The Quick Recap and Chapter-by-Chapter Summary for Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr.
The four-paragraph version: Cloud Cuckoo Land is about a book and how it manages to survive across time. It follows three sets of characters in different time periods who all come across a (fictional) ancient Greek tale called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes.
In the 1400's in Constantinople, Anna is an orphan who finds a copy of Cloud Cuckoo Land in an abandoned priory library just before it is destroyed by Saracen forces. Meanwhile, Omeir is a boy who is forced to join the Saracen army. In present day (in 2020), Seymour is a 17-year-old environmental activist who tries to set off a bomb at the local library. Meanwhile, Zeno is an old man who is at the library afterhours, leading a group of kids in a rehearsal for a performance of Cloud Cuckoo Land. And sometime in the future, Konstance is a girl on Argos, an intergenerational ship that is on a 592-year-long journey with a mission to reach a distant planet. She ends up isolated after a plague kills everyone else on board.
Throughout the narrative, the contents of Cloud Cuckoo Land is interwoven in bits and pieces. It consists of 24 parts. The author claims he found the tale etched onto pieces of wood in an ancient tomb. It tells story of Aethon, a man who goes looking for a "utopian city in the sky" called Cloud Cuckoo Land. Along the way, he has many adventures (transformed into a donkey, captured, escapes, transformed into a fish, eaten by a sea creature, transformed into a crow, etc.) before he finally finds Cloud Cuckoo Land. He then has to decide whether to stay there or return home.
As the story progresses, we learn that Anna and Omeir end up fleeing Constantinople, meeting and building a life together. After Anna dies, Omeir deposits Anna's damaged-but-treasured book (Cloud Cuckoo Land) in the library of the ducal palace in Urbino. By 2019, the book's text is illegible, but new scanning technology recovers the text. A middle-aged Zeno translates it, and adapts it into a children's play. The children help Zeno to figure out that the tale ends with Aethon returning home to pass on his story (since the text is illegible toward the end). In 2020, when Seymour sets off his bomb while the kids are rehearsing, Zeno grabs the bomb and runs to an empty area to save the kids, killing himself. In 2057, a remorseful Seymour compiles Zeno's translation into a book and gives it to the kids that Zeno saved. In the future, Konstance's father tells her the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land (Konstance's grandmother was one of the children that Zeno saved). Konstance uses her time in isolation to find a virtual version of Zeno's Cloud Cuckoo Land translation and transcribe it. Later, when she learns Argos is merely an intergenerational experiment on Earth (and not a ship at all), she breaks out, taking her handwritten copy of the book with her. The book ends with her reading Cloud Cuckoo Land to her son in the year 2146.
In the Prologue and Chapters 1 - 2, the book introduces an array of characters from different time periods. In Mission Year 65 (in the future), Konstance is a young girl on the ship Argos, which left Earth 65 years ago on a mission to get to planet Beta Oph2. She has been in a circular cell (Vault One) with a machine called Sybil for nearly a year now. Around her are scraps of paper, some of which mention a Greek tale by Antonius Diogenes called Cloud Cuckoo Land. It's about a character named Aethon who goes on a journey to find a "utopian city in the sky" (the titular Cloud Cuckoo Land). Diogenes says he did not invent the story, but instead instead discovered it in an ancient tomb in Tyre, inscribed upon “twenty-four cypress-wood tablets”.
In 2020 in Lakeport, Idaho, Zeno Ninis is an octogenarian who brings a group of kids to the library afterhours, where they rehearse for an upcoming performance of Cloud Cuckoo Land (adapted as a play). At the same time downstairs, a 17-year-old boy named Seymour drops off a bomb in the library. He wants to blow up the office next door for Eden Reality (and doesn't about the kids upstairs). However, he's stopped by Sharif, one of the library staff.
In the 1400's in Constantinople, Anna is a young orphan girl, and she and her sister Maria work at a convent that serves as an embroidery house run by Master Kalaphates. Anna hates needlework. Instead, she convinces an old tutor nearby named Licinius to teach her to read Greek, and he gives her a few pages of Greek (from Homer's Odyssey) that he has. However, when Master Kalaphates finds the pages, he thinks they belong to Maria and beats her for it, giving Maria a severe head injury. He also burns the pages.
Meanwhile, 200 miles away from Constantinople, a infant boy named Omeir is born with a cleft palate, and on that night his father has an accident and dies. Omeir's family is driven out of the village since the villagers believe they boy is demonic and caused his father's death. Time passes. One day, a royal emissary and soldiers shows up at Omeir's family's home. They demand that Omeir (and his two bulls, Tree and Moonlight) report to capital at Edirne to join in the upcoming war efforts as part of the Saracen army.
In Chapters 3 - 4, the book flashes back to various characters' childhoods. Zeno's father died in WWII when he was young. After that, he was left in the care of his father's girlfriend, Mrs. Boydstun. It then describes Zeno's love of the library and the librarians reading Greek classics to him. At some point, Zeno realizes he's gay and feels ashamed about it. When he turns 17, Zeno enlists to fight in the Korean War. He gets captured by the Chinese (allied with the North Koreans). In the prisoner camp, he meets Rex Browning, a fellow prisoner with a love of Greek classics.
Meanwhile, Seymour grew up living in a motel with his mother Bunny. Seymour has behavioral problems at school due to an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder. When he's 6, they move into a double-wide that Bunny inherits, located on plot of land next to a forest. He eventually learns to cope with his disorder by wearing earmuffs and spending time alone in the forest. He bonds with a great gray owl he sees there which he names Trustyfriend (based on a owl character from a cartoon).
On the ship Argos (in the future), Konstance was born in Mission Year 51, and she grew up with her parents who are part of the 86-person population of the ship. Her father runs Farm 4, and he recites to her the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land. At school, the kids learn about Sybil, a machine that performs a wide range of tasks and contains the collective wisdom of the human species. Sybil's core is housed in Vault One. It requires going through a decontamination chamber to enter, and it has a separate thermal, mechanical and filtration system from the rest of the ship.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, excerpts. Interspersed within and throughout all the chapters are excerpts and various parts relaying bits and pieces of the story of Diogenes's Cloud Cuckoo Land. In these parts, it describes how Aethon drunkenly watches a performance of Aristophanes' play The Birds and ends up believing that Cloud Cuckoo Land is a real place in the clouds. Determined to find it, he heads for Thessaly, a land of Magic. On the way, he comes across the folklore worlds of many cultures. In Thessaly, he looks for a witch that can transform him into a bird. However, when he tries to copy a witch's transformation ritual, he gets turned into a donkey instead...
In Chapter 5, in present day, Seymour has shot Sharif, and the police have arrived outside at the library. Zeno hears the commotion downstairs.
In Chapters 6 - 9, the story then jumps to Constantinople in 1452. Maria continues to have headaches and is losing her sight due to her head injury. Anna is told that a blessing from the Church of Saint Mary of the Spring may be able to heal Maria (by letting her drink holy water), but it costs silver. Anna ends up stealing old manuscripts from an abandoned priory to sell to foreigners who are interested in antique manuscripts. She's able to buy multiple blessings, but they don't work (since holy water is just mercury mixed with water). Meanwhile, rumors abound that an attack on Constantinople is imminent. Just before the attack, Anna notices a goatskin codex that she retrieved from the priory. It turns out to contain Diogenes's tale, Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Around the same time, Omeir reluctantly travels to the capital as instructed, and his oxen haul coal to help build a huge cannon in preparation for war. Once the Saracen army is ready, they are all ordered to march to Constantinople. They reach the city walls the second week of April.
In 1952, Zeno is still in Korea spending as much time as he can with Rex. Rex comes up with an escape plan for then, but Zeno backs out at the last minute. He doesn't know what happens to Rex. Three weeks later, Zeno's release is negotiated, and he is sent back to the United States.
In 2014, Eden Reality starts construction in the area that Seymour lives in. They cut down the forest nearby. Seymour is enraged to find the dismembered wing of a great grey owl on the roadside. In sixth grade, the teacher is unaccommodating of Seymour's condition and refuses to allow Seymour to wear his earmuffs in class. When Seymour finally loses his temper, and Bunny takes him to a doctor to put him on medication.
In the future, in Mission Year 61, Konstance turns 10. She learns that it will take Argos 592 years to reach Beta Oph2, which means she is part of a "bridge generation" that will never see Beta Oph2. She is also introduced to she ship's library, assessible via a virtual reality device (Vizer). There, she can access the Atlas which contains a walkable, freeze-framed version of the entirety of Earth.
A few years later, in Mission Year 64, one of Konstance's classmates falls ill and dies from an unknown illness. The ship goes into Quarantine. News spreads that people are dying and experiencing symptoms. After Konstance's mother dies, her father puts Konstance in a makeshift biosuit, he forces their way out of the compartment, and then he takes Konstance plus a bunch of supplies to Vault One. Konstance is decontaminated along with her supplies and left in Vault One alone.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, excerpts. As Aethon's story continues, Aethon-the-donkey is told he needs to eat a fresh rose to undo the transformation. However, before he can, he is captured by bandits who use him to haul stolen goods to their hideout. From there, he's sold to a miller. Some parts of the story are lost, but at some point he leaves the miller and then manages to escape his next captors...
In Chapter 10, in present day, Seymour contacts someone named the "Bishop" for help. Upstairs, the kids knock over a few dozen root beer cans, and Seymour hears the noise.
In Chapters 11 - 14, in April 1453, the attack on Constantinople begins that turns into a lengthy siege. Anna starts reading to Maria the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land to distract her. Outside the city walls, Omeir's oxen both die from overexertion. At the end of May, Maria dies. Right before the final assault, Anna flees the city on a rowboat. Meanwhile, Omeir decides to abandon his post and heads home on foot.
In 1953, after Zeno returns from the war, he tries to locate Rex, writing to veterans organizations and anyone named Rex Browning in England. Finally, in December 1970 (17 years later), he gets a letter from Rex who says he only just received Zeno's letters (presumably, the bureau mislaid them for some time). Rex invites him to a birthday event in May. In May 1971, Zeno makes the trip to London. He meets Rex's partner Hillary. Zeno spends the week with Rex and Hillary. When Rex sends him off at the airport, Zeno is filled with regret and longing. Before they part, Rex reminds Zeno that he has a knack for translating and to keep working at his Greek.
In 2018, Seymour has grown into an ardent student environmentalist. He's angry about climate change and the way humans treat the Earth and all its other creatures. By now, the Eden's Gate Development now consists of over 30 homes. One day, Seymour discovers videos of a militant climate activist. He goes by the name the "Bishop", carries an assault rifle, and is seeking people to "join him". Seymour becomes engrossed in watching these videos, neglecting other parts of his life. He forgets to attend the event at the library when they unveil a new book drop that looks like an owl. He stops taking his pills. Meanwhile, the motel Bunny works at closes down, and she loses her job. Bunny takes out a payday loan for quick cash.
In Mission Year 64, Konstance is in isolation in Vault One and everyone else is likely dead. Sybil refuses to let her out for her own safety. Konstance uses the time to explore her father's boyhood home via the Atlas. There, she sees a copy of the book Cloud Cuckoo Land, translated by someone named "Zeno Ninis". She tries to find a copy of the same book in the Library, but it isn't there. She ends up doing research on Zeno, and she learns that he died on February 20, 2020 at the public library in Lakeport while trying to protect a group of kids from a terrorist. She ends up finding the owl drop box in the Atlas version of Lakeport, though the library is no longer there.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, excerpts. As Aethon's story continues, Aethon-the-donkey goes looking for a rose to undo his transformation, but eats some seaweed instead and is transformed into a fish. He then gets eaten by a large sea creature. In its belly, he meets a great wizard who tells him that Cloud Cuckoo Land doesn't exist, but who agrees to turn him into a bird. Aethon-the-crow flies happily into the air until he gets caught up in a storm. A waterspout sends him up high into the skies, propelling him past the moon and into the stars. Up there, he finally glimpses Cloud Cuckoo Land in all its beauty and heavenly grandeur...
In Chapter 15, in present day, Seymour goes upstairs, but Zeno and the kids are hiding. Before he can find them, the wounded man from downstairs (Sharif) calls out to Seymour. He demands that Seymour come back downstairs or else he'll go give the backpack (with the bomb) to the police outside.
In Chapters 16 - 20, outside Constantinople, Anna rows out until she is exhausted. She falls asleep and wakes up in time to capsize on a rock. She sees that she has traveled only a few miles up the coast. She continues her way up the coast on foot until she comes across a bird roasting on a fire in the forest. When she goes to eat it, someone comes up behind her and knocks her out. It turns out to be Omeir, who did not realize she was a young girl. When she awakes, he gives her some food. The two then continue to travel together, and she helps him to ward off suspicions of being a deserter (since she seems like a prize he has won in battle). After many days of travel, they arrive at Omeir's home.
From 1972 - 1995, Zeno returns to Lakeport, works on his Greek and takes care of Mrs. Boydstun (who has Huntington's). He later learns that Rex had a heart attack and died. Eventually, Mrs. Boydstun passes away as well. Zeno then refocuses on learning and translating Greek.
In May 2109, Zeno finds out that the text of an ancient Greek goatskin codex that was once considered illegible is being scanned with new technology that can extract the text. Recalling how Rex had once dreamed of a discovery like this, Zeno sets himself to translating the newly discovered manuscript of Cloud Cuckoo Land. Zeno hits a creative roadblock, but at the library he starts telling the story to a group of fifth graders and it reinvigorates his translation work. The kids also ask him to turn it into a play for them to perform. The whole process is a delight for Zeno. After months of work, he shows up early to the Library on February 20, 2020 to see the completed set.
Meanwhile, by August 2019, Seymour has now reached out to the "Bishop" and his organization. His point of contact is someone going by "Mathilda". She describes an idyllic commune they all live in together, and she says he can join them once he completes his "task".
On Konstance's 276th day in isolation, she reaches for the owl drop box and realizes she's able to grasp on to it, unlike other things in the Atlas. When she does so, it opens up a hidden area that where it's February 20, 2020 and she's at the public library in Lakeport. Konstance is also able to find Zeno Ninis's version of Cloud Cuckoo Land there, and she starts to transcribe it section by section into scraps of sackcloth (from the food powder bags in the Vault). Konstance also learns that one of the kids that Zeno saved the day he died was Rachel Wilson, who was her grandmother.
Konstance then starts to see that there are places in the Atlas with depictions of owls that seem more vibrant than their surroundings. She realizes she's able to touch them and reveal hidden images, though what she sees is often distressing. There are people starving and garbage everywhere. In her father's hometown, she sees people clamoring for water near a water truck as men with guns shoot at the crowd. Konstance then travels to Qaanaaq, the location where the crew of the Argos had been stationed before departing. It turns out to be a small island. When she touches an wood owl statue, it reveals itself to be an industrial complex that is enclosed in razor-wire. Seeing the domed building at its center, Konstance realizes that Argos is not a ship at all. Instead, she is still on Earth, in Qaanaaq.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, excerpts. As Aethon's story continues, Aethon-the-crow ends up at the gates to Cloud Cuckoo Land. A owl stands at the entrance and says he has a riddle for him to determine if he really is a bird, since only birds can enter. Aethon manages the right answer, and the gates open. There, he eats delicious food and enjoys all the delights of Cloud Cuckoo Land. However, eventually a sense of restlessness fills him. It's suggested to Aethon that he read a book to cure himself of it. Aethon approaches the goddess for the book, and she recognizes that he is not really a bird. She warns him that if he reads the book to the end, he will become truly like them -- he will be free from desire and no longer have a sense of hunger and drive...
In Chapter 21, in present day, Zeno and the children quietly do a read-through of the script upstairs. Then, Rachel realizes that parts of the section of Cloud Cuckoo Land are out of order. She points out that if Diogenes was writing this for his dying niece, the point of his adventures is that he's able to pass the story on, so it would make more sense for Aethon to return home to tell his story. Zeno agrees and sees that there are two sections that, if rearranged, point to Aethon deciding to leave Cloud Cuckoo Land and return home.
As Zeno reflects on all the times he wishes he'd been braver or taken more risks, he decides to head downstairs, revealing his presence to Seymour. He tells Seymour that he's going to call for medical assistance for Sharif. Before he can, one of the phones taped to the bombs (which will detonate the bombs on the fifth ring) starts to ring.
In Argos in Mission Year 65, Konstance looks at the schematics for Argos and understands that it was always just a feasibility study or trial run about intergenerational survival. Determined to get out, Konstance lights a fire within Vault One to force Sybil to open the Vault door.
In Chapters 22 - 24, in 1453 at Omeir's family home, Omeir slowly teaches Anna his language. They later have three sons, Anna reads to them from her book. She passes away when she is 54. Years later, there is a flood at the cottage. When Anna's book gets soaked, Omeir dries off the pages. When reassembles the book, he is uncertain of the order of the leaves (which is why the book ends up being out of order). After this incident, Omeir shows people Anna's snuffbox until he's told that the enamel depicts Urbino, Italy. He travels there and offers the book to the library at the palace, telling them that he was told they safeguard books there.
in 2021, Seymour is in prison. There, he learns to code. He also gets a job with Ilium Corporation -- he looks over their scan of Earth and flags "objectionable content" (such as homeless people, demonstrators, graffiti, etc.) for removal. In May 2030, he writes to Marian, asking about the work that Zeno had been doing. She soon sends over a box of Zeno's notes, and Seymore reads through Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Years pass. In 2057, Seymour is 58 and is now on work-release. He spends his nights recovering the "objectional content" images and hiding them back in the Atlas, accessible when someone touches the images of various owls. He invites the former fifth graders from the day at the library back to Lakeport, not knowing if they will accept. There, he presents them with copies of Cloud Cuckoo Land (which he had printed based on Zeno's translations). He also shows them how they can access the scanned version of the library via the owl drop box in the Atlas.
In Argos in Mission Year 65, after Konstance escapes the vault, she uses a makeshift axe to break through the exterior of Argos. She drops down onto the ground outside, confirming that she's on earth, in Qaanaaq. She watches the sunrise.
In the Epilogue, the story flashes back to the day at the library on February 20, 2020. After the phone trigger for the bombs started ringing, Zeno grabbed the the backpack and ran as fast as he could, past the police and towards the lake when the bomb detonates.
On Qaanaaq, Anna lives in a 49-person village. By 2146, she has a 3-year-old son and is pregnant with another child. The book ends with her working in her garden, and after she is done, her son asks her to read Cloud Cuckoo Land to him.
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Prologue: TO MY DEAREST NIECE WITH HOPE THAT THIS BRINGS YOU HEALTH AND LIGHT
The Argos / Mission Year 65, Day 307 Inside Vault One
Konstance is a 14-year-old girl sitting in a circular room with no apparent exit. She has been in the room continuously for nearly a year. Next to her, a machine named Sybil gently instructs her to eat, though she declines.
Various scraps of paper are littered around her with bits of her writing on them. One of them mentions a lost Greek tale called “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Antonius Diogenes, which is about Aethon, a shepherd, who undertakes a “journey to a utopian city in the sky”. While Diogenes addressed the tale to his niece, Diogenes claimed he did not invent the story, instead he “discovered it in a tomb in the ancient city of Tyre”, inscribed upon “twenty-four cypress-wood tablets”.
While Diogenes is very much a real Greek writer, the story of Aetheon is fictional, invented by Doerr for this book.
However, in the afterword, Doerr notes that his fictional Cloud Cuckoo Land is based on a actual “eighteen-hundred-plus-year-old novel that no longer exists: The Wonders Beyond Thule by Antonius Diogene”. It was said to be a 24-part text that told a “big globetrotting tale, full of interlocking subnarratives” that “borrowed from sources both scholarly and fanciful, mashed up existing genres, played around with fictionality, and may have included the first literary voyage to outer space.” Diogenes had claimed that the story behind The Wonders was originally discovered engraved on wood tablets in the catacombs of Tyre. (Read the rest of the author’s note at the end of the book for more details).
Meanwhile, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a fictional place that originates from Aristophanes’s play The Birds (first performed in from 414 B.C. and “in which Pisthetaerus, a middle-aged Athenian, persuades the world’s birds to create a new city in the sky to be named Νεφελοκοκκυγία (Nephelokokkygia) or Cloud Cuckoo Land” — Wikipedia).
Chapter 1: STRANGER, WHOEVER YOU ARE, OPEN THIS TO LEARN WHAT WILL AMAZE YOU
The Lakeport Public Library / February 20, 2020 4:30 PM
Zeno Ninis is an octogenarian. This snowy late afternoon at 4:30 PM, he walks 5 fifth graders (Alex Hess, Rachel Wilson, Natalie Hernandez, Olivia Ott and Christopher Dee) from the elementary school to Lakeport Public Library. They are greeted by Sharif, the children’s librarian.
Upstairs, the entrance to the children’s section has a message on the wall (“Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.”) written in Greek. (Later the the chapter, Zeno has a flashback of an image of “a man in a prison camp” as he “scratches Greek characters into the dust”.)
In the Children’s Section, there’s a small stage with chairs set up in front of it. The library director Marian has painted an “city in the clouds” on the back wall of the stage. Beautiful towers and imaginative clusters of birds and clouds decorate the stage. The children marvel at the sight, and Rachel remarks that it looks like “Cloud Cuckoo Land”. She also asks if Zeno build all of this for them.
Nearby (within viewing distance of the library), Seymour Stuhlman, 17, is asleep in his Pontiac Grand Am. Seymore dreams of himself walking on a tree-lined trail towards a cluster of white tents, but the trail changes and lengthens each time he steps forward. When he awakes, he sees it’s 4:42 PM and that he’s been asleep for the last 15-20 minutes.
A Jansport backpack sits on his lap. Inside is an igniter, nails and two pressure cookers, both filled with a “high explosive called Composition B”. He plans to hide the backpack in the library, which is next to Eden’s Gate Realty. He’ll then drive off and set off the device at 6 PM. In his pocket, he also has a Beretta 92 semiautomatic pistol.
He watches as Marian exits the library at 4:51 PM. He’s been waiting for the library to empty out, and he believes it should be empty now. He exits the car to head for the library.
The timing of Seymour’s nap means he does not see Zeno and the kids enter the library. His placement of the bomb indicates that his intended target is Eden’s Gate Realty (and not the library). However, he’s able to enter the library freely, so he’s planting it there. He waits until he believes the library is empty, though we all know that Zeno, the kids and Sharif are inside.
In the library, the kids have their dress rehearsal for their performance tomorrow. On the stage, there’s an epitaph written on tombstone next to a Styrofoam sarcophagus prop that reads “Aethon: Lived 80 Years a Man, 1 Year a Donkey, 1 Year a Sea Bass, 1 Year a Crow“. Rachel narrates to set the scene: “It’s a foggy night on the island kingdom of Tyre […] and the writer Antonius Diogenes is leaving the archives […] ”
Based on this, we know that the kids are doing some type of performance of the story Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes, which was referenced in the prologue.
Taped onto the glass door of the library is a handwritten sign that reads “TOMORROW / ONE NITE ONLY / CLOUD CUCKOO LAND”. Seymour enters, places the backpack in a corner on a shelf on the ground floor and starts to walk away.
He’s interrupted by a man (Sharif) who stops him, saying he can’t leave his backpack here. When the man starts to frown at his partially-unzipped backpack, Seymour panics and pulls out his pistol.
In the dress rehearsal, the kids act out finding a book in the sarcophagus and beginning to read from it. Then, Alex enters the stage as the character of Aethon, a “simple shepherd from Arkadia” with a “ludicrous” and “incredible” tale to share where he travels to a place called “Cloud Cuckoo Land”.
They’re interrupted briefly by the sound of a gunshot coming from downstairs. However, the kids then carry on the show, having been previously instructed by Zeno to ignore any interruptions and distractions.
Chapter 2: AETHON HAS A VISION
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio β of Cloud Cuckoo Land. There’s also a preface that notes that the story consists of 24 folios, the exact order of which is debated by scholars. However, it’s unanimously accepted that the story begins with Aethon drunkenly watching a performance of Aristophanes’s comedy The Birds, resulting in his belief that Cloud Cuckoo Land is a real place. It also notes that this translation is by Zeno Ninis.
Constantinople / 1439 – 1452
Anna is an orphan living at the convent of Saint Theophano the Empress in Constantinople. It serves as an embroidery house run by Master Nicholas Kalaphates. Anna is nicknamed Monkey by the nuns (because she likes to climb), Mosquito by the neighborhood boys (because they find her annoying) and Hopeless by the Head Embroideress Widow Theodora (because Anna is hopeless at stitching, which Anna finds boring).
She shares a cell with Maria, her older sister. The book then states that “before [Anna] turns fourteen, every person she knows will be either enslaved or dead.”
In present day, 7-year-old Anna is the youngest person at the convent. The oldest person is Thekla, 70. As everyone does needlework, Anna helps to fetch things. In the afternoon, Master Kalaphates comes to check on their work, and Anna hides from him, since she thinks he looks like a vulture.
Before dark, Widow Theodora sends Anna to fetch caper buds (a plant) outside. Anna takes the opportunity to run to the city walls. Inside the archer’s turret, surrounded by rubble, is a fresco painted on the southern wall (perhaps painted by a “bored” or “lonely bowman”). It depicts a seashore with a donkey nearby, and Anna feels drawn to the allure of distant places as she looks at it. She then collects some buds, knowing she will be late getting back.
While the painting doesn’t have much meaning now apart from evoking some feeling of desire for freedom or exploration for Anna, we later learn that it may be a depiction of a scene from the story of Aethon in Diogenes’s Cloud Cuckoo Land (the part where he’s turned into a donkey, escapes from his captors and ends up near a seashore as he searches for a rose that will turn him back).
A Woodcutters’ Village in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria / Those Same Years
200 miles northwest of Constantinople, a boy with a cleft palate is born in a little woodcutters’ village. The mother then learns that her husband has died on his way home — she’s told that his horse must’ve slipped in the river. She thinks about how she’d been warned that she should leave some offerings for the revenants (spirits) that winter, but hadn’t heeded those warnings.
The infant boy’s three older sisters (Amani is the eldest) look on at him, wondering if he is a jinn (demon/spirit). Grandfather notes that he once knew a man like this and that he was a good horseman. Early the next morning, Grandfather takes the boy away to leave him for dead, but he returns before dusk, saying he couldn’t bear to leave him.
That night, the other villagers drive their family away, saying that the boy “harbors a demon inside”. They eventually make camp underneath a stone overhang. The mother names the boy “Omeir“, meaning “one who lives long”.
The woodcutter’s village is a superstitious one, probably partially because of the time they are living in. The villagers, including the family, assume that the cleft palate means that the boy is demonic somehow and that he caused his father’s death. However, the grandfather’s experience of knowing someone with a cleft palate helps him to humanize the boy. He makes the determination of whether the boy will live or die and the family accepts his authority and judgment.
When Anna is 8, she hears someone reciting a poem in Greek (which turns out to be from Homer’s The Odyssey, though she doesn’t know that) when she is out fetching wine. It describes part of the voyages of a man named Ulysses, and Anna is transfixed by its exotic and vivid descriptions.
Following the sound, she finds an old man, a tutor, reading from a book with four boys listening on. A housekeeper shoos Anna away, but the old man, Licinius, comes outside the gate to talk to her. Anna asks him to teach her to read, offering him wine as compensation. He reluctantly agrees, though he warns he that she’ll “never learn it”. He introduces her to some letters and demands some wine.
Two weeks later, she returns. She later learns that Licinius was once a tutor to a wealthy family, but had to flee when the Saracens captured his town. While the story of Ulysses spans 24 books, Licinius was only able to flee with a half-dozen pages of the text. He tells her that before the invaders came, the city (Constantinople) was wealthy and educated.
Whenever Anna is sent to the market, she visits Licinius and brings him bits of food or drink. He teaches her the Greek alphabet. Meanwhile, Anna continues to be terrible at stitching. She understands that as penniless orphans, she and Maria are in a precarious situation and that they are able to stay here due to Maria’s talent for needlework.
Eventually, Anna learns to read. The last time she sees Licinius, she notices he looks unwell. His goiter (enlarged lymph node on neck) looks badly inflamed, and he has difficulty breathing. Before she leaves, Licinius gives her three “quires” (collection of papers).
Omeir’s two eldest sisters die over the next few years, and only the third, Nida, survives. When Omeir is 3, he starts helping out around their farm. There are two attempts to stitch up his cleft palate, but neither attempt is successful. Still, he is otherwise healthy and sturdy.
When Omeir is 10, their family cow Beauty has twin male calves, one brown (Tree) and one grey (Moonlight), which is a boon for their family. They are fond of Omeir, and he teaches them to plow the fields. That season the family has their most productive harvest since leaving their village. The soon grow larger than their mother and even larger than the oxen, Leaf and Needle.
One night, a traveler passes through. He stops to ask about their farm, and the man’s servant warns him of a “ghoul or a mage” (Omeir) in their midst. Grandfather insists that Omeir is just a boy, but the servant says that his “true nature will show in time”.
In Constantinople, there are worries that the new boy sultan of the Saracens is planning on capturing the city. Master Kalaphates’s mood is tense. Meanwhile, Anna reads the story of Ulysses by candlelight at night.
One day, Anna returns to her cell to find Kalaphates violently confronting Maria after having found the pages that Licinius gave to Anna. Kalaphates accuses Maria of being the one who has been stealing candles. Anna knows she should say something but is too scared to do so. Kalaphates drags Maria by the hair, and Maria’s head smashes against a stone step. As she bleeds out, Kalaphates burns the pages in the fire.
When Omeir is 12, a royal emissary traveling with an entourage of soldiers and carts shows up. The are gathering men and animals to be brought to the capital at Edirne. They want to take Omeir’s oxen with them, and they need Omeir to go with them to drive the bulls. Omeir says he won’t go, but Grandfather says that “there’s no refusing” their request.
Chapter 3: THE CRONE’S WARNING
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Γ of Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes. In this section, Aethon announces that he’s leaving for Thessaly, the Land of Magic. He tells an old crone that he hopes find “a sorcerer who will transform me into a bird, a fierce eagle or a bright strong owl”. The crone tells Aethon that it’ll never happen.
Lakeport, Idaho / 1941 – 1950
When Zeno was seven, he and his Papa moved from Northern California to a small cabin a mile away from Lakeport, Idaho since Papa had been hired install a saw for a lumber company. It was bitterly cold.
At the public library, the two twin librarians, both named Miss Cunningham, explained that books could transport you to other places. One of them reads to him from Homer’s The Odyssey, and he listens in rapt attention. Over time, Zeno listens to the entirety of The Odyssey as well as other classic Greek texts.
His father comes back from work exhausted each day, though one day he brings home a collie. Zeno names her Athena and he takes her with him to the library each day after school.
One day, a widow named Mrs. Alma Boydstun beckons Zeno over to her porch, offering him cookies. As he eats them, she asks about his father. When she asks about his mother, Zeno runs off. Soon, Zeno’s father is spending time with Mrs. Boydstun, and they spend more and more time at her house.
That December, Pearl Harbor is bombed. Soon, Zeno’s father leaves for military boot camp, and Zeno is left living with Mrs. Boydstun.
Lakeport, Idaho / 2002 – 2011
As an infant, Seymour grows up living in a motel with his mother Bunny, who works as a cleaner there. When Seymour is 6, Bunny inherits her great-uncle’s manufactured double-wide house in Lakeport, and they move in there. Finally, Bunny starts to feel hopeful about life.
At school, Seymour tries to behave, but he hates his desk, which is warped and screeches when he moves. Everything around him also irritates him, and he finally loses his temper and screams. Bunny is called in, and the school counselor suggests that Seymour may have “sensory processing disorder or attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity disorder or some combination thereof”. They recommend an occupational therapist, and Seymour gets suspended for a day.
Bunny leaves him at home alone since she has to go to work, and she promises to check on him mid-day. Seymour watches a cartoon called Starboy, which features a cartoon owl named “Trustyfriend”. He follows the call of a magpie onto the forest nearby. He ends up sitting on the forest floor, and everything feels quiet finally. He sees a great gray owl there which he names Trustyfriend (after the one in the cartoon).
When Bunny finds him, she has been crying. She gets fired for not returning to work (because she was out looking for Seymour).
In the book, Seymour gets the name Trustyfriend from a kids’ cartoon. However, The Birds by Aristophanes (the play where the fictional world of Cloud Cuckoo Land was conceived) features two heroes, one of which is named Trustyfriend, which is where Doerr got the name from.
Zeno’s Papa dies in the war. At the reception after the funeral, Pastor White tells Zeno what a hero his father was. Zeno sneaks outside and goes walking in the snowy expanse. Suddenly, he hears the sound of ice cracking under his feet since he’s standing on the frozen lake. He then feels Athena gripping onto his belt with her teeth, pulling him towards home, and he heads back carefully. Zeno thinks about the other worlds he’s read about and how they’re out there somewhere.
Time passes. Pastor White continues to spend time at Mrs. Boydstun’s house. Zeno finishes fifth grade, and the war ends. When he’s twelve, the Cunninghams introduce Zeno to a picture book called The Mermen of Atlantis. Seeing the pictures of the bodies, Zeno feels something surging in him, and he feels that the books is “radioactive” or “illegal”. He ends up shoving the book in the fireplace.
When he looks at the book, Zeno has sexual feelings, but he feels they are wrong (probably partially because he knows they are men’s bodies), which is why he throws away the book.
Afterwards, Zeno is filled with shame. He avoids the Cunninghams, since he feels shame for not returning the book and he fears that they will guess why he didn’t. He also starts to feel aware of his own body and how deficient he feels. He thinks about various homophobic slurs and imagines them being directed at him (“pansy”, “sissy”, “fruit punch”, etc.)
By the time Zeno is 16, he is apprenticing part-time at a machine shop around the time the Korean War begins. In August, Pastor White comments that American soldiers nowadays aren’t brave like Zeno’s father was. When Zeno is 17, he enlists as Private E-1 Zeno Ninis.
While Bunny owns the double-wide, she still has as loan on the acre of land it sits on which is $558 a month. She also has to pay utilities, car insurance, has a past-due visa bill, etc. She gets another cleaning job and waitresses at night. She makes Seymour promise to stay in the home after he gets off the bus at school, but each day he heads out into the clearing in the forest. He tells the owl about his troubles at school and how the other kids think he’s “weird” and “scary”.
In November, Seymour sees his imaginary owl guide him towards Paw-Paw’s old toolshed next to the double-wide. He finds a pair of “rifle-range ear defenders” that helps to mute out noise, which makes him feel better.
His teacher, Mrs. Onegin lets him wear them during Recess, Snacks and “Reflection Time”. With him behaving well for 5 days in a row, he’s allowed to switch desks. The counselor Miss Slattery is happy with him too.
Seymour seems to have some type of “sensory processing disorder” which had been suggested earlier, and the earmuffs help to mute things so loud noises don’t irritate him as much. This allows him to behave better so he doesn’t get overwhelmed and flip out.
Things continue to go well. That spring, Mrs. Onegin introduces him to a book about owls, and he recognizes Trustyfriend as a great grey owl like the one depicted on the cover. That summer, Seymour sneaks into the clearing each day after Bunny leaves for work. He often sees Trustyfriend there.
As he starts second grade, Seymour gets even more into owls. Marian the librarian reads to him about owls from various books, like an ornithology journal. He learns that there are roughly 11,100 great grey owls in America.
He’s soon in third-grade, which is going smoothly as well. Then, in October, on Arcady Lane, which is the road home, he sees a sign indicating that Eden’s Gate Reality is developing properties in that area. He feels panicked.
AS soon as he sees the sign, Seymour knows that there will be construction or at least more people, which does not bode well for him given that he knows that noise is what sets him off. Even as a young boy, Seymour understands what is the matter with him.
Chapter 4: THESSALY, LAND OF MAGIC
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Δ of Cloud Cuckoo Land. The preface explains how Aethon’s journey to find Cloud Cuckoo Land takes him through the folklore worlds of “virtually every culture”. In this section, Aethon has arrived in Thessaly, and he looks for a witch who can transform him into a bird. He talks to various people. Finally, the innkeeper’s maid, Palaestra, suggests that at midnight, he should try crouching behind the keyhole of the innkeeper’s wife’s bedchamber, where she stores all sorts of magical equipment…
The Argos / Mission Years 55-58
At Mission Year 55 on Argos, Konstance is 4 (so this is a flashback to when Konstance is younger). She’s with her mother in Compartment 17, their family compartment. Konstance thinks she sees an ant, but Sybil (the machine) insists that it’s impossible on Argos.
