Discover more from Leaves in the Wind
Kenogaia, chapter one
From my latest…
[My latest book has now appeared: a fantasy novel called Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale), published by Angelico Press. It is available in both hard and soft cover editions. (The ebook will follow anon.) I provide its first chapter here, in a shameless attempt to convince you that you want to read the tale in its entirety. The cover art was produced by the great and good Jerome Atherholt, who was also the illustrator of The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla.]
Part One: Wolves in the Night
When I was a child in my father’s kingdom, I dwelt in a palace of gold and jade, And roamed its shining halls in guileless freedom, Unmindful of its splendors. There I played In perfect innocence of lands beyond My garden walls and gleaming marble pools; I knew each flower and each bending frond— Blue fountains, songs, the frolics of our fools. But, while yet young, I was provisioned for A journey to a distant land, then made To leave my palace by a secret door Of silver with pale chrysoprase inlaid. In terror, trembling, I was led outside The western courtyard’s seventh crystal gate. I clutched a vagrant’s bundle, which belied The riches that I bore from our estate. —from “The Hymn of the Pearl”
Midway in his ascent to the top of his father’s observation tower, Michael Ambrosius paused on the landing that separated the lower spiral flight of forty stairs from the higher—not, as he would usually have done, to look out through its large oval window at the forest canopy surging grandly away to the east in countless wind-stirred billows of shimmering green and blue, but because he had been startled by the sight of the strange bird perched on the outside sill, peering in at him. He had never before seen such a creature. It was of only average size, slightly smaller than a pigeon, but was of so pure and perfect and sleek a white—not only its feathers, but its delicate legs and small triangular beak as well—that it appeared almost to glow with a light of its own, and the soft rainbow sheen that played about the edges of its plumage seemed to color the surrounding air with a pale prismatic radiance. Only its eyes, which were intently fixed on him, differed in hue: they were like two small gleaming gems, of an azure so deep and yet so bright that it scarcely appeared natural. “Oh, my…” Michael whispered, because nothing else occurred to him. Cautiously, he stepped toward the window, wanting a closer view but fearing he might frighten the bird away. It seemed utterly unperturbed at his approach, however. Even when he drew within a few inches of the glass and laid his fingertips among the elaborately carved vines and flowers of the frame, it remained still, and merely continued to survey him with what to Michael seemed an almost haughtily reserved gaze of appraisal. For several moments, the two of them—boy and bird—stared directly at one another, and Michael could not help but feel that behind the uncanny blue of the eyes that met his own there lurked a penetrating intelligence that had made him the object of its scrutiny. Then at last, quite casually, the bird disengaged its gaze from his, turned its head, and then its body, spread its wings, and gracefully dropped from the ledge. Michael pressed his forehead against the glass to follow its flight, but could see it for only a few seconds as it sank toward the trees below, like a falling star flashing over an evening sea, then stretched its wings wide and glided swiftly out of view around the far side of the tower. “Beautiful,” Michael said, again in a whisper. He waited several moments to see whether the bird would reappear, but when it failed to do so he resumed his ascent.
When he had reached the low door of dark red wood on the upper landing, and had briefly returned the jovial leer of the elfin, leaf-enwreathed face carved in it, Michael took hold of the knob of red cut-glass, entered the observatory, and found his father standing at the center of the room in precisely the pose he had expected: both shoulders slightly hunched under the shapeless cope of his large gray sweater, one eye pressed against the eyepiece of his enormous bronze telescope, both hands clasping one of the brass rails encircling its conical, rose-marble base. The angle of the telescope was steep, directed through the ceiling’s glass dome at some point high in the eastern sky; and, set off against the lustrous leather spines of books and the amber wooden bookcases arranged around the room’s walls, it gave the impression of some fabulous magical tree in a dark forest that the wind had partly uprooted and left at a precarious tilt. The illusion was enhanced by the delicate moldings that rose along the fourteen feet of its cylinder, designed to look like a copse of slender tree trunks, culminating at the copper casing of the great lens in a glittering cloud of silver and aquamarine enamel leaves, lavishly fruited with polished stones of green and purple.
