The Day the Words Died

Hacklermark
22 min readSep 28, 2020

#BannedBooksWeek2020

(This is an excerpt from a book-in-progress. It’s my offering for Banned Books Week 2020.)

Chris woke in darkness. He could see very little but sensed that he was in an unfamiliar place. His upper body ached, and his throat hurt; a sharp pain, like the slash of a long curved blade, pulsed through his ribs each time he took a breath. He couldn’t move his arms or feel anything below his waist.

He heard a strange, rhythmic beeping above and behind his head. A bomb? Was there a bomb nearby? He was again a young boy in the dark, fearful of the shrill whistling of bombs plummeting toward his home, and of the steady beep, beep, beep that might be the pulse of timers on soon-to-explode ordnance. I am trapped under the rubble. Chris tried to cry out for help, but something was jammed in his throat and he couldn’t form words.

He sensed someone moving in the shadows. The fire brigades! But then he felt the soft touch of fingertips on his arm, and he heard the murmurs of a gentle female voice. Mother? Are you okay? He turned his head slightly and noticed a fuzzy orange glow. A fire? He had trouble focusing, but the orange glow seemed to be growing larger by the second, as if possessed of a devilish metabolism. Yes, yes, a fire! The books are burning! Mother, mother, the Nazis are burning our books!

***

The nurse smoothed Chris’ blanket, watching for any reaction from him. When she first approached to check his vital signs, she thought he might be struggling against the ventilator, but after a minute or two of observation, she wasn’t sure. “I’ll be here every thirty minutes to check on you, Mr. Mansion,” she said. “Don’t fight, just rest.” As she left the room, she glanced out of the window. Across the street from the hospital, a local company had erected a garish neon orange palm tree, advertising God knows what. That looks like it will create more nightmares than sales. She walked to the window and closed the curtains.

***

Chris slowly became aware of a tall, dark-skinned man standing in a spacious, stone-floored room, on which were scattered thick wool rugs intricately embroidered with brightly colored threads and fanciful designs. The white plastered walls were decorated with blue-tinted paintings of winged bulls and gold-colored geometric designs. Smoky oil lamps flickered on a knee-high wooden table, supplementing the bright sunlight that filtered through two small windows. Dust motes floated lazily in the light, like old men relaxing in a warm bath. On the table, Chris saw a bowl of wet clay partially covered by a wool cloth, several rectangular wooden forms, and half-a-dozen slender, wedge-shaped instruments. Behind the man, colorfully painted wooden boxes, stacked with their open ends facing the room’s interior, rose from floor to ceiling; each box was stuffed with papyrus scrolls and dried clay tablets.

The man sported a neatly-curled beard, cut square at the bottom, which complemented his wavy, oiled hair; a thin gold headband held the raven black hair away from his face. An earring dangled from his right ear, and he wore bracelets on both of his wrists. He was elegantly dressed in a long, white linen tunic, which was topped by a shawl with golden threads. A band of small indigo blue designs, the crisscrossing limbs and bulbous nodes of the Assyrian Tree of Life, edged the folds of his shawl. His feet were shod in dusty brown sandals, and Chris noticed that the frayed sandal straps needed replacing.

“Yes?” Chris asked. “Are you waiting for me?” As he was speaking, he noticed a ragged, chest-high rip in the man’s otherwise impeccable tunic, and a feeling of dread raced through Chris’ heart.

“I am Sha’ol,” the man said. “I was a dub-sar, a tablet writer, in the royal library of Nineveh, the great city of fifteen gates. In this room,” he turned slightly and swept his arm back, “I copied the story of the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Creation. I learned the Epic of Gilgamesh from my teachers while reclining on those cushions.” He pointed to plush cushions stacked beneath the wooden table. “I preserved the Enuma Anu Enlil, the story of omens and the moon and the stars; I tracked the rise and fall of the Khawsar and Tigris rivers.” He walked over and caressed — that was the only word for his motions — the wooden forms on the table. “I recorded the taxes and tribute due to the mighty king Ashurbanipal and his weak successor; I inscribed the record of harvest and the slaughter of the beasts.” He picked up a wedge-shaped stylus. “I taught the discipline of the bone and clay, of how to form the marks of the words of Akkadian, to the dumu-é-dub-ba, the sons of the tablet house.” He gently replaced the stylus and smiled at Chris. “I am Sha’ol, the Master of Words.”

