Main Cloud Cuckoo Land
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01 October 2021 (10:00)
It's good. I conversed it to Mobi and can read it on my Kindle.
04 October 2021 (11:15)
Why is there another book by this name?
03 December 2021 (16:20)
For the librarians then, now, and in the years to come Chorus Leader: To work, men. How do you propose to name our city? Peisetairos: How about Sparta? That’s a grand old name with a fine pretentious ring. Euelpides: Great Hercules, call my city Sparta? I wouldn’t even insult my mattress by giving it a name like Sparta. Peisetairos: Well, what do you suggest instead? Chorus Leader: Something big, smacking of the clouds. A pinch of fluff and rare air, a swollen sound. Peisetairos: I’ve got it! Listen—Cloud Cuckoo Land! —Aristophanes, The Birds, 414 B.C.E. PROLOGUE TO MY DEAREST NIECE WITH HOPE THAT THIS BRINGS YOU HEALTH AND LIGHT THE ARGOS MISSION YEAR 65 DAY 307 INSIDE VAULT ONE Konstance A fourteen-year-old girl sits cross-legged on the floor of a circular vault. A mass of curls haloes her head; her socks are full of holes. This is Konstance. Behind her, inside a translucent cylinder that rises sixteen feet from floor to ceiling, hangs a machine composed of trillions of golden threads, none thicker than a human hair. Each filament twines around thousands of others in entanglements of astonishing intricacy. Occasionally a bundle somewhere along the surface of the machine pulses with light: now here, now there. This is Sybil. Elsewhere in the room there’s an inflatable cot, a recycling toilet, a food printer, eleven sacks of Nourish powder, and a multidirectional treadmill the size and shape of an automobile tire called a Perambulator. Light comes from a ring of diodes in the ceiling; there is no visible exit. Arranged in a grid on the floor lie almost one hundred rectangular scraps Konstance has torn from empty Nourish powder sacks and written on with homemade ink. Some are dense with her handwriting; others accommodate a single word. One, for example, contains the twenty-four letters of the ancient Greek alphabet. Another reads: In the millennium leading up to 1453, the city of Constantinople was besieged twenty-three times, but no army ever breached its land walls. ; She leans forward and lifts three scraps from the puzzle in front of her. The machine behind her flickers. It is late, Konstance, and you have not eaten all day. “I’m not hungry.” How about some nice risotto? Or roast lamb with mashed potatoes? There are still many combinations you have not tried. “No thank you, Sybil.” She looks down at the first scrap and reads: The lost Greek prose tale Cloud Cuckoo Land, by the writer Antonius Diogenes, relating a shepherd’s journey to a utopian city in the sky, was probably written around the end of the first century C.E. The second: We know from a ninth-century Byzantine summary of the book that it opened with a short prologue in which Diogenes addressed an ailing niece and declared that he had not invented the comical story which followed, but instead discovered it in a tomb in the ancient city of Tyre. The third: The tomb, Diogenes wrote to his niece, was marked Aethon: Lived 80 Years a Man, 1 Year a Donkey, 1 Year a Sea Bass, 1 Year a Crow. Inside, Diogenes claimed to have discovered a wooden chest bearing the inscription, Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you. When he opened the chest, he found twenty-four cypress-wood tablets upon which were written Aethon’s story. Konstance shuts her eyes, sees the writer descend into the dark of the tombs. Sees him study the strange chest in the torchlight. The diodes in the ceiling dim and the walls soften from white to amber and Sybil says, It will be NoLight soon, Konstance. She picks her way through the scraps on the floor and retrieves what’s left of an empty sack from beneath her cot. Using her teeth and fingers, she tears away a blank rectangle. She places a little scoop of Nourish powder into the food printer, pushes buttons, and the device spits an ounce of dark liquid into its bowl. Then she takes a length of polyethylene tubing, the tip of which she has carved into a nib, dips her makeshift pen into the makeshift ink, leans over the blank scrap, and draws a cloud. She dips again. Atop the cloud she draws the towers of a city, then little dots of birds soaring around the turrets. The room darkens further. Sybil flickers. Konstance, I must insist that you eat. “I’m not hungry, thank you, Sybil.” She picks up a rectangle inscribed with a date—February 20, 2020—and sets it beside another that reads, Folio A. Then she places her drawing of a cloud city on the left. For a breath, in the dying light, the three scraps seem almost to rise up and glow. Konstance sits back on her heels. She has not left this room for almost a year. ONE STRANGER, WHOEVER YOU ARE, OPEN THIS TO LEARN WHAT WILL AMAZE YOU * * * Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes, Folio A The Diognes codex measures 30 cm x 22 cm. Holed by worms and significantly effaced by mold, only twenty-four folios, labeled here from A to Ω, were recovered. All were damaged to some degree. The hand is tidy and leftward sloping. From the 2020 translation by Zeno Ninis. … how long had those tablets moldered inside that chest, waiting for eyes to read them? While I’m sure you will doubt the truth of the outlandish events they relate, my dear niece, in my transcription, I do not leave out a word. Maybe in the old days men did walk the earth as beasts, and a city of birds floated in the heavens between the realms of men and gods. Or maybe, like all lunatics, the shepherd made his own truth, and so for him, true it was. But let us turn to his story now, and decide his sanity for ourselves. THE LAKEPORT PUBLIC LIBRARY FEBRUARY 20, 2020 4:30 P.M. Zeno He escorts five fifth graders from the elementary school to the public library through curtains of falling snow. He is an octogenarian in a canvas coat; his boots are fastened with Velcro; cartoon penguins skate across his necktie. All day, joy has steadily inflated inside his chest, and now, this afternoon, at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday in February, watching the children run ahead down the sidewalk—Alex Hess wearing his papier-mâché donkey head, Rachel Wilson carrying a plastic torch, Natalie Hernandez lugging a portable speaker—the feeling threatens to capsize him. They pass the police station, the Parks Department, Eden’s Gate Realty. The Lakeport Public Library is a high-gabled two-story gingerbread Victorian on the corner of Lake and Park that was donated to the town after the First World War. Its chimney leans; its gutters sag; packing tape holds together cracks in three of the four front-facing windows. Several inches of snow have already settled on the junipers flanking the walk and atop the book drop box on the corner, which has been painted to look like an owl. The kids charge up the front walk, bound onto the porch, and high-five Sharif, the children’s librarian, who has stepped outside to help Zeno navigate the stairs. Sharif has lime-green earbuds in his ears and craft glitter twinkles in the hair on his arms. His T-shirt says, I LIKE BIG BOOKS AND I CANNOT LIE. Inside, Zeno wipes fog from his eyeglasses. Construction paper hearts are taped to the front of the welcome desk; a framed needlepoint on the wall behind it reads, Questions Answered Here. On the computer table, on all three monitors, screen-saver spirals twist in synchrony. Between the audiobook shelf and two shabby armchairs, a radiator leak seeps through the ceiling tiles and drips into a seven-gallon trash can. Plip. Plop. Plip. The kids scatter snow everywhere as they stampede upstairs, heading for the Children’s Section, and Zeno and Sharif share a smile as they listen to their footfalls reach the top of the staircase and stop. “Whoa,” says the voice of Olivia Ott. “Holy magoley,” says the voice of Christopher Dee. Sharif takes Zeno’s elbow as they ascend. The entrance to the second story has been blocked with a plywood wall spray-painted gold, and in its center, over a small arched door, Zeno has written: Ὦ ξένε, ὅστις εἶ, ἄνοιξον, ἵνα μάθῃς ἃ θαυμάζεις The fifth graders cluster against the plywood and snow melts on their jackets and backpacks and everyone looks at Zeno and Zeno waits for his breath to catch up with the rest of him. “Does everyone remember what it says?” “Of course,” says Rachel. “Duh,” says Christopher. On her tiptoes, Natalie runs a finger beneath each word. “Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.” “Oh my flipping gosh,” says Alex, his donkey head under his arm. “It’s like we’re about to walk into the book.” Sharif switches off the stairwell light and the children crowd around the little door in the red glow of the EXIT sign. “Ready?” calls Zeno, and from the other side of the plywood, Marian, the library director, calls, “Ready.” One by one the fifth graders pass through the little arched doorway into the Children’s Section. The shelves, tables, and beanbags that normally fill the space have been pushed against the walls and in their places stand thirty folding chairs. Above the chairs, dozens of cardboard clouds, coated with glitter, hang from the rafters by threads. In front of the chairs is a small stage, and behind the stage, on a canvas sheet hung across the entire rear wall, Marian has painted a city in the clouds. Golden towers, cut by hundreds of little windows and crowned by pennants, rise in clusters. Around their spires whirl dense flights of birds—little brown buntings and big silver eagles, birds with long curving tails and others with long curving bills, birds of the world and birds of the imagination. Marian has shut off the overhead lights, and in the beam of a single karaoke light on a stand, the clouds sparkle and the flocks shimmer and the towers seem illuminated from within. “It’s—” says Olivia. “—better than I—” says Christopher. “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” whispers Rachel. Natalie sets down her speaker and Alex leaps onstage and Marian calls, “Careful, some