Authors: Michael Cisco
Ollimer is staring up the street at nothing. Then just as abruptly as it came, his trance seems to pass and he gets going again.
The Divinity Student lets him go on a bit more, and then starts after. Turning a corner the road ends, he stops—oak trees spreading in the spectral light beyond the pavement, grass white and black, the same dust shining in the air now like tiny silver flakes. Just visible in obscurity are the same domes and spires he saw over the trees at sunset, it’s precisely the same place.
Cautiously, he steps into the glade, taking care to avoid the trees. With his black coat drawn close about him he blends in with the dark. Around him the trees whisper as he passes, growing quiet after him. Unsure, he makes his way to the oro’s oak. Ollimer is there. The Divinity Student flattens himself on the ground, watching him, completely silent. Ollimer is still apprehensive but he does not notice the Divinity Student.
Hesitant, he starts feeling around inside a hole in the trunk of the oro’s tree until his arm is swallowed up to the shoulder. His eyes look upward, the tip of his tongue visible in his straining face as he feels around with his hand. Then he pulls out a scrap of paper and steps into the light, peering at it. After reading it over several times, he pulls out his wallet, stuffs it in, and hurries back up the road.
The Divinity Student takes a different route back into town, knowing that Ollimer will approach him tomorrow with another fragment of the catalog.
The Divinity Student finds refuge at an all-night cafe. Chairs and tables spill out in a circle of orange light to fill a corner of Candle Square, lost in San Veneficio’s tangle of streets and closed to traffic. A single streetlamp burns at the far corner, the walls all around are dark silhouettes before a more luminous cobalt-colored sky. The interior of the diner is a brightly lit rectangle cut into the dark, like an aquarium in an unlit room, two sleepy waiters wearing white aprons drift to and fro, tidy up, tend a few late customers, or play dominoes on the counter.
Having given up his hammock, the Divinity Student falls into a chair at the farthest boundary of the lights, and dozes. He has a puzzling, desultory dream about lifeless mountain roads cut into shafts of solid rock and lined with boulders. Once he thinks he can see a tiny window carved in one of the larger stones, and possibly the suggestion of a door as well, with a faint strip of light along the bottom of the jam.
A noise wakes him up—somebody has set a glass down firmly on the table in front of him. Looking up, he sees a big dark-skinned man in a shabby suit of violet satin walking away across the circle of light. He sways over to an elaborate organ under an awning, sits down at the keys, turns a few knobs, and sets it going. In the light from the console, the Divinity Student can make him out—bald and heavy, baby-faced with black filigree tattooed around his eyes. A sign on the organ lights up, “The Clown Filemon” it says. Little blue and yellow lights wink over the organ pipes and keys, luminous strands of clear syrup draw a web in the air over his head, clinging to rigid silver wires, and translucent tubes, gathered around the console, glow with bubbling, phosphorescent green liquid. With slow and deliberate motions, Filemon begins playing—a mysterious, confidential humming in the pipes—but his eyes remain fixed, watching the Divinity Student. After a few minutes, he makes a quick gesture, as if lifting a glass to his lips, and jerks his head at him.
The Divinity Student looks up, and then picks up the glass in front of him—all right so far?
Filemon nods, and raises his eyebrows.
The Divinity Student empties the glass.
Filemon smiles and goes back to his playing, soft and low, for nighttime.
The Divinity Student settles back and listens to the music washing down onto him. A few moments, and then he pulls out the box. He looks up at Filemon, but the clown is watching the keys. He opens the box, and instantly the mechanism emits a clicking, hollow-timbred melody that merges instantly with Filemon’s music. As the Divinity Student shifts his hands over the box, he notices that the tone bends with even the slightest change of a single finger’s position. He tries the bottom, but there the box is thickest and there’s no change. The edges and corners, which are singed, darker than the rest of the box, not only change the pitch when touched, but also cause a second, parallel tone, breathy and faint, to fill out the first.
As he fiddles with the box, he senses that either the random changes he makes in the melody are starting to complement Filemon’s music, or Filemon is anticipating him. He starts pressing the box more deliberately, the organ follows, the notes begin to weave around each other, the Divinity Student begins to decipher the pattern of the notes, and they play together.
