(Fiction) In the Library of Thieves

After Beltran’s visit, some of my restrictions were lifted. I was not allowed to speak to Etude and had no idea where in the cavernous dungeons he was being held—the same dungeons where the Eye was discovered by the first maestri some seven centuries before. I was also kept from the high towers, where everything important seemed to happen. But there was a garden promenade left open to the sky and I was allowed access to it and to the library. Both were utterly, unspeakably magnificent. The library was large enough that one could genuinely get lost. I was never a scholar like Hank, but being raised in the centuries before television, books have remained my first love, and over the next several weeks, I spent many hours between those stacks in the company of voices past—not just the books but also the ghosts that would sometimes steal them when my back was turned. I learned quickly to feign disinterest before making a selection, lest the book I had chosen be whisked away behind me. Their thefts were an attempt, I’m sure, to get me to go innocently searching, to explore the buttressed vaults, caged nooks, and octagonal chambers that connected each to the other inside that great place.

Of all the spirits that pestered me, I made acquaintance with only one. Judging from her dress, which I only caught in glimpses, my girl was a servant in the time of Cromwell. She must have spent much of her life scrubbing the floor, for that is what she did compulsively. When she spoke, it was always to herself or to someone else not present. I heard only fragments of stories, and she would often disappear midway through. Sometimes she would glance at me first, like a wild animal, as if just realizing I was there before blinking away in fright. But as one week turned to two, and two to three, my continued presence in the library coaxed a certain calm, as with a tiger, and her stories lengthened. She didn’t relate them directly, but if I sat and read near the lower arches—which were close enough to the sea that in the quiet I could hear the gentle lapping of the Mediterranean—she would often appear, scrubbing the floor (always scrubbing, scrubbing) and talking to herself, which was of course talking to me. She seemed terribly lonely, and I would put a finger in my book and close it and look away from her and listen as she told a friend named Charlotte, who was never present, all the reasons she should stay away from the farm boy down the lane, for he was a ne’er-do-well if ever there was one. I listened to numerous one-sided arguments about why she hadn’t cleaned the kitchen or brushed the horses. She told a great many lies, especially about where she went when she wasn’t needed and why it was she lingered so long there.

How she came to the Keep of Solomon, I could only guess, but the reason for her departure seemed clear. Her unconsummated dalliance with the farm boy down the lane had turned sour after she caught him mounting her friend Charlotte behind a tree. Realizing he had no intention of honoring his promises, she demanded the return of her dowry. But the boy had already spent it on drink. My maid immediately reported him to her lord but was told she shouldn’t have been so foolish as to give it to such a man in the first place, and the matter was dropped. It was only later, after the farm boy had broken Charlotte’s heart as well, that my maid plotted her revenge.

She visited a “lady of the dells”—a witch—and gave of her hair and of her womb. It was not meant to damage him. She repeated that many times. It was merely supposed to teach the boy a lesson. What happened next, I was not told, but having dealt with a number of witches, it’s easy enough to guess. My maid was arrested and spent several years in a brutish prison, as I had, before being offered clemency in exchange for a report on the witch, who was later hanged. In consequence of her service, she was indentured to the servants of The Masters and later met her end within the walls of the Keep of Solomon, where she remained as a wayward spirit.

Early one morning, while busy with a pale and brush, my new friend airily explained to Charlotte that she was so beautiful and could do so much better than a simple farm boy from down the lane, and that if she would go to the city, she was sure to catch the eye of a gentleman. Amid the rambling, which clearly predated the rest of the tale, I heard a stray word: escape. It was spoken in the same voice, but the tone and cadence were different, as if interjected from a different time and place. I looked up and the young woman was peering at me. Then she disappeared again.

Amid the shelves of the library, I rediscovered bits of my past, including a rare manuscript by Wilm Castleby, penned in his hand. Seeing his familiar scratch brought back memories I had completely forgotten—not ones eaten by the forest but those simply lost in the years. I also discovered a collection of antique photographic plates made of glass, some of which had cracked and been mended with tape or glue. They filled a series of chests inlaid with wood grooves, each holding a single vertical slab. The Masters, or rather the librarians and scribes who worked for them, had used the new medium of photography to record the last of the woodfolk and the other child-races, whose numbers had by then precipitously declined. Many had fled to other realms after the pogroms of the 17th century, but many more had been “harvested” a century later during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, when innumerable pieces were cut from their bodies, living or dead, and sold to fill wunderkammer and gentlemen’s cabinets of curiosity. By the 19th century, precious few were left, and The Masters’ scribes made portraits, etched into glass with salts of silver. I saw twig-fingered treeherders mourning ricks of corpses, giggling gnomes hidden under furniture and machinery, preens of pixies pushed under rulers and tape measures, naked and ashamed. Some of the images were quite poignant, such as the satyr mother bent over the still body of her faun, her breasts still heavy with milk. Others were inimitably disturbing. Many of the pixies were cowed by rough-gloved fingers, their tiger-striped wings forcibly and painfully spread. The presence of several empty slots in the progression suggested there were images missing—I expect the most explicit ones.

