The Land Across

by Gene Wolfe

The Land Across

Hardcover, 286 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $25.99 | purchase

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The Land Across
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Gene Wolfe

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Book Summary

In need of a new location, an American writer of travel guides journeys to a small and obscure Eastern European country where it soon becomes evident that there are supernatural forces at work. But they are not as threatening as the country's corruption and brute forces of bureaucracy.

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Excerpt: The Land Across

Like most countries it is accessible by road or railroad, air or sea. Even though all those are possible, they are all tough. Visitors who try to drive get into a tangle of unmarked mountain roads, roads with zits and potholes and lots of landslides. Most drivers who make it through (I talked about it with two of them in New York and another one in London) get turned back at the border. There is something wrong with their passports, or their cars, or their luggage. They have not got visas, which everybody told them they would not need. Some are arrested and their cars impounded. A few of the ones who are arrested never get out. Or anyhow, that is how it seems.

It just made me more determined than ever. There are no travel books about the land across the mountains. NONE! Not in any language I could find. I was going to be the first, and maybe I still will be. Only this book you are holding comes before my travel book. You would not believe how long I have been writing and rewriting this one in my head, especially when I was a prisoner of the Legion of the Light and when I was in prison, sitting around in a cell with Russ Rathaus. I was lucky, I cannot even tell you how lucky, that I was never taken prisoner by the Unholy Way. Thank God for that!

At first I tried to get in by air. Lufthansa has service, but there are only two flights a week. I booked twice and had both canceled. The third did not land at the capital, saying bad weather. It went straight on to Ankara.

I decided to go by train and flew to Vienna, a real knockout city where there are lots of first-rate clubs. (See my first book, Dreaming on the Danube.) After some swell evenings dancing in the clubs and okay nights at the good old Hotel Sacher, I caught the Orient Express headed for Slovakia. For the rest of the day our train wound its way through hills and woods.

A lot of Americans think all of Europe is like Rouen or Cologne, crawling with people. It is not really like that. There is a whole lot more wilderness in Europe than foreigners like us imagine, and there is more and more as you go east. I hardly ever saw a house among the hills I saw from the Orient Express. Where there were a few, they were half-timbered and had those high sharp roofs you get where there is lots of snow.

A porter who would not talk to me made the bed in my compartment. When he had gone, I stripped and washed the way I generally do on trains, with a washcloth I dunked in a hand basin of water. Now it seems to me that I must have been asleep a long time before I got into bed.

* * *

I woke up during the night, and I will never forget it. We had stopped where they had fields of some kind of grain that grew a lot taller than a man. Silent men walked up and down the train, men I could just barely make out by starlight. They looked small, but I think they were really big men. They carried what I figured were dark lanterns, boxy black gadgets that shed floods of light you did not expect when they were opened. I had read about those but I had never seen any before. The train jolted and jolted again. I think it was probably the first of those jolts that woke me up.

One of the men stopped at my window to look up at me. I stared out at him through the dirty glass. He held up his lantern, which scared hell out of me. I do not know why. Anyway, I ducked down and backed away as far as I could without leaving my little compartment.

I was naked, and I decided right then that when I got back home I was going to buy pajamas as soon as I could. If I only had pajamas or a robe, both would have been better; I could have gone into the corridor outside where I might have found the porter and gotten him to talk to me. Traveling the way he did from Calais to Cairo and from Cairo back to Calais, he would have a lot of interesting stuff to tell if I could get him to tell it.

As it was, I stayed flat against the steel door of my compartment until the train got moving again, rattling and swaying along tracks that went up and down while they were turning left and right.

Everybody interested enough to read this book knows about the High Tatras and the Transylvanian Alps. Let me just say that the mountains I saw next morning were not particularly high, but rugged and dotted here and there with fir trees the wind had tortured. It was early spring, and the water spilling down their cliffs made me think of a certain type of girl, the tall cold blondes that knock your eyes out. Later I met Rosalee Rathaus, and she was a blond knockout even if she hardly came up to my chin in heels. I bet she would not weigh eighty pounds soaking wet. She was a good dancer, too. She promised me but I never collected. We will get into that in one of the later chapters.

After breakfast in the dining car, I went back to my compartment. I read until I got bored, then I had a look at the observation car. It was the double-decked kind, which I have always liked. I climbed the little stair to the upper deck and sat in one of the very cool swiveling red-leather seats there and watched the scenery whiz past until I fell asleep.

When I woke up, the train was going faster than ever, rattling and swaying as it crossed a big wasteland scarred with gullies.

Three border guards in uniforms were standing around me, and the biggest of the three was shaking my shoulder. Then the boss border guard, a skinny guy a lot shorter than me, started yelling questions in a language I did not know. The car was empty except for the four of us.

