So there it is, sitting on my night stand like some cheap paperback. The Book of Sorrows. Bound in leather, written in the blood of an infant child, and illustrated by a secretive cult of druids during the reign of the Romans. You wouldn't find it at your local Barnes & Nobles, or even the Smithsonian; it took five teams of crack archeologists, the collective detective work of the seven finest historians alive, and a little over three hundred million dollars to bring it to the nightstand where it now rests. A herculean effort by any standard, but for what, exactly? What work of literature could be worth such an enormous price?
I run over the story told by the historians again in my head.
The Book of Sorrows is an artifact with many a myth attached. The earliest record of its existence dates back to 346 A.D., where it is described by a Roman merchant passing through territory near the northern regions of the Rhine who witnesses its use as an item of ritual to execute the members of his caravan. His description claims that, while in use, the book appeared to suck some sort of spiritual matter from the men, leaving them in a state of servile ecstasy before perishing a few days later. The merchant later escaped and returned to Rome, where his story drove Julian the Apostate, the last of the pagan emperors, to campaign in search of it ten years later, in 356. Though Julian succeeded in driving the local Alemanni from the area, he failed to find the book itself.
After Julius' death in 363, the Book disappears for about two hundred years, only to subsequently reappear in several cameos throughout the Middle Ages. It becomes, variously, a witch's tool, an oracle, a demon, and, near the end of its career during that time period, a saint's tool used to lift the sins of dying men. In addition to the aforementioned ability to drive men into states of apparently deadly euphoria, it gains some predictive abilities and, interestingly, the power to drive men into deadly depression as well. This attracts the attention of several European leaders, including a Pope, who seeks out the Book's rumored hiding place in the Alps. Allegedly found at last by an Italian climber in the 1700s, the Book is finally handed over to the Vatican, and vanishes for a time into their deep vaults.
The book breaks free again during the 1870 capture of Rome by the Italians. Taken from the Vatican Library in the fear that it might be stolen, cardinals hide it book in the labyrinth of catacombs beneath the city, where they promptly forget about it altogether. There it languishes for almost another 60 years, as the city above is bombed and held by fascists. Only the Nazis, with their typical fascination for the occult, take an interest in finding the book, dispatching several teams to search through the Roman underground. Upon finding it, they justify its theft to Mussolini by claiming it to be a "lost Aryan artifact", pointing to its origins with the Alemanni as proof. Unfortunately for them, the discovery of the Book arrives just as the war in Europe ends and the Book once again vanishes, this time near its point of origin along the northern coast of the Rhine. Until last week.
To be honest, the Nazis did a brilliant job at hiding it. The Book was locked away within a thick-walled concrete bunker guarded by a battalion of Hitler's most loyal, several of whom died just to keep the vaults locked. Their corpses still waited when we blew the doors off the place, dressed in the same uniforms for more than half a century. The entire complex was hidden from aerial observation by an enormous canvas that disguised it as little more than an uninhabited patch of forest. Indeed, Nazi engineers one-upped a similar ploy by the Army Corps of Engineers by planting trees atop their disguised landscape. The whole arrangement made it damn near impossible to find the place, but find it we did. And in it we found the book.
My wife and I have been looking through the pages lately, doing our best to translate the archaic writing inside with the aid of some expert linguistic historians. Many of the pages contain short, melancholy stories, told in anecdotal form. They seem to have been updated throughout the centuries, as the stories change in setting and language according to different time periods. The most recent entry is in relatively modern German, written in fine, Gothic script, and describes the fall of an SS officer who betrays his friends and then his family to preserve his position in what he comes to realize is a rapidly decaying regime. The final line reads: "Dies ist das Ende meiner Geschichte."
"This is the end of my story."
There is a slight spattering of blood beside it.
The other stories all end on similarly miserable notes, but leave me singularly unsympathetic. Most of my life has been spent in pursuit of an artifact such as this and to find it little more than an archaic diary of misery is singularly disappointing.
Sometimes I pick up the book and turn it over, looking for some evidence of supernatural power, as though simply handling the book enough would cause it to release some previously unknown burst of the occult. Nothing happens of course, but I nevertheless find myself holding the book more and more frequently as the days pass, sometimes for hours at a time. One day, on a whim, I open it up and write a single sentence inside, a play on the closing comment on the previous owner.
"This is the start of my story."
I let the words rest on the page for a moment, and then inexplicably begin to write more. I spend hours filling out who I am , what I've done with my life, my deepest passions, and most terrible fears. Pages fill up rapidly but never seem to run short. It is almost as if there is exactly enough room for whatever it is I want to say and I find this comforting. It is good for things to have a beginning that is clean and an end that is neat and within the limits of its means.
A few days later, the book goes missing from my night table. I search the house for it, entirely in vain, but right when I am ready to give up, it reappears on my night table again just a few days later. I pick it up and flip through. My entries have vanished. In their place are those of another, written in tight, elegant script. I recognize the handwriting as my wife's. Unable to resist, I begin to read.
Her writing begins just as mine did. Notes on herself, and her disappointment in the Book's lack of abilities. After that though, the tone shifts. She begins to record her criticisms of me and they are not kind. My sexual potency, my cold manner, my personal likes and dislikes are all laid bare here, mercilessly shredded by her critiques. I am shocked and I begin a new entry recording my shock in the book, followed by my own volley of opinions regarding her and her personal habits. Then I leave the book out. It vanishes once more, only to reappear once again beside my bed a few days later with new entries inside, revealing that she has kept a lover besides me for over five years now.
I begin to break down. I am starting to feel weak now, destabilized both emotionally and physically. I start to gain weight, and fight with my wife. I cannot summon the courage to confront her over her lover so I find other things to do battle with her over instead. She does the same. Her cooking, my lounging, her family, my family, the music she plays, the art I enjoy. Anything and everything we know about each other becomes a field of carnage. Weeks pass, and the hatred only builds.
One day I finally spot her with her lover and follow them to a motel. I watch them go inside. I watch them come out. I cry into the barrel of a gun.
But I let myself live. I drive home like a man with a broken back, my whole body in a forward slump. When I arrive she is there, and she smiles at me. She is holding the book. The book in which I wrote of my plan that night, to follow them to their motel and kill them. She pulls out a gun of her own and cocks it.
The sound of the discharge is violent and final.
I stumble, my body in momentary confusion over the sharp and sudden pain in my belly. Some needlessly vengeful part of my mind manages to reach into my jacket and pull out my own gun in time to take one last, wild shot. It catches her between the eyes, shattering her skull and dropping what remains of her ghastly, grinning face onto the leatherbound cover of the book. As I begin to die on the floor of my own living room, I search for one last thing, the hope that a lesson may be learned from all this dreadful madness. But there is no lesson. There is only sorrow.