Authors: Neal Stephenson
To the woman upstairs
State your intentions, Muse. I know you’re there.
Dead bards who pined for you have said
You’re bright as flame, but fickle as the air.
My pen and I, submerged in liquid shade,
Much dark can spread, on days and over reams
But without you, no radiance can shed.
Why rustle in the dark, when fledged with fire?
Craze the night with flails of light. Reave
Your turbid shroud. Bestow what I require.
But you’re not in the dark. I do believe
I swim, like squid, in clouds of my own make,
To you, offensive. To us both, opaque.
What’s constituted so, only a pen
Can penetrate. I have one here; let’s go.
Those who assume hypotheses as first principles of their speculations…may indeed form an ingenious romance, but a romance it will still be.
12, 1713, 10:33:52
NOCH ROUNDS THE CORNER JUST
as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head. The crowd on the Common stop praying and sobbing for just as long as Jack Ketch stands there, elbows locked, for all the world like a carpenter heaving a ridge-beam into place. The rope clutches a disk of blue New England sky. The Puritans gaze at it and, to all appearances, think. Enoch the Red reins in his borrowed horse as it nears the edge of the crowd, and sees that the executioner’s purpose is not to let them inspect his knotwork, but to give them all a narrow—and, to a Puritan, tantalizing—glimpse of the portal through which they all must pass one day.
Boston’s a dollop of hills in a spoon of marshes. The road up the spoon-handle is barred by a wall, with the usual gallows outside it, and victims, or parts of them, strung up or nailed to the city gates. Enoch has just come that way, and reckoned he had seen the last of such things—that thenceforth it would all be churches and taverns. But the dead men outside the gate were common robbers, killed for earthly crimes. What is happening now on the Common is of a more Sacramental nature.
The noose lies on the woman’s gray head like a crown. The executioner pushes it down. Her head forces it open like an infant’s dilating the birth canal. When it finds the widest part it drops suddenly onto her shoulders. Her knees pimple the front of her apron and her skirts telescope into the platform as she makes to collapse. The executioner hugs her with one arm, like a dancing-master, to keep her upright, and adjusts the knot while an official reads the death warrant. This is as bland as a lease. The crowd scratches and shuffles. There are none of the diversions of a London hanging: no catcalls, jugglers, or pickpockets. Down at the other end of the Common, a squadron of lobsterbacks drills and marches round the base of a hummock with a stone powder-house planted in its top.
An Irish sergeant bellows—bored but indignant—in a voice that carries forever on the wind, like the smell of smoke.
He’s not come to watch witch-hangings, but now that Enoch’s blundered into one it would be bad form to leave. There is a drum-roll, and then a sudden awkward silence. He judges it very far from the worst hanging he’s ever seen—no kicking or writhing, no breaking of ropes or unraveling of knots—all in all, an unusually competent piece of work.
He hadn’t really known what to expect of America. But people here seem to do things—hangings included—with a blunt, blank efficiency that’s admirable and disappointing at the same time. Like jumping fish, they go about difficult matters with bloodless ease. As if they were all born knowing things that other people must absorb, along with færy-tales and superstitions, from their families and villages. Maybe it is because most of them came over on ships.
As they are cutting the limp witch down, a gust tumbles over the Common from the North. On Sir Isaac Newton’s temperature scale, where freezing is zero and the heat of the human body is twelve, it is probably four or five. If Herr Fahrenheit were here with one of his new quicksilver-filled, sealed-tube thermometers, he would probably observe something in the fifties. But this sort of wind, coming as it does from the North in the autumn, is more chilling than any mere instrument can tell. It reminds everyone here that if they don’t want to be dead in a few months’ time, they have firewood to stack and chinks to caulk. The wind is noticed by a hoarse preacher at the base of the gallows, who takes it to be Satan himself, come to carry the witch’s soul to hell, and who is not slow to share this opinion with his flock. The preacher is staring Enoch in the eye as he testifies.
Enoch feels the heightened, chafing self-consciousness that is the precursor to fear. What’s to prevent them from trying and hanging
as a witch?
How must he look to these people? A man of indefinable age but evidently broad experience, with silver hair queued down to the small of his back, a copper-red beard, pale gray eyes, and skin weathered and marred like a blacksmith’s ox-hide apron. Dressed in a long traveling-cloak, a walking-staff and an outmoded rapier strapped ‘longside the saddle of a notably fine black horse. Two pistols in his waistband, prominent enough that Indians, highwaymen, and French raiders can clearly see them from ambuscades (he’d like to move them out of view, but reaching for them at this moment seems like a bad idea). Saddlebags (should they be
searched) filled with instruments, flasks of quicksilver, and stranger matters—some, as they’d learn, quite dangerous—books in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin pocked with the occult symbols of Alchemists and Kabalists. Things could go badly for him in Boston.
But the crowd takes the preacher’s ranting not as a call to arms but a signal to turn and disperse, muttering. The redcoats discharge their muskets with deep hissing booms, like handfuls of sand hurled against a kettledrum. Enoch dismounts into the midst of the colonists. He sweeps the robe round him, concealing the pistols, pulls the hood back from his head, and amounts to just another weary pilgrim. He does not meet any man’s eye but scans their faces sidelong, and is surprised by a general lack of self-righteousness.
“God willing,” one man says, “that’ll be the last one.”
“Do you mean, sir, the last witch?” Enoch asks.
“I mean, sir, the last hanging.”
Flowing like water round the bases of the steep hills, they migrate across a burying ground on the south edge of the Common, already full of lost Englishmen, and follow the witch’s corpse down the street. The houses are mostly of wood, and so are the churches. Spaniards would have built a single great cathedral here, of stone, with gold on the inside, but the colonists cannot agree on anything and so it is more like Amsterdam: small churches on every block, some barely distinguishable from barns, each no doubt preaching that all of the others have it wrong. But at least they can muster a consensus to kill a witch. She is borne off into a new burying ground, which for some reason they have situated hard by the granary. Enoch is at a loss to know whether this juxtaposition—that is, storing their Dead, and their Staff of Life, in the same place—is some sort of Message from the city’s elders, or simple bad taste.
Enoch, who has seen more than one city burn, recognizes the scars of a great fire along this main street. Houses and churches are being rebuilt with brick or stone. He comes to what must be the greatest intersection in the town, where this road from the city gate crosses a very broad street that runs straight down to salt water, and continues on a long wharf that projects far out into the harbor, thrusting across a ruined rampart of stones and logs: the rubble of a disused sea-wall. The long wharf is ridged with barracks. It reaches far enough out into the harbor that one of the Navy’s very largest men-of-war is able to moor at its end. Turning his head the other way, he sees artillery mounted up on a hillside, and blue-coated gunners tending to a vatlike mortar, ready to lob iron
bombs onto the decks of any French or Spanish galleons that might trespass on the bay.
So, drawing a mental line from the dead criminals at the city gate, to the powder-house on the Common, to the witch-gallows, and finally to the harbor defenses, he has got one Cartesian number-line—what Leibniz would call the Ordinate—plotted out: he understands what people are afraid of in Boston, and how the churchmen and the generals keep the place in hand. But it remains to be seen what can be plotted in the space above and below. The hills of Boston are skirted by endless flat marshes that fade, slow as twilight, into Harbor or River, providing blank empty planes on which men with ropes and rulers can construct whatever strange curves they phant’sy.
Enoch knows where to find the Origin of this coordinate system, because he has talked to ship’s masters who have visited Boston. He goes down to where the long wharf grips the shore. Among fine stone sea-merchants’ houses, there is a brick-red door with a bunch of grapes dangling above it. Enoch goes through that door and finds himself in a good tavern. Men with swords and expensive clothes turn round to look at him. Slavers, merchants of rum and molasses and tea and tobacco, and captains of the ships that carry those things. It could be any place in the world, for the same tavern is in London, Cadiz, Smyrna, and Manila, and the same men are in it. None of them cares, supposing they even know, that witches are being hanged five minutes’ walk away. He is much more comfortable in here than out there; but he has not come to be comfortable. The particular sea-captain he’s looking for—van Hoek—is not here. He backs out before the tavern-keeper can tempt him.
Back in America and among Puritans, he enters into narrower streets and heads north, leading his horse over a rickety wooden bridge thrown over a little mill-creek. Flotillas of shavings from some carpenter’s block-plane sail down the stream like ships going off to war. Underneath them the weak current nudges turds and bits of slaughtered animals down towards the harbor. It smells accordingly. No denying there is a tallow-chandlery not far upwind, where beast-grease not fit for eating is made into candles and soap.
“Did you come from Europe?”
someone was following him, but
nothing whenever he looked back. Now he knows why: his doppelgänger is a lad, moving about like a drop of quicksilver that cannot be trapped under the thumb. Ten years old, Enoch guesses. Then the
boy thinks about smiling and his lips part. His gums support a rubble of adult teeth shouldering their way into pink gaps, and deciduous ones flapping like tavern signs on skin hinges. He’s closer to eight. But cod and corn have made him big for his age—at least by London standards. And he is precocious in every respect save social graces.
Enoch might answer,
Yes, I am from Europe, where a boy addresses an old man as “sir,” if he addresses him at all
. But he cannot get past the odd nomenclature. “Europe,” he repeats, “is that what you name it here? Most people
“But we have Christians
Christendom, you are saying,” says Enoch, “but, obviously to you, I’ve come from somewhere
. Perhaps Europe
the better term, now that you mention it. Hmm.”
“What do other people call it?”
“Do I look like a schoolmaster to you?”
“No, but you talk like one.”
“You know something of schoolmasters, do you?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy says, faltering a bit as he sees the jaws of the trap swinging toward his leg.
“Yet here it is the middle of Monday—”
“The place was empty ‘cause of the Hanging. I didn’t want to stay and—”
“Get more ahead of the others than I was already.”
“If you are ahead, the correct thing is to
get used to it
—not to make yourself into an imbecile. Come, you belong in school.”
“School is where one learns,” says the boy. “If you’d be so kind as to answer my question, sir, then I should be learning something, which would mean I
The boy is obviously dangerous. So Enoch decides to accept the proposition. “You may address me as Mr. Root. And you are—?”
“Ben. Son of Josiah. The tallow-chandler. Why do you laugh, Mr. Root?”
“Because in most parts of Christendom—or Europe—tallow-chandlers’ sons do not go to grammar school. It is a peculiarity of…your people.” Enoch almost let slip the word
. Back in England, where Puritans are a memory of a bygone age, or at worst streetcorner nuisances, the term serves well enough to lampoon the backwoodsmen of Massachusetts Bay Colony. But as he keeps being reminded here, the truth of the matter is more complex. From a coffeehouse in London, one may speak blithely of Islam and the Mussulman, but in Cairo such terms are void. Here
Enoch is in the Puritans’ Cairo. “I shall answer your question,” Enoch says before Ben can let fly with any more. “What do people in other parts call the place I am from? Well, Islam—a larger, richer, and in most ways more sophisticated civilization that hems in the Christians of Europe to the east and the south—divides all the world into only three parts: their part, which is the
; the part with which they are friendly, which is the
or House of Peace; and everything else, which is the
, or House of War. The latter is, I’m sorry to say, a far more apt name than Christendom for the part of the world where most of the Christians live.”
“I know of the war,” Ben says coolly. “It is at an end. A Peace has been signed at Utrecht. France gets Spain. Austria gets the Spanish Netherlands. We get Gibraltar, Newfoundland, St. Kitts, and—” lowering his voice “—the slave trade.”
“Ssh! There are a few here, sir, opposed to it, and they are dangerous.”
“You have Barkers here?”
Enoch studies the boy’s face now with some care, for the chap he is looking for is a sort of Barker, and it would be useful to know how such are regarded hereabouts by their less maniacal brethren. Ben seems cautious, rather than contemptuous.
“But you are speaking only of
“The War of the Spanish Succession,” says Ben, “whose cause was the death in Madrid of King Carlos the Sufferer.”
“I should say that wretched man’s death was the
not the cause,” says Enoch. “The War of the Spanish Succession was only the second, and I pray the last, part of a great war that began a quarter of a century ago, at the time of—”
“The Glorious Revolution!”
“As some style it. You
been at your lessons, Ben, and I commend you. Perhaps you know that in that Revolution the King of England—a Catholic—was sent packing, and replaced by a Protestant King and Queen.”
“William and Mary!”
“Indeed. But has it occurred to you to wonder
Protestants and Catholics were at war in the first place?”