I Live with Youby Carol Emshwiller
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I Live With You is a sophisticated collection of fierce, compassionate fiction marked by an absurdist sense of humor. A contemporary of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Fay Weldon, Carol Emshwiller has been lauded for her originality and lyricism. These striking short stories skillfully explore themes of war, seduction, and censorship: An Eden emerges from the wreckage of burning books in The Library,” Boys” sets a weary general and his sons against a village of determined mothers, and I Live With You (and You Don’t Know It)” brings a necessary chaos from an uninvited guest.
"Deceptively simple, yet so powerful, so subtle, so disruptive as to blow our imaginations wide open."
“...Carol’s stories turn the corner into another dimension.”
“The woman is a genius, period.... You must, must, must not miss this collection.”
“Emshwiller consistently pokes holes through the fabrications of our lives and reminds me of the power literature has to change the way we think.”
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“A collection that manages to remind us of great writers like George Saunders, Grace Paley, and Harlan Ellison all at once, although Emshwiller is a unique and wonderful writer in her own right.”
Time Out Chicago
“Compassion and a sly sense of humor shape the insight-filled fiction.... Lyrical and resonant....”
“Her eye for detail and ear for poetry allow her to create compact fables that resonate beyond their immediate settings.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Emshwiller’s strange, often sad, and beautiful stories linger, unfolding long after reading them.”
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I Live With You
By Carol Emshwiller, Jacob Weisman
Tachyon PublicationsCopyright © 2005 Carol Emshwiller
All rights reserved.
* * *
We're headed away from war, past it, around and beyond the enemy lines. We're circling behind where the battle rages. Mostly we've hiked at night and hidden during the day. We no longer hear or even see the lights of explosions. We're glad we were given this duty. It's been a restful week. Kind of like a camping trip.
We each have a bomb and there are ten of us. We have several fire starters. That should be more than enough. What we do is for the good of all mankind.
Theirs is the largest library in the world, but it's not our books. They're not even in our language.
Even if we knew the language they're in a kind of writing we can't read. It's full of squares and Os and curlicues. We've been told many of the books are about the art of war and that the poetry is bawdy. There's pictures of nudes and of lovers in all possible positions.
I'm not to let any of us look at the books. Nor am I to let one single book survive. There can be no peace and no morality as long as these books exist.
There are statues at each corner of the building. Caryatids along the porches. They say that, in the center of the library, there's a reading room—a garden—open to the sky. It's full of flowers. Birds. Even trees.
They say we'll recognize the library. It's larger than any other buildings. Our side thinks that when it's destroyed, their side will lose all momentum.
By now we have come to the beach. We're from the south. We've never seen the sea. We walk with our feet in the shallow water so our tracks will be washed away. When we camp for the day, we don't sleep much even though the sound of the water is soothing. We're distracted by all these new things. We watch the waves. We keep tasting the water—we can't believe it's salty. Some of us want to fish. Some of us want to taste the things on the shore but I don't trust them not to be poison.
Around midnight we hear singing, but it has no triads, no fifths. An accompanying instrument thunks and buzzes. I tell my group, "There. Listen. You can see what kind of people these are by this racket."
My group laughs. They're nervous and this odd music doesn't reassure them.
The library is across from an artificial pool so as to show it off with its reflection.
This has all been explained to us, and yet when we come upon the reflecting pool and the sparkling whiteness of the library, its painted frieze, the golden roof ... we're silent. We've never seen such a building. It's evening and the sun makes everything pinkish-orange.
Seagulls wheel over our heads as if they are the avant-gardes of the books, their shrieks as alien as the language of the enemy.
We don't move. We just watch. The sun goes down. Stars come out. Nobody says anything. The moon rises and reflects in the pool. We should move back and find a place to camp but we can't tear ourselves away. We sit where we are, fall asleep towards morning, then wake to watch the sunrise. I don't ask the group what they think about burning it down. I don't want to know. Besides, it doesn't matter what they think.
After the sunrise we load up our weapons and cross to the edge of the pool, march right into it, two by two, and splash across to the library. We don't care if they hear us or not.
Close up, the eyes of the caryatids stare at us, seem to warn us that the library is not for the likes of us. Each of them has one bare breast. I tell my men not to look.
We head to the main doors. They're of carved wood. Easy to burn down with our fire starters. (We don't look at them. Who knows what might be carved there.) We would have bashed through them, but they're open. We walk right in.
We're as awed by the inside as we were with the outside. We become aware of how dirty and smelly we are, how we're dripping on their mosaic floor. The sun, shining through the stained glass of the clerestory windows, leaves odd colors on the walls, tables—on the people. The librarians look up, but they stay calm. Behind them there are shelves and shelves of books. The books are dark and dusty, and look old, as do the librarians. And—we can't believe it's true—all the librarians have one bare breast, sometimes the right and sometimes the left. Now, in front of us men, they don't even try to hide themselves.
We point our guns, but I'm the only one that shoots. I shoot out one of the stained glass windows. I surprise my own group even more than I surprise the librarians. My group all jump while the librarians just look though some hold their books closer like shields.
One librarian comes up to us, (bare-breasted, brazen as could be) holds her book, a large heavy one, but she doesn't try to cover herself with it. She looks like the enemy—they all have colorless hair and colorless eyes. She addresses us in what seems like two or three different languages, one after the other. Finally in ours. She whispers. She tells us to keep quiet. She points to a sign that says SILENCE even in our language. Then she says, "We have nothing to do with wars in here."
I whisper, too, though I didn't mean to.
She says, "This is a place of truths."
"Your books are full of lies. You, yourself, are a lie."
"Look around you. Does this look like lies?"
I look at the sun pouring down from the window I shot out. The real color of the sun comes in whereas the other windows show false colors. My shot is the only truth here. I point to the square of sunlight under the broken window. "There is the truth," I say.
Her face is narrow and fierce. She wears a robe down to her ankles. Surely it would tangle in bushes if she tries to walk where there are no paths. These people are, clearly, just as we've been told, overly civilized. A civilization at its final gasp. You can always tell by the clothes.
I imagine what the book she hugs so tightly must have in it. Secrets of sex, and perhaps of battles won.
We weren't told what to do with the librarians. I suppose it's up to my discretion.
She says, "There are all sorts of truths."
"You wouldn't know a truth if it was written in stone."
One of my group says, "If it were in stone, it would be true."
I don't answer such a platitude. I tell my group, to get out their fire starters. I say it for all to hear. If the librarians want to escape, it's up to them.
My group hesitates. They don't want to do their job. They take off their packs to get their fire starters, but more slowly than they should. Grandeur and beauty have confused them. They have lost sight of their principles. I'm tempted to shoot out another window to remind them which side they're on.
The librarians hold their books as though they're weapons. Some have thick covers and metal corners and look heavy.
I shoot again, but this time I don't know what I hit. That fierce librarian attacks me with her book before I can see if I hit out another window or not. Next thing I know my nose is pressed into a mosaic of a triton with an octopus hooked in it. I almost think I'm back at the seashore. Art lies. It always lies. These are—I see clearly—groups of small stones, white and black over blue waves. A shot at the floor would have scattered them back into their reality.
I get up on my knees and point my gun down at the false octopus, but one of my own men turns on me and hits me with the butt of his gun.
I come-to bound to a homemade chair. I'm in a simple room no better than our barracks. They say the librarians do live simply. They say the library is their only luxury. There are shelves along the walls as if for books, but with potted plants on them. Some of the pots would make good weapons.
I don't need my group. I can destroy the library by myself. And if I don't have bombs, I can make new ones. They didn't send out a munitions expert for nothing.
I begin to work on the knots that tie me to the chair. They've been tied by women. I easily loosen them. My jaw hurts where my comrade hit me. Have they all mutinied? Do I have a single friend? Is it because the library is too beautiful? But they told us it would be.
First thing I grab the largest pot to use as a weapon. I pick one with a strong looking plant and hold it by the woody stalk. Then I look out the window to see where I am.
