1. Room of Blood
First I heard the dirt settle, then nothing. Then a voice that belonged to a woman. I could feel her breath on my ear. After she talked awhile I could feel her curled into this coffin with me. She was naked except for the leeches.
Chad says in France, where the trenches were, there's so much blood that the ground is still barren. Chad says the six spiral arms tattooed around my navel are the insignia of something called the Krokodil Krewe of New Odesa. Basically Chad will say anything. The best thing about Chad is that in his room it's never quiet.
There are brothers who share the same mother; brothers who shared the same milk; brothers who shared the same home; and there are brothers who share the same blood. Not the vulgar blood that comes from our bodies, but the blood earned and discovered.
A church is a home. A garden is a holy book. To begin, mix the salt and blood of your body with the fecund ground. To begin, child, make a mark.
Every fountain, every well, needs its spring. And when the brothers show you the earth in the body of man [ED: the footnote indicated here has been lost], the escape is never anything but the throat, the isthmus of the fauces.
Faith branches out, like the roots of a tree. It starts warm in the heart and cools as it reaches further out; is pulled back and warmed again.
2. Room of Visions
Enough time in the dark and you begin to see the lights. First shapeless and pale; then colors, the eye aches for colors, indigo copper wine ivory lead blue marble quicksilver pink cyanide. Wait a minute. Maybe I mean flavors. When I say colors, maybe I mean flavors. Bright and metallic, from deep down. She twisted round and placed a snail shell delicately beneath my tongue, and I marveled at how the lights in the coffin caught the dirty moonstones where her nails used to be.
The radio hisses. Chad says once you learn to listen, you can make out voices in the static. He says there are self-aware patterns of information constantly speaking to us, but because they're afraid to lie they speak in the language of things: the blue blood of snails, the spatter-gray of birds in flight, the yellow gleam deep down in the honey, the yes in the static. Chad can think of more colors than I can. His eyes get milky with anticipation. The smoke thick in his room, his fingertips on my cheeks.
Deep in the earth, there is nothing to see. Does a man ever see his body? A man sees only his skin. You have to dig to see a man.
There are many gates and this is but the first: violet, the color of starved blood and unwanted growth. To begin, feel the black in your pocket. Still there? Good.
I have seen the Elder Mykos. I have seen the Second Elder Mykos. I have opened the holiest of books with my dagger.
The Second Elder Mykos loved riddles, which he said were distinct from parables, though I never understood the difference. The answer so obvious when seen.
3. Room of Earth
She showed me how to curl my hands. The way you curl your hands in the coffin is different from the way you curl your hands not in the coffin. Have you ever been in the coffin? Then you'll have to trust me. When I had learned to curl my hands, the floor of the coffin gave way. Dig, she said.
Over the grate in the fireplace, in a big brown brick, he's carved a design that he says is a cochlea, which is a part of the ear. He says the cochlea carving lets the earth hear through the brick, which means it can hear everything that happens in his room. He says when he carved it he found a vein of copper in the brick, and in the copper he could feel the earth's pulse. As he's saying this I fall asleep. There is the sound of water being poured over fire, but the light in the room does not diminish. That's how I know I'm dreaming. In my dreams I can transmute tea into snails. Nobody can hear what I'm doing in my dreams, not even the earth. In my dreams there are no witnesses.
The dirt is what is left of the saints and the fornicators that have come before us. Long ago we were constructed of dirt, just as the bricks of the great cathedrals were removed from the dirt and will return to it. My mother is dirt and the Temple of Solomon is dirt.
The earth will drink your modest offering; the limestone will mark your passage. The tunnel will open into a karst. The stalactites will reach out in supplication. When you are thirsty, cup your hands and drink the cold, muddy water that pools at your feet.
If we look at dirt for what it is, we realize that we bury the dead with the dead. Let the dead bury the dead! Do not spade the earth! A body given time will return on its own accord. The earth, which seems so still, will swallow you.
It is the nature of buried things to be hidden. (Ed. The text here is illegible) It was believed by the Second Elder Mykos that the center of the earth contained a plenum of holy fire, and a vacuum of the same fire.
4. Room of Roots
I had this little plastic flashlight. They buried me with it. And you tell your people too, when it's time to put you in the ground, tell them to have some fucking common sense and put a flashlight in. There's nothing you need to see down there, but there's plenty you can see, if your people have common sense. You can see roots. Roots grow down as far as the tops of the trees grow up. What are the tops of trees called? Branches. Roots are branches, but softer.
