By Amal El-Mohtar
2011 Nebula Award-nominee for Best Short Fiction
MS. Orre. 1013A Miscellany of materials copied from within Master Leuwin Orrerel’s (d. Lady Year 673, Bright Be the Edges) library by Dominic Merrowin (d. Lady Year 673, Bright Be the Edges). Contains Acts I and II of Aster’s The Golden Boy’s Last Ship, Act III scene I of The Rose Petal, and the entirety of The Blasted Oak. Incomplete copy of item titled only THE GREEN BOOK, authorship multiple and uncertain. Notable for extensive personal note by Merrowin, intended as correspondence with unknown recipient, detailing evidence of personal connection between Orrerel and the Sisterhood of Knives. Many leaves regrettably lost, especially within text of THE GREEN BOOK: evidence of discussion of Lady Year religious and occult philosophies, traditions in the musical education of second daughters, and complex reception of Aster’s poetry, all decayed beyond recovery. Markers placed at sites of likely omission.
My dear friend,
I am copying this out while I can. Leuwin is away, has left me in charge of the library. He has been doing that more and more, lately–errands for the Sisterhood, he says, but I know it’s mostly his own mad research. Now I know why.
His mind is disturbed. Twelve years of teaching me, and he never once denied me the reading of any book, but this–this thing has hold of him, I am certain plays with him. I thought it was his journal, at first; he used to write in it so often, closet himself with it for hours, and it seemed to bring him joy. Now I feel there is something fell and chanty about it, and beg your opinion of the whole, that we may work together to Leuwin’s salvation.
The book I am copying out is small–only four inches by five. It is a vivid green, quite exactly the color of sunlight through the oak leaves in the arbor, and just as mottled; its cover is pulp wrapped in paper, and its pages are thick with needle-thorn and something that smells of thyme.
There are six different hands in evidence. The first, the invocation, is archaic: large block letters with hardly any ornamentation. I place it during Journey Year 200-250, Long Did It Wind, and it is written almost in green paste: I observe a grainy texture to the letters, though I dare not touch them. Sometimes the green of them is obscured by rust-brown stains that I suppose to be blood, given the circumstances that produced the second hand.
The second hand is modern, as are the rest, though they vary significantly from each other.
The second hand shows evidence of fluency, practice, and ease in writing, though the context was no doubt grim. It is written in heavy charcoal, and is much faded, but still legible.
The third hand is a child’s uncertain wobbling, where the letters are large and uneven; it is written in fine ink with a heavy implement. I find myself wondering if it was a knife.
The fourth is smooth, an agony of right-slanted whorls and loops, a gallows-cursive that nooses my throat with the thought of who must have written it.
The fifth hand is very similar to the second. It is dramatically improved, but there is no question that it was produced by the same individual, who claims to be named Cynthia. It is written in ink rather than charcoal–but the ink is strange. There is no trace of nib or quill in the letters. It is as if they welled up from within the page.
The sixth hand is Leuwin’s.
I am trying to copy them as exactly as possible, and am bracketing my own additions.
Go in Gold,
[First Hand: invocation]
To the Mistress of Crossroads, [blood stain to far right]
The Fetch in the Forest
The Witch of the Glen
The Hue and Cry of mortal men
Winsome and lissom and Fey!
Hail to the [blood stain obscuring] Mother of Changelings
of doubled paths and trebled means
of troubled dreams and salt and ash
[Second Hand: charcoal smudging, two pages; dampened and stained]
Cold in here–death and shadows–funny there should be a book! the universe provides for last will and testament! [illegible]
[illegible] I cannot write, mustn’t [illegible] they’re coming I hear them they’ll hear scratching [illegible] knives to tickle my throat oh please
They say they’re kind. I think that’s what we tell ourselves to be less afraid because how could anyone know? Do [blood stain] the dead speak?
Do the tongues blackening around their necks sing?
Why do I write? Save me, please, save me, stone and ivy and bone I want to live I want to breathe they have no right [illegible]
[Third Hand: block capitals. Implement uncertain–possibly a knife, ink-tipped.]
What a beautiful book this is. I wonder where she found it. I could write poems in it. This paper is so thick, so creamy, it puts me in mind of the bones in the ivy. Her bones were lovely! I cannot wait to see how they will sprout in it–I kept her zygomatic bone, but her lacrimal bits will make such pretty patterns in the leaves!
