The Apprentice by Lewis Libby takes place in a remote mountain inn in northernmost Japan, where a raging blizzard has brought together wayfarers who share only fear and suspicion of one another. It is the winter of 1903, the country is beset with smallpox and war is brewing with Russia.
In the flickering shadows of the crowded room, the apprentice, charged with running the inn during the owner's absence, finds himself strongly attracted to one of the performers lodged there. His involvement with the mysterious travelers plunges him headlong into murder, passion and heart-stopping chases through the snow.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|File size:||259 KB|
About the Author
Lewis Libby is the current Chief-of-Staff and National Security Advisor to Vice President Cheney and Assistant to President Bush. He previously held positions at the U. S. Departments of State and Defense. The Apprentice, originally published by Graywolf in hardcover, is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Lewis Libby
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Lewis Libby
All rights reserved.
On the edge of a ridge removed from the sea lay a small wooden inn half-buried in snow. Four hooded figures, grunting against the storm, struggled unbidden into its darkened entry. Snow swirled in around them, and the clouds of their breath were torn away.
The tallest of the four bore upon his back a wicker trunk, and this he lowered awkwardly until his upper body collapsed upon it. A hunched, dwarf-like figure dropped with a cry to the earthen floor beside the trunk and huddled shivering and bobbing its head. A short girl-child stumbled over the dwarf and sat heavily against a platform at the edge of the entry. The last of the four pulled jerkily at the wood slat door to shut out the storm.
A pale light approached from the recesses of the inn, and a broken female voice, deadened by the wind and the wooden walls, called out to the entry. Soon a middle-aged maid appeared, holding an oil lamp before her. She shuffled hurriedly to the very edge of the wooden platform and, although barely an arm's length away, thrust the light out into the air.
Shouting above the storm, the woman asked the four wayfarers if they had passed through a village with the pox. She bent her body forward and peered from face to face to read their answers. The lamp, shaking in her hand, cast a yellow globe of light that caught the snow settling in the air and lit the near side of the wayfarers. Their shadows moved against the walls.
The tall man slumped over the trunk said they had been to no place with the pox, nor was there disease among them. Then he straightened and called upon the woman to vouch the same and breathed upon his hands as if to warm them.
Raising the lamp to the side to see better, the middle-aged woman named several villages in particular, and the tall man shook his head at each and swore they had avoided them all and others farther south where the pox was found. With the movement of the light, the shadows rushed across his face so that his features, like liquid, seemed for an instant to rise and fall.
To the side of the entryway stood a steep, unlit set of stairs. Crouching in the dark at the top, a youthful apprentice to the inn looked down at the wayfarers and tried to judge their answers true or false. He looked at the man and the huddled dwarf and at the tiny girl-child slumped on the platform, and in the moment that he looked at the last of the four, the outer door closed against the storm and a girl turned back into the room.
The girl wore a matted fur cloak the color of a yellow dog. She tilted back her head and shook off the snow-covered hood, and the lamplight caught the bottom of her nose and parts of her eyes and the bridge of her forehead. She put the backs of her hands to her cheeks.
It occurred to the youth in the dark at the top of the staircase that none of them knew he was there.
The wayfarers turned their heads suddenly and looked toward the outer door, and the youth saw that it shook violently from a gust of the storm. Snow blew in through cracks in the wall and around the edges of the door and snow on the floor whipped up around the wayfarers' legs. They looked toward their shadows on the door and far wall long after the gust had passed.
The middle-aged maid had set the lamp down on the steps, and the girl who wore the cloak of yellow fur now moved closely over it. She wiped at her nose and held her hands near the flame, and the lamp lit the front of her body.
Then the girl reached into her mountain trousers and tugged at her clothing. The young apprentice could see the movements of her hand inside her pants.
Creeping silently to the very edge of the stairs, the youth crouched slowly down to get a better look. His mouth, inches from the floor, hung slightly open.
