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8. The Historian

by Disparition

First it was Borders, then it was Barnes & Noble, then it was empty. Then it was a field hospital for the 184th, then it was Ant’s Library, and then it was Barnes & Noble again, and it still is – though no one says that out loud, not in the open. Formally, this is Castillo 7 Cuesta, seventh of seventeen, sapphire in the circlet of Barón Rafael Hernán Cuesta, third of his name, holder of domain over bookchain and lot. The knowledge that I lay out before you is legal and illegal, secret and commonplace, depending on the bearer’s position in time and space. That’s you. The veracity of this knowledge, the directness of the source – that’s me – this remains constant, regardless of your position. At least, from my perspective it does. You see, I’m what’s called a Primary Source. That means I was here. And I still am. And it means that I am the one transforming this world into words. You are the one transforming these words back into a world. I perceive and receive with my senses and mind and heart, and I attempt to get everything into these little boxes and get the boxes into just the right order. And then, at some distance, you open the boxes and put it all back together. But here’s the thing – I never have enough boxes. And there are so many things – so many - that just don’t fit in them. And on top of that, the contents of the boxes can change depending on who opens them, or when. And I too, and I too, and I too – my world is full of the incomplete, the bits and pieces of other, older worlds I cannot see and yet which grip every part of me – my world is full of the words of others. I am in possession and charge of 23,517 texts. A third of these were here before me, the rest my acquisitions through telling, donation, quest, or trade. People come to this place from up and down the Burning Shore, and I send my people out along the roads – this is my web, for two decades now have I been here at its center, collecting and curating. There are a perhaps a few others like me out there, here and there. But there are none with a web so vast as mine, no collection as aged and spansive in all the Hundred Californias or beyond. Not only am I keeper of these texts – I am castellana for the Barón, gardener of this community, questgiver of this crossroads. In fact I came to this place before the Barón, though not by so much. It was a world so different from this now that the distance between my self and the self of those times is nearly impossible to bridge. I came from the sinking cities of the east, I was a wanderer of the burning plains, I was shaped by the sandwinds of the Nevada before I came unto this place. In those days, it was called the Biblioteca Antoñin, a lonely and obscured destination, and the Barón was not yet a Barón at all but a sort of mercialman, what they used to call a developer, from somewhere down in the Southland. And here we fall into the shifting maze of the forbidden. I was born into a collapsing order. A child of academy in latter days of softness, I was raised in a wooded shell of words and pages, discourse and study. Dominoes fell around me. Six houses became five, then five four, then four wrapped around each other, snakes into a leaning, writhing tower, rising river of arrows lapping at its base. Everywhere in those days, the sound of tearing fabric. The already frail illusion of sacred institutions were loudly broken and smeared with blood. Daggers that had been wrapped in linens and kept deep in drawers were polished now in bright sunlight. Fearful of their neighbors, my family brought me into the city of their work and we sheltered in a shining tower of books, rails, and wires in the lower midsection of that sinking angry fish. I missed the fresh soil and cleaning mists of open land. The righteous predictions of academy proved no protection and the angled dark and white tiles were coated in shining rainbows of oily water. Tucked into the pages of their own biographies my family packed themselves into crates and loaded themselves onto massive ships bound for the southern continent of their origin, but the pull of wood and earth and mud and water had hold of me, and I could not. The nations and structures of that continent still held strong amid the tides, their officelined towers still promised long lives of plastic cups and spreadsheet decisions, and when I pictured that life I held my hands in front of my face and they faded away. And so in early hours amid thick salt mist I slipped out on a raft of broken foam. Adrift and adrift, I sailed the narrow lanes of the city out into the harbor, across the churning estuary and into the fens. Guided not by phone or map but pull of wind and aching sky and burning memory of a new future, I dwelt in salt and reeds until I had learned enough to see through them and through the walls and mountains beyond, taught by those dwellers of the corpsemarsh to bide my tongue and follow the flows of life under the land. Waters rose and I with them, this is when I knew I was no longer a child. Power structures and social orders sagged and caved, as I grew I was filled with a restlessness, I wrapped my feet in winged sandals, I climbed the low and aching coalstink mountains of the east and came fully formed unto the two thousand flat miles. I became a trader and finder of direction. Great walls of flame walked across the plains. I wove the ways between them. Took up with one of the long caravans that swept and circled westward and westward where we mounted the great shelf, and spent years slowly climbing and descending the rugged world beyond. It was here I first heard whisper of that shining coast and felt glimmervines of source creeping over the horizon. It was here I began to miss and crave the world of letters and pages. Salt air found me. I shook loose and tumbled down into the desert. The rugged wanderer of plain and rockpile that had been I was worn smooth by the sand and wind of Nevadas. The salt flats in circles and circles again I gathered speed and thought and became a compass unto myself, waiting for just the right moment, permeating into the Sierra in its unwatched moments. It was there, in wooded shelter once more, now in isolate, hidden from the fires of neighboring ravines, that I heard the whisperings of the reversal of my life. I would unwander, my feet sink into the ground, and from that soil I would grow once more the tower of language and memory in which I had spent my childhood. And so not long after, around shared fire, I heard of the last library in the great wide valley of the west, the Biblioteca Antonin, now sad and faded, I was told to find it where the slowing hills of Estanaslao meet the flats of San Joaquin, on a fringe of halfburned sprawl around Modesto. The day that I arrived was the day of the D____ Collapse. Knowledge even of this event, as wide reaching and shattering as it was, is now illegal in certain districts, duchies, nations, and zones. So be it. It’s not my job to sort that out for you. I’m the Source, and I’m sending you my world as it is, as direct as I can. It was young in the Age of Paper, early in the days of fortification. And in the old city of Angeles there was an apartment complex called the D____. This place once stood at what is now the Owen Wanton Crossroads, and there is no longer any trace of it. In its day, until its day, it presented as a solid structure, concrete and inhabited. And then one day, yes the same day as my arrival here hundreds of miles to the north, the whole thing collapsed all at once into a pile of wet cardboard. No explosion, no demolition, no shaking of the earth. A simple act of transformation – brick and pipe, wall and stone, furniture of wood and metal, residents and pets of flesh and bone – all made one, a sopping smushed pile that sagged and spread and dried out in the sun and blew away as dust in the Santa Ana winds. Yes, that day, the day for which so many lay in waiting, hiding in between the words and behind the lights.
