A spellbinding novel about transience and mortality, by one of the most original voices in American literature
The Silk Road begins on a mat in yoga class, deep within a labyrinth on a settlement somewhere in the icy north, under the canny guidance of Jee Moon. When someone fails to arise from corpse pose, the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Botanist, the Keeper, the Topologist, the Geographer, the Iceman, and the Cook remember the paths that brought them therepaths on which they still seem to be traveling.
The Silk Road also begins in rivalrous skirmishing for favor, in the protected Eden of childhood, and it ends in the harrowing democracy of mortality, in sickness and loss and death. Kathryn Davis’s sleight of hand brings the past, present, and future forward into brilliant coexistence; in an endlessly shifting landscape, her characters make their way through ruptures, grief, and apocalypse, from existence to nonexistence, from embodiment to pure spirit.
Since the beginning of her extraordinary career, Davis has been fascinated by journeys. Her books have been shaped around road trips, walking tours, hegiras, exiles: and now, in this triumphant novel, a pilgrimage. The Silk Road is her most explicitly allegorical novel and also her most profound vehicle; supple and mesmerizing, the journey here is not undertaken by a single protagonist but by a community of separate soulsa family, a yoga class, a generation. Its revelations are ravishing and desolating.
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The Silk Road
We were in the labyrinth. Afterward, no one could agree on the time. Jee Moon was tucking someone's right hand in under their blanket, having first tucked in the left. She did this tenderly but firmly, as if to suggest we could be doing it for ourselves. Next she took someone's head and lifted it like it wasn't part of a human body, a cabbage or a planet or the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is. Everyone could smell the gas the permafrost gave off as it melted; we could feel the labyrinth floor sinking under our mats. Lower, lower, going down, deeper down than Paradise. Department stores used to have elevators and the elevators had operators who told you what you were going to find when you stepped through the slowly opening door. There would be a white torso without a head or arms; there would be people you knew you'd never meet again.
The smell of gas in the labyrinth mixed with the smell of incense and, though no one could see it — Jee Moon having covered our dark, restless eyes with eye pillows — we could picture smoke emerging from the incense burner in a coil that continued to hold its shape even after lifting into the air. Like the goddess Dhumavati, she who represents ultimate annihilation, the smoke that's going to be what's left of the universe after everything else has been destroyed.
At some point someone started snoring, a surprisingly gentle noise. You weren't supposed to pay attention to things like that but it was hard not to, the world — all fourteen of them, of which ours was the lowest of the low if Jee Moon was to be believed — being too much with us. Sometimes she would move on quickly from blanket to blanket, but today she lingered, pressing her fingers into the soft tissue at the base of each skull.
You can't pretend to be relaxed. You can't pretend the smoky one isn't right there in the room with you, with her winnowing basket and her crow.
Though in the north the crow would have to be a raven.
I am breathing in, I am breathing out; I am hearing someone snore, I am hearing someone think.
There is more organic carbon in northern peat than in all other living things combined.
Man is the knot and bond of the universe.
You are my sweetheart. My darling.
So the gods take their seats.
We couldn't hear each other's thoughts distinctly, nor could we hear them all at once. Jee Moon was a mystery to us, shrouded in something aqueous, something radiant and endlessly shifting, the impenetrable deep blue of a newborn's eyes. The winnowing basket used to separate the husk from the grain, the outer illusory form from the inner reality.
The practice that day had been strenuous, involving arm balances, and you didn't have to be a mind reader to know everyone was relieved to be lying on their mat for Savasana. Time to relax, let everything go, lie there like a corpse. This was the most challenging of the poses if you took into account the fact that the room was filled with people who knew the world was coming to an end and that if we worked at it hard enough we would never die.
Sometimes it happened that an image was not supplied and that what before was a woman turned out to have changed into a man, a different age and face succeeding the first. The deer, the fire worm, the black bee, the fish — each of us had made the same mistake at least once, thrown off by shifting leaves or the smell of sex, by a flickering candle or a worm on a hook. The Astronomer, the Archivist, the Botanist, the Keeper, the Topologist, the Geographer, the Iceman. The Cook was in the kitchen; he always had an excuse.
There were two doors in the room. One door led back into the labyrinth's tunnel system through an anteroom with hooks to hang things on, cubbyholes for shoes and personal belongings such as eyeglasses or notebooks. The second door led to a small lavatory in which, on a shelf above the toilet, Ganesh reclined, his belly rising and falling, composed of the dirt of Shakti's body. The five-headed snake ferried Lord Krishna across the water.
Chariot, chariot, si tu veux de moi ...
Moreover in the sum of all things there is no one thing that is begotten single.
This was the way it happened in this room: thoughts swarmed from our heads and — not being solely the province of the brain — from other parts of our bodies, and rose to link themselves with other thoughts in a molecular action not unlike that of the incense with the air, giving rise to new entities and worlds, pasts, presents, and futures. The Chariot rode the stars, five of them driven by the five celestial emperors in the constellation wuche or tucked inside the constellation Ursa Major, arktos for north, bear in Greek, number seven in the Major Arcana, and rendered "I will follow him" by Little Peggy March, the song's English translation being so much less frightening than "Under the last star I will leave with you across the plain, the plain, the plain with no ending ..."
