"Dear 667 Dark Avenue"... Including: CHAPTER TWO Jun 13, 2012 10:34:09 GMT -5
Post by Dante on Jun 13, 2012 10:34:09 GMT -5
If you ask the right librarian and you get the right map, you can find the small dot of a town called Stain’d-by-the-Sea, about half a day’s drive from the city. But the town is actually nowhere near the sea but instead at the end of a long, bumpy road that has no name which is on no map you can find. I know this because it was in Stain’d-by-the-Sea that I spent my apprenticeship, and not in the city, where I thought it would be. I did not know this until S. Theodora Markson drove the roadster past the train station without even slowing down.
“Aren’t we taking the train?” I asked.
“That’s another wrong question,” she said. “I told you there’s been a change of plans. The map is not the territory. That’s an expression which means the world does not match the picture in our heads.”
“I thought we were working across town.”
“That’s exactly what I mean, Snicket. You thought we were working across town, but we are not working in the city at all.”
My stomach fell to the floor of the car, which rattled as we took a sharp turn around a construction site. A team of workers were digging up the street to start work on the Fountain of Victorious Finance. Tomorrow, if it were possible for an apprentice to sneak away for lunch, I was supposed to meet someone right here, in hopes of measuring how deep the hole was that they were digging. I’d managed to acquire a new measuring tape for just that purpose, one that stretched out a very long distance and then scurried back into its holder with a satisfying click. The holder was shaped like a bat, and the tape measure was red, as if the bat had a very long tongue. I realized I would never see it again.
“My suitcase,” I said, “is at the train station.”
“I purchased some clothes for you,” Theodora said, and tilted her helmeted head toward the backseat, where I saw a small, bruised suitcase. “I was given your measurements, so hopefully they fit. If they don’t, you will have to either lose or gain weight or height. They’re unremarkable clothes. The idea is not to attract attention.”
I thought that wearing clothes either too big or too small for me would be likely to attract attention, and I thought of the small stack of books I had tucked next to the bat. One of them was very important. It was a history of the city’s underground sewer system. I had planned to take a few notes on chapter 5 of the book, on the train across town. When I disembarked at Bellamy Station, I would crumple the notes into a ball and toss them to my associate without being seen. She would be standing at the magazine rack at Bellamy Books. It was all mapped out, but now the territory was different. She would read magazines for hours before catching her own train to her own apprenticeship, but then what would she do? What would I do? I scowled out the window and asked myself these and other hopeless questions.
“Your reticence is not appreciated,” Theodora said, breaking my sour silence. “‘Reticence’ is a word which here means not talking enough. Say something, Snicket.”
“Are we there yet?” I asked hopefully, although everyone knows that is the wrong question to ask the driver of a car. “Where are we going?” I tried instead, but for a moment Theodora did not answer. She was biting her lip, as if she were also disappointed about something, so I tried one more question that I thought she might like better. “What does the S stand for?”
“Someplace else,” she replied, and it was true. Before long we had passed out of the neighbourhood, and then out of the district, and then out of the city altogether and were driving along a very twisty road that made me grateful I had eaten little. The air had such a curious smell that we had to close the windows of the roadster, and it looked like rain. I stared out the window and watched the day grow later. Few cars were on the road, but all of them were in better shape than Theodora’s. Twice I almost fell asleep thinking of places and people in the city that were dearly important to me, and the distance between them and myself growing and growing until the distance grew so vast that even the longest-tongued bat in the world could not lick the life I was leaving behind.
A new sound rattled me out of my thoughts. The road had become rough and crackly under the vehicle’s wheels as Theodora took us down a hill so steep and long I could not see the bottom of it through the roadster’s dirty windows.
“We’re driving on seashells,” my chaperone said in explanation. “This last part of the journey is all seashells and stones.”
“Who would pave a road like that?”
“Wrong question, Snicket,” she replied. “Nobody paved it, and it’s not really a road. This entire valley used to be underwater. It was drained some years back. You can see why it would be absolutely impossible to take the train.”
A whistle blew right then. I decided not to say anything. Theodora glared at me anyway and then frowned out the window. A distance away was the hurried, slender shape of a long train, balancing high above the bumpy valley where we were driving. The train tracks were on a long, high bridge, which curved out from the shore to reach an island that was now just a mountain of stones rising out of the drained valley. Theodora turned the roadster toward the island, and as we approached I could see a group of buildings—faded brick buildings enclosed by a faded brick wall. A school, perhaps, or the estate of a dull family. The buildings had once been elegant, but many of the windows were shattered and gone, and there were no signs of life. I was surprised to hear, just as the roadster passed directly under the bridge, the low, loud clanging of a bell, from a high brick tower that looked abandoned and sad on a pile of rocks.
Theodora cleared her throat. “There should be two masks behind you.”
“Masks?” I said.
“Don’t repeat what I say, Snicket. You are an apprentice, not a mynah bird. There are two masks on the backseat. We need them.”
I reached back and found the items in question but had to stare at them a moment before I found the courage to pick them up. The two masks, one for an adult and one for a child, were fashioned from a shiny silver metal, with a tangle of rubber tubes and filters on the back. On the front were narrow slits for the eyes and a small ripple underneath for the nose. There was nothing where a mouth might be, so the faces of the masks looked at me silently and spookily, as if they thought this whole journey was a bad idea.
“I absolutely agree,” I told them.
Theodora frowned. “That bell means we should don these masks. ‘Don’ is a word which here means ‘put on our heads.’ The pressure at this depth will make it difficult to breathe otherwise.”
“Water pressure, Snicket. It’s everywhere around us. Masked or not, you must use your head.”
