2840 words, short story
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
Many are the ways of commemorating the dead, and no one can say which is best—not even the dead.
The method I’m about to tell you is perhaps the strangest of them all.
My father was a librarian. Years ago, when I was a little child, he used to bring me to work and let me loose among the dusty tomes on old shelves. The experience forged an emotional bond between me and paper books. I could spend a whole day with my head buried in a book, careless of the absence of other entertainments. As I grew up, I discovered that the world outside the library was far more complicated, and I had a hard time adjusting. Socially awkward and having few friends, I returned to my hometown after college and started working at my father’s old library. It felt natural, like a book finding the exact place on the shelves assigned to it by the numbers on its spine.
There wasn’t much to do at work. In an age when most reading was done electronically, the library had few patrons. Like a graveyard attendant, I took care of the forgotten books and saw the occasional visitor, but there was little expectation of real conversation. The sunlight glided tranquilly between the shelves, day after day. Every day, I entered this sanctuary, quiet as a tomb, and pulled a book or two randomly off the shelves to read.
This was pretty much my version of heaven.
Borges once wrote, “God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes in the Clementine. My parents and my parents’ parents searched for that letter; I myself have gone blind searching for it.” I didn’t believe in God, but sometimes I felt that I was searching for something as well.
One rainy autumn afternoon, the library received a donation of books. I opened one and saw a small red collector’s seal on the title page, which told me that another old man who had treasured books had died. His children had piled his collection, gathered over a lifetime, in front of his apartment building. Those which were worth something had been picked out by used book dealers, leaving the rest to be sold by the kilogram to a paper mill, to be gifted, or to be donated to the library. This sort of thing happened every year. I sorted the books, recorded and catalogued them, stuck on call numbers and barcodes, wiped off the dust, and stacked them neatly so that they could be shelved.
This took me two hours; I was exhausted, dizzy, and needed a break. While the teakettle was boiling, I picked up a slim volume off the top of the stack. It was a chapbook of poetry.
I started to read. From the first character in the first line of the first poem, I felt that I had found what I had always sought. Accompanied by the faint pitter-patter of rain outside, I chewed over the verses carefully, as delighted as a starving man who had finally been given manna.
The poet was unfamiliar to me, and there was only a short paragraph that passed for her biography. There wasn’t even a photograph. She wrote under a pen name, and her real name was unknown. She had died twenty years ago at the age of thirty-one. I pulled out my phone to look her up, but the Internet gave me nothing, as though she had never existed.
I felt a tingling up my spine. How could a poet who had lived in the information age leave no trace on the Web? It was inconceivable.
In the middle of the chapbook I found a library book request form. The sheet was thin, yellowed, but still well preserved. The borrower had filled out the form with the title of the poetry book as well as his library card number in a neat, forceful hand. I inputted the information into the computer system and found that the borrower had been a regular patron, though he hadn’t come for a few months. The borrower’s records in the database did not contain this book—which made sense, as the library had never had a copy of it.
Why would a book request form from my library be found in the private collection of an old man, and how did it get back here to me? Who was the borrower listed on the form, and what was his relationship to the old man? Or perhaps they were the same person using different names?
I finished the poems in the chapbook and shelved it as well as the other donated books. The next day, for some reason, I found myself in front of the shelf with the chapbook. It was still there, a slim volume squeezed between other books like a mysterious woman hiding in the attic. I pulled it out and re-read it from the first page. Though the poems were decades old, I could clearly sense from the rich, ambivalent images the massive waves of sorrow that had swept up most people in this age, like a lonely cry slipping through the cracks and seams of broken walls and fallen ruins, flowing without end.
Who was the poet? What did she look like and where did she live? What was her life like? Other than me, the dead collector, and the mysterious borrower, had she had other readers?
I had no answers. All I could do was to read the poems over and over again, like a fish diving deeper. The poet and her poems turned into the dark abyss of my dreams, concealing all secrets.
Three months later, as the first snow of winter fell, I met the borrower.
