Authors: Anthony Doerr
ne block away, inside a Pontiac Grand Am mantled in three inches of snow, a gray-eyed seventeen-year-old named Seymour Stuhlman drowses with a backpack in his lap. The backpack is an oversize dark green JanSport and contains two Presto pressure cookers, each of which is packed with roofing nails, ball bearings, an igniter, and nineteen ounces of a high explosive called Composition B. Twin wires run from the body of each cooker to the lid, where they plug into the circuit board of a cellular phone.
In a dream Seymour walks beneath trees toward a cluster of white tents, but every time he takes a step forward, the trail twists and the tents recede, and a terrible confusion presses down on him. He wakes with a start.
The dashboard clock says 4:42 p.m. How long did he sleep? Fifteen minutes. Twenty at most. Stupid. Careless. He has been in the car for more than four hours and his toes are numb and he has to pee.
With a sleeve he clears vapor from the inside of the windshield. He risks the wipers once and they brush a slab of snow off the glass. No cars parked in front of the library. No one on the sidewalk. The only car in the gravel parking lot to the west is Marian the Librarian's Subaru, humped with snow.
Six inches before dark
, says the radio,
twelve to fourteen overnight.
Inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four. Recall things you know. Owls have three eyelids. Their eyeballs are not spheres but elongated tubes. A group of owls is called a parliament.
All he needs to do is stroll in, hide the backpack in the southeast
corner of the library, as close as possible to the Eden's Gate Realty office, and stroll out. Drive north, wait until the library closes at 6 p.m., dial the numbers. Wait five rings.
At 4:51, a figure in a cherry-red parka exits the library, pulls up her hood, and pushes a snow shovel up and down the front walk. Marian.
Seymour shuts off the car radio and slips lower in his seat. In a memory he is seven or eight years old, in Adult Nonfiction, somewhere in the 598s, and Marian retrieves a field guide to owls from a high shelf. Her cheeks are a sandstorm of freckles; she smells like cinnamon gum; she sits beside him on a rolling stool. On the pages she shows him, owls stand outside burrows, owls sit on branches, owls soar over fields.
He pushes the memory aside. What does Bishop say?
A warrior, truly engaged, does not experience guilt, fear, or remorse. A warrior, truly engaged, becomes something more than human.
Marian runs the shovel up the wheelchair ramp, scatters some salt, walks down Park Street, and is swallowed by the snow.
All afternoon Seymour has waited for the library to be empty and now it is. He unzips the backpack, switches on the cell phones taped to the lids of the pressure cookers, removes a pair of rifle-range ear defenders, and rezips the backpack. In the right pocket of his windbreaker is a Beretta 92 semiautomatic pistol he found in his great-uncle's toolshed. In the left: a cell phone with three phone numbers written on the back.
Stroll in, hide the backpack, stroll out. Drive north, wait until the library closes, dial the top two numbers. Wait five rings. Boom.
A plow scrapes through the intersection, lights flashing. A gray pickup passes,
on the door. The
sign glows in the library's first-floor window. Marian is probably running an errand; she won't be gone long.
Go. Get out of the car.
Each crystal that strikes the windshield makes a barely audible tap, yet the sound seems to penetrate all the way to the roots of his molars. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap. Owls have three eyelids. Their eyeballs are not spheres but elongated tubes. A group of owls is called a parliament.
He clamps the ear defenders over his ears. Pulls up his hood. Sets a hand on the door handle.
A warrior, truly engaged, becomes something more than human.
He gets out of the car.
hristopher arranges Styrofoam tombstones around the stage and angles the microwave-box-turned-sarcophagus so the audience can read its epitaph:
Aethon: Lived 80 Years a Man, 1 Year a Donkey, 1 Year a Sea Bass, 1 Year a Crow
. Rachel picks up her plastic torch and Olivia emerges from behind the bookshelves with a laurel wreath crammed over her latex cap and Alex laughs.
Zeno claps once. “A dress rehearsal is a practice we pretend is real, remember? Tomorrow night, your grandma in the audience might sneeze, or someone's baby might cry, or one of you might forget a line, but whatever happens, we'll keep the story going, right?”
“Right, Mr. Ninis.”
“Places, please. Natalie, the music.”
Natalie pokes her laptop and her speaker plays a spooky organ fugue. Behind the organ, gates creak, crows caw, owls hoot. Christopher unrolls a few yards of white satin across the front of the stage and kneels at one end, and Natalie kneels at the other, and they wave the satin up and down.
Rachel strides into the center of the stage in her rubber boots. “It's a foggy night on the island kingdom of Tyre”âshe glances down at her script, then back upâ“and the writer Antonius Diogenes is leaving the archives. Look, here he comes now, tired and troubled, fretting over his dying niece, but wait until I show him the strange thing I have discovered among the tombs.” The satin billows, the organ plays, Rachel's torch flickers, and Olivia marches into the light.
now crystals catch in his eyelashes and he blinks them away. The backpack on his shoulder is a boulder, a continent. The big yellow owl eyes painted on the book drop box seem to track him as he passes.
Hood up, ear defenders on, Seymour ascends the five granite steps to the library's porch. Taped to the inside of the glass on the entry door, in a child's handwriting, a sign reads:
ONE NITE ONLY
CLOUD CUCKOO LAND
There's no one behind the welcome desk, no one at the chessboard. No one at the computer table, no one browsing magazines. The storm must be keeping everyone away.
The framed needlepoint behind the desk says,
Questions Answered Here.
The clock says one minute past five. On the computer monitors, three screen-saver spirals bore ever deeper.
Seymour walks to the southeast corner and kneels in the aisle between Languages and Linguistics. From a bottom shelf he removes
English Made Easy
501 English Verbs
Get Started in Dutch
, wedges the backpack into the dusty space behind, and replaces the books.
When he stands, purple streaks cascade down his vision. His heart thuds in his ears, his knees tremble, his bladder aches, he can't
feel his feet, and he has tracked snow all the way down the row. But he has done it.
Now stroll out.
As he travels back through Nonfiction, everything seems to tilt uphill. His sneakers feel leaden, his muscles unwilling. Titles tumble past,
Empires of the Word
7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child
; he makes it past Social Sciences, Religion, the dictionaries; he's reaching for the door when he feels a tap on his shoulder.
Don't. Don't stop. Don't turn around.
But he does. A slim man with green earbuds in his ears stands in front of the welcome desk. His eyebrows are great thatches of black and his eyes are curious and the visible part of his T-shirt says
I LIKE BIG
and in his arms he cradles Seymour's JanSport.
The man says something, but the earmuffs make him sound a thousand feet away, and Seymour's heart is a sheet of paper crumpling, uncrumpling, crumpling again. The backpack cannot be here. The backpack needs to stay hidden in the southeast corner, as close as possible to Eden's Gate Realty.
The man with the eyebrows glances down, into the backpack, the main compartment of which has become partially unzipped. When he looks back up, he's frowning.
A thousand tiny black spots open in Seymour's field of vision. A roar rises inside his ears. He sticks his right hand into the right pocket of his windbreaker and his finger finds the trigger of the pistol.
achel pretends to strain as she lifts away the sarcophagus lid. Olivia reaches into the cardboard tomb and withdraws a smaller box tied shut with yarn.
Rachel says, “A chest?”
“There's an inscription on top.”
“What does it say?”
Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you
“Think, Master Diogenes,” says Rachel, “of the years this chest has survived inside this tomb. The centuries it has endured! Earthquakes, floods, fires, generations living and dying! And now you hold it in your hands!”
Christopher and Natalie, arms tiring, continue to wave the satin fog, and the organ music plays, and snow bats the windows, and the boiler in the basement groans like a stranded whale, and Rachel looks at Olivia and Olivia unravels the yarn. From inside she lifts an outdated encyclopedia that Sharif found in the basement and spray-painted gold.
“It's a book.”
She blows pretend-dust off its cover and in the front row Zeno smiles.
“And does this book explain,” Rachel says, “how someone could be a man for eighty years, a donkey for one, a sea bass for another, and a crow for a third?”
“Let's find out.” Olivia opens the encyclopedia and sets it on a lectern up against the backdrop, and Natalie and Christopher drop
the satin and Rachel clears the tombstones and Olivia clears the sarcophagus, and Alex Hess, four and a half feet tall, with a lion's mane of golden hair, carrying a shepherd's crook and wearing a beige bathrobe over his gym shorts, takes center stage.
Zeno leans forward in his chair. His aching hip, the tinnitus in his left ear, the eighty-six years he has lived on earth, the near-infinity of decisions that have led him to this momentâall of it fades. Alex stands alone in the karaoke light and looks out over the empty chairs as though he gazes not into the second story of a dilapidated public library in a little town in central Idaho but into the green hills surrounding the ancient kingdom of Tyre.
“I,” he says in his high and gentle voice, “am Aethon, a simple shepherd from Arkadia, and the tale I have to tell is so ludicrous, so incredible, that you'll never believe a word of itâand yet, it's true. For I, the one they called birdbrain and nincompoopâyes, I, dull-witted muttonheaded lamebrained Aethonâonce traveled all the way to the edge of the earth and beyond, to the glimmering gates of Cloud Cuckoo Land, where no one wants for anything and a book containing all knowledgeâ”
From downstairs comes the bang of what sounds to Zeno very much like a gunshot. Rachel drops a tombstone; Olivia flinches; Christopher ducks.
The music plays, the clouds twist on their threads, Natalie's hand hovers over her laptop, a second bang reverberates up through the floor, and fear, like a long dark finger, reaches across the room and touches Zeno where he sits.
In the spotlight, Alex bites his lower lip and glances at Zeno. One heartbeat. Two. Your grandma in the audience might sneeze. Someone's baby might cry. One of you might forget a line. Whatever happens, we'll keep the story going.
“But first,” Alex continues, returning his gaze to the space above the empty chairs, “I should start at the beginning,” and Natalie changes the music and Christopher changes the light from white to green and Rachel steps onstage carrying three cardboard sheep.
AETHON HAS A VISION
Cloud Cuckoo Land
by Antonius Diogenes, Folio
Though the intended order of the twenty-four recovered folios has been debated, scholars are unanimous that the episode in which drunken Aethon sees actors performing Aristophanes's comedy
and mistakes Cloud Cuckoo Land for an actual place falls at the beginning of his journey. Translation by Zeno Ninis.
â¦ tired of being wet, of the mud, and of the forever bleating of the sheep, tired of being called a dull-witted muttonheaded lamebrain, I left my flock in the field and stumbled into town.
In the square, everyone was on their benches. In front of them, a crow, a jackdaw, and a hoopoe as big as a man were dancing, and I was afraid. But they proved to be mild-mannered birds, and two old fellows among them spoke of the wonders of a city they would build in the clouds between earth and heaven, far from the troubles of men and accessible only to those with wings, where no one ever suffered and everyone was wise. Into my mind leapt a vision of a palace of golden towers stacked on clouds, ringed by falcons, redshanks, quails, moorhens, and cuckoos, where rivers of broth gushed from spigots, and tortoises circulated with honeycakes balanced on their backs, and wine ran in channels down both sides of the streets.
Seeing all this with my own two eyes, I stood and said, “Why stay here when I could be there?” I let fall my wine jug and set straightaway on the road to Thessaly, a land, as everyone knows, notorious for sorcery, to see if I might find a witch who could transform meâ¦
n the Fourth Hill of the city we call Constantinople, but which the inhabitants at the time simply called the City, across the street from the convent of Saint Theophano the Empress, in the once-great embroidery house of Nicholas Kalaphates, lives an orphan named Anna. She does not speak until she's three. Then it's all questions all the time.
“Why do we breathe, Maria?”
“Why don't horses have fingers?”
“If I eat a raven's egg will my hair turn black?”
“Does the moon fit inside the sun, Maria, or is it the other way around?”
The nuns at Saint Theophano call her Monkey because she's always climbing their fruit trees, and the Fourth Hill boys call her Mosquito because she won't leave them alone, and the Head Embroideress, Widow Theodora, says she ought to be called Hopeless because she's the only child she has ever known who can learn a stitch one hour and completely forget it the next.
Anna and her older sister, Maria, sleep in a one-window cell barely large enough for a horsehair pallet. Between them they own four copper coins, three ivory buttons, a patched wool blanket, and an icon of Saint Koralia that may or may not have belonged to their mother. Anna has never tasted sweet cream, never eaten an orange, and never set foot outside the city walls. Before she turns fourteen, every person she knows will be either enslaved or dead.
Dawn. Rain falls on the city. Twenty embroideresses climb the stairs to the workroom and find their benches and Widow Theodora moves from window to window opening shutters. She says, “Blessed One, protect us from idleness,” and the needleworkers say, “For we have committed sins without number,” and Widow Theodora unlocks the thread cabinet and weighs the gold and silver wire and the little boxes of seed pearls and records the weights on a wax tablet and as soon as the room is bright enough to tell a black thread from a white one, they begin.
The oldest, at seventy, is Thekla. The youngest, at seven, is Anna. She perches beside her sister and watches Maria unroll a half-completed priest's stole across the table. Down the borders, in neat roundels, vines twist around larks, peacocks, and doves. “Now that we've outlined John the Baptizer,” Maria says, “we'll add his features.” She threads a needle with matching strands of dyed cotton, fastens an embroidery frame to the center of the stole, and executes a hail of stitches. “We turn the needle and bring the point up through the center of the last stitch, splitting the fibers like so, see?”
Anna does not see. Who wants a life like this, bent all day over needle and thread, sewing saints and stars and griffins and grapevines into the vestments of hierarchs? Eudokia sings a hymn about the three holy children and Agata sings one about the trials of Job, and Widow Theodora steps through the workroom like a heron stalking minnows. Anna tries to follow Maria's needleâbackstitch, chain stitchâbut directly in front of their table a little brown stonechat alights on the sill, shakes water off its back, sings
, and in an eye-blink Anna has daydreamed herself into the bird. She flutters off the sill, dodges raindrops, and rises south over the neighborhood, over the ruins of the basilica of Saint Polyeuktus. Gulls wheel around the dome of the Hagia Sophia like prayers gyring around the head of God, and wind rakes the broad strait of the Bosporus into whitecaps, and a merchant's galley rounds the promontory, its sails full of wind, but Anna flies higher still, until
the city is a fretwork of rooftops and gardens far below, until she's in the clouds, untilâ
“Anna,” hisses Maria. “Which floss here?”
From across the workroom, Widow Theodora's attention flickers to them.
“Crimson? Wrapped around wire?”
“No.” Maria sighs. “Not crimson. And no wire.”
All day she fetches thread, fetches linen, fetches water, fetches the needleworkers their midday meal of beans and oil. In the afternoon they hear the clatter of a donkey and the greeting of the porter and the tread of Master Kalaphates upon the stairs. Every woman sits a little straighter, sews a little faster. Anna crawls beneath the tables, collecting every scrap of thread she can find, whispering to herself, “I am small, I am invisible, he cannot see me.”
With his overlong arms, wine-stained mouth, and bellicose hunch, Kalaphates looks as much like a vulture as any man she has seen. He emits little clucks of disapproval as he hobbles between the benches, eventually choosing a needleworker to stop behind, Eugenia today, and he pontificates about how slowly she works, how in his father's day an incompetent like her would never be allowed near a bale of silk, and do these women not understand that more provinces are lost to the Saracens every day, that the city is a last island of Christ in a sea of infidels, that if not for the defensive walls they'd all be for sale in a slave market in some godforsaken hinterland?
Kalaphates is working himself into a froth when the porter rings the bell to signal the arrival of a patron. He mops his forehead and settles his gilt cross over the placket of his shirt and flaps downstairs and everyone exhales. Eugenia sets down her scissors; Agata rubs her temples; Anna crawls out from beneath a bench. Maria keeps sewing.
Flies draw loops between the tables. From downstairs comes the laughter of men.
An hour before dark, Widow Theodora summons her. “Lord willing, child, it's not too late in the day for caper buds. They'll ease the pain in Agata's wrists and help Thekla's cough too. Look for ones just about to bloom. Be back before the vesper bell, cover your hair, and watch for rogues and wretches.”
Anna can hardly keep her feet on the ground.
“And don't run. Your wombs will fall out.”
She forces herself to go slowly down the steps, slowly through the courtyard, slowly past the watchmanâthen she flies. Through the gates of Saint Theophano, around the huge granite pieces of a fallen column, between two rows of monks plodding up the street in their black habits like flightless crows. Puddles glimmer in the lanes; three goats graze in the shell of a fallen chapel and raise their heads to her at the exact same instant.
Probably twenty thousand caper bushes grow closer to the house of Kalaphates, but Anna runs the full mile to the city walls. Here, in a nettle-choked orchard, at the base of the great inner wall, is a postern, older than anyone's memory. She clambers over a pile of fallen brick, squeezes through a gap, and scales a winding staircase. Six turns to the top, through a gauntlet of cobwebs, and she enters a little archer's turret illuminated by two arrow slits on opposite sides. Rubble lies everywhere; sand sifts through cracks in the floor beneath her feet in audible streams; a frightened swallow wings away.
Breathless, she waits for her eyes to adjust. Centuries ago, someoneâperhaps a lonely bowman, bored with his watchâmade a fresco on the southern wall. Time and weather have flaked away much of the plaster, but the image remains clear.
At the left edge, a donkey with sad eyes stands on the shore of a sea. The water is blue and cut with geometric waves and at the right edge, afloat on a raft of clouds, higher than Anna can reach, shines a city of silver and bronze towers.
A half-dozen times she has stared at this painting, and each time something stirs inside her, some inarticulable sense of the pull of distant places, of the immensity of the world and her own smallness inside it. The style is entirely different from the work done by the
needleworkers in Kalaphates's workshop, the perspective stranger, the colors more elemental. Who is the donkey and why do his eyes look so forlorn? And what is the city? Zion, paradise, the city of God? She strains on her tiptoes; between cracks in the plaster she can make out pillars, archways, windows, tiny doves flocking around towers.
In the orchards below, nightingales are beginning to call. The light ebbs and the floor creaks and the turret seems to tip closer toward oblivion, and Anna squeezes out the west-facing window onto the parapet where caper bushes in a line hold their leaves to the setting sun.
She collects buds, dropping them into her pocket as she goes. Still, the larger world pulls at her attention. Past the outer wall, past the algae-choked moat, it waits: olive groves, goat trails, the tiny figure of a driver leading two camels past a graveyard. The stones release the day's heat; the sun sinks out of sight. By the time the vesper bells are ringing, her pocket is only a quarter full. She will be late; Maria will be worried; Widow Theodora will be angry.
Anna slips back into the turret and pauses again beneath the painting. One more breath. In the twilight the waves seem to churn, the city to shimmer; the donkey paces the shore, desperate to cross the sea.