I got my passport out of my jacket and showed it to him. He passed it to the third border guard without looking at it. After that, they made me stand up, patted me down, took my iPhone, and tied my hands behind me. I guess I was scared, but mostly I was stunned.

The boss border guard marched along the upper deck of the observation car, motioning for me to follow. I did, noticing that the railing (which I knew darn well had been there when I had climbed to the upper deck) had been taken down. Steep little steps led from the upper deck to the main floor. The boss border guard trotted down them and I did my best to follow him. I was about halfway down when somebody pushed me. I fell, bumping into the boss border guard. I believe he must have landed on the lower steps. I rolled over him all the way to the bottom. He got up cursing and kicking. I could not understand his curses, but I knew what they were all right. I had never been kicked before and had not really known how bad it is. I think I must have blacked out.

The next thing I remember is being taken off the train, trying to walk and stumbling a lot while someone with strong hands held my arm.

The train had not slowed down but was roaring along beside a narrow black conveyer belt that was going even faster than it was, so that the shiny steel bands the sections were joined with looked like they were crawling slowly past us. We were waiting for the other two, or that was what it seemed like. When they joined us, the big guy who held me stepped from the train onto the belt, dragging me with him. Like I said, the belt went faster than the train had. It ran smoother, too. Beside it grass, brush, and dust pointed the way, blown by a howling wind. For us on the belt, it seemed like there was no wind at all. I noticed then that the train's diesel engine was gone, and there was a big steam engine up front. It was twice as big but looked old. It seemed to be trying to outrun its own smoke, but it could not do it.

If I had thought at all, I would have thought that we would be thrown off the end of the belt and die. It was not like that. Another, wider belt appeared to our right. This new belt was white, and moving slower than the black one. I fell when I tried to step onto it.

The boss border guard helped me up. His dark gray uniform cap had been mashed, and his scarlet-trimmed tunic was more than half-unbuttoned. (I think it was because three or four of the buttons had torn off.) Still he murmured, "Auanactain! Profasis!" like he was sorry I had been hurt. A minute later he helped me onto a red belt. I never did figure him out, only back then I thought maybe I could. My dad used to say foreigners' values were not the same as ours. Then he would dope them out anyway.

The red belt slowed down, I could feel the wind, and the biggest of the three helped me get off, lifting me like he would have picked up a little kid.

There was a car and a driver waiting for us. The biggest border guard, the boss, and I got into the backseat, with me pinned between them.

The third border guard took the front seat beside the driver. This third border guard was older than the other two. He had a black mustache, and in a lot of ways he looked like my father. Sometimes it seemed to me that the other two did not know he was there the same way I did. He never did talk, and nobody ever talked to him, except me. I did one time.

I asked whether we were going to the capital, at first in English, and then (when I was pretty sure neither of them understood it) in German. "No," the boss border guard told me in German. "We go to Puraustays."

I tried to remember a map I had seen. "Puraustays is a long way from the capital."

"No. It is near."

"Two hundred kilometers?"

The boss border guard just shrugged, reached into the pocket sewn onto the back of the seat in front of him, and took out a map. He opened it for me.

It was small and looked like it had been drawn for kids, with little pictures scattered here and there. I remember a miner and a wild ox. Looking up from it, I said, "This says three hundred and twenty kilometers."

The boss border guard chuckled. "All maps are wrong. If the Turks come, they will be lost."

We crossed a river that may have been the same river my train had roared across the day before. The little map called it the Taxus. Factories lined its bank, ugly gray buildings with tall chimneys of yellow brick. I asked what they made in there. The boss border guard shrugged, but the biggest of the three told me, "Fertilizer."

The city on the other side of the river was laid out in a way I have never seen anywhere else and had not known they used anywhere. Whether it was a big one or a little one, every building stood on its own block, with narrow streets on all four sides. A lot of these narrow, crooked streets could be called alleys.

Some were not even paved. I am going to call them all streets because they use the same word for all of them. The size of the blocks varied depending on the size of the buildings. Large or small, they were mostly square or rectangular. There was always a strip of grass, trees, and shrubs around each building. That seemed to be the law, and it must have been the law there for a long time.

The variations in size meant that our car (and the wagons and so forth) could not go fast, turning left or right almost at the end of each block. Left turns were followed by rights, and the other way. When we had made half a dozen turns or so, it hit me that all the turns must make it hard to follow a particular street. After that, I watched for street signs, but there were not any. Pretty soon I asked the big man the name of the street we were on. He just shrugged and the boss border guard told me, "Our streets do not have names."

Then I stuck my neck out, saying that no street names must make it hard to find somebody's house. The boss border guard asked me, "Why do you want to find somebody's house in Puraustays?"

