Martin Burke was born in Limerick. Burke is a long term resident of Flanders where he is active as poet and playwright (and sometimes actor) and from where he has published sixteen books of his work in the USA, UK, Ireland, and Belgium -the latest work being BLAKE/LONDON/BLAKE published by the Feral Press, New York.
By Martin Burke
I arrange, I confirm, I maintain.
The intention and purpose of this library is as constant as the sea off Buenos Aires or Newfoundland (yes, it inhabits and houses the old and new Americas).
It believes in beauty and memory.
Its world is my world and my only world.
-Do you have The Dislocations?
-Second shelf, third row on the right. It’s next to The Habituals.
A book is a door with a lock: the reader is a key.
Think of me as an arranger, a classifier, grand master, master arranger, the observing, arranging one.
What is a word but an agreed meaning –or a disputed one.
Pay attention, as I have foreseen that you would.
You may dispute me but never refute me.
A librarian is a living parable –I and my fellows: Quixote’s children, off-springs of the impossible.
No god among us that we tremble before.
-Do you have-
-Yes I have.
Turn the key gently in the lock –the door will open, enter.
-Is it always yes?
I am my own history. Exotic animal. One of the few and the many.
Books are my children otherwise I am childless and fatherless.
Watch dust particles rise and swirl in shafts of light through the coloured windows.
The day comes to me, I do not need to go to it.
Magus mind yet I am human.
Yet if I am a master I am also a servant –what book are you seeking?
Do I know all the secrets?
I know what I need to know.
Secrets are dust particles in shafts of light.
Shelves from floor to ceiling.
Rows of shelves that extend into the distant dark.
All books are here, I am their guardian, this is my authority.
Dust is transient, books are eternal.
Light is ethereal, books are tangible.
You know this to be true.
I could write the history of the world by the inscriptions on the fly-leafs.
This would be more accurate than encyclopaedias.
The library is a living encyclopaedia.
Its breathing is regular and unhurried.
Time serves, not masters, it.
It is the poet of its own epic.
-That book was the wrong book.
-The Book is never wrong: that is a privilege reserved for the reader.
-It was hardly a privilege.
-It was a revelation.
-To have the wrong book, to not know myself?
-There are no wrong books, all books are accurate but the timing has to be perfect.
-It was your recommendation.
-I am not infallible. I am a dividing line between the rational north and the imaginative south –which border do you wish to cross?
-I wish to wall myself in.
-Ah, we have books for that also.
-I do not want to walk as far as the boundary-line, I want to stay firmly within my own chosen dimensions.
-We have books for that also.
-Then give me the book that will protect me.
-All protection turns to exposure.
-Not if I bury myself deep enough.
Already you are feeling the cross-winds off the coast, the north and the south, the oppositions and the unities.
This explains me better than any explanation.
You sense a tension –it is there to be felt, to be experienced, to be lived under and with. The north and the south. In everything. In the pages of a life and the pages of a book.
Begin in one direction and end in the other. Get where you are going by going the roundabout way. But get there. The dislocation and the habitual. There is nothing you can ask that I cannot answer with a book. There is nothing you can ask that I cannot answer.
This irks you. That I should speak so confidently about myself. Would you rather I spoke in the provisional persona? That would be a denial. I do not deny. Books do not deny. You cannot work in this building and be what you are not. To be a librarian is to confront the core of yourself without expectations or falsity. Books teach you that. But unless you know this before you walk through the door you will walk here as a visitor and not as a worker.
To be a librarian is to be the silent oracle of the age you occupy.
Yes, this is a large claim –large but accurate. You will find this validated on any page, on every page, on this page.
This is the north meeting the south.
This is two continents joining as one.
Call it history.
Call it living in the pages of my own making.
She comes every Friday.
Time I can set my watch by: three o’clock. Always at three. No exceptions.
She also lives within her own pages. This is an obvious observation –but when the obvious takes on the status of ritual then the obvious is what must be focused on.
Sometimes she asks for a specific book. Sometimes she give general indications and lets the choice be mine. Sometimes she just stands before me saying nothing and then I choose a book for her.
Ritual. Moment with a subtle and ethereal authority. A moment metaphysical in all its implications.
We have depleted history. Beginning with Homer we have ended with Spengler. As you can gauge –the arrangement of books in the library is a system of my own making where a subject is followed in all its ramifications regardless of being poetry or prose, fact or fiction.
Depleting history –how ambitious, how easy. Begin and end. Go though the books like a knife through butter and it’s accomplished. Simple as that. No doubts, no hesitations.
Laser-like she moved among the pages to their conclusions but what her conclusions were she did not say. There was no need. The choices I made for her were the right ones and so I knew what conclusions would be reached.
Conclusions about history –how the thought must unsettle you. How arrogant you think, how inhuman to the human mind to deal in conclusions.
But there are readings and there are readings of the same book or books which overlook this necessary assessment. Without conclusions there can be no further beginnings.
When the ferry leaves a harbour its departure turns into arrival which in turn turns into departure. Understand the cycle and you have understood everything. After that the logbook of a journey is understood for what it is.
No, we have depleted, not abandoned, history. Time for new adventures.
