After a fraught, improbably long life, a post-apocalyptic archivist resigned to cataloging ephemera from the “old world” times finds his life upended by an orphaned girl. . .
The magazine is called Antic: The Atari Resource. It was published in 1984, but it’s in perfect condition—or as close to it as can be expected for a century-old text. Its cover is bright yellow, with a picture of a jester popping out of a gray box. He’s holding a joystick, and his head is a monitor.
The scavengers discovered it in the basement of a collapsed house twenty miles east of Yarrowdown. There were boxes and boxes of magazines, most of them lost to rats and water damage. By some miracle, this one survived.
I lay it carefully on my easel. Afternoon light filters through the scriptorium’s front windows, illuminating scribes bent close over their texts. To my right, Harby works through a pulp detective novel; to my left, Teresa transcribes a fat textbook on microeconomics. There are twenty of us, sitting as we always do around four long tables arranged in a square in the center of the room. It’s quiet, save for the sound of creaking chairs, sniffles and coughs and cleared throats, and the steady hiss of pen on paper. Occasionally Master Pascal, who sits supervising in the center of the square, rises to hold a murmured conference with one of the scriveners.
Gently pinching a corner of the cover between thumb and forefinger, I open the magazine to its first page: an advertisement for a modem.
Auto Answer / Auto Dial
Direct Connect to Phone Line
No Atari 850™ Interface Model Needed
New low price $149.95
I stop, overwhelmed by memory. When I was young, I spent long hours using a device like this to log into contraband BBSes, browsing forums and downloading pirated games, praying my mother didn’t pick up the phone and kill the connection. The memories are distant and implausible: modems, computers, telephones, the infrastructure that bound them together, the electricity on which they relied. It feels like a dream.
A tap on my shoulder. I look up to see Pascal standing over me. “Woolgathering, Scrivener Clancy?” he says.
I realize that I’ve been simply staring at the ad for some time. “I believe I am. Forgive me, Master Pascal.”
Teresa, sketching in a graph beside me, chuckles.
“See that it doesn’t happen again,” says Pascal, with a kindly smile. Before his ascension to Master Scrivener he was simply Pascal: a scribbler like the rest of us. He specialized in corporate brochures, but his great love was European travel agency pamphlets from the 1960s.
I root through my box and select a pen with a 4 mm nib, then draw out a fresh sheet of paper and begin. I transcribe everything: trademarks, company addresses, phone numbers, even the photographs, sketching them in to the best of my meager abilities. The Eternal Mother insists on absolute fidelity. We must wrestle abstractions into submission, she told us on one of her rare visits to the scriptorium. Anything that cannot be fixed on the page is contraband. Anything that cannot be known utterly is a lie.As I work, I wonder whether I should bring this page to the censor’s attention. The modem itself is unobjectionable: a solid thing with a single purpose that, once built, remained steadfastly what it was. But it was also the doorway to a purely abstract world, protean and unconnected to the stuff of reality. It enabled an empire built on ether, disfigured by change, I imagine Mother saying, in the strident cadences of her weekly sermons. It was the death of knowledge, and the beginning of madness.
The scriptorium is the antithesis of that empire. We capture the things the old world knew and immortalize them, salvaging what was real and preserving it on the page. Nothing is too trivial. Last week I transcribed a lovely little family cookbook, two dozen handwritten recipes on yellowing paper, bound loosely together and passed down the generations. The week before I copied a bus schedule for a route from Lakeforest Mall to Shady Grove Metro.
Mother’s only requirement is that our texts be grounded in the fixed world. Their subject doesn’t need to be true, but it must be stable. Scientific and engineering texts are always welcome. Fiction is generally allowed, so long as it’s clearly identified as such. Literary memoirs are suspect, as they often straddle the line between reality and artifice. But holy texts are forbidden: the gods of the old world were intangible, unquantifiable and—worst of all—malleable, changing from generation to generation according to the needs of the faithful and the agendas of their priesthood.
Minutes of state legislatures: yes. Transcripts of sermons: no.
Darwinian evolution: yes. Lamarckian evolution: no.
Platonic forms: no. Aristotelean metaphysics: maybe. Postmodernist relativism: absolutely not.
