The train sways from side to side, gray subway lights washing away all color from the world, and the shuffle on his music player is playing only the songs Jesper hates. He hits the skip button again and again, tries to keep his briefcase pinned between his legs. There is a coffee stain on his shirt, but he did not have enough time to sprint to his bedroom and change before he had to leave to make his train on time. He cannot afford to be late again.
Skip-skip-skip. He should stop allowing his sister into his apartment; she always deletes his good music and replaces it with pop that Jesper despises. He thinks he hears his station being called in between the melodious shrieks of ABBA, so he snatches his bag and stumbles out the door, unwinding his headphones and stuffing his music player in his trench coat's pocket.
Jesper takes five steps before he glances up. The train has already rattled out of the station, and he is not in the correct place. He did not even know that the subway runs through a library, but he is surrounded by books fat books, thin books, classics, crappy beach novels falling apart at the spines, spewing papers onto the gleaming white marble floor. They tower about him, stacks and stacks of them, reaching into the hazy gloom near the ceiling. Far above, he can see a golden glow that makes him think of summer and his mom's peach pies, days on the lake in the rowboat with his sister and reading in the long green grass. Torches flicker around him, casting dancing shadows against the piles Jesper takes a moment to wonder why such a library would risk having flame among so much paper, but then his bag is slipping from his shoulder and he is gliding through the stacks, and nothing else matters for a while.
He ends up in the aisle of science fiction, which had been Jesper's favorite genre throughout high school and college. He still has a collection of Isaac Asimov books under his bed one is even signed, dark blue ink against yellowing paper. He finds himself in front of a skyscraper built out of first, second and third editions of Doon and some cheap novels about werewolves. He does not hear the footsteps; his attention is focused solely on the books.
"Can I help you?" The woman has a lovely voice damp paper, with the scent of tea, blankets whispering against skin while snow falls. Jesper turns about, clutching a copy of Lord of the Rings to his chest.
The lady is as beautiful as her words, in the quiet way of an old book settled comfortably in a place of honor in a bookstore. Inky black hair spilling over lily-white shoulders, dark eyes and dark red lips that sing of sin and apples and blood. Her dress is the beaten yellow of medieval parchment, and when she turns, Jesper can almost see spindly writing, shifting beneath her skin.
She stares at him, large eyes framed with lashes somehow darker than her hair. She does not seem to need to blink. "Hello."
"Um, hi," Jesper manages, winding his arms around the book. He finds himself wishing it was thicker, so he would not look like a complete fool. "I didn't know the train went through the library, and
yeah, I should probably be going
Her smile is as thin as fine calligraphy, curling across her face. "This is not a library." She pronounces the words as if she has only ever seen them scrawled on paper, has never had the opportunity to say them out loud, and wants to make sure she is understood.
and aren't you a librarian?"
She shakes her head. Her hair brushes against her skin like a hand against a cat's fur. "This is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books." She pauses, and her blood red lips quirk upwards at the edges. "Or graveyard, if you are fond of synonyms."
Jesper can feel his mouth hanging open. He manages to work it after a moment. "
The stunning woman sighs, pressing a slender hand that appears almost two dimensional against her forehead. "The Land of Lost Literature, the Place of Past Poets, the Area for Abandoned Authors, or the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Take your pick, although the last one is the official title."
Jesper feels his lips curving, his grin so wide his cheeks hurt. "You came up with the others, right?"
She is trying very hard not to smile. It adds nice crinkles next to her eyes, small lines through perfection. "I have an affection for alliteration," she responds, and somehow her face remains poker serious.
"Now, where am I, for real?" Jesper asks, waving the book around. The woman's lips twitch, and he stops brandishing the novel when he sees the expression on her face. "I'm sorry, it's just
is this a bookstore, if it's not a library?"
She goes back to looking amused the moment Jesper places the book on a rising stalagmite of novels, inching up towards the sky. "No. We are where books go to be remembered."
"Then why the 'forgotten' bit of the title?"
