Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Chapters Two and Three
Ishmael was not a normal human, but he didn’t know this because he had never seen one. He was raised by the Kin—Abel, Aklia, Seth, and Luluwa—gentle, dark-brown machines that nurtured him from infant to child, child to adolescent. They looked like him in shape but were made from a different material. He had grown in their quiet, attentive care, knowing he was not the same but never dreaming that he was a monster. There were no monsters in his world, deep under the stables in the old city of Essenwald.
Essenwald was a European city, imported piece by piece to the Dark Continent and reassembled in a vast clearing made in the perimeter of the forest. It was built over a century and a half, the core of its imitation now so old that it had become genuine, while the extremes of weather had set about another form of fakery, forcing the actions of seasons through the high velocity of tropical tantrum. Many of the old stone houses had been shipped in, each brick numbered for resurrection. Some of the newer mansions and warehouses had taken local materials and copied the ornate, crumbling splendour of their predecessors, adding original artistic brilliance in their skeuomorphic vision of decay. It was prosperous, busy, and full of movement, with solid roads and train lines scrolling out from its frantic, lustrous heart. Only one track crawled into the dark interior of the forest. Into the eternal mass of the Vorrh.
For years, it was said that nobody had ever reached the centre of the Vorrh. Or, if they had, then they had never returned. Business expanded and flourished on its southernmost outskirts, but nothing was known of its interior, except myth and fear. It was the mother of forests; ancient beyond language, older than every known species, and, some said, propagator of them all, locked in its own system of evolution and climate.
The banded foliage and vast trees that breathed its rich air offered much to humans but could also devour a thousand of their little lives in a microsecond of their uninterrupted, unfathomable time. So vast was its acreage, it also made its demands of time, splitting the toiling sun into zones outside of normal calibration; a theoretical traveller, passing through its entire breadth on foot, would have to stop at its centre and wait at least a week for his soul to catch up. So dense was its breathing, it dented the surrounding climate. Swirling clouds interacted with its shadow. Its massive transpiration sucked at the nearby city that fed from it, sipping from the lungs of its inhabitants and filling the skies with oxygen. It brought in storms and unparalleled shifts of weather. Sometimes it mimicked Europe, smuggling a fake winter for a week or two, dropping temperatures and making the city look and feel like its progenitor. Then it spun winds and heat to make the masonry crack after the tightness of the impossible frost.
No planes dared fly over it. Its unpredictable climate, dizzying abnormalities of compass, and impossibilities of landing made it a pilot’s and navigator’s nightmare. All its pathways turned into overgrowth, jungle, and ambush. The tribes that were rumoured to live there were barely human—some said the anthropophagi still roamed. Creatures beyond hope. Heads growing below their shoulders. Horrors.
The logging roads skirted its perimeter, allowing commerce to gingerly nibble at its unprotected edges. There were no commercial means of ingress or egress from its solid shadow, except for the train. The mindlessly straight track that ran towards its heart was laid, line by line, with the hunger for wood. As it grew forwards, it forgot its immediate past. The iron rail carried sleep in its miles of repetition.
Most of the train that ran on it was composed of open platform and iron chain, built to receive the freshly cut trunks. But there were two passenger carriages, made for short and necessary visits or for those whose curiosity outstripped their wisdom. There were also the slave carriers, basic boxes on wheels designed to carry the workforce into the forest’s interior. The slaves had changed before the eyes of their owners. They had transformed into other beings, beings devoid of purpose, identity, or meaning. In the beginning, it was thought their malaise was the product of their imprisonment, but it soon became clear there was no personality left to feel or suffer such subtleties of emotion. The forest itself had devoured their memory and resurrected them as addicts.
The city of Essenwald fed on the trees, consuming the myriad of different species that ferociously grew there. Sawmills and lumberyards buzzed and sang in the daylight hours, rubber works cooked sap into objects, and paper mills boiled and bleached the bodies naked, ready for words. All this appetite was allowed by the forest. It encouraged the nibbling at one of its edges and used it as another form of protection—a minor one in comparison to the arsenal of defence that kept the Vorrh eternal.
Essenwald’s declaration of power and continuance was written throughout the twisting streets, like a labyrinthine manuscript. One such crooked causeway was called Kühler Brunnen, its handwritten name nailed high on its sunless side. A house of significant age stood at its middle; its core was among the first to arrive and be sunken into the heated ground, on the site of a more sacred enclosure that some said was older than humanity itself. Parts of its later exterior had been copied in anthracite-rich stone, mined from a long-extinct quarry. Its proportion and whereabouts were stolen from one of the bitter-clad cities of northern Saxony. Its windows were shuttered. It quietly brooded, while deflecting any attention. Its small, neat stables contained three horses, a polished carriage, and a working cart. Cobbles and straw gave movement and scent to its courtyard’s stillness, while far below, beneath the blue and yellow, the brown ones hummed and fussed over the white thing they grew. The air was filled with their scent of ozone and phenol and the slight singeing of their overly warm bodies, an odour of life that led to cracking and brittleness, emitting its own distinctive hum, in the same way we age with wrinkles and softening.
Four Kühler Brunnen wanted to be empty. The house thought it had completed its business with full-time occupancy many years before.
Yet while the house contained no people in the poised hollowness of its rooms above ground, in its basement was a well of astonishing depth—if it were ever given sky, it would reflect the most distant galaxies in its sightless water. The old, dark house was always alert and guarding what occurred beneath it.
There, under 4 Kühler Brunnen, among the crated machines and stagnant presses, boxed carboys and empty, stained vessels, Ishmael was becoming a man. His docile white body was beginning to toughen and shape itself for a different purpose, though it would never be as hard as the Kin. He was made of flesh, like the animals, and they were made of Bakelite, like the furniture. Their bodies were perfect in their gleam and the depth of their polished surfaces. Each was a unique, beautiful variation of form and appointment—he forever marvelled at their splendour, while examining the flabby imprecision of his own shell.
Over time, he had become more and more intrigued by Luluwa; she was unlike the others. Not because she was female. That had been explained to him before. There were four kinds of things like him in this world: men, women, animals, and ghosts. He was a man, like Abel and Seth. Luluwa was a woman, like Aklia. He was just a different kind. Men had tubes and strength, women had pouches and gentleness. He had a little of all.
He had first felt heat for Luluwa when she killed an animal for him. Snapping it in her long, shiny fingers, she had opened it for him to taste and smell and had explained that its insides were a copy of his, made in the same materials, unlike her own, which were modelled from a different substance. She had described how the thick, soft covering kept the animal warm, and that in time, he, too, would have such, and that if he looked carefully near the lamp he might see tiny traces of growth already there on his pliant skin. She had extended her smooth, graceful arm and shown him the absence of “hair.” He had flushed, felt ashamed and badly made. He’d wanted to hold his breath and suck all the traces of animal back into his shell, wanted every hair to shrivel and glaze over, towards her perfection.
She had explained before that he was too soft to grow, to expand from the inside out, to puff up. She was fully formed and inflexible. This made no sense to him—why would he have to grow into something while she was already there, immaculate? She tapped her brown shell and said that her skin was stiff and brittle while his was pliant and cuttable, that they were both vulnerable in different ways.
She touched the back of his neck, stroking him with two perfect fingers, reassuring him of his place, his distinction, and her affectionate acceptance. The solidity and coolness of her touch excited him and tightened his lukewarm softness into tumescent mimicry. She pretended not to notice and drifted away from his shock on a wave of ductile clicks and internal hisses, sounds he would remember throughout his tangled life.
He lifted his gaze from his awkward lap to watch her move across the long room. Her walk was purposeful, smooth, and exact, as if each of the hundreds of minor adjustments needed for propulsion and balance was consciously thought about, carefully considered in fractions of time that were impossible to contemplate. He knew if he thought about walking like that, he would fall after a few steps. Such perfect control was unattainable to his jarring and ridiculous motion. Luluwa was graceful and constant, while he was becoming more and more clumsy and random. Surges of emotion and eruptions of ideas tossed his motley, leaking being in unpredictable tides, causing him to invent doubt as a companion, to construct anxiety as a mirror in opposition to flawlessness, knowing that only he would be seen in it and that the others would quietly continue without reflection.
Sometimes, when he watched them sleeping, becoming charged, he became fascinated by their stillness. He would sit very close to Luluwa and one of the others and watch for movement. Once, Seth, who was standing behind him, asked why he was looking so closely.
“Because I think they are dead,” he said, without a moment’s thought. Seth put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and made a rotational sound in his throat. “It’s like the animals when they are broken,” the boy said over his shoulder, without taking his eye off the sleeping woman. “Before they break they are entirely made of movement, and then it stops. Where does the movement go?”
Seth moved to the boy’s side and knelt, looking with him. “It is true that all living things move and the movement is unceasing. It is also true that the dead do not move. But sometimes the movement is concealed in smallness and hides from sight. I will show you.”
Ishmael broke his stare to watch Seth speaking, looking at the words unfold from his toothless mouth, focusing on the shudder flap dancing in his jaws.
He slid away to a cabinet across the room and opened a drawer. He returned with quick purpose, carrying a glass tube as long as his arm and a small glass funnel. Kneeling again, this time between Luluwa and the boy, he rested one end of the tube on the sleeper’s brow and attached the funnel to the other end. He put his finger to his lips, hissed, and winked. The boy understood the agreement and they moved stealthily, so as not to awaken her. Seth put the cupped end of the funnel to the boy’s ear, delicately placing the other end in the corner of the sleeper’s closed eye. He froze there, half-turning to watch the listener’s face.
At first Ishmael could hear nothing but his own agitation. Then, in the tube, he heard a diminutive sound. Yes, and again, a fluid hiss, like the sound of spit in one’s mouth, so faint that it could have been from the other side of the universe. Yes! There again—irregular but fast and flickering, a whisper of pulse. He stopped and took his ear away from the tube.
“What is it, that noise?” he asked.
Seth became intent and modestly smiled. “It’s her eye moving,” he said. “Beneath the hard lid.” He stared deep into the boy. “She is dreaming.”
Sigmund Mutter, a trained, tight-lipped servant, would visit 4 Kühler Brunnen every Sunday to mechanically attend to its upkeep. After finishing his duties that day, he turned the key in the heavy lock, which jarred against its closure, causing him to totter in the street. A tarry, wet cigar, chewed into the corner of his badly shaved mouth, accentuated his shallow breath in the cold air. He was returning home to the rich, swollen musk of his wife’s lunch, and his attention was slurred between last night’s schnapps and the saturated sleep that wallowed on the other side of the thick food of the afternoon; perhaps that is why the lock wasn’t quite properly engaged and he fumbled the keys, dropping them into the icy mire.
“Good morning, Sigmund,” fluttered a voice above his mittened stooping. He groaned himself into an upright attention to respond to the shining woman smiling over his moleskin hump. There stood Ghertrude Eloise Tulp. Her height was accentuated by the full-length beige winter coat that glowed around her, her radiance framed by a brightly patterned scarf, which held a wide-brimmed hat over stacked curls of auburn hair. Her green eyes shone with a strength that was uncomfortable.
“Good morning, Mistress Tulp; a fine, cold day.”
For a moment they were suspended between gestures. The street became narrow as it rose, funnelling from a broad hip for carriages into a stilted neck of roofs, the chimneys crooked and attempting to mimic the calligraphy of trees, burnt black against the madder sky. High in the nape of the street was a clock, unworking and roughly painted out, an act of erasure that had no story. Like its blind face, the meeting below seemed equally gagged.
“How is Deacon Tulp?” Mutter blurted out, with a barked volume that disclosed his need for departure.
“My father is well,” she said kindly, knowing that she could play with this stupid man’s inferiority. A fierce gust of wind wrestled in from the cathedral square and paused her calculated sport, agitating the heavy door just enough for her to see that it was unlocked.
“Do give my regards and affection to your wife and the little ones,” she piped. He blinked clumsily at her, not quite believing the ease of his escape. “And do tell her not to worry about the lateness of the rent; my father understands that things are hard at this time of year.”
This sent him scurrying away, stuttering his beaten hat against his flaky head with felicitation for all of her kin. She was left in the empty, windblown street with her excitement distinctly rattling in the mouth of the half-open lock.
Mutter’s main task was looking after the house and the horses, beasts that he and his family had the use of when not ferrying crates from locations across the city to the cellars below and vice versa.
Each week he collected a numbered crate from a warehouse an hour’s drive away, brought it to the house, and exchanged it for the previous week’s used one. He had no idea what was inside the beautifully made, simple wooden boxes, and he did not care. Such was his temperament; it was fiercely consistent, as it had been with his father and hopefully would be with his sons. It wasn’t his or their concern to pry into the business that had kept them secure and employed for the last eighty years. Anyway, such enquiries were not the property of his class. Imagination was always inevitably a disastrous activity when operated or purloined by those in service.
The boxes were of varying weights, and he occasionally took one of his sons along to help with the heavier loads. It was good training for the boys, to see and understand the house, to repeat their duties and guard the quiet. They had known the building from the moment they could walk. It had been the same with him when he was a lad, standing behind his father’s legs as the gate was opened, terrified by the size of the horses and the richness of their smell, mesmerised by the stillness inside the lofty, empty rooms, and always waiting to see the masters appear. But they never did. He never saw anybody there, because the house was empty. Only his father had keys.
One day, when he was twelve and waiting in the kitchen, swinging his feet from his perched seat, he thought he saw something in the far wall, a brown, polished shadow of something that moved out of his sight. He sensed, even then, that he must not see it, so he unbound it from his memory and never spoke about it, especially not to his father.
He was in the same basement kitchen now, gingerly dragging the box across the room to the middle wall, where the dumbwaiter was concealed behind a panel of polished wood. The kitchen was dominated by a rectangular marble table that occupied its volume with a dignity of purpose. This would have been the focus of the entire kitchen staff when preparing food for the household or when resting at the end of the day and feeding themselves.
Mutter panted as he straightened up and steadied himself, gripping the cold stone and wiping his red, wet face with a towel that he always kept folded near the sliding wall. Over the years, he had perfected a technique of lifting and sliding the boxes in and out of the interior of the dumbwaiter, but now it was getting difficult. Not because of weakness, but from a slowness that seemed to be dissolving his energy, like a flame passing over the wax of a candle. The image of a cold, sallow puddle, flooded on its white saucer, its bristling wick tilted and sinking, made a chill run through the bulk of his body. He gathered himself and heaved the crate into the lift with an echoing thunder that was swallowed into the depth of the shaft below the floor. The dumbwaiter worked in reverse. Instead of servicing the rooms above, as would usually have been the case, it travelled downwards into a self-contained and undisclosed part of the house. He had always assumed the queerly shaped elevator had something to do with the well that must be down there, giving the house and the street their name.
He closed the lift door and slid the panelling back into its position of concealment. Dragging the lighter, used crate out of the room, he slowly closed the door behind him, pausing momentarily until he heard the lift begin to be winched down on its long, thick ropes.
He listened, not out of curiosity, which would have been impermissible, but out of a sense of impending satisfaction. His duty and his task were again complete.
Ishmael knew the crates were a teaching library. Each box contained poignantly selected examples of the world outside: Its structures, materials, animals, tools, plants, minerals, and ideas were represented for explanation. Some were preserved samples, sealed in jars; some fresh; some alive. There were also photographs, prints, and reproductions.
The Kin would open the crates away from their pupil. They would become silent and stiff, their heads in the boxes. Ishmael thought they were listening for instruction or having their memories prompted. But he never heard a voice, just a long, piping whistle.
They would take turns to explain the wonders to Ishmael. Sometimes they specialised in certain subjects. Abel would delineate materials and processes; Aklia would explain plants, minerals, and the earth in which they grew, also their attendant insects; Seth would demonstrate tools, act out history, and show inventions; Luluwa would illustrate the animals, how they worked and how they might be used.
There was always a small box inside the large one. This was taken out and examined in the kitchen and would then be turned into food for him. He loved the word “kitchen”; it was one of the first he’d learned. It was nourishment, perfume, and warmth, and he smelt its sound long before he tasted it. It also made the others’ mouths go very strange. He watched when one of them said it, all of his attention turning to the speaker. It was the first thing he remembered making him laugh—not knowing why, just in response to their reactions. It somehow got better when they did nothing but stare blankly back.
They only ever laughed once, some days after he had shown them how he did it. They had watched his demonstration with such solemn attention that it had turned his perfunctory titters into full-blown guffaws. But when they came back and laughed for him, it was horrible. He could not explain why. It was simply wrong, the grating opposite of what he’d felt and heard during his spontaneous outburst. They had been practising it for him, for his sake, to join in, but they had no depth of reference. It was not in any of the crates. They promised never to do it again. In return, he promised never to scream again, never to sob uncontrollably.
Their care and tenderness were much better expressed through action and movement and touch, through the gentle unfolding of knowledge, companionship, and food.
The day that Luluwa showed him how his body could extend into her and produce nectar was overwhelming. She had cleared away the lesson of flies and he had posed a question about the thing she had called “pleasure.” He knew it was like the dry white “sugar” or the thick yellow “honey,” not outside or on the tongue, but all over. She said that his kind had many ways to find it and that they were all connected to knowledge. She said pleasure was made of cream, like her motor.
Some weeks before, Abel had shown him a small part from one of their bodies—the curved hollow of a Bakelite shell. Its interior was notched and ingrained with tiny lines, small dents, and channels. Bumps covered its surface, very different from the smooth perfection of its gleaming other side.
“We are hollow, only fluid inside,” Abel had said, “not like you and the other animals, packed full of matter and organs. We work in another way. All of our forces are held in a thick cream contained within us; all that we are is alive in that cream, and it feeds and talks to the inside of our shell through these complex ducts and circuits.” He pointed to the inside of the fragment in his hands. “We know nothing of its workings; it is forbidden that we question and examine its process. We have a greater knowledge of you than we do of ourselves.”
Ishmael wanted to know more about pleasure and pressed Luluwa for a description. She said there were no words to explain it. “Your kindred have a connection between their breeding and their sweetness, a swelling of both that works like the magnets in Lesson Twenty-Eight. Their conception also follows the same construct.”
He wanted more.
“Yes,” she said. “It is time to show you. You are like the animals that we have seen—you must place your tube inside the pouch of the female to breed. The seeds then pass to fertilise the egg. This you know. But what you will learn is that its action is layered with pleasure.”
Ishmael understood her words but not their consequence.
“When you release your seed,” she said, “there is a great song of warmth.”
He stared and spun inwardly. She coiled down closer to him. Her hard, gleaming hand stroked his thigh. The firmness of her shell drew an erection. “I will show you that I have been fashioned like your kind to explain these marvels to you. These lessons of humans have been clearly taught to me alone, for you.”
She showed him a latch in the crease between her legs, normally hidden by its underside position. She asked him to move it and, with chattering fingers, he felt the mechanism of this secret thing. After a while she joined in, her nimble fingers sliding its notch down the entire length of her division, leaving the long cleft open.
“Touch inside,” she said.
It was warm and soft. He looked closer, some of his hand now within her, fingers moving the folded layers.
“Kelp,” he said. “It’s made of kelp.” Kelp had been in Lesson 17. Jars from the sea.
If she could have smiled, she would have. Instead, she stroked his head and said, “No, but very like it. It’s a material you have not yet seen.” She pushed the notched bulb in a little further and moisture flooded his touch.
“You leak like me,” he said. “Like me and the animals. You never did before.”
“This is not the same. This is not the passing of waste fluid, but a special oil to let you move inside me without friction or hurt.”
She guided him towards her, positioning her prone body, and with the same attentive concentration that she showed when peeling the animals apart, she drew him into her. An inner clasping made Ishmael flinch, but she rectified it with the pressure of her left hand in the small of his back and a series of whistling clicks that he knew were declarations of satisfaction, the same sounds she made when he understood her other lessons. A growing wave of succulent achievement overcame him, and he began to push deeper inside her. His hands gripped the hard perfection of her curved hips, making the contrast of her hot interior a wonderful benefaction.
This was different from all the other things she had shown him. The understanding was in his whole body, churning with sugars that gave him a direct power he had never dreamt of before. He tasted might and dominance and the impossible joy of retreat as she fed his anxious childhood into the past. They rocked together while he cried, sobbing pleasure, locked in her arms, sensation boomeranging sensation with continual vigour. Suddenly she began to shake, every joint shuddering, her voice impaling itself on an imprecision of sound. This had never happened before, and she had no understanding of its purpose or meaning. Only Ishmael knew that one of her inner ventricles had been flushed directly to the shunt mechanism of her sleep and recharging mode, had switched into total response as he reverberated against her, causing her to flick in and out of sleep in a fast stutter of consciousness and oblivion, producing something like pleasure constructed of surprise in her old, servile body of juice and stringency. As long as the rule regarding her Kin was in place, she would never be able to comprehend her reaction. The mystery would be for Ishmael alone to understand.
Ghertrude Eloise Tulp was an only child. She was “only” in a great manner of ways: in the way that a single child is given all; in the way that it is received and understood as a sign of natural superiority, growing into unquestionable rightness; in her luscious delight in solitude and satisfaction without a trace of loneliness.
