Rumo and his miraculous.., p.19
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.19

           Walter Moers
 

  The others turned to eye him curiously, whispering together. How was it possible for him to feel so helpless and uneasy in surroundings devoid of any natural enemies or dangers? It would all have been far simpler outside the city gates – more hazardous but simpler. Inside it was safe but complicated. The rules. The duties. The questions. The surnames. The other Wolpertings …

  He itched to dash out into the wilderness, howling, and beat up a few Bluddums.

  Rumo tried to concentrate on the lesson. Harra of Midgard was striding up and down in front of the class, holding forth in a gruff but soothing voice. Now and then he took a piece of chalk and scrawled some indecipherable marks on the blackboard. As far as Rumo could gather, the lesson was about heroes.

  The heroic sagas

  The first proven hero in Zamonian history, Harra of Midgard recounted, was an anonymous, thumb-sized Zamazon whose heroic deed had consisted in climbing aboard a leaf during a hurricane and crashing into the side of a volcano. The volcano had preserved the shattered remains of the Zamazon in a stream of lava, so the palaeontologists who subsequently discovered their imprint were able to describe him in considerable detail. The Zamazon had fulfilled the minimum requirement demanded of a hero in those primeval days: a futile display of suicidal daring.

  In more civilised times a more specific objective was required to transform a mundane action into a heroic act. A quest for some mysterious object rendered mysterious by its sheer mysteriousness, for example, was enough to justify any lethally foolish venture. The warrior knights who had been torn to pieces by Werewolves or crushed to death by rockfalls while seeking The Accursed Towel or The Three Square Balls – all were heroes. Even their names were on record: Looni Botkin, Minko Morella, Thelonius Zilch and Knoth Fryggenbart. In their day dying for some indeterminate reason was one of the fundamental characteristics of heroism.

  At about the same time – Harra of Midgard stressed that this theory was scientifically uncorroborated – there was said to have been an island off the coast of Zamonia, since submerged, on which heroes were systematically bred.

  Legend had it that death was prohibited on this island, the name of which was Hypnos. There were no burials or coffins, no graves or graveyards, no wreaths or urns, no tears or lamentations. Even the word ‘death’ did not officially exist. People did die, of course, whether in accidents or of heart attacks, in which case the authorities were left with a corpse on their hands. However, the body would be promptly removed by the so-called Darkmen of Hypnos, who ferried it far out to sea and weighted it down with heavy stones. If someone fell seriously ill, the doctors would bend over him with grave expressions, smother him with a pillow and have him carted away by the Darkmen. Those who enquired after the patient were informed that he was convalescing abroad and would not be back for some time. If they persisted in asking after him the Darkmen came and disposed of them on the high seas.

  The point was that none of the heroes reared on the island was permitted to know that death existed. Only a hero ignorant of death could be completely fearless. The selected candidates were transported to the island in infancy, suckled and cherished by wet-nurses, educated by sage tutors and trained in every form of combat. Everything conceivable was done to ensure that they led a life of happiness and fulfilment – until they were sent into battle. They sang as they took the field, not because they were courageous but because they had no notion of what fear was. They weren’t exceptionally skilful warriors for that very reason. They were reckless, they declined to wear armour, and they considered it unmanly to take cover. Attack was deemed acceptable, defence cowardly. As a result, they died in droves.

  The next generation of heroes pursued different ideals. In early medieval Zamonia a particularly cautious form of heroism was cultivated. Its practitioners attached great importance to meticulous planning and elaborate security measures. They took account of weather conditions, their own current form and astrological predictions, and would sooner defer some heroic deed than plunge recklessly into the fray. One contemporary example was Peregrine the Procrastinator, who repeatedly postponed a duel with his arch-enemy, the cruel Baron of Baysville, until the latter developed a peptic ulcer that rendered him chronically unfit for combat. Another was Simeon the Circumspect, who did not perform any heroic deeds at all. Instead, he wrote a number of successful but appallingly tedious books on how to perform them – or rather, on the elaborate and protracted preparations they necessitated.

