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Authors: Michael Cisco

The Divinity Student

BOOK: The Divinity Student
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Cheeky Frawg Books

Tallahassee, Florida

Copyright © 1999 Michael Cisco.

Introduction © 2012 by Ann VanderMeer.

Cheeky Frawg logo copyright 2011 by Jeremy Zerfoss.

Ebook design by Neil Clarke.

Cover art copyright © 2013 by Jeremy Zerfoss.

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.

Special thanks to Centipede Press for their 2012 limited editions of these novels, from whose preferred text these e-books have been created.

This novel has been re-released as Cheeky Frawg’s 2013 Weird Summer Beach Reading Selections. Cheeky Frawg: We Believe Summer Beach Reading Should Creep You the Hell Out.

Check out the full line of Cheeky Frawg Books at:

Cheeky Frawg

POB 4248

Tallahassee, FL 32315

[email protected]

by Ann VanderMeer

When I first encountered Michael Cisco’s work, I was publishing a magazine titled
The Silver Web.
At that time I had no intention of venturing into the book publishing world and was content to continue with short fiction only. I often found novels in my mailbox from writers hoping for publication and I turned them all down, manuscripts returned unread.

However, Cisco’s cover letter intrigued me. He said he had been referred to my press by Thomas Ligotti. So of course I had to find out just what it was in Cisco’s work that Ligotti trusted I would enjoy. My intention at this time was merely to read the manuscript and then to return it with a polite rejection.

And then I read the first chapter. Holy crap! In the first chapter a man gets struck by lightning on a hill, and then these shadowy people come out of nowhere to stuff his dead, smoking body full of pages of archaic texts. This brings him back to life and onward to a secretive mission. Holy crap!

So I continued to read on until I realized this was a book I absolutely must publish. I was so completely drawn into the hallucinogenic story that I couldn’t put it down.

As The Divinity Student continues on his journey and enters the city of San Veneficio, he is introduced to a wide variety of characters, and he learns the truth of his mission. He is more than a lowly word-finder, working in the dark shadows of Mr. Woodwind’s office to find words that have fallen out of favor. It is his secret mission to unlock those secret words that have the power, and dare I say it, the magic to transform not only The Divinity Student, but the world.

It is a strange, dark and wonderful adventure that Michael Cisco takes us on—from an isolated Seminary into the bustling dangers of San Veneficio, an odd yet somewhat familiar city in a world of his own making. And just as The Divinity Student is sent on this holy mission to uncover the power of language, so too does Cisco present us with his command of these very words. He draws the reader in with promises of the forbidden and then delivers not just the visions, but the real thing, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.

While reading his work, you feel as if you are under the influence of some kind of mind-blowing drug, you’re not quite sure if it is dangerous enough to hurt you or if you will make it through to the end unscathed. But by that point you don’t really care—you just cannot stop reading.

Needless to say, I did publish
The Divinity Student,
and to great critical acclaim. The novel received a starred review in
Publishers Weekly
and won an International Horror Guild award. It continues today to be discussed in literary circles and is held up as the perfect example of the modern gothic fantasy novel. Praise from fellow writers was expansive. Brian Stableford said, “It is a brilliantly bizarre and compulsively readable heroic fantasy for everyone who understands why the pen is mightier than the sword.” Paul Di Filippo described the hero as “a neurasthenic Clint Eastwood drifter, a linguistic bounty hunter whose prey is not a man, but an enlightenment beyond logic,” and Ligotti, who was instrumental in bringing the novel to my attention, called it, “a festival of unrealities, an entrancing body of hallucinations mutilated with surgical precision by a masterful literary maniac.”

Since the publication of
The Divinity Student
in 1999, Cisco’s work has been compared to Borges, Kafka and even William Burroughs (one of his literary heroes). He has published a number of amazing novels. But this is the book that started it all, the one that began his journey into the world of words. It is also the book that got us all hooked on the drug known as Michael Cisco.

one: the cloud

First black clouds dimming the sky, trailing shredded

white veils in the rustle of settling audience, and, as each cloud passes framing itself perfectly in its own outlines, one especially stands out—looming like an iceberg above the others. It’s moving steadily along now, coming fast and low over green canyons. It dips between the hills into a smell of water, and the placid anxious hush of rain falling on trees and grass.

The Divinity Student, in his heavy black coat, is scaling a steep mound down in the canyon. His feet are slipping on the wet grass; he steadies himself with outstretched arms. He’s wet to the skin, his spectacles are fogged and running with rain. The slope is water-softened and slick, so he’s forced to scrabble at roots and stones to avoid falling. He didn’t want to miss a walk in the rain. Above his head, the sky changes color from gray to black. Breathing hard and almost spent, he gives himself a last violent shove and crests the hill. For a few moments he stands bent with his hands on his knees, then he turns to take in the entire canyon rising about him on all sides like a green bowl. The sky above him thunders and blackens to coal black: a cloud iceberg-high. Flushed, he pads across the green breast of the hill’s crest to the highest peak. He passes a hand over his cropped hair and water rills over his fingers. He reaches the top—the sky splits above his head. Standing in tall grass, eyes lost in the distance and the wind playing in and out of his shirtsleeves and blowing up his coattails searing blue lightning scrapes its fingernails along his body in a column lifting him off the ground. The cloud opens a moment and reaches down, pulling him off his feet. Suspended in an infinite moment, flat in two dimensions between ground and sky, his body arching his eyes staring fingers close on snapping air white face splits apart as he turns down twisting to the dirt—stone dead. Quiet wet grass in his mouth and rain streaming over his sodden coat on his dead body, glassy eyes rigid and open, staring at one hand fixed in mid-convulsion, cupping the rain in its dead palm, his dead back shattered.

