These are the last words I will write. “Tell me everything from the beginning,” you said. “Explain to me why you did it.” I have. There is nothing left to tell you anymore.
Excerpted from The Eyes of a King by Catherine Banner Copyright © 2008 by Catherine Banner. Excerpted by permission of Random House Books for Young Readers, 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.
The dust drifts across the paving of the silent balcony. A dark wind—the first wind of autumn—rifles through the pages and draws the stars behind it into the fading sky. Light and laughter are rising from the rooms far below; still farther below that, the lights of the city are emerging in the settling darkness. When you were here, half an hour ago, you lit a lamp for me. The breeze makes it waver now and turns the pages back to the beginning. This book is the past five years of my life. How can I close it now?
I do not have the strength to go down into the noise and the light of the party. So I turn the pages of the book instead, tracing the words I wrote. There are parts of this story that still haunt my dreams, that repeat themselves in all my waking thoughts and refuse to let go. But I did not begin by writing about those things.
I began with the book, and the snow.
The snow began to fall as I walked home. It was dark, though barely five o’clock, and cold. My breath billowed white in the darkness and everything was quiet. Even the jangle and thud of the soldiers’ horses seemed deadened. The flakes were so cold that they almost burned where they touched my face, and they lodged on my clothes and stuck fast. I tried to brush them away and pulled my coat up tighter about my neck.
I was used to snow—we all were—but not at the end of May. It looked set to stay cold for at least a week. We got more than enough snow in the winter.
There was a sort of beauty in it, I suppose. The clouds had closed like a lid over the narrow squares of sky, and already the gas lamps were lit. The snow caked on their panes and glowed yellow. I stopped still, and then it was almost completely silent, without even the wet crunch of my footsteps. Quiet, not silent. Through the still air I could hear the feathery sound of the snowflakes settling.
I looked up into the sky. The way the snowflakes swelled in toward my face made me feel as if I was rising. It got darker. It got colder.
I started to think about going home, but I didn’t.
I began to shiver, but I went on staring into the sky. It got still darker. I would have stood there all night, perhaps. It was like an enchantment. And I did not want to go home yet anyway. The constant frantic motion of the snowflakes made me dizzy, and my neck ached from looking upward. Still the snow fell. I was hypnotized.
Suddenly I felt someone was near to me. The spell was broken. I was back in the street again.
I looked around, but there was no one. Only a presence in the air, as if someone was hiding in the shadows. I felt sick suddenly. There were ghosts here perhaps, invisible spirits moving close by. I turned away.
Before I had taken three steps, my foot met with something heavy and I stumbled. There was a black shape in the snow, spotted with the flakes my feet had thrown up. At first I thought it was a dead animal—a rat perhaps—lying there frozen.
I bent closer. And I saw that it was not an animal at all but a book. Just a book. I reached out toward it cautiously. I could still feel a strange presence—someone else’s thoughts like a vapor in the air.
I willed the book’s cover to lift itself, with the slightest tensing of my fingers and my mind. It didn’t stir. That was a trick I’d known for years, and it usually worked. Although it was only a cheap trick, no more. It did not even work on the Bible.
I was suspicious of the book. I did not know if I should touch it. Perhaps it would be better to leave it where it was. I turned to walk away. But I could not. I was going to pick it up; I knew I was. It was unavoidable. There was no point in reasoning with myself, then.
My fingers drew close to the dark leather of the cover even before I had decided. I watched them hover above it for a moment, as if they were someone else’s. I tried to pull my hand away. I couldn’t. For a second I was frightened. Then my fingers closed around the book, and at the same moment the presence vanished. I picked the book up and flipped the cover open.
The pages were stiff and suntanned yellow, like sheets of bone. The first one was blank. I turned to the next. Nothing. The next one and the next one, too, were empty. I fanned the pages out loose, impatiently, bending the covers back almost to breaking point, so that the dry glue in the spine bristled. They were all blank.
The weather had changed while I had looked away. The wind growled through the narrow streets, the pitch of its voice heightening. The snowflakes dashed at my face like ground glass. My jaw ached with cold, and my fingers on the book’s cover were raw and wet from the melting snow. I pushed the book into my coat pocket and set off for home.
Later, when I held the book to the light of the oil lamp in the bedroom, I wondered if I should have left it where it was. There was a strangeness about it that made me uneasy. I had been sure that there was someone behind me in the street, and I could not help connecting the book with that presence. Perhaps it was a stupid thing to think. It was only an empty book.
From the Hardcover edition.