A Man With A Purpose
A Sandman Fanfiction by Aoikami Sarah
Note: This story was not inspired by “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville. Pieter’s occupation is merely coincidental.
There was once an old man who lived in a small city. He resided in a boarding house for so many years that the other borders could not remember just when he had moved in. He had no family or friends. He spoke only to his landlord and only when his rent was due. In the morning he would set out to his job at a title office and return before dinner, served promptly at six o’clock by the landlord’s wife. He was always on time and ate with some of the handful of other borders.
Other than his daily routine, the old man did nothing else. It was often remarked by the landlord’s wife that despite his lonely lot, he didn’t seem to be sour or sad or mean for it. The woman could not have known that the old man didn’t even take his being alone into the slightest consideration.
After dinner he would climb three flights of rickety stairs to his room. Inside the room stood a table of considerable age and a thin wooden chair with a high back. A short, low bed lay against the perpendicular wall covered by one blanket under a window that retained only one of its ancient shutters. A doorless closet and a fragment of mirror accented the wall opposite the table. On the table was an old oil lamp and hanging above the table hung faded, dirty oil painting of the city of years past.
This night the old man ascends the stairs and enters his room. He never locks his door because the main door of the building is always locked and like most of the boarding house residents, he owns nothing of value. He enters slowly and quietly. There has never been a need for him to make superfluous noise as he does not need to make anyone else aware of his presence. He enters and seats himself at his table. It’s getting dark. He lights his lamp. Opening the long, narrow drawer under the lip of the table, he pulls out a thick hard-bound book, a quill and bottle of ink. He places the book on the table so that it faces the bed and the quill and ink beside it. He smoothes his hands over the book and smiles. He closes his eyes.
The old man has been buying blank books of paper for more than sixty years. A thousand volumes fill his closet. Space reserved for his two suits has, over the years, been reduced to a box crammed in a hole between the books. For sixty years or more the old man has been chronicling his dreams.
At the age of twenty-two the old man had been working as a clerk at the scrivener’s firm for four years. As a youth, he ran away from his family farm as soon as the idea of escape came to him. Arriving in the city, he found a job with the firm. Although he was raised a farm-boy, his only pleasure was writing.
His handwriting was excellent and he had always excelled in English and cursive at his rural school. He was not born a creative person. Instead, he would spend hours with paper and pen writing non-fiction: epic descriptions of his surroundings in such glowing detail that the words transcended the reader to the location. He passed long hours under the shade of the sycamore trees, often joined by his sweetheart, Anna. He wrote quickly and beautifully, perhaps driven more to transmute scenes into words by Anna’s blindness than his own simplicity.
The boy’s father disliked his youngest son’s lazy hobby. He would lecture him about it when intoxicated as only a hard working man with a long leather belt could. He would also embarrass his son in front of Anna by reminding him that if he was nearly as good with a plow as he was with a pen, their farm would not be failing as it was. Anna always supported the boy by telling him that what he did was wonderful. She would rather have him writing words than farming a land that she could not see without him.
When he turned 18, Anna caught scarlet fever and admitted her love to the boy before she died. In his grief, he vowed that he would remember her by writing till the day he died. He spent every waking hour out of reach of his father, eyes scanning the land and town, cataloging them all. It was at this point that his father became fed up at last with his uncooperative son. In a drunken rage he confiscated the books and papers the boy had amassed and burned them. Utterly shocked and totally devastated by these events, the then young, old man took his leave of his home.
The title office hired him as soon as they saw a writing sample he produced for the. He became the best scrivener and clerk the firm ever had, but he did not like his job.
By the time a dislike of his livelihood matured, he was too old by the era’s standards to apprentice for another profession. No occupation held any more glamour for him than the lack-luster work he was trapped in. Soon, he became despondent with the thought that he would be stuck duplicating documents, revising legal contracts and proofreading copy for the rest of his life.
He was then trapped in gloom. His work was as steady as his pay, but all hope was gone. In his sadness he forgot happier times with Anna and his promise to her. He stopped writing for pleasure. The city held no fascination for him; its greyness too drab to merit his interest. Nightly he returned home without taking dinner, went up to his room and pondered what to do. If he ran away, he would have to find another pitiful job like the one that already plagued him in another city. Going home was definitely not an option. He pleaded to deities unknown for a solution.
