Golden pillars lined a giant, open-air hall, propping up slabs of stark white marble. The air was hot but the ground was cold. I looked down and found myself barefoot. I flexed my toes, feeling out the shiny tiled floors which had a circular pattern extending out to the pillars and the walls beyond.
A fountain ran silently in the center of the open hall with water flowing from the edges of a sculpture twisted into knots and tangled curves. The water was so clear I could see the patterns engraved into the bottom of the pool. Channels took water from the pool to the four corners of the hall where they fell into smaller pools lined with marble stools. The sunlight was so bright it made the splashes of water droplets around the fountain shimmer like glitter. Trees stood scattered around the hall, some so low I could pick their fruits without climbing them. A large silver dome stood against the pale blue sky, ornate markings shimmering under the sunlight.
The empty book I’d been reading was gone but I didn’t care because between the pillars under the slabs of marble, were rows upon rows of bookshelves.
“Holy shit,” I breathed. I walked carefully towards the pillars, passing the fountain and the water channels. The familiar, comforting scent of paper and ink hit me as I neared the shelves made of fancy wood with intricate patterns carved into them. It must have taken ages to carve all those swirls and whirls, and unlike the dusty, disheveled shelves in the library back home, these were well taken care of.
“So many,” I whispered. I didn’t know where to start so I wandered, admiring the scrolls stacked with paperbacks and hardcovers. An open space caught my eye. All the shelves curved around it and a hole in the ceiling let light flood in. In the movies, this would be the place with the magic sword or holy grail. Instead, as I approached the space, I pinched my nose.
In the center of the space was a skeleton, long dead but still reeking of decaying flesh. It sat on a wooden chair and leaned on a table. There was a decayed quill in its skeletal hand, tip caked with ink. I stared at the open book on the desk.
There were words on it. It wasn’t empty! And if this wasn’t empty, neither were the rest. I turned and sized up the endless rows of bookshelves stretching to the ceiling. It didn’t seem like anyone else was there at the time, save for the skeleton, but there was food, water, shelter and more books than I could ever hope to read, so I would be fine. I didn’t know how I got there nor where there was, but if it wasn’t for the well I’d been stuck in before, I’d have swallowed my edgy atheism and concluded that I was in heaven.
The book on the skeleton’s desk was open so I stepped closer and frowned. The words flowed in a strange way, connecting in long lines cut off at random points. Shapes and symbols decorated the pages. I cursed under my breath, did I have to learn a new language to read these?
I gently slid the book off the desk. My fingertips tingled and when I glanced at the book again I could read the words! They were still some strange squiggles here and there, but I could read most of it like I understood the language.
Guess that was that for my atheism. Maybe if God had told me about the great library in the sky, I would’ve read my mother’s bible and paid attention during mandatory mass.
I stepped away from the skeleton’s desk, the odor was getting overbearing. I went back to the main hall, lay on the floor by a water channel, and flipped to the first page of the book. There was no title, but a short note on the first page gave me the book’s name. The note was scribbled in the author’s hand and read,
“After years of scholarly research, travel, and experimentation, I, Ave, have compiled my knowledge of the medicinal arts and present it to the world for the benefit of God’s creations. Let it be known as the might of knowledge, of science and understanding, let it be known as the law, let it be known as the Cannon.”
A book on medicine? I thought. Well, why not?
I don’t know how long I lay there reading the Cannon. As a book about medicine, it wasn’t particularly thrilling, but the author’s voice spoke through the squiggles, and he was incredibly charming. Almost made me want to go back and hug the skeleton.
Finally, I reached the final pages. Ave’s knowledge of medicine was pretty basic, I’d had a better understanding of biology in the third grade, but I wasn’t reading it for the science anyways. On the last page, he wrapped up his opinion on the origin of disease and bid farewell to me.
The sun was lower in the sky and I wondered what I’d do at night. Didn’t seem like there were any lights around. I stood up, the Cannon still open in my hands. The back of my shirt clung to my skin, both with sweat and the droplets of water around the channel. I decided to read the next book in the shade. I closed the Cannon and it vanished.
I blinked and checked the floor. I turned around but it wasn’t there. I ran back to the skeleton but it wasn’t on the desk either. I went back to the open hall and sat on the edge of the fountain. The book disappeared as soon as I closed it but not when I finished reading. The Cannon’s disappearance made me uncomfortable but there might be another copy on the shelves. I checked the shelf to my right and scanned the spines for titles. I grimaced, they weren’t organized alphabetically or in any way at all, as far as I could tell. I checked the shelf above and below that one, as well as the ones to either side, but couldn’t figure out a pattern. I noticed that a few books were missing from some of the rows; did that mean there were other people here or that they didn’t fit into the system by which the books were organized.
As the sun dipped further down the sky, the blue dome caught my eye again. I’d dismissed the inscriptions on it as decorations before but now that I’d had some experience with the language, I could tell that those squiggles meant something. I recognized one of the squiggles, which read “House,” and brought to mind the book I’d picked up in the well.
I resolved to not close any of the books I finished reading, so they wouldn’t disappear, and stood up. After taking a sip from the fountain, I made for the bookshelves but my legs began shaking. No, the ground began shaking.
Steadying myself against a tree, I noticed how the House itself was still against the backdrop of rattling earth. The water in the fountain didn’t ripple nor did any books slide off the shelves. The dome caught my eye again, not because it was shining, but because it was rising into the sky. The palm trees and the pillars on the right followed, going up like a wave. Nothing on the left of the fountain – where I stood – was lifted but that wasn’t particularly comforting as everything that had been on the right was now almost directly overhead.
The giant marble slabs and pillars, and the uncountable bookshelves; all of it came crashing down. I closed my eyes and braced for impact.
It never came.
Instead, there was a soft pat. I opened my eyes and saw a kid, slightly shorter than me but dressed like a fifty-year-old business tycoon, standing in the middle of a forest with a green book in his hand. I recognized the book and the boy.
“You,” I began. “You’re the kid from the library.” He nodded and my eyes flitted to the book. He put his other hand over it, and met my gaze.
“Hello,” he said. “The name’s Demetrius Thornton. Pleasure to meet you again.”
“Jean Forster, likewise,” I said, taking a step forward. “Could I have a look at that book? It’s mine, I’ve been looking for it all over the place. Thanks for finding it!”
Demetrius blinked but didn’t respond.
“Fine, we can share. Just let me take a look.” I reached for the book.
Demetrius’ eyes widened and he stepped back. “No.”
“You can’t have it.”
“It’s my book.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Fine, it isn’t. But it isn’t yours either, so let me have a look.”
He inched back. I frowned and stepped closer as he bolted.
I ran after him. The underbrush was thick so neither of us made it very far, but he ran awkwardly, probably because of his designer shoes and suit. He side-stepped mud puddles and parted shrubs with his hands before stepping through. I caught up with him quickly, tears in my top and mud on my jeans.
His scarf got caught on a branch, and I tackled him as he struggled. He fell face-first into the dirt as my brain rocked inside my head from the impact. I wrenched the book from his grasp and tried to get away but he grabbed my ankle and made me stumble. I kicked myself loose, tucked the book under my armpit, and lifted a branch out of my way as I ran.
He caught up to me after a few too many thorny bushes and low hanging branches, but I’d noticed his approach and turned to face him as he tried to claw at my back. He’d hung on to his scarf by wrapping it around his front but I pulled it down and tried to run. He ignored the trailing scarf and ran forward to grab the back of my arm. I elbowed him with the other and decided to run back in the same direction he’d come from.
My boots squelched as they pushed his silk Hermes scarf into the slush behind the patch of mushrooms by the oak tree. He grabbed a fistful of my short, bristly hair, and wrenched my head toward the broken bark of the tree trunk. The rough bark scraped against my cheeks, making them burn red. I pushed back against the ground and pulled him toward me by the scarf still hanging by the frayed collar of his mud-splattered suit. His head crashed into my chest, knocking the wind out of me as I hit the ground. A bony hand reached for the book tucked under my armpit, so I shrugged it off and rolled out from underneath the boy.
He stood up groggily and steadied himself against the tree but I was on my feet before him, and kicked the back of his knee, making him flop into the puddle, scattering scummy water across his red tie and pointed chin.
“No, it’s not yours,” I said between rushed breaths.
He put an arm under his shoulder and propped his head up with his forearm. I was about to kick him down again when he rolled over to lay face up in the puddle. His hair-gel mixed with the water, making dilapidated, rainbow colored halos around his head as the filtered sunlight struck the murky puddle. He looked at me down the bridge of his nose, and smiled, revealing a perfect set of reddened teeth.
“You haven’t figured it out yet, have you?” he said. “You looked smarter than that, but I guess that’s just the cover.” Something changed as he said that; maybe his eyebrows became a little narrower, and more pointed, perhaps his shoulders broadened, or his cheekbones rose. I barely knew him but these changes made me hug the book a little closer to my side and keep my eyes fixed on him.
He brought his hands to the center of his body, and fumbled around for the buttons of his coat, found there was only one left, buttoned it, and pushed his hands through the puddle and against the slime underneath. He brought a soiled leather shoe into the puddle and rose, water dripping off his coattails as he puffed his coat, and spit the redness of his teeth to the side.
I put another hand on the book. “Don’t come any closer. I said we could share it, there’s enough in there for the both of us.”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded pensively. “True.” He began walking toward me in a gait that was very different from the one he’d had before. His legs were straighter, his chest and chin higher, and his feet landed firmly on the ground leaving prints, and parting every patch of grass down the center. “True. You haven’t learned the way this world works yet. Granted, I only figured it out a moment ago myself, but still, how regrettable.”
I ducked and tried to tackle him, hoping to surprise him before he reached me. I dug a foot into the ground, stopping inches from the puddle. “You’ve gotten faster.”
“You have no idea,” he said, his voice far closer than I’d expected. I turned around just in time to see his fist cover my field of vision. I fell back, face burning, head muddled with pain, and heard my feet sloshing through the water. I brought a hand to my face, and felt a tug beneath my arm as something slid out. I flailed to try and grab it but failed.
There was no splash so I turned, and saw Demetrius standing behind me with the book in his hands, and face inches from mine. I lurched sideways as his leg swept mine, and crashed just beside the pond, hitting the damp earth with a thud. Pain shot through my head as my body refused to budge, becoming just another blob of color in my swimming field of vision.
“You messed up,” said Demetrius’ voice.
“How?” I asked with a raspy breath.
“You were inside the House of Wisdom as long as I was, I presume, yet you didn’t figure out how this new world works. You’re either incompetent or incredibly unlucky.”
He continued in his smug voice, “So it was incompetence after all.”
I coughed and felt the wind blowing past the tears in my clothes; it was sharp but not malicious. The sunlight was almost completely hidden by the clouds and canopy, like layers of blankets over a sick child.
“Wisdom loves me, the warrior,” he said as I saw his blurry figure walk into the darkness of the forest, taking the House with him.
My limbs stayed stuck to the ground like iron rods, darkness encroached upon the edges of my vision, and my head began to float away. I managed to curse with the last of my strength, “God damn it.”
After a moment, there came a chuckle. “You haven’t even figured that out yet either? God is dead, in body, and on paper.”
My consciousness slipped.
- Nobody Knows Me
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