The labyrinth of dreamin.., p.34
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       The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.34

           Walter Moers
 

  This bold assertion electrified me. ‘Really?’ I exclaimed. ‘Can one see it somewhere?’

  ‘Well, see isn’t perhaps the right term.’ Corodiak laughed. ‘But yes, one can experience it.’

  It was all I could do not to beg him for an opportunity to do so. But who was I to ask that? I wondered again whether to reveal my identity, but something held me back. It was a trump card I preferred not to play yet.

  ‘You’d like to attend an Invisible Theatre performance?’ he asked.

  ‘You’re joking! Of course I would.’

  ‘No problem,’ he said casually. ‘I’ll invite you. When would suit you? Tomorrow, perhaps? Otherwise, the next one is in three weeks’ time. Performances are rare and given at irregular intervals.’

  I was completely dumbfounded. ‘Er … yes! Tomorrow would be fine. Yes, tomorrow!’

  ‘Good,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you an invitation.’ He went over to a chest of drawers. The din from downstairs grew louder. People were shouting and laughing. I could even hear singing. It was a theatrical performance in itself to watch Corodiak remove the invitation from a drawer – a plain white card, it passed through each of his fourteen little hands as he undulated towards me – and present it to me as deftly as a conjurer.

  ‘That’s your admission to the Invisible Theatre. It’s non-transferable, mind. You must go yourself or the invitation lapses.’

  I examined both sides of the card. They were blank.

  ‘Yes,’ said Corodiak, ‘that’s the kind of humour we incorporate in our little advertisements. There is something written on it, but in invisible ink. No matter which member of the Invisible Theatre staff you show it to, he’ll understand. One more thing: even if you’re gnawed by curiosity, please resist the temptation to render the message on it visible. Wait until you’re at the performance. Will you promise a blind person that? It’s very important, because it’ll greatly enhance the pleasure you derive from the Invisible Theatre.’

  ‘Of course,’ I assured him. ‘You have my word. I can’t thank you enough.’

  ‘Don’t mention it. The Invisible Theatre has no commercial aims and makes no charge for admission. Just be at the entrance to the Kraken’s Tentacle at nine a.m. tomorrow on the dot. You know that establishment?’

  ‘Yes, I know it well.’

  ‘Then be there! A carriage from the Invisible Theatre will collect you.’ Corodiak raised his head. ‘You hear that?’

  ‘You mean that noise downstairs?’

  ‘Yes. There’ll be no more peace and quiet from now on. The morning show is over and here come the fans. They come bearing bouquets and so on, because they think it’s obligatory at a theatre. Still, success brings obligations with it. Fortunately, my disability absolves me from having to meet the public’s wishes too often and they usually leave me in peace. Even the most primitive societies cherish a natural respect for the blind, did you know that?’

  What I didn’t know was whether that should be construed as a tactful hint that I’d overstayed my welcome. I interpreted it as such, however, and didn’t take it amiss because my own reserves of energy were exhausted. It had been a long conversation, and I needed to digest it.

  Behind me, the floor seemed to be filling up with people. I could hear laughter and footsteps. Before long I would again be standing around in the way, jostled by ill-tempered dwarfs or enthusiastic fans, so I preferred to take my leave rather than be thrown out. For a moment I struggled with the temptation to reveal my identity after all. The conversation had passed off very pleasantly and it would have been fun to give Corodiak a surprise in my turn, but I lacked the courage. Besides, perhaps we would meet again. My legs were feeling weak and trembly.

  ‘Many thanks for a very informative conversation,’ was all I said.

  ‘Be there on time for the carriage,’ Corodiak warned me. ‘Don’t forget, no allowances are made for passengers who turn up late, and you won’t get another invitation.’ Then he turned and made his way back into his spider’s web of a domain.

  ‘Actually,’ he added, ‘my species is excellently suited to blindness. Our tactile sense is our most acute sense of all, perhaps because of our numerous fingers.’ He paused and turned his head in my direction once more. ‘But sometimes, especially when total silence reigns, I wish I had my eyes again, because that’s when even I get scared of my puppets. I hear noises, you know. A creak here, a rustle there. And sometimes I even believe they’re whispering and giggling together. I’ve invested so much time and effort in animating my puppets, I sometimes think I’ve succeeded too well.’ He laughed softly.

  That was when I grasped it for the first time: the whole workshop was Corodiak. The web of strings was his optic nerve, the tools and vices were extensions of his arms. The plans and sketches were an extension of his brain, the puppets and mechanisms the fulfilment of his dreams and ideas – of his nightmares too, perhaps. Only because of his self-imposed exile could the Puppetocircus Maximus continue to exist and only in this solitary dungeon could the blind monarch, Corodiak Smyke, survive. If he were removed from this room, he would inevitably perish like a spider without its web. Even though I still didn’t know the exact nature of his part in creating the Invisible Theatre, and although I had just learned some remarkable things about the Puppetocircus Maximus and my admiration for the Maestro and his creations was undimmed, I didn’t envy him any more. The price he’d had to pay for his genius was too high and no applause in the world could compensate for it. It was sad to see him making his way back, hand over hand, along his strings and into the depths of his workshop, where he instantly relapsed into the immobility in which I’d found him.

  The Invisible Theatre

  I TRIED TO see Inazia the same day, to tell her about my meeting with Corodiak, but her shop was shut and she didn’t respond when I knocked. I tried twice again that evening, but with equally little success. What was unusual was that she’d left no message for me pinned to her door, as she usually did, so I had dinner on my own and then spent a sleepless night. My thoughts were in too much of a whirl. How could I sleep peacefully after an appointment with Maestro Corodiak and before a performance at the Invisible Theatre? It was quite impossible!

  The next morning I turned up an hour too early for my rendezvous at the Kraken’s Tentacle, where the carriage was to pick me up. Not knowing how long this outing would last, still less where it would take me, I did what I did before any lengthy excursion and came armed with a shoulder bag containing a bag of biscuits and a bottle of water. I also packed the Bloody Book, which I was still carrying around with the intention of getting rid of it at last. It occurred to me that I could have given it to Corodiak, who had something of a legal claim to it, since it was part of Pfistomel Smyke’s inheritance. I decided to give the matter more thought.

  At the Kraken’s Tentacle I passed the remaining time in the book section of the ever-open establishment and drank a cup of coffee, but I was far too nervous to read. When I at last heard the clatter of hoofs and horses neighing, I went out into the misty morning.

  If what was standing on the damp cobblestones outside the Kraken’s Tentacle, hissing and steaming like an outsize field kitchen, really was a carriage, I’d never seen its like before. Its unusual shape was vaguely reminiscent of the architecture of the Ironvillean buildings found here and there in Bookholm, which created the unpleasant impression that they’d been built according to plans drawn up by a war ministry. This vehicle outside the Kraken’s Tentacle evoked similar martial associations and was really a miniature fortress on wheels. The passenger accommodation resembled a castle keep complete with loopholes instead of windows and a drawbridge instead of a door. Every part of it including the wheels appeared to consist of black iron. Paving stones could have been hurled at it for hours without inflicting so much as a scratch.

  The driver was a Bookhunter – your pardon, dear friends, I mean a Biblionaut. I’ll get into the habit some time, I promise! At all events, his iron armour made him
look like a screwed-on component of the carriage. Even the horses were encased from nostrils to tail in defensive chain mail. Steaming and bubbling on the roof of the bizarre vehicle was an alchemistic-looking contraption whose function I dared not imagine. A stylised eye and two theatrical masks above the door were the only decorative accessories that indicated it might actually be the Invisible Theatre’s carriage, but what really perturbed me was the thought that, if a vehicle looked like this, the place it was bound for defied the imagination. Not without fear and foreboding, I went over to it.

  With a shrill squeal, the door was lowered on jangling chains, making the carriage look even more like a castle. Whistling sounds from the alchemistic apparatus on the roof aroused my fears that the whole caboodle was about to explode with a bang. On top of that, bleating laughter was issuing from the interior of the passenger cabin. Not even in my wildest dreams had I seen a less reassuring form of transport! The Biblionaut on the box turned his horned iron mask in my direction and gestured brusquely with his whip – presumably an invitation to climb aboard. It’s still not too late to make a run for it, I thought half-heartedly, but I got in notwithstanding. You get just one invitation to the Invisible Theatre, Corodiak had told me. It occurred to me only now what a different interpretation one could put on that statement.

  Three other passengers were already seated inside. Before I could examine them more closely in the gloomy cabin, the door jangled shut behind me. I heard the driver crack his whip and a strident blast on a steam whistle. Then the carriage set off so abruptly that I was thrown around on my seat like a sack of potatoes.

  ‘Good heavens,’ I said half jokingly as I adjusted the folds of my cloak. ‘Anyone would think we were going into battle.’

  ‘That’s not so wide of the mark,’ said a reedy voice beside me. ‘At least, the area we have to cross could well be described as a kind of war zone.’

  Someone turned up the wick of an oil lamp and I could at last see who my travelling companions were. They were three in number and I knew them all. That’s to say, I had encountered them all in the last few days. They were:

  The Murkholmian organist from the Puppetocircus Maximus. Wearing a black suit and hat, he was sitting right beside me and holding the oil lamp on high.

  The green-bearded Druid from the shop I had visited with Inazia, the one that sold intricate mechanical book puppets. He was sitting immediately opposite me.

  The ugly and unsympathetic dwarf I had encountered on my arrival in Bookholm. He was seated diagonally across from me and glaring belligerently.

  I promptly pulled my cowl down lower over my face. ‘What do you mean, a war zone?’ I asked the Murkholmer beside me uneasily. ‘I thought this carriage was bound for the Invisible Theatre.’

  ‘So it is,’ he replied rather superciliously. ‘I’m your host and guide for this performance. May I see your invitation?’

  I felt in my pockets, fished out Corodiak’s invitation and handed it to him. The Murkholmer turned the blank card over in his whitish, wormlike fingers. ‘But there’s nothing on it,’ he said in a surprised tone of voice.

  ‘What?’ I said in alarm. ‘Maestro Corodiak said you would know …’

  The Murkholmer raised his hand. ‘Only joking. Welcome to the Invisible Theatre,’ he said with a smile and handed the card back. The other passengers laughed.

  ‘This is the Invisible Theatre?’ I asked in astonishment, pocketing the nonsensical card once more. ‘This carriage here?’

  ‘It’s only one component of it,’ our guide whispered mysteriously, ‘but you may consider the Invisible Theatre open. Everything that happens from now on is part of the performance.’

  ‘I know this fellow!’ the dwarf exclaimed above the noise of our progress. In motion, the carriage sounded like a whole army on the march. ‘He looks familiar to me somehow.’

  I pulled my cowl down a trifle lower and behaved as if I hadn’t heard him. ‘Please tell me a little more about the war zone,’ I asked the Murkholmer. ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Well, we’ll soon be crossing the Darkman Sector. Or the Toxic Zone, as the Bookholmers also call it. The gutted heart of the city. The no-man’s-land. Didn’t you know?’

  The Toxic Zone? No-Man’s-Land? The Uggly had mentioned it. An area even more inhospitable than the environs of the Magmass, that was all she’d said, so I wasn’t particularly eager to become acquainted with that part of Bookholm.

  ‘Please enlighten me,’ I asked the black-clad Murkholmer. ‘I’m not from Bookholm.’

  ‘I recognise this fat slob!’ crowed the ugly dwarf from across the way. ‘It’ll come back to me in a minute!’

  ‘The Darkman Sector’, the Murkholmer pontificated like a tourist guide trotting out his spiel, ‘covers the whole of the area formerly occupied by Darkman Street. That was a street of spiral conformation in historic Bookholm and once inhabited mainly by Bookemists. It was the oldest part of the city and the location of Bookholm’s most exclusive antiquarian bookshops. Also resident there was the legendary Pfistomel Smyke, who—’

  ‘You don’t say,’ I broke in impatiently. ‘That’s in every guidebook. Please get to the point!’ I made no secret of the fact that I couldn’t abide Murkholmers. Disguising one’s instinctive aversions is only a waste of precious time.

  ‘Darkman Street,’ he persisted, ‘burned more fiercely than any other part of Bookholm. That was because of the chemicals and alchemical substances stored in the cellars of the ancient buildings, as well as the extensive libraries and stocks of old paper. The Darkman Sector was still burning a full year after the fires had subsided elsewhere. The conflagration ate deeper into the ground than anywhere else in the city. That was where the catastrophe had begun and that was where it ended. It’s the only district in Bookholm that has never been rebuilt or restored.’

  The carriage was filled with a sirenlike wail from the roof. It pierced me to the marrow.

  ‘That was the signal that we’re over the border and into the sector,’ the Murkholmer explained. ‘It also keeps the animals away.’

  ‘The animals?’ I said. ‘What animals?’

  The green-bearded Druid uttered a bark of amusement.

  ‘The animals of the Toxic Zone,’ the Murkholmer replied. ‘Please don’t ask me their correct scientific names – not even the zoologists at Bookholm University could tell you those. No research has yet been conducted into the flora and fauna of this district, and for sound reasons.’

  ‘There are wild animals here?’ I asked nervously. ‘In the middle of the city?’

  ‘We aren’t really in the city now,’ said the Murkholmer. ‘The Darkman Sector is a no-man’s-land. Legally speaking, it’s wilderness – a lawless area. A blank space on the map in the middle of Bookholm. An urban curiosity. Nothing lives here apart from mutating insects and other unappetising creatures.’

  I eyed our guide suspiciously. ‘You’re pulling my leg,’ I said. ‘I’ve never heard tell of anything like that.’

  ‘Then you should read the new guidebook you claim to know so well,’ the Murkholmer said tartly. ‘The Toxic Zone isn’t promoted as a tourist attraction, but it isn’t a secret either. People usually give it a wide berth – they don’t talk about it. It isn’t a pleasant subject.’

  There was a muffled crash as if something had struck the underside of the carriage, followed by some fierce squeaks and screeches such as I’d never heard before. Then came another blast on the steam whistle and peace returned.

  ‘Animals!’ said the green-bearded Druid. He relapsed into silence as if that explained everything to everyone’s satisfaction.

  ‘What sort of animals are they?’ I asked rather shrilly. ‘Can they get into the carriage?’ Involuntarily, I lifted my feet off the floor.

  ‘No,’ the Murkholmer said calmly. ‘Why do you think it’s armour-plated? Only Biblionauts in armour venture outside here. The alchemical filters in their helmets protect them from the toxic fumes. They work like our filter insta
llation on the roof.’

  ‘You mean the air outside is toxic?’ I asked and held my breath for a moment. I was already regretting having got out of bed at all. What on earth had I let myself in for?

  ‘It isn’t half as bad as it used to be, but even today I wouldn’t advise anyone to spend too long in this sector, with or without a respirator. Do you suffer from allergies? From asthma? That could even prove fatal. It just depends how strong your immune system is. Sometimes it’s just a cough that refuses to clear up for years, but sometimes it’s a cerebral fever that prevents you from sleeping properly for evermore. Chronic oozing rashes, hepatic fistulas, temporary blindness, loss of eyelashes – everyone reacts differently to the Toxic Zone. I know someone who—’

  ‘All right, all right!’ I exclaimed, raising my paws. ‘I get the picture.’

  The Murkholmer smiled. ‘Just stay inside the carriage with the door shut, then nothing can happen.’

  I made every effort to remain calm, but the hostile atmosphere in the carriage wasn’t exactly an aid to composure. I had an urge to kick open the door and run off, screaming. There was another strident whistle from the roof and the bumps and bangs ceased again. All that could be heard was the carriage rumbling along and we sat for a while in brooding silence.

  Just a minute! An outrageous thought had occurred to me. Surreptitiously, I looked around and studied the faces of the other passengers from beneath my cowl. Weren’t they grinning covertly and weren’t they far too calm, given the prevailing circumstances? Were they genuine passengers at all?

  ‘You may consider the Invisible Theatre open,’ the Murkholmer had said. ‘Everything that happens from now on is part of the performance.’

  Exactly! Could all this be no more than theatre, and of the simplest kind? Had the carriage budged even an inch from the spot since I got in? All it needed was a few stout fellows from the Kraken’s Tentacle to rock the vehicle a bit and hit it with sticks. All my fears had hitherto been aroused by noises from outside. Squeaks and screeches and jolting, nothing more. What matters is what the Invisible Theatre does inside your head! Wasn’t that what Inazia had told me the other day?

 

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