She was the pride, construct, and admiration of her father, the third-generation owner of the city’s second-largest timber merchant, who had long since left the basic details of his inherited empire to his servants and turned his razor-keen appetites to politics and the church. She was modest in her skin, charming in her manner, with a tall, willowy vagueness, which mostly concealed the centre of her hunger. Her twenty-two years had been filled with kindness and education, but none of it had thawed her hurt at being born unknowing. She wanted to find out and possess all. Quickly.
She had always hated being excluded. Not many dared to attempt it socially—her power was too far-reaching and influential to be toyed with. But most had tried to lock her out in more literal ways, with brass and iron puzzles that fooled their owners into trusting their blind servitude. From the age of seven, she had begun to understand their mechanics and principles and, with that realisation, what delicious power and satisfaction lay on the other side of their manipulation. She had gained access to all hours of the day and night. She had tiptoed in forbidden places. She had seen a royalty of secrets: her parents becoming the beast with two backs; treasures being hidden; the dead, rotting in conversation in the catacombs beneath her home. She had seen intrigue, incest, deceit, lies, and pleasures, all closed to the assumption of sight.
Now she stood in the shadow of 4 Kühler Brunnen while the buffoon Mutter disappeared home. She waited a tantalising time, watching the street set into stillness, enjoying the restraint before she touched the door to see if her curiosity really had a menu. She walked quickly across the empty space and pushed the cold gate. It moved, heavy under her calfskin glove.
Her joy spun and silently shrieked: This was forbidden and ecstatic. The house had been a great secret for all of her life, the only thing denied to a child who was given everything. No one in her family would talk about it.
“Ah, ja, the Kühler Brunnen house,” they would say, and then change the subject. She had stared at it, glared at it, and watched it in passing all the days of her life, from her pram to her womanhood. Something in it had tapped at her shell, stirring the wakening within. And now she had breached its outer wall, closing the gate behind her in protection from all vulgar intrusion.
She lingered over the stables and the basic construction of the courtyard, drawing out her anticipation before approaching the entrance to the building. To her delight and surprise, the lock was simple, an old and well-known type, the kind she had been surreptitiously picking for years in her family’s homes. The door of this house would be no match for her skills, and she thrilled at the thought of devouring the secrets it had concealed for so long.
She returned through the courtyard. Once back at the gate, she looked again at the lock and laughed, almost too loudly. This was the ridiculous contraption that had held her at bay for so long? She could have opened it years before. It had only taken Mutter’s pantomime of stupidity to give her permission and scrawl the ticket to her fulfilment.
She shut and padlocked the gate and walked along the darkening street, humming her way home and savouring her strength and the sweet weakness of everything around her. There was no rush now; she already had the conclusion to the enigma firmly in her grasp. She would relish all the possibilities rather than leaping into the outcome; it would pay back all those years of frustrating exclusion. She now owned every imagined room.
Six days later, when Mutter had again left, she entered the house.
The Frenchman was the only modern being to have explored the Vorrh, to enter its interior and scribble down some of its detail. The only one—and all his perilous journey had been fiction. What better way was there to trespass on the sacred and the forbidden?
He had, of course, read or held the weight of every volume related to its existence. He had absorbed all the obscure and fantastic accounts of travellers who had returned by the skin of their teeth, having been hunted by the anthropophagi, the Artabatitai, the dog-headed Hemikunes, and all manner of fabulous denizens, representative of every forest in the world, which had been sucked into the mythical whirlpool of the Vorrh. He knew of the saviour of the forest, the fabled Black Man of Many Faces, and saw in it another reworking of the Green Man of Europe; he owned copies and private translations of Euthymenes the Massilian and late medieval renditions of Scylax of Caryanda; he had marvelled at the tall tales of Sir John Mandeville, stories of the horrors and wonders to be found in the uncharted depth of unknown lands. He had ploughed through the works of Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, even tried to find the famous mummies that had been bought by René Caillié and shipped, on a torturous route through Timbuktu, back to France, where over the latter years of forgetfulness they had become “misplaced.” He had read all the fact and all the fiction, and in later days of need and intrigue, he had created his own version, cut out of the jungles of all the other words, their slippery shadows of meaning translated into a rich weft of description. He had re-seen each moment and the backdrop of the eternal, savage forest. His writing had given it life, with all the detail of its population.
The Frenchman, Charlotte, and a reluctant chauffeur had driven into Essenwald, through the outskirts of mud and rushes to its fired foundations of imported German dogma. Their huge car heaved and jolted on the deeply rutted road. It was the first-ever motor caravan, a grandiose collision of baroque parlour and expensive, petrol-driven truck, which he had invented specifically for long-distance travel. During the day, the three travellers would be separated, each sweating in a different compartment of the vehicle, the varnished dark-brown interiors sweltering in the buckling heat. The chauffeur was forced to wear his uniform at all times, even in the blistering temperatures. Only at night would his nakedness be tolerated and his name allowed.
Charlotte was paid to stay close, to be the lifelong companion to her neighbour in the eighth arrondissement. She did this with understanding and gratitude, and because she was drawn to such stray dogs—even the noble ones.
The Frenchman’s mother paid for Charlotte’s attentions, paid for everything. She knew of her son’s weakness and something of his genius. She doted on him, and her love would have devoured him completely if she had not had a greater suitor. That suitor was heroin, and it determinedly won all conflicts of emotion and care. So Charlotte was employed to be her stand-in, the visible female pillar to which the Frenchman would be publicly leashed. This way, he could strain against something external and always have a place to return to, scratch against, and abuse.
Charlotte had a face that should have been loved. Her overpowering eyes said everything that was sensitive and feeling, on a level that hurt. Indeed, hurt was what coloured her gaze, not for herself, but for those around her, who pained and leeched their existence into permanent sadness. She was strong because she was quiet. Not silent, but still. Hers was a beauty of listening and a strength of giving; there was knowing, more than understanding, in the smoulder of her gaze. She saw and felt it all; she gave more love than she received, more than she was ever paid for.
They had been driving for an hour when the Frenchman ordered the car to stop. He smelt blood. They’d been passing through the outskirts of the city, swerving and bumping towards its stony European heart. A shrine tower, one of the many tall, red buildings with wound-like windows, had given off a pungent aroma, its dried-mud surface still showing the prints of the hands that had made it. Goats had been slaughtered there each day for centuries, and one side of the tower was saturated black with blood and milk. He stepped out of the car into the blinding sunlight, the dust still spinning in circles around the stationary wheels.
In this part of the fabled city, the streets were immaculate in their filth. Taking a pair of bone spectacles from their sealskin case, he arranged them over his eyes; the slits narrowed his vision and gated the sun. They had come from Greenland, purchased from a recent explorer of that frozen, barren place.
He was the most ridiculous of travellers, brilliantly prepared for all events, so long as they never happened. His handmade shoes were instantly discoloured by the red earth, as was his cream suit. He stood and glared at the tower, waiting to be noticed by the throng of local passersby. They had seen him, the little man stamping in the ground of arrival, but they were much more interested in his vast, grunting cart, enclosed on all sides. They slowed their pace and drifted towards its metal body, some daring to touch it on its blind side. Soon, the Frenchman would meet the young man who was to become the most significant person in his overcast life, but for that moment the crowd was pressed against the car’s windows, trying to glimpse the interior. The woman inside gripped her small clutch bag. Hiding in the perfumed darkness was her silver derringer, a palm-size pistol of American origin; it sat like a bright comma in the umbered pouch. It was made to fit snugly in the hand when discharged. It was blunt and inaccurate but delivered a lethal slap at short range. The Frenchman had never had any feelings of masculine protection for the fairer sex, even the few he had tolerated and liked. He and his paid companion had been locked in a crude democracy forged from selfishness, desire, and humiliation.
Turning his back on the angry chauffeur and the twitching woman, he walked towards the tower in the open street.
A young man had stepped out of the sun, the halo of his head blasted by brightness. “Which is your way, father? Are you lost?” he asked. “Where is your way?” he asked again, in a French that reflected the rippling mirage of sand that surrounded them.
He stared at the young man, speechless as his face came into focus. There was a resonance in his tone that had stirred a place yet unravelled, but nonetheless known, in his scarred heart. In a voice that was eerily subdued, he told the young black man that he was here to see the Vorrh, to gaze on the fabled forest.
The man’s eager smile broadened, and he looked out over the dust and the Frenchman’s shoulder. He pointed a tattooed finger towards the horizon. The Frenchman turned quickly to follow his direction, to look through the crumbling gap between the rows of buildings, where a dark curtain closed off the northernmost aspect of the city with shadow and solid contrast. The redness of earth, animals, plants, and buildings ended at its massive edge.
Its suddenness instantly reminded him of a stage set and returned him to the opera he had seen as a child. It had been vivid and overwhelming, its story indistinct, its music brash and bellowing. But its set had transfixed him, a forest of painted darkness stretched across the stage, blindingly artificial, its leaves, roots, and hanging tendrils filling his hungry imagination with a longing that had gnawed at all other realities with an unrelenting insistence; the same scene would pass through the last millisecond of his life, as he lay, seeded in oxygen, choking for absorption in the tiled indifference of a hotel bathroom.
That was only the second time he had been to the theatre, though his mother had often told him of it. She would come to say good night while he was in the bath, his nanny stopping, mid-sponge, to stand back in admiration while the apparition wafted in. She was always dazzling, in her society gowns and gleaming jewellery. She would tell him of the theatres and balls she was going to; of ballet and the opera; their stories of princesses and kings, demons, maidens, magic, and spells. Sometimes she would touch his back or arm with her silken gloves, sending a shiver through his damp, excited body. But she never stayed, and the nanny was always left to dry his cooling hope and dress it for sleep. His mother’s perfume stayed in his heart for hours afterwards.
At last within sight of the Vorrh, he understood why he had travelled so far. Yet as he took an automatic step towards it and everything else that had unbalanced his life, his chauffeur had begun to pound on the horn of the car—his forgotten companions had become completely engulfed by a solid wall of in-lookers. The discordant screech, his memories, and his stumbling curiosity knotted against movement in time, cutting his next step away from beneath him, causing him to fall forward in stupid surprise towards the red earth. The young man swooped and caught his awkwardness in long black arms, before righting them both.
The Frenchman struggled against the embrace. He liked to be touched only when and where he commanded. He was about to shriek at the outrage, when something of its firm gentleness crept through his disgust. He looked into the face of the tall shadow who held him. His rescuer was now totally silhouetted against the blinding sun, his features and eyes hidden. Yet his expression could be perceived; his eyes radiated grace. Grace was holding him up, tottering on the sanguine earth. The young man said nothing, but extended a long, thin arm, shivering with bangles, towards the shade of a low building. The Frenchman leant into the grip of the other and allowed himself to be guided forward. Without speaking, they walked into the shade of a pungent bar, where they sat and drank mint tea and tried to talk. The young man started by introducing himself, explaining that, despite his rags, he was of noble blood.
