Read an Excerpt
Castle of Days
GENE WOLFE'S BOOK OF DAYS
Publishers tell me that no one reads introductions. I do not believe them, since I read the things myself, but I am willing to admit that there is probably some truth behind the mythin other words, that you, who have read these few lines, are a member of a select minority.
I do not quite see how I can repay you. You already know, I hope, that the book you hold is a collection of short stories. The jacket will have told you that I wrote them. (And, yes, I wrote them. My name really is Gene Wolfe, and I am an actual person.) The front matter has perhaps told you about my other books, and even where these stories originally appeared. All that remains for me is to tell you a little something concerning the stories themselves.
To begin, they are largely what is called science fiction, though a good many are of that type of science fiction that is sometimes questioned, particularly by people who do not read much sf and therefore have a very definite idea of what it is and is not. Only "La Befana" and "Many Mansions" clearly take place off Earth. Several stories are not even futuristic. One at least is inarguably fantasy. Several are humorous, and I have been told often enough that I have a sense of humor that makes strong men faint and women reach for weapons; I should have known better than to include those, but now it is too late.
I will not bore you with a description of how I came to write these stories. Neither will I presume to instruct you about writing stories in generalthere is a whole library of books on how to do that already, though few of them seem to be much good. But I would like to leave you with a handful of words on how to read stories, these stories at least.
I urge you not to read one after another, the way I eat potato chips. The simple act of closing this book and putting it away for another day will do a great deal for the story you have just read and even more for the next. If you are a purist, you might even go so far as to read each story on the designated day"An Article About Hunting" at the opening of deer season, "The War Beneath the Tree" before Christmas.
Even if you are not a purist, I urge you to think for a moment about the day, before beginning each story. Think on very young men in leggings and pie-pan helmets before you start "Against the Lafayette Escadrille." Think about somewhat older men who carry a lunchbucket (or a briefcase with a sandwich in it) before "Forlesen."
Try to put aside your preconceptions. Don't be disappointed when you discover, as you will, that I am not Harlan Ellison or Isaac Asimov. Harlan and Isaacas they would be the first to admitare not me, either.
Lastly, let me urge you to treat this and all books with respect. We will all benefit if you do. You cannot judge this book now. You will not even be able to judge it rightly when you have read its last story. Ten (or twenty) years from now you will know it was a good book if you remember any of the tales you are about to read.
Meanwhile, its author begs you to preserve it as a physical object, so that at an appropriate time it can be shared by others. If you have bought it, those others may be friends you have not met or children you have thus far only dreamed of. If you have borrowed it from a library, they are your peers in the community, having the same rights in it as yourself. Let me tell you a story.
An acquaintance of mine who was a college student once discovered a secret door in the college library. It was a fire exit that was almost blocked by a huge bookcase full of fifty-year-old books in foreign languagesmostly Serbian, he saidand was unknown to the present staff. Outside, it was well screened by holly.
Because there was no handle on the outside, he could not use it to enter the library; but he could, and did, use it to leave in company with whatever books he fancied. And he fancied three or four nearly every day.
He lived in a small apartment he rented off-campus, and had no other home. As the semesters turned to years, this apartment grew crowded with stolen books. Books were piled on every table, in every corner, and even on his tiny dry bar. Books waited likeburglars under his bed. Waterproof books on swimming, boating, tropical fish, and similar subjects stood in a row along the edge of the tub; the toilet tank groaned and leaked under the crushing load of a hundred or so humorous books, so that even as he sat thinking how he might free himself from his thousands of stolen volumes, he feared they might fall and crush him.
He considered simply returning the books to the library, but since they had never been checked out, they could hardly be returned, and it seemed to him that the head librariana woman with a singularly frigid gazesuspected him already. He considered mailing them back anonymously, but the cost of postage would have been staggering. He considered setting fire to the building in which he lived, but he felt sure he would lose many valuable possessions now forgotten and buried under the books. Graduation loomed.
