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The Neverending Story, Page 2

Michael Ende

  But when he now passed through the echoing corridors with their smell of floor wax and wet overcoats, when the lurking stillness suddenly stopped his ears like cotton, and when at last he reached the door of his classroom, which was painted the same old spinach color as the walls around it, he realized that this, too, was no place for him. He would have to go away. So he might as well go at once.

  But where to?

  Bastian had read stories about boys who ran away to sea and sailed out into the world to make their fortune. Some became pirates or heroes, others grew rich and when they returned home years later no one could guess who they were.

  But Bastian didn’t feel up to that kind of thing. He couldn’t conceive of anyone taking him on as a cabin boy. Besides, he had no idea how to reach a seaport with suitable ships for such an undertaking.

  So where could he go?

  Suddenly he thought of the right place, the only place where—at least for the time being—no one would find him or even look for him.

  The attic of the school was large and dark. It smelled of dust and mothballs. Not a sound to be heard, except for the muffled drumming of the rain on the enormous tin roof. Great beams blackened with age rose at regular intervals from the plank floor, joined with other beams at head height, and lost themselves in the darkness. Here and there spider webs as big as hammocks swayed gently in the air currents. A milky light fell from a skylight in the roof.

  The one living thing in this place where time seemed to stand still was a little mouse that came hobbling across the floor, leaving tiny footprints in the dust—and between them a fine line, a tailprint. Suddenly it stopped and pricked up its ears. And then it vanished—whoosh!—into a hole in the floor.

  The mouse had heard the sound of a key in a big lock. The attic door opened slowly, with a loud squeak. For a moment a long strip of light crossed the room. Bastian slipped in. Then, again with a squeak, the door closed. Bastian put the big key in the lock from inside and turned it. Then he pushed the bolt and heaved a sigh of relief. Now no one could possibly find him. No one would look for him here. The place was seldom used—he was pretty sure of that—and even if by chance someone had something to do in the attic, today or tomorrow, he would simply find the door locked. And the key would be gone. And even if they somehow got the door open, Bastian would have time to hide behind the junk that was stored here.

  Little by little, his eyes got used to the dim light. He knew the place. Some months before, he had helped the janitor to carry a laundry basket full of old copybooks up here. And then he had seen where the key to the attic door was kept—in a wall cupboard next to the topmost flight of stairs. He hadn’t thought of it since. But today he had remembered.

  Bastian began to shiver, his coat was soaked through and it was cold in the attic. The first thing to do was find a place where he could make himself more or less comfortable, because he took it for granted that he’d have to stay here a long time. How long? The question didn’t enter his head, nor did it occur to him that he would soon be hungry and thirsty.

  He looked around for a while. The place was crammed with junk of all kinds; there were shelves full of old files and records, benches and ink-stained desks were heaped up every which way, a dozen old maps were hanging on an iron frame, there were blackboards that had lost a good deal of their black, and cast-iron stoves, broken-down pieces of gymnasium equipment—including a horse with the stuffing coming out through the cracks in its hide—and a number of soiled mats. There were also quite a few stuffed animals—at least what the moths had left of them—a big owl, a golden eagle, a fox, and so on, cracked retorts and other chemical equipment, a galvanometer, a human skeleton hanging on a clothes rack, and a large number of cartons full of old books and papers. Bastian finally decided to make his home on the pile of old gym mats. When he stretched out on them, it was almost like lying on a sofa. He dragged them to the place under the skylight where the light was best. Not far away he found a pile of gray army blankets; they were dusty and ragged but that didn’t matter now. He carried them over to his nest. He took off his wet coat and hung it on the clothes rack beside the skeleton. The skeleton jiggled and swayed, but Bastian had no fear of it, maybe because he was used to such things at home. He also removed his wet shoes. In his stocking feet he squatted down on the mats and wrapped himself in the gray blankets like an Indian. Beside him lay his school satchel—and the copper-colored book.

  It passed through his mind that the rest of them down in the classroom would be having history just then. Maybe they’d be writing a composition on some deadly dull subject.

  Bastian looked at the book.

  “I wonder,” he said to himself, “what’s in a book while it’s closed. Oh, I know it’s full of letters printed on paper, but all the same, something must be happening, because as soon as I open it, there’s a whole story with people I don’t know yet and all kinds of adventures and deeds and battles. And sometimes there are storms at sea, or it takes you to strange cities and countries. All those things are somehow shut up in a book. Of course you have to read it to find out. But it’s already there, that’s the funny thing. I just wish I knew how it could be.”

  Suddenly an almost festive mood came over him.

  He settled himself, picked up the book, opened it to the first page, and began to read

  The Neverending Story

  ll the beasts in Howling Forest were safe in their caves, nests, and burrows.

  It was midnight, the storm wind was whistling through the tops of the great ancient trees. The towering trunks creaked and groaned.

  Suddenly a faint light came zigzagging through the woods, stopped here and there, trembling fitfully, flew up into the air, rested on a branch, and a moment later hurried on. It was a glittering sphere about the size of a child’s ball; it moved in long leaps, touched the ground now and then, then bounded up again. But it wasn’t a ball.

  It was a will-o’-the-wisp. It had lost its way. And that’s something quite unusual even in Fantastica, because ordinarily will-o’-the-wisps make others lose their way.

  Inside this ball of light there was a small, exceedingly active figure, which ran and jumped with all its might. It was neither male nor female, for such distinctions don’t exist among will-o’-the-wisps. In its right hand it carried a tiny white flag, which glittered behind it. That meant it was either a messenger or a flag-of-truce bearer.

  You’d think it would have bumped into a tree, leaping like that in the darkness, but there was no danger of that, for will-o’-the-wisps are incredibly nimble and can change directions in the middle of a leap. That explains the zigzagging, but in a general sort of way it moved in a definite direction.

  Up to the moment when it came to a jutting crag and started back in a fright.

  Whimpering like a puppy, it sat down on the fork of a tree and pondered awhile before venturing out and cautiously looking around the crag.

  Up ahead it saw a clearing in the woods, and there in the light of a campfire sat three figures of different sizes and shapes. A giant, who looked as if the whole of him were made of gray stone, lay stretched out on his belly. He was almost ten feet long. Propped up on one elbow, he was looking into the fire. In his weather-beaten stone face, which seemed strangely small in comparison with his powerful shoulders, his teeth stood out like a row of steel chisels. The will-o’-the-wisp recognized him as belonging to the family of rock chewers. These were creatures who lived in a mountain range inconceivably far from Howling Forest—but they not only lived in the mountain range, they also lived on it, for little by little they were eating it up. Rocks were their only food. Luckily a little went a long way. They could live for weeks and months on a single bite of this—for them—extremely nutritious fare. There weren’t very many rock chewers, and besides it was a large mountain range. But since these giants had been there a long time—they lived to a greater age than most of the inhabitants of Fantastica—those mountains had come, over the years, to look very strange—like
an enormous Swiss cheese, full of holes and grottoes. And that is why they were known as the Cheesiewheezies.

  But the rock chewers not only fed on stone, they made everything they needed out of it: furniture, hats, shoes, tools, even cuckoo clocks. So it was not surprising that the vehicle of this particular giant, which was now leaning against a tree behind him, was a sort of bicycle made entirely of this material, with two wheels that looked like enormous millstones. On the whole, it suggested a steamroller with pedals.

  The second figure, who was sitting to the right of the first, was a little night-hob.

  No more than twice the size of the will-o’-the-wisp, he looked like a pitch-black, furry caterpillar sitting up. He had little pink hands, with which he gestured violently as he spoke, and below his tousled black hair two big round eyes glowed like moons in what was presumably his face.

  Since there were night-hobs of all shapes and sizes in every part of Fantastica, it was hard to tell by the sight of him whether this one had come from far or near. But one could guess that he was traveling, because the usual mount of the night-hobs, a large bat, wrapped in its wings like a closed umbrella, was hanging head-down from a nearby branch.

