Rumo and his miraculous.., p.20
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.20

           Walter Moers
 

  He would not have believed it possible, but the next double period was even more of an ordeal: Harra of Midgard taught them chess. The apparent object of this board game played with wooden pieces was to bore your opponent to death. Rumo’s classmates spent the whole time sitting mutely over the checkered boards he’d seen so often. Someone would very occasionally move a piece across the board, then relapse into brooding silence. Meanwhile, the teacher unashamedly dozed. The only form of diversion occurred when someone said ‘Check!’ or ‘Checkmate!’.

  Rumo wasn’t made to play, so he had plenty of time to reflect that there seemed to be some subjects he approved of (heroic sagas, dental hygiene), some that left him cold (chess) and some he didn’t like at all (mathematics). His first day at school hadn’t featured a single subject that aroused his enthusiasm.

  Wolpertingesses

  Rumo emerged from school that afternoon to find Urs waiting outside with a paper bag full of pastries.

  ‘Well,’ he asked with his mouth full, ‘how did it go?’ He proffered the bag.

  Rumo shook his head. ‘No thanks. Fine. I had my first fight.’

  ‘Well done. Who with?’

  ‘Someone called Rolv.’

  ‘Rolv, of all people? Congratulations, you picked on the best fighter in Wolperting. Was it bad?’

  ‘It was a draw.’

  ‘A draw? Against Rolv?’ Urs whistled admiringly.

  ‘I was hoping to do better.’

  They walked on in silence for a while, Urs cramming one pastry after another into his mouth. ‘And in other respects? How was school?’

  Rumo pulled a face. ‘Well …’

  ‘Nearly everyone feels like that. Only idiots take to school the first day, but you get used to it.’

  ‘I certainly won’t. What gets me most of all is the other Wolpertings.’

  ‘The other Wolpertings? What do you mean?’

  Unobtrusively, with the tip of his nose, Rumo indicated the opposite side of the street, where Rala was standing in the midst of a group of giggling classmates.

  ‘Them? The girls, you mean?’

  ‘Those are girls?’

  ‘Sure they are. The one with the long hair is Rala. A regular knockout.’

  ‘Rala,’ murmured Rumo.

  Urs looked at him pityingly. ‘I can’t believe it. You honestly don’t know what girls are?’

  Rumo didn’t know why, but he found the question embarrassing.

  ‘They aren’t Wolpertings, strictly speaking. They’re Wolpertingesses.’

  ‘Esses?’

  ‘Well, I’ll be …’ said Urs. ‘You really don’t have a clue, do you?’ He laid a paw on Rumo’s shoulder and looked deep into his eyes. He lowered his voice. ‘My poor friend,’ he said, ‘I think it’s high time I told you a bit about girls …’

  The miracle of life

  Rumo lay on his bed fully dressed, listlessly munching a pastry and reviewing the events of the last few hours. It had been quite a day! His view of the world had been shaken to its foundations more than once. What Urs had told him on the way home was liable to give him a sleepless night.

  It was incredible! There really were two different kinds of Wolpertings: boys and girls. And that was far from all. Just to complete his bewilderment, Urs had told him that there were two kinds of almost every Zamonian life form: two kinds of Hackonians, two kinds of Bluddums, two kinds of this, two kinds of that. Then he’d told him about the miracle of life. Bees somehow did something with flowers and the result was two different kinds of butterflies – or something like that. Girls were very important. They had a scent that drove boys mad: the Silver Thread that lured them to Wolperting. Every girl could emit that scent and every boy wanted to follow it to its source, and nobody knew why this was so.

  Urs also spoke of baby Wolpertings that came from somewhere and were then abandoned in forests, but he either couldn’t or wouldn’t explain that either.

  Rala. Girls. Rolv. The heroic sagas. Nasty little creatures lurking between your teeth. Chess. Arithmetic. The miracle of life … It was definitely too much for Rumo – far too much for one day. He tossed and turned for hours, got up, paced to and fro, lay down again and listened to the voices in the street. Rala, he thought.

  Rala.

  Rala.

