It started with one of the slim green poetry books. Wordsworth, Coleridge, maybe Yeats, the poet is not important, but the book… A Sunday morning.
Robed and wearing the liver-colored slippers that some forgotten aunt had given me many Christmases ago, I had just turned from the window—a foggy morning mist—when I see it lying there, title down, in front of the bookcase. Generally uncaring, but knowing I will have to pick it up sooner or later, I decide on sooner and reach down, turning it over in my hand. It is tattered, brutally dog-earred, with the smallest ripple across its cover. I must have left it out in the rain once. Yes, in the rain, during my romantic period, all those years ago, and so, thinking nothing of it, I neatly slip it back into the shelf. It drizzled all that morning and most of the afternoon.
That night I had a dream. I can’t remember the stuff of the dream, just that I had a dream and I woke to the blueblack of early morning, sitting up, looking all around, whispering, ‘Who’s there?’ because it felt bigger than a dream. After breakfast I found two more poetry books on the floor, in front of the bookcase. Their spines broken.
If I had had a dog, I could have blamed him—a dog who found poetry disgusting, or tasty, or both. But, of course, I have no dog, just a large calico who spends most of his life yawning, curled colorfully on beds. A cat who thinks the house is more his than mine. A cat who cares nothing for books. After the double spine-breaking, nothing happens for three days and three nights.
On the fourth day I had almost forgotten about the incident when I find three books of poetry and one bulky volume of philosophy strewn across the hallway: Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy has two of the thin poetry books pinned beneath it, pages torn and frayed. When I pick them up, they feel strangely damp. I immediately find the calico, lift him off the couch and while still in a catty half-sleep gently drop him outside the back door. The next morning, one of the newest American novels—something like a best seller—lay broken, gutted of all its pages. There is no calico to be seen.
The Russian novels started it. At first I thought it was the basement furnace, a ferocious huffing and puffing, as if some big unfriendly animal were trying to push its way through the wall. When I finally had had enough, I throw on my robe, and with liver-colored slippers shuffle off to find the source, switching on lights as I go. In the end, the grunting and groaning lead me not to the basement but to the hallway bookcase, second shelf.
Although I don’t know Russian—having heard nothing more than bits and pieces of it on TV, on the news, in and around spy films—it sounded like a kind of Russian, a snarl of cursing, followed by laughter, and then, after a small silence, a smattering of English. “I see…Yes…why not.” At this point I decide to take a chance, pulling The Brothers Karamazov from the shelf.
“And what can I do for you, my friend?”
And of course I utter the most clownish reply possible, “Who, me?’
“No, me.” A trickle of laughter coming from that same second shelf.
I am angry with my answer—nothing more, just my silly, ‘Who, me?’ In a rush to regain what I had lost, I say too loud, “Is this your doing?” Waving my hands across the bookcase. “This…this mayhem; is this your doing?”
“No,” answered Brothers Karamazov. “Not me. Not personally.”
The calico is at the door, meowing to be let in. I turn the book over, running my fingers along its brown callous spine.
“Yes, that is correct. Very good.”
After that there is a quiet, the sort of hush that is delicate and short-lived, and so I wait for more…more from this Russian book? But there is nothing, only its bulky dullness, and all I can do is think this is all wrong. I slide Brothers Karamazov back into its slot and let the cat in. Immediately he scampers to the bookshelf, up on his hind legs, stretching to get at the second shelf. There is a hissing, and the calico skitters away.
That night, in bed, I think about what I should have said, answered.
The calico is asleep at my feet.
I have another dream. It has to do with a wild animal, perhaps a lion, leopard, bear, but certainly a vicious animal that wails and snarls all dream long. And my dream duty is to listen, nothing more.
In the morning, it is once again suspiciously quiet. I lay there waiting for noise—a tapping, a neighbor’s radio, the distant rumble of traffic—anything will do.
On my way to the kitchen, I can’t help but glance down the hallway, and when I do I stop. I can tell by the way he’s lying there, in front of the bookcase, that something is terribly wrong. He would never sprawl that way. I shuffle my slippers to let him know I’m coming closer… almost there now… he’d better jump up and run into the kitchen… last chance.
His head is crushed; the carpet spongy with catty blood. Next to it are four neatly stacked Russian novels. A line of blood runs straight along their spines, an angry splat across the green cover of Crime and Punishment.
Later, with a heavy rain taking up most of the day, I step to the bookcase with rolled up sleeves and slowly, methodically begin to remove all the books from the second shelf: Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, Doctor Zhivago, Gogol’s Dead Souls, and Taras Bulba, Goncharov’s Oblomov, Fathers and Sons, Anna Karienna, and so on. I stack them on the floor. Once the second shelf is naked, I take one of the yellow sponges from under the sink and clean the shelf with soap and water. I wipe the books bright and shiny and re-stack them on the floor. The shelf is left to dry. After that I slip the calico of four years into a shoebox. Because of the morning rain, the backyard digging is easy—just this side of the big willow. After that I go out for lunch, to a corner bistro that serves Friday specials for only $3.99. When I return, the Russian books are no longer on the floor, but on the fifth shelf.
The fifth shelf was once a mix of Faulkner, Cheever, Joyce, Walker, of Steinbeck, Things Fall Apart, A Tale of Two Cities, In the Shadow of Mordor, … but all of them have been ousted, scattered across the floor. The thick Russian novels take up the entire fifth shelf, some with their pages wide open, as if sunning themselves, even though no sun can reach that side of the wall. The second shelf remains clean and empty.
I grab the biggest and perhaps the very best of the bunch, War and Peace. “What’s the meaning of this? Shaking it like some disobedient schoolboy. “The meaning of this?”
Its pages lift into what can only be described as something like a shrug, and then, a deep growling voice says, “Nothing personal, you know. It’s simply a matter of space. The biggest books require the most space. It’s quite logical, I think. Nothing revolutionary here—not really. You see?”
“Yes, yes, but the others. What about the others?” pointing to the floor.
Its voice more deep than growling continues, “Yes, well, that is indeed unfortunate. But what’s done is done. I… we certainly wish it could have been done another way, a better way, but there was no agreement, you see—no compromise.”
The fifth shelf echoes with, “That’s right. He’s right. We tried. By God, we tried.”
If Crime and Punishment had anything like a face, I would have stared long and hard into it; instead, I toss it back onto its fifth shelf. “All right, but the cat. How about the cat? What’s that all about?”
“Yes, most regrettable, the animal.”
A new rain pecks at the window.
Because the bookcase is T-shaped and built solidly into the hallway wall, the bottom shelves are short and small, the upper shelves longer, bigger. It wasn’t my idea, this shape, but the owner before me, actually the builder’s wife, who, they tell me, was kind of a librarian. At any rate, it is useless trying to fit the long line of once-fifth shelf books into the shorter second shelf that the Russian books had left behind. What to do? Light in August, Old Man and the Sea, The Grapes of Wrath, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy—I stack them tower-high and to the left of the bookcase.
For three, no, four days it is unseasonably warm and sunny. I even open the back windows and clean out the upstairs closet. Squealing children play on lawns, in streets, chalk up the sidewalks. During this time, although quiet, the Russian books refuse to stand straight and bookshelf-like, but slouch, and sprawl. On that last sunny day, with the window open and the neighbor washing his car, with radio, I sit thinking about getting another cat—a bigger, grayer cat, this one more for the outside than inside—when I hear a rumbling, followed by a gang-like laughter. When I get up to see, now knowing to check the bookcase first, there is nothing. Simply books on a book shelf.
The day after that fourth sunny day is windy and cloudy and terrible. Sometime during the night a batch of the fourth shelf books has disappeared. Not pitched to the floor, not ripped and shredded, but gone. Now that they are gone I can’t remember what had been there; some Robert Frost and Sherwood Anderson, I think. Perhaps an anthology or two. Two very blue books, one green, a heavy dictionary-like book, a once-read copy of Aksyonov’s The Island of Crimea? Looking up at the fifth shelf, the thick Russian novels have put themselves in order, upright, cleverly soldierly in their precision, their spines all even.
“Where are they?” I demand, waiting for one of them to answer, but secretly knowing by now that even if they did, in their big Russian way they would say nothing. “What did you do with them?”
“They threatened us.”
“I said they threatened us. That bunch below there. They said they had had enough of our kind. Imagine, ‘our kind,’ and that it was time to get rid of us, to take action. Their exact words: ‘to take action.’ Well, we had to defend ourselves. Even you can understand that, yes? A small group against the entire shelf. Defend ourselves, certainly…”
I hold up my hand, “Enough. Robert Frost… anthologies… this bunch threatened you? Frost? North of Boston?”
“Oh, there were others, many others, and defend ourselves we did.”
It is then that I step back, my back against the hallway wall, and take a good long look at this T-shaped bookcase that clings to the wall like some massive vine. The fourth shelf is now bare, the second shelf as well, while the Russian novels take up the entire fifth shelf. It is then that I realize what has to be done. To save my books, my bookcase, what has to be done. That very afternoon, in a rain which by now has turned into a storm, I drive to the store and buy another bookcase, the kind that comes in a long, cardboard box and must be screwed and glued together, the kind of bookcase that once assembled almost never looks as good as the picture on the box.
And so I glue and screw, and after much reading and rereading of simple instructions, finish. By now the afternoon is over, sliding into twilight. For a bookcase it is pleasantly light, and I carry it into the back room.
The back room is a room that is a combination storage, work desk, computer and a leaning stack of boxes that I someday plan to throw away. I wedge the new bookcase in between the desk and soon-to-be discarded boxes. It fits perfectly. This perfect fit I find strangely disturbing. It is, of course, just a coincidence, and yet… With night having arrived, I carry the Russian novels, five at a time, to their new home.
Holding up Sholokhov’s Seeds of Tomorrow to the light, I say, “This is the answer. This should please you—all of you. Yes?” Continuing to hold it up next to the bare lightbulb of the back room, and, of course, there is no response.
Once done, the Russians in their new bookcase, with ample room to stretch and lean, I turn off the light, shut the door. Back to the hallway bookcase, there is now room for everybody. Things have turned out satisfactory after all. It was simply a matter of space. Quite understandable, really. Still, I wonder where the missing books could be. Where they have put them.
After eating a dinner of tuna casserole, I go to bed and dream about the new cat that I don’t have. This dream cat is black and prowls the backyard like a small tiger.
In the morning, with the black cat dream still fresh in my mind, as I yawn and shuffle toward the front door to get the newspaper, I stop. More books on the hallway floor. Their pages yanked out by their papery roots, their covers shredded, smeared with blood. Blood? That can’t be right. But there it is: a massacre of ten, twelve books, their spines peeled, mangled beyond recognition. My heart pounds so hard that it hurts. I have never spun in my life—not once—but right then, on this new morning when all was supposedly settled, I quickly turn in a way I didn’t know I could turn and run to the back room. I don’t know what I will say or do, but I run like I know. Throwing open the door, the bookcase is empty. I lift the bookcase, search the boxes, grope blindly under the desk. The Russian books are gone.
Although nothing like the first turning and running, I hurry back to the hallway, and once there I see what I had missed the first time. There they are: the Russian novels, on the second shelf and the third shelf and the fourth shelf, and….
This time, The Brothers Karamazov, who is stretched out across on the third shelf like some holiday-maker, flicks open its pages, and announces, “You don’t understand. You just don’t understand.”
I say nothing, my arms dangling ape-like.
“It is a matter of history, you see. History. This is our place, always has been. This is our home, and you, you want to send us away like some kind of refugees. Yes, you treat us like refugees, foreigners.” His pages turn, then flutter, then stop. “I mean, we were here first.”
I am standing on battered pages and shattered spines, feeling the thick lukewarm of what feels and looks like a blood. But no, that can’t be right.
“Yes, we were here first.”