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Six Spiral Iterations of a Memory

by R. K. Duncan

3239 words

0: An Inception;

Tamara found the lost library of the Moscow tsars by luck or destiny. She was checking a section of disused Kremlin catacomb that the scans said might not have solid earth next to it. The work was boring, the project notionally exciting: a massive prestige-building, openness-signaling exchange program using Western grad students to dig for history under the Kremlin and showcase the new Russia.

The find was like a bad film’s version of archaeology. She brushed a little dirt aside and found the outline of a door. It even opened for her, like a dream, and so she got to see a little of what waited: shelves carved into stone, bound manuscripts that looked old but not decayed to nothing, a grey stone stairway twisting down.

Her heart was in her throat and her arm reached out without command. The dusty ruin pulled her, called for her to run her un-gloved fingers over the dusty wall and draw a line across the faded, peeling painting she could just make out in her headlamp’s glow. But she was a good student, conscientious. She called for a professor, and she was bundled out of the way at once, included only at the edges of the photo-ops, though they made sure she was recorded as discoverer; just of the place, not anything inside it. She tried not to be hurt.

Russian professors led the actual work of exploration, inventory, and preservation of course; Tamara wasn’t even a document specialist, but she would at least get thesis material out of blundering onto a five-hundred-year-old urban legend, and a reputation for luck. There were enough superstitious professors that it would be a real help finding her next job. She reminded herself of that each time the Russian news filled with another smiling face of a professor too popular and too busy to deal with her anymore.

1. A Calamity Foreseen

Tamara finds the second library months later, almost at the end of her semester in Moscow. The books have all been removed from the chamber that she found, and she has been allowed back in. She is measuring each miniscule dimension of a cubby on the first landing of the down-spiraling stair, gathering data to assess its age by style and technique, to be compared against the carbon dating of the manuscripts.

The second door opens almost like the first, a chink appearing, swinging open, ushering her without resistance into an impossible discovery—but this time she is sure it was not there before she found it. This space of wall was scanned countless times before she returned, it was cleaned spotless, and X-rayed.

This time she does not refuse the tugging impulse, the prickling excitement. This time she tastes uncanny in the air and lets herself surrender. She does not think that this will end with lectures over proper technique.

So here she is, in a stone well that curves down shallow stairs in a wide spiral. The walls are carved with shelves and cubbyholes that hold books, scrolls, sheafs, or single parchments. The books remain in this archive, and it is clean.

Tamara takes a few steps in, and the walls begin to be painted, full of dark-eyed saints and brightly dressed kings, tenth century imitations of the Byzantine, she guesses. Moving without concern for something so impossible, she reaches for a manuscript. Greek. And another. Is that Arabic?

Is that her arm? Her clothes are different than they were. Her sleeves are wide and heavy, they feel like vestments designed to slip on over ordinary clothes. The harsh lamp she carried in is a white candle now, burning with the scent of forgotten honey.

Another step, and she knows just where she is standing. A different Tamara occupies this flesh with her, explaining, overlaying, almost pushing out the one who entered here so tentative. She recalls the story of these books and walls as any scholar of the second House of Wisdom must. How the wisest scholars—staid ulama and mystical star-questioners of many splendored Baghdad—saw the calamity approaching, collected portents of the bright day when the Tigris would run red with blood and black with murdered ink.

They had seen no escape for the white palaces and the great treasures of the caliph, but words can travel light, and they had sent copies and carefully preserved originals on the long journey north and west to the far borders of Kievan Rus, to a place where the petty rulers of the place already kept a little store of old books from the Greek, and here they had begged sanctuary for the memories they carried, delved into the earth and stone for safety from the fire and trampling hooves that might come after.

Tamara walks farther down, and knows without opening them how the calligraphy of these later manuscripts has changed, Cyrillic altering toward the style of the Abbasids. On the walls, icons geometrize. Their eyes are diamonds, their halos single curves of a great tessellation, picked out only by the accent of gold leaf.

Tamara remembers how the second House of Wisdom had become a place of truce, where Christians and Muslims, Jews and Yazidis, and followers of Akbar’s God-religion would meet and share their scholarship in peace, where Sunni and Naziri Hashashin would come and search, the one beside the other, digging old texts for arguments to blast each other down with when they went back home.

Just as her other is full of self-satisfaction at the value of this place, the scholarly lighthouse to the world, the downward spiral constricts and Tamara’s memory cuts off. It seems a fall of rock must block her way. When she tries to go down, she stops and recoils as if she touched something jagged and stiff, but certainly the walls and ceiling are unbroken when she looks ahead. There is more history unspooling forward, winding down, but she cannot proceed, in body or in memory.

She feels attenuated, as if the passage that is wide before her has constricted in her mind to a capillary too tight for air. The her that can be here is growing farther from the her that is. Without that calming overlay, she is claustrophobic, panicking; she returns quickly up the stairs, back to what she was before.

The door is not again behind her, as soon as she is out. The memory remains; unspeakable, impossible, and true.

