Counting Bridges in Königsberg

for Isabel

Gangly, mathematical Sheila walks to clear her head, not fast or well, but persistently, a determined awkward shuffle that covers any amount of ground eventually. She’s got a map in her rooms of the city with each road she’s walked traced in red; it’s a dead heat whether she’ll span the city or finish her dissertation first.

There are three main forks of the river in Albion, tumbledown Albion at the bottom of the cliffs where the underground river ate the chalk to nothing to get itself more room for its wedding to the winedark sea, and the Student’s Quarter lies on a vague shape of land between two forks, too broad to be called an island. She pauses at the top of the Terpene Bridge and looks south; Green territory that way is flagged by bundles of rosemary, sage, and cannabis that hang from the wrought iron gates that block each doorway.

She could be feared—going into town is always a risk, the students are not best beloved—but she is awkward and innocuous and ragged and no one has bothered her yet. She fills her lungs with the moist air of the river, the oppressive heat of the summer, squints east at the sea, west at the cliffs, names the seventy-two Lords of Hell and the thirteen planets that rule them, and descends.

Sheila of the Plains

Sheila pushes the fur from her mathematician’s mind. It keeps recurring, soft and purring, vibrant, headless, and alive, an impossible luxury: the blanket that hugs you back! She hums the jingle to herself while she struggles with a proof.

Later, only temporarily broken, she goes for a walk in the building’s garden. Dark night outside and winter, but in here is endless summer, tropical heat, jungle humidity. Gemtoned birds flash from tree to tree, passing through and beyond the walls she can touch but can’t see. Her spine and ankles crack and pop. Standing hurts, but stretching is a luxury and an indulgence; she turns her face to the antipodal sun and lets it ease muscles cramped with worry.

Walking back she passes others climbing the white railings to the third floor. She has never dared, having no head for heights. Once, lonely, scared, she rose hand over foot to the bottom of the lower balcony, but visions of a short fall and the hard crack of the tiles against her skull drove her shaking down again. They hallo her and she waves back, silent but friendly. They understand.

Dawn finds her still working, eyes sandy, brain cloudy, still butting against logic’s iron gate. She will sleep at her desk later, for a scant hour; maybe that will help.

Take This Cup From Me

Jillian was at the top of the Tower when she found out about Comacho’s death. It was a clear night, she remembers that, and cold: the air bit into her gloves when she went out on the roof to smoke a joint. The stars were high, high and alien, and crowded into the bowl of the sky. Sheila was sensitive to smoke, so she had to smoke outside. Which was fine; it kept her in time with the seasons.

She pictured him, conjured the image forth into the lungful of smoke, power pushing through her; a short dark kid with a crew cut who used to pretend he was a velociraptor in the halls. She didn’t know him well, but they’d hang out sometimes watching the breakdancers during lunch. Been shot in the head outside of a house party, just randomly, some stupid fight or other, she didn’t know.

She went to his grave, next time she went back, left a knot on his stone. Marble for memory, cedar for waste. This, she knew, even then, nothing more than raw superstition. The dead are the dead; all her Art is reserved for the guilty surviving.

Foundation

The work of generations, setting bones, curing warts, delivering babies. They don’t get much call for war-work, but every spring and summer the men drain off to the east and return lighter a limb, shorter an eye, aching in joints broken and reset in haste; these too need tending. Half of what Jillian knows is useless garbage, an indecipherable bit of success scrawled in the margins of the little Red Book; words have shifted, since then, or men, or climate, assuming it ever worked at all.

It’s a dark night with the rain coming down and she’s up late writing the day down in her logbook by the watery light of the coals when the knock comes and the door opens hard on its heels, spilling rain and a man all over her floor. “God save us all,” she growls, and levers herself over to see what the devil has brought her.

It’s a well-made shape he’s taken this time, barring the scarring and the blood all over his front. “Well, let’s see what you’ve got,” she tells him, and humps his leaking corpus over to the side bed redolent with rosemary and ivy. Underneath the wreck of his clothes he’s a marvel in ruin, a shipwrecked statue, his belly torn open down to the fork. Jillian looks up and his eyes are open, but milky. “You’re bound to die, son,” she tells him, but he either doesn’t hear her or doesn’t care.

She does what she can, but it won’t be enough.

Morning finds her asleep in her chair, arms black to the elbow with dried blood and pine tar. She pries gummy eyes apart to find him standing over her, numinous with health. It hurts to look at him, and when he speaks, it’s a tall tree in her ear. He passes, and the day is empty for his going. The side bed is pierced through with blue flowers of new-grown rosemary, black berries of ivy.

Initiation

The actual ceremony is panoply and performance, aimed outward. A demonstration important for the community — and especially the community outside the community — but empty. No. The real work came earlier, came in the last awful weeks of the semester, when everyone hunkered down over their tablets and their laptops, grappled with words and demonstrations and ideas and lack of sleep.

And especially at the end. The hall doesn’t echo as Jillian walks to the podium: every seat is full of noise-absorbing flesh. For two months her seminar has been one rabbit hole after another, close encounters and diving into the wreck. She has hauled her souls gasping and disintegrating into the light, one after the other, to be weighed and found wanting, to be measured and dismissed, to be pushed again and again to a deeper level, a more primal truth.

She took her turn in the formal robes and mask, but that was trivial.

They have demanded — and received — nothing less than the full dissolution of her self. Down at the bottom, at the bedrock, and they kept digging. She loses family, friends, the power of her name, and still further down. Objects becomes collections of planes, become lines of light and shadow, become abstract colors, and meaningless.

At the podium she looks out across a sea of flames, a field of waving wheat, her fellow undergraduates. She speaks, and her voice is the roar of a forest fire, the clash of swords in the arena, gunfire echoing off the dunes. She speaks, and the crowd swallows her whole, pierces her through, and accepts her.

Everything else is just ceremony.