From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Sense of Spirals

With some polytropic characters it is possible that there is no real self behind the shifting masks, or that the real self lies exactly there, in the moving surfaces and not beneath.——Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

She went down into the labyrinth under the patternless city and sat on a fallen pillar for a while, watching the linoleum grow. Black and white, light glossing from its surface like oil, it advanced in an untidy lichenous line across the flagged stone; where it passed, smoothing inscriptions and the worn hollows of countless feet, displacing dust and the gritty snags of bone sometimes found in the vaulted dimness here, the shadows fell differently and she did not dare touch. Instead, she tucked her feet up underneath her and lit a cigarette, ground it out against the stone when the heat of the lighter’s flame caused minute leaves of clove and cassia to unfurl from behind the filter.

“Magdalene Christe,” she said, without rancor, and chewed on the cinnamon stick her cigarette had become.

Not far off among the columns, stone-dust fell in a thin, rattling pour. The weight of a city groaned over her head. In stone, in brick, in mortar and glass: tectonic stresses grinding at its seams, shivering outhouses and cathedrals, hotels and mansions, until the roots of the world uprooted themselves into stars and flung space.

She had never known any different. Her childhood had been as unstable as her new adulthood was proving; like everything else in this city, changing beneath the eye, beneath the hand, when no one was looking and in plain view. Meanwhile, the linoleum proceeded without anxiety across the labyrinth floor.

After a while, footsteps joined her. She had been listening without paying much attention, ears cocked for the echoes that stepped among the arches and pillars opening away into darkness: granite, sandstone, concrete, marble, plaster, travertine, ironwood, oak, no two alike in the flares of light from torches, braziers, lamps suspended from the pierced keystones overhead. No one descended on the same road that led back out into the light. The path she had taken among the mazed walls was not the one which the footsteps followed; and when he seated himself beside her, a little out of breath, sweating more than a little though the air was cool and clung to the skin like dampened stone, she did not bother to ask which entrance he had taken down.

She herself had entered at the train station, sliding between the humming rails with a daredevil’s disregard for their charge and potency; spitting earth, gravel in her hair, she clawed her way down until the soil splintered beneath her and she fell three feet onto the broad steps of a disused, dim-lit stairwell. Moss and fungus clogged its carpeting and flurried up spores knee-deep at each step. The electric bulbs along the baseboard had long ago burnt out. But she knew the road, like every citizen of this city: how to go down into the dark, and how to return, and what questions never to ask. She had made this trip often in her life. She had always been lucky.

“Cinnamon stick?” She offered him a cigarette from the package in her hip pocket. The knees of her jeans had worn out, where the stairwell narrowed before showing her the first mud-brick wall of the labyrinth, but nothing could damage the bright rags around her shoulders and the strip of lace that bound back her hair. “Careful of your feet. It’s growing faster than usual.”

“No thanks…Been watching it, have you?” Light ribboned in the pleated black silk of his shirt; at his neck he wore the white collar of a priest, fastened with the armed spiral of the galaxy beaten out in aluminum leaf. His hair grew longer than hers, finer and more flyaway, and the bones of his face showed less sharp beneath the skin. Carefully, he lifted his feet before the onset of the linoleum; he wore laced sandals, and picked at the leather thongs with one hand as he spoke. “Never really caught my attention. I always came down here for the stained glass.”

“I know.”

He took the cigarette anyway, and bit into its end when it stretched green beneath his fingers and sprouted the spiky purple blossom of a chive stalk.

