Tuesday, June 15, 2004

SHRIEK--one last excerpt

I'm to that point where I hate Shriek: An Afterword so much that I want to throw up. I've looked at it so much that it's just splatters of indifferent ink on an equally indifferent page. And I'm not joking. I absolutely loathe it right now.

I think this is a fairly common occurrence with writers. At some point, the text becomes inert, lifeless, and you just have to set it aside. So, with that cheery intro, here's one last excerpt from Shriek...(Again, there WILL be typos and misspellings and all the rest...)


Can I start again? Will you let me start again? Do you trust me to? Perhaps not. Perhaps all I can do is soar over, or glide over. Perhaps we’ll just fly as a crow flies—on night wings, wind rattling the delicate bones of the rib cage, cold singeing feathers, eye scouring the ground below us. The landscape will seem clear but distant, remote yet comprehensible. We will fly for ten years straight, through cold and rain and the occasional indignant sparrow certain we’ve come to raid the nest. Ten years shall we fly across before we begin our slow, circling descent to the cause of Duncan’s calamity. Five books for those ten years. Five black books flapping their pages. Five reluctant tombstones. Five millstones round my brother’s neck. Five brilliant bursts of quicksilver communication. Five leather-clad companions for Duncan that no one can ever take away from him. (Five progressively grandiose statements that stick in my craw. Get on with it!)

We fly this way because we must fly this way. I did not see much of Duncan during those ten years. The morning after my conversation with him, he borrowed money from me against expected book royalties, and left my apartment. He rented a small one bedroom loft at the east end of Albumuth Boulevard in one of the several buildings owned by the legendary Dame Truff. Did he delight in living so close to the Religious Quarter, to know that he, the blasphemer, slept within a few blocks of the Antechamber’s quarters in the Truffidian Cathedral? I don’t know. I never asked him. (Trust me—the answer is too mundane to include.)

While Duncan published, I perished half a dozen times. I shed careers like snake skins, molting toward a future I always insisted was a goal, not mere destination. Painter, sculptor, teacher, gallery assistant, journalist, gallery owner. A necklace quite as bright, quite as fake, as Mary Sabon’s. I never finished anything, from the great sprawling canvases I filled with images of a city I didn’t understand, to the great sprawling spaces in my gallery. I’ve never lacked the energy or the drive, only that fundamental secret all good art has and all bad art lacks: a healthy imagination. Which is ironic, considering how much imagination it has taken to get where I am at this moment, typing up this afterwards.

I did my best to keep in contact with Duncan, although without much enthusiasm or vigor. The long trek to his loft apartment from mine usually ended in disappointment; he was rarely home. Sometimes, curious, I would sneak up to the door and listen carefully before knocking; I would have looked through the keyhole, but it revealed only darkness.

My reward for spying usually took the form of a rather echoing silence. But more than once I imagined I heard someone or something scuttling across the floor, accompanied by a dull hiss and moan that made me stand up abruptly, the hairs rising on my arms. My tremulous knock upon the door in such circumstances—whether Duncan Transformed or Duncan with Familiars, I wanted no part of that sound—was usually enough to re-establish silence on the other side. And if not, my retreat back into the street usually changed from walk to run. (I heard you sometimes, although sometimes I was engrossed in my work; best you did not enter. Ironically enough, a couple of times, I thought you were them, graycapped sister.)

I imagine I looked rather pathetic in front of his apartment—this thin, small woman crouched against a splintery door, eagerly straining for any aural news of the interior. I remember the accursed doorknob well—I hit my head on it at least three times.

Thwarted, I gained any news of Duncan from rare interviews in the newspapers, which usually focused on writing technique or opinions on current events. For some reason, people are under the deluded impression that a historian—blessed with hindsight—can somehow illuminate the present and the future. Duncan knew nothing about the present and the future. (Or the immediate past. Not really.)