One night, on his way back to the boarding house, despair paid the young man a visit. Tired and hungry, but no longer interested in complying with his body’s needs, he trudged home from work. When he was a block from his building he was hailed by an old hag. She asked him if he wasn’t feeling well. He shrugged her off, but she was persistent.
“You don’t look well, my young man. Perhaps I can be of some assistance?”
He turned to look at her at last, undaunted by the fact that the fat, dour woman was completely nude. He looked her in her clouded eyes, coldly.
“Oh, you do? What can you do for me, Oma?”
The hag seemed to enjoy the insult. “Go a block from here north then two east. There will be on that street a house-front with a large black door, facing the north. Knock but five times, slowly to gain admittance. There, inside, you might find a cure for what ails you.”
The hag turned and began to continue on her way.
“Oma!” Called the young man. She halted. “Who should I say sent me?”
Then she made a grimace that could be mistaken for a smile. “Despair.”
The afternoon turned to dusk as he walked away from the hag. At the corner he turned left as she had instructed and walked until he reached the end of the second block. On the left side of the street he came to a large, black door below a swinging apothecary sign. The young man wrapped five times upon the door and a second later it swung open.
The room opened up narrowly, stretching far back to a counter. The items for sale were of no particular interest, but like nothing he had ever seen before. The shop was dimly lit, so much so that the young man’s eyes did not need to adjust from dusk to its darkness. Opposite the entrance at the counter stood a greying man. He was leafing through a thick and weathered book. The young man made his way to him and the grey man raised his spectacled head and spoke.
“What can I help you with this evening?” Rather than relaxing the young man, his easy manner put him on his guard. He became nervous and struggled to ask for a potion to end his misery.
“I... I...” His voice shook. He sighed heavily, trying to keep his eyes more than half open. The grey man studied him and began to speak when a taller, younger-looking man with wild brown hair and glasses came out of the back room.
“I can help you, sir.” He also studied the man, but his look had more promise to it. “I think I have just the thing.”
He pleaded the scrivener wait a minute while he prepared his remedy. The grey man eyed his superior with discontent as he disappeared into the back. The young man nodded slowly and tried to remember what the hag had said to him. He had asked her something. By now he could hardly recall the steps he took to get here. Just when he was about to turn to leave the tall man re-emerged with a vile of dark brown liquid. He set it on the counter and smiled faintly. The grey man made the sale.
“That will be three pfennige.”
The young man delved into his pockets and withdrew three coins. He dropped them into the short, grey man’s hands and took his vile.
“Thank you.” He said hazily.
“Good day sir.” The tall man smiled.
Upon returning home from his trip to the unusual store, the young scrivener passed up his nightly meal with a shake of his head and mumbled that he wasn’t feeling well. He went up to his room and sat on his bed.
Thoughts about what he was about to do were simply questions of pain and what lies beyond. At last his brain quieted. He unscrewed the top of the vile and consumed its contents. He lay down on his stiff bed and closed his eyes.
Almost instantly he fell to dreaming.
Before his dreaming eyes, the young man saw a swirling mist. He was being drawn slowly through space and the light was getting stronger.
“Is this what it is like to die?” asked the young man to no one in particular. Being uncreative, he had never even imagined what heaven or hell would appear like to him. He squinted and peered into the fog. He did not expect an answer.
“No,” replied a proper voice from the void which seemed to gather form and substance as it progressed. “This is what it is like to dream.”
A tall figure with wild, brown hair approached him from the distance. He pierced the fog with a thinness like a needle. His body, instead of becoming more visible as he stepped out of the fog, seemed to grow more solid.
“Then,” argued the young man, “you’re not going to take my soul on its final journey or anything like that?”
The tall man motioned to the mist and it parted. They were now standing in a huge library whose stacks towered to inconceivable heights. Some of the books were translucent, showing others behind them through their hazy spines. “No, that is not my job. I am but a servant who has lost his Lord.”
“Why am I here? Where are we?”
The librarian directed him to sit on a bench under the “Bio-Mechanical Auto Biographies” section.
“You are in my library, or what is soon to be nothingness. You are here because this library is dying. Without my King, I have no control over the information these books contain. It floats out of dreams and away, out of my reach. I need someone outside the dreaming who can help me maintain the library. The librarian paced in front of the young man.
“Dreams...?” He asked.
“Oh dear,” He stopped and seemed shocked. “You’re one of those.” The librarian furrowed his brow and touched his long index finger to his bottom lip. He then pointed to his companion and continued.
“Come with me.”
The men walked through the library which appeared to contain an endless supply of books. The young man was awed.
“Sir, er, if I may ask, what does this have to do with me?”
The librarian turned before a set of enormous double doors. “You, with your incredible writing ability, are just the man I’m looking for. I need you to write: to transcribe as much material as you can from the Library of Dreams into the waking world.”
He opened the doors, led the man through them, and shut them firmly behind him. “Each night you will come here and read as much as you can. Dreams are not exactly like reality, you will be able to read far more material here than if you were awake. Upon waking you will write down as much as you can remember as quickly and legibly as you can, thus saving literature which exists nowhere else. Er, that is, if you consent?”
The young man turned and faced the librarian. “I would do so gladly, if only I could. You see, I have never...”
“Ah, yes. That little inconvenience will soon be amended.” A candle waited outside the doors, hovering in the darkness for him. It floated before him as he walked the corridors with the young scrivener in tow. Soon they came to a huge, open room with gigantic stained glass windows. At the top of a long flight of stairs in the middle of the vast room stood a throne and a chest. The men climbed stairs covered in a thin layer of dust to the throne, absent of its majesty long enough as to also be coated with dust. The librarian opened the trunk and rummaged about. Strange sounds emanated from within, as if the box contained living creatures. At last the tall man produced a minuscule key made of gold.
“With this key around your neck, you will always have access to the Dreaming, moreover it will lead directly to the library.” He blew on the charm and presented it to the young man. “It will also help you to remember what you have read.”
“I don’t know what to say, sir...”
“Then say nothing. I have seen volumes of your work...”
“Yes, the pages you wrote of your home, the vivid detail you placed in those accounts at such an early age are a sure sign of high aptitude for this project.” The librarian sat on the arm of the throne, bringing his eye level down to the young man’s. “You were considering throwing your life away because you have no reason to live, no purpose on earth. I ask you now to use your talent to catalog my library outside the fading Dreaming. However small an amount you succeed in reproducing will aid me greatly. Please do me this favor and honor.”
The scrivener’s eyes went wide. “I accept whole-heartedly, sir!” He answered without the slightest pause. His beamed with a hope and happiness he had not felt since the days he spent with Anna under the sycamore trees.
“Excellent! Put the key around your neck. You will begin immediately. Tomorrow, after work, take your money to a shop that sells writing supplies and purchase pen, ink and paper. Tomorrow night, call my name before you sleep. This key will bring you here and you will begin to read.” The librarian stood to bid the young man farewell.
“Thank you sir!” He bowed his head in appreciation. “Er, how do I call you, sir?”
“Call me Lucien, Librarian to Lord Morpheus, King of Dreams.”
And he awoke.
The young man spent the next day recalling what his dream had told him. He went cheerily about his business at work and afterwards to the stationary shop to buy the items the librarian requested.
“That will be three pfennige.” Said the grey-haired man behind the counter.
“Thank you” said the young man with a smile.
“Good day, sir.” The grey man smiled back.
Closing the black door behind him, the man stopped for a moment wondering at the exchange, but shrugged and continued home.
He ate supper with the appetite of ten men, avoiding odd comments with the excuse of “just feeling better today, thank you.” He ascended the stairs and took out one of the blank books of paper he had bought. He set it and the quill and ink facing his bed on the table. He lay down and touched the gilt key around his neck. With a soft sigh, he repeated the librarian’s full title. “Lucien, Librarian to Lord Morpheus, King of Dreams.”
In dreams it was explained to him that he must have a nightly regime. He would do as he did tonight: looking at his writing implements before sleeping. He would then read all night from Lucien’s library, waking just at dawn to transcribe as much as he could before going to work. The librarian knew how important this second job was to the young man, and how it had nearly saved his life.
The old man at the table is more than fifty years older than he was the night he met the Librarian of Dreams. He smiles at the book before him, this one nearly finished with one more to go from this month’s paper purchase in the closet. He rises from the table, changes into an old nightshirt and prepares for bed. He slips under his blanket, closes the shutter, takes one last long look at the clean pages, puts out the light and falls fast asleep.
