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Authors: Anthony Doerr

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BOOK: Cloud Cuckoo Land
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Omeir

A
s darkness falls, boys all around him, still strangers to their own bodies, pray, worry, sharpen knives, sleep. Boys brought here by rage or curiosity or myth or faith or greed or force, some dreaming of glories in this life or in lives to come, some aching simply to wreak violence, to act against those who they believe have caused them pain. Men dream too: of earning honor in the eyes of God, of deserving the love of their fellow soldiers, of returning home to a familiar field. A bath, a lover, a drink from a jug of clean, cool water.

From where he sits outside the tents of the cannoneers Omeir can just see moonlight sifting across the cascading domes of the Hagia Sophia: as close as he'll ever come. Watchfires burn in towers; a plume of white rises from the easternmost part of the city. Behind him the evening star brightens. In memories he hears Grandfather speak slowly about the merits of animals, about the weather, about the qualities of the grass, Grandfather's patience like that of the trees. It has been a little more than half a year and yet the distance between those evenings and this one feels immense.

As he sits, his mother glides between the tents and places a hand on his cheek and leaves it there.
What do I care
, she whispers,
for cities and princes and histories
?

He is only a boy,
Grandfather told the traveler and his servant.

You think that now but his true nature will show in time.

Maybe the servant was right; maybe Omeir does harbor a demon inside. Or a ghoul or a mage. Something formidable. He feels it stir and wake. It uncurls, rubs its eyes, gives a yawn.

Get up
, it says.
Go home.

He coils Moonlight's rope and halter over one shoulder and rises. Steps over Maher where he sleeps on the bare ground. Picks his way through the company of frightened young men.

Come back to us
, whispers his mother, and around her head swims a cloud of bees.

He skirts a company of drummers carrying oxhide bull-roarers as they make their way forward through the ranks, moving toward the front of the lines. Past the camp of the smiths with their anvils and aprons. Past the arrow fletchers and bow stringers. It is as if Omeir has been yoked and harnessed to a wagon full of stone balls, and now, with each step away from the city, the stone balls are rolling out behind him.

Shapes of horses and wagons and broken siege engines loom up out of the dark. Look at no one. You are good at hiding your face.

He trips over a tent rope, gets back to his feet, weaves to stay out of firelight. Any moment, he thinks, someone will ask me my errand, which unit I belong to, why I'm walking in the wrong direction. Any moment one of the sultan's military police with their long curved blades will pull up his horse beside me and call me a deserter. But men sleep or pray or murmur or brood over the coming assault, and no one seems to notice him. Perhaps they assume he's on his way to the pens to check on an animal. Perhaps, he thinks, I am already dead.

He keeps the road to Edirne off to his right. At the edge of the encampment the spring grasses have grown chest-high, the broom tall and yellow, and it is easy to duck below their crowns as he walks. Behind him, the drummers reach the front of the lines, spin double-headed drumsticks above their heads in figure eights, and begin pounding their drums so quickly that they seem less a pulse of drumbeats than a sustained roar.

From soldiers all through the Ottoman camps rise the clash of weapons against shields. Omeir waits for God to send a streak of light through a rift in the clouds and reveal him for what he is: traitor, coward, apostate. Boy with the ghoul's face and the demon's heart. Boy who killed his own father. Who, on the night he was to be
left exposed on the mountain to die, bewitched his own grandfather into bringing him back. Everything the villagers intuited about him coming true.

In the dark he draws no notice. The clamor of drums and cymbals and voices builds at his back. Any moment now the first wave will be sent across the moat.

Anna

E
ven a mile away, inside the house of Kalaphates, the noise of the drums penetrates: a weapon in itself, the forefinger of the sultan probing the alleys, searching, searching. Anna glances back toward the scullery, where Widow Theodora holds the mortar full of crushed nightshade. In the shadows she sees Kalaphates drag Maria by her hair down the corridor past her feet, sees Licinius's mottled quires go up in flames.

One bad-tempered abbot
, the tall scribe said,
one clumsy friar, one invading barbarian, an overturned candle, a hungry worm
—
and all those centuries are undone
. You can cling to this world for a thousand years and still be plucked out of it in a breath.

