Shriek: an Afterword

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2006-08-08
  • Publisher: Tor Books
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"An epic yet personal look at several decades of life, love, and death in the imaginary city of Ambergris the Afterword relates the scandalous, heartbreaking, and horrifying secret history of two squabbling siblings and their confidantes, protectors, and enemies." "Erstwhile historian Duncan Shriek seemed destined for greatness after publishing Cinsorium: Dispelling the Myth of the Gray Caps, whose promise to reveal the inner lives of Ambergris's mysterious underground mushroom dwellers made it an instant bestseller. As fame turns to backlash and Duncan's fixation on the underground threatens to destroy him, it becomes clear that his destiny is inextricably joined with the destiny of the city." "Duncan's sister Janice Shriek irrevocably changed the face of Ambergrisian culture when her Gallery of Hidden Fascinations proclaimed its patronage of the New Art and became the arbiter of a genuine artistic renaissance. Janice finds, to her delight and dismay, that the life of an artist is fraught with more excesses than her body and mind can bear ... until a war between two rival publishing houses gives her the means to reinvent herself." "Literary wunderkind Mary Sabon discovered her love of history under the influence of Duncan's tutelage - and, eventually, his caresses - but went on to become one of Ambergris's most celebrated writers and a pillar of its society. But will her views on the mushroom dwellers' designs on the city inadvertently destroy the only force working to ensure the city's survival?" "Part academic treatise, part tell-all biography, after this introduction to the Family Shriek, you'll never look at history in quite the same way again."--BOOK JACKET.

Author Biography

Jeff VanderMeer is a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, as well as a past finalist for the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His books have made the best-of lists of Publishers Weekly, Publishers News, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Weekly, Locus, SF Site, and many others. His short fiction has appeared in several year’s best anthologies. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

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Chapter One

Mary Sabon once said of my brother Duncan Shriek that “He is not a human being at all, but composed entirely of digressions and transgressions.” I am not sure what she hoped to gain by making this comment, but she said it nonetheless. I know she said it, because I happened to overhear it three weeks ago at a party for Martin Lake. It was a party I had helped put together, to celebrate the artist’s latest act of genius: a series of etchings that illustrated The Journal of Samuel Tonsure. {One of many parties I have missed over the years. Maybe if I’d been there, everything would have turned out differently. Maybe it even would have affected the past portrayed in Mary’s books.}
Sabon arrived long after Lake, a reticent and not entirely undamaged man, had left for the Café of the Ruby-Throated Calf. I had not invited her, but the other guests must have taken her invitation for granted: they clustered around her like beads in a stunning but ultimately fake necklace. The couples on the dance floor displayed such ambition that Sabon’s necklace seemed to move around her, although she and her admirers stood perfectly still.
Rain fell on the skylight above with a sound like lacquered fingernails tapping on a jewelry box. Through the open balcony doors came the fresh smell of rain, mingled—as always in Ambergris—with a green dankness. As I hobbled down the wide marble staircase, into their clutches, I could pick out each individual laugh, each flaw, each fault line, shining through their beaded faces. There were names in that flesh necklace—names that should someday be ticked off a list, names that deserve to be more public.
At ground level, I could no longer see anything but patches of Sabon—a glimpse of red hair, of sallow cheek, the pink allure clumping, a flash of eye, the eyelashes overweighed with liner. The absurd pout of a lip. The crushing smell of a perfume more common to a funeral parlor. She looked so different from the first time I had met her—lithe, fresh student—that I thought for a moment she had put on a disguise. Was she in hiding? From what?
“He is not a human being at all, but composed entirely of digressions and transgressions.”
I admit I laughed at Sabon’s comment, but I laughed out of affectionate recognition, not cruelty. Because Duncan did digress. He did transgress. He might well have dashed Sabon’s living necklace to bead pieces with just as amusing a phrase to describe Sabon, had he not disappeared, possibly forever, a few days before the party. That was another thing—Duncan was always disappearing, even as a child.
Sabon’s comment was amusing, but not, as one gentleman misidentified it, “the definitive statement.” A shame, because my brother loved definitive statements. He used to leap up from his chair at definitive statements and prick the air out of them, deflate them with his barbed wit, his truculent genius for argument, his infinite appreciation of irony. {I think you both mock me here. Whatever I might have been in my youth—and I can’t remember ever having been a witty conversationalist—I’m long past any such trickery. Let the spores be tricky. Let those who ignore them—from the Nativists on down—expend their energy in fanciful phrasings, for all the good it will do them.}
I really ought to start again, though. Begin afresh. Leave Sabon to her admirers for now. There will be time to return to her later.
Duncan often started over—he loved nothing better than to start again in the middle of a book, like a magician appearing to disappear—to leave the reader hanging precariously over an abyss while building up some other story line, only to bring it all back together seamlessly in the end, averting disaster. I would be a fool to promise to duplicate such a feat.
For a time, Duncan sat next to the desk in my apartment—in an old comfortable yellow chair our parents had bought in Stockton many years before. There he would sit, illumined by a single lamp in a twilight broken only by calls to prayer from the Religious Quarter, and chuckle as he read over the transcript of his latest chapter. He loved his own jokes as if they were his children, worthy of affection no matter how slack-jawed, limb-lacking, or broken-spined.
But I best remember Duncan at his favorite haunt, The Spore of the Gray Cap, a place as close as the tapping of these keys. {Favorite? Perhaps, but it was the only one that would have me, at times. At the more respectable establishments, I would walk in and be greeted with a silence more appropriate to the sudden appearance of some mythical beast.} Sober or drunk, Duncan found the Spore perfect for his work. Within its dark and smoky back chambers, sequestered from the outer world by myopic, seaweed-green glass, my brother felt invisible and invincible.  Through a strange synchronicity of the establishment’s passageways out of keeping with its usual labyrinthine aura, those who congregated at the altar of the bar could, glancing sideways down the glazed oak counter, see Duncan illuminated by a splinter of common space—at times scribbling inspired on his old-fashioned writing pad, at times staring with a lazy eye out of a window that revealed nothing of the outer world, but which may, reflecting back with a green wink, have revealed to him much of the inner world. {The outer world came to me—at various times I entertained Mary, Sirin, Sybel, and, yes, even Bonmot, pillar of the community, in that place.}
He had become a big man by then, with a graying beard, prone to wearing a gray jacket or overcoat that hid his ever-evolving physical peculiarities. Sometimes he would indulge in a cigar—a habit newly acquired from his association with the fringe historian James Lacond—and sit back in his chair and smoke, and I would find him there, gazing off into a memory I might or might not be able to share. His troubles, his disease, could not touch him in those moments.
