- A Dribble Of Ink
- A Fantasy Reader
- Adventures In Reading
- Bastard Books
- Beauty In Ruins
- Bibliophile Stalker
- Big Dumb Object
- Bitten By Books
- Boing Boing
- Book Country
- Bookworm Blues
- Caleigh's Blog
- Charlotte's Library
- Cheryl's Mewsings
- Civilian Reader
- Compulsion Reads
- Critical Mass
- Curated Fantasy Books
- Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews
- Dragons, Heroes and Wizards
- Dreams & Speculation
- Drying Ink
- Edi's Book Lighthouse
- Epic Fantasy Rocks! Forum
- Everything is Nice
- Falcata Times
- Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' News & Reviews
- Fantasy Book News
- Fantasy Cafe
- Fantasy Literature
- Far Beyond Reality
- Feminist SF
- Free SF Reader
- Gav Reads
- Genre Reader
- Graeme's SFF
- Grasping For The Wind
- Greg Hamerton
- Grimdark Reader
- Hero Complex
- Horror Reanimated
- Jeff VanderMeer
- King of the Nerds
- Layers of Thought
- Mithril Wisdom
- My Favourite Books
- Myrmidon Books
- Mysterious Outposts
- Neth Space
- Old Bat's Belfry
- Only The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
- Reading The Leaves
- Realms of Speculative Fiction
- Rob's Blog O' Stuff
- Sci Fi Songs
- Smorgasbord Fantasia
- Speculative Book Review
- Speculative Fiction Junkie
- Staffer's Book Review
- Stainless Steel Droppings
- Stomping On Yeti
- Tez Says
- The Agony Column
- The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
- The Book Smugglers
- The Broken Bullhorn
- The Fantasy Bookshelf
- The Green Man Review
- The Mad Hatter's Bookshelf & Book Review
- The Night Bazaar
- The Nocturnal Library
- The OF Blog
- The Overlook Press
- The Ranting Dragon
- The Speculative Scotsman
- The Stamp (of Approval)
- The Vinciolo Journal
- The Wertzone
- The World in the Satin Blog
- Val's Random Comments
- Variety SF
- Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic
- Voyager Books
- Walker of Worlds
- When Gravity Fails
- Zeno Agency
- ► 2014 (155)
- ► 2013 (260)
- ► 2012 (287)
- Thoughts on "Parallel Stories" by Peter Nadas (by ...
- Magic Gifts: A Free Kate Daniels Novella by Ilona ...
- A Nice Chistmas Gift: "Percepliquis" by Michael Su...
- My Three Most Disappointing Books of 2011 (by Livi...
- Thoughts on "Leeches" by David Albahari and "The T...
- Deadcore: Four Hardcore Zombie Novellas (Reviewed ...
- BLOG TOUR: Maria V. Snyder on "The Trouble with Na...
- Stirred by J.A. Konrath & Blake Crouch (Reviewed b...
- NSB HOLIDAY COUNTDOWN: “A Dirge for Prester John” ...
- "Wasted Morning" by Gabriela Adamesteanu (Reviewed...
- A Cover Snapshot of my Current Reading List (by Li...
- NEWS: M. R. Mathias Announces Release Dates for “T...
- Three Indie Mini-Reviews: Child of the Ghosts, The...
- The Three Ruins Anthologies from Hadley-Rille Book...
- Several More Highly Anticipated 2012 Novels (by Li...
- Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough (Reviewed by Mihi...
- Interview with Kelly Gay (Interviewed by Mihir Wan...
- My Highly Recomended Books of 2011 in Covers (by L...
- NIGHT SHADE BOOKS HOLIDAY COUNTDOWN: Excerpt from ...
- "Native Star" by M.K. Hobson (Reviewed by Cindy Ha...
- "Saints Astray" by Jacqueline Carey (Reviewed by L...
- Zero Sum by B. Justin Shier (Reviewed by Mihir Wan...
- 2011 Goodreads Choice Winners and a Review of my P...
- Legend by Marie Lu (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)
- "Rise of Empire" by Michael Sullivan (Reviewed by ...
- Two 2011 SF Novels that are past their expiration ...
- GUEST POST: “The Joy of Cooking Tropes” by Michael...