The biographical notes on the backs of his books were no help—they crackled with a terseness akin to fear: “Duncan Shriek lives in Ambergris. He is working on another book.” Even by investigating the spaces between the words, those areas where silence might reveal a clue, could anyone ever “get to know” the author from such a truncated paragraph? More importantly, no one would ever want to know the author from such a paragraph. Only in the fifth book did more information leak through, almost by accident, like a water stain on a ceiling: “Shriek intends to write a sequel to his bestselling tome, Cinsorium.”

By then, Duncan's luck had run its course, and all because of a single book we must circle back to, Sabon as raptor swooping down to observe, delighted, over our feathered shoulder--doubling, trebling, the scope of the disaster, because it was you, Mary, who turned Duncan into fodder for your own…what shall we call it? Words fail/cannot express/are not nearly enough. (Triumph. Unqualified. You must give her that. Bewitching eyes and the pen of a poet.)

Gliding, wheeling, we circle back through the windstream and let the titles fall in reverse order that we might approach the source by a series of echoes or ripples: Vagaries of Circumstance and Fate Amongst the Clans of the Aan, Mapping the Beast: Interrogatories Between the Moth and Those Who Travel Its Waters; Stretcher Jones: Last Hope of the West, Language Barriers Between the Aan and the Saphant Empire. And the first book, stretching out below us in all of its baroque immensity: Cinsorium: Dispelling the Myth of the Gray Caps. This maddening book, composed of lies and half-truths, glitters beneath us in all of its slivers and broken pieces, baubles fit for our true crow-self.

What is it about even a half-life that can tear at the fabric of the world? Was it fear? Guilt? The same combination of emotions that flickered through my thoughts as I extinguished the welter of mushrooms from Duncan's poor pale body?

I don't mean to speak in riddles. I don't mean to fly too high above the subject, but sometimes you have no choice. Still, let me land our weary crow and just tell the story. (Thank Truff!)

Perhaps Duncan should have realized what he had done after Frankwrithe & Lewden's reaction to the manuscript. (I realized it earlier, when I read over the first draft, the thousand red wounds of revision marks—lacerations explaining in their cruel tongue that this would either be a book, or no book at all.)

A month after submission of the book, Duncan's editor, Mr. John Lewden, summoned Duncan to F&L's offices in downtown Morrow. The journey from Ambergris took Duncan two grueling days up river by barge, into the heart of what proved to be a glacial Morrow winter. Once there, Duncan found that his editor was “on vacation” and that F&L's president, Mr. L. Gaudy, would talk to him instead.

A secretary quickly escorted Duncan into Gaudy's office, and left immediately. (I remember the office quite well. It was “resplendent,” with a rosewood desk, a dozen portraits of famous F&L authors, and an angry, spitting fireplace strategically placed in the corner opposite the desk.)

Gaudy, according to Duncan's journal, was “a bearded man of indeterminate age, his gaunt flesh wrapped across sharp cheekbones.” He sat behind his desk, staring at the room's fireplace. (His eyes were like blue ice, and in his presence I smelled a certain cloying mustiness, as if he spent most of his time underground, or surrounded by hundred-year-old books.)

Duncan moved to sit, but Gaudy raised one hand, palm out, in abeyance. The calm behind the gesture, almost trance-like, made him reluctant to disobey the man, but “also irritated me intensely; I had the feeling he knew something I did not, something I wanted to know.”

They remained in those positions, respectively sitting and standing, for over five minutes. Duncan somehow sensed that just as he should not sit down, he also should not speak. “I began to think this man held some power over me, and it was only later that I realized something in his eyes reminded me of dad.”

When Gaudy finally lifted his bespectacled face to stare at Duncan, the flames reflected in the glass, Duncan saw an expression of absolute peace on the man’s face. Relieved, he again moved to sit down, only to again be told, through a gesture, to remain standing.

Duncan began to wonder if his publisher had gone insane. “At the very least, I wondered if he had mistaken me for someone else.”

As the fire behind them began to die, Gaudy smiled and broke the silence. He spoke in a “perfectly calm voice, level and smooth. He stared at the fireplace as he spoke, and steepled his fingers, elbows on the desk. He appeared not to draw a single extra breath.”

