Between the Lines
Day 17 of the Portfolio, Annus Libris 372
We set out this morning when the light that sluiced in from the Library's high windows was thin and the shadows long. Footstep by cautious footstep, we ventured from the Children's Department out into the Library proper. There are seven of us. A group small enough to escape notice, large enough that one of us might make it to our destination.
Brother Coldwell, an insubstantial fellow, slight in his build, his blond hair almost white, left an hour before the rest of us to slip between the shelves and scout ahead for danger. Brothers Forrester and Sixpence led our main body, armed as they are with our utilitarian thesauri. I walked behind the group with Brother Fold. We are to act as a rearguard. Until we reach the border of the Nonfiction section, four days away, danger is expected from the front. I have been relegated to the safer position because of my youth, Brother Fold for his age.
Tailbone and Twill are at the center of our group, carrying the Negotiation Bomb slung between them, suspended on ropes. It took us days to make, days of combing through each book in our department's collection, days of extracting words. We loaded our weapon with the lexicon of debate: "discuss," "deliberate," "question," "talk," "discuss," "parley," and above all "negotiate." Every occurrence of each word was taken from the pages that held it then handed to the Magister of our department, who placed it within the bomb's paper walls, winding the explosives round and round, and stitched it closed. We each carried one copy of the word "burn" on a torn scrap of paper with which we could set off the device. Thus equipped, we were set on our way with the Magister's blessing.
I hope this is right.
I am sorry to break my narrative, but is this what you want? I hope I am telling you what you need to hear. The Magister instructed me to write this for you, to show you that there are still some of us striving for peace, but I have never read something like this. I don't know how it should be written. Time seemed so short, and the Magister tried so hard to conserve his words; some of his meaning was lost to me. I apologize if this is not what you expected, but I am trying. Please, we need your help.
I am sorry. I will resume.
I have rarely ventured from the low ceilings of our own peculiar annexes since I was initiated as a novice Librarian at the age of five. Tucked away at the southern end of the Fiction section, even the war barely drew me from my familiar passageways, distant as it at first seemed. Now, as we crept out into the cathedral ceilings of the genre halls today, I was struck powerfully by a sense of vertigo, of falling upwards into the decorative moldings and plaster scenes that depict Gab working his mysteries, all seven of his mouths gagged by profane bonds, by the sins of mankind.
That is why you sent books here. You remember, don't you? Surely the Library has not become so far removed from the rest of the world that our reasons for existence have fallen to the backs of your minds? I know you relied on us for wisdom, for knowledge of the world and its history, but that was always our secondary function. We are a temple before we are a library. Gab comes before men. Our esoterica and ours alone gives Gab tongue once more. Your books are sacrificial. Their loss, a penance for your sin. Our mysteries allow man's sinful words to be transformed into holy messages. We Librarians alone can keep man from descending into the abyss. Do you remember that?
I am sorry. I don't mean . . . You, at least, offer the olive branch in these troubled times. Our current conflict here is more than enough to instill doubt in those outside. I understand. It is simply the sight of these shelves stretching up—yard after yard pillaged of their contents—that preys on my mind. The pilgrim's walkways where the Magisters used to lead Viscounts and Earls and our other more prestigious patrons stretch out like empty cobwebs. It all upsets me so. You must send us books. Not for our sakes, you understand, but for yours. So you can hear the words of Gab once more.
I will resume.
We plan that it will take us four days to reach the border with the Nonfictionists. We will use the major thoroughfares that run between departments for as long as possible. Then once we have crossed the border, we expect it will be a few more days before we reach their camp, deploy the Negotiation Bomb, and talks can begin. It takes nearly two weeks to walk the full distance from one end of the Library to the other. Perhaps you know that.
As we pushed on through the brightening daylight, Brother Fold and I remained silent. I know him only slightly, as I deal mostly with picture books, while he is entrusted with the more sophisticated novels, aimed at those approaching the rites of adulthood—novels that I now carry, and whose words I rearrange to construct this chronicle.