He was in his forties, of medium height, possessing a lean, angular face, and dressed plainly. When I saw the familiar string of numbers on his library card, I got so excited that I almost cried out. But the looming silence of the library reminded me to swallow the cry.
Using the library’s surveillance cameras, I observed him passing through the stacks and up and down the stairs like a ghost. I saw him walk into the room where old newspapers and magazines were kept, the only patron in that space. He retrieved a stack of bound newspapers and carefully laid it out on the desk, where he proceeded to flip through it slowly, page by page. I was puzzled. These newspapers were electronically stored and indexed, and all he had to do was to perform a simple search in the database. Why did he bother to come into the library to flip through them like this? Perhaps he was nostalgic for the sensation of bare fingers against old paper?
Suddenly, the borrower on my closed-circuit TV screen lifted his face and glanced around, staring in the direction of the camera for a second. Then he shifted his position so that his body blocked my view. A few seconds later, he moved away and flipped the newspaper to the next page.
I was certain that he had done something he did not want others to find out during that brief moment. Maybe he took a photograph. But considering all these papers had been digitized, what was the point of sneaking a picture?
Before closing time, the borrower approached me and set down that thin chapbook. I scanned the barcode but held on to the book. My curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to break my habitual silence and risk speaking with a stranger.
“Do you like these poems?” I asked.
He was surprised. It was as if I had been invisible, but now appeared out of thin air.
“They’re . . . all right.” His tone was cautious.
“I think they’re lovely,” I said. “No, that’s not quite right. They’re powerful, as though they could return order and form to ruins that had been slumbering for thousands of years.”
I told him how I had come across these poems, and repeated to him the quote from Borges. I spoke to him about how I couldn’t forget the mysterious poet, and even recounted for him how I had become the librarian here.
Ripples of emotion spread across his face, as though my words had been drops of rain falling into a pond.
After I was done talking, he picked a book request form from the box on the desk and handed it to me. “Please give me your contact info.”
I wrote down my name and phone number. Without glancing at the form, he picked it up and placed it between the pages of the chapbook. “I will be in touch.” He strode toward the exit.
I waited more than a week. On a stormy evening, my phone rang. I answered it, and the borrower’s low, sonorous voice filled my ears.
“There’s a gathering tonight we’d like to invite you to.”
“Tonight?” I looked up at the dense, swirling snow outside the window. “We?”
He gave me an address and a time. Then he added, “I hope you can make it.” He hung up.
His last words were irresistible—it had been many years since anyone had said “hope” to me. I checked myself in the mirror and left the library, opening my umbrella as I did so.
The snow was so thick that it seemed solid. There were very few pedestrians or cars out on the road. My town was too small to have a subway or tube transport system, and transportation was no different from how it had been twenty, thirty years earlier. I made my way through ankle-deep snow to the bus stop, and the bus also had very few passengers. I rode for eight or so stops, got off, and walked some more until I reached the address the borrower had given me: it was a bar that had seen better years.
I pushed open the thick wooden door and swept aside the cotton curtain. Warm air infused with an aroma that I was sure I knew enveloped my face. About fifteen people were seated in the bar in a loose circle, and there was an old fashioned coal stove—the kind that took honeycomb briquettes—in the middle of the circle. On top of the stove sat an aluminum kettle hissing with white steam.
The borrower picked up the kettle and poured me a cup of hot tea. I was surprised to see that there was a hint of a smile on his cold, expressionless face. He introduced me to the others, and it didn’t take me long to realize that most of them were as socially awkward as me, but I could see friendliness and candor in their eyes. They already thought of me as one of them. I relaxed.
I found an empty chair and sat down. The borrower stood up like a host and said, “Good evening, everybody. Let’s welcome our new friend. Today is a special day, and I’m delighted to see all of you make it on a snowy night like this.”
The crowd quieted, holding hot cups of tea and listening.
“Tonight, we gather to remember a poet,” he continued. “Twenty years ago, a cold, stormy winter’s night just like this one, she departed our world.
