The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.32Walter Moers
Why was I so nervous? I didn’t even know who Maestro Corodiak really was. Was he a gnome? A giant? A frail old puppeteer? An overworked theatre manager? An antipathetic type? A charmer? A tartar? I had no idea. All I wanted was to ask him a few harmless questions for my research. It wasn’t a job interview or a police interrogation and I had no other kind of unpleasantness to fear, so why couldn’t I rid myself of the feeling that I was on my way to a trial at which I would be the accused? In recent weeks I had too often heard the name Corodiak uttered in low voices trembling with awe not to feel uncomfortable about meeting the person who bore that name, but was that reason enough to make my knees tremble as I climbed the creaking wooden stairs? If our conversation followed a satisfactory course, I had decided to reveal my identity and congratulate him on his successful adaptation of my book, but that was no good reason for my heart to be pounding this way!
I came to an upper floor on which the rooms were considerably more spacious. For whatever reason, there was no one else to be seen. I wandered through a huge room in which hundreds if not thousands of puppets’ costumes were stored. They were suspended from floor to ceiling on metal rails that could be lowered on ropes. The place smelt of mothballs and lavender. No staff were around because a performance was in progress, so I was at liberty to reconnoitre the adjacent room, which was also used for storage purposes. This was where painted scenery was kept. Whole landscapes and townscapes were propped or stacked against the walls. I strolled past sand dunes, arctic wastes and a seashore at sunset, past temples with golden roofs, jungles and mountains, grey castle walls and dark, stormy skies, until I came to the next room.
This had to be one of those referred to by the sign as ‘Workshops’. Everything there was made of pale wood: the walls and the creaking parquet floor, the six quadrangular columns supporting the lofty ceiling and also the crossbeams below it. The place distantly resembled a country barn; all that was missing was some hay and a donkey. Like the rest of the Puppetocircus Maximus, it had no natural lighting but was brightly lit by oil lamps standing on the shelves. This room harboured no secrets; anyone who entered it was meant to take it in at a glance and find whatever he was looking for. Hanging on the walls were hammers, pliers and hand drills, screwdrivers and planes, knives and chisels, angle irons and rules, folding bones and pestles, stencils of numerous shapes, ropes and tackle, leather straps and wire nooses. Complete vices hung from strong hooks, axes and two-handed saws dangled from the ceiling. Tubs were neatly stacked, one inside another, hempen ropes were coiled as meticulously and exemplarily as on any sailing ship in the Zamonian navy. Stored in wooden cabinets were screws, nuts, rivets and nails of every size, likewise bolts, eyelets, hooks and even cogwheels, all clearly visible through little glass windows in the drawers and doors, and neatly labelled. Buckets of paint, oil in wicker-covered bottles, pitchers of turpentine, barrels of horsehair. Even the smells in this room – linseed oil, turpentine, varnish, petroleum, dubbin, glue – created the impression that they, too, had been neatly arranged and stacked on top of each other. They gave me a bad conscience, because I always felt ashamed when I came into contact with sound craftsmanship. This, of course, is partly because I myself have two left paws and am all thumbs, being quite incapable of driving a nail in straight. But the room inspired me with respect for another reason as well. I realised that it was far from being just a storeroom and workshop; it was a Puppetist museum, a precious collection of important artefacts. That tool there wasn’t just a common-or-garden hammer. It was a hammer belonging to the Puppetocircus Maximus – one that Maestro Corodiak himself might have wielded! He might have used it to drive nails into the scenery for The City of Dreaming Books! As for that thing there, it wasn’t just any old tackle-block, oh no! It might be the tackle-block used for punctually lowering the Bloxxberg backdrop in countless performances of Fontheweg’s Weisenstein. And those scissors there! They might be the historic scissors used for tailoring King Carbuncle’s costume in King Carbuncle and the Drowning of Thursday. Yes, every tool in this room, every nail and eyelet, had a story – even if that story had still to be written. I slunk across the hallowed hall feeling more and more overawed, and was highly relieved when I reached the other side and entered a passage.