Manifestation of the Will as deliberate Change in reality. Expression of the Self beyond the limits of Body, Mind, and Soul. Foundation of emotional resonance in the Other. Intersection of divided worlds. What are these practices? What kind of box do I put them in? How do I take them apart so that you can piece them together into realness? The thousands upon thousands of texts in my castillo with their millions of words, they offer so many possibilities. Anthropologies and fantasies, they brush against but do not quite touch. I draw this line with chalk of ancient shell, unbroken circle on smooth raw stone, covered over with carpet and warm room. * * * The day of my arrival from the east, the place was not yet fortified, the lot was still paved, the valley was covered in its wrapping of quiet fear. Early days in the Age of Paper, old nets newly fallen, even in those days of suspicion – I just walked right in. It’s hard to describe the chaos of this place in those times, the last days of Ant’s Library. The low wings of half boarded and forbidding. In faded tall blue block letters the words “BIBLIOTECA ANTOÑIN” were just barely visible above darkened windows of the hulking building at the center of the stripmall. Ancient glass doors swung open without a sound. Inside, a maze of boxes and tables and stacks of books and pieces of kitchen equipment and taxidermied birds and racks of clothes and cabinets and tubes and pipes and hoses. Every surface held books and magazines as well as parts of cars and weapons and musical instruments, stacks of paper, coiled wires, plastic toys. In the middle of the room, on the edge of windowlight, an old man was bent over an ancient espresso machine when I came in, alone and unwatchful, back to the door. It was August and the whole valley was pressed under a vast palm of dry heat and inside the building it was even hotter, but the man wore a long heavy trenchcoat of black leather, its many pockets bulging into strange shapes. I said nothing, I made my way through the dim maze until I found an object resembling a chair, and began going through the nearest stack of text – a history of late 19th century land disputes in Texas. The man said nothing, continued his work on the machine and then, still in silence, moved to a half-cleared table. The uncleared half was covered in dark shapes that he began picking up and pulling apart. I stood up to see better. Shallots, cloves of garlic, green onions. Huge and almost glowing. In all my wanderings I had not seen their like. He pulled a blade from between the pages of an old encyclopedia and chopped. He disappeared into the dark maze of junk and returned with four eggs in one hand in the other, something that looked amazingly similar to the blocks of cheddar that once line the machinechilled shelves of groceries in the old cities. In that day, this was a stunning act of vulnerability. A dog rolling over and showing its belly. I had not seen a cow in thousands of miles. True milk of the cow was an impossibility almost everywhere. A cow is thirty gallons of water per day. This man, who I assumed was Ant himself, lone and unwary, and me – unknown even to myself. I could have been anyone. I could have been armed – and I was. He put the eggs and cheese down on the table and disappeared back into the work. Some kind of test? No he was back with more eggs. Then he propped the front door open with a chunk of concrete. In this new light I saw that what I had taken for an odd low shelf was in fact a stove free of its original moorings and, behind it, a palette of kerosene tanks. Figures appeared in the doorway, two very old women clad in finest fishnets and leather, heavy eyeshadow and black lipstick, ankh and the eye of Horus. One of them was holding a small glass jar full of what looked like real butter. With slow graceful movements Ant took the jar, retrieved the butter with wooden tongs and set it down on the heated skillet where it immediately sizzled and filled the air with painful memories of the gone away world of warmth and domesticity. One of the old women dug around in a pile until she produced a shining metal bowl, into which she began cracking the eggs. Ant threw the garlic and shallots into the browning, frothing butter – tears streamed down my face and my vision filled with a bright and clear sky, rolling hills of high blond grasses and oakshadowed paths, fields of garlic – perfect and machine planted, row after row, the bulbs nestled in the soft and rich earth, dark and moist soil, my hands sinking into it. I opened my eyes and they were all staring at me. “Medanos” said one of the old women. “Gilroy” said the other. And said nothing, gently took the mixing bowl and poured the eggs out onto the stove, a wide and churning sea that quickly stilled and puffed up as it cooked. The chopped vegetables he picked up and set down in the center of the eggs, then found again his blade and block of cheese and deftly shaved thin stripes that fell and melted upon the vegetables, then used the blade to puck up the edges of now cooked egg and wrap them around the center. Then he chopped through this whole creation into three sections. One of the women had found a stack of paper plates wrapped in plastic. He served up a portion onto one and passed it to me, then did the same for the others, and then disappeared again into the piles of junk. He did not return. I found my way back to my chair and ate in silence. The plate said “¡Feliz Cumpleaños!” I had thought of finding some useful task to repay the meal and shelter, but instead I fell asleep. When I it was dark outside, the door still propped open, and the glow of a fire was reflected in the floor. I got up and went out. The two women were sitting an old folding chairs around a fire built in a hole in the asphalt. One of them had a bag of marshmallows. There were a bunch of other chairs lying around and I pulled one up. “Ant would apologize” said the lady with the marshmallows “for the lack of salt” “It was delicious,” I said, “I’ve not had such a meal in years. Maybe he saved my life.” She