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The Traveller and the Book by Ian R MacLeod

Lost, thirsty and exhausted, the traveller crawled across the desert. When the sun was at its highest, he came across a book half-buried in the sand. He thought at first that it was an illusion, then almost laughed to see that its pages were empty, although they grew smeared with the blood of his scabbed fingers as they crackled in the wind. In his delirium, he shaped the smears into letters which formed the word WATER. Then, still clutching the book, he crawled on.

Somehow, evening came. Somehow, the traveller remained alive. Although he was certain that the shape he saw ahead was nothing but a trick of the fading light, he dragged himself toward it, and his hands encountered what seemed to be the curved stones of a low wall. Impossible. But still, the traveller hauled himself to the wall’s lip, and found himself looking down into the cool waters of a well.

In a fever of thirst, he lowered his head and drank. He knew he should only sip at first. But that was impossible. He drenched himself. And drank. And drank. The pains which came to the traveller that night were incredible. So was the cold. He did not expect to see another morning. But it came, and the well was still there. And so—fluttering a little way off in the sand—was the book.

He drank more cautiously this time. Tried to use what shade the well offered to protect himself from the heat. But the sun was rising and the shadow was shrinking. If he was to survive, he knew he would have to move on. He picked up the book. Turned to the next blank page and nibbled at a fingertip until it began to bleed. Again he shaped the word WATER. Then he added FOOD. Nothing changed. The well remained, his belly ached, and now there was no shelter from the sun. Clutching the book, the traveller stumbled on.

Another hopeless day. Nothing but the deepening pains of hunger to go with his returning thirst. By the time the sun began to set, he was certain that the well had been nothing but a dream. Even when he saw a shape on the horizon, he knew that he had done nothing but complete an aimless circle. The well was certainly almost the same, even if the arrangement of its stones seemed slightly different. In the reddening light beside it—and surely this was the fruit of his delirium—lay a loaf of bread. His senses swooned at its scent, but this time, he tried to be cautious. Even then, he almost choked. Then, shivering, exhausted, and clutching his book, the traveller fell asleep.

Another freezing night. When morning finally came the traveller decided he must make better plans. It was hard to write with the blood of a bitten finger, but he managed to shape the word SHELTER to follow WATER and FOOD. After he had picked the last breadcrumbs from the sand, he took his book and headed on. The day proved hot and long and difficult as any he’d experienced. In many ways, it was worse, for now he was tormented by hope. But once again as evening came, he saw a shape on the horizon. There was a well, but this time a scrap of grey canvas fluttered beside the loaf of bread. As night settled, he wrapped himself in it against the cold.

Next morning the process of writing proved even more difficult as, after inscribing the same painful words as before, he added INK and PEN. Using the canvas as a kind of cloak and clutching his book, he headed on across the desert. That evening, exhausted though he was, he scanned the horizon with something like anticipation, and his cracked lips broke to form a smile when he saw the shape of a well. Laid beside the bread and the fluttering canvas, he found a brass-knobbed pen, and a small pot of ink. After he’d drank from the well, and chewed at his bread, in a few quick sentences and a shaking hand, he described a cottage.

Another dawn. The pen and the ink, he took with him, although the second canvas was too heavy to carry and he left it beside the latest well. The hours, his legs, dragged and ached intolerably. He even considered simply sitting down where he was. But how was he then to reach his cottage, if it lay a full day’s journey ahead? He carried on walking until he saw a larger shape against the evening horizon. Then he broke into a run. The cottage was a rough place. Its roof sagged. Its boards creaked. But there was food—again, it was merely bread—and a proper pump and a bucket which he could use to wash himself, and a hard old bed. Such was the traveller’s exhaustion that he fell asleep without thinking of his book. Even when morning came, he toyed with the idea of staying here for a day or two. But everything about the place was rudimentary, and he was sick of dry bread and water, and he was sure he could write of something better than this.

That day’s journey across the desert was made easier by anticipation, and the place he came to at evening was a proper house, with a vegetable garden, and good boots and decent clothes laid beside a soft bed, a larder well-provisioned with wine and food, and the traveller was grateful for what he’d created, even if he ate and drank too much and made himself ill. When morning came, he was slow to rise. After all, he was sick of journeying, and he had more than enough here to satisfy his needs. There were even seeds with which he could plant a vegetable garden…but no. Sitting at his rough table, the traveller flicked through his book to the next blank page and began to write. He described a much grander house, with warm lights that would glow out to welcome him, and a pretty garden filled with the scents of flowers, and a bath foaming with hot water.

