Shriek: an afterword

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Jeff VanderMeer

2461 Lanrell Drive

Tallahassee, FL 32303


125,000 words


Jeff VanderMeer

for Ann
“No one makes it out.”

–Songs: Ohia
“If you live a life of desperation, at least lead a loud life of desperation.”

–Dorothy Parker

“We dwell in fragile, temporary shelters.”

–Jewish Prayer Book

“The dead have pictures of you.”

–Robyn Hitchcock

An Afterword to The Hoegbotton Guide

to the Early History of Ambergris

by Janice Shriek

(and Duncan Shriek)

A Note From the Author:
The following is my account of the life of noted historian Duncan Shriek. This text was originally begun as a belated afterword to Duncan Shriek’s The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, but circumstances have changed since I began the book.
Having begun this “account” as an afterword, ended it as a dirge, and made of it a fevered family chronicle in the middle, all I can say now, as the time comes to write ends, is that I did the best I could, and am gone. Nothing in this city we call Ambergris lasts for long.
As for Mary Sabon, I leave this account for her as much as for anyone. Perhaps even now, as late as it has become, reading my words will change you.
– Janice Shriek

Sister of Duncan Shriek

(When I found this manuscript, I contemplated destroying the entire thing, but, in the end, I didn't have the will or the heart to do so. And I found I really didn't want to. It is flawed and partisan and often crude, but it is, ultimately, honest. I hope Janice will forgive or forget my own efforts to correct the record. - Duncan)


Mary Sabon once said of my brother Duncan Shriek that “He is not a human being at all, but composed entirely of digressions and transgressions.” I am not sure what she hoped to gain by making this comment, but she said it nonetheless. I know she said it because I happened to overhear it just three weeks ago, at a party for Martin Lake. It was a party I had helped put together, to celebrate the artist’s latest act of genius: a series of etchings that illustrated The Journal of Samuel Tonsure. (One party I missed. Maybe if I'd been there, everything would have turned out differently. Maybe it even would have affected the past.))

Sabon arrived long after Lake, a reticent and not entirely undamaged man, had left for the Café of the Ruby-Throated Calf. I had not invited her, but the other guests must have taken her invitation for granted: they clustered around her like beads in a stunning but ultimately fake necklace. The couples on the dance floor displayed such ambition that Sabon’s necklace seemed to move around her, although she and her admirers stood perfectly still.

Rain fell on the skylight above with a sound like lacquered fingernails tapping on a jewelry box. Through the open balcony doors came the fresh smell of rain, mingled—as always in Ambergris—with a green dankness. As I hobbled down the wide marble staircase, into their clutches, I could pick out each individual laugh, each flaw, each fault line, shining through their beaded faces. There were names in that flesh necklace—names that should some day be ticked off a list, names that deserve to be more public.

At ground level, I could no longer see anything but patches of Sabon—a glimpse of red hair, of sallow cheek, the pink allure clumping, a flash of eye, the eyelashes overweighed with liner. The absurd pout of a lip. The crushing smell of a perfume more common to a funeral parlor. She looked so different from the first time I had met her—lithe, fresh student—that I thought for a moment she had put on a disguise. Was she in hiding? From what?

“He is not a human being at all, but composed entirely of digressions and transgressions.”

I admit I laughed at Sabon’s comment, but I laughed out of affectionate recognition, not cruelty. Because Duncan did digress. He did transgress. He might well have dashed Sabon’s living necklace to bead pieces with just as amusing a phrase to describe Sabon, had he not disappeared (possibly forever) just days before the party. That was another thing—Duncan was always disappearing, even as a child.

Sabon’s comment was amusing, just not, as one gentleman mis-identified it, “the definitive statement.” A shame, because my brother loved definitive statements. He used to leap up from his chair at definitive statements and prick the air out of them, deflate them with his barbed wit, his truculent genius for argument, his infinite appreciation of irony. (I think you both mock me here. Whatever I might have been in my youth—and I can't remember ever having been a witty conversationalist—I'm long past any such trickery. Let the spores be tricky. Let those who ignore them be fanciful in their abysmal phrasing.)
I really ought to start again, though. Begin afresh. Leave Sabon to her admirers for now. There will be time to return to her later.

Duncan often started over—he loved nothing better than to start again in the middle of a book, like a magician appearing to disappear—to leave the reader hanging precariously over an abyss while building up some other story line, only to bring it all back together seamlessly in the end, averting disaster. I would be a fool to promise to duplicate such a feat.

For a time, Duncan sat next to the desk in my apartment—in an old comfortable yellow chair our parents had bought in Stockton many years before. There he would sit, illumined by a single lamp in a twilight broken only by calls to prayer from the Religious Quarter, and chuckle as he read over the transcript of his latest chapter. He loved his own jokes as if they were his children, worthy of affection no matter how slack-jawed, limb-lacking, or broken-spined.

But I best remember Duncan at his favorite haunt, The Spore of the Gray Cap, a place as close as the tapping of these keys. (Favorite? Perhaps, but it was the only one that would have me, at times. At the more respectable establishments, I would walk in and be greeted with a silence more appropriate to the sudden appearance of some mythical beast.) Sober or drunk, Duncan found the Spore perfect for his work. Within its dark and smoky chambers, sequestered from the outer world by myopic, seaweed-green glass, my brother felt invisible and invincible. Most of his writing occurred in some back room of the Spore. Through a strange synchronicity of the establishment’s passageways, out of keeping with its usual aura of labyrinth, those who congregated at the altar of the bar could, glancing sideways down the glazed oak counter, see Duncan illuminated by a splinter of common space—at times scribbling inspired on his old-fashioned writing pad, at times staring with a lazy eye out of a window that revealed nothing of the outer world, but which may, reflecting back with a green wink, have revealed to him much of the inner world. (The outer world came to me—at various times I entertained Mary, Sirin, Sybel, and, yes, even Bonmot, that pillar of the community, in that place.)

He had become a big man by then, with a graying beard, prone to wearing a gray jacket or overcoat that hid his ever-evolving physical peculiarities. Sometimes he would indulge in a cigar—a habit newly-acquired from his association with the fringe historian James Lacond—and sit back in his chair and smoke, and I would find him there, gazing off into a memory I might or might not be able to share. His troubles, his disease, could not touch him in those moments.

I much prefer to remember my brother in that space, calm and very much at the center of himself. While he was there, many regular tavern-goers referred to him as the God of the Green Light, looking as he did both timeless and timeworn. Now that he is gone, I imagine he has become the Ghost of the Green Light, and will enter the annals of the Spore as a quiet, luminescent legend. Duncan would have liked that idea: let it be so.

But I do choose to begin again—Duncan, after all, often did. And like the shaft, the silver of green light shooting down the maze of passageways at the Spore, each new shift of attention, each new perspective, will provide only a fraction, a fracture, of the man I, as his sister, knew, in several senses, not at all.

If there is a starting point in Duncan’s life, it would have to be the day that our father, Jonathan Shriek, a minor historian, died of convulsive joy at our house in Stockton, a town some hundred miles south of Ambergris, on the other side of the River Moth. This joy ripped through our father and destroyed his heart when I was thirteen and Duncan only ten. I remember because I was seated at the kitchen table doing my homework when the mailman came to the door. Father heard the bell and hopped up to answer it. Father was a defiantly ugly man, built like a toad, with wattles and stocky legs.

I heard him in the hall, talking about the weather with the mailman. The door shut. The crinkle of paper as my father opened the envelope. A moment of silence, as of breath being sucked in. Then a horribly huge laugh, a cry of joy or triumph, or both. He came into the kitchen, and barreled past me to the open hallway that led to the back door.

“Gale,” he was shouting. “Gale,” my mother’s name. Out into the backyard he stumbled, me right behind him, my homework forgotten, beside myself with suspense. Something marvelous had happened and I wanted to know what it was.

At the far end of the lawn, Duncan, ten and still sandy-haired, was helping our mother with the small herb garden. My father ran toward them, into the heart of the summer day. The trees were lazy in the breeze. Bees clustered around yellow flowers. He was waving the letter over his head and yelling, “Gale! Duncan! Gale! Duncan!” His back to me. Me running after him, asking, “What, Dad? What is it?” (I remember this with the same kind of focused intensity as you, Janice. Dad was running toward us. I was smiling because I loved seeing Dad’s enthusiasm. I loved seeing him so euphoric, so unselfconscious for once.)

He was almost there. He was going to make it. There is no doubt in my mind, even today, that he was going to make it. But he didn’t. He stumbled. He fell into the sweet, strange grass (mottled with shadows from the trees). The hand with the letter the last to fall, his other hand clutching at his chest.

I stopped running when I saw him fall, thought he had tripped. Looked up across the lawn at my mother and brother. Mom was rolling her eyes at her husband’s clumsiness, but Duncan’s face was pale with horror. Duncan knew our father hadn’t fallen, but had been made to fall. (I don’t know how I knew, just remember the way Dad’s smile flattened and his face took on a sudden pallor and sadness as he fell, and know he knew what was happening to him.) A moment later, Mom realized this, too, and all three of us ran to him, converged on him, held him, searched for a pulse, called for the doctor, and sat there crying when he did not move, get up, say it had all been a joke or accident. (Even now, the smell of fresh grass is the smell of death to me. Was there, even then, a sentinel in the shadows, peering out at us?)

It was Duncan who took the letter from our father’s hand and, after the doctor had gone and the mortician had removed the body, sat down at the kitchen table to read it. First, he read it to himself. Then, he read it to us, Mom staring vacant-eyed from the living room couch, not hearing a word of it.

The letter confused Duncan in ways that did not occur to my mother, to me. It bent the surface of his world and let in a black vein of the irrational, the illogical, the nonsensical. To me, my father was dead, and it didn’t matter how or why, because he was dead regardless. But to Duncan, it made all the difference. Safely anchored in place and family, he had been a madly fearless child—an explorer of tunnels and dank, dark places. He had never encountered the brutal dislocation of chance and irony. Until now. (Did it make a difference? I don’t know. I had to muster some courage to go on, but isn’t that true of all children encountering death for the first time?It may have required mustering up more courage after Dad died.)

For our father, Jonathan Shriek, minor historian, had died in the grasp of a great and terrible joy. The letter, which bore the seal of the Kalif himself, congratulated him “for having won that most Magnificent Award, the Laskian Historical Prize,” for a paper published in the Ambergrisian Historical Society Newsletter. The letter asked my father to accept an all-expenses paid trip to the court of the Kalif, and there study books unread for five centuries, including the holiest-of-holies, The Journal of Samuel Tonsure.

The letter had become a weapon. It had rescued our father from obscurity, and then it had killed him, his blood cavorting through his arteries at a fatal speed. (I couldn’t get it out of my head that he had died due to something in his research, as irrational as that might seem. It instilled in me a kind of paranoia. For awhile, I even thought it possible that the letter had poisoned in some way by the Kalif’s men, that Dad had been too close to the solving of some historical mystery the Kalif would prefer remain unsolved

The funeral that followed was farce and tragedy. We attended the wrong casket and were shocked to be confronted by the visage of a young man, as if death had done my father good. Meanwhile, another family with a closed casket had buried our father.

“Death suited him.” It didn’t matter that it wasn’t true—it seemed true. That he had gone into death old and come back young. And more comforting still—the idea that there had been a mistake and he was alive somewhere.

Of us all, Duncan stared the longest at that young man who was not our father, as if he sought the answer to a mystery for which there could be no solution.

Four years later, we moved from Stockton to Ambergris, there to live with our mother’s side of the family in a rheumy old mansion with a flooded basement. Set against the banks of the River Moth, remote from much of Ambergris, the place could hardly be called an improvement over the house we had grown up in, but it was less expensive, and our mother had come to realize that with her husband dead, nothing much remained to keep her in Stockton. Thus, we shared space with an ever-changing mob of aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, and friends of the family. (Although, over the years, this cacophony of distant relations reduced itself to just our mother, which is probably how she would have preferred it from the beginning.)

