Room One

By John K. Peck

From CHM #45 March 2024

Though the room did not exist, he nonetheless sat in the center of it, at his desk, in his favorite wooden chair with the rounded leather back. It was a replica of a chair he’d sat in once or twice as a small boy, recreated here in its original size: outlandishly large in his memory, it was now snug to his grown form. He looked at the tall bookshelves that stood in rows on either side of the room, filled with books whose leather spines glowed faintly in the light emanating from a cut-crystal ceiling fixture. A brass chain ran through the lamp’s center, and ringing the spot where the chain entered the ceiling were the molded plaster fleurs and shells he’d spent hours staring at as a child in the Culandotte Library reading room.

Now the plaster flourishes were his and his alone, as were the chair, the desk, the shelves with their thousands of books, the lead-paned windows, the polished hardwood floor with its massive rug, replicated from the memory of a rug glimpsed through a train window as he’d rolled past a bazaar in Azeres. Though the room did not exist in any real sense and would only ever have a single visitor, it had been created with exquisite attention to detail. And while he preferred the heft and contours of the real world and would often go days or even weeks in a row without visiting this private library of his own making, he could nonetheless do so easily at any time by uttering a single phrase, silently, in the quiet mind-voice he used to speak to himself: Room Two, doorless, opens its doors to you.

* * *

The father of the so-called “method of loci” developed it out of necessity: a hopeless student, he was given one last chance to impress a tutor enough to warrant his training. In one week the young man was obliged to commit Callos’ Dialogue with the Spirit to memory. For days he struggled, agonizing over each line, feeling earlier passages slip away as he moved to later ones. Finally, on the evening of the fifth day and in a state of acute desperation, he strode from the study and into the garden to clear his mind.

As he walked, he found that lines from the Dialogue came to him unbidden, and soon the text was as visible to him as a real thing, placed among the thistles and oleander that lined the paths.

* * *

After nearly three decades of practicing property law, he had finally begun to see real dividends. The money had always been more than adequate, but these new rewards were more meaningful: he could call new contacts without introduction, was commissioned by corporate clients at shockingly high rates, and even received the occasional request for expert testimony.

His current case, in which he represented a stubborn client named Kellerman who owned several downtown properties, seemed to be nearing its crescendo: the city would either accept his client’s offer of basic asbestos mitigation plus a small penalty fee, or reject it and go to trial. Either eventuality was fine, as he had, to his mind, built an airtight case on decades of precedent from similar mixed-use spaces. From a rhetorical perspective, his potential arguments met the standards set out by a former professor: Sharp enough to stab, broad enough to bludgeon.

He sat at his desk—his real desk, in his real study—on a warm late-summer evening, reading the newspaper. He found his eyes beginning to lose focus, and at the edge of his desk, he noticed a book he did not remember pulling from the shelf, folded open face-down. The book was a blue paperback, and the title was written along the spine in bold yellow lettering: Working Within the Footprint. Though he remembered it well enough as a decent guide to calculating square footage for properties with unusual shapes, he was certain he hadn’t consulted it in years. He picked it up and read:

[…] is a losing battle, as space that is not usable in a practical sense does not increase the value of the property in a meaningful way. It is suggested that rather than trying to maximize the listed square footage of an attic, owners instead explore ways in which the space can be made more comfortable and usable for a variety of room types. A skylight, for example, can give the illusion of far more space than such a room can actually offer.

He closed the book and went to put it back on the shelf, but couldn’t remember what section it had come from and couldn’t see any clear gaps between books. Eventually he placed it, somewhat unsatisfyingly, on the “general architecture” shelf.

* * *

Summer became fall. Against his advice, Kellerman opted for arbitration with the city: the man had no taste for legal wrangling and simply wanted the case to go away. He set about creating an airtight argument tailored to the selected panel and practiced his delivery as he made his way through the city to his office, using the journey as a loose string of loci: the five subway stops corresponded to the five key points of his opening; the walk through the labyrinthine South Cross station, with its antiquated glass display cases and polished limestone corridors, triggered the various counterarguments and pushbacks he anticipated; the windy ascent to 32nd Street, emerging to a gray sky with circling gulls, cued his backup argument if a potential subclause was invoked; and the last few blocks to his office, at the edge of the park, corresponded to his final summation. The large oaks that loomed over the brick wall demarcating the park’s edge marked the beats of his closing points, both spatially as loci and in their iterative timing.

