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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sephirot: An excerpt from a work in progress

It's been months since I've posted here, partly because of... you know, life.  The universe.  And everything.  But also because I've been working on finishing up Past Imperfect, the fourth of the Parsifal Snowe Mysteries, which will (I hope!) be released in August.  I've also begun work on a new novel, Sephirot, based on the ten linked worlds of Jewish mysticism -- and an unfortunate everyman named Duncan Kyle who finds himself lost in them.  Here's a bit of the first chapter, which I hope will pique your interest!

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It had been, Duncan Kyle reflected afterwards, a completely ordinary day until the moment he fell through the floor of his living room at a little before two in the morning.
A slow day at Carthen, Douglas, and Prescott Financial Consultants.  Dinner with his girlfriend, Libby, followed by drinks at his apartment and the happy (but never certain) outcome that she intended to spend the night with him.  They had not fallen into a contented doze until nearly midnight, and Duncan fully expected to sleep until his alarm went off at seven o’clock.  So it was something of a surprise when he opened his eyes in the pitch darkness, and turned his head toward his clock to see that it was only 1:54.
His mouth was sandpaper-dry.  He swallowed, throat muscles contracting on nothing, and reached toward his nightstand for the bottle of water he kept there.  His wrist contacted the bottle before his searching fingers did, sending it tumbling to the floor.  It gave a light clatter as it landed on the hardwood.
Empty.
He swore under his breath, and swung his legs out of bed.  Libby made a small, childlike noise in her sleep, mumbled something incomprehensible, and then was quiet.  Duncan stood, and walked out of his bedroom, naked, not even bothering to take his robe from its hook on the back of the door.  He padded down the hall toward the kitchen.  There was moonlight coming through the living room window, turning the furniture and carpets a silvery gray.  The window was open, and the curtains fluttered in the humid July breeze, looking organic, like some kind of sea creature swaying in the current.  He went along his sofa, brushing his fingertips along its rough cloth surface, and passed in front of the television.
Then the floor caved in.
There was a grinding, rending crash, and the smooth surface tilted beneath his bare feet.  He reached out for something to grab, and caught a projecting strip of the underlayment, but it snapped off in his hand.  With a cry, he fell into darkness, with pieces of hardwood flooring, insulation, and dust raining down around him.
He landed on his side, a rough edge of the tumbled mass of debris tearing a long scratch across the skin of his back and left shoulder as he came slithering to rest.  The impact  knocked the wind out of him, and for a time he lay, gasping and coughing while the dust drifted down, his thoughts seeming as shattered as the world around him.
It was only two minutes afterwards, but it seemed a great deal longer, that he braced himself on his elbows and sat up.  Grit and wood slivers dug into his arms, legs, and butt as he forced himself upright.
"Earthquake...?" he croaked, and coughed again.  "Libby?"
Duncan had never been in an earthquake, and he had a vague memory from one of his high school science classes that upstate New York wasn't on a fault zone, but he couldn't think of any other ready explanation.  He looked upwards, and struggled to his feet.  There was a gaping hole in the ceiling, perhaps fifteen feet overhead, and he could see a bit of his living room through it.  A corner of the sofa, and one end of the coffee table, tipped perilously near the edge, along with trailing wisps of fiberglass and loops of electrical wire.
I'd better move out of range, he thought.  I don't want to take a coffee table to the head if there's an aftershock.
He moved to the side, out of the likely landing area should the coffee table fall, and called again, louder, "Libby?"
There was no sound from his apartment.  In fact, there was no sound at all.  He looked around him, and that was when he realized the oddest thing yet, something that had been knocked clean out of his mind by the shock of what had happened.
If the floor of his apartment caved in, he should have fallen into the apartment below his.  If things were normal, he would have landed in the living room of Mrs. Elena Gonzales, a sixty-something widow who was a mother hen type to the entire apartment building, constantly inquiring about the tenants' health, eating habits, and love lives.  And although going through the ceiling, stark naked, into Mrs. Gonzales's living room would have occasioned an apology, he had no doubt that she would have been more concerned with whether or not he needed to go to the emergency room than the fact that he happened not to be wearing any clothes.
