You're walking in Baghdad. It's not quite sunset: the sky is magnificent with orange and yellow streaks and looming black clouds, better than any painting of Armageddon. To your right runs a river, and over the river arches the Triboro bridge, silver and silent and traffic-less. The silent bridge scares you, but less than the sky over it, bright and blue and empty, completely empty, of planes. You know the closer you walk to the river, the heavier the burnt smell will get; you know your eyes will begin to burn, your throat to itch and close and choke. Closer to the river, the wind will carry you the smell of fallen buildings undiluted.
You walk away from the river, but you can't seem to get away from the smell. Burning scraps of paper blow past you. Your boots crunch on shards of pottery, on stone blasted half to dust. You pass the man from the picture on one of the news sites, the librarian. He is still sitting there on that stone block, still weeping with his face buried in his hands. You'd like to be able to comfort him, but you have nothing comforting to say.
You walk past him. There's a broken stone tablet with markings you know are language. There's a heap of burning books. There's scraps of burnt parchment blowing like tumbleweed. There's posters, Xeroxed posters, blowing past too, color copies of smiling faces and names and *He worked for Cantor-Fitzgerald on the 103rd floor, please call (718) 555-4550 if you see him*. There's a building ahead of you, its windows smashed and its roof burning, and you know that it's a library, and that there's nothing you can do to save it.
Somewhere you hear explosions, but they don't matter.
A scrap of parchment blows into you, gets caught in your legs. You bend down to pick it up. It's in the delicate script that always reminds you of the Hebrew script you learned as a kid; as always, the realization Of course, they must be related follows a half-skip behind, bright with the glee of making connections, even the obvious ones, even the ones you've made and forgotten a dozen times before.
The paper says,
200 lbs tea
40 bags rice
400 lbs refined sugar
and you think of recipes before you realize that it must be a convoy list. (When you wake up, you will wonder what weights and measurements sixteenth-century convoys actually used. When you wake up, you will realize that their lists would not be written in English.)
You don't know what to do with the list, so you smooth it out and tuck it in your coat pocket. You have to bend it a little to make it fit, curve it to match the curve of your palm, but you figure that's got to better than folding it. When you turned the pages of nineteenth-century books in college, sometimes the corners would tear off at the touch of your skin. You learned not to unbend dog-ears because no gentleness you could summon was gentle enough.
You walk to the burning library. You're walking pretty slowly, because you're not exactly eager to get there. You know you should try to save the books inside, but you're full of dread. You don't want to enter. You don't want to have to see what's there.
It doesn't seem to matter how slowly you walk. No matter how long the library burns, it's never consumed.
When you pass through the doorway, you're someplace else entirely. The walls of books extend up forever, curving walls taller than skyscrapers. You don't even remember walking up to them, it's magnetism, you see them and you're there. And it's a shelf of your books. That's your name on the spines. The titles are from that series you planned in high school, the notes you scribbled endlessly in Social Studies and chem lab, the covers by the artists you'd always hoped would illustrate your books one day. You open the first book, the one you actually wrote the summer you were sixteen, and it's not what you wrote at all. It's better. It's the version you dreamed of and could never get down, the revisions you always planned to make and never did.
It is like rereading something you read once and loved and could never find again and forgot in the meantime, achingly familiar and startlingly strange.
"Nuala was always fond of those," a voice says behind you; you almost drop the book as you jump. "She always liked the imaginary-world fantasies."
A man bends over you, tall and flexible as a willow shoot. His hair tufts up like candle-flames and he wears glasses too far down his nose. You'd think his thin narrow face looked intrinsically merry if not for the expression of worry he's wearing.
"I wasn't hurting it," you blurt out.
Gently, he lifts the book from your hands and deposits it back on the shelf in exactly the right place. "I know."
"What is this?"
"It's the Library of Dream," he tells you. "All the books people ever dreamed of writing, all the books that never were."
"The plays Marlowe never wrote?"
"The final revision of the Renault manuscript her lover burned after she died? Jane Austen's autumnal novels? The completed version of Charlotte Bronte's Emma? Emily's second novel?"
He keeps nodding. You try for more obscure, though you should know it's futile; none of these writers are more obscure than you.
"The sequel to Lud-in-the-Mist? The sequels to The Island Under the Earth?"
"Most people ask after the last Virgil Magus book. But yes. All here."
You choke on what you really want to ask. "The library of Alexandria?"
His eyes are very kind. "Those books truly were, child. And now they're truly lost."
"It's not fair!"
He sighs. "We have Tom Stoppard's version of the contents of the library of Alexandria just a few rows from here. I think you'd like that."
"It's not enough!" You can hear your voice going screechy and tight and way too high; you sound hysterical and you're starting to blubber, and you don't care. "It's not enough! It's not fair! Where are the library of Alexandria and the national library of Baghdad?"
"You know where they are," the librarian says. "They're gone."
You scream in his face, wordlessly, scream in pure rage, scream loud enough to blow his hair back, and then you scramble up to the nearest shelves. You grab books--your books, anybody's books, it doesn't matter--and start throwing them on the ground. Paper ripping in your hands, book bindings smashing, books hitting the ground, books breaking breaking breaking. There's shouting behind you and then suddenly someone's got your arms locked behind your back. You sink to the floor, shuddering and sobbing and feeling like an idiot and knowing you've only made things worse, feeling like you've been gutted and everything that used to matter has spilled out onto the floor and smells like shit. You're crying and crying and crying, and you know it won't do any good, and you still can't stop.
Somewhere in the back of your head, the self-conscious twelve-year-old you used to be just really wants a tissue.
Instead, the librarian proffers a handkerchief. He waves off whoever had hold of your arms--through your tears and your peripheral vision you see something huge and blue and blobby and something skinny and overall'd with a pumpkin's head--and helps you over to one of the library ladders, so you can sit up on the steps and he can lean on the step above and peer at you with what seems like an amazing lack of rage.
You take the handkerchief and blow your nose. "Sorry," you mutter, swiping angrily at your face.
"Well." He clears his throat, sounding almost--embarrassed? "The damage I did to the west wing when I heard was--considerable."
You chew on that a while. Still looking down, so your hair can hide your swollen face, you steel yourself to ask. "Did you. Did you lose things here?"
"Oh, no. Dream-stuff is amazingly resilient, you see. There's nothing you or I could do to harm this library."
"So the--" You are too ashamed to ask about your own books. "So the other people's books are okay? The ones I ripped up?" Your hands smart with a thousand paper cuts, but you welcome the sensation. You deserve it.
"All of the books are, my dear." He pats your shoulder clumsily. "Don't fret yourself."
"All the books in the Library of Dream, you mean."
You press your hands flat onto your knees so you can feel the paper cuts flare up. "That's not enough."
"No," he says. "It's just all we've got."
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