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A Sample Chapter from Unknowable Death, by Richard Garfinkle

Unknowable Death by Richard Garfinkle

     1. Fashioning

      

      Dear Death,

      <Crumple>

      No, that’s too distant. This has to be more personal.

     Perhaps if I fashion it in an appropriate form I can talk to it directly. Then I should be able to make it understand what’s happened to it and to me.

      That should work. I’ll explain to Death what it is, what its place in reality is and why I’ve made it. Then I’ll be ready to make the leap.

      I can’t give it too much form. That wouldn’t fit with the reality and the mystery of it. If I impose too directly on it it won’t be fit to learn. I’ll have to fashion it as a living being, probably human.

      It’s not something I’ve tried before. Neither has Lisa, as far as I know.

      The architect of reality certainly has, but I can’t ask his assistance.

      Let me start simply. I’ll conceive of it as a shadowy shape sitting in that old hard-backed mission chair in the corner, the one no one likes to sit in; a vague human outline with a slight corona about it that might suggest hair or an aura or a grave and lily smell; something distant and unapproachable, but approaching.

      A sketch, an outline, a section.

      There you are.

      I will call you Death if you don’t mind, Thanatos. It’s a new word, one that has never existed before except in reality. A new fashioning.

      I don’t necessarily hope that you will like what I have made you to be. In fact, I’d rather I hadn’t had to create you in the first place. Fashioning you is an act of thaumaturgy and I am no longer a worker of wonders. But sometimes, I’ve been told, a mystery must be created before one can pass through it.

      So here you are, my creation, my Death.

      I won’t ever be able to remove you, so we might as well get comfortable together, get to know one another. I’ll take down the veils of my mystery if you take down yours. How does that sound to you?

      Agreeable to me as well.

      My sister is on death row.

      You didn’t know that there were already places named for you, did you? You’re famous in reality, though unknown elsewhere. You’re quite the local celebrity. You have fans and detractors. Your name is on people’s lips. Books and poems have been written about you. People have painted pictures of you, though none of the thaumaturges who made those artworks have seen you as I see you.

      As I said, my sister’s on death row. She’s been there for over ten years, ever since her husband was murdered. If you had been fashioned back then you would have met him, my brother-in-law.

      I was only seven when he died. What can I say about what he was like when alive? I have to tell you something about that before I go on to his death.

      He always knew the appropriate things to do when he undertook a course of action. As my much older brother-in-law he acted the father to me, as my own father was dead. He played games with me, mostly verbal. He took me to parks and museums. He looked over my schoolwork, not that he could give me any help. He acted the role well, but I never liked him -- or perhaps that is a view of things that I cast backward onto that decade-past time and the life we had then. No doubt as a child there were things I liked and disliked about him, and moments of love and hate.

      I was probably jealous of the time my sister spent with him. She’s much older than me, thirty-three now, twenty-three when twelve people decided she should die. She never played mother to me, although she did raise me. She was my elder sister and always made sure I knew that. She was approachable in ways that parents are not, and comradely despite the distance in our ages. She was taken from me and put under your name.

      No, I’m sorry. I don’t think you’ll be seeing her anytime soon in your professional capacity, though she should be here tonight. No, the state won’t execute her. She’s done a great deal of work over the last decade to make sure she doesn’t die.

      She’s shrewd and wise, my sister. She can rivet thoughts to ideas so securely that you forget that they were ever separate, and when she puts her conceptions together into an edifice you’ve never seen such perfect architecture. She’s a real thaumaturge, a wonder-worker.

      Even locked up on death row, she managed to learn about the society around her, something she’d never done while free when her only real interests were in buildings. She’s learned and she’s fashioned things so that other people would work to free her according to her blueprints. The jury for her retrial is out deliberating right now. They’ll let her go free. How could they not? The wonder she built has overawed all of them.

      Names? Why do you care what my name or hers or anybody’s name is? You’re Death. We who live in reality all come to you eventually. We all fall away from ourselves, become dust and shadow and emptiness under your touch. Why do you care what our names are?

