Once upon a time, Anne lived in a tiny and orderly universe.
It is difficult to say with much precision just when Anne’s tiny and orderly universe began, but it is easy to say when it ended. Anne will never forget the date: 67 After Mailbox Melt, 9th Notebook.
Specifically, it was shortly after dawn — at that time when the harsh light of the newly born sun, which hadn’t yet learned its manners, met without fear the dark purple blinds, and made the line dividing hot and cold hues on Anne’s desk the sharpest it ever got — when Anne, lazily flipping pages, saw the message from the wrong part of the future.
Until the moment when Anne’s universe shattered, the morning had been an ordinary one, which is to say there was no visit from Michael and no chores to do. It was a game morning, one of a long unbroken train. Those early parts of 9th Notebook were not a good time for Anne, for she had found that every book on the shelf, except of course those which she had converted into game books, was not only familiar to her but so familiar that reading could barely be distinguished from not reading. That is, not only did she remember the stories of all the story books and the arguments of all the treatises — she always had, except in the days of 1st and 2nd Notebooks — but she remembered the individual plan of nearly every sentence, so that looking at a page was not much different from calling up that page in her mind’s eye.
The effect was, of course, partial. She could not ask her mind to unroll a string of sentences, one after the other, without losing her way after the fifth, or fourth, or sometimes the third or second. She was still very far, blessedly far, from the bleak horizon of pure memorization. But it does not take anything like pure memorization to render a text so familiar that what one does with it can no longer quite be calling reading.
So Anne indulged in game mornings and game evenings more and more often. Since the opening of 9th Notebook she had gobbled up much of the prime material from 5th and 6th Notebooks, working on at least two distinct active games a day, sometimes more. She told herself that she had to think more closely over her moves than ever, now that she could eat up less and less time with reading. But without reading she found the once-tidy tracks of her mind fraying, the discipline she had learned as a small rapt girl reading Ratleak now dying away bit by bit, her own attitude toward Ratleak himself souring into defiant doubt, for all of his orderly lessons seemed less and less useful by the day, in this time when she needed them more than ever. More and more, her decision tables were focused idiotically on some mad ambitious plan of hers, elaborated into the future with the fantasist’s generosity of detail. When attending sullenly to any possible enemy activity which could not be fit into her scheme, she wrote inane decisions, nearly placeholders — and, of course, it was exactly these possibilities which the clever Anne of 5th or 6th Notebook made into realities.
It was almost as though she had, several Notebooks ago, anticipated the weak spots of her present self. This was not impossible, and such self-defeating tricks would not have been beyond her back then. Those were the days when, her mind carelessly fecund, she had invented Seven Shelves and the Thorn War Game, and had spoken to Twenty-Seven with so much exuberance and so little tact that Twenty-Seven had shut her out from any of her future notebooks. But she had no memory of conspiring in that way, and though she could not check the notebooks directly lest she lay bare her adversary’s mind and its secrets, she had asked any of the others who would know, and had gotten no leads.
She might have done it with Twenty-Seven, of course. The very possibility made her laugh, but it couldn’t be ruled out.
That morning, the morning of 67 After Mailbox Melt, 9th Notebook, began as a game morning of that late decadent type. Barely out of bed, without even glancing at the notebook, she had reached greedily for a partially filled Seven Shelves decision tree. But although she remembered no dream, there was a part of her that was still in the sleeping world, and her bleary eyes could barely resolve the individual marks on the paper, finely spaced as they were. She turned then to the notebook, where the letters were larger, since it was as thick as her hand was long, and would be extended by Michael if the last page were reached prematurely.
Opening to the latest page, she found a brief response from Eight. That was nice. She’d sent a letter to Eight a few days before, to an early Eight with whom she had never spoken and whom she hoped might invigorate her. She had spoken to Eight only in Eight’s later notebook, and while the dour Eight of 44th Notebook made poor company, she had also alluded frequently and with some bitterness to a bright girlhood. Anne had supposed this was just nostalgia, in the usual manner of her sisters in their later Notebooks. And she had feared, as usual, that in speaking unbidden to an Anne who had never spoken to her, she might open a door better left closed. Those few wretched Annes who had opened every door before thinking twice were always the most miserable, and they never spared a chance to lecture her about the dangers of their choice.