“Father,” began Michael, “I’ve just seen the most amazing…”
But Mr. Ambrosius, without turning his head, raised a hand and said, “Wait, wait, son. I need to concentrate.” Then, with the same hand and with great care, he slightly adjusted the small knob of the eyepiece. For several seconds thereafter, until he seemed satisfied with the result, he did not move; then he reluctantly detached himself from the telescope and turned to Michael, smoothing his rather unkempt black and gray beard with one hand and donning his wire-rimmed spectacles with the other. “Are you back from school already?” he asked, blinking hazily.
“School doesn’t begin again for another twenty-three days,” said Michael.
Mr. Ambrosius stared at him for a moment, as if not entirely certain whether to believe this. “You haven’t been down in the village then?”
“No. I haven’t gone down the mountain all week.”
“Because school doesn’t start again for twenty-three days.”
“Really?” Mr. Ambrosius sighed and tugged pensively at one of his earlobes. “Are you quite sure?”
Mr. Ambrosius shook his head gently. “I see,” he said. “Well, well. Well indeed. And, so then…when does school resume?”
“In twenty-three days,” Michael said, patiently. “Father”—he took several steps forward—“you’ve seemed a bit distracted lately. I mean, more than normal.”
“Have I?” Mr. Ambrosius removed his spectacles again and laid his hand across his eyes. “Tired, I’m afraid. I should probably go to bed at a seemlier hour.”
For some seconds, neither of them said anything. Then, perceiving that his father had already begun to forget that anyone beside himself was there, Michael idly remarked, “That really is a very beautiful telescope. Mr. Snout would hate it, but I love it.”
“Mr. Snout?” his father murmured.
“He’s the school’s tutor in ‘The History of Design: Organic, Mechanical, and Decorative.’ He’s opposed to the ‘vegetal style’ in art. That’s what he calls it.”
Mr. Ambrosius sighed, removed his hand from his eyes, and replaced his spectacles; he turned his gaze not toward Michael, however, but upward and away, as though contemplating something hovering in the air overhead. “Why, pray tell?” he said quietly, almost as if talking to himself. “Doesn’t that style come from this part of the world originally?”
“I think that’s one of the things he dislikes about it,” said Michael. “He’s not from Oreiotopia originally. He’s from the city, like us.”
“Seems a paltry reason for the prejudice.”
“It’s not just that, I don’t think. He says that that whole approach to design comes from the arts and crafts movement of the last century, which he thinks is horrible and calls”—here Michael imitated his teacher’s sternly pompous tone—“one of those very lamentable periodic backward steps in cultural history.”
“Backward from what?” asked Mr. Ambrosius with an air of indifference.
“From all the progress mankind has made ever since the Age of Illumination.”
“He’s very serious about it,” said Michael when his father failed to elaborate on this. “He says it’s a ‘degenerate’ style and that it’s polluted with a ‘comically rustic sentimentality,’ and…” Michael’s voice wavered back and forth between its natural intonations and his caricature of his teacher.
“And,” Michael continued, “he absolutely detests it because it’s just, he says, ‘a great heap of dainty, dreamy mannerisms, all pastels and plummy twilights and glimmery gossamers,’ and that we’re so fortunate that art has since turned back to ‘the serene, supremely rational, unpretentious barrenness of the industrial-mechanistic style,’ and away from ‘a morbid nostalgia for nature’s disorder,’ and...”
“My,” Mr. Ambrosius interrupted, still half lost in thought, “he does say a great deal, doesn’t he? And you always remember things so precisely and...”—he coughed—“...exhaustively. But enough of the mockery now. He’s still your tutor.”
“According to him,” Michael continued, scarcely noticing the rebuke, “the technical name of that particular kind of design there is either ‘arborescent,’ which comes from the Virtuous Tongue and means ‘becoming a tree,’ or ‘dendrogonic,’ which comes from the Noble Tongue and means nearly the same thing, and that…”
“Yes, yes,” said Mr. Ambrosius with a feeble smile. “You really do have a lush vocabulary for a lad of twelve.”
