I entered the library with nothing but a pencil and the sixth volume of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights.
The Houghton Library at Harvard University houses an army of treasures. I visit it regularly for research. It is a beautiful place, a classic example of a rare book library. Wood-panelled walls, oil paintings in the main reading room, a foyer with marble busts, a spiral staircase ascending God knows where to but leading down to the bathrooms. Some of the documents at the Houghton are simply priceless. As a historian I feel nothing but reverence for them. Take the Dr. Johnson collection for example (invaluable!); or that glorious eleventh century manuscript, MS TYP 202, with an illustration of Bede the Venerable presenting Bishop Acca of Hexam with a book that he himself has written–the Book of Judith from the Vetus Latina–an outstanding, early example of meta-drawing. I would take a bullet for many of these books; and yet, and yet…The impulse that drove me to temptation was unlike anything I had felt before. It went beyond the shy thrill I had felt before in the presence of the Houghton’s other jewels, that puerile and covetous knee-jerk reflex that dissipates when the mind steps in to stabilise the heart. But this was different.
This particular document was not held in high regard by the Library. It did not belong to any of its special collections. It had been erroneously catalogued, evidently, and some of its more fascinating features had escaped whoever had curated its entry. The monk Dondraluus of Abysynnia tells us time is a river that flows backwards. According to him, the future is what has already happened, but our restricted point of view does not allow us to differentiate it from the past. Nietzsche, of course, talks about the Eternal Return: time as an ever-spinning wheel, concentric circles with the blueprint of History playing over and over again. Claptrap, I used to say. Or, if one wished to show a more indulgent disposition, we might call these ideas rudimentary philosophy. At least that was my view until I came across the diary.
It was written in French, by a Spaniard. Ten or twenty pages into the text the author had hand copied a letter. According to his commentary, embedded within this letter was a long passage found in a roll of vellum dating back to the seventh century, Anno Domini. That document was not the original either, but rather a first-hand translation of a papyrus that had once belonged to the collection of translated documents housed at none other than the Serapeum itself. The entry in the diary that spoke of the letter was dated 1816, the diarist a man by the strange name of Nándor Custos-Hora.
Normally, I would have ignored this sort of Babelic drivel. As anyone who has dabbled in translation knows the practice really ought to be called mistranslation. The translator’s essence, in spite of his professionalism and attempts at objectiveness cannot help but contaminate the text; no one is hermetic. Meaning, as we know, is an elusive bird that not only nests in words but is made of them too. Translation is not that different from transmigration, and the translator becomes a vehicle for the reincarnation of the ideas of another. But the context for the new text is inevitably different, and meaning is contingent on context! This is in the case of a first translation based on the original, of course. When a document has been sieved by as many hands, tongues and centuries as this…well, I have no interest in such things. Or so I thought.
I sat down with the volume of Burton’s Nights and my #2½ pencil. It took Mary, the librarian whom I have known for about fifteen years, less than five minutes to find the diary and bring it to me. She placed the item on the desk and I thought back to last Thursday, when I first came across it. An unsettling feeling had taken hold of me early that morning after hearing on the radio that the singer Otis Redding had died in an airplane crash. The news was followed by the announcement of this year’s literary Nobel: a man by the name of Miguel Asturias. I may have heard Redding’s name before; Asturias I knew nothing about. But the strongest déjà vu I have ever experienced ground me to a halt as I walked from the sink to the breakfast table in my kitchen. The sensation, like a bad aftertaste, stayed with me all morning. I went to the Houghton that Thursday afternoon hoping to cheer myself up. I already had a stack of other documents to get through when I came across the diary. I was about to skip it altogether, but the familiar curiosity that has driven my career gave me a shy shove in the ribs. I started leafing through and a line caught my eye:
The Hypermarket is big and sells almost everything.
That word, Hypermarket, made little sense to me. I kept reading:
The shelves in the aisles are stacked up so high you can’t see the last one. Going from one section to another usually takes time, so it’s important to plan your visit ahead. The last time my mother and I travelled from the Canned Vegetables section to the Meat section–a silly decision we made on the spot without thinking it through–we had to wait a full day for a ranger to show up and escort us. Apparently, the roads are no longer safe.
On our way to the Meat section I picked some flowers. There are parts of the Hypermarket where the linoleum floor gives way to moss and a young, tender turf. There are some–those who have travelled to Health and Cosmetics–who claim there are trees as tall as shelves there, with things living in them. These are old wives’ tales and no one even knows if the fabled Health and Cosmetics section really exists. I once saw a fawn, though, prancing around aisle 202.