And so on. The modem is on the edge of what’s acceptable, but I decide to leave it in.
I move on to the editor’s note, a retrospective of the magazine’s first two years. I choose a pen with a finer nib and transcribe it quickly, moving down the page until I reach the final paragraph.
Well, that’s last year; this computer business waits for no one. What are we planning? More of the same high-quality material by well-known and knowledgeable writers in the Atari world, continued dedication to accurate, readable listings, relevant production information and a genuine interest in things Atari.
This stops me. The editor’s confidence in his magazine’s future is bittersweet, certainly, and his quiet conviction that there would be a future for it to survive into is poignant. But the feeling it has unlocked in me is fear.
Another ancient memory floats to the surface, dark and glistening, unfolding like a serpent. Before I can look away I see myself standing in a narrow corridor between rows of stacked kennels, talking to a woman sitting with her back against one of the cages.
She’s petting the Yorkie curled up in her lap. It’s the golden summer between high school and college, the last day of my job at Montrose Pet Hotel. I’m eighteen years old. There’s a dachshund straining at the end of the leash in my hand.
I squat down and ruffle the Yorkie’s ears, glancing at its nametag. “Edmund,” I say. “Weird dog name.”
“I’m guessing they named him after Edmund of Langley,” says the woman. “You know? First Duke of York.”
Her name comes back to me across the decades: Allison. Allison has piercing green eyes, heavy black eyeliner and carmine lipstick. Her hair is piled on top of her head in thick, carefully disheveled curls. I’ve been working up the courage to ask her out for months.
“Right,” I say, trying for something between knowing and sarcastic. “History nerds.”
“History’s a pretty cool thing to be nerdy about.”
“Totally! Yeah. Totally. I’m totally pro-nerd.” It’s an inauspicious beginning. I forge on. “Hey, listen, They Might Be Giants is playing at the 9:30 Club tonight. I was wondering if you want…I mean, if you’d like to…” I trail off.
She looks down at Edmund, scratching between his ears. “Are you trying to ask me out?”
“Yes,” I say, relieved. “Thank you.”
She smiles without looking up. I remember the little flutter of hope in my belly.
Then her eyes widen, and something new comes into them. Confusion, first, and then fear. Her cheeks puff out and her chest contracts, as if she’s about to be sick. When she opens her mouth to speak her tongue flops out and drapes itself over her chin. And then it keeps coming, swelling as it emerges, snaking down to her chest like a necktie.
The Yorkie looks up at her, twisting its head left and right. The dachshund yaps and skitters backward, tugging at its leash. Allison surges to her feet, making a choking, strangled noise around the trunk of her tongue, staring down at it, and then at me, terror battling revulsion in her eyes. She tries to stuff it back in her mouth. But there’s too much of it, and it’s still coming.
Finally she turns and runs, clutching her tongue’s thickening coils against her chest. I hear the door to the front bang open. Someone screams.
Everyone who was there when the plague began had a story like this: their first brush with the wave of spontaneous mutations that tore through humanity, leaving twisted bodies and desperate monsters in its wake. This is mine. There are far worse images ambered in my mind—an anchorman’s head splitting gently apart as he read the evening news, spilling its contents down the front of his crisp white shirt; the thing my mother became, a head and thorax suspended between an arched profusion of arms, lifting her bloody face out of the remains of our dog—but Allison was the first.
I’m saved by the sound of the scriptorium’s door opening. I blink the nightmare away and look up to see Priscilla slipping quietly into the room and crossing to the long low bookcase on the opposite wall. She clambers onto it and settles down, cross-legged, on the top shelf.
Priscilla is a slight girl, nearly ten now, with wide onyx eyes and a serious mien that belies her years. She visits every afternoon, precisely an hour before evensong, to watch us at our quiet work. I don’t know why she does this, and there’s no asking her—she does not speak. Her steady gaze drinks everything in and gives nothing back. But her arrival is a sudden wash of light, chasing all these terrible memories back into the darkness.
I catch her eye and smile. She looks at me impassively for a moment, then away.
A throat clears. I look over to find Pascal staring at me. He inclines his head toward my easel, arching an eyebrow.