of the paint may still be wet.” Zeno lowers himself into a chair in the front row. Every time he blinks, a memory ripples across the undersides of his eyelids: his father pratfalls into a snowbank; a librarian slides open the drawer of a card catalogue; a man in a prison camp scratches Greek characters into the dust. Sharif shows the kids the backstage area that he has created behind three bookshelves, packed with props and costumes, and Olivia pulls a latex cap over her hair to make herself look bald and Christopher drags a microwave box painted to look like a marble sarcophagus to the center of the stage and Alex reaches to touch a tower of the painted city and Natalie slides a laptop from her backpack. Marian’s phone buzzes. “Pizzas are ready,” she says into Zeno’s good ear. “I’ll walk over and pick them up. Be back in a jiff.” “Mr. Ninis?” Rachel is tapping Zeno’s shoulder. Her red hair is pulled back in braided pigtails and snow has melted to droplets on her shoulders and her eyes are wide and bright. “You built all this? For us?” Seymour One block away, inside a Pontiac Grand Am mantled in three inches of snow, a gray-eyed seventeen-year-old named Seymour Stuhlman drowses with a backpack in his lap. The backpack is an oversize dark green JanSport and contains two Presto pressure cookers, each of which is packed with roofing nails, ball bearings, an igniter, and nineteen ounces of a high explosive called Composition B. Twin wires run from the body of each cooker to the lid, where they plug into the circuit board of a cellular phone. In a dream Seymour walks beneath trees toward a cluster of white tents, but every time he takes a step forward, the trail twists and the tents recede, and a terrible confusion presses down on him. He wakes with a start. The dashboard clock says 4:42 p.m. How long did he sleep? Fifteen minutes. Twenty at most. Stupid. Careless. He has been in the car for more than four hours and his toes are numb and he has to pee. With a sleeve he clears vapor from the inside of the windshield. He risks the wipers once and they brush a slab of snow off the glass. No cars parked in front of the library. No one on the sidewalk. The only car in the gravel parking lot to the west is Marian the Librarian’s Subaru, humped with snow. 4:43 p.m. Six inches before dark, says the radio, twelve to fourteen overnight. Inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four. Recall things you know. Owls have three eyelids. Their eyeballs are not spheres but elongated tubes. A group of owls is called a parliament. All he needs to do is stroll in, hide the backpack in the southeast corner of the library, as close as possible to the Eden’s Gate Realty office, and stroll out. Drive north, wait until the library closes at 6 p.m., dial the numbers. Wait five rings. Boom. Easy. At 4:51, a figure in a cherry-red parka exits the library, pulls up her hood, and pushes a snow shovel up and down the front walk. Marian. Seymour shuts off the car radio and slips lower in his seat. In a memory he is seven or eight years old, in Adult Nonfiction, somewhere in the 598s, and Marian retrieves a field guide to owls from a high shelf. Her cheeks are a sandstorm of freckles; she smells like cinnamon gum; she sits beside him on a rolling stool. On the pages she shows him, owls stand outside burrows, owls sit on branches, owls soar over fields. He pushes the memory aside. What does Bishop say? A warrior, truly engaged, does not experience guilt, fear, or remorse. A warrior, truly engaged, becomes something more than human. Marian runs the shovel up the wheelchair ramp, scatters some salt, walks down Park Street, and is swallowed by the snow. 4:54. All afternoon Seymour has waited for the library to be empty and now it is. He unzips the backpack, switches on the cell phones taped to the lids of the pressure cookers, removes a pair of rifle-range ear defenders, and rezips the backpack. In the right pocket of his windbreaker is a Beretta 92 semiautomatic pistol he found in his great-uncle’s toolshed. In the left: a cell phone with three phone numbers written on the back. Stroll in, hide the backpack, stroll out. Drive north, wait until the library closes, dial the top two numbers. Wait five rings. Boom. 4:55. A plow scrapes through the intersection, lights flashing. A gray pickup passes, King Construction on the door. The OPEN sign glows in the library’s first-floor window. Marian is probably running an errand; she won’t be gone long. Go. Get out of the car. 4:56. Each crystal that strikes the windshield makes a barely audible tap, yet the sound seems to penetrate all the way to the roots of his molars. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap. Owls have three eyelids. Their eyeballs are not spheres but elongated tubes. A group of owls is called a parliament. He clamps the ear defenders over his ears. Pulls up his hood. Sets a hand on the door handle. 4:57. A warrior, truly engaged, becomes something more than human. He gets out of the car. Zeno Christopher arranges Styrofoam tombstones around the stage and angles the microwave-box-turned-sarcophagus so the audience can read its epitaph: Aethon: Lived 80 Years a Man, 1 Year a Donkey, 1 Year a Sea Bass, 1 Year a Crow. Rachel picks up her plastic torch and Olivia emerges from behind the bookshelves with a laurel wreath crammed over her latex cap and Alex laughs. Zeno claps once. “A dress rehearsal is a practice we pretend is real, remember? Tomorrow night, your grandma in the audience might sneeze, or someone’s baby might cry, or one of you might forget a line, but whatever happens, we’ll keep the story going, right?” “Right, Mr. Ninis.” “Places, please. Natalie, the music.” Natalie pokes her laptop and her speaker plays a spooky organ fugue. Behind the organ, gates creak, crows caw, owls hoot. Christopher unrolls a few yards of white satin across the front of the stage and kneels at one end, and Natalie kneels at the other, and they wave the satin up and down. Rachel strides into the center of the stage in her rubber boots. “It’s a foggy night on the island kingdom of Tyre”—she glances down at her script, then back up—“and the writer Antonius Diogenes is leaving the archives. Look, here he comes now, tired and troubled, fretting over his dying niece, but wait until I show him the strange thing I have discovered among the tombs.” The satin billows, the organ plays, Rachel’s torch flickers, and Olivia marches into the light. Seymour Snow crystals catch in his eyelashes and he blinks them away. The backpack on his shoulder is a boulder, a continent. The big yellow owl eyes painted on the book drop box seem to track him as he passes. Hood up, ear defenders on, Seymour ascends the five granite steps to the library’s porch. Taped to the inside of the glass on the entry door, in a child’s handwriting, a sign reads: TOMORROW ONE NITE ONLY CLOUD CUCKOO LAND There’s no one behind the welcome desk, no one at the chessboard. No one at the computer table, no one browsing magazines. The storm must be keeping everyone away. The framed needlepoint behind the desk says, Questions Answered Here. The clock says one minute past five. On the computer monitors, three screen-saver spirals bore ever deeper. Seymour walks to the southeast corner and kneels in the aisle between Languages and Linguistics. From a bottom shelf he removes English Made Easy and 501 English Verbs and Get Started in Dutch, wedges the backpack into the dusty space behind, and replaces the books. When he stands, purple streaks cascade down his vision. His heart thuds in his ears, his knees tremble, his bladder aches, he can’t feel his feet, and he has tracked snow all the way down the row. But he has done it. Now stroll out. As he travels back through Nonfiction, everything seems to tilt uphill. His sneakers feel leaden, his muscles unwilling. Titles tumble past, Lost Languages and Empires of the Word and 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child; he makes it past Social Sciences, Religion, the dictionaries; he’s reaching for the door when he feels a tap on his shoulder. Don’t. Don’t stop. Don’t turn around. But he does. A slim man with green earbuds in his ears stands in front of the welcome desk. His eyebrows are great thatches of black and his eyes are curious and the visible part of his T-shirt says I LIKE BIG and in his arms he cradles Seymour’s JanSport. The man says something, but the earmuffs make him sound a thousand feet away, and Seymour’s heart is a sheet of paper crumpling, uncrumpling, crumpling again. The backpack cannot be here. The backpack needs to stay hidden in the southeast corner, as close as possible to Eden’s Gate Realty. The man with the eyebrows glances down, into the backpack, the main compartment of which has become partially unzipped. When he looks back up, he’s frowning. A thousand tiny black spots open in Seymour’s field of vision. A roar rises inside his ears. He sticks his right hand into the right pocket of his windbreaker and his finger finds the trigger of the pistol. Zeno Rachel pretends to strain as she lifts away the sarcophagus lid. Olivia reaches into the cardboard tomb and withdraws a smaller box tied shut with yarn. Rachel says, “A chest?” “There’s an inscription on top.” “What does it say?” “It reads, Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.” “Think, Master Diogenes,” says Rachel, “of the years this chest has survived inside this tomb. The centuries it has endured! Earthquakes, floods, fires, generations living and dying! And now you hold it in your hands!” Christopher and Natalie, arms tiring, continue to wave the satin fog, and the organ music plays, and snow bats the windows, and the boiler in the basement groans like a stranded whale, and Rachel looks at Olivia and Olivia unravels the yarn. From inside she lifts an outdated encyclopedia that Sharif found in the basement and spray-painted gold. “It’s a book.” She blows pretend-dust off its cover and in the front row Zeno smiles. “And does this book explain,” Rachel says, “how someone could be a man for eighty years, a donkey for one, a sea