“Cuneiform,” Chris offered. “You taught students how to write in cuneiform.”

“Yes,” Sha’ol said. “In the é-dub-ba, the tablet house, I gave them the power to read and write. I taught boys how to cut and shape bones to make the wedge-shaped marks; I taught them how to form and smooth the clay for writing.” His face glowing with pride, he added: “I taught them the beauty of our poetry, the legends of our people, and the magic of numbers. I am Sha’ol, the Master of Words.”

“Why are you here?” Chris asked, although he was uncertain if Sha’ol was in Chris’ present or if he, Chris, had been transported back to ancient Assyria.

Sha’ol leaned forward and whispered, “I am here to prepare you for the Destruction.”

***

The nurse returned to check on Chris, and as she was replacing an empty IV bag she heard a soft moan. She thought Chris moved his head from side to side, as if he were saying “no.” The sedative is wearing off, she thought, and the ventilator is probably irritating his throat. She made sure the rails on the bed were locked firmly in place, and then checked his vitals, writing down the numbers on the palm of her hand. “Mr. Mansion,” she said, “I’ll ask the doctor about that ventilator. I know it’s not comfortable.” She touched his arm lightly. “Don’t you worry; you’ll feel better soon.”

She paused at the door and looked back at Mr. Mansion. He was a bookstore owner, for God’s sake! Who in hell beats up an elderly bookstore owner? She shook her head and walked out of the room and down the hall to the nurse’s station to call the doctor. He had left written orders to notify him when Mr. Mansion began to stir.

***

“Destruction!” Chris exclaimed. “What destruction?”

“The words will die again,” Sha’ol said. “Few will notice, but the words will die.” He clasped his hands as if in prayer. “The words have died many times, but they have always been resurrected by passionate men.” He bowed his head and whispered, “However, it may not always be so.”

“What do you mean,” Chris asked, “when you say the words will die again?”

“You have been chosen,” Sha’ol replied, looking directly into Chris’ eyes.

“Chosen? For what? By whom?” Chris asked, exasperated. “And why will the words die?”

“Come.” Sha’ol waved his hand to signal that Chris was to follow him. “You must see the Destruction.”

Chris felt himself floating up toward the plastered ceiling. Sha’ol was hovering near him. “I was in this room of the library,” he said softly, as if he were speaking of sacred things, “protecting the scrolls and tablets from the beasts of war.”

Chris and Sha’ol rose higher, passing through the ceiling into bright sunlight. After the cool quiet of the library, Chris was shocked when he was body-slammed by heat, frenzied curses, and desperate groans. He saw and smelled the acrid, choking smoke of many fires; bitter-tasting ash filled his mouth, the scorched debris of the dreams of dying men. Looking down, he saw a city assaulted by fire, and he watched as men slashed other men with short swords.

He saw the bright red blood of the dying stain the dry brown soil, an offering to the swarming flies.

“The Babylonians and the Medes attacked and destroyed Nineveh, my beloved city, in the year 624 BCE, as you measure it,” Sha’ol said. “This catastrophe happened fourteen years after the death of the great scholar-king Ashurbanipal.” Sha’ol paused for a moment and looked at the battle. “I was an old man then,” he said softly, “and I could do little more than weep for the men and words of my city.”

He was silent for a long time. He no longer gazed at the fight raging below; he seemed, instead, to stare at some distant memory. Chris imagined that Sha’ol was re-living, in his mind, every terrifying minute of that terrifying last day, an unwelcome re-creation that was the special curse of battle-scarred survivors.

