Excerpt from Chapter 7
A single wisp of white vapor rises through the darkness. A second white tendril ascends. The two spiral each other coyly. Additional white vapor billows upward, gathering, gushing, until a bright cloud churns against the darkness. Then the center of the cloud opens, and through the wispy opening, Danielle sees herself, clad in an unfamiliar tunic. A fierce wind disperses the white vapor, and the tunic-clad Danielle marches onward. Her calves are taut, and her feet are bare. She walks along a narrow ledge between a deep pit and rough, stone wall.
She follows a man who wears smooth, tan pants and many pouches on his belt. Slung over one shoulder is a long, curved rod whose ends are connected by a taut string. Over his other shoulder is a narrow, cylindrical basket containing long sticks with strangely decorated ends. He wears no shirt, and he is more muscular than anyone Danielle has ever seen. He would surely triumph in any athletic contest. His scalp is bald, and his beard is thick, curly, and black. His lips curl in a slight grin. He wears a blindfold. He is walking backwards, and with each step, he places his foot so that half of it extends over the ledge.
“Cougar, please walk normally,” Danielle says. “You’re frightening me.”
“Lest the people starve, a hunter must always practice poise,” he responds. “And if this frightens you, then everything will. You must learn courage.”
Danielle snorts defiantly. She turns around and closes her eyes. She slides one foot backwards until it extends over the ledge. She lifts her other foot. She smiles in exhilaration, but then she sways slightly, and her brain seems to slosh in her skull. She is not sure which direction is up. Panicked, she opens her eyes, but she is already falling. Her face is level with her knees. She flails her arms but cannot reach the ledge. Then Cougar’s hand catches her wrist. He hoists her into his arms.
“Courage does not mean recklessness,” he says. “I have trained in poise since childhood. I can teach you what I know. You can learn to do what I do. But not if your recklessness kills you first.”
“Your feet are still hanging off the edge, and you’re still wearing your blindfold!” Danielle exclaims, clinging to his shoulders. “How were you able to catch me?”
“You can learn to do what I do,” he repeats, perhaps with a hint of weariness. “I am able to carry you. I hardly feel your weight. But would you prefer to walk on your own feet?”
“Yes,” Danielle says, drawing a deep, ragged breath. “Okay. I’m ready. Put me down!”
Cougar smiles. “I have already taught you much of the art of grappling,” he says. “You must earn your own release.”
“But if I knock you off balance, we’ll both fall and die!” Danielle says.
Cougar laughs. “Would you rather live captive, or die fighting for your freedom?”
Danielle roars in challenge. She wedges her elbow against Cougar’s throat and hurls her weight against it. Simultaneously, she slides her foot behind Cougar’s knee and stomps. Cougar releases Danielle and falls into a backwards somersault.
“Not bad,” he says. “In a real combat situation, you should have pushed me off the ledge, not away from it. I know you were concerned for my safety, but you needn’t be. My skills are so much more advanced than yours.”
“Some day that pride is going to lay you low,” Danielle says.
“And until that day comes, I’ll believe it never will,” Cougar laughs. “Now come, we have little daylight remaining, and I want to show you something. But we must ascend further, and the air will be harder to breathe. Do you think you will be able to adjust?”
“Since childhood, I have trained in breathing air that’s hard to breathe,” Danielle smirks. “I’ll find some merit yet in my upbringing.”
Cougar removes his blindfold and smiles, blinking beneath the brilliant, blue ceiling. “I never supposed that one of the crypt-born could be so lovely,” he says.
He resumes walking backwards along the edge, and Danielle follows. They ascend steeply. A dull throb builds in Danielle’s head.
“Are we ascending to the great fire in the sky?” she gasps.
“No,” Cougar says. “We believe that the great fire is high above the range of arrows, even arrows fired from the highest mountain peak. Even so, we are forbidden to fire arrows at it, lest we wound it and send it roaring from the sky. Many young warriors boast that they would be able to strike it, were they allowed.”
“I’m sure you boasted loudest of all,” Danielle says.