      It’s a mystery, is it? Whose mystery is naming? I don’t think I’ve met a mystagogue seeking to unravel that.

      I see an enigmatic smile. I wish I hadn’t fashioned you with that hidden sense of humor. I’m not a very good thaumaturge, not smooth or supple like the rope my sister made to hang the jury. Ha. No, not a good joke. The best I can do, I’m afraid. I’m not a very humorous person, though I hear you’re fond of irony. I might be able to supply you with some of that as I tell you why I made you.

      Names, again? Is it really important?

      Very well.

      My name is Toby Matheson.

      Not that name? Not my name in reality?

      You want my name in the world in my head, the world they dragged me out of. You want my names in the Thaumatakhoros.

      My name among the mystagogues is Thanatoergos, the Death Worker. Among the everyday thaumaturges it is Xenos, the Alien. The theurgist calls me Young Sorrow, refusing to use the ancient tongue.

      Yes, I know the names are childish, even though most of them are tarted up in broken Greek. I was a child when I first left the regime of reality and entered the larger Thaumatakhoros, and the names of the things I encountered there are my craftings, the small wonders of ear and voice.

      My sister’s name is Architecta, the master builder. My brother-in-law had several names but none of them stuck to him. Are you satisfied?

      Never? Of course not. But are you ready to hear about your entry into this matter, about the death that created Death?

      Good. Then let me tell you how this started.

      One corpse, three bullets, no gun. A fashionable sort of killing, popular in many places. The corpse, as you probably have guessed, was my brother-in-law, Simon Corbett. That was his name in reality, not that he had a lot to do with reality. He taught ethical philosophy at the University of Chicago.

      Taught it. Didn’t practice it.

      That was why they settled on my sister as his murderer. Philandering husbands are usually killed by their wives.

      It was a simple, pretty case that Detective Larkin and the DA made. Wife finds out that her husband was cheating on her, kills him, the end. A common story, easy to accept.

      They were wrong, of course, but that didn’t stop them from convicting her.

      You want me to go slower. You want the details of the killing.

      Good. You have an appetite for this. Excellent. If you weren’t hungry we wouldn’t get very far.

      I’ll be happy to feed you my understanding. What would you like to dine upon first?

      The circumstances?

      Yes, good, you’ve picked the right beginning. It is the event of Simon’s death that brought you and me together, even though you were formless then.

      You want to know about them in more detail. Where precisely would you like me to start?

      With me and the corpse.

      That was what the psychiatrists liked to ask me about as well. Doctor Latham seemed fascinated by my feelings at that point. I found the body, you see. They were sure that must have been traumatic. They refused to accept my explanation of what it did to me, so eventually I had to change my explanation.

      You’re right, I’m getting ahead of myself.

      Well, come with me into the foyer and I’ll tell you what happened.

      It was January 14th, 1969 and I had just come home from school. I had my own key. I was a very responsible seven-year-old, they said. The lock on the outer door, in fact the whole door and foyer, were relatively new additions to the house. My sister always said they stuck out and she had had a few choice words about the architect who had added them on to our home. My father had had it done just a year after I was born, two years before he and my mother died. It was a very modern foyer and outer door: green glass with steel bracing like the entryway to a skyscraper. Clashed hideously with the house itself.

      My grandfather had built the house in the ‘thirties using the money he made during Prohibition.

      Before you ask -- no, my grandfather was not a gangster. He made his money working as an accountant for a liquor company in Canada. At that time, under those circumstances, an accountant had to know a lot more than double-entry bookkeeping. He could come into a lot of illegally made money doing perfectly legal things with numbers and schedules and the names of police officers and all that sort of thing. Grandfather had had a great respect for the fences the law created to separate one activity from another. He always made sure that he was on one side of the fence, looking over onto the other.

      The foyer was glass and steel, as I said, and it acted like an airlock between the outer and inner worlds of the house. From inside, between the outer door and the inner, one could see both places, one could take a deep breath before facing the world or let out a sigh of relief before going into the inner one.

