The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, p.7Walter Moers
‘Toxic Zone?’ cried another. ‘You need info? Me got five hundred articles about Toxic Zone! All in chronological order! All in Gothic!’
A babble of voices ensued.
‘Bookholmian Puppetism? You interested Bookholmian Puppetism?’
‘Influence of Ironvillean Heavy Metal architecture on Bookholm townscape? Me expert! Three hundred articles! All in Gothic!’
‘Like hear articles on Biblionauts? Need information? Me got everything on Biblionauts!’
‘Want lousy Yarnspinner reviews? Me got all lousy Yarnspinner reviews in order of titles!’
I hurriedly paid my gnome the agreed sum, added a generous tip and bade him farewell. Then I tried to shake off the other Live Newspapers by walking away fast. When they finally grasped that they wouldn’t get anything out of me, they all came to a halt but continued to cry their specialised wares.
‘Questions about Magmass? Need info? Everything about Magmass!’
‘Pfistomel Smyke – legend or reality! All articles! Everything about Smyke!’
‘Ugglyism in Bookholm – curse or blessing? Everything about Ugglies!’
I dived into the crowd and let myself be carried along. At that moment my ‘need for info’, whether in Gothic or some other typeface, was more than satisfied. The only unanswered question that still exercised me, dear friends, was what a Live Historical Newspaper looked like under its paper clothing.
REACHING A STREET corner, I paused to ponder on an important decision. I had come to Bookholm to change my life, including various bad habits of which I wanted to rid myself: lack of exercise, for example, which I had already tackled by undertaking this trip; an unhealthy diet, which I was combating with the aid of abstinence and wholemeal biscuits; and the social isolation of Lindworm Castle, which I was exchanging for a sojourn in a vibrant city. Even though my social contacts were still limited, I had at least trampled on a dwarf! I was on the right path.
Now I wanted to combat another vice. The fact was, I had for hours felt an urgent and familiar desire to smoke a nice, big pipe of tobacco. I was going to yield to it once more. Yes, dear friends, this was a historic moment: I had decided that it would be the last pipe of my life! Being a hypochondriac who had always derived more anxiety than pleasure from that bad habit, I had steadily reduced my tobacco consumption over the years. I now proposed to give up the weed for good, and what more suitable place to do this than Bookholm, a city in which smoking was more frowned on than in any other?
That was just the problem, though. Where could I smoke in peace? Smoking in public was strictly prohibited – there were signs to that effect all over the place. Nevertheless, I had spotted a few little tobacco shops here and there and had definitely caught a whiff of pipe and cigar smoke, although I’d seen no one smoking any where in town. So where could one yield to the vice in peace? It was a mystery. Should I simply ask? Tell me something, madam: Where can one have a quiet smoke? That sort of thing? I would have felt uncomfortable, like a drug addict enquiring the way to the nearest illegal pharmacy, whereas all I wanted to do was stop!
I roamed around aimlessly for a while until the craving became too much for me, as it usually did when I was obsessed with something I oughtn’t to do. I wanted to smoke! At once! Here! Definitely for the very last time but right away! Eventually I looked for a quiet corner. I sneaked into a courtyard and sheltered from the wind in the rear entrance of a print shop that had gone out of business. I looked around. No one nearby. I felt in my pockets for a pipe and tobacco. Found them both. Filled the pipe. Looked around again. I was alone. Good! In that case … I was just about to strike a match when I felt something heavy and powerful descend on my shoulder.
Startled, I spun round and found myself confronted by the bared teeth of a full-grown Wolperting. I recoiled a step and shook off his paw. Where had he sprung from? Thin air? Had he simply materialised? I knew that superstitious folk credited Wolpertings with such abilities.
‘Smoking in public is prohibited in Bookholm, my friend,’ he said quietly in a deep, calm voice. He was around a head and a half taller than me and resembled a bulldog in appearance. His clothing was all of brown buckskin, down to the jaunty cap on his head. I had enough experience of life to know that when a total stranger addresses you as ‘my friend’, it conveys a latent threat. My brain offered me a choice between three kinds of answers:
‘Yes, I know,’ I said. ‘To be honest, I just couldn’t stand it any longer. You can smell tobacco everywhere but not see a soul smoking anywhere. I’m new in the city.’