“You speak truly, Danielle Gasket,” Cougar says. He smiles, but his dark brown eyes are wary, never resting long on any sight. He walks backwards quickly, each foot landing securely on the ledge’s edge. Danielle glances into the gigantic pit beside them. Below some lingering white mist, there is an incalculable distance to the rocky floor. The rocks look sharp and hard, perfect for shattering skulls and splintering ribs.
“How can you stand to live in constant peril?” Danielle asks, stepping unsteadily with her hands against the cold, stone wall.
“There is always peril,” Cougar answers. “Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not. I prefer the obvious kind.”
He looks into the pit and then grins at Danielle. He leans sideways over the pit, feigns a horrified expression, and begins to fall. His feet come off the ledge, and he drops, but then he catches the ledge with one hand. Squeezing his great biceps, he springs upward and lands silently on one foot. With a crooked smile, Danielle claps slowly. Cougar lavishly bows. They continue their ascent.
“We have some knowledge of the crypt nation,” Cougar says. “We do not know how we came upon this knowledge. Perhaps, in the forgotten past, some of our people explored the crypt nation. Or, perhaps, one of our prophets beheld it in a vision. Or you are not the first to ascend. In any case, we are told that you have symbols that represent the sounds of speech. Is this true?”
“Yes,” Danielle gasps. She leans against the wall and pauses to catch her breath. The air is thin, and Cougar walks quickly. The ledge has grown very narrow, scarcely the width of her foot. Ahead, Cougar balances on his toes on the narrowest point of the ledge, where it is only two inches wide.
“Cougar, I can’t go on,” Danielle says. “The ledge is too thin for me. I’m sorry. I can hardly keep my weight on the ledge even where I am. It feels like the wall itself is trying to push me off.”
“You don’t have to go any further,” Cougar says. “We’re here. Look. Do you recognize these symbols?”
Cougar points to the wall directly above his head. Many small symbols are chiseled into the stone.
“I—I think so,” Danielle says. “It looks like writing. I’m too far away. I have to get closer.”
Pressing her chest flat against the wall, she shuffles slowly toward Cougar. Even with her toes touching the wall, her heels extend off the ledge. Her eyelids flutter, and she clenches her teeth.
“If I blink too hard, the gust will blow me off the ledge,” she says. “Cougar, you have no idea how hard this is for me. We don’t have anything like this in the crypt nation.”
“It would be a pity if you fall now, having come so close,” Cougar says, still balanced on his toes without touching the wall. “We call this the silent stone because we cannot hear its speech. I was hoping you would open the lips of the silent stone.”
Danielle presses her body hard against the wall. The stone is cold against her cheekbone. She breathes shallowly, as each expansion of her chest pushes her away from the wall. She extends an arm towards Cougar.
“Cougar, take my hand,” Danielle says.
Cougar sighs and looks away. He lifts one foot from the ledge and rotates his ankle languidly.
“Please, Cougar! I need you!” Danielle says. She trembles, and tears gather in her eyes.
“This isn’t a game anymore!” Danielle shouts. “You win! You’re better than I! I’m just a worthless crypt-born, a burden to your people! Now take me home! I’ll return to the crypt nation, if that’s what you want!”
Balanced on three toes, Cougar pulls a knife from a sheath and begins trimming the toenails on his raised foot. He ignores Danielle.
“If this is how much you care about me, then I’m sorry I ascended!” Danielle cries. “Goodbye, Cougar! I’m going home!”
She pushes hard against the stone and falls backwards off the ledge. Cougar has to leap off after her, catching her wrist in one hand and the ledge in the other. He somehow has time to sheathe his knife first. He breathes heavily, and Danielle dangles and sobs.
“Such histrionics!” Cougar says. “The crypt-born clearly surpass us in theater! I’ll never again claim that we are superior in all things!”
Danielle laughs through her tears. With a grunt, Cougar lifts Danielle’s hand to the ledge. She raises her other hand and claws the ledge with her fingers.
“Can you hang on for just a moment?” Cougar asks.
