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 Seventeen and Eighteen. If you haven’t read the previous installment yet, please do so here. – The Editors
Cramped in his room, the Divinity Student shakes awake in the middle of the night. He rolls over and takes his head in his hands, but now even sleep is strange — falling and waking with blunt headaches, half-dreaming all the time in weird fragments, dragged away and thrown in the river, or held down and screamed at, wordless, voiceless howling. Tearing the sleep from his head in shreds, he turns to look out across the expanse of floor toward the wall and its windows. Suddenly, he comes sharply awake, alert, the air seems to vanish, and his gaze accosts the furniture, objects, flowing their outlines into each other in the dark. Caught, they snap back within their borders and their borders go rigid.
He’s on his feet. Things scuttle in the corners; they whisper to each other, and the Divinity Student is beginning to understand them. One window in particular is asking for him, shining bright blue in a black wall. Padding across the floor, he can hear tiny scrabbling footsteps dodging out of his way, rustling like grass at his feet. He stops, resting his hands on the sill, and looks out.
There she is! It’s a woman, standing far off on a roof top, looking in his direction. She alights on a chimney and vaults impossibly high, landing on a neighboring gable as lightly as a falling leaf. Dancing bright bounds and leaps, she hurtles from one house to another, always coming closer and moving faster and making no sound. Even at a distance the Divinity Student sees her clearly: compact, a white pinafore with skirts like sea foam and black bands around her waist and throat, each hand gloved in black, fluttering in a lace cuff like a spider in a white blossom. Her long legs are also pitch black and likewise her hair, wrenched back in a tight knot on top of her head. She’s still far away, then suddenly she cartwheels along one roof’s spine and hurls herself out into the air like a thunderbolt, flashing through the air. He hears her touch down over his head, her two feet landing as light as birds. Footsteps tap up and down over his head — she seems to be dancing.
The Divinity Student throws open the sash and thrusts his head out the window, craning his head in time to see a flash of petticoat. Then suddenly her face appears between his and the sky, peering down. She smiles, and her smile strikes him with a tangible shock, like a hammer blow. Her teeth are jagged as a mouthful of venomous broken glass, her eyes, black and glistening like deep wells, narrow to two happy crescents. The Divinity Student steps back from the window, and in a flash she flips down, hanging from the eaves, slipping lithely into the room. Now she is immediately in front of him, silhouetted against the window. She puts her hands on her hips and looks at him, and her teeth flare in an awful grin when she notices jars on shelves and tables. She takes a step forward, one of her gleaming shoes crackles a spare page lying on the floor; she squats and looks it over — it’s one of his notebook pages — her eyes snap back up to him again, and they shine this time deeper than water, pinning him on the spot.
The page drops straight to the floor like a stone. She walks up, making ghastly delightful faces, and stands right in front of him, breathing cool air on him; she’s rustling and cool with flesh like tissues of liquid air, pulls a serious face and raps on his head with her knuckles. He jerks away but does not retreat. She raps again, gravely. Then he reaches for her, and she reaches for him, and what happens next — words fail, words fail . . .
Now he’s always dreaming, and so sensitive to the slightest excess of sensation that daytime is too much for him. He remains inside all day, quailing with a sense of brittle fragility that threatens to erupt in splitting pain, and when night brings him relief, he wanders the streets, passing cemeteries filled with ghosts standing in their graves, quietly chorusing “Oh see us,” after him, eyes closed, hands pat the air. His eyes close and his hands pat the air just the same. He then leaves San Veneficio altogether to walk outside in the desert. The monitors ignore him, lying motionless in rows, a petrified forest of black shapes against the horizon, eyes staring reflected light back at the city. He still sees strange things, but away from the streetlamps he can’t make them out clearly — they’re much larger and slower out in the desert, sometimes whispering past him just a few inches away, whale-sized or larger, and glacially silent, and the Eclogue takes on the mute immediate face of an animal. He’ll look up at the stars, or a gibbous moon, and a vast shadow will swim by overhead, diving between the clouds, occasionally sinking low to drift along the ground.