Still, the silence between us was companionable enough. Indeed, over the years, I have grown to prefer the silence forced upon us by the sacrifice of our tongues—in memory of Gab's silence—over the babble of my youth. But the vastness of open space, of empty shelves that should not be empty, it all weighed upon me. I have said that. I apologize if I tell you things you know.
As midday approached, I broke the silence between us. I am not sure if I should tell you this, if this falls within what the Magister would have me relay. But in the books I have read, a full view of events is given, and that is what I wish to convey. I know that each word we utter, every prayer we make, is torn from the pages of one of the books we are charged with, the books that you and others outside have sent to us. Every word I write now leaves a blank space on another page. Every action we force upon another erases ink we ourselves cannot replace. Only you can replace it. I know my actions contributed to the loss of words that the war has brought to unacceptable levels (unacceptable to both you and I) but, in the moment, I weighed the loss of words less important than the steadying of my nerves. You understand, don't you? After all, it is you who requested proof of our struggle for peace. It is because of you that I sacrifice our department's novels and construct this chronicle. Surely you understand. Please do not judge me too harshly.
"Why did you volunteer?" I asked Brother Fold. I brushed my fingers along the spines of books on nearby shelves as I spoke, my mind twisting in the way Gab has taught us, pulling the words from them to shape into sound. The books were so badly pillaged that it was hard to find the right utterances and my speech came out haltingly.
"The obvious reasons." Brother Fold's finger trailed mine and his voice was brittle, like browning paper. "To end the destruction of our charges." He swept one arm at the shelves, then turned to me, one thick eyebrow arched. "You have a different reason?"
"Well . . ." I blushed. "Yes. It was because of you."
"Me?" Brother Fold was surprised.
"I saw you stand, Brother, when the Magister called for volunteers for this mission, and I felt ashamed to be seated." I blushed again. "You have seen so much. I saw you rise and thought that you deserve to rest now, that you should not be forced to stand. And there I was, still seated, hoping that others would step forward. And I realized it would be others like you, who did not deserve the task, who would be forced to stand up if I remained seated."
Brother Fold stared at me for a moment, and then I coughed and looked away.
"No, no, don't be embarrassed," he said. "An honest answer is always the best recourse. And, if now is a time for honesty, then answer me this: Who do you think should have the Books?"
I heard the capitalization when he spoke. They have attained that status now. Did you know that? How much do you know of the war, outside these walls? It was They that started it. They came to the Library unmarked, may even have sat for a year or more waiting to be opened. But when those crisp pages, those neatly bound volumes of Strathmore's History and Strategies of Violence were revealed, war followed shortly on their heels.
The History department in the Nonfiction section seemed to have the strongest claim to their exquisite, brutal prose. Then the Historical Fiction Department cited that the violence referred to in their pages matched no records that we held. Soon more departments from within the Fiction section were clamoring to be given the Books. The Mystery department claimed that the very existence of the Books was a mystery, and that thus they were the rightful owners. The Literature department claimed that the tomes transcended genre and should be given to them. And still more claims came. In response to this babel of voices, more departments from within the Nonfiction section demanded the books. The General Reference section claimed them, Local Interest too. At first the departments were honest. They were clear that they wanted the books for their prestige. But soon, in the mess of rhetoric, Gab's will was claimed by first one department's Magister and then another. Never had the infallible Gab been so divided. Soon every shelf in the Library resounded with claim and counter-claim, and within a month the violence had spread from the pages of Strathmore's Books to the walkways of the Library itself.
Maybe it's all moot now anyway.
"I . . ." I looked at Brother Fold. "I don't know."
"Really?" Brother Fold arched one vast eyebrow. "I would have thought that everyone had some opinion about which department should receive them. Negotiations, should they be achieved, will only be the beginning."
"So?" Brother Fold looked at me. "What would you argue?"
"Well, I suppose," I hesitated, unsure of myself, "the History Department does seem to have a strong claim."
"If you side with the Nonfictionists, then why come on this mission at all?"
Currently the Nonfictionists hold Strathmore's books. Their section was divided into fewer departments, which led to less factionalism and a more united front.
"Because I cannot agree with the methods by which they have come by the Books. If they held them by right, that would be one thing, but they hold them by might, and that is another."
Brother Fold bowed his head. "Then now it is I who am ashamed. I come simply because I would have them for our section. There is power within them, and I feel it is better for me and my own that the Fictionists wield it."
"That is as noble a reason as mine," I replied.
"As good maybe," said Brother Fold, "but not as noble."
We did not speak much of the rest of that day. Still we ate together at lunch, and tonight we camp together amongst the broken bookshelves. Coldwell has been quiet as ever, with nothing to report. We can hear sounds of fighting ahead of us, but we are still far from its reach. Can you hear it, outside of this place?
Day 18 of the Portfolio, Annus Libris 372
Today I saw my first dead body It was an hour after we left our encampment A young man, only a little older than myself, his face the color of fresh vellum He was splayed wide, like an illustration of a fallen bird In one hand he clutched a blank-paged book A black mark between his eyes had brought him to an abrupt halt, his life ended by a period
We passed by quickly, my eyes lingering on the spot where the man had fallen The thought of his blank eyes, lying parenthetically around that period, would not leave my vision What had he died for? For noble reasons? For good ones? What do you think? What should I convince you to think?
Just before we camped for lunch, Coldwell emerged from the shadows like a wraith, frightening me badly
"I feared to go ahead alone" He held one of the tomes of our encyclopedia and spoke in clipped, abrupt phrases "I met a group of youngsters hiding in the Poetry Department They told me that soldiers from the front have come back here in search of more words They are frustrated and bored Almost all the books in this section have been stripped of their words of violence They will attack anyone they see who has possession of a book they believe may help them We must be careful"
We veered away from the broad pathway between the Mystery and Romance Departments, and headed into the outer annexes of the latter With its tendency towards misdeed, the Mystery Department struck Sixpence and Coldwell, who have become our nominal leaders, as a more likely area for the soldiers to be searching We moved slowly and hid our books, hoping to draw less attention to ourselves If there were shadows, we kept to them
It was all in vain
The first thing I knew of the assault was Brother Sixpence's shout Then he was struck by a pair of parentheses and rendered subordinate to our fight They used punctuation—a testament to how depleted their lexicons were It flew through the air, tearing holes in the heavy oak shelving A slash tore Brother Fold's leg off, and he tumbled, screaming, to the floor
I dove for cover, riffling through ear-marked pages for words of defense The punctuation of my companions flew—we resorted to our less powerful munitions in an attempt to preserve the meaning of what we held In the end, though, we lost our heads, unaccustomed to battle, flinging everything we had at the enemy Within minutes, I lost most of my periods, sacrificing them to the combat in the memory of the dead man I'd seen Our pages emptied, our lexicons became abridged, and still the battle raged
Can you still read this? I am sorry for the state of my text It becomes harder and harder to construct this record as time goes by Do you see the urgency? Do you see our need?
