A Catalogue of Unreadable Things, by Tori Truslow
artwork by C Massey

Anthropology

The scholars of the library are divided into numerous tribes. There are the climbing philosophers, who sit in the rigging and tie theory into knots; there are the fishers that build their huts on the hull, experts in lost shanties. There are nomads that roam the outer reading rooms, but the central rooms are ruled by the Captain, who is not the captain at all but calls himself so. He stands at the unturning wheel, and his disciples bring him piles of books that might once have shown the way to hidden worlds. They have fish-bitten covers, pages as unmarked as the sea that smooths ships’ wakes from its face.


Biography

The library rescued Kimi when she was eight, quite by accident. It’s true that she was almost drowned, having slipped from the piece of flotsam she had clung to, dizzy with sun and hunger. Her raft had been part of a cabinet, and in the cabinet was a book. The sodden paper looked soft and sweet; she took a bite from it and swallowed a mouthful of words. And so the librarians’ long fingers found her, just as she slipped under, spindled her up into the library’s heart. They caught the book and its companions too, and processed them duly. Kimi was a different matter. She could not be thrown back — she had eaten words, had been acquired — but nor could she be classified, stamped and shelved.

In the dark with their lamp-eyes glowing, the librarians crouched over to cut patches of ink-black silk from each others’ fins. They stitched new clothes for her. They asked, what are you and she — not knowing how she understood their grinding voices, not knowing how to answer them — said nothing. Something had to be entered into the catalogue: A Girl, the record-keeper wrote, bound in skin, not Readable or Unreadable. After that she was released among the stacks and told to keep herself in good condition.


Cartography

No latitudes or longitudes, no North. The library’s compass points down, to loss, to the ocean floor, which is the frozen pole of loss. No star-plotted course, no need of lighthouses. Every wreck is a beacon, drawing the library down, down.

Whosoever seeks it must trust ruined maps, giddy tides.


Catalogue

The library’s true collection is divided into two sections — not Fiction and Non-fiction, that’s all one at sea — but Readable and Unreadable. Readable books, written in ink that the water couldn’t suck out, on paper the sea couldn’t digest, are few; they are sorted by subject into small cabins. There are libraries within the library, troves taken from ships that had their own collections. The Unreadables live in the big black belly of the ship. Skeleton books, blind staring pages.

Studies are written — dry books, Readables — about what might have been in the Unreadables. The librarians do not regard these as real books; the scholars are allowed to shelve them above-decks. The shelves grow into a labyrinth, making room for books about the other books, but never overspill the edges of the ship. There are passionate, barbed arguments between scholars, accusing each other of misreading the Unreadables.

The figurehead, a mermaid with a fire-tipped pen, records all of them in a heavy wooden tome. She keeps her catalogue to herself, snapping it shut whenever someone tries to peek over her shoulder.


Education

The scholar wept like a storm and wailed like a wind-smashed seabird. Kimi put her finger to her lips and shook her head, but the woman had already been ejected from the reading cabin, and wasn’t about to stop.

She was younger than most, wore gold earrings and endless black curls. At last she swallowed her rage into silence, only to start up again when Kimi asked what was wrong — this time with words.

‘I sought the treasure of the Red Kingdom. A fable! That’s what everyone said. A fable, they whispered, but if there’s truth in it, the Library of Sunken Books is the only ship you want to sail. The truest fount of knowledge on all the world’s lost places! I could write volumes myself on the trials and troubles it took me to find this place, but at last I hailed her and a band of half-wild research students hauled me up to the deck. They bade me come drink with them, but I thirsted only for knowledge, and so they pointed over the vast deck towards Ancient Civilisations. These books were not from the sea, I learned; they were new books written by master scholars who had studied all there was to know on the matter. I read about the Kingdom’s chief cities, the mystery surrounding their fall, dug into its resources and exports, but found no hint of how to locate the place.

‘The books’ indices pointed me deeper into the library, to earlier works: I read them all. I gave years of my life to the Red Kingdom, wrote a small paper myself discussing socioeconomic influences on its modes of dress. Slowly I found a path through the maze of cross-references — navigating through rocky shoals was never so hard — towards books written about books that were actually from the Red Kingdom. They had fewer facts, more conjecture, but I was so close to the source now that I didn’t care; surely I’d find clues to the location soon. The location! I still told myself it was the treasure I was after, but really what I wanted was the Kingdom itself. At last I found, in a book with next to no information in it, a reference to an original source! The Red Kingdom Manuscript. The author wrote about the nature of the Manuscript’s parchment, the stains and rips on it. Speculated on the creature whose skin such red paper could be made from. How typically narrow-sighted, I thought! I’ll not dilly-dally with the paper; I’ll read every word, and then I’ll find the damn place.

