Some time after I had begun to read the human books, we had a tome come through that was the size of my palm and three pages long, with just two sentences written on each page. I asked Ma why it was so small.
“It belonged to a baby, my love,” said Ma quietly, hugging me tighter and kissing the top of my head. “He was born too early and died before he could start breathing.”
“But he still had a book?”
“We all have books, right from the start. Sometimes, they’re just too small to see.”
“Why is this baby so special?” I meant ‘why is his story being bound by you, Ma, and not the National Archives,’ but I couldn’t quite form the question. I think I must have been about nine.
“All babies are special to someone. This baby’s parents loved it very much, even though it was so small, and they want to remember it well, so they got a dispensation. I suppose the Department doesn’t think it would matter if this little book went missing.” Ma sighed.
I read the baby book that night, amongst the scraps of leather under the table. Written as the child came out, a soft sigh of knowing as the end arrived. That such a little thing could feel so much. It was not as if the words in the book were stories of people’s lives, I finally understood, more that they contained within them the seed of that person’s truth.
When I returned the tome to my mother’s workbench, I approached her, all full and heavy with earnestness. “Even if the National Archives won’t miss it, this book does matter, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does. Every book matters. Every book is a choice that must be made with respect and care.” I remember the ferocity in her voice even now, so many years after her death.
My mother was a binder. My father owned a crematorium. Despite this, I do not remember them arguing. I could have been pulled to and fro by their polar opposite occupations, but they never once put me in a position where I felt a side needed to – or should be – taken. I was raised on the fence, not to have convictions but to have curiosities.
Firmly believing in the worth of knowing a trade, Pa took me to work with him on Saturday mornings every week until I turned thirteen and became too obstinate to obey him anymore. With naïve indifference, I watched the bodies burn and the pages that blew out of them rise up, lifted on winds of fire before they dropped and caught in dark, ashy patches against the fevered embers.
“Some stories were not meant to be read,” Pa would say, leaning on the long pole used to push the bodies back when heat drew their tendons taut. “Every person has a right to that. A right to remain private.”
Though at the time I assumed Ma could not agree with him, I never remember her openly disagreeing with him, either. At least not in my hearing. She did not work for the National Archives, as most binders did, but for private clients, those whose books had been bought for elite collections, university libraries or, on rare occasions, when a dispensation had been made by the state for a family to keep a deceased’s volume. The money was not regular, but it was enough when it came, and Ma’s skills were sufficiently renowned that someone always came knocking with a new commission before things got too desperate.
Between those cheques and the slim but steady income from the crematorium, we cobbled together our small life. We were not wealthy by any means, and we did not own a car or a television, but we had a moderately sized garden for me to run around in and food on the table. And we loved each other. That was all that mattered.
Many nights, having fed me dinner and leaving Pa’s in the oven to keep warm, Ma would take me out to her studio in the backyard and tuck me up on a spare mattress under the table as she worked. She would bid me go to sleep and sing to me, high plaintive tunes from the Steppes, which I assume she had learnt from her own mother. Her voice interrupted by the soft sounds of her needle squeezing thread through leather, the sharp shrift of the knife. I fell asleep to the scent of glue and pillow-soft patters of falling skin scraps.
Once I reached a certain age, perhaps at the point I could count to ten or recognize the alphabet, Ma would take me onto her lap before bedtime and read to me from the tomes she was working on.
“Don’t tell your father, this will be our secret.” Secrets, not of other people’s lives, but of their souls.
My curiosity piqued and before long, I was reading to myself, tucked in my cot under the table. Small volumes at first, then larger ones. I would sneak them off the shelves when Ma wasn’t looking and by the time she bent under the table to check on me, I was already buried in the story, quite unable to be pried away. Ma would tut and sigh, but I suspect if she had really desired me not to read the human books, she would have kept me away from the studio entirely.
The books varied in size, shape and length. Most were rectangular or roughly square, but once in a while we would get a round or oval tome to handle. Ma would always show me these special books. Some were unusually large, hundreds of pages in length, though how so much spirit could fit into one person always confounded me. Others, like the baby book, were so small you felt the waste of opportunity just looking at their covers.
As an only child with little extra-curricular gusto, I was able to read the human books that came through our house ravenously and with little or no interruption. Beyond the occasional nag to get on with schoolwork, I was primarily left to my own devices. I had few friends, and those I did have tended to be imaginary, drawn from the human books or perhaps the novels I sometimes consumed between my mother’s commissions.
In retrospect, I think Pa must have known about my reading from quite early on – perhaps my mother had warned him in order to stay his fury at my interrupting other people’s privacy so – but he never talked to me about it. Bit by bit, my reading simply seeped into our daily routine. Human books were left around the house in various states of being bound or read, but they were quickly scurried away by all three of us if any visitors came, in case the neighbours took to gossiping more than they already did.
It came as no surprise to either of my parents, then, when I chose to study Anthropology at university, specializing in human books. The course I chose took me far from home, to a Nordic country with an open enough mind to cover the interesting facets of the topic. They were one of the first countries to re-legalise human books after they were initially discovered and the country that offered the most familial dispensations for keeping books out of the National Archives.
My course leader was a deep-thinking bohemian intellectual, who turned up to lectures wearing ripped jeans and whose office was decorated with mindfulness-motivational posters. A bumper-sticker bearing the slogan “Visualise whirled peas” took pride of place across his collaged briefcase. He taught us everything about human books, not just the party line. He discussed their discovery by E. Kresselmann, the ensuing outbreak of existential horror that so many books had already been lost. He taught us about the countries where having your book ritualistically burned out of you while you were still alive was a punishment for criminals, and others where women were deemed unfit to bear books and had them forcibly cut out at puberty. Our class winced as one at these stories. Such a violation was absolute.
Less clear-cut, I learned, were the ethics of our own governments, and their obligatory National Archives. We visited the closest archive on a study trip early in the course. Miles of bookshelves, weighed down by millions of dusting old lives nobody cared to read any longer. In that grim silence, I finally understood why my mother refused to work for the government.
My lecturer was even more rebellious. Opt out was nominally the right of the individual, he told us, but the judgments heaped upon those who decided to be cremated were enough to socially ostracise them.
“Cremation is a private choice, but once word gets out, once it spreads around, those who have chosen it often find themselves the last on the list to parties. Privacy isn’t seen as a preference anymore, it’s seen as something picked by those who have secrets to hide.”
I began to realize that perhaps my own innate oddness was not the only reason the kids at school chose to pull my pigtails, that maybe it was some prejudice drip-fed down from their parents about my father’s occupation. Never before had it occurred to me to ask Pa about his clientele. How he had come to own the crematorium had never come up in conversation, nor how people sought his services.
“The right to privacy should be a human right, as much as keeping your own book intact in your body while you’re alive,” my instructor finished. It did little to answer my questions.
Not long after this, Ma died, quite suddenly, from an aneurism. She fell in her study one bright November morning and never stood up again. I attended her funeral with coughed tears, clasping my father’s arm to hold him upright. He clung to her book, skin still loose at the edges where a binder had yet to trim it, and cried like a child. I could not remember ever having seen him cry before.
Back at university, my studies suffered. I could not think about a human book without feeling the absolute loss of my mother. Most people when they grieve can go and read their loved one’s story in the archives, gain a sense of them, feel their warmth and person right there with them. That is the magic of reading, to feel someone else’s presence even when they are not with you. Yet for me that was not possible. Ma was kept in the archives of another country and, not for the first time, I regretted my decision to leave my hometown. It felt like she was simply falling out of my grasp. I went mad, tossing in bed until the early hours, trying to bottle the memory of her voice and keep it somewhere sacred in my mind where I would never forget it.
It would be true to say that Heida saved me from a very long dark road. We met at the sort of university gathering where the wine is plenty and the canapés non-existent. In amongst the slurs of our colleagues, I discovered her to be charming and intelligent. She sparred with me about the ethics of editing, the subtlety of a good bind, compared notes on her readings from the university’s library – of course she had read Kresselmann’s book, everyone had – but had I been down to the third basement stacks and examined the recovered tomes from the Pompeii victims?
After being booted out of a series of pubs until even the late-closing student bar lost patience with us, we tugged on our layers against the cold outside.
“There’s a story to this scarf,” she told me, with a smile I couldn’t interpret.
“Is there?” I grinned back stupidly. “It reminds me of a Rupert Bear scarf.” It was a line I had once heard one of my high school’s most prolifically promiscuous girls use to great effect. I could have slapped myself for using it now: it seemed so childish. An intellectual failure of that degree could only be a sign of how much I liked her. Alas, we were interrupted by a friend of hers, asking if they could crash on her sofa.
It would be some weeks and a couple of accidental corridor meetings before I had the courage to ask Heida out for a coffee, and months more before I finally found out about the story of the scarf. I may as well have declared my love for her then and there. She was amazed that I remembered a detail so small.
In the end the story of the scarf was quite innocuous – it turned out, she had just been trying to find a reason to keep talking to me – but during the time I didn’t know it, the story tore at me. All Heida’s stories tore at me. I was insatiable in my appetite to know about her. I wanted to climb inside her mind and wander around, to feel and understand all that she had experienced.
