2013 – Kukloj – or the Rings at Europia

Made for the 2013 Sketchbook Project.

A painting hangs on my bedroom wall. It was painted by Steph Harmon, a dear friend of mine.
To me it always looks like a map of – something, a place I’d like to visit some day…
This sketchbook gave me the opportunity to try just that.
I like bookbinding – even though I’m a total amateur – so I decided to rebind my sketchbook.

Watch it in the Digital Library.


~ Monday, April 11th, 19xx ~

The city is quieter than I remember from earlier visits. The streets seem wider, the buildings more forlorn than before. The taxi drops me off in front of the hotel. I pay the driver and he unceremoniously dumps my single suitcase on the sidewalk.
Before I walk inside, I stand and breathe deeply. There’s a slight breeze, the hint of lemon scented soap, a small bell rings in the distance.
I never really noticed the façade of the hotel before; “Pentaklia Logia” in cast iron letters, the stylized carvings of birds and stars, the austere grid the window frames make.
A soft-spoken receptionist takes my details and hands me my room key – 311. Waiting in the elevator for the doors to close I notice someone sitting in one of the hotel lobby’s old leather chairs: a woman reading a small book. She’s perhaps a few years older than me, with very pale skin and long dark hair. There’s something anachronistic about the dark green dress she’s wearing. As the doors close, she looks up and meets my gaze.
In my room I open the balcony doors. From here I can see the quiet blanket of the city, the river and the Kukloj hill in the distance.
Fully dressed I flop onto the bed and drift off into dreamless sleep.


~ Tuesday, April 12th, 19xx ~

Our guide is called Hermej – with a ‘J’. I know because he spelled it out for us. Several times.
We are in the back of an old, off-white minivan and we’re slowly making our way through the outskirts of Europia. I’m wedged between the young American couple on one side and the elderly Brazilian lady on the other side. She’s reading, they are softly arguing.
The woman I saw in the hotel lobby is not among us, but all the other passengers seem to be staying in the Pentaklia Loggia.
After the bridge comes an industrial estate, then warehouses and a huge power station. After that some fields and for an hour nothing but brown, rolling hills. Kukloj hill gets closer and closer. I can make out the ridges that shape its unusual octagonal crown. Soon the minivan starts a tortuous climb up the hill. As we park in a dusty lot, I can see dark clouds rolling in from the north. A cold wind precedes them. Hermej counts his customers and then takes us up the hill.
The first ring startles me. It lies vast and dark, cradled in a flat area scooped from the hill-side. The ring is a wide, shallow ditch, filled with sharp black rocks. It’s so much bigger than I imagined, it has so much more presence. The cold wind blasts through my coat and I feel nauseous.
Hermej hands out tea-lights in blue containers. As we light them and place them around the ring we witness the first miracle; in minutes wiry green plants sprout all over the black ring, bearing tiny yellow flowers.

When I came back to the hotel,

I found a small pouch hanging from the door handle.
It held a toad, carved in heavy black stone.
What does this mean?


~ Wednesday, April 13th, 19xx ~

My second night in the hotel is restless, punctuated by rolling thunder and lashing showers that rattle the windows. Every time I wake, the tiny toad figurine stares up at me from the bedside table.
Bleary-eyed I make my way down to the breakfast room. The only other occupants are my fellow ring
visitors. There’s drinking of bad coffee, small talk and sweet pastry. The young American couple is not at breakfast, but there’s a glum-looking young man I haven’t seen before.
As we leave for the hills, the showers stop. And as we cross the green metal bridge across the river, the clouds break and the sun comes out. Hermej keeps calling it ‘Elektri Kuklo’ but neither of us can discover anything electrical about the second ring. It lies bathing in sunlight on the hill, at the same elevation as the black ring. The view from here is soothing; rolling hills in gold and tan as far as the eye can see.
This ring is easily as huge as the black one, but whereas that was a circular ditch, this one is a shallow bank.
The bare earth is stained bright yellow and pieces of amber lie strewn about; there’s tiny shining beads, rough chunks of the stuff and many bird-shaped figurines. Piles of tiny bones and skulls are arranged in bright white lines along the top of the bank. Small golden shields surround the ring and just as the Brazilian lady remarks “how do these stay so shiny?”, some very old local men arrive with rags and grease and start polishing the shields.
We wander around for hours, taking pictures and having lunch. I chance upon Hermej at the edge of the field and ask him “is there no miracle here, Hermej?”. He smiles and points to himself “I am the miracle here!”.

