Authors: Lev Grossman
Edward strolled around the edge of the room, pretending to examine the reference books. The shelves were glassed in, and his reflection made him self-conscious. He tried to look casual. The young woman ignored him, leaning over her book like a gambler protecting her hand. He moved on to the old man. He looked up as Edward approached, his moist red lips parted expectantly. At the last moment Edward saw that the book he was reading was in Arabic. No dice. He turned his head and kept walking.
It had to be the young woman. He circled cautiously around the room back to where she was sitting. She was concentrating fiercely, taking notes in a worn spiral notebook that lay open on the table beside her, putting her whole body into it, her long, gawky frame bent almost double over the wooden tabletop. Her chin-length hair was brown and straight, cut off short and square above her pale neck. She wore a green wool cardigan over a plain white T-shirt.
Edward pulled over a chair and sat down opposite her. The book that lay spread open in front of her was very large; the cover alone must have been half an inch thick. The worn, brindled pages were closely covered with fine black script in neat columns. She didn't acknowledge his presence.
“Excuse meâ,” he began, in what he hoped was a discreet whisper.
She looked up at him, quickly but not startled. Her face was long and elegantânot pretty exactly, but with brown eyes and a wide, expressive mouth that turned down naturally at the corners like a cat's. Almost as quickly she went back to scribbling on her pad.
With the eraser end of her pencil she tapped a little printed card that was taped flat on the table. It said:
TALKING IN THE
She went back to examining the book.
Edward stood up, got his pencil and paper from where he'd been sitting, and brought them over to her table. He printed carefully on a piece of paper:
IS THAT GERVASE OF LANGFORD?
and passed it across to her.
This time she looked up for a little longer. She hesitated, then nodded reluctantly.
I NEED TO ASK YOU A QUESTION
She sighed deeply and pursed her lips, as if she accepted the fact that being continuously interrupted in her silent labors was her inevitable lot in life, but she wasn't about to act all happy about it. They stood up together and walked to the door. When she stood up he saw that she was quite tall, as tall as he was. The movement in itself was striking, like some large, endangered heron gracefully unfolding itself into flight. He opened the door for her, and she stepped through ahead of him. The jowly old woman was watching him and frowning. He made a face at her.
Edward had wanted to sit down with her at one of the conference tables that were scattered around the lobby, but the young woman just stood by the door, doing the minimum.
“It's a funny thing,” he began, chuckling as if it actually were funny. “But I came here to look at Gervase of Langford, too.”
He hoped she would throw the ball back, but she just waited for him to continue. He did.
“And I was wondering what time you thought you might be finished with it?”
She was wearing a small silver watch, but she didn't glance at it.
“I'll be working on it for the rest of the day.”
There was something odd about her voiceâit was strangely flat and unexpressive. It held out no apology or invitation to negotiate. Edward scratched the back of his head with one hand. He was straying into unfamiliar territory, protocol-wise.
“What if I just took a quick glance at it.”
Her expression didn't change.
“How much time do you need?”
“Will you be transcribing, tracing, or making sketches?”
“No, I don't think so. I just need toâI just have to check a few things.”
She looked at him impassively. Her long nose had an aristocratic ski-jump swoop to it.
“Can you do it right now?”
“All right.” She stepped aside, unbarring the doorway, as if she'd been considering physically challenging him. “You have fifteen minutes. Come and find me when you're finished.”
As he settled into her chair, he saw that she'd left some of her things where they were, the tools of the trade, scattered on the table in a half circle around the book. There was a red velvet bookweight; a delicate, serious little magnifying glass that looked like demilitarized Russian spy gear; three pencils, number fours, lined up in a row and sharpened to vicious little points. She'd taken her notebook with her, but she'd left her purse behind. It was open, and her Columbia University student ID lay in plain view. Her name, below her thin-lipped, unsmiling picture, was Margaret Napier.
