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Authors: Anthony Doerr

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Omeir

T
welve-year-old Omeir is sitting on a limb of the half-hollow yew, gazing down at the bend in the river, when Grandfather's smallest dog appears on the road below, running hard for home with its tail between its legs. Moonlight and Tree—resplendent two-year-olds, heavy through the neck and shoulders, cords of muscle rippling across their chests—lift their chins in tandem from where they're grazing among the last of the foxgloves. They sniff the air, then raise their eyes to him as though awaiting instructions.

The light turns platinum. The evening becomes so still that he can hear the dog pounding toward the cottage, and his mother say, “What's got into that one?”

Four breaths five breaths six. Down on the road, heralds with mud-spattered banners come round the bend three abreast. Behind them come more riders, some carrying what look like trumpets, others with spears, a dozen at first, and behind them still more: donkeys pulling carts, soldiers on foot—more men and beasts than he has ever seen.

He leaps down from the tree and sprints the trail home, Moonlight and Tree trotting behind, still chewing their cud, pushing through the tall grass like the prows of ships. By the time Omeir reaches the byre, Grandfather is already limping out of the house, looking grim, as though some unpleasant reckoning he has delayed a long time has finally arrived. He hushes the dogs and sends Nida into the root cellar and stands with his spine rigid and his fists at his sides as the first riders come up the track from the river.

They ride tasseled ponies with painted bridles, and wear red
bonnets, and carry halberds or iron rods or have compound bows strapped to their saddles. Little powder horns dangle from their necks; their hair is strangely cut. A royal emissary with boots to his knees and his sleeves bunched in ruffles at his wrists dismounts and picks his way between the boulders and stops with his right hand resting on the pommel of his dagger.

“Blessings on you,” says Grandfather.

“And on you.”

A first few raindrops fall. Farther back along the procession Omeir can see more men turn off the road, a few with skinny mountain oxen hitched to carts, others on foot with quivers of arrows on their backs or swords in their hands. The gaze of one of the heralds stops on Omeir's face and his expression twists in disgust, and the boy gets a flicker of what he and this place together must present: a rude dwelling carved into a hollow, home to a gash-faced boy, hermitage of the deformed.

“Night is coming,” says Grandfather, “and rain with it. You must be weary. We have fodder for your animals, and shelter for you to rest out of the weather. Come, you are welcome here.” He ushers a half-dozen heralds into the cottage with stiff formality and perhaps does so genuinely, though Omeir can see that he brings his hands to his beard over and over, plucking at hairs with a thumb and forefinger as he does whenever he is anxious.

By nightfall rain falls steadily, and forty men and almost as many animals shelter beneath the limestone overhang around a pair of smoky fires. Omeir brings firewood, then oats and hay, hurrying about in the wet dark between the byre and cavern, keeping his face hidden inside his hood. Every time he stops, tendrils of panic clutch his windpipe: Why are they here and where are they going and when will they leave? What his mother and sister distribute among the men—the honey and preserves, the pickled cabbage, the trout, the sheep's cheese, the dried venison—comprises almost all of their food for the winter.

Many of the men wear cloaks and mantles like woodsmen but others dress in coats of fox fur or camel hide and at least one wears
ermine with the teeth still attached. Most have daggers attached to girdles around their waists and everyone speaks of the spoils they are going to win from a great city to the south.

It's after midnight when Omeir finds Grandfather at his bench in the byre working in the light of the oil lamp—an expense Omeir has rarely seen him be so reckless with before—fashioning what looks like a new yoke beam. The sultan, may God keep him, Grandfather says, is gathering men and animals in his capital at Edirne. He requires fighters, herders, cooks, farriers, smiths, porters. Everyone who goes will be rewarded, in this life or in the next.

Little whorls of sawdust rise through the lamplight and melt back into shadow. “When they saw your oxen,” he says, “their heads nearly fell off their necks,” but he does not laugh and does not look up from his work.

Omeir sits against the wall. A particular combination of dung and smoke and straw and wood shavings make a familiar warm tang in the back of his throat and he bites back tears. Each morning comes along and you assume it will be similar enough to the previous one—that you will be safe, that your family will be alive, that you will be together, that life will remain mostly as it was. Then a moment arrives and everything changes.

Images of the city to the south speed through his consciousness, but he has seen neither a city nor a likeness of one and does not know what to imagine, and his visions intermingle with Grandfather's tales of talking foxes and moon-spiders, of towers made of glass and bridges between stars.

Out in the night a donkey brays. Omeir says, “They're going to take Tree and Moonlight.”