A Polaroid picture was shoved underneath my room door.
It shows me in the hallway, in profile, a suitcase at my feet.
Who took it? And why didn’t I notice?
There’s a number written on the back: 211.


~ Thursday, April 14th, 19xx ~

There’s six people in the breakfast room this morning; the American couple, looking fresh and happy, the Brazilian lady, sharing a table with the elderly man with the cane and the girl with dark curls who always seems to read. And me. Something seems odd but it takes a while before I can put my finger on it: the cutlery is different from yesterday. And it’s not the shape; same long handles, same floral details. No, it’s the material. Yesterdays cutlery was shiny and silver, today’s is copper and dull. I seem to be the only one to notice.
A huge group of Chinese tourists has gathered around a bus on the parking lot at Kukloj hill. Their female guide is explaining something in Mandarin and handing out white paper bags.
Hermej parks at the other end of the lot and takes us on a short walk to the third ring. It turns out to be the biggest yet, a flat expanse of overlapping copper plates in all shapes and sizes. Some are new and shiny, some corroded and old. Here and there are circular hatches, like those in a Jules Verne submarine. Copper bowls around the outer rim hold a fine ocher powder.
Walking on the ring, our footsteps make it sound like a gong. Through one of the open hatches I see dark water – it appears that the copper plates cover a vast and deep moat. Suddenly the ring feels heavy and somehow improbable.
Hermej shows us how to perform the miracle: he takes a handful of ocher powder and throws it in the nearest open hatch. As we gather round the opening, hundreds upon hundreds of horseshoe crabs swim up and start eating the powder. We spend the rest of the afternoon teasing crabs from one hatch to the other.

Before dinner I went to room 211.
After pacing up and down the hallway, I knocked on the door. Lightly. Nobody answered.
On a cleaning cart near the door was a pile of small copper rings, like curtain rings.

I took a handful of them.


~ Friday, April 15th, 19xx ~

I awake to half remembered dreams of swimming in dark water. By the slanting beams of sunlight I can tell that it’s well into the morning. I’ve probably missed breakfast.
In the hotel lobby Hermej is handing out packed lunches. The same little group as yesterday has gathered, minus the Brazilian lady.
Maybe it’s the bright sunlight, maybe it’s because Hermej washed the windows of the minivan, but all the colors seem extra vivid today; the river is bright green, the clouds a million shades of white. The curly-haired girl reads a slim paperback. It has the title in Hebrew and a picture of a wizard on the cover. I ask her what she’s reading. “The Tempest” she answers, “Shakespeare, it’s wonderful!”.
The old man next to her nods and says “Hail! Many colored messenger…”. She smiles, “you’ve read it?”. “Ja, a long, long time ago”.
The fourth ring is a short walk from the parking lot, just beyond yesterdays copper ring. It’s a low annular dais, covered with bright mosaics in blue, red, purple, green and gold. Dotted around the ring are pedestals with statues of a seated, bearded man wearing a toga. The statues are painted in bright colors. Dozens of peacocks walk all over the dais, and peck at the dusty ground around it.
I sit down against one of the pedestals, dizzy from the shimmering mosaics and the swirling patterns the peacocks make. In the end it’s the old German who figures out the miracle of the fourth ring: he squats in front of one of the peacocks, points at it and exclaims “cake!”. The peacock squawks and from its tiny beak a translucent bubble escapes that floats up into the air. Not unlike a soap-bubble, but with the twisting, waving image of a cake in its center. Soon bubbles with a myriad of pictures, signs and symbols fill the multicolored sky.

