Before Wilderness: Some of my earlier work for your review; Part 1
I’ve been very fortunate in that nearly every short story I’ve written has seen publication somewhere or other. Most are available online and linked elsewhere on this blog and, for the sake of completeness, I thought I’d post two early stories that are not. Rather than throw enormous blocks of text at you, I’ve broken each story down into discrete chunks that will be serialized over the next week or two.
“The Breathable Air,” was the first story I ever tried to write and, cosmically enough, it was also the first story of mine ever published. It appeared in Issue #24 of Glimmer Train (Fall 1997) and won that magazine’s Short-Story Award for New Writers for that season. I remember I used the prize money to buy a canopy for my pickup so I could take my dog (Kessel, my beautiful German Shepherd) on the road with me. The truck was eventually stolen but the good memories of more time spent with the dog made it all worthwhile.
Anyway, here’s the first third of that story: I hope you enjoy it.
The Breathable Air
She can see vast distances.
Plains. And on the edges of the plains, hills purple beneath a blue sky. A city in white on the foreground. Cypress trees. Torch flames. The sun bright and the shape of the wind described by the bend and clash of green grasses. These and other colors that have no correlation to the hues of the living world around her—she sees with something other than her eyes.
She can hear the smallest sounds.
His voice is at her ear, constant and familiar and comforting in its steadfast devotion, but it is not the voice to which she listens. There is another voice, closer and in contest with his. Stories read from old books of times so far removed she has trouble comprehending them at first. Once, and long ago, she wrote books like this. She decides the other voice is her own, finishing for her some last and half-imagined tale.
In the mild, blue-black shade of a tiny grape arbor just inside the entrance to Vincente Coruscuito’s courtyard garden in the city of Padua, Year of Our Lord 1348, Leonardo Montclavo stood awaiting the arrival of his love, Katarina Novali.
It was a late spring day and hot, though he could still feel the soft breezes that blew across the long grassy plains from the coast and taste upon them the rich spices of sea salt and unplowed soil. Like landward trades, he thought, stepping into the sun to mark the time by the angle of his raised arm’s shadow upon a flat stone nearby. He lowered his arm and frowned, then looked up at the sun where it burned low-slung and white upon the tiled rooftops. Frowning, Leonardo went to the heavy oak door that barred his friend Vincente’s garden from the street, and with one finger raised a square leather flap and peered out through the spy-hole.
No one moved on the street this time of day and the dust raised by the little winds fell slowly in clouds flecked with gold. From somewhere came hoarse cries of lamentation—shrieking, sexless sounds neutered by the deep cut of grief. And then, as if in answer, the bells in the basilica began a heavy, echoing toll.
It seemed the bells sounded constantly now with plague afoot in Padua, and that very morning Leonardo had himself seen a group of becchini carrying the dead to church. Ragged men, they carried, balanced on their shoulders, an old door upon which they had stacked several bodies like sheaves of grain. The faces of the dead, seized by their sickness and bearing its sign upon their flesh, beheld the sun aghast as though in their dying they had been shown some certain thing that none should ever see. Leonardo had seen the corpse-carriers coming, watched how they scanned doorways with their small, malignant eyes, looking for marks of soap upon the panels to signify the dead or dying within. He had stepped into an alley until they passed, then hurried on to his friend’s garden, noting with some relief the lack of soap upon the garden door, though Vincente Coruscuito lay abed and had not arisen these past three days.
As Leonardo looked out through the spy-hole for Katarina Novali, or for some sign of her, a dog padded noiselessly across his field of vision—a huge, black mastiff with one rent ear leaking slow blood down its withers to its chest. The animal paused in its course and looked up at the door where Leonardo stood watching. From its wet jaws hung pale and limp a small left hand. A signet ring upon the forefinger winked in the sun, and loose skin, like the emptied sleeve of a blouse, depended from the gnawed wrist in intricate filigree. The dog did not growl nor raise its hackles, but moved its head from side to side as though to display more fully the prize it had scavenged. Leonardo saw the fingers twitching, like the legs of an obscenely fat white spider, as the dog’s teeth plucked and pressed at tendons. After a time, it raised its head to scent the air, looked at him once more, then took small sidelong steps down the street and away. As the bells’ echo drifted in the silence of the afternoon, Leonardo shuddered and stepped back from the door to reenter the shade of the vines.
