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.


At 3:36 AM, Blogger Tessa said...

Single most effective teaser in the world. *implodes with tension* What happens next?!

At 6:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You'll have to read the book to find out, now won't you? :)



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