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Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2009

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Contemporary Fantasy
Mythic Fiction (Fantasy)
Magical Realism
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In the Cities of Coin and Spice and In the Night Garden introduced readers to the unique and intoxicating imagination of Catherynne M. Valente. Now she weaves a lyrically erotic spell of a place where the grotesque and the beautiful reside and the passport to our most secret fantasies begins with a stranger's kiss....

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse-a voyage permitted only to those who've always believed there's another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They've each lost something important-a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life-and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.


Chapter One

Sic Transit Tokyo

Sei pressed her cheek against the cold glass; strips of black mountains tore by under lantern-blue clouds beyond her wide window. She knew a man was watching her--the way men on trains always watched her. The train car rocked gently from side to side, hushing its charges like a worried mother. She chewed on the ends of her dark blue hair. A stupid childhood habit, but Sei couldn't let it go. She let the wet curl fall back against her bare shoulder blades. She stroked the glass with her fingertips, shifted her hips against the white of the carriage--she was always moved to do this on the long-distance trains which crisscrossed the islands like corset stays. They were so pale and pure and unfathomably fast, like iridescent snakes hissing down to the sea. The Shinkansen was always pristine, always perfect, its aim always true.

Sei's skin prickled as the man's eyes slid over her back. She felt their cold black weight, shifting her shoulders to bear up under it. He would be watching the small of her back now, where her silver-black shirt fell away into a mess of carefully arranged silk ropes and tin chains. He would watch her angles under the strings, the crease of her legs beneath an immodest skirt, her lips moving against the glass. The little wet fog of her breath. She could almost tell what he looked like without turning her head: good black suit, a little too small, clutching his briefcase like a talisman, probably a little gray at the temples, no rings on his hands. They all looked like that.

Sei turned, her blue hair brushing her hipbones. Good black suit, a little too small, clutched briefcase, freckles of gray in the hair. No rings. He did not seem startled or doubled over with desire as they sometimes were. He was calm, his answering smile measured and almost sweet, like a photograph of a soldier lost in a long-ago war. Coolly, without taking his dark eyes from hers, he turned over his left palm and rested it on the creamy brown edge of his briefcase.

His hand was covered in a mark she first thought horrible--it snaked and snarled, black and swollen, where fortune-teller's lines ought to have been. Like a spider it sent long web-spokes out from a circle in the center, shooting towards the pads of his fingers and burrowing into the tiny webbing of skin between them. She took a step forward, balancing expertly as the car sped on, and stared. It was something like a little map, drawn there by an inartful and savage hand. She could make out minuscule lettering along the inky corridors: street names she could hardly read. There seemed even to be an arcane compass near his thumb. As she leaned in, the man shut his fist.

"Sato Kenji," he said, his voice neither high nor low, but cultured, clipped, quiet.

"Amaya Sei."

He quirked an eyebrow briefly, slightly, in such a way that no one afterwards might be able to safely accuse him of having done it. Sei knew the look. Names are meaningless, plosives and breath, but those who liked the slope of her waist often made much of hers, which denoted purity, clarity--as though it had any more in the way of depth than others. They wondered, all of them, if she really was pure, as pure as her name announced her to be, all white banners and hymeneal grace. She balanced one hand--many-ringed--on her hip and jerked her head in the manner of a fox snuffling the air for roasting things. "What's wrong with your hand?"

"Nothing." Kenji smiled in his long-ago way again. She quirked her own eyebrow, also blue, and delicately pierced with a frosted ring. He gestured for her to sit down and, though she knew better, they sat together for a moment, her body held tense and tight, ready to run, to cry out if need be. Their thighs touched--a gesture of intimacy she had never allowed herself with another passenger.

"I think you like trains rather too much, Sei." The older man smelled of sandalwood and the peculiar thin scent of clean train cars.

"I'm not sure how that's any of your business."

"It isn't, of course. I like them, too. I own a car, I have no need to ride the Shinkansen back and forth from Tokyo to Kyoto like some kind of Bedouin. It's an expensive habit. But love is love, and love is compulsion. I must, and I do."

He gently tapped the brass clasp on his briefcase and drew out a slender book, bound in black, its title embossed in silver:

A History of Train Travel on the Japanese Isles,
by Sato Kenji

Sei ran her hand over the cover as she had done the window glass. Her skin felt hot, too small for her bones. He opened the book--the pages were thick and expensive, so that the stamp of the press had almost made little valleys of the kanji, the cream-colored paper rising slightly above the ink. Kenji took her hand in his. His fingernails were very clean. He read to her with the low, vibratory tones of shared obsession.

