DRADIN, HAPPIER THAN HE HAD BEEN SINCE DROPPING the fever at the Sisters of Mercy Hospital, some five hundred miles away and three months in the past, sauntered down Albumuth, breathing in the smell of catfish simmering on open skillets, the tangy broth of codger soup, the sweet regret of overripe melons, pomegranates, and leechee fruit offered for sale. Stomach grumbling, he stopped long enough to buy a skewer of beef and onions and eat it noisily, afterwards wiping his hands on the back of his pants. He leaned against a lamppost next to a sidewalk barber andaware of the sour effluvium from the shampoos, standing clear of the trickle of water that crept into the gutterpulled out the map he had bought at Borges Bookstore. It was cheaply printed on butcher paper, many of the street names drawn by hand. Colorless, it compared un favorably with Dvorak's tattoo, but it was accurate and he easily found the intersection of streets that marked his hostel. Beyond the hostel lay the valley of the city proper; north of it stood the religious district and his old teacher, Cadimon Signal. He could make his way to the hostel via one of two routes. The first would take him through an old factory district, no doubt littered with the corpses of rusted out motored vehicles and rail road cars, railroad tracks cut up and curving into the air with a profound sense of futility. In his childhood in the city of Morrow, Dradin, along with his long-lost friend Anthony Toliver (Tolive the Olive, he had been called, because of his fondness for the olive fruit or its oil), had played in just such a district, and it did not fit this temperament. He remembered how their play had been made somber by the sight of the trains, their great, dull heads upended, some staring glassily skyward while others drank in the cool, dark earth beneath. He was in no mood for such a death of metal, not with his heartbeat slowing and rushing, his manner at once calm and hyperactive.
No, he would take the second routethrough the oldest part of the city, over one thousand years old, so old as to have lost any recollection of itself, its stones worn smooth and memory-less by the years. Perhaps such a route would settle him, allow him this bursting joy in his heart and yet not make his head spin quite so much.
Dradin moved onignoring an old man defecating on the sidewalk (trousers down around his ankles) and neatly sidestepping an Occidental woman around whom flopped live carp as she, armed with a club, me thodically beat at their heads until a spackle of yellow brains glistened on the cobblestones.
After a few minutes of walking, the wall-to-wall buildings fell away, taking the smoke and dust and babble of voices with them. The world be came a silent place except for the scuff of Dradin's shoes on the cobble stones and the occasional muttering chug-chuff of a motored vehicle, patched up and trundling along, like as not burning more oil than fuel. Dradin ignored the smell of fumes, the angry retort of tailpipes. He saw only the face of the woman from the windowin the pattern of lichen on a gray-stained wall, in the swirl of leaves gathered in a gutter.
The oldest avenues, thoroughfares grandfatherly when the Court of the Mourning Dog had been young and the Days of the Burning Sun had yet to scorch the land, lay a-drowning in a thick soup of honeysuckle, passion fruit, and bougainvillea, scorned by bee and hornet. Such streets had the lightest of traffic: old men on an after-lunch constitutional; a private tutor leading two children dressed in Sunday clothes, all polished shoes and handkerchief-and spit cleaned faces.
The buildings Dradin passed were made of a stern, impervious gray stone and separated by fountains and courtyards. Weeds and ivy smothered the sides of these stodgy, baroque halls, their windows broken as if the press of vines inward had smashed the glass. Morning glories, four o'clocks, and yet more ivy choked moldering stone street markers, trailed from rusted balconies, sprouted from pavement cracks, and stitched themselves into fences or gates scoured with old fire burns. Whom such buildings had housed, or what business had been conducted within, Dradin could only guess. They had, in their height and solidity, an atmosphere of states-craft about them, bureaucratic in their flourishes and busts, gargoyles and stout columns. But a bureaucracy lost to time: sword-wielding statues on horseback overgrown with lichen, the features of faces eaten away by rot deep in the stone; a fountain split down the center by the muscular roots of an oak. There was such a staggering sense of lawlessness in the silence amid the creepers.
Certainly the jungle had never concealed such a cornucopia of assorted fungi, for between patches of stone burned black Dradin now espied rich clusters of mushrooms in as many colors as there were beggars on Albumuth Boulevard: emerald, magenta, ruby, sapphire, plain brown, royal purple, corpse white. They ranged in size from a thimble to an obese eunuch's belly.
Such a playful and random dotting delighted Dradin so much that he began to follow the spray of mushrooms. Their trail led him to a narrow avenue blocked in by ten-foot high gray stone walls, and he was soon struck by the notion that he traveled down the throat of a serpent. The mushrooms proliferated, until they not only grew in the cobblestone cracks, but also from the walls, speckling the gray with their bright hoods and stems.
The sun dimmed between clouds. A wind came up, brisk on Dradin's face. Trees loured ever closer, darkening the sky. The street continued to narrow until it was wide enough for two men, then one man, and finally so narrownarrow as any narthex Dradin had ever encountered that he moved sideways crablike, and still tore a button.
Eventually, the street widened again. He stumbled out into the open spaceonly to be met by a crack! loud as the severing of a spine, a sound that shot up, over, and past him. He cried out and fl inched, one arm held up to ward off a blow, as a sea of wings thrashed toward the sky. He slowly brought his arm down. Pigeons. A flock of pigeons. Only pigeons.
Ahead, when the flock had cleared the trees, Dradin saw, along the street's right-hand side, the rotting columbary from which the birds had fl own. Its many covey holes had the bottomless gaze of the blind. The stink of pigeon droppings made his stomach queasy. Beside the columbary, separated by an alleyway, stood a columbarium, also rotting and deserted, so that urns of ashes teetered on the edge of a windowsill, while below the smashed window two urns lay cracked on the cobble stones, their black ash spilling out.