At last he hit on a scheme that seemed foolproof. Instead of accepting a lucrative offer from a major corporation, he would have a rubber stamp made reading: DISCARDED BY THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. During the months immediately following graduation, he would stamp all the books in violet ink. In October, he would sell his car and jogging shoes, borrow all the money he could, and open a small used-book store. The thought of having a rack of birthday cards somewhere near the door cheered him.
One fine day in May, as he was considering means of attracting shoplifters, he returned to his apartment and opened the door to see the sight he had most dreaded during all the grim years when he had been drowning in hoarded volumes. The head librarian sat waiting for him in his own chair (the only one clear of books) in his own living-dining-kitchenette. He would have fainted if he could, but he had never been quick. She had never been slow, and at this crucial moment she was icily calm. "I am sorry, sir," she said, "but this branch closes in five minutes."
It was noon Saturday, and he became a homeless wanderer on the face of the earth until 9:30 Monday morning.
This has been the story for "Date Due." The people who do not read introductions missed it.
How the Whip Came Back
Pretty Miss Bushnan's suite was all red acrylic and green-dyed leather. Real leather, very modernred acrylic and green, real leather were the modern things this year. But it made her Louis XIV secretary, Sal, look terribly out of place.
Miss Bushnan had disliked the suite from the day she moved inthough she could hardly complain, when there was a chance that the entire city of Geneva and the sovereign Swiss nation might be offended. This evening she did her best to like red and green, and in the meantime turned her eyes from them to the cool relief of the fountain. It was a copy of a Cellini salt dish and lovely, no matter how silly a fountain indoors on the hundred and twenty-fifth floor might be. In a characteristic reversal of feeling she found herself wondering what sort of place she might have gotten if she had had to find one for herself, without reservations, at the height of the tourist season. Three flights up in some dingy suburban pension, no doubt.
So bless the generosity of the sovereign Swiss Republic. Bless the openhanded city of Geneva. Bless the hotel. And bless the United Nations Conference on Human Value, which brought glory to the Swiss Republic et cetera and inspired the free mountaineers to grant free hotel suites in the height of the season even to non-voting Conference observers such as she. Sal had brought her in a gibson a few minutes ago, and she picked it up from the edge of the fountain to sip, a little surprised to see that it was already three-quarters gone; red and green.
A brawny, naked triton half-reclined, water streaming from his hair and beard, dripping from his mouth, dribbling from his ears. His eyes, expressionless and smooth as eggs, wept for her. Balancing herempty glass carefully on the rim again, she leaned forward and stroked his smooth, wet stone flesh. Smiling she told himmentallyhow handsome he was, and he blushed pink lemonade at the compliment. She thought of herself taking off her clothes and climbing in with him, the cool water soothing her face, which now felt hot and flushed. Not, she told herself suddenly, that she would feel any real desire for the triton in the unlikely event of his being metamorphosed to flesh. If she wanted men in her bed she could find ten any evening, and afterward edit the whole adventure from Sal's memory bank. She wanted a man, but she wanted only one, she wanted Brad (whose real name, as the terrible, bitter woman who lived in the back of her skull, the woman the gibson had not quite drowned, reminded her, had proved at his trial to be Aaron). The triton vanished and Brad was there instead, laughing and dripping Atlantic water on the sand as he threw up his arms to catch the towel she flung him. Brad running through the surf ...
Sal interrupted her revery, rolling in on silent casters. "A gentleman to see you, Miss Bushnan." Sal had real metal drawer-pulls on her false drawers, and they jingled softly when she stopped to deliver her message, like costume jewelry.
"Who?" Miss Bushnan straightened up, pushing a stray wisp of brown hair away from her face.
Sal said blankly, "I don't know." The gibson had made Miss Bushnan feel pleasantly muzzy, but even so the blankness came through as slightly suspicious.
"He didn't give you his name or a card?"
"He did, Miss Bushnan, but I can't read it. Even though, as I'm sure you're already aware, Miss Bushnan, there's an Italian language software package for me for only two hundred dollars. It includes reading, writing, speaking, and an elementary knowledge of great Italian art."
