The key is to remember each gallery exactly …
Two hours ago, Markel had no intention of stuffing a librarian in an empty closet. That the library contained empty closets at all seemed odd to them. Still, they weren’t about to question the floor plan of what Professor Burlish described as an endless and expanding labyrinth. Then there was this: the two crisp stacks of hundreds pressed in their hoodie pocket. Twenty-thousand dollars in total.
Unsettled by the brutal act of knocking out a librarian with a sizable Aramaic tome, they leaned against the door and tried to calm their pounding heart. It had to be done. In no subtle terms, the old librarian had threatened to drag them back to the lobby to be dealt with by Reception.
Because Markel did not possess a library card.
Markel breathed four seconds in, four seconds out. Again and again. Each breath chipped away at the rising panic that threatened to wash over them, but even after they pushed away from the door, their chest remained tight.
“You can do this, Markel,” Professor Burlish had said. “The key is to remember each gallery you pass through. Exactly.”
That was why she had chosen them. Markel Rose’s memory drank in the world and cataloged each exacting detail with unfailing accuracy. Summoning a memory, however, required a strange rush they had never been able to describe. Their eyelids would flutter while they raced through a blur of images, sounds, scents, textures, emotions. All of it would converge into a precise, single memory as clear as the present moment. And then, snap! Markel would return to the now, shuddering and breathless with a thousand sparkling details bursting behind their eyelids.
They did not enjoy it.
The hallways between galleries unnerved them because none contained differences. Each had an empty closet just big enough to stash an unconscious librarian. Across from that was the same painting: a man overlooking the sea with a cane in hand. Markel could not surmise why the Order of Librarians chose this specific painting, but it appeared without fail in each hallway.
Aside from the door, a soaring spiral staircase interrupted the already narrow passage, extending to countless floors in either direction. Markel had to edge past it cautiously, not wanting to glimpse the unsettling, stomach-churning heights.
Burlish instructed them to find floor eighty-two, which had required more moxie than Markel thought they could manage. They clung to the railing, white-knuckled and shaking the entire way up. On more than one occasion, their knees threatened to buckle, and they considered giving up altogether. But the cash was a constant weight in their pocket.
Twenty-thousand dollars. They did not know what they would do with the cash. Not really. When Burlish placed the two unimpressive stacks before them, they almost laughed. Twenty-thousand dollars did not look like much.
“Why are you giving this to me now and not after?” they asked, staring at the bills as if the money would disappear if they dared to blink.
Burlish steepled her fingers beneath her chin and said, “Because I am confident you will return. But I know you, Markel. You need a reminder.”
What she truly meant was that Markel needed a reason to be brave, or their mind would spin into infinite possibilities of failure.
Except for the books, the next gallery was the same as the last. It was circular in shape, with shelves that covered the walls aside from the doors leading into the identical hallways. Markel memorized the spines in the dim lamplight, ensuring they would not forget the way they came.
They went on like this, passing from gallery to gallery for long stretches of time. It was difficult to gauge. Their watch did not work in the library. Instead, the hands twitched over the six and nine. Burlish had not mentioned this improbable aspect of the library, but what did it matter? Everything about the Library of Infinities was improbable.
Markel paused in a gallery filled with titleless black notebooks, each spine no thicker than a nickel. The rows made them dizzy to look at, but they were certain—this was the room Burlish described.
“One-hundred-four-thousand volumes,” Burlish had said. “The librarians would have shelved them all chronologically, in the order they were written. I need the last one.”
Markel’s brow knitted. “Why the last one?”
“Because I was not able to complete it.”
Their eyes roamed the shelves. The other galleries began to the left of the hallway and ended on the right. Some were alphabetical by author, some were organized by subject, others by volume numbers or years. If Burlish had been right, the last volume would be by their right foot.
Before they bent to slip the thin black notebook from the shelf, they turned their head to listen for footsteps or whispers. None came.
Hands shaking, they at last crouched and, with one thumb, tilted the book out from among the rest. They held their breath, though they weren’t sure why, as they stood with the notebook in hand. Turning so they could see both hallways, they slipped the little black notebook inside their hoodie pocket.
Burlish had assured them there was no reason to open it or read any other volumes in the gallery. She said it was a private matter that Markel should not involve themselves in. But Markel was already involved, weren’t they? They were standing in the library with two wads of hundreds and a stolen notebook pressed into their hoodie pocket.
What harm would it do to open the first volume and skim over the first page?
They stood on their toes to reach the top shelf and, after some fumbling, pulled the notebook down. The thin, black cover was less crisp than the one they stole. The corners were softer and the paper inside warped. When they flipped it open, the paper crinkled beneath their touch.
The title and author were written neatly on the page:
The Complete Mechanisms and Architecture of the Library of Infinities
By Margaret Burlish, Registered Librarian and Archivist of the Order
Beneath this was an addendum informing the reader that Burlish had been banned from the Order five years prior.
They had intended to read no further, but the first spark of curiosity grew into a flame. They read the next page, and in no time at all, they found themselves at the end of a long forward. Each sentence scrawled itself across Markel’s adamantine memory, making their head spin.
“This can’t be possible,” they muttered to themselves as they returned the first and took the second.
The Library of Infinities had many qualities. It was folded in-between the infinite moments of the everyday and now, a place where neither hunger nor thirst could reach Markel. Sleep was sometimes required after long periods of reading, so they would curl up in one of the empty closets—which entombed them in warmth and darkness—before emerging to read more.
They did not know or care how long it took them to read all one-hundred-four-thousand volumes. When they returned to campus, only a night had passed. It might as well have been lifetimes. They no longer felt like the same person who entered the endless galleries. The library’s architectonics filled every corner of their mind with all its impossible and complex facets.
Unnoticed, the gears in Markel’s watch hissed back into their industrial tracking of time as they blinked against the bright sting of morning sun and stumbled toward Burlish’s office. The cash still weighted their hoodie pocket, but it felt like a distant, foreign object rather than currency.
When they slid Burlish’s notebook across the desk, the professor leaned back in her chair and studied them.
“Your hair has grown,” she said. “You read them all, didn’t you?”
Markel gave a tired nod and gestured to the notebook.
Lips pursed tight, she smoothed the notebook open. When her eyes fell on the open spread, her hands stilled, and her shoulders became rigid. “Markel …”
Markel stared at the inked letters and diagrams through hooded eyes. Their handwriting was tidier and thinner than the professor’s. They licked their dry lips and summoned their voice, which they had not used since reading the first volume.
“The end was apparent.”
Burlish turned a few pages. “Was it?”
“Yes, but you were wrong about one thing.”
“The library is not infinite. It is measureless.”
The professor’s brow rose, but she indicated they should go on with the flick of her wrist.
“The Library of Infinities holds every book ever created, but we are not infinite. Therefore, the number of books is not infinite. The possibilities, the number of books that could exist, however, is measureless.”
Agitated, Burlish tapped her desk, but then, she conceded. “Yes, Markel. You may be right. Did the librarians see you leave?”
They shook their head.
The professor held back a smile, the corners of her lips quirking. “You read every volume?”
This time, the question sank in. Markel blinked. “It wasn’t just the last volume you were after.” They rubbed their eyes as if they could erase the countless pages their mind had cataloged in the dim gallery light. “You wanted the entire collection.”
~ after Borges