From there I could see a wooden archway leading to the next sizeable room. The curved beam surmounting the arch, as I saw when I hesitantly approached it, was covered with mezzo-relievo carvings of scenes from Zamonian literary works that had, as I knew from my research, been successfully adapted for the Puppetocircus Maximus:
The cannibal scene from Felino Deeda’s classic novel in which one of the two principal characters bears the name Wednesday, and beneath it an ornate C.
The tattooed harpoonist from Vermel Hellamin’s novel Whalebone, and behind it an ornamental O.
The sinister Ugglies’ Sabbath scene from Wimpersleake’s Thambec, followed by an R.
The shipwrecked sailors on their raft from Perla la Gadeon’s adventure novel, then another O.
Zimom and Trax, the two pranksters from Helmub Wischl’s immortal children’s story in verse, and behind it a D.
The young heroine falling down a rabbit hole in Arlis Worcell’s fairy tale, followed by an I.
The one-eyed ship’s cook from Trebor Sulio Vessenton’s pirate tale, then an A.
The terrifying tiger from Plairdy Kurding’s grand exotic fable, baring its teeth. And, last of all, a K.
I came to a halt. This, as the carved letters unmistakably indicated, was Maestro Corodiak’s sanctuary. Or his workshop, his office, or whatever else the legendary director of the Puppetocircus Maximus might choose to call his control centre. Although there was no door in the archway, I found it impossible to cross this magic threshold. Not even a foot-thick iron door could have constituted a greater barrier than my diffidence, so I lingered there irresolutely, at a loss. I couldn’t even knock! However, this was an undignified state of affairs in the long run, so I eventually summoned up all my courage and cautiously peered round the corner.
The room was unilluminated but not entirely in darkness. There were no candles or lamps, but the glow from the oil lamps in the passage was sufficient to dispel a little of the gloom. I could make out some massive wooden tables, several workbenches equipped with vices, wall cabinets and tools. Hanging on the bare brick walls were marionettes and stick puppets of all kinds. Many were lying or seated on the tables and one was wedged in a vice. Others had split open, lacked heads, or were still unfinished. One particularly large puppet resembling a gigantic worm was leaning upright against a bench. So this, beyond doubt, was Maestro Corodiak’s centre of activity.
I breathed a sigh of relief because the room was obviously unoccupied. This enabled me to relax somewhat. I had turned up for the appointment on time, so I could afford to wait here with a clear conscience until Corodiak put in a belated appearance. Meanwhile, I could nose around a little.
There was no No Admittance! sign or anything of the kind to be seen. I ventured inside.
And was immediately brought up short because my head had encountered some obstruction! What was it? A wire, a string, a rope? It was, in fact, a thin string tautly suspended across the archway at head height. Screwing up my eyes, I now perceived that the whole room seemed to be divided up into segments like an irregular mesh. Straining my eyes still more, I grasped that the workshop was crisscrossed by lengths of string and cord running this way and that. Somewhere, something gave a creak.
I had already seen some sensationally impressive rooms in my life, for instance Pfistomel Smyke’s book laboratory or his gigantic subterranean library, the Booklings’ Leather Grotto or the Shadow King’s throne room. At first sight this modest room could not, of course, hold a candle to them; even the meticulously arranged tool storeroom I’d been in moments ago had made a deeper impression on me. But what of this mesh of strings that filled the whole room like a three-dimensional spider’s web? The threads and strings attached to the walls, ceiling joists and
Is there anything more frightening than a thing you think is inanimate but suddenly comes to life? This is exactly what happened in the case of the big puppet leaning against the workbench. At first it merely twitched and quivered a little, but then it detached itself entirely from the workbench and straightened up. Good heavens, it wasn’t a puppet at all but a living creature! It resembled a huge worm or a fat, monstrous snake with a blanket draped over it and a cap on its head. And it now turned, very slowly, in my direction.