That day, the traveller strode briskly across the desert. And there it was—the glowing lights, the many tall chimneys, the garden, all just as he’d written. That night, drowsed by wine as he lay in his bath, the traveller decided that he would stay here for a few days. But he felt dissatisfaction begin to arise and was thinking of his book even as he pulled on his bathrobe.

So, for many days of travelling, it went. Soon, the traveller was sleeping in palaces, lulled to sleep by the hiss of fountains and the coo of doves. Each night, especially in the first flush of his delight at the new glories he’d created, he told himself that here, finally, was a place he could rest. But there were always small disappointments, and better—or at least newer—ideas formed. Each morning, as he looked across the vistas he had created, he knew that he would have to head on.

For a while, the desert he crossed remained as pitiless as ever. But why, he began to wonder, should he not describe the features of his journey as well as his destination? Soon, the traveller was able to stride along smooth pathways amid the shadowed green of hills. But why was he walking at all? At least until this restlessness ceased and he had finally created what he was looking for, what other than his own stupidity was stopping him from describing a wagon, and two good horses to pull it along? It was as he journeyed in this way, more easily and at a greater speed, but often stopping to admire the pretty scenes he’d created along the way, that the traveller realised that he of all people should not have to go to the trouble of driving a wagon when he could surely create someone to do it for him.

The task was easily accomplished, although the traveller thought the man to be a sullen and dull sort, and nothing like his best work. He left him behind the following morning and set out through the gates of his latest creation alone. Next day, he described a fine carriage, and a much less surly driver, and two liveried footmen to go with him, whose wit was far more to the traveller’s taste, even if he’d heard almost all their jokes before. Still, the traveller found he grew to like their companionship, even if their ribald talk stirred other needs he’d not felt since he first began to cross the desert alone.

There followed a time of which the traveller was not proud. He grew dissolute and fat as he sated every conceivable appetite, and many others of which he’d never previously thought. He was entertained, fed and pleasured by willing legions of all sexes, constructions and hues. He dwelled within the catacombs of crystal mountains far vaster than the desert he’d once struggled to cross. He rode upon the backs of beautiful harpies, and coupled with them in midair. Many times, such was the feasting and carousing that he no longer moved on each morning to some new and even grander creation, but this was mainly due to the effects of over-indulgence rather than any lasting satisfaction with where he was. For he was still a traveller, and he still yearned to improve on his creations, and he knew, if only because of a creeping but increasing sense of disgust, that he must move on. The methods of his journey were now more complex. He found, for example, that it was both possible to stay in one place, but to travel as well. If you created a great sea filled with many islands, for example, you could sail in the grandest of all possible ships surrounded by courtiers, courtesans and sycophants. He made ships of the air, as well, and continents of cloud, and looked down upon the vast and splendid patchworks of his creation, and wondered why it still wasn’t enough.

Finally, the traveller reached a conclusion. He’d had enough of travelling. In fact, it was the very act of travelling that was making him into the perennially dissatisfied creature he still was. It was time for him to make proper use of all that he’d learned, and employ his powers of description to create one place, and to learn to live there, even if not every single aspect of it was entirely perfect. Not only that, but he was running out of space in his book.

The traveller thought.

The traveller planned.

With a diamond pen, using exquisite ink, seated at a fine table in a beautiful room surrounded by fabulous views, the traveller used up his book’s last precious pages to describe a city which represented the apotheosis of all he had learned. It was glorious, of course. Filled with marble thoroughfares and glass-spired buildings, threaded with rivers and islanded with gardens of infinite delight. But he knew that pomp and beauty alone could never be enough. So he created slums and industrial districts, and surrounded his city with forests to its north, mountains to its east, and a limitless expanse of desert to its south and west. Then, he set about the most difficult task of all.

