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Authors: Anthony Doerr

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A WOODCUTTERS' VILLAGE IN THE RHODOPE MOUNTAINS OF BULGARIA

THOSE SAME YEARS

Omeir

T
wo hundred miles northwest of Constantinople, in a little woodcutters' village beside a quick, violent river, a boy is born almost whole. He has wet eyes, pink cheeks, and plenty of spring in his legs. But on the left side of his mouth, a split divides his upper lip from his gum all the way to the base of his nose.

The midwife backs away. The child's mother slips a finger into his mouth: the gap extends deep into his palate. As though his maker grew impatient and quit work a moment too soon. The sweat on her body turns cold; dread eclipses joy. Pregnant four times and she has not yet lost a baby, even believed herself, perhaps, blessed in that way. And now this?

The infant shrieks; an icy rain batters the roof. She tries bracing him upright with her thighs while squeezing a breast with both hands, but she can't get his lips to form a seal. His mouth gulps; his throat trembles; he loses far more milk than he gets.

Amani, the eldest daughter, left hours ago to summon the men down from the trees; they'll be hurrying the team home by now. The two younger daughters glance from their mother to the newborn and back again as though trying to understand if such a face is permissible. The midwife sends one to the river for water and the other to bury the afterbirth and it's fully dark and the child is still howling when they hear the dogs, then the bells of Leaf and Needle, their oxen, as they stop outside the byre.

Grandfather and Amani come through the door aglitter in ice, their eyes wild. “He fell, the horse—” Amani says, but when she sees the baby's face, she stops. From behind her Grandfather says, “Your
husband went ahead, but the horse must have slipped in the dark, and the river, and—”

Terror fills the cottage. The newborn wails; the midwife edges toward the door, a dark and primeval fear warping her expression.

The farrier's wife warned them that revenants had been making mischief on the mountain all winter, slipping through locked doors, sickening pregnant women and suffocating infants. The farrier's wife said they should leave a goat tied to a tree as an offering, and pour a pot of honey in a creek for good measure, but her husband said they could not spare the goat, and she did not want to give up the honey.

Pride.

Every time she shifts, a little stroke of lightning discharges in her abdomen. With every passing heartbeat, she can sense the midwife hurrying the story from house to house. A demon born. His father dead.

Grandfather takes the crying child and unwraps him on the floor and places a knuckle between his lips and the boy falls quiet. With his other hand he nudges apart the cleft in the infant's upper lip.

“Years ago, on the far side of the mountain, there was a man who had a split under his nose like this. A good horseman, once you forgot how ugly he was.”

He hands him back and brings the goat and cow in from the weather, then goes back into the night to unyoke the oxen, and the eyes of the animals reflect the glow of the hearth, and the daughters crowd their mother.

“Is it a jinn?”

“A fiend?”

“How will it breathe?”

“How will it eat?”

“Will Grandfather put it on the mountain to die?”

The child blinks up at them with dark, memorizing eyes.

The sleet turns to snow and she sends a prayer through the roof that if her son has some role to play in this world could he please be
spared. But in the last hours before dawn she wakes to find Grandfather standing over her. Shrouded in his oxhide cape with snow on his shoulders he looks like a phantom from a woodcutter's song, a monster accustomed to doing terrible things, and though she tells herself that by morning the boy will join her husband on thrones in a garden of bliss, where milk pours from stones and honey runs in streams and winter never comes, the feeling of handing him over is a feeling like handing over one of her lungs.

Cocks crow, wheel rims crunch snow, the cottage brightens, and horror strikes her anew. Her husband drowned, the horse with him. The girls wash and pray and milk Beauty the cow and bring fodder to Leaf and Needle and cut pine twigs for the goat to chew and morning turns to afternoon but still she cannot summon the energy to rise. Frost in the blood, frost in the mind. Her son crosses the river of death now. Or now. Or now.

Before dusk, the dogs growl. She rises and limps to the doorway. A gust of wind, high on the mountain, lifts a cloud of glitter from the trees. The pressure in her breasts nears intolerable.

For a long moment nothing else happens. Then Grandfather comes down the river road on the mare with something bundled across the saddle. The dogs explode; Grandfather dismounts; her arms reach to take what he carries even as her mind says she should not.

The child is alive. His lips are gray and his cheeks are ashen but not even his tiny fingers are blackened with frost.

“I took him to the high grove.” Grandfather heaps wood onto the fire, blows the embers into flames; his hands tremble. “I set him down.”

