Excerpt from 'The Keep'
By Jennifer Egan
KnopfCopyright © 2006 Jennifer Egan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe castle was falling apart, but at 2 a.m. under a useless moon, Danny couldn't see this. What he saw looked solid as hell: two round towers with an arch between them and across that arch was an iron gate that looked like it hadn't moved in three hundred years or maybe ever.
He'd never been to a castle before or even this part of the world, but something about it all was familiar to Danny. He seemed to remember the place from a long time ago, not like he'd been here exactly but from a dream or a book. The towers had those square indentations around the top that little kids put on castles when they draw them. The air was cold with a smoky bite, like fall had already come even though it was mid-August and people in New York were barely dressed. The trees were losing their leaves-Danny felt them landing in his hair and heard them crunching under his boots when he walked. He was looking for a doorbell, a knocker, a light: some way into this place or at least a way to find the way in. He was getting pessimistic.
Danny had waited two hours in a gloomy little valley town for a bus to this castle that never frigging came before he looked up and saw its black shape against the sky. Then he'd started to walk, hauling his Samsonite and satellite dish a couple of miles up this hill, the Samsonite's puny wheels catching on boulders and tree roots and rabbit holes. His limp didn't help. The whole trip had been like that: one hassle after another starting with the red eye from Kennedy that got towed into a field after a bomb threat, surrounded by trucks with blinky red lights and giant nozzles that were comforting up until you realized their job was to make sure the fireball only incinerated those poor suckers who were already on the plane. So Danny had missed his connection to Prague and the train to wherever the hell he was now, some German-sounding town that didn't seem to be in Germany. Or anywhere else-Danny couldn't even find it online, although he hadn't been sure about the spelling. Talking on the phone to his Cousin Howie, who owned this castle and had paid Danny's way to help out with the renovation, he'd tried to nail down some details.
Danny: I'm still trying to get this straight-is your hotel in Austria, Germany, or the Czech Republic?
Howie: Tell you the truth, I'm not even clear on that myself. Those borders are constantly sliding around.
Danny (thinking): They are?
Howie: But remember, it's not a hotel yet. Right now it's just an old-
The line went dead. When Danny tried calling back, he couldn't get through.
But his tickets came the next week (blurry postmark)-plane, train, bus-and seeing how he was newly unemployed and had to get out of New York fast because of a misunderstanding at the restaurant where he'd worked, getting paid to go somewhere else-anywhere else, even the fucking moon-was not a thing Danny could say no to.
He was fifteen hours late.
He left his Samsonite and satellite dish by the gate and circled the left tower (Danny made a point of going left when he had the choice because most people went right). A wall curved away from the tower into the trees, and Danny followed that wall until woods closed in around him. He was moving blind. He heard flapping and scuttling, and as he walked the trees got closer and closer to the wall until finally he was squeezing in between them, afraid if he lost contact with the wall he'd get lost. And then a good thing happened: the trees pushed right through the wall and split it open and gave Danny a way to climb inside.
This wasn't easy. The wall was twenty feet high, jagged and crumbly with tree trunks crushed into the middle, and Danny had a tricky knee from an injury connected to the misunderstanding at work. Plus his boots were not exactly made for climbing-they were city boots, hipster boots, somewhere between square-tipped and pointy-his lucky boots, or so Danny thought a long time ago, when he bought them. They needed resoling. The boots were skiddy even on flat city concrete, so the sight of Danny clawing and scrambling his way up twenty feet of broken wall was not a thing he would've wanted broadcast. But finally he made it, panting, sweating, dragging his sore leg, and hoisted himself onto a flat walkway-type thing that ran on top of the wall. He brushed off his pants and stood up.
It was one of those views that make you feel like God for a second. The castle walls looked silver under the moon, stretched out over the hill in a wobbly oval the size of a football field. There were round towers every fifty yards or so. Below Danny, inside the walls, it was black-pure, like a lake or outer space. He felt the curve of big sky over his head, full of purplish torn-up clouds. The castle itself was back where Danny had started out: a clump of buildings and towers jumbled together. But the tallest tower stood off on its own, narrow and square with a red light shining in a window near the top.
Looking down made something go easier in Danny. When he first came to New York, he and his friends tried to find a name for the relationship they craved between themselves and the universe. But the English language came up short: perspective, vision, knowledge, wisdom-those words were all too heavy or too light. So Danny and his friends made up a name: alto. True alto worked two ways: you saw but also you could be seen, you knew and were known. Two-way recognition. Standing on the castle wall, Danny felt alto-the word was still with him after all these years, even though the friends were long gone. Grown up, probably.