“Old man or not,” Sha’ol continued, as he retreated from his memories, “I defended the library as best I could; I found a forgotten sword in the corner of a storeroom.” He clinched his hands into fists. “A Babylonian soldier laughed at me when I pleaded with him to spare the library. The stupid man swept his sword across a table, sending tablets crashing to the floor, and then he grabbed an oil lamp and lit a pile of scrolls on fire.” Sha’ol took a deep, convulsive breath. “In anger, I swung my sword at him, using both of my hands in a mighty swing. He merely took a step back and laughed again.” Sha’ol looked embarrassed by the memory but continued. “’You are a worthless dub-sar,’ the soldier sneered at me with the vulgar contempt of the unlearned. ‘Who are you to resist the might of Babylon?’ Then he lunged forward with his sword and plunged it into my heart.” Sha’ol touched the jagged edge of his torn tunic.

Chris looked at Sha’ol and saw that he had tears in his eyes. “The library burned to the ground,” Sha’ol said, speaking slowly. “On that day the words died in Nineveh.”

Chris suddenly remembered a black and white photograph of a bookshop snapped in London during the Blitz. His mother had told him that he had been present when the photograph was taken, but he had no memory of it. The bookshop had been badly damaged by a bomb — the roof of the building had collapsed — and the surviving books were in a jumble. Strangely, men were poking around in the rubble, as if it were an ordinary Saturday afternoon and they were looking for the latest bestseller.

The shop was owned by his father and mother, but none of men in the photo were his father, who had been sent by the government to some little village in the countryside to do intelligence work. After that day Chris and his older brother were also sent away, to stay with relatives living in a drafty cottage in Yorkshire. Chris’ mother remained in London, doing some war work, but also salvaging books from the damaged shop and others like it; she reopened the bookshop in a new location before the war ended.

Chris shook his head to clear his mind of the memory. He said nothing for a moment, but when he saw the sad look on Sha’ol’s face, Chris offered the only solace he could think of: “Not all was lost! Archeologists recovered some things. The fire baked and hardened the clay tablets, and many were saved from destruction.”

“You have a few texts,” Sha’ol replied. “The records of a thousand years of our civilization were lost.”

Chris nodded, feeling the deep inadequacy of his offer of comfort. His mother had cried when she sorted through the rubble of their bookshop, and a six-year-old Chris had desperately wanted to make her stop, but he had nothing to offer her except his own tears. What Sha’ol said was true: archeologists had found a few poems, a lot of inventories and financial records, and some liturgical works. They had the fragmentary skeleton of a corpse that once had been a great corpus of work.

Chris looked down at the battle. The pace of the slaughter was accelerating, and the city’s defenders were losing. Flames flickered through the roof of the library, steadily consuming the timber frame, pieces of which fell into the building.

He looked at Sha’ol, who was staring intently at the collapsed roof of the library. The flames meant that Sha’ol had lost his fight with the Babylonian soldier.

“It is time to see other things,” Sha’ol said, in a quiet, sad voice.

***

After twenty years of military experience, including two combat tours in Iraq, Dr. Stewart responded instinctively to the four A.M. phone call by tossing off the blankets and swiveling his feet to the floor. He picked up his mobile phone with his right hand while simultaneously turning on the lamp with his left hand. His thumb pressed the answer button. “Dr. Stewart,” he said into the phone.

“Good morning, doctor,” a female voice responded. “This is Carol Fraser, a floor nurse on duty at the hospital. You left instructions to call you as soon as Mr. Mansion began to wake up.”

“Yes, yes, I did,” the doctor replied. He glanced at the clock. “But why couldn’t he wake up at, say, nine A.M.?” Dr. Stewart paused, but the nurse didn’t respond. “Okay, just kidding. How is he doing?”

“His pulse and respiration rates are up a bit,” the nurse said. “But the increase isn’t alarming. I do think he’s starting to fight the ventilator, though.”

“Okay,” Dr. Stewart responded. “That’s probably normal. The sedative is wearing off. Keep checking on him, and call me if the pain seems to be getting away from us. I’ll be in at about seven.”

“Will do” Carol said.

“Good. Thanks. I’ll see you in a little while if you’re still on duty.” The doctor ended the call, turned off the light, and crawled under the blankets. His wife, accustomed to late night and early morning calls, barely stirred.

He had taken a special interest in Mr. Mansion’s case. The doctor knew from his visits to the Hard Thoughts bookstore that his political opinions were decidedly different than those of Mr. Mansion — Dr. Stewart was Edmund Burke to Mr. Mansion’s Tom Paine — but the doctor liked the quirkiness of the place, and he liked being referred to as an “idea lover” by the bookstore staff.