But wherever he was, it was clearly not anyone's living room.  The light was dim, coming through a row of slot-like windows high up in the wall.  What he could see amongst the shadows was a dingy gray brown.  The air was cool, and smelled of age and mildew.  Near him, and covered with broken pieces of two-by-four and particle board, was a jumble of wooden boxes.  In one corner was a worn marble statue of an angel, its face toward a wall made of rough stone.  The end of one wing was missing, and its feet were partly buried beneath piles of broken ceramic jars.  The wall behind the statue had a shelf cut into it, and it held untidy stacks of leather-bound books.  Tumbled blocks of fallen masonry lay strewn on the stone floor, where in places the facing had peeled away, leaving bare rock and earth showing underneath.  Further away, almost invisible in the darkness, was an arched doorway through which he could see nothing but blackness.
Did I fall through Mrs. Gonzales's apartment, too? Duncan thought.  Maybe I'm in the basement of the building.  I didn't even know there was one.  But immediately, he doubted this guess.  This didn't look like any basement he'd ever seen; it looked more like his imagined idea of catacombs, or a dungeon beneath a medieval castle.
He rubbed his face, and then dragged his fingers backwards through his hair, making it stand on end.  "Fuck," he said, his voice creaking in his dry throat.  "What do I do?  Sit around and wait to be rescued?  Or try to get out on my own?"
There was clearly no way to reach the hole in the ceiling and climb through back into his apartment; there was nothing big enough, or sturdy enough, to use as a makeshift ladder.  If help didn't come from overhead, there was no escape in that direction.
He shouted again, up toward the hole, “Libby!  Help me!”
Silence.
He waited, watching, for some minutes.  If there’d been an earthquake, or at least a cave-in, shouldn’t the noise have alerted someone?  Shouldn’t there be voices, sirens, noises of rescue equipment being moved?  Libby wasn’t a heavy sleeper; no way could she have slept through all this.
He called out again, “Libby!” and was again met with complete silence.
Then, with a sudden gush of relief, he thought, I'm dreaming.  I'll wake up soon, and Libby will be right there next to me, and I'll tell her all about it, and we'll have a good laugh.  I wonder why I'm dreaming this?  He reached up and touched his shoulder, wincing as his fingers brushed the oozing and aching scrape.  Hey! he thought, brightening.  If I know I'm dreaming, this must be a lucid dream!  I've never had a lucid dream before.  May as well enjoy it, and explore a little.  He walked around the room, avoiding the worst of the fallen debris, but still yelped once as his bare foot contacted something sharp and painful.  Hobbling, he went up to the bookshelf, and looked at the battered and dust-covered spines, barely readable in the gloom.  The books were bound in dark leather, and were ancient, to judge by the faded writing.
Liber Ivonis.  Cultes des Goules.  De Vermis Mysteriis.  Unaussprechlichen Kulten.  Necronomicon.
All seemed to be in languages he didn't speak, to judge by the titles, so he moved on.
He made a complete circuit of the room, and ended up standing before the doorway underneath the arch.  A set of three stone steps led up to it, but beyond it was completely lightless.  A cool breeze flowed from the door, carrying with it a faint aromatic scent, and he shivered.
If it's a lucid dream, maybe I can control it, he thought.  He said out loud, "I want my robe!", feeling vaguely foolish as he did so.
Nothing happened.
"How 'bout a flashlight?" he said.
Still nothing.
"Shit," he said.  "I thought lucid dreams would be more fun than this.  That I'd be able to fly and teleport and do magic.  And that there'd be lots of scantily-clad women.  What do I get?  Rocks and broken crap and dust."
Duncan took two steps up, peering into the darkness.  
Walking stark naked into a dark hallway, in a strange place, seemed unwise, so he stood there, uncertain.  Another shudder rippled over his bare skin, and he retreated into the room, and found a wooden box to sit down on.
It being a lucid dream doesn't mean that there might not be a monster hiding in the dark.  At least it seems safe in here.  Also, if this isn't a dream, and there really has been an earthquake or something, it's probably better to stay put.

It was several hours later — he couldn't be certain exactly how long — that he finally gave up on that idea.  He had slept uneasily for a time, his head in his hands, but thirst kept waking him up (Why couldn't this have happened AFTER I got my drink of water? he thought, miserably).  He got up once to pee in the corner of the room, returning to his seat on the box after peering cautiously up through the hole in the ceiling.  He could still see the coffee table and the sofa through the gap, but the light hadn't changed; it was still dark, with only the faint, shimmery quality of the moonlight on edges and corners.