I smile and draw out a new sheet, and begin on the letters to the editor.
The afternoon proceeds peacefully, marked only by the slow shifting of the sun; the light slants through the western windows as it wanes, creeping across the floor and then climbing the far wall, spotlighting Priscilla as it rises.
At dusk, Master Pascal stands. “Thank you, I think that will do for today,” he says. “We’ll resume tomorrow, at lauds.”
And with that the silence breaks, like a great exhalation. Nineteen scriveners stand up, stretch, put away their materials, chatting quietly. I envy their dexterity. It has been some time since I could simply rise from a chair, without several minutes of awkward effort.
A pleasant murmur fills the room. Teresa closes her text. “Plans for the evening, Clancy?”
“I have an appointment with that young lady,” I say, inclining my head toward Priscilla. “You?”
“Dinner with Claude.” She makes a face. “I think he’s going to try another one of his beet recipes on me.”
“Be steadfast, my dear. Beets can’t be in season forever.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself.” She smiles, ruefully, and picks up her bag. “Goodnight, Clancy.”
I watch her hurry out of the room. This work is hard on the young: their whole lives lie ahead of them, aching to be lived; they shouldn’t be spending their days transcribing the remains of a dead world. It’s a task best suited to people like me. I’ve lived enough lives. I’ll gladly dwell in the past until the end of my days.
Pascal wanders over and sits beside me as the room empties. “You were more distractible than usual today, old man,” he says.
I gesture at the text. “This one brings back some memories.” And then, realizing what I’ve said: “My grandfather told me about magazines like this.”
Pascal nods, his expression betraying nothing. He’s a small, fastidious, obsessively tidy man who arranges his pens in equidistant parallel lines and speaks in clipped bursts—each word carefully vetted, shaped, curated, and then dropped into place. We sat beside each other for the better part of a decade. Secrets are difficult to keep in those circumstances. He knows mine, I suspect—or the outlines of it—and I know his.
One day, in the third year of our acquaintance, I looked up to see an eruption on the side of his head: tiny hillocks rising from his skin just below the hairline, like a gathering tide, and rippling across to his forehead before subsiding again into his skull. It was the first of many such small incidents. A few years later, while we were chatting, I watched the pupil of his left eye stretch into an oval, strain for a moment, and then bud into two pupils; and then four; and then eight; until his eye was a swimming colony of tiny black holes.
I suspect that Pascal’s meticulous self-control is, at least in part, an effort to keep these little incidents at bay. The plague has touched him only lightly, but Mother does not make those sorts of distinctions: any changelings discovered within Yarrowdown’s walls are swiftly executed.
“Well,” says Pascal, standing. “Good evening, Clancy.” He turns to Priscilla. “And good evening to you, young lady.”
Priscilla stares at him. He smiles, nods, and crosses to the door. When he’s gone, she slides off the bookcase and approaches me.
I pull my cane out from under the chair, moving even more slowly than usual—I woke this morning to an ache that permeates my body, thrumming steadily like a migraine. It has been with me for nearly a week, worsening with each new day. I do not begrudge time its price, but this pain is something else. It pulses with the dull urgency of a premonition.
If the past is any indication, it will soon reach its crescendo. This time, I will end things before it can.
Priscilla watches me impassively as I heave myself to my feet. “Hello my dear,” I say. “Where shall we go today?”
She studies me, and says nothing.
I furrow my brow theatrically, in a pantomime of deep thought. “Now that I think of it, I believe that Mademoiselle Calax has prepared a fresh batch of peach ice cream. Perhaps we should pay her a visit?”
Her eyes widen slightly—a cataract of emotion, for Priscilla. Which emotion, exactly, I cannot say.
She arrived at Yarrowdown ten years ago, nestled in Ost’s arms. A scavenging party found her in a culvert, still tethered by an umbilical cord to her mother’s corpse. Priscilla lay on her back, staring up at the sky, tiny fists balled at her side, blinking slowly. She stirred only when Ost lifted her, turning her head to study her rescuer with flat, implacable curiosity.
“Mademoiselle Calax it is, then,” I say. I know better than to hold out my hand—Priscilla does not like to be touched—so I simply turn and make for the door. She falls in beside me, matching my glacial pace.
