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The Cosmology of the Wider World

an extract from the novella
by Jeffrey Ford


The Cosmology of the Wider World by Jeffrey FordThe Cosmology of the Wider World is a beast epic; a talking animal story. I began writing it back in the mid-eighties basically on a lark. I looked around the literature of the fantastic to see which form appealed to me the least at the time. Heroic fantasy never really interested me, but talking animal fiction interested me even less, so I decided to try my hand at it in an attempt to see if I could create a fiction in this sub-genre that was as engaging to myself and to readers as any other current, popular form of fiction. I was thoroughly hip to the fact that it was not hip to write about talking animals. That said, I went and read The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling and loved them. This excellent work became my model, not so much in form or specific content, but in the level of feeling and idea I wanted my own work to be capable of expressing. In other words, I saw that what I was setting out to do was possible.

It was around this same time that I was in the Temple University Library, high as a kite one day, and, as was my practice when in that condition, I'd gone to the art section and was paging through art books to look at the images. That's when I came upon a painting by an Italian painter, whose name I've long forgotten, of a Minotaur, staring out to sea from the battlement of what might have been a castle or a tower. That image gave me the story for The Cosmology, or at least it gave me the seed of the story. From there I began, and it was difficult at first, what with tortoises and owls speaking like human beings, but after a while I really started to care about the characters. They became as insistent in my imagination as did the people characters of my other fictions. Before long they were smoking digitalis, they had problems, and I saw the world they lived in. I saw the plot swinging back and forth between the Wider World of the talking animals, and Belius the minotaur's remembrance of life in the world of men he'd originally been born into.

There was something about the Wider World project that continued to seem ridiculous to me, but I never gave up on it. I continued writing it through the 80's and 90's in those intervals between other books. This long unruly novel became a place for me as a writer to return to when the normal muse failed me or I needed a breather from being "a professional." The book recently published by PS under the title, The Cosmology of the Wider World, is really only the first part of the extant manuscript. There is as much again written and then some - well over 100, 000 words, and the project is still not complete. Sometimes I wonder if it will ever be.

Keith Brooke and infinity plus have been kind enough to display the opening pages of the PS Cosmology. My hope is that if this part of the story interests you, you might consider picking up a copy of the PS book. In any event, I will continue to work on it, here and there, on and off, until the day comes when I don't write anymore.

The Cosmology of the Wider World

Beneath a yellow sky that fizzed like quinine, staring out to sea from the crenellated tower of his own construction, stood Belius, the minotaur, shedding globes of water from his eyes. Life germinated inside these transparent spheres, civilizations rose and fell in clouds of war, colors of love grew vibrant and then washed away. A million seasons raced round within the see-through boundaries, until, rolling off his snout, they smashed against the ledge and shattered.

He lowed in a tone more of creature than man, and that sound flew out toward the horizon. Upon losing speed, it dropped with a splash into the deep ocean and sank, frightening lamprey, scattering herds of sea horses, to eventually settle on the sandy bottom. As Belius wiped his eyes clear, the egg of a bubble his voice had made cracked open, giving birth to the exact sound that had formed it. The sad moan vibrated in every atom of green water for miles around.

Pezimote, the tortoise, was awakened by the racket from his slumber beneath the mud. He struggled up out of sleep, out of the warm ooze, and started slowly swimming toward shore. His shell was orange and black, and he snapped his beak peevishly, because his anatomy did not allow for grumbling. "I am coming, Belius," he thought, and Belius knew instantly that he was coming.

Shuffling and tapping from human foot to hoof, across the cobblestones of the turret, the minotaur reached the side that gave a view of the woods. He rested wearily on the ledge for a moment, but when the frustration that gripped his heart became too much to stand, he struck his horns against the facade, drawing sparks from the cold stone. Another cry went out, this one splitting the sky above the distant trees. Only Vashti, the owl, knew what the strange call meant. She lighted from her branch with graceful wing thrusts that roiled the leaves. "I am coming, Belius," she screeched. Once above the trees, she used her lantern eyes to pinpoint the minotaur's lonely figure on the tower.

After summoning his friends, he took the winding stairway down inside the tall structure. He dressed in formal attire; swallow tail jacket and striped pants. In the kitchen, he brewed cinnamon tea and prepared finger sandwiches with his hooves. He put his books away, rolled up his charts and maps and shooed his pet cat from the study. The niceties he performed for his guests' arrival were all done rather out of habit than conscience. Since the first pang of his malady, nothing made sense; no task seemed worth the effort.