Danny wished he'd brought his satellite dish to the top of this wall. He itched to make some calls-the need felt primal, like an urge to laugh or sneeze or eat. It got so distracting that he slithered back down off the wall and backtracked through those same pushy trees, dirt and moss packed under his longish fingernails. But by the time he got back to the gate his alto was gone and all Danny felt was tired. He left the satellite dish in its case and found a flat spot under a tree to lie down. He made a pile out of leaves. Danny had slept outside a few times when things got rough in New York, but this was nothing like that. He took off his velvet coat and turned it inside out and rolled it into a pillow at the foot of the tree. He lay on the leaves faceup and crossed his arms over his chest. More leaves were coming down. Danny watched them spinning, turning against the half-empty branches and purple clouds, and felt his eyes start to roll back into his head. He was trying to come up with some lines to use on Howie-
Like: Hey man, your welcome mat could use a little work.
Or else: You're paying me to be here, but I'm figuring you don't want to pay your guests.
Or maybe: Trust me, outdoor lighting is gonna rock your world.
-just so he'd have some things to say if there was a silence. Danny was nervous about seeing his cousin after so long. The Howie he knew as a kid you couldn't picture grown up-he'd been wrapped in that pear-shaped girl fat you see on certain boys, big love handles bubbling out of the back of his jeans. Sweaty pale skin and a lot of dark hair around his face. At age seven or eight, Danny and Howie invented a game they'd play whenever they saw each other at holidays and family picnics. Terminal Zeus it was called, and there was a hero (Zeus), and there were monsters and missions and runways and airlifts and bad guys and fireballs and high-speed chases. They could play anywhere from a garage to an old canoe to underneath a dining room table, using whatever they found: straws, feathers, paper plates, candy wrappers, yarn, stamps, candles, staples, you name it. Howie thought most of it up. He'd shut his eyes like he was watching a movie on the backs of his eyelids that he wanted Danny to see: Okay, so Zeus shoots Glow-Bullets at the enemy that make their skin light up so now he can see them through the trees and then-blam!-he lassos them with Electric Stunner-Ropes!
Sometimes he made Danny do the talking-Okay, you tell it: what does the underwater torture dungeon look like?-and Danny would start making stuff up: rocks, seaweed, baskets of human eyeballs. He got so deep inside the game he forgot who he was, and when his folks said Time to go home the shock of being yanked away made Danny throw himself on the ground in front of them, begging for another half hour, please! another twenty minutes, ten, five, please, just one more minute, pleasepleaseplease? Frantic not to be ripped away from the world he and Howie had made.
The other cousins thought Howie was weird, a loser, plus he was adopted, and they kept their distance: Rafe especially, not the oldest cousin but the one they all listened to. You're so sweet to play with Howie, Danny's mom would say. From what I understand, he doesn't have many friends. But Danny wasn't trying to be nice. He cared what his other cousins thought, but nothing could match the fun of Terminal Zeus.
When they were teenagers, Howie changed-overnight was what everyone said. He had a traumatic experience and his sweetness drained away and he turned moody, anxious, always wiggling a foot and muttering King Crimson lyrics under his breath. He carried a notebook, even at Thanksgiving it was there in his lap with a napkin on it to catch the gravy drips. Howie made marks in that book with a flat sweaty pencil, looking around at different family members like he was trying to decide when and how they would have to die. But no one had ever paid much attention to Howie. And after the change, the traumatic incident, Danny pretended not to.
Of course they talked about Howie when he wasn't there, oh yeah. Howie's troubles were a favorite family topic, and behind the shaking heads and oh it's so sads you could hear the joy pushing right up through because doesn't every family like having one person who's fucked up so fantastically that everyone else feels like a model citizen next to him? If Danny closed his eyes and listened hard he could still pick up some of that long-ago muttering like a radio station you just barely hear: Howie trouble drugs did you hear he was arrested such an unattractive boy I'm sorry but can't May put him on a diet he's a teenager no it's more than that I have teenagers you have teenagers I blame Norm for pushing adoption you never know what you're getting it all comes down to genes is what they're learning some people are just bad or not bad but you know exactly not bad but just exactly that's it: trouble.
Danny used to get a weird feeling, overhearing this stuff when he came in the house and his mom was talking on the phone to one of his aunts about Howie. Dirt on his cleats after winning a game, his girlfriend Shannon Shank, who had the best tits on the pom squad and maybe the whole school all set to give him a blow job in his bedroom because she always did that when he won, and thank God he won a lot. Hiya, Mom. That square of purple blue almost night outside the kitchen window. Shit, it hurt Danny to remember this stuff, the smell of his mom's tuna casserole. He'd liked hearing those things about Howie because it reminded him of who he was, Danny King, suchagoodboy, that's what everyone said and what they'd always said but still Danny liked hearing it again, knowing it again. He couldn't hear it enough.
