The Starless Sea

He stands with his hands in his pockets and considers the door for a moment more before walking away.

The following day his curiosity gets the better of him and he returns to find that the door has been painted over. The brick wall whitewashed to the point where he cannot even discern where, precisely, the door had been.

And so the son of the fortune-teller does not find his way to the Starless Sea.

Not yet.





January 2015

There is a book on a shelf in a university library.

This is not unusual, but it is not where this particular book should be.

The book is mis-shelved in the fiction section, even though the majority of it is true and the rest is true enough. The fiction section of this library is not as well traversed as other areas, its rows dimly lit and often dusty.

The book was donated, part of a collection left to the university per the previous owner’s last will and testament. These books were added to the library, classified by the Dewey Decimal System, given stickers with barcodes inside their covers so they could be scanned at the checkout desk and sent off in different directions.

This particular book was scanned only once to be added to the catalogue. It does not have an author named within its pages, so it was entered in the system as “Unknown” and started off amongst the U-initialed authors but has meandered through the alphabet as other books move around it. Sometimes it is taken down and considered and replaced again. Its binding has been cracked a handful of times, and once a professor even perused the first few pages and intended to come back to it but forgot about it instead.

No one has read this book in its entirety, not since it has been in this library.

Some (the forgetful professor included) have thought, fleetingly, that this book does not belong here. That perhaps it should be in the special collection, a room that requires students to have written permission to visit and where librarians hover while they look at rare books and no one is allowed to check anything out. There are no barcodes on those books. Many require gloves for handling.

But this book remains in the regular collection. In immobile, hypothetical circulation.

The book’s cover is a deep burgundy cloth that has aged and faded from rich to dull. There were once gilded letters impressed upon it but the gold is gone now and the letters have worn away to glyph-like dents. The top corner is permanently bent from where a heavier volume sat atop it in a box during a stretch in a storage facility from 1984 to 1993.

Today is a January day during what the students refer to as J-term, when classes have not yet started but they are already welcomed back on campus, and there are lectures and student-led symposiums and theatrical productions in rehearsal. A post-holiday warm-up before the regular routines begin again.

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is on campus to read. He feels mildly guilty about this fact, as he should be spending his precious winter hours playing (and replaying, and analyzing) video games in preparation for his thesis. But he spends so much time in front of screens he has a near-compulsive need to let his eyeballs rest on paper. He reminds himself that there is plenty of subject overlap, though he has found subject overlap between video games and just about anything.

Reading a novel, he supposes, is like playing a game where all the choices have been made for you ahead of time by someone who is much better at this particular game. (Though he sometimes wishes choose-your-own-adventure novels would come back into fashion.)

He has been reading (or rereading) a great many children’s books as well, because the stories seem more story-like, though he is mildly concerned this might be a symptom of an impending quarter-life crisis. (He half expects this quarter-life crisis to show up like clockwork on his twenty-fifth birthday, which is only two months away.)

The librarians took him to be a literature major until one of them struck up a conversation and he felt obliged to confess he was actually one of those Emerging Media Studies people. He missed the secret identity as soon as it was gone, a guise he hadn’t even realized he enjoyed wearing. He supposes he looks like a lit major, with his square-framed glasses and cable-knit sweaters. Zachary still has not entirely adjusted to New England winters, especially not one like this with its never-ceasing snow. He shields his southern-raised body with heavy layers of wool, wrapped in scarves and warmed with thermoses full of hot cocoa that he sometimes spikes with bourbon.

There are two weeks left in January and Zachary has exhausted most of his to-read list of childhood classics, at least the ones in this library’s collection, so he has moved on to books he has been meaning to read and others chosen at random after testing the first few pages.

It has become his morning ritual, making his choices in the book-dampened library quiet of the stacks and then returning to his dorm to read the day away. In the skylighted atrium, he shakes the snow from his boots on the rug by the entrance and drops The Catcher in the Rye and The Shadow of the Wind into the returns box, wondering if halfway through the second year of a master’s degree program is too late to be unsure about one’s major. Then he reminds himself that he likes Emerging Media and if he’d spent five and a half years studying literature he would probably be growing weary of it by now, too. A reading major, that’s what he wants. No response papers, no exams, no analysis, just the reading.

The fiction section, two floors below and down a hallway lined with framed lithographs of the campus in its youth, is, unsurprisingly, empty. Zachary’s footsteps echo as he walks through the stacks. This section of the building is older, a contrast to the bright atrium at the entrance, the ceilings lower and the books stacked all the way up, the light falling in dim confined rectangles from bulbs that have a tendency to burn out no matter how often they are changed. If he ever has the money after graduating Zachary thinks he might make a very specific donation to fix the electrical wiring in this part of the library. Light enough to read by brought to you by Z. Rawlins, Class of 2015. You’re welcome.

He seeks out the W section, having recently become enamored of Sarah Waters, and though the catalogue listed several titles, The Little Stranger is the only one on the shelf so he is saved decision-making. Zachary then searches for what he thinks of as mystery books, titles he does not recognize or authors he has never heard of. He starts by looking for books with blank spines.

Reaching to a higher shelf that a shorter student might have needed a stepladder to access, he pulls down a cloth-covered, wine-colored volume. Both spine and cover are blank, so Zachary opens the book to the title page.

Sweet Sorrows



He turns the page to see if there is another that lists the author but it moves directly into the text. He flips to the back and there are no acknowledgments or author’s notes, just a barcode sticker attached to the inside of the back cover. He returns to the beginning and finds no copyright, no dates, no information about printing numbers.

It is clearly quite old and Zachary does not know much about the history of publishing or bookbinding, if such information is possibly not included in books of a certain age. He finds the lack of author perplexing. Perhaps a page has gone missing, or it was misprinted. He flips through the text and notices that there are pages missing, vacancies and torn edges scattered throughout though none where the front matter should be.

Zachary reads the first page, and then another and another.

Then the lightbulb above his head that has been illuminating the U–Z section blinks and darkens.

Zachary reluctantly closes the book and places it on top of The Little Stranger. He tucks both books securely under his arm and returns to the light of the atrium.

The student librarian at the front desk, her hair up in a bun skewered by a ballpoint pen, encounters some difficulty with the mysterious volume. It scans improperly first, and then as some other book entirely.

“I think it has the wrong barcode,” she says. She taps at her keyboard, squinting at the monitor. “Do you recognize this one?” she asks, handing the book to the other librarian at the desk, a middle-aged man in a covetable green sweater. He flips through the front pages, frowning.

“No author, that’s a new one. Where was it shelved?”

“In fiction, somewhere in the Ws,” Zachary answers.

“Check under Anonymous, maybe,” the green-sweatered librarian suggests, handing back the book and turning his attention to another patron.

The other librarian taps the keyboard again and shakes her head. “Still can’t find it,” she tells Zachary. “So weird.”

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