He said:

“You need not sit and thus defile my perfectly good chair because it will take no time at all to say what needs to be said to you. Once I have said what I am going to say to you, I would like you to leave immediately and never return. You are no longer welcome here and never will be welcome again. Your manuscript has just performed the useful function of warming us, a function a thousand times more beneficial than anything it might have hoped to accomplish as a series of letters strung together into words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The fire has purified it, in much the same manner as I would like at this moment—and at all moments in the future—to purify you, were it not outside of the legal, if not moral, boundaries placed upon us by the law and society in general. By this time it ought to be clear to you, Mr. Shriek, that we do not intend to buy the rights to your ‘book,’ and I use the word ‘book’ in its loosest possible sense, nor to its ashes, although I would sooner buy the rights to its ashes than to its unblemished pages. However, on the off chance that you still do not comprehend what I am saying to you, and allowing for the possibility that you may have entered a state of shock, I shall continue to talk until you leave this room, which happy event I hope will take place before very much longer, as the sight of you makes me ill. Mr. Shriek, as you must be aware, Frankwrithe & Lewden has a history that goes back more than five hundred years, and in that time we have published our share of controversial books. Your first book—which, by the way, you may be fascinated to know is as of this moment out-of-print—was the forty-first book to be banned by the various Antechambers of Ambergris over the years. We certainly have no qualms in that regard. Nor have we neglected to publish books on the most arcane and obscure topics dreamt of by the human brain. As you are no doubt aware, we keep our entire, and considerable, back list in print—with the exception of your first book, of course, which shall be banished from all of our catalogues as well—despite the fact that many titles no longer have even a nostalgic relevance; Pelagic Snail Rituals of the Lower Archipelago comes to mind, there being no such snail still extant, nor such an archipelago; still, we keep it in print. As I would have hoped you had guessed by now, although you have not yet left this office never to return, we do not like your new book very much. In fact, to say I do not like your book would be like calling a mighty tree a seedling. I loathe your book, Mr. Shriek, and yet the word ‘loathe’ cannot convey in even a thousandth part the full depths of my hatred for this book, and by extension, you. But perhaps I should be more specific. Maybe specifics will allow you to overcome this current, potentially fatal, inertia—tied no doubt to the aforementioned shock—that stops you from leaving this office. Oh look-the last scrap of your manuscript has just become a flake of ash floating above the fireplace. What a shame. Perhaps you would like an urn to collect the ashes of your dead new-born? Well, you can’t, because not only do we not have an urn, but even if we did, we would not allow you to use it for the transport of the ashes, if only from the fear that you might find some way to reconstruct the book from them—and yes we do know it is likely you have a copy of the manuscript, but we feel a certain warmth in our hearts if we can at least slow down your reckless and obstinate attempt to publish this cretinous piece of excrement. Returning to the specifics of our argument against this document: Your insipid stupidity is evident from the first word of the first sentence of the first paragraph of your acknowledgments page, ‘The,’ and from there the sense of simple-minded, pitiable absence of thought pervades all of the first paragraph until, by the roaring crescendo of imbecility that forms the last word of the first paragraph, ‘again,’ any possible authority the reader might have granted the author has been completely undermined by your inability to in any way convey even an unoriginal thought. And yet in comparison to the dull-witted pedantics of the second paragraph, the first paragraph positively shines with genius and degenerate brilliance. Perhaps at this point in our little chat, I should repeat that I don’t very much like this book.”


What other rhetorical gems might have escaped Gaudy’s lips, we will never know, for Duncan chose that moment to overcome his inertia and leave Frankwrithe & Lewden’s offices—forever.

“It’s not so much that he frightened me,” Duncan told me later. “Because after going below ground, really, what could scare me? It was the monotone of his delivery until that last spit-tinged frothing.” (I was terrified, Janice. This man was the head of an institution that had been extant more than five hundred years ago. And he was telling me my work was worthless! It took a month before I even had the nerve to leave my apartment in Ambergris. I never did visit Morrow again.)