First, the traveller created a whole variety of advisors, merchants, craftsmen, bankers, engineers and businessmen. To this he added actors, artists—even writers. Not to mention, although he did, whores and cut-throats and hermits and beggars and every other kind of street flotsam. He created composers of genius, dancers of supernatural agility and politicians of incredible deceit. Some people he made brilliant, and others he made stupid. Some were handsome and many were ugly. Finally, the traveller set about creating a family for himself. Children, of course, of varied but complimentary appearance, sex, ability and temperament to keep him interested and entertained. Last came his wife, helpmate, confidante and companion—the woman of his dreams made flesh. In this last labour, the traveller worked especially hard. He had long known how hard it was to settle on one thing when you could have many, but it had never been this difficult before. The colour of an eye, the set of a cheekbone, the curve of a breast, the lilt of a voice… But finally the traveller was almost content, and, although he felt he had written neatly and economically, there was only half a page of his book left. The traveller stared at this last blank space for some time. Then, he smiled and raised his pen.

The traveller set out next morning for what he was certain was the last time. For all its beauty and grandeur, the place he was leaving now seemed homely, and he was almost sorry to see it go, and perhaps would have lingered, had he not known what lay ahead. In this nostalgic mood, he elected to set out on foot rather than use any of the other more elaborate means of transport he’d devised, and it was past midday by the time he’d left the last of his old creations behind. Then came dark forests, which were just as he’d described them. Clutching his book, almost fearful, the traveller quickened his pace. Then, just as evening thickened, there came a glint on the horizon, and the trees bowed back and a widening path showed the way.

Now, the traveller thought, my new life finally begins. But he did not run, for it was important that he maintain every kind of dignity. He heard the blare of trumpets, and saw the great, glittering walls of a fabulous city set to welcome him with open gates. The citizens began cheering as rumour of his arrival swept along the thoroughfares, and the air shimmered as he entered with pealing bells. The traveller strode on though cast petals and impromptu songs, nodding occasionally towards the faces of those he recognised in the crowds. But he’d been a king before in many other cities, and much of this was almost wearingly familiar. Here, soon, he would become something more…

There, at the far end of the greatest of imaginable avenues, reared a vast and empty temple to a mysterious god these people did not yet know. Still, the traveller was already their king, and here was his wife, the very image of grace with all their children clustered around her in pleasing variety, and for now that would be enough. After all, these things could not be rushed, and he had been careful to give his subjects free will.

The traveller fell to his family’s embrace, and soon established himself in what was almost undoubtedly the finest palace he’d ever described. He hid away his book. He began living his new life. There were many happy days. He found the ebb and flow of things, the challenges, triumphs, vicissitudes and disappointments, almost entirely to his taste. There were moments, certainly, when he was troubled by the self-serving deviousness of his advisors, and even the unpredictable feistiness of his wife. But that was to be expected, and the traveller was prepared to be patient—at least, for a while. He also thought his children to be charming and entertaining. But—and here was something he’d stupidly failed to consider—he was astonished by the rapidity with which they grew. That, and how much they argued. Once, in a particularly vexed mood, he even went to the secret chamber where he kept his book and studied its crowded pages, wondering whether, even if there was no room left for him to add anything, he might make a few small deletions. But he closed the book firmly, for in that direction lay only madness and destruction. What was important was that he lived his life as regally as possible as he waited for the even greater elevation which was certain to come. Sometimes, he even dressed in hooded rags and went to stand on the steps outside the great, empty temple around which the city’s life thrummed. The people hardly seemed to notice the place—or him, for that matter. They took him for granted even when he strode amongst them in his finest pomp. And as for his wife, who looked at one of his most handsome and devious courtiers with suspicious regard, and his bickering children—he sometimes wanted to stop everything and explain the true nature of what he was. But would they believe him? He doubted it. At least, not without some kind of sign.

The traveller’s family and advisors were puzzled when he announced his intention of going on a journey. Not that they seemed to disapprove of the idea. In fact, he suspected that some—his wife possibly included—relished the prospect of his absence. But he would show them. Without him, they were nothing, an empty page, lost and ungoverned. With such thoughts still swirling in his head, the traveller set out through the great gates that had once welcomed him.