***

A hot wind rose beneath them, and Chris felt himself pushed higher and higher into the air, until the dying city of Nineveh was nothing but a black smear on a brown landscape. The wind blew them to the east, across vast, empty steppes, snow-shrouded mountains, and a broad, flooding river running a murky brownish-yellow. They traveled in silence for a very long time, finally stopping above an oriental palace in a crowded city.

“This is Xianyang, in Zhongguo, what the West calls the Middle Kingdom or China, in the year 212 BCE,” Sha’ol informed Chris. “This is the place of the Fen Shu Keng Ru, the burning of the books and the burial of the scholars.”

Chris saw men scurrying to unload carts full of bamboo strips that had been joined together to form beautiful Zhú gǔndòng, bamboo scrolls. “What does that mean?” He asked.

“It means,” Sha’ol responded, “the burning of the books and the burial of the scholars.”

Chris watched as the pile of bamboo grew larger and higher. An elaborately dressed man holding a torch — some kind of official, Chris guessed — emerged from the crowd of bystanders and stepped up to the pile. As the crowd cheered, the official threw the torch onto the bamboo. In seconds, Chris felt the searing heat of a soaring bonfire of words.

“Why?” Chris asked. “This isn’t the scene of a battle. Why are they burning books?”

“Intolerance, fear, lust for power,” Sha’ol answered. “And it is the scene of a battle: the battle of ideas. Here, as in much of the world, only one set of ideas was acceptable. Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, suppressed any ideas that challenged his notion of governance. That man, that worm,” Sha’ol pointed to the official Chris had noticed, “Is Li Si, the emperor’s chancellor. He is the one who suggested that the emperor burn books. Li Si believed that scholars and intellectuals and their books created dissent, which could not be tolerated.”

“Well, they are opinionated,” Chris joked. He noticed that Sha’ol didn’t smile, so Chris quickly added, “But they shouldn’t burn books.”

“That is not all,” Sha’ol said. “Look behind the palace.”

Chris looked in the direction Sha’ol pointed. Several men were standing, arms and legs bound, in front of a long trench. “Let me guess. They killed the scholars, didn’t they?” Chris said.

“Killing them would have been an act of mercy, and Li Si didn’t believe the dissident scholars deserved mercy,” Sha’ol said, refining Chris’ observation. “So Li Si had them buried alive.”

Chris watched as the bound men were none-to-gently pushed into the trench. Once again, Chris heard the onlookers cheer. Several laborers jumped forward and enthusiastically began filling the trenches with soil.

“Emperors and men of the world, men of action, claim not to listen to scholars, believing them to be frivolous,” Sha’ol said. “But if they are unimportant, why are powerful men so eager to ensure that no one reads the books or listens to the scholars?”

“How many died here?” Chris asked.

“The Qin emperor buried alive more than one thousand scholars,” Sha’ol said. “That’s more scholars than there were in all of Assyria.”

***

Mr. Mansion was a book man, Dr. Stewart thought as he closed his eyes and attempted to sleep for another hour or two. And he was a book man of the most irritating kind, because he proselytized for books and ideas relentlessly — and sometimes those ideas were unpopular.

The doctor understood and valued book men and their ideas, but some of them made him nervous: books and book men, he discovered in Iraq, were as vulnerable as children. He had seen books and manuscripts burning, and he had treated the book men who had been brutalized by religious zealots because the men, to support their families, sold trashy romance novels they scavenged from smoldering rubbish piles.

Iraqi book men bleed red.

Islamic zealots have a lot in common with the Christian fundamentalists rumored to have beaten Mr. Mansion, who had the temerity to sell books by a woman who exposed their hypocrisy.

American book men bleed red.

***

The wind blew them toward the setting sun, and Chris sensed time passing quickly as they traveled. Looking down, he saw, as if through an out-of-focus telescope, towns and villages rising and falling, and armies marching across the landscape, leaving fires in their wake. They passed over what would become Iraq, then Syria, Palestine, and Israel. Chris was uncertain of how much time had passed, at least as it is calculated in ordinary human reckoning, but after only a few minutes of spirit travel through the dry, hot air he saw a large body of water in the distance.

