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 Three and Four. If you haven’t read the previous installment yet, please do so here. – The Editors
Pausing in mid-stride, two black dogs stare at the Divinity Student as he emerges from the office. Recoiling, he claps his hands and steps backwards into the threshold; they scrabble headlong down the stairs with clicking feet — a bad omen. With a rustle of papers, he recollects himself and follows them down slowly. At the bottom of the stairs there’s a secondary door opening out onto a narrow street, old plaster walls leaning in to meet overhead, windows and sagging trellises, washing on lines, a thin trickle of people weaving out towards the plaza. He steps over an old drunk word-finder, hands tattooed with old words in blue ink.
“I’m interested in rivers.”
Eyes on the cobbles, the Divinity Student makes his way to the corner, smelling food and garbage. There’s a small cafe, two walls open to the street, scuffed white and orange checkerboard tiles reach to the low curb, a field of sturdy white metal tables and chairs with the occasional long-faced readers and chess players. He notes that some of these are playing against mechanized opponents.
“Chess is a game of competing algorithms,” he thinks. “One piece is gradually predetermined by the action of play to end the game, either in checkmate or stalemate. All pawns are agents, like me.”
The Divinity Student navigates fast to the counter, at chin-level above glass display cases smeared with white transparent finger and palm marks. A willowy wall-eyed student takes his order and his money without looking at him, assures him it will be brought to his table, and disappears.
He turns and finds a seat close to the street, grown quiet and still. Across the plaza he can see crowds of miniature silhouettes frothing around the buildings as cloud shadows glide flexibly across gleaming stone courtyards. The city settles quiescent in the early afternoon. He turns his attention to the pocket lexicon, flipping through at random: afflatus, epiclesus, soteriology—these he knows—ylem catches in his throat; a kid in a coarse white apron clatters the tray down in front of him and shuffles off, drawing his nose along his sleeve. Alone again, the Divinity Student pours smoky-looking tea through a sieve over three sugar cubes. Two leathery, triangular pouches lie black and brown in grease on his plate. He cuts into one with his knife and steaming oil dribbles out, a spicy smell, tiny white curls that look like pearly onions inside, and some soft blue powder. He eats quickly, burning his tongue. For some reason he still needs to eat.
Were it not for the coppery hair thatching his head, Mr Ollimer would be unrecognizable — of all the people he has ever met, not one of them can place him in their memories save by the color of his hair. In feature, figure, dress, and behavior, nothing immediately remarkable, as empty of distinction as a technical drawing. He is the third word-finder upstairs at Woodwind’s, apart from the giggler and the snorter. The Divinity Student looks up to see him standing expectantly by a nearby table, eyebrows up. Their eyes meet.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Ollimer asks seriously.
The Divinity Student raises his right hand in a small wave indicating the chair opposite him; Ollimer rushes to sit, nodding, looking down.
Ollimer toys with a napkin; he’s groping for words.
“Those bastards,” he finally says in a birdlike voice. “I was transferred only last week and of course I had to end up with them. They pulled the same tomfoolery with me about my desk.”
The Divinity Student responds with another gesture, eyebrows up, a small frown, slight inclination of his hands.
“They started talking about you the moment you left the office, but I wouldn’t worry.” Ollimer flicked a look at him. “They won’t dare give you any trouble as long as they think you’ve got Miss Woodwind’s favor.”
“Yes — the secretary — don’t you remember?”
“I meant to say I didn’t know she was related to — ”
“ — Oh yes, I’m sorry, I misunderstood — yes, she’s his daughter.” Ollimer rocks forward and backward as he speaks.
The Divinity Student’s gaze drifts off, follows two Koreans passing, carrying a drum.
“I just met her. How could I have won her favor?” he says after a moment.
Ollimer pouts and thinks a moment. “Her demeanor around you, I suppose. She’s fairly peremptory with us . . . ” Ollimer leans in closer and taps the table with his finger. “You really ought to take advantage of that, if she genuinely does favor you. There are advantages . . . ”
“You’ve never been her favorite.”
Ollimer grins as if the Divinity Student had made a joke. “Oh no, certainly not me.”
The Divinity Student tips his head back and gazes up past the rooftops to the sky’s racing white and blue.
“Where did you receive your training?” Ollimer leans his elbows on the table and holds his hands in front of his face.
“I’m a Divinity Student.”
Ollimer looks around cautiously. A car with tinted, impenetrable windows pulls up in the alley almost immediately, its idling engine sets the table thrumming. Ollimer hisses something inaudible under the noise.
“Listen!” Cutting his right hand sideways in the air, close to the table, he speaks in a tight whisper, “You’re serious? You were trained at the Seminary?”
“Listen! I must speak with you later! I know some people — ”
The car revs its engine, backing into the alley and then jerking forward again, over and over, garbage squelching under the tires, people dodging out of the way. Ollimer casts a panicky look over his shoulder, and repents immediately.
“Oh now I’ve done it! I look suspicious!” he moans. “I’ve got to be going!”
He holds his hand out. The Divinity Student looks at it as if he doesn’t understand. Panic flashes in Ollimer’s eyes, he waves his hand desperately at him, and just barely exposes a business card concealed in his palm. The Divinity Student takes Ollimer’s moist hand and palms the card, slipping it into the pocket lexicon with one fluid, inconspicuous motion. Ollimer waves timidly and walks quickly back towards the office, weaving and wiping his face. Suddenly, the car breaks its jerking back and forth and swings wildly forward, blaring its horn and flaring its headlights, onto the curb, sending tables flying; the Divinity Student runs out into the plaza knocking his table in the path of the shrieking car lurching over mangled chairs towards him. He makes straight for the nearest alley and gets clear, vanishing into a million streets.
four: the dream
In deepening shades of blue the day burns off into space and the stars flare one by one. The Divinity Student watches the sky’s well clear from a hammock he has rigged between a fire escape and a drainpipe five stories above an empty alleyway. Incidental headlights pass at the end of the alley, filtered through the slats of a makeshift fence, sending thin vertical bands of light floating left to right over the brick walls or pouring through a single window close to where he is hanging, illuminating the featureless upper corner of a white plaster box of a room. The Divinity Student can’t afford a place of his own.
Lulled by these tides of light he drifts off, face upwards. Initially, he couldn’t bear to look at the sky, afraid he’d fall up into the black air, falling so high he’d burst, but now he’s up there already, the stars all around him, close enough to touch, humming and sparking at him like millions of brilliant little machines.
Lying there, he slowly becomes aware of a slippery feeling; he’s covered with oil, clear oil oozing out of his skin, and it’s soaking into his clothes — he can’t afford to ruin his clothes, they’re all he’s got! He undresses as quickly as he can swinging in his hammock, piling up his garments at his feet, drops a sock but with surprising agility he snaps it up and tosses it back into the hammock. Naked now he stops himself, staring at his arm, and now his legs and feet, and all the rest of him — he’s turned powder-white. It’s pigment, like flour under his skin, white as wax and coated with clear mineral oil, dripping off his fingers, getting into his eyes and making them smart, even the hair on his head is slick with it; the rest of his body is hairless. Confused and shivering with cold, he manages to squat in the hammock, hugging his knees. The wind plays over his body and he gets another surprise — something on his back. What’s happening to him?
The wind is playing over his back, delineating his form in the air, and there’s something changed back there. He reaches his arm around and runs the palm down his wet skin, and feels deep fissures and ridges. He peers over his shoulder and sees his ghostly reflection in a window. Three huge dorsal vents slant down on each side of his spine, yawning open and upwards like gill slits, white skin stretched tight over powerful curves: funnels of skin and muscle held out by fans of cartilage. He crouches down and presses his hands to his head breathing heavily and shuddering as he feels the vents twitching horribly. As he breathes he feels the vents breathing moistly, drawing air in and forcing it out through narrower openings along his sides. He screws his eyes shut and presses his hand to his mouth, filled with transparent teeth with fluorescent blue and red veins and flickering silver nerves.
He crouches frozen in place, afraid to lie down thinking he might crush the vents on his back. Panicking he starts gasping for breath, his chest is being squeezed shut, and across his back the vents jerk open, cold night air sucks in and rushes out the small openings on his sides. Faster and faster the air sluices through as he gasps for breath, stronger and stronger until the pressure pushes him up off the hammock, his legs straightening, and he rises straight up into the sky on columns of night air. The city expands below him, he passes through its lights and further into the ocean of colorless light limning the bottom of the clouds. He aims straight up, his arms at his sides, straining with effort and petrified that any moment he’ll plummet to earth. A tiny white line in the sky, he keeps his body straight and slants up at the clouds. The cloud ceiling doesn’t budge, muddy and silver, refusing to come closer. He charges at it with all his might; he attacks the clouds and strikes straight to the heart, with air running over him pushing oil into rivulets along his back and sides; he blinks it out of his eyes. With all his might he pushes himself up, scarcely thinking about what he’s doing, everything fades, and he loses himself in the effort, and then moments later he remembers that he’s flying and it overwhelms him, nearly sending him toppling headlong out of the sky.
Finally after an eternity of struggling, vapor closes around him like curtains of water, boding rest — he’s been holding his breath, now he lets it out in humid air and breaks through. The cloud comes up beneath to support him and he falls to his knees, disgorges clear, sweet gelatin from the exertion of flying.
Spectral light on a cloud landscape, a thunderhead in the distance is the highest peak in a chain of mountains from the south, wispy cloud trees stand frozen along streams of mist. Atop a nearby hill, Mr Woodwind lies sleeping wrapped in white blankets, a white garland on his brow. Miss Woodwind emerges from beneath a tree. As she draws near the breeze brings him the smell of her perfume.