But my greatest discovery was a set of secret writings that I myself had smuggled to America, for which I was later imprisoned for heresy. I assumed they had been destroyed, along with my freedom, and as soon as I recovered from my shock at their continued existence, I shuffled to the nearest chair and scoured the yellowed pages. I didn’t stop reading for hours.

After being rescued from the attic in Whitechapel, I was arrested and given a choice: prison or deportation, which is how I found myself sailing to India. I had finally caught the attention of the lords of magic. I had triggered it, in fact. I had never completely given up my desire to be rid of my curse, and as it happened, two years before the madness in the attic and shortly after Durance and I came to London, I happened upon a speaker standing before a large crowd—a woman, which was unusual, more so that she had the distinctive cadence of a Russian accent. There were not many Russians in London then. The British had expelled most of my countrymen during the war in the Crimea. It was rare to find one at all, let alone speaking openly before a large crowd. So I stopped.

In five minutes, I could tell she was from Ukraine, not all that far from where I was born. She was also apparently a spiritual leader, a representative of something called the Theosophical Society, a kind of magico-religious fraternity built on Eastern mysticism and worship of the occult. The Masters had been so successful in their persecution of magic, which was part of daily life as late as the seventeenth century, that by the nineteenth it was making a comeback. Not in earnest, of course. More as a quaint affectation, the way certain fashions of a bygone era will reappear ironically. Victorian gentlemen in particular, having made a fortune in machine industry, were often members of secret societies based loosely on Egyptology, Hindu spiritualism, or other bland cults of the Orient. These were generally toothless but attracted many followers. Indeed, as I moved around the crowd, I realized the speaker had already packed the hall on whose steps she now stood and that she was giving a second, abbreviated talk to the poor and the latecomers who had gathered in the hundreds outside. Since there was little chance of meeting her amid such numbers, I made a note of her name, which was printed on the marquee—Madame Helena Blavatsky—and went on with my business.

I wrote to her, explained my heritage, and told her enough of my encounter with the woodfolk and resulting curse that I thought I might at least get an audience. I delivered it to the hotel where she stayed, but the disinterest of the clerk suggested my post was only one of perhaps dozens or more. Several days passed and I noted in the paper that “Mme. Blavatsky, Noted Medium and International Speaker, Sails for Hindustan.” Life went on and I forgot all about it. Thus, I was quite surprised when the police, having thrown me in a prison hospital to recover, informed me that I had a solicitor and that he had secured for me an exit from a lengthy prison sentence. The solicitor, a Mr. Bentley, told me he was employed by another attorney, an American named Olcott, who had been part of the tribunal charged with investigating the death of President Lincoln. When I asked why Mr. Olcott had freed me, Mr. Bentley said he didn’t know, that he was instructed merely to secure my release, which he did. I was then taken under police custody to a steamer ship, the first I had ever seen, and placed immediately aboard.

We stopped in Cairo. I have never been so hot. I saw the pyramids and so much more squalor than I had presumed could exist in the world. The British seemed as interested in their empire as a dog its fleas. But of course in that, they were hardly unique. Within the week, thankfully, we set sail again from a port in the Red Sea. It was a further two weeks before I met the woman who had freed me. She was as curious a figure as any I would encounter—warm and genial but also much coarser in her manners than I expected. She made crude jokes, often involving bodily functions, and cackled at them herself. Her clothes never fit, her hair was frizzy and unkempt, and she never shaved. Her insults were rare, but when they came, they were vicious, direct, and incisive. I cannot recall anyone the Madame insulted who did not instantly become a lifelong enemy—including, eventually, Mr. Olcott, who had been her first and staunchest patron.

When I was finally able to ask my lady why I had been summoned, I was told that after receiving my letter, she had attempted to contact me “on the astral plane,” but that she had been rebuffed by “an immense psychical power,” so strong that she was weary for many days. By the time she recovered, she had to leave for India. Thinking I was a medium of rare and notable ability, she had her agents at the Theosophical Society’s London lodge, which included a number of state luminaries, report on my movements. She said I had been summoned to India so that the truth of the “psychical emanance” could be discovered and would not be lost in some brutish prison. In the meantime, I was given an occupation. I was to be a servant and tutor in my lady’s house. Like many colonial Europeans, she sponsored a small school where poor children were given a rudimentary education.

