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Authors: Michael Cisco

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BOOK: The Divinity Student
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“Sit,” he says, indicating a ponderous armchair. The Divinity Student obeys. Fasvergil takes his seat and fixes him with a baleful look.

“Looking there on your left, just on top of that pile of books there, you’ll find the third fragment Ollimer told you about.”

Fasvergil points obligingly with a long, weary hand—the Divinity Student looks around and pulls a thin sheet of folded paper from between two featureless volumes. The page has been prematurely aged with tea stains. He looks up and sees Fasvergil watching him, and while he knows he is being manipulated he cannot resist reading the page. Silent in his chair he reads a word meaning:

A very aged man finds again the love he lost as a youth. As he moves to embrace her, he is suddenly transported to a lightless place. He can feel a cool, sterile wind blowing upon his face, a numbness in his limbs. Nearby are shrieks and mutterings, unseen yammering things surrounding him on all sides. After an infinite time he wakes beneath a tree, when a raindrop, a single one, drops into his right eye. When he understands that all he had just experienced was merely a dream, he walks into a river and drowns himself.

He reads, and he feels Fasvergil trying to read him. A headache developing, the page turning gray and blurring a little as he reads. The Divinity Student is struggling to keep the vertigo from showing. Inside he feels a yawning sensation, waked and tantalized and he wants to seize Fasvergil and shake the rest out of him sheet by sheet, scrabble into a corner and roll himself up in them; these unknown ghost-words leave him clutching the air. Catching himself swaying he throws a look at Fasvergil. “What have you done to me?”

Fasvergil’s look of surprise is unfeigned. “What?”

“Where does this come from?”

Fasvergil collects himself and says, “Ollimer may have told you that these are all fragments of the Catalog of Unknown Words, compiled by a man named Schroeder and a small team of mediums, word-finders like yourself—this was many years ago—at any rate, from what little evidence endures, we know that Schroeder destroyed the Catalog just before he committed suicide. The other word-finders were dead by this time, or died shortly thereafter, and it is possible that Schroeder may have killed some of them himself, presumably to keep the secret of the Catalog.”

The Divinity Student feels a weighty, obscure pressure fasten upon his head, and clutches at the armrests. All his powers of concentration are focussed on Fasvergil’s words.

“The fragments to which you have been exposed were found among the possessions of a man named Chan, one of Schroeder’s word-finders, who was found dead in his hotel room.” Fasvergil is nodding his head and steepling his fingers, reciting, “I acquired them myself, and I’ve been rationing them to Ollimer to give to you.”

“You were baiting me . . . ” and now, slowly, it starts in his throat and fans out cold at the edges settling into him, “ . . . you want me to resurrect the Catalog for you.”

Fasvergil’s face goes dead-sea calm, remaining just affable enough. “With the training you have received from Magellan, you could walk directly into the memories of any dead man, and bring them back—specifically I mean the words, that is, you of all people can bring them back again.”

Even though he doesn’t trust Fasvergil—he’s been set up: go into Magellan, find out how it’s done and then bring that back, now do it for
us,
young man, Magellan wouldn’t, but
you
will, won’t you?—even though he has a dirty feeling of being used and puppeted by his own teachers—there’s a cold tang that billows through his head like frigid, early morning light. For this he came to San Veneficio, and the job as a word-finder, everything has been preparatory to retrieving those words. Now, understanding everything for once, he is in a position to choose with open eyes. The pressure at his temples spreads to mantle his shoulders and flatten his arms to the chair.

“You’ve read about the Eclogue,” Fasvergil says, hanging his words carefully in the air. “These unknown words of Schroeder’s are its vocabulary, we believe. ‘Eclogues’ are dialogues between shepherds.
The
Eclogue is the dialogue of the shepherds of
men.
That is our conclusion. You are in a position to prove it.”

Fasvergil seems oblivious to the Divinity Student. He sits motionless in his chair, his large, colorless eyes fixed on empty air, he speaks as if he were reciting his catechism.

“The Eclogue is the essential substance, or first cause, of creation, and is the source of all renewal. It is much like an invisible fundament that buoys everything up. Also, it is the communion or synthesis of all natural forces.”