When he next looks up from the box, it’s dawn. The music winds down, until finally they end on a single chord. They sit still a moment, listening to the sound ripple along the surface of the surrounding buildings, trickle and fade down the streets. When it is gone, Filemon shuts the organ off, smiling down at the keyboard in satisfaction. The Divinity Student puts the box back in his coat and sits back in the chair again, then looks over at the Clown. Filemon gets up without looking at him and vanishes into the cafe.
The Divinity Student takes a pad from his coat and writes at random, fragmentary notes about something: “Kill this idea by scrawling it. Happiest man, ribbon, water, droplets/griddle light, chord of music, through body in threads of water—close eye/defocus/reopen/mind-body aphasia momentary discrepancy—flash S.V.” He looks up a moment across the street at a spout draining. He stops writing, it stops draining. He starts writing and it starts draining again.
Two tables over, a card game degenerates, two men fling cards angrily at each other.
The Divinity Student rests for a while, and then heads back toward Woodwind’s.
The day is long and slow. The Divinity Student leans over his desk, filling columns of words. Householder is absent, Blandings dozes over his ledger, and Ollimer works with typical diligence in the corner, conspicuously not looking at the Divinity Student.
“He’s waiting until after work to approach me,” he thinks, yawning dust. Cars race by beneath the one tiny window, rattling the pane—sometimes idling just close enough to set his teeth on edge. Every now and then he remembers the box in his pocket, gets nervous, “What if some car stops me and finds it? Bad enough I’m carrying the Holy Book—bad evidence.”
It’s hot in the office; he’s sweating, but he won’t take his coat off. He sits in a column of his own hot air, smell of wool and linen, and a fainter odor of old papers . . . an involuntary spasm jerks his arm, smears a word—remember a blast of light by a Seminary wall, jolted alive again in water? Blandings is looking at him, grinning, and the Divinity Student flips him off, hooking his thumb under his chin and snapping it at him; Blandings just laughs and turns back to his dozing.
No good trying to concentrate, his mind chasing after a dozen different things, just killing time. Is Ollimer actually his contact—why wait around? The Clown was sent to teach him how to use the box, make him ready to play it for Magellan.
So he goes for a drink of water, slouching heavily down the stairs, enervated, flat warm water from the cooler flavored with wax from the cup, just transferring weight from the cup to his mouth and down his throat.
Miss Woodwind walks by with her ledger. It’s thick and tidy, unlike those of the other word-finders with their pages sticking out or dribbling on the floor. She’s the best of the lot, has found more words than the rest of them combined, every page in her ledger neatly typed, with no mistakes. As she passes she favors him with a pretty grin and a graceful inclination of her head, fragrance trailing after, think then of father Woodwind sleeping on the clouds, her hair raining on his face in his dream.
He drags himself back up to the office again and stares at his record book for the remaining hours of the day.
He leaves Woodwind’s quickly—he doesn’t want to get trapped talking to Ollimer again. Once safely lost in San Veneficio’s warren of streets, he lets himself drift—today would not be right to go to Magellan, he thinks, “the time is not yet.”
This day was dull, flat, and now so is he. Tomorrow will be Saturday, he won’t have to go in to work, he can get right with himself before visiting the Orpheum again. The streets spiral him out to the city’s limits, this time to mount the encircling wall under the lictors’ watchful eyes, glittering behind hexagonal black panes set in their chrome half-masks.
The Divinity Student watches night descend upon the desert’s face. The great monitors are just visible, lumbering dark shapes streaking around, positioning themselves for their night-watch.
As the lights of San Veneficio come up behind him, he sees their eyes for himself, growing in brilliance like the stars overhead as they reflect the city’s luminance back in tiny points. Like statues, they stare at San Veneficio, and at the Divinity Student, and the Divinity Student gazes back, amazed, at them.
