by Daniel W. Galef
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
My crisis, like a seismic shift or the outbreak of war, was long in fomenting and instantaneous in manifestation. I had a falling-out with the Universe. I found myself at a loss for thought. No course of action seemed right or very agreeable. I thought of writing a letter to the newspaper or, perhaps, committing suicide. But suicide was not serious enough. And a letter was much too much so. There was no middle ground.
Recalling the homely sagacity of an erstwhile tutor, I sought intellectual refuge in the library. But any books ponderous or imponderous enough to be any use to me at all must have been simply by nature banned or burned.
* * *
Abjectly, I wandered vast sunken cities of shelves, buffeted back at every turn by the mass of the crowd, for the great city library was of that palatial species constructed in dim departed days of excess. It had been initially purposed as an obscenely superfluous royal residence, and even had its patron dedicated to it its due share of his imperial and royal time, its satin four-posters still would have languished for all but a few days of the year.
It was some centuries later converted by a progressive prince, first into a prison, and then into an ammunition store during the ungrateful uprising that, despite all of the prince’s progressiveness, still confiscated his kingly crown as well as his kingly head. Now its groined arches and long, echoing, tiled corridors, its peeling baroque scrollwork painted over in pale republican yellow and deathwatch radiators oozing a pallid heat, tended the court of a more nebulous and nameless liege.
Although I counted myself educated, one of the primary benefits of such a condition I had always considered was the freedom from intellectual pursuit. I had slaved and slavered away in a dim carrel in a pigeonhole boarding house for three years, studiously perfecting my grasp on four-part harmony and whist.
At the end of my celebrated binge, I had been presented with a hefty bankroll (representing the befuddlement of the incredulous sponsors who had bet against me) and a handsome parchment; and after that evening I never saw either one of them again. It would have involved reading.
During my internment in the academy, my appreciation for learning in its rectangular, crystallized form was not radically different from my impression of it as secreted from the mouths of short, bearded men at the front of lecture halls; and what use I had for the tomes issued me by my institution was generally limited to their more mundane furniture-stabilizing and insecticidal properties.
Vaguely, I remembered the great wealth of insight and advice to be discovered promised in the towering collections of a library, and it was in such desperation, having ventured so unwelcomely far back into my hateful recollection, that I searched frantically for the single and singular right book that could rescue me.
Without registering the faces around me, I trudged through a slough of humanity in which I felt asphyxiated by cloying thoughts, not of mine but of those all about. I hurried ever faster to escape their oppressive slings. I forced myself to race blindly among the million endless passageways in search of a faceless salvation.
I thrust myself headlong into an aggressively aimless wandering, turning my eye from any markers or signposts in my mindless recollection of brownian pathways. I pounced upon any book I laid eyes on, and slammed each shut in disgust after a moment’s perusal. Each was imperfect, none was total.
My soul would not be saved by the ingredients of glove-cleaner or sets of chess problems, lists of names of the Biblical nameless or five hundred pages of statistical tables. But still I searched, and my pessimism was tempered by the fact that no two failures were the same, and so I held out hope for an ultimate success.
* * *
The tonnage of words has a way of absorbing the time like soundproof paneling in the walls of an opera house. Night fell, and still I had discovered no surcease to my sorrows in the pages of any of the tombstone volumes that comprised the tender of the palace and prison. My vexation was multiplied further by the fact that books — or, rather, their creation — had played a not inconsequential role in my unteasing.
The night was of one mind.
Somewhere deep in the infernal bowels of the library’s labyrinthine corridors, a great bell tolled, in its iron peals all the melancholy and might of Time itself. The hour had come at which it was appointed that the library be closed to the world, its numberless tessellating chambers cleared of visitors in preparation for the sleep of reason to birth the new words of the coming day.
I felt a subbookkeeper’s gaze exerting on my being a force toward the exit. But I was not ready. Not ready to return, not ready once again to be in myself and for myself in the great world of men. No, I had to find a way to remain in the world of books. Without hesitation, I turned, pushed back through the teeming crowd, which pressed in on me and suffocated me like volcanic ash, like the rose petals of the mad emperor Heliogabalus with which he asphyxiated his most hated enemies and his most beloved companions.
Seeing my struggle, the bookkeeper whose attentions I had attracted made to collar me and to hasten my egress. I brought back my elbow, and again, and I felt it hot and wet as the hand on my shoulder slackened and a sort of snorting, gargling bellow drowned even the mob’s muffled chatter. The crowd, no longer so eager to press in on me, instead parted like the waters of the sea, and then there was no crowd to part, and then I was free.
But the bookkeeper followed. Nobody in those days broke into a library. No key-jangling watchman was employed. So it was alone and of his own dedication or his own cold fury (or hers; I avow I did not afford my pursuer the scrutiny to discern, preoccupied as I was in evading capture) that the agent hounded me across reading-room and archive-room, through stairwell and narrow shelf-lined stacks, down great echoing marble corridors and over the tiled arabesques of the vast domed Rotunda.
