The jar is resealed and spirited away, the cat inside jostling, fur pressed flat against the glass, face shrunken and vacated. The incense floats up to the ceiling, the window burns with light, the client’s head falling back in slow motion . . . Magellan’s fixed gaze. Watching, again the Divinity Student is overcome with the feeling that he is watching something vital to his unknown cause. He feels himself being drawn toward Magellan.
Eventually, the man’s trance lifts. He rises unsteadily, struggling to speak, but Magellan isn’t looking at him. So he turns, almost bending forward as if to bound off on all fours, but no, he catches himself—he weaves his way to the door and is gone.
The familiar appears again, and beckons the Divinity Student up to the desk, again without speaking, until he is within only a few feet of the high priest.
After a few moments, the familiar looks at the Divinity Student with impatience, gesturing at the satchel. The Divinity Student rustles around in the bag—empty, except for a velvet pouch, incongruously rich in the raggedy bag. He hands it queryingly to the familiar, who raises a cautionary finger to his lips and rolls his eyes at Magellan, who sits still and blank as a statue. The familiar opens the pouch, and pours out a dozen thin ivory wafers, each with a single word written on it. They are instantly sorted by the man’s long, gray fingers, lining them up on the desk: verbs first, then nouns, then qualifiers, every one set in place with a single, precise tap. Then out comes a long wooden box from under his skirts and flips open to reveal an index of ivory wafers to which the new twelve are added in exact order, in exactly the right places. And throughout, he has not lifted his gaze from the Divinity Student.
“No one speaks freely to the high priest,” he says, “not even myself.” His voice is level and even, eyes animal bright.
“Those who petition may only use words from this index,” pausing a moment to point at the box, “so as not to profane his ears.”
He snaps the box shut.
“I know all the words, I have practiced, now I use no others. It is second nature to me.”
The Divinity Student looks beyond him to Magellan, unable to tell if his eyes are open or closed.
“Have you a petition? Answer yes or no.”
He thinks of his flying dream, and of Ollimer’s word, and in the grip of an inscrutable impulse he says, “Yes.”
The familiar brings the box back out, but the Divinity Student shakes his head and beckons with his finger. He can feel the smaller man’s hand resting dry and light, like a bird, on his back as he leans close to whisper his message.
With a nod and a swirl of his robe, the familiar retreats into the wings. Now the Divinity Student is alone with Magellan, smoke between them and around them, light crashing down through the fragmented window, the Divinity Student feels an inky feeling inside, a draining in his head, the closeness of the air, looking at the high priest sitting there like a monument. So, he sits too, and gazes fascinated at Magellan’s silent face. He bites back a desire to ask him about Ollimer’s word.
Instead, one hand on the desk, he leans in, and speaking quietly says, “Show me what it’s like to fly.”
Again, Magellan stands. A jar is brought to him, this time with a buzzard pickled in it. The same thin odor steams out as the lid is twisted off, only this smell is different, dry and pungent where the cat smelled almost sweet. He swallows with difficulty watching Magellan’s great hands dipping into the formaldehyde—abruptly he thinks it’s time to go, he doesn’t want to anymore, but those hands come out dripping, thinking it’s time get up and get out, too late, cool drops spattering his face, that smell burning his nose, rushing up behind his eyes, and Magellan’s dreaming, painted face coming at him now, eyes open, the palm comes up, fine vapor shimmers his face, vertigo like a fast elevator, the weight of his body lifts and he’s cut adrift, curling around Magellan’s head like incense smoke, breath leaving, heart leaving, the light sucks him away, right away without a trace, or would, but Magellan holds him. Now he sees the window’s fragments of glass and fragments of light focus through the back of Magellan’s head, beaming out of his face, tinted green where it shines through his eyes, pink and white where it shines through his face—the desert white under the sun, blurring by underneath, the pull of the wind, hot air rising, motion on the plain’s floor between the hills, water on the horizon. Turning and rising for a long time, getting high past the hilltops, and hungry, watching the ground, sun just rising. There’s a twinge in his back. Seeing farther and farther, nothing but him and the air, the horizon around his shoulders and dwindling behind his feet. As time goes on he gets to feel the air currents, upswells and churnings on all sides and below. In a moment he sees himself as high as the sun, harmless clouds on all sides, stiffness spreading across his shoulders and outstretched wings. Lightheaded he has an impulse to fly straight up, but at that moment he spies a bleached and torn carcass on the ground, and hungrily he drops in a twisting dive his stomach lurching.