“I’m thirteen, father. Remember? My birthday was two months ago.”
“I remember the event, just not the arithmetic. I especially remember you and Laura Magian devouring an enormous number of cakes.” He stroked his beard again. “Thirteen, though—are you sure?”
“Yes,” said Michael earnestly. “I keep a close account of those things.”
Mr. Ambrosius nodded slightly, still staring into space. “Well, Mr. Snout wouldn’t like our house at all, I suppose, since it’s all in that style, and I don’t think our house would like him very much either. For what it’s worth, though, you’re absolutely right. It is a lovely telescope, in every way.”
Michael waited a moment, hoping for some further comment; when none came, he said, “Father, why are you always looking at the same place in the sky?”
This roused Mr. Ambrosius from his reveries; he looked at Michael with an expression of mild surprise, or perhaps embarrassment. “What makes you think I am?”
“The telescope has been at the same inclination for weeks now.”
“Oh, that.” Mr. Ambrosius glanced up at the glass dome above and vaguely waved his hand in the general direction of the sky. “Yes, of course. Well, you know…” He smiled again, more nonchalantly this time. “Sometimes something takes my interest.”
“One small patch of stars?” Michael asked. “Weeks on end?”
“No, not precisely. Not…” Mr. Ambrosius smiled again, this time in gentle resignation, and nodded. “Yes. But, no, not a patch of stars. A single star…if that’s what it is. To be precise, a stella nova—a new star.”
Michael’s eyes grew wide. “A…new star?” he said. “New?”
His father did not reply except to raise his eyebrows meaningfully.
“How can that be?”
Mr. Ambrosius pursed his lips.
“But Mr. Choiros says that’s completely impossible.”
Mr. Ambrosius breathed in deeply and again looked up at the dome. “So it’s generally believed. So we say, at least. But who”—he turned again to Michael—“who exactly is Mr. Choiros again?”
“He’s our ouranonomy tutor. He’s talked about this many times—why there can’t be any such things as celestial novelties. He says there can’t be any new stars, because the…the eternal harmony of the heavens can’t be violated…and because the sphere of the fixed stars is the uppermost heaven, except for the primary motile sphere, the Great Engine, and that there’s nothing beyond the Engine from which anything new can come, and so the heavens are unalterable, and…”
“Yes, well, all right,” said Mr. Ambrosius, clapping his hands together, “that’s all very…true. I mean, that’s the standard scientific and…and doctrinal view of the matter. And I’m sure Mr. Choiros is a very sound fellow, and not to be quibbled with. But it’s just that…” He paused and gazed at Michael for a long moment, clearly uncertain whether to say more. But then he continued, in a more subdued voice: “It’s just that something’s amiss. Mine’s a very powerful telescope, you know. Confidentially, a little more powerful than is strictly legal, at least since the anti-speculative laws were published. Well, considerably more powerful, as it happens. A decade and a half ago, perhaps, it would have been a bit suspect, but not regarded as seditious. But now...well, that’s why we don’t tell anyone about it, not even Paichnidia. Not that she’d be interested.” He rubbed the back of his neck wearily. “Anyway, several months ago I caught a glimpse of something that was…as I say, something amiss.”
“Something that wasn’t there before, and shouldn’t have been there at all, to be frank. A small, brightly shining, very blue, very new star.”
“But that’s wonderful,” said Michael, his voice rising, “incredible. You should tell the…”
“Oh, no, no, no,” said Mr. Ambrosius hastily and emphatically. “That we most absolutely mustn’t do. We mustn’t mention it to anyone. In fact, I shouldn’t have told you.” A look of genuine alarm had come into his eyes. “Do you understand me, Michael? No one.”
“Yes,” said Michael, lowering his head. “But surely someone should know.”
“It might all be a mistake, anyway” said Mr. Ambrosius, still shaking his head vigorously, “some sort of optical illusion. Or some ordinary object I’ve mistaken for…for something else. But, whatever the case, it’s not the sort of thing one can talk openly about. It could be misconstrued as heresy, or as a psychotic disorder, both of which are very, very illegal. And the penalties for defamation of the heavens are, you know, quite persuasive—quite therapeutic. No. You’re very young, so you might not entirely grasp the danger, but believe me.”
“All right, father,” said Michael in a rather abashed tone, “I won’t say anything.”
“It was quite irresponsible of me to tell you. I can’t imagine what possesses me sometimes.”
“It’s all right, really.”
For several moments both were silent. Evening was drawing near, and the sky above the dome was beginning to dim. The single cloud visible from Michael’s vantage, floating high above, was already pervaded by faint hints of a gauzy violet. The light that entered the room from the dome and the windows all around (those not obscured by bookshelves, at least) was now an ashy silver. Mr. Ambrosius walked over to his octagonal writing table, where a phosphorion on a bronze, lotus-shaped base sat amid the sprawl of papers. He passed his hand lightly over the surface of its clear glass globe and at once the vapors within it flickered into undulations of transparent luminescence and began to cast a warm golden glow upon everything in the room. Then, turning back to Michael with an expression of pained hesitancy, he clapped his hands together again and, in a hushed voice, said, “There’s something stranger still.”
“What?” asked Michael.
“It is a star, you see—I mean, to all appearances a star—and yet it’s not actually situated up in the astral sphere where a star should be. It’s in the lower lunar sphere.”
Michael could think of nothing to say, or anything to do other than furl his brow.
“I’m quite serious,” Mr. Ambrosius continued. “It’s located in the aether of the lowest heaven. I’ve made quite sure of that. It’s not a trick of perspective or anything of that sort. All the higher heavens visibly pass behind it as they turn. What’s more…” He fell silent again.
“Yes?” said Michael when many seconds had elapsed. “‘What’s more…?’”
“It’s moving, but not in concert with the rest of the celestial orbits. It’s as if it’s in the lowest heaven, but independent of its rotation.”
“It’s rotating…differently?” Michael asked. “Is it turning in a…is it what Mr. Choiros calls an ‘epicycle’ maybe? You know, a kind of miniature orbit of its own within the sphere? Or…”
“No,” said Mr. Ambrosius in a tone of surprise, as if he too were hearing of it for only the first time. “That’s just it: it isn’t revolving at all. It stays fixed in one quarter of the sky all the time, in a stationary relation to the surface of Kenogaia, with the exception of a very small, ever so gradual, continuous change in the angle of incidence, or the distance from the celestial equator, or whatever the right way of putting it is. I wish I were a proper ouranonomer.”
“I think you mean its declination,” offered Michael.
“Yes,” said Mr. Ambrosius, “you’re probably right. Whatever the term, what I want to say is that it’s…you see, it’s…getting closer.”
“Closer?” said Michael, his voice growing at once softer and more anxious. “I don’t understand. You mean it’s falling?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that.” Mr. Ambrosius shook his head distractedly. “There’s nothing precipitate about its motion. It’s more like it’s approaching…furtively, so to speak. As if it’s sneaking up on us.”
“I don’t understand at all,” said Michael, looking up to the dome and down again to his father in bewilderment. “How can that happen? Are you sure you’re right?”
“Oh,” said his father with a tired shrug, “that’s the easiest thing of all to verify. You see, the star’s located along the lower lunar ecliptic—I think that’s the right term—and when I first discovered it some months ago Aurea screened it from view as she passed by in her orbit. And the same thing happened again and again for the first three months that the star was visible. Then one night, two months ago, Aurea began passing by without obscuring the star, because now the star was stationed between her and Kenogaia—just at or just above the sublunary air. So I can see both that it’s a very small star, hardly a small blue spark against the moon, and that it’s a star in…transit.”
Michael all at once became aware that what he was feeling was a kind of fear, but also a kind of eager curiosity. “Can I…” he said softly, “can I look at it?”
