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Authors: Michael Cisco

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BOOK: The Divinity Student
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“The register the register” he mutters.

Woodwind’s secretary appears with an overstuffed ledger and flips hastily to a page half covered in meticulous illegible handwriting. Woodwind himself scans down the page with his tweezers, looking up only at the end:

“Yes we have an opening for a word-finder,” he says in punctilious monotone.

Offered, accepted. Woodwind snatches up another page from the book in front of him and dredges it in the pan. The secretary presses a small buzzer on the wall; a thin reedy tone trills across the room. Within a few moments the young woman from downstairs appears at the door, and, directed by a hurried gesture from the secretary, walks over to him.

The Divinity Student looks back at Woodwind and his clerks, another flash of burning paper.

“I’ve been hired.”

She inclines her head a little to her left.

“You’ll be the new word-finder then.”

He has nothing to say. He nods.

She is satisfied and extends her hand.

“Let me show you.”

He follows her into the hall and up the stairs to the fourth floor landing. The red walls narrow until he’s hunching his shoulders inwards to get past. Her perfume is wafting back in her wake, passing in currents over his face until he feels ready to topple over backwards. Finally they come to a small door in a cul-de-sac, set directly into the center of the wall. She turns to open it for him; he looks intently into her face, her bookish face, which returns his gaze calmly. The doorway is narrow, he has to brush up against her to get into the room, passing through a curtain of her perfume and the serene scrutiny of her sphinxlike gaze. He steps up onto a high scuffed floor, and she smiles as he turns back to her.

“Come on.” She walks across the small office with its low ceiling to the back wall, a little window there with asymmetrical panes, shining with dusty light that seems to collect within the membrane of her blouse, making it glow like a paper lantern. She indicates a desk to him.

Slowly, he follows. There are three other desks in the room, a man at each, transferring columns of words from notebooks into codices by hand. Their presence is irritating, reminding him of the Seminary: the insect-scratching of their fountain pens, sleeves rubbing along word-wooden corners rattling papers. He steps up beside her, standing in a warm pool of light. With a modest gesture, she pulls his chair out for him, like a maître d’.

“You should find everything you need in the desk,” she says in a low voice, as if she doesn’t want the others to hear.

He thanks her.

“Anything else?” Eyebrows raised, a small shake of her head. He stares blankly back.

She nods pleasantly.

“Yes, that’s all. Any word that you encounter in your daily rounds that’s not in the dictionaries should be recorded in your ledger. New words only, please.”

She stands upright again, looking down at him. She stares at him. Then she leans down close to his face and wishes him good luck. A moment later she vanishes out the door and down the stairs.

As soon as the door is shut, one of the others wheezes and snorts. His partner giggles. The Divinity Student opens his desk, finding a notebook with the first dozen pages or so ripped out, a new fountain pen and ink bottle, and a huge binder with a sheaf of paper unopened beside it. Underneath the notebook, there is a small leather-bound dictionary in impossibly tiny print with a magnifying glass tethered to it by a faded ribbon. He pockets this and the notebook and reaches for the filing drawer.

One of the other word-finders clears his throat.

The Divinity Student looks up. It’s the one who snorted as the woman left. He’s heavy with short black hair and a threadbare black sweater, a pale, doughy face with small black eyes like currants. He rises from his desk.

“Switch desks with me! Yours is bigger!”

The one who giggled is looking on conspiratorially, grinning.

“You deaf? I said I’ll take your desk! I waited, didn’t I?” He briefly turns to the giggler, who nods once, “I didn’t take it right away—I don’t think you want to give me any trouble!”

The Divinity Student fills his fountain pen calmly. He is already ignoring them.

“Hey, I’m talking to you!” The snorter says.

The Divinity Student pockets the pen and caps the ink bottle.

The snorter stares at him a moment, then sits back down at his desk again. “Idiot,” he mutters.

three: the car

Pausing in mid-stride, two black dogs stare at the Divinity Student as he emerges from the office. Recoiling, he claps his hands and steps backwards into the threshold; they scrabble headlong down the stairs with clicking feet—a bad omen. With a rustle of papers, he recollects himself and follows them down slowly. At the bottom of the stairs there’s a secondary door opening out onto a narrow street, old plaster walls leaning in to meet overhead, windows and sagging trellises, washing on lines, a thin trickle of people weaving out towards the plaza. He steps over an old drunk word-finder, hands tattooed with old words in blue ink.

“I’m interested in rivers.”

Eyes on the cobbles, the Divinity Student makes his way to the corner, smelling food and garbage. There’s a small cafe, two walls open to the street, scuffed white and orange checkerboard tiles reach to the low curb, a field of sturdy white metal tables and chairs with the occasional long-faced readers and chess players. He notes that some of these are playing against mechanized opponents.

“Chess is a game of competing algorithms,” he thinks. “One piece is gradually predetermined by the action of play to end the game, either in checkmate or stalemate. All pawns are agents, like me.”

The Divinity Student navigates fast to the counter, at chin-level above glass display cases smeared with white transparent finger and palm marks. A willowy wall-eyed student takes his order and his money without looking at him, assures him it will be brought to his table, and disappears.

He turns and finds a seat close to the street, grown quiet and still. Across the plaza he can see crowds of miniature silhouettes frothing around the buildings as cloud shadows glide flexibly across gleaming stone courtyards. The city settles quiescent in the early afternoon. He turns his attention to the pocket lexicon, flipping through at random:
afflatus, epiclesus, soteriology
—these he knows—
ylem
catches in his throat; a kid in a coarse white apron clatters the tray down in front of him and shuffles off, drawing his nose along his sleeve. Alone again, the Divinity Student pours smoky-looking tea through a sieve over three sugar cubes. Two leathery, triangular pouches lie black and brown in grease on his plate. He cuts into one with his knife and steaming oil dribbles out, a spicy smell, tiny white curls that look like pearly onions inside, and some soft blue powder. He eats quickly, burning his tongue. For some reason he still needs to eat.

Were it not for the coppery hair thatching his head, Mr Ollimer would be unrecognizable—of all the people he has ever met, not one of them can place him in their memories save by the color of his hair. In feature, figure, dress, and behavior, nothing immediately remarkable, as empty of distinction as a technical drawing. He is the third word-finder upstairs at Woodwind’s, apart from the giggler and the snorter. The Divinity Student looks up to see him standing expectantly by a nearby table, eyebrows up. Their eyes meet.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Ollimer asks seriously.

The Divinity Student raises his right hand in a small wave indicating the chair opposite him; Ollimer rushes to sit, nodding, looking down.

Ollimer toys with a napkin; he’s groping for words.

“Those bastards,” he finally says in a birdlike voice. “I was transferred only last week and of course I had to end up with them. They pulled the same tomfoolery with me about my desk.”

The Divinity Student responds with another gesture, eyebrows up, a small frown, slight inclination of his hands.

“They started talking about you the moment you left the office, but I wouldn’t worry.” Ollimer flicked a look at him. “They won’t dare give you any trouble as long as they think you’ve got Miss Woodwind’s favor.”

“Miss Woodwind?”

“Yes—the secretary—don’t you remember?”

“I meant to say I didn’t know she was related to—”

“—Oh yes, I’m sorry, I misunderstood—yes, she’s his daughter.” Ollimer rocks forward and backward as he speaks.

The Divinity Student’s gaze drifts off, follows two Koreans passing, carrying a drum.

“I just met her. How could I have won her favor?” he says after a moment.

Ollimer pouts and thinks a moment. “Her demeanor around you, I suppose. She’s fairly peremptory with us . . . ” Ollimer leans in closer and taps the table with his finger. “You really ought to take advantage of that, if she genuinely does favor you. There are advantages . . . ”

“You’ve never been her favorite.”

Ollimer grins as if the Divinity Student had made a joke. “Oh no, certainly not me.”

The Divinity Student tips his head back and gazes up past the rooftops to the sky’s racing white and blue.

“Where did you receive your training?” Ollimer leans his elbows on the table and holds his hands in front of his face.

“I’m a Divinity Student.”

Ollimer looks around cautiously. A car with tinted, impenetrable windows pulls up in the alley almost immediately, its idling engine sets the table thrumming. Ollimer hisses something inaudible under the noise.

“What?”

“Listen!” Cutting his right hand sideways in the air, close to the table, he speaks in a tight whisper, “You’re serious? You were trained at the Seminary?”

“Yes.”

“Listen! I must speak with you later! I know some people—”

The car revs its engine, backing into the alley and then jerking forward again, over and over, garbage squelching under the tires, people dodging out of the way. Ollimer casts a panicky look over his shoulder, and repents immediately.

“Oh now I’ve done it! I look suspicious!” he moans. “I’ve got to be going!”

He holds his hand out. The Divinity Student looks at it as if he doesn’t understand. Panic flashes in Ollimer’s eyes, he waves his hand desperately at him, and just barely exposes a business card concealed in his palm. The Divinity Student takes Ollimer’s moist hand and palms the card, slipping it into the pocket lexicon with one fluid, inconspicuous motion. Ollimer waves timidly and walks quickly back towards the office, weaving and wiping his face. Suddenly, the car breaks its jerking back and forth and swings wildly forward, blaring its horn and flaring its headlights, onto the curb, sending tables flying; the Divinity Student runs out into the plaza knocking his table in the path of the shrieking car lurching over mangled chairs towards him. He makes straight for the nearest alley and gets clear, vanishing into a million streets.

four: the dream

In deepening shades of blue the day burns off into space and the stars flare one by one. The Divinity Student watches the sky’s well clear from a hammock he has rigged between a fire escape and a drainpipe five stories above an empty alleyway. Incidental headlights pass at the end of the alley, filtered through the slats of a makeshift fence, sending thin vertical bands of light floating left to right over the brick walls or pouring through a single window close to where he is hanging, illuminating the featureless upper corner of a white plaster box of a room. The Divinity Student can’t afford a place of his own.

Lulled by these tides of light he drifts off, face upwards. Initially, he couldn’t bear to look at the sky, afraid he’d fall up into the black air, falling so high he’d burst, but now he’s up there already, the stars all around him, close enough to touch, humming and sparking at him like millions of brilliant little machines.

Lying there, he slowly becomes aware of a slippery feeling; he’s covered with oil, clear oil oozing out of his skin, and it’s soaking into his clothes—he can’t afford to ruin his clothes, they’re all he’s got! He undresses as quickly as he can swinging in his hammock, piling up his garments at his feet, drops a sock but with surprising agility he snaps it up and tosses it back into the hammock. Naked now he stops himself, staring at his arm, and now his legs and feet, and all the rest of him—he’s turned powder-white. It’s pigment, like flour under his skin, white as wax and coated with clear mineral oil, dripping off his fingers, getting into his eyes and making them smart, even the hair on his head is slick with it; the rest of his body is hairless. Confused and shivering with cold, he manages to squat in the hammock, hugging his knees. The wind plays over his body and he gets another surprise—something on his back. What’s happening to him?

The wind is playing over his back, delineating his form in the air, and there’s something changed back there. He reaches his arm around and runs the palm down his wet skin, and feels deep fissures and ridges. He peers over his shoulder and sees his ghostly reflection in a window. Three huge dorsal vents slant down on each side of his spine, yawning open and upwards like gill slits, white skin stretched tight over powerful curves: funnels of skin and muscle held out by fans of cartilage. He crouches down and presses his hands to his head breathing heavily and shuddering as he feels the vents twitching horribly. As he breathes he feels the vents breathing moistly, drawing air in and forcing it out through narrower openings along his sides. He screws his eyes shut and presses his hand to his mouth, filled with transparent teeth with fluorescent blue and red veins and flickering silver nerves.

He crouches frozen in place, afraid to lie down thinking he might crush the vents on his back. Panicking he starts gasping for breath, his chest is being squeezed shut, and across his back the vents jerk open, cold night air sucks in and rushes out the small openings on his sides. Faster and faster the air sluices through as he gasps for breath, stronger and stronger until the pressure pushes him up off the hammock, his legs straightening, and he rises straight up into the sky on columns of night air. The city expands below him, he passes through its lights and further into the ocean of colorless light limning the bottom of the clouds. He aims straight up, his arms at his sides, straining with effort and petrified that any moment he’ll plummet to earth. A tiny white line in the sky, he keeps his body straight and slants up at the clouds. The cloud ceiling doesn’t budge, muddy and silver, refusing to come closer. He charges at it with all his might; he attacks the clouds and strikes straight to the heart, with air running over him pushing oil into rivulets along his back and sides; he blinks it out of his eyes. With all his might he pushes himself up, scarcely thinking about what he’s doing, everything fades, and he loses himself in the effort, and then moments later he remembers that he’s flying and it overwhelms him, nearly sending him toppling headlong out of the sky.

BOOK: The Divinity Student
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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