Aleph’s Book

Tuesday evening began for Aleph as an attempt to discard another ragged paperback. He closed his eyes at four-fifty-seven, reached for the bookshelf, stopping briefly to determine the book by feel of its cover. He could not select one while looking at them. He had a split instant to ponder the odd sensation that the book he touched was somehow swinging down and towards him before the shelf gave a weak moan and books began to hail. His right forearm crashed into the second bookshelf as he staggered back. The third bookshelf seemed to fall of its own accord–perhaps simply wanting to be part of the fun. A seven-hundred paged blue-covered tomb bashed him in the face. It had been the encyclopedia of ancient deities, he realized.

His nose stung, but he tasted no blood and understood he was not seriously hurt. Each of the three bookshelves had been stacked vertically to capacity with used nonfiction. Re-shelving the books took roughly an hour, so that meant his reading time for the night was ruined. Damnation, he thought.
I’ll be dead before I can finish them all, he thought. Dead before half, even.

Someone knocked on his studio apartment’s door.

“Hello?” It was a man’s voice. “I heard something crash or something, everyone okay in there?”

“Yes,” Aleph said. “I am exercising. Had a bit of a fall.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” Aleph said again.

“Because it sounds like you’re buried under something in there. Look, come to the door. I can’t leave unless I know you’re not hurt.”

“Fine,” Aleph said. Digging himself out was difficult; each time he clambered for traction, his hands and feet slipped through more and more books.

“Do I need to break in or are you on your way?” Aleph detected mirth in the voice, and despised its owner as he brought himself to his feet.

“No,” Aleph shouted. “Sorry, I’m not hurt, just clumsy.” He stumbled to the door and opened it. On the other side was an older man, wearing nothing but a wristwatch and boxers. Big rheumy green eyes fixed on Aleph’s for an instant before the man’s mouth dropped and he leaned to see into the room. “I was getting ready to read,” he said. “I accidentally dropped the shelves.”

“You said you were exercising,” the man said.

“I lied,” Aleph said. “I thought you might go away if I said that, and I was embarrassed. But you see, I’m not hurt.” And you’re in your boxers, he thought. You are an old man withering in front of me with nothing on, and I can’t help but think this is what is going to happen to me someday, except you wear a watch, and I hate watches.

“I’m Steve,” Steve said. “Do you want some help cleaning up?”

“I can manage,” Aleph said. “They have a particular order to them.”

Steve’s nostril’s flared, sporting incensed capillaries round the edges. Aleph fully expected some sort of angry rant from his neighbor, but suddenly the other man glanced down at his bare legs. When he looked up at Aleph again he said, “Tell you what. I’ll go put some clothes on, and come back with something for the occasion.” He left the doorway, and Aleph left the door open, since a clothed stranger was a marked improvement over a nearly nude one. He wondered what the “occasion” could possibly be.

There wasn’t actually a particular order to the books. He’d stacked and unstacked them many times over the last ten years, and never paid attention to what book went where, so long as they were approximately the same size. No, there was no permanent order to them, but no one had ever helped him do this before, and for some reason he did not want anyone’s help now. In fact, when Steve returned with a brown glass bottle, Aleph absently invited him to sit down while he sorted the books himself.

“Would you like some?” Steve asked.

“Yes, certainly.” He didn’t want any, didn’t know what was in the bottle, but Steve had clearly assumed some kind of ill-defined mission here with him. It seemed a wiser course of action to help things along with a cursory politeness. Sooner or later Steve would accomplish what he’d set out to in the first place, and then he’d likely leave Aleph to himself once again.

“You sure have a lot of books,” Steve said.

“I know,” Aleph said.

“You read a lot?” Steve snorted and hoisted a small glass which he must have brought in as well. “Sorry, dumb question.”

“Actually,” Aleph said, “I’m not much of a reader. That’s how these books have managed to pile up over the years.”

“You don’t like to read?”

“I love to read. Or at least the idea of reading,” Aleph said. He picked up the mythology book that had struck him in the face and gave it a frustrated thump on the front cover. “I just get antsy when I do. Can’t sit at it for more than twenty minutes before all these other thoughts come rushing in. Never finished a single one of these.”