It was Brother Tailbone who ended things He found a piece on explosives in his encyclopedia and, having spied the shelving unit from which we were being attacked, set it beneath their perch With a roar of splintering timber and the flutter of burning paper, the shelving fell and our assailants plummeted to the floor I was struck by several heavy tomes falling from the surrounding shelves and was rendered unconscious
When I came to, there was nothing we could do for Brother Sixpence He seemed completely unaware of our existence, trapped in the moment he was struck, constantly turning to dive for cover and then turning back to repeat the action We were not equipped to heal him, and in the end we had to leave him behind
Brother Fold had bled to death
This is how it is here This is how we must live Even we who seek to conserve the words that still remain within these books are forced to expend them in violence
Understand: Our attackers were Fictionists They were soldiers supposedly fighting for our cause Their hunt and fight for words has become so desperate that they will attack the very people that they are supposed to be fighting for
I want you to understand Not so you pity us Not so you send literature to us to help us merely survive But so you understand how important our mission is How much we yearn for peace Just as you do To try to make you see our commonality
After the attack, praise be to Gab, the Negotiation Bomb was still safe Brother Twill had rushed it to safety as soon as the attack had begun He and Brother Tailbone again form the nucleus of our group, carrying the bomb, as we stumbled on through the day Ahead, Forrester has been joined by Coldwell There seems little point in having a scout now, Coldwell's warning having served us so poorly I take the rear alone
With Brother Fold by my side, I had managed my fear of the open spaces, the places where shelves give way to ranks of statues, or broaden into major throughways Now, however, things are worse I jump at the conjunction of shadows, at the sounds in the distance My vision is blurred as I try to look everywhere at once Tonight I threw up and could eat no supper We said the prayers as best we could with the words remaining to us
Day 20 of the Portfolio, Annus Libris 372
I apologize for not having kept record of the past two days My nerves are not good, and I have been unwell I have not been able to eat much The going has been slow After the attack we altered our route and entered deep into the genre halls We pass between shelves stripped clean of their tomes It reminds me of pictures I have seen of winter outside the Library I do not like it
The going has been quiet When we have seen signs of other Librarians they have been signs of Librarians recently and rapidly departed I fear people mistake us for marauding soldiers or worse
I have tried, occasionally, to make conversation with Tailbone and Twill but they will not answer me Our prayers have become brief and perfunctory No one wishes to waste a word in case it is useful later I trail farther and farther behind the group There is less and less to tether me to them
Tonight we came to the ruins of the old Sorting Department I am sure you know its story It was the destruction of this department and the death of the Earl of Arania that dried up the trickle of pilgrims that still came to the Library, those still faithful despite the violence, that dried up the supply of books you and others used to send
It was not we who reduced this place to rubble, you know It was the Nonfictionists It is true that some of the Librarians from the Theatre Department initiated the assault I will not deny that But they were armed only with scripts Nothing capable of the level of violence that was done that day
We were not the ones with the Golems made of shelves and rock, held together by conjunctives and hyphens
We were not the ones to use words of mass destruction
I sometimes wonder if faith died with the Earl that day Or was it just your faith in us?
At eventide, the others ate supper sheltered by of one of the more substantial sections of intact wall The damaged stone faces of early Librarians peered down at them I sat apart, with my back to the stump of an altar, upon which the books of wealthy patrons used to be consecrated—a few of their words used to construct brief, honorary prayers to Gab
To my surprise, I noticed the red leather covers of a book amongst the rubble I went over and pulled it out The spine bore no title I opened the book and flicked through the pages Every one was blank Not a single word remained
"What have you there?" It was Brother Forrester, his callused hands on his thesaurus
I handed him the book, and he leafed through it. After he had seen the state it was in, he flung it away and spat
"Gab has abandoned us," he said I did not reply, but I wondered if that was true What do you think? Has He abandoned us, or have we abandoned Him?
Day 25 of the Portfolio, Annus Libris 372
My health falters, and so does my record keeping I apologize. My stomach can barely hold a meal Each day I seem to grow weaker, my footsteps slower We had predicted four days to reach the border It has taken us eight
How long will it take us to get back, I wonder? How long until you get this? Until it makes its way from my hands to my Magister's to yours? And how does he do that? Did he contact you, or you him? I wish I knew more of you, that the Magister had had the time and the words to explain, so I could tell you what it is you need to hear So that there were no more empty books
Today we reached the eastern wall of the Library Visible in the distance is the border It is a mess of wood and stone piled ten feet high, reinforced by books cleaned of their words As we approached it, our pace slowed to a crawl I imagined soldiers behind every corner, lurking in every shadow, yet no one attacked us No one even called out to us