Later, during the War of the Houses, as it came to be called, we realized that Gaudy could hardly have reacted any other way to Duncan’s manuscript, but how could Duncan know that at the time? He must have been shaken, at least a little bit. (Yes. A bit.)

Still, undaunted, Duncan found a publisher within six months of Gaudy’s strange rejection. Hoegbotton Publishing, a newly-created and over-eager division of the Hoegbotton & Sons trading empire, gave Duncan his contract. In every way, the book struck Duncan’s new editor, Samuel Hoegbotton—an overbearing and inconsequential young man with hulking shoulders, a voice like a cacophony of monkeys, and severe bad breath—as “A WORK OF GENIUS!” Duncan was happy to agree, bewildered as he might have been, unaware at the time that Samuel had transferred from the Hoegbotton Marketing Division. Samuel had not set foot in a bookstore since his twelfth birthday, when his mother had presented him with a gift certificate to the Borges Bookstore. (“Promptly traded in for the monetary value,” Sirin, our subsequent editor, mused disbelievingly some years later.) That Samuel died of a heart attack soon after publishing Duncan’s fifth book surprised no one. (Except me!)

Monday, June 14, 2004


Is there anything more important than soccer...er, I mean, football? I don't think so...

If I'm not blogging, it's because I'm participating in this ongoing discussion of the European championship...

Come join us...


Tuesday, June 08, 2004


It took six years, with innumerable other projects getting in the way, but as of lunch today, Shriek: An Afterword is complete. Tomorrow it goes off to my agent and we'll see what happens. In part, Shriek took six years because I had to learn how to write it--parts of it I didn't have the ability to write back in 1998. This is a novel in which the landscape of Ambergris recedes a bit and the main characters stand out in sharp relief against its outline, which is different from City of Saints, where many of the characters were fully-rounded, but so was the city. This time, I wanted to pull back from the pseudo-Victorian feel of City of Saints and write in a more informal style. I feel as if this is a break through novel for me, for a number of reasons. First, it's the first real novel I've written. Veniss is only 53,000 words, while Shriek is currently 125,000. Second, it marks a definite change of emphasis and style. Third, it's intensely personal for me in that many of the events or anecdotes that comprise part of the plot are autobiographical. I've been able to write about things, for the first time, that I wasn't sure I'd ever have the proper distance from.

Now I'll set it aside for a couple of weeks, then go through it for a final copy edit and perhaps a couple of scene additions or deletions, while it goes out to publishers. I'm a compulsive editor and believe that time away from a completed novel is the only way to gain objectivity. At the same time, I'm confident it's in extremely good shape and ready for editors to see it.

My friend Neil Williamson sent me a book by Ian M. Banks about scotch and Scotland on the stipulation I only read it when I finish the novel. I think I'll indulge in it sometime this evening, along with a nice bottle of English hard cidar and, possibly, a good cigar.


Monday, June 07, 2004


I'm going to post some entries about books I've read recently, in particular Peck's Hatchet Job and another one about literary forgeries, particular passages from which have had a certain resonance for me in light of blog entries by Matthew Cheney and others of late. But, for now, another unmoored excerpt from Shriek. A bit of a teaser, really...As before--this is still rough text, so typos, etc., will abound.


There came a night so terrible that no one ever dared to name it. There came a night so terrible that I could not. There came a night so terrible that no one could explain it. There came the most terrible of nights. No, that’s not right, either. There came the most terrible of nights. There came the most terrible of nights that could not be forgotten, or forgiven, or even named. That’s closer, but sometimes I choose not to revise. Let it be raw and awkward splayed across the page, as it was in life.

Words would be offered up like “atrocity,” “massacre,” and “madness,” but I reject those words. They did not, could not, cannot, contain what they need to contain.

Could we have known? Could we have wrenched our attention from our more immediate concerns long enough to understand the warning signs? Now, of course, it all seems clear enough. As Duncan had said, the war could not continue in the same way for very long.

