فصل 10

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فصل 10

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CHAPTER Ten

Ishmael stepped out of the darkness, running a hand along the shelves of the bookcase, and walked slowly toward the Baudelaire orphans. In the dim glow of the flashlight, the children could not tell if the facilitator was smiling or frowning through his wild, woolly beard, and Violet was reminded of something she’d almost entirely forgotten. A long time ago, before Sunny was born, Violet and Klaus had begun an argument at breakfast over whose turn it was to take out the garbage. It was a silly matter, but one of those occasions when the people arguing are having too much fun to stop, and all day, the two siblings had wandered around the house, doing their assigned chores and scarcely speaking to each other. Finally, after a long, silent meal, during which their parents tried to get them to reconcile—a word which here means “admit that it didn’t matter in the slightest whose turn it was, and that the only important thing was to get the garbage out of the kitchen before the smell spread to the entire mansion”—Violet and Klaus were sent up to bed without dessert or even five minutes of reading. Suddenly, just as she was dropping off to sleep, Violet had an idea for an invention that meant no one would ever have to take out the garbage, and she turned on a light and began to sketch out her idea on a pad of paper. She became so interested in her invention that she did not listen for footsteps in the hallway outside, and so when her mother opened the door, she did not have time to turn out the light and pretend to be asleep. Violet stared at her mother, and her mother stared back, and in the dim light the eldest Baudelaire could not see if her mother was smiling or frowning—if she was angry at Violet for staying up past her bedtime, or if she didn’t mind after all. But then finally, Violet saw that her mother was carrying a cup of hot tea. “Here you go, dear,” she said gently. “I know how star anise tea helps you think.” Violet took the steaming cup from her mother, and in that instant she suddenly realized that it had been her turn to take out the garbage after all.

Ishmael did not offer the Baudelaire orphans any tea, and when he flicked a switch on the wall, and lit up the secret space underneath the apple tree with electric lights, the children could see that he was neither smiling nor frowning, but exhibiting a strange combination of the two, as if he were as nervous about the Baudelaires as they were about him. “I knew you’d come here,” he said finally, after a long silence. “It’s in your blood. I’ve never known a Baudelaire who didn’t rock the boat.”

The Baudelaires felt all of their questions bump into each other in their heads, like frantic sailors deserting a sinking ship. “What is this place?” Violet asked. “How did you know our parents?”

“Why have you lied to us about so many things?” Klaus demanded. “Why are you keeping so many secrets?”

“Who are you?” Sunny asked.

Ishmael took another step closer to the Baudelaires and gazed down at Sunny, who gazed back at the facilitator, and then stared down at the clay still packed around his feet. “Did you know I used to be a schoolteacher?” he asked. “This was many years ago, in the city. There were always a few children in my chemistry classes who had the same gleam in their eyes that you Baudelaires have. Those students always turned in the most interesting assignments.” He sighed, and sat down on one of the reading chairs in the center of the room. “They also always gave me the most trouble. I remember one child in particular, who had scraggly dark hair and just one eyebrow.”

“Count Olaf,” Violet said.

Ishmael frowned, and blinked at the eldest Baudelaire. “No,” he said. “This was a little girl. She had one eyebrow and, thanks to an accident in her grandfather’s laboratory, only one ear. She was an orphan, and she lived with her siblings in a house owned by a terrible woman, a violent drunkard who was famous for having killed a man in her youth with nothing but her bare hands and a very ripe cantaloupe. The cantaloupe was grown on a farm that is no longer in operation, the Lucky Smells Melon Farm, which was owned by—”

“Sir,” Klaus said.

Ishmael frowned again. “No,” he said. “The farm was owned by two brothers, one of whom was later murdered in a small village, where three innocent children were accused of the crime.”

“Jacques,” Sunny said.

“No,” Ishmael said with another frown. “There was some argument about his name, actually, as he appeared to use several names depending on what he was wearing. In any case, the student in my class began to be very suspicious about the tea her guardian would pour for her when she got home from school. Rather than drink it, she would dump it into a houseplant that had been used to decorate a well-known stylish restaurant with a fish theme.”

“Café Salmonella,” Violet said.

“No,” Ishmael said, and frowned once more. “The Bistro Smelt. Of course, my student realized she couldn’t keep feeding tea to the houseplant, particularly after it withered away and the houseplant’s owner was whisked off to Peru aboard a mysterious ship.”

“The Prospero,” Klaus said.

Ishmael offered the youngsters yet another frown. “Yes,” he said, “although at the time the ship was called the Pericles. But my student didn’t know that. She only wanted to avoid being poisoned, and I had an idea that an antidote might be hidden—”

“Yaw,” Sunny interrupted, and her siblings nodded in agreement. By “yaw,” the youngest Baudelaire meant “Ishmael’s story is tangential,” a word which here means “answering questions other than the ones the Baudelaires had asked.”

“We want to know what’s going on here on the island, at this very moment,” Violet said, “not what happened in a classroom many years ago.”

“But what is happening now and what happened then are part of the same story,” Ishmael said. “If I don’t tell you how I came to prefer tea that’s as bitter as wormwood, then you won’t know how I came to have a very important conversation with a waiter in a lakeside town. And if I don’t tell you about that conversation, then you won’t know how I ended up on a certain bathyscaphe, or how I ended up shipwrecked here, or how I came to meet your parents, or anything else contained in this book.” He took the heavy volume from Klaus’s hands and ran his fingers along the spine, where the long, somewhat wordy title was printed in gold block letters. “People have been writing stories in this book since the first castaways washed up on the island, and all the stories are connected in one way or another. If you ask one question, it will lead you to another, and another, and another. It’s like peeling an onion.”

“But you can’t read every story, and answer every question,” Klaus said, “even if you’d like to.”

Ishmael smiled and tugged at his beard. “That’s just what your parents told me,” he said. “When I arrived here they’d been on the island a few months, but they’d become the colony’s facilitators, and had suggested some new customs. Your father had suggested that a few castaway construction workers install the periscope in the tree, to search for storms, and your mother had suggested that a shipwrecked plumber devise a water filtration system, so the colony could have fresh water, right from the kitchen sink. Your parents had begun a library from all the documents that were here, and were adding hundreds of stories to the commonplace book. Gourmet meals were served, and your parents had convinced some of the other castaways to expand this underground space.” He gestured to the long bookshelf, which disappeared into the darkness. “They wanted to dig a passageway that would lead to a marine research center and rhetorical advice service some miles away.”

The Baudelaires exchanged amazed looks. Captain Widdershins had described such a place, and in fact the children had spent some desperate hours in its ruined basement. “You mean if we walk along the bookcase,” Klaus said, “we’ll reach Anwhistle Aquatics?”

Ishmael shook his head. “The passageway was never finished,” he said, “and it’s a good thing, too. The research center was destroyed in a fire, which might have spread through the passageway and reached the island. And it turned out that a very deadly fungus was contained in that place. I shudder to think what might happen if the Medusoid Mycelium ever reached these shores.”

The Baudelaires looked at one another again, but said nothing, preferring to keep one of their secrets even as Ishmael told them some of his own. The story of the Baudelaire children may have connected with Ishmael’s story of the spores contained in the diving helmet Count Olaf was hiding under his gown in the bird cage in which he was a prisoner, but the siblings saw no reason to volunteer this information.

“Some islanders thought the passage was a wonderful idea,” Ishmael continued. “Your parents wanted to carry all of the documents that had washed up here to Anwhistle Aquatics, where they might be sent to a sub-sub-librarian who had a secret library. Others wanted to keep the island safe, far from the treachery of the world. By the time I arrived, some islanders wanted to mutiny, and abandon your parents on the coastal shelf.” The facilitator heaved a great sigh, and closed the heavy book in his lap. “I walked into the middle of this story,” he said, “just as you walked into the middle of mine. Some of the islanders had found weapons in the detritus, and the situation might have become violent if I hadn’t convinced the colony to simply abandon your parents. We allowed them to pack a few books into a fishing boat your father had built, and in the morning they left with a few of their comrades as the coastal shelf flooded. They left behind everything they’d created here, from the periscope I use to predict the weather to the commonplace book where I continue their research.”

“You drove our parents away?” Violet asked in amazement.

“They were very sad to go,” Ishmael said. “Your mother was pregnant with you, Violet, and after all of their years with V.F.D. your parents weren’t sure they wanted their children exposed to the world’s treachery. But they didn’t understand that if the passageway had been completed, you would have been exposed to the world’s treachery in any case. Sooner or later, everyone’s story has an unfortunate event or two—a schism or a death, a fire or a mutiny, the loss of a home or the destruction of a tea set. The only solution, of course, is to stay as far away from the world as possible and lead a safe, simple life.”

