There was noise in the shadowy, smoke-hazed pub: laughter and mundane talk in a dozen variations of the country’s glottal and sonorous language.
Uploaded: May 19, 2012
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There was music: the effortless burlesque of a drinker’s muse and her trio of falsely-incompetent musicians. She was good. They were good: playing clever slapstick against her presumed irony, wit, and sarcasm; Ilíás knew a little about local culture, but the song bore humorous depths he scarcely understood. He might have enjoyed it more…under different circumstances, with company less intimidating than Anéa. But now—
“You came this entire way,” Anéa said. “Because of a book?”
There was something cryptic, insidious, and shadowy in her tea-dark eyes: something bloody; something voracious. Her steady and unblinking gaze was that of a cunning and ancient durwan: the predatory, triplicate gaze of Cerberus, or the stone-sculptor glare of a thousand medusine gorgons. Her smiles, though free and frequent, gave him little warmth.
He blinked and glanced away from her, afraid—he knew—to catch his own reflection (twice!) in her eyes.
“A science book?” she asked with one eyebrow cocked. “An anatomy?”
“It’s something else,” he said, unsure of how to explain it. A blush warmed the crests of his ears.
The book—200 pages of expensive velum, bound in a cunning imitation of leather—offered no easy explanations of itself, or the lust he felt in reading it. The text spoke as anyone might attest, but only in the silent, letter-bound voice of its author. There were illustrations: sonographs and charts, meticulous drawings and phototypes of eccentric geographies and outlandish fauna. They said little, as well. And so now—hemmed in a drinking booth with troubling company and distracting, naughty music—he considered the book at his elbow. He found nothing in its titled self-definition as the expansion of a venerable treatise by Döner. He looked away from the verbose title and author’s name; he braced himself against the harsh, existential spasm the book conjured.
“You’re not the only one,” she said. “So many people come: to see the gods, to have an adventure. But you’re the first,” she said, “to follow the written words of a scientist.” If there was laughter in her voice, he couldn’t hear it.
“I doubt that,” he said. “There’s a long tradition of following in the footsteps of author-explorers. Since Döner crossed the Seas of Horus after a text by Hieronymus, people have been going places and learning things.”
“You’re so serious,” Anéa said, and here she laughed, losing the sound in a sympathetic flurry of coarse guffaws launched (like ungainly and ponderous birds) from a trio of men at the main bar: the muse, he saw, teased them mercilessly, raising her petticoats above ankles made vivid with immodest tattoos. “Oran warned me about that: your brooding poet’s temperament.”
Ilíás nearly flinched Oran’s assessment of him. His gaze, however, remained in its downward cast, locked in the welcome distraction of age-buffed wood-grain. The table between them was old and etched with the spastic bravado of crude, declarative graffiti and gouges worn smooth. The table, he thought, was a troubling sea: its waves and its currents a muddled perplexity of amateur calligraphies. His mug of frothy beer was like an up-thrust of bracken coral: a treachery to imaginary table-sailing ships, and to his mood, alike. His book was the only comfort though it—in her presence—had grown into a silent and mysterious, near-ominous thing.
“Oran’s a good friend,” he said. “But his judgment of character is sometimes harsh.”
“Oran’s a good friend,” she echoed. “And I trust his judgments of character and of other things. He called you serious—and you are. But he also said that you’re kind and sensitive. It would be nice if you’d smile more, if you’d trust that I’m not some god-maddened harpy, out to steal your soul from first smile that opens your face.”
If her plan had been to educe an emotion, it worked. He smiled. He laughed. And buried the display behind a sip of beer.
She smiled, though her eyes—as he glimpsed them—maintained their dark and probing intensity.
“You’ve known Oran for a long time?” he asked.
A shrug. A sip of beer. “We grew up together, but he moved away to Mági’ár-Mági’árï: to study, to become a scholar and—as he said to me on our last night together—a poet.”