Though remanded to the Theosophical Society, I was not kept as a prisoner, nor did I think of fleeing. India bewitched me. It wasn’t simply beautiful. It was opulent, and I understood why the British coveted it so. The wealth they drained seemed eternally replenished by the constant motion of the people—more than I had ever seen before. Everything there danced and grew over and above everything else, a boiling mixture of faiths and languages and food. Pickpockets and saints walked elbow-to-elbow in the crowded markets with gods and livestock. There didn’t seem to be any order in any of it, and yet, somehow, everything got done. Fields were planted and harvested. Levees were built or reinforced. Bright festivals were held. Fish were caught and brought to sale. Oh, the British strutted about admirably and said “Here, here!” and “What, what!” but they knew it was a show, and any man outside the range of their artillery was free to live exactly as his fellows had since before the time of Christ.

Despite my many years in her service, I would never come to know Madame Blavatsky well. I was but one part of a very large retinue. From time to time, however, she would quiz me about the “emanance,” and eventually my defenses crumbled before her potent wit. I told her I had known only one person who could rightly be called psychic, and that she had been wracked by strange and debilitating visions.

“By the heavens, woman!” my madame exclaimed, “I hope you wrote them down!”

I explained to her that Anya and I had been scullery maids, that we barely had enough to eat and there was no question of affording paper and ink.

“She’s haunting me,” I admitted one rare evening when the two of us were alone. A gentle breeze brought cooler air up to the garden where it mixed with the scent of jasmine and roses. “I left her son in a work house.”

Madame Helena chuckled and shook her head. “It’s not a haunting,” she explained in our native language. She held the bit of a hookah between her lips. “She is not a ghost. You cannot think of her experience of these events as you do your own.”

When I asked for clarification, she took several long drags from her water pipe.

“Imagine your life as a tapestry,” she said, “or a scroll rolled out before you. You would be able to see it all at once—as if it were a single coherent thing. When your friend expired, that is what she saw: your life, her life, the flow of time as a tapestry. These acts you experience as discrete events are for her instances of a single moment whereby she pushed from that tapestry all the threats in it—at once. Not one at a time with years between. For her, it is a single psychic rebellion accompanying the moment of her death. You, trapped here in time, are forced to see each appearance singly. I regret that we have not been able to make contact. At each of these moments we experience, she is just ascending to a higher existence. She would have much to teach.”

I marked my one-hundredth birthday meditating cross-legged on the bank of the Adyar River. I wore shoes of fragrant sandalwood and a beautiful red-patterned sari with a gold necklace. My hair, having not long to regrow, was then very short, a style I have been partial to ever since, even when it was neither stylish nor convenient. By most measures, a century of life made me a very old woman. But I felt young there. It wasn’t just that everything was new, or new to me. It was that all those things that were new to me were so very, very old—timeless, even. It made me feel like a little thing, a young thing after all, and if in my tiny century I had become heavy with misfortune, I shed it like a snake skin somewhere between the river and the elephant grass.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky died in 1891 from a mixture of poor health and acute influenza. At her funeral, I was given a parcel. Inside was some cash, a letter addressed to me, and the loosely bound pages of a manuscript, which I was to smuggle to America.

Do not read it, she warned in her letter, or you will be complicit in my heresy.

I didn’t then. Not for many days, in fact. I didn’t read it until I was locked in my cabin, steaming my way to America.

During her life, Madame Helena claimed publicly to have contact, by means of astral projection, with an ancient and arcane order whom she called The Masters. She described them as Indian swamis and said they had been manipulating the course of human events for centuries from their fortress deep in the mountains of Tibet. All of that is a matter of historical record. And yet, it was not entirely true.

Since The Masters did not allow anyone to speak openly of their existence, she had hoped that by altering certain facts and circumstances, she might escape reprobation. It was also, I suppose, another example of how she was ever willing to knead the basic facts of the world to better suit her ends, especially where that deception made others more susceptible to some higher truth she wanted them to see. Her invented Masters better fit the common preconception of what such a mystical order might look like, with robed ascetics chanting over incense in some mystical mountain monastery. Like many eccentrics, Madame Blavatsky’s profound insights into the universe were matched by an almost perplexing naivete about the people in it. The fact that one of The Masters was in fact Indian meant that even her altered version was too close for their comfort, and as the Theosophical Society grew in popularity, she was warned, repeatedly, to refrain from speaking of the High Arcane. In typical Blavatsky fashion, she laughed off the threats, only to suffer character assassination at the hands of the Psychical Research Society, which issued its infamous report denouncing her, and she was forced from the very organization she had founded.

