Book of Knowledge
By Katherine Tomlinson
Usually Yael hated shelf-reading, walking along the rows of library books making sure that none were out of order. It was tedious work and ultimately pointless because the books would only get disarranged the next day unless they were shelved in sections where the public was not allowed, like the gated foreign-language reference area or the priceless collection of sacred texts that were so ancient they were kept locked in environment-proof drawers.
Back in the stacks it was dusty and the dust played hell with her allergies. It was hard to keep focused on the numbers in the dim light, and much too easy to give way to day-dreaming. There were times when Yael felt shelf-reading was a metaphor for her life—lots of aimless movement without ever actually going anywhere.
Yael hated shelf-reading but working in the library was a condition of her scholarship and as a scholarship student, she got stuck with all the mindless chores. Still, shelf-reading wasn’t as bad as working reference retrieval. Whoever ended up with that job was kept running ragged from the time the library opened until it closed, with students requesting books and bound periodicals one at a time, as if there was a penalty for using too many books at one time.
Today, though, Yael didn’t really mind the work. It gave her a chance to think. She needed to think. She needed to make some choices. And there was no one she could talk to. Her father, a Talmudic scholar, didn’t approve of anything about Yael’s life—not her choice of college major, not her choice of boyfriend.
There was no way she could tell him she was pregnant.
She didn’t know what to do.
Yael was so absorbed in her internal monologue that she almost missed the mis-shelved book. It was a slender, tattered, cloth-bound volume without any call numbers on the blank spine.
Curious, she opened the book to the first page, which was blank. No title. No author listed.
She kept turning blank pages, wondering if someone’s personal journal had been left on a table and mistakenly returned to the stacks.
As she flipped through the book, she was surprised when writing suddenly appeared, filling in the pages from right to left in what looked like hand-calligraphied Hebrew.
She read the pages and suddenly, everything made sense.
She read the book all the way through and suddenly the solution to her problem presented itself..
She closed the covers of the book as fatigue overwhelmed her.
She woke up cramped and sore from sleeping in the aisle between the stacks.
The book had vanished but she still knew what to do.
She pulled out her mobile and dialed her father’s number.
Bekele was grateful for the job of cleaning the magistrate’s office in Addis Ababa. The hours were long and the pay was low but the work was not strenuous and he was welcome to claim any discarded item he found useful. He often took home pencil stubs for his little sister who liked to draw. She would smooth out the wadded pieces of paper he fished out of the trash cans and cover them with fanciful birds and animals and flowers.
Once he brought home a pen with red ink in it so that Kassa could draw red flowers and birds amd she had been so happy she’d squealed like the little piglets their cousin kept in a pen.
That had made Bekele happy.
It also made him happy that the money he brought home from his job cleaning the magistrate’s office made it possible for his little sister to go to school instead of working.
He knew it made his mother sad that he couldn’t go to school too, but after his father and older brother had died in a car accident on Renaissance Bridge, there’d been no choice in the matter.
And the job was not so bad.
The magistrate’s secretary treated Bekele like a pet and often left sweets for him on top of her desk.
Bekele had just finished dusting the shelf of law books in the Magistrate’s office when he noticed that a book had fallen on the floor. It was a slender volume bound in tattered blue linen and did not look like any of the other books on the shelf, which were tan and burgundy and had gold and black words stamped into their spines.
Bekele picked up the book, surprised at its weight.
It sprang open in his hand, as if some reader had left it face down too long.
Bekele was surprised to see that the pages were blank.
He was about to close the book and put it on the magistrate’s desk when words suddenly started appearing on the pages, black marks like tiny insects.
Bekele watched transfixed as the pages filled with writing.
And suddenly, although Bekele was illiterate, he realized he could read the words, and knew the language he was reading was the one he spoke. He raised his eyes and looked at the books on the magistrate’s shelf and suddenly knew that some of them were in English and some were in Amharic and he knew how to read those languages too.
He put the book down and raced into the hallway to see if he could read the signs on the other office doors.
The security guard at the front door saw him and frowned.
“What are you doing boy?” he asked.
“I’m reading,” Bekele said.
“You can read?” the security guard said skeptically.
“Prove it,” the security guard said, handing him a folded note from his breast pocket.
Bekele took the paper and opened it up, read it and blushed.
“It is a love letter,” he said. “From the lady who works in the office overlooking the courtyard.”
“Really?” the guard asked, pleasure warming his voice. Then, embarrassed, he added, “I did not bring my reading glasses with me today and I didn’t want to misinterpret the lady’s message.”
Bekele looked down at the note, which was printed in large block letters and understood that the older man was ashamed of not being able to read it himself.
“I have young eyes,” he said delicately, “would you like me to read it to you?”
“Yes,” the guard said.
Bekele read it to him and then, on impulse, asked the guard if he’d like him to write a reply.
“Since you don’t have your glasses,” he said humbly.
The guard had hesitated and then said, “Yes.” He’d dictated the message to Bekele, who wrote it out neatly, marveling at his new-found ability and knowing he could have written the message in any language spoken by man if he’d wanted to.
When he handed the written message back to the guard, the older man thanked him.
Bekele had turned away but the man called him back.
“Boy,” he said, “for your trouble.”
He held out a 5-birr note. Bekele accepted the tip gracefully, his mind already spinning with possibilities.
He returned to the magistrate’s office to retrieve the book but though he looked for it the rest of the night, it was nowhere to be found.
Luz Ibarra was annoyed that Esteban had left his things all over her living room again. They weren’t married, so as far as she was concerned, he had no right to treat her in the careless way that men treat their wives.
She wished she didn’t love him quite so much because he took shameful advantage of her. But he was a handsome man who could be with anyone he wanted, so she pretended to believe his half-hearted excuses when he forgot her birthday and his flimsy lies when he came to her house smelling of sex with another woman.
So long as he didn’t publicly embarrass her, Luz was happy not to know what he was doing in the hours he spent away from her.
But she did wish he’d stop leaving his mess all over her house.
Sighing, she turned on the television, popped in a dvd of Yo soy Betty, la fea and began tidying up.
As she lifted up Esteban’s briefcase, a slim, cloth-bound book slid out. Intrigued, she opened it up. “Qué raro”, she thought when she saw nothing but blank pages instead of the ledger columns of numbers she had expected.
Just as she closed the covers, a flicker of movement caught her eye.
When she opened the book again, all the pages were filled with writing set in an elegant Spanish font.
“Qué raro”, she thought again, how weird. And then she started reading.
She didn’t even realize she was weeping until she got to the end of the book.
She had never wanted to know what Esteban did for a living; never had questioned where the money came from to fuel his extravagant lifestyle.
And now she knew.
Now she knew about the bribes and the kickbacks he financed.
Now she knew about the murders and tortures he paid for.
Now she knew and she knew she could not forget.
She would have to leave him.
She put the book down to make herself a drink.
When she came back to the couch, she couldn’t find the book.
Eso no importa, she told herself, she remembered every word she’d read.
Thousands of miles to the north of Luz Ibarra’s living room in Mexico City, a small, cloth-bound book appeared on top of a bookcase in an empty 7th grade classroomina Detroit school building closed by budget cuts and scheduled for demolition.
Two days later, the school was blown up and the debris carted away to a dump.
The small, cloth-bound Book of Knowledge was buried under a ton of trash within a week.