The clock was ticking. Edward looked the volume over with what he hoped was a professional eye. Its sense of ancient, inanimate self-possession disconcerted him. What was he doing here again? It was large and thick, and the mottled pages had an oddly velvety feel unlike ordinary paper. The cover was made of a very pale gray material that he couldn't immediately identify, and it had what looked like a prehistoric metal belt buckle bolted to it. Three delicate pink rosettes were faintly visible drawn along the edges of the gathered pages. The book was so palpably ancient he was afraid it would crumble to dust as he turned to the first page. When he did there was no title page there, just plain text.
He took a few notes. The writing on the pages was dense and black and almost totally illegible. He thought medieval books were supposed to have pictures in them, but there wasn't even anything much in the way of decoration, just a few curlicues here and there between the columns of writing. He spelled out a word or two, enough to see that it was written in Latin. Turning the pages of a book he couldn't read could only keep him amused for so long, but he felt like he should use the full fifteen minutes just to spite Margaret Napier.
But even spite got boring after a while. Edward found her sitting at a circular table in the lobby with an entire drawer from the card catalog in front of her. She had boldly removed the metal rod that ran down the middle and taken out a short stack of catalog cards. She was sorting them into piles on the blond wood in front of her, as if she were involved in an elaborate private card game, and taking the occasional note.
“Who's winning?” he asked jauntily.
“Winning?” Margaret Napier looked up at him uncomprehendingly. Well, she didn't deserve witty conversation anyway.
“Are you really allowed to do that?”
She continued to sort the cards.
“I used to work here,” she said. “Anyhow, the paper catalog is largely redundant. Most of its contents are duplicated in electronic form.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” he said, sitting down across from her. “I mean, about Gervase of Langford?”
“Well, I'm doing some research, andâ”
“Are you a graduate student?”
“I work for a private collection.”
She plucked another manila card out of the drawer and snapped it down onto the table. He forged ahead.
“Recently I've been looking for a particular book by Gervase of Langford. And as part of the search I've been familiarizing myself with the physical characteristics of his work.”
“You're working for a private collection,” she repeated. “You're interested in acquiring one of his works?”
“Actually, I think we may already have one.”
She looked up from her work.
She seemed to register his presence for the first time.
“You're saying that your employers may be in possession of a new example of the work of Gervase of Langford.” She put down her pencil, still skeptical but definitely paying attention now. “What is it? Another
“No,” said Edward. “It's aâI think it's some kind of travel book. Something about the land of the Cimmerians, something like that.”
As soon as he said it he knew he'd made a mistake. Her manner frosted over again, visibly, and she went back to shuffling her cards. Edward waited, listening to the sound of her pencil scratching in the quiet of the library, but she said nothing more.
“You know the book I'm talking about?” he prompted.
“The book you're talking about doesn't exist.”
She sounded almost angry about it.
“My employers think it does.”
“Then they're sadly misinformed.”
“Well, they'll be very sorry to hear that.”
“I'm sure they will.”
“But you do know what I'm talking about?” he said doggedly. “
A Voyage to theâ
A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians.
” She spoke the words fluidly and easily, but with a weird sing-song pronunciation. She placed the stresses differently than he would have expected, and she gave “Cimmerians” a hard
as if it were spelled with a
“It is a well-known hoax.”
“I'm sorry to have to say this,” he said, “but I don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about.”
“You're not a medievalist, are you?”
She said this without any real scorn. He had the impression that she simply desired a clearer understanding of the situation she was dealing with.
“No,” said Edward. “I'm not, I'm aâ” What was he exactly? “I'm a layman.”
“Then let me clarify something for you. In layman's terms.” She assumed a businesslike tone he recognized from the boardroom. It was the sound of an implacable opponent preparing to deliver a deathblow. “In the mid-eighteenth century a man named Edward Forsyth had a cheap printer's shop in a back street in a London slum. Forsyth printed a chapbook containing what he claimed were fragments from a book of prophecies by a medieval monk named Gervase. The book was called
A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians.
