Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams





That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote

This story also appears in K.J. Bishop’s collection, THAT BOOK YOUR MAD ANCESTOR WROTE, which is available now.

The first Alsiso was a gift from Lord Grastiac’s murderer. The word came from the lexicon of a dead language—a language which had gone to the scaffold laughing three hundred years ago, with alsiso being one of its last words. The assassin wrote alsiso on the pale carpet in the nobleman’s blood, balancing the death of the man with the resurrection of one word. Why? A message? A joke? A sentimental whim? An act without reason at all, such as might amuse an anarchist? No one knew what alsiso meant. Most people assumed it was the assassin’s name.

Three other lords were murdered in the city that year, without any apparent connection of motive. Yet connected they were, by one element: in all three cases the blood of the victim was used to write the word alsiso.

The assassin was searched for but never caught.

“Be good,” parents told their children, “or Alsiso will come in the night and get you.”

On the Day of the Gone, along with the white candy skulls at the festival stalls there were red ones representing Alsiso. Delicious to children, Alsiso was eaten thousands of times. Older boys and girls fitted kisses around his boiled sugar cranium. Candlemakers painted prayer-candles with charms to keep Alsiso away. These were popular with nobles, who sent their servants out to buy them. Alsiso was already turning from a natural being into a magical one. Since he (the people thought of Alsiso as male, the -o ending being masculine in their language) was a villain too tricky for the police, it seemed best to make him into the sort of creature against whom at least priests and witches could provide effective protection.

The carpet trade, too, did well out of Alsiso, after it was put around that a red floor-covering would discourage the murderous intruder, the wisdom in the argument being that Alsiso would have no desire to write in blood on a surface which would camouflage his graffito. There was such a run on red carpets, rugs, and mats that fast ships had to be sent to bring more from the bazaars of the East.

Yule came and went, then the Festival of the Master Singers. There were no more Alsiso murders, and the public fear subsided. Alsiso became old news. The red carpets were put into storage or thrown away, and the old pastel ones were brought out and spread down on bedroom floors again.

But not everyone put Alsiso out of mind. Among the lower orders of society there were malcontents who liked to think of dead lords. In gin-shops without tables, in taverns with floors of mud, in labourers’ and foot soldiers’ camps, toasts were drunk to Alsiso. An anti-establishment pamphlet called Alsiso: The Voice of Blood! appeared on the streets. Four issues were printed and widely circulated before the author, a journeyman printer named Cyrus Knott, was arrested, convicted of sedition, and publicly garroted.

People forgot Knott, but some of them continued to remember Alsiso, who began turning up as a character in travelling pantomime shows. Initially there were really two Alsisos: One was a principled rogue, a knife in the hands of the common people; the other was a sinister buffoon. The latter gradually won dominance. This Alsiso wore black clothes with something red on his head, either a tall hat or a wig. He spoke in quatrains of doggerel. In the most widespread version of the pantomime, Alsiso suffered death by boiling in a laundry tub, and was borne off to Hell by the demonic Prince November. In some versions, Alsiso was redeemed through the kindness of another character or sheer good luck (the Prince’s coachman getting lost in a fog and driving Alsiso to Heaven instead, for instance), but these variations were never as popular as the one with the boiling.

Alsiso’s portrait was painted. Not by any renowned artist, to hang in a gallery; but the fraternity of interior decorators imported his face into the vocabulary of standard filler for corners and other awkward spots in frescoed rooms. Joining the lindworms and the lamiae, the Apple Crab, the Pope of the Moon, and other grotesques, Alsiso mugged out of many a gap between more serious and important figures. In the hands of stonemasons, Alsiso was brought into the family of gargoyles, drafted for cathedral downspout and corbel duty with the old cadre of goblinised pagan gods. Down on the pavements, screevers drew Alsiso in chalk. It was they who gave him new clothes, exchanging the black for a shirt and tights illuminated with blue, yellow, red, and green lozenges. Following this change, the name “Alsiso” was given to a type of similarly patterned jacquard cloth from the estates of Bathro, to the polychrome glass produced by the Risper factory, and to a gaudy nudibranch from the South Seas.

A hundred and fifty years after his first appearance, Alsiso emerged from the corners and returned to the midst of high society—if only, as in the beginning, at night. Chromatic as a parrot, and as wicked as you wished him to be, Alsiso was a popular fellow at masquerade parties. Alsiso, lord of misrule! Cutter of a dash! His motley figure climbed up to balconies night after night. He appeared in bedroom windows like a stained glass saint turned profane and lewd, with a tented crotch. Morning after morning, the rising sun kissed red hairs caught on lace pillowslips. Alsiso became a famous lover.

During the years of the duelling craze, when young men made a thing of getting up early to slay each other over matters of honour, Alsiso went back to his roots. He kept his dawn appointments. He killed. And he took his turn to die, gazing into the eyes of priests.

At the same time, he returned to outright villainy. One highwayman took Alsiso as his muse with such devotion that, in jail, he requested the hire of a motley suit and red wig to wear to the gallows. His request was granted. The sun kissed red hairs caught in a strong hempen rope. And when the ghost came clattering up from under the crossroads where the corpse was buried, it was Alsiso who galloped out of the earth on a black horse, his head burning with a light that sowed fires in the roadside trees.

