Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
I was 22 and a bored young woman with a nearly useless degree in French Literature. It was only natural that I worked at my mother’s bookstore until I found a “real job.” I preferred the afternoon shift because it consisted of some high school girls with big glasses window shopping. They would probably purchase the books from Amazon for less later.
It was one of those quiet afternoons when she entered. A woman in her mid-50s, beautiful but looking utterly exhausted. She batted her long lashes in my direction and asked in a soft yet firm voice, “Don’t you think life has to be more than that?” She moved her head to indicate the “that.”
I must say, my life was never “bad.” Nothing ever happened. Nothing at all. No tragedy, no happiness. I lived a dull existence, leading an ordinary, no-frills life. I always had enough to live, dress, and study, but never more than enough, so I never traveled, never went on a shopping spree, and never had a meal in a fancy restaurant.“I do,” I replied without hesitation.
“Why don’t I walk you over it, then? I’ll wait until your shift is over.” She said those weird words so naturally. Her clothes were fantastic, like something from another age. I had only 30 minutes until I was relieved from my shift, and I agreed to go with her. It was like we had known one another forever. As I left the store, somewhat expecting to be stood up, she was there, extending her hand to me.
“My name is Aiakos, by the way.”
“I’ll name you Moirai from now on. You’ll come to understand.”
We walked in silence for a few blocks, until we arrived at a subway station. As we descended the stairs from the street, there came a moment when I realized we had inexplicably ended up somewhere else. There were no access terminals, no people, no trains.
“This is one of our libraries,” Aiakos said, as we strolled together down a long, white, air-conditioned corridor. More accurately, it was as if the concepts of cold and heat didn’t exist. It was just pleasant. Aiakos continued, “And I want you to work here.”
She opened a large pair of double doors, made of the finest wood, with knobs of pure gold. There were long rows of shelves. Upon the shelves, there were books with black, blue and red leather covers. There was also a large, elegant desk with a very comfortable-looking armchair. “Why don’t you take a seat at your chair, Moirai?” I nodded and complied.
“You mean you’re Aiakos… like in Greek mythology?”
“Precisely. I’m the guardian of the Underworld keys. Right now, we are between worlds. If you accept my offer, you’ll be my underling. Do you know why I’m calling you Moirai, Celina?” I shook my head no. “The Moirai, also called the Fates, are related to the thread of life. There are three Moirai: Clotho, the spinner; Lachesis, the measurer; and Atropos, the severer. Whatever you do, don’t be Atropos.”
“What do you mean?” I asked out of curiosity. In my heart, I already accepted my new reality.
“Do you know everyone’s lives follow their books of destiny? We possess, in our library, everyone’s stories. Some of them are magnificent and full of accomplishments, but most are not. Regardless of one’s path, everyone follows the points of destiny. My underlings may watch over those books. Here, I’ve arranged more than 450,000 lives that would become your responsibility, should you accept my offer. Just watch them, protect them from thieves, and refrain from removing them yourself. Mortals are not allowed to determine when it’s time to cut a thread.”
“Do I have to just… sit here?”
“No, child, most certainly not. Every once in a while, a book will fall on its own from the shelf. It means a life thread has been severed. You must then read the book and then put it in your desk; it will disappear on its own. Moirai, you don’t have to do anything else. Again, it is critical you never take a book from the shelf.”
“What happens if I do?”
“The life thread will be prematurely severed, and you’ll have no choice but to experience the person’s remaining life as it was your own. Please refrain from trying to be Atropos. You’re a guardian, not a killer.”
I silently reflected, and then replied, “I understand. And I agree. I want to work for you.”
“Great! Welcome aboard, Moirai. While you’re here, all your physical needs will cease. There shall be no need to sleep or eat unless you want to. No need to use the bathroom or to shower, and no cold nor warm weather. You may use worldly forms of communication so long as you provide your own devices. Once a month you’ll be released to spend a day on the surface if you so desire, and we will provide some currency for that.”
I shook Aiakos’ hand, and she left me alone in my room, closing the double doors on her way out. I texted my mother, explaining that I had been offered an amazing job and would be moving away. She was excited for me. After what felt like ten minutes, a book fell. Its cover was red. I took it to read. This destiny belonged to Abraham Martin, a man who died aged 85. He was a fine husband, father, and grandfather, though a bit distant emotionally. A Hard worker. No sketchy secrets. He never cheated, nor did anything illegal, and except for the occasional speeding ticket, had a clean record. He also enjoyed gambling now and then and made a habit of drinking exactly three cans of beer per week up until the day he died. Mr. Martin had a full but mundane life, just like the one I’ve been living out until recently. I put the book away, and it slowly disappeared.
After some time, I started to notice a pattern. Black books belonged to people who lived lives of transgression and chaos – not necessarily the evil ones. Red books belonged to those leading bland lives; people who mostly minded their own business, rarely disturbing the balance between virtuous and immoral. Blue books belonged to peaceful and righteous people, veritable saints among us. Black book people seemed to be easily forgotten, red book people were missed by their loved ones, and blue book people were held dear by plenty of people still on Earth. Some stories were amusing; most were not.
I went out for my first monthly day off. I set out with enough money to take my mother and younger sister to a nice restaurant, and then we all went shopping. We had a happy day together. In what seemed to be just a few moments after I returned to my desk, a boy who couldn’t have been any older than 16 appeared before me.
“Please, lady, I have to see a book. I just want to know if it’s a golden one.”
“How did you get here?” I asked, perplexed, totally ignoring his question.
“I learned how to do it online,” he said. “Please let me see it. Just the cover will be enough.”
“Sorry, boy,” I replied, “but I cannot grant anyone access to the library.”
Without hesitation, I used my ejection button for the first time. Luckily for the boy, removal was painless. In an instant, he disappeared from the library and returned to wherever he had been before he had reached his place.
“What does he mean about a golden book?” I muttered aloud after he had gone. It was impossible, as I quickly learned, not to develop the habit of talking out loud when one is alone most of the time. I walked around the shelves, seemingly infinite in number, on the look-out for golden books.
When after my initial search I turned up empty-handed, I retrieved a tall ladder and had another look. I finally found them, standing on the tip of my toes upon the highest step. There were approximately 200 of them. Abruptly, and without touching the bookcases, a golden book fell from a distant shelf. My heart pounded hard against my rib-cage, and the fright practically made me fall, but I realized I had done nothing to disturb that shelf, so all was fine.
The golden books were broader and far more substantial than the others. I carried that which had fallen using both my hands, holding it against my chest. My job was, without a doubt, singular and exciting, but I felt everything that happened up until that point had been nothing compared to this one, all-encompassing moment. And I was right. The owner of this golden book was a young girl, born to a family of modest means.
From an early age, she and her siblings had juggled in an attempt to earn their living. Her father was gone, and her mother had fallen seriously ill. One day, she found a winning lottery ticket in the garbage, and her life changed. She was able to pay for her mother’s treatment. She and her siblings studied in excellent schools and went on to become famous and respected in their fields. Her wealth grew, and she formed a charity. She was considered one of the ten best lawyers under 30 just two years after leaving school. Her journey was terrific and thrilling; a life filled with many exciting things. Unfortunately, a car accident took her life at age 42.
“So that’s a golden book,” I mused. “So amazing. No wonder there are so few. They are remarkable.”
Another day off went by, and I went to see my family and a few friends. They noticed I looked tired. I caught a glimpse of my face in a mirror and realized I had the same expression as Aiakos plastered on my face. I hadn’t put away the golden book, and had not been sleeping. I couldn’t help but read it over and over, and only stopped when a new book fell. They were never as impressive. Every time I reread the golden book further details surfaced. I was mesmerized.
As I excused myself to go back to work that night, I realized I felt no need to go to the outside world anymore. I missed no one; it was pleasant to see them, but that was all. It was something I could or could not do, easily. I felt no joy or connection with surface life anymore. I went upstairs, taking the path that by then I knew well, and read the golden book yet again. Aiakos came to my room mere moments after I finished.