“We lost a whole block in the north quarter today.” He was not really speaking to her, not even looking at her as he pinched the chive blossom between his nails and worried it into slippery, sharp-scented scraps. “Just sheared off. Fell down. Like that. You could see pieces of it tumbling away, sinking, slowly, slowly; and then you’d remember that those pieces were somebody’s house, somebody’s store, cobblestones, chunks of asphalt, and the faint dust-cloud showering down around it was earth and shattered glass and an orange from somebody’s breakfast flying down like a little sun, a comet…I’d forgotten what it was like. When I was about five, my father took me to see where the edge was crumbling away. Yellow tape all over the place. Big signs in official script, warning you back. But she jumped anyway, this girl that was standing there, looking down and smiling where the earth was giving way under her feet already; and nobody screamed. They say it’s not dead space under there, not dark. Light. Suns, nebulae, a sweet blaze of glory like you’re jumping into the arms of the angels. I’ve never gotten close enough to look. But it’s all cracking apart anyway. We’ll get a good look soon enough. Pass me another?”

This one stiffened into sugarcane, and he worried at it with his back teeth while she sucked her cinnamon stick and thought about what she had heard.

“It’s your theology,” she said, when all the flavor had gone out of the bark. She spat it out and it clattered on the stone a moment before the linoleum glazed it over. “How it ends not in water, not in fire, but in light. And I saw a thousand stars, and every star a crowned soul, and all the souls were weeping for joy together: and their tears were the light of the world’s most perfect end…I read that book too. Then we all thin out into a sticky lukewarm soup and the universe ends in a long yawn of boredom. And you wonder why I don’t go to church.”

“Not really. Sometimes I wonder why I bother. Does that surprise you? Everything’s falling apart, nothing makes sense anymore—”

She interrupted, “When did it ever?” and had the pleasure of seeing his face slide into a brilliant, unaccustomed smile. Twins of different fathers, they might have shared more than a name if he had never joined the church whose insignia jingled at his throat; but priests did not marry, her work was solitary, and the children of this crumbling generation were growing wary of the next.

Stone grated beneath their feet and the smile dropped from his mouth, his brows tightened, he tensed beside her on the fallen pillar as though another column would come crashing down behind them within the moment: crash of rock and shattered masonry, torn earth, billowing slide of dust, and the labyrinth roof caved in beneath the burden of the city balanced on eroded time, crushing out their lives into a slick of linoleum and a broken cinnamon stick. No prayers leapt to his lips.

She saw their absence, saw the recrimination beginning to fret around his eyes, and spoke before he had time to realize it. “You expect sense out of this city? Christe, you’ve lived here as long as I have; you were born here too. Here, where everything’s mercury. No constant but change…Two blocks of the downtown business district drop off into the stars and my cigarette sprouts leaves. Think about it for a while; either it will make sense, or it won’t, and either one will be a valid interpretation.”

He laughed, a rustier and more wary sound than his smile. Linoleum lapped the fallen pillar’s length, tasting the hieroglyphs gouged deep into its red-flecked granite; under her hand, the slow rearrangement of grit and channels pushed at her palm, and she lifted her fingers to look at angular ideograms sliced in a band around the cracked column of basalt.

“There,” she told him, taking his hand in her own to push his fingers into the characters’ lines, so that he could feel the change his eyes had grown used to disregarding, “see that? That never startled you. Why should streetlights and apartment buildings tumbling into the deep bother you any more?”

It was the wrong thing to say. “Because that’s—” Without wind, his hair strayed into his eyes and she had to hold herself back from gently brushing it aside; he was shaking, and could not have borne her touch. “That’s not the change I know,” he whispered. “This pillar”—he slapped it, hard, and beneath the smack of flesh she heard a faint resonant boom of sounding stone—“it’s never the same kind of stone, never the same language every time we come down here, but it’s always here. The linoleum spreads, but it doesn’t eat away the labyrinth floor into nothing; torches become candles and bonfires become electric bulbs, but there’s light; one thing vanishes and another replaces it. What I saw today—nothing remains. All the soil fell slithering out from underneath the road and left one long strip of asphalt hanging in empty air, before its own weight broke it apart and it cracked into pieces as it fell, and there was nothing left. Nothing. That’s not change. That’s destruction. This is the patternless city!”

