If a man dies in a remote cabin, and nobody remembers he ever existed, does he really die?
Martin Roth etches these words into the jacket of the last book left in his once expansive library. The rest of the lot are hollow bindings strewn about—frayed, leathery carcasses curling in the winter sun that pours through the window by the hearth. Mr. Roth cannot catch, even if he is looking very hard, the tiniest glimpse of the warped floorboards beneath his feet. His world is empty books and stacks of paper surrounding a greasy typewriter. He lives alone, high up on a mountain of silence.
The cabin is small and stinks of smoke and alcohol. It is deliberately uncozy: between the hearth, the frameless mattress, the writing table, and the long-untouched dog bowls in the tiny kitchenette, there is barely room for a man’s wingspan. Each object is merely functional, and appears lifeless and gray to the eye. Mr. Roth is both as still and as dead as those objects. Of course, he has long since stopped noticing such things. There is only The Book.
He carefully carves another page from Silas Marner, a book he was once too fond of to even annotate. The forty-sixth draft is the charm, he assures himself. This is necessary. He does not mourn this loss as he did the first. His blade glides along the binding with cold precision. He dips the paper in a vat of his special solution, sets it by the hearth to dry, and watches as the old ink slowly fades to make way for his own. There is an almost imperceptible flicker of life in the man’s eyes as he allows himself to feel excited for the end of a very long journey.
When the page is dried and nearly blank, he places it in his typewriter. He does not need to think about what to write, not this time, as it is a scene that has tumbled and turned in his head for many years. He recounts it as casually, as necessarily, as a story to an old friend, and he slumps back in his creaking old chair. The flicker in his eye grows stronger yet, but his satisfaction is incomplete. No, Roth thinks, that last line won’t do.
He resets the paper and crosses out the clunky final sentence: ‘And though he swore by his soul that he never would, Daniil Dol’rath, the melancholy prince and would-be king, placed his crownless head in death’s open palm.’
Roth searches for the right words, but finds himself drained nearly to the point of illiteracy. Anyway, he cannot hear himself think over the wind that howls outside, carrying streaks of snow sideways past the window. A storm must be on the way. He rises from his table, stumbles across the room over the slippery bindings, and places his ear to the front door, just by the knob. Sometimes, when the wind is fierce as it is today, the trees sing.
Most of the time, it is a sweet, indiscriminate whistling, as though the trees are happy for the breeze. But every once in a great while, if Mr. Roth listens very carefully, the trees will speak in a language he can understand. He has no choice but to listen, for theirs are the only voices he has heard in a very long time. It has been six years alone on this mountain. Many expected the next piece of writing to come from the desk of the reclusive Martin Roth would be some kind of deranged manifesto. But here he is, still kicking, still at it, and he cannot believe his luck. The trees have whispered the perfect line, the last piece of the puzzle. He bounds, although that is a very generous term, back to his typewriter, and just like that, The Book is done.
He drinks to maudlin drunk, rarely letting his eyes drift away from what has become the most important stack of mismatched paper in the world. When dark finally descends, he steps out into the snow, points to the moon, and shoots a bright red flare that arcs high over the long way down to a quaint Coloradan town. The cavalry will not come immediately, he realizes. Back in the cabin, he sits by the warm hearth and falls into a deep sleep.
The next morning, Martin Roth is awoken by gunshots, or so he thinks. Rather, that is how innocent knocking registers in his ears, which are accustomed to silence.
“Martin?” the visitor says. His voice sends a tingle down Martin’s neck, for it is either strange or forgotten. But that could be a trick of the mind. A voice is the first thing the memory sheds about a person.
“Hello—yes—just a minute.” This voice, raw, his own, is familiar, but only because the veteran author makes a habit of reading his work aloud.
Martin opens the door and ushers the visitor in out of the flurry. Visitor is perhaps too cold a word for Percy Pitt, the contact hired by his publisher. He is a tall, thin man with a ruddy face and a long forehead. It is his first time inside the cabin, and his discomfort is evident. He shifts from foot to foot and scans the binding boneyard skeptically, as if there is a landmine or a pitfall buried somewhere beneath. Finally, reluctantly, he meets Martin’s eye.
