MOUTH DRY, HAIR TOUSLED, AND CHIN SCRATCHY WITH
stubble, Dradin woke to a pinched nerve in his back that made him moan and turn over and over on the bed, his perspective notably skewed, though not this time by the woman. Still, he could tell that the sun had plummeted beneath the horizon and where the sky had been gray with clouds, it now ranged from black to a bruised purple, the moon mottled, the light measured out in rough dollops. Dradin yawned and scrunched his shoulders together to cure the pinchedness, then rose and walked to the tall but slender windows. He unhooked the latch and pulled the twin panes open to let in the smell of approaching rain, mixed with the sweet stink of garbage and honeysuckle.
The window looked down on the city proper, which lay inside the cupped hands of a valley veined with tributaries of the Moth. It was there that ordinary people slept and dreamt not of jungles and humidity and the lust that fed and starved men’s hearts, but of quiet walks under the stars and milk-fat kittens and the gentle hum of wind on wooden porches. They raised families and doubtless missionaries never moved amongst their ranks, but only full- fl edged priests, for they were already converted to a faith. Indeed, they and people like them in other cities paid their tithes and, in return, had emissaries sent out into the wilderness to spread the word, such emissaries nothing more than the physical form of their own hopes, wishes, fears; their desires made fl esh. Dradin found the idea a sad one, sadder still, in a way he hesitated to define, that were it not for his chosen vocation, he could have had such a life: settling down into a daily rhythm that did not include the throbbing of the jungles, twinned to the beating of his heart. Anthony Toliver had chosen such a life, abandoning the clergy soon after graduation from the religious institute.
A round the valley lay the fringe, like a roughly circular smudge of wine and vulgar lipstick. The Holander-Barth Hostel marked the dividing line between the valley and fringe, just as the beginning of Albumuth Boulevard marked the end of the docks and the beginning of the fringe. It was here, not truly at a city’s core, that Dradin had always been most comfortable, even back in his religious institute days, when he had been
more severe on himself than the most pious monks who taught him.
On the fringe, jesters pricked and pranced, jugglersplied their trade with babies and knives (mixing the two as casually as one might mix apples and oranges). The life’s blood swelled at a more exhilarating pace, a pace that quickened beyond the fringe, where the doughty sailors of the River Moth sailed on barges, dhows, frigates, and the rare steamer: any thing that could fl oat and hold a man without sinking into the silt.
Beyond the river lay the jungles, where the pace quickened into mad ness. The jungles hid creatures that died after a single day, their lives con densed beyond comprehension,
so that Dradin, in observation of their own swift mortality, had sensed his body dying, hour by hour, minute by minute, a feeling that had not left him even when he lay
down with the sweaty woman priest.
Dradin let the breeze from the window brush against him, cooling him, then returned to the bed, circling around it to the bed lamp, turned the switch, and lo!, a brassy light to read by. He plopped down on the bed, legs akimbo, and opened the book to the first page. Thus began the fantasy: that in some other room, some other house perhaps even in the valley below the woman from the window lay in her own bed by some dim light and turned these same pages, read these same words. The touch of the pages to his fingers was erotic; they felt damp and charged his limbs with the short, sharp shock of a ceremonial cup of liqueur. He became hard, but resisted the urge to touch himself. Ah, sweet agony! Nothing in his life had ever felt half so good, half so tortuous. Nothing in the bravely savage world beyond the Moth could compare: not the entwining snake dances of the Magpie Women of the Frangipani Veldt, nor the single, aching cry of a Zinfendel maid as she jumped headfirst into the roar of a waterfall. Not even the sweaty woman priest before the fever struck, her panting moans during their awkward love play more a testimonial to the humidity and ever-present mosquitoes than any skill on his part.
Dradin looked around his room. How bare it was for all that he had lived some thirty years. There was his redhandled machete, balanced against the edge of the dresser drawers, and his knapsack, which contained powders and liquids to cure a hundred jungle diseases, and his or anges cuffed boots beside that, and his coins on the table, the gold almost crimson in the light, but what else? Just his suitcase with two changes of clothes, his yellowing, torn diploma from the Morrow Institute of Religiosity, and daguerreotypes of his mother and father, them in their short lived youth, Dad not yet a red-faced, broken-veined lout of an academic, Mom’s eyes not yet squinty with surrounding wrinkles and sharp as bloodied shards of glass.
What did the woman’s room look like? No doubt it too was briskly clean, but not bare, oh no. It would have a bed with white mosquito net ting and a place for a glass of water, and her favorite books in a row beside the bed, and beyond that a white and silver mantel and mirror, and below that, her dresser drawers, filled to bursting with
frilly night things and frilly day things, and filthily frilly twilight things as well. Powders and lotions for her skin, to keep it beyond the pale. Knitting needles and wool, or other less feminine tools for hobbies. Perhaps she kept a vanilla kitten close by, to play with the balls of wool. If she lived at home, this might be the extent of her world, but if she lived alone, then Dradin had three, four, other room to fi ll with her loves and hates. Did she enjoy small talk and other chatter? Did she dance? Did she go to social events? What might she be thinking as she read the book, on the fi rst page of which was written:
THE REFRACTION OF LIGHT IN A PRISON
(Being an Account of the Truffi dian Monks Held in the Dungeons of the Kalif, For They Have Not Given Up Sanity, or Hope)
(and, held unfortunately in separate quarters, communicating to us purely by the force of her will, Sister Stalker)
And, on the next page:
BEING CHAPTER ONE:
THE MYSTICAL PASSIONS
The most mystical of all passions are those practiced
by the water people of the Lower Moth, for though
they remain celibate and spend most of their lives
in the water, they attain a oneness with their mates
that bedevils those lesser of us who equate love
with intercourse. Surely, their women would never
become the objects of their desire, for then these
women would lose an intrinsic eroticism.
Dradin read on impatiently, his hands sweaty, his throat dry, but, no, no, he would not rise to drink water from the sink, nor release his tension, but must burn, as his love must burn, reading the self-same words. For now he was in truth a missionary, converting himself to the cause of love, and he could not stop.
Outside, along the lip of the valley, lights began to blink and waver in phosphorescent reds, greens, blues, and yellows, and Dradin realized that preparations for the Festival of the Freshwater Squid must be underway. On the morrow night, Albumuth Boulevard would be cleared for a parade that would overflow onto the adjacent streets and then the entire city. Along the avenues, candles wrapped in boxes of crepe paper would appear, so that the light would be like the dancing of the squid, great and small, upon the midnight salt water where it met the mouth of the Moth. A celebration of the spawning season, when males battled mightily for females of the species and the fisher folk of the docks would set out for a month’s trawling of the lusting grounds, hoping to bring back enough meat to last until winter.
If only he could be with her on the morrow night. Among the sights the hansom driver had pointed out on the way into Ambergris was a tavern, The Drunken Boat, decked out with the finest in cutlery and clientele, and featuring, for the festival only, the caterwauling of a band called The Ravens. To dance with her, her hands interwoven with his, the scent of her body on his, would make up for all that had happened in the jungle and the humiliations since: the hunt for ever more miserable jobs, accompanied by a general lightening of coin in his pockets.
The clocks struck the insomniac hours after midnight and, below the window, Dradin heard the moist scuttle of mushroom dwellers as they gathered off al and refuse. Rain followed the striking of the clocks, falling softly, as light in touch as Dradin’s hand upon The Refraction of Light in a Prison. Th e smell of rain, fresh and sharp, came from the window.
Drawn by that smell, Dradin put the book aside and rose to the window, watched the rain as it caught the faint light, the drops like a school of tiny silver-scaled fish, here and gone, back a moment later. A vein of lightning, a boom of thunder, and the rain came faster and harder.
Many times Dradin had stared through the rain splashed windows of the old gray house on the hill from his childhood in Morrow (the house with the closed shutters like eyes stitched shut) while relatives came up the gray, coiled road: the headlights of expensive motored vehicles bright in the sheen of rain. They resembled a small army of hunched black, white, and red beetles, like the ones in his father’s insect books, creeping up the hill. Below them, where it was not fogged over, the rest of Morrow: industrious, built of stone and wood, feeding off of the River Moth.
From one particular window in the study, Dradin could enjoy a double image: inside, at the end of a row of three open doors library, living room, dining room his enormous
opera singer of a mother (tall and big-boned) stuff ed into the kitchen. No maid helped her, for they lived, the three of them, alone on the hill, and so she would be delicately placing mincemeats on plates, cookies on trays, splashing lemonade and punch into glasses, trying very hard to keep her hands clean and her red dress of frills and lace unstained. She would sing to herself as she worked, in an unrestrained and husky voice (it seemed she never spoke to Dradin, but only sang) so that he could hear, conducted through the various pipes, air ducts, and passageways, the words of Voss Bender’s greatest opera:
Come to me in the Spring
When the rains fall hard
For you are sweet as pollen,
Sweet as fresh honeycomb.
When the hard brown branches
Of the oak sprout green leaves,
In the season of love, come to me.
Into the oven would go the annual pheasant, while outside the window Dradin could see his father, thin and meticulous in tuxedo and tails, picking his way through the puddles in the front drive, carrying a big, ragged black umbrella. Dad would walk precisely, as if by stepping fi rst here and then there, he might escape the rain drops, slip between them because he knew the umbrella would do no good, riddled as it was with rips and moth holes. But, oh, what a pantomime for the guests!, while Dradin laughed and his mother sang. Apologies for the rain, the puddles, the tattered appearance of the umbrella. In later years, Dad’s greetings became loutish, slurred by drink and age until they were no longer generous. But back then he would unfold his limbs like a good-natured mantis and with quick movements of his hands switch the umbrella from left to right as he gestured his apologies. All the while, the guests would be half-in, half-out of the car Aunt Sophie and Uncle Ken, perhaps trying hard to be polite, but meanwhile drenched to the skin. Inside, Mom would have time to steel herself, ready a greeting smile by the front door, and one doomful eye on the soon-to-be-burnt pheasant call for Dradin.
In a much more raging rain, Dradin had first been touched by a force akin to the spiritual. It occurred on a similarly dreary day of visiting relatives, Dradin only nine and trapped: trapped by dry pecks on the cheek; trapped by the smell of damp, sweaty bodies brought close together; trapped by the dry burn of cigars and by the alarming stares of the elderly men, eyebrows inert white slugs, moustaches wriggly, eyes enormous and watery through glasses or monocles. Trapped, too, by the ladies, even worse at that advanced age, their cavernous grouper mouths intent on devouring him whole into their bellies.
Dradin had begged his mother to invite Anthony Toliver and, against his father’s wishes, she had said yes. Anthony, a fearless follower, was a wiry boy with sallow skin and dark eyes. Th ey had met in public school, odd fellows bonded together by the simple fact that both had been beaten up by the school bully, Roger Gimmell. As soon as Tony arrived, Dradin convinced him to escape the party. Off they snuck, through a parlor door into a backyard bounded only at the hori zon by a tangled wilderness of trees. Water pelted them, splattered on shirts, and pummeled fl esh, so that Dradin’s ears rang with the force of it and dull aches woke him the morning after. Grass was swept away, dirt dissolving into mud.
Tony fell almost immediately and, scrabbling at Dradin, made him fall too, into the wet, grasping at weeds for support. Tony laughed at the surprised look on Dradin’s face. Dradin laughed at the mud clogging Tony’s left ear. Splash! Slosh! Mud in the boots, mud in the trousers, mud flecking their hair, mud coating their faces.
Th ey grappled and giggled. Th e rain fell so hard it stung. It bit into their clothes, cut into the tops of their heads, attacked their eyes so they could barely open them. In the middle of the mud fi ght they stopped bat tling each other and started battling the rain. Th ey scrambled to their feet, no longer playing, then lost touch with each other, Tony’s hand slipping from Dradin’s, so that Tony said only, “Come on!” and ran toward the house, never looking back at Dradin, who stood still as a frightened rab bit, utterly alone in the universe.
As Dradin stands alone in the sheets of rain, staring at the heavens that have opened up and sent the rains down, he begins to shake. Th e rain, like a hand on his shoulders, presses him down; the electric sensation of water on his skin rinses away mud and bits of grass, leaves him cold and sodden. He shudders convulsively, sensing the prickle of an immensity up in the sky, staring down at him. He knows from the rush and rage of blood, the magnified beat of his heart, that nothing this alive, this out of control, can be random. Dradin closes his eyes and a thousand colors, a thousand images, explode inside his mind, one for each drop of rain. A rain of shooting stars, and from this conflagration the universe opening up before him. For an instant, Dradin can sense every throbbing artery and arrhythmic heart in the city below him every darting quicksilver thought of hope, of pain, of hatred, of love. A hundred thousand sorrows and a hundred thousand joys ascending to him.
The babble of sensation so overwhelms him that he can hardly breathe, cannot feel his body except as a hollow receptacle. Then the sensations fade until, closer at hand, he feels the pinprick lives of mice in the nearby glades, the deer like graceful shadows, the foxes clever in their burrows, the ladybugs hidden on the undersides of leaves, and then nothing, and when it is gone, he says, shoulders slumped, but still on his feet, Is this God?
When Dradin a husk now, his hearing deafened by the rain, his bones cleansed by it turned back toward the house; when he finally faced the house with its shuttered windows, as common sense dictated he should, the light from within fairly burst to be let out. And Dradin saw (as he stood by the window in the hostel) not Tony, who was safely inside, but his mother. His mother. The later memory fused to the earlier seamlessly, as if they had happened together, one, of a piece. That he had turned and she was there, already leveling a blank stare toward him; that, simple as breath, the rain brought redemption and madness crashing down on both their heads, the time span no obstacle and of no importance.
. . . he turned and there was his mother, on her knees in the mud, in her red dress spattered brown. She scooped the mud up with her hands, regarded it, and began to eat, so ravenously that she bit into her little finger. The eyes on the face of stone the face as blank as the rain looked up at him with the most curious expression, as if trapped as Dradin had felt trapped inside the house, trapped and asking Dradin . . . to do something. And him, even then, already fourteen, not knowing what to do, calling for Dad, calling for a doctor, while the mud smudged the edges of her mouth and, unconcerned, she ate more and stared at him after each bite, until he cried and came to her and hugged her and tried to make her stop, though nothing in the world could make her stop, or make him stop trying. What unnerved him more than anything, more than the mud in her mouth, was the complete silence that surrounded her, for he had come to define her by her voice, and this she did not use, even to ask for help.
Dradin again heard the mushroom dwellers below and closed the window abruptly. He sat back on the bed. He wanted to read more of the book, except that now his thoughts floated, rose and fell like waves and, before he realized it, before he could stop it, he was, as it were, not quite dead, but merely asleep.
In the morning, Dradin rose rested and spry, his body almost certainly re covered from the jungle fever. For months he had risen to the ache of sore muscles and bruised internal organs; now he had only a fever of a different sort. Every time Dradin glanced at The Refraction of Light in a Prison as he washed his face in the green-tinged basin, as he dressed, not looking at his pant legs so it took him several tries to put them on he thought of her. What piece of glitter might catch her eye for him? For now, surely, if she had read the book, was the time to appraise her worth to him, to let her know that serious is as serious does. In just such a manner had his dad wooed his mom, Dad a rake-thin but puff -bellied proud grad uate of Morrow’s University of Arts & Facts (which certainly defined Dad). She, known by the maiden name of Barsombly, the famous singer with a voice like a pit bull almost baritone, but husky enough, Dradin admitted, to conceal a sultry sexuality. He could not remember when he had not either felt the thrulling vibrations of his mother’s voice or heard the voice itself. Or a time when he had not watched as she applied raucous perfumes and powders to herself, after putting on the low-bodiced, gold-satin costumes that rounded her taut bulk like an impenetrable wall. He could remember her taking him into theatres and music halls through the back entrance, bepuddled and muddened, and as some helpful squire would escort him sodden to his seat, so too would she be escorted atop the stage, so that as Dradin sat, the curtain rose, simultaneous with the applause from the audience an ovation like the crashing of waves against rock.