Mr. Ambrosius drew himself up stiffly and with a mild grimace. “I’m not really sure that would be…”
“Please, father,” said Michael. “You’ve already told me about it. What harm can seeing it do?”
“A great deal, perhaps,” said Mr. Ambrosius. “If you’ve never seen it, no one can accuse you of delusions, except perhaps the delusion of taking your mad father seriously. So, no, I don’t think…”
“But we won’t tell anyone,” said Michael, “and I’ll believe you whether you show me or not. Please.”
“You might disturb the balance of the telescope.”
“I never have before,” said Michael. “Anyway, you have it locked in place.”
“It’s not dark enough out to see it very well just now.”
“Weren’t you just looking at it?”
Mr. Ambrosius closed his eyes, breathed deeply once more, frowned, and—after several moments of obvious indecision—slackened his shoulders and nodded. “I’m a fool,” he said. He opened his eyes again and looked at Michael almost imploringly. “I’m so desperate to talk to you sometimes that I don’t think of the risk at which I put you.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll let you look. I only wish I could hold my tongue.”
When Mr. Ambrosius had fetched a set of library stairs from his closet and unfolded them—three steps in a small, elegant frame of copper filigree, all in the local “vegetal” style—he placed them below the telescope and, with a limply ceremonious wave of his hand, invited Michael to ascend.
“You know, I don’t really need these anymore,” said Michael; but he mounted the lowest step nonetheless, placed his hands on the telescope rails, and—with a feeling of strange apprehension that was also somehow pleasantly exciting—pressed his eye against the eyepiece. There was always a kind of magic in this moment for him, which he had felt more intensely when he was smaller, but which still had the power to captivate him now: to peer into the minuscule, mysterious, crystal world of that tiny lens, only to find himself all at once plunged into the immense, far more mysterious crystal world of the turning heavens—it never failed to seem like sorcery to him, a dazzling enchantment, no matter how often he experienced it. And so it was now: the momentary sheen and sparkle of glass, the brief misty gleam, and then suddenly he was immersed in the luminous blue depths of the early evening sky. He allowed himself an instant to luxuriate in the tingling sensation that passed over him, and then for many instants he simply floated there.
“If you look to the upper right”—his father’s now disembodied voice somehow reached him from the lower world he had just escaped—“you should be able to make out part of one of the gears of the rotary mechanism that joins the spheres of Aurea and Argentea. It’s the one with a missing tooth, and the break is visible at the moment.”
Michael had already made out the figure of the gear wheel’s lower quarter. Perhaps no other telescope now in use would have been able to bring it so lucidly into view. Seen through the deepening blue of the rising twilight, it seemed a pallid, almost translucent green; and a section of its circular rim and spokes and serried teeth was perfectly discernible, as was the jagged gap where apparently one tooth had broken away.
“I know all about that,” said Michael without removing his eye from the telescope. “Mr. Choiros says that it looks like a flaw in the heavenly machinery, but it’s actually not a flaw at all, and that the tooth never really broke off, but that it’s all part of the miraculous harmony of the spheres, and the Great Artisan designed it that way so that there’d be a…I can’t recall which thing it is…a ‘deferent,’ or an ‘equant,’ or something…or maybe an ‘eccentric’…one of those. Anyway, it keeps the two lunar orbits synchronous by allowing Argentea to slip back a little once every day…”
“Yes,” his father interrupted, “that’s at least one way of explaining it, I suppose. But don’t bother with that. Just look down and to the left a bit, slowly, and you should be able to find the star. It’s small, but…”
“Oh,” Michael gasped, for he had seen it now: very small and very bright, like a hard brilliant sapphire shining out from a sea of liquid turquoise. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s terrifying,” Mr. Ambrosius half whispered.
For fully five minutes, neither of them said anything. Michael continued to gaze at the exquisite bright blue splinter of light that should not have been there, unable to imagine what it might portend, simply caught up in the marvel of it. Finally, he drew back from the telescope, his mind quietly but quickly drifting down again into the world of tangible things; then he turned about, sat down upon the second of the portable steps, and looked up at his father. Mr. Ambrosius returned his gaze with a hapless expression.
