Read an Excerpt
OUT TO THE EDGE OF THINGS
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~ 1889 ~
One fine spring afternoon, when the roses in the gardens of the Koenigswald Academy were in bloom, and the lawns were emerald green, and the river was sapphire blue, and the experimental green-houses burst with weird life, the professors of the Faculty of Psychological Sciences met in the Faculty’s ancient August Hall, in a handsomely appointed upstairs library, where they stood in a little group drinking sherry and saying their good-byes to their colleague Dr. Lysvet Alverhuysen—Liv to her friends—who was, against all reasonable advice, determined to go west.“You’ll fall behind, Dr. Alverhyusen.” Dr. Seidel shook his head sorrowfully. “Your work will suffer. There are no faculties of learning in the West, none at all. None worth the name, anyway. Can they even read? You won’t have access to any of the journals.”
“Yes,” Liv said. “I believe they can read.”
“Seidel overstates his argument,” Dr. Naumann said. “Seidel is known for overstating his arguments. Eh, Seidel? But not always wrong. You will lose touch with science. You will rip yourself from the bosom of the scientific community.”
He laughed to show what he thought of the scientific community. Handsome and dark of complexion, Dr. Naumann was the youngest of the Faculty’s professors and liked to think of himself as something of a radical. He was engaged in a study of the abnormal or misdirected sexual drive, which he regarded as fundamental to all human activity and belief.
Liv smiled politely. “I hope you’ll write to me, gentlemen. There are mail coaches across the mountains, and the Line will carry mail across the West.”
“Hah!” Dr. Naumann rolled his eyes. “I’ve seen the maps. You’re going to the edge of the world, Dr. Alverhuysen. Might as well hope to send mail to the moon, or the bottom of the sea. Are there mail coaches to the moon?”
“They’re at war out there,” Dr. Seidel said. “It’s very dangerous.” He twisted his glass nervously in his hands.
“Yes,” Liv agreed. “So I’ve heard.”
“There are wild men in the hills, who are from what I hear only very debatably human. I saw a sketch of one once, and I don’t mind admitting it gave me nightmares. All hair and knuckles, it was, white as death, and painted in the most awful way.”
“I won’t be going into the hills, Doctor.”
“The so-called civilized folk are only marginally better. Quite mad. I don’t make that diagnosis lightly. Four centuries of war is hardly the only evidence of it. Consider the principal factions in that war, which are from what I hear not so much political entities as religious enthusiasms, not so much religion as forms of shared mania. . . . Cathexis, that is, a psychotic transference of responsibility from themselves to objects that—”
“Yes,” she said. “Perhaps you should publish on the subject.”
If she listened to another moment of Dr. Seidel’s shrill voice, she was in danger of having her resolve shaken.
“Will you excuse me, Doctors?” She darted quickly away, neatly interposing Dr. Mistler between herself and Seidel.
It was stuffy and dusty in the library; she moved closer to the windows, where there was a breeze and the faint green smell of the gardens, and where Liv’s dear friend Agatha from the Faculty of Mathematics was making conversation with Dr. Dahlstrom from the Faculty of Metaphysics, who was terribly dull. As she approached, Agatha waved over Dahlstrom’s shoulder and her eyes said, Help! Liv hurried over, sidestepping Dr. Ley, but she was intercepted by Dr. Ekstein, the head of her own Faculty, who was like a looming stone castle topped with a wild beard, and who took both her hands in his powerful ink-stained hands and said: “Dr. Alverhuysen—may I abandon formality—Liv—will you be safe? Will you be safe out there? Your poor late husband, rest his soul, would never forgive me if I allowed . . .”
Dr. Ekstein was a little sherry-drunk and his eyes were moist. His life’s work had been a system of psychology that divided the mind into contending forces of thesis and antithesis, from the struggle of which a peaceful synthesis was derived, the process beginning again and again incessantly. Liv considered the theory mechanical and unrealistic.
“I have made my decision, Doctor,” she reminded him. “I shall be quite safe. The House Dolorous is in neutral territory, far from the fighting.”
“Poor Bernhardt,” Dr. Ekstein said. “He would haunt me if anything were to happen to you—not, of course, that I would expect that it would, but if anything were to happen—”
Dr. Naumann insinuated himself. “Hauntings? Here? Sounds like you’ll miss all the real excitement, Dr. Alverhuysen.”
Ekstein frowned down on Naumann, who kept talking: “On the other hand, you won’t be bored—oh my no. No place out there is neutral for long. No matter how remote your new employer may be, soon enough you-know-what will come knocking.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know, Dr. Naumann. I understand things are very turbulent out there. Excuse me, I must—”
“Turbulent! A good word. If you cut into the living brain of a murderer or sex criminal, you might say what you saw was turbulent. I mean the forces of the Line.”
