The Legacy of Alexandria30 min read
Rahim dragged a shopping cart of his belongings along the cracked sidewalk. With the highways flooded, he followed the dense foliage lining the creek which wouldn’t be much cover for him much longer if he were intent on making his way deeper into the neighborhood. If it were night, he’d be following the drinking gourd, finding the brightest jewel in the sky and following its direction. By some movement stirring his spirit he couldn’t explain, he just knew it was the right way. He opened the game app he’d designed. Its signal piggy-backed on an obsolete network no one bothered to shut off.
Despite its hazy quality, the air wasn’t noticeably cold, barely a breeze, but his ears grew cold. Rahim adjusted his re-breather unit. His hand-me-down unit — a first generation oxygenator — nearly covered his entire face. The preening susurrus of voices froze him. Ducking behind the thick underbrush shielding the road, he hid from the security check point. Indiana was a free state, so climate refugees could supposedly pass through unmolested. However, that didn’t stop self-styled patrols from taking it upon themselves to “detain citizens for repatriation.” Knights of the White Camelia, soldiers in the army of the Lord. Rahim’s ancestors knew folks like them back in the day, calling themselves cattle hunters.
The gun-toting boys waved through a truck laden with supplies. Kerchiefs covered the faces of those who bothered to protect themselves at all. In a testament to their rugged image of manhood, most went without masks. Rahim knew most knights began their watch at 6am, not because anyone told them, but because they wanted to play soldier as accurately in their minds as possible. All he had to do was wait for them to become complacent. Bored.
Their presence would not deter him from finding the library.
Under a canopy of low hanging branches, the leaves were pale with settled ash. A rogue breeze rustled them. Cascading violence rose as the earth itself became a rabid animal off its leash. The environment weaponized as uprooted trees blew into houses, power lines ripped free, thrashing about as electrified whips. On any given day, wind sent cars tumbling like urban boulders. Another wildfire alert for Illinois caused mandatory evacuation. One hundred-year storms happened every other week. The filthy air, oppressive and sickening, caused him to adjust his mask. Rahim wrapped Muttley tighter in the blanket. Named for a character from his mom’s favorite childhood cartoon show. The geriatric dog — blind in one eye and half deaf — cocked his head to one side. The gray of his chin gave him the bearing of an old man. Rahim had papers, these days everyone did or at least neighborhood passports, but cattle hunters often disregarded or trashed them if the mood suited. And too many roamed the area these days. Rahim took a tentative step, careful to avoid the errant branch whose snap might give away his position.
As he settled in, Rahim’s back ached and a dull pain knotted his gut. The scars striating his arms began to itch. If he were spotted, his description would be passed ahead to other scouting militia members. He couldn’t remember the last time he had changed his clothes. At this point, he considered naming some of the stains on his shirt and pants since they’d been with him for so long. His knees sore from running, he rustled through his meager belongings. He had scavenged a few onions he was prepared to cut and rub on his feet to throw dogs off his scent.
Surviving and thriving is what we’ve always done, Muttley said in the voice of Rahim’s mother. That was not a good sign.
Rahim wiped his forehead out of habit, used to his profuse sweating under the baleful glare of the sun. But he had stopped sweating. A vague nausea threatened to overwhelm him. His temples throbbed, each pound worsening his burgeoning headache. His skin took on an unseemly pallor. He checked the game app on his wrist. He still had a long way to go, a trek made longer having to avoid the roving patrollers.
A cleric had declared the global rise in temperature as part of a coordinated attack by American technology, exacerbating already fraying tensions between nations. Or regions. All it took to spark another series of wars. Politicians leapt on the distraction they presented, an excuse to lay claim to resources, claim safer lands free of megadroughts and hurricanes. The pandemic of despair gripped the sprawl of the city. All of the chaos supported by the city’s homegrown militia of faith.
By 9AM, the cattle hunters were half-asleep at their posts.
Rahim hid his cart among the underbrush the best he could. The encampment would make as good a base for him as anywhere else. He had little that he really cared about. Carefully he lifted his special console. His father was an engineer. That gift, his way of knowing how things fit together, was all that Rahim had left of him. He slipped his platform into his backpack along with his other most prized belongings. He’d make the rest of the trip as light as possible. Muttley nuzzled against his leg. He picked the dog up, but turned away from him since the canine’s poorly kept teeth made his breath smell like warm death. He hoped the dog would keep any further words to himself as they headed out.
Getting to the library was all that mattered anymore.
Climbing down the embankment, Rahim headed to the river’s edge, wading a bit into its waters, following its winding course deeper into the neighborhood. The landscape changed so much in so little time. Rahim remembered how his mother required him to join her on a weekly pilgrimage to the downtown spire of the Indianapolis library. An architectural chimera of half-glassy, techno tower alongside the original half-temple, neoclassical design. All kinds of people traveled through the library. A crossroads of inspiration, both portal and passage, the library comforted them. An easy place to rest and just be. It held the promise of teaching them how to fix the things in their lives. Near the end days he passed through unnoticed, little more than background noise. That was then, that library long destroyed.
Now he hoped to find rest at the Thmei Academy.
The obscured sun reduced the neighborhood to a series of dour shadows in the shape of houses. No lights. Rahim approached a rise — not quite daring to be a hill — leading to an empty lot adjacent to a house. Across the street, two other houses, nondescript by most accounts, hid under a stand of trees and bushes. The surrounding pre-fab houses with their designed obsolescence didn’t stand a chance against climate reshaping. But these remaining homes were over a hundred years old, built in an earlier age, meant to last.
A free-standing gate, unconnected to any fencing, blocked the sidewalk.
You sure you want to go in there? Your life may forever change if you do, Muttley said.
Hitching his backpack higher on his shoulder, Rahim unlatched the gate and followed the concrete path leading to the front steps of the dull beige two-story home. Before he could knock, the door swung open a few centimeters. A young man, little older than Rahim, glared with an appraising eye.
“Open?” Words did not come easy to Rahim. This one scraped against his throat.
“Who are you?” The man ran his fingers through thick, unkempt curls. He chewed on a toothpick.
Tell him you’re a patron, Muttley said.
“A … patron.” His heavy-lidded eyes stared past the figure blocking the door.
“Then you’ll know when it is.” The docent — what Rahim understood the young man’s guardian role to be — started to close it.
“Let the boy in, Khamal,” a woman’s voice called out from behind him. “We can’t be who we say we want to be unless we’re open to all.”
Rahim lowered Muttley to the ground. The docent eyed the pair of them, but stepped aside and allowed them entry. The hiss of the air purifiers stopped them in the entryway. Rahim held his arms up as the enclosed space formed a bubble. The mechanism whirred, scrubbing the air. Only once they were through the seal did he remove his mask.
Blackout curtains outfitted the windows to make the house harder to spot at night. Rahim ran a lone finger across the scars on the wood tables where students worked. Books stacked floor to ceiling and lined much of the workspaces and any free flat surface. TV trays used as reading tables, windowsills as carrels. Charts and paintings of Africa hung along the walls. A course of ambient noise filled the room. Pages turning. The crunch of an apple eaten. Covers slapping shut. Grunts of frustration or snorts of agreement, body fluxes as an amen corner.
They crossed the living room, an interlude of promise. Turning the corner was a revelation. When he rounded it, rows of bookshelves filled with books. Ideas and stories.
Rahim loved browsing the shelves. So many titles. The Chaos Point. The Alchemist. Mumbo Jumbo. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Clarity as Concept. Stamped from the Beginning. Her-Bak: The Living Face of Ancient Egypt. Khamal gestured toward the woman shelving more books. The head librarian. She was thin, her skin the color of burnished bronze, so much darker than his own complexion, Rahim grew self-conscious. Streaks of white ran through the hair visible from within its kente-patterned wrap. Her outfit seemed more like being swaddled in enjoined red and black rolls of cloths. Her dignity unperturbed by the end of the world.
Don’t just stand there like a fart in a closed room, Muttley said. Tell them who you are.
Brushing off the occasional leaf, he ran his fingers through the tangled knots of his hair. “Rahim.”
Is that who you want to be? Now’s your chance to remake yourself in any way imaginable, Muttley said.
“There’s a tradition among rabbis to stop going by their given name, but by the title of their book. The name of my book is Dona Jywanza.” She finished shelving a book and stepped closer to them. “Ms. Jywanza, to you. That there’s Khamal. Don’t let him intimidate you. I still remember him as Keegan, that clumsy little boy who used to run around here. I lost track of how many times he drove his bike into the telephone pole. Cracked his nuts real good.”
“I’m glad to see you still tell that story,” Khamal said.
“That shit cracks me up every time I remember it.”
“It’s … big.” Rahim ran his hand along the shelves. Muttley waddled as best he could behind him.
