Authors: Lev Grossman
and then a
Some of the
's looked like
's; others were printed long and curving, like integral signs. The date underneath was
âhe tried to work it out in his head, then gave upâand the city was Dublin. On the facing page was an engraved portrait of the author. The paper was speckled like an egg, and a faint brown stain had spread like a billowing cumulus cloud over the bottom third of the title page.
Edward set the book aside, keeping it on the wrapping paper so it wouldn't get dusty, and opened the other package. It turned out to be Volume I. He flipped through the pages, idly glancing at occasional passages. He'd been assigned this book once in college but never read it. Hadn't there been a cartoon of it? The two books were in improbably pristine condition, though the pages were brittle and the corners were a little crushed.
Returning to the crate, Edward now saw that the books in the top layer were just the smaller ones, and that there were larger, more substantial volumes farther down. He checked his watch: It was already four-thirty. He should at least make it look like he'd gotten something done before he took off.
He started quickly transferring the rest of the smaller packages to the table and shucking off the wrapping paper. He uncovered triple-decker novels, chunky dictionaries, vast, sprawling atlases, nineteenth-century textbooks scribbled on by schoolboys who had long since grown up and died, crumbling religious tracts, a miniature set of Shakespeare's tragedies, three inches high and equipped with its own magnifying glass. He arranged them carefully in tall stacks along the back of the work table. Some books were crisp and solid, others fell apart in his hands. One or two of the older ones had foot-long leather thongs and straps dangling from them. He got sidetracked and wasted twenty minutes leafing through an ancient brown leather
with many incredibly detailed and occasionally disturbing illustrations of creatively vivisected corpses.
After a while he stopped to take a break. By this time the floor around him was covered with a heaving ocean of wrapping paper. The room was still lit by the warm, brown light of the floor lamp, but the sunlight coming through the heavy curtains was soft and orange.
Edward looked at his watch again. It was almost sixâhe'd lost track of time. His hands were covered with brown and red dust from the leather covers. He rubbed off as much of it as he could and slipped on his jacket. He'd send Laura Crowlyk the dry-cleaning bill.
On his way out he walked over to the crate again. A few of the largest, most massive volumes were still left down at the bottom, buried in the straw like dinosaur bones half-submerged in the earth. He bent down to pick one up. It was much heavier than he'd expected, and he had to lean his gut into the edge of the crate and use both hands to get it out. He cleared a space and set it down on the table with a solid
Fine dust flew out from underneath it. When he got it unwrapped, instead of a book he found a finished wooden case with a simple metal catch on one edge. He undid it, and the case swung open on small, finely made metal hinges.
Inside was a thick black board about one foot wide by two feet long, covered with leather that had turned black with age. Its surface was overgrown with a dark mass of stamps and filigreed metal studs and bosses, and complicated illustrations had been forcibly stamped into the horny leather: abstract ornaments and motifs, panels with human figures standing in different poses. In the center was an oddly proportioned tree, squat and massive, with a spray of tiny branches at the top. Edward felt the ancient surface with his fingertips. There was a deep scar in the leather, and the wood underneath it had splintered and been worn smooth again. Something had struck it very hard, a very long time ago. In places the ornamentation was so thick and dark the pattern was impossible to follow. It looked more like a door than the cover of a book.
It exerted an odd power over him, freezing him to the spot as if it were charged with electricity. He stood there for a minute in the silence, his hands resting on the worked surface, feeling the indentations with his fingertips like a blind man reading Braille. There was no indication of what its contents might be. What could a book like this possibly be about? Tentatively he tried to open it, but it resisted, and when he felt around the edges he discovered a lock that kept it closed, bolted onto the wooden covers. The metal was crudely worked, and time had rusted it into a single solid mass. He wondered how old it was. He tested it gently, but it wouldn't move, and he didn't want to force it.
He blinked. The spell lapsed as suddenly as it had come over him. Why the hell was he still here? He closed the case, snapped off the light and walked to the door. After the cold of the library, the metal railing of the spiral staircase was warm under his hand as he felt his way down the stairs in the darkness. Back out in the hallway, the daylight seemed offensively bright.
But he felt oddly purged by his industrious afternoon. It hadn't been worth doing, but it could have been much worse. It could have blown up in his face. He headed back down the hall in the direction of the stairs. He glanced into the room where he'd talked to Laura Crowlyk, but it was empty now. The window he'd opened before was closed again. The sunlight slanted in at a shallower angle, and with a golden-orange tint. He smelled dinner cooking somewhere. Did Laura Crowlyk actually live here?
The cleaning woman he'd met before was sitting on the edge of a chair in the entrance hall reading
She started up guiltily when he appeared and bustled out through another exit. Edward opened the glass doors by the elevator and pressed the button to call it. He straightened his tie in the clouded old mirror.
“Are you going?”
He turned around, smiling. He'd kind of hoped he could slip out without running into Laura Crowlyk.
“Sorry, I couldn't find you. I lost track of time.”
She nodded gravely, looking up at him.
“When will you be coming back?”
Why even bother explaining? Let Dan do the apologizing. It was his fuckup.
“I'm not sure. I'll check my schedule and give you a call in the morning.”
“Fine. Call us tomorrow.” She glanced back behind her at someone in the other roomâshe might have exchanged a whispered word or two with whoever it was. “Hold on a moment. I'll get you a key to the apartment.”
She disappeared abruptly and was gone for another minute. The elevator came; Edward watched impatiently as the doors rumbled open and then closed again. He didn't want the key, all he wanted was to get out of there. Laura returned, crossing the enormous oriental carpet toward him, and gave him a dark metal tube key. Well, he'd just have to take it for now.
“It works in the elevator,” she said. “There's a special keyhole for it. The doorman will let you in the front.”
The elevator gave a muffled ping and opened again. Edward stepped inside and put his hand on the rubber-flanged edge to keep it from closing.
“So I'll call you tomorrow,” he said. “About my schedule.”
Maybe I should make a clean break,
Call it off. Do it now.
She watched him steadily, as if she could sense his indecision but knew the outcome in advance.
The door nudged him impatiently on the shoulder, then closed.
later Edward was back in more familiar territory, sitting in a tattered armchair in his friend Zeph's apartment. His hand held a sweating bottle of McSorley's Ale. The room had a pleasantly musty smell. It was dark, partly because the lights were off, but mostly because the windows were covered with big kindergarten sheets of construction paper in primary colors. The only light came from a computer screen.
Zeph sat next to him playing a computer game. Edward had known him since college, where they'd been assigned to each other as freshman roommates and, improbably, stayed friends. Zeph was always slightly too cool for the computer geeks he took most of his classes with, and Edward hadn't been quite cool enough for the moneyed, prep-schooled pre-professionals with whom he spent most of his time, and that shared sense of not-quite-fitting-in had become a bond between them in itself. Zeph looked like a child's idea of an ogre: six and a half feet tall, with the massive, gently rounded frame of a naturally large man who never exercised. He had a big potato nose and lumpy amateur white-boy dreadlocks.
“So I went to see the Wents today,” Edward said, breaking a long, comfortable silence.
“The who?” Zeph's double-bass voice sounded like a record played a little too slowly.
“The Wents. Those English clients I told you about. It turns out all they wanted was somebody to organize their library.”
“Their library? What the hell did you tell them?”
“What could I tell them? I'm organizing their library.”
“Well, I made a start on it. It's a pretty big library.”
Deep horizontal wrinkles formed in Zeph's massive brow as he attempted to negotiate some especially tricky maneuver in the game he was playing.
“Edward,” he said gravely, “you have just received the most prestigious appointment of your dull but admittedly lucrative career. You're the Golden Child. You're leaving the country in two weeks. Why would you want to spend your last days in the greatest city in the world cleaning some Jeremy Irons character's attic?”
“I don't know.” Edward shook his head. “It's some kind of screwup. I'm going to call it off tomorrow. I'll call the office and rip somebody's head off. But it's weird, they took me up to this old library, and once I actually saw all these old books lying around in boxes, in this enormous old roomâI don't know. I can't explain it.” Edward sipped his beer. It was true, he really couldn't explain it. “It was just a courtesy visit. You're right, I should be on vacation.”
“Venice is a vacation. This is like work-release.”
“I'll call it off tomorrow. I'm just a little low on sleep. I pulled a couple of all-nighters right before one of those big SEC sessions. Haven't really bounced back yet.” He yawned. “It was weirdâfor once it was kind of good to be doing something that didn't involve any thinking. Nobody watching me. They just left me alone up there. They're some kind of aristocratsâhe's a duke or a baron or something.” He sat back in his chair and sighed. “Plus it's good for me to be around English people. I need to learn how to deal with them.”
“What's to learn?” Zeph took a swig from a can of Diet Pepsi. “Bad teeth, sexy accents.”
Zeph wore sweatpants and a T-shirt with the words
GOGO PARA PRESIDENTE
on it. While they talked he fiddled with the game, his huge hands manipulating the wireless keyboard with surprising delicacy. The computer sat on a long table set up on two flimsy IKEA trestles, and the room wasn't much wider than the table. The walls were papered with posters of the Mandelbrot set rendered in psychedelic colors, and fat, split-spined math textbooks were piled up in teetering stacks in the corners.
“What is this, anyway?” said Edward, pointing at the screen. He tried not to encourage Zeph's geeky tendencies, but once in a while he pretended to take an interest. “It looks like a kid's game.”
“Ever have an Atari 2600?”
“I guess. I had an Atari. I don't know what number it was.”
“It was probably a 2600. This is an old Atari 2600 game called
You're the little square here.” Zeph tapped the keys, and a small yellow square on the screen moved in a circle. “You're on a quest for the Holy Grail. You need to get the key to open the castle. Then you find more keys, with which you open more castles, until you find the Grail. Bring the Grail back to the yellow castle, and you win. On the way, you run into dragons, like the one that's chasing me right now”âa creature that looked like a green duck was bobbing along behind the squareâ“who try to eat you. There's also a magnet, and a big purple bridge, and a bat who picks things up and flies away with themâah, and here's the sword. Good for killing dragons.”
The square picked up the sword, which was really nothing more than a yellow arrow, and waved it through the dragon. The dragon died, accompanied by a mournful downward glissando.
“Key, castle, sword, dragon. The basic building blocks of a tiny, self-contained universe. Very simple. Nothing ambiguous. Every story ends one of two ways: Death, or Victory.”
The square had the Grail now, a pulsing, psychedelic goblet five times as big as it was. Edward watched languidly as it brought the Grail back to the yellow castle and the screen lit up with a light show and weird, bubbling sound effects.
“So that was Victory?” Edward said.
“How sweet it is. And that was just Level One.”
“How many levels are there?”
“Three. But the truly cool thing is, this is the original Atari code. Somebody actually bothered to write an emulator program that makes my five-thousand-dollar PC think it's a twenty-dollar Atari console from 1982. Then they sucked the code out of an old
cartridge, posted it on the Internet, I downloaded it, and Bob's your uncle.”
“Huh,” said Edward, sipping his beer. It was cold and satisfyingly bitter. “Is that even legal?”
“Kind of a gray area. Want to take it for a spin?”
Zeph heaved his bulk up out of the desk chair and sat down again on a broken-down futon Edward recognized from their college days.
“So when you move to the London office, who's going to do your job here?”