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 Eleven and Twelve. If you haven’t read the previous installment yet, please do so here. – The Editors
Earlier, the Divinity Student had encountered those two dogs at Woodwind’s again. He had been called in to meet with the old man himself, who had commended him on the sleepwalking words, and given him a bonus. Coming downstairs again, they had been there waiting for him, tongues hanging out, one a bitch, the other not. They had stood there, watching each other, the Divinity Student poised on the third step. Then he had let himself fall forward, just falling forward with his arms out, with his hands straight and flat stretched out like blades, and just falling as a tree would fall he had driven his fingers down, impaling them, splintering their spines. He had risen unhurt, and then spirited them downstairs and out of the building in a sack. He ran all the way to Teo’s place, pickled them, and then, behind the butcher shop, he had taken them both at the same time, while the sun set over the roofs, and he got to know everything they had been together.
The experiment finished, now he’s clean. He’s washed it away, no formaldehyde smell left, he had scrubbed it away in a spasm of restraint. He’d wanted to get another horse, or maybe a bird, but something bigger — even one of the great monitors in the desert — but perverse discipline had told him to keep off. Chan would be his first assignment. Fasvergil had explained:
“The human memory is vast and obscure; specific recollections of any kind beyond the most basic experiences are extremely difficult to locate under even the best circumstances. Therefore, as the last moments are the most immediately accessible to the investigator, it’s best to start with Chan — while his role in the compilation of the Catalog was minor, he’s the only one who seems to have died thinking about it, so the desired information will be closer to the surface with Chan than with any of the others on the list. Going to Chan first is also advisable in that he’s also the most recently deceased, his memories will not have sunk as deep as those of the rest.”
Eyebrows rise, index finger lifts:
“Moreover, Chan will provide you with a test, whereby the use of your training upon human subjects can be evaluated and criticized. I have it on the best authority that his body is in an excellent state of preservation, no significant decomposition. I shall expect you to report to me by the end of the week.”
“Too many reasons,” the Divinity Student says to himself. “Who is he trying to convince? Let him tell me what to do and forget the reasons.”
Wrapped up in his thoughts, he wanders around San Veneficio, pays his way into the Gardens, and wanders there. Small paper lanterns and candles are hidden in tree boughs and bushes, throwing webbed shadows across the paths. It’s busy, people milling on their evening constitutionals in a soft night-time darkness, humming with sourceless cricket sounds. The Divinity Student skulks along the edge of the grass in his heavy coat, remembers haunting the bushes as a child, choosing his moment and ambushing, then running off through the plants, impossible to pursue. He’d have been happy to see himself grown up in this park, large and black like a spectre lurking at the edge of the path.
Incongruously he remembers the Seminary as it was for him when he was alone — dappled tree shadows on buildings waving at night, blue light in high little windows where magic was being done, a faint whispering above the world that would sometimes drop tiny leads down like cut wires live with current. The Divinity Student wavers on his feet.
People drift by in evening clothes, with parasols, not a few children run by and give him a gratifyingly wide berth — being taken for a spook amuses him in a bitter, spectral way. Looking around, everyone looks ghostly in the shaded witch light from the trees and lamps, drifting fluorescent whites and darks fading in and out of the greater patches of shadow, voices now sourceless like the crickets, but sometimes breaking off, becoming discrete, and passing him, often with a trace of scent or a brush of air stirred by passing bodies. It’s as if the pedestrians and passersby are shaded from him by a thin tissue of luminous color, and they pass behind it throwing flickering lights across its surface.
At the center of the garden there’s a pool cased in a basin of perfect glass, one hundred feet across at its diameter and three feet of water at the perimeter, deepening to six in the center. Beneath the clear glass floor there’s a huge kaleidoscope with powerful lamps underneath, spangling patterns across the water and up onto trees leaning overhead, sending patches of light gliding from leaf to leaf and across limbs, skimming over outstretched faces and hands. At night, translucent or luminous fish are released into the water, and freak freshwater cuttlefish three feet long changing color to match the dancing lights beaming up at their bellies, no sooner camouflaged then the pattern changes and again they change, free drifting memories of the former colors and patterns shifting again and outmoded again. Finally, at the center of the pool, a large freshwater octopus sits immovable, stirring the water with his tentacles, watching the people watch him with blank bilobed eyes; a single valve in its side opens and closes languidly — it’s the heart of the pool.
Miss Woodwind is watching the octopus. She’s by herself, leaning on the glass rim, lights filtering through the water to catch in her hair and flicker in her eyes and off her teeth, tracing like fingers the contours of her face and body, tinting her nails and soaking her clothes. The Divinity Student smells her before he sees her, soft on soft air, her fragrance sweeter for not being boxed in the office. Not moving, she’s staring at the octopus, meeting its gaze directly.
She doesn’t look when he comes up. “Would you look at it?” pointing, “look at the way it hovers there.”
Now she favors him with a bright face — “How beautiful it is!” — and goes back to watching it.
The Divinity Student nods absently, looking at her. She’s dressed like a schoolteacher, but excited like a little girl. All alone and she comes here; he’s never seen her outside the office like this, nor has he ever seen her with friends, although he had assumed. He looks closely, and he finds on her face the kind of enthusiasm that is cultivated alone and rarely displayed to anyone but strangers, and he feels honored to be given access to her privacy. She watches the water, and he watches her.
Then she notices him again. “Oh, you!”
He turns his face to the pool and the water lights, puts his hand on the cold glass, but he’s trying to think of something to do. Already, she’s muttering to herself and drifting off; he has an impulse to plunge his head into the water. Instead, he immerses his hand and brings it out, freezing with cold water, letting it spill in long clear festoons from his fingers. Unsatisfied, he does it again and again, staring at ropes of water encrusted with lights.
“Looking for something?”
“You’re a word-finder,” he says, gasping because the cold makes his fingers hurt, “you’re the best of all of us . . . ”
“You’re flattering me?” She looks like she’s getting ready to grin.
He shakes his hands sending droplets pattering on the glass. “You were looking at the water, so I thought perhaps some of your talent could have rubbed off.” That sounds desperate.
“Rubbed off into the water? How superstitious of you.”
“I only want to be as good as you are.”
That was bald enough to evoke a grin of surprise. Her face opens a little in curiosity. She mutters a response; he doesn’t hear. He sees her interest reawaken. Papers rustle in his chest.
And so they walk together. Her eyes fixed at some vanishing point on the horizon, walking with her hands behind her back, and his following the changes movement makes in her, as the lights pass and fall behind, and she changes all colors, reminds him of the kaleidoscope. She’s speaking to herself under her breath all the time. Then out loud she says:
“You know, I shouldn’t worry if I were you — the last few batches you’ve brought in were remarkable.”
“It must be difficult, or perhaps you’ve found some special place where the words dangle from the trees, waiting to be picked . . . ?”
There’s something suggestive in her tone.
“Playing dumb?” she still isn’t looking at him. “ . . . I know where you get those words.”
He hadn’t submitted anything from the Catalog, he’d forgotten each word as the fragments left his hands — but he might have remembered them in his sleep.
“You walk in your sleep, so you hear words that people say without knowing they’re saying them. I’ve seen you in the plaza mooning about like a ghost. You stop every few moments and scribble things in your notebooks that no one else would have heard. I know your tricks.”
She hasn’t turned to him once, but she walks beside him as if she knows exactly where he is. Headlights sweep over one corner of the gardens; they flash in his spectacles and then he’s speeding invisible down a side path chased by a wild car horn blaring from the street, birds burst shrieking from the trees overhead. But the light passes; unsatisfied, the car pulls away. The Divinity Student looks around for Miss Woodwind, and she’s right there beside him, smiling pleasantly up at him, with her arms crossed.
“You’re right to avoid them — they’re driven by demons.”
“They’ve been after you?”
One eyebrow raises. “No, but I’ve seen them do their business. You watch out!” She taps his chest with a finger.
For a moment they sit still in the shade, listening to the crickets, her lips moving quietly to herself. Her face is mostly hidden, lights from the street shining between the leaves illuminate one high smooth cheek, garlanded with wisps of glowing hair.
“Come on, I’ll show you something!” and she hurries off over the grass, under the trees.
