Cyclopaedia Chapter Four: Vermilion
Eirik watched as piles of the desiccated grubs were placed into a large, rough mortar. As the pestle was applied the bodies of the grubs were transformed into a brilliant red from their original off-white, and were crushed until they became a silky powder. The preparation by the old woman, Miila, was simple and well practiced.
The grubs were routinely dug out of rotten logs that were hollowed by a small long tailed rodent that used fallen trees as nests. There was nothing unusual looking about the grubs. The wormy whiteness of them, congealing around some jutting bit of rot in an ecstatic and mindless mass, was virtually the same kind of squirming clump found in any other damp, dark part of the woods. But due to some combination of the location, the droppings left from the rodent, and maybe other factors like weather or adjacent vegetation, these grubs were the active ingredient in a drug called Vermilion.
There was no elaborate ceremony around using the drug, unlike another tribe Eirik had Compiled in the far North, whose night of dancing around the fire and fervent invocations ended with drinking a potent concoction made of animal spleen, mushrooms, and fish eggs that gave him uncontrollable visions, then nightmares, for three days straight.
Vermilion was supposed to be administered to one's eyes while simultaneously being inhaled. This tribe, who called themselves the Ksiwok, created masks where the powder was placed, then another person would blow quickly twice on holes in the front of the mask, forcing the powder into the wearer's eyes and nose. This was explained to Eirik offhandedly and without much detail. The only indications of ritual around this usage may have been the masks themselves, which were made to look like birds or raccoons or bears, and so on. The masks were often humorous.
The drug was taken recreationally but also used as a treatment for dementia. Although the Ksiwok didn't have a precise concept for dementia, they used a compound of words that literally meant "wandering-lost". They said Vermilion released the crystal mind, the mind that lay underneath the first mind, a mind that is immune to fear or doubt or confusion. Everything is clear to the crystal mind, everything has an order and that order is obvious while under the influence of Vermilion. The crystal mind was shared. These concepts were explained to Eirik in the same way they may have explained how to row a canoe to a child.
Eirik would take the dose being prepared. He watched intently. He didn't doubt what the Ksiwok told him about the effects. There was no real incentive for them to mislead him. He said he was honored to be allowed to take it. It was of less importance to them than he would've expected. It was relatively mundane for them, as if they were making tea for him. For Eirik it was a crucial piece of data to capture and understand.
When the dose was ready Miila asked him what mask he'd like to use. He chose the bird, feeling it was appropriate. She laughed, looking at him and agreeing, saying he would soon understand the birds. The mask had a long pointed bill, round eyes that were covered in a reddish-brown substance like an amber, perhaps made of jewel, and the sides flared out slightly, the wood was cut, painted and textured like feathers. This is where, he was instructed, he would hold it up to his face tightly with both hands. The edges of the inside were covered with a kind of felt, to create a better seal with skin.
Miila placed the Vermilion into the beak. He pulled the mask up to his face and he could smell previous wearers' spittle, and sweat, but also an earthy base smell, like blood in soil. He'd barely gotten the mask up when Miila abruptly, with no warning, reached out and grabbed the back of his head strongly with one hand then placed another on the front of the mask and leaned forward, putting her mouth on the opening at the end of the beak. She blew into the mask with force, sharply, twice. Since he wasn't prepared for this he didn't even have time to blink. He received the full dose, his eyes getting copious amounts of the dust, then with his panicky breath, the rest of it he inhaled. He twitched. He pushed her away and staggered backwards. She laughed loudly.
The mask should've fallen off, he thought, why was the mask still on? He looked down, there was the mask at his feet. Except he was positive he was wearing it. His own hands moved up to his face to feel the familiar contours of his face—he felt the feathers of a bird. Instead of creating fear, this suddenly made absolute sense. The crystal mind, he remembered. There was sense. He saw the angles of the table, the buildings near him, the trees nearby, these angles and directions made sense. They always did, they always will. Why wasn't there an entry in the Cyclopaedia for this ratio? It was obvious, the ratio was obvious to him. He would consult the Index, this omission would be inexcusable, it must be there.
He reached for his kit and opened the Index. What was this? None of it made any sense. It did not match reality at all. Where were the perfect ratios he saw, where was the irreducibility, the concrete being of the fourth layer of life? Absurd. Profane. The Index was absurd, a mockery. But he wasn't angry, he would have to redo it all, so that it made sense, he would remake the Index so that it matched properly—it wasn't a situation to be angry about, it was an opportunity. There was no rush. It was as good as done. He'd already completed it, he'd understood how it should be, and the only part left was execution. But no rush. Because it could be drawn out of the order around them, at any time, because it was obvious. These forks and branches and names and categories. Absurd, absurd.