“Me, Hakeem Buhari, and my husband built this place. We were all prolific readers back when books were in threat of extinction. I owned the Weusi Bookstore. I used to go to library sales to find books, mostly of the African experience, like anything by Third World Press. My husband’s now passed.”
Out here, in the middle of the neighborhood? Muttley asked. What, all the secret villain lairs were taken?
Rahim stalked to the window. Anxiously studying the outside, he jumped at the librarian touching his shoulder.
“It’s okay, you’re not much for your own words.” She backed up a few steps to allow him more room. “Libraries are built where they are needed most. The Paul Dunbar Library used to be a little east of here, the first library to serve our community. A little west of here was Public Library No. 1. It was the oldest library in the city. They burned it long ago.”
Rahim wiggled his fingers and lowered his hands in a pantomime of raining.
Use your words, Muttley said.
“Fire.” Rahim waved his hands at the shelves. “Why?”
“Burning books has always been an effective weapon against a community. We are people of the books. Reading trains readers and they don’t realize it’s happening. Books are us trying to understand ourselves, a way to build resistance and resilience. To destroy our libraries is an attempt to erase us: our culture, our history, our stories.” The librarian strode over to a different section of books. She tapped her lip with her finger. “Let me try it this way: In 213 B.C., the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang burned any history books that disagreed with his version of events. And nearly four hundred thousand scholars. In the 1500s, Hernán Cortés torched Aztec manuscripts. Diego De Landa followed and set fire to every Mayan book and image. During World War II, Nazis destroyed over a hundred million books. Special book burning squads.”
Rahim knew all about how war took the greatest toll on libraries. History was replete with tales of lost libraries. Destroyed because they contain ideas someone finds problematic. Libraries, churches, synagogues, mosques. Home schools.
He plucked a copy of Iceberg Slim from the shelf.
To understand the capitalist system, you have to understand the pimp game, Muttley said.
“Baby, you don’t look good.” Ms. Jywanza ushered Rahim to a couch, shooing away the young people seated there. “Khamal, bring him some water. And something from the garden.”
Rahim collapsed onto the couch. Her face locked in a frieze of concern, Ms. Jywanza daubed his forehead. Muttley made two failed attempts to scamper onto the couch before giving up and licking his lips. Khamal handed Rahim a glass of water. He chugged it greedily, causing Ms. Jywanza to admonish him.
“Easy. You’ll make yourself sick. Sicker.” She turned to Khamal. “Heat exhaustion. He must be all but hallucinating.”
Rahim glanced down at Muttley. The dog settled in beneath him and rested a paw over his snout.
“Here.” Khamal shoved a plate in front of him. “Everything was grown in our garden across the way.”
Rahim excised the tomatoes from his sandwich with the delicate precision of a surgeon. Muttley whined softly and soon he scooped the dog up to sit beside him. The dog’s long tongue lashed through the thick fur around his mouth. Turning away from his rancid breath, Rahim slid the tomatoes onto the couch for Muttley.
“Well, at least they didn’t go to waste.” Ms. Jywanza sighed. She withdrew a spliff from behind a fold of her head wrap. After lighting it, she offered Rahim a puff.
He waved away the smoke.
“I’m old school, I guess.” Ms. Jywanza fixed her attention on him even without looking directly at him.
As the food settled in his belly, a wave of relief settled over him. He dared a hope that he might find what he needed here in order to belong. He cocked his head, unsure how to word the question which hadn’t fully formed in his mind.
“I should probably begin with how this place came to be.” She handed the spliff to Khamal. “I’m a woman of many stories. Maybe I was born in a manger made of books. Maybe I was library educated, my home a library in practice.”
Rahim stared at her like he’d encountered an astral anomaly.
“Not feeling that? Okay, let’s try this: around the third century A.D., a group of Christian hermits moved into the Scetes desert of Egypt. A monastic community grew out of their gathering. They became known as the Desert Fathers. Theirs was a grand tradition and with that in mind, I’ve declared myself an Urban Mother. The keeper of the books.” Ms. Jywanza strode to one of the wall posters labeled Africharts. With a casual swipe, the image whirred like a spun globe. The image settled on the outline of Egypt. “Not much is known about Egypt’s Library of Alexandria. What it looked like. Where it was. Whispers about it having a half million documents; over one hundred librarians. But in 48 B.C., Caesar burned the Port of Alexandria. Not that he intended to, and the fire spread to the library. That was the first of four times it was burned. Each time it was restored, except for the last in 640 A.D. By then, the library scared people. It had become so much more. A communal brain, a near living thing of ideas and traditions and knowledge. So Caliph Omar set it on fire. They say it burned for six months. But you can’t burn an idea. Its legacy lives on.”
