The years before the Library burned were marked with a distinct and unfaltering empathy in our town. It was a vague and ill-defined building, but we loved it. Some days it appeared a relic of twisting granite and gothic arches, its stairwells spiraling upward to nothing but an unmeasured abyss. Other days it showed itself a run-down warehouse, with creaking rafters torn apart by termites. It never appeared twice with the same form, but not out of artistic pride— rather, it seemed as though every morning it had simply forgotten what it had decided the previous day it should be.
All that remained constant in this alzheimic building were the rows and rows of simple wooden bookshelves lining every wall—bursting with spines and jackets of worn, cracked leather which could be dated only by the thickness of dust settled upon them. The bookshelves themselves were nearly perfect replicas of each other: all approximately the same height and width, nearly unblemished, and with practically identical tones. They stood in straight lines, with each bookshelf mirroring the ones to either side except for a single, defining feature—perhaps a dark knot on the surface of the wood, or a slight lean, or a crack running down the side. The rest of each bookshelf was meaningless, an absence of difference. Everyone who visited the library found the Original Shelf, the mold that was the basis for all of the rest. No one ever chose the same shelf to be the Original, and over the years every bookshelf in the unending library had been labeled so at one point or another.
When we first stumbled upon the library, it appeared still. The library was magnificent that night, silver and warm. The metallic walls were etched with twisting patterns that twined and cascaded through the halls, sometimes collapsing into a single pulsing point, sometimes exploding out and wrapping around the ceiling until we were suspended within a spider’s fantasy. We wandered the halls in disbelief. The air felt crushing. We each followed a different vein along the walls until we found ourselves lost and solitary in the labyrinth. Only by continuing forward did we find each other again, one by one, until we left its halls without reading a single nameless tome.
After that first breathless night we lay in our tents, delirious with curiosity and berating ourselves for leaving without reading any of the books. The next morning we rushed back into the library—which now appeared as a cavernous, rotting barn—and scrambled to the closest shelf, desperate to know its purpose. We opened the first book to a random page only to find the paper surprisingly fresh, and with the handwritten pages marked in recently dried ink:
This morning I discovered that in the hour just before the sun rises, there is a single moment so gossamer that you could pluck it like a water droplet off of a thread. The clouds cut into the sky, bleeding dripping smearing pink into the mountain mists. Everything chirped, and the grasses waved: surreal, synchronic. Leaves melted into ground melted into sky. Everything east was vibrating with held breath. Everything west was an absence, as if the clouds had been cut out of the sky with a pair of scissors. I sat on the stone bench and shivered. My breath poured fog across the valley.
It was a journal entry. They were all journals, written in different hands and voices. Each page was fresh. We pulled books off the shelf and opened them in a frenzy, reading out loud to each other lines from the pages we found, one after another. We were sampling moments within days within lives of strangers. Their names meant nothing.
He asked me to live in Mexico City with him for a month. I told him I would go only if we made a play and made our living performing it on the streets. Now we’re leaving in 6 days. Shit.
The only thing that I can remember is the feeling of being lifted, crushed, solidified. A voice screamed at me.
“I am beautiful, mortal, like a dream of stone! Do not be afraid to take part in forbidden fruit. Only once cast out can you ever truly know you were beloved.”
I became eternal, trapped and silent. My arms reached upwards, my fingers tried to tear the crystal sky to shreds, but all was still. I woke in stale sweat. It was still dark when I went outside.
I think I’m in love with a dead girl I don’t remember. Yes, Becca? Can you love someone only in absence?
Steve told me stories of drinking bears-blood whiskey in Laos and living with a glass seller in Cambodia. He began traveling after his wife died of cancer. He used to work for the mob. It was past midnight. As we sat on the rooftop of the hostel overgrown with ivy he told me of houses he had burned down with children inside and guns he had pointed under chins– his own and others. I asked him if he had ever pulled the trigger, and he told me that there were some hallways of his mind he would never walk down again. I didn’t push.