"You cannot be remembered unless you are forgotten about at one point." She turns slightly, looking over her shoulder. Her hair drifts about her as if she has been suspended in a pool. Her eyes are enormous and black, even the warm light of the torches, when she looks back at him. "My name is Sofia." She whispers it like it is a dirty secret, and does not extend a hand to shake. Jesper swallows the bitterness of disappointment.
"I'm Jesper Weary. Not Jester - Jesper. With a P. Like poodle."
She studies him, her mouth a straight, bloody line through the pale moon of her face. "You have had a long history of anger and pain surrounding your name," she tells him seriously, as if he is unaware of his own past. "But it was the name of someone important to you, so you cannot bear to change it."
He does not even bother to question how she knows that. It might just be a Cemetery thing, or maybe she read it in one of the billions of books lying around Jesper has long had this hypothesis that all stories eventually get written down, and all of them are true on some level. His story, if it exists anywhere, will exist here, because where else would he fit besides a place filled with ghosts and memories?
"Kids on the playground aren't forgiving of those who don't fit the cookie cutter mold," he replies, trailing his fingers along a ratty copy of 1984 his mother's favorite book her copy is splattered with tea and the back cover is missing entirely; it is strange to see any edition of it not so well worn and beloved as his mother's. "What are you, if you're not a librarian?" He does not enjoy reminiscing, and Sofia interests him more than she should, considering he just met her and should be going to work.
"I am a caretaker. I make sure the books are loved and adored, so they do not wilt."
"They aren't plants, Sofia. They're paper and glue."
She scowls at him, fine lines shattering the porcelain of her smooth face. "They are like children." Her voice is very soft, sad. "They need to know they are loved, otherwise they fade away." She gestures about her, a grand sweeping of fingers no wider than a chopstick, and it seems the stacks of books almost shine as her gaze falls on them. "I make sure they know how much they are needed." She picks up a paperback with a ruined cover and examines the tattered edges with concern on her face. "You are late for work, Jesper. If you are lucky, you can catch the next train. It will come here shortly."
"Rush hour coming up?" he asks as she leads him back to his abandoned bag. She shakes her head, long hair whispering against her skin.
"Like books, this place is for those who cannot fit in and have no real desire to try to win the affections of people they are not sure they even like. We do not have many who come this way," she says, curls coiling about her pointed face. "I will see you here again, one day."
"How do you know?" Jesper can hear the shrill, cacophonous whistle of the train, rattling down the tracks to the station built of books and held together by words. Sofia shrugs, thin shoulders barely rising.
"You are like me, before I traded flesh and blood for ink and paper," she murmurs, and the train pulls into the station. "You will find your way again," she says as the doors whoosh open. "Look for things you normally do not do, and you will find this graveyard," Jesper is nodding as he walks backwards, almost stumbling as he steps aboard. No one in the cabin looks up from their phones, newspapers, tablets, and he suddenly feels a rush of hatred for their ignorance.
He watches Sofia as the train pulls away, and traces the shape of her name into the dirt of the filthy windows all the way to his stop. Somehow, he is not even on time to his job he is early.
He stumbles into an alleyway on his way home a week later, and walks straight into the biography section of the Cemetery. Sofia is curled up on a throne of heavy hardcovers, chin propped up on her fist as she flips the pages of a book. Her hair drapes itself over the back, blends itself into the darkness weighing in on them, held at bay only by the grace of the flickering flames placed about them. Jesper takes a seat across from her on the chilly floor and picks up a second edition on empress Josephine, opens it to the middle. "Who are you reading about?" His throat is husky from a cough he has been battling for a few days.
"Vincent van Gogh," she mutters, distracted. She glances up at him and smiles briefly. "You found your way again."
He cannot help but grin in return. He is aware it makes his face look goofy, ears too big for his face, and so he tries to not beam too frequently, but he cannot help it here. Safety and security, a sense of solace and serenity the Cemetery puts his mind at ease. He flicks through the pages at random, pausing here and there. "Last time I was here, you said you were paper and ink instead of flesh and blood." He almost winces at the vaguely accusatory note in his words. "Sorry I didn't I'm just curious
Sofia's eyes appear not to have any pupils, but her expression is kind. "We people of the Cemetery do not have those things, no," she agrees, flipping another page.
"Wait people? There are more of you?"
"Not exactly like me, but the Cemetery spans all of time and space, and there are many books that have been forgotten. There are many here in all the corners spread throughout reality, although we are not all humans." Her nose scrunches up, lips pursing. "I think I was human, long ago. Before I came here."
He chews on the inside of his lip. There is a subtle tang of iron on his tongue, and he knows scarlet will be staining his lips. "What do you have, then, instead of the things we humans do?"
She sits up in her throne and settles herself, perching her thick book on her bony knee. Her finger holds her place in the near exact middle. "If you cut me open with a bookmaker's knife, you would not find organs," she begins, brushing strands of dark black hair away from her large eyes and blood red mouth. "I have novels inside of me, and novellas, and a collection of short stories or two, tucked in there in place of kidneys, liver and intestines. My skin is of paper worn soft by centuries and kept clean with utter devotion, my hair and eyes sketched in with paint collected from the dark side of the moon. Instead of a heart, poetry beats within my chest." She smiles again. "We choose the poem we want to keep us going."
"What is yours?"
She does not recite the poem so much as exhale it, transform it from vibrations in the air to twisting patterns of light and shimmering grains of dust that drift about them, hanging on the drafts, wrapping itself around the pillars of books, folding itself up and sliding itself under the towers surrounding them.
"Heart, have no pity on this house of bone:
Shake it with dancing, break it down with joy.
No man holds mortgage on it; it is your own;
To give, to sell at auction, to destroy.
When you are blind to moonlight on the bed,
When you are deaf to gravel on the pane,
Shall quavering caution from this house instead
Cluck forth at summer mischief in the lane?
All that delightful youth forbears to spend
Molestful age inherits, and the ground
Will have us; therefore, while we're young, my friend
The Latin's vulgar, but the advice is sound.
Youth, have no pity; leave no farthing here
For age to invest in compromise and fear."
Jesper's exhale is shaky when the breath he had been holding in finally whooshes out of his lungs. His laugh trembles, and seems almost violent on the air, violating it, destroying the quiet grace of the sonnet still lingering around them. He hates himself for breaking up the spell they were under so easily. "That was gorgeous."
"The poet who wrote it died very young," Sofia murmurs, tucking her chin on her bent knees, fingers tracing the title of her book. "Just after the love of her life died. Her name was Edna St Vincent Millay, but she liked to be called Vincent. I think this poem meant something to me when I was human."
"Isn't that the point of poetry?" Jesper knows it is a dumb question, and hates how his stumbling, ugly words further corrupt the bright beauty the sonnet had brought into the world. But Sofia does not seem to mind.
"I do not remember what the point of poetry is, if I ever knew it in the first place." She sounds curious. "Perhaps it does not need to have an end goal. The best things created do not."
"The universe for one."
"I see you're not religious."
"I am sewn of paper with my face drawn in ink. I devour words and drink prose. I believe I would be considered an abomination in all religions, around the globe." This thought, morbid and morose as it seems, almost seems to cheer Sofia. She seems to like defying God to his face. "I think I like it because I knew someone who died young."
"You don't know?" Jesper cannot help the surprise in his words.
Sofia shakes her head. She looks supremely unconcerned, as if it is no burden, to not have a life. "When I gave up skin and muscle for thread and paper and hair of ink, my story was written down and lost in this Cemetery. If I find it, and read it, I will be free. But as it is, the only place in the world where I exist is here, in this graveyard of books. I am not real I am as fictional as Belle from Beauty and Beast, or Jonas from The Giver. I am uncertain of everything from my past even my name is something I had to create for myself. But all of that exists only here."
"What happens, should you step outside the Cemetery?"
She shrugs, flicking her hair away from her face. The light traces shadows under her eyes, adding soul to her pupiless irises. "I crumble to dust."
