The following is the final part of our serialization of 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 has been proud to serialize The Divinity Student over the past few weeks in support of the author and his books, which we encourage all of our readers to acquire and read as soon as possible. This part of the serialization covers the final chapter of the novel proper. If this is your first encounter with this novel on WFR, we encourage you to go to the first installment and read from there. – The Editors
The Divinity Student knows this day will be his last. The divining machines verify it. It. The twelve jars that stare at him from all corners of the room tell him, the daylight that ebbs and flows in slow tides of color tells him, and the lightless patches in corners and along the edges of his room — they in particular tell him. He’s found the Catalog. His studies are completed. He sits at the desk, rocking back and forth just a little, feeling only empty waiting, the Eclogue yawning for his offering. The house around him is expanding to let it in. The air around his shoulders draws in frozen, painful needles in his fingers and down his legs, deep tooth-rattling shudders. With an absent feeling, he practically throws himself from the chair and out the door.
Miss Woodwind is reading in her room when the Divinity Student comes in. He sits down beside her, says nothing. She finishes the paragraph and puts the book in her lap.
He’s staring at the floor. Again she becomes conscious of the house’s low thrumming, fluttering hard under the floorboards — has it gotten louder?
“What is it?” she asks, but he only starts wavering gently backwards and forwards. Miss Woodwind gets up and grabs the arms of his chair.
“What are you doing now?” she says it loud, trying to get through, “come on, answer me! I’ve been here all this time waiting for you, at least you could tell me what’s happening!”
Either he’s dreaming again, or ignoring her, or he can’t understand her anymore, because he still says nothing. She throws up her hands, they land on her hips as she goes to the window.
“What am I doing here?”
Outside, she can see a car idling at the corner. It’s windows are dark; it’s impossible to see inside. Eventually, as if responding to her angry gaze, it drives off down the road in a bleary cloud of scattered paper. She thinks of her father slipping pages into developing pans and the heavy magnifiers he’d use to study them; she thinks of the office and misses it. Finally her thoughts spin out beyond her attention and she finds herself peering at an empty street. When she turns around, the Divinity Student hasn’t moved.
“You don’t even realize I’m here,” she says quietly.
She looks at him across the room, crumpled in the chair like a scarecrow.
“I know you’re here.” His voice is repulsive, it nearly pushes her back against the windowsill. But she screws up her determination and approaches his chair, his splayed feet in heavy shoes discarded on the floor.
“So tell me what you’re doing! If you’re not collecting words anymore then why do you stay here? . . . You’re looking for something else!”
She brings her face down until it’s only inches from his. For a moment he weaves, barely able to find her eyes.
“ . . . Yes, you’re right.”
“Then let me in on it! Tell me what it is! I just have to know what it is!”
This is wearing him out. “I would tell you if I could.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?!”
He’s waving at her, trying to fend her off, “I can’t tell you anything more . . . it’s not for telling.”
“Are you a liar or just an idiot?!” she’s keeping after him, thin lipped and bright-eyed, “I want a sensible answer!”
But he’s already fading, his eyes are glazing and his mouth goes slack, his head falls back against the chair.
Miss Woodwind’s eyes bore into him a moment, and then she goes downstairs.
There’s the front door.
After a moment, she bites her lip, looks up the shaft framed with stair flights; her heart’s in her mouth, something awful pouring up into her, toward him. One last thought of him as he had looked, standing talking to her father for the first time a few weeks ago, and then she remembers him at the fountain in the park. Then she walks out the door.
Cars have been passing up and down the street all day trying to distract him, or trying maybe to shave off pieces of his thoughts as they go by, fragmenting his concentration. Sometimes they’ll idle directly in front of the house, and the Divinity Student will stand perfectly still, feeling the house shake to their engine hum, smelling the exhaust, the lingering outside pressing like a weight on his chest. Then, for no discernible reason, they’ll pull away. Then the pressure lifts like a fading headache. He’s come to suspect the insects, too. There aren’t many Teo doesn’t manage to kill, not just with knives, but with all manner of poisons and toxins tracing the edges of the house, baiting every door, window, crack. Those who do get through must have a reason, a powerful drive to get into the house, and seek out the Divinity Student. There’s no telling when a pair of tiny eyes may be watching, and the Divinity Student is constantly on the alert. He can’t let anything go wrong — just a little longer, until it comes. Once or twice a mosquito bit him, only to be killed and embalmed instantly with its first sip of his formaldehyde blood, and the Divinity Student suddenly felt the tug of its tiny mind as it perished, living its death along with it, connected together along a thread of formaldehyde. He smiles when that happens.
Teo is leaving. He’s disposed of Gaster’s body, and he’s packing his things. Teo can see the time ahead unspooling like a short ribbon striped with days and nights, and at the end the Divinity Student’s failing body will lie pale and curved on the ground with shadows over his face. However much longer it will last, he knows that the Divinity Student has no use for him anymore. So he puts his things away, and sends for a cart to carry off the last remnants of his shop. There are relations of his in town who will put him up until he can open a new shop, and pace in front of his mirrors again.
The last time Teo sees the Divinity Student, he’s standing on one of the landings on the middle floor, leaning on a precariously tilting banister and staring out into space. The butcher waves his hand a little, and says he’s going. The Divinity Student barely notices, inclining his head down only slightly, swaying, one suspender strap falls from his shoulders. He manages to unwrap a few waving fingers from the railing and makes a painful effort to grin, but his grin looks like death. Teo turns to go, and all feeling washes out of him, and he’s all but forgotten his friend by the time he’s out the door.
Completely alone in the house, staggering from room to room without point until he can barely lift his feet, then sitting with an empty head, staring at the wallpaper for a while, and getting up again. The place is empty. Wake up and there are cars going by outside, there’s a fly watching him from a windowpane. He crushes it with his notebook and cracks the glass. Despite the effort he rambles up and down the stairs over and over again, increasingly coming to rest up in his room, staring at the glasses gathering dust all around, and his rickety, derelict divining machines. Time runs out. Fasvergil and Ollimer fade away. He has the Catalog, he has translated it and now it is translating him. The Catalog was not intended for them. He has destroyed his notes.
Sitting, and with evening falling, the Divinity Student feels himself settling in his chair, dropping further and further, and he has no strength to resist. As the day fades, his eyes refuse to become accustomed to the dark, everything blends behind a screen of tiny, shimmering motes of increasingly diffused light. Months pass without the lifting of that curtain, the window beyond remains as black as if it were painted black. Over time, cobwebs gather across the panes; dust blankets him, the room, the whole world; and he sits without stirring a single finger, his breathing the only sound and movement, growing shallower all the time. In imperceptible increments the house begins to fade, each fiber of the wood, the glass, the plaster, all of them starting to blend into the air with a faint dying glow. Older, much older vistas are coming through now. Luminous forms swim in and out among the furniture fanning the air with spectral plumage, others sulk in shadow corners coiled ready to spring, still others hover basking in dull, motionless inertia. For the first time their voices are audible to him, the inarticulate noises and weirdly voiced half-words recited almost like verse in the air, which has become thick with things previously unseen. Cold drafts skitter along the back of his neck and roll in tides over him as he sits like a stone in place. Gradually, he begins to sense even the residual presence of the twelve word-finders gathered here, faint like people in weathered old photographs. This is where they came to find the words. There’s a feeling like autumn leaves piling on top of him — he’s become a piece of furniture himself, unable even to give the impression that he can move. With a hollow feeling he shrinks and shrinks, his insides ebbing away from his outsides, knowing implacably this is precisely how it has to be, to freeze and freeze, it’s all part of the story. A cold aroma gradually fills his nose and expands down into his chest, pressing down farther into his empty cavities and numbing his limbs, making him even drowsier, and even colder, and even less concerned with himself, and he wants to embark, finally, sink into the weight and rest. It’s a smell of repose, relaxing, peace and quiet, unending, ever-heavier dreams.