As he wanders there, sometimes he turns and looks at the city, and his eyes water and smart. Glowing, San Veneficio blurs into a jagged coppery smear along the horizon, shimmering at its base, its penumbra of lights dotted with spiraling shapes circling over the Orpheum, the plazas and spires, his house. Lustrous people-shaped things sail around the walls like uprooted anemones. Gazing at the city repels him, disorienting, making him giddy, and he turns away before too long.
Returning one night, sleep steals over him with such force that he drops to the ground directly, like a scarecrow.
Sunlight lances red-gray through his eyelids, the shadows of people fall across his face. He covers his face with his palms against the light, until, after blinking a few minutes into his hands, he becomes accustomed. The Divinity Student looks up, squinting. He’s lying at the end of Box Street, just inside the border where pavement gives way to bare dirt and trees. It takes a long time for him to make out the dim figure hovering against a wall nearby.
The Divinity Student drags himself up into a crouch and starts to move toward the other man — then stops. There’s a line drawn in the dirt in front of him. It curves around . . . it’s a circle. Someone had drawn a circle around him while he was sleeping. The Divinity Student surges forward and then staggers back. He pushes out to the sides and all around, but no good, he can’t move past the perimeter. Every time he nears the edge a greasy nausea rolls over in his stomach, and the physical burden of the sun’s light becomes a sort of sucking pressure snapping at his legs, making him tumble to his knees again.
The one against the wall is coming toward him. Now the Divinity Student can see him, the curious expression on Ollimer’s face, that he had not genuinely believed it would work, still doesn’t believe it.
“Now listen you,” he says quiet and timid, “just stay where you are.”
“Break this line and get me out of here.” The Divinity Student’s voice is harsh and disembodied, and for a moment Ollimer almost looks ready to obey. He straightens instead.
“I’ll let you out, provided you give me reason.”
“I don’t have my notebook and you wouldn’t get it anyway now break this line!” He points to the ground.
“You have to turn over the house! . . . You made a commitment and now you have to give us the words!” It’s beginning to dawn on him that the Divinity Student really can’t get out of the circle. “You’ll hand them over or stay right where you are!”
Time passes. Ollimer stands with strengthening resolve at the end of the empty street, the Divinity Student, squatting in the dust, glowers malevolently back up at him.
Suddenly he’s knocking back and forth inside the circle like a caged animal throwing dust in the air, howling and barking curses, and Ollimer jumps backwards startled. The Divinity Student freezes and stares intently at Ollimer, and for Ollimer it’s as if two black gulfs yawn in that face. This time the Divinity Student speaks quietly. “Break the line.”
Ollimer is trying to twist himself free, screwing his eyes shut against the two icy fingers that press out of the Divinity Student’s face onto his own.
“You owe us those words!”
“Come here and I’ll give them to you.”
Ollimer takes a step. “You don’t have your notebook.”
“I was bluffing, I have it right here.” He shows the book, holding it between his long fingertips. “Let me give it to you.”
Ollimer is coming toward him now. “And the house? What about that — ”
Ollimer has permitted his hand to stray over the circle’s border. He’s staring at the way his shadow falls across the circumference he drew on the ground, his head cocked to one side, gazing with the look of a daydreaming schoolboy at his hand’s shadow, realizing too late, in slow motion — and then the Divinity Student seizes Ollimer’s outstretched hand and drags him forward nearly tearing his arm from his socket. Ollimer’s feet gouge two long grooves over the circle’s outline, breaking it.
The Divinity Student explodes, hurling Ollimer down the street, sending him flying down the block, touching the ground roughly on his side and then Ollimer skips and spins along the pavement like a stone skimming the surface of a lake, slapping the ground with his palms trying to steady himself, finally he manages to get to his feet and runs in panic down a side alley. Behind him the Divinity Student is angrily scuffing the circle out with his feet, and when he’s done, Ollimer is just disappearing ratlike around a corner.
“Ollimer I’ll murder you! I’ll cut you out of your head and give your body to the butcher!”
His black coat bursts open in a cloud of dust, and springlike the Divinity Student sprints after Ollimer, his long legs reaching out and snapping back so far he nearly grazes his back with his heels. Almost out of control he ricochets down the alley, he windmills his arms seizing garbage cans and debris and tossing them out of his way, and he’s granted a glimpse of Ollimer at the other end of the alley, pale panicking face under flight-disheveled red hair. The Divinity Student bellows horribly at the retreating back. Redoubling his efforts he leaps over crates and heaps of trash, rappelling off of windowsills and fire escapes to keep himself in the air. He rounds the next corner, and Ollimer is vanishing down another alley, showing his heels like a scared rabbit.
