Take a peek at The Land Across by Gene Wolfe, out on November 26th from Tor Books!
An American writer of travel guides in need of a new location chooses to travel to a small and obscure Eastern European country. The moment Grafton crosses the border he is in trouble, much more than he could have imagined. His passport is taken by guards, and then he is detained for not having it. He is released into the custody of a family, but is again detained.
It becomes evident that there are supernatural agencies at work, but they are not in some ways as threatening as the brute forces of bureaucracy and corruption in that country. Is our hero in fact a spy for the CIA? Or is he an innocent citizen caught in a Kafkaesque trap?
The Land Across
Like most countries it is accessible by road or railroad, air or sea. Even though all those are possible, they are all tough. Visitors who try to drive get into a tangle of unmarked mountain roads, roads with zits and potholes and lots of landslides. Most drivers who make it through (I talked about it with two of them in New York and another one in London) get turned back at the border. There is something wrong with their passports, or their cars, or their luggage. They have not got visas, which everybody told them they would not need. Some are arrested and their cars impounded. A few of the ones who are arrested never get out. Or anyhow, that is how it seems.
It just made me more determined than ever. There are no travel books about the land across the mountains. NONE! Not in any language I could find. I was going to be the first, and maybe I still will be. Only this book you are holding comes before my travel book. You would not believe how long I have been writing and rewriting this one in my head, especially when I was a prisoner of the Legion of the Light and when I was in prison, sitting around in a cell with Russ Rathaus. I was lucky, I cannot even tell you how lucky, that I was never taken prisoner by the Unholy Way. Thank God for that!
At first I tried to get in by air. Lufthansa has service, but there are only two flights a week. I booked twice and had both canceled. The third did not land at the capital, saying bad weather. It went straight on to Ankara.
I decided to go by train and flew to Vienna, a real knockout city where there are lots of first-rate clubs. (See my first book, Dreaming on the Danube.) After some swell evenings dancing in the clubs and okay nights at the good old Hotel Sacher, I caught the Orient Express headed for Slovakia. For the rest of the day our train wound its way through hills and woods.
A lot of Americans think all of Europe is like Rouen or Cologne, crawling with people. It is not really like that. There is a whole lot more wilderness in Europe than foreigners like us imagine, and there is more and more as you go east. I hardly ever saw a house among the hills I saw from the Orient Express. Where there were a few, they were half-timbered and had those high sharp roofs you get where there is lots of snow.
A porter who would not talk to me made the bed in my compartment. When he had gone, I stripped and washed the way I generally do on trains, with a washcloth I dunked in a hand basin of water. Now it seems to me that I must have been asleep a long time before I got into bed.
I woke up during the night, and I will never forget it. We had stopped where they had fields of some kind of grain that grew a lot taller than a man. Silent men walked up and down the train, men I could just barely make out by starlight. They looked small, but I think they were really big men. They carried what I figured were dark lanterns, boxy black gadgets that shed floods of light you did not expect when they were opened. I had read about those but I had never seen any before. The train jolted and jolted again. I think it was probably the first of those jolts that woke me up.
One of the men stopped at my window to look up at me. I stared out at him through the dirty glass. He held up his lantern, which scared hell out of me. I do not know why. Anyway, I ducked down and backed away as far as I could without leaving my little compartment.
I was naked, and I decided right then that when I got back home I was going to buy pajamas as soon as I could. If I only had pajamas or a robe, both would have been better; I could have gone into the corridor outside where I might have found the porter and gotten him to talk to me. Traveling the way he did from Calais to Cairo and from Cairo back to Calais, he would have a lot of interesting stuff to tell if I could get him to tell it.
As it was, I stayed flat against the steel door of my compartment until the train got moving again, rattling and swaying along tracks that went up and down while they were turning left and right.
Everybody interested enough to read this book knows about the High Tatras and the Transylvanian Alps. Let me just say that the mountains I saw next morning were not particularly high, but rugged and dotted here and there with fir trees the wind had tortured. It was early spring, and the water spilling down their cliffs made me think of a certain type of girl, the tall cold blondes that knock your eyes out. Later I met Rosalee Rathaus, and she was a blond knockout even if she hardly came up to my chin in heels. I bet she would not weigh eighty pounds soaking wet. She was a good dancer, too. She promised me but I never collected. We will get into that in one of the later chapters.
