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The Book of Heaven

(The following is an excerpt from Patricia Storace’s novel The Book of Heaven, to be published by Pantheon.)

The world was created with a knife and a prayer. The knife you can see well, especially in the late summer nights. Look up after dark; you will see its green jade hilt, the sickle of brilliants that forms the curve of the scimitar’s blade, and the field of red stars sprayed around it, the drops of blood. It forms the topmost section of the constellation called the Murder, though decrees have been issued, as yet with no success, to change its name by compulsion to the Sacrifice. Nevertheless, the true name of this group of stars is the Murder, and there the knife quivers unmistakably at night, lodged where it was flung back into the heart of heaven. Whatever human beings would suppress or refuse to see, the heavens record their true acts and their true dreams in the ineradicable testament of stars.

The knife was forged as carefully as a sculpture as part of the dowry of a bride on her way to the household of an iconoclast husband she had never met. She was not to bring any images of animal or human creatures, none of the clay birds or babies that had been her girlhood toys, no paintings illustrating the cycles of legends she loved, no image of the house of her childhood, or of any guardian spirit. Souraya was being married into a household intensely concerned with what it was permitted to see. But attention to physical form is a powerful instinct and often becomes a talent, and will turn elsewhere if diverted. And among iconoclasts, the impulse found its satisfaction in the intensely anatomical forms of their domestic goods, saddles, ewers, farm implements, spoons, knives, forks, ladles, and bowls, those grand analogues to the womb.

Above all, iconoclasts were exacting about and seduced by the forms of weapons. Those they commissioned had the kind of extravagant detail and showed the ardent willingness to spend money that iconophiles devoted to images; they specified elaborate metal traceries, intricate gemmed patterns on hilts, and even calligraphy incised on the blades themselves. These ornaments inscribed a web of meaning on the weapons, gave them voices, which are acceptable to iconoclasts as images are not. The ornaments knit hands and weapons together, made them inseparable and, in a sense, helpless in their power, both hand and weapon bound together and absolved by a common pattern. The weapon ornament became a symbol of destiny, as did the self-inflicted wounds of the iconoclasts, tribal markings attributed to the appetite of the Divine for wounds. These weapons, and these wounds, were the jewelry of men.

When the contract for their marriage was negotiated and the final catalog of dowry gifts agreed on, chief among the gifts, more costly even than the plantation of twenty shade trees and twenty fruit trees that Souraya was to bring with her, was the knife. Adon’s emissary arrived with elaborate verbal instructions for its design, since for them to make a sketch of it was forbidden. The emissary, though, spoke in such vivid detail that Souraya’s mother was able to make a discreet sketch of the knife, to assist her husband in realizing the design accurately, from the hilt set with emeralds and diamonds, down to the inscription, “God’s Servant,” to be traced on the blade.

Finally, before accepting their entertainment after his journey, the emissary drew from his luggage a massive clay hand. It was modeled on Adon’s. “Fit the knife to this,” he said. “Then shatter it.” That disembodied right hand, palm ambitiously upward on her father’s worktable, was Souraya’s first glimpse of her husband. It dominated the workshop while it was there; its openness, attached to nothing, made it seem charged with absolute desire. It reached for everything. There was nothing it did not want, as if it, and not her father’s and mother’s modest finite living hands, was the source of all the objects and tools around it; that it was joined to no visible body or face made space itself seem to flow from it.

Late at night, Souraya went noiselessly to the workshop to acquaint herself with her husband. The monumental hand was resting on the worktable, in the shadows, as if it had just created darkness. She went up to it, and reaching her own hand out tentatively, stroked it, her slender fingers touching the monument soothingly, as if to appease and tame it. She picked it up. An even more colossal hand of shadow smoothed the floor, then gripped and grappled with the wall. She strained to lift the hand to her breast, seeing an image of her wedding night, her breast cupped for the first time by a husband’s hand.

The clay hand lay across her flesh like a boulder, with a profound heaviness, a world reposing on her breast. But she was so young that the effect on her of its weight was not exhaustion but a pooling of courage, a concentrated courage. An energy suffused the sure muscles of her legs, traveling through the strong, solid cypresses of her thighs, the unshatterable cup of her abdomen, up through her head, poised on the bones and tendons of her neck. The power and heroism of a young body is as helpless as the invincible frailty of an old one. She felt ready. She was as clean and plumb and deep with life as a well. Let the world be heavy; she would shelter it. Let the world lie on her; she would sustain it. Let the world fill itself with her. This was her body’s prayer.

