It was New Year’s Eve. Lots of people had already set up blankets on the lawn surrounding the Vocational School. They came, as they did every year, to see the fireworks. For a while the Cook had been enrolled in the school and when he was, we got the best seats, on a flat section of roof near the exhaust fan. Our father used to be the one to bring us, for as much as our mother claimed to adore beautiful, transitory things, she also hated noise and crowds.
The yellow acacia petals on the mahogany tabletop, she loved them.
Her children – until we got big, that is.
The Astronomer was on his bicycle. He’d ridden a great distance to get away from everything and yet here he was, back at the Vocational School; his knees were stiff and his back ached. Since the last time he’d been here he’d devoted himself to studying the spherical vastness of the Boötes Void, a part of outer space into which particles entered and, millions of years later, out of which they exited, looking exactly the same. As he explained, there hadn’t been enough time since the universe began for the void to empty itself the way it seemed to have done.
Sometimes the Astronomer wandered on foot, sometimes he went via bus or train. He never owned a car and he almost never flew, aside from that one time landing at the cove in the floatplane. He was especially partial to his bicycle and he rode it everywhere.
Everywhere, that’s a big place. The Geographer made a shape with her hands.
Or you could say that’s all there is, said the Topologist.
The sky had only just gotten dark enough for the fireworks to start. The sky was dark but the darkness still had a sheet of light inside, the way a philosophic tenet is backed by intuition. The Astronomer wheeled his bike between the blankets, scanning faces – of course no one looked familiar after all that time.
He had decided to try his luck getting into the school building and climbing to the roof when a woman wearing a fur cloak and sitting on a plaid blanket called out to him as he wheeled past.
‘Hello there, handsome,’ she said. At first he thought she was alone, until he noticed the bearded man stretched out beside her on the blanket, his eyes wide open, looking at the sky.
The cloak was made of squirrel fur and it was hooded; all the Astronomer could see of the woman was the disk of her face and one hand, ungloved, lifting a flute of champagne to her mouth. ‘Sit,’ she said, patting the blanket.
There was enough room for him if he sat very close to her; otherwise he would have ended up sitting on some part of the bearded man, who was steadying the champagne bottle between his feet.
‘Your poor mother would be so proud of you if only she could see you now,’ the woman said. She tipped back her head to take a swallow and the hood slid onto her shoulders, giving him a better look. ‘Do you need a hint?’ she asked, and she began to hum. ‘Slow slow quick quick? Does that ring a bell?’
The Astronomer peered closer. He had the best eyesight of us all, but the worst memory for faces.
‘The first token,’ the woman said. ‘The first token is when there’s a sudden change in the weather.’
As she spoke, an umbrella of stars came raining down from above, making the night brighter, followed by a loud bang and a scattering of applause.
‘Oh,’ the Astronomer said. ‘Mrs Chaliffe.’
At some point we had all been subjected to Mrs Chaliffe’s ballroom dance class. Some of us had wept or broken out in hives. It made no sense, really, how unalike we were despite our best efforts. But the Astronomer – the Astronomer had truly shone. That he spent a lot of time looking at the sky while not watching where he put his feet had led us to believe he was clumsy, when in fact there was no one more graceful. He danced like a dream; he won prizes. With light step, as if earth and its trammels had little power to restrain him, the Keeper said. The number of his tarot card was zero for the Fool; it showed a young man in tights and a doublet getting ready to walk off a cliff.
When she wanted to demonstrate a step, Mrs Chaliffe always picked him as her partner, even though Mr Chaliffe was supposed to fulfill that need. He didn’t have a beard back then but he was short and plump, whereas the Astronomer had always been tall and looked good in a suit.
Jee Moon used to have to dance with him, Mr Chaliffe.
There was the Cinderella dance where each girl put a shoe in the middle of the floor and each prince chose a shoe and went to find its mate. Even though she was small P had big feet and to have big feet was a liability; we knew this from the fairy tale. If you had big feet you were going to have to cut all your toes off or both your heels.
Nor had it been a glass slipper Cinderella wore but a slipper made of squirrel fur, a commodity with which everyone on the Silk Road was well acquainted. Squirrel fur was called vair, like the French word for glass, which is where the idea of a glass slipper came from.
‘I was so sorry to hear about your poor mother,’ said Mrs Chaliffe. ‘It sounds like it came as a complete shock to everyone. That’s what happens when you let strangers into your house.’
The Astronomer had no idea what she was talking about. Then again, he often was oblivious to what happened on the earthly plane. He remembered sirens, circles of blood on a pillowcase. A circle of violet stars swelling to swallow a circle of purple that a red tongue shot out of, accompanied by admiring murmurings, but that was the fireworks.
‘The fourth token is when the stars seem to fall,’ he said, ‘and the air fills with a venomous vapor.’
We knew the tokens, every one of them. The weather, the darkness, the flies, the stars, the lightning and thunder, the winds. We knew them and could recite them on command.
‘Mr Chaliffe and I would be honored if you would come back to the house with us.’ Mrs Chaliffe handed her champagne flute to the Astronomer and nodded encouragingly to make him take a sip.
The Astronomer was never much of a drinker, but before Jee Moon he didn’t drink at all. With that first sip of champagne he felt nostalgic as he never had before. He remembered the polished floor of the ballroom, the blue exit sign in the far corner and the row of coat hooks as you entered off the street, Mr Chaliffe attentive to the record player and the large flying saucer-shaped light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. Mrs Chaliffe was quite tiny, decked out in a sea-green tea gown. She had a permanent wave, which meant she was older than everyone, but she had a beautiful face.
The fifth token is when a blazing star appears, the Cook said. He seemed meditative, looking toward the window, though it had gotten too dark to see anything except the strange glow emitted by the snow cover. We knew he was thinking about his wife. It took her years to hit the bottom of the bottomless well of her illness, and when she finally did she opened her mouth to say something to him and whatever she had to say sank deeper still, sucked back into the primal soup of whatever she’d been to begin with.
There were seven of them: the seven tokens of Infirmity and the Great Sickness called the Pestilence.
But why number them? Why call them tokens?
Tokens were things we used to carry in our pockets. To get to school we dropped them in a box on the trolley car. Nanny made sure we had plenty of them even when we got old enough to do this for ourselves. A token in the pocket and a tuna sandwich in a brown paper bag. Why try to make a system out of something like life? The sickness came no matter what the stars were doing, whether falling or staying put.
The fireworks ended with the usual violent display of multiple, overlapping colors and loud noises; everyone began gathering their things, heading in a slow-moving mass toward the main thoroughfare. The trolleys were still running but they were few and far between; some people had parked their cars on a side street, others didn’t have far to walk. The Chaliffes lived nearby in a semidetached stone house on one of the side streets. The Astronomer was surprised to see how modest the house was, given the opulence of the ballroom.
Even though it was very late, Mrs Chaliffe put a record on the turntable and stood in the middle of the living room floor, her hands on her hips, swaying from side to side.
The Cook rolled his eyes. Who came up with that music? he said, and the Keeper let out a sigh. Maybe I didn’t have the smallest feet, she said to the Astronomer, but I wasn’t the worst dancer. I always hoped you’d pick me but you were already taken.
The Topologist was the worst even though her feet were small.
Besides which, the Astronomer had no choice. It wasn’t as if he could refuse Mrs Chaliffe.
That was the thing when we were children. Whereas now we were old enough to refuse anything, only refusal no longer worked.
What was that song? The one they used to play to get things going? The Iceman was humming a tune that sounded familiar. He put out his hand and invited the Botanist to dance. I hope you don’t expect me to dip, he said.
Almost immediately the rest of us took up the tune, and the next thing we knew we were dancing, filling the darkness of the Great Hall with the darker shapes of our conjoined bodies, four-legged and with two heads like creatures in a myth. The Astronomer had his fingers pressed into Jee Moon’s back, and despite her belly’s growing convexity, their bodies were perfectly aligned as they moved across the floor. He had always been trying to get away from us – we just hadn’t realized it.
Remember what it was like? the Keeper said. You could look out the window and see all the way to where we are now, dancing at the edge of the world.
Above us the sky extended its fluid, heaving hide, punctured with stars, though of course that isn’t what stars are.
Looking back at us looking back at us – this was called a ‘closed walk’. The choice of starting point wasn’t important; the important thing was to cycle through the same sequence of edges. The eyes, searching. The black spot on the skin. The stowaway in the knapsack. The little biting thing. A topologist had figured this system out a long time ago while walking over the seven bridges of his native city.