His voice was cracking, stress-fractured like the world he watched. “No constant but change, our only law. And we’re falling apart before our own eyes. We’ll be gone within the century, do you know that, there’s no way the city’ll outlast the next generation. What then? Where will your travelers come, those quicksilver tricksters you love to tell me about, the visionary lunatics with one foot on either side of the door—we’ll be space junk, metal shards and frozen blood, when that happens. Gone. Not changed: gone. This isn’t the apocalypse we were promised. I don’t understand it.”

She lit another cigarette and coughed when it actually kindled into nicotine smoke; stubbed it out and gave it to the linoleum that had now spread several feet past their pillar, leaving them between ancient stone vaulting and kitchen modernity. Light swayed across their faces from the rough arches overhead, where shadows and cobwebs clustered, and nests of straw and bone spiked the occasional sculptor’s ornament. Beside her, her twin shivered and stared at nothing, sugarcane forgotten in the corner of his mouth.

“This isn’t the right question to ask me.” She had drawn up her knees, linked her arms around them, and she rocked a little as she spoke. “I don’t deal in apocalypses. I don’t know who had the bright idea of founding a church—ceremonies, rituals, patterns—in this city. Signs, portents…You want a portent? I’ve got one for you. This morning, I was cleaning my sink when water started to bubble up out of the garbage disposal. I figured it was a burst line somewhere, an aqueduct that had gone over the edge, or the landlord had finally broken something with all her archaeological tinkerings in the basement; no big deal. Then feathers started to appear in the backwash, ragged black feathers, and I got my hands out of there fast. Imagine me standing at the sink, a box of soap powder in one hand and a scrubbing brush in the other, watching a small spring of clear, black-feathered water rising into my sink. Even for this city, you have to admit that’s strange.”

“All right. True…What happened next?”

“Oh, the garbage disposal made a kind of retching, coughing noise, and the body of a small, rather battered crow popped up into the sink. Quite dead. I think it had drowned. I don’t know how it got into the plumbing, I don’t know why it backwashed up into my sink, and I haven’t the faintest idea what it signifies. The water started to recede after that. Within five minutes, all I had was a dead crow in my sink and a bad case of hysterical laughter.”

Where the shadows clung and trembled among the nearby pillars, pale sand fell in a whisper; bits of tile cracked and dropped, clattering on the linoleum-skinned stone, patches of a mosaic where the arms of two galaxies devoured one another in a thundering maelstrom of stars and light. Her twin took the sugarcane out of his mouth, gave her a long and curious look. “That’s a portent?”

“I think so.”

“A portent of non-significance?”

“Look, you’re the theologian: you tell me. Where is it written, in the contract we all sign with the world before we’re born—and a sharp deal it must be, too,” she added, grinning and eloquent while the labyrinth slid and built itself around them anew, “since we don’t have the slightest memory of putting pen to paper and signing over our souls into its care—where’s it say that we are owed an explanation of why things happen? If you can produce that document, I’ll retract this whole speech. Don’t look at me like that; I don’t know anything that you don’t. And I haven’t been inside a church since you got that little necklace of yours, remember…Things keep spiraling. If you’re lucky, they keep spiraling out and around and back again, not in on themselves until they crush down into darkness. Change. Motion. Uncertainty.” Too lightly, more seriously than she had meant, she heard herself saying, “The only game in town.”

“And when we’ve finished spiraling? When all the city’s dropped away into the light and we’re left sitting in a labyrinth of stars, on a floor of glowing gas, sucking on your mercurial little smokes and watching the universe cool—what then? Where will we be then? You know, you think you know, tell me!”

“I don’t know!” she retorted, startling them both with her shout that ricocheted away through the old stone spaces and the dust. “Why are you asking me? You’re the priest in the family!”

“Am I? Mariam’s Trinity!” He slammed both fists down on the stone; incised sandstone scraped blood from the heels of his hands. “You’d have made a better job of it than I did!”

In punctuation, the halogen bar overhead blew out. Dust rattled in the vaulted dark.

“Well,” she said into the quiet that followed, because there was nothing else to say and she had never been easy with silence, “you could have told me years ago.”

