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THE CAGE
Jeff VanderMeer
excerpt from City of Saints and Madmen, published by Prime, is courtesy of Jeff VanderMeer
City of Saints and Madmen
Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His recent books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). His publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his fiancée Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

He is doing a chat Thursday night, June 13, 2002 at 7:00 p.m. EST at RevolutionSF.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

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   The hall contained the following items, some of which were later catalogued on faded yellow sheets constrained by blue lines and anointed with a hint of mildew:
24 moving boxes, stacked three high. Atop one box stood
1 stuffed black swan with banded blood-red legs, its marble eyes plucked, the empty sockets a shock of outrushing cotton (or was it fungus?), the bird merely a scout for the
5,325 specimens from far-off lands placed on shelves that ran along the four walls and into the adjoining corridors -- lit with what he could only describe as a black light: it illuminated but did not lift the gloom. Iridescent thrush corpses, the exhausted remains of tattered jellyfish floating in amber bottles, tiny mammals with bright eyes that hinted at the memory of catastrophe, their bodies frozen in brittle poses. The stink of chemicals, a whiff of blood, and
1 Manzikert-brand phonograph, in perfect condition, wedged beside the jagged black teeth of 11 broken records and
8 framed daguerreotypes of the family that had lived in the mansion. On vacation in the Southern Isles. Posed in front of a hedge. Blissful on the front porch. His favorite picture showed a boy of seven or eight sticking his tongue out, face animated by some wild delight. The frame was cracked, a smudge of blood in the lower left corner. Phonograph, records, and daguerreotypes stood atop
1 long oak table covered by a dark green cloth that could not conceal the upward thrust that had splintered the surface of the wood. Around the table stood
8 oak chairs, silver lion paws sheathing their legs. The chairs dated to before the reign of Trillian the Great Banker. He could not help but wince noting the abuse to which the chairs had been subjected, or fail to notice
1 grandfather clock, its blood-spattered glass face cracked, the hands frozen at a point just before midnight, a faint repressed ticking coming from somewhere within its gears, as if the hands sought to move once again -- and beneath the clock
1 embroidered rug, clearly woven in the north, near Morrow, perhaps even by one of his own ancestors. It depicted the arrival of Morrow cavalry in Ambergris at the time of the Silence, the horses and riders bathed in a halo of blood that might, in another light, be seen as part of the tapestry. Although no light could conceal
1 bookcase, lacquered, stacks with books wounded, ravaged, as if something had torn through the spines, leaving blood in wide furrows. Next to the bookcase
1 solicitor, dressed all in black. The solicitor wore a cloth mask over his nose and mouth. It was a popular fashion, for those who believed in the "Invisible World" newly mapped by the Kalif's scientists. Nervous and fatigued, the solicitor, eyes blinking rapidly over the top of the mask, stood next to
1 pale, slender woman in a white dress. Her hooded eyes never blinked, the ethereal quality of her gaze weaving cobwebs into the distance. Her hands had recently been hacked off, the end of the bloody bandage that hid her left nub held by
1 pale gaunt boy with eyes as wide and twitchy as twinned pocket watches. At the end of his other arm dangled a small blue-green suitcase, his grasp as fragile as his mother's gaze. His legs trembled in his ash gray trousers. He stared at
1 metal cage, three feet tall and in shape similar to the squat mortar shells that the Kalif's troops had lately rained down upon the city during the ill-fated Occupation. An emerald green cover hid its bars from view. The boy's gaze, which required him to twist neck and shoulder to the right while also raising his head to look up and behind, drew the attention of
1 exporter-importer, Robert Hoegbotton, 35 years old: neither thin nor fat, neither handsome nor ugly. He wore a drab gray suit he hoped displayed neither imagination nor lack of it. He too wore a cloth mask over his (small) nose and (wide, sardonic) mouth, although not for the same reasons as the solicitor. Hoegbotton considered the mask a weakness, an inconvenience, a superstition. His gaze followed that of the boy up to the high perch, an alcove set half-way up the wall where the cage sat on a window ledge. The dark, narrow window reflected needlings of rain through its tubular green glass. It was the season of downpours in Ambergris. The rain would not let up for days on end, the skies blue-green-gray with moisture. Fruiting bodies would rise, fat and fecund, in all the hidden corners of the city. Nothing in the bruised sky would reveal whether it was morning, noon, or dusk.
    The solicitor was talking and had been for what seemed to Hoegbotton like a rather long time.
    "That black swan, for example, is in bad condition," Hoegbotton said, to slow the solicitor's relentless chatter.
    The solicitor wiped his beaded forehead with a handkerchief tinged a pale green.
    "The bird itself. The bird," the solicitor said, "is in superb condition. Missing eyes, yes. Yes, this is true. But," he gestured at the walls, "surely you see the richness of Daffed's collection."
    Thomas Daffed. The last in a long line of famous zoologists. Daffed's wife and son stood beside the solicitor, last remnants of a family of six.
    Hoegbotton frowned. "But I don't really need the collection. It's a fine collection, very fine" -- and he meant it; he admired a man who could so single-mindedly, perhaps obsessively, acquire such a diverse yet unified assortment of things -- "but my average customer needs a pot or an umbrella or a stove. I stock the odd curio from time to time, but a collection of this size?" Hoegbotton shrugged his famous shrug, perfected over several years of haggling.
    The solicitor stared at Hoegbotton as if he did not believe him. "Well, then, what is your offer? What will you take?"
    "I'm still calculating that figure."
    The solicitor loosened his collar with one sharp tug. "It's been more than an hour. My clients are not well!" He was sweating profusely. A greenish pallor had begun to infiltrate his skin. Despite the sweat, the solicitor seemed parched. His mask puffed in and out from the violence of his speech.
