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The procedure is always the same. He fills in forms. He waits. After twenty or thirty minutes the first of the books arrives. Usually singly, sometimes on a trolley, until they form a tower. All morning his eyes pull in their words like a stove feeding itself. At one o’clock he goes to the canteen; by a quarter past he’s back. He remains in his chair until he hears the voice of a man who is never tired, does not age, who may already be dead. It is a voice he hates. The library will be closing in fifteen minutes, says the man. Please return your books to the desk. With this the tower is destroyed. He must return to the present.

He leaves the library and walks down the hill until he reaches his street. At home he eats then tries to read but usually his eyes hurt. All he can do is walk the several blocks of the street, slowly back and forth. He goes over the day’s reading. He waits for the Thought.

On this January night the sky is clear, the moon scarcely present. He is cold and his eyes ache; his mind is a tired creature he must prod into remembering. In the morning he read about Zosimos, Fulcanelli, the learned buckles of Paracelsus; in the afternoon it was Basilides and his “Octet of Subsistent Entities.” Even though that was only three hours ago he remembers only intellect, power, verbal expression—and what else? He concentrates and conjures wisdom. The other four entities are gone. What use is knowing half an octet? This is the problem with reading. If you burn an entire forest then at least there’s ash. But after fifty thousand words, barely a sentence remains. No wonder he feels sick each time he turns a page.

He stops to watch the car lights. To the right, a streak of white; to the left, a smear of red. This what those old prophets meant when they spoke of heaven’s trace, that quickened fire, paths that sear the air. If Zosimos or Paracelsus could step through the centuries to stand by this road they wouldn’t be impressed to see carriages pulled by invisible horses. Even then they knew they were surrounded by forces that could barely be sensed. Televisions, phones, and cars would not impress them either. Once the novelty passed they would see these things for what they were. Applications but not answers to the only question.

If only he could concentrate. What he needs is a younger mind. If he’d begun at thirty, even forty, he’d have made more progress. Instead he hid himself in rooms where words built up like smoke. Everyone talking, everyone laughing, everyone so clever. They drank and danced. They found good jobs. Some of them had children. It seemed a good compromise. Immortality was such a long shot. Instead of trying to make his entire self survive, surely it was better to settle for his nose, chin, and laugh to live on after his death. Obviously, it wouldn’t be him. But the notion of a partial success might dispel the fear, at least until the end. After that there would be a period when his nose, chin, and laugh would move through the world. They would point to his image, speak his name, relate incidents from his life. If they made noses and chins of their own, they would tell the same stories, show the same pictures, but in one generation, perhaps two, his nose or chin would vanish, and then there would just be photos that no living person could identify. In the end it was the same outcome; the failure was only delayed.

When he reaches the park it makes its usual promises. If he follows its paths in the dark, his mental fragments will mend. This is what he did for years, until last spring when the darkness suddenly moved. The pushing hands were very small. The grass was wet and cool. He lay there till the footsteps faded. Although he couldn’t stand, there was no need to call for help. He was warm...

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