  It took the will-o’-the-wisp some time to discover the third person on the left side of the fire, for he was so small as to be scarcely discernible from that distance. He was one of the tinies, a delicately built little fellow in a bright-colored suit and a top hat.

  The will-o’-the-wisp knew next to nothing about tinies. But it had once heard that these people built whole cities in the branches of trees and that the houses were connected by stairways, rope ladders, and ramps. But the tinies lived in an entirely different part of the boundless Fantastican Empire, even farther away than the rock chewers. Which made it all the more amazing that the mount which had evidently carried the tiny all this way was, of all things, a snail. Its pink shell was surmounted by a gleaming silver saddle, and its bridle, as well as the reins fastened to its feelers, glittered like silver threads.

  The will-o’-the-wisp couldn’t get over it that three such different creatures should be sitting there so peacefully, for harmony between different species was by no means the rule in Fantastica. Battles and wars were frequent, and certain of the species had been known to feud for hundreds of years. Moreover, not all the inhabitants of Fantastica were good and honorable, there were also thieving, wicked, and cruel ones. The will-o’-the-wisp itself belonged to a family that was hardly reputed for truthfulness or reliability.

  After observing the scene in the firelight for some time, the will-o’-the-wisp noticed that each of the three had something white, either a flag or a white scarf worn across his chest. Which meant that they were messengers or flag-of-truce bearers, and that of course accounted for the peaceful atmosphere.

  Could they be traveling on the same business as the will-o’-the-wisp?

  What they were saying couldn’t be heard from a distance because of the howling wind in the treetops. But since they respected one another as messengers, mightn’t they recognize the will-o’-the-wisp in the same capacity and refrain from harming him? It had to ask someone the way, and there seemed little likelihood of finding a better opportunity at this hour in the middle of the woods. So plucking up courage, it ventured out of its hiding place and hovered trembling in mid-air, waving its white flag.

  The rock chewer, whose face was turned in that direction, was first to notice the will-o’-the-wisp.

  “Lots of traffic around here tonight,” he crackled. “Here comes another one.”

  “Hoo, it’s a will-o’-the-wisp,” whispered the night-hob, and his moon eyes glowed. “Pleased to meet you!”

  The tiny stood up, took a few steps toward the newcomer, and chirped: “If my eyes don’t deceive me, you are here as a messenger.”

  “Yes indeed,” said the will-o’-the-wisp.

  The tiny removed his red top hat, made a slight bow, and twittered: “Oh, do join us. We, too, are messengers. Won’t you be seated?”

  And with his hat he motioned toward an empty place by the fire.

  “Many thanks,” said the will-o’-the-wisp, coming timidly closer.

  “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Blubb.”

  “Delighted,” said the tiny. “Mine is Gluckuk.”

  The night-hob bowed without getting up. “My name is Vooshvazool.”

  “And mine,” the rock chewer crackled, “is Pyornkrachzark.”

  All three looked at the will-o’-the-wisp, who was wriggling with embarrassment.

  Will-o’-the-wisps find it most unpleasant to be looked full in the face.

  “Won’t you sit down, dear Blubb?” said the tiny.

  “To tell the truth,” said the will-o’-the-wisp, “I’m in a terrible hurry. I only wanted to ask if by any chance you knew the way to the Ivory Tower.”

  “Hoo,” said the night-hob. “Could you be going to see the Childlike Empress?”

  “Exactly,” said the will-o’-the-wisp. “I have an important message for her.”

  “What does it say?” the rock chewer crackled.

  “But you see,” said the will-o’-the-wisp, shifting its weight from foot to foot, “it’s a secret message.”

  “All three of us—hoo—have the same mission as you,” replied Vooshvazool, the night-hob. “That makes us partners.”

  “Maybe we even have the same message,” said Gluckuk, the tiny.

  “Sit down and tell us,” Pyornkrachzark crackled.

  The will-o’-the-wisp sat down in the empty place.

