Spectres of Bibliotheca
By Ben Berman Ghan
The rain will eventually come, or not/Until then, we touch our bodies like wounds—/the war never ended and somehow begins again.
-Natalie Diaz: Postolonial Love Poem
“Empire has discovered a planet whose structures are ghosts and does not understand. How can a structure be dead? Do structures hold spectres? This cannot be.
“Empire demands satisfaction. Empire will learn, and then Empire will eat this ghostly world, as it has eaten everything else.
“But first, Empire must know. There are words carved into infinity that the living see only as they die. Empire knows there are, as Empire has seen many die.
“Empire knows too, that you know. You must know. Tell us. Tell us the words of the dead. Then, we can eat you.”
Many years before that question, I think, a man sits eating tater tots in the dark of the windows at the Edmonton airport. The dark is cold, and the glass doesn’t hold it back. I wish he would sit somewhere warmer, where he might find himself comfortable. Above his head, smooth tiles play sound bites like top ten luxury lunar casinos out of reach and sexiest non-binary of 2150 and negotiations with Empire breakdown. A leather-bound case sits tucked anxiously between his feet. He’s afraid of it, afraid for it. But there’s no need for that.
He dies as his coffee cools, head nodding down. Is this now?
“Holy shit,” he says, looking at the body. I tilt my hat at him. I do my best in moments like these. I don’t really say anything unless they ask me to— I know it isn’t about me. He looks me in the eyes, already being pulled away. “So, this is being dead?”
“For a little while,” I tell him, for already his form is fading into the air.
He reaches down for the case, still tucked between folds of now abandoned flesh but can only pull up nothing. Maybe I can show him the trick of things. I reach down, pulling ghosts of leather and paper out from the corporeal, holding it up to him with a smile.
“How the fuck did you do that?”
I put my finger to my lips to shush. “You have to be quiet,” I tell him. “You’re in a library now.”
I think for a second, he might reach out to me, might rifle through the spirit of the books, and tell me where he found them. But as he moves, he disappears from me and becomes just two pale eyes hanging in space. From the windows of the airport, multicolours blossom, illuminating the night sky. Together we turn, watching the burning corpse of a shuttle as it tumbles towards the Earth. Its insides could almost be mistaken for fireworks.
Soon he will read them, the words of the only book I do not know, the words the dead only read as they vanish. But for a moment, we stand insubstantial and together and let the light of catastrophe pass through us. “There’s too much in the world now,” he says.
Once there was only the desert and my enemy.
His laughter was the first sound I ever heard, as he danced in the expanse of nothingness. Heat shimmered for us, and nebula held our truce at night. Each grain of sand a letter, each dune a syllable. Lizards wormed their way, the first authors of movement and form, their tales writing structure into the heat.
I yearned, he hungered. We should have known it couldn’t last.
“Don’t you love it?” I asked him as we walked unseen through the first bazaar, marvelling at the babble of language, smells and sounds, meats and apples and scrolls tumbling from overflowing carts.
“I want it,” he said.
We both wanted. We both wanted to understand as the living filled the world around us. We wanted to know what it was to be alive. Neither of us could remember. There had been words waiting for when we died, I know there must have been. But we didn’t see them. We missed the words that beckon ghosts out of the living world, and so we remain here forever.
We walked together into a burning country, which screamed of slaves and kings. Suffering infused the walls of buildings high and low. I can’t tell you what country it was or what year it was. I hadn’t learned how the living segment chronology or country. Every place was the same place; all time was time. My enemy knew. But he couldn’t explain it to me. He tried, but he could never keep my attention with such things. For me, time was a bleed, moments ran in jumbles.
At the very edge of the bazaar, I tried to watch a child bite into wet fruit, and a hot wind took us. We were like the air then, without purpose or focus, and it was easy to be moved.
We floated like paper and found ourselves on paper. We were like spider webs, adorning the corners of a rotting tent.
Beneath us, cloaked figures murmured curious disagreements. On a table between them: a small
brown box. His back to the entrance, one body held out his hand. Curious metals shimmered between his fingers, and an offering refused. We two drifted downward, unperceived, towards objects of focus. We didn’t know then we were choosing what kinds of spectres to be.
He chose the coin, settling inside its shape. I chose the scroll. What an exciting feeling it was to be embodied in the well-treated dead skin of a tree. What a marvel it was to feel the ink making passageways across the body of the page. On this body, in this body, I found the inscription of a poem. Shapes formed a beautiful eulogy to a brother that called itself Elegy for Sakhr. As I embodied the words within, they imbibed me, and all at once, I knew the texture of grief and the wonderful flavour of mourning.
In the end, the cloaked patron took the box, its precious contents of Al-Khansa’s clutched tightly between extended scarred knuckles— destined for the saddlebags of a tired horse.
The shopkeeper kept the coin, letting it tumble into a pocket to meet its meagre kin. As the hot sun bled red along the stones of the horizon, all living bodies fled with their objects of focus, their steaming loaves of bread, their dirty coins, and their papers with slender lettering.
Only we remained, my enemy and I, standing transparent in the desert. We remained in vigil where we had possessed the things we were about to commit our afterlives to.
“What did you feel?” We asked one another.
“Beauty,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“Comprehension,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “And power.”
“Yes,” I said. There had been a power in the words and what they brought with them. I didn’t know how different the powers we’d felt had been.
“I want it,” he said.
“The Power,” he said. “That’s what it is to be alive.”
At the front steps of a palace rising out of the dust, we parted ways. He wished to haunt a king, and I wished to find the horse and its rider. He hungered to become the gold, jewels, and coins that lay hidden beneath the throne, to know again what it was to be the power that he had felt in the commerce of the living as it was kept and changing hands. I yearned to be a poem again.
“One hundred years,” he said. “That’s all the time we need. We will meet back here, and share what we have discovered, so we are sure we know what it is to live.”
I agreed. I was thinking only of the Elegy I’d been. “One hundred years,” I said, not knowing at all how to count the passing time. “Then we’ll meet again.”
I never found the horse. I followed my sense of it, the unrelenting tug of what it had felt like to be a poem, but to be verse isn’t a straightforward thing, and I could not map the feeling of the metaphor like you might map a mountain range.
I stumbled from the desert to the sea, and I fear I may have been there, walking patiently among the strange fish of the deep for what could have been a month, a year, or more. I think already; I’d missed my appointment at the palace. But I didn’t notice.
When at last, I emerged from what I would one day know as the Persian gulf, following the underside of a distant fishing boat to the shore, the world had changed. The signs of my enemy were everywhere, and cities had sprung from the Earth.
I followed travellers singing songs along long roads to Baghdad. In the city, I marvelled, yet went unnoticed, slipping through the homes of its denizens, unseeable in the sunlight.
But I was tugged forwards by words. The House of Wisdom said the bricks and stones and animals of the city. I followed a mathematician with thin hands and a thick beard to the structure that would become my structure.
At dusk, I entered Bayt Al-Hikmah: The Grand Library of Baghdad— and there, I would make a discovery of knowledge.
I was not meant to haunt only a poem, just as my enemy wasn’t meant to haunt only a coin. I
decided as I roamed the halls, imbibing the glory of the texts, that I would be the ghost of the library.
“Happy New Year!” Screams a drunk, splashing into the riverbanks of prince island park in Calgary. His laughter disturbs the mischief of magpies hiding in the tall trees. He doesn’t seem to know it’s mid-February. His worn boots stomp furiously at the ice of the Bow River until it surrenders to him. His body makes steam as he drowns. When does this happen? Is this happening now?
“I don’t think I drowned,” he tells me later as we sit on a park bench together, watching the body float down the river under thick white sheets. “It was the cold.”
“It’s often the cold,” I say
In the cold morning light, we watched hunters descend, mechanical wings carrying bodies infused with hot machinery against the cold.
“I kept mice in my home,” he told me. “They’re illegal these days.” From his pocket, he withdrew the ghost of a book. On its cover, little furry bodies looked out at me: a mouse in a monastery, sword in paw.
“You have it,” he says.
Overhead, luminous machines the size of buildings survey as their hunters dredge the river for corpses, their eyes creating massive spotlights against the river’s blue.
“If you’re staying, you can come with me to the library,” I tell him. “It’s warm there, though we won’t feel it.”
“I’d like that, I think,” he says. But then he looks past me, and sees the writing I can never see. “Oh,” he says. Then he’s gone.
At least I tried.
In the beginning, I carried it with me. But a library is a heavy thing to carry, even when all its books are ghosts.
But more than the weight, I began to fear for it, my creation, my collection. I am a spectre in the world unnoticed. I felt as the prickling hairs on the back of your neck, the wind blowing in a room of closed doors. I am seen in the corner of your eye. That is what it means to notice a lonely spirit. But a spirit-carrying structure? And content? And form? A spirit who carries on his back a whole library of spirits?
I was worried he might find me. For as the world grew stranger and smaller, I could feel signs of him everywhere. I knew he was always looking for me. I feared what he might do to the books.
I hid it, the cosmic structure of my grand library, far in the north, far from the gaze of my enemy, and every hundred years since its founding, I arrive there to expand the structures, to add to the shelves. It is the ghost of that long-vanished tent where I first became a poem.
It is the Bayt Al-Hikmah, the Library of Alexandria, The American Library of Congress, and the private library of a long-dead Spanish Rabbi. It is Calgary Public Library’s children’s collection and a free little street library planted on the side of the road outside of Lagos. It is the New York Public Library of days long gone. I am its sole librarian, custodian, and patron. It is the Lost Bibliotheca. A library of ghosts. It is the ghost of that long-vanished tent where I first became a poem.
I didn’t discover that books made ghosts for nearly a millennia after I fell in love with the words. I didn’t discover it in Baghdad either, but in Spain, within the Jewish Quarter of Barcelona, where I had wandered after a Parisian Merchant who had made a long journey across Europe to put his hands on new translations of Geoffrey Chaucer, who had passed away few decades earlier. I stayed with the French translator for a while until he was killed by a drunken Spanish soldier. His ghost didn’t seem surprised to see me, but when it left, it warned me not to follow. So I stayed for a while, hovering over the body, unsure of where to go. For since The House of Wisdom had fallen, my haunting had become less certain, less eternal. To haunt literature in a world where books may burn was a terribly uncertain thing.
At nightfall, as the people returned to their homes, a Rabbi and his son stepped from the safety of Sinagoga Major. The son points to the body. The father puts a hand over his shoulder. They stand over it together for a moment, silently. Then, compelled, the son makes to reach down and pull the bloodstained translations out from between the dead man’s fingers. But he stops, little hands hovering just above the spine of the book.
“We’d be stealing,” He mumbled in Yiddish, shamefaced.
“Only stealing from the dark, Isaac, not stealing for ourselves. We will put it in the library,” the father said. He reached down and plucked the book into his thin arms. When he pulled it away, something remained. Something lighter than air. Something like me. From within the father’s beard, a low and heavy rumble. His eyes gazed darkly out at the stones, the city, and perhaps even at me. With one hand, he held a book— that living object of the careful script. With the other, he held a ghost, a memory of what that book might have once been to the man who might have owned it. He held it out to nothing, to me, despite his son’s questioning gaze.
I took the ghost of the book. I held it as only the dead can hold each other. I understood my haunting again. The living could haunt the language and letters of their own times and lives. They didn’t need me to do it for them. Instead, I would haunt the books of the dead.
“Libraries are for everyone,” said the father.
thank you, I whispered in a language he could not have known and a voice he could not have heard. All the same, I think the old man smiled at me.
Is this happening now? Is this happening in the future, or the past? After so many millions of moments of time, it has all begun to bleed. I am forgetting, again, what a year is. I am becoming what I once was in the beginning.
What was I before a thing that haunts? Sometimes, I like to consider myself not a spectre of an animal, but the ghost of the first dead idea. If books and paintings and places might have ghosts, why not that?