Ollimer leads him toward the town center. Presently the routes widen, more people appear, until they’re both of them fighting their way through crowds, Ollimer weaving with agility enhanced by fear, and the Divinity Student stiff-arming pedestrians and cars out of his way. They’re murky shadows to him, scarcely recognizable. All he sees is a flash of red bobbing like an apple a few blocks ahead. But as time goes on his rage abates — he gets confused and worn out. The burden of the light and the enervating presence of other people seeps into his joints and saps his strength and determination by degrees, until he has to forget about Ollimer. He’s started dreaming again, getting a soft head, half-blinded by the obscure shapes milling around, their murmuring voices humming up and down in his mind. Something like a jackal is peering at him from a window. It throws its head back and its mouth tears wide, yellow shoots and leaves sprouting from its throat, so the jackal seizes the vine and pulls it, coaxing it to grow with its hands. The Divinity Student watches the blind drop between them, and a sodden depression closes on him. Further down the block, a long black car belching exhaust pulls up and disgorges a large black dog, disappears into a building. The engine stands idling, fumes catching in the Divinity Student’s throat, nauseating. Later, the dog comes back out again, back into the car, the door slams and the car speeds off, odd smell emanating. Feeble and lost, he wanders with arms outstretched in front of him like a blind man, trying to find his way back to the house.
He blunders up the Street of Wrought-Iron Workers, deserted now — it’s midday, and too hot to work with fire. He passes them drinking their tea on the corner. The street curves as it goes up, and soon they’re out of sight; he’s invisible, soaking with sweat, he stops, pulls the atomizer from his pocket, and sprays formaldehyde on his face. The Divinity Student stares around at the twisted black iron gates and rods in the shop courtyards, and it seems to him as if he’s wandering among strange oversized letters glistening in gullies and nooks to either side, limned in flickering inky fire. The impression of walking through a printed page becomes overwhelming, disarming, and he sprays himself again, taking comfort in the familiar bitter smell and searing vapor.
A shadow falls over him from above, and in a moment he finds that he his vision is suddenly less foggy, and that the heat has abated a little. He looks up but the brilliance of the sky blinds him to the descending shade — someone’s coming down out of the sky. The shade is presently standing beside him. And now black gloved hands, like spiders in lace cuffs, take hold of his arm, clamping down vice-tight through his heavy coat, and guide him up the street. And out towards the edges of town. And up the steps to the house.
Once under the eaves his vision finally begins to clear. The house exhales cool air on him, and he basks in it. His head, plagued by slabs of day-heat out in the sun, turns glassy clear, and the swaying dizziness of the street is arrested as decisively as the motion of a pendulum is stopped by the clockmaker’s hand. A shade ascends out of sight behind him even as he turns to it, vanishing with a rustle of petticoats.
The Divinity Student falls out of his cot, lies on the floor, jarred but only just barely awake. He has dreamt the dream he’d dreamt before, in the hammock, but this time he changed more completely, into something impossible to remember, and it was the woman who had come through the window who was waiting for him in the clouds. The ugly, ginger ache behind his eyes wakes up, too, and he holds his head in his hands, yawning until his jaw hurts. He’s graduated to a new level of pain; his muscles feel like they’re being rubbed with sour stinging fingers and his joints shriek against each other like glass on glass.
Still exhausted, he pitches himself forward and drags himself to the chair. Tonight they’re going after Gaster — the last of the twelve word-finders. Tonight the Catalog will be complete. Gaster is kept on permanent display in a public building, but the place empties out after hours and they can take him then. The biggest obstacle is a tight noose of guards present twenty-four hours on the premises, but Teo has remedied that now, with the help of a forger he knows in the Street of Clockworks. For a small sum and commission he has happily faked three passes for them as “security inspectors.” The Divinity Student lays his head on the desk, feeling blunted and feeble, wanting only to rest and rest. Over and over he relives the dream, seeing clouds parting in front of him and half-remembering being drowned by a feeling he couldn’t describe. Relapsing the sky is black before him, a gaping absence — but all the same it’s reaching out and spanning the distance to snare him, and all the time he’s reaching out his hands to meet it. He comes back to himself, and realizes that Gaster is the key, Gaster and then rest. Gaster, and then the mission is over.