Ilíás nodded. “I met Laetus when I met Oran. Laetus wasn’t an author at that time. He wanted to be an imagist, an explorer. He never mentioned poetry. We were friends for a time. We were…” his words broke and stumbled over themselves, falling into a puddle of silence. “He was—”
(—a knot congealed in the pit of his throat—)
“—he left before completing his studies. No warning. No word, at least not at first. But five years later, he’d sent me a letter, explaining himself in only the vaguest of terms. In it, he told me he’d crossed the Inward Nethers, and was living at the Foot of Saturn. There was a post-mark, from Ööná. Five years later, I saw that he’d scribed a book. He’d only written to me, once…but…”
—the rest challenged his attempts at open admission, and so he faded into silence and stole another sip of beer.
As if aware of his struggle to speak, Anéa sat in patient silence, one finger tracing the rim of her mug. “He’s written many books,” she said, at last. “But, of course, his first is his most famous, I suspect.”
“I’m a scribner, now…an author of biographies. Laetus Cedem is famous, for all that he’s written…at least here, and as far away as my own tiny country, but there are no biographies of him: no real ones. He’s a mystery: as inscrutable as the gods he has captured with such zoological precision.”
“And you want to be his biographer.”
“I want to find him. I want to speak to him.”
“And I can help?”
“You know him. Oran was rather adamant on that point.”
“I know of him.”
“You know where he is.”
“I know where went. Once. There’s a difference, Ilíás. He may not be there now.”
It was a shock to hear his name, spoken so casually by a half-stranger; he’d spent the day with her, and yet—perhaps for his fear of her eyes—it felt as if he’d met her mere moments ago.
“I don’t know if he’s still there. You and I are alike in this way: we’ve each known the oh-so-mysterious Laetus Cedem, but only for a short, abrupt time. I can guide you to Ööná and trace his footsteps with you; I can take you to the hill region beyond. I’ve wrangled a few gods in my time; I’ve even sonographed a few of their clicks and whistles, and so I can help you with that as well. I can do a lot, but I don’t know if I can deliver Laetus Cedem to you. I think if he wanted that, you’d know where he is now…and so would I.”
Ilíás heard—he thought—a half-note of injury in her tone, and he wondered at the source of it.
“Laetus was always impulsive,” Oran said, once. “A real knight of wands—all fire and itchy inclinations. You’re a fool, Ilíás, to go after him…but if you do…if you get as far away as Saturn—the Foot, or the Slope—I can introduce you to someone: a friend. Her name is Anéa.”
“You know more than I do,” Ilíás said, quietly and with as much fortitude as he could muster. “You know the environment…and I need a guide. If not you, then someone you trust. I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Oran’s already said as much.”
“And nothing. I told him I’d meet with you. I told him I’d think about it. I’m still thinking, Ilíás…because you’re asking something difficult. Not because of where your mysterious author of sonographic anatomies has gone, or what he’s likely gotten himself into, but because of who he is. We’ve both known him and we’ve both lost him—in some way or another—and so I question the wisdom of going after him: to talk, to pick his brain for enough details to fill an extensive biography.
“I’ll tell you what I told Oran. I don’t like the idea of searching out that particular man from my past, but I’ll think about it.
“I’ve probably assumed more than I should, and I certainly know that I’ve revealed more than I’d like. That’s the truth behind this matter, Ilíás; I promised Oran I’d help, and meeting you today is a part of that promise. I will help; but I’m not so certain I can do as much as you’re expecting. I want you to understand that. I want to know that you’re at least willing to admit that some things might not happen.”
He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, clenching his beer-mug to still the trembles threatening his fingers. “I know,” he said, “that it’s a long-shot, that I probably won’t get to see him. But there are other things, too. Insight. At least there’s that.”
Anéa nodded, considering the depths of the gold-tinted fermentation in her heavy, glass mug. “Insight,” she echoed, as if tasting the word and probing it—with the tip of her tongue—for truth.
“Alright,” she said, with overt deliberation. “I’ll think about that too.”
* * *
Oran had made suggestions:
—to stay with this friend…
—to stay with that one, or another.
“I have a cousin in Hlir; that’s not so far from where you’d want to go. It’s in the foothills of Saturn, beneath the Westerly Slope. It borders Lhix, the last reasonable outpost before you reach the wilds.”
“I could go directly to Ööna,” Ilíás had said.
“You’d spend a lot more money that way, and what if nothing comes of it?”
Oran offered a whole list of reputable names: a prodigious network of family, of friends made and maintained since before his student’s journey to the co-mingled republics of Mági’ár and Mági’árï.
“I’d vouch for any of them,” he’d said. “All of them.”
Anéa’s name crowned that list.
“She’s the closest to me, and yes, she’s more than casual in her acquaintance with your impetuous and truant friend.” He’d smiled. “The world, it would seem, is still small enough for coincidence.” And he’d laughed, as if his statement was the punch-line to some obscure joke.
But Ilíás had chosen a hostel, instead.
Now, with the taste of beer on his breath and the remembrance of tavern-song and babbled talk bleeding through his thoughts, he took quiet comfort in his choice.
There was safety among strangers.
There was the comfort of distraction, and protection—he thought—from the casual, predation of Anéa’s dark, confrontational gaze.
Where the tavern jostled with music and laughter, the hostel (one floor above the expansive, crowded dorms) was quiet. Both were foreign places, devoid of any familiar references.
He drew a bath, coaxing steamy water from the metallic clank and clatter of aged and intractable pipes. He soaped himself clean with thoughts of Laetus flashing though his mind. Ancient history. Hazy. He’d tried to recall Laetus’s face: the smell of him, but only the memory of his voice came with any semblance of clarity. As always, he remembered the brisk notes of laughter at the punch-lines of acerbic jokes and a few moments of wordless intensity. He remembered quieter times: one in particular, of himself—
—posed, like some hero of classic mythology: Eértöš (distraught) with the severed head of his beloved cradled in his arm. The head, Ilíás remembered, had been stolen from a doctor’s anatomical mannequin. He’d held pose after pose with little effort, stealing moments of relaxation as Laetus adjusted his camera, loading photoplates for the capture of light (and shadow, shape and implication) and unloading them for development. Later. He’d watched Laetus at work, pretending not to see what was happening between them, what he’d inspired below Laetus’s belt. He’d pretended not to feel a stirring south of his own navel and a cloying echo of the amatory surge in his blood…
I want… he’d thought, but he never said, never gave voice to any of the desire he felt whenever he watched Laetus at work or at rest, whenever he crept into Laetus’ room in the middle of a day, to lie in rumpled bedding, sniffing a tunic or a sash, making love, if not to Laetus directly, then at least to his scent.
It all came back to him, in the bath, and his hands—of their own accord, or impelled by a deferred past—performed delicate, rubbing indecencies ending in a bitten-off whimper. His toes curled, splayed, and curled again until their joints popped, the crests of each emerged just above the faint-rippled surface of bath-clouded water.
No one heard:
—but Ilíás blushed, anyway.
Now, on the surface of his rented room’s bed, he leafed—meticulously—through the pages of Laetus’ sizable text: pouring over the phototypes and searching out the signs of Laetus’s intrinsic style. (There was a way, Laetus had always explained, of capturing light, of capturing shadow, and creating implications, and Ilíás knew that such an aesthetic ruled even the driest of Laetus’ visual, scientific studies.) Are there echoes of myself as the grieving Eértöš, my pretend-lover’s head, cradled in my arm, while I stand—engorged and in lust—in a toga, borrowed from some actor?
He’d memorized salient portions of the text and recalled them, as his eyes drank in shapes of outlandish animals: gargantuan, reptiles, their heads burdened with sleek, back-swept crests; they walked like men, on muscular, hind legs, their forepaws like delicate, feminine hands. Their tails—like tapering tree trunks—stretched behind them, parallel to the ground like street-fighter’s knives; their mouths, he saw, were like the flattened bills of ducks and by Laetus’ deposition, they were reptilian in shape alone. Their blood was warm. There was something avian in their shape, something alien, their bone-crests recalling the serene, hinged curve of a parasol’s rib.
There were mad glutinous, amoeboid things as well; whole colonies of amorphous shapes, each the size of a molten boulder. According to Laetus near-poetic descriptions, they ambled about their simple animal affairs by extruding locomotive psuedopods from considerable colloid bulk, sensing their environment by budding photo-receptors like nodules of egg-white, solidifying—and then dissolving—in hot, steaming broth. Their eyes, Laetus ventured, were of possible significance to the makers of cameras as they implied a different manner in which a different ocular perception of light might enhance the art of photographic capture.
These curious fauna were a tertiary concern, however. The bulk of Laetus’ anatomy concerned itself with the gods at home on the jagged, mountainous slopes—gods like anemones in strange, ocean depths, or like things drawn from the shadows of forgotten nightmares: gods, as well, like the crest-burdened reptiles with their delicate hands and ferocious lumps of muscle heaving beneath their pebbled flesh. They were, according to Laetus’s observations, an eyeless, isomorphic species: pretenders…imposters...near-perfect doppelgangers. Their existence was a complex boondoggle with reasons known only to Nature. They, like their land-dwelling-anemone cousins, drew themselves from the same oceans of gooey primordium, differentiating themselves, as they evolved, in shape alone.
The zoölogical gods, at home in the foothills and on the slopes of Saturn, are alike in the mysteries they impart. Those like flowers hewn from moist and alien flesh were like their pseudo-saurian cousins: eyeless and inscrutable, even as they stand before an observer, in plain, shameless sight…
Laetus’ remembered voice wove through that written recitation, only it was the voice of Laetus, younger, and still in awe of the strange republics of Mági’ár-Mádi’árï.
Sudden thunder broke his reverie:
—a knock at the door. Three solid raps of knuckles on wood.
The memory of Laetus voice flinched into silence as Ilíás closed the book. He shifted, rose from bed, and padded across the worn, hardwood floor, curling his naked toes away from the perpetual implications of unreadable grime worked into the wood-grain: the foot-treads of previous guests from places unimagined.
He opened the door, expecting the hostel-mistress with some announcement, or perhaps an errant guest.
He flinched at the sight of a dark and penetrating stare set within the matrix of a face darker than his own, a wooden face—for its color.
“I’ve been thinking since we left the tavern,” Anéa said, by way of greeting.
Ilíás nodded, stepping back a pace. He opened the door wider, and bowed his head in a gesture that was foreign to this room. You bowed your head when welcoming entry into your place of shelter, but that was a Mági’ar custom: an alien thing, here. “Come in,” he said, quietly, and kept his gaze locked in the space bordered by his naked feet.
“I know that you’re anxious to get moving, to go on your wild chase, and so I thought I’d come—tonight—and tell you that I’ll guide you. There’s a train leaving for Lhix tomorrow morning: at the Sparrow’s Hour. Another train will leave from Lhix within a reasonable time after that. We can reach Ööna by the Hour of the Fox. I’ve made arrangements, by televox, for accommodations.”
Ilíás felt a sudden flutter in the hollow of his chest: a breath-stealing fear-thing. A lump formed in his throat. “Tomorrow,” he said, his gaze rising to meet the perpetual inquisition shining from Anéa’s predatory eyes. “So soon?”
“We can leave when you’re ready. I simply thought—”
“No,” Ilíás said, perhaps too quickly. “Tomorrow’s fine. I’ll be ready.”
Anéa nodded, scrutinizing him, he imagined, and for a moment he saw himself as she must have seen him: a pale, lanky dark-hair, a foreigner standing barefoot and in bed-clothes in the color of sun-bleached sand.
“Have you eaten?” he asked, unsure—in the howling silence of the moment—if he should extend ostentatious courtesies to this half-stranger, or if he should simply accept her news and allow her on her way.
“I’ve eaten,” she said.
“There’s a bar. Would you care for a drink?”
Anéa smiled. “Only if you were having one for yourself; I wouldn’t want to impose on your solitary time.
He shrugged, unsure of exactly why. “It might help,” he said, “if I had a drink. It’ll take only a moment for me to dress.”
Anéa nodded. “All right,” she said. “A drink sounds nice. But only one. I have packing to accomplish and last-minute arrangements to make.”
(…to be continued.)
There is, more to this tale, as you can see, and I’ll be posting the two follow-up parts immediately (well, with a day in between each.) I hope that you’ve enjoyed this dip into the memory-haunted life of Iíás, and—as always—thank you for reading, viewing, and commenting, and I hope you’re all having a great week/end.