“I will call you Seil Kor,” the Frenchman announced.
“But that is not my name, master.”
“That does not matter. Seil Kor was a great hero and I know his name well. For this adventure, you shall be he.”
The young man had frowned at this strange way but accepted his play name to make the little man more comfortable. The conversation became more serious, and when the Frenchman declared he would traverse the entire forest, the space between their knowledge and understanding broadened and split.
Seil Kor turned his gaze away from his new companion and looked out towards the horizon. “Thou canst walk to the derelicts of the saints,” he said with firmness and distance, “but no farther. More is forbidden. From there is barred; you must turn away. No son of Adam is allowed, for God walks there.”
The Frenchman’s sense of intrigue and challenge was ignited by such bold and ultimate statements. “The gods and monsters that live there must be more savage at the centre.” He smirked.
At this, Seil Kor’s countenance gained an expressive patience, and he turned to stare back into the conversation, while making a gesture over his heart. “Not gods of old people,” he said gently. “The one God. Your God; my God; Yahweh. The great Father who made all things and gave Adam a corner of his clearing, so that he may dwell in it and grow. He walks there. It is his garden on earth. Paradise.”
A sudden silence opened around them.
“Seil Kor, my friend, are you telling me that the Garden of Eden is located in the Vorrh?”
“Yes, it is so. But Eden is only a corner of God’s garden; the rest of the clearing is where God walks, to think in worldly ways. It is impossible in heaven, where all things are the same, without form or colour, temperature or change. In his worldly garden, he wears a gown of senses, woven in our time. He lets rocks and stones, wind and water, clothe his invisible ideas. He pictures our life in the matter that makes us.”
The Frenchman was shocked and moved by such faith and by the clarity that bound it. Delaying his cynicism, he tried desperately to shape his next question outside of his normal patronising indifference. “How do you know this?” he asked.
Seil Kor was confused by the question. Could his companion really be so obtuse? “Because he has told us,” he replied.
Any further questioning the Frenchman may have been tempted towards had been silenced. They parted ways, agreeing to meet the next morning and begin their journey to the lip of the Vorrh.
He returned to his servants and found their hotel, solidly located at the centre of the city, on sturdy roads where all dust was banished. That night, the Frenchman had hardly spoken to Charlotte. Lying on his bed, listening to the moonlit sounds outside, he had prayed for sleep. He wanted to dream in biblical weight and in the brightness of a lush garden, untenanted by man for thousands of years. But the dreams that awaited him were without pity and had the predatory grace of a jackal.
He awoke the next day drenched in sweat, his pillow turned pink—dazed, he searched his head and body for a wound that might explain the stained fabric, but nothing could be found.
The dream had hollowed him; no trace of rest remained as he crawled into the morning, defeated and abused. Hot water did nothing; the stain of the night was indelible. He dressed grudgingly, tightly buttoning himself into a costume of scratchy, irritant lies. With one gulp of bitter black coffee, he walked out of his room and into the day, speaking to nobody. Outside the hotel, the heat had waited, ready to pounce.
Seil Kor stood in the shadow of a palm tree across the street. “Bonjour, effendi!” he called, one hand waving in the intense blue sky, as the blindingly white suit stepped into the sun. The Frenchman, barely able to get into his stride, had found himself exuberantly propelled along the street.
“We go directly to the Vorrh,” said his acquaintance. “But on our way, I want to show you something.”
He mumbled agreement but was inwardly horrified by the idea of walking. He had had no intention of making the journey on foot, yet discovered himself being dragged down the main road of the filthy town by a stranger. His irritation began to rise with the heat of the day; the claws of his previous night were prickling, envious, and alive.
Walking on the raised wooden pavement, under arcades of curved sandstone, he was reminded of the precise architectural splendours of Bern, where he had spent some time with his mother, shopping in the days before Christmas, the snow falling without intention, light and constant. Not a single flake had touched them as they moved from shop to precious shop, the vaulted Altstadt offering a snug tunnel of civilised proportions, the pleasure of warm cinnamon wine and pine trees scenting the frosted air.
As suddenly as he’d fallen into the fantasy, the perversity of the comparison had spat back, giving him no time to relish or ponder; his own mechanism of creative invention had turned on him once again. It had begun to happen more and more by then; the brilliance of his literary deceit had a vindictive twin, who could not see why his little word game, if it was so clever, should function only in his languid fiction. Each day it had started to apply the same rules of composition and invention to his life, twisting pleasure and experience into worthless jokes. It grabbed at his memories and perverted them with elaborate motivations, succulent in their weirdness, making stupidity and pride fuck on the hallowed ground of his genius. Here, everything was made of rotting wood and was held together by the stink of collapse. It was nothing like the elegance of Switzerland; even the grand stone houses paled into insignificance.
His irritation had mounted, turning inwards with a voracious glee. It chased him with accusations: The base of the comparisons had been exhaled from some dim childish sentiment—surely it should have been beaten out of him years earlier? And what was he doing there, anyway? He never left his rooms or his car. Why had he agreed to meet this stupid savage?
