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Authors: Anthony Doerr

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BOOK: Cloud Cuckoo Land
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“What were they?”

“She said, ‘goobletook' and ‘dynacrack' and ‘jimjimsee.' ”

Konstance laughs. “Last time you said it was ‘fliggleboom' and ‘cracklepack.' ”

“Oh, those too. The lamp grew very bright, then—poof!—went out. And though it was hard to see, in the moonlight that spilled
through the open window, Aethon watched feathers sprout from the mistress's back, from her neck, and from the tips of her fingers. Her nose grew hard and turned downward, her feet curled into yellow talons, her arms became big beautiful brown wings, and her eyes—”

“—they grew three times as large and turned the color of liquid honey.”

“That's right. And then?”

“Then,” says Konstance, “she spread her wings and flew right out the window, over the garden, and into the night.”

FIVE

THE ASS

Cloud Cuckoo Land
by Antonius Diogenes, Folio
E

Tales of a man unwittingly transformed into a donkey, such as Apuleius's well-known picaresque
The Golden Ass,
proliferated in western antiquity. Diogenes unabashedly borrows from them here; whether he improved any of them remains up for debate. Translation by Zeno Ninis.

As soon as the owl flew out the window, I crashed through the door. The maid opened the strongbox and rummaged among the witch's jars while I removed every stitch of clothing. I rubbed myself head to toe with the ointment she chose, took three pinches of frankincense, just as I had seen the witch do, and dropped them into the lamp. I repeated the magic words and the lamp flared, just as before, then went out. I closed my eyes and waited. Soon my luck was going to change. Soon I would feel my arms transform into wings! Soon I would leap from the ground like the horses of Helios and soar among the constellations, on my way to the city in the sky where wine runs in the streets and tortoises circulate with honeycakes on their backs! Where no one wants for anything and the west wind always blows and everyone is wise!

From the bottoms of my feet, I felt the transformation begin. My toes and fingers bunched and fused. My ears stretched and my nostrils grew huge. I could feel my face elongating, and what I prayed were feathers growing out of my…

THE LAKEPORT PUBLIC LIBRARY

FEBRUARY 20, 2020

5:08 P.M.

Seymour

H
is first shot buried itself somewhere in the romance novels. His second hit the man with the eyebrows in the left shoulder and spun him. The man lowered himself to one knee, set the backpack on the carpet as though it were a large and fragile egg, and began crawling away from it.

Move, says a voice in Seymour's head. Run. But his legs refuse. Snow flows past the windows. An ejected bullet casing smokes by the dictionary stand. Minerals of panic glitter in the air. Jean Jacques Rousseau, in a green-spined hardcover that's right over there, one shelf away, JC179.R, said:
You are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!

Go. Now.

He has shot two holes in his windbreaker, the nylon melted around the edges. He has ruined the jacket; Bunny will be disappointed. The man with the eyebrows is dragging himself by one set of fingertips down the aisle between Fiction and Nonfiction. The JanSport waits on the carpet, the main compartment half-zipped.

In the space inside his ear defenders, Seymour waits for the roar. He watches the leak seep through the stained ceiling tile and fall into the half-full trash can. Plip. Plop. Plip.

Zeno

G
unshots? In the Lakeport Public Library? Impossible to unfasten the question marks from such statements. Maybe Sharif dropped a stack of books, or a century-old truss in the floor finally snapped, or a prankster set off a firecracker in the bathroom. Maybe Marian slammed the microwave door. Twice.

No, Marian walked over to Crusty's to pick up the pizzas,
back in a jiff
.

Were other patrons on the first floor when he and the children came in? At the chess table or in the armchairs or using the computers? He can't remember.

Except for Marian's Subaru, the parking lot was empty.

Wasn't it?

To Zeno's right, Christopher is managing the karaoke light perfectly, spotlighting only Rachel-who-is-the-innkeeper's-maid, while Alex-who-is-Aethon delivers his lines from the darkness in his bright, clear voice: “What's happening to me? This hair growing out of my legs—why, these aren't feathers! My mouth—it doesn't feel like a beak! And these aren't wings—they're hooves! Oh, I haven't become a bright strong owl, I've become a big dumb donkey!”

When Christopher brings the lights back up, Alex is wearing his papier-mâché donkey head, and Rachel is trying to stifle a laugh as Alex staggers about, and owls are hooting from Natalie's portable speaker, and Olivia-the-bandit is offstage with her ski mask and foil-covered sword, ready for her cue. Creating this play with these children is the best thing that has happened to Zeno in his life, the best thing he has ever done—and yet something isn't right, those
two question marks riding the conduits of his brain, slithering past whatever barricades he tries to set in front of them.

Those weren't dropped books. That wasn't the microwave door.

He glances over his shoulder. The wall they've built across the entrance to the Children's Section is unpainted on this side, bare plywood nailed to two-by-fours, and here and there dried drips of gold paint catch the light and glimmer. The little door in the center is closed.

“Oh dear,” says Rachel-the-maid, still laughing, “I must have mixed up the witch's jars! But don't worry, Aethon, I know all the witch's antidotes. You go wait in the stable, and I'll bring you some fresh roses. As soon as you eat them, the spell will be undone, and you'll transform from a donkey back to a man as quick as a swish of your tail.”

From Natalie's speaker comes the sound of crickets rubbing their forewings at night. A shiver runs through Zeno.

“What a nightmare!” cries Alex-the-donkey. “I try to speak, but all that comes out of my mouth are bleats and brays! Will my luck ever change?”

In the shadows offstage, Christopher joins Olivia and pulls on his own ski mask. Zeno rubs his hands. Why is he cold? It's a summer evening, isn't it? No, no, it's February, he's wearing a coat and two pairs of wool socks—it's only summer in the children's play, summer in Thessaly, Land of Magic, and bandits are about to rob the inn and load Aethon-who-has-become-a-donkey with saddlebags full of stolen goods and hurry him out of town.

There's a benign explanation for those two bangs; of course there is. But he should go downstairs. Just to be sure.

“Oh, I never should have dabbled in this witchery,” says Alex. “I do hope the maid hurries up with those roses.”

Seymour

B
eyond the library windows, beyond the storm, the horizon eats the sun. The wounded man with the eyebrows has dragged himself to the base of the staircase and curled up against the bottom stair. Blood is filling the upper corner of his T-shirt, blotting out the
BIG
in
I LIKE BIG BOOKS
, turning his neck and shoulder a vivid crimson: it frightens Seymour that the body contains such an extravagant color.

He only wanted to take a bite out of the Eden's Gate Realty office on the other side of the library wall. Make a statement. Wake people up. Be a warrior. Now what has he done?

The wounded man flexes his right hand, and the radiator to Seymour's left hisses, and his paralysis finally breaks. He lifts the backpack, hurries it into the same corner of Nonfiction, hides it on a higher shelf than before, then trots to the front door and peers past the sign taped to the glass:

Through the falling snow, down the line of junipers, as though trapped inside a snow globe, he can see the book drop box, the empty sidewalk, and, beyond that, the shape of the Pontiac under half a foot of snow. Across the intersection, approaching the library, a figure in a cherry-red parka emerges carrying a stack of pizza boxes.

Marian.

He throws the deadbolt, kills the lights, scurries past the Reference section, skirting the wounded man, and makes for the fire exit at the back of the library.
EMERGENCY EXIT
, says the door.
ALARM WILL SOUND.

He hesitates. When he lifts his ear defenders, sounds come rushing in. The moaning boiler, the plip-plopping leak, a distant, incongruous sound like the chirping of crickets, and what sounds like police sirens: blocks away but approaching fast.

Sirens?

He replaces the muffs and puts both hands on the push-bar. The electronic alarm shrieks as he sticks his head into the snow. A set of blue and red lights is careering into the alley.

He pulls his head back inside and the door closes and the alarm ceases. By the time he has rushed back to the front door, a police SUV, emergency lights whirling, is rolling halfway onto the sidewalk, nearly hitting the book drop box. Its driver's door flies open and a figure rushes out and Marian drops the pizzas.

