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Letter to the Archivist
About the Author: Arendse Lund is an international award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The Fabulist, The Asahi Shimbun, Audeamus, Alchemy: Journal of Translation. Her short story The Toll Bridge won the 2021 Staunch Prize for thrillers, and her world building has been called “vividly imagined and genuinely creepy.” In 2019, she won a top prize for science journalism from the Association of British Science Writers. She is currently a Writer-in-Residence at the Seattle Public Library.

Write to me of the library, Archivist, that maze of twists and turns, the memories and inventions of our time, the dreams of our future. Tell me of the new acquisitions, those works with embossed covers and firmly inked and set words, descriptions of places and events known, unknown, and retold.

Describe for me the older works, stored, conserved, and studied—the manuscripts of vellum and careful scribal invention—the octavos filled with ink, highly abbreviated from rim to gutter, and the folios with wide margins and careful script, with rubrications demarcating and illuminations shimmering.

Relate to me the books of hours, the gospels, the martyrologies. The antiphons sing to me over this great distance, their notes inscribed in red and black. How heartsick I am to not greet them in person. To stroke their bindings and whisper to them as old friends as they settle in my heart.

Remind me, Archivist! The feel of the weight of the books in my hands, adjusting the book cradles to support the spines, curling the weighted snakes across corners to keep the pages gently open. Oh, the feel of the parchment under thumb and forefinger, turning leaves, seeking treasures …

Do the visiting scholars love these works like I do? Do you tell them of me and that the manuscripts were mine first? Maybe some day I will write up my findings; but even if I never do, they belong to me. Their knowledge, their secrets—I know them all.

You should direct those amateurs elsewhere. They could have studied them first but they didn’t. Now it’s too late. The library is full of other works: tell them to look at those instead.

Have you gotten any maps in? (I jest, of course. You know maps aren’t my specialty.)

Or you could bring me back, you know. I will stand over their shoulders and give them glimpses of all that the manuscripts possess, share the secrets they once held, that those dabblers would have overlooked, never would have noticed. But I can help.

Bring me back and I’ll tell them what I know. The history, the intrigue, the manuscript’s many lives. Is anyone as familiar with them as I? These volumes sat on dusty shelves for hundreds of years before I came along but now they are set free.

I feel starved without them: the manuscript used as a cutting board by the Normans, its Old English text an incomprehensible archaicism of the defeated; or the one tossed out of a burning building and into the dewy grass below, singe marks and water damage overlapping; what of the tome that served as a resting spot for a fireplace poker—just once, but the memory of that moment is seared through its folios …

How careless we have been with the past, discarding precious histories, mislaying them in time and place. Blind fools, all. There was so much potential to be had there, but now think of all those illuminations lost or imprisoned behind covers and forgotten in some attic.

Archivist, why can’t I come back? Is it because I called the shelves dusty? I know they’re not. I was only venting … you must understand? I know manuscripts aren’t “discovered” when they’re already in your holdings, listed in the catalogue, called up and studied by scholars year after year.

Those visiting scholars only want to write them up for their jobs. An academic article now, a footnote in a monograph later, and eventually the manuscript’s hidden joy’s are scraped down to some typeset letters, quoted and cited, and when the first generation becomes a second, the secret turns into a fact. That’s the problem with scholarship. You don’t have to cite something everyone knows.

But I know you’ll understand—you’re not in the citations either. You acquired the manuscript, catalogued it, directed the scholar to the call number, and now they’ve “discovered” something, their university says. That’s what the news says too.

Then they make you pose with white gloves for the press release. I shudder at the thought of actually using them while handling books; a moment’s distraction and the gold leaf meticulously applied by a medieval monk is decorating your cotton-covered finger instead. What a waste.

Gloves are only for photos, I suppose: handling film negatives and insistent journalists alike.

This story appears in our AUG 2023 Issue
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Reader Discussion

I loved all the manuscripts!
By Abby Soo

Loved it, for a "short" story it packed a lot of punch.
By richo butts

Loved the slow build until it dawns on you what the crime is!
By franklin

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