bass for another, and a crow for a third?” “Let’s find out.” Olivia opens the encyclopedia and sets it on a lectern up against the backdrop, and Natalie and Christopher drop the satin and Rachel clears the tombstones and Olivia clears the sarcophagus, and Alex Hess, four and a half feet tall, with a lion’s mane of golden hair, carrying a shepherd’s crook and wearing a beige bathrobe over his gym shorts, takes center stage. Zeno leans forward in his chair. His aching hip, the tinnitus in his left ear, the eighty-six years he has lived on earth, the near-infinity of decisions that have led him to this moment—all of it fades. Alex stands alone in the karaoke light and looks out over the empty chairs as though he gazes not into the second story of a dilapidated public library in a little town in central Idaho but into the green hills surrounding the ancient kingdom of Tyre. “I,” he says in his high and gentle voice, “am Aethon, a simple shepherd from Arkadia, and the tale I have to tell is so ludicrous, so incredible, that you’ll never believe a word of it—and yet, it’s true. For I, the one they called birdbrain and nincompoop—yes, I, dull-witted muttonheaded lamebrained Aethon—once traveled all the way to the edge of the earth and beyond, to the glimmering gates of Cloud Cuckoo Land, where no one wants for anything and a book containing all knowledge—” From downstairs comes the bang of what sounds to Zeno very much like a gunshot. Rachel drops a tombstone; Olivia flinches; Christopher ducks. The music plays, the clouds twist on their threads, Natalie’s hand hovers over her laptop, a second bang reverberates up through the floor, and fear, like a long dark finger, reaches across the room and touches Zeno where he sits. In the spotlight, Alex bites his lower lip and glances at Zeno. One heartbeat. Two. Your grandma in the audience might sneeze. Someone’s baby might cry. One of you might forget a line. Whatever happens, we’ll keep the story going. “But first,” Alex continues, returning his gaze to the space above the empty chairs, “I should start at the beginning,” and Natalie changes the music and Christopher changes the light from white to green and Rachel steps onstage carrying three cardboard sheep. TWO AETHON HAS A VISION * * * Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes, Folio β Though the intended order of the twenty-four recovered folios has been debated, scholars are unanimous that the episode in which drunken Aethon sees actors performing Aristophanes’s comedy The Birds and mistakes Cloud Cuckoo Land for an actual place falls at the beginning of his journey. Translation by Zeno Ninis. … tired of being wet, of the mud, and of the forever bleating of the sheep, tired of being called a dull-witted muttonheaded lamebrain, I left my flock in the field and stumbled into town. In the square, everyone was on their benches. In front of them, a crow, a jackdaw, and a hoopoe as big as a man were dancing, and I was afraid. But they proved to be mild-mannered birds, and two old fellows among them spoke of the wonders of a city they would build in the clouds between earth and heaven, far from the troubles of men and accessible only to those with wings, where no one ever suffered and everyone was wise. Into my mind leapt a vision of a palace of golden towers stacked on clouds, ringed by falcons, redshanks, quails, moorhens, and cuckoos, where rivers of broth gushed from spigots, and tortoises circulated with honeycakes balanced on their backs, and wine ran in channels down both sides of the streets. Seeing all this with my own two eyes, I stood and said, “Why stay here when I could be there?” I let fall my wine jug and set straightaway on the road to Thessaly, a land, as everyone knows, notorious for sorcery, to see if I might find a witch who could transform me… CONSTANTINOPLE 1439–1452 Anna On the Fourth Hill of the city we call Constantinople, but which the inhabitants at the time simply called the City, across the street from the convent of Saint Theophano the Empress, in the once-great embroidery house of Nicholas Kalaphates, lives an orphan named Anna. She does not speak until she’s three. Then it’s all questions all the time. “Why do we breathe, Maria?” “Why don’t horses have fingers?” “If I eat a raven’s egg will my hair turn black?” “Does the moon fit inside the sun, Maria, or is it the other way around?” The nuns at Saint Theophano call her Monkey because she’s always climbing their fruit trees, and the Fourth Hill boys call her Mosquito because she won’t leave them alone, and the Head Embroideress, Widow Theodora, says she ought to be called Hopeless because she’s the only child she has ever known who can learn a stitch one hour and completely forget it the next. Anna and her older sister, Maria, sleep in a one-window cell barely large enough for a horsehair pallet. Between them they own four copper coins, three ivory buttons, a patched wool blanket, and an icon of Saint Koralia that may or may not have belonged to their mother. Anna has never tasted sweet cream, never eaten an orange, and never set foot outside the city walls. Before she turns fourteen, every person she knows will be either enslaved or dead. * * * Dawn. Rain falls on the city. Twenty embroideresses climb the stairs to the workroom and find their benches and Widow Theodora moves from window to window opening shutters. She says, “Blessed One, protect us from idleness,” and the needleworkers say, “For we have committed sins without number,” and Widow Theodora unlocks the thread cabinet and weighs the gold and silver wire and the little boxes of seed pearls and records the weights on a wax tablet and as soon as the room is bright enough to tell a black thread from a white one, they begin. The oldest, at seventy, is Thekla. The youngest, at seven, is Anna. She perches beside her sister and watches Maria unroll a half-completed priest’s stole across the table. Down the borders, in neat roundels, vines twist around larks, peacocks, and doves. “Now that we’ve outlined John the Baptizer,” Maria says, “we’ll add his features.” She threads a needle with matching strands of dyed cotton, fastens an embroidery frame to the center of the stole, and executes a hail of stitches. “We turn the needle and bring the point up through the center of the last stitch, splitting the fibers like so, see?” Anna does not see. Who wants a life like this, bent all day over needle and thread, sewing saints and stars and griffins and grapevines into the vestments of hierarchs? Eudokia sings a hymn about the three holy children and Agata sings one about the trials of Job, and Widow Theodora steps through the workroom like a heron stalking minnows. Anna tries to follow Maria’s needle—backstitch, chain stitch—but directly in front of their table a little brown stonechat alights on the sill, shakes water off its back, sings wheet-chak-chak-chak, and in an eye-blink Anna has daydreamed herself into the bird. She flutters off the sill, dodges raindrops, and rises south over the neighborhood, over the ruins of the basilica of Saint Polyeuktus. Gulls wheel around the dome of the Hagia Sophia like prayers gyring around the head of God, and wind rakes the broad strait of the Bosporus into whitecaps, and a merchant’s galley rounds the promontory, its sails full of wind, but Anna flies higher still, until the city is a fretwork of rooftops and gardens far below, until she’s in the clouds, until— “Anna,” hisses Maria. “Which floss here?” From across the workroom, Widow Theodora’s attention flickers to them. “Crimson? Wrapped around wire?” “No.” Maria sighs. “Not crimson. And no wire.” * * * All day she fetches thread, fetches linen, fetches water, fetches the needleworkers their midday meal of beans and oil. In the afternoon they hear the clatter of a donkey and the greeting of the porter and the tread of Master Kalaphates upon the stairs. Every woman sits a little straighter, sews a little faster. Anna crawls beneath the tables, collecting every scrap of thread she can find, whispering to herself, “I am small, I am invisible, he cannot see me.” With his overlong arms, wine-stained mouth, and bellicose hunch, Kalaphates looks as much like a vulture as any man she has seen. He emits little clucks of disapproval as he hobbles between the benches, eventually choosing a needleworker to stop behind, Eugenia today, and he pontificates about how slowly she works, how in his father’s day an incompetent like her would never be allowed near a bale of silk, and do these women not understand that more provinces are lost to the Saracens every day, that the city is a last island of Christ in a sea of infidels, that if not for the defensive walls they’d all be for sale in a slave market in some godforsaken hinterland? Kalaphates is working himself into a froth when the porter rings the bell to signal the arrival of a patron. He mops his forehead and settles his gilt cross over the placket of his shirt and flaps downstairs and everyone exhales. Eugenia sets down her scissors; Agata rubs her temples; Anna crawls out from beneath a bench. Maria keeps sewing. Flies draw loops between the tables. From downstairs comes the laughter of men. * * * An hour before dark, Widow Theodora summons her. “Lord willing, child, it’s not too late in the day for caper buds. They’ll ease the pain in Agata’s wrists and help Thekla’s cough too. Look for ones just about to bloom. Be back before the vesper bell, cover your hair, and watch for rogues and wretches.” Anna can hardly keep her feet on the ground. “And don’t run. Your wombs will fall out.” She forces herself to go slowly down the steps, slowly through the courtyard, slowly past the watchman—then she flies. Through the gates of Saint Theophano, around the huge granite pieces of a fallen column, between two rows of monks plodding up the street in their black habits like flightless crows. Puddles glimmer in the lanes; three goats graze in the shell of a fallen chapel and raise their heads to her at the exact same instant. Probably twenty thousand caper bushes grow closer to the house of Kalaphates, but Anna runs