Other times, I don’t know. I’ve watched the dead and dying with attention for the last few thousand years. I know that it’s the ones who die the hardest worse; ghosts stick around the longest. I’ve found myself in the midst of genocides and annihilations, and in the aftermath found myself suddenly in meshed in a diaspora of spectres. Some would fade, and others would wander until the thinness of themselves became complete, and they knew neither thought nor memory nor the functions of the world. When I see those unspooling spectres, it’s hard to keep the romanticism of my origins. A rare few, though, would find a place or thought or object of haunting as I have done, and whatever they’d been before, their station would be what they would become, as it has for me.
Or at least, that is how it used to be. For one day, I kneeled by the body of a grandfather under the moon of Seoul, collecting the ghosts of storybooks. I lost myself in their delightful pages. I was in them for a long time. When I raised my head again, the world had changed again. The prison bars had been lifted from the sky, and from that once empty canvas of distant stars, colossal structures had arrived— which were themselves a site of haunting.
“Welcome to the triplet empire, they said. “Join us and be free.”
Of all the people who might have accepted such a call, I hadn’t expected it of the ghosts. And yet, for so many, the lure of spreading out, of becoming creatures of dust across galaxies of space, so far from the sites of their lives and traumas, could not be denied. As human beings boarded the colossal ships to spread outwards across other planets, so did their ghosts.
Are they still out there? Could one find a diaspora of the dead in the universe if they look closely enough?
I knew I would never go. I have found my haunting. I won’t leave it. But I did wonder for a while if perhaps he went, for, by that time, I had not seen my Enemy in nearly six hundred years.
But as the influence of an interstellar empire made itself known across the Earth, as new forms of capital, both bio and necro, crept into being through the crisis, I could feel him. His haunting remained in every storefront, every army, every credit card and police badge and luxury condominium.
He was with me, still. And as he grows, I retreat ever further to the edges of the map.
Stars are smothered by thick clouds. In a low, one-room building of deep red bricks, a man kneels with clay-caked hands, sculpting a golem.
It is 1492, and on the outskirts of Barcelona, the inquisition has an old man named Ezra, and his wife Rebecca, and his sons Isaac and Saul. I have haunted them for seven years since he taught me to pluck forth the ghost of books. I have grown to love them.
“Go,” I plead to him, though I know he can’t hear me. “Run away. Take your children, take your books, take your life. I don’t want them, not like this.”
He smiles, a pocket-sized Torah pushed to his chest. Fire makes shadows flirt and dance in the empty conclave eye sockets of the body he insists on forming instead of making instead of grabbing his loved ones and running for the boats that line the distant shores.
“Don’t you understand?” I plead, “they’re coming!”
In the air, something creeps. In the misty night of Spain, something touches me. The heat shimmered. Distant lizards rotted through the night, writing the tale of spoiling meat.
My friend, my enemy. He wasn’t not coming. He was already here.
Once there was only the desert, and time moved only as quickly or slowly as we liked. As the living froze in place, we walked together.
“How are you?” I asked.
“How am I.”
Once, his face had been the only face discernible under the moon. It was a face I’d imagined as my own since no reflection could capture me. But over the centuries, his face had changed. Where once, colourless eyes might have drifted through the night, two coins rested. Engraved on them was a bloody kingdom.
“Well, it’s been a long time,” I said. How strange it felt to speak to a spectre like myself once more, not just a fleeting spirit already moving on to wherever it was they went.
“A long time,” he said. “I waited for you; you know.”
“Oh,” I said.
“In Egypt, I waited. In Tokyo. In Rome. In Baghdad.”
“I was in Baghdad!” I said, seizing on our first new commonality. “For a while, at least.”
“For a while,” he echoed. “But you left?”
Shame curled within me. I looked away from the coins, down the lifeless clay face at our feet. “It burned, you see,” I said. “My... haunting.”
“Ah, so you found your scroll then?” My scroll? Ah, for I had not thought of Elegy for Sakhr for so many years. It was no less beautiful than the day I had become it; only I had been so much more since that. Perhaps something in my countenance revealed as much, for my enemy found a smile. “You found something else to haunt, I see.” He around me, through me, finding, perhaps for the first time, the man and his Golem, the holy book in his hands. “A new book, perhaps?”
