Biblioteca of Babel

I woke somewhere in the soft drone of a library’s ventilation. It wasn’t the same library I had rested in, putting my head on the desk. The room was shaped as a hexagon. Above, pale lights and almost-identical books in identical wall shelves, and air pushed from some subterranean generator….

Beside me was the book I had been reading when I passed out, knocked out, or died. It was a paperback copy of Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. I knew where I was. I was in “The Library of Babel.” I had been reading or re-reading that story—Spanish, but with an English translation beside it—in the central branch of the Los Angeles Library. I had taken the book to a far corner of the ground-level, foreign-language section when I had…whatever…and woke in a library that was infinite, according to the daunting geography of Borgesian creation.

Hoping to place myself within the purview of injury or hallucination, I felt my head for a bump, found none, and dismissed the possibility of a fall or blow—the latter less likely as I still had my wallet with twenty-three dollars and, rattling in my pant’s pocket, fourteen cents. I sat up on my haunches. I had a name, age, address in my memory and in my wallet, along with a credit card, health-insurance card, and, ironically, I suppose, a library card for the city of Los Angeles.

I’m not a young man, and it took a few seconds, using a chair and my arms as a cantilever, to hoist myself to my feet. Standing, letting the brief dizziness pass, I put on my glasses, attached around my neck by string and alligator clips, and walked to the wall where I examined the books on shelves that were about six feet high, the top shelf at my eye level. Some of the books were hardbound, others trade paperback. Some were fiction and others were nonfiction, some thick and some skinny but consistent in the height and black covers and san serifs printing on the spines. Other than that, the shelving seemed to be a complete mash-up.

Taking my copy of Labyrinths, its spine still marked as property of the Los Angeles Public Library, I walked into the next hexagon. The carpet was green and thick and clean. (The janitorial services seemed to be excellent.) Looking up, I noted certain anomalies or inconsistencies with the library in Borges’s story. The panoptical quality of his library, where diaphanous floors and ceilings allow the patron glimpses of infinity, was here tailored to meld with my own experiences of libraries that included carpeting and fluorescent lighting and even a computer, the latter, encountered in a subsequent hexagon, showed me some runic-based language when I pressed its keyboard and woke its screen.

In other rooms, I found shelved DVDs and CDs. This seemed right. I had long thought that Borges’s Library of Babel would need some updating, were the author to write the story in this present time. The contemporary, all-inclusive library would surely create a structure that would be huge, and, if not infinite, seemingly so: an Amazon warehouse on steroids, containing the explosion of media and genres and DYI publishing and independent presses and e-books (here distilled into conventional shapes) and all the accumulated realia and surrealia that could be put in a library since the story was published in the early Forties.

Hexagon to hexagon, I walked with increased disregard for what the shelves contained, since the books were arranged in no order that I could discern. They disdained any thematic or alphabetical concern, their arrangement owing more the use of a carpenter’s level than a librarian’s decimal system. That was all right with me. I was never one who was overly concerned with the contents of Borges’s Library of Babel, the books of 410 pages each, written in impenetrable languages. I had been more attracted by the atmosphere of the library, the endless rooms of books, and the sense of time suspended.

I found an occasional desk or reading chair, usually placed in a corner, with a stand-alone or desk lamp. Reclined, I listened to the faint hum of fan-pushed air through the ceiling vents. Sometimes, beyond the faded drone, through the doors of the connecting hexagons, I thought I heard other sounds: distant footfalls, a throat cleared, the bird-wing flap of a page being turned. Trying to find the source, I shouted into empty corridors and got back only echoes.

The enormous airshaft came upon me unexpectedly, as I stepped through a door. It was round, transparent. I saw on the other side a man reading, standing up. I pounded on the glass, but he didn’t notice me. He wore jeans and a dark jacket and a bow tie.

Looking down, I saw a half-dozen men moving up the stairwells that abutted the apparently infinite airshaft. Bearded and thin, they moved with a jerky walk, their arms hanging zombie-style.

In certain places the Plexiglas protective layer had been removed so that someone could lean over the curving balcony and look down into an aqua-blue infinity, or so it seemed from my vantage. This is what the solitary man did. He had stopped reading and was taking in the view, an infinite receding blue. He didn’t hear them coming. Soon, they were upon him. They grabbed and hauled him—I saw his mouth open but didn’t hear the shout—to the parapet and threw him over the side and watched him fall. There was something impersonal and scientific in their gaze, as if they were testing tumbling patterns and wind resistance. One of them made what looked like the sign of the cross with his right hand.

When the man had vanished from sight they went to the place where he had been and re-shelved the books he had been using. They went away, though before they did one of them—a thin man with a pale beard—looked up the airshaft to where I was standing. He nodded and vanished.

Fight or flee: It was a no-brainer, but I never got started, for looking up I saw a woman, two stories away. Standing, she was slender, dressed in black, and wore glasses. A beautiful woman in a library; it was a scene of erotic attraction for me, not to mention the possibility of danger.