The danger, as always, was incontestable, we knew that. It was intent on breaking up the first beginnings of things, on stopping our vital motions entirely until we ended up untying from our bodies the fastenings of the soul, forcing it out through the pores.
The danger was everywhere, but we didn't know where to look for it, only that it was gathering strength, getting ready to send a foot out at a sudden angle like an amoeba preparing to move, tripping whoever was trying to make their way to the bathroom without being noticed. Later the question would arise as to whether this was done on purpose — whether someone had looked out from under their eye pillow at the exact moment whoever it was who was heading to the bathroom began to move, though everyone swore they hadn't seen a thing.
What happened wasn't exactly like karma — it was more like we couldn't imagine any other way for things to happen. Even if we believed in past lives or in being reborn as something different from ourselves, whoever each of us was could never imagine having come from a previous life or to be entering into a new one totally unlike the lives we were living now. The cars of the train needed to at least be cars, if not from the same railroad, or the same kind of cars, sleepers, dining cars, freight, engine, caboose. Not all things that befell us from the heavenly bodies were inevitable.
The door to the bathroom opened and shut almost noiselessly. Once a person was inside it was impossible to do anything without being overheard. First came the sound of water, in a rush or a protracted trickle, followed sometimes by the rattle of the paper dispenser. The quiet intensified as everyone waited, trying not to laugh. The toilet flushed; the door to the tunnel slammed.
What was that? someone whispered.
The answer was obvious but even so someone whispered back, the bathroom.
Carefully, trying not to attract Jee Moon's attention, we stole a look. The bathroom door was still shut but the door to the tunnel was ajar, and beyond all our blanket-wrapped forms the anteroom's shadowy interior was just barely visible. Had the door to the tunnel been open the whole time we'd been inside? Jee Moon's habit was to close it once we were settled on our mats, seated in easy pose and starting to pay attention to our breathing. The idea was to keep everything in the room in the room, to stifle the temptation to think past the door and into the anteroom, down the unlit pathways of the labyrinth we'd all learned to traverse blind like ideas navigating the neural pathways of the brain, moving as far from the settlement as we could to arrive finally in the outspread blue air at the cove's edge. This was late spring, the season of candle ice. The caribou were on the move. You didn't want your mind slipping through along with that first cloven hoof.
Slowly now, Jee Moon was saying. Roll onto your side. Slowly, slowly. Take your time. Curl yourself in a ball like a baby.
At first you couldn't hear the sounds everyone was making, you were so tuned to the sound of your own breath. Gradually it was a pleasure to hear the ripping sound of skin lifting from a rubber mat, a sigh, a blown nose, outerwear being zipped. By the time you found yourself back in easy pose and had opened your eyes it was as if you didn't know where you'd been for the last hour. It could have been more than that; it could have been an instant. Without windows or a clock it was impossible to tell.
We didn't realize what was going on right away. Hey, sleepyhead, Jee Moon said, approaching the back of the room.
Later we couldn't remember which one of us it was who asked if anybody had a mirror to check for breath. The Iceman thought it was the Topologist who provided a compact but it was the Keeper who turned out to have one. From the old days, she explained, accessory to a bad habit.
Each of us came with a past attached, like a wagon or a bindle or a hump.
The town of Le Puy-en-Velay is cupped inside what was once the core of an ancient volcano; high pointed peaks stick up everywhere. For over a thousand years pilgrims have been walking the trail leading out of it to a place where the world comes to an end on the Spanish coast.
Upon her arrival in Le Puy the Topologist located the hostel she'd found circled in the guidebook; for almost no money at all she was allotted a cubicle containing a narrow bed and a lumpy bolster over which she spread the blue silk sleep sack that was to protect her from bedbugs. The trip and the guidebook describing it had been a retirement present from her department, the sleep sack from the department secretary, who cried when she left.
Les punaises, the Geographer said. Punaise was French for bedbug. She was fluent in the language, having spent a year as an exchange student in France. By this date in history most people in the civilized world had sustained a bite or two, if not a full-blown infestation.
Le Puy is also the lentil capital of the world, the Cook informed us.
It was still light out when the Topologist left the hostel to explore; the sun wouldn't set until ten. She climbed the steps — 267 of them — to the chapel set atop the "Needle," a magma plug from which vantage point she could look down on the town as it lost definition at her feet. Soon it would be nothing more than a twinkling of lights — this was probably how God came up with his idea for the night sky.
Back home it was still afternoon; back home nothing had changed. The department secretary would be sitting at her desk, sharing the postcard the Topologist had sent from Paris with some of her colleagues. If it weren't for them, she wouldn't have been in Le Puy in the first place.
Of course there had never been an alternative for any of us; we were linked in ways we could only begin to dream of imagining.
