The Rabbit Back Literature Society (Excerpt)

Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: a young literature teacher named Ella.

Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as “The Game”? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her?

Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried for years start to come to light…

From Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, author of the Tor.com Original “Where the Trains Turn,” comes a chilling and darkly funny novel, The Rabbit Back Literature Society—the English translation is available January 20th from St. Martin’s Press.

 

 

1

The reader was at first surprised, then shocked, as the criminal Raskolnikov was abruptly slain in the middle of the street, right before her eyes. Sonya, the hooker with the heart of gold, shot him through the heart. It happened midway through an essay on the Dostoevsky classic.

The reader’s name was Ella Amanda Milana. She was twenty-six years old and the possessor of a pair of beautifully curving lips and a pair of defective ovaries, among other parts.

The assessment of her lips had been given to her that same Thursday, five minutes before the end of the lunch hour, by the biology teacher. She’d been told about the faulty ovary by a doctor fourteen months earlier. She’d left the doctor’s office a woman with something cold and defective at her core, though the day outside was still warm and sunny.

Three months after the diagnosis and a couple of days after Ella’s engagement was broken off, events had taken a turn for the better.

She’d made a mental inventory.

First off, she had good lips. Her fingers were said to be delicate and beautiful. Her face couldn’t be called beautiful, as she had sometimes been reminded, but it was a pleasant face, sensitive, even appealing. She could see that for herself in the mirror. And a lover had once detected something artistic in the colour of her nipples—he’d gone at once to gather up his oil paints from somewhere in his apartment and mixed the pigments for three hours before he’d got the hue just right.

Ella Amanda Milana stared at the page of notebook paper.

There were thirty-seven high school students sitting in front of her whose essays she was supposed to correct, and she was thinking about the colour of her nipples. The unexpected literary murder had taken away her focus. She could no longer maintain her abstract role as reader—not today, not in this class.

She looked up from the essay as if she’d seen a bug crawling across it and looked at the class, but the class didn’t look back. The students were writing, bent over their papers, pens scratching like busy little rodents.

The essay was written by the boy sitting in the third row near the windows.

Ella was a touch offended, but she couldn’t be angry with him. She wondered if a substitute teacher was expected to take such attempts at cheating seriously.

She had been a little bit angry for a long time, and she was angry now, but not at the boy. She was angry at her ovaries. The boy’s literature essay was a temporary side issue. Her ovaries, on the other hand, were attached to her permanently, and she to them. She would have preferred them not to be a part of what made up the person known as Ella Amanda Milana, who was sitting in front of that class holding the spurious essay in her hands.

When she had introduced the classics list to the students, she’d claimed that she had read Crime and Punishment for the first time in high school and again in college.

She realized now that she had been thinking of a different book.

She had never read Dostoevsky’s famous work in its entirety. She’d read the first twenty pages in high school, and got up to page fifty-two in college, but she hadn’t finished it. Someone had borrowed it from her and then sold it at the used book store.

Nevertheless, she was reasonably sure that Sonya, the hooker with the heart of gold, had not shot Raskolnikov in the heart at the end of the novel. And she would be willing to bet that Raskolnikov, contrary to what the essay claimed, had not killed the old woman who ran the pawn shop by strangling her with a piano wire. She’d been to lectures on Dostoevsky at the university and she’d seen the movie and the television show, so she did know something about the book, even if her own copy had gone to the used book store four years ago.

She ended the class and called the boy out from the flood of students. She made a sarcastic reference to his reading skills, and his morals.

He fished the book out of his bag and handed it to her.

“Check it yourself, ma’am,” he said. “That’s how the story goes.”

Ella let him leave, since he clearly had no desire to discuss it with her. She would deal with the matter later.

After she’d looked at the book for a moment, her cheeks began to burn. On the next to last page of the novel, Sonya shot two bullets into Raskolnikov’s heart. And at the beginning of the book, Raskolnikov really did strangle the pawn broker with a piece of piano wire.

Ella dug her cell phone out of her bag and called her literature professor.

She’d written her thesis on the mythological aspects of Laura White’s books for children. Professor Eljas Korpimäki had been her advisor, and had made no attempt to hide his pleasure: “An excellent choice. If you’re interested in further study of the subject, get in touch with me and I’ll see what I can do. There’s a lot to investigate in White’s work, and even I haven’t managed to take a look at all of her output.”

“Hello,” the professor said. “Korpimäki here.”

Ella identified herself and immediately asked him, breathing hard, “Does Sonya shoot Raskolnikov at the end?”

Her professor laughed.

Ella realized how peculiar her question sounded.

“Are you in literature class right now? You’re in Joensuu, right?”

“That was just a four-month stint,” she said with practised nonchalance. She tried to sound a bit more rational than she had a moment earlier. “I’m in Rabbit Back now. At the high school. And I just wanted to confirm this as fast as possible, since students will be students, and I’ve never… I mean, I don’t have the book in my hands at the moment, and I can’t seem to recall exactly how the story goes, but I need to check this plot point.”

“I understand,” the professor said. “Nobody shoots Raskolnikov, least of all Sonya.”

Ella stared at the book in her hands for a moment and then said, “What if I were to insist that I’ve seen a version of Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov gets shot? Sonya shoots him because she believes the world would be a better place without him.”

The professor didn’t say anything.

Ella knew she was sounding irrational again. Whenever she spoke with certain people, of whom the professor was just one, she lost her usual firm feeling of control. At the university she and a friend had developed a two-part theory to explain the phenomenon.

According to the first part of the theory, she became nervous in the presence of strangers if she sensed that they had a genuine interest in her and her ideas. But she rarely got nervous, although she interacted with numerous people on a daily basis, some of whom were, in fact, attempting to form a relationship with her. This was explained by the second part of the theory, which held that all people have an inborn need to make their ideas and personality known to the world, but as a rule no one is interested in what is going on in anyone else’s head.

That also explained God. People need an interested listener. They thirst for the undivided attention of someone once they’ve left childhood, so they invented God, someone to watch them and listen to them all the time.

“Could it be from some new, postmodern version of the book?” the professor suggested. “Are you sure it was the work by Dostoevsky? I think you must have been looking at some other book that used the same characters as in the original novel, or something like that. Hey, Ella, do you happen to remember what exact book we’re talking about? I could use something like that in my Dostoevsky lectures. It sounds quite interesting. Could you maybe write a short piece on the subject? I’m editing a collection of articles, and a point of view like that would work quite well in it.”

He sounded excited. Ella regretted calling him.

Dostoevsky’s name was on the book, in its entirety. The title of the book seemed to be the standard—Crime and Punishment. It was published by Karisto in 1986, translated into Finnish by M. Vuori, and examined for complete linguistic accuracy by Lea Pyykkö. Ella stared at the cover.

“I guess it could be some sort of new version,” she said.

The Rabbit Back library was a red, three-storey fortress at the top of the hill above the school. Its main entrance was framed by two white marble columns.

The columns had been a gift to local cultural life from Mr Lindgren, the late owner of the stone works. Ella had seen a 1975 clipping about the donation of the columns in her mother’s scrapbook. The newspaper article included a black and white photo, with a crane in the background and a group of locals in the foreground—quite a large crowd, including Lindgren himself, and next to him a young Laura White. It was said that Lindgren had been trying to impress the authoress. Behind Laura White stood a group of children—the Rabbit Back Literature Society, a collection of gifted children who would, with White’s guidance, grow up to be writers.

Ella’s grandmother, when she was alive, had referred to the library as “a lousy mausoleum that sullies the whole centre of town”. She wasn’t the only one who thought the building was grim, cold, and much too large. Some locals had learned to hate the place as children. The children of Rabbit Back had to walk by the library every morning panting and sweaty, since the long, steep road to the school passed the building.

Ella thought the place radiated nobility. There were oaks growing around it, which gave it a formal look, like a painting, and in the summer the twittering of birds washed among the limbs of the trees and could be heard inside the library when the windows were open.

Some way from the library there was a small wooded area, and hidden among the trees was Mother Snow’s Book Café. When she was little, Ella would ride her bike there to buy ice cream on Sundays, and every time she went, she would stop at the library to try the locked doors and peek through the windows.

Ella found it difficult to stay away from papery dust of the library for any length of time. Even now, as she approached the place with the problematic Dostoevsky in her bag, she was overcome with the same veneration she’d felt as a child. She had been the kind of child you find in every library, lugging around stacks of books. Once, when she was sick in bed with pneumonia for two weeks, the librarian had called her house to ask if everything was all right. All the old ladies and gents in town used to greet her among the shelves: Hello, Ella! Find anything good today?

She’d read more than was healthy, hundreds of books every year. Some of them she read twice, or even three times, before returning them. Some of them she would check out again after letting them sink in a while. She’d thought at the time that books were at their best when you’d read them two or three times.

She walked between the massive pillars. She always felt a little tickle when she did it. A dog lying on the steps started awake and stared at her, then made a gruff noise and ran off. There was a sign on the door. Ella read it without stopping, opened the door, and went inside.

It was a cool, open space. She walked across the foyer towards the check-out desk through the familiar aroma of paper, dust, and old ink.

“I’d like to make a complaint,” she said to the librarian, whose brown eyes looked at her through horn-rimmed glasses.

The woman at the desk wore a name tag: Ingrid Katz.

“Excuse me, but are you Ingrid Katz, the author?” Ella asked in a friendly tone.

“No, I’m Ingrid Katz, the librarian,” the woman answered, just as friendly. A smoky smell wafted from her clothing. “You say you have a complaint?”

“Perhaps more of a notification,” Ella said. “I recently found myself in a strange situation with one of my students. He wrote an essay which seemed to me to be a bit… questionable.”

The librarian smiled. “Was it improper? They often are at that age. But it will pass. The age, and the impropriety. Luckily, everything does.”

Ella took the book out of her bag. “Let me explain. It turned out that it wasn’t the essay that was the problem, it was the book he was writing about. This book. Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky. It looks completely authentic, but strangely enough, it’s written wrong. It’s been changed. And he checked it out here. It has your stamp on it.”

She slid the book across the counter. Ingrid Katz didn’t seem particularly interested. She just smiled, got up from her chair, and turned around to the reference shelf behind her. The book lay on the the desk between them.

“Typographical errors sometimes happen,” she said, her back to Ella. “Sometimes whole pages are missing. Or sometimes there are even superfluous pages added. After all, they’re made by people, and when people make things, they always make mistakes. To err is human, and the whole history of humankind is a litany of various errors. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Christmas calendars.”

“What Christmas calendars?”

Ingrid Katz shook her head. Her swinging hair momentarily revealed her thin, graceful neck.

“Heavens. It was quite a while ago, but it seems there was an Advent calendar, the kind that has little doors with pictures behind, and somehow the pictures were anything but Christmassy. They were downright pornographic, in fact. There was an article about it in the paper.”

“I see,” Ella said. “But anyway, in this book, Sonya shoots Raskolnikov. And Raskolnikov strangles the pawn broker with a piano wire. That’s not how the story goes. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. I was thinking that it might be some sort of censored version, but it seems to be an ordinary edition.” She thought for a moment, made a restless movement, and smiled again. “It’s a bit odd, I suppose, to complain about such a small matter, but I think we ought to get to the bottom of it. Where would we be if anything at all could turn up in books?”

Ingrid Katz came back to the counter and looked Ella in the eye.

“I can assure you that the book in question will not be returned to circulation. These things happen sometimes. It’s not commonly spoken of, but there are quite a few pranksters working in publishing. Thank you for calling it to our attention.”

“Don’t mention it. Actually, I’d like to take it with me,” Ella said, reaching for the book. “I know a literature professor who would like to make copies of the inaccurate passages.”

Ingrid Katz’s eyes flashed and she snapped up the book before Ella could get hold of it.

“That would certainly be fine, normally,” she said, sliding the book under the counter, “within the restrictions of copyright, of course. But the book has been returned now, and I can’t allow it to return to circulation due to these discrepancies. It’s a matter of principle. We at the library must adhere to certain standards. I’m sorry, and thank you again for bringing this to our attention.”

She turned back to her work behind the counter. Ella looked at her profile, her neck and the crown of her head, thought for a moment, then nodded and headed towards the reading lounge.

The reading lounge was on the third floor, along with the poetry and plays. As she climbed the stairs, Ella could see all three floors at once. There was a cove in the centre of the building that the stairs wound around in a spiral. At the highest point of the cove was a skylight made up of nine panes of glass. On sunny days it lit up the books below with a cathedral-like light, but at the moment all that peeped through were the crows and jackdaws on the roof.

The first floor held the children’s books and adult literature. As Ella looked down she saw a group of statues standing in the first-floor lobby. According to the sign on the door it was the annual exhibition of the Rabbit Back Sculptors’ Association, which this year was titled “From Nixies to Water Sprites—Mythic Representations from the Works of Laura White”.

The second floor was non-fiction. Ella noticed that the dog book section, nearest the stairway, was marked with a yellow sign that read DOG LITERATURE. There were only a few books on the shelf.

When she got to the third floor, Ella picked up a copy of Rabbit Tracks from the rack and chose a table with a view of Ingrid Katz, who was still sitting behind the counter two floors below.

They called this area the reading lounge—at least there was a sign that exhorted her to PLEASE BE QUIET IN THE READING LOUNGE. The “lounge” consisted of six worn tables next to the stair railing.

Ella leafed through Rabbit Tracks, glancing now and then at the librarian. According to the newspaper, the harvest in Rabbit Back was going well, and young Virmasalo, a local running hopeful, had won the silver in a national competition. There were demands for stricter dog control. The regular column by dog psychologist A. Louniala was titled “Man’s Best and Oldest Friend”, and was filled with care and training advice. The town council was considering a remodel of the council building. The literary supplement presented new and up-and-coming authors.

Ella knew her short story hadn’t yet been printed. Perhaps later in the fall, the editor had told her. She shuddered as if someone had walked over her grave, and decided to call the editor and ask for the story back. She wasn’t ready to show it in public yet after all. It had been a bad idea from the beginning; she realized that now.

There was a small news item on page four about a farmer named P. Lahtinen who had found a potato in his field shaped like Mother Snow. He had promised the unusual potato to Laura White, should she want it for her collection, and his wife had promised to make coffee and sweet rolls if the authoress came to pick it up in person.

Ella lost interest in the newspaper. The yellow sign kept drawing her attention. DOG LITERATURE, in black capital letters, every time she looked at it. Eventually she started to ask herself why she didn’t leave.

She had finished all her classes for the day, but she had a large pile of papers to grade in the evening. And her mother was expecting her to bring home food and medicine. There was no way of knowing how confused her father had been that day. She had also been looking forward to a little afternoon nap.

But still she sat there, on the third floor of the library, leafing through the local paper and keeping the librarian under surveillance.

What she was doing was crazy, she understood that. On the other hand, Ingrid Katz was behaving suspiciously. She hadn’t taken the discovery of the inaccuracies in the book as lightly as she had pretended. She also hadn’t seemed surprised that the library might contain books with significant discrepancies in their contents.

Of course, Ella had run across a wide range of translations and outright translation errors, she’d read abridged versions of books, and books with missing pages, even one book with a missing ending. And sometimes official new versions of books were published when times changed and there was no longer a need to shelter readers from indecent language or dubious passages.

But she had never seen the very plot of a book consciously or unconsciously altered as it was in this version of Crime and Punishment. A prank like that would take a very unusual saboteur and it was hard to imagine what the motive would be. And how could such a book remain in circulation for nearly twenty years without anyone noticing anything strange about it?

Ella might have been behaving contrary to habit and to her own common sense that evening, but the existence of the irregular Dostoevsky deeply offended her, and when she was offended she could sometimes do impulsive, purely intuitive things.

*

The students’ papers in her bag were waiting to be graded, and her mother was waiting at home for groceries and her father’s medicine. People came and went.

Two hours went by. Ella Amanda Milana, substitute teacher of Finnish Language and Literature, sat in the library watching Ingrid Katz, librarian. She was starting to feel foolish, but she couldn’t give up, not yet.

Finally, the librarian left her desk and walked through the crowd of stone nixies and pixies to the book stacks.

Ella shifted on her perch to see better. Ingrid Katz was standing at the D shelves piling books onto a cart. She emptied at least a metre of shelf and pushed the cart into the back room.

The back room was where the librarians went to eat lunch and change clothes. The only entrance was behind the check-out desk. The door to the room was hung with a poster of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It had a picture of the magic wardrobe with its door opened invitingly.

Ingrid Katz came out of the back room and sat at the counter for a long time. Finally she went to the second floor to help a man in a hat with something.

Ella had already left her previous position and descended to the lower level. She approached the check-out desk. She browsed the shelf of honour set aside for Laura White’s books and their numerous translations.

Then she sprang into action.

She walked behind the counter, unhurried and nonchalant. She glanced around, touched her front teeth with her tongue, and slipped into the back room.

She formed a cover story in her mind in case Ingrid Katz found her there. She would say she was looking for Ingrid herself because she wanted to ask her a question and was in a hurry.

In any case, what could the librarian do to her, even if she did find her there? Kill her? Knock her unconscious?

Probably not, but she might very well call the police and file a criminal report on her.

What a hubbub that would cause. It would make headlines in Rabbit Tracks. SUBSTITUTE LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE TEACHER NABBED STEALING BOOKS. She would lose her reputation, and her job with it. She would have a criminal record that would follow her for the rest of her life.

Ella was getting scared. She realized now that she had better leave while she had the chance. She thanked herself for coming to her senses in time, before she’d done something really stupid.

Then she noticed the books on the table.

They were in three stacks. There was a bottle of Jaffa soda, a mandarin orange, and a bag of liquorice next to them. Ingrid Katz’s lunch. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was at the bottom of one stack. Ella’s heart started to race as she picked up the book. She took five other books, too—the first few she could find that were thin enough to fit in her bag.

Her fingers were as cold as magpies’ feet.

At the bottom of her bag was a comic book she’d confiscated during her morning class. Ella laid the comic over the stack of books and closed the bag.

Then she walked out of the library.

 

Excerpted from the English translation of The Rabbit Back Literature Society © Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, 2015

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