She thought for a while. She is six years old and it looks cute when she thinks, but that doesn’t mean her thoughts are any less serious for it. Finally she answered. “I don’t really know what they say,” she said, “but I know what it means.” She looked up. “It is like a different language that I once knew, and I still know it, but not so that I can translate it.” She didn’t seem startled by her own words, but she tried to make it still clearer for me. ”It is a bit like in a dream, or when you remember something that has been said a while ago, and you still know what it was, someone said to you, but you can’t make them say the words to you again in your memory.” She smiled at me. “So, I can hear them, and I don’t know the words, they have a lot of sounds in them that we don’t make, but I do know what they mean. Kind of.” she concluded. “Kind of?”, I sake, still trying to get used to the fact that she could hear them in a way that I could not.
may the Lord of Misrule not end as a wicker man but be allowed to see to his fields in spring hereafter. barren were the lands of our neighbors when saturn was still allowed his share of the human mind and barren be our own if we allowed this tradition to be continued. whatever name you might attach to the greedy deed – accident, mischief, malevolence – thou shall not partake of the feast and not grudge nor join your neighbors in their well deserved merriment. instead hold in your heart for twelve nights the coming of the light.
I did not stop at the reception desk but walked straight towards the staircase leading up to the first floor. I felt confident, no adrenalin rush this time.
A demanding voice stopped me: “And where do you think you are going, Miss?” I stopped dead in my track. This was not supposed to happen. I turned around slowly and walked over to the reception desk. A no-nonsense woman, maybe in her mid-fifties, observed my progress critically. When I had reached the desk, I put on my nicest smile and stated: “ I have an appointment with Prof. H. I can just walk straight up, thank you.” “Prof. H.?” the woman inquired. The buttons of her starched and ironed shirt strained against her quivering bust. “Yes,” I answered, leaning over the polished desk a bit, lowering my voice, “I have been working on an assignment she gave me.” That did not seem to impress her much. I waited. “Feeling a bit funny, aren’t we” she answered without any expression. I changed my tactic: “Please, M’am, why don’t you just call and ask her,” I suggested. “Her office is on the first floor.” We stared at each other. She slowly turned red. “Where do you think you are,” she finally hissed, “a fancy hotel? Wall Street?” She exhaled deeply, then inhaled again, as if she was practicing her yoga breath. The shirt buttons were getting a good work-out which I noticed as a detail despite my growing annoyance. Why wouldn’t she just let me find my way as was custom in the building or at least call up? I was certain that Prof. H. wanted to see me just about as urgently as I wanted to see her. But the reception desk lady behaved like a dragon in front of a lair. I thought I could even smell her foul breath. “Listen, missy,” she snarled “I don’t know what you intend by walking straight into a men’s homeless shelter and I am sure I don’t want to know. I do not care whether you are looking for your daddy or grandpa, you have to wait until they come out. What I want, right now, is for you to leave this building through the front door and not bother me any further.” I took a step back. Men’s homeless shelter? I looked around. This was unmistakably the same lobby I had crossed through the last time. “Now. Missy,” commanded the voice of the dragon lady “… or I will call the police to see you out.”
I woke up when a hand was gently nudging my shoulder. My neck was stiff. I was still sitting in the library chair. Dr. Hausner was gone. “Miss, I am afraid we are closing.” A woman’s voice. I looked up. Ms. Clarice stood right next to my chair, smiling. All other visitors were gone. I got up drowsily and carefully checked the window reflections, too. All visitors were gone. “Are you alright?” Ms. Clarice inquired. I looked at her closely. Her small golden earrings reflected the fluorescent library lights, transforming the miniature reflections of the library on the convex mirror of the gleaming curves into a warmer, more elegant version of the actual space. An alternate space more suitable for someone like Dr. Hausner than the mundane space of Summerville library.