Danielle nods. Cougar pulls himself up onto the ledge. He faces the silent stone and balances on his toes. He lets his feet slide away from each other until he is doing a split along the ledge. Even though his torso is vertical, his nose almost touches the wall because the ledge is so narrow. His extends his arms behind his hips and grabs Danielle’s wrists. He pulls his legs back together, sliding his feet along the ledge.
“Climb up onto my shoulders,” he instructs Danielle. “You’ll need to stand to see the highest symbols.”
Danielle dangles limply from his arms and rests her head against his thighs.
“How do you have such supernatural strength?” she asks.
“It’s not supernatural; it’s natural,” he says. “It’s so natural that perhaps it is, as you say, super natural. You can learn to do what I do.”
Danielle bends her arms until she can put her feet on the ledge. She repositions her hands, one at a time, from Cougar’s hands to his shoulders. She presses down on his shoulders, lifting her feet to his hips. He steadies her feet with his hands as she leans against the stone and straightens her legs. Pressing her hands against the chiseled stone, she steps up onto Cougar’s shoulders. She looks down and sees that Cougar is still balanced on his toes without touching the wall.
“Well?” Cougar says. “Do you recognize the symbols?”
Danielle shifts her hands to find where the inscription begins. She begins to laugh. Her knees quake against the stone.
“What’s so funny?” Cougar asks, frowning.
“It’s doggerel!” Danielle says. “We’re both about to plummet to our deaths, just for doggerel!”
“Well, I’d still like to hear it,” Cougar says indignantly. “These are the only surviving symbols from the time of the philodendrist. Someone had a reason for inscribing them here.”
“Okay,” Danielle says. “Well, this seems to be a collection of writings. It’s called The Doggerel of Janet Peptide. An ancient crypt-born poet went by the same name; maybe she somehow knew of these inscriptions. The first inscriptions are songs. There are musical symbols above the words, but I never learned how to sing. I cannot interpret the musical symbols.”
“Just try, Danielle Gasket,” Cougar says. “Try to sing these songs as they were sung before the interment.”
“Okay, but I’m going to have to make up the melody. This first song is called The Song of the Mountain Lion.”
“That’s remarkable!” Cougar exclaims. “The angel from which I take my name is sometimes called mountain lion.”
“Oh!” Danielle says. “Then maybe this song is about you! Here it goes. Wait! Could you snap your fingers to give me some kind of beat? Great. Thanks.
“I drink from the river, watch the stars shiver in waves that circle my tongue. My jaws make a doe fall, the sound of a snowfall, a song in whispers sung.
“I growl if I have to, prowl if I have to, run with the storm cloud’s speed. I fight if I have to, bite if I have to, bleed if I have to bleed.
“I wait if I have to, mate if I have to, bring young into my den. With eyes full of wonder, and throat full of thunder, I roar, and roar again.
“I purr if I have to, lick fur if I have to, teach the forest’s joys. I know that I have to show that they have to bound without a noise.
“The trees are now fallen. The boulders are calling my kind to our final rest. And you’re left alone with a mountain of bone that sinks in our mother’s breast.
“I sigh if I have to, cry if I have to, grieve if I have to grieve. I roared when I got to, soared when I got to, I leave when I have to leave.”
Danielle licks her lips. The air here is dry.
“You spoke truly, Danielle Gasket, when you said that you have not learned how to sing,” Cougar says.
Danielle laughs. “That’s a sad song,” she says. “Did all the mountain lions die?”
Jed Brody wrote The Philodendrist Heresy as a call for the preservation and resurrection of the great forests of the earth. “Philodendrist” means “tree lover.” In The Philodendrist Heresy, Danielle Gasket’s search for ancestral secrets is imperiled by warring factions that agree about nothing but that Danielle must die. Danielle’s home is a dystopian city beneath the Earth’s surface. People have lived underground for so long that knowledge of the surface is preserved only in dwindling communities of persecuted heretics. According to the heretics, a prophet called “the philodendrist” led people underground to repent for their violent conquest of the natural world. Following a string of clues while eluding pursuit, Danielle races toward the long-forgotten path of ascension to sunlight, relying upon her wits and valor to make it through. Finally, her mercy toward her fiercest persecutor convinces him to help her ascend to the pure waters of the sunlit world.