The Perseids and Other Stories

The Perseids and Other Stories

by Robert Charles Wilson

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Overview

In his first story collection, Robert Charles Wilson, one of the most distinguished SF authors of his generation, weaves a tapestry of tales set in and around the city of Toronto -- a haunted, numinous Toronto of past, present, and future, buzzing with strangeness.Beginning with The Perseids, winner of Canada's national SF award, this collection showcases Wilson's suppleness and strength: bravura ideas, scientific rigor, and living, breathing human beings facing choices that matter. Among the other stories herein are the acclaimed Hugo finalist Divided by Infinity and three stories written especially for this collection.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312875244
Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
Publication date: 07/28/2001
Edition description: 1ST TRADE
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

Robert Charles Wilson lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

THE FIELDS OF ABRAHAM

1.

Jacob came into the small bookstore to get out of the brutal cold, and because he had an empty hour or two to fill up, and because (not least) he hoped Oscar Ziegler would give him another book.

The door snapped shut on snow and ice. The shop was heated by a modern basement coal furnace, the air perfumed with dust and paper and hot iron. Jacob, sixteen years old and numb inside his inadequate cloth coat, shivered with the particular chill of warming. He felt like an intruder in some exotic desert kingdom.

There were, as he had hoped, no other customers in the store. Oscar Ziegler sat alone behind the cash desk, snug in the heat. Ziegler's eyeglasses glinted over his fat cheeks when he smiled. "Jacob! You look miserable. Come in, come in, put your coat on the ladder to dry. Take a seat."

Ziegler, as usual, was hoping for a game of chess. Jacob, as usual, would oblige him. On the street, chess was a way to make money. Here, chess was the price of a book. Actually buying a book was out of the question. Every penny Jacob gleaned from his chess wagers and his language lessons served to feed and clothe and shelter himself and his sister Rachel. Books were frivolous. Although he loved them.

Jacob's father had been a scholar in Europe, a ragman in Canada until he died two years ago. From his father Jacob had learned Yiddish and English, French and Italian, German, even a little Latin. Jacob had the ear for language, just as he had the head for chess. He taught English to new immigrants and their families for ten cents an hour. He played chess with the old men in the Ward for penny bets. In summer, the chess paid more than the language lessons. In winter, the lessons more than the chess.

He did not discriminate in either chess or language. He had tipped his king to impoverished Russian nobles; he had taught English to the pockmarked Ruthenian boy who lit the Shabbas torches.

The year that had begun (by the Christian calendar) just two weeks ago was 1911. Two prime numbers, Jacob observed, 19 and 11. Add them together, you got 30. The sum of two primes was always an even number — but even the mathematician Fermât had failed to produce a proof of that statement.

Numbers sometimes tormented him, just as demons tormented his sister.

Oscar Ziegler, who owned the bookshop and was its sole employee, lived in the rooms above the shop and was never seen in the street. He was in other ways equally inscrutable. His age, for instance. He was a short and burly man, gray-haired but not much wrinkled. He might have been forty, or sixty, or older. He wore an old-fashioned frock coat and ties that would have been grotesquely colorful if they hadn't faded to pastel. He seldom talked about himself or his past. His name sounded German to Jacob, but the very faint trace of a European accent in his voice was oddly liquid, almost Catalonian. He loved books and chess and opera, and would talk knowledgeably about Coleridge or Steinitz or Nellie Melba. But when had he ever ventured far enough from his heated cave to hear an opera? He had hired a woman to bring him groceries.

Jacob watched Ziegler set up the chessboard in a clear space on the desk. Jacob took the footstool for a chair. At sixteen, he had still not reached his full height. His shoulders barely reached the rim of the desk. Ziegler's creaking wooden accountant's chair became, from this perspective, as magisterial as a throne.

Ziegler put out his clenched fists with a pawn in each. Jacob touched a pale knuckle of Ziegler's left hand. Black.

The game was interesting at first. Ziegler worked through the book opening and Jacob arrayed his pieces in a crenellated defense that left him prepared to take advantage of any weakness in his opponent's position. Briefly, then, he was oblivious to his surroundings, letting the possibilities of the board focus his attention. It was like entering a trance — a chess trance, as Jacob thought of it. He watched Ziegler attempting to dig canals in the black defenses but at the same time exposing faults of his own, tiny channels of opportunity down which a single pawn might flow far enough to threaten the ivory king.

Past a certain point — in this case, a pawn sacrifice that put Ziegler's bishop at the rim of the board — the conclusion was foregone. Ziegler, however, chose to play to the end, smiling placidly as a Buddha at his own losses. Jacob returned a part of his attention to the prosaic reality of the bookshop. He felt drained, pleasantly tired. He wondered if this absolute absorption was how Rachel's trances felt, though hers were deeper and vastly more traumatic. Rachel sometimes stared into space for an hour or two at a time, her eyes tracking nothing at all. Sometimes she screamed.

"Did you read the book?" Ziegler asked, playing lazily now.

The last book Ziegler had given him was The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents, by H. G. Wells. A volume of strange stories. Jacob had indeed read the book, and enjoyed it immensely, although he had been forced to sell it for twenty-five cents to help make up the December rent. "Yes," he said.

"Did you find a particular favorite, Jacob?"

He told Ziegler his favorite story had been "The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes," in which a man's vision was displaced halfway across the world, so that he could see the Antipodes Islands (or the deeps of the sea) as he stumbled blindly through urban London.

Ziegler smiled at that. "I think I prefer the title story, or 'The Moth.' But you're right, 'The Remarkable Case' is excellent. What did you like about it?"

"There was a line in the story. Davidson says, 'It seems to me that I see too much.'" It made him think of his sister and her bad spells.

When Rachel was in the grip of her madness she saw and spoke to things and persons no one else could see. There was something almost comforting in the idea that she might only be gazing into the deeps of a distant ocean, reacting with comprehensible fear to the creatures that lived there.

Inevitably, Ziegler's king succumbed to Jacob's siege. Almost too much time had passed. Rachel would be home from the factory. She didn't like to be alone. She wouldn't eat if Jacob wasn't there.

Ziegler thanked him for the game and said, "I owe you another book. You like Wells? I have another Wells. The Time Machine and Other Stories. Take it with you."

Jacob accepted the volume and tucked it under his shirt. He pulled his coat around himself and turned to the door, in which was set a rippled windowpane lacquered with ice. Outside, night had fallen.

"Thank you," he said.

"Come again," Ziegler said.

Jacob trudged through fresh falling snow along the narrow and torch-lit alleys of that part of the city called the Ward: north from the railway station, west of Yonge Street; east of University (unless you counted all the Macedonians around Eastern Avenue), south of College. Even in the cold, the Ward stank of privy pits and box closets. Shack flats over bare soil fronted the unpaved laneways. The snow had grown in dunes over broken stovepipes and heaps of rags.

The building he called home was hardly more than a shed. It was, by the standards of the Ward, not too bad. Small, narrow, dark, and impossible to heat, but better than the crowded boardinghouses on Elm Street.

He found his sister huddling by the woodstove. Rachel had lit more than a dozen candles and placed them randomly about the room. Bent under her shawl, she looked eighty. She was seventeen, a year older than Jacob himself.

"You're late," she said.

He heated a stew of vegetables and fish over the stove and served it in porcelain bowls. Rachel ate less than half of what he gave her. She was listless and silent. Jacob didn't mind the silence. He knew it wouldn't last. He used the opportunity to look at the book Ziegler had given him. But some philosophical people have been asking why three dimensions particularly — why not another direction at right angles to the other three? — and have even tried to construct a Four-Dimensional geometry. ...

Later, she opened the door and walked to the latrine. When fifteen minutes passed and she hadn't returned, Jacob sighed and went to look for her. He found her squatting in the outhouse with her skirts raked up, snow settling on her thighs like lacework. She shivered, but her eyes were fixed with rapt attention on nothing at all. He covered her and walked her back inside.

"You're sick, Rachel," he said. "Settle down."

She lay on her mattress and buried herself in blankets. "No, I'm not sick."

"You're not yourself."

"I'm the Queen of the Moon, and you can go fuck yourself."

"Don't talk like that."

"I'll talk any way I like."

