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The Book in Dutch

by M. Bennardo

4191 words
Listen to this story read by K. Sekelsky

In twenty years, Lynd had never really looked at the book. It had come into his possession as a parasite — an unwanted hanger-on that had happened to be grouped with the books he really wanted at an auction.

There had been a pamphlet of Defoe’s Conjugal Lewdness, which had sadly turned out to be an almost entirely decayed sheaf of unconnected pages. But the real prizes had always been the worm-eaten and half-disintegrated 18th century reprints of Gesner’s Historiae animalium and Vesalius’s De humani corporis frabrica. The several dozen leaves that he’d saved from those two volumes and their inimitable illustrations now resided in a handsomely bound new volume of his own arranging, along with pages from a similarly distressed Culpeper’s Compleat Herbal, acquired separately.

The fourth book in the lot he had taken to be something in Dutch from the same period. He didn’t recognize the title or author, or really even the language — he’d simply guessed Dutch after scanning the title page and flipping through a few of the leaves. The illustrations were crude diagrams and symbols, all of which were too abstract to be of interest. They were nothing like the etchings culled from Gesner’s bestiary, Vesalius’s anatomy, or Culpeper’s mad astrological compilation of herbal remedies.

So the book in Dutch had been stuck into a bookshelf with an appropriately sized gap, and had stayed there for twenty years until Lynd found himself forced to evacuate his comfortable home under orders from the divorce court. His life had, of course, ceased to be perfectly comfortable some time before, when his wife (now almost ex-wife) had first filed suit against him. But the home had remained comfortable enough, in no small part thanks to the walls of books which filled his library.

But that was all right. If he were forced to leave, then he would take the books with him to his new home, and it would be that de-volumed house — not himself — which would be impoverished by the separation. He was almost grateful for the excuse to comprehensively ransack his own bookshelves. Already he was finding hidden treasures he’d long since forgotten about, like this Dutch book — neglected for decades, sitting and waiting for him between De Quincey’s On Murder as Considered as One of the Fine Arts and Blades’s Enemies of Books, ready now perhaps to give up the charms that he failed to penetrate as a young bachelor twenty years earlier.

• • •

Lynd’s enthusiasm had dwindled considerably by the time he collapsed into bed at the motel that night. Apart from the books, his possessions were few. There were his clothes — a surprisingly small bundle, and most of it wearing out. Of linens he claimed only the set of towels that he had habitually used. He had further assumed that he had some share in the dishes and silverware, so he had taken two each of those, but he had quailed at removing any of the cookware. In all likelihood, he was entitled to half of it, but it seemed better not to make a principled stand over wooden spoons and spatulas. He did take the toothpaste, which he supposed would annoy his wife, but one of them would need to buy a new tube and he didn’t see why that ought to be on him as well.

But the books were the important thing. There had been boxes and boxes of those, and the bookshelves they belonged on. Most of that was crammed into the storage space Lynd had rented, except for the final few boxes which he had left in his car. He supposed he’d be able to read as much as he liked now without interruption, but that was a Pyrrhic victory, won at the cost of his pride and much of his comfort. Between the books and the house, he preferred the books. But he would have liked to have kept both.

Sighing, Lynd picked up the Dutch book from the motel nightstand. He wasn’t entirely sure why he’d kept it out, as books written in languages he didn’t understand rarely made good bedtime reading. But Lynd was curious about it. The other three books it had come with — though badly beaten up — had all proved valuable and stimulating in their own ways. Surely this was worth a closer look than he’d originally given it.

The book was in better shape than he remembered. It appeared to be missing great chunks of pages — big sections had clearly fallen out and become lost — but the binding was otherwise still fundamentally sound. It had a light blue cloth and cardboard cover with no legible markings on the outside, but that was hardly unusual.

Upon opening the book, Lynd suddenly remembered the title page and why he hadn’t examined the book more closely two decades ago. He didn’t think of himself as particularly religious or superstitious, but somehow he had always been squeamish around the occult. It wasn’t so much that he thought there was anything to it — but rather that the whole pursuit struck him as sinister and unpleasant. He didn’t like being reminded of the willful depravity and ignorance of man.

The title page bore a prominent pentagram decoration, and lest Lynd think it was merely a matter of Kipling and his innocent mystical swastikas, a goat’s head had been superimposed upon it. Around the border of the page were other glyphs which looked equally ominous. Lynd couldn’t exactly identify any of them, but any symbol might take on a black character when viewed in proximity to the pentagram.

There was also the title, of course, but Lynd could make nothing of it. The letters were Roman, but they didn’t appear to conform to any language he knew, and certainly not Dutch. He wondered if it were some private cipher or some ceremonial language, like the Church Slavonic of the Greek Orthodox rites. Or perhaps the book had been intentionally printed with gibberish, some kind of pagan lorem ipsum meant to intimidate or impress with the appearance of forbidden knowledge.