laughed. “Maybe so.” In silence she speared a marshmallow with what looked like a sliver of bamboo, then concentrated as she thrust it into the fire. It did not burn or bubble but retained its shape and paleness. The flames around it began to turn blue. “This is a very special day”, she said, “Do you know that? Is that why you came here?” “Tell me” I said – but she did not. It would be another week before I learned the true meaning of that day. Instead she went back to the beginning. First it was Borders, then it was Barnes & Noble, and then it was empty. All of that time in the old empire. Her name was Isobel and she had worked there a long time ago, in her thirties. I wasn’t even born yet. To me, these names were almost meaningless, the kind of nonsense words that appeared in signs over all kinds of ruined structures out in the plains. It turned out they were bookstores. Ant had worked there as well, in fact had been a sort of manager. But the store was really run by a distant office in the eastern cities, and one day without warning they closed it. Ant and Isobel and the others who worked there at the time, they didn’t know until the trucks turned up in the morning and loaded up all the stock, bound for a distant warehouse. By the end of that day, the store was a dark maze of empty shelves and everyone was out of a job. Only a month later, the days of chaos began. Isobel herself had found work at a hardware store here in the same strip mall. She pointed to a darkened, half-boarded storefront with her bamboo spear, and the glowing blue fire came with it – the edges now flecked with violet. But Ant could not move on so easily. He had run the daily life of that store for ten years, and had even worked at the Borders before that. He took a few shifts at a cafe in downtown Modesto, started looking into studying to become a librarian. But then everything began to fall apart. During the worst of the violence, after Sacramento burned the first time, there were soldiers here, they used the Barnes & Noble building as a sort of temporary hospital and barracks, taking over a few of the other spaces as well. The hardware store stayed, and so did Isobel. In fact she had married one of the soldiers. She patted the arm of her silent companion, who nodded. The cafe where Ant worked was destroyed by shelling, thankfully he was not there at the time, and he began hanging around the hardware store and helping with small tasks at the field hospital. Then the battalion moved on, down to the south, leaving only Elena here and a few others for protection. Except for a few cots and bits of personal gear, the big building was empty again. And then the blue helmets came. They came from Italy, Senegal, Norway, Germany, Thailand, Mali and France, all under the command of a Dane named Lorr. Lorr was one of those people who change everything. With piercing dark eyes, bright and wild redblond hair, and constant animation and excitement Lorr mesmerized nearly everyone they met. In those times, still in the first days of chaos, most people were reserved, miserly with personal detail. Lorr was open about everything and soon everyone knew their entire life story from their birth to a Serbian soccer star and Lebanese politician who’d fled to Denmark disguised as cooks on a cruise ship, to the most recent duties of the unit rebuilding a burned out mining town in the Sierra, to the multivolume semiautobiographical fantasy series they were writing, based on their travels around the world. Everyone listened to these stories over and over again, enraptured. Lorr was an adventurer in the oldest sense, drawn to the continent by its chaos and opportunity. Perhaps, like all people, they had some kind of inner turmoil or darkness, but none of use ever saw it. They maintained an easy confidence even in the face of literal fire. The blue helmets did not move into the main building, instead they dug this open pit in the parking lot, and preferred to sleep on the roofs of the single story arms of the strip mall. It was they who built the chicken coop and planted the first rows of corn behind the Footlocker. Ant had kept hanging around and become a nearly permanent fixture, a cook and gardener and sort of organizer, though Isobel was not sure where he was living exactly in those days. By this time, the middle of the briefly lived Second California, things seemed quiet, and slowly a community began to form here around this camp in the lot. No one was surprised really that Ant and Lorr took so strongly to each other, in spite of the differences in personality and age. A long time ago, Ant had been a soldier as well, had served in the armies of the old empire in their colonial wars in central Asia. But he never talked about those days, few people even knew that about him. And he was far from being an adventurer. In the past he’d had little patience for tellers of tales who took up arms for glory – but there was something about Lorr that earned his respect and love. What did surprise us was the scheme they cooked up together. It turned out Ant knew and remembered where the warehouses were – the ones that all the books had been taken too years earlier. For some reason he had convinced himself they’d been untouched by the chaos, and then he convinced Lorr who was eager to be convinced. So Ant and Lorr and two Senegalese and a German set off for the outskirts of Lodi with two box trucks and a motorcycle. The warehouse had long been converted into the home of a road gang – the party was unable to close enough to see if the books were still there. Spotted in the attempt, they barely got out alive and the motorcycle was lost. Rather than return emptyhanded they roamed the San Joaquin valley, raided an ungaurded community college bookstore on an abandoned campus in Bakersfield and swung back up on the Ninetynine, filling the trucks with some antique furniture and random kitchen equipment that they stole in Fresno, having new dreamed the library into something more. They returned with bulging, overloaded trucks, and a minivan they’d picked up somewhere, and unloaded