Father gave me a jacket from his closet that I hadn’t seen before. Just my size, too. When he was younger, Father was a perfect fit as well, but as he was fond of saying, “That was long ago and far away.”
“You are the image of your father,” Mother said, coming into the bedroom. “And every inch as handsome.”
I smiled, pleased with myself. “Thank you.”
“I think he actually wears it better than I did,” Father said, studying my look. “His height gives him more stature than I ever had.”
“Yes, quite prepossessing,” Mother agreed.
“You’ll take it with you, Julian,” Father instructed. “Wear it on the train. It’ll do you a service. That jacket is not ostentatious.”
“Just proper,” Mother said.
I found a stunningly beautiful young woman in scruffy bohemian dress with gleaming jet-black hair curled down her neck. True love is the silliest of clichés, yet when she raised those cocoa-dark eyes, so enrapturing did I find her that a friendly wave was all I could offer.
Why did I love her? Those eyes stole my heart. She was sweet and sultry, then blazed with a rare fury I did not always understand, yet I was never dissuaded from pursuing that shooting star of her.
Delia was sitting by herself on the far end of the station bench. She was pie-faced with curly dark hair and wearing a pretty silk jersey top with a taffeta flounce skirt that fluttered in the gusting breeze.
“She’s terribly sweet and smart as anything. She’ll have a great future. An eight-year-old spitfire. She’ll pass us all some day.”
Freddy was a riddle master. Figures them out too quickly to have a game of it. You can’t do crossword puzzles with him or play Qantara because he knows all the words and numbers as if he invented them. Dr. Baron thought Freddy was a prodigy when they had him in elementary school at Fawcett Academy. All his teachers raved. Then he began failing classes from absence study habits and soon enough his intuitive genius was forgotten, shoved aside by the rigors of daily academics. He just wasn’t cut out at all for college life.
Poor old Freddy was no layabout, nor was he too clever for his own good. Rather, he was simply a decent, ordinary fellow who is expected by his family to be exceptional. When he realized he wasn’t, there was nothing to be done except endure his shame and pass the booze.
Warren Radelfinger was a whiz at everything he tried — except getting ahead in life. He was obviously no genius, but when he gave a fair effort and applied himself, however briefly, his achievements were exceptional and laudatory. A true champion among his peers. Yet nothing ever came of any of this. He was too glad a layabout to attend college for more than a semester, too clever to be content selling rakes at a hardware store. He slept in a room above the family garden-barn and spent his allowance on gadgets and girls. His eyes were blue as heaven, his charms apparently irresistible. Alone in his company for the evening, even the most prudish of girls were known to have performed desperately scandalous acts to win Radelfinger’s heart.
His pretty blonde, Evelyn Haskins, smelled like lemon blossoms and had gorgeous skin and the most adorable bosom, yet not one whit of grace or charm in her demeanor.
“Now, how do you two know each other?” I asked, regarding her relationship to Radelfinger.
“He ran in on me while I was making love to his dear old dad,” she replied, with a smirk.
“Oh, cut it out, Evie,” Radelfinger said, without so much as a glance over his shoulder. “That’s not funny.”
“Don’t be so moldy, Warren,” the girl snapped back at him. “I’m sure your boyfriends won’t tell a soul. Besides, I could’ve said I caught you making love to my dad.”
“Marco Grenelle is courageous and loyal. A great resource of constancy in a shifting tide of intrigue and dispute. He keeps me alive to do what needs to be done.”
He had a strange air about him that ran a needle-thin tight rope of heroism and insanity. He’s mentally disturbed. He kills people with little remorse. He was erratic but faithful. Terrific as an ally, brutal and merciless otherwise. Yet, he was also brave and rational where it happened to matter most.
A century ago, when the old Regency College was established on the hill, our great brick building held the engineering school where Dr. Hartley Mills Thayer led the earliest investigations into chromatic depth projections, the frictionless turbine, mechanical men, and other critical discoveries. Down in the stone basement stowed among the furnace and utility equipment were dozens of thick wooden crates packed to the limit with obsolete electro-mechanical inspirations and apparatus. Persistent rumors of radioactive wonder gasses from ancient wave experiments creeping into our ventilation ducts apparently kept quite a few students away from our old building, which was fine with me because it meant less commotion on the floor at night and more hot water in the morning showers.
