Size / / /

I see it on my shelf sometimes, tucked between the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Kari Gade's study of skaldic poetry. On other days it sticks out like a dejected crow among the seven small red books of the Medieval and Modern Welsh series, somewhere east of Pwyll and west of Branwen Uerch Lyr. I trace a finger on the spine—its faded dark blue leather tooled with tiny clover flowers, each petiole lovingly painted with a sable-tip brush as tiny as an eyelash.

That book is Teffeu, though the title is not on the cover.

Its pages smell of honey, with dusty and sweet notes of paper flowers that bloom on the flat roof of a house, a library that stands on the top of a lonely blue hill. Bees come to the roof and alight on the blooms that had once lived in books—books that had perished in fires and floods of forgetfulness. On the paper petals the bees look illuminated, gilded with time and traced by a hand that has never spelled rush. I had planted the flowers there myself, when I was a librarian under a thousand sunsets, but today, like any other day for years and years and years, I will not dare to open Teffeu.

There are thousands of books on my shelves here. Once, in despair before yet another big move, I called a company. The supervisor who did the assessment told me they had recently moved a small Jesuit college with less books than I owned.

I do not own the books. They live with me. In Russian, we say the books are by my side. I live in English mostly these days, but they live by my side in Russian, English, Old English, Welsh, Old Norse, Old Russian, Bulgarian, Homeric Greek, Modern Icelandic, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Yiddish. They are by my side, but no longer do we quite live together. Sometimes when I come down the stairs and open a book very fast, I see that all the words have gone missing.

I know where they go. When I was fourteen, my body resided in a tiny apartment with cockroaches and a broken wall, and three weeks had passed since my family immigrated to Israel. But there was another house I lived in, circular and ancient, with stucco walls painted in flowering ink that spelled itself into a thousand names for every sunset since the world was new. And I had made a library there, for all the books I'd ever want to live with me in all the languages, in all the alphabets and abjads, syllabaries and logographic scripts.

When my books empty out at night, they go to the library at Taarona.

But Teffeu stays. I feared, back when I was fourteen, that there might come a time when I would empty out of all my languages and of my caring. When I would touch a word inside a book, say, lleuyd, and wonder only mildly what it meant. That there might come a day when turning the pages to the end and looking up lleuyd in the glossary would be too much. I knew, and was afraid, and so one day, when staying in the Library at Taarona, I borrowed a book from myself against that chance. It has all the words I'll ever need. Inside the book, the words translate themselves endlessly, gloss themselves in every language that I knew, that I could ever learn.

I called it the Book of Ill Chance, and also Teffeu, in that language I invented when I was fourteen, only I no longer remember the meaning of the word, and it is too much work to find my glossary. It lives somewhere in a box, in the basement I've acquired after the tenth or eleventh move, across three continents in a zigzag pattern that never brought me home. And Teffeu is my key to home, to that hill and that library where my heart had been a beehive joyful with the succulent buzzing words.

Sometimes I think I'd open Teffeu, stare at the words as they translate themselves, pour from one script into the next in tiny incomprehensible swirls, talking to each other but never more to me.

And I am too tired to move again; I have forgotten the language of home. My roof here is flat, but I have not planted paper flowers. Every sunset I am somewhere where I cannot see it, at the office or rushing from errand to errand, from the doctor's appointment to the grocery store. When I am finally done I sit down and write, but it is never about a sunset.

I have not read Teffeu. I know that it holds a question for every answer I will need to unlearn to go home to the library at Taarona.

I no longer remember the way. I fear that all my books will go one day and not come back; I'll have to sell the bookcases, and the buyers will frown at the bowed shelves where volumes like How to Kill a Dragon and Linguistica Extranea had once been triple-stacked. I'll tell them I'm saving for an e-reader, only none of my books exist in e-book format. But I will pretend that they do, that a yellowish, sweet-smelling file of the Srpsko-Hrvatske Junačke Pjesme is just a few clicks away.

And after the buyers go I will look around the empty room and pick up Teffeu from where it fell in the corner, the Book of Ill Chance to read when everything goes. I will open it and I won't close my eyes, and it will not be empty.

No, not empty. Never that.

I'll know then, on that day, I'll be sure that the other me has never left Taarona.

She is a librarian. She is studying fifteen languages, and she riffles through the glossaries at the end of every book. She writes me marginalia that I read sometimes, when my books return. 'Please look out for the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, I misplaced it.' But I have never lived by that book, though I remember its gray cover, one corner eaten by a moth, and a triad I've always wanted to study. I find a used copy online and it arrives, dog-eared, its pages ready for the librarian's tiny hand, for the careful .005 nib so perfect for interlinear glosses. I add a small note for her—'found it'—and put the Trioedd to the east of the seven Welsh books. One shelf below is Teffeu, and I trail a finger on its spine, learn every petiole painted with old tempera the color of speckled eggs.

One day I'll open it and read it. It will go home with me, a long-overdue loan from the library of myself, and I will tell the librarian at Taarona that I had been ill for years and very late. She will fine me a thousand sunsets to watch while I read all my books once again for the first time, and dust motes will dance in the air.

One day, but not today. The work starts early tomorrow, and I have errands to run.


This story has been published as part of our 2013 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.




R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant and the Nebula and Crawford-nominated author of Birdverse stories and other works. Their Birdverse novella The Four Profound Weaves is forthcoming from Tachyon Press in 2020. You can find R.B. on Twitter at @rb_lemberg, on Patreon at http://patreon.com/rblemberg, and at rblemberg.net
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