Authors: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
That night I returned, for the last time, to the Sempere & Sons bookshop. The CLOSED sign was hanging on the door, but as I drew closer I noticed there was still a light on inside and that Isabella was standing behind the counter, alone, engrossed in a thick accounts ledger. Judging from the expression on her face, it predicted the end of the old bookshop’s days. But as I watched her nibbling the end of her pencil and scratching the tip of her nose with her forefinger, I was certain that as long as she was there the place would never disappear. Her presence would save it, as it had saved me. I didn’t dare break that moment so I stayed where I was, smiling to myself, watching her unawares. Suddenly, as if she’d read my thoughts, she looked up and saw me. I waved at her and saw that, despite herself, her eyes were filled with tears. She closed the book and came running out from behind the counter to open the door. She was staring at me as if she couldn’t quite believe I was there.
‘That man said you’d run away . . . He said we’d never see you again.’
I presumed Grandes had paid her a visit before he died.
‘I want you to know that I didn’t believe a word of what he told me,’ said Isabella. ‘Let me call—’
‘I don’t have much time, Isabella.’
She looked at me, crestfallen.
‘You’re leaving, aren’t you?’
I nodded. Isabella gulped nervously.
‘I told you I don’t like farewells.’
‘I like them even less. That’s why I haven’t come to say goodbye. I’ve come to return a couple of things that don’t belong to me.’
I pulled out the copy of
The Steps of Heaven
and handed it to her.
‘This should never have left the glass case containing Señor Sempere’s personal collection.’
Isabella took it and when she saw the bullet still trapped in its pages she looked at me in silence. I then pulled out the white envelope that held the fifteen thousand pesetas with which old Vidal had tried to buy my death, and left it on the counter.
‘And this goes towards all the books that Sempere gave me over the years.’
Isabella opened it and counted the money in astonishment.
‘I don’t know whether I can accept it . . .’
‘Consider it my wedding present, in advance.’
‘And there was I, still hoping you’d lead me to the altar one day, even if only to give me away.’
‘Nothing would have pleased me more.’
‘But you have to go.’
‘For a while.’
‘What if I come with you?’
I kissed her on the forehead, then hugged her.
‘Wherever I go, you’ll always be with me, Isabella. Always.’
‘I have no intention of missing you.’
‘Can I at least come with you to the train or whatever?’
I hesitated too long to refuse those last few minutes of her company.
‘To make sure you’re really going, and I’ve finally got rid of you,’ she added.
‘It’s a deal.’
We strolled down the Ramblas, Isabella’s arm in mine. When we reached Calle Arco del Teatro, we crossed over towards the dark alleyway that ran deep into the Raval quarter.
‘Isabella, you mustn’t tell anyone what you’re about to see tonight.’
‘Not even Sempere junior?’
‘Of course you can tell him. You can tell him everything. We can hardly keep any secrets from him.’
When the doors opened, Isaac, the keeper, smiled at us and stepped aside.
‘It’s about time we had an important visit,’ he said, bowing to Isabella. ‘Am I right in supposing you’d rather be the guide, Martín?’
‘If you don’t mind . . .’
Isaac stretched out his hand and I shook it.
‘Good luck,’ he said.
The keeper withdrew into the shadows, leaving me alone with Isabella. My ex-assistant - now the new manager of Sempere & Sons - observed everything with a mixture of astonishment and apprehension.
‘What sort of a place is this?’ she asked.
I took her hand and led her the remaining distance to the large hall that housed the entrance.
‘Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Isabella.’
Isabella looked up towards the glass dome and became lost in that impossible vision of white rays of light that criss-crossed a babel of tunnels, footbridges and bridges, all leading into a cathedral made of books.
‘This place is a mystery. A sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands, a new spirit . . .’
Later I left Isabella waiting by the entrance to the labyrinth and set off alone through the tunnels, clutching that accursed manuscript I had not had the courage to destroy. I hoped my feet would guide me to the place where I was to bury it forever. I turned a thousand corners until I thought I was lost. Then, when I was convinced I’d followed the same path a dozen times, I discovered I was standing at the entrance to the small chamber where I’d seen my own reflection in the mirror in which the eyes of the man in black were ever-present. I found a gap between two spines of black leather and there, without thinking twice, I buried the boss’s folder. I was about to leave the chamber when I turned and went back to the shelf. I picked up the volume next to the slot in which I had confined the manuscript and opened it. I’d only read a couple of sentences when I heard that dark laughter again behind me. I returned the book to its place and picked another at random, flicking through the pages. I took another, then another, and went on in this way until I had examined dozens of the volumes that populated the room. I realised that they all contained different arrangements of the same words, that the same images darkened their pages and the same fable was repeated in them like a pas de deux in an infinite hall of mirrors
. Lux Aeterna.
