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Cogitatus was now an old man, and had lived alone for many years. This wasn’t necessarily by choice, but he had done nothing since his retirement from the British Library either to keep old friends or make new ones. Ever since boyhood, he had instead confided in himself: both in the diaries he wrote in his mind, and that patchwork of marginalia he carved in that liminal space between the text and the world. They were his archaeological record – those shakily underlined fragments of Blake, Austen or Nabokov that would be left when he was a pile of ash.
So once again he found himself in the spare bedroom he called his library, as he did most nights, curved over in his wicker chair and thumbing a heavily worn edition of Borges’ Ficciones. Were he to speak in that small space – not that there was anyone there to hear him – his words would have been swallowed up by the overflowing mosaic of books that enveloped his body, in perilous stacks that reached the low ceiling. To be swallowed by a book… the thought had occurred to him before. His arthritic fingers traced the stubbled page along its top edge until they slipped almost erotically into the gutter of the spine in the middle. He thought of the priests back home in Keel, how they would kiss the Gospel book in his distant memory of the Mass, then of Ezekiel who ate the honey-soaked scroll of the Law. He had eaten books too as a child. Perhaps that was prophetic.
One last cigarette before bed. A habit he had been accustomed to since university when one could still light a pipe indoors without any fear of retribution. He squeezed the fiberglass filter between his lips, struck a match, and inhaled. (The smell of amber, the trickling of pleasure down his spine.) Flicking through the Borges at random he found himself reading The Library of Babel. What a queer notion: that his life had already been written, perhaps even been read, even if only by an unknown character in a fictional land.
As he tapped his cigarette, an ember landed on the page, quickly setting the dry leaf ablaze. In fear he cast the book off him into a pile of paperbacks on the floor; they too abruptly suffered the same fate, the flames swelling and licking the base of a shelve stacked deep with geometry, theology, lexicons and concordances. It took only a few seconds for the leather to start warping on his notebooks.
Cogitatus sat there, watching the pyre of his life grow and grow: ink bleaching in the heat, bindings collapsing as the fire engulfed them. The smoke that drowned the room tasted of vinegar and coal, yet it felt to him like incense. There was something purifying, vivifying about it – the smell of old books, of passages he had long committed to his heart, now transformed into a smog that burned the very throat and lips that recited them. Breathing deep into his lungs – those vessels hardily tempered by decades of carcinogens – he smiled as he coughed. He could have stood up and left the room, the door being unobstructed, but watching the books burn he knew he had already died. And he thought it fitting in this last eternal moment to be killed by the passing of his only lover… ah, the poetic, fatal beauty of it.