“The Egyptians called it the Great Green,” Sha’ol said, speaking for the first time since they were blown from the sky over China. “To the Greeks, it was Mesogeios, the ‘middle of the earth’. The Romans dubbed it Mediterraneus, the place between lands. You call it the Mediterranean Sea.”

“Why are we here?” Chris asked.

“Alexandria,” Sha’ol said. “It is the year 48 CE.”

Chris pursed his lips. “I know this bit of history. Caesar was fighting Ptolemy XIII in Alexandria, and an offshore wind prevented Roman galleys carrying the Thirty-Seventh Legion from reaching the city. Ptolemy’s navy was in the harbor, so Caesar launched a surprise attack and burned the Egyptian ships. According to Plutarch, the fire spread from the docks to a warehouse filled with books. Seneca wrote that 40,000 books were burned that day.”

“Yes,” Sha’ol answered. “Once again, the arrogance of soldiers destroyed the words.”

Chris looked down on the harbor. In the distance, he could see Roman galleys tacking back and forth, unable to enter. Chris saw the Egyptian fleet at anchor, and he noticed that some of the ships were moored at the dock. Suddenly, Roman soldiers swarmed the docks and the air was filled with flaming arrows targeted at the Egyptian ships. Many of Ptolemy’s ships caught fire, and flames leaped from the ships at the dock to several wooden buildings. As the buildings burned, Chris saw, yet again, bits of charred paper rising into the sky.

“A terrible accident,” Chris agreed. “We can’t even imagine what is burning down there. But the Library of Alexandria wasn’t destroyed by Caesar.”

“Accident or not,” Sha’ol snapped, “I do not like soldiers. The books burned because of them, preparing the way for a double tragedy.”

“A double tragedy?” Chris asked.

“Yes. We will go to that place now,” Sha’ol said.

“Wait!” Chris shouted. “I want to see the library!” But the wind had already shifted, and it rapidly ferried Chris and Sha’ol to the northeast. Chris looked back sadly and thought, If only I could have seen the Library of Alexandria!

***

The relentless sounds and sharp images of war rose in Dr. Stewart’s mind; he was once again Colonel Stewart, a doctor in the U.S. Army in Iraq. The cries of the wounded and the final silence of the dead; the frightened look in the eyes of a nineteen-year-old soldier; the fixed, bewildered stare of a dark haired little girl in ragged clothes peering from behind a mountain of rubble. Colonel Stewart could still smell gunpowder and burning rubber, as if his sense of smell had been permanently altered by his experience of Iraq. His body tensed when he remembered the desperate race to staunch bleeding and minimize shock in men who were missing an arm or a leg or half a face. His heart still responded with the despair he felt when many of those men lay forever mute and unmoving on dark green stretchers.

***

Chris and Sha’ol hovered over an impressive city that was spread out on a promontory just to the north of a large river. Chris could see a number of large temples and other public buildings.

“Pergamum,” Sha’ol said.

Originally a Greek city, Pergamum had aligned itself with the Romans in 133 BCE while under the rule of King Eumenes II. At its height, more than 200,000 people lived in the city, and it was as important in the ancient world as Alexandria.

Chris knew that Pergamum, too, once had a famous library, founded by the same king who aligned himself with the Romans.

Chris saw men, guarded by Roman soldiers, walking in and out of a colonnaded building. Each time the men left the building, their arms were full of papyrus scrolls. They dumped the scrolls into a cart, one of a long line of carts. “Plutarch believed the library contained 200,000 volumes,” Chris said. “It was the second greatest library of the ancient world.”

“Yes,” Sha’ol replied. “But much was lost.”

Chris nodded. “According to legend, Antony gave the library to Cleopatra as a wedding present. The scrolls were transported to the Library of Alexandria.”

“And when the Library of Alexandria disappeared,” Sha’ol said, “the library of Pergamum vanished with it.”

“Yes, a double tragedy,” Chris agreed.

