Excerpt from Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen
published March 2006
by Bantam Spectra
OVER BREAKFAST, HIS SPARSE NEEDS TENDED TO BY A gaunt waiter who looked like a malaria victim, Dradin examined his dull gray map. Toast without jam for him, nothing richer like sausages frying in their own fat, or bacon with white strips of lard. The jungle climate had, from the start, made his bowels and bladder loosen up and pour forth their bile like the sludge of rain in the most deadly of monsoon seasons. Dradin had avoided rich foods ever since, saying no to such jungle delicacies as fried grasshopper, boiled pig, and a local favorite that baked huge black slugs into their shells.
From dirty gray table-clothed tables on either side, war veterans coughed and harrumphed, their bloodshot eyes perked into semi-aware ness by the sight of Dradin's map. Treasure? War on two fronts? Mad, drunken charges into the eyeteeth of the enemy? No doubt. Dradin knew their type, for his father was the same, if with an academic bent. The map would be a mystery of the mind to his father.
Ignoring their stares, Dradin found the religious quarter on the map, traced over it with his index finger. It resembled a bird's eye view of a wheel with interconnecting spokes. No more a "quarter" than drawn. Cadimon Signal's mission stood near the center of the spokes, snuggled into a corner between the Church of the Fisherman and the Cult of the Seven-Edged Star. Even looking at it on the map made Dradin nervous. To meet his religious instructor after such a time. How would Cadimon have aged after seven years? Perversely, as far afield as Dradin had gone, Cadimon Signal had, in that time, come closer to the center, his home, for he had been born in Ambergris. At the religious institute Cadimon had extolled the city's virtues and, to be fair, its vices many times after lectures, in the common hall. His voice, hollow and echoing against the black marble archways, gave a raspy voice to the gossamerthin cherubim carved into the swirl of white marble ceilings. Dradin had spent many nights along with Anthony Toliver listening to that voice, surrounded by thousands of religious texts on shelves gilded with gold leaf.
The question that most intrigued Dradin, that guided his thoughts and bedeviled his nights, was this: Would Cadimon Signal take pity on a former student and find a job for him? He hoped, of course, for a missionary position, but failing that a position which would not break his back or tie him in knots of bureaucratic red tape. Dad was an unlikely ally in this, for Dad had recommended Dradin to Cadimon and also recommended Cadimon to Dradin.
Before the fuzzy beginnings of Dradin's memory, Dad had, when still young and thin and mischievous, invited Cadimon over for tea and conversation, surrounded in Dad's study by books, books, and more books. Books on culture and civilization, religion and philosophy. They would, or so Dad told Dradin later, debate every topic imaginable, and some that were unimaginable, distasteful, or all too real until the hours struck mid night, one o'clock, two o'clock, and the lanterns dimmed to an ironic light, brackish and ill-suited to discussion. Surely this bond would be enough? Surely Cadimon would look at him and see the father in the son?
After breakfast, necklace and map in hand, Dradin wandered into the religious quarter, known by the common moniker of Pejora's Folly after Midan Pejora, the principal early architect, to whose credit or discredit could be placed the slanted walls, the jumble of Occidental and accidental, northern and southern, baroque and pure jungle, styles. Buildings battled for breath and space like centuries-slow soldiers in brick-to-brick combat. To look into the revolving spin of a kaleidoscope while heavily intoxicated, Dradin thought, would not be half so bad. The rain from the night before took the form of sunlit droplets on plants, windowpanes, and cobblestones that wiped away the dull and dusty veneer of the city. Cats preened and tiny hop toads hopped while dead sparrows lay in furrows of water, beaten down by the storm's ferocity.
He snorted in disbelief as he observed followers of gentle Saint Solon the Decrepit placing the corpses of rain victims such as the sparrows into tiny wooden coffins for burial. In the jungle, deaths occurred in such thick numbers that one might walk a mile on the decayed carcasses, the white clean bones of deceased animals, and after a time even the most fastidious missionary gave the crunching sound not a second thought.
