|The world and the word were both born from silence. Order drawn from
chaos; a way of defining that which is beyond definition; a way of telling
the person beside you what you see - how things appear from your place
in the mess; a means of hope. Maybe that's why I love words. I admit I
am addicted to the written word. I cannot remember a time when I was not
addicted to it. My mother read to me before I was born, and she kept on
reading. I loved words. I read my first book when I was three, wrote my
first story when I was four, and was hooked on Shakespeare by eight. Written
words are not like people; they demand commitment, but not consideration.
They do not turn around and alter their voice and their meaning when you
turn away from them or give them to another. They provide doorways to places
where security is guaranteed. Always.
All of that so I can say I'm a writing major at Amberg. I remember when I started here; I was so proud of being a writing major, so excited to be around other writing majors, and so sure that the man for me to love was right around the next short story. Unfortunately, I was wrong on all three counts. Writing profs don't know or care shit about critiquing other people's work. One quarter of all writing majors are manic (depressive or hyper, take your choice); one quarter of writing majors are on some sort of a cause kick moral (or immoral) or otherwise; one quarter of writing majors are too good to even consider anyone else's work; and one quarter of writing majors are interesting and worthwhile people. Oh, and the man for me to love doesn't exist outside the pages of a book.
So why am I still here? Good question. I ask myself that quite frequently. Maybe because someone was stupid enough to offer me a job here. Maybe because I've gotten comfortable here in this city. Maybe because I still have a few personal demons to exorcise. Maybe because I love Amberg at night.
My friends are always talking about Amberg at night, but they all feel differently about it than I do. Having been reared in a Romantic literary tradition, I tend to like the edge of order where the organic steps in and leads one into chaos. That sort of thing makes most people nervous. Take Jess for instance. She likes to hang out at the Rim and some of the other places up on the North side, but she doesn't really get into the other side of things - the part where there are no nice little yuppie grunge kids. Don't get me wrong, I like the Rim too, but there's so much posing. Look, I know image is everything; I live my life that way just like everybody else, but you shouldn't have to impress yourself when you're living your private life.
Besides, there's so much to learn out here. I know most of the "weirdoes" In the city. And we get along. Probably because I accept them the way they present themselves. Take Benny and his gang. They say they are faerie, and they look like a post-Goth nightmare. So they're post-Goth faerie. I can live with that. At least they know what they are; that's more than I can say for myself.
So I wander a lot - and work a little. Don't get me wrong, I still write a lot, but I can't seem to drum up the excitement and creativity I used to have. I read some of my old stuff and think, where is the person who came up with all of these wonderful ideas? Nowadays I think there is more of me in the spaces between the words than in the words themselves.
No doubt that sounds a bit like cynicism, and perhaps it is. Perhaps if I had been looking at the lines instead of the incipient chaos between them I wouldn't even have seen him. Or he wouldn't have seen me. I know I did not see anything unusual about him at first. He was an old man in a battered and shapeless coat of a nondescript colour who emerged from a shadow between the ornate corners of two buildings on the south side. I know a lot of the homeless folks in Amberg, and some of them are the most interesting people in this town. Like Arthur - who has a PhD in art and spent most of his life as a consultant to Southeby's, only to come home to massive debt and a dead wife. Or Judith, who has read more books than most people have ever seen, and chooses to wander the streets with a cart full of her printed friends rather than trusting the fickle flesh and blood kind. But this old fellow wasn't one of those.
It was twilight - the sun just disappearing between the Proctor Tower and the Amoco building. I was slouching down Dutton, stalking a story I had almost invented in a coffee shop two nights before. It seemed to have gotten lost somewhere in the crema of a cappuccino and I thought that perhaps a long walk in the chilly dusk of Amberg might find it again. Besides, it gave me an excuse to see the night embrace the city, rooftop by rooftop, and, fancying myself an artistic type, I relished that.
"Looking for a story you don't know yet, or a dream you've forgotten?"
He was over eight feet away from me, and he spoke softly, in a voice that sounded like silk sliding across ebony. But I could hear every word as if it were being whispered in my ear.
I shot a quick look behind me, but I was the only one on the street.
"I beg your pardon?" Always wished I could talk as well as I could write.
He chuckled softly, the lines in his face blurring in the darkening dusk.
"Come," he said, turning back toward the shadow he had emerged from, "have a hot cup of coffee with me, it's going to be a chill night."
I followed him. He was interesting. There was an archaic burr - an odd accent clinging to the edge of his speech that I could not quite place, and he fascinated me. There are times when instinct is a good deal more powerful than reason, and watching the outline of the old fellow blurring into the twilight I knew it was one of those times. We spend most of our lives doing as we have been taught, but there are moments when we suddenly, inexplicably do as we will on a basic, unabashed instinct. Besides, I like to think I do not run on the borders of acceptability but rather tread on both sides of it. Self flattery, no doubt, but it gave me a reason to follow. And I did.
The shadow dissolved into an alley, and I followed the blur of coat down it until it faded into a patch of darkness pooled at the side of the street. Picking my way around the litter of the alley, the pool of shadow gradually resolved itself into a dark doorway tucked in among the dumpsters and fire escapes. Drawing closer in the fading twilight, I saw markings half worn away, stringing like a lonely caravan across the door. With unabashed curiosity, I squinted at the peeling paper fragments in the fading light, tracing the shapes their pale paths made across the dark surface. Guessing at the lines that would fill the dark gaps in the tracery, I made out the words "Connell St. Bookseller." More flaking paper and pale lines told me there had been words below, but the fading light left them impossible to read. Hesitant, I put a hand against the latch of the door, half expecting and half hoping it would resist the pressure, but it swung easily at my touch, and I caught a scent of old books, fresh ground coffee, and spices whose names I could only guess.
The battered wooden panel opened without a sound, but I stopped it before it swung more than a quarter of the way in. With tentative step, I slipped through the opening, burning with a curiosity tinged with just enough apprehension to make it delicious. I relished the feeling. There isn't much these days that creates that kind of curiosity. Childish delight leads to childish impetuosity, and when you are not a child, impetuosity tends to have deadly consequences.
It took a second for my eyes to adjust, for the twilight inside was several shades deeper than that in the alleyway behind me. It was more than evident that the building had been deserted for some time. The scents that had tingled with promise outside the door were replaced with the musty smell of dust and the sick-sweet odour of garbage. Bookshelves tilted at odd angles, bound together by the lacy filigree of cobwebs, looking like some bizarre cubist comment on literature. The last rays of the sun filtered through a window, spotlighting the dance of a million dust motes and suddenly reminding me of the days when I had poured out reams of badly executed Wordsworthian verse desperately striving to grasp the little wonders of life.
The dust clung to everything like memories to a dying man. Everything, that is, except a neatly delineated strip beneath my feet. Slipping across the floor, a darker shadow in the deepening twilit world of shadows around me, a neatly swept path flowed deeper into the shop.
I followed the dark walkway between the skeletal bookshelves, feeling as though I were walking into some obscure fantasy or science fiction film - the light was fading outside the window, wrapping its last rays around the sharp geometry of the bookshelves, casting twisted shadows light on dark on the floor and anything else in their path. Led on by the scent of the promised cup of coffee, I followed the twisting path, feeling, for the first time in years, like the adventurous heroine of my childhood dreams. I thought I had given up years ago on being the heroine of anything -- right about the time I realised I was too cowardly, weak and generally screwed up to save anyone or anything. Yet in the twilight I found myself with a bit more pride, a bit more panache, indulging in the forbidden fruit of anticipation.
The path ended as abruptly as it had begun, and with no greater indication of rhyme or reason, broadening its narrow width into a small round space cleared of dust. One of the shadows circling its edge moved as the old man rose from his seat atop a stack of books.
"Welcome." He greeted me, a cut-out of grey velvet in the world of deepening shadows, "have a seat and a cup of coffee. The world is a cold place, but coffee is the sustainer of the soul."
Two cups were perched atop another stack of books, strangely clear and white in the shifting twilight. Stepping into the cleared circle, I folded myself onto the floor and gingerly lifted one of them. The aroma rising from it spoke of dark roasted beans edged with some spice that I could not quite put a name to.
"Arabian." The old man lifted the other cup, his fingers outlined dark against the porcelain, "no doubt some of the best coffee in the world." He tilted the cup to his lips, and I could hear the sputter of air as he sipped at the liquid. "Arabian coffee." He turned toward his stacked-book seat, "even it has a story, you know."
I sipped the coffee, relishing the sweet slowness of its flavour and its warmth. "Which is?"
"Of?" I looked suspiciously at the shape of the back still presented to me, still indistinct in the dusk.
"Life." He turned, "Life and the stories that hold it together."
"Some days." I shrugged, inhaling the fragrance, "some days I'm a collector. And some days I only collect the darkness and silence between the stories."
"You see a difference?" He paused, and I could hear the soft rustle of fabric, "Here." I caught a sudden movement in the shadow, and a shape dropped neatly into my lap.
Setting the cup back on the makeshift table, I lifted the book from my lap. I needed no illumination for my fingers to recognise the soft touch of leather as I stroked its cover. The pages crackled as I fanned them, bringing an unfamiliar smell to my nostrils on the tendril of air that reached my nose. Without thinking, I brought the book close to my nose, smelling it.
"Parchment smells like nothing else." He took another deep sip of the coffee, leaving me to touch the empty pages with wondering fingers.
"I've never seen anything like it" I marvelled.
"There isn't anything like it. Not anymore."
"Is it a journal?"
"It," he stepped toward me, bearing with him the scent of cedar and spices, "is power. For what good is a world full of bricks when one has no mortar?"
"How many people do you know?"
My mind careened through a thick catalogue of friends and acquaintances. In my mind's eye I drew up faces from Amberg's carpeted halls to its dark alleyways. I remembered arriving in this town and being afraid I would never get to know anyone, and now I knew...how many?
"Perhaps over a hundred all told."
"And together they make up your world?"
"I guess so."
"What holds them all together in your mind?"
"I..." I paused, unsure, suddenly nervous. A wild, childlike fear of the deepening darkness and the shadowy old man almost choking in its intensity stabbed through me.
"You." He leaned toward me, "Your knowledge of them, and their perception of you are the little things that keep your world from falling apart. The mortar. That is what should fill the book."
"I don't understand."
"Good." He nodded, evidently satisfied with my confusion, and turned away from me. "Great things grasped too quickly are never grasped fully." Moving across the swept circle, he gathered up the pair of mugs. "Now go home before the night grows too chill and too light for you." He chuckled, a dry sound that seemed to permeate the air rather than to move through it. And he stepped out of the circle, blending into the darker shadows beyond.
I don't know how long I stayed there. I know that the shadows had all blended from greys into a half-seen palette of blacks by the time I finally slid to my feet, still clutching the book. Slipping outside, I shrugged my coat closer around me and blew an experimental plume of breath up into the cold air. A single star glinted at me, bravely shining through the smog and city glow. Squinting up at it, I caught sight of another and another peeping through the darkness. And I admired the velvety black of the night between them.
Sticking a hand into my pocket, my fingers brushed the familiar prickle of a pencil point. Maybe it wasn't too late to stop over for a cup of coffee and try to write something.