That evening, as I try to get a can of ‘Frutamiks’ from the vending machine in the hall, the dark-haired woman walks by. She smiles and says “it only takes the smallest coins”. She speaks with an accent, but I can’t quite place it…


~ Saturday, April 16th, 19xx ~

Her name is Melanie and she’s from Port Lincoln, Australia. Her son Andrew is a slow learner and her daughter Sandy is a great swimmer. The divorce was messy but now things are getting smoother with her ex. This is her first trip to Europe. In fact it’s the first time she’s been outside Australia, on her own. She told me all this, and more, in the short time we’ve walked around the fifth ring.
When our small group gathered in front of the hotel this morning (just the Brazilian lady, the elderly German, Melanie and me), Europia was still hushed by dawn. Avenues of dark mist. Pigeons asleep on lintels. The road to the hills was deserted, but just across the bridge we passed the scene of an accident. Two crumpled cars off the edge of the road, a tow-truck and a police car. No flashing lights, no movement.
Hermej switched the radio on and we listened to a far away women’s choir singing traditional songs. “I will wait for you at the van” Hermej says after parking, “the ring is not far, follow the white signs.” We find the ring easily; it lies a little to the east of the peacock ring, on a broad hillside terrace.
The fifth ring is very wide – an expanse of silvery white sand, surrounded by small sandstone boulders. Slim white birch trees grow outside the ring. Most peculiar however are the skeletons displayed on the ring. The bright white bones are carefully arranged. I recognize a horse, an elephant, a horned sheep and several rhinoceroses. There’s many more that I don’t recognize: an enormous fish, a two-headed snake, a cross between a turtle and a large dog.
Melanie hugs herself, “this place gives me the chills”. I shrug and say “it’s not that bad, right?”. Nevertheless a shiver runs down my spine, is it the morning chill or the dead silence?
We never discover the miracle at the silver ring.

Back in my room the balcony doors are wide open and the room is cold.
As I go to close the doors, I noticesomething on the balcony railing that wasn’t there before: a shiny metal key. It looks like an old door key.


~ Monday, April 18th, 19xx ~

Yesterday was a day off, so I wandered around Europia. I got pleasantly lost in the historical center, saw a parade of boys and girls in white shirts and green shorts and bought a stack of ancient postcards at a bustling indoor market.
By the end of the day I crossed the river and walked around a huge, gray district of windswept streets, boarded-up shops and apartment highrises. I bought some fried and salted pastry at a street vendor and made my way back to the hotel.
It’s just the three of us this morning, so we share a breakfast table and introduce ourselves proper: the surly looking young man is called Sylvain, the reading girls name is Deborah. She appears to have finished ‘The Tempest’. There’s a good deal of stolen glances and clumsily passing the marmalade between them.
The red ring lies low, at the side of the hill away from the city. This ring is the smallest yet and intersects one of the peculiar straight edges of the hill. The center is dome-shaped, like a tiny Kukloj hill. Rickety wooden tables and a wild variety of chairs surround the ring.
We spend the first couple of minutes in stunned silence – staring at a sprawling miniature city. Tiny houses, towers, city walls and castles, all topped with red roof tiles, cover the rings’ surface. Up close the attention to detail is staggering: minute wooden doors adorned with elaborate carvings, winding streets cobbled with stones the size of rice grains, an ancient hall with stained glass windows as delicate as jewelry. There are statues of cockerels and pelicans on squares and street corners.
Old men start arriving at the ring – some alone, some in groups. They occupy the tables and unpack impressive amounts of small tools. I pick an empty chair and watch two men build a diminutive clock tower; one bakes bricks in a table-top kiln, the other builds a frame from pencil sized timbers. As we leave for the van, I see the pale woman from the hotel passing around the ring, handing out cups of tea to the craftsmen.