As he neared the mission, Dradin tried to calm himself by breathing in the acrid scent of votive candles burning from alcoves and crevices and doorways. He tried to imagine the richness of his father's conversations with Cadimonthe plethora of topics discussed, the righteous and pious denials and arguments. When his father mentioned those conversations, the man would shake off the weight of years, his voice light and his eyes moist with nostalgia. If only Cadimon remembered such encounters with similar enthusiasm.
The slap-slap of punished pilgrim feet against the stones of the street pulled him from his reverie. He stood to one side as twenty or thirty mendicants slapped on past, cleansing their sins through their calluses, on their way to one of a thousand shrines. In their calm but blank gaze, their slack mouths, Dradin saw the shadow of his mother's face, and he wondered what she had done while his father and Cadimon talked. Gone to sleep? Finished up the dishes? Sat in bed and listened through the wall?
At last, Dradin found the Mission of Cadimon Signal. Set back from the street, the mission remained almost invisible among the sky ward-straining cathedrals surrounding itremarkable only for the emptiness, the silence, and the swirl of swallows skimming through the air like weightless trapeze artists. The building that housed the mission was an old tin-roofed warehouse reinforced with mortar and brick, opened up from the inside with ragged holes for skylights, which made Dradin wonder what they did when it rained. Let it rain on them, he supposed.
Christened with fragmented mosaics that depicted saints, monks, and martyrs, the enormous doorway lay open to him. All around, acolytes frantically lifted sandbags and long pieces of timber, intent on barricading the entrance, but none challenged him as he walked up the steps and through the gateway; no one, in fact, spared him a second glance, so focused were they on their efforts.
Inside, Dradin went from sunlight to shadows, his footfalls hollow in the silence. A maze of paths wound through lush green Occidental-style gardens. The gardens centered around rock-lined pools cut through by the curving fins of corpulent carp. Next to the pools lay the eroded ruins of ancient, pagan temples, which had been reclaimed with gaily-colored paper and splashes of red, green, blue, and white paint. Among the temples and gardens and pools, unobtrusive as lamp posts, acolytes in gray habits toiled, removing dirt, planting herbs, and watering flowers. The air had a metallic color and flavor to it and Dradin heard the buzzing of bees at the many poppies, the soft scull-skithing as acolytes wielded their scythes against encroaching weeds.
The ragged, blue grass-fringed trail led Dradin to a raised mound of dirt on which stood a catafalque, decorated with gold leaf and the legend "Saint Philip the Philanderer" printed along its side. In the shadow of the catafalque, amid the grass, a gardener dressed in dark green robes planted lilies he had set on a nearby bench. Atop the catafalque, halting Dradin in mid-step, stood Signal. He had changed since Dradin had last seen him, for he was bald and gaunt, with white tufts of hair sprouting from his ears. A studded dog collar circled his withered neck. But most disturbing, un less one wished to count a cask of wine that dangled from his left handno doubt shipped in by those reliable if questionable purveyors of spirits Hoegbotton & Sons, perhaps even held, caressed, by his lovethe man was stark staring naked! The object of no one's desire bobbed like a length of flaccid purpling sausage, held in some semblance of erectitude by the man's right hand, the hand currently engaged in an up-and-down motion that brought great pleasure to its owner.
"Yes, who is it now?" said the gardener.
"I beg your pardon."
"I said," repeated the gardener with infinite patience, as if he really would not mind saying it a third, a fourth, or a fifth time, "I said ‘Yes, who is it now?'"
"It's Dradin. Dradin Kashmir. Who are you?" Dradin kept one eye on the naked man atop the catafalque.
"I'm Cadimon Signal, of course," the gardener said, patiently pulling weeds, potting lilies. Pull, pot, pull. "Welcome to my mission, Dradin. It's been a long time." The small, green-robed man in front of Dradin had mannerisms and features indistinguishable from any wizened beggar on Albumuth Boulevard, but looking closer Dradin thought he could see a certain resemblance to the man he had known in Morrow. Perhaps.
"Who is he, then?" Dradin pointed to the naked man, who was now ejaculating into a rose bush.
"He's a Living Saint. A professional holy man. You should remember that from your theology classes. I know I must have taught you about Living Saints. Unless, of course, I switched that with a unit on Dead Martyrs. No other kind, really. That's a joke, Dradin. Have the decency to laugh."
The Living Saint, no longer aroused, but quite tired, lay down on the smooth cool stone of the catafalque and began to snore.
"But what's a Living Saint doing here? And naked?" "I keep him here to discomfort my creditors who come calling. Lots of up keep to this place. My, you have changed, haven't you?"
"I thought I had gone deaf. I said you've changed. Please, ignore my Living Saint. As I said, he's for the creditors. Just trundle him out, have him spill his seed, and they don't come back."
"Yes, I've said that already." Cadimon stopped potting lilies and stood up, examined Dradin from crown to stirrups. "You've been to the jungle. A pity, really. You were a good student."
"I have come back from the jungle, if that's what you mean. I took fever."
"No doubt. You've changed most definitely. Here, hold a lily bulb for me." Cadimon crouched down once more. Pull, pot, pull.
"You seem . . . you seem somehow less imposing. But healthier."
"No, no. You've grown taller, that's all. What are you now that you are no longer a missionary?"
"No longer a missionary?" Dradin said, and felt as if he were drowning, and here they had only just started to talk.
"Yes. Or no. Lily please. Thank you. Blessed things require so much dirt. Good for the lungs exercise is. Good for the soul. How is your father these days? Such a shame about your mother. But how is he?"
"I haven't seen him in over three years. He wrote me while I was in the jungle and he seemed to be doing well."
"Mmmm. I'm glad to hear it. Your father and I had the most wonderful conversations a long time ago. A very long time ago. Why, I can remember sitting up at his houseyou just in a crib then, of courseand debating the aesthetic value of the Golden Spheres until"
"I've come here looking for a job."
Silence. Then Cadimon said, "Don't you still work for"
"I quit." Emphasis on quit, like the pressure on an egg to make it crack just so.
"Did you now? I told you you were no longer a missionary. I haven't changed a bit from those days at the academy, Dradin. You didn't recognize me because you've changed, not I. I'm the same. I do not change. Which is more than you can say for the weather around here."
It was time, Dradin decided, to take control of the conversation. It was not enough to counter-punch Cadimon's drifting dialogue. He bent to his knees and gently placed the rest of the lilies in Cadimon's lap.
"Sir," he said. "I need a position. I have been out of my mind with the fever for three months and now, only just recovered, I long to return to the life of a missionary."
"Determined to stick to a point, aren't you?" Cadimon said. "A point stickler. A stickler for rules. I remember you. Always the sort to be shocked by a Living Saint rather than amused. Rehearsed rather than spontaneous. Oh well."
"Cadimon . . . "
"Can you cook?"
"Cook? I can boil cabbage. I can heat water."
Cadimon patted Dradin on the side of his stomach. "So can a hedge hog, my dear. So can a hedgehog, if pressed. No, I mean cook as in the Cooks of Kalay, who can take nothing more than a cauldron of bilge water and a side of beef three days old and tough as calluses and make a dish so succulent and sweet it shames the taste buds to eat so much as a carrot for days afterwards. You can't cook, can you?"
"What does cooking have to do with missionary work?"
"Oh, ho. I'd have thought a jungle veteran would know the answer to that! Ever heard of cannibals? Eh? No, that's a joke. It has nothing to do with missionary work. There." He patted the last of the lilies and rose to sit on the bench, indicating with a wave of the hand that Dradin should join him. Dradin sat down on the bench next to Cadimon.
"Surely, you need experienced missionaries?"
Cadimon shook his head. "We don't have a job for you. I'm sorry. You've changed, Dradin."
