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Authors: Michael Cisco

The Divinity Student (2 page)

BOOK: The Divinity Student
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The back of the house is blazing with candles, the flames churning the air. The backyard is like a chapel. The trees above ruffle their plumage and stretch their wings, speaking up into the blue-hot sky. He sits just behind the house, the candles jutting perpendicular to the wall glowing white-orange at his back; he sits in a wooden seat, splinters biting into his legs, the corroded metal frame rusting against his fingers. He sits there and watches the light ebb and surge across the grass. This is where he came from, and the whole world will always look a little like it for him. He left this house to live at the Seminary and to train for—whatever’s coming now.

Time shifts backwards, a wind winnows bricks away like leaves whittling the walls that frame the yard, the ground sprouts a white picket fence in their place. The yard undulates around him; the paving stones sink into the ground. He can hear birds, and the patter of wax dripping behind him. Grass shoots up around him and up his pant legs poking out through holes in the knees; squirrels and birds scrabble across the roof knocking leaves and acorns down on his head.

As he sits dozing, he gradually becomes aware of another presence; he is certain someone else is there. Without hurrying he looks up from the ground, unsure that he could get up if he tried, thinking that a voice or music is there, a white film shimmering over the yard, discrete from the flow of light and the dappled shadows of the passing clouds. Like highlights on pleated fabric, or a pale figure moving in fragmented light—fragile and transparent, a membrane speaking voicelessly at him, an original premonition of the future that he remembers for the first time. It gets hotter, heat closing in and descending from all sides, and he pushes it out from him again, pushing his chair back furrowing the ground—he thinks he can hear better with the chair pushed back. He opens his arms, and for a moment his heart murmurs and jumps as he sees the paleness rushing towards him, the tall grass beaten aside in great wide swathes as it comes. It’s coming, it’s coming for him finally.

A drop of wax lands pat on his shoulder. He looks at it as another spats his sleeve. Slowly, he looks up at the candles, and wax begins to rain gently down on him. He smiles. He opens his mouth and a tiny drop stings his tongue. Lowering his head he feels an aromatic evaporation sifting up through his head, a flavor like a continent of flowered meadows, sour-smelling hillsides, fresh grass, wet dirt, rotting leaves, dust. Wax coats him and he begins to burn in the sun like a candle. It comes down, he can see the grass curving down to the earth, the trees sagging, paint baking off the house, coming loose in flakes, then bubbling and liquefying on the pavement. The concrete flows off like mud. Holding out his hand, he sees the wax dribbling from his fingers, pink droplets. Inside, his bones glow white and expand, turn elastic, his blood evaporates, runs down his legs into the grass with a pleasant sighing sound. Heat brighter, whiteness all around, he reclines back in the chair to lose himself—and wakes, disappointed, in his bed. It’s all still before him, still to be done.

The Divinity Student stares out the window, oblivious, fading in and out. At this moment, he is conscious of the Seminary expanding ancient and vast on all sides—the yawning cold hallways like caverns of stone, the dank subvestries and classrooms with bubbling peeling plaster walls and a mildewed smell, frosty choirs of icy wood polished to a dull luster by the chafing of nervous hands. Huge, gaping wide on all sides for him, also crushing inward collapsing upon him. He seems to be present in every room, feeling the students coming and going—as they learn, they come and go with greater earnestness of purpose, striding powerfully along the halls as if they were on rails.

This has always been his room; it is the center of his world, his only place. The world seems to turn pinioned on a cold-burning point in his empty chest. The other students have been avoiding him lately; he’s become intimidating. It could be lightning-infection trickling in tiny courses through what’s left of his body, like a minute trace of poison. He’s ready to go.

Fasvergil summons him to his office. Another Prefect stands beside him, together behind a massive desk. The Prefect speaks first: “Your studies are finished—consider yourself

Fasvergil scans the contents of a folder with lazy eyes. “We have been preparing an Assignment in the hopes of receiving an agent of your caliber. You have been
for us.”

Fasvergil and the Prefect eye the Divinity Student uneasily. He makes them nervous. His eyes stare straight ahead, as if he were laying track right on top of them. Now they can get him out of the Seminary and for that they are grateful.

“You will leave for the city as soon as possible,” Fasvergil says with concealed relief, “your letters of introduction are in this folder. Further information will be forthcoming when you arrive. At the moment, certain things are still up in the air—when they settle again, we will be able to tell you what to do.”

“I’ll do as I’m told,” the Divinity Student says, surprised despite his premonitions.

“There’s no question of that. Go and pack.”

“Chapel in one hour,” the Prefect says.

The next day comes, and the Divinity Student leaves the Seminary knowing he won’t be back.

two: the city

San Veneficio gleams in the desert like a cut emerald on a 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 drip on the face of the land flaring white in the steady beam of the sun, and for a moment he sees the cab from a bird’s-eye view—a tiny white speck speeding along a black stripe. They pass long autos with black windows roaring hoarsely toward the city, which expands to fill the horizon. He rests his head on the vibrating door jam and squints against the dust pouring in on the wind—spotting now for the first time the famous monitors, giant lizards over ten feet long, racing with alarming speed over the dirt. One comes up by the side of the road and paces the cab for a mile or so, its oversized eyes fixed straight ahead on its coffin-shaped skull. He’s heard that at night these lizards watch the city—it’s said that someone looking over the town walls can see them staring back, their eyes blazing with reflected city light, the entire desert punctuated with pairs of lights, so that when the night sky is clear and dark it seems to extend down into the desert and surround San Veneficio on all sides with stars. Baked white clay streaks by, extending flat to the mountains in the distance. The Divinity Student was schooled exclusively in cold places, always rain and chill waiting outside the walls; he would anxiously look forward to the halfhearted springs and moist, wilted summers. Now, here, it’s parched sharp bright heat stabbing in under his heavy coat, pricking him awake and alert and buoying him up. Only the two letters in his pocket stay sharp and white, like two rectangles of silvered glass, rigid, crisp, and cool. His assignment: go to San Veneficio, obtain a position with a professional word-finder, and wait for further instructions, followed by an illegible signature. He had found the sheet under his door and brought it to his Prefect:

“Where did this come from?” he asked.

“Higher up classified—ep!” raising his hand to shut him up, “No no sorry nothing more can’t tell you strictest confidence!”

The other letter will introduce him to the word-finder. He shoots towards San Veneficio, confident that this is where he is meant to go, he is starting. He has a momentum that came out of the sky. The dark marble walls draw near, black veined with green as far as his eyes can see. Beyond, the city bristles with spires and precarious minarets, lonely groups of statues standing against the sky atop copper domes, glyphed obelisks of polished basalt, gilded fountains, gargoyles; it’s a city of monuments. Above, birds circle rising on hot currents watching below in lazy ascent, quiet.

“This is the Eye Gate,” says the driver, raising his index finger from the wheel. A circular breach in the wall a hundred feet across looms up and swallows them, flattened at the bottom where it meets the road, and around it the Divinity Student can briefly see a pointed ellipse carved deep into the wall; huge triangular pieces of green jade gleam, smoothly radiating out to form the iris around the pupil-gateway. Lictors, in their heavy coats and bloodred gloves, silver face masks shining, turn this way and that, bored, waving the traffic into the city.

They drive up the Street of Dogs, making for the central plaza. The streets weave and twist passing through people’s houses and doubling back on themselves. The buildings are old and venerable, white plaster and modest columns, flat onyx streets, searing hot sunlight, smells rushing in through the window—orchards, wisteria, grilled meat, and people smells, carried on hot desert air. Finally, they make their way up the Street of Wax and into the plaza, vast and wide open, a colossal fountain at the center, buildings for giants looming all around. He pays the driver and makes his way to the fountain.

The plaza seems to curve downward as if San Veneficio is the only city on a tiny planet, hanging over the sky’s open void. He weaves through currents of natives in white cotton, wealthy ladies walking pet monkeys, occasional dignitaries in loiters, and he follows in their clear wake, pardoning himself in Spanish. Now and then he checks to see that the letters are still in his pocket as he hurries to the fountain.