Back in my room the balcony doors are wide open and the room is cold.
As I go to close the doors, I noticesomething on the balcony railing that wasn’t there before: a shiny metal key. It looks like an old door key.


~ Tuesday, April 19th, 19xx ~

I spent most of the night reading the book I took from room 211. Or rather: looking at the pictures and getting very puzzled by the few words that I manage to translate with my travelers dictionary. The story (if it actually is one) appears to be set in Europia itself; I think I recognize some of the buildings in the handsome engravings. The main protagonist could be a young woman, looking for a bird (or an airplane, but as it was printed in 1895 that seems unlikely).
Perhaps I should feel guilty over taking the book – but I don’t. It felt more like collecting a delivery than stealing a beloved possession.
The excursion to the seventh ring won’t be until tonight so I sleep in and skip breakfast. In the afternoon I stroll into town and have a late lunch on Palast Promenaj, near the ruins of the Temple. Just before sunset Melanie and me join Hermej in the minivan. The van is packed with other passengers: locals as well as tourists from other hotels. The atmosphere is vibrant and festive; when we pass the power station, the locals burst out in song, lean out of the windows of the van and wave purple flags with birds on them. Other cars join in with their horns, people on the back of a flatbed truck in front of us stand up and start dancing.
The air over the seventh ring is wavering, filled with sparks and loud music. The wide ditch is filled with burning logs – small breaks in the raging ring of fire allow access to the center where a mass of people dance and sing around a raised platform. As night falls I surrender to the heat, the music, the endless dance that goes from slow and formal to wildly stamping the ground and back again. Everything becomes a bright, bright blur.
Near daybreak a tall, bearded man in a purple robe steps up to the platform and throws handfuls of white dust in the air from a large golden urn. The dust ignites – an enormous bird of purple fire soars from the ring of fire. We cheer and yell.

The receptionist at the hotel hands me a folded note before I stumble into the elevator.

It reads: “I’d like my book back. Please bring it to Kukloj tomorrow. S.”


~ Wednesday, April 20th, 19xx ~

Tomorrow my plane leaves and today will be my last day at Kukloj hill. The eighth ring – I don’t know what to expect. In the lobby I tell Hermej that I’d rather walk to Kukloj hill today. “Are you sure? It will take hours and it’s going to be hot today!”. “Thanks Hermej, yes – I’m very sure.” He smiles at me and shakes my hand. “Good luck, going to the eighth Kuklo alone is what we used to do in the old days.” I pack the book, some lunch and a bottle of water and I set out for the distant hills.
Hermej did not exaggerate; it is indeed a very long walk and the heat is relentless. Sweating and with a pounding head I make my way along the deserted road. By midday I take a break at the foot of the hills. A ruined building by the side of the road offers some shade. I sit down among the rubble and the lizards, drink some water and leaf through the small book. I stare again at the picture where the young woman is holding up a shining rock. Only now do I notice that there are lizards on the ground at her feet and on the crumbling wall behind her.
The second half turns out to be harder; uphill, dusty, glaring light. It’s like walking into the sun. By the end of the afternoon I arrive at Kukloj hill parking lot. A tiny yellow car is parked in a corner. There’s nobody around. An hour later I round the hill and I’m finally there; the eighth ring. It’s huge, an improbable band of gold. There’s a solitary figure in the center, waving at me. She wears a yellow dress, a large straw hat and sandals. As I step on the golden surface I nearly trip; it’s not solid at all! I’m up to my ankles in a warm, golden liquid. I wade and then swim across the circular golden river.
She helps me onto dry land – her skin is very cool. I reach inside my bag and pull out the book. It’s completely dry but the cover has turned from dark green to burnished gold. “I’m sorry I took your book…”.
She cocks her head and looks at me. “I left it to be taken”, she says, “I knew it would return.”
The last rays of the sun dance across the hills.

She takes me back to Europia in the small yellow car.
As she parks in front of the hotel, she turns towards me and says “my name is Sophia”.

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