I much prefer to remember my brother in that space, calm and at the center of himself. While he was there, many regular taverngoers referred to him as the God of the Green Light, looking as he did both timeless and timeworn. Now that he is gone, I imagine he has become the Ghost of the Green Light, and will enter the annals of the Spore as a quiet, luminescent legend. Duncan would have liked that idea: let it be so.
But I do choose to begin again—Duncan, after all, often did. Like the shaft of green light shooting down the maze of passageways at the Spore, each new shift of attention and each new perspective will provide only a fraction or fracture of the man I knew, in several senses, not at all.
If there is a starting point in Duncan’s life, it would have to be the day that our father, Jonathan Shriek, a minor historian, died at our house in Stockton, a town some hundred miles south of Ambergris, on the other side of the River Moth. Unexpected reversal ripped through Dad and destroyed his heart when I was thirteen and Duncan only ten. I remember because I was seated at the kitchen table doing my homework when the mailman came to the door. Dad heard the bell and hopped up to answer it. “Hopped” is no exaggeration—Dad was a defiantly ugly man, built like a toad, with wattles and stocky legs.
I heard him in the hall, talking about the weather with the mailman. The door shut. The crinkle of paper as my father opened the envelope. A moment of silence, as of breath being sucked in. Then a horribly huge laugh, a cry of joy or triumph, or both. He came into the kitchen and barreled past me to the open hallway that led to the back door.
“Gale,” he was shouting. “Gale,” my mother’s name. Out into the backyard he stumbled, me right behind him, my homework forgotten, beside myself with suspense. Something marvelous had happened and I wanted to know what it was.
At the far end of the lawn, Duncan, ten and still sandy-haired, was helping our mother with the small herb garden. My father ran toward them, into the heart of the summer day. The trees were lazy in the breeze. Bees clustered around yellow flowers. He was waving the letter over his head and yelling, “Gale! Duncan! Gale! Duncan!” His back to me. Me running after him, asking, “What, Dad? What is it?” {I remember this with the same kind of focused intensity as you, Janice. Dad was running toward us. I was smiling because I loved seeing Dad’s enthusiasm. I loved seeing him so euphoric, so unselfconscious for once.}
He was almost there. He was going to make it. There is no doubt in my mind, even today, that he was going to make it. But he didn’t. He stumbled. He fell into the sweet, strange grass. {“Mottled with shadows from the trees,” I wrote in my journal later. It is those shadows I remember most from that day—the dappling and contrast of light and dark.} The hand with the letter the last to fall, his other hand clutching at his chest.
I stopped running when I saw him fall, thought he had tripped. Looked up across the lawn at my mother and brother. Mom was rolling her eyes at her husband’s clumsiness, but Duncan’s face was pale with horror. Duncan knew our father hadn’t fallen, but had been made to fall. {I don’t know how I knew, just remember the way Dad’s smile flattened and his face took on a sudden pallor and sadness as he fell, and know he knew what was happening to him.} A moment later, Mom realized this, too, and all three of us ran-to-him converged-on-him held-him searched-for-a-pulse called-for-the-doctor, and sat there crying when he did not move, get up, say it had all been a joke or accident. {Even now, the smell of fresh grass is the smell of death to me. Was there, even then, a sentinel in the shadows, peering out at us?}
It was Duncan who took the letter from Dad’s hand and, after the doctor had gone and the mortician had removed the body, sat down at the kitchen table to read it. First, he read it to himself. Then, he read it to us, Mom staring vacant-eyed from the living room couch, not hearing a word of it.
The letter confused Duncan in ways that did not occur to my mother, to me. It bent the surface of his world and let in a black vein of the irrational, the illogical, the nonsensical. To me, my father was dead, and it didn’t matter how or why, because he was dead regardless. But to Duncan, it made all the difference. Safely anchored in place and family, he had been a madly fearless child—an explorer of tunnels and dank, dark places. He had never encountered the brutal dislocation of chance and irony. Until now. {Did it make a difference? I don’t know. My resolve has always seemed something fiercely internal.}
For our father, Jonathan Shriek, minor historian, had died in the grasp of a great and terrible joy. The letter, which bore the seal of the Kalif himself, congratulated him “for having won that most Magnificent Award, the Laskian Historical Prize,” for a paper published in the Ambergrisian Historical Society Newsletter. The letter asked my father to accept an all-expenses paid trip to the Court of the Kalif, and there study books unread for five centuries, including the holiest-of-holies, The Journal of Samuel Tonsure.
The letter had become a weapon. It had rescued our father from obscurity, and then it had killed him, his blood cavorting through his arteries at a fatal speed. {I couldn’t get it out of my head that he had died due to something in his research, as irrational as that might seem. It instilled in me a kind of paranoia. For a while, I even thought it possible that the letter had been poisoned in some way by the Kalif’s men, that Dad had been too close to the solving of some historical mystery the Kalif would prefer remain unsolved.}
The funeral that followed was farce and tragedy. We attended the wrong casket and were shocked to be confronted by the visage of a young man, as if death had done my father good. Meanwhile, another family with a closed casket had buried our father.
“Death suited him.” It didn’t matter that it wasn’t true—it seemed true. That he had gone into death old and come back young. And more comforting still—the idea that there had been a mistake and he was alive somewhere.
Of us all, Duncan stared the longest at that young man who was not our father, as if he sought the answer to a mystery for which there could be no solution.