As soon as Duncan and I saw Voss Bender’s blind, blindingly white head floating down the River Moth, just two days before the Festival, we should have had a clue.

“There’s a sight you don’t see very often,” Duncan said, as we sat on an abandoned pier and watched the head and the barge that carried it slowly pull away into the middle of the river.

A kind of lukewarm sun shone that day, diluted by swirls of fog.

“It’s a sight I’ve never seen before, Duncan,” I replied.

F&L had cut apart a huge marble statue of Voss Bender that had stood in the Religious Quarter for almost twenty years and loaded it, piece by piece, onto the barge, displaying a remarkably dextrous use of pulleys and levers. There lay the pieces of Bender, to all sides of his enormous, imperious, crushingly heavy head. About to disappear up the River Moth. As vulnerable-looking in that weak sunlight as anything I had ever seen.

“I wonder what the people who live along the banks of the river will think about it,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Duncan asked.

"Will they see it as the demolition, the destruction, of a god, or will they be strangely unmoved.”

Duncan laughed. “I’m strangely unmoved.”

We were both a little rattled from a close call the day before, when we had arrived at what was supposedly the scene of a bomb attack, only to find the bombs exploding as we got there. My hair was dirty and streaked with black from the explosion. My face had suffered a half-dozen abrasions. Duncan had had a thumbnail-sized chunk of his ear blown off. Already, it had begun to regenerate.

“Well, I think it’s sad,” I said. “They’re carting off all of our valuables, like common thieves.”

Until then, F&L had contented themselves with bombing us silly day and night. The steady stream of goods, art, and statuary had only started heading north in the past week. It should have been a clear sign that the war was about to change, again. After all, who did F&L seem to have a direct line to, what with their fungal mines, bombs, and bullets? I don’t think I have to spell it out.

“Actually, Janice,” Duncan said, as he dipped his toes in the Moth, “I hesitate to try to convince you otherwise, but I think the sight of Voss Bender’s head floating vaingloriously down the Moth is very funny. So much effort by old F&L, and for what? What can they possibly think they will do with these ‘remains’ when they reach Morrow? Rework the marble into columns for some public building? Reassemble it—and if so, where in Truff’s name would they put it? We hardly knew where to put it ourselves.”

“Maybe you’re right,” I said, “but it still doesn’t mean it can’t be sad, too.”

Did I already say that there came to be the most terrible of Festival nights?

Our father had never had anything to say about the Festival (not true!), at least that I can remember, but he said one or two things about the gray caps. I recall that at the dinner table he would ramble on about his current studies. He had no gift for providing context. He would sit at the table, looking down at his mashed potatoes as he scratched the back of his head with one hand and pushed his fork through his food and back again with the other. There was always about him at these times a far-away look, as if he were figuring something out in his head even as he talked to us. Sometimes, it would be a kind of muttering chant, under his breath. Other times he was genuinely talking to us but really elsewhere. He smelled of limes back then, our mother having insisted he wear some cologne to combat the smell of old books brought back from the rare book room of the Stockton Library. But since he hated cologne, he would cut up a lime instead and annoint himself with its juice. (I enjoyed that smell of books, though, missed it when it was gone--it was a comfortable, old-fashioned smell, usually mixed with the dry spice of cigar smoke. I came to feel that it was the smell of knowledge, which provoked not the sweat of physical exertion, but the sweat of mental exertion. Book must and cigar smoke were the product of working brains, to me.)

At one such dinner, he looked up at us and he said, "The gray caps are quite simple, really. I don't know why I didn't think of this before. So long as what you're doing doesn't interfere with their plans, they don't care what you do--even if you cause one of them physical harm. But if somehow you step across the trip wire of one of their 'activities,' why, then, there is nothing that can save you."

(I remember that, too, almost exactly as you do. I especially remember "trip wire," a word I'd never heard before he used it. Why did he use that word? It fascinated me. And when I was studying at the Morrow Religious Institute, I began to wonder--had the Silence been caused by some kind of triggering of a "trip wire"? To this day, all evidence for and against in front of me, I'm not sure what to think.)