“First golden book, Moirai?” she asked, almost motherly. “Look, I get it. They are amazing. Hard to put away. Read twice, maybe thrice. Hold it for a day. But you already read it more than 400 times, and you have to let the book go. You’re anchoring her very soul to the place between worlds by keeping the book.”
“I’m so sorry, Aiakos,” I said. “I had no idea.”
She looked younger and well-rested. I theorized that maybe we look old and tired when we go to the surface because we don’t belong there anymore. We’re so used to the pace of the time in here, to the lack of physical needs. Shortly after she left, a blue book fell, and I read another uninteresting story.
* * * * * *
Time went by and seasons changed. I visited my family and friends a few times. My baby sister enrolled in college; I encouraged her to pursue engineering. She was such an extrovert, had a lot of friends and a nice boyfriend, and always had exciting news to share about her life on the surface. I couldn’t talk about my work because no one would believe me, so I told them some trivial stories based on the books I had read. They believed I had an office job as a French-English translator at a publishing house. Yet more time passed, and still, I couldn’t forget the golden book. It was downright excruciating to read banal life stories. After a while, they were all the same. They blended and lost their significance to me.
Perhaps if I grabbed a golden book. Just one.
I was conflicted for a long time, around ten months, before I finally gave in. It was then I became Atropos, the severer, and everything changed.
* * * * * *
I chose a golden book at random. As expected, it was breathtaking. It chronicled the life of a wealthy teenage boy. I experienced his magical first kiss, his trips to Paris and Rome, his happy marriage to someone as gorgeous as him, his recognition as a great surgeon who saved many lives. I tasted the delicious meals he enjoyed. I was awestruck by the beautiful landscapes and cities to which he traveled. I was loved as he was, proud of myself for being such a good doctor, and devastated the few times he lost a patient. He developed new methods of surgery, advanced research in multiple fields, especially in leukemia treatment, and was, in every way, a great man. An amazing professional, a loving husband, and a doting father to three adopted children And I took it from the world. All of it.
Because of me, none of what I experienced will ever happen. His soulmate will marry someone else, his patients will probably die at the hands of the less-experienced, and who knows what will happen to his kids? The latter question, in particular, weighs heavily in my chest, but it’s nothing when compared to the grandness I was able to live. I knew I held great power in my hands, possibly too great, and that I was, and am, undeserving of such authority.
I never left for the surface again. I never slept, and before long looked as old as Aiakos when I first met her. I continued reading golden books from time to time, savoring lives that would never truly be mine, filled with boundless wonder which would never become a reality.
Today, I discovered an unusually thin golden book. It has my name on the cover, and I’m going to open it to find out what happens. Before I do, I can’t help but wonder: Do I die if I’m already here, in between worlds?
* * * * * *
I was suspicious of Moirai – no, of Celina. She’s undeserving of her given name – for a while. She never left anymore. Being here all the time can drive you mad. The marvels the golden books contain lend themselves to corruption if one is not careful. I used a surveillance system, similar to your earthly security cameras, to keep an eye on her, but honestly, I have a lot on my hands. Still, fault in this situation is partially my own. I saw her open her book. Such a thing had never happened before. I had no idea what would happen. All its pages had been torn. The only page left had the word “killer” written in crimson ink. The letters leapt from the page and to her face, piercing her eyes and throat. I ran to her door.
I found Celina’s lifeless body on the blood-covered floor. I made the arrangements to put her body to rest, knowing her soul will wander the eternal void forever, suffering the scorn and hatred from the ones whose lives she cut short for her own pleasure. Her book cannot be put away. We have tried. I’m sorry, Celina, whenever you are. But you brought this upon yourself.
The above is her report, found in a notepad at her desk, and I have taken the liberty to share it, adding this final statement to explain how it all turned out for her. Maybe my next Moirai is out there, reading this, and they ought to know that this job cannot be taken lightly.
You’re a guardian, not a killer.
– Aiakos, the guardian of Hades’ keys