2. By Faith Alone

Tamara finds the third library four months after her return to Philadelphia, in the moment of looking up from a crossword on her phone to the stairs that lead down to the subway. Their single concrete switchback complicates into the spiral of shallow stone and walls all honeycombed with words in hoard. A back part of her mind wants to panic at the nonsense of it, at the impossibility of finding any version here of a library tunneled under Moscow.

The her that is here has no reason for upset and steps down unhesitating.

This library is whitewashed, unadorned, and here her clothes are shapeless and concealing. The books are unadorned as well, undyed covers with their titles in black. The bindings are of the body and deserve no regard. Only the truths held inside are of the soul and worthy of attention.

The manner of the other Tamara here clamps down on her emotion, stilling panic, dulling excitement at discovery. It is correct here to be dour, to be self controlled. If she is of the elect, she will not be frivolous.

Tamara remembers the true history where icons were abolished, and even when the decadent imperial court backslid, Moscow stayed true and had no images, no gold upon the font or colored glass to replace God in simple understanding. Here Christ was poor and without comeliness, and so his church remained.

She remembers and swells with joy and faith to think how that virtue made a place of safety and of welcome for the escapees and remnants of dozen heresies purged from the gaudy mother church, for Bogomils and Fraticelli, Cathars, and Lollards, down to Hus himself, who came to Moscow and preached on faith and scripture alone instead of going to be executed at a council of the church.

She remembers how some pilgrim had brought poems of that Valentinian the fathers of the church hated above all, and in the debates held above the Moscow library over translation, over the body of Christ, works and faith, marriage and abstinence, the oldest questions of the church, of Christ the God and Jesus the man, of the soul’s God and the cruel demiurge, had been renewed, and in the library of the tsars, any who wished might search in countless copies of the word of God for those secret keys and purifying knowings in the soul that would speed them to heaven and out of the fallen world where their body died.

It is not far after Hus’ own texts that the stair narrows too tight for Tamara here, the history escapes her mind, drifts far from the path that could have created her, a child of Soviet defectors born in New York, educated in Philadelphia’s suburbs. She still wants, still wants to fill herself with knowledge of this other past that could have been.

The last shelf she can reach swings open, a false door into the bookshop she had meant to visit on the subway. No one seems interested in noticing that she arrived from somewhere strange, and the store has no false bookshelves or revolving walls, of course. She misses the radiance of faith at once; the her that lived there had it in abundance, but ordinary Tamara is sure enough to stop herself from tearing at the walls and shelves that she would only find her way into an institution if she tried too hard for the library.

3. He Heard a Tale of Alexander

There is a spiral stair tucked into a dim corner of the college library, leading up to dusty attic storage, where old dissertations and superseded monographs are tucked until they decay fully into dust. Sometimes, as now, students are sent there for a last citation to improve a lagging thesis. For Tamara, it is more than a year since the first archive, almost a year since the first magic, one third into an unplanned extra semester to finish her degree.

She finds the fourth library when her step up turns into down and she stumbles on to a wide stair that could never have been dug under Moscow. The ten-times life size portrait that welcomes her is Peter, greater than he ever was, and where would he have delved but under his great city?

The shelves that unfold here are ornate past any limit of taste, adorned with golden laurels, quills, cherubs, and unrolled pages in gilded plaster and pink marble. This is no single helix drilling in the earth. It branches and ramifies, and there are more books than Tamara has ever imagined.

She is too overwhelmed by the luxury to be afraid; she is too familiar now with this strange dislocation to be surprised. She goes through the halls like an art lover who has never before heard of a museum, baffled and delighted and hungry for more than she can swallow.

There are manuscripts from Rome before it fell, and the work of scholars just inventing science as the library was founded, and barbarously printed single sheets organized by which illicit printing press in Amersterdam or London vomited them out to move the mob.

There is a barcode tattooed on her hand, and she feels the tiny and familiar weight of tracking chips in each article of clothing that she wears, and she understands that the furious hunger she has felt is not only her own.

She remembers how the world found its course; how Peter, greatest of the tsars, heard tales of Alexandria and how its library held a copy of each book in the world. He had ruled more than Alexander already, how could he be outdone by Alexander’s relic?

She remembers how he ordered vaults constructed, and copies made, and every written thing in the world gathered there, and how the knowledge had become wealth, and the wealth power, and the power a hungry need.

Down these dividing branches are the accounts, the stories compelled out of Cossacks, Kazars, Roma, poor colonized Aleutians, and every people the inquirers could gather and force to spill their secret tales out on the waiting pages of the grand library’s scribes. Here was the heart of an empire built on understanding, built on every stolen secret they could find

And here she walks still pinned beneath its telephoto gaze. She cannot open the steel doors into the modern wings of this unending maze of data, but both Tamaras know what waits behind them, the endless logs of surveillance and biometrics that define the progress of each life under the all-seeing tsars. There are no marks on these doors, but it is not hard to imagine the futile fingernail scratches that mark doors farther in as her excitement curdles into ever-present dread, familiar to the her that lives here.