‘I had to go down to the hold, to the heart of the library, to find it. Guided by the first librarian I’d ever seen, who lit our way with eyes like drowned lamps. I showed it the reference and it took me to a shelf where scrolls were piled high. Back in the central reading room, I spread the red parchment with trembling hands.

‘It was blank. I must have cursed very loudly — the occupants of the other desks turned furious glares on me. Each of them had been poring over wordless pages of their own. Has the sea washed the brains from your skulls? I cried. You’re reading empty books! That was when they threw me out here.’

‘Why’d you want words?’ said Kimi, who knew more about reading than any of these scholars with their blemish-less books. ‘You find the good stories under the pages.’

‘You’re using words now,’ said the scholar, and they both went quiet after that.


Folklore

Never speak above a whisper on board. The souls of the drowned hide between pages, and they’ll tear out your throat to get your voice.

To mark any Unreadable book — by ink, lead, folding, scratching, bleeding, tearing or biting — is to invite its lost words to infect your mind. They will eat it from the inside out.

To mark those same pages with your gaze invites a slower infection. Restless words breed genius before they take you completely.


Geography

There’s no atlas for the countries at the bottom of the ocean. When the library goes under it sounds no horn, no bell. Nothing on board will be touched by the sea — new-written books keep their ink, bodies keep their breath. Sails float slack, rippling with descent, then catch dark currents. They pull the ship down wide forgotten causeways. The planks, the ropes, the eyes and skin of all on board, give out a moon-coloured glow that peers into the ocean’s black guts, lighting ruins and monsters and lost things. The scholars squint into the abyss and wonder if they’re dead. Sometimes one, not heeding their fellows’ warnings, will leap overboard after something shining, thinking to catch the library up again — but whoever leaves the deck is lost to the deep.

Sitting on the figurehead’s shoulders, Kimi would stare ahead to see what kind of place they were coming to. All the cities that the sea had eaten were beautiful, with their pillars flung up towards the light and their ghosts trailing from windows like gauze. This one was all marble and coral and gold, skeletons of great beasts standing in its streets. The library ploughed through them until it came face to face with the city’s own library, a strange, stationary thing with a high domed roof.

Libraries of the deep were often dangerous, guarded by toothed things that had found a perfect lair in them. But the librarians emerged from below-decks, vanished inside with their long arms and gossamer nets, and came out with the nets full. Kimi slipped down into the hold to watch them sort the new arrivals. She saw a book bound in gold, bigger by far than any of the others. She asked a librarian where she should shelve it. Long needle-nailed fingers pointed to the Oversize section. Kimi took the book in both arms to a corner — she’d shelve it after a chance to read it.

The book’s pages were leathery and thin, dappled with golden illustrations the water had not taken. The pages looked like sea-stained walls, the gold like light shattering on windows. Kimi pictured the people of the city looking out, calling her through. Their stories were hidden behind those windows, and Kimi climbed in, page by page, while all the stories that might have been climbed out, and the gold blazed brighter than the sun.


Language

The Unreadables have been smoothed by the sea to languagelessness, but if discerning of eye, you might detect linguistic differences even in their blankness. Most scholars ignore such nuances — apart from the translators, who wrangle long and hard over the grammar of burn marks. Their own languages pool together, the salt-edged tongues of sea-trade; attempts to standardise the results have led to several contradictory style guides.

You understand the librarians’ language only when they mean you to.


Law

Two of the Captain’s men held Kimi tightly by the arms.

‘This is the third time you have been found mistreating valuable books!’ spat the First Mate, fanning herself with a sheaf of pages. ‘That’s a borrowing ban for you, plus a fine. You’ll do penance unless you’ve got anything to pay with.’

‘Penances you may choose from!’ growled the Second Mate, holding out a list in his sun-dried hands. ‘What’ll it be?’

Kimi didn’t take the scroll. ‘I only looked at the books.’

The Captain, watching from his flotsam throne, cut in impatiently. ‘Just choose a penance.’ The Second Mate waved the paper in her face.

‘Don’t know what that says.’

‘Can’t you read, girl?’

She shook her head.

‘Handling books while illiterate!’ squawked the Second Mate. ‘I think we’ll need to come up with a new penance for that! Swabbing the decks or milking the ink-squid won’t cut it.’

‘I can read ‘em just as well as you,’ Kimi said.

The Captain roared with laughter. ‘Do you think all there is to books is cuts and bruises on paper? Why’d they ever let a child on board? I’ll get you banned, just you wait.’

‘You’re not a librarian.’

‘Ah, but they favour me. I’ve seen their maps; my research helps them plot their course.’

The First Mate nodded. Kimi opened her mouth to say the Captain was lying, there were no maps, but he snapped his fingers. ‘Censor her!’ The Mates tied a rag around her mouth.

