Manual of Constraints
Collection of tales.
The Broken House
This novel, third in the "Mole Place," has not yet been published. To read a chapter from it, see the sidebar on the "My Works" page. Here's a second, "Night Reconnaissance," which I read at ReaderCon in 2005 and published in ParaSpheres, the new-wave-fabulist anthology brought out in 2006 by Omnidawn Publishing.
'Nna, one of the novel's protagonists, is an army whore who cooks for the other, the Megaduke Shandimus, Domestic of the Company of Walls, who has just suffered a catastrophic defeat and now must relearn the art of war. He does so when 'Nna takes him out into the field on a
Two days after the shelling the rubble has been cleared from the kitchen. The stove is restored to its place, and the fire built up in its belly works on broken furniture from the neat stack and utters smoke through the jury-rigged stovepipe. Two large tables have been assembled for the nonce by soldiers of the Company of Walls. There’s still as much hole as wall to the kitchen wall, but that porousness suits the animals. A parrot flies in and out. A monkey chatters on a spur of brickwork. And the chameleon that found its way in last night and scaled the potted rosemary basks now in full sunlight let in by the absent window. As for ‘Nna, she has a place to do her cooking. But first she has to heal a wounded man.
Now the basket of plants rests on one table in the light of the sun. The night is still guarded inside the basket that ‘Nna has brought back from the reconnaissance. Searching for herbs, she led her commander, the Megaduke Shandimus, Domestic of the Politic Company of Walls, across miles of field and forest, all night long, he on his donkey traveling the terrain he had neglected to examine before the battle; so secure had been his faith in walls. Misplaced!
‘Nna must put her own faith just there where her greatest dread lies. She touches the basket’s handle. The uppermost plants, torn latest from the earth with red dirt still clotting roots, are the ones she saw in the first faintest light and reached for with barely visible fingers. This was one of the last, with berries whose red just tinted the indivisible field of darkness. Underneath, their scents now rising in the heated air, there lie packed scores of plants she never saw at all but groped for in the dark and snatched at a venture, after running her thumb across a leaf that she then plucked, crushed beneath her nose, releasing pungencies that travel her yet, raising terror
‘Nna in the kitchen is the field at night, an absence etched in feral clawings. Only yesterday she was a military cook and whore, an item in the chain of command even if the lowest, even if badly shaken by her first taste of hostile high- explosive. What is she now?
The lively lines of her body unknot and flee her. Other bodies, nodes in the field, fibroid, reach for her; one is the body of terror. Deferred all night, terror now finds and plugs her, seals her, undoes her with cramps, melts ribs in cold runnels, tickling death.
But what is she afraid of? Not night, not wilderness. Where animals live and plants grow, ‘Nna can be at home. What is she dreading now, in this bright, warm, open kitchen with a drowsy chameleon at eyelevel?
She reaches inside her tunic to find a body and touches nearly nothing but heat and sore nipples. Better than nothing; they transmit a flow of anger into the body of fear and alter it. Fury and fear becomes war, and through that tangle of channels ‘Nna now strikes out in a bear-shirt as she digs into the basket. Every motion is a glad parrying, every sense a terrified stab into darkness, till she clears room around a plant, naa’nna. She plucks it out and spreads it on the table, smoothing out the oily leaves. Her own plant, and she chews it; out of her name it makes a cool and peppery bite into the bind of terror, pitting it and scoring it, weakening its grip till all unravels and is spat, yellow and green, out.
‘Nna reaches to the bottom again, grips tmer, spreads it on the table. She fingers the pods whose gluey fibrous pulp will go, mashed and the seeds picked out of it, into the infusion of naa’nna, to mire the march of fever, to sprout through the body of fever like hairs growing inward.
How does she know that? Oh, ‘Nna too easily finds her mother’s lore in her mind, telling her what every plant will do. Lhool’s presence, that dry voice, the dread that ‘Nna will never ever, once she hears it, clear it from her mind, switches her from anger to shame. She cannot avoid listening. To make her cure, she must go her mother’s way, read a menacing and withholding lexicon; and she so hard of study! So forgetful, so unmindful; so often pinched and struck for her slowness, burned sometimes too, and always scorned. Now in the kitchen ‘Nna feels bruises swell spontaneously on breasts and buttocks, cracks open in the skin of dry fingers as she turns leaves in the basket. Each of the plant her confident fingers pulls reserves its virtue for another, and as she works her scalp crawls, hairs grow up her belly and down her legs, her womb fills with tumors, and the seed placed there by soldiers begins to engender deformities. The little courses of her breasts dry up, her skin burns and cracks, in come rushing malignant spirits, the goat-footed woman grins in her face. ‘Nna grows insatiably hungry and nauseous. Her spirit escapes in spirals, trailing after her mother as she stalks away, ‘Nna drawn in her wake into the past. ‘Nna runs out into a field of disgrace, shelterless, dismissed into a crowd, slipping under the trampling of indifferent feet, trying to find the edge of the swarm.