“He’s sleeping,” she says softly and raises her eyebrows at him. The moon emerges and her face blurs as she comes closer, hair framing a glowing indistinct face. Her hair pats her brow in a light breeze that bathes him in her milky breath.
The snorter, whose name is Householder, and the giggler, whose name is Blandings, squat in one corner of the office, shoes in hand, bashing clumsily at a rat. They’ve been hunting rats all day, joking with each other and drinking. Ollimer had shivered when the Divinity Student arrived; he still pores over his notes without looking up, the top of his red head jerking back and forth, from his notebook to his lexicon and back again. Householder hits on a new game, filling his mouth with ink and spraying it on the walls for fun. The giggler’s running for his bottle when Miss Woodwind wafts into the office. She cocks a finger at Householder and smiles. He pats the giggler on the back and sets his ink bottle on his desk, following her out; as he reaches the door he turns once to grin back into the office, his teeth stained with ink. The giggler returns to his seat, smiling and shaking his head. The day passes.
The Divinity Student finishes his work and leaves the office twenty minutes later. He hasn’t gotten down the block before Ollimer catches up with him, peering over his shoulder.
“We were interrupted yesterday. I need to talk with you.”
The Divinity Student keeps going, doesn’t look at him.
“I’ve been reproaching myself ever since we parted. I ought to have warned you about the cars the minute you told me you were a Divinity Student.”
“Why didn’t you? Did you think it better to let me learn by example?”
“No! I assumed that you’d know about them, or that you might have been briefed about them before you came here.”
“Why did you assume that?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve said I ought to have warned you.” He touched the Divinity Student’s sleeve with a plaintive look.
“Won’t you listen to me now?”
The Divinity Student keeps walking with his head down, and nods after a moment. He blinks, as if noticing Ollimer for the first time.
Ollimer puts his hands in his pockets.
“ . . . I’ve never met a Seminarian before. It must be exciting! Do you have any special knowledge?”
A crash shatters along the alley walls, Ollimer starts and whirls, but it’s only a delivery boy — tripped and broke a vase. Ollimer is about to dismiss it, then he turns slowly to face the Divinity Student.
“You didn’t have anything to do with that, did you?” he asks, pointing at the boy gathering glass behind him.
“Coincidence,” is all the Divinity Student says shrugging, turning, walking towards the plaza. They go together, neither speak.
The plaza is empty, voices are faintly audible in a distant sussuration from its borders, the babble of the fountain laughing across polished black pavement, their footfalls and the wind tugging at their coats, the only sounds.
Ollimer steps out in front of him. “Listen, come with me to my aunt’s house — I want you to see something.”
“We’re due back.”
“Woodwind won’t care — please.”
They cross the plaza and thread their way through the vendors on Glass Street, duck into a side passage too narrow for them both to walk abreast.
“There’ll be no cars here,” Ollimer tosses over his shoulder.
Moving fast now, at a slow jog, the Divinity Student wonders if Ollimer isn’t planning something. The walls are smooth, with no doors or windows above, the sky is a dim, narrow beam. Ollimer moves rapidly, kicking newspapers. The passage gradually slopes downwards, finally into a sooty black aperture . . . a stale, bitter smell trails out of it in gritty, gray threads, leaving a sterile taste in his mouth. Ollimer vanishes in shadow below, and he follows with caution.
The tunnel is short, light from the far end only a few yards away, a squat vertical shaft with an iron ladder stapled to a brick wall.
“After you,” Ollimer graciously indicates the rungs. He’s more buoyant here in his element.
The Divinity Student doesn’t trust him. “I insist,” he says, holding out his hand.
Ollimer nimbly scales the ladder and the Divinity Student follows behind him.
They emerge in a vacant lot bordered by a rough plank fence, anonymous buildings visible beyond, a scorched brick house at their backs, fronted by a rickety flight of steps, a spidery web of light playing over the scarred bricks. Ollimer watches the Divinity Student’s face a moment, then nods and makes for the stairs. They ascend past stagnant-water windows, mostly empty rooms save for one on the third floor, where a dark-haired woman is ironing. The uppermost landing opens on a bright yellow door. Ollimer takes out his heavy key ring and unlocks it.
The Divinity Student steps into a small well-lit room with gold wallpaper and huge potted plants. Plush red furniture and shining mahogany wood, Persian rugs and aging photographs on the walls — it’s like a dollhouse.
Ollimer’s aunt Marigold is staring at the hearth, her smooth face and fine white hair flicker orange and gold in the firelight over a clean print dress and cameo brooch.
She turns a listless eye on him.
“This is a friend of mine, from the office — he’s a Divinity Student!”
