Authors: Anthony Doerr
ownstairs adults clomp through Mrs. Boydstun's living room in their heavy shoes. Five Playwood Plastic soldiers climb out of their tin box. Soldier 401 creeps toward the headboard with his rifle; 410 drags his anti-tank gun over a furrow of quilt; 413 gets too close to the radiator and his face melts.
Pastor White labors up the stairs with a plate of ham and crackers and sits on the little brass bed breathing hard. He picks up Soldier 404, the one with the rifle held over his head, and says he's not supposed to tell Zeno this, but he heard that on the day Zeno's Papa died, he sent four Japs to hell all by himself.
At the bottom of the stairwell someone says, “Guadalcanal, now, that's where?” and someone else says, “It's all the same to me,” and snowflakes float past the bedroom window. For a split second Zeno's mother sails down from the sky in a golden boat and while everyone watches, stupefied, he and Athena climb aboard and she sails them to the Celestial City, where a turquoise sea breaks against black cliffs and lemons, warm with sunlight, hang from every tree.
Then he's back on the brass bed and Pastor White is frog-walking Soldier 404 around the bedspread, reeking of hair tonic, and Papa is never coming back.
“Bona fide honest-to-God hero,” the pastor says. “What your daddy was.”
Later Zeno sneaks down the staircase with the plate and slips out the back door. Athena limps out of the junipers, stiff with cold, and
he feeds her the ham and crackers and she gives him a look of pure gratitude.
The snow falls in big conglomerated flakes. A voice inside his head whispers, You are alone and it's probably your fault, and the daylight wanes. In something like a trance he leaves Mrs. Boydstun's yard and walks Mission Street to the intersection with Lake Street and clambers over the plowed berm and punches through the drifts, snow gushing into his funeral shoes, until he reaches the lake's edge.
It's the tail end of March and out in the center of the lake, a half mile away, the first dark patches of melt have begun to show. The ponderosas along the shore to his left form a vast, flickering wall.
As Zeno steps onto the ice, the snowpack gets thinner, freeze-dried and blown flat by wind. With each step away from shore, his sense of the great dark basin of water beneath his shoes deepens. Thirty paces, forty. When he turns, he cannot see the mills or town or even the trees along the shore. His own tracks are being erased by wind and snow; he is suspended in a universe of white.
Six paces farther. Seven eight stop.
Nothingness in every direction: an all-white jigsaw puzzle with the pieces thrown into the air. He feels himself teetering at the edge of something. Behind is Lakeport: the drafty schoolhouse, the slushy streets, the library, Mrs. Boydstun with her kerosene breath and her ceramic children. Back there he is Olivepicker, Sheep Shagger, Zero: an undersized orphan with foreigner's blood and a weirdo name. Ahead is what?
An almost subsonic crack, muffled by the snow, rifles out into the white. Flickering behind the flakes does he see the royal house of the Phaeacians? The bronze walls and silver pillars, the vineyards and pear orchards and springs? He tries to get his eyes to work, but somehow their seeing-power has been reversed; it is as though they look inward, into a white, swirling cavity inside his head.
Whatever is asked of us
, said the president's wife,
I am sure we can accomplish it
. But what is he being asked and how is he supposed to accomplish it without Papa?
Just a little farther. He slides one shoe another half pace forward and a second crack croaks through the lake ice, seeming to begin in the center of the lake and pass directly between his legs before shooting toward town. Then he feels a tug at the back of his trousers, as though he has reached the end of a tether and now a cord is pulling him home, and he turns and Athena has a hold of his belt in her teeth.
Only now does fear fill his body, a thousand snakes slithering beneath his skin. He stumbles, holds his breath, tries to make himself as light as possible, as the collie leads him, track by track, back across the ice to town. He reaches shore, staggers through the drifts, and crosses Lake Street. Heartbeats gallop through his ears. He shivers at the end of the lane and Athena licks his hand and inside the lit windows of Mrs. Boydstun's house adults stand in the living room, their mouths moving like the mouths of nutcracker dolls.
Teenagers from church shovel the walk. The butcher gives them ends and bones for free. The Cunningham sisters move him to the Greek comedies, aiming for lighter fare, a playwright called Aristophanes who, they say, invented some of the best worlds of all. They read
, about two old guys, sick of earthly corruption, who go to live with the birds in a city in the sky only to find that their troubles follow them there, and Athena drowses in front of the dictionary stand. In the evenings Mrs. Boydstun drinks Old Forester and chain-smokes Camels and they play cribbage, working the pegs around the board. Zeno sits upright with his cards neatly fanned in one hand, thinking, I'm still in this world, but there's another one, right out there.
