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Authors: Anthony Doerr

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Cloud Cuckoo Land
by Antonius Diogenes, Folio

… through my big nostrils I could smell roses growing in the last gardens at the edge of town. Oh, what sweet, melancholy perfume! But each time I veered to investigate, the cruel robbers beat me with their sticks and swords. My load poked my ribs through the saddlebags, and my unshod hooves ached, and the road wound higher into parched, stony mountains in the north of Thessaly, and again I cursed my luck. Each time I opened my mouth to sob, what came out was a loud, pathetic bray, and the knaves only whacked me harder.

The stars sank away and the sun rose hot and white, and they drove me higher into the mountains, until hardly anything grew at all. Flies hounded me, my back roasted, and there were only rocks and cliffs for as far as I could see. When we stopped, I was left to nibble spiky nettles that stung my tender lips, while my saddlebags were loaded with everything they had stolen from the inn, not only the jeweled bracelets and headdresses of the innkeeper's wife, but soft white loaves and salted meats and sheep's cheeses.

At nightfall, high on a rocky pass, we reached the mouth of a cave. More thieves came out to embrace the thieves who brought me here, and they prodded me through room after room twinkling with stolen gold and silver, and left me in a miserable unlit cavern. All I had to eat was fusty straw, and all I had to drink from was a little seep bubbling through the rock, and all night I could hear the echoes of the marauders laughing as they feasted. I wept at my…




he turns twelve, though no one marks the day. She no longer runs through ruins, playing at being Ulysses as he steals into the palace of brave Alcinous: it's as if, when Kalaphates pitched Licinius's parchment into the flames, the kingdom of the Phaeacians went to ashes too.

Maria's hair has grown back where Kalaphates tore it out and the bruises around her eyes have long since faded, but some deeper injury persists. She grimaces in sunlight, forgets the names of things, leaves phrases half-finished. Headaches send her scurrying for the dark. And one bright morning, before the noon bell, Maria drops her needle and scissors and claws at her eyes.

“Anna, I cannot see.”

Widow Theodora frowns on her stool; the other embroideresses glance up, then back at their work. Kalaphates is just downstairs, entertaining some diocesan. Maria knocks things off her table as she sweeps her arms around. A spool of thread rolls past her feet, slowly unwinding.

“Is there smoke?”

“There's no smoke, sister. Come.”

Anna leads her down the stone steps to their cell and prays, Saint Koralia, help me be better, help me learn the stitches, help me make this right, and it is another hour before Maria can see her hand in front of her face. At the evening meal the women attempt various diagnoses. Strangury? Quartan agues? Eudokia offers a talisman; Agata recommends tea of astragalus and betony. But what the needleworkers do not voice aloud is their belief that Licinius's old
manuscript has worked some dark magic—that despite its destruction, it continues to blight the sisters with misfortune.

What witchcraft is this?

You fill your head with useless things.

After evening prayers Widow Theodora enters their cell with herbs smoldering in a brazier and sits beside Maria and folds her long legs beneath her. “A lifetime ago,” she says, “I knew a lime-burner who would see the world one hour and nothing the next. Over time his world went as dark as the darks of hell, and none of the doctors, local or foreign, could do a thing. But his wife put her faith in the Lord, and scraped together every piece of silver she could, and took him out the God-protected gate of the Silivri to the shrine of the Virgin of the Source, where the sisters let him drink from the holy well. And when the lime-burner came back—”

Theodora draws a cross in the air, remembering it, and the smoke drifts from wall to wall.

“What?” whispers Anna. “What happened when the lime-burner came back?”

“He saw the gulls in the sky and the ships on the sea and the bees visiting the flowers. And every time people saw him, for the rest of his life, they spoke of this miracle.”

Maria sits on the pallet, hands in her lap like broken sparrows.

Anna asks, “How much silver?”

A month later at dusk she stops in an alley beneath the wall of the convent of Saint Theophano. Look. Listen. Up she goes. At the top she squeezes through the iron grillwork. From there it's a short drop to the roof of the buttery, where she crouches a moment, listening.

Smoke rises from the kitchens; a low chant filters from the chapel. She thinks of Maria sitting on their pallet right now, squinting to unknot and remake a simple wreath Anna tried to embroider earlier today. In the gathering darkness she sees Kalaphates seize Maria's hair. He drags her down the hall, her head strikes the stair, and it is
as though Anna's own head is being struck, sparks exploding across her field of vision.

She lowers herself off the roof, enters the laying house, and grabs a hen. It squawks once before she breaks its neck and shoves it into her dress. Then back onto the roof of the buttery, back through the iron pickets, down through the ivy.

Over the past weeks she has sold four stolen chickens in the market for six coppers—hardly enough to buy her sister a blessing at the shrine of the Virgin of the Source. As soon as her slippers touch the ground, she hurries down the alley, keeping the nunnery wall on her left, and reaches the street where a stream of men and beasts moves in both directions through the failing light. Head down, one arm folded over the hen, she makes her way into the market, invisible as a shadow. Then a hand falls on the back of her dress.

It's a boy, about her age. Bulge-eyed, huge-handed, barefoot, so skinny he seems all eyeballs—she knows him: a fisherman's nephew named Himerius, the kind of boy Chryse the cook would say is as bad as a tooth-pulling and as useless as singing psalms to a dead horse. A heavy shank of hair lies across his forehead and the handle of a knife shows above the waistband of his breeches and he smiles the smile of someone who has the upper hand.

“Stealing from the servants of God?”

Her heart booms so loudly that she is surprised passersby cannot hear it. The gate to Saint Theophano is within sight: he could drag her to it, denounce her, make her open her dress. She has seen thieves on gibbets before: last autumn three were dressed as harlots and seated backward on donkeys and driven to the gallows in the Amastrianum and the youngest of them could not have been much older than Anna is now.

Would they hang her for stealing fowl? The boy looks back up the alley at the wall she just descended, calculating. “Do you know the priory on the rock?”

She gives a wary nod. It's a ruin on the edge of the city, near the harbor of Sophia, a forbidding place surrounded on three sides by
water. Centuries ago it might once have been a welcoming abbey but now it seems a frightening and desolate relic. The Fourth Hill boys have told her that soul-eating wraiths haunt it, that they carry their chamberlain from room to room on a throne of bones.

Two Castilians, wrapped in brocaded coats and doused liberally with perfume, pass on horses and the boy bows lightly as he steps out of their way. “I've heard,” Himerius says, “that inside the priory are many things of great antiquity: ivory cups, gloves covered with sapphires, the skins of lions. I've heard the Patriarch kept shards of the Holy Spirit glowing inside golden jars.” The bells of a dozen basilicas begin their slow toll and he looks over her head, blinking those huge eyes, as though seeing gemstones twinkle in the night. “There are foreigners in this city who will pay a great deal for old things. I row us to the priory, you climb up, fill a sack, and we sell whatever you find. Find me beneath the tower of Belisarius on the next night the sea smoke comes. Or I will tell the holy sisters about the fox who steals their chickens.”

Sea smoke: he means fog. Every afternoon she checks the workshop windows, but the autumn days stay fine, the sky a crisp, heart-aching blue, the weather clear enough, Chryse says, to see into the bedroom of Jesus. From the narrow lanes, between houses, Anna sometimes glimpses the priory in the distance: a collapsed tower, soaring walls, windows blockaded with bricks. It's a ruin. Gloves sewn with sapphires, the skins of lions—Himerius is a fool and only a fool would believe his tales. Yet, beneath her apprehension, a thread of hope rises. As though some part of her wishes the fog would come.

One afternoon, it does: a swirling torrent of white pours off the Propontis at dusk, thick, cool, silent, and drowns the city. From the workshop window she watches the central dome of the Church of the Holy Apostles disappear, then the walls of Saint Theophano, then the courtyard below.

After dark, after prayers, she crawls from beneath the blanket she shares with Maria, and slips to the door.

“You're going out?”

“Only to the toilet. Rest, sister.”

Down the corridor, through the side of the courtyard so as to skirt the watchman, and into the lattice of streets. The fog dissolves walls, reshuffles sounds, transforms figures to shades. She hurries, trying not to think of the nightly terrors she has been warned about: roving witches, airborne maladies, rogues and wretches, the dogs of night slinking through shadows. She slips past the houses of metalworkers, furriers, shoemakers: all settled in behind barred doors, all obeying their god. She descends the steep lanes to the base of the tower and waits and trembles. Moonlight pours into the fog like milk.

With a mixture of relief and disappointment, she decides that Himerius must have abandoned his scheme, but then he steps from the shadows. Over his right shoulder is a rope and in his left hand is a sack and he leads her without speaking through a fishermen's gate and across the cobbled beach past a dozen upturned boats to a skiff hauled up onto the gravel.

So covered with patches, so rotted in the boards, it hardly qualifies as a boat. Himerius sets the rope and sack in the bow and drags the craft to the waterline and stands submerged to his shins.

“It will stay afloat?”

He looks offended. She climbs in, and he pushes the skiff off the gravel and swings his body neatly over the wale. He settles the oars into their locks and waits a moment and the blades of the oars drip drip drip and a cormorant passes overhead and both boy and girl watch it come out of the fog and disappear again.