- Spotlight on December Books
- ▼ December (28)
- ► 2010 (346)
- ► 2009 (466)
- ► 2008 (376)
Monday, December 19, 2011
INTRODUCTION: In celebration of Night Shade Book’s Holiday Countdown, Fantasy Book Critic is proud to present “A Dirge for Prester John”, the original short story that Catherynne M. Valente’s reimagining of the legend of Prester John—The Habitation of the Blessed (Volume One-Out Now), The Folded World (Volume Two-Out Now), The Spindle of Necessity (Volume Three-Out Late 2012) is based on. Enjoy!
I. The Habitation of the Blessed
We carried him down to the river.
It churned: basalt, granite, marble, quartz—sandstone, limestone, soapstone. Alabaster against obsidian, flint against agate. Eddies of jasper slipped by, swirls of schist, carbuncle and chrysolite, slate, beryl, and a sound like shoulders breaking.
Fortunatus the Gryphon carried the body on his broad and fur-fringed back—how his wings were upraised like banners, gold and red and bright! Behind his snapping tail followed the wailing lamia twelve by twelve, molting their iridescent skins in grief.
Behind them came shrieking hyena and crocodiles with their great black eyes streaming tears of milk and blood.
Even still behind these came lowing tigers, their colors banked, and in their ranks monopods wrapped in high black stockings, carrying birch-bark cages filled with green-thoraxed crickets singing out their dirges.
The red and the white lions dragged their manes in the dust; centaurs buried their faces in blue-veined hands.
The peacocks closed the blue-green eyes of their tails.
The soft-nosed mules threw up their heads in broken-throated braying.
The panthers stumbled to their black and muscled knees, licking the soil from their tears.
On camels rode the cyclops holding out into the night lanterns which hung like rolling, bloodshot eyes, and farther in the procession came white bears, elephants, satyrs playing mourn-slashed pipes, pygmies beating ape-skin drums, giants whose staves drew great furrows in the road, and the dervish-spinning cannibal choir, their pale teeth gleaming.
Behind these flew low the four flame-winged phoenix, last of their race.
And after all of these, feet bare on the sand, skirts banded thick and blue about her waist, eyes cast downward, walked Hagia of the Blemmyae, who tells this tale.
II. The First Moveable Sphere
When we first found him, he was face-down in the pepper-fields, his skin blazed to a cracked and blistered scarlet, his hair sparse as thirsty grass.
The pygmies wanted to eat him. He must have been strong to have wandered this far, from whatever strange country—they should have the right to bisect his liver and take the strength, wet and dripping, into their tribe.
The red lion, Hadulph, nosed his maimed feet, and snuffled at his dark clothes.
“He smells of salt water and pressed flour,” he announced, “and he who smells of pressed flour knows the taste of baked bread, and he who knows the taste of baked bread is civilized, and we do not eat the civilized, unless they are already dead and related to us, which is a matter of religion and none of anyone’s business.”
I looked down at his shape between the black and red pepper plants, in their long rows like a chessboard. It looked like the end of a game to me: I stood over the toppled kingpiece, a big-shouldered knight who has managed, in her jagged L-shaped steps to finally make forward progress. I rubbed the soft and empty space above my collarbone—like a fontanel, it is silky and pulsating, a mesh of shadow and meat under the skin, never quite closed, and each Blemmye finds their own way with it, but often we are caught, deep in thought, stroking the place where our head is not. I stroked it then, considering the flotsam that the desert wind had washed onto our hard black peppercorns like the sands of a beach.
“He is wretched, like a baby, wrinkled and prone and motherless. Take him to the al-Qasr, and iron him out until he is smooth,” I said quietly, and the pygmies grumbled, gnashing their tattooed teeth.
Hadulph took the stranger on his broad and rosy back, where the fur bristles between his great shoulder blades, and that is how Presbyter Johannes came into our lives on the back of one beast, and left on the back of another.
III. The Crystalline Heaven
Behind the ivory-and-amethyst pillars of the al-Qasr, which he insisted we rename the Basilica of St. Thomas, I sat with my hands demurely in my lap, fingering Hadulph’s flame-colored tail. We sat in rows like children—the pygmies picked at their ears, the phoenix ran sticks of cinnamon through their beaks, carving it for their nests, the monopods relaxed on their backs, wide feet thrust overhead, each toe ringed with silver and emerald. Grisalba, a lamia with a tail like water running over moss, combed her long black hair, looking bored.
John the Priest tried not to look at me. His hair had grown back, but it was white, whiter than a man his age should own.
I told him once while he ran his tongue over the small of my back that the sun had taken all his blood, and left him with nothing in his veins but light.
