By Amal El-Mohtar
17 December 2012
In a cafe lit by morning, a girl with a book around her neck sits quietly at a table.
She reads—not the book around her neck, which is small, only as long and as wide as her thumb, black cord threaded through a sewn leather spine, knotted shut. She reads a book of maps and women, turns every page as if it were a lock of hair, gently. Every so often, her fingers stray to the book that sits above her sternum, twist it one way, then the other; every so often, she sips her tea.
"What is written in your book?" asks the man who brought her the tea. She looks up.
It is said, she reads, that a map drawn on a virgin's skin creates a land on the other side of the moon. Whole civilisations rise, whole empires are built in the time it takes for bath water and scented soap to tear its minarets down, smash its aqueducts, strike its flying machines from the star-sewn sky. This is likely nonsense, but as no one has been to the other side of the moon, it remains entirely possible.
The man blushes, then frowns. "That's nice," he says, "but I meant in your book. The one you wear. What is written there?"
The girl's lashes touch her cheeks. "A secret."
He opens his mouth to ask another question, then shuts it. He walks away.
The girl with the book around her neck sits quietly beneath a chestnut tree.
She reads a book with a halved pomegranate on the cover, a wasp stamping its black feet in the juice. She turns every page as if she were lifting a veil, delicately. The sun is bright against the paper, makes the words swim green against her eyes.
Another girl comes by, her hair curly, her step light. She wears a bag over one shoulder, and sits down near the girl with the book around her neck. She smiles. The girl with the book around her neck smiles back. The girl with the bag pulls out a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, a small jar of amber honey, and a knife; she begins to slice, to pair, to drizzle honey on the lot.
"What are you reading?" she asks, curious.
Once, reads the girl, only once, for never has this happened since, nor is it likely to, a bird lit down on the head of a young man seated beneath a peach tree. The bird's plumage was most fine, smooth as linen, bright as the afternoon sun drinking garden petals. The man could not gaze at it, but sat very still, so as not to disturb it; he closed his eyes, for even the barest flash of tail or pinion as it shifted about his scalp was painful to him, was too beautiful for his gaze. The bird whispered in his ear the secret to immortality, which involved the consumption of nectar, the building of a fire, and the bathing of his limbs in a sacred pool. So deep was the young man's gratitude, so fierce was his love for the beautiful creature perched on his head, that his heart burst in his chest and he died on the spot.
The girl with the bag, who had begun to chew her honeyed cheese and bread, coughs a little as she laughs. She wipes her mouth modestly and offers the girl with the book around her neck a morsel of her own. She accepts it, and they munch together in silence. Then, as they are rubbing their fingers together to clean the honey from them, the girl with the bag asks, "What is written in the book around your neck?"
She blushes. "A secret."
"Oh," says the other girl. They spend a few more moments together, before the girl with the bag gathers up her effects, bids the girl with the book around her neck a kind farewell, and goes on her way.
The girl with the book around her neck sits quietly on a jutting rock by the sea.
The sea is not quiet; the sea is an angry choir of dissonant voices, all taking turns striking their rage against the shore. The waves curl foamy fingers towards the rocks, smash their delicate salt bones to glass. Everywhere is a fine damp mist.
The girl has no book to hand. She pulls back the left sleeve of her raincoat, dips her fingers into a tidal pool, lifts a mixture of sand and clay from it, and tries to draw a map on her skin.
It is not thick enough; the wet sand will not make lines, only prickle her as it winds its way along her forearm. She pulls her sleeve back down. She looks out at the sea, at the gulls mewling, the crows cawing, and tries to think of a song.
A boy approaches the rock on which she sits. He looks up at her. She looks down at him.
He wears a raincoat too, grey as the sea, and a dark blue scarf around his neck to keep the damp from his throat. It is sensible; she does the same. They look at each other a long moment.
Then he says, "Would you like to hear a story?"
"It is said that once every five hundred and sixty-three days, two people will walk on the beach with matching raincoats. It is further said that every one thousand one hundred and twenty-six days, these people will have matching shoes. But it is rare as a bird with feathers linen-smooth, rare as a city on the dark side of the moon, that they will both wear books around their necks, and rarer still that those books will hold secrets."
"Come up," whispers the girl to the boy with a book around his neck. "Come up here."
He does, with his hands to the rock, his shoes like hers, his coat like hers. He unbuttons the collar, unwinds the scarf from his neck. There is a book there, the same length and width as hers, black cord threaded through its sewn leather spine, knotted shut. He reaches for the knot with slender fingers.
"Wait," she says, "wait." She unbuttons her collar, unwinds her scarf, bares her own book for the opening, bites her lip as she looks at him. "Are you sure?"
"I want to tell you a secret," he says, firm.
They open their books. They turn every page as if touching each other's cheeks. They read the same word, the only word, buried in each book's deepest heart, nestled up against its sewn leather spine, behind its knotted ribs.
When the tide comes in, it finds a clutch of soft grey feathers sticking to the rocks, spilling from the pages of two tiny books with no words in them. The tide yawns; it licks them like a cat; it tangles the black cord that threads them, knots them together, and swallows them into the sea.