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An excerpt from CLUB VESTA

From From Club Vesta: A Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow of Love, or, Love-letters to America

The Artists' Tale: The Transition From Level VI to Level VII

As we stepped through the door, we could see, extending away before us for many miles, a vast swamp that reminded me ominously of the one that we’d had to cross from Level Five to get to Dis, only this one seemed even worse than that one had been. We were standing on a low spit of land about four feet wide that extended into the swamp from the doorway forward about five feet, where it ended; the swamp surrounded it on the three sides not against the doorway. The cold hit us like a blow – I began to shiver as if I had malaria, and beside me I could hear Lu's teeth chattering. Mists rose in the air before us like wraiths, tendrils of which reached out to us as if to embrace us in their spectral arms and carry us off to whatever netherworld they inhabited here. An acidic stench like sewage compounded with toxic factory runoff filled the air, stinging our nostrils. Even so, clearly the frigid mud of this swamp was not completely barren of all life; a filthy carpet of matted reeds grew throughout the swamp, covering the ground so thoroughly that only up close, at our feet, could we see the mud from which they grew. From time to time we could hear something – or some things – out there in the swamp, breaching like whales and then falling back into the poisonous murk once more. All around us was a noisome insectoid chittering interspersed with grunts and bleats of the sort that the miscegenatic offspring of small mammals crossed with amphibia might make.

The sky above the swamp was filled with a heavy miasma of gray-black clouds, pregnant with storms, but far off to our right, perhaps a mile away toward the east, the swamp transformed into a bight of a much larger body of water of indeterminate extent, and where the water met the sky it was clear, light dancing like Shiva on the cobalt waters below. It wasn’t dawn; the sun must have been considerably farther to the west than the forward edge of those clouds, and we couldn’t see it at all. But its glorious light was so strong that even though it only broke through the clouds at one point, and that far from where it blazed in the heavens, it was more than light enough for us to read by.

“What do we do now, Esh’?” Lu' asked me, looking worried. I was worried, too. Obviously, as before, our only permitted route lay to the north. We couldn’t go back, so we had to go ahead. But how could we get across that horrifying swamp, without being eaten alive by the things that lived in it, or being burned and poisoned by its filthy mud?

Suddenly we heard in the distance, coming closer, an almost cheery putt-putt! sound. “That’s an outboard motor!” Lu' cried.

“Yeah, and it’s coming closer. You suppose it’s somebody who could take us across this – this Godawful swamp?”

The answer wasn’t long in coming.

Suddenly, as if springing forth whole from the swamp, a small boat steered by a strange old man dressed in raggedy T-shirt, khaki cut-offs, and rope sandals burst out of the mists before us and came to an abrupt halt almost at our feet.

“Phleg’!” yipped Lu'. “Oh, thank Hermes, it’s you!”

“Yeah, well, maybe you won’t thank me when you get to the other side, girl.”

“Nasty as ever, too, I see,” I told him sourly. “—So this . . . nastiness out there, is it just part of the same swamp between Level Five and Level Six? – And when did you get the new boat?”

“Shit, lady, my boat finally went down in the mud just outside Dis – Goddamn’ idiots there ganged up on it and started climbin’ aboard, I guess they was standin’ on each other’s shoulders in the mud. I was lucky t’ get outta there with m’ skin intact, let me tell you! They even tore the clothes off my body – good thing, too, because while they was busy tryin’ on m’ robe and takin’ each other upside the head with m’ staff I was able to get past ’em and up onto the gangway into Dis.

“This here swamp really is just an extension of the other one, though. There’s a runoff conduit under Dis that drains that’n into this’n. Sometimes the rain gets t’ be too much there, and it threatens to overflow Dis, so they open the conduit and let the excess drain over here. As you c’n see, over to the east there –” he pointed – “this’n drains into an estuary on the Demon Sea, so there’s places for the water to go rather than going anywhere further into the Club.”

“So why are you over here, not there?” Lu' asked him.