He, ever the good teacher, tried to make eye contact with each of us in turn, but he could not look at my eyes, he could not look down to the full curve of my high, sun-brown breasts, and the green eyes that stared calmly from their tips under a thick fringe of lashes. I blinked often, to interrupt his droning, and he tried to look only at where my head might be if I were a woman.
He repeated these words as if they had any meaning for us, sounding each syllable. We did not like Latin. It sat on our tongues like an old orange, sweet-sour and rind-ridden.
A. Ve. Mari. A.
Grisalba yawned and picked at her tail, lazily slapping its tip against the chalcedony floor. Hadulph chuckled and bit into the consonants like elbow joints.
A-ve Ma-ri-a gra-ti-a ple-na. Ti like she. Ple like play. She plays, gratia plena, Maria plays, ave Maria gratia plena.
A. Ve. Mari. A. Gra. Tea. A. Plea. Na.
“I wonder what his sweat tastes like?” Grisalba murmured in my ear. I grinned, but he could not chide me, for that would mean glancing down past my nipple-eyes to the mouth-which-is-a-navel, and he would not risk it.
No, no. She plays. She; play. Shall we try the Pater Noster instead then?
Pa. Tear. No. Star.
IV. Saturn, Cold and Dry
The strange man lay on one of the fallen pillars in the central hall of the al-Qasr—the smooth tower of violet stone had crashed to the floor one day while the quarter-moon market bustled in the portico—tile-shards of gold and splinters of ebony came tumbling after it, and we could all see the stars through the hole it made, like coins dropped into the hand of heaven. A brace of tigers looked up from arguing with a two-faced apothecary about whether she should be allowed to sell the powdered testicles of greater feline castrati as aphrodisiacs; the lamia paused in their venom-dance; I placed an arm beneath my breasts and lifted my eyes from the scribe-work before me to the ceiling. We all looked back and forth from the fallen pillar to the hole in the roof, up and down, up and down: work to sky to ruined architecture.
Of things that exist, some exist by nature, some from other causes, I had copied out from one greenish sheet of pepper-leaf paper to another. Animals and their variegated parts exist, and the plants and the simple bodies exist, and we say that these and the like exist by nature.
The pillar had chipped its complex torus, and bitten into the onyx floor.
All the things mentioned present a feature in which they differ from things which are constituted by art. Each of them has within itself a principle of stationariness (in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration).
The constellation of Taurus-in-Extremis, the Slaughtered Cow, could be seen winking through the broken wood, and ebony dust drifted down on a soft breeze off of the river.
Even motion can be called a kind of stationariness if it is compulsive and unending, as in the motion of the gryphon’s heart or the bamboo’s growth. On the other hand, a bed or a coat or anything else of that sort, in so far as it is a product of art has innate impulses to change.
Rich black earth had spurted up around the ruptured floor. The pillar’s belly was swathed in it.
As an indication of this, take the well-known Antinoë’s Experiment: if you plant a bed and the rotting wood and the worm-bitten sheets in the deep earth, it will certainly and with the hesitation of no more than a season, which is to say no more than an ear of corn or a stalk of barley, send up shoots.
I could just glimpse the edge of the sardis-snake which guarded the entrance of the al-Qasr, ensuring that no folk who are not lamia and thereby licensed, could bring poison under its roof. Behind it and far off, the Cricket-star flickered as if in chirruping song.
A bed-tree would come up out of the fertile land, its fruit four-postered, and its leaves would unfurl as green pillows, and its stalk would be a deep cushion on which any hermit might rest. It is art which changes, which evolves, and nature which is stationary.
The quarter-moon market gave a collective shrug and went about itself, stepping over the purple column and leaving it where it had fallen—wasn’t it better, the cyclops murmured, to let a little light in, and have a nice place to stretch one’s feet? I glanced back at my thrice-copied treatise, tiresome as all secondhand treatises are, and finished the page.
However, since this experiment may be repeated with bamboo or gryphon or meta-collinarum or trilobite, perhaps it is fairer to say that animals and their parts, plants and simple bodies are artifice, brother to the bed and the coat, and that nature is constituted only in the substance in which these things may be buried—that is to say, soil and water, and no more.
