Claire went out in that hour of the night when it will get no colder, so that howsoever cold it be, there is a kind of warmth to it.
For me, this is one of the most moving scenes in literature: Quixote wills himself to the far shore of the sea of madness. A similar phenomenon is visible in Philip K. Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Each volume of Railroad to Zanzibar has an opening quotation. This is the quotation for the final volume.
Archimbaux was on the other side of the pane of frosted glass; he pressed his face and his fingers against it, so that she could see the outline of him. He seemed to vibrate, but did not. It was only that the length and thickness of the hairs upon his head kept changing, and the number of the fingers on his hands.
This is an excerpt from volume III – which means it’s an island of text in a sea of not-yet-written material. Volume III, “The Warrior,” focuses on a Florentine general, Anaxemander Artimus Praximenes. Claire is his patroness. He invades a mountain nation, and early on, unused to mountain warfare, his army fails to gather enough fuel to feed their campfires during a cold snap. Claire saves the army by turning into a pillar of flame. I am honored to pair the text here with a new painting by Steven DaLuz.
The guttering and roaring never ceased, and the heat of the flaring was terrible and drove the men back cringing. Only Anaxemander stepped forward, to try to see if it was the patricia that was burning, or if a fire rose up into her from the ground, or fell on her from heaven, or what.
He stood so close as he could to the roaring fury, and gazing in the heart of it, he saw the patricia, blazing white on white, and her Zanzibari gown was twisting where it wrapped around her. He made out a look on her face that was like agony, as though the flame consumed her, but so soon as he knew what his streaming eyes were seeing, the patricia seemed to him to shift, and the look on her face shifted too, so that she had a look of rage, as though she were herself the consuming fire.
The white flames billowed at him, and a hand came out the flame, with the tapering fingers that he saw were Claire’s fingers. But this hand was not in the right place relative to the patricia that he thought he’d seen, so that he did not know if he had seen any thing in that fearful light. He grasped the hand that was held out to him, and flinched at the heat. But his expectation was reversed, and the hand was icy. Grasping it, he held it, and the heat of him and of the fire never warmed it.
Then he saw again the face of the patricia in its right place. It seemed to him there was a look of love on it, an utter love, that gathered up the General, and all his men, and all the lonely world, in its tenderness. The streaming in the eyes of Anaxemander turned to tears, and he was weeping in the hot place, right by the heart of the conflagration. He clutched at the icy hand, and would have conquered all for her.
But now his shift was burning, and his beard, and the conqueror could conquer all things but the roaring fire of the patricia. He fled, and plunged his arms into the snow, and his head, and remained thus till he had conquered himself at least, so that his men should not see him weeping.
Then they built up the pyre, and burned him on it, and recited for him “Audrey and the Pelicans,” as if he had been family.
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.
Here’s how it works – at least for me. I was walking along, thinking about a scene where Claire follows King Ambrosius across a very large room in near-darkness. In the second draft, I had described everything Claire could make out in the gloom. Being highly visual, I hadn’t thought about what Claire would likely notice under those conditions – sounds – or what she would learn from what she could hear. So I added something in the third draft:
The king had a rolling gait like a long-time rider of horses, and his footfalls on the right hitched a bit from some old wound.
Nemo claimed the old man of the tree lived in its trunk, and therefore they should cut off the branches only. Omen claimed the old man of the tree lived in its branches, and therefore they should cut off the trunk only. But little Claire pointed out that nobody really knew where in the tree the old man of the tree lived. She proposed imagining him living someplace they all agreed he didn’t live, such as in a hut at the foot of the tree.
“Now if he lived in that hut, would the old man of the tree agree for you to cut down all of the tree?”
“Certainly not,” said Nemo, “but rather, the whole tree were precious to him.”
“We should cut down no part of it,” agreed Omen.
“Well then,” said little Claire, “since he should object from his hut at the foot of the tree, and wheresoever he lives, we all agree he lives closer to the tree than that hut, don’t you think he should all the more object if we cut down any part of the tree?”