Weight, and breath, and pulse come back. Magellan sits alone and still at the desk in front of him. The familiar has closed the jar and is shuffling back into the wings with it, light dwindling with the day’s passing, the Divinity Student sits without moving, looking numbly across at Magellan, until he is told to leave.
six: the oro
He has lost himself in the streets, wandering out.
toward the city limits. Eventually he comes to himself, doesn’t know where he is, the pavement ends and before him a small grove of old oak trees stands in dappled shadows. There’s nobody around, so he ventures out onto the grass, feels its coolness through his shoes, lets the branches brush the top of his head. To him the trees smell dusty, like a familiar old room, they dust the air with their branches
and fill the grove with a white haze. He remembers the vertigo of flying, Magellan’s dreaming face, sour formaldehyde smell. The Divinity Student looks back, but he can’t see the pavement anywhere—there’s not a rooftop or spire to be seen. He starts retracing his steps, trying to follow his footprints in the long grass. Everywhere he turns, more trees and corkscrew branches screening his view. It’s quiet, no street sounds, no sign of the city at all, and with a growing sense of disorientation he breaks into a run, but his path crisscrosses itself in the grass.
He has a sensation of icy water rilling down his back and rinsing his insides, water for flesh, flesh filled with water. Panic boils wildly behind his teeth; he shakes himself, why is he overreacting? The sudden onslaught of fear confuses him still more.
Then a tree rattles behind him; he turns to look. There’s a black something up in the boughs, watching him. He sees many dark limbs, leaf-green eyes, a porcelain mouth with fixed lips parted in an open grin.
He recognizes it: an oro, a tree spirit, misdirecting him into the heart of the glade and forcing panic on him. Instantly, the cold inside evaporates, a raindrop, a single one, drops into his right eye, and his hand moves to the book in his coat pocket.
“Please don’t,” a voice like rustling leaves and sighing boughs, “I want to talk to you, let’s not fight over a social call.”
Limbs spiral around the stationary spider-head. “I’ve got a message for you.”
The Divinity Student waits, right hand resting on the book in his pocket. “—Well?”
The white mouth moves closer, the emerald eyes remain where they were, lambent in the shade. “Divinity Student, you have been to see Magellan? He showed you something interesting?”
“Yes, that’s true,” he replies guardedly.
“Would you like to know how it’s done?”
The Divinity Student sighs and sits on the ground, but he does not take his hand from the book. Yes, he would like to know, but he says nothing.
“ . . . Magellan himself will teach you . . . provided you approach him properly.” The oro’s voice is insinuating.
“Did he send you?”
“ . . . No . . . But listen—I can tell you how to convince him.”
“Who did send you then?”
The oro retreats a little into the leaves. “That’s not important. I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to anyway—but I can tell you how to get Magellan’s attention.”
“All right, what am I supposed to do?”
A long, skinny, black arm unfolds from the tree, carefully to set a small wooden box just beyond the circle of shadow at the base of the trunk. Then the oro gathers its arm back to itself.
“Play this in the courtyard of the Orpheum, at the very top of Calavera Street, and let him see you playing it—then he will know to call you. You must not speak to him, the box alone should be your voice. He’ll send for you in his own way, and then he’ll teach you how to do that trick. Rest assured!” The eyes go out, the mouth is gone.
The Divinity Student jumps up. With caution, he approaches the tree, but the oro is dead gone. Turning, he can see rooftops angling into the sky beyond the trees again, and the pavement appearing again at the edge of the grove, sunset warming the dark wooden box at his feet.
Dogs’ sudden barking and he’s startled out of his reverie—they’re across the street behind a chain-link fence, snapping at some passing man, a red-haired man. The Divinity Student peers after him a moment, and then ducks into a doorway, chasing still with his eyes—it’s Ollimer, walking toward the edge of town.
Dry wind sends dead leaves scattering, the Divinity Student walks through them making no sound, following Ollimer. The other man is nervous, looking over his shoulder and sometimes turning all the way around every few blocks; he’s hard to follow. Overhead the sky is turning a metallic twilight color; orange lights open in doorways and windows; the pedestrians thin out; cooking smells on dry desert wind billow on his face; Ollimer turns and freezes—the Divinity Student ducks behind a gargoyle. Was he seen? Crouching in the dark, behind a hunched back and folded leather wings, he leans forward to peer over its haunch.
Ollimer is staring up the street at nothing. Then just as abruptly as it came, his trance seems to pass and he gets going again.
The Divinity Student lets him go on a bit more, and then starts after. Turning a corner the road ends, he stops—oak trees spreading in the spectral light beyond the pavement, grass white and black, the same dust shining in the air now like tiny silver flakes. Just visible in obscurity are the same domes and spires he saw over the trees at sunset, it’s precisely the same place.
