Ab Aeterno

by Sophie Durbin '20

          The girl didn’t quite remember her old name. She supposed it wasn’t of much consequence now. There was no one to talk to except the cat, who mockingly called her Clio, after the muse of history. At the beginning of her sentence, when the black feline appeared to introduce her to the rules, she asked his name. For once silenced, he took a step back, flustered, and replied, “They just call me Cat.”

          Her prison was one vast semicircle of a room, so tall the ceiling was obscured by thick mist. The curved wall of the room was covered with bookshelves, from floor to ceiling, and the opposite, linear wall was honeycombed with an infinite grid of holes from which the books would tumble through chutes from every place and age in history. Time was a fluid thing in hell. The 1960s Greenwich Village chute, made of crumbling brick plastered with posters, stood directly next to that of Edo Japan, lavishly decorated with Hokusai prints.

          Clio’s sole task for all of eternity was to catalogue the books. They plummeted out ofthe chutes in varying volumes and frequencies—there were quiet days in which only a couple books appeared, and others when hundreds amassed on the floor for her to sort. None of the books were recognizable to her, as they had only existed in their authors’ minds. These were unwritten books, those that people had hoped to write or could have written but never did. Upon the author’s death, the books appeared in the library for Clio to dutifully shelve, an unending cycle of alphabetizing and climbing up thousands of rungs on the ladder.

          Clio had once agonized over the library’s existence. Why did the books belong in hell? But rumination was futile—no amount of pondering and thumb-twiddling would answer her questions.

          On her first day, millennia ago, Clio tried to open one of the books. She pried and clawed at the cover as Cat watched, his eyes keen slits. He yawned a lazy, leonine yawn and remarked, “That’s the punishment. Justice served and delivered.”

          She couldn’t read any of the books.

          Like a literary Tantalus, Clio was surrounded by an ocean of temptation but remained fingertips away from satisfaction. Her torture came not in flaming wheels or boiling oil, but rather in perpetual boredom. This was the gods’ penance for a girl who sought knowledge that was not hers to seek.

          For the supposed muse of history, Clio found it sadly ironic that she guarded an unfathomable wealth of knowledge without having so much as peeked into a single book. Occasionally, once every few centuries, figures shrouded in white cloaks would descend upon the library in a dizzying procession of blinding light. Clio didn’t enjoy thinking about who they were. Cat would usher her into a crevice behind the Z shelf, leaving her curled up in the dark, blinking. “Inspection time,” he called it. Everything needed to be in order. Through the interstitial space between the books, she watched the pallid beings as they retrieved a few volumes from the shelves, tucking them beneath their cloaks and murmuring to one another so softly they sounded like chiming bells. Each time was the same, and each time they left as quickly and suddenly as they arrived, vanishing in a blur of feathers and sunshine and baby’s laughter.

          This time was different.

          The cloaked figure fell. It landed rather unceremoniously on its bottom, then stood up abruptly, brushing out the wrinkles from its garb. Still slightly unsteady, it staggered around the bookshelves, trailing a finger along the bindings and whistling cheerily.

          It passed by Clio’s hiding place—her breath caught, she had no idea what terrors would await if she was discovered—but then paused for a moment and walked back to crouch in front of her. Clio tucked her head against her knees, attempting to shrink into herself. Slowly, horribly, she noticed a book sliding out, her hiding place exposed.

          “Goodness! Who are you?” a jaunty voice chirped.

          Clio peeked up hesitantly. “I’m sorry. You’re not meant to see me.”

          “Tush, tush.” It pushed back its hood, revealing a face so brilliantly lit Clio had to squint to make out bronzed features, a mess of flaxen curls, and broad, puckish smile. She hadn’t seen anyone other than Cat in a long, long time, but she thought the intruder might be a he.

          He extended a hand. “Let me help you up.”

          Clio allowed herself to be pulled upwards. He gazed at her with an ineffable understanding, and at once she knew she was in the presence of the divine. Before she could reconsider, she asked, “Are you an angel?”

          A surprised smile. “Something like that.”

          Restraining herself from gushing, Clio explained her predicament. The angel’s eyes grew increasingly larger, until he finally said, “I don’t think I can get you out of here. The boss,” with this he knowingly pointed upwards, “would not have it, and I’m new to the job, so I don’t want to let him down on the first week. You know how it is.”

          Clio nodded, but her face grew hot and something began to prick at the back of her eyes. She remembered why losing hope was such a relief. Hell draws its power from the damned dreaming of heaven.

          The angel set his mouth into a line and glanced over both shoulders furtively.

          “Well, there might be something I can do.”

          He leaned over to Clio and pressed his thumb to her brow. She closed her eyes expectantly. The angel whispered, “Lips sealed, okay?”

          As Clio opened her eyes, mouth parted in confusion, she realized he was gone, like everyone before him. Shouldering her disappointment, she picked up a book that had fallen off the shelf. She brushed her fingers along the edges of the gilded pages, relegated to the cloying familiarity of her punishment. Then the cover fell open.