He wiped his eyes and breathed hard to catch breath, and looked about at the garden. He saw it as an Eden bulwarked by dusty clay walls against the Gehenna of the city. He saw there, in the garden, meandering footpaths of cobblestone aproned by green grass and small shrubberies from which plump, dark currants drooped. Sprays of fern, splashed bright by hollyhock, traced emerald frescoes ‘round the walls, while stand of small blue teacup flowers shivered in the shade of the olive tree. Arabesques of vine and tendril spilled down the walls, and all of it—leaf and petal and stamen and pistil, grassblade, the mist of pollen swirling in the air, the lazy passages of bees from flower to flower—lent the place a sense of depth, of health. As though there was no scourge laying the dead out in their own dooryards, not could there ever be. Leonardo stood there, idly scratching a fleabite on his neck, and breathed deeply of the rich, vegetative perfumes and smelled also, faintly, the reek of bodies putrefying in the streets outside the garden walls.
He glanced up to Vincente’s window. It overlooked the garden and stood open, the curtains limp, still wet from the maid’s soaking, to cool the air and keep the pestilence without. Now, a small rat sat cleaning itself upon the sill and Leonardo glanced about for a stone to throw, but when he looked back, the rat had vanished.
In one corner of the garden stood a fountain in the shape of an open clamshell and painted the color of lapis. Vincente had brought it home with him from a visit to Tuscany. Stalks of spearmint swayed in the breeze at either side and cast fluted shadows through the trembling water. Little sunset-colored fishes, unfed for days now by their master, plashed about within the shell in sounds sudden and musical to Leonardo’s ears.
Upon a small wooden table set out in the shade of the olive was a half-loaf of bread gone green with mold and gnawed and pecked by rats and birds. Leonardo realized he heard no birds singing now and wondered over that. He had been told by a trader from Almeria how in Messina the birds themselves had fallen, stricken, from the sky. How cats and dogs, monkeys, asses, even deer in the forest were said to exhibit the same buboes as men, but Leonardo did not know the truth of that. The image of the black hound with its awful trophy came to him and Leonardo shuddered deeply, then stooped to scratch along the inside of his thigh where his skin had grown hot and wet with stale sweat.
He crossed to the table and took up the loaf in his hands and broke it open to scatter crumbs into the fountain. The fish rose, slow at first, gaping with ceaseless stares at the solid world above them as their mouths groped the underside of the water. They ate and he watched them for a time, wishing he had brought wine with him to quench the dryness of his throat.
Looking at the falling sun again, he frowned and stretched, feeling deep aches across his chest and down his legs. Judging time once more by his arm’s cast shadow, he wagered Katarina Novali’s handmaiden had not read his last letter to her. Or he hoped it. The image of his love in her immaculateness stretched out upon the stoop of a doorway, fly-besotted, waiting for the becchini to carry her off to common grave, gave him more pain than his muscles did as he shook them loose. But soon he calmed himself from that thought. He remembered the first time he had seen her, when the plague was still ugly rumor used to frighten disobedient children. Katarina Novali had been walking down the street near the university, her hand balanced lightly on the forearm of her maid, her face an open smile and her eyes completely sightless. Leonardo had paused with his books to watch her approach and was still standing there, watching the dust her feet had made settle, long after she had disappeared in the crowd.
And now, to ease his mind around her tardiness, Leonardo reasoned that the pestilence could not touch her due to the very fact of her blindness. At the university he studied science, medicine, and had heard it said that the plague was a corruption of the atmosphere. But, though it traveled by the medium of air like a vapor, it was through the eyes that it entered the human body, for it is through vision that men first sin against God. The first victims in Padua were walled up within their own homes so they should not gaze upon their healthy neighbors and thereby infect them. But no sin was too small for the pestilence to overlook and soon it made a kingdom of the city. The professors advised their students never to look the dying man in the eyes lest the sickness enter the one who treats him. It was good advice and from it Leonardo was consoled that his love could not fall victim.
He cleared his throat and leaned and spat an evil-tasting humor upon the flagstones near the fountain, then stepped behind the olive tree to relieve himself. His water fell weakly from him, without force, and splashed the tops of his boots. As he leaned back against the trunk to fasten his breeches, his fingertips brushed something he had not felt when he scratched earlier. He swallowed dryly and lifted his shirt to look.
He closed his eyes and with effort calmed the breath that rattled up hot and sudden within him. Looking back down, he winced to see the bubo swelling dark and venomous beside his sex. Leonardo’s fingers trembled as he touched it, then prodded it. The lump was unyielding—round and hard and hot as a bird’s egg boiled. Touching it forced a hot stab of pain down his legs and across his buttocks.
He quickly fastened back up and, limping somewhat from the sudden pain, returned to the place near the fountain where he had spat. It seemed to sizzle there on the sun-hot stone, dark with blood. Leonardo stared down at what had come up from inside him, and it stared back cruel and black and impassive as the eye of the dog. He sat heavily beside the fountain and one hand slipped into the water. He felt a fish swim away from his palm like quick silk through his fingers. After a time he began to weep and was weeping still when he heard a knocking on the garden door.
To be continued….