Think of it, Jee Moon said. We were, all of us, dark-eyed. We had, all of us, experienced childhood as a storm of black pebbles, of dazzling brocade and hail, our sixteenth birthday a carpet rolled like a shadowed pathway to an ever-receding vanishing point.
Was this true? The Topologist prided herself on her imperfect memory of the past in contrast to her ability to name the countable ordinals. Her eyes were brown, not particularly dark. She seemed to recall a fight, a bad one, the night she turned sixteen. But as for who was fighting and with whom, she had no recollection, only of heavy footfalls down the front hall, the unfamiliar smell of a wet thing cracked open.
You might come around a bend, open a door, turn a corner, and there it would be, the very thing you thought you'd lost, restored to life. That was why we had, all of us, accumulated so many black pebbles.
It would be best if we prepared ourselves to move on, Jee Moon said.
Get ready to go swiftly on the black path!
Even though the volcano that had exploded where she now stood had been asleep for centuries, the Topologist could feel the fury of the earth's molten core coming up from the bottom of her feet and out the top of her head. Before it had been a Christian chapel this had been a shrine to Mercury, god of messages and poetry, commerce and thieves. He was also charged with conveying the souls of the newly dead to the Underworld. Little green lizards appeared from between crevices in the stonework and just as suddenly disappeared back into them, their pink tongues poking in and out of their grinning mouths.
The Topologist didn't sleep well that first night, surrounded on all sides by the intimate sound of people sleeping. "You snore," the Swede in the adjacent cubicle cheerfully informed her when they emerged from their beds at the same time the next morning.
"You do too," the Topologist replied, even though he hadn't.
The Swede had a wide-open face and a cap of white-blond hair. "Are you going to get blessed?" he asked. After the bishop blessed you, you were given a free rosary.
It was hard to resist the kind of prize a person got for doing something for which you'd normally get nothing. On the other hand, if the Topologist left with the Swede to be blessed by the bishop they'd have to walk together on the trail.
"I don't think so," she said.
"It's no big deal," the Swede said. "They're made of plastic."
The morning was beautiful, Le Puy's streets empty of all but a few clerics in long black cassocks, sliding up and down the steep pathways like chessmen. Dew had fallen on everything, leaving behind the smell of wet stone and, as the sun rose, the smell of water evaporating into thin air. Evaporation could happen to anyone — there hadn't always been blazes to guide an errant pilgrim. In the Middle Ages pilgrims got lost, never to be seen again. Nowadays all a pilgrim had to do was follow the blazes. These were a white stripe above a red stripe; if the stripes made an X it meant you'd taken a wrong turn. Sometimes there were stretches of trail where the blazes were hard to see. In the Savage Domain, known for its terrible weather, its hail and lightning and impenetrable fog, its monstrous dog-headed beast — when you were in the Savage Domain and you couldn't see the blazes, you had the bell. All you had to do to escape the beast was to follow the sound of the bell.
The bell had a girl's name. Surely one of us remembered?
But there were things we'd decided to forget and this was one of them.
The Topologist lifted her hands to her ears. What if the part of her that was capable of hearing vanished first? She was experiencing the uncanny effect of Le Puy. A person could feel her own embodiment shrink in contrast with all the stone. And what about the smell of food? What about that? The space here wasn't foldable or stretchable the way she was used to it behaving in a controlled environment. In Le Puy the idea of eating — of trying to insert one solid object inside another, an apple into a human body, say, or even something as small as a lentil — was impossible.
She started walking. Downhill, downhill, into the cool dark bottom of the volcano. The sun kept rising; the sky was the color of the Swede's eyes. When she was a girl the plan had been simple: she would tether herself to another person. It had been a fine plan; more than once it had saved her life. Even now, years later, she was capable of feeling the tug. But did it keep her safe or was it more like a noose?
The Archivist objected. The noose was his, he pointed out. It was his scourge, not hers.
As if a person could own a means of execution.
At length the Topologist hit bottom and began ascending the rue des Capucins. The ascent was even steeper than the descent, and there were benches at intervals along the road, on one of which sat a heavyset woman wearing a red rain poncho. "Courage!" the woman said, giving the word its French pronunciation while lifting her hand in a fist. The poncho made it hard to see her face.
"Courage!" the Topologist echoed, though what she wanted to say was "It's not raining."
Courage, courage. It wasn't like it took courage to do what she was doing. At the top of the hill, as the guidebook predicted, there was a modern factory building, a wide gravel lane along a high stone wall. Up, then down again. This was what volcanoes did to a landscape! For a while she walked above the gorge of the Gazelle on a path strewn with mossy boulders. Her plan was to stop at the first village she came to and buy bread and cheese and sausage for lunch. She saw cows and donkeys, cats and chickens.
What kind of moss? the Iceman asked, though we all knew he didn't expect an answer.
The Cook awoke from his nap with a start. Don't forget the wine, he said. The wine there is the best in the world.
So you walked, said the Archivist. There were cows. There were walls. No one's interested in a travelogue.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Silk Road"
Copyright © 2019 Kathryn Davis.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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