by Emil Terziev
Before his death, my father would spend most of his evenings in the library with a bottle of brandy. Its contents did not originally belong to him – all the shelves and the tomes that burdened their wood were there upon purchase of the premises from the previous owner. Or rather from the previous owner’s estate, for the transaction was not previous to the past owner’s own passing. My father’s initial intention was to donate the books to scholars and refurbish the empty library into a dining room. He invited university professors from the town’s campus to pick at the constituents. Their ransacking only left sparse gaps in the lineups. The bulk remained, deemed devoid of the right to attention.
By then, father had established the habit of consuming his evening spirits in the room, and decided to leave it unchanged. He seldom opened any books, for he was not much a reader. Instead, like a child in the sun, he basked in their shine. After drink three he’d start to imagine an aura of knowledge emanating from them, irradiating him with fact and fiction and inbetweens. On many mornings I found him still sedated from the alcohol with a heavy head held up by the oak desk. He would return to consciousness after gentle or vigorous prodding on my part, depending on how far he had made it to the bottom of the bottle before blacking out. In his delusion he’d feel accomplished for his drunken endeavors, claiming he had learned a lot from the books. If only one of them had bothered to reveal to him the secrets of willpower, he may have retained a functioning liver beyond my eighteenth birthday.
My own preferred method of reading was not through osmosis and I could have made good use of the library. But I felt a different aura there, one of poison in blood and of organs in panic. I wanted no association with the ghost of my father’s failing body, and decided to attempt the renovations father had envisioned years prior. May the removal of the books stop the reverberation of the past’s echo.
Trusting the expertise of the professors, I condemned the remaining books to kindling. They will radiate true for once. I pressed my palms against the ends of a row of seven or eight and carried them to an empty crate. Four more trips and the crate overflowed with doomed literature. I readied another.
I clasped the next set of leafed vermin waiting for extermination with bookend palms. It startled me to discover that my left hand was not met with the typical resistance of paper or leather. Instead, it sank into the book’s binding like mud. Instinctively I jerked my arm backwards and it sprayed bits of a chunky substance onto my shirt. A black mold of sorts had taken over the leather veneer of this book. The organic cover had been almost fully devoured and was now dripping off the paper skeleton like the flesh of a leper. Curiously, the other books in the vicinity had been spared of this hunger, with no hint of spotting or rotting on their faces. Nature abhorred only this book enough to orchestrate deliberate action against it. And that action was successful only on the surface, for the pages themselves had resisted consumption, remaining a withered yellow unmixed with dead black.
I scraped the remaining leathery goo off of the book and thoroughly washed my hands with soap and warm water. Before I relegated the cancer survivor to the crate with the rest of the books, I was overcome by an urge to rustle through it. The insides were quite a surprise. None of the pages contained written text, or so I thought at first. What I saw in place of words were thousands of tiny circles, unsparingly filling each page in neat rows. They touched each other on all four sides except for the border rows and columns. They were clearly not printed with a press. Instead, they had been inscribed by hand with unfathomable detail and patience considering their size. Inside each circle was a unique feature that differentiated it from most of the others. Some had a solid vertical diagonal bisecting them in two, some were equally divided but at a thirty degree angle to the vertical, some adorned with a single dot halfway along the radius. Individually they were the simple scribbles of a maniacal geometry class. Collectively, they were arranged in such a way as for their features to form a certain image on each page, barely discernible above the noise of surrounding chaos of the whole.
The book was certainly a curiosity but not one inexplicable to my thoughts. I assumed it to be the work of a dedicated artist whose skill at almost imperceptible brushstrokes had allowed him to fill the pages with supernatural detail. If so, I find he carried the concept much further than necessary for his artistic vision, as the pages numbered in the thousands. Alternatively it may have been a collection of knitting or embroidery patterns, the life work of some bored old maiden. Regardless, I closed the book and was about to stack it on top of the others removed, when I noticed the real front cover, revealed by the death of the leather layer that had concealed it.
On it were twenty six groups of three tiny circles each. The groups in turn were paired with the twenty six letters of the English alphabet. Common sense would imply a simple substitution cipher, but this defied more deeply reasoned logic. It seemed a pointless endeavor to encode text, and yet provide the tools to decode it right at the start. You don’t lock your house only to leave the key on the veranda in plain sight. Even more unfathomable was the amount of work and foresight required to write prose in this mystical circular scripture and do so while managing to create the deliberate patterns and images that differentiated each page from the next. Whatever the reason, I felt a duty to determine it.
I sat at my father’s old desk, ink pen in hand instead of a crystal brandy glass. The morning sun easily penetrated the thin curtains draped across the windows of the library, but the circles had been made so very small that I had to light a candle and place it above the book to reinforce the light of that other candle millions of miles distant. The first letter took whole minutes to find in the code provided. The groups of three blurred and bled into each other through their similarities, and I missed it on my first trip down the alphabet. I. The second, N, took nearly as long.
I stopped when I noticed that one of my two candles had expired, concealed behind the horizon. The other neared a similar fate, now a wick and weak flame floating in a fully melted lake of hot wax. After hours of work, I was only a few sentences deep into the mystery of the book. I decided to finish the day by working in the punctuation and spaces that had been seemingly omitted when transcribing letter into shape.
“In the beginning, there were no beginnings. It all did not spring from nothingness. For nothingness cannot conceive of Somethingness, nor by proxy of a beginning of Somethingness. The converse is not true. Somethingness, which transmutes and rarefies in places, and densens and congregates in others, has a measure of its own variable existence. It then only takes extrapolation carried from dense to rare and beyond to imagine a complete lack, a nothingness. Somethingness, the god of existence itself, has therefore always been. His body morphing into uncountable sequential universes through its own uncountable existence.