Still, we have shuffled to a halt when confronted by the open space before the border The fear of the unseen that has been growing within me seems to have spread to the entire group and paralyzed us all We have set up camp early and have gone on no further
Day 26 of the Portfolio, Annus Libris 372
We sit in silence No movement today
Day 27 of the Portfolio, Annus Libris 372
In the early hours of the morning, we finally went forward It was just before the day broke There was no talk, just a shared desire to get things over with, for ill or good We ran hard and fast at the border, trusting to luck and poor light We all had a hand in heaving the Negotiation Bomb over the wall, hauling and pushing, terrified that the seams would give, constantly waiting for our end to begin
Yet it never did, and within a few minutes we stood astride the border, chill in our own sweat The Fictionists had left that area of the wall unguarded, and it seemed from our vantage point that the Nonfictionists had as well We thought that maybe both sides regard it as an irrelevant area Or that maybe the majority of the fighting is to the west So little has been clear to us
We got safely to the ground, filled with newfound bravado, almost jovial As we examined the Negotiation Bomb, someone, I think it was Tailbone, even made a joke Something about a book he'd read on rock-climbing We all laughed All of us I felt a camaraderie I had not felt in days
It was in that moment of laughter that the Golem came for us It unfolded from the wall that camouflaged it, made as it was from stone, and wood, and paper One fist ended in barrels that spun and whirred and peppered us with words
Things exploded, and ripped, and tore, and detonated, and blasted, and split, and cleaved, and broke, and ruptured, and died around me I was showered with blood, but in the darkness could not see whose it was
I scrambled away, throwing verbs indiscriminately over my shoulder I turned to see Brother Twill desperately clawing his way up the border only to be obliterated by one vast foot, which looked like it had once been a reading bench
The ground was slick with gore I spent half the battle scrambling on the ground, tangled in viscera Everything was blurred and red and screaming In the end someone managed to set the Golem on fire It may even have been me
Day of the Portfolio Annus Libris 372
I deeper in Nonfictionist territory now I am solo
During the light times I hid Sometime I heard enemies nearby When I could I deceased them Sometimes they fought back but other time not More than I was attacked and had run for cover was wounded but not stopped
When they had them I took the words of those I I used more expressions than I discovered After each fight it harder make communiqué
At the finish of fight with the Golem my lexicon was badly depleted and was unaccompanied I hope I am apparent in my meaning to you Do you understand All others were deceased Their bodies were around me I was covered in blood Pieces of the Golem were strewn around myself I found the firearm limb and its ammunition cache still intact I acquired the Golem's words of violence and took for my own
Still sticky the blood of my dead accompaniers I entered the Nonfictionist shelves There is no fear now I cannot know why
The Negotiation Bomb was whole too old Magister must have made it well I strapped it to my flipside and bowed down by its weight on into the darkness
I no longer my prayers
Day of Portfolio Annus .
I have pushed nearer base Nonfictionist group
not know the way but listened good Crept close people when they chatter found ways
They accrued in grandiose hallways between General Reference and Near Eastern History sections beneath vast stained portraying Gab in all his Innumerable bivouacs constructed wood cloth paper stained glass anything left I hunkered on fringe counted my words counted personages despaired The Negotiation Bomb anchor on my back I see no way
It be easier if I my companions but not miss them Their memory is an abstract thing Only Fold is clear to not know why I found it necessary to speak to prefer the silence of
Day Libris 372
There is no other I attack whether or not This may be my entry Do know that Will ever know How can you get now you even exist Should abandon faith in you Abandon chronicle diary confession Should I that when you all that I have left
hours of gloom came entered the Nonfictionist used words of
blindness shadow to my passage I must make camp their generals Once I am past the sentries easier relax
Someone spots have moments and I my quiet words to silence
her too late They are running desperate and fast At first remaining quiet words to Stab Split Gash is too little too
flags of the generals a few
hundred yards strive against the weight of am bleeding and in flames Everything vain If only
One of my burning limbs catches and the fuse It spits sparks scream and start to away close my eyes my mission become
flash of bright it me
words flew so many struck
picture Gab was shattered rained glass
smoke clears dazed victims
ash and tears choking
wait wait wait for begin talk words come again negotiation
your will done
mouths open but nothing
tears mine others
there no words left for to use
Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. He lives on Long Island with his family and keeps 80 monkeys chained to typewriters in his garage. He passes their work off as his own, selling it to places like Weird Tales, Behind the Wainscot, Fantasy Magazine, and Electric Velocipede. Their less coherent meanderings can be
found at The Rambles of My Headspace.
copyright © 2008, Jonathan Wood
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