Some time ago—never mind how long precisely—I slipped off the map of the world. I took the manuscript with me.
It was night when I left. The hallways were dark, but then they were also dark during the day. Many of the fluorescents were burned out or broken, and since the building had been condemned, Facilities Management had declined to x them. They’d demolish the whole thing soon enough.
I hadn’t been planning to leave, and yet I was becoming—not exactly anxious about the manuscript, but overcome. The manuscript was confounding, its authenticity indeterminate. I had known I’d get wrapped up in it.
But I was more than wrapped up. I was lost.
My ex and I once had a game of inventing German compound words for things inexpressible in simple English. Most of this lexicon concerned cuddling, language that was useless to me now. “Outer spoon with arm resting on hip.” “Outer spoon with arms wrapped around inner spoon.” “Facing spoons: bodies entangled.”
There must be a German expression for “self-loss-in-a-project,” I thought the night I left, pulling up an online dictionary to concoct a Frankenword for my current—and, I feared, eternal—condition. Selbst-Verlust-in-Projekt.
I think it is fair to say that if my ex had diagnosed me I would have been assigned a different Frankenword. Something far less generous. But since we were not speaking, I was free to diagnose myself.
Surely someone has noted that loss (Verlust) and desire (Lust) share a root. Which brings me both further from and closer to my point.
Several months prior to my precipitous departure, as a kind of Welcome Back to School/Fuck You event, the University held a book sale. It seemed that over the summer the Chancellor’s office had emptied out the seventeenth to twentieth floors of the library for a big renovation. Deans’ offices and a dining atrium for upper-echelon administrators.
The book sale took place out in front of the building, right where new-student tours marched past. The University was proud to display its “optimization” of the library. Some fraternity had received community service credit for manning the tables. Tank-top- clad guys hulked over the piles of books doing curls and glaring. Surrounding the tables were huge posterboard mock-ups of the dining-atrium-to-be.
Wandering by one afternoon, riffling through the University’s entire collection of philosophy, linguistics, and postcolonial theory, I spotted it.
A mashed and mildewed pile of papers, easily overlooked. And yet, a rare and perplexing find. The lost Sheppard memoir? The scholars in my field had scoured the records, debunked everything they’d found.
“You can just have that,” the kid at the table said.
Back in my office, I stared at the hunk of papers exhaling dust on my desk. It mixed with the other particulate matter that sifted down from the ceiling voids and leaked out of the walls. I wheezed a slightly magnified version of my usual office-wheeze and turned the first crumpled page.
The manuscript had not been read in years, or perhaps ever. There was not a single checkout stamp on it. In fact, there was not even a back-cover card to stamp. The manuscript had never been catalogued at all. Someone had clearly just stuffed it into the back of a stack, where it sat, hidden from view, for god knows how long.
For months, I worked under the narrow yellow bloom of my ancient desk lamp, transcribing the soft, eroded pages of the manuscript, and hoping in a kind of offhand way that I wouldn’t dream at night of either Lust or Verlust (but what were the chances; this was all I dreamed of), while being rained on by the yellow flakes of asbestos or something that drifted through the holes in the ceiling. Occasionally a mouse or rat would make its way down the hallway under flickering half-light, nails clicking on the linoleum.
On the night I left, flipping between pages 252 and 257, a vague suspicion I’d had for some time suddenly crystallized. There was something very wrong with the manuscript.
And furthermore, I needed to disappear with it.
I put the papers and my laptop with its transcriptions and notes into my briefcase, dodged the hallway vermin and walked to my car. Not an insignificant journey: I had pulled a very bad number in the parking lottery. I am not ordinarily sentimental about my workplace, but it was an uncommonly beautiful evening—the last vestiges of fall snagged by the first hard shanks of winter, edges of ice cutting into the blue New England night—and so I didn’t mind the walk. I was saying goodbye, after all. I even permitted myself to brie y enjoy the façade of gentility that the campus took on only in the dark. The birds called sharply to each other in the breezes. The great gray-trunked oaks cast shadows on the buckled pavement. Ivy wrapped the black iron lampposts, helixing fifteen feet up to blown-glass lanterns tremoring with orange light. The University had installed these recently in an attempt to give the crumbling Humanities Quad a distinguished Old World feel. It was another of the landscaping “improvements” they were constantly unleashing in lieu of actually fixing the infrastructure.
But I digress.
You may not know this, but it is possible to hold back a single set of tears for years straight. Many a filmic crescendo concerning masculinity confirms this fact. Quiet shot of car interior. Aging guy. Beard scruff. Hands on wheel. Black night. Cue music.
Predictably, that night—although I am a guy by design, not birth—as I drove away from campus and toward [undisclosed location], I was fucking crying. Or, tearing up, at least. I couldn’t stop thinking about this line that had been haunting me—the epigraph I had discovered on the front page of the manuscript.
“Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, / But yet the body is his book.”
What did Donne mean by this—and all his filthy innuendo, really?
The body is transformed by love.
I recognize I sound uncharacteristically utopian, but this isn’t exactly a utopian sentiment. Not a painless one anyway.
Love inscribes the body—and this is a process as excruciating as it sounds. For some of us it is literal, Kafkaesque. A selbst-verlusting that is both terrifying and pleasurable. The body does not pre-exist love, but is cast in its fires.
If the body is cast in the fires of love, so too—and this is Donne’s point—is the book.
All books, really. But the manuscript you hold in your hands in particular.
The manuscript for which I will surely pay an exorbitant price, distributing it “independently” of the Publisher’s desires and control. They will be especially displeased that I publish it with all my original footnotes. But it is important for you to know everything.
Like I said, I was crying when I left.
These weren’t actually tears of sadness. I never cry when I’m sad; at those times I just pinch down into a miniature version of myself like an ailing turtle trundling off into the forest to die alone. No, I cry when I’m ... not happy, but when I see a ash, if only brie y, that something other and better than this world already exists in potentia. It doesn’t have to be profound. I cry the same set of tears when team members throw themselves into each other’s arms after winning a game as I do when we lock arms in front of the police.
So I was speeding down Route 17, the tears blurring the end- less strip malls into a dazzling silver-gray with hints of purple, white and several phosphorescent shades of green. And I knew then where I’d go. Where I’d be safe. At least long enough to get the manuscript out. The destination was so obvious, so perfect. It was only owing to my amazing capacity for ignoring the obvious that I hadn’t realized it earlier.
No matter. It was clear enough now.
The postindustrial landscape had turned prismatic. Everything I looked at shone and sparkled. Wet light poured out of my eyes. When I blinked, light bloomed in corners, streaked by fast, leaving crystal trails.
Is the manuscript the authentic autobiography? the Publishers used to ask. Is it a fairy tale? Is it a very long and terrible poem? A hoax? I am ashamed to say that, for a time, I tried to answer them. I hope that history will forgive me for having told them anything at all. You can be assured that I will not share my findings with them anymore.
I took the manuscript because I could not allow the Publishers to gain custody of it once I understood what it was. I took the manuscript because I had come to realize that it contained a science. Well, a kind of science. The Publishers had been asking me if there was a code embedded in the document. There is. But not in the way the Publishers think.
I took the manuscript because I could not help but take it once I realized it was trying to communicate something. Something just for us. And if you are reading this, then you know who I mean.
And you’re like: Don’t say too much! What if this publication has fallen into the wrong hands?
Even if I were saying—hypothetically speaking—that this is a code, they will never be able to read it.
There are some things you can see only through tears.
—Dr. R. Voth