Somethingness would carry each of them to its natural end in his body like a mother, without conscious interference. When his never born child would arrive at a state of decay that was too close to nothingness, be it heat death or collapse into the infinitesimal, Somethingness would lay dormant creating a successor in thoughts, and then project it into itself to replace the old. The first such”
Put together so simply on the page before me, the brevity of my day’s work was almost insulting. Even if I sped up my rate of translation, it would take years to complete this already banal story. I pitied the person who had committed it to paper; he must have started at birth and lived to one hundred to do so, a whole existence encompassed in circles. The strain on my eyes and muscles had exhausted my body and I was forced to stop the removal of books for the day. In those half-thoughts that muddle the mind at the onset of sleep, I decided to abandon the strange text.
The morning insisted different. Immediately upon waking I returned to the library with a pen. The next day the same. After a month, I enlisted the aid of a magnifying glass to help my battered eyes. As if my mind had been forced to travel through time, I suddenly found myself ten years older and a hundredfold as many pages into the text. My modest inheritance would have been insufficient to procure a lavish lifestyle at the absence of work, but my even more modest consumption of simple food and drink had barely dented it. The words so far spoke of many of the different universes that had grown and shriveled in the belly of Somethingness, describing each in vivid details that were sometimes comprehensible to a creature like me, the product of the current iteration, but more often not.
Finding my body and mind temporarily back in reality, I made an effort to distance myself from the book. I had lived the years with minimal contact with brethren or potential mates, a lonely recluse. I made some valiant attempts at an expected lifestyle, straying from the text for a year or two, but the locust of dank and belittling thoughts that plagued my daily life were too much to bear. My mind would think fondly of not having to think, of those past moments of only being occupied by reading about the god of existence instead of actually existing in tandem with pain and loneliness. I went back to the book, the brandy of my life.
Coincidentally or not, the very next part was an unexpected new development in the strange story of Somethingness. The features of the little circles peppered on the page in turn formed a much larger circle in the middle of it. This larger circle had a small gap at the top and bottom, dividing it in two. I started to translate.
“The last universe created by Somethingness was the most beautiful yet. In it, unconscious creatures would endlessly bifurcate into half-sized pairs, remaining forever in each other’s company. The two halves would in turn split evenly themselves, with offspring equally loyal to each other. This universe was coupled on every size scale, a fractal ode to the unity of two. Somethingness was so enamored with his creation that his own body unconsciously split in half, giving birth to his two children, A and O.
But, unlike the creatures of that special universe, this split had failed to achieve perfect and fair distribution to the halves. The abilities of Somethingness to nurture universes were only bestowed on A. O was left with no choice but to align with the only other conceivable thing, nothingness. And thus Somethingness was now estranged from itself, through its mistake of trying to emulate one of its own creations.”
Over the next two decades, I learned of the many universes created by A, carrying on the family tradition. I learned of equally many infiltrated by O, who existed with the purpose of bringing his brother’s creations to a premature, asymptotic approach to nothingness, destroying them and forcing his brother to start anew. A’s creations evolved to be more resilient to attacks by his darker half, but their untimely death was only delayed, none could any longer extinguish naturally and with dignity.
With only a few pages left of text, I began to worry about my body’s ability to finish the job. Thirty years of immobility and muscle deterioration had drained me of life thirty years too early. I now considered the oak in the library as a death desk, rarely able to lift myself from it beyond the occasional breaks for food, bathroom, and new candles and ink. My almost blind eyes could barely pick out the individual features of the tiny circles. I made mistakes and had to re-translate entire lines of text over and over until they made sense.
I pushed on, and found myself enchanted by the final description in the book, that of A’s most recent universe. It spoke of a place where balls of fire spat energy at each other and at hunks of rock, where on those rocks cells bathed in that energy and grew and multiplied, where humans and cows and grass ate each other and were in turn eaten by things smaller than all. A universe that had lasted longer than any previous one, thus far protected from infiltration by O, who kept trying to seed the beginnings of nothingness into it. It was A’s perfect creation.
Or, it was until the last page.
“And A’s only mistake with this universe was to defy father’s methods and consciously interfere with it. He sent one of his creatures, the devouring mold, to try to erase my words from this very book. How ironic that this action only helped for you to become aware of them. The crack is now here, and it requires a simple action for you to complete the fracture. Inscribe by name.” And, for the first time, the page terminated with a blank line instead of more circles.
Instinct made me pick up the book and hold it over the burning candle by which I had translated these last words. My own body was dying but there were others that were just born or still young or even old but happy and healthy, I think. Who would even consider aiding in the undoing of billions of years of conscious and unconscious life? I tried to lower the book onto the flame but my hand resisted, controlled by thoughts that were just now beginning to surface, like spilled black oil in water.
The children I would be saving were not mine. The insurmountable trance of the book had robbed me of a family and of friends. My life had existed not in the universe of my body, but in the stories of those prior and different. My lifelong work, my lover, my child, was the knowledge of the history of existence. To save them, I could do one thing only – help write the next chapter. I set the book onto the desk and flipped back to that first page, where the key to its secrets lay so plainly in sight. I scrolled a trembling finger down the alphabet until I reached O, and took note of the details inside the three circles. I grabbed my pen and turned to the last page, delivering treacherous ink to the blank line.
Emil Terziev is a new writer from Toronto, Canada (originally from Bulgaria), with a background in astronomy and physics. He dabbles mostly in dark fantasy, science fiction, and non-violent horror. All of his stories, regardless of genre, are unintentionally imbued with dread for existence. He hopes you enjoy this one!