"The advertising package," Miss Bushnan said with wasted sarcasm, "is free. And compulsory with your lease."
"Yes," Sal said. "Isn't it wonderful?"
Miss Bushnan swung around in the green leather chair from which she had been watching the fountain. "He did give you a card. I see it in one of your pigeonholes. Take it out and look at it."
As if the Louis XIV secretary had concealed a silver snake, one of Sal's arms emerged. With steel fingers like nails it took the card and held it in front of a swirl of ornament hiding a scanner.
"Now," Miss Bushnan said patiently, "pretend that what you'rereading isn't Italian. Let's say instead that it's English that's been garbled by a translator post-processor error. What's your best guess at the original meaning?"
"'His Holiness Pope Honorius V.'"
"Ah." Miss Bushnan sat up in her chair. "Please show the gentleman in."
With a faint hum of servomotors Sal rolled away. There was just time for a last fragment of daydream. Brad with quiet eyes alone with her on the beach at Cape Cod. Talking about the past, talking about the divorce, Brad really, really sorry ...
The Pope wore a plain dark suit and a white satin tie embroidered in gold with the triple crown. He was an elderly man, never tall and now stooped. Miss Bushnan rose. She sat beside him every day at the council sessions, and had occasionally exchanged a few words with him during the refreshment breaks (he had a glass of red wine usually, she good English tea or the horrible Swiss coffee laced with brandy), but it had never so much as occurred to her that he might ever have anything to discuss with her in private.
"Your Holiness," she said as smoothly as the gibson would let her manage the unfamiliar words, "this is an unexpected pleasure."
Sal chimed in with, "May we offer you something?" and looking sidelong Miss Bushnan saw that she had put Scotch, a bottle of club soda, and two glasses of ice on her fold-out writing shelf.
The Pope waved her away, and when he had settled in his chair said pointedly, "I deeply appreciate your hospitality, but I wonder if it would be possible to speak with you privately."
Miss Bushnan said, "Of course," and waited until Sal had coasted off in the direction of the kitchen. "My secretary bothers you, Your Holiness?"
Taking a cigar from the recesses of his coat, the Pope nodded. "I'm afraid she does. I have never had much sympathy with furniture that talksyou don't mind if I smoke?" He had only the barest trace of Italian accent.
"If it makes you more comfortable I should prefer it."
He smiled in appreciation of the little speech, and struck an old-fashioned kitchen match on the imitation marble of the fountain. It left no mark, and when he tossed in the matchstick a moment later, it bobbed only twice in the crystal water before being whisked away. "I suppose I'm out of date," the Pope continued. "But back in my youth when people speculated about the possibility of those thingswe always thought of them as being shaped more or less like us. Something like a suit of armor."
"I can't imagine why," Miss Bushnan said. "You might as well shape a radio like a human mouthor a TV screen like a keyhole."
The Pope chuckled. "I didn't say I was going to defend the idea. I only remarked that that was what we expected."
"I'm sure they must have considered it, but"
"But too much extra work would have had to go into just making it look human," the Pope continued for her, "and besides, a furniture cabinet is much cheaper than articulated metal and doesn't make the robot look dead when it's turned off."
She must have looked flustered because he continued, smiling, "You Americans are not the only manufacturers, you see. It happens that a friend of mine is president of Olivetti. A skeptic like all of them today, but ..."
The sentence trailed away in a shrug and a puff of smoke from the black cigar. Miss Bushnan recalled the time she had asked the French delegate about him. The French delegate was handsome in that very clean and spare fashion some Frenchmen have, and she liked him better than the paunchy businessman who represented her own country.
"You do not know who the man who sits by you is, mademoiselle?" he asked quizzically. "But that is most interesting. You see, I know who he is, but I do not know who you are. Except that I see you each day and you are much more pretty than the lady from Russia or the lady from Nigeria, and perhaps in your way as chic as that bad girl who reports on us for Le Figarobut I hope not quite so full of tricks. Now I will trade you information."