“I know what you mean about getting antsy,” Steve said. “I’m relieved. I thought my new buddy was going to turn out to be a book nerd.” Aleph let a question go unspoken while Steve swigged a large drink from his glass. “But why do you buy them if you never read them?”

“I have questions, from time to time,” Aleph said. “I have questions, about anything, really. Then remember my mom and dad always taking me to used bookstores. We’d be in there for hours on end. I used to go crazy with boredom. But I did love the smell of those old books. Now when I start to wonder about anything, I wind up buying one of these, and can’t read it.”

Steve laughed. “Why don’t you get rid of them?”

“I am trying to. I just can’t let one go until I’ve read it. I’ve spent quite a lot on these books over the years, and it seems like a waste of money to trash them prematurely.” But it was more than that, Aleph realized. Some guiding principle would not allow him to part with any one of the books until he’d finished it. The last time he’d been evicted, he’d arrived here, ten months ago, and discovered to his utter dismay that he could no longer locate a small treatise on the samurai code he’d picked up only months earlier. That singular loss had driven him to sleepless nights of worry until he stole back to his old landlord’s property to retrieve the book out of a cluttered garage. Getting the book back had not been easy, and the memory of it gave a shudder through Aleph’s shoulder blades.

“There’s a lot to know,” Aleph heard himself say. “I’ve managed to stop buying them, or at least to slow down. I’m getting rid of them as I read them. Have been for months now. Getting better at reading them, too.” He’d stopped getting questions, and once the questions were gone, there were only the books.

“How many have you read?”

“Six,” Aleph said. “In just under a year, now. I told you, it is not my strong suite. It’s uphill all the way.”

“I see that,” Steven said.

It had gotten so that even looking at certain titles–especially the older ones–made him cringe with shame. A mere six read in the past ten months. The older ones were the sharpest reminder of the vague guilt in him that had mounted over him through a decade. They marked the greatest passages of time and smelled the most like dust. They gave him a dull freezing ache in his chest and lungs when he touched them. That’s why Aleph found it easier to close his eyes and pull one off the shelf at random. From there it was only a few blind steps–he kept his eyes closed for fear of seeing the title of the book and losing his nerve–to his reading chair where he struck his timer which would count down for an hour. Once the hour was over, so was his reading for the night, usually. Sometimes he could come back after a while spent walking. This only worked during the shorter days of winter when dark skies came early in the evening.

“Are you new here, to the apartments, I mean? I haven’t seen you before.” Steve poured another drink and nudged a second to Aleph, which the older man must have poured moments ago.

“I’ve been here since I started reading these. Almost a year now, like I said.” Typical. People ask questions they’ve already heard the answers to. They do this again and again, every day of their lives. He lowered himself to his knees and began grouping books by size for the three shelves just above the floor.

“What do you do? I’m retired,” Steve said.

“I work from home,” Aleph said. “It’s difficult to describe what I actually do. One of those new Information Age-type setups. Very abstract.” Very ephemeral, he thought.

“Sorry, don’t mean to pry,” Steve said.

“Not at all,” Aleph said. “It’s just far too lucrative and simple not to keep it a secret.”
Steve laughed nervously and raised his glass after an extended silence. “To new friends.”

Aleph tried to swallow the liquid, but it caught in his throat and he spit it out over the carpet. “How can you drink that,” he asked after a long fit of coughing and hacking at the kitchen sink.

“Practice,” Steve said. “Drinking is easier than reading.”
Aleph returned to the shelf and stopped stunned. He pointed to the floor, at a book he didn’t recognize.

“What is it?” Steve said.

“It is odd,” Aleph said. “I don’t know that book.” It was crimson, with a wordless cover, the size of a paperback but very thin, only a hundred pages, perhaps only eighty.

“Maybe its jacket got torn off in the crash,” Steve said.

Aleph nodded, knowing it wasn’t true. He took the jackets off of all his hardbacks as soon as he bought them. He couldn’t stand the things. This book either hadn’t been in his collection an hour ago or he’d begun to forget what was. Warmth rushed to his hands and face as he picked it off the floor. Eagerness surged through him, and he opened it to the first page.