  The heroes of the next period, Harra of Midgard went on, had ceased to be brainless midgets, romantic nincompoops or dithering vacillators. Genuine heroes (or heroines) who fought for just causes, exalted aims or the love of their nearest and dearest, they included Violetta Valentina, who freed her fiancé from the dungeons of mad Prince Oggnagogg; Hiram the Hooligan, who single-handedly put down the Midgardian Turnipheads’ rebellion with a golden axe; and Damon of Dullsgard, who threw himself into the jaws of the Sewer Dragon after swallowing enough sewer-dragon venom to kill a whole army of the beasts. These were historically proven heroes of flesh and blood, not dubious legends or products of mythological conjecture.

  In very recent times, or during the last two hundred years, the heroic spectrum had widened yet again. A hero didn’t necessarily have to be dead, nor was it essential for his heroic deeds to be performed on the field of battle. They could also involve art, music, literature, medicine, or some branch of science.

  Hildegard Mythmaker, that titan among Zamonian novelists, Professor Abdullah Nightingale, the brilliant scientist and inventor, Colophonius Regenschein, the legendary book hunter who disappeared into the catacombs of Betaville, and Utta Raptrap, the originator of silent music – those were the new heroes! The representatives of modern heroism no longer had to wield bloodstained axes; a pen dipped in ink or a conductor’s baton would also suffice in case of doubt.

  With this bold assertion Harra of Midgard brought the lesson to a close. Rumo’s own idea of heroism, shaped by Volzotan Smyke’s anecdotes, was altogether different. He couldn’t, with the best will in the world, conceive of a hero who wielded a violin bow instead of a sword.

  Not that he noticed it, Rumo’s feeling of helplessness and strangeness had subsided. By the time the lesson ended, in fact, he had even grown used to sitting on a chair. A bell rang. He gave a start as if roused from some vivid dream. So that was what lessons were like. They enabled you to dream with your eyes open.

  Vasko, Balla and Olek

  Recreation time. Rumo left the classroom with his head awhirl with all the school rules Harra had explained to him. Exercise books and pencils were to be collected from the administration block; he would be given special tuition in reading, writing and arithmetic; chess and combat techniques were so-called ‘extras’; the timetables were displayed in such and such a place; the heroic sagas were an optional subject; there were no exams or homework. Rumo trailed after the other pupils as they streamed out into the big playground. In the middle was a tent where hot coffee, cocoa and chicken soup were dispensed and apples distributed.

  Rumo was far too excited to feel hungry. He roamed restlessly around the playground. Little groups of chattering, laughing pupils were standing everywhere, most of them divided into Wolpertings of this category and that. Now and then they engaged in mock battles, chasing one another and exchanging volleys of apples.

  In one group of different Wolpertings Rumo spotted Rala. Quickly turning away because he could feel the blood rush to his head, he lurched backwards in search of a tree to hide behind – and tripped. He nearly fell over but recovered his balance just in time. Then he saw that he’d tripped over a foot.

  ‘Oh, sorry,’ Rolv said with a grin, withdrawing it. ‘My mistake.’ He was standing with his back against the tree, flanked by three Wolpertings who weren’t in Rumo’s form. Rolv tossed a shiny green apple into the air and caught it. Then he indicated each of his companions in turn.

  ‘Allow me to make the introductions: Vasko of the Red Forest; Balla of Bet
aville; Olek of the Dunes.’

  The trio inclined their heads. Vasko had white fur and menacing, narrow green eyes like the ice dogs of the north, Balla was a terrier like Rolv but with brown fur, and Olek was of Alsatian stock.

  ‘And this is Rumo of Zamonia,’ said Rolv. ‘The new boy with the grand name.’ He turned to Rumo. ‘Whither away so fast, Your Majesty?’ He grinned. ‘Urgent government business?’

  Rumo felt the blood rush to his head again.

  Rolv’s gang obediently guffawed at their leader’s witticism. Rumo tried feverishly to think of some nonchalant retort, but nothing occurred to him, so he said, ‘We can fight if you like.’

  ‘Huh!’ Vasko and Olek said simultaneously.

  Balla stepped aside, Rolv lowered his voice until it was almost inaudible.

  ‘You’re quick off the mark. Can you fight? How good are your reflexes, Rumo of Zamonia?’

  Rumo was surprised by the speed at which the apple came hurtling towards him – faster even than the bolts from Kromek Toomah’s crossbow. Rolv seemed hardly to move despite the immense strength he must have exerted, but Rumo still had time to plot the apple’s trajectory and coordinate his reactions. He waited until it had nearly reached him, averted his head a fraction to let it sail past – then, quick as a flash, sank his teeth in it. He grinned at Rolv with the apple in his mouth, then threw back his head and tossed it into the air. One gulp and it disappeared down his throat. He licked his lips.

  ‘Phew!’ Olek exclaimed. ‘He’s fast!’

  Rolv blinked nervously. The new boy certainly was fast, but he took care to conceal his astonishment. Still in a low, calm voice, he said, ‘Sure, that’s how wild boar piglets react in the bush. They bolt their food quicker than the eye can see.’

  ‘That’s enough,’ thought Rumo. ‘He’s positively asking for it.’

  He now felt almost sorry for Rolv. What came next would happen so fast that they would all believe he was a magician. He didn’t intend to hurt the bully too much, just humiliate him by dumping him on his backside before he knew what had hit him. He lunged at lightning speed.

  When Rolv saw his opponent coming for him the White Fire blazed up briefly in his mind’s eye. Having learnt not to let it get the better of him, however, he promptly suppressed it.

  Rolv’s story

  Rolv’s wild parents had abandoned him and his twin sister in the Great Forest, where they were captured by a hunter. The latter had sold them to someone who called himself a farmer but wasn’t one. The Bluddum who acquired the puppies for two bottles of home-distilled hooch was really a bandit who dealt in watered-down spirits and disguised his activities by keeping a wretched farm that boasted only three animals: an emaciated pig, an emaciated cow and an emaciated sheep. Rolv was to be his watchdog. Niddugg by name, the Bluddum knew nothing about Wolpertings – he was so drunk he barely noticed their little horns – and mistook the pair for wild dogs of some kind. To instil some respect in his new watchdog he resorted to a drastic expedient: he chained Rolv up and made him watch while he slowly and deliberately beat his sister to death. Then he dragged her body into the forest as a sacrifice to the deity he believed in: the Wild Bear God.

  Niddugg put Rolv on a strict diet (too much food only made an animal dozy and inattentive), kept him shut up in a slatted wooden cage that let in the rain and, sometimes, snow (great aids to remaining alert), and gave him a daily thrashing with his leather belt. Invariably blind drunk, he used to beat the puppy until one of them passed out.

  When Rolv reached adolescence, Niddugg was at first surprised and then pleased by the thought of owning such a fast-growing beast, which seemed to become a little more dangerous every day. He was also rather perturbed, however, so he chained Rolv up in the barn. The advantage of this was that Rolv was protected from the elements, the disadvantage that Niddugg now came to beat him in any kind of weather.

  Rolv tested his growing teeth on the wooden beam to which his chain was attached. He bit and gnawed and chewed away without a thought of escape, so he was very surprised one day when the staple came away from the gnawed beam and fell into the straw. He still had a chain round his neck, but he was free.

  Rolv had never yet harmed a living creature; until now he had merely resigned himself to his fate. His undernourished body was covered with cuts and scars. He even had a notch in his ear where Niddugg’s belt buckle had dealt him a particularly painful blow, inflicting a wound that bled and suppurated for weeks. Rolv was in two minds. He could have run off into the forest, but he didn’t. He could have slunk into the house and attacked Niddugg from behind, but he didn’t do that either. He simply lay down in the barn and awaited the usual course of events. At dusk the barn door burst open and Niddugg blundered in with the belt in his fist.

  That was when Rolv first saw the White Fire. A dazzling white sheet of flame blazed up before his eyes and he genuinely thought the barn had caught fire. Then the blaze subsided and all was still. Niddugg had disappeared. Rolv thought at first that he’d run back into the farmhouse or off into the surrounding woods, but then he saw that Niddugg was still in the barn. One of the bandit’s arms was lying on the ground, the bales of hay and wooden walls were spattered with his blood, and his head had been stuck on a fence post. His legs and his other arm lay scattered around. Looking down at himself, Rolv saw that he was smothered in blood. He and Niddugg had passed through the White Fire together. Rolv had often seen the White Fire since then, and always when he was feeling seriously threatened. It was only in Wolperting that he’d learnt to control the dangerous forces it unleashed – as, for instance, when Rumo charged at him.

  Ushan DeLucca

  Rumo sprang at Rolv like lightning, but the operation was carefully planned. He knew precisely what would happen: Rolv’s movements would appear to slow down. He would dart past his opponent, trip him up and send him sprawling on his bottom by driving an elbow into his ribs. Rolv and his pals would be transfixed – shocked by the speed of his attack.

  But something else happened. Something Rumo found almost as disconcerting as what had happened when he entered the classroom: Rolv’s movements didn’t become slower.

  They speeded up.

  Yes, Rolv moved just as swiftly as he did. He stepped aside and Rumo blundered forward into thin air. Before he knew it Rolv had seized him by the throat from behind and thrown him to the ground.

  Rumo had never yet encountered a living creature as quick as himself. The Demonocles had been stronger than him, the Bluddums better armed, the Stranglesnakes more agile. His main asset was speed. Rumo now learnt to his cost that this was every Wolperting’s main asset. What had been sensational outside the gates of the city was taken for granted in the schoolyard.

  The result was that Rolv didn’t end up on his bottom and the two of them went rolling across the ground.

  What looked like a confused tangle of growling, snarling Wolpertings was really a precise sequence of combat tactics. Rolv countered Rumo’s every kick and hold with one of his own, and every attack Rolv launched met with an appropriate response. Although they instinctively refrained from using their teeth, there was clearly more at stake than in an ordinary playground scrap. A knot of spectators gathered round the antagonists. They had seldom seen such a serious fight so doggedly contested by both parties.

  Suddenly Rumo felt his neck seized by a powerful paw that didn’t belong to Rolv. Abruptly hauled to his feet, he saw his opponent, as grimy and breathless as himself, standing there likewise gripped by the neck. Then he looked up into the saddest Wolpertingian face he’d ever seen. The paws and the face belonged to Ushan DeLucca, the school’s legendary fencing master, who was on duty that day. He released the pair and stood looking down at them.

  ‘What is all this uncivilised conduct?’ he demanded quietly. ‘You’re behaving like mongrels, the two of you.’

  The thing that first struck one about Ushan DeLucca was his curiously melancholy cast of feature. His entire face seemed abnormally subject to the
force of gravity, which exerted a downwards pull on the corners of his mouth, the furrows in his brow and the bags under his eyes. He spoke in a low, deliberate voice. ‘And who might you be?’

  ‘Rumo. Rumo of Zamonia.’

  ‘A new boy, eh? Rumo of Zamonia? Sounds like the professional name of a megalomaniac card-sharp.’

  Rolv laughed.

  ‘You ought to know better, Rolv. You’ve been here long enough to know I don’t tolerate fighting outside class.’

  ‘He started it,’ said Rolv.

  ‘I’m sure you found a way to make him do so.’ DeLucca pointed to the school building. ‘Clean yourselves up and keep out of each other’s way in future. If I catch you fighting again you’ll clean the school toilets for a week.’

  Rolv and Rumo slouched off in different directions, doubly humiliated by their failure to win and the teacher’s dressing-down. The other pupils stared at Rumo as he patted the dust off his fur and slunk inside.

  Dental hygiene, maths and chess

  The lessons after break seemed interminable. Tasso of Florinth, a Dalmatian with a perfect set of teeth, lectured them on dental hygiene and demonstrated how to clean the narrow gaps between their teeth with silken thread. He stressed the importance of dental care in general and for Wolpertings in particular.

  ‘The teeth,’ he kept repeating, ‘are a Wolperting’s most important tool. Looking after them is our prime duty. Our direst foes are not large wild beasts but tiny little creatures that make themselves at home in the gaps between our teeth. We have to wage a daily battle against them!’ Then he drew a cross section of a typical Wolperting’s tooth on the blackboard and explained how the diminutive creatures insinuated themselves between gum and tooth and did their diabolical work there.

  Rumo had no difficulty in following the lesson as long as he didn’t look in Rolv’s direction. That wasn’t so easy – recent events had left him too worked up – but his agitation gave way to mounting boredom as the hours went by. Next, Tasso of Florinth took the class for mathematics, a subject to which Rumo developed an instant aversion. He was not asked to take an active part in this lesson because the others were at a more advanced stage, so he was put to learning elementary maths with a group of beginners, but he had to sit there quietly while the teacher reeled off a soporific series of figures. Tasso also wrote some incomprehensible equations on the blackboard. With the aid of those, he grandly asserted, one could calculate the dimensions of the entire universe – something Rumo had absolutely no wish to do.

 

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