We came to Ambergris across the thick sprawl of the muddy River Moth, by ferry. I remember that during the journey I noticed Duncan had a piece of paper in his shirt pocket. When I asked him what it was, he pulled it out and showed it to me. He had kept the letter from the Kalif to our father; as far as I know, he has it still, tattered and brittle.

“I don’t want to forget,” he said, with a look that dared me to doubt his loyalty to our father.

I said nothing, but the thought occurred to me that although we might be traveling to a new place, we were still bringing the past with us.

Not that Ambergris didn’t have a rich past of its own—just that we knew much less about it. We knew only that Ambergris played host to some of the world’s greatest artists; that it was home to the mysterious gray caps; that a merchant clan, Hoegbotton & Sons, had wrested control of the city from a long line of kings; that the Kalif and his great Eastern empire had thrice tried to invade Ambergris; that, once upon a time, some centuries ago, a catastrophe called the Silence had taken place there; and that the annual Festival of the Freshwater Squid often erupted into violence, an edgy lawlessness that some said was connected to the gray caps. (The gray caps had long since retreated to the underground caverns and catacombs of Ambergris, first driven there by the founder of the city, a whaler despot named Manzikert I. Manzikert I had razed the gray cap’s city, massacred as many of them as he could, and built Ambergris on the smoldering ruins.)

Of artists, we found ample evidence as soon as we arrived—huge murals painted onto the sides of storehouses—and also of the Hoegbotton clan, since we had to pay their tariffs to leave the docks and enter the city proper.

As for the gray caps, we discovered scant initial trace of this “old, short, indigenous race,” as the guidebooks called them. They were rarely seen aboveground during the day, although they could be glimpsed in back alleys and graveyards at dusk and during the night. We knew only what we had gleaned from our mother’s unsettling bedtime stories about the “mushroom dwellers of Ambergris,” and a brief description from a book for children that had delighted and unnerved us simultaneously:
Fifty mushroom dwellers now spilled out from the alcove gateway, macabre in their very peacefulness and the even hum-thrum of their breath: stunted in growth, wrapped in robes the pale gray-green of a frog’s underbelly, their heads hidden by wide-brimmed gray felt hats that, like the hooded tops of their namesakes, covered them to the neck. Their necks were the only exposed part of them—incredibly long, pale necks; at rest, they did indeed resemble mushrooms.
Of the Silence, we had heard even less—a whisper among the adults, a sense that we should not ask about it. Even in Stockton, so far from what had happened—separated by both time and geography—there seemed to be a fear that, somehow, the event might be resurrected by the most casual of comments. No, I learned about the Silence much later—only learned during my brief attendance at the Hoegbotton School for Advanced Studies, for example, that the annotations in Ambergrisian history books (A.S. and B.S.) stood for After Silence and Before Silence. Of Samuel Tonsure’s journal, so inextricably linked to the Silence, I heard not even a whisper until Duncan educated me. (I may have given you the most personalized and eccentric education on the Silence in the history of Ambergris!)

I remember that one of my aunts tried to help orient us to the city, telling us, “There’s a Religious Quarter, a Merchant Quarter, and an old Bureaucratic Quarter, and then there are places you just don’t go. Stay out of them.” Faced with such vague warnings, we had to discover Ambergris in those early days by exploring for ourselves or asking our classmates.

We soon learned that the main thoroughfare, Albumuth Boulevard, split Ambergris in two—a throbbing artery of commerce and art, sidewalk vendors and disreputable businesses. Everything in Ambergris drew its vitality from that one artery, much as every city along the river’s banks drew its life from the silty waters of the Moth. You could not get lost in Ambergris if you walked north to south or south to north, because eventually you would cross Albumuth Boulevard. It became our touchstone, in those early years, as it had to countless people before us. It was how you traveled into Ambergris, and the route they carried you out through when finally leaving.