So it had continued. A swarm of flies buzzed around his head, a halo of carrion, just to emphasise the point. He spluttered one out of his mouth, waving his hands about wildly to fend the others off and dropping his cane, which clattered off the boardwalk and into the soiled road. Seil Kor only laughed at his new friend’s pantomime. Indignant at the best of times, the Frenchman was entangled by an instant rage and spat abuse into the face of the ignorant black peasant. Nothing happened. Seil Kor did not register shock or anger. He hadn’t even flinched, but converted his open laugh into a serious, frowning smile and waited.
The hiss of the final expletives drained away; the Frenchman was ready to turn and stomp back to the hotel, when, with a smooth and simple action, Seil Kor took a fine, silken scarf from his head and loosely knotted it about the red and raging throat of the small man before him. The world dropped away. The blue of the silkand the sky melted together, a fresh breeze cooling his heart and soothing his mind.
With all the venom and distress gone, Seil Kor took his hand and led him on, bringing them to the doors of a nearby church. He directed his dazed companion inside, and they sat in the cool of the interior, on one of the dark, carved pews. The Frenchman tried to find words of apology, but it had been so long since he’d used them that he remained dumb.
“I have brought you here to understand the Vorrh,” said his guide. “This house of God is for those travellers who pass near its sacred heart. The Desert Fathers founded this church before one stone was laid on another, before even a single tree was cut. They came out of Egypt like the prophets of old, came to guard and wait, to protect us and those travelling through us.”
The Frenchman looked around the chapel. Images of trees dominated the iconography; trees and caves. Black, kohl-rimmed eyes stared out of a face that looked like it had been carved with an axe. Dark, shoulder-length hair and a tangled beard framed the whiteness of the Father’s staring expression. In one hand he held a Bible, in the other a staff. He sat in a cave, surrounded by the deep green of an impenetrable forest. The scene had been set on a square piece of thick and gnarled wood. The Frenchman stared at the icon while the tall black man spoke over his head.
“The Vorrh was here before man,” he said. “The hand of God swept over this land without hesitation. Trees grew in its great shadow of knowing, of abundance. The old silence of stones was replaced by the silence of wood, which is not quiet. A place for man was made, to breathe and be thankful. A garden was opened at the centre of the shadow and the Vorrh was given an occupant. He is still there.”
The Frenchman’s eyes unlatched from the gaze of the saint. He turned to look up at Seil Kor. “The Bible says the children of Adam left the sacred lands and moved into the world.”
Seil Kor made a gesture over his own head, a cross between wafting a scent and stroking a halo. “Yes, so it is written—but Adam returned.”
They continued to talk while the heat of the day prowled around the chapel. The Frenchman had given up the last remnant of sexual desire for his companion. It had been present from the start, a rich, thick musk of fantasy that had excited their meetings. He had seen no reason, initially, why he should not possess the black prince and add him to the list of urchins, sailors, and criminals who had spiced the gutter of his sexual greed. He was handsome and presumably well-endowed; his obvious poverty would have made him easy to purchase for a short time.
But the words in Seil Kor’s mouth—the certainty of his vision and the kindness in his eyes—had washed away those stewed perfumes, replacing them with an ethereal distance that shocked back the very pride and circulation of his vital cynicism. The tired ghost of his ennui had been offered colour and hope. He had begun to sense, with some fear, that Seil Kor tasted of redemption. He even found himself giving weight to the ludicrous myths of the Vorrh and the salvation that might shudder in them. They talked of the serpent sin, of deliverance, of the starry crown and the origin of purpose; Adam’s house in paradise, his generations, Eve’s punishment, and all the crimes of knowledge. During those moments, his eyes had wandered back to the saint and to his brothers lining the walls. He took in the black-and-white prints of angels; some he’d recognised as being pages from a book, torn and framed excerpts of Gustave Doré’s visions of heaven and hell. The images were solid, almost marble in appearance, so different from the glowering Desert Father patriarchs of the icons, who all had the same eyes, an impossible combination of tempera infinity and point-blank, chiselled authority. It had occurred to him that Seil Kor had younger versions of the same eyes and that they would mature into that same gaze of stern wisdom.
As the conversation came to an end, the Frenchman noticed another painting. Smaller than the rest and set in a far corner of the chapel, away from any source of light, it was made on the same dense, gessoed wood, but something had obviously gone wrong with its process, for the pigmentation of varnish had turned black. He drew closer to examine it; it was as if the picture was empty, or contained only painted night. He put his fingertips on its crusted surface, discerning a raised outline, the contours of a head, the painting’s swallowed occupant invisible in the tarry depth.
“What is this one?” he asked of his guide.
The young man looked bashful and evasive and refused to look directly at the block of darkness.
“What is this one? Please tell me.”
“Some of the stories from the Vorrh are older than man and they become confused with the Bible,” replied Seil Kor. “I think this is one of those. It is said that a being will come to protect the tree, after all the sons of Adam are dead. He is called the Black-Faced Man. This might be him.”
The Frenchman looked closer at the picture. As he did, Seil Kor turned away, saying that he thought they would need a complete day to discuss the Vorrh’s entrance, and that this day had been sidestepped to catch a different knowledge. It was the way of life, to scent the direction of the breeze or a man’s falling. That day had been about the chapel and their place in the wheel of time. He noisily picked up the Frenchman’s cane from one of the pews and gave it to him—it was warm and light. A whisk of dust swirled from its tip, looking like smoke in the shafting rays of the afternoon that waited outside. They never spoke about the tablet of darkness again.