The Sad Poet and His Library
I AM DREAMING. I’m dreaming of a city, a white city in the sun by the sea, a city of bells and birdcages, boatswains and ballyhoo, where heart-faced wenches lean bare-breasted from balconies to dry their hair among geraniums and the air is salt and soft and in the harbor sailors swagger from ships that bear cargos of spices. In this city a thousand doves live in the hundred towers of a hundred bells and in the mornings when the bell ringers toll a summons to the sun the doves scatter like blown ash across the tile roofs and light under eaves whispering lulling words to sleepers, bidding them stay in bed a little longer. And on the silver sky other wings rise.
The city is filled with parks and bazaars. In the cool of the morning vendors cry their wares, pocket watches, pomegranates, parakeets, silks and cinnamon sticks, kittens and tea cozies, amber, sandalwood, baskets and blue glass beads. Magicians pull scarlet scarves and coins from ears, troubadours pull ballads from lyres and mandolins. In the shade of fig trees old men play checkers, casting winks at passing maidens, and old women on park benches giggle and gossip watching their grandchildren flounder in fountains.
The diners push back their chairs. They finish their luncheons with coffee and brandy and black cigarettes, and beyond their conversations seagulls keen and waves gnash at pilings.
In the hot afternoons the whole city sleeps, shuttered indoors in whitewashed rooms while chunks of light crawl slowly up walls like bright sluggish insects.
In the evenings the heart-faced girls dance on the sand to the music of lyres. They dance near fires and the young men watch the lick of the flames on their oiled arms. When the dancing subsides and the fires withdraw their yellow talons and crouch beneath ash peering out with red eyes, the youth quench their craving with whisky and watch wings wheel among the constellations.
For some of the people of the city are winged and when the sea shifts in the morning they pirouette on pinnacles, embrace the air and skim the waves calling to the dolphins and sailfish beneath them. Their wings are long, their eyes aflame and when they sing their speech is half the speech of birds. They fly at dawn and dusk and sometimes, if the moon is full, if the wind is right, they fly at night, slicing the sky to ribbons with the edges of their wings.
. . .
At city’s edge, on the lower slopes of a hill, a small building of gray stone stands surmounted by dome and cupola, carven about with creatures, beings half human–half beast leaning from the walls as if striving for liberty. Beyond the great copper doors the floor is polished marble pieced in patterns and high on the walls and across the circular ceiling people are painted and some of them are winged. But most of the wall space is rosewood shelving and on the shelves are books, for this is a library. Among the stacked and voiceless words, in that scent of old leather and parched grass, a young librarian lives alone.
The books are ancient, gathered a century and more before his birth, and no one comes any longer to the library, only sometimes a grandmother might bring her grandchild to look at a volume of hand-tinted engravings, but they never ask to borrow. And when the librarian approaches bearing more books he thinks they might enjoy they glance at the covers politely and smile without meeting his eyes and walk back out into the sunlight. The librarian stands at the door watching, knowing they will not return.
His name is Pico. He is pale from days indoors, thin from forgetting to eat. He cares fastidiously for the library no one comes to, sweeping and mopping the floor, dusting the books with ostrich plumes, watering the irises that grow beside the door. He is vigilant against mice, silverfish, wary of fire. And he loves to read. He loves the whisper of the pages and the way his fingertips catch on rough paper, the pour of the words up from the leaves, through the soft light, into his eyes, the mute voice in his ears. He has read all the books, many several times, sitting at his massive mahogany desk in a corner of the room, the only sounds that of a bumblebee fumbling at the frescoes and the hiss of the turning pages.
In the evenings the librarian dons a blue velvet coat and a purple cravat and a black hat, the fashion of a prior generation, and with his pocketknife cuts an iris from the flower bed. Locking the library behind him he descends into the streets of the town and paces the cobblestones down to the sea, clutching the flower to his chest, smiling sadly at the children who shy away. Above the beach is a coral wall and he pulls a white handkerchief from a coat pocket and spreads it carefully upon the stone and sits there beside drying nets, watching the winged people as they circle and call above the salt water.
When they quit their cavorting and cant back across the beach returning to their towers he casts the iris into the swells and walks again through the town. He stops to buy bread, goat cheese, olives, pickled mushrooms and a bottle of milk and then returns to the library. He enters and climbs a circular staircase to the cupola, a little room open on all sides to breezes, though it has shutters against the rain. Seven black cats tumble from the windowsills and knock their skulls against his shins. He lights a candle and pours the milk into a bowl and they whine and rumble as they drink.
On the windowsill facing the sea are an embroidered cushion and a squat glass inkwell. The librarian sits cross-legged on the cushion nibbling at his supper and after a while fetches a leather-bound notebook and a green-and-gold fountain pen from beneath a mattress on the floor and fills the pen with purple ink and perched there above the city he writes poems by candlelight, or sometimes, if the moon is round, by that old light alone. He looks up often from the page, peering down over the thicket of towers where lamps are snuffed now and then like extinguished stars.
He has a stack of parchment, bought from a merchant who acquired it overseas, and sometimes he will take a sheet, rub it down with chalk and carefully copy onto it a poem from his notebook, twining fanciful creatures around the capitals, coloring them from a box of paints. When the paint is dry he rolls the parchment, ties it with yellow cord and over the knot drips a button of scarlet wax. Long after midnight he descends to the town, to a certain tower, which he climbs until he reaches a certain door. Beneath this door he slips the gift, then dashes back through the cobbled streets arriving breathless at the library. These nights he does not sleep and the mornings after these escapades does not open the brass-studded doors but sits on the windowsill in the cupola, not writing, not reading, oblivious to the cats whining on his lap, staring at the sea and the sky.
In the city the winged and wingless mingle in marketplace and café, but they live apart, the winged in high towers among bells and doves, the others below, beside the streets, and they say it has always been so. Yet sometimes a winged child is born to parents wingless and is sent aloft and sometimes an earthbound child is born to flying parents and must go to live a life beneath the sky.
And so it was with Pico. His mother had wept when he slid from her body, a poppied runt, with no wet wings plastered to his shoulder blades. She suckled him but knew he could not stay in the sky-walled room atop the tower where his first steps might send him plummeting to the cobblestones. So she found an old librarian willing to take an apprentice, and the boy grew up in that book-walled house and learned to read before he could walk. The old man died in Pico’s tenth year and the boy buried the body beside the door and planted irises on the grave, bulbs that bore dark blooms, faint tracings on their petals like the ghosts of words on charred paper.
The young librarian always went to the shore at dusk to watch the winged people on the wind, his mother among them. One evening in stormy weather a gust yanked a young girl into the surf where she floundered screaming, feathers waterlogged. Pico bounded into the water and pulled her to shore. He held her head while she gagged up brine and then her people dropped to the strand, wings drubbing the air, and they patted his skull and his mother kissed his cheek and they swept the girl away to a tower to recover.
Some weeks later as he read in the library he heard a flurry outside the door and going to the entrance saw a young girl, naked and winged, standing in the iris bed, and he remembered her face.
“You saved me from the sea,” she said.
“They didn’t tell me your name,” he whispered. “I don’t know your name.”
“My name is Sisi. And you are Pico, your mother said.”
“Do you like to read?”
She didn’t know how to read but she perched on the desk, feet drawn up beneath her, and listened as he spoke from a book and when he was done she clapped her hands, then looked around.
“All these books are filled with stories?” she asked and he nodded.
“Then teach me,” she cried. “Teach me to read.”
And so over the next months she came to the library every morning and he taught her the letters and the words and gave her simple books gaudy with pictures that she took home to her tower. But more than reading alone she loved to hear him read aloud and soon he began as well to tell her tales received, he said, from an inner sky vaster than the one she traversed.
“Tell me a tale,” she would beg. “Tell me, Pico.” And they’d sit together on the steps of the library, by the bed of irises.
“Somewhere,” he told her, “somewhere else lived a boy and a girl beside the sea and as they grew older they grew more transparent. At first blue blood vessels and then bones bloomed beneath the skin but soon they could see the shapes of the world behind their bodies, the shudder of leaves like shadows in the brain, a butterfly’s flutter in the mutter of the heart, beetles in the coils of the bowels. They watched wine whirl down each other’s throats and the sun rise up each other’s spines, stepping vertically vertebra to vertebra. Soon the only substance they obtained was when their bodies overlapped and so they clasped each other, peering for the vestiges of eyes, teeth, ears, smears against the landscape. And one day they kissed and disappeared.”
“You tell such beautiful stories.” She would ruffle his hair. “How do you think of them?”
“At night, when you’re flying, I’m dreaming.”
“I have dreams too but I can’t tell stories like you.”
“You can fly.”
“Yes. I can fly.”
. . .
Though it was not uncommon for the winged and the unwinged to form friendships, the companionship of Pico and Sisi caused consternation when she began forsaking her flights at dusk for Pico’s chatter. More often now she’d fly alone in the afternoons or late at night, listing lazily from wind to wind while Pico watched enraptured. They parted only to sleep.
The scandal erupted one day when her father spied them kissing in a borrowed sailboat. He had flown out to find her and when he spotted the two entwined in bilgewater near the reef he banged onto the wet planks and tipped Pico overboard to swim to shore.
After that they met in secret, though Sisi’s tribe watched her so closely she could seldom sneak off. She poured her passion into flight and slowly the splendor of soaring bore away her desire for stories and so one evening in the shadows of the library Sisi told Pico that he could never comprehend her, that her whole life was flight while he was doomed to trudge the dust, his lust for sky unrequited.
“But the kisses,” he said.
“They were only half kisses and this you know,” she told him. “I could never wholly kiss a wingless boy. The taste of sky is absent from your tongue.” And he felt that he knew this, that what he sought on her lips was what he lacked, and he beat his face with his fists and began to batter books about the room, barely hearing her whimper, “Now I’m going.”
He sat by the sea and wept. He sat in the windows of his cupola. He sat at his desk and words became his world. He read and read, and the stories became his only delight. And he found one day among the volumes of the library a fat leather-bound book with gilt edges to its blank pages and he purchased a green-and-gold fountain pen from a purveyor of curiosities and he made his own purple ink from oak galls and oyster shells and with these tools began to quarry poems, the pages filling slowly as stone dust fills a valley floor.
And sometimes he’d carry a poem in secret to a girl who lived atop a tower and whether she read it or burned it he did not know, for she never replied.
One morning as he trod the spiral staircase down to the library he saw that a mushroom big as a baby’s head had, with uncanny vegetable strength, butted up a marble slab in the center of the room. He plucked the mushroom and carried it to his desk and then returned to replace the square of stone. But as he bent over the hollow where it had lain he glimpsed a pale curve that he took for shell or root, but when he’d brushed the dirt away saw was the flank of a porcelain jar. He pulled the jar free and placed it on the desk beside the mushroom, thumbing crumbs of soil from its lip. He withdrew the clay stopper, reached a wrist into the mouth, and lifted forth an ebony box. Trembling, he prized away the lid and found, beneath old oiled silk, a single sheet of folded paper that splintered along the creases as he splayed it. In the opal morning light Pico bent to read:
I am old and the city burns below me as I write. All the towers are flame and the breakers blush. In my room above the city, sitting above books, I scrawl a missive to you who will follow, for though the library will burn, yet it has burned before and been rebuilt, books brought from islands beyond the horizon to fill the shelves. The line of librarians will remain, of this I am certain.
The winged have flown, or died as they fled the torched towers, arrows in their breasts, and in the streets the fools, soused on destruction, perpetuate their folly. The whole city by dawn will be cinders. My prentice, a wanton lad swayed ever by the masses, claimed before he set off to join the mayem that a winged boy had loved an earthbound girl and, forbidden by his parents to have her, had drowned himself in the sea. The books of this library are filled with such tales and, whether true or not, they kindle the flames that now flit on this paper. When will the wingless learn that the wings are within them, that their very seed feeds their envy, that from their own loins the feathered lineage will resurge?
From readings of the books of this library and from the tales of my predecessor, I have surmised that the fabled town of Paunpuam, the morning town, lies not over the sea, as some say, but eastward beyond the forest. Counter to contemporary insistence, the older volumes claim that the forest indeed has an end and is traversable to one with fortitude and good fortune, though its trials are manifold, fearsome. And beyond the forest are other obstacles, named and unnamed, before one reaches the ruined town where one may read the Book of Flying and gain wings.
I will arise now and cache this letter where flames may not find it, though you will, you have, how many years hence. I will shoulder my knapsack and set off toward a figment and will find it or perish in the undertaking. I see them swarming from the city now. Some have strapped severed wings to their forearms and flap them insanely and all have bloody feathers in their hair. I must make haste. I got to seek my wings.
That evening Pico built a fire on the hillside, well away from the library walls for like all booklovers he feared inferno. He roasted the mushroom spitted on a green stick and pondered the letter it had revealed. The fable of the morning town was known to him, from snippets in books, from street chatter, whispers of a faraway place, a school for flying where the flightless might gain their wings. But though that town had inhabited his poems, his dreams, until this day he’d guessed it a forlorn gesture, desire manifest in story. But this predecessor who’d paced the same stone floor, who’d curled likewise in the windowsills of the cupola, had worn this story like a coat, had pulled it over his feet like boots and set off into the forest while his books burned behind him.
He broke a morsel off the mushroom and placed it on his tongue. The flames at his heels suddenly swelled into the world all around and he gazed through a gauze of heat across a desert amid whose sands stood a ruined town and into the tawny air from cropped towers and toppled arches leapt, like lifting leaves in a dust devil, winged people rising to the sun. Over the morning town of Paunpuam the winged ones circled, and then the night once more drew close and Pico plucked the hissing mushroom from the coals.
The following morning he rose early, pocketed a few gold coins and walked down to the bazaar. Among the barking hawkers he wandered, pausing to peruse the knickknacks, brick-a-brac, trinkets trundled here from ports beyond the world’s edge. He pondered maps of strange lands, curious cloths, queer caged birds, and the merchants cajoled him to part with his coins.
He bought a compass cased in brass, a supply of candles, a small tin pot with a wire handle, a corked water bottle, a ball of twine, a gray woolen blanket, an oilcloth groundsheet and a canvas knapsack. He searched the tailors’ stalls till he found shirts and trousers of tough stuff. From a cobbler he purchased a pair of sturdy black boots.
“Voyaging, are you?” the cobbler cocked an eye to the pack, and Pico smiled and replied, “I leave on the morrow to seek my wings,” at which the cobbler grinned uncertainly and bent to his last.
With the remaining money Pico bought a jar of pickled herrings, a loaf of crusty bread, several smoked sausages and a round of hard cheese from the food stalls and returned to the library with his provisions.
. . .
At dusk he plucked a last iris and descended a last time to the shore, to the coral wall to watch the winged people. He thought Sisi had never flown more prettily, her wings bright as mica on the granite sky. Pico did not know whether she saw him that evening, for she never looked down, and when the winged people swept overhead to their houses, arabesqueing, he cast his iris into the surf in a gesture sorrowful but also reverential for he had witnessed his heart’s desire fired by the art she revered, reveling, revelatory, glorified.
. . .
So the poet, in baggy trousers tucked into red and white striped kneesocks, in new boots and a blue work shirt, an old-fashioned hat on his head, exited the library at sunrise. The books were all in order and he had swept and mopped the floor and carefully he locked the door and placed the key under the mat, though he left the cupola shutters ajar for the cats to get at their last saucer of milk. He swung his knapsack to his shoulders, staggered slightly, swiveled welling eyes to the town where bells binged and bonged and wings big and small sprawled from towers to greet the sun, and then he turned to the forest.
At first it seemed he could make no headway. Thorns snagged his pack, snatched his hat, the creepers coiled about his thighs, and he could barely see. But slowly his eyes focused to the shadows and his heart quit its capering. He cut a staff from a bush and with its aid began to struggle through the wood. After what seemed like hours he straightened and looked behind him and almost wept to still see slivers of sky. His yearning for home was suddenly so strong he nearly turned, but then remembered the vision in the fire, the wings above the desert, and he set his fingers to the next vine and the next and when later he looked around again found himself in unsundered darkness.
In late afternoon his knees buckled and he slumped against a tree root and lay looking up to the sieved sky. After a while he pulled free of his pack and rummaging in it found the water bottle and the loaf of bread and he ate and drank. Scratches hatched his hands, his clothes were rent, hat battered. In the absence of his clamber the sounds of the forest surfaced to his ears, far coughing, close rustling, a gibber, a twitter, a twig crack. Lovebirds pulsed like painted hearts in the twilight, a snake swept past, tongue flickering from an arrowhead.
As the light failed he cleared a space in the undergrowth, gathered sticks and lit a fire. He filled his tin pot with water, hung it from a stake above the blaze and spread his groundsheet and blanket nearby. The root made a shelf to hold his ink bottle and pen, his leather-bound notebook and three favorite books borrowed from the library, books sturdy under the weight of rereading. A book of poems, a dense novel, a volume of queer stories. When the water boiled he added chamomile flowers from a cotton pouch and poured the tea into a cup. In the round room his fire made, the poet read and wrote and wept a little, sipping chamomile tea, looking up now and then to stir the coals, lay on twigs. Early he slipped into uncertain slumber, his pack his pillow, and several times during the night sat up sputtering, fingers staving off figments, leopards, adders, men, then lay back, hand to throat, trying to quell his dashing heart.
In the morning the forest seemed friendlier, the bird stammer merry. He blew the embers into flame, brewed himself a mouthful of coffee, toasted a slice of bread, then packed his possessions, peered at the compass and pursued his path eastward.