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‘A Dark Lake in an Infinite Fen’
Impressions of Chapter 22 of Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer
Reading from pages 136-140 of Shadow & Claw
While walking along the sodden sedges that bordered the lake where the deadly alien avern grew, Severian has a second drowning experience, in which by some agency beyond his ken, he is rescued by a resurrecting woman. The Lake of the Birds is a mortuary of sorts, where loved ones are sunk with lead weights pushed down their throats in a preserving water, which permits them to maintain their appearance in death and be raised on occasion by loved ones, one of whom, an old man, forlornly searches for his long lost wife like a pitiful boatman poling along on his tiny skiff unable to locate his wife of long ago. The author implores the reader, in the person of his deeply wrought characters, to care about fleeting personalities of minor narrative importance:
“I tried to keep a locket and Cas’s combs, but everything’s gone. Tell me this now. How am I to know it wasn’t no dream?”
The torturer is horrified by the man’s plight and wanders on behind his uncaring and taunting guide. Severian is saved by a woman who is not yet named, but is found in the next chapter to be Dorcas, a 16-year-old dove of a girl with little of memory but a surplus of compassion and fear.
The attribution of the chapter to Dorcas, who was a woman of good works also known as Tabitha in Joppa, and was resurrected by the hand of Peter in The Acts of the Apostles 9:36-41, illuminates for the reader Severian as being something of a composite of Saul [become Paul, the veritable architect of Christianity who began his career as a Christian hunter, a punisher] and Peter, the doomed and compassionate betrayer of his Lord, as Severian has betrayed his master.
Diction of note
-cloisonne, a fabric?
The Consultant
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