When I emerged from the labyrinth Isabella was waiting for me, sitting on some steps, holding the book she had chosen. I sat down next to her and she leaned her head on my shoulder.
‘Thank you for bringing me here,’ she said.
I suddenly understood that I would never see that place again, that I was condemned to dream about it and to sculpt what I remembered of it into my memory, considering myself lucky to have been able to walk through its passages and touch its secrets. I closed my eyes for a moment so that the image might become engraved in my mind. Then, without daring to look back, I took Isabella’s hand and made my way towards the exit, leaving the Cemetery of Forgotten Books behind me forever.
Isabella came with me to the dock, where the ship was waiting to take me far away from that city, from everything I knew.
‘What did you say the captain was called?’
‘I don’t think that’s funny.’
I hugged her for the last time and looked into her eyes. On the way we had agreed there would be no farewells, no solemn words, no promises to fulfil. When the midnight bells rang in Santa María del Mar, I went on board. Captain Olmo greeted me and offered to take me to my cabin. I said I would rather wait. The crew cast off and gradually the hull moved away from the dock. I positioned myself at the stern, watching the city fade in a tide of lights. Isabella remained there, motionless, her eyes fixed on mine, until the dock was lost in the night and the great mirage of Barcelona sank into the black waters. One by one the lights of the city went out, and I realised that I had already begun to remember.
Fifteen long years have passed since the night I fled the city of the damned. For a long time mine has been an existence filled with absences, with no other name or presence than that of a travelling stranger. I’ve had a hundred names and a hundred trades, none of them my own.
I have disappeared into huge cities and villages so small that nobody had a past or a future. In no place did I linger more than was necessary. Sooner rather than later I would flee again, without warning, leaving behind me only a couple of old books and second-hand clothes in sombre rooms where time showed no pity and memory burned. Uncertainty has been my only recollection. The years have taught me to live in the body of a stranger who does not know whether he committed those crimes he can still smell on his hands, or whether he has indeed lost his mind and is condemned to roam a world in flames which he dreamed up in exchange for a few coins and the promise of evading a death that now seems to him like the sweetest of rewards. I have often asked myself whether the bullet that Inspector Grandes fired at my heart went right through the pages of the book, whether I was the one who died in the cabin suspended in the sky.
During my years of pilgrimage I’ve seen how the inferno promised in the pages I wrote for the boss has taken on a life of its own. I have fled from my own shadow a thousand times, always looking over my shoulder, always expecting to find it round a corner, on the other side of the street or at the foot of my bed in the endless hours that precede dawn. I’ve never allowed anyone to know me long enough to ask why I never grow old, why no lines appear on my face, why my reflection is the same as the night I left Isabella in the port of Barcelona, and not a minute older.
There came a time when I believed I had exhausted all the hiding places of the world. I was so tired of being afraid, of living and dying from my memories, that I stopped where the land ended and an ocean began - an ocean which, like me, looks the same every morning - and, worn out, I collapsed.
It is a year to the day since I came to this place and recovered my name and my trade. I bought this old hut on the beach, just a shed that I share with the books left behind by the previous owner and a typewriter which I like to think might be the same one on which I wrote hundreds of pages that perhaps nobody remembers - I will never know. From my window I see a small wooden jetty that stretches out into the sea and, moored at the end, the boat that came with the house, a simple rowing boat in which I sometimes go out as far as the reef, at which point the coast almost disappears from view.
I had not written again until I got here. The first time I slipped a page into the typewriter and placed my hands on the keyboard, I was afraid I’d be unable to write a single line. I began writing this story during my first night in the hut. I wrote until dawn, just as I did years ago, without yet knowing who I was writing it for. During the day I walked along the beach or sat on the jetty opposite the hut - a gangway between sky and sea - reading through the piles of old newspapers I found in one of the cupboards. Their pages brought me stories of the war, of the world in flames that I had dreamed up for the boss.
It was while I was reading those chronicles about the war in Spain, and then in Europe and the world, that I decided I no longer had anything to lose; all I wanted to know was whether Isabella was all right and if perhaps she still remembered me. Or maybe I only wanted to know whether she was still alive. I wrote that letter, addressed to the old Sempere & Sons bookshop in Calle Santa Ana in Barcelona, which would take weeks or months to arrive at its destination, if it ever did arrive. For the sender’s name I wrote
, knowing that if the letter did reach her hands, Isabella would know who it was from. If she wished, she could leave it unopened and forget me forever.
For months I continued writing this story. I saw my father’s face again, and I walked through the offices of
The Voice of Industry
, dreaming that I might be able, one day, to emulate the great Pedro Vidal. Once more, I saw Cristina Sagnier for the first time, and I went into the tower house to dive into the madness that had consumed Diego Marlasca. I wrote from midnight until dawn without resting, feeling alive for the first time since I had fled from the city.
The letter arrived one day in June. The postman had slipped the envelope under my door while I slept. It was addressed to
and the return address read simply:
Sons Bookshop, Barcelona
. For a few minutes I walked in circles round the hut, not daring to open it. Finally I went out and sat by the edge of the sea. In the letter I found a single page and a second, smaller, envelope. The second envelope, which looked worn, just had my name on it,
, in a handwriting I had not forgotten despite all the years that had flowed by since I last saw it.
In the letter, Sempere’s son told me that after a few years of tempestuous and intermittent courting, he and Isabella had married on 18 January 1935 in the church of Santa Ana. The ceremony, against all odds, had been conducted by the ninety-year-old priest who had delivered the eulogy at Señor Sempere’s funeral and who, contrary to the bishop’s eagerness to see the back of him, refused to die and went on doing things his own way. A year later, only days before the Civil War broke out, Isabella had given birth to a boy whose name would be Daniel Sempere. The terrible years of the war brought with them all manner of hardships, and shortly after the end of the conflict Isabella contracted cholera and died in her husband’s arms, in the apartment they shared above the bookshop. She was buried in Montjuïc on Daniel’s fourth birthday, during rain that lasted two days and two nights, and when the little boy had asked him if heaven was crying, his father couldn’t bring himself to reply.
The envelope with my name on it contained a letter that Isabella had written to me during her final days, which she’d made her husband swear he would send to me if he ever discovered my whereabouts.
Sometimes I think I began to write this letter to you years ago and still haven’t been capable of finishing it. A lot of time has passed since I last saw you and a lot of terrible, miserable things have happened, and yet not a day goes by when I don’t think of you and wonder where you are, whether you have found peace, whether you are writing, whether you’ve become a grumpy old man, whether you’re in love or whether you still remember us, the small bookshop of Sempere & Sons, and the worst assistant you ever had.
I’m afraid you left without teaching me how to write and I don’t even know where to begin to put into words all the things I would like to say to you. I would like you to know that I have been happy, that thanks to you I found a man whom I’ve loved and who has loved me. Together we’ve had a child, Daniel. I always talk to him about you and he has given my life a meaning that all the books in the world wouldn’t be able to explain.
Nobody knows this, but sometimes I still go back to that dock where I saw you leave and I sit there a while, alone, waiting, as if I believe that some day you’ll return. If you do, you will see that despite all the things that have happened the bookshop is still there, the plot of land on which the tower house once stood is still empty and all the lies that were said about you have been forgotten. So many people in these streets have blood on their souls that they no longer dare to remember, and when they do they lie to themselves because they cannot look at their own reflection in the mirror. In the bookshop we still sell your books, but under the counter, because they have been declared immoral. This country is filled with more people who are intent on destroying and burning books than with those who want to read them. These are bad times and I often think that there are worse times to come.
My husband and the doctors think they are fooling me, but I know that I have little time left. I know I will die soon and that by the time you receive this letter I will no longer be here. That is why I wanted to write to you, because I wanted you to know that I’m not afraid, that my only sorrow is that I’ll leave behind a good man who has given me his life, and my Daniel, alone in a world that every day seems to me more as you said it was and not as I wanted to believe it could be.