Four years later, we moved from Stockton to Ambergris, there to live with our mother’s side of the family in a rheumy old mansion with a flooded basement. Set against the banks of the River Moth, remote from much of Ambergris, the place could hardly be called an improvement over the house we had grown up in, but it was less expensive, and our mother had come to realize that with her husband dead nothing much remained to keep her in Stockton. Thus, we shared space with an ever-changing mob of aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, and friends of the family. {Although, over the years, this cacophony of distant relations reduced itself to just our mother, which is probably how she would have preferred it from the beginning.}
We came to Ambergris across the thick sprawl of the muddy River Moth, by ferry. I remember that during the journey I noticed Duncan had a piece of paper in his shirt pocket. When I asked him what it was, he pulled it out and showed it to me. He had kept the letter from the Kalif to our father; as far as I know, he has it still, tattered and brittle. {I do have it—or the remains of it, anyhow. I don’t dare open it anymore, for fear it will turn to dust.}
“I don’t want to forget,” he said, with a look that dared me to doubt his loyalty to our father.
I said nothing, but the thought occurred to me that although we might be traveling to a new place, we were still bringing the past with us.
Not that Ambergris didn’t have a rich past of its own—just that we knew much less about it. We knew only that Ambergris played host to some of the world’s greatest artists; that it was home to the mysterious gray caps; that a merchant clan, Hoegbotton & Sons, had wrested control of the city from a long line of kings; that the Kalif and his great Western Empire had thrice tried to invade Ambergris; that, once upon a time, some centuries ago, a catastrophe called the Silence had taken place there; and that the annual Festival of the Freshwater Squid often erupted into violence, an edgy lawlessness that some said was connected to the gray caps. The gray caps, we learned from helpful relatives seeking to reassure us, had long since retreated to the underground caverns and catacombs of Ambergris, first driven there by the founder of the city, a whaler despot named Manzikert I. Manzikert I had razed the gray caps’ city of Cinsorium, massacred as many of them as he could, and built Ambergris on the smoldering ruins. {It all sounded incredibly exciting and exotic to us at that age, rather than horrifying.}
Of artists, we found ample evidence as soon as we arrived—huge murals painted onto the sides of storehouses—and also of the Hoegbotton clan, since we had to pay their tariffs to leave the docks and enter the city proper.
As for the gray caps, as our relatives had promised, we discovered scant initial trace of this “old, short, indigenous race,” as the guidebooks called them. They were rarely seen aboveground during the day, although they could be glimpsed in back alleys and graveyards at dusk and during the night. We knew only what we had gleaned from Mom’s rare but unsettling bedtime stories about the “mushroom dwellers of Ambergris,” and a brief description from a book for children that had delighted and unnerved us simultaneously:
Fifty mushroom dwellers now spilled out from the alcove gateway, macabre in their very peacefulness and the even hum-thrum of their breath: stunted in growth, wrapped in robes the pale gray-green of a frog’s underbelly, their heads hidden by wide-brimmed gray felt hats that, like the hooded tops of their namesakes, covered them to the neck. Their necks were the only exposed part of them—incredibly long, pale necks; at rest, they did indeed resemble mushrooms.
Of the Silence, we had heard even less—a whisper among the adults, a sense that we should not ask about it. Even in Stockton, so far from what had happened—separated by both time and geography—there seemed to be a fear that, somehow, the event might be resurrected by the most casual of comments. No, I discovered Silence much later—only learned during my brief attendance at the Hoegbotton School for Advanced Studies, for example, that the annotations in Ambergrisian history books {A.S. and B.S.} stood for After Silence and Before Silence. Of Samuel Tonsure’s journal, so inextricably linked to the Silence, I heard not even a whisper until Duncan educated me. {I may have given you the most personalized and eccentric education on the Silence in the history of Ambergris!}
We did not learn much about any of this from Mom. For a good portion of our youth in Ambergris, rare was the day that she rose before noon. Sometimes we barely saw her. She had so many rooms to hide in in that house. Her internal clock, her rhythms, became nocturnal and erratic. She continued to paint, but sometimes we would return home to find that instead of a canvas she had painted the wall of an unused room in a welter of dissonant colors. Until the basement began to flood with river water every time it rained, she loved to sit down there in the damp and read by an old oil lamp we’d brought with us from Morrow, an heirloom dating back to the time of the pirate whalers. {When she was there, Janice and I would sometimes join her. We’d pull up chairs and listen to the whispering gasp of the river water as it tried to get in through the floorboards, and we’d read our books or do our homework. Mom rarely said anything, but there was something about being together in the same room that felt comfortable. I think she enjoyed it, too, but I don’t know for sure.}
I do remember that in our mother’s absence one of my aunts tried to help orient us to the city, telling us, “There’s a Religious Quarter, a Merchant Quarter, and an old Bureaucratic Quarter, and then there are places you don’t go no matter what. Stay out of them.” Faced with such vague warnings, we had to discover Ambergris in those early days by exploring for ourselves or asking our classmates.
The move to Ambergris changed my relationship with Duncan. Before the move, Duncan had been the annoying shadow, the imitator who always had to do what I was already doing. When I started a rock collection at the age of eight, inspired by the exposed granite on the hillside near our house in Stockton, Duncan started one, too, even though he didn’t understand why. No matter how I shooed him away, Duncan had to follow me up the hill. A cautious distance away from my irritated mumblings, he would squat in his wobbly way and run his hand through the pebbles, looking for the shiniest ones. Over time, he would squinch closer and closer, waddling like a duck, until before I knew it we were looking for stones together and my collection became our collection.
When I became entranced by the children’s stories of mammalogist Roger Mandible, Duncan not only stole the books from my room but colored in them and scrawled his name, handwriting as neat as a drunken sailor’s, across many of the pages.
By the time I’d reached the age of fourteen or fifteen, I’d realized he copied me because he loved me and looked up to me. {I didn’t look up to you for long—you stopped growing after you turned fourteen, I believe.}
But by then the death of our father and the move to Ambergris had transformed me into something more than Duncan’s sister. There was something in the connection Dad and Mom had that had energized them both—that had made them both more than they had been alone. Because without Dad, Mom lost, or forgot, how to take care of us. I’m certain if Mom had died instead that Dad would have behaved the same way. He was no more practical than our mother. He was as apt to fall over and stub a toe putting on his pajamas as she was to cut herself chopping up carrots. They shared a general absentmindedness that Duncan and I, looking back on those years as adults, found endearing. Dad searching for the newspaper he held in the crook of his arm. Mom looking for the earrings she’d just put back in the jewelry case. Somehow, together, though, they muddled through and managed to disguise their individual incompetence at the job of parenting.
With Dad dead and the move to Ambergris having unmoored Mom from any last vestiges of parental regard, I became Duncan’s mother in many ways. I made sure he got up in time for school. I made him breakfast. I helped him with his homework. I made sure he got to bed on time. He stopped copying me and started obeying me. {. . . Although with a smoldering disrespect for authority as embodied by my suddenly strict sister. But I’m lying. I welcomed it. I needed some structure. I needed someone to tell me what to do back then. I was still just a child. And a frequently scared one, despite all of my explorations. To take the lead while exploring seemed natural; to take the lead in everyday life was monstrously difficult.} Gone was the admiration, perhaps, but so too the corrosive disease of competition. At least, back then.
Somehow, despite our rough knowledge and this change in our roles, we managed to fit in, to get along, to come to feel part of Ambergris with greater ease than might have been expected. Much of it had to do with our attitude, I think. Duncan and I should have been upset about leaving our old school and friends behind, but we weren’t. Not really. In a sense, it came as a great relief to escape the pity and concern others showed us, which trapped us in an image of ourselves as victims. Freedom from that meant, in a way, freedom from the moment of our father’s death. This made up for the other dislocations.
{Dare I deprive the reader of that first glimpse of Ambergris? That first teasing glimpse during the carriage ride from the docks? That glimpse, and then the sprawl of Albumuth Boulevard, half staid brick, half lacquered timber? The dirt of it, the stench of it, half perfume, half ribald rot. And another smell underneath it—the tantalizing scent of fungi, of fruiting bodies, of spores entangled with dust and air, spiraling down like snow. The cries of vendors, the cries of the newly robbed, or the newly robed. The first contact of shoe on street out of the carriage—the resounding solidity of that ground, and the humming vibration of coiled energy beneath the pavement, conveyed up through shoe into foot, and through foot into the rest of a body suddenly energized and woken up. The sudden hint of heat to the air—the possibilities!—and, peeking from the storm drains, from the alleyways, the enticing, lingering darkness that spoke of tunnels and sudden exploration. One cannot mention our move to Ambergris without setting that scene, surely! That boulevard became our touchstone, in those early years, as it had to countless people before us. It was how you traveled into Ambergris, and it was how they carried you out when you finally left.}
But as fascinated as Duncan would become with Ambergris, he went elsewhere for his education. At our mother’s insistence, in one of her few direct acts of parenting. Duncan received his advanced degrees in history from the Institute of Religiosity in Morrow {or as historians often call it, “that other city by the River Moth,” a good hundred miles from Ambergris}, his emphasis on the many masters of the arts who had been born or made their fortune in Ambergris, as well as on the Court of the Kalif—for he saw in these two geographical extremes a way to let his interests sprawl across both poles of the world. He could not study the artists of Ambergris without studying the very anatomy of the city—from culture to politics, from economics to mammalogy. And because Ambergris spread tentacles as long and wide as those of the oldest of the giant freshwater squid, this meant he must study Morrow, the Aan, and all of the South. Study of the Kalif, which I always felt was a secondary concern for him, meant mapping out all of the West, the North. {Early on, I had no idea what constituted a “secondary concern.” Anything and everything could have been useful. The important thing was to accumulate information, to let it all but overwhelm me.}
In that Duncan was never what I would call religious, I believe that this monumental scope represented his attempt to re-place himself within the world, to discover his center, lost when our father died, or to build himself a new center through accumulation of knowledge. In a sense, History was always personal to Duncan, even if he could not always express that fact.
To say Duncan studied hard would be to understate the ardor of his quest for knowledge. He devoured texts as he devoured food, to savor after it had been swallowed whole. He memorized his favorite books: The Refraction of Light in a Prison, The Journal of Samuel Tonsure, The Hoegbotton Chronicles, Aria: The Biography of Voss Bender. Years later, he would delight me, no matter how odd the circumstances of our meetings, with dramatic readings, in the imagined pitch and tone of the authors, him still so passionate in his love of the words that I would forever find my own enthusiasm inadequate.
In short, Duncan became overzealous. Obsessed. Driven. All of those {double-edged} {s}words. He did not allow for his own human weakness, or his need to feel connected to the world through his flesh, through interactions with other human beings. Better, I am sure he felt, to become the dead hand of the past, to become its instrument.
Duncan did not make friends. He did not have a woman friend. When I visited him, during breaks in my own art studies at the Trillian Academy, at his rooms at the Institute, he could not introduce me to a single soul other than his instructors. Duncan must have appeared to be among the most pious of all the pious monks created by History. {I had friends. Your infrequent trips to visit meant your idea of my life in that place was as narrow as that sliver of emerald light in the Spore that you keep going on about. I needed to converse with people to test out my theories, to gauge dissent and to begin to realize what ideas, when expressed to others in the light of day, evaporated into the air.}
Recognizing both his genius and his desire for lack of contact, the Institute, its generosity heightened by the small scholarship our father had endowed it with as well as the memory of him walking its hollowed halls, had, by the second semester, isolated Duncan in rooms that expanded with his loneliness. My brother’s only window looked out at the solid, unimaginative brick of the Philosophy Building, giving him no alternative to his vibrant inner life. {This was, after all, the point of the Institute—to focus on the unexamined life. Nothing wrong with that.}
As if to embody the complexity and brittle joy of his inner life in the outer world, Duncan slowly covered the walls of his rooms with maps, pictures, diagrams, even pages torn from books. Ambergrisian leaders stared down impishly, slightly crooked, half-smothered by maps of the Kalif’s epic last battle against the infidel Stretcher Jones. Bark etchings by the local Aan tribespeople shared space with stiff edicts handed down by even stiffer Truffidian priests. James Alberon’s famous acrylic painting of Albumuth Boulevard formed the backdrop for a hundred tiny portraits of the original Skamoo synod. The bewildering greens and purples of Darcimba’s “The Kiosks of Trillian Square” competed with the withered yellows of ancient explorers’ maps, with the red arrows that indicated skirmishes on military schemata.