* * *

In direct contrast to the loci of memory used by most practitioners, which correspond to lines of poetry, mathematical formulas, or ledgers and lexicons, the books in the private room of his mind instead contained his own personal memories. In this way he freed the parts of his mind that would otherwise have been burdened by sentimentality, nostalgia, or deep visceral recalls of a sensory or erotic nature, instead allowing him to focus on his work and the tasks that make up daily life. If this made the real world more monochrome and flat, the tradeoff came in his visits to the room, which took on a depth and exhilaration many others would find only in more hedonistic pursuits.

The pages of the books that filled its shelves were inked in vivid colors, depicting each sunset and dawn and full moon, every unnamed flower and strange bird he had encountered. When opened, they rang out with sounds, from the crack and boom of fireworks over the Tirenius at night, to the yap of his first flop-eared dog, to the dying moan of his father in a darkened hospital room in North Wye. They were scented with everything from the salt air of the White Sea to the rosewater perfume that Sally Lynette had been wearing when she gave him his first kiss. One page, which he visited with particular frequency (as some people seek out a familiar song when in need of comfort), gave off a broad sun-drenched warmth and the smell of cherry licorice while playing the looping organ-notes of a merry-go-round. The two-page spread was painted lavishly to show his first view of a summer carnival, set against the tall pines of the surrounding forest.

* * *

The arbitration succeeded, but just barely; one of the panel members had unexpectedly pushed back against his take on Tremont v Lindh. He’d recovered, but in a somewhat weakened state: having practiced the argument while walking past the park near South Cross station, it was as if his endgame loci, the looming oaks at the park’s edge, had failed to manifest—or rather, they could be recalled easily enough as objects, but the particular points of his argument had become untethered from them. Trying to recall the minutiae of his argument, he had simply seen trees, their gray-brown branches standing still and blank against an overcast sky, evoking nothing.

Now he sat at the desk in his study, sipping a drink. He considered visiting the room, but decided to wait until he’d calmed down a bit. He set his drink on the desk and closed his eyes, attempting a technique he often used to regain composure: he pictured an idealized version of his childhood room, in which he’d assembled his very first collection of loci nearly half a century prior. He was lying in bed; it was a warm night, and though the lights were off, an electric fan whirred steadily on a table across the room. He stared at the ceiling, where hundreds of glow-in-the-dark stars, stickers he’d placed meticulously using a ladder, made a rectangular cosmos. He looked from one star to the next, and with each new star he recalled, memory-within-memory, a fragment of his earliest years he’d embedded within it, before he’d even known the name for such a system, or that anyone besides him would find it useful.

This was Room One.

Rather than being attached to any specific time or place, the sensations contained in the glowing stars spread across the ceiling of Room One were simply that: sensations, ideas, non-specific experiences. The big star straight overhead, somewhat brighter than the others around it, was ice cream, hot day. Down and a bit to the left, a cluster of smaller stars hovered; the centermost was taking off socks, cool air on feet. His gaze moved to the left wall, the edge of his delimited galaxy, and up to a star stuck to the edge between ceiling and wall: looking into the sun, closing eyes, sun still burned into dark.

He was about to focus on another star cluster when a jarring thud shook the bedroom. Startled, he looked around the darkened room but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He looked back up at the stars, and a second thud rang out, louder, now clearly coming from overhead. A lump formed in his throat as a different sound joined the first: a sort of shuffling, like something bound and struggling. Then a third bang shook the room and jarred him back awake, to the late-afternoon dimness of his own study, where he cursed and reached for a tissue to mop up his spilled drink.

* * *

Non-literate societies around the world have used loci systems for millennia. These systems are both place- and object-based and are used as tools to recall things as diverse as ethnic histories, navigational routes, and plant and animal classifications. One such object, the curutl of the natives of South Iselien, consisted of threaded beads sewn into a leather armband, which was almost never removed. Wearers of the curutl were the equivalent of scribes, but as their knowledge could not be transferred to scrolls or codices, they were given their own guard and granted the status of nobles.

* * *

The following Saturday evening, after spending several hours brushing up on trust law, he poured himself a glass of wine. He had not returned to either mind-room—neither the tall bookshelves of Two, nor the star-ceilinged bedroom of One—since his unexpected expulsion from the latter. Instead, he had spent the time pursuing a sort of balance between work and reverie, free from any systems of memory or alternate mental spaces, as the overwhelming majority of the population did on a regular basis. He’d fled work through escapism, which he considered among the lowest of human urges, before being chased back to it by guilt, the absolute lowest. Though he found this back-and-forth repellent, he had allowed it to guide his more open post-Kellerman schedule, in the hopes that he could curb his dependency on the room.

But in that moment, his mind involuntarily spoke the words: Room Two, doorless, opens its doors to you, and once again he was sitting in his chair at the desk at the center of the room, surveying the lead-paned windows and book-lined walls, the freestanding bookshelves with their neat rows of volumes, the large rug stretched out before him. Then he opened his eyes, or tried to, but he was still there, in the room, sitting in the wooden chair with its leather-lined back that fit him so well. He lifted his hands from his sides and placed them on the desk in front of him, palms down, feeling its cool, smooth surface. He began to picture the spines of the books, sorting through them for the perfect one, but found himself strangely unable to focus. Something new. Or different. He glanced around, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Not visual. Something else. Another sense. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, removing any doubt: there was a strange smell, faint but persistent, familiar yet unfamiliar, slightly ripe.

He made his way through the shelves, seeking its source. Toward the end of an aisle, the smell grew stronger and took on a different counter-tone. Sour; overripe. Rotten. He scanned the shelves until a book caught his eye. He recognized it as the first of several books of forests, containing primal examples of the subject: warm woods with sunlight filtering through leaves; cold pines at night, snow falling from branches; fairytale woods prowled by talking bears and wolves. The book’s spine stuck out further than those on either side, and when he tried to pull it free it stuck in place, as if it had expanded or swelled. With some effort he pulled it clear, and the scent hit his nostrils: a sharp tang of rotting meat, with deeper odors of mold and brackish water. He turned to a random page and felt a knot growing in his throat: the pictures were blurred, smeared, as if the book had become water-logged. Not possible. He turned the pages faster, their images distorted, his eyes unable to focus on the blotches of green and black and brown that had once been clear pictures, and were, with each new page, increasingly intermixed with noxious washes of pink and yellow-brown.

Another sensation entered his consciousness, and though at first it was nearly too faint to register, it soon became undeniable: a hissing sound, like air escaping from a punctured tire. He turned a page and the colors, smell, and sound hit him simultaneously: a sickly splatter of chemical yellow and bloody reddish-pink, a sharp odor of putrescence that leapt straight to his nostrils, and a louder wheezing that, as he listened, horrified, grew into a guttural moan and then a groaning shout, like air being forced from the lungs of some near-dead creature. He threw the book spasmodically, as if it had burned him; it landed in a corner, face-down and mercifully silent. He returned shakily to the center of the room and stood behind the chair, eyes closed, gripping its rounded back with trembling fingers, waiting for his breathing to return to normal.

Several minutes later, still gripping the chair, he took a last deep breath to calm himself. Home, he thought, closing his eyes, but when he opened them he was still in the room, gripping the chair, blinking in the strange half-light.

* * *

Edwin Karlovy, who memorized pi to 3,428 places, described his process as one of creating a path in his mind, which he could walk at any time, and could even, with some prompting, start at an arbitrary point or walk in reverse, reciting the digits in reverse order. Asked whether he could have memorized yet more digits, Karlovy’s reply was that he certainly could have, just as, in a journey on foot, one could choose to take another step, and another, and another. The 3,428th digit, however, had a particular beauty to it, he said, like a certain cobblestone that stood out in a road, slightly taller than the others, catching the rays of the setting sun.

* * *

Weeks had passed, or must have, though the light from the windows was the constant gray of a single unbroken day. Any sunset tinge of pink-orange had long since drained away, and the room itself was dim throughout, with darker dusk-like shadows at its corners and between the shelves. Books were scattered across the floor: some in loose stacks or piles, some open, some closed.

He spent most of his time in the dusk-gray aisles, lying on the floor, opening one book after another and inhaling their various scents. Though there was no manner of physical sustenance in this act, it nonetheless began to take the shape of an addiction, and soon he stopped reading altogether and simply buried his face in the pages, inhaling deeply, sometimes tearing out multiple pages and pressing them under his nose. As soon as the smell of a book inevitably faded, he would move on to the next. He occasionally let himself experience their images and sounds, but a sort of malnutrition had begun to take hold of him, and soon the images were little more than a blur of faint grays. He developed a ringing in his ears and began to actively avoid books with loud or shrill sounds, tossing them into a growing pile in one corner of the room.

Each time he tried to close his eyes and return to the world, he saw only darkness. Eventually, despite his overall weakness, he stayed in this darkness and began to shape it, dividing it into solid and empty parts, demarcating boundaries and walls. Fueled by deep inhales from the remaining books—perfume, wood fires, cigars and cigarettes, wet wool, wildflowers, gasoline—he began to add color and shape to the darkness, and soon it took the form he had worked so hard to bring about once before: a room, but smaller and more modest, an attic room with a low, lightly slanted roof that held a single skylight, through which a dim misty light filtered. After several hours, the act of creating this room, which he called Room Three, would drain his strength, and he would wake, shaking and exhausted, among scattered books in the dusk-light between the shelves.

