“Elsa.” The voice was unknown to her. She was about to turn and run when a woman of about her own age, stepped from the cabin, a woman with light brown hair and pale eyes. She was smiling.
“Come and share food with us,” she said. But Elsa knew that the sharing of food, or of anything, with strangers, was forbidden and could be dangerous. Others were coming out into the open air, smiling - a plump woman with black hair, an old man with white, shoulder-length hair, and a tall thin woman holding an orange.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” said the pale-eyed woman.
“I don’t know you,” said Elsa. She could easily be overpowered, she realized, thrown into an ambulance and. And, she didn’t know what.
“You don’t know us but we’ve known you for some time now, said the plump woman. “You’re from the Municipal Library, right?”
“That’s true, but…”
“The one who, during the course of her delving, came across the diary of Lev Smidovych.”
“I told no one.”
“However, isn’t it true that those working among manuscripts, like yourself, are under surveillance?”
“The guardians are men and women of integrity, selected for their reliability, their loyalty.”
“Double trouble, huh?” said the man, and they all laughed.
“What he means is, we have one or two allies among the ‘guardians’, in different cities, in different countries.”
“We know that in your heart, that’s what you are too,” the woman with the orange said, “An ally, even if you don’t realise it. Anyway, we’re not here to cause you anxiety. You want to get on with your reading, don’t you? You’d like nothing better than to hide away in the trees with a good book?”
“I don’t know you,” Elsa repeated wondering how she could get out of this situation. Co-operate, she said to herself. Co-operate.
“Don’t worry, we’re with you,” the man said. “Or, to put it another way, you’re with us.”
“I’m not with anybody.”
“You think not. You think not. That’s how you keep yourself safe, and rightly so. But deep, deep in your heart…”
“I wish to leave.”
“All in good time. All in good time,” he said. “As I was saying, deep down you know, you understand. You hesitated, didn’t you, after the copying was completed, and maybe thought about passing the package out the window. Don’t be afraid.”
“I did what I am meant to do, which is to have copies made of old, fragile documents. This particular one was so frail I decided not to give it into the care of anyone else, but to do the work myself.”
“Fragile yes. But another reason you kept it to yourself, I believe, was because you knew it would be disastrous if it fell into the wrong hands.”
Elsa didn’t know what to say. “I can’t get them for you. And… I don’t know who you are.”
“We’re not asking you to get them,” the woman with the orange said. “No, of course not. It’d be more than your life is worth and we need you. You’re precious to us.”
“But now we’re coming to what we wish to discuss with you,” said the woman with the pale eyes. “Tell us. With an article as delicate as this, you would copy it page by page. Yes?”
“Correct.” Elsa told herself to keep calm. Where was this leading?
“And as each copied page came out you would examine it?”
“And as you examined it you would read it?”
“You’re a reader, a practiced reader, a fast reader, an experienced reader. A librarian. Your world is print. You can scan down a page with your reader eyes, and know its content?”
Elsa shifted from foot to foot, looked at the ground. “Not word for word.”
There were relieved sighs and exclamations of delight from her interrogators. They urged Elsa into the cabin which, when she had gone in to shelter from rain on a previous occasion, had been a home for spiders, insects and rodents, nesting birds, feral cats and dogs. Now it had been cleaned and made habitable. There was a large water container on the bench as well as food, dishes, cloths, cutlery, and a camp stove on which a pot of soup was simmering. They sat Elsa down at a small table and put soup and bread in front of her, assuring her of the safety of the food. Co-operate, co-operate she thought. On a shelf nearby were books and stacks of stationery.
While she was eating, they told her that they were members of a group working to fight the Ultra, something which could take a long time. Their members numbered in thousands, but there needed to be a further groundswell, support for those who knew that crimes had been committed, against humanity, but were powerless to do anything about it. What they needed was a hero, inspiration, stories. The name Lev Smidovych was a name which had come down to them from their forbears, but at the time of his death all documentation regarding him had been destroyed – except for the diaries. Some ‘guardian’, no doubt had done the right thing, perhaps keeping the pages for some years before depositing them in the Municipal Library. Lev’s story, when the right time came, was one that needed telling to the world.
“We want to make four copies,” said the pale-eyed woman. “We have no devices, but as you can see, we have paper, pens, pencils. Will you help us?”
“It was a diary, yes,” said Elsa, as her companions began to write, “but it was also an autobiography, the story of Lev Smidovych’s life. Lev was born of parents, who though they lived modestly, had inherited wealth. They were musicians, playing a variety of stringed instruments, and who travelled about, performing sometimes with quartets, sometimes with full orchestras. That is until, late in their marriage, Lev was born. His mother gave up travel at that time, and after a while, so did his father. Their greatest pleasure was to play little tunes for their child, and when he was old enough, to introduce him to his first violin.
Lev was twenty years old when he learned that there had been a resurgence of the virus which had swept the world and taken the lives of his parents. On the day he heard this he went home, closed the shutters and locked the doors, lit a lamp and resolved to stay away from the outside world. That was until he ran out of water.
Elsa described in detail, the empty streets, how Lev had gone in search of water, how he’d felt drawn to climb and look in through the window of the pharmacy, what he had witnessed, the vision of the future which had come to him. On his way home he realised that the empty streets had also been part of that vision as people came in and out of houses, shops stood open, the paper sellers were out in the streets, an ambulance went by. He purchased water and went home.
The name Lev Smidovych was a name which had come down to them from their forbears, but at the time of his death all documentation regarding him had been destroyed – except for the diaries
He lay on his bed and asked himself questions: ‘Why am I alive?’ ‘Why have I been shown what was shown to me?’ ‘What has been laid out for me in this life?’ ‘What shall I do now?’
The answer he gave himself was: ‘I must go and tell the poor of the world what those in power have in store for the ‘unwanted’. I will go to the beggars, the derelict, the orphans the vagrants, the homeless, the malnourished, the paupers, infidels, the cripples, hunchbacks and the blind, the soothsayers and witches. I will find the learned and the seers and all who would get in the way of Ultra having complete power. I will play my fiddle, we’ll gather, and I’ll tell them of what was shown to me - a vision wherein the ‘unwanted’ were piled into ambulances, taken away and killed, or buried alive in mass graves and never heard of again
The next morning, he left his apartment. Gathering together a coat, food and coins for the journey and taking up his violin he set out.
“That’s enough for today,” the pale-eyed woman said. “The library does not open tomorrow. You must stay the night with us. In the morning we’ll continue.”