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 Thirteen and Fourteen. If you haven’t read the previous installment yet, please do so here. – The Editors
The Divinity Student scowls through the window at a metallic sky turning
cobalt-colored at the end of the day, strange high clouds moving fast. Behind him, Miss Woodwind is measuring his notebook on the scale, her neat hands setting weights with care on the balance. She comes out from behind her card table, moving toward him, holding the book in front of her and stabbing at him with it.
“You’ve torn pages out, I can’t get its proper weight.”
The missing pages, covered with Chan’s words, are wedged in the Divinity Student’s inside right upper coat pocket. Their typed duplicates were delivered this morning to Fasvergil, who received him sitting on a plywood tombstone, mending costumes.
He had extended his hand and let the sheets drift to his palm. They had seemed to catch and spin in the air as they dropped. Fasvergil had settled his needles and deposited them on the small shelf of a lectern behind him. He had said nothing, looking candidly at the Divinity Student, and then turned his eyes down to the costumes again.
“Sometimes the words get mixed in with gibberish. I thought you wouldn’t want them.”
She cocks an eyebrow. “Whatever it was you collected last night weighed more than this notebook and everything in it. Gibberish or not, we need those entries.”
“I threw them away.”
“You’re working for someone else.”
“I’m working for myself.”
Her face distorts. “I say you’re working for someone else!”
“Think twice before you accuse me of anything,” he says quietly.
For a moment Miss Woodwind returns his gaze, muttering under her breath. Air hisses through her nose as she hands him back his notebook.
“I suppose next time you’ll at least have the decency to keep separate notebooks for your separate jobs.” The corners of her mouth turn up, the air around her is getting warm.
“Next time I’ll bring you everything,” he lies, “I’ll bring you my old exercise books from the Seminary.”
“Some of them.”
“Oh.” It’s not what she wanted. She looks off into a corner, listening to the office buzzing around them, the rustling of the wallpaper and the rattling of the windowpanes. Dust rains down on paper reams and book spines. Outside, he can hear cars roaring up and down the street and squealing across the plaza, swarming across the city like rats on a corpse, looking for him. He follows her eyes. They drift back towards him, then lock on his. He drinks her fragrance in, and the warm column of air in which she stands.
“No,” she says, “not when you ask me. Never when you want, only when I want, that’s the way it works.”
She raises a finger, looking like a schoolteacher admonishing. “Only when I want. You’re always working for me.”
And she turns to go, when he asks her to go walking with him. She rubs her hands a little. “I’ll finish a few things here, and join you on the corner.”
Later, she meets him, and together they march down through the plaza and into a part of San Veneficio he’d never seen before. Until now, it had seemed to be exclusively composed of hallways and lighted porches, low buildings. Now he is surrounded by towers, lights kaleidoscope as he passes, leashed to Miss Woodwind. The avenues are broad and black, fewer people, trains howl by on creaking trellises over their heads. She’s got him; he’s just realized the emptiness she makes him feel, as if a space with shimmering edges is yawning in his chest. It’s filled with vapor that emanates from her in thick gouts, pulling him along with her. Her breath, and the moist corners of her mouth, small, shining in the streetlights, rolling out silent words, and parting over her even, white, filmy teeth. Her fragrances, particularly from her hair, the close parts about her ears where her skin is especially delicate, where the scent goes dark and rich.
“Tell me about the Seminary.”
“It’s old. It was commissioned by a king . . . the last one to be canonized, I think . . . There’s a marble statue of him in the hall. Every year, we had to pay our respects on his birthday.”
“What classes did you take?”
“Languages, literature, history, what you’d expect.”
“ . . . Many different kinds?”
“There are thirteen disciplines.”
“How many did you take?”
“All of them.”
“What disciplines were they?”
The street passes, they turn a corner, no reply.
“I would have thought you could tell me.”
No answer. The Divinity Student lays his hand upon the Holy Book, holstered just below his shoulder, under his coat.
“Did your father train you in word-finding?” he asks.
“ . . . Yes.”
“What does he do now?”
She bites down on the words, but they won’t be dammed, even by her. “He still works — he finds words in books — ”
“Hidden words?” He remembers the pages Mr Woodwind was soaking, how carefully he watched the color of the flame as they burned away, “ — words written in secret?”
“ — Yes.”
“Had much success?”
She’s trying not to answer; she can’t understand why she does.
