The Scrolls

(A tale written after a late-night reading of The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges)

Sometimes we must forget everything we have known in order to remember something we have forgotten. The straight line of logic is not always the shortest path to understanding. From time to time, the simplest sentences may turn out to contain ideas infinitely more complicated than one might care to have anything to do with. More often, perhaps, they do not.

I have frequently discussed such problems of knowledge with a venerable gentleman from Argentina whose first and last names contain four identical letters in the same order. Not long ago, he told me a story that seemed to answer all my questions and, quite mysteriously, left me more puzzled than ever before. This is what he said:

After I graduated from the university, I was afflicted by doubts about the purpose of human existence, so I took up the life of a scholarly recluse. I was fortunate enough to find inexpensive rooms on the top floor of an old but elegant stone house. It was in the quarter of Buenos Aires called Punto de Vista, which was then inhabited mainly by wealthy aristocrats who went about mumbling bitterly, “This is The Argentine, God damn it, not Argentina.” My study was a place most conducive to reading and solitary reflection. It had three large windows, which faced in three different directions. To the north lay the magnificent Parque de 30 de Febrero. To the east the Rio de la Plata flowed toward the sea. To the south I could see the spires of La Catedral de San Simeon de los Marsupiales de la Oscuridad.

I had set myself the task of deciphering some antique, yellowed scrolls that had come into my hands perhaps only apparently by accident. I was much absorbed at the time in writing a comparative study of the lives of the manticore and the nineteenth-century political activist Carlos O’Higgins. O’Higgins had traveled from one rancho to another in the Capybara section trying to persuade the vaqueros to demand more strings for their bolos. Because of his speeches he was often referred to as the Pampas Ass.

I had set the scrolls on the mantel in my study while I worked on the monograph. But they continued to exert a strange fascination upon me, perhaps because, depending on the weather, they varied in number from three to sixteen. Finally, I gave up all other serious pursuits.

The scrolls were covered with curious and somehow disturbing marks, rendered in many instances nearly invisible by the passage of time. I at first took them to be rough blueprints for a Mayan fronton. On closer inspection, I thought that they might be a grotesque pictorial lampoon of Prince Charles’s plans for the Battle of Culloden. Weeks passed before I realized that what fate or chance had brought me was apparently an example of a written language whose existence had been forgotten for perhaps thousands of years. I felt certain that eventually they would yield up a profound secret about the meaning of life.

Sadly, my confidence was not justified. Because the writing on it was most distinct, I started with the fifth scroll, which was the twelfth when the city was in the grip of the foul west wind (or, as we called it, the Breath of the Chileans). But after two months, I had managed to translate only the first sentence. It was “We bought some fruit from the Phoenician, but it was not fit for our camels.” Or, possibly, “They stole a suit from the Phoenician, but it did not fit their camel.” Needless to say, this uncertainty served only to heighten my frustration. I suffered a recurrence of the migraines that had plagued me when, as a student, I tried to write a paper that would melt upon my professor if he disagreed with its thesis. One sultry evening, after working on the ancient writing for two days without interruption, I found myself weeping disconsolately over the fact that Pele would not be born for some five years. I realized then that it might be wise for me to seek help in deciphering the scrolls.

There was only one man who could help me—the aged socialist and scholar Don Felisberto Ecolalia. Don Felisberto had traveled all over the world, and was, perhaps, the greatest living linguist. It was he who had decoded the seventh-century Druid “Rune of Arledge,” and who had discovered that there is no language which has a name for the two small vertical ridges between your nose and the top of your upper lip. He was Sancho Panza Professor of Linguistics at the university when I was a student but he had been forced to leave when it was learned that he was teaching some young leftists how to laugh at the nation’s president in Amharic.

Fortunately, Don Felisberto lived not far from where I had my rooms, in a section of the city where the streets were narrow and wound in and out in a confusing way. I decided to see him that very night. It was a hot, humid, oppressive January night. When I finally found my way to Don Felisberto’s house, I was in a febrile state not unlike California, driven by my now obsessive desire to know the secrets contained in the scrolls that I carried with me.

It was very late when I arrived, and it took some minutes before Don Felisberto answered my knocking. Finally, the door opened.

“Ah, yes, Maria,”he said sleepily. “You have returned for more sport.”

“But I am not Maria, Don Felisberto,” I said. “Do you not remember me?”

“I beg your pardon, Guzman. What news from Nogales?”

“No, no, Don Felisberto. I am a former student of yours, and I have brought with me a great mystery that only you can solve.”

“Forgive me, my young friend; an old man dreams not but of his youth. Of course I remember you. What is the mystery that leads you here at this late hour?”

I gave him the scrolls and confided my intuition that they held some profound lesson concerning human existence.

“Ah, your enthusiasm reminds me of a story that Garcia Lorca told me not long ago in Barcelona. This is what he said:”

“Excuse me, Don Felisberto,” I said. “I enjoy a subnarrative as much as the next man, but there are limits.”

“Perhaps you are right,” he said. “Leave me alone with these scrolls of yours. Return here at dawn, and I will tell you what they contain.”

So I walked the streets of Buenos Aires for three hours, dreaming of the great knowledge I was about to possess. But when, at the first light of morning, I tried to go back to Don Felisberto’s house, I could not find it. The streets were so tortuous that I became completely lost. Once, when I approached a house that looked like the right one, I saw a plaque on the door that said, “Not Don Felisberto’s House.” Another time, after I had taken a number of turns that seemed correct, I found myself in suburban Montevideo. Finally, I discovered a block exactly like Don Felisberto’s. But where his house should have been there was only a building in ruins. On the sidewalk before it, I saw an envelope with my name written on it. I picked it up and opened it with trembling fingers. This is what it said:

My young friend,

In my life I have had many adventures. I have sailed the Bight of Benin, crossed the Rann of Kutch, and entered the Dame of Sark. In New Guinea, I lived for three years with a tribe of cannibals who worshipped humidity. In Calcutta, I saw the famous Swami Peraji take apart and reassemble his genitals in four seconds. In a mountain pass near Kabul, I wrestled to a draw the fearsome Winona, a creature who is half woman, half rug. But nothing in my experience prepared me for the knowledge of the scrolls.

They are written in obscure hieroglyphics invented by a mystical sect that during the sixth century before the birth of Christ inhabited a region of Persia known as El Qandri. You were correct in thinking that these scrolls elucidate the purpose of life. But I will not impart this secret to you or anyone else. When one’s understanding is too great, it is a curse more severe than ignorance. I will live out what is left of my life haunted and isolated by what I have learned this night. Do not try to find me.

With more than a little annoyance, I remain

Don Felisberto Ecolalia

The venerable gentleman from Argentina leaned back in his chair and sighed.

“That’s it?” I said.

“I am but a simple storyteller,”he replied. “I will leave it to others to draw the moral.”

“Did you search further for Don Felisberto?” I asked.

“No. In fact, a few months later, the entire episode began to take on in my mind the feeling of a recollected dream. Over the years, I have grown unsure whether the scrolls actually existed at all. I cannot even say with certainty that my mother and father had met before these events transpired.”

“Ah, but you have the letter from the old scholar,” I said.

“I lack even that much evidence, I’m afraid. As I recall, a sudden gust of wind tore it from my hands as soon as I had finished reading it.”

“Then how am I to know what is real in what you say and what is not?”

“How is anyone ever to know what is real and what is not? Perhaps you are a figment of my imagination. I am growing sleepy now, and perhaps when I close my eyes you will cease to exist.”

The venerable gentleman’s head nodded slightly, and I