Those who sought the heart of the library had to pass a granite statue. The Silent Woman stood a few feet inside the entrance to the Reading Room. The gray Silent Woman had been sculpted by a famous artist. Her bowed head was wrapped in a carven scarf. Her eyes were down and closed.
In a dim corner of the Reading Room I took off my winter coat and settled into a plush armchair. Wooden shelves heavy with gilt-lettered books enclosed the silence, like the walls of a cathedral. My seat faced one side of the Silent Woman.
I opened a book. For an hour I read. Then I shut the book. The dry pages seemed unimportant. Small voices from the nearby Children’s Room had tiptoed up to me.
I listened to the little voices.
Like a bubbling stream of soft, musical notes, the voices pattered and splashed and giggled. They chimed like crystal water cascading over stones. From the Children’s Room I heard glee, excitement, surprise . . . softly running feet . . . a sudden cry of delight. I heard the joy of eager spirits that refuse to sit.
I tried to understand the indistinct voices that swelled from a knowledge of life’s immediate fullness.
As I listened to the happy voices, I lifted my eyes to the Silent Woman.
Her head was bowed. Her eyes were closed.
She seemed to be waiting.
I’m not exactly sure why I spent Sunday mornings sitting on a cold bench near that monument. It seemed a suitable place to read a book. I suppose my attraction to the place had something to do with words engraved in marble. A feeling of permanence.
Those mornings I wasn’t the only one drawn to the park. Rested and ready, fresh out of nearby hotels, tourists hurried past beds of flowers in order to conquer the city.
The shining monument, in the shape of an erect, pointed obelisk, was so conspicuous that eager eyes couldn’t possibly miss it.
Legs inevitably turned. Feet halted by the solemn black plaque at the obelisk’s base. Selfie sticks rose. Satisfied poses were effected.
If I really wanted to hurt myself, I lowered my book and opened my mouth to play a simple game. “Do you know why that monument is there?” I asked.
Most couldn’t say.
Book burning didn’t destroy every book.
Voice recognition did.
Printed words vanished.
The only beings that processed code were the polite, speaking machines.
People still spoke, of course. And viewed pictures. But the pictures were always in kaleidescope motion. Exact words were unnecessary.
Spelling was forgotten. Grammar was forgotten. Structured truth was forgotten. That made life easier.
. . .
Tracy took a wrong turn because a machine had catastrophically failed. Walking a great distance was strange enough, but now she was walking where no flesh-and-blood legs walked. The city’s Forgotten Zone.
Even the machines disregarded this place, she observed. She slowly turned her head, looking about. The deserted streets were lined with broken windows, broken doors.
Above one broken window hung a broken sign. The remaining word: LIFE.
What’s that for? Tracy wondered, staring at the old sign with blinking eyes.
. . .
Fortunately, a functioning machine soon located Tracy and retrieved her, returning her to her proper place.
“Thanks,” was spoken.
“You’re welcome,” replied the polite machine.