I went to one of the staircases and climbed a couple of floors, exited past hexagrams filled with book spines with Cyrillic lettering, rounded the airshaft, and, at last, I came to her. She remained with her chin slightly dipped toward the page. Her posture highlighted a scrimshaw of tissue breakdown under her jaw. I liked it. No spring chicken myself, I believe that relationships have the best chance when the parties are about the same age.

I took a step. More of her profile came into view. She looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t know how. I took a step, and the floor squeaked under me. The woman turned to me. Her nostrils flared.

“I’m not going to throw you over the railing,” I said. Her head and chin made a small inquisitive twitch. “I believe you might be in danger,” I added. “There are men who walk around here throwing people down the airshaft. What few people there are.” Something occurred to me. I opened my Borges to the story I’d bookmarked. I flipped until I reached the story’s end. I read, “Epidemics, heretical conflicts, peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population.”

She waved my concern away. “Oh, I’ve heard those rumors. That’s in another part of the library, far away. It can’t happen here.”

This, I told her, was the interior of a writer’s mind and I suppose my own imagination too. “What I’m saying is that there’s a world outside this library.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

I saw the books spread out on the desk in front of her.

“What are you studying?”

“Migratory patterns of Americans coming to California before the Second World War.”

I could have helped. Both my parents had come to California from different parts of the United States, my father from the Northwest and my mother from the Southeast. Both ended up in San Francisco, where I was born.  

“And where is California?”

She pointed at a page.

“Which direction from here?”

She didn’t seem to understand the gesture.

“California is on the West coast of the United States,” she said.

“And where is that? Which way?”

Her face puckered in confusion.

“What’s California like?” I asked.

She brightened. “A temperate climate, sunshine, a variety of flora and fauna and locales, desert and ocean and hills and cities.”

“Do you know anyone who’s ever been there?”

She looked at me and at the book in front of her as if trying to reconcile the two.

“I’ve been to the desert and mountains and to the cities,” I said, “San Francisco and San Diego and Los Angeles—hell, we are in Los Angeles, if I could just find a way of getting back.”

“We are in Los Angeles? The movie capital of America?” She seemed eager now to share knowledge. “I’ve seen movies. They are projected three levels down.” 

I was so invested in trying to impress upon her the difference between the real and the scholastic that I forgot we were in danger, not until I turned and saw a bearded man approaching from the next hexagon. I ran toward the room’s other door and found my way blocked by another bearded man, this one larger, dressed in black with some kind of tattoo along the side of his neck. I turned away. More men poured through the room’s doors. 

They lifted me. Though I struggled I had to admire their technique, the efficiency of their grip. They had done this many times before. They rotated me supine as if I had been a pig on a spit. Lolling my head to the side, I recognized one of the bearded men. He had made the sign of the cross as the previous body had descended.

“Is this a religious thing?” I asked him. His silence was a kind of consent. Aloft, I discoursed on the futility of blind obeisance, especially when accompanied by acts of violence which surely was against the spirit if not the letter of religion. God, I said, as they marched me aloft, was essentially unknowable, this was the point of the story. I waved Labyrinths. Whether, I added, we try to apprehend the divine through religious practice, prayer, or the demented interpretation of a line from a short story, we have to know that such methods are pointless, which perhaps we could agree upon if they would only set me down.

Over the railing I went, grabbing a sleeve with my free hand. The effect was to flatten the arc at which I was flung. I smashed against the side of the airshaft while holding to the man’s sleeve. It ripped. I descended and aimed for the railing below with my feet, hitting with the heel and the arch of either foot. I had enough sense to reach out and hook the railing by my right hand, which had let go of the paperback. I hung on.

Above, they looked at me curiously, as if this were a religious test, as if my salvation or fall in this particular situation was proof of my closeness with God. Adrenaline-fueled, I managed to move like a swatted bug. I scrambled to safety.

Using chairs, tables, and bookcases to support my injured knee, I walked through more book-lined hexagons. I scuttled as fast as I could. Desperation kept me going. I went down stairwells, the motion seemed to take the weight off my injured limbs, as if some gravitational pull was lessened.

I stepped out of a stairwell and saw a series of brightly-lit doors. They led to a chapel of sorts. The room was square-shaped, not hexagonal, and the chairs all faced forward toward a podium. Beside one of the chairs was a hymnal. I opened it and read.

To watch a body fall
Is to hear the Lord’s call
To see the body twist
Gives a feeling of bliss
No rapture do I know
No elevation of soul
More than a rapid plummet
A call on heaven’s trumpet.

I turned a page and read, “Falling bodies/ Falling high/ Falling toward the open sky…,” below a staff of music. I threw the book aside.

I limped through other hexagons. The brightness of the chapel, church, or whatever it was, persisted. These hexagons were better lit. Their brightness radiated into me. I felt better. The books had titles like Walk Your Way to Health, Getting Rid of Pain, A Brighter Tomorrow for Sufferers. The hitch went out of my step, and when I went near the walls it was not to support myself but to read the titles that now seemed to repeat the same theme: Health, Wellness, and so forth. I lost my limp and I ran through the hexagons, picking up speed, dashing door to door.

Stepping into one hexagon, I saw on the floor the copy of Labyrinths that I had dropped while being thrown into the shaft. I picked it up. I think I was experiencing some notion of an eternal return. Tucking the book under my arm, I went into another room and saw Jorge Luis Borges.

He was wearing earplugs, sunglasses, and was listening intently through his tablet. As I approached him, he turned and picked up the walking stick he had rested across his knees. Brandishing it, he sighed. He must have smelled me. He turned off the music or the lecture or whatever it was and pulled out the earplugs and turned to me.

“Not you again,” he said.

We had a history, albeit imaginary, hallucinatory, and no doubt insane on my part. He was long dead, of course, but I had resurrected him in my imagination or delirium. The creation of his library was my most impressive imagining yet, if indeed I was imagining this. 

“I’m afraid so,” I said.

There were no preliminaries to skip. I never asked him how he had gotten here, there, or anywhere of the places I had unexpectedly run into him: Vegas, Barstow, and the Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. He never asked how I had found him, only that he wished I hadn’t.

“This is your library, right?”

“The concept is mine,” he said. “You have constructed me from a story.”

I told him what I had just seen, the body-tossing acolytes. He considered his response, cradling his chin between his thumb and index finger.

“I’m not responsible for them. Their genesis is in a sentence I wrote toward the beginning of the story.” He quoted from memory: “‘And when I die, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing.’” His blind eyes, which had looked like the registers of an arcade game that had gone tilt, now narrowed with animation. He couldn’t see, but I saw the faint focus of an inner light.

“Why do they do that?”

“I just wrote the story,” Borges said. “If they want to run with it, that’s their thing.”

I opened my re-acquired copy of Labyrinths and read: “‘I know of districts in which the young men prostrate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbaric manner.’” I lowered the book. “You’ve seen this?”

“I don’t see, cabrón,” he said. “I’m blind.”

“Right,” I said. “Sorry.”

I re-opened the book and read a sentence. “‘I suspect that the human species is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure.’” I looked up. “Maybe that’s their motivation, to eliminate all traces of humanity so that the divine will manifest, pure and not perceived in any way. If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, well, there is still the forest.”

Borges listened with restrained irritation. He looked as though an unpleasant morsel had gotten stuck between his teeth.

“What can you do about them?”

“Nothing,” Borges said.

“You created them.”

“I don’t control them.”

He stuck an earpiece in one ear. He adjusted his sunglasses. I was beginning to dislike his attitude.

“And what if they come after you?”

“I made the place,” he said. “They can’t touch me.”

I felt an onrush of rage. “But I can.”

I grabbed him by the lapels and dragged him out of his seat. He managed to grab the walking stick and flailed away, swinging wildly like a blindfolded kid trying to hit a piñata. I held him by the scruff of his neck, slightly tearing the fabric, and under the armpit. I was an aging man but he was old, about 120 now, and I managed to pull, yank, push, and even kick him across the hexagon and to the airshaft. As I pulled him out on the balcony and toward the railing I saw the bearded band of brothers approaching.  

“Master,” one of them cried, just as Borges managed to free himself from my grip long enough to swing the walking stick and wallop me upside the head. I saw stars, pinpricks of lights that shifted. They were on me. Borges smiled as they lifted me. Included among them was the woman from several levels above. She was without the eager expressions that informed the visages of her fellow fanatics. They threw me over. As I twisted in the air, I saw my book floating and I grabbed it….

I was holding it as I woke. I found my head supported by two arms and my face pointed downward, using the cover as a pillow. I had drooled upon the alternate squares of black and white. I looked up, gasped. I saw the woman in my dream, now hovering over me.

“What’s wrong with you?” June asked.

“I had a dream.”

“Wipe your mouth,” she said, indicating the line of slime across my lips.

I told her my dream.

“I tried to throw you off a balcony?” June added. “Don’t think I haven’t been tempted.”

We exited the reading room. On the main corridor leading to the library’s exit, I saw two young men with beards, rabbinical types, whom I had seen before I slept. I dropped my gaze and gave them a wide berth as we passed.

“I don’t know why you like to come down here,” June said. “Half this stuff you could get on the Internet, and if you have to go to a library, why here? Okay, the architecture is interesting, I grant you that, but there are definitely some strange people about. There was a homeless woman washing herself in the ladies’ bathroom.”

“It’s more real down here,” I said, aware that I’d just woken from a blatant and sustained unreality.

“Whatever,” June said. “I’m hungry.”

At Fifth we crossed on the light. As I reached the street’s other side an old man wearing sunglasses and carrying a walking stick rushed past me, trying to make the light. He gave me a glance. When I turned he had melded into a group of other pedestrians who were hurrying.

“What is it?” June asked.

“Nothing,” I said, and suppressed a shudder.

Garrett Rowlan is a retired teacher with two published novels and many, many short stories to his credit. His website is here.

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