I could almost feel that any trace of ink against this paper would be a poem, would comfort my lack of skill.
I must show my sisters. I wish I had more of this paper to give them. We could write each other such secrets as only bones ground into pulpy paper could know. Or I would write of how beautiful are sister-green’s eyes, how shy are sister-salt’s lips, how golden sister-bell’s laugh
[Fourth Hand: cursive, right-slanted; high quality ink, smooth and fine]
Strange, how it will not burn, how its pages won’t tear. Strange that there is such pleasure in streaking ink along the cream of it; this paper makes me want to touch my lips. Pretty thing, you have been tricksy, tempting my little Sisters into spilling secrets.
There is strong magic here. Perhaps Master Leuwin in his tower would appreciate such a curiosity. Strange that I write in it, then–strange magic. Leuwin, you have my leave to laugh when you read this. Perhaps you will write to me anon of its history before that unfortunate girl and my wayward Sister scribbled in it.
That is, if I send it to you. Its charm is powerful–I may wish to study it further, see if we mightn’t steep it in elderflower wine and discover what tincture results.
[Fifth Hand: ink is strange; no evidence of implement; style resembles Second Hand very closely]
Where am I?
Please, someone speak to me
[Sixth Hand: Master Leuwin Orrerel]
I will speak to you. Hello.
I think I see what happened, and I see that you see. I am sorry for you. But I think it would be best if you tried to sleep. I will shut the green over the black and you must think of sinking into sweetness, think of dreaming to fly. Think of echoes, and songs. Think of fragrant tea and the stars. No one can harm you now, little one. I will hide you between two great leather tomes–
[Fifth Hand–alternating with Leuwin’s hereafter]
Do you know Lady Aster?
Yes, of course.
Could you put me next to her, please? I love her plays.
I always preferred her poetry.
Her plays ARE poetry!
Of course, you’re right. Next to her, then. What is your name?
I am Master Leuwin.
I know. It’s very kind of you to talk to me.
You’re–[ink blot] forgive the ink blot, please. Does that hurt?
No more than poor penmanship ever does.
Leuwin? are you there?
Yes. What can I do for you?
Speak to me, a little. do you live alone?
Yes–well, except for Dominic, my student and apprentice. It is my intention to leave him this library one day–it is a library, you see, in a tower on a small hill, seven miles from the city of Leech–do you know it?
No. I’ve heard of it, though. Vicious monarchy, I heard.
I do not concern myself overmuch with politics. I keep records, that is all.
How lucky for you, to not have to concern yourself with politics. Records of what?
Everything I can. Knowledge. Learning. Curiosities. History and philosophy. Scientific advances, musical compositions and theory–some things I seek out, most are given to me by people who would have a thing preserved.
…Yes. Yes, I suppose it is, in your case.
[[DECAY, SEVERAL LEAVES LOST]]
Were you very beautiful, as a woman?
What woman would answer no, in my position?
An honest one.
I doubt I could have appeared more beautiful to you as a woman than as a book.
[[DECAY, SEVERAL LEAVES LOST]]
What else is in your library?
Easier to ask what isn’t! I am in pursuit of a book inlaid with mirrors–the text is so potent that it was written in reverse, and can only be read in reflection to prevent unwelcome effects.
Fascinating. Who wrote it?
I have a theory it was commissioned by a disgruntled professor, with a pun on “reflection” designed to shame his students into closer analyses of texts.
Hah! I hope that’s the case. What else?
Oh, there is a history of the Elephant War written by a captain on the losing side, a codex from the Chrysanthemum Year (Bold Did it Bloom) about the seven uses of bone that the Sisterhood would like me to find, and–
Cynthia I’m so sorry. Please, forgive me.
No matter. It isn’t as if I’ve forgotten how I came to you in the first place, though you seem to quite frequently.
Think VERY carefully about whether you want to ask this question, Leuwin.
Why did they kill you? …How did they?
Forbidden questions from their pet librarian? The world does turn. Do you really want to know?
So do I. perhaps you could ask them for me.
[[DECAY, SEVERAL LEAVES LOST]]
If I could find a way to get you out…
You and your ellipses. Was that supposed to be a question?
I might make it a quest.
I am dead, Leuwin. I have no body but this.
You have a voice. A mind.
I am a voice, a mind. I have nothing else.
Cynthia… What happens when we reach the end of this? When we run out of pages?
Endings do not differ overmuch from each other, I expect. Happy or sad, they are still endings.