Fourth grade, fifth grade, the end of the war. Vacationers trickle up from lower elevations to sail across the lake in boats that seem to Zeno full of happy families: moms, dads, kids. The city puts Papa's name on a downtown memorial and someone hands Zeno a flag and someone else says heroes this, heroes that, and afterward, at supper,
Pastor White sits at the head of Mrs. Boydstun's table and waves a turkey leg.
“Alma, Alma, what do you call a queer boxer?”
Mrs. Boydstun stops mid-chew, parsley flecking her teeth.
She cackles; Pastor White grins into the mouth of his drink. On the shelves around them two hundred plump porcelain children watch Zeno with wide-open eyes.
He's twelve when the Cunningham twins call him to the circulation desk and hand across a book:
The Mermen of Atlantis
, eighty-eight four-color pages. “Ordered this with you in mind,” the first sister says and the skin around her eyes crinkles, and the second sister stamps the due date in the back and Zeno carries the book home and sits on the little brass bed. On page one a princess is abducted off a beach by strange men in bronze armor. When she wakes, she finds herself imprisoned in an underwater city beneath a great glass dome. Under their bronze armor the men of the city are web-toed creatures in golden armbands with pointy ears and gill slits on their throats, and they have thick triceps and powerful legs and bulges at the intersections of their thighs that start a buzzing in Zeno's gut.
The strange, beautiful men breathe underwater; they are deeply industrious; their city sports delicate towers made of crystal and high-arched bridges and long lustrous submarines. Bubbles rise past shafts of golden, watery light. By page ten, a war has begun between the underwater men and the clumsy above-water men, who have come to reclaim their princess, and the above-water men fight with harpoons and muskets while the underwater men fight with tridents, and their muscles are long and fine, and Zeno, heat spreading through his body, cannot keep his eyes off the little red slashes of gill slits in their throats and their long, muscular limbs. In the final pages the battle increases in ferocity, and just as cracks appear in the dome over the city, endangering everyone, the book says,
To Be Continued.
For three days he keeps
The Mermen of Atlantis
in a drawer, where
it glows like something dangerous, pulsing in his mind even when he is at school: radioactive, illegal. Only when he's sure Mrs. Boydstun is asleep and the house is utterly quiet does he risk further study: the angry sailors beat against the protective dome with their harpoons; the elegant underwater warriors swim about in their burgundy robes with their tridents and ropy thighs. In dreams they tap at his bedroom window, but when he opens his mouth to speak, water rushes in, and he wakes with a feeling like he has fallen through the lake ice.
Ordered this with you in mind.
On the fourth night, hands shaking, Zeno carries
The Mermen of Atlantis
down the creaking stairs, past the mulberry curtains and lace runners and the kettle of potpourri pumping out its nauseating perfume, slides open the fireplace screen, and shoves the book in.
Shame, fragility, fearâhe's the opposite of his father. He seldom ventures downtown, takes pains to avoid walking past the library. If he glimpses one of the Cunningham sisters by the lake or in a store, he about-faces, ducks, hides. They know he has not returned the book, that he has destroyed public property: they will guess why.
In the mirror his legs are too short, his chin too weak; his feet embarrass him. Maybe in some distant, glittering city, he would belong. Maybe in one of those places, he could emerge, bright and new, as the man he wishes he could become.
Some days, walking to school, or simply rising from bed, he is knocked off-balance by a sudden, stomach-churning sense of spectators ringed around him, their shirts soaked in blood and accusation on their faces. Pansy, they say, and level their outstretched fingers at him. Sissy. Fruit Punch.
Zeno is sixteen and apprenticing part-time in the machine shop at Ansley Tie and Lumber when seventy-five thousand soldiers in the North Korean People's Army cross the 38th parallel and start the Korean War. By August the churchmen who gather around Mrs.
Boydstun's table on Sunday afternoons are complaining about the shortcomings of the new generation of American soldiers, how they've become pampered, made weak by an overindulgent culture, infected with give-up-itis, and the lit ends of their cigarettes draw orange circles above the chicken.
“Not brave like your daddy,” Pastor White says, and makes a show of slapping Zeno's shoulder, and somewhere in the distance Zeno hears a door slide open.
Korea: a small green thumb on the schoolhouse globe. It looks about as far from Idaho as a person can get.
Every evening, after his shift at the mill, he runs partway around the lake. Three miles to the turn at West Side Road, three miles back, splashing through the rain, Athenaâwhite-muzzled now, lionheartedâlimping behind. Some nights, the sleek and shining warriors of Atlantis keep pace beside him as though drawn along hot wires, and he runs harder, trying to leave them behind.
The day he turns seventeen, he asks Mrs. Boydstun to let him drive the old Buick to Boise. She lights a new cigarette from her old one. The cuckoo clock ticks; her throngs of children stand on their shelves; three different Jesuses stare down from three different crosses. Over her shoulder, out the kitchen window, Athena curls up beneath the hedges. A mile away mice drowse inside the cabin where he and Papa spent their first Lakeport winter. The heart heals but never completely.
