Authors: Lev Grossman
IT LOOKS VERY
genuine,” Margaret said clinically.
Edward snapped back to reality. He wondered how long he'd been standing there gazing at it. She handled the page casually, but he thought he could see her fingers trembling.
“Exceptionally fine vellum,” she added. “We'd need a microscope to know for sure, but it looks like unborn calfskin.”
“Vellum made from the skin of a fetal cow. It was highly prized.”
Working carefully, soaking and blotting, teasing and tugging, she loosened and removed a second page from the same binding, and then a third. If she felt any of the electric anticipation Edward did, her methodical, unhurried pace betrayed none of it. By nine o'clock Margaret had finished with the Tennyson: It had disgorged six sheets of parchment in all, withered and stained but intact. They lay drying on paper towels laid out on her bed. In one or two places the ink had eaten all the way through the pageâiron-gall ink could be highly corrosive when imperfectly mixed, Margaret explained. As she spread them out Edward saw that the pages were actually double-sized sheets, each one folded in half and covered with writing on both sides, making a total of four pages in all, with holes running up the middle where they had once been sewn into the binding.
Four cans of Diet Coke lay scattered around her chair. There was nothing else to sit on in the apartment, and the futon was taken, so Edward sat on the cracked linoleum kitchen floor with his back against the humming fridge and his feet braced against the opposite wall, watching her. Unable either to leave or to help in any way, he hovered uselessly. Margaret's apartment provided few distractions. The one good-sized window over the bed looked out on the rear end of a diner, where Mexican kitchen hands emptied tubs of dishwater and listened to mariachi music. Margaret's shoulders and arms worked as she sliced and tore and blotted the old pages. Her hair was pulled back into a stubby ponytail held together by a pink rubber band, from which a few floating strays had escaped.
“I'm going to go get us some dinner,” he said, after a while.
“There's a Chinese place around the corner on Vanderbilt. Wah Garden.”
Edward heaved himself up.
“What do you want?”
“Number 19, chicken with garlic sauce. And steamed dumplings. And maybe you could pick up some more Diet Coke.”
At midnight Edward realized he'd fallen asleep sitting up with his head canted backward and his mouth wide open. The Chinese food was gone, the empty white cardboard containers lined up neatly on the counter in the kitchen area. A tall glass full of something cloudy and vaguely lime-colored stood on Margaret's desk.
Margaret worked with precisely the same level of energy and concentration as when she'd started six hours earlier. The stack of intact books on her left was shorter now, and the pile of gutted, dismantled books to her right was taller. He watched her work, oblivious to him, and wondered how many nights she'd ground away like this, one after the other, until nothing was left but the dawn, with nobody there to watch over her the way he was watching over her now. She was driven forward by sheer will, impelled by some inner engine the workings of which he could only guess at. It occurred to him that for Margaret, thisâthis sustained, obsessive, masochistic act of laborâwas what passed for happiness. He was looking for a way to escape from work, but work was all Margaret had. He wondered if it was all she wanted.
He stood up, put his hands on his hips, and arched his stiff back.
“You're awake,” Margaret said, without looking up.
“I didn't even know I was asleep,” he said stupidly. He cleared his throat. “What are you drinking?”
“It's a Tom Collins. Without the vodka. I just like the mix,” she added, sounding a little embarrassed.
He used her bathroomâone of Margaret's long dark hairs was pasted to the wall of the molded-plastic shower stallâand cleared away the remains of dinner, then went over to the bed to examine the pages.
“Well,” he said, feeling giddy, “here it is.”
There were twenty or thirty of them now, in various states of preservation and deterioration. Some, like the first one he'd seen, were almost pristine; others had been folded two or even three times to fit inside smaller books and had suffered the effects of moisture and acidity, so that they ranged in color from a too-new-looking cream to a deep burnt brown. A few were so riddled with dark, blooming mold stains that they looked like maps of the surface of the moon.
