The Circular Library of Stones

By Carol Emshwiller

They said all this wasn't true. That there had been no city on this site since even before the time of the Indians . . . that there had been no bridge across the (now dried up) river and no barriers against the mud. "If you have been searching for a library here," they said, "or for old coins, you've been wasting your time."

For lack of space I had put some of the small, white stones in plant baskets and hung them from the ceiling by the window. I don't argue with people about what nonexistent city could have existed at this site. I just collect the stones. (Two have Xs scratched on them, only one of which I scratched myself.) And I continue digging. The earth, though full of stones of all sizes, is soft and easy to deal with. Often it is damp and fragrant. And I disturb very little in the way of trees or plants of any real size here. Also most of the stones, even the larger ones, are of a size that I can manage fairly well by myself. Besides, mainly it's the stones that I want to reveal. I don't want to move them from place to place except some of the most important small ones, which I take home with me after a day's digging. Often I have found battered aluminum pots and pans around the site. Once I found an old boot and once, a pair of broken glasses; but these, of course, are of no significance whatsoever, being clearly of the present.

Gaining access to their books! If I could find the library and learn to read their writing! If I could find, there, stories beyond my wildest dreams. A love story, for instance, where the love is of a totally different kind . . . a kind of ardor we have never even thought of, more long-lasting than our simple attachments, more world-shaking than our simple sexualities. Or a literature that is two things at once, which we can only do in drawings, where a body might be, at one and the same time, a face in which the breasts also equal eyes, or two naked ladies sitting side by side, arms raised, that also forms a skull, their black hair the eye sockets.

For quite some time now I have had sore legs, so digging is an exercise I can do better than any other, and though at night my back pains me, the pains usually go away quite soon. By morning I hardly feel them. So the digging, in itself, pleases me. There is the pleasure of work. A day well spent. Go home tired and silent. But mostly, of course, it is the slow revelation of the stones that I care about. Sometimes they cluster in groups so that I think that here must have been where a fireplace was, or perhaps a throne. Sometimes they form a long row that I think might have been a wall or a bench. And I have found a mirror. Two feet underground, and so scratched that one can see oneself only in little fish-shaped flashes -- a bit of an eye, a bit of lip -- but for even that much of it to have been preserved all this time is a miracle. I feel certain that if they had a library, it's logical they would also have had mirrors. Or if they had mirrors, it certainly follows they could have had a library.

I keep the mirror with me in my breast pocket. (I wear a man's old fishing vest.) When people ask me what I'm doing out here, I show the mirror to them along with a few smooth stones.

At night I write. I shut my eyes and let my left hand move as it wishes. Usually it makes only scratchings, but at other times words come out. Once I wrote several pages of nothing but no, no, no, no, no, and after that, on, on, on, and on, but more and more often there are longer words now, and more and more often they are making some kind of sense. Yesterday, for instance, I found myself writing: Let us do let us do and do and let us not be but do and you do too. And then, and for the first time, a whole phrase came out clear and simple: Cool all that summer and at night returned to the library.

Certainly I would suppose the library, being built of stone, to be always cool in summer, always warm in winter. The phrase is surely, then, true and of the time. It is interesting that the library itself is referred to in this, the first real phrase I've written so far. That is significant. What I have been hoping to do is to reproduce some of the writings from the library, or reasonable facsimiles. Perhaps this is the beginning of one of their books.

The circle is sacred to all peoples except for us. We are the only ones that don't care if a thing is square or a circle or oblong or triangular. The shape has no meaning to us. A circle could be oval for all we care. I'm thinking about this because I think I have come across a giant circle. About a foot down I found what looked like a path of stones, and I dug along it all day thinking I was going in a straight line: but when I turned around to look back on what I had accomplished, I saw that, although I had dug only a few yards, clearly I was curving. Though I had thought to finish for the day, I turned and vigorously revealed another yard of the stones, yet knowing full well it would be perhaps a month before I could uncover a really significant portion of the circle. I was thinking that probably here, at last, was where the very walls of the library had been and that, if true, this would be a great revelation of stones (even though done by an old woman . . . a useless old woman, so everyone thinks). I felt happy . . . happy and tired after that and, though I came home very late and my back hurt even more than usual, I sat down, dirty as I was, at my little table. I shut my eyes and let my left hand write: Let us oh let us do and do and dance and do the dance of the library in the cool in the sanctuary of the library.

It rained that night and all the next day, and I knew it had filled up all my pits and paths with mud. I would have to do much of my digging over again, and yet I wasn't unhappy about it. Such things come in every life. It's to be expected. (And doing is digging. Digging is doing. Do, not be. That's my philosophy and it seems to be theirs, too.) And my latest discovery was momentous, to say the least. Who would have thought it: a great, white, stone, circular library to be danced in!

