She closed the manuscript; despite all her precautions, a flurry of yellowing paper fluttered down to the grey carpet. The text was literally crumbling to pieces. The city was empty. This paper is a librarian’s nightmare. In six months nothing will be left of it. No chemicals to restore it. The testimony would survive, though, carefully photographed. This reminder of madness, emptiness, horror.
The solitude. The lack of drinking water.
She painstakingly removed the document from the copy stand and managed to put it back in its plastic sleeve and close it. Then, relieved, she took off her cotton gloves and her mask. “317 ruled pages, handwritten in cursive, some words crossed out, stains, many torn pages”, read the barcode description glued to the transparent folder.
The diary of Lev Smidovych, which no one had ever been able to read. Neither before nor after his condemnation. She knew the policewoman behind the door to the little office would search her to make sure she didn’t have any means on her person to take other images besides the ones made by the copy stand. Just as she had been searched coming in. Her phone was still in the cloakroom. She didn’t have time to read anything, of course. Just scraps. A few lines. Terrifying passages she knew would haunt her for weeks. Follow her into her nightmares. The torment, the abandoned city, the fear. The most unusual experience of the century. All of that, buried by censorship.
Everyone had heard about Lev Smidovych and his condemnation. Everyone had images of his execution in their minds
Why had she been asked precisely now to scan this manuscript? Everyone had heard about Lev Smidovych and his condemnation. Everyone had images of his execution— swift, terrifying— in their minds. No one knew his diary existed. Elsa was suddenly afraid. She turned to look around her. She had become aware of this diary. She realised that because of this terribly secret text they might try to make her disappear.
She didn’t dare leave the little office.
She looked out the window: the day was grey, a leaden Monday, promising snow; February was dragging on in sleet and coal. The courtyard of the National Library was full of deliverymen and visitors, students mostly; a green police car was parked just in front of the main entrance.
She had scanned completely the diary of the Catastrophe.
The more time went by, the more she realised the horror of her situation. It was impossible she’d be calmly left at liberty.
For an instant she thought the window could open, that she could easily shout to someone down below in the courtyard: “Here, take it! It’s the diary of Lev Smidovych, which begins on the day he goes out to look for drinking water, the day of the siege, one of the first days of the Catastrophe,” throw the plastic envelope containing the manuscript down, barricade herself here until the manuscript reached… reached whom? One of those so-called news websites that spew fake news and conspiracy theories about the most unlikely subjects? The country hadn’t yet gotten over the vanishing of the newspapers. Or the end of Parliament.
Smidovych’s story began when he was going out to look for drinking water one day, one day with a leaden sky, a day just like this.
Smidovych’s story continued for 317 pages.
Elsa did not open the window, either to throw the manuscript into the courtyard, or to escape over the roofs. She sat down on the floor, on the grey carpet, with her back against the wall.
Why was this manuscript so important now. Years later. She sought signs that foreshadowed a new Catastrophe. She found them. That passage where Smidovych glimpses the deaths. “The compartments of ambulances with flaming sirens, driven by blue phantoms, who crammed people trembling with fever in like human sardines.” She had seen, two nights ago, from her balcony, an ambulance with all its lights out, into which they were silently loading a stretcher— when the driver started up the engine again, she thought she could just make out the stretcher carrier’s gas mask.
Smidovych was documenting death. The manipulation of death. Whom it struck, and why
Smidovych was explaining. Smidovych was documenting death. The manipulation of death. Whom it struck, and why. How all these people ended up at the hospital; Smidovych pointed out who disappeared, and in what way. In the midst of old people, to hide in plain sight. The greatest crime of all time. Impossible even to imagine. She wondered why Smidovych’s diary hadn’t been destroyed during the Catastrophe. Maybe this was another attempt at manipulation. A fake. Smidovych was executed so long ago for high treason; now his diary suddenly appears, just when people are finally thinking about opening the borders back up. A manipulation by the Ultras. The government thrown into confusion… Or else a manipulation by the government itself, to identify opponents and get rid of them?
She wondered how long the police agent would wait by the door before she came in to see if Elsa had finished.