“And a teamster to drive them.” Grandfather lifts the beam, studies it, sets it back down. “The animals won't follow anyone else.”

An axe falls through Omeir. All his life he has wondered what adventures await beyond the shadow of the mountain, but now he wants only to crouch here against the logs of the byre until the seasons have turned and these visitors are a memory and everything has gone back to the way it was.

“I won't go.”

“Once,” Grandfather says, finally looking at him, “the people of an entire city, from beggars to butchers to the king, refused the call of God and were turned to stone. A whole city, every woman, every child, turned to stone. There is no refusing this.”

Against the opposite wall, Tree and Moonlight sleep, their ribs rising and falling in tandem.

“You will gain glory,” Grandfather says, “and then you will return.”

THREE

THE CRONE'S WARNING

Cloud Cuckoo Land
by Antonius Diogenes, Folio
Γ

… as I left the village gate, I passed a foul crone seated on a stump. She said, “Where to, dimwit? It'll soon be dark and this is no time to be on the road.” I said, “All my life I have longed to see more, to fill my eyes with new things, to get beyond this muddy, stinking town, these forever bleating sheep. I am traveling to Thessaly, the Land of Magic, to find a sorcerer who will transform me into a bird, a fierce eagle or a bright strong owl.”

She laughed and said, “Aethon, you dolt, everyone knows you cannot count to five yet you believe you can count the waves of the sea. You will never fill your eyes with anything more than your own nose.”

“Quiet, hag,” I said, “for I have heard of a city in the clouds where thrushes fly into your mouth fully cooked and wine runs in channels in the streets and warm breezes always blow. As soon as I become a brave eagle or a bright strong owl, it is there I intend to fly.”

“You always think the barley is more plentiful in another man's field, but it's no better out there, Aethon, I promise you,” said the crone. “Bandits wait around every corner to bash your skull and ghouls lurk in the shadows, hoping to drink your blood. Here you have cheese, wine, your friends, and your flock. What you already have is better than what you so desperately seek.”

But as a bee hurries to and fro, visiting every flower without pause, so my restlessness…

LAKEPORT, IDAHO

1941–1950

Zeno

H
e's seven when his father is hired to install a new sash saw at the Ansley Tie and Lumber Company. It's January when they arrive and the only snowflakes Zeno has seen before are asbestos fibers a druggist in Northern California sprinkled over a Christmas display. The boy touches the frozen surface of a puddle on the train platform, then yanks back his fingers as though burned. Papa pratfalls into a snowbank, smears snow over his coat, and staggers toward him. “Looks! Looks at mes! I big snowman!”

Zeno bursts into tears.

The company leases them an under-insulated two-room cabin a mile from town on the edge of a blinding-white plain that the boy will only later understand is the icebound lake. At dusk Papa opens a two-pound can of Armour & Company spaghetti and meatballs and sets it on the wood stove. The bottom half burns Zeno's tongue; the top half is slush.

“This be terrific homes, yes, lamb chop? Tremendous, yes?”

All night cold seeps through a thousand chinks in the walls and the boy cannot get warm. Navigating the canyon of shoveled snow to the privy an hour before dawn is a horror so grim he prays he will never have to pee again. At daybreak Papa walks him a mile to the general store and spends four dollars on eight pairs of Utah Woolen Mills socks, the best they have, and they sit on the floor beside the register and Papa pulls two socks over each of Zeno's feet.

“You remembers, boy,” he says, “there is no bad weathers, only bad clothes.”

Half the children in the schoolhouse are Finns and the rest are Swedes, but Zeno has dark eyelashes, nut-brown irises, skin the color of milk tea, and that name. Olivepicker, Sheep Shagger, Wop, Zero—even when he doesn't understand the epithets, their message is plain: don't stink, don't breathe, stop shivering, stop being different. After school he wanders the labyrinth of plowed snow that is downtown Lakeport, five feet atop the service station, six feet on the roof of M. S. Morris Hardware. Inside Cadwell's Confectionery, older boys chew bubble gum and talk of lamebrains and fairies and flivvers; they go quiet when they notice him; they say, “Don't be a spook.”

Eight days after arriving in Lakeport, he pauses in front of a light-blue two-story Victorian on the corner of Lake and Park. Icicles fang the eaves; the sign, half-submerged in snow, says:

He's peering through a window when the door opens and two identical-looking women in high-collared housedresses beckon him in.

“Why,” says one, “you don't look warm at all.”

“Where,” says the other, “is your mother?”

Goose-necked lamps illuminate reading tables; a needlepoint on the wall says
Questions Answered Here.

“Mama,” he says, “lives in the Celestial City now. Where everyone is untouched by sorrow and no one wants for anything.”

The librarians incline their heads at the exact same angle. One seats him in a spindle-back chair in front of the fireplace while the other disappears into the shelves and returns with a clothbound book in a lemon-yellow jacket.

“Ah,” says the first sister, “fine choice,” and they sit on either side of him and the one who fetched the book says, “On a day like this,
when it's chilly and damp, and you can't get warm, sometimes all you need are the Greeks”—she shows him a page, dense with verse—“to fly you all the way around the world to somewhere hot and stony and bright.”

The fire flickers, and the brass pulls on the card catalogue drawers glimmer, and Zeno tucks his hands beneath his thighs as the second sister begins to read. In the story a lonely sailor, the loneliest man in the world, rides a raft for eighteen days before he is caught in a terrible storm. His raft is smashed, and he washes naked onto the rocks of an island. But a goddess named Athena disguises herself as a little girl carrying a pitcher of water and escorts him into an enchanted city.

The chief with wonder sees the extended streets,
she reads,

The spreading harbors, and the riding fleets;

He next their princes' lofty domes admires,

In separate islands, crown'd with rising spires;

And deep entrenchments, and high walls of stone,

That gird the city like a marble zone.

Zeno sits rapt. He hears the waves crash on the rocks, smells the salt of the sea, sees the lofty domes shine in the sun. Is the island of the Phaeacians the same thing as the Celestial City and did his mother also have to float alone beneath the stars for eighteen days to get there?

The goddess tells the lonely sailor not to be afraid, that it is better to be brave in all things, and he enters a palace that gleams like the rays of moonlight, and the king and queen give him honey-hearted wine, and seat him in a silver chair, and ask him to tell the stories of his travails, and Zeno is eager to hear more, but the heat of the fire and the smell of old paper and the cadence of the librarian's voice join together to cast a spell over him, and he falls asleep.

Papa promises insulation, indoor plumbing, and a brand-new electric Thermador space heater ordered direct from Montgomery Ward
but most nights he comes home from the mill too tired to unlace his boots. He sets a can of beef and noodles on the stove, smokes a cigarette, and falls asleep at the kitchen table, a puddle of snowmelt around his feet, as though he thaws a little in his sleep before heading back out the door at dawn to turn solid once more.

Every day after school Zeno stops at the library, and the librarians—both named Miss Cunningham—read him the rest of
The Odyssey
, then
The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles
, touring him through Ogygia and Erytheia, Hesperia and Hyperborea, places the sisters call mythical lands, which means that they aren't real places, that Zeno can travel to them only in his imagination, though at other times the librarians say that the old myths can be more true than truths, so maybe they are real places after all? The days lengthen and the library roof drips and the big ponderosas standing over the cabin unload snow with great whumps that sound to the boy like Hermes plunging in his golden sandals down from Olympus on another errand from the gods.

In April Papa brings home a piebald collie from the mill yard, and though she smells like a swamp and regularly defecates behind the stove, when she climbs onto Zeno's blanket at night and presses her body against his, letting off periodic sighs of great contentment, his eyes water with happiness. He names her Athena, and every afternoon when he leaves school, the dog is there, wagging her tail in the slush outside the split-rail fence, and the two of them walk to the library, and the Cunningham sisters let Athena sleep on the rug in front of the fireplace while they read to Zeno about Hector and Cassandra and the hundred children of King Priam, and May becomes June, and the lake turns sapphire blue, and saws echo through the forests, and log decks as big as cities rise beside the mills, and Papa buys Zeno a pair of overalls three sizes too big with a lightning bolt sewn on the pocket.

In July he is passing a house on the corner of Mission and Forest with a brick chimney, a second story, and a light-blue 1933 Buick
Model 57 in the driveway, when a woman steps out of the front door and beckons him to the porch.

“I won't bite,” she says. “But leave the dog.”

Inside, mulberry curtains block the light. Her name, she says, is Mrs. Boydstun, and her husband died in a mill accident a few years earlier. She has yellow hair, blue eyes, and moles on her throat that look like beetles paralyzed mid-crawl. On a platter in the dining room stands a pyramid of star-shaped cookies, their backs glistening with icing.

“Go ahead.” She lights a cigarette. On the wall behind her a foot-tall Jesus glowers down from his cross. “I'll just throw them away.”

Zeno takes one: sugar, butter, delicious.

On shelves running round the circumference of the room stand hundreds of pink-cheeked porcelain children in red caps and red dresses, some in clogs and some with pitchforks and some kissing and some peering into wishing wells.

“I've seen you,” she says. “Wandering around town. Talking with those witches at the library.”

He does not know how to answer and the ceramic children make him uneasy and his mouth is full besides.

“Have another.”

The second is even better than the first. Who would bake a plate of cookies only to throw them away?

“Your father is the new one, isn't he? At the mill? With the shoulders.”

He manages a nod. Jesus stares down unblinking. Mrs. Boydstun takes a long inhalation of smoke. Her manner is casual but her attention is ferocious and he thinks of Argus Panoptes, the watchman of Hera, who had eyeballs all over his head and even on the tips of his fingers, so many eyes that when he closed fifty of them to sleep he held fifty more open to keep watch.

He takes a third cookie.

“And your mother? Is she in the picture?”

Zeno shakes his head, and suddenly it feels airless in the house, and the cookies are turning to clay in his gut, and Athena whines on
the porch, and waves of guilt and confusion break over Zeno with such force that he backs away from the table and hurries outside without saying thanks.

The following weekend he and Papa attend a Sunday service with Mrs. Boydstun where a pastor with wet underarms warns that dark forces are gathering. Afterward the three of them walk back to Mrs. Boydstun's house, and she pours something called Old Forester into matching blue tumblers, and Papa switches on her Zenith tabletop wireless, sending big band music through the dark, heavy rooms, and Mrs. Boydstun laughs a big tooth-filled laugh and touches Papa's forearm with her fingernails. Zeno is hoping she will put out another plate of cookies when Papa says, “You plays outside now, boy.”

He and Athena walk the block to the lake and he builds a miniature kingdom of the Phaeacians in the sand, replete with high walls and twig orchards and a fleet of pine cone ships, and Athena fetches sticks from up and down the beach and carries them to Zeno so he can throw them into the water. Two months ago he would have been ecstatic to spend time in a real house with a real fireplace and a Buick Model 57 in the driveway, but right now all he wants to do is walk home to the little cabin with Papa so they can heat canned noodles on the stove.

Athena keeps bringing him larger and larger sticks until she is dragging whole uprooted saplings through the sand, and the sunlight glitters on the lake and the great ponderosas quake and shimmy and send needles down onto his kingdom, and Zeno shuts his eyes and feels himself grow very small, small enough to enter the royal palace at the center of his sand island, where attendants dress him in a warm gown and lead him down torchlit corridors, and everyone is overjoyed to welcome him, and in the throne room he joins Ulysses and his mother and handsome, mighty Alcinous and they pour libations to Zeus the Thunderlord, who guides wanderers on their way.

Eventually he shuffles back to Mrs. Boydstun's and calls for Papa,
and Papa calls from the back room, “Three minutes more, lamb chops!” and Zeno and Athena sit on the porch in a halo of mosquitoes.

September closes around August like the pincers of a claw, and in October snow dusts the shoulders of the mountains, and they spend every Sunday with Mrs. Boydstun, and plenty of evenings in between, and by November Papa still has not installed an indoor toilet, and there is no brand-new electric Thermador heater ordered direct from Montgomery Ward. On the first Sunday in December they walk back from church to Mrs. Boydstun's house and Papa switches on her wireless and the broadcaster says that 353 Japanese airplanes have bombed an American naval base somewhere called Oahu.

In the kitchen Mrs. Boydstun drops a bag of flour. Zeno says, “What's ‘all auxiliary personnel'?” No one answers. Athena barks on the porch and the broadcaster speculates that thousands of sailors may be dead and a vein throbs visibly on the left side of Papa's forehead.

Outside, along Mission Street, the snowbanks are already as tall as Zeno. Athena digs a tunnel in the snow and no cars come by and no airplanes pass overhead and no children come out of the other houses. The whole world seems to have been struck silent. When, hours later, he comes back inside, his father is walking laps around the radio, cracking the knuckles of his right hand with the fingers of his left, and Mrs. Boydstun is standing at the window with a glass of Old Forester, and no one has cleaned up the flour.

On the wireless a woman says, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” and clears her throat. “I am speaking to you tonight at a very serious moment in our history.”

Papa holds up a finger. “It is wife of president.”

Athena whines at the door.

“For months now,” says the president's wife, “the knowledge that something of this kind might happen has been hanging over our heads and yet it seemed impossible to believe.”

Athena barks. Mrs. Boydstun says, “Can you please shut that beast up?”

Zeno says, “Can we go home now, Papa?”

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