Heida felt differently. On the surface she was warm and bright. She introduced me to the Nordic winter, taught me how to skate and ski. We went sledding, drank numberless mugs of hot coffee, held hands through fleece-lined mittens. She taught me not just how to survive the cold and my grief, but how to enjoy survival. We talked about everything in the world around us and much of what we felt within, but there were places Heida wouldn’t let me go. Parts of her mind were closed off to me, and when I asked to read her book she said no.
“It is not that I do not want to share with you,” she said, “and I don’t have anything to hide. But some things aren’t necessary to know.”
Aren’t necessary to know. That’s how she put it. It was the first time the contents of a human book I had wanted to read had been withheld and I didn’t understand. I wanted to fit Heida into all of my first kisses and loves, to rewrite my life up to that point to include her in it. I was so utterly in love with her I could hardly contain it. Yet, for all her professions that she loved me too, I couldn’t help but feel if she really loved me she would want to share everything with me, just as I did with her.
My father sighed at me and told me it wasn’t always so simple. “I never read your mother’s book, you know. She was so open about it, but I never wanted to. She needed to have her own life.”
“This is different,” I said. “It’s like she’s hiding something.”
“So what if she is? People hide all sorts of things – good and bad. My sister would hide her report cards from our parents because she was worried about showing me up,” he laughed. “More fool her, I showed myself up in the end!”
“You don’t understand.”
“No? Well think on this: why do I do what I do? Why do I destroy human books for a living? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s not because I don’t believe that sharing books can’t be a beautiful thing, or because I want to help people cover up uncomfortable truths. It’s because I believe that every person has the right to be private, and to pass from this world without comment if that is what they want. I believe in the choice of being able to do that.
“I often wonder if, in discovering the books, we lost something. Trust – or something that looks like trust. Why do you need proof that the person you love is the person you love?”
“Because I do!”
“But you will find that out anyway, given time. What’s the rush?”
He was right. It took years, but I did learn about Heida in the end. I learned that some nights she couldn’t sleep and she’d stay up reading until the small hours. I learned that she was afraid of people thinking she was a bad person even though she was almost incapable of hurting a soul. I learned that when we argued she had to make things up before we went to bed. I learned that she cried at other people’s weddings and laughed at our own. When we adopted Mikka, I learned that she was more patient that I could ever hope to be.
And I learned all these things at the moments I was supposed to. We bloomed to each other softly across life, and when we came to the end, she said I could keep her book when she died, so long as I was the only one to read it. Only me. I sat with it on my lap, in our garden full of autumn leaves, and I read page after page. By that time, I was not surprised by the depth of her depression.
Because, of course, the book contained only poems upon poems about the rain.
When I finished reading, I closed the book, stroking the uncut leather around the edges. I thought of my own story, which I had read on my back so painstakingly in the bathroom mirror aged eleven. The tale of a little girl whose house is filled with beautiful people and it is not until somebody else walks in that she realizes they are all imaginary. It is not a tale I would readily share with just anybody. By the time Heida finally took me up on the offer to read it, she understood how to hold my story. How to hold me.
My father was right, we have lost something to the books, but it is not just trust, it is time as well. You cannot walk into a shop and immediately expect to be let into the back room – and when you are let in, you cannot presume to instantly understand what you see.
Now my own time has come and I am lucky enough to have warning. I have given Mikka instructions on what is to be done with me and, to fulfill on my promise, with Heida’s book.
“Together,” I told him. “In the same coffin.”
“I cannot burn a bound book!”
“It is not bound. I never had it bound. It’s just a story, fresh and uncut. There’s a loophole in the law.”
“It’s a flimsy loophole.”
“Nobody will come looking for an unbound book, I promise.”
“And your book?”
“I have a dispensation for cremation.”
“May I read it before it burns?”
I shook my head. No, my book was for myself and my wife. It is not for my son to bear as well. Mikka cannot surpass us if he is constantly trying to understand the world as we saw it. He should be given the space to shape himself. Heida and I were a lovely story, a pair of books that could have been bound as one, as if written by the same hand. But it was our story. For us. Our lives were full and beautiful – and flawed and heavy. The world does not need the weight of our tomes. The National Archives might wish to preserve every moment but I can think of nothing worse, dragging around that burden of humanity.
I have been taught all my life that immortality should be sought, that my story deserves to be burned indelibly into the collective human brain. But what if the opposite is true: what if the greatest gift we can offer our species is to touch it barely at all, feather-light? At the end of our days, we have the right to hand on only the most important lessons we have learned and take the rest into silence. We have the right to be forgotten entirely, if that is what we desire, and leave history to pick up the crumbs.
There is nothing dark in being forgotten. It is a lightness, and it is my choice. I choose to burn away. To leave a clean, bright slate for those who follow.