Nemo and Omen reluctantly conceded the point.
in memoriam, Zemira
from I:34 Beneath the Cult of Love
He took from the shelf a little box that was much like the shelf, and opened it, there in the gloom. Carefully he took out from it the little skull of an infant, with its bones thin as paper, and now he let out a groan of dismay. This sound brought Claire back round from whatever distant place she was. She said, “Why do you groan, Dion Angelos?” He said, “Her headbone has fallen in,” and he presented the skull to Claire.
She saw that the unsutured bones at the top had shattered, and they rattled in the bowl when the dion moved the skull, dry as leaves. She took the skull which was littler than her hands, and he looked at it where it was encircled in those white fingers that tapered like well-made candles, and sighed over the damage, and said, “Even the dead are getting older.” Claire said, “Who was this one?” He said, “O Claire, could you not figure that riddle for yourself, as you did so many others? This one is my sister.”
Claire’s eyes widened and urgently she said, “Take this – take it, Angelos,” and he frightened took the tiny headbones back from her shaking hands, and she held her hands over her mouth and rocked back and forth on her feet. He said to her, “What disturbed you, O Sower of Peace?” She put down her hands and he saw the upset made her mouth crooked and her lips tight. She said, “O Angelos, I am not fit to touch what you have presented me, and am nothing but a great deceiver. You ought not to trust me with the things that are holy to you, for I am no friend to you nor any other mortal out of Zanzibar.” She said this quickly, then she ducked her head as though to hide herself in shame from him, and never ceased in rocking on her feet.
Dion Angelos answered her not, but rather put the broken skull back in the box, and put the box back on the shelf, so that it was nearly obscured in shadows. Then he turned back to the ducking patricia and said, “O Claire, I am a wretch but I am not a fool. We all lack a thing we need, or want, and seek to get it. I became your follower because you wield truth and fair dealing as your instruments of getting what you need, or want. This were rare among cruel men, and never found among the great. Yet it seems that you are great, and also good. Therefore regret nothing that you held the precious remainder of my sister in your hand. Some men say that each infant that goes out from underneath the sun comes to sit at the center of his own broad lily in the garden of the elect, and in the limit of that infant’s reason, he knows that he is in a soft place, and a warm place, and a clean place, and a bright place. When you held the headbone of my sister in your white hand, I wished that she might remain there forever. I knew what you were when I gave her to you, O Claire, and I gave her to you anyway.”
Now Claire found her cistern of tears fresh-filled by some means, and sobbed again, against the breast of Dion Angelos, and he held the miserable patricia till she brought that cistern back below the level of the overflow.
Moral maturity and the nature of morality are themes running through all seven volumes of Railroad to Zanzibar; the first two volumes involve adolescent morality, moving toward the freedom and responsibility of adulthood. Because Claire’s exile lasts a very long time, her moral journey is long and complex; at times she is saintlike, and at others monstrous. All of that will come later, and I can only see the broad shape of it from here myself.
The topic of adolescent progress toward moral awareness comes up in chapter 31 of volume I, “The Circle of Embroideresses”:
…Claire was young enough to still believe that in the end there must be some resolution to the matter of cruelty, and that the brittle wall of civilization must give way before the raging sea, and cruelty flood in unresisted, in a final and annihilating war of all against the All.
In pursuance of this vision of the absolute, she clung too to a belief that the heart of man is not situated utterly below the level of the sea. Rather she was convinced of some rock in the soul, that rock which men call the Good, which must rise up above the roaring waters; a rock which stands not only now, but forever. Therefore she believed that even in this final deluge, the rock of the Good must provide a roost, yes, a roost and a shelter, for that love of mortals, one for the other and all for the world, which makes bearable the bitter condition of men who must die.
These were the dramatic beliefs of the inexperienced patricia, and as she revolved the problem of the cruelties of Genova before the eye of her reason, these beliefs presented themselves to her as well. Though she had set aside none of her beliefs, yet now she found she was not so certain of that rock in the soul which men call the Good, neither that it was solid, nor that it should stand forever, nor that the dark sea might not rise over it. This lack of certainty was another change wrought in her since she was cast out from Zanzibar.