On the switchbacks down the canyon he gets carsick twice. At the recruitment office, a medic presses the cold cup of a stethoscope to his sternum, licks the tip of a pencil, and checks every box on the form. Fifteen minutes later he's Private E-1 Zeno Ninis.
unny owns the double-wide free and clear, but Pawpaw still had a loan on the acre: $558 a month. Then there's V-1 Propane + Idaho Power + Lakeport Utilities + trash + Blue River Bank for the mattress loan + insurance on the Pontiac + flip phone + snowplowing so she can get the car out of the driveway + $2,652.31 past due on the Visa + health insurance, ha ha, just kidding, she'll never afford health insurance.
She finds at-will employment cleaning rooms at the Aspen Leaf Lodgeâ$10.65 an hourâand picks up dinner shifts at the Pig N' Pancakeâ$3.45 an hour plus tips. If no one is ordering pancakes, Mr. Burkett makes her clean the walk-in, and no one tips you for cleaning the walk-in.
Every weekday six-year-old Seymour gets off the school bus by himself, walks down Arcady Lane by himself, opens the front door by himself. Eat a waffle and watch a Starboy and do not leave the house. Are you listening, Possum? Can you touch your ears? Can you cross your heart?
He touches his ears. Crosses his heart.
Nonetheless, as soon as he gets home, no matter the weather, no matter how deep the snow, he drops his backpack, goes out the sliding door, ducks under the wire, and climbs through the forest to the big dead ponderosa in the clearing halfway up the hill.
Some days he only senses a presence, a tingling at the base of his neck. Some days he hears low, booming
s riding through the forest. Some days there's nothing. But on the best days Trustyfriend
is right there, drowsing at the same guano-spattered intersection of trunk and limb where Seymour first saw him, ten feet off the ground.
The owl gazes down at Seymour; the wind ruffles the feathers of his face; in the whirlpool of his attention spins an understanding as old as time.
Seymour says, “It's not just the desk either, it's the smell of Mia's pickle stickers, the way it gets after recess when Duncan and Wesley are all sweaty, andâ¦”
He says, “They say I'm weird. They say I'm scary.”
The owl blinks into the fading light. His head is the size of a volleyball. He looks like the souls of ten thousand trees distilled into a single form.
One afternoon in November, Seymour is asking Trustyfriend whether loud noises startle him too, whether sometimes it feels as though he hears too muchâand does he ever wish the whole world were as quiet as this clearing is right now, where a million tiny silver snowflakes are flying silently through the air?âwhen the owl drops from its branch, glides across the clearing, and lands in a tree at the far side.
Seymour follows. The owl slips silently down through the trees, back toward the double-wide, calling now and then as though inviting him along. When Seymour reaches the backyard, the owl is perched on top of the house. It sends a big, deep
into the falling snow, then twists its gaze to Pawpaw's old toolshed. Back to Seymour. Back to the toolshed.
“You want me to go in there?”
In the overstuffed gloom of the shed the boy finds a dead spider, a Soviet gas mask, rusty tool boxes, and on a hook above the workbench, a pair of rifle-range ear defenders. When he puts them on, the din of the world fades.
Seymour claps his hands, shakes a coffee can full of bearings, bangs a hammer: all muted, all better. He goes back into the snow
and looks up at the owl standing on the gable of the roof. “These? Are these what you meant?”
Mrs. Onegin allows him to wear the muffs at Recess, during Snack, and at Reflection Time. After five consecutive school days without reprimand, she agrees to let him switch desks.
Miss Slattery the counselor awards him a donut. Bunny buys him a new Starboy DVD.
Whenever the world becomes too loud, too clamorous, too sharp at the edges, whenever he feels that the roar is creeping too close, he shuts his eyes, clamps the muffs over his ears, and dreams himself into the clearing in the woods. Five hundred Douglas firs sway; NeedleMen parachute through the air; the dead ponderosa stands bone-white beneath the stars.
There is magic in this place
You just have to sit and breathe and wait.
Seymour makes it through the Thanksgiving Pageant, through the Christmas Music Spectacular, through the pandemonium that is Valentine's Day. He accepts toaster strudel, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and croutons into his diet. He consents to a bribe-free shampoo every other Thursday. He is working on not flinching when Bunny's fingernails tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat on the steering wheel.
One bright spring day Mrs. Onegin leads the first graders through puddles of snowmelt to a light-blue house with a crooked porch on the corner of Lake and Park. The other kids swarm upstairs; a librarian with freckles all over her face finds Seymour alone in Adult Nonfiction. He has to lift one of the cups of his ear defenders to hear her.
