by Keith Miller
“In the forest he’d written of the sea and wings. Here on a rocky hillside he jotted evocations of shadows and rustlings and undergrowth” (Miller, 216).
It’s nice to be out of that city. While it had some interesting contemplation of art and love, sometimes Pico and the others felt a little pretentious (with the exception of Narya).
Even better, the vivid visual description from earlier returns:
“He stood in a great hall lit by basins of fire. On the floor were shreds of ancient carpet, rusting suits of armor leaned against the walls. High on the stone, almost lost in the frugal light, hung blackjacks and battle-axes, sabers and maces, bastinades and shillelaghs and pikes. Other weapons too, nameless but clearly wrought with death in mind, agony swift or slow. All were ruined now, steel pitted and tarnished, handles a lacework of wormholes, dusty cobwebs dripping from their forms” (196).
I felt I could really see the place. Dangerous. Ancient. But crumbling. Fits with the ominous mood.
Pico is greeted by a silent host who looks very much like him and who locks him up in one of the four towers of the castle. While stuck inside, Pico catches sight of “a courtyard that he now saw contained statues, difficult to make out from this height, hewn in crystal or alabaster, the fluid lines in utter contrast to the angular bulk of the building” (197). The minute I read this I thought: this is important. Or it will be.
And later at dawn, Pico gets a better glimpse of the statues (and the readers get another lovely bit of description), when he sees that “they were made of ice, light igniting the fractured interiors of the figures, transforming them into spirits, gorgeous and intricate, colorful as dewdrops” (198).
Isn’t that just lovely? Or maybe I’m biased, as I always find descriptions of ice and winter to be the most beautiful. (Which might explain why I love H. C. Andersen so much.)
Using his skills from his time as a thief, Pico picks the lock on his room. But instead of escaping, he realizes that “his way forward included the encounter with the silent lord of this manor” (199). I actually found this observation fascinating. Because it shows that he understands he has to face the danger that dwells in the castle. If he just leaves, he won’t have overcome or learned to know what or who lives there.
Furthermore, I’ve got to give credit to this whole chapter so far. There’s a very real sense of an eerie mystery; there’s something unusual about the inhabitant of the castle.
Additionally, this section reminds me of some variant of going Into the Belly of the Beast or Facing a Shadow-Self. Pico has to see a dangerous reflection of himself and fully except it.
It’s finally revealed what the nameless host’s big secret is: he eats human. Or more precisely he comes from an immortal race of creatures who need to eat human flesh and drink human blood to remain young. Honestly, I thought there was some kind of unconventional consumption going on with him. And I kinda thought it was human-related. It just seemed logical for an immortal creature to need to eat humans.
By the way, it’s not really cannibalism, since they’re not eating each other, but another food source. It’s like if humans needed to eat a particular animal to stay young and live forever.
As his host relates, they created the city in the mountains to be their feeding corral. But eventually the human population swells and they start entering houses to feast on entire families. The humans revolt but are easily decimated. The trouble begins when the nameless host and his kin realize that they’ve cut off their food supply.
Eventually every single one of them dies but him. This is because, after everyone else has died, he rations out the corpse of his lover as food. When he finds her eating a crust of bread, he “hacked away her head” (208). And until the city starts sending humans up to the mountains, he learns how to make his food last for a long time to survive.
First, there is a biological factor that if any of his kind eat human food, they were become irreversibly mortal and begin to die.
Second, of interest to me is the use of “her”, which indicates that his lover, previously un-gendered, is female. Whether that means a cisfemale or whether those kinds of categories can be applied to immortal beings, I don’t know. But I made note of it.
As the host and Pico talk, a different interpretation of artistry and beauty is presented, in contrast to Zarko’s belief that art is stealing. The host says that:
“‘I have come to believe that beauty is something which may not be captured but is fleeting as a snowflake… So I sculpt in ice, hoping to let these forms free somehow into the atmosphere when the sun diminishes them'” (210).
And Pico responds that:
“‘…perhaps you’re right that they remain in the air where someone else can snag them. Perhaps my poems are words I’ve blundered into unwittingly, hung like ornaments from the boughs of breezes. Perhaps they are not numberless but passed around, and we can each make our honey from them if we brave the stings'” (210-1).
I love this theory of art. It’s essentially how art and creativity are exchanged. That it’s this invisible airy soup and artists taste and take bits of it and transform them into something beautiful. And that, when they have created their art, it releases it’s own essence back into the airy soup to be re-tasted and re-used by other artists. (That’s not as eloquent as them, but I hope I got my point across.) It’s really a lovely idea. I’m totally for it.
And then we get another instance of Pico giving advice under the assumption that he’s completely right. I thought he’d grown out of this. But either way, Pico insists that the nameless host didn’t really love his lover. Like Pico’s some big expert on romantic love. How can he tell someone else what he or she feels?
Either way, he convinces the immortal host to go down into city to live and love, because “[d]eath is worth a single kiss” (212). And while I don’t think it’s a terrible argument, it ignores the fact that it idealizes romance as something everyone needs, which isn’t true.
Secondly, what reason does Pico have to suggest that doing so would be better? He doesn’t know what it’s like to live an immortal life, to live on human flesh. Why does Pico automatically assume that living the way he does as a human is the better option? Seriously, open you’re mind, Pico.
Finally, after the immortal host leaves, taking Pico’s name, Pico is overcome with hunger and resorts to eating from his host’s food storage. Namely, he eats a piece of Solya’s body. I’ll admit, I was a little repulsed when he ate her body.
And that’s that.
He leaves the castle and continues on his way. And now finally he’s struck with poetic inspiration. For
“Memories must enter the bloodstream, must churn awhile through the heart’s mill, must be crushed and polished, be nearly forgotten or cling like burrs to other stories before they spill forth in purple patterns, shapes of small bones and worm rot, shapes of clouds and the spaces between leaves” (216).
This, to me, captures that way not only memories work, but inspiration, too. It can’t be controlled and comes when idea and experiences meet at an opportune time.
I will also say that this moment seems fitting; Pico has gone through a lot after crossing the mountains. He’s seen death and tasted theories of art. But it’s time to move on if he wants his wings.
next week Pico enters the Country of Death
source edited for better definitions
- blackjacks: n.
- bastinades: n. 1. beating with a stick or cudgel, especially on the soles of the feet; 2. A stick or cudgel
- shillelaghs: n.
- palpitant: adj.
- chafing: v.
- etiolated: v. 1. 2. t
- opprobrium: n. 1.
- abattoirs: n.
- obdurate: adj. 1.
- flautist: n. flutist, a flute player
“But as the ivory-handled knife and fork sank into the flesh he realized, with a shock that shoved a scream up his throat and choked it back halfway to his lips, the roast meat was a human forearm” (202).
I almost had this as the top quote, but I thought the one I chose reflected more how I felt about the chapter.
Miller, Keith. The Book of Flying: A Novel. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2004. Print.