“The story goes like this,” Marcus said, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag. “Once upon a time there was a king and a queen happily going about their royal businesses. Their son had been away for several years collecting adventurous moments, but they were not worried for him. They understood that their son had to follow his own path. Besides, they were busy enough dealing with whatever it is kings and queens need to deal with. Important stuff, I’m sure. Their relatively pleasant and peaceful existence, however, was interrupted by an evil army that fought its way kingdom after kingdom, extending like fire across a prairie in summer. This army was too strong to be opposed. Fighting back would lead to defeat and annihilation, at least with the typical and mundane forms of fighting the assailed kingdom had at its disposal. But, you see, the king had a special book. The king read from the book and the creatures in the book were embodied and they defeated the army, the enemy from abroad. At least for a while. But that’s beyond the point. More interesting was the fact that the king, the queen and some of their close associates got trapped inside the book. Some of the ones left behind tried to read the book to release the king and the queen, but they were unable to do so. To them the words were smudges without any resemblance to their own language or any other languages they were aware of. Meanwhile, the foreign army regrouped and spread again like a revived fire across the kingdom. The enemy had, once again, the upper hand.”
I had grown impatient over what I thought to be a bunch of nonsense and I opened my mouth to assert my displeasure, but Marcus raised his voice and continued talking.
“On the stage of this ongoing war, linguists from different corners of the kingdom, and even from farther away, came to decipher the book, attracted by an eventual reward but mostly by the possibility of succeeding where so many others had failed. However, none of these linguists managed to read even a word, and they started to say that the book was not a book at all. Around this time, the son of the king and the queen decided to return to the devastated kingdom and he was told that his parents had been trapped inside the book and that there was not any way to get them out, as nobody could decode the writing on the pages. The son opened the book and studied the meaningless words until the hazy borders of the letters became sharper. Now there was a pattern, a path across the pages that he could follow. The book accepted him. He could now read the book, even if he did not understand what the words and sentences meant. As he uttered the absurd words out loud, his parents and their entourage got out from the book. Somehow they oozed through the pages. Somehow they materialized around the book. Also, in the process of learning to read the book the son also mastered how to control the creatures that lived in the book, and some of them incarnated as weapons that could not be defeated, and they marched against the enemy of the kingdom, and the war dissipated as if it had never been more than the fart of a dog.”
“The fart of a dog? That’s an interesting image,” I said.
“Thanks,” Marcus responded, throwing the end of his cigarette into the dead fountain.
During my childhood the base of the fountain had always been full, and trickles lapping down the central floral structure seemed to refresh the air around it. I used to dip the tips of my saturated paintbrushes into the water, just to see the abstract movements expanding, tendrils rotating, turning into themselves. The cigarette butt burned now on the dry concrete and the smoke twirled in a column that behaved like those paint creatures unfolding in the water.
Marcus glared at me without deference, like waiting for me to surrender and to hand over whatever precious object I were hiding.
“So this imaginary book you were talking about, is it somewhere in the library?” I asked.
“There is not such a book. It’s just a story. I simply told you a story.”
“A metaphor of some kind, then? I guess I’m the king’s son.”
“Everything is a metaphor or can be one if you try to cajole it hard enough. I just think that that story will make you think. I hope so.”
“Who are you, Marcus?”
Marcus smiled. It was definitely the first smile I had witnessed on him. I hoped it would be the last.
“You know what? That’s a good question, one that I should ask myself more frequently. Right now I am just a soldier enjoying not being shot at. And that keeps me quite busy.”
“What do you want me to do, exactly? Other than listening to your stories?” Once again, I felt very tired. Wasted. And it was still morning.
“Well, you know what? Maybe you can find that book after all.”