His hand groped across the worn sandstone and found hers, his grip clutching so tightly around her fingers that she felt the small bones grating against one another. She did not let go. All the nearer lights seemed to have gone out with the electric short-circuit; dim in the distance, fires flickered against low walls of mud brick and rough, squared granite. The tide-flat smell of the river rose to meet them where no river ran: an old memory out of the labyrinth’s beginning, time as mutable here as any material part of the city; drawn forward out of millennia before the city’s slow dissolution began to split change into destruction, pulling them both into the city’s forgotten history. Their breathing rasped against the dark.

“I’m used to change.” He could not let silence sit, either. “I don’t ask for reasons: I understand its presence. But this? Falling away into the light and the void, no spiral, no renewal, only erosion . . . I don’t understand it.”

“I met a man who came to this city, once, from somewhere else; I don’t know where and it doesn’t really matter.” She spoke half in response, half in memory: thirteen years old, fourteen at the most, not so much startled as intrigued by the sudden appearance of the stranger on the corner where she had been buying pan-fried slices of capybara, a disheveled man in a suit jacket and sports cap, staring in the hot summer light like someone struck blind. “The first five minutes, he almost went crazy because the brick crosswalk he was standing on turned into concrete, into asphalt, into wooden planking, whenever he blinked. Then, once I’d reassured him that it was all right, this was the way the city always was, he realized that the sun cast his shadow at a different angle at every step, and he started screaming. He didn’t understand the changes here. I don’t know if he ever did. Last I saw of him, he was sitting on the pier swinging his feet in the water and shouting for the tide to come and get him. But it only ebbed away, and poured over the edge of the world where the beaches of drowned ships lie bleaching in the sun. I couldn’t help him.”

“You tried.” Some of a priest’s authority strengthened his voice. “That’s all we can do.”

“Don’t give me this week’s sermon. I’m telling you a story.” She heard the slight breath of his grin, extricated her fingers and wrapped her hand more comfortably around his own. “A parable, if you like. How do you know that when we’ve crumbled into nothing, sitting on a nebula like you said, we’ll be gone? We’re the crossroads city, without pattern and without certainty. You talk like we’re doomed. You speak with certainty. A dangerous thing, here.”

“Granted…” His other hand fumbled across their joined fingers, traced her wrist until he could find the package of cigarettes in her pocket; she heard plastic crinkling and a muffled, startled noise from her twin: she wondered what his cigarette had turned into. Around whatever it was, he muttered, “I feel like I’m waiting to find out—with no guarantee that I’ll be able to do anything with my findings except shout ‘Aha!’ before I vacuum-decompress into a bloody little nebula of my own. It scares me. So it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I’m having a crisis of faith.” At least there was humor in his voice. “And a sermon from my sister the grave-robber!”

“And your prophet, the Daughter of God, was a prostitute. Do we have a problem?”

“That’s not fair!” But he was laughing now, awkwardly, and his hand no longer gripped hers as though he would crush the bones to dust. Soon he would let go of her, remembering the congregation he had momentarily abandoned when he fled down here to their childhood refuge, the roots of the city, where everybody walked and nobody returned unchanged, and she would leave him to scour the labyrinth’s times and turnings before discovering her own stairway back into the light. With luck, her harvest of the patternless city’s past would ring and glitter around her as she climbed: beaten gold and copper, intricate, dusty, inset jade and lapis, malachite, onyx, rings and pendants, tin, quartz, anklets and necklaces, pectorals, earrings, moonstone and silver, jasper, pearl, polished, unlikely, ancient; sold or worn as the fancy took her, never the same in the changing angles of light. Some of these she donated to her twin’s church, on impulse; she wondered if he knew. Gifts on the Magdalene’s altar came nameless.

Someday, if the city did not collapse into light and space first, she would come down through a hidden door and never find the way out. She had met wanderers in the labyrinth before, some who spoke her language and some whose children had died before her own family’s history ever emerged, those who knew what had happened to them and those who persisted in the dogged belief that the end of the maze lay just around this corner and just around this next corner again. Those who ventured too far into the city’s shifting past, she thought, became ghosts in their own time. She did not mind the thought.