Argos is an “interstellar generation” ship that’s on a mission to get to planet Beta Oph2. There are 86 people living in it, 60 of which were born there. 23 of them “are old enough to remember Earth”.
At night (referred to as “NoLight”), Konstance gets night terrors when she sleeps. Her mother is concerned by this since the knows they were selected for this mission for the “higher cognitive reasoning” and “suppressed imaginative faculties”.
When Konstance is 6, her teacher Mrs. Chen brings Konstance and her classmates, Ramón and Jessi Ko, to see Sybil in person in Vault One. It is a cylindrical vault with Sybil suspended in a tube in the middle. Mrs. Chen explains that Sybil contains the “collective wisdom of our species”, including every map and book, and that Vault One has a separate thermal, mechanical and filtration process from the rest of Argos. Meanwhile, Konstance notices something in the room that reads “erasure and destruction”.
When Konstance is 7, she sneaks out when her mother is sleeping to visit Farm 4, where her father, Ethan, is working. Unlike the other tidily organized farms, Father’s is messy and chaotic. Tonight, she helps him to plant a seed in the farm. He then puts her to sleep, but Konstance asks him to continue a story he’s been telling her, about Aethon and Cloud Cuckoo Land.
That night, he tells her about Aethon arriving in Thessaly and peeking into the room of the innkeeper’s wife, who is rumored to be a witch. He sees her perform a ritual which causes her to turn into an owl. She then flies out the window and into the night.
Chapter 5: THE ASS
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio E of Cloud Cuckoo Land. The preface describes how Diogenes “unabashedly borrowed” from a well-known picaresque story called The Golden Ass by Apuleius, about a mean who unwittingly transforms into a donkey.
In this section, after Aethon watches the witch/owl fly out of the window, he rushes into her room. He hurriedly tries to repeat her ritual (of undressing and rubbing himself with an ointment, etc.). However, he then proceeds to transform into a donkey instead of a bird.
The Golden Ass is not made-up, in case any one is wondering. It’s actually called the The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, but referred to as The Golden Ass.
The Lakeport Public Library / February 20, 2020 5:08 PM
Seymour lets two shots loose, and the latter hits the man (Sharif) in the shoulder. Sharif starts to crawl away.
Recognizing the sound of gunfire, Zeno is confused. By now, the kids are acting out the scene of Aethon’s transformation into a donkey. On-stage, the maid (played by Rachel) reassures Aethon (Alex) that she’ll find fresh roses for him to eat which will undo the transformation. However, some bandits show up to rob the inn. They load Aethon-the-donkey up with stolen goods, and they all leave town.
Seymour thinks about how he just wanted to damage the Eden’s Gate offices and now things have gotten out of control. Still, he picks the backpack up and puts it back in the corner. However, he then sees Marian headed back to the library. He hurriedly deadbolts the front door. He moves to open the emergency exit door, but it sounds an alarm and he stops. Then, he hears sirens.
A police car shows up. Seymour wonders how they could’ve gotten there so quickly, but then he sees that the man on the floor (Sharif) has earbuds in. Seymour realizes he must’ve been on the phone.
As the children rehearse, the exit alarm interrupts momentarily, but they continue the play. Zeno gestures for them to continue, and he heads downstairs to check things out. He soon hears the police siren, sees the red-and-blue police lights and sees Sharif on the floor. Sharif motions wordlessly for him to head back up and away from the area.
Back upstairs, Zeno wonders what to do.
Chapter 6: THE BANDITS’ HIDEOUT
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Z of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section, Aethon-the-donkey bemoans being beaten by the robbers and forced to carry the saddlebags up the mountains away from town. They reach a cave that serves as the bandit’s hideout.
Constantinople / Autumn 1452
In 1452, Anna is now 12. She is no longer as free-spirited after the incident with the pages being burned. Maria has somewhat recovered, but now she has headaches and bright sunlight pains her.
One day, Maria says she can no longer see. Anna prays to be able to learn needlework and for Maria’s eyesight to recover. That night, Widow Theodora tells them a story about lime-burner who lost his sight. He regained it by donating silver to buy a blessing at the “shrine of the Virgin of the Source”, where drinking from the holy well restored his vision.
A month later, Anna has been stealing chickens and selling them to collect money to someday buy a blessing to restore Maria’s vision, but she’s only collected a measly six coppers so far. Today, she gets spotted by a boy her age named Himerius who is known as a troublemaker. He confronts her and tells her about “the priory on the rock” which he says is filled with things of great antiquity and value. He suggests that she help him to steal some things from there and they can split the proceeds, otherwise he’ll tell on her. He says that the foreigners in the city will pay a lot for these antiquities.
Anna is sure that the priory (monastery/nunnery) on the rocks is merely a ruin, but she hopes that he’s not. They agree to meet on the next foggy night. When it arrives, and she meets with him for the heist. They take a skiff out to the crumbling tower. He instructs her to climb into the drainage hole, fill up a sack wit stuff and lower it down to him.
Inside, Anna sees that the place is not filled with treasures, and instead everything is weathered and old. However, she does find rooms filled with books. She fills up the sack with manuscripts and heads down.
Back in the boat, Himerius is unhappy with what she’s brought back, which appear to mostly be old recrod-keeping registers filled with tallymarks. Anna reassures him that the paper they’re written on still has some value. However, upon inspection, she sees that this parchment is cheap and likely of little value.
Then, she spots some pages that describe animals from various far-off places and what they’re like. She urges Himerius to she the foreigners that text. Soon, they ask to speak to Anna. She’s brought into a room with three men, and they ask if she knows how to read old Greek. Anna reads a little for them, which seems to excite them. They then ask where she got the manuscripts, and when she describes the room and how there are more of them like this, they are delighted.
They explain that their lord loves antique manuscripts. They pay for the animal manuscript, and they offer more money if she brings them additional manuscripts. As Himerius and and Anna leave, Anna feels hopeful.
The Road to Edirne / That Same Autumn
Meanwhile, Omeir is traveling on the road to Edirne with the other soldiers. He worries about his family and about how they will survive without him and the bulls, especially since the soldiers ate most of their food stores.
It takes 13 days to reach Edirne. Omeir, Tree and Moonlight are taken to a field on the outskirts of the capital where they are directed to haul charcoal each day to a large tent where a pit has been excavated. When Omeir asks what is being constructed there, he’s told that it will be the “Destroyer of Cities”, a “thunder catapult” that will “change history forever”.
When the mold is done and a molten alloy is poured in, then the men break the mold and the animals are tasked with dragging the Destroyer of Cities out of the pit and towards the Sultan’s testing grounds.
Finally, when that’s done a test run is set up. Omeir watches with the huge crowd gathered as the apparatus is set up. It flings a thousand-pound stone balls across the field. Maher, a young oxherd, comments that “fear of the thing will be more powerful than the thing itself.”
At the Church of Saint Mary of the Spring, Anna hands over her silver in exchange for Maria’s blessing. Maria drinks the holy water. Maria’s vision seems to clear a little and she feels better for a few days, but soon her vision blurs and her headaches return. Anna thinks that perhaps she needs to drink more holy water. Meanwhile, everyone at the convent talks about the Sultan’s possible upcoming attack on Constantinople and the fort that he’s been building upstream. Chryse the cook mentions that the infidel fort is being named “The Throat Cutter” by the sultan.
Anna continues to return to the priory on foggy nights to steal more manuscripts with Himerius to sell for silver. Soon, she and Maria return to the Church of Saint Mary for another helping of holy water (a mixture of water and mercury). As with before, Maria temporarily feels better for a day and then feels worse again.
As the trips to the priory continue, she admits to herself that perhaps there is a part of her that enjoys the process of stealing the manuscripts. Anna learns that the foreigners she sells the manuscripts to are from Urbino, Italy and that their master has dreams of building a magnificent library with all the texts ever written. They tell her that they believe the ancients traveled to places all over the world, some that we don’t even know about nowadays, and they are seeking an account of those travels.
Chapter 7: THE MILLER AND THE CLIFF
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio H of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section, Aethon-the-donkey is about to be killed by the bandits for being a useless donkey, but a miller offers to buy him instead.
Korea / 1951
Stationed in Pyongyang in March 1951, Zeno gets the nickname of “Z”. He and Private Blewitt are assigned to drive a supply truck to deliver supplies. However, eleven days into it, their truck is attacked. He and Blewitt are captured by the Chinese (who are allied with the North Koreans) and marched north with other prisoners.
In April, they reach the permanent camp area, and Zeno and Blewitt are sorted into the group of healthier prisoners and put to work. Zeno as assigned to gather wood, despite his forearm still being injured. It is very cold, and each morning they are greeted with speeches with anti-capitalist propaganda.
One day, Zeno and Blewitt are instructed to empty out an “isolation box” — a coffin-like box with a wooden lid — that contains a nearly-dead man. Zeno sees that the man has carved some lines in a mix of English and Greek onto the back of the wooden lid. The man turns out to be Lance Corporal Rex Browning, a grammar school teacher from London who spent two weeks in the box as punishment for trying to escape.
Zeno gets Rex’s attention later by quoting Zenodotus (“first librarian at the library at Alexandria”), which Rex recognizes. They chat about Homer and the old Greek stories.
Lakeport, Idaho / 2014
For a few months after the Eden Realty sign appears nothing happens, but in April two dump trucks and a steamroller show up to pave Arcady Lane, making noises and beeping. By late April, trucks show up to start cutting down the forest. Bunny tells him that there’s nothing they can do, since the forested area is not their property. She also mentions that perhaps it’ll be a good thing by raising their land value.
Seymour thinks worriedly about the serene times he spent in the clearing in the forest, with Trustyfriend there with him. Sure enough, it’s soon destroyed. For weeks, he doesn’t see Trustyfriend at all. Mid-June, Seymour sees that the big dead Ponderosa tree near the clearing — Trustyfriend’s spot — has been cut down. Seeing that, Seymour finds Bunny at work, and the consoles him, reassuring him that there are plenty of other forests where Trustyfriend can live happily.
The Argos / Mission Year 61
In Mission Year 61, on Konstance’s 10th birthday as well as her Library Day (the day she gets introduced to the library). She gets a new worksuit, and she gets pancakes made with real flour to eat for breakfast as a treat. She’s then equipped with a Permbulator and a Vizer (virtual reality device that goes on her head over her eyes).
As she puts on the Vizer, she finds herself in the (virtual) Library, and Mrs. Flowers gives her the tour. She has Konstance practice using the library’s resources by asking her to figure out how long the journey to Beta Oph2 will take. The answer is 592 Earth years.
Mrs. Flowers explains that they are all a bridge generation, helping to prepare their descendants to someday reach Beta Oph2, which has an atmosphere similar to Earth’s and has liquid water and forests of some type. She acknowledges that finding out you’ll never see Beta Oph2 is a lot to handle, which is why kids aren’t introduced to the library until they are 10.
Mrs. Flowers then shows Konstance the Atlas in the library. It’s a large book that lets you “enter” its pages and explore and look at a virtual version of Earth. Mrs. Flowers explains that this data isn’t being updated, instead the Atlas’s version of Earth is based on imaging done before the Argos departed. There are people there photographed mid-stride, and they pass by them as they explore a city and its streets.
Chapter 8: ROUND AND ROUND
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Θ of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section Aethon-the-donkey describes being ridden by the miller and the son up to a farm. He is harnessed to a wheel where his task is to walk in circles to turn a stone that will grind up wheat and barley. There are also no roses around for him to eat so he can undo the transformation.
The Road to Constantinople / January – April 1453
The road from the testing ground to Constantinople stretches 140 miles. Traveling with the rest of the caravan, it takes the strength of 60 oxen to haul the cannon. Omeir is amazed by the diverse people and things he sees on the way, but he also feels dejected seeing the state of Tree and Moonlight and seeing the many animals who are continuously getting injured.
As they cross some wet rocks in a creek, the bull in front of Tree slips and breaks its leg, causing the one next to it to fall as well. As Tree and Moonlight to take on the extra weight, the two animals in front of them are killed and butchered. As the days pass, Omeir notices how much more dejected Tree and Moonlight seem with each passing day.
Constantinople / Those Same Months
Anna and Maria return for yet another blessing, and once again Maria has the tremors afterwards. Meanwhile, in the city, rumors abound that an attack is imminent and that soldiers are marching their way.
Anna continues to meet with Himerius on foggy nights to get manuscripts from the priory. This time, Himerius talks about fleeing before the attack comes. By now, she has taken most things of value from the priory, but she manages to find a goatskin codex. Afterwards, they go to visit the Italians to sell the stuff, but they find the place emptied out. Anna notices an enameled snuffbox and pockets it when Himerius isn’t looking.
At the convent, the women discuss how the Italian republic could save them if they wanted, but they only care about trade and they have contracts with the sultan. The next day, they see one of Kalaphates’s servants quickly pack up the valuables and load them on a donkey. Though it isn’t said, it’s obvious Kalaphates is fleeing and deserting them.
As they near Constantinople, the weather is stormy, the men and animals are weary and tensions run high. Omeir is heartbroken seeing his demoralized oxen. Tree’s left hind leg seems to be going lame. The second week of April, they finally reach the outside walls of Constantinople.
Anna is instructed, along with hundreds of other children to help patch up deteriorated sections of the city’s outer wall. She’s able to see the expansive Saracen army camp set up outside. That night, she checks through the sack of unsold papers and sees the goatskin codex. She sees an account describing amazing things like a city in the clouds and a donkey near the sea.
In the goatskin codex, Anna has found a copy of part of Cloud Cuckoo Land by Diogenes. However, like the character Aethon who got drunk during a play and was led to believe Cloud Cuckoo Land was real, Anna (at this point) doesn’t know yet that it is a work of fiction and that the places and things described are fictional.
She knows that the Italian traders believed the ancients had written accounts of fantastic lands they’d visited, so she probably thinks that what this is right now.
Chapter 9: AT THE FROZEN RIM OF THE WORLD
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio I of Cloud Cuckoo Land. This section jumps forward in the story (noting how folios describing the circumstances around Aethon leaving the miller’s place are lost). Still a donkey, Aethon is driven north. As his captors dance around a fire one night, he escapes.
Korea / 1952 – 1953
By the winter, Zeno is still in the prison camp. He spends a lot of time with Rex, who teaches him Greek. When he gets dysentery, Zeno gets very weak and Rex takes care of him.
Lakeport, Idaho / 2014
Seymour is walking home from the library when he sees the severed wing of a great grey owl on the road. He brings it home with him. He figures it must’ve been hit by a car while trying to hunt prey. By nighttime, Seymore is still incensed about it. He thinks about how his mother said that Trustyfriend could have found other forests near here to hunt in, but know he knows that wasn’t true.
The next day, in the toolshed, Seymour soon finds a pistol, ammunition and a crate containing 25 M67 hand grenades. At the library, he watches a video on how to use the M67. When the last construction truck leaves around 7 o’clock on Wednesday, Seymour takes one of the grenades and goes into one of the homes under construction (that still needs a doorknob) next to the model home. He wills himself to pull the pin, but finds that he’s unable to do so.
The Argos / Mission Year 64
In Mission Year 64, Konstance is now 13. In class, she gives a presentation about the snowdrop flower (from back on Earth, but her teacher chides her because her presentation was supposed to be about biogeographical indicators on Beta Oph2.
Konstance’s mother frets that Konstance is going against their mandate to look forward instead of back. She worries that Konstance spends too much time exploring the Atlas in the library and that she’ll end up like “Crazy Elliot Fischenbacher“, who ended up exploring the Atlas continuously day and night until he went crazy. After they took away his Vizer and Perambulator, he took to trying to destroy the wall of the Argos, imperiling everyone. They contained him, but then he ended up killing himself with sleeping pills.
Today, Konstance notices that Ezekiel “Zeke” Lee, a boy slightly older than her, seems to be feeling unwell. He falls off his stool and then throws up black vomit. Immediately afterwards, Sybil initiates Quarantine Level One (“all nonessential personnel to their compartments immediately”, which lasts for 7 days).
Unable to leave Compartment 17, Konstance puts on her Vizer and goes to the Library instead. As the other kids go to play a game, Konstance decides to visit Thessaly in the Atlas. She explores through the city and into the the more remote areas. Finally, she reaches a gnarled old tree, one that she has visited man times before.
Later that night, her father returns (he was able to leave since he’s essential personnel) to their compartment and says that everyone is going to be eating printed food from their compartments for a while to “decentralize meals”. Sybil still doesn’t know what happened to Ezekiel.
The next morning they have class virtually in the Library. Tayvon Lee (Ezekiel’s younger brother) isn’t there, and their mother Mrs. Lee (who Ezekiel had puked on) isn’t either. Sybil then announces Quarantine Level Two (“All non-medical personnel to their compartments, no exceptions”, which lasts for two months).
Korea / 1952 – 1953
One afternoon, Rex suggests that he and Zeno attempt to hide in empty petrol drums to try to sneak out of the prison camp. The plan would require the help of Bristol and Fortier, the two prisoners who are in charge of loading the empty drums to be taken to Pyongyang.
With each day, Rex’s escape plan becomes more elaborate. He gives them both codenames taken from the main characters of Aristophanes’s The Birds. Rex would be Peisetarios (translated as “Trustyfriend”) and Zeno would be Euelpides (translated as “Goodhope”).
Finally, one Thursday in May, Rex announces that they tonight is the night for their escape. However, Zeno is unsure about the plan and doesn’t go along with it. Instead, Rex does it by himself. By midnight, the guards are searching for Rex and threatening everyone for information. Zeno is interrogated repeatedly for the next few days, but then the questions stop. He doesn’t know if that means Rex made it or was killed somewhere. Instead, he spends his time missing Rex.
The weeks later in June, the twenty youngest prisoners — including Zeno and Blewitt — learn that their release has bee negotiated. He is shipped back to the United States where he’s questioned about his imprisonment. He asks about Rex Browning, but no one knows anything since Rex is part of the Royal Marines and not the U.S. Army.
Lakeport, Idaho / 2014
When Seymour enters 6th grade, his teacher Mr. Bates has no patience for him wearing earmuffs in class. Additionally, a classmate, Patti Goss-Simpson, brings fish sticks each day and the smell grosses out Seymour.
When Patti complains about Seymour plugging his nose as she eats, Mr. Bates orders Seymour to sit next to her during lunch. Patti takes the opportunity to jokingly poke him with her fish sticks, and finally Seymour is overwhelmed and flips out with a rage (that “has chewed at the edges of every waking minute since he found Trustyfriend’s wing”). He smashes the classroom projector.
Bunny takes Seymour to a doctor’s office. He’s prescribed pills to take twice a day, which Bunny says will help make him calmer.
The Argos / Mission Year 64
Konstance soon learns that Zeke Lee has died. The next day, Dr. Pori (who is elderly and had also gotten Zeke’s vomit on him) dies as well. Mrs. Lee is also not doing well, and 21 other people are experiencing symptoms too.
They believe it is a plague that started in a sealed disc, but don’t know why it suddenly started spreading or how it’s being spread. In the Library, Jessie Ko reads up on pandemics. Meanwhile, the kids talk about how Quarantine Level 3, if initiated, would last for one year. Quarantine Level 4 is forever.
In quarantine, Konstance and her parents spend most of their time on their Perambulators with their Vizers on. At one point, Konstance exits the Atlas and takes off her Vizer to see that her mother gone. She asks her father why Sybil would let mother leave the compartment, but her father doesn’t answer.
Instead, he offers to tell her more about the story of Aethon. He talks about how after Aethon-the-donkey made his escape, he went searching for a rose. It leads him to the “very edge of the known world” and he paces the shore in his search.
Konstance falls asleep, and when she wakes she finds that her father is equipping her with a suit and an oxygen hood that he’s been making out of a plastic curtain in their compartment. When it’s on, he announces to Sybil that “one of us is not feeling well” so that it will trigger someone coming in to check on them.
When the door opens, Father rushes at them, and he hurriedly takes Konstance into the decontamination chamber at the entrance of Vault One. He fetches a bunch of supplies (such as food powder, a food printer, etc.) and places it in the chamber as well. He tells her that once everything is decontaminated, she should bring all of it into Vault One. Then, he leaves.
Chapter 10: The Gull
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio K of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section, Aethon-the-donkey is on the seashore when a goddess with wings descends. He implores her to transform him into a bird so he can reach “the city in the clouds where all needs are met and no one suffers”. However, she tells him that no such place exists. He then asks that she bring him a rose to transform him. She says he can eat the “rose of the northern sea” right here, which is seaweed. He chews it. However, instead of transforming back into him, Aethon feels himself transform into a fish…
The Lakeport Public Library / February 20, 2020 5:27 PM
In present day, the phone at the front desk of the library rings as the police attempt to contact Seymour. However, he ignores it and yanks the phone out of the wall jack. Instead, the calls a number that is written on the back of a phone that he brought in — it’s the one he was told to dial “if there’s trouble” to contact “the Bishop“. It rings and then hangs up, and Seymour assumes that means the message has been received. Meanwhile, Sharif lets Seymour know that he needs medical attention.
Right now, we don’t know who “The Bishop” is, though it seems like Seymour is hoping this person can get him out of this mess.
Back upstairs, Zeno tries to make sense of what he saw downstairs. On stage, the kids act out the part of the story where Aethon-the-donkey eats the seaweed and transforms into a fish.
The kids then take a break from rehearsal. Alex goes to get some root beers for himself and the other kids, but as he does so, he trips and causes the cans to scatter loudly across the stage.
It’s now 5:38 PM. As Seymour waits for the Bishop to respond, he wonders if the message was received and what the Bishop will do. He also wonders if he’s really willing to die for this cause (“to give voice to the innumerable creatures that humans have wiped off the earth”).
Then, Seymour hears a series of thuds coming from upstairs.
Chapter 11: IN THE BELLY OF THE WHALE
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio A of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section, Aethon-the-fish is eaten by a large sea creature (a “leviathan”) and sloshes wearily around in its belly.
Constantinople / April – May 1453
The Saracen camp outside Constantinople’s walls buzzes with activity in preparation for the attack tomorrow night. Maher talks to Omeir about the spoils of war that he will claim for himself. He also talks about their plan to attack the wall near the area where the river enters the city. Due to the running water, the foundation there is weak and the stones near there are less stable.
The next day, the unleash an opening salvo of cannon fire as more than 60 cannons hurdle cannon balls toward the city.
By now, the siege has been going on for a few days. The bombardment is concentrated at the walls, though occasionally a cannonball flies deeper into the city. Anna continues her work, and Maria continues to try to stitch even despite her worsening vision.
At night, Anna reads from the goatskin codex. She reads about how Aethon-the-shepherd becomes a donkey and a fish and gets eaten. By now, Anna ihas realized that perhaps this story is too fantastical to be a realistic account of someone’s travels. At the same time, the world seems so vivid and evocative that it almost feels real.
One night, the women discuss how the city is now being blockaded, and it is said that the sultan is digging underground passages beneath the walls to reach the inside. Maria, frightened, thinks that she can hear them digging underneath their feet. Anna tries to reassure her, but the thought of it scares her, too.
At the end of April, Anna looks out to see that the priory on the rock is on fire. She glad that the goatskin codex is safely with her instead of burning up in the fire. She thinks about what the Italian trader had said about books being destroyed: “Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world.” That night, Anna starts reading the story to Maria to distract her from her woes.
The weeks pass, and the siege continues and waves of men are sent in to fight. Moonlight and Tree continue to be put to work without any time to rest, like the rest of the animals. Moonlight takes on the extra weight of Tree’s lame leg.
Finally, on May 1, seeing how exhausted Tree is, Omeir goes to the quartermaster and tells him that the animals need to rest. The quartermaster responds by giving his whip a loud crack. He tells Omeir they need to get this load delivered or else they’ll all be beaten.