“That’s why you keep so many items away from the others,” Klaus said.

“It depends on how you look at it,” Ishmael said. “I wanted this place to be as safe as possible, so when I became the island’s facilitator, I suggested some new customs myself. I moved the colony to the other side of the island, and I trained the sheep to drag the weapons away, and then the books and mechanical devices, so none of the world’s detritus would interfere with our safety. I suggested we all dress alike, and eat the same meals, to avoid any future schisms.”

“Jojishoji,” Sunny said, which meant something like, “I don’t believe that abridging the freedom of expression and the free exercise thereof is the proper way to run a community.”

“Sunny’s right,” Violet said. “The other islanders couldn’t have agreed with these new customs.”

“I didn’t force them,” Ishmael said, “but, of course, the coconut cordial helped. The fermented beverage is so strong that it serves as a sort of opiate for the people here.”

“Lethe?” Sunny asked.

“An opiate is something that makes people drowsy and inactive,” Klaus said, “or even forgetful.”

“The more cordial the islanders drank,” Ishmael explained, “the less they thought about the past, or complained about the things they were missing.”

“That’s why hardly anyone leaves this place,” Violet said. “They’re too drowsy to think about leaving.”

“Occasionally someone leaves,” Ishmael said, and looked down at the Incredibly Deadly Viper, who gave him a brief hiss. “Some time ago, two women sailed off with this very snake, and a few years later, a man named Thursday left with a few comrades.”

“So Thursday is alive,” Klaus said, “just like Kit said.”

“Yes,” Ishmael admitted, “but at my suggestion, Miranda told her daughter that he died in a storm, so she wouldn’t worry about the schism that divided her parents.”

“Electra,” Sunny said, which meant “A family shouldn’t keep such terrible secrets,” but Ishmael did not ask for a translation.

“Except for those troublemakers,” he said, “everyone has stayed here. And why shouldn’t they? Most of the castaways are orphans, like me, and like you. I know your story, Baudelaires, from all the newspaper articles, police reports, financial newsletters, telegrams, private correspondence, and fortune cookies that have washed up here. You’ve been wandering this treacherous world since your story began, and you’ve never found a place as safe as this one. Why don’t you stay? Give up your mechanical inventions and your reading and your cooking. Forget about Count Olaf and V.F.D. Leave your ribbon, and your commonplace book, and your whisk, and your raft library, and lead a simple, safe life on our shores.”

“What about Kit?” Violet asked.

“In my experience, the Snickets are as much trouble as the Baudelaires,” Ishmael said. “That’s why I suggested you leave her on the coastal shelf, so she wouldn’t make trouble for the colony. But if you can be convinced to choose a simpler life, I suppose she can, too.”

The Baudelaires looked at one another doubtfully. They already knew that Kit wanted to return to the world and make sure justice was served, and as volunteers they should have been eager to join her. But Violet, Klaus, and Sunny were not sure they could abandon the first safe place they had found, even if it was a little dull. “Can’t we stay here,” Klaus asked, “and lead a more complicated life, with the items and documents here in the arboretum?”

“And spices?” Sunny added.

“And keep them a secret from the other islanders?” Ishmael said with a frown.

“That’s what you’re doing,” Klaus couldn’t help pointing out. “All day long you sit in your chair and make sure the island is safe from the detritus of the world, but then you sneak off to the arboretum on your perfectly healthy feet and write in a commonplace book while snacking on bitter apples. You want everyone to lead a simple, safe life—everyone except yourself.”

“No one should lead the life I lead,” Ishmael said, with a long, sad tug on his beard. “I’ve spent countless years cataloging all of the objects that have washed up on these shores and all the stories those objects tell. I’ve repaired all the documents that the storms have damaged, and taken notes on every detail. I’ve read more of the world’s treacherous history than almost anyone, and as one of my colleagues once said, this history is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

“Gibbon,” Sunny said. She meant something like, “We want to read this history, no matter how miserable it is,” and her siblings were quick to translate. But Ishmael tugged at his beard again, and shook his head firmly at the three children.

