The following is an excerpt from section 3. It is paired with a new painting by Peregrine Honig, reproduced below with permission. I am honored to show it at this blog.
… there was a man who struck Claire as ill-figured. She asked a steward, nodding to this ill-figured one, “Who is that man?”
The steward looked over at the man she pointed to. He wore a red hat with a shining brazen disk upon the brow, and red robes with a serpent embroidered on each side, and held in his hand a brazen bowl. The steward said, “That man is Flavius Pappellius Reburrus, Wanderer on Hidden Roads, Bearer of Light, Hated of the Obscuring Demons, His Majesty’s own ichneumon.” The patricia, still so ignorant of Florence, said to him perplexed, “I am afraid I do not know this word, what is an ichneumon?”
The steward said, “O Claire, you are indeed a foreigner, for every Florentine would know an ichneumon, but I see I must explain it all for you. The ichneumonoi are a holy class, the intercessors between men and gods. If a man should wish to listen to a word of divine advice, or be assured a god will hear his prayer, or receive the sacrifice – or, contrariwise, if some god or other should desire that his will be clear to puny men, or to send some omen of things to come – then in these cases men and gods present themselves to ichneumonoi. And in the mood of holy intercession, the soul of the good ichneumon wanders far beyond himself. His world-blinded eyes roll back until only the whites are showing, and he speaks in a voice not his own, and sometimes in tongues nobody remembers, and when he is restored to himself he has no memory of these goings-on, but instead is very confused and tired.
“The class of the ichneumonoi is custodian of many ancient devices and ceremonies, passed in dark and quiet places from master to disciple, one age to the next. They travel all around, holding out their begging-bowls to those they meet, and interpreting the interesting events that are reported to them, and doing other good works. This man you asked me about just now, Flavius Papellius Reburrus, is the chief of the ichneumonoi. He is a very stern and holy man, much given to falling into fits of intercession between our imperfect world of men and the blessed lands of the gods.”
…Claire made soft footsteps toward the place where Flavius Papellius Reburrus was hanging back, and thus compelled the notables that she had met to make an introduction. She put her hands together in front of her, and dropped her right foot back to make a little bow, eyes closed and throat bare. Then she opened up her eyes again, and faced the ichneumon.
His face was bounded all around by his red hat, so that she saw neither hair nor brow nor neck, but instead a stony face as lonely as the moon. The moon bears the scars of many ages of pummeling by rocks scattered round about the heavens. So too the ichneumon’s face was lined and furrowed with the pummeling he had long withstood, of wandering on hidden roads, in the rocky wilderness between the imperfect word of men and the blessed lands of the gods. This fleshless face, with its lines and furrows on the skull, gave him an appearance a little like some madwomen Claire had once seen on a visit to a nychteuthymic friend of hers in hospital. And to the eyes there was something of this madness too. They were as grey as Claire’s, but the grey was pitted here and there with violet craters from those missiles slung at him from out the infinite. The tiny pupils were like rotating locks of tremendous ingenuity, which constantly changed the shape of their receptacles to deny entrance to every key. Claire looked into these strange birdlike eyes, and they looked into hers, and she could not tell what they saw of her, or if from their vantage she were lit up by the glimmering of the truth.