Scholar's Apology, redux

I sit in what was long ago the library of this old, old place. Now it is merely a storeroom, where commodities on their way here or there are permitted to rest for a while until they must continue their journey. Although the room is drafty, its little fireplace still works, and I commandeered the long table beneath the window, so that I could look out over the lake, as I bound up the archives for the courier to take away.

This task I finished late yesterday afternoon, just as the first soft flakes of snow began to drift down into the dusk. The lake was like a glass, reflecting the tawny rocks tumbled on its opposite shore, and a sky the color of parchment. Before tying up the final bundle, I stopped, sinking into that same utter stillness, my sad labor all but complete.

The fever of excitement that seized me the moment I discovered the archives at last granted me release, and for many long moments I merely stood before the window, possessed of such equanimity as I had never known in my life.


Changes are on the way for our little community: where once we did our work with no interference from outside, we are now under scrutiny by the Conference — and not only because of my misadventure with the Council, the abbas has assured me.

It seems that the Conference itself is undergoing some kind of painful self-evaluation, imposed from above, requiring it to justify some of its cherished projects, and, according to rumor, its *cost* vis-à-vis the service the Conference claims to provide to the institutions that support it.

Thankfully, I know nothing more than this — once again, our abbas has shielded us from entanglement in troubling matters about which we can do nothing but fret, a shelter for which I am deeply grateful at this distressing time. Were he to confide in me (which I doubt he will, and hope he will not), I might better understand the feeling of dread that runs through the life in this House just now, though I suspect it would not be eased but rather intensified by such knowledge.


As I think about it, I wonder at being chosen, [by whatever agency,] to revive these old Writings of creatures we will never know in any other way. So far, their revenance has failed to be a boon either to their memory or to us, certainly not to me. But the story is not yet over, I feel, and may have only begun.

This thought brings on another. Like the stories they recount of lives long passed away, this gathering of texts itself has a story, in which I have played a part, though that part is soon to come to its inevitable end. And of course each Writing in the archives has its story. And so on. No end of stories and their stories.


It might be helpful to give some account of myself, since I have become a character in the tale of the archives. I believe I can do so briefly, without too much trying your patience, dear myReader — to use the old form of addresswhoever you may be.

I know nothing of my origins; no doubt there is a record of my donation to the community I have served my life long, but I have never gone looking for such a record, and in any case am incurious about its contents. My earliest memory is of carrying documents from one place to another in this very room, at the whim of our eccentric librarian. When I served him he was old and very forgetful, and would often make me relocate the same document more than once in order to "help it find its proper place," as he expressed it. If there was a method to his arranging what was then an extensive collection, I could not perceive it, and if I grew impatient or dared to question him about it, he would answer me with a savage thrashing.

I also remember toiling at what was called copying off long passages of exemplary documents — is that not an odd locution: "copying off"? So dismissive, as if it were a mere exercise in dexterity — which, now I think upon it, it must have been, for we were required to work at speed, and our mistakes and inaccuracies were punished, but I hardly think the artifacts of our labors were retained....

This took place in the old scriptorium, once the room adjacent to this one, where now the heart of all our logistical systems hums and throbs; that room communicates (again the archaic idiom!) with the refectory and the entry hall. Now, of course, no scriptorium is needed for the creation and copying of documents: it has been banished from our lives along with the exasperating chore of teaching clumsy youngsters how to do so by hand.

But it was in the scriptorium that I learned to read closely, to penetrate the mere declarations in a Writing to the mind that formed them; to nose out every nuance, find the balance of each sentence (as with a weapon), to feel its music; in short, to hear the author's voice in the words — to *ken his text*, as my old teacher would have said.

I am being shadowed by a ghost of our elder language, who insists on interposing between my task and me, like the cat who haunted the scriptorium when I was a boy, and who was ever noodging in beneath my elbow to get a scritch between her ears, or else sprawling lasciviously across my desk when I was struggling to concentrate.


In time, I found a place in the society of this House: teaching was a great joy, and I was ever delighted when my young scholars responded with enthusiasm to my elucidation of the ancient writings. As a student myself I had been rather lazy and glib, but when I studied these texts anew in order to prepare my lectures, it fired a deep fervor in me that I could not help but convey to them.

At the same time, a similar scholarly zeal had erupted in the wider world, from which we had been for the most part sheltered, both by our remote location and by our Superius Frater, who strongly believed that such roil threatened the peace of our community, and who enjoyed to keep a secret more than most, if the truth be told. Many of my younger fellows chafed under his restrictions, and not a few left to improve their lot at the Temple School in the City, where, according to what news reached us in our sleepy little corner, great discoveries were being made.

I was neither so young nor so restless; my own province of study had by that time become fairly established with me, and all the resources I needed in order to pursue that study were close at hand — in short, I was complacent and averse to disrupting my comfortable life.

I had made a few small contributions to the "New Learning", in the form of brief essays that described my personal experience in teaching the next generation of scholars. But until that point I had published nothing that could be said to break new ground in the field of my research, and in truth at the time I felt no burning ambition to emulate my theoristic colleagues. I read others' writings — in haphazard and indiscriminate fashion — but never found myself compelled to add to or to argue with their work: indeed, the main reason I read theory of any kind was to stimulate my own thinking, which to me was sufficient good in itself.

That is, I did not read critically in the usual sense of the word — to validate or refute another's argument — but instead to appropriate images and analogies that stoked my imagination, irrespective of their merit or usefulness for what the world would regard as established and reputable scholarship.


And then the archives came into my possession. At the beginning of my presentation to the Convention I gave a rather coy account of how that came to pass, in the hope of stimulating interest in my topic, much as I would do with my young pupils at the beginning of a lesson. I had anticipated that questions

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As I am merely passing the time until the courier arrives, and have no intention to preserve this jotting, I do not think I will be violating the terms of my Censure by writing down here the actual

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For some time I had felt a presence watching me, standing outside in the dark, gazing through the curtain of falling snow into the golden room where I examined each fragmentary remnant of my work on the archives: drafts, lists, diagrams, maps, all of them defaced with the woundings of second thought — corrections, insertions, strikethroughs, boxings, arrows, and other miscellaneous scribbles.

Just as I gathered up the last of these scraps, with the intention of pitching them wholesale into the fire, someone stamped heavily on the platform beyond the outer door. At first I thought it must be the courier, but then was sure this could not be, since the roads were closed and the snow was still coming down like the lowering of a great shroud. I peered through the glass and saw a figure standing with his back to me, looking towards the lake. When he felt my eyes upon him, he turned and pulled back his snow-covered hood, smiling in the light from the window. It was the same sturdy fellow who traveled with me for a short while during my sad return from the Convention.

I immediately unbolted the door to let him in. "Well met, my good friend!" he boomed. "I am most grateful to find you still at work on this brutal night. No, no — please don't fuss. I shall be well just to stand by your fire a few moments, to warm my old bones."

He assented to my bringing him bark tea from the refectory, which took but a few moments, as I had just prepared some for myself. When I returned, I found him perusing my cast-offs with interest, though he stood back so as not to wet them with melting snow from his hair and beard.

He took the mug from me with both hands. Our eyes briefly met; his expression seemed full of grief, and he quickly looked down into the steaming brew and bent to take a sip, then turned back to the table. "Last decisions, is it?" he asked, gesturing at the scattered pile of scraps. "What to send, what to keep?"

"What to burn," I said, surprising myself with the harshness of my tone.

Again he fixed sad eyes upon me for a moment, but then he laughed. "Show me," he said, backing away to make room before the table.

In moments I was deeply engaged in explaining each snippet and shred, picking one up, then another and another, adjusting their sequence and pattern of arrangement, even scrawling more markings on the nearly illegible palimpsest of past work. His concentration was complete; he took each artifact from me carefully, as if weighing it, turning it this way and that to follow the meandering text, then nodding when he had discerned what he sought from each object.

At last I came to myself. "I ask your pardon," I said, my face hot, "you cannot possibly be interested in —"

With a sharp look he silenced me. "You cannot know *how* interested," he said, with bite in his voice. Then, more gently, "I thank you for breaking your mind to me concerning your work. What you have given to the world is priceless, even if, as yet, the only persons who perceive its true worth be in this room, and nowhere else in the five kingdoms."


By then it was very late. The storm continued unabated, and my companion dozed off on the bench by the fire.

The next thing I knew, I raised my head to find myself sitting at the long table, just in time to see the first light of dawn touching the rocks on the lake's far shore. My neck was very stiff.

My friend had disappeared, leaving no tracks upon the loading platform or the path. The scraps I'd planned to burn were gone.