Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part 1
In the work that follows the flood, I try to keep my mind on the books we drag from the water. I cannot. Instead, I am troubled by memory. Not of Diadon, or Triste, but of a day Mother Maiden came to me as I sat alone on the roof of the Tower.
"Do you know why I chose you?" she asked.
I entertained any number of possibilities. I liked to imagine she saw herself in me, or saw wisdom beyond my years, or any number of equally flattering ideas.
None were correct. "You didn't cry," she said. "Ten years old and your mother had died, and you cared more for the books."
I shrugged. The reason made no difference; she had chosen me. More importantly, the Cor had chosen me.
"We've been asked to provide the book of a murderer awaiting execution. This task must fall to you. You've little heart as it is, Carreth. You'll handle it best of any of us."
She held out a comb carved of walnut wood, the oils of its wearer soaked deep into the grain. "Like calls to like," she said. "To find the book of one living, you must rely on such tricks as this."
Nothing called to me as I walked the spiral of the Cor, the comb in my hand. Round and round the Tower, long hours into night, until it was as if I heard a conversation carried on a breeze, a tickle in my ear, the book betrayed by the echo of its self.
I put the book in a satchel and rode to Tralia on an old gray mare. In the town square, the prisoner waited, held in stocks before the makings of a great bonfire. Her shaven head offered no home for the comb anymore, and her eyes were dull, empty, though the lines of her face suggested former beauty.
I dismounted and studied the assembled crowd. A man stepped forward, the blue Mayoral sash tight round his middle. I reached into the satchel, my fingers reluctant to relinquish the unripe volume, but a calling demands faithfulness. The man grimaced as he took the book. At first I imagined his face showed pain, but then I realized it was pleasure he felt.
"Fire," he called out, and a lanky man brought him a torch. One touch to the tinder, and the fire leapt high.
"This woman has been found morally insufficient and guilty of the crime of murder. We have gathered here today, friends, townsfolk, to carry out the sentence of death."
His fingers were greasy. They left streaks on the soft leather binding, and he toyed with the ribbon like a lock of a woman's hair.
"The emissary of the Cor has brought us the book of this murderess. We shall now see what evil rests in her soul."
Honor. At the time I believed it honor that stayed my hand, prevented me from wresting her book from his greedy grasp. The honor of the Cor, my own. In the years since, I've wondered endlessly how I could have believed such a lie.
One yank to untie the ribbon. The woman did not look up, did not move, save for the twitch of one hand, fingers arched upward. The Mayor opened the book outward, the pages riffled by the wind, exposed for all to see.
It was unfinished. Here and there I could see writing, a few words to a page. In one spot emerald stained the vellum, brilliant in the sun. An unfinished life, no order to be found in its contents.
When everyone had gasped, had jostled one another and seen what they believed it their right to see, he held it close to the fire. The woman's hand opened again, and she closed her eyes. The pages curled slightly in the heat.
"Those who live in evil shall die in flame," the Mayor's voice boomed. He tossed the book into the flames. It hissed and spat like a piece of greenwood, then lit. For a moment it burned bright, the flames rushing through it, then it was gone.
The woman hung limp in the stocks. Everyone turned away, cats losing interest in a cold dead mouse. The square began to clear. Two men went over and unlocked the stocks, pulled the dead woman from them, and dragged her away, her feet leaving trails through the dirt.
I've no way of knowing whether the souls housed in the books we drag from the water live still. I've no real idea even of how to save them, but we open the windows on one of the upper floors and build a roaring fire in the fireplace. I take care to keep the sweat that runs from my face from dripping onto the pages. We open them all, fan the pages over the flames, rub rags to sop what we can from the wet bindings.
The ink bleeds from the pages and they cling to one another. Those that dry, do so wrinkled and swollen to twice their natural size. We work until late into the night, the steam rising from our robes, the sweat running between my shoulder blades and down the length of my back. At some point there are no more books to dry, no more drying we can accomplish. Our piles are paltry. There must still be thousands in the water, sunk to the floor, or washed out and down the river that owns the town. Did the people know what would come, did they have time to look to one another, speak hurried words, grasp their children near, or did they pass with the first wave, breath gone without a gasp?
At some point I look at Velue and he is crying. The tears stream down his cheeks. I cannot help but draw him close, hold him to me, touch my lips to the water on his face. His arms encircle me, and he smells of damp and ginger, his skin cold against mine. When he tries to speak, I hush him, as if he were a child, as if I knew how to care for a child.
At last we sit by the window, watching the patterns the rain makes on the back of the muddy water.
"We should search for their books," I say.
"They may be washed away," he says.
"It does not matter. We should look."
We divide the dry floors between us. I cannot help but think of those I knew were lost, and those I imagined to be so, of the damaged books, and of the prisoner I'd watched in the stocks, the motion of her hand. I bite my lip until the skin gives and the blood runs down my chin, but no pain comes.
The book chooses me. I've no way of knowing whether it belongs to Triste or Diadon, or someone else entirely—a child fallen from one of the boats, an elderly man grown heartsick till he could not continue on. I change into my blue robes before returning to the drying room. Velue has stoked the fire with what remains of the wood, and he stands before me as I untie the rose-colored ribbon and open the volume.
Somewhere within I'd believed it would be Triste's. I was wrong. Rolling hills, sunlight reflecting off a pond, pools of clouds seen from the top floor of the Cor—images I'd never have expected Diadon's soul to leave, and yet I recognize them as I once recognized his footfalls in the stacks, as undeniably his.
"This completed soul has bestowed upon us a gift, and in return we shall free it now. May we bless it as it has blessed us, and send it forth until it sees fit to return." Velue is my sole audience, and he watches me as if he has never before seen this rite, and I speak as if I have never before said the words.
I think of Diadon's long pale braid as I place his book in the flames. They do not linger at their task. I have not lingered at mine.
At first I notice a grassy scent in the room of the wet books. It is faint, and I close my mind to it, focus instead on our constant trudge up and down the stairs as we continue to move all remaining volumes to the top floors, far from rising water.
Velue does more than notice the scent. He stops, thumbs through the books, calls me in. "Look," he says.
There is a certain beauty to the mold. It begins as small black dots, growing in ever-increasing circles, black roses, midnight ivy traveling outward from the binding. Every volume we've worked on is destroyed—covers, interiors, the smell unmistakable as I page through them.
"Do you believe them already dead?" A whisper of a question, one I should not ask.
Velue ponders. "I've never seen a book go bad while its soul remained bound. I cannot believe they still exist." It is not what I want to hear, though I know it would be my answer were he to ask the same of me. "If anything, I worry they are trapped between life and death."
"But they are unfinished," I say. The pages crinkle in my fingers. We've not tied them closed, for fear it would trap moisture still, so when I lift one it opens, exposing half lines and squiggles, something that could be an eyebrow, a caterpillar, everything bleeding across the page.
"They are unfinished, but it is the way of things. All we can do is free them."
He's right. I know he is. It doesn't matter. I rage at him. I rage at the water, at the implacable uncaring water, which rises, which deadens my mind with its constant sound, which washes away everything, challenges the Cor, breaks down her doors and steals her lives.
When my raging ends, we gather what wood we can scavenge to be burned as kindling. I collect a few lanterns as well, and we empty their oil onto the sparse tinder we've laid. "It must be quick," I say. "If they do not catch this fire will not last long."
He nods. I take a sheet of vellum, touch it to a lantern flame, toss it into the fireplace. As soon as the wood catches, we begin to feed books into the flames.
There is no time to read each one. I doubt much sense could be made of any, were we able to look. At first I try to glance inside each, but eventually I resort to simply tapping the bindings as I pass them to the fire. I do not know what I believe. The easiest is that all are dead, that we are simply catching up on our chores.
In my heart, I believe it is as Velue said, that they are an army trapped between life and death. By burning the books we free them, and that's more mercy than I've ever shown another.
But the woman in the stocks watches me with her empty eyes, and her hand flexes with pain every time I open an unfinished book and cast it upon the fire. The heat builds even with the windows open, the sweat slicking my skin, and I curse the fire, I curse it and the anger rises in me. I fling the books into the flame, and they hiss and spit, the pages curling, catching, burning. The room smells ugly as night comes, and I curse the night as well, and the sun for giving us nothing, and all the while the rain continues, constant, deadening, indifferent.
