Friday, October 17, 2008

The Angel's Hand

The Angel's Hand

M. M. Bratrud

It is a common exercise among art students; exhibited most famously in the works of MC Escher. The idea of the infinite and the incalculable reduced to the finite medium of a canvas. A hand drawing a hand, which in turn is drawing the first hand, or a third hand, which may also draw a fourth hand. The concept is the infinite and the incalculable reduced to the finite medium of a canvas. Escher, in the most famous iteration of this theme, concluded it with two hands. However, the exercise could go on forever, limited only by space. This idea had always intrigued Augusto Palacio Da Silva; and as he stood perusing through the shelves of Castillo & Sons Books, one midsummer evening, while horrendous decade-old German techno assaulted his eardrums from the demonic new ceiling speakers, he wondered why this mind-bending concept had never been applied to writing. The concept would have to be adjusted a little, but Augusto did not see any reason why it could not work.

Da Silva replaced a shiny new anthology of Flaubert, an author he detested, on the shelf. Da Silva shook his head, annoyed. One bad book, like a bad apple, could could quickly ruin Da Silva's appetite for good ones, and with an effort he willed himself to stop thinking about his distaste. Three books to the left of the Flaubert, a tattered green paperback caught his eye. It looked a few decades old; published during the heyday of attention-drawing, bright pastel covers and zany fonts: 1977. In an unfamiliar black or dark green font on the front and side, the book told Da Silva that it was Hand! Write! By a certain James B. Trevelyan. Augusto opened it. The dedication read, To the books that write their author's stories, and to the stories that write their author's books, and above all to the authors that write stories of books; this book humbly dedicates its author.

Da Silva read the sentence again. And again. It made little sense. Part of Da Silva's brain scoffed. English Rigmarole, it thought. But another part of his mind was intrigued. Book in hand, he sat down in a squat leather armchair, the kind which bookstores sprout like bread sprouts mold, and began to read. All the chapters, he noticed without noticing, were labeled “Chapter 1,” although they sported different titles.

Chapter 1: In Which

Ordway Books in Bangor, Maine, wasn't quite the establishment Henry Wallace Bergen II had envisioned owning when he had first become interested in the book business. Bangor wasn't glamorous, but he couldn't pretend that his business was struggling. It as a literary town. Bangor Public Library, after all, regularly had one of the highest circulation rates in the country. Nevertheless, Ordway wasn't perfect. Bergen often dwelled on the idea of a perfect bookstore whenever the bookshop was not busy, which was nearly all the time. Aside from various rules he would enact about smoking while reading (You burn it, you buy it!) , a revolutionary Algebraic filing system, and the elimination of price tags, his most fervent wish was for a Great Discovery. (He always capitalized its in his mind.) A first edition of some classic; or perhaps even something more exotic: an illuminated vellum manuscript confirming the truth of the Arthur legend, a forgotten Norse saga, or, more modestly, just a book he had never heard of written by an unknown or anonymous author, which upon reading proved enchanting. This last had happened several times, even in Bangor, but Bergen had little hope that any of the others would come true. His ideal bookstore would need to be in the old world. Not Britain, and the farther east the better, because of the closer proximity to the Euphrates and Tigris, the cradle of civilization. An abandoned church in Old Krakow, perhaps.

There was a half-hearted ding from the strong of bells Bergen had tied to the door, signaling that the last furtive patron had left the shop. It was around four-thirty in the afternoon on February 23rd, a time and month which, as most people know, nothing exciting every happens. Tiredly, Bergen sat back on the stool and reached for one of the three hundred books that were within easy arm reach (Ordway was a bookshop of the best kind; crowded with books and not people.) The volume his hands found was a small, unassuming hardcover, with a simple leather cover, typeset in Garamond, “The Bookshop Three Blocks from La Sagrada Familia,” by Adrian Fournier. The date on the inside cover was 1897, and this book was a First Edition from Cabestany House, Barcelona. Bergen opened the book without much interest, and began to read.

“The book of infinity never existed, nor did an infinity of books. Infinities within or concerning books, and books within or concerning infinities, yes, but never THE book of THE infinity. This has not deterred some among the intelligentsia from looking for such a book. This was always unconsciously in Don Augusto Palacio Da Silva's mind as he entered a bookstore. It was no different as he entered Castillo Books that blustery morning in early October. He was ill-dressed for the cool weather, and seemed perpetually surprised by it as most Spaniards are. His thin, fashionably cut jacket was more for style than for wind protection, and he had been buffeted around thoroughly on the short walk from his apartment in Calle Almuradiel to the bookshop. This discomfort left his mind and body as he entered the warm bookshop. To him, it was an obstacle to be conquered. He was a relieving army, the books and patrons of the store were an enemy force besieging a friendly fortress. The fortress was his perfect book; the book of infinity. With the temperature rose his spirits, and soon he was surveying the shelves with a practiced eye. A few times a book would stick out at him, but always he shook his head and returned it to its place. Then, he saw a large book, ornately bound in wine-colored leather. It was entitled 'An Angelus Quod a Libri;' 'An Angel and a Book.' Da Silva opened the book. The book was older than Da Silva had first thought; It was in archaic English, typeset in a way that suggested antiquity. The title page read thus: 'This volume was written by Franz Michael Bastogne of Copenhagen Town and published by Wladislaw & Sons, Berlin, on the Lord's Day of December 15th, 1771.' Da Silva was mildly interested, for no apparent reason, and brought the heavy book over to a hard stool and guttering candle which were the spartan bookstore's only concessions to customer comfort. He began to read. 'Henry Wallace Bergen was not heeding the fierce rain that beat down from the heavens, but merely pulled his oilskin tighter as he made his way across Rue Antony to the Guiglielmo Library.'”

