On our first day in the forest, we formed a circle around Our Author and all kept perfectly still. We wanted to show Her we were ready. It turned out we weren’t.
She began by distributing small semi-transparent sachets. She completed her orbit in silence. We gazed down at our own upturned palms.
Then we inclined our frames and examined our holdings. They were empty, fluttering at their corners, each a slightly different shade.
Then she spoke, and we closed our fingers over our gifts, making fists to keep them from the breeze.
Dusk was creeping up, and the forest was crepuscular. Its floor pulsed; it rustled; it buzzed. Echoes from its canopies beat, then faded.
With the exception of German and Hindi, the thirteen of us had gathered just like this every summer since Her Breakthrough, already a decade—or ten books—before. We knew Her like the backs of our hands—could not only translate Her, but also predict Her, so faithful we were.
This time we had come together on the eastern border of Her country, in the primeval part of it, where bison and wild boar reigned, lynxes skulking at its fringes, owls swooping unseen but for their eyes.
But now we broke with tradition and looked away from Her and at each other. We were all wild-eyed.
As She raised what looked like a hoof over Her dreadlocked head, tears dashed Her drawn and ashen face. As She wept and gestured, with the Thing in both hands, She spoke—but we could not understand what She was saying.
And never before had we not understood Her. Never before had we found ourselves at such a loss. And although alder and poplar and oak towered over us, exuding oxygen, it didn’t seem to reach us, and we found it all but impossible to breathe.
We had, of course, known all along that this time would be different. It was Her Magnum Opus. Yet we could never have prepared ourselves for so many shocks.
When She held out the hoof to us, we had no choice but to take it, overcoming our horror. We were Her translators. Our whole reason for being was to receive Her gifts, then decompose them to facilitate new growth in Her name.
She always gave us everything—except Her aura—and through us new things always grew.
Whether we had always thought of it in that way, or whether it was only later, after we had killed her, would be difficult—if not impossible—to say.
We never meant to murder Her. How could we have? We loved Her. We were in love with Her. The only thing we ever wanted was to pinpoint Her and comprehend Her. To get Her exactly right.
On its underside, the hoof was a labyrinth of pores—not a hoof, but nor was it anything we’d ever seen before, or ever heard of, although later we wondered whether German had secretly known. But if he did, he kept it secret.
When She fell silent and turned, we went after Her, catching flashes of her bracelets and her rings between the strips of blackening bark. She led us straight to our hotel, a converted home with rooms like lungs around a spiral spine.
The forest was crepuscular. It glittered with the chatter of flycatchers at sunrise. We rose at four and climbed the stairs to the top and didn’t mind there wasn’t any coffee. Or if we did, we couldn’t say so—but we never said anything directly.
The novel was called Szara eminencja, or Gray Eminence, or Éminence grise. Its protagonist was Amália, the world’s first climate change artist and the first person to exceed a billion followers on Instagram. She was also Portugal’s foremost performer of fado, a gold medalist in rhythmic gymnastics, excellent at baking, gorgeous and capable of taming the aurochs she summoned back from extinction to revivify Lascaux. Her ample accomplishments occupied over a thousand pages in the Polish and were sure to exceed that in languages like English with its strict syntax, its verbs often unfolding in phrases, rarely taking place in just one word, as if English, at least, knew that even the most dire act requires multiples steps.
If the novel ever felt heavy, however, it was with the constant and unspoken presence of Amália’s only foe, Nikau, plotting at the other edge of the map from Amália, chasing after the world’s end.
Amália died, went the first draft of the first sentence in English, not when she was supposed to, when all the florists in Portugal would have found themselves suddenly stripped of their wares, and the botanical garden and even the natural history museum would have been ransacked, when roses would have flooded in from Spain, and paperwhites come from Morocco, when the population of Lisbon would have doubled, or even tripled, as her coffin stayed suspended over white streets soft as down, nor did she die in childhood, like her little sister, Celeste—no, by the time Amália finally got around to dying, it was in a manner befitting a goddess: no trampled petals, but the erasure of a city; not an end of life, but the end of almost all life, and almost every way of life the earth had known since the very dawn of its civilizations, ever beloved, ever ungrateful.
We each wrote a first sentence that morning on our second day. We knew the first sentence was not the hardest, nor the easiest, of any book. But it was a way to open.
Then we read them out in turn and conversed about them in our common language—in Our Author’s language—until none of us was satisfied with what we’d done. Each of us was certain, however, that no one else’s language was as rich or as complex as ours, and that gave all of us some comfort.
Perhaps it wouldn’t end up being just one English sentence; perhaps English couldn’t bear that kind of weight, that many paperwhites. Perhaps the final version of the first sentence of Her Masterwork would just read: Amália didn’t die when she was supposed to.
Or: Amália died at the wrong time.
She had dabbled in photography. Her last book had just been an inventory of graffiti, household objects, food and teeth preserved by the volcanic ash at Pompeii: a pair of gold earrings, fittings from a medicine chest, bread, a giraffe bone, a mosaic of a dog with the warning inscription CAVE CANEM.
She had recently published two essays: one on insects in amber, and one on Carlos Gardel’s famous tango “Volver.” Now she had gone to the opposite extreme. Instead of desperate preservation and return, the Author wanted destruction, in its most radical possible form.
Though we couldn’t have conceived of the dimensions our failure would take, we knew that with all the strengths of a Magnum Opus, our challenge would be great. We prayed to Saint Anthony, Restorer of Lost Things.
To restore Her words to their true and proper value. To salvage Her images from ruin at our hands.
That night, Our Author did not come down for dinner. She had mentioned She was writing a play. In Her absence, we had nothing to discuss but Her.
We began to splinter. For the first time we realized we disagreed about Her style and the nature of Her genius. For example, Serbian and Slovenian considered Her essays to be as finely crafted as Her book-length works.
Swedish was alone in insisting Her talents had a feminine flavor. It was only when he said this that we realized Our Author was here, in the forest, without the husband who had always trailed in Her wake. Thus we conjectured that She must have left him. It was impossible to imagine that anyone could ever leave Her.
There was something else, of course. There was the Great Weight that had been upon us for the past twenty-four hours. There was the question of the hoof-like being and its relation to our multi-hued sachets.
Back when we’d still talked about the weather just to be soothed by the sounds of our own voices, we had enjoyed a greater camaraderie. Now the weather had changed, and we did not wish to alarm each other further, for we all knew French had too recently been flooded out of the metro of her nation’s capital, and even as we sat stabbing at our salads, droplets of sweat were exploding across the wide rims of our plates.
For the duration of the meal the splintering continued. It was not until dessert that Spanish finally confessed.
In our common language—Our Author’s language—the name of the thing was czyreń ogniowy. Needless to say, we all knew that ogniowy meant relating to flames. But now Spanish described the shameful struggle to which—we knew instinctively, united again at long last—all our brains had fallen prey.
We had all, there in the forest, scrambled to string together a literal translation, by brainstorm, by trying to tie czyreń to any root we’d ever come across, in any Slavic language. Even Latin had occurred to us. We had all failed.
It had felt like being ejected from Eden, seeing the gates slam in our faces, finding ourselves naked and alive.
Nor was this how we performed our Service. Each of Her Words in isolation was too valuable to be exchanged for any other word.
Our task was another altogether. We put each of Her Words away, for tenderness and for protection. Then we penetrated the Spirit of the Whole, so that we might disseminate it later.
In Her speech to us on the previous evening, Our Author had omitted the word that would have unlocked our understanding, which was grzyb. It would have been just as reasonable to expect her to bring to bear the international term fungus, which she no doubt knew.
But the real issue for us was not that we’d not caught a Name. It was that we hadn’t even grasped its context. We never drank in Her presence—itself intoxication in its most potent possible form—but now She was absent, and though thankfully we ultimately didn’t, we did toy with the idea, even going so far as to picture our thirteen unpoured pilsners.
For although we now knew that the creature that resembled a hoof was in fact a mere mushroom, we had no idea what to do with what we knew.
It grew on the sides of trees, making them resemble mutants, rooted but ready to rove. It liked to live on trees long after they had died, transforming from parasite to decomposer.