“Don’t you see?” he asked. “I’m not just the island’s facilitator. I’m the island’s parent. I keep this library far away from the people under my care, so that they will never be disturbed by the world’s terrible secrets.” The facilitator reached into a pocket of his robe and held out a small object. The Baudelaires saw that it was an ornate ring, emblazoned with the initial R, and stared at it, quite puzzled.

Ishmael opened the enormous volume in his lap, and turned a few pages to read from his notes. “This ring,” he said, “once belonged to the Duchess of Winnipeg, who gave it to her daughter, who was also the Duchess of Winnipeg, who gave it to her daughter, and so on and so on and so on. Eventually, the last Duchess of Winnipeg joined V.F.D., and gave it to Kit Snicket’s brother. He gave it to your mother. For reasons I still don’t understand, she gave it back to him, and he gave it to Kit, and Kit gave it to your father, who gave it to your mother when they were married. She kept it locked in a wooden box that could only be opened by a key that was kept in a wooden box that could only be opened by a code that Kit Snicket learned from her grandfather. The wooden box turned to ashes in the fire that destroyed the Baudelaire mansion, and Captain Widdershins found the ring in the wreckage only to lose it in a storm at sea, which eventually washed it onto our shores.”

“Neiklot?” Sunny asked, which meant “Why are you telling us about this ring?”

“The point of the story isn’t the ring,” Ishmael said. “It’s the fact that you’ve never seen it until this moment. This ring, with its long secret history, was in your home for years, and your parents never mentioned it. Your parents never told you about the Duchess of Winnipeg, or Captain Widdershins, or the Snicket siblings, or V.F.D. Your parents never told you they’d lived here, or that they were forced to leave, or any other details of their own unfortunate history. They never told you their whole story.”

“Then let us read that book,” Klaus said, “so we can find out for ourselves.”

Ishmael shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said, which is something the middle Baudelaire never liked to be told. “Your parents didn’t tell you these things because they wanted to shelter you, just as this apple tree shelters the items in the arboretum from the island’s frequent storms, and just as I shelter the colony from the complicated history of the world. No sensible parent would let their child read even the title of this dreadful, sad chronicle, when they could keep them far from the treachery of the world instead. Now that you’ve ended up here, don’t you want to respect their wishes?” He closed the book again, and stood up, gazing at all three Baudelaires in turn. “Just because your parents have died,” he said quietly, “doesn’t mean they’ve failed you. Not if you stay here and lead the life they wanted you to lead.”

Violet thought of her mother again, bringing the cup of star anise tea on that restless evening. “Are you sure this is what our parents would have wanted?” she asked, not knowing if she could trust his answer.

“If they didn’t want to keep you safe,” he said, “they would have told you everything, so you could add another chapter to this unfortunate history.” He put the book down on the reading chair, and put the ring in Violet’s hand. “You belong here, Baudelaires, on this island and under my care. I’ll tell the islanders that you’ve changed your minds, and that you’re abandoning your troublesome past.”

“Will they support you?” Violet asked, thinking of Erewhon and Finn and their plan to mutiny at breakfast.

“Of course they will,” Ishmael said. “The life we lead here on the island is better than the treachery of the world. Leave the arboretum with me, children, and you can join us for breakfast.”

“And cordial,” Klaus said.

“No apples,” Sunny said.

Ishmael gave the children one last nod, and led the children up through the gap in the roots of the tree, turning off the lights as he went. The Baudelaires stepped out into the arboretum, and looked back one last time at the secret space. In the dim light they could just make out the shape of the Incredibly Deadly Viper, who slithered over Ishmael’s commonplace book and followed the children into the morning air. The sun filtered through the shade of the enormous apple tree, and shone on the gold block letters on the spine of the book. The children wondered whether the letters had been printed there by their parents, or perhaps by the previous writer of the commonplace book, or the writer before that, or the writer before that. They wondered how many stories the oddly titled history contained, and how many people had gazed at the gold lettering before paging through the previous crimes, follies, and misfortunes and adding more of their own, like the thin layers of an onion. As they walked out of the arboretum, led by their clay-footed facilitator, the Baudelaire orphans wondered about their own unfortunate history, and that of their parents and all the other castaways who had washed up on the shores of the island, adding chapter upon chapter to A Series of Unfortunate Events.

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