In the soft brown of early morning, my brother’s penmanship was always sharp against the rising sky. Other scribes handled their quill-spears with more grace, perhaps. My brother looked as though he was warring with the horizon, the ribbons of ink rising like jagged smoke from the tip of his quill-spear. But what he wrote was clear.
Now he has gone.
They say that from the cities of the Brittle Terrain, a full day’s journey behind us and away from the horizon, it is difficult to see our writing at all, impossible to make out the names of God we scribe onto the sky’s parchment. Yet from where we work, at the edge of the eastern horizon, where the sky rises up from below in a continuous wave, the vertical columns of script do not begin to fade until they’ve reached the level of the lowest clouds. At that height, the curling loops and slanting lines of our worship finally blur to become a rising braid of ink. I try to imagine how it looks from the cities, the ink of hundreds of scribes so faded by distance that some might mistake it for rain along the horizon.
Before the sky claimed my brother’s arm, my uncle used to laugh at the pilgrims who came from the Interior to watch our work.
“They’re frightened,” he would tell us, his grin the flash of white teeth in the thicket of his beard. “They have never seen the sky rising. They watch the sun move across it each day but don’t consider what the sky’s speed is like here, at the edge of the horizon.”
I asked him once how fast the sky rose up from the horizon. I thought if one could put a number to that, and if the sky had the shape of an inverted bowl as we had been taught, then that speed could be used to determine its size, to determine how far the ink-etched parchment of the sky arched above us and descended down toward the fabled western horizon.
My uncle did not know. What he wanted to talk about instead—what he wanted me, as an apprentice, to understand, for he was that year our master—was the why and the how of the scribes’ work upon the parchment sky.
“It is a dance. Work with it,” he would bellow, sweeping his own quill-spear upward as he spoke. “Long, thin upstrokes and heavy, solid downstrokes. Let the sky take the ink.”
My brother would stand before the rising sky as he wrote. I always remained with the apprentices behind the ink-troughs that separated the smooth ground at the horizon’s very edge from the shallow sandy depression where we labored to mix ink to the correct consistency.
“Not for God,” my uncle would shout at us as we brought the brimming buckets of ink up the low steps toward the horizon. “Not to God. For us and for each other, and for all our people.”
I wondered how this was true; if none from the Brittle Terrain could even read the script flowing skyward.
This was all before my brother stained the sky with his blood and someone wrote back.
On the day of my brother’s fall, the air was especially clear, and I could see leagues to the north where the ink of the Porphyry Sea cast its long stain up the curve of sky. I had not yet touched a quill.
Our quarters held a hundred and twelve scribes, and we were but one of the smaller scribing guilds that kept entire leagues of the horizon supplied each day with writers. It was a task that extended over generations, sustaining the string of villages that stretched in an arch along the horizon.
As apprentices, our labor was intentionally light. My brother and the rest of the scribes worked tirelessly, but their ink buckets only needed to be fetched a few times each hour. Most of our time as apprentices was spent watching and learning the art of scripting. In another year or two, perhaps, I would have learned enough of the flowing script to take my place beside my brother, to be entrusted with my own quill-spear and to mark the sky with the names of God, as my parents and their parents had before them.
On this day though, the ground trembled. The sky continued hissing upward against the stone sill of the horizon, the narrow ledge where the scribers stood that marked the very edge of the world, but for a moment it seemed we could hear the Celestial Pivot itself groan. The stone beside my brother’s foot split, and a slice of the ground fell away.
I watched him pitch forward, away from this crevice, his quill stuttering against the sky. He reached out in panic to steady himself and touched the only thing at hand, the thing we were taught from our childhood to never dare touch—not for fear of desecrating it but because of the cold fury of its speed. In a moment the rising parchment of the sky was streaked with his blood. I leapt across the shallow trough of ink, but my uncle was swifter, grabbing my brother by the shoulders and pulling him backward. The thin line of crimson on the sky ended abruptly, trailing my brother’s script upward like an angry meteor.
His arm was a ruin of red and bone.
He did not scream. The whole thing took place in an instant, in profound silence. The wall of sky continued to rise up beside us, mute and inscrutable.