The next page contained nothing but a large, complicated design. It appeared to be one long looping, criss-crossed line that ended in two loose ends, hanging out the top and bottom of the design. Lynd applied his finger to one of these loose ends and traced his way through every loop. He’d been right. It was an unbroken line. Then turning the page, he looked down and read the words:

Part the First:
The Establishment of Melancholy

Lynd blinked. The page he was looking at was now as indecipherable as ever, but he was certain that he had read and understood the heading. Still, when he looked at it again, it was clearly gibberish. Then, gradually, as he stared at the letters on the page, the words seemed to make sense once more.

It was astounding. But as soon as Lynd began to grasp what was happening, the words disappeared and the gibberish returned. It was only when his mind wandered — when he viewed the printing out of the periphery of his mind, as it were, that anything seemed to make sense. Lynd let his mind wander away again, and when the words took on their secret shapes, he read on:

Man is melancholy, and melancholy man
And to blot one is to blot the other
as the careless bookkeeper blots both stain and figures
irrevocably obliterating that which he would save
But the ink of the stain is the same as the ink of the figures
and it need not be blotted from the book
if only it can be redrawn by the desired pattern
We need but apply the process of Father Innocencio
to make dried ink run again and return
to the nib or quill from which it first flowed
Is it so wonderful to think that instead of returning to the nib
the ink should run instead into the figure desired
Thus the bookkeeper may stain his whole book
and by such process leave it overnight
to reorder itself into whatever is desired…

There was considerably more, all in the same vein, and Lynd found the reading relatively easy once he had the trick. He was so enamored of the shifting letters that he barely paid attention to what he was reading. Instead, he simply turned the pages to watch the next line of words pull together and make some semblance of sense (at least actual words, if not sensible thoughts) while he read.

It was with something of a shock then that he became aware of movement around him. First, he was simply aware that somebody was moving outside the window, just beyond the door — which, of course, was locked. So it was with a surge of near panic that he realized the door was now opening and somebody was in the room with him. The light had seemed to dim, the book had fallen away from his hands, and he lay in bed frozen and unable to move. Closer came the intruder, and Lynd could just make out a shadow bobbing along the periphery of his vision — and then two shadows. They seemed to talk, but Lynd couldn’t hear anything more than a faint buzzing sound. He grew more and more perplexed.

Then, with a jolt, he awoke.

His heart beat quickly for a moment, but soon cooled. It had been a brief episode of sleep paralysis — that was all. It was that half-waking, half-sleeping state in which the eyes are open, the brain is dreaming, and the body is fixed in the immobility of sleep. It had probably been brought on by falling asleep with the light on in the midst of reading — Lynd snorted at the idea, reading! — that Dutch book. Flipping through it again, he saw that the pages were completely indecipherable. No doubt he had dreamed that there had ever been any real words.

Lynd stood and put the Dutch book back on the shelf where it belonged, between the Blades and the De Quincey. Shutting off the light, he crawled back into bed — the deliciously empty bed with its cool, crisp sheets — and quickly fell asleep.

• • •

The book stayed on its shelf for a long while. It stayed there as Lynd woke the next morning and made his way through the now more-than-half-empty house. His wife had taken almost everything. The closets and cabinets seemed barren. Their emptiness was only magnified by the stray items left behind seemingly at random — a single bath towel in the linen closet, a couple of plates and glasses in the kitchen cabinets, and nothing but a half tube of toothpaste in the bathroom.

It was as if Lynd was discovering for the first time how little he actually owned, but he didn’t care. He had his books, and his favorite chair, and the bed, and the whole house. He would be perfectly comfortable thus.

The book stayed on its shelf during the weeks that followed, and then the months. They weren’t uniformly calm months, as Lynd would have preferred. It seemed eventually that his wife — now ex-wife — had felt there was some inequity in the division of their property. She seemed to think, and she seemed to grow more and more convinced each day, that she ought to have gotten the house. Or, if not the house, then some bigger share of the savings and a larger alimony check.

Lynd couldn’t understand where all of this was coming from, so long after the divorce had been agreed upon. He did admit to himself, a little queasily, that it looked a lot like she had gotten the short end of the settlement. He remembered thinking that it had seemed fair at the time, or perhaps even a little unfair to him. But on reviewing the terms again at the remove of these months, Lynd couldn’t help but think that she had a point.

Lynd’s lawyer, of course, advised him to say nothing of that to anybody. The divorce was done and the papers were all in order. His ex-wife might have made some bad choices at the time or might have gotten some bad counsel, but that didn’t mean she necessarily had any standing to demand anything else. Lynd’s lawyer advised him simply to weather the storm in the hopes that she would lose interest or that her lawyer would encourage her to drop the matter. But Lynd kept having the queasy feeling.