She sinks her fingernails into the thwart as he rows them into the harbor. A carrack at anchor looms suddenly close, dirty and barnacled and huge, the railings impossibly high, black water sucking at its hull, at the weed-wrapped anchor chains. She had imagined boats were swift and majestic; up close they make her hair stand on end.

Every breath she waits for someone to stop them but no one does. They reach a breakwater and Himerius ships the oars and hangs two unbaited lines off the stern. “If anyone asks,” he whispers, “we are fishing,” and rattles one of the lines as though in evidence.

The skiff wobbles; the air reeks of shellfish; out beyond the breakwater, waves shatter onto rocks. This is as far from home as she has ever been.

Every now and then the boy leans forward and uses a widemouthed jug to bail water from between his bare feet. Behind them the great towers of the Portus Palatii are lost in the fog and there is only the faraway boom of surf against rocks and the knocking of the oars against the boat and her simultaneous terror and exhilaration.

When they reach a gap in the breakwater, the boy gestures with his chin toward the heaving blackness beyond. “When the tide is wrong, a current comes here that would sweep us straight out to sea.” They keep on a while longer and he feathers the oars and hands her the sack and the rope. The fog is so thick that at first she does not see the wall and when she finally does it seems the oldest, weariest thing in the world.

The skiff rises and falls and somewhere inside the city, as though on the far edge of the world, bells toll once. From the catacombs of her mind leak horrors: blind wraiths, the demonic chamberlain on his throne of bones, his lips dark with the blood of children.

“Near the top,” whispers Himerius, “can you see the drainage holes?”

She sees only a towering crumble of brick, encrusted with mussels where the wall rises out of the water, striated with weeds and discolorations, rising higher into the fog as though into infinity.

“Reach one of those and you should be able to crawl through.”

“And then?”

In the dark his enormous eyeballs seem almost to glow.

“Fill the sack and lower it to me.”

Himerius holds the bow as close as he can to the wall; Anna gazes upward and trembles.

“It's a good rope,” he says, as though the quality of the rope were her objection. A single bat flies a figure eight over the skiff and departs. If not for her, Maria's vision would be clear. Maria could be Widow Theodora's most skilled embroideress; God would smile on her. It is Anna who cannot sit still, who cannot learn, who has made everything wrong. She watches the dark, glassy water and imagines it closing over her head. And would she not deserve it?

She hangs the rope and sack around her neck and scratches letters across the surface of her mind. A is
is alpha; Β is
is beta.
Ἄστεα are cities; νόον is mind; ἔγνω is learned.
When she stands, the boat wobbles dangerously. By pushing first one oar, then the other, Himerius holds the stern against the base of the wall, the skiff scraping as it falls, shuddering as it rises, and Anna grabs a hank of seaweed growing from a crevice with her right hand, finds a little shelf for her left, swings one foot off the boat, and brings her body to the wall, and the skiff falls away beneath her.

She clings to the brick as Himerius backs the skiff away. All that remains below her feet is black water flowing Saint Koralia knows how deep and Saint Koralia knows how cold and alive with Saint Koralia knows what terrors. The only way is up.

Masons and time have left the butt ends of bricks sticking out here and there, so finding holds isn't difficult, and despite the fear, the rhythm of climbing soon absorbs her. One handhold, two, one toehold, two; before long, the fog erases Himerius and the water below and she climbs as if ascending a ladder into the clouds. Too little fear and you don't pay enough attention; too much and you freeze. Reach, cling, push, ascend, reach. No room in the mind for anything else.

Rope and sack around her neck, Anna rises through a stratigraphy of rotting brick, from the first emperor to the last, and soon the holes Himerius spoke of are upon her: a series of ornamented scuppers shaped like the heads of lions, each as big as she is. She manages to pull herself up and through the open mouth of one. As soon as she has weight beneath her knees, she twists her shoulders, and crawls through a cradle of muck.

Damp and streaked with mud, she lowers herself into what, centuries ago, might have been a refectory. Somewhere ahead rats scrabble in the dark.

Stop. Listen. Much of the timbered ceiling has caved in, and in the fog-scattered moonlight she can see a debris-littered table as long as Kalaphates's workshop running through the center of the room with a garden of ferns growing on top. A rain-ruined tapestry hangs on one wall; when she touches the hem, invisible things behind it go flapping deeper into the shadows. On the wall her fingers find an iron bracket, perhaps for a torch, badly rusted. Could this be worth something? Himerius had conjured visions of forgotten treasures—she imagined the palace of brave Alcinous—but this is hardly a treasury; everything has been corroded by weather and time; it is an empire of rats, and whatever chamberlain once watched over this place must be three hundred years dead.

BOOK: Cloud Cuckoo Land
11.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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