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Tales of Books

The first book is of light and shade:

eek and disheartened, the alchemist sat in front of the blank sheet, flooded by memories--how he had first seen her outline from the window of a brothel, how he had been pulled off his horse and pushed out of the church while she was kneeling before the altar without lifting her eyes from her folded hands. How she had finally summoned him to her, and he stood at less than arm's length from her as she bared her breast which had been eaten away by putrid boils: "Go and give your love to a worthier..."

That same day he had returned to his wife Bianca and his children. He had since studied the laws of the stones and the stars, the habits of metals, the ways of the elements, and the tongues of mankind. He had been a pilgrim, a crusader, had turned mercury into sulphur, heathens into Christians, and excrement into gold for the English king. Then he had retreated into the wilds to write down his insights.With the sun disappearing behind bare mountaintops he laid the empty pages aside. He had not realized how hard it was to turn wisdom into words.

That night he sat up under the open skies as he had long ago, waiting for the clay pot to burst in the stove and the vulture to fly up and cry, "I am the white in the black, the yellow in the red, and I am certainly telling the truth..." At some point in the night the scent of burnt myrrh brushed against him, and he imagined hearing the otter dive into the lake, yet he prayed on unwaveringly. The sun stood high in the sky when he awoke the next morning. But the leaves of the bushes around him cast strange shadows--Arabic, Hebrew, Chaldaic...

Untiringly the alchemist's quill scraped across the pages after that day, and those who read his book later said that just as the Father himself wrote the Old Testament and his son wrote the New, so the Holy Ghost wrote the scriptures of Raimundus Luilus.

The second book lay in the depths of the lake:

s the wind carried the ringing of bells into the castle of the Dal Araidhe, Sweeney, the son of Colman Cuar, awoke. Whence comes the ringing? - That's Ronan Finn, Bearach's pious son, marking out a site for the chapel down at the lake.
Enraged the king leapt from his bed. Queen Eorann held on to his cloak, but the clasp broke and stark naked he ran to the lake. Upon finding the holy man reading his psalter, Sweeney took the book and threw it into the water, a beautiful illuminated volume bound in leather. Congal Cleon's people came there, calling the king into battle. Ronan also went to bring about a truce. When Sweeney saw him on the battleground, he hurled a spear at him. The spear bounced off the bell the pious man wore around his neck, and its feathers snowed down on the naked king.
Like a bird thou shalt live in the tree until pierced by a spear.
The next morning an otter emerged from the water and returned the precious psaiter to Ronan from the depths of the lake. Sweeney, King of the Dal Araidhe, was already sitting there in the branches of a yew tree.

In the third book roses are blooming'.

o, I am not impartial being a writer myself, writing all my life. But because writing has sharpened my wits, I am certain that no good has been coming from box-rooms and basements, cast in lead, pressed into paper in manifold ways. Every "A" aping the next, every "B" without blemish, as artificial and false as the gold in the alchemists' pot.

We would hold our pens with deliberation, each in his own fashion, and along with the ink our lives would flow onto the paper. Thus, our letters gained form, they were tied to the place and the people they came from, and each word told a story. Does a song not change with the voice that sings it? And what would the word be without its scribe? The initials in the upper lefthand corner, however, held the whole world: heavens and heroes, saints and saviors, and all that words cannot explain. Brambles grew across many a page, others grew roses, and in one corner an otter devoured a fish. So every scribe wrote his own book, and even in using the same words no scribe repeated himself.

Wrote the court clerk squarely across the precious sheet on a hot summer day in Basel, ir lieben lút, úbertuond úch nit, wand es sint nuzemal Hundtag -- Dear folk, don't overdo it, for truly these days are dog days.

Today they force their letters into the paper as if branding the flanks of their distraught cattle, and all books are alike. Surely eyes will go blind, minds blank from all the monotonous pages, and the wisdom of mankind will be lost among Gutenberg's lifeless letters.

Daylight falls upon the fourth book:

indred spirits around a table, six black coats with white collars. Below the black hats their reddish hair falls upon their shoulders. One has a goatee. That one collects the earth's miracles--minerals, shells, and stuffed creatures, and at times there is the smell of sulphur in his chambers. He is new among them. Their eyes see things clearly, their lips are closed as if they had nothing to explain, and the gesture of Willem van Doeyenburg, Chairman, resembles an innocent child's. Only one of them sees something different -- the city council usher who will dye cloth in a new way.

There is an oriental rug on the table which the cloth merchants surround. They are used to eating from full plates and to remaining silent about the silver platters they keep in chests in their homes. Not unless the wind blows back their coats in the winter can the shiny otter-fur lining be seen. They instructed the painter on how they wanted to sit around the table like their forebears in earlier paintings, and that they had nothing to hide. He painted their uprightness--a flaming lighthouse on the panelling, and the daylight slants into the open book before them as it does on the faces of its saints.

The fifth book is teeming with creatures:

cons to click on--Caesar's complete works, and those of Cellini and Churchill, the memoirs of Casanova, and Che Guevara's speeches -- all at a click. Cerberus roaming Dante's verses, Gulliver holding a sheep in his hand. Moses smashing the golden calf, Rosinante cantering towards the windmill, and the three ducklings wearing baseball hats and singing as they go camping. It is all on the screen. One single click will rebuild the Trojan walls, or send Faust's poodle to hell, or awaken Juliet at the very last minute.

No more yellowed pages, no dusty shelves, no bookmarks dragged away by the dogs, and never again a cellophane wrap that will not come off. But how is the otter supposed to find a 3.5 inch disk in the depths of the lake?

The sixth book is held by a young woman:

ow listen, for the leopard will follow the wolf, and he will threaten him. The wolf will leave the woods and live in the water. When he returns, he will defeat the leopard, and come into the white land, and build a castle on an island in a lake.

Perceval's tale in a 14th century French manuscript begins with Merlin's prophecy, perhaps a copy of a much older or even the oldest legend of the Grail. When Perceval is first asked to the table in the Fisher King's castle, a young woman brings in a silver platter with a book lying on it. Yet it shines so brightly that only the king can read it-- and Perceval remains silent. When he finds the Castle of the Grail again after many years, it is in ruins. The dying Fisher King shares bread and wine with him, and the young woman with the book reappears. This time Perceval asks the question, and the Fisher King tells him of Christ's secret words as written down by his disciple Didymus.

In 1945 scrolls were found by two Arab peasants in clay pots in a cave in Upper Egypt. Among them was a collection of 114 verses from the first century A.D., since identified as St. Thomas's gospel that was lost at the time of the gnostics. It begins with the sentence: "These are the secret words spoken by Jesus Our Lord and recorded by Didymus Judas Thomas."

Do we know book number seven? The seventh book may be this or that. It may be thick or thin, old or new, but it will hold the world between its covers, and whoever looks up from its pages on a warm summer night just might see the otter's shadow move along the lakeshore.

© Gabrielle Alioth, 1996, translated by Jutta Ittner