In the night, long after the old man has entered the dreaming, the door to his room swings slowly open. A cat burglar has made his way into the building and looted three unsuspecting boarder’s rooms already. He opens his endless sack and fills it with every one of the old man’s belongings. He comes and goes without a peep from the man on the bed.
Hours later, just as dawn breaks, the old man wakes to fill his pages with literary dreams. He gasps to find it gone and immediately checks to see if it has been knocked off the table in his sleep. As he sits up in his bed, he notices that his blanket is also missing. Upon close inspection of his room, he realizes with great shock that everything he owns is gone, including the hundreds of volumes of his dreams and the tiny golden key from around his neck. He sits back down on his cold bed and cries for the loss of fifty years of his life’s work.
The old man comes to his senses enough to ask one of his more fortunate neighbors to lend him a suit of clothes. He arrives at work nearly an hour late. His explanations of tragedy are met with no sympathy. He is warned that his shaky hand is no longer as valuable as it was fifty years ago. Any continuation of this sort of behavior will be grounds for dismissal from the firm. His plea for an advance on his paycheck is met with similar sentiment.
Through the course of the day, thoughts of his plight are all that occupy his mind. Words mesh together. Documents come out a mix of legal mumbo-jumbo and Madeline L’engle’s “Ogahm Primer For Children K-4”. He falls asleep at his desk and spills his ink well. He is awakened by his superior, a young nephew of the late president who hired the old man fifty some-odd years ago.
With an ink stain on his cheek, the unemployed old scrivener trudges back to the boarding house. He ascends the stairs to his room, passing up the six o’clock meal. He doesn’t emerge, but no one seems to notice or care.
Day after day, he fights off despair with a glimmer of hope that something will happen. Each time he wakes after any length of sleep he recalls nothing. The gates of Dreams are, as they had been in his youth, are once again closed to him. Without the key, he is stranded in the waking world. On the sixth day, frail and rasping, he lies on his bed, immobilized by hunger and loss. He tries at last to cry out to his otherworldly employer.
“Sir Librarian? Lucien, Librarian to Morpheus, King of Dreams, I beg of you! I need your help!” He opens his eyes to find not a tall man in a fading castle, but a woman, sitting on the edge of his bed.
Unsure of the effect of his call, he implores, “are you a dream?”
“No, I’m his sister.” She smiles.
“Then you are the Princess?” He manages to mutter.
At this she laughs and stands up. “Guess again, Pieter.” Her long black skirts brush the ground and her pendant shines silver in the twilight.
“I... I never thought it would be you...”
The next thing the old man Pieter knows he is standing next to Lady Death.
“What has my life meant? Why have I existed, to have everything that mattered to me taken away? First Anna, and now the books...” He hung his head. She reached out for his hand.
“You’re about to find out.”
Death escorted the spirit of Pieter the scrivener into the dreaming, into the remains of the castle of her brother, Dream. There he was received, despite the condition of the halls, as a formal guest.
In the throne room sat Morpheus on a huge black throne, embedded with diamonds that seemed to shine as brightly as those in his eyes. The King of Dreams stood and greeted the spirit.
“I have heard that, in my absence, you were responsible for saving a great portion of my library...”
He was cut off by the worried ghost. “Your Majesty, I have failed you!” Pieter prostrated himself before the throne, “My texts were stolen not but a week ago! I am unworthy of your praise!”
Dream smiled faintly on Pieter and bid him rise and follow him out of the room. The confused apparition was lead to the library. Lucien stood waiting at the doors.
Lucien put his long index finger to his lips and opened the door.
Inside, bodiless hands were putting thick, plain volumes onto a long, tall shelf marked “To Be Organized”. Dream motioned to this stack and spoke.
“We have appropriated your texts from their abductor. Lucien and I are both pleased and honored for your service.”
Lucien smiled and nodded. “We are indeed.”
Pieter was speechless for a moment. Tears rolled down his ethereal cheeks. “Thank you. Thank you so much.” He bowed to his employer and his king and was gone.
The next day, Pieter’s body was found when the landlord came looking for his rent. He was buried in a common grave without ceremony or mourners. The only person who had any words for him was the aging landlord’s wife, who always had something to say.
“Well, he was alright” she said when the new tenant of the one shuttered room asked about its former occupant, “he always said ‘thank you’.”