“Oh.” She tried to look discreetly around Dr. Ekstein’s mass for sight of Agatha. “Well, isn’t that for the best? Isn’t the Line on the side of science and order?”
Dr. Naumann raised an eyebrow, which Liv found irritating. “Is that right? Consider Logtown, which they burned to the ground because it harbored Agents of the Gun; consider the conquest of Mason, where . . .” He rattled off a long list of battles and massacres.
Dr. Alverhuysen looked at him in surprise. “You know a lot about the subject.”
He shrugged. “I take an interest in their affairs. A professional interest, you might say.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow their politics closely, Dr. Naumann.”
“You will. You will.” He leaned in close and whispered to her, “They’ll follow you, Liv.”
She whispered back, “Perhaps you should travel that way yourself, Philip.”
“Absolutely under no circumstances whatsoever.” He straightened again and consulted his watch. “I shall be late for my afternoon Session!” He left his glass on a bookshelf and exited by the south stairs.
“Unhealthy,” Ekstein said. “Unhealthy interests.” He glanced down at Liv. “Unhealthy.”
“Excuse me, Dr. Ekstein.”
She stepped around him, exchanged a polite good luck, good luck to you, too, with a gray-haired woman whose name she forgot, passed through a cool breeze and shaft of dusty afternoon sunlight that entered through the oriel window, heard and for nearly the last time was delighted by the sound of the peacocks crying out on the lawns, and deftly linked arms with Agatha and rescued her from Professor Dahlstrom’s droning. Unfortunately, Agatha turned out to be a little too drunk and a little too maudlin, and did not share any of Liv’s nervous excitement. She blinked back tears and held Liv’s hand very tightly and damply and said, “Liv—oh, Liv. You must promise you’ll come back.”
Liv waved a hand vaguely. “Oh, I’m sure I will, Agatha.”
“You must come back soon.”
In fact, she hadn’t given a moment’s thought to when she might return, and the demand rather annoyed her. She said, “I shall write, of course.”
To Liv’s relief then, Dr. Ekstein tapped on a glass for silence, and quickly got it, because everyone was by now quite keen to return to their interrupted afternoon’s work. He gave a short speech, which did not once mention where Liv was going or why, and rather made it sound as if she were retiring due to advanced senility, which was the Faculty’s usual procedure. Finally he presented her with a gift from the Faculty: a golden pocket watch, heavy and overly ornate, etched with sentimental scenes of Koenigswald’s mountains and pine forests and gardens and narrow high-peaked houses. The occasion was complete, and the guests dispersed by various doors and into the stacks of the library.The Academy stood on a bend in the river a few miles north of the little town of Lodenstein, which was one of the prettiest and wealthiest towns of Koenigswald, which was itself one of the oldest and wealthiest and most stable and peaceful nations of the old and wealthy and stable and peaceful nations of the old East.
Six months ago, a letter had arrived at the Academy from out of the farthest West. It was battered and worn, and stained with red dust, sweat, and oil. It had been addressed to The Academy—Koenigswald—Of the Seven. Koenigswald’s efficient postal service had directed it to Lodenstein without too much difficulty. “Of the Seven” was a strange affectation, initially confusing, until Dr. Nau-mann remembered that four hundred years ago, Koenigswald had—in an uncharacteristic fit of adventurism—been one of the Council of Seven Nations that had jointly sent the first expeditions West, over the World’s End Mountains, into what was then un-made territory. Perhaps that fact still meant something to the westerners; Koenigswald had largely forgotten it.
Strictly speaking, the letter was addressed not to Liv, but to a Mr. Dr. Bernhardt Alverhuysen, which was the name of her late husband, who was recently deceased; but her husband had been a Doctor of Natural History, and the letter sought the assistance of a Doctor of Abnormal Psychology, a title that more accurately described Liv herself. Therefore, Liv opened it.
Dear Dr. Alverhuysen,
I hope this letter finds you well. No doubt you are surprised to receive it. There is little commerce these days between the new world and the old. We do not know each other, and though I have heard great things of your Academy, I am not familiar with your work; my own House is in a very remote part of the world, and it is hard to keep up with the latest science; and therefore I write to you.
I am the Director of the House Dolorous. The House was founded by my late father, and now it has fallen into my care. We can be found on the very farthest western edge of the world, nestled in the rocky bosom of the Flint Hills, northwest of a town called Greenbank, of which you no doubt have not heard. West of us, the world is still not yet Made, and on clear days, the views from our highest windows over Uncreation are unsettled and quite extraordinary.
Are you an adventurous man, Dr. Alverhuysen?
We are a hospital for those who have been wounded in our world’s Great War. We take those who have been wounded in body, and we take those who have been wounded in mind. We do not discriminate. We are in neutral territory, and we ourselves are neutral. The Line does not reach out to the Flint Hills, and the agents of its wicked Adversary are not welcome among us. We take all who suffer, and we try to give them peace.