She is waving distractedly at the sideboard. “John . . . ” Her voice is toneless and far away, “ . . . my needle, John . . . ”
Ollimer turns to the sideboard and brings her the needle and a small perfume bottle half-filled with clear liquid. She takes them with a lugubrious air and begins drawing the fluid into the syringe.
Ollimer cordially indicates a seat.
The Divinity Student takes the offered chair, while Ollimer busies himself with a tea tray. Eventually, they come to be sitting opposite each other, the tray between them, Ollimer leaning into the rising steam.
“Now I’ll tell you about the Catalog!” he says with relish. “You being from the Seminary, you’ll understand how important this is!”
“All right. I’m not certain who else knows about the Catalog, but I can assure you, there’s none who knows more about it than me. I obviously can’t discuss how I came to know about it, but rest assured it’s absolutely genuine.
“What I’m talking about is a Catalog of unknown words — they’re secret words, ghost-words, and completely new. I’m not at liberty to tell you who compiled it, or for what purpose, but I’ve been authorized to offer you some access to it.”
The Divinity Student leans forward, his coat billowing around him in the chair. He stares at Ollimer.
Ollimer’s aunt sighs over the thrumming of the fire.
“So where is it? Who has it?” he asks.
“ . . . You must understand, what’s essential is to maintain the spirit of the thing, maintaining the spirit of the Catalog through practice . . . ”
“That doesn’t answer my question. You don’t have it.”
“Me? Oh, no, naturally not.”
Ollimer hesitates. With slow and deliberate motion, the Divinity Student produces his old black leather Seminary Edition of the Holy Book and holds it up between them. Ollimer’s eyes flick between his face and the book.
“Don’t forget who I am.”
Ollimer looks at the book, his face pinched.
“No more games — tell me.” He lowers the book and Ollimer wavers back into his chair.
“The Catalog was destroyed . . . a few years ago . . . ” he says hoarsely, suddenly unable to lie.
“Then what am I doing here?! Who cares?!”
“Please, don’t be angry with me, I’m not strong enough for that!”
Tears shine in the corner of Ollimer’s eyes. He wrings his hands plaintively.
“I’m sorry — they tell me so little, I really know next to nothing about it!”
“Are they from the Seminary?”
“I don’t know — one of them seems to be a priest.”
The Divinity Student is silent. In the dim light of the parlor his face glows faintly.
“They must have given you a fragment to show me,” he says finally.
Ollimer nods, blinking. “Yes, I don’t know anything about it, actually. I’ve had it for years — you’re not the first, just the most qualified — ”
“How am I qualified?” The Divinity Student’s face flares white, his voice is dry and spare.
“I don’t know. It’s all something very learned, I don’t understand it, I don’t have the education. Do you know what they mean? Is it that you know Greek, something like that?”
“ . . . What did they tell you to do?”
“To show you the fragment, that’s all. They say things are still falling into place; they’re waiting before they tell you anything more. Everything’s a secret with them, no one knows more than they need to — they’re afraid of the cars. The cars are on to you already, they suspect you, you’ll have to be careful. I’m sorry if I’m talking a lot! I don’t want to waste your time!”
Ollimer stands up.
“I feel such a strong desire to confide in you!” He says in an embarrassed, half-laughing gasp. “I suppose I’m a bit in awe of you. We’d better go into my room,” Ollimer glances at his nodding aunt.
The Divinity Student follows him down a tiny hallway to a boxy bedroom. Ollimer kneels on the floor and produces, from under his bed, a small tin chest with a padlock; he opens it and moves over to his desk. The light from the lamp shines up on his face, making it strange.
He opens a leather wallet and gingerly draws out a scrap of paper. The Divinity Student accepts it from him and sits down to read it. It is half of a sheet of notebook paper, with one corner torn off, taking with it most of the first word. All that is left are the last three letters,—nia, and the definition:
In the middle of the night, a beautiful young woman was wakened from a deep sleep, in an empty house, by a sharp pounding on her bedroom door. Upon opening the door, she saw only the empty hallway, no one anywhere along its length, or anywhere in the house. She went back to her room and shut the door behind her, but she had not taken her hand from the doorknob when the pounding sounded again even louder, nearly knocking her over. She immediately flung the door open, and again saw no one — except for a black and white spider hanging from a thread directly in front of the door.
The Divinity Student looks at Ollimer.
Ollimer had watched him reading.
“You see? I‑it’s a word that can only be defined by a story. The word doesn’t represent that sequence of events — but rather it names what that sequence suggests.”
“Is that what you were told to say?”
Ollimer doesn’t answer.
“The page is torn, what was the word?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry, that’s all there is.”
The Divinity Student gives the fragment back and stands up, pacing over to the other side of the room while Ollimer replaces everything as it had been.
“Have you told me everything?”
“Yes — they just want you to think about it. Are you interested?”
The Divinity Student is thinking.