After the untimely demise of Argosy Quarterly—confirmed in late fall of last year after a long gap between issue three and the planned issue four—Jeff VanderMeer’s agent, Howard Morhaim, brought our attention to an unpublished story meant for publication in that journal. We decided to publish it as a public service, and out of respect for James Owen, who has been unavailable for comment. The opinions and facts related in “Errata” in no way reflect the views of Tor.com or its parent company. We have included the note originally intended to be published with the story for contextual reasons.
—Tor.com Management Services
When I received Jeff VanderMeer’s “story,” reproduced below, my first impulse was to forward it to the writer’s family, to whom it might be more relevant than to the readers of Argosy. (The two photographs that accompanied the story—one of a kitchen freezer and the other of a waterlogged lobby—were more than a little disturbing to both myself and my wife, and I have declined to reproduce them within these pages.)
Unfortunately, my brother James had been quite explicit when he called to check on the progress of the issue two weeks before Mr. VanderMeer’s story arrived. He insisted that I include the story in the magazine “no matter how unorthodox it may appear to be.” At James’ request, I had already slapped—rather bemusedly—some images of farm equipment and seals into the allotted space in the main volume ready to be replaced with the tardy story whenever it came in. According to James, VanderMeer’s story “must be published both in the magazine and in a separate chapbook entitled simply Errata.” James pays the bills, so despite any instincts to the contrary, I have no choice but to publish this “story” as he desires—although that doesn’t mean I have to do so without comment or warning to the reader.
In short, whether you, as a reader, should have to endure the ramblings contained in this chapbook is an individual decision. I have no such freedom in deciding whether or not to publish it. I do know that there is little chance that the original title of this “story”—“A Literary Work of Great Import and Inestimable Redeeming Value”—will strike anyone as anything other than a pathetic joke.
I haven’t heard from James since that last phone call about Errata. As a result, the burden of finishing this issue of Argosy has fallen on my shoulders. I have already left a message for James letting him know that this is the last time I plan to involve myself with Argosy.
This kind of behavior is too eccentric to be considered professional.
Lake Baikal, Siberia—North of Yolontsk, Near Olkhon Island
I am writing this sitting in the waterlogged lobby of a rotting, half-finished condominium complex. I am surrounded by cavorting freshwater seals and have two pearl-handled revolvers in my lap, a bottle of vodka in my right hand, a human body in the freezer in the kitchens behind me, and a rather large displaced rockhopper penguin staring me in the face. Upstairs, on the second floor, is the room I’ve made my headquarters. It has a bidet but no bath. The toilet seat refuses to stay up. The wallpaper has succumbed in places to a grainy black fungus, despite the moderate climate. I smell mold everywhere. (Would you believe fish have appeared in the lobby on occasion?) Sometimes the electricity works, but mostly I hope it doesn’t because I’m convinced that with all the water everywhere I’m likely to be electrocuted, perhaps even while I sleep.
I don’t know the name of the condominium complex because the dilapidated sign out front is in Cyrillic, but it almost certainly includes the words “Lake Baikal” in the title. Lake Baikal Prison Camp Suites, perhaps. Or, Lake Baikal Indoor Swimming Pool & Seal Habitat. Or, Lake Baikal Zoo Suites.
Still, it has a magnificent view. The front wall of the lobby has eroded to the point that the windows have fallen out, so there’s nothing between me and the lake but a bit of mortar and marble. Sunsets are particularly magnificent, even if the atmosphere is marred by the seals snuffling in to sleep on the soggy carpeting, on the couches, and sometimes even on the tables. As for the penguin, her name is Juliette.
Did James tell you that the local shaman has inscribed my contact lenses with tiny mystical symbols? The shaman goes by the name of “Ed” because his real name is so convoluted that he long ago gave up making anyone learn it. The symbols supposedly bring me luck and ward off the Devil. I’m not sure it’s working. I’m also not sure how he managed the inscription.
I also admit to being more than a little confused as to how I wound up here. (And, for a while, I was confused as to how Juliette got here. Trade winds? Hitchhiking?) But, then, anyone would share this feeling, if put in my position. That I blame your brother is understandable, I think. That the vodka permeating this part of the world like a particularly harsh cliché dulls most of my anger is also understandable.
My splendid isolation—although how can one truly feel isolated surrounded by a convocation of such magnificently oratory mammals?—has been interrupted by several calls from your brother. Right here in the lobby. On this weathered battle tank of a telephone next to me, a black phone that looks like a prop from Dr. Strangelove. The last call came just a few days ago. Did James tell you about it? I imagine not.
“Jeff,” came his voice crackling through the bad connection, with what sounded like traditional Russian folk muzak bleeding into the background.
“James,” I said. “What the fuck am I still doing here? Tell me exactly what you want me to do.”
Your brother’s money had just about run out, rubles drifting through my hands, and I was thinking about asking Juliette to go hunt me up some fish.
“It’s time,” James replied with a kind of quivering anticipation in his voice. “It’s time.”
“No shit, it’s time. It’s past time,” I said.
“You must write now.”
“I must write now. Great. What do you want me to write about?” He’d told me while I was still in Florida that I would be writing a short story, but since I’d gotten to Lake Baikal, it had quickly become clear that I wasn’t just writing a “story.”
“All of it,” James said. “Even this.”
I paused for a second to think about that statement. “Even this?”
“Yes, even this.”
“And how about…this?”
“Yes, yes—all of it! It’s all important. Phone conversations. The shaman. Gradus. Your life. Hell, even the penguin. Just start at the beginning—whatever you think is the beginning. And don’t forget the Errata part. That’s important for the Change.”
“It’s so important, Jeff,” James said, and I could tell he was pleading now. He thought he had to convince me. He’d forgotten I had been talking to Ed a lot. He’d forgotten what I’d left behind. He’d even forgotten what I’d had painstakingly etched into the edges of my contacts.
James’ voice broke with some unidentifiable emotion as he said, “Jeff, it’ll all be worth it. You’ll see.” “I hope so,” I said. “Because my room doesn’t even have a bath. And that lake is fucking freezing.”
That’s when I hung up. Juliette, standing patiently by the chair, looked up at me with a stare that said, “Maybe you shouldn’t have done that. Maybe he had more to say.”
Well, if he did, it couldn’t have been important, because he hasn’t called back.
So let me throw both you and James a bone: Here’s your first correction. Ed helped me with it by consulting his Book (more about that later). Hell, in a way even Juliette helped me with it. Finding it. Picking this bit over any other. Weighing the “exact pressure of each word as it impacts the world,” as James had once said. I can almost feel that pressure in the way the ice hanging on branches in the early morning seems brittle, ready to fall.
And when it does? What will happen then?
Erratum #1: “Box of Oxen,” Alan Dean Foster, forthcoming in issue four
The son of Russian immigrants, one of the observers peering through powerful binoculars immediately recognized the Cyrillic letters stamped on the side of the cylinder. His hasty translation provoked consternation and not a little alarm among his coworkers. Frantic, coded messages were sent to various parts of the country.
The son of Russian immigrants from the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, one of the observers, named Sergi, peered through powerful binoculars and immediately recognized the Cyrillic letters and shamanistic symbols stamped on the side of the cylinder. There were also some mutterings in Russian. His hasty translation of the Cyrillic provoked consternation among his coworkers. Frantic coded messages were sent to various parts of the country. As for the symbols, Sergi failed to mention them to his coworkers, for they promised both the destruction and redemption of humankind. They brought back to Sergi memories of vacations with his family, of walking through a forest of silent fir trees only to emerge at the banks of Lake Baikal near Shaman Rock, which rose from that limitless blue like a shrine. His father had told him that the strongest of the heavenly gods lived there, and negative or bad thoughts could disturb the god’s slumber. He had always been careful, therefore, to never complain while on their vacation, and to live always in the moment, absorbing the mysteries of that clear water and the stillness that wavered forever between peaceful and watchful.
Deathless prose it ain’t, but according to Ed and the Book, that is the appropriate correction. We are now Closer than we were to the Change, as James would say.
But James also said to start at the beginning, and that’s a good deal more difficult. How do you determine that? Beginnings are continually beginning. Time is just a joke played by watchmakers to turn a profit, don’t you think, Jeremy? Well, maybe not. That could just be the vodka talking.
Maybe it starts with meeting James for the first time at the World Fantasy Convention in 2003, where he was debuting Argosy. But I talked to him for about four minutes, tops, so that’s probably not it.
Perhaps it starts with the writers’ convention in Blackpool, England, where a dozen or so of us writer-types—Liz Williams, Jay Caselberg, Neil Williamson, Jeffrey Ford, and others—wound up trapped in a small wood-paneled room at the butt-end of a couple of spiral staircases and a maze of corridors. We were there for a reading, but found no audience, so Gwyneth Jones told us the uplifting story about how she walked downstairs one night to the sounds of a frog screaming as a cat disemboweled it.
That was the first time I felt my world shift in a way that signaled potential cataclysm. I mean, there were less personal harbingers, like 9/11, the war in Iraq, and any number of other calamities. But for some reason, sitting there next to Jeffrey Ford in that town that seemed like a combination of hell and a carnival, where the next event slated for the convention hall was a double bill of Engelbert Humperdink and David Cassidy—somehow that moment signaled a downward spiral. I remember thinking, Is this what being successful is going to be like? Trapped in a closet with a bunch of other successful people? Somehow, even though the rest is murky, I can see the connection between that moment and this one—sitting here, drinking vodka and talking to a penguin.
I’ve tried giving vodka to the penguin, by the way. She doesn’t like the taste. The seals, on the other hand, seem designed to imbibe the stuff. Clearly, they are Russian, while the penguin is not. Ed explained Juliette to me the first time he came over. An escapee from a passing circus. In love with an Antipodes or Falklands that she (he? sexing penguins is one skill level beyond me) will probably never see. Far from home, just like me and the man in the freezer.
“When you get to your room at Lake Baikal, you’ll find a box on the bed in your room. There will be a pair of pearl-handled revolvers in the box,” James told me after he’d sent me the plane ticket.
“That’s what I said.”
“What the fuck will I need guns for?”
There was a pause. Then: “Nothing to worry about, Jeff. If you need to hunt game or anything.”
“Hunt game? With pearl-handled revolvers?” I asked, incredulous. “Isn’t that a bit…I dunno…fancy? Do I just run out into the forest with my pearl-handled revolvers, or do I invite some deer to a cocktail party and then gun them down?”
But it wasn’t until I actually reached Lake Baikal and brought up the subject again over the phone that James told me the truth. “Actually, I should be honest. There are people who would like to see us fail.”
For the first time, my bullshit detector went off. I realize now it should have gone off much sooner. “Fail at what? Writing a short story?”
A pause. Then, “It’s more complicated than that. You’ll have to read everything I left you in your room to understand.”
“So there’s someone after me?”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know. It could be one of several people. Let’s just call him ‘Gradus’ for now.”
“That’s fucking hilarious,” I said. “Should I start calling myself Shade? Perhaps I can call you Kinbote?”
“Call me whatever you like,” James said. “I know you’re bitter. You’re self-hating—and you have every right to be. But don’t worry—when you truly take in what Lake Baikal has to offer, all of that will change. Now, go up to your room on the second floor. Everything you need is there.”
And he hung up.
Leaving me to worry about a faceless shadow named Gradus that might one day, one night, appear in the seal-choked lobby and force me to use those pearl-handled revolvers. From that moment forward, I could not rid my dreams of him: a silhouette, a too-white glint of eye, a swift and certain death.
When you truly take in what Lake Baikal has to offer, all of that will change.
Mark Sergeev, an Irkutsk poet, once wrote:
If you are stopped suddenly by a penetrating blue and your heart pauses, as it sometimes happens only in childhood, from astonishment and delight…if all petty worries, all the vanities of the world, fall away like autumn leaves, and the soul takes wing and is filled with light and silence. If, suddenly, the real world holds back, and you feel that nature has its own language and that it is now clearly understood. If a simple earthly wonder has entered your life and you have felt ennobled by this encounter—it means, this is Baikal.