"But you and my father . . . " Blood rose to Dradin's face. For he could woo until he turned purple, but without a job, how to fund such adventures in pocketbook as his new love would entail?
"Your father is a good man, Dradin. But this mission is not made of money. I see tough times ahead."
Pride surfaced in Dradin's mind like a particularly ugly crocodile. "I am a good missionary, sir. A very good missionary. I have been a missionary for over five years, as you know. And, as I have said, I am just now out of the jungle, having nearly died of fever. Several of my colleagues did not recover. The woman. The woman . . . "
But he trailed off, his skin goose-pimpled from a sudden chill. Layeville, Flay, Stern, Thaw, and Krug had all gone mad or died under the onslaught of green, the rain and the dysentery, and the savages with their poison arrows. Only he had crawled to safety, the mush of the jungle floor beneath his chest a-murmur with leeches and dung bugs and "molly twelve-step" centipedes. A trek into and out of hell, and he could not even now remember it all, or wanted to remember it all.
"Paugh! Dying of fever is easy. The jungle is easy, Dradin. I could survive, frail as I am. It's the city that's hard. If you'd only bother to observe, you'd see the air is overripe with missionaries. You can't defecate out a window without fouling a brace of them. The city bursts with them. They think that the festival signals opportunity, but the opportunity is not for them! No, we need a cook, and you cannot cook."
Dradin's palms slickened with sweat, his hands shaking as he examined them. What now? What to do? His thoughts circled and circled around the same unanswerable question: How could he survive on the coins he had yet on his person and still woo the woman in the window? And he must woo her; he did not feel his heart could withstand the blow of not pursuing her.
"I am a good missionary," Dradin repeated, looking at the ground. "What happened in the jungle was not my fault. We went out looking for converts and when I came back the compound was overrun."
Dradin's breaths came quick and shallow and his head felt light. Suffocating. He was suffocating under the weight of jungle leaves closing over his nose and mouth.
Cadimon sighed and shook his head. In a soft voice he said, "I am not unsympathetic," and held out his hands to Dradin. "How can I explain my self? Maybe I cannot, but let me try. Perhaps this way: Have you converted the Flying Squirrel People of the western hydras? Have you braved the frozen wastes of Lascia to convert the ice-cubelike Skamoo?"
"What did you say?"
"Then we can't use you. At least not now."
Dradin's throat ached and his jaw tightened. Would he have to beg, then? Would he have to become a mendicant himself? On the catafalque, the Living Saint had begun to stir, mumbling in his half-sleep.
Cadimon rose and put his hand on Dradin's shoulder. "If it is any consolation, you were never really a missionary, not even at the religious academy. And you are definitely not a missionary now. You are . . . something else. Extraordinary, really, that I can't put my finger on it."
"You insult me," Dradin said, as if he were the gaudy figurehead on some pompous yacht sailing languid on the Moth.
"Th at is not my intent, my dear. Not at all."
"Perhaps you could give me money. I could repay you."
"Now you insult me. Dradin, I cannot lend you money. We have no money. All the money we collect goes to our creditors or into the houses and shelters of the poor. We have no money, nor do we covet it."
"Cadimon," Dradin said. "Cadimon, I'm desperate. I need money."
"If you are desperate, take my adviceleave Ambergris. And before the festival. It's not safe for priests to be on the streets after dark on festival night. There have been so many years of calm. Ha! I tell you, it can't last."
"It wouldn't have to be much money. Just enough to"
Cadimon gestured toward the entrance. "Beg from your father, not from me. Leave. Leave now."
Dradin, taut muscles and clenched fists, would have obeyed Cadimon out of respect for the memory of authority, but now a vision rose into his mind like the moon rising over the valley the night before. A vision of the jungle, the dark green leaves with their veins like spines, like long, delicate bones. The jungle and the woman and all of the dead . . .
"I will not."
Cadimon frowned. "I'm sorry to hear you say that. I ask you again, leave."