Chad is sleeping too. I can feel him curled into this bed with me at the same time as I'm transmuting the sea into the mails. But listen, I tell myself in my dream: witnesses are what I'm here for. I'm here for my family, to find my roots. Roots means witnesses. Roots means what happened to them, what happened that day. I thought that would be something Chad would understand, but all he has for me is the yes in the static, the earth's pulse, the goddamn Krokodil Krewe. When we wake up he tells me I'll hear the answer once I stop listening to everything else. He calls me to his room. I choke on the smoke and my eyes turn into brown brick. He asks the questions that I have been taught the answers to, and after I have answered one after the other there is a pause and I ask the same questions and he gives the same answers. My eyes turn into cochleas. This is a way of praying. I'm already drowsy again.
The Saint Elder Mykos‡, who, in parable, kneeled on the dirt and buried his right hand, fingers extended like roots, up to his wrists. To hear his teachings, a student would have to come to him and kneel. It would be easy enough for him to have pulled his hand from the ground, an uncareful moment was all that was needed, but he remained there for those last few years. This, he said, was faith.
‡ This is the only known mention of the First Elder Mykos as Saint Elder Mykos
Build your cathedrals tall. Clean your hands. Raise your voice. In celebration, dig. In celebration, spit. As roots to a tree, so your caverns to your cathedrals. This is the invisible ziggurat. This great root.
…who showed me the great catacombs. I was amazed at how deeply they stretched. It was easy, the guide said, to become lost down here. The path intersecting with another and twisting, seemingly randomly. The walls lined with the bones of my brothers. Miles of this. A tree is only as firms as its roots.
My roots are tangled. My mother brought me here. I can trace from her to the Elder Mykos, which makes me the younger. I wonder did she crawl under him, his hand still planted, as he planted me in her? Or was it before his test of faith? Did she say to him, quoting him, I removed my gown, the better to hear with my skin.
5. Room of Past
Of course I'm past that now. I'm past the lowest roots, which means if I were levitating up into the sky I'd be past the highest branches. Except sometimes there is a root of metal, or some different kind of stone. I follow those veins—something to run my hand across, something to lean on. And I wonder if the metal roots grow like the tree roots but over centuries. Or should that be millennia. If we watched them in geologic time, would we see them burrow aimlessly like blind worms. I burrow aimlessly like a blind worm. (Am I metal.)
(We used to play a game as children. One of us, eyes closed, would call out, “Marco,” and the rest of us, just out of arms' reach, would yell back, “Polo.” It was fun to watch our blind friend struggle, and it was fun to be blind and struggle. This is like that. Blind and reaching out, calling out, straining to hear the lullaby. The song is sometimes close and then suddenly distant. Those voices in union, singing.)
It was the Second Elder Mykos, who said, If my dagger was true, if my errand was true, if my ears and my voice were true, then I too would escape; and I would be surer, then, that my stabbing arm led me true.
Bow continually, as if nodding in the wind. Drink only tea made from roots. Knock three times against the ribs of the cage. Begin to slide downward.
The past may be fitted together and rearranged to make many different pictures. Like a careless word, it may mean one or many things. The Elder of Mykos whispered in my ear, but his voice was too faint and interrupted by his coughing, his words coming from bloody lips: Each man finds in a story what he went digging / your Bible with you / past, like any story, is a lie that flatters the reader. Trying to teach me even as he tried not to convulse least his hand be pulled from the ground.
Who is said to have descended from Solomon himself, the great lover of riddles.
6. Room of Hymns
Meanwhile they're singing up there. That's the only sound that carries this far, the hymns. The earth—you know, it swallows the rest. The earth listens actively. But song saturates the ground and shoots down the spiral of the earth's cochlea and keeps me dancing. Downward. Dancing downward. Water to roots: hymns to my ears. I have no ears.
I shot the mustached man, hit him cleanly in his Adam's apple. Whether this eliminated one of the voices I couldn't say. The other man maintained his daguerreotype pose, all except for his hands. I shot him too, the same spot as the first. I stuffed the flannel in my good ear.
We are a brotherhood and when we sing, we are as one. We share the same voice, it serves to time our breathing and so at the right moment, in the silence that is as much a part of the song as the sound, we share the same breath.