Your ending had a rather surprising sequel.
True. Though I see it more as intermission–an interminable intermission, during which the actors have wandered home to get drunk.
[[DECAY, SEVERAL LEAVES LOST]]
Cynthia, I think I love you.
Why don’t you answer me?
Please, speak to me.
I’m tired, Leuwin.
I love you.
You love ink on a page. You don’t lack for that here.
I love you.
Only because I speak to you. Only because no one but you reads these words. Only because I am the only book to be written to you, for you. Only because I allow you, in this small way, to be a book yourself.
I love you.
Don’t you love me?
You can’t lie, can you?
You can’t lie, so you refuse to speak the truth.
I hate you.
Because you love me.
I hate you. Leave me alone.
I will write out Lady Aster’s plays for you to read. I will write you her poetry. I will fill this with all that is beautiful in the world, for you, that you might live it.
I will stop a few pages from the end, and you can read it over and over again, all the loveliest things…
STOP. I WANT TO LIVE. I WANT TO HOLD YOU AND FUCK YOU AND MAKE YOU TEA AND READ YOU PLAYS. I WANT YOU TO TOUCH MY CHEEK AND MY HAIR AND LOOK ME IN THE EYES WHEN YOU SAY YOU LOVE ME. I WANT TO LIVE!
And you, you want a woman in a book. You want to tremble over my binding and ruffle my pages and spill ink into me. No, I can’t lie. Only the living can lie. I am dead. I am dead trees and dead horses boiled to glue. I hate you. Leave me alone.
[FINIS. Several blank pages remain]
You see he is mad.
I know he is looking for ways to extricate her from the book. I fear for him, in so deep with the Sisters–I fear for what he will ask them–
Sweet Stars, there’s more. I see it appearing as I write this–unnatural, chanty thing! I shall not reply. I must not reply, lest I fall into her trap as he did! But I will write this for you–I am committed to completeness.
Following immediately after the last, then:
Dominic, why are you doing this?
You won’t answer me? Fair enough.
I can feel when I am being read, Dominic. It’s a beautiful feeling, in some ways–have you ever felt beautiful? sometimes I think only people who are not beautiful can feel so, can feel the shape of the exception settling on them like a mantle, like a morning mist.
Being read is like feeling beautiful, knowing your hair to be just-so and your clothing to be well-put-together and your color to be high and bright, and to feel, in the moment of beauty, that you are being observed.
The world shifts. You pretend not to see that you are being admired, desired. You think about whether or not to play the game of glances, and you smile to yourself, and you know the person has seen your smile, and it was beautiful, too. Slowly, you become aware of how they see you, and without looking, quite, you know that they are playing the game too, that they imagine you seeing them as beautiful, and it is a splendid game, truly.
Leuwin reads me quite often, without saying anything further to me. I ache when he does, to answer, to speak, but ours is a silence I cannot be the one to break. So he reads, and I am read, and this is all our love now.
I feel this troubles you. I do not feel particularly beautiful when you read me, Dominic. But I know it is happening.
Will you truly not answer? Only write me down into your own little book? Oh, Dominic. And you think you will run away? Find him help? You’re sweet enough to rot teeth.
You know, I always wanted someone to write me poetry.
If I weren’t dead, the irony would kill me.
I wonder who the Mistress of the Crossroads was. Hello, I suppose, if you ever read this–if Dominic ever shares.
I am going to try and sleep. Sorry my handwriting isn’t prettier. I never really was myself.
I suppose Leuwin must have guessed, at some point. Just as he would have guessed you’d disobey him eventually. I am sorry he will find out about both, now. It isn’t as if I can cross things out. No doubt he will be terribly angry. No doubt the Sisters will find out you know something more of them than they would permit, as I did.
It’s been a while since I’ve felt sorry for someone who wasn’t Leuwin, but I do feel sorry for you.
That is all. Nothing else appears. Please, you must help him. I don’t know what to do. I cannot destroy the book–I cannot hide it from him, he seeks it every hour he is here—
I shall write more to you anon. He returns. I hear his feet upon the stair.
Amal El-Mohtar is a Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean, currently pursuing a PhD in English literature at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey, and the winner of the 2009 Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem. Her work has appeared in many print and online venues, including Weird Tales, Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Ideomancer, and Mythic Delirium. She also co-edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, with Jessica P. Wick. Find her online at Voices on the Midnight Air.