And that’s how it was for me from my first glimpses of Lake Baikal, in the back seat of the world’s most ancient and rusty cab, to the truly stunning view available at my condominium digs. (And such interesting facts! Did you know, Jeremy, that twenty percent of the world’s fresh water can be found in Lake Baikal? Or that it would take all the rivers of the world one year to fill its basin? I was still absorbing these facts as we pulled up.)
Of course, Jeremy, you have to understand: Such a feeling, such a state of grace, can be destroyed by the wrong context, the wrong events. Like being surrounded by seals and a displaced penguin. Like having to put a dead body in a freezer. That kind of thing can kill your ability for wonder, no matter how much you wish to retain the feeling that the world as we know it is fundamentally sound.
I ask Juliette for advice sometimes. “Juliette,” I say. “Is Ed for real? Is the Book for real? Is James for real? Is this really going to work? Or is it a form of madness?”
“I dunno,” Juliette says. “I’m just a penguin. But I can bring you some fish, if you’d like.”
“That would be nice,” I say, “because this Russian beef jerky tastes like it’s made from a mixture of bear and rubber.”
Lake Baikal is nearly a mile deep. If Juliette could dive deep enough, she could bring me fish that had never felt the light upon them. She could bring me treasures rarely seen by humans. Mysteries long unsolved, brought into the sun.
Correction alert. I’ll feed you these slowly, so you don’t get stuffed.
Erratum #2: “The Telephone,” Zoran Živkovi?, issue three
I put the receiver to my ear and said sharply, “Hello!”
“Good evening!” said someone at the other end of the line. I’d been certain it would be a younger person, most likely under the influence of a substance that had put them in a very happy mood. Instead, I heard the deep, serious voice of a middle-aged man, so my hackles came down a little. I’d been ready to deliver a tirade on bad manners to the unknown young caller, but now I just replied, “Good evening,” although still in a surly tone.
“This is the Devil,” said the man evenly, just like one of my friends who was calling.
I sat there speechless for several moments and then hung up the telephone.
I put the receiver to my ear and said sharply, “Da?”
“Guten evening,” said the person on the other end of the line. The connection crackled and popped as if I were hearing grease dance on a stovetop.
I’d thought it would be a young person, most likely under the influence of vodka. Instead, I heard the deep, gravelly voice of an old man. The voice had an undertone I can’t describe except to say it sounded like the spring loam of deep forest, the glimpse of sky through thick branches. Which doesn’t make sense, but there it is.
The man’s voice made my hackles come down a little. I’d been ready to deliver a tirade on bad manners to the unknown caller, but now I just replied, “Good evening,” although still in a surly tone.
“This is the shaman,” said the man unevenly, the inconsistency of his tone oddly calming. “Have you ever envisioned a better world? A world where silence is a blessing and snow is like peace?”
For a moment I was held by a terrible fascination, and a glimpse of a half-formed image of immense power, but with a shiver I managed to deny it and hang up the phone.
And so on, Jeremy, substituting “shaman” for “the Devil,” with frequent allusions to snow, ice, the frozen north, etc. I don’t have the patience or attention span to set it out right now. If that ruins everything, so be it. But I rather think at this point that any decision I make is the right decision.
The old shaman in Zoran’s story certainly was right. It gets bitterly cold up here in the winter. The locals tell me that waves freeze in mid-crash against the shore, that you can see every individual ripple and striation in the resulting ice sculptures—and they have the photographs to prove it.
At what passes for the local bar (the only business within miles: a tin shack a mile down the road), the owner sells these photographs to the rare tourist, along with a local myth that “in the extremest cold words themselves freeze and fall to earth. In spring they stir again and start to speak, and suddenly the air fills with out-of-date gossip, unheard jokes, cries of forgotten pain, words of long-disowned love.” That’s not how the bartender put it; that’s a quote from Colin Thubron’s In Siberia, which was left on my bed along with the pearl-handled revolvers. The quote makes me sad and hopeful at the same time. It speaks to my mission, such as it is.
But, then, everything has been speaking to me in that way, lately. The day I left Tallahassee, Florida to come here, my stepdaughter Erin gave me a kind of anarchist’s handbook called Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink for Beginners.
“I don’t need it anymore,” she said, “but I thought you might.”
At that point, she had no reason to give me anything other than a black eye, so I was touched. “I’ll read it,” I said. But the truth is, I read one page and just haven’t gotten around to the rest.
That first page (page 126) was titled “The Concert at Baku” and related the events of November 7, 1922, when the Russian experimental composer Arseny Mikhailovich Avraamov
ascended to the roof of a tall building and directed a concert of factory sirens, steam whistles, artillery, and everything else in the city of Baku capable of making loud noise; for the climax of the piece, the entire fleet of the Caspian Sea joined in with their foghorns.
Of course, the book tried to make it logical, part of the peoples’ struggle: “a moving demonstration of what is possible when art and cooperation are considered integral to social life, rather than quarantined to our private lives and leisure time.”
But even then, before I truly knew what James meant to do, what Argosy meant to him, I saw Mikhialovich Avraamov’s act differently. I thought about all of the people who participated in his experiment. Surely some of them sought more from it than just music. Surely some of them saw it as transformative, as a kind of liberation. I saw it as his attempt at change—to find the right sounds and symbols to alter the world at its core, to split it open and reform it. To, in an odd way, heal it.
After all, Jeremy, do you really think James sent me all the way to fucking Lake Baikal to write a short story? I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all. Not now.
I should probably tell you what I found when I got here. After paying the Mongolian cab driver his rubles, I walked into the water-soaked lobby of this place, noting the seals with a small sound of surprise, but ignoring them long enough to call James and let him know I had arrived. Then I walked up to my room on the second floor, just as James had directed me to do.
In addition to a desk with a manual typewriter on it (which I have disdained to use, preferring my pretentious customized Moleskine notebooks with gold leaf inlay, and utilitarian ballpoint pens), I found a box with two pearl-handled revolvers on the bed, along with a scrawled note that said to look under the bed.
I put my suitcase down and looked. What did I find? Nothing as dramatic or as fancy as the revolvers. Just the following:
• Copies of Argosy #1-#3
• Printouts of parts of Argosy #4
• The Lake Baikal Guidebook, by Arthur D. Pedersen and Susan E. Oliver
• an envelope containing a badly typed letter (on annoying onionskin paper) that must have been dictated to someone local over the phone
• an envelope inside that envelope, containing a second letter.
• contact information for Ed the Shaman
• reminders of how to reach James by phone
• the address to which I should send my finished story
The first letter read as follows (errors corrected):
Now that you have reached your destination, you no doubt have questions about the scope of your mission, and why it required you to travel so far across the world.
The answer is not that easy to provide, although at its simplest level your mission does require you to write a story, while also correcting “mistakes” made in Argosy since its inception.
The truth is, I can give you hints as to how to carry out your mission. I can give you the tools you need to complete it. I can even give you an explanation (see the second letter, should you need it). But even after all of that, you will change the context of the assignment by your very involvement in it. There are variables I cannot and do not wish to control. Mutations and permutations will mean the result is not exactly as I have intended, but it will also ensure that the result is truly unpredictable and thus worthy of our work. To some extent, I have factored all of this into my calculations.
The errata part of your assignment is perhaps the most straightforward. In short, I need you to read through each issue of Argosy and issue corrections for certain stories. I cannot tell you which stories, but I believe you will, as you become attuned to the power of Lake Baikal and your own natural instincts, recognize the right ones when you see them. Ed the Shaman will then help you by consulting his Book for you, a holy tome that has been passed down from generation to generation. I believe this step is essential, and so does Ed. I can personally vouch for him, as I have met with him several times while traveling through the area. (On my father’s side, I am descended from ancient Siberian tribes, and I know that the shaman’s wisdom runs very deep indeed.)
After you have performed this step and learned everything you need from the guidebook, I believe that your assignment will become much clearer. You will know what to write and how to write it, in the exact way necessary.
You can always open the second letter if you find yourself needing a “why.” I leave it up to you as to when you open it. I will say only that the timing of this action is important.
Did it feel like starting over, after everything I had been through? The hell it did. It felt like a bad dream. Isn’t that right, Juliette? Yes, that’s right, Jeff.
I didn’t open the second letter for a long time. Normally, I would have opened something like that immediately, but somehow, at that moment, I couldn’t handle any of James’ why’s. I could hardly handle the seals in the lobby. Comical. Sinister. Surreal. I don’t know how to describe my first impressions.
A new life. Guns. A composer who used a whole town for his orchestra. A place where words freeze in the winter and thaw in the spring. And over it all, the shadow of Gradus waiting to envelop me. Slowly progressing, feeling his way toward James’ plan.
Aren’t you scared? I was scared. I’d have pissed my pants if it would have helped relieve the fear.
Only Juliette wasn’t scared. Over the centuries, I’m sure her kind had seen much worse—doomed Antarctica expeditions, men eating the frozen bodies of their comrades, sled dogs reduced to whimpering piles of bones, ships frozen in the ice, strife and conflict: a whole history of failure witnessed by her forebears. And throughout it all, a question on the cellular level rising slowly in the communal, generational penguin mind: Why?
Why does it have to be this way?
Erratum #3: “The Gate House,” Marly Youmans, forthcoming in issue four
In October, the cold and snow would begin, sealing the stream in ice, sagging the limbs outside the kitchen window. The land would look stainless and white, as if the world knew nothing of blood and dirty deeds. She would build a snow maiden in the courtyard and feed the birds who had the courage to stay and not fly south. Consolation might sift from the sky, like soft crystal. It could be a new life, now dimly seen, like the humpbacked shape of a camel in a dispersing cloud.
In October, the snow and ice would come, sealing the lake in silence, weighing down the trees outside her kitchen window. The land and lake would look seamless and white, as if it knew nothing of blood or pain. She would build a snow maiden on the edge of the lake and feed the birds that had no choice but to stay in that frozen place. And through that act, consolation might settle over her as gently as the snow. The world seemed to tell her that she could have a new life, now dimly seen, like a shadowy figure walking slowly across the ice-laden lake to the near shore.
I wonder if Gradus was stalking me long before I came to Lake Baikal. I wonder if he has been there since the Beginning. (Whichever beginning you prefer, Jeremy.)
As I may have mentioned, I have a fine view of the lake from here, given that the water comes right up to and beyond my doorstep. Sometimes, oddly enough, this lobby feels like a landing pad on the Death Star, with seals lunging in and lurching out every few minutes, their heads bobbing, their large eyes alive with hidden meaning. Mostly, they seem to be mocking me.
Because, honestly, would I be sitting here in a rotting condominium complex halfway around the world if I hadn’t, at some point, hit rock bottom? Your brother may be persistent and good at persuading people to do things, but no one’s that good.
I shared my story with Ed a couple of weeks ago, when he came around in his battered pickup to take me to Shaman Rock and his Book. After I had finished my account, Ed turned to me and said, “You are a fortunate man. You are still alive and you have a purpose.”
Possibly. Possibly not.
The truth is, Jeremy, by April of this year, my life had begun to fall apart. The coming schism, the disintegration that I’d sensed in Blackpool, had reached fruition. Constant book tours, fan emails, re-imagining my lump of a body into something more approximating fitness, and my complete inability to relax into all of this new success had warped my mind. The vodka helps me see this. (Juliette reminds me of it with her innocent, non-judgmental stare.)
I became ever more vain and superficial. I bought fifteen pairs of shoes, for fuck’s sake. I got contacts. I spent more time primping than a super model. Worse, I took my wife Ann for granted. I took Tallahassee for granted. I had a restlessness in me that led to driving around late at night dressed to the nines with the music turned up loud, as a poor substitute for…what?
Sometimes everything seems hopeless on the macro level—global warming, war, murderously corrupt politicians, terrorism. Sometimes it is much more personal and internalized.
I began to drink too much. I began to indulge in self-pity. I began to see myself as some kind of victim in all of this, and that led to worse things still. I had an affair with a coworker at my day job. Ann left me as a result. I turned for comfort to my new lover, only for her to reveal that she was a born-again Christian. “Accept Jesus and we can be together,” she said. When I refused, she lodged a harassment complaint with Human Resources. My supervisor told me it would be best if I quit. I told her what she could do with that suggestion, and by mid-June, I had lost my marriage, my day job, and most of my self-esteem and had been reduced to living in a tiny cockroach-infested apartment with only the slim thread of intermittent royalties keeping me off the streets.
I was in shock by then, I think. I was beyond feeling guilt or anything else. I’d gotten what I wanted only to find out it wasn’t what I wanted at all.
I hung out at a bar called Gill’s, dulling myself into a stupor with cheap beer and whiskey by night and trying to think up ideas for blockbuster commercial novels to pitch to my agent by day. I tried to make out to all but my closest friends that everything was fine. I limped along with some freelance work for Publishers Weekly and the local newspapers, but I knew that would dry up eventually, because I was always missing deadlines.
By July, I had stopped doing even that and just drank all day and night. I even stopped bathing and shaving. Sometimes, during my erratic sleep, I’d dream of my former life and it would seem exactly that: a dream of something that had never been. When I woke, I’d call Ann, no matter what the time, even though I knew there was no hope she’d take me back, just to reassure myself that once upon a time I’d had that life.
I try to convince myself now that it would have gotten better without outside intervention, but I think I’m wrong. If James hadn’t called one night while I was at Gill’s, trying to convince Katie, the owner, to give me a beer on credit, I don’t know what would have happened.
The phone at the bar rang and Katie answered it, then handed the receiver to me with a puzzled look on her face. “It’s for you. Says he’s an old friend. Keep it brief, okay?”
“Hello,” I said.
“Jeff? Jeff VanderMeer?”
“Yeah. Who the fuck is this?”
A thin laugh. “James Owen. Remember me?”
For a second, I didn’t. James Owen might as well have been from another planet.
“World Fantasy 2003? Argosy?”
Then I did remember, which confused me even more. “How’d you get this number?”
“It doesn’t matter. Let’s just say a couple of concerned friends gave it to me.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Because I have an opportunity for you.”
“What kind of opportunity?”
There was a pause. I think he knew this was a hard sell. “I need you to go to Lake Baikal in Siberia and write a story.”
“You want me to write a story about Lake Baikal?”
“No. I need you to go to Lake Baikal and write me a story. For Argosy.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“I don’t blame you for thinking so, but I’m not. You’ll be paid. Your expenses will be taken care of…. Don’t you think a change of scenery might be a good idea?”
“Lake Baikal?” I was trying to get my wits about me. “That’s the place with the freshwater seals?” As I would soon know all too well.
“Among other things. A property there has recently come into my possession and it would be perfect for you. You can get some peace and quiet there and write.”
James chose not to reveal at that point that he thought a man would one day come walking along the lakeshore with the express purpose of killing me.
That first time James called me at Gill’s, I hung up on him and went back to drinking. And the next night. And the night after that. It was not until the night after I got into a fight in the parking lot over something so stupid I can’t remember what it was and had my nose broken that I realized that I needed to say “yes” or I was going to find my way to rock bottom.
“Great,” James said. “I knew you’d come around.”
He gave me the flight information, assured me of money coming in the mail, and told me his instructions would be waiting for me at Lake Baikal.
“That all sounds fine to me, James,” I said, as if I was talking to a crazy person.
I drank my way through the countless hours of flights, the bus and train and car rides, until I finally wound up here.
Gradus remained in my thoughts. I could not get him out. He was the great Unknown in a world that had become as simple as the ice and snow, but no less mysterious.
“When can I expect this mystery man to arrive, James?”
“I don’t know. It could be any time.”
“Any time, huh?”
“Yes. You should carry the revolvers with you wherever you go.”
“Even down to the grocery store?”
“There is no grocery story near you.”
“Exactly my point! Neither I nor Juliette is thrilled about that. No movie theater, either.”
“Appreciate the natural beauty.”
“I’m trying. I’m also reading the guidebook for the fiftieth time. I’m on the verge of switching to the crimethink book and becoming an anarchist.”
“Stay calm. It’ll all be over soon.”
“I just wish this ‘Gradus’ would get here soon so I can show him these fancy revolvers and scare him on his way.”
“Jeff, this kind of person doesn’t get scared. You will probably have to kill him.”
I didn’t believe him, at the time.
A week after my arrival, I met Ed the Shaman for the first time. I hadn’t been putting it off so much as acclimating to my surroundings—getting used to having conversations with Juliette; taking hikes along the lakeshore, through the stunning, bird-filled forests; familiarizing myself with the tin shack bar and its twelve different brands of vodka. James hadn’t indicated any constraint for my “Literary Work of Great Import and Inestimable Redeeming Value” other than “I’ll let you know when you have to start it,” so I’d decided to take my time.
But, finally, I called Ed. He arranged to pick me up early on a Monday morning. I had with me an Erratum segment—or, at least, what I thought might serve as one—taken from John Grant’s “The Dragons of Manhattan.” It contained long tracts of rant that I thought might be James applying the nudge of his own beliefs.
Ed pulled up in a battered pick-up truck that needed a coat of paint and new shocks. The back was filled with fishing tackle, old tires, and wooden boxes that appeared to be stuffed with hay.
He got out, said hello in decent English, and shook my hand. He didn’t look like a shaman, even allowing for the fact that I’d only ever seen them in photos in books and read about one in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.
“You’re the shaman?” I asked.
“Yes—I’m Ed. James wrote to me awhile back, so I was expecting your call.”
“Ed” wore a baseball cap of indefinite origin, a denim jacket over a worn t-shirt, and a pair of faded blue jeans. He had a gold earring shaped like an otter in his left ear and a silver earring shaped like a seal in his right ear. His broad, wrinkled face had the half-Caucasian, half-Asian look shared by many in the area. He had eyes so blue and piercing it was hard to hold his gaze.
I felt like asking, “Is this your traditional dress? Because it’s not very convincing.” But I resisted. Instead, I asked, “Where are we going?”
Ed smiled. “We’re going to consult the Book. It’s near Shaman Rock.”
I had heard of Shaman Rock from the travel guide. It was the holiest of holy sites in the old religions. Even going near it was hazardous according to some. But what the hell—this was what I was here to do. So I hopped into the passenger seat, held the door shut with a piece of electrical cord, and off we went, Ed using a series of dirt roads to get to our destination. (There wasn’t anything paved within twenty miles of the condominiums. Not any more. No need for it.)
“You know you need to pay me to see the Book?” Ed asked along the way.
I didn’t, but luckily James had provided enough money.
Warning: Here comes another correction.
Erratum #4: “The Dragons of Manhattan,” John Grant, issue three
Any internally coherent set of explanations of the phenomena we observe around us starts off as the cutting-edge science of its day. Assuming it is widely accepted, it becomes a fixed dogma: To disagree with it is a stupid and indeed evil revolt against supposedly absolute knowledge. Even though humanity’s retaliations against the rebels can be vicious in the extreme, eventually there are enough revolutionaries, and they are persistent enough, that the existing Grand Universal Theory is forced to adapt or give way to a new, improved version.
Any internally coherent set of explanations of the phenomena we observe around us becomes the cutting-edge science of its day. Assuming it is widely accepted, it devolves into dogma: To disagree with it is a stupid, evil revolt against supposedly absolute knowledge. But even though humanity’s retaliations against the rebels can be vicious, eventually the revolutionaries are persistent enough that the existing Grand Universal Theory is forced to adapt or give way to a new, improved version.
I can’t tell you where the Book is housed in relation to Shaman Rock. I can’t tell you much of anything about it, because I promised Ed I wouldn’t. And, besides, it’s irrelevant to this story. What is relevant to this story is the Book itself.
It lay in its hiding place like something made from the earth—more than a thousand years old, according to Ed, and containing all the wisdom of his shaman forebears. It was fashioned from broad leaves and red bark. Dead beetles and the pelts of animals had been woven into its spine. Large and bulky, it smelled light, of mint and sea salt. The languages in which it had been set down were various and incomprehensible to me. Its cover, wood shot through with silver and bronze, had a worn, smooth feel that was pleasant to the touch. But the cover is all I got to touch, and all I saw of the pages was a quick five-minute glimpse before Ed motioned for me to move back, away from the Book.
In short, Jeremy, it was the most extraordinary object I have ever seen, and it is mostly my glimpse of the Book that allows me to maintain faith in this whole mad project. Certainly it wasn’t James’ reassurances or the all-too-ordinary appearance of Ed himself.
That first day, all I did was read the erratum excerpt to Ed, who then consulted the Book, burned some incense, and told me after about an hour, “You’ve got the right manuscript. But that’s the wrong part. And the change is small in this one. A slight change is all you need. Bring another part tomorrow and we’ll start over.”
Then he took me fishing in his cockleshell of a boat. We caught some white graylings, which we cooked over an open fire in the lobby back at the condo. It drove the seals away temporarily, but fascinated Juliette, who even seemed to like the taste of cooked fish. That’s the kind of barbarism a circus will drive you to.
I repeated this process for weeks as I strove to find the right parts for the Errata. James called every once in awhile to check up on me. For the most part, I didn’t appreciate these calls.
Once he said, apropos of nothing, “I am a direct descendent of Cotton Mather and Increase Mather. Make of that what you will.”
I haven’t made much of it, let me tell you.
“Dave Eggers might read this issue,” he said during his next-to-last call.
Of all the things he said, this made me angriest. “So the fuck what? After everything else you’ve told me, who gives a flying fuck about that? Fuck Dave Eggers. I’m freezing my ass off here, trying to believe in some shamanism thing that’s probably bullshit, and you’re thinking about Eggers?”
“Well,” James said, “by my calculations, he’s one of those who has to read it for us to be successful.”
During another call, I was telling him about an unstable artist friend of mine, and he said, “At the age of eleven, I was a long-term patient in a hospital in Phoenix. On a single day, I was visited by the Pope, with whom I discussed superhero comics; and Mickey Mouse, with whom I discussed being visited by the Pope. An hour later, President Reagan was shot. These events helped to cement my thoughts about synchronicity.”
“What the hell was that?” I said. I’d been telling him about the seals when he went off into his soliloquy. “Did you read that off a note card or something?”
“I did,” he said.
“Fuel for your story. It needs to be in there. As does a mention of farm equipment.”
Most of the time, we both tried to avoid the subject of Gradus, even though I would go to sleep thinking of him and wake up in the morning with a start, certain he was standing over me, and reach like a drowning man for my pearl-handled revolvers.
James’ reasons for putting me in this position still remained cloudy, but I had decided not to open the second letter until after I finished the mind-numbing task of perfecting the Errata. And, after awhile, I stopped asking James, because he refused to tell me over the phone. Which meant that only the letter could answer my remaining questions. Still, I resisted its pull.
Juliette helped me. I kept asking her if I should open the letter, and she refused to answer—for which silent advice I would reward her with some grayling.
Erratum #5: “My General,” Carol Emshwiller, issue two
They’d given up on getting any information out of him. They said he was mine to do with as I wished. We always take them along with us and get them back in shape for our farms. “Don’t be treating him too nice,” they said. “He’s dangerous.” They say that every time. Nothing has happened so far and it’s unlikely considering the shape they’re always in.
They’d given up on getting any information out of him. They said he was mine to do with as I wished. We always take them along with us and get them back in shape for our farms. “He’s dangerous,” they said. “He killed a man. He’ll kill you if you give him half a chance.” They say that every time. Nothing has happened so far and it’s unlikely considering the shape they’re always in. Most of them are so shocked that their vision of the world has proven false that they fall into a stupor, as if their minds cannot adjust to their new situation. Their new world.
By now, I’ve grown used to the seals, and grown fond of Juliette. (In a reversal of our established roles, I’ve taken to buying fish for Juliette from Ed.) I’ve grown used to the rhythms of the lake and the sounds that begin at dusk—the sounds of owls, of bats, of the occasional night fisherman working without lights: rasping pieces of words in a foreign tongue, distorted by the water. I don’t even mind bathing in the lake anymore. I jog and I do push-ups and have forgotten weight machines even exist. Even better, my readers can’t get to me here, and neither can my editors. Really, all things considered, it should be peaceful. Except for the man in the freezer.
That happened the day before yesterday. Yesterday, I had visitors, strangely enough. The author and explorer Liz Williams had heard a rumor that I was in the area and stopped by with a couple of her friends on their way south, into China. You don’t think of there being “explorers” today, but there are in this part of the world, and Liz is one of them.
They didn’t stay as long as I might have liked, although I still was glad of the company. Juliette is not what one might call a sparkling conversationalist. And Ed either talks in riddles or asks for money.
While Liz’s companions explored my surreal abode and were in turn investigated by the local seal community, Liz and I sat and talked, reliving Blackpool and various other adventures. After all that had happened in the twenty-four hours before that, I was relieved to experience a veneer of normalcy. Even if I was babbling. Even if my heart was pounding in my chest.
As I may have mentioned, one thing they have in abundance around here is vodka. We drank a lot of it. For a long time.
Eventually, she noticed the pearl-handled revolvers on the table next to us.
“Oh, those are nice,” she said. “I used to have a pair like that back in Brighton. Used them for magic shows.”
“I killed a man with them yesterday,” I blurted out.
Liz laughed, said, “These things happen. Just can’t be avoided.”
“No, I mean it. I killed a man. He’s in the freezer in the kitchen. I mean, the freezer isn’t working, but it seals the smell in. I mean, it keeps the seals out.”
Liz laughed even harder at that—was it forced?—but when I invited her and her companions to stay the night, they told me they had to be farther south by dusk if they wanted to cross into China on schedule.
I asked Juliette her opinion. She thought it was a convenient excuse.
Then I read her another correction.
Erratum #6:“The Mystery of the Texas Twister,” Michael Moorcock, issue one
From Zodiac’s quarters, there now issued the unworldly strains of a violin. Even Begg was astonished. Then he smiled broadly, remembering his old opponent’s only apparent passion—his passion for music. The strains were assured and subtle, from an instrument of extraordinary age and maturity. At first Begg tried to identify the piece. Clearly, he thought, some modern master. But then he realised that the composer was Zodiac himself. Gradually it moved from classical to romantic to contemporary structure, a perfectly integrated piece which led the listener slowly into the nuances of the music. Moreover it was somehow in perfect resonance with the landscape itself.
From Zodiac’s quarters, there now issued the unworldly strains of a violin, in a Russian mode. Even Begg was astonished. Then he smiled broadly, remembering his old opponent’s only apparent passion—his passion for the types of music that he had always claimed would change the world. The strains were assured and subtle, from an instrument of extraordinary age and maturity. They conjured up a landscape of deep water and thick forests. At first Begg tried to identify the piece. Clearly, he thought, some modern master. But then he realized that the composer was Zodiac himself. Gradually it moved from gypsy-classical to romantic to contemporary structure, a perfectly integrated piece which led the listener slowly into the nuances of the music. Moreover, it was somehow in perfect resonance with the landscape itself, as if it had brought the pristine world of the north to the south. Underlying this resonance: a subtle strain of menace, for transformation is not without peril.
The day before Liz arrived at my doorstep—two days after I had finished the last session with Ed and four days after James called me for the last time—I was sitting in my favorite chair in the lobby, staring out at the lake, when I realized a figure was standing twenty feet to my left, having apparently just entered the lobby through one of the holes that led to the lakeside. His boots were wet. He was dressed all in black. He wore a ski mask, also black. He was tall, over six feet. I could see the white of his eyes through the holes in the mask. He was looking at me intently and pulling out something ominous from beneath his overcoat. I raised my pearl-handled revolvers and shot him before he could complete the motion. It happened as if preordained. It happened as if we were both part of some stage production. There was a tiny puff of smoke, a burning sensation in my hands, and two small holes opened up in the man’s chest. He made a huffing sound, almost of surprise. His hands dropped to his sides and he crumpled against the wall. The sound of the guns had been so inconsequential that it hadn’t startled the seals or Juliette.
For a long time, I continued to sit in my chair, holding the revolvers. That the man was dead seemed certain. That it had been Gradus seemed self-evident. That it had all occurred in a vastly different way than I’d expected bothered me. In my imagination, Gradus always approached from afar, visible from a distance, and I had time to think about what I was going to do. In reality, it had been quick, decisive, and without thought.
As I looked at the body, I began to cry. I began to weep, hunched over in my chair. But I wasn’t grieving for Gradus. As if the bullets that had entered Gradus had instead taken the breath out of me, had expelled something from me, I was crying for my past life. I was weeping for everything I had thrown away to get to that point. In that moment, it had finally hit me how irrevocable my decisions had become, and how few decisions I had left before me. I would never again be Jeff VanderMeer. Not in any meaningful way.
Then, after awhile, I dragged the body over to the freezer in the kitchen. I didn’t remove the mask. I didn’t want to see his face.
Erratum #7: “The Carving,” Steve Rasnic Tem, issue three
Then following the flight of chips, white and red and trailing, over the railing’s edge and down onto the rocks, she saw the fallen form, the exquisite work so carelessly tossed aside, the delicate shape spread and broken, their son.
She turned to the master carver, her mouth working at an uncontrolled sentence. And saw him with the hammer, the bloody chisel, the glistening hand slowly freed, dropping away from the ragged wrist.
This man, her husband, looked up, eyes dark knots in the rough bole of face. “I could not hold him,” he gasped. “Wind or his own imagination. Once loose, I could not keep him here.”
And then he looked away, back straining into the work of removing the tool that had failed him.
Then following the flight of chips, white and red and trailing, over the railing’s edge and down onto the snow-strewn rocks of Burkhan Cape, she saw the fallen form, the exquisite work so carelessly tossed aside, the delicate shape that had sacrificed itself spread and broken.
She turned to the man, her mouth working at an uncontrolled sentence, words that must, in their order, be perfect or remain unreleased. And saw him with the hammer, the bloody chisel, the glistening hand slowly freed, dropping away from the ragged wrist.
The man looked up, eyes dark knots in a rough bark face. “I could not hold him,” he gasped. “I could not keep him here. He wanted to be somewhere else. He needed to be somewhere else.”
And then he looked away, back straining into the work of removing the tool that had freed him.
After I had disposed of the body, and made sure Gradus hadn’t left a vehicle out front (he hadn’t), I poured myself a glass of vodka and went up to my room on the second floor, leaving Juliette at the bottom of the stairs looking forlorn. I wanted to read James’ other letter. I wanted to know why Gradus had come all this way to kill me. I wanted to have had a good reason not to let him kill me.
The second letter was also on that annoying onionskin paper, but it had no errors and appeared to have been typed by James himself.
If you haven’t yet seen Ed’s Book, you will soon, and once you do, I know that any doubts will leave you. For that reason, this letter may be irrelevant. But I still had to write it, if for no other reason than to clarify where I stand in my own mind.
Let’s be clear: You are coming in late to this whole scenario. From the very beginning, I planned Argosy to represent a major shift in the world, a way to change it irrevocably. Every page, every story, every interview, even every typo, has been calculated to produce one certain result: transformation. And that transformation will become apparent upon the publication of your story “Errata.” Your work is the final missing piece that will effectuate the Change.
I know you, like me, believe the world is in a terrible state right now, from the environment to political systems to hypocrisy to “sleepwalking on the tracks,” as Thoreau put it. This has troubled me deeply since I was very young, and the feeling has only gotten worse as I have gotten older. I built a time machine when I was kid just so I could try to go back in time and fix things from the moment they began to break. Of course, that didn’t work. How could it? There would be so many things to fix. No one could do it all. Even if the machine worked.
But now, as an adult, and having talked to Ed and having experienced the Book, my life is committed to this change. For I believe that words can Change the world. I believe that after “Errata” is published, and as the right people in the right combinations read it, you will see a transformation of the world. Like in the old myth I left on your bed: A thaw will come and words will be spoken and heard that have been frozen for years, if not centuries. Like some sort of virus, the world will become a better place. Everything will begin to make sense. There will be some kind of balance again.
For this, I needed you. I needed a final refocus and correction to what had already been done. I needed someone outside of the system, someone who had given up hope, to undertake the final part of the project. For this, I also needed someone so torn out of their normal balance, their normal world, that they could kill if need be.
Because I don’t know when you will read this letter. Because Argosy may need a final sacrifice, like those made by the shamans of old. Perhaps my life is needed to bring this all to fruition. Maybe that’s what it will take. And maybe not.
If it has, and you read this letter after, know that I forgive you, and that you are almost done. All you must do is finish the story and send it to my brother.
I’m telling you: There will be an epiphany. There will be a shift. You will feel it. You just have to wait for it and be patient. And, depending on your timing, either I will be there to experience it too, or I won’t. I am at peace with either future.
Thank you for your time and your efforts.
Ever since reading his letter, Jeremy, I’ve been sitting in a chair in the lobby, drinking steadily, becoming more and more numb. Because I’ll be damned if I go to that freezer and remove the mask of the man I’ve killed. But mostly because, regardless of anything else he was, your brother was a nutcase. He was completely and utterly cracked in the head. And I was stupid enough to follow all of his insane directions and thus make it to this point, which once seemed like a plateau on the way up, but now feels like a slide into the deeper depths.
James Owen. Publisher. Author. Entrepreneur. It strikes me that I never really knew him—didn’t know nearly enough about his childhood, his parents, his upbringing, his education, to trust him the way I did, to let him manipulate me this way.
But now that it’s almost time, I must tell you that the most extraordinary calm has come over me. Why? Because I have only one hope left, even though it’s a fool’s hope. Tomorrow, I will hand this entire account over to the toothless Japanese man who—fleeing from horrible crimes of his own devising, no doubt—plays the role of postal worker in these parts. Whether he is competent enough to be trusted, I don’t know. (Although he was reliable enough in handing over the money orders James sent me until about a week ago.)
Hopefully, you will receive and publish this Errata and thus fulfill James’ vision. Hopefully, enough people will read it in the right combinations. And then, hopefully, the world will Change as he, in his twisted and yet idealistic way, believed it would.
In the meantime, I’ll wait in this lobby, talking to Juliette. “James promised me,” I will say to her. “James told me the world would Change if I wrote a short story.”
“Who is James?” Juliette will reply. “Do I know him?”
“You may have even met him,” I’ll say.
Here’s your story, James Owen. Now where’s my epiphany?
God help me, some part of me still believes it could happen.
And if it doesn’t, well, then, I’ll just have to put these pearl-handled revolvers to good use, won’t I?
Copyright © 2009 Jeff VanderMeer
“Errata” includes excerpts of materials from the following short stories:
“Box of Oxen” by Alan Dean Foster. Copyright © 2005 by Alan Dean Foster. Not yet published.
“The Telephone” by Zoran Živkovi?. Copyright © 2005 by Zoran Živkovi?. First published in Argosy #3, edited by James A. Owen (Birmingham: Coppervale International Studio Press, 2005).
“The Gate House” by Marly Youmans. Copyright © 2005 by Marly Youmans. Not yet publisher.
“The Dragons of Manhattan” by John Grant. Copyright © 2005 by John Grant. First published in Argosy #3, edited by James A. Owen (Birmingham: Coppervale International Studio Press, 2005).
“My General” by Carol Emshwiller. Copyright © 2004 by Carol Emshwiller. First published in Argosy #2, edited by Lou Anders and James A. Owen (Birmingham: Coppervale International Studio Press, 2004).
“The Mystery of the Texas Twister” by Michael Moorcock. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Moorcock. First published in Argosy #1, edited by Lou Anders and James A. Owen (Birmingham: Coppervale International Studio Press, 2004).
“The Carving” by Steve Rasnic Tem. Copyright © 2004 by Steve Rasnic Tem. First published in Argosy #1, edited by Lou Anders and James A. Owen (Birmingham: Coppervale International Studio Press, 2004).
And from the following books and articles:
Sergeev, Mark. “Words of a poet.” WWW Irkustk. 2003. Irkutsk Computer Center. 9 Jan. 2009.
Thubron, Colin. In Siberia. New York: HarperPerennial, 2000.
Crimethink Workers Collective. Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink for Beginners. Salem: CrimethInc., 2001.
All actual people mentioned in this story appear with their knowledge and permission.