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Authors: Anthony Doerr

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BOOK: Cloud Cuckoo Land
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To Anna's right gapes what might be a sheer drop, but turns out to be a staircase. She feels her way along the wall, one step at a time; the stairs twist, branch, and branch again. She tries a third hall and finds cells like the cells of monks running down both sides of a corridor. Here's a pile of what might be bones, the rustle of dried leaves, a crevice in the floor waiting to swallow her.

She turns around, stumbles forward, and in the spectral quarter-light space and time muddle. How long has she been in here? Has Maria fallen asleep, or is she awake and frightened, still waiting for Anna to return from the toilet? Has Himerius waited for her, is his rope long enough, have he and his derelict skiff been swallowed by the sea?

Weariness crashes over her. She has risked everything for nothing; soon cocks will crow, matins will begin, and Widow Theodora will open her eyes. She'll reach for her rosary, lower her kneecaps onto the cold stone.

Anna manages to feel her way back to the staircase and climb to a small wooden door. She pushes through into a round room, partially open to the sky, that smells of mud and moss and time. And something else.


What ceiling remains is blank, smooth, and unadorned, as though she has climbed inside the braincase of a big, punctured skull, and on the walls of this little chamber, scarcely visible in the moonlit fog, doorless cupboards run from floor to ceiling. Some are filled with debris and moss. But others are full of books.

Her breath stops. Here a heap of rotting paper, here a crumbling scroll, here a stack of bound codices wet with rain. From her memory comes the voice of Licinius:
But books, like people, die too.

She fills the sack with a dozen manuscripts, as many as it will hold, and drags it back down the staircase, down the corridor, guessing at various turns. When she finds the great room with the tapestry, she ties the throat of the sack to one end of the rope and scrambles up a pile of rubble and crawls through the scupper, pushing the sack before her.

The taut rope makes a high, ratcheting whine as she lowers it down the wall. Just as she decides that he is gone, that he has left her here to die—Himerius and his skiff emerge next to the wall, wrapped in fog and much smaller than she expected them to look. The rope goes slack, the weight comes off, and she drops the end.

Now to climb down. To glance below her feet starts a feeling in her abdomen like she will be sick, so she looks only at her hands, then her toes, easing her way down through the ivy and capers and clumps of wild thyme, and in another minute her left foot touches the thwart, then her right, and she is in the boat.

Her fingertips are raw, her dress grimed, her nerves frayed. “You were gone too long,” hisses Himerius. “Was there gold? What did you find?”

The hem of night is already pulling away as they come round the edge of the breakwater into the harbor. Himerius pulls so hard on the oars she worries the shafts will snap, and she removes a first manuscript from the sack. It is large and bloated and she tears the first leaf trying to turn it. The page appears to be full of little vertical
scratches. The next is the same, column after column of tally marks. The whole book seems to be like this. Receipts? A register of something? She withdraws a second book, a smaller one, but this too appears to be full of columns with unvarying marks in them, though this one is water-stained and possibly charred as well.

Her heart drops.

The fog suffuses with a pale lavender light, and Himerius ships the oars a moment and takes the second codex from her and smells it and stares at her with his brows bunched.

“What is this?”

He expected leopard hides. Ivory wine cups inlaid with jewels. She searches her memory, finds Licinius there, his lips like pale worms inside the nest of his beard. “Even if what they contain is not valuable, the skins they are written on are. They can be scraped and reused—”

Himerius drops the codex back in the sack and jabs it with his toe, vexed, and continues rowing. The big carrack at anchor seems to float on a looking glass, and Himerius beaches the skiff and drags it above tideline and turns it over and coils the rope carefully over one shoulder and sets off with the sack over the other, Anna trailing behind, like some ogre and his slave from a nursemaid's rhyme.

They head through the Genoese quarter, where the houses grow fine and tall, many with windowglass and some with mosaics set into the facades and ornate sun balconies overlooking the sea walls fronting the Golden Horn. At the entrance to the Venetian quarter, men-at-arms stand yawning beneath an archway and let the children walk by with no more than a glance.

They pass a series of workshops and stop outside a gate. “If you speak,” says Himerius, “call me Brother. But don't speak.”

A servant with a clubfoot leads them into a courtyard where a lone fig tree struggles for light and they lean against a wall and cocks crow and dogs bark and Anna imagines the bell ringers climbing right now into the fog, reaching for ropes to wake the city, wool brokers raising shutters, pickpockets slinking home, monks submitting themselves to the first lash of the day, crabs drowsing beneath
boats, terns diving for breakfast in the shallows, Chryse stirring the hearth-fire to life. Widow Theodora ascending the stone stairs to the workroom.

Blessed One, protect us from idleness.

For we have committed sins without number.

Five gray stones at the opposite end of the courtyard transform into geese that wake and flap and stretch and cluck at them. Soon the sky is the color of concrete and carts are moving out in the streets. Maria will tell Widow Theodora that Anna has a rheum or a fever. But how long can such a ruse last?

Eventually a door opens and a drowsy Italian in a velvet coat with half-length sleeves looks at Himerius long enough to decide he is insignificant and shuts the door again. Anna digs among the damp manuscripts in the burgeoning light. The leaves of the first she pulls out are so splotched with mold that she cannot make out a single character.

Licinius used to swoon about vellum—parchment made from the skin of a calf cut out of the womb of its mother before it was born. He said that to write on vellum was like hearing the finest music, but the membrane from which these books are made feels coarse and bristly and smells like rancid broth. Himerius is right: these will be worth nothing at all.

A maidservant comes past carrying a basin of milk, taking small steps so as not to spill it, and the hunger in Anna's gut is enough to make the courtyard swim. She has failed again. Widow Theodora will beat her with the bastinado, Himerius will denounce her for stealing chickens from the convent, Maria will never have enough silver for a blessing from the shrine of the Virgin of the Source, and when Anna's body swings from the gibbet the throngs will say alleluia.

How does a life get to be like this? Where she wears her sister's castoff underlinen and a thrice-patched dress while men like Kalaphates go about in silk and velvet with servants trotting behind? While foreigners like these have basins of milk and courtyards of geese and a different coat for every feast day? She feels a scream building inside her, a shriek to shatter glass, when Himerius hands her a small battered codex with clasps on the binding.

“What's this?”

She opens to a leaf in the middle. The old Greek Licinius taught her proceeds across the page line after systematic line.
, it reads,

produces horses with one horn, they say, and the same country fosters asses with a single horn. And from these horns they make drinking-vessels, and if anyone puts deadly poison in them, and a man drinks, the plot will do him no harm.

On the next page:

The Seal, I am told, vomits up the curdled milk from its stomach so that epileptics may not be cured thereby. Upon my word the Seal is indeed a malignant creature.

“This,” she whispers, her pulse accelerating. “Show them this.”

Himerius takes it back.

“Hold it the other way. Like so.”

The boy kneads the great orbs of his eyeballs. The lettering is beautiful and practiced. Anna glimpses,
I have heard the people say that the Pigeon is of all birds the most temperate and restrained in its sexual relations—
is it a treatise about animals?—but now the clubfooted servant calls to Himerius and he takes the book and sack and follows the servant into the house.

The geese watch her.

Himerius is not gone fifty heartbeats before he comes back out.


“They want to speak to you.”

Up two stone stairs, past a storeroom stacked with barrels, and into a room that smells of ink. Across three large tables are scattered tapers, quills, inkpots, nibs, awls, blades, sealing wax, reed pens, and little sandbags to hold down parchment. Charts line one wall, rolls
of paper lean against another, and goose droppings are coiled here and there on the tiles, some of it stepped in and smeared about. Around the center table, three clean-shaven foreigners study the pages of the codex she has found and speak their rapid language like excited birds. The darkest and smallest of them looks at her with some incredulity. “The boy claims you can decipher this?”

“We are not as proficient in the old Greek as we would prefer,” says the mid-sized one.

Her finger does not shake as she sets it to the parchment. “
,” she reads,

has made the Hedgehog prudent and experienced in providing for its own wants. Thus, since it needs food to last a whole year, and since every…

All three men resume trilling like sparrows. The smallest begs her to continue, and she muddles through another few lines, strange observations about the habits of anchovies, then of some creature called a clapperbill, and the tallest and best-dressed of them stops her and walks among the scrolls and homiliaries and writing implements and stands staring into a cupboard as though into a distant landscape.

Beneath a table, a melon rind foams with ants. Anna feels as if she has entered some slip of Homer's song about Ulysses, as if the gods are whispering to each other high on Olympus, then reaching down through the clouds to arrange her fate. In his splintery Greek the tall one asks: “Where did you get this?”

Himerius says, “A hidden place, very hard to get to.”

“A monastery?” asks the tall man.

Himerius gives a tentative nod, and all three Italians look at each other, and Himerius nods some more, and soon everyone is nodding.

“Where in the monastery,” says the smallest of them, removing the other manuscripts from the sack, “did you find it?”

“A chamber.”

“A large chamber?”

“Small to average to large,” says Himerius.

All three men start talking at once.

“And are there other manuscripts like this one?”

“How are they arranged?”

“On their backs?”

“Or stood up in stacks?”

“How many are there?”

“How is the room decorated?”

Himerius puts a fist to his chin, pretending to sift through his memory, and the three Italians watch him.

“The room is not large,” Anna says. “I could not see any adornments. It was round and once had arches in its ceiling. But the roof is broken now. There were other books and scrolls stacked in recesses like cookware.”

Excitement cascades through the three men. The tallest one rummages inside his fur-trimmed coat and takes out a bag of money and pours coins into his palm. Anna sees gold ducats and silver
and morning light dances across the writing tables and she is suddenly dizzy.

“Our lord,” says the tall Italian, “he puts a finger in every dish, you know this phrase? Shipping, trade, liturgical, soldiering. But his real interest, his love, so to speak, is locating manuscripts from the antique world. He believes all the best thinking was done a thousand years ago.”

The man shrugs. Anna cannot take her eyes off the money.

“For the animal text,” he says, and gives Himerius a dozen coins, and Himerius gapes, and the medium-sized man picks up a quill and trims its tip with a blade, and the smallest says, “Bring us more and we will pay you more.”

As they leave the courtyard, the morning is glorious, the sky rosy, the fog burning away, and Anna follows Himerius's long strides as they wind their way through a row of tall, beautiful wooden houses—which seem taller and more beautiful now—joy cartwheeling
through her, and at the first market they pass a vendor is already frying flatcakes stuffed with cheese and honey and bay leaves, and they buy four, and stuff them into their mouths, the grease hot on the back of her throat, and Himerius counts out her share of the money, and she buries the heavy, bright coins beneath the sash of her dress, and hurries through the shadow of the church of Saint Barbara, then through a second, larger market full of carts and fabrics, oil in wide-lipped jugs, a knife-sharpener setting up his wheel, a woman reaching to pull the cloth off a birdcage, a child carrying October roses in bunches, the avenue filling with horses and donkeys, Genoese and Georgians, Jews and Pisans, deacons and nuns, moneychangers, musicians and messengers, two gamblers already throwing oxhorn dice, a notary carrying documents, a nobleman pausing at a stall while a servant holds a parasol high above his head, and if Maria wants to buy angels, she can buy them now; they'll flutter around her head and batter her eyes with their wings.




ine miles from home they pass the village where he was born. The caravan halts in the road while heralds ride among the houses enlisting more men and animals. Rain falls steadily and Omeir shivers inside his oxhide cape and watches the river roar past, full of debris and foam, and remembers how Grandfather would say that the littlest streams, high on the mountain, small enough to dam with your hand, would eventually join the river, and that the river, though quick and violent, was but a drop in the eye of the great Ocean that encircles all the lands of the world, and contains every dream everyone has ever dreamed.

