Belius has led a peaceful if not uneventful existence until now, as far as minotaurs’ lives go. He mostly keeps to his house, avoiding anyone outside of his family. Despite his human parents’ efforts to shield him from the potential hysteria of the townspeople, Belius hears about something beyond his home’s walls, even beyond the town itself—something called the Wider World. He decides to explore this strange place where the possibilities far outnumber those of the mundane real world. Here, Belius has a chance to be the minotaur he has always wanted to be. He is joined by Vashti the owl and Pezimote the tortoise, creatures that provide the philosophical guidance he will need if he is to complete his physical and metaphysical journey.
From World Fantasy Award winner Jeffrey Ford, The Cosmology of the Wider World is about the hopes, dreams, and visions we create for ourselves.
This ebook includes an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer.
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About the Author
Ford’s fiction has been translated into twenty languages. In addition to writing, he has been a professor of literature and writing for thirty years and has been a guest lecturer at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, the Stone Coast MFA in Creative Writing Program, Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. Ford lives in Ohio and currently teaches at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Read an Excerpt
The Cosmology of the Wider World
By Jeffrey Ford
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Jeffrey Ford
All rights reserved.
In the beginning there was everything and just a small bit of nothing. The everything was full of itself; a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking entities composed of all the possible forms that matter ever could or would take. The everything was almost everywhere, spreading out and out to and filling the very limits of the universe, filling even the dreams of the dreaming minds trapped in the tight jumble.
The nothing, being of itself, singular, was considered by the everything to be the center of existence. It was no bigger than an eyeball; almost round and almost transparent. The everything wrapped around it like the fruit around its seed. Although the everything had great potential to exist, it could not because it had nowhere to go. It had been frozen fast for that inconceivable duration that was before time.
There would not have been a problem if the everything was not aware of the nothing, but it was, and that which was closest to the pearl of what it was not felt great envy. The current of this emotion traveled fast through the connected pieces of the puzzle, eventually reaching the limits and awakening the outer things with a spark of jealousy that brought with it consciousness. Each of the individual components of the everything agreed that the barrier that separated them from the nothing should be smashed so that what was not would seep out and there would be room for them to become what they were, apart from each other.
The barrier that came between the everything and the nothing was something though, and, try as they might to exert their unified weight, they could not crack it. All they could do was stare through the misty glass and hope that the things inside the jewel might eventually make a mistake, crack the barrier, and let the universe begin.
Inside the jewel there lived a male and a female. They lived contentedly together, sharing everything they had. They had freedom to roam through the forests and deserts and think and feel whatever they wanted. Each had experienced eons of life and neither of them was bored after having seen and done all that they did. What kept them always interested was the discussions they had. In these dialogues they would each tell what they thought or felt about a particular thing or subject. They hardly ever agreed or saw things in the same exact way, but instead of this causing a problem it fired their respective interests. The next time they saw or did something they had discussed, it would always be colored anew by the opinion of the other. Their lives were perfection; ever changing and vital. It was the strength of their need for each other that made the boundary between the nothing and the everything impenetrable. Every time the everything would look in and see them conversing, it would feel like shouting, but it could not because there was no room for the shout to be born.
Whereas the everything could not penetrate the jewel of nothing with the pressure of its ultimate mass, its jealousy was another matter. After the voltage of that frustrated emotion had traveled out to the limits of the universe, it slammed against the steel walls of the boundary and made its way back toward the center. It did not deflect off the shell of the nothing but passed through at all points as easily as sunlight slips through clear water. The unknown emotion now had free rein where it had never been before and eventually infected both the male and the female.
The effects of the disease made a radical change in both their dispositions. It started slowly with each of them hoarding little items that they admired. Soon it grew to the point where each wanted every object the other was using. Eventually what they wanted more than anything was the other's thoughts and feelings. "Give me yourself," they each screamed and then ran together to take what they wanted. A great battle ensued that lasted longer than the blue sun will burn or the sky will fizz. After clawing and battering, they put their arms around each other and squeezed with all their strength. They strangled each other's bodies with such force that life had to leave them. Together, at the same instant, they fell dead, each having become, from the pressure, part of the other. Time's wind blew dirt over them. The forests dropped their leaves and the waters froze. Snow fell heavily.
Eventually, spring came and a plant grew up from the spot where the two had fallen dead. The plant, having had their bodies to feed on all winter and spring and summer, grew strong and straight. At the end of the summer, an enormous bud formed at the top of the stem. The bud swelled from within with a living weight and finally it broke from the stem and fell to the earth. When it hit the ground it cracked open and a bird flew out. It was an ugly little bird without eyes or feathers. There was no color to it and it made no sound. It flew up into the air and kept flying night and day until it reached the shell. With one tiny tap of its beak it pecked a hole through into the everything and the universe was begun.