Chapter 12: THE WIZARD INSIDE THE WHALE
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio M of Cloud Cuckoo Land. Inside the belly of the monster, Aethon-the-fish goes to eat an anchovy, but gets hooked by a fishing line. He tells the fishermen that he’s not a fish, and they take him to a great wizard. Aethon-the-fish begs the wizard to transform him into a bird so he can fly to “city in the clouds where pain never visits and the west wind always blows”. Once again, Aethon is told that the place he describes is not real, but Aethon still insists. Finally, the great wizard agrees to transform him (in exchange for him pointing out where all the big fish are living), and Aethon is tossed into the air.
The Argos / Mission Year 64, Day 1 – Day 20 Inside Vault One
Alone in Vault One, Sybil informs Konstance that she is healthy, but she is not permitted to leave. Sybil’s directive is to keep the crew safe, and Sybil believes that Konstance is safer in Vault One. Sybil also tells her that she has enough food powder for 6,526 meals.
Konstance gets on the Perambulator and puts on the Vizer to talk to her dad in the Library. However, she finds that it is empty. Konstance instructs Sybil to send him a message, but he doesn’t respond. Later, Konstance wonders why he didn’t join her in Vault One, and she knows it must’ve been because he was sick. She thinks about what’s outside and remembers her mother saying that certain “viruses can persist for months on surfaces”.
The days drag on, and Sybil continues to refuse to let her out. Konstance spends a lot of time inside Atlas. She wonders if she’s the only one left.
Lakeport, Idaho / 1953 – 1970
By the time Zeno gets back home, he’s just shy of 20 years old. Mrs. Boydstun sells him that his dog Athena passed away while he was gone. Zeno notices that Mrs. Boydstun’s gait is off, but she says it’s nothing and that it happened with her dad, too. Pastor White helps Zeno get a job working for the county highway department. Zeno continues trying to find out where Rex is.
Time passes. Mrs. Boystun is diagnosed with Huntington’s. Zeno writes to every “Rex Browning” he can find in England and various UK organizations that might know something, but he isn’t able to learn where Rex is or what happened to him. His task is made more difficult because he doesn’t know Rex’s unit or commanding officer. Zeno goes on dates with women to keep up appearances.
Finally, on December 21, 1970, Zeno gets a letter back from Rex Browning. Rex says that the bureau must’ve “misfiled” his letters, since he received three letters at once. Rex also mentions that he and someone named “Hillary” are hosting an event for his birthday in May, and he invites Zeno to come visit.
Lakeport, Idaho / 2016 – 2018
This chapter opens with three excerpts from Seymour’s school assignments from eighth-, ninth- and tenth-grade. With each assignment, he gets more skeptical of what he’s being taught in school and questions the extent to which we’re failing to understand the impact that human actions have on the environment. Instead of addressing the questions asked, he writes about dying honeybee populations and climate change.
Seymour leads a meeting of the school’s Enviro-Awareness Club where eight kids show up. He talks about how more carbon in the air means bigger fires, bigger storms and worse floods. He says that corn (which is fed to animals for slaughter) grows worse with more carbon and humans cognition is worse as well.
One of the sophomore girls who attended the meeting, Janet, offers Seymour a ride home. By now, there are 33 units built on the Eden’s Gate property. When they get to Seymour’s place, an old man waves to them. Seymour comments that that man “hates” him and Bunny and wants them to sell their property so more houses can be built.
The Argos / Mission Year 64, Day 21 – Day 45 Inside Vault One
Sybil starts to restrict Konstance’s access to the Library so that Konstance will be forced to return to her lessons, which she has been neglecting. Konstance begrudgingly does as she’s told.
In her sixth week in isolation, Konstance remembers her father saying once they he was once from a place called Scheria and mentioned “Backline Road”. She looks it up to see that Scheria is a “mythical island of plenty” from Homer’s Odyssey.
She then pulls up any files the Library has on her father. She sees a video of him as a 12-year-old boy explaining why he should be allowed on the Argos mission. He identifies himself as Ethan from Nannup, Australia who loves botany. He talks about aerophonic farming, which requires less water than traditional farming methods.
Konstance has the Atlas take her to Nannup and she scours Backline Road for a farm like the one she saw in her father’s video. She finally finds a hand-written sign that reads Σχερία (Sheria). As she explores his home, she sees that she has a partial view into a wedge of his room. On the nightstand, she sees a book called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes.
Chapter 13: OUT OF THE WHALE AND INTO THE STORM
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio N of Cloud Cuckoo Land. Transformed now into a bird, Aethon-the-crow flies happily across the sky. The second day, however, he gets caught in a frightful storm…
Constantinople / May 1453
The siege has now gone on for five or six weeks. Maria’s vision is totally gone now, and she has difficulty speaking. Anna continues to read to Maria. By now, in the story, Aethon has become a crow and is swept up by a waterspout. It propels him past the moon and into the stars.
Today, the Hodegetria, a painting of the Virgin and Child that is “the city’s most venerated icon”, is carried out of the church that houses it and is carried up to the Third Hill. However, a storm suddenly starts, and the winds cause the painting’s protective covering to rip off. The monk carrying the painting stumbles, and the painting falls into the rainy street.
That same afternoon, Tree and Moonlight are part of the ox train hauling cannonballs when Moonlight stops walking, lowers himself down and dies. The teamsters go to slit his throat and disassemble Moonlight for food and other uses. Omeir thinks sadly about Moonlight as a happy calf, playing with his brother. The next morning, Tree cannot get up. Omeir sees that Tree has given up and is ready to join his brother.
By now, Maria cannot walk and her legs are discolored. Anna is nearing the end of the story, though the pages are deteriorated there and often illegible. In the book, Aethon-the-crow looks down at Earth from above, feeling hopeless. However, then he gets a glimpse of golden towers among the clouds — (and the rest is illegible due to a water stain).
Anna makes up the rest of the description of Cloud Cuckoo Land for Maria’s benefit. As she finishes reading, she thinks about the place the Italians had described of a library that could contain every text ever written. On May 27, Maria dies.
With the oxen dead, Omeir is sent to work in the latrines. Soon, they hear that the time has come for a final assault. The “least-equipped and least-trained” men (such as Omeir) are being sent in first to “soften” the city’s defenses. Omeir thinks that it will be a relief to die.
That night, Anna helps with hauling stones to be dropped on the heads of the invaders. Chryse warns Anna that the city will likely fall very soon. She tells Anna that they’ll want girls to be sold or used, and she knows because it happened to her before. She then starts cutting off Anna’s hair.
The next day, Widow Theodora comes back with deadly nightshade for all the women, saying that they will leave their bodies behind in this world. However, Chryse gives Anna some food and tells her that she, if anyone, can outsmart and outrun the invaders. She tells Anna to leave tonight.
The women at the convent are choosing to kill themselves rather than being taken by the invading forces. Chryse cuts off Anna’s hair to try to make her less attractive to them, but she thinks that Anna could possibly evade them, so she tells Anna to try to run.
In the middle of the night, he thinks about his mother saying “come back to us” and his own mind telling him to just go home. He starts walking away on foot.
Out on the streets, Anna heads for the harbor. She finds Himerius’s skiff and rides out in it. With some difficulty, she manages to get out past the breakwater and out into the dark sea.
Chapter 14: THE GATES OF CLOUD CUCKOO LAND
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Ξ of Cloud Cuckoo Land. The preface notes that the folios from the second half of the codex are significantly more deteriorated with significant gaps and parts that are illegible. In this section, Aethon describes the fantastical and heavenly sight of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
The Argos / Mission Year 64, Day 45 – Day 46 Inside Vault One
After seeing the book in her father’s childhood bedroom, Konstance requests information about Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes from the library.
Konstance reads about how it was discovered in 2019 in a “badly corrupted codex” in the Vatican Library and that it “briefly set the world of Greco-Roman scholarship aflame”. One scholar argues that it’s a story that was “intended for a single reader, a young girl on her deathbed, and therefore it’s a narrative about death-anxiety”. Another disagrees, saying that Diogenes was interested in “notions of pseudo-documentarianism”, which is why he made up a tale and claimed it was a “true transcription” he discovered.
The various English translations of the text are largely boring or too fragmented. Instead, Konstance wants to find the copy that her father had read from. She describes it to the library (“blue copy with the drawing of a city in the clouds on the cover”), but it comes up empty.
She returns to her father’s childhood home in the Atlas and takes another look at the book. This time, she notices that it says “Translation by Zeno Ninis”.
London / 1971
Zeno is ecstatic to learn that Rex is alive, even after all this time. He immediately begins arranging his trip to London in May.
In May, Zeno arrives in Heathrow airport to be greeted by Hillary, who turns out to be a large six-foot-tall man wearing a sequined shirt. Hillary takes Zeno up to their flat. When Rex sees Zeno, he embraces him warmly. As they catch up, Rex tells Zeno about a book he wrote called the “Compendium of Lost Books”, which is about books that no longer exist.
He compares having bits and pieces or a few words from a text to the boys who died in Korea. He says that “the potential of what’s lost haunts you” since you don’t know what it could have been, just like you’ll never know what those boys could have become.
Zeno spends the next few days with both Rex and Hillary, though Zeno still hasn’t managed to ask Rex about his escape in Korea and the aftermath. As Rex talks about rediscovering ancient lost texts, Zeno daydreams about Rex and Hillary getting into a fight and Hillary leaving. He thinks about how he could then confess his love for Rex.
The last day of the trip is Rex’s birthday party, which is at a club called The Crash. The party is loud and flashy, and Zeno feels overwhelmed and out of place. Finally, he calls a cab back to Rex’s building. He’s woken by Hillary just before his flight.
As Rex drops Zeno off at the airport, Rex gifts him with a Greek-to-English dictionary. He reminds Zeno that he had a “knack” for translating. As Zeno leave, he is filled with regrets.
Lakeport, Idaho / February – May 2019
In February 2019, Janet shows Seymour a video of a slight man carrying an assault rifle who goes by the moniker the “Bishop”. In the video, the man talks about the consequences of climate change and it ends with a link that says “join us”. Later, Seymour watches more videos of him at the Library.
At home, Bunny tells Seymour that the motel she works for is shutting down, so she’s being let go. Seymour thinks about all their unpaid bills and how his medicine alone costs $119 a week, but she reassures him it’ll be okay.
A short while later, Bunny tells him that she took out a payday loan while she looks for a new job. She also bought some new electronics with the extra cash she had, though Seymour points out they don’t have the Wi-Fi setup to use most of it.
On Saturday, Seymour realizes he’d forgotten about Marian telling him to go the library that day for a “surprise” and shows up hours late. When he arrives, she’s short with him. He sees that the new library drop-box has been painted to look like an owl.
By April, Seymour has lost interest in things like going to the library or the Environmental Awareness Club. Instead, he spends his time looking for videos of the Bishop online. Seymour also stops taking his medication. Back at home, Seymour breaks into one of the Eden’s Gate homes when no one is home and takes their Wi-Fi password. Then, he goes home and sets up the smart speaker for Bunny to use.
A week later, Seymour and Janet are near the lake eating ice cream. Seymour spots a 32-foot-long RV –with hydraulic jacks, a satellite dish aand two air-conditioning units attached — idling in the marina parking lot. A man gets out of the RV to walk his poodle. Seymour spots a large rock. Against Janet’s protests, he lifts the rock to throw it at the motor home.
Seymour sees the motor home as embodying a lot of things that he finds odious, like wasting energy and consuming excessive amounts of fossil fuels. He’s also off his meds so he’s feeling things a lot stronger right now.
The Argos / Mission Year 64, Day 46 – Day 276 Inside Vault One
After asking the Library for records about Zeno Ninis, Konstance learns that Zeno was a Korean war vet who was a prisoner-of-war. She sees that he worked for the county highway department and that his passport had only one stamp — a trip to London. He died when he was 86 on February 20, 2020. He was killing trying to protect children at the library from a terrorist. All the information seems entirely unconnected from someone who would translate an ancient Greek comedy.
The next day, Konstance thinks about all the things that Sybil doesn’t know, including some things Konstance knows like “what it meant to be held by your father inside the leafy green twilight of Farm 4”. She decides to set about making her own library of things she knows that Sybil does not, and she sets about trying to use her synthetic food to make ink. Sybil suggests that she do her writing in the library where she doesn’t need to make ink and whatnot, but Konstance declines.
A few weeks later, Konstance turns 14. By now she has been isolated for 276 days. Konstance asks to be let out, and once again Sybil refuses. Meanwhile, she continues to try to learn about Zeno Ninis. She asks the Library to show her a picture of Lakeport Library in Lakeport, Idaho on February 20, 2020. She sees the intersection near the light-blue building and the owl drop box outside it.