"I have to go out tonight," he said. "Will you be all right by yourself?"

"Of course I will."

So she said. But she was irritable, not a good sign, and she mumbled to herself under her breath, an even worse omen. He was afraid she would hurt herself or set fire to the building. But he couldn't warn her against those things because that would put ideas into her head, and then, God forbid, if something did happen, the fault would be his.

Rachel had been strange even before Mama and Papa died. Even as a small child: moody, often inarticulate, physically awkward. Papa had said there was a history of madness on his side of the family. Madness and genius: men who studied the Kaballah or wrote romantic poetry or killed themselves with pistols. Papa had been a scholar. Jacob was, in his way, a scholar too. Mama had been an ordinary woman, a doctor's daughter from Lodz. Rachel had inherited the madness.

Madness wasn't so colorful at close quarters. Jacob had seen his sister tear off her clothing and rake her skin with her fingernails until she bled. Everything Jacob had witnessed of madness was ugly, demeaning, and obscene.

His fear was that Rachel's deepening dementia would make it impossible for her to work, and what would they do then?

He tucked the blanket around his sister and hoped the warmth of it would coax her to sleep. Then he buttoned his cloth coat and walked through the falling snow to the rented room of Carlo Taglieri.

Taglieri always called Jacob "the Jew" — not in a brutal way, but persistently, as if challenging him.

Taglieri's curse was his harelip, his short leg, and his temper. He wasn't popular. People shunned him. He was thirty years old and unmarried. He lived in this dank room on Chandler Street, alone except for a bony black cat named Brivio.

"It's the Jew," Taglieri told Brivio as he opened the door. Taglieri spoke the Italian of Pisticci, his hometown. He wore a threadbare woolen sweater. "Come in, Jacob."

Like most of Jacob's students, Taglieri had attempted the English class at the Settlement House but had left in frustration. Taglieri was one of those people who translated everything in his head: if you said cat he would rummage through his mental ledgers until he found gatto. But by that time you might have said a dozen more words, of which he had registered none.

"English, please," Jacob said.

"Welcome," Taglieri told him.

Over the last several months Jacob had managed to impart to Taglieri a decent number of English verbs and nouns, which Taglieri had duly committed to memory. Currently he was strangling on tenses. Tonight Jacob worked through the labyrinth of was and is and will be and has been, hoping for some glimmer of understanding, but he sensed Taglieri stacking the verb forms like bricks, deaf to the music. The hour dragged.

"I was worked at the water mains," Taglieri said suddenly, his ruddy face gone somber and earnest.

"Work," Jacob corrected him. "You work at the water mains." Taglieri dug sewers for the city.

"I work at the the water mains five years —"

Jacob understood that Taglieri was attempting the imperfect tense. "You have worked at the water mains for five years."

"I have worked at the water mains five years and I want — wanted — want to asks —"

"Yes?"

"Your sister, your Rachel —"

Jacob said, in Italian, "Just tell me what it is you need to say."

"I'll give you money for her."

Jacob stood up, his heart beating harder, wanting to believe that this time he was the one who hadn't understood. "My sister is not a whore."

"I know, I know! Don't be insulted. Please, please, listen. All I want is companionship. I'm not a proud man, Jacob. You know how it is. The women don't like me, because of my lip, because of the way I walk."

Also, Jacob thought, because of the way Taglieri shouted obscenities at the children in the street, because of the way he smelled, because of the way he bullied anyone smaller than himself and simpered to anyone he feared. Taglieri had a respectable job. He might have married, in spite of everything, if he had cleaned himself up and attended mass once in a while and gone courting in a decent manner. But he wouldn't.

"I know about Rachel," Taglieri said. "She's not good at work, they say. She's a little crazy. She gets angry. Okay, I know all that. What I'm saying is, I can support her. I've worked for the city for five years now. I spend nothing except what it costs to keep this room and feed myself and Brivio."

Jacob said, "You're telling me you want to marry her?"

"Christ, no. I can't marry a Jew. Much less a crazy Jew. What would people think? She would be my housekeeper."

"Housekeeper."

"Yes."

"I have to go," Jacob said.

"I've hurt your feelings."