Czech had located the corresponding name in his language, and so had German. That night German regaled us with tales arising from his searches of Zundelmachers, fabled practitioners of a profession that—like so many others, but unlike ours—no longer exists. Zundelmachers harvested the mushroom much as the Author must have done, soaked their young flesh in water before slicing it into strips that were then beaten and stretched, to separate the fibers. They could be mixed with gunpowder or treated with solutions to transform them into amadou.
Amadou was ancient, had been carried by icemen, as a way of staring and safekeeping fire. Amadou was highly receptive to fire, and it could smoulder for days.
The question was: what fungi, or their amadou, have to do with Gray Eminence? An orb of panicked horror shimmered semi-transparently around us. Where was the physical czyreń Our Author had given us to hold? Had we handed it back to Her? Had we let it fall—here the orb around us sizzled—to the forest floor, where it would no doubt face immediate extinction?
We prayed to Saint Anthony, Restorer of Lost Things.
Just then Czech and Portuguese excused themselves from our table without making an excuse.
We didn’t blame Her—how could we have blamed Her?—but did gaze at Her dejected all throughout the third day.
Amália didn’t come from humble origins, we wrote. Her fans had managed to account for her every childhood milestone, and each had been lavish and pristine. Professional photographs and snapshots by relatives with excellent cell phones showed little Amália reveling in the light of five candles perching stately on the surface of a chocolate cake; Amália taking First communion in her tiny bridal gown of Peniche lace, her riotous green eyes framed by the gleaming tendrils of her rich black hair; on the Archipelago Berlengas, legs crossed over the edge of an arch of the haunting causeway over the ocean, sitting next to her sister, just before Celeste vanished from Amália’s story, leaving her alone.
In fact, there was just one break in the story of Amália’s life, known to her fans as the Dark Summer. Although many had attempted to track down her whereabouts during those sweltering three months that elapsed between Celeste’s death and the start of Amália’s musical high school, somehow, unbelievably, not a single shred of evidence had ever emerged.
Only one man knew the truth about those cold three months. She was the love of his life, as she was for nearly half the planet. The difference was he was also the love of hers. And he would likely be responsible for her eventual undoing, just as he’d undone her on that scrubby southern terrain when she was thirteen years old, grief-stricken and oily-faced, slightly overweight, scrambling to catch up with him after the act: the Amália the world would not, could not ever see.
Not wanting to see that Amália from so close, we broke to take a walk. We ventured into the village, where what we mostly noticed was its signs. Everywhere was posted a number or a warning, sometimes cartoonish imitations of the animals that might kill us if we strayed. Then, inside the forest, the trees bore strange symbols, markers of different paths we weren’t allowed to take. The Author pointed out the many types of moss that covered all the fallen trees like quilts thrown over corpses.
Although we were not speaking, she asked us not to speak. If we would only pay attention, the Author told us, we would understand the Forest, which creaked and cawed and spoke through the mushrooms and the mosses through patterns like secret messages woven into tapestries in times of war.
We seized each other’s hands at this! We bowed our heads to hide our racing minds. What secret messages! we screamed—in silence, still.
Saint Anthony! we prayed.
For the Forest, said the Author, is under siege.
Alas, just then we got too close to Belarus, and armed guards escorted us away.
That year, on June 13, the city of Lisbon—scattered with sardine bones that cracked underfoot, bush basil in orange pots with flags and poems, fortified by Facebook and Twitter—stood ready for Amália. Her mobile amphitheater of pale, synthetic petals waxed over the port, where the colorful shipping containers looked like building blocks and lent an innocence to the audiences that were present in person and seated there, while the floating audience, scattered across sailboats, yachts, cruise ships and makeshift rafts, flickered and dipped like fireflies seeking shelter from a flower in the imminence of a terrible storm.
The Ponte 25 de Abril, reserved for the hordes of couples getting married that night, had been wrapped with miles of Christmas lights; at regular intervals along the upper rafters, speakers had been installed; artificial leaves and flowers lined the bridge’s base and soaked up the champagne that often overflowed its intended vessels.
Since the dawn of Instagram, sunsets had been underwhelming. Their scale did not make up for their lake of saturation. Thus appropriate, large-scale lighting was one of the cornerstones