Shouldn't it be morning by now? he thought.  Or at least near dawn? It still looks like the middle of the night.  And why hasn't Libby noticed anything?  Heard the noise, or at least seen that I'm gone?
He shouted, "Libby!" up toward the hole, again, to no effect.  Then he returned once more to the box.
Duncan had been told before that he lacked imagination; that he was solid, reliable, and stable, but not creative.  It was, honestly, true enough.  Accountancy and financial consulting had been a good choice of a career.  He was a steady employee, could be self-motivated when he needed to, but his best qualification was that he took direction well.  He was good with details, sharp about numbers, fast, and efficient.  But other than that, he was mostly interested in what he called "guy stuff" — sports, news, friends, food, beer, and sex.  So he had filled his life with those things, and considered himself lucky if he had a baseball game to watch, a full fridge, and a steady girlfriend.  He wasn’t good at thinking outside the box, largely because he'd never had to.
Now, he was out of the box, and he didn't like it.
He stood up and stretched, yawned, and said, "Well, if this is a lucid dream, it sucks."
He walked back to the archway, which seemed like the only exit from the place, and again took two tentative steps up.  There was once more that brush of cool air against his bare skin, carrying with it a trace of some unidentifiable spicy odor.  He reached out his left hand, and his fingers touched the rough stone of the wall.  Extending his right hand out and upward, to avoid if possible cracking his head on any low obstacles, he plunged forward into absolute darkness.
The passageway was smooth and unobstructed.  Duncan felt the coolness of hard-packed dry earth beneath his feet.  His left hand contacted nothing but rock as the tunnel slanted gradually upwards, and his right hand touched nothing at all.  The air became progressively cooler, and he felt goosebumps standing out on his arms and chest.  Finally there was an angle to the right, and the incline increased, but he became aware of a change as well in the light.  There was a faint grayness, not enough to make out any objects, a shift subtle enough that at first he thought was a trick of the eye.  He realized, though, that he could see his hand in front of him — vague, but visible when he moved it.  The light continued to increase, until he could see the contours of the stones that made up the wall, the smooth surface of the floor.
All at once, the tunnel opened out into a wide room.  The light was still dim, and he couldn't see the other side of it from where he stood, but it was at least better lit than where he had come from.  There was a window cut into the stone wall near where he stood, but too high to peer out of, and through this a chilly breeze flowed.  He shivered, once again wishing for (and not getting) his robe, which was probably still hanging on a hook on his bedroom door.
Duncan went up to the window.  All he could see out of it was a rectangle of gray, featureless sky.  He reached up and hooked his fingers over the edge of the sill, and tried to find toeholds so he could lift himself up and find out more about where he was.  He succeeded, after one failed attempt that left him with a scraped knee, but finally ended up with his elbows propped on a broad, flat sill almost three feet deep, the lower part of his body dangling, pressed uncomfortably against the cold stones.
He was looking out over a landscape he'd never seen before.
Duncan felt a skittering sense of panic, like a rock skipping on the surface of a lake, leaving little shuddery ripples behind.  Where the fuck am I? he thought, and his heart pounded in his chest, sweat standing out on his skin despite the chill.  This can’t be a dream.  It’s too real.  But it can’t be real.  It’s too dreamlike…
He looked out through the window, the breath whining in his throat, his elbows aching from supporting his weight on the rough-hewn rock of the sill.  There were undulating hills, dotted with brown, scrubby plants and rust-colored stones.  The aromatic smell was stronger.  It was a dry, desiccated odor, and he was reminded of a passage in one of his college history texts that described the spices the Egyptians used when they embalmed dead bodies.
It wasn't a comforting thought.
He hung there, feet dangling, for some minutes.  Nothing moved.  There was not a sound, no bird song, no rustle of little animals in the leaves.  It looked like an artist's depiction of a dying world, a world where everything wise enough and mobile enough had already long ago departed.  There was a tired, ruddy light coming from somewhere behind him and whatever strange building he was in.