After breakfast in the dining car, I went back to my compartment. I read until I got bored, then I had a look at the observation car. It was the double-decked kind, which I have always liked. I climbed the little stair to the upper deck and sat in one of the very cool swiveling red-leather seats there and watched the scenery whiz past until I fell asleep.
When I woke up, the train was going faster than ever, rattling and swaying as it crossed a big wasteland scarred with gullies.
Three border guards in uniforms were standing around me, and the biggest of the three was shaking my shoulder. Then the boss border guard, a skinny guy a lot shorter than me, started yelling questions in a language I did not know. The car was empty except for the four of us.
I got my passport out of my jacket and showed it to him. He passed it to the third border guard without looking at it. After that, they made me stand up, patted me down, took my iPhone, and tied my hands behind me. I guess I was scared, but mostly I was stunned.
The boss border guard marched along the upper deck of the observation car, motioning for me to follow. I did, noticing that the railing (which I knew darn well had been there when I had climbed to the upper deck) had been taken down. Steep little steps led from the upper deck to the main floor. The boss border guard trotted down them and I did my best to follow him. I was about halfway down when somebody pushed me. I fell, bumping into the boss border guard. I believe he must have landed on the lower steps. I rolled over him all the way to the bottom. He got up cursing and kicking. I could not understand his curses, but I knew what they were all right. I had never been kicked before and had not really known how bad it is. I think I must have blacked out.
The next thing I remember is being taken off the train, trying to walk and stumbling a lot while someone with strong hands held my arm.
The train had not slowed down but was roaring along beside a narrow black conveyer belt that was going even faster than it was, so that the shiny steel bands the sections were joined with looked like they were crawling slowly past us. We were waiting for the other two, or that was what it seemed like. When they joined us, the big guy who held me stepped from the train onto the belt, dragging me with him. Like I said, the belt went faster than the train had. It ran smoother, too. Beside it grass, brush, and dust pointed the way, blown by a howling wind. For us on the belt, it seemed like there was no wind at all. I noticed then that the train’s diesel engine was gone, and there was a big steam engine up front. It was twice as big but looked old. It seemed to be trying to outrun its own smoke, but it could not do it.
If I had thought at all, I would have thought that we would be thrown off the end of the belt and die. It was not like that. Another, wider belt appeared to our right. This new belt was white, and moving slower than the black one. I fell when I tried to step onto it.
The boss border guard helped me up. His dark gray uniform cap had been mashed, and his scarlet-trimmed tunic was more than half-unbuttoned. (I think it was because three or four of the buttons had torn off.) Still he murmured, “Auanactain! Profasis!” like he was sorry I had been hurt. A minute later he helped me onto a red belt. I never did figure him out, only back then I thought maybe I could. My dad used to say foreigners’ values were not the same as ours. Then he would dope them out anyway.
The red belt slowed down, I could feel the wind, and the biggest of the three helped me get off, lifting me like he would have picked up a little kid. There was a car and a driver waiting for us. The biggest border guard, the boss, and I got into the backseat, with me pinned between them.
The third border guard took the front seat beside the driver. This third border guard was older than the other two. He had a black mustache, and in a lot of ways he looked like my father. Sometimes it seemed to me that the other two did not know he was there the same way I did. He never did talk, and nobody ever talked to him, except me. I did one time.
I asked whether we were going to the capital, at first in English, and then (when I was pretty sure neither of them understood it) in German. “No,” the boss border guard told me in German. “We go to Puraustays.”
I tried to remember a map I had seen. “Puraustays is a long way from the capital.”
“No. It is near.”
“Two hundred kilometers?”
The boss border guard just shrugged, reached into the pocket sewn onto the back of the seat in front of him, and took out a map. He opened it for me.
It was small and looked like it had been drawn for kids, with little pictures scattered here and there. I remember a miner and a wild ox. Looking up from it, I said, “This says three hundred and twenty kilometers.”
