A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Nightside the Long Sun’


Within the Whorl – whose lands are on the inside and which is lit by the Long Sun, running down its centre, around which a shade revolves, artificially creating night and day – in the ballpark of a run-down manteion on Sun Street, in a poor quarter of Viron, a young augur, Patera Silk, yellow-haired, devout, receives Enlightment in the middle of a game that resembles basketball.
This does not come from any of the nine Gods of Mainframe – two-headed Pas, his wife, Echidna, their five daughters and two sons – but from The Outsider. Silk is transformed by his experience. And he is tasked with saving the Sun Street manteion, which is under threat of being sold for unpaid taxes.
Silk, aged 23, tall with yellow hair and a habit of drawing small circles on his cheek with his forefinger when thinking, shares the manteion with three sibyls, Mayteras Rose – much of whose human body has been replaced by artificial parts, strict and censorious – Marble – a chem, or wholly artificial person – and Mint – a shy, unassuming, wholly human woman. He has been at Sun Street for only a year since ordination, first as assistant to, then as replacement for old Patera Pike.
It is a time of great heat and prolonged dryness, from which the city is steadily suffering.
His first thought is to make a sacrifice to The Outsider, for which he will need a suitable subject. Different animals are birds are sacred to each to the Nine Gods, but Silk has never before sacrificed to The Outsider. Nor has he any cards or cardbits with which to buy a sacrifice. Nevertheless, he sets off for the Marketplace.
En route, he encounters a rich man being driven in a floater, and persuades him to give up three cards, or face the peril of refusing a God’s requirement. Silk is not aware that he is speaking to Blood, a successful criminal, nor that Blood has already bought the manteion by paying its overdue taxes, and who is on the way to inspect it. Blood, however, knows who Silk is.
After much haggling, Silk buys a black night chough to sacrifice. The bird can talk, in brief, two-syllable bursts and understands what Silk intends. Back at the manteion, unknowing as yet that Blood had made himself known to the sybils as the new owner, Silk prepares for the sacrifice. Like all such manteions, Sun Street has a Sacred Window whose leads and connections need checking and tightening. Silk’s voided cross doubles as a screwdriver and a spanner.
Once upon a time, Gods would appear at Sacred Windows in response to a suitable sacrifice, but this has not happened in Viron for twenty years or so. But Silk’s sacrifice fails. Before he can slit the bird’s throat, it suffers a seizure and goes limp, appearing to have died.
Disturbed by his failure, and now aware of Blood’s purchase, Silk determines on a dangerous and morally dubious course. He proposes to find Blood’s home, invade it, and make Blood, by persuasion if possible but by force if necessary, to assign the manteion back to the Chapter, so that it can continue to be of benefit to the people of that Quarter. In short, he plans to steal the manteion back.
Silk justifies his intentions, to first himself and then to those who would dissuade him, by reference his having been commanded by a God, an by pleading a kind of greater morality based on the needs of the poor people, a greater number. Nevertheless, he continues to doubt his self-assigned mission even as he pursues it determinedly.
Being a complete novice at thievery, Silk seeks out a professional to advise and assist. Maytera Mint, the shyest of the sybils, directs him to Auk, a former student at the manteion, who she had favoured. Auk, now a burly, highly competent man, is found at his usual haunt at the tavern, the Flying Cock, at shadelow, when the light of the Long Sun is hidden from Viron and instead illuminates the cities of the skylands on the opposite side of the Whorl.
Auk agrees to advise Silk, but refuses to get involved on any practical basis. He knows the whereabouts of Blood’s villa and will lead Silk there, but no further. Silk shrives Auk of his recent sins, then has the thief shrive him, placing both in a state of grace. He also obtains a promise from Auk to change his life, giving up thievery.
Silk succeeds in scaling the walls that surround Blood’s grounds and, beyond that, gains access to the roofs of the villa, To get this far he has had to evade vicious genetically-modified horned cats and an armoured talus.
Inside the villa, Blood is hosting a substantial party, his guests including Councillors from Viron’s ruling body, the Ayuntamiento. Strictly, they act illicitly: they are supposed to co-exist with a Caldé, but no new Caldé has been appointed since the death of the last one, twenty years before, nor have any new elections been held.
Whilst on the roof, seeking access, Silk undergoes attack again, this time from a genetically-modified bird. He is seriously wounded by the bird’s beak, but manages to kill the bird.
Entering through a skylight, Silk encounters two young women. The first is the unnaturally thin Mucor, with skull-like features. She claims to be Blood’s daughter and it is quickly apparent that she can possess people. The other is Hyacinth, a beautiful woman who is plainly addicted to drink and drugs: it is equally plain that Hyancinth is a prostitute,there to entertain guests, but Silk is struck by her beauty.
There is a monitor glass in Hyacinth’s room. Silk summons up the Artificial Intelligence that mans it, and attempts to get a warning sent to Auk. Hyacinth makes advances to him. Silk removes a small needler from her possession, but when he refuses to have sex with her, she produces an azoth, whose beam disintegrates anything in its path. To escape, Silk is forced to jump out of the window, fracturing his left ankle, and being captured.
Silk’s ankle is attended by Docftor Crane, Blood’s physician. To speed up the knitting of the bone, Crane applies a leather-like, self-sealing bandage that generates heat. To maintain the heat, Silk must periodically unwrap the bandage and thrash it against a flat surface to restore its kinetic potential. He is then taken before Blood and his main henchman (and lover) Musk, a mostly silent but entirely vicious young man whose sole enthusiasm in life is in hunting birds. Musk holds a deep-lying grudge against Silk, for his having killed Musk’s bird on the roof.
Silk is now wholly at Blood’s mercy, but despite his weak position, indeed with nothing to offer, he succeeds in drawing a bargain that will enable him to buy back the mainteion, albeit for twice what Blood has paid for it: 26,000 cards. He has a month in which to raise a substantial sum towards that total, as a demonstration to Blood that he is not merely a time-waster.
Silk is sent home in Blood’s flier. Crane will come to check Silk’s health that coming afternoon but Blood also requires an exorcism at one of his properties, on Lamp Street, a brothel under the Madameship of Orchid. En route to Sun Street, and passing this house, Silk hears a scream from within, but the driver refuses his pleas to halt.
When Crane arrives, he finds Silk trying to identify a hidden intruder. This turns out to be the night chough, which did not die but merely suffered some form of fit. Having threatened to cut its throat, not to mention damaging its wing poking about with Crane’s stick, Silk finds it hard to gain the trust of Oreb, as he names the bird. Once it does emerge, Crane bandages its wing before taking Silk to Lamp Street for his one o’clock meeting with Blood.
Blood is late, and Silk begins to discuss the exorcism with the Madame, Orchid, a barely awake overweight woman. They are interrupted by a scream: Orpine, one of the girls, is dead, stabbed under the left breast. Silk administers the last rites over the hysterical and blasphemous shouting of the red-headed Chenille.
When he arrives, Blood wants Silk to testify that Orpine’s death was suicide, to conclude the matter without question. Silk refuses, and combines his preparations for the exorcism with questions to establish the truth behind this. Orchid is persuaded to admit that Orpine was her daughter, which enables her to grieve properly. Thus relieved, she asks for a lavish funeral at Sun Street, and gives Silk thousands of cards to pay for this.
Silk identifies Chenille as the killer and elicits her confession. However, Chenille was not in possession of herself, being taken over by Mucus, who is also responsible for all the strange happenings that have prompted the exorcism. As part of the exorcism, he reconnects and retunes a long-disused Sacred Window from when the house was itself a manteion. Before the conclusion of the ceremony the Window is visited by the Goddess Kypris.
She is a beautiful, dark-haired woman and it takes Silk time to identify her. She is not one of the Nine but rather a minor Goddess, of Love, lover of Pas. She twits Silk over his twenty-three years of abstinence and about how Hyacinth, who she possessed the previous night, liked him. She commands the obedient Silk to keep their conversation secret.
The exorcism complete, Silk returns to Sun Street, to find Auk waiting for him. On a wall is chalked the words ‘Silk for Caldé’. Auk wants to know what happened, to advise Silk on the nightside world he has gotten himself mixed up with, and to protect him: these wall-scrawlings could put him in danger.
Indeed, Doctor Crane is currently filing a report to unknown masters outside of Viron on such a subject, and the possibilities of a popular movement in Silk’s favour, based on the ‘miracles’ he is reputed to have wrought.
Silk is still in debate with himself about the comparative moralities of his various courses. In order that he may be taught to defend himself, Auk takes him to meet the elderly one-legged fencing teacher, Master Xiphias, who hops around energetically and speaks in short bursts of excited sentences.
Silk returns to the manteion, tired, his ankle hurting. For a moment, he waits outside, listening to a conversation. He feels himself divided between Patera Silk and nightside Silk, convinced that the latter despises the former. Little more than twenty-four hours have passed since his moment of enlightenment. One of the voices inside sounds familiar: it is his own. Needler in hand, Silk enters.