By the time we laid the stranger out on the pillar, it had grown over with phlox and kudzu and lavender and pepperwort, and we rested his battered head on a thatch of banana leaves. He moaned and retched like a sailor coughing up the sea, and I held him while he wracked himself clean. It was past the fishing hour when his eyes slitted open and his moth-voice rasped:
“Thomas, I came searching for Thomas and his tomb, the Apostle, where is the Apostle?”
Hadulph and I exchanged glances. “What is an Apostle?” The lion said.
V. Jupiter, Hot and Moist
We lay down on the altar that is a throne that was a sacrificial mound before the al-Qasr was the Basilica, and when we woke, the nave that was the portico was full of roses and partridges and orthodox hymns, and peacocks lay sleeping on my shoulders. Their blue heads pressed on me like bruises: the pulse of their throats, the witness of their tails.
“Say it,” he said. He sat me on the ivory chair and knelt at my knees, the beauty that all supplicants possess sitting full and shining on his thick features. He closed his kiss over my navel-mouth and his tears were like new wax. “Say it,” he whispered.
The ivory chair is long; it curls at its ends into arm-rests in the shape of ram’s horns, severed from the sea-goat when the first caravan settled in this endless valley, the first enclave of bird and monopod and gryphon and cricket and phoenix and pygmy—and blemmye. And they camped on the beach-head and pulled from the sea with their silver spears a fatted kid, and ate the fat of its tail sizzling from the driftwood fire, and in time those first horns were affixed to the long chaise which became a sacrificial plank which became and altar which became a throne which became my pillow as his weight pressed the small of my back against the cold ivory—
“Please,” he said, and wept, for he had tried not to, tried not to brush his palm against my eyelid, tried not to run his fingers across the teeth in my belly, tried not to glance at the soft place where my head is not. He had tried not to lift me onto the nacreous chair, and tried not to enter me like a postulant sliding his hands into the reliquary to grip the dry bone. Virginity confers strength, he had said. It is the pearl which purchases paradise.
I had led him to the edge of the river which churns basalt against schist, and showed him the trick with the bed—but I had used my favorite lapis-and-opal ring. I moved his hand as I would a child’s, digging the furrow by moonlight and the river’s din, placing the ring in the earth, covering it with moist, warm soil. Wait, I had said, till the pepper blooms black, and you will see what paradise I can purchase at the price of a ring.
We waited; I learned my Latin declensions: rosa, rosae, rosae, rosam, rosā. The pepper harvest piled up black and red fruits; the stalks withered; the snows came and went again. Rex. Regis. Regi. Regem. Regē.
I took him to the river which churns agate against marble and showed him the thing we had made: a sapling, whose stem was of silver, whose leaves curled deep and blue, lapis dark as eyes, veined in quartz flaws. Tiny fruits of white opal hung glittering from its slender branches, and the moon washed it in christening light. This is hell, he quavered, as I stroked the jeweled tree. It seemed to shrink from him in shame. I touched his face, his unyielding neck which would not catch my eye; I wrenched his head towards me, and he stared into the eyes that blink from my breasts, the cobalt leaves peeking around my ribs like the heads of curious peacocks. At the ends of the earth is paradise; look around you, the earth is nowhere to be seen, I had whispered, and I do not need pearls.
As if his hand was dragged through the night by a hook of bone, he had touched the place where my head is not, the soft and pulsing shadowy absence, the skin stretched and taut, and beneath our tree of blue stone he had spilled his seed into me for the first time—it seemed safer than to spill it into the ground.
“Say it, please, Hagia, say it,” he cried, and the muscles of his neck strained in his cry, and I held his face in my hands, and his tears rolled over my knuckles, and I sung quietly under him, and my voice filled the empty choir:
Ave Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus—
VI. Mars, Hot and Dry
Fortunatus clawed the sand of our crumbling amphitheater, with the nations of our nation gathered—as much as the nations are inclined to gather, which is to say lazily and without much intent of discussing anything. He was nervous; the color in his tail was low and banked, and his throat dry. The hulking beast did not love speaking, and he loved less that his size bought him respect he did not feel he had earned. So everyone listened, and he hated them for listening.
“I think,” he began, his beak glittering gold in the glare of the sun, “that we ought to make him king.”
“Why?” shouted Grisalba, trying to wrangle a slab of honeycomb with her sister, who had thought she was invited to a festival, and not a makeshift parliament. “When Abibas the Mule-King died, we planted him and if we have any disputes we take it to the mule-tree and it’s been as good a government as you could ask for.”
Fortunatus frowned, and the glare went out of his gold. “Abibas has dropped his leaves and it has been far too long since he gave us any velvet-nosed fruit on which to hang the hopes of primogeniture. The Priest will not be partial—there are no other creatures like him among us, no faction for him to favor. And,” the gryphon cast his yellow eyes to the sand, speaking softly—yet the amphitheater did its work, and not one of us failed to hear him, “he must be lonely. There is no one here for him, no one of his kind who understands his passion for the Ap-oss-el, no one to speak his snarled language and look him in the eye without reflecting their own strangeness back to him. I pity him—do you not?”
“He will make us convert!” cried the monopods, snapping their garters in consternation. “He will make the al-Qasr into a church and we will all crawl around begging forgiveness for who knows what!”
Fortunatus shrugged his great, shaggy shoulders. “And when Gamaliel the Phoenix was queen, she called the al-Qasr an aerie, and set it aflame every hundred years. We rebuilt it, and called it what we pleased. This is the way of government. That is the way of the governed. How can he ask for more than she did? Besides, it is a lonely thing to be king, and he is the loneliest of us.”
I held a long green canopy over my torso with both hands to keep out the sun; a pair of rooks alighted on it, and their weight dragged the warm cloth to my shoulders. I said nothing, but scowled and practiced my verbs silently.
Regno, regnas, regnat. Regnamus, regnatis, regnant.
I reign, you reign, he or she reigns over.
VII. The Sun, Benevolent Gold
“My name is John.”
His blistered lips were watered, and he had not yet noticed that I held him in my arms, propped against the breasts he would call demonic and unnatural. He had not yet called us all demons, succubi, inferni—he only asked for bread, and more water.
He had not yet screamed when Hadulph spoke, or trembled when the crickets chirped in iambic rhymes. He had not yet called us all damned, demanded tribute to kings we had never heard of, forbade anyone not made in God’s image to touch his flesh.
He had not yet castigated us for our ignorance of the Trinity, or preached the virgin birth in our mating season. He had not yet searched the lowlands for a fig tree we ought not to touch, or gibbered in the antechamber, broken by our calm and curious gazes, which we fixed on our pet day and night, waiting for him to perform some new and interesting trick.
He had not yet dried his tears, and seen how the al-Qasr was not unlike a Basilica, and how the giants were not unlike Nephilim, and how Hadulph was not unlike the avatar of St. Mark, and the valley of our nations was not unlike Eden. He had not yet decided that all of the creatures of the world were not unlike holy things—except for the blemmyae, except for me, whose ugliness could not be born by any sacred sight. He had not yet called us his mission, and followed Grisalba home trying to explain transubstantiation, which she, being the niece of a cannibal-dervish, understood well enough, but pretended to misconstrue so that he would follow her home.
He had not yet called her a whore and tried to make her do penance with a taper in each hand. She had not yet sunk her teeth into his cheek, and sent him purpled and pustulant back to Hadulph.
Hadulph had not yet licked him clean, roughly and patiently, as cats will, and called him his errant cub. He had not yet fallen asleep against the scarlet haunch of the lion.
He had not yet retreated into the al-Qasr to study our natures and embrace humility, ashamed of his pronouncements and his pride. I had not yet brought him barley-bread and black wine, or watched over him through three fevers, or showed him, when he despaired, how my collarbone opens into a sliver of skin like clouds stretched over a loom.
He had not yet come crawling through the dark, shame-scalded, to hear my belly speak, and read to him from the green pepper-papyrus of my daily calligraphy, just to hear the way I said my vowels. He had not yet said that my accent sounded of seraphim.
“My name is John,” he said, “I..I think I have become lost.”
VIII. Venus, Cold and Moist
The long bones are found in the limbs, and each consists of a body or shaft and two extremities. The body, or diaphysis, is cylindrical, with a central cavity termed the medullary canal.
The Presbyter cloistered: cross-sections of satyr and blemmye are spread out on a low desk of sethym wood, the male blemmye with limbs outstretched, encircled with diagrammatic symbols as though he is pinioned to a wheel, showing the compact perfection of his four extremities, which correspond to the elements. The satyr was bent double, clutching her hooves, a goat-haired ouroboros.