She sits as close to the fire as she dares and this time braces the infant's chin and jaw with her right hand, and with her left expresses jets of milk down the back of his throat. Milk leaks from the baby's nose and from the gap in his palate, but he swallows. The girls slip through the doorway, boiling with the mystery of it, and the flames
rise, and Grandfather shivers. “I got back on the horse. He was so quiet. He just looked up into the trees. A little shape in the snow.”

The child gasps, swallows again. The dogs whine outside the door. Grandfather looks at his shaking hands. How long before the rest of the village learns of this?

“I could not leave him.”

Before midnight they are driven out with hayforks and torches. The child caused the death of his father, bewitched his grandfather into carrying him back from the trees. He harbors a demon inside, and the flaw in his face is proof.

They leave behind the byre and hayfield and root cellar and seven wicker beehives and the cottage that Grandfather's father built six decades before. Dawn finds them cold and frightened several miles upriver. Grandfather tramps beside the oxen through the slush, and the oxen pull the dray, atop which the girls clutch hens and earthenware. Beauty the cow trails behind, balking at every shadow, and in the rear the boy's mother rides the mare, the baby blinking up from his bundle, watching the sky.

By nightfall they are in a trackless ravine nine miles from the village. A creek winds between ice-capped boulders, and wayward clouds, as big as gods, drag through the crowns of the trees, whistling strangely, and spook the cattle. They camp beneath a limestone overhang inside which hominids painted cave bears and aurochs and flightless birds eons ago. The girls crowd their mother and Grandfather builds a fire and the goat whimpers and the dogs tremble and the baby's eyes catch the firelight.

“Omeir,” says his mother. “We will call him Omeir. One who lives long.”

Anna

S
he is eight and returning from the vintner's with three jugs of Kalaphates's dark, head-splitting wine, when she pauses to rest outside a rooming house. From a shuttered window she hears, in accented Greek:

Meanwhile Ulysses at the palace waits,

There stops, and anxious with his soul debates,

Fix'd in amaze before the royal gates.

The front appear'd with radiant splendors gay,

Bright as the lamp of night, or orb of day,

The walls were massy brass: the cornice high

Blue metals crown'd in colors of the sky,

Rich plates of gold the folding doors incase;

The pillars silver, on a brazen base;

Silver the lintels deep-projecting o'er,

And gold the ringlets that command the door.

Two rows of stately dogs, on either hand,

In sculptured gold and labor'd silver stand

These Vulcan form'd with art divine, to wait

Immortal guardians at Alcinous's gate…

Anna forgets the handcart, the wine, the hour—everything. The accent is strange but the voice is deep and liquid, and the meter catches hold of her like a rider galloping past. Now come the voices of boys, repeating the verses, and the first voice resumes:

Close to the gates a spacious garden lies,

From storms defended and inclement skies.

Four acres was the allotted space of ground,

Fenced with a green enclosure all around.

Tall thriving trees confess'd the fruitful mold:

The reddening apple ripens here to gold.

Here the blue fig with luscious juice o'erflows,

With deeper red the full pomegranate glows;

The branch here bends beneath the weighty pear,

And verdant olives flourish round the year,

The balmy spirit of the western gale

Eternal breathes on fruits, unthought to fail:

Each dropping pear a following pear supplies,

On apples apples, figs on figs arise…

What palace is this, where the doors gleam with gold and the pillars are silver and the trees never stop fruiting? As though hypnotized, she advances to the rooming house wall and scales the gate and peers through the shutter. Inside, four boys in doublets sit around an old man with a goiter ballooning from his throat. The boys repeat the verses in a bloodless monotone, and the man manipulates what looks like leaves of parchment in his lap, and Anna leans as close as she dares.

She has seen books only twice before: a leather-bound Bible, winking with gems, conducted up the central aisle by elders at Saint Theophano; and a medical catalogue in the market that the herb seller snapped shut when Anna tried to peer inside. This one looks older and grimier: letters are packed onto its parchment like the tracks of a hundred shorebirds.

The tutor resumes the verse, in which a goddess disguises the traveler in mist so that he can sneak inside the shining palace, and Anna bumps the shutter, and the boys look up. In a heartbeat a wide-shouldered housekeeper is waving Anna back through the gate as though chasing a bird off fruit.

