‘Cloud Cuckoo Land,’ by Anthony Doerr: An Excerpt

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THE LAKEPORT PUBLIC LIBRARY
FEBRUARY 20, 2020
4:30 P.M.

Zeno

He escorts five fifth graders from the elementary school to the public library through curtains of falling snow. He is an octogenarian in a canvas coat; his boots are fastened with Velcro; cartoon penguins skate across his necktie. All day, joy has steadily inflated inside his chest, and now, this afternoon, at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday in February, watching the children run ahead down the sidewalk— Alex Hess wearing his papier-mâché donkey head, Rachel Wilson carrying a plastic torch, Natalie Hernandez lugging a portable speaker—the feeling threatens to capsize him.

They pass the police station, the Parks Department, Eden’s Gate Realty. The Lakeport Public Library is a high-gabled two-story ginger bread Victorian on the corner of Lake and Park that was donated to the town after the First World War. Its chimney leans; its gutters sag; packing tape holds together cracks in three of the four front-facing windows. Several inches of snow have already settled on the junipers flanking the walk and atop the book drop box on the corner, which has been painted to look like an owl.

The kids charge up the front walk, bound onto the porch, and high-five Sharif, the children’s librarian, who has stepped outside to help Zeno navigate the stairs. Sharif has lime-green earbuds in his ears and craft glitter twinkles in the hair on his arms. His T-shirt says, I LIKE BIG BOOKS AND I CANNOT LIE.

[ Return to the review of “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” ]

Inside, Zeno wipes fog from his eyeglasses. Construction paper hearts are taped to the front of the welcome desk; a framed needlepoint on the wall behind it reads, Questions Answered Here.

On the computer table, on all three monitors, screen-saver spirals twist in synchrony. Between the audiobook shelf and two shabby armchairs, a radiator leak seeps through the ceiling tiles and drips into a seven-gallon trash can.

Plip. Plop. Plip.

The kids scatter snow everywhere as they stampede upstairs, heading for the Children’s Section, and Zeno and Sharif share a smile as they listen to their footfalls reach the top of the staircase and stop.

“Whoa,” says the voice of Olivia Ott.

“Holy magoley,” says the voice of Christopher Dee.

Sharif takes Zeno’s elbow as they ascend. The entrance to the second story has been blocked with a plywood wall spray-painted gold, and in its center, over a small arched door, Zeno has written:

Ὦ ξένε, ὅστις εἶ, ἄνοιξον, ἵνα μάθῃς ἃ θαυμάζεις

The fifth graders cluster against the plywood and snow melts on their jackets and backpacks and everyone looks at Zeno and Zeno waits for his breath to catch up with the rest of him. “Does everyone remember what it says?” “Of course,” says Rachel.

“Duh,” says Christopher.

On her tiptoes, Natalie runs a finger beneath each word. “Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.”

“Oh my flipping gosh,” says Alex, his donkey head under his arm. “It’s like we’re about to walk into the book.”

Sharif switches off the stairwell light and the children crowd around the little door in the red glow of the EXIT sign. “Ready?” calls Zeno, and from the other side of the plywood, Marian, the library director, calls, “Ready.”

One by one the fifth graders pass through the little arched doorway into the Children’s Section. The shelves, tables, and beanbags that normally fill the space have been pushed against the walls and in their places stand thirty folding chairs. Above the chairs, dozens of cardboard clouds, coated with glitter, hang from the rafters by threads. In front of the chairs is a small stage, and behind the stage, on a canvas sheet hung across the entire rear wall, Marian has painted a city in the clouds.

Golden towers, cut by hundreds of little windows and crowned by pennants, rise in clusters. Around their spires whirl dense flights of birds—little brown buntings and big silver eagles, birds with long curving tails and others with long curving bills, birds of the world and birds of the imagination. Marian has shut off the overhead lights, and in the beam of a single karaoke light on a stand, the clouds sparkle and the flocks shimmer and the towers seem illuminated from within.

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    “It’s—” says Olivia.

    “—better than I—” says Christopher.

    “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” whispers Rachel.

    Natalie sets down her speaker and Alex leaps onstage and Marian calls, “Careful, some of the paint may still be wet.”

    Zeno lowers himself into a chair in the front row. Every time he blinks, a memory ripples across the undersides of his eyelids: his father pratfalls into a snowbank; a librarian slides open the drawer of a card catalogue; a man in a prison camp scratches Greek characters into the dust.

    Sharif shows the kids the backstage area that he has created behind three bookshelves, packed with props and costumes, and Olivia pulls a latex cap over her hair to make herself look bald and Christopher drags a microwave box painted to look like a marble sarcophagus to the center of the stage and Alex reaches to touch a tower of the painted city and Natalie slides a laptop from her backpack.

    Marian’s phone buzzes. “Pizzas are ready,” she says into Zeno’s good ear. “I’ll walk over and pick them up. Be back in a jiff.”

    “Mr. Ninis?” Rachel is tapping Zeno’s shoulder. Her red hair is pulled back in braided pigtails and snow has melted to droplets on her shoulders and her eyes are wide and bright. “You built all this?

    For us?”

    Seymour

    One block away, inside a Pontiac Grand Am mantled in three inches of snow, a gray-eyed seventeen-year-old named Seymour Stuhlman drowses with a backpack in his lap. The backpack is an oversize dark green JanSport and contains two Presto pressure cookers, each of which is packed with roofing nails, ball bearings, an igniter, and nineteen ounces of a high explosive called Composition B. Twin wires run from the body of each cooker to the lid, where they plug into the circuit board of a cellular phone.

    In a dream Seymour walks beneath trees toward a cluster of white tents, but every time he takes a step forward, the trail twists and the tents recede, and a terrible confusion presses down on him.

    He wakes with a start.

    The dashboard clock says 4:42 p.m. How long did he sleep? Fifteen minutes. Twenty at most. Stupid. Careless. He has been in the car for more than four hours and his toes are numb and he has to pee.

    With a sleeve he clears vapor from the inside of the windshield. He risks the wipers once and they brush a slab of snow off the glass. No cars parked in front of the library. No one on the sidewalk. The only car in the gravel parking lot to the west is Marian the Librarian’s Subaru, humped with snow.

    4:43 p.m.

    Six inches before dark, says the radio, twelve to fourteen overnight.

    Inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four. Recall things you know. Owls have three eyelids. Their eyeballs are not spheres but elongated tubes. A group of owls is called a parliament.

    All he needs to do is stroll in, hide the backpack in the southeast corner of the library, as close as possible to the Eden’s Gate Realty office, and stroll out. Drive north, wait until the library closes at 6 p.m., dial the numbers. Wait five rings.

    Boom.

    Easy.

    At 4:51, a figure in a cherry-red parka exits the library, pulls up her hood, and pushes a snow shovel up and down the front walk. Marian.

    Seymour shuts off the car radio and slips lower in his seat. In a memory he is seven or eight years old, in Adult Nonfiction, somewhere in the 598s, and Marian retrieves a field guide to owls from a high shelf. Her cheeks are a sandstorm of freckles; she smells like cinnamon gum; she sits beside him on a rolling stool. On the pages she shows him, owls stand outside burrows, owls sit on branches, owls soar over fields.

    [ Return to the review of “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” ]

    He pushes the memory aside. What does Bishop say? A warrior, truly engaged, does not experience guilt, fear, or remorse. A warrior, truly engaged, becomes something more than human.

    Marian runs the shovel up the wheelchair ramp, scatters some salt, walks down Park Street, and is swallowed by the snow.

    4:54.

    All afternoon Seymour has waited for the library to be empty and now it is. He unzips the backpack, switches on the cell phones taped to the lids of the pressure cookers, removes a pair of rifle-range ear defenders, and rezips the backpack. In the right pocket of his windbreaker is a Beretta 92 semiautomatic pistol he found in his greatuncle’s toolshed. In the left: a cell phone with three phone numbers written on the back.

    Stroll in, hide the backpack, stroll out. Drive north, wait until the library closes, dial the top two numbers. Wait five rings. Boom.

    4:55.

    A plow scrapes through the intersection, lights flashing. A gray pickup passes, King Construction on the door. The OPEN sign glows in the library’s first-floor window. Marian is probably running an errand; she won’t be gone long.

    Go. Get out of the car.

    4:56.

    Each crystal that strikes the windshield makes a barely audible tap, yet the sound seems to penetrate all the way to the roots of his molars. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap. Owls have three eyelids. Their eyeballs are not spheres but elongated tubes. A group of owls is called a parliament.

    He clamps the ear defenders over his ears. Pulls up his hood. Sets a hand on the door handle.

    4:57.

    A warrior, truly engaged, becomes something more than human.

    He gets out of the car.

    Zeno

    Christopher arranges Styrofoam tombstones around the stage and angles the microwave-box-turned-sarcophagus so the audience can read its epitaph: Aethon: Lived 80 Years a Man, 1 Year a Donkey, 1 Year a Sea Bass, 1 Year a Crow. Rachel picks up her plastic torch and Olivia emerges from behind the bookshelves with a laurel wreath crammed over her latex cap and Alex laughs.

    Zeno claps once. “A dress rehearsal is a practice we pretend is real, remember? Tomorrow night, your grandma in the audience might sneeze, or someone’s baby might cry, or one of you might forget a line, but whatever happens, we’ll keep the story going, right?”

    “Right, Mr. Ninis.”

    “Places, please. Natalie, the music.”

    Natalie pokes her laptop and her speaker plays a spooky organ fugue. Behind the organ, gates creak, crows caw, owls hoot. Christopher unrolls a few yards of white satin across the front of the stage and kneels at one end, and Natalie kneels at the other, and they wave the satin up and down.

    Rachel strides into the center of the stage in her rubber boots. “It’s a foggy night on the island kingdom of Tyre”—she glances down at her script, then back up—“and the writer Antonius Diogenes is leaving the archives. Look, here he comes now, tired and troubled, fretting over his dying niece, but wait until I show him the strange thing I have discovered among the tombs.” The satin billows, the organ plays, Rachel’s torch flickers, and Olivia marches into the light.

    Seymour

    Snow crystals catch in his eyelashes and he blinks them away.

    The backpack on his shoulder is a boulder, a continent. The big yellow owl eyes painted on the book drop box seem to track him as he passes.

    Hood up, ear defenders on, Seymour ascends the five granite steps to the library’s porch. Taped to the inside of the glass on the entry door, in a child’s handwriting, a sign reads:

    TOMORROW

    ONE NITE ONLY

    CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

    There’s no one behind the welcome desk, no one at the chessboard. No one at the computer table, no one browsing magazines. The storm must be keeping everyone away.

    The framed needlepoint behind the desk says, Questions Answered Here. The clock says one minute past five. On the computer monitors, three screen-saver spirals bore ever deeper.

    Seymour walks to the southeast corner and kneels in the aisle between Languages and Linguistics. From a bottom shelf he removes English Made Easy and 501 English Verbs and Get Started in Dutch, wedges the backpack into the dusty space behind, and replaces the books.

    When he stands, purple streaks cascade down his vision. His heart thuds in his ears, his knees tremble, his bladder aches, he can’t feel his feet, and he has tracked snow all the way down the row. But he has done it.

    Now stroll out.

    As he travels back through Nonfiction, everything seems to tilt uphill. His sneakers feel leaden, his muscles unwilling. Titles tumble past, Lost Languages and Empires of the Word and 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child; he makes it past Social Sciences, Religion, the dictionaries; he’s reaching for the door when he feels a tap on his shoulder.

    Don’t. Don’t stop. Don’t turn around.

    But he does. A slim man with green earbuds in his ears stands in front of the welcome desk. His eyebrows are great thatches of black and his eyes are curious and the visible part of his T-shirt says I LIKE BIG and in his arms he cradles Seymour’s JanSport.

    The man says something, but the earmuffs make him sound a thousand feet away, and Seymour’s heart is a sheet of paper crumpling, uncrumpling, crumpling again. The backpack cannot be here. The backpack needs to stay hidden in the southeast corner, as close as possible to Eden’s Gate Realty.

    The man with the eyebrows glances down, into the backpack, the main compartment of which has become partially unzipped. When he looks back up, he’s frowning.

    A thousand tiny black spots open in Seymour’s field of vision. A roar rises inside his ears. He sticks his right hand into the right pocket of his windbreaker and his finger finds the trigger of the pistol.

    Zeno

    Rachel pretends to strain as she lifts away the sarcophagus lid.

    Olivia reaches into the cardboard tomb and withdraws a smaller box tied shut with yarn.

    Rachel says, “A chest?”

    “There’s an inscription on top.”

    “What does it say?”

    “It reads, Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.”

    “Think, Master Diogenes,” says Rachel, “of the years this chest has survived inside this tomb. The centuries it has endured! Earthquakes, floods, fires, generations living and dying! And now you hold it in your hands!”

    Christopher and Natalie, arms tiring, continue to wave the satin fog, and the organ music plays, and snow bats the windows, and the boiler in the basement groans like a stranded whale, and Rachel looks at Olivia and Olivia unravels the yarn. From inside she lifts an outdated encyclopedia that Sharif found in the basement and spraypainted gold.

    “It’s a book.”

    She blows pretend-dust off its cover and in the front row Zeno smiles.

    “And does this book explain,” Rachel says, “how someone could be a man for eighty years, a donkey for one, a sea bass for another, and a crow for a third?”

    “Let’s find out.” Olivia opens the encyclopedia and sets it on a lectern up against the backdrop, and Natalie and Christopher drop the satin and Rachel clears the tombstones and Olivia clears the sarcophagus, and Alex Hess, four and a half feet tall, with a lion’s mane of golden hair, carrying a shepherd’s crook and wearing a beige bathrobe over his gym shorts, takes center stage.

    Zeno leans forward in his chair. His aching hip, the tinnitus in his left ear, the eighty-six years he has lived on earth, the near- infinity of decisions that have led him to this moment—all of it fades. Alex stands alone in the karaoke light and looks out over the empty chairs as though he gazes not into the second story of a dilapidated public library in a little town in central Idaho but into the green hills surrounding the ancient kingdom of Tyre.

    “I,” he says in his high and gentle voice, “am Aethon, a simple shepherd from Arkadia, and the tale I have to tell is so ludicrous, so incredible, that you’ll never believe a word of it—and yet, it’s true. For I, the one they called birdbrain and nincompoop—yes, I, dullwitted muttonheaded lamebrained Aethon—once traveled all the way to the edge of the earth and beyond, to the glimmering gates of Cloud Cuckoo Land, where no one wants for anything and a book containing all knowledge—”

    From downstairs comes the bang of what sounds to Zeno very much like a gunshot. Rachel drops a tombstone; Olivia flinches; Christopher ducks.

    The music plays, the clouds twist on their threads, Natalie’s hand hovers over her laptop, a second bang reverberates up through the floor, and fear, like a long dark finger, reaches across the room and touches Zeno where he sits.

    In the spotlight, Alex bites his lower lip and glances at Zeno. One heartbeat. Two. Your grandma in the audience might sneeze. Someone’s baby might cry. One of you might forget a line. Whatever happens, we’ll keep the story going.

    “But first,” Alex continues, returning his gaze to the space above the empty chairs, “I should start at the beginning,” and Natalie changes the music and Christopher changes the light from white to green and Rachel steps onstage carrying three cardboard sheep.

    [ Return to the review of “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” ]

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