Overhead, the clouds pass by. Rain falls, time continues to pass.

Now they’re finding him. Hands take him up; they make off down the slope, in the mud, with his body. The ground levels and the trees close in like clouds and spatter them with big drops of rain. They carry him away to a low building enmeshed in trees and the shadows of trees. Quickly they bring him inside, lay him across two sawhorses and start cutting at him—they gut him like a fish, cut open from throat to waist, red hands pull his ribs apart, head and shoulders hanging down, his arms lying flat on the ground, tugged back and forth as they empty him out. They dump his contents cooked and steaming on the floor, and bring up stacks of books and manila folders, tearing out pages and shuffling out sheets of paper, all covered with writing, stuffing them inside, tamping them down behind his ribs and crushing them together in his abdomen. What pages they select and what books they tear are of little importance, only that he be completely filled up with writing, to bring him back, to set him to the task. Then they suture him shut again—drag him to the tub (his arms and legs dangling and catching on things overturning tables and chairs) and dump him in the water, slopping blue water on gray stone pavings, and together they draw breath and drop open their mouths, screaming noiselessly as they shove his face under the running tap and pushing him full under the water with their red hands, under their wings. The Divinity Student twitches, lashing water over the lip of the tub. Gaping they push him down harder. He jerks to one side. They turn the spigot up full bore and shove his face into the stream—he thrashes, his body goes livid and white then his eyes and mouth snap open and gape wide all screaming without sound (they grab him and pull him out).

Clammy, bleached colorless, hauled out of the water, flopping on the ground, they hold his head as he coughs water and stares across the floor at the heap of his own guts, and recognizing them he screams again, screams himself into shadows and clammy darkness.

Later he’s discovered back at the Seminary, lying pale and unconscious in an infirmary bed. Orderlies shake their heads over him “How did he get here?”

The Divinity Student comes to a few hours later. For a moment the memory comes racing forward like a black wave of frigid water, and he recoils and slams his mind shut. Fingers pulling, his flesh melting around them like clay, coughing water on gray paving stones—he snaps to attention and faces the windows across from his bed, reduced to a bland white smear of cloud-filtered daylight without his glasses. He stares at his hands. They look like talons hovering over the colorless blanket, something mechanical about them now. He sits perfectly still; nobody approaches or notices him, he fades in and out of consciousness with a bitter taste in his mouth and an ugly feeling throbbing behind his temples.

Disjointed he awakens again and it’s the next day already, morning or afternoon he can’t distinguish. Someone is drifting tall and angular down the aisle, coming to a halt at the foot of his bed like a docking ship. After a while he recognizes him—an important administrator, a teacher greatly feared in the Seminary. His face is blurred in the bland light. The Divinity Student sluggishly brings his name into focus: it’s Fasvergil. As if in response Fasvergil seems to click into place in his overlong cassock, bunched frayed and torn around his feet. He looks up in pale response. Fasvergil is staring at him.

“You’ve had quite an adventure. Two of the boys saw what happened to you.”

The Divinity Student feels a sudden weight in his chest. He tries to speak but his brittle throat cracks with the effort and he can’t.

“Who brought you back here?” Fasvergil leans in close, eyes fixed as if cutting him open, searching the Divinity Student’s face. “Yes what is it?” he hisses. But the Divinity Student is already blurring, a gray haze misting over his eyes, his vision occludes until he can just manage to stare at his clawlike hands resting on the blankets. He sits mute and emptied. From nowhere Fasvergil says he will return and goes off to nowhere, leaving the Divinity Student alone in nowhere.

Discharged back to his room, he spends his days sitting at his desk watching the clouds pass through his grimy windows. Sometimes the wind moans in the chimney and he jerks in surprise, but most of all he watches the sky, and presses his hands against the panes convulsively when lightning flashes outside. Why is he still here? What’s taking so long? Light goes dull in the stale air of his room, behind him his disheveled bed with sorry printed flowers waning on yellow linen. Incubating alone in his dormitory room, he gathers the clouds and swathes himself silently in them, with a jagged, glassy feeling in his head. The past few days he has seen signs and portents that something important is going to happen, and today he is preparing himself. Only just now he’s fallen prey to a delusion, confusing his destination with thoughts of returning to his ancestral home, his very early childhood. He simmers in his bed wrapped hot in thick blankets and hallucinates a homecoming for himself—through the trees to his ancestral home. On either side of him the hills like low domes sit pondering in green from winter rain, trees waving him on down the street in wind that brings the smell of sweet grass and sour brush. His house is low, sitting preserved in the gelatin of memory. Overhead clouds boil and blow away, sunlight crashes down in glassy sheets shattering in glowing white aftersights floating under his eyelids. The light sharpens, dashing down, his eyes water and his vision goes pink. The house flares as he walks up to it on broken pavement, moving past the flat gray porch and chimney cooking in the heat, the air rustling close up close pressing on him like the palm of a hand. Lightheaded, he passes the house and moves to the yard behind, grass grown waist high, scorched yellow-brown and dry in spots, lush and dewy moist in others. The sun flattens the landscape dead flat, like walking into the sepia of an old photograph.

BOOK: The Divinity Student
3.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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