the full mile to the city walls. Here, in a nettle-choked orchard, at the base of the great inner wall, is a postern, older than anyone’s memory. She clambers over a pile of fallen brick, squeezes through a gap, and scales a winding staircase. Six turns to the top, through a gauntlet of cobwebs, and she enters a little archer’s turret illuminated by two arrow slits on opposite sides. Rubble lies everywhere; sand sifts through cracks in the floor beneath her feet in audible streams; a frightened swallow wings away. Breathless, she waits for her eyes to adjust. Centuries ago, someone—perhaps a lonely bowman, bored with his watch—made a fresco on the southern wall. Time and weather have flaked away much of the plaster, but the image remains clear. At the left edge, a donkey with sad eyes stands on the shore of a sea. The water is blue and cut with geometric waves and at the right edge, afloat on a raft of clouds, higher than Anna can reach, shines a city of silver and bronze towers. A half-dozen times she has stared at this painting, and each time something stirs inside her, some inarticulable sense of the pull of distant places, of the immensity of the world and her own smallness inside it. The style is entirely different from the work done by the needleworkers in Kalaphates’s workshop, the perspective stranger, the colors more elemental. Who is the donkey and why do his eyes look so forlorn? And what is the city? Zion, paradise, the city of God? She strains on her tiptoes; between cracks in the plaster she can make out pillars, archways, windows, tiny doves flocking around towers. In the orchards below, nightingales are beginning to call. The light ebbs and the floor creaks and the turret seems to tip closer toward oblivion, and Anna squeezes out the west-facing window onto the parapet where caper bushes in a line hold their leaves to the setting sun. She collects buds, dropping them into her pocket as she goes. Still, the larger world pulls at her attention. Past the outer wall, past the algae-choked moat, it waits: olive groves, goat trails, the tiny figure of a driver leading two camels past a graveyard. The stones release the day’s heat; the sun sinks out of sight. By the time the vesper bells are ringing, her pocket is only a quarter full. She will be late; Maria will be worried; Widow Theodora will be angry. Anna slips back into the turret and pauses again beneath the painting. One more breath. In the twilight the waves seem to churn, the city to shimmer; the donkey paces the shore, desperate to cross the sea. A WOODCUTTERS’ VILLAGE IN THE RHODOPE MOUNTAINS OF BULGARIA THOSE SAME YEARS Omeir Two hundred miles northwest of Constantinople, in a little woodcutters’ village beside a quick, violent river, a boy is born almost whole. He has wet eyes, pink cheeks, and plenty of spring in his legs. But on the left side of his mouth, a split divides his upper lip from his gum all the way to the base of his nose. The midwife backs away. The child’s mother slips a finger into his mouth: the gap extends deep into his palate. As though his maker grew impatient and quit work a moment too soon. The sweat on her body turns cold; dread eclipses joy. Pregnant four times and she has not yet lost a baby, even believed herself, perhaps, blessed in that way. And now this? The infant shrieks; an icy rain batters the roof. She tries bracing him upright with her thighs while squeezing a breast with both hands, but she can’t get his lips to form a seal. His mouth gulps; his throat trembles; he loses far more milk than he gets. Amani, the eldest daughter, left hours ago to summon the men down from the trees; they’ll be hurrying the team home by now. The two younger daughters glance from their mother to the newborn and back again as though trying to understand if such a face is permissible. The midwife sends one to the river for water and the other to bury the afterbirth and it’s fully dark and the child is still howling when they hear the dogs, then the bells of Leaf and Needle, their oxen, as they stop outside the byre. Grandfather and Amani come through the door aglitter in ice, their eyes wild. “He fell, the horse—” Amani says, but when she sees the baby’s face, she stops. From behind her Grandfather says, “Your husband went ahead, but the horse must have slipped in the dark, and the river, and—” Terror fills the cottage. The newborn wails; the midwife edges toward the door, a dark and primeval fear warping her expression. The farrier’s wife warned them that revenants had been making mischief on the mountain all winter, slipping through locked doors, sickening pregnant women and suffocating infants. The farrier’s wife said they should leave a goat tied to a tree as an offering, and pour a pot of honey in a creek for good measure, but her husband said they could not spare the goat, and she did not want to give up the honey. Pride. Every time she shifts, a little stroke of lightning discharges in her abdomen. With every passing heartbeat, she can sense the midwife hurrying the story from house to house. A demon born. His father dead. Grandfather takes the crying child and unwraps him on the floor and places a knuckle between his lips and the boy falls quiet. With his other hand he nudges apart the cleft in the infant’s upper lip. “Years ago, on the far side of the mountain, there was a man who had a split under his nose like this. A good horseman, once you forgot how ugly he was.” He hands him back and brings the goat and cow in from the weather, then goes back into the night to unyoke the oxen, and the eyes of the animals reflect the glow of the hearth, and the daughters crowd their mother. “Is it a jinn?” “A fiend?” “How will it breathe?” “How will it eat?” “Will Grandfather put it on the mountain to die?” The child blinks up at them with dark, memorizing eyes. * * * The sleet turns to snow and she sends a prayer through the roof that if her son has some role to play in this world could he please be spared. But in the last hours before dawn she wakes to find Grandfather standing over her. Shrouded in his oxhide cape with snow on his shoulders he looks like a phantom from a woodcutter’s song, a monster accustomed to doing terrible things, and though she tells herself that by morning the boy will join her husband on thrones in a garden of bliss, where milk pours from stones and honey runs in streams and winter never comes, the feeling of handing him over is a feeling like handing over one of her lungs. * * * Cocks crow, wheel rims crunch snow, the cottage brightens, and horror strikes her anew. Her husband drowned, the horse with him. The girls wash and pray and milk Beauty the cow and bring fodder to Leaf and Needle and cut pine twigs for the goat to chew and morning turns to afternoon but still she cannot summon the energy to rise. Frost in the blood, frost in the mind. Her son crosses the river of death now. Or now. Or now. Before dusk, the dogs growl. She rises and limps to the doorway. A gust of wind, high on the mountain, lifts a cloud of glitter from the trees. The pressure in her breasts nears intolerable. For a long moment nothing else happens. Then Grandfather comes down the river road on the mare with something bundled across the saddle. The dogs explode; Grandfather dismounts; her arms reach to take what he carries even as her mind says she should not. The child is alive. His lips are gray and his cheeks are ashen but not even his tiny fingers are blackened with frost. “I took him to the high grove.” Grandfather heaps wood onto the fire, blows the embers into flames; his hands tremble. “I set him down.” She sits as close to the fire as she dares and this time braces the infant’s chin and jaw with her right hand, and with her left expresses jets of milk down the back of his throat. Milk leaks from the baby’s nose and from the gap in his palate, but he swallows. The girls slip through the doorway, boiling with the mystery of it, and the flames rise, and Grandfather shivers. “I got back on the horse. He was so quiet. He just looked up into the trees. A little shape in the snow.” The child gasps, swallows again. The dogs whine outside the door. Grandfather looks at his shaking hands. How long before the rest of the village learns of this? “I could not leave him.” * * * Before midnight they are driven out with hayforks and torches. The child caused the death of his father, bewitched his grandfather into carrying him back from the trees. He harbors a demon inside, and the flaw in his face is proof. They leave behind the byre and hayfield and root cellar and seven wicker beehives and the cottage that Grandfather’s father built six decades before. Dawn finds them cold and frightened several miles upriver. Grandfather tramps beside the oxen through the slush, and the oxen pull the dray, atop which the girls clutch hens and earthenware. Beauty the cow trails behind, balking at every shadow, and in the rear the boy’s mother rides the mare, the baby blinking up from his bundle, watching the sky. By nightfall they are in a trackless ravine nine miles from the village. A creek winds between ice-capped boulders, and wayward clouds, as big as gods, drag through the crowns of the trees, whistling strangely, and spook the cattle. They camp beneath a limestone overhang inside which hominids painted cave bears and aurochs and flightless birds eons ago. The girls crowd their mother and Grandfather builds a fire and the goat whimpers and the dogs tremble and the baby’s eyes catch the firelight. “Omeir,” says his mother. “We will call him Omeir. One who lives long.” Anna She is eight and returning from the vintner’s with three jugs of Kalaphates’s dark, head-splitting wine, when she pauses to rest outside a rooming house. From a shuttered window she hears, in accented Greek: Meanwhile Ulysses at the palace waits, There stops, and anxious with his soul debates, Fix’d in amaze before the royal gates. The front appear’d with radiant splendors gay, Bright as the lamp of night, or orb of day, The walls were massy brass: the cornice high Blue metals crown’d in colors of the sky, Rich plates of gold the folding doors incase; The pillars silver, on a brazen base; Silver the lintels deep-projecting o’er, And gold the ringlets that command the door. Two rows of stately dogs, on either hand, In sculptured gold and labor’d silver stand These Vulcan form’d with art divine, to wait Immortal guardians at Alcinous’s gate… Anna forgets the handcart, the wine, the hour—everything. The accent is strange but the voice is deep and liquid, and the meter catches hold of her like a rider galloping past. Now come the voices of boys, repeating the verses, and the first voice resumes: Close to the gates a spacious garden lies, From storms defended and inclement skies. Four acres was the allotted space of ground, Fenced with a green enclosure all around. Tall thriving trees confess’d the fruitful mold: The reddening apple ripens here to gold. Here the blue fig with luscious juice o’erflows, With deeper red the full pomegranate glows; The branch here bends beneath the weighty pear, And verdant olives flourish round the year, The balmy spirit of the western gale Eternal breathes on fruits, unthought to fail: Each dropping pear a following pear supplies, On apples apples, figs on figs arise… What palace is this, where the doors gleam with gold and the pillars are silver and the trees never stop fruiting? As though hypnotized, she advances to the rooming house wall and scales the gate and peers through the shutter. Inside, four boys in doublets sit around an old man with a goiter ballooning from his throat. The boys repeat the verses in a bloodless monotone, and the man manipulates what looks like leaves of parchment in his lap, and Anna leans as close as she dares. She has seen books only twice before: a leather-bound Bible, winking with gems, conducted up the central aisle by elders at Saint Theophano; and a medical catalogue in the market that the herb seller snapped shut when Anna tried to peer inside. This one looks older and grimier: letters are packed onto its parchment like the tracks of a hundred shorebirds. The tutor resumes the verse, in which a goddess disguises the traveler in mist so that he can sneak inside the shining palace, and Anna bumps the shutter, and the boys look up. In a heartbeat a wide-shouldered housekeeper is waving Anna back through the gate as though chasing a bird off fruit. She retreats to her handcart and pushes it against the wall, but wagons rumble past and raindrops begin to strike the rooftops, and she can no longer hear. Who is Ulysses and who is the goddess who cloaks him in magical mist? Is the kingdom of brave Alcinous the same one that’s painted inside the archer’s turret? The gate opens and the boys hurry past, scowling at her as they skirt puddles. Not long after, the old teacher comes out leaning on a stick and she blocks his path. “Your song. Was it inside those pages?” The tutor can hardly turn his head; it is as though a gourd has been implanted beneath his chin. “Will you teach me? I know some signs already; I know the one that’s like two pillars with a rod between, and the one that’s like a gallows, and the one that’s like an ox head upside down.” With an index finger in the mud at his feet she draws an A. The man raises his gaze to the rain. Where his eyeballs should be white, they are yellow. “Girls don’t go to tutors. And you don’t have any money.” She lifts a jug from the cart. “I have wine.” He comes alert. One arm reaches for the jug. “First,” she says, “a lesson.” “You’ll never learn it.” She does not budge. The old teacher groans. With the end of his stick in the wet dirt he writes: Ὠκεανός “Ōkeanos, Ocean, eldest son of Sky and Earth.” He draws a circle around it and pokes its center. “Here the known.” Then he pokes the outside. “Here the unknown. Now the wine.” She passes it to him and he drinks with both hands. She crouches on her heels. Ὠκεανός. Seven marks in the mud. And yet they contain the lonely traveler and the brass-walled palace with its golden watchdogs and the goddess with her mist? * * * For returning late, Widow Theodora beats the sole of Anna’s left foot with the bastinado. For returning with one of the jugs half-empty, she beats the right. Ten strokes on each. Anna hardly cries. Half the night she inscribes letters across the surfaces of her mind, and all the following day, as she hobbles up and down the stairs, as she carries water, as she fetches eels for Chryse the cook, she sees the island kingdom of Alcinous, wreathed with clouds and blessed by the west wind, teeming with apples, pears, and olives, blue figs and red pomegranates, boys of gold on shining pedestals with burning torches in their hands. Two weeks later she is coming back from the market, going out of her way to pass the rooming house, when she spies the goitrous tutor sitting in the sun like a potted plant. She sets down her basket of onions and with a finger in the dust writes, Ὠκεανός Around it she draws a circle. “Eldest son of Sky and Earth. Here the known. Here the unknown.” The man strains his head to one side and swivels his gaze to her, as though seeing her for the first time, and the wet in his eyes catches the light. His name is Licinius. Before his misfortunes, he says, he served as tutor to a wealthy family in a city to the west, and he owned six books and an iron box to hold them: two lives of the saints, a book of orations by Horace, a testament of the miracles of Saint Elisabeth, a primer on Greek grammar, and Homer’s Odyssey. But then the Saracens captured his town, and he fled to the capital with nothing, and thank the angels in heaven for the city walls, whose foundation stones were laid by the Mother of God Herself. From inside his coat Licinius produces three mottled bundles of parchment. Ulysses, he says, was once a general in the greatest army ever assembled, whose legions came from Hyrmine, from Dulichium, from the walled cities of Cnossos and Gortyn, from the farthest reaches of the sea, and they crossed the ocean in a thousand black ships to sack the fabled city of Troy, and from each ship spilled a thousand warriors, as innumerable, Licinius says, as the leaves in the trees, or as the flies that swarm over buckets of warm milk in shepherds’ stalls. For ten years they sieged Troy, and after they finally took it, the weary legions sailed home, and all arrived safely except Ulysses. The entire song of his journey home, Licinius explains, consisted of twenty-four books, one for each letter of the alphabet, and took several days to recite, but all Licinius has left are these three quires, each containing a half-dozen pages, relating the sections where Ulysses leaves the cave of Calypso, is broken by a storm, and washes up naked on the island of Scheria, home of brave Alcinous, lord of the Phaeacians. There was a time, he continues, when every child in the empire knew every player in Ulysses’s story. But long before Anna was born, Latin Crusaders from the west burned the city, killing thousands, and stripped away much of its wealth. Then plagues halved the population, and halved it again, and the empress at the time had to sell her crown to Venice to pay her garrisons, and the current emperor wears a crown made of glass and can hardly afford the plates he eats from, and now the city limps through a long twilight, waiting for the second coming of Christ, and no one has time for the old stories anymore. Anna’s attention remains fixed on the leaves in front of her. So many words! It would take seven lifetimes to learn them all. * * * Every time Chryse the cook sends Anna to the market, the girl finds a reason to visit Licinius. She brings him crusts of bread, a smoked fish, half a hoop of thrushes; twice she manages to steal a jug of Kalaphates’s wine. In return, he teaches. A is ἄλφα is alpha; B is βῆτα is beta; Ω is ὦ μέγα is omega. As she sweeps the workroom floor, as she lugs another roll of fabric or another bucket of charcoal, as she sits in the workroom beside Maria, fingers numb, breath pluming over the silk, she practices her letters on the thousand blank pages of her mind. Each sign signifies a sound, and to link sounds is to form words, and to link words is to construct worlds. Weary Ulysses sets forth upon his raft from the cave of Calypso; the spray of the ocean wets his face; the shadow of the sea-god, kelp streaming from his blue hair, flashes beneath the surface. “You fill your head with useless things,” whispers Maria. But knotted chain stitches, cable chain stitches, petal chain stitches—Anna will never learn it. Her most consistent skill with a needle seems to be accidentally pricking a fingertip and bleeding onto the cloth. Her sister says she should imagine the holy men who will perform the divine mysteries wearing the vestments she helped decorate, but Anna’s mind is constantly veering off to islands on the fringe of the sea where sweet springs run and goddesses streak down from the clouds upon a beam of light. “Saints help me,” says Widow Theodora, “will you ever learn?” Anna is old enough to understand the precariousness of their situation: she and Maria have no family, no money; they belong to no one and maintain their place in the house of Kalaphates only because of Maria’s talent with a needle. The best life either of them can hope for is to sit at one of these tables embroidering crosses and angels and foliage into copes and chalice veils and chasubles from dawn until dusk until their spines are humped and their eyes give out. Monkey. Mosquito. Hopeless. Yet she cannot stop. * * * “One word at a time.” Once more she studies the muddle of marks on the parchment. πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω “I can’t.” “You can.” Ἄστεα are cities; νόον is mind; ἔγνω is learned. She says, “He saw the cities of many men and learned their ways.” The mass on Licinius’s neck quakes as his mouth curls into a smile. “That’s it. That’s it exactly.” Almost overnight, the streets glow with meaning. She reads inscriptions on coins, on cornerstones and tombstones, on lead seals and buttress piers and marble plaques embedded into the defensive walls—each twisting lane of the city a great battered