Rumo and his miraculous.., p.21
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.21

           Walter Moers
 

  Harra clasped his hands together and assumed a sorrowful expression.

  ‘And because this is a Zamonian legend, and Zamonian legends must always end in disaster, here’s its tragic conclusion. One day, Princess Daintyhoof and Prince Sangfroid got caught in the evil Spiderwitch’s web and were, well, sucked dry before their little son’s very eyes. All they left behind was a lonely orphan.’

  Harra gave a final ‘Ahem!’ and fell silent.

  Some of the girls were sobbing. The boys grinned and nudged each other to show how hard-boiled they were.

  ‘Well, that was a legend,’ said Harra, ‘but like most legends it contains a germ of truth. For instance, The Faceless Man is probably a mythical forerunner of the creatures we call Lunawraiths. As for The Spiderwitch—’

  ‘What was that about the miracle of love?’ Rumo broke in. He was more surprised than anyone that he had dared to ask the question out loud.

  Harra stared at Rumo. The whole class stared at him too. Rumo stared at Harra.

  ‘Er …’ said Harra.

  Someone dropped a pencil. The school bell rang.

  ‘Ah, there’s the bell!’ cried Harra. ‘Well, that’s it for today. Time for break! Off you go! Hurry, hurry, hurry!’

  Harra of Midgard had never ended a lesson so abruptly. Rala turned and gave Rumo a long, enigmatic look. Harra bustled out of the classroom and the others streamed after him.

  Rumo sensed that he’d made another blunder, but he had no idea what it was. He didn’t feel like the playground and decided to stay put until the next lesson.

  ‘What’s the next lesson?’ he asked a boy who was just leaving.

  ‘Fencing,’ he was told. ‘Fencing with Ushan DeLucca.’

  Rumo was electrified. Fencing! Fighting with lethal weapons at last! But he didn’t have any weapons. Were they issued with them before the lesson?

  Oga of Dullsgard

  ‘Rumo of Zamonia?’ A plump little schoolmistress with the face of a bulldog was standing in the doorway. ‘Is that you?’

  Rumo stood up.

  ‘Come with me!’ she barked.

  ‘My name is Oga of Dullsgard,’ she went on as she towed Rumo along the corridor. ‘You share your name with a card game, did you realise that?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Rumo. ‘Where are we going?’

  ‘I shall be teaching you to read and write.’

  ‘But I’ve got fencing next.’

  ‘The others have. You’ve got reading.’

  She conducted him along the corridor and down into the basement of the school building, past discarded classroom furniture and stacks of yellowing, dog-eared school books. Their trek ended in a small, ill-lit room where three other pupils were waiting. Rumo sat down with a sigh. One thing was certain: there was no escaping from this cellar, not even visually, because it had no windows through which to gaze. It was dimly illuminated by some big, flickering candles.

  The teacher spent the next few seemingly interminable hours holding up cards that depicted simple objects and creatures – a teapot, a wheel, a cat, a duck, a hat, a mouse – and writing the relevant words on a blackboard for the class to copy in their exercise books. This she did with relentless persistence, picture after picture and word after word for hour after hour, over and over again, until Rumo and his fellow prisoners could have written the words in their sleep.

  Oga concluded the lesson by informing her pupils that they would not be permitted to undergo any combat training until they had mastered at least the rudiments of reading and writing. She stifled their protests by stating that this was the rule, and she made no secret of the fact that it had been instituted to encourage them to learn the Zamonian alphabet all the quicker.

  ‘A donkey,’ she said, ‘trots faster if you dangle a carrot in front of its nose.’

  When Rumo emerged from school that afternoon it took him some time to become accustomed to the dazzling glare of the setting sun. Urs was waiting for him with a string of fresh sausages round his neck.

  ‘Been down in the dungeon, have you?’ He grinned. ‘They teach reading and writing in that gloomy hole to persuade you to learn quicker. It really works. You’re so anxious to get out of there as soon as possible, you beaver away like mad. I learnt to read and write in six weeks flat.’

  ‘Six weeks! You call that quick?’

  ‘If you flunk the exam it could take twelve. Like a sausage?’

  The dungeon

  Rumo spent most of the time in isolation for the next few weeks, cooped up in the ‘dungeon’ with Oga of Dullsgard and his three fellow victims. Now and then he was permitted to attend a lesson on dental hygiene or listen to a lecture on Wolpertingian general knowledge, but whenever his classmates trooped off en masse to fencing lessons he was shut up in the cellar, being forced to memorise the signs for soap, ball, tree, or oven.

  The words they learnt to spell became longer every day, and soon they could dispense with pictures on cards. Rumo found it interesting that you could capture objects on a sheet of paper by writing down the letters that spelt them. Pretending you were hunting them made learning easier. He sat there, imprisoned in a gloomy dungeon, but in his imagination he was out on the sunlit prairie, spearing wild words with his pencil.

  What really irked him was being separated from Rala while Ushan DeLucca might well be teaching her and Rolv and the others how to slice an opponent in half with a sabre.

  The evenings he spent laboriously copying out the Zamonian alphabet at home in his room, because he had vowed to pass the exam at the first attempt and embark on combat training as soon as possible. At night he dreamt of letters and Rala.

  Civic duties

  Although Rumo regarded the school building as a battleground characterised by spiteful enemies (Rolv), imponderable dangers (Rala), interminable torments (chess), humiliating captivity (the cellar) and cruel persecution (mathematics), the rest of Wolperting was a place where he could give free rein to his inclinations and aptitudes. He scored some notable triumphs where his civic duties were concerned, largely because of his manual dexterity. Hand Rumo a mason’s trowel and he would erect a stout brick wall within hours. Give him a shovel and he would single-handedly excavate the foundations of an entire building. To his own surprise he found he could do almost anything at the first attempt – as long as it involved physical or manual labour. It took him only a few weeks to master the rudiments of the potter’s craft; a blacksmith taught him to fashion wrought iron and shoe horses; he could make bricks and dig wells. He welcomed any form of physical exercise in the belief that it would hone his body and reflexes in preparation for combat training. Every activity improved his stamina and exercised a different set of muscles and sinews. His paws were strengthened by working at the potter’s wheel, his legs by running errands, his arms by laying bricks, his shoulders by hammering horseshoes, his back by shovelling earth. Labouring at a hot stove inured him to pain and fishing in the fast-flowing waters of the Wolper speeded his reactions.

  Ornt El Okro’s workshop

  One afternoon, when Rumo walked into a cabinetmaker’s workshop to deliver a baulk of timber for Zaruso the timber merchant, he was overwhelmed by a multitude of sensory impressions. Most Wolpertings would have found them uninteresting or even unpleasant, but to Rumo’s ears the scream of the foot-operated circular saw was like music. As for the smell of wood glue and varnish, it seemed as delicious to his nose as the aroma of a Sunday joint. He surveyed his surroundings, sniffing delightedly. Reflected by the wood dust in the air, the sunlight slanting down through the workshop’s little windows seemed to bathe every tool in a magical glow. Standing in the middle of the room were two big black benches strewn with wood shavings. On them lay various planes, a gouge, some keyhole saws and a mitre box. Each bench had a massive vice bolted to it.

  Rumo unloaded the baulk of timber and went over to one of the benches. Ignoring the cabinetmaker, who was mechanically cutting up a plank on the pedal-operated sawbench, he took an offcut from the floor
, clamped it between two pegs and proceeded to plane it.

  Ornt El Okro, the cabinetmaker, removed his foot from the pedal and turned to look. A young Wolperting was standing at one of his benches, planing away at an offcut. This was not only odd, it was outrageous! He alone was entitled to train apprentice cabinetmakers and he alone decided who those apprentices should be. And if someone was an apprentice of his, he alone decided what that someone should do.

  Ornt suspected that his neighbours had sent this young stranger to his workshop as a practical joke. He went to the door and peered out, but there was no one in sight. When he turned back again the impudent youngster had gone over to his lathe and was turning a chair leg.

  Instead of giving Rumo a piece of his mind and throwing him out of the workshop right away, as he had intended to, Ornt leant against a beam and watched him. He had never seen anyone turn a chair leg so fast. Rumo removed the leg from the lathe, weighed it experimentally in his paws, laid it aside and started to turn another.

  Ornt lit his pipe.

  After producing four chair legs – in the time it would have taken Ornt himself to complete one – Rumo took a largish slab of wood from a shelf and proceeded to fashion a seat in the same incredibly swift, craftsmanlike manner. Next, he constructed the back of the chair from three turned spindles and one spoke-shaved crosspiece. Having briefly sniffed twenty pots of glue, he unerringly selected the one Ornt himself would have chosen. He drilled three holes in the seat and crosspiece, glued the spindles into them, secured them with screws and smoothed the edges with sandpaper.

  Rumo deposited the chair in the middle of the workshop and sat down on it. It emitted a last little groan as the screws, timber and glue adapted themselves to their new environment. Not until then did Rumo look at Ornt El Okro – vaguely, as if awaking from a pleasant dream.

  ‘I’d like to be a cabinetmaker,’ he said.

  ‘You already are one,’ said Ornt.

  As soon as the four prisoners in the dungeon could read whole sentences, spell the words of which they were composed and write them down, their instruction in reading and writing was reduced to two hours a day and they were permitted to attend ordinary lessons more often.

  Rumo enjoyed being back in Rala’s immediate vicinity, and his ability to read and write lent lessons a different character. He was not only capable of deciphering what teachers wrote on the blackboard but could even jot down the occasional note.

  However, it riled him to see the increasingly blatant way in which Rolv sought Rala’s company. What was more, Rala didn’t object! Rolv was forever dancing attendance on her during break. He shamelessly showed off in front of her, scuffling with his classmates, and once he even gave her an apple – which, to Rumo’s horror, she actually accepted. He himself would never have taken such a liberty; in fact, he still hadn’t exchanged a word with her. The most audacious thing he’d done in this respect was to write their names side by side on a slip of paper, but he’d torn it into little pieces immediately afterwards.

  Heroes

  Although he still wasn’t permitted to take part in combat training, Rumo now went to school as a matter of course because he’d grasped that he couldn’t have one thing without the other. Chess lessons he found a torment, being the diametrical opposite of what came naturally to him. Whenever an opponent had manoeuvred him into a hopeless position during a lesson – something that happened all the time – he yearned to pick up the board and hit him over the head with it. However, it was one of the fundamental rules of chess that you didn’t do such a thing.

  Worse still, Rala was the school’s leading exponent of the game. She was every bit a match for the teachers and could play several classmates at once – sometimes as many as ten of them. Worst of all, the only person who seemed more or less a match for her was Rolv! She fought endless duels with him, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Rumo envied Rolv all the time he spent so close to her.

  Mathematics was little better. It wasn’t that Rumo couldn’t do maths; he didn’t want to. Everything within him balked at adding, subtracting or dividing abstract figures. Words he liked – he could fill them with images or sensations and they helped him in everyday life – whereas numbers only confused him. Maths was like trying to clasp smoke with your paws or munch a scent. Maths was for bores, for budding accountants and bank managers. Sure enough, the biggest bores in his class were the best at figures. Even during break they would stand there cracking the mathematical brain-teasers they’d begged the teacher to set them. Rumo spent maths lessons gazing out of the window and hoping that the teacher wouldn’t summon him to the blackboard. This the teacher eventually ceased to do because Rumo seemed such a hopeless case that time spent on him was time wasted.

  The heroic sagas, on the other hand, were a subject after Rumo’s own heart. He happily memorised the heroes’ and heroines’ resounding names and deeds: Kondor the Bold, who had strangled the three child-eating bears of Paw Island; Dogmo the Doughty who, at the age of 190, had repaired a breach in the Muchwater Dam by plugging it with his own body; or Andromeda Crystal, who became a frozen memorial to her own self-sacrifice by pouring water over herself during a blizzard on the shores of Shivering Sound, thereby forming a windbreak that shielded her children from the icy wind.

  However, his lessons on the heroic sagas made Rumo painfully aware of something: heroes were always of another species. The occupants of Lindworm Castle, who had repelled the Darkmen, the Diabolical Death’s Heads and the Copper Killers; the Princesses of Grailsund, who had defended their city against the Mistwitches; or Okin the Mighty, who – singing as he did so, be it noted – plunged to his death complete with the bridge over Wotan’s Cleft to prevent the Vampire Army from crossing it – almost every Zamonian life form had its heroes. But not the Wolpertings. No Wolperting had ever been a hero. Not a single, solitary one!

  Not even Hoth. True, he enjoyed universal popularity, but all he’d done was enter a deserted city. That didn’t make him a hero. Wolperting had never been besieged. The city had never sustained a catastrophic natural disaster, never been ravaged by fire or attacked by an army of demons on which its inhabitants could have tested their capacity for heroism. It was as if danger steered clear of the city, deterred by the Wolpertings’ reputation and warlike appearance. Rumo felt sure he had the makings of a hero. His prowess on Roaming Rock was certainly cut from the cloth of which lessons on the heroic sagas were tailored, but there was no one around to sing his praises. Smyke was far away. Some of the Hackonians might possibly be recounting his heroic deeds to their children, but there was no guarantee that they were even pronouncing his name correctly. For all anyone knew or cared, they might be calling him Moru or Urmo. No, there were no two ways about it: Rumo had had his chance to be a hero – and he’d blown it. As for encountering perilous adventures within these city walls, he had as much prospect of that as of beating Rala at chess.

  The Black Dome

  Harra of Midgard’s lessons on Wolpertingian general knowledge were a peculiar mishmash of biology, history and etiquette, of rules, facts and legends, of practical information and absurd speculation – a kind of stew made up of scraps from every branch of knowledge that had failed to qualify as a subject in its own right. They might be devoted to the olfactory perception of danger, or the system of civic duties, or the hygienic importance of Wolperting’s public conveniences, or the dangers of trying to swim – Harra’s pupils never knew what awaited them in one of his general knowledge lessons. This time his subject was the Black Dome.

  ‘The Black Dome,’ he pontificated, ‘was here before we existed, is here with us now, and will still be here long after we have ceased to exist.’

  He left the form to chew on this enigma for a few moments before continuing.

  ‘There’s a theory that the dome is really a sphere composed of some non-Zamonian metal from outer space. Indeed, there are some who believe that it’s a meteor half buried in the ground, and that the city was erected around it a
long time ago. What supports this theory is that no one has ever discovered what material it consists of.’

  He wrote ‘(1) Meteor Theory’ on the blackboard.

  ‘Another theory is that the unknown builders of Wolperting constructed the Black Dome last of all, using some material that no longer exists. Stupidly, they built the dome from the outside in and forgot to leave a door, thereby entombing themselves and dying a miserable death from lack of oxygen. If this theory is correct, there’s a building in the middle of our city full of skeletons.’

  He wrote ‘(2) Tomb Theory’ on the blackboard.

  ‘A third theory claims that the dome neither fell from the sky nor was artificially constructed, but is an organic growth: a stone plant, a metal mushroom, possibly a boil emanating from the centre of the earth. If the last alternative is correct I wouldn’t like to be here when the boil bursts.’

  Everyone laughed and Harra wrote ‘(3) Boil Theory’ on the blackboard.

  ‘What all these theories really imply – and I could quote you several dozen more – is that there’s no rational explanation for the Black Dome’s existence. My own very personal theory is this: whether it existed before Wolperting was built or was erected by the builders of the city themselves, the Black Dome seems to me to be a sculpture symbolic of the Great Unknown – a gigantic question mark designed to remind us all that, for as long as we live, one task will never be completed. The one performed in here.’

  Harra tapped his skull with his knuckles.

  ‘I know it won’t appeal to you, the notion of a never-ending task, but you must reconcile yourselves to the idea that brainwork and the thirst for knowledge, the desire to solve riddles, will never cease.’

 
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