If I told you that I heard a dragon here, where it is so quiet that even the wind is afraid to blow, would you believe me?
If I told you that it lived in a fortress set into the face of a mountain far above the clouds, here in the second dimension, would you believe me?
If I told you that the dragon was actually the avatar of a god, and that its lair is the helm from which it steers our planet, here in this directionless purgatory, would you believe me?
And yet I ask you which is more likely: that a disguised god perches upon a cantilevered lookout at the end of the world, overseeing our eschatology — or that I do?
Here I must pause, for time is slipping again. It does that, I think, near the bigger waypoints. Sometimes I slide into the past, and events that were frozen in memory anneal into experience, or else I remember the present. But now it is the former, and so I must write down what happened in Outpost as it occurs, lest the two-headed mallet of distance and perspective blunt its edges, reshape its intricacies.
We are in the Silent Forum, now. But how shall I describe it to you?
I dare not start with what we see in this place, for to do so might detract from the many things that we do not. Nor can I recount what we hear, for though there is surely a language in stillness, I do not speak it.
It must be how it feels, then. Try this: you are a gladiator, and you are naked, and you are in an arena filled with spectators who grin without ever cheering, and you are pitted against a monster who devours not the flesh of men but their stories, their speech, their voice, and scattered about you is the soundless carrion of your predecessors, and the gate is locked —
But that isn’t an analogy at all.
In the center of the Adytum, where Route 14 spans the chasm, two diabolical implements rest on the blacktop: a lump of white chalk, with which the gorgon pens her questions — and unpens her monsters — and a simple sundial, the cruelest of timers. We are gathered to the south of these implements, Claude’s Buick behind us, and on the other side of them stands the gorgon.
Scia steps forward, but the crone shakes her head. She points at Farmer, then, and we realize that she is calling upon him to answer first, that the order in which we present will not be our choice. Scia is visibly perturbed, and Farmer scowls at the old woman as though there is some unspoken code among ancients that she has violated. He advances anyway, and she bares her teeth in reply.
Then she is hunched over the asphalt, chalk pinched between two fingers. She begins to write, and the scritch-screech-tap that follows rips through the air and ricochets around the amphitheater until it has become a violent, unnatural incantation, and the crowd around us swoons and sways with its melody.
The gorgon has positioned her body in such a way that we cannot see what she is writing. But the spectators in the audience ahead of us enjoy an unobstructed view, and they begin to gurgle and fidget with nervous excitement. Some even push forward, and several plummet into the chasm, flailing and noiseless, instantly forgotten.
Eventually the chalk stops squealing and the gorgon rises from her haunches,. She is standing now, but her back still blocks our view. She remains in this position for several long moments, auditing her handiwork, probing for loopholes and imperfections, like a chess player might hold a finger on the piece he has just moved. Then, abruptly, she swivels to face us and steps aside, revealing her question to Farmer. It is scrawled in massive capital letters, and she has left her chalk on the road beneath it, where there is room for someone to write an answer.
WHORE IS THE WYFE OF BATH?
All around us the yellowed, broken pilgrims are shifting and murmuring and overflowing from their rafters, oozing from the walls, seeping from unseen doorways. Some sit on the edge of the chasm, their legs dangling over the void. Others take turns climbing onto each others’ shoulders for a better view. All of them, I know, were once like us: awaiting a challenge that they felt sure they could meet.
I catch one of their eyes, and I hold it. The man who possesses it is among the few spectators who do not jitter or twitch; he is calm, unmoving. Comfortable. The eye I hold is clear and alert, unsullied by jaundice, unbowed by resignation, and its owner’s black skin stretches over the kind of long, fibrous muscles that you might have found in a forest a thousand years ago, somewhere near the summit of the food chain. A recent inductee.
He meets my gaze, and the corners of his lips creep toward his ears so slowly that they might be glaciers cutting bends into canyons. The universe forms and the dinosaurs die and the Chasm shakes the world, and now he is smiling at me with a mouth full of broken teeth. He rises from his seat, and he keeps rising, for there seems to be no end to him. Five, then six, then seven feet. When finally he stands fully erect, he is more like a pylon than a man, with all its posture and severity.
The world darkens suddenly. And though there must be a perfectly rational, meteorological explanation for this phenomenon – the tail of a cloud crossing the sun – it seems almost as though the towering pilgrim has frightened the sky. It lasts less than a second, like lightning in reverse. But in that moment the giant pilgrim mouths two words.