everything into the main building. For a couple of months they built and organized, and it started to shape up. Books on shelves, comfy seating, a rudimentary system of wind and solar powered lighting and refridgeration. It was Lorr who painted “Bibliotecha Antonin” across the front of the building. Ant organized the books and cooked, a blue helmet named Pirra started beehives on the roof, Isobel built planting beds and negotiated the capture of an empty lot adjoining the mall for conversion into new gardens, Elena oversaw security and maintenance of the structures, and a soldier named Xavier started a band. There were weekly parties and people began showing up from across the valley. Some of them stayed. The place was beginning to grow into a proper village. But Lorr could not sit still. And so they began putting together more expeditions, sometimes into the Sierra, sometimes up to the northern edge of the valley and the edges of Cascadia, sometimes west among the burbenclaves that lingered on the outside of the Bubble. At first, Ant accompanied bands of adventurers, navigating them towards private collections and shuttered libraries. But he was never comfortable with the dangers of the road and was afraid his presence increased their risk. So he stopped going, and began focusing on organization and curation and development of village life. It was in this time that word began to spread. Amid the boxes and stacks of texts near and ancient, Lorr and Ant had collected a growing sacred stash of notebooks, lined and unlined blankpagery awaiting flow of ink or graphite. They glowed with promise and bore the holy ancient names of Rhodia, Leuchturm, and Moleskine. And so with the power of these relics, Ant began the Readings. Every fortnight crowds would circle around the growing lotfire, Ant and others sat in turns on campchair and ottoman filling these notebooks while Readers stood in the doorway of the main building, entire worlds tumbling out of their mouths and into the fire and flying away in a twisting pillar of smoke. The Readers could be anyone, the stories could be their own or something they had heard from another, the electric tales of latter age woven by mercians from the inside of the mirror, half remembered songs of media days, reenactments of long dead ads, ancient plays, and fragments of religious hymn and lecture. All of these words taken down by Ant and Elena and whoever else took turns at the pen, verbatim and unattributed. Line after line of private and public memory woven together and unpersoned with precise script into hundreds of these notebooks. In between these nights, the main building was nearly always open. The filled notebooks sat in stacks upon the cleanest clearest table in the house, always just on the edge of the windowlight. Visitors known and pored through them, copied portions of them into notebooks of their own, sometimes ripped out pages or pasted in new ones The roads were growing more dangerous those days. Ant felt that he was finally on the verge of regaining the home he had lost and now, with Lorr, had found even more. But at the same time he knew Lorr’s heart, knew it was the danger itself that drew them out onto the road, the books were just an excuse. And in fact Lorr had a hard time focusing on just books and began returning with all manner of objects from fake roman statues to a stone cistern to a rocket launcher to a massive wooden wardrobe containing fourteen Napoleanic military uniforms from some ancient theatrical production. With increasing reluctance, Ant reorganized these objects into the building’s now cluttered corners. An uneasy rhythm developed, when Lorr was gone the life of the village centered around Xavier and his band. They had appropriate the uniforms and marched around the lot in a circle, they sang to the chickens and to the vegetables, they sang for the sun and rain though the rain rarely responded. Ant kept to the main building more and more, and the organizing slowed. Then Lorr would return, the trucks would be unloaded with great ceremony, each object serenaded by Xavier and the band, More often than not Lorr’s trucks now brought wine from the coastal valleys and the celebrations of arrival turned into parties that lasted three or four days. Those days were the beginning of the end of Second California. There was a lot of tension and people needed to let loose. At the same time, we did a bad job of looking at who was coming and going from the place. There was an unfortunate carelessness, especially during those celebrations of return. Then Lorr would settle back into village life, or try to, while Xavier took his band on the road, along with a handful of soldiers for protection, and the place would be quiet again. Quiet but tense. Lorr restlessly toured the perimeter, making small talk with everyone, joining in with random tasks of planting or lifting or cleaning or taking turns on the roof watching the horizon. Ant was rarely seen. They still lived together in the main library building, but when people asked how Ant was doing, Lorr would change the subject. Then Xavier would return full of tales and glory, and Lorr would soon leave again on another expedition, and things went on like that until Sacramento. The fire was so bright you could see it from here, on the horizon, for three weeks. By day the sky was a dull ochre, the air choked with burning fiberglass and plastics. And then there appeared a lone rider, emissary of the General of the People of the Valley of San Joaquin, Mia Marisol herself. This feared and legendary general was mustering a great army, with which to end both the fascist and corporate threats in the valley for good, and push Fremont on his remnants into the sea. She called upon her loyal vassel, the renowned warrior Lorr Nikolic of Aalborg, to take up their oathbound duty, and bring now their arms and followers and meet with her upon the ashes of Sacramento. Lorr had told us a lot of stories about their expedition into the chaotic corners of the valley, but they’d never mentioned meeting Marisol, let alone any kind of oath.