So she had had to tell him, feeling more like a fool each second as the milling crush of secretaries of delegates, and secretaries of secretaries, and unidentifiable people from the Swiss embassies of all the participating nations, swirled around them. When she had finished he said, "Ah, it is kind of you to work for charity, and especially for one that does not pay you, but is it necessary? This is no longer the twentieth century after all, and the governments take care of most of us quite well."
"That's what most people think; I suppose that's why so few give much any more. But we try to bring a little human warmth to the people we help, and I find I meet the class of people I want to meet in connection with it. I mean my co-workers, of course. It's really rather exclusive."
He said, "How very great-hearted you are," with a little twist to the corner of his mouth that made her feel like a child talking to a grown-up. "But you asked the identity of the old gentleman. He is Pope."
"Who?" Then she had realized what the word meant and added, "I thought there weren't any more."
"Oh no." The French delegate winked. "It is still there. Much, much smaller, but still there ... But we are so crowded here, and I think you are tired of standing. Let me buy you a liqueur and I will tell you all about it."
He had taken her to a place at the top of some building overlooking the lake, and it had been very pleasant listening to the waiters pointing him out in whispers to the tourists, even though the tourists were mostly Germans and no one anyone knew. They were given a table next to the window of course, and while they sipped and smoked and looked at the lake he told her, with many digressions, about a great-aunt who had been what he called "a believer" and two ex-wives who had not. (History at Radcliffe had somehow left her with the impression that the whole thing had stopped with John XXIII, just as the Holy Roman Empire had managed to vanish out of sheer good manners when it was no longer wanted. On the teaching machines you filled in a table of Holy Roman Emperors and Popes and Sultans and such things by touching multiple-choice buttons. Then when you had it all done the screen glowed with rosy light for a minutewhich was called reinforcementand told you your grade. After which, unless you were lucky, there was another table to be filledbut Popes had disappeared and you put the Kings of Sweden in that column instead.)
She remembered having asked the French delegate, "There are only a hundred thousand left? In the whole world?"
"That is my guess, of real believers. Of course many more who continue to use the name and perhaps have their children wetted if they think of it. It may be that that is too lowsay a quarter million. But it has been growing less for a long time. Eventuallywho knows? It may turn about and grow more. It would not be the first time that happened."
She had said, "It seems to me the whole thing should have been squashed a long time ago." ...
The Pope straightened his shoulders a little and flicked ashes into the fountain. "At any rate, they make me uncomfortable," he said. "I always have the feeling they don't like me. I hope you don't mind."
She smiled and said something about the convenience factor, and having Sal shipped in a crate from New York.
"I suppose it's a good thing my predecessor got the government to take responsibility for the Vatican," the Pope said. "We couldn't possibly staff it now, so we'd be using those things. Doubtless ours would have stained glass in them."
Miss Bushnan laughed politely. Actually she felt like coughing. The Pope's cigar was the acrid, cheap kind smoked in the poorer sort of Italian cafés. Briefly she wondered if he himself had not been born into the lowest class. His hands were gnarled and twisted like an old gardener's, as though he'd been weeding all his life.
He was about to say something else, but Sal, reentering on silent wheels, interrupted him. "Phone, Miss Bushnan," Sal said at her elbow.
She swiveled in her chair again and touched the "On" and "Record" buttons on the communications console, motioning as she did for the Pope to keep his seat. The screen lit up, and she said, "Good evening," to the office robot who had placed the call.
The robot answered with an announcement: "Her Excellency the Delegate Plenipotentiary of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Comrade Natasha Nikolayeva." The image flickered and a striking blonde, about forty and somewhat overblown and overdressed, but with a remarkably good complexion and enormous eyes, replaced the robot. The Russian delegate had been an actress at one time and was currently the wife of a general; gossip said that she owed her position at the conference to favors granted the Party Secretary.
"Good evening," Miss Bushnan said again, and added, "Comrade Nikolayeva."
The Russian delegate gave her a dazzling smile. "I called, darling, to ask if you like my little speech today. I was not too long? You did not find it difficult, wearing the headphones for translation?"