Jacob didn't know whether this was sincere or sarcastic. His Italian wasn't sufficiently nuanced. Anyway, with Taglieri, it was always an open question.

"Look," Taglieri said. He took a number of crumpled bills out of his hip pocket. "Five dollars. Everybody else is saving money so they can buy steamship tickets for their families back home. I don't have any family back home. I spend my money on what I want. Five dollars, Jacob. All she has to do is come over and clean the floor. Just one day! Then we'll see how we can get along, Rachel and I."

It was a lot of money.

"No, thank you, Signor Taglieri."

A great deal of money. Thus, obviously, not for the service of scrubbing a floor.

Taglieri added, in English, "Please don't say no."

Jacob closed the door behind him.

2.

The bookstore was closed on Sunday, but Jacob knocked and Ziegler opened the door for him and locked it quickly after.

Outside, the air was bitter and thin. In here, the heat and the smell of the old books made his eyes water. Ziegler's books were all secondhand. They had lost their glossy newness but gained something, Jacob thought, in the rich smell of tobacco and aging paper.

Ziegler set up the chessboard while Jacob confessed his problems with Rachel. He had confided in Ziegler before. Ziegler always listened patiently.

Jacob said, "I wish I could believe she was getting better. There are times when she's almost normal. Other times. ..."

"She's not getting better," Ziegler said flatly. "She has a disease. In fifty years they'll call it 'schizophrenia' and admit that it's incurable. In a hundred —"

"How do you know that?"

He waved away the question. "Don't count on Rachel getting better, is what I'm saying."

"I can't support her by myself. Even if I could, I can't be with her all the time. If she gets worse she might hurt herself. I don't know how to protect her."

"You can't."

"She's my sister. She doesn't have anyone else."

Ziegler balanced the white queen in his hand, walking it between his fingers like a stage magician with a coin. "There are asylums. Or even this man, what's his name, Tarantula —"

"Taglieri. To be honest, I thought about it. A warm house and decent food, who knows? Maybe it would help her. But taking money for my sister. ..." He didn't have words to express the vileness of it. And how could it matter if Rachel was warm and well-dressed, when the price was Taglieri forcing himself between her legs every night?

But didn't every married woman face the same troublesome bargain?

Ziegler said, "You know the story in the Bible, the story of Abraham and Isaac?"

"Of course."

"God instructs Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice. Isaac makes it as far as the chopping block before God changes his mind."

Yes. Jacob had always imagined God a little appalled at Abraham's willingness to cooperate.

Ziegler said, "What's the moral of the story?"

"Faith."

"Hardly," Ziegler said. "Faith has nothing to do with it. Abraham never doubted the existence of God — how could he? The evidence was ample. His virtue wasn't faith, it was fealty. He was so simplemindedly loyal that he would commit even this awful, terrible act. He was the perfect foot soldier. The ideal pawn. Abraham's lesson: fealty is rewarded. Not morality. The fable makes morality contingent. Don't go around killing innocent people that is, unless you're absolutely certain God wants you to. It's a lunatic's credo.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Perseids and Other Stories"
by .
Copyright © 2000 Robert Charles Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

THE FIELDS OF ABRAHAM,
THE PERSEIDS,
THE INNER INNER CITY,
THE OBSERVER,
PROTOCOLS OF CONSUMPTION,
ULYSSES SEES THE MOON IN THE BEDROOM WINDOW,
PLATO'S MIRROR,
DIVIDED BY INFINITY,
PEARL BABY,

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The Perseids and Other Stories 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
snarkhunt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautiful little short stories that interconnect at strange tangents. Strange booksellers, impossible books, and the first story I've read where information visualization plays a powerful part in the story. I'm looking for more from this author on the basis of these stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And I've read a lot. Very literary and at times reminiscent of Poe.
harstan More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating science fiction anthology that centers on a small bookstore, Finders, as if that place is the vortex of the universe. Each story is well written and connect back to the bookstore, some more so than others. Three tales are new though if readers are like this reviewer they were unaware that the author had written any short stories so all the tales are new. As with his novels, Robert Charles Wilson has written an exciting book that showcase why this writer is one of the centers of the genre as short science fiction is rarely as good.

Harriet Klausner