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City of Saints and Madmen
By Jeff VanderMeer
Random House Jeff VanderMeer
All right reserved. ISBN: 0553383574
Dradin, in love, beneath the window of his love, staring up at her while crowds surge and seethe around him, bump-ing and bruising him all unawares in their rough-clothed, bright-rouged thousands. For Dradin watches her, she taking dicta-tion from a machine, an inscrutable block of gray from which sprout the earphones she wears over her delicate egg-shaped head. Dradin is struck dumb and dumber still by the seraphim blue of her eyes and the cascade of long and lustrous black hair over her shoulders, her pale face gloomy against the glass and masked by the reflection of the graying sky above. She is three stories up, ensconced in brick and mortar, almost a monument, her seat near the win-dow just above the sign that reads "Hoegbotton & Sons, Distributors." Hoegbotton & Sons: the largest importer and exporter in all of lawless Ambergris, that oldest of cities named for the most valuable and secret part of the whale. Hoegbotton & Sons: boxes and boxes of depravities shipped for the amusement of the decadent from far, far Surphasia and the nether regions of the Occident, those places that moisten, ripen, and decay in a blink. And yet, Dradin surmises, she looks as if she comes from more contented stock, not a stay-at-home, but uncomfortable abroad, un-lesstraveling on the arm of her lover. Does she have a lover? A husband? Are her parents yet living? Does she like the opera or the bawdy theatre shows put on down by the docks, where the creaking limbs of laborers load the crates of Hoegbotton & Sons onto barges that take the measure of the mighty River Moth as it flows, sludge-filled and torpid, down into the rapid swell of the sea? If she likes the theatre, I can at least afford her, Dradin thinks, gawping up at her. His long hair slides down into his face, but so struck is he that he does not care. The heat withers him this far from the river, but he ignores the noose of sweat round his neck.
Dradin, dressed in black with dusty white collar, dusty black shoes, and the demeanor of an out-of-work missionary (which indeed he is), had not meant to see the woman. Dradin had not meant to look up at all. He had been looking down to pick up the coins he had lost through a hole in his threadbare trousers, their seat torn by the lurching carriage ride from the docks into Ambergris, the carriage drawn by a horse bound for the glue factory, perhaps taken to the slaughter yards that very day-the day before the Festival of the Freshwater Squid as the carriage driver took pains to inform him, perhaps hoping Dradin would require his further services. But it was all Dradin could do to stay seated as they made their way to a hostel, deposited his baggage in a room, and returned once more to the merchant districts-to catch a bit of local color, a bite to eat-where he and the carriage driver parted company. The driver's mangy beast had left its stale smell on Dradin, but it was a necessary beast nonetheless, for he could never have afforded a mechanized horse, a vehi-cle of smoke and oil. Not when he would soon be down to his last coins and in desperate need of a job, the job he had come to Ambergris to find, for his former teacher at the Morrow Religious Academy-a certain Cadimon Signal-preached from Ambergris' religious quarter, and surely, what with thefestivities, there would be work?
But when Dradin picked up his coins, he regained his feet rather too jauntily, spun and rattled by a ragtag gang of jackanapes who ran past him, and his gaze had come up on the gray, rain-threatening sky, and swung through to the window he now watched with such intensity.
The woman had long, delicate fingers that typed to their own peculiar rhythms, so that she might as well have been playing Voss Bender's Fifth, diving to the desperate lows and soaring to the magnificent highs that Voss Bender claimed as his territory. When her face became, for the mo-ment, revealed to Dradin through the glare of glass-a slight forward motion to advance the tape, perhaps-he could see that her features, a match for her hands, were reserved, streamlined, artful. Nothing in her spoke of the rough rude world surrounding Dradin, nor of the great, un-mapped southern jungles from which he had just returned; where the black panther and the blacker mamba waited with such malign intent; where he had been so consumed by fever and by doubt and by lack of con-verts to his religion that he had come back into the charted territory of laws and governments, where, sweet joy, there existed women like the creature in the window above him. Watching her, his blood simmering within him, Dradin wondered if he was dreaming her, she a haloed, burn-ing vision of salvation, soon to disappear mirage-like, so that he might once more be cocooned within his fever, in the jungle, in the darkness.
