A Village in Belgium. August 1914.
By midmorning Oskar had answered a dozen queries and accumulated a neat stack of outgoing Manila envelopes on the corner of his desk. Among these replies on the Mundaneum’s heavy, official stationery were brief discourses regarding the material Noah used to construct his Ark and the consequences of new laws regarding suffrage, questions from around the world, asked for the cost of a postage stamp. He opened the next letter, childish writing on lined school-room paper:
Can you tell me the true location of the cave in which the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is asleep? When I was at school I met a boy who said that his friend had visited the cave and that he woke up and he asked about the ravens. Is it true that Kaiser Wilhelm is a reincarnation? I await your reply.
Maxwell Greenwood, aged 11
In the last months Oskar had received too many of these letters, enquiring after Avalon and the cave in which Charlemagne slept, reporting on shadowy creatures that crossed the full moon. Oskar preferred questions regarding advances in chemistry or geology, but nevertheless he answered all queries in the elegant, spare language dictated by the Mundaneum’s purpose as collector and disseminator of the world’s knowledge.
Oskar answered Maxwell’s question quickly in his fine blue-black hand; he did not need to climb the three flights to the European atlas room to confirm what he knew: according to most sources he sleeps in the vicinity of the Kyffhäuserbirge, though the exact location of the cave is unknown. Before he sealed it, he added a postscript regarding the possibilities of metempsychosis. He hoped it was the last such question he would answer that day. It was not.
After that he quite badly wanted coffee, and he left through the empty atrium on the ground floor with the marble-and-ormolu world map on the walls and the enormous double doors to the porte cochère. Standing on the front steps he saw that the little café across the square was closed. He stepped out into the vestibule and watched as a country-looking man led a stout pony through the village, dragging a cart, with his wife and two children walking behind.
Oskar waved. “Where are you going?”
“On to the coast, sir,” said the man, “you should, too! Sooner rather than later, I think, or they’ll be on you. They’ll be on you in no time at all! Did you hear about the cavalry at Liege? A great charge, sir! The greatest charge!”
It was fine for a farmer, Oskar thought, to leave that way. But he was not so lucky, bearing as he did the civilized man’s sense of duty. Even in conversation he felt the heavy keys in his pocket, the private charge Gilles had made that last day: that he stay with the Mundaneum, wait for instructions from the Köln office regarding a peaceful handover of its resources, and how to ensure their safety in the event of hostilities.
“Where will you go?”
“My wife’s sister is outside Antwerp. We’ll go to her. And sir, you know they’ve burned the railway to Brussels! There won’t be any trains. Not anymore. It will be the old bridge next—you see if they don’t blow it sky high!”
With nowhere to buy his coffee, Oskar returned to the office and boiled a kettle for tea. He thought of the empty railway stations, and then of his sister and mother waking this morning to newspapers and searching the pages for word of home, and how they would look for the letters he had sent and be comforted knowing he was well. It was good to think of them both held safe between the sea and the fortresses of the redoubt.
Most of the staff had left for the coast when his mother did, so Oskar worked alone in the Mundaneum’s halls. He had adopted Gilles’s office, a cool, airy room that faced the square. The last time they met, it had been in this office. They had sat together at the window, the fields green not yet gold. The buzz of a fly trapped in the drowsy room.
“It’s the end-times, apparently, and they won’t stop asking questions about King Arthur,” Oskar had said, “but if we are doomed I would like to finish my days with the English queries resolved up to 1 August.” It had sounded bold the way he said it. Gilles had clapped him on the shoulder and said “good man!” Oskar had liked that.
Gilles enquired after Oskar’s mother and sister—Oskar had sent them both to stay with an aunt in Antwerp two days before; though his mother had complained about what would happen to the geraniums, Oskar had promised to water them religiously. When it was over in a week or two, they would return to abundant salmon-pink blooms in the window boxes.
Gilles had agreed, of course, yes the ladies should be sent away, though there was no danger, no danger at all.
“These are civilized days, Oskar,” he had continued. “You mustn’t be concerned. I wrote again to our colleagues in Köln. I’m sure they have prepared the necessary documents, and will inform the General der Infanterie. We will continue to fulfill our obligations without disruption. It is, truly, an opportunity for a young man! We’ll put you in the Annual! Indeed, you will have a whole page with a portrait! The Hero of the Hour, we’ll call it, who handled the unpleasantness of August!”
Listening to Gilles, Oskar grew tall and straight in his suit. Even these weeks later he could hear his mentor’s words, and his own answer: yes, Gilles, of course I will be the Mundaneum’s guardian.
Oskar cut short—with a few terse and ironic words—a long correspondence criticizing the Mundaneum’s tendency to discount metaphysical experience, the secret histories and truths revealed by, for example, the Voynich Manuscript. It was a pleasure to write freely and unsupervised:
We are in possession of the Voynich Manuscript, sir, and I believe you overestimate its contribution to world knowledge, though of course it is a compelling curiosity—
He wrote with the usual machined precision, thinking all the time that he would have preferred to know what their colleagues in Köln had planned, whether they would send someone to liaise with the Deutches Heer, or whether he would receive forms, first, perhaps a letter of introduction that outlined the importance of the Mundaneum’s work.
In June, after the assassination, the gentlemen from the Köln office had visited one afternoon and talked about securing the collection in the event of hostilities. They had insisted on taking copies of the site’s catalog, which was of course impossible considering that the collection grew two and three times daily. The meeting had seemed helpful, and the gentlemen from Köln had promised to look into the matter. Gilles had been mollified at first, but despite strongly worded letters, no further instructions had been forthcoming. What the Köln office wanted, he could not tell, but the work continued and all queries were answered, for the time being.
Since meeting the gentlemen from Köln and hearing news of events in Sarajevo, Oskar had often imagined the handover, until in his mind it developed the composition and texture of an oil painting. It should happen at night, he thought. It always was night in those sorts of paintings, with the fires of, say, the Great Bombardment of 1695 illuminating the horizon. Peasants in attitudes of terror. One stalwart, defiant, at the composition’s center, standing protectively over the body of a girl, her breasts tastefully exposed as the sky overhead sank into blue and black. The light of a burning city glazing her skin.
A painting like that hung in the entrance hall to his grandfather’s house. He remembered looking up at it while his mother buttoned him into his coat on snowy nights, imagining that he was such a hero, with a feather in his hat and a sword at his hip.
Now he saw himself in similar tableau; with his hair a little wild, his suit rumpled, he would stand in the marble atrium across the canvas from a Prussian General in grey, framed by the large doors. Oskar alone, his head thrown back, his shoulders square. He imagined other officers behind the General in attitudes of curiosity and doubt. The whole scene suffused with fiery light, like smoke and blood.
He had not yet composed his speech, but he thought his voice would possess a heroic quaver, born not in cowardice but from the depth of his feeling. The General would know from this quaver and his defiance that Oskar would defend the Mundaneum to his last. Perhaps that fevered conviction alone would be enough to stop the Prussians’ advance, as it had done in the painting. The more he thought of it, the more clearly he saw the man’s aristocratic bearing, his perfectly cut uniform, and the shine on his high boots dusted over from the chalky road into the village. He imagined that the man would sense the Mundaneum’s significance, and—spontaneously—remove his hat.
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing to enquire about the history of Drake’s Drum.
The sun declined and shadows crossed the empty marble atrium. Climbing from basement to attic and back again, Oskar answered another dozen queries regarding the nature of the metric system, the Albigensian crusade, the educational innovations of Napoleon Bonaparte, the bones contained within the foot of an ostrich, and the possibility of second sight among the seventh son of the seventh son.
My name is Randall and I am looking for information regarding the existence of the great ape-man of Pacific coast of the North American continent. I have found a number of footprints, and include here diagrams of each species of print. It is my hope that you may integrate this information into your archive and share it with interested parties—
That query sent Oskar to the chaotic room in the second basement that contained all references to animals either extinct, imaginary, or unconfirmed. They should take that room in hand, Oskar had thought, and had talked to Gilles about the strangeness of the enquiry. “This is a peculiar season,” Gilles had said, “I received a note from a village outside Sarajevo where someone insisted the night had been full of cries and the earth shook beneath his feet. Don’t let it trouble you. You are here to disseminate knowledge, not evaluate its significance.”
For Drake’s drum he had to climb all the way to the second cupola, and he did not descend until late afternoon. When his foot touched the marble floor of the atrium he heard the main doors shut with a sharp, terminal click. He glanced toward the noise and saw a shadow in the doorway, but outside the square was empty. The only evidence of this stranger’s visit was the valise set in the middle of the floor. Dark leather, expensive and worn, the sort of thing he admired for both its elegance and its restraint.
“That is a very handsome bag,” Oskar said to no one. “Bespoke, no doubt. It is very kind of the Köln office to send such a handsome bag, but it would be even kinder if they sent the necessary instructions!”
The valise was far heavier than he expected as he carried it up the stairs to the office, composing a response regarding the Adriatic Sea Serpent. In Gilles’s office he admired its patinated brass rivets and heavy leather.
The town outside silent, not even the turn of wheels on the pavement, not even the late cry of children home from school, nor the shrill-voices of office girls and the trip of their steps down the corridors as they carried files and queries and the Manila envelops and the telegrams. And Gilles inviting him in for mille-feuille and a cup of black coffee from the Turkish set he kept just for those afternoon conversations. But the girls were gone to the coast, and Gilles was gone to Normandy.
It was good to stand in Gilles’s room, though, with the faint ghost of cigars and coffee.
When he opened the valise there came the scent of something sharp, something that burned his nose, that reminded him of bleach and the sulphur from a match, as though in opening the valise he had released something, a scent he could not name that reminded him of lilacs and horseradish, the earthy burn of mustard. The sweet, dense scent of hay lying in the fields, and the odor of sweat and of cold wool, and the faint stink of ozone before snow fall, and the taste of metal and salt on his tongue, too. As he breathed the valise’s exhalations, he felt all those scents inside him, particles swarming through his lungs to his blood—
There was a letter addressed to him and beneath it a chaos of paper, the slips and sheets and scraps in no obvious order.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” he said, and composed strong words about the Köln office’s rampant unprofessionalism.
We hope this letter finds you well. We regret to inform you that your village will soon be occupied by German Imperial soldiers of the Third Army, under the command of General der Infanterie Alexander Adolf August Karl von Linsingen. He is Prussian.
We are writing to request that you include the enclosed items in your archive, on the principle that they are of some significance to the record of human experience. If you are unable to complete this work, we hope you will protect them until you can.
You might consider the London office; though they are not yet properly established, they may be in a position to help you.
Fare well and good luck.
Ridiculous, he thought, if Köln thinks this is at all helpful.
He began arranging the valise’s contents on Gilles’s desk beside a stack of the Mundaneum’s embossed index cards. He was interrupted by an unfamiliar sound: the faint, distant shiver of a bombardment.
Somewhere a slow fuse had burned into the interior of a shell and triggered a compression wave that rippled first through the bursting charge and then the steel casing, and as it scattered through the air it disordered earth and buildings and trees and roads and dogs. And it passed through skin into bodies, through bones, through the remarkable machinery of a human jaw, the tympanic membrane of the ear, the nervous architecture of the spine. It carried hot metal through the elaborate and looping guts of a hundred nearby bodies—it sliced tangled nerves and tangled hair and split the fragile casing of an eye. It revealed the skull beneath the skin, and then the brain beneath the skull, and then the outpouring of—
—though this all happened, it was very far away, and Oskar felt only a tremor through the soles of his feet. The door rattling in sympathy and the dishes ringing in the little kitchen. He wondered where all the girls were, if they had fled to farms outside the village, or clustered along the coast looking across the channel and wondering how far the Prussians would march, and if they would reach the sea.
Oskar’s time at the Mundaneum had prepared him for most things: he possessed the rules for cataloguing maps or codexes, for photographs or sketches or an elaborate missal in the language of the Voynich Manuscript; he was prepared to find the answer to any question. But what fell through his fingers onto Gilles’s desk seemed only to be the fragments of a man’s pockets: ticket stubs and postcards; a little file of photographs; letters, pay-books, and a field service manual.
And—he had not noticed it—now his fingers were sooty, and the pages were speckled with the fine black mold of an ancient library. He opened the photographs.
—Somewhere, nearer this time, something exploded.
He reached further into the valise’s interior, which seemed to stretch ever so slightly to match the capacity of his grasp. He found picture postcards of salacious poses—tinted girls in the frilled and corseted costumes of pornographic milkmaids. Among one’s Grecian draperies the sweet, wispy shadow of pubic hair where two curving thighs met. A downward glance across a round shoulder, so smooth it might boneless, her hands entangled in velvet. The flowers at her tiny feet.
—Somewhere, a detonation. A tremor rose through the desk and into his hands.
Oskar turned over cufflinks and dust, violet pastilles and the stubs of theatre tickets, a fine straight razor with a bone handle. He found a lock of yellow hair in tissue paper, and a brass shell casing.
And then, his arm reaching so far into the valise’s depths he wondered at its capacity, he found the photograph of a man with no jaw, and without eyelids; old wounds, Oskar saw, healed over, but nevertheless a face no longer entirely human by reason of some earlier violence. A skull showing through his scarified skin. Then another photograph, this face noseless. Then a face caved in where it was once supported by cheekbones. Then the eyeless, the lipless, skin patched, naked teeth, then the throbbing red—how did he know it was red? But he knew it was red—palate exposed where the mouth had been blown away. Mutilé de guerre read one photograph.
Reaching further in Oskar pulled out an object—not paper but bone. A fingerbone, he thought, though he had never seen a fingerbone, except in drawings. It was still faintly damp as though fresh from beneath the skin of a man’s hand.
It was then he stopped, and arranged all these objects on Gilles’s desk, and stood back to survey them, his eyes drawn to and glancing past the mutilated faces and the chit from a gentleman’s club.
Despite the shudder in his hands he reached for the next index card. For a moment the room was illuminated by distant fire.
With an imaginary Gilles standing over him, Oskar worked through the contents of the valise—writing descriptions cross-referenced by class and subject, making suggestions for a new category perhaps called “Atemporal ephemera.” More and more and more fell from the bag, upended now on Gilles’s desk, beside the neat stack of Manila envelopes and the miniature of his wife on their wedding day. As he wrote index card after index card to describe them, the little tableau of the handover seemed to shrink in his mind.
The arriving Prussian, the staff, the other ranks who clustered the witnessing margins—what could he offer them to ensure the Mundaneum’s survival in this time of chaos and night? It was ridiculous if Köln thought they could get away with it. They had a duty to submit the correct forms. He had shipped them the directory himself—they knew exactly the resources that were at risk if the handover wasn’t properly managed.
He thought of the day of his first meeting with Gilles. How the old man had invited him into his office, and they had taken coffee together and Gilles had described the Mundaneum as a seamless machine, the voracious creature that contained within its rooms, its directories, its ledgers the whole sum of human knowledge made accessible to anyone with the money for a postage stamp.
When, after that first meeting, Oskar had looked at the gold world-map in the atrium he imagined the great world city that the Mundaneum’s organization would soon usher into being: a city of towers and telephones and aeroplanes, where glassy motorcars traveled at unimaginable speeds along carriage-ways that traversed the poles and the equator. He had seen plans for cities built in great concentric circles, where crystalline towers overlooked a green earth, full of people animated by exquisite sentiment. He had imagined unearthly vistas, and a human hand touching the deepest reaches of the sky.
It was the same hope he felt when he heard the pneumatic tubes hiss and deliver to him questions from all around the world. Where is the true location of Avalon? What is the origin of the phrase per ardua ad astra?
That was Progress, with his shining sword. A great gold-robed figure, he thought, who handed knowledge down like mana, like soma, like ambrosia, his inhuman countenance as blank and lovely as the sun.
As Oskar unpacked the valise and laid it out on Gilles’s desk, and then his floor, it replenished itself: more ticket stubs, and postcards; more bones and locks of hair and field service manuals in languages he did not recognize; more buttons bearing eagles and thistles. Like an untended wound, the valise disgorged detritus until he imagined its contents spilling out through the hallways of the Mundaneum, overwhelming its collections with brass shell casings and bones and pictures of shattered limbs.
Somewhere, Oskar thought feverishly, as he drew out another handful of scribbled action reports and telegraphs, somewhere the king in the mountain was awakening, or perhaps he already had, stirring in the dark caves of Europe, and soon he would rise and flood them all with wonders and terrors unforeseen.
It was dark when the Third Army reached the village.
Oskar, having paused in the unfinishable task of cataloguing the valise’s contents, was in the atrium to meet them. It was unfortunate that he had had no opportunity to speak with the General der Infanterie, who was reputed to possess an excellent liberal education and would have appreciated the Mundaneum’s work. That gentleman remained outside while a member of his staff—Oskar never knew the man’s name nor rank—a man dressed in a dirty grey uniform, strode into the atrium. He did not seem to notice Oskar at all. Behind him, the shouted imperatives of an active army.
“Franc-tireur, sir, across the square in the café—”
“—not anymore. Quite dead—”
“Herr General—” Oskar began, his voice cracking not with the fervor of his defiance but with fear.
“—does well enough for temporary command if we can secure the bridge. Some fool mined it—”
“Herr,” Oskar began again. “The gentlemen at Köln will have told you about our work at the Mundaneum—”
No one stopped to speak with him, but one man lifted his rifle to his shoulder. For a moment he watched Oskar down the long barrel.
Oskar’s hand, still gripping the valise, knuckles whitening, and his guts falling inside him, sweat collecting in a trickle down his spine. A finger on the trigger.
The atrium filled with noise, not Gilles’s slow footsteps, nor the quick trip of the girls Oskar missed so painfully, but the noise that men make in great number, their voices, their boots on stone, the breaking of glass.
The finger squeezing, and Oskar considered the action of the rifle, a Mauser Gewehr 98—
—that was Room 732, where Old Mixon liked to prattle his discourses on the history of gunpowder, the arquebus, and the Brown Bess, and the iron cannons of Han Shizhong. Oskar knew—he had taken Old Mixon hot tea in the January before, when his throat was bad, and heard him speak on the mechanism of the rifle—that when squeezed, the trigger would release a hammer that, on striking the base of the cartridge would initiate a controlled explosion in slow-burning cordite, traveling faster than sound so that Oskar would not hear the noise of the bullet before it burrowed through the bone of his skull, and into the meat behind it, and out the other side to spatter brains on the gold-and-ormolu map that dominated the atrium’s wall.
At such close range he would be burned, too, by the powder that would also spatter the soldier’s fingers—
—the man shifted his weight from left to right. Somewhere inside the rifle the hammer fell, the pin shot forward—
—Oskar’s ears rang with the gun’s discharge, and he heard the bullet crack the marble wall beside his head in the same moment that the earth rumbled underfoot. That was the bridge, he thought, outside the village, on the road to Brussels. That was good, then, the road severed, and the capital safe.
Through the incessant ringing of his ears and the pain where he had fallen and the dusty air he thought of Room 231, which contained in its display cases diagrams of ancient architectures, forts and castles, the old bridge grooved by a thousand years of passing wagons and footsteps.
Finding he was still alive, and the man in grey uniform temporarily distracted by the disorder outside, Oskar picked up the valise. He fled the atrium and along one corridor, and then down another, upstairs, downstairs, past the room where Daan tended the collected works of Bashō, translated into a hundred languages. Past Gastronomy, with its instructions for drowning ortolans in Armagnac and smothering dormice in honey. Past the little corridor devoted to derivatives of The Metamorphoses. Past map-cases and bookshelves, and those rooms brimming with uncataloged collections in dead languages. Through it all he felt the weight of the valise, and thought how light it is, for all it contains dead men’s bones.
Oskar climbed to the attic, and slipped out one of the little windows to a roof, and stayed there until dawn. Then he crept from rooftop to rooftop, his head down, until he dropped to the earth on the edge of the village. He picked up the valise and began his walk along the white coast-road that ran west, past his own home, past the farm of his grandparents, and through the August world, in all its richness and flower, the deepening blue of its skies and the fragile golden harvests ripening all around him.
Crowds on the road west, thronging. Men like him, carrying all their belongings in their arms. Oskar worried sometimes that someone would take the valise from him and discover that he carried chaos itself. He saw men and women shoulder old hunting guns and set out across the harvest fields. He heard distant bombardments and woke to the sound of larks. When he slept it was with his head on the valise, and through its leather side he heard the sound of fire.
Often he heard stories: “You know they burned the library at Leuven? Yes, the whole of it doused in gasoline, the shelves turned over, and the manuscripts trampled underfoot.”
First it was Brussels, and when Brussels fell it was north to Antwerp. Even while he listened to the voices around him, he found himself arranging what he heard according to the infinitely flexible catalog with room not only for facts but for the impossible: a faceless man of 1930, his jaw blown away in the as-yet unfought battles of a war Oskar could not yet imagine.
One night in early September, Oskar sat beside a campfire on the shore of the Yser, distant bombardment a counterpoint to the conversation. There were three of them, marveling at the new, dark age that had settled upon them. Here was a young boy alone and angry. Here was an old man numb with regret. Between them, Oskar.
“If you can get across the Scheldt you will be safe—“
“—that’s not far enough! You must go north to Rotterdam.”
“I’ll join the young King Albert beyond the Yser.”
“Did you hear that Barbarossa has risen? And Drake’s drum is sounding across England.”
“Someone found the great olifant and now Roland rides again out of Roncevaux, his brains dripping down his temples.”
It was more than Oskar could stand. “That cannot be,” he began, reflexively tightening his grip on the valise’s handle. “You are ridiculous. That’s legend!“
The men around the fire shook their heads. They granted his words a moment of silence. Then they began again.
“I heard that they raised an army of Teutonic knights with blind eyes and bloody hands—”
“—there was an angel, they say, who descended with the cavalry at Haelen—did you hear? An angel in a silver helmet, standing fifty feet high and brandishing his sword at the Deutches Heer.”
“They should be afraid! And there were a hundred thousand phantom bowman from Crecy and Agincourt, you know, who stood with the English host at Mons. And they say the English have harnessed poison itself, and send it out into battle to burn the eyes and lungs of any who breathe!”
“They crucified a private, you know. And they roasted the children of Flanders and ate them up.”
Having exhausted their catalog of wonders, the two strangers sat again in silence around their fire, until one turned to Oskar and asked, “What is it you keep in your valise, sir? Anything to eat?”
“It is nothing,” Oskar answered. “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
At his feet the valise expelled a letter regarding unpaid bills in a London club. It spit out a book of French verse stained with blood and oil. Oskar reached in so deep he rested his cheek against the worn hardware of the clasp and brought up a fuse, a cartridge, a broken revolver, a love letter, a chocolate bar, a can of beef, a punctured skull.
The darkness around the fire filled with the things Oskar pulled from the valise: a blood-stained smock; a flaccid French letter; an Italian pamphlet about venereal disease; the knucklebones of a dead Canadian drowned in some muddy battlefield Oskar could not name but which—somehow—he felt was there in the darkness, awaiting them.
He thought of his mother’s geraniums in the window of their little house, and of Gilles on the Normandy coast, and the gentlemen of Köln, and the bloody revenants of ancient kings who hid in caves and rode forth on skeletal horses, leading the armies of the dead, and soon-to-be-dead, and still the valise disgorged the detritus of an un-fought war.
The two men stared at the ground around it. The young man reached out his foot and turned over a diagram of a man bound ankle and wrist, illustrating best practices for Field Punishment Number One. “You’ve dropped your things, Sir.”
The other man picked up a field service manual and offered it to Oskar. “You should be more careful.”
Oskar—hesitating to touch it—took the book and returned it to the valise’s open mouth, along with the diagram of the bound man, and a handful of pastilles, and a lock of yellow hair. The two men watched him in silence.
Then he stood—he did not say goodbye—and again lifted the valise. He did not know where he’d carry it, but he would find some haven where he could unpack all of its contents and make some sense of them. Without looking back, he returned to the road, walking toward a horizon lit by the false dawn of a burning city.