Blackmarket Manna

a short story by Bradley VanDeventer

 

And now whereas my father did lade you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke: my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.

1 Kings, 12:11

Vasmatzidis’s Testimony

The Interlocking Nightmares of Flowerbomb and Bonestorm

Vespasian believed that Flowerbomb and Bonestorm were lovers–Flowerbomb being the passive one. Marie contended they were best friends from very early on. I thought that they were brothers mainly because their methods of doing some of life’s most pedestrian things seemed unorthodox enough to must have been the product of a sibling situation abnormal from the start: that of being twins.

Away from each other, Flowerbomb and Bonestorm made very little sense. Together, they formed a unified whole so thorough it was convulsive, tied together at long last by strands of sickening logic. It came from what they read and how they read it. Exegetical teamwork.

It’s one thing to read esoteric tracts on hermeneutics; it’s quite another to read only every other page, initially scratching your head and heaving with anxiety on why things are so hard to figure out, only to later mesh your half-formed ideas together with those of your counterpart to form a clockwork not so easily attainable by one mind alone.

We’ll never know what exactly happened in that Berlin park during the years of the Great War. Marie and I visited it last autumn and found a few things alluded to in the writings: the concrete paths that wound through the bright green, chopping it up in geometrically pleasing parcels: the cherub-choked water fountains, the rock gardens, the white bench on which they sat while reading their last book together. It was a veritable Dealey Plaza, an unsettling serenity airdropped by biplanes in the middle of the capital to provide refuge for a couple of bumbling fools too obsessed with arcana to be interested in their country’s struggle. They overdosed on that Biblical no-no called wisdom, and got the eviction notice.

Neither of us had ever been to Germany. Marie was of some Prussian extraction, though she spoke German only because she taught it to herself. She proved a flawless tour guide.

I sat down on the left side of the bench, dragging her down with me by her lambskin overcoat. Actually, she and I would have to switch sides to create any verisimilitude. Reading my mind, she shot up and spun around me. I scooted over to allow her room. She looked at me with a smile and asked, “Are you going to wither away?”

Fools that we were, we hadn’t brought a book with us to the park, so our mimesis came to an end. Marie stood up and surveyed the park. A wind sent her loose black hair east. Autumn in Berlin was beautiful, gray sky and all. The leafless trees in the park were alive in their deadness, clawing at the heavens in retribution for having been so stripped. Without saying a word, Marie went and lost herself in the labyrinth of walkways. I remained sitting on the bench, chain-smoking.

It was Bonestorm who had wandered along the paths after having read his way into a soulcrushing jam. Or so Flowerbomb says. Lover, twin, buddy–Flowerbomb wrote about his counterpart in a highly disjointed style. They may have written the same way they read. Each one of them read every other page, so that they could later put their halves together to watch coherence take shape. Bonestorm, at that time, was long too gone out of his gourd to have been able to contribute to his own drawn-out eulogy.

Flowerbomb, as if anticipating criticism of his counterpart’s physical weakness, claimed in his testimony that Bonestorm was mentally fit to weather any intellectual tempest, though he had been cursed since childhood to have the unfortunate malady of being allergic to poetry. So Bonestorm had to be very cautious when dealing with literature. Rimbaud, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Emily Dickinson were off-limits (“Good for him that the Beats appeared forty years too late, or Jim Morrison fifty,” Marie muttered). When it came to prose, however, he could join Flowerbomb in the readings, though a dust mask and surgical gloves were in order, and would be used until there was evidence that the work had no traces of being a prose poem.

Which was why he and Flowerbomb started out with Pavlov, Euclid, Pauling, Galton, Darwin, and Schopenhauer, all of whom trafficked in a different kind of poetry. And that was precisely why Vespasian, Marie, and I took forever in finding out why a perusal of tracts put out by some hermetic megalomaniac led to Bonestorm’s downfall.

At first, he and I went to the park for weeks and weeks on end. He liked it there. So did I. We liked the breezes that came through, and the chirping birds. It was rare that another human being would come upon the spot where we sat. Few souls would even come or go down the winding paths. So we knew we found our spot in the park. Each time before we cracked open a book, I kissed him on the cheek. I read the left pages and he the right. As we wound down the paths on our way home, we discussed what each of us read and put everything together to our delight.
(a lacuna of what probably amounts to an entire page)
The poetry of florid language pales in comparison to that of machines and notions. Prosody doesn’t hold a candle to physics. While poets muse about dewdrops and rosy-fingered dawns, decorating them through metaphor and exaggerating them with properties they don’t even possess, we concern ourselves with the Round Table of Nelvage and proprioception. Nightmares, we learned, are just incomplete dreams or snippets thereof, which accounts for their disagreeable aspect. Our nightmares joined together became fantasies. A light shone forth upon our revelations as soon as they were pieced together.

Afraid that I would lose Marie for good, I stood up from the bench and wound down the concrete paths in search of her. I found her sitting down at a similar bench, her black-haired head buried in her pale hands. She heard my footfalls and glanced up at me with a perfunctory smile.

She demanded that we return to the hotel. She wanted to re-read a few passages of Flowerbomb’s account. In her room, she made me sit down on the love seat. I did so, and she took the place next to me, cracking open Flowerbomb’s book. We were close enough to each other where, once open, the book would bloom over both of our laps. It was a musty old piece, likely a first (because only) edition by some subsidiary or vanity press. Its binding was at the point of falling apart, clearly from overuse. The text was slightly faded, and was of those tricky typefaces that seem every ten pages or so to shrink and grow to the eye that burns past the text. It was my kind of book–obscure and probably not very wholesome. I began reading from the top of the right page, which sat over my lap; sure enough, Marie had begun at the left. Such a way of reading books struck me as not just unnecessary, but entirely ineffective. Even if it were merely to deliberately deprive themselves of information so that their parlor game could be enacted later, the method was anti-logical, if not stupid. I quit reading Bonestormlike to vent this opinion. Marie shushed me. My eyes then followed down the orthographical trail her own had just blazed.

If not mistaken, the scene viewed from the very park bench where I had found Marie sitting only an hour earlier was being described in detail. It was the site of some event, unknown to us because of Bonestorm’s missing half of the memoir. Marie flipped backwards a few pages. “Here,” she said, mashing the pages open with her palms, “here is where Bonestorm’s half begins to go missing.” At about the halfway point in the book, lacunae appear on every page, marked by parentheses. There’s no telling what had been written by whom up to that point. The story flows like an ordinary coming-of-age story of two kids from early twentieth-century Berlin. Then Bonestorm’s allergic reaction to poetry is mentioned. Soon after, the account jumps from first-person plural to first-person singular, though the disjointed flow suggests that Bonestorm was meant to have added his own half.

I called Vespasian back in Massachusetts. He was not at home, so I left a message. He was an antiquarian bookseller, and knew every other one across the United States. I told him to get his hands on a companion book to The Interlocking Nightmares of Flowerbomb and Bonestorm, should one exist. I had a hunch that it did.

Marie doubted that the two names, translated to the German, would register. She was worried as I about the authenticity of the account. The only thing that kept us from deeming it a work of fiction was the sincerity of the authors’ tone; the allusions to a few historical events, however minor, and the use of real locales, meant nothing.

The next collegiate semester was a whole month away. We had time to mess around with decrepit geometers and biogeneticists. Marie read in German and I in English. Vespasian joined our reading party within the week. He had very little experience in hermeneutics, so we left to him the task of tying together the Book of Enoch, evoked often by our nerdy Berliners, to the strange but entirely earnest oeuvre of Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, a mister John Dee.

The one social act that Flowerbomb and Bonestorm had allowed themselves was the frequenting of the so-called Black Velvet Cabaret. The kids most likely got soused while watching and listening to the burlesque acts and paying visits to the in-house frauen. I checked the place out and found that it had in fact existed at one point. It closed down in 1918, probably as a result of Versailles. The location underwent various incarnations. It was now a nail salon. At the Black Velvet Cabaret, there was a number that they could not stick around to watch. It was a slow, though not to say any less bawdy, number called “Your Skrying Eyes.” The two of them had a little snit–Bonestorm saying it was time to leave, Flowerbomb safely entranced by the poetic song. It was because of that number, however, that they had got deep into Enochian. Flowerbomb would stay behind at a table, pounding back beer and listening to “Your Skrying Eyes”, while Bonestorm donned earplugs and skipped up the stairs, whoreward.

The three of us sat at an open-air table at a corner café, at a busy intersection. We were discussing the coming winter semester. I was tired from our leisurely reading, which had become anything but leisurely whenever I glanced up from the pages to notice. We agreed that returning to our professorial posts was a welcomed thing. Vespasian and I went to work on salads while Marie had a sandwich. I ate my food and sipped my coffee slowly, stalling the real matter at hand. But the business was right there in the middle of the table. The parcel was sealed well. I kept hoping Vespasian wouldn’t open it. I was tired of reading. I wanted to know Germany, which roared and breathed all around us.

The waiter came by to ask if we needed anything, and Marie said yes, a clean butter knife. When the waiter returned with the requested utensil and was about to hand it to her, she nodded at Vespasian, who quickly dabbed at his mouth with his napkin in order to accept the knife with a thank you.

“Where was it sent from?” I asked.

Vespasian, chewing a large forking of lettuce, hurried his effort, eyes closed, eager to answer. I stretched my neck forward to read the parcel.

“Why don’t we open it tomorrow?” Marie suggested. I liked the idea.

But Vespasian, who had finished chewing and swallowing, set his fork down and clutched the knife. He plunged the blade into the middle of the strip of packaging tape and carved the box open with an easy stroke. It made a pleasant, hollow sound, meaning the book must not have been very big. He popped the flaps wide open and laid the butter knife down gently. He was about to take the book out when he thought the better of it, citing unclean hands.

“So tell me, dear,” he said to Marie, “are you still on the side of Porphyry and company?Because I’m not.” That ‘dear’ was a stubborn vestige of a romance between them that had died out over ten years ago. I remembered how much it had bothered me then, when she and I had been involved; now it gave me a certain comfort, because Vespasian was sincere in saying it. There was something avuncular to him. His stocky frame, pencil-thin mustache, ponytailed hair, and prescription sunglasses invited anyone on the street to think him either a severe snob or ball of muck, though he was neither. While dating Marie, I loathed him with fire after she introduced us. Now he was my best friend.

He was referring to his disdain for the early Christians who had loathed the hotheaded god of the Old Testament, who, at the beginning of his career, was an equal to the city-state idol Baal. The Gnostics put a sort of celestial frame around this Samael, ‘the blind one’ (known also as Ialdabaoth). He would be subordinate to Sophia, to whom there was no superior.

“I am,” Marie said, clutching an isosceles triangle of rye bread and ham. “You are on his side as well, though you refuse to acknowledge it. Don’t you maintain that wisdom is a good thing, that any detractor or denier of it can only be malevolent?”

“It would be divine totalitarianism,” Vespasian huffed, slamming his forkless fist down on the table. Downtown Berlin was too noisy for his outburst to be of any consequence.

“The First Commandment suggests that there are other gods,” Marie dared, washing away any stray traces of her Lutheran upbringing. “It’s the edict of a worried and threatened deity.”

“A rebel offspring,” I chimed in. Marie looked over at me and smiled, nipping a 45-degree angle off her isosceles, breaking down the laws of Pythagoras with her jaws.

Vespasian knew what was going on. He was named after the first-century Roman emperor and enjoyed playing his namesake by taking it to Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. He dared to name his one and only son Titus. I was Jewish and could care less about his vehemence. He looked over at me slyly.

As I swirled my salad, I began wondering how I myself would behave had I had the great luck of being a deity. I couldn’t guarantee any benevolence. I might very well give in to the urge to destroy entire populations, selling it as Nature. If I were one of Marie’s archons, determined to keep the particles of divine light spread throughout the universe as long as possible by promoting procreation.

Officially finished with his lunch, Vespasian wiped his hands before reaching in the box and pulling out the cloth-wrapped book. He tucked the empty box under the table and placed the manuscript down in the middle. Marie slid her cup of coffee away from it. It wasn’t as slim a book as we had thought it would be. We were expecting no more than a hundred pages, thinking that it would be the collection of lacunae, Bonestorm’s take on things, and that was it. Instead, it was the exact same size as The Interlocking Nightmares of Flowerbomb and Bonestorm. Vespasian folded back the cloth. It appeared more battered than its brother book, with a very brittle spine. There was no title on the black cover.

“What’s it called?” Marie asked, carefully hoarding her cup of coffee to her mouth to steal a sip.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Vespasian said. And before either Marie or I could howl despair, he elucidated: “The bookseller knows what he sent me. I told him exactly what we had in our possession. He knew there was a counterpart. I kept asking him if he was sure. He insisted yes.”

It was then that a mass-transit bus zoomed by, lifting the cover off the book. The pages followed and caught the second wind of the bus, swirling and drifting and wafting out into the busy intersection.

“Oh dear,” Marie said.

We upended the table and began frantically snatching at pages, leaping into the air with outstretched arms, dodging honking automobiles, bumping passersby. I slipped on a manhole cover while trying to maneuver myself to snatch floating pages from all sides of me. Vespasian was way over on the other side of the intersection, fumbling around with what he had managed to snare into his arms. Marie was on the other side of the street from him, crawling under a table, hauling in pages. Traffic stopped. The drivers came to halts more out of bemusement than wanting to make it easy for us. Some people began helping us, and after what seemed forever we had all but four of the pages that had blown about.

Back at the lunch table, where the rest of the book had obediently remained, Marie asked Vespasian, “What the hell is this?” She produced the frontispiece, which read The Interlocking Nightmares of Flowerbomb and Bonestorm. Vespasian held his hands out and shrugged. I smacked a hand against my face. People around us whispered and murmured in chthonic German.

We walked back to the hotel in single file, dejected, not speaking a word. Marie, who had been peering at a crumpled page, said, “Vasmatzidis, this book is not the same that we have back at the hotel.”

She was right. That copy of The Interlocking Nightmares of Flowerbomb and Bonestorm that we lugged down the street was not identical to the one she and I had read and reread. The books were identical up to the point where the twins–or lovers, or friends–began reading a book that is not mentioned in our copy, simply because its title ended up each time somewhere in the parentheses that stood for entire missing pages that comprised Bonestorm’s side of the story. We had those lacunae now.