The second floor of the Chaliffes’ house consisted of three bedrooms off a narrow hallway; there was a small pink-tiled bathroom at the head of the stairs. Mrs Chaliffe gave the Astronomer the room directly next to the master bedroom. The first time he went to use the bathroom he knocked discreetly on the door and, when there was no response, he opened it to find Mrs Chaliffe seated on the toilet. ‘Don’t give it another thought,’ she said.
The dog, on the other hand, came as something of a surprise. One morning, after the Astronomer had been living in the house for about a week, he walked into the kitchen and there it was, a medium-sized dog with a rough coat of blond fur, whining at the back door to be let in. Mrs Chaliffe was in her bathrobe making a pot of coffee and pretending not to notice. ‘Oh him,’ she said, when the Astronomer asked. ‘Ignore him and he’ll go away.’ When he asked what the dog’s name was she looked at him in disbelief; when he looked back at the door the dog was gone and Mr. Chaliffe was there in its stead, morning paper in hand.
There were four modes of rebirth – we knew this, all four of them a means of letting something in.
The first indication was that when you looked into water you couldn’t see your reflection. Your body didn’t cast a shadow. You needed to concentrate harder than ever. You had to concentrate your mind with singularity of intent, like a horse being controlled by a bridle. Otherwise you might open your eyes and emerge as a puppy, the lowest order of being.
There had been dogs in the neighborhood where we grew up, but they didn’t resemble one another the way the dogs at the settlement did. Many of the dogs in our neighborhood had sorrowful expressions even when they were busy humping our legs, whereas the dogs in the settlement looked uniformly joyful, especially when they were running. They could run forever – that was what they liked to do best. Unlike us, they had no sense of destination aside from a wish for food. Even as they slept their legs kept moving, traversing in advance the landscape we’d be covering the next day. They would be speaking, too, making small soft noises, yips of excitement.
Didn’t P used to have a dog? asked the Topologist.
I remember they had it put to sleep, said the Iceman.
It bit a child, said the Keeper. Or so the parents said. In the Highgate Apartments, the next floor down.
P loved that dog, the Archivist said.
She loved it more than anything, said the Cook. Us included. But I thought the child it bit was you.
The Chaliffes’ dog never bit anyone, as far as the Astronomer could tell. It merely registered its dislike of him whenever it had a chance, letting out a very low, almost inaudible sound that, being almost inaudible, was all the more menacing. Mrs Chaliffe seemed distressed the first time he offered to take it for a walk. ‘You don’t know what you’re getting yourself in for,’ she told him. They were busy practicing. The Annual Ballroom Challenge was coming up. Their tango was without flaw; they excelled at floorcraft but were weak on expression. Usually it was just the two of them, though every now and then the dog would appear and when he was watching, Mrs Chaliffe seemed to have trouble keeping the beat.
It was impossible to tell whether it was very late or very early. The windows were open – a pale green moth flew straight at the Astronomer’s face, its wings like gossamer and its body dense and throbbing. Eventually the rising sun spread its light across the eastern sky like an enormous gold eyeball.
That was me, Jee Moon said.
What was you? asked the Astronomer.
The moth, she said. Couldn’t you tell? I came from my home in the Purple Forbidden Enclosure, she said, pointing in the direction of the sky. In Boötes. Where you came from too, remember? The great cosmic void. If I hadn’t flown at you at that exact moment who knows what would have become of us.
How could you have been a moth? the Iceman asked. A luna moth, said Jee Moon.
A luna moth only lives for a week, said the Botanist. Its whole purpose is reproduction. It doesn’t even have a mouth.
So? said Jee Moon.
She took the Botanist’s hand and ran it over the curve of her belly.
And truly, when we looked at her we had to admit that while she seemed delicate to the point of insubstantiality, she also exuded a force as obvious and incontestable as gravity. Her skin, too, had the slightest green tint to it, not unlike the Qingbai porcelain water dropper that had traveled with us the length of the Silk Road, only to end its days in the top drawer of the bachelor chest among the marbles. It was a treasure, the water dropper. It was a souvenir, a memento of our grueling transit. It was evidence of our birthright, plus it could be used to moisten ink.
This is an excerpt from The Silk Road by Kathryn Davis, published 5 March 2019 by Graywolf Press.
Photograph © Thomas Quine