And there's another lie—right on the wall of the hut next door. A painting of trees and flowers, a stream even. As if trying to make this desert place like my land down south, and not succeeding. They may have the library, but we have the forest and the mountains. The painting makes me homesick. But then I realize I'm falling into their trap: taking a painting as the truth. I don't let myself think of home.
I open the door as quietly as possible. There's another room. A writing room. Desk and paper, ink.... Also an easel with the start of a painting. It's the portrait of a child. One of their kind—almost white hair and light eyes. I hate that pale, insipid look. I splash the ink on it. I wish for more ink and then I see there's paint I can smear.
I feel good afterwards. I've struck a blow for truth. I pick up my plant-weapon and go in search of chemicals for a bomb, and maybe food, too.
I creep outside carefully, and there is the back of the library—as impressive as the front. If I had even a little of the gold of the roof I'd be a wealthy man. I think to climb a pillar, grab some golden tiles and go home. Bypass the war altogether. But then I think, after I bomb it the gold will be even easier to pick up.
I go into a different hut. Looking for a kitchen, or a shed with fertilizer. I find another writing room. There's no painting so I spill the ink all over the writing.
In the kitchen, I find a paste with what looks like scallions mixed in it. God knows what they eat or if this is for the cat. Or, for all I know, their pet rat. I eat it anyway.
Then I look for chemicals. But, of course, the labels on things are different. I have to try everything by smell—even by taste. I make a concoction, but I'm not sure about it. I hope it really is a bomb.
I grab my (maybe) bomb and my plant weapon and start out again when I hear the door open and there's a librarian, a young one.
How can such a pale creature look so beautiful?
Thank goodness her breast is covered—or she'd be in more trouble than she knows.
I can see on her face she has passed through the room where I damaged the writing. She's half my size, but she comes after me with her fists. I swing the plant. The pot flies off and dirt flies all over. She gets a face full. Dirt in her eyes and nose and mouth. Next thing, here I am, trying to clean her up. And saying I'm sorry—in my own language.
She can't answer in any. Her mouth is too full of dirt.
I find the water jar. I lean her over a basin. I use a clean cloth to get things out of her eyes. They're not colorless as we keep saying. They're tan with little greenish radiating lines. Actually they're almost exactly the same color as her hair. Her skin is tan also. She's all of a piece. You could say the same about me, black hair and black eyes, dark skin.
It takes a long time to clean her up. After, we sit on cushions across from each other, both of us exhausted. She's a mess. Her hair is wet and hanging down, her shirt front is sopping. I'm a mess, too.
Now she says, Thank you—in my language. And I say again, I'm sorry.
She looks to be as taken with me as I am with her. Both of us dazzled with the odd, the unknown—I with my shaved head and top knot and my damaged hands, and she with her almost white hair flying out around her shoulders and her hands soft as a baby's. She must do nothing but read and paint.
Both of us hardly dare to glance at each other—especially after being so close, eye to eye, my arms holding her. I have looked in her ears, in her nose, I've helped her rinse her mouth.
We sit silent. Finally she says, "I'll make tea. I'll get you something to eat."
(I don't care what it is, I'll eat it.)
"Are you going to tell them I'm here?"
"I don't know."
"I would have hit you with the heavy pot if it hadn't fallen off."
"Yes, but you helped me after."
"I don't know books. I prefer reality."
"I only know books."
"Do you want to see the rest of the world? I'll take you. Help me destroy the library and I'll take you with me."
"Why? Why destroy it?"
"It's all lies. Your life is a lie. I'll bet you do nothing but sit all the time. Did you ever play?"
"Of course I did."
"What did you play?"
"We drew and painted. Sewed. Cooked. Made things. I had a doll."
"That's not play. Play is top-o-the-roost, knick-knack, capture flags ... I don't think you had any fun at all."
"But I did."
"You don't even know you weren't happy."
"But I was."
I feel sorry for all the librarians.
"Come with me. I'll show you happiness. I'll teach you to play. And you know bombing the library will be useful to everybody. The pieces of marble can go to make many smaller houses. The roof can make everybody rich. The painted birds and butterflies pressed into the walls.... There must be a hundred. A hundred people could each have one. You could have one yourself. You could wear it in your hair."