      The police assumed that Simon was doing the former when he was shot, that he was going out and was shot by Lisa through the open outer door after she had calculated the angles. Another of their errors.

      The glass is hard to see through from the outside. It’s thick, tinted and wavy. All I could discern as I made my way up the partially shoveled walk was what looked like a pile of coats on the floor. That was not uncommon on those days when we just didn’t care about housekeeping and wanted to get inside quickly. I wasn’t paying close attention when I unlocked the front door, stepped through from cold to warm, and kicked the snow off my boots onto Simon’s corpse.

      Doctor Latham always wanted to know what I felt at that moment, but he never really found out. The police wanted to know what I thought. I couldn’t answer either of them because there are no feelings or words in the moment of a mystery, the moment where one becomes a mystagogue.

      I didn’t know at the time that it was your mystery. I didn’t even know I’d become a mystagogue for some years.

      That may mark me out as being slow of wit, taking years to realize that confronting death is the beginning of death’s mystery. But I didn’t know that was what I was confronting.

      I knew Simon was dead. That was obvious. One body, three holes in his chest, a good deal of blood, and no gun. But seeing a body and knowing death are totally different things. You probably already understand that, but your knowledge is from the other side of the matter. Let me give you some human perspective on it to ease you into being.

      I saw Simon and in my mind all the memories of him collapsed into a point, as if his entire life was a balloon with the air let out. They weren’t gone, those memories, they just stopped being what they had been. They folded into one another. Simon throwing a football toward me with intellectual clumsiness and ironic amusement collapsed into Simon hosting a meet-and-greet party in our house to introduce one of the artists he and Lisa knew to some collectors he had cultivated, which folded into Simon seated at his desk in the library writing checks to pay household bills while grandfather’s portrait loomed over him, which folded into Simon and Lisa playing tennis against another professor and his wife on the university’s courts, which folded into an ice cream eating contest he and I had had when I was five years old and which he won handily.

      Which fell away into dust and shadow and emptiness.

      After that moment I was in a different world from the one that I had lived in before I unlocked the door. That’s why I was standing there rapt when the police found me half an hour later, with the snow melting into the winter-dirtied foyer carpet along with Simon’s blood. If I had done anything at that point, I probably would not have ended up in Sandhill having to learn the right way to simultaneously lie and tell the truth in order to get out.

      Let me tell you about where I was, about the Thaumatakhoros, the world that encompasses reality and all the other regimes. You are regrettably provincial, but I hope to expand your horizons. They have no death outside of reality, so neither you nor the rest of the Thaumatakhoros are acquainted.

      I entered the broader world after the memory collapse, after I saw the room and the corpse for what they were, things someone had made.

      Artificial, artifacts, artifice.

      Thank you. I have a very few poetic moments. It’s a vice of mystagogues.

      I entered the Thaumatakhoros the moment I realized that I was in a place someone had created. Not just the foyer, the house, the block, the neighborhood of Kenwood, or even the city of Chicago. I was in the murder scene and someone had crafted it, made an artwork that centered on Simon’s corpse, a fashioned thing that I could only wonder at.

      I can’t say that I looked around or that anything caught my attention. It was more as if everything was holding me, every detail screaming that the present circumstance had been made and put together, that the world had been crafted.

      Later I learned that most people who have that experience ascribe it to some god or other. Perhaps if I had paid any attention in church I might have done the same, become just another deifier of the architect of reality. But my personal awe had been given to other things than nature: the model airplanes my father had built and which were still to be found in various parts of the house, the glass my mother had blown as a hobby (an expensive and dangerous one but with beautiful results), the sketches and plans my sister was always working on as she made her way through architectural school, and the details of the skyscrapers old and new that she showed to me on our trips into the Loop. To me wonders were man-made, and so was the wonder of death that confronted me.