Whether Marisol or Fremont was responsible for the destruction of Sacramento was a topic of daily discourse, with opinions tending to follow pre-established ideological leanings more than anything to do with the fire itself. The old nets were dying out by then, and news was slow and fractured. On the day that rider came, Fremont was still considered missing. Most people in the village at that time were socialists, happy to see Fremont gone if perhaps uncomfortable with how it had happened, admiring but intimidated by Marisol and the circle of constant change around her. Lorr explained nothing. They were overtaken with a solemnity none had seen before. Whether they explained anything to Ant in private, still no one knows. Lorr was still friendly, but distant, and hurried, preparing for departure with none of the usual excitement they displayed before their expeditions. Even more striking was the change in Xavier. On the morning they left, the trucks lined up in the lot, he stood atop the cabin of the band’s flatbed, upright and still as stone. His constant wide grin and Napoleonic uniform were gone, replaced by a rough gray robe and a hood drawn over his eyes, holding a wooden staff, wearing such a grim expression he was barely recognizable. Behind him on the flatbed, the band stood in neat rows, still in uniform. Lorr emerged from the library, the blue helmet we had not seen in years now joined by a greatcoat of the same color, with a scarf of bright violet wrapped around their face. The band took up a solemn march and the column moved out. Somehow Xavier kept his balance atop the cab, seemed almost as though he was floating just above it. That’s when we should have known. Isobel stopped and fixed me with a look again. That’s when we should have known. The air was heavy with ash that day, and as the trucks moved off towards the column of smoke to the north, a subtle glow of separation could be seen around them, a small space where the ash wasn’t, and brightest in a sphere around the tall figure of Xavier, still just barely visible even as they cresting the horizon. On the roof of the library, the lone figure of Ant, wearing a bright violet mask against the amber air. With both Lorr and Xavier gone at the same time, it felt like all the lights had gone out in the village. And eventually, the lights really did go out. Lorr had left ten of the blue helmets behind for security and helping out with maintenance and other work, but with no one in charge, most drifted off, though two were still around, currently off on a supply run just now, and there was Isobel and Elena, and a handful of others from the old days and new. But most of the machines fell into disrepair and the lights went out. Visitors had stopped coming after Sacramento. Another time of chaos had come to the valley, Second California was shattered. Marisol’s war moved to the south. The foothills of the Sierra and the valley filled with wanderers and bandits, but somehow none of them found the village even though the buildings were filled with valuable supplies and objects, and the gardens gave substantial yield, in those days they almost glowed and pulsed with life. This was Xavier’s doing, Elena was certain. Right before they left, she had seen him circling the garden beds and the perimeter of the village itself. And so, hidden from the world, forgotten by history, the dark village slept on and those who remained grew old together in unspoken sadness. And then I had come. Did I know why, on this day of days, I had been able to find this forgotten place, break the lines of Xavier, and cross the threshold? All this time, Isobel had held her bamboo spear in the fire. The marshmallow had disappeared, and now the tip of the spear was glowing dull blue. It was not damaged in any way by the fire. She pulled it out and the glow remained. Then pointed the unlit end toward me and gestured for me to take it. I was surprised by its weight and cold touch. Then I realized it was not made of bamboo at all, but carved stone. * * * Do you life under a sky crossed by lines and falling droplets that bind and bring you down? Do you feel watchers on the sides of your ways and through your windows? Does chatter hang in invisible lines between the objects in your room? Do you mind your words and movements at all times, lest you by tracked by eyes of glass and ears of wire? Such was the world of my birth. By the time I had crossed the continent, the old nets were cut into regional pieces, then rolled up and tucked away into places like the Bubble and its exclaves. The age of paper was unfurling. And as it did it cracked and peeled and blew away. * * * That night I slept by the fire, wrapped in blankets Isobel found in the library, and dreamed of standing in that same place where I slept, unmoving under bright sun, surrounded by seas of grass, I held out my hands and a bee the size of a cat descended from the sky and landed on them, I drew the bee to my chest and was filled with the warmth of its motion. I awoke just before down. The door to the library sill propped open. When I entered I heard Ant storing, saw the shape of him on the chair where I’d sat last night. Quietly, in near darkness I made my way to the other side of the large chamber and began gathering books. It was too dark to see the titles so I separated book from non-book until I had two neat rows of book stacks lining one of the walls. After an hour of this, I went back to the stove by the door. Ant was still asleep. I dug around in the cabinets, chests of drawers, and junk piles. In a burlap sack there were coffee beans, dark and shining with oil. In a velvet covered jewelry box I found fresh green pods of cardamom that peeled open to reveal pitch black seeds whose scent can unlock oceans of memory. A rolltop desk revealed a mortar and pestle, sieves, a set of metal pots, a porcelain jar full of sugar. In an ancient tin bearing the word “ALTOIDS” I found fresh peppercorns, still wrapped in fragile pink shells. I ground up five of these in the mortar and pestle along with one pod of cardamom and a large handful of the coffee and pinch of sugar. All of this went into one of the metal pots. A row of glass jugs full of water stood near the stacked kerosene tanks, barely out of view of the door. I filled the pot and set it on the stove. I took it off about thirty seconds before the water boiled, then ran it through a sieve into another metal pot. On the chair, Ant was beginning to stir. Through the door, I saw the figures of Isobel and Selena crossing the lot. As they approached, I looked at the ground under their feet, at the asphalt, and saw right through it into the dark rich soil below. In the rolltop desk I found a set of small porcelain bowls. I poured out the coffee into four of them, left three on the table in a row, and took the last out the door, silently nodding at Isobel as we passed each other. I walked the edge of the lot drinking my coffee and then found a place where the asphalt had cracked and reeds were growing through. I wedged my fingertips into the crack and felt the source run up through me and down again through my fingers and down, down into the rich deep earth as, piece by broken piece, the asphalt began to rise. Two weeks later the first postcard arrived. An elder mariachi, long ago acquainted with Isobel and Elena, had stopped by to visit and rest and sing for us. As he was leaving, almost as an afterthought, he pulled a crumpled oily postcard out of his waistband and passed it to Ant. It was