I grab one last book, only Velue catches my arm before I can tear the ribbon open. "Carreth, look."
The volume in my hand holds no stains. The edges of its pages are unmarred cream. The neatly pressed ribbon appears innocent of any touch, water or otherwise.
I have nearly burned an unfinished and undamaged book. A new book, brought into being since the flood.
I drop it, yank my arm free of his hand. I am trapped in a moment made of them all—the dying prisoner, Triste, Diadon, Mother Maiden's smile as she told me I had little heart, even my mother, the hours of her slow painful gasps as I watched, hoped it would end.
I run, down the spiraling stairs. I do not go far before I meet the waiting water. Flotsam rocks gently against my toes—a slurry of paper and straw, a wooden ladle, a fish turned underbelly up. I know the smell that rises from the waves. It is death, and it laps at the Cor, at me, patient, waiting.
I rip the robes off over my head and drop them on the stairs. I dive into the water. The cold clenches me. I twist in the complete darkness, swing my fists and feel them slide through. My lungs beg me to surface and I do, only to find the surface unruffled, the water simply filling in around me in its persistent steady way as I float within it.
There is a splash, and Velue joins me. "Carreth," he says.
"No," I say, quietly, once. It is not enough, though, and I chant the word, release it to echo around us.
"Carreth, we could have done nothing. We could not have stopped the dam from breaking. That is what killed them. Not us."
"They are dead. They are dying. They are always dying."
"Yes, they die. But never has there been a time when the Cor is empty. There are rooms full of books above us, and among them there are the dying, but there are also the living, and those just begun. You know that. You saw it tonight."
My teeth chatter. The water feels endlessly deep beneath me, but it has risen only half the height of the Cor, and I have traveled up and down her stairs many times. Her measure is a human one, not an infinite one. The earth still waits somewhere far below my feet.
His tears, mine, they travel down to join the water around us. They are warm, and taste of salt, and Velue's hand is warm as well, as he touches my shoulder, motions me toward the stairs.
The light of the lantern flickers over stone and skin. Velue shed his robes as well before diving in, and he stands before me now, naked. My heated grapplings with Diadon taught me almost nothing of the shape of men, our bodies joined through layers of woolen robes shoved aside, our eyes gazing over one another's shoulders. The tracings of muscle, of dark hair and vein; there is beauty I'd not expected to find as I examine him.
These clumsy finite bodies. Their fragile dreaming souls. How can I ever have imagined myself capable of protecting them all, when I've understood so little of either?
We climb together to the top of the Cor, lie beneath the eaves, our arms round one another, and speak of a million things. Of the steps that led us to the door of the Cor, and the lives we left outside, of the pages we have read, and of what might wait in our own books someday, and through the night our words fall faster, denser, than the rain outside.
Books come ready. We find them as we tend the stacks; we become accustomed to reading for the unknown, to accepting that we can witness the print of a soul without knowing anything about its physical confines. For some time the collection grows smaller and smaller, and I cannot help my fear that we remain to oversee the end of everything.
Of late, we've seen new books added, though. Neither of us have ever witnessed one's appearance, but first the numbers steadied, then began to rise, here and there a shelf suddenly fuller than it had been the day before. The boats—some, at least—must still travel upon the water, or have found sheltered land.
At first the new volumes were joy enough to sustain us. Then, over a period of days, the rain began to change. Now and then the noise would break, a moment of dryness invariably followed by heavier downpours.
Then comes silence. The rain ends, a conversation held late at night, first loud, then softening, then whispers, then gone. We fling open the windows, shout from them, lean out for the sheer pleasure of having nothing dampen our faces.
That joy is nothing compared to the feel of the sun when the clouds finally break apart and its rays shine down upon us again. We grow drunk on its light, spend the day on the roof of the Cor, listening to the water drying from the rocks.
Every day a new step is freed of water on the staircase of the Cor. We can see the tips of hills above the water's surface. We wait, we tend the books, we sit on the roof, side by side, beneath sun, beneath stars, watching, watching the world return. Today, I can see a smudge along the horizon. It neither grows nor shrinks, but it bobs, as if rocked by waves—a boat, a flotilla, life.
We shall keep their books safe until they arrive.