But it was not a dream and, of a sudden, Dradin broke from his reverie, knowing she might see him, so vulnerable, or that passersby might guess at his intent and reveal it to her before he was ready. For the real world surrounded him, from the stink of vegetables in the drains to the sweet of half-gnawed ham hocks in the trash; the clip-clop-stomp of horse and the rattled honk of motored vehicles; the rustle-whisper of mushroom dwellers disturbed from daily slumber and, from somewhere hidden, the sound of a baroque and lilting music, crackly as if played on a phono-graph. People knocked into him, allowed him no space to move: mer-chants and jugglers and knife salesmen and sidewalk barbers and tour-ists and prostitutes and sailors on leave from their ships, even the odd pale-faced young tough, smiling a gangrenous smile.
Dradin realized he must act and yet he was too shy to approach her, to fling open the door to Hoegbotton & Sons, dash up the three flights of stairs and, unannounced (and perhaps unwanted) and unwashed, come before her dusty and smitten, a twelve o'clock shadow upon his chin. Obvious that he had come from the Great Beyond, for he still stank of the jungle rot and jungle excess. No, no. He must not thrust himself upon her.
But what, then, to do? Dradin's thoughts tumbled one over the other like distraught clowns and he was close to panic, close to wringing his hands in the way his mother had disapproved of but that indicated noth-ing unusual in a missionary, when a thought came to him and left him speechless at his own ingenuity.
A bauble, of course. A present. A trifle, at his expense, to show his love for her. Dradin looked up and down the street, behind and below him for a shop that might hold a treasure to touch, intrigue, and, ulti-mately, keep her. Madame Lowery's Crochets? The Lady's Empo-rium? Jessible's Jewelry Store? No, no, no. For what if she were a Mod-ern, a woman who would not be kept or kept pregnant, but moved in the same circles as the artisans and writers, the actors and singers? What an insult such a gift would be to her then. What an insensitive man she would think him to be-and what an insensitive man he would be. Had all his months in the jungle peeled away his common sense, layer by layer, until he was as naked as an orangutan? No, it would not do. He could not buy clothing, chocolates, or even flowers, for these gifts were too forward, unsubtle, uncouth, and lacking in imagination. Besides, they-
-and his roving gaze, touching on the ruined aqueduct that divided the two sides of the street like the giant fossilized spine of a long, lean shark, locked in on the distant opposite shore and the Borgmodern sign with the double curlicues and the bold lines of type that proclaimed Borges Bookstore, and right there, on Albumuth Boulevard, the filthiest, most sublime, and richest thoroughfare in all of Ambergris, Dradin realized he had found the perfect gift. Nothing could be better than a book, or more mysterious, and nothing could draw her more perfectly to him.
Still dusty and alone in the swirl of the city-a voyeur amongst her skirts-Dradin set out toward the opposite side, threading himself be-tween street players and pimps, card sharks and candy sellers, through the aqueduct, and, braving the snarl of twin stone lions atop a final arch-way, came at last to the Borges Bookstore. It had splendid antique win-dows, gilt embroidered, with letters that read:
GIFTS FOR ANY OCCASION:
* THE HISTORY OF THE RIVER MOTH *
* GAMBLING PRACTICES OF THE OUTLANDS *
* THE RELIGIOUS QUARTER ON 15 s. A DAY *
* SQUID POACHING *
* CORRUPTION IN THE MERCHANT DISTRICT *
* ARCHITECTURE OF ALBUMUTH BOULEVARD *
ALSO, The Hoegbotton Series of Guidebooks & Maps
to the Festival, Safe Places, Hazards, and Blindfolds.
Book upon piled book mentioned in the silvery scrawl and beyond the glass the quiet, slow movements of bibliophiles, feasting upon the genu-ine articles. It made Dradin forget to breathe, and not simply because this place would have a gift for his dearest, his most beloved, the woman in the window, but because he had been away from the world for a year and, now back, he found the accoutrements of civilization comforted him. His fa-ther, that tortured soul, was still a great reader, between the bouts of drinking, despite the erosion of encroaching years, and Dradin could re-member many a time that the man had, honking his red, red nose-a monstrosity of a nose, out of proportion to anything in the family line-read and wept at the sangfroid exploits of two poor debutantes named Juliette and Justine as they progressed from poverty to prostitu-tion, to the jungles and back again, weepy with joy as they rediscovered wealth and went on to have wonderful adventures up and down the length and breadth of the River Moth, until finally pristine Justine expired from the pressure of tragic pleasures wreaked upon her.
It made Dradin swell with pride to think that the woman at the window was more beautiful than either Juliette or Justine, far more beautiful, and likely more stalwart besides. (And yet, Dradin admitted, in the delicacy of her features, the pale gloss of her lips, he espied an innately breakable quality as well.)
Thus thinking, Dradin pushed open the glass door, the lacquered oak frame a-creak, and a bell chimed once, twice, thrice. On the thrice chime, a clerk dressed all in dark greens, sleeves spiked with gold cufflinks, came forward, shoes soundless on the thick carpet, bowed, and asked, "How may I help you?"
To which Dradin explained that he sought a gift for a woman. "Not a woman I know," he said, "but a woman I should like to know."
The clerk, a rake of a lad with dirty brown hair and a face as subtle as mutton pie, winked wryly, smiled, and said, "I understand, sir, and I have precisely the book for you. It arrived a fortnight ago from the Ministry of Whimsy imprint-an Occidental publisher, sir. Please follow me."
The clerk led Dradin past mountainous shelves of history texts pe-rused by shriveled prunes of men dressed in orange pantaloons-buf-foons from university, no doubt, practicing for some baroque Voss Bender revival-and voluminous mantels of fictions and pastorals, ne-glected except by a widow in black and a child of twelve with thick glasses, then exhaustive columns of philosophy on which the dust had settled thicker still, until finally they reached a corner hidden by "Funerals" enti-tled "Objects of Desire."
The clerk pulled out an elegant eight-by-eleven book lined with soft velvet and gold leaf. "It is called The Refraction of Light in a Prison and in it can be found the collected wisdom of the last of the Truffidian monks im-prisoned in the Kalif's dark towers. It was snuck out of those dark towers by an intrepid adventurer who-"
"Who was not a son of Hoegbotton, I hope," Dradin said, because it was well known that Hoegbotton & Sons dealt in all sorts of gimmickry and mimicry, and he did not like to think that he was giving his love an item she might have unpacked and catalogued herself.
"Hoegbotton & Sons? No, sir. Not a son of Hoegbotton. We do not deal with Hoegbotton & Sons (except inasmuch as we are contracted to carry their guidebooks), as their practices are . . . how shall I put it? . . . questionable. With neither Hoegbotton nor his sons do we deal. But where was I? The Truffidians.
"They are experts at the art of cataloguing passion, with this grave dis-tinction: that when I say to you, sir, 'passion,' I mean the word in its most general sense, a sense that does not allow for intimacies of the kind that might strike the lady you wish to know better as too vulgar. It merely speaks to the general-the incorporeal, as one more highly witted than I might say. It shall not offend; rather, it shall lend to the gift-giver an aura of mys-tery that may prove permanently alluring."
The clerk proffered the book for inspection, but Dradin merely touched the svelte cover with his hand and said no, for he had had the most delightful thought: that he could explore those pages at the same time as his love. The thought made his hands tremble as they had not trembled since the fever ruled his body and he feared he might die. He imagined his hand atop hers as they turned the pages, her eyes caressing the same chapter and paragraph, the same line and word; thus could they learn of passion together but separate.
"Excellent, excellent," Dradin said, and, after a tic of hesitation-for he was much closer to penniless than penniful-he added, "but I shall need two," and as the clerk's eyebrows rose like the startled silhouettes of twin sea gulls upon finding that a fish within their grasp is actually a snark, he stuttered, "A-a-and a map. A map of the city. For the festival."
"Of course," said the clerk, as if to say, Converts all around, eh?
Dradin, dour-faced, said only, "Wrap this one and I will take the other unwrapped, along with the map," and stood stiff, brimming over with ur-gency, as the clerk dawdled and digressed. He knew well the clerk's thoughts: a rogue priest, ungodly and unbound by any covenant made with God.
Excerpted from City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer Excerpted by permission.
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