The Oxonian Review Short Story Competition Winner
It stretched from the door 40, 45 feet, in a strip about 4 feet wide, which branched off at 10-foot intervals into perpendicular strips of the same width. These extended perhaps another 20 feet to either side of the main run of the carpet. In the intervening gaps were shelves: to the immediate left as one entered the library, Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature, with literature in the English language chronologically ranged as one progressed toward the bay window at the centre of the room’s extreme end; to the right, Classics, shelved alphabetically; two shelves down, the French; across from the British moderns, the German holdings. Shelves ran around the perimeter of the room, extended onto the gallery, segmented space into compartments occupied by carpet, desk, the relevant students. Dust settled. Events were whispered without happening; then the reader across looked up annoyed. The whisperers fell silent.
And yet it was here that my friend Alice was witness to—not an event; not even an incident, for the development in question was gradual, slow: a process, then, for lack of a better word. Several, no doubt, would suggest themselves from among the volumes stored in the library, which included a certain edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, if we had recourse to the room now: but that access is conditioned by the reader’s willingness to step onto the carpet: and that, she having seen what she saw, and I having heard what I heard from her, we categorically refuse to do.
And yet the process in question was so slow, inching, and gradual, that its traumatic potential was virtually nil; nor could it properly be called a tragedy, for no pathos whatsoever was involved. Insofar as passion was seen, it was passion of the secondary and presumably the original sense, the opposite of action: the sense of what was suffered to happen, and not, as the contemporary usage of the word more readily suggests, of what violent turmoil arose in reaction against an external stimulus, for there was no external stimulus, as far as Alice or I, on the basis of her account, could discern. But neither was the development fortuitous, or random; given its setting and context, it was, so to speak, the only thinkable outcome, seeming to unfold and to conclude, in its latest and finally irreversible stage, according to an inexorable logic.
My friend, whose proclivity for reading has only recently, under the influence of the impressions I am about to detail, been curtailed, used to be a frequent inmate of the college library. She visited it at intervals admittedly irregular, but for considerable spaces of time. It was here that she made the mute acquaintance of a student who, by her judgment, was most likely working toward a doctorate (a project of that magnitude alone could have so fully, at our guess, engrossed him), a paper probably focusing on the work of G.E. Lessing: it was his Laocoön, at any rate, he read.
That my friend and this poor boy should take particular notice of one another was given by a certain degree, on her part, of eccentricity; on his, either (in the initial instance) by a like-minded bent; rheumatism, or—and this I personally suppose the most likely option—by that innate valuing of peripheral perspectives so frequent in modern literature students. Whatever his motivation, this boy joined, upon discovering, my friend where she was reading on the floor, nodded to her in a kind of vague appreciation of her presence, and opened the Laocoön. He read, as far as she can remember, for about an hour; then having, presumably, finished his chapter, shut the book, nodded appreciatively to her, got up, and left.
My friend is an eccentric, as I have said, but one who strongly appreciates, in certain things, habit: she did not deviate from her reading-space as the weeks progressed; and her companion—they did not once speak—would come to join her. Of the striking individuals that Oxford attracts, he was perhaps the least singular, the most predictable, the most punctual; as the term progressed, he spent longer and longer periods in the library—as any serious student of G.E. Lessing might reasonably be expected to do, and he was clearly a very serious student, Alice says, for in the time she spent there, reading Beowulf, then Layamon, Chaucer, Skelton, Wyatt, Webster, Donne, Milton, Cowper, and so forth, progressing consecutively from the earliest works of British literature to the most recent, he must have read the Laocoön 20 times over. God only knows what he thought was hiding inside it, what he was trying to extricate!
One feature of his Alice does, however, recall as striking: his sartorial taste. On their initial encounter in the library, she reports that he was already very colourful, and as the term progressed, as her reading shed cases, vowels shifted, romance turned to lyric, and the critical apparati confronting her became progressively more complex as the weight of evidence grew, so also his dress became more colourful and chameleon-like: which is to say, began to approximate more and more the shades and patterns of the carpet.
Alice would now come and find him already sitting there: he would nod, she would nod, sit down, open Wordsworth’s Prelude, he would rise many tedious hours later, nod, she would nod out of her stupor, he would leave; she would arrive, he would nod, she would nod, sit down, open Byron’s Don Juan, rise many hours later, she would nod, he would nod, she would leave; she would come, nod, sit down, open Clough’s Bothie, rise, nod with residual vigour, he would nod, she left. When she came to Swinburne, he failed to nod at 8am, as at 6pm, when she finished; she trawled her way through the complete later Henry James without his slightest attention; by the time she finished Three Guineas, she already practically considered him an item of the furniture, his dress not only of the colour and pattern now, but of a piece with the very texture of the carpet. She finished reading 1984; beside her still, still reading the Laocoön, he had already become little more than a memory. He had obtained, at some point—when did she first notice it?—a cover for the book, of a piece with the carpet; she remembered him when she stumbled over him. He didn’t look up; he was only just barely there.
One day, Alice finished Gardner’s Grendel. She shut the book, got up. Instinctively, even where his actual presence slipped her mind, she had heretofore been nodding whenever she left. She remembered, in the door, that she had omitted the ritual. I have said that my friend is a creature, in some respects, of habit. She turned around, meaning to make good the lapse. Partly perhaps a superstitious impulse led her back; perhaps it was politeness on her part. There was no sense of urgency, no rush to shake him, shout at him, rip the leaves out of the Laocoön, bring him to nod, to shout, nobly or ignobly to reaffirm his life. She felt, she said, after hours of reading, only light-headed lethargy. She cannot thus properly be said to have come too late. At any rate, when she did return, the boy was already indistinguishable, blended into the carpet perfectly. This was the first time, Alice says, that she had noticed it; but when exactly it happened, at what point the threshold between being and non-being was crossed, we can only speculate.
Václav Gabriel Piňos is reading for a BA in English Literature at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.