Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Mysterious Departure of Professor Flanderdrack

I'm still not entirely sure what happened today, so I'll start with my second visit to Scarloe. I went back for another hour or so while the Train was unloading a few large crates of pickaxes.

Tourists are not allowed down in the mines, of course. The last thing the miners want is a constant crowd of people getting in their way. Instead, I went to the bookshop that sells what comes out of them.

Like nearly all the buildings in Scarloe, the bookshop doesn't have a real roof. There's no rain to keep out, after all; the only reasons to have buildings at all are warmth and privacy. Most of the buildings in the village are just walls with cloth stretched over the top. The villagers add extra layers in the Winter.

It was around noon when I went to the bookshop, so the sun was shining through the canvas ceiling. The whole shop was full of soft, brownish light that didn't seem to come from anywhere in particular. Several other people (all of them passengers from the Train) were wandering through the shelves.

The books made in Scarloe are all different sizes; they have to be. No two pages from the mines are exactly the same size. The largest one ever found was almost six feet high. It hangs on the front wall of the shop, behind the counter. The smallest ones are the size of postage stamps. The books in the shop are sorted by size - like the Illegible Library in Sconth, nothing else makes sense - so the smallest ones have several shelves to themselves, at the back of the shop. The shelves are about three inches high; the books are slightly less than that, little leather-bound cubes the size of walnuts. The very smallest ones have one letter (or symbol, anyway) on each page.

The books grow steadily in size all the way to the front of the shop. At the very front are massive volumes the size of the "atlases" produced by mapmakers (a different way of filling entire books with nonsense, only in diagrams instead of writing). A few are even bigger than the Sconth Extended English Dictionary.

I didn't buy a book, of course. (What would I do with it?) All I did was flip through a few of them. I recognized very few of the languages in the creased and dust-stained pages. When I finally found one in English,* it stood out like a lighthouse on a dark night. Of course, I only understood the individual words, not the sentences they formed. Here's an example:

Unfortunately, when the frog got out of bed, it found that an eggplant had invaded its nest and stolen all its jewelry. This was a catastrophic occurence, for the frog's jewelry was the key to the box in which slept the kidneys of a very old fish, and not a drop of wine could be had to bring them back. It was most inimitable. After weighing the options on a small scale, the frog decided there was nothing to be dome but call in the camel passages to worm their way out of the loch. This would take time, though, and every second was a second that could have been spent playing the violin. There was simply no replacement for all that fur. Time could wait, but clocks are notoriously impatient when their lunch is on the line. That, then, was the state of things when the new year arrived in a stagecoach and dropped her teeth like snow over the city. The sewers froze overnight. Clams fled to the streets, clamoring for sausages to save them from the cold, but it was no use. They were all washed to sparkling sanitation before the pipes could say a word. Fingers would never have accepted such an impasse in their digits. Disaster loomed. Trains buckled their belts and settled down for a long Winter. Ice crept over the line and was punished. The frog hardly knew which handle to turn, because they were all misty in the half-dusk. Moldy spiders were no help. And worst of all, the jewels were still missing, for the sleet had kept them silent against their will. No one noticed. Come daybreak this evening, it will all end in tears. Mark my words. They are written in ink.
No good can come of this.

Professor Flanderdrack was there as well, but he hardly stepped into the shop at all. He just went to the very first shelf inside the door, picked out a gigantic volume half as tall as himself - I assume he picked it for the cover, as he barely glanced at the pages inside - and bought it.

The Train left shortly after that. The Professor spent most of the rest of the day making more notes or calculations in his notebooks, which he packed neatly away in various suitcases when he had finished. The book from Scarloe was the only thing he left out. He then placed it on the floor, picked up all his luggage at once - no small feat by itself - and proceeded to stand on the book. He swayed slightly with the motion of the Train.

"Well," he said cheerfully, "it has been a pleasure to travel with you three gentlemen. I have enjoyed your conversation immensely. Remember to look for the Caribou Rotunda - it likes cheese. Wish me luck!"

"Good luck," I said, bewildered. Flishel said something that sounded equally confused. The sleeping passenger snored. There was a noise outside the compartment just then - the beginning of an impromptu game of sea-legs ninepins in the corridor outside, as it turned out - and I looked out for a second to see what it was. When I looked back, Professor Flanderdrack and his luggage had disappeared. The floor of the compartment was completely empty.

I still don't know what happened. I can guess, of course; perhaps the Professor found out how printed pages get into the ground beneath Scarloe, and perhaps he managed to turn that form of transportation to his own use. Perhaps he was pulled away to somewhere else like the words in an ambiguous novel. Perhaps it was something else altogether. The Omnipresent Telescope probably had something to do with it, if that was what he found in the Vanister Museum, and the book from the mines of Scarloe was obviously important. Unless it wasn't. In a few years, maybe everyone will be traveling by book. Maybe not. I suppose I'll never know.

I never did find out what he was a Professor of, exactly.

* One of the great unsolved mysteries of the page mines is how a geological layer thousands of years old, at the very least, can contain languages that have only been around in their present forms for a few hundred years. This is one of the main arguments used to support the theory that the mines are somehow getting words from somewhere else, like an enormous subterranean ambiguous novel that's completely lost its mind. It's also used to support the theory that the whole thing is an elaborate hoax.

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