“Please concentrate, John,” begs Fortunatus, his conscripted tutor, “if you do not learn our anatomies how will you live among us? How will you help portion the harvest if you do not know that the phoenix require cassia and cardamom for their nests, while the satyr cannot eat the pepper plants that the rest of us prize? How will you build, brick upon brick, if you do not know that the blemmye orient their houses in clusters of four, facing outward, while the monopods have no houses at all, but lie beneath their own feet, like mice beneath toadstools? How will you sell your goods at the quarter-moon market if you do not know that the lamia especially love honeycomb still clung with lethargic bees, while the dervishes eat nothing but their dead?”
“Where I come from, all men have the same shape,” says the Presbyter, his eyes bloodshot from reading, unwilling to acknowledge the scribe, best of his own discipuli, who translates each of the illuminated anatomicals into Latin so that he will believe them true—for he has told them that Latin is the language of truth, and the vulgar tongues the dialects of lies.
“That is a sad country, and you should give thanks to your God that you need not return there, where every face is another’s twin,” the gryphon says with a long sigh.
“All the same I long for it, and wish myself there, where nothing is strange,” John murmurs to himself, and stares past me to the long, candle-thin windows. His hair still shows scalp in patches, but the scalp itself is not so scorched and peeling as it has been. He shakes himself from dreams of Jerusalem and looks at the wheel of flesh before him.
“I do not understand the blemmyae,” he announces, without turning his head to me, “they carry their faces in their chests and have no head—I suppose the brain is just behind the heart then, in the chest cavity—but how,“ the Priest blushes, and shifts in his seat so that it will be clear that he does not address the indecorous question to me, “how would she nurse a child, Fortunatus?”
The gryphon twitches his wings—once, twice.
“Why, she would but weep.”
IX. Mercury, Lined with Quicksilver
I admit it was I who showed him the mirror.
We think nothing of it—it is only a mirror, and we are not vain. Rastno the Glassblower made it soon after the al-Qasr was erected, and it was hung up in the portico before the pillar fell, draped in damask, for its visions were distracting—but for Rastno’s sake we did not wish to dishonor his best-beloved child.
Rastno was a phoenix, and he reasoned that his glass should be finest of all, since he feared no flame but his own. And true to this he filled the capital with beads and baubles and bowls and chalices, plates and amphorae and children’s toys. And mirrors, mirrors of every shape. But the mirror I showed to John was his last, for when Rastno lay down in his pyre he did not rise up again—we do not know why fewer of the orange and scarlet birds return each burning season; some say the cassia crop has been bad, some say they are suicides. Rastno was one of those who went into the flame and did not come out again, but laughing before he sparked his embers he said that the mirror he fired in his own feathers would be a wonder beyond even the churning river of stone.
When we dragged the shard of glass from the charred bones and blowing ashes of his pearl-lined nest, when we cleared from it the blackened ends of Rastno’s beak and talons, and scraped the boiled eye-wet and blood from its surface, we found a sheet of silver so pure that it showed the whole world, wherever we wished to look, into any dragon-ridden corner of the planed earth.
It disturbed us all, and taught us only that our land was best, best by a length of ten giants, and we covered it—but hung it in the hall all the same, as funerary rite.
“Why did you not bury his remains, if that is what you do with your dead?” John asked, when I rolled the bronze-set glass from its resting place behind a bolt of salamander-silk. I shuddered.
“Would you love a tree whose trunk was ash, whose foliage was burnt and blistered flesh, black with flames you cannot see, but the tree remembers? What terrible fruit it would bear! Better that he be eaten, as the dervishes do, or given to the river, like the blemmyae, than to suffer planting!”
I showed, him, yes, but he was happy in those years, and his belly was fat, and he gripped me gleefully by the hips in the late afternoons and kissed the place where my head is not, opened my legs and said his favorite mass. He hardly even insisted I speak Latin anymore, or take any saltless Eucharist he might fashion, and only cried the name of his Apostle in his sleep. How could I know?
He stood for a long time, watching a city with domes of dust and crosses of gold and chalcedony flicker by, watching its stony streets run rivulets of blood like the porches of a dozen butchers, watched horses clatter over altars and books burn like phoenixes, curl black at the edges and never return. He stood with the drawn damask clutched in his white hand, and watched a sullen orange sun set on the city of dust, and his beard grew even in that moment, his scalp showed pink through his hair, and his spine became a bent scythe, until he was an old man in my sight, and he wept like a nursing mother.
