Paul is Perplexed by a Mystical Library
The great man of letters is confronted by his readers—and the very nature of truth
Holy Wr*t! is a collection of satirical and legendary short stories (this one’s a kind of parable), reimagining the world of the Bible. Email subscribers get a new story delivered each Tuesday. If you haven’t already, please sign up below!
A man sits at a writing desk, scribbling furiously. Reflected light from a single oil lamp skitters across his shiny bald head. He is a small man, almost stout, with pallid baby cheeks and a bump of a nose. He fills a page with words.
He knows two things, sure as he knows his name is Paul the Apostle: one, that his sage epistolary advice—alternating as it does between gushing paternal affection and blustering moral outrage—could solve all his recipients’ problems; and two, that the Corinthians are total morons, and are bound to fuck it up.
He frowns. A second epistle might eventually be required.
It happens, just then. Goosebumps and tingling. Limestone walls popping and bulging, like the rude mouth noises of a child. The lamp goes out. He’s squeezed down into his chair. The air becomes lead. His lungs can’t move to breathe. He wonders idly if he might die.
He’s released. He sits up, sits still, rubs his eyes. He lights the lamp. He’s in a library. A huge library. Cavernous is too small a word.
Only he can’t see any books. This is somewhat odd, given the usual facts about libraries. There are the shelves. Row upon row of shelves, neatly marching out toward infinity. Each one is totally and completely empty.
What to do? There are no instructions. But he isn’t a stupid man. Here is a writing desk, and there are empty shelves. He bites the tip of the pen, dips it, and sets down an experimental word.
He hears a shuffling sound, punctuated by thumps. He looks up. Now there are books. Just a few, here and there. He looks down, completes the sentence. More books.
He walks to the nearest shelf, chooses a codex at random. There, stamped out in impossibly perfect lettering, is the line he has just written. He feels a thrill, a flush of pride. His words! His sage epistolary advice! His distinctive rhetorical flair!
There should be a term for it, he thinks. ‘Pauline,’ perhaps. He tries it out loud. “Pauline.” Yes, very nice.
His smile falters, then collapses in a heap. What is this? Below his words, other words. Running on for paragraphs, commenting on his phrases, murdering them with a kind of dull exactness that manages, all at the same time, to be technically correct and entirely wrong. Whoever has done this has clearly missed the point. It was unconscionable.
But perhaps not irreparable. They simply had not understood. He could set the record straight.
Back to the desk. More sentences. A point or two of clarification, some extra phrases shoved into the margins. All the while, he hears the same shuffling, thumping sounds all around him. He will deal with that in a minute. First, he must issue corrections.
More books! Even more than before. Where had they come from? Over to the same shelf—mysteriously labeled B.S.—to a different book this time. His eyes narrow. His nostrils flare. “Wrong!” he shouts, and ignores the echo. “Wrong wrong wrong wrong WRONG!”
How could it be? How could they do this to him? He was an apostle, after all. He grabs another book, then another, then lets out a small scream. Half the time, he has no idea what they are talking about—and the other half, they have no idea what they are talking about. Good God, what a hell of torments this is.
Had he not been clear? He could not have been more clear. He would have to be more clear.
The desk again. His tongue sticks out of the corner of his mouth. He hunches over the paper, looks around suspiciously, then writes a sentence. He leaps up with a yell as new books pop into existence. He yells again for good measure, shaking his fist at the books. He catches himself, and feels slightly ridiculous.
A different shelf, in a different section. Some of these books are simply outrageous—drippy, sentimental garbage. Others contain only opportunistic pilfering, yanking his phrases and twisting his ideas. It seems to him they were selling something, though he can’t quite figure out what. But most books simply run on for pages, with a kind of dogged reverence that treats his letters like some kind of Torah for people who don’t read Torah. Like the letters themselves had become little paper gods. It was incredibly ironic, he had to admit, and slightly embarrassing. He feels a little flattered. He feels a little bad. His stuff is good, but even he isn’t so crazy as to think it’s working on the same level as God.
Not that they’re all like that. Some of the books aren’t nearly so nice. These ones don’t stop at discussing his words. They discuss him. They have such nitpicky things to say—pointing out grammatical mistakes, noticing when he doesn’t finish sentences. Sure, he has a tendency to ramble, and sure, not everything he writes is entirely consistent with everything else. So what? In his defense, he has a lot going on. The criticism of his views about women is probably fair. Maybe he would think more about that later. Maybe.
It all has to go. All of it, he decides. He can’t have them do this to him, to his words. He marches back to the desk, picks up the top-most paper, and crumples it with a flourish. He smiles as books disappear from the shelves. He does it again. Another parchment destroyed. More books wink out of existence. He’s back in control.
Finally, he stares out at an empty library once more. Only it feels emptier now. Emptier even than when he arrived. It reminds him of gravestones—all those empty shelves, standing there so mournfully. Just like gravestones, without any epitaph or inscription. It reminds him of dead earth, and the strange empty fields he once saw as a child. Their flowers and weeds had all been ripped away, left to die in violent heaps.
The little man rocks on his toes, pats pudgy cheeks with both hands. Who decides, he asks himself, what is good and what is bad? I do, he replies. I know what it means. What I mean. They don’t. They couldn’t possibly.
They couldn’t possibly. He thinks about this. He wonders if there is a gap between language and truth. He feels around inside that question for a while. Not everything they’d written had been wrong. And some of it was sort of—sort of wrong in the right directions. To be honest, some of it was better than what he had intended to say himself. Brilliant in its own way. Not most of it—he quickly interjects. Most of it is derivative garbage, and that’s being generous. He wonders if he could get the library to produce only one type, and not the other. I couldn’t possibly, he hears himself mutter out loud. That was the trouble.
He picks up a fresh sheet of parchment, looks at it a while. Some things can’t be helped. He decides the library is one of them. Quite probably the Corinthians as well. But he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to try.
He sinks back in the chair, reaches slowly for the pen. As he does, he feels the world pop then squeeze then release, just as before. The air feels much closer now, the walls much nearer. He relights the lamp. He’s in his own little room again. He rubs his eyes, looks down to his work.
What was it again? The Corinthians. Somewhere in the back of his brain, he reminds himself to add in a nice section about love. He noticed there hadn't been nearly enough in the library about the importance of love. He thinks he has a few good lines written for somebody’s wedding years ago. Maybe he’d toss it in. People like that sort of thing.
But first, there are issues to address, corrections to make. He raises his pen, takes an imperious breath. “AND ANOTHER THING!” he says. He underlines each word several times as he writes, then continues on down the page.
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