Pezimote sat on the divan because the chairs would not accommodate his giant shell. Having no articulated digits, for every finger sandwich he ate, it was necessary to utilize both of his stumpy appendages. Vashti, perched on the marble bust of Belius, swooped down every now and then and snatched a dainty off the silver platter. Cinnamon tea was not to her liking, so instead Belius had broken into his private liquor cabinet and poured her a glass of dandelion wine. He then stuffed his pipe with the dried petals of the digitalis and lit it. A sweet blue cloud grew around the company. He coughed with vigor and passed the smoldering drug to his companion from the sea. The owl could not take the blue smoke directly. The first and only time she'd tried it, she went stiff as a stone and dropped to the floor. It was enough for her just to breathe their exhalations.

When the group 'tuned down,' as they had grown to call the state of intoxication the flower gave them, Belius uncrossed his legs and sat forward.

"I'm poisoned," he told them, waiting for their reactions.

Their silence was a lure to draw him out.

"My heart is a snowball, my mind a cracked peach pit," said the minotaur, leaning further forward, his heavy head sinking down as if in exhaustion.

"I see," said Pezimote. "And to what do you attribute this malady?"

"I'm poisoned. I feel as if I am soon going to..."

"To what?" asked Vashti, who was now perched on the huge globe of the wider world.

"To perish, of course," Belius cried, losing his patience. At the utterance of these words, three large volumes literally jumped off the book shelf across the room and fell to the floor.

"Now, now," said Vashti, her feathers ruffled by the physical implications of his anger.

"Who, may I ask, has poisoned you?" said the tortoise, reaching for a deviled ostrich egg the size of a cantaloupe.

Belius shook his head.

"Perhaps you suspect one of us?" said Vashti.

"No, no. You're my closest friends."

"Who then?" asked Pezimote.

"Maybe," said Belius, "it's someone who doesn't want me to complete my Cosmology."

"You've been working on that book, Belius, for years and years. Why now? Most creatures have little interest in reading books and less faith in their messages." The tortoise feared this revelation might wound his friend's pride, so he leaned across the coffee table and stumped him lightly on the knee.

"Look to yourself," said Vashti. "You've poisoned yourself somehow."

"What?" said Belius, straightening up in his chair with a look that as much as said, Absurd! "I'm no weeping willow, Vashti. If I don't mind saying, this tower we sit in was built by these two hooves alone. Each block of coral, I cut myself from the barrier reef and placed with an exactitude that nearly made this chaotic universe reel."

"Yourself," said Vashti, "look to yourself."

"I must agree, Belius," said Pezimote, finishing off the last morsel of egg and eyeing up another. "Your condition reminds me of my wife's, Chelonia's, unfounded lamentations when the children don't visit for a time."

"Chelonia has other reasons for lamenting, Pezimote," said Vashti, turning her head 180 degrees to face away from the tortoise.

"A cruel cut," said Pezimote, feigning astonishment in the face of the subtle charge.

"So you agree," said Belius. He hoisted himself out of his chair and crossed the room to where a full-length mirror was mounted on the wall. Staring into it, he searched for clues to his own undoing. All looked as it ever had, except for the heavy rings beneath his eyes. His color was good; a creamy, speckled blue that showed no blush of fever nor pallor of weakness. His horns were sharp. His snout was firm; his teeth, white and strong. Sticking out his tongue, he inspected every foot of it with great care. He then turned profile to the glass and peered from the corner of his left eye. "Nothing but handsome," he thought.

"I see nothing wrong," said the Minotaur. But then his eye looked deeply into itself and something toppled his confidence. "And then again...," he said and drew closer to the reflection. All was silent but for the sound of Pezimote munching. "And then again...," In the dark iris at the center of his left eye there was a minute but conspicuous absence. The light of the lamps did not produce a gleam there as they should have. There was a tiny mote of darker darkness that seemed to consume the light instead of offering it back to the world.

"Wait," said Belius, "I see a black spot within me."

Vashti flew off the globe and came to rest on the minotaur's shoulder. Pezimote rose from the divan and sidled up next to his friend, draping an arm around his wide back. Together they looked into the mirror, into the eye, into the dot of definite nothing.

For the hundredth time that day, the tears came from Belius; big and round as soap bubbles. A moan escaped from somewhere in his third stomach and the sharp self-pity of the sound cracked the glass suddenly as if it had been hit by a rock. The three jumped back. A rough wind entered the room and swirled the smoke of the digitalis into a visible cyclone. Papers were caught up in the storm. Furniture was tilted over. The tray of food flipped onto the floor. The three companions huddled together as books and knick-knacks, fossils and tea cups, flew through the air. The tighter the group held onto each other, the weaker became the power of the gale. When at last they had each other in a knot of strangle holds, the danger dissipated into a light breeze. They broke apart, and Belius stumbled backward against the wall, clutching his head with both hooves.

"Time to be going," said Pezimote, bringing his head slowly out from within his shell. He spoke as he moved toward the door, his voice, as well as his leathery skin, quivering with fear. "I suggest that tomorrow, bright and early, we pay a visit to the ape. Your condition is serious ... not to mention dangerous."

"Agreed," said Vashti.

Belius nodded, unable to speak for the throbbing behind his eyes.

"Get some sleep," said his visitors in unison. Then Vashti flew through the open window and Pezimote ambled out the door and down the winding steps.

As soon as he was alone, Belius reached for the bottle of dandelion wine. With one mythic gulp, he drained it. His headache lay stunned, barely able to breathe. Packing his pipe with a bolus dose of petals, he lit it. The digitalis was a stake through the heart of his pain. Its frustrated life eased away as he sat back in his chair puffing, too tired to think of sleep. From where he sat, he could see his whole figure in the cracked mirror. He smoked and stared, studying the queer mosaic.

Phantom thoughts skittered through the Minotaur's mind, conjuring no real images or memories and leaving only the vaguest of impressions that he had been thinking at all. From the time his friends had left at dusk, he had remained in his half-stupor, staring straight on and breathing deeply to keep the anguish to a dull ache.

In the mean time, night had come to that hemisphere of the Wider World. As the first waves of darkness rolled across the forest, Siftus the mole put on his snake skin vest and took up his walking stick. He nosed his way up out of the burrow, which had been his home from birth, and sniffed with delight the rising tide of shadows. He set forth that evening to dine on grubs and the dew drop liqueur of honey suckle.

The raccoon brothers stole, as they always did, into Belius' garden, but when he was not there to toss rocks at them, they lost their appetites and made off, each with only one ear of corn. After dipping their heist in the ocean for seasoning, and gnawing through a few rows of kernels, they agreed that the ears' mealy taste meant something was wrong with the minotaur.

The ants that lived among the stones of the tower bedded down with atoms of bread crust and pin prick dreams. The moths flapped out of the bushes and went to work on the cloth of Belius' old coat, which, for the past few months, had been the new personality of the garden scarecrow. Creepers sang a magnificat in a round of ten thousand voices, while bats flew toward fruit they could hear ripening. The fox, the lynx, the weasel, each came awake, as all of the creatures of daylight drew toward sleep.

Belius' cat, Bonita, slipped away from her master's feet, taking the spiral staircase to the wine cellar, where it was a certainty that some rodent would have been dabbling in the stream of a leaky cask and would be too drunk to run. And way off, in the middle of the forest, perched on the uppermost branch of the tallest, most ancient tree, sat Vashti. "Who?" she asked, and as always there was no reply. She flapped her wings and a breeze rolled outward to rustle leaves, bend flowers and push a firefly through the open window of Belius' study.

The insect perched on the tip of the minotaur's snout and worked its electro-chemical trick because it didn't know how not to. Belius was dragged out of his daze by the tiny flash, believing it to be the lost gleam returning to fill the void in his iris. Soon enough, he saw his mistake and brushed the imposter into flight. He rose from his chair with great effort and looked around at the mess his manifest bad feeling had caused. He would have groaned had he not been so weary. Instead, he sighed heavily, causing a hairline fracture in the last unbroken tea cup of the service. Waving his hooves at the shambles, he decided to straighten up in the morning. With hoof-tap and foot-slap, he made his way up the spiral staircase to his bedroom.

He sloughed the swallow tail jacket and striped pants, letting them drop to the floor where he stood. He chose from his armoire the green silk pajamas. All of his sleeping apparel had a good size rock sewn into the collar, which kept him off his back while he slept. Without the rock there, he would roll over, flat out, and begin snoring so ferociously that even the solid structure of his tower was in danger of caving in.

He passed up the book that lay at the foot of his bed, a treatise written by the Sphinx, entitled, "Riddling Men For Glory and Sport." The fact that he had paid out three casks of his oldest dandelion wine for it meant nothing to him now. He pulled back the quilt of his bed; a massive four poster, its headboard scarred from the violence of his horns due to recent nightmares. He blew out the candle and then lay down on his side. Trying to corral his thoughts so they would not wander wastefully as they had all day, he concentrated on the bright sliver of moon that hung outside his window. Sleep, he knew, would not come, so he snagged his memory on that hook of a satellite and thought back and back to his earliest days in the lesser world, searching for some insignificant incident that might have planted the seed which had latently germinated and blossomed into the evil flower of his present discontent.


© Jeffrey Ford 2005.
The Cosmology of the Wider World was published by PS Publishing in 2005.

The Cosmology of the Wider World by Jeffrey Ford
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