“Everyone here tonight is a reader of her work. We love her poems but know almost nothing about her life. It is said that she was an introvert who lived like a hermit. She didn’t use the computer or the Web, and left behind almost no photographs or videos. Her poems received little attention during her lifetime, and were published only in a few obscure literary journals. When the editors of these journals asked for an author photo or an interview, she never responded.
“But one editor, who loved her work, managed to maintain a correspondence with her. Through handwritten letters, the two of them discussed life and poetry, poverty and humility, the terrors and hopes of our age. This was a simple, pure friendship, sustained only through the written word. They never met each other in life.
“Right before the poet died, she sent all her published and unpublished poems to the editor. After reading through them, the editor decided to publish a collection as a way to commemorate her dead friend. But she knew that the only way to make a collection of poetry popular was to package up the poet’s life into a story that was already popular with the crowd. The story had to exaggerate the poet’s mystery and solitude, dig up the scars of her family life and childhood, show her poverty and hunger, disclose her hidden life of love, and present her death scene with pathos. It had to be a story that would make everyone—whether they read poetry or not—shed tears of sympathy for a young woman poet who died too young, drive the crowd to curse our cold, commercial age for persecuting genius, allow each and every member of the audience to project themselves onto her. This was the only way to sell a collection of poetry, to grow her fame, to make her name last through the ages.
“But this was also exactly what the poet would have hated.
“And so the editor chose another way to commemorate her friend. She paid to print and bind copies of the chapbook and mailed them to her friends, anyone who was willing to read the poems, the penniless writers, translators, teachers, editors, students, librarians. She wrote in the note accompanying the chapbook that if anyone wanted more copies to gift to others, she would mail them for free. And since she knew so little about the poet’s life, she couldn’t satisfy their curiosity.
“Year after year, readers who loved her work formed clubs like this one. We read and pass on her work, from one private shelf to another, from one library to another library. But we are not interested in superficial attention; we do not fabricate tear-jerking tales about her life; we do not manufacture illusions that would be popular. We only wish for readers to admire her through her poetry, and we disdain insincere blurbs, biographies, photographs, or interviews. In fact, we make it our mission to eliminate any material of that sort. If one of us discovers an image or biographical record of her somewhere, we do our best to delete it. Documents on the Web can be deleted, databases can be carefully edited, tapes and rolls of film can be cut and then pasted back together, and anything printed could be torn out and burned.
“Very few people have noticed our actions. Compared to making news, reducing attention was work that could be carried out quietly. Of course, it was impossible to accomplish what we did without anyone noticing. There will always be the curious who wanted to know the stories behind the poems, who needed to pierce the riddle. We have no right to stop them, but we will say: we do not know any secrets, and we do not want to know any. For us, the poems themselves are enough.”
The borrower finished speaking. He opened the chapbook in his hand and placed it in front of me. I saw a yellowed piece of paper between the pages, like a piece cut from an old newspaper.
“I cut this out of the newspapers collected in your library. I’m sorry that I damaged your property. Now I return this to you so that you can decide what to do with it.”
I looked at the piece of paper. There was a blurry photograph on it. Almost twenty pale faces, exposed to the sun, stared at me. Was one of them the poet? Which one? How would I know?
The answer to the riddle was its plain text.
I picked up the piece of paper with the tips of my fingers and brought it to the stove, tossing it in. The flame licked the paper, burst into an orange flare, and in a blink the paper had turned into a curl of ash.
I looked at the borrower, who smiled at me, extending a hand. I held his large and warm hand. I realized that it had been a long time since I last held a stranger’s hand. My eyes grew wet.
“How about we read a poem together?” he said.
We sat down in our chairs and flipped open the chapbooks to the first page. We read from the first character in the first line of the first poem. Our voices floated up, passed through the ceiling, rose against the falling drifts of snow, until they had returned to the eternal, cold, dark abyss.
Originally published in Chinese in Guangming Daily, June 5, 2015 Version 14.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.