It’s the stink of wet dirt and rotting leaves — his eyes fly open and he instinctively recoils, pushing the chair over backwards and tumbling out slamming his head against the floor. Twisted dark shapes trailing shadows had flocked around him like buzzards, looming together wreathing him all around, they scatter fast back out of sight blurring, and the Eclogue suddenly is there, sharper, clear where it had been obscured, but still only looming, on the way but not arrived. The Divinity Student, his head ringing like a copper bell, drags himself across the floor like a man plucked from a freezing river. His bones are groaning like rusting machinery, but with every movement he gets going faster, shaking the cold, panic searing at him instead. He still has to finish properly, see it through or fail once and for all. Outside the cars are howling, their tires are whining on the pavement, their horns are blaring — and there’s another noise. Slithering on his belly like a snake the Divinity Student slides out the door and down to one end of the landing, near the windows. Muscles complaining he lifts himself on the lower lip of the sill and peers out. There are three cars swerving drunkenly on the street below, jumping the pavement and splintering fenceposts, gouging furrows in the yard, spinning their tires and kicking up paving stones through the porch windows. The air is boiling with shadows ducking in and out through their windshields and doors, shadows with vicious bent figures and low whistling voices, whipping elastic through the air like clothes on a line.
Downstairs a crash that could only be the front door, slapped flat to the floor. Barking dogs and heavy padding with clicking claws in and out of the rooms, scaling the stairs, filling the house, baying, fighting each other. The Divinity Student is on his feet, the din getting intolerable with a dozen answering voices in every room responding in every register until the floor shakes and the walls rattle and the ceiling cracks. Black dogs the size of calves loping through doorways, and things beyond describing prowling, flying, dancing, swimming, lurking everywhere until they’re all he can see. The Divinity Student runs up and down the stairs batting them out of his face, running from room to room, trying to escape. The cars are roaring in the yard horns droning like sirens, and inside the babble and the shriek and mutter surging louder like bedlam, so keep running from one room to another, keep running, stop and turn back and run again, rescue, rescue, breathing hard in a panic but never stopping going round the house, looking singlemindedly set on finishing. Run and watch the house dissolve before his feet, the last tenuous fabric going translucent dark and fading away until wooden floors turn cobbled streets and plaster walls of stripping paint and bubbling wallpaper go marble and stone and ebony with wrought-iron fixings, lamps to streetlights, tables to monuments, bookshelves to shops, curtains to trees, windows turn from inward to outward and the ceiling yawns translated into an endless void lit with huge heat-distorted constellations where minutes ago there were gaslights. The must of an old house going to earth and stained with formaldehyde turns to the manycolored spectrum of a city’s smells, and the streets of San Veneficio burst out on all sides cutting between looming houses crammed with people, and around him, still weaving things and shapes like an army rushing around him in the dark, voices broadening too to a dizzying variety until the vastness of the sound homogenizes into a seething drone and the kaleidoscope of silhouettes and luridly colored luminous things blends together into a transparent, boiling cloud.
San Veneficio comes clear again. The sky is a hurricane of motionless black clouds like the swirled cone of a cavern roof, from horizon to horizon save for the storm’s round eye immediately overhead. There the pupilless moon stares down, and strange shadows move on its face, its light dapples the city blue and red. Where it’s blue, San Veneficio is a ruin. The streets are empty and quiet, the buildings crumbling and bleached like ancient grave markers, the air turns chill and thin, the Divinity Student’s breath steams acrid in his face, his feet stir plumes of dust powdering the ground like fine snow. Where it’s red, the streets buck and shift like the deck of a doomed ship, the air rises in hot transparent coils so that the city distorts, as if viewed through a window of wrinkled glass. The outlines of the buildings around him billow like smoke, they hide enormous roaring engines, legions of enemies. In passing from color to color he can feel his wake in the air reflected back on himself, as if he’d run through a doorway where no walls or door had been. He looks down at himself and, like looking into a convex mirror, his body distorts, curving down to the ground, legs tapering to points, his pale hands like a doll’s hands, his own pale face startling him in windows, and the rest of him lost in heavy folds of black coat.