Rahim struggled to sit up. When he reached a more comfortable position, he’d forgotten what he’d started to say. Though raised alongside siblings and community, he’d become reclusive. Once they were taken from him, he no longer interacted with people.
“So, Mr. Man of Few Words,” Ms. Jywanza checked his temperature again, “what brings you here?”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place.” Ms. Jywanza arched a skeptical eyebrow. “Any idea which one?”
“That’s alright. You don’t have to know. The books can choose you. That’s what I love about libraries. They point us to a better way of being with one another. If I stumble across a book I love, I bring it here so others can read it. That way I have other people I can discuss it with.” Ms. Jywanza gave him a surmising gaze. Tapping her chin, she turned and flicked her finger against a shelf before presenting him with a book. “Have you read this?”
He took the book into his hands. Metu Neter, Vol. 1: The Great Oracle of Tehuti and the Egyptian System of Spiritual Cultivation.
“I read Metu when I was eight.”
“Who the hell gives Metu Neter to an eight-year-old?”
“Oh.” Ms. Jywanza’s voice lowered, like someone who didn’t want to extinguish flames they took so long to get going. “Your mom sounds like an interesting teacher. Where is she?”
“Her … library has burned.” Rahim read somewhere that in Senegal, this was a polite way of saying that someone had died. It still seemed too small a phrase to describe the totality of her death. The boom of explosions rocked his home school. The roar of flames. The terrible cracking of timbers as the ceiling collapsed. The last image of his mother, her shoving him out the window as the beams toppled. He screamed for her until he lost his voice. The scars along his arms itched.
“I see. I’m sorry.” Ms. Jywanza took a long drag from her spliff and slowly released a thin plume of smoke immediately dispelled by the air purifiers. “We are each a library, a collection of stories, books of memories, to help each other figure out who we are and who we want to be.”
How you feel and what the culture demands won’t bring her back. Rahim turned to Muttley, but the dog stuck its head halfway under the couch.
“Wait,” she said with dawning realization. “You were part of Bayard, weren’t you?”
The Bayard Rustin Home School. Rahim hadn’t thought its full name in a long time. He did not commit to an answer, only stroked Muttley’s thinning fur. Freeing himself from the clutches of the couch, the dog issued a thin stream of drool.
“You can’t wipe all the tears away yourself. The stories remain as long as we survive to tell them. Talk about it in your time.” She handed him a different book. “Start here.”
The Chaos Point. The way she said those last words made the book sound like an old friend.
The weight of the book felt comfortable and right in his arms. Cradling it since it had been damaged, the spine still cracked when he opened it. Hoping for the heavy press of fresh ink to waft up, to be intoxicated by the spell of books, he inhaled it. “How do I check it out?”
“You take the book. You read it. You bring it back.” Ms. Jywanza cocked her head to the side. “You planning on stealing it?”
“That’s your promise to keep to the community.”
Rahim noted the young people gathering toward the rear door. “What goes on out there?”
“Anyone can read or participate in book study. But for the next level work, you need to bring something since everyone has to contribute for the betterment of the community. A demonstration of your commitment.”
“What else?” Ms. Jywanza smiled a wry grin too slick by half. “A book.”
Rahim stuffed his backpack with his console. The ritual of it all reminded him of how the trips to the library with his mother bonded them. Sent his mind racing among the stars; fueled his imagination. He’d done it. He’d found them. Now he only had to make them understand what he was offering. Not that he saw himself as an inventor, like his father, he was more like a tinkerer. Refining and figuring out new ways to use existing technology. Tucking his book into the back of his waistband, he couldn’t wait to show Ms. Jywanza his best project. It wasn’t the thing to show at a first meeting. If that didn’t allow him into the work, he didn’t know what would. With any luck, this would be the last time he’d have to make an encampment, be on his own. His thoughts had him so caught up, he didn’t hear the cattle hunter’s approach.
A single shot froze him in his spot. Rahim closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable pain of a flechette projectile to rip through him. A type of bullet designed to rend like spinning daggers as they tore through flesh. It never came. Rahim stood up slowly, his hands raised in a “don’t shoot” pose.
“Turn around. Slowly.” A burly man, a frayed whip looped on his right hip closed in on him from a stand of trees. Once the man got close enough, he spat at Rahim’s feet. Holstering the revolver on his other hip, the man’s body heaved with assumed authority. No badge, only intent. And a gun. He brandished his long hunting knife for greater effect. “Don’t move, or I’ll cut you up the middle and let the crows get you.”
Rahim wasn’t scared, at least not the way he knew he should’ve been. He recognized the idea of the threat the man represented, like experiencing fear from a distance. He understood his mind worked differently from others and hoped his near indifferent affect wouldn’t be taken for bravado by the cattle hunter. Rahim scooted over to stay between the man and Muttley, who sniffed about, anxious but not sure where to direct his growls.
“Look at you. You ain’t worth all this fuss. Took us a while to catch up to you. Yeah, I know you. I know all about your kind. Shiftless and lazy …” The man’s eyes glazed over, lost in thought. The man palmed Rahim’s hands gruffly inspecting one then the other. “These hands ain’t never worked an honest day. You an’ your kind … damn your eyes. Damn all your eyes.”
“Easy.” An older woman rode up on a horse black as a locked cellar, stopping short of the pair. With chiseled aquiline features, gray roots edged her blond hairline. The man stepped aside to allow her room to dismount with her practiced grace. “You don’t want to damage the goods. Less of a bounty that way, an’ you got a family to think about. Besides, it’s a boy and his dog.”
“What’s your name, boy?” the burly man asked.
“I’m no one’s boy.” Rahim’s calmness only irritated the man, but he wasn’t going to overreact to someone who’d only ever see him as a “boy.”
The man snatched the package. “What’s this?”
“It’s mine.” Rahim stepped toward him.
The man brought the knife to bear with the speed of a snake rearing to strike. “Not anymore.”
“We don’t have time for this.” The woman canted around them. “Take him or don’t. Operation Shield will be here in days. It will take care of all of them soon enough.”
The burly man ignored her. Digging around in the bag, he withdrew the console and peered into it. “What is this gunk in here? It looks like sludge.”
“It’s … funkentelechy,” Rahim said.
“You making fun of me?” Eyes full of menace, the man reared at him.
Rahim held his hand out. A bracelet jangled about his wrist. Falling within himself, his mind cool and still, without anger or fear, he retreated to a place where he knew peace. And was free. The inky swirl moved. Rahim balled his hand into a fist. The undulating mass coalesced into spikes. Rahim made a slicing motion and the blades rose, severing the man’s hand. The burly man dropped the console to clutch his gushing wrist. Rahim scooped up the console, jamming it into his backpack while the woman rushed to the man’s side. A cloud of curses followed Rahim into the underbrush. The bag slung onto one arm, Muttley under the other, Rahim ran.
“What is it?” Ms. Jywanza asked. “Are you alright?”
Rahim pantomimed something raining down and something exploding. In his head, his stories bristled with charm and he a bullshit artiste of the highest order, as his father once teased him. A teller of tales. A quick-witted rogue. But these days his thoughts raced, a jumbled knot, it was as if his tongue existed independently of him.
Ms. Jywanza asked, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me.”
“Knights,” Rahim squeezed out.
“Damn cattle hunters. They follow you?”
Rahim shook his head. “Downstream a ways.”
“You come up by the river?” Ms. Jywanza placed her hand on his back to usher him inside faster. She scanned the lot and the tree line before shutting the door behind them and activating the house air seal.
“Had to lose them,” Rahim said over the sudden blast of air.
“The most dangerous way with the high streams and all. A bad riptide could whip you out to sea.” Once the seal released them, she ushered him to a nearby couch before inspecting him further to see if he was really okay.
Muttley took a few tentative steps toward the librarian. Assessing her as harmless, he walked toward the couch, bumping into the occasional chair. He smacked into the couch leg, growled at it, and settled in front of it, his eyes not quite closing to make sure it didn’t come after him.
“They’re coming for us. All of us. Again.” Rahim curled on the couch, wrapping his arms around his raised knees, rocking himself. “Operation Shield.”
“We’ve heard rumors. You know, during times of upheaval, folks with power take steps to push their idea of the future forward. So, we built contingencies. They’ve been coming for us because they fear us. They don’t understand what we’re about, but we know who we’re up against.” Ms. Jywanza lit another spliff. “The Liberation Investment Support Cooperative is a faction within the government. They have dreams of being an international cooperative, building infrastructure and developing terraforming work in earnest. I suspect they’ve been using all of the wars to cover their power grabs. Even helping fund the ‘knights’ to foment the chaos of the moment.”
“We have a long history of fighting misinformation. We are the library.” Ms. Jywanza eased back in her chair to give him space.
Rahim slipped the backpack off. “I want to learn more. I need to be a part of the work.”
“What do you have for us?” Ms. Jywanza’s tone became solemn with the air of ritual.
Reaching around, held snug in his waistband at his back, he pulled out a copy of The West and the Rest of Us.
Ms. Jywanza inspected it. “Why this?”
Rahim glanced around to make sure no one else could hear him. He couldn’t trust giving words to just anybody. In a conspiratorial whisper he said, “To give the work a global perspective of our struggle.”
“I’ll trade you.” She set the book on a windowsill with others waiting to be catalogued. She held her finger out as if checking the direction of the wind and flicked free two books. “Since the work also needs discipline and execution, I’ll give you a choice between The Fifth Discipline or Built to Last. Usually, when someone is new to the space, they get thirty days in the water of the work. A time of discovery, learn the team members, see the various projects. This way an instructor can see their strengths and weaknesses.”
“But … no time,” Rahim whispered.
“The work doesn’t always allow for our personal timetables.”
“Then I have something to show you.” Rahim opened his backpack with an air of reverence, as if declaring a statement of faith. He withdrew his console and slid off the cover.
Ms. Jywanza leaned over the box. “Are those nanobots?”
“Yes, but they are keyed to my bracelet. If I concentrate in a certain way …” He waved his arm. The nanobots took the rough shape of a rising wall.
“What do you call it?” She stepped back, but continued inspecting.
“Funkentelechy. It’s a way of … being. Makes you in sync with the nanobots.”
“Fascinating. What’s your plan?”
“Right now I can’t get them to do much other than assume crude shapes. But if I can refine them …”
“Or.” Ms. Jywanza raised a lone finger and held it for an extra heartbeat before speaking again. “You don’t do enough abstract reading. Tangential stuff just to stir your thoughts. Your creativity.”
“No,” Rahim said sharper than he intended. “That’s not the work.”
“I understand. You feel this pressure to do … something. The way you’re used to thinking, it’s about finding leverage points. To impact the system, to make huge changes with as little energy expended as possible.”
Rahim shrugged and nodded, unsure of the right response.
“Your mistake is that you believed that you have to go it alone. Your work alongside ours, as opposed to just our work. Together. A common Western mistake. You are one piece of a communal puzzle.” Ms. Jywanza turned toward the back door. “Meet me in Biographies.”
The Thmei Academy amounted to three houses and an empty lot. Each home accommodated a different section, but it was all communal space. Rahim opened up his game app and zoomed in. Attenuating its metrics as he went, he recorded his steps. He found that with enough data, he could map even the smallest space of a house in detail. As he walked across the street, Rahim had the unshakeable feeling that he was being watched. Muttley bumped into his leg when he stopped to visor his hand to check the hazy sky for drones. A hawk perched on the nearest lamppost.
Biographies wasn’t a rhetorical flourish. The room whisked him back in time. All of his ancestors, all of their stories, preserved forever. Not just a warehouse of books. The Thmei Academy was an engine with the gears being all of the patrons’ minds engaged. A small, cramped space, not easy to navigate, with everyone thrust into close, inescapable, uncomfortable, unavoidable proximity to one another. A wall of material included a collection of ephemera archiving the neighborhood: menus from all of the local black restaurants; vinyl records of Indianapolis bands from the 1970s; church bulletins for the 30 years Ms. Jywanza attended; funeral notices; and copies of The Indianapolis Recorder going back decades. Rahim thumbed through discs of oral histories with such labels as Old Man Taylor’s bridge and a file of Old Man Paschall’s clippings chronicling the stories of the neighborhood.
“We are building toward a future. We don’t know what it will look like, so we train leaders to dream it into existence. I believe the student selects the curriculum on an unconscious level. When folks roll into the space, they aren’t told to read. What the elder urban mothers and fathers recognize is the spirit of the person who walks in. Khamal here came in when he was twenty-one. He attends classes at the Thmei Academy. Once he graduated, he asked for intern experience. Her over there, she’s quite the rebel in training.”
“How can you tell?”
“Ask her what she’s reading.”
On cue, the young woman raised her book to reveal the cover. The Destruction of Black Civilization.
“Like I said, it depends on the student and where they are in their development. She found a book in an abandoned airport and brought it back here. That’s not an accident. She’s on her own change in consciousness journey, trying to figure out what’s next. But now we all have access to a copy of the book. That’s why we love it when a student recommends a book. The library expands by the collective intelligence of the group.”
“It knows as we know …” Rahim said. “But people can just link.”
“Don’t let its ubiquitous nature fool you. All information does not get linked. Nor does everyone have link access. Besides, some people simply like books.”
“Old people.” Rahim smirked. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d worked the muscles in his face to anything approximating a smile.
Ms. Jywanza mirrored his grin as if basking in a carefully stoked campfire. “Yeah, yeah. The hegemony of text is dead. But information is only as good as its practitioners. I look at your … funkentelechy as being part of the future. Helping to define who we are. We have always prided ourselves on being extensive readers, but there are ways of knowing, being, and doing that are intrinsic to us as human beings. We walk in spaces that have been defined by others who think they control reality. So we have to embrace our own way of knowing. What’s missing is you connecting to a story much larger than yourself.”
“They’re playing in dirt.” Rahim pointed out the window. A group of patrons gathered around a stretch of tilled soil. The hawk watched over them.
Ms. Jywanza looked over his shoulder. “It’s how we create our own sustainability. We grow our own food in the neighborhood through a series of networked gardens. We raise animals. Share houses. That lot is dedicated to farm dirt — reclaiming soil through food waste — which we then harvest and sell.”
“That’s why they fear us. Our response is not rooted in our trauma, but in seeing the opportunities. Where they leave abandoned houses, we see communal living spaces.” Ms. Jywanza leveled her eyes at him. “We are obligated to find dignity and flourish no matter the circumstances. That’s what we’ve always done.”
The rest of the Thmei Academy gathered in the dining room, a noisy gathering, doubling as communal meal and meeting. After a few minutes, the librarian stood, holding them in rapt attention as she ran through their session. She gave a brief synopsis of the book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World before opening up the discussion to apply its points to their present threat of climate reshaping.
“If you look at the data, you can’t help but be pessimistic,” Khamal said.
“If you are data driven. Data is a tool. Which is why we have to embrace a non-rational approach to living,” Ms. Jywanza said.
“You want us to go insane?” Rahim asked.
“That’s one way to be unpredictable,” Khamal chimed in.
“No, I’m suggesting we bring about the kind of change we can, despite the data,” Ms. Jywanza said. “Bring about the change we can in the space we find yourselves in. Do you remember what a hyperobject is?”
“An idea so large and complex that a person can’t quite wrap their mind around it. Like climate change,” Khamal said.
“Or God,” Rahim said.
“Exactly. Now we live in the wake of one and go to war in the name of the other. Our way of life is threatened.” Ms. Jywanza’s eyes had a way of focusing when all play left them. “The Knights of the White Camelia feel deprived of what we have and are angry. And in that madness of fury and hate, they seek to dispossess us.”
“What are they deprived of?” Rahim asked.
Ms. Jywanza whirred the Africhart again, settling in to make her next point. “Humanity.”
A tapping at the window drew Rahim’s attention. The hawk settled at the windowsill pecking at it. Rahim walked over to it. Muttley raised his head in slow alarm. The rising whir stirred all-too-familiar memories. Rahim turned back to them. “We have to go. Now!”
“What’s that sound?” Khamal closed his book and backed away from the window.
“It must be Operation Shield,” Ms. Jywanza slammed a button on the wall next to her. Partitions, much like blast shields, dropped into place around the main shelves. “Most of you know the drill. The ones that don’t, follow those that do. Get away from the windows. Get to the basement if you can. As far inside as possible.”
A few patrons panicked and dashed out the front door. Against the empty lot they loomed as easy targets. The first flechettes exploded like a series of knives from their chests, cutting them down like wheat under a threshing scythe. The next volley of shots pelted the house like metallic hail. The explosions shook the house. Rahim crouched still, almost holding his breath. His hands covered his ears. Muttley tucked himself into his lap, alert, but trembling as he stared out the window. The reflection of the flames danced in his milk-glazed eyes.
Before long, wisps of smoke scarred the air. The barrage echoed in Rahim’s mind far louder with the echo chamber of memory. The gray smoke deepened to black, curling down the hallway like a crawling wound. Heat gathered with the flames crackling to life, flaring with renewed vigor as they lapped at the books along the windowsills.
The temperature within the library approached four hundred and fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit and the pages ignited. The air quivered with the shimmer of heat mirage. Wind rushed to fill the vacuum created by the flames. Cracks spider-webbed the glass. The hundred-year-old ceiling beams quickly spalled and buckled. Muttley issued a concerned whine.
Hands reached out to Rahim through the smoke.
“This way,” Khamal said.
The docent, more wraith than man, pointed toward the cellar door. The steps, low and rickety, descended into an unfinished earthen basement. The cool rush of air ceased immediately, as if in a cave holding its breath. Other bodies huddled against him in an uncomfortable press. The patrons inched toward the rear of the basement, each one carried a stack of books as best they could. Rahim activated his game app. By his map, they marched beneath the house, yet were past its boundaries. They entered a long, hastily constructed tunnel. He held tight to his backpack — and Muttley — as people jostled for position. The atmosphere grew thick with mold and mildew topped by the cloying smell of dirt. The air soured as he breathed the desperate gulps of Khamal’s exhalations. The suffocating smell of unwashed bodies, the thick and gamey body odor coating his throat. Rahim fumbled to fit his rebreather in place.
The temperature climbed steadily in the crush of bodies. He imagined them as runaway slaves desperately vying for escape along some hidden passageway. Shuffling forward in baby steps toward freedom. Flies buzzed in his ears, about his face, with him unable to shoo them off because of his pinned arms. His shin scraped against exposed rock. The salt of his sweat dripped into his scars. Muffled cries haunted the darkness. The steps became fewer. The pressure to scream built in his chest. To just cry out, if only to be heard.
Muttley whined, a low howl, knowing something was wrong.
It began with a pebble, falling as innocuously as a rain drop on a clear day. It careened down the wall, bounced onto the head of Khamal, eventually skipping into the wedge of bodies. The silence reverberated out in a rippling pool. A low moan echoed along the chamber. The walls shuddered. The swell of bodies stressed the beams. The rafters supporting the ceiling bowed. Chunks of rock fell, a hard, unforgiving earthen rain as a wave of vibration swept through the strained cavern. People screamed, some cries cut brutally short, their mouths filling with dirt. A chunk of rock crashed into the side of Rahim’s head. The darkness swirling around in his head spread like the ebony wings of hopelessness beating ever closer. Entombed in this close place.
No one would be coming to rescue them.
Checking his game app, he recognized their location. The swell of the empty lot. They were close to where it had to open. Rahim crouched low, the effort strained his re-breather unit. He opened his console. In a low, though stern voice, he said, “Give me a little room.”
Khamal stared at him. With a nod, he shouted. “You heard the man. Make as much room as you can.”
Rahim edged toward the sealed entrance. He gestured as if wanting someone to stand up. The nanobot rose into a column.
“Think this will work?” Khamal asked.
“Only one way to find out.” Rahim corkscrewed his wrist and the nanobots spun. They burrowed into the earthen wall. The mound of earth churned with their action until a thin shaft of light began to emerge. A cool rush of air followed.
“Everyone … dig.” Rahim closed his fist and the nanobots retreated to his console.
Hands plunged into the hole, drawing away the dirt, expanding the opening. Rahim shoved Muttley through the aperture and climbed through after him. He took the stack of books from Khamal, setting them aside to allow the man room to exit. The other houses were on fire, but from their respective escape tunnels, they had also formed living chains, handing books to one another like communion waifs. Passing knowledge down generations.
“We still exist, therefore we resist.” Ms. Jywanza sidled up to Rahim. “It’s an audacious, defiant act of hope to preserve books. To declare that these stories matter. To try to create a present that connects us to the future. We are a story that endures.”
“Where do we go from here?”
“To wherever the next chapter takes us. They think we’re destroyed or dead. We have the chance to create ourselves fresh. Find someplace for ourselves. Maybe the moon. I think it’s time to think of myself more as a Nomadic Mother. But I make you this promise: I am here to keep your story safe.” She bent low to meet his eyes. “What about you?”
Do you know who you are? Muttley asked. Are you Rahim, who needs to make his own way or do you want be someone new?
Rahim gave their words a moment of consideration. “There’s a tradition among rabbis to stop going by their given name, but by the title of their book. The name of my book is Xola. It means ‘stay in peace.’”