    "I'm sorry for your loss -- all of your losses," Hoegbotton said, turning to the mother and child who stood in mute acceptance of their fate. "I won't keep you much longer." The speech never sounded sincere, no matter how sincerely he meant it.
    The solicitor made a noise between a groan and a choke that Hoegbotton did not bother to catalog. His thoughts had returned to the merchandise -- rug, clock, bookcase, phonograph, table, chairs. What price might they accept?
    Hoegbotton would not have included the cage in his calculations if the boy's stare had not kept flickering wildly toward it and back down again, gliding like Hoegbotton's own over the remnants of a success that had become utter failure. For all the outlandish things in the room -- the boy's own mother to be counted among them -- the boy most feared the cage, an object that could no more hurt him than the green suitcase that hung from his arm.
    A reflexive sadness for the boy ran through Hoegbotton, even as he noted the delicacy of the silver engravings on the chair legs; definitely pre-Trillian.
    He stared at the boy until the boy stared back. "Don't you know you're safe now?" Hoegbotton said a little too loudly, the words muffled by the cloth over his mouth. An echo traveled up to the high ceiling, encountered the skylight, and descended at a higher pitch.
    The boy said nothing. As was his right. Outside, the bodies of his father, brother, and two sisters were being burned as a precaution, the bodies too mutilated to have withstood a Viewing anyway. The boy's fate, too, was uncertain. Sometimes survivors did not survive.
    Nothing could make one safe. There had been a great spasm of buying houses without basements or with stone floors, but no one had yet proven that such a measure, or any measure, helped. The random nature of the events, combined with their infrequency, had instilled a certain fatalism in Ambergris' inhabitants.
    The solicitor had run out of patience. He stood uncomfortably close to Hoegbotton, his breath sour and thick. "Are you ready yet? You've had more than enough time. Should I call Slattery or Ungdom instead?" His voice seemed more distorted than the mask could explain, as if he were in the grip of a new, perhaps deadly, emotion.
    Hoegbotton took a step back from the ferocity of the solicitor's gaze. The names of his chief rivals made a little vein in Hoegbotton's left eyelid pulse in and out. Especially Ungdom -- towering John Ungdom, he of the wide belly, steeped in alcohol and pork lard.
    "Call for them, then," he said, looking away.
    The solicitor's gaze bored into his cheek and then the foul presence was gone. The solicitor had slumped into one of the chairs, a great smudge of a man.
    "Anyway, I'm almost ready," Hoegbotton said. The vein in his eyelid would not stop pulsing. It was true: neither Slattery nor Ungdom would come. Because they were afraid. Because their devotion to their job was incomplete, insufficient, inadequate. Hoegbotton imagined them both taken up into the rain and torn to pieces by the wind.
    "Tell me about the cage," Hoegbotton said suddenly, surprising himself. "The cage up there" -- he pointed -- "is it for sale, too?"
    The boy stiffened, stared at the floor.
    To Hoegbotton's surprise, the woman turned to look at him. Her eyes were black as an abyss; they did not blink and reflected nothing. He felt for a moment as if he stood balanced precariously between the son's alarm and the mother's regard.
    "The cage was always open," the woman said, her voice gravelly, something stuck in her throat. "We had a bird. We always let it fly around. It was a pretty bird. It flew high through the rooms. It -- No one could find the bird. After." The terrible pressure of the word after appeared to be too much for her and she fell back into her silence.
    "We've never had a cage," the boy said, the dark green suitcase swaying. "We've never had a bird. They left it here. They left it."
    A chill ran through Hoegbotton that was not caused by a draft. The sleepy gaze of a pig embryo floating in a jar caught his eye. Opportunity or disaster? The value of an artifact they had left behind might be considerable. The risks, however, might also be considerable. This was the third time in the last nine months that he had been called to a house visited by the gray caps. Each of the previous times, he had escaped unharmed. In fact, he had come to believe that late arrivals like himself were impervious to any side effects. Yet even he had experienced moments of discomfort, as when, at the last house, he had walked down a white hallway to the room where the merchandise awaited him and found a series of dark smudges and trails and tracks of blood. Halfway down the hallway, he had spied a dark object, shaped like a piece of dried fruit, glistening from the floor. Curious, he had leaned down to examine it, only to recoil and stand up when he realized it was a human ear.
    This time, the solicitor had experienced the most unease. According to the talkative messenger who had summoned Hoegbotton, the solicitor had arrived in the early afternoon to find the bodies and survivors. Arms and legs had been stuck into the walls between specimen jars, arranged in intricate poses that displayed a perverse sense of humor.
    The light glinted softly off the windows. The silence became more absolute. All around, dead things watched one another, from wall to wall -- a cacophony of gazes that saw everything but remembered nothing. Outside, the rain fell relentlessly.
    A tingling sensation crept into Hoegbotton's fingertips. A price had materialized in his mind, manifested itself in glittering detail.
    "Two thousand sels -- for everything."
    The solicitor sighed, almost crumpled in on himself. The woman blinked rapidly, as if puzzled, and then stared at Hoegbotton with a hatred more real for being so distant. All the former protests of the solicitor, even the boy's fear, were nothing next to that look. The red at the end of her arms had become paler, as if the white bandages had begun to heal her.
    He heard himself say, "Three thousand sels. If you include the cage." And it was true, he realized -- he wanted the cage.
    The solicitor, trying to mask some small personal distress now, giggled and said, "Done. But you must retrieve it yourself. I'm not feeling well." The cloth of the man's mask moved in and out almost imperceptibly as he breathed. A sour smell had entered the room.


    On the ladder, Hoegbotton had a moment of vertigo. The world spun, then righted itself as he continued to the top. When he peered onto the windowsill, two eyes stared up at him from beside the cage.
    "Manzikert!" he hissed. He recoiled, almost lost his balance as he flailed at empty air, managed to fall back against the ladder . . . and realized that they were just the missing marble eyes of the swan, placed there by some prankster, although it did not pay to think of who such a prankster might be. He caught his breath, tried to swallow the unease that pressed down on his shoulders, his tongue, his eyelids.
    The cage stood to the right of the ladder and he was acutely conscious of having to lock his legs onto the ladder's sides as he slowly leaned toward the cage.
    Below, the solicitor and the boy were speaking, but their voices seemed dulled and distant. He hesitated. What might be in the cage? What horrible thing far worse than a severed human ear? The odd idea struck him that he would pull the cord to reveal Thomas Daffed's severed head. He could see the bars beneath the cloth, though, he told himself. Whatever lived inside the cage would remain inside the cage. Now that it was his property, his acquisition, he refused to suffer the same failure of nerve as Slattery and Ungdom.
    The cover of the cage, which in the dim light appeared to be sprinkled with a luminous green dust, had a drawstring and opened like a curtain. With a sharp yank on the drawstring, Hoegbotton drew aside the cover -- and flinched, again nearly fell, a sensation of displaced air flowing across his face, as of something moving. He cried out. Then realized the cage was empty. He stood there for an instant, breathing heavily, staring into the cage. Nothing. It contained nothing. Relief came burrowing out of his bones, followed by disappointment. Empty. Except for some straw lining the bottom of the cage and, dangling near the back, almost as an afterthought, a perch, swaying back and forth, the movement no doubt caused by the speed with which he had drawn back the cover. A latched door extended the full three feet from the base to the top of the cage and could be slid back on special grooves. Stained green, the metal bars featured detail work as fine as he had ever seen -- intricate flowers and vines with little figures peering out of a background rich with mushrooms. He could sell it for 4,000 sels, with the right sales pitch.
    Hoegbotton looked down through a murk diluted only by a few lamps.
    "It's empty," he shouted down. "The cage is empty. But I'll take it."
    An unintelligible answer floated up. As his sight adjusted to the scene below, the distant solicitor in his chair, the other two still standing, he thought for a horrible second that they were melting. The boy seemed melded to his suitcase, the green of it inseparable from the white of the attached arm. The woman's nubs were impossibly white, as if she had grown new bones. The solicitor was just a splash of green.


    When he stood on solid ground again, he could not control his shaking.
    "I'll have the papers to you tomorrow, after I've catalogued all of the items," he said.
    All around, on the arms of the chairs, on the table, atop the bookcase, white mushrooms had risen on slender stalks, their gills tinged red.
    The solicitor sat in his chair and giggled uncontrollably.
    "It was nice to meet you," Hoegbotton said as he walked to the door that led to the room that led to the next room and the room after that and then, hopefully, the outside, by which time he would be running. The woman's stubs had sprouted white tendrils of fungus that lazily wound their way around the dried blood and obscured it. Her eyes were slowly filling with white.
    Hoegbotton backed into the damaged table and almost fell. "As I say, a pleasure doing business with you."
    "Yes, yes, yes, yes," the solicitor said, and giggled again, his skin as green and wrinkly as a lizard's.
    "Then I will see you again, soon," Hoegbotton said, edging toward the door, groping behind him for the knob, "and under . . . under better . . . " But he could not finish his sentence.
    The boy's arms were dark green, fuzzy and indistinct, as if he were a still life made of points of paint on a canvas. His suitcase, once blue, had turned a blackish green, for the fungi had engulfed it much as ivy had engulfed the eastern wall of the mansion. All the terrible knowledge of his condition shone through the boy's eyes and yet still he held his mother's arm as the white tendrils wound round both their limbs in an ever more permanent embrace.
    Hoegbotton later believed he would have stood at the door forever, hand on the knob, the solicitor's giggle a low whine in the background, if not for what happened next.
    The broken clock groaned and struck midnight. The shuddering stroke reverberated through the room, through the thousands of jars of preserved animals. The solicitor looked up in sudden terror and, with a soft popping sound, exploded into a lightly falling rain of emerald spores that drifted to the floor with as slow and tranquil a grace as the seeds of a dandelion. As if the sound had torn him apart.

Copyright © 2002 by Jeff VanderMeer

All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. This excerpt has been provided by Jeff VanderMeer and printed with his permission.


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