Moved by a nameless impulse, he wanders over to a dim lamp hanging from one of the battlements, and draws the book out of his pocket. He reads to them from the first chapters, about the first world. The gray twilight place, trees, and rain. The trees’ shadows fill with rain and the rain mixes with dirt until the shadows of the trees take substance in clay. And these shadows, having dimension and substance, begin walking around. They go to the beach, and eventually an intermediary comes from over the water and makes people out of them, and then leads them through the water up to this world.
He stops there. The monitors’ eyes shine impassively back at him, and he puts the book away with a sheepish expression on his face. Those old eyes make him feel stupid, standing there with his book.
The Divinity Student’s journal from his school days: “I met a cat dressed like me on a night road—all black but for a white collar, like me in my coat. We stared at each other across the road, orange yellow gold eyes it ran off when a car came, I went into the dark feeling em,powered, like an exchange had been made.” More recently he added, “Now I see them all the time.”
He goes, eats dinner alone, and sleeps in a grotto in the park.
The morning sun strikes colors off the grotto walls and fills the chamber with pale halo-light. The Divinity Student has stripped himself and is bathing in a chuckling brook that spreads its sheet of water across a bed of smooth stone. He emerges glistening white in the new daylight and goes over to the sandy part of the cave, still full in view of the sun. With care, he draws the signatures of three spirits in the sand and kneels between them. He lights a small heap of incense beneath his coat, which hangs from a spur of rock within arms’ reach, to cure it in the smoke. He burns likewise a paper prayer next to each of the three signatures. He anoints his hands and forehead with a little oil. Then, he sits still.
Kneeling, he puts his hands together before him and begins a chant from the Seminary—these are words that will trail in the gaps between divine words. The glinting morning air chills his wet skin and chill blooms in ghostly waves over his body and up under the hair on his head. Now, he starts rocking, gently, forwards and backwards, just slightly, just waving a little back and forth, like a blade of grass in a weak breeze, still chanting. The air is quiet. His voice is quiet, touching here and there on the rock walls behind him and humming sometimes at the cavern’s rim, just audible over the hush of the stream. The chant rings hollow, the syllables proceeding chromatic in a slow kaleidoscoping pattern of cadence rising and falling. His hands rub together only a little bit, adding a dry, regular whisper of rustling skin pacing the tones. The chant is spiraling up with the smoke from the prayers and the incense to the roof of the grotto, to linger a moment and then drift out into the open air. The sounds all mount together, something nameless growing within them, to mingle with the light that strikes stone and water like a chime. Hands pressed together, fingertips brush brow, mouth, and heart in regular, circular motion, each gesture the same as a syllable, another sound falling, and all regular, nodding back and forth in rhythm, steadily back and forth in rhythm.
The chant ends, but the light, the water, the rhythm stays with him as he gets up, stays with him as he gets dressed and covers the traces, stays with him as he comes clean out of the grotto.
At the top of Calavera street, a small portal in the wall of the Orpheum opens onto a miniature courtyard. Above, Magellan’s window is visible just beneath the dome, and within the walls, a few young trees in circular planters, the largest, an oak, in the center, and all connected by a stream that flows from a low opening in the inner wall. The paving stones are black, but three concentric gold rings radiate out from the oak planter in the center, describing a compass. There’s no one there at all.
The Divinity Student steps out carefully, coming up close to the wall. He sees movement in the water and freezes—the channels are deep, the stones are smooth and clean, and there is a column of small children gliding slowly by, faces down, propelling themselves with only the barest movements of their golden arms and legs, so that the surface above them remains calm. Startled, the Divinity Student steps back, and then forward to look again. Still they flow by in a steady stream, alone or in pairs, and without needing to come up for air. He watches them, and then he sees it—a single child breaks off and vanishes into the submerged roots of one of the young trees.
These are larval oros, enjoying the relative freedom they are afforded before pupating in the trunk of a tree. Eventually they will emerge as mature adults, varying in form depending on the tree. Oak oros, for example, have porcelain mouths.
With care, he pulls the box out of his pocket, then looks up at the oak tree—and there, rustling, maybe the wind only but perhaps some moving black limbs, a brief glint of white.
“If you’re going to spy,” he says, not loud, but clear and sharp, “then help me. That’ll give you something to spy on.”