The book, her book, was bound in black, with the words North of Nowhere indented in worn gold on the spine. Dirty and dusty, the boards loose under the cloth, it resembled a kind of withered bat. I looked at it with vague distaste. Then, almost as if it had suddenly come to life, it slithered out of my grasp, jabbed my foot, bounced and splayed open. I picked it up. I didn't know then how dangerous fairy tales can be.
I was trying to separate my possessions from those of my wife, Georgina. A biography in books, this is why some people scan your shelves, in the manner of a Roman seer gazing at entrails. There were duplicate editions of T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare, of Beckett, Pinter, and Joyce. My own copies of Conrad, Dostoevsky, and Waugh jumbled up with her Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës...the male versus the female canon. The plays I had been in, with my parts underlined in lurid orange. Her university texts, with notes scribbled in pencil or biro. Then single volumes, signifying union: paperbacks stained with the oils of lost summers, whose cracked spines still released cascades of fine sand or faded blades of pale grass; hardbacks generously inscribed to mark birthdays or Christmas, passed from one to the other at bedtime as a preliminary to love; bound proofs of new books, battered ghosts of old ones. All of these, left to me to divide and put into boxes. She had taken the children's books, as she had taken the children. We had been separated now for over a year, and were getting divorced.
I had been astonished by how much suffering this had caused, and was now weary. My body had taken on a life of its own, in which it wept while I remained an embarrassed parent, unable to control its excesses. She had gone and I had stayed. It wasn't just because I'd been determined not to relinquish this house. I had been unable to do anything. Once a fortnight, I would emerge to buy groceries. Otherwise I slumped in an armchair, without hope or energy. Some days, I couldn't remember how to talk. On really bad days, I couldn't even walk either. Eventually, after a bout of snarling by lawyers, we had agreed to sell and split the proceeds. The new owners were people who would paper over the walls and drain the Japanese pond I had made in the garden (I had heard them agreeing on this in loud voices, when they walked round with the estate agent). Several other prospective buyers had dropped out even as they walked to the front door. I had heard stories of divorcees who had bought a dog just so it could crap over all the carpets and drive the price down, but my neglect wasn't calculated. I had given up washing anything, including myself. The small, synchronized actions to get to the bathroom were too much for me. I knew the new owners would think I was crazy anyway. People always think this of the person who lived in their house before them. It's a way of pretending you never existed.
In every room, packers were entombing our furniture, wadding it in transparent, silvery bubbles that, they assured me, would protect the most fragile of objects. If I stood still for long enough, there was even a chance they might do the same to me. I shivered. The front and back doors were open, the heating switched off. What had been my life, our life, was finally ebbing from this place. Already, the house was acquiring a hollow sound, motes swirling in weak sunlight as if the very atoms of my existence were being sent into Brownian motion. There was nothing but boxes and dust, and these, too, would go--a ghostly picture here, a chair there, wiped out, painted over, forgotten.
I turned over the book I held. The pages were spotted like elderly hands. I began to read, mechanically.
"At least tell me the way," she said, "and I will seek you--that I may surely be allowed to do?"
"There is no hope, not unless you wear out an iron staff and a pair of iron shoes in searching," said he. "The troll witch lives in a castle which lies East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and there too is her daughter the princess with a nose three ells long, and she is the one I now must marry."
Excerpted from In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig Copyright 2002 by Amanda Craig. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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