Right now, he thought, I want to go back to the cliffs, to see the birds fly and nest and shine. There was an important thing to understand. He had the edge of it, it was like he could pry his thumb under it and lift the corner, this box, the idea to understand, it was a closed box, it was very close to being opened. It was clear to him that he'd maneuvered himself into this situation where these things could be known to him. And likewise, this accretion of events were revelatory and yet erosive, the false structures must be torn down, the true structures were implicit.
But why did the birds shine? He needed to go back to the cliffs, tonight, to watch them. They were key to a puzzle. It didn't disappoint him that he came so close to understanding but had failed, there was just one more piece, then he would know.
It was night but he packed his kit and set out for the cliffs. He walked in the dark with exact determination, unable to become lost, every step a resounding sign of progress. There was enough starlight. Even if it was completely dark, he would know how to go, how to step. As he walked the sky became cloudy, patches of sky and stars came and went. As he walked this sharp, perfect knowledge became rounded and doubtful. He was exhausted.
He woke up to the sounds of heavy breathing. When he opened his eyes he saw an elk cow looking down at him, sniffing, unsure what he was. His mouth was dry. Moving a little he startled the cow, it jerked away, trotting, looking back at him, confused. True, he thought, what was he? His hand went out reflexively for his kit, which was still there at his side.
As he walked the miles back to the village he reflected on the experience of the drug. Even now there was a trace of it left, thoughts came easily and the world had a residue of order. He wondered how long that would last. The people of the village took the drug more or less regularly, so he guessed they were constantly under its influence to some degree. It was possible he'd altered his mind permanently, it was a risk, he'd accepted that risk, he had to know what the drug did because he was not the first Compiler to visit the village and he wasn't the first Compiler to have taken Vermilion.
When they'd returned to the village from the cliffs the old woman, Miila, told him that another Compiler had visited. This was how she'd known the word. How was this possible? Eirik wondered. When he'd planned his trip to Compile birds he didn't find any evidence that people inhabited the region. This other Compiler, then, had kept the existence of the village a secret.
"He came out of the forest one day," Miila said, "like a fox. He moved like a fox. He was the same color as a fox. He called himself Compiler Hedvin."
A Compiler named Hedvin. And Miila had given Compiler Hedvin Vermilion too.
"The Fox mask," Miila said, "Compiler Hedvin chose the Fox mask."
He'd been back several times. Each time Compiler Hedvin had traded things for Vermilion. He not only kept the existence and location of the village a secret, but he also kept secret the fact that he was conducting illicit trade.
Eirik could see signs of him—the tribe had pieces of modern cookware, cast metal, and several of the villagers wore heavy, warm factory-made pants that Compilers used on expeditions. A few of the children had dolls he'd seen in the shop windows in the Capital. In exchange for these things Compiler Hedvin took back with him large amounts of Vermilion. Who was taking it, or buying it, Eirik didn't know. But now that he'd tried it, he could guess. The effect of the drug was organizational, it produced a mental and physical understanding of order, it amplified cognition, and he knew Compilers would like it. Like it? They would love it. He pondered what deviations, or honestly, what improvements the drug had already created within the Cyclopaedia. What was the impact of Vermilion?
Compiler Hedvin never submitted data about this tribe. There was no entry for it. This worried Eirik as much as the trading, this was directly contrary to the Oath they'd taken for The Work—the underpinnings for the creation and expanding of the Cyclopaedia. If this was the result of Vermilion, then it had to be stopped. It disturbed him that a fellow Compiler would do something so forbidden—worse, that he would do something probably so profitable. Eirik tried a few times to avoid assuming the worst, but any rationalizations he attempted quickly evaporated by the sheer scope of Compiler Hedvin's transgressions.
"When does Compiler... Fox, when does he come to the village again?" Eirik asked Miila.
"Fox will come again at the end of spring. This is when we're able to give him the most Vermilion because there are so many grubs," Miila said.
He didn't try to explain to Miila what Fox had done. Fox had done nothing wrong as far as the village was concerned. Fox was trading, and in a remote place like this trade was good.
"Bird, are you angry with Fox?" Miila asked. It wasn't the first time he'd been called Bird since he'd chosen that mask and taken Vermilion. But he wasn't absolutely sure he was hearing what was really being said. Was his mind swapping concepts? Even the day after he'd taken it he realized he was thinking now in big generic pieces, like simple building blocks that facilitated understanding. He is Bird, Compiler Hedvin is Fox. This is correct.
