Heresies In Babel
The Library’s interwoven towers stretched far beyond the clouds, its inventory was said to be endless. This fabled treasure trove drew pilgrims from all over the world. Those who entered the Library seeking truth were permanently lost to its vastness.
Priya dreamed of the Library long before she ever stepped inside. She came from a superstitious village. Arranged marriage. Divorce by fire.
Her long journey across oceans and continents took her to the Library’s gates. Ready, at long last, to find salvation in the knowledge within.
She took a breath and entered.
Priya’s hands quivered. She swatted at the book in her hand, flipping pages with a mad urgency before dropping it into a pile with the others.
How could this be?
“It’s normal, what you’re doing.” The voice was a man’s. Priya didn’t have the energy to turn toward him.
“There’s nothing inside. Gibberish,” she said.
“Come with me.” He took her hand. “I’ve been here for a long time.” She recoiled at his touch. “Go on, my name’s Thom. It’s okay.” She followed, what else was there to do?
They stepped into the next room. The fullness of its shelves mocked Priya. The mess she’d made in the other room was infinitesimal in the face of the Library. Not even a dent.
“Truth seekers come here expecting to find wisdom spelled out for them.” He chuckled like a grandfather. “Of course they find nothing but endless random jumbles of letters and numbers. Drives some people quite mad.”
“Everything was supposed to be in here.”
“It is, my dear. Everything that has ever been written and everything that ever could be. Worse yet,” he smiled, “every incorrect version and forgery and lie as well.”
“Why all the nonsense? Each book contains a unique combination of letters, spaces, and numbers. The Library in its entirety contains every combination. Sadly, the sheer volume of text means that it will be hundreds of generations before someone stumbles upon a coherent sentence.”
Priya wanted to vomit. How could she have been so stupid?
“I’m trapped,” she said. She knew she was too far into the Library’s towers to ever find her way out. With a wobble she collapsed against one of the shelves, knocking a few books onto the ground next to her. “For nothing.”
“There’s wisdom if you are willing to look,” Thom said. His eyes twinkled. Priya appreciated that, despite herself. “Here.” He plucked a book from the ground. “Read it. Don’t try to pronounce anything, read the letters without thinking too hard about them.”
What did she have to lose? Priya opened the book and read, line by line, the letters inside. Her face flushed with embarrassment at the silliness of what she was doing. After a moment she sneaked a glance at Thom but he was intently reading a book of his own.
The flush faded from Priya’s cheeks as she read. The room seemed to fall away, and after a while a pleasant calm took her over.
Priya and Thom walked the halls of the Library for the next several years, contentedly reading nonsense. Still, Priya never gave up her search for order in the chaos.
“Damn!” she tossed a book on the floor after rescanning the same page four times. “I swear I saw a whole sentence.”
Thom shook his head but didn’t look up from his book.
Of course Priya appreciated meditating on the chaos of the Library. Still, the hope that she’d eventually find something never left her.
She’d come close before.
Priya went into the next room. After the years she no longer feared losing track of Thom simply by stepping out. Later she found that she could remember her way to and from certain rooms.
In fact, she’d visited the one she was in many times before. Today was different. Today she would take control.
Far wall. Top shelf, four books from the end. Page three hundred fifteen, sixth line.
“Mimd tne ogg amd ihe serpemt.”
Priya checked the archway for movement before beginning her work. Satisfied, she took an envelope from her robe. With the edge of her fingernail she went to work, scraping at the letters. She removed a line here and there, collecting the ink flakes in her envelope. She was so close.
She spit into the envelope. Only enough to moisten the ink flakes inside. Even more carefully she dipped a nail into the slurry and traced a few lines: an ascender here, a loop there, a cap. . . .
When she finished she blew on the page to dry the ink. She’d done well. right there on line six, page three hundred fifteen was the sentence: “Mind the egg and the serpent.”
“Thom! Come quick!”
He ran into the room. “Is there something wrong? Have you hurt yourself?” His concern faded when he saw Priya with a book, pointing frantically at one of its pages. “Listen, you have to give up this silly–“
Priya thrust the book at Thom. He barely glanced to the page but his eyes locked on the sentence. He shook his head, mumbling as if he’d seen the face of a demon. “Priya, this is dangerous. You mustn’t show this to anyone else, do you understand me?”
She pulled the book close to her body. “Oh no, Thom. You are the one who doesn’t understand.”
Priya fled the room.
News traveled the Library at breakneck speed. Pilgrims sought Priya to see the book and pay their respects and listen to her words of wisdom. Others, the searchers, redoubled their efforts to find meaning. Many drove themselves mad in the process, degenerating into howling lunacy. They burned whole floors in their furies.
Others branded Priya a heresiarch for her claims. They led expeditions to assassinate her and cleanse her blasphemy. Danger lurked at every corner. Spies infiltrated her coterie to make attempts on her life.
One of Priya’s lieutenants approached carrying an open book. She recognized the look on his face, Thom had worn the same one when he first saw the sentence.
She read the words on the page: an entire story, a fable about a queen and an egg and a serpent.
Priya dug at the page with her fingernails. She carefully picked over each letter, looking for places where the type could have been adulterated.
“Burn it,” Priya commanded her lieutenant. He only looked at his feet.
“They’re everywhere, ma’am. The Library, I don’t know. Check the shelves. Every book has a story in it. Always about an egg and a snake, like the one you found.” He handed her a book from shelf that Priya had scanned and rescanned many times.
She opened it. Almost before her eyes the letters crowded against one another until they settled into legible words.
Thom huddled next to a small pile of burning books. Priya sat across from him warming her hands at the flames.
“It doesn’t really matter what’s in them, my child. We’re not here to stamp out any heresies. The real wisdom is in keeping your eyes on the flame.” He threw another book into the fire.
The flames danced. Priya lost herself in the movement and the rest of the world seemed to melt away.