“Now try to keep up. You wouldn’t want to get lost,” Hermione lectured as the foursome navigated the throngs of characters in the avenue sized hallway.
They’d spent some time lazing around in the garden. Hermione had done most of the talking with Katniss periodically laughing at how serious Hermione was taking her responsibility to orient Binny. Arya laughed at just about everything when she wasn’t challenging the others to a duel of some sort.
“What would happen if I got lost?” Binny said.
“You can’t get lost,” Katniss responded snarkily.
Hermione took a breath. “Well, that’s technically true.”
“Deus ex machine,” Arya recited.
“Dayus ex what?” Binny repeated.
“Deus ex machina.” Hermione recited slowly so Binny could hear the pronunciation. “It means, God in the machine. It’s something good authors avoiding putting in their books.”
Binny nodded as she walked.
Hermione continued, “Of course this isn’t true for every story, but in much of fiction the reader is engaged because the character in the book needs to overcome a particular obstacle. It can be small, or it can be large. Either way, the character needs to somehow get past the thing that’s in their way in order to achieve their larger goal.”
“So let’s say the character is trying to cross a river to escape a bear and there’s no bridge. If a raft were to suddenly appear out of nowhere to help the character cross the river, that would be an example of Deus Ex Machina. It’s like the hand of God came down and placed the raft there to solve the character’s problem.”
“Authors are gods?” Binny asked.
“Well, they created us didn’t they? But that’s another matter entirely. Let me continue.” Hermione redirected the conversation. “Now, imagine that several chapters earlier, before our hero was running from a bear, they had come upon a hard-luck-case that needed money to pursue their dreams of rafting on the river.”
“And furthermore, let’s say that our hero, even though they didn’t have much money themselves gave some money to our wannabe rafter. Now later in the book when our hero is about to be eaten by a bear, not only does a raft appear, but it’s helmed by the very person to whom they showed a kindness, we – and by we I’m referring to the reader in this case – we will know that this salvation from the bear is not a random invention from the author, but rather a direct result of the hero’s kindness earlier in the book.”
“But didn’t the author invent that the hero took pity on the hard-luck-case as well? What’s really the difference?” Binny asked.
“Yes, but in this case it doesn’t feel to the reader like the hero just got the raft for nothing from the author, it feels like they earned it.” Hermione said.
Despite Binny’s nod of understanding, it was clear to the others from the look on her face, that she wasn’t much closer to understanding the concept.
“It works in reverse too. If a knife appears in the first act, it better kill someone in the third act,” Arya offered trying to be helpful.
“Thanks for your corollary.” Hermione didn’t seem thrilled with Arya’s efforts to help with the explanation.
Binny wondered how many knives had appeared in the first act of Arya’s book. “Ah. OK. I think I understand. It’s got to feel believable.”
“Five points for Gryffindor,” Katniss snickered.
“You know I hate it when you say that.” Hermione pursed her lips.
Binny ignored their bickering. “Okay, but what does that have to do with never getting lost.”
“Well, just as authors avoid Deus Ex Machina, Deus Ex Machina is how everything here runs.” Hermione responded.
“You mean that everything is just handed to you?” Binny asked.
“Well yes.” Hermione concluded.
“What it actually means is never having to use your brain,” Katniss said even more acidly than usual.
At that moment Binny saw a scarecrow-looking creature walking a few feet away in the other direction, but decided not to contemplate for the moment whether it was that scarecrow, or whether it was just coincidence that it had appeared just as Katniss had made her comment.
Hermione ignored Katniss. “When you need something, it usually eventually just kind of appears.”
As if on cue, Arya said, “Here we are.”
They’d reached a gate in the inner wall of the curving thoroughfare. It looked like all the other gates they’d passed. Each one had led into that huge area with the books. But this one seemed to lead somewhere different.
This area was filled with long tables set with beautiful china and polished silver. Huge tureens were placed every few feet filled with something steaming. To Binny’s eye, all the seats in this enormous dining hall were taken, but Arya, who had shot ahead of the others, guided them to a spot where two pairs of seats across from each other had remained open.
“Deus Ex Machina,” Arya whispered at Binny as they took their seats.
“Alright everyone. Let us settle down now.”
Binny craned her neck to see where the low voice was coming from.
Fifty feet away, on a small dais in the center of the room, a gray figure stood and spoke. She looked somewhat Asian to Binny’s eye but it was hard to tell as the gray made for very low contrast on her features. It wasn’t really a gray though as much as it was a grayish-purple. Like it had a hint of wisteria. Binny’s mother, well her book mother had taken her to see the wisteria at the arboretum near their house once.
Binny guessed that this figure was somehow connected with One.
Guessing at Binny’s question, Hermione whispered, “That’s Two.”
The room settled down to a low murmur, and then with a dour look from Two, it descended into complete silence.
Binny was amazed at how what must have been at least a thousand people were making absolutely zero noise.
Two continued, “Before we eat tonight courtesy of Mr. Melville – ”
Arya pumped her fist apparently excited for the meal.
Two continued, “ – let us remind ourselves of the sorrow of human existence.”
Binny saw everyone place their hands together, and then open them as if opening a book. Heads down, eyes on palms, everyone recited, “While thought exists, words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living.”
It felt to Binny like they were praying or saying grace. Binny mimicked everyone else’s pose hoping that nobody had seen her take to it late. By the time she’d looked up, the din of the room had returned and Arya was busy spooning the meal into her mouth.
“Nice job serving only yourself,” Katniss chided.
Hermione just shook her head disapprovingly as she dispensed the soup into the others’ bowls.
Small juicy clams dotted the thick rich chowder that filled Binny’s bowl. They were almost the size of hazelnuts. It looked like little bits of crackers, and flakes of some kind of meat – perhaps bacon – had already been dispersed in the chowder along with generous amounts of salt, pepper, and butter. To Binny, it smelled fabulous.
Binny didn’t realize how hungry she’d been until the food was placed in front of her and wolfed down the first bowl almost as fast as Arya.
“There are other kinds too, at other meals. Made with cod or herring even,” Arya exclaimed between slurps.
“Is Mr. Melville the cook?” Binny asked.
Even Hermione had to laugh as the others started clutching their sides from the stitches they were in.
“No, no.” Hermione explained after she caught her breath. “The chowder is from Moby Dick.”
“The book. Of course.” Binny could feel the heat rising in her cheeks and didn’t want to think about how embarrassed she looked.
“And the chowder is courtesy of Mr. Melville because – ” Hermione started explaining.
“Melville wrote Moby Dick, and everything here comes from books.” Binny finished in hopes the subject would change quickly.
“Bravo.” Katniss clapped.
Hermione held up her spoon, “even this spoon comes from a book.” Hermione put her spoon back in her chowder and resumed eating, satisfied for the moment with the tutelage she was providing.
Before Binny had come to this place, she’d been feeling quite alone. Older brother, younger sister, just stuck in-between the two of them. And when she’d first arrived in the Stacks she’d wanted nothing more than to go back to her in-between existence.
But now that she’d spent some time with Hermione, Katniss, and Arya, she had a feeling that she didn’t have back at home. It was a feeling of belonging. Or maybe it wasn’t quite that yet. Maybe it was more of a feeling of wanting to belong. To belong to this group. To be friends with these girls.
There wasn’t much more discussion for a time as everyone was busy eating their chowder. Binny’s eyes wandered to a table nearby where a thin boy with dark hair sat with his face lowered into his hands, and his elbows on the table. He couldn’t have been older than sixteen and he looked miserable.
Binny watched him as she ate. He looked different than everyone else. Not because he was gelatinous or anything – Binny shuddered at the memory – but because he wasn’t really participating.
Then the boy did something strange. He pushed his bowl to the side and started removing clams from it and arranging them in front of him. When his current bowl had no more to supply the boy ladled more clams from the large tureen so he could keep placing them on the table.
Soon Binny’s staring caught the attention of the other girls. Katniss looked briefly only to shake her head and resume her chowder consumption. Hermione tried to look away but it was clear she disapproved. Arya had finally stopped eating and was watching the boy in what seemed like anticipation to Binny – like she knew something exciting was about to happen.
Binny ate another spoonful, and then rose slightly from her seat so she could get a better look at what the boy was doing.
He had arranged the clams in a spiral geometric pattern. They started in the center and radiated outward. He’d even arranged the clams so the slight coloring on one side of them all faced the same direction, giving his pattern a textural dimension. Binny marveled at his creation. He was making art from clam chowder.
Arya started clapping her hands together and looked like she was about to burst, and then the purple-gray figure from the dais was standing behind the boy.
“Parisian boy, we have discussed this,” Two said.
“I’m just arranging them in a way that’s convenient for me to consume them. And you may call me Michel,” The boy said his name as if it were in French – Mee-shell.
Binny thought she saw Two’s nostrils flare briefly.
“The bowl was not convenient for you?” Two said.
“It was, how do you say, confining?” Michel responded, never looking away from his creation.
Two waited another second or two, presumably to see if Michel would stop before giving a small almost imperceptible nod to the others at Michel’s table.
All at once Michel’s tablemates lifted their dishes and the tureen off the table. One of them gathered up the ends of the tablecloth fashioning it into sort of a makeshift sack, in the process scooping up Michel’s creation along with his bowl and spoon. Then one of them carried off the bundle. Binny didn’t know to where.
“The Keepers don’t like waste,” Hermione said.
“The Keepers don’t like art,” Katniss muttered.
Binny assumed she was being sarcastic, but Katniss’ tone was so deadpan she couldn’t be sure.
“The Keepers make the rules?” Binny asked, inferring that One, Two, and someone named Three who she hadn’t met yet, were in fact the Keepers of which the others had spoken. Binny knew that asking more embarrassing questions might get in the way of her effort to befriend these girls. She didn’t want to look dumb, but curiosity kept getting the better of her.
“They don’t make the rules. They just keep us from running afoul of them,” Arya said, her nose back in her soup as she’d abandoned all pretense of using a spoon and just drank straight from the bowl.
Binny saw Hermione and Katniss exchange a brief glance, but neither of them said anything. Binny might have no idea how this place worked but she understood that whatever wordless exchange they’d had, wasn’t meant for her consumption.
After dinner, the four girls were lying on couches in one of the countless drafty rooms of Misselthwaite Manor. Binny had put a sweater on she’d found in her dresser. Katniss had built a fire in the oversized stone fireplace. Arya had helped under duress.
“I just wanted to thank the three of you for all your help today.”
“Of course.” Hermione smiled.
“I mean, each of you even read my book,” Binny said.
“It’s not like we had a choice,” Katniss grumbled.
Binny tried her best to ignore Katniss’ complaining.
“I’ve read yours too of course.” Binny motioned towards Hermione and Katniss.
“Not mine,” Arya said. “Unless you want to be super super grossed out.”
Binny kept the smile plastered on her face. “I was wondering though – and pardon me if this is yet another dumb question – but I’m assuming you all got my book from that big library we were in. Right?”
“But I read your books while I was inside my book.”
Katniss made a hand-motion encouraging Binny to follow her statement to its logical conclusion.
Binny continued, “Well, Katniss, in your books, I would imagine that all of our books don’t exist. But in my books, all of your books do exist. It’s all very confusing.”
“Ah. You’ve really hit the nail on the head, haven’t you.” Katniss smiled in a way that made Binny feel like she’d spoken on a topic that polite people didn’t speak of.
Katniss saw Binny react, “No, no, no. Don’t fret. You’re exactly right about that. And that’s why Miss Hermione here is such a rock star here in the Stacks.”
“Oh, like nobody’s read your book when they were on the inside?” Hermione snapped at Katniss.
“Oh, me too and Arya as well of course. But Arya and I are like minor duchesses compared to you. You’re the crown princess.” And then turning to Binny, Katniss continued. “You see Binny, most characters come in here and nobody here has ever heard of them, because most authors don’t even know that these characters’ books exist.”
“But in the case of her royal highness, her books are so popular, so well known, that when it comes to most modern literature that takes place on present day Earth, everyone who gets here has already heard of her. She’s famous.”
“So famous in fact, that even those of us who didn’t know of her from inside our books, got to know her quickly once we arrived. Her fame has transcended the trans-dimensional boundaries that govern our existence.” Katniss waved her hand dramatically to underscore her point.
Hermione fidgeted looking alternately at her hands and her shoes as Katniss spoke.
“Hermione here is even more famous here than her co-star. And they named the books after him! Isn’t that a slap in the face?” Katniss complained loudly.
“But that’s hardly her fault that her books are popular is it? And it’s not my fault that my author had me read her books is it?”
“Oh darling, your author didn’t write that you read the books, he just conceived of you as having read them. And therefore, you did.” Katniss’ eyes went wide as she explained. “It is the author’s conception of us, even if not supported by direct evidence in the text, that determines who we are. That and that alone.”
“I’m still not even entirely sure what mine has in store for me. My books aren’t done.” Arya mused.
Binny pondered all that she was hearing for a moment. “So, if our authors have so much power, they really are kind of gods aren’t they?”
For the moment, Hermione, Katniss, and Arya were in agreement with Binny’s characterization.
Binny continued, “Actually, these authors, what they really are is our parents.”
“Oh no. Here we go,” Arya said.
As Binny contemplated her new world, a door opened in her mind, and suddenly she thought of her parents. Her parents back home, on the inside. Suddenly she missed them terribly.
“Wait. If I’m here, then that means, my parents – I mean from inside my book – my parents are here too. Also my brother and sister? Right? Right?” Binny was talking fast now.
“Exactly as I predicted,” Arya concluded.
“Am I wrong?” Binny said.
“You’re not wrong,” Hermione said in soft voice.
“So my family is here, in the Stacks?” Binny could feel herself grinning.
The three girls looked at each other, none of them wanting to respond.
Katniss finally broke the silence. “Yeah, they’re here. But you’ll never find them.”