by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
Felix absentmindedly reached inside his bag. He squeezed the plastic with her shirt tenderly, before continuing in a pained, halting voice. “She died of leukemia a year ago. Her... her scent is still with me though.”
He pulled out the precious, shrink-wrapped relic and showed it to the priest. “It’s like I’ve vacuum-packed her ghost.”
“Oh, I am so sorry to hear that son,” Fr. Vladimir said sadly, “And I am sorry for intruding on your personal life again.”
“No, it’s alright,” Felix said. “I do like talking about her. It keeps her memory alive. Her life was all about that — keeping memories alive. She was an ethno-linguist, you see. After we came back from the U.S., we traveled around the provinces collecting stories from indigenous tribes. She had wanted to record them all before they faded away forever.”
“That is a worthy endeavor,” Fr. Vladimir said solemnly. “Oral traditions are important and they must be preserved.”
“That’s what she always told me,” the young man went on. “She used to dream about a giant computer somewhere in the clouds. It was a place where she could store all these dying stories. In my own dreams my wife keeps asking me to come and find her. I guess in a way I’ve been doing that ever since.”
“I have heard of such places,” the priest whispered, “at least in literature.”
“Anyway, going back to Beckett,” Felix continued, somewhat embarrassed he had revealed so much. “I was thinking about what you told me regarding synchronicity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m in a situation that’s just like the only play I can remember. I believe there’s some greater design at work here. In the tribal stories my wife collected, there’s always a man that goes on a quest to the land of the dead. Father, what if this wasn’t coincidence but synchronicity?”
“That’s... not how it works. How do you know,” the priest asked, “that you aren’t only looking at what you’re looking for? Besides, these Orpheus-type stories always end up in tragedy. Haven’t you suffered enough? She’s dead, my son. Let her go.”
“I can’t do that, Father,” the young man said, turning towards the darkness. “I have nothing but my faith left. I’m... scared out of my mind... but I have faith that this bus is where I need to be right now. I also have faith that I will find my beloved Dolores again, no matter how long it takes me.”
“‘Dolores’, what a lovely name,” Fr. Vladimir noted thoughtfully. “It means ‘sorrow’ in Spanish and your name ‘Felix’ means ‘happy’ in Latin. Happiness is searching for Sorrow. That is all so tragically poetic.”
Felix said nothing more and excused himself. He couldn’t tell if the priest was being sympathetic or condescending. He grabbed his messenger bag and moved again to the rear of the bus. After he sat down, he took out his phone once more and removed the battery. He warmed it in his hands, praying to St. Jude to give him one last burst of power. He returned the battery to his phone and hit the power button. It was still dead.
The bus continued on in the darkness. There were no other stops.
After their third cycle of sleep, Felix finally saw something that looked like a destination, a gigantic tower looming in the distance. As they got closer he realized that it looked oddly familiar. In fact, it looked exactly like something from his childhood prayer books: a picture of the Tower of Babel.
“Incredible!” Fr. Vladimir exclaimed. “It is Brueghel the Elder’s painting come to life!”
The digital signboard above the driver flashed three times. The words changed from “Non-Stop” to “The Infinite Library.” Finally, the bus came through the building’s soaring gates and came to a halt near a low parking garage. There was group of monkeys waiting with a notice board. The sign read: “Welcome Father Vladimir of Estragon, SJ — Semiotician, Philosopher and Dream Bibliographer.”
“I guess this is our stop,” the priest said cautiously.
“Father, those monkeys are dressed like people,” Felix said. “Who are they? What are they? What is this place?”
“Hmmm... our bus says we are at a place called the Infinite Library,” Fr. Vladimir noted.
“Those creatures... They seem to be expecting you,” Felix called out. A pang of suspicion began to gnaw at his mind. “Did you know we were headed here?”
“This is as much a surprise to me as it is to you, my son,” the old man answered. “But as it happens, I do know where we are. I first read about this place a very long time ago, when I was but a child. My family had a complete set of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia. It was all there, in a thick volume for the letter ‘I’, along with ‘India’, ‘Idiom’ and the ‘Immaculate Conception’. I remember that the ‘Infinite Library’ is where all that has ever been written and all that will ever be written has been recorded and preserved for all eternity. If that’s true, I cannot wait to step inside.”
The LED display flashed three times again before changing to “Please wait for the Return Bus.” All the lights powered down and the driver stepped out for a smoke. It was then that Felix realized that the man on the wheel was almost skeletally thin, a shadow of death himself.
The leader of the monkeys boarded the bus and greeted them in perfect, if archaic, English, one pregnant with meaning and epic formality. They extended an invitation for the old man to visit the library.
“I must follow my guides,” Fr. Vladimir said, collecting his luggage.
“What about me?” Felix asked. Though he was terrified of the strange creatures, the young man refused to be left alone in the dark. “You can’t leave me, Father, please.”
“You chose Option 2 did you not? That means you have a return ticket. Just wait for the bus to be ready,” the priest reminded him. “My son, I’m afraid that your grief is still very much in denial. Your beloved wife is gone. This is not your story, so go back to the real world. Find yourself someone else. Don’t let your tale end in tragedy.”
“No. There must be a reason I was brought here,” Felix insisted. “Take me with you please. Someone here may know how to find Dolores.”
“Well... I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t,” Fr. Vladimir said, turning to ask the monkeys for permission. “However if you miss your bus, you may not be able to go back.”
“I’ll take my chances,” the young man insisted.
“It’s a fair bet,” the priest said. “In a place like this where only infinities matter, I suppose your bus can wait indefinitely.”
The pair stepped into the library together. The interior was even more massive than the building itself, with endless rows of galleries and hallways that seemed to extend all the way to the clouds. Each gallery, in turn, was connected by a multitude of pillars and spiral staircases that linked everything together into a gigantic labyrinth of knowledge.
Felix noted that each hall and each gallery had a brass nameplate over its entranceway. He did a quick survey and read some labels at random: “English 51st Century Fiction,” “Flash Fiction,” “Algorithms and Equations,” “Internet Memes,” “19th Century Erotica,” “Maps and Cartographic Materials,” “Songs and Song Lyrics.” He could not find any sign for an Oral Traditions section. He tried to ask directions from the monkey guides, but each creature pointed to a different doorway.
Their motley group walked across to the central rotunda where each of the halls for the living languages radiated like spokes. Their group stepped into a mirror-like portal and suddenly the library’s nomenclature changed. Instead of language families, the two of them now passed row upon row of galleries dedicated to individual authors. Fr. Vladimir stopped by the entrance to one of these collections, a doorway with a brass plate that read: “The Works of Karl Rahner” and chatted up one of the librarians.
Felix wondered where the priest’s own writings were located. From his companion’s great eloquence, he imagined that it would be a huge gallery. He tried to ask the librarian a few questions but he seemed only interested in theological polemic. The strange man barely even acknowledged his presence.
Felix left the gallery and began to wander aimlessly through the labyrinth of books. Eventually he came across the room that housed Fr. Vladimir’s work. Unlike Rahner’s numerous lexicons, this collection consisted of only one bookshelf. There was a thick encyclopedia of dreams and various books on Faith and Theodicy, as well as many slim folios investigating Liturgy, Charity and the importance of sacrifice. He noticed that for some reason there was not a single volume on Love. Felix wondered if the old priest had ever known true love in his life.
He stepped into another mirror-like door and found that the hallway signs had changed to modes of communication. Felix found himself in a gallery called “The Cradle of Literature,” where to his delight there were hundreds of music players laid out neatly on the tables. He picked through the gramophones, walk-mans, iPods and strange listening devices that looked like quivering crystals, until he saw one whose power source was compatible with his phone. He pried the back cover open and removed the battery.
Just then a librarian came out of a side door and accosted him. “Sir, you are not allowed to do that,” she said. The young woman looked into the intruder’s face and her eyes widened in stunned recognition. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “You... you found me.”
For what seemed like an eternity, Felix and the librarian just stared at each other, not stirring, not talking; for fear that the other might suddenly disappear like a dream. They stood apart, separated by a hyperbolic space, as if they could not touch each other without shattering.
Finally his heart could bear no more and the young man jumped towards his lost love. He gathered her in his strong arms. “Dolor...” he cried softly. “I’ve missed you so much.”
No words or explanations were needed. The two remained locked in an embrace, cocooned in the library’s strange twilight, when Father Vladimir and the bus driver found them.
“I am truly sorry to break you up,” the priest said, “but I am told that Felix has to go back now.”
“Can I stay, please?” he begged the bus driver. But the skeletal man just shook his head, his face impassive as chalcedony, as he pointed a bony hand towards the exit. Felix felt a shiver that chilled him to the marrow.
“Father, help me! We can’t lose each other again,” Felix cried, his tears now freely flowing. He got down on his knees and took the priest’s hand. He whispered a silent prayer to his favorite, St. Jude and to St. Raphael, whom he now remembered to be the real patron of soul mates and lovers. His mind composed a desperate canticle to his beloved saints, calling for their intercession, and the compassion of their sacred thaumaturgies. “You said my story shouldn’t end in tragedy, you have the power to change that.”
The priest heaved a deep sigh and looked away into the distance. He seemed suddenly older, a man filled with the melancholy regret that came with age. “Have you seen my gallery?” he asked. “It’s not as big as I’d hoped. I suppose I still have much work to do before they compare me to Rahner. Right now I feel like that Kiev cake we ate on the bus, all filling and no substance. After watching you and your wife here, maybe I should go back and write about Love.”
Father Vladimir held onto the young man’s hand, contemplating the fragility of existence and the resilience of lovers.
“It’s my story that’s not yet complete,” he said finally, “Give me your ticket, son.”
Felix wiped the tears from his eyes and fished the ticket from his pocket. He picked up the battery he had dropped and slipped it into his phone. It turned on with a full charge.
“This is a multi-band phone,” he said, as he handed it to the priest. “Wherever you are in the world it will pick up the nearest signal. You should be able to call for help. Thank you. Thank you so much!”
“I am a man of the cloth and a soldier to Ignatius. To give and not to count the cost is our motto,” Fr. Vladimir declared. “Besides, what fool will not do this for true love? That trumps all religions and philosophies. Your Godot has come, my son. I must go and find mine.”
As he was about to leave through the exit, the old man started chuckling out of character. He turned back towards Felix and said: “Do you know why your batteries ran out? You had your music playing in a non-stop loop.”
“Yes, you’re right, Father. I forgot to switch it off. I think I was listening to The Police.”
“How prescient,” Fr. Vladimir mused, as he read out the album’s name from the phone’s music player: “Synchronicity.”
Copyright © 2012 by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo