Blanchefleur: Part 4

About half of what follows was written before, about half I’ve had to write this evening. I think the story will come more slowly now, since I’m making it up as I go along. Here goes!

The Lady’s castle was located in a forest called the Wolfwald. To the north, it stretched for miles, and parts of it were so thick that almost no sunlight reached the forest floor. At the foot of the northern mountains, wolves still roamed. But around the castle it was less dense. Ivan and Blanchefleur walked along a path strewn with oak leaves, through filtered sunlight. Ivan was silent, in part because he had always been accustomed to silence, in part because he did not know what to say to the white cat. Blanchefleur seemed much more interested in chasing insects, and even dead leaves, than in talking to him.

They stopped to rest when the sun was directly overhead. The forest had changed: the trees were shorter and spaced more widely apart, mostly pines rather than the oaks and beeches around the Lady’s castle. Ahead of him, Ivan could see a different sort of landscape: bare, except for the occasional twisted trees and clumps of grass. It was dry, rocky, strewn with boulders.

“That’s the Eastern Waste,” said Blanchefleur.

“The ground will be too hard for your paws,” said Ivan. “I can carry you.”

“I’ll do just fine, thank you,” she said with a sniff. But after an hour of walking over the rocky ground, Ivan saw that she was limping. “Come on,” he said. “If you hate the thought of me carrying you so much, pretend I’m a horse.”

“A jackass is more like it,” she said. But she let him pick her up and carry her, with her paws on his shoulder so she could look around. Occasionally, her whiskers tickled his ear.

The sun traveled across the sky, and hours passed, and still he walked though that rocky landscape, until his feet hurt. But he would not admit that he was in pain, not with Blanchefleur perched on his shoulder. At last, after a region of low cliffs and defiles, they came to a broad plain that was nothing but stones. In the middle of the plain rose a stone tower.

“That’s it,” said Blanchefleur. “That’s Professor Owl’s home.”

“Finally,” said Ivan under his breath. He had been feeling as though he would fall over from sheer tiredness. He took a deep breath and started for the tower. But before he reached it, he asked the question he had been wanting to ask all day, but had not dared to. “Blanchefleur, who is your father?”

“The man who lives in the moon,” she said. “Can you hurry up? I haven’t had a meal since that lizard at lunch, and I’m getting hungry.”

“He’s an owl,” said Ivan.

“Of course he’s an owl,” said Blanchefleur. “What did you think he would be?”

Professor Owl was in fact an owl, the largest Ivan has ever seen, with brown and white feathers. When they entered the tower, which was round and had one room on each level, with stone stairs curling around the outer wall, he said, “Welcome, welcome. Blanchefleur, I haven’t seen you since you were a kitten. And this must be the assistant the Lady has so graciously sent me. Welcome, boy. I hope you know how to write a good, clear hand.”

“His name is Idiot,” said Blanchefleur.

“My name is Ivan,” said Ivan.

“Yes, yes,” said Professor Owl, paying no attention to them whatsoever. “Here, then, is my life’s work. The Encyclopedia.”

It was an enormous book, taller than Ivan himself, resting on a wooden stand at the far end of the room. In the middle of the room was a long wooden table, and around the circular walls were file cabinets, more than Ivan had ever seen, all the way up to the ceiling.

“It’s much too heavy to open by hand – or foot,” said Professor Owl. “But if you tell the Encyclopedia what you’re looking for, it will open to that entry.”

“Mouse,” said Blanchefleur. And sure enough, as she spoke, the pages of the Encyclopedia turned as though by magic (although it probably really is magic, thought Ivan) to a page with an entry titled Mouse.

“Let’s see, let’s see,” said Professor Owl, peering at the page. “The bright and active, though mischievous, little animal known to us by the name of Mouse and its close relative the Rat are the most familiar and also the most typical members of the Murinae, a sub-family containing about two hundred and fifty species assignable to no less than eighteen distinct genera, all of which, however, are so superficially alike that one or other of the English names rat or mouse would be fairly appropriate to any of them. Well, that seems accurate, doesn’t it?”

“Does it say how they taste?” asked Blanchefleur.

“The Encyclopedia is connected to five others,” said Professor Owl, turning to Ivan. “One is in Library of Alexandria, one in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, one in the Sorbonne, one in the British Museum, and one in the New York Public Library. It is the only Encyclopedia of All Knowledge, and as you can imagine, it takes all my time to keep it up to date. I’ve devoted my life to it. But since I’ve developed arthritis in my legs (and Ivan could see that indeed, the owl’s legs looked more knobby then they ought to), it’s been difficult for me to write my updates. So I’m grateful to the Lady for sending you. Here is the table where you will work.” He pointed to the long wooden table with his clawed foot. On the table was a large pile of paper, each page filled with scribbled notes.

“These are the notes I’ve made indicating what should be updated and how. If you’ll look at the page on top of the pile, for instance, you’ll see that the entry on Justice needs to be updated. There have been, in the last month alone, five important examples of injustice, from the imprisonment of a priest who criticized the Generalissimo to a boy who was deprived of his supper when his mother wrongly accused him of stealing an mince pie. You must add each example to the entry under Justice – Injustice – Examples. The entry itself can be found in one of the cabinets along the wall – I believe it’s the twenty-sixth row from the door, eight cabinets up. Of course I can’t possibly include every example of injustice – there are hundreds every hour. I only include the ones that most clearly illustrated the concept. And here are my notes on a species of wild rose newly discovered in the mountains of Cathay. That will go under Rose – Wild – Species. Do you understand, boy? You are to look at my notes and add whatever information is necessary to update the entry, writing directly on the file. The Encyclopedia itself will incorporate your update, turning it into typescript, but you must make your letters clearly. And no spelling errors! Now, it’s almost nightfall, and I understand that humans have defective vision, so I suggest you sleep until dawn, when you can get up and start working on these notes as well as the ones I’ll be writing overnight.”

“Professor,” said Blanchefleur, “we haven’t had any supper.”

“Supper?” said Professor Owl. “Of course, of course. I wouldn’t want you to go hungry. There are some mice and birds in the cupboard. I caught them just last night. You’re certainly welcome to them.”

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