In this short story by Kristina Dimitrova, a mysterious customer reveals to a bookstore clerk the hidden gravity of the trade.
It was still wet from the rain and some of the paving stones gave way, soaking me with spurts of water. Many of the sidewalks in the city center do that; the meandering streets I have to walk down every morning and evening are like a minefield. The people who live nearby claim to know the neighborhood, but in fact they pass through it without paying any attention to what’s around them. It’s as transparent to them as a vial of bromine. An elderly client recently told me that she lived in a flat on the other side of the street, in the yellow building with no balconies. First of all, the building is not yellow but pale green and second, at the level of the third floor, there actually is a balcony that connects her building to the neighboring one. I know all about it, even though it is covered in ivy. She seemed not to be aware of it, though. I don’t blame her. Sometimes things just change without us noticing.
Unlocking the low door of the bookshop where I work, I found a stack of books on the doorstep, tied with twine. I have a good idea who the person leaving them is and I don’t like what he’s doing at all. We have fair dealings with all of our clients. But the one doing this is either testing me or trying to win my favor and I can’t tell what bothers me more.
Unlike other stores where a person has to climb up a few stairs to get in, with the bookstore, which is below street-level, the clients have to go down ten stone steps to enter the vast premises criss-crossed by wooden shelves reaching all the way up to its arched columns. More often than not, those who come in are not clients at all, but mere readers, or when it’s pouring rain outside, they are simply drenched people without umbrellas. In my mind, I prefer to call them “seekers”: first, they have managed to find the low door hidden in a labyrinth of narrow streets, and second, they descend into the gloom of shelves like speleologists with no ropes, not concerned about when or how they will get out. The cave of books around them is seemingly the same, yet constantly refreshed. Every night before closing up, I put newly purchased titles in the places of those that have been sold out. That way, no shelf is ever left empty, it just looks different the next day.
Sometimes, in the remote corners of the bookstore, I see marks scribbled with pencil or carved into the wood. I have to rub them off or fill them in with a special paste the color of the wood. Visitors assume all risk upon entering the premises, that’s how the instructions of the bookstore owner go. In fact, I’ve never seen him. He sends me his instructions by mail, in white envelopes. Once I wrote to him suggesting we put in brighter light bulbs because people find it hard to read the letters in the dimness of the store. He replied with the same words. I received a piece of paper folded into a square saying: “Visitors assume all risk upon entering the premises.”
I had certain ideas circling in my mind about how to revive the business a little—we could, for example, advertise the bookstore in the newspapers or leave brochures at dentists’ offices or similar things. But now I avoid asking him anything. When I have a question, I just imagine receiving a piece of paper folded into a square with the same message and that's the end of it.
Some “seekers” plunge straight down the stairs thinking they’re going into a tavern, only to bolt back out the door, panicked at having landed in a tomb. Others, for their part, can’t go a day without diving into this ocean of books. Actually, if they haven’t come by for a day or two, I know they must be sick, but if they still don't appear on the third day, I hope for their sake that they’ve left the city and in the meantime I try not to check the obituaries.
One of the regulars isn’t much to my liking, though. He’s slightly stooped, wears a striped brown coat and always gives me probing looks with his head tilted to the side. He likes clearing his throat even when he doesn’t have a word to say. That throat-clearing helps me establish how far he has gotten in examining the books. But he rarely buys anything. Once he brought along a neat bundle of books for selling—they were just like the ones I occasionally find in front of the door. It felt as if he wanted to make his presence known, as if he were trying to point out the relation between certain events.
A few days ago I heard him rearranging some books in the farthest corner of the bookstore. He was groaning as if climbing up the shelves, occasionally clearing his throat. I went around my walnut desk and rushed over to see what was going on. I found him with a ladder in one hand and three hardcover volumes in the other. He gave me a disapproving look, raising his chin and turning it to the side.
“Do you want them wrapped?” I asked him.
“They were in the anthropology section, but I would’ve put them in the theosophical one.”
I took a look at the authors—Jiddu Krishnamurti, Rudolf Steiner, Annie Besant.