Jesper wants to ask why she chose to gave up life for an eternity in the Cemetery, but Sofia-who-really-is-not holds up a hand, thin and long and slender, fingertips stained midnight ebony with ink and a calligraphy smile curling across paper white cheeks.
"My turn for a question, although I can see you have a million more burning within you. You will have more time to interrogate me. Now. Why do you dislike your name so?"
Jesper traces the hard edges of the book with his finger the scarred pointer finger, the one he accidently slashed with a knife while chopping tomatoes a few months back. There is no good way to answer Sofia's question. "My uncle's name was Jasper," he begins, and he is somewhat alarmed by how hoarse his voice is. "My mom idolized her brother. She was going to name me after him, but something went wonky when they were writing my name down. Dad liked the mistake and how it sounded softer, so I was Jesper." He pauses, inhales deeply, exhales in the way smokers always do in movies except he has no dramatic cloud of smoke to accompany it.
he was shipped off in the war, when I was nine." He jerks his hand downwards, and the dust jacket bites into his skin. Sofia watches the beading of blood against his dark skin, fascination in her dark eyes and her lips as red as blood. Jesper presses his thumbs together, smears the blood down his palms. "He abandoned his unit. Everyone but him died." His lips twist a bit. "He's in jail for deserting his team."
"That is not the whole story."
Jesper's laugh is weary and rough, worn at the edges by years of burning rage and buried pain that he does not like to show. "Roll call at school meant I was called out as Weary, Jesper. My first grade teacher mispronounced my name called me Jester. The kids in my class latched onto that. The Weary Jester
" He allows bitterness to sharpen the edges of his face, knowing how angry it makes him look. Sofia's lips are thin. "It suits more than I would like it to."
They sit in silence for a moment, listening to the snap of flames and shifting of smoke in the still air. Jesper thinks he can hear murmuring, but there is no one around but Sofia. Perhaps he is imaging it, or maybe it is the books, whispering their secrets to one another.
"My apologies," Sofia breathes.
"Not your fault. It's no one's fault."
"That does not mean you cannot be bitter over it."
"Oh, believe me I am bitter. Very much so." He chuckles, presses a hand to his forehead. Sofia is studying him with inscrutable dark eyes.
He decides it is his turn to question her. "Why did you decide to come here, have a heart of poetry instead of being
out there?" He gestures about vaguely. Sofia's eyes follow his hands as she turns over her words in her mind.
"I am not entirely sure," she says at last, her voice soft. "I do not have many memories of my time in reality only vague impressions." She licks her bloody lips her tongue appears as course as sandpaper, like a cat's. "I think
there might have been a tragedy. Which would explain my choice in poetry, and why the poem within me is like it is, and why I have the novels inside me that I do."
"What are they?"
She looks pleased, as if Jesper asked an exceptionally clever question. "I have A Girl Named Disaster a story about an orphan girl finding her way in the world. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is a tale about realizing the worth of life and of yourself and the value of art and literature, of course. A book of short stories titled My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me." She frowns minutely. "I wish I understood why I chose that one. But I do not." She is silent for a moment, running her finger along a crease in the book she cradles. "All of those mean something to me. There must have been something in my life that meant I could not bear to be real any longer."
"How long have you been here?" Jesper asks, leaning forward. The edge of the book pokes his stomach, but Jesper pays it no mind.
Sofia looks uncertain. "Forever, or maybe only a week. Time is odd in the Cemetery it forgets which way it needs to run, so it goes all over the place instead."
Before Jesper can think through his words, edit them for content and smooth them out to fit the world, he blurts out, "I wish I could forget my backstory sometimes. Are you sure it's not a gift, not knowing?"
Sofia stares at him, something close to sympathy in her dark eyes. Her lips are parted, and her jaw works minutely. Jesper waits, and waits, and time stretches on through the ending of the universe and the starting of the next.
"You need a book to watch over you at home," Sofia declares finally, setting her hardback on Vincent van Gogh to the side and rising to her feet. He notices that she wears no shoes.
"I have books of my own back at my apartment, Sofia."