He considered briefly climbing through the window, but it wasn't possible from his vantage point to tell how high up the window was in the wall, or if there might be a sheer drop on the other side.  In any case, the vista in front of him looked singularly uninviting.  Finally, Duncan pushed himself out and away, and landed with a soft thump on the floor inside.
Duncan's thirst was becoming unbearable, and for the first time, the thought crossed his mind that he might be trapped.  He still wasn't certain if this was a dream; but in the end, it didn't matter much.  While he was there, what he felt was the reality.  If in a dream, he spent days without water and finally perished of thirst, would that mean the agony, the terror, the despair would be any less?
He padded across the earthen floor, moving away from the window.  Whatever this room was, it was considerably larger than the one he'd fallen into.  The far edges were obscured in shadow.
He stopped, suddenly, and shouted, "Is there anyone here?"  Even his voice sounded thin, sapped of all of its blood and vitality.  He stood still, listening, not expecting any response, and getting none.  There was a noise; whether caused by his call, or not related to him at all, he heard a faint sound from the darkness.  It was a dusty, dry creak, like stone on stone, quiet enough that when it ceased he half convinced himself that it had been his imagination.  No human voice, nor even the rustling and squeaking of mice or other small, subterranean animals, followed.
A shudder rippled through his frame, and for the first time in years, he felt like crying.  His chest heaved, but he fought the sensation back, and started walking again, toward the dark side of the room.
There was more fallen masonry in the middle of the room, and Duncan added a bruised shin to his other injuries before he cleared the rubble.  He slowed as the light from the window diminished, but kept walking even after he had descended once more into total darkness.
Despairing thoughts echoed in his mind, seeming loud in the oppressive silence.  Buried alive in the crypt.  Left here, alone and naked, to die slowly.  How long will I keep walking before I give up?  Or will I finally drop from exhaustion, hunger, and thirst?  My body will lie here and slowly mummify, and no one will ever find my bones.
The room, whatever its function to those who had constructed it, was immense.  Long after the light was gone, Duncan kept walking, and other than small pieces of fallen stone, his tentative feet and outstretched arms encountered nothing.  He walked more confidently after a time, still moving forward, although with no clear idea of why.
When he finally struck the opposite wall, it was with a glancing scrape to his left shoulder.  He stopped, and swore loudly, massaging it, fighting down a combination of rage and frustration that came welling up from his belly.
And then, he heard the same sound he had heard before; a grating noise, like the grinding of a stone millwheel, this time from nearer at hand.  He turned his head in the dark toward the sound, and shouted, "Hello?"
The faintest of creaks answered him.
He put out his left hand, and walked along the wall toward the sound, his fingertips lightly brushing the stone.  He had only gone about twenty feet or so when the wall took a sharp turn to the left, and the floor began to slope downhill.  Straight ahead, but still too distant to illuminate anything, he saw something that set his heart pounding against his ribcage.
Firelight.
Fire meant inhabitants.  And even hostile inhabitants were better than a solitary death in an abandoned catacomb.  He had been in this place for how long?  Perhaps ten hours?  And already, he was ready to risk anything in order simply not to be alone in the dark.  The light flickered and wavered, its quality somehow more alive than the dreary ruddiness of the sky outside the window.
He walked steadily downhill toward the light, which soon revealed itself as coming from another stone archway.  He looked down at his own body, now just visible.  The red light glimmered garnet on the bloodstains on his legs and across one side.  Without any conscious will, he began to run, his bare feet thumping on the packed earth of the floor, only slowing as he came, squinting, into the full firelight shining through the opening.
He hesitated for a moment on the threshold, and then stepped through the arch.
The room was stone-walled, as all of them had been, but this one had a ceiling so high as to be out of sight.  It had no windows.  In the center of it, and taking up most of the room, sat a huge statue of a Sphinx, its face angled away from Duncan.  The thing was enormous; the top of its head was barely visible in the gloom.    Its hind legs, smooth-carved and rippling with muscle, towered over him.  The massive paws alone, resting on the ground directly in front of him, reached nearly to his waist.
Walking silently, he made his way around to the front of the Sphinx.  Directly between its forepaws was a huge bronze brazier, in which a fire burned steadily.  But more importantly, beneath the brazier was a stone basin with a pool of dark, still water, reflecting the light from a surface like a mirror.
