The City of Sarkomand, A Guide for the Traveler
by Alan Loewen
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
It started with the discovery of a new bookstore.
I’m not talking about one of the modern ones that have all the latest drivel from the major publishing houses; not the ones that publish books so banal you forget them seconds after reading the last page. I refer to the more uncommon type of bookstore that has its books stacked willy-nilly about the place pungent with that delightful aroma of old tomes, those small shops blessed with histories and personalities.
The owner was one of those elderly men so commonly found in those antiquated bookstores, store owners not so much motivated by the bottom line of a financial statement, but by the passion of their first love. Their checkout counters groan under the weight of books stacked without evident order and the proprietors hover over their treasures like dragons guarding ancient hordes.
The owner looked up at me as I entered. He smiled, nodded, and after a quick question as to whether I was looking for something specific, he went immediately back to his own reading.
I had an hour before I had to arrive at my chosen destination, and for me, a bookstore served as the best diversion one could find.
How can I describe this place? Shakespeare’s sonnets stood next to a beautiful portfolio of Giovanni Batista Piranesi’s Le Carceri. Milton, Lewis, Poe, and Frost shared space with Bunyan, Lovecraft, Burroughs, and Coleridge. Yes, I truly was in heaven and around me stood the wisdom of the ages in all the glory of the Written Word.
And as I worked my way toward the back of the store, my eyes fell on stranger and more wonderful books. All twelve volumes of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough shared shelf space with an amazingly hale copy of Michael Ranft’s De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulus; the latter bound in pale leather strangely unpleasant to the touch. The further back I walked, the more exotic the books became with titles speaking to me not only in English, but also in Latin, French, Russian, and a few scripts that I confess I have never seen before.
A Latin copy of The Keys of Solomon fellowshipped with The Lost Book of Enoch. In one dark corner, I found some shards of ancient clay bearing a script of a language unknown to me that left me strangely disquieted with their mystery.
Then I saw a true marvel. Alone, in a stained, aged barrister’s bookcase, a book stood behind a shield of glass leaning against the back of the case with its cover toward me.
Embossed with letters of gold on the rich, dark brown leather that formed its binding, I read, The City of Sarkomand, A Guide for the Traveler.
“That book is not for sale.”
I jumped from the sudden fright. The shop’s proprietor stood at my shoulder, calmly observing the book as one would observe a lion caged in a zoo.
“Then,” I said, collecting my composure, “why do you have it on display?”
The old man smiled. “Because it is free.”
My jaw dropped. Just for the sheer elegance and beauty of the book’s manufacture, regardless of the contents, I estimated the book worth far more than I could ever afford.
“Free?” I asked, my voice going up an octave in surprise. “You mean it?”
He nodded, never taking his eyes off the book.
Eagerly, I approached the bookcase, but could find no method of opening the glass-framed door. I was about to ask the owner what jest he was playing when I suddenly noticed the reason for my difficulty.
“What is this?” I asked. “The glass door is locked from the inside.”
The owner nodded solemnly. “Yes. The book waits for its reader.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“It’s quite simple. Lovers of reading come to my shop looking for books. This book looks for its reader. Someday, that woman or man will appear and when it does, the book will accept them.”
I felt my patience grow thin. “Please, sir. I am not a rube. I appreciate the story, but I am a man of reason, and …”
And then I heard an audible click.
I could feel the blood run from my scalp to the soles of my feet. Slowly, I turned. Through the glass, I saw the inside latch standing in its unlocked position.
“Oh,” I heard the old man whisper. “You poor soul.”
I stood as one struck. Then—almost as if they had a will of their own—my hands reached out to lift the glass door and slide it back into position. My fingers wrapped themselves around the tome and pulled it out. Trembling and hugging the tome to my chest, I turned and left the store and returned to my own home where I read the book from cover to cover without stopping to eat or sleep.
Within its pages, I learned of Sarkomand, the city that everybody desires even if unable to put a name to their desire. I read the thirty-one chapters and discovered what one may find there. I read of the even more fearsome toll required to walk its ancient streets.
I am leaving now. I am going to be gone for a while, maybe a long, long time and though I have no idea who may find this—indeed, I have no hope at all—if I do not return, please—I beg you—please go to a little used bookstore that sits on the back streets of the little town just north of my home. Ask the man sitting at his counter about Sarkomand and how you might find it and help a lost traveler return to his own home and hearth.
And if by chance you explore the darker corners of the store and you see a lone book sitting by itself behind the glass of a barrister’s bookcase, and should you hear the click of a latch then for all that you hold dear, turn and flee and never return. For should you reach for the book with trembling fingers and read it, especially the new final, thirty-second chapter that prominently features my own name and what happened to me there in that memory-haunted necropolis, the next edition will certainly be one chapter longer revealing your own dark tale within the streets of Sarkomand.