Authors: Anthony Doerr
he oldest daughter dies of worms, fever takes the middle one, but the boy grows. At three, he can hold himself upright on the sledge as Leaf and Needle clear, then plow a hayfield. At four, he can fill the kettle at the creek and lug it through the boulders to the one-room stone house Grandfather has built. Twice his mother pays the farrier's wife to travel nine miles upriver from the village to stitch together the gap in the boy's lip with a needle and twine and twice the project fails. The cleft, which extends through his upper mandible into his nose, does not close. But though his inner ears sometimes burn, and his jaw sometimes aches, and broth regularly escapes his mouth and dribbles onto his clothes, he is sturdy, quiet, and never ill.
His earliest memories are three:
1. Standing in the creek between Leaf and Needle as they drink, watching drops fall from their huge round chins and catch the light.
2. His sister Nida grimacing over him as she prepares to jab a stick into his upper lip.
3. Grandfather unbuckling the bright pink body of a pheasant from its feathers, as though undressing it, and spitting it over the hearth.
The few children he manages to meet make him play the monsters when they act out the adventures of Bulukiya and ask him if it's true that his face can cause mares to miscarry and wrens to drop from the sky mid-flight. But they also show him how to find quail eggs and which holes in the river hold the largest trout, and they point out a half-hollow black yew growing from a karst bluff high above the ravine which they say harbors evil spirits and can never die.
Many of the woodcutters and their wives won't come near him. More than once a merchant, traveling along the river, spurs his horse up through the trees rather than risk passing Omeir on the road. If a stranger has ever looked at him without fear or suspicion, he cannot remember it.
His favorite days come in summer, when the trees dance in the wind and the moss glows emerald green on the boulders and swallows chase each other through the ravine. Nida sings as she takes the goats to graze, and their mother lies on a stone above the creek, her mouth open, as though inhaling the light, and Grandfather takes his nets and pots of birdlime and leads Omeir high on the mountain to trap birds.
Though his spine is hunched and he's missing two toes, Grandfather moves quickly, and Omeir has to take two strides for every one of his. As they climb, Grandfather proselytizes about the superiority of oxen: how they're calmer and steadier than horses, how they don't need oats, how their dung doesn't scorch barley like horse dung does, how they can be eaten when they're old, how they mourn each other when one dies, how if they lie on their left side it means fair weather is coming but if they lie on their right it means rain. The beech forests give way to pine, and the pines give way to gentians and primrose, and by evening Grandfather has caught a dozen grouse with his snares.
At dusk they stop for the night in a boulder-strewn glade, and the dogs swirl around them, testing the air for wolves, and Omeir starts a fire and Grandfather dresses and roasts four of the grouse, and the ridges of the mountains below fall away in a cascade of deepening blues. They eat, the fire burns to embers, Grandfather drinks from a gourd of plum brandy, and with the purest happiness the boy waits, feels it trundling toward him like a lamplit cart, full of cakes and honey, about to round a bend in the road.
“Have I ever told you,” Grandfather will say, “about the time I climbed on the back of a giant beetle and visited the moon?”
Or: “Have I ever told you about my journey to the island made of rubies?”
He tells Omeir about a glass city, far to the north, where everyone
speaks in whispers so they don't break anything; he says he once turned into an earthworm and tunneled his way to the underworld. The tales always end with Grandfather's safe return to the mountain, having survived another terrifying and wondrous adventure, and the embers burn to ash, and Grandfather begins to snore, and Omeir looks up into the night and wonders what worlds drift among the faraway lights of the stars.
When he asks his mother if beetles can fly all the way to the moon or if Grandfather ever spent an entire year inside a sea monster, she smiles and says that as far as she knows, Grandfather has never left the mountain, and now could Omeir please concentrate on helping her render the beeswax?
Still the boy often wanders alone up the trail to the half-hollow yew on the bluff, climbs into its branches, peers down at the river where it disappears around the bend, and imagines the adventures that might lay beyond: forests where trees walk; deserts where men with horse-bodies run as fast as swifts fly; a realm at the top of the earth where the seasons end and sea dragons swim between mountains of ice and a race of blue giants lives forever.
He's ten when Beauty, the family's swaybacked old cow, goes into labor for the final time. For most of an afternoon, two little hooves, dripping with mucus and steaming in the cold, stick out beneath the raised arch of her tail, and Beauty grazes as though nothing in the world has ever changed, and eventually she gives a spasm and a mud-brown calf slides the rest of the way out.
Omeir takes a step forward but Grandfather tugs him back, a question on his face. Beauty licks her calf, its little body rocking beneath the weight of her tongue, and Grandfather whispers a prayer, and a gentle rain falls, and the calf does not stand.
Then he sees what Grandfather saw. A second pair of hooves has appeared beneath Beauty's tail. A snout with a little pink tongue stuck between its jaws soon joins the hooves, followed by a single eye, and finally a second calfâthis one grayâis born.
Twins. Both males.
Almost as soon as the gray calf touches the ground, he stands and begins to nurse. The brown one keeps its chin planted. “Something wrong with that one,” whispers Grandfather, and curses the breeder who charged him for the services of his bull, but Omeir decides the calf is just taking his time. Trying to solve this strange new mix of gravity and bones.
The gray one suckles on its bent-twig legs; the firstborn remains wet and folded in the ferns. Grandfather sighs, but just then the first calf stands, and takes a step toward them as if to say, “Which of you doubted me?” and Grandfather and Omeir laugh, and the family's wealth is doubled.
Grandfather warns that it will be a challenge for Beauty to produce enough milk for two, but she proves up to the task, grazing nonstop in the lengthening daylight, and the calves grow swiftly and without pause. They name the brown one Tree, the gray one Moonlight.
Tree likes to keep his hooves clean, bleats if his mother dips out of sight, and will stand patiently for half a morning while Omeir picks burrs out of his coat. Moonlight, on the other hand, is always trotting somewhere to investigate moths, toadstools, or stumps; he nibbles ropes and chains, eats sawdust, wades in mud up to his knees, gets a horn stuck in a dead tree and bawls for help. What the two calves share from the start is an adoration for the boy, who feeds them by hand, who strokes their muzzles, who often wakes in the byre outside the cottage with their big, warm bodies wrapped around his. They play hide-and-seek and race-to-Beauty with him; they stomp through spring puddles together amid glittering clouds of flies; they seem to accept Omeir as a brother.
Before their first full moon, Grandfather fits them to a yoke. Omeir loads the dray with stones, picks up a goad stick, and begins to work them. Step in, step out,
means stopâat first the calves pay the boy no mind. Tree refuses to back up and be hitched to the load; Moonlight tries to dislodge the
yoke on every available tree. The dray tips, the stones roll off, the calves go to their knees, bawling, and old Leaf and Needle look up from their grazing and shake their grizzled heads as though amused.
“What creature,” laughs Nida, “would trust someone with a face like that?”
“Show them that you can meet all of their needs,” says Grandfather.
Omeir starts again. He taps them on the knees with the goad; he clucks and whistles; he whispers in their ears. That summer the mountain turns as green as anyone can remember, and the grasses shoot high, and his mother's hives grow heavy with honey, and for the first time since being driven from the village, the family has plenty to eat.
The horns of Moonlight and Tree spread, their rumps thicken, their chests broaden; by the time they are castrated, they are bigger than their mother, and make Leaf and Needle look slight. Grandfather says that if you listen hard enough you can hear them growing, and although Omeir is pretty sure that Grandfather is joking, when no one is looking, he presses an ear to Moonlight's huge rib and shuts his eyes.
In autumn word filters up the valley that the ghazi sultan, Murad the Second, Guardian of the World, has died, and his eighteen-year-old son (bless and keep him forever) has ascended to power. The traders who buy the family's honey declare that the young sultan is ushering in a new golden age, and in the little ravine it seems true. The road stays clear and dry, and Grandfather and Omeir thresh their largest-ever crop of barley and Nida and her mother toss the seeds into baskets, and a bright clean wind carries away the chaff.
One evening, just before the first snows, a traveler on a glossy mare rides up the track from the river, his servant riding a nag behind. Grandfather sends Omeir and Nida into the byre and they watch through the gaps in the logs. The traveler wears a grass-green turban and a riding coat lined with lambswool and his beard looks
so tidy that Nida speculates whether sprites must trim it at night. Grandfather shows them the ancient pictographs in the cavern, and afterward the traveler walks through the little homestead admiring the terraces and crops, and when he sees the two young bullocks his jaw drops.
“Do you feed them the blood of giants?”
“It is a rare blessing,” Grandfather says, “to have twins to share the same yoke.”
At dusk Mother, her face covered, feeds the guests butter and greens, then the last melons of the year, drizzled with honey, and Nida and Omeir creep around the back of the cottage to listen, and Omeir prays they'll overhear tales of cities the visitor has seen in the lands beyond the mountain. The traveler asks how they have come to live all alone in a ravine miles from the nearest village and Grandfather says they live here by choice, that the sultan, may he have peace always, has provided everything the family needs. The traveler murmurs something they cannot hear, and his servant stands and clears his throat and says, “Master, they're concealing a demon in the byre.”
Silence. Grandfather sets a log on the fire.
“A ghoul or a mage, pretending to be a child.”
“I apologize,” says the traveler. “My attendant has forgotten his place.”
“He has the face of a hare and when he speaks the beasts do his bidding. This is why they live alone, miles from the nearest village. Why their bullocks are so large.”
The traveler rises. “Is this true?”
“He is only a boy,” says Grandfather, though Omeir hears a sharpness creep into his voice.
The servant edges toward the door. “You think that now,” he says, “but his true nature will show in time.”
utside the city walls, old resentments stir. The sultan of the Saracens has died, the women in the workroom say, and the new one, barely out of boyhood, spends every waking breath planning to capture the city. He studies war, they say, like the monks study scripture. Already his masons are constructing brick-baking kilns a half day's walk up the Bosporus Strait, where, at the narrowest point of the channel, he intends to construct a monstrous fortress that will be able to capture any ship which tries to deliver armor, wheat, or wine to the city from outposts along the Black Sea.
As winter comes on, Master Kalaphates sees portents in every shadow. A pitcher cracks, a bucket leaks, a flame goes out: the new sultan is to blame. Kalaphates complains that orders have stopped arriving from the provinces; the needleworkers do not work hard enough, or they have used too much gold thread, or they have not used enough, or their faith is impure. Agata is too slow, Thekla is too old, Elyse's designs are too dull. A single fruit fly in his wine can send a black thread twisting through his mood that lingers for days.
Widow Theodora says that Kalaphates needs compassion, that the remedy to every woe is prayer, and after dark Maria kneels in their cell in front of the icon of Saint Koralia, her lips moving silently, sending devotions up past the beams. Only in the latest hours, long after Compline, does Anna risk crawling out from beside her sleeping sister, taking a tallow candle from the scullery cupboard, and removing Licinius's quires from their hiding place beneath the pallet.
If Maria notices, she says nothing, and Anna is too absorbed to
care. The candlelight flickers over the leaves: words become verses, verses become color and light, and lonesome Ulysses drifts into the storm. His raft capsizes; he gulps saltwater; the sea-god roars past on his sea-green steeds. But there, in the turquoise distance, past the booming surf, glimmers the magical kingdom of Scheria.
It's like constructing a little paradise, bronze and shining, aglow with fruit and wine, inside their cell. Light a taper and read a line and the west wind begins to blow: a handmaid brings one ewer of water and another of wine, Ulysses sits at the royal table to eat, and the king's favorite bard begins to sing.
One winter night Anna is coming down the corridor from the scullery when she hears, through the half-open door of their cell, the voice of Kalaphates.
“What witchcraft is this?”
Ice tumbles through every channel in her body. She creeps to the threshold: Maria is kneeling on the floor, bleeding from her mouth, and Kalaphates is stooped under the low beams, the sockets of his eyes lost in shadow. In the long fingers of his left hand are the leaves of Licinius's quires.
“It was you? All along? Who helps yourself to candles? Who causes our misfortunes?” Anna wants to open her mouth, to confess, to wipe all this away, but the fear is such that it has stopped her ability to speak. Maria is praying without moving her mouth, praying behind her eyes, retreating to some private sanctum at the very center of her mind, and her silence only infuriates Kalaphates more.
“They said, âOnly a saint would bring children who are not his own into the house of his father. Who knows what evils they'll bring?' But did I listen? I said, âThey're only candles. Whoever steals them only does so to illuminate her nightly devotions.' And now I see this? This poison? This sorcery?” He seizes Maria by the hair and something inside Anna screams. Tell him. You are the thief; you are the misfortune. Speak. But Kalaphates is dragging Maria by her hair into the hall, right past Anna as though she were not there, and
Maria is trying to scramble to her feet and Kalaphates is twice their size and Anna's courage is nowhere.
He hauls Maria past the cells where other needleworkers crouch behind their doors. For a moment she manages to get a foot under her, but stumbles, a great fistful of hair tearing away in Kalaphates's fist, and the side of Maria's head strikes the stone step leading to the scullery.
The sound is that of a hammer passing through a gourd. Chryse the cook watches from her wash pot; Anna stays in the corridor; Maria bleeds on the floor. No one speaks as Kalaphates grabs her dress and drags her limp body to the hearth and pitches the pieces of parchment into the fire and holds Maria's unseeing eyes to the flames while the quires burn to ash one two three.