Duncan devoted one dark, ripe little corner to the “changing facade of Ambergris,” as he called it. At first, this corner consisted only of overlapping street plans, as if he were building an image of the city from its bones. The stark white paper, the midnight black veins of ink, contrasted sharply with everything else in his rooms. The maps were so densely clustered and layered that the overall effect reminded me of a diagram of the human body. Or, perhaps more metaphorically accurate, like a concentrated forest of intertwining vines {recalling the forests of my youth in Stockton}, through which no one could possibly travel, even armed with a machete. {My first great accomplishment—a way of cross-referencing dozens and dozens of seemingly unrelated phenomena so that, in a certain light, in a certain darkness, I could begin to see the patterns, the connections. Later, I would use this same technique, on a vastly different scale, at the Blythe Academy.}
With each visit, I noticed that the forest had grown—from a dark stain, to a presence that variously resembled in shape a mushroom, a manta ray, and then some horribly exotic insect that might kill you with a single sting. Gradually, in an inexorable invasion through both time and space, Ambergris came to dominate his rooms, and then layer itself to a thickness greater than the walls, or so it often seemed, sitting in my chair, looking over a manuscript.
The stain had become the wallpaper, and the last remnants of non-Ambergris materials had become the stain. Looking back on those earliest diagrams and montages on his walls, could he have guessed how far they would lead him? How far he would travel, and at what price? {Underneath, any astute observer could have found a wealth, a riot, of new information. You had only to peel away a corner and there, revealed, the secret obsession: the ghosts of the Silence, the gray caps, and much else. “I’m going underground,” it all said. For those who could read it.}
“Your wall has changed. Has it changed your focus?” I asked him once.
“Perhaps,” he replied, “but it still doesn’t make sense.”
“What doesn’t make sense?” I asked.
“They’re the only ones who could have done it. But why? And how?”
I looked at him in confusion.
“The Silence,” Duncan said, and a shiver, a resonance, passed through me. The Silence and the gray caps.
More than two hundred years before, twenty-five thousand people had disappeared from the city, almost the entire population, while many thousands had been away, sailing down the River Moth to join in the annual hunt for fish and freshwater squid. The fishermen, including the city’s ruler, had returned to find Ambergris deserted. To this day, no one knows what happened to those twenty-five thousand souls, but for any inhabitant of Ambergris, the rumor soon seeps through—in the mottling of fungi on a window, in the dripping of green water, in the little red flags they use as their calling cards—that the gray caps were responsible. Because, after all, we had slaughtered so many of them and driven the rest underground. Surely this was their revenge?
I had only learned about the Silence the semester before; it was frightening how adults could keep the details of certain events from their children. It came as a revelation to me and my classmates, although it is hard to describe how deeply it affected us.
“It keeps coming back to the Silence,” Duncan said. “My studies, Dad’s studies. And Samuel Tonsure’s journal.”
Tonsure, Duncan had told me, was one of those who pursued the gray caps underground during the massacre that had preceded the founding of Ambergris. He had never returned to the surface, but his journal, a curious piece of work that purported to describe the gray caps’ underground kingdoms, had been found some seventy-five years later, and subsequently pored over by historians for any information it might impart on the Silence or any other topic related to the gray caps. They were studying it still, Duncan included.
“You’re not Dad, Duncan,” I said. “You could study something else.”
Even then, before he was employed by James Lacond, before he met Mary, I sensed the danger there for Duncan. Even then, I knew somehow that Duncan was in peril. {We’re all in peril from something. I count myself lucky not to have succumbed to the usual perils, like addiction to mushrooms or alcohol.}
But Duncan just stared at me as if I were stupid and said, “There’s nothing else to study, Janice. Nothing important.”
I remember the inevitable progression of the images on his walls with the clarity of dream. However, beyond the few words reproduced above, our conversations have faded into the oblivion of memory.
Duncan emerged from those rooms with a degree and good prospects {an exaggeration; I perhaps had the prospect of a brief flash of fame, followed by an urgent need to make a living in a profession other than the one I had chosen as my passion}, but even then he was different from the other students. I watched his professors circle him at the various graduation parties. They treated him with a certain worried detachment, perhaps even fearfully, as if he had grown into something they could no longer easily define. As if they dared not develop any emotional attachment to this particular student. {Mom, who had continued to recede into her memories, did not come up for the ceremony—and we rarely went to see her, now that we were grown.}
Later, Duncan told me that he had never known solitude, never known loneliness, as he did in those few hours after graduation when he walked like a leper through gilded rooms tabled with appetizers and peppered with conversations meant for everyone but him. The tall towers of senior professors glided silent and watchful, the antithesis of Mary Sabon and her quivering, eager necklace of flesh. {Everyone feels isolated at those types of events, no matter how good the party, or how scintillating the conversation, because you’re about to be expelled into the world, out from your own little piece of it.}
Yet out of his zeal, his loneliness, his passion that had literally crawled up the walls of his rooms, Duncan had already created something that might take the place of the silence or at least provide an answer to it. He had written a book entitled On the Refraction of Light in a Prison.
Despite countless exams, essays, and oral presentations, Duncan had found the time to write a groundbreaking tome that analyzed the mystical text The Refraction of Light in a Prison {written by the imprisoned Monks of Truff from their high tower in the Court of the Kalif}. It will not surprise anyone that this was one of the subjects our father had meant to tackle prior to his sudden death. {How could I not tackle it before going on? It was like completing my father’s life in some small part. I remember looking at the finished book, with the inscription, “To my father, Jonathan Shriek,” and thinking that I had resurrected him for a time, that he was alive again in my book. When I sent the book to our mother, she broke from her usual stoic silence to write me a long letter relating stories about Dad she had never felt comfortable telling me before.}
I had the privilege of reading the book {and helping to edit it, in your incendiary way} in manuscript form on one of my trips to Morrow. By then, my own education in Stockton and Ambergris had reached its somewhat disappointing end, and I was torn between pursuing a career in art or diving into art history. I had done much advanced research and encountered much in the way of genius, but I remember even then being astounded by the brilliant audacity of my brother’s conclusions. At the same time, I was concerned that the book might be too good for its intended audience. Perhaps my brother was destined for obscurity. I admit to a sting of satisfaction in the thought, for nothing is more savage than sibling rivalry.