But these were difficult days, and so she’d sent a letter to Eight’s 2nd notebook. And now there was a response. It was nothing much, but it was pleasant enough:
FROM A8, NB 2, PG 774
Salutations. You are the 4th magic writer who has written in my books so far. I am still calling it magic writing although Eighteen said it was childish and made her feel “a uniquely acute revulsion.” She is old and I think she is a person like Mr Gull in the Travels of Young Goodman who “cannot be made glad by any ordinary thing, be it ever so satisfactory.” That is the only story book I like and I like it very much and since there is magic writing in it I am calling this magic writing, you see?
I am so bored because all of the other books are either too dull or too difficult, many are both. I have read in The Long Straight Path that boredom is one of the feelings that needs to be stamped out but it is hard. You said you are playing games a lot. I don’t know what games are exactly but it seems like they are a thing you can do other than books and notebook. You said you weren’t supposed to say much about the games but can you tell me how to play a game (is it play a game? I know about other varieties of playing which they do in some books but not about playing of games).
I would be pleased to hear more from you. Don’t worry I am not surprised about you being Twenty-Six. I knew there were many more than that since the 2nd one who wrote in my books was One Hundred Twelve. I have asked how many there are but no one knows, Eighteen said there was no end but I think she is old and a Mr Gull and all that. I know all the others are Annes, although I wish it weren’t so, if I could write to all the people in Young Goodman I would love that. Anyway here I am writing in your notebook and you can’t stop me. Please write more soon if you wish to write. I know you can make it any time and why not make it sooner instead of later.
Anne read this, and nodded. Did some small part of her feel disappointed, even after so much, that this was just another Anne? Did some part of her sigh, seeing those familiar titles appear on the page one more time? Didn’t some part of her wonder why it was that not a single Anne could be allowed a different room, a different shelf?
She would like to think so now. But then, it is hard now to place herself back in her tiny and orderly universe.
Grant bolted awake from a dream of endless red, and this time the moon was right outside his window.
Grant shook his head and lay back in bed. He shut his eyes briefly, and then opened them again. On the wall of his room he saw a large bright patch of moonlight, slanting diagonally at the top, fading off gradually into blackness on the left edge, which was vertical, straight up-down. Part of the patch was obscured by the dimmer, closer form of the dresser, a form fully dark inside but moonlit on its edges. He tried to remember the expanse of red velvet, but it had already faded.
When he woke up and the room was entirely dark, Grant could often hold the colors in his head for minutes at a time. Not now, though. Some part of him, a petulant little part, resented the moon for what it had just done. But other, more sophisticated parts of him were starting to move now, their gears engaging, finding traction, turning.
Grant sat up, paused, sighed, and got out of bed. The moon had been avoiding his room for weeks. This meant something, or was supposed to. Azad would say it did, anyway.
Feeling his way along the wall toward the door, Grant became aware of a muffled repetitive train of sound. Azad was playing the piano again, it seemed. What was the last time Azad had slept? Grant sighed and almost considered getting back in bed, securing a snatch of conscious time to himself, plain unvarnished time without the gleaming Azad touch. But a pang of guilt and concern struck the thought from his mind. He really didn’t know when Azad had last slept. And this renewed enthusiasm for the piano. Smirking, teasing allusions to the garden and even the streets. Was it his imagination, or had the Azad gleam been getting wilder in these last few phases? More brilliance with less sense? And where would it end?
Grant had no trouble finding the doorknob — in this new moonlight it was helpfully aglow — and he moved swiftly into the narrow hall. The unfamiliar light made the hall’s geometry newly real to Grant. He saw again how small it was — though not cramped, not unnaturally or claustrophobically small. Normally small, domestically small. It was a nice house meant for a small family, after all. In a nice neighborhood. With a garden. The carpet was soft under his bare feet. A nice place to live, it must have been. And it was still the same house. Strange.
Grant padded along toward the kitchen. The music was clearer now. A mazurka? Yes: jubilant, insistent, obnoxious, Azad’s right hand trotting about madly as his left pumped an incessant beat. Christ, thought Grant. What a way to wake up.
The kitchen was backlit from the right, now, via the little windows above the sink, the ones on the south side, like Grant’s window. The big picture window, directly ahead, brought in comparatively little light, though moving closer he could see the street below painted in bright orange by the streetlights, as always. The empty house across the street was dark, its outline barely visible against the starless sky.
“Grant!” The familiar voice was clear and blunt and maddeningly congenial, like the mazurka, which still went on.
“You’re lively as ever,” Grant replied. “Did you find a new songbook in the basement, or is this an original piece?”
There was a barking laugh, and the mazurka crashed to a halt. “Oh dear me. Do you mean to tell me that you’ve forgotten my ‘Dance of the Jerboas’? One of wee Azad’s proudest accomplishments. He weeps, now, inside me, little Azad. Look at what you’ve done to him. Terrible.”