It was while dusting his bookshelves during a worried, sleepless night that he came across the Dutch book again. He couldn’t say why, but it instantly intrigued him. He remembered, perhaps, the strange dream he’d had months earlier in which he somehow thought he’d read and understood the book. In any event, he was curious to see it again and he wanted something to take his mind off the problem of his ex-wife, so in a moment it was in his hand and he was draped over the couch.

The unpleasant occultism of the title page made him flip rapidly past it, after confirming that none of the words looked the least bit like any language he knew. He flipped also past the intricate symbol on the next page, and his eyes came to rest on the heading that started the book proper. He read:

Xctilch Vlitrul
Dsi Tirch Qvesti Nyr ast Opvrivius Ginst ulcx Prepor

Flipping through the rest of the book, it was more of the same — sheer gibberish. Lynd was more certain than ever that it was a clever hoax and that he held in his hands some pseudo-diabolical artifact of the Enlightenment, meant to separate some gullible aristocrat with occult interests from his money. But he found his attention arrested midway through the book at another intricate design — this one composed of interlocking diamonds and triangles tessellated across the full page. Almost by impulse, he traced this design with his finger to see if it too was composed of a single, unbroken line. It was. Flipping to the next page, he read:

Part the Second:
The Emancipation of Man From Melancholy

Melancholy of a deeper root must be handled differently
as the gardener takes the axe to the unwanted tree
First he scores and cuts through the bark on every side
leaving it to die a long death, the leaves raining down
and then he returns to finish the job
though even then, some sign of the stump may remain
So too with the deep-rooted melancholy of man…

The letters shifted before his eyes in precisely the same way that he remembered from the dream. He stopped to see if he was awake, and he satisfied himself thoroughly that he was. He held his breath, and tugged at the hairs on his arms, and counted the freckles on his wrist, and cracked his knuckles — all of this, until the accumulation of concrete details made him certain that he was wide awake.

With that, he once more dove back into the book. Even as he read, his mind all the time was working. He tried to reconstruct the scene of his first encounter with the book. It was clear now that it had been no dream, and yet it had seemed to happen someplace else. But why would he ever have taken this book anywhere else? If he hadn’t fallen asleep in his chair or in his bed, then where? Perhaps he had dreamed part of it, but not all of it. Perhaps he had started awake, and ended up asleep, and who could say where the curtain of unconsciousness had fallen?

With thoughts such as these in his mind, it was with some uneasiness that Lynd began to realize he may have fallen asleep again. He hadn’t seen or heard anything, but he found he couldn’t speak. He opened his mouth, and only a faint bleating came out. Panic seemed to mount inside of him as he tried again and again. If anything were to come at this moment — if anything were to attack him — he would be defenseless, not even able to shout out. Was that a shadow at the periphery of his vision?

Then suddenly, he awoke.

Shaking his head, he put the Dutch book aside on an end table and went to his bedroom. Twice, he had fallen asleep looking at the ridiculous thing. Twice, he had had the same impossible dream, and twice he had woken in a near panic. If anything, the book was a soporific and a poison to his dreams, and that was all.

• • •

The book stayed on the end table for a while. It stayed there until four days later, when Lynd received a phone call.

“Have you heard from them?” asked the voice on the phone — rough and desperate, a woman’s.

“Who?” asked Lynd.

“Your wife,” said the voice. “Your children.”

“I have no wife,” said Lynd.

“Your ex-wife,” hissed the voice. “Have you seen her?”

“I’ve never been married,” said Lynd. “Good bye.” He hung up. A moment later, the phone rang again, and he was suddenly filled with fear. He reached out and unplugged the phone.

The book stayed on the end table even longer. It stayed past the point when Lynd began to feel harassed. The woman, whoever she was, would not leave him alone. She claimed to be the mother of a missing woman and grandmother of two missing children. More to the point, she claimed to have been Lynd’s mother-in-law.

She called, she came to the house, and as time went by she only grew more insistent. Lynd found out what he could about her. Her husband had passed away years ago, or he would have appealed to him. But Lynd could find no record that the couple had ever had a daughter, or any child at all, to go missing in the first place. And the woman could produce no evidence of her own — no birth certificate, no photographs, no school records, no baby teeth. It was as if she had created her daughter out of thin air, and had somehow decided to marry her off to Lynd — though as far as he knew, he had never seen the woman before.

It was only after weeks of escalating intrusions that Lynd finally felt he had no choice but to call the police. He knew, inevitably, where it would lead, and he felt bad about it. But the woman had no family to intervene, no one who could get her the help he needed. And it certainly wasn’t Lynd’s responsibility to get that help. She had picked him somehow, seemingly out of a hat, and he merely wanted to return to his former life of peace and quiet.