For one hundred years he’s making his way toward the center of the city, where the drone of the Eclogue is swelling in increments to a shattering roar with an audible gap into which he will be fitted. Dark and heavy the world falls away slowly. San Veneficio is a maze, dead-end and then turn to dead-end again, but always a column of smoke rising from the center, a clanging siren, and that’s what he follows, running to be attached to them. He sees all but the largest now, those that rush by whale-sized, glistening in corners chirping and muttering to each other. The rest blend into the air. A train passing screams at him with a woman’s voice. Somewhere on a back street he meets a man he’d met before on the floor of a hotel room. He drops from a melting fire escape and stops in his tracks to stare at the Divinity Student. That single inexplicable look masks his eyes, so that when he looks again, the man is gone. Passing the cemetery, he sees huge pulsing trees burrowing into graves with their roots, their branches forking like capillaries into fleshy clouds. Another time he is stopped by someone else, someone who dances in an awkward, heavy circle, and vanishes into the corner of a building. Two men pass him on a rooftop holding hands, and passing, they greet him and wish him welcome. He never stops long, but keeps making his way toward the center of the city. He doesn’t count the twelve men that he meets, one after another. The closer the column of smoke looms the faster he goes, and once he enters the inner district, he moves fastest of all. Now he’s all but flying, feet barely touching the ground, streaking dust behind him in blue light, dancing along the uneven cobbles in the buckling red light, suspended between the ground and the air. And once in a while, he’ll look up, to see someone pacing him along the rooftops, vaulting from chimney to weathervane, skating on gutters, using roof slates for her stepping stones, and her black-gloved hands flutter in their lace cuffs like spiders in white flowers.
He gains the inner city at last, coming to San Veneficio’s heart, the Orpheum and its great empty plaza milling with a thousand invisible shapes, sounding with a thousand hollow voices. Here the light is pure, the moon shines like an iceberg in stark white sterile light, the Orpheum is neither smoke nor ruin, but it blazes like a second moon, cool and unsearing. The voice comes from deep inside, a disconnected, businesslike voice chanting inside the Orpheum, and a column of smoke dissipating across the city now that the Divinity Student has arrived. A lone white figure with long black legs whips through the air like lightning to plant her feet firmly atop the apex of the Orpheum’s shining dome. She raises her two arms high in the air and turns her face to the Divinity Student, she bows her head to the Divinity Student, who is coming through the plaza to stand directly before the palace’s great doors, between the statues of San Veneficio’s greatest poets and a dry fountain filled with earth and blossoming night plants, where dark and heavy the world falls beneath a single gap in the clouds where the moon is moving away to reveal—
Voices rise again on all sides and shapes outlined in the dazzling light take on substance again, altogether a vast soundless noise and lightless light Eclogue, parting to dimension an aperture. A terrible feeling takes the Divinity Student, like a clod of dirt lodged in his chest, and branching through his limbs. He clutches his chest and falls forward, acid pain scalding him inside. The pain climaxes as the chant from the Orpheum reaches its crescendo and he then raises his head despite his agony, because he recognizes the words. Now he knows the words, and the language, his own language, finally roots in him. A dark place he’s seen before collapses all around him, and in darkness the Divinity Student catches with creation on the air, hooking his teeth, the Eclogue clothes him and strips him in divinity and takes him like a messenger, he is drawn up into the sky.
Naked seabed. The sky is a still canopy, like the underside surface of a lake, and blue light shines on the marble walls striking patterns across the hot ground like dancing traceries of light reflected from rippling water. Sitting alone in a spacious cab, the Divinity Student watches the sweat trickle down the driver’s neck, wind buffeting him from the open window. A single road lies flat.