She is already examining the shelves, and although Jesper's feet ache from the workday, he gets to his feet and stumbles after her as she moves up one aisle and down another. "Yes," she mutters, attention focused on the rows and rows of books before her, "But you do not have a book from the Cemetery. A book from here is the best friend you could ever ask for."
"And why is that?"
"Because these are the books people learn to live out of, the blueprints for society." She is stacking books into his arms, and he should complain about the weight, but they feel comforting like too much food at Thanksgiving, or a tight hug from Nana. Good weights that do not wear him down. Jesper clutches them tighter as Sofia leads him through the Cemetery, adding book after book to his arms before she pushes him towards a corner of the room.
"There should be a door here," she explains, fishing around in her fragile pocket. She finally triumphantly yanks out a tarnished silver key, so covered with rust and crime and age that it looks nearly bronze.
"I have not found my book, so there are no ways out for me," she says.
"But you have a key."
"I will only be able to use it once I find my story. But it should get you out of here, as you are not a person of the Cemetery. Can you see a doorway?"
They walk for a bit, passing row after row of books. They are in the section of dry economic texts. The heavy surrounding them presses on Jesper's eyelids, and he realizes how exhausted he is. He is fighting the irrestible pull of sleep when he trips on a stack of thick macroeconomics textbooks, and ends up sprawled in front of a door, with EMERGENCY EXIT printed across it in official looking lettering. "Here it is." He pulls himself to his feet using the doorknob as support. Sofia is gathering up his fallen books reverently. She glares at him good naturedly as she passes him the key.
The door clicks open, and he hands the key back in return for his books. Sofia smiles at him, her thin, curling smile, as pretty as fine cursive.
"Will I find my way back here?"
"Of course you will. You belong here, as much as these books and I do. Besides, you will need to return these little friends once you have finished them." She nudges him towards the door, light from through the door playing in the curve of her eyes and around the dip below her thin nose. "Good day, Jesper Weary."
It slams shut in his face before he can respond. He is standing in the hallway of his apartment building, outside the stair access. The lights are flickering, and he is ten steps away from his apartment with an armful of books and the lingering ghost of poetry caressing the darkest corners of his mind.
He looks up Sofia's poem online on his battered, wheezing laptop, still able to taste the serenity of the words and the world they opened up. He does not think he would be able to forget the poem, even if he tried, but Jesper would prefer not to take chances. He scrawls it on his bathroom mirror in awkward cursive he has not used much since his days in elementary school the letters look stiffer than he would like, but the fluidity of the writing suits the poem more than his blocky print would. He rereads the poem every night while brushing his teeth, remembering the way the sentences and couplets plastered themselves to the walls, trying to disguise the ugliness of the world with their beauty.
Jesper thinks about the Cemetery frequently as he goes around his job in a book warehouse, shipping crates and crates of new bestsellers to all the corners of the country, he dwells on caves of novels and crystals of poetry compilations. He feels sorry for the books he carts around they do not have a home, are among strangers instead of fellow books who are constantly told they are loved by a paper girl with a blood red smile and ink black eyes.
There is a link to a poetry website always open on his ancient laptop. He spends hours clicking through the poetry, searching for one that sings to him in the way Sofia's did. He does not allow himself to think that maybe he is searching for a poem to beat in his chest in place of a heart, although he dreams about the Cemetery and never having to leave, to go back to a world filled with rattling trains, sisters who delete his good music, mispronounced names and shame for the person who he was named for.
Jesper visits the library one day, and ends up wandering through the nonfiction section. He takes a right by the economics books and walks straight up to Sofia, who is hovering by the books in the political science section, caressing their covers. She smiles at him.
"I have a poem to tell you," he begins. She straightens and smoothes out the wrinkles in her parchment dress, flicks her ink hair over her shoulder.
He cannot breathe poetry the way Sofia does, give life to it so it wraps around the world. He tells it to her instead haltingly, forehead creased as he tries to remember all the words.
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Sofia beams at him, her eyes alight with the golden glow of a beautiful poem. "That was wonderful," she whispers, and Jesper smiles slightly.