When I was younger, I asked my brother why we wrote the names of God on the sky.
“So God can read them,” my brother said, clapping me on the shoulder. “So She will know we are here and that we remember Her.”
I turned my eyes to the west each evening, hoping to see on the far side of the sky some sign of my brother’s words descending, but the ink was never visible from so far. From such a great distance the sky seemed a completely blank sheet, as though all the ink from the hundreds of scribes had been swallowed in emptiness.
“It fades in its passage through the sky,” my brother explained. “The sun bleaches the ink to nothing as it passes overhead.” He smiled, though we would later learn he was wrong, that our writing did indeed descend the sky and was simply lost to sight in the distance. “It does not matter though. God reads them on the way up.”
Once the sun went down, we would light the torches the scribes carried on the long handles of their quill-spears and walk back down from the stone hills of the horizon to the long low lodges where we passed the black nights.
But now my brother could no longer write. Though I was not yet ready, it was decided I would be the one to take his place on the horizon. With him dictating and guiding my strokes, we would work together at the sky until he learned to handle the quill-spear with his single arm.
It fell to me.
The quake that had trembled the horizon and cost my brother his arm had cracked the sill of stone upon which we scribes stood. There was a fissure through it, a crevice. I had assumed the rock of the sill extended far beneath us, that it was a solid face underground abutting the sky, and perhaps in some locations along the horizon it was. But here it seemed rather a thin shelf, and now, beside where my brother had stood, there was a chasm gaping in the ground, walled on two sides by sheer rock and the third by the rising sky. I could see only emptiness below.
I tried not to stand too near this chasm, but on the day my brother was well enough to return to the horizon and I put my own quill-spear against the parchment of the sky, I thought I saw faint figures trailing up the parchment like smoke, rising from that crevice.
“Keep it steady!” my brother shouted.
The sky was trying to tear the quill from my arms. It was as though I was running along a smooth wall, trying to write a message upon it as I went, except it was not I that was moving but the wall. Or as though I stood inches from a river raging in full flood, a river that could carry me away if I stood too close, as it had torn away my brother’s arm. I realized then that half of what the scribes had to learn was not the curve of the script but the courage to stand against the rising sky and write upon it. Even though I had watched my brother do it for years, it took all my will to remain there with my feet set and make half-legible markings on the rising surface.
I was distracted from my fear though by these faint, faded markings already on the parchment. They rose from the crevice, from below the missing strip of the stone sill, but were quickly covered by my own wavering script.
My uncle came to watch us. He stood silently. “It will do,” he finally said. “But wider. Take your full space along the horizon.”
That night as I clasped my aching arms against my chest, I asked my brother if he had noticed the new words on the sky.
“What do you mean?”
“Coming from the rift in the earth. Before I wrote over them.”
My brother studied me. “Could you read them?”
“No. There was no time. Should we tell uncle?”
He pondered. I could see some idea coming to him, rising on the horizon of his consciousness like words spinning skyward.
“No,” he finally said. “Not until we know what it says.”
“But I can’t read it if I’m writing.”
That night, as I went to sleep, I could hear him outside the thin walls of the scribes’ quarters practicing holding and thrusting the quill-spear with a single arm, and hear it fall over and over into the soft grass.
Sooner than any expected, my brother and I had exchanged places again. He rested his wounded arm along the length of the quill, pretending it pained him more than it did so that I would be allowed to stay beside him. He said he needed me close to steady him in case his single arm threw him off balance. But what he really wanted was for me to read the faint script that emerged from the crevice in the stone before he covered it over with his own strokes.
The strange words were faint enough to be invisible from more than a pace or two away. I would not have noticed them that first time at all had I not been writing in my brother’s place. It seemed they were only visible now because the quake had broken stones away from the edge of the sill. Otherwise the words would have been scraped away as the parchment hissed upward against the stone.
It would have raised questions had I brought my own writing implements to transcribe the new script as it rose. I could do nothing but capture their meaning and commit it to memory as they rose from the crack in the earth, before my brother covered them over with his own scripting of the names of God.