He knew what he had to do. The same alteration of his conceptual base erased any subtlety or hesitation he may have had. He would finish his study of the Ksiwok, this would include several more applications of Vermilion. Yes, he would need to understand the effects of multiple doses.
Then he would bring the Compilation of the Ksiwok back to the Cyclopaedia. As a Compiler this is what Hedvin should've done. Then Eirik would initiate an investigation that will stop the flow of Vermilion. This would need to happen from the highest levels of the Cyclopaedia, because he didn't know if its lower ranks were already influenced. If his own thinking had already altered so greatly, he couldn't count on the Compilers, if any of them were regular users—no, the investigation would have to be at the highest levels. But he might not know the exact, required actions until he better understood Vermilion. It would eliminate these deviances.
There was also the Ministry Of Justice, he could simultaneously report this to them. He would let them know about Vermilion and leave it at that. They were notorious, they would dig into it, if there was a thing to be found they would find it. However, reporting to them would be a tacit betrayal of his fellow Compilers. There was an unsaid doctrine that Compilers maintained Compilers, they watched one another, they assured one another, they protected one another. To report a crime of a Compiler to the Ministry would mark him for life, he would never be trusted again, no matter what the outcome with Hedvin. But another dose of Vermilion might make this more clear.
He reached for his kit. He took out a white board and he drew the center of the village, adding some pale color, the foliage was still muted, it would be another month until there was an explosion of green for the short summer. The somber tones of the half lit fire, gray smoke trickling from the charred wood, stones around the edges, and the squat doors of the huts nearby made a decent scene, he thought. He finished up the painting and put the board down.
He walked around the periphery of the village, thinking, past the penned animals and the racks of drying fish, there was a woman spinning yarn, there was a man chopping wood. In most ways this life was timeless, and except for the large changes brought about by the invention of tools like a loom or a plow or a canoe, this way of life could go on for thousands of years, or more, the same way. The Vermilion trade might alter that. It might bring items or ideas here that would disrupt life. When he asked Miila how long the Ksiwok had hunted the Aaq, or taken Vermilion, she could not answer. "How long?" she replied. Always, he assumed, if it'd been since her grandparents time, it might as well have been always, forever.
Later he returned to his kit to look over what he'd painted and he was shocked. What he saw didn't match what he remembered painting. It couldn't have been done by him. Had someone replaced the board? He glanced around, paranoid, then caught himself. This isn't possible here, nobody would touch my kit much less replace one of my boards.
Instead of the quiet scene he'd painted not an hour before, he saw a frantic geometric collision. The colors were a jarring exaggeration of the real tones. The juxtaposition of wide dark lines around the hut, the tree, sky, and so on, were shattered as if they were made of glass and dropped. The board he'd painted captured this accident, captured the motion of universal primalities crashing into each other. He stared at it. It was his, he did paint it. As he examined it closely he slowly recognized this, it was his. But he didn't know how he'd accomplished it.
He was shaken. He carefully picked up the board and went to find Miila. She was in front of her hut, working, he approached her tentatively, unsure of the questions he wanted to ask her. So he said nothing. She saw him standing with his board in his hands. She looked at the painting for a moment then said "This is a good picture of The Village. Fox made pictures too, but I like yours better."
"Does your village look like this to you?" he asked her.
Miila stared at him blankly. Had she misunderstood his question? He was about to try again, rephrasing it, but she said "No, not our village. The Village. Our village is built on The Village," she said.
He could see now she was again speaking to him like a child. Why didn't he understand?
"Built on top of The Village? How long ago did The Village exist? Who lived there?" he said.
Her eyebrows raised, her head turned slightly. "All villages are built on The Village. Where do you and Fox come from? Wasn't that too built on The Village?" She was irritated.
He felt stupid. But he thought he understood now. She spoke of Things. She thought in Things. It was remarkable that he'd missed it earlier. The fundamental power of Vermilion then was the exposure of Things, like his painting, like the Bird or the Fox.
"Yes, where Fox and I come from, it was built on The Village, but now we call it a city," he told her.
Miila nodded, satisfied. Miila went back to work.
Eirik put the board back into the kit. He was tempted to do another painting but decided against it. What he had was valuable evidence about effects of the drug. He thought about going back to the cliffs to watch the birds. He'd come here to Compile the Aaq, he felt like he needed to do this. But he wouldn't dose Vermilion before going, instead he would bring the drug with him.