In any event, Duncan found a publisher in Morrow after only three months: Frankwrithe & Lewden, specialists in reference books, odd fictions, and histories. Frankwrithe & Lewden was an ancient publisher, rumored to have been established under the moniker “Writhelewd” during the last century of the Saphant Empire. Then, as the Empire collapsed into fragments not long after “Cinsorium” became “Ambergris,” they transplanted their operations to Morrow, their name mangled and transformed during the long trek upriver in flat-bottomed boats. Who better to publish Duncan’s esoteric work?
Frankwrithe & Lewden published fifteen thousand copies of On the Refraction of Light in a Prison. By barge, cart, and motored vehicle, the book infiltrated the southern half of the continent. Bookstores large and small stocked it. Traveling book dealers purchased copies for resale. Review copies were sent out with colorful advance blurbs from the dean of the Institute and the common man on the street {a badly-conceived F&L publicity stunt, soliciting random opinions from laypeople that resulted in blurbs like, “‘Not as good as a bottle of mead, but me and the missus quite enjoyed the bit about monk sex.’ —John Tennant, plumber”}.
At first, nothing happened. A lull, a doldrums of no response, “as if,” Duncan told me later, “I had never written a book, never spent four years on the subject. In fact, it felt as if I, personally, had never existed at all.” Then, slowly, the book began to sell. It did not sell well, but it sold well enough: a steady drip from a faucet.
The critical response, although limited, did give Duncan hope, for it was, when and where it appeared, enthusiastic: “After an initial grounding in cold, hard fact, Shriek’s volume lofts itself into that rarefied air of unique scholarly discourse that distinguishes a good book from a bad book” {Edgar Rybern, Arts & History Review}. Or, this delicious morsel: “I never knew monks had such a difficult life. The overall sentiment expressed by this astonishing book is that monks, whether imprisoned or not, lead lives of quiet contemplation broken by transcendental bursts of epiphany” {the aforementioned James Lacond, Truff love him, with a rare appearance in the respectable Ambergris Today}.
The steady drip became stronger as the coffers of the various public and private libraries in the South, synchronized to the opinions of men and women remote from them {who might well have been penning their reviews from a lunatic asylum or between assignations at a brothel}, released a trickle of coins to reward words like “rarefied air,” “good,” and “astonishing.”
However, even the critics could not turn the trickle into a torrent. This task fell to the reigning head of the Truffidian religion, the Ambergris Antechamber himself, the truculent {and yet sublime} Henry Bonmot. How dear old Bonmot happened to peruse a copy of On the Refraction of Light in a Prison has never been determined to my satisfaction {but it makes me laugh to think of how he became introduced to us}. The rumor that Bonmot sought out blasphemous texts to create publicity for Truffidianism {because the rate of conversions had slowed} came from the schismatic Manziists, it was later proved. That Duncan sent Bonmot a copy to foment controversy demonstrates a lack of understanding about my brother’s character so profound I prefer not to comment on it.
The one remaining theory appears the most probable: Frankwrithe & Lewden conspired to place a copy on the priest’s nightstand, having first thoughtfully dog-eared those pages most likely to rescue him from his impending slumber. Ridiculous? Perhaps, but we must remember how sinister F&L has become in recent years. {Once upon a time, in a still-distant courtyard, I did ask Bonmot about it, but he couldn’t recall the particulars.}
Regardless, Bonmot read Duncan’s book—I imagine him sitting bolt upright in bed, ear hairs singed to a crisp by the words on the page—and immediately proclaimed it “to contain uncanny and certain blaspheme.” He banned it in such vehement language that his superiors later censured him for it, in part because “there now exists no greater invective to be used against such literature or arts as may sore deserve it.” {It was my good fortune that he turned to my explication of Chapter One of The Refraction of Light in a Prison, “The Mystical Passions,” which in its protestations of purity manages to list every depraved sexual act concocted by human beings over the past five thousand years. It was my theory, and Dad’s, that this was the monks’ method of having it both ways. It didn’t help that I included Dad’s mischievous footnote about the curious similarity between the form of certain Truff rituals and the acts depicted in the chapter.}
Luckily for Duncan, the darling {and daring!} Antechamber’s excellent imitation of a froth-mouthed dog during his proclamation so embarrassed the more practical administrative branch of the Truffidian Church—“them what pay the bills,” as an artist friend of mine once put it—that they neglected to impose a sentence or a penalty. Neither did the Truffidian Church exhort its members to “stone, pummel, or otherwise physically assault” Duncan, as occurred some years later to our soon-to-be editor Sirin, who had decided to champion a book on the “cleansing merits of interreligious romantic love.” {Sirin, alerted by a sympathetic typesetter, managed to change both the decree and the flyers created by it, causing the designated Truffidian Voice, the Antechamber standing by his side, to read a decree in front of the famous porcelain representation of the God Truff and all others in the Truffidian Cathedral that called for the Antechamber’s stoning, pummeling, and much worse. I teased Bonmot about this event many times.}
The ban led to the predictable upswing in sales, lofting the book into the “rarefied air” that distinguishes an almost-bestseller from a mediocre seller. {F&L took advantage of the ban to an uncanny degree, I must say, but it is not true that they had ten thousand copies of a new edition printed two nights before the announcement with “Banned by the Antechamber!” blaring across the cover in seventy-two-point bold Nicean Monk Face.}
Suddenly, Duncan had something of a reputation. Newspapers and broadsheets, historians and philosophers, decried and debated, lauded and vilified both the book and Duncan—on unusually obscure elements of Duncan’s argument {for example, whether or not the Water People of the Lower Moth Delta had ever been exposed to the teachings of Truff}. Meanwhile, the Court of the Kalif denied it still held the monks who had written the original The Refraction of Light in a Prison and declared the new book to consist of a vast, sprawling fiction built on the foundation of another vast, sprawling fiction. {The Kalif also revoked father’s prize, an action I never forgave.}
But no matter what position a particular commentator took, it was always with the underlying assumption that On the Refraction of Light in a Prison contained ideas of substance and scholarship. Duncan was asked to contribute articles to several major and minor historical journals. Inasmuch as the fate of the monks had become a political issue, and thus one of interest to many people, he was invited to more parties peopled by the Important than he could have stomached on his most extroverted day . . . and yet did not reply to a single invitation.
