Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Three Books and What They Tell

The first book is always a new and shiny hardback. It smells freshly cut and bound, with satisfyingly thick cotton pages, beautifully type-faced, each word aglow with the unshifting present. It has a fixed number of pages, though exactly what that number is no one has quite figured out.

The second book usually settles itself into a worn out, dog-eared paperback. The number of its pages fluctuate—the quality and material of the pages are inconsistent as if the book is made of several editions. Some pages seem ripped out, others are no longer there, and the typeface changes intermittently throughout. Words like “caducous,” “catachresis,” and “paralipomena” are scribbled in its margins.

The third book is certainly shaped like a book. It manifests out of pressed hibiscus petals, sloughed snake skins, silkworm cocoons, unfurled eucalyptus bark, all bound by delicate fungal rhizome systems. Each page or leaf feels different, and often there are sticky stains—whether of water or blood or fruit or melted rock, it is hard to say.

The three books fit inside one another like three drops of water in a glass. And they separate from one another like an amoeba might if it split into three entirely different looking daughters.

• • • •

The first, the hardback, requires a reader who only occupies the present moment. This limits the hardback’s readership as there are very few readers in the universe who habituate themselves solely in the now. These readers are often described as “prelapsarian” or “omniscient” beings, but the truth is that they can never know more than they know. The book reflects that fixed knowledge back at them: as bold and as certain as a glacier’s movement.

The second, the dog-eared paperback, must be read concurrently, intergenerationally, repeatedly, by multitudes of readers across space and time. The book redrafts and redrafts each of its short stories, every word flexing with a new meaning or translation. The margins and empty spaces between the sentences fill with scrawls that then disappear, only to reappear in the text proper. Each story in the book eventually implodes, bottoms out, and regrows like the seasonal blooming of a perennial salvia re-discovering itself.

The third book does not seem to have a single reader in the whole universe. It is illegible, without words or symbols of any language known in the cosmos. It smells of a sweetening rot, and there are claims that it emits an escalating hum, like an insect at moonrise. Occasionally some markings can be found on it, and occasionally some of those markings are recognizable: paw tracks, claw scratches, mucous trails, suction marks. These traces fade before they can be accurately recorded.

• • • •

Upon entering the first book the traveler turns to immutable stone. There is nothing that can be done to stop this. Every vein, skin fold, feather, or scale renders into intricate statued detail, and any sound the traveler may have made upon entering remains echoing within the stone, an unending drone. Some say that the statues are there before the travelers even arrive, standing ready to absorb them.

The second book welcomes many travelers. They enter and live long unpredictable lives, procreating, suffering, finding joy, losing and telling stories, growing, dying, grieving. They build entire civilizations and complex infrastructures, forgetting that they once lived elsewhere and otherwise. They quickly learn to thrive on curiosity, on love, on never knowing where the edges of things are. Every moment seems new and variable, their past a bruised collective memory, their future achingly, seductively uncertain.

The entrance to the third book is hardest. Some recommend trying it while dreaming, while being born, or while dying. The few travelers who do make it in find themselves turned as illegible as the book itself. Well past the boundaries of comprehension, they are both tethered and untethered to the world within and the world without the book. They release pollen and fog when they exhale, they change wind directions and shift tides when they inhale.

• • • •

Only travelers to the third book ever return from it. They tell few people what they have experienced, but they whisper “unsettle all things” when they are lost in thought. They contemplate dust particles in their free time and rarely miss watching a planetary eclipse, arms stretched out to the sky. They regularly get dirt under their fingernails and whenever they reach a body of water they swim alarmingly far away from shore. When asked for advice they smile broadly; their kindness lightens everything around them.

Alexandra Manglis

Alexandra Manglis

Alexandra Manglis is a Cypriot writer and editor currently living in New England. Her work has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and published in places like Strange Horizons, Passages North, and Adda. She served as co-editor of the anthology 21|19: Contemporary Poets in the Nineteenth Century Archive (Milkweed) and as a senior editor of Wave Composition. She is an enthusiastic alumna of Clarion West and holds a D.Phil in English from the University of Oxford. Her work has been generously supported by the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Susan C. Petrey Scholarship Fund. She has a dog, a kid, a spouse, and more halloumi in her fridge than is strictly necessary.