There’s a lighted candle over there on the windowsill. The blade of flame is tiny and dwindling, poised at the tip of the wick between empty air and a lake of liquid wax steadily rising, strangling the fire. The Divinity Student stares at the candle with a sense of recognition, falling against himself back into reverie. He stares at it from under his eyelids, until everything around the light dims and wavers, and although he’s smothered and weighed down with exhaustion, he’s thinking clearly, he knows the candle is burning away its own substance, sublimating itself invisibly into the air. It’s eating itself. Swaying slightly back and forth he realizes that it’s hollowing itself out, and going faster and faster, that it will either drown in its melting flesh, or shrink starving away to nothing. Then — snap — and he’s out of it again. He catches himself with his mouth open, blowing just gently toward the candle, but it’s all the way on the other side of the room, and his breath isn’t enough. The Divinity Student sneers at himself. He gets up, walks over, and pinches the candle out with his fingers. Outside it’s getting dark — he pulls on his heavy coat and heads downstairs.
It’s when he’s doing something important that the pain changes. He still feels like a walking scrapyard, but the leaden, crushing vise at his temples relents a little. It doesn’t vanish, rather it changes character, and focuses into a sweet toothache pain, and all his senses light up like a window display. He feels as unreplenished and unrefreshed as before, but at these times his machine parts take over and carry him along where he directs, like servants tending a bedridden invalid.
Miss Woodwind emerges from the kitchen and meets him there in front of the door, puts a black doctor bag in his hand. She says something to herself and fetches Teo, who’s in the basement grinding his knives. Outside the air is dry and cooling, night’s veil drawing across the sky again, San Veneficio lighting up in front of them, orange streetlights and wan porches, rolling in rows up and down and at all angles, making the town look like a tangle of frozen rail cars knotted together in big strands crisscrossing the desert. It’s exhilarating. All together, they go quietly, avoiding main thoroughfares where they can and sticking to the slums, smell of stale frying fat and old cabbage. Now and then, drawn wasted faces peer out at them, but something in the air the Divinity Student carries with him keeps them at a distance. The three of them are charged. Teo carries a knife ostentatiously in his belt, but people scrabble aside from a mere look from the Divinity Student. His face is scoured with death.
Miss Woodwind guides the Divinity Student across the big boulevards — otherwise he’d get disoriented, forget where he’s going and what he’s trying to do, walk through a wall, make mistakes. She doesn’t look at his face: she’d made that mistake before and seen his eyes darting this way and that, peering at nothing, and, following his gaze, she’d almost seen . . .
Presently the crowds thin out, the exodus from the business end of town is over for the night, the people are already lost elsewhere. The Seleucid building is at the northernmost corner of a small, star-shaped square, a big blocky thrust with circular portholes lined in brass, and now that the people have gone, each is a blank, placid well of suggested space inside. The lobby is a glass-fronted box, with a couple of guards pacing around between the ashtrays and potted palms. Miss Woodwind leads them to a nearby alley where Teo has stowed the handcart earlier, and they retrieve the rope from it. They cross the empty plaza to the lobby and stand mute in front of the glass doors.
A dough-faced guard walks up, the Divinity Student holds up his forged pass. The others follow suit. The guard’s eyebrows rumple and his mouth stretches a bit at the corners in an unconscious ingratiating grin — he doesn’t know whether to ignore them or curry their favor. The doors sigh open, with a gust of antiseptic, air-conditioned air. The other guard approaches.
“I wasn’t told about any inspections.”
The Divinity Student glowers at him, and the guard backs away. For a moment he wavers, then nods and lets them pass. They head straight for an open freight elevator and instinctively the Divinity Student presses the button marked “five.” The door slides shut on the guards’ flummoxed faces.
Fifth floor. Miss Woodwind is the first in the corridor, jumping ahead of the Divinity Student. The hall is dark and empty, a double set of swing doors set directly into a far corner.