A columbary and a columbarium! Side by side, no less, like old and familiar friends, joined in decay.
Much as the sight intrigued him, the alley between the columbary and columbarium fascinated Dradin more, for the mushrooms that had crowded the crevices of the street and dotted the walls like the pox now proliferated beyond all imagining, the cobblestones thick with them in a hundred shades and hues. Down the right-hand side of the alley, ten al coves had been carved, complete with iron gates, a hundred hardened cherubim and devils alike caught in the metalwork. The gate of the nearest alcove stood open and from within spilled lichen, creepers, and mush room dwellers, their red flags droopy. Surrounded by the vines, the mushroom dwellers resembled human headstones or dreamy, drowning swimmers in a green sea.
Beside Dradinand he jumped back as he realized his mistakelay a mushroom dweller that he had thought was a mushroom the size of a small child. It mewled and writhed in half-awakened slumber as Dradin looked at it with a mixture of fascination and distaste. Stranger to Amber gris that he was, still Dradin knew of the mushroom dwellers, for, as Cadimon Signal had taught him in Morrow, "they form the most out-landish of all known cults," although little else had been forthcoming from Cadimon's dried and withered lips.
Mushroom dwellers smelled of old, rotted barns and spoiled milk and vegetables mixed with the moistness of dark crevices and the dryness of day-dead dung beetles. Some folk said they whispered and plotted among themselves in a secret language so old that no one else, even in the far, far Occident, spoke it. Others said they came from the subterranean caves and tunnels below Ambergris, that they were escaped convicts who had gathered in the darkness and made their own singular religion and pur pose, that they shunned the light because they were blind from their many years underground. And yet others, the poor and the under-educated, said that newts, golliwogs, slugs, and salamanders followed in their wake by land, while above bats, nighthawks, and whippoorwills flew, feasting on the insects that crawled around mushroom and mushroom dweller alike.
Mushroom dwellers slept on the streets by day, but came out at night to harvest the fungus that had grown in the cracks and shadows of grave yards during sunlit hours. Wherever they slept, they planted the red flags of warning, and woe to the man who, as Dradin had, disturbed their wet and lugubrious slumber. Sailors on the docks had told Dradin that the mushroom dwellers were known to rob graves for compost, or even murder tourists and use the flesh for their midnight crop. If no one questioned or policed them, it was because during the night they tended to the gar bage and carcasses that littered Ambergris. By dawn the streets had been picked clean and lay shining and innocent under the sun.
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 under belly, 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 themincredibly long, pale necks; at rest, they did indeed resemble mushrooms.
And yet, to Dradin's eye, they were disturbingly human rather than inhumana separate race, developing side by side, silent, invisible, chained to ritualand the sight of them, on the same day that he had fallen so irrevocably in love, unnerved Dradin. He had already felt death upon him in the jungles and had known no fear, only pain, but here fear burrowed deep into his bones. Fear of death. Fear of the un known. Fear of knowing death before he drank deeply of love. Morbidity and sullen curiosity mixed with dreams of isolation and desolation. All those obsessions of which the religious institute had supposedly cured him.
Positioned as he was, at the mouth of the alley, Dradin felt as though he were spying on a secret, forbidden world. Did they dream of giant mushrooms, gray caps agleam with the dark light of a midnight sun? Did they dream of a world lit only by the phosphorescent splendor of their charges?
Dradin watched them for a moment longer and then, his pace considerably faster, made his way past the alley mouth.
Eventually, under the cloud-darkened eye of the sun, the maze of alleys gave way to wide, open-ended streets traversed by carpenters, clerks, blacksmiths, and broadsheet vendors, and he soon came upon the de pressing but cheap Holander-Barth Hostel. (In another, richer, time he never would have considered staying there.) He had seen all too many such establishments in the jungles: great mansions rotted down to their foundations, occupied by the last inbred descendants of men and women who had thought the jungle could be conquered with machete and fire, only to find that the jungle had conquered them; where yesterday they had hacked down a hundred vines a thousand now writhed and interlocked in a fecundity of life. Dradin could not even be sure that the Sisters of Mercy Hospital still stood, untouched by such natural forces.
The Holander-Barth Hostel, once white, now dull gray, was a salute to pretentiousness, the dolorous inlaid marble columns crumbling from the inside out and laundry spread across ornately filigreed balconies black with decay. Perhaps once, jaded aristocrats had owned it, but now tuber cularmen walked its halls, hacking their lungs out while fishing in torn pockets for cigars or cigarettes. The majority were soldiers from long-forgotten campaigns who had used their pensions to secure lodging, blissfully ignorant (or ignoring) the cracked fixtures, curled wallpaper, communal showers and toilets. But, as the hansom driver had remarked on the way in, "It is the cheapest" and had added, "It is also far away from the festival." Luckily, the proprietors respected a man of the cloth, no matter how weathered, and Dradin had managed to rent one of two second-story rooms with a private bath.
Heart pounding now not from fear, but rather from desire, Dradin dashed up the warped verandapast the elderly pensioners, who bowed their heads or made confused signs of Truffidian ritualup the spiral staircase, came to his door, fumbled with the key, and once inside, fell on the bed with a thump that made the springs groan, the book thrown down beside him. The cover felt velvety and smooth to his touch. It felt like her skin must feel, he thought, and promptly fell asleep, a smile on his lips, for it was still near midday and the heat had drained his strength.
Click here for more info on the book.
Excerpted from City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Vandermeer. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.