“Not any book!” I said. “Every book.” I turn to the loan shelf along the wall, where a meagre shelf lies. From it, I find the Canterbury Tales that had decades before brought me to Spain. I make as if to pluck the ghost book from behind its corporeal cousin, but something keeps me from it, some hidden instinct that made me hide the immaterial from the immaterial. Or perhaps his voice left me interrupted:
“Perhaps you’ve found it then,” he mused.
“The words, the message all the dead have seen but us.”
“Oh.” In the millennia of my haunting, I had quite forgotten that ancient primal desire to participate in that natural cycle. “No, I’m sorry.”
“Of course not,” he said, a strange and strangled laugh lingering inside him. “If you’d found them, you’d be gone, wouldn’t you?”
“What about you?” I asked. “Did you find your coin?”
“My coin? As soon as I found it, the king was trading it away. And I had promised to remain in the palace, remember? I would stay there. For one hundred years. For you. So my haunting changed, like yours. I found something that couldn’t be moved or eaten or lost. I found a thing to haunt that can never die.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t know.” Around us, the clocks of the living were beginning to tick again. The old man had looked up from his work; his fingers pressed deep into the clay. It was as if he could hear us.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. He smiled, and his teeth are the torches of the city, coming to burn away the books of the lonely Rabbi. “I should thank you. Once there was only you and I in the desert, and I was hungry all the time, even though we dead can never eat. We didn’t know what it was to live because we couldn’t remember how it felt to die or what was said to make us this way. But I almost found it; I found it there— haunting not a king but a kingdom. I am Empire. I am dead, and I will never die. I will eat everything. One day, even the stars. The dying will teach me the words they see. Then, finally, we’ll be free.”
“I will eat everything,” he said, and I ran from him. I ran from the Rabbi and his Golem, leaving his family to the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition. I ran from the voice of a ghost. I ran from a scream begging me to stop. I have been running ever since, and I have felt him chasing me.
He is always chasing me; he is always eating, his body of dust and light forever expanding with the girth of his haunting. He covers the earth, and I fear that those ghosts that abandoned the Earth to spread out among the stars will only find him, waiting for them, for Empire knows no boundaries, and he is every empire he can touch.
By my tenth journey to my haunting, the living library was gone, and my library of the dead had grown to cover the lakes of the Arctic.
Time moved, and my Enemy’s influence never tired. The Interstellar empire that had colonized and ravaged the differences and variances of the world had grown bored once it learned to export all it could and had all but abandoned the Earth, leaving behind only the incredible machines to ensure its edicts were obeyed and taxes were collected.
But without maintenance, across the Earth those machines of governance had rotted, their task to galvanize and reorganize the post-anthropomorphic scene a failure. Their ghosts remained within their metal shells, forever trapped. They didn’t understand being dead. They hadn’t known they were living. Books became sparse and, in their sparseness, strange. At the bottom of the Aegean Sea, algorithms designed to govern the movements of fish abandoned their task. As they powered down, they reorganized themselves into a haiku, a tribute to an eel which had died the very day their systems came online. I brought their ghosts to the library.
In a city closed off from the remnants of surrounding countries, an android converts the thought patterns of dreams into living matter, and for an incredible night, dragons and monsters erupt in the sky, and the ghosts of the dead can be seen, our subtle forms entrapped by the smoke of dream stuff. For just a moment, I’m real and solid. Rain breaks against me. Air can’t push through.
I find a ghost outside a diner, watching twins have dinner while around him; the World burns. He looks at me and smiles. “What’re you here for, honey?” He asks.
“Stories,” I tell him.
“Stories are like people; they break your heart,” he says as he turns back to the twins, who have embraced one another. “But I love them still.”
He himself is a story more than a ghost, so I take him to the library. If there are words becoming him into infinity, he does not yet see them.
On my eleventh trip to the library, I have so little to give, and yet I do not even have to traverse beyond the Americas to reach the doors. The library of the dead is spreading across the Drowned Earth, and as each little library dies, as each little house of wisdom burns across the Earth, their structures are incorporated into my ghostly halls
In the remnants of a forest by the borders of the Americas, I find two brothers asleep under the corpse of a cherry blossom tree. Their faces lined and hair silvering, there is a look of satisfaction on their still faces that compliments the well-worn soles of their shoes. Whatever they’d journeyed for, I liked to imagine they’d found it. I couldn’t ask how they’d died, for their ghosts were nowhere to be seen. From between the arms of the elder came the last ghostly text I would collect. The Golem of Barcelona read the title, and I wondered if I might find myself inside. To shelve the book, I had only to stand up and place it down again: for the library of the dead had consumed the world of the living.
I’m becoming frightened. What if this isn’t happening now at all? What if I’ve become lost in myself at some other point, haunting my own reminiscence? What will become of me? An idea that haunts itself?
I fear soon, my Enemy will eat the whole world, and there will be nothing left but myself and my library, and there will be nothing left to add to the library, for there will be no new books left to die.
As I leave the library for the 11th time, I see him just for a moment. He kneels in the water, though it can only ever pass through him.
I think perhaps he’s crying.
The 12th trip. But no, not a trip, for I am in a library of my own design, and I never leave. And it’s not time yet, is it? It has not even been fifty years since the last trip, and I have not yet found a new edition.
But I am here in the library. And on the horizon, a behemoth arrives, soaked in the blood of my enemy’s empires.
“Have you found it?” he whispers to me. He is the universe outside my door. He is all-encompassing. He is the haunting of necro-worlds and dead stars and long-dusted civilizations. He is a huge and mechanized destroyer, almost unrecognizable to himself. “Have you found the words
all the living get to see?”
The question didn’t come from a body, for the spirits of Empire and commerce isn’t embodied in casings like flesh. He is horrible feelings inside. He is the erasure of cultures; he is the nameless graveyard. He is the torch held by the pillager, the language of the nationalist, and the glee of the supervisor of book burnings. He is the cruel hand of the inquisition that demands that all must submit.
“Of course not,” I tell the spirit of Empire. “I’m still here.”
He is the hands of the monster that plunges forwards and writes the final words of the story of the world of the living. When the hand of the colossal creature moves on, it leaves no world behind.
There is just me and my library— a ghost shaped by an impression of a now-dead world.
This is happening now.
Many thousands of years after the first book and the first coin, I find a colossal creature, the apocalypse that is the final remnant of the Empire, hanging in empty space, lit by an aging sun. It was designed by those long dead colonists of space to kill everything they could not tame, people and countries and planets. The bloody work of Empire is finished; it seems unsure of what to do with itself. It simply hangs, a celestial object once meant for conquering, for consuming, for destruction, now meant for nothing.
For myself, I spend this afterlife reaping the fruits of my long labour. Once, I possessed a poem and learned to fall in love with it. From then until the end of the long human age of Earth, I had roamed, collecting the ghosts of books from the dying and the dead. I had, in some ways forgotten during my search, the simple joy of where I began. So, within this colossal haunting I had built for myself, this structure of memories, I learned the joy again as the lone spectre of my bibliotheca.
For the untold ages of a quiet universe, I became every book on every shelf, the tender lover and self of my final house of wisdom. I was poetry and textbooks and maps and fiction and memoirs and instructional pamphlets and screenplays and academic arguments and harlequin erotic novels and collections of tales
I was beautiful.
With that beauty also came clarity and certainty. Not of time, perhaps. For with no world or living peoples, there are no more cycles or segments, no minutes or years or countries.
But with the apocalypse at the hand of my enemy, I was freed from such things. I know this is happening now, and not in a memory. I understand now why I was always so confused by that. Such chronologies are for the living.
For the dead, there is only this one defining segment: there is life, and then there is death. There is only that one great before and after.
This is after.
This is now.
But for my enemy, My poor enemy, there can be no peace, for an empire does not believe in peace. There can be no memory, for systems of commerce and conflict forever yearn to forget.
So when the enemy moves once more, possessing the empty body, it can only echo itself. My enemy can no longer speak, only demand. No longer reach out, but only claw.
Perhaps when he cries, “Empire has discovered a planet!” he is only trying to remember where we came from. Perhaps when he threatens to eat me, it’s only because he can’t remember how to do anything else.
“Tell us,” he begs, for he cannot remember an I with which to speak from. “tell us the words.”
At first, I don’t answer him. He’s my enemy, after all. When he asks how structures might have ghosts, I want to say because you killed them, you bastard! but I hold it in.
Still, he begs. He begs and begs in the terrible empty voices of dead kings and generals and investment banker.
So, slowly, because I don’t know what else to do, I begin to bring him words. I start at the beginning. I bring him out the earliest of my poems, and when he asks me what the words are, I read to him.
There are no spectators or even spectres in this lonely region of space, where only the ghost of a world remains. But what would it have looked like? I wonder if there were eyes to see us or ears to hear us, how might we, too, appear? Each day, a machine of destruction the size of worlds would sit crosslegged in the void, and a tiny ghost would read to him from days and lives gone by.
Each day, his question came, and each day, I would pull a new ghostly volume from my planet of shelves. As I read, he would grow silent and still, a monster of rapt attention. And as his time as an audience stretched onward, and my time as orator lengthened, he began to make requests.
“Not that one,” he might say, or “read it again, you know which one.”
After each reading, he would grow silent for a time, and I would return to my haunting, to caring for the shelves and volumes, to possessing that which brought me joy, with one eye to what I might read my enemy next.
One day — if I were to conjure thoughts in days— as the light of the sun grew hot and dense and small, he summoned me, as he always did: “Tell us the words, please.”
But though I brought words in my hands, I knew they weren’t what he truly wanted, deep down in his furthest memory of self. “I really don’t know,” I confessed. “I’m sorry.”
“But you are a ghost. You are dead.”
“So are you.” I’m standing on the rooftops of the library, where there is only the ghost of a little tent, the memory of that place where once, a book was traded for a coin.
Silence from the terrible machine, then a surprise of the singular: “I am Empire.”
“Before that, you were dead.”
“and… before that?”
I close my eyes. It’s so quiet now, with no living world to rest beneath the world of spectres. It makes me think of the desert. It makes me think of wandering with an enemy before they were an enemy. “I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe we were people. Maybe we were nobody.”
“I don’t want to be nobody.”
From the black expanse of the machine, an opening blossom. Inside, a tiny ghost with a face just like my face. “Will we ever find out?” He asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. I think, for a while, of an old man who’d taught me a trick a long time ago. At the top of my ghostly world, where I’d first hidden my library, I opened a door of my own. From it, I reach out a hand. My enemy watches me from the vast expanse of that desert of space. “There are other words for us, though. Every word that was ever written.”
Slowly, carefully, my enemy tumbles out of his grand machine, which — now empty, turns its back to us. He steps across the desert to me, and as his feet touch the ghost of Earth next to mine, I feel him as I long ago did. “How long will that take us?” He asks.
“Who knows,” I say. “I cannot tell the time.”
And he laughs and takes my hand. I know, as we enter, that I am bringing my enemy into the one place I could not bear to lose. I know that once he is inside, my haunting can never be hidden from him again.
I know that I yearn, and he hungers. I know this cannot last. But I invite him in all the same.
After all, libraries are for everyone.
Ben Berman Ghan is a writer and editor living in Mohkinstsis/Calgary, treaty 7 land and home of the Blackfoot Confederacy, where he’s a PhD student in English literature at The University of Calgary. He’s the author of the collection What We See in the Smoke (Crowsnest Books), and the novella Visitation Seeds (845 Press). His novel The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits is forthcoming with Wolsak and Wynn for spring 2024. More of his recent work can be found in Clarkesworld Magazine, Wrongdoing Magazine, and Cold Signal Magazine. You can find him @inkstainedwreck and inkstainedwreck.ca