Now they’re in a big room with long transparent white drapes hanging like ghosts at the windows. Arranged along the walls are the skeletons of monsters glossed with lacquer to prevent evaporation, encrusted with precious metals and gems. The younger, or naturally smaller, varieties leer from dim alcoves and display tables. In the center of the room, still slowly rotating on a pedestal rigged with ribcages of struts and gear-clavicles, is Gaster. Among other things, and beyond his duties as a word-finder, he’s also responsible for the collection of old bones that stands watch over him now. During the day he meets his admirers, revolving in a pressurized case filled with invisible preservative gases. The visitors mill around, read the little plaque, and peer morbidly at his slack face and blanched hair.
The Divinity Student strides directly up to Gaster, and, as if pushing air before him in a solid sharp mass, a crack whips across the front of the case, and with every step he takes, the fissure widens and spreads. There’s a hissing sound; Miss Woodwind and Teo cover their faces, for their noses and eyes are already smarting and burning with the hot, buzzing, non-smell of that gas. Even Gaster himself looks singed. The Divinity Student reaches out his hand and taps the case once, and the front panel collapses like wet paper. Teo and Miss Woodwind stagger back to the door, then drop through. Taking a deep breath through flared nostrils, with relish, the Divinity Student steps into the case and draws Gaster tenderly to him, carrying him out of the room like a baby, head cradled on his shoulder.
Then, in the hallway — footsteps are coming, a few flashlight beams scratch across walls and framed pictures, guards coming from around the corner. Teo grabs the Divinity Student, who stands gazing lost in Gaster’s face, and pulls him along, following the bend in the hall, and Miss Woodwind starts trying doors. Finally, she kicks one open and they all pile into a small office with a window facing the street. She slams the door behind them and barricades it with a desk. Voices call from the elevator.
Working fast, Teo pulls the rope out from under his apron and ties it to the radiator, tossing the other end down to the street. He looks to the Divinity Student, but he in turn grabs Miss Woodwind by the arm and sends her through first, then Teo after. Flashlight beams itch by under the door, knocks and bangs up and down the hall, the lock rattles and starts to give. The rope breaks. Down below, Miss Woodwind is already on the ground, and Teo drops only half a story; he’s safe, coils of rope spiraling down on top of him. The Divinity Student gently presses Gaster’s face into the folds of his overcoat and bounds out of the window.
He lands square on his feet from five stories, stamped on the pavement a sound like a gunshot. For a moment he’s perfectly still, then, exhaling, he straightens his legs. He walks, limping only a little, and tenderly places Gaster in the handcart. Teo, moving very slowly, goes to help him push the cart up the alley. Miss Woodwind follows too, also very slowly. Above, lights flare in the empty office, heads pop out the window and stare, stabbing their lights down the side of the building, up and down the radiating streets. There is no sign of the Divinity Student. They are getting away.
Over the past few weeks, Teo has become more and more thorough, his technique now demonstrating a decidedly greater degree of precision and skill. Now he’s dissecting Gaster slowly, piece by piece, flaying him first with exquisite care, and always watching himself in the mirror, imagining himself on the table. Periodically, he sprays Gaster with a bottle of formaldehyde to keep him fresh; now he too finds the smell refreshing. If he takes his time and breathes the mist in deeply, he can feel the more acute sensations inflicted on the body — sharp decadent pain welling up like foul water in his limbs, pocketing itself inside him, making him wince and recoil from the body and then step up and carve into him again, like someone endlessly inspecting a painful wound, or someone whipping himself. Desden still curses to himself, but he’s taken to cursing quietly, muttering all the time under his breath, almost as an afterthought. It’s the cutting that seizes his interest, and he knows this time will be the last, at least for now. As he walks around the table to start on Gaster’s left side, passing the empty skull, he thinks of the Divinity Student at work upstairs, and wonders what will happen.
Earlier that day, Miss Woodwind found a fragment, transcribed in the Divinity Student’s handwriting, in the attic room:
“I was sent to suffer and learn and to join the Eclogue. From dictation: you split off and are the ghost sent to encounter my soul as a stranger, bring with you the offering of the first, lost image of us together. When you are caught dreaming, look in a mirror to wake yourself. I correspond to San Veneficio in this way — its soul is brought to me by the saints who are my eyes and ears.”