manuscript in its own right. Words glow on the chipped rim of a plate Chryse the cook keeps beside the hearth: Zoe the Most Pious. Over the entrance to a little forgotten chapel: Peace be to thee whoever enterest with gentle heart. Her favorite is chiseled into the lintel above the watchman’s door beside the Saint Theophano gate and takes her half of a Sunday to puzzle out: Stop, ye thieves, robbers, murderers, horsemen and soldiers, in all humility, for we have tasted the rosy blood of Jesus. The last time Anna sees Licinius, a cold wind is blowing, and his complexion is the color of a rainstorm. His eyes leak, the bread she has brought him remains untouched, and the goiter on his neck seems a more sinister creature entirely, inflamed and florid, as though tonight it will devour his face at last. Today, he says, they will work on μῦθος, mýthos, which means a conversation or something said, but also a tale or a story, a legend from the time of the old gods, and he is explaining how it’s a delicate, mutable word, that it can suggest something false and true at the same time, when his attention frays. The wind lifts one of the quires from his fingers and Anna chases it down and brushes it off and returns it to his lap. Licinius rests his eyelids a long time. “Repository,” he finally says, “you know this word? A resting place. A text—a book—is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on.” His eyes open very widely then, as though he peers into a great darkness. “But books, like people, die. They die in fires or floods or in the mouths of worms or at the whims of tyrants. If they are not safeguarded, they go out of the world. And when a book goes out of the world, the memory dies a second death.” He winces, and his breathing comes slow and ragged. Leaves scrape down the lane and bright clouds stream above the rooftops and several packhorses pass, their riders bundled against the cold, and she shivers. Should she fetch the housekeeper? The bloodletter? Licinius’s arm rises; in the claw of his hand are the three battered quires. “No, Teacher,” says Anna. “Those are yours.” But he pushes them into her hands. She glances down the lane: the rooming house, the wall, the rattling trees. She says a prayer and tucks the leaves of parchment inside her dress. Omeir The oldest daughter dies of worms, fever takes the middle one, but the boy grows. At three, he can hold himself upright on the sledge as Leaf and Needle clear, then plow a hayfield. At four, he can fill the kettle at the creek and lug it through the boulders to the one-room stone house Grandfather has built. Twice his mother pays the farrier’s wife to travel nine miles upriver from the village to stitch together the gap in the boy’s lip with a needle and twine and twice the project fails. The cleft, which extends through his upper mandible into his nose, does not close. But though his inner ears sometimes burn, and his jaw sometimes aches, and broth regularly escapes his mouth and dribbles onto his clothes, he is sturdy, quiet, and never ill. His earliest memories are three: 1. Standing in the creek between Leaf and Needle as they drink, watching drops fall from their huge round chins and catch the light. 2. His sister Nida grimacing over him as she prepares to jab a stick into his upper lip. 3. Grandfather unbuckling the bright pink body of a pheasant from its feathers, as though undressing it, and spitting it over the hearth. The few children he manages to meet make him play the monsters when they act out the adventures of Bulukiya and ask him if it’s true that his face can cause mares to miscarry and wrens to drop from the sky mid-flight. But they also show him how to find quail eggs and which holes in the river hold the largest trout, and they point out a half-hollow black yew growing from a karst bluff high above the ravine which they say harbors evil spirits and can never die. Many of the woodcutters and their wives won’t come near him. More than once a merchant, traveling along the river, spurs his horse up through the trees rather than risk passing Omeir on the road. If a stranger has ever looked at him without fear or suspicion, he cannot remember it. His favorite days come in summer, when the trees dance in the wind and the moss glows emerald green on the boulders and swallows chase each other through the ravine. Nida sings as she takes the goats to graze, and their mother lies on a stone above the creek, her mouth open, as though inhaling the light, and Grandfather takes his nets and pots of birdlime and leads Omeir high on the mountain to trap birds. Though his spine is hunched and he’s missing two toes, Grandfather moves quickly, and Omeir has to take two strides for every one of his. As they climb, Grandfather proselytizes about the superiority of oxen: how they’re calmer and steadier than horses, how they don’t need oats, how their dung doesn’t scorch barley like horse dung does, how they can be eaten when they’re old, how they mourn each other when one dies, how if they lie on their left side it means fair weather is coming but if they lie on their right it means rain. The beech forests give way to pine, and the pines give way to gentians and primrose, and by evening Grandfather has caught a dozen grouse with his snares. At dusk they stop for the night in a boulder-strewn glade, and the dogs swirl around them, testing the air for wolves, and Omeir starts a fire and Grandfather dresses and roasts four of the grouse, and the ridges of the mountains below fall away in a cascade of deepening blues. They eat, the fire burns to embers, Grandfather drinks from a gourd of plum brandy, and with the purest happiness the boy waits, feels it trundling toward him like a lamplit cart, full of cakes and honey, about to round a bend in the road. “Have I ever told you,” Grandfather will say, “about the time I climbed on the back of a giant beetle and visited the moon?” Or: “Have I ever told you about my journey to the island made of rubies?” He tells Omeir about a glass city, far to the north, where everyone speaks in whispers so they don’t break anything; he says he once turned into an earthworm and tunneled his way to the underworld. The tales always end with Grandfather’s safe return to the mountain, having survived another terrifying and wondrous adventure, and the embers burn to ash, and Grandfather begins to snore, and Omeir looks up into the night and wonders what worlds drift among the faraway lights of the stars. When he asks his mother if beetles can fly all the way to the moon or if Grandfather ever spent an entire year inside a sea monster, she smiles and says that as far as she knows, Grandfather has never left the mountain, and now could Omeir please concentrate on helping her render the beeswax? Still the boy often wanders alone up the trail to the half-hollow yew on the bluff, climbs into its branches, peers down at the river where it disappears around the bend, and imagines the adventures that might lay beyond: forests where trees walk; deserts where men with horse-bodies run as fast as swifts fly; a realm at the top of the earth where the seasons end and sea dragons swim between mountains of ice and a race of blue giants lives forever. * * * He’s ten when Beauty, the family’s swaybacked old cow, goes into labor for the final time. For most of an afternoon, two little hooves, dripping with mucus and steaming in the cold, stick out beneath the raised arch of her tail, and Beauty grazes as though nothing in the world has ever changed, and eventually she gives a spasm and a mud-brown calf slides the rest of the way out. Omeir takes a step forward but Grandfather tugs him back, a question on his face. Beauty licks her calf, its little body rocking beneath the weight of her tongue, and Grandfather whispers a prayer, and a gentle rain falls, and the calf does not stand. Then he sees what Grandfather saw. A second pair of hooves has appeared beneath Beauty’s tail. A snout with a little pink tongue stuck between its jaws soon joins the hooves, followed by a single eye, and finally a second calf—this one gray—is born. Twins. Both males. Almost as soon as the gray calf touches the ground, he stands and begins to nurse. The brown one keeps its chin planted. “Something wrong with that one,” whispers Grandfather, and curses the breeder who charged him for the services of his bull, but Omeir decides the calf is just taking his time. Trying to solve this strange new mix of gravity and bones. The gray one suckles on its bent-twig legs; the firstborn remains wet and folded in the ferns. Grandfather sighs, but just then the first calf stands, and takes a step toward them as if to say, “Which of you doubted me?” and Grandfather and Omeir laugh, and the family’s wealth is doubled. * * * Grandfather warns that it will be a challenge for Beauty to produce enough milk for two, but she proves up to the task, grazing nonstop in the lengthening daylight, and the calves grow swiftly and without pause. They name the brown one Tree, the gray one Moonlight. Tree likes to keep his hooves clean, bleats if his mother dips out of sight, and will stand patiently for half a morning while Omeir picks burrs out of his coat. Moonlight, on the other hand, is always trotting somewhere to investigate moths, toadstools, or stumps; he nibbles ropes and chains, eats sawdust, wades in mud up to his knees, gets a horn stuck in a dead tree and bawls for help. What the two calves share from the start is an adoration for the boy, who feeds them by hand, who strokes their muzzles, who often wakes in the byre outside the cottage with their big, warm bodies wrapped around his. They play hide-and-seek and race-to-Beauty with him; they stomp through spring puddles together amid glittering clouds of flies; they seem to accept Omeir as a brother. Before their first full moon, Grandfather fits them to a yoke. Omeir loads the dray with stones, picks up a goad stick, and begins to work them. Step in, step out, gee means right, haw means left, whoa means stop—at first the calves pay the boy no mind. Tree refuses to back up and be hitched to the load; Moonlight tries to dislodge the yoke on every available tree. The dray tips, the stones roll off, the calves go to their knees, bawling, and old Leaf and Needle look up from their grazing and shake their grizzled heads as though amused. “What creature,” laughs Nida, “would trust someone with a face like that?” “Show them that you can meet all of their needs,” says Grandfather. Omeir starts again. He taps them on the knees with the goad; he clucks and whistles; he whispers in their ears. That summer the mountain turns as green as anyone can remember, and the grasses shoot high, and his mother’s hives grow heavy with honey, and for the first time since being driven from the village, the family has plenty to eat. The horns of Moonlight and Tree spread, their rumps thicken, their chests broaden; by the time they are castrated, they are bigger than their mother, and make Leaf and Needle look slight. Grandfather says that if you listen hard enough you can hear them growing, and although Omeir is pretty sure that Grandfather is joking, when no one is looking, he presses an ear to Moonlight’s huge rib and shuts his eyes. * * * In autumn word filters up the valley that the ghazi sultan, Murad the Second, Guardian of the World, has died, and his eighteen-year-old son (bless and keep him forever) has ascended to power. The traders who buy the family’s honey declare that the young sultan is ushering in a new golden age, and in the little ravine it seems true. The road stays clear and dry, and Grandfather and Omeir thresh their largest-ever crop of barley and Nida and her mother toss the seeds into baskets, and a bright clean wind carries away the chaff. One evening, just before the first snows, a traveler on a glossy mare rides up the track from the river, his servant riding a nag behind. Grandfather sends Omeir and Nida into the byre and they watch through the gaps in the logs. The traveler wears a grass-green turban and a riding coat lined with lambswool and his beard looks so tidy that Nida speculates whether sprites must trim it at night. Grandfather shows them the ancient pictographs in the cavern, and afterward the traveler walks through the little homestead admiring the terraces and crops, and when he sees the two young bullocks his jaw drops. “Do you feed them the blood of giants?” “It is a rare blessing,” Grandfather says, “to have twins to share the same yoke.” At dusk Mother, her face covered, feeds the guests butter and greens, then the last melons of the year, drizzled with honey, and Nida and Omeir creep around the back of the cottage to listen, and Omeir prays they’ll overhear tales of cities the visitor has seen in the lands beyond the mountain. The traveler asks how they have come to live all alone in a ravine miles from the nearest village and Grandfather says they live here by choice, that the sultan, may he have peace always, has provided everything the family needs. The traveler murmurs something they cannot hear, and his servant stands and clears his throat and says, “Master, they’re concealing a demon in the byre.” Silence. Grandfather sets a log on the fire. “A ghoul or a mage, pretending to be a child.” “I apologize,” says the traveler. “My attendant has forgotten his place.” “He has the face of a hare and when he speaks the beasts do his bidding. This is why they live alone, miles from the nearest village. Why their bullocks are so large.” The traveler rises. “Is this true?” “He is only a boy,” says Grandfather, though Omeir hears a sharpness creep into his voice. The servant edges toward the door. “You think that now,” he says, “but his true nature will show in time.” Anna Outside the city walls, old resentments stir. The sultan of the Saracens has died, the women in the workroom say, and the new one, barely out of boyhood, spends every waking breath planning to capture the city. He studies war, they say, like the monks study scripture. Already his masons are constructing brick-baking kilns a half day’s walk up the Bosporus Strait, where, at the narrowest point of the channel, he intends to construct a monstrous fortress that will be able to capture any ship which tries to deliver armor, wheat, or wine to the city from outposts along the Black Sea. As winter comes on, Master Kalaphates sees portents in every shadow. A pitcher cracks, a bucket leaks, a flame goes out: the new sultan is to blame. Kalaphates complains that orders have stopped arriving from the provinces; the needleworkers do not work hard enough, or they have used too much gold thread, or they have not used enough, or their faith is impure. Agata is too slow, Thekla is too old, Elyse’s designs are too dull. A single fruit fly in his wine can send a black thread twisting through his mood that lingers for days. Widow Theodora says that Kalaphates needs compassion, that the remedy to every woe is prayer, and after dark Maria kneels in their cell in front of the icon of Saint Koralia, her lips moving silently, sending devotions up past the beams. Only in the latest hours, long after Compline, does Anna risk crawling out from beside her sleeping sister, taking a tallow candle from the scullery cupboard, and removing Licinius’s quires from their hiding place beneath the pallet. If Maria notices, she says nothing, and Anna is too absorbed to care. The candlelight flickers over the leaves: words become verses, verses become color and light, and lonesome Ulysses drifts into the storm. His raft capsizes; he gulps saltwater; the sea-god roars past on his sea-green steeds. But there, in the turquoise distance, past the booming surf, glimmers the magical kingdom of Scheria. It’s like constructing a little paradise, bronze and shining, aglow with fruit and wine, inside their cell. Light a taper and read a line and the west wind begins to blow: a handmaid brings one ewer of water and another of wine, Ulysses sits at the royal table to eat, and the king’s favorite bard begins to sing. * * * One winter night Anna is coming down the corridor from the scullery when she hears, through the half-open door of their cell, the voice of Kalaphates. “What witchcraft is this?” Ice tumbles through every channel in her body. She creeps to the threshold: Maria is kneeling on the floor, bleeding from her mouth, and Kalaphates is stooped under the low beams, the sockets of his eyes lost in shadow. In the long fingers of his left hand are the leaves of Licinius’s quires. “It was you? All along? Who helps yourself to candles? Who causes our misfortunes?” Anna wants to open her mouth, to confess, to wipe all this away, but the fear is such that it has stopped her ability to speak. Maria is praying without moving her mouth, praying behind her eyes, retreating to some private sanctum at the very center of her mind, and her silence only infuriates Kalaphates more. “They said, ‘Only a saint would bring children who are not his own into the house of his father. Who knows what evils they’ll bring?’ But did I listen? I said, ‘They’re only candles. Whoever steals them only does so to illuminate her nightly devotions.’ And now I see this? This poison? This sorcery?” He seizes Maria by the hair and something inside Anna screams. Tell him. You are the thief; you are the misfortune. Speak. But Kalaphates is dragging Maria by her hair into the hall, right past Anna as though she were not there, and Maria is trying to scramble to her feet and Kalaphates is twice their size and Anna’s courage is nowhere. He hauls Maria past the cells where other needleworkers crouch behind their doors. For a moment she manages to get a foot under her, but stumbles, a great fistful of hair tearing away in Kalaphates’s fist, and the side of Maria’s head strikes the stone step leading to the scullery. The sound is that of a hammer passing through a gourd. Chryse the cook watches from her wash pot; Anna stays in the corridor; Maria bleeds on the floor. No one speaks as Kalaphates grabs her dress and drags her limp body to the hearth and pitches the pieces of parchment into the fire and holds Maria’s unseeing eyes to the flames while the quires burn to ash one two three. Omeir Twelve-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 He’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?” “Whatever is asked of us,” the president’s wife continues, “I am sure we can accomplish it.” Papa shakes his head. “These boys have their faces blown off at breakfasts. They burns alives.” Athena barks again and Mrs. Boydstun clenches her forehead with trembling hands and the hundreds of porcelain children on their shelves—holding hands, jumping rope, carrying pails—seem suddenly charged with a terrible power. “Now,” says the radio, “we will go back to the program we had arranged for the night.” Papa says, “We will shows these Jap fuck-fuckers. Boys oh boys we will shows them.” Five days later he and four other men from the sawmill ride to Boise to have their teeth counted and their chests measured. And on the day after Christmas Papa is on his way to something called boot camp somewhere called Massachusetts and Zeno is living with Mrs. Boydstun. LAKEPORT, IDAHO 2002–2011 Seymour As a newborn, he screeches, howls, bawls. As a toddler, he will eat only circles: Cheerios, freezer waffles, and plain M&M’s from a 1.69-ounce package. No Fun Size, no Sharing Size, God help Bunny if she offers him Peanut. She can touch his arms and legs but not his feet or hands. Never his ears. Shampooing is a nightmare. Haircuts = impossible. Home is a weekly motel in Lewiston called the Golden Oak; she pays for her one room by cleaning the other sixteen. Boyfriends roll through like storms: there’s Jed, there’s Mike Gawtry, there’s a guy Bunny calls Turkey Leg. Lighters flick; ice machines grumble; logging trucks rattle the windows. On the worst nights they sleep in the Pontiac. At three, Seymour decides he cannot abide the tags on any of his underwear, nor the rustling certain breakfast cereals make against the interiors of their plastic bags. At four, he shrieks if the straw in a juice box rubs the wrong way against the foil it has been struck through. If she sneezes too loudly, he trembles for half an hour. Men say, “What’s wrong with him?” They say, “Can’t you shut him up?” He’s six when Bunny learns that her great-uncle Pawpaw, a man she has not seen in twenty years, has died and left her his manufactured double-wide in Lakeport. She closes her flip phone, drops her rubber gloves in the tub of Room 14, abandons her cleaning cart in the half-open doorway, loads the Grand Am with the toaster oven, the Magnavox DVD all-in-one, and two trash bags of clothes, and drives Seymour three hours south without stopping once. The house sits on an acre of weeds a mile from town at the dead end of a gravel road called Arcady Lane. One window is shattered, the siding has I DONT CALL 911 spray-painted on it, and the roof curls upward at one end as though a giant has tried to peel it off. As soon as the lawyer drives away, Bunny kneels in the driveway and sobs with a persistence that frightens them both. Pine forest wraps the acre on three sides. Thousands of white butterflies drift between the heads of the thistles in the yard. Seymour sits beside her. “Oh, Possum.” Bunny wipes her eyes. “It’s just been a long fucking time.” The trees rising above the back of the property shimmer; the butterflies float. “Since what, Mom?” “Since hope.” A strand of spiderweb, sailing through the air, catches the light. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s been a long fucking time since hope.” And is startled when his mother bursts into laughter. * * * Bunny nails plywood over the broken window and wipes rodent turds out of the kitchen cabinets and drags Pawpaw’s chipmunk-chewed mattress to the road and finances two new ones at nineteen-percent-no-money-down. At the thrift store she finds an orange love seat and douses it with half a can of Glade Hawaiian Breeze before she and Seymour drag it inside. At sunset they sit side by side on the front step and eat two waffles each. An osprey passes high above, heading for the lake. A doe and two fawns materialize beside the toolshed and twitch their ears. The sky turns purple. “Seed’s a-growing,” sings Bunny, “and the meadow’s a-blooming, and the wood’s a-coming into leaf now…” Seymour shuts his eyes. The breeze feels as soft as the blue blankets at the Golden Oak, maybe softer, and the thistles are pumping off a smell like warm Christmas trees, and through the wall directly behind them is his very own room with stains on the ceiling that look like clouds or cougars or maybe sea sponges, and his mother sounds so happy that when she gets to the part in her song about the ewe bleating, and the bullock prancing, and the billy goat farting, he can’t keep himself from laughing. * * * First grade at Lakeport Elementary = twenty-six six-year-olds in a twenty-four-by-forty-foot portable presided over by a seasoned ironist named Mrs. Onegin. The navy-blue desk she assigns to Seymour is hateful: its frame is warped and its bolts are rusted and its feet make squeaks against the floor that feel like needles perforating the backs of his eyeballs. Mrs. Onegin says, “Seymour, do you see any other children sitting on the floor?” She says, “Seymour, are you waiting for a specially engraved invitation?” She says, “Seymour, if you don’t sit—” On the principal’s desk, a mug says, SMILING IS MY FAVORITE. Cartoon roadrunners jog across his belt. Bunny is wearing her brand-new Wagon Wheel Custodial Services polo, cost to be deducted from her first paycheck. She says, “He’s pretty sensitive,” and Principal Jenkins says, “Is there a father figure?” and glances for a third time at her breasts, and later, in the car, Bunny pulls onto the shoulder of Mission Street and dry-swallows three Excedrin. “Possum, are you listening? Touch your ears if you’re listening.” Four trucks whizz past: two blue, two black. He touches his ears. “What are we?” “A team.” “And what does a team do?” “Helps each other.” A red car passes. Then a white truck. “Can you look at me?” He looks. The magnetized name-tag clipped to her shirt says, HOUSEKEEPING ATTENDANT BUNNY. Her name is smaller than her job. Two more trucks rock the Grand Am as they pass but he cannot hear what color they are. “I can’t leave work in the middle of a shift because you don’t like your desk. They’ll fire me. And I can’t get fired. I need you to try. Will you try?” * * * He tries. When Carmen Hormaechea touches him with her poison ivy arm, he tries not to scream. When Tony Molinari’s Aerobie hits him in the side of the head, he tries not to cry. But nine days into September, a wildfire in the Seven Devils chokes the whole valley with smoke, and Mrs. Onegin says the air quality is too low for outside recess, and they’ll need to keep the windows closed because of Rodrigo’s asthma, and within minutes the portable reeks like Pawpaw’s microwave when Bunny defrosts a freezer fajita. Seymour makes it through Group Math, through Lunch, through Fluency Tubs. But by Reflection Time, his endurance is fracturing. Mrs. Onegin sends everyone to their desks to color their North Americas, and Seymour tries to draw faint green circles in the Gulf of Mexico, tries to move only his hand and wrist, not shifting so the desk frame doesn’t go screek screek, not breathing so he doesn’t smell any smells, but sweat is trickling down his ribs, and Wesley Ohman keeps opening and closing the Velcro on his left shoe, and Tony Molinari’s lips are going poppoppop, and Mrs. Onegin is writing a huge, terrible A-M-E-R-I-C- on the whiteboard, the marker tip rasping and squeaking, the classroom clock ticktickticking, and all these sounds race into his head like hornets into a nest. The roar: all his life it has rumbled in the distance. Now it rises. It obliterates the mountains, the lake, downtown Lakeport; it smashes across the school parking lot, tossing cars everywhere; it growls outside the portable and rattles the door. Black pinholes open in his vision. He clamps his hands over his ears but the roar eats the light. * * * Miss Slattery the school counselor says it could be sensory processing disorder or attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity disorder or some combination thereof. The boy is too young for her to know for sure. And she’s not a diagnostician. But his screaming frightened the other children and Principal Jenkins has suspended Seymour for Friday and Bunny should make an appointment with an occupational therapist as soon as possible. Bunny pinches the bridge of her nose. “Is that, like, included?” * * * Manager Steve at the Wagon Wheel says, you bet, Bunny, bring your kid to work, so long as you want to get fired, so on Friday morning she plucks the knobs off the stove burners, sets a box of Cheerios on the counter, and puts the Starboy DVD on repeat. “Possum?” On the Magnavox Starboy drops from the night in his bright-shining suit. “Touch your ears if you’re listening.” Starboy finds a family of armadillos trapped in a net. Seymour touches his ears. “When the microwave timer says zero zero zero, I’ll be home to check on you. All right?” Starboy needs help. Time to call Trustyfriend. “You’ll sit tight?” He nods; the Pontiac rattles down Arcady Lane. Trustyfriend the Owl soars out of the cartoon night. Starboy lights the way while Trustyfriend tears through the net with his bill. The armadillos squirm free; Trustyfriend announces that friends who help friends are the best friends of all. Then something that sounds like a giant scorpion starts scratching on the roof of the double-wide. Seymour listens in his room. He listens at the front door. At the sliding door off the kitchen. The sound goes: tap scratch scratch. On the Magnavox a big yellow sun is coming up. Time for Trustyfriend to fly back to his roost. Time for Starboy to fly back to the Firmament. Best friends best friends, Starboy sings, We’re never apart, I’m in the sky, And you’re in my heart. When Seymour opens the sliding door, a magpie sails off the roof and lands on an egg-shaped boulder in the backyard. It dips its tail and calls wock wock wock. A bird. Not a scorpion at all. An overnight storm has cleared the smoke and the morning is bright. The thistles nod their purple crowns and tiny insects sail everywhere. The thousands of pines stacked against the back of the property, rising toward a ridge, seem to breathe as they sway. In out in out. It’s nineteen paces through waist-high weeds to the egg-shaped boulder and by the time Seymour climbs on top, the magpie has flapped to a branch at the edge of the forest. Splotches of lichen—pink, olive, flame orange—decorate the boulder. It’s amazing out here. Big. Alive. Ongoing. Twenty paces past the boulder, Seymour reaches a single strand of barbed wire sagging between posts. Behind him is the sliding door, the kitchen, Pawpaw’s microwave; ahead are three thousand acres of forest owned by a family in Texas no one in Lakeport has ever met. Wock wock-a-wock, calls the magpie. It’s easy to duck under the wire. Beneath the trees, the light changes entirely: another world. Pennants of lichen sway from branches; snippets of sky glow overhead. Here’s an ant mound half as tall as he is; here’s a granite rib the size of a minivan; here’s a sheet of bark that fits around his midsection like the chest plate of Starboy’s armor. Halfway up the hill behind the house, Seymour comes to a clearing ringed by Douglas firs with a big dead ponderosa in the center like the many-fingered arm of a skeleton-giant thrust up from the underworld. Parachuting through the air around him, blown out of the firs, are hundreds of pine needles bundled in twos. He catches one, imagines it as a little man with a truncated torso and long slender legs. The NeedleMan ventures across the clearing on his pointy feet. At the foot of the dead tree, Seymour constructs a house for the NeedleMan from bark and twigs. He is installing a lichen mattress inside when a ghost shrieks ten feet above his head. Ee-ee? Ee-ee-eet? Every hair on Seymour’s arms stands up straight. The owl is so well camouflaged that it vocalizes three more times before the boy sets eyes on it, and when he does he gasps. It blinks three times, four. In the shadow ag