Of course he had to testify. He had thought about asking the court to show some mercy, but he realized that as soon as she was on the street again, she would be pounding on his door. She had made that clear during the hearings, and her delusion seemed not to have abated a bit. Lynd consulted a psychologist and she had agreed that, given the circumstances, a home might be the best place for her.

The book stayed on the end table until Lynd picked it up in a fit of distraction and starting flipping through the pages. He very nearly put it down after a moment, but then it fell open on a new page, with a new design. This one was the most complicated yet, a quadruple row of intersecting filigrees, but again Lynd’s finger impulsively traced all the way through. And he was hardly surprised when turning the page, he read:

Part the Third:
The Elimination of Man From Melancholy

Though hardly surprised, Lynd found himself somehow unaccountably dismayed. He instantly shut the book, refusing to read more. His heart was beating and his blood roared in his temples. Somehow, he had a fear of that page, deep in his gut, and that fear had stopped him. In fact, there was something in him that already feared he had read too much, that he had already made a fatal mistake — though he couldn’t imagine why.

Lynd stood shakily and replaced the Dutch book back in the gap in the shelf where it had always sat. Casting about for something else to occupy his mind with, he took down the French original of de Longeville’s Histoire des personnes qui ont vecu plusieurs siecles. Lynd had never been a very good student of language, but he had tried particularly hard to learn French, with some success.

Unfortunately, the book proved to be exactly the wrong one for the situation. Lynd’s mind, already in disorder, struggled to untangle the French vocabulary and syntax, and before long his thoughts had wandered away entirely. It was with a start that he realized he was no longer reading de Longeville’s fantastic accounts of century-spanning lives, but that instead the words before his eyes were shifting into new text in the same way that the words in the Dutch book had. It seemed the book was telling him to rip out melancholy at the source, with the only solution that could be guaranteed to be foolproof and effective. With a start, Lynd shut the book and threw it violently away.

But what was he afraid of? The Dutch book was strange, of course, but why should it be anything to be frightened of? He had read it twice before, with no apparent ill effects except that it had put him to sleep. It was true that the book was connected in his mind with strange happenings afterward — the latest of which was the appearance of this mad woman in his life. Before that — Lynd couldn’t quite remember what anxiety he had supposed the book to have caused, but it seemed to him that it also had something to do with accusations of marriage…

Lynd shook his head to clear it. He was overwrought, and he was letting his imagination run away with him at any rate.

At once Lynd sprang up and drew the book out of its shelf. He regarded it suspiciously. It looked ordinary enough and, of course, it might be valuable… Perhaps it was better to leave it be. But no! He might as well get rid of the damned thing. He couldn’t read it anyway — not really, despite those unpleasant dreams. No, the best thing was simply to get rid of it.

Lynd had never burned a book before, but he remembered hearing that it was necessary to fan the pages out, to allow air to circulate. Otherwise the paper would never catch — not without some kind of accelerant. But of course — he had lighter fluid. He laid the book out on the fireplace grate, its pages fanned out as well as he could manage. Lynd stuffed balled up newspapers under and around the book, and even between the open pages to help prop them open.

Then he paused and considered again what he was about to do. He looked at the book, almost sympathetically. It seemed monstrous to burn any book — even one that was full of blasphemous gibberish and one that seemed to work him into a state of unhealthy excitement every time he picked it up. But then his eyes fell across the corner of a page, and he saw the letters begin to crawl and change and his mind was made up. He squirted the can of lighter fluid at the book and soaked it liberally in the stuff. Then striking a match, he threw it on the tome and watched the flames erupt in instant conflagration.

• • •

There, in the fireplace, the book stayed forever as a pile of ashes. But nevertheless, when Lynd finally lay down in exhaustion to sleep that night, the words once again appeared to him.

By the time the diabolical letters floated in front of his eyes, it was already too late. Lynd was immobilized by sleep and he could do nothing save watch the letters shift and form themselves into the words of the chapter. Again and again, he strove to scream, but sleep had a tight hold on him and nothing would shake him from its bonds.

At long last, after the chapter had spelled itself in front of his eyes, the shadows again appeared at the periphery of his vision. They stole closer, ever closer, to the bed in which he lay and suddenly he saw his face leering down at him in mockery. Next, another shadow rose up out of the dimness — a woman whom he felt he should have recognized. A moment later, two smaller shadows — apparently those of children — appeared next to her with vindictive smiles on their faces.

Still the book lay in the fireplace, its ashes smoldering and little scraps of paper occasionally flaring up and then receding into powdery white ash. Long the book smoldered, long into the night, and long after Lynd himself was already gone and forgotten — both he and his melancholy permanently excised from the world of the remembering.

M. Bennardo's fiction appears in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Asimov's Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and others. He is also editor of the Machine of Death series of anthologies. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, but people everywhere can find him online at http://mbennardo.com

Issue 22

October 2012

3LBE 22

Front & Back cover art by Rew X