Cloud Cuckoo Land Page 2

Sharif takes Zeno’s elbow as they ascend. The entrance to the second story has been blocked with a plywood wall spray-painted gold, and in its center, over a small arched door, Zeno has written:

Ὦ ξένε, ὅστις εἶ, ἄνοιξον, ἵνα μάθῃς ἃ θαυμάζεις


The fifth graders cluster against the plywood and snow melts on their jackets and backpacks and everyone looks at Zeno and Zeno waits for his breath to catch up with the rest of him.

“Does everyone remember what it says?”

“Of course,” says Rachel.

“Duh,” says Christopher.

On her tiptoes, Natalie runs a finger beneath each word. “Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.”

“Oh my flipping gosh,” says Alex, his donkey head under his arm. “It’s like we’re about to walk into the book.”

Sharif switches off the stairwell light and the children crowd around the little door in the red glow of the EXIT sign. “Ready?” calls Zeno, and from the other side of the plywood, Marian, the library director, calls, “Ready.”

One by one the fifth graders pass through the little arched doorway into the Children’s Section. The shelves, tables, and beanbags that normally fill the space have been pushed against the walls and in their places stand thirty folding chairs. Above the chairs, dozens of cardboard clouds, coated with glitter, hang from the rafters by threads. In front of the chairs is a small stage, and behind the stage, on a canvas sheet hung across the entire rear wall, Marian has painted a city in the clouds.

Golden towers, cut by hundreds of little windows and crowned by pennants, rise in clusters. Around their spires whirl dense flights of birds—little brown buntings and big silver eagles, birds with long curving tails and others with long curving bills, birds of the world and birds of the imagination. Marian has shut off the overhead lights, and in the beam of a single karaoke light on a stand, the clouds sparkle and the flocks shimmer and the towers seem illuminated from within.

“It’s—” says Olivia.

“—better than I—” says Christopher.

“Cloud Cuckoo Land,” whispers Rachel.

Natalie sets down her speaker and Alex leaps onstage and Marian calls, “Careful, some of the paint may still be wet.”

Zeno lowers himself into a chair in the front row. Every time he blinks, a memory ripples across the undersides of his eyelids: his father pratfalls into a snowbank; a librarian slides open the drawer of a card catalogue; a man in a prison camp scratches Greek characters into the dust.

Sharif shows the kids the backstage area that he has created behind three bookshelves, packed with props and costumes, and Olivia pulls a latex cap over her hair to make herself look bald and Christopher drags a microwave box painted to look like a marble sarcophagus to the center of the stage and Alex reaches to touch a tower of the painted city and Natalie slides a laptop from her backpack.

Marian’s phone buzzes. “Pizzas are ready,” she says into Zeno’s good ear. “I’ll walk over and pick them up. Be back in a jiff.”

“Mr. Ninis?” Rachel is tapping Zeno’s shoulder. Her red hair is pulled back in braided pigtails and snow has melted to droplets on her shoulders and her eyes are wide and bright. “You built all this? For us?”


One block away, inside a Pontiac Grand Am mantled in three inches of snow, a gray-eyed seventeen-year-old named Seymour Stuhlman drowses with a backpack in his lap. The backpack is an oversize dark green JanSport and contains two Presto pressure cookers, each of which is packed with roofing nails, ball bearings, an igniter, and nineteen ounces of a high explosive called Composition B. Twin wires run from the body of each cooker to the lid, where they plug into the circuit board of a cellular phone.

In a dream Seymour walks beneath trees toward a cluster of white tents, but every time he takes a step forward, the trail twists and the tents recede, and a terrible confusion presses down on him. He wakes with a start.

The dashboard clock says 4:42 p.m. How long did he sleep? Fifteen minutes. Twenty at most. Stupid. Careless. He has been in the car for more than four hours and his toes are numb and he has to pee.

With a sleeve he clears vapor from the inside of the windshield. He risks the wipers once and they brush a slab of snow off the glass. No cars parked in front of the library. No one on the sidewalk. The only car in the gravel parking lot to the west is Marian the Librarian’s Subaru, humped with snow.

4:43 p.m.

Six inches before dark, says the radio, twelve to fourteen overnight.

Inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four. Recall things you know. Owls have three eyelids. Their eyeballs are not spheres but elongated tubes. A group of owls is called a parliament.

All he needs to do is stroll in, hide the backpack in the southeast corner of the library, as close as possible to the Eden’s Gate Realty office, and stroll out. Drive north, wait until the library closes at 6 p.m., dial the numbers. Wait five rings.



At 4:51, a figure in a cherry-red parka exits the library, pulls up her hood, and pushes a snow shovel up and down the front walk. Marian.

Seymour shuts off the car radio and slips lower in his seat. In a memory he is seven or eight years old, in Adult Nonfiction, somewhere in the 598s, and Marian retrieves a field guide to owls from a high shelf. Her cheeks are a sandstorm of freckles; she smells like cinnamon gum; she sits beside him on a rolling stool. On the pages she shows him, owls stand outside burrows, owls sit on branches, owls soar over fields.

He pushes the memory aside. What does Bishop say? A warrior, truly engaged, does not experience guilt, fear, or remorse. A warrior, truly engaged, becomes something more than human.

Marian runs the shovel up the wheelchair ramp, scatters some salt, walks down Park Street, and is swallowed by the snow.


All afternoon Seymour has waited for the library to be empty and now it is. He unzips the backpack, switches on the cell phones taped to the lids of the pressure cookers, removes a pair of rifle-range ear defenders, and rezips the backpack. In the right pocket of his windbreaker is a Beretta 92 semiautomatic pistol he found in his great-uncle’s toolshed. In the left: a cell phone with three phone numbers written on the back.

Stroll in, hide the backpack, stroll out. Drive north, wait until the library closes, dial the top two numbers. Wait five rings. Boom.


A plow scrapes through the intersection, lights flashing. A gray pickup passes, King Construction on the door. The OPEN sign glows in the library’s first-floor window. Marian is probably running an errand; she won’t be gone long.

Go. Get out of the car.


Each crystal that strikes the windshield makes a barely audible tap, yet the sound seems to penetrate all the way to the roots of his molars. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap. Owls have three eyelids. Their eyeballs are not spheres but elongated tubes. A group of owls is called a parliament.

He clamps the ear defenders over his ears. Pulls up his hood. Sets a hand on the door handle.


A warrior, truly engaged, becomes something more than human.

He gets out of the car.


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