Watcher Croesus is sitting at the front desk, staring at the opposite wall. He turns his tonsured head slightly as we approach. “Done for the day, Scrivener Clancy?” he says.
There is something of the derelict motel to the man: at rest he seems not just absent but uninhabited. When he rouses himself to speak it is as if he has only recently arrived.
“Yes, Watcher Croesus. Another day gone.”
“May they follow one upon the other.” He turns his attention to Priscilla. His face, blank as death, sharpens into disquieting attention. “And what did you learn among the scriveners today, little girl?”
I lay a hand on her shoulder, feeling a sudden urge to whisk her away from that impassive, smothering regard. She flinches, but does not throw me off.
“Priscilla does not speak, Watcher Croesus.”
“Yes,” he says. “One wonders—is she incapable of it? Or is it a choice?”
“I hope she will tell us one day.”
His eyes flick up to meet mine. “I wonder what she’ll say when she does.” He smiles, thinly, and holds my gaze for a long moment. There are whispers that the child that dwells unborn inside the Eternal Mother can project its mind beyond the womb, and that Croesus is one of its favorite vessels. Whenever a changeling is exposed in Yarrowdown, say the wags, Croesus is never far away. I do not put much stock in the superstitions surrounding the Eternal Mother, but it seems plain to me that Croesus is one of her spies.
“Have a pleasant evening, Watcher Croesus,” I say, and turn away, ushering Priscilla down the stairs to the exit. I feel his eyes boring into my back, and take care not to hurry. This is no great effort. I’ve been incapable of hurrying for some time now.
Outside, dusk fades steadily into night. I give Priscilla my cane and descend the stairs to the street, one hand on the rail, the other on her shoulder. We step into the throng and turn south, down Tributary Walsh.
The streets are humming with activity. I recognize only a few of the faces. It was once possible to know everyone in Yarrowdown, but our numbers have swollen over the years. Twice now, Mother has razed and rebuilt the settlement’s walls farther out, to make room for our burgeoning tribe. The top of the south wall rises over the roofline at the bottom of Tributary Walsh. Spotters move back and forth along its parapet, scanning the horizon.
I see Teresa in the lot across from the scriptorium, chatting with Claude, who’s holding a large, purple, papier-mâché llama’s head. She waves at me, then takes the llama head from him and mounts it on the metal post behind her home.
Most of the scriveners live in this lot, each claiming a number of parking spaces according to their rank. Teresa’s house, an ancient station wagon, is parked lengthwise across her two spaces. She’s removed its tires and torn out most of the interior to make room for a cot and a low table, and hung seafoam-green curtains across the windows. A long planter sits at the head of her plot, filled with neat rows of succulents. The post on which she’s mounting the head belonged to a parking meter once—but Teresa can no more imagine this than she could conceive of her house speeding down the road in rush hour traffic.
We reach the bottom of the boulevard, where it feeds into the hard river, and turn north toward the boulangerie. The river’s slow asphalt groan is mostly obscured by the bright hum of the crowds moving along its banks, hemmed in on one side by storefronts and by the river on the other. I watch a young woman vault the railing and scamper laughing across its uneven surface, to the delight of her friends.
The hard river was a road once, stretching north from the old capitol to the continental fissure. It came alive soon after the plague began, turning overnight into a churning, half-molten, miles-long serpent. In those early days it ate anything that strayed too close to its banks, shooting out pseudopods of molten tar to drag unwary creatures beneath its surface, where it ground them steadily apart. Its low roiling growl reverberated for miles; I’m told. You could hear it day and night, mixed in with the screams of its victims.
But it has stilled over the years, and now appears to be frozen into miles and miles of tempest-tossed asphalt waves and jagged troughs. It’s still alive, though; if you stare long enough, you can see it moving, very slightly. Every so often it rouses itself to eat. Last year Uriah Compost, reeling from drink, danced singing along its surface until a fissure opened and swallowed him whole. It took him a day to die. You could hear his muffled screams all through the compound.
The young woman jumps back onto the sidewalk, unscathed and still laughing. I smile at her, despite myself.
At the intersection with Tributary Leland we pass beneath the remains of old Prescott, hanging high above the throngs. He died yesterday, but Mother has not yet taken him down. In life, he was a kindly old man with an occasional tendency to become two kindly old men, joined at the back. When he was discovered, in the throes of his Change, Mother had her men tear him apart. She crucified one of him here, and the other him just outside the walls, as a warning to any other secret changelings who might consider insinuating themselves into the society of Yarrowdown. The shaft of the cross is stained with the blood oozing from the tattered remains of his back, where he was once attached to himself. His chin rests on his narrow chest. His dead eyes bulge out of their sockets, staring out at nothing.
I see Priscilla looking up at him too and—seeking to distract her—bend down and point at the seamstress’s shop beside us. “I ate kebabs there when I was a boy, you know.”
Priscilla looks at me, then at the glass storefront. A woman sits in the window, repairing a dress on her sewing machine, peddling steadily at the treadle.
“It was called Moby Dick—the restaurant, I mean. Moby Dick was a whale from an old book.” I look at her, trying to decide if she knows what a whale is.
Watcher Croesus was right: I tell Priscilla my secrets. The old memories rise relentlessly to the surface in my dotage, no longer willing to remain buried. They superimpose themselves on the hard river now, smoothing its fractured surface into four lanes, raising stoplights at the intersections, re-erecting lighted signs over the storefronts. Here’s the Army Surplus store where young posers bought pocket knives and goths shopped for combat boots. There’s the steakhouse where I went on my first date, with a lovely frizzy-haired girl a head taller than me who sat chattering happily beside me in the backseat of a Civic as we sped down Route 355in Friday night traffic.
I can’t talk to anyone about these things, not even Pascal or Ost: they’re ancient history, too long-ago for anyone alive now to remember. I shouldn’t be telling Priscilla about them either. I don’t know why I do.
“I came here with my friends,” I say. “If it was late enough they’d let us sit by the window for hours.” We stand watching the seamstress work. The crowd parts and seals around us, a few of them smiling at Priscilla, perhaps seeing an old man and his granddaughter out for a walk. It’s a lovely notion. The warmth of it saturates me, dulling for a moment the steady thrum of pain.
“We should go, my dear,” I say, presently. She nods—another single, sharp declination of her chin—and turns toward north.
Mademoiselle Calax’s boulangerie is on the south bank of the river. We cross at Second Bridge and mount three short steps to a pink-and-blue door. A small bell tinkles merrily when we open it.
The boulangerie’s front room is large and airy, with high ceilings and small tables scattered across its tile floor. One long, communal table stretches across the width of the front window. Mademoiselle sits there, chatting with a clutch of mummers still in stage dress. She looks up when we enter.
“Priscilla!” she cries, rushing over. “My, you’re bigger every time I see you!” She leans in close, lowering her voice to a stage whisper. “I’ve put aside some ice cream for you.”
Priscilla regards her for a long moment, considering. She looks up at me, then back to the Mademoiselle.
“Oh,” says Mademoiselle, her face falling. “I’m afraid there’s only enough for you, my dear.”
Calax was born Annie Crenshaw, in the sentient city of Chicago. She crossed eastward along the continental fissure when she was a child, part of that murderous city’s diaspora. She dresses like a Parisian model from the ’60s, a style culled from the crumbling fashion magazines her mother left her. It befits her narrow, angular frame.
“I would gladly settle for one of Mademoiselle’s excellent eclairs,” I say.
“Then it is decided!” says Calax, clapping her hands together. She disappears into the back and returns a moment later with a perfect dome of peach ice cream in a shallow china bowl. A sculpturally exquisite eclair sits on the tray beside it.
“You have outdone yourself, Mademoiselle,” I say.
Calax flushes. “You are too kind, monsieur.”
We take the tray to the long bar set against the front window. Priscilla clambers onto one of the high stools and begins to eat: slowly, methodically, letting the ice cream melt in her mouth between each bite.
I watch her, feeling a smile play across my face. The plague struck before I was old enough to even imagine children of my own, and in its aftermath there was only the will to survive. Perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to Priscilla when she arrived. I’ve watched her grow from a silent infant into a silent girl. When Ost asked if I would help take care of her, I happily agreed.
We’ve toured all of Yarrowdown together, Priscilla and I. I’ve taken her to mummer’s shows and harpsichord concertos on the green; stood with her at the playground while she watched the other children at play; walked along the top of the wall to show her the ruins outside of Yarrowdown, and the hard river cutting a straight course through them—north to the fissure, south toward Obdurate Mary’s territory. I’ve learned to notice the slightest shifts in her mood, and understand what they mean. I’ve seen her brief flashes of unguarded joy; I’ve held her when the demons overtook her and she withdrew, overwhelmed, into herself, to a place that not even Ost could reach.
It wasn’t long before her joys became my own, and her occasional sorrows cut me to the quick. In those times I remember how my mother looked at me sometimes, with an inscrutable admixture of happiness and pain.
I look out the window. The memory of the setting sun ochres the horizon. Two lamplighters walk along either side of the hard river with their long flame-tipped poles, igniting the lamps that line its banks, leaving pools of flickering illumination in their wake. Lovers walk hand in hand in the gentle chiaroscuro.
Sitting beside Priscilla, watching this narrow slice of Yarrowdown, it’s possible to imagine a better world: a past that’s more than a tapestry of despair, a future not saturated with horror. I used to believe that these moments of grace were the delusions of a desperate mind, erecting a wall of lies around what remained of its capacity for hope. But I’ve come to see them for what they are: precious gifts, rare, and beautiful, and indispensable.
I’ll be leaving all of this tonight. I’ve lived through five renewals since the plague began. The pain saturating my body augurs a sixth, and very soon. I told myself that the gift of life justified the agony, but I no longer believe that: the changes renew my body, but they do nothing for the withered places in my mind. I’ve plodded on for no reason I can name, beyond the guttural impulse to survive. Life long ago lost its savor. It’s time to end it.
My only regret is leaving Priscilla. She has complicated things.
“Well,” I say, reluctantly. “It’s time we got back, don’t you think? Ost will be worried.”
Priscilla stacks her bowl on top of my plate and clambers off her stool and carries the tray to Mademoiselle Calax.
We cross the bridge and walk back in the cooling night. Watcher Croesus is still at his post when we enter the scriptorium, but he has retreated inside of himself, and does not stir. We take the stairs down to the lower level.
Two perpendicular corridors stretch out from the vestibule at the bottom of the stairs, with rooms on either side. These were classrooms once, before the plague, but they’re apartments now. We turn down the rightmost corridor, toward Ost’s room.
She opens her door before I can knock. “There you are,” she says, kneeling down to give Priscilla a hug. She looks up at me. Ost is a stout woman with broad Inuit features and kind eyes that bely the stern glare she’s giving me now. “You’re late, old man.”
“My apologies,” I say, smiling. “Time passes quickly in such excellent company. We visited Mademoiselle—”
The pain chooses that moment to slip its fetters. It surges suddenly through me, as if someone has touched an electrical wire to the base of my spine: racing through my body, lighting it afire, tearing down the barriers between my senses, flooding them all at once. I smell the pain. I hear it. I taste it.
When I become aware of the world again I am on my knees. Priscilla is beside me, at eye level now. Fear has replaced her mask of impassivity.
Ost is leaning over me, one hand on my shoulder. “Clancy,” she says. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” I say, waving them off. “I’m fine.” There’s something burgeoning inside of me, a pressure against the inside of my skin. “Just light-headed.” I try to stand, but cannot muster the strength. “Would you two help an old man up?”
They position themselves on either side of me and half-lift me to my feet. The pain crouches, hackles raised, gathering its strength for the final pounce. There isn’t much time.
“Thank you,” I say. “I think I’d better get some rest.”
“We’ll help you to your room,” says Ost.
“No no, I’ll be fine.” Priscilla looks stricken. I smile at her. “Don’t worry, my dear. I’ll see you tomorrow, yes?” I regret the lie immediately, and not just because I suspect she can see through it: it’s deeply unfair. Hope is a rare and delicate thing.
“Goodnight then,” I say, and turn away. Hurrying now, I make my way to the end of the hall and turn toward my room.