There, he stands a moment in the spray, watching luminous fish circling sluggishly, the level of the water surging and dropping every few seconds as if the pool is breathing. He looks back at the town, eyes smarting from the dancing reflections on the water, and then thinks for the first time to check the letters for addresses. They are blank.

Not knowing where to go, the Divinity Student sits on the clammy bank of the fountain and waits. People pass in streams and groups, cars roll by. Unthinkingly, he reaches into another pocket and produces a small metal weight on a cord that Fasvergil had given him back at the Seminary. Sheltering himself from crowd and wind, he spits in his palm and swings the weight like a pendulum above his open hand. His face drains and closes—he watches the swinging weight. Dry lightning sparks near the mountains on the horizon as the pendulum’s point first swings over his palm. Even in the middle of town he feels completely exposed to the mountains and the freely moving air. He stretches a little into the rising wind—for a moment his hand is a still point. The weight swings back and forth, each time rotating a little more to the left, until it finally stops, hanging at an angle in the air. He gets carefully to his feet and orients himself by the pendulum’s direction; he starts walking. The weight floats before him taut on the end of its tether like a dog on a leash, pulling him to one corner of the plaza, down close streets, past shouting water-sellers with earthenware vats and brass ladles, air growing closer—the sky rumbles overhead, people race to hide their stalls under umbrellas or find refuge under the awnings of clay buildings. Candles burn in absentminded alcoves, spice and paraffin smells, his eyelids droop and he feels lightheaded, but the pendulum tugs at his hand, threatening to come loose, he pushes himself off the voices of the fruit vendors and shouts of old women, shuffling awkwardly among the milling people.

Finally, he staggers into a small laundry with sweating walls. Steam billows hissing in corners, more Spanish over shrieking presses. He’s pulled through to the back door and out onto a catwalk above a narrow alleyway. Stairs lead up a scarred brick wall to a deepset door with frosted glass panes. He scales the stairs and goes in, pocketing the weight and string. A tiny waiting room with oak paneling and red wallpaper.

The contrast of the brightness outside and the dimness here makes him blink. A plain woman is sitting behind a miniature desk in one corner, making columns of numbers in regular handwriting on tiny sheets of ruled paper. She looks up at him blandly.

“Is there anything you want?”

“I’m here for my appointment,” he rifles through his coat and produces the letters. She looks at them distractedly with two quick gestures.

“You should see Mr Woodwind,” she says, and directs him up a flight of stairs concealed behind a potted rubber plant.

The stairs are narrow and shallow tilting down at an angle making them almost impossible to climb. He picks his way carefully up, following a series of random landings and new flights, lit always by red light through glass-filtered fixtures.

Woodwind’s door is enameled, set directly into the wall, ajar and moving gently back and forth with the draft. The Divinity Student pushes it open with his fingertips.

Inside—a vast room, narrow but deep, with high windows, light filtering through a white haze, a smell of books. Shelves loaded with notebooks line the walls, their covers bulging with yellowing paper. Three clerks are shuffling about the room in excessively long robes, carrying stacks of printed pages, an occasional page spiraling to the bare wooden floor. Having crossed the room three times bearing ever larger stacks of paper, one of the clerks pauses, peering nearsightedly at the Divinity Student.

“I have letters of introduction for Mr Woodwind.”

The clerk sniffs at him dubiously and trudges off, absently waving the Divinity Student after him.Woodwind is standing at a table in the far corner: a tall whitehaired man with rolled sleeves and an apron. He is excising a page from an open book with a long pair of tweezers—dropping it into a pan of clear gray liquid. Having soaked it thoroughly, he retrieves it and plies it over a blue fire; his heavy brows knit as he reads the page’s new contents to a clerk taking dictation. Finished, he brings the page down just over the fire, and it bursts into flames. Black tatters flutter up to the ceiling. After repeating this several times, Woodwind sets down his tweezers and looks at the Divinity Student in irritation.

The Divinity Student offers him the letters. Woodwind tweezes them out of his hands, opens the envelopes with a few deft strokes and studies the writing offhandedly. Then he drops both the letters into the flame and they vanish brightly, Woodwind snapping his fingers for his secretary.

BOOK: The Divinity Student
11.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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