No. This was no book he’d ever seen before. It pulled at him, if such a thing were possible, like his soul or ghost or spirit or whatever one could call it, was being tugged toward the symbol on the first page. He’d never seen it before.

Steve stayed for another ten minutes or so before quietly excusing himself. He’d come around again soon, if Aleph was okay with it. Aleph said that would be fine. Steve promised not to make him drink whiskey again, to which Aleph afforded a very hollow sounding laugh. The trick to get through these people, he knew, was to let them do all the talking. They never noticed. They just blew air and noise around a while and that made them feel better and they went away pleased. He tried to avoid glancing at the blood-red rectangle he’d set on his reading chair, but his gaze kept floating over it, and his head kept turning towards it. Steve said a final farewell, and Aleph closed and bolted the door. He picked the book off the chair, eyes wide open, and did not set his timer.

Wednesday morning, the split instant between sleep and lucidity, Aleph heard a deafening roar. He woke, showered, dressed, and left for the used bookstore nearest to him. The Summer morning greeted him with a blast of hot mist, the entire sky shone soft gold-silver, and the Sun was not visible. By the time he made it to the Third Eye, his shirt was soaked in sweat.
Danielle turned to greet him as he walked through the door. “Aleph, finally back for more?” The older woman glanced down at the book Aleph clasped in his left hand.

“Are you busy?” Aleph asked.

“Extremely,” Danielle said. Aside from being the owner and–as far as Aleph had ever seen–the sole employee of Third Eye Books, she was the closest thing to a friend Aleph had known in his adult life, save for the near-naked old man who’d come to his rescue last night. He conversed with her for several minutes any time he came into the store, though that had not been since he gave up buying new books. “I’ve got rabid clients hounding me for books that are downright impossible to find. But I’ve never seen you come in with a book, and I need a break. You selling today?”

“Maybe,” Aleph said. “I mean, eventually. But I was wondering if you could tell me what it is, first?” Danielle’s knowledge of books was baffling to Aleph, who’d spent many hours over the years listening to her ramble on in a monologue that began with the birth of the printed press and ended with the introduction of electronic reading devices and the Internet. It was all very detailed, but Aleph had a tendency to slip into a trance and tune her out whenever she went on so. He liked the sound of her voice and the slight uneven kilter of her gaze.

Danielle’s icy-blue eyes narrowed and she stepped around the counter. “What do you mean? You mean who the author is?”

“Yes, and the title.” He gave the book to Daniel and felt an inexplicable bout of unease as the woman took it back to the counter and opened it to the front page. She shook his head and frowned. Seconds passed, her thin frame arched nearer and nearer to the counter as she thumbed through the pages. Suddenly, Danielle looked up at him, eyes dour, mouth smiling.

“Do you remember where you got this?”

“No. Maybe here. It just sort of appeared last night. I’m really not sure.”

Danielle shook her head again. “It wasn’t from here.” More time passed as she flipped back and forth through the pages. “It certainly wasn’t from here, Aleph. I’d never have sold anything like this. Not if it came to me.”

Something in the way she’d said the word “this” set Aleph’s hair on edge. “You mean it’s valuable?”
She shook her head. “It’s not worth any money. It doesn’t seem to even be,” but she stopped mid-sentence.

“What is it?” Aleph asked, surprised that his voice came out a high-pitched squeal.
“It’s not the book that’s valuable. It’s beyond that. I have clients I could send it to, they could tell you more, but they’re shady people. Not exactly trustworthy. You read it, right?”

“Last night,” Aleph said. “But, only I can’t remember what was in it.”

Danielle issued a shrill laugh. “I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Neither am I,” he said. “But shouldn’t I be? Can you tell me what it is or not?”

She frowned again. “What happened before you found the book?”

“My bookcases fell,” Aleph said. The light shining through the front of the store grew brighter as the sun broke through the haze of dust and pollution. “I was buried in them briefly before a neighbor came to my door.” He still couldn’t remember the old man’s name.

“And you found this one in the pile,” Danielle continued for him. “And you didn’t recognize it.”

“That’s correct.” I must have told her that already, Aleph thought.

“And you read it immediately. What happened afterwards?”

“I don’t remember. I just woke up. There was a loud noise, and I woke up.”

“A loud noise? Like what?”