Somehow, despite our rough knowledge, we managed to fit in, to get along, to come to feel part of Ambergris with greater ease than might be expected. Much of it had to do with our attitude, I think. Duncan and I should have been upset about leaving our old school and friends behind, but we weren’t. Not really. In a sense, it came as a great relief to escape the pity and concern others showed us, that trapped us in an image of ourselves as victims. Freedom from that meant, in a way, freedom from the moment of our father’s death.

(Dare I deprive the reader of that first glimpse of Ambergris? That first teasing glimpse during the carriage ride from the docks? That glimpse, and then the sprawl of Albumuth Boulevard, half staid brick, half lacquered timber? The dirt of it, the stench of it, half perfume, half ribald rot. And another smell underneath it—the tantalizing scent of fungi, of fruiting bodies, of spores entangled with dust and air, spiraling down like snow. The cries of vendors, the cries of the newly robbed, or the newly robed. The first contact of shoe on street out of the carriage—the resounding solidity of that ground, and the humming vibration of coiled energy beneath the pavement, conveyed up through shoe into foot, and through foot into the rest of a body suddenly energized and woken up. The sudden hint of heat to the air—the possibilities!—and, peeking from the storm drains, from the alleyways, the enticing, lingering darkness that spoke of tunnels and sudden exploration. One cannot mention our move to Ambergris without setting that scene, surely!)
Duncan received his advanced degrees in history from the Institute of Religiosity in Morrow, that other city by the River Moth, his emphasis on the many masters of the arts who had been born or made their fortune in Ambergris, as well as on the Court of the Kalif—for he saw in these two geographical extremes a way to let his interests sprawl across both poles of the world. He could not study the artists of Ambergris without studying the very anatomy of the city—from culture to politics, from economics to mammalogy? And because Ambergris spread tentacles as long and wide as those of the oldest of the giant Freshwater Squid, this meant he must study Morrow, the Aan, and all of the South. Study of the Kalif, which I always felt was a secondary concern for him, meant mapping out all of the West, the North. (Early on, I had no idea what constituted a “secondary concern.” Anything and everything could have been useful. The important thing was to accumulate information, to let it all but overwhelm me.)

In that Duncan was never what I would call religious, I believe that this monumental scope represented his attempt to re-place himself within the world, to discover his center, lost when our father died, or to build himself a new center through accumulation of knowledge. In a sense, History was always personal to Duncan, even if he could not always express that fact.

To say Duncan studied hard would be to understate the ardor of his quest for knowledge. He devoured texts as he devoured food, to savor after it had been swallowed whole. He memorized his favorite books: The Refraction of Light in a Prison, The Journal of Samuel Tonsure, The Hoegbotton Chronicles, Aria: The Biography of Voss Bender. Years later, he would delight me, no matter how odd the circumstances of our meetings, with dramatic readings, in the imagined pitch and tone of the authors, him still so passionate in his love of the words that I would forever find my own enthusiasm inadequate.

In short, Duncan became overzealous. Obsessed. Driven. All of those (double-edged) (s)words. He did not allow for his own human weakness, or his need to feel connected to the world through his flesh, through interactions with other human beings. Better, I am sure he felt, to become the dead hand of the past, to become its instrument.

Duncan did not make friends. He did not have a woman friend. When I visited him, during breaks in my own art studies at the Trillian Academy, at his rooms at the Institute, he could not introduce me to a single soul other than his instructors. Duncan must have appeared to be among the most pious of all the pious monks created by History. (I had friends. Your infrequent trips to visit meant your idea of my life in that place was as narrow as that sliver of emerald light in the Spore that you keep going on about. I needed to converse with people to test out my theories, to gauge dissent and to begin to realize what ideas, when expressed to others in the light of day, evaporated into the air.)

Recognizing both his genius and the alienating need for lack of contact, the Institute, its generosity heightened by the small scholarship our father had endowed it with as well as the memory of our father walking its hollowed halls, had, by the second semester, isolated Duncan in rooms that expanded with his loneliness. My brother’s only window looked out at the solid, unimaginative brick of the Philosophy Building, giving him no alternative to his vibrant inner life. (This was, after all, the point of the Institute—to focus on the unexamined life. Nothing wrong with that.)

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