She wraps the old goatskin codex and the snuffbox in Maria's silk hood and puts them in the bottom of Himerius's sack. Then she sets the bread and salt fish on top and ties the bag shut. All she owns in the world.

Out in the streets, the pounding of the drums mixes with distant shouts: the final assault has begun. She hurries toward the harbor. In many houses there are no signs of life, while in others multiple lamps burn as though the occupants have decided to use up every last thing they own and leave nothing for the invaders. Details leap out bright and sharp: the centuries-old grooves of chariot wheels in the paving stones in front of the Philadelphion. Green paint flaking off a door to a carpenter's workshop. The breeze lifting petals from a flowering cherry and tumbling them through the moonlight. Each a sight she may be seeing for the last time.

A single arrow covered with pitch bounces off a roof and clatters
onto the stones and smokes. A child, no older than six, emerges from a doorway, picks it up, and holds it like something he is considering eating.

The sultan's cannons fire, three five seven, and a distant clamor rises. Is this the moment? Are they breaching the gates? The tower of Belisarius, at the base of which she used to meet Himerius, is dark, and the little fisherman's gate is unmanned, all the sentries sent to shore up weak points in the land walls.

She clutches the sack. West, she thinks, this is all she knows, west where the sun goes down, west across the Propontis, and her mind sends up visions of the blessed island of Scheria, and of the bright oil and soft bread of Urbino, and of Aethon's city in the clouds, each paradise blurring into the last.
It does exist
, Aethon-the-fish told the wizard inside the whale.
Otherwise what's it all been for?

She finds Himerius's skiff in its customary spot above the tideline on the cobbled beach, the least seaworthy craft in the world. A moment of terror: What if the oars are not there? But they are stowed beneath the boat where he always kept them.

The noise of the hull scraping over stones on the way to the waterline is perilously loud. In the shallows float shapes the size of corpses: don't look. She sets the skiff afloat, climbs in, and kneels with the sack on the thwart in front of her, and pulls the starboard oar, then the port one, making little diagonal stitches toward the breakwater. The night stays blessedly dark.

Three gulls bobbing in the black water watch her glide past. Three a lucky number, Chryse always said: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Birth, life, death. Past, present, future.

She cannot seem to keep the skiff going in a straight line, and the knocking of the oars against the oarlocks is far too loud; she never appreciated Himerius's skill until now. But with each heartbeat the shore appears to retreat, and she keeps rowing with the sea at her back and the city walls before her, the rower facing what she has already passed.

As she nears the breakwater, she pauses to bail the skiff with the earthenware jug, as Himerius used to do. Somewhere inside the city
walls, a glow rises: a sunrise in the wrong place and time. Strange how suffering can look beautiful if you get far enough away.

She clings to the words of Himerius:
When the tide is wrong, a current comes here that would sweep us straight out to sea.
Now she needs the wrong tide to be right.

Just off the bow, in the swells beyond the breakwater, she glimpses a long, dark shape. A ship. Is it Saracen or Greek? Does its captain call to his rowers, do gunners ready their guns? She crouches as low as she can, flattens herself down into the hull, the sack on her chest, cold water seeping around her back, and it is here that Anna's courage finally wanes. Fear comes slipping in from a thousand fissures: tentacles rise from the gloom on either side of the boat, and Kalaphates's vulture eyes blink down from the starless sky.

Girls don't go to tutors.

It was you? All along?

The current catches the little skiff and carries it. She thinks of how Aethon must have felt, trapped inside all those different bodies, unable to speak his own language, mistreated, derided—it was a horrible fate and she was cruel to laugh.

No one shouts and no arrows whistle past. The skiff turns, wobbles, and slips beyond the breakwater into the dark.

FOURTEEN

THE GATES OF CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

Cloud Cuckoo Land
by Antonius Diogenes, Folio
Ξ

Folios from the second half of the Diogenes codex are considerably more deteriorated than the first, and the gaps in the manuscript present significant challenges for both translator and reader. Folio
Ξ
has been at least sixty percent effaced. Illegible portions are indicated by ellipses and conjectural representations are delivered inside brackets. Translation by Zeno Ninis.