“When did Dr. Hausner leave?” I asked. Ms. Clarice narrowed her eyes. She ignored my question. “You must be very tired,” she replied, “go home and sleep.” “Did you see him?”, I insisted. “Go home and sleep, Miss, I have to switch off the lights now.” I wanted to protest but she anticipated my notion and gently shoved me along. “Come back tomorrow,” she repeated, not unfriendly. We walked down the staircase together.
There was nobody downstairs either. From the winding staircase I could see the lower floor breathing calmly. The tessellation of the carpet tiles looked like the exposed skin of an ancient creature. An empty library is a marvelous space. Really any space empty of people holds some kind of promise that seems to disappear once it gets populated. When I slowed down to linger on the staircase, I felt Ms. Clarice’s warm hand on my shoulders again, encouraging me to continue down the last few steps. I sighed. “It’s beautiful, the library, “ I said apologetically, “at night, I mean. When all the visitors have left.” We reached the ground floor. I took care not to step on the lines of the irregular tile pattern. I have never been quite able to just move without paying attention to the rhythm of any kind of tile, responding to it in some way, and today was not the day to start with it. Ms. Clarice remained silent while I gingerly crossed the open space. I wondered if I ever would get used to people not answering. Strictly speaking, I had not asked a question though. Ms. Clarice looked the kind of woman who did not have an appreciation for idle conversation.
She waited patiently while I balanced over to the cubbies to pick up my bag. I pulled out my jacket first. A small piece of paper trundled to the floor like a feeble bird. Folded from yellow legal paper. I bent over and picked it up. Ms. Clarice was still waiting for me at the door, so I simply slid it into my pocket, shouldered my bag and walked over. She still smiled, never once complaining about the delay. “Good night now,” she said simply. I nodded. She locked the door right behind me. It was cold outside. When I turned around, the lights in the library had already been switched off. The building looked deserted. I started walking into the evening.
“Recordings of what?” I inquired. His smile faded. Again it seemed like he was listening to my voice retreating in the library. “She said you were smart,” he remarked, more to himself. I was not sure that was supposed to be a compliment or a reminder to himself. “Who said?” I cut in. I had the uncomfortable feeling of him looking at me again and I felt reprimanded without him saying a word. “Sir, please, who said that?” I rephrased my words.
“Never leave a question before it has been answered,” he advised me, not answering either one of my questions. He fell silent. I stared at him, then lowered my glance, then looked up at him again. He could sit perfectly still, looking very much like the archetypical image of a blind man. It seemed to me, again, that I noticed more visual detail than one should notice. More than I could process. The crease of his pant legs, the way the fine wool fabric folded itself, the nuanced shadows in those folds. His white, chiseled hands, holding on to the walking cane even as he was sitting. And yet, despite or maybe because of the rich details I had an increasingly hard time focusing on him. It was like reading a book when you are very tired already and you can’t focus on the words. You are still reading them mechanically but you do not get their meaning. He faded or rather he diminished in size. He diminished in size but gained in clarity. I wanted to protest. I had a million questions. He looked like an illustration, I thought, feeling very tired, like one of my mother’s illustrations, done in a myriad of very fine, sharp lines. And each of these lines was emanating a fine, very precise, white light.
My mother was busy preparing dinner and answering questions my sister had while sitting at the big wooden table and doing her homework. This evening she was coloring and cutting out the states and gluing them in the right place on a map of the US. Both my sister and I hated coloring in worksheets and my mother had brought out her expensive Sennelier pastels to persuade my sister to employ some effort on the task. The map as far as it was completed looked like a beautiful velvet patchwork quilt. You can’t achieve that with your Crayolas. I wondered whether her teacher would be able to appreciate the difference.
Montana was already pasted in its proper place. It was colored in layers of gorgeous deep Indigo and now, with a vengeance, Phoebe was wasting pale Vermillion Orange on Idaho. I sat down at the table and watched her. There is something nice about a little kid coloring in even if she detests it. My mother walked past me and ruffled my hair in a distracted way. It was just as much part of her dinner routine as cleaning dishes right after using them. For a moment I was back in a comprehensible, friendly world. No opportunistic cannibalism, no aliens. Phoebe pasted Idaho on to her map and contemplated color choices for Washington State. “Why do they have to be different colors?” she complained but her heart wasn’t in it, you could see that she did enjoy choosing a new pastel stick. According to my mother you can never work with materials that are too good and you should always strive for beauty but I still felt a bit doubtful whether you actually needed art pastels to complete this kind of homework.