They follow the course of a stream along a rocky path overgrown with vines, Miss Woodwind knifing through the bracken unhindered, the Divinity Student shredding and tearing behind her. No matter how he tries to catch up to her she always keeps ahead of him; his feet feel like blocks of clay dangling awkwardly at the end of his feet. He redoubles his efforts and presently walks directly behind her. By planting his feet precisely in her footprints he avoids the pitfalls.
One by one the lights dim and vanish, along with all sound of voices, wood and the smell of wet earth close around them, the city melting far behind. He follows her smell and the whispering of her voice with a sensation much like shifting from one dream to another. Trees get denser on all sides; he senses that no one has ever been back here before, pressing in toward an oasis older than the city.
A wind comes up and a roaring sound, she points. “There!”
She turns her brilliant face to him framed in a halo of hair. “It’s the source of the stream!”
Just beyond her pointing finger a great spiraling channel of water gouts up out of the ground, cutting straight for the rocks and the gorge upon whose rampart they are standing. Trees stand all about the waters’ edge following with their branches the flow of current, the air curiously stirred here by the speaking of the water at the center.
“I’ll show you the way,” Miss Woodwind’s voice is perfectly audible over the noise. She weaves along the bank of a small tributary up to the main pool, an eddy where the flow is quiet, where the water is filtered through old tree roots and between rocks. One boulder shows a flat face and that’s where they sit down, both turned to confront the stream bursting shouting out of the ground. Miss Woodwind looks at the Divinity Student for a moment, and then favors him, bending to cup her hand under the surface of the pool, bringing it up full, a bowl barely dripping.
“If you really want to soak your head, you should dunk it in here.” She offers him the water, and when he hesitates she grabs the back of his neck and shoves his face into her cupped hand. He drinks soberly, and all the while she watches him with her lips moving, speaking softly and warmly to herself. She draws more water and he drinks from her hand again, motionless, bowing over her palm, and Miss Woodwind turns her face up to see gray sky and metallic stars through a black web of tree boughs, and sees the talking water flashing by like smoke and lightning from its source. The Divinity Student laps droplets from her palm, and draws his face along her fingers, and she finds her hand still resting on his neck, and it goes soft and strokes his throat a little. He looks up and she turns him toward her, drawing her water across his face with her hands, and bringing him in close, the things she tells him, she tells him, and tells him.
Slabs of crushing heat fall and shatter on San Veneficio’s shoulders, boiling back from the empty ground outside its walls to surge up the streets, churning into doorways and bulging against gray window glass like sheets of mercury. The great herds of giant monitor lizards are shut deep in the desert’s recesses, where the blast of the sky’s open oven is only a thin whistle of stirring dust and broiling plants. All along the city streets green leaves wither yellow-brown, in cracks, and, overhead, copper domes and gilded spires slant blazes down onto the streets, refocusing the sun. Magellan swings back and forth before his fractured window, while his familiars rub their velvety hands dubiously, watching him. When his couch swings forward to the summit of its arc, Magellan’s wax-white face is only a foot from the glass, and as he falls backward he brings another part of the city back with him; San Veneficio trickles down vines of incense into his ears and the corners of his painted eyes, he can see the lowing, shrieking animal souls of magicians pacing invisibly on walls and rooftops, or weaving unseen between pedestrians’ feet.
The Divinity Student can see them too, now, for the first time. He’s walking down the center of Monument Street, so named for its many statues, some set on high pedestals, others standing on the curb, leaning against buildings, trees, and storefronts, or sitting on benches. Out from the shade, the Divinity Student stands full in the heat’s hammering in his heavy coat, defying the sun, the passing cars, buoyed up, the cool water in him and running down his face. A cattish ghost-familiar wauls from a monument’s bronze shoulder, seeing him see it, and he shrieks back in its own language, pulling a face so horrible that pedestrians scatter out of his path, their white cottons flapping. The spirit’s eyes flash and it bolts down a drainpipe, and somewhere an old misanthrope, brimming with bitter malice, poised over some catastrophe, gasps and stumbles, shivering off to hide in a corner. The Divinity Student laughs a silent witch laugh after it, and multicolored throngs of animal souls up and down the street fan out to avoid him, peeping at him in fear, irritation, derision. They, none of them, they don’t challenge him.