-Today, I think, I want a book about maps. Not a book solely of maps but a book about them with the necessary commentary.
And now there are choices: perhaps the mind’s map of Cabeza de Vaca will be a good place to start with and depart from.
He too sough to unite the north to the south, Europe to America, succeeded in his mind and was an outcast in Spain thereafter.
Then there is Stephenson’s Book of Atlas Treasures (what a simplistic title). This however has one drawback in that it only points out the known routes whereas I’m sure it is the speculative nature of maps which attract her.
Or perhaps I will give her Interiors (author unknown). A large and unwieldy book but satisfying in that it says so little and says as much as is needed to accompany each illustration.
There is another possibility. I could give her the short monograph on the meaning of maps written by myself and published under a suitable pseudonym (no, I will not tell you what the name is, which is to say which personality I have adopted).
Yes. Perhaps that and De Vaca will be a good combination to begin with: the joining of north and south, the wind off Buenos Aires and the bell-buoy of Newfoundland.
-Then I have two books for you.
-To begin with. Or perhaps even to end with. Perhaps these two books will give you all that you require.
-Or perhaps not. My choices may not be the right ones. Perhaps what you see as a beginning will turn out be an ending. Or some middle passage. And you may want to move west whereas the map will move east.
-Hesitation? Doubt? That’s not like you.
-No hesitation. No doubt. Just a cautionary word that the books may lead you where you do not want to go.
-I just want to go. The destination will be built into the departure. That is enough.
Our ritual had moved from the Introit and was approaching the Consecration.
-They are on shelf fifteen and sixteen, section four, numbers seventy-five and a hundred and twelve.
She took the books. I stamped them and entered them in the ledger (we still do not have computers in the library). She left.
It was ten minutes after three. She was dressed in blue and grey (this fact would be important later). She went through the revolving doors and turned to the left.
Between ten past three and six o’clock I went through the functions of my office.
I don’t wish to suggest by the use of the word ‘functions’ that I ever regard my work as being solely functional. I take my work seriously. I am diligent. I assist. I advise. I confirm. I guide.
-Do you have The History of Clay?
-Room two, first shelf, section three, number sixty one.
-Do you have The Origins of Consciousness?
-The Princeton edition.
-First shelf, section one, number one.
-Do you have The Dispossessed?
Do you see the pattern emerging here? Do you see the needs of a generation parade before you?
-Do you have?
-Do you have?
-Do you have?
Yes, I have.
Tourists sometimes enter asking direction to the painters house and the printing museum, or, on occasion, the site of the flea market.
I closed the library door and walked slowly home. This is usual for me but it is not a strict pattern as I sometimes stop for a glass of beer at one of the many Cafes on my route. That evening I did not stop. I was in no specific hurry but I did want to be at home in the comfort of familiar objects and surroundings.
I live alone.
I feel sure this will not surprise you. Already you have built a working image of me for yourself and this fact fits in well with it.
Uneventful weekend. Routine but no ritual. One hour merging into another hour. Day into night. Into day into night again.
I went for a walk by the river but met no one I knew.
I stopped for a beer at the Café Terminal (there is no symbolism intended here).
I prepared lunch and dinner and ate them.
I did the washing-up.
I read a collection of poems entitled Exiles and Redemptions.
I slept for an hour each afternoon.
I slept well at night.
I dreamt in moderate measure.
I prepared for work on Monday morning.
-Yes, as usual.
-Then you know her well?
-I know her tastes and needs in books
-Somehow that’s not creditable.
-That you must have talked. You must know more about her than the books she likes.
-That’s all I know.
-But you have her name.
-It’s in our registry.
-And you have her address?
-That’s here also.
-Then you know where she lives?
-I know where to find out where she lives.
-And did you ever go there?
-Never tempted to?
-I don’t understand.
-Surely after all your contact you must have felt some curiosity about her.
-I didn’t need to.
-Oh, why was that? Did you know her better than you are admitting?
-I knew her through the books I gave her. That’s all.
-That’s all. And yet you are the only constant factor in her life that we can identify. You are the only appointment underlined in her diary. You are the only name she has written out in capital letters. That suggests you were more important to her, and she to you, than you are letting on.
-I only know her through the books she asks for or those I recommended.
-That seems an odd relationship
-It was the only one we had.
-A strange one. A dubious one.
-Dubious or not, it’s the only one we had.
-And you don’t know where she is?
-You have no idea where she could be?
-Because she hasn’t been seen since Friday. She was seen entering the library but no one saw her leave and no one has seen her since then.
-I’m sorry, I can’t be of any help.
-Can’t or won’t?
-Can’t. She came at three o’clock as usual, I recommended two books, she took them and left.
-Hardly, if you are questioning me about her.
-You remember her leaving but you don’t know where she went. You did nothing for the weekend that can be checked apart from a beer at the Café Terminal. For the rest we have only your word to go on. You did not go to meet any friends –if you have any that is. You do not have cinema or theatre tickets to show where you might have been. In fact, apart from that one beer which the waiter remembers because you gave him a decent tip, you cannot account for your movements.
-And why did you give him such a tip if it wasn’t so that he would remember you when we questioned him.
-I was in a good mood on a pleasant day. I wanted to share that mood a little with others. That’s all.
-Dubious again. You do nothing that anyone can verify but you do one thing that very definitely gets you noticed. Suspicious I’d say.
-Not in the least.
-She is missing and you were the last one to see her. That makes you important to our investigation.
-Am I under arrest?
-Who said anything about arrest?
-What my colleague means is that it’s early days yet. It’s a matter of questions and retracing. And this is where the tracing ends.
-But not the questions?
-For the moment yes. But we’ll be back. In fact you can be sure that we will be back.
Tracings and disappearances. A library is the perfect place to start. A perfect place also to end. And their end had led to me.
I did not feel alarmed. Neither for Kaatje nor myself. There were other rhythms than the surface disturbances which told me not to worry. Something was happening –which even if I didn’t as yet know what that was then I was also assured that everything was proceeding according to some surer rhythm than either the police or I were able to put a name on.
I was both innocent and culpable. That much was certain. But I was innocent. I was being woven into some net that was set to trawl some depth. I was playing a part –perhaps a minor one but an essential one, and that part was not yet played out to the full.
-How was she dressed?
-In blue and grey
-You remember that?
-It’s hard not to.
-Because she is a striking woman dressed in colours that match her.
-You seem to have taken a lot of notice.
-As I said, she was striking.
-Notice that a lot do you?
-Only when it’s obvious.
-Obvious to whom?
I did not reply
-What else was obvious?
-Nothing. Everything was normal.
-Is it normal for people to come here at the same time on the same day of every week?
-It’s unusual but it happens.
-Show me your registry log.
He went through the motions of carefully scrutinizing it but this was only a ploy. The silence in which he did this was intended to test my reaction to silence.
-I only see one other, and I know him, a civil servant, a creature of habit. Nothing unusual in that.
-As I said: it’s unusual but it happens.
-Your calmness disturbs me.
-My calmness at what?
-At being questioned.
-Why should that disturb you?
-A woman disappears. You are the last one to have seen her. Your name is written in capital letters in her diary. Yet you are not nervous at being questioned. Perhaps we should go to the station.
-That won’t change anything I know –all of which I’ve told you.
-I’ve known surroundings to jog a suspects’ memory.
(Where do policemen learn such expressions?)
-In fact it usually works.
(Is there some school that they attend?)
I was innocent but I was culpable –it was a definition they would never understand.
At the police station the same limited number of questions were repeated as if they were pressure points on a bridge that would give way beneath me and drown me in a supposed guilt.
But there was no guilt to fall into. The bridge held. I did not drown. I walked again in the weak sunshine of the October afternoon.
By seven o’clock that evening her disappearance was reported on the TV news.
Next morning it was in the newspapers.
My fellow workers began to look inquiringly at me.
My supervisor muttered something about ‘a nasty business’ and passed on.
Now it seemed I was the key to a book that no one had read, or had read and not understood.
I was more than a link on a chain –I was the crucial junction.
That afternoon two new people registered at the library but I recognised one from among the policemen at the station. The second was anonymous enough to be recognisable as a companion. They suspected I knew more than I was admitting to and this was their method of indirect interrogation and observation.
Regular visitors looked more closely at me than before.
I had become the unnamed centre.
I felt her absence, I felt her presence. Her absence was most clearly marked the following Friday when she did not show up at three o’clock. Her presence was in the books she had borrowed.
Every reader adds something to the book they read. She added her signature somewhere between the lines I was reading and though this signature was in no way visible the book could not be read without clearly seeing it. This signature conditioned the book for the next reader after her and I was that reader as I found myself drawn, for some reason, to read again the books she asked for and those I had recommended.
I began with Don Quixote. This was not the first book which linked us but it was the one which somehow seemed the appropriate one to start with. The Don –a true figure of voice and identity achieving independence to live out a new life independent of the pen which wrote him into a few hundred pages. I enjoyed it. I revelled in it as I have always done as if the Knight of the Woeful Countenance was deeply and inevitably linked to some deep and unspoken part of myself.
Then I read the Axion Esti by Odysseus Elytis together with Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis as if by doing so I was re-linking myself to a genesis. Beginning on Homer’s shore everything seemed possible, and touching these two works I was reaching into the well from which all books sprang.
Beowulf and Gilgamesh were easy and obvious choices as was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Already you see the diagram of personality that is being outlined here. Already you see the flow into which we has settled.
The list went on, the days went on.
The policemen in the guise of readers came, spent a lot of time between the book shelves, then left.
On Friday two uniform policemen took up position outside the library. (They left at four o’clock.)
I read the books and reread certain passages which I felt she would have reread. And yes, I must admit that on Friday, at three o’clock, I looked up -not in expectation that she would be there but certainly in hope that she would be.
The item faded from the TV, was dropped by the newspapers, people stopped looking at me. The police however maintained their interest but did little else.
Kaatje slipped into a second and different kind of anonymity than she had previously occupied in the city.
The city behaved as if nothing had happened.
-Do you have the illustrated Moby Dick?
-Do you have The Private Life of St Augustine?
-Do you have Behind God’s back?
-Do you have The Beginning and the End?
-Do you have the Robert Graves translation of Omer Kayam?
It was the civil servant who signalled that matters were changing.
It was Wednesday, the third of the month, and as usual at five o’clock he hurriedly entered the library.
I expected him to go as usual to the theology section but instead he stopped at my desk and in a low and almost frightened whisper asked:
-Have you heard anything from Kaatje yet?
I was taken aback. Both by the fact that he spoke directly to me (something he had never done before) and that he knew Kaatje’s name. But what even surprised me more than this was the expectation in his voice and manner, questioning but not accusative, that I would know something of her whereabouts.
-Yes. Surely she has contacted you by now?
-I told the police: I know nothing.
-I’m not the police.
-I still know nothing.
-I find that hard to believe.
-Obvious facts are frequently hard to believe.
-So are obvious refusals.
-This is not a refusal. I don’t know where she is.
-But you must know.
-I don’t. I don’t even know why you would think I would.
-Just tell me. I need to know. I won’t say anything to the police. I swear.
-You can swear by the king and twenty four peers of France if you like but I have nothing to tell you because I don’t know anything.
This seemed to defeat him in a terrible way.
-But if you don’t then who does!
There was no suitable answer to this so I remained silent and hoped that none of the other workers in the library had heard the tone of his voice which was now close to pleading.
-I had hoped…..
-I can’t help you.
-That’s all right. These matters have to be handled with discretion. I understand that. You can rely on me not to say anything.
-But I have nothing to tell you!
-No, clearly you don’t.
-But I do. If she hasn’t contacted you yet then she will. Or she already has but you don’t want to talk about it. Yes, I understand.
-No, clearly you don’t. You think I have some information about her whereabouts that I’m withholding from you so let me spell it out loud and clearly: I don’t know anything.
Perhaps it was the fact that I said it so loud that my colleagues looked at me, or perhaps because he misunderstood it as some secret but necessary code, that he said nothing as he walked away towards the books, but then turned and winked at me.
I dislike secrets. I like mysteries but I dislike secrets and I was not in the act of sharing one with him –no matter what he or anyone else believed.
I was never so interested in what book he would take as I was that day and he was never so quick in selecting it.
It turned out to be The Tao of Physics –which was either totally revealing of himself or merely an excuse to leave with a book when the real intention of his visit had been to question me.
I recorded the book alongside his name and date.
He did not look at me again.
Where I returned home the postcard was waiting for me.
It was a street scene of Barcelona, flower sellers on the Ramblas, a banal scene that could be purchased anywhere in that city for a few cents.
It was not signed but I knew it was from Kaatje: it said:
Arrived. This is the first call on the map you gave me. This is important. This is unimportant. Which do you think it is?
It wasn’t the handwriting which told me who it was from, nor was it the strict meaning of the words. No, it was the culpability which it implied and which I freely acknowledged to myself which told me who had written it.
I was arranged, confirmed, and maintained.
I could take it to the police, in fact I should take it to the police and show that in spite of their suspicions I was in no way implicated in her ‘disappearance’. That she was alive, very much so, and that she was in Spain.
Yet I didn’t. I knew that if I did I would be doing what she did not want me to do. That I would be doing what I did not want to do. That I would be doing what should not be done. Some private complicity was being demanded of me and I was ready to comply.
There was no need to ask why she had chosen to depart in the manner she had. I understood at an instinctive level what I could not put into rational words. It was a reality clashing with a lesser and insufficient reality. It was a mission. Some secretive surge that she had, and I was playing a necessary part in. I had given her a key and a lock and she was now showing me what she found when she fitted one to the other and opened the door before her.
This gave me enormous pleasure. It was a quest I was a side-figure in. A side figure but an essential one. In a strange but satisfying way this seemed to be the essence of my work in the library. As if this was the inherent purpose of that place at last come to fruition. That Kaatje should be the one to bring this about was also logical and satisfying. There was a beautiful synchronicity involved that a magus would have been proud to achieve.
I would of course feel a small sting of jealousy when I learned that the civil servant had also received a card. I didn’t ask him what was written on it. Either it was the same as mine or it was different. If it was the same then I knew in advance what the contents were. If it was different then the message it contained would be solely for him and I would not attempt to intrude. Each to his own role in a quest. We might have been fellow conspirators but we were each unaware of the other’s role and station.
That night I dreamt of Barcelona where I walked the Ramblas and bought flowers.
The world was changed.
What had been a pleasant weekly encounter of a few minutes was now revealed as a prelude. The possibilities of this were infinite and unpredictable. She was weaving the web and writing the story and only as I read her directions and script would I know what my role was to be. Perhaps I would be active, perhaps I would be passive. It didn’t matter. The words were insufficient to the situation. Only the situation itself mattered. All the rest was mere scenery and prop. Useful but not essential. A landscape in which the action took place. A background against which she painted, like El Greco painted the Toledo in the Storm, a singular and ongoing masterpiece.
The world was changed.
And I was changed.
By a fraction.
But I was changed.
-Do you have The Possibilities of Infinity by D.R. Gillard?
-Do you have In Parenthesis by David Jones?
-Do you have The Sunlit Dialogues?
-I want to recheck your story.
-I have nothing to add to it.
-Nothing that you want to change perhaps?
-I don’t believe you.
-I’m aware of that.
-And what I don’t believe makes me suspicious.
-I’m aware of that also.
-Are you also aware that I won’t stop until I solve this little mystery?
(Again the standard policeman talk.)
-You know more than you are telling.
-There is nothing more than I can tell you.
-Maybe you can’t, or won’t tell me but you know more than you are saying.
-We always know more than we say.
-Don’t play word games with me. I can keep you here as long as I like or as long as it takes for you to give me the information I need.
-Then we will be here for a very long time.
A very long time. Here in the cold interrogation room. The neutral painted walls. The strip lighting. The table, the two metal chairs.
-Tell me now and we can get this whole business over with
-I have nothing to tell you.
-You mean you have nothing that you are willing to tell me.
-I mean I have nothing to tell you.
-I don’t trust you. I don’t believe you. You’re a librarian. You deal in books. Books deal in words. You deal in words. You know what to hide and you know what to expose. So far you have said that you have nothing to tell me but you have not said that there is nothing to tell. It’s a crucial difference. You see, I deal in words also.
-What is it you expect me to say?
-I expect you to say what you know.
-An admission? A confession of guilt? I have no confession to make. There is nothing I admit to.
-But what is there you could, and should, admit to? That’s the question I want an answer to.
-Then you will have a long wait for nothing.
-I can wait –and there is always something. Time passes, new facts come to light. I am an assembler. I assemble the unknown into the known. I arrange the pieces of the puzzle into the total picture. I’m good at it. You should believe that.
Gone now was the plodding policeman of caricature and cliché. Here he was revealing himself as an expert in his craft. I would have to be careful. My duty and obligation were to the wishes of Kaatje. Not to his needs. Yes, I would have to be careful not to betray the trust I was given.
-We will talk again.
-What will we talk about that we haven’t already talked about?
-Oh, a story told once can be told twice and three times until I ferret out the crucial difference between the first and final version.
Duty. Obligation. Nothing had been said, nothing had been asked, and yet they were both upon me as sacred as any vow a novice might make to a master. Yet in the morning freshness as I walked back to the library they weighed upon me with all the lightness of an atom and I felt elevated to be part of them –even if I did not yet know what, if anything, would be required of me.
-Do you have The Undefined?
-Do you have The Sensibilities?
-Do you have The Secrets of Mount Athos?
We have them all. I know the shelf, the section, and the number. I point out the space they should go to. I enter the books in the ledger. I perform my duties. Only now my duties were assuming a significance that was thrilling and secretive. I think I had never felt so alive and elated as at that moment. The library was more than a house of books –it was a maze with, at its centre, the acts of Kaatje. Nothing could equal that. It was a work in progress. It was a book in the writing which was not finished. It was an unfolding chapter in which the building was merely a figurative role. But an important one.
It was Wednesday, the third one of the month, it was five o’clock.
I was both relaxed and excited at the prospects of more postcards from Kaatje. There would be more, of that I was sure. Something had begun which had not yet ended. One postcard was a beginning for which I was excited to know what the continuation would be. Every day I checked my mail box –but nothing. She was operating on a different time-scale and zone than the one I occupied. I would have to obey her rhythms, her choices. Even if I had a forwarding address I would not have used it. She was directing the matter. Not I, no matter how much I wanted to know where she was and if she would say anything about her intentions.
The civil servant entered.
There was about him a quietness and sense of satisfaction which I had not previously seen in him. Some cloud of calm had settled on him. Some knowledge which, like water, spread out and claimed all within its path as being within its jurisdiction, and claimed him.
He had walked to my desk and with a tone of authority I presumed he reserved for his work and spoke the name of that city.
I didn’t know what else to say. It had been a statement, not a question. Whatever I knew he also knew.
-She is in Barcelona, but you know that.
Denial would have been useless.
-Yes, I knew you would know.
Now we were no longer librarian and visitor –now we were conspirators.
-I didn’t go to the police either.
-Why should you do that?
-They think she has ‘disappeared’. She hasn’t. She has merely gone away. It’s her choice, her methods. No one outside our circle has any business in knowing where she is.
Our circle? Was I now linked to him because of her? It neither warmed nor unsettled me. It was a fact. A statement. A word. It could have other meanings for him than it held for me.
-Was your postcard also unsigned?
-Yes, I thought it would be. Kaatje is not one to break a pattern which she has set so rigorously in motion.
-Your role in this should not be underestimated.
-Yes. You gave her the books about maps. You set in motion what was waiting for the right opportunity to happen. She has a lot to thank you for.
-I merely gave her two books.
-Nothing more than that.
-What else did you need to do? You gave her the books, she left, you set the process in motion.
It was not an accusation for he spoke slowly, quietly, and respectfully.
I was hesitant.
-There is no perhaps. It’s as clear as clear water.
Why did I feel, at that moment, as if I was no longer unique? Why did I resent not being the only one Kaatje wrote to. Why did I feel resentment at sharing this secret with him. Ridiculous, I know that, but that is what I felt. And all this talk of ‘our circle’ only added to the feeling that I was excluded from being the sole participant in the inner workings of a sacred rite. Yet if she choose to write to him also then there must be some purpose that suited her to do so. Perhaps then I was not excluded but included in some hermetic circle of which I was the adept and he was the more advanced pupil. If so then my role was pre-defined and predestination was playing its part with me. This cheered me. I no longer felt contemptuous towards him. In a still reluctant manner I could acknowledge that we were brothers of a sort and if I was not yet sure as to the purpose of the brotherhood I would gladly accept his part for her sake.
-Have the police questioned you?
-Why should they? I’m only a user of the library. I don’t work here. I’m not worth noticing.
-And if they do?
-Then I have nothing to tell them.
The next postcard was from Prague.
The postmark was clear though the street scene depicted could have been of anywhere. The fact that it was Prague however proved deeply satisfying to me. It read:
This is a continuation which I know you will understand. Not in any obvious geographical sense but in the sense of what is intended by this destination.
However, the thumbprint, clearly visible, was that of a man’s, not a woman’s and seemed fresher than the ink her script was written in.
Someone had handled the card with attention or carelessness.
Yes, it had to be Prague, the rightness of which was obvious to me even if I could not articulate it into words.
-There is no need to. The postcards she sends us are themselves the right articulation.
-Yours arrived yesterday?
(It was not the third Wednesday of the month yet there he was before me)
-As did yours. There can be no other way.
-But you don’t know why she has gone there?
-I think the name of the city tells us everything we need to know. Any other explanation would be bothersome.
He was right. Explanations, or what would pass for them, would only diminish the totality of the images she was conjuring up for us. She was writing the map but leaving it up to us to write the accompanying narrative as would suit us both.
Which was when the older of the two policemen came in alone.
-I need to talk to you
His tone was not official. This was a request, not a command, even so the civil servant went off in search of some imaginary book.
-Need? That’s a strange word for you to use.
-No stranger than you getting an unsigned postcard from Prague.
-Yes, it’s my thumbprint. Illegal of course to check your mails and so I can’t use it against you -nor do I want to.
He wasn’t shrunken in himself but he was no longer walking with his swagger of authority.
-A postcard, that’s all.
-No, that’s not all. There is some connection here between this place, you, and the disappearance of Kaatje which you know, which I don’t, but which I need to.
-I told you –I have nothing to tell you.
-I know you did, but that was when I asked in my official capacity. That’s past now. The case isn’t closed but it has been dropped. Quietly you understand. Put at the bottom of the drawer so to speak. Neither active nor officially forgotten, but forgotten about to all intents and purposes.
-Then why are you here? Why are you telling me this?
-There’s something here I can’t put my finger on. Something I don’t understand. This isn’t the usual case of someone running off into the sunset. No, there is some purpose active here which I need, need, not want, to understand. I know you can help me.
Was there pleading in his voice? Did it carry a sense of real urgency?
-The fact that it’s from Prague tells me that something strange and wonderful is happening. I’ve been there. I know it’s one of those magnetic centres of the world. Unsigned postcards can arrive from any other place and it would merely mean that the writer forgot to sign them. That doesn’t happen with Prague. You know it and I know it –but more than that I don’t know. And it’s what I don’t know that I need to know so please, tell me.
I felt sorry for him. Sorry for him in his lostness. Sorry for him in that he was knocking on a door which he could not force open.
-People go their own way in life –perhaps it’s a simple as that.
-It might be in other cases, but not this one. This one is a strange mixture of the real and the not-yet-real. It’s all centred on this library, and this library is centred on you.
-You credit me with too much power and influence.
-On the contrary, I don’t think I credit you with enough.
-So what is it you want to know?
-Was the card from Kaatje? That’s all I want to know –for the moment; that and I want you to recommend a book for me.
I gave him (for reasons I don’t fully understand) the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It seemed appropriate.
-Do you have any work dealing with Breughel’s Fall of Icarus?
It was a Friday afternoon, three o’clock, but the woman standing before me was not Kaatje. Yet the day and the timing set me wondering: what if….
All the more so when she returned the following Friday, again at three o’clock, and asked if we had any books about El Greco’s Toledo in the Storm.
Then the long weekend waiting for the post on Monday morning.
The slow Saturday turning into slower Sunday.
Marking the time by something which had not yet happened.
Perhaps there would be no postcard on Monday, perhaps there might be (this is the time I was marking).
On Monday there was no postcard but the policeman returned with Johan (the civil servant)
-He knows all that there is to know. I felt I had to tell him.
-There is so little to tell.
-In terms of facts yes, but in their import….
He let the words trail off as if he was once more performing the functions of his job.
-Understand me well. I know you had nothing to do with her disappearance. And that it isn’t a disappearance –not in the usual sense at least. But something is happening here that I am being drawn into. I don’t know what and I don’t know why. I only know that some connection now exists between the four of us that has nothing to do with my work as a policeman. It’s more important than that. Much more.
How much he had changed in so short a time. How much clearer he was to me now and also, I suspected, to himself.