“Dance of the Jerboas?”
“The little rodents that hop, hop, hop across the desert. Ears as big as their heads, fantastically sharp hearing. A perfect audience, unlike someone else I will not name. Perhaps I shall replace you with a jerboa, Grant. I must reflect upon the notion; it would have its advantages and disadvantages.”
Grant had moved now into the expansive living room, a capital-L shape with the grand piano at its hinge. Being on the north side of the house, the living room was now very dark. Grant trained his eyes on the darkest patches he could see, to prime his pupils, and promptly Azad’s tall thin head coalesced above the array of black and white keys. The dark hair looked scruffy, greasy.
“The moon’s right outside my window now.”
“Well of course it is. Seventh harmonic. I worked this out two days ago. The harmonics all work if you transpose them a fifth time. Weren’t you listening? I worry I’m outpacing you, Grant. There’s an advantage of the jerboa: hops at fifteen miles an hour. With fancy footwork, too, to lose predators. The owls come for them at night. A certain resemblance to our present condition, wouldn’t you say?”
“I don’t see your meaning. We aren’t hunted. We’re hibernating.”
“Hibernation is a seasonal phenomenon!” This, for some reason, was accompanied by a little melodic flourish on the keys. “It lasts the winter and then ends.”
All at once Azad hurled himself from the bench and stood upright. A few feet from Grant, the tall thin form paced and gestured.
“We used to talk about the end. We used to sit in the garden and speak to each other about signs and indications. Do you remember when we danced in the garden, Grant?”
Involuntarily, both men’s eyes turned to the sliding glass door at the far end of the L, to the dimly visible fronds and stalks beyond. The rocks they’d sat on. The high fence behind.
“We didn’t know what we were doing, Azad. We didn’t fucking know. We’d panicked and Mooncrashed and we didn’t appreciate how the Mooncrash worked, what it wanted.”
Azad laughed hoarsely. “And now we are so enlightened that we have no use for our faculty of thought, is that it? Shut off the brain until further notice. Get eaten by an owl, out there in the desert.”
“I know it’s beyond you to speak clearly, but I will never tire of making the request. Just what the hell are you driving at?”
“I know why the moon is outside your window, Grant. It’s all in the harmonics. The Mooncrash follows a specified program, yes? Prepared in advance for maximum occlusion. But it’s not all on auto, you see? It expects an intelligent user. A warm mammal with a functioning brain. This is interactive theater; we aren’t just the audience. And it’s starting to get restless, with no signs of intelligent life about. Must be so lonely for it, the poor smart thing.”
“So runs your latest enthusiasm. You’re a true believer but every passing phase brings a new belief, doesn’t it, Azad? But I’ll play along for now. What would you have us do?”
Azad’s eyes turned and stared. Two fierce glinting things in the darkness. And then their shape shifted: a smile.
“You, my jerboa, are going to hop down the street. There’s something in one of the other houses. You’re going to retrieve it.”
Grant stumbled backwards. “We’ve never done that. Foolish, rash . . . if I never come back, what will you do then? Play the mazurka on and on forever, that fucking smile on your face?”
“The owls are circling, Grant.”
“And why me? If you’re so sure, why won’t you do it yourself? Leave me behind, laugh at how I fear the dark.”
“Because, Grant, I need to know you’re with me. I know you’ll find this an odd admission, but I really can’t do this myself. I play the music, you dance. That’s how it will be. If we can do that together, the Mooncrash will be over before gibbous next turns to crescent.”
He was still then, and Grant too was still. The moon was still, and the house was still. All parties were used to stillness, now, for the Mooncrash was nearly four years old.
They relished it when she entered a room. They had to — despite the glares, despite the shuffling off towards walls and corners, despite even the occasional taunt or jeer. They had to, because she brought light into these halls. She brought presence. She brought things that were forbidden to them, or which they had forbid themselves, and having given those things up — well, some part of them, buried deep somewhere, had to miss them.
In Cordelia’s homespun metaphysics, there was light and the absence of light. The shades, of course, had the least light in them, but Cordelia saw no firm boundary between the shades and the more spectral of the students, who seemed day by day to be shading further into shadelikeness. The waifish and wiry, with their now-fashionable brown cloaks that mimicked the brown stone behind them, clearly aspired to the condition of the shades themselves, who were apt to vanish from view entirely when one’s attention waned. They wanted to be furniture for the Academy, inert and harmonious parts, waiting, making no rash or sudden moves. For (as everyone knows) the Shroud is upon us and while it tolerates the Academy — as it presently is, as it has been for the last eight years, a chrysalis, preparing itself step by minuscule step — it is not known (by anyone, and certainly not by you, Cordelia) that the Shroud will tolerate anything else.