A throat cleared behind us. We turned to find a spindly man with a tiny pair of glasses standing with his arms behind his back.
“Please make sure that you return all books to their shelves when you finish reading. Let me know if you need any help with finding something.” He turned and strode back to a wooden chair in the front of the vast barn. We picked up the books, replaced them on the shelves, and left. That night we began building our town.
It was a strict city that spiraled out around the Library at its center, and every new house was built at the very outer end of the spiral. The sign on the outside of the town said "A town of disciplined, ordered, structured education," and had to be moved every time a new house was added so that it remained at the entrance of the spiral. For a long time it was possible to walk along the single spiraling road through the city to reach the library, but as it grew the walk became too long and the librarians undertook a year-long construction project to build 6 roads at 60 degree angles that cut directly to the center of town. The librarians were forced to cut through several houses, which they explained with a consoling, “Nothing personal, simply a geometric tragedy." The affected residents erupted in protest outside the library, but after a short time they realized they now had two homes when every other neighbor within view had only one, and they began to buy twice as many groceries with their newfound wealth.
The first of us knew little of math, science, literature—anything beyond wandering. The town’s education was gleaned not from the elders, but from within the library. Each townsperson would walk to the library in the morning. Our education consisted of choosing which journals to read each day. Despite its ever-shifting layout, there seemed to be some internal structure to our library; the librarians were always able to direct us to the books we were looking for, or more commonly, the books we didn’t know to look for. Ours was a city built out of the fears and dreams of all those bound minds. We read of a conqueror’s dysentery and a farmer’s poetry. We sobbed when a child’s blanket became lost or a murderer was sentenced to death. Our writer fell in love, grew old, died. After we started to keep our own journals, we would sometimes find a journal of someone we knew. We always returned it to the shelf.
Karina sent me a letter today from Ukraine. She’s in Odessa by the sea and she feels at home but misses New York. She says she hates that I’m so unhappy and she can’t do anything about it. She described the city for me:
“The king of Odessa is the tram driver and for him it flattens each time he goes around, like Monopoly into the box, or like a fold out card. As he approaches in the tram with electric wires soaring into the clouds, the entire city folds, building by building. The philharmonic, then the post office, then the theaters. I guess it's another kind of harmony I can’t ever understand: how it all falls down like that. How it's all music. He's the king because he's seen the streets of the city more than anyone. He understands the patterns of the people and their lives – how it all ticks and tocks and hasn’t really changed since he started on the tram. If he wanted to take the city with him in his briefcase, he could. Instead, he chooses to let it stay.
The sea is the only place that the king visits by foot. He sees no pattern in the sea. It's not in the likeness of anything he’s used to, and so he hopes one day soon it will take Odessa under. He wants the weight of being able to take Odessa elsewhere to fall off his shoulders, so he doesn’t have to choose. When he drives the tram, yes, he can smell the salt of the waters and sometimes it feels like the smell is getting stronger, like it's coming up. But it never is. The city lies upon the shoulders of a man who can never leave the rails of the tram, even if he can sometimes visit the sea.
We don’t know why the library burned, but we all felt the smoke before we could smell it. It pressed down upon us, crushing us in our beds. We silently watched the plume of smoke curl into the sky as the building writhed, melting from form to form in its death throes. It tried to staunch the fire by transforming into a stone castle, but the flames were coming from within. It collapsed into splinters; spiraled upwards into glass spires. The smoke darkened, engulfing the library and pouring across the ground towards us. We stood before it, immobile.
The moment that the final glow from the library sank into a sticky ash, we were struck with a churning nausea that never left. We met each morning where the library once was to decide the future of the town. A bitter political rivalry sprung up between those who believed that it was the responsibility of those who had read the most journals to steer the fate of the town, and those who argued that anything but an equal voice for all was strictly immoral. The few independent parties that fought for nuance were attacked by both sides for weak wills and ethics.