Then, in the Atlas (which represent a scan of the Earth from 7 or 8 decades ago which is many decades after 2020), she finds the same street intersection from the picture. There, she sees that the owl drop box still stands, though the library is no longer there.
She reaches out for the handle on the drop box. Even though it should just dissolve into pixels like everything else in the Atlas, she feels something real and solid there.
Chapter 15: THE GUARDIANS AT THE GATES
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio O of Cloud Cuckoo Land. This section describes Aethon-the-crow at the gates of Cloud Cuckoo Land. An owl greets him at the gate, saying that before he can enter, they must first ensure that he truly is a bird. To do so, they have a riddle for him to solve…
The Lakeport Public Library / February 20, 2020 5:41 PM
In present day in the library, Seymour heads upstairs after hearing the thudding noise coming from above, and he goes into the Children’s section.
Zeno is crouched with the children along a L-shaped barrier. They hear a set of solitary footsteps. The person walks on stage, but still doesn’t see them.
Seymour sees the clouds and trees decorating the stage. Littered around the room, Seymore sees items like a kid’s parka and snow boots. He recalls the sign on the door when he walked in advertising the Cloud Cuckoo Land performance.
He’s nearing the corner where Zeno and the kids are hiding out of sight when the wounded man from downstairs (Sharif) calls out to him. Sharif says he’s going to give the backpack to the police unless Seymour comes back downstairs.
Chapter 16: THE RIDDLE OF THE OWLS
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio ∏ of Cloud Cuckoo Land. The preface state that the part of the book with the riddle has been lost, as has the solution to it. Instead, the solution that appears here is added by the translator. In this section, Aethon provides an answer (saying he knows nothing, and the owls agree that is the right answer), and the gates to Cloud Cuckoo Land swing open.
Four Miles West of Constantinople / May 1453
By now, Constantinople looks farther away, but everywhere else is darkness. Wet and exhausted with her sack clutched to her chest, Anna falls asleep and only wakes when the skiff hits a rock. She gets thrown overboard, but finds that she’s able to stand in the water. She ends up on a beach with her drenched belongings, but the skiff is now gone.
Seeing the city in the distance, she realizes she has only traveled a few miles up the coast. She finds a place to hide on a hill near a well under some trees, and she sleeps all day.
When she wakes, the moon is out. She gets up and continues to travel up the coast. Just before dawn, she is navigating through a forest when she sees a campfire and smells roasting meat. She sees there’s a bird on a spit over the fire and nothing else. She is so hungry that she ignore her better judgement and goes towards it. She dashes over and takes the roasted bird. She’s about to bite into it when she is hit on the back of the head.
Chapter 17:THE WONDERS OF CLOUD CUCKOO LAND
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio P of Cloud Cuckoo Land. With only a few fragments of legible lines, it describes Aethon-the-crow enjoying the splendors of Cloud Cuckoo Land and eating the delicious foods there.
Lakeport, Idaho / 1972 – 1995
Back in Lakeport with Mrs. Boydstun, Zeno helps to take care of her as her condition deteriorates. At night, Zeno revisits the Greek that Rex once taught him, but it’s a struggle.
For the next year, Zeno continues to correspond with Rex, but strictly about matters pertaining to translation. He “loses whatever bravery he began with” when Rex is slow to respond. Later, Hillary writes to him informing of Rex’s death. He was working in Egypt when he had a heart attack.
Mrs. Boydstun continues to worsen and eventually passes away. Afterwards, Zeno adopts a dog and names him Luther. He then gets back to work learning to translate Greek.
The Argos / Mission Year 64, Day 276 Inside Vault One
When Konstance opens the drop box, she sees that beyond it, it is winter. Going forward, she sees that in this area hidden within the drop box, it is February 20, 2020 and that she is at the Lakeport Public Library.
Going into the library, she heads up to the second floor. She sees lines of words written in Greek welcoming her in. Then, she sees the elaborately decorated stage, dazzling her with clouds and birds. Framing the stage, it reads “Cloud Cuckoo Land. By Antonius Diogenes. Translation by Zeno Ninis.”
Lakeport, Idaho / 1995 – 2019
Zeno manages to translate one book of the Iliad, two books of the Odyssey and part of Plato’s Republic. When he gets old, Luther passes away, and Zeno adopts another dog, which he names “Nestor the king of Pylos”. Once he’s retired, he spends his days working at the public library.
In May 2019, the new children’s librarian Sharif shows him an article entitled “New Technologies Uncover Ancient Greek Tale Inside Previously Unreadable Book“. It describes how some old manuscripts, notably a goatskin codex, had long been considered illegible (its pages fused into a solid mass due to to “water damage, mold, and age”) but new scanning technologies have allowed them to extract the text. These manuscripts had been storied for centuries at the ducal library in Urbino and then had been moved to the Vatican library.
As he reads about this “Cloud Cuckoo Land” text that had been discovered, Zeno thinks about how Rex had hoped they’d someday rediscover an ancient text exactly like this.
With Sharif’s help in in organizing the necessary documents, Zeno gets to work on translating the text. He starts off with aplomb, but over time, he gets bogged down by how hard the text is to read and how the parts were apparently rebound in an incorrect order at some point.
Chapter 18: IT WAS ALL SO MAGNIFICENT, YET…
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Σ of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section, Aethon reflect on how wonderful Cloud Cuckoo Land has been, but he also mentions “a needle of doubt” and a feeling of “dark restlessness” within him.
The Argos / Mission Year 65, Day 325 Inside Vault One
In the weeks since she discovered the old Lakeport library hidden in the Atlas, Konstance has been able to copy three-quarters of Zeno’s Cloud Cuckoo Land translation onto scraps of sackcloth (from the food powder bags). Still, Konstance isn’t entire sure what the point is of her task and whether anyone will ever find her or her transcription in the Vault.
Then, it occurs to Konstance to find out about the five children that Zeno Ninis saved that day at the library.
Lakeport, Idaho / August 2019
In late August, forest fires in the area make the outside air hazardous, and children are kept inside. The library fills with kids with nothing else to do. Meanwhile, Zeno has been struggling unhappily with his translations. Finally, Marian suggests that he take a time-out to help out with the kids instead, and she brings over a group of 5th graders (Rachel, Alex, Olivia, Natalie and Christopher).
As the kids sit around Zeno’s table, he tells them the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land, and they ask him questions about it. That night, Zeno thinks that with regards to his translation he’s gotten too bogged down in things being overly precise and finding clever allusions. Instead, he remembers that this was a comedy meant to comfort a dying girl. He thinks about what would appeal to these kids and capture their attention, and he starts again to write.
The Argos / Mission Year 65, Day 325 – Day 340 Inside Vault One
Konstance retrieves the list of names of the kids from the Library’s records. She recognizes the name “Rachel Wilson” from the list — it’s her grandmother. It explains why her father would have Zeno’s book on his night table.
Konstance also realizes that there are other places in the Atlas like the owl drop box where certain items are just a little more vibrant. In those places, she’s able to reach out and touch the item to reveal a hidden location. In Lagos, she takes a vendor’s drink that in a cup decorated with a cartoon owl and it reveals a bedraggled tent city. In Mumbai, a picturesque trail disappears when she touches a painted owl. Instead, it becomes a place with dirty water and trash.
She then goes to back to her father’s town of Nannup, and she touches at a graffiti owl. It reveals an image of hundred of people holding empty jugs and cans near a water truck. They are pressed up against a chainlink barrier as soldiers fire weapons towards them. Konstance understands now that situations like this are why her father chose to leave Earth in order to be a part of this mission.
Konstance figures out that the scan of earth in the Atlas has papered over certain less palatable images of life on earth. It seems that by the time the Argos mission was being set up, things had gotten truly dire in many places on earth.
For some reason, these images of what life was truly like are hidden inside the Atlas, only accessible via these vibrant images of owls.
By the time she gets out of the Atlas and off the Perambulator, she is exhausted and hungry. She thinks about “Crazy” Elliot Fischenbacher and how he tried to destroy the walls to escape Argos after spending a lot of time in the Atlas.
After Konstance cleans herself up and does her lessons, she starts to wonder about the construction of the Argos. She starts looking for documentation in the Library about whether or not the Argos was truly ready for the task it’d been given. However, she’s unable to find confirmation of the feasibility of their mission and whether the technology available at the time was prepared to meet the challenge of getting to Beta Oph2. Instead, she finds documents with pages missing or academic articles that abruptly cut off mid-way.
She inquires about where the crew of the Argos had been prior to taking off. In the Atlas, she ends up in Qaanaaq, Greenland, though there’s no sign of a base. After many days of exploring, she finally locates a red house with a flagpole that has a small wooden owl perched on its base.
Upon touching the owl, it reveals a razor-wire-fenced location and industrial complex that occupies the entirety of the small island. A sign indicates that it is “Property of Ilium Corportation”, the technology company responsible for the mission. After exploring the complex, she realizes there is no launchpad or rockets. Instead, at the center is a huge circular grounded building. It dawns on her that Argos isn’t a ship and that she’s still on Earth.
Chapter 19: AETHON MEANS BLAZING
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio T of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section, Aethon begins to question why everyone else is content to fly around and eat all day, but he feels some type of restlessness or unhappiness about it. Aethon is told he “sounds an awful lot like a human right now”, but they suggest that Aethon read a book that they have that contains “all the knowledge of the gods”.
Lakeport, Idaho / August 2019 – February 2020
Seymour hasn’t seen Janet since he smashed in the RV and bolted. He has spent the summer mainly in his bedroom. Now, he’s downloading an anonymous browser and secure messaging platform to reach out to the Bishop and his organization. Meanwhile, around the world, this summer has been marked by many instances of extreme weather like hurricanes and droughts and megafires in various areas across the globe. By September, collection agencies are calling Bunny daily.
Someone with the screen name of “Mathilda” in the Bishop’s ranks is assigned to correspond with Seymour. Mathilda describes commune they all live in where they grow vegetables and sleep under the trees in a camp. She tells Seymour that he can join them after he completes his “task”, and Seymour daydreams about Mathilda and what she might look like.
By mid-September, the kids have suggested that Zeno transform Cloud Cuckoo Land into a play for them to perform. As he works on the play with them, Zeno realizes that he finally “feels fully awake” again.
One day, they talk about how Aethon feel unsatisfied even after reaching Cloud Cuckoo Land. Zeno tells the kids that “Aethon” means “blazing” or “burning” or “hungry” in Greek. Natalie theories that he’s unable to just settle down there because “he’s always burning inside”.
In December, they go to a thrift store to look for pieces for costumes. Zeno hires a carpenter for set construction. The morning of February 20th, Zeno feels like he’s six years old again as he buzzes in excitement seeing the completed set for Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Chapter 20: THE GARDEN OF THE GODDESS
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Y of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section, Aethon goes to the goddess to ask to read the book. When she sees him, she recognizes that he is not a crow at all. She tells him that he’s welcome to read the book. However, she warns him that if he reads to the end, then he will truly become “free of desire” like them and that he will no longer have the “hunger inside” that humans have.
Eight Miles West of Constantinople / May – June 1453
Omeir is startled to see that he has knocked out a young Greek girl. When she regains consciousness, she begins to moan, and he asks her to please be quiet, in fear of attracting unwanted attention. When he tries to reach for her sack, she screams.
She seems unstable and Omeir realizes that she must we weak from hunger. He gives her part of his bird. He considers that if he travels with her, maybe it will attract less suspicion since she will seem like a prize he has won. With her hands bound, he leads her by a rope away from the area.
That night, she falls asleep and Omeir inspects the contents of her bag. He finds her book, and he wonders if it is a book of witchcraft. When he wakes the next morning, he sees that she has untied herself, but stayed with him. They continue to travel together, and he no longer binds her wrists.
On the fourth day of their travels, two banner men with plunder pass by. They have pack camels with good, twenty bound women and girls, and a wagon of marble statues.
Soon, they are ravenously hungry, and Omeir is starting to feel weak. He sets up traps in the forest, but they continue to be empty. As they sit next to their campfire, he sees the girl read from her book. Then, a flock of birds comes through and one gets caught in his snare. He wonders if she summoned them with her book.