But it was as a lover that Alsiso was known best, and for many years to call a man an “Alsiso” was to call him a ladies’ man, a carpet knight, a bedroom stallion, a rake, or a fool in love. So far so good for Alsiso; but the good times couldn’t last forever. With time, the flesh under the coloured shirt and tights acquired the undesirable patina of age. When the red wig slipped askew, you got an eyeful of a head as bald as a bunion. Alsiso was now a dirty old man, a peeping tom, a goblin in the corner again.

For Alsiso there were no more parties, no more bedrooms or fights or escapades. He couldn’t get any action. Other characters had his fun.

He even lost his place in the pantomime: It was now the Tax Collector whom Prince November carried off to damnation.

Alsiso’s exile lasted two hundred years. He roamed, vagrant, in distant lands, sleeping in fields of sugar cane, searching for his reflection in flooded temples where the bodies of monks had turned to fish, and he drank the ponging lees of sanctity. He kept company with foxes, monkeys, and rats. He acquainted himself with the deep nights of the earth, oceanic black hours against which the previous nights of his life were only a procession of shallow ponds.

And Alsiso walked abroad in the lands where the sun is like a lion, where there are more bells than flutes, more horses than birds, more mirrors than fountains, and more even numbers than odd.

None of this did Alsiso any good. Soaked in bad water, subjected to dust and wind and din, he began to suffer corrosion in his extremities. His discomfort increased every day. He suffered mentally, too, from the disappointment that life, even for a being such as he, is not forever. He had become so used to dying on stage and in duels without dying in the world that he felt a sort of perpetual shock at being reduced to a singular existence and therefore to true mortality.

In time, castaway Alsiso would have broken down into a pile of ash, a pile of sugar, and a puddle of nonsense. But he was called back into the public world. The summoner was Mrs. Wilhelmina Obie, who made Alsiso the protagonist of her novel Around the World in Seven Veils: The Memoir of an Adventuress.

Which is to say that Mrs. Obie turned Alsiso into a woman. Or halfway into a woman, since Alsiso goes through much of the novel disguised as a man. Mrs. Obie writes, untruthfully, that Alsiso is the name for the sea breeze on the northwest coast of Cape Cruzado, where she locates her heroine’s birthplace. The novel paints Alsiso’s life in the blue, red, green, and gold of sea, blood, jungle, and loot. The old black of Alsiso is reprised, too, in the complexion and attire of the heroine, in the ensign of her notorious ship, the Cargo Cult Queen, which she sails with her peculiar officers First Old Woman, Second Fiddle, and Third Leg, in enough gunpowder for three or four middle-sized wars, and down in the deep sea, in myths abiding below the sun’s reach: the endless fish that consumes time from the end towards the beginning, and the lightless house of Taffy Jonah the jailer of the dead, in which Alsiso is briefly incarcerated.

In her diary, Mrs. Obie wrote that she chose the name Alsiso after having a dream in which she “encountered a roguish person of that name, in an Oriental place, with many beasts about.”

Among those who admired Mrs. Obie’s book was the explorer Jude Herring. Adventuring in the highlands of New Summerland with Around the World in Seven Veils in his knapsack, Herring inscribed no less than four Alsisos—a Mount, a River, a Lake, and a Falls—on the map he was making.

The book was read by children. They brought Alsiso into their counting games and skipping-rope chants: Alsiso the half-and-half, boy and girl, wicked and wild, a bad example to all.

These days you all know Alsiso. You may have heard of the Auckland surrealists who named their clique Alsiso, finding in Alsiso’s incarnations a fitting emblem for strangeness, error, and disruption to the normal order of things. You have probably heard of Alsiso the matinee idol from the era of silent film—powdered and pomaded Alsiso of the deep eyes and hawk profile, Alsiso of the sad ghetto childhood and the adult life no one could approve of. Alsiso was a taxi dancer before he got into the movies, and jealous men called him “Alsiso the gigolo” to put him down. Always a looker more than a talker, he would have struggled and failed when sound came into the films. But Alsiso was saved, in a way: He was on the Princess Niobe on the night she sank, and was granted an apotheosis by the watery heavens.

Unless you’ve lived under a stone all your life, you know the later film By All My Sins Remembered. You’ve watched Nell Brynner and Lance Bardot kiss on the terrace of the Hotel Alsiso, and unless you are heartless, you’ve reached for a box of tissues at the end. That was the film that made Alsiso a word as potent as Paradiso or Tropicana, a talismanic word in the grimoire of inimitable living.

Inevitably Alsiso became a car: a long machine with tailfins like a fantasy of a rocket ship. There was the famous racehorse Alsiso: The name seems to bring fame with it. Among today’s Alsisos are a pop group, a washing machine, a computer virus, a hurricane, a heat-seeking missile, a professional wrestler; there are Alsiso streets, nightclubs, lipsticks, condoms, codenames; you can paint a town Alsiso Red; you can get an Alsiso cocktail at any bar (recipe: 2 oz. white rum, 1 oz. peach schnapps, 1 oz. rose syrup, poured over ice and topped with champagne).

The Earth is too crowded with Alsiso. And so Alsiso is moving out. A stray bitch is leaving the world tonight, on board a satellite. A one-way trip to a dog’s death—but no need to tell Alsiso . . .

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K.J. Bishop

KJ Bishop

K.J. Bishop is the award-winning author of the surreal-Western-decadent novel The Etched City, and the collection That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote. She is also an artist, currently concentrating on bronze sculpture. She lives in Bangkok.