Cautiously, he steps into the glade, taking care to avoid the trees. With his black coat drawn close about him he blends in with the dark. Around him the trees whisper as he passes, growing quiet after him. Unsure, he makes his way to the oro’s oak. Ollimer is there. The Divinity Student flattens himself on the ground, watching him, completely silent. Ollimer is still apprehensive but he does not notice the Divinity Student.
Hesitant, he starts feeling around inside a hole in the trunk of the oro’s tree until his arm is swallowed up to the shoulder. His eyes look upward, the tip of his tongue visible in his straining face as he feels around with his hand. Then he pulls out a scrap of paper and steps into the light, peering at it. After reading it over several times, he pulls out his wallet, stuffs it in, and hurries back up the road.
The Divinity Student takes a different route back into town, knowing that Ollimer will approach him tomorrow with another fragment of the catalog.
The Divinity Student finds refuge at an all-night cafe. Chairs and tables spill out in a circle of orange light to fill a corner of Candle Square, lost in San Veneficio’s tangle of streets and closed to traffic. A single streetlamp burns at the far corner, the walls all around are dark silhouettes before a more luminous cobalt-colored sky. The interior of the diner is a brightly lit rectangle cut into the dark, like an aquarium in an unlit room, two sleepy waiters wearing white aprons drift to and fro, tidy up, tend a few late customers, or play dominoes on the counter.
Having given up his hammock, the Divinity Student falls into a chair at the farthest boundary of the lights, and dozes. He has a puzzling, desultory dream about lifeless mountain roads cut into shafts of solid rock and lined with boulders. Once he thinks he can see a tiny window carved in one of the larger stones, and possibly the suggestion of a door as well, with a faint strip of light along the bottom of the jam.
A noise wakes him up—somebody has set a glass down firmly on the table in front of him. Looking up, he sees a big dark-skinned man in a shabby suit of violet satin walking away across the circle of light. He sways over to an elaborate organ under an awning, sits down at the keys, turns a few knobs, and sets it going. In the light from the console, the Divinity Student can make him out—bald and heavy, baby-faced with black filigree tattooed around his eyes. A sign on the organ lights up, “The Clown Filemon” it says. Little blue and yellow lights wink over the organ pipes and keys, luminous strands of clear syrup draw a web in the air over his head, clinging to rigid silver wires, and translucent tubes, gathered around the console, glow with bubbling, phosphorescent green liquid. With slow and deliberate motions, Filemon begins playing—a mysterious, confidential humming in the pipes—but his eyes remain fixed, watching the Divinity Student. After a few minutes, he makes a quick gesture, as if lifting a glass to his lips, and jerks his head at him.
The Divinity Student looks up, and then picks up the glass in front of him—all right so far?
Filemon nods, and raises his eyebrows.
The Divinity Student empties the glass.
Filemon smiles and goes back to his playing, soft and low, for nighttime.
The Divinity Student settles back and listens to the music washing down onto him. A few moments, and then he pulls out the box. He looks up at Filemon, but the clown is watching the keys. He opens the box, and instantly the mechanism emits a clicking, hollow-timbred melody that merges instantly with Filemon’s music. As the Divinity Student shifts his hands over the box, he notices that the tone bends with even the slightest change of a single finger’s position. He tries the bottom, but there the box is thickest and there’s no change. The edges and corners, which are singed, darker than the rest of the box, not only change the pitch when touched, but also cause a second, parallel tone, breathy and faint, to fill out the first.
As he fiddles with the box, he senses that either the random changes he makes in the melody are starting to complement Filemon’s music, or Filemon is anticipating him. He starts pressing the box more deliberately, the organ follows, the notes begin to weave around each other, the Divinity Student begins to decipher the pattern of the notes, and they play together.
When he next looks up from the box, it’s dawn. The music winds down, until finally they end on a single chord. They sit still a moment, listening to the sound ripple along the surface of the surrounding buildings, trickle and fade down the streets. When it is gone, Filemon shuts the organ off, smiling down at the keyboard in satisfaction. The Divinity Student puts the box back in his coat and sits back in the chair again, then looks over at the Clown. Filemon gets up without looking at him and vanishes into the cafe.
The Divinity Student takes a pad from his coat and writes at random, fragmentary notes about something: “Kill this idea by scrawling it. Happiest man, ribbon, water, droplets/griddle light, chord of music, through body in threads of water—close eye/defocus/reopen/mind-body aphasia momentary discrepancy—flash S.V.” He looks up a moment across the street at a spout draining. He stops writing, it stops draining. He starts writing and it starts draining again.
Two tables over, a card game degenerates, two men fling cards angrily at each other.
The Divinity Student rests for a while, and then heads back toward Woodwind’s.