There is a cemetery. Mum says we went there once, when Father died, but I don’t remember. I was very young and the cemetery is too far for me to go and explore on my own. Our village is by the lake, so we’re not far from the Fish and Seafood section. It is a very small village though, a hamlet really. My aunt used to live with us until she married. Where she lives now is a real village. She and her husband are next to the Bakery. My aunt has grown fat since she married, not because she’s heavy with child or anything as tragic as that, she’s just fat. Everyone who lives by the Bakery section is fat. She visits us every fortnight or so. When I hear the buzz of her motorized trolley I run out of the cottage in excitement. No one in our village owns a motorized trolley. Usually, the day after my aunt visits, when Mum and I walk down the main road we get looks (either of envy or admiration, I’m never sure) for having such a wealthy relative. I like it.
My aunt usually brings me something, wraps, or bagels or a baguette. I love them. When they’re still inside the paper wrapping their smell makes my mouth water. There’s nothing like biting into a crunchy bun: the first moment when your teeth, after considerable effort, break the outer layer and fight their way through the rest of the firm, nourishing mass. Mum says it’s good exercise for the jaw. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, Auntie will bring us a piece of aged bread too, the expensive kind, and we get to sample the bits of greenery that are considered a delicacy by those in the know, meaning the people who live next to the Bakery, like my aunt.
My aunt’s husband is well-off. He doesn’t work for the Bakery section, but he owns a small business that transports flour and other ingredients–yeast, salt– from the Baked Goods section on the other side of the hill, to the Bakery. He owns a fleet of five or six electric trolleys and I think he has a few of the manual ones too. No one really knows who works for the Bakery section, or any section for that matter. Hypermarket workers don’t live with us. They pass on the product, sometimes give us information if they’re in the mood, but that’s all.
My father was a fisherman. His business was never as big as my uncle’s but he used to catch for people who sold his fish to the Fish and Seafood section. Mum says he died in a very silly way, easily preventable and yet so common these days. We were on our way to get some eggs. The carton was down to two and we needed to stock up for the week. Mother says she told me that morning that just because I hadn’t seen them, it didn’t mean hens weren’t real. Where else would the eggs come from? They just were, I told her. That would be like saying that fish from the Canned Fish section grew up in cans, Mum replied, and I had seen Father hurl them out of the lake and into the dingy with the net. That made sense. I don’t, by the way, recall any of this conversation, but Mother has told me about it many, many times. So, my Dad and I were walking down the woods on our way to get some eggs, Mum had straggled for some reason. And then it happened: an entire box of canned dog food fell from the sky. The fog was thick that day, so Mum couldn’t even tell what shelf it came from. Apparently the box hadn’t been stacked properly. My father died instantly. A can hit me on the head, on my right side, and I have forgotten many things since.
Sometimes, Mother gets really sad with memories of Father and starts to cry. If Aunt is visiting she’ll say that Father would have been proud to know he died the way he lived: doggy style. I don’t understand what that means, but Mother laughs until her tears dry out, and then some more. I like to see Mum happy like that. Aunt then brings the spinning wheel out of the closet. The two of them cackle and hug each other for a while, then start working on their yarn. They can spin for hours.
Three weeks ago, a rack collapsed. One of its shelves started to buckle, gave in, and then the whole thing came down. Seven people died. I wasn’t there, but my next-door neighbour–I always forget her name–saw it happen. Mother says we live in perpetual fear that something like this could one day signal the beginning of the end, that one day a rack will fall sideways and push another, and another, and another, until the entire World comes crashing down…
Mother and I live on the pension she receives from the Pet Food section for Father’s accident. She says what we’re left with after Inter-Section taxes is a pittance. Twenty-five per cent of our pension is taken by the Cashiers. They say it is being turned into Food Stamps under Mother’s name, which she’ll be able to collect when she turns sixty. She says we’ll never see a single stamp.
Mother works too. She stitches the hems of tea towels that are delivered to our home every day. Hundreds and hundreds of them. We don’t even know what Section they’re for. She’s been doing it for years. At one point Mother thought about sewing her own things, little garments maybe, to sell here and there. She decided against it in the end. It is very unlikely the Cashiers will find out, but if they do, you are in trouble.
The Cashiers normally travel in groups. They are assigned to different areas of the Hypermarket, on rotation. Old stories say they were once stationary, that they lived in little houses at the end of the world, all lined up like jars of pickled vegetables, and after visiting a Section you would walk up to a Cashier and pay your taxes. As if you could walk up to a Cashier without fear freezing your legs! Like the Health and Cosmetics tales, these are the kind of stories that talk about cards of credit, men with the power to release the hidden forces in the atom, poisoned baked apples and coffee shops with mermaid flags. They’re good stories.
The Cashiers’ uniforms are black. That’s all they wear. Men and women grow their hair to the same length when they become Cashiers, so at times it is difficult to tell them apart. They carry long knives, thirty centimetres or so, made of rat thighbone. They patrol different sections of the Hypermarket in the name of Peace and the Law, but they are usually the ones disturbing both. Unless we owe them money we stay away from the Cashiers.
The Hypermarket knows what we take. I don’t know how it does, but it does. Mother says there are a thousand eyes watching in the hooting of the owl and the sweeping of the mop. So we all pay our debts. That’s what the Cashiers are there for: to collect what we owe. Sooner or later the Cashier will get you. Most of us pay them back willingly, but there are some who don’t. There are those who take from the Hypermarket without giving in return, Insolvents, whose actions threaten the very fabric of our society, Mother says. Thankfully they are a small group, so small they have almost disappeared. When the Cashiers find an Insolvent you better run fast or look the other way.
Mother and I left the village today to see Aunt. She was supposed to visit us no later than a quadrant of the sundial. She is very punctual, so after an hour’s wait Mother said something must have happened to her. We left the village, wrapping ourselves in our shawls against the biting Aircon from the North. I feared the worst. I kept thinking we would come across my aunt’s abandoned trolley on our way to her village. A few weeks ago, as we were getting ready for bed, Mother and I heard a pack of rats howling in the distance. I’d never heard that horrid wail before. It made my heart beat fast. If Aunt had been attacked by a pack of hungry rats her trolley would still be there, by the side of the aisle, probably. But what if she had chanced upon a band of Insolvents, their nature much more vicious than the rats’? They would have killed her and taken her trolley too! Oh, poor Aunt.
We walked as fast as we could. The aisle to the Bakery Section is a wide one, so wide that you can scarcely see the shelves on either side. It wasn’t well lit today. The turf was still wet, as though covered in morning dew, unusual for the hour. Mother was very quiet on our way there. In fact, she didn’t say a word. I wanted to make her feel better but had no idea what to say, so I kept quiet.
The distance to Aunt’s village seemed longer than ever. I pictured every metre we walked divided into centimetres, each centimetre halved and halved again, and again, and again, until Mother and I were lost in that small infinity, unable to reach my aunt’s house, choked by our own anguish and misery. I was wrong, of course. We did eventually reach Auntie’s village. When we did I wished we had gotten lost in my imaginary abyss.
We saw the smoke even before we got to the top of the hillock. Mother and I started to run. The sprinkler system was on, but in spite of the heavy rain falling over Aunt’s village, the fires roared. Maybe the sprinklers had gone off in other parts of the aisle too, and that was why the turf was wet? I wish I hadn’t seen Mother’s expression. Oh, I can’t even describe it! She took off, running down the hill. I followed her, tried to tell her to stop and wait for me, and
And that is where the copied excerpt of the letter comes to an end. I read the rest of the diary in less than a week. There were no other examples of the letter anywhere else in the document, and no discussion of it either, aside from a single sentence where the author calls it “a charming tale, fit for the nursery.”
Normally, I would have hand copied it–that is what a researcher does, of course. That is what I have always done. But I could not help myself! Mary the librarian never suspected a thing. No one did. I carefully ripped out the flimsy pages and placed them inside the Arabian Nights, where they disappeared like leaves in a forest.
Volume six of the Nights has rejoined its brethren in my study. I have not opened it since that last visit to Harvard. Out of guilt, I have not been able to visit the Houghton since either, which breaks my heart. The volume manifests itself in my dreams, the stolen trove it keeps is persistently, disturbingly constant in my mind. I know that if I open volume six on the 602nd Night, the most magical of nights, the inserted pages will be waiting for me, a testament to my shame, but more importantly, a challenge to the weak scaffolding of my reality. That time is an illusion, or rather, an example of a myriad variations of times that stretch and overlap, contorting and spinning back upon themselves without us ever noticing the difference, is a horror I do not care to entertain. And yet, and yet…Today, I sit in my study gazing at the bookshelf that houses volume six of the Nights, and I cannot help but wonder whether the events I write about have already happened, or are about to.