‘Put her in with the rest of the censored items,’ the Captain said. ‘But don’t let her look at them.’


Periodicals

Waterlogged no. 2057, vol. II

Review: The Emperor’s New Eyes — A Complete Translation of the Red Kingdom Manuscript

Subtitled, rather optimistically, a complete translation, this is incomplete at best, with wide tracts of conjecture bulking out some genuinely interesting interpretation. The overlong introduction is spent extrapolating the librarians’ notes, which say that the manuscript was taken from a sea-pickled junk with wooden sails, that the bones of the crew were like men’s bones, but with long beaks, claws, and talons. The clawed people, this work argues, would no doubt have some other form of writing than pen and parchment, so the manuscript was probably not written by them — rather, it was correspondence that they were carrying from the place they sailed from. The sender, evidently, lived in that place; what’s more, he was important: some of the stains on the parchment have a waxy look to them, and so must have been seals. Therefore, the work maintains, the receiver might have been an expatriate of the same country, living in a distant land — that of the clawed people. There are certain marks on the crimson parchment, blooms of purple and blue that might once have been inkblots: perhaps the writer couldn’t see very well to write, perhaps he was writing in urgency, perhaps both. And so on. The translator concludes that the writer of the letters was the near-blind Emperor of the Red Kingdom, writing to his cousin. The cousin is declared to be the ruler of one of the Kingdom’s colonies, a fabulous land where eyes grew on trees. The cousin’s greatest duty was to send his Emperor a consignment of eyes every year. The correspondence ended when the Emperor requested an emergency replacement for some eyes that had gone bad, and the ship carrying his letter was sunk — “Perhaps,” laments the translator, “the Emperor had no new eyes that year. What became of the cousin — was he banished forever? Alas, time keeps the end of this tale to itself.”

The research is thorough, but as the reader can no doubt see, the analysis wanders into somewhat tenuous territory. Of the recent theory that the Red Kingdom Manuscript is a largely allegorical work, no mention is made.


[Restricted]

The Captain’s disciples had managed, through some dark sleight of hand, to lock certain books away in a forgotten cupboard. A sign on its door said RESTRICTED SECTION, NO ACCESS WITHOUT PERMISSION, CHILDREN FORBIDDEN; the First Mate read it out for Kimi’s benefit.

Inside, Kimi sat with bound hands and blindfolded eyes among the books that had been deemed too dangerous. She could hear them shift against each other, could hear them topple and thump when the library rocked. Except the library always sailed nimble, never rocked. The restlessness of the Restricted section was coming from the books themselves.

In time she learned to hear their voices. Palm-leaf and papyrus voices, bone and stone tablet voices, hollow pageless voices. She shrank from them and she strained towards them all at once.

In time she chewed through her gag and twisted her hands free. Years of sailing down lightless chasms had trained her to see very well in the dark, and when she pulled up her blindfold she saw them all, crowding and broken. Some of them she recognised; she had looked through them before, in the hold. They had never seemed dangerous, before. They had never spoken, either.

If I speak back, she thought, maybe they’ll pull out my throat to suck on my bloody voice. Everyone knows. That’s why you never speak above a whisper.

‘Hey,’ she said, not loud, but not quiet, to her nearest inmate. ‘What did they get you for?’


Theology

A storm gathers its skirts to dance; a man stands on the forecastle, shouting into the waves. His litany is long, listing the sea’s wrongdoings:

The sea is a hungry reader: it reads with salt and teeth and leaves nothing for the rest of us.

The sea is a criminal borrower: it swallows histories whole and never pays its fines.

He calls for the gods of the sea to show themselves, so that he might revoke their borrowing rights.

The storm only tries to take the library’s sails and spin it, but the library glides straight through its grasp.


Zoology

The library often surfaces with fewer passengers than it had when it descended; sometimes, it surfaces with more. Sea-things scuttle and swish down the aisles. They might take the forms of scholars. They might be caught and dissected by oceanomancers, just in case their innards hold clues to the books.

Two new species have been bred from creatures found lurking among the shelves. One, a pulp-pale serpent with papery skin, the other, a wine-dark squid that produces endless ink. The products of both are harvested carefully; healthy scholarship depends on them.

On a moonless night, if anyone were there to watch, they’d see the animals shimmer in their tanks: teeming, tangling, lonely. A girl slides like a silent ship with beacon eyes into the menagerie, and quietly offers empty inkwells to the squids, coaxes them full. She slides out again, but stumbles a little, leaving a telltale ink-drop trail. In the morning, if anyone follows the trail to the restricted section, they won’t find her there.

Just a pile of empty inkwells, and books full of blue-black words that stampede against the eyes of the would-be reader.




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