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…


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