* * *

From Vitrius, who first placed the Dialogues along his walking path, to Karlovy, who built a path of numbers in his mind, one theme recurs over and over: that of “performing” memory, of proving one’s feat to the world at large. But what of private memories, of those meant only for oneself? We cannot ask the former, being millennia removed from his era, but Karlovy has a succinct answer: “I don’t store my own memories away, no,” he says in an interview. “I would just be handing them back to myself later. So I prefer to keep them with me, but perhaps I winnow or cull them a bit. The mind is a garden; as with any garden, the dead branches need trimming.”

* * *

Months passed with no way to mark the time. Despite the weakness that consumed him and the increasingly ragged state of the books that served as his nourishment, he was able to keep the small attic with its slanted roof and single round window consistently in his mind, refusing to allow it to return to nothingness. He shuttled between the two rooms, sometimes half-voluntarily, though more frequently he simply found himself in the attic, unbidden, as one finds oneself inside a dream with no memory of falling asleep. He had added a bed and small bedside table, as well as a single bookshelf with several volumes. Like most books in dreams, they were printed in inscrutable ciphers and unknown languages, and would fall apart at the bindings when he attempted to open them, sliding from his hands into loose sheets that fluttered to the floor. The single skylight, like the windows of the library, brought light but no view, as nothing beyond the glass had been required. He felt himself growing weaker in this new space, as if his primary self in the library were the rotting roots of a spindly tree, incapable of sending nutrients where they were needed. He lay on the sweat-stained mattress, tossing and turning weakly beneath thin covers.

Almost imperceptibly, over many hours and days under the unbroken half-light of the single window, a sound began to take form, near-inaudible at first but growing gradually stronger: a faint whirr or whine, like a distant engine. Day by day it grew louder until it seemed to fill the room and he could no longer focus on anything else. Eventually he gathered his remaining strength and slid from bed to floor, still wrapped in the blanket. He placed his ear to the wooden floorboards and the sound grew slightly louder. He searched the floor until he found a gap, then placed his eye to it and peered through it. At first he saw only darkness, but eventually his eye adjusted and he saw what looked like a bed with a shape beneath the covers. Drawing on his last reserves of strength, he balled one hand into a fist and slammed it against the floor. Though he couldn’t be sure, the shape beneath the covers seemed to move slightly. He hit the floor once again; the covers seemed to shift but stopped just as quickly. Fighting against overwhelming fatigue, struggling to free himself from the blanket wrapped around him, he raised his hand once more and slammed it, open-palmed, against the floor.

Finally, the figure sat up in bed, staring at him, and for a moment he saw through two pairs of eyes: one staring down at the young boy in the darkened room, one staring up at the darkened ceiling, looking through and beyond the glowing stars for the source of the unknown and fearsome sound.

* * *

Though he did not remember dragging himself back onto the bed, he found himself there, lying on his back, the sweat-soaked sheet wrapped around him. The attic was dark; the skylight above showed the blackness of a night sky with only a faint ambient light filtered through. He closed his eyes, trying desperately to return: to the world, to Room Two, to anywhere. He spoke the phrase in his mind, but instead of the familiar words, new words came unbidden: Room Three, waiting to be born. He opened his eyes, blinking, still in the attic, trying to sit up but finding himself too weak to do so.

Suddenly, a booming thud rang out, making his eyes snap wide open. He struggled but couldn’t sit up, as if the sheet were somehow tied around him. He closed his eyes again, trying to say the words, but others came in their place: Unfurled wings, black in the wordless night. Another sudden bang made his eyes snap open; he looked up at the sloped roof, thinking he saw something fluttering at the edge of the skylight. Another sound, faint at first, then growing louder, began to take shape beyond the ceiling: a scratching or scraping, as though claws were trying to gain purchase on a smooth surface, accompanied by a heavier rhythmic sound like gusts of air being pushed downward with great force.

Then a third bang, far louder than the others, rang out, and the room was plunged into darkness. He closed his eyes, already speaking the unbidden words which he had always known and had been waiting his whole life to say—Room Four, sarcophagus, vaulted by unknown stars—feeling a rush of air against his face as he did so, as if he were falling, or perhaps being borne upwards with tremendous speed.


A person leaning on a table

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John K. Peck is a Berlin-based writer, musician, and letterpress printer. His fiction has appeared in Interzone, Pyre, Cold Signal, Dark Horses, and the anthologies Dark Stars (Shacklebound) and The Nameless Songs of Zadok Allen (JayHenge). He is also a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and has appeared in several McSweeney’s anthologies. Find him on Twitter at @johnkpeck.

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