When the knife was ready at last, so was the marriage. Souraya’s dowry gifts and personal belongings were securely packed, her clay birds and clay boys and girls given away to her cousins’ children. She threaded the bridegroom’s gifts of jewelry through her hair and around her neck. A special leather bag was set aside for the remnants of the clay hand; the iconoclasts were strict in demanding proof that the model had been destroyed, as if they were possessed by some fear that they themselves might be destroyed by their own despised images.

They danced all night, the night before she left, cycles of ribald dances, joyous dances, with figures of joined hands pledging that love requites everything, tender dances, openly tragic dances, with their mute declarations that all love is unrequited, the cresting movements of the dancers’ arms like waves beating against cliffs. They sang old songs, drinking wedding wine, and eating indulgently from what seemed a perpetual supply of roast meat and a traditional wedding confection known as “bride’s tears,” made of honey mixed with the resinous tears exuded by local pines, a symbol of the bittersweet nature of marriage.

Everyone, from children to old men, embraced the precious bride, touched her dress, smoothed her hair, clung to her as if she were each one’s ebbing life. Some dandled her four-year-old sister, who was also getting married to a five-year-old cousin. It was a common arrangement. Small sisters would share in the dower of the older bride, and the family would have married all its daughters at the expense of one wedding. The younger girls would return to their playthings and household tasks, and would discover when they had grown up that they had been married all their lives, as if they were assuming a life previously lived but unremembered.

The meat and dancing and singing and wine made a wild joy of loss, reversed the sense of mourning someone who was departing from their circle into a blissful oblivion. The festival of an absence would not be revealed as painful until tomorrow, after she would be gone forever.

Someone fetched the model of Adon’s hand and brought it to the fireside, offering it to Souraya’s father to destroy, as commanded. He shook his head dourly, regretting the end of his workmanship. “Do your husband’s will, Souraya,” he said. Souraya’s lips were stained with red wine, she was just becoming drunk. She picked up a log and with all her strength brought it down onto the center of the palm. The guests cheered as the object shattered, and Souraya smashed the clay fingers, knuckles, and wrist into smaller and smaller fragments knit with splintering embers. She half-remembered the childhood pleasure of building cities in the sand, and joining with all the other children, after fashioning intricate domes, tunnels, and towers, in the ecstatic destruction of their own creations. In their annihilating dances, those children outlived the world.

A man poured her another cup of wine and she lifted it high, in a mocking toast: no one could criticize her tonight. The singing ensured that, in all gatherings, sacred or profane; it gently enforced a consent on the company, so that on those occasions, they would not settle old scores, either by boast or by insult.

Drink to the unseen,” she cried out, laughing recklessly at her own daring, exulting in a moment of freedom in her severely disciplined life. Tomorrow she would have to be impeccable, eyes lowered, wordlessly graceful, inscrutable in the face of sorrow, relief, bewilderment, disgust, or fear. She needed to indulge herself in bravado tonight, for a virgin goes to marriage with an unseen man the way a soldier goes into battle, uncertain of survival, risking death. Who would protect her if she did not please? And she had no more idea than a soldier in first combat does of what she would experience physically. Like a soldier, she had to give herself over to an experience that she had been schooled to defend herself from her entire life. She now unnaturally had to permit a man what she had previously utterly forbidden to the point of death.

She knew she would be wounded, the woman was certainly, and perhaps the man, but with how much pain was the blood on that sheet purchased? Did the man enjoy the pain? Or suffer it? Was it forgotten afterward or always remembered? And in any case she must be the loyal companion, the faithful servant, the clairvoyant fulfillment of the man, whether or not she liked him, even whether or not she loathed him. As a soldier must guard and obey his commander, regardless of their personal feelings toward each other.

Tonight, though, the brides were exempt. Even though she had a long journey to make, she drank more wine, and danced until late, on the carpet that would be the last of the dowry gifts to be packed and the first to be set in place in her new household.

Her exhaustion as they set out the next day was merciful. Souraya slept through most of the day, her slight nausea a useful tranquilizer, like the layer of ash judiciously applied to fire to damp down its flames. Adon’s entourage was waiting to meet them after they crossed over the river nearest his compound. There, after ceremonious addresses and formal greetings, something strange occurred. Instead of proceeding directly through the gates of the compound, to the sounds of drums and harps and songs, the party was halted, barred from advancing further by a line of guards, each with a heavily ornamented knife in his belt. Souraya could see the musicians poised on the walls of the compound, each holding a silent instrument poised for song, as if they were paralyzed by some magic. Then a pair of guards surrounded the mounds of luggage Souraya’s party had brought and began to unpack it.

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