Then she would sing, and he would imagine the thrull of her against him, and marvel at the power of her voice, the depths and hollows of it, the way it matched the flow and melody of the orchestra only to diverge, coursing like a secret and perilous undertow, the vibration growing and growing until there was no longer any music at all, just the voice devouring the music.
Dad did not go to any of her performances and sometimes Dradin thought she sang so loud, so full of rage, that Dad might still hear her faintly, him up late reading in the study of the old house on the hill with the shutters like eyes stitched shut.
His mother would have been proud of his attempts to woo, but, alas, she had been gagged and trussed for her own good and traveled now with the Bedlam Rovers, a cruising troupe of petty psychiatrists sailing down the Moth on a glorified houseboat under the subtitle of “Boat Bound Psychiatrists: Miracle Workers of the Mind” to whom, finally, Dad had given over his dearest, the spiced fi g of his heart, Dradin’s mother for a fee, of course; and didn’t it, Dad had raged and blustered, come to the same thing? In a rest home or asylum; either situated in one place, or on the move. It was not so bad, he would say, slumping down in a damp green chair, waving his amber bottle of Smashing Ted’s Finest; after all, the sights she would see, the places she would experience, and all under the wise and benevolent care of trained psychiatrists who paid to take that care. Surely, his father would finish with a belch or burp, there is no better arrangement.
Youngish Dradin, still smarting from the ghost of the strap of a half an hour past, dared not argue, but thought often: yes, but all such locutions of thought are reliable and reliant upon one simple supposition to whit, that she be insane. What if not insane but sane “south by southwest” as the great Voss Bender said? What if, inside the graying but leopardesque head, the burgeoning frame, lay a wide realm of sanity, with only the outer shell susceptible to hallucinations, incantations, and inappropriate metaphors? What then? To be yanked about thus, like an animal on a chain, could this be stood by a sane individual? Might such parading and humiliation lead a person to the very insanity hitherto avoided?
And, worse thought still, that his father had driven her to it with his cruel, carefully planned indifference. But Dradin, remembering the awful silence of that day in the rain when Mom had stuff ed her mouth full of mud, refused to dwell on it. He must find a present for his darling, this accomplished by rummaging through his pack and coming up with a necklace, the centerpiece an uncut emerald. It had been given to him by a tribal chieftain as a bribe to go away (“There is only One God,” Dradin had said. “What’s his name?” the chieftain asked. “God,” replied Dradin. “How bloody boring,” the chieftain said. “Please go away.”) and he had taken it initially as a donation to the Church, although he had meant to give it to the spiced fig of his heart, the sweaty woman priest, only to have the fever overtake him first. As he held the necklace in his hand, he recognized the exceptional workman ship of the blue-and-green beads. If he were to sell it, he might pay the rent at the hostel for another week. But, more attractive, if he gave it to his love, she would understand the seriousness of his heart’s desire.
With uncharacteristic grace and a touch of inspired lunacy, Dradin tore the first page from The Refraction of Light in a Prison and wrote his name below the name of the last monk, like so:
Brother Dradin Kashmir –
Not truly a brother, but devout
in his love for you alone
Dradin looked over his penmanship with satisfaction. There. It was done. It could not be undone.
Excerpted from City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer Copyright 2006 by Jeff Vandermeer. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.