I felt them as the sun came through the curtains on a Saturday morning. First, a light papery brush against my shoulder that I could dismiss as the last minutes of a dream. Then a blunt edge digging into my cheek, faintly smelling of my favorite bookstore. I reached for the lamp on the bedside table and smacked my forehead against a stack of blue and green hardcovers piled onto the surface, where my annual reports had been. A slim green volume opened a papery mouth into a grin. “We’ve come with a few complaints.”
Of course they had. I sidestepped the piles at my feet and stumbled into the kitchen, where I rubbed my eyes, then filled the kettle and settled it on the stove.
“All that acid in college doesn’t seem like such a good idea now, does it?” I said to the empty kitchen as I poured coffee grounds into a cone. Well, not empty. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and Gender Trouble perched on the table, along with Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman and, oddly, Feminist Ryan Gosling. The only one I’d actually read.
“We’re not acid.” This was The Bloody Chamber, pages rustling and flashing glimpses of the inky marks I’d left everywhere, several readings’ worth in green ink at various stages of fading. Unlike some of these, with their uncut pages, Angela was well-loved. Unlike some of her former neighbors on the shelf, empty spaces for volumes I’d loaned out and kept meaning, someday, to get back to.
“Well, then, what are you?” I touched the side of the yellow kettle. It felt as real and warm as on any other day. Just as real as the blue hardcover that had smacked me in the forehead a few minutes before. On the counter, a stack of Austen and Brontë and du Maurier swayed in the faint breeze from the open window, the wind lifting their pages like rustling skirts.
“We’ve decided your priorities need some . . . adjusting.” Angela said, in a voice I could imagine gleefully reading aloud her first drafts, resolving in the margins: Add more blood! My wire fruit basket swayed with paperbacks. What would I see if I opened the fridge? Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit? Bread and Roses? Stone Soup?
“Got it. Okay. Have you come to show me the entrance into the magical land of Narnia? Bookia, perhaps?” The curtains were wide open to the street, where anyone could see me standing in my kitchen having a conversation with the literature.
The kettle shrieked. “You should get that,” Angela said. “You’ll have a headache if you don’t, and that won’t get us any closer to our goals.”
Well, if Angela Carter tells you to make coffee, you make coffee. And you don’t forget the cream. It was almost disappointing when it tasted the same as it always had. Next to the mug was my very worn copy of Fledgling. I remembered exactly when I’d first fallen into Octavia’s world. A date that stood me up, a stolen afternoon by the lake with weed and a soft yellow blanket nestled under my cheek. Looking up only once the long shadows streaked across the grass, pulling myself away from the adventures of a super-evolved vampire race and a feud out for blood, feeling them all stream away from me like water from soaked hair. I could almost hear them right now, calling me back. But I’d promised to deliver a report by 9:30, so I slid my reaching fingers away from the spine.
“I saw that.” Jesus. Octavia’s voice was rich and sonorous and sounded like it was drawing on a lot of patience right now. “That’s exactly the problem. When was the last time you read any of us?”
“You don’t understand. I have a deadline. I have to—”
“Do you ever not have a deadline?”
There was no way I was going to win this one. So, instead, I stood up, real casual-like, as if I were just yawning, just stretching, just reaching around the rectangles to the chair where I’d left my laptop last night.
There was a tiger on top of it. The paper body was painted in thick orange and black stripes on the cover of a bone-colored volume that I swear looked like it was daring me: Go ahead; try and open up your machine.
“We’ve already thought of that.” In Angela’s voice I could almost hear the baying of the wolves she summoned onto the page, the red drops pattering onto white snow.
“I see. So do I . . . want to know what you’ve done with my phone?”
“Look on top of your fridge.” And, indeed, what looked suspiciously like my purple phone case lay buried underneath a stack of Borges and Garro. I spun around on my heel, thinking to slip out the front door, but I heard them even before my hand got to the doorknob: the fluttering of a small tree’s worth of pages, the spines forming a tall swaying column that blocked the only way out.
“As we’ve said, you don’t need to be doing anything other than reading today.” This came from my copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I could hear in Oscar’s voice the years of gathered dust, the tossing into dozens of cardboard boxes only to be left sitting quietly on shelf after shelf.
“Fine.” I grabbed The Adult Coloring Book and threw Oscar a pointed look.
“Okay.” I pulled out The House on Mango Street from where it dangled in my fruit basket.
“That’s not being serious.”
“That one hasn’t challenged you since you were twelve. That’s why you picked it, isn’t it?”
“Look, you don’t expect me to tackle Finnegan’s Wake just now, do you?”
“You don’t even own Finnegan’s Wake.”
“So damned literal, dude.” If there’d been a set of eyes on his cover he would have rolled them at me.
“Look, if you’re determined to go for something so light,” —the disdain came through in waves— “then how about one of these baubles?” Those baubles, of course, were the turquoise and purple piled up around my desk lamp, Diana Gabaldon and Alyssa Cole and what looked like some Courtney Milan.
“Oscar, can you leave off the sexist disdain for stories primarily read and written by women?” As I spoke, I heard a stack of Penguin Classics shuffle over next to the bright colors, as if in solidarity. I set Oscar down by the mango book. Let him stew there in silence.
“How about me?” This came in a chorus of voices, three months to three hundred years old, in the accents of Kingston and Lima and London and New York, tones of loneliness and indignation and patronizing concern and a sound like hundreds of eager little paper feet jumping up and down. Oh, god, now this really was the stuff of my nightmares: the words a forest, growing roots and sighing to each other about their months—no, years—of neglect.
“Stop that, all of you.” This was Engels, of course. You could hear the wire-rimmed glasses in his voice, those years in the Paris Library.
“I can’t handle you right now, either, Freddy.”
“That’s not my—never mind. What matters is you getting back to bed and feeding your brain something other than spreadsheets and percentages.”
“What is this, tough love?”
“You could call it that. Now please pick something.”
I gathered in a breath, to feed another comeback, and in that instant I saw the orange stripes of the tiger, the stacked columns blocking me from the door, the rainbow of covers all around me, every one of them a door of its own. I was fighting this why, exactly?
The tan volume sitting on my laptop was just the right weight when I slipped it into my hand. I read the title and nearly cackled out loud.
“Ooh, that’s such a journey. I’m excited for you.”
I smiled at Angela and let the piles on the carpet shuffle out of my way as I headed back to my bedroom, where I stopped with my hand on the door.
“So, guys, could you . . . ” This sweep of my hand took in the rectangles littering the coffee table, the sofa, the floor.
“You heard her, comrades.” Yet another reason to keep Karl around. I shut the door and listened to the faint sounds of paper organizing itself, in an order I was sure to be introduced to soon. After a second, I heard a soft knock at the door. It was Comfort Me With Apples, bearing a bowl of fruit and cheese. I thanked Ruth and settled back against the pillows and let myself be pulled inside the waiting pages of The Paper Menagerie.
Spread the word!