“What did they say?” he asked when we stopped for the first meal of the day. We would switch now, for he still was not strong enough to spend the entire day writing. I took his quill-spear and shook my head. I could read them, despite the fact that the writing was strangely angular and seemed to reverse several of the figures in our own. But they brought a message of confusion; what they told me colored my thoughts and tainted what my faltering strokes spelled out. The names of God I wrote upon the sky were weak.
My brother, and our parents before him, poured out names in long phrases that rose as poetry into the sky. There were certain patterns and rhythms, certain formulas, that were learned, of course. Those were only the scaffolding though. They were supposed to be the bones upon which we built our own worship.
My brother was watching over my shoulder. I saw disdain on his features as I passed the quill back to him when we switched again for the evening meal. He was obviously disappointed with my offerings.
But writing was difficult, and not simply because I was still new and practicing the art. It was difficult because I heard the words of the ghost-script I had read that morning echoing in the back of my mind as I wrote.
There is no God behind our sky.
We pulled him down and carved him and ate his flesh.
We whittled his bones to make our palaces.
Where does your God dwell?
Perhaps she is sister to ours, whose blood now taints our seas.
Yours is the first new writing we have read.
“What did it say?” my brother asked me again, when the day was done and the long lines of arching ink were fading as the sun fell at our backs.
I told him, and then I watched his eyes.
“You’re reading it wrong,” he said.
“I am not. The script is strange but in our language, and with our letters. There are people beneath our feet, and they are sending their words back to us.”
“You are reading the words wrong,” he said again. “Try again tomorrow, and get it right.”
I tried again. Again the words rose up like smoke from the crack at the world’s edge.
Your words are as lovely and meaningless as wind.
There is no Dark-Binder or Day-Keeper behind our sky.
We tore our sky and pulled God from above it, and he broke in the fall.
His corpse lay prone for a century, and we warred with the maggots within.
I squatted that night at the side of the path that led back to our quarters and fished the bracken for a short stick. When I found one, I traced a circle on the sandy path and an ellipse within it.
“This is us at the horizon, where we write. The words go up, and then they come down. We thought our words were bleached by the sun as they passed overhead,” I explained. “We thought they were for God alone. But our words sink beneath the western horizon and are read by...”
I twirled the stick with something like anger.
My brother looked at me. I could see him trying to work through the implications. His eyes traced the circle I had drawn and then flashed upward to the growing black of the arching parchment above our heads.
“Someone is reading. Someone is writing a message back to us,” I said. “Down there. Underneath.”
He shook his head slowly and stepped back onto the path. The movement set the lantern that hung from the butt of his spear-quill swinging.
“There’s nothing down there,” he said.
“The sky has to go somewhere.”
“It goes up to God, who reads our words as they pass.”
He continued walking. “Then it slips beneath the earth.”
I brushed away my sketch before hurrying after him. That final statement was my brother reaching a decision, but I did not know it then. What he said haunted me as I lay in darkness in our lodge that night and tried not to see in my mind’s eye the parchment I had written on that morning, now arching far below me across a strange and inverted sky.
Our trees have knives, the writing said in the morning as it rose before me. They aided us in our war on God.
I had argued with my brother on our walk to the horizon.
“They want to know about us,” I told him. “They’re asking questions. We should give them something.”
He shook his head. “The sky is fit for nothing but the names of God. We’re not augers. We don’t pen questions, hoping for a response.”
I thought on this as I scanned the script that my brother’s writing was erasing. When it came my turn to relieve him, I did the best I could.
Sky-healer, I wrote.
Sustainer and Upholder of the Sky.
The Whole and Un-fractured.
Answers came the next morning, spiraling up from that crack in the stone.
Does the God above your sky respond?
Does she wonder what happened to her brother?
Tell her his flesh was sweet and our ancestors build cities along his spine.
Come up and see.
“They’re mocking us,” I told my brother.
My brother acted as if he did not hear. I watched his words drift upward, his dark ink effacing the messages beneath. Whatever lies they believed below, our sky would only carry upward the names of God.
Provision of Bounty and Keeper of All Winds and Harvest.
Pivot of Mercy.
The words seemed futile to me now. What message had God ever returned from the silently turning sky? We had worked at the horizon season after season for as long as anyone could remember, and what word had God ever sent in response? The sky was parchment and the entire sea ink, and yet there had never been a whisper of reply from above.
