by Daniel W. Galef
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
A second day of desperation proved equally futile. Somehow the very geometries of the library itself defied all navigational aspirations.
* * *
The block was not mental, but nor was it physical. Perhaps it was spiritual. But it was as solid and insurmountable as any other, and I found myself still sans solution and sans salvation. I knew that I would not leave the library until I had fulfilled some as yet unknown goal.
But the universe had underestimated the sheer depths of my spite and contrariness. I resolved that, having fled from fulfillment and life once before, I would not skulk back into its clutches merely for having made a false turn. If the library was my decreed fate, then I would live it, and no other. And any thin Schadenfreude the universe hoped to wring from my misery would be polluted by my devoting myself completely to carrying out my appointed punishment.
* * *
The God of Lot is not a pleasant one. A sentence of infinite authority had been handed down from an incalculable height, and I was as powerless to contest it as I was to comprehend it. But Lot received warning. The Pharaoh of Egypt was given ten chances to recant. Even the Expulsion carried with it a promise of freedom and future, a release from something small to something large, even if the small had been Paradise and the large was only the earth.
But now I had been exiled from the earth to somewhere small, or so it seemed. How could a stuffy relic of a government building be larger yet than the great bustling international city that contained it? I did not know it then and I still do not know how it was so, but it was larger, not only than that city of sticks and string, but larger by a thousand times the whole wheels-within-wheels world it served as constant center of.
Like an Escher trick lithograph, the entirety of the larger was contained in the smaller, in headaching fish-eye miniature, and with that sort of dimensional confusion came a sense of awe. In turn, perhaps even purpose. I had determined to stay, but I could also determine where it was I stayed. The edifice, like myself, had lived a handful of different lives and could recall each one in the diverse faculties of its being. It had in its Methuselaean regency been a jail, and it had also been a castle. I resolved to make of it again the latter.
* * *
Like Robinson Crusoe, I labored tirelessly for months in secret, building a kingdom hidden from the eyes of the world. At first I darted from shadow to shadow, shrinking and afraid, a trespasser in the nautilus-shell corridors of Ashurbanipal. But, over time, I grew bold. Never venturing so far as eyesight, still I constructed modal temples and storehouses in the two-by-twenty-foot spaces in the shelving, as well as in the uncountably infinite interstices between walls, under tables, in card catalogues, and in spaces between spaces I had never known existed.
In my internment — or my interment — I had made of each cobweb, each speck of dust, my subjects and trusted viziers. A noble caste was reserved of the library’s primary inhabitants from which I recruited my quietest and most constant of friends. These conquered lands as often as not bore no hallmark of my annexation, no planted flag or branded flesh. I had no arms to fly and no name to brand should it have come to such egoism. But I explored them, and came to own them under the natural law of conquest, establishing a thousand unpopulated colonies of an unrecognized empire.
I wrote nothing down. The only tangible trace I left of my labors was the subtle emendation of certain bookplates. The books were subjects, not chattel, and I knew that a book, like a man or the moon, is a metaphysical patient and beyond rude possession. The vulgar cattle-brand Ex Libris I altered to Ex Libro, “I ponder”; Ex Liberis, “From the free”; Ex Liber, “Consecrate me”; Ex Libero, “O God of Madness!”
There was no obscure crag of the library that was not my domain, but I made my capital in that original cloister of shelving where I had elapsed my initial tremulous, tribulous night. It served me as both dormitory and refectory, and it was where I secreted my few distinguished possessions. These grew fewer and fewer until there remained none, and my eremitic cell was as a blank page, as bare as it had been the day I arrived a million lifetimes ago.
* * *
I was unfortunate enough to live in a nation and a year in which people thought that they thought, and so the branching fractal corridors of the library, even those remote and unmapped capillaries in which I made my hermitage, were never wholly unpopulated during the damnable daylight hours.
While in the nights I explored and colonized vast gnossian kingdoms of words, presiding as stern yet just emperor over all, during the day, in fitful waking dreams, my existence was reduced to that of a monstrous vermin, hiding behind shelves and within overloaded book trolleys, peering through invisible eyes at the unwelcome visitors who trod the avenues and boulevards of my capital without knowing their honest names, powerless to arrest them or even to impart on them whose dominion they so thoughtlessly profaned.
In time, I became more adept at my new mode of life, and thus more adventurous during the once forbidden diurnal hours. Of course, walking among the civilian interlopers was impossible; I would not have passed for a visitor by then, my gait stooped and loping, what had been my clothing disintegrated or replaced by repurposed bindings and dust jackets. Yet the repetitiveness of my forest walks had grown intolerable. Reflection and recollection had tired me, and I determined myself to write my own signposts marking my way.
I had come too far to hide myself away in the arras during the day. Instead, I masqueraded as a lamp, as an armchair, as a bookmark. But my specialty was books. The secret to acting is commitment, and if I wasn’t committed, I should have been.
Subtlety was key. Of course no performance is perfect, but the human mind is extraordinarily suggestible, and there exist innumerable simple techniques by which its perceptions can be influenced: a method of parting the hair to give the impression of splayed pages, a certain tweak of the eyebrow that suggests the distinct appearance of a chapter subheading in a serifed typeface. I learned in time to feature lavishly illustrated plates. My fonts gained fleurons. Like any craft, its mastery took time, but that was a resource I enjoyed without limit.
Soon my circumambulations knew no hour, and I grew more bold. The library, which I had long counted as my uncontested fiefdom anyway, finally became my de facto halidom in all functional respects, and I acted with total freedom within its walls. I lounged in the reading room cross-referencing like a madman, no mortal the wiser. I cared not. I was devoted far more to my true subjects, the books, and with them whiled away many a golden afternoon until all ran together like the harmonies of a hymn.
Such a life, a momentless idyll, a blooming rose preserved at the peak of its perfection, despite its infinite recommendations, is not totally without a thorn. To be a book was all I had of a Heaven. To be a book and to be read was close to its converse.
During such an experience, under intense scrutiny, all mental and muscular effort must be put into maintaining one’s performance, lest it falter and the brilliant yet fraudulent ruse be dismantled before the reader’s hungry eyes. Compared to the effort required in maintaining such a facade at a distance, it is a herculean labor. Thankfully, I developed a corollary technique by which I was able to limit any inadvertent human interest as much as was feasible.
I endeavored to appear as boring as possible. When a patron came to examine me for signs of interesting content (how darkly I smiled when I thought that this was already so much more than any denizen had deigned to do to another human being), I would channel the chapter-length sententiae of the lesser ancient scholars and concentrate on the driest subjects I could possibly imagine, and the unhappy grazer would drop me within a second and forget me within a minute. I developed a reliable persona as a sort of monograph-length extension of Homer’s Catalogue of Ships, except of sheep instead of ships, and executed in the prose style of a Czechoslovak insurance assayer.
When the reprising of the same celebrated role for every novel audience grew repetitive, I would shift for variety to Cicero or Proust or, if the mark appeared dry enough himself to find such stuffing stimulating, drugstore editions of the sayings of Lord Aberdeen.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel W. Galef