He takes his hand away from the Book, Miss Woodwind relaxes.
“You learned to do that at the Seminary.”
No answer. A cat, dressed in black and white like the Divinity Student, watches them passing.
“Don’t do that again,” she says, just quietly.
The Divinity Student nods his head.
Time passes, and she brings him up short before a billowing steam grate; delighted, she steps into the white column and beckons him to follow. In a close alley, with no one to see them, he follows her, and she’s smiling at him again, her face in condensation glows right in front of him. His face alights on hers. She’s smiling at him, indulgent, and she bares her shoulders, collarbone spread-winged and delicate, he kisses her throat.
She turns and leads him into the building — the office, they’ve come full circle — invites him inside, embracing him, murmuring happily to herself.
And later the Divinity Student is walking among white houses, shining like bones in the moon’s arid light. Dampening every sound, their black lawns soak in dew by the road, their curtained windows are flat against their closed and dozing faces. When he looks up, there are two seven-year-old children in dirty shorts walking toward him on either side of the road. They freeze — air closes around the Divinity Student like a hot wet hand, chalk stuck in his throat, and he strains forward, his lungs pulling to open but drawing only vacuum. The moon goes impossibly white overhead and the sky darkens and turns transparent. He can see them, one a boy, one a girl, shaking with silent laughter, standing rigid by the side of the road, and the air around his head is crumbling into black pellets. In the distance, a pair of headlights stab into his eyes — there’s a car coming fast down the road, still far away but speeding toward him. Pushed down by a weight, the Divinity Student stumbles against a wrought-iron fence, feet slipping on dewy black grass, seeing now that flies are swarming from their noses, burrowing out from the corners of their eyes, crushing themselves pushing between their teeth until their chins run with threads of black juice.
He can see more, now, the children’s teeth are clamped shut their lips pulled back but not smiling, leathery fixed withered lips like mummies, skin on their faces brownish-black and cracking, silent, the laughter still bubbling up inside them making them shake, and now the flies are coming toward him, the Divinity Student, clutching at one of the rods of iron he forces his mouth shut but the cork in his throat slams down harder and his limbs coil back on themselves whipping around him, muscles snapped tight as piano wire, but he’s struggling, the children laughing harder now, he can hear it, high pitched and hysterical, and the cackling getting faster and faster until they seem ready to fly apart, twisting at the knees, but his feet are rooted in place, and their fingers bend back and then snap one by one like wet twigs — the Divinity Student can see the stumps of black bone and blood popping out to splatter scattershot on the pavement, a drop of blood spats on his cheek, and, in a brief moment, he sees them, strangers to each other, emerging from their homes, running to the waiting car in obedience to a wordless command to be used as instruments against him, moon intolerable, blinding now, and flies all around him matching their whine with the laughing boy and girl, in a moment the demon will be on him burrowing, and they clench their teeth so hard their jaws break lopsiding their faces with two synchronous wet snaps and their teeth are driven up right into the gum, blood coming out thick with bits of flesh, the rush of the car’s engine thrums louder pounding in his ears and rattling the ground, and with shaking voice the Divinity Student suddenly starts reciting Chan’s words. He speaks to unravel them and push himself free, without understanding what he says.
A fence rod tears free in his hand, and around him the flies begin to burst and spark like firecrackers crashing around his ears. The Divinity Student breathes again and starts to run away. The two children shriek and pound the street with their fists, but the words strike and rebound from their skulls and faces with a sound like metal striking stone. They stop laughing. They’ve been dead now for a while. The car’s voice dies, the lights wink out. For a moment, they turn around on their toes slowly embracing the air; then they run as fast as they can, past the Divinity Student. But what they run from can’t be outrun, and holding hands together they fall and blow away.
Weaving his way over half-sunken pavings, a priest assigned to the chapel of St Sulpice walks among eroded tomb-markers, pacing toward the listing shadow of his rotting church. St Sulpice squats immediately adjacent to the city’s lowest point, a convex basin at the base of a funnel, whose walls are a prison rampart of derelict, scarred brick buildings with broken windows. Hissing sewer grates flank the churchyard, bordering it on two sides with foaming gutters — a flimsy wooden bridge spans one of the sewage channels connecting the churchyard to the street, the priest had used this bridge himself a few moments ago. The chapel itself, foundering into the mud, is abandoned, smells of rotting stone and wet ivy leeching the walls. The priest is here to inspect the grounds, insure that the place still stands inviolate, and with cold hands he inspects the padlock and anchor chain that seal the doors, then turns to wipe thick sweat of rust from his palms. Stepping gingerly on soft earth he follows the perimeter of the walls, peering in the windows, but his eyes find only decay and hollowness inside.
He follows the convexity of the apse and picks his way along the other side of the nave — the silence breaks with the ponderous rattle of a handcart receding over the bridge. Dashing around the other side, muddying the hem of his cassock, he sees two men pushing away up the street, one man in gray, the other hunched in a heavy black overcoat. They are fleeing the torn grave of Albert the word-finder, open, still steaming beside a pile of dirt.
The Divinity Student hears the priest shouting after them and curses. He has a bottle of ethyl alcohol in his pocket — he tears off Albert’s pant cuff, gags the bottle with it and lights the fabric, tossing it onto the bridge behind them. The fire bursts blue in the gloom, fire flaring purple-hearted over the wood. The priest has his pistol out and fires, bullets ricochet over their heads, Teo flashes him an inexplicable look, up the street empty and striped with intermittent streetlights they racket with a sodden bag sloshing in the cart, and the priest’s curses fading into nothing behind them.
Teo has scavenged a small air pump from one of his discarded refrigeration units. The Divinity Student now rigs it with a hose and a hollow ring of metal perforated at regular intervals. He drops it to the bottom of the jar of formaldehyde, and Desden settles Albert’s gluey brain gently on top of it. The air pump purrs quietly on the desk, sending up a coil of bubbles in thin mercury columns that babble at the surface. Teo withdraws downstairs, reluctant to leave. The Divinity Student — having correctly guessed that the agitation of the bubbles would speed the fermentation process — watches already the yellowy ropes of Albert’s memory oozing from the tissues, mixing thickly with the chemicals. He rolls up his sleeves in the fluorescent light, and makes himself ready.
Downstairs, Teo is segmenting the soft, seeping body of Albert an inch at a time when he hears the noise. Rushes upstairs and throws open the door, the Divinity Student is crouched by the open window, chin and eyes running, glazed, oblivious. The pump and ring lie on the table, dribbling, the Divinity Student is holding the jar in one hand. With a horrible face he raises it to his lips to drink, and then vomits out the window, and drinks again and vomits.
“What are you doing — you’re drinking it?”
The Divinity Student’s voice is hoarse and thick, his nose is clogged. “ . . . He’s been dead longer than Chan . . . the words won’t come clear enough . . . I have to look closer . . . ” He shakes the jar in frustration. “I’m not getting enough!”
Desden looks at him. They look at each other, and then the butcher thinks of something.
“Wait, don’t try it again yet.” He holds up his hand and runs back downstairs. He whips a blade from the rack and walks up to Albert, neatly cuts off a strip of his liver and carries it back up to his friend.
The Divinity Student eyes him blearily, blinking water down his face.
“It may help you digest . . . ”
He’s waved forward from the floor. Desden gingerly hands him the morsel, and with a sour face the Divinity Student shovels it into his streaming mouth.
“Whole, don’t chew it at all.”
Throat working violently the Divinity Student nearly gags a moment but forces it down. Teo puts his hands on his shoulder.
“Wait a moment or two for it to settle, and then try again.”
Time passes. Teo retreats to the doorway. Compulsively the Divinity Student masters himself and drinks again. Teo watches his eyes roll back, smells the rancid chemical rasp his nostrils, while the Divinity Student turns inside-out drinking. Then, suddenly calm, he rises, carries the jar back to the table, and sits, and stares, and is quiet. Teo goes back downstairs.
Much clearer this time, the Eclogue’s tributaries settle around him with a sensation of magnetic repulsion and slipping along fields, edges pressing and grating inside, not painful, and slowly going in no direction. Many bodies pinwheeling out from his, maintaining single pivot points of contact, a knee, the neck, his collarbone, he turns around to face what’s coming, like a lightless world roaring there and drawing him in, but he eases around the edge and spirals through an orbit before sliding into clammy vapor to preset occasion, then jackknife straight down into the heart of the cold, and unseeing a million miles away he picks up his pen.
This one, Albert, works in fits and starts, disconnecting periodically from memory, disjoint, platforms at the edge of sight are walls and curtained windows, frequent beds — breakfast time now, but they serve dinner instead, dark outside, so yes it must be dinner time, only I’m sleeping now, bathing, lunch, but which day again? Shadow music and ghost rooms, pretty wife in care maintaining him. Words coming now and then, writing them down, getting ready, just getting ready to go where they come from, windows blur to clouds and lightbulbs to dandelions, pretty wife to pull up the covers, and son watching over him at night, smiling pretty wife pressing cushion coming down again she holds it close, soft pressure hot against his face and feathers clogging his mouth, then, no feeling in his legs, no feeling in his arms, a snowball bursts in his chest, and nothing again, like the Divinity Student’s lightning-caught nothing, but too late, it’s gone, it goes away, a full notebook and he’s missed the most important thing! The medium, falling back in his chair, the medium, running his fingers through his hair, the medium — the Eclogue itself, he wipes his chin, looks at the jar and the wallpaper refracting through yellow fluid and the glue-smell old Albert’s brain. It’s already going clear.
But get the medium, press through and try again to get back to the medium, the presence on the other side of Albert’s static life. Incline his face into the clammy mouth of the jar, sour chlorine chemical smells thrusting fingers down his throat and up into his head, shooting down his nose, boiling behind his eyes, atomizing the stuff into his face, drinking more of it and feeling it burn heavy down into him. Now it’s diluted but any memory, anything at all, passing through nurseries and locker rooms, dim haze of family outing and hateful weather, tossing on vomit-colored oceans that stank of vomit, swam with it and shrieked it at him, and all the time the Divinity Student is there on the deck, or under the crib, or loitering reflected in the eyes of his friends, pressing in at the borders, pushing at the edges of those memories, pushing out, get out past the frame into the blackness memory floats in, the place the words come from, but grinning faces hand him books weighing him down, pinning him in place, a ring on his finger weights him in place, blankets tie him down, years pile up on him and the Divinity Student is fighting to get out from under, or dig down deep enough and push out in all directions. Everywhere, no break, no stop, Sunday school and cooking, laundry, talk, eat, sleep, breathe, tedium-exhaustion.
Now the Divinity Student is only fighting to get out, just to get out, he punches the friendly faces, he kicks down the bookshelves and throws the plate, the bed, out the window, and cuts the ring from his hand, and leaps off the roof, puts the whole pencil in his mouth and eats the lead like candy smacking his lips, he tears up the calendar, and shreds the clothes, and pulls the house down around him, and now only an instant there it is — that same place he glimpsed in the lightning, and the voice he heard then, for only a hair’s breadth moment, and then drop back again in the same damn room and the same damn chair, and he rushes down and out of the shop lest he tear that apart, too.
Describing a wide arc, the Divinity Student weaves back towards the shop. He’s watching the sky so intently that he knocks into lampposts and stumbles over paving stones. Slowly it’s building, the sense of staring down into limitless openness, until his head reels back and he has to catch himself. The moon’s gone new, dimly visible, a black ball drifting just past peaked rooftops and gutters encrusted with carved starlit faces — it’s a huge closed eye trained on him.
Teo’s street appears to his left. The shop is ruined.
The Divinity Student sprints snapping broken glass under his feet and bounds through a gaping hole where the door was once. Inside, the refrigerator cases lie uprooted against the far wall, meat and machine entrails strewn across the remaining scarred tiles. He looks down; sees tire tracks smeared on the floor.
Desden pokes his head out of the meat locker with wide eyes. He comes up fast, still in his apron with a holster of knives.
“Two cars came while you were gone.” He makes an aborted gesture at the shop. “ . . . I managed to get rid of the body before . . . ”
“What about Albert and Chan?”
“Safe in their jars. I packed everything up after they left.”
“Did you get a look at them?”
“Windows were tinted.”
“Are you all packed?”
“Not much to pack.”
“Wait here.” The Divinity Student stalks out into the street, stepping over some beams that used to be in the ceiling. His throat’s gone tight like a slow vise clenching down on him. The city has an undersea look to it — he goes down to the pay phone on the corner.
“It’s me, I need a new place, the cars got Teo’s shop.”
Fasvergil says nothing for a long time. Eventually, he disappears behind the receiver, comes back in a few minutes with an address.
“Itemize the damages. I’ll expect a report on this.”
Food-smell and people-buzz and then the rubble again, Desden standing alone in the shop with a bitter look on his face.
“This is very bad, very bad,” he says.