Mostly on rainy days like these I do as the other old women do. I knit or make pot holders. I make soup and muffins. While I was there doing old-woman things and looking out the window, I thought, How nice if I found even only another stone with, perhaps, an O on it. People who search as I do must be happy with small and seemingly insignificant discoveries. People who search as I do must understand, also, that the lack of something is never insignificant, so even if there were nothing to be found, I was never disappointed, because that, too, was significant -- as, for instance, a library and only one stone with an X on it. Besides, the less discovered, the more open the possibilities. I always console myself with that thought.

That night I let my left hand write. It took a long time to get from scratches to Xs; to no, no, no; but finally it wrote: Let us then stone on stone on stone a library that befits a library each door face the sun one at dawn and one at dusk. Many queens saw it. (Perhaps they were all queens in those days. Or perhaps when they reached my age they became queens. I would like to think so.)

This was on my mind when I went to sleep and I dreamed a row of dancing women, all of them my age and all wearing crowns of smooth white pebbles. They were calling to me to wake up . . . to wake up, that is, into my dream, and I did, and I was still in my boots, and fishing vest, and my old gray pants. I didn't, in other words, dream myself to be one of them, as some sort of queen or other. I was my dirt-stained self, holding out my grimy hands. And it seemed that they gave me my mirror -- the one I had already found -- and even in my dream it wasn't shiny and new but just as scratched as when I found it. They showed me that I must place the mirror exactly where I found it in the first place so that I could find it as I did find it -- near the former riverbed and on a slight rise. This I did in my dream as the old women beat stones together with a loud clack, clack. And of course it's true; that's where I did find the mirror. It all fits together perfectly!

(All those old women lacked grace, but perhaps it's not required.)

My daughters . . . I suppose they tell me the truth about myself, though no need to. Why do they do it? Why feel free to say such things? Do I talk too much? Do I go on and on about it or about anything? Why, I've almost stopped talking altogether, wanting, now, other kinds of meanings. My argument in one Xed stone or a particularly smooth one or several in a row. I let them speak their ambiguities for themselves.

I showed my daughters my moonstone. I wanted to convince them. I said it came from the library.

"What library?"

"You know. Out by the dried-up stream."

"You've always had that moonstone. Grandma gave it to you."

"Well," I said, "I found it lying in the mud there." (I knew I was just making everything worse.)

"You must have dropped it yourself. What were you doing wearing that out there, anyway? You ought to be more careful."

I suppose I should have been. I know it will be theirs someday.

Later they told me about a place (I've seen it) where there's a doctor's office in the basement and art rooms, pot-holder rooms, television rooms, railing along all the halls. Everybody has a cane. I've seen that. I told my daughters, "no."

Just as crossroads, fire, seashells, oak trees, and circles have special meanings, stones have meanings, too. Some, upright and lumpy on the hillsides, are named after women. All the best houses are of stone, therefore the library also. Molloy sucked them (I have too, sometimes), found them refreshing. Stone doors into the mountain balance on a single point and open at the slightest caress. The sound stone makes as door is not unlike the rustling pebbles on beaches. It is fitting that stones should be open to question, as my stones are. I liked letting them speak their ambiguities. When I was not out at my dig, I remembered stones. I dreamed them, I imagined I heard their clack, clack.

I told my daughters that if I should be found awkwardly banging stones together on some moonlit night, it would be neither out of senility nor sentimentality, but a scientific test.

But then I found a stone of a different kind and color: reddish and lumpy. Essentially nine lumps: two in front, two in back, plus one head, two arms, and two leg posts. I recognized it instantly. Fecund and wise. Big breasted and a scholar. Fat and elegant. I wanted to bring this librarian to her true place in the scheme of things. Restore her to her glory. Clearly, she not only had babies and nursed them, but she read all the books.

After this find, I dug in a frenzy. I knew I should be more careful of myself at my age: follow some rules of rest and recreation, but I believe in do, not be. Do! Though why should I so desperately want more . . . more, that is, than the mother of the library? (My daughters will call her a lumpy, pink stone.) Am I never satisfied?

Never! (My left hand has written: Stone on stone on stone on stone on stone, almost as though I were building the library out of the words.)

