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The Reading « back

"Would you like me to read to you?"

She sits on the divan in the center of the library, her tiny feet tucked under the hem of her skirt. Her eyes are too deep, too blue, too distant, for her tiny face. Her mouth moves out of sync with her words, not as if she inhabits a strange foreign film and the overdubbing is poorly done but as if every vowel she speaks has echoes that ripple through her lips.

The open book in her lap is covered with raised marks, whorls and lines that meander across each page. The entrance of this maze is on a previous page, and its hidden center lies somewhere else in the book. Here, on the open page, the way is tangled.

She seems to understand my interest even though I am unable to speak. "It's going to be alright," she says about my confusion. "Butterflies feel the same disorientation when they are first born."

On the coffee table in front of her is a pile of red leaves and black feathers.

The bookcases in the library are tall and narrow, filled with rows and rows of uniformly shaped books. On my left, a space has been made for a painting; the bookcases flow around the frame like roots around an old stone.

The subject of the painting, a weathered man with a neat beard and a sun-darkened (burnblack, o falling star!) face, is bent over a warped table. A serpent crawls across the curve of the open book. His hand is poised above the page, a crimson smear on the end of a finger. A similar slash of red dots the serpent's mouth.

"An interesting picture of my father, don't you think?" She turns the page of the book in her lap. The rasp of the heavy page is loud in the silence of the library. The sound has a metallic edge to it like the sound of a blade being drawn across a piece of flint.

My jaw refuses to open. I am cold all over, and I feel the nagging persistence of a breeze blowing against my back as if the nerve clusters of my spine are exposed.

"'Is poison nothing more than a substance which the body cannot assimilate? Is venom nothing more than Not-Self poured into Self? In a world built upon dualities, is the collision of opposites what causes Death? No, not death; dissolution. Everything comes from the Ineffable; everything returns. Nothing is ever created nor destroyed; it is simply a matter of molding and disassembly. All that is formed is eventually unformed again. The manner in which an object has distinguished itself from the chaotic formlessness—this rational architecture of its existence—is dissolved.'"

She closes the book. "When my father's work was rediscovered, some of the Seekers understood this. 'Solve, solve, coagula ne,' they would whisper as a passcode when they sought solace in each other's company. For all their efforts, they were frightened of the possibility of success. It was one thing to try to change lead into gold, but to change themselves? Into what?"

My body?

"It has been discarded," she says, intercepting my thought. "The flesh was so putrid, Harry, filled with such rot . . ." Her delicate hand flies to her mouth, but not before I see the shine of teeth behind the curve of her lip. "Oh, you were attached to that flesh, weren't you? Your history was tattooed on that skin and, without it, you feel like you've lost sense of who you are. Is that what frightens you?"

She laughs at my paralysis, a hiccupping sound of a needle skipping on a warped record. For a second, the distortion disappears, and what I hear is Nora's laughter, pure and clear like the day she left me.

She retrieves a large book off a lower shelf, a tome that isn't very thick but is nearly half as tall as she. She returns to her seat and, propping the book against her chest, opens it so that I can see the pages.

It's just a window, a portal through which I can see a city street. The yellow glow of sodium street lamps reflects off the damp surface of the road. A car drives by, disturbing the film of water in the lower right of the window. Ripples churn toward the center of the page, toward the metal key lying in the road. It has the shape of a face, an open-mouthed grimace like something from a Grecian temple. The descending tongue is the shaft and teeth of the key. A chain of feathers—raven, dove, peacock—is an avian plume rising from the crest of the key's head.

"Where is the key?" she asks, making no effort to hide her smile now. "Dropped so negligently. On the road, somewhere."

It could be any road.

"True," she nods. "And if it could be any, it might as well be none." She turns the page. "You have learned something, haven't you?"

The next window is an open field of wheat. The sky is purple and rose and veined with white clouds. The wheat sways as if in response to an invisible whisper. Mounted on a pole in the field—in the center of this endless expanse in the middle of nowhere—is a ragged scarecrow, a homunculus of patchwork clothing, stuffed with chaff. It is hanging cruciform, and its stitched grin is lopsided and empathetic. It is wearing gloves: the left one, yellow; the right, red. Dangling from its right hand is the key. Its crown of feathers is wound around the scarecrow's arm with the peacock feather pointing down at the sea of wheat.

There is something in the scarecrow's left hand.

"There is." She nods and turns the page, bringing us closer to the chaff-stuffed glove. The hand is clumsily stitched with black thread, and the pale leather is unevenly stained. The fingers of the hand are closed around something that is squirming, struggling to free itself.

She turns the page again, and the window becomes a mirror. She shifts on the seat, and a wall of books flashes across the background of the mirror. I float in the foreground, a head and spine in a tank of bubbling blue fluid. Pale jellyfish hover around the length of my knobbed spine. My mouth has been wired shut with silver, and my ears have been folded over and sewn tight. Silver plugs have been fitted into my swollen nose. A noisome film floats beneath the ragged line of my throat, a layer of black ichor that has slowly drained from the base of my skull.

My eyes. What have you done with my eyes? I would weep if I could, if I could remember how.

