Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth.
What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.
Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea publishes November 5th with Doubleday.
Once, very long ago…
There is a pirate in the basement.
(The pirate is a metaphor but also still a person.)
(The basement could rightly be considered a dungeon.)
The pirate was placed here for numerous acts of a piratey nature considered criminal enough for punishment by those non-pirates who decide such things.
Someone said to throw away the key, but the key rests on a tarnished ring on a hook that hangs on the wall nearby.
(Close enough to see from behind the bars. Freedom kept in sight but out of reach, left as a reminder to the prisoner. No one remembers that now on the key side of the bars. The careful psychological design forgotten, distilled into habit and convenience.)
(The pirate realizes this but withholds comment.)
The guard sits in a chair by the door and reads crime serials on faded paper, wishing he were an idealized, fictional version of himself. Wondering if the difference between pirates and thieves is a matter of boats and hats.
After a time he is replaced by another guard. The pirate cannot discern the precise schedule, as the basement-dungeon has no clocks to mark the time and the sound of the waves on the shore beyond the stone walls muffles the morning chimes, the evening merriment.
This guard is shorter and does not read. He wishes to be no one but himself, he lacks the imagination to conjure alter egos, even the imagination to empathize with the man behind the bars, the only other soul in the room beyond the mice. He pays elaborate amounts of attention to his shoes when he is not asleep. (He is usually asleep.)
Approximately three hours after the short guard replaces the reading guard, a girl comes.
The girl brings a plate of bread and a bowl of water and sets them outside the pirate’s cell with hands shaking so badly that half the water spills. Then she turns and scampers up the stairs.
The second night (the pirate guesses it is night) the pirate stands as close to the bars as he can and stares and the girl drops the bread nearly out of reach and spills the bowl of water almost entirely.
The third night the pirate stays in the shadows of the back corner and manages to keep most of his water.
The fourth night a different girl comes.
This girl does not wake the guard. Her feet fall more softly on the stones and any sound they make is stolen away by the waves or by the mice.
This girl stares into the shadows at the barely visible pirate, gives a little disappointed sigh, and places the bread and bowl by the bars. Then she waits.
The pirate remains in the shadows.
After several minutes of silence punctuated by the guard’s snoring, the girl turns away and leaves.
When the pirate retrieves his meal he finds the water has been mixed with wine.
The next night, the fifth night if it is night at all, the pirate waits by the bars for the girl to descend on her silent feet.
Her steps halt only briefly when she sees him. The pirate stares and the girl stares back.
He holds out a hand for his bowl and his bread but the girl places them on the ground instead, her eyes never leaving his, not allowing so much as the hem of her gown to drift into his reach. Bold yet coy. She gives him a hint of a bow as she returns to her feet, a gentle nod of her head, a movement that reminds him of the beginning of the dance.
(Even a pirate can recognize the beginning of a dance.)
The next night the pirate stays back from the bars, a polite distance that could be closed in a single step, and the girl comes a breath closer.
Another night and the dance continues. A step closer. A step back. A movement to the side. The next night he holds out his hand again to accept what she offers and this time she responds and his fingers brush against the back of her hand.
The girl begins to linger, staying longer each night, though if the guard stirs to the point of waking she departs without a backward glance.
She brings two bowls of wine and they drink together in companionable silence. The guard has stopped snoring, his sleep deep and restful. The pirate suspects the girl has something to do with that. Bold and coy and clever.
Some nights she brings more than bread. Oranges and plums secreted in the pockets of her gown. Pieces of candied ginger wrapped in paper laced with stories.
Some nights she stays until moments before the changing of the guards.
(The daytime guard has begun leaving his crime serials within reach of the cell’s walls, ostensibly by accident.)
The shorter guard paces tonight. He clears his throat as though he might say something but says nothing. He settles himself in his chair and falls into an anxious sleep.
The pirate waits for the girl.
She arrives empty-handed.
Tonight is the last night. The night before the gallows. (The gallows are also a metaphor, albeit an obvious one.) The pirate knows that there will not be another night, will not be another changing of the guard after the next one. The girl knows the exact number of hours.
They do not speak of it.
They have never spoken.
The pirate twists a lock of the girl’s hair between his fingers.
The girl leans into the bars, her cheek resting on cold iron, as close as she can be while she remains a world away.
Close enough to kiss.
“Tell me a story,” she says.
The pirate obliges her.
There are three paths. This is one of them.
Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals. Tales laid in tiles upon the floors, bits of plot worn away by passing feet. Legends carved in crystal and hung from chandeliers. Stories catalogued and cared for and revered. Old stories preserved while new stories spring up around them.
The place is sprawling yet intimate. It is difficult to measure its breadth. Halls fold into rooms or galleries and stairs twist downward or upward to alcoves or arcades. Everywhere there are doors leading to new spaces and new stories and new secrets to be discovered and everywhere there are books.
It is a sanctuary for storytellers and storykeepers and storylovers. They eat and sleep and dream surrounded by chronicles and histories and myths. Some stay for hours or days before returning to the world above but others remain for weeks or years, living in shared or private chambers and spending their hours reading or studying or writing, discussing and creating with their fellow residents or working in solitude.
Of those who remain, a few choose to devote themselves to this space, to this temple of stories.
There are three paths. This is one of them.
This is the path of the acolytes.
Those who wish to choose this path must spend a full cycle of the moon in isolated contemplation before they commit. The contemplation is thought to be silent, but of those who allow themselves to be locked away in the stone-walled room, some will realize that no one can hear them. They can talk or yell or scream and it violates no rules. The contemplation is only thought to be silent by those who have never been inside the room.
Once the contemplation has ended they have the opportunity to leave their path. To choose another path or no path at all.
Those who spend their time in silence often choose to leave both the path and the space. They return to the surface. They squint at the sun. Sometimes they remember a world below that they once intended to devote themselves to but the memory is hazy, like a place from a dream.
More often it is those who scream and cry and wail, those who talk to themselves for hours, who are ready when the time comes to proceed with their initiation.
Tonight, as the moon is new and the door is unlocked, it reveals a young woman who has spent most of her time singing. She is shy and not in the habit of singing, but on her first night of contemplation she realized almost by accident that no one could hear her. She laughed, partly at herself and partly at the oddity of having voluntarily jailed herself in the most luxurious of cells with its feather bed and silken sheets. The laugh echoed around the stone room like ripples of water.
She clasped her hand over her mouth and waited for someone to come but no one did. She tried to recall if anyone had told her explicitly not to speak.
She said “Hello?” and only the echoes returned her greeting.
It took a few days before she was brave enough to sing. She had never liked her singing voice but in her captivity free of embarrassment and expectation she sang, softly at first but then brightly and boldly. The voice that the echo returned to her ears was surprisingly pleasant.
She sang all the songs she knew. She made up her own. In moments when she could not think of words to sing she created nonsense languages for lyrics with sounds she found pleasing.
It surprised her how quickly the time passed.
Now the door opens.
The acolyte who enters holds a ring of brass keys. He offers his other palm to her. On it sits a small disk of metal with a raised carving of a bee.
Accepting the bee is the next step in becoming an acolyte. This is her final chance to refuse.
She takes the bee from the acolyte’s palm. He bows and gestures for her to follow him.
The young woman who is to be an acolyte turns the warm metal disk over in her fingers as they walk through narrow candlelit tunnels lined with bookshelves and open caverns filled with mismatched chairs and tables, stacked high with books and dotted with statues. She pets a statue of a fox as they pass by, a popular habit that has worn its carved fur smooth between its ears.
An older man leafing through a volume glances up as they pass and recognizing the procession he places two fingers to his lips and inclines his head at her.
At her, not at the acolyte she follows. A gesture of respect for a position she does not yet officially hold. She bows her head to hide her smile. They continue down gilded stairways and through curving tunnels she has never traversed before. She slows to look at the paintings hung between the shelves of books, images of trees and girls and ghosts.
The acolyte stops at a door marked with a golden bee. He chooses a key from his ring and unlocks it.
Here begins the initiation.
It is a secret ceremony. The details are known only to those who undergo it and those who perform it. It has been performed in the same fashion always, as long as anyone can remember.
As the door with the golden bee is opened and the threshold crossed the acolyte gives up her name. Whatever name this young woman was called before she will never be addressed by it again, it stays in her past. Someday she may have a new name, but for the moment she is nameless.
The room is small and round and high-ceilinged, a miniature version of her contemplation cell. It holds a plain wooden chair on one side and a waist-high pillar of stone topped with a bowl of fire. The fire provides the only light.
The elder acolyte gestures for the young woman to sit in the wooden chair. She does. She faces the fire, watching the flames dance until a piece of black silk is tied over her eyes.
The ceremony continues unseen.
The metal bee is taken from her hand. There is a pause followed by the sound of metal instruments clinking and then the sensation of a finger on her chest, pressing into a spot on her breastbone. The pressure releases and then it is replaced by a sharp, searing pain.
(She will realize afterward that the metal bee has been heated in the fire, its winged impression burned into her chest.)
The surprise of it unnerves her. She has prepared herself for what she knows of the rest of the ceremony, but this is unexpected. She realizes she has never seen the bare chest of another acolyte.
When moments before she was ready, now she is shaken and unsure.
But she does not say Stop. She does not say No.
She has made her decision, though she could not have known everything that decision would entail.
In the darkness, fingers part her lips and a drop of honey is placed on her tongue.
This is to ensure that the last taste is sweet.