The best partsâthe only parts that meant anything to Edwardâwere the illuminations: an
transformed into a stony castle, or an
into a squat, sturdy tree. The animals seemed to have more personality than the people: eager whippet-like dogs; amiable sheep; serious, pious-looking horses. On one page a sinuously smiling vermilion salamander lurked along the bottom edge of the text. The pigments were so fresh and vivid they looked wet; in places the colors were laid on so thickly that the page under them was stiff and warped.
Eventually Margaret took pity on him and stood up to look at the pages, too.
“There's something strange about these images,” she said. “But I can't quite put my finger on what it is. From the penwork it looks like the scribe and the illuminator were the same person, which is unusual but hardly unheard-of. The quality is high. See that bright blue sky? The color comes from crushed lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan. That pigment was as expensive as gold.”
“Can you read the writing?”
He sat down gingerly on the edge of the bed.
“What does it say?” he said nervously. “I mean, is it the same text as the
“I think so. Parts of it are the same, at least. I've barely had time to glance at it.”
“What do you mean, parts?”
She frowned. The corners of her downturned mouth dipped lower.
“It's too soon to say tonight.” She waved her hand, which was still holding the steel scalpel. “I've been reading bits and pieces as I go. There are things here I don't recognizeâthings that aren't in the modern text. In this version there's a lot more about the lord's child who was killed off while he was away chasing the stag knight. It goes on for pages about what a mighty hero he would have been. Sentimental stuff.
“And hereâthis passage.” She pointed to one of the pages. “The lord meets a woman on his travels who gives him a seed. He thinks the woman is a holy virgin, but when he plants the seed a giant tree springs up, with demons living in its branches.”
“But what about that secret message? The steganogram, or whatever it is?”
She shook her head.
“I wouldn't even know where to begin looking for it, Edward. Even if it is real. If it's here it could be anywhereâhidden in a drawing, or written in invisible ink, or stippled in tiny pinpricks, or in any number of medieval alphabetical codes. Each word could stand for a letter, or each letter could stand for a word, the number of letters in each word could in turn stand for a letter. Authors of medieval codes were very resourceful. And Gervase spent time in Venice. The Venetians were the master cryptographers of the medieval world.”
Edward bent over the page with the
on it and studied it closely. At the most he could spell out a word or two at a time:
Margaret saw him squinting at it.
“It's beautiful, isn't it? That script was never intended for laymen. It was designed to be written as quickly as possible and to take up as little space as possible, to save time and paper. Some words are abbreviated, others are fused togetherâthe technique is called
âwoven words.' It's lovely, but it takes a lot of practice before you can decipher it. And look here.”
Margaret picked up one page, supporting it carefully on her flat palms like a priestess making an offering. She held it up to her desk lamp so the light glowed through it, showing the texture of the parchment.
“Look closely,” she said. “This is something I didn't expect. I can't read it yet, not without an ultraviolet light.”
Edward looked. Behind the dark letters and running perpendicular to them, vertically down the page, were faint brown stripes, so light that they almost faded into the paler brown of the parchment around them. When Edward looked closer he saw that the stripes were made of letters, bands of ghostly writing floating behind Gervase's crisp black script.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Margaret said dryly. “This paper has been reused. There was something else written here, an earlier text that was scraped away to make room for the
Our codex is a palimpsest.”
DESPITE HIS BEST
efforts, Edward's pitch of excitement gradually gave way to exhaustion, and he faded as the night wore on. While Margaret pushed on in an orgy of work, he slumped further and further down the wall. He closed his eyes; his shoes came off; somehow he found himself on the bed, curled up to keep clear of the precious pages, his arm flung over his eyes to keep out the light. The mariachi music had finally reached a climax and ceased for the night. He stared up at Margaret's ugly styrofoam dropped ceiling. He'd never felt so tired. The pillow he rested his head on smelled marvelously like Margaret's hair. He closed his eyes, and he felt the room revolving slowly around him as if he were drunk.
