[Tuesday Freewrite] The Scholar in the tower

On the coast of a certain ocean, both near to and far away from everything, there is a tower. It is said that the tower grew straight from the bones of the earth itself, and perhaps that is true: if you walk around the perimeter of its base, there is no seam that may be found. The building seems to flow gently into the coastline, like the abrupt rise of a very small steep mountain. The tower itself only goes up four stories, and there is a ring of windows at each flight. Three of these rings are always dark, but the fourth, at the very top of the tower, is always lit, even during the brightest hours of summer days.

A man lives in the tower, though no one knows his name. He has lived there longer than even the oldest grandparents can remember, and he has not aged a day in all of that time. It is impossible to guess his age just to look at him: his eyes are dark and he keeps his head neatly shaved, though he also maintains a thin pointed beard. There are wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, but his hands are steady and his back is unbowed. He is simply called the Scholar, and he is as much a part of the landscape as his tower.

Most of the time he doesn’t emerge; he spends the whole of his time inside the tower, but twice a year at least, he emerges out to walk along the coastline during the time where the high tide recedes to the low. His clothes are barely any sort of style at all: he wears shapeless brown robes that are barely more than sacks with sleeves stitched onto them, belted at the waist. He never wears shoes, but goes barefoot, even among the broken seashells and washed-up debris. Always, always, his eyes are turned to the distant horizon line, where the sky melts into the sea. Some people say that the end of the world is at that point, and that the Scholar is trying to find his way there. No one yet has been brave enough to approach him during these times, but it is also always inconsistent, when he goes. He does not follow the schedules of equinoxes or solstices; he simply goes, whether or not anyone is there to notice.

But while he doesn’t leave his tower very often, he does keep the doors open almost constantly. A lantern hangs by the door to illuminate it during the darkest nights, and anyone who tries it will find it unlocked.

Inside, the tower is fairly nondescript. A spiral staircase goes up the center of the tower’s shaft, and a catwalk ring serves as each floor. The first two floors are filled with wall-to-wall bookshelves, and each of these shelves are so full that getting books in and out can be something of an ordeal. It is said that every book in the world exists, somehow, within the confines of the Scholar’s library. Once, a young man thought to test that, and spent an entire week within the library, trying to discover an end to the collection, only to be defeated and leave in personal embarrassment.

I even looked for books I didn’t think existed, he said, and yet, I found them all.

The third floor is empty of everything; there is just the ring of stone floor and nothing more than that. The fourth floor is blocked off from visitors. The Scholar himself rarely makes an appearance when he has visitors, though once in a while he might be found on either of the first two floors, searching for a book for himself. The people who have spoken to him all universally say that he is very polite, if a bit distant; he is not precisely welcoming, but nor is he very offputting, either. There is always an air of distraction about him, like he is trying to puzzle out the answer to a riddle and cannot be pulled enough from his thoughts to interact with the world around him.

A few people say that he is lonely.

One woman, who had been born and raised in the town that claims that bit of coastline for itself, has said that she once had a full and proper conversation with the Scholar. It had been a particularly bad stormy day, and she had been caught entirely by surprise. Seeking shelter, she had rushed into the Scholar’s tower, guided by the light of its small lantern.

Inside, she called out her apologies for the sudden intrusion, and as she made her way up to the stairs — for she knew about the tower’s reputation, and thought perhaps a book would help her pass the time — she encountered the Scholar himself, pale and wandering. He took a look at her, and then invited her up to the fourth floor.

(This is where people stop and scoff when they retell this story; the fourth floor! No one goes to the fourth floor; there is very clearly one, and the outline of its floor may be seen all the way from the ground, but the stairs do not reach that far. How did she get up there? How preposterous! But the woman never changed her story, all the remaining days of her life, and now as it is retold, no one else questions this either.)

She accepted, of course, out of curiosity as much as anything else. The Scholar’s fourth floor! She had always known about the multitude of stories that surrounded the Scholar and his tower, and so she followed him all the way up.

What she saw, she claimed, was an observatory that looked like it would put royalty’s possessions to shame. There were several telescopes of increasing size, each made out of gold and encrusted around the edges with precious gemstones; there were maps of the stars painted all across the walls and the domed ceiling overhead; there were glowing globes of light, and these, she said, were what made the fourth floor’s windows bright at all times of the day.

The Scholar led her to the window, where the largest telescope was situated. He pointed out to the stormy sky, which looked a nearly solid black color from where they stood.

“There,” he said. “That is where I am trying to go. I have spent nearly the whole of my life trying to get there, and I think I am much closer than I was.”

“What is out there?” the woman asked, because she could see nothing at all: only the edge of the telescope, and the Scholar’s pointing finger.

He smiled at that, quietly, like perhaps there was some sort of joke. But the woman would later say, with the sort of conviction that never left her, that his eyes were so bleakly lonely that she could feel her own begin to sting, welling up with such an intense feeling of homesickness that she wanted to sink to the floor and weep.

But in the end, his answer was simple, and it told her nothing at all; in answer to her question, he said one thing:

“It’s where I want to be.”

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