They continue to travel. When they go through villages, he binds her wrists and tells people of how he was went home after battle with her as his reward. When they finally near his home, he has her hide her sack in a hollow tree, promising her they will return and that it will be safe there — not sure if she’s able to understand his gesturing at all. He thinks to himself that “my best companions cannot speak the same language as me”.
Chapter 21: THE SUPER MAGICAL EXTRA POWERFUL BOOK OF EVERYTHING
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Φ of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section, Aethon begins reading from the book. There are parts that are vibrant and exciting, but others that are darker, dealing with cities being burnt and enslavement and so forth.
The Lakeport Public Library / February 20, 2020 6:39 PM
By now, the children have figured out that there is something wrong and that they are in danger. However, they try to be brave and quietly do a read-through of the script.
They are at the part of the story where Aethon reads the goddess’s book. On each page of the book, one side is airy and happy and the other side is death. The goddess encourages Aethon to keep reading so that he can be “free from desire and death”.
As the kids read, Zeno thinks about how he should have told Rex back when they were prisoners together about his feelings for him. Moreover, Zeno thinks that he should have taken more risks in general in life.
Suddenly, Rachel interrupts the script reading. She tells Zeno that she thinks that two of these folios are out of place. She points out that if Diogenes was writing to his dying niece that the point of a story is that is gets passed on, then he wouldn’t have Aethon stay in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Aethon must’ve stopped reading, so these events happen after he returns home to Arkadia.
Downstairs, Seymour waits. He thinks about how this time tomorrow he’ll be at the Bishop’s camp with Mathilda, living “with purpose and meaning”. Then, Zeno comes down the steps.
Zeno sees that Sharif still alive, though covered with blood. Zeno asks the boy (Seymour) what’s in the bag, and he answers that there are two bombs. Zeno asks how they’re detonated, and Seymour truthfully tells him that he can detonate them via either of the two phones that are taped to the bombs, on the fifth ring. He also says that someone else has the number to detonate them as well.
Zeno tells Seymour he needs to use Seymour’s phone (which is on the ground next to Seymour) to call an ambulance for Sharif, and the boy doesn’t protest. Zeno almost has his hands the phones when one of the phones in the bag starts to ring.
The Argos / Mission Year 65, Day 341 – Day 370 Inside Vault One
In the Library, Konstance scours the schematics for Argos. She knows that the crew was told that they were sedated and sealed inside for launch, but now Konstance knows there never was a launch. Argos was simply a intergenerational feasibility study or trial run to see how they would fare in these circumstances.
In Vault One, Konstance starts to dismantle her cot. She sharpens on end of a leg and uses the parts to fashion a homemade axe. She then gets all her transcriptions and binds them together like a book. When it gets late, she puts on her bioplastic suit, tucking her book in with it.
Then, Konstance hides under a makeshift fort and finds a way to ignite a spark (using power from the food printer, etc.). She knows that there should be fire extinguishers embedded in the ceiling according to the schematics.
The extinguishers emerge, but Konstance continues to feed the fire underneath the fort. As the oxygen disappears from the room, Konstance reasons with Sybil — unless Sybil opens the door to Vault, then Konstance will die from lack of oxygen. That would go against Sybil’s directive to protect the crew. Finally, as the oxygen reaches 8%, the door to Vault One opens.
Chapter 22: WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE IS BETTER THAN WHAT YOU SO DESPERATELY SEEK
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio X of Cloud Cuckoo Land. In this section, the goddess asks Aethon about his desire to return home. He admits that he’s flown “all the way to the end of the stars” just to realize this. With that, the goddess produces a fresh rose for him to eat to transform him back into a human.
The preface notes that some scholars argue that this (“severely degraded”) section belongs earlier in the story. There are many parts of the text that have been added in brackets by the translator, Zeno (including the key part where the goddess produces a rose).
This is one of the sections that could have been out of place. Zeno agrees that it makes more sense for Aethon to decide to return home, and the degraded state of the text means that it’s entirely possible that that’s what the writing had originally indicated. As such, Zeno has added in brackets some text leading up to the conclusion that Aethon is transformed into a human and returns home.
Idaho State Correctional Institute / 2021 – 2030
In 2021, Seymour is now in a medium security prison where he spends his time on the computer learning to code. Seymour ended up pleading guilty to all the charges, and received a sentence of 40 to life. Sharif survived the gunshot. It’s a three hour bus ride from Lakeport. Bunny visits when she can, but eventually she gets sick.
When Seymour is 22, as a “good behavior” innmate, he’s given an opportunity to work for the Ilium Corporation by manually identifying “objectionable” images — like homeless people, obscene graffiti, demonstrators, etc. — from their scans of Earth so they can be removed. Their algorithm automatically flags certain images, but they need to be manually verified. As Seymour does the job, he finds he’s good at it, and his supervisors give him glowing reports. Ilium later develops a treadmill prototype for navigating the map.
When Seymour is 27, he’s doing his work when he realizes one of the flagged areas is in Lakeport. He find himself visiting Eden’s Gate and then he heads to the library. He sees that it was replaced by a hotel with a rooftop bar. As he remembers Zeno, he feels dizzy (“something has gone wrong inside him”), falls off his treadmill and breaks his wrist.
On May 31, 2030, he writes to Marian. He acknowledges the pain he caused, but he also asks about what happened to the translation and play that Zeno had been working on. A few months later, Marion sends back a letter along with a box of papers from Zeno’s house. She also mentions that Natalie Hernandez, one of the kids from that day, is studying Latin and Greek in college.
Seymore makes his way through Zeno’s translation. He thinks about how at 17, he had “convinced himself that every human he saw was a parasite”, but instead “the truth is infinitely more complicated, that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem”.
Chapter 23: THE GREEN BEAUTY OF THE BROKEN WORLD
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Ψ of Cloud Cuckoo Land. As the preface explains, only a few fragments of words are legible. In this section, Aethon wakes up back on earth and describes the beauty of the grass, the trees, the moon, etc.
Nine Miles from a Woodcutters’ Village in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria / 1453 – 1494
Anna and Omeir arrive at Omeir’s home. A few days later, Omeir and his mother take some coins and buy a castrated bull and a weak donkey. It takes months to teach Anna basic things because she doesn’t understand what they are saying, however, Omeir is patient and kind with her. Slowly, he teaches her some words in his language.
They continue to hide the manuscript in the old tree trunk, checking on it to ensure it is dry and safe. Anna understands that it would be “feared and mistrusted” otherwise.
In the fall, Omeir’s sister Nida gets married to a woodcutter in a village 20 miles away. Over time, Anna stops noticing Omeir’s cleft lip. They eventually have six sons, though three die. Omeir’s mother moves in with Nida.
With only Anna, Omeir and their three sons left in the cottage, Omeir gets the book from the tree, and Anna translates the story for the boys. In later years, Anna continues to recite parts of the story to the boys.
Time passes. Anna is 54 when she passes away, on a lovely day in May surrounded by her sons.
That Same Ravine / 1505
With his sons living away from home now, Omeir lives alone with his black dog, three hens and his old donkey Clover. He thinks about the story Anna used to recite to them.
One day, after a series of storms have deluged the area with rainwater, the cottage is flooded. He goes to get Anna’s book from the tree, only to see that it is completely soaked. Carefully, he separates out the leaves and lets them dry. He then reassembles it, though he’s unsure of the correct order.
When summer approaches, Omeir takes some supplies, his animals, the book and Anna’s snuffbox and heads out. He drops off some supplies and the hens at his son’s house nearby. Then, he starts to travel, asking some people if they recognize the image on the snuffbox. Finally, two travelers recognizes it as depicting Urbino, Italy.
It is a long journey to Urbino, but he arrives there in the autumn. As he enters the palazzo, he recognizes the double-turreted building from the snuffbox. In the courtyard of the palace, he tells tells the guard that he has come with a gift “for the learned men of this place”. Eventually, an interpreter comes, and Omeir show him the book, saying that “I have heard that this is a place that protects books”.
The interpreter asks Omeir what he would like to be paid. Omeir responds simply that he would like a meal and oats for his donkey. The man agrees, though he clearly believes Omeir to be an imbecile. Omeir is given a full meal, and he falls asleep in the stables along with Clover and the dog.
Chapter 24: NOSTOS
This chapter opens with an excerpt from Folio Ω of Cloud Cuckoo Land. This final excerpt is heavily degraded, especially towards the end. This section describes a scene of dancing and rejoicing.
Boise, Idaho / 2057 – 2064
In 2057, Seymour is now on work-release staying in a small apartment and commuting to work each day. He works with Ilium engineers testing the various iterations of the Atlas treadmill and headset. He is also in contact with Natalie Hernandez, who is now teaching high school Latin and Greek.
The years pass, and Seymour is now 58 years old, but “the insurgent inside him lives still”. Each night, he disables the connectivity on his terminal and gets to work on harvesting the “objectionable” images that have been removed from view on the Atlas. He then hides the images into various owls around the Atlas so they are still hidden, but accessible.
Seymour invites the former fifth graders (Christopher, Olivia, Alex, Rachel and Natalie) up for an all-expenses paid three-day resort vacation in Lakeport. He isn’t sure they will all agree to go, but they do. Before he arrives back in town finally, he feels anxious.
When they arrive, Seymour presents them each with a hardcover book that contains a translated version of Cloud Cuckoo Land, which he completed based on Zeno’s translations and with Natalie’s help. He then shows them that if they enter the owl drop box on the Atlas, then they can revisit the library like it once was when it was still there.
The Argos / Mission Year 65
After Konstance escapes from Vault One, she heads for Farm 4 and grabs as many seeds as she can from the seed drawer. She then heads to the spot where Elliot Fischenbacher had previously attempted to hack his way out of the “ship”. It’s been patched over, but she uses her axe to attack the metal.
In her mind, she thinks about how if she’s wrong about this, then she’ll be dead almost immediately. When she reaches the outermost layer, it seems completely dark, but then she realizes she’s not being sucked towards it or freezing, so she was right. It’s dark because it’s night outside. She puts a hand out and feels that it is raining.
With her axe and seeds, she takes off her biosuit helmet when it hits 0% oxygen. She then exits the Argos, dropping into darkness. She twists her ankle as a result of the fall, but she is alive and breathing air, not knowing if the air is safe.
She watches the sunrise.
The Lakeport Public Library / February 20, 2020 6:39 PM
The story flashes back to the day at the library on February 20, 2020. After the phone trigger for the bombs started ringing, Zeno grabbed the the backpack and ran as fast as he could, past the police and towards the lake when the bomb detonates.
Qaanaaq / 2146
Konstance ends up staying in Qaanaaq, living in a village that consists of 49 people. By August 2146, she has a 3-year-old son and is pregnant with a second child. She is working in her container garden with her son next to her who is paging through her handwritten version of the Cloud Cuckoo Land book, composed of bound sackcloth. When she is done gardening, the boy asks her to read to him.
On the Argos, all the “passengers” but Konstance die. I have plenty of questions about how and why Ilium conducted the Argos experiment, and found it interesting that Konstance’s father was the grandson of one of the library children who were doing the play of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
In the section where Seymour is working for Ilium by erasing all the horrible things that happen in the world, until he starts to work against Ilium by placing the owl portals to allow an Atlas user to access the truth, he realizes that Ilium doesn’t care what he is doing because they have lost interest in the project. I think the same thing happens with Argos – Ilium just lost interest, even with humans still alive in the structure. To me it represents the callousness of the corporate world – if there is nothing to be gained financially, the product or project will not be supported.
That is an extremely helpful interpretation. I didn’t understand the purpose of the passengers living in the Argos if it was just sitting in a field and not being observed by anyone. But if you look at it as an example of the greed and human disregard of corporations, as you suggested above, then it no longer feels like a weak spot in the book.
The corporate neglect angle is a good one.
I was thinking about why Argos existed in the first place, and I think it could have been a really well-intentioned “Hail Mary” at preserving our culture and possibly humanity itself.. It’s an “ark” with enough people, seeds, and knowledge to kickstart human life on another planet, and I think the intended planet was Earth after a century or two of the collapse of civilization.
How is that in the end she has a child.
It must be a typo that in the Epilogue summary it says Anna ends up in Qaanaak when it should have said Konstance.