  Rala …

  Wolpertingian general knowledge with Harra of Midgard

  When Rumo awoke the next morning it took him a moment to remember where he was. After dreaming wildly for three hours of Rala and the little creatures that lived in his mouth, he had slept until roused by the sounds drifting in through the open window. The whole house was already pervaded by an aroma of freshly brewed coffee. There was a knock, Rumo opened the door, and Urs was standing outside with a coffee pot.

  After breakfast they walked a little way across town before going their separate ways. Urs had to report for work at the communal sausage factory on the western outskirts of Wolperting. Rumo made his way to school alone. He even found – right away – the room where exercise books and pencils were given out. He was also issued with a leather satchel, some books covered with indecipherable words, a toothbrush, a long piece of silk thread, a small pot of dentifrice and an apple. Then he went off to his classroom. Outside the door he hesitated, but only for a moment. He would enter the room, look the other pupils in the eye and take his place. He would sit there and learn things till his backside was sore, if need be. Why? Because he now had a motive for enduring it all.

  That motive was a girl and she even had a name: Rala.

  Rumo opened the door, forged a path through his noisy classmates – and found his seat already taken. Rolv was sitting there. He seemed to have been waiting for him.

  ‘That’s my place,’ said Rumo.

  ‘If it’s yours,’ drawled Rolv, ‘take it.’

  The hubbub died away. All eyes turned in their direction.

  Very deliberately Rumo deposited his satchel on the floor. Surprise tactics wouldn’t work with Rolv, he knew that now. This time it would be a genuine, possibly protracted trial of strength that would go on until one of them gave up.

  ‘That’s my place,’ Rumo repeated quietly. ‘Please get up.’

  Rolv looked at him without flinching. He spat on the floor.

  ‘That’s your place,’ he said, indicating the little blob of spittle at Rumo’s feet. ‘Sit down, why don’t you?’

  Rumo was impressed by Rolv’s imperturbability. His opponent was clearly at a disadvantage. From where he stood, Rumo could have pounced on him with ease.

  ‘Get up, Rolv,’ said a high-pitched voice. ‘Sit down in your own place and leave Rumo alone!’

  Rumo looked round. Rala was standing behind him with a pencil in her long fingers. Her expression was grave. Rolv grinned and got up with ostentatious deliberation, but he didn’t argue. He went back to his place and sat down.

  Just then Harra of Midgard entered the classroom. Rumo and the other pupils sat down too. How had Rala succeeded, with a word or two, in doing what he had failed to achieve with all his strength? What was this power she had over Rolv?

  ‘Wolpertingian general knowledge,’ Harra announced. He took a sponge and wiped the previous day’s lesson off the blackboard, which was actually a sheet of dark-green slate. Then, having rather inexpertly drawn a dog’s head adorned with two small horns, he turned to face the class. Rumo noticed some dried yolk of egg on his knitted waistcoat.

  ‘Have you ever wondered about the origin of those little horns on your heads?’ asked Harra.

  A few of the pupils instinctively felt their horns. Murmurs and puzzled laughter filled the classroom.

  ‘Does any of you have a deer in the family? Or a springbok? Anyone here with a red deer among his ancestors?’

  They all tittered.

  ‘You may laugh, but have you ever seen a dog with horns or a deer with fangs? Why do we Wolpertings carry the genes of so many different life forms? Of predators and their prey? Of wild carnivores and harmless
ruminants? Have you never asked yourself that question?’

  Silence.

  ‘Then I’ll tell you a story. It won’t provide an exhaustive answer to the question, I’m afraid, but it may shed a little light on your darkness. But I should warn you that it’s a horror story. Is anyone here such a sensitive soul that he’d prefer to leave the classroom? Rolv? Rumo?’

  Prince Sangfroid and Princess Daintyhoof

  Everyone tittered except Rolv and Rumo. Word of their scrap in the playground had evidently gone the rounds of the staff room.

  ‘The story is set in the Great Forest, which, as you know, is still a blank space on the map of Zamonia. It’s largely unexplored and guards its secrets well, so I can’t vouch for the scientific accuracy of this version of events.’

  The pupils exchanged amused whispers and settled down to listen. Harra’s stories were clearly very popular. Rumo also listened closely.

  ‘When groans of despair assail your ears at dusk,’ Harra of Midgard began in theatrical tones, ‘when shadowy forms grimace malevolently behind your back and swaths of mist loom up like menacing figures – you know that the Great Forest must be close at hand. Walk on, shivering, for the space of two toad-croaks and one owl-hoot, and you will find yourself on its outskirts, confronted by a dark, forbidding wall of trees whose dead branches form an entanglement high overhead. No one ever penetrates its depths, for everyone knows that they harbour The Hundred-Fingered Moomy, The Ever-Ravenous Omnivore, The Faceless Man, The Wicked Wolf, and The Spiderwitch. Thus the sinister forest remained untrodden for many a long year …’

  Harra perched on the windowsill and surveyed the class.

  ‘One day, however, a young roe deer named Princess Daintyhoof appeared on the scene. She was no stranger to evil life forms, having originally been a human child whom a perfidious Hazelwitch had transformed into a deer and abandoned on the edge of the Great Forest.’

  The girls sighed, the boys grinned. It wouldn’t be long before this deer got into serious difficulties.

  ‘Princess Daintyhoof knew nothing of The Hundred-Fingered Moomy, The Ever-Ravenous Omnivore, The Faceless Man, The Wicked Wolf or The Spiderwitch, so she unsuspectingly ventured into the gloomy forest. It wasn’t long before the forest began to spin a web of dusky shadows around her, because night was falling, so Princess Daintyhoof was relieved to see a dim light shining through the darkness. Having trotted closer, she discovered that the light came from a little cottage in a clearing.’

  Harra got up off the windowsill and went over to the first row of desks. Resting his paws on one of them, he stared fixedly at the class. ‘Little cottages in clearings in the Great Forest are bound to house ill-intentioned creatures, aren’t they?’ The pupils nodded as though mesmerised.

  ‘But Princess Daintyhoof was naturally unaware of that, the innocent little thing, so she timidly knocked on the door.’

  Harra turned and gently tapped one wing of the blackboard, then cautiously folded it back. The hinges creaked like those of a door slowly opening.

  ‘The person who opened the door was not the most loathsome creature the princess had ever seen, or anything like that. No, it was a nice old granny who kindly invited her in. The old lady expressed pleasure at this unexpected visit and offered her guest some delicious stew from a pot simmering on the stove. Princess Daintyhoof declined with thanks because she’d been a vegetarian ever since her transformation, but she gladly accepted a place beside the fire. No problem, said the granny, she could whip up some tasty nut cutlets in no time and she set to work at the stove right away. Daintyhoof warmed herself at the fire, stretched out her weary limbs and watched the soothing flicker of the flames while listening to the old woman’s sing-song voice. She nearly fell asleep.’

  Harra’s voice had sunk to a whisper.

  ‘Nearly, but not quite!’ he bellowed suddenly and everyone gave a start.

  ‘Then, all at once – bang! – the door flew open and a nocturnal storm blew into the house, a violent whirlwind that spun once across the room like a dervish and out again, and when it subsided Princess Daintyhoof was alone. All that remained where the old woman had been standing was a welter of blood, half of it on the floor and half splashed over the stove, and strewn around it were a hundred severed fingers, still twitching, armed with long, vicious-looking nails. And in the saucepan on the stove was a severed head.’

  ‘I get it,’ Rolv said grimly.

  Harra glanced at him suspiciously. ‘For the old woman at the stove wasn’t a hospitable old granny at all, but The Hundred-Fingered Moomy.’

  A murmur ran round the classroom.

  ‘The next day,’ Harra went on, ‘when Princess Daintyhoof continued on her way through the forest she encountered a very, very thin man seated on a rock beneath an oak tree.’ He had lowered his voice again, and his tone was calm and businesslike.

  ‘“I’m an ascetic,” said the thin man, “which means that I eat almost nothing – just a pebble and a pinch of sand every few weeks, to keep my digestive organs occupied. By so doing I hope to attain a state of spiritual enlightenment that far transcends the norm. Would you care to fast with me, pretty child?”

  ‘Princess Daintyhoof didn’t understand a word, but she had no objection to taking a brief rest, so she stretched out on the grass at the thin man’s feet. He proceeded to recite his formulas for fasting – words like tinkling bells, sentences like murmuring streams. Daintyhoof found them so soothing, she almost dozed off.’

  Some of the pupils felt their eyelids begin to droop.

  ‘Almost, but not quite!’ Harra shouted. ‘Because at that moment a wind sprang up. It came roaring through the trees, enveloping Princess Daintyhoof in a cloud of swirling autumn leaves, and when it subsided the thin man and the oak had become one: he was stone dead, wound round the big tree like a rope with every bone in his body broken. When Daintyhoof went behind the tree for a closer look at this grisly spectacle, she came upon a mound of neatly gnawed skulls belonging to all kinds of forest creatures, from foxes to squirrels. There were also many deers’ skulls, for the thin man hadn’t been on a starvation diet at all: he was The Ever-Ravenous Omnivore and he’d very nearly devoured Princess Daintyhoof.’

  Harra paused for effect.

  ‘And so,’ he went on, ‘she continued on her way through the forest until darkness fell once more. Having lost faith in little cottages and big oak trees, she sought shelter in some undergrowth. The night wind whispered in the trees and her heart was heavy, as heavy as her eyelids. And that was how she nearly fell asleep for the third time.’ Harra fell silent.

  ‘Nearly, but not quite!’ he thundered again, so loudly that Rumo almost fell off his chair. ‘Because something was breathing in her ear. Sitting up with a start, she saw a shadowy figure bending over her. It was as cold as ice, she could sense that, and when the moon came out from behind the clouds she saw it was a man without a face. She was very weak by this time – too weak to get to her feet, because he’d been draining the life force from her body. But suddenly a fierce gale blew through the forest and the Faceless Man broke off. He bellowed with fury as the gale tore him away from Princess Daintyhoof and whirled him through the air in a cloud of dancing leaves. When the wind dropped he was lying motionless on the forest floor in a strangely contorted position, as if his spine had been broken.’

  ‘I get it,’ Rumo whispered and Harra of Midgard gave him, too, a suspicious glance.

  Then he counted on his fingers: ‘The Hundred-Fingered Moomy – dead. The Ever-Ravenous Omnivore – dead. The Faceless Man – dead. How many of the Great Forest’s evil creatures does that leave?’

  ‘The Wicked Wolf and The Spiderwitch,’ half the class cried in unison.

  ‘Correct, and one of them was now standing beside the corpse of the Faceless Man, looking at Princess Daintyhoof: a big black wolf that could walk on its hind legs.’

  ‘Ooh!’ said the class.

  Harra put his paws on his hips and adopted a nonchalant pose.


  ‘“Hello,” said the Wicked Wolf.

  ‘“Hello,” Princess Daintyhoof said timidly. “What do you want?”

  ‘“I want to eat you,” said the wolf.

  ‘Princess Daintyhoof wept bitterly at this, whereupon the wolf went down on all fours and came over to her. “Hey,” he said, “don’t cry, only joking, have a sense of humour! I’ve no intention of eating you.” It transpired from the ensuing conversation that he wasn’t a wolf at all, but a human being under a spell. Prince Sangfroid by name, he had fallen in love with Princess Daintyhoof as soon as she entered the Great Forest and had followed her every step of the way so as to shield her from its dangers. He was the wind that had disposed of The Hundred-Fingered Moomy, The Ever-Ravenous Omnivore and The Faceless Man. And, as luck would have it, he had been put under a spell by the very same witch that had transformed Princess Daintyhoof. That sort of thing forms a bond, so she returned his love. Well, to cut a long story short, they went off into the darkest part of the Great Forest and there, er, the miracle of love took place.’

  Rumo and the other boys pricked up their ears.

  ‘Ahem! Not long afterwards,’ Harra went on quickly, ‘Princess Daintyhoof gave birth to a son that was neither a deer nor a wolf, but a wolf cub with two little horns. And that, according to legend, is how the first Wolperting came into being.’

 
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