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The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine Year Eight, Page 3

Catherynne M. Valente

  I could not. I could not hear their footsteps nor inhale their perfume nor feel the fuzzed reek of the mildewed canals on my tongue nor move of my own volition. I apprehended a new truth, that even the impossible possesses laws of its own, and those unbendable. I could only observe. Observe—while my vision lurched forward, advancing quickly, rocking gently as with a woman’s sinuous gait. Graceful, slender arms extended as though from my own body, opening with infinite elegance to embrace a man whose head was that of a Titan cast down brutally into the pit of Tartarus, so wracked with growths and intuberances and pulsating polyps that the plates of his skull had cracked beneath the intolerable weight and shifted into a new pate so monstrous it could no longer bear the Doge’s crown, which hung pitifully instead from a ribbon slung round his grotesque neck. Those matchless arms which were not my own enfolded this hapless creature and, encircling the middle finger of the hand belonging to the right arm, I saw with my altered vision the twisted peridot and tourmaline crocodile ring of the Dogaressa Samaritiana.

  I cast the glass eye away from me, sickened, thrilled, inflamed, ensorcelled, the fire in my midnight hearth as nothing beside the conflagration of curiosity, horror, and the beginnings of power that crackled within my brain-pan. In that first moment, standing among my books and my brandy drenched in the sweat of a new universe, an instinct, a whisper of Truth Profound, permeated my spirit like smoke exhaled, and, I confess to you now, all these many years hence, still I enshrine it as an article of faith, for it was with breath that God animated the dumb mud of Adam, breath that woke Pandora from stone, breath that demarcates the living and the dead, breath with which we speak and cry out and divide ourselves from the idiot kingdom of animals, and breath, by all the blasted saints and angels, with which the glassblower shapes his glass! The living breath of Cornelius Peek yet permeates every insignificant atom of his works; each object broken from his punty, be it window or goblet or cask or eye, hides the sacred exhalations of his spirit co-mingled with the crystal, and it is this, it is this, I tell you, that connects the jeweled eye of the Dogaressa with the jeweled eye in my hand! I dwell in the glass, it cannot dispense with me any further than it can dispense with translucency or mass, and therefore it carries the shard of Cornelius whithersoever it wanders.

  Let us dispense with a few obnoxious but inevitable inquiries into the practicality of the matter, so that we may move along past the skew. How could this mystic connection have escaped my notice till now? It is only sensical: Perdita vanished away to the Netherlands with both marvelous eyes, and no window nor goblet nor cask is, in its inborn nature, that organ of sight which opens onto the infinite pit of the human soul. Would any eye manufactured in the same fashion result in such remote visions? They would indeed, my credulous friend. Does every glassblower possess the ability to produce such objects, should he but retain one eye whilst selling the other at a fair price? Ah, here I must admit my deficiency as a philosopher, for which I apologize most obsequiously. It cannot be breath alone, for I made subtle overtures toward the gentleman of the glassmen’s guild and I can say with a solemn certainty that none but Master Peek can perform this alchemy of sclera and pupil. Why should it be so? Perhaps I am a wizard, perhaps a saint, perhaps a demiurge, perhaps the Messiah returned at last, perhaps it owes only to that peculiar rootstock of my family which grants me my height, my baritone, the hairiness of my body. Grandfather Polyphemus’s last gift, lobbed down the ancestral highway, bashing horses as it comes. I am a man of art, not science. I ask why Mrs. Matterfact has not yet laid out my supper oftener than I ask after the workings of the uncluttered cosmos.

  Thus did I enter the business of optometry.

  When you have placed a mad rainbow jewel in the skull of a Dogaressa as though she were nothing but a golden ring, a jewel which drove the rotting men of Venice insane with the desire to tie her to a bridge-post and stare transported into the motley swirling colors of the eye of God, lately fallen to earth, they began to say, somewhere in Sicily, advertisement serves little purpose. I opened my door and received the flood. It is positively trivial to lose an eye in this wicked world, did you know? I accepted them warmly, with a bow and a kerchief fluttered to the mouth in acute compassion, a permanently sympathetic expression penciled onto my lips in primrose paint—for that moth-eaten scab Cromwell was finally in the grave, where everything is just as colorless and abstemious and black as he always wished it to be, so full of piss and vitriol that it poisoned him to the gills, and Our Chuck, the Merry Monarch, was dancing on his bones.

  Fashion, ever my God and my mother, took pity upon her poor supplicant and caused a great miracle to take place for my sake—the world donned a dandy wig whilst I doffed my own, sporting my secret womanly hair as long and curled as any lord, soaking my face in the most masculine of pale powders, rouges, lacquers, and creams, encasing my figure, such as it ever was, in lime and coral brocade trimmed in frosty silver, concealing my gait with an ivory cane and foxfurred slippers, and rejoicing in the knowledge that, of all the men in London, I suddenly possessed the lowest voice of them all. So hidden, so revealed, I took all the one-eyed world into my parlor: the cancerous, the war-wounded, the horse-kicked, the husband-beaten, the inquisitor-inquisited, the lightning-struck, the unfortunately-born, the pox-blighted, and yes, the Dame’s erstwhile lovers, for she had made her way to our shores and had begun her ancient gambols in sight of St. Paul’s. And for each of these unfortunate angels of the ocular, I fashioned a second eye in secret, unknown entirely to my custom, twin to the one that repaired their befouled faces, with which I adjourned night by night to a series of successive smoking rooms, growing grander and finer with each year, holding those orbs to the light and looking unseen upon every city in Christendom, along with several in the Orient and one in the New World, though it could hardly be called a city, if I am to be honest. And Venice, always Venice, the first eye and only, her eye, gazing out on the water, the moonlight, the dead.

  In this fashion, I came to know that the Doge had died, succumbed to the unbearable weight of his own head, long before Samaritiana appeared on my night-bestrewn doorstep, the saffron gown she wore in the moonlight, and every other in her trunk, torn violently, soaked with bodily fluids, rent by the overgrown nails of the frenzied rotting horde who had chased her from the palazzo through every desperate alleyway and canal of the city, across Switzerland and France, in their anguished longing to touch the Eye of God, still sewn into the ex-Dogaressa’s skull, to touch it but once and be healed forever.

  But of course I aided the friendless and abandoned Good Samaritiana as she wept beside her monstrous road. Oh, Clarissima, how dreadful, how unspeakable, how worthy of Mr. Pepys’ vigilant pen! I shall have to make introductions when you are quite well again. I sent at once for a fine dressmaker of my acquaintance to construct a suitable costume for the lady and save her from the immodesty of those ragged silken remnants of her former life with which, even then, she attempted to cover her body with little enough success that, before the dressmaker could so much as cross the river, I learned something quite unexpected concerning the biography of Samaritiana, former queen of Venice.

  She was quite male. Undeniably, conspicuously, astonishingly, fascinatingly so.

  I called up to Mrs. Matterfact for cold oxtongue, a saucer of pineapple, and oysters stewed in Armagnac, down to Mr. Suchandsuch for carafes of hot claret mulled via the latest methods, and listened to the wondrous chimera in my parlor tell of how that famous Egyptian blood was not in the least of the Nile but of the Tiber, on whose Ostian banks a penniless but beautiful boy had been born in secret to one of the Pope’s mistresses and left to perish among the reed-gatherers and the amber-collectors and the diggers of molluscs.

  But perish the lad did not, for even a grass-picker is thoroughly loused with the nits of compassion, and the women passed the babe one to the other and back again, like a cup of wine that drank, instead, from them. Now, it is well known to anyone with a single sopping slice of sense that t
he Pope’s enemies are rather like weevils, ever industrious, ever multiplying, ever rapacious, starving for the chaff of scandal with which to choke the Holy Father and watch him writhe. They roved over the city, overturning the very foundational stones of ancient Rome in search of the Infallible Bastards, in order, not to kill them like Herod, but to bring them before the Cardinals and etch their little faces upon the stained glass windows as evidence of sin. My little minx, having already long, lustrous hair and androgyne features more like to a seraph than a by-blow son, found it at first advantageous to effect the manners and dress of a girl, and then, when the danger had passed, more than that, agreeable, even preferable to her former existence. Having become a maid to save her life, she remained one in order to enjoy it. Owing to the meager diet of the Tiber’s tiniest fish, little Samaritiana never grew so tall nor so stout as other boys, she remained curiously hairless, and though she escaped the castrato’s fate, her voice never dipped beneath the pleasing alto with which she now spoke, nor did her organ of masculinity ever aspire to outdo the average Grecian statue, and so, when the Doge visited Ostia after the death of his first wife, he saw nothing unusual walking by the river except for the most beautiful woman in the Occident, balancing a basket of rushes on her hip with a few nuggets of amber rolling within the weave.

  “But surely, Clarissima,” mused I, savoring the tart song of pineapple upon my tongue, “a bridegroom, however ardent, cannot be so easily duped as a vengeful Cardinal! Your deception cannot have survived the wedding bower!”

  “It did not survive the engagement, my dear Master Peek,” Samaritiana replied without a wisp of blush upon her remarkable cheek. “Oh, mistake me not, I do so love to lie—I see no more purpose in pretending to be virtuous in your presence than I saw in pretending to be fertile in his. But there could be no delight in a deception so deep and vast. It would impair true marriage between us. I revealed myself at Pentecost, allowing him in the intensity of his ardor to unfasten my stays and loose my ribbons until I stood clad only in honesty before His Serenity and awaited what I presumed to be my doom and my death. But only kisses fell upon me in that moment, for the Doge had long suppressed his inborn nature, and suffered already to get upon his departed wife the heirs he owed to the canals, and though my masquerade, you will agree, outshines the impeccable, he would later say, on the night of which you so confidently speak, that some sinew of his heart must always have known, since first he beheld me with my basket of amber and sorrow.”

  I did not exchange trust for trust that night among the oysters and the oxtongue. I have a viciously refined sense of theatre, after all. I made her wait, feigning religion, indigestion, the vicissitudes of work, gout, even virginity, until our wedding night, whereupon I allowed Samaritiana, in the intensity of her ardor, to unfasten my stays and loose my ribbons until at last all that stood between us was the tattered ruin of my mother’s ancient bridal veil, and then, not even that.

  “Goodness, you don’t expect me to be surprised, do you?” laughed the ex-Dogaressa, the monster, the braying centaur, the miserly lamia who would not give me the satisfaction of scandalizing her! That eve, and only that eve, under the stars painted upon my ceiling, I applied all my cruellest and most unfair arts to compel my wife to admit, as a wedding present, that she had not known, she had never known, never even suspected, loved me as a man just as I loved her as a woman, and was besides a brutal little liar who deserved a lifetime of the most delectable punishment. We exchanged whispered, apocryphal, long-atrophied names beneath the coverlet: Perpetua. Proteo.

  Samartiana treated me deplorably, broke my heart and my bank, laughed when she ought to have wept, drove Mrs. Matterfact to utter disintegration, kept lovers, schemed with minor nobles. We were just ferociously happy. Are you surprised? I, too, am humorless, witless, provincial, petty, small of mind, parched of imagination, stingy of wallet and affection, a liar and a cad. He was like me. I was like her. I had, after all, seen as she saw, from the very angle of her waking vision, which in some circles might be the definition of divine love. I have had wives before and will have again, far cleverer and braver and wilder than my Clarissima, but none I treasured half so well, nor came so near to telling the secret of my smoking room, of the chests full of eyes hidden beneath the floorboards. Samaritiana had her lovers; I had my eyes, the voyeur’s stealthy, soft and pregnant hours, a criminal sensorium I could not quit nor wished to.Yet still I would not share, I held it back from her, out of her reach, beyond her ken.

  The plague took her in the spring. The Baron, not the Dame. The plague of long masks and onions and bodies stacked like fresh-laid bricks. I buried her in glass, in my incandescent fury at the kiln, for where else can a man lose his whole being but in a wife or in work? These are the twin barrels in which we drown ourselves forever.

  It soon came to pass that wonderful eyes of Cornelius Peek were in such demand that the possession of one could catapult the owner into society, if only he could keep his head about him once he landed, and this was reason enough that, men being men and ambition being forever the most demanding of bedfellows, it became much the fashion in those years to sacrifice one eye to the teeth-grinding god of social mobility and replace it with something far more useful than depth perception. Natural colors fell by the wayside—they wanted an angel’s eye, now, a demon’s, a dryad’s, a goblin’s, more alien, more inhuman, less windows to the soul than windows to debauched and lawless Edens, and I, your servant, sir, a window-maker once more. I cannot say I approved of this self-deformation, but I certainly profited by the sudden proliferation of English Cyclopses, most especially by their dispersal through the halls of power, carrying the breath of Peek with them into every shadowy corner of the privileged and the perverse.

  I strung their eyes on silver thread and lay in a torpor like unto the opium addict upon the lilac damask of my smoking room couch, draping them round and round my body like a strand of numberless pearls, lifting each crystal gem in turn to gaze upon Paris, Edinburgh, Madrid, Muscovy, Constantinople, Zurich—and Venice, always Venice, returning again and again, though I knew I would not find what I sought along those rippling canals traveled by the living dead. It became my obsession, this invasion of perspective, this theft of privacy, the luxurious passivity of the thing, watching without participating as the lives of others fluttered by like so many scarlet leaves, compelled to witness, but not to interfere, even if I wished to, even if I had liked the young Earl well enough when I installed his pigment-less diamond eye and longed to parry the assassin’s blade when I saw it flash in the Austrian sunset. I saw, with tremulous breath, as God saw, forced unwilling to allow the race of man to damn or redeem itself in a noxious fume of free will, forbidden by laws unwritten not to lift one hand, even if the baker’s boy had laughed when I offered him a big red eye or a cat-slit pupil or a shark’s unbroken onyx hue, any sort, free of charge, even the costliest, the most debonair, in honor of my late wife Samaritiana who in another lifetime paid me in hair, not because she would wish me to be generous but because she would mock me to the rafters and howl hazard down to Hell, begging the Devil to take me now rather than let one more pauper rob her purse, even if I saw, now, through his eye, saw the maidservant burning, burning in the bakery on Pudding Lane, burning and screaming in the midnight wind, and then the terrible, impossible leap of the flames to the adjoining houses, an orange tongue lasciviously working in the dark, not to lift one hand as what I saw in the glass eye and what I saw in the flesh became one, fusing and melding at last, reality and unreality, the sight I owned and the sight I stole, the conflagration devouring the city, the gardens, and my house around me, my lovely watered ultramarine silk, my supremely comfortable chair stuffed with Arabian horsehair, my darling gold and silver drawers, as I lay still and let it come for me and thee and all.

  I did not die, for heaven’s sake. Perish the thought! Death is terrifically gauche, don’t you know, I should never be caught wearing it in public. I simply did not get up. Irony being the L
ord of All Things, the smoking room survived the blaze and I inside it; though the rafters smoked and blackened and the walls swelled with heat like the head of a Doge, the secret chambers honeycombing the place contained the inferno, they did not stove in nor fall, save for one shelf of books, the bloody Romans, of all things, which, in toppling, quite snapped both my shinbones beneath a ponderous copy of Plutarch. Mrs. Matterfact and Mr. Suchandsuch fought valiantly and gave up only the better part of the roof, though we lost my lovely showroom, a tragedy from which I shall never fully recover, I assure you. And for a long while, I remained where the fire found me, on the long damask couch in my smoking room, wrapped in lengths of eyes like Odysseus lashed to the mast and listening to all the sirens’ mating bleats, still lifting each in turn and fixing it to my empty socket, one after the other after the other, and thus I stayed for years, years beyond years, beyond Matterfact and Suchandsuch and their replacements, beyond the intolerable plebians outside who wanted only humble, honest brown and blue eyes again, their own mortal eyes, having seen too much of wildness. And what, pray tell, did I do with my impossible sight, with my impossible span of time?

  Why, I became the greatest spy the world has ever known. Would you have done otherwise?

  Oh, I have sold crowns to kings and kings to executioners, positions to the enemy and ships to the storm, murderers to the avenging and perversities to the puritanical, I have caused ingenious devices to be built in England before the paint in Krakow finished drying, rescued aristocrats from the mob and mobs from the aristocracy by turns, bought and traded and brokered half of Europe to the other half and back again, dashed more sailors against the rocks than my promethean progenitor could have done in the throes of his most orgiastic fever-dream. I have smote the ground and summoned up wars from the deeps and I have called down the heavens to end them, all without moving one whisper from my house on Drury Lane, even as the laborers rebuilt it around me, even as the rains came, even as the lane around it became a writhing slum, a whore’s racetrack, a nursery rhyme.