We were to find out during the Festival of the Freshwater Squid that year just what happened when Ambergris collectively sprung a trip wire. For the bad festival was like the antithesis of the Silence--sent to convince us that any semblance of law in the city was illusory, that it could not truly exist, whether we thought it resided in the palm of an obese, elderly Hoegbotton, a thin, ancient Frankwrithe, or the wizened visage of a Kalif none of us had ever seen.

The night of the Festival, the sun set red over the River Moth. Most of the crepe paper lanterns that people had set out had already been crushed by rubble or by the motored vehicles of opposing forces. The Kalif's men had stepped up their bombardment of the city from without. They made no pretense any more of aiming at anything in particular, their strikes as random as the startled flight of pigeons trying to avoid the crossfire. Their bombs were as likely to crack open a hospital ward as a Hoegbotton sentry post. A certain fatality had crept into the minds of the survivors as a result. Really, it was as random as a heart attack. Why worry about what you cannot defend against? So we walked the streets as calmly as before, when we weren't hunkered down from real threats--like a fungal bullet to the brain from some trigger-happy F&L recruit.

No, what terrified me, as I looked out from my apartment at dusk, was the proliferation of red flags.

On the way back from our journalistic assignments that day, before we turned in our now infamous "F&L Yearns for Every Ambergrisian's Head" article, the flags of the gray caps had appeared in multitudes—rhapsodies of red that seemed, like the ever-present fungus, always on the verge of forming some pattern, some message, only to fall apart into chaos again.

As we approached Lacond's offices in the late afternoon, the wind picked up. It rattled the gravel on side streets. It brought with it a strange premature twilight, and a smell that none could identify. Was it a smell come up off the river? It seemed bitter and pleasant, sharp and diffuse, all at once.

The light, as Martin Lake might have said, had become different in Ambergris.

We left Lacond's offices tired and ready for rest, Duncan to his apartment with Mary, me to my own place much further down Albumuth Boulevard, in the opposite direction. (Not even Lacond could demand we cover the Festival, not that year.) Sybel had decided to take me up on my invitation that he stay with me that night, just in case. Either we'd celebrate the festival together or defend ourselves against it. (I left ample protections; I'm sorry they were not enough.) We had all been through many festivals. We were old pros at it. We knew how to handle it.

I had thought about making the trek to our mother's mansion, but Duncan had assured me he could keep her safe. (She was quite safe--far enough upriver that the Kalif's men had not requisitioned the house, and far enough from Ambergris that she would come to no harm from the gray caps. I made sure this; I may have even mentioned it to you, but I don't think you were listening.)

Dusk had become night by the time Sybel arrived, breathless from running. After I let him in, I bolted the door behind him.

“It's not good out there," he said, gasping for breath. “There's a silence that's…like I imagine the Silence must have been.”

There was a thought. I felt light-headed for an instant, a conjoined chill and thrill. What if, tonight, we were to experience what the 25,000 had experienced during the Silence? The city once again become a vast experiment, if Duncan was to be believed.

"Nonsense," I said. "It's just another festival Help me with this."

We pushed a set of cabinets up against the door.

"That should do it," I said.

Outside, we could hear a few dozen drunken youths pass by, shouting as they stumbled their way past.

“Death to the Kalif!” I heard, and a flurry of cursing.

“They’ll be lucky if they survive the hour,” Sybel said. “And it won’t be the Kalif that kills them, either.”

“When did you become so cheerful?” I asked.

He just gave me a look and went back to loading his gun. We had pistols and knives, which Sybel had managed to purchase from, of all people, a Kalif officer; there was a booming black market in weapons these days. Some wags speculated that the Kalif had invaded Ambergris mostly to sell off some inventory.

Meanwhile, the gray caps had spores and fungal bombs, and Truff knew what else.

“Do you think we’re much safer in here?” I asked.

Sybel smiled. “No. Not much safer.”

