As I pulled the requested book from its shelf, dust poured down onto my habit. A cold dust, where it hit my neck, and I shivered. The shadows have no patience for cold, though, no patience for their servant’s aversion to dust. I climbed down the ladder and attached the book to my chest with a sturdy strap so there was no danger of me dropping it. The shadows in that part of the archives seemed low and thick, like a cloud trying to become fog.
I set out across the archives, hands moving quickly to defuse the various traps and obstacles meant to stop a layperson from accessing the books. Poisoned darts. A shackle that would have grabbed my ankle. An oil lamp that nearly spilled flaming oil on my head. The books beside that trap were coated in flame-retardant, and the heat would have triggered a spray of mist, if I hadn’t disarmed the trap. But I wouldn’t have been so lucky as the books. Long years of training and experience made even the trickiest sequences easy, and I reveled in my shadow-given ability.
Back at my desk, though, I panicked. The book was written in no language I knew. I flipped the pages. No words were familiar. I set it down and took a breath. Drew out the well-worn paper that defined my job. The feel of the list of forbidden words calmed me. Its familiar corners, the familiar letters on its face — letters that never appeared in any book that ever left the archives, not in those exact combinations. Reassured, I turned back to the book.
As chief censor, I must always make sure no dangerous words or ideas make their way into the city. The traps are important, but I am the key to making sure the knowledge that trickles into the city is safe. I began at the first page. I didn’t need to be able to read it myself, I thought, only to look for those particular letters. No prescribed words appeared. And none on the next page or the one after that.
This could be an easy book to send out. Except… if the language was a different one, then the same concepts might hide within, might escape the archives, seek root in the city. The weight of my responsibility pressed down on my shoulders, and I was touched again with a hint of panic.
Moving slowly to keep myself calm, I drew out another list. This one had none of the smooth familiarity of being handled countless times, but it had the same forbidden words, translated. It was a language I knew, not the language of the book in question, but if I could find the words on this list, then I would fulfill my duty. I returned to the first page and moved through at a deliberate, slow pace.
No forbidden words.
Over the next hour, I went through every list of banned words I could find, and I managed to blot out a few words here and there, but the further I went through the book, the clearer it became that I was censoring words that only happened to match the spelling of something forbidden in some other language. Censorship by fluke is no way to meet the demands of my job.
I set the last list down, pulled out the request slip again. High-ranking official. On the one hand, that meant less to fear that a forbidden idea would pass into the streets. On the other, if I did allow something through, the official would hold me personally responsible.
I lay my head down. The bottle of censors’ ink stood on the desk right before my eye. From that perspective it looked like a tower, a mighty battlement and sure, one that would withstand any threat.
The image made me sit up straight. Who was I to question, to doubt? I was a censor. The censor. The power lay in me, not in some city official outside the archives. If I said it should be censored, then that was the truth.
I took my pen and blotted out more words, picking them at random from the text. The thrill of power kept me going through the entire book, but when I stopped, another wave of panic welled up. Presumably the official could speak this language. Would I be a laughingstock for the words I censored? For those I left uncensored? Might I undermine the prestige of my office by what I marked?
I swiveled in my chair, looked deep into the shadowy archives. Shadows, I thought, were nature’s censors, hiding much that we should not see. And those shadows told me exactly what I needed to do. I spun around and picked up my pen, and began to blot. The mighty ink filled the pages, making shadows of every letter, every word.
When I was done, and every page a block of black, I summoned a courier girl to deliver the book to the official. Then I turned off my light and let the shadows censor me, until tomorrow and whatever work they demanded of me, as I kept the city safe from danger.
Daniel Ausema has a background in experiential education and journalism and is now a stay-at-home dad. His fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous places, including Every Day Fiction and Every Day Poets. He lives in Colorado.