Pedro Ponce

The Library Shelves of Babel

The Library’s closure went largely unremarked, apart from a segment or two on the nightly news. Our screens filled with colored bars charting the inevitable: Maintaining books was too expensive. The city budget had been slashed. Key supporters had left the Library Board. In the live shot from downtown, the lights of the front lobby streaked the pavement beyond, despite the hour. Such waste was precisely what led city auditors to recommend closure, noted the reporter, pushing fruitlessly for effect at the pane of a sliding door.

Many of our last Library visits were years ago, for school, and these we remembered for reasons having nothing to do with the Library itself—the novelty of leaving class in the middle of the day, the teacher’s distraction as we boarded the bus, our chatter ignored as she counted heads, the free boxed lunch sealed with the arched golden emblem familiar from birthday parties. Perhaps we were, briefly, enthralled by the taxidermy displays on the second floor, the moose and calves grazing at the base of a waterfall, the shadows of snake and badger against the starkness of desert sand. But soon enough, we snickered knowingly at the artifice of painted backdrops and plastic vegetation, the anatomy bared in tableaux of nursing animals or prehistoric caves. We looked overhead, as instructed by an associate librarian, at the whale skeleton suspended over the entrance of Science and Technology. Mistaking obedience for attention, he proceeded fastidiously through the specimen’s provenance and natural history. The pallor of rib and mandible blurred as we fixed on the skylight far above, where the sun’s slow tilt teased us with the hours remaining before our release to dusky driveways.

The closure was an unfortunate necessity, we all agreed. Were there any way to stop it, we would certainly do our part. Some of us began petitions and fund drives, even as the first public works vehicles arrived to clear the collections for demolition. We happily lent our signatures and spare change. But when the news reported their failure—often by wide margins—we had to resist the urge to gloat. We had always chafed at the Library’s stillness and sterility. We could see now, not without some shame, that we wanted the Library gone, its vitrines shattered, its artifacts discarded, its volumes surrendered to wind and rain.

The problem started small. As work approached its seasonal apex, as reverie yielded to family routine, it was hard to recall the last time we had scanned the sky for the Library’s tessellated dome, the stilled face of the inset tower clock. From behind treasured picture books read as bribery for sleep, between nightcaps hoisted to televised laughter, we could feel the Library’s vacancy. Nostrils filled with the musk of marbled pages; fingers idled, remembering the crisp cards of the outmoded catalog, the texture of continents as we spun the globe in the street-level atrium. We came to ourselves in slippered feet, peering out through the gaps in closed curtains.

The intrusions proliferated, forming paths the further we pursued them. Over the straps of cocktail dresses and smoking cigars, glanced askance as we checked wallet phones, the ridges of an old volume emerged in our line of vision. Above restaurant booths, in a corner we hadn’t noticed before, a stuffed wombat from the time of Cortez, a twig bearing a hummingbird nest, a ten-cent piece inset for scale. We took our time coming back from the lavatory to confirm what we had seen. Indeed, the book spines and pedestals bore numbered labels typed long before we were born. The City seal appeared in purple ink at the fore edge of closed volumes.

The more we found of the collection—in pawn shop windows, outdoor bazaars, waiting rooms—the more vivid and inscrutable the uncollected, which piled at our feet in windswept detritus, and rose to the sky in towering opacities. The pigments on a pottery shard, the legs of a dung beetle, the oar recovered from the last great disaster at sea, all hinted at a secret order, now dispersed invisibly throughout the quadrants of the city.

Dissembling a growing panic, we approached the city’s representatives themselves. What had happened, we inquired, to the Library’s collections, so vast and comprehensive that a full catalog was never completed? We had no plans to claim any of what remained; to possess a mere volume or artifact would only recall the missing whole.

The contents had been claimed, we were told, before the call abruptly cut.

Popcorn and concession candy staled as we recognized the map pinned with a fictional president’s campaign strategy in the latest war room thriller. Volumes lent credence to law offices, hotel lobbies, bank vestibules, furniture displays. We stared through transparent reflections at the growing array.

We gathered outside the abandoned Library. If we encountered any barriers warning of impending demolition, they fell with little effort. The revolving doors spun smoothly as they gathered us towards the central stairway. We ascended the bowed marble, faster as we reached the top. Before us rose a ziggurat of empty shelves, diminishing to a point far above. The spaces between were wider than we remembered when, as children, we could barely run a finger between the bottom of one shelf and the row of books below. We tested the lowest rung. The surface was firm, withstanding the pressure of hands and feet. With some effort, we folded ourselves into place, nestling back against the dark concrete, the coolness of metal bracing our heads.

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Pedro Ponce is the author of Dreamland, a dystopian noir novel that is being published in serial form by the Satellite Collective’s online journal Transmission.