"It's Dylan Thomas."
"I could tell. There is a whole shrine to him, tucked away in here somewhere."
"If I chose that one poem
" he begins, and her smile droops at the edges, fading into the white of her face, "
I would forget its meaning, right? And my name. And everything. My uncle Jasper in jail, my dad dying of a heart attack at forty, the Weary Jester and my bitchy boss who can't understand the value of tea and a cat and a good novel, because to her books are just something you dump into a different place."
Sofia opens her mouth to respond, but Jesper barrels over, desperation in his words. "And I could stay here, right? Among these books, with you."
"Why would you give up something as precious as memories for the Cemetery and me? You do not even know me! Even I do not know me!" Her fists are clenched so hard that her nails are digging into her papery palms. She bleeds ink instead of blood, dripping down to the white marble floor, a puddle of night. "I have no name, no story! I have books for organs and poetry for a soul and I am not even real I am as nothing as the space between stars!"
"But that is not true," Jesper whispers, stepping forward. His hand rises, strokes her cheek. "You're a book all on your own, Sofia."
She is silent as she stares at him, eyes wide. Jesper decides he should keep talking if he stops now, he will never be able to start again, so the words tumble over each other, shoving each other out of the way so he can say them first.
"You're not flesh and blood, but you're ink and paper and there is the story of the cosmos written on your skin. You're a book, the best one to have ever been written. And I might not know your history yet, but I want to. I want to crack you open and learn every word read you again and again until I can trace your story with my eyes closed, until your pages are worn and your ink faded. And I wish pray, hope, dream, desire; since you're so fond of synonyms that you have the same thoughts."
"Of course I do." Sofia's voice breaks, shattering the words in half and driving the shards of them right into Jesper's heart. "But you are real and I am not you can leave and I am here for the rest of eternity. You bleed and my lips are colored with your blood."
"It doesn't have to be like that," Jesper insists, grabbing her fragile hands. The bones, moving under the skin, are as delicate as pencils, and he takes care not to snap them right in half. "I could be made into unreality, just like you become a character in a book the Beast to your Beauty, the Giver to your Jonas. The Ozu to your Reneé."
She does not need to ask if he is serious Jesper knows his sincerity is painted on his face. Sofia smiles instead, as trembling and stunning as a winter sunrise it paints gold and pink on her colorless cheeks. "You have your poem?"
"The Dylan Thomas one."
"Then kiss me, and do not scream as the bookmaker's knife hollows you out and stuffs you with prose and poetry," she warns. Jesper smiles, bends down to kiss her soft, blood red lips.
Everything that is Jesper is cut out, replaced with novels and novellas and short stories Isaac Asimov and 1984, Salman Rushdie and And the Sheep Look Up. The Weary Jester is scraped away and set aside for later, Jasper the uncle in jail tossed out in the trash. The lingering aches over his father's early death and the gray grave under a stormy sky are carefully stitched into the folds of his spine. Ink sketches in his features, drawls in coils of hair winding around slender shoulders. His shirt and trousers are made of parchment that whispers against his paper skin when he moves.
The person of the library looks up, pushing ink black hair away from his colorless face, and he stares at the lady in front of him.
The lady is beautiful, in the quiet way of an old book settled comfortably in a place of honor in a bookstore. Inky black hair spilling over lily-white shoulders, dark eyes and dark red lips that sing of sin and apples and blood. Her dress is the beaten yellow of medieval parchment, and when she turns, he can almost see spindly writing, shifting beneath her skin. He looks down at his own thin hands, and there are words there are well, dancing in the corners of his eyes.
"Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books," she says, and smiles. "My name is Sofia."
"Do I have a name?" He is curious are names something only for the veterans?
Sofia's smile is fond and affection. "Jesper. You are Jesper."
She reaches down and grabs his hand, and Jesper lets Sofia lead him into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in between lost literature and past poets and abandoned authors, his own poem beating strong in his paper chest, and Jesper knows this is where he is suppose to be.