For a while we threaded our way among old buildings of three, four, or five stories, all of some dark stone. They said the biggest one, with gargoyles and lots of balconies, was the seat of the city's government. The trees around it were so tall I could not see a thing below a story that could have been the fourth or the third. This story, like the ones above it, was impressive and pretty interesting. I remember plants that looked an awful lot like jellyfish, and people who looked a lot like flowers.

Beyond that was a long yellow brick building with three stories. It was the first building I had seen that looked busy, and it seemed a whole lot busier than just about any building in America, with people hurrying in and out all the time. I asked what it was, and the big guy who had lifted me said, "The Mounted Guard."

I know I must have looked dumb. There were a lot of big doors, but I had seen no horses and no soldiers. The boss border guard told me, "They are on duty in the East."

After a while we got into a suburb or something like that. The streets there were more like those in American towns. The houses were all pretty much the same size, and that meant the blocks were pretty much the same size, too. So the streets were nearly straight except when they bent around.

Finally we stopped in front of a house that was not quite as big as the others, a little square house of dirty white concrete blocks. Our driver got out and trotted around to open the door for the third border guard. The sky was overcast, there was not a lot of time, and I could not be sure. But it seemed to me that the driver looked like the porter who had made my bed on the train. They could not have been the same guy. Still, they looked a lot alike.

There was no walk to the front door, only a little path among trees. Except for the driver, we trooped along it, the boss border guard, then the biggest and the third border guard. I limped along behind them, thinking I ought to run away but knowing I would be a darned fool to get separated from my passport. The boss border guard knocked with the barrel of his pistol.

A short, stocky man maybe thirty or so answered it, opening the door a crack then closing it again to unfasten a security chain before opening it wide. He had on a clean gray undershirt and gray wool pants that looked too big.

We crowded in and he talked. I think he was trying to get the boss border guard to sit down in the biggest chair. The boss border guard would not do it and lectured him. After a lot of that, the boss border guard asked me, "In Amerika, you build prisons for your prisoners, yes?" His German was not even as good as mine, but I understood him and nodded.

"Here we save." The boss border guard chuckled. "You are this man's prisoner."
I said I had not done anything.

"You come without visa, with no passport. These things are sufficient."
"You took my passport," I reminded him. "Give it back, please."

"It has been sent to the capital. I cannot give back. Until it is sent back, you have none. You must stay here. You see this man?" The boss border guard indicated the short man in the undershirt. "Do you like him?"

"I don't know him."

"So you like him. When you know him better, you do not like him so much, I think." The boss border guard shut one eye and pointed his pistol at the short man's head. "When you escape, him we shoot."

The short man gave me a sad glance.

"You see how nice to you we are. You do not like the food, you say it is rotten, you will go. He give better so you stay. Other things, too."

I said nothing. I was watching a girl who had peeked around the corner.

"You are to sleep here." Holstering his pistol, the boss border guard took a folded paper and a pen from a pocket of his uniform jacket and shoved them into the short man's hand. "Grafote!"

The short man signed, and the border guards trooped out.

I apologized to the short man in English, and then in German. He could not understand that either.

The girl who had peeped in before smiled. She was a cute girl, with lots of curves and bouncy amber curls. "I must help." She talked to the short man. It seemed to me she was translating what I said, so I thanked her.

"It is nothing. I am most happy to be of use. I am Martya. My husband is Kleon. They do not like us."

Her husband spoke.

"He too says they do not like us. They will kill him if you escape. He says we could tie you up and keep you a prisoner in that way, which many would do. He says please do you not escape, or take us with you if you do."

I told her I would not escape.

"Kleon does not understand, but learns from our faces. Has mine told you what I think?"

I said it had not.

"See that you do as I."

I nodded.

"What you just did he understands. For us it might be most fortunate if you were to remember this. Try also to make long answers to my short questions, long, long answers to my long questions. In this way he will know only what I tell him. It is good for you and me, I think."

"I have a great many questions to ask you," I said, "questions about your country, this city, this house, your husband, and yourself, lovely lady. Where can I telephone the American embassy and a bunch of other stuff. What I'm trying to tell you is that I'll have long questions as well as long answers."

"Here no one has the telephones you seek. In the capital, perhaps." She talked to her husband for two or three minutes. He shook his head, said a few words, and spat into the fireplace.

"He will answer none of your questions." She smiled. "He thinks you are a JAKA spy. He did not say this, but he thinks it."

I said he was wrong, and explained that I had come to collect material for a book.

"I believe you because I see your clothing. It is foreign and most well, lamb's wool and fine cottons. The silk shirt also. The shoes. You are fortunate the border guards did not take them."