My scales bristled in a way that was new in my experience. In that one moment I probably sloughed off more of my old scales than I had in all the last few weeks put together! Something equally horrible had happened to me only once. That was when, as a child, I found a supposedly dead grasshopper in a drawer and it suddenly leapt out in my face. That experience inflicted a lasting trauma and haunted my dreams for a long time. But I wasn’t a child any more and something supposedly dead that suddenly comes to life isn’t fundamentally sinister unless one believes in the supernatural, which I do not. So I strove to remain calm, at least outwardly. No easy task, for the creature moved like a spider bestirring itself when a victim has become lodged in its web. A thoroughly apt comparison, when one considers that I had just run into one of the threads in that curious entanglement. Those slow, positively majestic movements were infused with a leisurely arrogance peculiar only to a creature utterly confident of its physical superiority. My thoughts were in a whirl. Could it be a puppet after all – a puppet suspended from one of those countless strings? And could this whole mysterious room be a stage set into which I’d strayed? But the solution to this mystery, dear friends, surpassed my wildest imaginings, for it embraced three superlatives:
Number one: its most surprising feature was that I knew the person currently turning in my direction. I knew who he was, I knew his name and I’d encountered him more than once.
Number two: the most dismaying feature was not only that the person in question had been dead for over two hundred years, but that I’d actually seen his skeleton and touched it.
Number three: the most shocking feature was that he was a member of the Smyke family, for he was Hagob Salbandian, Pfistomel Smyke’s uncle, an artist by profession and the lamentable victim of a perfidious murder plot. Yes, I had actually seen his desiccated cadaver twice in the Labyrinth and I knew what he had looked like during his lifetime from a large oil painting in Pfistomel’s possession. All that differed from the Hagob Salbandian in that portrait was that the creature turning to look at me possessed no eyes, just two dark, empty eye sockets. You can be sure of one thing, dear brothers and sisters in spirit: if there had ever been a moment in my life at which I genuinely lost faith in everything including my own sanity, it was then.
MIGHT THIS SINISTER apparition be a puppet after all and was Corodiak’s workshop just a stage set? After all, I was in that part of the Puppetocircus Maximus devoted to backstage technology. There were strings suspended everywhere whose purpose had so far eluded me. Another potential explanation was that I had overslept from sheer exhaustion and was really still lying in my hotel bed, entangled in the sheets in the throes of a confused dream from which I would soon wake up. In view of my recent exertions and sleepless nights, that was entirely possible. Alternatively, all my current experiences might be a belated hangover from my visit to the Fumoir. Why not? I had heard that the hallucinations induced by certain herbal drugs could periodically recur without warning, days or even weeks after the event. The research into Puppetism I had undertaken with such excessive zeal was certainly not conducive to good health. So was I merely ill? Drugged? Could it all be a feverish dream?
‘Oh, so sorry, I must have nodded off,’ the eyeless creature suddenly said politely in a high-pitched, almost sing-song voice. ‘It keeps on happening to me lately. We’re soon premiering a new play, so I’ve been working night and day.’ Puppet or not, it was undoubtedly an example of that rare species of so-called Shark Grubs to which the Smyke family also belonged. This was apparent mainly from the fourteen little arms it was now extending in all directions. It briefly contracted its vermiform body, then stretched and gave a hearty yawn.
‘I assume, since you seem to have collided with my web, that you aren’t a member of staff,’ it went on. ‘My name is Corodiak Smyke, I’m the manager of this theatre. Did we have an appointment?’
This was Maestro Corodiak? I was still in shock. Had he really just admitted, without being asked, to membership of the Smyke family? Why would he have done so if he were really Hagob Salbandian – which, according to all the findings of science and the prevailing laws of Zamonian physics and biology, was totally impossible? No, this was no feverish dream or drug-induced delirium. I had quite simply gone mad.
‘Oh,’ I said. Then, after a few moments’ desperate cogitation that seemed to me to last for years, I finally remembered the pseudonym which the Uggly and I had concocted for me.
