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Castle of Days

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Castle of Days

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Author: Gene Wolfe
Publisher: Orb Books, 1995
Tor, 1992

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Book Type: Collection
Genre: Science-Fiction
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This collection of fiction and nonfiction by one of sf's most luminescent writers includes "Gene Wolfe's Book of Days"--a cycle of 18 stories with holiday themes--and the collection "The Castle of the Otter" as well as speeches, essays, poems, and letters.





Publishers tell me that no one reads introductions. I do not believe them, since I read the things myself, but I am willing to admit that there is probably some truth behind the myth--in other words, that you, who have read these few lines, are a member of a select minority.

I do not quite see how I can repay you. You already know, I hope, that the book you hold is a collection of short stories. The jacket will have told you that I wrote them. (And, yes, I wrote them. My name really is Gene Wolfe, and I am an actual person.) The front matter has perhaps told you about my other books, and even where these stories originally appeared. All that remains for me is to tell you a little something concerning the stories themselves.

To begin, they are largely what is called science fiction, though a good many are of that type of science fiction that is sometimes questioned, particularly by people who do not read much sf and therefore have a very definite idea of what it is and is not. Only "La Befana" and "Many Mansions" clearly take place off Earth. Several stories are not even futuristic. One at least is inarguably fantasy. Several are humorous, and I have been told often enough that I have a sense of humor that makes strong men faint and women reach for weapons; I should have known better than to include those, but now it is too late.

I will not bore you with a description of how I came to write these stories. Neither will I presume to instruct you about writing stories in general--there is a whole library of books on how to do that already, though few of them seem to be much good. But I would like to leave you with a handful of words on how to read stories, these stories at least.

I urge you not to read one after another, the way I eat potato chips. The simple act of closing this book and putting it away for another day will do a great deal for the story you have just read and even more for the next. If you are a purist, you might even go so far as to read each story on the designated day--"An Article About Hunting" at the opening of deer season, "The War Beneath the Tree" before Christmas.

Even if you are not a purist, I urge you to think for a moment about the day, before beginning each story. Think on very young men in leggings and pie-pan helmets before you start "Against the Lafayette Escadrille." Think about somewhat older men who carry a lunchbucket (or a briefcase with a sandwich in it) before "Forlesen."

Try to put aside your preconceptions. Don't be disappointed when you discover, as you will, that I am not Harlan Ellison or Isaac Asimov. Harlan and Isaac--as they would be the first to admit--are not me, either.

Lastly, let me urge you to treat this and all books with respect. We will all benefit if you do. You cannot judge this book now. You will not even be able to judge it rightly when you have read its last story. Ten (or twenty) years from now you will know it was a good book if you remember any of the tales you are about to read.

Meanwhile, its author begs you to preserve it as a physical object, so that at an appropriate time it can be shared by others. If you have bought it, those others may be friends you have not met or children you have thus far only dreamed of. If you have borrowed it from a library, they are your peers in the community, having the same rights in it as yourself. Let me tell you a story.

An acquaintance of mine who was a college student once discovered a secret door in the college library. It was a fire exit that was almost blocked by a huge bookcase full of fifty-year-old books in foreign languages--mostly Serbian, he said--and was unknown to the present staff. Outside, it was well screened by holly.

Because there was no handle on the outside, he could not use it to enter the library; but he could, and did, use it to leave in company with whatever books he fancied. And he fancied three or four nearly every day.

He lived in a small apartment he rented off-campus, and had no other home. As the semesters turned to years, this apartment grew crowded with stolen books. Books were piled on every table, in every corner, and even on his tiny dry bar. Books waited likeburglars under his bed. Waterproof books on swimming, boating, tropical fish, and similar subjects stood in a row along the edge of the tub; the toilet tank groaned and leaked under the crushing load of a hundred or so humorous books, so that even as he sat thinking how he might free himself from his thousands of stolen volumes, he feared they might fall and crush him.

He considered simply returning the books to the library, but since they had never been checked out, they could hardly be returned, and it seemed to him that the head librarian--a woman with a singularly frigid gaze--suspected him already. He considered mailing them back anonymously, but the cost of postage would have been staggering. He considered setting fire to the building in which he lived, but he felt sure he would lose many valuable possessions now forgotten and buried under the books. Graduation loomed.