“The lust of Antony for Cleopatra, of Rome for Egypt,” Sha’ol said angrily, “destroyed the patrimony of my world to yours. The word truly died, and it cannot be resurrected, no matter what your archeologists hope.”

What was it lost? Chris wondered, as he watched the men on the ground below carelessly throw scrolls into carts. The rediscovery of Greek thought, however imperfectly, led to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, to capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, to modern science. Was there something the ancients knew, something that has been lost, that might have mitigated the harsher aspects of modern life? Something that might have advanced medicine to the point that cancer was no longer a problem? Chris did not know. A half-dozen ethical systems — Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist — survive from the ancient world, yet men still behaved cruelly, and ancient medicine, with its obsession on the Four Humors and quack herbal remedies and leeching, plagued patients for more than two thousand years without doing anything for cancer.

Chris looked at his guide with sympathy. “Yes, much as been lost.” Chris stared at the carts full of scrolls, then shrugged his shoulders. “What has been lost, I don’t know, and that uncertainty frustrates me.”

“We have not yet seen the end of the Destruction,” Sha’ol said. “We must go.”

“I have seen enough,” Chris protested. “I don’t want to see more.”

But the wind began to howl.

***

Colonel Stewart had been on the outskirts of Baghdad in April 2003 when the National Museum of Iraq was looted. A lot of things were taken from the museum, but the theft of cuneiform tablets from the ancient city of Uruk, the birthplace of writing, infuriated him. He had never really thought about the tablets before; in fact, he had been only vaguely aware of their existence — a memory left over from a Western Civ course in college, perhaps. But when he heard of the loss of the tablets, he realized they contained ideas and voices that might be lost forever. It was as if all of the servers owned by Google and Yahoo were destroyed by a mob of Luddites.

He could do nothing to stop the theft; as a doctor, he wasn’t in the appropriate chain of command to order U.S. troops to intervene. But he felt guilty that the Third Infantry Division stood by as the museum was ransacked. The U.S. Army could find resources to guard the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, but it couldn’t spare a private with a pistol to save the remnants an ancient civilization. Stewart was further angered and embarrassed when he learned that Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, shrugged his shoulders and said, in effect, “shit happens” when he was questioned about the looting.

No, the colonel thought as he trudged toward a hospital tent at the Baghdad airport on a dusty evening. Shit like that doesn’t just happen. It’s allowed, if not encouraged, by the stupidity of self-righteous bastards. Twelve hours later, too tired to think, he collapsed onto a cot and dreamed of brown tablets bleeding red symbols.

***

They left the shores of what is now modern Turkey and blew southeast over the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. At landfall, Chris and Sha’ol flew over dry, dusty country, stopping over a city that Chris immediately recognized as ancient Jerusalem.

“The Emperor Hadrian has just crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt of the Jews,” Sha’ol began. “Now is the time of retribution.”

Looking on the scene below, Chris could see a man with a long beard and a torn tunic being pushed roughly through one of the gates of Jerusalem by Roman soldiers; two women, also bound and guarded, followed. A crowd of young men watched from a safe distance.

“That is Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion, venerated by Jews as one of the Ten Martyrs,” Sha’ol said. “He and his wife were condemned to death because he continued teaching Torah after it was forbidden by the Romans.”

“The older woman is his wife, I assume. Who is the younger?” Chris asked.

“Yes, his wife. The younger woman is one of his daughters. She has been condemned by the Romans to a life of degradation,” Sha’ol answered.

“Prostitution,” Chris said.

“Yes, but not sacred prostitution,” Sha’ol said. “She was to be used by common soldiers.”

Chris watched as Rabbi Haninah was wrapped by the Roman soldiers in what appeared to be a scroll. A swatch of wool was pulled from a bucket of water and tied to the rabbi’s chest. “What are the soldiers doing?” Chris asked.

“They are wrapping him in a Torah scroll,” Sha’ol answered.

“A Torah scroll? Why? And what’s the wet wool for?” Chris asked.

“Watch,” Sha’ol replied.

Chris saw a small cart filled with scrolls stop next to the rabbi. The soldiers piled the scrolls waist high around the man, and then lit the pile on fire. The dry parchment quickly raged into an inferno.