“You could have just asked me for more paper, you know. What's the flare about?”
Martin savors each word. “I have finished The Book.”
“Oh, is that all? ”
“It’s just the one book? I thought maybe you was writing a series or something. Figured that’s why it’s been taking so long. Been meaning to ask, you just ain’t in a mood to talk much it seems.”
Martin feels hot rage coming on, but is too hungover to act on it. “It’s not as easy as it looks. Coffee?”
“No, thank you. Look, don’t take what I say too serious. After all, I make my living carrying groceries up a mountain.”
Martin pats his considerable gut. “And we thank you.”
Percy smiles and nods. “Welp. I’ll pass your book along. Where is it? I ought to get back on down to the famn-damily before this storm hits.”
“NO! Er, no. I’d like you to stay and read it to me, please,” says Martin. It comes out with a shaking anger he does not intend, and he feels embarrassed almost instantly. He looks down at his hands, balled into childish fists. It is a ridiculous gesture for a man his age, with a beard so long and silver. He starts again with a cooler head, but desperation leaks through. “Please, this is very important. Seven years—imagine the anticipation my readers feel, the sort of quality they’re expecting. I cannot send out, not even to my agent, an embarrassing product. You understand me, don’t you? You’ll stay?”
“I don’t know—”
“The storm’s basically here already, Mr. Pitt. Please. For your sake and mine, stay and read.”
Without breaking eye contact, Percy sinks into Martin’s writing chair and cracks his neck. Then he nods. “I guess I’ll take that coffee now.”
It takes Percy days to finish The Book, which is alright, because the storm lasts about as long. The Book is very long, yet he is able to read it from start to finish with only a couple of short naps and plain meals to break up the monotony. His face gives no clue as to his enjoyment or disenjoyment of the story, and he only speaks to ask for clarification on difficult pronunciations (of which there are a fair amount, as The Book is an epic fantasy). At one point, Martin’s curiosity overcomes him, so he asks what Percy thinks of the second act. Percy says he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to pass judgment before you’ve heard a man out, and carries on reading.
Finally, on the second morning, a clear, bright morning, Percy clears his throat and shows Martin that his to-be-read pile is empty. Embarrassed, hopeful, Martin wrings his hands and asks, “What’s the verdict?”
“Well,” says Percy, “bear in mind I’m not your typical reader. I was more of a football kid, so I ain’t never read no Lord of Rings or whatever. So you lose me a little bit when you start talking about wizards and dragons and all. The truth is, this story could go without all of that junk and still be amazing. I mean, you had me feeling like a handsome prince trying to steal back a kingdom. And my, my, you got a way with words, sir. That last line… I ain’t never read nothing like it.”
“And the ending overall?”
“What a twist! The whole time it felt like it was building toward a happily ever after, then right when I least expect it, you pull the rug right out from underneath and I’m on my ass!”
Unsure what to do with his energy, Martin sits on the bed and folds his hands in his lap. “It wasn’t too jarring? It didn’t feel, I don’t know, cheap?”
“Well, yeah, it sure was at first. But then I thought about it, and I went back to read a few sections, and I realized you had been working toward it all along with these tiny details you'll miss if you blink. Boy, I must've been blinking. It was almost like, I don’t know.”
“Like you didn’t want to see it?”
“Bullseye! That’s right, I don’t think I wanted to believe it, but it totally makes sense. I don’t think it could have gone any other way.”
“But, this book ain’t really about Daniil Dol’rath, is it? It’s about you.”
Martin freezes. “What? No, it’s… no.”
“We’re talking about a guy who gets erased from memory and exiled from a bunch of people who used to love him. A guy who hides his identity and travels alone, on a quest nobody else would understand proper. A guy so lonely, he allows himself to die without no one remembering who he was. That’s you! That ain’t Daniil, that’s Martin, but with swords and magic.”
“Enough. I get it. It needs more work.”
“God no! I told you, this book is damn good, and it wouldn’t be no good if you changed a word of it. Don’t. My trifle is with the artist, not the art. I just think you gotta remember you’re not a character, you know? You’re a human being. Those fans you’re so worried about pleasing—I’m pretty sure they just wanna know you’re alive and well and not living in a hut full of books with the pages ripped out.”