Bergen stopped reading, deeply puzzled. He read the paragraph again; he had not been mistaken; the book had named Bergen himself. It was incredible that this Bastogne would have conceived of a character with the same name as that of the man who read his book more than a century and a half after it was written. It was mind-bending. Mind-bending and impossible.

Augusto Palacio Da Silva stopped reading, wide-eyed. He looked at the book in his hands warily. What was he holding? The man Bergen had discovered himself in the pages of the book he was reading. Da Silva had too. Da Silva mentally voiced agreement with Bergen; it was mind-bending and impossible. But then he remembered that Bergen was a fictional character. Or was he? Da Silva made an effort in his mind to separate the reality of the bookshop from the almost frightening yet unavoidable unreality of the book in his hands. The techno music that he had detested earlier served as his anchor in the warm, musty reality of the bookshop. But he could not do it. His mind was hopelessly muddled. With a deep breath, he blew out the guttering candle and climbed off the hard wooden stool. No, said Da Silva. There were no candles, no hard stool; that was the other Da Silva. But there is only one, a snide voice in his mind whispered.

Da Silva closed his eyes and shook his head hard, like a man trying to clear the bleariness away after being hit on the head. He removed himself from the clutches of the fat leather chair with some difficulty. His muscles felt unwilling, as if they had not been used for a long time. His left foot, he noticed, had fallen asleep. He gratefully latched on to the painful pins-and-needles as he had done with the techno. Combined, these two influences held him firm, and he was able to limp to the check-out and pay quickly for the book. For some not entirely natural reason, he did not even consider leaving the book behind. Luckily the girl at the check-out was a mute, mousy sort of creature with multiple tattoos and the look of a heroin addict who did not deign to say anything; Da Silva doubted he could have managed to speak. He took the book, in a plastic bag, inclined his head distractedly at the checkout girl, and hobbled out. Without the techno, he again began to lose to lose control of his muscles, half his mind was within the book. The pins and needles, however, were particularly painful, and by concentrating on them he managed to stagger onto a trolley where he closed his eyes and gripped the pole tightly, concentrating on the foul odor of a fat man's Gauloise. This saw him to his stop, but when he paid the trolleyman and exited, the odor quickly dissipated. Da Silva had never longed for the noxious odor more. He found that he no longer had coordinated muscle movement. No one was about, thank goodness, to laugh at the absurd stagger with which he made it to his own front door. Luckily his was a ground floor apartment; stairs would have defeated him entirely. He collapsed into a chair. His fingers could not open the flimsy plastic bag emblazoned with the name of the bookstore. He ended up tearing it to pieces. He opened the book, entirely against his will, found his spot, and began to read. It was not a thick book, he was done by midnight. By that time his mind was gone. Augusto Palacio Da Silva was dead.

But Augusto Palacio Da Silva rose to take his place in full headship of the body of the deceased. He was only too happy to make room for Henry Wallace Bergen II, and for James B. Trevelyan, Franz Michael Bastogne, and, though he fought with Bergen constantly, Da Silva also admitted Henry Wallace Bergen II. And, in the end, he made amends with Augusto Palacio Da Silva, and gave him joint headship of their shared body.

These men, who had always not existed, shared only one thing in common: they had found a book that sired book and was sired in turn by book; the book of infinity and the original Great Discovery; the book by an anonymous author which, upon reading, proved enchanting; it was also the inspiration to every book that has ever held any of these qualities to anyone. This book's origins remained shrouded in mystery, but the bond of its different guises proved strong enough to bend time—and mind—and bring it's discoverers together in one consciousness.

The body of Augusto Palacio Da Silva and all its mental tenants were appointed to the Chairmanship of the Universidad de Barcelona Literary Department in 2017. They were very successful, though their lectures were sometimes confusing and there were dark rumors among the student body of papers which were given two differing grades, and comments and corrections that seemed to disagree with each other, though they were written with the same hand. Da Silva and his tenants wrote a novel, entitled “The Angel's Hand Which Wrote the Sagrada Familia,” but it has been rejected by all the publishers they have sent it to. In 2041 Da Silva's body died, which did not impair them greatly although no one was satisfied with his funeral arrangements. Their next host was Portia De Luca, a young green-eyed University student who had always greatly admired Professor Da Silva, and wandered, one day, into his private library, where a tattered green paperback caught her eye...


elisabeth said...

did you write that?

sweetggirl said...

I love it!!! Please publish it! :)Oh, and happy early birthday!!!

Sola Gratia said...

Yup, Liz, I did.

Rach: LOL, I wish. Thanks :)