from Lorr. From this postcard we learned of the D____ collapse, as well as the beginnings of the Grapevine Wall. The postcard also said that Xavier was on his way back north and that we should keep an eye out. There was no mention of Lorr’s own plans. Two weeks later, as we sat around the fire in the evening, our spell was broken by a column of trucks, technicals, and vans that tore in from the eastern horizon in a cloud of dust and circled around perimeter, then stopped once they had surrounded the entire lot. Figures on top of the vehicles wore thick armor and faceshielded helmets. A voice came from one of the vehicles but we couldn’t tell from which, announcing that they were looking for “the witch Xavier Sissoko”. Then they fired up their engines, made their noisesome circle once more, and continued on to the west. They returned that same night, just a few hours before dawn. They made no announcements and did not stop, they circled the lot over and over, shining bright lights into lot and windows, revving their engines, circling and circling. After what seemed like an hour the left, back to the east again. In the morning we saw that they had come no closer to the buildings but had torn up some of the new plantings in the outer fields and one of the wooden beds was partially smashed, as through whatever hit it had been slowed before impact. The next night they came again, but still came no closer. The night after we did not see them – instead mysterious deep explosions shook the air all night long, but we could not see any flash or fire in the dark sky. The next morning as I opened the rolltop desk and picked up the porcelain bowls there was a tiny figure, one inch high, sitting crosslegged underneath them, wearing the uniform of a Napoleonic grenadier and smoking a tiny joint. Rising quickly to his full height of two inches, he took a deep sweeping bow. “I”, he announced, “am Xavier.”. Little puffs of smoke emerged as he spoke. I remembered a draw in which I’d seen a set of thimbles, and served him one full of coffee. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I will get bigger. But it will take ten years, and in the meantime I cannot protect, my workings will not hold, and Elena is too old to fight. You’re going to have to make a deal. Don’t worry, I’ve already made the arrangements.” Then he turned abruptly and in an odd sort of march approached the edge of the desk and lept off. When I looked at the floor there was no trace of him, nor his thimble of coffee. That afternoon we received the first emissary of the Barón. She rode into the courtyard on a chestnut mare, wearing a robe of glittering silver, as it caught the sun it was a shifting sea of stars. She was Milena Born Free, of the Free City of Fresno, arrow of the Barón Cuesta, here under writ and right, in ofference of Deal between parties not present but bound unto this place. Ant stood in the doorway of the library, the closest I’d ever seen him come to the outside world. It was he that Milena approached and before him she unrolled a long scroll of paper that ran from where she sat up on her horse down to the ground and through the door into the building. He slowly knelt and picked it up in bunches. Most of it was covered in miniature, inscrutable script. At the bottom the largescript signature of “Leonardo Riggio” could be made out as well as a curiously twisted thick dark line with arrows on either end. For some reason it made me think of Xavier. Ant gathered up the paper and disappeared with it into the murk of the library. Milena dismounted, removed her shining cape – underneath she wore a plain jumpsuit – and tucked it into a sack that seemed far too small to hold it. From this same sack she produced a large and fluffy blanket which she laid out by the fire, lay down on it and fell into a deep sleep. Hours later she awoke and stared into the fire as Isobel and Elena and I ate – and then, for the first time since I arrived, Ant came out and sat down with us. I’d heard him speak by now of course, the odd word or phrase, but it was rare. It was even more odd now to hear him speak at length, explaining the scroll and what it meant. His voice was soft and rolled smoothly up and down like the gentle hills on the western side of the valley. Several months ago far to the south, a rich man named Rafael Hernan Cuesta had come into possession, through intrigue and maneuver, of the deed and title for every Barnes & Noble in the Second Republic of California, of which there were supposedly seventeen. Antonio Suarez was to take up again the mantle of CRM. This man Cuesta was aware of the village that had grown here and would arrange for its security as well as for expansion of the fields. Builders would come from the south with truckloads of supplies. The main building was to be cleared of “detritus” and proper living quarters installed there as well as in the outer arms of the mall. The scroll went into some detail about the fortifications a proposed irrigation system connecting with other settlements under control of Cuesta and his local allies. There was no mention of the library, or even of books other than a line about “orderly arrangements of traditional stock”. This I had already accomplished. All of these terms and arrangements had been made in the latter days of Second California. The world had changed, but the Deal would still be honored.
In the first time of chaos, as the old empire crumbled, the corporations and networks of wealthy landowners who formed the underlying power structure began gobbling up infrastructure and elements of the security apparatus. Already dependent on these powerful forces for everything from healthcare to sustenance to entertainment, people in many areas relied on them to build roads and enforce peace while other areas were left to their own devices, forming self sustaining communities and mutual aid networks both permanent and temporary. Then came Fremont and the Second Republic, the last attempt at old school statism, the disastrous attempts to compromize, and the demise of the nets – first global, then regional. After the Bubble was cloistered and the siege of Sacramento began, the northern half of the republic fragmented once more into a shifting sea of independent farmsteads and agrarian communes, religious paramilitary orders, road gangs, experimental utopian societies, wanderers, cults of media memory. The south avoided most of this chaos, cemented under the control of a handful of corporate microstates that had shifted into an uneasy peace with each other. Of these, the most powerful was Mouse, once a massive media conglomerate, now a spansive templar realm. Their influence had long gripped the globe, but now they pivoted with ease into the liquid world, their gods numbered in the thousands. It was within the shining walls of Glendale and glowing halls of Burbank that old titles were shorn of capital’s euphemisms and monarchs wore crown and seal under bright sunlight. This spread through every hill and valley and well beyond, while others resisted the old forms, abandoning hierarchies and developing new communal structures. A shifting patchwork of pockets. The time of the Hundred Californias had begun. Rafael Hernan Cuesta, a real estate developer from Escondido, had acquired the last functional Barnes & Noble store remaining on the Auric Coast, the only one which had survived into the time of Second California, as well as the ruins of sixteen others scattered up and down the coast. No longer a bookstore, the