… In the Pleiades I saw a nation of swans eating bright fruits, and on the far shores of the Sun I drank from ·[a river of steaming wine]·, though it singed my beak. I visited a thousand strange lands but never did I find one where tortoises carried honeycakes on their backs and war was unknown and suffering unheard of.

… from these Icarian heights, my feathers powdered with the dust of the stars, I saw the earth far below as it really was, a little mud-heap in a great vastness, its kingdoms only cobwebs, its armies only crumbs.

… I ·[glimpsed?]· a distant glow, a golden filigree of towers, the puff of clouds, just as I envisioned that day in the square in Arkadia…

… except that it was grander, more ravishing, more heavenly…

… ringed by falcons, redshanks, quails, moorhens, and cuckoos…

… hyacinth and laurel, phlox and apple, gardenia and sweet alyssum…

… delirious with joy, weary as the world, I dropped…

THE ARGOS

MISSION YEAR 64

DAY 45–DAY 46 INSIDE VAULT ONE

Konstance

S
he stands in the Library alone. From the nearest desk she takes a slip of paper, writes
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes
, and drops it into the slot. Documents volley toward her from multiple sections and arrange themselves in a dozen stacks. Many are academic papers in German, Chinese, French, Japanese. Nearly all seem to have been written during the second decade of the twenty-first century. She opens the first book at hand in English:
Selected Ancient Greek Novels
.

The 2019 discovery of the late Greek prose tale
Cloud Cuckoo Land
inside a badly corrupted codex in the Vatican Library briefly set the world of Greco-Roman scholarship aflame. Alas, what archivists were able to salvage of the text left plenty to be desired: twenty-four mangled folios, each damaged to some degree. Chronology confuses and lacunae abound.

From the next volume, foot-high projections of two men emerge and walk to opposing podiums.
This was a text
, says the first, a bow-tied man with a silver beard,
intended for a single reader, a young girl on her deathbed, and therefore it's a narrative about death-anxiety
…

Wrong
, says the other speaker, also with a silver beard, also wearing a bow tie.
Diogenes clearly wanted to play with notions of pseudo-documentarianism, placing fiction on one side and nonfiction on the other, claiming the story was a true transcription discovered in a
tomb, while constructing a contract with the reader that the tale was of course invented.

She shuts the book and the men disappear. The next title appears to spend three hundred pages exploring the provenance and tonality of the ink used inside the codex. Another speculates about tree sap found on some of the pages. Another is a numbing account of various attempts to arrange the salvaged folios in their original order.

Konstance rests her forehead in her hands. The English translations of the folios that she can find among the stacks mostly bewilder: either they're boring and spangled with footnotes, or they're too fragmented to make much sense of. In them she can see the contours of Father's stories—Aethon kneels at the door of a witch's bedroom, Aethon becomes a donkey, the donkey is kidnapped by bandits who rob the inn—but where are the silly magic words and the beasts drinking moon-milk and the boiling river of wine on the sun? Where's the squawk Father would make when Aethon mistakes a gull for a goddess, and the growl he'd use for the wizard inside the whale?

The hope she'd felt minutes before flags. All these books, all this knowledge, but what's any of it for? None of it will help her understand why her father would leave his home. None of it will help her understand why she has been consigned to this fate.

She takes a slip from a box, and writes,
Show me the blue copy with the drawing of a city in the clouds on the cover.

A scrap of paper comes fluttering down.
The Library contains no records of such a volume.

Konstance gazes down the unending rows of shelves. “But I thought you contained everything.”

Another NoLight, another printed First Meal, more lessons from Sybil. Then she climbs back into the Atlas, drops into the sunbaked hills outside Nannup, and walks Backline Road to her father's house.
Σχερία
, says the hand-painted sign.

She crouches, twists, presses as close to the house as she can, the
view through the bedroom window degrading into a quivering field of color. The book on the nightstand is royal blue. The cloud city in the center of the cover looks faded by sun. She goes to her tiptoes and squints. Beneath Diogenes's name run four words in smaller type that she missed the first time.

Translation by Zeno Ninis.

Into the sky, out of the Atlas, back to the atrium. She takes a slip from the nearest desk. Writes:
Who was Zeno Ninis?

BOOK: Cloud Cuckoo Land
5.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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