Then he leaps into the chasm.
The sun is shining again, and someone with a sickle for a hand is tapping me on my shoulder.
“Focus,” says Farmer, and he points toward the strange question written on Route 14.
I laugh. I cannot help myself. It is hardly a chuckle at first, something I might pass off as an involuntary reaction, a meaningless idiosyncrasy. But it builds to something more, to an unbridled guffaw that seizes the attention of every person in the Adytum. Many of them, I know, recognize what they are witnessing as incipient madness, as a slight but irreversible psychological fissure that will widen with time — first to a crack, then to a rift, and eventually to a gulf as wide as the chasm that intersects Route 14, over which I am standing, teetering, crepitating.
It was Farmer’s sickle that did it. For when he pointed it toward the question that the gorgon had written, it pointed back at him. Such is the nature of sickles, shaped as they are. Shaped, as it happens, something like the question mark the gorgon had fastened to the end of her query.
Time folds in on itself, points back at itself. The present falls away again, and I am here once more at the end of the world, a madman with a notebook for a memory, tapping myself on the shoulder, recalling the Adytum.
“Jesus, Joe,” said Scia from behind me. “Pull yourself together. We’ve got fourteen hours. Though I’m not sure it would matter if we had fourteen days, because this question is fucking incomprehensible.” She trained her bionic eye upon the gorgon.
“Maybe we’re overthinking it,” offered Claude. “I mean, the Wife of Bath was a ‘loose woman,’ right? A sex worker? In The Canterbury Tales, I mean.”
“Yeah,” said Scia. “So?”
“So maybe this is a yes-or-no question. True or false: the Wife of Bath is a whore. The answer is true. That’s it.”
“Seems an odd way to word the question,” said Scia.
Claude shrugged. “Who knows what’s rattling around in that old woman’s head? Who knows if English was her first language? Or if she ever really learned to write. That” — he pointed to the question in chalk — “could be the most coherent thing to come out of her addled mind in decades.”
“Except that she’s been writing perfectly logical sentences on that slate of hers all day long,” countered Scia.
Claude had been about to say something, but looked away.
“First of all,” I said, feeling my mind snap back into place, “the Wife of Bath wasn’t a prostitute in The Canterbury Tales. She married multiple times, and was as fond of men as she was money. But she was, as her title implies, just a wife.”
“How do you know that?” asked Scia.
“There were six different editions of The Canterbury Tales in the library of the Third Crescent. When there are six versions of the same book in a tiny room at the end of the world, you assume it means something. So I read them.”
In fact, I had read one of them and skimmed the others.
“Okay,” said Claude, picking a notion up from where he’d dropped it earlier. “So then the answer is false. The Wife of Bath was not a whore.”
Scia and I both glared at him. Our meaning was clear, even if only one of us activated an angry red LED in her iris.
“Were there differences?” asked Scia, turning back to me.
“Discrepancies between the six editions,” she clarified. “About the Wife of Bath, I mean. Isn’t that standard convention in riddles? Subtle differences adding up to some meaningful whole? A message written in negative space, between the lines — whatever? Maybe different translations of the Old English word for ‘whore’, or something like that.”
Scia’s angle was an intriguing one. The editions I’d browsed back in the Third Crescent had been full of footnotes and marginal gloss, of scholarly attempts to reconcile conflicting manuscripts, to reconstruct Chaucer’s original intent. Early copies of The Canterbury Tales had been painstakingly transcribed by bleary-eyed monks and dogmatic illuminators working by candlelight from third-generation duplicates of what they hoped had been Chaucer’s original, and over the centuries line 108 had become line 107 and wight had become wright and whole stanzas had vanished.
But I could recall no such commentary particular to the Wife of Bath’s tale that might have helped us answer the gorgon’s question. Even if I had, I hadn’t taken enough notes during my reading to perform the kind of word-by-word comparison that Scia was suggesting. Still, there was something in what she said, two words that went on resonating in my mind like prongs on a tuning fork: negative space.
“Then again,” said Scia, whose train of thought had clearly diverged from my own, “what if this isn’t about Chaucer at all? The question is itself a perversion, right? Nonsensical, unparsable, like corrupt code. Just as Library was a perversion of The Canterbury Tales. Maybe we should be drawing from our knowledge of Library the sanctuary, from Route 14’s Library, and not from the lower-case library you found in the Third Crescent.”