“Aw, I figgered it was time for a vacation. I need one – know just how many years I been ferryin’ people acrost that friggin’ shithole of a swamp to Dis? Ever’ time, just about, I come close to bein’ took down by those sluts in the swamp, like they finally did this time – a miracle it hadn’t happened sooner. (Last time that happened was about a thousand years ago, I reckon.) So I got me another boat out of Central Stores in the City and decided t’ try m’ luck fishin’ an’ crabbin’ an’ so forth out here.”

“Here?!” I exclaimed. “Looks like all you’d catch here would be a good case of ruined liver or worse!”

“Naw, not here, not right here, anyways – I go over there to where the swamp drains out the estuary into the Demon Sea an’ put down m’ crab-pots an’ nets an’ things there, where the water runs clear and fresh. Most of the shit that makes this swamp so bad is heavier ’n water, anyways, and it settles out or gets compounded with things an’ the compounds settle out before then. So anything I get outta there is nice and tasty as you please, leastaways if'n it’s that way anywhere (I never could go catfish, and as for shellfish, you c’n have ’em!).”

“Er, what’s the Demon Sea?” Lu' asked him.

“Oh, that. Uh, well, you know this place, Club Vesta, ain’t the only place like it? I mean, it ain’t one of a kind. There’s lots of others – Dionysos’ Chalice –” quickly he traced a sigil of some kind on his breast, as if he had mentioned something holy and terrifying and was warding away the Furies who punish those who misuse sacred speech – “for example, an’ Motown Records Central, you know, all the other places you saw when you first came to the Mall.” Another tracing of the sigil on his breast; this time, he lowered his eyes in fearful reverence. Looking up once more, he said: “An’ that ain’t all, not by a long chalk. See, runnin’ to the Utter East of this place – I mean, the whole complex which contains the Club an’ all the other places in the . . . Mall . . . is the Demon Sea. That’s actually an ocean that touches on every place in the complex, an’ goes on to every place that ever was or will be. Not just the Universe – I mean all the Universes. All the worlds that Earth an’ every other part of this Universe ever could have been or yet be. “

“You mean alternate worlds?” I asked him.

“Hey, the Multiverse!” Lu' said joyously. “So it’s real!”

“Betcher pretty little butt it’s real, sweetie,” Phlegyas told her. “It just ain’t real in any one Universe, most of it ain’t. But it’s all real someplace. And the Demon Sea spans it all.”

“Why do they call it that?” I asked him, with trepidation.

“Aw, that’s just what we here in the Club and other parts of the . . . Mall . . . call it. That’s ’cause here, there’s a lot o’ strange things come outta the sea. Scary, like. But that’s a local thing, whatcher might call peculiar to our local . . . sitcheration. Anyways, if you two make it down to Round Three of Level Seven –”

“Are you saying we might not?” Lu' asked him, frowning.

“I’m sayin’ you’ll be Goddamn’ lucky to make it that far at all, woman! It’s all been a sort of lark to you up ’til now, hasn’t it?” he asked her, frowning back ferociously.

“Er . . .” she said, as if remembering some of the more interesting parts of Level Five, especially the swamp that we had had to cross to get to Level Six and Dis.

“Well, you can just get over the idea that it’ll be a lark from now on – if anything, you keep that attitude up an’ you’ll buy the farm for sure, both of you!” Before we could ask him what he meant, he continued, “But be that as it may an’ howsomever, that ocean, which we call the Demon Sea, is somethin’ you’ll have to cross when you leave Level Seven in order to get to Level Eight. Ye’ll run right into it comin’ outta the last part of Level Seven, before you can get to the Cliff that goes down to Eight.”

“Is it . . . dangerous?” I asked, now more worried than ever.

“Well, not more’n any ocean is, you know. I mean, you know there’s sharks an’ squids an’ things in Earth’s oceans that could eat you up in one bite. But there’s also good eatin’ comin’ outta the ocean, too. An’ back when I was a tad, before I . . . ended up here, working the swamps between Levels Five and Six of all the places in the . . . Mall, I always wanted to live on the shores of the ocean. So beautiful there . . .” For a moment, he stared off into space, his mind far away. Then, shaking himself as if to shrug off a dream too beautiful to bear in the waking world, he looked back at me and said, “All ye’ll have t’ do is go out on the wharf you’ll see when you get past the last Parlor of Round Three of Level Seven an’ wait for a . . . boat t’ show up, an’ ye’ll be fine from there.”