Vespasian was down about what had just happened. “My antiquarian friend said it was the only existing copy. There are several of the one you two have, but of this other, that was the only copy.”

Marie and I didn’t share his chagrin. Rather, we were excited to read a story contained in the book called Carnivorous Butterflies. Two of the pages we lost were from the first half of the book, all of which we had in duplicate. The other two, however, were not redundant. It would be months before Vespasian admitted to returning three times during his stay to that intersection.

Sitting on the hotel room’s loveseat, Marie and I read about Flowerbomb and Bonestorm read about a banker who, sometime during the nineteenth century, had wandered through their park. He was as avaricious as Crassus, and employed similar schemes in the amassing of wealth. Through back channels, he hired arsonists to compromise three churches, two libraries, and one university. A fire brigade would be given the go-ahead only when the building owners relented unto his lowball figure to buy them out. He was quick to subsidize whorehouses, though, and loved to baby his mistresses with cash and gold-inlaid lingerie. His loathing of art was almost a disease. He co-opted would-be painters and poets into shady business ventures, thereby breaking them.

One day this banker wound down the park’s paths and, having got to the very area where I had found Marie sitting, came upon a swirl of butterflies. He loathed insects as much as he loathed poetry and religion, and began cursing them aloud for being in his way. As if hearing his maledictions, the butterflies at once turned on him, nipping at his skin like so many airborne piranhas. He swatted and kicked, thinking they would disperse. Instead, they kept up their attack. He figured a dash out the park would rid him of them, but, alas, he did not make it out the park. They set to mauling at his limbs and neck, ripping at his worsted suit to get at his flesh. Their jaws worked with the corrosiveness of acid. He pleaded for help, but besides one eyewitness, no one was around to hear. Much of his flesh had been torn from his bones by the time he fell into a ravine, where the butterflies proceeded to pick his bones clean. There were two or three more accounts of the meat-eating butterflies assaulting parkgoers, though details were wanting. A public sanitation officer and exterminator were sent into the park to clean it up, but the insects were nowhere to be found.

It was around the time of this story being read that Bonestorm began to grow weak. The story, taken from a book by one John Hyrcanus, was not set down in verse. So there was suspicion that it could have been a prose poem. Marie contended that the story could have been an allegory for Bonestorm being assailed by poetry. “Clearly any guilty verses wouldn’t be in his account,” she said.

I couldn’t disagree more. I handed her a page she hadn’t yet read.

I don’t know why he does this to me. I tell him that it is dangerous. It isn’t to him, of course. So I read on and dream on in spite of myself. We know exactly where the butterfly incident took place. It lies in the northwest quadrant of the park, on a path that bends to the right behind a line of trees. A park bench marks the spot. The ravine is also there. We went looking for evidence the other day but found nothing.
Hyrcanus’s version of the story is wholly prosaic, and therefore safe. But the rest of the book is in verse, and is therefore unbearable. Flowerbomb and I read angelical writing numerous times. The thermodynamics of the celestial spheres were firmly rooted in cold fact, though their mysteries were revealed to us in nightmares. But once we happened upon poetry, and I told my companion that I could not proceed further. He threw fits and said it wasn’t fair to him. So he went on reading his left pages, and dreaming the left side of revelation. But his visions stood up with gashes in their sides. He felt their inadequacies. He dreamed nuts, but not bolts; yin, without yang; bone, with no skin. The fire of his nightmares would burn his soul without the neutralizing effect of my ice, he said. He allayed my fears by claiming that, since I would only do what was expected of me, which is read the right-side pages of Hyrcanus, I would not be reading poetry. Only our revelations afterward would amount to anything close to it. What faulty reasoning! How much of a dupe did he imagine me to be? A quatrain was enough to make me gasp for air. He kept a petulant face and didn’t talk to me for weeks. I tried in vain to defy his accusations.

If the nightmares of Flowerbomb and Bonestorm ceased to interlock, like our first copy indicated, then what remained to be determined was how Flowerbomb, all by himself, managed to plunge into the byzantine contraption that was John Hyrcanus’s oeuvre.

That evening, Vespasian told us that he had a book by one John Hyrcanus. It was a strange specimen, with a desultory, threefold theme: a vitriol against the European Enlightenment, a drawn-out non-Euclidean description of a come shot across a vegetable garden, and a planar analysis of the devil’s pitchfork. “Hyrcanus is irony-free,” Vespasian told us with a chuckle. “In the brief biography at the end of the book, he claims descent from the Maccabees, hence his nom de plume.”

“When was it printed?” Marie asked.

“In 1874. Or five,” Vespasian said.

“Way too obscure to have been subjected to Nazi scrutiny and burning,” said our Teutonic lady.

“The book was a translation from the German into English,” Vespasian said, meaning that the original publication could have been much earlier. “I’ll begin searching for a German copy first thing tomorrow morning.”

Flowerbomb did not mention the Hyrcanus book owned by Vespasian, titled Our Effervescent Menace. Instead, he cited a certain Kitaab min al-Kutub, or Book of Books, a short tract written in Egyptian Arabic, which would make John Hyrcanus a polyglot whose bibliography moved effortlessly from tongue to tongue. It did not live up to its titular billing. It served, instead, as a stopover to two more works, one called Hoch Himmel, or High Heaven, and the other nameless to us, probably because our idiot still chose to only read the left-side pages of books.

Vespasian’s following morning was unsuccessful. So I read Our Effervescent Menace in Arabic (which was a translation from the German, itself a translation from the original Enochian). Marie read Book of Books in English (which was a translation from the German, which was itself translated from the original Arabic).

My book consisted of a number of conjurations: the summoning of spirits, pyromancy (divination by fire), and, yes, the breeding of flesh-devouring butterflies. The conjurations were elaborate, consisting of geomantic rituals and evocations. The most interesting portion of the book was a protracted chapter called How to Maintain a Harem of Fire Nymphs.

Since flame retardants like Nomex did not exist back then, I couldn’t begin to imagine how Hyrcanus succeeded in courtship with the scorching kind. This brought my assessment of magick full circle, where, like before, I could not decide whether it was all an ornate sham or a mystical perception of the physical world chock-full of metaphors, useful diagrams of inner space.

Flowerbomb dreamed one night that he was the inhabitant of a flat land in the shape of a pentagram. He was bound to the upper and lower left corners, which represented air and earth. He held the former in his lungs and the latter at his feet. The other two elements of water and fire–upper and lower right–were unaccounted for, since Bonestorm was at that point not participating. Flowerbomb’s nightmares would keep him locked down to those points until there was a change.

Marie’s Testimony

I Dreamed of Chains Singing

Flowerbomb wrote:

I dreamed of chains singing. It was not me that their cold steel held down. It was others. But it was I who became enslaved by their singing. I was locked down by a choir, which was cold to the ear as the links would have been to those in captivity. I tumbled through the clouds, bearing witness to those who fell with me. From behind me came the voice of one who also fell. ‘These chains that bind us sing now the Flogging Song.’ I did not understand what he meant, nor understand who he was. All I could hear was the choir of chains and a loud rustling of feathers.

Bonestorm wrote:

I dreamed of a man plucking angels from the heavens as easily as if he had been snatching overripe fruit from a tree. In the morning, after coffee, we bundled up and headed for the park, taking a slim volume of Qabala with us and a diagram of the sefirot. We shuttered with fright as each of us revealed our nightmares to the other. But after having pieced them together into a cohesive whole, we had ourselves a hearty laugh.

I, for my part, some ninety years later, dreamed last night of a dreadlocked archangel shooting up heroin. He told me to mind my own business, in German. I’ve always believed celestial beings to be reckless junkies who get made over by the faithful as benign, which the archons were definitely not.

When Vespasian’s copy of The Interlocking Nightmares of Flowerbomb and Bonestorm had blown apart to the four corners of a downtown Berlin intersection, due to the passing of an autobus, most of Bonestorm’s account was spared, with the exception of four pages. The portion of the book that had blown about was mostly the first half, where the accounts did not yet diverge.

This morning, I was back at the café where the incident took place, finishing up Book of Books. I had problems focusing, finding it hard not to pass it all off as gibberish. Vasmatzidis had told me on numerous occasions that, once penetrated, the cryptograms and -graphs unlocked a novel way of perceiving the material world.

The very same waiter who served us that day told me that he had found a sheaf of our book’s pages, and had held them for us in his locker back behind the kitchen. I asked for them and he brought them to me graciously, along with a refill of my coffee. I put down the Hyrcanus book, tired of German, and found to my alarm that I had in my hands seventeen pages of Bonestorm’s account. There should have been only two missing pages. The pages the waiter gave me were numbered 241-257. Yet, as I recalled, the book we had salvaged from the accident was missing 249-250, and 81-82. My head got so cloudy, I forgot to leave the waiter a tip.

Back at the hotel, I set to reading the missing pages. So Flowerbomb let his grudge die. Bonestorm came back to him with open arms. They took up their habit at the park. They took delight in reading Hoch Himmel, which I admit I nearly couldn’t. (Vespasian had shown up with a copy that morning, and I tried in vain to turn it down. It was in German, so it fell to me to read it.)

The Berliners had nightmares determined by the day’s readings, and locked them together the following morning. The revelations must have been of enough interest for them to continue with that game of theirs.

There was no getting around it: I would never be initiated as a hierophant. I refused to learn Enochian. The tightly wound buds of mystery would not bloom forth as the flowers of logic others proposed them to be. The mention of the singing chains and the man plucking angels from the sky still wasn’t enough to convince me that I should learn how to read that angelical tongue. I would continue to take Vasmatzidis’s word for it.

By the third page, it was clear that Hoch Himmel was autobiographical. John Hyrcanus did indeed claim the Hasmonaean lineage, and wasted no time in doing so. He said his paternal bloodline went back right to a lost brother of the High Priest, who could do nothing but watch the Nabataean, Herod the Great, bring an end to the royal house. This lost son served as a lowly prison guard at Machaerus, the Herodian fort where John the Baptist was imprisoned before his death.

Hyrcanus gave a synopsis of one of the most interesting Biblical stories: Herod Antipas, nephew of Herod the Great and governor of Galilee, was jealous of John the Baptist, whom the people held in high regard. The real cause of Herod’s ire, though, was probably John the Baptist’s denouncing him as an adulterer: Herod married Herodias, the widow of his own brother Philip. That vixen held a blackness in her heart for John as well. One day, Herod celebrated his birthday with great pomp. His nubile niece/stepdaughter, Salome, danced with much pathos and naked abandon before the gathering of neighboring monarchs. Herod, smitten by the sight, and eager to show his guests his might and mien, offered the deserving dancer anything she wished. Too scatterbrained to request anything on her own, Salome ran over to her mother, Herodias, who made her run back to Herod and ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod himself was aghast at the request, but not wanting to wilt before the eyes of visiting heads of state, kept his word. The Forerunner was dispatched.

John’s remains were spirited away–the body to Sebaste, the head placed in an earthenware vessel and buried on Mount Olive. The work was carried out by one Joanna, the wife of Chuza, one of Herod’s stewards. There are conflicting versions of what subsequently happened to John’s remains. According to some, his relics were taken to Cappadocia, in present-day Turkey; according to others, to Alexandria. His head is said to be in Aquitaine and also in Boston.

Flowerbomb had a nightmare of an opportunistic procurer of relics, a man from Arimathea; Bonestorm had a nightmare of the Paten, the silver platter that, despite being buried under gravel in various lands for many years, gleamed still with a brilliance rivaled only by the sun. Flowerbomb had a nightmare of a boat that sailed from Palestine to Glastonbury, England, with a stopover at Marseilles; Bonestorm had a nightmare about a spear, a chalice, and a platter carefully wrapped in linen.

Flowerbomb dreamed feverishly of a knife that carved away the years; Bonestorm dreamed of a fork that hauled those years into the gaping maw of oblivion.

The knife, called Samson’s Slicer, was fashioned from the ass’s jawbone the robust, long-haired judge had used to slaughter Philistines. It was kept in the court of Ahab, king of Samaria, whose wife, Jezebel, had used it to slice off bits of lamb to offer unto Baal. When a peace was established between Ahab and Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, the knife went to Jerusalem. It was clutched years and years later in the trembling right hand of Zedekiah, who was at dinner while he learned that Nebuchadrezzar was fast approaching the city. The knife made its way then to Babylon, where it stayed until the Persian invasion. It was kept in a satchel of someone among the retinue of Ezra, who, with the Achaemenids’ blessings, led a great part of his people back to the Holy Land, where it collected dust under the altar of the temple until the First Crusade, when, along with many other things, it was taken to Constantinople.

The fork, called Sennacherib’s Bane, came from Nineveh, capital of Assyria. It was one of the weapons used by the princes to slaughter the hegemonic king after he had attempted to storm Judah. One of those sons of the king sought refuge in present-day Armenia but was turned back. He did not dare return to Assyria, for the new lord, Esarhaddon was vicious; so he fled to Ecbatana, where he died in peace years later. The fork found itself on the plate of one Harpagus, who, thinking he had eaten mutton for dinner one evening, had unwittingly eaten the remains of his son–a ruse put to him by the ruthless Median king Astyages, who sat too at the table. Harpagus then conspired with Cyrus to overthrow the despot. The fork went to Persepolis, where, a century and a half later, a group of drunken Macedonians set up camp. It followed along in the baggage train of a general, Seleucus or some other, going to the River Indus and stopping back at Antioch, in northern Palestine. The Maccabeean revolt centuries later brought about a time of Jewish independence, and it was then that Sennacherib’s Bane was used at the court of the Hasmonaeans. There is hare-brained speculation that it was used by one of the five-thousand when Jesus had fed them with two fish and five loaves of bread. Most likely it stayed in Palestine until Jerusalem had been destroyed by Hadrian, who rebuilt the city as a provincial capital and named it Aelia Capitolina. From there it ended up in Constantinople.

Samson’s Slicer and Sennacherib’s Bane had come together at the royal dinner table of the Byzantine Alexius I Comnenus, who was so cautious with them that he decreed death should befall whosoever touched them.

The two of them now had a chance meeting for the first time in just under a millennium, in a Berlin basement, wrapped together in linen and placed on a table that waited for two years to receive a platter said to have been in the possession of the procurer of relics, whose name was Joseph, who parted willingly with the platter so that he could at last die.

Hyrcanus was skeptical of the utensils’ authenticity but was convinced that the platter sitting before him on the table once held the head of St. John. The fetishistic accoutrements for the feast were complete, but the fodder remained missing.

Hoch Himmel, full of Watchtowers and angelical vectors, then lapses into a recipe book for serving angel meat. There is Sautéed Seraph, Poached Principality, and a confusing concoction of Charbroiled Cherub, which it is a sin to eat without a generous coating of Gorgonzola and a snifter of red wine.

It was at this point that Bonestorm became seriously ill. Hyrcanus’s account was safe for him, but there were interpolations written in the Enochian script that were first-person accounts of tumbling downward through space. Bonestorm said that his allergies acted up when he completed two lines of text. He had been reading angelical poetry. If being hauled down from the heavens by singing chains was an occasion to wax poetic, then the celestial beings had a better grasp of tragedy and pathos than we humans. They did not end up in Tartarus, or Hell, as they feared; nor did they fall to earth, yet; instead they found themselves on the shore of a sea of chains. Steel chains stretched all the way to and across the horizon. They had no choice but to set forth onto the sea. They began to sink. And because their wings were bound by chains that sang the Binding Song, they could not fly up to safety, and they drowned in the sea of chains.

I vomit but I continue reading. I cannot help myself. Hyrcanus wishes to dine on angel meat. He has come across a method for ensnaring angels. He then goes ahead and scorns all the skryers throughout the ages, calling Dee and Kelley charlatans, dubbing Francis Bacon a futile twit, and casting aspersions at the Illuminati set, which he calls a ‘desperate, esoteric circle jerk’. He has found a way to hunt down angels, and it’s open season. The voices of the songs that the chains sing are those of two-hundred already-fallen angels, Shemyaza and others, whom John Hyrcanus employs. Hyrcanus learns by the captain of the Fallen that good angels are flogged on a regular basis. They are pure in their service of the Lord, but they are not above the Lord’s sadistic tastes. This is confirmed by Hyrcanus’s very first capture, whose name is Saraqael.
“Whence came you?” Hyrcanus asks, gazing up at his new acquisition, who stands up in a large cage hanging from the basement’s ceiling.
“From the east, beyond the mountain of pearl,” replies Saraqael.
“Were you happy there, with your Lord?”
“I was.”
“Are you happy now?”
“I am not.”
“Can you tell me a story? Does your kind traffic in the sins of invention? If you tell me some interesting stories I will set you free.”
“I don’t wish to return.”
“And why not? I thought you were happy there.”
“Because I don’t like being flogged.”
“Who flogs you?”
“Other angels.”
“At whose behest?”
“Ialdabaoth’s.”
“You are an archon?”
“Yes.”
“Are there other archons?”
“Many.”
“Are they all flogged in turn?”
“No.”
“And those that are not flogged . . . what do they do while others are?”
“They are of the choir.”

I missed those days in high school when I used to pray and was convinced that the celestial phone was picked up and held to the Ear, when I wasn’t hung up on immediately like the telemarketer I must seem now to God.

When I first heard of this story of the two Berliners who simultaneously read books and darkly dreamed connecting halves of revelation, I was taken by their codependency. As a gulf set up between them, I thought Bonestorm the weaker of the two, and placed all my support with Flowerbomb. Now I was not so sure. Bonestorm, though a weakling, showed much selflessness in continuing to read for their collective sake; whereas Flowerbomb threw shit-fits every time his other half cited threats to his health as a reason for not wanting to continue. They were such creatures of habit that they feared the whole megastructure of the world would collapse upon them if a digression should take place: the support beams of their hermetic nightmares would begin to corrode if not retrofitted, and the whole cosmology would give way.

There are moments in one’s life that, while not even necessarily bad, are so gray and melancholy, that it seems impossible that they should be succeeded by something like a sliver of light. That entire day was such a time. Even a dinner with effervescent Vasmatzidis was not as refreshing as it should have been. I probably shouldn’t have expected so much from him. His habit of reading hermeneutic tracts through the night and sleeping for only a few hours showed on his face. He could be witty and charming, but never uplifting. It was always ennui with the world that drove one to mysticism in the first place. And though relieved of the world’s tiresome banalities, these people weren’t naive enough to try and procure for themselves some deathless ebullience. I couldn’t recall joie de vivre ever being acquired by anybody.

Vasmatzidis told me what he had read. His remark about how scary it was that I should come across the name of Ialdabaoth, since I was partial to the Gnostic gospels, rattled me a bit, and even shook up the ho-hum world for me. I ordered a slice of pie.

Back in the States, our antiquarian bookseller was close to acquiring a work referred to in the book Vasmatzidis had read yesterday as Iad Bab Zna.

“A very obscure grimoire. Supposedly one long incantation to send binding instruments up into heaven to snag down Powers, the order of angels most susceptible to corruption and collapse.”

“Written by whom?” I asked.

“By one John Hyrcanus.”

I sighed. This Maccabeean chap’s oeuvre was beginning to resemble a Matryoshka doll.

Vasmatzidis watched me eat my slice of raspberry and chocolate. “Do you want to try this?” I asked. “It’s divine.” I licked chocolate from the corner of my mouth. He smiled and held out desisting hands. Clutching the fork in my right hand, I decided to include the services of a butter knife. The same instrument used to murder the Assyrian king would now atone for its crime by hauling the rest of the sweet dessert into my mouth; and the very ass’s jawbone Samson used to slaughter Philistines would lop off the final mouthful.

“I don’t think he’s holding angels captive so that they’ll reveal to him God’s secrets,” he said, sipping a coffee. “He already knows God and even shows a predilection for detesting him. He’s doing this to angels for some materialistic reason. Either he’s using them for inspiration to write the kind of stories he’s always needed in order to launch a literary career, or he’s doing it for sustenance. Easy meat. Blackmarket manna.”

“He’s foraging?” I proposed, my mouth full.

“All that self-publishing, you know. Wallops the wallet. A-hunting one must go.”

“I wonder what angel meat tastes like,” I said, washing down the last piece of tort with a drink of water. “I’d really like to know.”

“There sort of is a Hyrcanus cookbook,” Vasmatzidis said.

“Like chicken, perhaps?”

“They are aviary.”

Medieval scholars put the number of angels at three-hundred million, a little less than half of those being fallen. If these celestial beings were meant to be sustenance for Ialdabaoth and company, then Hyrcanus was just an insignificant poacher.

Later that evening, I forced myself to finish Hoch Himmel. I had Vasmatzidis translate the Enochian text and make sense of the Watchtowers and other diagrams.

Flowerbomb and Bonestorm did not get as far as my astute friend and I would–either because Bonestorm had read to the point of no recovery or because their grasp of Enochian left something to be desired. There had been developments in the language since their time, Vasmatzidis informed me.

John Hyrcanus had got hold of Shemyaza, the leader of the first two-hundred fallen angels, or Watchers, who had gone in unto the daughters of men and begot a race of giants called the Nephilim. Genesis 6 says YHWH was furious with the besmirching effects the Watchers had on humanity, such as teaching to the inhabitants of earth the art of warfare and cosmetics and such. So He decided to start from scratch by bringing about a flood. But the Nag Hammadi texts show the demiurge, Ialdabaoth, consulting with his archons, telling them that the humans must be destroyed, for they have gained knowledge, which would make them their equals.

Hyrcanus says that Shemyaza, already fallen, would be glad to show him how to snag angels down from heaven, for both sustenance and inspiration. Those that offered up stories worthy of being published and promulgated would be spared. Those unable to do so would be taken to the darkest recesses of the basement, where they would be flogged; just like they were up in heaven, as the various choirs of seraphim, cherubim, and thrones sung “Holy Holy Holy”, while God, having been made to stand up from his throne, went to work on them with his celestial scourge.

It was this celestial turmoil that makes them do things like grow dreadlocks and shoot up heroin, and lose themselves in godforsaken places like the murky subconscious of an insecure forty-five–year-old theology professor. In turn, the chains of Hyrcanus sought out these stray angels, wooed them with song, and hauled them down in a velocity as quick as that of the Holy Spirit ascending back up from having paid a speaker of tongues a visit.

In the Book of Job, Satan is the tempting agent of God, sent to test Job’s faith in the Lord. This concept concurs with the last chapter of Hoch Himmel. If the Book of Psalms is attributed to a God-inspired King David, then Hyrcanus will pen a dark counterpart thereof: the Maccabeean will author a collection of evil psalms, a sort of shadow book of song concocted with the aid of Satan, or at least his minions, who have fallen out of favor with God simply for having been themselves, for having been what God made them.

The fundamental error of dualism is that it ignores everything between high and low—the excluded middle, where everything is gray and confusing. Most of us dwell there. Demons are nothing but angels consigned to trench digging.

The book of bad psalms, then, would be that Iad Bab Zna. It was referred to as the cannibal book. I had no idea what that should mean. Vespasian had yet to call us, meaning he had not found it. I hoped it would be the end of the literary rat race we had engaged in. Whatever else published by John Hyrcanus that remained to be found would be his actual literary efforts.

Hyrcanus had not been malevolent; he had been merely human. Kudos to him if he was able to pull the wool over the eyes of the demiurge. Knowledge was never, ever intrinsically bad, despite what any clergyman maintained. The reckless wielding of it may be another matter entirely. The serpent that wandered through the Garden of Eden was an agent of change. Change, because it is not welcome, and because it hurts while it happens, gets labeled as evil–until, of course, its consequences lead to rebirth. Lucifer means bearer of light; he illuminates and reveals the mysteries of the mystical experience, which the dull and envious choose to call evil. God, jealous by His own admission, did not wish to grant Adam gnosis, or knowledge. And Lucifer, who passed knowledge on to man, would not genuflect unto his inferior, Adam. For that he was cast down. So, not to be snuffed out, he soared higher than the three layers of night.

If every word ever uttered in praise of the Lord became a celestial adjunct to the Book of Psalms, the same held true for John Hyrcanus’s Iad Bab Zna, to which the iniquities of the world become offshoots. Vespasian, our antiquarian bookseller, who remained in Boston, was to prove this.

Vespasian’s Testimony

God’s Power in Motion

It appeared that someone had broken into my shop and stolen three of my books. For a millisecond, I suspected a group of goth kids that shuffled by all the time, though they may have been too busy being morose to willingly take items that would have added virtually nothing to their personae: an old biography on George Washington; a Latin copy of Volume I of Plutarch’s Lives, of which I have another copy; a frontier novel called Trails of Destiny, by one Milton Thornbluff. I kept crunching the numbers on the loss and they came up the same: my insurance premium was greater than the value of those three books.

Due to a gentrification and counter-gentrification over the last twenty-five years, my book shop shared a strip mall face with a tattoo parlor, a comic-book shop, a poke takeout joint, a tarot reading salon, and an acupuncture clinic. I feared for the world that the type of person who would visit all six establishments already existed.

Last night, while I was locking up, the goth kids came walking by. Just two weeks ago, they had visited my shop and funneled together their savings to buy a mint copy of a second edition of a rare Crowley work. “Mr. Vespasian,” one shouted out to me. I walked toward them. The whiteness of their corpse paint defied the night. “Thanks for the book,” one of the girls said, having it tucked under her arm.

“You bought it. Thank you. Was it what you expected?”

The boy who had called out my name lifted up a black lace sleeve, and there on his pallid arm were five or so angelic seals from the Greater Key of Solomon. I chuckled. They smiled in unison. I actually appreciated their commitment to the scene; they burned calories by digging deeper than pop culture.

For the antiquarian bookseller, there are trails of print that cut strange and sometimes dangerous paths. To not tread them with one’s own safety in mind is bad business.

I had books that taught you how to cultivate a homunculus, or a ‘little man’. I also had autographed first editions by Colette and André Breton. I had a hefty tome that teaches a man, provided he is one-armed and is the owner of a switchblade, how to perforate the astral planes in such a manner that they pancake onto each other, making celestial ascension all the easier. I had a seminal work on anti-math, a negation of calculus first published in Amsterdam in 1833, author unknown. I had wrapped in a polythene bag a certain Dispomaniac’s Diary, a pop-up book that supposedly came complete with a projectile of puke to be flung at the would-be reader upon opening. I had up on my second floor, on the top shelf not far from the ceiling, a 5,000-page work of fiction titled Crunch, though I must confess that Volume XIII is missing, hence the drastic markdown in price. I had pornographic bamboo scrolls from the Han dynasty. I had in my possession, locked under glass case, a catalogue written by a Byzantine courtier, titled The Boy Servants of Empress Theodora, and What They Were Made to Do to One Another. I have under my other glass case a brittle almanac compiled by demons experienced in the possession of human beings, with a cover made of dried rose petals. I have never opened it, lest it fall apart, but a companion book also in my possession claimed that it consisted of chapter headings like “Supplications Unto the Father for Permission to Go Forth,” “Making Alliances With the Razor Wind,” and “Best Times of Day to Enter a Host, According to the Five Seasons”. I had a slim volume in vellum that served as the preface to seventeen different novels, all of which delta back into the same afterword, which served as a disclaimer to the existence of the preface, thereby refuting its own existence. I had the obligatory collection of Illuminati updates crawling up through the centuries, though I couldn’t help but boast that I also have a lost work by Christian Rosenkreutz, called Purple Eagles, though it was in less than passable condition.

I also had four novels published by a John Hyrcanus II (1958-present). The first two were medieval romances dabbling in Arthurian legend. The third was about a Byronic count who corrupted his nubile niece by proposing for her a syllabus of reading material consisting exclusively of pornography. Each book was not to be read until he had succeeded in plucking a feather from a real angel, which would serve as her bookmark. The higher he made his way up the various orders, toward the Thrones, the baser she became from her reading. The fourth book by John Hyrcanus II was a pseudo-semi-autobiographical account of his meditations on his ancestor and namesake, John Hyrcanus I, author of Our Effervescent Menace, Iad Bab Zna, The Secrets of Carchemish, and other hermetic works.