It’s unusual for a mere scrivener to have lodgings in the scriptorium, but I pled my old bones and was granted a small room at the very end of the eastern wing. I enter it now, close the door and lock it.
I stagger over to the table beside my bed and light a candle, then yank open the drawer and pull out the knife: a stiletto with a long, wicked blade. I tear open my shirt and press the blade to my skin, between the third and fourth ribs. One quick thrust into the heart, diagonally and upward to compromise as many chambers as possible. It will be fatal, and quick—too quick, I hope, for my body to reverse.
But I hesitate. Priscilla’s face surfaces out of the pain. I see her watching the other children at play. I see her returning Croesus’s steady glare. Eating Mademoiselle Calax’s ice cream with muted, meticulous pleasure. Sitting cross-legged on the scriptorium’s bookshelf, waiting for me to finish my day’s work. And then I see her doing all those things, alone.
A century ago I worshipped a benevolent god. The plague made a mockery of that faith, and in its aftermath I found myself with a choice: believe in an unimaginably cruel god, or in no god at all. I chose the latter. It was an easy decision at the time. But it has robbed me of an afterlife, and of the hope of seeing Priscilla there one day.
I put the knife aside. The pain comes in waves now, tidal striations that wash higher with each new surge, threatening to incapacitate me entirely. I rummage through the drawer again until I find the wooden stick I put there when I first moved into this room; it’s walnut, hard enough not to shatter between my teeth. I put it in my mouth and bite down just as the first scream tears out of my body. The sound that emerges is strangled, and too loud. I glance at the door.
The wave subsides—gathering itself, I know, for the final assault. I drop to my knees, then topple onto my side. It has been nearly twenty years since the last time, but everything happening inside of me feels as familiar as yesterday. The pain barrels toward its apex, and then somehow, obscenely, spirals past it. I bite down harder on the stick. Begin to lose awareness. The pressure in my core swells. My mind conjures images of my body’s dissolution. Skin separating from muscle. Muscle separating from bone. Organs liquifying. Seeping out through the interstices of my disintegrating skin. Pooling beneath me in a viscous slurry. A terrible heat. A vertiginous emptiness.
One person has witnessed this transformation, an old woman who gave me shelter in her basement many years ago. She described my eyes deliquescing and leaking down my cheeks like tears; my ears sloughing away; my body deflating as it purged itself of itself. When I stopped screaming there was only the crack of new bones bursting through the husks of the old, the liquid squelch of my new body reforming in the detritus of its remains, and a kind of knitting, hissing sound.
My senses have failed. I am only a guttering awareness now. A creature of pure agony, cocooned in darkness.
Let me go whispers the awareness to itself as I
When I open my eyes the candle has melted down to its base, flickering over a pool of wax. I blink myopically at the shapes it doesn’t quite illuminate: the shadow of my bed, the shape of the table, the dim glinting line of the stiletto. A faint nimbus of light outlines the door.
I realize that I’m only seeing with one eye. I wonder for a moment if the other failed to survive the transition, but soon realize that there’s something blocking it. I reach up with a trembling hand to peel off the obstruction and examine it in the flickering candlelight: a flap of skin, a remnant of my old face. I can just make out the deep wrinkles of my forehead, the familiar scar at the temple.
I lie still for a moment longer and then, gathering my strength, tear at the spent cocoon of myself and clamber out of it. I struggle to my feet and look down at the remains of what I was. There isn’t much left: a discarded husk of skin in the liquified remains of my body. Bits of bone speckle the slurry.
For a moment I simply stare at it, unsure how to proceed. Most of my previous transformations have been outside. I retrieve two buckets and a basin from the corner of the room and, working slowly, decant most of my remains into them. Then I take up a mop and swab at the floor.
It’s sweaty, unpleasant work, but I’m only slightly winded when it’s finished. My old body would have wilted under the strain.I pick up my candle and go to the mirror. My face is still slick with the effluvia of the transformation, but I can see the changes clearly: the wrinkles that scored my cheeks are much fainter now, the thick purses under my eyes merely bags. The eyes clearer, less rheumy. Much of my hair has returned, in some semblance of its original color.
I’m older than I was after my last transformation, but markedly younger than I was yesterday. It will be noticed.