Duncan felt his thirst surge tenfold.  He said, in a thick croak, "Water.  Thank god."
Immediately there was the same grating noise he'd heard before.  And the Sphinx's head moved, angling downward.  Rock dust came down in a trickling stream from the sides of the neck.  His thirst forgotten for the moment, Duncan looked up into the statue's immense face.
And then the Sphinx's eyes opened.
The eyes were glossy, liquid, alive.  The irises were green flecked with gold, the pupils an inky black, the whites as smooth and unblemished as polished alabaster.  It regarded Duncan with a gaze that seemed curious, intelligent.  Duncan froze, body and mind, in such a balls-clenching panic that he was unable to utter a sound.
And then it spoke.
"You're naked," the Sphinx commented.
"I know," Duncan was able to squeak out, after a moment.
"I thought you might," the Sphinx said, in a conversational tone.  Its voice was deep, resonant, like a cello.  "It just seemed odd."
He looked down at himself again, and then back up at the Sphinx's face.  "I...  I wasn't wearing any clothes when I fell through the floor of my apartment, and ended up here."  He swallowed, painfully, and said, "Can I drink from the pool?"
The Sphinx's mouth curled upward a little in an ironic smile, and there was the same creaking grate of stone on stone, and another thin tendril of dust spiraled downward.  "What does that mean, can you drink?  The water is right there.  Have a drink if you wish to."
"You won't grab me, or hurt me, will you?" Duncan said, and immediately felt ashamed at how cowardly it sounded.
"Of course not," the Sphinx said.  "Why would I do that?"
Duncan moved forward, and knelt down, reaching out to cup his hands into the water.  He saw his own reflection — his hair disheveled, his face pale and grime-streaked, an ugly scrape across his shoulder — and above him, he saw the reflection of the Sphinx looking down at him.  Its smile widened, and he caught a flash of sharp white teeth.
"Of course," the Sphinx said, "the first thing you should learn here is that everything you see and hear is a lie."
Duncan looked up in alarm.  The thought, What would it feel like to be bitten in half? bounced through his skull, and he braced himself for the pounce, for the teeth to pierce his torso, tearing sinew from bone.  But the Sphinx didn't move.  It just continued to watch him.
There was another frozen moment, but he recovered more quickly this time, and thought, Well, fuck this.  If it kills me, it kills me, but I'll be damned if I won't have a drink of water first.  He scooped up water in his hands — even the feel of it against his skin was delicious — and took one drink, then another, and another.
I have never known what it was like to quench thirst until now, he thought, as he stood again, sated for the time being, rivulets of water leaving trails down his chest.  He backed away from the Sphinx, who was still regarding him with an amused expression.
"Better?" it asked.
"Yes," Duncan said.
"Good.  There are many hard ways to die, but thirst is certainly one of the worst.  And there you have the second lesson you must learn: fear may be a necessary companion, but it is a poor guide."
"Who are you?" Duncan said.  "And where am I?"
"Those are two different questions, of course.  Which would you like me to answer first?"
Duncan ran his arm over his mouth, still wet from the pool.  "Who are you?"
"Look at me.  Who do you think I am?"
Duncan leaned his head back till his neck ached.  The Sphinx craned its own massive head downward, its shining eyes looking into Duncan's.  There was a brief moment when his mind teetered on the edge of complete incredulity, and he wondered if he was neither dreaming, nor lost, but had simply gone insane.  And he thought, No.  No, that's not possible.  How...?  And he said, in a small voice, "Maria?"
"Ah," said the Sphinx.
"You look... you look like my sister..."
"Do I?"
"Just like.  Exactly like."  And as he watched, the resemblance seemed to become closer.  The angle of the nostrils, the sardonic lift of the eyebrow, the way the carved waves of hair fell against the shoulders.  Did I not see it at first, because I was so thirsty and afraid? he thought.  Or did its face change when I thought I recognized her?
"There you are, then," the Sphinx said.
"But Maria... Maria died."  Duncan felt the old grief rise in his chest, a painful grip on his heart.
"Did she?"
"A car accident.  When she was seventeen."
"A pity."
"She was my twin sister."
"It must have been hard for you," the Sphinx said, and there was a hint of mockery in its voice.