‘My name is, er … Septimus Syllabub. Inazia the Uggly was kind enough to arrange this appointment – I mean, audience. I’m by way of being a student of Puppetism. That’s to say, I’m planning to write a book about it.’ Never had I felt so relieved at having uttered two or three coherent sentences without stumbling.
‘An audience?’ Corodiak sounded amused. ‘Is that what people are calling an appointment with me these days?’ He chuckled almost inaudibly. ‘I’m embarrassed. This personality cult of mine has been getting out of hand lately. Let’s call it an appointment and leave it at that.’ He groped in the air with several of his rudimentary arms, then fastened on one of the cords and clung to it. For a moment he remained like that, breathing heavily and obviously mustering his strength. At last he proceeded to haul his larval body along it in my direction, one little hand over another. I noticed only now that he was wearing a richly embroidered cloak and a guild cap such as I had often seen in Puppetist circles.
That was the whole secret! The web was his system of orientation, his only mainstay in a sightless world. It was neither a vicious megaspider’s death trap nor the demented work of a lunatic; it was merely an ingenious form of guidance for the blind. I now grasped why the strings and cords were of very different gauges and knotted in numerous places: it was to enable him to distinguish them easily and know at once where he was. The web instantly lost its sinister effect on me. I had as much need to be afraid of it as of a crutch, a wheelchair or an ear trumpet; it was just a disabled person’s aid. What an idiot! I suddenly felt guilty for having been so suspicious and paranoid.
‘I’m sure you’ve been wondering about this peculiar web of mine,’ Corodiak said as he crawled on. ‘No, it isn’t for hanging up washing, nor is it a form of knot writing. It simply enables me to find my way around the workshop. I like to work on several projects at the same time. I construct a puppet here, repair another there and tinker with an eye mechanism between times. Or do the accounts at my desk, deal with my correspondence, and make notes. Then I go back to moulding, polishing or screwing. I simply have to be doing something all the time, and my attention span is roughly on a par with that of a nervous child. I’m always in such a rush, I devised this primitive guidance system in order to locate my various workplaces, tools or drawers.’ His little hands having reached a knot in the web, he switched to another string with practised ease. Gradually, hand over hand, he continued to move in my direction.
‘You’ve no idea how much easier it makes my life,’ he went on. ‘I’d like to criss-cross the whole world
If this was a feverish dream after all, it was as detailed and convincing as any dream could be. I could more and more clearly see Corodiak’s face and the dark eye sockets in it. No, this was no puppet! Although high-pitched, his voice had a pleasant timbre. I was filled with the sort of fear and ecstasy a mouse might feel when cornered by a snake. Could I move my legs if I wanted to? I didn’t know. I was simply rooted to the spot.
‘Of course,’ Corodiak went on, ‘this room is also a kind of prison, but without such captivity I couldn’t have made the theatre what it is today. The cage of strings helps me to concentrate on essentials. It may sound a bit incongruous for a blind person to say so, but I can oversee things best from here.’
Although the Maestro seemed to be very talkative, even without any encouragement from me, I thought it appropriate to embark on my interview if I didn’t want simply to stand around like a fool, gawping at him. I still felt I was in a trance.
‘You, er, make all these puppets yourself?’ I asked.
He paused for a moment, then took a little crocodile glove puppet from a workbench, dusted it off and fitted it over one of his hands. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘that would be impossible, but I think I may claim to have designed most of them. I always make the important prototypes myself. That much self-praise is permissible!’ He laughed and worked the crocodile’s jaws up and down a few times. ‘I don’t hide my light under a bushel, but without my many talented assistants I’d be as helpless as they would without me. I strike the sparks, but fetching the kindling and getting the fire going is up to those with better eyes and stronger arms than mine. The theatre functions like a beehive. Nothing would work without the queen, but she would be completely helpless without her industrious courtiers – she would inevitably starve to death. The Puppetocircus Maximus is a collective enterprise. I could have called it the Circus Corodiak, but I preferred an all-embracing name.’
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