Published: Nov 13, 2020 5:00:00 PM



It believed it was late morning by the time Jasper and I departed the Orrery, though it was difficult to estimate the time at all. While I had witnessed night in Shackleburg, and I was certain it existed, the sunshine delivered such a virtuoso performance, I struggled to accurately guess how long we’d stood beneath that dome, staring at the wave. Professor Rakosi stayed behind to monitor and study the intruding presence. This was a somewhat righteous course of action. He would do us little good explaining who he was to every inquiring mind. There was simply no space for repetition, and Jasper and I were already weary of the idea.

We resolved we required greater knowledge of the Orrery and the school itself. Rakosi, bless him, was too fixated on his task, and also somewhat emotionally compromised on these subjects. Not to discredit him, but I doubted he knew the answers we sought, even under pressured questioning. Rakosi remaining in the Orrery for the time being was a mercy to all involved.

“Baseline assumption at the moment is the Orrery is functioning properly,” Jasper said as we crossed the campus. “I’ve never had reason to doubt the mechanism does not display, and account for, celestial bodies within the sphere of our solar system. This means a new object is approaching.”

“And the Orrery was designed to account for a new arrival such as this,” I said.

“So our question is now—why? And who anticipated this possibility? The most likely candidate for someone who could answer this question lies in the Oral History department. It’s headed by Professor Richter Viharo. Their building was constructed at the same time as the Electrochemistry building, both completed after the Orrery. It’s over around the corner from the Clock Tower on the other side of campus, partway up the slope.”

“Have you heard anything about the Old Man?”

“Professor Viharo? For all their bluster, one would imagine a scholar of oral history to be extremely vocal. I haven’t found this to be the case of anyone in that department. They’re more commonly quieter types, keeping to their studies. Except Ianto.”

“Ianto is an Oral History student?”

“Ianto Destrii is one of the most intelligent individuals you’ll ever meet. He is an ill-mannered cad, and he lacks faith in himself, but his mind is a sharp tool, indeed. We’ll begin first with him.”

“And if he is not forthcoming?”

“I don’t know. Maybe your beginner’s luck remains on our side?”

It was unlikely Jasper meant this as a back-handed compliment. Then again, I recognized what he meant regarding Ianto. I held no immediate faith in myself, either. I hadn’t meant to wrest mysterious information from Professor Rakosi, nor did I believe it was mere luck that delivered us the first sliver of knowledge in this mystery. I didn’t believe this was a skill I was meant to exercise. I believe Jasper intended his words to be optimistic—that if he couldn’t persuade Ianto to help us, then perhaps he could depend on me.

I had never admired someone before. I didn’t admire my father, for he viewed me simply as an object, and I recognized him only as an embodiment of capitalistic greed, hardly a person. I would not say I admired Professor Loomis, his brief encounter revealing Shackleburg’s existence to me, because he demonstrated no continued capacity for goodness. If anything, Loomis thrust that responsibility onto young men like Jasper and myself, an altogether disrespectful act, coming from a man with power and ability.

I pondered if what I noticed in Jasper was admiration. I pondered if I was enjoying a true mental failing, being incapable of recognizing such a feeling. And down, further still, my thoughts tumbled to wonder why I envied those who aspired to become more like others and less self-familiar, if that was truly what I felt.

It took no more than ten minutes to arrive at the Oral History building, and in that time, I managed to put a sieve to my spirit and discover only pebbles of personal doubt and dissolution.

“The Oral History building,” Jasper said as it came into view. “They call it the bloodiest building on campus.”

The statement bred only further curiosity because the structure before us was simply a building of fresh red brick. It may as well have been a firehouse, standing four stories tall, stretched on a long, rectangular footprint, with nothing truly to catch the eye. It did appear quite new, compared to the Clock Tower and the infirmary, which were older structures re-fitted to accommodate the school. This building was perhaps thirty years old, and at second thought, it was brick, whereas most of the others were a natural gray stone.

For the first time ever, I at last caught a glimpse of the Ontology building. I couldn’t help but be distracted from our intended destination. Smashed together with massive boulders, natural stone outcroppings jutting from the mountainside, even iron support beams jutting into view, the Ontology department’s headquarters was as weird as the Oral History was orderly. Just a stone’s throw from the traditional brick department base, this Ontology building seemed a wicked twin sister in every way. It was a faceless edifice mocking another without motion or intent. The drama yet remained.

I recalled once more Jasper’s retelling of the school’s history—that the Electrochemistry building was initially meant to be the sibling structure to that of Oral History, proper and traditional in its makeup. Then the hired architect was asked only to work on the Oral History building and a different man, already hard at work at work designing for the Ontology department, began laying the foundation for a more queer and unusual piece for Electrochemistry.

Now Oral History stood as the outlier, the only brick building I’d seen on campus to this point.

We arrived at the door. There was no lock and we entered on smooth hinges without a sound.

The entryway’s striking softness instantly inflicted a calm upon me. There was a dim glow dreaming from a lively oil flame above the reception desk. The same glow was repeated down the corridors left and right, with countless lamps pulsing with light fire in every direction. While small, these flames danced with eager fuel, uncaged by glass bulbs or containers.

“I don’t recognize you,” the woman waiting behind the desk said. “Welcome, what can I do for you today?”

“I don’t know how you could recognize me,” I said as we approached, removing our caps and gloves. “I am Keziah—”

“No, I know you. We had breakfast together just this morning,” the woman said.

I had to hesitate. The young woman was a student. In the dim light, I noticed a milky film covered her eyes, and she might be entirely blind.

“I’m Francesca Kaczmarek. Yvonne introduced us in the dining hall. I apologize if you don’t remember. I’m not as immediately outspoken as some. I tend to listen first.”

“No, please, I am sorry,” I confessed. “It was so sudden and I’ve met so many people in such a short time at Shackleburg. I’m grateful you remember me. Have you met my friend?”

“No,” Francesca said, head unmoving but visibly listening for Jasper’s presence. “This is what I meant. I do not recognize him.”

“I’m Jasper Barlowe. I’m actually coming from the Cosmology department.”

“And I’m actually not surprised. I can feel you. Vibrating. On the verge of speech. Like all cosmologists.”

“Are we so predictable?” Jasper asked, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Oral History is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s as much listening and memory, as it is speaking. You might find it quieter in this building than you’re used to, and I’d recommend you maintain that state of being. Some students are in deep concentration, committing stories to memory.”

“Have you seen Ianto Destrii around here today?” Jasper asked.

“I have not and cannot see Ianto today. I’m blind,” Francesca answered. She smiled to herself and her non-functioning eyes kept on straight ahead, leaving Jasper alone with the discomfort of his error. “But it has been a chaotic morning, what with the ringing of the New Chapel bell. I had to leave the Fort immediately and come here in case Professor Viharo intended to send his department a message.”

“Did he?” I asked.

“No. And once that became clear, I had to sit here alone and hungry. What a waste of leaving the dining hall without breakfast. But it’s my responsibility. To your malformed question though—Ianto ought to be somewhere in the building. He came through here not long after I arrived.”

Jasper sighed in relief. “Do you know where he is?”

“If I knew where he is, I would’ve said so. Ianto is up on the third floor in his study carrel—something like that. Tell me, what is it like—just ignoring facts and asking half-built questions, I mean? I imagine it’s like banging on a drum with no real rhythm or intent. Make no doubt, I’m certain it’s as fun as it seems. I just haven’t the skill. I guess I missed that lesson in joke-making when I was a child. Then again, we’re all still children here, in a sense.”

Francesca stood. She was short and simple-featured with an inarguably beautiful symmetry to her. She looped her hair off the sides of her head and tied it neatly with one hand behind her head, revealing equally-symmetrical ears. With her other hand, she produced a ring of blue keys similar to the one Jasper used to open the Orrery.

“You can’t access the third and fourth floors without me. Most of those doors are locked for non-department students. An educated guess places Ianto up there somewhere, so let’s go together, shall we?” She started leading us, then immediately stopped. “This is serious, isn’t it? Don’t make me go all the way upstairs on a snipe hunt?”

“It’s—yes, it’s serious,” Jasper said.

“I believed as much,” Franscesca said, carrying on. “It’s in the way you stand. The way you breathe. Idiots call it an aura, as if a god gives you a bright essence visible only to the wise blind girl. That’s just nonsense for books. People have a vibration to them. It’s apparent in everything they do. Some are nervous. Some have self-doubt. Some are prideful and afraid they’ll be discovered. It’s obvious most of the time. You all honestly can’t notice it? I was born blind, I’ve never known another way to detect people. All the way down to a person’s voice and the way their skin moves across their muscles when they walk. I can hear it, I can feel it, I can taste it. It’s memorable, if I’m being honest.”

“I thought you said students of Oral History didn’t talk much,” Jasper said as we reached the second floor, heading for the third.

“Yeah, true, I did say that. But also get to contradict myself,” Francesca laughed dryly. “What’re you gonna do? Tell the blind girl to shut up and stare quietly at the clouds? Graceful of you, my good gentleman. It’s almost as if civility is a contradiction unto itself arranged by men with time enough to invent rules that only apply to their enemies. Have you any enemies?”

“Yes. I fear I do,” Jasper said, solemn.

“And you?” she asked me next.

“Sure. Ianto, in some ways,” I answered, afraid to lie by omission or otherwise.

“Hah!” At the third floor landing of the staircase at the building’s end was a blue gate. Francesca twiddled through her collection of keys, checking the teeth on each one. “You sounded like Ianto when you said that. Believe me. I know what things sound like. I’m a good listener.”

We came to the third floor corridor. The walls were brick, the floors were polished stone, and it was dark, save for one lamp lit partway down the hall, the single exposed flame lighting countless young faces. They were each whispering in the half-dark hall. Each held a small tincture bottle, glass tinkling against glass as the students drew out their droppers, always still murmuring, and dripping the clear liquid into their eyes.

-- Alex Crumb
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