And still I ran. I turned without knowing what path I turned to, or which from. I ducked into doorways whose tituli in peeling gold letters whipped past and traversed a thousand years of literature in a single leap without once registering whose words I was wading through.
And all the while the slap of the bookkeeper’s soles from the floor behind me, the urgent jut of his shadow intersecting my own in the virid luminescence cast from the reading lamps, sometimes even the hot shiver of the golem’s breath on my neck, as if my bane were not fathoms behind me, but mere inches.
At no point did I dare slow enough to turn, to look into the face of my death. I merely ran. And perhaps the strange forms of the chambers, just as they had deceived my feet and confounded my locative power, succeeded in deceiving my other senses, as well. The coffered barrel vaults, like the olive-branch sweep of the Theater at Epidaurus or the bowed columns of the Parthenon, commanded the very colors and sounds of the world around them to bend and twist to suit their mysterious architect.
When at last, in agony at the burning temptation to check behind me, I turned my head, I saw no pursuing silhouette, no footprints, no shadow, no soul. But I had been right in attempting to resist the urge. As soon as I ripped my gaze from the path before me, I felt my shin blossom with pain as I ran at full speed into the angled blades of a stepstool askew in the stacks.
At a single shelf, marked with a pair of gibberish alphanumerical cyphers torn straight from the asemic ravings of a medieval mystic, I stumbled and fell. The shelf was like a thousand others; the only distinction it enjoyed from its uncountably infinite twins was that it in particular was where my life and that of the universe as a whole fundamentally and irrevocably was altered.
From my unenviable vantage I noticed a gap, a caesura of about a foot and a half between the inner edge of the easterly shelf and the matching edge of its twin, simply by virtue of the discrepancy between the dimensions of the shelf housings and the cases themselves; by carefully removing a row of books on one section of the lower shelf and contorting myself through the window thus formed, re-shelving the row behind me in the same order, I was able to access this space and walk back and forth in the heart of the repository, opaque walls of books on either side.
It was like being in a vast crowd of people without faces. I saw only the fore-edge of each volume, each text anonymous and inscrutable. All their words’ combative and contradictory ravings quieted, and the entire shelf merged into a single continuous expanse of blank pages, some crisp and white, some yellowed and mold-specked, some cut and some deckled, and one great tome decorated with a handsome paper-edge painting of a three-sailed junk weightlessly poised on a golden, nameless sea. I took off my overcoat and folded it into a small parcel. I placed it gently on the floor at the north end of my little secret corridor and lay down upon it. I fell asleep in a world without time.
* * *
I awoke to voices and realized I had been surprised. I felt like a criminal, a lunatic, an interloper in the Temple of Jupiter, and I made ready to give myself up to the enforcers of reason. But they did not come. The voices continued, and I realized that morning had sprung upon me without my detection. All around me, just on the other side of a thousand lives in ink, shapes flitted. The library had opened.
I stood, naked and invisible in the center of a whirlpool of flesh, and the feelings of power and shame and dreamlike disbelief all intermingled.
For the longest time I made no move. The Hadrian edifice segregating me from a society I had rejected was hardly cyclopean, nor was it flawless. Chinks here and there in the form of book-shaped silences let into my sanctum diagonal swords of translucent gold. Now and again a new little wound opened when a book was removed from the shelf, or one shut when one was replaced, and always there was still an endless clattering of voices speaking through a world of care and memory. As I could not predict where the wall would open next, I could not know when I myself would be transfixed by one such girder of light erupting from a universe spurned.
In icy fear of discovery, I decided to wait until the library had closed again to make my escape. As a statue I stood in self-conscious agony until all doors had been shut, all bolts sealed. I emerged then with no pretense at grace, exploding out of the wall of books and sending them tumbling in all directions. I ran from hall to hall, trying to remember the contours of this new world, made alien by the moonlight and desolation.
I found no exit, not even any familiar passage. Somehow, after every mad wheel through the cobweb corridors, I found myself again at that despised stack from which I had cast the volumes to the ground, and I flailed dumbly at them again, as if they were to blame for my confinement, my disorientation. I kicked at the books and felt a dark delight as each tome, so like a person in the way that a portrait is or a memory, careened in a skew pattern, pages fluttering.
“The library must have an exit!” I railed, kicking Borges to the side. “The way out is not the way in.” Heraclitus toppled. “Where is it?!” Sartre took a blow.
I exhausted myself by my violence, and retired for the second night, resting my head on a hefty illustrated translation of Sei Shonagon. Absent my habitual bear Theodore, I awoke to find that I was holding in his stead a book, just as tightly as if it were the key to the front door and all else besides. Turning it in my hands, I examined the spine of the book I had unknowingly clutched. It was Genesis.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel W. Galef