It’s time to begin our discussion on April’s fantasy book of the month club selection: The Empire of Ice Cream. But rather than subject you all to my rambling thoughts (Trust me. There will be plenty of time for that in tomorrow’s post.), I‘m going to turn today’s entry over to author Jeffrey Ford who has come bearing some truly awesome gifts: 1) a brief introduction, and 2) an exclusive unfinished story he would love to have you weigh in on. Take it away, Jeff…
“First off, I want to thank Joe and the members of the reading group for having me over to discuss my collection, The Empire of Ice Cream. I promise to answer all of your questions, whatever they might be about, myself or my fiction, as honestly as possible. I hope everyone got some reading pleasure from the book, but to think that all of you liked every story would be foolish, so I hope you as well will be as honest as possible in letting me know which ones you thought stinkers in addition to the ones you thought good. Believe me, I won’t be put off. I wanted to have some kind of introductory blog post to kick things off, so I decided to present to you a piece of a story, unfinished, that I’ve been working on for years. This has never appeared anywhere else. I’ve only gotten this far with it, and now I’m stumped. I was wondering if you might like to throw out some ideas as to where you think it could go. I’m not looking for a formal exegesis, just whatever kinds of thoughts strike you about it. Instead of me rambling on about my snore-inducing biography or “writing process,” I thought, amidst the discussion of The Empire of Ice Cream, we could engage in something creative. If you’re not into it, no sweat. It’s up to you. ”
Recipe For a Journey to Quibo
I had seen it in a book once, a recipe for a dish that when consumed one hour before retiring would invariably make the sleeper dream of visiting a beautiful city called Quibo. Each time the individual would eat of this food, they would return to that mist rimmed metropolis in some far flung north country of the mind nestled between two mountains, facing the sea. There was an illustration, a lithograph, accompanying the recipe and it showed a scene from the municipal zoo — a cage holding a winged creature situated amidst a stand of flowering oleander. The name I have since substituted for the creature, Zasheel, a kind of flying cat with a human female head, is not right. I know I have adopted that name from my neighbor’s wife. The mistake, though, is persistent and no matter how often I try to banish it in order to make room for a true memory I can not.
When exactly I first saw the recipe, I am not sure, but I imagined It must have been about twenty years ago when I began my position as subordinate librarian. Back then, it was my job to catalogue the new volumes that were flooding in from all of the villages and towns and cities that subsequently fell to our advancing armies. The empire was in high gear then, and the Emperor would sooner kill a thousand people than their culture. Paintings, sculpture, mechanical devices, musical instruments, and books, theological, philosophical, scientific, poetic, left their scorched dead lands and journeyed great distances to finally rest in ours. Those who had once owned these items would not surrender themselves, and since he could not have their souls, the Emperor took the physical manifestations of their imaginations. Sometimes, at night, in the catacombs of the library, I could hear the ghostly voices of the true owners of those stolen volumes reading in whispers the words of all that was left of them.
It was summer, I believe, that I came upon the book in question. We had had a great trove of tomes come in from a palace discovered in a jungle near the equator. No battle took place in the procurement of this batch, though. Jungle vines and monkeys had long since replaced any human population there. I was told they were found in a sealed vault within a stepped pyramid embellished with the faces of angry gods. The thing that interested me about them was that they were written in an ancient yet understandable version of the language of our own empire. This led me to believe that in their long history they, themselves, had been pilfered in a forgotten war waged against our ancestors.
They were huge, lovely volumes, bound in a thick leather, perhaps the hide of the rhinoceros or elephant, and inlaid with gold lettering on the spine. The end pages were pliant thin mirrors that could be bent like paper and rendered a perfect reflection. The hand that transcribed them was obviously that of a great artist. Amid all of the gyring and looped flourishes there was total clarity in the reading and not one noticeable mistake. I was dissuaded from taking time to peruse any of the volumes I catalogued and repaired (all the subjects of the empire were to be merely compliant automata, rendering service devoid of opinion or thought), but with these I could not help myself. I waited until the stillness of late afternoon, when my superiors would retire for an hour or so to take a brief nap, and then I laid them open and marveled at their covert mysteries.
Many of these books recounted ancient history, some of which I was familiar with. There was an epic in two volumes dedicated to the tale of Relkin’s tragic war with the animal kingdom. There was one concerning the funerary practices of a secret society, whose members were interred in live trees, and another dealing with the movement of heavenly bodies. Then, I came upon a book of recipes — a volume thinner than the rest, bound in some soft reddish brown hide still retaining its fur. I made out the language without much difficulty and discovered that the concoctions of foods listed therein each had a purpose either medical or sexual or spiritual. The last one I was able to peruse before I heard my supervisor calling for me, was the recipe for a journey to Quibo. Not wanting to lose my position, which kept me from serving in the military, I quickly closed the volume and left it on my work table.