We have able field doctors and sawbones in residence, and we know how to treat burns and bullet wounds and lungs torn by poison gas. But the mind is something of a mystery to us. We are ignorant of the latest science. There are mad people in our care, and there is so little we can do for them.
Will you help us, Dr. Alverhuysen? Will you bring the benefit of your learning to our House? I understand that it is a long journey, rarely undertaken; but if you are not moved by the plight of our patients, then consider that we have all manner of mad folk here, wounded in ways that you will not find in the peaceful North—not least those who have been maddened by the terrible mind-shattering noise-bombs of the Line—and that your own studies may prosper in a House that provides such ample subject matter. If that does not move you, consider that our House is generously endowed. My father owned silver mines. I enclose a promissory note that will cover your travel by coach and by river-boat and by Engine of the Line; I enclose a map, and letters of introduction to all necessary guides and coachmen on this side of the World; and finally I enclose my very best wishes,
Yours in Brotherhood,
Director Howell, Jr., the House Dolorous.
She had shown the letter to her colleagues. They treated it as a joke. Out of little more than a spirit of perversity, she wrote back requesting further information. All winter she busied herself with teaching, with her studies, with the care of her own subjects. She received no reply; she didn’t expect to. On the first day of spring, rather to her own surprise, she wrote again, to announce that she had made her decision and that she would be traveling West at the first opportunity.Now she couldn’t sleep. The golden watch ticked noisily at her bedside and she couldn’t sleep, and her head was full of thoughts of distance and speed. She’d never seen one of the Engines of the Line and could not picture what they looked like; but last year she had seen, in one of the galleries in town, an exhibition of paintings of the West’s immense vistas, its wide-open plains like skies or seas. Perhaps it was two years ago—Bernhardt had been alive. The paintings had been huge, wall-to-wall, mountains and rivers and tremendous skies, some blue and unclouded and others tempestuous. Forests and valleys. The panorama: that was what they painted in the West. Geography run wild and mad. There’d been several with bloody battles going on at the bottom of the frame: Fall of the Red Republic, or something like that, was especially horrible, with its storm clouds of doom clenched in the sky like sick hearts seizing, thousands of tiny men struggling in a black valley, battle standards falling in the mud. They always seemed to be fighting about something, out in the West. There’d been half a dozen depicting nature bisected by the Line; high arched rail bridges taming the mountains or railroads shaving the forests away; the black paint blots that were the Engines seeming to move, to drag the eye across the canvas. There were even a few visions of the very farthest West, where the world was still entirely uncreated and full of wild lights and lightning storms and land that surged like sea and strange beautiful demonic forms being born in the murk. . . . Liv remembered how Agatha had shuddered and held herself tight. She remembered, too, how Bernhardt had held her in his heavy tweed-clad arm, and droned about Faculty politics, and so she had not quite lost herself in the paintings’ wild depths.
Now those scenes rushed through her mind, blurred with speed and distance. The House was a world away. She could not picture traveling by Line, but she imagined herself leaving town by coach, and the wheels clattering into sudden unstoppable motion, and the horses rearing, and the coach lurching so that all her settled life spilled out behind her in a cascade of papers and old clothes and . . .
It was not an unpleasant sensation, she decided; it was as much exhilaration as terror. Nevertheless she needed to sleep, and so she took two serpent-green drops of her nerve tonic in a glass of water. As always, it numbed her very pleasantly.Liv settled her affairs. Her rooms were the property of the Faculty—she ensured that they would be made available to poor students during her absence. She consulted a lawyer regarding her investments. She dined almost nightly with Agatha and her family. She canceled her subscriptions to the scholarly periodicals. The golden watch presented an unexpected problem, because of course her clothes had no pockets suitable for such a heavy ugly thing, nor was she sufficiently unsentimental to leave it behind; eventually she decided to have a chain made and wear it around her neck, where it beat against her heart.
She visited her subjects and made arrangements for their future. The Andresen girl she transferred into Dr. Ekstein’s care; the girl’s pale and fainting neurasthenic despair might, she hoped, respond well to Ekstein’s gruff cheerfulness. The Fussel boy she bequeathed to Dr. Naumann, who might find his frequent sexual rages interesting. With a satisfying stroke of her pen, she split the von Meer twins—who suffered from cobwebbed and romantic nightmares—sending one girl to Dr. Ekstein and the other to Dr. Lenkman. An excellent idea, as they only encouraged each other’s hysteria. She wondered why she hadn’t done it years ago! The Countess Romsdal had nothing at all wrong with her, in Liv’s opinion, other than being too rich and too idle and too self-obsessed; so she thought Dr. Seidel might as well humor her. She gave Wilhelm and the near-catatonic Olanden boy to Dr. Bergman. She sent sweet little Bernarda, who was scared of candles and shadows and windows and her husband, to a rest cure in the mountains. As for Maggfrid . . .