“Yes, I would have, too,” I mumbled and pictured myself receiving a dismissal notice the next day.
He smoothed their back covers, cleared room on the shelf for them, and with a deft movement placed them between the other books. At that very instant, a thunder roared outside. Strangely enough, every time an unexpected rearrangement of a larger number of books is made, something outside changes. It’s usually the weather. When I fill in the vacant spaces with new books, the changes happen so smoothly that they are scarcely out of the ordinary. The yellow house becomes pale green. The attic windows of the gray house at the corner disappear. An entrance I’ve never seen before appears. More major changes, though, bring about unforeseen consequences. Once a rather clumsy lady lost her balance on the ladder and, in her attempt to grab hold of something, pulled an entire shelf of books down. Then a snowstorm raged outside and I was barely able to make it home because the street out front no longer led to the usual avenue—instead, it reached a river with a granite bridge over it. At both banks of the river flickered decorative lanterns casting a circle of light over the snowflakes. A couple of love birds emerged from the nearby coffee shop and I had to unwillingly interrupt them to ask for directions. They showed me the way without batting an eye and resumed their kisses.
Another clearing of the throat came.
He didn‘t utter a word, just kept staring at me with a probing look. He was resting the right side of his face on his palm, fingers drumming on his gray-streaked cheek. The sleeve of the coat ended in a greasy cuff. A bitter smile crossed his face like a swift moon passing over a dry planet. I was already positive he was testing me so he could send me another one of his little white notes. My hands began to tremble with desperation, but I decided not to give in, so I said: “Visitors assume all risks upon entering the premises, right?”
I may have said it in a slightly curt voice because an echo I had never heard before reverberated through the room. In bookstores, though, people usually speak in a low voice as if they might interrupt the thoughts of the books around them.
“Oh, is that right?” he exclaimed, tucking hands in the pockets of his coat and heading for the door. The instant I said the words, I regretted them. If he fired me the following day, I would have nowhere to go. I have no idea where they need people with the skill for sorting books by author and title on ten-story shelves. I hurried after him hoping that while I was trying to catch up with him, I would come up with a way to smooth things out.
He quickened his pace, practically running up the stairs. He nearly bumped into a soaking young man at the door. The two men stood there for a brief while, but I wouldn’t say that they were facing each other, as the young one was much taller and my regular visitor hadn’t even climbed the last step. In the end, the young man backed off to make way for the other and finally made it into the bookstore. Streaks of water were trickling from his dark hair down the long overcoat that was wrapped around him like a curtain. The body underneath looked so skinny it could well fit into a sock. Obviously the rain had brought him here because this was his first visit.
“Good evening,” he said. That really was the best evening I have been wished lately. His voice was deep and clear and it seemed he was speaking quietly because if he yelled, the windows would shatter to pieces. His forehead was gleaming like the inner part of a shell. “Can I look around?” he asked.
I waved at the maze of shelves inside and, much as I wanted to accompany him around the store, I sat down behind my desk, because I know just how much people hate you breathing down their necks while they are going through the books. They even forget to read the titles because they have unwillingly started reading with their backs and are watching me standing behind them. I breathed on my glasses and went on to clean them so that I wouldn’t follow him around in my mind. Suddenly I realized that a rhythmic rustling was coming from the inside of the bookstore.
He was rearranging books! I’m not sure what exactly prompted me: was it the rain that suddenly stopped and then lashed down again with a vengeance or was it the wind that hurled the raindrops at the door’s little window after this break in the weather? I ran to stop him. For a while I couldn’t find him because I couldn’t figure out which direction the sound was coming from. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a fairytale character who coughs between the shelves or leaves a trail of breadcrumbs so as to be able to find his way back.
I found him in the fiction section. He didn’t seem to need the ladder much.
“What are you doing?”
He looked at me with his big dark eyes and said: “I’m saving myself.” I stopped his hand short a second before he placed Doctor Faustus next to Steppenwolf.
“Let me do it,” he said, “Please, let me put the book there.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t let you do it! Everything here must stay right where it is. Sometimes the new combination turns out to be just fine, but sometimes the books can‘t stand each other and terrible things happen outside.”
