From Chapter 1:
He had come at last to the fields. The jungle stopped here abruptly, the trees leaning out past the jungle’s edge as though by the momentum of their growing. A dry, shallow moat, burned clean of vegetation, ran along the boundary to keep the wilderness at bay, and immediately past it, where the trail to the road began, three policemen sat rolling dice. They ignored him. Sir Wenceslas’s tobacco field was laid out neatly under the sun, and the tobacco hands were pulling off the little bouquets of unopened blossoms now that the day was cooling down.
Past the tall tobacco barn the road opened, and now the entire manor was spread out before him: its contoured hills and sloped fields, rice silos, the banana and lime orchards, the water buffalo in their pasture, the reed-thatched huts of the crofters cobbled together from mud and tufa blocks, and then the battery of coke-ovens hazing the air with sulfur gas. Beyond them the river cut a long lazy curve to the south, and an armored police boat motored across it from the big station house on the opposite bank.
On a little terraced hill was a green park used for feast days where a work party was now setting up tables and ribbons for tomorrow’s holiday, the Feast of the Transfiguration. The cartouchiers would fire a fusillade of star shells and firedrakes. And when the police weren’t looking he could trade them a little nitrous oxide for a paper bag of squibs...
An acre of green rice stippled the mirror of the floodplain. Four people were standing in the water, sickling the earliest of the ripening heads into their baskets. And well past the river and the paddies stood the castle itself, grey granite walls pitted and scarred, surrounded by shockfences and a great self-healing ceramic rampart.
The hut was empty when he arrived. Nana was in the kitchen at the castle cooking the Baron’s dinner but had made a stack of rice balls with yam, eggplant, and chili pepper from their little plot for dinner, and he took two, though she would yell at him for it. If there were any treats she had hidden them well.
In the shade of a banana tree he ate the rice balls and thought about his teacher and the New Believers. He had seen Revival Moon once, in Chowtown, while Nana was at the bazaar trading cigarettes for cutlery. The man wore only a loincloth, so that his almost fleshless flanks and ribs – wracked by cancer, torn by the flagellants’ lash, branded with charms – would inspire believers and rebuke the wicked. His shaved head was knobby like a fist. He was squatting next to a watering trough for oxen with a copy of the Evangels open on his lap, talking and smiling ecstatically to a small crowd of followers.
Nana had found him sitting there and pulled him away, bowing her apologies to the catechist, who ignored her. She was devout, but the fanaticism of the New Believers’ flock seemed to make her uneasy, as did Vladimir’s piety.
Vladimir, who walked to the manor’s small church every evening with Nana to light candles before going to bed, had felt the Holy Spirit enter him many times, starting at a river service when he was eight. First his body had come strangely apart from him; it had slumped over, while he watched from behind his own eyes as Nana reached down to pull him up from the grass. Then it had started to shake and he had stood as if yanked to his feet by two great hands and began shouting strange words in a voice not his own, a man’s voice which bullied, cajoled, and wept, and the pastor had put his rough hands on him for good luck, and then everyone had.
Afterwards, flushed with compassion for the sinners of Abaddon, he had decided to save Mr. Singh from his atheism, but the next morning the teacher had mocked his efforts with such energy and pleasure that he gave up and spent the next several weeks inventing terrible torments for the old man in Hell: spiked wheels, flensing hooks, iron crowns glowing with heat, beds of black nails, tubs filled with pit vipers and kraits, and other punishments derived from the Inferno Book of the Evangels.
Long known as a libertine who drank, gambled, fornicated with prostitutes, and scorned the Church, Mr. Singh had said that if Moon and the others were right, then he would be punished for his sins after he died. Therefore the New Believers, in calling for his arrest, were claiming divine justice for themselves and were thus guilty of a very terrible sin. He had read passages from scripture which seemed to back him up. Vladimir had, in the end, agreed, and if the fly had spoken the truth and Moon wanted to crucify him, then the Church had a responsibility to rein the catechist in and so prevent an offense against God, and he knew that it would not.
Was the Church, as Mr. Singh said, just another suzerain, and Moon its vassal knight?
The world seemed to draw away from him suddenly as he sat in the garden, finishing the second rice ball. His teacher believed that the world was surrounded by a void. No heavens, no hells, no God. What, then, had taken hold of him at the river, and made him stand up? Whose voice had come from his mouth?
He felt deeply alone, and spat out the mouthful of rice, a thing of the world he didn’t belong to. A tiny pink snail was crawling up the damp fibrous trunk of the banana tree. He flicked it off and crushed it sadly under the ball of his thumb.
The sun was lower, its light failing on the shadowed ground, and he got up, fed the rabbits in their hutch, and went to tend the coke-ovens. It seemed to take a very long time to get there. Few people were out, and he stared at them as they passed: they looked almost hollow to him, husks animated by something else inside, like snails. A star appeared in the east, or an untwinkling white dot rather like a star.
Farther and farther away the edges of the world were peeling from him, like an old photograph. He cupped his hands around his eyes the better to see it, a frail, pretty thing of painted fields and sky, full of murderers and fornicators, and wept, and began praying for their redemption, their release from the flesh.
He was still weeping, deep in prayer, when he reached the ovens. The smell of rotten eggs was overpowering, and the respirator he put on filled his ears with the sound of his fervent supplications to God. A coal car was scraping along the rails above the battery, dumping charges of fine crushed coal into the glowing trunnels as it went. Below, a figure in an asbestos hood and gown raked the charges flat, the heat from the open doors making his outline flutter. Vladimir was supposed to turn on the pump, and brick the oven doors shut, and the foreman raised her own respirator, exposing a face like cured ham, and yelled at him to get to work, but he couldn’t stop praying.
She swore and pushed him, and he got to his feet, making the sign of the chiasma over her as she shoved him toward the pumphouse. At last she gave up.
“Vladimir! You’re sick again. God damn it, get the fuck up. Get out of here.”
He stared at the animated shell of her face, its rough glossy surface not like skin, and said a prayer for the burned. When he reached out to bless it she reared back.
“Go home,” the woman shouted, and she unbuckled his respirator and tore it away. “Go to your Nana. Go to your Nana, you little shit. She’ll give you your medicine.”
The sun was setting now. More stars had come out, and he strode away from the glowing ovens and onto the road, waving his arms, shouting benedictions. A patrol car screeched to a stop in front of him and he blessed the driver, who laughed and waved him on. His prayer turned into a carol and he ran singing over the earth with its little huts, all of it like a picture from a book. He could see words written across it now, and he slowed down, amazed, staring at the richly inscribed vision, dwarfed by the great wheel of the constellations. It was a picture from the illuminated version of the Evangels, but one he had never seen before, a secret page. The wind blew down to help. You’re sick again, little sinner, it whispered. Sick under the dome of the heavens.
A figure was walking along the road up to him. It was the Savior, radiant on the darkening road between the lime orchard and the open fields of cassava. As in the illustrations, His face was round and white in death, and He was clad in a white winding cloth. The figure walked or drifted over the road until He was in front of Vladimir and the world folded completely away. There was nothing but the road, and the two of them.
Do you know the Word, the Savior asked. Do you remember how the aeon in Heaven turned away from her consort, and got herself with child; and how she came to know her error before the child was born, that it was deformed, and to spare her shame she cast it from her womb into the void; and how the demigod fell, and did not die but lived as it fell through the void, and created a world for itself. Do you remember the Word.
Savior, he said, I do remember the Word. It’s from the First Book of the Evangels.
Then continue it for Me.
The false, aborted god created the world of flesh, Vladimir said, and bodies of flesh to be cages, and he trapped sparks from heaven in the cages, and the sparks were of life and we call them souls. And You came to teach us how to open the cages, and were killed by agents of the aborted god, and have come back to help me.
It is so, said the Savior. Now you should go home, and let your Nana give you your medicine, for you are very, very sick.
Then the Savior’s face changed, and Vladimir screamed, and the thing loped after him on all fours, chasing him in the gathering dark back to the croft. Nana was sitting on the bench taking off her sandals when he burst in. Sobbing with terror he told her what had happened, and she sucked in her breath in shock and shushed him, and said his raving was very blasphemous and would bring bad luck. The Savior didn’t look like that in any pictures she had seen, she declared. She made him sit down, filled a hypodermic syringe with his medicine and dosed him, and he fixed his eyes on her old, capable-looking face and stubbled chin as the familiar icy numbness flowed up his arm.
Then she had him lie down facing the wall. After a while his breathing steadied, and he passed out, and when he woke up he was back in the world. He lay still in bed while Nana bustled in the kitchen finishing dinner and grouching to herself. The episode was losing clarity already, like a dream; he couldn’t remember the strange way things had looked, and a wave of melancholy swept over him. His mouth was parched, and he sat up and drank from a clay pitcher of water, crying a little.