At last he hit on a scheme that seemed foolproof. Instead of accepting a lucrative offer from a major corporation, he would have a rubber stamp made reading: DISCARDED BY THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. During the months immediately following graduation, he would stamp all the books in violet ink. In October, he would sell his car and jogging shoes, borrow all the money he could, and open a small used-book store. The thought of having a rack of birthday cards somewhere near the door cheered him.

One fine day in May, as he was considering means of attracting shoplifters, he returned to his apartment and opened the door to see the sight he had most dreaded during all the grim years when he had been drowning in hoarded volumes. The head librarian sat waiting for him in his own chair (the only one clear of books) in his own living-dining-kitchenette. He would have fainted if he could, but he had never been quick. She had never been slow, and at this crucial moment she was icily calm. "I am sorry, sir," she said, "but this branch closes in five minutes."

It was noon Saturday, and he became a homeless wanderer on the face of the earth until 9:30 Monday morning.

This has been the story for "Date Due." The people who do not read introductions missed it.


How the Whip Came Back

Pretty Miss Bushnan's suite was all red acrylic and green-dyed leather. Real leather, very modern--red acrylic and green, real leather were the modern things this year. But it made her Louis XIV secretary, Sal, look terribly out of place.

Miss Bushnan had disliked the suite from the day she moved in--though she could hardly complain, when there was a chance that the entire city of Geneva and the sovereign Swiss nation might be offended. This evening she did her best to like red and green, and in the meantime turned her eyes from them to the cool relief of the fountain. It was a copy of a Cellini salt dish and lovely, no matter how silly a fountain indoors on the hundred and twenty-fifth floor might be. In a characteristic reversal of feeling she found herself wondering what sort of place she might have gotten if she had had to find one for herself, without reservations, at the height of the tourist season. Three flights up in some dingy suburban pension, no doubt.

So bless the generosity of the sovereign Swiss Republic. Bless the openhanded city of Geneva. Bless the hotel. And bless the United Nations Conference on Human Value, which brought glory to the Swiss Republic et cetera and inspired the free mountaineers to grant free hotel suites in the height of the season even to non-voting Conference observers such as she. Sal had brought her in a gibson a few minutes ago, and she picked it up from the edge of the fountain to sip, a little surprised to see that it was already three-quarters gone; red and green.

A brawny, naked triton half-reclined, water streaming from his hair and beard, dripping from his mouth, dribbling from his ears. His eyes, expressionless and smooth as eggs, wept for her. Balancing herempty glass carefully on the rim again, she leaned forward and stroked his smooth, wet stone flesh. Smiling she told him--mentally--how handsome he was, and he blushed pink lemonade at the compliment. She thought of herself taking off her clothes and climbing in with him, the cool water soothing her face, which now felt hot and flushed. Not, she told herself suddenly, that she would feel any real desire for the triton in the unlikely event of his being metamorphosed to flesh. If she wanted men in her bed she could find ten any evening, and afterward edit the whole adventure from Sal's memory bank. She wanted a man, but she wanted only one, she wanted Brad (whose real name, as the terrible, bitter woman who lived in the back of her skull, the woman the gibson had not quite drowned, reminded her, had proved at his trial to be Aaron). The triton vanished and Brad was there instead, laughing and dripping Atlantic water on the sand as he threw up his arms to catch the towel she flung him. Brad running through the surf ...

Sal interrupted her revery, rolling in on silent casters. "A gentleman to see you, Miss Bushnan." Sal had real metal drawer-pulls on her false drawers, and they jingled softly when she stopped to deliver her message, like costume jewelry.

"Who?" Miss Bushnan straightened up, pushing a stray wisp of brown hair away from her face.

Sal said blankly, "I don't know." The gibson had made Miss Bushnan feel pleasantly muzzy, but even so the blankness came through as slightly suspicious.

"He didn't give you his name or a card?"

"He did, Miss Bushnan, but I can't read it. Even though, as I'm sure you're ...

Copyright © 1992 by Gene Wolfe


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