X. The Moon, Benevolent Silver
“Why didn’t they come?” Prester John coughed and spat; his blood was bright on the pillow, my hand. “I wrote them a letter, I sent twelve gryphon to deliver it. I wrote them, but they didn’t come. I told them it was beautiful here, I told them it was full of virtuous beasts, and jewels, and every fruit imaginable. I told them about the al-Qasr and even the blemmyae, oh, Hagia, I told them you were a beauty, I told them about the mirror, I told them where I was, and that they only had to come for me and I would save Jerusalem myself. Why did no one come for me?”
“I don’t know, my love,” I whispered, and mopped the sweat on his brow.
“Perhaps I am being punished. I am not righteous; I have sinned in this place. I told them I had converted the land, and you say the Ave as well as anyone, but you don’t mean it, and I knew it, even in the days when I thought myself a missionary, I knew when you put out your tongue for your first communion that you had no faith in your heart, but I did not care, because my fingers could touch your tongue, the sweet tongue of your belly, and I would have given a hundred false communions for that tongue. I lied when I wrote to them, I lied, but they would not understand, they would think you were devils, and I could not bear for a friar to look on my Hagia and spit at her.”
The lines around his eyes over which I had run my fingertips so many times, which I had imagined deepening into a grandfather’s wrinkles, had done their promised work. I leaned over his prostrate form and let my eyelashes flutter against his cheek.
“Perhaps they never got the letter. Perhaps they did not believe it, for who would believe such a tale in a land where all men’s shapes are the same? Perhaps they were too consumed with their horses and bloodletting to come so far. Perhaps they sent someone, and he crossed eight or nine rivers, an inland sea, a jungle thick with panthers and bats, only to perish in the great desert which separates us from the world. Perhaps even now there is a man—a doctor? A clerk?—lying face down in the sand, his bones whitening under the bone-parched sky, clutching a second letter in his skeletal hand, a letter which says: John, we hear, and we will welcome you home. Perhaps no such man ever set out. Does it matter? I am here, your own sweet succubus—remember how long you called me succubus, after all the other names had silenced themselves on your lips?—is that not enough?”
He asked for water, and in my ears he was wretched as a baby, wrinkled and prone and motherless on a pillar, asking for water for his blistered lips. I held his cup for him, until he pushed it away.
“It is enough,” he rasped, and the rasp became a rattle. “But do you think,” said Prester John, “that if I could bury Jerusalem in this earth, a Jerusalem-tree would grow on the banks of the river, with little mangers for fruit, and a trunk of the True Cross?”
I pressed his clammy cheek to my breast, and our eyes fluttered together, until his were still.
XI. The Spindle of Necessity
We carried him down to the river.
There was some talk of burying him, but I knew that though his book demands burial, he would not like it. He wants the paradise that is bought with pearls, not the pearl itself, which sprouts and blossoms. I would have sat at his roots and told him how Fortunatus was trying to form a school to carry on the language of the Lonely King, but we all snickered; everyone knew that the lion-bird could never keep his declensions straight. I would have told him how the youngest dervishes barely in their first sandals jump and dance under the portico, singing: A! Ve! Marry-A! She plays, she plays! A! Ve! I would have sat beneath his leaves and held my tongue against his fruit, and called it Eucharist. But it is selfish of me to want to take him from the angels, who he had promised were more beautiful even than lamia.
We carried him down to the river and delivered his body to the deeps. The crush of the stones broke his body bone from sinew, and the boulders were stained red with the splash of his fluids. The current soon took him under, and we were left with the crash and grind of it echoing into the night. He had gone from us, and the procession turned under the stars, Virgo-in-Repose wheeling overhead, back to the al-Qasr which was once more the al-Qasr.
I sat cross-legged by the riverbank until the sun came rolling back around, like a whetstone strapped to a drowning man’s back. Grisalba waited by me, her tail all withered and dark, her dry, splay-fingered hand warm on my shoulder.
“Salt,” I said, finally. “His sweat tasted of pressed flour, pressed flour and salt water.”
I took the lamia’s hand and we walked from the cacophony of granite against alabaster against flint against bone.
In later years, the river would throw up a stone stained red, so bright it was as a ruby in all that dusty rock. When we see these, we throw up our arms and cry the name of Prester John, who is with the river and in the river and the river is with us, and the lapis-tree waves its branches, as if it remembers, and he is with the river and with me, his red, red stones and his high blue tree.
ABOUT CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:
Read FBC’s Review of “Deathless”
Read FBC’s Interview with Catherynne M. Valente
Read FBC’s Interview with Catherynne M. Valente
12:01 AM | Posted by Robert | | Edit Post