place specialized in advanced technological products that became disconnected and then banned during the cloistering. Around the time that they disappeared from the store, Cuesta declared his Baronial title and his loyalty to the newly established, Mouse-led High Council of the Southern Realms. These seventeen lots that he had acquired would extend the reach and right of the Council along the coast. All this time Milena was listening quietly to Ant along with the rest of us. When he finished, she provided a bit more detail. The Barón himself was unlikely to arrive for at least a year. In the meantime, a convoy had already been dispatched. Those who lived in and around the village were welcome to stay, so long as we worked for the improvement of the domain. That night I dreamed of a tall thin and leafless tree standing in front of the lot. Out of the sky descended a dove the size of a small dog. The dove landed on the top of the tree and the tree bent, slowly, under its weight until the dove reached the ground and the tree formed a loop. For the next three months Ant moved about the place with an almost impossible lightness. Isobel said she had not seen him like that since early in the days of Lorr, or maybe even years before in the time of the old store. Then the fortifications began to arrive. In earlier years, the first walled towns and cities of the Hundred Californias were haphazard affairs of shipping containers, truck parts, and crude hasty brickwork. Then came the Realm of Glendale and the construction of a massive 18th century Bavarian castle around and atop the Galleria, followed by imitation and iteration all throughout the Southland. Now there were specialists in the art of the keep and the town wall, plying their services up and down the coast to king and commune alike. Prefabricated watchtowers and gate structures on flatbed trucks rode the widening way of the Five. It was a family named the Gasparyans who were contracted by the Barón to build our walls and fortify the keep. This family had a matriarch, a Duchess who lived somewhere in the southern part of the valley, but the project would be overseen by her daughter – Milena herself. During these same days, change rippled outward from the site of the D____ Collapse. The dust blew out to sea and back again. As the age of paper unfolded it cracked and peeled – the world beneath was raw and pulsing. The names of places, ideas, and organizations began to bubble and froth, to split open and melt. A society of wanderers emerged collecting these names of the past on huge necklaces of old dominoes. It took about a month for the fortifications to come together, made all the faster by the guidance provided through my sight and flow, the great stones seen from all angles as they clack together in neat lines, the artful etchings in the steel plate cladding of the library itself, now become a proper keep, at least on the outside. The interior looked, as Isobel put it, “like a time warp”. On my own I had already organized the books before this business with the Barón. Carefully, I had arranged them in order of the amount of truth within and the severity of their tone. Now, under the guidance of Ant, I reorganized them according to the ancient traditions of the bookseller, divided neatly into the real and the unreal, the literary and the genre. When Milena entered the keep for the first time she was furious. “Why,” she demanded to know, “do you have all these books?” She was expecting to see a recreation of a medieval great hall – long tables, tapestries and taxidermy – and cozy living spaces for the Barón and his inner circle. I took her gently by the hand and led her to a region of soft fluffy sofas encircling a small stone fireplace. I wove through the aisles and chose carefully, then returned to her thick tomes of Penman. The rest of that week she dwelt in the deep and drafty halls of Cymru and Albion, feasting with John Lackland and Eleanor D’Aquitane. When she finished she merely nodded, satisfied, then retrieved her horse and rode off to the south. The Barón would arrive soon. We had not seen the Wolves or any others like them since the walls went up. But the explosions continued, either I nor Ant nor any of Milena’s crew could find a source. By day the gates of the castillo were always open, and we worked to expand the fields and decorate the walls. People began to arrive unto the village again, and as I grew vine over stone a community grew around the place. Ant began once more the tradition of Readings. I and others took our turns as tellers and scribes, and the notebooks filled up again. This was to be the cause of the second fury of Milena. But first we were struck by a shockwave from the south. The army of Mia Marisol had consolidated at the southern end of the valley, just above the mountain pass known as the Grapevine. As we learned from Lorr’s first postcard, they began building a massive chain of fortifications that spanned both sides of the pass. The valley side of this structure became the city of Wall. Ostensibly built to protect the agrarian communes of the valley from both northern banditry and southern expansionism, the project was responsible for one of the largest population shifts of the period, employing millions from across the Southland, Mexico, the Desert Kingdoms, and beyond. In the end it could not be built without compromise, and the project began to include agents and resources of the Mouse, sending waves of suspicion and resentment through the communist sections of the valley. Meanwhile the road gangs and fascist militias who had been pushed into the Sierra licked their wounds and coagulating, mixing with new groups of religious warriors crossing the deserts from the east. Opinions are still divided over whether this was an organic movement or part of a scheme concocted in Austin. These combined forces led a prolonged siege of the Grapevine structure during the height of the winds at the end of a long drought, starting fires in the mountains and valley itself. While the wall did not technically fall and the fascist army was unable to penetrate into the Southern Realms proper, several outlying towns were destroyed. The communes were the hardest hit. Marisol was brought before the High Council put on trial for her pyrrhic victory. A spectacle held in the Coliseum of the Rose, the trial concluded with Marisol kneeling before the southern corns and swearing into an oathquest of vengeance, becoming an arrow that would send her deep into the heart of Texas. It was a second postcard from Lorr that brought us much of this news. Lorr also indicated they would be joining Marisol on her absurd quest. Ant fell back into depression, though he tried to hide it at first. But we all knew it would be complicated even if they were to return. The tales once spun around the fire of adventure and discovery were replaced by tales of recovery and perseverance. The days when Lorr and their column of overloaded trucks and cheering armed cyclists arrived back at the village after weeks of roaming began to be seen in a different light. Amid these changes, Milena Born Free returned this time with no entourage, poet warriors and source channelers from around the Southern Realms. With excitement and pride Milena led her friends into the keep, set them down among the cozy sofas, then wove among the shelves and tables picking out books for her friends. I noticed that some of these included our filled notebooks from the Readings. For tour hours they sat and read