“That’s what you think,” the Divinity Student says to himself.

“It is a mystery and will forever be unfathomable to mortal understanding—our purpose in sending you to find these words is not the deciphering of the Eclogue. That is not our goal, and regardless it is an impossibility. Rather, we at the Seminary feel that a more comprehensive semantic understanding of the basic qualities of the Eclogue will enable us to convey the essence of its mystery to the uninitiated more precisely. We must, in short, strive toward an apprehension of what the Eclogue is not, and by filling in the darkness around it, develop a corresponding conception of what it is—without pursuing the folly of a direct definition. Then we may create a precedent, whereby the knowledge of the mystery of the Eclogue may be transmitted in such a manner as to preempt misunderstanding or heresy. Do you understand?”

The Divinity Student nods. Fasvergil has just named the stream that runs through his head, right through and behind, just obscured by himself, in his blind spot. Whether he understands or not, Fasvergil is asking him to remove that blind spot for both of them, as if that were possible. The Divinity Student will get closer to the Eclogue. He tries to dissemble, appear disinterested and force Fasvergil to bargain with him. But even as he hides his feelings he knows he must not refuse—this is his mission.

“Will I be allowed to keep what I find?”

“Provided I receive copies of
everything,
” he gives him a frosty look, “that you find; naturally any notes you take are your own.”

Time passes. They look at each other, clock ticking, dust gathering, this is what he came here for, and heart in his mouth the Divinity Student says, “I’ll do it.”

Fasvergil nods at a foregone conclusion.

“If you will look to your left, in the upper drawer of the end table, you will find a list of the word-finders and where their bodies are buried. Your procedure in probing them is of no consequence to us, but I am under orders to exact from you at this point your most solemn promise that, in the event of your capture or arrest, you will not under any circumstances mention your affiliation to the Seminary or the Mission with which you have been entrusted.”

The Divinity Student takes the list and swears.

As the sun settles overhead the Divinity Student steals away from Fasvergil’s house. He’s walking quickly, holding his legs out stiffly, and his face is pale and drawn. There are dark blue circles beneath his eyes. He imagines himself growing a second pair of eyes, ghost eyes, animals with the power to see the future, look into a mirror to wake yourself. A maze of streets opens before him like a jigsaw puzzle, and he meanders in and out of alleyways and private homes, beneath balconies and gargoyles, but the city walls seem to close in tightly about him, crushing him in a thin envelope of space, and reducing his path to smaller and smaller circles, going about the same landmarks and places again and again faster and faster. Fighting vertigo and intimations of nightmare, he pushes himself harder, trying if possible to force his way through the streets, but they catch at his effort and pull him down to the pavement. For a moment the buildings swim and dodge away from him and his head goes light, and then he is tumbling head over heels, unable to trace the course of his various parts to the ground. Before the blackness swells absolute, he can dimly sense low music muttering around him.

When he comes to himself again, he is looking into the seamed face of a stranger. Other faces peer over the stranger’s dark shoulders, thinly draped in a frayed linen shirt. The man is speaking but his language is unfamiliar. Whoever it is has retrieved the Divinity Student from the middle of the street and set him leaning against a wall, cradling his head with his hand.

The Divinity Student looks dazedly from one face to another, and then in a moment is filled with gratitude, and from this gratitude he gathers his wits again. He draws himself to his feet sliding upwards along the wall, and follows the men toward the music. There’s a sizable circle of people down one alley, playing instruments. One man has a guitar that he is playing upright. The rest clap and sing in their language. Standing there in their music, the Divinity Student feels calm. The feeling is intense, it reminds him how long it’s been since he’s felt calm. Like a rush of involuntary memory he recognizes the hymn, which he has learned a long time ago in another language. He tries to sing it himself, but his voice is rusty and unpleasant. He stands silently to one side and rests, listening. He imagines the Eclogue holding them all in barely palpable tension.

eleven: the gardens

Earlier, the Divinity Student had encoun- tered 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.

BOOK: The Divinity Student
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