What the Elfmaid Brought
by Stephen Reid Case
Stephen Case has a PhD in the history and philosophy of science and teaches at a liberal arts college in Illinoi. His research has been published in Mercury, Endeavour, and Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences. His fiction has appeared most recently in Lore, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Sword & Laser anthology. His first novel, Dead Fleet, is being serialized by Retrofit Publishing. You can find him on the web at stephenrcase.com.
Objects we have no words for do not exist in the same way as those we do.
That's what the elfmaid said when she handed me the book. She said it slowly, as though I was a child. She said it was the most important thing to understand.
We were in my office. I had a meeting in a few minutes, but I couldn't remember where or with whom. It had not been with her. She had walked in without an appointment.
The book was wrapped in a net woven without seam or joining, tight enough to prevent its being opened. It was difficult to see cover or binding through the weave.
My phone blinked on my desk, but I ignored it.
The elfmaid spoke with satisfaction as I turned the book over in my hands. "Knit with a single thread of endless yarn, having neither beginning nor end."
"Spun by the maiden in the moon, I imagine," I said, "from the wool of the sheep that graze the fields of the sun."
She heard the sarcasm. "I told them you were not the one to keep it."
"I won't try to read it, don't worry," I said, waving a placating hand and possibly lying.
I had known the elfmaid for a long time. She often brought me books from the Council when I was younger and had just discovered my library, when elves were still a relatively common sight, at least in academic institutions. I had unrealistic hopes then, but elfmaids do not linger long with the sons of men, especially when the sons of men are stuffy scholars whose only forests are bound and printed upon. She had not been in my office for years.
"Neither would you be able. Being endless, you would have to cut every loop of that weave a thousand times before it unraveled."
I looked impressed.
"And each strand has been prayed over by the maiden. Her prayers are potent, as you know."
I did know, and I nodded. "So just put it on the shelf then?" I asked. I could not tell from the pages' edges whether the book would be manuscript or print. The cover looked like it might be leather.
"Forget you have it."
"Why not just burn it? You say it contains the names of things for which we have no words. If all these unnamed things would be such a problem to name, destroy the book."
She closed her eyes. I wondered how long she had argued against the Council before coming. "They are not unnamed. They have been named. It is that knowledge of the naming that is the danger. The chill you have in the night when a shadow crosses the moon, that is called krazjamir." She said it as though around something harsh and bitter. "Now you will know it when it comes, and it will be real to you."
"Thank you for that." I frowned. "Then you've read the book?"
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She shook her head. "Not I. Only a few things was I told, when it came into the hands of the Council and they realized what it was. It was then we wrapped it in the endless weave."
"But didn't burn it?" I hefted the book. It was solid, like some of those late nineteenth-century histories with the tiny, dense printing that always seem much heavier than their size would indicate.
"To destroy knowledge willingly is impossible for us. You know this. But some argued so nonetheless." Her voice was firm. "We have often made use of your endless library. This is why we have brought it to you. You can keep it safer than even the vaults of the Council."
"And you weren't just looking for an excuse to see me?"
She stood, naked as all elves were now that they had quit the mortal halls for good.
"I did not wish to come," she said, leaving my office. In the hallway beyond I heard startled gasps and stumbles.
When she arrived, I had wondered if she was still angry with me, still bitter and humiliated about a different book years ago, a book I could not find. It was clear she was.
"It was nice to see you, too," I said.
I lost books.
I suppose it doesn't sound like something to brag about, but it had gotten me an interesting sideline. When I wasn't teaching or writing, I was losing books. I had a library of lost books, though that term suggests a scheme of organization or classification that is somewhat misleading. Once a book entered my collection, it was impossible to know if or when you'd ever see it again.
They were not destroyed. If you could simply burn a book, there was no need to bring it to me. But once I put in on my shelf, it was as lost as a bottle in the sea.
I tried to explain it to a seventh-level mage once that I found in my office after a morning lecture.
"But your library is only four shelves of eight linear feet each," he said. He was a disembodied sphere of light I was trying to get to hold still so I could image with a spectroscope.
"Yes. Stop bobbing."