And then as I dug frantically, my eyes were blinded by the setting sun. Everything sparkled, and I thought I actually saw the library: all white with a great, clear river before it and a landing where the books (stone books) were brought in on little ships with big sails. The glistening of the waves hurt my eyes, but I could see, even so, the librarians dancing on the beach in front of the sacred circle of the library. And they were all old. Old as I am or even older -- wrinkled, hobbling women -- I could see that their backs were hurting them too, but they kept on with the dancing, just as I kept on with my digging. And I heard the soft, sweet, fluty music of the library and felt the cool of it, for I, too, stood close to the western doorway. And we could see one another. I'm sure of it. I saw eyes meet mine, and not just once or twice.

I stepped forward, then, to dance with them, but I fell -- it seemed a long, slow fall -- and as I fell, the sun was no longer in my eyes and I saw then my rocky ground and my dried-up stream bed.

After I got up, I felt extraordinarily lucid. As though I had drunk from the ice-cold river. Clearheaded and happy -- happier than I'd been in a long time (though I've not been unhappy digging here; on the contrary). I didn't want to go home and rest -- I felt so powerful -- but I forced myself. I had hardly eaten all day, and most important, if I tried to dig in the dark I might miss something. I might toss away a stone like my important librarian and not see what it really was.

When I got home that night I found that someone had been at my stones. They were all, all gone. I was so happy about my little librarian that I didn't notice it at first. It wasn't until I went to put her on my night table (I wanted her to be close to me as I slept) that I noticed there were no other stones there, not a single one. I knew right away what had happened. My daughters decided that I'm being crowded out by stones. They think -- because they would feel that way -- that it must be uncomfortable to live like this. But I was brought up on stones, don't they remember that? I had geodes. I had chunks of amber. I had a cairngorm set in silver. Still have it somewhere, unless they took that off for safekeeping thinking I will lose it out there. Well, perhaps I already have, but if I did, it's been worth it many times over. And now even my hanging baskets of stones, gone, and stones from every surface, every shelf, all gone. Thank goodness I carry my most important ones with me in my vest pockets.

All these old stones. Mother wouldn't have appreciated them either. The work, yes, the care I've taken, the effort -- she did appreciate effort and would have praised me for that -- but she had no understanding of science and its slow, laborious unfolding. The care, the cataloging, she would have praised, but perhaps not when all this work involves merely stones. Back in those days she didn't even like my geodes (especially those that had not been opened yet). It can't be hoped that she would have liked my little naked librarian. Mother disapproved of nakedness of any sort. I, on the other hand, want to stress the importance of childbearing librarians and so the importance of the bodies of the librarians, and so all the glory of their old-lady sexuality. (And I have seen it at the local library . . . the woman in charge sitting with her breasts resting on the table.)

Coming in like that, then, and no stones, my little librarian in hand, I couldn't possibly sleep. I was both too happy and too upset. I sat down instead to draw my new find. If I am, someday in the future, to be judged for this work by someone who really knows what it's all about, I don't want to make any mistakes that will spoil the scientific accuracy of the study. I labeled all the parts: these slits, eyes; that slit, the opening to the womb. (The look on her face is intelligent and self-sufficient.)

I hid the drawings under my socks. (Who knows what my daughters will think worth nothing?) I put the librarian in the top breast pocket of the vest, where tomorrow she will rest over my heart. Then I checked all the other pockets with my most important stones (all there, thank goodness) and went to bed. It was nearly morning.

Even so, the next day I woke still extraordinarily clearheaded. I fairly jogged out to my site. Worked hard all day but found nothing, saw nothing. Once or twice I did think I heard the sound of flutes and perhaps some drumming, but I knew that was just my imagination plus the beat of my own heart in my ears. I always hear that on hot days when I lean over too much or get up too fast.

When I got home I sensed, again, a change. (Why do they always come in the daytime when I'm not here? Why are they afraid to face me?) I couldn't see the changes this time, but I knew they'd been there and I knew things were gone. I checked my closet first, and yes, those few dresses I have that I hardly ever wear weren't there. Also the suitcase that I keep at the back on the closet floor.

A pair of walking shoes were gone, and my best dressy shoes. Also a white sweater my daughters gave me but that I never wear, except to please them once in a while to make them think I like it. Then, in the drawers, I found half my underwear gone and my jewelry, such as I have. (Probably my cairngorm. I didn't see it there.)

They have already packed me up and taken my things off somewhere, and I know where. From the looks of what they thought I'd need there -- dresses, jewelry, stockings -- I knew what it would be like: dress for dinner; sit on porches; play cards; watch TV; sing; entertainment every Saturday night. Did they think I was so senile I wouldn't notice what was going on? I knew it wouldn't be long before they'd come for me, and I wondered exactly when that would be. Perhaps very early in the morning, before I was up and out at my dig. Well, I would just have to go back out there right away. The thing was, I wasn't ready yet. Now I would have to make something happen before I really understood anything. Before I went out, though, I thought I would sit down, have a cup of tea, and let my left hand write a bit. I thought it might have something to tell me.

