Sean is an award-winning poet, a writer of fiction and a critic and a long-standing member of the Lit & Phil.
When the plane landed at the tiny aerodrome in the forest it was snowing out of season. No sooner had the handful of passengers disembarked than the Junkers was turning to depart. A minute later it was rising and swiftly disappearing back into the snow.
A handful of ancient military biplanes stood near a hangar. There were no staff to greet the arrivals, no facilities there for the traveller, no café, no newsstand. Boon had seen a newspaper when he flew out of Berlin from Tempelhof that morning. War was coming, sooner rather than later. When it came it would surely pass this way, over these birch forests and endless marshes, he thought, as it always had, since the Northern Crusades and before. How soon, though? He needed only a little time.
A black Mercedes was parked outside. As he approached, a grey-haired man in chauffeur’s uniform got out and opened the passenger door.
‘Snow? At this time of year?’ Boon said.
‘Because of our mountains the seasons are sometimes unpredictable here,’ said the chauffeur. ‘In another few minutes your plane would have had to turn back without landing, supposing it could. My name is Jurek, by the way, Mr Boon.’ They drove off through the deserted streets of a small town whose name Boon never learned.
After a couple of hours, darkness fell. The snow continued and thickened. They stopped for coffee and petrol. There was a single ancient lorry parked by the road. In the otherwise empty café, the overalled driver was seated at the bar, drunkenly flirting with the bored waitress. His elbow slipped off the counter and he spilt his drink on his trousers. Clearly the country was on a war footing.
Jurek ordered coffee and Schnapps.
‘This snow is getting worse,’ said Boon.
‘There is no need to worry, Professor,’ said Jurek, though Boon had no such academic rank. ‘The car has snow chains. It is built for these conditions and worse. We could outrun a pack of wolves.’
‘I take it that will not be necessary,’ Boon said.
Jurek laughed, and then added, ‘Tanks, on the other hand, well – But our traditions remind us that no one has conquered our small nation. Not yet.’ He shrugged and laughed again. The lorry driver walked unsteadily to the door and lurched out onto the snowy forecourt. He disappeared. A little later there was the sound of an engine, and the lorry moved solely past the windows, narrowly missing the car. Jurek shrugged again. This was now a blizzard, Boon thought.
‘How do you like our country, Professor?’
‘It would help if it were visible.’
Jurek laughed again in his agreeable way.
‘Are you worried, Jurek, at what may happen?’
‘Worrying will not save us, Professor. Only guns we do not possess and men we do not have in order to fire the guns. But as I say, we wear the armour of tradition. Drink up. We still have some distance to go. “Miles to go before we sleep.”.’
They set off again. Boon sat in a half-doze, He would see how things stood and then report back. This damned weather.
After another hour the snow relented a little. Jurek left the highway down a single-lane road that in turn became a track. Eventually they came to a pair of iron gates set in a high stone wall. When Jurek sounded the horn, an ancient man in a dressing-gown appeared resentfully from a shed and admitted them to the grounds. Beyond a screen of silver birches stood the house. Despite the snow Boon gained a sense of its solidity and scale – a manor house for the rural gentry, part grim Germanic, part Slav fantastic, seemingly immoveable. The wide front door was immediately thrown open and light flooded on to the snowy terrace where Jurek drew up.
‘Go in, Professor,’ said Jurek. ‘I will bring your luggage.’
Boon walked up half a dozen steps and was greeted by a striking young dark-haired woman in a severe black dress more suited to someone much older. She introduced herself as Elena, the housekeeper. She told him that dinner would be served in the library in an hour. Jurek appeared with Boon’s cases and led him upstairs.
The bedroom overlooked the terrace and the forest which crowded to the lawn’s edge. Boon examined his quarters – dark-panelled walls, a couple of dim ancestral portraits, seventeenth century, emulations of the Dutch school, he would have said. A wood fire was burning steadily in the grate, beyond which lay a narrow four-poster bed hung with heavy brocades, patterned with roses and what might be flames. A desk stood in the window. Boon put his briefcase down. He felt an unexpected pang of loneliness. It seemed a long way from home, as though he actually had such a thing. He put the thought aside. Did one dress for dinner hereabouts?
The library lay directly beneath his room. It was large and dimly lit, with a scent of beeswaxed age among its crowded shelves. A ladder on wheels ran up to a second level. Elena was waiting beside a large table near the great marble fireplace where wood spat and crackled. A lamp stood nearby. A grandfather clock ticked implacably. Elena gestured to the single place-setting. As he sat down, he asked, ‘Will Graf Manteuffel not be dining?’
‘He sends apologies,’ Elena replied. ‘He was called away to attend to matters on the estate and because of the weather he may not return tonight. He hopes that when you have eaten you will wish to begin work on the translation. He asked me to stress the urgency of the project.’ She smiled as she said this, but her grey eyes did not break their gaze: Boon was to do as the Graf had requested. And Elena was not simply some rustic serving-girl.
Elena poured wine for him and uncovered a dish of venison, then left him to his solitary meal. The meat was tender and the wine excellent. He looked about him and his gaze fell on the carved figures over the mantelpiece. Wolves’ heads, and the sun shown in His splendour.
When Boon had finished and Elena was clearing the dishes he was tempted to call it a day.
‘The book is on the lectern, Mr Boon,’ she said, anticipating this move. She indicated a strange contraption by the window.
Very well. He was weary now and certainly lacked the energy for immediate sustained work, but for courtesy’s sake he would simply glance over the book for a few minutes. The lectern had a chair of its own, slightly raised from the floor. He climbed aboard and as though of its own accord the lectern, perhaps operated by a system of balances, swung towards him and clicked into place, as if this were a cockpit. He admired this unusual device while wondering what purpose it might serve. He yawned. The clock ticked.
The book awaiting his attention was of unremarkable appearance, octavo in size. The cover had been replaced in recent memory with plain black cloth binding. He knew from correspondence with the Graf that the book had been in the Manteuffel family since the fourteenth century. The attached legend ran that it should only be consulted in a time of the gravest crisis. But no one had ever been able to translate it. Boon was their last hope. A crisis of the Manteuffel family? Not his business, Boon had decided. He switched on the lamp, put on the white gloves which Elena handed him, and then opened the book, hearing her leave the room.
Boon found that even with gloves on he did not like to handle the pages. They were as thin as onion skin, faintly translucent, seemingly adapted from some other purpose. There was somehow an uncleanness about the thing. But he had undertaken the task and would be well rewarded, twice over.
Codex Revelatoris, the title read, in jagged type that both did and did not resemble Gothic. He turned the page: the text was handwritten, black ink, browned by age but not faded, with monochrome marginal images of animals – a bird, a bear, a wolf, perhaps an eel, as if the book were a bestiary. He found himself unwilling to read the text, but a page scanned at random showed him that the language was macaronic – Old High German, Polish, two kinds of Lithuanian, Latin – plus elements of a tongue that to his knowledge had never been spoken by any person living or dead. He had anticipated this. Yes, he would be able to translate the book. Tomorrow would be soon enough. Let Berlin wait a little, too. He closed the Codex carefully. The weather must surely improve. And then, if this was the book he thought it was, he and it would be gone.
He looked out of the window. The snow had stopped and the inky-blue sky glittered with stars. A wolf came forward out of the birch-trees and stood looking as though directly at Boon. Boon, who had never encountered a wolf before, smiled at this stylish coincidence, closed the book and went to bed, though not, alas, with Elena.
Boon woke to find Elena tending to the fire in his room. She had opened the curtains. The blizzard had resumed.
Then there is breakfast in the library, Dr Boon,’ she said, without looking up from her work.
‘Has the Graf returned?’ Boon asked.
‘Alas no. He telephoned to say that the snows prevented it for the moment. Perhaps later he will come.’
‘I need to use the telephone.’
‘I am sorry to say the telephone has ceased to work.’
‘But you said the Graf rang up.’
‘Yes, and after that it ceased to work.’ She rose. With a smile of conspicuous patience she watched him pull on his dressing gown.
‘Well, is there a railway station nearby with a telegraph office?’
‘The snow is falling again. It is already too deep to go there. Jurek has put the car away until conditions improve.’
‘He said it was built for such weather.’
‘Ordinarily it would serve. But these snows are exceptional.’
‘Well, isn’t this cosy?’
‘You will be occupied, at least.’
‘Is there a wireless so that I could at least listen to the news?’ Elena shook her head.
Berlin would not be happy. They would expect word today. He went downstairs and drank coffee while staring into the fire. He could hear the wind outside now, seeking a way in. The terrace was barely visible in the blizzard.
As she came to clear the table, Elena handed him what he suspected was a fresh pair of the white cotton gloves. He lingered at the table, smoking a cigarette, sensing the housekeeper’s presence nearby. It was as if the house itself was listening for something too, approaching from behind the wind, like the war itself. For all he knew, war had already begun.
There had been an air of romance about Boon at one time. In his youth he had seen the pursuit of rare books as a noble calling, an entrée to the secret history of European civilization. And in that spirit he travelled wherever the quest required – Cracow, Paris, Palermo, Alexandria, and as far away as Alma-Ata, which was almost in China.
What he had found and acquired and sold on or collected was, indisputably, a source of endless fascination. But like any other object of desire, a rare book may encourage the worst in people – greed, paranoia, dreams of power, readiness to rob and if necessary even to kill. As Boon’s enormous skills in palaeography and translation developed, so did his sense of himself, until one afternoon in Venice he allowed himself a tiny slice of corruption.
Then he waited. At first there was no harm done that he could see. But when the act was undertaken, with the fake passed off as real and added to a famous library, and with the real thing spirited away into a rich man’s safe for the rich man’s solitary pleasure, the reasons to resist a repetition were minutely but fatally compromised. Boon had lied. He was a liar. Did it matter? No. His sin had not discovered him. No Mephistopheles had come to drag him off down the burning staircase to perdition and eternal torment ‘with nothing to read and nowhere to sit down’.
Then how do I feel? He had asked himself. I feel contempt, he thought, for this great tawdry paper-chase and all who take part in it, myself included. None of it matters – except as it helps me to live in the manner to which I’ve grown accustomed, in my den, with my empty books and my wine and my contempt. Civilization, he saw, was an illusion sustained by money and abetted by the printing press. Boon remained the best in his field. He was discreet and only those who met his requirements were able to contact him. For what it was worth, he was in control, as though the client and not Boon was the employee.
The exception, which had induced the fear he now felt, had arisen a month or so ago, when Boon visited Berlin for the dispersal of a distinguished private library. The owner had lately found himself indisposed, no longer in a position to conduct his own affairs as he saw fit.
Boon went to the beautiful house in Dahlem on the appointed day and stood there as men in black uniforms filled crates with the contents of one of the finest personal collections ever assembled. The men filling the crates had moved seamlessly on from burning books to stealing them. Boon opened his mouth to protest and then closed it.
Boon had been invited, but clearly there was to be no bidding for the library’s contents that day, only unapologetic and well-organized robbery. You win some and you lose some. There was nothing for him here. When he made to leave he was discreetly intercepted and led out through the back of the house, to where a car waited in a lane under the linden trees.
The man in the back of the car was known for his interest in the esoteric. He was reported to spend a great deal of energy and money in pursuit of examples which might prove of use in his own unfolding metaphysical projects in the three-cornered castle at Wewelsburg. Boon had the presence of mind to ask himself where his contempt had just disappeared to, while the little man gave him instructions in which financial rewards and threats were finely balanced.
Boom knew of the book the little man was seeking, did he not? He had recently been hired by its owner to translate it, had he not? The little man knew a great many things.
‘I am English,’ Boon managed to say.
‘Welcome to Germany, Mr Boon,’ the little man replied. ‘Examine the book. Determine its efficacy. Report back and await further instructions.’
Now Boon put on the gloves and sat at the lectern. He took out his notebook and pencil and opened the Codex Revelatoris. He turned to begin the translation and found that he already knew this passage by heart, since it came from the Old Testament, the book of Ecclesiastes. He wrote out the words in the English of the King James Bible, and then read them aloud to the empty room with its marble figures of wolves and the sun in splendour.
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.
Boon read on:
And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord and said, from going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.
But this was from the book of Job. The author of the Codex had run the two passages together as if they were sequential. Boon read on:
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.
Now this was from the Psalms. It was as if the compiler had made a cento of scriptural extracts. Why go to the trouble? Boon wondered. Could it be that these recombinations would yield some hitherto unheralded meaning? He went on:
The judges are wolves at evening. The wolves of fire hasten approach the dooryard. The fire-wolf will come from the back of the sun.
This, though, read like skilful improvisation. Perhaps the purpose was to invoke the sense that that the book was somehow more than a book. Boon passed a finger idly over the marginal drawing of the bear. There was a flicker in the corner of his vision. He rubbed his eyes, but this only made them burn, as if the page had left some deposit on the white gloves. Then his vision cleared and sharpened. He looked again at the drawing of the bear. It stood in profile. Now it turned to face him, shook its head gravely, and turned away. Oddly, there now seemed to be heat coming through the page. And there: the surface rippled and shifted. Boon became afraid and the fear was of the same cold order he had felt sitting in the little man’s car. Go, he thought. Get out, now. But he knew too that he must turn the page, just to see…
The next drawing was a bird, some kind of corvine. He passed his finger over the image. The bird tuned its gaze towards him, shook its head, and then spread its wings and flew off back into the white space, leaving the panel blank.
The warmth of the book increased. You would not want to hold it for long. This is happening, Boon thought. It is happening or I’m done for. Either way I’m done for. Mustering a connoisseurial calm, he turned to the next page.
The eel, he saw was no eel, but a Wurm, a dragon, and before he even placed his finger on the image, it arose from its coils, spread out black wings and hung at attention a moment before releasing a breath of printed fire that made Boon snatch his face away from the book. At that moment the lectern swung aside. He rose and went to the window. The snow had stopped falling, though the sky was heavy with cloud. Think, Boon told himself. There was no transport. If he attempted to leave on foot he would die out there in the snow. There was only one thing to try.
He left the library and stood in the dim, snowlit hallway, listening. There was no sound now, not even the wind. He found his way to the kitchen. The back door was open and the chill stood in the room. It felt as if no one had been here for some time. There was a telephone mounted on the wall next to him. It was not working. That was what Elena had told him. But what else could he do? He raised the receiver, heard a click, and then a silence which extended until he was close to despair, out of which at last the voice of an older woman came on to the crackly line and asked what number he required.
Afterwards he returned to the library. He was to wait and do nothing. From a distance he looked at the closed book on the lectern. It lay there blackly, minding its business, neither extending nor withholding its invitation to come and see…Boon found he had put the gloves back on. He went over and sat down and opened the book. The lectern slid shut. The book gave out a steady heat, like being too close a kitchen range, the black-leaded sort his grandmother had cooked on all her life. He opened the book. The figure of the bear was immobile, as though it had never moved. The panel from which the bird had flown was empty still. Slowly Boon turned the page. The heat grew. The panel of the dragon had taken on the sumptuous colours of a picture in a book of hours, les très riche heures, gold, green, gamboge, royal purple and crimson, and the space was taken up with the dragon’s head, which moved from side to side like a serpent’s. It held his gaze before its red-gold eyes flickered to the right. An instruction. Boon turned the next page. As he did so he felt the chair tighten about him and shackles of some kind slide into place about his ankles. When he put down the book and placed his hands on the arms of the seat to try to rise, his hands too were bound, and his gaze was drawn irresistibly back to the book, where the panel with the drawing of the wolf began to expand, steadily, until it occupied the whole of his vision. The heat intensified, but Boon’s sweat was icy. The picture space cleared, and out of the distance he saw something in flight, steadily approaching, but could not clearly make it out.
A wolf entered the picture, upright, grey-black and wearing a pelisse of gold and crimson flame, and a fiery crown. It turned and for a moment he saw that the wolf’s face was that of Jurek. So the master had never been away. A second wolf appeared, regal, queenly, crowned also with jewelled flames, Elena. Now the perspective: the distant object was an aircraft, now making its descent. He saw its Luftwaffe markings. It was a helicopter transport of a kind Boon had never seen before but in this moment knew was a Drache 223, a dragon of another kind. It landed on the lawn, blowing up a haze of snow with its rotors, and from inside it armed figures in winter camouflage came pouring, racing towards the house as if they would do so forever. It was not that time had slowed, Boon thought, but rather that he had been granted a view of how time might experience itself, with a terrible, icy grandeur, as the faceless, helmeted warriors came charging on, machine-pistols sat the ready.
The sky had cleared. The sun was in His Splendour. From the flank there appeared a company of fire-wolves, the Graf and Elena at their head. The pack fell on the invaders and, in a moment that seemed like years, incinerated all of them. The cries were terrible. When their work was finished the wolves passed on into the wood and the ashy remains of the German force were rapidly covered by the returning blizzard.
Boon heard the clock. The door behind him opened. His bonds released him. The black book was closed. He rose and stepped down.
Before the fireplace stood two fire-wolves, Elena and the Graf Manteuffel, human, lupine, resplendent in the flames that ran over them like veins and muscles. They bowed to Boon, moved apart and indicated that he should pass between them. He saw now that the fireplace was changed. It was a flickering doorway from which a flight of stairs led down. The heat was terrifying. As he passed between the fire-wolves, he sensed, at the limit of his hearing, a terrifying and continuous uproar. He knew that he would soon be part of it, below the world, among the damned, alas, for ever and ever, with nothing to read and nowhere to sit down.
Copyright Sean O’Brien
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