At the end of the street he drops out of sight. Today he’s getting ready for Chan. This morning, as he had passed beneath an oak tree, a card addressed to him had dropped into his hand from the boughs, inscribed with the location of Chan’s grave, so he’s heading for the chemist’s — he’s a regular by now — puts the two barrels of formaldehyde — “very fresh, this imported you know” — on account and takes a cab back to the butcher shop. Teo’s retrieving a carcass from the meat locker, the Divinity Student walks in hauling the drums and shoves them into a corner.
“Assignment from the Seminary,” he explains.
“You live an adventure,” Desden says, retreating into the shop with the meat.
The Divinity Student zigzags across town buying specimen jars and surgical instruments, special saws, a shovel, bags, and a rickshaw handcart with money he’d received from Fasvergil, comes back a piece at a time and dumps the stuff by the barrels, in the locker, with the exception of the handcart, which he chains outside by the broken horse trough. Eventually, the day’s baking is done, the sun going down runs crimson over the town, air thinning, and he draws up to rest a moment. Teo comes out of the shop.
“What are you going to do?”
“I need a favor.”
“For your assignment?”
“The use of your shop, or a private room . . . I don’t know for how long.”
Teo comes closer. “What for? Secrets?”
“Yes,” the Divinity Student leans forward off the wall, “what I did with your horse I’m going to be doing to people. I’m stealing the body of a word-finder tonight . . . I’m supposed to dig through his memories and find certain things he took with him.”
“These things being special words? . . . I would assume that, since he was a word-finder.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“This is going to involve more than one corpse, isn’t it?”
The Divinity Student pauses. “Yes, possibly as many as twelve . . . ”
Teo suddenly gets excited. “Listen, the bodies, what are you going to do with them when you’re through?” Shrugs. “I’d dump them somewhere. Perhaps rebury them if I’ve got the time.”
Teo comes closer still, eyes bright in the alley lights. “But you don’t need them for anything else?”
“I have to keep their brains, that’s all, everything else is waste as far as I’m concerned. None of them is going to be very fresh.”
Now the butcher pauses, his stained apron humming blue-white in the thinning sunlight. “You can use my shop, or my apartment upstairs, whatever — provided you let me help you.”
The Divinity Student remains silent.
“I have the shop and the rooms, I can be very useful to you. Just let me help, you won’t regret it, you’ll see — I’ll dispose of the bodies myself.”
The Divinity Student looks at him.
“Let me have the bodies when you’re through with them!”
“ . . . Why do you want them?”
“I’ll dispose of them for you! You can’t simply dump them, they’d be found and traced back to you. Reburying them would be just as obvious. If you let me help, I can get rid of them. They’ll vanish as if they had never existed.”
The Divinity Student grinds his knuckles against his head thinking.
“Please!” Teo hisses.
“All right . . . Provided you help with everything.”
“May I use your apartment?”
“And anything else I ask, you’ll do?”
Desden gives a small bow with shining eyes. “Your servant.”
“All right, ‘servant,’ help me load up the cart.”
Desden ignites like an engine, tossing shovels and equipment into the cart. He closes the shop early and runs after the Divinity Student, pushing the cart in front of him.
Together, they walk streets that weave crazy patterns, passing dice games and weavers’ looms on front stoops clacking out across the curb. And here’s the church quarter; the street is lined with small chapels on all sides, some of them tucked into alleys, makeshift enclosures for tiny shrines, and booths selling incense, candles, prayers, offerings, flowers, nurture fires, and hymnals. With eventide approaching the crowds come out before dinner, in some places songs already rising out of doors and windows, but the people make way for the Divinity Student unasked. Hurry along quickly, out of the way and down to the cemetery.
A large, L‑shaped building squats on that block, with a heavy black gate and yawning arch in place of a front door. Beyond, the graves lie marked, spread haphazard under dead grass. The gate’s locked — the Divinity Student takes a metal rod out of his pocket, coats it with pink rose water from a little vial and starts rapping it against the lock. Suddenly, the rose water congeals and the rod freezes to the lock as solid as if it were welded there; the Divinity Student pulls the gate open using the rod as a handle, motioning Desden inside.
Chan’s grave is marked and shaded from the street by an old oak. Desden points to the tree.
“I hope its roots haven’t gotten into the coffin.”
The Divinity Student cuts into gray dirt just in front of the tombstone, sending lizards hissing through the high blonde grass. The soil is loose and dry, crumbling to dust and clods, insects, smells like smoke. He’s moving fast — his form smears, hard to see in the failing light — tearing up the soil like a machine. Teo looks around, but they can’t be seen from the street, then he takes up his shovel and starts in behind the Divinity Student, pausing every few moments to catch his breath and scan the windows overhead, waiting to be caught. Twenty minutes later, in a rain of dirt, a spade grates hollow on termite pine. The Divinity Student scrapes the lid clean and motions Desden up onto the grass, gives a single heave and throws the coffin out of the grave. He follows it out a moment later and wedges his shovel blade under the lid. One ratchet of his arms and it slides off, splintering desiccated nails.
Mothball smell and sweet stench, Chan’s suit is too small, deflated in the box but still a little damp, a white gecko stares up at them — he’s been licking Chan’s ear. The Divinity Student shoos him away. Reaching down, he embraces Chan’s waist, hears a gurgling sound beneath his closing arms.
Desden hisses, “there’s someone here!” and presses himself against the oak.
The Divinity Student dumps the coffin back into the ground and leaps down with it. A light blazes in the twilight building looming by the gate, two people alternate passing by the window — two men, pulling on jackets, one packing his briefcase at a desk.
Desden tosses the bag down.
“Get down here now!”
Desden casts a fearful glance at the window. One of the men is laughing. The butcher slips quietly into the grave and helps bag the corpse.
“Just do it fast!” the Divinity Student says.
They toss the body back up out of the grave and leap out themselves. Teo dusts his apron but the Divinity Student seizes hold of the bag and drags it onto the cart, tossing the tools in beside. Above, the light goes out, stairwell lights flare in a column down one side of the building.
“Any other exits?”
“That gate is the only one!” the Divinity Student is spitting with anger. He kicks most of the dirt back into the grave and then tackles the cart, flying across the yard, with Desden running to keep up. Ramshackle, he tears up the earth over the graves, overturning tombstones and crosses, kicks a wreath out of the way, making for the gate. He bashes it open with the front of the cart, tearing the metal rod off in passing, and Desden shuts it behind him, the lock snaps. The Divinity Student is already halfway to the corner, Teo can hear voices ringing hollow, and nearby a door rattling — he sprints up the street and slams into the cart, together they send it hurtling up around the corner and down Rat Street.
Turning, they run down a service passage along the train tracks, their faces flashing messages to each other in passing orange work lights. Low thrumming sound, and the earth hums beneath their feet, the Divinity Student points, they duck into an alcove with benches for maintenance men as a train hurtles by like a thunderbolt only a yard away, earsplitting and spitting flying windows. Once it’s gone, they pull out and make fast for the nearest access tunnel disgorging them into night streets.
“Too many people here,” the butcher says.
“I’ll get in the cart, they won’t bother us.”
The Divinity Student leaps up onto the cart and sits beside the bagged Chan, putting his feet up on the corpse.
“You said you’d do anything, so push.”
Desden squares his shoulders and pushes the cart through the crowds. Finally, as the moon rises over the level of the rooftops, they draw up to Teo’s street. The Divinity Student jumps out and together they rush their baggage up the pavement and around to the back. Teo practically dismembers himself flailing with the keys, he finds the right one, shoves it home, opens up, and the Divinity Student rushes Chan into the shop. Teo runs past him, draws the blinds and pulls a heavy flat across the front of the store — even peering through the cracks, it’s impossible to see anything. He clears off the cutting board and heads back into the locker. The Divinity Student already has Chan out of the bag, stripped and ready, together they carry him out under the fluorescents and slap him down on the board. Teo puts on a fresh apron and starts rinsing the corpse, the Divinity Student runs out, comes back with a heavy jar filled with formaldehyde, mingling that sour smell with Chan’s new wet sweet smell.
“Just the brain — the less tissue, the faster the fermentation.”
Desden nods, yanks a cleaver out of his knife rack. With a few deft moves he shaves the front of Chan’s head, then swings up at arm’s length over his head and brings it down right on target shearing off the top of Chan’s skull with one stroke. A muddy, metallic odor is decanted, curling sluggishly in their nostrils. His sense of smell already powerfully sharpened, the Divinity Student quickens and leans forward, takes a good long whiff almost getting it right then and there, the whole thing, but no no it’s not enough, the formaldehyde is needed.
With the a genius of natural grace Desden whips out a small, wickedly sharp blade and stabs in through the back of Chan’s neck, putting his weight on it, driving between the vertebrae and then shifting his weight bringing the knife up — a sound of dry fibers severing like old corn husks. The spinal chord is cut. A few more dextrous disconnections and he puts away his knife. His cutting board and apron are stained with black tarry stuff, rancid bad-milk stink from the body. With care, Teo slides both his hands into the aperture at the top of Chan’s skull, feeling with his fingers for the base of the brain. Then, easy as bobbing for apples he draws the dripping, only slightly shriveled organ out of its case, complete and undamaged, with a thin queue of neatly cropped spinal cord at the bottom. With all the gentle concern of a doctor birthing a newborn he slips it into the jar. The liquid takes its charge in silence without a single plip, closing solemnly over Chan. Gratified, the Divinity Student nods wordlessly to the butcher and steals upstairs to Teo’s rooms. With grim pride, and a secret delight, Teo turns to watch himself in his mirrors. He starts hacking the body to pieces. This hand to his hand, this arm to his arm.
Desden has a few small rooms just past the uppermost landing, clean and bare, an odor of metal desks and office supplies. The Divinity Student sets the jar on the desk, turns on the desk lamp and sits in a cone of harsh blue light. He pulls his pen and notebook from his pocket, and uses the pen to stir the formaldehyde. Eyes locked on Chan, he can see thin filaments of yellow essence swirling out of the tissue, mixing — the smell is strong enough now to disjoint his body, intensify a feeling of being stitched together and soft in the head, of half-emerging from his own head. Shaking badly, he dries the pen and sets it aside for fear of dropping it in, staining Chan with ink. Clammy in the pit of his stomach and cobwebs threading down his arms and legs, he sits, barely contained, waiting for the fermentation to hold. Not much time but forever, thankfully the last memories are all that’s needed, and he dips his hands into the blend — cold puckering his fingertips and boiling vapor off the nails; breathing hard now, he raises dripping palms and sprays sour fluid into his eyes, bedews his face — coming at him it’s coming at him, blue light flickering out and it’s got him, he’s going into it, wrench and pull and for a moment hanging over the grass suspended between sky and ground tied to a cloud by a shining line flooding body taut and crushing the back of his skull cracking him open shrieking and nothing pulling at him to go into nothing passing through the nothing and he’s nothing — and comes out the other end in a cheap hotel room, floor and carpet stretched on his face, his insides being hammered with a tapeworm thrashing in his stuffing, or Chan’s, bones turn to white-hot glass and bend in ropes twisting arms and legs and ribs collapsing, re-expanding to collapse again. The Divinity Student pushes back in time, now Chan is breathing and he can feel something like hard bubbles drifting up through the floorboards, passing through him with cold angry pressure, and there in his arms and legs coming up through his abdomen, all of him going glass then marble then wood and carpet then back to glass going brittle and aching and acid searing in bone filaments and bubbles bursting out his back and through his head rolling like a ball clearing columns through his body. The Divinity Student screaming and pushing, he’s got the tearing at his throat, the air channel collapsing and shredding like tissue paper, trying to push further back, and as he rises free and watching Chan slobbering out his last breath beneath him, face all eyes and gaping mouth, as he’s getting out, he latches on to one tiny part, he draws back just a little, only just a small bit, to Chan at the desk, Chan writing his notes, and the Divinity Student copies these notes, and watches a dark-haired lady drift in and leave many times, an empty thing day and night, all of life on the page, in the pen, sad writing at the borrowed desk, pause and stare at the bricks in the wall across the street, then turn and spread ink again, and sad, and write, and dark-haired lady, and eat, and sleep, and sad, and write — and Desden’s room.
Back: returned, the Divinity Student sitting and staring, brought up short just blown in and spinning from the headlong rush of the Eclogue, new magic words humming on the pages of his notebook, and sad Chan’s dead memories rest again on the desk in front of him, in a cone of harsh blue light.