‘Smoking itself is still very much permitted,’ the Wolperting said slowly, crossing his muscular arms. ‘But only in designated places. What you smelt was the smoke from a Fumoir.’
‘A, er … Fumoir?’ The word sounded somehow disreputable, but I relaxed a little. Something in the Wolperting’s voice told me that he was not going to beat me up and dump me in a rubbish bin. I would temporarily keep my teeth and might even be able to have a pleasant conversation. Three cheers for diplomacy!
‘Fumoirs are public conveniences for smokers,’ the huge animal explained, baring his impressive incisors in a smile. ‘There’s one in nearly every district. You can smoke whatever and however much you want in them. Bookholm is a tolerant city, my friend. We don’t want it burning down again, that’s all! Fumoirs provide free matches, ashtrays and leaflets on the dangers of smoking. Tea and wine as well, but there’s a small charge for those. Shall I show you one?’
We left the inner courtyard and paused on the pavement. My new friend pointed to a windowless building of rough-hewn stone at the end of the street. It was distinguished by its lack of ornamentation and had a grotesquely large chimney. The walls were plastered with posters old and new, and hanging above the entrance was a wooden sign depicting a tobacco pipe.
‘That’s a Fumoir,’ said the Wolperting. He replaced his paw on my shoulder, this time in an almost affectionate, friendly way. ‘But just between the two of us, smoking really is terribly unhealthy, quite apart from being the cause of at least ten per cent of all fires.’
‘Yes,’ I said meekly. Why was my conscience pricking me? After all, I wanted to give up smoking!
‘Have an enjoyable stay in our beautiful city,’ said the Wolperting. ‘I recommend a visit to the Puppetocircus Maximus. It’s worth seeing.’ Handing me a leaflet, he waved and walked off.
For a moment I stood there like a bewildered child who has lost his mother in the crowd. I would really have liked to prolong my conversation with the Wolperting. He was nice. I’d heard that these battle-hardened individuals were employed as private security personnel – as janitors, bouncers and bodyguards. That they also went in for fire prevention was news to me. And what was that about the … what did he call it? The Puppet Circus? I glanced at the handbill. The Puppetocircus Maximus. Funny name. Suggested a puppet theatre. Uninteresting. I threw the leaflet away and strode resolutely towards the Fumoir. I wanted to smoke my last pipe, nothing more.
I needed both arms to push the heavy wooden door of the establishment open. A dense white fog bank of tobacco smoke came billowing towards me accompanied by the hum of many voices. I could smell cumin, ranunculus leaves, sesame canaster, dried zimpinel – good heavens, what didn’t they smoke in there! Never mind, this would be the historic site of my very last nicotine fix.
It was a big, bare room with a low ceiling and a huge central chimney that collected the rising smoke and conveyed it into the open air. Some two dozen customers were sitting on crude wooden chairs around eight long tables, most of them engaged in filling or smoking pipes or rolling cigarettes. There was no daylight, the only form of illumination being a few candles. Along the wall on the left was an unmanned bar on which stood several jugs of water, cheap wine and cold tea, also glasses, cups and a bowl full
I poured myself some cold peppermint tea from a jug, tossed a coin into the bowl and carried my mug through the nicotinic fog to the back of the Fumoir, where fewer people were sitting, visible only as dim shapes. Seated by himself at one table was an impressive figure who at once caught my eye. No doubt about it, he was a Lindworm! One of my own kind from back home.
My first impulse was to turn and look for somewhere else to sit. Lindworms never impose their company on each other, whether at the castle or far from home. It’s instinct and etiquette that guide us, for we aren’t a particularly sociable species, so I wanted to sit as far from him as possible. But then I thought, ‘You know him, don’t you?!’
Of course I knew him, my friends, that was obvious. Every living Lindworm knows nearly every other living Lindworm. That’s nothing to write home about, given our relatively small numbers. But this Lindworm I’d almost forgotten because it was such a long time since we’d seen each other. It was … yes, it was Ovidios Versewhetter!
Good heavens! Ovidios was a fellow Lindworm who had left the castle when I was still a youngster with yellow scales. He had emigrated to Bookholm after announcing, rather grandiloquently, that he would become a famous author there – something he had sadly failed to do right away. When I met him in this city some years later, he was professionally at rock bottom, vegetating in one of the pits in the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers, where he composed off-the-cuff poems for tourists. A Lindworm could sink no lower. I hadn’t even spoken to him – indeed, I’d cravenly fled from the sight of his literary downfall instead of offering my help. I now recalled this, filled with shame. I had never thought I would see him again in the land of the living.
Now, however, as far as I could tell in the prevailing visibility, Ovidios made a splendid impression. Instead of the rags he had been wearing then, he was attired in a fashionable robe of expensive material, and his long reptilian neck and claws were bedecked with chains and rings that looked as if they were of high-carat gold set with genuine diamonds. He epitomised one’s idea of a successful Lindworm. What had happened?
He hadn’t yet noticed me, so I lingered behind a column and hesitated. Should I speak to him? I felt guilty somehow. He had seen me that time in the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers. We had exchanged a glance and he must have been quite aware that I’d abandoned him in his wretchedness for unworthy reasons. What else could I have done, though? I was almost penniless myself at that time and I’d gained the impression that he wasn’t too anxious to be accosted in his embarrassing position by another of his kind. Many years had gone by since then and I was terribly curious to discover how he had been faring. I pulled myself together and went over to his table. At least I could make a belated apology.
‘Is anyone sitting here?’ My voice was shaking, I noticed. ‘I apologise for disturbing you, but … I also come from Lindworm Castle.’
Two diminutive gnomes seated facing each other across the next table were sharing a pipe at which they puffed in turn. Their tobacco smelt pungently of forest herbs. They paid me no attention.
Ovidios gave me a long look. Then, very slowly and in the standoffish tone of someone who often gets pestered, he said: ‘Anyone who goes around muffled up like you could say as much.’
‘I’m, er … travelling incognito,’ I replied, abashed. Leaning towards him, I folded back my cowl far enough for him, but no one else in the room, to see my face.
‘Ye … Yu … Yarnsp …’ he stammered, utterly taken aback, but I raised my paw in entreaty and he promptly fell silent.
‘May I join you?’ I asked.
‘But of course, certainly! I insist!’ Ovidios replied. He stood up and sat down several times. ‘Heavens alive … what a … surprise.’ Nervously, he brushed a few tobacco crumbs off the table.
The two little gnomes were giggling stupidly, but not on our account. Obviously wrapped up in themselves, they were whispering together in Gnomian, which no one but they understood.
‘I’m afraid I have to wear this wretched cowl,’ I said apologetically, sitting down opposite Ovidios. ‘It makes me feel like one of those silly Dumbdruids, but without it I’d never have a quiet moment in this city.’
‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘Everyone here knows you. Your likeness is reproduced on all your book jackets. Many antique shops and bookshops adorn their windows with your portrait. There’s even a statue of you in the municipal park, but on that you still have green scales all over. Are you moulting at present?’
Strangely enough, a Lindworm always finds it somewhat embarrassing to be questioned about his moults, even by another Lindworm. My reply was correspondingly curt.
‘Yes,’ was all I said.
‘Heavens alive,’ Ovidios sighed. ‘When did we see each other last? It must have been … it was …’
‘In the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers,’ I blurted out and instantly regretted it.
But he only roared with laughter. ‘Hahaha! Yes, that’s right! In that goddamned graveyard!’ He didn’t seem to resent being reminded of it at all. ‘You even describe our encounter in your book,’ he said.
‘You’ve read it?’ I asked.
‘But of course! Are you joking? Everyone in Bookholm has read it. What brings you here again? The last I heard, you’d gone back to Lindworm Castle. Back to your roots and so on.’ Ovidios was treating me like a long-lost friend, which quickly made me relax. I thought for a moment. Should I show him the letter? Lay my cards on the table right away? He was a Lindworm, so I had no doubts about his loyalty, but hadn’t I sworn to be far more cautious this time? On my first trip to Bookholm, most of my difficulties had arisen because I’d blithely stuck the manuscript that had occasioned my visit under the noses of friend and foe alike. This time I wanted to proceed less hastily and naively.
‘Ah, yes, Lindworm Castle …’ I said. ‘You know how it is. For anyone in search of peace and quiet, plenty of sleep and hearty Lindworm fare, it’s the best place in Zamonia. I needed a break from the rat race – needed to instil some order into my life. Or so I thought, at least. In the end, though, the healthy air up there started to make my ears buzz. I developed an urge to knock the stupid helmet off some Lindworm’s head after encountering him in the street for the twelfth time in a day. Know what I mean? I could hear my toenails growing in the night.’
‘I get the picture,’ Ovidios said with a grin. ‘Lindwormitis! Is the Fossilised Brachiosaurus still the only restaurant in the place?’
‘You bet your life it is! And the main course is Pebbles in their Jackets every damned night.’
‘Yes,’ said Ovidios, ‘those sound like the reasons why I myself fled from Lindworm Castle. There came a day when the fresh air merely gave me nausea and I got vertigo whenever I looked over the battlements.’
I smiled. ‘I hope you won’t take it amiss if I ask you something. Why didn’t you simply go back to the castle when you were in such a bad way? I’ve often wondered that since. I mean, it would have been preferable to the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers.’
‘Depends on your point of view,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Youngsters are stubborn. I was too proud, too stupid. I’d rather have died than return to that old dragon’s rock. I see it in a somewhat different light today, but then … I was a completely different Lindworm and my life would have taken an entirely different turn had I not ended up in the Graveyard of Forgotten Writers. More boring, certainly, and ultimately not as, er … agreeable.’
He clinked mugs.
I grinned. ‘You’re doing well for yourself now, that’s obvious. What happened?’
Ovidios gave me a lingering look.
‘The Orm,’ he said gravely. ‘The Orm happened to me.’
‘The … Orm?’ I whispered.
‘Hm, yes … It was a while after we saw each other. To be honest, our br
‘Yes indeed. I became far more depressed after that.’ He stared at me sombrely.
I broke out in a sweat. ‘Oh …’ was all I said. The conversation was taking an unpleasant turn after all.
‘The look in your eyes that time, Optimus – I shall never forget it. Never! It conveyed sheer terror, naked fear. I saw the full horror of my situation reflected in it – in the eyes of one of my own kind, you understand? I’ve never felt lonelier or more humiliated in my life!’ Were his eyes filled with tears of sorrow, or was it just the smoke?
I sank deeper into my chair. How idiotic of me to have sat down here! Now I was belatedly paying for my past sins.
‘But what am I saying!’ he sighed. ‘How much lower can you sink when you’re already at the bottom of a grave? Hm? I even stopped attending to my basic needs. I gave up washing and eating, and drank only rainwater. I composed no more poems for those confounded tourists. I didn’t even trouble to pick up the small change they tossed into my hole out of pity. I wanted to die.’
So did I! Die and sink, complete with chair, through the floor of this accursed Fumoir, which I should never have set foot in. Why couldn’t that stupid, interfering Wolperting have simply allowed me to smoke my harmless last pipe in peace? Why did people always have to make things so complicated for each other? And why couldn’t I have a heart attack when I really needed one?
But Ovidios implacably continued his shaming story. ‘I simply lay curled up in my grave. For days. Weeks. I didn’t know, nor did I care. My will to live had been extinguished. I wanted to decay, to dissolve into the mud.’
He fell silent, leaving the last words to linger in the air. The most embarrassing conversational hiatus in my life ensued.
‘And then,’ he said at last, ‘I heard the bells.’
‘The, er … death knell?’ I asked stupidly.
‘No, the tocsin.’
The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes