The Story of the Black Square
by Mark Ryan Smith
I first heard of the Book from an old Cullivoe man. He is dead now. He was a storyteller, one of many in his family, and, as a way of keeping their stories alive, a recording was made of him. It is this recording I have to thank, if thank is the right word, for the story I’m about to tell. I have no way of knowing if it will ever be read, but I type these words to explain, to try and explain, what has happened to me. I have been in this place for so long, walking and walking in the half-light, hearing nothing but the click of the keys and the sound of my steps echoing back from the concrete walls.
When I heard about the Book, part of my work was to make transcriptions of the reel-to-reel tapes held by the archives. There were boxes and boxes of them. I can still remember the smell of those tapes – musty when a lid was lifted, then a warm, sharp chemical smell would fill the room as the tape ran through the machine. There was always the fear a tape would break. They hadn’t been played in so long. One moment of accidental tension and the voice would be gone forever.
Here, as far as I remember, is what he said about the Book:
For example, I do know that in North Yell there was a Book of Black Arts in circulation.
He didn’t know how the Book had come to Cullivoe, but in his grandfather’s, or perhaps great-grandfather’s, time, it had passed through the village, from hand to hand. It was filled with what he called ‘mystical rites and spells’, it had white writing on black pages (he repeated this fact several times), and it could not be given away. Once the Book came into your possession, the only way to escape its influence was to sell it for less than you paid. This, as the interviewer pointed out, could only go on for so long. Sooner or later, as the price dropped to nothing, somebody would be stuck with the Book. And what would they have to sell then? What would the price be, in the end?
I reached the end of his story and stopped the tape. The reels of the machine observed me like two enormous eyes. The story was only a few minutes long, but, over the next few weeks, as I worked at my transcriptions, I felt the old man’s words nudge and rub against other things in my mind: books of magic written by people like John Dee; a story by Borges where an Orcadian appears in Buenos Aires with another mysterious book.
Borges’s Orkneyman steered my research towards that archipelago. The folk traditions of Shetland and Orkney share a number of themes – seal lore and weather superstitions, for example – but the Book of Black Arts is mentioned more often in Orkney than it is here. Blind Borges, sitting in faraway Buenos Aires, knew what he was talking about. The Book had been in Orkney at some point. The Argentinian man in the story, the man who acquires the Book, manages to escape by placing the volume in the National Library. But should some casual browser happen to withdraw the Book, they would be one of its people too.
I wrote a short article on the Book of Black Arts for the Shetland Times. People seemed to enjoy colourful little folk stories about quaint local traditions, and, even though the article contained no great insight or originality (I dashed it off in half an hour), I couldn’t help feeling pleased with the rush of comments that started to appear below the online version: ‘Fascinating’, ‘Spooky’, ‘I never heard about this before thankx’. But, hidden in in a lengthy, rambling comment by ‘Gilmartin’, a comment which incorporated a rant about the Council’s reduced bin collection service and a misogynistic threat directed at the owner of a Lerwick café, I found the words that appear on the first page of the Book of Black Arts:
Cursed is he that pursueth me.
It took a bit of reconstruction, but the phrase was there. Without a doubt. A payload of six words sent my way, subtly smuggled inside the bulk cargo of a BTL contribution. Gilmartin clearly knew the story of the Book and was having some fun at my expense.
Before the comments stopped and the story was removed from the front page of the Shetland Times site, Gilmartin appeared another three times, always, it seemed to me, with sly little references to elements of the Book’s story: mentions of people who once held the Book; a sneaky transliteration of the name of an Orcadian minister who allegedly buried the Book in the garden of his manse. Gilmartin was was clever, despite the angry-man persona, and I wanted to ask what he knew about the book. The success of my little article had spurred me on to write more about local folklore and I was mulling over a longer essay or perhaps even a book on the subject. Gilmartin might be a worthwhile contact. I got his email address from the Times office and sent him a message.
An email came back right away. It appeared so quickly that it must have been an automated response. I opened the message but it said nothing. Not a single word. Nothing but a black mass filling the message window. Another Gilmartin joke, I assumed: the E-Book of Black Arts. I closed the laptop. Perhaps he would write back soon.
Then the words started to disappear.
It was barely perceptible to begin with. I would open a document I’d been working on and, when I tried to pick up where I’d left off, what I saw didn’t seem to quite match my idea of whatever I’d written the day before. A phrase I thought I’d finished was suddenly incomplete. A plural would be sliced to the singular. Verbs were yanked from the middle of sentences, leaving subject and object to stare out in confusion as they waited to be given something to do. Holes appeared in paragraphs I thought I’d refined and tightened until they were as good as I could make them.
I assumed there was something wrong with the laptop. I did what checks I could and, when that made no difference, I took it to the ICT department and asked them to have a look. They found nothing wrong. No malware or viruses. No damage to any part of the hardware. No evidence of remote access or malicious infiltration. It must be something you’re doing, they implied. Perhaps, they hinted, I wasn’t as good a writer as I liked to imagine. I picked up the laptop and swept out of the room.
But maybe they had a point. After all, as any writer knows, we can read something we’ve written again and again, polishing as we go, and, when our text appears in print, the first thing we notice is a glaring mistake in the first paragraph, as if the language we have tried so carefully to control has played a trick and won the game in the end – a typographical slip, a grammatical blunder, an inexplicable absentee noun. Perhaps I was imagining things? Perhaps I should stop blaming the machine and simply fix what was wrong with my work? If an adverb is missing, put it back in. If the commas disappear from a long sentence, put them back in. Work slowly and carefully. Make sure you say what you mean. Read over what you’ve done. Drop the heavy anchor of a capital letter at the start of every sentence. Squeeze a full stop at the end. Stick to the basics and hopefully your words will retain the meaning you’ve given them.
This approach put me back in charge, for a while at least. But, eventually, there was no way to deny what was happening. The words were disappearing. Words I knew I’d written. Words I had typed, sometimes more than once, simply weren’t there when I went back to the document that once held them. And it was happening faster than before. I couldn’t keep up. I would put the words on the page but couldn’t make them adhere.
I tried saving multiple copies in different places. I printed everything out. I took screenshots with my phone and emailed copies of things to myself. I opened cloud storage accounts with three different providers. But no matter what I did, every version would end up exactly the same. If an adjective was missing in one iteration of a document, it was missing in them all. If a sentence or paragraph was erased, every matching sentence or paragraph was erased.
Then, months after I wrote to him, Gilmartin wrote back:
Dear Dr Smith,
Are you enjoying our little game? We certainly are.
Taking your magic box to the ICT department was a
splendid wheeze. They really got under your skin, didn’t
they, with their idea that a shoddy workman always
blames his tools. But all these pixels and bytes you
people are so fond of are so easily lost. Don’t you agree?
It’s not like the old days when words were written on
proper vellum, or carefully copied onto good paper in
lovely dark ink. But we found our ways back then too,
as you’ll see when you follow the directions we are about
Yours, ever, etc.
What followed was an email with reference numbers to documents in the archives. I took my laptop and went to the room where the documents were kept.
I switched on the lights and went inside. There is a long alleyway through the centre of the large room, with dozens of shelves running away at 90° on either side. Halfway along each of these shelves, each of which holds dozens of boxes filled with hundreds of documents, is an opening which lets you through to the next set of shelves. I looked at the first number and entered the set of shelves where the document would be. At the end I found the box he wanted me to find.
The document was a rolled piece of parchment that probably hadn’t been looked at in years. I untied the piece of ribbon that held it closed.
Because of the dim light and the antique handwriting, the document was difficult to read. I would take it to my desk and make a proper transcription, I thought, but, as I scanned through the text, I could see, in the crowded lines, that there were obvious gaps. The flow of the ancient words, with their ligatures and lobes and serifs, would be stopped dead by a space or a hole in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes there are blanks in an old document, a place for a name or a date to be added, for example, but this was different. As had happened with my laptop, the words had been made to disappear.
Feeling my breath and heartbeat quicken, I concentrated on rolling the document properly and knotting the ribbon around its middle. The words were gone. That was impossible. But it was true nonetheless. I reshelved the document and moved to the next reference Gilmartin had given me. It was a diary kept by a sailor in the 1850s. The same thing had happened there. His words had been taken away. They simply weren’t where they should have been. I put the diary back in its place, looked at my laptop for the next document, and went to see what else Gilmartin had done.
I don’t know how many hours I spent walking past rows of shelving in the gloomy light, stopping occasionally to look inside another of the boxes Gilmartin had directed me to. I could understand how somebody could access my computer and corrupt my files, but how had he done this? I could see what had happened but there is no way to figure it out. Nobody has access to this room but me.
I decided to retrace my steps. Back then, I still felt there had to be an answer somewhere. I worked backwards through Gilmartin’s list, carefully reading each document as I went. There were blanks and cuts in every page. Words had been removed from documents I knew well. Spaces opened up in texts that had been written hundreds of years ago. I kept going, trying to remain methodical. I kept moving through the maze of letters and diaries and deeds and accounts that Gilmartin had laid out for me. I walked past miles of shelves. I don’t know how long it took. There are no windows in this room and it’s easy to lose track of time.
Eventually I reached the sailor’s diary. Sitting down on the floor, I opened the little book. There was nothing there. All the words were gone. I turned the pages. Whatever the sailor had written had been rubbed away to nothing. It was gone. It was all gone.
I slumped against the wall and closed my eyes. Perhaps I fell asleep. I’m not sure. But the next thing I remember is the soft chiming sound my laptop makes when an email is received. I opened the lid and the screen lit up. The email was from Gilmartin:
Dear Dr Smith,
You will, by now, have reached the end of the jolly
itinerary we planned for you. Don’t you enjoy a
nice ramble through the historical highways and
byways? You will also, no doubt, be asking yourself
how we accomplished our little vanishing trick. Well,
my good doctor S, it’s really not as complicated as you
might imagine. We have, after all, had plenty of time
to practice these things. But, my dear man, you should
not worry yourself unduly. The words are quite safe.
We’re not, after all, in the business of mindless vandalism.
History can never be erased completely; it’s simply a
case of who gets to tell the tale. If you look back at the
first email I sent you all those months ago, you’ll find
your missing words.
With the warmest regards, etc., your friend,
Gilmartin’s first email was further back than I had imagined. When I found it I opened the message. The same black window appeared but, as I stared at the screen, I began to see, as if deep inside the thin wafer of the laptop’s lid, words starting to emerge. Words floating to the surface of the screen. White words fixing themselves to the blackness of Gilmartin’s message. I watched more and more words come. Old Scots and Norse words. Legal words from documents about land transactions. Words from diaries and letters. Words I had read in old documents. Other words I had written myself. It was all here. All the words he had taken. Words filling every part of my screen.
I scroll and scroll but I can never find the end. Gilmartin has taken it all. His first message, his black message, consumes everything, sucks everything in like some ravenous digital mouth. Even as I sit here, he is probably adding to his horde, words and syllables and punctuation marks funnelling into his unfathomable black space. The story of me. The stories in these documents. The story of this place. Every story that I am even a bit-part character in, the black square wants them all. Even these shelves and these walls and this floor I’m sitting on. It’s all disappearing. All moving towards silence. Things don’t exist if they can’t be spoken about and it’s all being pulled into this single black square.
Sometimes I walk. Then I sit down and add a sentence or two to this account. It is holding together so far. The words are staying where I put them. Sometimes I allow myself the idea that he has taken everything he’s going to take; that the maw of his black message is refusing to accept another morsel. But then I look inside another box and find empty page after empty page. Gilmartin won’t let a single letter escape. He is toying with me. These words, the ones you are reading now, will no doubt be sucked in like all the rest. But still I type. One word after another. Filling the white background. Telling this story in the hope that it will last long enough for someone to know what has happened to me. But I know it’s futile. I know, in the end, that my story will disappear, just like all the rest. Then, when he wants it to, it will drift to the surface of this screen, a collection of white words caught in the frame of his deep black square.