“Here.” I indicated a point on my diagram, which I had inked on calfskin. “This is where we write. The words go up from the eastern horizon, and they descend beneath the world at the west.” I paused and rotated the diagram a half turn, so what had previously been the top was now the bottom. “This is where the reader must wait, just below the western horizon— their eastern horizon. They read our words there where they emerge, and they write their messages and send them across their sky, back to their western horizon, which is below our eastern horizon.”
I met my brother’s eyes, which were serious. “Or they could be here,” he said, pointing to the spot just below where we wrote. “They could read our words as they fall back to their western horizon and pen their messages then. Sliding them beneath the horizon to us.”
“Could you write messages on a sky moving downward instead of up?”
He shrugged. “Possibly. Maybe that’s why the script is strange. Maybe that’s why it’s reversed.”
I puzzled on that and found I did not like the idea of someone waiting just below our feet, someone scrawling messages to us as their sun dipped toward their evening and our morning. The messages I read, if that was true, were fresh from the quill of someone just below us.
“But they say they killed their god.” I shuddered. “They brought him to earth and carved his body and made wine from the marrow of his bones.”
“The sky renews itself each morning,” my brother muttered, but it wasn’t an answer.
My brother had his few belongings packed before the glow of morning came to the parchment east. I heard him leave the lodge, but I waited in the darkness, willing myself to believe he had just gone outside for a moment. When I finally realized what was happening and rose to catch him, he was already starting down the path out of the pines.
I did not need to ask him where he was going. Instead I pleaded for him to stay. When that did not work, I got angry.
“There’s no way to get there,” I hissed. “You can walk straight to the western horizon or circle the entire rim and come back old and broken, but there’s no path down to the other side. You will never find your way down to where they write below us.”
“Maybe not,” he said mildly.
“You’re afraid it’s right. You’re afraid of the things it says, about—about what it’s like down there. You think it’s right. But it’s not. It’s just a lie.”
“No one can write lies on the sky,” he said. He turned away. “Goodbye, little brother.”
He carried his long oaken spear-quill. I watched him until he was lost in the darkness, the quill lifted up over his shoulder like an awkward wave farewell.
Maybe my brother is still out there trying to reach the western horizon and find a way down to the world beneath. We all doubt miracles, I realized that morning as I walked with the other scribes back to the horizon in the growing light, except for the miracle of the world itself. The words coming up over the lip of the world were a kind of miracle as well, but one that left the world seeming bleak and broken.
How does one make sense of such a thing? My brother believed there was only one way: by discovering who was writing the words, by searching for a hole in the earth through which he might pass to the other side and see for himself whether what they wrote was true.
I hefted the length of my spear-quill in the morning light. It was of sturdy oak, but I thought of how my brothers’ bones had splintered against the sky. An apprentice brought a bucket of ink for the first words of the day, but I ignored it. The portion of the quill that drank the ink was too soft, formed of a bundled bristle of hairs like a stiff brush. Instead I thrust the other end into the crevice that still remained at the horizon’s stone lip, wedging it against the rasping parchment, and threw my weight against it.
The sound of the spear cracking echoed along the horizon.
When I pulled it out the end was broken to a long, tapering point. I pushed it back into the crevice and again levered it against the sky. A faint line began to rise from its point, climbing the parchment like a serpent, though I had given it no ink.
I pushed harder, and the line darkened.
It was a seam, a furrow, on the sky.
I leaned backward against the spear, straining to hold its wedged end against the sky, hearing a new whispered ripping rise alongside the smooth hiss of rolling parchment.
I heard my uncle shouting behind me. The other scribes around me watched the rising black thread in horror.
The ripping grew to a roar.
Then abruptly the pressure ceased. The end of the spear fell toward me as its point pushed through the sky and caught on something beyond. On either side, the parchment rose around it, ripping along the broken point of the spear like the flow of water around a river-stone. But unlike water, the parchment did not flow together again on the spear’s upper edge.
A tear in the sky rose upward from where I stood.
From the other side, a cold, stale wind. And the reek of decay.