"And yet I have been sending eighteen variations of a summoning spell ranging among them seeking a certain volume I have on authority you were given by one of my peers."
"Lucca's translation of the Necropticon," I guessed. "I hadn't realized anyone else knew it was here."
"But it is not." The sphere pulsed purple and then red. "And yet I feel it near. My spells come back to me weakened from years of searching, and yet your library is only four shelves of eight linear feet each on a single wall."
I shrugged. "Tip of the iceberg, I guess."
"I find it impossible to count the number of volumes," he continued in the maddening monotone shared by all mages above level five. "And yet there cannot be more than three hundred. I sense no distortion of space, no hidden recesses or cloaked chambers."
"No extra dimensions," I offered helpfully, staring at the spectroscope's digital display.
The sphere disappeared and reappeared. "This wall adjoins a similar office."
"Doctor Posthumous teaches biology." I chuckled. "Not necromancy."
The sphere flickered a few more shades.
"I've seen this spectrum before," I told him, pleased to have remembered. "It was the Physical Review Letters, the note about the Chinese scientists who managed to image ball lightning. Silicon, carbon, and iron." The disembodied consciousness of the mage hovered silently. "Indicative of ionizing soil," I continued. "The theory that ball lightning is vaporized silicon nanoparticles from a cloud-to-ground lightning strike."
I couldn't tell if he was referring to what I said or to my library, but he stayed a few more hours after that, pondering either the books or his own chemical constitution. When I left for the day he was still hovering before the shelves, casting a fitful glow over their inscrutable spines. Their configurations remained as much a mystery to me as they clearly were to him, and I'm sure I rate much lower than a seventh-level mage at understanding these sorts of things.
If I put this book on my shelf it might be there tomorrow. More likely it would not be, and I might not see it again for weeks or years if ever. It would be as good as gone. But occasionally I regretted dropping volumes into that shifting bibliographical abyss. I still vividly recalled the affair with the lost Elvin ballads that had nearly fractured the Crystal Kingdoms. It was the reason I had not seen the elfmaid for so long, the reason she was still angry.
She had come to me on her knees begging that I bring the volume of ballads back.
"But you gave me it to lose," I had told her helplessly. This was when elves still wore clothes. Her green robes had pooled like a field on the office floor when she knelt.
"I acted without the knowledge of the Council," she told me, her eyes flashing. "The pain was too fresh."
After she had left I spent hours searching the shelves, to no avail. For a few nights I even slept on the office floor beside them, listening to the pages rustle like leaves, waking in the night to search the shelves again. Back then I still imagined I had some power over the library, that I could call forth a lost volume if I willed long enough and hard enough. But it would not return.
And then, miraculously, it had turned up on a rainy April afternoon months later, and I spent a full day trying to contact someone in the Crystal Kingdoms using the summoning spell the elfmaid had loaded on my phone. But by that time they had already called the poet back from the dead and made him re-write the ballads in his own blood, so there was really no need.
And now this new one, a book of unnamed things.
Usually I shelved books when asked without a thought. Often those who brought them waited and watched to make sure I placed the book on one of the four wooden shelves (it didn't matter which) and released the spine. I was almost always happy to see them go. People rarely wanted you to disappear but not destroy truly pleasant books.
Now I ran my fingers up and down the weave surrounding the book. Objects we have no words for, she had said. What about the shade of your eyes, I wanted to ask. Or the feeling you get when you know you've waited half a second too long to speak? Or when you're certain a beautiful woman you've hoped for years to see again is not telling you something important?
"It's just a linguistic thing," I muttered. "Like the Inuit and snow." I pressed a button on my desk, and a moment later my secretary stuck his head in.
"What's all this they're saying about a naked supermodel painted green?"
"It's a pale viridian," I said, "and she's not a model. Fairly average looking, from what I understand. Is snow more real for the Inuit?"
"They have like twenty words for it. We only have one. Does that make it more real for them?"
"They see it more often, I suppose," he said slowly.
"Yes, but do they see it differently?"
He tapped a pen against his teeth for exactly twelve beats. "Yes," he finally said. "Yes they do."
"Can I sit?"
I waved him in.
"Once you place a label on something, you've differentiated it," he said. "You can hang your experiences up easier once you have the categories. Kant said so, right? So maybe you and I can notice that certain snow is fluffy and other snow is crunchy or comes down in those big hairy flakes, but until we have the Inuit words, it's not the same landscape for us."
I blew air between my lips. "But physically. Physically, it's the same."
He shrugged. "I guess so. If that's what you think is important."
I did think that was what was important. I was the guy who tried to use spectroscopic analysis on a disembodied seventh-level mage, after all. I told my secretary I was heading home for the day.
The book came with me.
I rarely took books home, and I had never before taken one that I had not first committed to the library. Sometimes, when the library cast one back up on its oaken shore of shelves, I might grab it out of curiosity. What was the use of having a library if you couldn't peruse it? I often put the books back very quickly, for, as I've said, I usually disappeared fairly noxious books. But if one seemed harmless, I might take it home to read. They were my books, after all. They had been given to me, even if it was with the intention that I'd lose them.
And I always put them back.
But this one had not touched the shelves. I held onto it. I remembered the last time, that stupid book of ballads, and her angry, imploring face.
That evening I set the book down on the rough wooden planks of the kitchen table and stared at it.
Objects we have no words for do not exist...
The woolen net seemed warm when prodded with my finger. The weave was close, but the loops were large enough to see the dull grey of the maybe-leather beneath. The fabric itself was thick, a creamy white wool tightly spun. I took a pair of scissors from the kitchen and snipped one of the loops.
Outside, tires screamed.
I walked to the window. Two cars were at the corner with interlocked bumpers, their drivers shakily emerging. I waited for a moment, but no one seemed hurt.
Back at the table, the loop did not magically re-weave, but neither could I pull the thread to unravel it further.
I snipped another loop.
Lights flickered. I heard the air-conditioning follow a moment later.
I sighed and put down the scissors. My phone rang.
Her voice was high and sharp. I had never heard an elfmaid yell, but she was close. "Are you trying to open the book?"
"No," I said. "Yes. I wanted to be sure. I thought maybe you'd change your mind. Like the ballads."
"That was long ago."
It was long ago, but I never had a chance to tell her afterward how her face haunted me, pleading for something I was powerless to retrieve.
"Once it's gone, it's gone," I said. "I had never seen such regret when you gave me the last book. Do you know what it's like for a human to see an elfmaid cry?"
She was silent.
"You remember, don't you?" I asked.
I could almost hear her wide, black eyes closing slowly. "I remember," she finally said. "When my husband died, I defied the Council. His ballads had been woven into the fabric of our Realms, but they were written for and given to me. I wanted to drown the memories, and I knew there was no well deeper, no labyrinth more pathless, than your library."
"The Council was furious, and no one more so than my father. My husband's words were strong enough that in their absence the Crystal Kingdoms began to fragment into shards. Because of my selfishness. Because I gave you the book to obliviate."
"But you came back for it," I said.
"I had acted as a child."
I was surprised at the sadness in her voice. "But everything worked out," I offered. "You got the ballads back."
It was the wrong thing to say. She was quiet for so long I thought she had broken the connection. "He did not know me when he returned." Her voice was soft. "They pulled his words from him like cold things, long dead, from the sea."
"You do not trust me," she said. There was a tone in her voice I had not heard before, like the low beating of drums under a melody. "You believe that because I made such an error in the past I cannot be trusted to know which books should be lost."
"I trust you," I said carefully. "I trust the Council. But you're not telling me something. Usually it's clear why a book should go. Very dark books, certainly. The book of impossible technologies. All of the chaos manuals that the time-pilot brought from the thirty-first century. The book of bones, the books of stone, and that volume of Kentish poetry bound in human skin that makes eyes bleed just looking at it. But this one?"
"Put the book away."
"Maybe," I said, warming to my argument, "maybe the world would be that much richer if we had specific words for each thing. Think of how many shades of color have no proper name, how many shades of feeling, how many exact configurations of shape and situation."