“How big did you say he is? Does he sort of look like he's wearing a bow tie?”
She brings down a field guide from a high shelf. On the very first page she shows him, there's Trustyfriend, hovering with a mouse
clamped in his left foot. In the next photo, there he is again: standing in a snag overlooking a snowy meadow.
Seymour's heart catapults.
Great grey owl
,” she reads. “
World's largest species of owl by length. Also called sooty owl, bearded owl, spectral owl, Phantom of the North
.” She smiles at him from inside her sandstorm of freckles. “Says here that their wingspans can exceed five feet. They can hear the heartbeats of voles under six feet of snowpack. Their big facial disk helps them by collecting sounds, like cupping your hands to your ears.”
She sets her palms beside her ears. Seymour takes off his muffs and does the same.
Every day that summer, as soon as Bunny leaves for the Aspen Leaf, Seymour pours Cheerios into a baggie, heads out the sliding door, passes the egg-shaped boulder, and slips under the wire.
He makes Frisbees from plates of bark, pole-vaults over puddles, rolls rocks down slopes, befriends a pileated woodpecker. There's a living ponderosa in those woods as big as a school bus stood on end with an osprey nest at the very top, and an aspen grove whose leaves sound like rain on water. And every second or third day, Trustyfriend is there, on his branch in his skeleton tree, blinking out at his dominion like a benevolent god, listening as hard as any creature has ever listened.
Inside the pellets the owl coughs into the needles the boy discovers squirrel mandibles and mouse vertebrae and astonishing quantities of vole skulls. A section of plastic twine. Greenish pieces of eggshell. Once: the foot of a duck. On the workbench in Pawpaw's shed he assembles chimerical skeletons: three-headed zombie voles, eight-legged spider-chipmunks.
Bunny finds ticks on his T-shirts, mud on the carpet, burrs in his hair; she fills the tub and says, “Someone is going to have me arrested,” and Seymour pours water from one Pepsi bottle into another and Bunny sings a Woody Guthrie song before falling asleep on the bathmat in her Pig N' Pancake shirt and big black Reeboks.
Second grade. He walks from school to the library, settles his ear defenders around his neck, and sits at the little table beside Audiobooks. Owl puzzles, owl coloring books, owl games on the computer. When the freckled librarian, whose name is Marian, has a free minute, she reads to him, explaining things along the way.
Ideal habitats for great greys are forests bordered by open areas with high vantage points and large populations of voles.
Journal of Contemporary Ornithology:
Great greys are so elusive and easily spooked that we still know very little about them. We are learning, though, that they serve as threads in a meshwork of relationships between rodents, trees, grasses, and even fungal spores that is so intricate and multidimensional that researchers are only beginning to comprehend a fraction of it.
Only about one in fifteen great grey eggs hatch and make it to adulthood. Hatchlings get eaten by ravens, martens, black bears, and great horned owls; nestlings often starve. Because they require such extensive hunting grounds, great greys are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss: cattle trample meadows, decimating prey numbers; wildfires incinerate nesting areas; the owls eat rodents that have eaten poison, die in vehicle collisions, and fly into utility wires.
“Let's see, this site estimates the current number of great greys in the U.S. at eleven thousand one hundred.” Marian retrieves her big desk calculator. “Say, three hundred million Americans, give or take. Hit the three, now eight zeroes; good, Seymour. Remember the division sign? One, one, one. There you go.”
Both of them stare at the number, absorbing it. For every 27,027 Americans, one great grey owl. For every 27,027 Seymours, one Trustyfriend.
At the table beside Audiobooks he tries to draw it. An oval with two eyes in the centerâthat's Trustyfriend. Now to make 27,027 dots in rings around itâthe people. He makes it to somewhere around seven hundred before his hand is throbbing and his pencil is dull and it's time to go.
Third grade. He gets a ninety-three percent on a decimals assignment. He accepts Slim Jims, saltines, and macaroni-and-cheese into his diet. Marian gives him one of her Diet Cokes. Bunny says, “You're doing so well, Possum,” and the moisture in her eyes reflects the lights of the Magnavox.
Walking home one October afternoon, ear defenders on, Seymour turns right onto Arcady Lane. Where this morning there was nothing, now stands a double-posted four-by-five-foot oval sign.
, it reads,
CUSTOM TOWNHOMES AND COTTAGES
PREMIER HOMESITES AVAILABLE
In the illustration, a ten-point buck drinks from a misty pool. Beyond the sign, the road home looks the same: a dusty strip of potholes
flanked on both sides by huckleberry bushes, their leaves flaring autumn red.
A woodpecker dips across the road in a low parabola and disappears. A pine marten chatters somewhere. The tamaracks sway. He looks at the sign. Back at the road. Inside his chest rises a first black tendril of panic.