The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.35Walter Moers
I had an audacious idea.
‘I’d be quite interested to see what it looks like outside,’ I said as casually as I could, putting my paw to the bolt that secured the shutter over the loophole beside me.
‘Don’t touch that!’ the Murkholmer said sharply. ‘It’s prohibited and dangerous.’
‘Oh, sure,’ I retorted. ‘And I know why.’
I promptly unbolted the shutter, pushed it aside, and peered out through the narrow slit.
‘No, don’t!’ I heard the Murkholmer call, but it was too late.
The paved road we were rumbling along was flanked by the sparse remains of what had once been a vibrant city district. Its blackened ruins resembled a forest consumed by fire, so little of it remained – little more than charred timbers and mounds of rubble. The sun, which was just rising, bathed everything in an orange glow, which created the illusion that the Great Conflagration of Bookholm was still burning. What additionally contributed to this impression was a smell of charcoal, which was still remarkably pungent after so many years. The skeletons of the old buildings were overgrown with vegetation I had never seen before. Violet moss was growing almost everywhere and blood-red climbing plants were winding themselves around fragments of half-timbering. Whole meadows of transparent-looking weeds were proliferating between the ruins. This was Darkman Street beyond a doubt, for I recognised the worn old paving stones I’d trodden an eternity ago. The sight made me go hot and cold by turns. No, the carriage was no longer standing outside the Kraken’s Tentacle, assuredly not! We were deep inside the Toxic Zone. Something black and glossy that looked like a cross between a gigantic stag beetle and a trilobite came crawling out of a crevice in the rubble. It was about the size of an adult cat. Having taken a short run, the monstrous creature hurled itself at the carriage with all its might. Bang! More beetles appeared in the charred ruins, croaking like belligerent ravens. The Biblionaut cracked his whip and there was another strident blast from the steam whistle. An acrid stench came wafting through the loophole and into the carriage. I instinctively shrank back.
‘Close the goddamned shutter, you idiot!’ cried the dwarf. ‘Do you want to kill us all?’ But I was too overwhelmed by the spectacle outside to raise a paw. The Murkholmer thrust me aside and secured the shutter.
‘Are you crazy?’ he shouted at me. ‘I expressly warned you! I’m responsible for my passengers, kindly remember that!’
Not altogether without reason, I was feeling like a fool. Guiltily, I subsided on to my seat.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said humbly. ‘I had no idea …’
‘No, you didn’t!’ croaked the dwarf. ‘I know who you are, Fatso!’
‘Perhaps you’ll believe me now,’ the Murkholmer said peevishly. ‘The whole district, the rocks, the subsoil, the ground water – everything’s saturated with toxic Bookemistic substances. Barrels of alchemical liquids burst and drained away in the Great Conflagration. Chemicals of the most obscure provenance mingled and were boiled and vaporised by the flames. It was an uncontrolled alchemical experiment on an unprecedented scale. Nobody knows what this ground beneath us has absorbed and accumulated, or what it may yet do to us. No wonder everyone prefers to keep quiet about it. There are creatures here today that never existed before the fire, either in Bookholm or anywhere else. They survive only here in the Toxic Zone, on this alchemically fertilised soil. Which is a blessing. As soon as they try to leave the sector, they die. Hairy frogs, yards-long worms with legs, rats with poisonous barbs in their tails – no scientist is eager to come here and research these new fauna and flora. Nobody wants to die attempting to categorise or catalogue them.’
I glanced at the shutter to reassure myself that the Murkholmer had fastened it securely.
‘Preliminary attempts were naturally made to research the creatures,’ he went on. ‘And to exterminate them. People tried to plough up and level the whole area, but it wasn’t long before they developed hitherto unknown diseases and ailments – multicoloured rashes, hallucinations, incurable nervous diseases – and some of them even died. Immediately after the Great Conflagration the inhabitants of Bookholm were so hungry, they gathered mushrooms in the Toxic Zone. Not a good idea! I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that mushroom-picking has been prohibited ever since, not only in the Toxic Zone but throughout Bookholm. Try ordering mushroom risotto in a restaurant here. It’s impossible.’
‘Where are we going?’ I asked, to change the subject.
‘We’re making for the Pfistomel Shaft,’ the Murkholmer replied as if it were the most natural thing in the world. ‘That’s our destination.’
‘The … Pfistomel Shaft?’ My voice almost broke. ‘You mean there’s a Bookholm Shaft named after that criminal?’
‘Of course not. Not officially, at least. That shaft doesn’t have name – it’s the only one that has remained unnamed, but that was a mistake on the part of the municipal authorities. I suppose they thought it deserved a special form of reverence because it’s the entrance to the Labyrinth where the fire first started. And since it’s situated precisely where Pfistomel Smyke’s house once stood—’
‘Just a minute!’ I broke in excitedly. ‘You mean we’re heading for the spot where Pfistomel’s house used to be and there’s a Bookholm Shaft there now? An entrance to the catacombs? Is that what you’re telling me?’