"They would not rob a spy, would they?"

"They rob everyone. Who will arrest them? No, you are foreign, from a weak nation far away."

I told her she was right.

"If you escape you will return there. Could you bring with you another, perhaps?"

"Yes," I said. "That's never easy but it might be possible." It seemed to me it was the smart thing to say.

She smiled. "This is too short an answer, you see? You must answer me much more long, and who does not know ja? Now for you a new question. These kind border guards who did not take your clothing, did they not take also your money, and did you before they came change some into our money? Is there other wealth of you that might be drawn upon, and do you still have it? Do not look at this money, this wealth you have, before you make the answer."

"I won't," I promised. "As to the currencies about which you asked me, I have dollars from my own country and euros. What I mean by this is that I have some of each. Don't you use euros —"

Somebody pounded on the door. Kleon looked frightened and the girl spat like a cat. "It is Aldos, the swine-dog. You must answer our door. It will confuse him."

The big man who had pounded it looked confused for less than a second. After that he shouted in my face, but I could see fear in his eyes. I talked to him in German, saying I could not understand him, but that I would try if only he would talk slower and keep his voice down.

He did not. When I backed away, he came at me. When I came at him, he backed away.

The short man, Kleon, came to stand beside me. From his tone, I believe he must have cursed the big man. His voice was low and bitter.

At last the big man stammered and stopped, jamming his clenched fists into the pockets of what looked like a pair of old golf pants. He was wearing an undershirt too, but his was dirty. Part of it was covered by an old wool vest.

Behind me the girl said, "He says our chickens get into his garden. We do not have chickens."

Her husband nodded almost imperceptibly to that. He spoke in his cursing tone to the big man, advancing toward him, making wild gestures that almost brushed the big man's nose. I advanced, too.

For a minute the big man rallied, shouting louder than ever. Then he turned and stamped away.

"I suppose somebody's chickens must get into his garden," I said to the girl.

"Ours did once or twice," she acknowledged. "Kleon had chickens before we were married."

Kleon spoke bitterly before retreating into his house and slamming the door behind him.

"He says he was rich once, that one may be rich or wed but not both."

I said, "I'm sure that isn't true."

"For him, yes." The girl smiled, making me feel like I was a lot younger than she was. (Really it was only two or three years.) "He has locked us out."

I stared.

"You do not believe? Try the door."

I did. It would not open.

"You see? I have hear the bar drop into place. We are cast out!" She grinned at me. "Are you afraid?" She had a great grin.

"A little bit," I admitted. "Is there an American Consulate? If there is one, I'd like to go there."

"Soon he thinks better." It was like she had not heard me. "Martya is with him, he will think. She will tell him he need only go to the police. He will say 'I am his prisoner! He lock me out!' Then the police will come and shoot him. He is right about this, but we will not go to them right away. Do you like these trees? The bushes?"

"They're really nice," I said.

"This bush here..." She caressed it. "It will bloom for us before the moon is old. For a week it is the most pretty one in Puraustays. Our trees give nuts. I do not know the German name, but the wood burns well. A hot fire and slow. A little stick burns for a long, long time."

"I see."

"Some have fruit trees. This is nice because of the fruit. Apples, pears, cherries are all good. These burn well, too. I think you have these in your land."

I said we did.

"But you, yourself? You have such trees?"

I tried to explain that I did not have a house, I lived in an apartment because I was on the road so much.

"If you had a house, you would have fruit trees. You are a fruit tree man. This I see." She had begun to walk, and I followed her. "My father had fruit trees but he is dead."

"My father is dead, too," I said. "He was with the State Department, so I grew up all over the world."

"Here?"

"No, not here. Mostly Germany, France, and Japan."

"Here there are three kinds of men. A fruit tree man like you, he is strong." She held up her clenched fist. "Strong, or perhaps he has the good friends." She drew an imaginary pistol. "You are such a one, I think."

I said I had a lot of friends in America.

"If a man who is not strong plants fruit trees, his neighbors take the fruit." She raised her chin, a proud daughter. "No one took my father's fruit!"

"That must have been nice."

"Yes, yes! Once Kleon had fruit trees. They took his fruit and he could not stop them. Now we have nut trees, so we eat the nuts." She pointed. "Do you see those?"

We had reached the edge of her husband's block, and she was pointing at the next one. The trees there were oaks. I said they looked fine.

"No, no! He is weak. No one takes acorns."

"I see."

"When a man dies his neighbors cut his trees to burn. My father is dead half a year before anyone is so brave." The girl sighed. "I take you now to a man who has fruit trees. If there is for you a consul, he will know."

From The Land Across by Gene Wolfe. Copyright 2013 by Gene Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Tor Books.

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