The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.3Walter Moers
Even my scales were falling off! Indeed, the start of my journey had coincided with one of my periodic moulting seasons. Green hitherto, my coat of scales was bidding me farewell and being replaced by one of reddish hue. After the yellowish integument of my child hood and the greenish one of my youth and early adulthood, this was a colour appropriate to my present maturity: a positively majestic red. My new scales glittered nobly in the sunlight. When moulting was complete I would be able to dispense with skin cream for a considerable time; my new skin would gleam like polished armour. The old scales were trickling from under my clothes, only a few at first, but I knew from experience that they would soon fall off in veritable showers. Watching a Lindworm moult isn’t a particularly pleasant sight, but Lindworms themselves find it a thoroughly enjoyable process. It itches a little, but in an agreeable way. It’s like scratching the scab off a healed wound – all over one’s body. I took this as a favourable indication of my body’s consent to this journey. ‘A moulting Lindworm is a healthy Lindworm,’ as my godfather Dancelot used to say. In the immediate future I would be leaving a trail like a fir tree shedding its needles on the move.1
I lay down to sleep in a cool birchwood. It was only with some difficulty that I managed to kindle a small campfire, although it had once been one of the easiest procedures undertaken by an experienced rambler like myself. This was the only precaution I took against wild animals. I had packed all manner of things, but no means of self-defence. The most dangerous weapon I had with me was a little clasp-knife. If some beast had emerged from the darkness, the most I could have done was menace it with a pair of tweezers or offer it some cough mixture.
Why wasn’t I afraid? I was probably just too tired to feel frightened as well. It was ages since I had taken so much healthy exercise in a single day. I rested my head on my rucksack and eyed the shadows dancing among the trees. My improvised pillow was a trifle hard because of the Bloody Book it contained, but I forbore to take it out.
Witches always lurk among birch trees.
That was one of the three mysterious sentences which I’d read in the baneful tome and which kept popping into my head at the most inappropriate moments.
The shadow you cast is not your own.
That was the second.
When you shut your eyes, the Others come.
Thus ran the third.
I had opened The Bloody Book on only three occasions and each of these three sentences had etched itself permanently into my memory, but strangely enough, here in these unfamiliar, unprotected and assuredly not undangerous surroundings, they failed to truly frighten me for the first time ever. My enforced companionship with The Bloody Book had always made me feel as if I were living with a vicious, dangerous beast that might at any moment pounce on me and tear me limb from limb.
But I was now, in a sense, returning it to the wild in order to release it. That was why it no longer frightened me. Taking a wholemeal biscuit from my rucksack, I consumed it with rapt concentration. I intended to watch my diet from now on and restrict it to what my body really needed. The memories of the croissant incident still chilled me to the marrow.
A cool breeze was blowing through the birchwood. A polyphonous whisper of fallen leaves arose and my campfire blazed up anew. The wind ruffled the treetops overhead like a child impatiently turning the pages of a big book with no pictures in it. I was reminded of the Shadow King’s rustling laughter and of the childish delight in his shining eyes as he went to his fiery death. Since then, there hadn’t been a day when I’d failed to think of him at least once, and while writing I’d often felt that he was guiding my paw.
PS The Shadow King has returned.
‘Impossible,’ I thought drowsily. ‘How can someone return who has never left?’
Then I fell asleep.
In the middle of the night I woke up. The fire had almost gone out. Its embers were casting only a faint glow over my sleeping place. I listened. What had woken me?
The leaves were still rustling. Strangely, though, the wind seemed to have dropped completely. I sat up in alarm. No, it wasn’t the rustle of the leaves, it was a voice! A whispering voice belonging to a living creature. I was thoroughly awake in an instant.
I peered into the darkness, trying to discern something in the dim light. My eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom agonisingly slowly. I made out some slender tree trunks, a tracery of branches and foliage – and then something that seemed to send ice water coursing through my veins. Standing between two birch trees was a figure.
Witches always lurk among birch trees, I thought.
No, that was no tree! It was a living, breathing being. Tall, thin, and almost imperceptibly swaying to and fro like the body of a huge serpent, it was whispering softly and unintelligibly.
Should I advertise my presence in a loud, self-confident voice, or keep quite still so as not to attract attention? Was it a wild beast or a rational being? A traveller like me? A werewolf? Something quite else? Was it aggressive, or even more frightened than I? Before I could think those questions over sufficiently, I found I could suddenly understand every word the faint voice was saying:
A place accurséd and forlorn
with walls of books piled high,
its windows stare like sightless eyes
and through them phantoms fly.
I knew those verses. I even knew the place they referred to, for I had been there in person. Tears sprang to my eyes. I wanted to jump to my feet and run off, but I couldn’t move a muscle, I was so utterly paralysed. Through a veil of tears I dimly saw the figure leave the trees and slowly, silently glide towards me as if it needed no legs to propel it along.
Of leather and of paper built,
worm-eaten through and through,
the castle known as Shadowhall
brings every nightmare true.
The whisper was close beside my ear now and the fearsome shadow was obscuring my view so completely that all I could see was darkness. Out of this terrible, dark void came a smell at once familiar and long forgotten, a sudden smell of ancient books … It was as if I’d opened the door of an antiquarian bookshop and blown the detritus from millions of mouldering volumes straight into my face.
Only two things in my life hitherto had ever smelt like that: the unmistakable perfume of the City of Dreaming Books, the eternal aroma of Bookholm; and the terrifying exhalations of the Shadow King.
PS The Shadow King has returned.
I may not have screamed because of that alone, because it wouldn’t have changed a thing. It was because a wet, glutinous tongue was touching my face and roaming over my lips and nostrils. I woke up with a start.
Dawn was already breaking and the fire had gone out. Standing over me on its slender legs and licking the biscuit crumbs off my face was a snow-white deer. When I sat up it flinched away, gazed at me with wide, reproachful eyes and disappeared among the birch trees with a few graceful, zigzag bounds. I rose from my sleeping place with a groan and shook the drops of dew off my cloak. Dreams like that, dear friends, are due penance for using The Bloody Book as a pillow!
1 Scaly Lindworms: the species to which Optimus Yarnspinner belongs – moult up to seven times during their lifetime, growing scales of a different colour on each occasion. There exists a special branch of Zamonian literary criticism (dermatological Lindworm etymology), which divides the literary works of these denizens of Lindworm Castle into different periods according to the colour of their scales. If one adheres to this – not uncontroversial – form of categorisation, this marks the beginning of Yarnspinner’s Purple Period. See Exegidior Fammstrudel’s The Purple Journey; Yarnspinner’s Third Moult and Its Influence on His Biographical Work. (Tr.)
The New City
IT WASN’T UNTIL shortly afterwards, when I left the birchwood and emerged into the open, that I saw I’d been sleeping on a hillside overlooking a grassy plain. The clear air afforded a thrillingly panoramic view of a green sea composed of pointed blades of grass waving in
I could already smell the city. Of course, that was the smell that had occasioned my nightmare! The incessant wind had carried it across the plain and up into the birchwood. I had even dreamed the words in which I’d described that unmistakable smell in my book: As if you’ve stirred up a cloud of unadulterated book dust and blown the detritus from millions of mouldering volumes straight into your face. Was there anything more alluring?
The city seemed not only near enough to smell but near enough to touch. However, I knew from my first visit to Bookholm that it would take me at least one more day’s march to get there.
I drank the rest of the water in my flask at a single gulp. Unwise though this may sound, it was meant to encourage me to stride along as fast as possible all day long, for there would be nothing more to drink until I reached my destination. I was a few years older this time; if I wanted to cover the distance in the same time as before, I needed to provide myself with an incentive.
I shall spare you a tedious description of this uneventful trek, dear readers. Suffice it to say that I reached the outskirts of Bookholm just as exhausted, footsore, hungry and parched as I had been on the previous occasion. However, the prospect of obtaining something to drink there had accelerated my pace, particularly in the last few hours, with the result that I reached my destination by late afternoon.
Even from a distance I was able to marvel at the way the city had grown. It had expanded in one or two places (like me) and had also gained height. Hours before I reached the outskirts I could detect a hum like that of a gigantic beehive. It grew louder and more heterogeneous with every step I took. I could make out the hammering and sawing from carpenters’ shops, the tolling of bells, the neighing of horses and the never-ending clatter of printing presses. And vibrating beneath it all was the unmistakable acoustic substratum, the hubbub characteristic of any major city, which is produced by thousands of intermingled voices and resembles the ceaseless murmur of an audience or a sluggish stream.
The buildings, of which there were two or even three times as many, were on a more generous vertical scale. Few had boasted more than two floors in the old days, whereas I could now see from afar that some had three, four, or even five storeys. Tall, slender minarets of sheet iron, chimneys as tall as trees, stone towers – none of these would have been tolerated in the Bookholm of old. No longer was this a romantic little place frequented by a surfeit of tourists, nor the antiquarian township of my nostalgic recollection, but an entirely new place with different inhabitants, visitors and destinies. I came to a crossroads where my route intersected with others. From there I proceeded down numerous little streets along which hundreds of people were streaming into the city. I now realised that, if I actually ventured into Bookholm, mine would be no sentimental journey into the past but a foray into an unforeseeable and unplanned phase of my existence. Involuntarily, I stopped short.
Was this another fit of excitrepidation? It was foolish to persuade myself that I could still turn back. Impossible! I was hungry, thirsty and utterly exhausted, so I would have to enter the city at least once to refresh myself and rest. I couldn’t avoid spending at least one night there. In any case, why was I hesitating? I hadn’t tramped this far, only to turn on my heel. Nonsense! What was making me hesitate? Was it instinct? The memory of all I’d been through after crossing the city’s magic frontier once before? Undoubtedly. But it was mainly fear of the certainty that time was irrecoverable. Anyone who has entered a building he hasn’t seen since his childhood or adolescence – his birthplace, school, or something of the kind – will understand that. It’s a painful, melancholy experience that seems to bring you nearer the grave. On such occasions, however, things usually appear much smaller than you remember, don’t they? In Bookholm, by contrast, dear friends, my memories could do more than stand the test of time: the city had actually increased in size.
‘In or out?’ demanded a shrill, disagreeable voice. Jolted out of my reverie, I looked round in surprise and saw that I was obstructing one of the many approaches to Bookholm, a narrow alleyway. People were squeezing past me, all intent on gaining access to the city. The voice belonged to an importunate, unpleasant-looking dwarf carrying a hawker’s tray of minuscule books. I was clearly in his way.
‘Oh …’ I said without moving.
‘Well, shift yourself, Fatso!’ snarled the uncouth gnome. ‘This isn’t the provincial dump you come from, this is Bookholm! Time is money here and money rules the book world! Shift your fat …’
While he was saying this, various things happened that owed more to my reflexes than to mature consideration. The gnome pushed rudely past me and prepared to storm the city ahead of us with his ridiculous tray, impatient to embark on business transactions that brooked no delay. However, my brain had not only absorbed and analysed the word ‘Fatso’ in a fraction of a second but devised a suitable response, which was to trip the disrespectful little creature up. He naturally hadn’t known that nobody called me that without at once paying the penalty. My sense of humour deserts me on such occasions.
By the time the dwarf uttered the word ‘fat’ he was already in free fall. He measured his puny length on the ground and the quaint contents of his tray – nothing but books no bigger than matchboxes – went cascading across the dusty alleyway.
‘In or out?’ I said haughtily. ‘What a question! In, of course!’ And I stepped over the humiliated dwarf, treading on him with the full force of my fighting weight. Yes, dear friends, I’ll even trample on a dwarf if I have to! I swaggered on down the lane without looking back, heedless of the fact that my first crossing of the city limits had coincidentally made me my first bitter enemy in Bookholm.
Noting Without Notes
THE DARKMAN OF Bookholm had left his work undone but made a thorough job of it. That was my rather self-contradictory verdict on the city after surveying the first few streets, which were known as the Borderlanes. That legendary figure celebrated in folksongs and fairy tales, the wandering colossus made of blazing straw and pitch whom the more superstitious of the townsfolk still liked to hold responsible for the last conflagration, had allegedly tramped from district to district and set fire to one roof after another before burning up in the inferno himself. That was how I myself might have explained the catastrophe to a child of pre-school age, for the truth was considerably more frightening than that gruesome myth.
It wasn’t true that I saw nothing I remembered. Over a third of the city had been spared from the flames and even some of the extremely combustible old buildings, with their bone-dry thatched roofs and half-timbering, had survived. The Darkman, who according to legend possessed neither brain nor heart, had performed his task in a correspondingly random manner: he had burned down half a street here but spared a whole district there, devastated the south as far as the city limits but scarcely touched the north, torched a huge municipal library but left the tiny antiquarian bookshop just beside it standing. The Darkman had raged and run riot as randomly as skin diseases spread or streams of lava ravage a mountainside. To the clangour of ‘brazen bells’, as it says in the poem by Perla la Gadeon, he had incinerated everything and everyone unfortunate enough to stand in his path, regardless of status or value, beauty or function.
This could be appreciated only by someone like me, who had known the Bookholm of old. To any newcomer, Bookholm was simply an exciting city filled with architectural antitheses, a curious conglomeration of old and new styles in which Early Zamonian, Dark Age and modern influences of all kinds were closely commingled to an extent found nowhere else. Quite apart from its literary and antiquarian attractions, Bookholm approximated to my personal ideal of a city more closely than ever before. Baroque diversity, creative designs so frivolous as to border on the insane,
Even in the Borderlanes that enclosed the city I saw buildings composed of the most diverse minerals, metals and other materials; of red, yellow and black brick, of quarried marble, of pebble-dash, of rusty iron, of tin and gleaming brass, of sandstone and soapstone, of basalt, of granite and crushed lava, of shell, slate or fossilised fungi, even of transparent glass or amber brick, of plain mud or shards of china. Every conceivable material had been used, though wood was now extremely rare. Timber I saw on the old buildings, as before, but it had been almost eliminated from modern Bookholmian architecture – one of the consequences of the fearsome inferno. For that very reason I found it all the more surprising how many of the buildings now consisted of books. I saw books used for walls and roof tiles, piled up into supporting columns and flights of steps, built into window seats and even serving as paving stones. Books as a building material were omnipresent in the new Bookholm, although they must have been at least as combustible as timber. How did a house built of age-old volumes fare when it rained? Didn’t the paper swell? Didn’t the cardboard covers disintegrate sooner or later? Were the books impregnated and hardened in some way, rendered fireproof and waterproof? Well, I had neither the time nor the leisure to go into that now. The day was drawing to a close, so I deferred the solution of this mystery and hurried restlessly onwards.
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