When I returned later that afternoon, I found the book missing. One of the other subordinates had most likely catalogued it and delivered it to its place in the library. I was not allowed access to the catalogue, and when I was sent to look for a particular volume, I was given only its number without a description of the work. In my travels through the stacks, I searched for it in order to get another glimpse of that recipe that, if my memory served me well, was not very involved. For weeks following, in my daily travels through the palatial library, I kept my eyes open for a thin length of reddish brown fur wedged in among the other upright spines of the hundreds of thousands of volumes, but to no avail. Eventually more books came flooding in and my interest in it was supplanted by the necessities of my life and duties of my position. Still, occasionally, I would picture the lithograph of that caged beast, recalling the sight of the column of instructions and ingredients that could take me to it.
It was well after I was wed, well after the births of my sons that the memory of it returned. I could trace the reoccurrence of my recollection of it to the very day I was awarded the post of chief librarian. That day I was initiated into the secrets of the library, allowed to view the hundred volume catalogue that contained descriptions of each of the texts now under my care. My predecessor sat with me for two hours and related to me my new duties. I had always thought him a rude and self-important prig, but on this day he was warm and friendly, taking time to warn me as to which were the administrators of the empire who might try to give me trouble. He whispered to me the hidden politics of the library and the empire in general. Then he said, with a smile on his face, “You have at your fingertips now the incredible power of the world’s knowledge, from the most remote cultures, from humanity’s earliest age.” When he finally handed me the keys to the enormous oaken door of the place, he breathed a sigh of relief as if he were freeing himself from irons. He appeared very old and frail on that day, and when he pointed his long index finger at me his hand shook uncontrollably. The last thing he said was, “Remember, you can dictate the course of the empire by what volumes you suggest the Emperor and his retinue read.”
Later during the celebration at my house, a party attended by powerful dignitaries, I danced with my wife to our wedding song. As we turned in circles, I remembered what my predecessor had said, and the weight of this responsibility made me slightly dizzy. When the dance was over, I stepped out on the veranda for some air, and it was then, as I gazed out over the distant marshes glimmering with moonlight that the memory of the book of recipes reawakened in me. That night, I had a dream that I was in a small boat, traveling through tight waterways in the dark, searching to no avail for a passage to Quibo.
The years passed and I performed my duties as chief librarian without reproach, but as my eldest son began to mature toward the age of military inscription, I decided to work through words to try to bring an end to the empire’s bloody devotion to expansion. I had taken pains to learn the contents of the books within my care, and so slowly, imperceptibly, I began suggesting certain volumes, like ingredients in a complex recipe, to the Emperor and his counsel. The Emperor was a reader and valued books as a child does for the adventure and imagination contained in them. He was also very near the end of his days, and so through the certain works I mentioned, suggested, foisted upon him, I brought him to a realization that peace was the greatest gift a monarch might give to his people. With this the tide of the empire began to receed and the importance of the military to diminish.
I thought myself very clever when I began to notice the changes wrought by my plan. My son escaped military service as did his younger brother. A great lull of quietude settled over the empire and for a few years a contented happiness reigned. In this time, I searched relentlessly through the catalogue and stacks for the book of recipes. To all my subordinates, I offered a reward for the one who might locate the thin volume sporting reddish brown fur. I racked my brain for details from that one time I had read about the city of Quibo, and this is where my memory and the facts of my life began to mingle together with things I had read in the thousands of other volumes I had peered into over the course of twenty years.
The incident of having fleetingly glimpsed my neighbor’s wife, naked in her bedroom window one evening, became grafted to my memory of the winged creature in the cage and it borrowed her name. Facts I had garnered about actual cities and towns crushed by the empire became the un-truths of Quibo. Streets I traveled from the library to my home became the streets of the dream city. And I knew as sure as water is wet that it was all wrong, all maddeningly fallacious. Those frustrating nightly attempts to find passage to that city nestled between two mountains became more frequent, and I would wake in the morning, my arms moving the phantom oars of a dream boat, or I would be calling out for help as I was hopelessly lost in some night bound mountain pass or a searing desert where flying reptiles circled above in a pink sky.
Irony, a device well used by many of the writers whose work was now in my charge, grew wings and flapped about my head, for it came to pass that I began to suffer from insomnia over the lost recipe. Sleep had become so arduous, what with my nightly impossible journeys, that I no longer had the strength to close my eyes and dream. I tried to ignore my inability to escape the waking world and adopted the routine of going out for a walk once the household was silent. On these moonlit journeys, I kept to the alleyways and little traveled paths of the capital city as it would not do for me to be seen…