Phoebe still had the whole west coast and Alaska to color and paste and she grunted disapprovingly as she studied the worksheet after cutting out Washington State. Washington was going to be Cinnabar Green. I liked the way she held her tongue between her lips when she had to cut something out or color something in. She looked a lot like Plinius, our cat, after his dinner when he sits down on the table and probably contemplates dessert choices waiting outside in the dark beyond the kitchen door. Phoebe looked like that whenever she was focusing on something. Right now she smeared Cinnabar Green all over Washington. The pastel stick made a fat, smacking sound on the paper. At the kitchen bar behind us my mother cracked an egg. The splintering was very clear and pleasing to me. I thought that recently I had been much more perceptive to small sounds. Only this morning on my way to school I had stopped to listen to the sparrows hopping over the path to the front door of our school, their tiny claws scratching the bricks. How much does a sparrow weigh? 35 g?
Phoebe looked up. “Mommy?” she asked. My mother looked up from her mixing bowl. “Which language do they speak in California?”
As a matter of fact, Dr. Hausner had started talking again. The low drone of his voice brought me back from my existential self-doubt to the mundane world of the Summerville library. Or not so mundane as I had just recently discovered. I drifted off again as if lured away by my own obsessive thoughts. What was real? What was dream? Where was I when I wasn’t aware of myself? Where was I when I was asleep in my bed? I pinched myself hard to make myself listen to the melodic voice of the blind man by my side.
“Normally they go about their own business, “ Dr. Hausner concluded at that moment. “But of course they are bored.” He seemed to be thinking for a moment, folding his elegant white fingers in his lap. Then he added: “Even in the library.“ He sounded incredulous as if that was an incomprehensible idea. “But what are they doing here?,” I ask. “Where do they come from?”
Dr. Aaron Hausner cocked his head as if he was listening to the retreating sound of my voice slowly travelling into the distance of the library, finally getting caught in some shelves, its individual corresponding vibrations disintegrating and archiving themselves alphabetically in the juvenile fiction section somewhere between Susan Cooper, E.L. Königsburg and Madeleine L’Engle. “Dr. Hausner,” I whispered, “do you remember me?” He smiled. “You sound tired,” he observed instead of an answer, “I say, you don’t sound well at all.” I felt a brief wave of frustration and annoyance. No one ever answered my questions. But then the warmth of compassion in his voice reached me and to my surprise I felt my eyes filling with tears. I swallowed hard. It had been a while since someone had showed an interest in how I was feeling. We sat in silence for a while. Dr. Hausner didn’t press for an answer, and I sat back, not feeling the pressure to make any kind of conversation. There was a strange, comforting feeling that he kept me in his focus even though he didn’t inquire any further. We sat almost next to each other in silent company. I felt real and alive.
I don’t know whether I was crying. I might have been. There were a few moments when I felt peaceful. But after a while the questions came sneaking back to my mind. They were destructive and very smart about it. And I started feeling agitated again. Hell, I didn’t even know whether this grandfather, his reassuringly old fashioned, three piece suit clashing with his white skinned, bare feet in biblical sandals, who was providing me with his compassionate company, whether this man actually existed. He immediately sensed my aggravation and shifted in his seat as if releasing me from his interest. Maybe my breathing pattern changed. Or maybe he was just a part of my mind, responding to me because he was me. I briefly contemplated if I could ask some other visitor whether Dr. Hausner existed, but the problem was really, that everybody I would maybe choose to ask could equally be a fabrication of my mind. I couldn’t prove anybody’s existence. Not even my own. I just had to operate on the assumption that I existed and that people I talked to existed, too.