She retreats to her handcart and pushes it against the wall, but
wagons rumble past and raindrops begin to strike the rooftops, and she can no longer hear. Who is Ulysses and who is the goddess who cloaks him in magical mist? Is the kingdom of brave Alcinous the same one that's painted inside the archer's turret? The gate opens and the boys hurry past, scowling at her as they skirt puddles. Not long after, the old teacher comes out leaning on a stick and she blocks his path.

“Your song. Was it inside those pages?”

The tutor can hardly turn his head; it is as though a gourd has been implanted beneath his chin.

“Will you teach me? I know some signs already; I know the one that's like two pillars with a rod between, and the one that's like a gallows, and the one that's like an ox head upside down.”

With an index finger in the mud at his feet she draws an
A
. The man raises his gaze to the rain. Where his eyeballs should be white, they are yellow.

“Girls don't go to tutors. And you don't have any money.”

She lifts a jug from the cart. “I have wine.”

He comes alert. One arm reaches for the jug.

“First,” she says, “a lesson.”

“You'll never learn it.”

She does not budge. The old teacher groans. With the end of his stick in the wet dirt he writes:

Ὠκεανός


Ōkeanos
, Ocean, eldest son of Sky and Earth.” He draws a circle around it and pokes its center. “Here the known.” Then he pokes the outside. “Here the unknown. Now the wine.”

She passes it to him and he drinks with both hands. She crouches on her heels.
Ὠκεανός
. Seven marks in the mud. And yet they contain the lonely traveler and the brass-walled palace with its golden watchdogs and the goddess with her mist?

For returning late, Widow Theodora beats the sole of Anna's left foot with the bastinado. For returning with one of the jugs half-empty, she beats the right. Ten strokes on each. Anna hardly cries. Half the night she inscribes letters across the surfaces of her mind, and all the following day, as she hobbles up and down the stairs, as she carries water, as she fetches eels for Chryse the cook, she sees the island kingdom of Alcinous, wreathed with clouds and blessed by the west wind, teeming with apples, pears, and olives, blue figs and red pomegranates, boys of gold on shining pedestals with burning torches in their hands.

Two weeks later she is coming back from the market, going out of her way to pass the rooming house, when she spies the goitrous tutor sitting in the sun like a potted plant. She sets down her basket of onions and with a finger in the dust writes,

Ὠκεανός

Around it she draws a circle.

“Eldest son of Sky and Earth. Here the known. Here the unknown.”

The man strains his head to one side and swivels his gaze to her, as though seeing her for the first time, and the wet in his eyes catches the light.

His name is Licinius. Before his misfortunes, he says, he served as tutor to a wealthy family in a city to the west, and he owned six books and an iron box to hold them: two lives of the saints, a book of orations by Horace, a testament of the miracles of Saint Elisabeth, a primer on Greek grammar, and Homer's
Odyssey
. But then the Saracens captured his town, and he fled to the capital with nothing, and thank the angels in heaven for the city walls, whose foundation stones were laid by the Mother of God Herself.

From inside his coat Licinius produces three mottled bundles of parchment. Ulysses, he says, was once a general in the greatest army ever assembled, whose legions came from Hyrmine, from Dulichium, from the walled cities of Cnossos and Gortyn, from the farthest reaches of the sea, and they crossed the ocean in a thousand black ships to sack the fabled city of Troy, and from each ship spilled
a thousand warriors, as innumerable, Licinius says, as the leaves in the trees, or as the flies that swarm over buckets of warm milk in shepherds' stalls. For ten years they sieged Troy, and after they finally took it, the weary legions sailed home, and all arrived safely except Ulysses. The entire song of his journey home, Licinius explains, consisted of twenty-four books, one for each letter of the alphabet, and took several days to recite, but all Licinius has left are these three quires, each containing a half-dozen pages, relating the sections where Ulysses leaves the cave of Calypso, is broken by a storm, and washes up naked on the island of Scheria, home of brave Alcinous, lord of the Phaeacians.

There was a time, he continues, when every child in the empire knew every player in Ulysses's story. But long before Anna was born, Latin Crusaders from the west burned the city, killing thousands, and stripped away much of its wealth. Then plagues halved the population, and halved it again, and the empress at the time had to sell her crown to Venice to pay her garrisons, and the current emperor wears a crown made of glass and can hardly afford the plates he eats from, and now the city limps through a long twilight, waiting for the second coming of Christ, and no one has time for the old stories anymore.

Anna's attention remains fixed on the leaves in front of her. So many words! It would take seven lifetimes to learn them all.