‘Yes. It’s common knowledge, actually, so why do I need to explain everything to you? People christened it that for want of an official name. You can also call it the No-Man’s-Land Shaft if you want.’
This was incredible! I had, of my own free will, got into a carriage that was taking me to the spot whence I’d ended up in the catacombs! It was the very last place I wanted to be.
‘Turn round!’ I demanded on impulse. ‘Turn this carriage round and drive back at once! I want to get out.’
‘Out of the question,’ the Murkholmer said coldly.
‘Are you mad, Fatso?’ cried the dwarf. ‘You aren’t the only person in here.’
The green-bearded Druid just looked at me pityingly.
‘Driver!’ I called loudly, rapping on the ceiling with my cane. ‘Stop! We must turn back!’
The carriage promptly pulled up.
‘There,’ I said, feeling relieved. ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t possibly accompany you to your, er, No-Man’s-Land Shaft. It’s not on for … well, very personal reasons. Sorry to have to have to spoil your party, but I wasn’t fully informed about it. I’ll naturally meet any expense incurred. Please instruct your driver to turn round.’ I was determined to wring the impudent dwarf’s neck if he made another snide remark.
‘It’s no use,’ said the Murkholmer. ‘We’re already there.’
‘There?’ I asked stupidly. ‘Where?’
‘At the Pfistomel Shaft. Our destination.’
The door opened with a loud creak and a rattle of chains.
‘Don’t worry,’ the Murkholmer said soothingly, ‘one can breathe here without a respirator. Right beside the shaft the fire raged so fiercely that all the chemicals were vaporised without trace. The air still smells rather acrid, but the incidence of noxious fumes is zero, it’s been scientifically measured. Please get out, gentlemen!’
‘Out the way, Fatso!’ the dwarf demanded, pushing past me.
I was stunned. For a moment I continued to sit there as if paralysed, but then I got out too. What else could I do?
The sight that met my eyes as I left the carriage by way of the door-cum-drawbridge was so breathtaking that I desisted from any further protests for the time being. The carriage was standing on blackened soil from which ruins jutted here and there like the charred bones of huge birds. We were on the edge of a pit some 300 feet in diameter: the Pfistomel Shaft.
‘The biggest entrance to the Bookholm Labyrinth,’ the Murkholmer said proudly, as if he had excavated it himself. ‘And the least often used.’
‘Incredible!’ said the dwarf. ‘I’ve always wanted to see this.’
My knees were almost buckling, but I pulled myself together and turned in desperation to the Biblionaut, who was still sitting on the box.
‘Driver!’ I called as peremptorily as I could. ‘Please take me back to the city, I’m afraid I can’t attend this function! You can name your own fare.’
The Biblionaut didn’t utter a sound. He didn’t even turn his head in my direction. To be precise, he didn’t move at all.
With a groan, the Druid climbed up on the box beside the Biblionaut and did something to him, not that I could see what it was. All I heard was some metallic creaking and grating, clicking and clanking sounds. Then the Biblionaut suddenly moved his head, laid his whip aside and climbed down from the box followed by the Druid. Ignoring me completely, he proceeded to tether the horses to a charred beam.
‘What did you do to the Biblionaut?’ I asked the Druid suspiciously.
‘Oh,’ he said in an amiable tone, ‘the poor fellow had a problem with his armour. I loosened the hinges a bit and lubricated his joints.’
‘What’s it to you, Fatso?’ said the dwarf. ‘You ask a lot of silly questions. I think I’ve remembered where I know you from.’
‘Really?’ I said. It was a matter of some indifference to me if he’d finally recalled that I’d trampled on him once. He could accuse me of cruelty to dwarfs in front of everyone, for all I cared. I wasn’t going to forge any lifelong friendships in present company, that was for sure.
‘You were at that performance of The City of Dreaming Books,’ he spat at me. ‘At the Puppetocircus Maximus. You were sitting in a box with that crazy Uggly, right? I saw you! Got a permanent box, eh, Fatso? I suppose you think that makes you a cut above the rest of us in the stalls, who have to crane our necks?’
‘Guilty as charged,’ I admitted.
I had no wish to argue with a dwarf under present circumstances. Perhaps he would leave me in peace now.
‘I knew it!’ the little creature cried triumphantly. ‘I know you, Fatso.’
‘Well,’ the Murkholmer exclaimed in a genial voice, ‘we’re here. Let’s go down into the Invisible Theatre.’
‘Down?’ I gasped. ‘What do you mean, down?’
‘Why, into the catacombs,’ he said casually.
‘What? You mean to go down into the catacombs? From here?’ I hoped I’d misheard.
‘Over there is a flight of steps leading down into the shaft,’ our guide explained. ‘It’s a bit makeshift because so few interested parties come here, but it’s quite safe, the Biblionauts constructed it. It’s only a few steps down, we won’t be going very deep.’
No, I hadn’t misheard. He was in earnest.
‘Out of the question!’ I cried. My voice had taken on a note of hysteria.
The Murkholmer sighed. He came over to me and lowered his voice.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘we’ve long experience of visitors who suffer from panic attacks. Every Invisible Theatre performance takes place in an unusual location, that’s inevitable, but I can assure you it’ll be perfectly safe. We’ve spared no expense – we’ve even hired an experienced Biblionaut to protect us. He’s really quite redundant, though, because there’s no danger where we’re going, Maestro Corodiak stakes his reputation on that.’
‘I don’t care,’ I said stubbornly. ‘I’m not entering the Labyrinth, not in a million years. It’s out of the question. If you won’t drive me back I’ll stay here beside the carriage and wait until the performance is over.’
‘I can’t permit that,’ said the Murkholmer. ‘I couldn’t take the responsibility. If we leave you alone up here, you’ll have no protection from the animals.’
‘The animals?’ I said. ‘What about them?’
‘It won’t take long for the animals in the Toxic Zone to pick up your scent and converge on this spot. Why do you think the horses are wearing full body armour?’
‘What’s up?’ the dwarf called impatiently. ‘Is Fatso making difficulties? When are we getting going?’
The Murkholmer came still closer. ‘Let me tell you something,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I know a bit more about your fears than you think. Inazia the Uggly told us you were terribly scared of the catacombs.’
I was surprised ‘You know Inazia? You spoke with her?’
He smiled. ‘Who do you think got you this invitation? Attending an Invisible Theatre performance is an honour. Even established Puppetists would give their eye-teeth for an invitation. The Druid has worked for the Puppetocircus Maximus for many years and this is his very first chance to attend although he’s been on the waiting list for ages. You’ve been in Bookholm for only a few days, yet you’re privileged to be here. You don’t seem to realise what a rare opportunity you’d be missing. I know people who would pay a fortune to be in your shoes, but the Invisible Theatre can’t be bought.’
‘I don’t care,’ I repeated mulishly. ‘I’m not going down into the catacombs.’
‘I’ll tell you something else,’ the Murkholmer whispered. ‘You can kill two birds with one stone: not only watch an Invisible Theatre production but conquer one of your direst fears. I know about your nightmares. Free yourself from them for ever! Enter the catacombs, but do so in the safest and most innocuous way imaginable: under professional guidance and the personal protection of an experienced Biblionaut. I’ll wager you’ll feel reborn afterwards. I feel sure the Uggly had an ulterior motive when she wangled this invitation for you. Don’t be a spoilsport!’
‘What is it now?’ called the dwarf. ‘We’re waiting!’
Dear friends, I was definitely suffering from an acute attack of excitrepidation – if you recall the term I coined at the beginning of my journey for a state of suppressed adventurousness. The old, spent, risk-averse, safety- and comfort-loving side of my brain urgently advised me to dig my heels in. But the other, artistic side, revitalised by my love of travel and my studies, urged me to comply with the Murkholmer’s suggestion. For how could I write a book about Puppetism – how could I rediscover the artist in myself – if I passed up such a pioneering artistic innovation because of some irrational phobia? How could I explain that to Inazia, who had probably moved heaven and earth to obtain me this unique opportunity?
‘Very well,’ I said resolutely. ‘I’ll come.’
The Murkholmer looked relieved. ‘Let’s go!’ he called to the others and we made for the edge of the shaft.
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books
IT MAY SOUND odd, but the Pfistomel Shaft reminded me of Ojahnn Golgo van Fontheweg’s birthplace. On one of my travels, when I set out to visit that historic place of pilgrimage dear to lovers of classical Zamonian literature, it turned out to have burned down a short while before, with the result that all I found there was a deserted, blackened site, a few crumbling walls and a bronze plaque. I then spent an interesting hour conjuring the house out of thin air and imagining what it might have looked like when little Golgo ran up and down the stairs or wrote his earliest poems. I regarded it as a lesson on the meaning of transience. How can any writer speculate on eternal fame if even the birthplaces of our greatest classical writers aren’t fireproof?
Now, as I stared into the yawning pit, the biggest shaft in Bookholm, down which our bizarre little party would descend into the catacombs and the Invisible Theatre, I cudgelled my powers of imagination once more. I tried to picture how I had once on this very spot, where now there was only an enormous hole, accompanied Pfistomel Smyke down his cellar steps and into the Labyrinth; and how, many days and adventures later, I had found my way out again with the Shadow King, whose friendship I had sadly lost when he set fire to himself in Smyke’s laboratory. But I found it impossible. Instead, I started to weep like a little child! Big tears trickled down my ageing cheeks. I tried to convince myself it was just nerves, but it wasn’t: I was mourning the passage of time, which runs away from us all, leaving nothing behind but fading mental images.
Yet I had every reason to be clear-headed and dry-eyed! To describe the r
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