"I thought it was very moving," Miss Bushnan said carefully. Actually, she had been appalled by the Russian delegate's references to Hitler's gas chambers and her cant phrases about restoring economic value to human life. It came to saying that if people had no value alive they should be made into soap, but she had no intention of telling the Russian delegate that.
"I convinced you?"
Brad made into soap. It should have been funny, but it wasn't. One of Brad's fingers slowly exposed as she scrubbed herself withthe bar. The Russian delegate was still looking at her, waiting for her to reply.
"It isn't necessary that you convince me, is it?" She smiled, trying to turn the question aside. "I'm merely an observer, after all."
"It is necessary to me," the Russian delegate said, "in my soul." She pressed a hand flashing with diamonds against one upholstered breast. "I myself feel it so deeply."
"I'm sure you do. It was a wonderful speech. Very dramatic."
"You understand, then." The Russian delegate's mood changed in an instant. "That is wonderful, darling. Listen, you know I am staying at our embassy herewould you have dinner with us? It will be Tuesday, and nearly everyone will be there."
Miss Bushnan hesitated for a moment, looking briefly at the Pope, seated out of range of the Russian's vision, for guidance. He was expressionless.
"Darling, I will tell you a secret. I have sworn not to, but what is an oath when it is for you? The French delegate asked me to invite you. I would have in any case, of course, but he came to me. He is so shy; but if you come I have promised him I will seat you beside him. Do not say I told you."
"I'd be delighted to come."
"That too is wonderful then." The Russian delegate's smile said: We are women together and I love you, little one.
"Tuesday? The day after the final vote?"
"Yes, Tuesday. I will be looking forward so much."
When the screen went dark Miss Bushnan said to the Pope, "Something's up."
The Pope only looked at her, as though trying to weigh what might be behind her attractive but not arresting face and brown eyes.
After a moment Miss Bushnan continued, "The French delegate might buy me a dinner, but he wouldn't ask for me as a dinner partner at an official function, and that Russian woman has been ignoring you and me ever since the conference opened. What's going on?"
"Yes," the Pope said slowly, "something has happened, as you say. I see you hadn't heard."
"I was more fortunate. The Portuguese delegate confides in me sometimes."
"Will you tell me?"
"That is why I came. The delegates caucused this afternoon afterthe public session. They decided to ask for our votes at the final meeting."
"Us?" Miss Bushnan was nonplussed. "The observers?"
"Yes. The votes will have no legal validity, of course. They cannot be counted. But they want total unanimitythey want to get us down on the record."
"I see," said Miss Bushnan.
"Church and charity. People surrendered their faith in us to put it in the governments, but they're losing that now, and the delegates sense it. Perhaps the faith won't return to us, but there's a chance it might."
"And so I'm to be wined and dined."
The Pope nodded. "And courted too, I should imagine. The French are very enthused about this; their penal system has been at loose ends ever since they lost their African colonies over fifty years ago."
Miss Bushnan had been staring at her lap, smoothing her skirt absently where it lay across her knees; she looked up suddenly, meeting his eyes. "And you? What are they going to offer you?"
"Not the lost sees of eastern Europe, you may be sure. Mostly flattery, I suspect."
"And if we oppose them"
"If we oppose them we will be raising standards about which all the millions who detest the idea, and all the millions more who will come to detest it when they see it in operation, can rally."
"My husbandmy former husband, technicallyis in prison. Your Holiness. Did you know that?"
"No, of course not. If I had"
"We plan to be remarried when he is released, and I know from visiting him what the alternative to the motion is. I know what we've got now. It's not as though they're going to be snatched from some Arcadia."
Unexpectedly Sal was at her elbow again. "Phone, Miss Bushnan."
The American delegate's puffy face filled the screen. "MissahBushnan?"
"This isaha pleasure I have had to postpone too long."
In order to save him time she said, "I've heard about the decision to ask the observers to vote."
"Good, good." The American delegate drummed his fingers on his desk and seemed to be trying to avoid her eyes. "Miss Bushnan, areyou aware of theahfinancial crisis now confronting our nation?"
"I'm not an economist"
"But you are an informed laywoman. You know the situation. Miss Bushnan, there are close to a quarter of a million men and women in state and federal prisons today, and to maintain each of them there costscosts us, Miss Bushnan, the taxpayersfive thousand dollars a year each. That's a total of a billion dollars a year."
"I believe you brought out those figures during your speech at the third session."
"Perhaps I did. But we are all interested in restoring the preeminent place the United States once held in world affairs, aren't we? Miss Bushnan, to do that we have had to take quite a few pages from the Soviet book. And it's been good for us. We've learned humility, if you like."
"We used to believe in job security for everybody, and a wage based on classification and seniority. That was what we called Free Enterprise, and we were proud of it. Well, the Communists showed us differently: incentives, and discipline for underachievers. They forced us to the wall with those until we learned our lesson, and nowwell, you can say whatever you like, but by God things are better."
"So I understand," Miss Bushnan said. Here it came.
"Now they've got a new trick," the American delegate continued. "They used, you know, to have these gangs ofahlaborers out in Siberia. Then one day some smart commissar thought to himself: By God, if the peasants can grow more vegetables on private plots, couldn't the prisoners be used more effectively that way too?"
"If I recall your speech correctly," Miss Bushnan said, "you pointed out that if half the federal and state prisoners could be leased out to private owners at five thousand a year, the revenue would take care of the remaining half."
"Lessees, not owners," the American delegate said. "Lessees with option to renew. It will lift a billion-dollar millstone from about our nation's neck."
"But," Miss Bushnan continued innocently, "surely we could do the same thing without entering into the international agreement being discussed here."
"No, no." The American delegate waved a hand in protest. "We should enter the world community with this. After all, Miss Bushnan, international trade is one of the few, and one of the strongest,cohesive forces. We need by all means to establish a supranational market structure."
The Pope, sitting outside the range of the American delegate's view, said softly, "Ask him if they're still going to call them slaves."
Miss Bushnan inquired obediently, "Are you still going to call them slaves? I mean in the final agreement."
"Oh, yes." The American delegate leaned closer to the scanner and lowered his voice. "In English language usage. I don't mind telling you, however, that weI mean the British and Canadians as well as our own countryhave had a hard time getting that one past the Soviets. It comes from the root-word 'slav,' you know, and they don't like that. But it's a selling word. People like the idea of having slaves; robots have gotten us used to it and tranquilizers and anti-aggressants have made it practical; what's more, it's a link with the past at a time when too many such links are phasing out. People feel manipulated today, Miss Bushnan. They want to be master of someone themselves."
"I see. And it will get them out of prison. Place them in decent surroundings."
"Oh, it certainly will. Andahyou asked about the necessity of an international agreement and an international market a moment ago. You must remember that our nation needs hard currencies very badly today; and we have the curseor, ahthe blessing, blessing if you think of it in a positive fashion, of having the highest crime rate among major nations. The United States will be an exporter in this market, Miss Bushnan."
"I see," Miss Bushnan said again.
"You may have heard some of these rumors about the Soviets pressing a certain number ofahcountry people into the market to satisfy the demand. These are slanders, of course, and in any event that sort of thing would be unthinkable in the United States. I understand you're a wealthy woman, Miss Bushnan; your father is in the government, I suppose?"
"He was," Miss Bushnan said. "He's dead now. The Department of Agriculture."
"Then with a family background of public service you understand that in a democracy we have to listen to the voice of the people; and the people want this. Theahmost recent polls have shown seventy-nine percent favoring. I won't try to hide the fact that it would be an embarrassment to our country if you voted in opposition,and it would not benefit the organization you representin fact it would do it a great deal of harm."
"Are you threatening us?"
"No, of course not. But I'm asking you to consider what would happen to your organization if you lost your tax-exempt status. I believe a vote in opposition to the motion mightahmake Washington feel that you were engaged in political activity. That would mean loss of the exemption, naturally."
"But a vote in favor of the motion wouldn't be political activity?"
"Washington would expect your organization to support this humanitarian cause as a matter of course. I doubt very much that the matter would come up. You must understand, Miss Bushnan, that whenaha measure as revolutionary as this is under consideration humanity must be practically unanimous. Even a token opposition could be disastrous."
Paraphrasing the Pope, Miss Bushnan said, "It would raise a standard about which all the millions who detest the idea could rally."
"Millions is surely an exaggeration; thousands perhaps. But in principle you are correct, and that must not be allowed to happen. Miss Bushnan, Washington has sent me a dossier on you. Did you know that?"
"How could I?"
"Your former husband is confined in the federal penitentiary at Ossining, New York. In the letters you have exchanged both of you have stated an intention to remarry upon his release. Were those letters sincere, Miss Bushnan?"
"I don't see what my personal life has to do with this."
"I merely wish to use your own case as an exampleone which will strike home, so to speak. It will be at least five years before your former husband will be released under the present system; but if the motion passes it will be possible for you to leaseah" The American delegate paused, looking at some paper on his desk.
"Brad," Miss Bushnan said.
"Yes, Brad. You could lease Brad from the government for those five years. You would have him, he would have you, and your government would be twenty-five thousand dollars to the better as the direct result of your happiness. What's the matter with that, eh? In fact, in your case I think I could promise that your husband would be one of the first prisoners to be made available for the plan, and that he would be, so to speak, reserved. There would be no dangerof someone else leasing him, if that's worrying you. Of course you would be expected to supervise him."
Miss Bushnan nodded slowly. "I understand."
"May I ask then if you intend to support the measure?"
"I hesitate to tell you. I know you're going to misunderstand me."
"Oh?" The American delegate leaned forward until his face filled the small screen. "In what way?"
"You think that this is going to help Brad and me, and that because of that I'm going to consent to your selling the Americans you don't want, selling them to die in somebody's mines. You are wrong. This is going to ruin whatever may be left between Brad and me, and I know it. I know how Brad is going to feel when his wife is also his keeper. It will strip away whatever manhood he has left, and before the five years are out he'll hate mejust as he will if I don't buy him when he knows I could. But you are going to do this thing whether the organization I represent favors it or not, and to save this organizationfor the good it does now and the good it will do among the slaves when you have themI am going to vote for the motion."
"You will support the motion?" His eyes seemed to bore into her.
"I will support the motion. Yes."
The American delegate's hand was moving toward the "Off" switch of his console, but Miss Bushnan called, "Wait. What about the other observer? The Pope?"
"He can be taken care of, I feel sure. His church is almost entirely dependent today on the goodwill of the Italian government."
"He hasn't agreed yet?"
"Don't worry," the American delegate said, "the Italians will be contacting him." His hand touched the switch and his image vanished.
"So you gave in," the Pope said.
"And you wouldn't?" Miss Bushnan asked. "Even if you knew you'd be running your church from an empty store the day after you voted no?"
"I might abstain," the Pope admitted slowly, "but I could never bring myself to give a favorable vote."
"How about lying to them, if that were the only way you could get to vote?"
The Pope looked at her in surprise, then his eyes smiled.
Miss Bushnan continued, "Could you tell them you were going tovote yes when you were really going to vote against them, Your Holiness?"
"I don't suppose I could. It would be a matter of my position, if you understand me, as well as my conscience."
"Fortunately," Miss Bushnan said, "I don't feel that way. Hasn't it occurred to you that this business of asking for our votes must be predicated on the idea that they'll be favorable? It hasn't been announced, has it?"
The Pope nodded. "I see what you mean. If the decision had been made public they couldn't change it; but as it is, if they don't like what they hear from us"
"But they'll have every news agency in the world there when the vote is actually taken."
"You are a clever girl." The Pope shook his head. "It is a lesson to me to think of how very much I have underestimated you, sitting in the gallery there beside me all these days, and even this evening when I came here. But that is good; God wants me to learn humility, and He has chosen a child to teach it, as He so often does. I hope you understand that after the council I will be giving you all the support I can. I'll publish an encyclical"
"If you feel you can't lie to them," Miss Bushnan interposed practically, "we'll need some excuse for your being absent from the vote."
"I have one," the Pope said. "I don't"he paused"suppose you've heard of Mary Catherine Bryan?"
"I don't think so. Who is she?"
"She isor at least she wasa nun. She was the last nun, actually, for the past three years. Ever since Sister Carmela Rose died. I received a call this morning telling me Mary Catherine passed away last night, and her rites are to be this coming Tuesday. The government still lets us use St. Peter's sometimes for that sort of thing."
"So you won't be here." Miss Bushnan smiled. "But a nun sounds so interesting. Tell me about her."
"There isn't a great deal to tell. She was a woman of my mother's generation, and for the last four years she lived in an apartment on the Via del Fori. Alone, after Sister Carmela Rose died. They never got along too well, actually, being from different orders, but Mary Catherine cried for weeks, I remember, after Sister Carmela Rose was gone."
"Did she wear those wonderful flowing robes you see in pictures?"
"Oh, no," the Pope said. "You see, nuns no longer have to" Hestopped in the middle of the sentence, and the animation left his face, making him at once a very old man. "I'm sorry," he said after a moment, "I had forgotten. I should have said that for the last seventy years or so of their existence nuns no longer wore those things. They abandoned them, actually, just a few years before we priests dropped our Roman collars. You have to understand that from time to time I have tried to persuade someone to ..."
"Well, the old phrase was 'take the veil.' It would have kept the tradition alive and would have been so nice for Mary Catherine and Sister Carmela Rose. I always told the girls all the things they wouldn't have to give up, and they always said they'd think about it, but none of them ever came back."
"I'm sorry your friend is dead," Miss Bushnan said simply. To her surprise she found she really was.
"It's the end of something that had lived almost as long as the Church itselfoh, I suppose it will be revived in fifty or a hundred years when the spirit of the world turns another corner, but a revival is never really the same thing. As though we tried to put the Kyrie back into the mass now."
Miss Bushnan, who did not know what he was talking about, said, "I suppose so, but"
"But what has it to do with the matter at hand? Not a great deal, I'm afraid. But while they are voting that is where I shall be. And afterward perhaps we can do something." He stood up, adjusting his clothing, and from somewhere in the back of the apartment Sal came rolling out with his hat positioned on her writing shelf. It was red, Miss Bushnan noticed, but the feather in the band was black instead of green. As he put it on he said, "We started among slaves, more or less, you know. Practically all the early Christians who weren't Jews were either slaves or freedmen. I'll be going now to say the funeral mass of the last nun. Perhaps I'll also live to administer the vows of the first."
Sal announced, "Saint Macrina, the sister of Saint Basil, founded the first formal order of nuns in three fifty-eight." The Pope smiled and said, "Quite right, my dear," and Miss Bushnan said vaguely, "I bought her the World's Great Religions package about a year ago. I suppose that's how she knew who you were." She was thinking about Brad again, and if the Pope made any reply she failed to hear it. Brad a slave ...
Then the door shut and Sal muttered, "I just don't trust that oldman, he makes me feel creepy," and Miss Bushnan knew he was gone.
She told Sal, "He's harmless, and anyway he's going to Rome now," and only then, with the tension draining away, did she feel how great it had been. "Harmless," she said again. "Bring me another drink, please, Sal."
Tuesday would be the day. The whole world would be watching, and everyone at the conference would be in red and green, but she would wear something blue and stand out. Something blue and her pearls. In her mind Brad would somehow be waiting behind her, naked to the waist, with his wrists in bronze manacles. "I'll have them made at Tiffany's," she said, speaking too softly for Sal, busy with the shaker in the kitchen, to hear. "Tiffany's, but no gems or turquoise or that sort of junk."
Just the heavy, solid bronze with perhaps a touch here and there of silver. Sal would make him keep them polished.
She could hear herself telling their friends, "Sal makes him keep them shined. I tell him if he doesn't I'm going to send him backjust kidding, of course."
Copyright © 1992 by Gene Wolfe