Every time Chryse the cook sends Anna to the market, the girl finds a reason to visit Licinius. She brings him crusts of bread, a smoked fish, half a hoop of thrushes; twice she manages to steal a jug of Kalaphates's wine.

In return, he teaches. A is
ἄλφα
is alpha; B is
βῆτα
is beta;
Ω
is
ὦ μέγα
is omega. As she sweeps the workroom floor, as she lugs another roll of fabric or another bucket of charcoal, as she sits in the workroom beside Maria, fingers numb, breath pluming over the silk, she practices her letters on the thousand blank pages of her mind. Each sign signifies a sound, and to link sounds is to form words, and
to link words is to construct worlds. Weary Ulysses sets forth upon his raft from the cave of Calypso; the spray of the ocean wets his face; the shadow of the sea-god, kelp streaming from his blue hair, flashes beneath the surface.

“You fill your head with useless things,” whispers Maria. But knotted chain stitches, cable chain stitches, petal chain stitches—Anna will never learn it. Her most consistent skill with a needle seems to be accidentally pricking a fingertip and bleeding onto the cloth. Her sister says she should imagine the holy men who will perform the divine mysteries wearing the vestments she helped decorate, but Anna's mind is constantly veering off to islands on the fringe of the sea where sweet springs run and goddesses streak down from the clouds upon a beam of light.

“Saints help me,” says Widow Theodora, “will you ever learn?” Anna is old enough to understand the precariousness of their situation: she and Maria have no family, no money; they belong to no one and maintain their place in the house of Kalaphates only because of Maria's talent with a needle. The best life either of them can hope for is to sit at one of these tables embroidering crosses and angels and foliage into copes and chalice veils and chasubles from dawn until dusk until their spines are humped and their eyes give out.

Monkey. Mosquito. Hopeless. Yet she cannot stop.

“One word at a time.”

Once more she studies the muddle of marks on the parchment.

πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω

“I can't.”

“You can.”

Ἄστεα are cities;
νόον
is mind;
ἔγνω
is learned.

She says, “He saw the cities of many men and learned their ways.”

The mass on Licinius's neck quakes as his mouth curls into a smile.

“That's it. That's it exactly.”

Almost overnight, the streets glow with meaning. She reads inscriptions on coins, on cornerstones and tombstones, on lead seals and buttress piers and marble plaques embedded into the defensive walls—each twisting lane of the city a great battered manuscript in its own right.

Words glow on the chipped rim of a plate Chryse the cook keeps beside the hearth:
Zoe the Most Pious
. Over the entrance to a little forgotten chapel:
Peace be to thee whoever enterest with gentle heart.
Her favorite is chiseled into the lintel above the watchman's door beside the Saint Theophano gate and takes her half of a Sunday to puzzle out:

Stop, ye thieves, robbers, murderers, horsemen and soldiers, in all humility, for we have tasted the rosy blood of Jesus.

The last time Anna sees Licinius, a cold wind is blowing, and his complexion is the color of a rainstorm. His eyes leak, the bread she has brought him remains untouched, and the goiter on his neck seems a more sinister creature entirely, inflamed and florid, as though tonight it will devour his face at last.

Today, he says, they will work on
μῦθος,
mýthos
, which means a conversation or something said, but also a tale or a story, a legend from the time of the old gods, and he is explaining how it's a delicate, mutable word, that it can suggest something false and true at the same time, when his attention frays.

The wind lifts one of the quires from his fingers and Anna chases it down and brushes it off and returns it to his lap. Licinius rests his eyelids a long time. “Repository,” he finally says, “you know this word? A resting place. A text—a book—is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on.”

His eyes open very widely then, as though he peers into a great darkness.

“But books, like people, die. They die in fires or floods or in the mouths of worms or at the whims of tyrants. If they are not safeguarded, they go out of the world. And when a book goes out of the world, the memory dies a second death.”

He winces, and his breathing comes slow and ragged. Leaves scrape down the lane and bright clouds stream above the rooftops and several packhorses pass, their riders bundled against the cold, and she shivers. Should she fetch the housekeeper? The bloodletter?

Licinius's arm rises; in the claw of his hand are the three battered quires.

“No, Teacher,” says Anna. “Those are yours.”

But he pushes them into her hands. She glances down the lane: the rooming house, the wall, the rattling trees. She says a prayer and tucks the leaves of parchment inside her dress.

BOOK: Cloud Cuckoo Land
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