"How many nightmares," she added. The heavy tone in her voice was stronger. "If you cannot do as you have been instructed, I will return for the book myself."
I thought of seeing her again.
"Wear clothes," I offered as she hung up.
She was in my office the next morning when I arrived. She was wearing clothes this time, though no longer the robes of an elfmaid, which I imagined were given up when they left the mortal halls. Instead, she wore jeans and a co-ed's grey sweater, which set off her viridian skin.
"You took the book to your home?" Her expression was one of pained disbelief.
"It seemed safer than leaving it here overnight without putting it on the shelves. And I wasn't ready to do that."
"Return the book to me. I was wrong to trust you with it."
She held out her hand.
"How do you know so much of the book is so terrible?" I pressed. "Can you imagine how the Inuit see snow? They have something like twenty different words for it."
"And the Fair Folk of the North had two hundred, in the low tongue alone."
"What were numbers, before they were named?"
"What was death?" She was storming now. Her eyes flashed. "There are words in that book, so I have been told, for a thousand ways of dying. Return it to me."
"You keep saying that." I was angry too. I kept thinking of situations where the perfect word, where the perfect description, had never come. I spent my life trying to affix labels to aspects of experience, and now she was asking me to cast something like this away. "There is something about this that you're not telling me. You keep saying you, return the book to you, but don't you speak for the Council?"
She fell silent so suddenly that I knew my suspicions were correct. She had been standing, reaching for the book. Now she sat, as soundless and graceful as a felled tree.
"The Council didn't send you, did they?"
When she answered her voice was nearly indistinguishable from the whisper of trees outside the window. "The Council did not send me."
I waited, and she put her head in her hands.
"I have defied the Council a second time." She dropped each word as though it was a stone. "And a second time means banishment. They are yet seeking the book, and they wish its words to spill into the world. They believe it to be a gift to the sons of men, a poultice to heal the world of the passing of the elves."
She looked up at me, and her dark eyes were steady.
"I do not agree," she went on. "There is a richness in those words the world is not meant to sustain. When I could not make this understood, I intercepted the book from those who were bringing it to the Council. I sought to keep it from their reach."
Now the wrapped volume seemed even heavier. I looked from her to where the shelved volumes marked the borders of my collection. "You believed that enough that you risked exile from the deathless halls to lose this book?"
"There was no risk of exile," she said. Her eyes were becoming somehow shallower even as I watched. They were no longer depthless pools. "It is a certain thing. By now they know that I have stolen it, that I have sought to keep the unnamed things nameless. They are speaking the words of severing now."
The glow was fading from her skin. In a moment it had been replaced by the pallor of a beautiful woman who has lived her entire life indoors.
"It is done," she said. "I can no longer return."
"Is there a word," she asked, "for the certainty of death where it has before been only a rumor?"
My shelves always creaked, a constant whisper as volumes came and went on their unseen passages. It reminded me of the sound of wind through a forest. They groaned heavily now though, a shifting of weight like waves on a shore.
My first thought, selfishly, was that the elfmaid would not walk out of my world again. My second thought was that she was worth a single forbidden book and perhaps the ire of the Council as well. My third was a question of my own courage.
"Breakfast," I finally said.
"There's a word for wanting to live with the time you have," I said, "but I don't know that one either." I tried to smile. "But if you're mortal now, you're hungry. And I came in early to meet you. And there's a café just down the street."
I stood and placed the book on a shelf, in a space between two volumes I had never seen before. They took it like the hungry surf, and when I looked again it was gone.
Relief flooded her features.
"There are plenty of words to learn without the book," I said.
I took her hand, and she rose and followed me out of the office. On the way out, I told my secretary to cancel my meetings.
Breakfast was lovely, until the Council showed up.
This story was first published on Friday, September 12th, 2014
This story was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend. I've forgotten the context, but his basic premise was that given by the elfmaid in the first line of the story. I wanted to play with that thought a bit. Because metaphysics is always more pleasant with naked elfmaidens, the story was born. This is the second story I've published about interesting characters walking into my office. I enjoy writing stories that try to balance the surreal and the mundane. I think a lot of life is like that.
- Stephen Reid Case
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