She reaches around the edge of the book and traces her finger along my vertebrae. I can feel the cold contact of her fingertip. I can feel it raise goose bumps on flesh I no longer have. I can feel her because I want to.

Her head droops to rest on the thick frame of the book as her finger continues to stroke the length of my spine. I am electrified; in the image under her touch, I can see faint flares of blue light chase her fingertip. Like the atmospheric light of St. Elmo, or the incendiary passion of St. Anthony.

The bottom right corner of the page flutters as if disturbed by a wind. She doesn't seem to notice, lost in her erotic fascination with my vertebrae. The page flutters again, and I see that the source of the movement is from something on the next page. Something trying to get out.

The mirror page tears, a dimensional rupture that sends pressure waves through the library. The book falls from her lap, contorting and flexing as it bounces off the edge of the coffee table. Scraps of silver-veined paper scatter across the carpet as the thing on the next page forces itself through the narrow portal.

Multiple multi-faceted eyes are scattered across a flat face, and its armored head sweeps back in a scoop of whorled bone. Its ugly thorax is covered with geometric plates—squares, circles, triangles, rhomboids, octagons—and each plate is stamped with a hand print. Like the efforts of preschool children, like the art left behind in hidden caves by savage cultures, the prints—red and white—are the markings of a warrior. I have taken this many souls; I have eaten this many children. The lower portion of the monster is a profusion of tentacles and legs, the articulated limbs ending in curved hooks.

She spares me a single glance—a flick of her eyes that conveys a wealth of disappointment, as if I am somehow responsible for this atrocity—before she scrambles off the low couch. A long hook slashes the fabric of the divan in her wake. Her bare feet barely touch the floor as she flees across the room.

The monster undulates and flexes, growing longer and thicker, and it crushes the coffee table. Leaves and feathers and scraps of silver paper scatter like a fire being stamped out. High on its back are two tiny trees, withered trunks with spindly branches. If the branches sprouted leaves, if fruit bloomed, they would seem like wings; but, desolately frozen, they are little more than vestigial skeletons. Nature in the dead winter.

Reaching the bookcases, she pulls a book from the shelves, one that seems somehow smaller and more delicate than its surrounding neighbors. She opens the slim book, and the pages spill out like songbirds fleeing an iron cage. Scrambling for the loose paper, she crams the pages in her mouth. She chews and swallows as fast as she can, ink blackening her lips, pulp running down her chin. Each page is filled with a single image of a key, and each page is different.

The monster stalks toward her, pulling its armored bulk slowly across the carpeted floor with its hooks. She bats aside its first grasping attempt, smacking the tentacle away with the leather cover of the empty book. A second tentacle wraps around her ankle, pulling her off balance, and one of the dagger-tipped legs catches her on the hip. She gasps as the hook pierces flesh and grates against bone. Blood and ink flow from the wound, staining her robe. Her feet, beating against the carpet like broken doves, become streaked with blackness.

More hooks sink into her body, plucking at her stomach and lifting her ribs so that her body bends into an arch. Head thrown back, she shoves pages into her mouth as if to staunch the flow of black water that is now pouring out of her nose and mouth. The monster lifts and shakes her, and the gush of blood and ink from the holes in her body (both natural and unnatural) becomes a flood.

The water splashes against the shelves and, in a noisy chain reaction, each book, as it is touched by her water, melts into an equal volume of ink. A knee-high shelf is transformed into a splash of water like a cascade of dominoes. And then the next shelf up. The next shelf over. The liquidation of the library becomes a roaring wave. My dark-water librarian and the arachnid cephalopod drown, Tempter and Destroyer made insignificant by the effusive sorrow of a dissolved universe.

The flood surges, crests, and recedes. I find myself sitting on the floor of the children's section of the public library from my childhood. The light is wan, supplied by a number of oil lamps scattered throughout the room. The large picture window I remember is gone, boarded over. Somewhere, in the dim distance of the tall stacks of adult fiction, someone is crying.

I am in shorts, an orange t-shirt with a cartoon whale on it, and sandals—childhood clothes that I dimly remember. There are scabbed lines circling my wrists, crusted and twisted with dried blood. My palms are covered with black streaks, ink from writing that has been disturbed and dissolved by sweat or tears. I don't know which.

Her way lit with a tin storm lantern, Mrs. Khosrau, the old librarian, approaches. She puts the lantern down beside me and kneels. "Are you okay, Harry? Did you fall?" Her voice is younger than I remember, as is her face.

I show her my hands. My tongue twists in my mouth, but my jaw is fixed. All gone . . . All gone . . . all—

"I know," she says, putting her hands—so smooth, so unmarked by time—over mine and squeezing gently. It is a touch both cold and warm, and all too brief. She closes the book in my lap—an oversized child's book about the natural world, open to a page about spiders—and puts it back on the shelf. "It's going to be alright," she says, smiling at me.

Dangling about her neck is a nylon cord with her library ID—the picture is of a blindfolded old woman, bent and white, a finger raised to her lips—and several keys. One is silver and shaped like a face, a long and gnarled tongue descending from the rounded curve of its jaw.

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