I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the school building and dropped my bag at the end of a sagging line of backpacks that stretched in a long row against the wall. The hallway, as did my mind, was reverberating with incessant chatter. Leaning against the wall, I slid down to the floor, joining the backpacks and pulling my knees up to my chin. Suddenly, a feeling of heaviness and exhaustion descended over me, like an armor made of steel. The teacher was late so I contorted my body into a small ball with my forehead nesting between my knees, and thought of Ben.
The day I met him I was sitting atop the front steps in the front of the theater, waiting for my music teacher who wouldn’t show. The theater also served as our town’s concert and rehearsal hall for young musicians. With my guitar tucked inside a black case lined with red velvet, I sat on the concrete stairs, looking into the distance and feeling the evening autumn breeze caress my face.
From a distance, my eyes glimpsed three tall figures in long billowing coats. I watched them approach and ascend the stairs next to me, our eyes meeting in passing, one by one. Rock avoided looking at me, already blushing. Art’s gaze felt like a cutting blade before he peeled it away, releasing my breath. The two of them passed by and joined others gathered in a circle. But Ben didn’t follow. Instead, he sat right next to me and began asking about my instrument, sidestepping introductions. We quickly lost track of time. After a whole evening spent in conversation, he walked me home, carrying my guitar and only pausing to point out constellations floating above our heads.
“Isn’t it strange how the light that is reaching us now left the stars years ago?”
I looked at his face, part of which was illuminated by moonlight, and nodded with a smile.
“Most people don’t care about these things.”
The next day I couldn’t wait to see Ben again. And it had been like that until today. I feared seeing him this evening and hearing his words, what they implied, and the changes they would bring.
The clattering of the teacher’s keys returned my attention to the hallway. My classmates began stretching their arms and lifting bags to line up along the wall. I got up, the armor still weighing me down, and took my place in line.
Inside, the arms on the wall clock hanging over the blackboard moved as if they were forcing their way through a thick gelatinous substance. One minute felt more like ten. The classroom was soon overheating and the droning voice of the teacher repeating phrases in Russian, syllable after syllable, put me in a trance. Hardly anyone paid attention, but the teacher’s bad sight prevented her from noticing. I could be using this time so much better right now, I thought with regret, and gazed outside the window.
Leaning my forehead into my hands, I closed my eyes, waiting for a storm of random thoughts to come and sweep me away. But instead, as soon as my lids drew down, the void began spreading inside me like an ink blotch sucking me in. While the darkness seemed dismal and threatening, it also contained a grain of mystery that glistened like a pearl inside of a murky shell. You’re being called, the stranger had told me. I drew a deep breath and sunk back in. I recalled his features until only his blue eyes remained, drawing me in with their serenity. Who are you? I asked, and the stranger’s face contorted into a grimace as if he was trying to say something but couldn’t. His blue eyes became yellow and his features began to transform. I heard a distant cry followed by a deafening silence. The face from my dream stood before me. No longer veiled by steam, it was clear of obstructions. A memory surfaced. I knew him. His face was gaunt and darkened from coal and fire. But his eyes still expressed the same passion. It happened before the flood, a voice broke through, and I understood.
The teacher’s keys landed on my desk. Forcing air into my lungs, I snapped and opened my eyes.
“Evelina Sopel! Are you in the clouds?” the teacher scolded. Someone laughed. She picked up her keys and pointed her finger at me. “Daydreaming never fed anyone. Wake up, child, or I will have to call your mother!” More laughs. “Silence!” she yelled, before returning to the blackboard to write our assignment. Avoiding eye contact with anyone, I reached for my pen and began doodling squares and spirals in my notebook, hoping for my vision to return. Shapes soon became words.
Silver moon spins above my face
A mirror reflecting an ominous dance
When a crown of dejection slips off with a nod
The surface stills, freezing the pond
My spine ignited, spreading fire across branches of nerves. I straightened my back and touched the cold end of my pen to my quivering lips. I lifted my head. The arm on the wall clock that indicated seconds became still. While the students were busy jotting down the assignment, I returned to my poem.
Trailing the surface, I scout for your face
Lost, I listen for the peal of your wings
Dropping to the ground, I wait in silence
For a sight of the feather to bring me peace
The bell rang. I tore out the page with the poem and folded the paper slipping it inside my pocket.
Outside, the chill had lost some of its earlier biting sharpness. Thick clouds hung low, piling on top of each other like layers of whipped cream, signaling a snowstorm. I walked past the theater, noting a small cluster of people but no one I wanted to talk to, and toward a path that led me home through an avenue of oaks that looked glorious in the summer but tragic during winter. Instead of turning left at the fork, which would have taken me home, I went in the opposite direction.
The old library, a two-story building covered with a black veneer of soot, stood on the fringes of our town, halfway between a gothic church that towered over a short market street and a cemetery sprawling on a plateau above. I followed the silhouette of a man who had just exited the church. He was dressed in a long black coat, and feeling my gaze pinned to him turned to look at me, his eyes lashing me with an icy chill. I slowed my pace and waited until he disappeared beyond a bend. I pulled the paper out of my pocket and reread my poem before I decided I had given the man enough time to make significant headway.
I walked up the stone steps of the library, bits of dirt and sand grinding under my boots. I pulled on the massive wooden doors and went inside. A musky wall of heat glazed my cold face. I crossed the short empty hallway of the first floor, which housed administrative offices, and followed the stairs to the second floor.
The library was empty, save the librarian. I greeted the young woman absorbed in the newest tome of imported literature, and moved on to scan the long shelves for hidden treasures, my index finger moving across the tall round spines, my boots leaving muddy stains on the green carpet. While plenty of classics and romance novels graced the rows, this library lacked the esoteric section. Still, I hoped to discover that somewhere, perhaps tucked in a corner, the rows held that special book left just for me, a find as good as a dusty trunk found in relatives’ attic.
I heard a rustle and turned, catching a glimpse of a dark coat rounding a corner behind a shelf. My heart jumped. The librarian and I weren’t the only people here. Just then, my eyes landed on something that looked off—a small book with its yellowing pages rather than its spine facing out, its corner protruding at an angle. I reached for it, pushing away the compressing tomes. The book looked old; its pages were uneven and craggy, its leather cover stamped with an embossed circle, nothing else. No author, no title. I fanned the pages and the spine creaked. The entire book was handwritten, parts of it in a different cursive than the rest. The writing was elegant, like it belonged to a trained hand, but the black ink was starting to fade in a few places. The book even had drawings.
I turned to the first page:
I open the gates, gazing inside the lion’s den, unsure whether this fear is my foe or my friend. He speaks: the answer, my dear, is within your heart; so don’t let illusions tear you apart. And as you gaze up into the light and look for traces of familiar faces, before you turn away, remember that most profound truths hide in the darkest places. . . .
The passage was signed with the initials J.G. and below it glared two words: Forgive me.
I shut the covers knowing I had to take this book home with me. But it lacked a library stamp and card listing its previous users. I hesitated, looking around and wondering what to do. If I bring the book to the librarian and point out its lack of registration, it might take awhile for her to add it to the catalogue. I might never see the book again. Besides, it didn’t look like a normal book. With cheeks burning with shame and nascent guilt, I slipped the manuscript under my coat and exited the building.