The boss border guard chuckled. “All maps are wrong. If the Turks come, they will be lost.”
We crossed a river that may have been the same river my train had roared across the day before. The little map called it the Taxus. Factories lined its bank, ugly gray buildings with tall chimneys of yellow brick. I asked what they made in there. The boss border guard shrugged, but the biggest of the three told me, “Fertilizer.”
The city on the other side of the river was laid out in a way I have never seen anywhere else and had not known they used anywhere. Whether it was a big one or a little one, every building stood on its own block, with narrow streets on all four sides. A lot of these narrow, crooked streets could be called alleys. Some were not even paved. I am going to call them all streets because they use the same word for all of them. The size of the blocks varied depending on the size of the buildings. Large or small, they were mostly square or rectangular. There was always a strip of grass, trees, and shrubs around each building. That seemed to be the law, and it must have been the law there for a long time.
The variations in size meant that our car (and the wagons and so forth) could not go fast, turning left or right almost at the end of each block. Left turns were followed by rights, and the other way. When we had made half a dozen turns or so, it hit me that all the turns must make it hard to follow a particular street. After that, I watched for street signs, but there were not any. Pretty soon I asked the big man the name of the street we were on. He just shrugged and the boss border guard told me, “Our streets do not have names.”
Then I stuck my neck out, saying that no street names must make it hard to find somebody’s house. The boss border guard asked me, “Why do you want to find somebody’s house in Puraustays?”
For a while we threaded our way among old buildings of three, four, or five stories, all of some dark stone. They said the biggest one, with gargoyles and lots of balconies, was the seat of the city’s government. The trees around it were so tall I could not see a thing below a story that could have been the fourth or the third. This story, like the ones above it, was impressive and pretty interesting. I remember plants that looked an awful lot like jellyfish, and people who looked a lot like flowers.
Beyond that was a long yellow brick building with three stories. It was the first building I had seen that looked busy, and it seemed a whole lot busier than just about any building in America, with people hurrying in and out all the time. I asked what it was, and the big guy who had lifted me said, “The Mounted Guard.”
I know I must have looked dumb. There were a lot of big doors, but I had seen no horses and no soldiers. The boss border guard told me, “They are on duty in the East.”
After a while we got into a suburb or something like that. The streets there were more like those in American towns. The houses were all pretty much the same size, and that meant the blocks were pretty much the same size, too. So the streets were nearly straight except when they bent around.
Finally we stopped in front of a house that was not quite as big as the others, a little square house of dirty white concrete blocks. Our driver got out and trotted around to open the door for the third border guard. The sky was overcast, there was not a lot of time, and I could not be sure. But it seemed to me that the driver looked like the porter who had made my bed on the train. They could not have been the same guy. Still, they looked a lot alike.
There was no walk to the front door, only a little path among trees. Except for the driver, we trooped along it, the boss border guard, then the biggest and the third border guard. I limped along behind them, thinking I ought to run away but knowing I would be a darned fool to get separated from my passport. The boss border guard knocked with the barrel of his pistol.
A short, stocky man maybe thirty or so answered it, opening the door a crack then closing it again to unfasten a security chain before opening it wide. He had on a clean gray undershirt and gray wool pants that looked too big.
We crowded in and he talked. I think he was trying to get the boss border guard to sit down in the biggest chair. The boss border guard would not do it and lectured him. After a lot of that, the boss border guard asked me, “In Amerika, you build prisons for your prisoners, yes?” His German was not even as good as mine, but I understood him and nodded.
“Here we save.” The boss border guard chuckled. “You are this man’s prisoner.”
I said I had not done anything.
“You come without visa, with no passport. These things are sufficient.”
“You took my passport,” I reminded him. “Give it back, please.”
“It has been sent to the capital. I cannot give back. Until it is sent back, you have none. You must stay here. You see this man?” The boss border guard indicated the short man in the undershirt. “Do you like him?”
“I don’t know him.”
“So you like him. When you know him better, you do not like him so much, I think.” The boss border guard shut one eye and pointed his pistol at the short man’s head. “When you escape, him we shoot.”
The short man gave me a sad glance.
“You see how nice to you we are. You do not like the food, you say it is rotten, you will go. He give better so you stay. Other things, too.”
I said nothing. I was watching a girl who had peeked around the corner.
“You are to sleep here.” Holstering his pistol, the boss border guard took a folded paper and a pen from a pocket of his uniform jacket and shoved them into the short man’s hand. “Grafote!”
The short man signed, and the border guards trooped out.
I apologized to the short man in English, and then in German. He could not understand that either.
The girl who had peeped in before smiled. She was a cute girl, with lots of curves and bouncy amber curls. “I must help.” She talked to the short man. It seemed to me she was translating what I said, so I thanked her.
“It is nothing. I am most happy to be of use. I am Martya. My husband is Kleon. They do not like us.”
Her husband spoke.
“He too says they do not like us. They will kill him if you escape. He says we could tie you up and keep you a prisoner in that way, which many would do. He says please do you not escape, or take us with you if you do.”
I told her I would not escape.
“Kleon does not understand, but learns from our faces. Has mine told you what I think?”
I said it had not.
“See that you do as I.”
“What you just did he understands. For us it might be most fortunate if you were to remember this. Try also to make long answers to my short questions, long, long answers to my long questions. In this way he will know only what I tell him. It is good for you and me, I think.”
“I have a great many questions to ask you,” I said, “questions about your country, this city, this house, your husband, and yourself, lovely lady. Where can I telephone the American embassy and a bunch of other stuff. What I’m trying to tell you is that I’ll have long questions as well as long answers.”
“Here no one has the telephones you seek. In the capital, perhaps.” She talked to her husband for two or three minutes. He shook his head, said a few words, and spat into the fireplace.
“He will answer none of your questions.” She smiled. “He thinks you are a JAKA spy. He did not say this, but he thinks it.”
I said he was wrong, and explained that I had come to collect material for a book.
“I believe you because I see your clothing. It is foreign and most well, lamb’s wool and fine cottons. The silk shirt also. The shoes. You are fortunate the border guards did not take them.”
“They would not rob a spy, would they?”
“They rob everyone. Who will arrest them? No, you are foreign, from a weak nation far away.”
I told her she was right.
“If you escape you will return there. Could you bring with you another, perhaps?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s never easy but it might be possible.” It seemed to me it was the smart thing to say.
She smiled. “This is too short an answer, you see? You must answer me much more long, and who does not know ja? Now for you a new question. These kind border guards who did not take your clothing, did they not take also your money, and did you before they came change some into our money? Is there other wealth of you that might be drawn upon, and do you still have it? Do not look at this money, this wealth you have, before you make the answer.”
“I won’t,” I promised. “As to the currencies about which you asked me, I have dollars from my own country and euros. What I mean by this is that I have some of each. Don’t you use euros—”
Somebody pounded on the door. Kleon looked frightened and the girl spat like a cat. “It is Aldos, the swine-dog. You must answer our door. It will confuse him.”
The big man who had pounded it looked confused for less than a second. After that he shouted in my face, but I could see fear in his eyes. I talked to him in German, saying I could not understand him, but that I would try if only he would talk slower and keep his voice down.
He did not. When I backed away, he came at me. When I came at him, he backed away.
The short man, Kleon, came to stand beside me. From his tone, I believe he must have cursed the big man. His voice was low and bitter.
At last the big man stammered and stopped, jamming his clenched fists into the pockets of what looked like a pair of old golf pants. He was wearing an undershirt too, but his was dirty. Part of it was covered by an old wool vest.
Behind me the girl said, “He says our chickens get into his garden. We do not have chickens.”
Her husband nodded almost imperceptibly to that. He spoke in his cursing tone to the big man, advancing toward him, making wild gestures that almost brushed the big man’s nose. I advanced, too.
For a minute the big man rallied, shouting louder than ever. Then he turned and stamped away.
“I suppose somebody’s chickens must get into his garden,” I said to the girl.
“Ours did once or twice,” she acknowledged. “Kleon had chickens before we were married.”
Kleon spoke bitterly before retreating into his house and slamming the door behind him.
“He says he was rich once, that one may be rich or wed but not both.”
I said, “I’m sure that isn’t true.”
“For him, yes.” The girl smiled, making me feel like I was a lot younger
than she was. (Really it was only two or three years.) “He has locked us out.”
“You do not believe? Try the door.”
I did. It would not open.
“You see? I have hear the bar drop into place. We are cast out!” She< grinned at me. “Are you afraid?” She had a great grin.
“A little bit,” I admitted. “Is there an American Consulate? If there is one, I’d like to go there.”
“Soon he thinks better.” It was like she had not heard me. “Martya is with him, he will think. She will tell him he need only go to the police. He will say ‘I am his prisoner! He lock me out!’ Then the police will come and shoot him. He is right about this, but we will not go to them right away. Do you like these trees? The bushes?”
“They’re really nice,” I said.
“This bush here…” She caressed it. “It will bloom for us before the moon is old. For a week it is the most pretty one in Puraustays. Our trees give nuts. I do not know the German name, but the wood burns well. A hot fire and slow. A little stick burns for a long, long time.”
“Some have fruit trees. This is nice because of the fruit. Apples, pears, cherries are all good. These burn well, too. I think you have these in your land.”
I said we did.
“But you, yourself? You have such trees?”
I tried to explain that I did not have a house, I lived in an apartment because I was on the road so much.
“If you had a house, you would have fruit trees. You are a fruit tree man. This I see.” She had begun to walk, and I followed her. “My father had fruit trees but he is dead.”
“My father is dead, too,” I said. “He was with the State Department, so I grew up all over the world.”
“No, not here. Mostly Germany, France, and Japan.”
“Here there are three kinds of men. A fruit tree man like you, he is strong.” She held up her clenched fist. “Strong, or perhaps he has the good friends.” She drew an imaginary pistol. “You are such a one, I think.”
I said I had a lot of friends in America.
“If a man who is not strong plants fruit trees, his neighbors take the fruit.” She raised her chin, a proud daughter. “No one took my father’s fruit!”
“That must have been nice.”
“Yes, yes! Once Kleon had fruit trees. They took his fruit and he could not stop them. Now we have nut trees, so we eat the nuts.” She pointed. “Do you see those?”
We had reached the edge of her husband’s block, and she was pointing at the next one. The trees there were oaks. I said they looked fine.
“No, no! He is weak. No one takes acorns.”
“When a man dies his neighbors cut his trees to burn. My father is dead half a year before anyone is so brave.” The girl sighed. “I take you now to a man who has fruit trees. If there is for you a consul, he will know.”
They were cherry trees mostly, Martya said. Whatever they were, they were beautiful, tall trees in wedding gowns. The smell made me think about God and heaven, and the bees that swarmed over them about hell because I got stung twice before we got to the door. “Volitain will put wet tobacco on those,” she told me. “It will take your pain.”
He was pale and starvation thin, with straight black hair, as courtly and polite as Kleon had been abrupt and hostile. “Enter!” He bowed from the hips. “Enter and welcome! Any friend of dear little Martya’s, a brother is to me.” The look that passed between them told me Martya had tried to make him.
“He is bee-bitten.” Her tone was flat, and her face held no expression. “Put tobacco on them.”
“I see…” Volitain stalked over to a table in his parlor, which looked as big as Kleon’s entire house. In the table drawer he found a magnifying glass.
“That will not help!”
Volitain bent over the sting on my cheek. “Sit here, please. Now incline the head, eh? I must have light from the window.”
I did what he said.
“The sting is here. It must be drawn. The hand we see next, eh?” He moved my hand to bring it nearer the light. “Here, also. Wait a moment. Drink good wine.”
He left us, slipping into some interior room through a door that was not quite open.
I asked, “Does he always do that? Not open the door?”
“He has no wife. The room where he go will be soiled, I think. He does not wish you to see it.”
“Or you,” I said.
Martya shrugged. “There is wine here. He desires us to drink. A woman brews tea, a man has wine.” She went to a sideboard. “Is Tokay, I think. We drink it much here. You will drink?”
I nodded and she poured. It was pungent and a little too sweet.
Volitain returned with tweezers and iodine. “The bee that stings, dies,” he murmured. “One would suppose that evolutionary processes would soon end such deaths. Is the hive stronger without him?”
I said, “Ouch!”
“First the face, because it must pain most. The hand next, where the pain is not so much.”
I managed to keep quiet.
“You are hungry? I have little cakes. Martya?”
I looked at my watch. It was one p.m.
Martya said, “I will make for us the sandwiches if you allow it.” “There is little,” Volitain said. “We go to a café.” He had finished with the iodine and was taping on moist tobacco.
Martya looked at me, shrugging. “Volitain has much money, but he does not spend. Never for me, this money. Never for you, also, I think. You will pay?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be glad to.”
Volitain shook his head. “You will not. You must not listen to our sour chit. I say the café and I pay.”
Martya giggled at that. She had drained her glass, so I thought it had probably been the wine.
“Now we will go out,” Volitain was saying. “The bees sting you if you think of them, so not. Think of pleasant things alone and you shall be safe.”
It sounded silly but I tried it, thinking what kind of food a café here might have. Sandwiches, sure. Soups and salads… I tried to concentrate on those, but I could not keep my eyes off Martya’s hips. They were to die for, and she was leading the way.
“You see?” Volitain said. “You were not stung. Of what do you think?”
“Strabo’s commentary on the Euxine,” I told him. One of my professors used to talk about it.
“Ah! It is interesting, no doubt. I must read it.”
“I’m a lot more interested in finding out why Martya’s pestering you with me.”
“She does not tell?”
I shook my head. There were no sidewalks, so we had to walk in the street. A man on a bicycle zoomed past us, staring at Volitain and pedaling faster and faster. “He’s scared of you,” I told him.
“He hates me.” Volitain sighed. “Hating me, he supposes I hate him. Supposing I hate him, he expects some hurt. Expecting hurt, he fears me. His fear make him hate me all the more. Is that not a sad circle?”
I said yes.
“As you say, but I am not in it. God may make him a king or give him a knife. All is one to me.”
I was watching for the long building I had seen when I first got to the city, the yellow brick building where the Mounted Guards stabled their horses in peacetime, but I did not see it. Here the streets were wider, and a lot of the buildings had shops on the ground floor.
We went into one of the biggest, following a path of well-worn cobbles and passing shoppers who carried their new stuff in string bags. Inside was a big atrium roofed with colored glass. There were balconies up the sides, and they were lined with shops like the floor we were on.
“The cafés here are.” Volitain indicated the level where we stood. “Those who eat in them grow fat, then the steps are not convenient.”
“Also,” Martya added, “they are drunk and fall down them.”
“We have logic in my country, you see. The most valuable things are sold highest, so we say their prices are high. Suppose a robber comes. He must descend many steps while those he robbed shout that he be stopped.”
“And throw chamber pots.” Martya was scanning the cafés. “You will pay, Grafton, so you are to choose.”
I was tired of walking, so I said, “The closest.” Do not come to this country unless you are ready to walk one hell of a lot. If you bring your bike, you will have to double-lock it every time you park it. You had better be ready to fight for it, too.
“This one is not good,” Volitain told me. “Too many come, and we have things to speak of. That one over there. You will like it.”
“It is a place for feeling,” Martya said as we trudged across the atrium. “Most quick I feel Volitain’s hand on my leg, and he my scissors.”
I could not follow what Volitain said to the hostess, but his gestures made it clear that he wanted the booth in the corner. After a little argument he got it. The high backs of the seats in all the booths went up until they just about touched the ceiling, and our booth had a green cloth curtain to close the end that was open to the table area.
Martya translated the menu and we ordered. “Is there an American Consulate here?” I asked Volitain. “Martya said you would know.”
Volitain shook his head. “I do know, and there is none. In other cities, perhaps, but not in this Puraustays of ours. There is the Amerikan ambassador at the capital. It may be there is a consulate also. That I do not know.”
“She also told me you were well connected and you’d help me.”
“I am not.” Seeing Volitain smile was like watching a skull grin. “Even so, I help you—if I can. You have the troubles with our secret police, the JAKA?”
“With your border patrol. How did you know?”
“You are foreign. Many foreigners are arrested. Also dear little Martya brought you to me. Those are enough.”
“What can you do?”
A glance passed between Martya and Volitain, and he said, “Not so much, it may be. First I must know your trouble. Tell me.”
I told him all about my arrest, pretty much like I have told you here. “You have done nothing.” Volitain sighed and leaned back.
“Damn straight! So why was I arrested?”
“They needed someone. That is all.” His voice had sunk to a sleepy whisper. “They must show their superiors they are active, alert. Arrest someone. They wish also to punish dear little Martya’s husband. Arrest someone. You sleep in a place no one watches.”
“So you are chosen. They can say whatever they wish.”
“They took my passport.”
“Of a surety. They always do.”
The waiter arrived with our food. When he had gone and Volitain had drawn the curtain, I said, “How can I get my passport back? Would it help if I were to notify the American embassy?”
“I will not deceive you,” Volitain said. “I do not deceive.”
“They may return it to you when you do nothing. That happens sometimes.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
Volitain spread his hands. “You must discover the correct official, then you must win his friendship. It is most often done with money. Martya thinks you have money, and that is good, but you do not have enough for that. Not here. In Amerika?”
“Maybe.” I thought about it. “I have some there and I might raise some more. How can I get it here?”
“Someone will have to bring it for you. Diamonds are best.” Volitain hesitated. “They will have to be well concealed. He must pass the customs, you understand. Not only ours, but other nations’.”
“Unless he flies in.”
“Let him attempt it.” Volitain’s sleepy whisper had nearly faded away. He straightened up and considered the meat rolls steaming on his plate. “I wish him well.”
I remembered the canceled flights and the flight that had gone on to Ankara without landing here. “It seems just about hopeless.”
“Fortunately”—Volitain pointed his fork at me—“there is the third way. You might grow rich here. If you wish to return to Amerika there is no difficulty. Our officials fear the rich. It is the same with you, eh?”
I said it was.
“Now let us turn the page. You may choose to remain with us. Much is here for the man of wealth. I offer a plan.”
I probably looked like I did not believe him. That was the way I felt.
“I will not deceive you, for I do not deceive. My plan will make me rich, too, if it succeeds. It may be it fails. Failure is at least as likely as success. Will you close your ears to me?”
I shook my head.
“That is well. You are Kleon’s prisoner. It is not a handicap, and may favor us.”
“We together.” Martya squeezed my hand.
“Exactly. There is a treasure, or there may be. The explanation will take some time.”
I chewed and swallowed a mouthful of fadennudeln. “Then get going. I want to hear it.”
“It require you to pay some money. Not much.”
“Yeah, I figured. And?”
Volitain cut a meat roll and studied it. “You think I take your money. I do not. I say first that if we find this treasure, together or separately, it is to be shared equally between us three. It is understood? If Martya finds it alone, she must share with us. If I find it, and nothing you know of my finding, I will share with you and Martya. If you find it, you must share with both of us.”
I said, “Okay,” and the three of us clasped hands.
“Now we are partners,” Martya said. “Tell him of the judge.”
“Hear me. The year is eighteen sixty. A young man called Eion Demarates leaves home after a quarrel with his father. Twenty years pass, and he return a rich man. His father is dead. His mother likewise. There are brothers, sisters. All want his gold, but Eion Demarates give them nothing. There are old quarrels.”
I nodded again to show I understood.
“He builds a fine house for himself. He has servants, a carriage with four horses, and many other things. We go forward. The year is eighteen eighty-eight, eh? Hear me, for this you must understand. In eighteen eightyeight, our money was not rubbish.” Volitain got out his wallet and scattered bills over his meat rolls. “Rotting garbage, this is. My dolmades are not so bad as this. In the year of which I speak, it was not so. Our money is silver and gold.”
“Ours, too,” I said.
“You were robbed in that case, just as we were.”
Martya said, “If you don’t want those, I’d like one.”