Stop me if I'm going too fast for you.”
The soul of graciousness, Edward nodded for her to continue.
“The fragments contained a sensational and occasionally salacious allegorical journey culminating in a mystical vision of the end of the world. Forsyth, an ex-convict and an employer of hacks, presented them as a prophecy of the apocalypse, accompanied by suitably sensational illustrations. The result was a nine-days wonder. The
was a bestseller, and Forsyth became a wealthy man.
“Since that time amateur bibliophiles and overzealous graduate students have occasionally furthered their careers by speculating that there actually was such a mystical book, by the same title, and that the putative monk Gervase is identical with Gervase of Langford, a legitimate minor scholar of the early fourteenth century. Flights of fancy aside, however, serious academics agree that the
Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians
is a fabrication.”
Now she did glance at her tiny silver watch.
“If you'll excuse me, my time here is very limited.”
She swept up the cards on the table, deftly restoring them to their original order, and began reinserting them into the catalog.
“Thanks for your help,” Edward said.
You incredible bitch.
“Don't mention it.”
He bit his lip as she stood up and carried the heavy drawer back over to the catalog. He watched her heft it up into its proper place, and he saw how thin her arms and her shoulders were. The door to the Reading Room closed behind her, and Edward suddenly realized how cold he was. The distant, heatless sun of the skylights made him feel even colder. He went to retrieve his things.
He felt obscurely disappointed. There had been something tantalizing about this little project, this miniature quest. He hadn't expected it to go anywhere, really, but he didn't think it would turn to shit quite as fast as it had, either. The Reading Room was almost empty now, only Margaret Napier and the distinguished-looking white-haired man still remained, slowly paging through the same tattered old pulp magazine. Edward gathered up his papers and squared them offânot that there was anything useful on them, unless you counted his geometrical masterpieces. Margaret ignored him completely. He left and climbed the stairs up to the dark landing. When he pushed open the glass door to the street it seemed like he'd been underground for days. He was almost surprised to see that it was still only midafternoon.
DWARD WOKE UP SLOWLY
on Tuesday morning. He was getting used to waking up late. He lay there on his back, slowly opening and closing his eyes, like a castaway who'd been washed up on a soft, gently sloping beach of white sand. He was awake, but he was dreaming, and every time he closed his eyes the dream would restart itself automatically, going back to the beginning and continuing on through the exact same course of events like a piece of looped film run and rerun over and over and over again.
In the dream he found himself on a fishing trawler, bobbing in a dark, choppy sea studded with whitecaps. His father was there, looking grizzled and irascible. He was dressed as a pirate in a cartoon, with a hat and a pegleg and a blue uniformâor was that the livery of the Wents' doorman? The clouds were low and dark, seeming to hover only yards above the wavetops. The light was failing.
They had a fish on the line, but it was so large and strong that it was dragging their boat through the water behind it. Sometimes they caught a glimpse of it when it came near the surface. It was enormous, ten or fifteen feet long, and slender and muscular like an eel.
After a while the fish got tired, and they managed to winch it up over the side. The ship's crew now included Zeph's wife, Caroline, as well as Edward's secretary Helen from work. The fish was olive green, with a beaked face like a turtle and bright yellow eyes. They laid it out on the deck, but even in the open air it refused to die. In fact, as they slowly made their way home through the mounting seas it gained strength, thrashing around and snapping at them and flaring its blood-red gills. No one knew what kind of fish it was. They weren't even sure it was edible. The waves were rising, and the ship was becoming dangerously overpopulated. “Don't be such a child,” the Wents' housekeeper said, rolling her eyes in disgust. Edward could see the shore now, low green hills above the heaving whitecaps, but as it came closer he felt a sense of impending disaster. They would never reach the land. Somewhere in the distance a warning buoy was tolling and tolling....