I pick up my scissors and cut away at the new hair on top of my head, then use a razor to trim it close to the scalp. There isn’t much I can do at the moment about my new face; I’ll wear a hat to keep it in shadow until I can borrow some makeup from the courtesans.
My neighbors are beginning to stir now; through the thin walls, I hear them grumbling out of bed, preparing for the new day. A door opens nearby, and clicks softly shut.
I cover the buckets, then look at the mirror again. I stoop my shoulders by degrees and shuffle experimentally around the room, affecting a limp, until I’m satisfied with the effect.
Then I pick up one of the buckets and open the door and limp outside, into the new day.
The last page of Antic is a series of capsule product reviews. I squint at their tiny text through my spectacles. I don’t need them anymore, and looking through them all afternoon has given me a slight headache. I take them off and rub at my temples. I’ll need to find a pretext to ask Master Glazier for a pair of simple glass lenses.
It’s taken me much of the afternoon to finish the last few pages. I’ll be sad when it’s done—I’ve enjoyed dwelling in my past. But it’s good to move on. There’s so much of the present to be lived.
Pascal stands to dismiss us. “That’ll do for today, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you.”
The usual shuffle and murmur. I finish copying the last sentence of the last page, and close the magazine. When I look up, I see Pascal studying me with a slight smile. “You seem well today, Clancy.”
It’s an alarming statement. I’ve taken care to move like an old man all day, and spoken as little as possible. No one seems to have noticed anything: partly because of my subterfuge, but mostly—I suspect—because of the natural invisibility of the elderly.
I return his smile. “The weather agrees with my querulous old bones.”
“It brings me joy to see it,” he says. “Tomorrow, then.” He gathers his things together and bustles out of the room, nodding at Priscilla.
The scriptorium is empty now, save for Priscilla and me. She slides off the bookshelf and makes her way over to me, moving with her usual clockwork precision. I turn in my seat, shoulders hunched, making a grunting show of it. “Well, my dear? What should we do today?”
She does not answer, of course. But there’s something new in her gaze: curiosity, and then apprehension, and then alarm. She sweeps her eyes over my face, down to my feet, then back up again.
I wait, saying nothing.
She reaches up and touches my cheek, sliding the tips of her fingers across shallow lines that were once deeper wrinkles. She withdraws her hand and stares at me, the wonder draining away until all that’s left is her silent, penetrating regard.
I consider lying to her again, but it would be futile—she sees a great deal more than most people. More importantly: I don’t want to.
“Shall we keep this between us, my dear?”
She says nothing. I stand up, reaching under my seat to retrieve my cane. Then round my shoulders, lower myself into a stoop, and bend my head into the shadow of my hat’s brim. “Better?” I say, winking at her.
She studies me critically for a moment, and nods.
“Good. Perhaps a walk in the park today?”
Watcher Croesus turns his head as we enter the lobby. “Good evening, Scrivener Clancy.”
“Good evening, Watcher Croesus,” I say.
“It was, thank you.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He stares at me, lips pressed into a thin line.
“Well,” I say. “We should be on our way.”
“You seem different,” he says.
“Do I?” I keep my expression neutral.
“Yes. Less—if you’ll forgive me—decrepit.”
“Master Pascal said much the same thing,” I say, allowing myself a small chuckle. “Although—if you’ll forgive me, Watcher Croesus—he said it a bit more tactfully. I doubt it’s anything permanent. I have good days and bad.”
“Indeed.” He studies me a moment longer, then shifts his gaze to Priscilla. “Do you see it, young lady? Something different in your elderly friend?”
She returns Croesus’s steady gaze, then looks up at me. She shakes her head, and takes my hand.
Croesus smiles, thinly. “The young are precious, but unobservant.” He turns away from us both. “Good evening, Scrivener Clancy.”
But I’m still looking down at Priscilla’s little hand in mine. This moment, in exchange for a century of suffering. It’s a fair trade.
The writer would like to thank James Capparell for granting permission to quote from his editorial in ANTIC magazine.
“The Tale of Clancy the Scrivener” copyright © 2023 by Ramsey Shehadeh
Art copyright © 2023 by Weston Wei