My head told me it didn’t understand how there could be water pressure everywhere around us. There wasn’t any water. I wondered where all the water had gone when they’d drained this part of the sea, and I should have wondered. But I told myself it was the wrong question and asked something else instead. “Why did they do this? Why did they drain the sea of its water?”
S. Theodora Markson took off her helmet, and for a moment I glimpsed a great deal of wild, long hair before she took one mask from my hands and slipped it onto her head. “To save the town,” she replied in a muffled voice. “Put your mask on, Snicket.”
I did as Theodora said. The mask was dark inside and smelled faintly like a cave or a closet that had not been opened in some time. A few tubes huddled in front of my mouth, like worms in front of a fish. I blinked behind the slits at Theodora, who blinked back.
“Is the mask working?” she asked me.
“How can I tell?”
“If you can breathe, then it’s working.”
I did not say that I had been breathing previously. Something more interesting had attracted my attention. Out the window of the roadster I saw a line of big barrels, round and old, squatting uncovered next to some odd, enormous machines. The machines looked like hug hypodermic needles, as if a doctor were planning on giving several shots to a giant. Here and there were people—men or women, it was impossible to tell in their masks—checking on the needles to make sure they were working properly. They were. With a swinging of hinges and a turning of gears, the needles plunged deep into holes in the shell-covered ground and then rose up again, full of a black liquid. The needles deposited the liquid, with a quiet black splash, into the barrels and then plunged back into the holes, over and over again while I watched through the slits in my mask.
“Oil,” I guessed.
“Ink,” Theodora corrected. “The town is called Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Of course, it is no longer by the sea, as they’ve drained it away. But the town still manufactures ink that was once famous for making the darkest, most permanent stains.
“And the ink is in those holes?”
“Those holes are long, narrow caves,” Theodora said, “like wells. And in the caves are octopi. That’s where the ink comes from.”
I thought of a friend of mine who had also just graduated, a girl who knew about all sorts of underwater life. “I thought octopi make ink only when they are frightened.”
“I imagine an octopus would find those machines very frightening indeed,” Theodora said, and she turned the roadster into a narrow path in the shells that twisted upward, climbing a steep and craggy mountain. At its peak, I could see a faint, pulsing light through the afternoon gray. It took me a minute to realize that it was a lighthouse, which stood on a cliff that overlooked what had been waves and water and was now just a vast, eerie landscape. As the roadster spluttered up the hill, I looked out the windows on Theodora’s side and saw that opposite the inkwells was another strange sight.
“The Clusterous Forest,” Theodora said, before I could even ask. “When they drained the sea, everyone thought all of the seaweed would shrivel up and die. But my information says that for some mysterious reason, the seaweed learned to grown on dry land, and now for miles and miles there is an enormous forest of seaweed. Never go in there, Snicket. It is a wild and lawless place, not fit for man or beast.”
She did not have to tell me not to go into the Clusterous Forest. It was frightening enough just to look at it. It was less like a forest and more like an endless mass of shrubbery, with the shiny leaves of the seaweed twisting this way and that, as if the plants were still under churning water. Even with the windows shut, I could smell the forest, a brackish scent of fish and oil, and I could hear the rustling of thousands of strands of seaweed that had somehow survived the draining of the sea.
The bell rang again as the roadster finally reached the top of the hill, signaling the all-clear. We removed our masks, and Theodora steered the car onto an actual paved road that wound past the blinking lighthouse and down a hill lined with trees. We passed a small white cottage and then came to a stop at the driveway of a mansion so large it looked like several mansions had crashed together. Parts of it looked like a castle, with several tall towers stretching high into the cloudy air, and parts of it looked like a tent, with heavy gray cloth stretched over an ornate garden crawling with fountains and statues, and parts of it looked more like a museum, with a severe front door and a long, long stretch of window. The view from the window must have been very pretty once, with the waves crashing below the cliffs. It wasn’t pretty anymore. I looked down and saw the top of the Clusterous Forest, moving in slow ripples like spooky laundry hung out to dry, and the distant sight of the needles spilling ink into the waiting barrels.
Theodora braked and got out of the car, stretched, and took off her gloves and her leather helmet. I finally had a good look at her long, thick hair, which was almost as strange a sight as everything I had seen on the way. I needed a haircut, but S. Theodora Markson made me look bald. Her hair stretched out every which way from her head in long, curly rows, like a waterfall made from tangled yarn. It was very hard to listen to her while it was in front of me.
“Listen to me, Snicket,” my chaperone said. “You are on probation. Your penchant for asking too many questions and for general rudeness makes me reluctant to keep you. ‘Penchant’ is a word which here means habit.”
“I know what penchant means,” I said.
“That is exactly what I’m talking about,” Theodora said sternly, and quickly rang her fingers through her hair in an attempt to tame it. It was impossible to tame, like leeches. “Our first client lives here, and we are meeting with her for the first time. You are to speak as little as possible and let me do the work. I am very excellent at my job, and you will learn a great deal as long as you keep quiet and remember you are merely an apprentice. Do you understand?”
I understood. Shortly before graduation I’d been given a list of people with whom I could apprentice, ranked by their success in their various endeavours. There were fifty-two chaperones on the list. S. Theodora Markson was ranked fifty-second. She was wrong. She was not excellent at her job, and this was why I wanted to be her apprentice. The map was not the territory. I had pictured working as an apprentice in the city, where I would have been able to complete a very important task with someone I could absolutely trust. But the world did not match the picture in my head, and instead I was with a strange, uncombed person, overlooking a sea without water and a forest without trees.
I followed Theodora along the driveway and up a long set of brick stairs to the front door, where she rang the doorbell six times in a row. It felt like the wrong thing to do, standing at the wrong door in the wrong place. We did it anyway. Knowing that something is wrong and doing it anyway happens very often in life, and I doubt I will ever know why.