A folktale current in Hokkaido just after the war and passed from conductor to conductor held that the floor of heaven is laced with silver train tracks, and the third rail is solid pearl. The trains that ran along them were fabulous even by the standards of the Shinkansen of today: carriages containing whole pine forests hung with golden lanterns, carriages full of rice terraces, carriages lined in red silk where the meal service brought soup, rice-balls, and a neat lump of opium with persimmon tea poured over it in the most delicate of cups. These trains sped past each other, utterly silent, carrying each a complement of ghosts who clutched the branches like leather handholds, and plucked the green rice to eat raw, and fell back insensate into the laps of women whose faces were painted red from brow to chin. They never stop, never slow, and only with great courage and grace could a spirit slowly progress from car to car, all the way to the conductor's cabin, where all accounts cease, and no man knows what lies therein.

In Hokkaido, where the snow and ice are so white and pure that they glow blue, it is said that only the highest engineers of Japan Railways know the layout of the railroads on the floor of heaven. They say that those exalted engineers are working, slowly, generation by generation, to lay the tracks on earth so that they mirror exactly the tracks in heaven. When this is done, those marvelous carriages will fall from the sky, and we may know on earth, without paying the terrible fare of death, the gaze of the red women, the light of the forest lanterns, and the taste of persimmon tea.

Sato Kenji looked up from his book and into Sei's eyes. She knew her face was flushed and red--she did not care. Her hands shook, her legs ached. She could not harness her breath. She did not need these trains for simple transport either, but longed for them, the cold rush of their passing as she stood on the wind-whipped platform, the slink of doors sliding closed behind her as the train accepted her as its own. That ache had begun long before Kenji had come on board. She felt their hands touching, their train-haunted hands. She took his book from his easy grip and held it to her, her heart beating against it, as if to read it through bone and flesh and leather, directly, needfully, ventricle pressed to page. A kind of knowledge passed between them--she would not return it, and he would not ask for it back.

Instead--and later she would wonder why she did it, why such a thing would have occurred to her, and will never be able to say--she took Sato Kenji by their linked hands and led him to the rickety, shivering place between the carriage cars, where the wind keened and crooned through the cracks in the grating and the white walls gave way to chrome. She kissed the gray of his hair. The space between them was thick, crackling, and though she told herself that it was unwise, a reckless thing, she moved through that wild, manic air and into him, his mouth, his skin.

He buried his face in her neck and, as though she weighed nothing, hefted her up against the carriage door, her blue hair flattening against the glass. Sei let out a small cry, like the whistle of an engine, and ground against him, shifting to let him enter her, his breath warm and even against her collarbone. His palm was pressed against her back, the black mark hot there, a sear, a brand. Sei clutched his book against his back and shut her eyes, feeling the train jerk and jolt against her. She felt enormous, cracked open, as though she had taken all of the great train into herself, as though the shuddering, scholarly thrusts of Sato Kenji were the loving gestures of her beloved Shinkansen, only guided by the man with the briefcase, guided up and out of him, guided into her, guided across the silver tracks of heaven.

Chapter Two

Cities of the Bees

There is a place on the interstate where the last black fingernails of Los Angeles fall away and the whole of the San Joaquin valley spreads out below the mountains, impossibly golden, checkered in green and wheat and strawberry fields and orange groves and infinitely long rows of radishes, where the land is shriven of all the sins of palm-bound, artifice-mad Southern California.

November knew that place, knew it so well that her bare foot on the gas pedal throbbed as it approached, as her little green car, heavy with produce, crested the last rise in the tangled highways of the Grapevine, and the light began to change, gratefully, from raw, livid brume to a gold like the blood of saints. Her throat caught as the great, soft fields unfolded below her, yawning, stretching all the way to San Francisco and further still, to the redwoods and Oregon, all the way up.

She had often imagined, as a girl, when her mother drove back and forth between the two great cities of the west, that I-5 went on simply forever, past Canada to the North Pole, where the center divider would be wrapped up in ice and the bridges cut out...

Copyright © 2009 by Catherynne M. Valente


Catherynne M. Valente - Palimpsest (2009)

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Palimpsest - Catherynne M. Valente

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