I knew that it would sound incoherent to a stranger, but the authority I usually managed to invoke had no influence on him at all. Desperate and running the risk of being considered insane, for the first time I had spoken my mind. He took The Devil in Love and placed it next to In Search of Lost Time. A slight, almost imperceptible tremor ran beneath the flagstone flooring.
“Look, every new book, every rearrangement causes changes in the world, changes that people usually don’t notice, yet they do happen.”
“So you’ve noticed it, too?”
Before he said that, I thought I was the one springing surprises, but, in fact, it was the other way around.
“Yes, it is true, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said. His eyelashes were still wet and looked like some rather soft teeth of a saw. When you feel sorry for someone, you usually bend over them, but this time I was standing with my back arched backward in front of his long face and still I felt sorry for him. I had probably thought that I knew a secret only I could bear, but, in fact, I was facing another person who had to live with it, too. I no longer cared whether Mr. Crooked Beard was going to fire me.
The visitor took The Twelve Caesars and put it next to Light in August. One of the arches gave a warning creak and we were showered with chunks of crumbling plaster. He pulled back the book quickly and placed it next to Twelfth Night. The ceiling went silent but I couldn’t tell if something had changed outside.
“How do you know about the changes?”
“I brought them about. People make use of them constantly, but they have stopped noticing them. You, on the other hand, have seen them, haven’t you?”
I thought about it for a while. I had worked in the bookstore for ten years. But I couldn’t say I noticed them right from the start. After a while, though, I came to see the connection between some events, I began to observe everything carefully and to remember every detail. It was then that the changes came to light.
“For some time now.”
He flicked back a tiny lock of hair that was still dripping down his face and leaned over me.
“Ancient languages still remember them. In Aramaic they have one word for both ‘word’ and ‘action.’"
“So ‘In the beginning was the Word . . . ’”
“Yes, yes, it’s like saying ‘In the beginning was the Action.’ The goddess Seshat whose name means ‘to write’ was worshiped in Ancient Egypt as the patron goddess of building and architecture because ‘the world was built on her designs.’ That is to say, built on the names she gave to things so that those things were contained within their respective words and were thus under her control. The Japanese to this day believe that speech has a soul equivalent to the words it is composed of. Of course, that’s no longer a valid explanation. It’s . . . just a memory of some old explanation.”
He spoke quietly, calmly, with a certain despair that was discernible only on the fringes of his personality—in the corners of his eyes, on his fingertips, in the wet creases of his huge overcoat.
“I have never believed in mythology,” I said. “I have never seen anything that proves its existence in reality. There are no heroes around me. My mother died prematurely. I remember how we buried her in the ground and she did not turn into a bay leaf tree. I may have achieved little in this life, but I have done it all on my own.”
When I mentioned my achievements, I realized they wouldn’t last forever either, so I added: “Although now I know who the mysterious owner of the bookstore is and I won’t be surprised if he fires me tomorrow.”
“I doubt that,” he murmured and removed my glasses very, very carefully.
Everything blurred like a drop of ink dissolved in water, yet my eyes remained fixed on his pale patch of a face. I heard more books being rearranged but now I could see. I remembered having been on a cruise ship with my parents. I thought it might actually turn out that I had a happy childhood after all. The young man in front of me was still holding my glasses in his hand. I could see everything down to the smallest letter. How could have I thought for so many years that my vision was impaired? But, of course, it could’ve been a result of the books changing their places.
“Sir, did you . . . ”
“Uriel, my name is Uriel,” he laughed. “Such formality is unnecessary.”
“What kind of name is that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”
Maybe he was right and I just couldn’t remember. In any case, he was rearranging the books, something I didn’t allow anyone to do at all, much less right in front of me. I didn’t have it in me to stop him and what I said came out somewhat too late.
“Why are you rearranging the books, Uriel?”
He bent down slowly and sat on the floor beside the shelves. I sat down across from him. Uriel took my hands in his as if that was supposed to be some sort of an explanation. I could see he was pondering how to begin.
“I have been around for a long time. I had a mission. Do you remember my name now?”
I did remember then. I had come across it a long time ago in a longhand translation of the Apocrypha that a professor had left at the bookstore hoping it would spark someone’s interest.
“‘Uriel, the divine fire, carries a scroll and a book.’”
“Michael carries a sword, Raphael, the Healer, carries a walking stick and a gourd, Gabriel carries the Annunciation lily, Samael, Zadkiel, Jophiel . . . Uriel is one of the archangels.”
“Don’t believe everything you read. There aren’t always words for all that exists. I mean precise words. Some things look like an attempt to remember what has been before you were born. Like myths for example.”
I couldn’t say if we were getting closer or further away from a truth. His fingertips were dry and burning.
“Why are you rearranging books, Uriel?”
He bowed his head.
“Because,” he said as if talking to his crossed ankles, “I will be able to go back only when specific words and phrases come together in a particular combination. Then a gateway will open and I will walk out. But I don’t know the words. They just have to come together. Approximately every two thousand and thirty years I have the right to make these changes myself.”
“In 47 BC the Library of Alexandria burned down yet again,” I said jokingly.
“Yes, unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.”
I’ve heard that lunatics can be rather convincing in what they say and do. If that were the case, the person sitting opposite me must’ve been truly insane because I took his word with no explanation whatsoever. Or maybe it was that he had already earned my trust, because he knew the secret, too: the changes. That, however, would mean that we were equally insane.
“So tonight is the night, is that right?”
“Yes,” he said and stood up. “Please help me.”
He took a row of books from one shelf and moved it to the shelf below.
“Mr. Crooked Beard is sure to kill me tomorrow.”
“I doubt that. He knows nothing. He’s just circling and snooping around because he feels that something is up. But his eyes are not vigilant enough to see.”
Uriel went back to rearranging the books, this time a lot more feverishly. You could hear creaks, the rolling thunder outside, the rumble of concrete being dragged against stone, and then an unpleasant silence. I realized I had forgotten to ask him about something. I took him by the hand.
“Uriel, when you came down here on your ‘mission,’ did you know that things were going to turn out this way? I mean, did you know that you were going to remain captive . . . among us until . . . something up there works out as it is supposed to?”
He stopped briefly and smiled again.
“Of course I did. But visitors assume all risks upon entering the premises.”
He started hurling down thick volumes by the handful. I joined him. The books kept piling up on the floor in all sorts of combinations, one of which could’ve been the one we were seeking. The books I had been arranging for years fell wildly from the shelves, open covers flying down upon a growing mountain of colorful shamelessness. At a certain moment it burst into flames.
“There,” he said, gazing wide-eyed at the fire. “Now all the words will burn and once again I will have no way back. Maybe I will never go back.”
I gave him a hug. He was so thin that my hands easily clasped behind his back. He bent over me and pressed his face to my hair. The fire was already growing too large for the room to contain but that wasn‘t the important thing. Who knew what had happened in the meantime with the world outside. I drew a leather-bound volume nearer with my foot and stepped on top of it to get closer to Uriel‘s face. That was all I wanted. I thought he was crying without actually shedding any tears. I was certain something inside of him was weeping silently.
Maybe other sheets had snuck between the leather-bound tome and my feet, pages that had been torn loose in all that turmoil. Maybe the leather volume had landed on them. Or perhaps the fire had whirled the sheets around and two smoldering pieces of paper happened to come together as they swirled in the fierce wind over the flames. The latter seems less likely. I don’t know. But suddenly Uriel vanished in my arms. He dissolved into thin air and I was left hugging an empty overcoat.
* * *
Later they said I’d been found in front of the bookstore wrapped in a dark overcoat. It was an early January morning and I had been walking in the snow barefoot. They also claimed the bookstore was no bookstore at all but an old printing-house for advertisement materials whose ownership was currently under dispute. They explained all this in great detail. I had been discovered by some workers headed to their morning shift at the nearby electronics factory.
Of course, people will say just about anything as long as it saves them from seeing the truth.
© Kristin Dimitrova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Annie Dancheva. All rights reserved.