A few years ago at a book study the people in the group were asked to write a short paragraph in answer to the question “What is God?”
An image popped into my head of a universe that operated like an infinite library full of books. Different books awaited different people. Some people refused to open their books out of fear. Other people refused to even believe the books were there. Still others believed that their books should be everyone else’s books, too.
At the centre of this universe lay the creative force; the nothing out of which everything arises. From that image, I wrote the short story “Open“.
(Dear Mom: Yes, it’s weird. But at least it’s not about dead people.)
© Arlene Somerton Smith
A book glows neon blue. It hums and flickers, waiting, hoping, amongst dark leather-bound volumes of all sizes on the dusty shelves.
A rumpled man lingers, sneaking furtive glances at the book. He checks over his shoulder, takes a tentative step forward and then retreats. He swigs Canadian Club, sways on his feet and scrunches his dirty hair with a trembling hand.
A woman in a simple brown dress approaches, lays a hand on his arm and smiles. “There are books for you,” she says.
His bloodshot eyes widen. He squares to the shelves and takes a deep breath. The book gleams for him. He staggers forward. Snatches it. The binding warms to his hands and the neon blue thaws to summer yellow. The smooth cover melds into the shape of his hands like it was created for him. The book purrs. The rumpled man slowly brings the contented book to his nose and inhales. “Homemade bread,” he whispers, “and fresh strawberry jam.”
The book vibrates gently. The man kneels on the floor and sets the book before him. His trembling hands open it a crack. A bright white light bursts forth and a fortissimo version of “Amazing Grace” ascends into the endless heights.
“Aaahhh!” He hurls the book away and scrambles backward to cower against the deep mahogany shelves, hands over his eyes. The book lies open. The dazzling light blazes up and amazing grace flows forth.
The deep mahogany shelves run in a vast circle around this library universe, filled top to bottom with tomes of earthy knowledge, manuscripts of mystical wisdom and poetic collections of rainbow-colored devotion to lure the senses of those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Around the circle, eight library ladders rest ready between eight evenly spaced wooden pillars carved with elaborately detailed planets, DNA strands, and star clusters. The carvings on these mighty totem poles quiver in shimmering light cast by tall ivory candles mounted on the side. Rivulets of molten wax form volcanic works of art on the ancient candles.
The deep mahogany shelves encircle a world of all kinds of different bustling people doing all kinds of different bustling things. At the heart of this universe, an immense orb of liquid light hovers and crackles with energy. At the very centre of this orb is the nothing that creates infinity. A still point. Zero.
The rumpled man cringes against the shelves, knees drawn to his chest. Through gaps in his fingers he peers at the book. The blazing light magnetizes him, unfurls his body and draws him on hands and knees toward the beam. When he reaches the open pages, he leans forward and allows the rays to illuminate him. His rumpled spirit breaks open and amazing grace flows through him. “So that’s love,” he says.
In another part of the circle the woman in the simple brown dress approaches two men at a cluster of café tables. They wear black Ralph Lauren turtlenecks and take long drags on Player’s Extra Lights. One man with black seagull eyebrows and Elvis Presley sideburns waggles a pointed black shoe at the end of an angular crossed leg.
“There are books for you,” the woman says.
One seagull eyebrow cocks with disdain and an angular arm reaches for his half-sweet vanilla soy latte. “Books? I don’t believe in books.” The orb of liquid light glows in his black eyes.
His friend crosses his arms and says, ‘There are no such things as books. You are crazy.”
The woman acknowledges them with a gentle nod and walks on. She comes upon a line of women, kneeling with their covered heads touching the ground. They all face the same direction. In front of them lies a single ancient book.
Next to them, men and women mill about within the enclosed walls of a fortress built out of books. All the book bricks of their stronghold are the same. A bearded man with a jagged scar on his cheek peeks through a cross-shaped artillery hole. He yells at the line of women. “That is the wrong book. We have the only right book.”
The intensity of their worship closes the ears of the praying women. They do not raise their heads or acknowledge him.
The woman in the simple brown dress continues her stroll around the space. She leaves behind the line of kneeling women and the fortress and stops to watch a crowded stream of people running in circles. Among the crowd, a businesswoman walks quickly, talking on her Blackberry; a lawyer in a black cashmere Hugo Boss suit checks his Rolex, clutches his briefcase and picks up his pace; a harried mother hurries by dragging two crying children behind her. They rush, oblivious to books within easy reach. They never glance at the orb of liquid light so close to them.
The woman in the simple brown dress steps into the stream of people. She stands unmoving, feeling the current wash by her. The businesswoman, the lawyer and the harried mother scurry by her again, and again, and again. Finally, when the lawyer approaches one more time, she reaches out and stops him with a gentle touch. He yanks his arm away and snaps, “Yes? What do you want?”
“There are books for you.”
He rolls his eyes and puffs out exasperation. “I have no time for books.” He checks his Rolex, clutches his briefcase and hurries away. The businesswoman and the harried mother rush by again.
The woman in the simple brown dress walks away from this distracted circle of urgency and steps up to a nearby laboratory. Researchers in white lab coats gaze into microscopes or examine blue or purple liquids in test tubes. Sulphurous steam rises out of beakers bubbling all around them. Books disappear and then reappear across the room. Sometimes the same book is in two places at once.
In one corner of the lab a teenager with electrodes attached to her head sits in a chair leafing through a book. A young female apprentice jots notes on a clipboard as she watches an electronic display of the reader’s brain. “It’s remarkable,” she says. “The brain clearly is responding to some sort of stimuli, but there’s nothing there.”
A scientist with magnifying glasses propped on the end of his nose scrapes dust off the surface of a large orange book and deposits the dust on a glass slide. He observes it through a microscope and scratches his bald head. “Just when I think I’m onto something . . .”
“There are books for you,” the woman says to the back of his bald head.
The scientist turns to her and leans back in his chair. “I’d like to believe you.” He shakes his head. “But tests are inconclusive.”
“You need tests?”
The scientist laughs. “Of course we do. We need to test and retest. Always come up with new hypotheses and experiments.”
“Maybe you’re testing in the wrong way?”
“The wrong way?” He shakes his head. “No. Science is the only way.”
“I’ll leave you to it then.”
Next to the lab, a man in a saffron robe sits in the lotus position facing the shelves. All the books in front of him radiate soft light. As she approaches, the woman in the simple brown dress hears the soft murmur of mantra ripple around him. She pauses. She listens. She shares in the meditative peace. Into a moment of silence, she speaks.
“There are people for you.”
Silence lingers. His mantra resumes.
A gentle scent of roses draws the woman to a group of people sharing a pool of the ancient candlelight together. Here a middle-aged bearded man leans back in his plush chair to feel the music of Mozart vibrate from old leather-bound pages. Across from him, the golden light of a small book reflects on the face of a woman with long dark hair. Her inspirational light whispers, “See the light. Make the light. Be the light.” Next to her, a young couple appreciate full-dimensional versions of the art of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo rising from glossy pages. Closest to the totem pole pillar, a serene young woman scribbles in a well-worn journal.
“There are books for you,” the woman in the simple brown dress says to the group.
The readers glance up. They see an iridescent angel glow.
The young woman sets down her journal and pen. “I know,” she says. “Would you like to join us?” She opens her arms to welcome the messenger.
© Arlene Somerton Smith