When up and down agree again with where she was, Tamara is conscious of so many cameras, so many in every room of the library, on every corner of the campus. She never thought of them as sinister before this.

It is getting harder to dissociate these waking dreams of places she cannot return to from her ordinary life. They are so fascinating she is never sure she wants to.

4. A Sunless Century

Tamara finds the fifth library in a workbook maze abandoned by one of her students. It is more than two years since she gave up on academia for something that could at least pay her parents reasonable rent for the garage apartment. She’s not sure why the publisher thought third graders needed a maze—to practice fine motor skills? Still?

Her uncertainty does not stop her fingers tracing the path idly, or keep her eyes from twisting after fingertips to look at one more iteration of familiar stone and shallow winding steps down into darkness. It is thrilling in a way she did not expect to find that she has not lost this secret by leaving the path that led her to it. She has more to escape now, more dullness and disappointment to replace with the wonder of a library unfolding.

This version of the library is ordinary, as much as they can be. The first landings are adorned with icons, the shelves filled with old Greek texts copied by Moscow scribes. Some later books follow as she goes deeper, but this library is no grand center of the world.

Tamara is herself here, clothes and hair and bones unaltered, emotion undirected, and as the strange understanding that each archive and its history allows her blooms, she understands why. This history has no place for her, no version she could alter into.

As she goes down, the ornamentation of new diggings ends, and the stone is all bare. Tamara remembers how the sky darkened, and they called it the year without a summer.

Later, they called it the beginning.

On the bare walls, paper books give way again to vellum, and those to clay, and those to rough, warmth-grasping passages strewn with bones, broken and sucked for every drop they had. Tamara picks one up and feels the teethmarks with her fingertips to make sure. She drops it with a little hollow sound that whips her like a gunshot.

That one cold year had multiplied and darkened beyond imagination as a hundred islands were born in fire and steam and choking smoke, and then America had ended, fire swallowing the West and vomiting smoke so thick the sun was lost for years, and winter did not end.

For a time, people had found warm places and tried to live and to remember the bright world, and later they did not. They ate all that was left. And at the end, the darkness under the earth was no blacker than the sunless night under the ruined sky. Tamara is very glad that nothing overlays her here. She can already imagine far too much of the despair the black sky brought.

There is no part of this branch Tamara cannot explore, and none she wants to linger in, and she is hungry as she climbs back to her sunlit life.

5. A Branch Below the Root

Tamara finds the sixth archive in the curve of a seashell at the Jersey shore, on her fifth summer vacation as a teacher. A moment of simple enjoyment in a life marked by periodic dreaming and thoughts of downward spiraled shelves standing amid a sea of settling. The disappointment is easy to pack away now, beside diploma and research materials she will not throw away.

One look into the shell and her wholeness is pulled into the twist and black of it and she is in the library.

She knows this place but it is nothing like the place she knew before. These walls are white and cut in flowing shapes like the caress of waves. They shimmer nacreous. There are no books or pages to be seen, but on the floor in front of her, Tamara sees a something: a bone to begin with. It might have been a pelvis, but now it is a mad string diagram of interlocking helices that twist through curves and intersections that do not seem to meet the demands of regular geometry.

Tamara touches it and understands. It is unlike remembering. It fascinates her, exhilarating beyond measure, but the feeling is distant; the bone is touching her at the same level of metabolism she uses for emotion, crossing her own signals as she is informed.

This is a map of the maze she has been walking through for seven years without a wall to follow. Understanding of this place that she has seen only a corner of intrudes into her mind, flowing up nerves as she feels the strands and branches of the scrimshawed bone. This is how time branches, and an infinitesimal fraction of its branches have this spiraling archive of the Moscow tsars as a pivot point important enough to be found through its turnings.

Only so much she can describe in words, because she has been trying for years to understand her own experience with a mind that thinks in words. A mind so not-like the one that made this map, this place, this world.

Tamara can wrap no words around the things that fill the slowly digging spiral in this place of knowledge made by a people whose mothers’ grandest mothers never learned to speak, who must think mind-to-mind, by shape instead of tripping tongue.

Tamara is changing toward them now. Here she is as here is, like the bone-builders, clever fingered, un-tongued, unbothered by the bird-twit words that try to pin the world artlessly. She feels how that speechless sculptor came here from the makingplace, tastes where her ego is stitched to one time and one space and how to sever it.

She does not return to somewhere she departed this time. She can find the doors to every iteration now, and her finger-bones know how to open them.

R. K. Duncan is a queer polyamorous wizard and author of fantasy, horror, and occasional sci-fi. He writes from a few rooms of a venerable West Philadelphia row home, where he dreams of travel and the demise of capitalism. In the shocking absence of any cats, he lavishes spare attention on cast iron cookware and his long-suffering and supportive partner. Before settling on writing, he studied linguistics and philosophy at Haverford college. He attended Viable Paradise 23 in 2019. His occasional musings and links to other work can be found at rkduncan-author.com.

Issue 33

August 2021

3LBE 33

Front & Back cover art by Rew X