When the world starts falling about your ears and intensely disagreeable things are happening to you, it’s always a comfort to blame somebody else. But—who? In my case, not Uncle Evariste. No, he did the sensible thing. Certainly not my fellow clerks and scriveners. None of it was their fault. I’m casting around trying to think of someone other than myself.
Ah. I have it. Of course. The bookseller. If he ever existed in the first place. But I know he did. Should I curse him? Or thank him for all that came later?
To begin, then, on a sparkling blue afternoon in our port city of Magenta. I had taken a stack of receipts and shipping records for deposit with Casa Galliardi, the merchant bankers. It was no more than a few hundred yards from my uncle’s office and warehouse, but such errands took a long time. Instead of promptly going back, I would loiter at the docks.
Moored at the wharves or anchored in the harbor, there must have been anything and everything that could float: cargo vessels; often a galleon big as a house; long, slender craft with three-cornered sails; a flock of little fishing boats. Our Isle of Serrano was a horn of plenty, overflowing with fruits and vegetables to feed mainland Campania. But our real cash crop came from Eastern ports. Silk. Jade. Carpets. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg—I could smell them in the air. Uncle Evariste imported and resold these precious goods. He did well. Except for me.
When he had nothing more urgent to do, he would yell. Usually on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. He was a methodical man.
“Carlo, Carlo, what’s to become of you?” he would burst out. Then, once he got into the spirit of the occasion, he would pull his beard with one hand and fling the other heaven-ward.
“Why? What have I done to be plagued with a thankless daydreamer? Eh? Eh? I’m asking. You tell me.”
“Truly, Uncle,” I said, though his question was not specifically directed to me, “I don’t know.”
I was, in fact, more or less grateful to him. He and my father had been partners until, years ago, a vicious fever took away my parents along with many of our islanders. Uncle Evariste gave me board and lodging; and, such as it was, my occupation in life.
“Oh, I’ve seen you—don’t think I haven’t,” he ranted on. “Sitting with your nose in some book of rubbish. Like an idiot. Carlo Chuchio—Carlo the jackass. The dimwit. Carlo the chooch.”
Here, he used the vulgar street pronunciation of “chuchio.” He thrust his beard at me. “Do you know? That’s what they call you behind your back.”
“Sometimes to my face,” I said.
“Keep on like that,” he said. “You’ll amount to—to what? Nothing!”
Then he would go off muttering to himself. And that was mainly all we had to say to each other.
Now, the bookseller. Yes, that day. On my long way back from Casa Galliardi, I left the quayside, the sailors bawling in every language, and wandered through the market square. My mouth watered at the mounds of blood oranges, lemons, figs, olives. The best on the island. (We sold the second best to Campania.)
Next to the melon vendor stood an open-air bookstall with an array of old engravings pinned to a length of clothesline. Shelves leaned every which way, with shabby volumes crammed one against the other. Surprisingly, I had never before noticed it. Naturally, I had to stop.
Rubbing his hands, the bookseller stepped over to me. A little man with a stringy beard, a narrow, beaky face. A total stranger.
“My good messire,” he began. “And what does the worthy gentleman fancy?”
He spoke with an unfamiliar accent. I said nothing. For one thing, I was taken aback—but hardly displeased—at being called a worthy gentleman. For another, I had no idea what I fancied.
“A tractatus on mathematics? Military engineering? No? Geometry? Architecture? No, again?” He gestured at the sagging shelves. “Perhaps the art of writing love letters, with examples to be copied. Useful phrases for every circumstance, to woo your lady fair.”
He drew closer, cocking his head, studying me like a tailor calculating my measurements for a suit of clothes.
“No, messire, I see none that fits.”
I was about to turn away when his eyes lit up. He snapped his fingers.
“Of course. Exactly.”
Without looking, he reached behind him and pulled a small, thick volume from a shelf. The leather cover was scuffed, the stitching had come loose. The pages were mottled and dog-eared, nearly falling out of the binding. He fondled it with obvious affection.
“A curious collection of old tales. I promise you will find it most enjoyable.”
He pressed the book into my hands. Truth to tell, I wasn’t all that much interested. After a few moments, though, I was spellbound. I couldn’t take my eyes away. Leafing through, I saw these were tales of amazing voyages, carpets that flew in the air, caves of glittering treasures. If, at first, I had no idea what I fancied, I knew now. This.