I see I've given her something to think about.
"Give the little people marble and gold. Spread the beauty around so there's some for everybody—and keep some for yourself."
Every time she looks at me I can see her fascination in her eyes. I wonder if she's ever seen a shaved head and topknot before. She keeps looking at my hands. I always did like my hands. I'm proud of my scars. All have been achieved honorably.
I'm everything the opposite of her. She's even small for one of the enemy, while I'm tall for one of us.
She says, "We thought your eyes were so dark they were blind to all things delicate and light. We said you were too tall to be strong, but you're as if made of ropes."
"We thought you were blind for the opposite reason." Then I say, "My group ... they betrayed me. Where are they? What did you do with them?"
(No doubt by now all my men want are books and bare breasted librarians.) "We fed them periwinkles and clams. They spit them out and ate their own dried up things.
We walked them back to the beach where there are cottages. Most of us went with them.
We thought you were safely tied up."
"How many librarians stayed?"
"Six. And me."
The perfect time to bomb it and set fires.
I talk to her about chemicals. She helps me read the labels. I find things to use as fire starters. I even find stuff for a few bombs.
We work well side by side. I think what it would be like bringing her back to my people. How shocked my people would be.
"What we'll do is put these little sacks all around, inside and outside the library. It's time.
It's already getting dark. Let's do it now."
She says, "There's nobody there at night."
"Good. First you can pick your favorite book to keep just for yourself."
I feel good that I can give her something. I'm going to make sure she gets a butterfly or a bird, and some of the gold.
She says, "We'll need a lamp. There aren't any windows except those high stained glass ones. Books take up all the wall space."
We gather up the little packages and tubes and carry them to the library. Right away I climb up and put some under the roof. She's never seen anything like my climbing. All I need is a little finger grip and toe grip. My own men can't do that. I see I impress her even more than before.
When I place the last package and climb down, I can't resist the admiration in her eyes, I lean to kiss her. She looks as if she's leaning to kiss me, but she turns away at the last minute.
We light our lamp and go inside. Right away she takes out a huge book.
"We can't bring that!"
"I just want to show you some pictures. There are lots like this here, but this book is the best.
The book is so big she has to put it on a special stand. She opens it and there they are—in gold leaf, or looks like it, a golden woman and a golden man. Naked. The woman is handing the man grapes or dates, and he reaches, not for them, but towards her breast. It's as lewd as we always said their drawings are. But the green of the trees is as beautiful as the gold, so is the blue of the sky, as though green and blue could be as valuable as gold. The landscape is more like my world than like hers. It's a picture you could fall right into—and would want to except for the naked couple. If I were there I'd hurry away behind the trees in the foreground.
She turns the page and the next is even worse than the first. It's as if you're standing on a higher hill than before, in the shadow of pine trees, looking down. This time the couple is farther away, but you can see the golden man has his hand on the woman's golden breast now, and the grapes or dates are on the ground, forgotten.
Why is she showing me this? And she looks so young and innocent? She isn't. Art has ruined her. She knows everything already. Probably more than I do. No wonder they want me to destroy the library.
I don't want her to turn to the next page. Nor the next and the next. I can imagine what they'll be. And why look when we can do?
I grab her and throw her down ... on the make believe octopus. I drop on top of her. Kiss her—hard.
At first she's too shocked to react. She doesn't seem to know what's happening, but then she struggles. She bites my lip. I pull back and she yells, first a wordless shout and then, "No! Help!" If she keeps on making a racket, whatever other librarians are left here will come. I cover her mouth with my hand. She bites my hand this time and knees me. I'm the one should be yelling No.
Excerpted from I Live With You by Carol Emshwiller, Jacob Weisman. Copyright © 2005 Carol Emshwiller. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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Meet the Author
Carol Emshwiller is a key figure in science fiction’s new-wave movement and the author of Carmen Dog, The Mount, Mr. Boots, and The Secret City. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Pushcart Prize as well as the Philip K. Dick and Gallun awards. In 2005, she received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement and the Nebula Award for I Live With You,” the title story of her short-story collection.
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