That was memory number one. Danny sort of drifted into it lying there under the tree, but pretty soon his whole body was tensed to the point where he couldn't lie still. He got up, swiping twigs off his pants and feeling pissed off because he didn't like remembering things. Walking backwards was how Danny thought of that and it was a waste of valuable resources anywhere, anytime, but in a place he'd spent twenty-four hours trying to escape to it was fucking ridiculous.
Danny shook out his coat and pulled it back over his arms and started walking again, fast. This time he went right. At first there was just forest around him, but the trees started thinning out and the slant under his feet got steeper until Danny had to walk with his uphill leg bent, which sent splinters of pain from his knee to his groin. And then the hill dropped away like someone had lopped it off with a knife and he was standing on the edge of a cliff with the castle wall pushed right up against it, so the wall and the cliff made one vertical line pointing up at the sky. Danny stopped short and looked over the cliff's edge. Below, a long way down: trees, bushy black with a few lights packed deep inside that must be the town where he'd waited for the bus.
Alto: he was in the middle of frigging nowhere. It was extreme, and Danny liked extremes. They were distracting.
If I were you, I'd get a cash deposit before I started asking people to spelunk.
Danny tilted his head back. Clouds had squeezed out the stars. The wall seemed higher on this side of the castle. It curved in and then back out again toward the top, and every few yards there was a narrow gap a few feet above Danny's head. He stood back and studied one of these openings-vertical and horizontal slits meeting in the shape of a cross-and in the hundreds of years since those slits had been cut, the rain and snow and what-have-you must have opened up this one a little bit more. Speaking of rain, a light sprinkling was starting that wasn't much more than a mist, but Danny's hair did a weird thing when it got wet that he couldn't fix without his blow dryer and a certain kind of mousse that was packed away in the Samsonite, and he didn't want Howie to see that weird thing. He wanted to get the fuck out of the rain. So Danny took hold of some broken bits of wall and used his big feet and bony fingers to claw his way up to the slot. He jammed his head inside to see if it would fit and it did, with just a little room to spare that was barely enough for his shoulders, the widest part of him, which he turned and slid through like he was sticking a key in a lock. The rest of him was easy. Your average adult male would've needed a shrinking pill to get through this hole, but Danny had a certain kind of body-he was tall but also bendable, adjustable, you could roll him up like a stick of gum and then unroll him. Which is what happened now: he unraveled himself in a sweaty heap on a damp stone floor.
He was in an ancient basementy place that had no light at all and a smell Danny didn't like: the smell of a cave. A low ceiling smacked his forehead a couple of times and he tried walking with his knees bent, but that hurt his bad knee too much. He held still and straightened up slowly, listening to sounds of little creatures scuttling, and felt a twist of fear in his gut like someone wringing out a rag. Then he remembered: there was a mini-flashlight on his key chain left over from his club days-shining it into somebody's eyes you could tell if they were on E or smack or Special K. Danny flicked it on and poked the little beam at the dark: stone walls, slippery stone under his feet. Movement along the walls. Danny's breath came quick and shallow, so he tried slowing it down. Fear was dangerous. It let in the worm: another word Danny and his friends had invented all those years ago, smoking pot or doing lines of coke and wondering what to call that thing that happened to people when they lost confidence and got phony, anxious, weird. Was it paranoia? Low self-esteem? Insecurity? Panic? Those words were all too flat. But the worm, which is the word they finally picked, the worm was three-dimensional: it crawled inside a person and started to eat until everything collapsed, their whole lives, and they ended up getting strung out or going back home to their folks or being admitted to Bellevue or, in the case of one girl they all knew, jumping off the Manhattan Bridge.
More walking backward. And it wasn't helping, it was making things worse.
Danny took out his cell phone and flipped it open. He didn't have international service, but the phone lit up, searching, and just seeing it do that calmed Danny down, like the phone had powers-like it was a Forcefield Stabilizer left over from Terminal Zeus. True, he wasn't connected to anyone right at that second, but in a general way he was so connected that his connectedness carried him through the dry spells in subways or certain deep buildings when he couldn't actually reach anyone. He had 304 Instant Messaging usernames and a buddy list of 180. Which is why he'd rented a satellite dish for this trip-a drag to carry, an airport security nightmare, but guaranteed to provide not just cell phone service but wireless Internet access anywhere on planet earth. Danny needed this. His brain refused to stay locked up inside the echo chamber of his head-it spilled out, it overflowed and poured across the world until it was touching a thousand people who had nothing to do with him. If his brain wasn't allowed to do this, if Danny kept it locked up inside his skull, a pressure began to build.
Excerpted from The Keep by Jennifer Egan Copyright © 2006 by Jennifer Egan. Excerpted by permission.
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