"But you're not Maria.  You look like her, but you're not her."
"No," the Sphinx admitted.  "You're correct about that."
"So the fact that you look like her... that's a lie, too."
"That is one way of looking at it."
"Am I dreaming?" Duncan said.
The Sphinx didn't answer for a moment.  "If I told you yes," it finally said, its voice thoughtful, "might I not be telling the truth?"
"Of course."
"And if I said no, might you still be asleep and dreaming?"
"I suppose."
"Then what is the point of asking?"
Duncan shook his head, rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.  "What the hell is this place?" he said.
"Yes, that was your other question," the Sphinx said.  "Where are you?"
Duncan looked up, waiting, but the Sphinx didn't say anything more.  It just continued to watch him, its green-gold eyes glittering in the firelight.
"Well?" he finally said.
"It is a hard question to answer," the Sphinx said.  "What is this place?  I could tell you what it is called, but what would a name tell you?"
"It's a start," Duncan said.
"Yes," the Sphinx said, its voice deepening until it made Duncan's innards vibrate, a sound as rich as the bass pipes on an organ.  "A start.  That is exactly what it is."
"What is it called?"
"It is called Malkuth."
"Where is it?"
The white of teeth showed again, just for a moment.  "All around you."
"But..." Duncan said, and took a deep breath.  "Damn it all, you know what I mean."
"Do I?  Are you so sure of that?"
"Fine.  The Sphinx talks in riddles.  I get that.  I remember that from my college English class.  I guess I have to be specific.  Where is this place, relative to my apartment?"
"Did you not say that you fell through your apartment floor, and that is how you came to be here?"
"Yes."
"Then you know the answer, do you not?  It would seem that this place is beneath your apartment."
"But I know that's not true!" Duncan shouted.  "There's no place like this underneath my apartment!"
"Suit yourself," the Sphinx said.
"Look, all I want to do is get back home.  Or wake up, or whatever.  How do I do that?"
"I think that you humans have a saying, do you not, that the only way out is through?  I believe you will find that to be the case here."
Duncan regarded the Sphinx's face, and thought, No wonder it looks like Maria.  Maria would have liked this.  She always loved riddles.  And he said, "You said that everything here was a lie.  Are you lying now?"
"Oh, of course not," the Sphinx said.  "I wouldn't lie about something that important.”
"So how do I get through, then?"
The Sphinx looked down at him, its face in a sardonic twist.  "Do you want some advice?"
"Sure."
"The best way to get the information you need is to ask the right questions."
"How do I know what the right questions are?"
The Sphinx's stone mouth opened slightly, and it gave a basso profundo laugh that Duncan felt vibrating in the floor beneath his bare feet.  "Well, that certainly wasn't one."
"You are a pain in the ass," he said, scowling.  Then he looked down, and said to himself, "This is fucked up.  I'm talking to a statue."
The Sphinx inclined its huge head.  "At your service."
Duncan took a deep breath, and looked back into the Sphinx's face.  "Okay, look.  Let me start with some simple questions, before we move on to the big stuff.  I haven't seen any trace of anyone else here since I arrived.  But there's a fire burning here.  Who keeps the fire going?"
"My attendants."
"Where are they now?"
"How should I know?  It's not like I get out much."
"But who are they?"
The Sphinx smiled.  "Who are you?"
"I'm Duncan Kyle!" he yelled.  "And why can't you just give a straight question a straight answer?"
"Because I really don't think you know what you're asking, most of the time.  You humans are like that, you know.  You think things are their names, and if you know the name, you know the thing itself.  You throw words around as if they were meaningless, or as if they mean whatever you want them to, and could mean something completely different tomorrow.  Then you blame each other when there is confusion."  It paused, and blinked its enormous, glistening eyes.  "If you were asking for my attendants' names, I can't tell you that, because I don't know the answer.  As for who they are?  They are silent.  They come to feed the fire and replenish the water in the pool.  They don't talk to each other, nor to me.  How can I know who they are, who they would be if they were like you, alone and naked in the dark?  How would I know what they love, what they hate, what angers them, what fills them with grief, what fills them with lust?  They never tell me such things.  And even if they did, I do not doubt that much of it would be a lie.  Humans, I think, are as good at lying to themselves as they are at lying to each other.”