Last spring, a year ago, I was sitting in my usual seat in the sidewalk cafe I habituate, sipping coffee, reading my paper, and idly watching delightful young women passing by. As I sat, I saw my old friend, Pierre Menard walking by.
“Ho, Menard”, I called.
He wheeled and brought himself over, just as though my presence were a new discovery and he had not intended all along to join me. He looked well – thin as always, hair slightly awry as always, and just a bit excited. Some men don a jacket as a matter of habit; they would be immensely undressed without it. Pierre, I swear, donned an air of intensity the moment he arose. He, too, would be undressed without it.
“Coffee?”, I asked, as though I didn’t know full well that he would sit down for an hour or so and join me for coffee. This exchange is our habit; it is these little rituals that are the bonds of friendship.
Marie appeared and set a cup before him, her nose turned up in a sniff of disapproval. She disapproves of us but then she disapproves of everything. If she had been present at the creation she would have told God that he had spoiled it all from the start. It is a shame that such a fine figure is wasted on such a sour heart. Still, she is a friend and a part of my life.
Pierre took a sip. “Bah”, he said, “this coffee is vile.”
“You drink it”, I said.
“I drink it every day”, he replied. “It was vile yesterday and the day before. I only drink it because you insist on haunting this cafe du merde. Why I bear with it I will never know.”
“Cheerful today, aren’t we”, I replied. “Come now, you should be happy. The Spanish book is doing well. The critics are all gaga and it is even selling a few copies. You are quite the literary lion. Life is good. Enjoy.”
The Spanish book was indeed doing well. The critics, of course, had completely misunderstood it even with my annotations. Fortunately I had literary connections. A word here and there in the right ears and they had miraculously come to understand the extraordinary nature of Menard’s opus. I understand there are already eight PhD theses under way devoted to its exegenesis.
“So what do you do now?”, I asked.
He looked sly. “I have a small project”, he said.
“Yes”, I encouraged.
“I am writing the Necronomicon.”
“The what?”, I said. “Oh yes, that mythical book by that second-rate American fantasy writer. What on Earth for? Don Quixote was a real book, a book of merit. The Necronomicon is nothing, a non-existent book, a second rate concept by a second rate author. Besides, it is a grimoire. What do you know of magic? What do you care? Surely you don’t believe in magic and demons and Elder Gods. And what ever will you put it in it? Where will you find black magic that works?”
“Bah”, he said, “what does it matter. I will do the research, of course. I always do. But the book, it is nothing. It is just a book. To be consumed in broad daylight by an invisible demon before a horrified crowd, though, that would be exquisitely fine.”
I must have looked exceptionally blank. After a moment I recalled that this was indeed the supposed fate of the author of the Necronomicon. I sputtered a bit.
“But, but, I do not understand. You are a success, a happy man, as happy as you have ever been. You have many good years ahead of you. What is this talk of dying? What is this death you seek?”
“Bah”, he said. “Life, death, what do they matter. The graveyards are filled with people who have lived and died. To live a few decades, feeding one’s appetites, and then filling a grave, what is that? Nothing, I tell you. You, old man, have gained nothing from your extra years; the grave will eat you in the end and it will be forever.”
It is not nothing, I thought to myself. I would far rather be here, enjoying the spring sunshine and eyeing Marie’s form than be bones in the Kingdom of the Dead.
“And fame – what is that?”, he continued. “Do the dead read their monuments? Do they hear the professors mumble about their works. No, no, a thousand times no. Fame, reputation, immortality of works, these are nothing to the dead. One has wasted one’s life, one has wasted one’s death, to pursue such trivia. But to die a remarkable death, to end one’s life in a final work of art such as no man has ever made, that would be fine beyond all measure.”
I did not understand any of this. But Menard is, after all, an artist and I am only a man of letters. He sees what I do not.
He stood up. “I must go now.”, he said. “I have an appointment and not in Samarra.” With that he dashed off, turned a corner of the street and was gone.
It was not many minutes later when an extraordinary thing happened. There was a great flash of light from the direction in which he had gone. There were no sounds of explosions or car crashes but there were screams, screams such as I have never heard before. I was not tempted to investigate. I am old and not at all suited for dashing about gawking at accidents, a human foible I do not think highly of in any case.
I do not usually watch the telly but this evening I caught the news to see if there would be any mention of the mysterious events of the afternoon. There was indeed but it was more confusing than helpful. There were interviews with hysterical onlookers who swore that a man had disappeared before their eyes, piece by piece, with blood and gore flying every where. When the police arrived, however, there was no trace of anything untoward having happened. The official explanation was that it was a special effects hoax.
I did not see Menard for the next three weeks. This did not surprise me. When he is in one of his creative frenzies he does not stir from his desk. I expected that he would reappear when exhaustion claimed him and I would hear the details of his latest work.
When three weeks had passed I received a package in the mail, a book, a most peculiar book. It was bound in dark leather with a clasp. It had no title or inscription on the cover but there were cabalistic marks that were quite unfamiliar to me. There was nothing else save a sheet of paper with some lines of Arabic on it.
I do not know Arabic but I have a friend who does. I looked him up and gave him the sheet and asked him what it said. “Not much”, he replied, “only ‘by the hand of Pierre Menard’.”
I understood immediately. This was his little jest. I was to believe that this mysterious book was the Necronomicon. The mysterious event when I last saw him was, no doubt, his being eaten alive by his invisible demon. Disappointing. Pierre was not usually one for practical jokes and I couldn’t imagine why he would have thought that I would have been taken in my such a fraud, no matter how cleverly executed.
I thought, “Should I open the book and see what nonsense he has stuffed it with?” I decided not to – let it lie there unopened. I would give him back his bit of trumpery when he reappears and cheat him of the satisfaction of having taken me in.
It was then that I took a year to visit South America. I have certain investments there in an export/import firm that transports pharmaceuticals to North America. Their activities are not precisely legal, at least not in the United States, but they are immensely profitable. The income is quite useful to me and I take pains to ensure that it does not cease. I have a position in the literary world to uphold, a position which does not come from my writings but rather from my friendships with important people. These friendships, you understand, require a certain amount of investment on my part.
When I got back I was surprised to discover that there were no messages from Menard. I looked up his digs and was more surprised to discover that the landlord had sealed them off. There was no problem with the rent – Menard has taken his flat on a long term lease. He simply hadn’t been there for the last year. The landlord had turned off the utilities, awaiting his return.
Dissatisfied, I returned to my flat. There I spied his book, his so-called Necronomicon “by the hand of Pierre Menard”. “Surely it could not be the real thing”, I thought. But, then, Pierre was a clever man and an artist. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is the real thing. Perhaps he did achieve that “exquisitely fine” death he sought.
I am not a fool. I certainly shall not open this book. If it is a fraud, a hoax, then it is a matter that matters not. But if it is real, what then? If is real it almost surely is not safe to attempt to destroy it. One could bury it or throw it out to sea but legend has it that such cursed things always turn up again. If I understand these matters rightly it would be fatal to open it unless one were protected by the appropriate runes, quite unknown to me.
Fortunately this is no problem. I have a business associate in my South American ventures who is, how shall I say, not entirely reliable. It is an unsatisfactory situation and I have been a bit vexed in determining how to deal with it.
I will gift him with it. He shall have the book.
This page was last updated August 5, 1997.
Copyright © 1997 by Richard Harter