He thought he might visit those great mountains—the idea of the infinite desert he’d created to the south and west still made him shudder—but instead he followed the path that led back through the forest. If he kept this way for a day or so, he would reach the place he’d left previously, of which he had many fond memories. But the forest was deep and dark, and the path soon dwindled, and the traveller found that he was lost, and huddled up amid some dry leaves beneath an oak as evening fell. Next morning, although he was no longer sure of his direction, the traveller headed on. The corridors of the forest loomed, but at least there were nuts and berries on the bushes, and a stream to quench his thirst, and shelter from the sun. By that evening, though, hearing distant howls, the traveller would have settled for any kind of habitation. Instead, there was only cold and dark. Still, next morning dawned prettily with mist and birdsong. Studying the fallen boughs, and ropes of vine, and the nearby brook with its glinting stones, the traveller realised that here was everything he needed to make a shelter, and set to work.

Through several seasons, the traveller lived in this way. He found he liked the simple peace of this place, and was almost happy. Always something in need of doing—fires to be lit, seeds to be planted in the clearing he’d created—and he often whistled as he went about his work. Once, he was attacked by a bear, but by now he had fashioned himself a staff, and was able to fend the beast off. In a dream that night as he lay in his rough cottage, the traveller saw his city and his temple, and knew it was time for his return.

The traveller had become skilled in the ways of the forest. By heading against the flow of the stream and noting the lie of the moss, he knew his way was true. He cut a very different figure, certainly, to the grand-seeming man who had arrived in his city before. Now, he was long-bearded, and wore homespun clothes, and carried a whittled staff. But he had been though much, and felt that he had acquired great wisdom, which he would soon impart to the people of his city, who would doubtless then worship him for what he truly was. After all, wasn’t that the way these things worked, even in books other than the one he’d written himself?

It was all as he’d hoped. The city gates were open. The streets were filled with merry-making and cheers. His temple was no longer ignored, but seemed to be the centre of everything. Had he overdone with all this grandeur? the traveller wondered as he limped toward it up the great thoroughfare. No, he decided, he had not. Odd, though, how he was ignored as he climbed the steps. But his appearance was very different and—wonder of wonders—the temple’s walls were covered with vast friezes depicting his many creations. The ships, the seas, the castles, the clouds… Even the traveller felt awed as he gazed up at them. At the far, high altar, many clerics awaited. Serenaded by hymns, the traveller shuffled toward them. And here, at the highest point, a last few marble steps led up to a kind of dais, where the traveller was certain he would now be worshipped. But why was there some kind of display case up there instead of a throne, and why were these priests holding him back?

The Book…Book…Book… The murmured echo passed down through the temple, and the traveller shook his head when he saw what lay upon the dais. This was absurd. “That book!” he shouted. “It’s just words on the pages of something I once found. I wrote—” His staff was wrenched from him and jabbed into his belly as cries of horror at this blasphemy rose up. Then he was dragged from the dais, out of the temple and down into the streets where many kicks and curses were aimed in his direction until someone intervened.

“Why are they so angry?” he muttered, wiping blood from his mouth as the crowd around them jeered.

His wife crouched down, looking almost as beautiful as always, even if her eyes were cornered with something close to disgust.

“That book,” he said, but more quietly, “it’s nothing but words. Without me—”

“But that’s why,” she said, gripping his arms. “I found the Book in a hidden room in our palace and discovered how we, all of us in this city, are written of within it, along with many other things beside. Discovered that the Book is the source of all life, truth and wisdom. It’s true that you were once king of this city in our Times of Transgression, but now we see clearly, and know that the Book is everything. The reason these people hate you so terribly, my old ex-husband, is that the only thing that’s lacking from the Book is you…”

For once, the traveller was lost of words. Now, she was dragging him up, hauling him into one of the city’s grimmest back streets where a surly-looking driver was seated on a wagon.

“…if you go quickly,” she said as she helped him climb onto its back, “and cover yourself with this old sack, you may yet escape with your life.”

He did as she bid and curled himself up as a whip was cracked and the wagon rumbled off. Although his aches were many and the journey deeply uncomfortable, he found himself drifting in and out of dreams of great buildings, humble cottages, high mountains, vast forests, limpid wells… He had no idea where he was being taken, nor how long his journey took. All the traveller knew when he was finally abandoned was that the ground he lay upon was sandy, and that the sun that blazed down upon him was very hot.

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