He thought. “Like the shelves falling on me, only louder.”

She nodded. “So, then, how do you know you even read it, since you can’t remember?”

Aleph thought the question over, but before he could respond, Danielle closed the book and handed it back to him over the counter. “Nevermind,” she said. “I’ve always liked your questions, Aleph.” She turned from him and began studying something on the counter between them. “You ever get the sense that people spend their entire lives dancing around whatever it is they mean or need? That they do it with words?”

“Forever,” Aleph said. “I have always felt that way.”

She nodded. “That’s something people do. You do it too, you know.”

“I suppose. But I try to be direct.” The edge of the sun poked through the last vestiges of morning haze. Danielle’s face was bathed in light briefly before she stepped back and said, “That’s not what I mean. For you, it’s different. What have you really been trying to know when you come in here with your questions? Not about history, or science, or psychology, or the occult. But about,” she gestured at him.

“I’d rather not say,” Aleph said. “I don’t think that I can. I don’t think I know.”

Danielle nodded. “If the question can’t be put into words,” she pointed at the book, “do you really expect an answer?”

“No.” The question caught him off guard.

“My dad used to tell me a story over and over when I was young,” Danielle said. “A man loses his car keys on the front porch, and goes looking under the street-light because it’s easier to see under there. Spend the day in the sun. Go home later this afternoon. You’ll understand better if you just do that.”

“But why?”

“Because you’ve been stalking around bookstores for all these years with none of the answers you’ve wanted. You’ve been floating around in this town like a ghost for just as long. But when the Akashic records spit out your file into your apartment, you don’t need me or anyone else to give you answers.” Aleph staggered back with the book clasped to his stomach, ready to turn and leave and not return. He’d told Danielle nothing about himself over the years. Not a word. How, then, did she just describe Aleph’s muted quest in words he would easily use to describe it himself?

“It’s all in there. That book has everything you need.” Danielle pointed outside. “Take a walk. Sweat it off, if you can. Enjoy the summer heat-wave. Keep your secrets from yourself a while longer, Aleph. Enjoy them. Late this afternoon, go home. It’ll be clear by this evening. You’ll be clear.”

He did as Danielle suggested. He walked for hours, noted with detached interest that he did not need food or water, even in the heat. He did not sweat. He did not worry and his thoughts wandered nowhere. Aleph simply walked, recorded mental images of everything he saw. He felt whole, contained within himself in a way he never had imagined before.

He bought a wristwatch. He set an alarm for four o’clock. When it went off he headed back to his apartment complex. He stood by his neighbor’s door for what seemed like ages. At four-fifty-seven, he heard a loud crash and the sounds of breaking glass from inside the apartment–Steve’s apartment. He remembered his new friend’s name, finally.

“Steve?” Aleph called. When he received no answer, he tried the door handle, which was not locked. He opened it and stepped inside. In the middle of Steve’s dining room, the older man stood in boxer’s and a wristwatch. Steve was brushing glass off his leather skin in the middle of a very large and completely collapsed liquor cabinet. His were eyes glazed as though he were hypnotized.

Steve looked up at him. “Must be contagious,” he said.

Aleph nodded. At Steve’s foot was a small crimson liquor bottle, unmarked except for the same insignia that could be found in Aleph’s book. “I don’t suppose you want my help?” He asked.

“No,” Steve said. He sounded as though he were very far away. Aleph realized he’d discovered the bottle. He thought, I should tell him to drink it, but the old man didn’t need anyone’s help now.

He left his apartment complex and continued his walk. The night grew darker and the air became cool. A series of orchards lay just outside of town, and his feet led him there. A faint red glow came from where there was otherwise no light, in the middle of one of the orchard fields. The stars were visible, and he headed towards the shimmer of crimson through the trees. There stood a young girl next to a telescope, studying the stars. The red light came from lamps she’d set up to study different sheets of paper. He accidentally snapped a branch underfoot, and she did not hear him. She was absorbed in her work, obsessed with the stars. As he stood there, sparks flew down from the ebon void. A meteor shower had begun.

“Must be contagious,” he whispered. Above him and the girl, hovering in the middle of the sky, was his sigil. The falling stars grew nearer and nearer to the ground, and then began to strike.

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