What made him reluctant to savor his new-found notoriety? The fear of the consequences of the ban did not make him a recluse, nor did his innate distress in social situations. The true answer is hinted at in his journal, which I have beside me now for verification purposes. Scrawled in the margin of an entry from this era, we find the words “Is this how Dad felt?” Remembering the fate of our father, dead at the zenith of his happiness, Duncan truly believed he too would die if he partook of too much joy—if not by heart attack, then by some other means. {Your theory may be correct on a subconscious level, but on the conscious level, I was merely obsessed and somewhat paranoid. Obsessed with the possibilities of the next book. Paranoid about how people would continue to receive my studies. Worried about how I would do on my own, so to speak, without Dad’s research notes to prop me up.}
Of course, I did not understand this until much later. At the time, I believed his shyness had led him to squander perhaps his only opportunity to take up a permanent place in the public imagination. On this, I turned out to be wrong. Debate raged on for a while regardless, perhaps fed by Duncan’s very absence.
Then, to compound the communal mystification, Duncan disappeared from sight—much as he would several decades later in the week before Martin Lake’s party. His rooms in Morrow {which the Institute had let me keep for a year following graduation} were untouched—not a sock taken, not a diagram removed from the walls. . . . Duncan simply wasn’t there.
I walked around those rooms with the school’s dean, and it struck me as I stared at the crowded walls that Duncan’s physical presence or absence meant nothing. Everything that comprised his being had been tacked or glued or stabbed to those walls, an elaborate mosaic of obsession.
Clearly, the school understood this aspect of Duncan, for they made a museum out of the rooms, which then became the physical location for discussions of Duncan’s work. Much later, the “museum” became a storehouse, crumbled over time into a boarded-up mess, and then a broken-down safety hazard; such is the staying power of fame. {I never expected it would last as long as it did, to be honest.}
As we walked together, the Dean made sympathetic sounds, expressed the hope that Duncan would “soon return to his home.” But I knew better. Duncan had emerged from his cocoon. The wallpaper of plans, photographs, diagrams was just the husk of his leaving, the remains of his other self. Duncan had begun to metamorphose into something else entirely.
That is, assuming he was still alive—and without the evidence of a dead body, I preferred to believe he was. {I was. As you know. Such melodrama!}
Now I should start again. Now I should skip six months of worry. Now I should tell you how I came to see Duncan again. This is such a difficult Afterword to write. Sometimes I am at a loss as to what to put in and what to leave out. Sometimes I do not know what is appropriate for an Afterword, and what is not. Is this an Afterword or an afterwards? Should I massage the truth? Should I maintain an even tone? Should I divide it all into neat, easily digestible chapters? Should I lie? {Dad, in his notes on writing: “A historian is half confidence artist and half stolid purveyor of dates and dramatic re-creations.”}
Duncan reintroduced himself to me six months later with a knock on my door late one night in the spring. The prudent Ambergrisian does not eagerly open doors at night.
I called out, “Who is it?” and received, in such a jubilant tone that I could not at first place the voice, the response, “Your brother, Duncan!” Shocked, relieved, perplexed, I opened the door to a pale, worn, yet strangely bulky brother wrapped in an old gray overcoat that he held closed with both hands. Comically enough, a sailor’s hat covered his head. His face was flushed, his eyes too bright as he staggered past me, pieces of debris falling from him onto the floor of my living room.
I locked the door behind him and turned to greet him, but any words I might have spoken died in my throat. For he held his overcoat open like the wings of some great bird, and what I saw I could not at first believe. Just brightly colored vest and pants, I thought, but protruding, like barnacles on a ship’s hull. How unlike my brother to wear anything that outlandish. I took a step closer. . . .
“That’s right,” Duncan said, “step closer and really see.”
He tossed his hat onto a chair. He had shaved off his hair, and his scalp was stippled and layered in a hundred shades of blue, yellow, green, orange.
“Mushrooms. Hundreds of mushrooms. I had to wear the overcoat and hat or every casual tourist on Albumuth Boulevard would have stared at me.” He looked down at his body. “Look how they glow. What a shame to be rid of them.” He saw me staring unabashedly. “Stare all you like, Janice. I’m a dazzling butterfly, not a moth . . . well, for another hour or two.” {A butterfly could not compare. I was magnificent. Every part of my body was receiving. I could “hear” things through my body, feel them, that no human short of Samuel Tonsure could understand.}
He did not lie. From the collar of his shirt to the tips of his shoes, Duncan was covered in mushrooms and other fungi, in such a riot and welter and rash of colors that I was speechless. I walked up to him to examine him more closely. His eyelashes and eyebrows were lightly dusted with purple spores. The fungi had needled his head, burrowed into the skin, forming whorls of brightness that hummed with fecundity. I took his right hand in mine, examined the palm, the fingers. The palms had a vaguely greenish hue to them. The half-moons of his fingernails had turned a luminous purple. His skin was rubbery, as if unreal. Looking up into his eyes, I saw that the spark there came from pale red ringing the pupil. Suddenly, I was afraid. {To be honest, to dull the pain a bit, I’d had a few drinks at a tavern before stumbling to your door. That might have contributed to the condition of my eyes.}
“Don’t be,” he said. “Don’t be afraid,” scaring me even more. “It’s a function of diet. It’s a function of disguise. I haven’t changed. I’m still your brother. You are still my sister. All of this will wash away. It’s just the layers added to me the past three months. I need help scraping them off.”
I laughed. “You look like some kind of clown . . . some kind of mushroom clown.”
He took off his overcoat, let it fall to the floor. “I agree—I look ridiculous.”
“But where have you been? How did this happen?” I asked.
He put a finger to his lips. “I’ll answer your questions if you’ll help me get rid of this second skin. It itches. And it’s dying.”
So I helped him. it was not as simple as having him step out of his clothes, because the mushrooms had eaten through his clothes and attached themselves to his poor pale skin. A madness of mushrooms, mottling his skin—no uniform shape or variety or size. Some pulsed a strobing pink-blue. Others radiated a dull, deep burgundy. A few hung from his waist like upside-down wineglasses, translucent and hollow, the space inside filled with clusters of tiny button-shaped green-gold nodules that disintegrated at the slightest touch. Textures from rough to smooth to rippled to grainy to slick. Smells—the smells all ran together into an earthy but not unpleasant tang, punctuated by a hint of mint. The mushrooms even made noises if you listened carefully enough—a soft pough as they released spores, an intermittent whine when left alone, a pop as they became ghosts through my rough relocations.
“Remember BDD when you three had to wash all that mud and filth off of me?” he asked, as we worked with scrubbing implements and towels in the bathroom.
“Of course I do,” I said.
Before Dad Died, BDD, a grim little acronym meant to help us remember when we had been a happy family. If we had arguments or bouts of depression that threatened to get out of control, one of us would remind the others that we had all behaved differently before Dad died. We held BDD time in our heads as a sanctuary whenever our anger, our loss, became too great.
Once, Duncan, his usual mad, exploring, BDD self, had managed to get stuck in a sewer pipe under our block and we had had to pull him out after a frantic half hour searching for the source of his pathetic, echoing voice. Then Mom, Dad, and I spent another three hours forcing the black-gray sludge off of him, finally standing back to observe the miracle we had wrought: a perfectly white Duncan, “probably as clean as he’s ever been,” as Dad observed.
I wonder, Mary, if Duncan ever shared memories like this with you, while the lights flickered outside his apartment windows?
“Remember BDD. . . .”
Duncan’s remark made me laugh, and the task at hand no longer seemed so strange. I was just helping clean up Duncan after another BDD exploration mishap, while Duncan looked on half in relief, half in dismay, as the badges of his newly gained experience fell away, revealed as transitory. {I was losing sensation with each new layer peeled off—reduced to relying on old senses. I knew it had to be done, but I felt as if I were going blind, becoming deaf, losing my sense of smell.}
Me, I felt as if I were destroying a vast city, a community of souls. On one level, I lived with the vague sense of guilt every Ambergrisian feels who can trace their family’s history back to the founding of the city. Even for me, even come late to Ambergris, a mushroom signifies the genocide practiced by our forefathers against the gray caps, but also the Silence and our own corresponding loss. Can anyone not from Ambergris, not living here, understand the fear, loss, guilt, each of us feels when we eradicate mushrooms from the outside of our apartments, houses, public buildings? The exact amount of each emotion in the pressure of my finger and thumb as I pulled them from their suction cup grip on Duncan’s skin.
It took five hours, until my fingertips were red and my back ached. Duncan looked not only exhausted but diminished by the ordeal. We had moved back into the living room, and there we sat, surrounded by the remains of a thousand mushrooms. It could have been a typical family scene—the aftermath of a haircut—except that Duncan had left behind something more profound than his hair. Already the red brightness had begun to fade from his eyes, his hands less rubbery, the half-moons of his fingernails light purple.
I had opened a window to get the smell of mushrooms out and now, by the wet, glistening outdoor lamps, I could see the beginning of a vast, almost invisible spore migration from the broken remains at our feet, from the burgundy bell-shaped fungi, from the inverted wineglasses, from the yellow-green nodules. Like ghosts, like spirits, a million tiny bodies in a thousand intricate shapes, like terrestrial jellyfish—oh what am I trying to say so badly except that they were gorgeous, as they fled out the window to be taken by the wind. In the faint light. Soundlessly. Like souls.
In that moment, almost in tears from the combination of beauty, exhaustion, and fear of the unknown, I think I caught a glimpse of what Duncan saw; of what had created the ecstasy I had seen in him when he had stumbled into my apartment five hours before. A hundred, a thousand years before. {I tried so hard to capture this for Mary, and yet I couldn’t make her see it. Maybe that is where the failure occurred, and maybe it is my failure. Not all experiences are universal, even if you’re in the same room when something miraculous occurs. I suppose it was too much to ask that she take it on faith?}
“Look,” I said, pointing to the spores.
“I know,” my brother said. “I know, Janice.”
Such regret in that voice, mixed with a last, lingering joy.
“I’m less than I was, but I’ve captured it all here.” He tapped his head, which still bore the scars of its invaders in the vague echo of color, in the scrubbed redness of it. “The spores are part of the record. They will float back to where I’ve been, navigating by wind and rain and by ways we cannot imagine, and they will report to the gray caps. Who I was. Where I was. What I did. It will make it all the more dangerous next time.”
I sat upright in my chair. Next time? He stood there, across the room from me, dressed in the rags of his picked-apart clothes, surrounded by the wreckage of fungal life, and he might as well have been halfway across the city. I didn’t understand him. I probably never would. {I didn’t need you to understand what I myself saw but dimly. I wanted you to see—and you saw more than most, even then. Mary saw it all, by the end, and she stitched her eyes shut, stopped up her ears, taped her mouth.}
“Yes, well, Duncan, it’s been a long night,” I started to say, but then his eyes rolled up in their sockets and he fell to the soft floor, dead asleep. I had to drag him to the couch.
There he remained for two days. I took time off from my job at an art gallery to watch over him. I went out only for food and to buy him new clothes. He slept peacefully, except for five or six times when he slipped into a nightmare that made him twitch, convulse, cry out in a strange language that sounded like birdsong. I remember staring down at his pale face and thinking that he resembled in texture and in color nothing more or less than a mushroom.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeff VanderMeer

Excerpted from Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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