-Then you will know we have nothing but two unsigned postcards. One from Barcelona and one from Prague. Those are the ‘facts’. Whatever their meanings those are the facts.
-True. He got them and I got them. That’s all.
-I know that and I’m not disputing them. What I’m saying is that her disappearance together with these two cards are part of some symbolic ritual. A living mandala if you will that I need, desperately need to be a small part of.
-That’s not ours to choose.
-I’m not suggesting it is. All that I ask is that you let me know when another postcard arrives and that you will tell me what it says.
-And in the meantime….
-In the meantime select more books for me. I also don’t know why I am asking this, I only know that I have to place myself in your hands and that then the future will show itself to me.
I gave him Ulysses Found by Ernle Bradford.
The postcard came four days later: it was from Jerusalem.
You should not be surprised. Jerusalem is the logical destination point for all pilgrims and map readers. Every map reader is a pilgrim, and the reverse is also true. Yet, for the moment which are you and which do you want to be?
The postmark didn’t surprise me but the question did.
Who was it for?
I knew that Johan would receive the same postcard as I would –so the question was being asked in a general more than a specific sense. And yet it asked: which do you want to be? This meant that it was intended for a specific person. Did it apply to both of us? Did she think of us as a singular whole rather than separate entities? This thought was unsatisfactory and out of keeping with the tone of her message and the whole business. It was too general to be for Johan or me and yet it was too specific so as to be for one and not for the other. I was no longer the master-arranger that I introduced myself as. I was not the magus. I was a servant. Nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps then, the question would equally apply to myself as to Johan though we would each give a different answer to it. I had been slowly stripped away into a nudity I could not hide from. I was ashamed –not of what I was but of what I had been. How arrogant, to think of myself as an arranger, a mind directing other minds. How foolish to suggest there had been tensions of north and south alive in my pronouncements. I had no pronouncements to make now. I was too humbled for that.
And Johan, what answer would he give and would I ever know what that was? What was he being denuded of or clothed in? And was this to be the first of several such admonitions and questions or was one enough, and more than enough?
I walked slowly to work.
Down the High Street, across the market square, through the side lane, into the library, and, once there, felt myself to be a total stranger.
The books gave me no comfort.
The line of shelves were sentries standing guard against my arrogance.
I was an intruder who could only mutter: Dulcina.
-Do you have The Myth of Gilgamesh?
-Yes, it’s…it’s…somewhere on the second shelf, fourth or fifth row on the right I think.
-Do you have Trustees of the Rainbow?
It was a book I had never heard of.
Who was the one who was depleting history?
Who was being depleted?
The answer was easy but terrible.
I was far from being the centre of the web. I was a strand. Nothing more. Kaatje was the centre as she had always been but only now did I see that. My arrogance had been monumental and over-powering. I had felt so superior when the police questioned me in being able to deflect their questions. Useless! Useless! Everything I had done had been vein and useless. I felt ashamed to be who and what I was.
-Do you have-
-One moment, I’ll call my assistant.
The morning proved to be slow and unending. Visitors came, visitors went, but I accomplished nothing. It was as if the god I believed in had died and I was left with the funeral ashes.
Do you have?
Do you have?
The words came at me like an accusation I had no defence against.
Without a doubt that morning was the low point of my life.
The word rang clear as a bell in his mouth.
The word gave me a flickering hope.
-It’s so right that she should be there –but where will she go next?
The hope flickered brighter.
-We just have to wait and see.
-Yes, everything is going according to a natural scheme. She knows what she is doing and where she is going.
This added to the light. Even my shame was beginning to find its place within the greater scheme of which she was the weaver. Perhaps I would emerge into daylight again. And I realised that salvation could only come out of damnation. I was Dante’s pupil and this was the hell I was emerging from.
-And the question….
-Yes, apt don’t you think being both general and specific to each one of us.
-Each one of us? Surely you mean both of us?
-No, I think Kurt has a right to know what was said. I haven’t seen him yet but when I do I’ll show him the postcard.
So, Kurt was the policeman’s name which I had not bothered to ask when I lent him the books. In fact I had not entered it in the ledger.
-Yes, our circle is growing –where will it end?
I had no answer, and to be frank I don’t think he expected one, he was so excited.
-I’ve always wanted to go there of course. One of those cities where history has happened. The physical and the metaphysical. Both in balance. Both astounding in their ramifications.
He was elated.
-Yes, Jerusalem. I, we should have known she would go there.
Again the bell of that name was ringing.
-Have you thought about following her?
-I have. I get the urge to follow the route she is mapping out in the belief that if I do this then I will discover something, some truth or approximation of truthful peace that I do not yet know.
-I don’t think that’s what she intends. I think our place is here.
-Perhaps. And yet you can’t deny that it is an intriguing thought.
-Yes, start in Barcelona and attempt to locate what drew here there. That surely can’t be very hard. Whatever it is would expose itself to us when we got there. I feel sure of it. We wouldn’t have to try very hard. The city itself would show its magical centre.
-The same, the very same.
-You have thought about this a lot.
-Yes I have. It stays with me as a thought I cannot rid myself of. Nor do I want to be rid of it. It brings me peace and excitement just to think about it.
-And yet you have not gone.
-I haven’t. And maybe I won’t. but that does not make the thought sterile. Perhaps I can follow her at a distance like a mental traveller. But follow her I do and I will. I don’t know how to describe it but my fate, if I can use so ponderous a word in the present context, is somehow linked to her final destination –wherever that may be.
-You expect further cards, further cities?
-I’m not sure. Everything depends on her private purpose. I can’t second guess what that might be.
-But it’s not private. At least not in a limited sense it isn’t. she directs and we respond. There is something truly satisfying about that. So no, Jerusalem is not where this will end. I don’t know where it will be but expect more cards –and soon.
Two days later a postcard arrived from Athens.
Kurt came hurriedly through the revolving door.
-Has there been another one?
-From where this time?
-What does she say?
-She says: Be shattered, Be amended.
-Does it mean anything to you?
-Yes it does.
-Anything that you can share?
-No, at least not yet. Perhaps some other time. This is not the time.
-I wish I had known her.
-She was remarkable for being so ordinary.
-And there is no forwarding address?
-None, as usual. Why do you ask?
-A flickering hope that I would be able to contact her. That I would be admitted into the circle. That she would include me in those she sent postcards to. Are there others who receive them?
-Not as far as I know.
-No, I didn’t think so. You three form some form of closed circle and I’m seeking to gain admittance to it but the only one who can grant that admittance is in Athens and doesn’t even know I exist!
There was genuine desperation in his voice.
-But I told you what she wrote.
-But that’s not enough! Don’t you see –I need to be inside looking out not outside looking in.
-Given time…who knows….
-Time? I’m too impatient to wait for time to deliver up its message.
-So what are you going to do?
-I don’t know, I really don’t know.
-But you already know so much.
-Which only serve to tell me that I know so little. All my working life I’ve been solving puzzles and conundrums. I was good at it. Got promoted. Got the job done. Could be relied upon to fill in the blank spaces on any page. But this..this is different. A lot more than a simple solution is at stake here. Some necessity I have never encountered before. Some necessity that links me to whatever future I’m to have.
-It’s that important to you?
-Then be shattered, be amended.
Five days later the newspapers were speculating on Kurt’s sudden and unexplained disappearance. He had not reported for duty and was not at his apartment. Nothing was amiss in his apartment. Nothing was missing. There was no sign of a forced entry not any evidence of a struggle. Naturally the disappearance of such a high ranking police officer attracted attention and speculation as to the motive for what certain of the papers were referring to as ‘spectacular’ and ‘deeply puzzling’.
That Friday afternoon, at exactly three o’clock, the same young woman appeared in the library and asked for The Second Tao.
I briefly wondered if both events were related in any way though clearly they were not. The first could be explained in any of several ways, the second was pure coincidence. Two Fridays at three o’clock do not amount to a symbolic occurrence.
-I think you’re missing the essential element involved
-I don’t think so.
-Perhaps you’re too close to the facts to be able to see them clearly.
-I don’t think so. I see them as separate events related by time, that’s all. I see no other connection between them.
-And yet there must be one.
He wandered off into the library. I attended some formalities. From time to time I would look up from my desk and see him wandering about and shaking his head as if in an argument with himself he was incapable of bringing to any conclusion.
I closed the library and went home.
The weekend passed without anything special occurring. I did some shopping (I live alone) I prepared my meals. I walked by the river Sunday afternoon. I slept well and rested as if I had been shattered and was now amended.
When I arrived at the library on Monday morning Johan was waiting for me.
-Well, have there been any developments? Have you reached any conclusions?
-None what-so-ever. The weekend was thankfully uneventful.
-No word from Kurt?
-A pity. I had hoped he would contact you.
-Perhaps he will.
Kaatje first walked into the library exactly a year ago. At the time I took little notice of one more registration but in retrospect the moment is vivid and enduring. She was dressed in the same blue and grey as when I last saw her.
Those colours were so apt for her. The colour of her eyes and the colour of her hair.
A year ago –yet everything of importance had happen in the past few weeks.
First I was an arrogant librarian, then I was questioned by the police. Then the first postcard arrived and I was a conspirator in a secret quest. Then I was exposed to myself and to others in a way that I never had been and which proved to be unsettling.
Yet if I was shattered then I was amended –but into what, or who, I could not yet say.
True, I still carried on my work in the library. Daily I went through the motions of registration and advice but underneath my civil appearance an excitement was building in me that would have to find an outlet.
I was almost nervous and highly strung yet I managed to control myself and present a calm appearance to colleagues and visitors alike.
Perhaps the library was a mandala and the books were the strands leading to the centre which I occupied in this place.
This thought delighted me. Delighted me so much that I felt like letting out a long, loud joyous whiney like a horse given its head in an open field.
I have never known such joy.
I have never known such a sense of purpose as I felt at that moment in that place.
Whatever would happen was meant to happen. I only had to relax and wait for it. The future would come to my door and I would let it enter.
Whatever I have been I was now different and could never return to that old life again.
Be shattered, be amended –I was and would be.
The next day I received two postcards, both unsigned, –one from Newfoundland, the other from Buenos Aires
© Martin Burke 2014