A nod. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Truth told, Mr. Roth, I don’t think you really cared about my opinion on your book. I think you just missed having somebody around, hearing somebody else’s voice. It’s beautiful up here, I know, and probably a great place to do work, but it ain’t right for a man to be alone so long. Talking to each other is what makes us human.”
“I don’t know about that, Mr. Pitt. Dolphins talk. Parrots, cockatiels.” Roth smirks. “Trees.”
“Oh, you’re right. The trees do talk. They say to me, they say, ‘leave us the hell alone.’”
The serious author, Martin Roth, giggles like a little schoolgirl. It is the first time he has even cracked a smile in several years, and it tugs at his chapped lips. The laughter tickles his throat and he chokes and spits, but he keeps on laughing. It feels like a weight lifted, or a cold hand warmed by a crackling fire, or a book finished.
After farewell, Percy Pitt takes The Book to town and mails it to some bigwig book people in New York City. At night he has a lovely dinner with his young family and says a little prayer, same as every night, that the man on the mountain someday decides to come down. He may just be the only person who believes in Martin Roth, but maybe that's enough.
Alone again, Martin Roth is as still and as dead as the gray objects in his tiny cabin. Nothing is particularly exciting or upsetting. His skin is pale as the snow on the ground outside. His lungs and liver are black with smoke and drink. His back is hunched, his eyes are tired, and his fingers ache. He misses his wife and his dog. He should have died a long time ago, but he is a stubborn man, and he had The Book to finish.
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This reads like sci-fi but it's not tagged as sci-fi. So is it sci-fi? If you don't see those words, is it really sci-fi? If I don't read this story, was it ever written? Wow, it's sad to read about how obsessed he was by that book. It kept him alive. I like how the ending wasn't a big exposition dump saying, yeah, he died, the end. You took time to spell things out. Now what?
Why do I feel there are hundreds of Mr. Roth's trying to be George R. R. Martin in the woods or Oregon and Vermont? Great sensory imagery. The cabin is very clear, the stale cigarette smoke and filth is palpable. I grew very fond of the patient Percy :)
Patient, Praying Percy Pitt :) Thanks for the read!
My favourite character was Percy. There was not a big choice. He grounds the tale he is the stories humanity. Martin Roth could be rewritten a hundred ways but it is Percy who must remain as he is. I love how the book is not vital, it is just a mirror to Roth. I am glad you left him up there in the snow and the madness. No criticisms. It is well crafted. I did not fully understand why he converted his books into writing paper, especially as he received deliveries. So if I was to add anything it would be to explain this process. As he clearl...
In my mind the visits from Percy are infrequent and Martin revises compulsively. Then a lack of communication is evident, so he isn't telling Percy he needs more paper. Afraid to ask for help and ashamed of the sheer volume of his neuroticism. I will look for a place to make this more clear, thanks for the read!
That makes perfect sense an extension of his obsession
Excellently done again! Only one question: you said that it took Percy days to finish the book, but the next paragraph starts off introducing the second morning. I felt like that was a little short; but on further thought, The Book shouldn't have taken much longer to read. Amazing characterization! I love how you didn't make him an Instagram writer (no offence, I am one), but he was entirely focussed on The Book, even sacrificing all those other beautiful books for It. I also loved how you made The Book a proper noun. It gives the whol...
Excellent. I really enjoyed it. The prose is so well written and the characters have distinctive voices.
I was carried away to another place with this story. I really loved the way that Martin's feelings blended into some strange sort of apathy (hopefully that makes sense). I think the intro was full imagery, but could probably have been shorter. Percy had almost a Samwise feel to him I think he was my favorite, but I could really relate to Martin. Great job!
The dialogues in this piece are *chef kiss* great. I enjoyed this natural and informal construction they have. The first 2-3 paragraphs had a lot of showing, the descriptions and really fine details were great, but I do think that the dialogue in this piece was the highlight. The characters were well developed, which to me heightened the quality of the piece tremendously. If anything you could speed up the pace of the story by doing some telling in the beginning.
Loved the characters and the way you write about Roth's obsession and perfectionism. The descriptive language here is excellent. Really well done!