I wanted to write to you so that you know that despite everything I have experienced, I’m grateful for the time I have spent here, grateful for having met you and for having been your friend. I wanted to write to you because I’d like you to remember me and, one day, if you have someone as I have my little Daniel, I’d like you to talk to that someone about me and, through your words, make me live forever.
From one who loves you,
Two days after I received that letter I realised I was not alone on the beach. I felt his presence in the first breath of dawn but I would not, and could not, flee again. It happened one afternoon after I sat down to write by the window, while I waited for the sun to sink into the horizon. I heard the footsteps on the wooden planks of the jetty and I saw him.
The boss, dressed in white, was walking down the jetty, holding the hand of a girl of about seven or eight years old. I recognised the image instantly, the old photograph Cristina had always treasured without knowing where it came from. The boss reached the end of the jetty and knelt down beside the girl. Together they watched the sun spill over the ocean in an endless sheet of molten gold. I stepped out of the hut and walked along the wooden gangway. When I reached the end, the boss turned and smiled at me. There was no threat or resentment on his face, only a hint of melancholy.
‘I’ve missed you, dear friend,’ he said. ‘I’ve missed our conversations, even our small arguments . . .’
‘Have you come to settle a score?’
The boss smiled and shook his head.
‘We all make mistakes, Martín. I was the first. I stole what you loved the most. I didn’t do it to hurt you. I did it out of fear. Out of fear that she might drive you away from me, from our work. I was wrong. I’ve taken a long time to admit it, but if there is anything I do have, it is time.’
I observed him carefully. The boss, like me, had not grown a day older.
‘Why have you come here, then?’
The boss shrugged his shoulders.
‘I came to say goodbye.’
His eyes concentrated on the girl whose hand he was holding and who was looking at me curiously.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Her name’s Cristina,’ said the boss.
I looked into her eyes and she nodded. I felt my blood freeze. I could only guess at the features, but the look was unmistakable.
‘Cristina, say hello to my friend David. From now on you’re going to live with him.’
I exchanged glances with the boss but didn’t say a word. The girl stretched out her hand to me, as if she had practised that movement a thousand times, and then laughed in embarrassment. I leaned down towards her and shook it.
‘Hello,’ she said in a quiet voice.
‘Very good, Cristina,’ said the boss approvingly. ‘And what else?’
The girl looked as if she’d suddenly remembered something.
‘I was told you’re a maker of stories and fairy tales.’
‘One of the best,’ the boss added.
‘Will you make one for me?’
I hesitated a few seconds. The girl looked anxiously at the boss.
‘Martín?’ the boss whispered.
‘Of course,’ I said at last. ‘I’ll make you as many stories as you want.’
The girl smiled and, drawing closer to me, kissed me on the cheek.
‘Cristina, why don’t you go down to the beach and wait there while I say goodbye to my friend?’ the boss asked.
Cristina nodded and walked away, looking back and smiling with every step. Next to me, the boss’s voice sweetly whispered his eternal curse.
‘I’ve decided to give you back what you loved the most, what I stole from you. I’ve decided that for once you will walk in my shoes and will feel what I feel - you won’t age a single day and you will see Cristina grow; you will fall in love with her again and one day you will see her die in your arms. That is my blessing, and my revenge.’
I closed my eyes, saying no to myself.
‘That is impossible. She will never be the same person.’
‘That will depend on you, Martín. I’m giving you a blank sheet. This story no longer belongs to me.’
I heard his steps fade away, and when I opened my eyes the boss was no longer there. At the foot of the jetty, Cristina was looking at me intently. I smiled at her and she hesitated, then came over.
‘Where’s the gentleman?’ she asked.
Cristina looked around her, at the endless, deserted beach.
She smiled and sat down beside me.
‘I dreamed that we were friends,’ she said.
I looked at her and nodded.
‘And we are friends. We always have been.’
She laughed and took my hand. I pointed in front of us, at the sun dipping into the sea, and Cristina watched it with tears in her eyes.
‘Will I remember one day?’
I knew then that I would devote every minute we had left together to making her happy, to repairing the pain I had caused her and returning to her what I had never known how to give her. These pages will be our memory until she draws her last breath in my arms and I take her with me to the open sea, where the deep currents flow, to sink with her forever, and escape at last to a place where neither heaven nor hell will ever be able to find us.