Sketch: Lost

They promised to initiate her into the mysteries of cataloging—of assigning subject headings, correcting series tracings, even editing name authority records—after she served her novitiate in circulation and the stacks. The lure of discipline drew her on as much as the love of books; perhaps, once she understood the rubrics, she could employ them at home and arrange her own collection into solemn order. As above, so below.

But the old desire proved too strong—the hunger, not for knowledge, but for rhetoric. Words entrance her: the workaday prose of school texts as much as the skylark flights of lyric or the measured music of story. Every subject has its proper colors, its Tullian delights. She thought herself a connoisseur until she began to browse the books she shelved. Central Library's First Branch was a revelation of language that humbled her spirit as it exalted her mind. The formal phrases of law preserve terms from tongues centuries dead, verbal insects in amber; the cryptic sentences of alchemy treatises wind back on themselves like ants threading a spiral shell. Dizzied, she turned to military and police reports, blunt and precise yet dense with jargon. Dictionaries offered no help—she suspected an oral tradition, the subtlest ward of a closed community. Daily she knelt in the niche between a concrete pillar and the little-visited case marked 741.58-757.32, conning pages, hoping for further enlightenment to emerge from abundance. Caught there once too often, she was dismissed—without penalty (for they did not know how many secrets she had absorbed along with the words she loved) but with a kindly warning: The librarian who reads is lost.

Now she sits at home, surrounded by the dullest of texts: telephone logs, shipping lists, movement orders, duty rosters. Deception is easy to hide when information is scattered and words are measured out with strict economy, proliferating only by repetition. If this is art, so is painting the lane markings onto streets. She almost despairs of finding the pattern, except that she knows one exists. He saw it—he must have done, before he dismissed her without even a word of warning.

Unless his death was itself the warning.

She ignores it as she ignored the other. Her anonymity protects her, or so she thinks. Knowledge is power only for the powerful and she is no one: ex-library clerk, ex-civilian contract employee (grade E). Who will notice that the bookworm has turned until she succeeds in her task? She is forging a weapon for other hands to use—no, preparing a speech for a trained advocate to deliver. With words of fire and thunder he will identify the murderer, picking him out of the crowd with an unerring finger, stripping away every specious defense until the dog cowers naked beneath the eye of Truth.

Except that Truth eludes her. She has no talent for analysis; the conclusions she draws read like tabloid headlines (ALIENS INFILTRATE FÜHRER'S STAFF!) not epideixis. She glares at the reports she has reconstructed until the words blur together. No epiphany visits her: the Muses are silent. She drops her head to the desk with a wail that ends in a sob. She cannot fill this role any more than she can wear his spectacles and see as clearly as he did. But nobody else seems able or willing to try—not his wife nor any of his colleagues nor yet his soi-disant best friend. She pushes herself back upright and wipes her glasses on her shirt; then she selects three documents at random and lays them side by side, scanning for keywords. For the pattern. For a clue to lead her through the labyrinth.

She reads and reads and reads and is lost.