* * *
The apprentice entered the main room of the inn. Across from him a dozen wayfarers sat close upon one another, pressed around a firepit sunken into the floor. Not a word was passed among them. They hunched their shoulders and held their arms around themselves and bore all manner of clothing. They wore odd patches and patterns all but blackened, and some wore tattered leggings and some frayed mufflers or strips of wadded cotton wrapped around their heads, and one wore backward a European hat. The small fire before them filled the room with an acrid smell and cast a yellow-orange light on those huddled closest to it and on the faces of a few just beyond. Occasionally the light would catch the clouds of their breath in the cold.
The far corners of the room were in darkness except for one lamp and the glow of a few smokers' pipes. From one side came the indistinct sounds of men talking in low voices. Despite the cold, there was the smell of sweat and wet clothing.
As the apprentice drew closer to the firepit, he had difficulty stepping around those who lay in the shadows or sat huddled and rocking for warmth. He could see the tops of some faces and even the wetness of some men's eyes as they caught wisps of firelight. Struggling with his balance, he had to look down repeatedly into the darkness at his feet, and the obscure movements there gave him the sense that the floor itself was shifting.
The apprentice could not see if the girl who had worn the cloak of yellow fur was in the room. He glanced about quickly, for he knew those on the far side of the fire could see his eyes.
"You," an old man's voice said from the darkness near the apprentice's knee.
The apprentice could not make out the face of the man who had spoken only inches away. He tried to lean to the side so that the dim fireglow might catch the man's face; but each time he moved, the man, who seemed to misunderstand, moved with him.
"He wants to know when the snow will stop," a female voice to the side said, and then with a biting tone to the old man, "He doesn't know."
A narrow-faced man by the firepit had taken up a piece of wood and sat beating the end impatiently against the coals. He called to the apprentice, "How long before a new path is beaten north?"
"If the snow falls all night?" The youth tilted his head to the side. "Nearly a day to dig out," he said. "Probably another before there's a new path north."
There was a silence as the wayfarers listened to the storm strike against the sides of the inn. Some looked up into the darkness of the rafters. In scattered places the white of hoarfrost could be faintly seen clinging to the beams.
A spasm of coughing seized a form curled up on the floor beneath a thin blanket. Around this form like an island lay the only patch of empty floor. The cougher's head was turned downward into a wad of cloth to stifle the sound. A tattered blanket shifted as the cougher's legs convulsed.
At a sound the youth turned toward the blackness of the entryway. He hoped to see there the girl who had worn the cloak of yellow fur, but it was only the middle-aged maid Matsuko with her thick hips. She entered the room with a pile of worn cushions.
The youth looked into the emptiness after her, where the light of the fire did not reach. He did so, although he knew in truth there was no reason for the girl to be coming from the entry.
Even so, he liked the sudden feeling that came upon him at the thought that he might see her.
Some of the wayfarers began to grab at the cushions. The extra cushions would be from the storage room, the youth realized. He should have thought of getting them.
In the darkness beyond the firepit sat men who were headed north to tap the spring sap from lacquer trees. One with thick forearms had said that he knew the way north and that they would be leaving before a new path was broken. He said that anyone who wanted could come along. The narrow-faced man nodded as he turned part way toward them and examined the group more closely. Two of the tappers of lac were so deep in shadow they could barely be seen. The features of another, half-caught in slanted firelight, seemed distorted. The narrow-faced man hesitated, and then dipped his head and made an indecipherable sound. He turned back to the fire.
The tapper of lac with thick forearms snorted and whispered something to those just around him.
The woman Matsuko, on the verge of leaving the room, said that some travelers had been lost heading north the previous winter. She said that their bodies had not been found until spring, and that it would be safer to wait for the villagers to beat a new path. She nodded her head for emphasis.
It could be true, the youth knew. Yet he knew, too, that the woman would not want to lose an extra night with lodgers.
The tapper of lac had started to talk about bodies found in the snow. He said that he had once been fishing beside an avalanche site in spring, and that as the snow melted he had found a boot in the middle of camp. "We dug it out, and there was a man in it. Frozen. And bloated. He was upside down in the snow."
The tapper of lac leaned his head forward near the ear of the narrow-faced man and opened his eyes wide so they shone yellow in the firelight. "This is the strange part," he said, "as the snow melted, more bodies appeared. Each afternoon there'd be another one, sometimes two. Just popping out. Very spring-like."
"What did they have with them?" a man's voice said from the darkness, laughing.
The tapper ignored him. "When the bodies had been out a day or so they started to stink and we had to worry about wolves. So we dragged the bodies out onto the river."
"Did you get a reward when you turned their valuables in?" the voice from the darkness insisted, and laughed again. Peering there, the youth saw two hunters whom he had registered that morning. One, pox-faced, sat forward with his neck craned into the air.
This time the tapper laughed too. "The vultures had to struggle, because the insides were still frozen. At night some wolves began dragging the bodies all over the ice. Then the ice finally broke," he said, "and the fish got 'em." He paused and showed his yellow teeth. "They all ate better than we did."
The storyteller pushed himself back and the tappers of lac all laughed. Some of the guests by the fire peered more closely into the shadows, but the faces of the laughing tappers could not be clearly seen as they rocked back and forth and slapped one another on the arms.
The apprentice lowered his head. He had heard it said that in the famine years men would camp near avalanche sites in the spring to rob the dead. He avoided looking at the tappers of lac.
In the blackness beyond the fire lay the corridor that led toward the bath. It was there, the youth guessed, that the girl who had worn the cloak of yellow fur would likely be. He thought about her rising from the water.
The wayfarers gathered about the edge of the sunken firepit had begun to poke at the embers and press closer above the failing flame. In the growing darkness, even the faces of those just beyond had grown indistinct. The youth knew he would soon have to make a show of adding more wood.
* * *
"Performers," the woman Matsuko said again.
The youth, standing in the kitchen by the sink, regarded the thick, middle-aged cheeks of the maid with distaste.
"The new guests are performers," the woman had said as soon as he entered the kitchen.
The youth had regarded as a curiosity this unexpected bit of information, and he tried to bring together his image of performers with his image of the girl in the cloak of yellow fur.
In his mind's eye, he saw her vividly as he had first seen her, tilting back her head and putting the backs of her hands to her cheeks. He could still feel his confusion at the thought that she might look up to the top of the staircase and see him watching there.
Even moments later, he had not been sure why he had hidden at the top of the stairs. There was the girl, of course, but he had seen good-looking, even beautiful girls before and he had not acted so shamefully.
He knew that there were those who enjoyed merely staring at young girls, but he had no reason to believe that he was one of them. Such people, he thought, enjoy the idea of being caught and embarrassing the woman, while he had been greatly afraid. Besides, he had watched the tall man and Matsuko and the others as well, and he remembered the way the snow on the earthen floor had swept up and around their ankles from the last gust as the door had closed.
"They'll want to perform," the woman Matsuko said. She was splitting bits of pickled vegetables. Her cheeks shook with each cut. She stood over the warmth of the cooking stove, and clouds of steam rose around her.
The apprentice set down sharply some bowls to wash. He knew as well as Matsuko that he would have to make arrangements with the performers to share their earnings with the inn. It was one of his duties. She was reproving him for not having done it already.
"In the old days," she said after a moment, "we wouldn't have taken performers."
She was reproving him, too, for being new.
The apprentice, who came from a village farther north, had arrived only that fall, before the deep winter snows had buried the inn halfway to its eaves.
The youth listened to another gust hit the side of the inn. The storm was getting worse. He knew he would lose a day digging the inn out of it.
But it was the storm that had closed the coastal road and brought so many guests to the inn. It was the storm that had brought him the girl in the yellow cloak.
Turning from the sink, the youth saw the woman Matsuko just leaving the kitchen with a tray of sake for the guests in the main room. As she closed the door behind her, he caught a glimpse of the dim glow from the firepit.
The youth stood alone in the kitchen. He had bowls to wash. He looked around.
Off the entryway, just down the corridor, was a small room that was used as an office. In that room, not long before, Matsuko had registered the performers.
The youth stared at the door to the main room without seeing it and brought his fingers to his lips. The woman Matsuko might just set the tray down and return. But if she were detained by the guests, he would have time to check the register for the name of the girl who had worn the cloak of yellow fur.
He knew it was foolish to want to know the girl's name, and more foolish still to worry about Matsuko, but he would not normally take the time to go to the register with so much to be done, and he was afraid Matsuko might guess of his interest in the girl.
Still he hesitated. Even if she were delayed by the guests, he could not be sure that he would have time to get back to the kitchen before she returned.
But he wished to know the girl's name.
He heard the voice of a guest call out to Matsuko.
The youth opened the door to the corridor and crossed quickly to the office. The door at the other end slid open easily.
He turned the register toward him and read hurriedly up the page. The performers were the last to arrive and their names should have been easy to find. Yet their names were not there. He shook his head to clear it and, using his finger as a guide, read once again, more slowly, starting from the end. He checked the page before and the page behind and cursed and started to turn away when he saw a name out of place. Matsuko had written in the margin to save paper.
He read a man's name, Jiro Ueda, who might be the performer, but it read simply, "and three." They had paid for one night.
The youth replaced the register and hurried back toward the kitchen, closing the office door behind him, crossing the short corridor, trying to keep his footsteps quiet on the wood. The walls rushed by his eyes. He opened the door to the kitchen and stepped in.
Matsuko was squatting at the base of a cupboard, holding an old tray toward the light. The apprentice almost fell over her.
"The lacquer has cracked," she said. The crack and its shadow ran along the edge of the tray.
The apprentice bent to show his concern, but his breath still came too fast. He stepped instead to the other trays at the far end of the counter.
"Are any of the others?" he said.
"They are such nice trays. We've had them a long time."
The youth rubbed his palms on the sides of his legs. "I checked the register. For a moment I thought maybe we were wrong about the number for dinner."
The woman Matsuko nodded, still examining the tray. She picked at the crack with a thick fingernail.
"I forgot that old man and his wife."
Matsuko nodded again and, replacing the tray, put her hands on her thighs to push herself up.
"You must have a lot on your mind," the woman said, looking up at the youth.
The apprentice thought she looked at him oddly, but he said nothing. He turned to go to the main room to see to the guests.
Then he turned back. "I didn't see that dwarf in the register."
"It's there. And it better not foul the entryway. I charged them full rate for it."
"Do we feed it, too?"
"Oh no, I told them we wouldn't. The performer has two girls. He said they'd take care of it." The woman looked at the youth, "They're pretty girls. One was quite striking in the bath."
The youth felt uneasy hearing such things from Matsuko.
"What do I care what she looked like in the bath?" he said. His voice sounded high to him.
"I just thought you might like to know that she is pretty," Matsuko said, "in case you couldn't tell from the top of the staircase."
Excerpted from The Apprentice by Lewis Libby. Copyright © 2001 Lewis Libby. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I found The Apprentice by Lewis Libby by chance and since it looked interesting I decided to give it a try. The book is not "slow" in traditional terms of drawing out and over explaining things but there is little plot development and it feels more like you are reading a diary then a story. True it was hard to put down at times but with the end of each chapter you were not on the edge of your seat wondering what was going to happen next. Many mysteries arose during the story, most being left unanswered and no way to resolve then without the story containing more. The Apprentice was a new and original story just off mainstream that made it very interesting and a good read but made for a certain kind of person, not just anyone. Overall I enjoyed the book and closed it with a good feeling though still wondering about many unsolved mysteries that it contained. Great book for a weekend getaway or rainy day if there ever was one.
Libby has married a murder mystery, sex and japanese history (a smallpox epidemic). Wow! Simply not to be missed. Mr. L: where is the next one! We are waiting.
Libby is a genius at plot and tone. Really makes you feel like you are in turn of the century Japan, with all its bizarre rituals, and supersitution. One of my top 5 books ever. Cannot recommend it highly enough.