      In that moment I came to understanding, though what I understood is difficult to recall. That instant, that hour and a half of pure clarity, sits in my mind as the point at which my awareness opened up. I have kept it in my mind in a central place. It is not preserved like some artifact dug up by an archeologist or like some keepsake put away in a chest. I have kept it as a workplace. All the revelations of my life have been folded into that moment so that each flash of understanding has been given the clarity and universality of that point in time.

      Because the time of Simon’s death is a working memory and has been filled time and again, a vessel of purpose, not a museum piece to be gawked at, I cannot tell you exactly what I recalled then. I doubt if anyone could actually remember such an event without something of their later understanding falling into it.

      Some events have gravity.

      You chuckle. I suppose you forgive the feebleness of the pun because it speaks of you.

      But returning to that moment, as I will time and again, I saw the made world and knew that there was an architect to this entire being, an aesthetic that held our lives and created our deaths.

      You think that kind of talk unlikely for a seven-year-old, and you are correct. The words I just used are later additions. That much I know, since my vocabulary was not so large at the time. But though I lacked words I did know the sameness of things. I felt the heaviness, the reality of it all. I knew that that reality was an artifice, that the world had been crafted by someone somewhere who loved the shapes and curves of reality as much as the Chicago school of architecture loved glass and steel.

      If I had given my attention to Father Jordan on Sundays I might have come to give a name to that architect and I would have stopped there. But I did not.

      It occurred to me at that moment that where there was one maker with one aesthetic, there might be other makers with other beauties, other styles of building.

      You see, I had been around artists all my life and I had seen the differences in their works and the varieties of their conceptions. I had seen wonders made by many different hands. And I saw quite clearly that the maker of life and death in reality and the crafter of the scene of Simon’s corpse were two different wonder-workers.

      Then the door truly opened in my mind and I stepped through into the Thaumatakhoros.

      I don’t want you to think I was slighting you, that I was ignoring the importance of dying. I knew there was a dead body in front of me. I knew it was my brother-in-law, Simon. I knew that someone would be coming soon and that there would be police and trouble for my sister. I understood that there would be crying and anger and fear and all of those things that attend on death. But they didn’t grip me, they had no pull on me. I knew it was all contrived and I was more interested in the makers than in the made, even if the thing made was death.

      That’s why it took me so long to call you. If I had looked at things differently then, if I’d looked into Simon’s dead eyes and seen you there rather than attending to the fact of making, if death had mattered to me more than murder, then I might have found you then and I would have realized how and why Simon had died.

      You laugh. You think no seven-year-old could do that.

      I don’t agree. A seven-year-old who could look death in the eyes would have seen better than older people whose minds were bound by their ways of explaining things to themselves and others.

      I had become a mystagogue in that moment, your mystagogue, though I didn’t realize that.

      In the moment of coming to you I was distracted.

      It happens, very often. The rapture of sudden awareness becomes misattributed, redirected to something much less important than the mysteries that confront us.

      I was pulled away from the embrace of death by my fascination with the fashioning of things.

      So let me tell you about the Thaumatakhoros, the distraction that eventually became the source of revelation. You’ll be my first major contribution to fashion in all the years I’ve lived there.

      First, it’s --

      No, I won’t describe the entire place, just my first impression. I know you want me to get back to the murder.

      I didn’t have as much time to look around the new world as I wanted to. Of course, Dr. Latham would say (as he did say) that I didn’t have much time to make it up on the spot.

      Well, whether it took years to invent or years to explore hardly matters. Let me tell you what I experienced.

      

     

###

      

      An expanse -- a surf of cloudbank smelling of saffron and electrified iron -- swimming-flying through it gracile people with wings made of minuets and hair that streamed with the tinkling of jade ornaments that were nowhere to be seen. Below them, pluming geysers of incense, floated whales with volcanoes for blowholes. And watching over all, though I could not see where, was the fashioner of that regime, the lover of all that swam and all that could be swum through.

      I gaped, but my mind did not hold long to that aesthetic, for I was standing in the spinning doorway, the axis around which all the regimes spin, one of the visible forms of the River Unknowable, and unless I stepped fully through, dove into one regime, I would keep going from place to place, swimming and spinning between the views.

      -- A place of layers, like an archeology of cakes where the distant past was petrified buttercream and the present was a still-warm ganache that dribbled understanding of language into my mind. I drank the words that I would later learn from ancient texts, and from that taste I gained speech after a fashion.

      -- Into the hubbub of a place where people occupied all the space, squeezed together like an Escher drawing, human to human, tongue in ear. “Welcome. What is reality like?”

      “It’s murder,” I said.

      -- Lead shots careened through the sky, cannonballs and pistols, each an inhabited world, armageddon coming as bullet struck target, destruction without death, for the people of shattered worlds would pick themselves up and jump on the next shell home.

      -- A city, ancient of days, with bells tolling and sirens screaming, but little sign of life and only vague outlines of buildings in the distance, waiting to be built in the years to come. A word entered my mind: domos, home.

      I stepped from the spinning door, not noticing the droplets of the unknowable that fell from me.

      

     

###

      

      I had just begun to explore the city when the police arrived. I had been standing over Simon’s body shivering; but that was only the reality of the situation and reality is only one fashion.

      Detective Larkin -- I’ll tell you more about him later; he’s very important in what happened to my sister and me just as she and I are important to him -- took me to his car while his men worked at forensics, trying to take apart and rebuild the facts of the case.

      “What did you see, son?” he asked. The word ‘son’ was forced. Larkin was never any good when dealing with children. Like me, he thinks too old for his age, though the cause is somewhat different. I wonder if he had any inkling then what a curse and blessing this case would be to him.

      He knows now, but most of the time he does not let himself know what he knows. He still plays at being Larkin the cop, hiding his deeper understanding behind his badge. Not the one in his wallet; he hides behind the badge he wears in his mind. Larkin rarely knows the Larkin that hides behind his shield. But I have seen and talked to him both in and out of reality and I know him as well as two incompatible minds can know each other.

      If I’d understood what had happened, I would have said that I saw death. I doubt that that would have changed what happened, but it would have been truer, more real than the words that came out of my mouth. If I had said that it might have brought the hidden Larkin to the fore much sooner.

      “It’s all made up,” I said. “She made up a bedtime story for me.”

      You have to understand what I was looking at when I said that. There was a building in the city -- No, not Chicago, the city I had come to in the Thaumatakhoros, the city Archaeopolis.

      I knew the building. It was a skyscraper with green glass. Lisa had designed it and she showed it to me one night when she was telling me a fairy tale about a princess who was kept prisoner on a glass mountain.

      “Green glass,” I said. “She showed me.”

      If I had been more coherent then as I was later they never would have gone haring off after Lisa. And when I did tell them clearly what I was talking about they didn’t believe me. The first impression from my words, particularly the green glass, was stuck in their heads. Of course, the cogent explanation came much later when I was at Sandhill and Lisa was living under threat of you.

      Detective Larkin thought I knew something, thought that Lisa had accidently told me something about the murder beforehand. He thought that she thought that I was a child who wouldn’t understand.

      Lisa knew me better than that. Larkin does too, these days. But back then Larkin thought that I was only a stupid kid, a source of clues, not a thinker; a giver, not a maker. Talking to him off and on over the years, it’s clear that Larkin the cop is one of those people who remembers nothing of their childhood and so sees kids as some alien species.

      Back then it made him a xenophobe, his mind occupied with that mixture of contempt and awe that some adults reserve for children. He’s become much better on that point.

      In that fashioned moment Larkin treated my words like an oracular pronouncement. He leapt to the conclusion that Lisa had killed Simon. All he needed to do was find the pieces that would prove him right.

      Larkin the cop is dangerous that way. He’s smart and he makes good guesses, but his hunches are only right when things fit together in a clear way. He’s no good at incoherent crimes and even worse at crimes where half or more of the truth is well hidden. Later on Lisa caught him in that flaw. Later still he caught himself and I think he ate himself. Larkin the theurgist hollowed out Larkin the cop, made a mask of him, wears him to this day.

      What? Oh, yes, Lisa and Larkin the cop are friends now. Captain Larkin, as he now is, is one of the people responsible for Lisa’s new trial. I’ll tell you about that later.

      Let me hold to the moment and let it unfold in both worlds. That will make it easier for you to find your way around, and it will make it clearer when I return to the Larkin Lisa doesn’t know.

      They took me away to a police station. The doctor there thought I was in shock. He couldn’t tell the difference between confusion and unfolding revelation. He couldn’t tell that I was speaking to beings in another world rather than mumbling to myself like a lunatic.

      Let me tell you what was happening to me while the police hunted for Lisa and for someone to take me off their hands.

      

     

###

      

      The city Archaeopolis (I did not learn -- or make up -- its name until I learned Greek a year later) is an ancient place. It is built in bands like the rings of a tree. The farther in you go the more out-of-fashion things become. The outermost ring consists of buildings in the present fashion. I had emerged from the second ring to that outermost, so the people there naturally assumed that I was someone coming back into fashion.

      The first person I met was a pleasant-faced woman carrying a wire basket full of what looked like Christmas ornaments. I recognized most of them from the tree we had just put out for the trashmen to pick up. Lisa liked to get some new ornaments each year as a counterpoint to the heirloom ones we brought down annually from the attic.

      “What’s your name?” the woman asked. “Who made you?”

      I tried to say Toby Matheson, but the words wouldn’t come out.

      “I’m a stranger,” I finally said, not knowing I had named myself Xenos.

      “Who made you?”

      “My parents, I guess,” I said.

      “Parents?” she exclaimed. “You are out of fashion. No one’s had parents for rings and rings. Who called you back? Why are you in vogue now?”

      “I don’t know,” I said. “I saw the green glass.”

      “Oh,” she said. “You must be one of Architecta’s creations. Our great thaumaturge doesn’t make many people. I would have thought she was too busy with the green glass tower.”

      “You mean -- ” I tried to say Lisa’s name but it wouldn’t come out. I didn’t know then that meaningless names such as my culture in reality uses were out of fashion and that titles were the way everyone was addressed in Archaeopolis. “She’s my sister,” I said at last.

      “Really. How unfashionable,” the woman said. “Well, she must want you, if you’ve been called. Run along to the glass tower and mind you close the door behind you when you get there. Otherwise the mystagogues might get you.”

      “Mystagogues?”

      “They love peculiarities and strangers, and you never know what they’re going to do. They don’t care about fashion at all. Sometimes you can’t tell what regime they’re living in. Run along to your . . . sister, little stranger.”

      So I did. I went to the glass tower, that cloud-piercing tower that Lisa knew would never be built but which had earned her excellent grades in school.

      There was a bank of revolving doors at the base of the building. I went through one and marched over to where the security guard was meant to sit watching doors and screens, but no one was there. I climbed over the marble desk. I could have gone around to the opening in the back of it, but I was seven years old and still loved to climb things.

      There was one large lever on the floor -- silly, really -- with two positions marked open and close. I pulled hard and finally moved it to close.

      When I looked up the revolving doors were gone and the lobby lights had dimmed. All was quiet and rest, the peace of those sealed in.

      You know about that, of course. It’s obvious now what I was doing to myself, but back then not a clue did I have.

      Behind the barrier I felt safe from the mystagogues, even though I knew nothing about them.

      You laugh again.

      Yes, I’m a mystagogue, but I didn’t know it then and it takes effort to . . .

      No, not to become a mystagogue, that happens in a moment. It takes effort to keep up the ordinary wonders of normal life after becoming one. It’s so hard to interact with fashions and the fashioned after seeing the hollowness of all made things. Usually one has to be walled off from the world for a while before one can come forth and give the impression of being an everyday thaumaturge. A while, a moment perhaps. In my case it took two years.

      Two years in the green tower.

      Two years at Sandhill. I’ll tell you about that in a little bit.

      But first let me tell you what I later learned about Lisa’s trial.

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