The bookseller must have sensed my excitement. He beamed and bobbed his head. “A gentleman of fine taste and judgment. A rare volume, messire. And what a joy to match the perfect book with the perfect reader. These days, alas, it seldom happens.
“For you,” he went on, “I make a special price. Less than I paid. But, after all, what is profit?” He sighed. “And yet—and yet I hate to part with it.”
“You won’t have to,” I told him.
He blinked at me. “Eh? Why so?”
I answered simply and sadly that I had no money.
His smile collapsed. “There’s the trouble with these young gallants,” he muttered. “Empty pockets. It’s a contagious disease.”
I would have given back the volume, but he raised his hands.
“Ah—no. You like it too well. I haven’t the heart—aie, my generous nature will be the ruin of me. So, so—Keep it, then. Yours. Free.”
I had to protest—a little. Purely as a formality. My refusal was neither strong nor convincing. Especially since I did not loosen my grip on this prize and had no sincere intention of doing so. When he disregarded my feeble show of reluctance, I deluged him—several times over—with wholehearted thanks for his kindness.
“That remains to be seen,” he said. “Go away. Before I come to my senses and change my mind.”
Never had I made the journey back to the office at such breathtaking speed. Not that I was eager to do my work. I could not wait to examine my gift more closely.
The copying clerks, Simone and Melchiorre, dutifully scribbling away, barely glanced at me. I climbed onto my stool, pushed aside the bills of lading, the manifests and inventories, and plunged into the book. It was even more thrilling than I’d supposed.
To the shock and astonishment of my colleagues, I stayed perched at my desk until sundown. They left me still poring over the tales.
At dinnertime, with my prize tucked safely inside my jacket, I pleaded vaporish ailments, a headache, an upset stomach, and begged to be excused from the evening meal. Uncle Evariste, mumbling something like “What a chooch,” was glad enough to grant my request.
I bounded up to my quarters in the low-ceilinged attic, lit the candle on the table beside my cot, and flung myself onto the straw mattress. In case I had missed so much as a word here and there, I began reading again from the first page.
Later, Silvana, our housekeeper, worried I might be fatally ill or starving to death, carried in a tray of leftovers. Seeing me alive but preoccupied, she warned me to stop whatever I was up to or I would do myself a mischief, and went back downstairs.
I had never suffered from lack of appetite; nor been so caught up by tales of gigantic birds, genies popping out of lamps to grant every wish. How to choose between eating and reading? I resolved that knotty question by doing both at the same time.
The pages, however, kept falling loose. They soon parted company with the cracked leather binding. The spine had split down the middle. It was then I noticed something had been stuffed into it.
It was a rolled piece of parchment covered with crisscrossing lines and squiggles. A diagram? A map of some sort? But I saw no directions, no bearings. Curious, I laid aside the book to study it.
I realized I had been looking at the back of the sheet. When I turned the parchment over and smoothed it out, I saw indications of mountain ranges, rivers, towns.
At first, I judged it too vague to have any use or meaning. But, no, as far as it went, it was fairly precise. There was an inset drawn at one corner, an enlargement of a portion of the area. My heart began racing.
It showed, in some detail, what appeared to be a city of considerable size—or what had once been a city. The sketch depicted only the ruins of a wall circling the jagged stump of a tower, perhaps a fortress, and the rubble of a central square. What set my heart pounding was a notation in a spidery, almost unreadable hand: “Royal Treasury.” That was enough to make my thoughts gallop as fast as my pulse. I had, by now, convinced myself this was a map of hidden riches. If my book was a treasure, I had found yet another treasure inside it.
But there was a difficulty.
Whoever drew the map had known the region very well; so well, indeed, he had not troubled to name the location. What city? What mountain range? What lake? What river? They could have been anywhere in the world.
My candle guttered out. I lit another. I tried to stay calm and make sense of what I was dealing with. My eyes fell on a single word squeezed onto the edge of the parchment.
That word was “Marakand.”
Excerpted from The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio by Lloyd Alexander.
Copyright © 2007 by Lloyd Alexander.
Published in 2007 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.