“You say that word, ‘boat,’ like you aren’t sure of it,” Lu' told him, studying him.

“I – ye’ll see what I mean. There’s boats, an’ then there’s boats, if'n you take my meaning. This’n’ll likely be big as a city and filled with a bellyful of thunderbolts. – No, they ain’t no way ye’ll know what I mean until you see one o’ them boats. Anyway, for now, you want across this place to Level Seven?”

“Yes!” both of us cried.

“Well, okay, I’ll take ye both across. An’ I won’t charge ye none, either – I gotta admit you’re two of the nicest broads I ever met, an’ it’d be a shame to ask money for helpin’ out a couple o’ nice ladies like you,” he said, giving us a lecherous wink. “Besides, I’m on vacation, so what the hell.

“Okay, ladies, climb on board, let’s get this little sucker movin’ . . .”

We stared for a moment at the boat, wondering if it was safe. About five feet long and maybe three across, it had a very narrow draft, and it looked as if it had been through the wars, paint peeling off its metal sides, rust fore and aft, even dotting the heavy outboard motor at the stern. “Fireball III” said the letters stenciled on its stern – unlike the rest of the boat, they looked as if they had been freshly painted a few hours ago. A stack of crab-pots, a net, and a lot of fishing-tackle filled the boat’s stern.

“Just climb on aboard,” he told us. “Don’t mind that junk in the back – ye can sit up front. I gotta be at the stern so I can steer this puppy, okay?”

“Er . . . okay, if you say so . . .”

Feeling uneasy, I helped Lu' into the boat, then climbed in myself, both of us taking seats near the bow, as Phlegyas had asked us to.

The old man then took us on a tour of the swamp, swinging out to the east so that we could see the wild ocean there and the huge rollers breaking on its dark, rocky shore. The eastern sky was covered with night-dark clouds with only a hint of indigo in them, but gloriously beautiful blue-white fire laced the waves as they rolled in toward the beach, which was cobbled in what might have been bits of lava rock. Remembering the red tides that haunted California’s beaches, I winced at the thought of what that beach would look – and smell – like come day. If, in fact, the Sun ever rose here.

Then Phlegyas swung back to the north, headed toward Level Seven. As we headed across the swamp and then the ocean, which apparently abutted the land here on more than one side, rather than blue-white chemical lightning, images from Bosch, Dalí, Michelangelo, and other masters flashed again and again on the breaking waves, and the beaches were filled with runes and letters from countless languages and cultures. The ocean itself took on a sunset glory, a shield of bloody red light, molten gold, and cadmium orange laced with rays of cobalt blue and emerald green rising up in the west but somehow not even touching that vast expanse of sea to the east. The darkening opalescent northern sky seemed like a great, complex, fantastically carven precious stone itself. And the western beaches, of which we caught glimpses from time to time, seemed to sparkle and gleam with precious stones and metals. The whole scene was utterly surreal, something out of the Arabian Nights crossed with the literary LSD-dreams of the 20th-century authors Michael Shea and C. L. Moore.

Tracking back and forth between the swamp and the nearer reaches of the ocean, eventually we passed those western beaches, discovering that they were in fact covered with enormous hills of real pirate treasure, endless reaches of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and lesser gemstones as well as chalices, katanas, and other artifacts made of what appeared to be silver, platinum, and pure beaten gold.

But much as we might have wanted to stop there and check out those interesting attractions on the western beach, Phlegyas didn’t stop, only saying, “It’s all fairy gold, don’t ye know, m’ dears. Turns into a pumpkin or dead leaves or ashes or used toilet-paper or somethin’ of the sort the next morning.” Grinning, as the two of us simultaneously rewarded his revelation with a heartfelt “Igghhhhh!”, he said, “We’re comin’ up on the south now. That’s where you need to get out. Kinda wish you didn’t though, you two are some o’ the pleasantest passengers I ever carried accrost these rivers an’ swamps an’ all . . .”

“Awww . . .” Lu' said, blushing.

“You’re pretty nice, too, sir,” I told him. “It really has been a pleasure for us, traveling with you.”

“Well, sounds like it’s mutual,” the old man said, smiling. “Tell ya what: you get through Level VII, I’ll ferry ya over to Level VIII. I mean, that’s my job, but I’m bettin’ you two’ll make it. Not many do, but there’s somethin’ about the two o’ ya that smells like hope – a rare perfume here, if I say so m’self! – Okay, now here we come to the landin’ for Level VII.”

Indeed, we were at last looping around to the southwest, where we could see a large, immaculate, shocking-pink pier jutting out from a verge above a long drop down the inner slope of the verge to a city far below. Gently Phlegyas pulled up to the pier. For the first time I realized that the sky and land-forms on each side of the swamp were different from those of the other three – here along the southern reaches of the lands where the entrance to Level VII lay, the skies to the south were a glorious noontime blue, only a few puffy cumuli floating in it, while to the north the sky was almost cobalt blue, to the east, the sky was a sort of champagne sea-green, and to the west, it was blue with a rim of dark clouds along the horizon, hinting at a developing storm.

I stared in wonder at the land we were approaching. It looked as if it were the top of a huge plateau above which was empty air for several miles. The plateau’s sides went down and down into boiling foam and mist like that at the bottom of a waterfall, but if there was water below, it wasn’t visible. Two or three very small falls, probably outlets from freshwater springs, could be seen here and there on the sides of the plateau, but not enough to suggest anything that could have been responsible for all that foamy mist.

But the strangest thing, the one that had caught my eye, was a long, miles-wide rope of what might have been marshy soil and swamp-water which, descending from the bottom of what had to be Level VI, far above, made a spiraling coil at least a hundred miles across reaching all the way down to Level VII. We hadn’t come across a flat marshland or ordinary seas – here, the seas somehow abutted that coil, twisted around like something out of M. C. Escher’s most delirious work, a gigantic screw of water bordered by watery earth or vice-versa. And yet we had never felt the gravitational cues that would have told us we were traversing such a marvel, never felt them! The skies above those seas were also wedded on one edge to that weird ribbon connecting the two levels, a prodigy that would have made a topologist’s head ache.

And I also saw now that Level VII was connected to Level VI by the black basalt walls of a surrounding well of rock, which likely ascended all the way to the Entrance to Club Vesta, and descended to the Exit, the spaces not filled by mist and foam or ocean or marsh or land occupied solely by air. Where could such a vast hole in the Earth exist? Were we even on Earth now? If not, where? Tears started in my eyes as we approached our goal, that long cerise pier for which our boat was heading. What had we done? Whyever had we gone on the Tour? God help us both!

As the skiff rumbled to a halt, Phlegyas jumped out, pulling one end of a tar-covered rope out of the boat with him. Quickly he snubbed it around a tall bollard among long lines of them set on both sides of the pier and tied it off. “Here,” he said, extending a hand to us, “let me help you up.”

With his help, Lu' and I stepped up onto the pier, which was about a foot above the gunwales of the boat. “Now, you two just go down that there path, the one that kinda winds around, see that? It’ll take you to that city down there.”

Thanking him profusely – he was a highly enjoyable guide – we took our leave of him and, as he told us to, walked the length of the pier, which abutted the beginning of the path.

The path was a garden way, surrounded by gorgeous flowers, humming with honeybees in numbers never seen any more anywhere in California or Washington State, giving off the perfumes of an Islamic Paradise.

About halfway down, Lu' suddenly elbowed me in the ribs. “See those down there, surrounding the entrance to the place?” she said. “They’re centaurs!”

“Uh-oh . . .”

“Oh, we’ll brazen it out somehow. Come on, it can’t be too bad,” she said, continuing on down the path with me at her side. I was nervous, but not that nervous – clearly, this wasn’t Dante’s Inferno. He’d probably have had a heart-attack if he’d ever encountered Club Vesta, what with its erotic take on everything.

Finally we reached the bottom of the path, coming out onto a walkway paved in beautifully polished, rose-colored Etowa marble slabs that had been cut so perfectly that they fit together with no space at all between adjoining slabs, and no sign of plaster or clay joins. In turn, the walkway took us to a large terrace covered in the same marble slabs, which fronted the entrance to the city we had seen from above, surrounded by vast emerald lawns stretching far into the distance, where they met long lines of pines, other conifers, clubmoss trees, and deciduous trees, all various rich shades of green in the summery vista.

The city, it turned out, resembled ancient Athens in appearance, all colonnaded walks and graceful, elegant public buildings and what might have been a few stately homes, but looked from the outside as if it were as big as modern Seattle. The structures we could see were tinted in various colors, just as the ancient Greeks actually painted their statues and temples, decorated with large, running frescoes that in some cases completely wrapped the upper levels of the buildings, their outer portions simple structures with marble roofs, open to the warm, fragrant air. Unlike the buildings of ancient Athens, some structures were as much as ten stories tall. Everywhere we looked, huge gardens filled with a riot of gloriously beautiful flowers lined the countless walkways between buildings and the bases of the buildings themselves; the humming of bees and flashing colors of butterflies and dragonflies filled the air. We could hear the music of countless plashing fountains coming to us from within the city.

A lightly bearded centaur came up to us, his hooves clip-clopping smartly on the marble of the terrace. “Who be ye?” he asked, his manner not precisely threatening but definitely suspicious.

“I am Mrs. Luciferia Skua,” Lu' told him, “and this is my friend, Ms. Eshda Drake. We . . . we’re headed all the way down.”

“To Level IX?” he said. His brows knitted together in what might have been puzzlement . . . or concern.

“That, and the Exit,” Lu' told him.

“I – both of you?” he said. Clearly he was concerned. He was also clearly not one of the dangerous barbarian centaurs of yore – he was almost alarmingly civilized, polite, and even, I thought, kind.

“Yes,” I said. “Me, too.”

“Christos!” said the centaur, crossing himself.

Lu’ looked shocked. “I – uh –”

“I hope you know what you are doing,” he told us gravely, giving Lu' a moment to pull herself together. The idea of a Roman Catholic Centaur had thrown her for a loop. “Why are you – well, it’s none of my business, I suppose, but I hope you know that situations on this Level can become, well, deadly. Not always, but enough times to make it nearly . . . Oh, well, you’ll find out for yourselves. And you do have those guns you’re wearing on your persons, I see.”

“And knives, and kusarifundos, and . . . other things,” I told him.

“And we really do know how to use them,” said Lu'.

“If so, ladies, you’re among the very few who get this far.”

“By the way, are you Chiron?” I asked him, curious now.

“No, madame, I am Nessus. I am, however, reformed, and will not do you harm. As for Chiron, he has gone to the region between Levels VII and VIII, to try to alleviate the suffering of so many there. It is likely he will even save some, and help them go at least a little farther down if they want to. But there are so few who make it that far alive, however, damaged, so few, so few . . .” He look stricken, thinking about it. “I would counsel you two not to go farther – it can be beautiful here, just outside Level VII, even for all eternity. But if you are determined, of course you may continue here.”

The other centaurs, who had hung back, came forward. They seemed timid. What had happened to them? Centaurs were supposed to be ferocious, murderous and cruel, rape and battle foremost on their minds. Yet these were . . . too civilized. How had it happened?

Then I saw it: all of them, clearly male, nevertheless lacked testicles. Literally. They weren't reformed, they were neutered. In keeping with that, the hair on their human chests and jaws was thin and fine, a boy’s pelage, not a man’s.

“Shall we show them into the foyer?” asked one of the centaurs of Nessus.

“Yes, even well-armed and trained to put those weapons to use, they’ll need an escort past the worst of it,” he told the other centaur. Turning back to us, he said, “You will need a native guide, mesdames. These are Philip, Chanklo, and Hidalgo, among my best troopers . . .”

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