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a short story
by Zoran Zivkovic

translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic

Mr. Plushal collected words. He'd been doing this since the age of fifty-six, after reading his first anthology of love poems. It had been a small paperback with a beautiful purple flower on the cover, although the smell emanating from the book was wholly incompatible with this image. The copy had the stale, musty odor that inevitably permeates books after they spend a long time in a basement secondhand bookstore.

Mr. Plushal might not have bought the anthology. Although he periodically made the rounds of the bookstores, he rarely bought any books, and when he did they were of a quite different sort. He had a small library in his house consisting primarily of handbooks. On raising houseplants, for example. He himself didn't have any plants, but he considered himself very knowledgeable on the subject. Or on cats. He didn't have a cat because he was allergic to their fur, but if anyone were to ask him, he had plenty of useful advice to offer. There was also a handbook on freezer maintenance and repair. True, he had no need for a freezer, but useful knowledge is nothing to be sneezed at.

He had decided to buy the anthology because of the flower on the cover. As a plant expert he knew that such a flower did not exist, but that was the very reason it had appealed to him. He took the book to the cashier in a somewhat uneasy state. It seemed somehow unfitting for a man his age to show an interest in romantic verse. It was almost like buying a pornographic magazine. Luckily the salesgirl didn't take note of the title. All she did was look at the price and take the exact change he handed her.

He knew a thing or two about love, of course. Not from personal experience in this case, either, but was that necessary? Most likely people are born with such awareness. How else could it be? Nonetheless, when he set to reading the book, the unease from the store returned, despite the fact that he was alone. He even blushed. He only found relief with the thought that the anthology should be considered a handbook on love. Then everything became easier and quite pleasant.

He was surprised to find that the words in the book charmed him even more than the tender and exalted feelings. He suddenly became aware of something that had escaped his notice. Beautiful words exist. They weren't necessarily special or rare, rather ordinary words that were to be found in other books too. But for some reason or other they had never looked beautiful in the handbooks. Or rather, their beauty hadn't caught his eye.

The more he read, the more he was filled with the fear of losing something. When he turned a page, the words that stayed behind seemed to pale and evaporate. New ones came to take their place, but this was insufficient consolation. He had to save the earlier ones somehow. It made no sense to allow them to disappear. He could have gone back to them, of course, but then he would never finish reading the book. No, he had to find a better solution. And then he had a flash of inspiration.

He bought a large lined notebook with a leather cover. Nothing less magnificent would suffice as a repository for beautiful words. How could he write them in an ordinary notebook? That would have been almost sacrilegious. He returned to the beginning of the anthology, holding the open notebook in front of him. Whenever he came across a beautiful word, he wrote it down promptly with his fountain pen. It was not made of gold, in actual fact, but it's hard to arrange everything to perfection.

His handwriting was neat. Not ornate but measured, even a little austere. Beautiful in its own way. Just what was needed to write down beautiful words, not overshadowing them yet consonant with them. He normally wrote with large letters, but for this occasion he made the letters smaller. Just in case. He didn't know how many beautiful words he would find. The notebook was quite thick, but he had to proceed with care.

It was not until he had written down all the beautiful words in the anthology that he mustered the courage to check the results. Would they remain beautiful in his notebook or would their beauty be lost, as in the handbooks? Holding the notebook a short distance away, he breathed a sigh of relief as he took in the four densely filled pages. Not only was their beauty intact, it seemed somehow enhanced. This was probably due to the fact that only beautiful words were present, not those other ones that were not exactly ugly, but did not stand out in any way. The notebook was concentrated beauty.

After he had finished the anthology, he wondered what to do next. The notebook was nowhere near to being filled, it had barely been touched. Could he leave it like that? It would be as if he'd merely chipped off a bit of beauty. No, he had to continue. There had to be many more beautiful words. They all deserved to be in one place. But where should he look for them?

What first crossed his mind, naturally, was another anthology of love poems. He couldn't go wrong there. He'd seen for himself that beautiful words find great expression in love poems. But if he kept buying just this type of book he would soon become conspicuous. Two or three more could pass unnoticed, but three hundred and thirty-five, the number he'd seen in the Main Library catalogue, would certainly give rise to derision. No, he would have to think of something else. And then he had a second inspirational flash.

Who said beautiful words could only be found in anthologies of love poems? They certainly had to be in other books too. Why not even in handbooks? He was already expert enough to grasp a great truth. Beautiful words are everywhere. The skill lay not in the choice of books but in detecting the words. You had to have an eye for them. And he suspected he already had one. There was a simple way to verify this. He grabbed the first handbook within his reach and opened it. The same moment he was blinded by a blaze of beautiful words, as though someone had highlighted them with a bright marker.

He was barely able to resist the temptation to open his notebook and start writing them down. What stopped him was his prudence, something that made him rightfully proud. One couldn't be so impulsive. Where would that lead one? Confusion would reign in an instant. He had to be steadfast and systematic. After thoroughly considering the circumstances, the solution presented itself at last, once again in the form of an inspiration.

He struggled briefly with the thought of tearing up the first four pages in the notebook so he could start over again. But he dropped the idea. Such an important undertaking could not begin in a disfigured notebook. He would have to buy a new one. That alone would be fitting. He chose the largest one he could find. It had a feature that he found particularly expedient: a gilded ribbon to mark the place where you had stopped reading or writing.

The enormous dictionary had sixteen heavy tomes. When he opened the first one, a bevy of sparkling, beautiful words met his eye. The magnitude of what lay ahead did not frighten him, however. He was perfectly prepared for it. Nor could he expect to find any shortcuts. Whatever time was needed to write them all down would be taken, neither more nor less. After all, what lay before him was joy and not suffering. Indeed, what can be more joyful than writing down beauty?

When he finally brought his work to a close, Mr. Plushal was considerably older than fifty-six. But this did nothing to lessen his feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment. On the contrary. How many people that old can say their lives have not been in vain, for they have collected beauty? Only one thing was left for him to do. There was room for just two more words at the bottom of the last page of the completely filled notebook. For the first time since he'd started his collection, he softened his handwriting a little. It was still austere, but also gentle, benevolent. Just the way a signature should be. Entering the notebook, he slowly pulled the back cover after him, as though lowering a heavy lid.

© Zoran Zivkovic 2005.

This story is published here for the first time. It is part of Zoran's new story suite, Twelve Collections and the Teashop (PS Publishing, May 2007) .

Twelve Collections and the Teashop

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