A tiny spider was walking on the grey carpet. It would climb the loops of synthetic cloth, descend into the arid valleys of polyester, climb back up, go back down, and would advance in this way to the curious rhythm of half an inch per second. Elsa was tempted to crush it; then she told herself that such a gesture made no sense; so she contented herself with flicking it away with her forefinger, landing the arachnid some thirty inches back, a distance it immediately undertook to cross again.
She wondered which of her precious books could help her in such a situation. She had given up the Internet and online images long ago now. Paper. Paper and voices. Books and radio broadcasts. Maybe that’s why she had been chosen for this mission, to scan Smidovych’s diary. Maybe those in charge knew that Elsa didn’t watch TV, had no computer at home, no data contract for her phone. That she lived alone and went out only on weekends to go into the woods. Run in the woods, walk in the woods, read in the woods. That the only danger she could represent to society were the many ticks she brought back, which her neighbour Masha extricated with an instrument of torture intended for cats and dogs.
Maybe Catastrophes were waiting like ticks in the woods. Heat, falling, skin, blood
Elsa looked at the spider and thought for an instant of that twentieth-century French philosopher who talked about ticks. About the world of the tick, the territory of the tick. The very restricted world of the tick: heat, falling, skin, blood, earth, tree, waiting, waiting, waiting, heat, falling, skin, blood, earth, tree, waiting, waiting, waiting, death. The Waiting. Years of waiting. Maybe Catastrophes were waiting like ticks in the woods. Heat, falling, skin, blood. Ticks traveled over an animal’s back until they found a place to bite. Ticks are really nasty things, Elsa thought. Still she wanted to pick up a book, forget Smidovych and go out in the woods. No one went into the woods anymore. Or else the forest was too wide for you to meet anyone there. Between the marshes and the woods, like the partisans long ago. The lakes were still off-limits. The lakes and the pools. She remembered that her mother knew how to swim, that she had learned how to swim, that she told Elsa about the pleasure of swimming in lakes and in the huge Olympic pool. Empty now for over thirty years, thought Elsa. Too frightening, water. Too many deaths during the Catastrophe. Smidovych’s drinking water… Poor people, at that time you never knew. No one understood anything. No one has swum in a lake since the Catastrophe, thought Elsa. She could see lakes in the distance, in the woods; sometimes the edge of the forest opened up to an expanse of pure blue water, which extended into infinity to join other lakes via rivers and, far off, to the west, the big abandoned cities, the cities from long ago. Sometimes she’d hear a radio report, explorers and zoologists were traveling through Berlin to find out how wild horses had been able so quickly to form herds that wintered in the city, despite the asphalt of the deserted streets. There were wolves there, bears, mares, foals, deer. Sometimes she was afraid, in the woods; she had heard the howling of wolves and even encountered a big lynx that had looked her in the eyes for a second before running away.
Access to the forest had been allowed only a few years ago. That’s why she had been chosen, Elsa thought again. Because she goes into the woods, sees no one and is not interested in either online images or social networks.
The spider had now almost returned to its initial position, near the tights covering Elsa’s thigh. What now? She would borrow a few books. Try to understand. She would say nothing to her neighbour Masha. At least, if they let her live. If they didn’t throw her into the back of an ambulance tied to a stretcher in the middle of the night.
Elsa got up, taking care not to crush the spider. Outside, the day was just as grey; the courtyard of the National Library was less crowded than it was five minutes ago; the green police car was still there. A cop was smoking, leaning against the car door. Elsa couldn’t help but glance over at the document on the computer screen. 317 photos plus flyleaf.
She would go out, the female cop would close the door to the little office with a double turn of the lock behind her and would then accompany Elsa to the office of the director of the manuscript department; Elsa would return the plastic envelope to her and would say “It’s done.” Then the director would upload the digital file to her own terminal, would thank Elsa, and Elsa would return to her cotton gloves, her mask and her carts of precious documents to file away or make available. Without a word. She might not even see the three masked policemen who would come recover the files she had patiently compiled. Then Elsa would go back to her place, still haunted by Smidovych’s diary, by the memory of the Catastrophe, and despite everything she would go on reading the fourth part of The Brothers Karamazov, before falling more or less asleep, dreaming of the breath of the forest and the growls of wild beasts.
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell