The horde ran, riverlike, south. It had been months since it began. Each day it swelled further with the newly displaced.
That the road was a moving city meant it was also a moving home. There were times to be swept along and times to eddy in place. The call to eddy had little to do with feeling more human. Love and all the higher powers could walk. You even learned to rest on moving legs. You just pulled over to drop things, or to pick them up.
Khalid stopped his family at a series of stacks of books. There had yet to be time to read, but he wished there was. They were not alone at the stacks. But it was not stiff competition.
Most of the covers were rotten. The books had perhaps been judged by them, in being picked through. This was probably one family’s scrapped library. Who knew where it began, generation-wise, and who had contributed?
His wife and children were not interested in the books. They looked a short time and sat. The wife made a sandwhich that they shared in the shade. There were trees here, and dust, and buildings. It was nowhere.
They would not leave.
Instead of taking the books, Khalid made a sign for them: “Library.” He sat and read.
His wife and children missed the road at first. Not its company but its hope.
The library grew. Nobody wanted to carry their books. But many wanted one: the right one. The library improved. Khalid began referring to it as a “Book Gallery”–but it was really a store.
He was a pitiless trader. “If a man will part with a book, he doesn’t need it,” he often repeated to his wife.
The books helped him in that way. Other than that, he was not one to be helped.
Khalid organized the stacks. Eventually he organized them into walls. They slept behind them, and sometimes took on guests.
The books were between him and the world.
Still, he gave away rice and water–from stores he solicited donations to fund. He put up a message board. And he collected all stories, not just the written ones.
People gathered at the gallery. They saw others gathering, so they slowed. Or they had heard of it, so they slowed.
Then the country that had been Khalid’s country reached as far as he had. It had been stretching, which is why so many had kept moving. Now it was here.
“These books are mine,” it said. And asked Khalid to choose: one citizenship or the next.
His wife was for moving on. But she always had been. The kids were with the wife. They always had been. But here they were.
There was nothing in what had been his books that let Khalid know what to choose. He had become somebody right here: an official of the road. He was known by many. Because so few had stayed.
He asked the man speaking for his old country if there was something he could read that would help him choose. The man offered the country’s new manifesto.
Khalid read the manifesto aloud to his family. They were all quiet.
When the man speaking for Khalid’s old country came back, with soldiers, Khalid told him, “I want to meet the writer of this.”
The writer was busy, the man said.
There was a quote in the manifesto–in fact, several–about “the people” and “the leaders.” Khalid cited the ones that spoke most closely to his desire. “Therefore, I will wait for him,” Khalid concluded. “Must I wait in a cell?”
His family beside him stood and trembled and did not understand. His wife felt betrayed and stupid, but gave those feelings to God. If she didn’t, they would quickly have destroyed her. They would have destroyed all of them.
“You may,” said the man speaking for Khalid’s old country, “but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
They carted off Khalid’s books, and offered his family a tent. It was an acknowledgement of his status. He was a politician now. An ambassador of a place that was really neither country, but the road between them.
It was also a buy-out at a price he refused to accept. He rejected the tent and followed the books. His wife and children followed him. It was at this point that his daughter took sick.
The books went backwards on the road a very long ways, but still short of Khalid’s original home. They came to a library with real walls. The books were locked inside the library. Khalid was told that a commission would come to read them all. This would be in order to judge the character of Khalid. The official of the town described Khalid as “detained until further notice.”
Khalid and his family rightly feared this judgment. But they remained. And the “detention” proved to be just a cage of words. They built a shelter for themselves in a field nearby the library. Spies periodically observed, but there were no guards. There were much worse concerns. This was a dirty, barren town and food was scarce. And Khalid’s daughter, although she got no worse during this time, would not get well.
“At least you could have accepted the tent,” Khalid’s wife told him.
The commission of readers turned out to be only one woman. She was the town librarian. She was severe looking. Some nights she slept inside the library. In any case, she always kept it locked.
Khalid’s daughter died on a Friday morning. She suffered all night, and then was gray. Khalid’s wife would neither be consoled nor touched. The other children were silent, at once understanding and not understanding. Khalid built a pyre for her in the field, in plain sight.
That evening, just after sundown, the librarian, she came to the shelter herself. She brought a holy book and left it. She didn’t stay, or eat, but did ask the girl’s name. When Khalid told her, she said, “It means ‘Baptized.'” Khalid knew this already. He held his other children as if with three arms. His wife was nowhere to be found.
The book, Khalid noticed after she left, had a library card in it. The card was stamped with the day’s date. He assumed anyway that the book was a gift, the stamp a commemoration.
As he lay in bed, the field was still smoking. He closed his eyes and saw his daughter’s dome of ribs as a little tent on a road in the clouds.
The next day, when his wife saw the book, he told her of the visit. They seemed to have the librarian on their side, Khalid and his family all thought. Then they imagined the possibility of betrayal. Then they all gave their thoughts of betrayal to God. At the time, there was actually almost nothing to that. The grief was, for each of them, of course the much bigger thing. The grief was all they had left of the girl. How could they let that go, even to God?
A week later the librarian returned to their shelter. She said that she had something to say. But she did not speak of the government, or Khalid’s books, or his daughter. Instead, she spoke of the mirrors and forks of Borges. Then she spoke of the twins of the Greeks, Indians, Shakespeare and Dickens. “How much of symmetry is similarity, and how much is antithesis?” she asked.
Not even Khalid knew what she was talking about. Perhaps she was merely crazy?
That night, he could not sleep. He read the holy book by candlelight. Closing his eyes, he imagined one candle in the library, at the center of his books. He tried to dream but couldn’t.
He read through two candles. For the rest of the night, he stood in the road. Mist rose from the earth. His shelter, off the road, looked like it rested on a cloud. When the sun rose, he saw it as a candle flame. He imagined his feet stood on the lines of a page.
He had a conviction that he couldn’t explain. It was that he was not being found here, but forgotten.
“They never bothered with my books,” he would tell travelers on the road later. “They never bothered with us. So we stopped bothering with them.”
They returned to the road. The dictator of the other country was not a gentle man, but he was old. There was nowhere to go, and anywhere. They left messages with others, and on message boards, about where they were aiming. But fate caried them elsewhere than that. It was a whole new chapter now.