The Library of Tangled Roots
A short story by Timothy Yuen
Cynthia woke with a start. The sudden, involuntary gasp of air was all-too-familiar: It always started this way. The night outside was bathed in light, spilling into her room and highlighting the shadows. She wondered if they were here tonight, here in the shadows. She peered into the darkness folded between the light, searching for an outline or shape out-of-place from the room she knew. The dresser, the lamp, the chair...was there someone sitting in the chair? There was no movement, but then again, they could stay still as death. Whoever created that phrase, she reflected, didn't know death very well, certainly not well enough to know that death isn't always still. No, they were not here tonight, but that didn't end the call. No, she must go to them tonight. Cynthia turned her head to see the moon pass behind leering clouds, calling and culling with its silent light.
With carefully measured steps she made her way outside to the footpath leading into the woods. Her senses opened with each step—the whispers of the wind through the treetops, the scent of dewy green grass and composting cedar, the cling of a fine mist condensing as teardrops on the fine hair of her arms. The trail seemed innocent enough—perhaps an old deer path that was now walked by things on two legs. Step by step she entered more deeply into the dark and the dreams of those who were here long before humans uttered a sound.
She came to the great stump, its crumbling form bursting with new life as sprouts and shoots. In its cracks and crevices lived any number of things that inched and crawled—some to transform and fly, while others ate the body. Cynthia walked round the stump to the back side, easily two arm-spans distance. A small door was carved from the old tree itself, the condition of its wood suggesting that it was created when the tree was still a youthful giant. A soft glow lined the edge showing that the door was ever so slightly open. Cynthia's fingers gripped the edge and slowly, silently revealed a tunnel leading down into the earth. A strong odor slipped through her nostrils and spun in her forehead, a scent older than life here on the surface. On hands and knees she passed through the doorway into the deep.
Her breathing became heavy and quick and sweat trickled as she made her way to the meeting place. Time had little meaning here. She could have been traveling that tunnel for minutes or days and would have had no reference. As the tunnel went deeper it slowly opened enough to crouch, then stand. The light in this place seemed to be like that of flickering fire, of torches and candles, yet every time she looked for a light source it eluded her. It was as if the light had the shadows within it, ebbing and flowing like the tide. The tunnel had opened into a large circular chamber with several more tunnels branching off.
And there they were, waiting for her in the shadows of light. Three dark hooded robes rose from the floor. They appeared so slight and delicate, thin hands and long fingers hanging from the sleeves, pointed chins and thin lips formed by almost transparent skin stretched across what must be a fragile skull. They kept their eyes hidden in the dark of their hoods, knowing better than to gaze straight at her, those black, black eyes knowing more than her mind could hold. The shock of terror ran through her, the terror of encountering that which her body told her was not supposed to be here yet was, an almost instinctual response she had learned to keep in check...at least some of the time. One made a gesture with its hand, beckoning her to follow. It turned and walked down a tunnel, the second turned and followed. The third made a slight movement of its lips, turning them out and upward in something that wasn't quite a smile, and reached out its hand.
Cynthia took the hand in hers. It was cold yet held a slight warmth, smooth and soft when held but cutting when brushed the wrong way like the scales of a shark. Together they walked through the tunnel after the other two. They came to an arch of stone that opened into a large chamber riddled with tunnels and hallways created by roots and what appeared to be bookshelves that grew from the earthen ceiling to the compacted dirt of the floor. The ceiling varied to the height of the bookshelves—some just a bit taller than Cynthia while others were easily three times her height. Nearly all the shelves were full with books bound in earthy tones—browns, blacks, tans, and greys with splashes of deep red and bone white. A tingling sensation lit up Cynthia's nerves like one of the incense-stick sizzling sparklers children wave in celebration of a holiday. The sensation transformed as it grew and felt as though vast protozoa swam in and around her, each brush of their cilia imparting information she didn't understand. Somehow it was coming from these books.
The two figures in the lead passed quickly through the labyrinthine pathways as Cynthia and her guide followed hand-in-hand. The lead pair stopped in front of a low shelf and became that unquieting silent still, an active waiting that told of patience and longing. The guide released his soft grip and joined the other two in their serenity. Feeling an unseen tug she turned to the bookshelf. She ran her hand along the spines of the books. Soft and smooth and ever-so-slightly damp and sticky, the leather of the binding was stretched tight like skin on a drum. The familiarity struck her and she realized they were, indeed, skin. “What are these?” she asked the trio.
She was answered with an image placed in her mind's eye. She saw countless forms of plant and animal life dead and decaying. As their dense bodies of flesh and life-force decomposed, another body separated and flew into the sky towards the moon. She saw the organs and intricate webs of veins and nerves of both the flesh and life-force break down and become the rich soil. At each stage of the composting a dew-like drop would form. These drops were the memories and experiences of the body. The drops followed the roots and rocks down into the earth and became a great pool. As Cynthia gazed into the pool she saw her face and the faces of a thousand others who she knew to be part of. The faces receded into the waters and she fell with them. Each became a book. The body from the moon, learning from the stars and seeing the earth from afar, dove into the pool. The books turned to crimson and flowed into a beating, yearning heart. As the body arose from the waters some drops dripped and returned to the pool, others became as life-force, rich earth, then flesh and bone. The crimson thickened to become blood and the memories of the earth flowed deep. A new human was formed from the timeless stars and the cycles of the earth.
Receiving that vision, Cynthia turned back to the bookshelf. A greying beige book flecked with darker brown pulled her attention, the same tug she had felt a moment before but stronger. She pulled the book from the shelf and turned it over in her hands. It's weight was heavier than she expected. As she examined the cover a large streak of red appeared, as if an invisible finger bled and traced an arching line from corner to corner. As this sign appeared she felt a deep sadness and longing in a dark corner of her heart. Somehow she had always been aware of this sense of loss but also forgotten it. Cynthia opened the book to a page somewhere in the middle. When the book opened, the pages seem to recede. In their place was a swirling mist and fog. A sense of confusion began to grow. What was she to do?
In answer the deep sadness took hold of her. As it did the mists began to clear and form into an image. The moon, beautiful, full and bright in a clear night sky. The shadows of mountains and valleys carved definition into her face, each a monument and scar from a touch of the stars. But it wasn't always this way. In ages past, the moon was one in body with the mother herself when she was yet a maiden. The mother, tormented by terrible storms, could not bear the life it was her destiny to enjoy. With a great impact the stars opened the maiden below the waters. Stolen from the sea, the moon was driven high into the heavens to be an equal to the sun. Being of the waters, the moon calmed the storms so that the fertile mother could find fulfillment in her greatest joy of creating and nurturing bodies of her own. The moon, the first child of the earth and where all her children must pass on their way to the stars. The moon, the maiden who may only give birth through death. The moon, her mother.
Cynthia's awareness started with a jolt as her attention turned back to the library from the visions of the book. In a daze she closed the cover and quietly placed the book with its bloody mark back on the shelf. Her body shook as her mind swirled with the possibilities these stories told.
As she turned the images over and over again, she barely noticed that the three had lead her out of the library, the tunnels, through the forest and back into her bedroom. When she finally brought her attention back to her surroundings, she found herself by her window looking out to the forest. She turned in a circle to examine the room—the three were nowhere to be seen in the shadows. Out of the corner of her eye a bright ball of light flashed past the window. Turning again to get a better view, she saw only the trees and thick clouds creating a rain of moonlight between them as they passed. "The moon, my mother," she whispered.
Settling herself back into bed, drifting from this dream to another, she chanted to herself, “I will remember this time. I will remember.”
[image credit: Cassandra Beanland]