She drops the page in disgust. “Crazy rubbish!”
The Divinity Student is beginning. Hoses curve in the air around him, one from each of the twelve jars, drawing formaldehyde through an air pump onto an aluminum plate on the table. Each hose adds a different color of fermented memory: gray-green, yellow, brown-orange, tea colored, and clear — they collect in layers without mixing. When the plate is filled, the Divinity Student turns the pump down to a trickle, empties his lungs, and fits a mask, connected to a porcelain dome suspended just above the plate, over his mouth and nose. At the same instant, he drops a catch and sends current running through the plate. The formaldehyde hisses and vaporizes, boiling up into his face, and with a single breath he draws it all into his lungs. His head snaps back against the chair and his arms fall stiff over the armrests. On the table, a thin trickle of chemicals dribbles from each hose onto the plate, skipping in beads over the electrified surface and melting into steam, breath drawn into the Divinity Student.
He loses all sense of his body immediately, his limbs go warm-numb and seem to fall away, and then his senses fall away, too.
The first thing is a clear cycling chime like a ringing glass that passes through at intervals. He’s got nothing else but that and a feeling of something like a lightless explosion — solid and frozen . . . not warming but still melting into wind or waves. He’s going very far. Although he can’t see, there are shapes around him, darker shadows looming against the dark like cliffs and frothings like sea foam. There are things that seem like panels of transparence, windows, lightless as everything else but looking as if he’s peering through something, from one dark to another. At first he thinks they’re moving past him, but no . . . their positions are fixed, he’s the one who’s moving. Gradually, a low thrumming sound becomes audible, from no particular source, as if all the surrounding landscape rests on a blurring membrane. He continues to move “forward,” and then he starts smelling a warm, sweet, acrid smell, like wood alcohol, but it’s a secondhand sensation, from far off or somebody else. Now he can feel ropes whipping around him, or maybe flying stones, but it seems more like taut ropes spanning vast invisible distances, whipping through the air with a low whistling sound, dropping tiny currents of air or water, small disturbances in the air.
Albert is the first to arrive. He just appears, although he’s not actually visible — it feels like light hitting blind eyes, a physical touch. If he’s anywhere he’s just above the Divinity Student and to the left. One by one they appear — after Albert come Niffruch and Dreyfic together, and then Chan after that, and the spectrum fills out piece by piece. Gaster comes last, and he’s right beside the Divinity Student, so close he can feel the Eclogue’s “waves” or “wind” berthing around him.
As they speak together he begins to forget their names, recognizing them only by their manner of speaking. The first one has a shrill, wan voice, and shrieks; two together make rustling, whispering sounds; one is almost wholly silent; here coughs and barks; and there the patter of fingers flicking together; this one hums, stuttering “mm” or “mm mmmuh”; from that one — a bubbling hiss and sneeze; a bestial lowing and shouting on one side; on the other a flat uninflected voice muttering on a single fixed tone; laughing or sobbing; and the last speaks by dancing in an awkward, heavy circle, invisible yet sensible. Together they’re all speaking the Catalog-language, the Eclogue-language, about everything, and behind everything.
The strain is terrible; the longer he stays the more tenuous and lost in the stream he becomes. Vaporous hot flashes shoot from underneath to curdle up and around brittle sensations of obscene toothache pain and he’s being whittled away, flying off in pieces that flutter away in high-pitched sounds like flocks of frightened birds. Pushing in farther it’s only more obscure and much deeper than he’s ever been, drawn into wide expanses filling with cold fibrous structures unraveling outward with no horizon visible only as greater shadows against dark fields, veils or endless surfaces both fluid and brittle, less moving than expanding — he’s the only limited thing — him and the twelve with him, but they’ve been gone a long time, they’re less limited. Only ghost sensations now, like tingling in phantom limbs, clinging together but strained to a point of tearing fragmenting and flaking away in flecks that reflect the dark — he’s still trying to remember enough, the twelve word-finders drop away completely — he’s looking for the medium past them, and what words they really use. The pieces twist around him in orbit, brittle weak feelings crumpling and collapsing pours over smooth planes searing hot along the edges and collecting in boiling beads, wash back into the Divinity Student wracked in his chair on waves from an empty-foaming ocean.