Why not why not lie down and in the sanctuary of the library why not come cool all night and see the shores of the sky?

(My daughters have never been interested in libraries or in anything they can't put their finger on or anything they can't understand the first time they see it.)

Take a white string along and measure and dig in the center of the library a place to lie down with quilts and pillows.

Nothing much else to do that I could think of right then. I didn't wait. I did as they said, got white cord, and quilt, and pillow. I didn't bring a flashlight. The night was clear, stars out but no moon. I could see well enough to find the center of the library. I dug a shallow grave just my size and lay down there, facing up, looking at the constellation Swan. I kept my eyes on that. It took effort, but everything worth doing takes effort. Effort is what makes it all worthwhile, so I held my eyes open and on the Swan, her wings stretched out, flying out there so high I knew I couldn't even conceive of the distance. I forced myself not to sleep. Pretty soon the Swan seemed to move and wobble and then began to swoop about the sky. My God, I'd never seen anything so strange and wonderful as that swooping Swan of stars. And then I heard faintly at first -- that clack, clack, clack of stones that meant all the librarians were there around me. I didn't see them, but I knew they were there. I was afraid to turn my eyes away from the Swan. Nor did I want to by then. I liked watching it loop and tumble and glide. And then it whizzed by directly over my head so close I felt the rush of air. And after that, there was the fat red Venus, life-size, sitting right beside me. "Sanctuary," she said, but she didn't need to say it. I knew that. "Stay," she said, and all of a sudden I knew it was death, death now, and had been death all along. But I thought, I could be working in the sanctuary of the vegetable garden at the old ladies' home. Or I might even be sitting on the porch, but I'd be alive if only for a little longer . . . not much, but a little bit. "No," I said. But she kept nodding, and now I couldn't have turned away even if I wanted to, and the clack, clack of stones was loud, and painful, and right over my head.

"Why not later?"

"It's now or never."

I knew this was what I wanted, but suddenly it seemed too easy. I could hear, by now, not only clacks, but also the rush and rustle of the great river nearby. I even heard the sound of a boat, the bump of wood on wood as a skiff came up to the dock. I heard the thump of stone tablets being placed upon the shore, and I knew they were full of women's thoughts . . . women's writings . . . women's good ideas. Even old women's good ideas. Then the old women danced toward me with flowers, and suddenly I was standing up on my white quilt and I was wearing my old white nightgown, which I know I had not put on to come out here in. (I know better than to walk around at night in nothing but that.) And I worried because I wondered what had happened to my vest with all my best finds in it. But the Venus read my mind. "If you give us up," she said, "you have to give up those, too. You have to give up the proof that there were some little germs of sanity to what you were doing." All the old women came one by one and looked me right in the eye then and smiled; and all their eyes were blue, every one of them, the exact same blue. I could see that they wanted me as much or more than I wanted them and that we would talk and it would be my kind of talk. I knew that my left hand would write, then, many books on stones.

"And they will be found here," the Venus said, "and will be deciphered and all in less than five years from now."

"Otherwise?" I said.

"Otherwise, nothing. No library, no books, no mirror, no Venus."

"I'll take nothing," I said, and the Swan swooped down and knocked me over. I fell, clutching feathers, and I thought, They lied to me. I'm dying right now. They lied to me and took me anyhow.

But it wasn't dying. I woke up to voices and to the sound of a van and my daughters and two men. They don't have to say anything. I know where they're taking me, and I know that I chose it myself. I will go silently and with dignity. I will walk like a queen. I'm thinking that I'll find something there to make an effort for. I'll find something so I can do. I'll not just be.

Odd thing, though. I pick up my vest lying there all torn. It's as though it had been attacked in anger. There's hardly an inch of it without a tear. I check what's left of the pockets. Everything is gone, just as they said it would be -- every single smooth, white stone and all the other things -- and I'm standing here like a crazy woman, bare feet, nightgown (I feel sure I didn't come out here like this). And I am surrounded by feathers . . . white feathers. When I move they float out all around me. When I shake my head they flutter down.


Copyright © 1987 Carol Emshwiller;
first published in OMNI Magazine, February 1987

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Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller grew up in Michigan and in France. She lives in New York City in the winter, where she teaches fiction writing at NYU Continuing Education, and in Bishop, CA, in the summer, where she still climbs mountains, though now with a cane. For more about her and her work, see her Web page.