MERton-3457. That prefix served a sector in the soot-blackened Catalan District of industrial east metropolis, inhabited by dim constellations of the dispossessed and hardly noticed, where the golden people from brighter precincts often sneaked off to be stained. There, tall old brick tenement buildings, cold and drafty in the winter dark, became blistering steam furnaces by the dog days of August. Neglected sewers backed up hourly. Rude livery stables bred rabid legions of rats and scuttling cockroaches that prowled the disordered perimeters of ash and cinderblock, so near the immortal river that man and mongrel squabbled over organisms washed ashore in the grassless lee of empty encampments mourned over and abandoned by the world beyond. Rumors of bloodless cataclysms in packing-crate apartments, bone-dust spied on the ruptured floors of barren warehouses, sidewalks haunted by pale travelers and hosts, were whispered to the greater metropolis by leaflet periodicals and wounded refugees from the eastside underground.
Marco brought me into the undercity through a long corridor of brick and limestone lit by gas lamps. Nearer, we crossed a plank walk over a thin stream of water flowing beneath our feet from some obscure subterranean source. And then ahead, voices and light and a society not so different from that I’d known above. Freddy and I were wrong about that hell of rats and filth and sewer men inhabiting bleak, black tunnels, narrow and nasty. What I had expected to be gloomy mud and stone crawlspaces and narrow passages were, in fact, a vast tunnel network of understreets realized by banished architects demolishing miles of ancient limestone to build a reverse world inhabited by people our own great metropolis had given up on and forgotten. A web of disjointed dreams.
He raised his lantern high and led me off where pale grey ivory skulls were stacked so closely to one another there was hardly room for dust in between them. More awful than Doré’s illustrations of Dante. Here, as we walked the long hideous corridor maybe half a mile or more surrounded ground to ceiling by skulls and fragments of human beings, I witnessed that record, the decline of flesh and bone, humanity undone and reconciled to this subterranean cavern, the unfortunate and impure catacombs of our great metropolis. There were thousands of skulls and fragments of skulls, and skeletal remains, probably hundreds of thousands, a ghastly gallery of the dead, a true monument, even, to eugenical madness and horror. Farther on, I saw more recent skeletons nailed to skulls and decorated like Christmas trees with glass baubles and dried fruit, suspended like ossified saints among antediluvian bones. The deeper into this catacomb we walked, the more I began to suspect we were breathing dust of the dead, resurrected this hour in our lungs. As if we were inhaling the history of a race and its decline and death, its record of demolishment.
“Anchorites from the lower catacombs,” Marco told me. “They burn Ophian incense and sing prayers for the souls of lost pilgrims whose bones haven’t yet been found. They have sheltering camps on the banks of the dark river, Potamus, that flows beneath us to the bottom of the world. Have you heard of it?” “No.” “They say its source is rainwater from iron cells and old mine shafts, leaking out of cracked and rusty pipes in the cold earth of your metropolis, a guilty reward from God for having abandoned us. No one knows if it’s true or not. Castor and Pollux once told me that to those who inhabit the lower catacombs, your moon at night is a dreaming eye, of less substance than ‘dust on the wings of a moth.’ Down below are rumors of transparent children composed solely of light and air, and alchemists brewing liquid fire for rise and revolt, and some mysterious presence in the ancient coal pits.”
For those of you who have never stepped inside the Dome, I must tell you that it is inexpressibly vast. No arrow or crossbow bolt could reach the ceiling from the floor of the Dome. Its construction exists in the mythology of the Republic, a massive edifice erected millennia ago in another world bearing faint similarity to our own. Yet we worship its grandeur with far more reverence than any of our exalted cathedrals. On the great floor, rendered in solid gold on a tile sea of indigo blue, are the twelve signs of the zodiac, representing by metaphor we who are human, gazing up at a cosmos that is both indecipherable and never-ending.
The train rolled through towns, too, small and rural. A population of ordinary citizens. Country towns. This fertile ground fed and sustained us. These rural people were our saviors in times of want. We could not eat our polished marble, our gilded edifices, or ten million paper credits. How far from the wide boulevards of the metropolis did rumors of inferior blood carry? I watched the day pass in carted bushel baskets of potatoes, and iron tractors urged through growing fields by women and men in simple cotton clothing and sun-shading hats, and wondered if these people were considered useful citizens by the Status Imperium. Was their value found in that sacred humanity each of us shared, or only in those heaps of produce trucks carried from this raw earth to our hungry markets? Did spyreosis even exist in the labored blood of those who dug our planting furrows by spade and hoe? I hadn’t considered these questions before boarding the train to Tamorina. Worlds apart are often worlds unacknowledged.
The sky was dark now and there were lights across the last fields of Fabian Province. Next were forested mountains of Tarchon Province, what the map designated as Kumari Wilderness. No towns or villages. A stronghold for our indominable enemy forty years ago until we set fire to the entire forest with batteries of incandescent artillery shells enhanced by radioactive phenotheric gas. All life in that prehistoric wilderness ceased for almost ten years.
We arrived at Crown Colony late in the day, a vast encampment on both sides of the Alban River. Ten thousand tents crowded the embankments as far as I could see to the north and south. There was a strong bridge built across to the other shore, wooden shanties along the waterfront, boat landings abounding. When war came across the Fatoma River, forty years after the Great Separation, those simple rural people who had been inhabiting these fertile lands both west and east of the Alban River for quiet centuries were unprepared for the intrusion of hatred and persistent darkness. They were swept away almost entirely in those relentless waves of battery and invasion. No hint of them survives. Rumors have them escaping downriver to Xandro and Hippisia on the southern sea and beyond. Other opinions invite words like annihilation and extermination. No one knows for certain except that fate intervened and their legacy was diverted.
The Péridon Road was muddy and rutted and rough. Not so much a road those days as a wide passage in a great field of nothingness. Hard to see even whether it had been growing fields or grassy meadows or horse and cow pastures when the war and those constant bombardments arrived. Where our two-truck convoy drove east, I saw no trees at all. No ruins. No people. No birds. No life. There was nothing but mud clear to the rainy horizon.
My boots crunched on the icy snow as I strode forward. Rather than exploring the landscape or wandering off into the birch woods, I chose to follow the simple path tramped by those people I’d seen when I first awoke. The freezing air was so still, only my boots in the snow disturbed the morning quiet. That trail they’d stamped weaved through the birch trees which appeared planted as an arbor of sorts rather than any natural growth. I looked up and noticed the sky was still patchy clouds with only traces of blue. A light feathery snowfall persisted as I walked. I adored it. Even catching a snowflake now and then on my tongue as I went along. What was this place? So tranquil. My breathing and boots were all I could hear in the birch wood. The fog of my breath was delightful, and the scent of wet woods and frozen earth and leaves.
I found a wonderful library of perhaps a hundred thousand dusty volumes. The parquet floor was covered in rose and blue oriental carpets with mahogany side tables to a dozen leather armchairs and brass lampstands for reading. The wood ceiling was coffered in hexagons except in the center where a fantastic trompe l’oeil painting eighteen feet above portrayed Prometheus descending to earth with the fire that gave birth to civilization. So ironic, I thought, how we’ve used that flame throughout the Desolation to burn each other to death and torment the very world of humanity Prometheus desired to create. If that irrepressible Titan saw us now, would he believe the suffering he endured on Mount Elbrus had been worth his ceaseless agony?
Farther on we flew. Miles and miles. I began to feel strange, wondering where on earth we were headed. No one spoke. The carriage was still as we sailed through the icy night. Nothing but snow beneath us now as the white forest thinned and disappeared. Another mile or so, and I saw the strangest sight: a great expanse of blackness ahead on the horizon. Slashing across those snowy fields of our flight. Eerie and vast. As the airship approached, I thought we’d flown to the end of the world. Endless miles of snow quit there at a border of darkness. I felt scared at last. All along our flight, I knew we were hundreds of feet above the frozen ground, but I could always see where we were, almost feel the earth below. And now suddenly we had nothing beneath us. A true black void as we floated above that last precipice of ice and snow and the commander slowed the airship.
We were met in the Great Hall by a little fellow in a grey tuxedo and tailcoat. He was mostly bald and wore a white bow tie. He stood in the middle of an intricately detailed ancient Roman mosaic of the eternal zodiac that encompassed the entire center of the immense floor. Directly overhead was a coffered half-dome of gilded rosettes with a cove and swags of marble pearls and fluttering ribbons surrounding a frescoed ceiling oculus of Lord Jupiter on a chariot brandishing a handful of fiery lightning bolts. The image was grandiose and marvelously intimidating. I presumed it had either survived the great earthquake or been meticulously restored to a former glory.
Motor traffic was absent as I reached Opera Street and went up the hill to my left. There, the sidewalk was quite steep with shops on both sides perched at a curious angle. Too narrow for autos, the old cobblestone was wheel-worn from centuries of iron-wheeled carriage and cart. More fashionable clothes shops and exotic glassware. Oculist and cartographer. Florist and fortuneteller. A sculptor’s studio. Calligraphic art of placards and posters. Pastries and spice candy from Porceliña. A fancy dress establishment for ritzy clothing. From this splendid section of the metropolis, one couldn’t have expected the nasty, polluted streets of East Catalan. How do we breathe the same air, drink the same water, and live in such different worlds? Was it truly necessary to name the poor and downtrodden, the ill and disregarded, as our mortal enemies and exclude them from all the beauty and inspiration we enjoy? Couldn’t eugenics have led the more fortunate of us to enhance the lives of those whose mornings were not as full of sunlight and goodness? Do the happy truly need to exterminate the sad to remain happy?
I looked up the address for Jimmy Potatoes on Olivette Street. I hadn’t been there since freshman year and that night our taxi had gotten lost in the mazy streets, so I had no firm memory as to where it was. Somewhere in the crazy Beuiliss District where low-rent clubs and dine-wine-danceries flourished. Thrill-a-minute halls. Perfect for college students and energetic layabouts whose enthusiasms rarely extended much beyond liquor and late-night nonsense.
We had a good look at his little apartment with that metal cot and comforter, a small cookstove and a bar of soap in a water bucket for a sink. Rags for wash cloths. No windows. One wooden chair. A strip of worn-out canvas tarpaulin for a rug and a ratty little suitcase for keeping a change of clothes. The room smelled of sweat and mold and that not too distant wet sewer below. “Do you really live here?” Nina asked Marco, as she took the chair.
We went up the stairs to the second floor. A few of the treads were sticky and I didn’t ask what from. There were people in some of the rooms. Liquor was on the guest list. I couldn’t imagine what else. We beat the elevator and Marco led me down the hall to the fifth room on the left. He knocked twice in rapid succession, paused a moment, then knocked once more and went inside. I took a look down the hall as the elevator arrived, then followed Marco into the room. Dingy would have been a flattery. Drab peeling wallpaper, soot-stained and sad. A creaky nightstand with an old iron lamp, a ratty rug in the middle of the small square room. A metal tray of vials, one sea-blue and the other brown, and a pair of syringes. A pile of leather straps. And three bodies. One facedown on the iron bed. Two on the floor.
We arrived at the sewer beneath the old latrines. A narrow corridor had been cut through the sandstone, just wide enough to permit the huge crowd of children to escape down into the Faubourg tunnel. The machine that had carved it out rested off to one side in the dark, like some immense food grinder but without the handle. I saw the motor running, yet the iron contraption was almost entirely silent. A frictionless turbine. Only fresh dirt falling from its maw caused any sound at all. Very eerie. The area was thick with a foul-smelling dust. Dried excrement? Dead vermin? Sweat? Probably all of that.
I wondered how long I was expected to wander in this labyrinth of mysteries. Our vast Republic was neurotic and disproportionate in its duty to citizens across our varied provinces near and far. The war was more than disruptive and cruel to those without high leather offices at Prospect Square. Our imperious disgrace infiltrated the souls of so many people, young and old, among hundreds of disparate cultural origins and persuasions, how did we possibly expect to purge the epic disease of eugenical dogma that had been systematically inculcated across the decades throughout this nation of individuals? Was it even reasonable to imagine anymore? Because, when wars end, then what? Do all wounds truly heal? Does every pain and resentment die away in its own moment? Mr. Sutro suggested that generations must pass before such memories as our war against the unfortunates may vanish, even though vanish they will. And perhaps that’s true. Who would deny that hope? Yet what of us now? Was there truly light ahead? Where in this dark troubled labyrinth were those candles lit?
Trecéirea had a mild climate and a most cheerful and pleasant populace. The town where Nina and I settled with Delia and Freddy was called Musset. It was a small fishing village with pretty painted houses and crushed-stone streets. We lived in a green two-story house at the top of a lush tree-shaded lane a couple of blocks from the shore where Delia could walk Goliath to the beach and gather seashells for her bedroom collection. Our rooms were upstairs, and Freddy took his on the bottom floor off the kitchen facing a dooryard of orange and lemon trees. No one explained how we were able to be there, but we supposed it had been arranged for us.
Monte Schulz, who has been a writer for over forty years, published his first novel in 1990. He then spent ten years writing a thousand page novel of the Jazz Age – published in three parts by Fantagraphics Books (2009–2012). Schulz’s most recent projects include his novel Crossing Eden, published in 2015, and “Seraphonium,” an album and live performance, for which he served as composer, songwriter, and producer. Schulz has been teaching at SBWC since 2001 and became the conference’s owner in 2010.
Deborah Kohan, Partner | Finn Partners
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What a brilliant combination of suspense, interesting characters, still much to learn about society, etc. Really interesting. Really well written. Masterfully plotted.
It’s a page turner, but also gorgeously written. Very exciting. Endless twists and turns.
It’s just so fully formed and expansive, it’s remarkable. It’s as beautifully written as everything you do but also completely different... also just loved the details and richness of the descriptive language in building the world.
The book is like several different books/genres in one – the grim naturalism of the Desolation, the gorgeous fantasy of the Elysium section.