Lush green, smothering, the taste of dirt in his mouth; the smell of burning, smoke curling up into a question mark. "Cadimon, I was your student. You owe me the"
"Living Saint!" Cadimon shouted. "Wake up, Living Saint."
The Living Saint uncurled himself from his repose atop the catafalque.
"Living Saint," Cadimon said, "dispense with him. No need to be gentle." And, turning to Dradin: "Goodbye, Dradin. I am very sorry."
The Living Saint, spouting insults, jumped from the catafalque andhis penis purpling and flaccid as a sea anemone, brandished menacinglyran toward Dradin, who promptly took to his heels, stumbling through the ranks of the gathered acolytes and hearing directly behind him as he navigated the blue grass trail not only the Living Saint's screams of "Piss off ! Piss off , you great big baboon!" but also Cadimon's distant shouts of: "I'll pray for you, Dradin. I'll pray for you." And, then, too close, much too close, the unmistakable hot and steamy sound of a man relieving himself, followed by the hands of the Living Saint clamped down on his shoulder blades, and a much swifter exit than he had hoped for upon his arrival, scuffing his fundament, his pride, his dignity.
"And stay out!"
When Dradin stopped running he found himself on the fringe of the religious quarter, next to an emaciated macadamia salesman who cracked jokes like nuts. Out of breath, Dradin put his hands on his hips. His lungs strained for air. Blood rushed furiously through his chest. He could al most persuade himself that these symptoms were only the aftershock of exertion, not the aftershock of anger and desperation. Actions unbecoming a missionary. Actions unbecoming a gentleman. What might love next drive him to?
Determined to regain his composure, Dradin straightened his shirt and collar, then continued on his way in a manner he hoped mimicked the stately gait of a mid-level clergy member, to whom all such earthly things were beneath and below. But the bulge of red veins at his neck, the stiff ness of fingers in claws at his sides, these clues gave him away, and knowing this made him angrier still. How dare Cadimon treat him as though he were practically a stranger! How dare the man betray the bond between his father and the church!
More disturbing, where were the agents of order when you needed them? No doubt the city had ordinances against public urination. Al though that presupposed the existence of a civil authority, and of this mythic beast Dradin had yet to convince himself. He had not seen a single blue, black, or brown uniform, and certainly not filled out with a body lodged within its fabric, a man who might symbolize law and order and thus give the word flesh. What did the people of Ambergris do when thieves and molesters and murderers traversed the thoroughfares and alleyways, the underpasses and the bridges? But the thought brought him back to the mushroom dwellers and their alcove shrines, and he abandoned it, a convulsion traveling from his chin to the tips of his toes. Per haps the jungle had not yet relinquished its grip.
Finally, shoulders bowed, eyes on the ground, in abject defeat, he admitted to himself that his methods had been grotesque. He had made a fool of himself in front of Cadimon. Cadimon was not beholden to him. Cadimon had only acted as he must when confronted with the ungodly.
Necklace still wrapped in the page from The Refraction of Light in a Prison, Dradin came again to Hoegbotton & Sons, only to fi nd that his love no longer stared from the third floor window. A shock traveled up his spine, a shock that might have sent him gibbering to his mother's side aboard the psychiatrists' houseboat, if not that he was a rational and rationalizing man. How his heart drowned in a sea of fears as he tried to conjure up a thousand excuses: she was out to lunch; she had taken ill; she had moved to another part of the building. Never that she was gone for good, lost as he was lost; that he might never, ever see her face again. Now Dradin understood his father's addiction to sweet-milled mead, beer, wine and champagne, for the woman was his addiction, and he knew that if he had only seen her porcelain-perfect visage as he suffered from the jungle fevers, he would have lived for her sake alone.