Siftus rolled over on his stone bed and opened his eyes as wide as possible.
"Who's there?" he called, straining to make out some presence in the weak light that seeped in at the opening to his burrow. He sniffed once and the matrix of aromas precipitated out into afternoon, clear weather, low tide, the death of a sparrow, the sprouting of foxglove, and the last few remaining atoms of a song sung by the Raccoon brothers the previous night. All of this took but an instant to discern, after which he clawed that stale air away from him, pushing it aside with his long curving nails as if it were a pile of dirt blocking his passage through the underground. He drew in a fresh breath to see who had come to visit. Of course, many of the same ingredients were inherent in this new conglomeration, but this time there was an element that, when analyzed out, totally astounded him.
"It isn't you, is it?" he asked. "How absurd, a bird below ground."
"I'm afraid it's me," said Vashti.
Whereas most other creatures would have moved out into the light to hold their conversation, the owl and the mole stayed right where they were. Vashti had the ability to see field mice move through tall grass from the top of a tree on a moonless night. The lighting conditions underground did not disturb her. What bothered her was the closeness of the place. For one accustomed to flight, an overwhelming aroma of dirt can be paralyzing.
"Come, let's move into the expanse," said Siftus, hastily dressing in his snake skin vest for decency's sake. He reached for his walking stick and then led the way from the side of his bed, past his kitchen and living rooms, down a long passageway. Vashti followed close behind the mole, jumping every now and then, trying to spread her wings for flight each time a pebble or clod of earth would dislodge itself from the ceiling of the tunnel and fall on her.
"Cave in," she screamed once without thinking and Siftus, usually the most understanding of individuals, laughed sardonically at her. Birds usually did not have a kind word for those of the burrowing persuasion: the badger, the possum, the mole. They were both literally and figuratively looked down upon by the feathered race. 'Dirt eaters' was the term applied.
The 'expanse', as he called it, was the huge underground studio where he sculpted his smaller works—busts, statues and figurines. It had taken him a solid year of working every night to clear enough dirt out of the area to create the underground cavern.
Once inside the large vault, Vashti's rapid breathing decreased to a normal rate. There was enough room there, even with the crowd of stone animals that crouched and perched in all phases of completion. She surmised that the expanse had another entrance, one large enough to accommodate the considerable blocks of granite and limestone that Siftus cut from the cliffs and dragged beneath the earth to work on.
"What can I do for you, Vashti?" asked the mole, taking a tobacco leaf from his vest pocket. With one quick motion of his left paw, he somehow rolled the tawny leaf into a cigarette.
She looked around her at the silent, staring forms and thought it better to whisper. "Belius is sick."
Siftus reached into his pocket for a flint. Striking the end of the jagged rock against the side of one of his creations, a spark jumped to life. With the agility of a frog's tongue seizing a circling fly, he sniffed out the trajectory of the spark and lunged forward, catching it neatly on the tip of the cigarette. He drew in, deeply inhaling the smoke. As he exhaled, all of his playful antagonism toward the owl left him and he was filled with concern for his friend and patron. "Is it bad?" he asked.
"Pezimote has gone with him to Shebeb's cave today."
"Is there hope?"
"There is if you are willing to help me."
She flapped her wings to clear the smoke from around her and blinked her wide eyes to punctuate the importance of what she was to say. "Shebeb, granted, is a great healer. I'd go to him if I had a broken wing or a dislocated talon, but for what is wrong with Belius, the ape has no potion or remedy that can cure it. When Shebeb has thoroughly examined Belius, he will tell him he's perfectly healthy, perhaps a little depressed from working too hard on The Cosmology without getting the proper exercise. He will blame much of our friend's problem on the digitalis and after giving him an herb to take that will turn his stools to pudding for a week, that will be it. Shebeb is too practical to see the problem. Belius is lonely."
"Well then, let's plan a party for him," said Siftus, finishing his cigarette and throwing it to the floor. With the tip of his cane he buried it beneath the soft earth.
"When I say lonely, I'm not talking about the loneliness of sitting by yourself on a rainy day when friends can't get out to visit. This is a profound loneliness that he suffers from. He needs someone to love; a mate. We other creatures don't have this problem. There are no other minotaurs in the Wider World, and from what I gather, they are even rare in the lesser world, one being born only as a freak, every thousand years or so. Do you see the problem?"
"I never considered this when thinking of Belius," Siftus said. "Since I've known him, he's always seemed content to live by himself in the tower and work on his book."
"Yes, but all that studying and writing is only an excuse to pass the time. The book doesn't share secrets with him. He may be able to take it to bed, but it can not love him. It will not bear him children. He needs a wife; another minotaur to understand his halfling nature. If there were another, he would not see himself as such an outcast."
