Nalanda: Part One

An incessant metal whine nagged her amiable slumber, tugging at the threads of reverie until she was dragged into the waking daylight, kicking and screaming. Paige Turner’s eyes meekly parted. Through a heavy mortar of rheum, gentle ambience brightened her stare, painting in the colours of her surroundings.

Paige awoke to find herself dressed exactly as she had the day before, a book splayed across her chest. It was not an unfamiliar occurrence. In fact, it was frightfully routine, boring in its predictability. She fussed lazily with the sleep-snagged rumples that had seized the pleats in her skirt. It’s not that a mussed-up skirt bothered her much, but it was more than likely she would dawdle herself into the same attire again today. She had mastered the “art of spending grave amounts of time doing very little,” as her mother once phrased it. The truth of it was, Paige surrendered so much zeal to having her nose pressed between the pages of books, as the mornings, or entire days slowly drifted away from her, she had very little time for things like changing clothes, tidying up or even eating.

Her dovelike early reflections turned her attention to the book she had fallen asleep reading the night previous. She couldn’t imagine it being any good as she hardly remembered it. She slipped a thumb between the spine and the tented pages, carefully pulling it away from her chest and sorting the cover before her eyes so that she could properly read it.

“Bullet Man,” she whispered aloud to herself. “In the exciting tale of the Money Boat Heist. By Eli Dean January.”

“Oh, yes,” she thought, her words returning to the privacy of her skull as if to shirk scrutiny. She slowly recalled last night’s read. It wasn’t very good. Exciting was certainly hyperbole on the part of either the author or the publisher, which pained her to admit as she happened to be on good acquaintance with the author, at least. She had started reading the Bullet Man books as a personal favour to Eli, but had only continued them because of her stubborn need to never leave any story unfinished. He would be heartbroken if he ever found out.

On that somber note, she shuttered the book and stretched as tall as she could until the back of her knuckles and the balls of her feet found the start of linoleum. She sat up in the bathtub, dry, and placed the book outside, in what little space could be spared atop pyramids of countless other books.

Were anyone to ever come calling, they would likely find the idea of a grown woman sleeping in her bathtub, the countertops, medicine cabinet, toilet and floor space all turned to bookshelves save for a path just big enough for Paige alone to navigate absolutely ridiculous. Her mother certainly did.

“How do you plan to ever land a man, with your nose always stuck in a book?” she would ask. “Might be the best place for it, come to think. It’s terribly long, that nose.”

Paige set palms to the edge of the bath and hoisted herself uneasily to her feet. Stepping out onto the narrow walk cleared of books, she began to wind-up her bedroll, setting it aside for tonight.

In what looked like a game of tiptoe hopscotch, Paige closed the gap between the tub and the sink, splashing handfuls of water across her face, hoping to wake up. She looked unenthusiastically at the mirror. Mildly damp flyaways spilled down her forehead which she casually swept up into a messy brunette top bun. She held it in place, with a pointer finger while fumbling for the the pencil she had placed in her skirt pocket ages ago. When she found it, she returned attention to her hair, pinning it in place with the pencil like a butterfly to a specimen board. With a final flutter, it shriveled lifelessly in place.

She slowly settled into her reflection, bunching her cheeks and wrinkling her nose. Her nose was quite long, but she liked that. It didn’t take itself too seriously. Before exiting the bathroom, she smiled, pleased.

The path from the bathroom to the kitchen in her tiny apartment was littered with even more books heaped waist-high, all colour-coordinated; mounds of cyan books slowly faded into magenta before giving way to yellow, and finally black, hitting all the tints between.

Paige held her breath, and navigated the hallway cautiously as if it were a high wire act; one foot placed carefully right in front of the other. The effects of one misplaced step or tumble would be equally as devastating as plummeting from the tightrope, she assured herself. If even one bundle toppled, she would have to give up her entire Saturday reorganising her entire apartment’s worth of books. When she reached the kitchen, she let out the stale gulp she had held. The thought of reorganising her collection rattled around her head. There were worse ways to spend her day off from the library she concluded with a final, indifferent shrug of her shoulders.

The kitchen was unsurprisingly, more of the same. Books and magazines formed massive continents across the limited counter space, divided by miniature oceans of tacky blue Formica. A frying pan dangled hazardly beside a saucepan from the ceiling. Paige grabbed the former and sat it plainly on her tinker-toy stove before turning toward her modest pantry. Glancing over the barren shelves, she remembered that she needed to get groceries. Weeks after it might do her any good.

On the pantry shelves were a salt shaker, a pepper grinder, an unopened ketchup bottle, three French cuisine cooking books (in French), an opened box of stale saltines and a copy of Newton Henry Black’s Elementary Particle Physics.

She sighed, exhausted with her bad habits and began sourcing the kitchen for ruled notepads, of which she had nearly as many as books; they, however, were strewn about her apartment like confetti. She untangled the pencil from her hair, letting the wispy strands slump down her face again. With childish exhales, she volleyed one loose strand until it fell into place beside her ear before scratching the pencil across the surface of a found notepad.

She scribbled down the first item: brioche. She lowered the pencil to the second line. Before adding to her list, she tore the sheet free and set it aside. She went back to the pad and wrote the same word again: brioche. She did this again, again, again, until she had what she deemed a suitable amount. She fiddled with the stack of paper until it was a tidy little tower, not a single sheet out of alignment.

Paige then grabbed more notepads, creating two smaller towers of paper for the word eggs, another, even smaller for the word cinnamon, one slightly larger for butter, one at a similar size for milk, and two massive stacks, one for maple syrup, and the other Gran Marnier. When she had turned her austerely sculpted towers of paper into a veritable skyline, she sat the pencil down and returned what paper was left, satisfied.

She rested her palms flat beside the sheaves and bunched her shoulders across her chest, rolling onto her tippy-toes; a giddy excitement set upon her.

Her impossible smile widened as one-by-one, she tapped each stack—starting with the one marked eggs—with a wand-like finger.

The pillar of paper hastily warped, awkwardly taking the shape of a horseshoe or an upturned rainbow before filling-in in all directions like a tiny bowl, and building upward until it had constructed out of paper the word jotted down—an egg.

The egg began to wobble slapdash around the counter as paper turned to flesh and the imaginary egg became entirely real. Shortly a second egg joined it, and Paige was careful to pluck them both so that they didn’t break apart, ruining breakfast. Before long, in place of all the paper were the items she had noted—the eggs, a half-carton of milk, enough butter to freshen up her dish, a heap of brioche, several ounces of cinnamon, maple syrup and orange liqueur each.

As if by science fiction, or perhaps fantasy, breakfast was served.

“nalanda”
featuring PAPER TIGER
created and written by H.H. NEVILLE

The idiom had been a bit of a let down in its correctness, as Paige was still left to prepare her meal, which she was working at quite miserably. She had set the sweet, cloud-like tuft of french pastry to her pan with butter, to cook away the milk, cinnamon, eggs and the liqueur, and started up a little light reading—After You’ve Gone, a Remembrance of Fats Waller by “Tiny” Janes—leaving her food to smolder over the stove until the bread that had once been paper began to charcoal.

Alarmed by the growing haze of thick, ashy smoke, Paige leaped from her book, and removed the skillet from the heat. She looked disappointedly at the pitiful mess fuming at the middle of the pan.

“Burnt toast—such a waste of good paper,” she thought bemusedly.

It didn’t matter regardless. She didn’t have the desire to complete her paper-to-food ritual, to start cooking the ingredients, only to hazard burning it all again whilst being distracted by the book she had just started, but wouldn’t put down until at least the end of the chapter. She knew herself too well to try and convince herself otherwise. No, if she wanted to have breakfast this morning, the French coal would have to suffice. She could at least try and make it more palatable with loads of butter, syrup and perhaps an extra splash of orange liqueur. It was her day off, after all.

Paige put the scorched toast to plate, and loaded that onto a tray with the Fats Waller biography and carefully navigated her book orphanage to a small lawn table that lived just inside the only window in her apartment. She sat everything down, herself included and started a few chapters more, stopping to take glances out over the bay—as the sun wearily brought itself awake— she would occasionally pick at her breakfast as a crow might scrap from sidewalk.

***

By prison standards, he wasn’t a very large man. Even so, as he marshaled through the mess hall, the assembled sea of crooks, scoundrels and worse parted. As if this diminutive, sallow individual were Moses himself. What Clarence “Puddin’” Lane lacked in size, he more than made up in something that other convicts perhaps didn’t respect, but feared: ruthless stillness.

He wasn’t a violent man. Not that it would lighten his burden any. Not even close. No, “what he done, he done deserve prison, and lots of it,” had been the remark Puddin’ remembered, with which he himself agreed.

The most frightening aspect to Puddin’ was not threat of harm. In all the very bad things he’d done (and there were a lot of them), he’d suffered in his precision to make sure that no one had been harmed. When they elbowed him, the coppers found obsessively compiled records across notepads, napkins, the back of stamps, and in general, any surface that could be scribbled upon. When the patchwork records had been finally quilted together in a sensible piece, the congress of detectives were astonished to see how much the unnervingly placid man had detailed. Even the events leading up to his surrender, arrest and imprisonment had been immaculately described with astonishing correctness. Nothing escaped his whist observation.

The man wore it like a haggard suit heavy over his flesh. His eyes were exhausted—run ragged from constant watch— listless and dull, grey and colorless, desperate for a polishing beneath his eyelids which never, ever closed. For each second his eyes tick-tocked away, his mind was equally at work, pulling countless streams of facts and truths in for further dissection. All with the most disquieting quiet. It was this quiet and his shifty, lifeless eyes that made everyone fear him. Where he said nothing, those damnable eyes spoke volumes. Secrets were his to know, and sins known only by sinner and by God, he reveled in.

None of which had anything to do with his trip to the clink. It was the fires that they locked him up for. That was his sin. He’d watched half of San Jose burn before his arrest. Now he was a guest of Alcatraz, as his records claimed would eventually happen. Here he was kept under almost as equal surveillance as he kept everything else. This was due, in part because of the final detail Puddin’ had listed prior to his arrest:

A day’ll come when all the Rock’s crawlers will recognize me as less a spook and more a tool. When this happens, don’t blame them. It will have been my fault. On this day I will have observed all I need of the inside to know how to walk out. It is possible. I know it is. The specifics escape me now, but they won’t. Not forever.

He’d had the specifics for months now. He’d only waited for the crawlers to catch up. Puddin’ sat his slop tray down and pulled a leg over the bench to sit down. Before he had nestled himself into place, the other convicts cleared out as they always did, afraid the silent spook might use their darkest against them. All except one.

Puddin’ smiled. Today was the day that men escaped Alcatraz.

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