A spotlight hits the front of the library.

Seymour sinks to the floor. They will storm in here and shoot him and it will be over. He scurries behind the welcome desk and drives it across the entry mat and barricades the front door. Next he seizes the shelf of audiobooks, cassettes and CDs falling everywhere, and drags it across the front window. Then he crouches with his back to it and tries to recover his breath.

How did they get here so quickly? Who called the police? Is it possible that the sounds of two gunshots could be heard five blocks away at the police station?

He has shot a man; he hasn't detonated his bombs; Eden's Gate is untouched. He has botched everything. The eyes of the wounded man at the base of the stairwell track his every movement. Even in the dusky, snow-veiled light, Seymour can see that the patch of blood on his shirt is larger. The lime-green wireless earbuds in each of his ears: they must be connected to a phone.

Zeno

C
hristopher and Olivia, wearing their ski masks, pile treasure into saddlebags on the back of Aethon-the-conveniently-located-donkey. Alex says, “Ow, that's heavy, stop, please, this is a misunderstanding, I'm not a beast, I'm a man, a simple shepherd from Arkadia,” and Christopher-who-is-Bandit-Number-One says, “Why is this donkey making so much danged noise?” and Olivia-who-is-Bandit-Number-Two says, “If it doesn't shut up, we'll be caught,” and she whacks Alex with her foil-covered sword, and the exit alarm downstairs blares, then stops.

All five children glance at Zeno where he sits in the front row, apparently decide that this, too, must be a test, and the masked bandits continue ransacking the inn.

A familiar jolt of pain rides through Zeno's hip as he rises. He gives his actors a thumbs-up, hobbles to the back of the room, and eases open the little arched door. The stairwell lights are off.

From the first floor comes the jumbled thuds of what sounds like a shelf being pushed over. Then it's quiet again.

There's only the red glow of the
EXIT
sign at the top of the stairs, transforming the gold paint on the plywood wall into a frightening, poisonous green, and the far-off keen of a siren, and a red-blue-red-blue light licking along the edges of the stairs.

Memories sweep through the dark: Korea, a shattered windshield, the silhouettes of soldiers swarming down a snow-covered slope. He finds the handrail, eases down two steps, then realizes that a figure is curled at the bottom of the stairwell.

Sharif looks up, his face drawn. On the left shoulder of his T-shirt
is a shadow or a spatter or something worse. With his left hand, he puts an index finger to his lips.

Zeno hesitates.

Go back, waves Sharif.

He turns, tries to make his boots quiet on the stairs; the golden wall looms above him—

Ὦ ξένε, ὅστις εἶ, ἄνοιξον, ἵνα μάθῃς ἃ θαυμάζεις

—the severity of the old Greek striking him suddenly as alien and chilling. For an instant Zeno feels as though, like Antonius Diogenes studying the inscription on a centuries-old chest, he is a stranger from the future, about to enter some unknowable and deeply foreign past.
Stranger, whoever you are…
To pretend he knows anything about what those words signify is absurd.

He ducks back through the arched doorway and fastens the door behind him. Onstage the bandits are driving Aethon-the-donkey down the stony road out of Thessaly. Christopher says, “Well, this has to be the most worthless donkey I've ever seen! It complains with every step,” and Olivia says, “As soon as we get back to our hideout and unload this loot, let's cut its throat and throw it off a cliff,” and Alex pushes his donkey head up over his nose and scratches his forehead.

“Mr. Ninis?”

The karaoke light is blinding. Zeno leans on a folding chair to keep his balance.

Through his ski mask Christopher says, “I'm sorry I messed up my line before.”

“No, no,” Zeno says, trying to keep his voice quiet. “You're doing wonderfully. All of you. It's very funny. It's brilliant. Everyone is going to love it.” The cicadas and crickets drone from the speaker. The cardboard clouds twist on their threads. All five kids watch him. What is he supposed to do?

“So,” Olivia-the-bandit says, and twirls her plastic sword, “should we keep the story going?”

BOOK: Cloud Cuckoo Land
8.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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