The mole was nodding in agreement now. He leaned back against the base of the sculpture he had struck his flint against, a scaled down representation of Nosthemus, breaking the ocean surface. "You say that there are no other minotaurs, so what is there for us to do?"
"That's why I came to you. You're a remarkable artist, and I am said to have a certain wisdom when it comes to affairs of the heart. Yes, there are no other minotaurs, but what I've come to suggest to you is that we create one."
The focused frustration that had lifted the first pages of The Cosmology still performed that task, but the further he delved into the manuscript the accumulated idiocy of what he had spent so many nights penning made this once useful anger now rage out of control and the discarded pages flew wildly about the study like a blizzard in a paperweight. They flew through his ghostly form as he continued reading, cutting him again and again with their inadequacy as his sight passed over fresh embarrassments on each newly revealed page.
"How could it be so bad?" he asked, without the power to stop himself from devouring yet more of it. "One would think that in this many words, by the law of averages, with no conscious mind behind the moving pen, there should still be, at least, one moderately successful line. It's a work of negative genius—drivel purer than a flawless diamond."
He read from the work aloud now, his phantom ear listening to the sounds of his silent voice. "The planet that is the Wider World, suspended in space, is a sentient being, an organism with a mind that contemplates the stars but sees them wrongly because of the interfering void of the yellow atmosphere. In that it knows more than we creatures who live like parasites on its generous crust, because it is larger and can imagine greater things, its seeing wrongly as a result of the distortion of the atmosphere is in direct ratio to our own wrong seeing caused by the veiling atmosphere of each individual creature's desire for immortality. Hence, though it sees more, it is more greatly mistaken in what it sees, and is, therefore, in all its grandeur, no more wise than the most insignificant ladybug, living on the leaf of a giant spruce—one of its nose hairs."
With the suggestion of nose hairs, Belius' own transparent snout began to itch from within. For the first time since sitting down to read, his thoughts were now distracted. His eyes began to water spiritually as the unseen irritation of his nasal passage drew his full attention. Although he left off his reading, the confusion of discarded pages still swirled and flapped in the room. The itch built to an unbearable crescendo, and just as he was frantically trying to lift his corporeal quill off the desk to insert the feathered end up his incorporeal snout, he let go a sneeze so full of manifest disgust that it lifted the remainder of the manuscript to the ceiling and dumped it on his head. He screamed with the fear of being buried alive and then awoke on the operating table in Shebeb's cave.
The roar unleashed by Belius as he rejoined his body, yanked Pezimote from a lascivious daydream and sent him sprawling off the edge of his seat in the waiting area. Shebeb put his arm around Belius' shoulders and, like a mother trying to calm a frightened child, said into his ear, "Shhh, it's over. You're fine. You're fine. It's over."
"Is he cured?" asked Pezimote, who had drawn closer, forgetting that he wasn't on speaking terms with the ape.
"This was to be merely a diagnosis," said Shebeb.
"How long until we know what's wrong with me?" asked Belius, now breathing more easily, sitting with his legs dangling off the side of the table.
"No time," said Shebeb. "As soon as Thip jumps up into my ear and begins telling me what he encountered, I'll relate to you the condition of your inner being. Only then can I prescribe a treatment. You see him there?" he asked and pointed to what looked like a speck of dust on the marble surface next to Belius. "When you sneezed, he landed on your leg."
The tiny black dot moved in one great leap to the edge of the table. From there, it jumped down onto the top of Pezimote's head and then vaulted up to rest on the facial hair beneath Shebeb's left eye. The tortoise and the minotaur both leaned a little in the direction of the ape to watch the flea blaze a trail toward the left ear. They lost the progress of his path for a moment and then found him on the ear lobe a split second before he crawled over the hill of cartilage at the entrance to the auditory canal and disappeared inside.
"We are ready now," said Shebeb. "Thip will speak a sentence to me and pause as I relate the same information to you." The ape closed his droopy lids. His lips parted to show yellow teeth fiercely clenched. His left ear wiggled slightly with concentration. Shebeb took a deep breath and then began. The words, when they came, rushed quickly from his mouth, screeching as they passed through his clamped teeth. The silences in between seemed measured and, in conjunction with the sounds, gave the recounting of the flea's journey the eerie aspect of a lone, thin-throated toad chanting for rain.
"Greetings to you, minotaur. I commend and envy you for the greatness of your frame, the dazzling rush of blood through your arteries and veins, the enormous weight of brain matter resting between your ears, the ball lightning of impulse traveling your spine. In The Sanguinaire, I journeyed the length and breadth of you, finding much to marvel at and very little to call to the good physician's attention. It's a shame now that I must concentrate on speaking to you only of the problems I encountered, because the delights far outweighed them.
Excerpted from The Cosmology of the Wider World by Jeffrey Ford. Copyright © 2005 Jeffrey Ford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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