He imagined the pages of the codex floating all around him, like limp brown leaves on the glassy surface of a pond in which he lay face up in a dead man's float, or a backyard swimming pool that was going to seed in those first early weeks of September. Those were punishing weeks in the Maine of his childhood, when the weather reminded you that summer was a temporary anomaly, not to be gotten used to, and that Bangor, while it appeared to be superficially civilized, shared its chilly latitude with such northern fastnesses as Ottawa and Halifax. Later he would have vague, stillborn memories of Margaret not reading but talking to himâlecturing him? pleading with him?âshaking her head in disapproval, or disbelief, or disappointment. But he could never remember what she was talking about, or even whether it was real or just a dream.
He woke up to find her clearing away the rest of the pages from around him on the bed and stacking them on her desk. He crawled under the covers without opening his eyes, like a baby. After a while he heard the light click off and felt her climb into bed next to him.
In the darkness, in her narrow twin bed, it was like Margaret was a different woman: warm, soft, nuzzling, both comforting and needing comfort, nothing like the dour, difficult day-Margaret he was used to. Her long legs were bare and stubbly. She turned over on her side, away from him, and he rolled up against her and snuffed the warm nape of her neck. She was still wearing panties and a T-shirt, but the bareness of her legs made her feel naked. Her cold bare feet mingled with his warm socks. Then she turned over to face him.
She kissed him, and he felt again, as he had that night at the Chenoweth, the urgent need inside her, just underneath her placid surface. She bit his shoulder, scratched at him fiercely like an angry little girl. He helped her slip her T-shirt up over her head, and the world shrank to the tiny tropical island of bed that sheltered them and bore them up in the middle of a dark, rocking sea.
shaking him. He looked at the clock radio. It was four in the morning.
“Jesus,” he said. He rolled over and put a pillow over his head. “Don't you ever sleep?”
“Edward,” she said. There was an unfamiliar, urgent note in her voice. “Edward, you have to wake up. I need you to look at something.”
Edward opened his eyes. He was warm and tired and comfortable, but the novelty of Margaret asking for his advice did have some appeal to it. He sat up. The glare from her desk lamp was painful. In the half light he thought she looked frightened.
Margaret had a magnifying glass in one handâit reminded him of when the Duchess compared her to Nancy Drewâand a stack of pages from the codex stood on her desk. She'd changed into a plain gray sweatshirt of no particular affiliation and put on a pair of uncharacteristically hip rectangular glasses he'd never seen before. She must wear contacts during the day, he thought. She smelled delightfully like minty toothpaste.
“Edward,” she said melodramatically, looking him in the eye. “I found it.”
“What did you find.”
“I found it. I found the steganogram, the hidden message. The Duchess was right: It's real.”
Edward's stomach tightened. The final glaze of sleep vanished.
“What? What are you talking about?” he said. “It can't be real.”
“I know it can't. But it is.”
He stared at her, wanting to share her enthusiasm, but instead he felt only cold. He realized he hadn't really wanted the message to be real. His victory was already complete. They had the codex. He didn't want all the rest of it: the secret message, the intrigue, the alarums and excursions and revelations. They could only lead to more problems.
“What does it say?”
“Wait. I'd rather show you.”
She took the first page from the stack of pages on her desk. Edward went over and stood behind her, letting his hands rest on her shoulders.
“You remember,” she said, “something was bothering me about these historiated initialsâthe large illuminated letters.” Her voice gradually found its way back to her calm, lecturing tone. “If you look at them, you'll see that there's nothing very unusual about their placement, or their execution. This O, for example, which forms a frame around a mother and child.”
“It's not the picture that doesn't make sense, it's the context. The subject of a historiated initial usually follows from that of the text around it, but here I can't see any connection at all. The passage doesn't have anything to do with a mother and child, it's about the hero crossing the ocean in a boat.”