But perhaps the other end would come first—chipped stone splitting apart beneath her feet, mortar going to dust and sifting down into a blaze of starlight, all her stolen jewelry and glitter flung out into the void to orbit some distant star like the faintest and brightest of moons—and perhaps it would not be what her twin believed. The patternless city, not at the center of the universe but some crooked crossroads without a name: the home of randomness: defying expectation, explanation; no constant but change.

“When you can tell me what the stone thinks as it changes to linoleum,” she said softly, testing the words as much on her tongue as on her twin’s ears, “when you can tell me how a cigarette feels about budding leaves at the sun-touch of a lighter, when you know where a drowned ship goes between sinking and the beaches at the ragged rim of the world, then you can tell me that we’re doomed and hopeless. We’re inside the changes, at last: we can’t see outside of them, and so we’re afraid. But it’s just a shadow changing under the sun that stands still. Spiraling a different way.”

Her twin said, close beside her in the darkness that was lightening as the smell of river-mud receded and a brazier of coals began to glow clinkered red somewhere to their left, “You’d sound lovely in a cathedral.”

“Not,” she said sweetly, “on your life.”

In the rising brightness, she released his hand and stretched all the knots out of her neck and shoulders. The creeping tide of linoleum had passed; she threw down a cigarette to test its safety, watched it bounce on the black and white checks, and set down her feet in relative security. Deep above their heads, strain creaked in the city’s foundations. The slow rending of the world: she saw how her twin flinched, and touched his shoulder gently. He had a thin roll of honeycomb between his fingers, dripping onto his hand and the milky-veined marble of the pillar where he still sat cross-legged and thoughtful.

“You never left,” she said, voice soft, open. “You could have. Everybody has the chance. You could have gone somewhere where shadows change only with the sun and it takes centuries for concrete to replace brick to replace cobbles; no one would have blamed you. You never did. Why?”

Honeycomb forgotten, honey trickling down his wrist onto the black silk sleeve of his priest’s shirt and the corduroy trousers he wore out of familiarity, he stared at her. Less than a minute separated their births, and she never remembered who had come first into the world: in the new light, he looked older than she remembered, younger than he had when he joined her on the pillar, mercurial as anything else she would see that day.

“I couldn’t,” he said, and blinked in mild surprise at his own words. “I’d . . . miss the changes. I’d start to think there were explanations somewhere in the universe. And I’d never know”—he spread out one hand toward the labyrinth’s arches and pillars, the felt and unseen plunge of the city’s fringes into light—“what happened.” He licked honey from his wrist, and grinned.

“The best revelation.”

With a kiss, they parted. She watched him until he vanished before her unblinking eyes, between a stripped trunk of ironwood and a column of chiseled porphyry, discerning his own singular exit from the maze of the city’s past. Then she turned and made her way across the new linoleum, hunting bones and gold beneath the tearing earth; for profit, for delight. How long before light ate the foundations out from under the city and she learned which of them had been right? Perhaps neither, perhaps both. She neither knew nor cared: she disregarded and trusted equally the balance of a galactic spiral barring the sky and a dead bird bobbing in her sink. Candlelight, torchlight, light of bonfires and rainbow-strung electricity printed her path before her, leading her on the untaken road down into the crumbling city, out into the changing world.

The path was changing beneath her feet. Her shadow spiraled around her.

 


Sonya Taaffe has a confirmed addiction to myth, folklore, and dead languages. Poems and short stories of hers have been shortlisted for the SLF Fountain Award, honorably mentioned in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and reprinted in The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase, The Best of Not One of Us, Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2006, and Best New Fantasy. A respectable amount of her work can be found in Postcards from the Province of Hyphens and Singing Innocence and Experience. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Classics at Yale University. Her livejournal is Myth Happens, sovay.livejournal.com

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