There was not much in Hyrcanus II’s fourth book that would serve as anything new to my friends. They might have been interested to know that Hyrcanus I was evicted from his apartment because the owner of the building had been bought out by a bank, who were going to take over the brownstone with a new branch. Hyrcanus had sealed his basement. For the good part of a decade preceding that eviction, he had dug and fortified a tunnel that stretched a good kilometer to the east. One day, after having stayed at a nearby hotel for months, Hyrcanus entered the park frequented by Flowerbomb and Bonestorm, winding down the concrete paths with not a thing in his hands. He made his way to the north side of the park, scaled a slope, and popped open a trap door that stood hidden among five trees. He descended a wooden ladder and collapsed the entire tunnel with dynamite rigged up weeks in advance. A story in the following Thursday’s newspaper claimed the workers and clients of the new bank had felt a slight tremble for about three seconds, just after two in the afternoon.

Whatever happened to the angels held captive is anyone’s guess. They may have been eaten by the hierophant, or had proved mortal once plucked from their heavenly abode. A fellow antiquarian bookseller in the Midwest told me when I went searching for that Iad Bab Zna, the so-called ‘cannibal book’, that he had in his possession another item once belonging to Hyrcanus. I asked what, and he pointed to a rusted, over sized birdcage hanging from the rafters of his high ceiling. He told me that the cage once held the crowning achievement of Hyrcanus the hunter: Rafael, mentioned in the apocryphal Book of Tobit, third archangel only to Gabriel and Michael. The bookseller asked me if I wanted to climb the stairs and go touch it; I told him that I was grateful for the book and would be on my way.

Whether any of these expensive tomes that I had in my possession were telling the truth was sometimes beside the point. Though I did like to fancy that, out of so many, at least a few of them did expose the misbehaviors of the universe we thought we knew so well. Those paper trails reminded me of that park in Berlin. I never saw it myself, but Marie and Vatmazidis provided enough details from their own visits. What with the incident of the meat-eating butterflies, the reading rituals of Flowerbomb and Bonestorm, and the hidden crypt of John Hyrcanus, that park in Germany was a veritable tour of oddity to be read by the feet that trod its concrete pathways. Whether reading nature or print, the objective was to enjoy the journey–whether the destination be a towering structure inside of which await further mysteries, or an impregnable brick wall.

I had two things that I wished to keep from my curious friends, though I was afraid that, in the end, I would clue them in. I didn’t think I’d last long in refusing to allow them to read this, for example–or to read a handwritten Hyrcanus II vitriol found by the goth kids among the pages of their Crowley book, which gave a good idea of the author’s mental state.

The first thing was a suspicion that the complex structure of Hyrcanus I and the Berlin twins was an elaborate fabrication started by John Hyrcanus II, unto whom a dark mystification of an ancestral past would not be detrimental. Notoriety could mean more sales. He could have penned every single book involved himself, which in itself would be impressive, in that he managed to run prints in long-lost typefaces, and place the texts in old-style bindings, complete with century-old copyrights and names of no-longer-extant publishing houses that do check out. Who knew. Maybe he had a printing press in his basement. He could have co-opted the past by devising his own works around texts that already existed–though by whom those texts were written, if not by their purported authors, would raise further questions.

The second thing I wish to keep from the curious eyes of my friends is the Iad Bab Zna. I had the only copy in the world. I could therefore control its effects and destiny. I had it up on the second floor, on the bottom shelf of the bookcase furthest from the window. Who knew what secret doors of conspiracy they would feel around for if they were to open the book and see that text appeared only on the right-side pages. They would say that the weakling nightmare mystic, called Bonestorm in some places, though he may have been Hyrcanus himself, posthumously penned his magnum opus while in Hell. The Iad Bab Zna was published by The House of Myrrh, a short-lived publishing venture that folded in the early twentieth century. Vasmatzidis would kick open one of those doors to Overthere, duck his tall, gaunt frame into the doorway, offering a hand to help Marie over the threshold, and into Hell, where they would eavesdrop on demons plying their trade among the brimstone and charred flesh.

The Iad Bab Zna punched holes through walls and in the labyrinth of text connected parallel paths; it made paths appearing to lead into others, or even toward the way out, into dead ends; it flipped the hapless traveler upside-down, Escher-like, so that the maze was complicated by a ceiling mirror whose posing danger was that its reflection was not the trompe d’oeil of any ordinary surface of glass, but a portal to an aggregate space.

Aside from the rare books, I had the full inventory of a normal bookstore. That brought in traffic and in a way camouflaged the rarities. I never wanted to stoop so low as to hi-tech my shop against break-ins. I figured that old, musty volumes would be enough to turn away the thieving kind. I was wrong. My place was broken into again. There were no signs of forced entry on the front door, nor on the back door, where couriers came in from the alleyway. The only thing the thieves took was an old set of Encyclopedia Britannica that I had up on the second floor. This meant that they had been in my shop before and had likely scaled the steps to the loggia. It was unlikely that the theft happened during store hours, right under my nose: they couldn’t have stowed that bulky collection away in a backpack or anything. Plus, I hadn’t noticed last night when I filed some new arrivals up there, the entirely empty shelf that now gutted the integrity of my collection. This time I did pay the insurance premium.

I went ahead and bought a surveillance system from a company two blocks down. I decided to install the cameras myself. Their price tag already set me back two-thousand bucks. And rent had just gone up. And Boston Public Works had jacked up the garbage collection fee. I was barely solvent.

I had placed cameras over the back entrance, the front entrance, and on a support beam on the first floor. I was on a ladder, busy bolting another to a second-floor beam, when the business phone rang. I nearly fell off the ladder when going to answer it. It was Marie. She and Vasmatzidis would be back in Boston by tomorrow, and would like to have lunch.

“Sounds good,” I said, going to fetch my cell phone, on which I had earlier set up as a monitor for the cameras.

“So, did you find the cannibal book?” Marie asked.

“That Iad Bab Zna or whatever? I’m afraid not,” directing the first-floor camera to scan its 180 degrees. “None of my colleagues have ever heard of it. They all agree that it probably doesn’t even exist.” I could find a buyer in no time. I needed way more than four cameras to pinch off this hemorrhage.

“Shit,” Marie said. I wanted to tell her that she should give up the goose chase and get ready for the coming winter semester. Instead I told her about the thefts. “That’s quite a shame, Vespasian,” she said. “I didn’t do it. I’ve been in Germany for the last two months.”

I chuckled. “Burgers and fries,” I suggested, heading back up to the second floor. “And beer.”

“Okay.”

“Who’s picking you guys up from the airport?” I asked, scaling up to the second floor.

“My mother,” Marie said. “You do remember her?”

“I have had the pleasure,” zigzagging through the aisles. I stopped at the last bookcase in the southwest corner. “You know, it’s too dark in certain aisles up top here. Do you recommend LED?”

“What are you talking about?” Marie said. I detected annoyance. She was genuinely peeved about the book.

“I need to light up certain areas the store,” I said, pulling out the Iad Bab Zna and cracking it open. To my surprise, I saw that I had overlooked the fact that there was text on the left-side pages, but only in the last one-tenth of the book.

Marie finally spoke. “Halogen, I guess. I don’t know. Listen, Vespasian, I’ve got to go. Hamburgers it is. See you.” She hung up.

The book of bad psalms was copyrighted at a later date than all the other Hyrcanus texts. Rather than serving as a counterpart to the Book of Psalms–which is under a hundred pages, regardless of font and Bible version–it was an exercise in one-upmanship; the pages were not numbered, and though only every other page counted, the printed text amounted to at least two-hundred pages. Every time I re-counted, however, the page count turned up different. Had that not happened to the missing pages that had blown about at that Berlin coffee shops? How did four become seventeen, then eleven?

I couldn’t read one jot of it, since it was in that angelical script that I still think was invented by two overpaid thunder-chuggers elbowing each other in the ribs at the expense of the virgin queen. The language didn’t seem expansive enough to be the vehicle of holy praise, or even holy derision.

John Hyrcanus, angel hunter and angel eater, dabbled in the dark arts to launch a literary career. He did not torture angels into telling him fantastical tales; he tortured them to tenderize them into consumption, flavoring their meat with adrenaline. In turn, that dietary intake fueled his poetry. Some would no doubt find comfort in thinking that the whole ordeal might have been a tale itself, a metaphor about the rigors of unlocking higher planes of consciousness for the sake of producing good art.

I was tickled by the possibility that the Berliner allergic to poetry may have written the very opus responsible for his death, incapable of surviving the orthographic burden placed upon him by a host of miscreant angels reined into obedience by a stray Maccabeean.

The following day, guilt prevented me from enjoying my hamburger and beer. But I ate on, not wanting to rouse my friends’ suspicions. The novelty of Marie’s mother being there made it more difficult for us to discuss the Iad Bab Zna, but I still tried to be careful. If I wasn’t busy reacquainting myself with her, I was asking the two professors about their imminent return to work. They in turn wanted details on the breaking in of my store. The whole time, the table was dominated by downcast eyes. Clearly, the Hyrcanus book cycle was straining our once-telepathic friendship. Books that are either indecipherable or not enjoyable, or both, have always had an emetic effect on me: I thought of the book of black psalms and felt like unleashing a Niagara of beef and Indian Pale Ale.

I wanted to put an end to their obsession. It had to stop. There would be nothing in that book that would be new to them–nothing that one couldn’t find in a more readily available, more understandable hermetic text. And if their goal was no longer knowledge, but a need to follow some gossipy arcana, then, why, they’d be satisfied by any eventuality. The whole business was so convoluted that a clear-cut path was all but hopeless. I could give them a sort of literary methadone, and not an inkling of doubt would enter their minds.

We made plans for dinner next weekend. Vasmatzidis said he’d try and hook me up with a female colleague of his, a professor of Iberian literature. I said I was already hopelessly in love, helping Marie’s mother out of her chair. The lady blushed. Her daughter shook her head. “You’ll love her,” Vasmatzidis said.

Instead of heading home, I drove to the store. I wanted to catch up on some organizing.

I loved being surrounded by books. If I ever did in fact foreclose on my house, I’d have no problem going to my store to sleep. I had a cot and heater already in the storage room. All I had to do was lie low, lest building management catch wise. Books didn’t just serve to beautify a place, like antimacassars and throw pillows. They were utilitarian. There was nothing like observing a tall stack of books and knowing that your mind would begin the slow plow through their pages, an intellectual drill bit, knowing it would be dramatically changed by the time you closed the bottom book.

Sure, books attracted dust. I’ve decimated my fair share of dust bunnies. But they attracted nothing to their insides. The pages, pressed safely together by the guardian angels that are the covers (the godhead being the bindings), never attracted dust, never smeared their texts, and very rarely faded. Yes, they may take on the not-disagreeable distinction of having yellowed. No matter what, the sentences and paragraphs and chapters fashioned out of nothingness by the mage (who should never settle for the pedestrian title ‘writer’) giggled when stacked upon each other, knowing they would work their miracles upon the world once scanned by the eyeball. The phenomenon of being transported while reading, taken for granted by so many, has always amazed me.

A friend of mine who is a copy editor for a major publishing house told me an interesting story about a book that was all books at the same time—an archetype, a book of books.

He said that all books, if they worked together, could take over the world. They were portals to another dimension, through which they communicated with each other. Theirs were paths that could not be trod by the physicality of the foot. These books’ only drawback was that they could be closed up and stowed away for ages, thereby being rendered ineffective. But once opened, they could thrive on the blood of their hosts’ minds. They could mold readers into any mindset, political affiliation, or temperament.

This one book, having sucked the blood out of a reader’s mind and stamped that mind with an indelible assessment of just about anything, could then lead that brainwashed pod, as it were, to another book, which could either build upon the previous parasite’s imprint, like a palimpsest, or create an entirely new one. The key for the books was always to use the curiosity and docility of the human mind to their advantage. Surely dyslexics and LCD-addled cell phone junkies weren’t to be bothered with. Haters of books were to be scoffed at, for the very sort of world in which they lived had been dramatically determined by the likes of Newton and Hitler, avid readers both.

The only way for the books to survive was for them to perpetuate their kind. For a book was nothing if it was not read; it was little more than nothing if it was not to be understood. Its very worth depended on its being opened and perused; for besides that, it was nothing but a trick box randomly decorated with ink, and its pages were not the three-hundred wings of an angel blowing in the face of a subservient reader. So it is paramount to cultivate an avid reader. An even higher task was to condition a reader into a writer. Those were the most valuable slaves of all, they who supplicated unto the great Book, the book which was all books, the Kitab Min Al-Kutub, the ideal Book which all the slave-writers strove to write. The efforts of these slave-writers–the man-hours put in at the desk–set up a hierarchy of structures, the highest ones being the closest to the ideal Book, having rendered the best reflections of the Book’s purity. That very deception on the part of the Book was what kept the Book at the apex of the universe.

A complete set of first-edition works by Alexander Dumas, in the original French, was missing from the third shelf of a bookcase. I saw the half-emptied shelf as I came out of the bathroom. I got on my phone and played back the video of the ground floor, starting from last night, when I closed up and went home. I played it at 10x speed. The camera I had bolted over the front entrance swept frantically back and forth, as the time code sped through the hours. It made its way up to two hours ago, when I had come in. Nothing. Not a flickering shadow, not a mouse scurrying across the floor. Those books were priceless, and after doing the calculations, I was surprised to learn that calling the damn insurance company and making a claim would be well worth it. I only hoped they wouldn’t suspect fraud, or because I had been turning to claims overly much as of late, jack up my premium.

I couldn’t figure out how the hell my store was being broken into. I was disturbed less by the blatant act of theft than by the manner with which it was being perpetrated. It was getting to the point where the cost of stolen items was something I had to figure into my overhead. Foreclosure was looking like a sure thing if I didn’t get a buyer soon. I sent a written request to the ILAB to have my entire inventory reappraised–sure to bear a gargantuan fee.

I had to find or at least stop the culprit, and quickly. I wasn’t looking forward to the day when there would be a single, fat lousy book left on the bare shelves, laying on its side, belching dust.

 

BIO

When not looking to dismantle the heavens with his metafiction, Bradley VanDeventer can be found at the local muay thai gym sparring with people half his age and paying dearly for it. He is currently finishing up two books: an Arabian cyberpunk romance and a novel about a trans-dimensional dominatrix who’s colorblind. He lives in Anaheim, CA.