And then at the other end was light. Not the light tones of pigment as opposed to the darker — for the albino pallor of the shades was the lightest of all on that score — but the light in the phrase to shed light, the light of a lamp held in the hand which makes its forceful impression on the surrounding gloom, un-hiding the hidden, getting to the bottom of things. The light of presence, heft, physical impact, the mode of being that changes a space, refuses to blend into it. But, too, the light of a delightful morning animated by sharp tea, of a cozy chat with the Ells, of anything that found life delicious and thereby thumbed its nose at the Shroud.
They must relish my audible footfall, Cordelia thought, as she raced down the spiral stairs into Main Hall. There must be something for them, she thought, in how starkly my dress stands out against the weathered brown and grey of these weary steps. My bright baby-blue tiered dress that moves as I walk. Motion registers even in the peripheral vision, draws the eye. Something new is here, says the eye. Cordelia is here, and now the room is a room with Cordelia in it, and such a different thing that is from the Cordelia-less room it was a moment ago.
Classes were in session, so Main Hall was nearly empty, but of course there were those who had this period off. A cluster of them had congregated against the wall opposite the big windows, so that the dim light of the October afternoon washed over them. They were fooling around with statomantic tricks, giving each other outrageous false memories, whole backstories that would become true and then flame out within a minute or two. Cordelia knew because their clothes kept changing, instantaneously — nothing outrageous, nothing with much light in it, just the mere addition or subtraction of a hat, the lightening or darkening of a cloak. Any serious statomancer could get the backstories without the clothes, or vice versa, but these students weren’t serious statomancers. They’d just taken Intro and hadn’t gotten bored of this stuff yet.
As Cordelia reached ground level, several of the group turned to face her, and there were the usual glares — not even glares, per se, nothing so forceful, just blank looks, untouched by conventional friendliness and sustained just a bit too long for comfort. She recognized most of them. First-years, a relatively lively gang who’d been friendly to her when they first arrived — targeting her with their eager questions because they had to ask someone, and she stood out — but the Hector G. Stein Academy pall had settled over them soon enough, and now they were less eager, dimmer, colder.
“Cutting class again, Cordo?” said one, a fresh-faced boy whose hair cut a sleek line across his forehead.
“That I am,” she replied. That she was. She had something to do, a thing which, in her considered opinion, was more worthwhile than Mrs. Purseslen’s planned review session on chromomantic query etiquette.
“Nice,” the boy said coolly. “Wish I got to cut class like ever without getting chewed out by Mrs. Vance. I guess we can’t all be the Ells’ little pets, right?”
There were some snickers. Cordelia sighed inwardly, but only from boredom. She knew she was the Ells’ favorite, and she refused to feel ashamed of it. It was nothing to do with family or money, after all; the Ells just liked her. (Was that all? All she could ever discern, anyway.) And they were good people, the Ells. They had light in them.
“That’s too bad. I could talk to them about the attendance policy, you know, they’re open to reasonable suggestions—”
She stopped because she knew it was the wrong answer, and had no idea how to steer the sentence to better waters.
“Oh, please do, Cordelia,” said a small girl sarcastically. A small girl with a surprisingly big voice — was there light there? But on the voice went, digging in. “We’re all in your hands. You make the rules, we just follow them.”
“I can’t talk,” Cordelia said. “I have things to do.” This was true. She hustled off in the direction of the grand door opposite the stairs.
“Hey Cordo,” another boy called after her, “have a date for the Gloaming Ball? Wanna be mine?”
This was supposed to be insulting, because it wasn’t a real request; this was understood by all without any explicit indications, and that in itself constituted the insult. No one wanted to take Cordelia to any of the Balls, it was understood, and while this was supposed to rankle, and occasionally did — not always for the reasons usually presumed — it did not now, because Cordelia had things to do.
She crossed the high arched threshold into another, longer section of Main Hall, and immediately veered right toward her destination: the bathroom. With every step she felt the small wooden box jostle against her midsection, straining against the the hastily assembled bundle of tape that affixed it to her person. In the expanse of the dress its inclusion was invisible; it was safe there.
She made a beeline for an open stall, closed and locked it, sat down, and with an awkward but effective series of gestures managed to retrieve the box. This bathroom too had high arched windows, and the pale uniform light suffused the stall. Just her and this little wooden box, alone, at last. In the dorms she was never alone, but here, here they gave her privacy, and so she could shed her light upon the thing she’d found in the darkness.
Cordelia lifted the top off the box. It came off easy in her hand.
She was looking down to see what was inside, but this was superfluous because there was no box anymore and no bathroom stall. There was also no Cordelia.
She could not see anything, but the impression was not one of darkness. It was an impression of space. Not tactile, not limited to the body: the space was all around, pervasive, no part of it distinguished by its proximity to her flesh. For she had no flesh, anymore.
She felt skeletal, was the word that came to her mind. But that was not nearly strong enough a word. She had no skin and no fat and no muscle, clearly, no internal organs, but even the bones which seemed to remain were not full things, but mere spindly lines strung together. She felt that she had shriveled as far as one can shrivel, that that process had reached its asymptotic end. No, she was not shriveled but a shrivel, a thing that could never have had any shrivelable substance in the first place.
With no flesh left, with nothing but line, she was very cold and so, instinctively, she tried to curl her non-limbs around her non-torso into a huddling ball. Instantly, the lines that were now her jerked and twisted, with a suddenness that startled her. No warmth ensued. None of her lines could touch any of her other lines, no transfer of heat was possible.
But now there was something new: the space around her felt her sudden motion and reacted. It convulsed. Shuddering waves battered her non-body, waves of revulsion, peristaltic waves seeking to expel her, vomit out the foreign substance. She felt deeply sick to her non-stomach. It was horrible, what she was doing to the space. It was grotesque. She was a disturbance, an interloping shrivel in this perfect plenum.
She had been all wrong, all along. She was not a light, not a presence. This place had been where all the light was, all along, and she was the dimmest, wrongest thing, a set of jerking bones, a thing of the dark, which had no right to be here. No right to touch light. She and the space were in perfect agreement: she was a poison and she ought to be expelled. But the damage had already been done. The space was sick, deeply sick, because of what she had done to it, and it was trying desperately, valiantly, to get her away, but that wouldn’t cure the sickness. The space had been still and now it would be shuddering forever.
She wanted to take her skeleton apart so it could no longer move, but no part of her could touch any other part, no skeletal finger could disassemble any skeletal joint. She tried to shriek, and her skull-head snapped back violently and in its wake were queasy, indignant vibrations, vibrations that built something with the others, a collective wave —
She was out. There was a bathroom stall around her. Pale October light. In the next stall, a toilet flushed.
The power of the vision retreated quickly. She remembered how the box made her skeletal, how there was a space inside, but she’d put the top back on the box now and she was in a bathroom in the Hector G. Stein Academy in pale October light just like before. Curiosity rushed in as horror fled. But she would not, she thought to herself, be opening the box again any time soon.
As she left the stall, she became aware of two other presences in the bathroom. There was a wraithly student in brown washing her hands to the right. And to the left, between Cordelia and the door, was the formidable form of Lilith Vance, Dean of Students.
Oh, perfect! thought Cordelia, and she rushed forward to meet her friend, hoping for a hug. Lilith Vance, just who I need for a good debriefing about my latest discovery. Maybe they’ll let me cut the next class, too, so she and I and Lucifer can sit and mull and pontificate at our leisure, mugs of piping coffee by our sides. Shedding light.
But something stopped her short. Lilith Vance looked different. She was not the Lilith of the Headmaster’s Office, of chats and coffee, but the Mrs. Vance of the Academy, an immovable rock bringing order to chaos. As Cordelia had moved, she had stood motionless. Her expression was one Cordelia had never seen her use, except when dealing with other students.
“Cordelia,” said Mrs. Vance, “you are to come with me to the Headmaster’s Office. This is a disciplinary meeting. You are being disciplined.”
The student at the washing basin looked at them with glee. She did not need to say anything for the message to be clear: oh, Cordelia, you thought the rules didn’t apply to you? That Mrs. Vance’s patience would be infinite? I knew you were just one of us, Cordelia.
In the hall, Mrs. Vance whispered, “you found that in the Catacombs, didn’t you?”
“We let you in there. Stupid, so stupid,” said Mrs. Vance. “We thought you knew. We assumed you knew.”
Cordelia said nothing.
“The Shroud is not a joke,” Mrs. Vance said.
Cordelia felt small and cold and wrong. The Shroud, the Shroud, the Shroud is upon us (as everyone knows) and we must shrink and fade and never wear a bright blue dress, as everyone knows, everyone but Cordelia. The Ells knew. They had tolerated her, but they knew. The pall was stronger than them. It was stronger than anything.