around the fire. Then abruptly two of them stood and drew Milena aside. I watched from across the room as her eyes widened in shock and anger. Then she beckoned to Ant and I. As we approached she introduced Nikola of Oranje and Dmetar of Pasadean, both powerful, known, and aligned with the Mouse. Nikola spoke first: “Do you know not what we do? We are the speakers of story, the arbiters of cannon, the servants of character woven and channeled. We are the other side of the mirror. What gives you the right to set pen to page and birth new beings into this reality, without our process or approval? Who watch over them and guide the sense of humanity towards them?” Dmetar spoke thence: “And many of the characters in these texts exist already – not only this, but there are some among these pages to whom we have alter, temple, mirror, and line. How have these stories been confirmed and canonized? We do not know them. And yet, all the world will see us in their shadow. The responsibility for their words and actions may be thrown by enemies unto our doorstep.” Ant approached them and forcefully grabbed the notebooks from their hands. I put my hand on his shoulder before he did more. I could feel him vibrating under my touch. He stalked off into his office. From its mount in the wall I retrieved the slender stone spear Isobel had given me. In the kitchen I mixed sediment of river with sediment of sea, an equal blend, then returned to the fire. In countercircle the sediment was poured, spiraling into the center of the fire. Then with the spear I began digging and poking among the embers until it began to glow. One of the embers near the center began attracting the others and they merged, lumping together into a glowing stone that rose and thinned and stood and etched into the form of a human that stood one foot high. It was Xavier. To me he said: “This is a time of Schism. There are things you and even Ant don’t know. About me, about Lorr, about Mia – our binding and unbinding. Wrap yourself like vine around the cracked and aging trunk of the oak that dwelt here, grow and cover these walls.” To Dmetar and Nikola he said: “You pull at the threads of your own making. Your mirrors have become doors. Those whom you have made real in the crossing watch and hear and hold and feel us. You do not contain them, they contain you. Return now to the south and tell the Baron it is time.” And in silence they left. That night I dreamed of my arrival and of the pit which had once held fire. Now it was filled with a dark and still sea, waters frigid to the touch and bottomless. I stood before this sea and breathed in circles until a heat grew within me, and as my ocean churned so churned the sea before me, a small maelstrom emerging in its center. The center of that spiral was at first pitch black but as it widened, tiny points of light appeared and then grew bright, a shimming field of stars and dust. In those days, Isobel and Elena were too old to walk. They dwelt together in a giant wheeled bed that the Fresnians had built for them. They rolled around the town overseeing plantings and giving notes on defenses. After the visit of Nikola and Dmetar, their bed began to rise above the ground. At first it was just a couple of inches but soon it grew to a foot, and clouds began to form in their wake. Readings continued to be held at regular intervals but Ant seldom appeared. The town slowly became more visible and people began arriving from further away. About a week before the Baron’s arrival, Ant pulled me aside and took me into his office. I had not actually seen it before. Like the keep itself, it looked as though from another era. The clean raw wood surface of his desk held nothing other than a set of ten notebooks. “Historia de los Cien Californias” they said on the spine, in Ant’s neat hand. I looked up at him and he was covered in sweat, thought it was not hot. He moved out of the office towards the door of the jeep, even at that age still moving his large body through the aisles with grace and lightness, his skin shining in the glow of the fires, his heavy black leather trenchcoat falling into my hands. As he stepped through the door the liquid on him began to pool and rise into the air and fly up into the clouds. He cut the middle of his robed with thumbnail and unwrapped and unwrapped and the clothes fell upon the ground and Ant disappeared into fog and sky in millions of tiny fleeting drops. Over the next few weeks there were more new arrivals. Older people who carried instruments and ancient weapons and piecemeal armor under long dark robes I had not met them but I knew who they were, that some had been blue helmets or members of Xavier’s band. The day of the Baron’s arrival we formed a line in front of the keep, we wore finest robes of gothic, we waited in silence with palms facing the sky, and we felt the first drops of moisture falling. By the time his column rolled up outside the gate it had begun to rain. His entourage remained under cover of vehicles while he approached alone Under falling skies, in the sinking soils of our courtyard, he knelt. I approached and handed him an empty notebook, a pen, and a rolled map of the passes and crossings that might lead him through the Sierra and into the twisting Nevadas beyond. It would be a year before his return by boat. The rain fell and the earth shifted and the waters came into the valley and they rose until they reached the level of the bed on which Isobel and Elena lived and floated. And so the waters carried them as they floated out of the gate and off to the west to seek the great glowing current that had once been the San Joaquin and to dwell among the flowers, vines, and watchers who rode that wild stream. The years rolled on. We fall in and out of visibility with the tides. From up and down the coast, you come. Landless or landed, named or no one, you flow into our gate all the same. Our notebooks empty and waiting for you. You gather yourself and that which has come into you through senses, mind, and heard and pour all of this into the vessels that await. We shift and stir and let it pass through us and into clay jars with cork lids that float perfectly and drift outward and outward as the winds push them towards every direction on the horizon.


This is the 8th episode of In A Walled City, the beginning of the second season. As with all episodes, it is a standalone story and the series can be enjoyed in any order.

This story is available for free in is original format (one continuous piece) on any podcast streaming platform. This higher quality version, divided into 4 pieces due to Bandcamp's limitations, is for purchase by those who want to support the project financially.

CONTENT: This story contains food, fire, depression, drugs, love, loss, war, witchcraft, structural collapses at multiple scales, and loud noises.

For a transcript, click on the individual tracks and look in the lyrics section.


released February 11, 2022

Written by Jon Bernstein, Narrated by Valerie Monique Evering. Music composed and performed by Jon Bernstein.

Cover art uses VQGAN+CLIP created by Katherine Crowson, with input and additional modifications by Jon Bernstein, and using "worn 80's paperback texture" created by Jeff Finley. 


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Disparition Los Angeles, California

Electronic, ambient, industrial, found sounds, beats, piano.

Inspired by history, geography, travel, occult, fiction.

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