In the morning, pull this string. This string rings a bell. By the bell your elder knows that you are still breathing, and by breathing praying. In the morning, your elder walks through the garden of the saints and tends the trees. When you no longer pull the string that rings the bell, your elder will pray in your place. This is the practice.
It is better to hear with the skin. It is better to hear with your eyes closed. Better that you seal your ears with warm wax, if you wish to hear.
Even buried here, where I am without, in any meaningful sense of the word, a body, and where I am without color, where even the taste of dirt has subsided and become one with the wet of my mouth, even buried here I can hear the hymn: I can hear the blood in my ears singing His praise.
7. Room of the Foot
I have feet. I am one giant foot, like a snail. What I mean is I'm a tunnel. Sometimes I extend for hundreds of meters before I collapse under my own weight. Sometimes I'm a pocket just big enough that I can paw at the wall in front of me and mash the dirt into the wall behind me. Make a little progress. I say dirt; it has the feel of dirt, it breaks up between my fingers like dirt, and it smells like dirt, but it moves a little too easily—this blackness.
And as they fall, the blood spools out from wounds in their feet, like silk from a spider. And as they fall they tighten into a spiral until they reach that inevitable point of self-cocooning. The familiar position.
…and that the sole of the foot, although it is intricately structured, may be shown to be the single structure of the body which is not derived from the structure of color.
Barefoot, collect white snails, these being best for divination. In the morning, wet the ground and pray while the snails sprout dull and white in the garden. When they bleed blue, ask your elder to open them with a razor.
It depends on what you are trying to map. Try this: make a cut on the heel of your foot and, though the garden may fork, your path will be written crimson and clear.
Grab the heel of your brother—we are a brotherhood!—and follow him to the grave.
8. Room of Nectar
Like bees without a queen, my thoughts buzzing. Q: How are bees without a queen like a queen without bees? A: It's a fucking mystery. The interior of a stone also is a very great mystery. I am a book of fucking mysteries.
It feels sinful to be here without him. And if I am honest, the sin feels good. The radio, his unmade bed, his shoes worn down on the instep. In his bathroom: a razor, soap with some of his hair embedded in it, various pills. Ipecac Rhizome. The room has his smell. Peaceful but for my thoughts.
The words of our mother are of apricot. The words of our father are of honey. We subsist on these words. These words make our mouths sour and slow with their sweetness.
Barefoot, collect honey. Whip with brandy and mix with the dirt of dried and ground mushrooms. Now dream. Be gleaners all. Be digging through not-dirt and be searching, white as eggs, wet as tongues.
And when my mother had offered me the apricot I had asked instead for a fig, which is a ficus.‡
‡ This seems in reference to the hymn of the same name
Lies are made sweet so that we will swallow them. The truth taste like copper and dirt.
9. The Burial Chamber
I sleep irregularly but often, and in my dreams I dig. I dig and I dream of digging. If you dig deep enough down, there are stars.
He was an oneirist and a jar opener. I used to get dizzy sitting in that room with him. Full of perfumed smoke and the radio. We would grind seeds with rough volcanic stones and then sift through the ash looking for the cyanide. His gray tongue. Habit can bury anything. He was right about that. That I believe.
At length I heard because I had listened.
When you come to us, dig your grave and clean your skin. Shave the head and wash the body. When you come to us, we shall part your lips and plant our seed. Quiet and it will grow in the black. Quiet and the roots will spool out. Our graves laid out in a spiral. Look up on a cloudy night and tell me when you pass from this sleeping to that.
At length I heard because I had listened.
At length I heard because I had listened.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Brian Conn is the author of The Fixed Stars (FC2, 2010) as well as short fiction in Conjunctions, Unstuck, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon.
Michael Stewart is the author of several books including A Brief Encyclopedia of Modern Magic. In 2011, he was chosen by Starcherone Books as one of the thirty most innovative young writers under thirty. Currently he teaches writing at Brown University.
The GCB, Brown University
The GCB is a nonprofit bar in the basement of the Graduate Center. It is a windowless, cement bomb-shelter like space with dart boards and reasonably priced beer. Although it’s on campus property, the GCB is somehow operated independently from the school. Robert Coover would sometime meet his students there. He mostly drank wine. Someone told me that the school tried once to shut it down and Coover stepped in and saved it, but I don’t know if that's true. I also heard that Shelley Jackson mapped the steam tunnels under the school and supposedly there’s a tunnel that connects to the GCB. Once when she gave a reading here, I asked her for a copy of her map. She said the story wasn’t true, there is no map.