2nd Prize (2010/11) - The Precious Things of Imogen’s Library by Douglas Bruton

The precious things of Imogen’s library
by Douglas Bruton

Imogen makes paper from the wood of mulberry trees. It is sometimes called ‘rice paper’, though it is not the kind that sticks to the bottom of currant buns in the baker’s shop, brittle and melt-on-the-tongue paper. No, mulberry paper, used once to make packets for rice, is something beautiful and strong, and all the words written there will last beyond her life and his.
            Imogen writes him letters, always has. That’s what it feels like, at least. She writes him letters on paper she makes from the stripped bark and the white inner fibres of mulberry trees, and the deckle-edged paper is as white as snow can be, or clouds, or swan feathers. White as white, until she writes, his name first and then all her words, all the words she has to tell him she loves him. And each letter is drafted and drafted until it is right, and all the not-quite letters she writes are folded and tucked into the leaves of books in her library, a surprise to the reader when the page is turned and falls out a sheet of mulberry paper and the words written there are almost perfect, the shape of them, the straightness of the lines, and the shiny black of the dried ink, shiny like it is still wet, still new.
            The pen she uses was a gift from her grandfather, a nib of chased gold and the handle carved with flowers and butterflies, so that she thinks of summer when she holds it. At first she did, when love was new, and every day was a little brighter because Imogen loved. And the letters she wrote then, were all dancing ink and skip-skipping words, to tell him what he was to her.
            Imogen, alone now in her library, sits at her writing desk, bent over her writing, and the light of greyer days falls on her paper. The scratch scratch of her pen is sometimes the only sound, each word written in her held breath, so she is dizzy a little at the end of each line, and she lifts her head to see what she has written, and she breathes then.
            Black is the ink, and never fading, for she makes the ink-sticks, too. Imogen follows an ancient recipe, written in a book, a Chinese recipe. ‘Words written with ink made this way, will be forever-words,’ her grandfather had said. ‘So take care that what you write is true, for it can never be erased and will be true for all time.’
            In a small wood-burning stove she once set to flame selected pieces of pine and the smoke carried soot to settle on the surfaces of inverted bowls she had placed high in the flue – the finer soot travels furthest. And the soot, feather-soft and light as breath, she mixed with glue made from the boiled horns of young deer, the spit-bubbles breaking on the surface of the pot and hot as fire on her skin, making black blister tattoos if she was not careful. Then the mixture was slow-cooled into moulds, shaped into sticks that she keeps in a velvet-lined wooden box. She added a musk scent before, to the glue, so that the letters she wrote then smelled of flowers and all the words she wrote were made sweet in their reading. Now she adds spat-bile and sometimes the ground bodies of dead spiders or the stings of wasps.
            He wrote to her, this Imogen-loved-man, once he did. A letter a day he wrote. Lost days now, except she has the letters still. One letter for every day of their first year, and only. Imogen remembers the rattle of her letterbox and the rush to see, and all her world, in those moments before opening, before reading, made fragile as ice flexing on the skin of shallow water, and she held the unopened letter in her hand, as if she could measure its contents by the weight of it. And all those one-a-day letters are laid out on the floor in one corner of her library now, each letter open and weighted down with a fork or a spoon or a knife. And the folds and creases in his letters almost tear the paper, and the ink is fading and fading so that his words are disappearing, thinning to nothing, like hot breath hanging in cold air. Lucky it is that Imogen has each of his letters learned by heart and can see the words on the page even when she closes her eyes.
            Dear Imogen, dear dear Imogen, and dearest Imogen, and darling and sweetheart, and back to dear, and then just Imogen. Those letters are a map of his love for her, fuller and fuller at the start, and then lighter and lighter, until the lightest of all and his last: ‘Imogen, stop’.
            But she has written a letter for every day since, thousands and thousands, all the drafts tucked into the books of her library, sometimes two in the same book. And her folded mulberry paper letters, years of them now, are as crisp and new as the day she wrote them, and the black-ink-words seem new-scratched.
            Imogen grinds the ink-stick over the wetted surface of the ink-stone. Wet with clearest, coldest water once. Wet now with her tears, and they are cold too. The ink-stone was handed down to her, like the pen, and the secret of ink, and the recipe for making paper. A dragon’s tail stone it is, from Wuyuan, dark and smooth, and carved over with skulls, their mouths open and grinning. And Imogen works the ink-stick over the flat surface, grinding, grinding, and the soot mixing with her tears makes the black ink for her pen.
            He came to her, years back, dissolving years. He came to her some nights when the moon was sleeping and the night was inky dark, though never as black as the ink she makes. He stood below her window and called her name, and wrote poetry on the air with what he said, and those words have thinned to nothing too, for they were only breath. And on those sweet-breath nights Imogen lowered a key tied to a ribbon, so he could come inside.
            There is a letter hidden somewhere, in one of the books, on one of the shelves, and in it Imogen describes just the sound of his feet on the stairs, on the first and second and third, on all thirteen of the steps that brought him to her bedroom. Each step was a different sound in her head and is still. In another letter she describes his undressing and in another the noise of his clothes falling to the floor as he danced out of them and danced into her bed.
            Some nights now, in the shuttered dark, and the shuttered silence, she listens, and thinks again she hears the soft step step step of him, and the dancing, and the shush shush of his clothes falling from him.
            Another letter and another, so many letters, tell of his love-making, the touch of his hand, on her, of his fingers, in her, like he was playing music into existence, or like he was drawing breathless fish to the surface of still water. And the music rising and falling, and the water playing through his fingers, and Imogen’s breath coming short, and that was like dancing too, the wreckless rush of dancing, towards something. And then the weight of him on her, pressing her, flat as paper, and grinding and grinding, and hard as stone it might be, and hurting her, burning, like the spat blisters of breaking glue-bubbles. And she calls out his name, still she does, her mouth making the shape, but no sound coming, only gasping, for air, like a tickled fish when it is snatched out of water, and cannot breathe.
            And afterwards, as he slept, Imogen wrote her love into the creases of his skin, behind his ears, buried in the hair under his arms, out of reach high on his shoulders, and beneath the dark curls at the back of his neck. A small brush she had beside the bed and a well of soot-black ink. Then, when he had gone, she imagined another woman, discovering the messages she had written on him, and every word would be a wound in that wife-woman’s heart.
            ‘Imogen, stop’. That was his last letter. She ran her fingers over and over the page as if there might be more he had written, and the maybe-words were merely invisible, penned in lemon-juice or tears. ‘Imogen, stop,’ was all he wrote, and sting enough there was in that. But Imogen could not stop. For weeks afterwards she sent letters to his home, protesting her love, and replaying all he did with her, in the dark of no-moon nights, and calling his name, and calling calling, till he came again, one last time. Not in dark this time, or in night; not sneaking in with her ribbon-hung key, but come knocking, at her door, knocking hard enough she hears it yet, like an echo sounding down the years in all the rooms of her house. And the tap of his shoes made a different sound on the steps to her bedroom that day, and he did not undress, not like before, though she begged him to.
            There is a letter she never sent, the first not-sent letter, given over to describing the roughness of his coat on her bare skin that not-night visit, the coat he kept on, and the shut-buttons of his trousers pressed into her thighs, leaving bruises there like small coins, small change; and the dirt from his boots writing scribbled messages she could not read on her clean sheets; and he kissed her, at least in her memory he did, not like before, but if she closes her eyes, it is something the same, she thinks.
            ‘Imogen, stop,’ he said, like in the letter, and his tears fell onto her cheek, or maybe not his tears, but the spittle of his spat words. And he tried to push her from him. ‘Imogen stop,’ the words of his last letter and the last he spoke, the last he would ever speak.
            The letter-opening knife she used, to write her name into his forever-heart, was once her grandfather’s knife, and now sits on a shelf in her library, with the paper she makes, and the ink-sticks, and the pen, and the Wuyuan ink-stone. And his dried blood is a deepening blackness on the blade of that knife.
            And the blackest ink of all - and here‘s a secret that is her own - the ink of all Imogen’s last-years letters to him is made from the soot of his burned heart, burned black and brittle as coal, and that soot is the finest of all.
            Imogen sits at her desk. Long hours she sits, grey on her now, her hair thinning to something like smoke, and her hand shakes between the words she writes, her breath held as before, and she hears a different rattle, sometimes she does, not her letterbox but something in her, and then she is wracked with a hacking cough afterwards. Still she writes, and writes, and all her black words are full of spite and hate and curses, against his leaving, against him cold now in a secret-garden grave, heartless, just bone maybe, and all the rest made to ash or dust. And the letters she writes to him, all her letters, are also full of love, not easily deciphered perhaps, but there between the lines and the words, and every slow-writ word is both a beautiful and wicked thing. And the brief and briefer letters she writes, these her last, she tucks into envelopes, same as before, his name scratched on the front and the letter slipped between the pages of the books in Imogen‘s library.

© Douglas Bruton, 2011