Authors: Michael Cisco
Another wrong turn, he looks around in anguish, lost. The streets weave sometimes changing direction; he’s recognizing the buildings, but the streets don’t match. The Divinity Student is following the train tracks, another passing in a blast of diesel pushing hot air and thick flakes of dust before it, electricity snapping at the synapses. These trains run aboveground, their tunnels burrow through buildings, not earth, roaring through restaurants, hotels, private homes, churches, libraries, hospitals. The Divinity Student is staggering, disoriented, sweating in the wake of the trains, thinking only that he wants to sit down with her at the table and watch her filling columns of words; he’ll gladly be a mirror-glass, simply to sit by her and watch, bathed in her cool breath; or a lens for her to see through, so that he could be frosted with the rays that beam from her eyes, and these ideas push everything else out of the way. Dimmed and confused, he boards the train.
Under him his seat is rocking, only lulling him further into reverie, they plunge into the bowels of some public building, lamps streak by in horizontal bars of light, a fetid smell creeps damply through the car vents, and through his faint reflection in the window he can see the tunnel walls falling away into nothing on either side, rusted parallel tracks lying brown on lifeless gray earth, rancid pools, and occasional lamplit islands, a few men in construction uniforms lying idle.
He rides for a long time, people pass through the car, men in suits, lictors, old women. Some boys horsing around.
Fragments, incomplete ideas, but he’s sobering a little. They crash out into sunlight again, the train shrieks and complains—melancholy sighing of old metal—and stop at a tiled station with slanting roof of clouded glass. The doors hiss and roll open.
A hand seizes his arm and drags him out through the doors, before he can react they shut behind him and the train drags out into the street sending a car skidding into a heap of trash cans to avoid it. The Divinity Student turns and finds himself alone on the platform, but he recognizes the station now. Outside, he can once again find the familiar streets and buildings, and a familiar city once again.
From the Divinity Student’s journal, more recently: “I see those cats everywhere now. Last night I think I saw an albino cat. Led me to an infirmary I had not seen before, eerie brick houses and sodium lights. Everytime I go out at night, there they are.”
The garage was only two blocks away, he lurches in and drops onto the gutted frame of an easy chair. Now he’s pulling himself together, finding that again. No more feeling whipped about, he cleans himself out—and then goes to the bucket out back. Who knows how long it’s been?
He drags it inside and sits on the cement floor before it, shedding the day’s last strange fragments, and watching sunset light gild his hand through a cobwebbed window. He removes the cinderblock and the plank. A cold, flat odor out of time, not emerging from the bucket but just all about him instantly, as if it was his own native scent, there it is. The monitor lies inside, already blanching, skin ribbed with folds.
He was brought here—to learn this. He doesn’t know why yet.
No prayers now, only quiet, he reaches in, down, so that his fingers touch the bottom, bringing up the heaviest, richest lees on his fingertips, stinging cold and fuming on his hands and shirt cuffs. He does as Magellan had shown him; he atomizes the formaldehyde with a blow of breath, a nonsense word, sending it out like a sneeze, tiny droplets drift like snow in space, and he lets them fall boiling on his face. He breathes it into him.
For a moment he sits, feeling the vapor creep in his nostrils and down into his chest. A shadow falls past his eyes, a dry voice dusts his ears, whisper past ears into head, dry hands tug at the back of his eyes, clap behind nose, rustle in throat. Dry warmth settles on flesh and skin, cool to the middle, low to the ground, baking earth heats his belly, eyes watching the sides all the time, dry sounds, cracks and wheezes, grass parts in front of him, dry-faced insects scrabble away, dull thud of footsteps, giants streaming all around—light falls in sheets on his face, figures blazing ghosts around him, hollow ground and hollow air, empty noises, hollow, unmoored, gray-faced the Divinity Student tumbles down with his vision’s passing shivering on the garage floor.
The Divinity Student wakes with a soft head, lying on a concrete stoop. He was dreaming, a river carrying him away; now he sits up shaking his head alarmed, doesn’t know where he is—walked in his sleep. These are all symptoms of something . . . his mind is too foggy, he can’t remember. Around him, a slanting narrow street with white walls flaring in the sun, small children in cotton trousers running to crest the hill kicking dust, cinnamon brown door at his back; he looks down and sees the notebook in his hand, his thumb still jammed tightly between the pages, holding his place. He opens it and looks at words he doesn’t remember collecting but that touch his memory with vague suggestions—these two leapt at him out of a poolhall eight blocks from here; and that one floated down onto the page like a leaf, a woman speaking to her neighbor from a second-story window, and she let that one word drop clean and clear from a stream of unintelligible gabbling. Sleepwalking, he has collected them himself, without knowing. The Divinity Student stands up and counts—he has gathered more words in one day of sleep than in any day of waking. Why hadn’t he thought of this before?
With uneasy steps he navigates down the street to a crossroads, chickens scattering in his path, complaining in his wake. A kerchiefed woman beats a rug in front of her house singing “La, li, le . . . ” (thump) “ . . . lu, lo . . . ” and he asks her for directions. Red-brown face and fluttering hands heavy over her apron, her soft voice shows him in Spanish, goes back to hitting her rug.
The Divinity Student climbs ponderously up Horse Street. His body feels like a patchwork of ill-fitting parts. Tired of the desert, tired of the city, walking up the street feeling leaden and weak—make sure you survive killing yourself, that’s the way to go, and the red-green light winks on in his chest like an eye in the heart and it all comes into him at once. It’s too early in the story but he can’t wait, he jackknifes twenty feet straight up and tears off across the roofs, rolling over steeples, around the chimneys, ripping weathervanes and antennas loose, caught in his clothes he wears them like forgotten wire hangers, bounds over streets kicking up tiles, arms cartwheeling, face set a motionless stone mask, feet planting so hard he breaks through wood and plaster and down through someone’s dining room table, he smashes it in two, spilling food, breaking plates, family too dumbfounded to—he careens through the picture window taking the sill with him wrapped around his neck—strong enough now to punch through brick walls, outrunning dust clouds, his shadow so strong it’s cutting through the foundations of buildings and sending cobblestones flying up after him like a wake in water, nothing in him now but city and desert. Cars watching him make abortive gestures—“Don’t try it—we’d be ashes before we got within two dozen feet of him—no good while the spirit’s on him.”
A scent of dead flesh twists his track, he goes flying into a butcher shop, a horse carcass, pelt and hooves, eyes staring, tongue dangling a foot out of its mouth, the Divinity Student sends the butcher block flying, picks the horse up with one hand and runs outside to the trough; a single kick punctures wood, sends water sluicing out. One-handed, brandishing the body overhead, he stops the hole with a stone, just picks it up and shoves it home, empties ten gasoline cans of formaldehyde into the trough and dumps the horse in, spilling sour chemicals, weathervanes, and the windowsill, and, too impatient to wait, he jams his head under the surface and grabs the horse by its ears, ramming forehead to forehead he glares into glassy eyes and strains the horse-life in through his teeth, sucks it out in one mighty inhalation. His head rears back out of the chemicals streaming, and he staggers back against the wall of the shop shaking, a horror of dust and water and the fit that’s on him, people stopping, hands on throats and mouths as he drops to his knees eyes widening to the sun—so who does he run with now, and where, eating grass warm from the meadow or drinking from that trough once years ago, rutting in tree shade, pulling the bit down throwing the rider, now it’s he who’s doing the riding, the Divinity Student, his horse spirit boiling out of him as he shakes his head and droplets of formaldehyde spatter the crowd, snapping witnesses’ heads slapping their faces with images of each others’ past, and, terrified, they run like rats. The Divinity Student traces curves in the dirt with his hands and shoeheels, throwing up clouds of dust, and feels the spirit wrenching loose with a pull towards the sky. Red-green light dims and fades in his chest.
Teo Desden, the butcher, drags him sympathetically back into the shop and props him against the display case. The Divinity Student, soaked and exhausted, pants to catch his breath. Time passes, and he comes to himself once again.
So, the Divinity Student sits watching the butcher. Desden works alone in the empty shop hacking mutton; rows of sheathed cleavers and razor-sharp knives with smooth stainless steel handles hum on a white counter, making the room look like a surgery. Gleaming meathooks on a chain hang over his head, along the back wall, one red raw animal smeared with white marbling swinging in the currents from the overhead fan; smells like wet concrete and rain, a clean place, regular thocking sound of Teo’s cleaver making clean bone splits, chops and ribs sliding along red streaks to nestle on lettuce in cool glass cases. The floor is checkered, the far wall one vast and spotless mirror—the Divinity Student notices that Desden stares at himself all the time he’s cutting the meat, contempt drawing lines taut around his mouth, turning his glazed eyes inward. He’s marked, his bare forearms and hands are scarred and cut in places, his lips and fingertips are badly chewed, and the Divinity Student sees how deliberate the butcher’s carelessness is. Desden mutters something at himself and breaks the animal’s back with one springlike hack of his cleaver. He tosses beautifully sliced slabs of meat into the cases, pulls on the chain to bring the next body around, gliding effortlessly forward on well-oiled wheels, pulls it clear off the hook and starts slashing recklessly at it, perfect cuts flying off and piling up neatly despite themselves next to him on the counter.
A car passes outside, the Divinity Student watches a fly zing in through the open door. With a speed that defies vision Teo uncoils, sending a four-inch steel blade silent across the room flashing once under the fluorescents and the fly runs right into it. Two black halves drop to the tiles, the knife lands on its handle on the sideboard and slides an inch to rest, just tapping the base of the mirror. Unsteady, the Divinity Student lurches to his feet.
“Don’t worry,” he holds up his hand and takes up the knife, “here you are.”
He walks back to the counter and hands it over, a narrow streak of clear jelly marking the steel where it hit the fly. Desden thanks him, and the Divinity Student meanders unevenly to the door and brushes the two halves out into the street.
“Oh,” he turns back and makes his way to the counter again, holding his head. “Your horse . . . ” He reaches into his pocket for some money.
“It’s not important. It didn’t even belong here.”
The Divinity Student obstinately starts counting coins, but Desden reaches over the scales to close his hand. The butcher’s fingers are cold and dry.
“It isn’t mine, one of my suppliers used to ride it,” Desden takes his hand away. “ . . . He came here yesterday to sell me two sides of beef, but the moment I’d paid him we heard a scream outside. His horse was drowning itself in the water trough—we did our best to pull it free, but it ended up dead anyway. In the meantime, my supplier ran off with my money and stuck me with the damn thing.”
The butcher goes back to cutting, turns a moment and says, “You saved me the trouble of having to decide what to do with it.”
The Divinity Student looks to the door, his head fills with air and for a moment he clings to the counter.
“You’re in no condition to go out there.”
“May I stay here?” The Divinity Student turns a pale face to Teo. “I’m willing to pay.”
“You can sleep in the meat locker.”
The Divinity Student pays the butcher and sits at one of the tables, decorated with a small white pitcher of white and pink carnations. Eventually Desden comes out in front and hands him a glass of water, sits opposite.
“What do you do?”
After he finishes drinking, “I’m a word-finder.”
The Divinity Student produces his notebook, shows it to Teo. The other man scrutinizes last night’s page carefully. He points to “redactor”—eyebrows go up, “That’s a good one”—looks a while and hands it back. His expression is sad.
“I suppose it’s a good business.”
“I collected these last night while I was sleeping.” The Divinity Student looks abashed.
With a sigh and a nod, Desden goes back behind the counter and starts cutting up the bodies again. His expression hardens and he starts cursing at himself.
Time passes. The Divinity Student sits silent and dazed, not thinking about anything but vacantly staring out the door. He is trying not to think, for fear that thinking will carry him off, or exhaust him. Eventually, he musters himself enough to ask what time Desden closes shop.
“I may be going out again,” he says.
“I sleep upstairs in the back, just throw something at my window if I’m not down here.”
He nods and shoves a handful of meat into the grinder, sneers, “I don’t have any plans for the evening.”
The Divinity Student tilts out the door, street air hitting dry and yellow, just down the road and around the corner, colorless dirt road twisting down toward the middle of the city, shallow shadows under hissing branches. It’s quiet, the street narrows at the bottom, silent stones bearing witness. He passes the churchyard and moves to the mouth of the Street of Wax, pulled up short by a low whistle.