In truth the last taste that remains in an acolyte’s mouth is more than honey: the sweetness swept up in blood and metal and burning flesh.
Were an acolyte able to describe it, afterward, they might clarify that the last taste they experience is one of honey and smoke.
It is not entirely sweet.
They recall it each time they extinguish the flame atop a beeswax candle.
A reminder of their devotion. But they cannot speak of it.
They surrender their tongues willingly. They offer up their ability to speak to better serve the voices of others.
They take an unspoken vow to no longer tell their own stories in reverence to the ones that came before and to the ones that shall follow.
In this honey-tinged pain the young woman in the chair thinks she might scream but she does not. In the darkness the fire seems to consume the entire room and she can see shapes in the flames even though her eyes are covered.
The bee on her chest flutters.
Once her tongue has been taken and burned and turned to ash, once the ceremony is complete and her servitude as an acolyte officially begins, once her voice has been muted, then her ears awaken.
Then the stories begin to come.
To deceive the eye.
The boy is the son of the fortune-teller. He has reached an age that brings an uncertainty as to whether this is something to be proud of, or even a detail to be divulged, but it remains true.
He walks home from school toward an apartment situated above a shop strewn with crystal balls and tarot cards, incense and statues of animal-headed deities and dried sage. (The scent of sage permeates everything, from his bedsheets to his shoelaces.)
Today, as he does every school day, the boy takes a shortcut through an alleyway that loops behind the store, a narrow passage between tall brick walls that are often covered with graffiti and then whitewashed and then graffitied again.
Today, instead of the creatively spelled tags and bubble-lettered profanities, there is a single piece of artwork on the otherwise white bricks.
It is a door.
The boy stops. He adjusts his spectacles to focus his eyes better, to be certain he is seeing what his sometimes unreliable vision suggests he is seeing.
The haziness around the edges sharpens, and it is still a door. Larger and fancier and more impressive than he’d thought at first fuzzy glance.
He is uncertain what to make of it.
Its incongruousness demands his attention.
The door is situated far back in the alley, in a shadowed section hidden from the sun, but the colors are still rich, some of the pigments metallic. More delicate than most of the graffiti the boy has seen. Painted in a style he knows has a fancy French name, something about fooling the eye, though he cannot recall the term here and now.
The door is carved—no, painted—with sharp-cut geometric patterns that wind around its edges creating depth where there is only flatness. In the center, at the level where a peephole might be and stylized with lines that match the rest of the painted carving, is a bee. Beneath the bee is a key. Beneath the key is a sword.
A golden, seemingly three-dimensional doorknob shimmers despite the lack of light. A keyhole is painted beneath, so dark it looks to be a void awaiting a key rather than a few strokes of black paint.
The door is strange and pretty and something that the boy does not have words for and does not know if there are words for, even fancy French expressions.
Somewhere in the street an unseen dog barks but it sounds distant and abstract. The sun moves behind a cloud and the alley feels longer and deeper and darker, the door itself brighter.
Tentatively, the boy reaches out to touch the door.
The part of him that still believes in magic expects it to be warm despite the chill in the air. Expects the image to have fundamentally changed the brick. Makes his heart beat faster even as his hand slows down because the part of him that thinks the other part is being childish prepares for disappointment.
His fingertips meet the door below the sword and they come to rest on smooth paint covering cool brick, a slight unevenness to the surface betraying the texture below.
It is just a wall. Just a wall with a pretty picture on it.
Still there is the sensation tugging at him that this is more than what it appears to be.
He presses his palm against the painted brick. The false wood of the door is a brown barely a shade or two off from his own skin tone, as though it has been mixed to match him.
Behind the door is somewhere else. Not the room behind the wall. Something more. He knows this. He feels it in his toes.
This is what his mother would call a moment with meaning. A moment that changes the moments that follow.
The son of the fortune-teller knows only that the door feels important in a way he cannot quite explain, even to himself.
A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.
He traces the painted lines of the key with his fingertips, marveling at how much the key, like the sword and the bee and the doorknob, looks as though it should be three-dimensional.
The boy wonders who painted it and what it means, if it means anything. If not the door at least the symbols. If it is a sign and not a door, or if it is both at once.
In this significant moment, if the boy turns the painted knob and opens the impossible door, everything will change.
But he does not.
Instead, he puts his hands in his pockets.
Part of him decides he is being childish and that he is too old to expect real life to be like books. Another part of him decides that if he does not try he cannot be disappointed and he can go on believing that the door could open even if it is just pretend.
He stands with his hands in his pockets and considers the door for a moment more before walking away.
The following day his curiosity gets the better of him and he returns to find that the door has been painted over. The brick wall whitewashed to the point where he cannot even discern where, precisely, the door had been.
And so the son of the fortune-teller does not find his way to the Starless Sea.
Excerpted from The Starless Sea © copyright 2019 by Erin Morgenstern.