Daylight drains from the valley. How will his mother and Nida and Grandfather survive the winter? Practically all of their stores have disappeared into the mouths of the riders around him. Piled on the dray behind Tree and Moonlight is most of the family's seasoned wood, and half of their barley. They have Leaf and Needle and the goat. A last few pots of honey. They have hope that Omeir will return with spoils from war.

Moonlight and Tree stand patiently in their yoke, horns dripping, backs steaming, and the boy checks their hooves for stones and their shoulders for cuts and envies that they seem to live only in the moment, without dread for what is to come.

That first night the company camps in a field. Karst megaliths stand on ridge lines high above them like the watchtowers of races long since perished, and ravens go squawking up over the camp in great
noisy legions. After dark the clouds tear away and the frayed banner of the Milky Way unfurls overhead. Around the fire nearest Omeir teamsters speak in myriad accents about the city they are traveling to conquer. The Queen of Cities, they call it, bridge between East and West, crossroads of the universe. In one version it is a seedbed of sin where heathens eat babies and copulate with their mothers; in the next it is a place of unthinkable prosperity, where even the paupers wear earrings of gold and the whores use pisspots encrusted with emeralds.

An old man says he has heard the city is protected by huge, impenetrable walls and everyone falls silent a moment until a young oxherd named Maher says, “But the women. Even a boy as ugly as him can wet his dick in that place.” He points at Omeir and there is laughter.

Omeir drifts off into the dark and finds Moonlight and Tree grazing at the far end of the field. He rubs their flanks and tells them not to be afraid but it's not clear if he is trying to soothe the animals or himself.

In the morning the road drops into a gorge of dark limestone and the wagons bottleneck at a bridge. Riders dismount and drivers shout and strike animals with whips and switches, and both Tree and Moonlight defecate from fear.

A terrible lowing flows through the animals. Slowly Omeir talks the oxen forward. When they reach the bridge he sees that it has no curb or rail but consists only of skinned logs lashed together with chains. Sheer walls, studded here and there with spruce trees growing from impossibly steep perches, drop almost straight down, and far below the log-deck, the river roars fast and loud and white.

On the far side two mule carts make it across and Omeir turns and faces his oxen and steps backward out over the void. The logs are slick with manure and in the gaps between them, beneath his boots, he can see whitewater flashing over boulders.

Tree and Moonlight lumber out. The bridge is scarcely wider than the axle of the dray. They make it one revolution, two three four; then the wheel on Tree's side slips off. The cart lists and the oxen stop and multiple pieces of firewood go rolling off the back.

Moonlight spreads his legs, bearing most of the weight of the load by himself, waiting for his brother, but Tree has immobilized with fright. His eyes roll and all around them shouts and bellows echo off the rocks.

Omeir swallows. If the axle slips any farther, the weight of the cart will pull it off the bridge and drag the oxen with it.

“Pull, boys, pull.” The bullocks do not move. Mist rises from the rapids below and little birds swoop from rock to rock and Tree pants as though trying to draw the entire scene up through his nostrils. Omeir runs his hands over Tree's muzzle and strokes his long brown face. His ear twitches, and his thick front legs tremble from strain or terror or both.

The boy can feel gravity pulling at their bodies, at the cart, at the bridge, at the water below. If he was never born, his father would still be alive. His mother would still live in the village. She could talk with other women, trade honey and gossip, share her life. His older sisters might still be alive.

Don't look down. Show the oxen that you can meet all of their needs. If you stay calm so will they. His heels hanging over the chasm, Omeir ducks Moonlight's horns, shimmies around his flank, and speaks directly into the bullock's ear. “Come, brother, pull. Pull for me, and your twin will follow.” The ox tilts his horns to one side, as though considering the merits of the boy's request, the bridge and cliffs and sky reproduced in miniature in the dome of his huge, wet pupil, and just when Omeir is convinced that the matter is lost, Moonlight leans into the harness, veins rising visibly in his chest, and hauls the wheel of the dray back onto the bridge.

“Good boy, steady now, that's it.”

Moonlight pushes forward, and Tree comes with him, placing one hoof in front of the next on the slick logs, and Omeir grabs the
back of the dray as it passes, and in a few more heartbeats they are across.

From there the gorge opens, and the mountains turn into hills, and hills into rolling flatlands, and muddy bridleways into proper roads. Moonlight and Tree move easily along the wide surface, their big hipbones rising and falling, happy to be on sure ground. With every passing village, the heralds recruit more men and beasts. Always their pitch is the same: the sultan (God be pleased with him) calls you to the capital where he gathers forces to take the Queen of Cities. Its streets overflow with jewels, silks, and girls; you will have your pick.

Thirteen days after leaving home, Omeir and his oxen reach Edirne. Everywhere gleam mountains of peeled logs and the air smells of wet sawdust and children run the roadsides selling bread and skins of milk or just to gape at the caravan as it rumbles past, and after dark criers on ponies meet the heralds and sort the animals by torchlight.

Omeir, Tree, and Moonlight are directed with the largest and strongest of the cattle to a vast, treeless field on the outskirts of the capital. At one end glows a tent larger than any he has ever imagined—a whole forest could grow beneath it. Inside men work by torchlight, unloading wagons, cutting trenches, and excavating a casting pit like the grave bed for a giant. Inside the pit lie matching cylindrical molds made from clay, one nested in the other, each thirty feet long.

Every daylight hour Omeir and the oxen walk a mile to a charcoal pit and haul cartloads of charcoal back to the enormous tent. As more and more charcoal is brought in, the area inside the tent grows hotter, the animals balking at the heat as they approach, and the teamsters unload the carts while foundry men pitch the charcoal into furnaces, and groups of mullahs pray, and still more men work in teams of three at great bellows, soaked to their bones in sweat, pumping air into the furnaces. In lulls between the chanting, Omeir
can hear the fires burn: a sound like something huge inside the tent chewing, chewing, chewing.

At night he approaches the drivers who will tolerate his face and asks what they have been brought here to help create. One says he has heard that the sultan is casting a propeller from iron but that he does not know what a propeller is. Another calls it a thunder catapult, another a torment, another the Destroyer of Cities.

“Inside that tent,” explains a gray-bearded man with gold rings through his earlobes, “the sultan is making an apparatus that will change history forever.”

“What does it do?”

“The apparatus,” says the man, “is a way for a small thing to destroy a much larger thing.”

New teams of oxen arrive carrying pallets of tin, trunks of iron, even church bells, the teamsters whisper, from sacked Christian cities, dragged here over hundreds of miles. The whole world, it seems, has sent tributes: copper coin, bronze coffin lids of noblemen centuries forgotten; the sultan, Omeir hears, has even brought the wealth of an entire nation he conquered in the east, enough to make five thousand men rich for five thousand lifetimes, and this too will be pitched in—the gold and silver becoming part of the apparatus too.

Back cold, front burning, the fabric of the tent swimming behind heat blurs, Omeir watches transfixed. The foundry men, their arms and hands wrapped in cowhide gloves, approach the blearing, wavering inferno and climb scaffolding and pitch raw pieces of brass into an enormous cauldron and skim away the dross. Some constantly check the melting metal for any sign of moisture while others check the sky while others pray prayers specifically bent on the weather—the slightest raindrop, a man beside Omeir whispers, could set the entire cauldron hissing and cracking with all the fires of hell.

When it is time to add tin to the molten brass, turbaned soldiers
drive everyone out. During this delicate moment, they say, the metal cannot be looked at with impure eyes, and only the blessed may go in. The doors of the tent are drawn and tied, and Omeir wakes in the night to see a glow rising from the far end of the field, and it appears that the ground beneath the tent glows also, as though drawing some stupendous power up from the center of the earth.

Moonlight lies on his side and presses his ear against Omeir's shoulder, and the boy curls up in the damp grass, and Tree stands to the side, his back to the tents, still grazing, as though bored by the ridiculous fanaticisms of men.

Grandfather, Omeir thinks, already I have seen things I did not know how to dream.

For two more days the massive tent glows, sparks rising through its chimney holes, and the weather stays fair, and on the third day the foundry men release the molten alloy from the cauldron, directing it through channels until it disappears into the molds belowground. Men move up and down the lines of flowing bronze, knocking out bubbles with iron poles, while others throw shovels of wet sand upon the casting pit, and the tent is dismantled and teams of mullahs take turns praying beside the mounds as they cool.

At dawn they dig away the sand, break apart the molds, and send tunnelers beneath the apparatus to sling chains around its girth. These chains they tether to ropes and the lead teamsters gather oxen in five teams of ten each to try to drag the Destroyer of Cities out of the earth.

Tree and Moonlight are placed on the second team. The order is given and the animals are goaded. Ropes groan, yokes squeak, and the oxen march slowly in place, churning the soil to a sea of mud.

“Pull, boys, all your strength,” Omeir calls. The entire team drives their hooves deeper into the clay. The teamsters add a sixth chain, a sixth rope, a sixth team of ten. By now it is nearly dusk and the bullocks
stand heaving in the shafts. With a sharp cry, the air fills with “Ho!” and “Hai!” and sixty oxen begin to pull.

The animals lean forward, are hauled back as one by the incredible weight, then lean forward again, earning one step, another, drivers yelling, switching their animals, the bullocks bellowing in fear and confusion.

The immense load is a whale swimming out of the earth. They haul it maybe fifty yards before the order is given to stop. Vapor gushes from the bullocks' nostrils and Omeir checks Tree's and Moonlight's yoke and shoes, and already scrapers and polishers are scrambling over the apparatus where it smokes in the cold twilight, the bronze still warm.

Maher crosses his skinny arms. He says, to no one in particular, “They will need to invent an entirely different kind of cart.”

To pull the apparatus the mile from the foundry to the sultan's testing ground takes three days. Three times the spokes on the wagon's wheels splinter and the rims fall out of round; wheelwrights rush around it, working day and night; the load is so heavy that every hour it sits on the cart it drives the wheels another inch into the ground.

In a field within sight of the sultan's new palace, a crane is used to hoist the huge hooped tube of the apparatus onto a wooden platform. An impromptu bazaar springs up: traders sell bulgur and butter, roasted thrushes and smoked ducks, sacks of dates and silver necklaces and wool bonnets. Fox fur is everywhere, as though every fox in the world has been slain and turned into a cape, and some men wear gowns of snow-white ermine, and others wear mantles of fine felt upon which raindrops bead up and skitter off, and Omeir cannot take his eyes off any of them.

At midday the crowd is parted to either side of the field. He and Maher climb a tree at the edge of the testing ground so they can see over the assembled heads. A parade of shorn sheep painted red and
white and ornamented with rings are driven toward the platform, followed by a hundred riders riding bareback on black horses, followed by slaves reenacting salient episodes of the sultan's life. Maher whispers that somewhere at the end of the procession must be the sovereign himself, may God bless and greet him, but Omeir can see only attendants and banners and musicians with cymbals and a drum so large that it takes a boy on either side to strike it.

The bite of Grandfather's saw, the ever-present cud-chewing of the cattle, and the nickering of the goat and the panting of dogs and the burbling of the creek and the singing of starlings and the scurryings of mice—a month ago he would have said the ravine at home overflowed with sound. But all of that was silence compared to this: hammers, bells, shouts, trumpets, the groaning of ropes, the whinnying of horses—the noise is an assault.

In the afternoon buglers blow six bright notes and everyone looks to the great polished implement where it gleams on its platform. A man in a red cap crawls inside and disappears entirely and a second man crawls in behind with a sheet of sheepskin, and someone at the foot of the tree says that they must be packing powder into place, though what this means the boy cannot guess. The two men crawl out and next comes a huge piece of granite chiseled and polished into a sphere; a crew of nine rolls it to the front of the barrel and tips it inside.

BOOK: Cloud Cuckoo Land
11.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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