The prongs rang louder. “You’re right,” I said. “You must be. Which means that the books I found in the Third Crescent were red herrings.”
“Or,” countered Scia, “they were collected by pilgrims on their way through Outpost. Judicious pilgrims like yourself who, having spent time in Library, assumed that knowledge of Chaucer’s original work might prove useful during their presentation in the Silent Forum.”
“Does anyone remember how the Wife of Bath was depicted in Library?” asked Claude. “Or how she died?” The pilgrims had all died in Library. All of Chaucer’s, and one of ours.
“Wasn’t she impaled between the legs?” remembered Scia.
“No,” I said. “That was the Second Nun. I think.”
“We need to check our notes,” said Claude.
He was right, of course. Library’s maker had filled its upper levels with pilgrims in varying states of obscurity, one behind another, a second with her head turned down, a third screened by a branch. There had been too many faces there to commit to memory, and what details we might have recalled had been overwritten by the viscera we encountered in the levels below.
Claude, Scia and I retrieved our notebooks and pored over the journal entries we’d made during our visit to Library. When we were done we started over, rereading every word until we had nearly memorized them. We even recited each others’ notes aloud, in hopes that a seemingly insignificant detail one of us had recorded might spark some profound realization in someone else. All the while Farmer, who eschewed pen and paper as though it were bleeding-edge tech lousy with the Scourge, sat on the asphalt perusing the cloudless sky.
“She wasn’t there,” he said, after we’d reached the same conclusion.
Negative space, I thought again. The Wife of Bath, perhaps the single most conspicuous character in Chaucer’s epic, had never appeared in Library — and we hadn’t noticed until now.
“You might have mentioned that an hour ago,” grumbled Claude.
Farmer shrugged. “Wouldn’t have mattered,” he said. “You’d have wanted to check anyway.”
Scia’s breathing intensified to a growl and her tattoos deformed over the tension in her muscles. Roaches doubled in size, skulls split in half, razors unfolded. She spat into the chasm and cursed. “You know what? Fuck this. It’s a waste of time. I could mow down this old woman and half of these diseased cripples before the guards at the next portcullis could so much as compose their thoughts. Why are we standing here deferring to these lunatics, acting as though their nuthouse quiz bowl is anything other than a farce? I say we jump in the Buick, gun it, ramrod our way through the next seven gates, and get the fuck out of dodge.”
“We’ve only used two hours,” I replied, imbuing my voice with as much sangfroid as I could muster. “There’s no need to go nuclear just yet. We’ve got twelve more hours before we have to consider that option.”
But Scia shook her head. “We might be two hours in, but we’re not one minute closer to an answer. I’m not even convinced there is one.”
“Something funny?” asked Scia.
“It’s just that you’re worried about finding the answer. I’d say we don’t even know the question.”
The tuning fork between my ears brayed for a second time. The question. We didn’t know the question. What Farmer had said seemed simultaneously indispensable and incorrect. Or, rather, it seemed indispensable because it was incorrect. Just barely incorrect. A stripped word, a burnt-out letter. Something begging to be repaired.
Then the resonance in my head decayed into a theremin warble, a familiar voice from a faraway land amplified by vacuum tubes and routed over switchboards until it was scarcely more than radio distortion. The voice was the Wraith’s, and it was an echo of something he’d said to me in a dream, once. What, though? I remembered a dialogue about puzzles and keys. Of being ashamed. Of being corrected. Yes, there it was: When I’d suggested there might be more than one key to the puzzle in Orchard, he’d chastised me for assuming there had been only one puzzle.
An s, then. Merely an s. If any one letter epitomized Route 14, it was s. One curve too many, unapologetically plural, fastened to the end of every unforeseen complication, every ill-advised diversion. One last turn around the wheel. Schrodinger’s unsolicited encore.
I soldered it on to Farmer’s misfiring sentence: we don’t even know the questions.
What had Library been, really, but two stories interwoven? Blended unrealities, the plaque had said. And what was the Wife of Bath but a symbol of matrimony, of the intermingling of two lives?
The gorgon had not scribbled a senseless question on the asphalt before us. She had conflated two entirely sensible questions, one of which we’d been asking ourselves for hours.
“Who is the Wife of Bath?” I announced. “And where is the Wife of Bath? Put who and where together and you get whore. She’s asking us two questions, not one.”