  “My home,” it began after a moment’s hesitation, “is a long way from here. I don’t know if any of those present has heard of it. It’s called Moldymoor.”

  “Hoo!” cried the night-hob delightedly. “A lovely country!”

  The will-o’-the-wisp smiled faintly.

  “Yes, isn’t it?”

  “Is that all you have to say, Blubb?” Pyornkrachzark crackled. “What is the purpose of your trip?”

  “Something has happened in Moldymoor,” said the will-o’-the-wisp haltingly, “something impossible to understand. Actually, it’s still happening. It’s hard to describe—the way it began was—well, in the east of our country there’s a lake—that is, there was a lake—Lake Foamingbroth we called it. Well, the way it began was like this. One day Lake Foamingbroth wasn’t there anymore—it was gone. See?”

  “You mean it dried up?” Gluckuk inquired.

  “No,” said the will-o’-the-wisp. “Then there’d be a dried-up lake. But there isn’t.

  Where the lake used to be there’s nothing—absolutely nothing. Now do you see?”

  “A hole?” the rock chewer grunted.

  “No, not a hole,” said the will-o’-the-wisp despairingly. “A hole, after all, is something. This is nothing at all.”

  The three other messengers exchanged glances.

  “What—hoo—does this nothing look like?” asked the night-hob.

  “That’s just what’s so hard to describe,” said the will-o’-the-wisp unhappily. “It doesn’t look like anything. It’s—it’s like—oh, there’s no word for it.”

  “Maybe,” the tiny suggested, “when you look at the place, it’s as if you were blind.”

  The will-o’-the-wisp stared openmouthed.

  “Exactly!” it cried. “But where—I mean how—I mean, have you had the same. ..?”

  “Wait a minute,” the rock chewer crackled. “Was it only this one place?”

  “At first, yes,” the will-o’-the-wisp explained. “That is, the place got bigger little by little. And then all of a sudden Foggle, the father of the frogs, who lived in Lake Foamingbroth with his family, was gone too. Some of the inhabitants started running away. But little by little the same thing happened to other parts of Moldymoor. It usually started with just a little chunk, no bigger than a partridge egg. But then these chunks got bigger and bigger. If somebody put his foot into one of them by mistake, the foot—or hand—or whatever else he
put in—would be gone too. It didn’t hurt—it was just that a part of whoever it was would be missing. Some would even fall in on purpose if they got too close to the Nothing. It has an irresistible attraction—the bigger the place, the stronger the pull. None of us could imagine what this terrible thing might be, what caused it, and what we could do about it. And seeing that it didn’t go away by itself but kept spreading, we finally decided to send a messenger to the Childlike Empress to ask her for advice and help. Well, I’m the messenger.”

  The three others gazed silently into space.

  After a while, the night-hob sighed: “Hoo! It’s the same where I come from. And I’m traveling on the exact same errand—hoo hoo!”

  The tiny turned to the will-o’-the-wisp. “Each one of us,” he chirped, “comes from a different province of Fantastica. We’ve met here entirely by chance. But each one of us is going to the Childlike Empress with the same message.”

  “And the message,” grated the rock chewer, “is that all Fantastica is in danger.”

  The will-o’-the-wisp cast a terrified look at each one in turn.

  “If that’s the case,” it cried, jumping up, “we haven’t a moment to lose.”

  “We were just going to start,” said the tiny. “We only stopped to rest because it’s so awfully dark here in Howling Forest. But now that you’ve joined us, Blubb, you can light the way.”

  “Impossible,” said the will-o’-the-wisp. “Would you expect me to wait for someone who rides a snail? Sorry.”

  “But it’s a racing snail,” said the tiny, somewhat miffed.

  “Otherwise—hoo hoo—” the night-hob sighed, “we won’t tell you which way to go.”

  “Who are you people talking to?” the rock chewer crackled.

  And sure enough, the will-o’-the-wisp hadn’t even heard the other messengers’ last words, for it was already flitting through the forest in long leaps.