Travelers in the Levant

by

Robin Wyatt Dunn

(Originally appeared in Perihelion, Summer 2013.)


The boy looks at me.  He is terrified out of his mind.

“Boy, do you have any manuscripts here, something I might read?”

“What, sieur?  You desire . . . reading?”

I could cry to look at this boy:  a librarian’s dream.  Where would libraries be without boys to stock them?  To float this decaying mass of codices and albatrosses down the millennia to oblivion?

“Yes, boy.  Bring me something handwritten.  In our tongue.  Something less than a century old.”

As is custom I leave a crust of bread on the counter which he obligingly slips into his pocket, though he does not look ill-fed.

I could raze the place, I know.  But what invaders burn libraries?  Has Italia been punished enough yet for Caesar’s unforgettable crime at Alexandria?  Their seed was responsible, after all.  Readers do not forget. 

The musty smell here is ancient and welcome and I rest in the chair, my man outside the huge gate awaiting my signal but leaving me this hour’s privacy, a privilege accorded us who serve our nation:  time for reading, even during war.

The boy returns, a leather satchel in one hand.  His eyes are liquid, filled with wonder and a boy’s lust for weapons:  he keeps stealing glances at my sidearm. 

“Would you like to see it, boy?”

He nods, eyes wide.

I press my thumbprint against its side to render it harmless and hand it to the boy.

He holds it in his hands, close to his face, looking at the shimmer of metal and fine processor-mesh. 

“This one is over three hundred years old, boy.  Made to last.”

“It’s beautiful,” he says.

“Will you be a librarian, or soldier, when you are a man?”

“A librarian, sieur.”  And then he points the weapon at me, his eyes filled with mischief, and I laugh.  I laugh for the first time in months.

“What have you brought me, boy?” I ask, taking back my sidearm.

“A travelogue, sir, assumed to have been written by a monk.  It describes a pilgrimage into the southern Levant.”

“A Canaanite?”

“I think so, sieur.  But I have only read the summary.  If it is not acceptable, I can . . .”

“It’s fine, boy.  Leave me now.”

He bows, and backs away.  A boy no more than nine and tougher than some of my recruits. 

I settle into the chair and begin to read.

 

- -

 

November.  Day 193.

 

I am alone now.  My companions murthered.  I have found shelter under the eaves of this old temple;  what god it served I do not know.  This world of ours is too painful for me, but I will not die, not yet.  I would see Wells, and its cedars, the cedars of the Levant, if they still grow.

I saw the wreck of the ship that was spoken of at home, the vaunted interstellar craft that so many claimed was our deliverance ― from what was never really specified.  Its hull suggests fire from our own satellites, unable to recognize their own after a century of viruses in their brain. 

Ever more I despise the politesse of the English who rule this region:  their incessant pomposity is undying, I swear it.  Even their name is anathema to me.  For the Angles were all dead.  All dead.  The Saxons and Jutes named that island for their victims:  who does such a thing?  Their blood is in me, true, but I know what they have forgotten:  civilization was never a murmur but a roar.  There is no proper time or place for it;  it is older than suns.  It beats like my heart, hungry for oxygen, waiting for murders.

I serve my gods, and they are not violent ones, or so it is written, and so I do not take up arms as my brother did.  This, my record of my pilgrimage into forsaken country is meant I suppose as a codicil in our Tractatus:  even peacemakers may kill.  War is not holy but it is necessary.  If I return, I suspect I will have my order become once more a mendicant one.  Who better to penetrate the gates of foreign cities?

Cedar, cedar.  I long for its smell.  These small things I still love, even when life has grown bitter for me, and my order.

 

- -

 

“Boy!  Boy, come here!”

“Yes, sieur?”

“Where did you find this?”

“I will show you, sir, if you wish.”

I follow the boy from the reading room into the library.

Plutarch tells us it was only an accident:  Caesar burned the ships too close to the harbor’s edge and so three centuries or more were lost, Alexandria lost, only ten thousand memories, only the hearts of men rendered vain, their hopes ash.  To survive.  To survive is wisdom, but more than that, it is its own perpetual logic, these vestiges of matter from which to puzzle out our goals and dreams.  Wise or not, we are bonded to our strange life . . .

I see the half mile of written and printed volumes and I want to weep but then I hear the thunder of guns, the thunder of guns is shaking this old roof and I grab the boy and run for the gate, shouting into my wrist for my sergeant-at-arms.

“Leave me, sieur!  Do not make me abandon the library!”

He squirms in my arms but he is only a boy.

“Come on, boy.  It’s the soldier’s life for you after all.”  I carry the monk’s record in its satchel, over my shoulder.

Caesar was burning his own ships when Alexandria caught fire.  He aimed to disrupt both his own and his enemy’s communications.  As we have been burning our ships half this last millennium ― all those that return, as the monk’s record attests. 

I glom to my platoon and we are airborne, suited in moments.  Our software upgrade makes good work of a makeshift flying suit for the boy:  it accretes in only twenty seconds.  The young are easy to integrate;  ever the tale of war.  The platoon is happy to feel his mind in our midst. 

SOUTH is our order and we obey, targeting four ballistic craft just off the coast as we return to Martu.  I shield the boy from the supersonic blast of Martu’s response to our target markings:  the mortar-ships are ash in moments, and I feel the boy trembling as we land.

“You are an Ammorite now, boy,” I tell him, and laughing, my men and I take him into our city.

 

- -

 

As is our custom we maintain open fires in our settlements:  my woman has prepared ours in our atrium.  I do love eating under the stars.  We have no children.

“Eat, boy,” I say, giving him some of the meat.  “You are an Ammorite now and will need an Ammorite name.”

“Call him Lugal,” my woman says, smiling.

“He doesn’t look kingly to me,” I say.  “Would you be a king, boy?”

“No, sieur,” he says.  “I would be a scholar.”

My woman eats, watching the boy.

            “Utu, then, for wisdom, boy.  Would you be called Utu?”

“Yes,” he says.

 

- -

 

What else can I tell you?  The war was over soon and we started another.  Our Earth has grown small but the priests say this is right.  I read the work of the monk and know him for a wiser man than I, and a stupider.  He knew the lies and tried to change them, fighting his own private battles.  But the ways of men are joined now, even in the Levant, something the monk could not have imagined.  Or perhaps he could have ― perhaps his pilgrimage dates from the years immediately preceding our mental technologies, I do not know.  Perhaps he was afraid to write of them.

The stars are mostly the same, though.  Part of me knows we could change them if we wish but we still follow the old ways, preferring illusion only in moments of privacy.  The sky is real, after all, and we know what lies above, even if it is wrong to go there again.

I believe we will start another library.  Alexandria had the right idea:  they grabbed everything they could get their hands on and took it, promising to return copies.

At night my wife watches the boy transcribe with our ink:  he has a steady hand.  His eyes are so wide.  Did I have eyes like that, at his age?

* *

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