Cogs flew into motion — figuratively for Farmer and Claude, literally for Scia — and we turned to study the gorgon’s ruined physiognomy, searching for a twitch, for a tell, for something to confirm that we were on the right path. We might as well have been back in Orchard waiting for Emily Dickinson to blush.
“That’s okay,” said Claude, with manufactured cheer. “Let’s think. If we don’t know where she is, we should focus on who she is. A woman. A wife. A widow. A clothmaker, I seem to recall. And a pilgrim, ultimately. A pilgrim who wasn’t with her peers in Library. Are we to assume she went ahead of them, then? Was she waiting for them in Canterbury, perhaps in that chapel we found in Library’s sixth layer? Damn, but now I’m on to the question of where.”
Scia replied, and a dialogue ensued. It was spirited, improvised; more constructive than an argument but constantly threatening to turn into one, like a brainstorming session in a corporate conference room. I wasn’t listening, and I have no idea what either of them said.
I was riffling through this notebook, eyes dancing through excerpts from prologues, fingers flicking over profiles of pilgrims, lips pursed, searching for a passage I distinctly remembered copying down during my internment in the Third Crescent’s library. When I found it I cleared my throat and began to read it aloud, raising my voice until Scia and Claude were forced to suspend their colloquy.
Thou sholdest seye, “Wyf, go wher thee liste;
Tak your disporte, I wol nat leve no talis.
I knowe yow for a trewe wyf, dame Alis.”
Confusion asphyxiated the Adytum, and it was as if a babbling rill had iced over. My friends’ whispers choked off, their lips froze in place, and for an impossibly long moment everything remained cold and still and dumb, until I heard something fracture and caught a smile forming in Farmer’s wrinkles.
Scia had thawed as well, and she spoke first. “I see it now. It’s so simple. The question isn’t what she is. We already know that — it’s in her title. That’s the thing about the Canterbury Tales, isn’t it? All of its pilgrims are called by what they are. A nun, a pardoner, a knight. Their actual names seem secondary, almost an afterthought. But that’s what we’re being asked, here: what was the Wife of Bath’s name? It’s Alice. She is Alice.”
“Which also helps us answer the second question,” chimed in Claude, picking up the thread. “Where is Alice?”
Time stuttered. The asphalt beneath me flickered, then dematerialized. Something yanked me down, dragged me over subterranean stairs, wrenched me through trap doors, deposited me onto the floor of Library’s deepest layer, where that numinous, disembodied grin beamed up at me again. Hello, old friend. “Alice,” I said, reciprocating its delight. “In Wonderland.”
I felt a key turn, heard a deadbolt slide away. I knew it was right. From the portmanteau word at the beginning of the gorgon’s question to the semi-logical structure of our response, everything screamed Dodgson, and it was all too elegantly consistent for our solution to be anything other than correct. But I also realized that I wasn’t the one about to put his life in the hands of a mad hag and her frumious hordes. It wasn’t my turn. It was Farmer’s. He would need to be as sure as I was before he picked up the chalk at his feet.
“Listen, Farmer,” I began, “I think it’s right. I really do. But there’s no point in hurrying, and there’s always the chance we’re missing something. For example, the actual title –”
“It’s right,” he said. “And there is always a point in hurrying. Time is a scarcer commodity for me than it is for you.” He knelt, regarded the stone-faced woman lording over him one more time, then composed his answer in capitals as proud and bold as those in the question perched over them, so that what remained on the blacktop when he stepped away was not the transcript of an exchange between opposing writers, but a single, carefully composed, utterly ludicrous couplet:
WHORE IS THE WYFE OF BATH?
ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
At all of its waypoints save one, the disquieting poetry of Route 14 is engraved on gold plaques debossed into the road itself. I had found them at Madame Griddle’s, at Orchard, at Library, at Tower, and in the months to come I would find them in stranger places still. I can see one even now, even here, glinting defiantly in the corroded twilight.
But there were never any such plaques in Outpost. The song of the Silent Forum is too ephemeral to preserve in gold; it is traced in chalk by suicidal pilgrims, one verse at a time.
The gorgon bowed, stepped aside, and motioned for Farmer to pass. Only after the gate had closed behind him did she allow her chill, cataracted eyes to fall upon Scia’s irradiated gaze, and I wondered what chorus might spring from so unlikely an ensemble.