In her unpublished chapters, Madame Helena argued, with her critics, that we can discern the nature of the deep universe from the basic facts in evidence: that the earth spends half of each day in light and half in darkness and that correspondingly there is both suffering and joy in the world. In such conditions, it was impossible for pre-modern thinkers to conceive of the world as existing anywhere but on the border between great warring realms—stuck, as it were, in the middle. For the Norse, Earth was Midgard, the middle realm, just as China considers herself the Middle Kingdom, with heaven above and darkness below. So, too, in Christianity and Islam, where we inhabit neither Hell nor Paradise but some space between.

Madame Blavatsky asked how anyone could possibly believe this. It was perhaps forgivable, she said, when we considered the earth a bowl or plate covered in a shroud of fixed stars—a canopy through which holes had been poked so as to let the divine light peek through and remind us even here of the glory of God. Once it was clear that was not the case, that each of those tiny twinkling lights in the sky was not a pinprick but its own distant sun, our ancient conception of ourselves as the center of things was never updated. It was, like that old canopy, fixed in place. Belief in the middle, she said, was psychologically pleasing rather than true. It suggested that everything was in some way about us, that we were yet the axle of the universe—albeit symbolically rather than literally—that the earth was the field of sport upon which every gaze in the universe was transfixed, and that our choices alone would decide the fate of the cosmic battle between light and darkness.

Hardly, she said. The night sky was not a shroud but something closer to an infinite well—cold, barren, and immeasurably vast. We didn’t seem to be in the middle of things at all. We seemed quite far flung in fact. That our planet was tilted and turned every day between light and dark certainly suggested a struggle, a supposition supported by the common occurrences of suffering and joy. And it was also true that the earth seemed to be neither heaven nor hell, as the old religions had correctly assumed. But, she asked, if our planet was the focus of the conflict, if we were the front of the war, why could we not see the forces of light? Why was there only darkness, darkness, darkness on all sides? An endless quantity of it, in fact. Our planet was swimming in an ocean of the stuff, as was the galaxy itself. Here on earth, evidence of malice was patent and universal, while evidence of grace was scant and indirect. What of it existed seemed only to come by our hand. If the divine were acting on earth, she said, it could only be very weakly, as if at a great distance.

But the crown jewel of her argument was what she called “the state of immanent corruption,” whereby the whole of life, as the gurus in India had taught her, survived only by consuming other life. Anything that remained motionless, that took no act, inevitably succumbed to rot, and this applied even to the mountains and the rivers. All things not only suffered, they degraded. Where, then, was the influence of the light, of the incorruptible and unchanging divine whose power flowed from itself and from no other thing? Everywhere on earth there were agents of evil. One tripped over them outside every door. Yet, how rare was the saint? How rarer still were his qualities: knowledge, love, courage, wisdom, and compassion?

The truth, Madame Blavatsky argued, was obvious. We were not the middle kingdom. Earth was not the center of the universe, nor was our universe the center of all universes. Ours was patently a realm of corruption, a realm of the dark powers as other universes were realms of light. Adrift in some distant corner, we had cast off our shackles in a great conflagration, just as the ancient texts had taught us, but we had not been strong enough to embrace the divine, which is why things stood as they did, where the earth spins equally between light and dark. Our planet is not the focus of the fighting. It is an enclave of resistance well behind enemy lines.

If this doesn’t seem heretical to you, it is only because science would eventually come to vindicate it, at least in its significant facts. My lady’s views on “immanent corruption” presaged the laws of thermodynamics, which were just then being formulated. She also suggested that the distant dots of light in the sky were, like our sun, symbolic of individual acts of rebellion and that the true nature of a dark universe must be cold, bleak, and unradiant. And in as much as our cold, dark universe had been created—forged was the word she used—by the lords of night as a font of suffering from which they could power their armies, that suggested, first, that suffering should be plentiful and grace scant, and second, that such a place would have a violent beginning: a big bang. This latter observation is especially noteworthy since it contradicted the prevailing scientific view of the time that the night sky was a reflection of the divine creator: glorious, eternal, infinite, and unchanging. And that was the danger. For if people knew—if they really knew—that our dismal planet was adrift among the dark gods, they might lose hope. More than that, they might come to question The Masters’ grand enterprise. And that could not be tolerated.

Madame Helena bid me give the manuscript to a young goblin, Anson Gruel, who had recently taken proprietorship of The Barrows in New York City, where my lady had lived for a time. It was her hope that by surrendering it, I might negotiate clemency on the remainder of my sentence, and that by keeping it in trust with Anson, who was as greedy with books as most goblins were with money, it might avoid the flames.

I shut the loose-bound pages and held them to my chest. One of those, at least, had come to pass.

Selection from the forthcoming conclusion to my unheralded epic urban fantasy, FEAST OF SHADOWS. Part One is available now.

cover image: Denise Grünstein – Looking at the Overlooked (2014)