There seemed about him that night more than a hint of self-awareness, mixed with that rarest of commodities for Sybel: self-contentment. I could be wrong, of course.

We didn’t board up the window until much later, fearful of losing the thread of what was going on outside. The full moon drooped in the sky, almost as if soggy—an egg white, a yolk. Through that smudged fog of glass, we watched rivulets and outcroppings of the festival walk or run by. Clowns and magicians and stiltmen and ordinary citizens, with no special talent, who had put on bright clothes and gone out because, quite frankly, in the middle of war, how much worse could the festival possibly be? True, there were not nearly the numbers of people that we had become accustomed to seeing at the festival—there had not been the great influx of visitors from other cities, for example—but, still, Sybel and I agreed it was a more potent festival than that predicted by the so-called experts. (Including us, Janice, in our column in the Ambergrisian Daily Broadsheet.)

Then the merrymakers began to trail off. Soon the groups had thinned until it was only one or two people at a time, either drunk and careless, or alert and hurrying quickly to their destinations. Every once in awhile, something would explode in the background as the Kalif’s men kept at it. The bright orange flame was oddly reassuring. As was the shuddering explosion. As long as it stayed far away from us, that is. At least we knew where it was coming from. (It came from the Kalif, my dear, with all the force of his benevolent, if distant, love.)

Sybel and I sat there looking out the window like it was our last view of the world.

“Remember when we used to host parties in abandoned churches on Festival night?” Sybel said. He looked very old then, in that light, the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth undeniable.

“Yes, I remember,” I said, smiling. “That was a lot of fun. It really was.” At least, more fun than the war. I didn’t want to return to those days, either, though.

Sybel smiled back. Had we ever been close? I searched my memory as we stared at each other. No, not close, but comfortable. In the preparations for countless parties, in seeing Sybel day after day at my gallery, a fondness and affection had built up between us.

“Maybe after the war, I can…” The words felt like such a lie, I couldn’t continue. “Maybe the gallery can…”

Sybel nodded and looked away in, I believe, embarrassment. “That would be good.”

We continued to watch the city through our window: that fungi-tinged, ever-changing painting.

Finally, it began to happen, at least three hours after nightfall. A stillness crept into the city. The only people on the street were armed, and running. Once, a dozen men—part of a Hoegbotton militia, perhaps—hurried by in tight formation, a gleam from the fires coming off their weapons. Then, for awhile, nothing. The moon and the one or two remaining street lamps, spluttery, revealed an avenue on which no one moved, where the lack of breeze was so acute that crumpled newspapers on the sidewalk lay dead-still.

“It’s coming,” Sybel muttered. “I don’t know what it is, but it’ll happen soon.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “It’s just a lull.”

But a chill had crept over me, as it seemed to have crept over the city. It lodged in my throat, my belly, my legs. Somehow, I too could feel it coming, like a physical presence. As if my nerves were the nerves of the city. Something had entered Ambergris. (Creeping through your nervous system, the gray caps’ spores, creating fear and doubt, right on schedule. I’d been putting the antidote in your food for a week, but an antidote only works for so long against such wizardry.)

The street lights went out.

Even the moon seemed to gutter and wane a little. Then the lights came back on—all of them—but they were fungus green, shining a light that hardly illuminated anything. Instead, it created fog, confusion, fear.

Sybel cursed.

“Should we barricade the window?” I asked.

“Not yet,” Sybel said. “Not yet. This might be the extent of it, you know. This might…” Now it was his turn to trail off. We both knew this was not the end of it.

Through this new light, we began to see people again on the street below. This time, they ran for their lives. We could not help them without endangering ourselves, and so we watched, frozen, at the window, beyond even guilt. A woman with no shoes on, her long hair trailing out behind her, ran through our line of vision. Her mouth was wide, but no sound came from it. A few seconds later, some thing appeared at the edge of our vision, in the gutter near the sidewalk. It tried to stand upright like a person, tottered grotesquely, then dropped all pretense and loped out of sight after the woman.