A Great Clerk of Necromancy

July 2, 2013

Original

Rhysling Award finalist

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, Radiance, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton, Tiptree, Mythopoeic, Rhysling, Lambda, Locus and Hugo awards. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with a small but growing menagerie of beasts, some of which are human.

Look: I am eight
I look up
from a vast recliner kingdom
upholstered in 1970s off–gold
and off–emerald
I look up
from a paperback
I shouldn’t be reading
and ask
a room of fizzpopping wine glasses
advertising jargon
slingback shoes
what cunt means.

Salem’s Lot, or maybe Cujo.

Definitely King.

Picture the artist as a young spy

sneaking documents
from the adult world
to childhood’s impoverished nation — who,
after all,
needs them more.

My father put his hands
over mine.
Shut the book like a door. Took it back
to the high–security vaults of Grownupville.
Judgment from on high
in red and bright
redacted text:
You’re not ready for books like this. It’s ok

the dog dies at the end.
Message received.
This has been a test of the emergency preparedness system,

only a test.
In case of a real emergency, the following
rule applies:

Do not seek explanations

from anyone bigger than you.

If you admit you do not know,

they will take what you do not know away

and you’ll never find out what cunt means.

For my next incursion
into their stern and spectacled DMZ
I slipped a copy of Malory under my shirt
Morte D’Arthur.

French things

are the most grown–up.

I puzzled it like a code

that, de–ciphered,
would mean myself.

Holed up in a cedar–crook
down by the summer pond
where horses grazed and a rope swing
like a noose
beat the July air
I read:

There Morgan le Fay became a great clerk of necromancy.

Do not ask what necromancy means,

cried my little heart!
It is a word like a cunt,
too awful
too big
to say out loud.

The girl
who puts tomatoes and ice and lemons
in a bag at the grocery store.

That’s a clerk.
And anything with — mancy in it means magic.

I looked up

into the off–gold afternoon. And thus

I began my secret mission. To catch
the checkout girl

at sorcery.

The way her fingers moved on the cashier keys
her nametag
her pierced nose
her sure stacking:
eggs on the bottom
green onions and garlic on top
her have a nice day now
her red apron.

These were her spells.
She wore that apron
and nothing else
on the solstice
thrusting her barcode–scanner at the sky
bellowing price–checks
in ancient tongues.

Like Morgan,
she had slept with her brother
given birth to a dark prince
under a winter moon.

I tried to give her a look
a conspirator’s nod
tried to say without saying:

I know your secret.

I am like you.

Teach me about darkness

and poisons.

Teach me what cunt means.

On Easter she gave me
a piece of wrapped candy
the color of a rose.
Surely a sign, I thought. Surely a sigil
of sisterhood.

Hit the gas: a year passes. I am nine.

My father, King of the Underworld,
hires a new secretary with an alliterating name,
two B’s like a curved and curving body:
phones, faxing, light clerical work.

The word went off in my head like a pink sparkler:

Clerical.
Clerk is short for clerical.

How silly, to think Morgan le Fay
could ever ring up steak and milk and call for
clean–up on aisle six,
price check on belladonna,
accept coupons for half–off hideous destinies.

But I was a child then. From my nine–year crag I could
chuckle
at my naivete.

Now I saw the shape of the universe.

That oatmeal–colored Bakelite phone:
her fell wand.
her horn of plenty.

She spoke into it

a voice strong and sure

brooking no dissent

shaping dire words and commands,
and a world comes alive,

Things

Get Done.
Her file cabinet, an alphabetized cauldron.
Her white–out, a potion to turn back time
to obliterate
what went before.

I wanted to be her. This perfect clerk. I longed to

Get

Things Done.
To cover black and irrefutable text
with forgiving, gentle snow.
I watched She–Ra after school. I knew not
to ask why Hordak kept stealing Adora
and dragging her underground to marry her.
I logicked it alone: Marriage
must be like that.
So good it’s worth breaking the world open.

So frightening
you bolt at first warning
hell for leather and the other end of the episode,
blinking in the credits,
gasping relief
into the sudden sun.

Nothing like that could happen to a clerk.
I would be a clerk.
Besides, it never worked.
So what if he chains her to a wall in the dark. Growls at her
while they both
wear masks. She always
gets free. She–Ra
doesn’t have a husband.

That’s not who she is.

I drew in my notebook
Morgans and She–Ras
and underground caverns with chains
pre–installed
while my father and his great clerk of necromancy
worked past those talismanic 9–5 hours.

I bent my tiny will
to the mystery of her
two B’s. But

she did not turn her gaze
to me. Except once
to give me a piece of hard candy
the color of her frosty lipstick.

I took it

with reverence.

Witches, after all,

deal in candy. They build
houses out of it. Coffins. Castles. Witches know
what cunts are. Tools of power, perhaps
made of candy and glass
and iron and blood
and ice
a cunt
like the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky.

You laugh.

But words
are everything

in the world.

Two B’s never told me
where in that ashen
hermetic
file cabinet
the C’s were kept.
Clerical, Clerk, Cunt.

The grocery girl
got bumped up to assistant manager.

And a video game
taught me the word
cleric.

It flickered there.
Cold
empty
definitive and defined
a creature of middling hit points
a dim glow of
8–bit
nothing.

But I was a child then.
Now I see the shape.

From the heights of thirty–three

I can

chuckle with you

over the big dark bowl

of my innocence.

These days
I make candy in my kitchen
coating the back
of a huge silver spoon
in roses and lipstick and blood on the snow.
I buy tomatoes and ice and lemons
eggs on the bottom
green onions and garlic on top.
I Get
Things Done.

And when I please,
I say cunt.
And people step back
eyes narrowing,
darkening,
looking struck
by some unseen secretarial necromancer
grocery girl
alliterative fist. As if they are afraid

I have come up

in some dark mask

to take them into the dark

where I live.

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© Catherynne M. Valente

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6 Comments

  1. Jazz

    I feel like I’ve been taken on a journey. Beautiful work.

  2. beth

    Fantastic! Great pacing and images (especially the images used in the bit about making candy). Thanks! 🙂

  3. Heather

    Yes! This is brilliant, and I remember the journey.

  4. Siham

    Extraordinary. Wonderful magic potion.

  5. zornia

    you are my favourite writer in the universe at the moment just read cities of coin an spice very inspired and impressed thankx

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