Th e city might be savage, stray dogs might share the streets with grimy urchins whose blank eyes reflected the knowledge that they might soon be covered over, blinded forever, by the same two pennies just begged from some gentleman, and no one in all the fuming, fulminous boulevards of trade might know who actually ran Ambergrisor, if anyone ran it at all, but, like a renegade clock, it ran on and wound itself heedless, empowered by the insane weight of its own inertia, the weight of its own citizenry, stamping one, two, three hundred thousand strong; no matter this savagery in the midst of apparent civilizationstill the woman in the window seemed to him more ruly, more disciplined and in control and thus, perversely, malleable to his desire, than anyone Dradin had yet met in Ambergris: this priceless part of the whale, this overbrimming stew of the sublime and the ridiculous.
It was then that his rescuer came: Dvorak, popping up from betwixt a yardstick of a butcher awaiting a hansom and a jowly furrier draped over with furs of auburn, gray, and white. Dvorak, indeed, dressed all in black, against which the red dots of his tattoo throbbed and, in his jacket pocket, a dove-white handkerchief stained red at the edges. A mysterious, feminine smile decorated his mutilated face.
"She's not at the window," Dradin said.
Dvorak's laugh forced his mouth open wide and wider still, carnivorous in its red depths. "No. She is not at the window. But have no doubt: she is inside. She is a most devout employee."
"You gave her the book?"
"I did, sir." The laugh receded into a shallow smile. "She took it from me like a lady, with hesitation, and when I told her it came from a secret admirer, she blushed."
"Blushed?" Dradin felt lighter, his blood yammering and his head a puff of smoke, a cloud, a spray of cotton candy.
"Blushed. Indeed, sir, a good sign."
Dradin took the package from his pocket and, hands trembling, gave it to the dwarf. "Now you must go back in and find her, and when you find her, give her this. You must ask her to join me at The Drunken Boat at twi light. You know the place?"
Dvorak nodded, his hands clasped protectively around the package.
"Good. I will have a table next to the festival parade route. Beg her if you must. Intrigue her and entreat her."
"I will do so."
"U-u-unless you think I should take this gift to her myself?"
Dvorak sneered. He shook his head so that the green of the jungles blurred before Dradin's eyes. "Think, sir. Think hard. Would you have her see you first out of breath, unkempt, and, if I may be so bold, there is a slight smell of urine. No, sir. Meet her first at the tavern, and there you shall appear a man of means, at your ease, inviting her to the unraveling of further mysteries."
Dradin looked away. How his inexperience must show. How foolish his suggestions. And yet, also, relief that Dvorak had thwarted his brashness.
"Sir?" Dvorak said. "Sir?"
Dradin forced himself to look at Dvorak. "You are correct, of course. I will see her at the tavern."
"I cannot live on kindness."
"Yes. Of course. Of course." Damn Dvorak! No compassion there. He stuck a hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a gold coin, which he handed to Dvorak. "Another when you return."
"As you wish. Wait here." Dvorak gave Dradin one last long look and then scurried up the steps, disappearing into the darkness of the doorway.
Dradin discovered he was bad at waiting. He sat on the curb, got up, crouched to his knees, leaned on a lamp post, scratched at a fl ea biting his ankle. All the while, he looked up at the blank window and thought: If I had come into the city today, I would have looked up at the third floor and seen nothing and this frustration, this impatience, this ardor, would not be practically bursting from me now.
Finally, Dvorak scuttled down the steps with his jacket tails floating out behind him, his grin larger, if that were possible, positively a leer.
"What did she say?" Dradin pressed. "Did she say anything? Some thing? Yes? No?"
"Success, sir. Success. Busy as she is, devout as she is, she said little, but only that she will meet you at The Drunken Boat, though perhaps not until after dusk has fallen. She looked quite favorably on the emerald and the message. She calls you, sir, a gentleman."
A gentleman. Dradin stood straighter. "Thank you," he said. "You have been a great help to me. Here." And he passed another coin to Dvorak, who snatched it from his hand with all the swiftness of a snake.
As Dvorak murmured goodbye, Dradin heard him with but one ear, cocooned as he was in a world where the sun always shone bright and uncovered all hidden corners, allowing no shadows or dark and glimmering truths.