Volitain said, “You are my guest,” and she speared a bill and a meat roll with a single thrust of her fork. He stared for a moment, then laughed. Grinning, Martya licked a little grease from her punctured loot.
“An ancestor of mine was the judge here at that time.” Volitain was wiping the rest of his bills with his napkin. “We have half a dozen judges in Puraustays now. In that year, the city was smaller and there was little crime. We had only one, the ancestor of whom I speak. Demarates went to bed, eh? His valet helps him to undress, warms the bed, builds up the fire, does all those things. When his master is in bed the valet wishes him a good rest, puts the little cap on the candle, and goes out. Death finds his master asleep and does not wake him. A physician is brought, an inquest is held, all that. Nothing bad is found.”
I said, “And then?”
“No gold either.” Volitain smiled and licked his thin lips. “There are banks, but Eion Demarates? No accounts he has. His servants stole it, so my ancestor believes. They are questioned under torture. This one has taken a silver cup, that one the razor with which he shaves his master. A maid takes clothing for her son, fine stockings and other such things. Trivialities. The gold of Eion Demarates none ever finds.”
Martya muttered, “Or your ancestor does not think it.”
“Correct. He searches the house, with police to help. They find nothing. There is no will. The brothers, the sisters, loudly say many times everything belongs to them. My ancestor says no, taxes are owed upon the estate. He sells the horses and carriage and other things, and holds the money against these taxes. He does not wish to sell the house because he believe the hidden money will soon be found. It is under a floor, eh? Or in a wall. He will wreck the house and find it.
“Brothers and a sister journey to the capital. This judge will wreck our house, they say. You must stop him. The Prince Judicial issues an order: the house is not to be demolished.”
“It’s still standing?” I asked.
“It is. Some of the furniture has been sold. Some remains. It belongs to the state, that was decided when the taxes went unpaid. It has been rented more than once, long ago. People died there. No one will rent it.”
Martya said, “You will rent it for us. You can get it most cheap.”
“Legally,” I told her, “I’m your husband’s prisoner. I don’t want to go to jail.”
Volitain nodded. “You must sleep in Kleon’s house, but you will rent the house I have told you of that you may repair it, rendering it a fit residence. Soon, you say to those who ask, the court will see that you are an innocent traveler. Then you will be released, and you must have this place to live until your passport is returned. It will be rented to you, and you and Martya will search, reporting to me what you have done.”
My food was gone, but I sipped my wine. “Is a court looking into my case?”
Volitain shook his head. “At present? No.”
“Then I should get a lawyer. I don’t want to stay here forever.”
“I will represent you.” At long last, Volitain forked a piece of his remaining meat roll into his mouth.
“You’re a lawyer?”
“He is many things.” Martya looked sour and serious. “That is why I brought you to him.”
“An attorney, as other things,” Volitain told me. “I practice law for, oh, not quite three years. It bored me, and I did not require the money. I still represent a few friends and take cases of interest. Soon you ask why I do not search the Willows myself.”
That sounded interesting. “The Willows?”
“It is the name of the house Eion Demarates built. At the tax office, you must know it. Tell them you hear the Willows is without a tenant. You will rent, if it is cheap enough. Can you bargain?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“Good. They will ask too much. Officials always do.”
Martya said, “You are an official yourself, Volitain.”
He wiped his lips to hide his smile. “A minor one, you understand. You need not be afraid of me.”
“Can you get my passport back?”
“No. Certainly not. If we win our case, then I might do something. Until then, it is hopeless. Do you think I intend to charge you?”
I nodded again. “Lawyers do.”
“I will not, provided you find the treasure and share it with me.”
A waiter brought our check, parting the green curtain to push it through. Volitain laid it on the table, laid a bill on it, and weighted both with the salt shaker. “You see? I do not deceive.”
“Thanks for lunch. Why don’t you search the Willows yourself?”
He laughed. “That you would ask, I knew. First, because I must do many other things. Second, because already I have. For two months I searched whenever I had an hour to spare, but found nothing. A new searcher, one of foreign temperament, employing foreign methods, may succeed where I failed. Or so I hope.”
The Land Across © Gene Wolfe, 2013