The answers to the question were both without and within. On scraps of paper. In notebooks and pads. Scribbled down in earnest, never to be read again. Or worse to be read again through the tired eyes of one who had forgotten, or no longer believed.
He was not who he claimed he was.
He began to write his name down on a piece of paper each day and hide it in a book. Should he forget he had only to open the book and wisdom would be bestowed, memory returned to him and all set right again in the world. But book had piled on book, and soon it was not only his name, not only scraps, but novellas hidden in stacks and heaps, creating a vellum city, which he would tiptoe around at night, causing books to sway in his presence.
In autumn light, he would scurry from room to room, with scraps of paper, climbing foot stools and ladders to reach piles of books in his rudimentary library. Carefully selecting books of meaning, sentiment, books that although dusty and askew, had been eternally placed within his soul. Their words committed to memory. Their wisdom often shared with wine and laughter in the company of friends, who had marvelled at his ability to find an edition, author, or collection with such ease.
They had playfully teased him for living like an old man before his time, and had been patient with how he would carefully dismantle and reconstruct his city. They encouraged him to put in shelves and opt for the more conventional Dewey Decimal system, but he would always laugh and refuse. He enjoyed showing off his feats of recollection and when alone took comfort in the chaos he had constructed, a child’s playthings left lying about. He enjoyed watching it grow with him. It would not be the same neatly filed onto shelves.
However, time had passed, laughter faded, warm bodies disappeared and with them they took the memories he struggled to hold onto with his mind. His comfort soon turned into torment. He would write instead of speak, but after each memory had been filed away and his untrustworthy synapses had been replaced with rice paper, he would waver like the towers around him.
Was this how it had been? How it had happened? Who was he?
Then once again he would scurry and weave, and try to recall where his thoughts had been misplaced.
His mind housed ghostly voices that drowned his own, too scared and unsure of himself to decide whether to believe one or the other. His faith in himself unshakeable, until shaken, an Oak admired for its strength and presence from a distance, now upon closer inspection, trembled with each new direction the wind took. Rapidly falling leaves pooled around him, leaving him looking old and bare. Which book had he placed it in? What edition? Which room?
His name was on the tip of his tongue, but never to leave his lips and he looked around in a panic, at the silent books that towered around him, heartless bullies, keeping his most precious possession from him, refusing him the answer to his questions, denying him clemency in his old age. For one so learned, his faith in himself, once a rock, proud and firm, wobbled like a precarious stack of Jenga. Eroded by waves of doubt, that washed over him from the mouth of a harpy, who hid herself out of the sight of others, while her voice echoed around his head.
Or at least this was the story he had told himself, feverishly written down and drunkenly espoused to strangers in public houses, who politely nodded before leaving him all alone with his fading thoughts and ego.
One morning he awoke and nothing was left inside. Not her voice nor his, nor that of others. He crumpled to the ground like all the paper scraps he had stored, that now eluded him. Hiding between the pages of too many books he had trusted. Empty of words. Empty of thoughts. His now frail hands, paper balls, that rustled against the ground with light thuds, as he threw them childishly to the ground to get the attention of whatever supreme presence paid witness to this injustice.
But only the books towered over him. Solemn. Pitying. A man so learned. So wise. Cursed to forget and be forgotten, no friend to share his tales, no child to remember his wisdom, or grandchild to inherit the wealth of knowledge that surrounded him. A life of learning and thought. Sobs shook the room, swaying stacks, moving tomes, and he released an anguished moan with his dying breath before collapsing prostrated at the centre of his temple of knowledge.
His pain reverberated around the library, causing his first purchase when he was a promising scholar in Lahore, copy of Bijak, to fall from its prized position. As it tumbled, causing all the other stacks to quake, his name was finally freed. With it, a flurry of coloured sheets was unleashed from the pile at its side, which in turn tumbled another, until the roar of a falling city thundered around him, as he lay motionless at its centre.
As each book fell, it exhaled a note, a memory, a thought, a belief, an assertion. Each version of the man that had existed at one point in time or another floated up high, then died with the birth of the next. Books thumped and thudded to the ground, spewing paper as they fell, which in turn drifted around the room, In an ethereal dance that floated above the destruction below. Finally they came to rest. Some on pieces of furniture, some on the thick Persian rug, a few caressed his cheek, covered his body, until they all settled, his body engulfed like a drop in the ocean of his own knowledge.