“What does it mean, father?” Michael asked after a few moments. “What is it? It makes no sense.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” replied Mr. Ambrosius, looking away to his right, evidently at nothing in particular. “Maybe it’s not really so unexpected as all that.”
Michael parted his lips to ask what this meant, but before he could speak a flash of something startlingly bright, high over his father’s head, caught his eye: there, at the edge of the dome above, the same bird Michael had seen from the landing below had just glimmeringly alighted on the outer casement rim, drawn in its wings, and started staring down at them. Even in the falling dark its plumage seemed to shed a soft rainbow glow on the air.
“Ah,” said Michael softly; then, suddenly and eagerly: “What’s a good word for ‘rainbow-colored?’”
“What?” Mr. Ambrosius turned his eyes back to his son. “Why?”
“I’d just like to know.”
Mr. Ambrosius arched his eyebrows and weakly raised his hands, palms upward. “I see. Well, all right. What’s a new star after all? Just a flake of aethereal tinsel, I suppose.” Letting his hands drop, he gently smiled. “But haven’t we established that you’re thirteen years old?”
“Which is quite old enough to look such things up for yourself. We have a good synonymicon downstairs, which you may consult whenever you like. Is that why you came up here—to ask me that?”
“No. But I’d like to know.”
“Well…” Mr. Ambrosius shrugged. “I suppose the best word would be ‘iridescent,’ since that’s literally its meaning. ‘Iris’ is simply an ancient word for rainbow, in both the Noble and Virtuous Tongues, and was also the name of the goddess of the rainbow in the days before the, um, the Age of Illumination.” Mr. Ambrosius pronounced this last phrase, as he always did, with an inflection precisely poised between morose distaste and acid irony. “There are other quite lovely words for it as well—‘opalescent,’ for instance, which refers to the sheen of an opal, or ‘cymophanous,’ which refers to the sheen of chrysoberyl, which can have a kind of polychromatic sparkle, or…”
“I like ‘iridescent’ well enough,” said Michael. “And I know who Iris was.”
“Very well. But I’m not sure why you had to…”
“It’s just that I saw a strange bird at the window of the lower landing,” said Michael, “as white as anything I’d ever seen, and the way the light…seemed to flow over and spill off its feathers, and…”
“What’s that?” Mr. Ambrosius interrupted curtly, his eyes all at once narrowing, his voice all at once urgent. “A white bird, you say?”
“Yes,” said Michael, “and there it is again.” He pointed upward.
Mr. Ambrosius turned his head around almost violently and looked upward. He did not move at all for several seconds. Neither did the bird.
“Hold on,” Mr. Ambrosius said without turning about. “Wait a moment.”
“Michael, I…” Mr. Ambrosius fell silent.
“Michael...”—now he did turn, slowly, with so obvious an expression of anxiety on his face that Michael quickly rose to his feet—“You should go back down right now. I’ll be along in a few moments.”
“What is it, father?”
“Tell Paichnidia…. I imagine she’s beginning to prepare dinner. Just…” He returned his gaze to the dome. “Just don’t tell her about any of this—about the star or the bird. Don’t mention the bird. No need to confuse her with such...” His voice drained away into silence.
“Father,” Michael said, his own voice now rising with unease, “what’s the matter?”
“Please, son,” said Mr. Ambrosius, turning back to Michael, “just do as I say for now. We can talk later. I really must…”
This time, his words were curtailed by a long, high, bitter moan coming from outside the tower to the east, one that was soon joined by another of the same kind coming from the west, and only a moment later by yet another from somewhere else. Michael shivered.
“The wolves are gathering for their nightly prowl,” said Mr. Ambrosius. “Listen”—he stared into Michael’s eyes with a look that clearly forbade any further delay—“please go down into the house now. Wait for me. We can talk later. And do me a favor—lock all the windows and draw the curtains and…and please lock and bolt the front door.”