But she has a wounded officer to heal. Like an officer in grey with a scarlet tail, the parrot flies in and lands on the meathook still dangling from the ceiling. At the sudden movement the chameleon opens and then closes an eye. ‘Nna digs. She finds taateel and pulls it from the basket. Good. Now chop the leaves and mix them in fat with others culled from the stand of henna outside. Two soldiers are this moment shouldering in a joint of meat, which they ram onto the hook; the parrot squawks and flaps. A camel haunch, it will surrender wholesome fat from under the hide. Good. She will make a cataplasm for Kyr Root’s wounded belly. Taateel’s bark and some more leaves, ground in a mortar and molded into a compress, will go on his temples to bring down his fever.
The knowledgeable eyes select the leaves, the cunning fingers strip bark and sort leaves into two piles, one for chopping, one for grinding, while Lhool’s knowledge works upon ‘Nna as if the mother were a cure, the daughter an infection, some foulness in the bowels. But when ‘Nna was newly enlisted in the Company of Walls, she draped herself on the mudguard of a truck in the Motor Repair Shop, leaning back, one hand upon the hood ornament, the Silver Tower of Walls, one foot on the running board, and let mechanics take their lunchtime pleasure, one after another, burning and smearing her, while over the hood her eyes followed sparks shooting from the touch of welder’s flame and steel, as if both, and herself added to them, were all one machine multiplying in a swarm of bees, her being diffused into their fascinating, untraveling flight. That hard life, before she became the Megaduke Shandimus’s personal cunt, still was better than being the daughter of Lhool, streaming behind her irreducible mother into the night, the fields, the desert, the hills, the neighbor’s orchard, the narrowest alleys in the market, back doors opening to a special knock. Catching sidewise glances from Lhool’s bruised lids, catching a clubbing from those ringed fingers, every time her own sharper eyes and quicker fingers failed to trace the true shape of her mother’s mind.
At the corpse washer’s ‘Nna took a dead man’s hand in her own and pushed it into a bowl of moistened grains. She left it while her mother sang a counting spell in a little girl’s voice. Those grains later made part of a savory stew served to a husband whose wife would have no trouble with him after that. The touch of the cold hand made ‘Nna’s burn, redden, and swell; but a compress cured it.
Tiklilt: a kind of chamomile. She has some now in her basket and pushes in that same disgraced and learned hand to find it. With it she can make a compress for Kyr Root’s head-wound, where he lost his eye. She can add ground leaves of tirtta; she pulls that from the basket. And something for sight, he’ll need it for his remaining eye. Tifizza, the gum of addool, a kind of acacia, take it wherever you find it, Lhool’s invariable rule. Dissolved in water, Tifizza will improve the Kyr’s vision. And ‘Nna will grind the bark of addool in the same mortar as tateel, to disinfect the belly-wounds and the foot from which toes were torn. Addool and tateel work together like a pair of hands. Next, tirtta. She pulls it from the basket. Azwiwel: the flowers rubbed on the wounds will aid cicatrisation. Merriwoot: a tonic and febrifuge, it will go into a decoction with tmer and tiklilt in the proportion her mother made absolute by kicking her till she got it right. Next her fingers find aazukni, also a tonic and an antiseptic. ‘Nna will dry it, shred it, mix it with tobacco, roll it into cigarettes for the Kyr to smoke.
A scaly branch is caught in the weave of the basket. ‘Nna tugs and twists it carefully free, then holds up a writhing spray of aammaay, the tamarisk. Its bark too is sovereign in afflictions of the blood, but not to mix with taateel and addool. All on its own, such is its nature, it clots and cleanses the blood, sending its virtue through the veins to find out uncleanness. ‘Nna has used it often on herself, it works even against yeast.
She is pleased at what she has found; there is much more, in the darkness of the basket, but this is enough. She spreads it on the table’s sunny plane. She will (she straightens) perform a cure. Across the kitchen lies the Kyr, a pale and sweating body on an army stretcher near the stove. The skin around his one unbandaged eye is bruised, darker than her hand, and the eye in its wanderings often lights on her. ‘Nna assumes the bluff demeanor of her mother at her stall in the market: Lhool, garrison whore in her day, had joked like a soldier with the men and women who stayed for a story, old men and young women, and all the hunchbacks, cripples, amputees, dwarfs, walleyes, splaytooths, sevenfingers, pinheads, cretins, lepers, and syphilitics of that garrison town. On market days Lhool wrapped a length of white cloth immodestly tight across her breasts and hips and dispensed her prescriptions in tales of wicked spirits and worse women, told while crumbling, pestling, pouring, weighing, stirring, straining, decanting, her fingers folding powders into papers while her eyes, kohl-lined and shining, held the customer’s. Her harsh voice submitted to a cadence; the story spun itself out, and then the medicament was ready, the joke found its point suddenly, and everyone listening laughed one long coarse laugh.
‘Nna smiles at Kyr Root. He is staring at her crotch, so she crosses to him, kneels on the floor, unbuttons her pantaloons and folds back the flaps to let him touch her with his cold chapped fingers, which she tucks inside her to warm them, a swift firm gesture.
Behind her the basket emits smells of the field and the night. All last night she was stumbling through moonless, starless darkness. Only sea-breeze to steer by. In thick groves even that failed her, and she stood in stuffy gloom with fireflies around her head traveling everywhere, leading nowhere, lighting nothing. Nearby the Megaduke Shandimus’s donkey farted and trampled bracken, and the Megaduke hummed and waited for her to sniff out a path.
But around her things were growing, reaching, sweating their excess liveliness in fragrances that left no room. Each herb she sought, each fruit or seed, root or branch, pulp or gum, was masked by others in the field of odors. Each was a bulb of fragrance from which threads spread through the air like roothairs, calling to blind things with noses; of which ‘Nna was one. Her nostrils flared as wide as when Lhool, with her tribeswoman’s proud straight nose, pushed wads of crushed mint into them and mocked their fat breadth and the darkness of the nose from which they spread; while ‘Nna inhaled spears of peppery cold and sharpened her sense to a pig’s.
Alongside the patient donkey she stood turning her head, angling her nostrils, while the rest of her, hands, smile and cunt, shrank and vanished. Called in every direction by echoes of Lhool’s voice, ‘Nna was the name of a population ready to disperse.
Why are there places for plants to proclaim themselves and none for ‘Nna? Is ‘Nna a beast that her terrain’s map is laid out in odors? The places her broad nose directed her last night only concentrated knowledge and shame. It took her to taggalt, the great fennel, where it asserted itself in the darkness. Her mother used to cut into the root-base to bleed it of the milky gum faasookh. Cooked, it thickened in lumps, turned creamy chestnut, smelled of caramel. Lhool used it to keep her pubis bald. Later, having quit whoring and taken up sorcery, she sold faasookh to thieves and assassins; burnt, its smoke repelled good people’s guardian saints.
Or else to shook, the donkey-thistle. Lhool had used that to abort what would have been ‘Nna’s sister.
The parrot whistles as if in amazement. The monkey chatters and jumps to a new promontory, a charred beamend. ‘Nna shakes her head and gently pulls the wounded man’s fingers out (they reek), and Root closes his eye. Buttoning her trousers, ’Nna imagines a contained space, odorless and cunningly lit. She does not know where she has seen it. Within it light flows from many sources through a thousand gradations of intensity, warmth, mixture with objects and their shadows. Daylight floods it, lamplight carves it, firelight warms it; there’s the white glare of limelight, the pearly glow of mist, the exhausted fire of remote stars, the thin beam of a dark-lantern, the pulse of embers, muted silver mirror-light.
She sorts the plants, recalling. Is it a theater? Of course it’s a theater. Once she trolled for custom in a theater lobby, when she was thirteen and had just escaped to the City. She arrived early her first evening, while the actors were still playing, and in exchange for a minor favor the usher posted her where she could watch. At the end of a tunnel the stage glowed, emitting cries and strings of words. ‘Nna watched the men in the cushioned seats watch the actress and did not see a different sort of attention from what she got when she pulled her dress up in the alley. But she was still new to whoring then. Now she sees that all those eyes were catching at a shape clearer than they were used to seeing.
How many places a stage contains! Merely to stand in one of them, under those lights, would gain ‘Nna a glow and a shadow, marry skin, hair, and costume into something as distinct as a fragrance in the field. The breeze would blow from her to witnesses. From each of those places she could throw the voice that the place itself would raise in her throat, mantled in words, and launch the gesture its light would sculpt. Then move, not far, and be in a new place, from that throw a new voice to ears turning like wide nostrils to catch her finest throb. She would be there. In each new place on a stage she would be new and there.
Now the basket lies empty save for dead leaves and twigs, crumbs of dirt, and one disoriented earwig trying each of the gaps in the weave. ‘Nna lets the insect catch her finger in its pincer and lifts it free to fall to the floor and scuttle. All night long the donkey was near her, far nearer than the man on its back. The Megaduke Shandimus said nothing to ‘Nna but only swept the terrain with his electric torch. But the donkey followed her with careful steps, and where she paused, it bent to crop. She saved it once from feeding on barboosh, that looks so much like parsley, another time from gizgeez that sprouts early in the season, when grass is still rare. She guided it to more wholesome fodder, talking to it, telling it her story; but look, here are gizgeez and barboosh, she must have gathered them while she chattered.
The field at night is no theater. It made of her a dark and shameful void, echoing with Lhool’s dread voice, at the sound of which shame acted on her body. But retaining a voice that murmured into a long soft ear, telling it all, while they rested and the Megaduke drew a little map and hummed. She has it still.
She makes a little pile of poisons, all familiar from Lhool’s stall. Beesh: that’s aconite, one of the deadliest and most rapid, a blue cluster of flowers and spiky leaves, but it’s the root that Lhool kept pickled in jars on a high shelf, as well as a crock of beesh honey. ‘Nna, who climbed a rock-face to the hive while her mother waved a smoking torch, remembers the burning when a drop fell on the skin between her thumb and finger. This is oowriwra, a splay of broad leaves, and here’s its spiky pod protecting the seeds that bring on slow death, unfolding through stages to end in convulsions. Here’s oofen, whose little blue kidney-shaped seeds will cut off your breath. She handles the sprig of it gingerly, for it stinks. Booqina: purple berries framed by a star-calyx. A dozen will send a man to death with the hardest cock and most vivid dream he ever enjoyed.
Here’s tidilla with the white trumpet-flowers, useful in erasing memories from someone’s brain, and whose seeds will bring on a good mood at first, next hallucinations, then trance and prophetic visions, delirium and inarticulate babbling, silent sweats, and lastly heart failure, depending on the dose. In the garrison town ‘Nna was daily carrying a twist of tidilla seeds across the lane to men in the café, whose jest it was to reach their dirty hands between her legs and feel if she had hair yet and call out bids to her mother against the time it grew. ‘Nna gave one of them, who had hurt her with his nail, such a generous dose that he made it right to the sweats.
‘Nna tears off sheets from a week-old newspaper, when the news was still all of fêtes in honor of the gallant officers of the Company of Walls and country dances for the rank and file. She wraps a pile of medicinal herbs in the racetrack results. Another sheet of closely printed quotations from the Bourse wraps herbs for women, to bring on their menses or suppress them, to make them gain weight or lose it; to put milk in their breasts, kill vermin in their hair, dilate their pupils, stain their lips, clear their skin and firm their gums, add luster to their hair; to prevent conception, ease labor, void undesired fetuses. Sketches of fashionable gowns and ingenious underwear wrap aphrodisiacs, the foreign news folds around cooking herbs, and the poisons go into the funny papers.
When ‘Nna is finished, her eyes search the kitchen. The objects are bright and silent. The wounded officer lies on his stretcher, skin like tallow, breath loud. His head is turned away. But the animals are awake. The parrot fans its scarlet tail and rocks on a hatrack. The monkey has opened a jar of cocktail nuts that survived the shelling. Parrot and monkey are absorbed, but the chameleon on the rosemary, basking in the sunlight, has its eye aimed at her. From within its aura of delight the mild eye studies her.
She whispers to it as she cuts into a cactus pear and leaves the red slice on the window-ledge, and while she puts up water to boil, and while she chops simples for the kyr. She takes off a bandage and studies the crater in the man’s head. Whispering, she swabs off crust and ooze, then binds it again with a compress. The tonic broth is ready; whispering, she spoons it in his mouth, holding his head up, the tendons of his neck athwart the tendons of her hand. Then, remembering that she requires henna, she takes basket and sickle and hurries, whispering, out.
A large, loud fly alights on the slice of fruit, which it busily sucks. The chameleon’s eyes swivel and fix the fly, the chameleon rises slightly on its bowed green legs, its tail wraps a sprig, its jaws part. A tongue shoots and retracts. The fly is absent, the chameleon stretches its head up, all the rest is slow, deliberate swallowing, while one eye travels the empty, quiet kitchen.