“Let us move closer,” Sha’ol said, “to hear his words.” They descended to within a few feet of the rabbi.

Chris could see words on the singed paper as it floated up from the flames. A line from Heinrich Heine, the German Romantic poet, rose in Chris’ mind. “Where books are burned in the end people will burn.” A cry from the young men standing near the rabbi caught Chris’ — and the Roman’s — attention. The Roman soldiers closed ranks and faced the crowd, swords drawn.

“Rabbi, rabbi what do you see?” A voice in the crowd called out.

The rabbi looked up into the sky and said, ecstatically, “I can see parchment burning while letters of the Law soar upward!”

Someone in the crowd shouted, “Surely ideas are stronger than the brute force of soldiers!”

The Roman soldiers responded by tossing more scrolls onto the fire. After a few minutes, the rabbi’s wife was subjected to the same torture.

“Oh!” The couple’s daughter cried. “It is terrible to see my parents die so horribly!”

A Roman soldier laughed. “You’ll soon know terrible, girl!”

Chris felt himself rising in the air yet again, chasing the letters of the Law. “And the wool,” he asked. “What is the wet wool for?”

“Wet wool delays death,” Sha’ol replied. “It prolongs the agony.”

They blew away from Jerusalem.

***

Later, Colonel Stewart moved north to Mosul, to support the 101st Airborne. General Petraeus had things under better control than the generals of Baghdad, but Stewart was haunted by the fact that gigantic war machines were rumbling near the ruins of the city of Nineveh, the ancient royal capital of Assyria, and no one seemed to care. At Nineveh, the colonel knew, a magnificent library had once existed.

***

The hot wind blew Chris and Sha’ol to the east, across modern Syria. They stopped over an ancient city in what is now Iraq.

“Baghdad.” Sha’ol pointed to a large city in flames. “The year is 1258. Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, has captured the city and destroyed the power of Islam in the east.”

“And libraries?” Chris asked, although he already knew — could see — the answer.

“Many libraries were destroyed in Baghdad,” Sha’ol said. “But the greatest destruction was of the Khizanat Kutub al-Hikma, the Storehouse of the Books of Wisdom.”

“The House of Wisdom, yes, of course,” Chris said. “In the Middle Ages, it was a gathering place for Arab and Persian scholars, who studied and recorded all of the knowledge in world. It had a library that rivaled Alexandria’s.”

“Scholars learned paper-making techniques from the Chinese,” Sha’ol said, “paper that is now floating away in the sky.” He held out his hand and blackened scraps of paper slipped through his fingers. “They translated the world’s science and literature — Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, and Syriac — into Arabic.”

Chris noticed something else. “The river is black,” he said, pointing to one of two rivers below them.

“What the Mongols did not burn, they threw into the Tigris River,” Sha’ol said. “For six months, the ink from the books caused the water to flow black into the desert, as if the river had been possessed by the night.”

Sha’ol was quiet for a long time, staring at the smoke over Baghdad, watching the black river run into the desert. “I have seen enough of the sorrows of my homeland,” he finally said. “Even the heart of a spirit can grow too heavy.”

“Yes,” Chris replied. “I can understand that.”

“It is your turn now,” Sha’ol whispered. He seemed to be fading away.

“My turn? Wait!” Chris felt a surge of panic. “My turn for what?”

Sha’ol was gone, but Chris thought he heard, faintly, “The Destruction will continue.”

***

Dr. Stewart arrived at the hospital at six-thirty and went straight to the first floor nurse’s station. Carol, the nurse who had called him, was preparing to leave.

“Oh, Dr. Stewart!” She exclaimed. “You’re here early.”

“Yes, well, sometimes it’s hard to go back to sleep,” he answered. “So, how is Mr. Mansion?”

“Restless,” the nurse said. “I think the sedative is wearing off.”

“Okay. I’ll check his chart, then we’ll see what he needs,” Dr. Stewart said. “Thanks for your help.”

“Have you been to his bookstore?” Carol asked.

“Yes, and to Baghdad,” Dr. Stewart replied.

“Baghdad?” Carol looked puzzled.

“Long story,” Dr. Stewart said. “I’ll tell you some other time.”

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